When We Were Birds: A Novel by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

But even in a dusty time, sometimes a man does catch some luck.

This novel truly is wild, full of wandering spirits, and while I opened the pages not knowing much about Trinidad and Tobago, I felt like I was transported to the Caribbean . Reading Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s acknowledgements to her ancestors, I imagine they were the seeds to the creation of this story. There is power for many of us in the past, our cultures, in the lives of those who came before us. With that said, this is not my usual read but I wanted something different, magical and she delivered.

No longer enslaved like their ancestors before them, living in their home Morne Marie, the women of  St. Bernards are there to help guide the spirits of the dead; which feels like another form of slavery at times. Yejide St Bernard’s mother is dying, and so it passes that she must wear the mantle and speak to the dead in her mother’s place, whether she wants to or not. We learn early in the novel that Petronella wasn’t so thrilled with the demands either. There are issues between Yejide and her mother Petronella, leaving Yejide even jealous of her aunt. It has left a lot of mystery about the demands of her future. It also begs the question, must we fall in line with what family expects, forever and ever, full circle?

Emmanuel Darwin needs work, to make money for his mother Janaya, whose health is failing, but that he has found labor at the cemetery (Fidelis) is something his mother cannot abide! Her son cannot work as a gravedigger, Port Angeles is a city of the dead and “Rasta don’t deal with the dead.” Fatherless, he has no one to guide him, but a man must make his way, even if it means living in the same city his father left them for. How much of that nugget of the past does he truly know? This all is a test, and he must succeed. Surely his mother will forgive him, still loves him? He has to go against the beliefs of her Rastafarian religion, there is nothing for him if he stays with her. Janaya and Darwin have always been separate. Never was he able to be a normal child, going to the cinema or concerts- not with his mother’s faith. Instead, he dealt with insults until he learned to defend himself, and his mother. No man is an island, but he and his mother always were. With Janaya’s work as a seamstress, she was able to provide for her boy, keep him clean of heart and safe. That was before her hands became painful and useless, no matter what, she doesn’t want him mixed up in those people- she did not bring him this far to see him soiled now. But he needs a life of his own, even if it means all sorts of trouble will befall him. He gives up his identity as a Rastaman first by shaving his dreads off. He will be a different man now, he must. Will proving himself cost his life, his soul? He is about to tangle with ‘those people’ in a big way, for no one is closer to the dead than Yejide.

Yejide feels no bond with her mother, all her life ‘snatching glimpses’, but never feeling a part of Petronella. Maybe with her death, Petronella will take the fate of her line with her, and leave Yejide free of the dead. It won’t be that easy. Soon, she is suffering through her own transformation, her mother like her granny Catherine before, is calling for her as she dies. Yejide feels like there is no living in their home, just worrying about the dead all the time. Her mother certainly didn’t want this ‘fate’ either, and taught her nothing. But now visions take over, and when her dead mother talks, she would be wise to listen. I enjoyed Petronella’s bite, coming from the afterlife. While Yejide has all things supernatural to contend with, Emmanuel Darwin has the dark hearts of man to fight.

It’s not the dead Darwin needs to fear, despite his mother’s warnings. He works under a man named Errol, who gives him a hard time from the get go and may truly be caught up in dangerous dealings. Errol who needs to decide just how he can use Darwin. Fidelis is a place covered by shadow, shadows of bad men, bad ‘living’ men. Cemeteries aren’t always places of rest. He is beginning to notice strange things leaving him unsettled. One night he sees Yejide and isn’t sure what she is (a spirit maybe), only that, when they meet again and he learns her name, it is like a prayer on his tongue. The two are tied, it is a love story but one of inheritance and fate. It is about how we take up our destiny and discard what is no longer serving us. It is the story about the bones in our line, what we owe the dead, and what is owed the living. It is a tale of the terrible things people do to make a living. There are rich characters and the dialect creates a more believable atmosphere. It is a strange read, yet it has gravity with the characters facing real hardships of reality, especially for a tale about otherworldly visions. If you enjoy magical realism, this is just for you.

Publication Date: March 15, 2022

Doubleday Books

The Cicada Tree: A Novel by Robert Gwaltney

It was the cicada’s singing I remember the best- their courting song. It was this frenetic beckoning for the affection of another that stirred the humid air to reckless speeds that summer, the summer I turned eleven.

