We Went to the Woods: A Novel by Caite Dolan-Leach

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After that first chilly evening out in the country, we were like unlanded peasants bewtiched by the promise of future rootedness.

Working one night at a fundraiser behind the bar, Mack enters a caption contest and wins, drawing the attention of beautiful Louisa Stein- Jackson. This is the real win of the night. Invited to her garden party on a cold New York winter night she meets Chloe, Beau, and Jack when she accepts the invitation and is soon charmed by their stimulating conversation and beauty.  A week later, Louisa’s seductive dream of  running an idyllic Homestead together has taken root in them all. They should have paused to really think about that word, idyllic. Homesteading is anything but, and an organic existence doesn’t happen because you embrace the romanitcism of purity and freedom, you know, everything sold in ads that is all sunshine and beekeeping. But Louisa assures them, this isn’t some ‘half-baked spiritual notion of cutting themselves off from the world”. No, they just want to know what they are eating… be closer to the process. Not ingest poisons that GE farmers provide! It’s not quite the reality twenty-somethings lacking skills are going to be able to achieve without making mistakes. Certainly Louisa’s family wealth doesn’t hurt yet there is irony there I think. Louisa is adamantly against capitilism but a part of the priveldged. Can you really achive this utopia when you are grasping the wealth you’re turning away from for something more genuine? Oh well, nothing wrong with money, so long as they aren’t giving it to those nasty corporations, right? Before they venture forth into the woods, a strange incident seems to seal the deal, driving them into a deeper intimacy when they witness an accident. Certainly it feels ominous.

So begins the farming and as long as they are together that’s all that matters, right? The tender intimacy of it all? Mistakes will happen, they aren’t fools. How together are they really? Beau is a mystery (Mack tells us this), as are his disappearances, regardless of how Louisa seethes inside, it’s accepted by the friends as just his way. But his friendliness with neighbors at the ‘collective’ isn’t going over well, particularly the females. It doesn’t stop Lousia from letting him into her cabin late at night. Are Louisa and Beau really together? In fact, they all seem to take part in nighttime wanderings, except for Mack. Mack is the watcher, desperately jealous for her own trysts. Too cowardly to take what she wants, instead content to yearn from afar. Naturally she is as pulled in by Beau’s magnetism as the rest. Jack is the most solid, Jack actually knows a thing or two about farming. Why can’t she desire Jack, Jack is someone she could have if she wanted. Ah, that’s why…

Happy to be out of New York, she has her own dark shame to escape having been involved in something called ‘The Millienail Experiment’, while trying complete her PH.D. program in Anthropolgy. This could be the perfect escape from her current bleak reality, this thing that Jack calls the “Grand Experiment”. If she nearly drowns in freezing water with the fragile Chloe, well it’s worth it. Here she can be invisible from the outside world and yet share profound intimacy with a chosen few. Her deepest desire is for someone to explain her to herself. Maybe they can!

The land begins to feel as much hers once she settles in with the others. Too, the sense of community she didn’t realize she had lacked is nearly enough to keep her warm through the cold nights, as is her hunger to be self-sufficient. Yet the relationships are not as they seem. Louisa and Beau aren’t new to the Homestead having worked the last year on it. But this is a “collective endevor” so why focus on that? Here they can sustain themselves, find meaning, not like the world they feel has nothing to offer them- educated and meandering, society treating their generation as if they created all the problems that is their inheritance. Little does she realize how much animosity Louisa feels for the local farmer whose land borders hers, farmers who grow genitcally engineered corn. Nor the trouble it will bring.

Beofre long Louisa begins to obsess over Chuck Larson, doing all she can to disrupt the farmer. Fennel, one of Beau’s girls from the collective is more than just a distraction. There is a bigger story than Mack knew, and soon after joining Beau and Louisa protesting fracking, she meets Mathew, the head of collectives and is privy to plans to stop Lakeview from successfully taking over land locally. Getting entangled with others wasn’t what they signed up for. There is a thin line between passionate causes and crimal acts. Through seasons of exhuasting work and fruitful harvest, the idle is disturbed by the infectious presence of the neighboring collective and it’s leader. Alongisde their own story is the tale of an early attempt at Utopia in the form of writings by a man named William Fulsome. The hardships aren’t that much different from the ones they too face. What will get them all in the end? Will it be the elements, their dreams or each other? It’s wise to remember that all families, whether self-made or not, have seeds of destruction and secrets they keep from others. Idealism is contagious, reality always creeps in…

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Random House

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot

 

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She carried everything lightly, as only the dead and innocent can. 

