House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

We arrive in the blizzard of 1993, coming from rice paddies, mango trees, and the sun to February in the Empire State.

Ly Tran has written an incredibly moving memoir about her family’s move from war-torn Vietnam to a neighborhood in Queens, New York. The sickness from turbulence and three weeks of travel they endured was a precursor to the culture shock of their new lives in America. At three years old, Ly Tran was “vaguely conscious of the world around me”. As the youngest of four children, her memories of the journey and her homeland are fragmented, gaps filled in by her parents and older siblings alongside flashes of feelings. For her, adjusting to their new reality is easier, the past soon fading. In time, she is torn between two cultures, two worlds. Her family lived along the Mekong river, one can imagine the alien feeling, the rupture of leaving nature and all it’s glorious colors, rhythms for the hustle and bustle of a gritty, gray, American city. Before they are even settled, the family is in debt to their sponsor. With a language barrier alone, despite being a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army (and a POW for a decade), jobs that can support their family of six aren’t easy to attain. To ‘make ends meet’, Ly and her siblings help their parents with sewing, forming their own little production line on the living room floor of their two-bedroom railroad apartment. Unlike other American children, there isn’t time for play, delicious candy and tv binging. In the Buddhist tradition, one honors parents and family above all else, but as the years pass and Ly struggles at school, honoring thy father isn’t such an easy faith to follow.

Grateful for their place in this new world, though awake to harsh realities, Ly’s parents cling to their faith and work ethics. They know they will be okay, despite the mountains of obstacles before them. Life tests them, people deceive, take advantage, threaten. Carrying fear in his heart from the horrors he left behind, Ly’s father doesn’t want to make waves, stand out. The children come up with American names for each other, proudly, but is that enough to make roots in this new land? Their father’s fears manifest in strange behaviors and irrational decisions exacerbating Ly’s school struggles. Worse, her parents demands that, like her brothers before her, she leave behind a legacy of academic excellence make her feel anxious. It is not so easy when socially awkward, and struggling with vision issues! When she speaks her truth, that she cannot see well enough in school to learn math, her father’s reaction isn’t the fatherly wisdom she was hoping for. Maybe she really is just stupid, maybe glasses are a government conspiracy, but his truth clashes with her own reality. Despite his rants, she cannot see, it’s a stubborn fact one cannot ignore and here she is meant to swallow her truth. This is just one of many impenetrable walls she will face within her family.

Nothing beats elevating one’s place in life, no matter the hours of toil it takes. Why else did her parents bring their children to this country, if not to earn a full education, the only ladder to that high place in life? But in this land of dreams, for girls, sometimes there are violations. When one learns to endure, sometimes they learn to submit when they should fight. Watching her mother humiliated when working as a manicurist at a Brooklyn salon puts a bitter seed in Ly’s soul. Ly often works beside her, and yet this becomes just another place her mother refuses to stand up for herself, just like in the family home when facing Ly’s irrational father. Love and resentment, her father’s overbearing will makes home hell. Things get worse when a helpful teacher gets involved, threatening their House of Sticks.

Ly’s coming of age is an intimate look at trying to fit in while trapped between two cultures. Her guilt for feeling ashamed and perplexed by her odd father. Feeling abandoned by her larger than life brothers, her mother’s acceptance of the ugly world both infuriating and confusing. Confusing because she longs to protect her. Wanting to just be a normal American girl, not feeling like a failure who can’t live up to her father’s expectations. It is an intimate window into loyalty, faith, family and the inheritance the brutality of war leaves for the next generation. It takes years for Ly to come to terms with her father’s fragility, to understand why her mother more often than not sides with her husband, despite the cost. Becoming American doesn’t erase her father’s years of suffering, imprisonment, labor, indoctrination while forced into a “re-education camp”. From a place of freedom, how can Ly fully comprehend everything her mother and father had been through, had given up to provide their children with a better future? In turn, how can they understand the weight their daughter carries in her heart searching for a place for herself, trying to feel like an American with the traditions of the culture they left behind shadowing her every move? A place where she is a dutiful daughter but also a free person, able to use her voice, speak her truth and create a future that feels right for her?

There are funny moments and harsh ones. It is a heavy duty, one’s heritage. Can she honor the past, and yet build her own future, free of the hooks of familial expectations? An emotional journey and a beautiful memoir. Add it to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: June 1, 2021

Scribner

The Secret Talker: A Novel by Geling Yan

Rather, he was like a ghost, secretly taking part in her life, undetected.