The Cicada Tree is a supernatural, southern gothic crawling with cicadas and dark happenings in Providence, Georgia. It is 1956, Analeise Newell crowns her dear friend Etta Mae with the shells of cicadas in a plait atop her head, naming her the Locust Queen. If Etta Mae is the Queen of anything it is singing, for anyone that hears her beautiful voice can feel its magic. Analeise admits to herself, singing may be the one thing Etta Mae loves more than her. Music is a gift they share, for Analeise can play the piano, may well be a prodigy. Inseparable, with mothers who became friends while working for the wealthy Mayfield family at their pickle company, they are more like sisters, even if their skin color is different. Analeise knows her friend’s angelic singing is meant to reach Etta’s mother, no longer of this earth. It makes her terribly sad for her but it doesn’t stop her from envying Etta’s talent. Is it strange, then, that Analeise can taste sorrow in music? She is no stranger to being down, with a drunk for a father, one who raises hell.

Analeise accompanies her mother to the Mayfield’s plantation “Mistletoe”, far bigger than even her best friend Jane’s fancy home. It is here that she overhears the gatekeeper telling her mother that the ole’ locusts have come back, and with secrets, ones buried deep in the ground. It’s not the first mysterious thing she will hear. “Mind you secrets”, he calls after them. Her mother works Saturdays, thanks to her useless father, and there is no chance she can play with Marlissa, the Mayfield’s precious little girl. Wealthy girls don’t play with little girls who live in small houses like Analeise- just like white girls can’t go to the colored church to hear their friend sing. If only she could envision, understand things as clearly as her gifted mother but that particular talent hasn’t been passed down to her. Left to her own devices, told to stay in one spot while her mother checks on the maid Mercy, Analeise gets lost in her exploring and has yet another strange encounter. This one with the woman of the house, Mrs. Cordelia Mayfield, a stunning beauty. It’s not kindness she has for her, it is a hard slap and it feels like a spell, what happens between them in a brief moment. There is something intoxicating about Cordelia.

She has done wrong, gotten her mamma in trouble, who is told not to bring her to their house again. Analeise is suprised, knowing that Cordelia felt a strange connection flowing between them. She is enchanted by the Mayfields and full of a song she hears at Mistletoe and a name. A name that is branded in her soul. Something else is rising inside of her, hard and mean. Just what is coming over Analeise? Miss Wessie (Etta Mae’s Grandmother) does her best to keep her sharp eye on the girls and she refuses them answers to sate their curiosity about the Mayfields. They find their chances to slip away, to get up to no good, like Analeise sipping her daddy’s whiskey. It burns, everything is burning in her, nothing more than her desire for all things Mayfield.

Everything rushes at Analeise after the encounter with the Mayfileds, trouble between her parents, violence, death, a worsening mean streak, tasting music, and jealousy. Events make her a liar, and possibly worse. Things don’t improve the first day of school, where all the girls at school fuss over Marlissa. Analeise envies the pretty things, not even tales of personal tragedies can stop her nature, which seems to be turning wicked or is it the influence of someone, or something else? She is even turning away from sweet Etta Mae. She doesn’t understand anything that is happening.

The Mayfields aren’t so sweet, every character is flawed and Analeise is troubled by insecurities, guilt haunts her too. Jealousy is a common emotion for many children, coming of age, realizing the balance between the haves, the have nots and where they stand. She is ripe pickings for the madness of others. Even pretty little Marlissa is manipulative and not without the Mayfield charm. Charm is dangerous, so are secrets.

The Cicada Tree is a dark tale, burning everyone with secrets born of the Mayfield family. Analeise has become entangled in a tale of torment, but will she survive it while pulling everyone into the fire? It is an engaging, twisted tale with a dramatic southern flare. Yes, read it!

Publication date: February 22, 2022

Moonshine Cove Publishing

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century: Stories by Kim Fu

The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked around the edges.