In The Art of Taxidermy, we meet young Lottie whose passion for ‘revising’ dead creatures has her Aunt Hilda horrified, more so that her father Wolfgang encourages her by buying her glass aquariums to ‘contain the fusty fug of death’ within. To his mind, she isn’t the freak Aunt Hilda believes her to be, she just has a scientific bend of mind, it’s ‘in her genes’. No sir! Girls she play with dolls, not skeletal remains of reptiles and birds, sheep… not be enthralled by the stink of death!

It is the states of decay Lottie is captivated by, the possibility of resurrection, of keeping a creature in it’s natural state forever unlike her mother Adrianna, whose death has hung around like a shadow. Through her grief, a passion for taxidermy is being born but Hilda thinks it’s a sickness, a disturbance in the child’s nature. Written in a beautiful lyrical style, nature dominates the pages more than death as Lottie weaves her way to the creak, observes nature searching for specimens. “But the day was teeming with life”, we explore the Australian land overhead as birds take flight or upon the ground muck through the mud and fungi. Then there is Jeffrey, made of skin rich like the earth and quiet grace, companion to Lottie’s peculiar hobby. A boy with Aboriginal origins, a boy who has blossomed in her dark heart.

What is a girl to do with the face of death but try and preserve it? She herself a flightless bird with Aunt Hilda trying to make her a ‘normal’ girl, doing everything she can to end her taxidermy dreams. Snippets of ‘mother memories’ creeping into her heart like soft dreams, Oma’s omens and superstitions, an inheritance of despair and always, ‘the air is heavy with ghosts.’ As Lottie finds her purpose, she must too confront her grief over the loss of her mother and learn her German family history, the reasons her family were treated like criminals. Will she be able to convince Aunt Hilda that she isn’t an unnatural girl, that she isn’t a bloodthirsty murderer of creatures with a macabre hobby? Do we embrace our yearnings or let shame force us to discard the very things that make our heart beat with meaning? Intentions are funny creatures themselves, as we see with Aunt Hilda pushing her ‘ideal’ of womanhood upon Lottie. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that.

A beautiful tale out of Australia, uniquely written. The subject is heavy and yet the lyrical prose is uplifting, I felt I could hear bird-call and smell the ‘fug’ of decay. For those who love narrative poetry, this is a YA novel but I think adults will enjoy it too.

Publication Date: August 23, 2019

Text Publishing Company

The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

 

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We are all children, they thought, and none of us is equipped to deal with such an adversary. We go through life under other people’s protection.We listen to instructions and try to follow them.We don’t know what’s true and what’s not. What’s fair and unfair. Our world is small. Our world is narrow.

One of the first things adults learn, life isn’t fair, but at six children aren’t ready for this lesson! Not all of the twelve six-year-olds lost in the woods are afraid, the adults certainly are. This is a camping treat turned nightmare! All they have, when the night turns to horror, is each other but the woods are deep, dark and filled with unseen predators that lurk, plants that poison, but the cruelest of them all could be among them already. When the children scatter in terror and the adults disappear, all you know is no one is getting out alive. This isn’t a fairy tale with a moral, if only the children could have slept through the horror, the blood splatter, the brain matter… Don’t enter this tale with a lick of hope! For what horror is worse than the senselessness of evil, the creepy demise of a warped mind?

The wild creatures are sleeping, for now, unaware of the chaos, the warm bodies that could fill their bellies. Whimpering cries, cracked skulls, sliced arteries… the children sway, the children fall, the ground drops, there will be a battle, but the hero is no victor, because there isn’t a happy ending. The characters can’t hear you weep for them, words of support won’t be a beacon to freedom, to salvation… this is the end my friend.

There is nothing to give away, every child is doomed, the telling is in the hunt, the story is the who but when is there ever an answer to why? I finished this when I was still on heavy medication from surgery, I cringed a lot. Those poor little ones.

Publication Date: May 10, 2019

Coach House Books

The Bobcat: A Novel by Katherine Forbes Riley

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But she was still herself, though with a torn apart feeling now, that of once again breathing alone.

Laurelie is still reeling after being sexually assaulted, haunted even by the images of the of crowded Philadelphia, the menace she senses everywhere.  University in the city is no longer tolerable, though she tried to navigate her old life, new habits took over, fear of seeing her attacker. The trauma is ingrained in her very skin, and she can’t seem to overcome her fear of human interaction. She decides to transfer to Vermont where she can work on her panels and become a sort of ‘cave animal’ herself. Surrounded by nature, working as a sort of nanny to a two and a half-year old boy, son of her landlord and landlady, she spends most of her time outdoors, letting the beauty of her surroundings and her charge’s wonderment feed her artistic belly. Their interactions are more visceral, as she sees him as a half possessed being, still not fully formed with opinions and thoughts it’s much easier to be in his unthreatening presence, but then she sees HIM. A hiker and a wounded wild bobcat, stranger is that the animal seems to be cuddling up to the man!

