All That’s Bright and Gone: A Novel by Eliza Nellums

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There is a woman who is crying in the corner, real quiet. I don’t like it when grown-ups cry. Most of all I don’t like it when Mama cries.

Aoife (pronounced EE-fah, which the adults never seem to get right) is caught up in the confusion and chaos of all the grown-ups around her. She understands the meaning of gone. Gone is forever, gone is DEAD– just like her big brother Theo. She knows better than to talk about it or ask questions, he was murdered and Mama can’t stomach the grief. She has a vague memory of him, one day on the beach, she was lost and he found her, but it’s all so muddied. Luckily for Aoife, she has a constant companion, Teddy who isn’t imaginary no matter what people say! She can see him clear as she sees her best friend Hannah, so he is real! He is a bear! It isn’t smart to talk about him though, especially not to the ladies Dr. Pearlman sends from sea-pee-ess. Sea-pee-ess are government people that help families, but if you say things that seem weird they might take it the wrong way. One thing is certain, the adult world is confusing! Theo’s murder isn’t the only mystery, her whole life feels like one.

Siobhan (her Mama)  has gone away, but she isn’t gone away like Theo, she can and will return at some point. Something is wrong inside of her and it all goes back to the day she broke her own rule of talking to people who aren’t there. Mama was so angry, yelling at her dead son. The doctors just need Aoife’s help trying to understand the incident, and looking for someone to take care of her while Mama is away. There is no daddy for Aoife, she is special, she was born in the cabbage patch, it’s a fact- her Mama told her! There is an Uncle Donny, her mother’s younger brother  and he tries his best to care for her (after all, he is a single, childless bachelor) but he can’t keep Aiofe from running off with Hannah, trying to gather clues and weed out suspects of  her brother’s murder.

Uncle Donny knows Mama’s sickness is confusion sickness. He understands the deep disappointment Aoife feels, Mama promised to take her to see the fireworks this year, but if she’s away she won’t be able to go.  He also understands and says it’s okay if she doesn’t always miss Theo, but any mention of her brother is met with “let’s not talk anymore about Theo today.” No one ever seems to ever want to talk about him. Hannah gets secret messages in dreams, Hannah is older and is going to be a detective one day.  She can talk about Theo to her! Hannah even dreamed about him. Can she solve the crime still if Hannah abandons her? Soon, Aoife begins to wonder if her family really is crazy, like people say. But the church has saints and the holy ghost, that’s not crazy.

Could Mama’s friend Mac be a killer? He is sort of strange and angry. All she wants is to escape to the Secret Place that Teddy discovered. Teddy is trying to tell her something, all the time, but it doesn’t make sense. Uncle Donny is doing his best with Mama gone but he isn’t the greatest looking after her. What if the big bad man comes to drag her off to the Children’s Prison like Hannah warned her would happen?

Everything is happening fast, adults are telling her things that she can’t comprehend, the story of her family is different than what Mama has told. What if she is ill, like her mother, maybe Teddy isn’t real! Even he is starting to scare her. Is she crazy? If memory is tricky, it’s a foreign language for a six year old. In the interest of protecting the innocence of a child, adults often aim for silence, which leaves an imaginative kid like Aiofe to construct a world so far removed from reality that what she believes to be concrete fact is more painful than the truth. Mental illness swims through the story, it’s disheartening because there is no doubt Aiofe and Sibohan (her mother) love each other, but she slips away when the meds are wrong and the stresses of life are magnified when you also have to cope with your health. The world is often kinder if your illness is physical rather than mental, not to say it’s easy either way, but the stigma of mental illness is cruel when children catch wind of it. Worse, there is always the looming threat that if Sibohan can’t keep it altogether, Aiofe can be taken away! Our little Aiofe, at six, is becoming aware of what society deems normal vs. abnormal and just where her family fits. There is hope, and I think Uncle Donny beautifully explained what being sick for Sibohan means. Sure, you may not be cured, but you can be treated to live with it better. I like that, that’s reality.