It is interesting it takes a secret talker, a seemingly ‘infatuated’ stranger, to force the real Hongmei out of her safe little exterior. She isn’t as self-possessed as she seems, as happy with the state of her comfortable marriage, which she admits cost she and her husband so much at the start. A relationship that was itself once dangerous. Hongmei begins to correspond with a stranger through email, a man who seems to have gleaned a lot about her emotional state, her very soul even, just through observation. It seems harmless as she carefully responds to him. His attentions become unnerving, though he says he doesn’t want to cause trouble between she and her husband Glen, a professor she once risked her entire life in her native China for. But the probing, the intimacy that is budding between them, is reminding Hongmei of her real self, the woman she has buried behind the quiet demeanor of a devoted wife. His questions are reminding her of the village where she was born, the secrets of her childhood that she has never shared with Glen, and making her question every choice she made, every step she took to escape herself and her origins. She shares the history of her village with the secret talker, about the Chinese resistance, all the things she had erased. Shocking herself, she speaks truths that have never been revealed to Glen because so much between them has been built on her own lies, and how can you open yourself to vulnerability with your husband when deception is the glue of your love?

Ending up in America, sunny California doesn’t seem like the world she was desperate to be carried away to. Every world she has imagined, outside her little village, has brought nothing but disappointment and the same can be said about men. When she first set eyes on Glen, an older, western, foreign professor, she is a first lieutenant working as a military interpreter while taking classes to further her education. Her life then, as now, was going well, including her the life she had with her then partner. Something about Glen immediately bewitched her, and her beauty made her just as irresistible to him. Their pursuit was reckless, dangerous. Looking at their life now, there doesn’t seem to be even a remnant of that passion. So much has happened between them since then allowing a distance to grow, impossible to traverse. Glen isn’t the man she once hungered to conquer, isn’t forbidden fruit any longer. He is still a good man, a provider, solid. While she is still beautiful, intelligent, she finds herself in a numb state, but with the confessions she shares with this nameless person, everything feels charged with eroticism. How can she engage this man, with her husband often a room away? How guilty she feels, how elicit an act secret talking can be, and yet it feels like she is stepping back into her true skin. Why is she revealing so much, stripping herself naked, to the bone? Is this a foolish mistake? For once, she isn’t in charge, she isn’t the one in pursuit. “How could she have sunk so low? Her body had run off, miles away.” Where is this betrayal going to take her? She is tormented by guilt, shame and anger- lots of anger, at the stranger and curiously, at Glen too! Isn’t he to blame for the state they are in too? Will she unmask this person, this stranger who is like a ghost, creeping along her skin, privy to her every secret?

Hongmei enlists the help of her friend, thinking to outwit the man who has been ‘hiding behind a shelter of words’, it only serves to complicate things more, makes the truth so much harder to discern. Hongmei begins to obsess over their interactions, to dismiss her own reality again. There is so much she herself is blind to. Her cultural identity isn’t a separate thing from her identity as woman, a wife. For Glen, as much as herself, their culture has molded them and yet their emotions aren’t really as divided as they imagine. Her past was one where people are always watching, an attention that becomes expected, everything one wants felt dangerous. That was one thing I thought about, regarding the start of she and Glen’s love, the constant eyes, the threat that always loomed based on cultural demands. It’s important, I believe, to why she is numb when things are stable. Maybe I am wrong, it was just my take away. I think being older, having been married a long time, I am reading this book from a different perspective than I would at say, 20. Fresh love is about the thrill of the chase, seduction but as love matures it is a different animal. Hongmei has needs and rather than confront them it’s easier to escape what has been built. Things settle and often we bottle up things that gnaw at us just to keep the illusion of contentment, as to not rupture the peace we think we’ve made. But delving deeper into the life of the person she has been communicating with could be the final straw in her marriage… dare she go down the rabbit’s hole?

This was an engaging read and I actually loved the ending, one I didn’t expect. The emotions are beautiful and sometimes biting. As more about Hongmei’s past is revealed, you begin to understand the reasons she seems to be willing to turn away from Glen but she turns away from herself just as much. Mysterious, quietly suspenseful, and heartbreaking. It is a psychological tale where the main character gets lost in a maze sometimes of her own making, not just the secret talker’s manipulations. A beautifully written slow burn.

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

HarperVia

Something Unbelievable: A Novel by Maria Kuznetsova

“And soon I will evaporate and you will have no story to remember.”