Kim Fu’s collection of stories takes turns of freakish oddity and yet is often an emotional touch. Tales of ordinary people dealing with abnormal situations, one in particular involving a bug infestation (which made my skin crawl) not as unlikely as we imagine. Moments that make people question things that are happening, all their peculiar patterns. Tales of loss and the intense grief that follows, memories and moments you can’t get back. Accidents, denial. The telling isn’t overly fantastical magical realism, but just on the edge of eerie, believable.

In the first tale the character wants to be with their deceased mother in a simulation, hungering for a small ordinary encounter, only to be disappointed by limitations. In the second, Liddy First To Fly, girls who are growing apart bond with the secret of their friend’s winged legs. Is she meant to fly away or can she be normal again? A woman chases “nourishing” sleep in Sandman, welcoming a monster to fill every hollow within. Twenty Hours is brutal, as a married couple adds excitement to their life with a special printer. It’s also a macabre play on how we hurt those we love and ourselves. How with each transgression we get closer to the ugliest side of ourselves. There was a catch in my throat when Connie, the wife, wakes up in the printer tray and her spouse thinks about the questions she isn’t asking. Despite the brutal endings they put each other through, again and again, there is tenderness. It also is about the great void that still exists between partners, places within’ the other we can never go. Our desire to return to one another at war with our need to be separate. It’s my favorite story. The Doll is creepy, yet it begins as a sad tragedy, one of those ‘thank god it didn’t happen to us, but it could have’ that neighbors are left to stew over. The neighborhood children are forced to confront the mean whims of fate and yet there is something exciting too about the house, daring each other to enter it, being scared. But can a doll be haunted? There is a touch of erotica in Scissors (an apt title), as women take to the stage for a show in a cabaret style theater. Dominance and surrender, the thrill of not knowing what will happen, the electric threat of danger, the ‘flinch’ of the audience. A question of trust.

Every tale is original, a reluctant bride and a sea monster, the loss of taste and how one woman finds a way to experience the sensation bodily… more than anything the tales are about how people cope after their lives have been upended by strange twists and turns. Loneliness, longing, grief, fear, love- quite an interesting collection.

Publication Date: February 1, 2022

Tin House

The Book Of Magic: A Novel by Alice Hoffman

You didn’t choose magic, it chose you; it bloomed inside you, blood and bones. And a curse, once spoken, could not be denied.

All good things must come to an end. In Alice Hoffman’s, The Book of Magic, fans say goodbye to the Owens family but it isn’t a smooth ride. There will be returns, departures, quests, love, danger, and dark arts. Together they journey to France and England where Maria Owens set off a chain of events in her descendants futures. Time is not a straight line here. The Owens are all confronting the past to break the family curse that has broken hearts and cost lives for hundreds of years. Will they ever be able to embrace hope? How much love can one family lose?

The deathwatch beetle has ‘begun to call’ within the walls of the Owens Library and it has come for Aunt Jet. It illuminates everything that passes before her eyes, knowing it will all be over soon. Everything she loves is loaded now with far more meaning. Jet has one chance to change her family’s destiny. So many lives ruined, it has to stop somewhere, even if danger awaits, even if it damns or asks for sacrifice. What is the point of magic if you can’t protect your own? It will be so hard for Franny, to be without her beloved sister. How will she move forward? Sally’s girls have been kept in the dark about their magical inheritance (for their own good), not quite understanding the women’s strange traditions… so much of it seems like nonsense. Long ago, Antonia accepted they are the odd family in town. Neither she nor her sister Kylie understand they are cursed in love. They will soon. The truth, no matter how ugly, cannot remain buried forever. There is great risk in not knowing the threats. Ignorance shields them from nothing, nor will their careers or relationships. You can’t outsmart this curse.

Vincent Owens (the aunts brother) had disappeared long ago, taking his charm and talent with him. Now, in France, he too has lost love and has a strange dream of Jet- calling him back. It is time for him to return to his family, they will need his strength. A letter is discovered, all about Maria Owens, their ancestor, and the curse. Then things become a nightmare for Kylie and she will do anything to change fate, even if it takes her on a crooked path, straight into the arms of evil. A life is on the line, they cannot allow the curse to take another man. The family must pull together and understand the darkness if they ever hope the see the light again. Will it be conjurations and charms, the sight, stories, or a book of ancient magic that saves them? How many monsters will they face? Can anyone be trusted, especially the tattooed man? Why do people go missing in one English town? What makes a person embrace evil deeds?