I was surprised as much as Aiofe by the revelation of what happened to Theo and I felt as frustrated and confused as she did. There is this strange span of time when you’re still not fully present, your mind is just giving birth to reasoning, it’s developing and you are learning to distinguish between emotions, facts, and fantasy.  This is where Aiofe is. I especially like what happened with she and Hannah, because kids can be fair-weather friends sometimes and mean as snakes not because they’re terrible beings, but because they are immature. It made the story far more genuine. Well done, this will be released later in the year, add it to your December TBR list.

Publication Date: December 10, 2019

Crooked Lane Books

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This Is Home: A Novel by Lisa Duffy

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And in my mind, I’d think, dying isn’t the only way someone dissappears. 

Sixteen-year old Libby knows all about disappearing loved ones, having lost her mother to cancer. Then, the home her father Bentley and Libby shared with her mother went too, forcing them with no choice but to reside in the middle apartment of her Aunt Lucy’s triple-decker. Above them, her father’s siblings eldest sister Aunt Lucy  and youngest  Aunt Desiree complete the circle that makes up their odd little family. But it’s overwhelming, nosiy, there is no privacy!  Then there is the dog Rooster Cogburn, a rescue they saved from the euthanisa hit list, the mut a temporary addition that has become as much blood as any of them. But now, Libby is meant to tolerate a strange, creepy woman living downstairs because of her father’s gerousity? Moving her into a house already overstuffed, too many people in her business! Why add another person when they are meant to find their own home?! It’s inconceivable! She could well be a serial killer, like the one on tv! Who moves in with a strange family like hers anyway?

Quinn Ellis, aka the creepy new tenant, is living with the silence of her husband John’s departure. Nay, abadnonment! After the fighting, there is no way she can continue to live in their apartment, not according to the landlord. Worse, he left her to shoulder the aftermath and move alone! Untreated PTSD has wrecked havoc in John’s life, and now everything is spinning in Quinn’s with no one to lean on, until Bentley, John’s former Sergeant, now a local policeman steps in. Quinn’s life is nothing like she long ago imagined. John once assured her it was safe joining The National Guard, but the was until the deployments and Iraq. They were so young when they had big choices to make, and now, they are so far from who they once were, veritable strangers to themselves and each other. Were they really ever meant to be? Was it all just too hasty and rushed? It feels like another lifetime enitrely. How is she to fix their problems, pick up the pieces when he’s vanished on her? Does she really want him back? Were they happy before he went away? These are hard questions she must confront and there is a far more more pressing issue she has to stomach.

The seaside town of Paradise doesn’t hold shiny happy memories for everyone. It has it’s dark corners, as all towns do. Places people go to escape their pain, places young people sniff out to seek thrills and highs. These are haunts where stories merge. Libby’s memories of her mother have shadows over them, as much as Quinn’s time with John has it’s storms. Pain may well draw the two into each other’s orbit, and create a love they both sorely need. Each have their own secrets, the biggest ones they keep from themselves but soon Libby and Quinn form a bond. Libby is  dealing with her own relationship issues involving her best friend Flynn and his new girlfriend, even stranger still her feelings about his older brother Jimmy, once a deeply troubled youth before joining the military. Something is going on with Flynn, and Libby naturally gets tangled up in it, while Jimmy doesn’t miss a thing. Jimmy knows all too well the sort of dangers and temptations lurking in the town of Paradise, places he has fled. Can he forsee dangers before it’s too late?

Beautifully written are the different transitions of military life. John and Bent are older, dealing with how to support their brothers in arms while still doing the right thing. Too, they must cope with their own wounds, be they war related or civil life and losses. Jimmy is a young man whose character has a turn for the better at the start of his service. It is a perfect fit. With John we see the domino effect PTSD has on relationships, friends, and family. John and Bent are as much brothers as blood realted Jimmy and Flynn, each wanting to support one another.

Quinn and Bentley are attracted to each other, but could it just be loneliness? Things could get really messy. Both Quinn and Bent have lost their spouses, in different ways and both have hearts as hungry as the ocean is vast. Can they all learn to open themselves up, despite their misgivings? This Is Home is a cast of flawed, realistic characters just trying to figure out where or with whom home is.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019

Atria Books

 

 

The Behavior of Love: A Novel by Virginia Reeves

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What are you doing, Edmund? Trying to wake her up. She is not yours to wake.