Time has been brutal for widowed Larissa, and now approaching her ninetieth year, living in Kiev she video conferences her granddaughter Natasha, who lives in America- which may as well be another planet altogether. Natasha’s emotional state is harried dealing with the exhaustion of caring for her newborn daughter, burdened by her husband Yuri’s friend Stas (who is currently crashing at their place) and juggling motherhood while auditioning for parts. The truth of it is, she is barely clinging to the end of her rope. The only saving grace is that Stas is great with children, her and Yuri’s baby in particular. When she asks Larissa if she will finally tell her the story of her own grandmother, the whole story about her life during World War Two, she is surprised her grandmother barely puts up a fight. Larissa wonders if her granddaughter really cares or is just using it as a distraction. Larissa admits to herself she has told it in bits and pieces, not all of it, it wears on her heart to remember. Tonya was a spoiled woman of wealth who married a banker, misfortune came to call with the Revolution in Ukraine, and the couple’s ‘fine apartment’ was seized by the Bolsheviks. It is everything that followed after, when the plan to flee their homeland with their children is altered after her husband’s death from typhus and Tonya is forced to make big decision on her own. This choice changes the course of her two sons lives. This is how Larissa’s father and uncle, as children, were sent to an orphanage. It is also how the weak, spoiled Tonya was able to maintain her lavish lifestyle.

Years later, Larissa’s mother and father meet at the Polytechnic Institute in Kiev, marry and have two daughters, Larissa and her younger, achingly beautiful sister Polya. Naturally their shallow grandmother adores Polina and lavishes attention on her, which doesn’t endear the sisters to one another. Life goes on until threats of Hitler invading the Soviet Union begin to take hold and the family must evacuate by train to the remote town of Lower Turinsk. Larissa’s family tale spirals into darkness and raw brutality. They are not alone on this uncomfortable cargo train, joined by their father’s brother and his family along with another couple and their sweet little girl. Soon, they will be “as beaten down as mushrooms stocked away deep in a forest.” Hunger, fear, jealousy, desire and death shadow their flight to safety. Larissa opens up about her love for two brothers, wildly different in personality and temperament. Remembering being driven to distraction by the crying jags of her silly sister and grandmother, of being wearied even of the terrors visited upon them, tough as nails Larissa lets the memories flow despite the ache. Everything she thinks she understands about her silly sister is challenged over the years, turning her bitterness into something inexplicable. She has many regrets and is visited by the spectre of death, outliving even her own daughter, Natasha’s mother.

Natasha is ashamed, at times, of her own weakness and struggles, particularly knowing her ancestors were made of sterner stuff. Just imagining everything they lived through makes her feel like a pitiful creature. Motherhood hasn’t come as naturally as she expected it to, Yuri is no longer interested in her as a woman it seems and the only roles she fits the mold for are those of proustite or spy. Her body hasn’t felt like her own since giving birth, and the memories she’s suppressed about her dead mother and her own hidden talent has her struggling with the past. She needs to feel like herself again, to have something that is her own. She needs to work, it is acting that fills her with purpose! Can’t a mother have a life too? Though the challenges Natasha faces are nothing near as severe as war, starvation, and the horrors her grandmother Larissa confronted, there are still parallels. The telling draws them closer and the struggles of what it means being a woman with passions, while mothering a child, is a bridge to understanding the choices we make. Even when there doesn’t seem to be a choice, beautiful new stories can be born from the ruins.

As Larissa passes down this inheritance, her story, it reverberates through time. Natasha takes the tale and reshapes it to fit present day, and share the meaning, the very truth that is the beating heart of Larissa’s life. It is about being vulnerable, selfishness, love, desire, war, death, how we judge others and ourselves and all the misunderstandings in between. It is where we go with what we have when we arrive in unexpected places. It is beautiful but make no mistake, Larissa’s past is hell, one that is witness to the ugliest of humanity and still she goes on in spite of a world that tries to break her, carrying her ghosts with her.

It is a harrowing tale of war and family. Gorgeously written, I can’t wait for her next book, this one left me breathless. I really enjoyed Maria’s previous novel Oksana, Behave but this one is a punch in the gut!

Publication Date: April 31, 2021

Random House Publishing

Three O’Clock in the Morning: A Novel by Gianrico Carofiglio

You know, when I look at you grown-ups, I think you’re trapped by things you don’t actually care about. How does that happen? When does it happen?