Could it be something within themselves they’ve yet to discover that will save them all? Is it words? Herbs? Spells? Or will they remain ‘afflicted with sorrow’ they can’t shake? Has the answer always been within their hands?

The books connect with this final novel. There is death but a rebirth of sorts too. Naturally something must be given up, no one can have it all. Part of being alive is losing those we love, the same is true of characters in the books we read. I feel like this is a bit darker than the prior Owens stories, but a decent conclusion. Aw, what to do waiting for her next novel? Perfect for any Hoffman fan.

Publication Date: October 12, 2021

Simon & Schuster

Big Bad: Stories by Whitney Collins

They’re like worms on a summer sidewalk, child. They don’t stand a chance in the heat of this world.

I have a new favorite author and whether Whitney Collins writes another short story collection or a full novel, I’m first in line to buy it. The attitudes, thoughts, and emotional states of the characters rush at you with full force from the very first story. In The Nest, Frankie is confronted with the cruelty of life when she is introduced to her newborn brothers at the hospital. It is when her father leaves her with his blind mother at the nursing home that she discovers how refreshing adult honesty can be. About to turn seven, she’s thinking about sins, and the impossibility of keeping herself out of hell. Family relationships are strained and all the adults appear to be broken. Frankie knows some people just don’t stand a chance.

Sunday– Paul Lemon tells the story of he how lost his son, his arms and why he married Pauline, ‘a marathon mouth’. Big Bad-Helen gives birth to different versions of herself- too thin, too quiet, always busy, tough, weak, young, middle aged, and so old people question the soundness of her mind. Helen who tries to please, Helen who has had enough of the world, all the Helen’s on their way to something else. Drawers– Lawrence is a widower lost without his wife Anne, haunted by the horrible things in the world. Now that Anne is no longer alive, a glimpse of who he was before another death changed him, is trying to remind him. His life, in her care, has always been orderly but now as he travels to attend his grandson’s circumcision he hits a horse on the road. He can’t control his endless, wretched thoughts.

In The Entertainer, Rachel accompanies two spoiled girls and their family to the beach for two weeks. Her mother sees this as a window into a lucky life, a chance to make the right acquaintances. It’s the perfect life study on how the better half behaves, a chance to try a different life on for size and learn how to mold herself in their form. Rachel forgets who she is meant to be, and learns it’s all about doing ‘whatever it takes’. Daddy-O is impossible to tie down, coming and going with the seasons. Mabel’s mother is irritated that her ex-husband is always so “inexcusably happy” while Mabel wishes for a far more reserved father. Now that she’s in her sophomore year of high school he is just embarrassing but does he have something worth teaching her?

The Pupil– Mikey is a fatherless boy since his dad’s death, but his Uncle Drake has come to be the male influence in his life that his mother thinks he needs. To Mikey’s way of thinking, all his mother’s brother does is plop his butt down on his dead father’s recliner and simmer with anger. He wants to make him tough, see that he ‘grows a pair’. Maybe this isn’t the sort of manhood he wants to learn but what does a fake eye have to do with anything? Stone Fruit introduces readers to Marta and Dean at a couple’s retreat, Marta’s mind on his cold, stony love and wondering if she’ll ever locate his warmth. Three Couches– Spencer craves emptiness as his lover when he decides to leave his family. Who needs the never-ending circus family creates?

Lonelyhearts– Lenora houses a collection of hearts, twitchy and veined, attending to them with tenderness, while her own is ‘muscular with longing’. Then she meets Ready. Good Guys– Leonard has come from Illinois to live at the cooperative dorm at his college and soon becomes an easy target for Teddy to tease. Before long, his unique hobby makes him interesting, rather than just someone to break. But how much of a good guy is Teddy capable of being, uncomfortable in the warm glow of Leonard’s friendship? The Horse Lamp– Jarrod is on a call to fix a satellite, but the customer is a girl who seems both brave and dumb, and doesn’t actually have a satellite. What, then, is she about to propose he do for her? Last is Bjorn, a story about a girl named Bianca and a cyst on her forehead that becomes her mother’s obsession and later, a story that grows and grows. How can she resist poking and prodding her mother’s fears?