Penelope is Doctor Ed Malinowski’s favorite patient, “one of the few bright spots” in the metal hospital he is the superintendent of. From the beginning of the novel, Edmund shows himself to be a logical man, one who desperately wants to fix the shipwreck the facility is. A doctor who sees his patients beyond their illnesses, one whose art classes led by his wife, and reading groups he and another patient heads are just the sort of PR they need, after the disaster the last superintendent up and left behind. Poetry and discussion, talk about ‘feelings’, a fresh approach to treating what ails the patients behind the walls. But it is Penelope that consumes Ed more than any other. Sixteen years old, beautiful, with keen intelligence whose unpredictable seizures have made her a part of the institution, a place she never should have been sent to. It isn’t long before Ed forces Penelope’s presence on Laura, claiming it is for the “stimulation” her art classes can provide. Her refusal won’t be tolerated, it seems Penelope is her curse, meant to creep in every crevice of Laura’s life, already the focus of her husband’s every thought. How does a wife voice her fury without looking like a monster, jealous of a wounded little bird?

Yet, Ed doesn’t really want his wife working in the hospital, he has spent an inordinate amount of time on keeping his life compartmentalized, as much as his heart. Maybe Laurawill finally get pregnant, then she will have to stay away and remain home. Maybe then this art class won’t seem like a lifeline for her. It’s what they both want, to have a little family. As calm, collected as he must appear for his patients, his reactions when it comes to Penelope gives him away. He is spending far too much time with her, surely it’s not going unnoticed. Ed’s work as a behavioral psychologist is one he is proud of, patients are being treated, released. He is the man for the job, if he can’t turn the place around, no one can. The institution, however, this great opportunity for his career is stealing him away from Laura, and for all his keen observation and care for the patients, it is his wife he doesn’t see. She doesn’t feel real, solid, not when she feels invisible and unwanted. Laura sees him with perfect clarity, and everything he has been up to.  “The Ed at my feet has only the troubles he’s sought out, a career helping broken people and broken places- broken things that do not include him. He has always been on the outside of suffering.” But will our Ed stay outside it all?

There is a love triangle, and a woman always knows when she is being eclipsed by another in her husband’s thoughts and longings. Under his watchful eye, Penelope is getting better and epilepsy is no longer a reason to institutionalize patients, but is Ed ready to let her go? Will he cross the line and allow himself to express the love he feels for her? Will he risk losing Laura for a taste of sweet youth? Can he keep his passions on a tight leash? Ed commits to saving so many people who need him, but it’s his own house that is crumbling.

Timing is the thing, it seems, and time can be cruel. A heart can’t build two houses within. All of our existence is about our perception, in the end, and Laura’s isn’t the same as Ed’s. Just what does Pen feel about the great Dr. Ed Malinowski? Can a man keep the love and adoration of two women going? What happens when the Doctor becomes the patient? Admittedly, the part of the story I chewed on the most is when Ed falls apart, and it all begins with a headache in his temple. This is where real love shows it’s face and confrontation between Penelope and Laura is a long time in coming and yet not your typical climax. Love stories, the ones closest to real life, are ugly and painful and this is no exception. Ed is a complex character, egocentric and yet one of the most caring doctors when it comes to patients, a selfish spouse and yet just as hungry for connection and love as any of us, even if he keeps it all ‘one-sided’. Laura and Penelope have their tale to tell and aren’t confined on the pages by the roles they play in Ed’s heart. Neither are truly the enemy, but Ed creates a hell of a storm between the two. Ed may think he has it all figured out, and he seems to be in control for a time, but love can be controlled by no man’s hand. There will come a time when Ed himself, like his patients, may need others to bring sense and order into his life and his mind.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Scribner

 

 

Valerie: A Novel by Sara Stridsberg, Translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner

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A heart full of black flies. The loneliness of a desert. Landscape of stones. Cowboys. Wild mustangs. An alphabet of bad experiences.