Three O’clock in the Morning begins with Italian born Antonio in 1983, struggling with epileptic episodes since he was a child. Comforted that his scary, strange fits were simply a thing that happens to some children, life went on with these odd moments occurring once a month or so until his teenage years when the epileptic bouts become more severe. Antonio feels his world shrink with a list of things he can and cannot do, places he should avoid, things he shouldn’t eat. Treatments are causing him to feel apathetic, as much as the changes forced on his young life, and it is why his divorced parents decide, together, that he must go to Marseille, France to see the best epilepsy specialist. With is parents beside him they take the trip together, and discover he will have to return in three years time to see what course his illness will take, as he ages. His life seems to level out so much that at eighteen he’d rather not even bother with the three year checkpoint. His parents are having none of it. More confounding is that it is his mostly absent father (a successful mathematician) who will be accompanying him this time, minus his mother who has an important conference to attend. This father, who he doesn’t really feel he knows, even resents for leaving his mother is the last person he wants to travel with back to that gritty, gray city. Antonio doesn’t even realize how hungry he is to bond with his father.

Upon Arrival, they are informed that Antonio appears to be doing good but only one test can really supply them with answers. The test requires he doesn’t sleep for two nights, inducing sleep deprivation to see if it will cause epilepsy. It is during this time that he and his father share intimacies getting to know each other for the first time, walking along the city streets, drinking in the scenery, the sea, the food, jazz music, the people, and his father’s favorite subject, mathematics. Normally that’s off putting to someone like me, whose math skills are abysmal at best, but Carofiglio’s musings are lovely. A harmony blooms between them and Antonio sees his father as so much more than he imagined him to be. Surprising details arise about his parent’s youthful relationship and marriage and his father’s reason for leaving. The story he imagined doesn’t line up at all with reality. As their connection grows his father imparts everything he has learned along way, including mistakes, and how his incredible mathematical gifts have changed with time. It’s just what Antonio, entering the rocky terrain of manhood, so desperately needs- this window into his father’s soul, that may help him understand himself. Sexuality, regrets, shame, what we do with our talents and love, it’s a beautiful father/son tale in a “modern bohemia” world. It is an easy pace, like a conversation with your best friend. A once in a lifetime meeting of the souls. Lovely.

Available Now

Publication Date: March 16, 2021

HarperVia

The Recent East: A Novel by Thomas Grattan

“That place,” Udo had told Adela. “Beautiful and scary all at once.”

“There must be a German word for that,” Adela answered, listing their favorite compound nouns- Weltschmerz and Schattenparker. Kummerspeck. Udo smiled. “Both beautiful and scary,” he said, and came up with a new word for them to use.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall coincides with the collapse of Beate Haas’s marriage and on the heels of these events, Beat receives a registered letter informing her that she can now claim the home in Kritzhagen she and her parents lived in before their escape many years ago. Beate has decided she and her two teenaged children should go to Germany. On a June day they discover the house with many rooms isn’t quite as their mother, whom they refer as ‘the German Lady’, remembers it. Time has taken it’s toll on the old ghost, now inhabited by mice empty of furniture and not one of the childhood friends their mother talked about there to greet them. This is the beginning of Beate curling into herself on the old mansion’s floor and avoiding the reality of this now unfamiliar country.

Adela and Michael, Beate’s teenaged children, each deal with this move differently. Adela tries on Michael’s enthusiasm, hoping the move is a turn of good fortune, wanting to believe her brother’s stories about the place. But when they land in Germany on a June morning, nothing is as they envisioned, the home not much resembling the picture their mother showed them. This will be the place the single identity they always seemed to share dissolves. Eldest Michael experiences everything from vandalism, new friendships, and partying to a sexual encounter that leaves him confronting his identity. Gay in Germany isn’t the same as gay in America. Adela buries herself in books about tragedies and the horrific history of Eastern Germany, disinterested in discovering this new country waiting outside their door beyond print. Brother and sister no longer share their lives with each other as they did before. Michael is coming into his own, separate from his family, hungry for adventure. Adela is no longer flush with certainty, that former confidence gone and buried under the ruins of their new home. Here, she seems lost in confusion. She’d rather read about their city than explore it.

One day they come home to find a large teenage boy in their yard, Udo Behm, a cousin they never knew about. Udo is the one person who can get Adela to engage with the world again beyond the walls of their home. Udo is always present after that, solving their problems (that Michael already attempted to), teaching Adela a different side of his country’s history, lightening the heaviness of Adela’s days Udo is complicated. Michael is at times a bit jealous of his place in his sister’s life being usurped by Udo but also wishes he were his own brother. Udo and Adela perceive the world in vastly different ways. It’s only a matter of time before their differences cause problems. There is violence, too, on the streets between refugees and the locals. Adela befriends a refugee girl, an act others aren’t fond of. Wannabe neo-nazis, rage, shame, and violence… Michael is too free, unaware of what’s coming and how it’s about to change his family.