I love this collection and all the characters that populate it. It’s filled with people who are sometimes mean and rotten without reason they can find, clever and brave, or bursting to escape their life. There is darkness in the corners of some minds, even when they try their best to be better. Some are calamities while others cause them. There is also a little bit of magical realism within. The writing was great and the subjects fascinating though they mostly live in ordinary worlds. Worms on a summer sidewalk… what a line! Can’t wait for the next book!

Publication Date: March 16, 2021

Sarabande Books

The Memory Collectors: A Novel by Kim Neville

Her head is a snow globe, a blizzard of glitter, a thousand tiny plastic flakes reflecting too many colors for her mind to track.

The Memory Collectors is a novel about two women both haunted by objects. Ev has a peculiar gift, the ability to feel emotions people have left on objects. This makes the world a loud, painful place to live, one full of energies that overwhelm her. Digging through garbage to find things she can sell, she always reach for objects that don’t radiate too much of a sour feeling. Stuff she can clean up and sell at Vancouver’s Chinatown  Night Market without weighing the guilt about the energy she is passing over to the buyer. It’s enough to maintain her life, even if it effects her health being around the bad stains. Unlike Ev, Harriet is the keeper (hoarder) who feels threatened by her neighbors trying to remove her treasures. A woman who despises the vacancy of new objects and finds it unbearable to part with her bright, shining treasures. It wouldn’t be so terrible if her stuff wasn’t spilling out of her apartment into her neighbors lives. People are sickened by the clutter, her mountains of junk. To them, Harriet is a crazy old woman to be well rid of, if only they could have her evicted. By chance, Harriet and Ev’s paths cross, and so begins the tale.

Harriet feels stunned when she first becomes aware of Evelyn “Ev” , a girl who shares her gift, a fantastic, unexpected find indeed! Ev rushes off, before the two can speak, terrified of the feelings she picks up from the woman, a stain hoarder. She panics, reminded of another person who was as obsessed with objects and their energies as much as the old hag. She knows too well how such obsessions can ruin lives, but what is most frightening is that she knows the hag will seek her out. What Harriet feels is a gift, Ev has always felt as a curse, a sickness she if forced to bear! Only one person could help her when the energies infiltrated every cell of her being, her sister Noemi. Noemi is the only living person who knows her secret, that objects speak to her in a special way but Noemi is no longer speaking to Ev.

Harriet has a delicious idea, a solution to all her problems. She will create a “museum of memory” and who better to help her than Ev. She envisions her beloved collection safely sorted out, the harmful from the positive, becoming a safe space that can heal people who are suffering. She just has to convince Ev that she isn’t dangerous, and with their combined power the two can learn how to control the phenomenal gift they share. But the man who spiraled down a dark path still haunts Ev to her core. What good could possibly come of this magic? Her very existence, her memories of what happened to the man who had their ‘curse’ is evidence that nothing good comes of collecting. Her family was left in ruins and what little living she has accustomed herself to, what small security she has, may be the price she will have to pay. Wouldn’t destroying the objects be better? Harriet believes together they can conquer every threat, use their strengths to help others and maybe even themselves in the process. The past isn’t ready to lie dead, and darkness must be confronted. Evelyn isn’t the only one who has to learn to navigate her own feelings, Harriet too has lived so long with the stains (emotions) left behind on objects that she has neglected the state of her own. It is a story about the encroaching darkness of the past and how we have to learn to differentiate between what to hold unto and what to let go. It is an interesting, magical realism novel, although it is general fiction it certainly crosses into magical realism. I am picky about the genre, as I have read fantastic authors, but this story engaged me enough to keep reading. I particularly enjoyed the story between Ev and Noemi, everything that happened to their family.

Publication Date: March 16, 2021

Atria Books

Magic Lessons: The Prequel to Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

She already knew that the past was over and done. She would never again watch another woman burn.

