White Horses: A Novel by Alice Hoffman

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“During the summer when she was eleven, Teresa believed that the crickets who lived in the weeds that sprang through the sidewalk were trying to speak to her.”

With Alice Hoffman’s brand new prequel to Practical Magic coming out in October, titled The Rules Of Magic (I’m excited) I read Practical Magic again and hence, a few of her older books I keep on my shelf. I initially reviewed this novel back in 2012, it’s been years so I read it again before adding a review to my blog. What I think worked beautifully in this novel is the damage parents can do unwittingly just by speaking of their dreams, telling their stories. Dina’s belief in an Aria coming to take her away when she was young (an outlaw, dark eyes, quiet, that can ride horses even blindfolded to the woman they love and aren’t afraid of anything- warps her own daughter’s heart much in the same way Dina’s longing led her down a bad path. When King Connors came along, she was too young to know he wasn’t the man she conjured up in the image of an Aria. Heeding no one’s warnings, she fell in love with King, the wrong man in the wrong life. “Your father? That big shot couldn’t even stand a little hot weather. I wasted everything on him,” Dina said, dragging a stick over the earth in neat lines. “I was stupid. I was so young I couldn’t see straight.” Teresa’s brother Silver may be the closest thing to an Aria any of them will ever know. Women of all ages fall for Silver, he has the reckless, dangerous appeal that is the fall of many a young woman.
Dina is a shell of the beautiful girl she once was, ruined by the wrong man, Teresa’s father. When the investigator hired by Dina’s father years ago to find her discovers the old man is dead, his conscience drives him to track her down. This sets the family on a strange path, one of return to the past as Dina, with her children in tow, returns home to Santa Fe and the grandmother they never met. But before they depart, her parents fight after finding out about Dina’s father’s death, Teresa slips into sleeping fits, with no medical explanation. Teresa’s mysterious slumber, the scent of roses filling the air, her mother lighting candles surrounding her bed to ward off evil, is this family cursed? Naturally, that Dina’s estranged mother falls for her grandson Silver and cares little for Dina’s other two children, is no surprise. This Silver is a ‘special’ boy, but she sees too his true nature. Can hunger be passed down? For Teresa is hungry for passion and love and her heart is bent the wrong way. It’s not too late for Dina to find love and set aside her foolish, girlish dreams of Arias but is it too late for Teresa to save herself, to untangle herself from the foolish notions her mother has planted in her fertile young mind?
This is a complex story, so much damage and getting things right requires wiping the sleep from her eyes, shucking the family myths. Seems easy, right? Everything is easy to fix in the eyes of onlookers or readers. Just how do this unmentionable things happen in a family?

Understandably an awkward read for some but I don’t think the subject matter would have changed how I felt about the novel if the the Silver/Teresa relationship were approached differently. I have noted there are some people who have read this novel first and have not gone on to read other Hoffman novels, which is a shame because she has written wonderful fiction and they are only cheating themselves. Looking back, if you could read this novel and think about the nature of the relationships, how the mother and her own father’s ‘fantastical ‘ leanings altered the family line, it hits you differently. Naturally for many, reading about an incestuous relationship between brother and sister doesn’t sit well. But looking deeper into the story, it’s more about the mythology we create or are sold about those in our lives, particularly in our own family. If you set aside the forbidden desires, and focus on how we delude ourselves, it stands strong in how we sabotage our own happiness. I won’t summarize nor elaborate, but for those who have not read Hoffman, trust that not all of her novels touch on such a taboo subject. All of them have a touch of magic, that has been a huge draw for me, and her characters are flawed like all of us. For the rest of you die hard fans, mark the date October 10, 2017 when The Rules of Magic will be released.

Available Now
Open Road Integrated Media

The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

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…she has learned how shaky the recollections of children can be. And she was only six when it happened. The age when certain things get stuck in the net of real memory, and other things you try to sell yourself on having happened but are in fact made up, turned into convincing bits of a dream.

Dr. Lily Dominick is about to encounter a man who has committed a disturbingly strange crime. Psychotics are her specialty, but there is something arousing and fascinating about this man. He claims to be 200 years old, a real monster that was used as inspiration for Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker. This is the part of the novel I loved, what a clever idea! With this, he must be mad! Crazier still, he claims he is her father! As the lone survivor in a brutal murder that took her mother’s life, haunted by strange recollections of a creature coming to her rescue, she is haunted by the tangled mystery of what happened. Lily knows better than to fall into a patient’s fantasy, but there is something different about this man, what if he knows what happened to her mother? The more she learns, his threatening presence becomes more real, or is she just losing her mind?

From the first few pages, I was expecting a different sort of novel. Then Pyper changed direction and Lily became someone else. Or maybe Lily’s professional side is much like a coping mechanism, her way of keeping her world in order, trying to understand insanity by labeling it. But this nameless being is all the Gothic monsters combined and yet no one has been able to capture his true essence. Will Lily be able to understand him? What if he really is her father, what does that mean for her? He is blurring the lines used to diagnose the insane.