Curious about the hiker and his bond with the wounded animal she finds herself reaching out to him, offering to let him wash his laundry, which sounds simple to most of us, but for someone suffering a form of PTSD it’s like a leap off a cliff. Her cats seem to like him, you know what they say about animals being the best judge of character…

As the little boy grows and begins to ‘seek order in things’ Laurelie tries to see the world through his point of view. There is such beauty in the simplicity of childlike observations, and it’s well written in the relationship between them, their jaunts in the woods, his words just beginning to emerge. Curious about the hiker and his bond with the wounded animal she finds herself reaching out to him, offering to let him wash his laundry at her place, which sounds simple to most of us, but for someone suffering a form of PTSD it’s like a leap off a cliff. Her cats seem to like him, you know what they say about animals being the best judge of character…

There is a stillness in him, his approach is cautious, gentle as he senses the fear living inside of her. It isn’t long before she is seeing the land through his eyes too, how he understands the environment down the very ‘root systems’ of plants. He has peculiar ways, senses things on a much higher level than others. Senses that are highly attuned, much like an animal’s. He is stirring more than her desire, her art is flourishing, working on her panels to sort through the chaos that is still lingering from Philadelphia and all that took place there, too she begins to feel she is always ‘waiting for him’. If she retreated from the world, he is drawing her out, as much as her art is a means to siphon the poison from her soul. Then Rowan, the boy, disappears off the trails and the bobcat’s existence comes into question.

The novel speaks more in the moments between people and nature than actual conversations, which can lose some readers. I think the writing is beautiful, and I understand why there isn’t meant to be a lot of dialogue, but there were times I longed for it. This is a quietly restless novel, you absolutely feel the anguish of her rape without anyone needing to shout. Sometimes retreat is louder, and staggeringly heartbreaking. The art as healing as release and the surroundings as a balm, all of it feels true. I enjoyed The Bobcat, was saddened, hopeful and always engaged. A unique debut.

Publication Date: June 5, 2019

Skyhorse Publishing

Arcade Publishing

If, Then: A Novel by Kate Hope Day

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Ginny closes her eyes. She doesn’t want her life to continue just as it is. Her life can’t stay the same, because she’s not the same. She’s full of wanting when she wasn’t before.

Visions of a parallel reality plays with the lives of four characters in Clearing, Oregon. When a surgeon named Ginny closes her eyes to check if her brain is the problem, Edith’s soft breathing enters her and doesn’t leave. Ginny’s husband Mark believes animal behavior is key to predicting natural disaster, of course his research of frogs on Broken Mountain isn’t impressing any of his colleagues, funding isn’t easy to come by, certainly not for junk science, there just isn’t enough data. He feels defeated. Soon his own visions are horrifying, serving as a warning he believes in, an obsession consumes him to protect his son and wife, to ‘shelter’ them from the future that is coming for them all. Their marriage is strained, if Mark feels like a failure in his field, than Ginny feels like a failure as a mother, consumed herself by her career.

Samara keeps seeing her deceased mother, maybe it’s grief? Why can’t she figure out what she wants to tell her? She is furious with Ginny, blames her for what happened to her mother, who was under her care. Her father is moving on and handling her death a little too well. It’s time for him to explain things. Samara can’t let go, she wants so badly to hold on to the past, physically and emotionally. Cass is a scholar, a ‘philosopher’ but then came her baby Leah, and her life as a graduate student came to a standstill. She is a loving mother, yes, but a part of her also still belongs in the world of academia. Can she ever go back, juggling motherhood, can she ever fulfill the expectations of her advisor Robbie who tells her she has so much promise? Why does she keep seeing herself pregnant again, is motherhood always going to be the obstacle keeping her from her dreams?

What will happen? “That’s the rub, isn’t it. The not knowing.” What if the visions are clues, or warnings and not just imagination or hallucinations caused by medical problems, like Ginny thinks? Choices are so often blindly made in life, that’s the gamble we all confront, even loaded with the best of advice or intuition, we can still take the wrong step but what if visions could guide us? That may well be what’s happening in If, Then. An interesting exploration on relationships and the choices that can make or break us. There are people who believe in us more than we do ourselves (as with Cass), and there are those nearest and dearest who think we are losing our grip on reality when we are true to our ‘visions’ or intuitions (Mark and Ginny). It also about the desires that tug, urging us to change and the secrets we keep from ourselves and each other.