This is where it all began, the source of the centuries-old curse that has relentlessly chased the Owens’s bloodline. Accused of witch craft in Salem, Massachusetts, it is now Maria Owen’s turn to have her story told. It begins in abandonment and discovery in the 1600’s England. When Maria, a beautiful baby (or changeling, that must be a consideration) is found by Hannah Owens, a woman who “lived apart from the delusions and bad intentions of men, as deep in the forest as possible, in a small cottage hidden by vines”, she makes the choice to take her in. Hannah understands the woods as no other, from birth to death and every transformation in between. It is this witch’s imparted knowledge that Maria grows up learning, the true magic of healing the sick, ridding the body of diseases, parasites, invoking spells for love, protection, herb and root knowledge… As she comes of age, so too do the written spells that are passed down through generations but first, trials of the times and the mysteries of her origins must be endured, and uncovered. She will watch a whole life go up in smoke and study under the mysterious Rebecca. The nagging question, ‘what is love’ haunts her, until she learns how many will die for it. She won’t escape its clutches anymore than the women before her, nor it’s cruelty, trickery and lies. But first she will find herself on a Dutch Island, full of lush beauty and contradictions. The world is far bigger than she ever envisioned, and there are people waiting to take advantage of her youth, those who teach her there is no such thing as freedom, that in their own way those without means are nothing more than indentured servants. Once told, “never be without a thread”, who could imagine there are invisible ones too that tie people together. In Curacao, Maria awakens to desire and learns that “anyone can fall in love, despite vows to the contrary.” It will be a brutal lesson, and the driving force behind her journey to the Americas.

Fleeing the Dutch island in search of the man that has ignited her passion, a love that no spell can make her forget, she can’t envision what tangled truths await her, on the other side of the world. As a passenger on a ship bearing more than pain, she uses her skills to treat the ill fated, gifts that are the one strength she can bargain with. Again, the threads of fate are binding her to others. Once she steps foot in America, it’s not so easy to find him, but when she does he isn’t the same free spirit she shared every part of herself with, she sees how deeply his betrayal cuts when he turns his back on what has been created between them. What follows incurs her wrath and a curse, a catalyst that turns others to the dark arts.

Maria grows up fast and it’s a bitter lesson. This story is much weightier than Hoffman’s previous tales about the Owens family. Spells, teas, love, hatred, healing, wounding, cursing, deception, and everything flush with fire- the deepest love may well be between mother and child. With every step taken, there are dangers and every choice has its consequences. Be careful what you wish for… Remember, “What burns is best left to cinders. Be wise and stay away.” If only she could.

I am always over the moon, even if there is blood on it and no Tiger’s eye to be found, when Hoffman releases a book about the Owens. It has more spells, history and culture to set the atmosphere of the early times and the ignorance against anything that presents as different, anyone who challenges one’s own beliefs. People that seem to struggle with two sides of themselves (and those Owens women are no different, they too must struggle with their blinding emotions), as well as wrongs done to others in the name of pleasing society’s expectations is also a strong theme here. The reader needs to take time with this book, it’s not a fast read. I think lovers of historical fiction could well jump on board this ship, the “Witch” subject, though there is magical realism, has it’s feet planted more in early healers, folk medicine, which is a true history. Fans, like me, will greatly enjoy the origin story!

Publication Date: October 6, 2020

Simon & Schuster

The Quantum Theory of Love and Madness: Stories by Jerry Levy

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“In these grossly materialistic times, people are dying for some spiritual guidance. They want to nourish their souls. There’s a whole lost generation looking for itself.”

The stories in this collection from Canadian author Jerry Levy are engaging and at times bizarre. A welcome break in the routine of days, these tales are sometimes silly and other times make you uncomfortable just like my favorite, Butterfly Dreams. A lesson in letting go or holding tight, a man named Ashton makes himself at home in his ex-girlfriend Evie’s apartment when she isn’t there. Oh he is devious, creeping like a ghost, disturbing things just enough that an observant mind would notice. He’s the most clever spider building his web, until there is a snarl.

Starchild is about a one-of-a-kind sort of boy, a ‘lyric savant’. Why can’t songs stand in for normal conversation? Aren’t there enough songs to apply to every situation? He is a very special kid, but what happens to children who have to grow up and enter the real world that demands conformity? Maybe he is more than special, maybe he could look skyward?

Grotesque makes you think what is the most grotesque, a creature or a human. Sadly, sometimes it’s humans who are truly the wild animals. There is a hint of magical realism and the supernatural here.