Beate has returned to her native country more alien than she imagined she’d ever be. Neither American nor German any longer, it’s impossible to pretend she can navigate this new life, guide her children. There is no such thing as returning, time moves on and so do the people. She can’t recall much of her youth and is often unable place the people who remember her. She struggles to even understand why she and her much older parents left so long ago. Beate’s early years adjusting to the west shed light on the immigrant experience, how displacement effects children as much as adults. She is uprooted each time she manages to plant herself. The failure of her marriage is no different, and once again she is lost, flailing to find an anchor, failing as a mother, blind to how much Adela needs her. She is out on the streets at night almost as much as Michael, exploring the city, finding work cutting hair in a depressing bar. The reader goes back into the past with her childhood, how she met her children’s father, and her attempts at budding love in the present. Udo and his mother are a Godsend, even while irritating her in equal turns. While she is figuring herself out, violence threatens the life she envisioned back in her homeland, and changes her family for decades. The siblings aren’t finished drifting away from each other, with one child building their future in Germany, and the other fleeing.

It’s an exploration of family, cultural and sexual identity, and how we are molded by the places we plant our family. An intelligent story, if full of sorrow. I was a little disappointed by Udo’s storyline, I wanted more for he and Adela. I never felt I really got to know her as much as I wished to nor dissected their bond. The novel comes full circle, but it was focused more on Michael and Beate. The other characters sometimes come alive but Michael and Adela’s father truly feels more like a shadow than worth the reader’s time. Udo, such a damaged, lost person and yet fragile too is vital one moment and then more like an echo next. Maybe we’re meant to feel everything is out of our hands too?

Publication Date: March 9, 2021

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Lurkers: A Novel by Sani Tan

It was bad enough they already thought in English. He sensed trouble farther down the road. Already they questioned him and disrespected them at every turn- this would mutate into hate and shame.

An apt title, Lurkers. On Santa Claus Lane, Korean American sisters Mira and Rosemary are growing up in a home where their father is a mystery, someone they imagine wanted nothing more in life to be somewhere else, or better yet, anyone else. Their mother is clueless about the realities they will soon face. If they lose their home, the girls fear they will have to move back to the one place their mother is comfortable living, Korea. The idea horrifies the two, who can’t even speak their parents native tongue. Long ago, Mr. Park ( their immigrant father) showed promise with his engineering degree but life snowballed and fate led him to work as a busboy at his cousin’s restaurant. Later by marrying their much younger mother, life led him to take the place of his wife’s minister father and become one himself. His daughters don’t understand him, they are too American in their speech and thoughts, disrespectful, and no one realize he has a secret dream of his own. If he can just produce something of value, then things could be different! Misfortune visits and a suicide leaves the Park family reeling.

By the time the girls discover what he was working on, it may be too late and just confound them even more. The Park’s neighbor, Raymond Van Der Holt, a gay horror writer, finds himself on the hook helping Mrs. Park. Her visit is a strange disruption but nothing as odd as his intruder/ghost and at least the Korean housewife comes bearing food. Before long, the strange neighbors infiltrate his quiet life. He doesn’t realize just how deeply he will be connected to them.

Rosemary takes up theater to spice up her college application, under the spell of the seductive Mr. Z, who pushes trust exercises on the students and urges them to let go of their inhibitions. He hones in on Rosemary, paying her the attention she desperately craves but it’s a dangerous game. He demands raw honesty, but he himself is anything but honest. His workshop is a hothouse of sexual innuendos, and he himself is corrupting youth, grooming them. Youngest daughter Mira wants to conjure an entity to haunt their home. She is coming up with strange ideas to stop the sale of their house, tormenting their mother. When a termite inspector visits, her mind strays to devious plans.

Mary-Sue lived a life away from the poisonous chaos of her brother, spending years in a colony of modern ascetics trying to be a better, calmer version of herself. Family intrudes, as does the Vietnam war, and when she finally makes her way home she gathers the last remains of her family. She decides to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. This child, Kate, grows up feeling shadowed by her tragic history. A sullen girl who feels more like a lodger than her mother’s child, despite Mary-Sue’s love, there always seems to be a vast distance between them. Kate’s best friend is Paul, a kid just as disaffected as her. The two spend their teen years never turning romantic, all those should haves. After college she moves back home, years roll on and the two cross paths again. Paul has fifteen year old girl at his side, she assumes it’s his child. This is where it gets seedy and weird, and his explanation for being with the girl is warped.