Publication Date: March 12, 2019

Random House

Time for Bed, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez, Seng Soun Ratanavanh (Illustrations)

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“Miyuki, it’s time for bed.”

“But, Grandfather, I must water my vegetables.” “All right,

Miyuki,” Grandfather sighed.

“Water your vegetables, and then it’s time for bed.”

Miyuki may well be creating a Canopy for the Queen but she is the Queen of Stalling. This beautifully illustrated children’s bedtime book is a French import with Japanese culture as its theme. Having lived in Japan, it’s imagery is a reminder of the years my family and I spent there. Miyuki is one of my favorite names too. There is such a gentle tenderness, a patience in her grandfather and this illustration in particular moves me.

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(Image copyright Seng Soun Ratanavanh, 2018, text copyright Roxane Marie Galliez, 2018. Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.)

My daughter used to stuff her little feet into shoes just like the one that becomes Miyuki’s bed in the above photo, long after she outgrew her favorite pair. The mushroom, the details in all of the illustrations are perfection. I miss fun, sweet illustrated children’s books.

Like most children when it’s time to wind down, Miyuki’s imagination is running wild, her energy is contagious and lucky for her, Grandfather is more than willing to go along on her journey, accomplishing her many tasks. His soft sighs are the only tell that he is worn out. It really isn’t time for bed, no way, not yet.

The carp streamers (windsocks) known as Koinobori, that she sits upon in one of the illustrations dominate the towns during Children’s Day in May. I remember the beautiful colors the first time we saw them, isn’t it lovely, a day to celebrate children? This book is a nod to nature and it’s elements too. Lily pads, dragonflies, frogs, snails for travel, tiny birds, ants hard at work… its perfect imagery for a little one’s mind before entering dreamland. Growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s children’s books had the best illustrations, I am so happy to see such artistry dedicated to the young today.

I am going to find a copy in French too for my grown children, it’s very sweet!

Out today!

Princeton Architectural Press

Our Homesick Songs: A Novel by Emma Hooper

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Sometimes mermaids save people, said Molly.

Sometimes they don’t, said Martha.

The Connor Family cling like barnacles to their dying fishing town, Big Running. The fish have vanished, and Eleven year old Finn wants to solve the great mystery and maybe save them all. His sister Cora, through her fantasies with decorating empty houses and longing for far away places longs for travel, wants to leave like many others have. Locals cannot make a living when there aren’t any fish to catch, and there is the looming threat to close up the town. Aidan and Martha have no choice but to earn money to stay afloat by working at an energy site, alternating one month up north one at home so that one parent is always with the children. It takes a toll on their marriage, and family.

The story drifts back and forth between Aidan and Martha’s early years, when they first met (1970s) and their present day (1990s). Every night young Martha was drawn to the shore, and the singing that had to be coming from a mermaid. The Murphy girls had lost both parents to the sea, and were on their own with the oldest only 19. It is the singing that brings her love. Through the years the sisters drift off, through marriage, illness but always the love for sisters must come before any boy! Aidan knows loss as much as all the others in the village, knows he can’t leave because his mother needs him and then it’s Martha who anchors him.

They want to stay, to hold fast to the traditions of their village, to the only home they’ve ever known and fight to keep hope alive for the few who remain. The children have plans of their own and when Cora takes flight, running away there is no explanation. But it’s evident the town is too stagnant, that she is restless, all she wants is another life, to see the world, to escape this dying place. Finn finds comfort in Mrs. Callaghan, all her stories, a strange friend for a young boy, but there are no children left. So he spends his time learning the accordion with her. People aren’t the only thing that can die, the very world they’ve known is passing away and they do not want to let go. Infidelity comes between Martha and Aidan but when their girl goes missing, it may well be the only thing to keep them together.

I had a difficult time with her writing style, and the story moves slowly. The back and forth through past and present flowed perfectly, but the conversations were sometimes too stiff for me. It is a quiet novel and has its sweet moments. Most people likely prefer Cora and Finn but I would have loved to just remain in the past and have a full story about the Murphy girls. A lovely, though sometimes slow, story about how time and the environment can change so many lives. The struggle of a dying fishing village and it’s people, their folk songs and stories. Hope and sorrow as it swims through generations. Do we stay or do we move on?

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Simon & Schuster