There are chance encounters that fizzle out, a 6ft 2 man who lives above the ground on a high wire, trips that force a man out of his comfort zone, children who become orphans until one becomes a fire lover, what ifs, terrible poetry, and writers block. It is a unique collection that can be read in a short duration of time. Not all stood out for me, but those that did are memorable.

Publication Date: April 1, 2020

Guernica Editions

Conjure Women: A Novel by Afia Atakora

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More profit to be made in curses than in her work mixing healing tinctures. More praise to be found in revenge than in birthing babies.

Slaverytime 1854 we meet Miss May Belle, a slave woman well known for crafting curses, because as she tells it, “Hoodoo is black folks currency.”  What other power is to be found than in such things? It’s another form of hope when drowning in desperation. In a time when other slavefolk were forced to work in  the fields, or on carpentering and cooking Miss May Belle has her hoodooing and healing (for various afflictions) as well as midwifery skills. She is the one the slavefolk turn to, and sometimes the white man as well; when what ails him is a shameful thing. Her own daughter Rue comes of age at her side, learning more than healing wounds, and birthing babies. She learns first hand about true love and passion watching her parents during her father’s brief visits and the abysmal pain and suffering of its loss. She also learns about the cost of freedom and ownership. Then she witnesses the consequences conjures take on a person’s body and soul. Through her mother’s gifts and skills she is able to weave in and out of the lives of their people as well as the home of their master and his family, prosperous landowner Marse Charles.

As a playmate to his spoiled daughter Varina, Rue has more freedom than afforded girls like her and is privy to a different life. Yet Rue learns her place well, always watching from afar the life that she knows divides them. When she forgets her place her mother is sure to do the reminding. Miss May Belle may be freer than most, but she still must abide by the unspoken rules of the white-man. The master’s child Varina loves to be wild and who better to be an “accomplice to witness her rebellion” than Rue. It always turns into punishments for her alone, for her mamma Miss May Belle has eyes and ears everywhere, and an uncanny way of knowing everything her girl gets up to. In order to keep her safe and under the care of Marse Charles she must teach her everything she knows, whether Rue wants to learn or not and that includes behaving properly, and colored little girls can’t run around fancy and free like Varina.

The story goes back and forth between slavery and freedomtime, Rue’s childhood and her turn at caring for the people her own mother gives up on after a horrific tragedy. Superstitions seem to guide the people, especially when a baby is born more like a pitiful creature, something that everyone feels is more like a curse than a bundle of joy. She has birthed every child in town since the end of slaverytime, more intimately involved in all their lives than anyone. But she knows firsthand how fast praise can turn to hatred, more so when a religious man comes to town. Everyone needs someone to blame their bad luck on, it’s so much easier than looking within. When the old ways no longer save you, maybe God can, but the bible doesn’t take with Hoodoo. Love itself can be as potent as a curse, as too can harboring secrets about the people in the town and Marse Charles’ family. Someone is always scheming, there is little comfort to be had. Gossip can cost anyone their standing, especially Rue. Running away can be dangerous but so can ‘digging in’, making a stand and fighting for your small place in the world. Rue will not run, even if Bruh Abel is set on her ruin. Even if the bible marks her as evil, fallen, in need of redemption. Maybe Bruh Abel isn’t so pure either?

Fear runs rampant among the people, curses aren’t enough, and every affliction can’t be cured. The woods are not always silent nor still, they too are haunted by memories, and possibly something else. Secrets seems to go there. So many decisions Rue is forced to make to protect others, so many wrong moves and yet nothing for herself. Will it ever change? Is she forever trapped in this life rooted in whispers, secrets, gossip, grief, curses, and conjures? What will the price of freedom be for Rue? Life is a heavy weight and what comfort can be found in her mother’s words? “Fix what you’ve done. Or live with it quiet.”

There are some things that one cannot live with and everything you have done will rise up. It’s an interesting historical fiction with a taste of magical realism, people help each other but also harm one another. Rue carries many burdens and tries hard to make things right. It’s written from the perspective of slavery, rather than ownership and it lends a far more authentic experience. This is a writer to watch! For those who are into cover love, how beautiful is the book cover? As I read it, I kept thinking someone will make this into a movie. Who knows? It’s a fantastic debut!