Everything reaches it’s end, certainly Valerie Solanas reached her’s in a sad hotel room “last stop for dying whores and junkies”, and with this creative novel Sara Stridsberg brings her back to life, in the only way writers can, through exploring her past and freely using creative imagination. Valerie Jean Solanas, feminist and author of  The SCUM Manifesto shot Andy Warhol. Yes, that Valerie!  Her story isn’t focused on Warhol, nor should it be. Instead, we are taking a trip into the underbelly of her existence. The early sexual molestation by her father, her years as a student of science working in a lab with animals, her keen intelligence battling her declining mental states, the prostitution, the institutions, arrest, her lonely death from pneumonia… One can imagine why she had a deep hatred for men, a defiled child grown into a woman with no reason to have faith in man.  What was sex to her but survival, just like conversation, she could escape her body, go to a place where no one could touch her, she learned that at her father’s hands. A member of one in her club of hate, just like when she was little.

She didn’t succeed in her assassination attempt on Andy Warhol, but she hit her mark on that June day in 1968, his lungs, esophagus, spleen, liver and stomach were damaged and he never fully recovered despite living until his death from a heart attack in 1987 due to complications following gallbladder surgery. She wanted Warhol to produce a play, he passed it up- too outlandishly vulgar for him… he would pay for that brutal rejection! These are facts, but  it would do good to research Valerie if you want more than fiction, her life wasn’t a pretty existence, and I couldn’t help but wonder who I would be in her shoes. I remember reading about her giving birth to a child but I digress… this novel is all over the place and I don’t think it’s due to the translator, I feel it is meant to make the reader feel they are on shaky ground. There seemed to be very little stability in her life, nor did she ever appear to get the chance to be a little girl. If her prostitution is distasteful, if she was too much, too vulgar, filled with rage, who else can you blame but her parents?

The author keeps saying ‘and if you did not have to die’, but she did and along with the years of decay, so too died her chance to be a writer, a scientist and worse was the end of  her belief in herself. Maybe it’s not that she, like any of us, had to die, but so alone, in the ‘crap hotel’. What of her mother, Dorothy? Dorothy, Dorothy, are you there? Were you ever? There always needed to be a ‘fella’ didn’t there? Why didn’t you protect your daughter? It seems not even boarding schools, college was far enough away to change her fate. Her genius couldn’t save her, in fact, it likely fed the fury, for sometimes clarity is blinding.

She believed the world, due to men, had no place for a woman. She was a star that Warhol didn’t make, but who would forever be tied to him. Even years later she certainly didn’t seem to be sorry for her crime. He was simply a target all her years of pain honed in on. The novel is written almost like a dream, a terrible dream you can’t shake off. Soiled memories you want to deny, paste into a scrapbook and burn to ash, as good as forgetting. The shadow of death seems to be the only friend, at the end, in her corner. Death, an ever present  companion, showing itself in the blood she coughs up into her hand. The years reach further back one moment, Dorothy and Valerie in the desert, caught up in her mother’s disastrous love affairs, ‘known for her bad taste and bad judgement’, and then bam, we’re in 1988 again, in a sad hotel. It’s too late, Valerie is doomed, you knew this from the first pages. So many years spent as one of the drowning under psychiatric care, just one of many on the fringes of society, one of the forgotten… we cannot change the ending. Catch a whiff of complete ruin as it runs through the pages.

Why couldn’t she have taken her degree, let her genius shine? Can dissecting the dead, the trajectory of their lives provide us with anything concrete when it’s all just fiction? Maybe. Maybe it’s as close as you can get sometimes. How can you not feel a bit unhinged after reading Valerie? Not all readers enjoy non-linear stories, for me this scattered way of writing fits Valerie’s disordered mind and life. I keep picking my brain wondering how different the outcome would be today, better or worse?  Raw, painful, disturbing!

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Juliet the Maniac: A Novel by Juliet Escoria

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I prayed for the opposite of salvation. I prayed for abandonment. I prayed for God to forget me.