The stories merge on Santa Claus Lane and at times it’s hard to keep track of. I didn’t much care for the sisters, Mira and Rosemary. Sure, their exasperation with their parents is understandable but they come off as cold fish. Kate and Paul’s tale makes for an uncomfortable read, not because the younger girl as a mirror/ode to Kate was surprising but I was disgusted with the whole mess of it. That Kate isn’t appalled is shocking. It’s a perverse bunch. Honestly, in the end, the saddest thing is I felt sorry only for the characters who aren’t given much space- Mr. and Mrs. Park. If there are redeeming qualities here it is in poor Raymond. The supernatural bits confounded me, sort of threw off the story. The letter at the end would have made for a far more meaningful, affecting story I would have gobbled up. It had all the emotion I was searching for in the rest of the book. Why I liked parts of it has to do with the immigrant experience, leaving behind their origins, the feeling of searching for an identity and how Kate never felt she belonged or deserved anything was rich writing. Too, the struggle Mr. Park faced trying to fit into this American life. It’s awful, honest. What I could do without, the sex which was not erotic, just felt voyeuristic and not at all my cup of tea. The sleazy men dominated the tale, my God, it’s low belly bastards haunting the book and I could not stand it. The writing is at times intelligent but a lot of the uncomfortable stuff doesn’t sit well. I think Tan can write, but I felt like the characters just kept running away from me. When it comes to Paul and Mr. Z- don’t get me started.

Publication Date: March 30, 2021

Soho Press

The Theory of Flight by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

Like any event, what happened to Genie did not happen in a vacuum: it was the result of a culmination of genealogies, histories, teleologies, epistemologies and epidemiologies- if ways of living, remembering, seeing, knowing and dying.

This story is about Imogene “Genie” Zula Nyoni, her life, her death and all the people caught beside each other in the web of her fate. There is magic, love, envy, betrayal, violence and the greatest catalyst, wanderlust. It is true that Genie hatched from a golden egg, but magical beginnings do not guarantee perfect, happy lives. Does everything begin with Genie’s ancestors, or is that like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg? Are each of our stories one never-ending saga, chained together and dumped into the ocean, vaster than us all, an ocean that Genie’s grandfather Baines Tikiti walked into? Genie is bound to dreams, myths, hope and tragedy with a grandfather in the ocean and a father who dreams of the sky. A golden father, Livingstone Stanley Tikiti better known as “Golide” Gunmede who shoots a plan down during the war. His own father Baines had the good fortune of an education, thanks to a gentleman farmer Mr. Charmers, and with this education a world of possibilities and opportunities were birthed. He became a traveling salesman and a charming, slick one at that. This is how he falls in love with Prudence Ngoma, who will be mother to his son. A restless man, with South Africa in his eyes, Prudence makes her way to visit him only to discover a man in love with his new obsession, planes. He plans to set up a home and life for his little family, and when it’s time he realizes it can never be, rejected Prudence returns to her birth place, Beauford Farm and Estate but not before their son, Stanley, is mesmerized by the magic of flight. Prudence learns a lesson of her own, and it’s all about character. With this knowledge and experience Prudence raises Stanley to become a man that people gravitate toward. During the war, Stanley falls in love with Elizabeth, a Dolly Parton look alike country western singer. Elizabeth is sure her future is waiting for her in Nashville. The only plan truly in the process of hatching is a child.

Genie comes of age on Beauford Farm and Estate, once the lush, verdant village of Guqhuka before it became a settler farm. A land that violence isn’t quite finished with. For now, Genie runs around with her best friend Marcus Malcom Masuku unconcerned, as children are, with the recent war and its atrocities. Between them always is vast happiness and a thirst for adventure that guides them to leave the compound, despite what wickedness may lay beyond. Discovering a field of sunflowers, it becomes their secret place and warms their hearts almost as much as listening to the stories Genie’s mother Elizabeth tells her during bath time. Marcus’s own secret, falling asleep beneath their window ‘lulled by the warm vanilla scents and their soothing voices’, far from the cold, harsh grandparents. One day on their excursions they discover an abandoned car, a precursor to other changes hurtling their way, and with a glorious return that makes Genie’s heart sore comes a loss when Marcus is taken away by his parents. He never wanted to let go of Genie, not even if it isn’t safe to remain on Beauford Farm and Estate.