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Random House Publishing

 

 

 

Taína: A Novel by Ernesto Quiñonez

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By this time the air had gone flat in Taína’s life and it was her mother who answered all the questions.

Spanish Harlem, fifteen year old Taína and songbird of young Julio’s heart, is a virgin… a pregnant virgin! She tells everyone, “maybe some angel entered the project”, impregnating her. She has never been with a man, no way! Her mother Inelda (Sister Flores)  would never allow such a thing, and she tells the elders at her Kingdom Hall of Jehova’s witnesses as much, it’s not even possible because she is always present, she is the all seeing eye in her daughters life, besides God, of course. No way would they go to the hospital, subjecting Taína to such an intrusion (examination) to prove her virginity!  Instead, they resign themselves to a sort of imposed silence in public, “The two women were living in a universe of two, and it seemed that not even the crowds could disturb them.”  Julio wants the feeling Taína inspires with her singing, angelic in and of itself, able to make people weep, “so I could hear love.” How different Taína is in person, with her foul mouth and fury. What is the shame that happened? The shame people speak of that marks Inelda as a bad mother? Why is Taína’s beauty suspect, why do social workers come to their door, ignored like everyone else?

One thing is certain, Julio is going to sneak his way into Taína’s life, one way or another! He will keep visiting her door until he is let in to her home and heart. Let the residents of “Spanish Harlem” believe the worst, believe in some tragedy, he will chose instead to believe in Taína, even if he makes a fool of himself, it’s a tale worth believing. Who hasn’t been a fool for love, eh?

This passion will have Julio visiting a prison to question a dangerous criminal, teased mercilessly at school for being ‘crazy’ (and not just for believing in Taína’s angelic conception), wasting money on offerings for the forthcoming miracle baby, and getting caught up in crazy schemes for money, maybe even dealing in posh dogs. Sneaking out at night, after his parents fall asleep,  he meets El Vejigante who tells him “Many people don’t know me because old people are invisible”. This strange man wearing an old, fading satin cape may just be his ticket into Taína’s good graces. He is the once famous Capeman, keeper of the night, his name is Salvador but just who is he to Taína and how  he can help won’t be known until their next secret meeting.

Julio is a good boy, but good boys can do questionable things when they think it will help another. What if his mother takes him back to the psych ward, because of his visions which are tied into Taína, solidifying his belief in the miracle of her pregnancy? He tells the reader, he believes he is free to make choices and “but I would be held accountable for my choices”, still he would not turn away from her as the church has, even if his mother demands it. Even if he promises to stay away from her, his inner universe of belief won’t let him.

There is a challenge of loyalty, Inelda and Taína need the help of Peta Ponce, “she is known all over”, an espiritista (spiritualist) but it takes money to get her to come to them, money they do not have surviving off WIC checks and this… this is where Julio comes into play. Inelda isn’t the only woman of the project they live in to use Peta Ponce’s services, but that’s a whole other fork in the story. What sort of magic can this woman practice that leads Pureto Rican women to have more faith in her than in actual doctors? Sal knows, but he isn’t forthcoming with answers to all of Julio’s questions. One thing the reader knows is, Julio doesn’t know much about anything. Through the story, many secrets of his own mother’s past comes to light, as does Taína’s mysterious tale and if it makes him feel ‘paralyzed with happiness’ just to be in her presence rubbing her swollen pregnant feet, who are we to question it? It’s time for Julio to figure out his hustle, to be the man and savior she needs.

The novel veers off her and there, meandering through other characters origins and their pasts, like Peta Ponce, Salvador, Inelda, Julio’s mother and father. There is magical realism, poverty, multicultural flavors, coming of age as a misfit, the difficulties Puerto Ricans face, Julio’s visions, “Whom I saw was my mother. I saw her dreams, I saw my fathers dreams too. They were trampled and unfinished.” It’s a strange novel, Julio is both oblivious and hyper-aware and it leads to all sorts of confusions for the poor boy and his family, some run ins with the police. Even so, maybe be can be their salvation. Maybe we will get to the bottom of Taína’s miraculous pregnancy. Sometimes I lost the plot, but it’s a decent book, it just needed some containment, it runs off a bit with the telling and characters. A unique story, the cover is fantastic.

Out Today! September 3, 2019

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group