Juliet the Maniac takes the period in our lives that is one of the hardest, adolescence but explores more than your typical, familiar teenage angst by sinking into the depths of mental illness. Medicines that cause dizziness, that maybe tune out the ‘many noises or shadows’ and yet doesn’t work enough. The fog that enters the brain, when most kids are dating, having a ball with extracurricular activities as doorways to their promising bright future, Juliet can’t even think straight, forget make sense of equations on tests. Side effects from drugs meant to stabilize her, losing her best friend because she behaved the wrong way, how do you find connection when you are one of the chosen, one of the ‘superfreaks’? The depression always seems to win, to take over, and what’s a suicide attempt but a way to silence the noise within?

Even today, those of us unaffected, unfamiliar with mental health issues judge, think it comes from weakness, selfishness, or dramatic personalities. Most people have no idea what it means to live inside a body, with a mind that has turned against you. It is an unraveling, a spiraling and there how long it goes untreated, the more complicated it is to address. We don’t live in a world where one pill suits all, one therapy is the cure. Drugs that are the answer today, in the future are discovered to cause deeper depression. Often, it’s a lifetime of struggle, and there is something deeply heroic in those who walk that path. Juliet is a sick girl, as sick as someone with cancer, but in our world the stigma causes people to retreat, and those in need get pushed aside. At times, people are more afraid of mental illness (as if it’s contagious) than they are of other diseases.

How is Juliet to understand her suicidal tendencies if they come and go? Her parents are exhausted and scared, how do you rally behind a child who sees no reason to live, can’t find joy? How can you return to your old life, when what you did spreads like wildfire through school? There is no normal anymore. Self-medicated at a new school, group therapy and other people’s problems that are more ‘concrete’ that can be ‘defined’, and yet our Juliet, her only problem is herself, her own failing,broken mind. At least she is no longer the only person diagnosed, no longer a freak, at New Hope she is just another in a band of misfits, of weirdos. School as an island, finally she does find someone whose inner landscape is twin to her own, Holly.  Juliet illuminates coming of age shadowed by treatment, the drugs that are prescribed and the ones that are taken to numb. Then comes her parent’s desperate attempt to help their daughter after too many suicide attempts, even if it requires trickery.

Whose running the groups? Institutional care with sexual freedom, fugue states, relaxation therapy, and abuse of power… is there a future for Juliet?

Being inside of Juliet’s head, which gives voice to a different sort of youth in revolt, felt genuine. It is self-revolt. There is raw pain, the void is within, and all the answers that come from the adult world, and medical, are wrapped up in their own sort of poison. It isn’t pretty, there isn’t some magical wand that will fix everything as we see from letters from the future but with age, it is a better way of coping.

Publication Date: May 7, 2019

Melville House

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane

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It didn’t seem that important, not nearly as important as people would make it. It was just a thing that happened, same as all other things that happened.

Two young NYPD rookies partnered up for a time in 1973 later become neighbors, though not exactly friends, Francis finds Brian to be ‘a likable guy.’ So when Brian ends up in the house Francis once told him about , it seems fitting his wife Lena would befriend Brian’s wife Anne. Lena certainly makes an effort, trying her best to quietly offer support, always met with Anne’s back retreating into her home, finding offense to any offer of help, wondering what she could have possibly done to offend her. At a loss to understand Anne’s off-putting behavior, Lena focuses instead on her own family, both women give birth to children only six months apart, Peter and Kate.  Despite the relationship between their mothers, Peter and Kate become close friends as they come of age but their childhoods couldn’t be any more different.

There is something wrong with Peter’s mother, even as a little girl Kate notices Anne isn’t like other moms. It’s the very thing Peter’s own father doesn’t acknowledge, to his way of thinking she just needs help around the house, rest, quiet. The problem is Peter never is sure which mother is going to appear each day, if she will ’emerge after a few days’ from her room and be his favorite version or be irritated by the noise a little boy can’t help but make. Life in his home is about forecasting her moods, in order to navigate his day. Of course he loves her, despite her growing indifference. Her troubling behavior becomes impossible to hide, it’s more than just being ‘sensitive.’ Their problems are beginning to spill out of the house.

Something about Kate gets under Anne’s skin, and Lena wants Kate to just find a new friend, anyone but Peter! No love is lost between the women. Something is humming beneath the surface and in one moment their lives are altered forever. We follow the aftermath of one horror filled moment, and watch as every character tries to build a new life from the ruins. Peter feels staggeringly helpless when the most important people are absented from his world, but nothing rips him apart more than losing Kate.