Golide’s return enriches the lives of the people on Beauford Farm and Estate, who soon believe they too are capable of flight through his vision. This vision, born with the hope he, his wife Elizabeth and daughter Genie will fly away to a better place, is the only hope they have for safety. The people soon become followers and take part in the dream but it is this very vision that endangers them all. Golide is wanted by the sojas, but Genie knows he and her mother flew away sadly leaving her behind. Genie’s grown friend Jestina witnesses evil first hand and together the two run away before Genie is adopted by the Masuku family, a dream come true for Marcus but not everyone is welcoming. His jealous sister Krystle doesn’t want any princess, unfortunate or not, usurping her position. Her little girl heart demands to be the only princess in their family. A mean selfishness that will later haunt her. Eunice, the grandmother, can’t stand the very ideal either, her son isn’t political, and she questions why he is taking in the daughter of a family who ‘dabbled in politics.” This is the divide of before and after, we watch Genie come of age and the evolution of her love for Marcus, what can be and what never will. At heart it is about love in all it’s variations but too it is about the atrocities of civil war, of betrayal. It is about the wrongs we commit to save ourselves and sometimes the evil we commit with no rhyme nor reason. More, the novel tests the assumptions we make about others, in how Gina really feels about being a part of the family, in how she protects what she left behind, the horrors- the true horrors she doesn’t share. Her decisions rock the family but the heart will have what the heart wants.

Rich, magical, historical, this is a novel you have to immerse yourself in undisturbed, as there are many tales forking in separate directions that later fit together. HIV, colonialism in South Africa, class, war, flight, hope, vision, sojas, Jesus of the streets and how one woman carries within her magic. Many times Genie is saved, but in the end she too is a savior, even as she is in a coma. It is a hell of a debut novel and I barely summarized it, yes read it!!!!

Publication Date: January 12, 2021

Catalyst Press

How to Order the Universe: A Novel by María José Ferrada, Elizabeth Bryer (Translated by)

I liked breathing in the smoke from their cigarettes. Watching the salesmen order one coffee after another. Listening to their lies, time and again.

In María José Ferrada’s fictional coming of age, seven-year-old “M” tells us she has inherited the gift for persistence from her father. What better way to use it than to go on the road with her Dad “D”, a man who travels from town to town selling Kramp brand products to hardware stores. It only seems fitting a child born into a home made from said products would follow in her father’s footsteps, learning his finely honed skills. It is a partnership her mother is unaware has M dodging school and hitting the road with D. The youngest among the old-timers, she begins to shine in the middle of their universe, the coffeehouse and absorbs the ‘first laws of sales, and of life.’ Through the men and their polished lies, she is privy to the broken families, the roles they perfect to make a sale , their scams, comedies, dramas and their hard-knock life wisdoms. For her father, it’s about the money but for M it’s about expanding her small world and her comprehension of it. No one is a better teacher than D. Maybe too, it’s about feeling connected to someone.

M masters her role and obtains an education that has nothing to do with school. This early lesson in the art of a lie entails going home and deceiving her mother by letting her think she has been at school, rather than making a living alongside her daddy. D isn’t invested in fathering but as his employee they develop a bond little M can cling to. The novel takes place during Pinochet’s dictatorial reign in Chile, who left behind a brutal legacy, and may well be a piece to the puzzle of a mother who seems to be incomplete and sad. M’s tough, intelligent act can’t last forever when “E”, a photographer who hunts ghosts with his camera, disrupts the harmony of their routine. Nor can she fail to notice the strange effect he has on her mother. While she may not know what M and her father have been up to, there is a lot about her mother’s life before she gave birth to her that M is in the dark about. Like many children, she is blind about the dangerous world of grown ups and politics as much she fails to comprehend the foolish decisions of a father whose skills she greatly admires.

M’s place in the ‘floating family’ of salesman is threatened by events beyond her comprehension, and the bubble they’ve been living in is about to burst, putting distance between she and D. As time passes, so too does the charm of world she and her father shared on the road. M learns a strange lesson about time and space, that you can’t go back, that nothing is truly set in stone and it may be impossible to understand the innerworkings of things, especially one’s own father. How to Order the Universe is a father/daughter relationship on the edge of a cliff. It is about a clever, little girl whose bottomless emptiness she tries to fill with purpose by traveling on the road with her father.

Publication Date: February 16, 2021

Tin House

When in Vanuatu: A Novel by Nicki Chen

Snap out of it. Lately, she’d been having these little spells of expatriate ennui.

Diana is living in Manilla with her husband Jay, after being swayed by the freedom to finally start a family and take time off. This move was Jay’s chance at his dream job, everything would line up for them both, even if it meant giving up American luxuries. It has been 4 years and Diana is still yearning to get pregnant and nearing the age of 35, she knows time is of the essence. Both are perfectly healthy, so why is she unable to conceive? Is it the stress of the Philippines? Truly when they were newly arrived, they were happy to join their friends on trips to vacation spots on the beach or in the mountains, but that was before the dangerous coup attempts after the People Power Revolution. Is it the mounting tensions they have no control over or is that just an excuse to explain away the fading charm of the island? With Diana’s fertility doctor assuring her there isn’t anything wrong, that she just needs to relax considering stress has a negative impact on conception, Diana is resolved to be the most relaxed person her friends know. She starts with her own little aquarium of fish. Anything to keep her mind off of anti-American demonstrations, the strain between she and Jay, and her longings for a child. Maybe the prescription of yoga and meditation will be the cure, but how is one meant to truly “relax” when they are consumed with the need to relax or when Diana can’t stop thinking about getting pregnant? Too, there is Jay’s constant worry and caring watchful eyes, deeply rooted in the tragic loss of his first wife. How is a woman meant to let things happen naturally when nature isn’t taking it’s course in a timely manner? How is a wife to enjoy herself when she has to sneak around just to get out of her own head?

When Diana’s best friend Abby learns of her own husband’s job opportunity it means a move to Vanuatu, an island country located in the South Pacific. Diana is sad to be losing her companion and Abby is adamant she won’t go, sick of conceding her own desires In the end, she and the children follow her husband. Diana is surprised when Abby’s angry letters change to happier missives, reminding Diana about how she once felt about discovering all the new delights of Manilla. It gets her thinking that after four years of living Jay’s dream, it’s time for her own. She wants to move to Vanuatu, even if it means putting her foot down with her husband.

Vanuatu might just be the place where she can feel joy again, soothed by the beauty of their surroundings and an escape from the dangers of Manilla, but nothing ever goes to plan. She finds herself thinking about Jay’s first wife, wondering if she is competing with her memory. Then she is threatened in an unusual incident. Just when it seems like things are finally happening for she and Jay, hard times hit. Will they be able to move past their sorrows together here in paradise? Is happiness about one’s location? Will she ever escape her own worries and losses?

The novel is about the things we want in life and the things life wants from us. When In Vanuatu is quiet story about the expat life, what we take with us despite the places we leave behind and how it changes a marriage. It is about the pressures of a woman’s body, her own power over it when the clock is ticking and the conflict between going with the flow and fighting the tide through our desires.

Publication Date: April 27, 2021

SheWritesPress

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job: by Kikuko Tsumura

I’d quit my previous job after I developed burnout syndrome, and had gone back to living with my parents in order to recuperate.

After burnout syndrome, a job that requires very little of her energy seems to be our narrator’s goal, the problem is ‘There Is No Such Thing As An Easy Job.’ With her unemployment insurance running out, she has no choice but to seek the help of a job recruiter. Surprisingly, she has the perfect posting of overseeing (surveilling) one Mr. Yamae Yamamoto, a seemingly ‘cushy assignment’- until it isn’t. Jobs send people like her ‘funny in the head’. How do others maintain their sanity, their very energy without becoming limp humans themselves in any job? How can she possibly find a profession with the right pace, that asks little of her? Could creating audio adverts be the solution, for businesses that come and go, places that seem to exist on the fringe of the bustling cities? Places she never paid mind to before, that leave her with an unsettled feeling?

Is it possible not to get too emotionally involved in one’s job? Maybe if she can concern herself with ‘cracker packets’, try as she might, she just doesn’t feel well suited to any job and yet she begins to feel something like a sense of attachment with a desire to quit at the same time. Just what exactly does she want in career? Working for parks maintenance should be an easy desk job, even if it’s in a hut ‘amid the quietude’ of the forest. Even if she is left with an uneasy feeling and strange, inexplicable things happen. It takes five jobs to discover that fulfillment is never a given, jobs are just like everything else in life, open to interpretation but never void of meaning. For people struggling with indifference in their career or stripped to the bone with exhaustion, this is a thoughtful detour. Not exactly life altering depth, more a meditation on the search for fulfillment. It was a decent read whose narrator has a certain appeal. It’s amusing to think that anyone imagines there exists a job without hardship. Though translated from Japanese, work bonds us all.

Publication Date: March 23, 2021

Bloomsbury USA