In staying true to our nature, helping others, we could risk losing everything. One incident can drive a wedge between spouses, destroy young love, and shake up our future. Kate and Peter are destined never to forget each other, but coming together again is for some a bigger betrayal. Love and loyalty is tested, more than just the meaning of family. This book is disturbing and deeply moving, we know the hand that brings down destruction, but to demonize isn’t so simple in this story. Mary Beth Keane has written a story with mental illness at the forefront, and how with Anne’s decline it’s the failure of those around her that sets the stage for tragedy. Why do we go on like everything is fine? There are so many people within us all, how different we are when life tests us.

Marriage is explored too, in how Brian tiptoes around in his, how our partners needs often eclipse our own as witnessed by Lena’s loneliness and Francis’s need for trees and quiet, a place separate from his job, his grueling work. The way things shift after the incident, why the act happened at all, due in part to one partner’s helplessness in understanding his own wives deterioration. Infidelity, loyalty, sticking when things are hopeless. Marriage is a different beast when life beats us, so different from when we’re fresh and young.

Time moves on and life closes in on us but sometimes it is only the broken people who truly understand our struggle. Sometimes you face the enemy only to see roles aren’t set in stone. Things really do sometimes come full circle, and my heart was in my throat at the end. We cannot outrun that which shapes us and while we don’t have to be victims, we’re not untouchable when it comes to things we inherit from our former selves, or our families, loved ones. There will always come a time you have to confront the chaos of a moment. Yes, add this to your TBR list!

Publication Date: May 28, 2019

Scribner

 

The Valedictorian of Being Dead The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live by Heather B. Armstrong

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“I can’t really describe it,” I mumbled to her when she called me to ask what was wrong. “I feel like the Frankenstein monster. I mean, I feel like I died and someone brought me back to life.”

What’s wonderful about The Valedictorian of Being Dead is the honest day-to-day terror of living with severe depression because it exposes the brutal reality only those suffering through it can attempt to explain. Imagine a depression so horrifying that you are willing to die again and again, in an experimental treatment, to cure yourself of wanting to take your own life. What are the options when the drugs don’t work? When you have children to raise as a single parent? When depression is a life sentence and you can lose your children if your ex uses your mental health as a means to take your children away, would you risk it all?

Heather is the perfect candidate for the experiment, chemically induced coma approximating brain death. With a family history of depression, it’s an inheritance more people struggle through than openly talk about. As if mental illness is a dirty little secret, and is it any wonder with the cruel treatment people have received throughout history, and in the not so distant past? Imagine putting your faith in an experiment that makes you feel like Frankenstein’s Monster. Heather’s blog has brought attention to the highs and lows of her own mental health, I hadn’t heard about it until I read this book.

Fear of the unknown, will my brain survive this fully intact? Will I lose my memories or time? Anyone who has ever encountered any sort of brain confusion can relate to the sheer terror of that rabbit hole. If she wakes up at all and survives the coma that is and not just once, oh no! Ten treatments, my friends, ten!  The writing isn’t always perfect and that’s okay because this book is about hope and sharing, it’s a fight  for a life without debilitating depression and in turn, a chance to finally truly live. It takes courage, and support, which is something Heather isn’t great at asking for, but how many mothers are? Too, Heather allows the reader to be privy to her innermost fears, thoughts and memories of her past, losing her voice in relationships going all the way back to discipline from her father, he of the ‘snap out of it’ answer to depression so many people have. Why is it today, there is still so much misinformation and ignorance, shame in admitting the brain is as much a part of our body as any other organ and mental illness is a disease? How can we successfully treat that which is unacknowledged? Ignoring it or ordering your loved ones to  ‘snap out of it’ isn’t going to work, it’s not something people choose, until it’s you, it’s so hard for people to believe. I think often other’s reactions are fear based. There is still a stigma and shame on us as a society for that.

An interesting medical experiment that shares the story of the human being taking part in it.

Publication Date: April 23, 2019

Gallery, Threshold, Pocket books