Not at all the twists I expected from the novel’s beginning, which is usually a good thing. Admittedly, there were times I would rather see Michael’s rotted evil soul in his actions, there should have been more incidents. But I think his ‘creation’ was fascinating, an original idea with a spit of history. It’s funny, I would have loved a full story of Mary Shelley and Michael’s short lived relationship, the things this author could do with that! In fact, that’s what I loved most- Michael’s history. Sometimes I felt Lily got in the way, and she is the main character! I thought I had her pegged as this level headed survivor and then she unravels and morphs into something strange and different herself. It works here, maybe there is a bit of her father in her after all? Or maybe it’s a delusion she is falling under. You won’t know until you read the story! It was good, the ‘horror’ didn’t hit me between the eyes but I’m impressed with how Pyper worked classic authors into this strange tale. I was given an advanced copy, and my review is based on that. The novel won’t be available until the summer but it’s one to add to your reading list!

Publication Date: June 16, 2017

Simon & Schuster

 

 

Based On A True Story by Delphine De Vigan

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“If you don’t grasp the little grain of madness in someone , you cannot love them. If you don’t grasp their point of craziness, you miss out. Someone’s point of craziness is their source of charm.”

I loved Delphine De Vigan’s memoir, Nothing Holds Back The Night, in fact sometime this week I will post a review, though I read it at the end of 2013. It begs to be reviewed and I highly recommend it. In this fictional, maybe real (we just don’t know for sure if it’s a half truth or all fabrication, in a sense, aren’t our memories fabrication as we only see them from our perspective) Delphine meets L.  L embodies everything Delphine wishes to be, the sort of woman that has a grace, refinement, ease in social settings, someone that is pulled together in every sense of the meaning.  “I’d long ago accepted that I was not one of those impeccable, irreproachable women I’d dreamed of being. I always had something that escaped or stuck out or collapsed.”  I can relate, maybe too well to that windblown look, that messy imperfection, a lived in being- that’s what so many of us are. Try as you like, that sophistication or artifice even isn’t easy for all of us to master. The speed at which they bond is almost frightening, and Delphine is soon allowing L far too much importance in her life. L is free to chip away at Delphine’s weaknesses and fears, pushing her to create, to search her guts for a more genuine messy story- after all, that’s what readers want, an emotional autopsy, right?  But who is L really? Why is she becoming necessary?

Delphine is crashing, her depression is making her question her own success with her Memoir, the above mentioned Nothing Holds Back The Night. Maybe her success is all phony, maybe she is suspect and every truth in her memoir was a farce. Isn’t there shame in so exposing others and oneself? Isn’t it a cruelty? So much success and now what? Writer’s block! She begins to rely far too much on L and her stimulating, raw insight but maybe L is far more insidious than Delphine realizes. Seduced by her friend’s strength, she gives over parts of herself that leave her nothing but an empty husk. Why does no one else seem to know who L is either? Why does Delphine keep L all to herself, not caring to share her with others?

Delphine, the readers ask, is L a madness, a slip, a truth, a lie? We just don’t know, do we? There are pages of self-reflection and a lot of deflection when reality stings, when life is brutal. Is L an ideal only? A phantom? A living breathing human? For whatever reason, in this fictional/real novel- she is vital to Delphine’s existence. The writing is gorgeous, the interactions intense but at times I wanted to move along, there were moments it dragged. However, L’s penetration into all of Delphine’s insecurities is terrifying. People are often saying how gorgeous it is to be seen, claiming they long to be known and truly understood- but do they? Do they really? We all need to keep some pounds of our own flesh on reserve for ourselves alone. There should be private thoughts, shames, memories that are not meant to be aired out. Just how much should we disarm ourselves for a friend, or even a lover? Here, I’ve split myself in two, come along now and take all the guts I spill, putrid and healthy alike. Delphine is giving too much over to L. Why is that? Why is she making L into a sort of God? An open heart is a beautiful thing in love or friendship, but you can never, should never hand yourself over entirely to another soul.

Delphine is throwing herself before a train, but why? Just what is going on? What is she trying to tell the reader? This is a sinister yet also dishonest novel. We don’t know who to trust, what to believe- much like life I suppose. How much is fiction, how much is memoir? Is there a difference? Which begs the question, how much of our memories become  fiction as we poke at them? I am torn because I really liked this but there were times it was exhausting reading it. Which is similar to what I imagine mental breakdowns feel like. But is she having a breakdown? It seems 2017 is the year of trickery in fiction and literature. If you enjoy being messed about- this is for you. It’s an original and at the end I was dizzy, very confused and yet still curious.

Publication Date: May 9, 2017

Bloomsbury USA

 

The Velveteen Daughter By Laurel Davis Huber

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“Just one look at her this morning and despair flew into my heart. She had the look I dread, her eyes over bright, shining with that queer mix of euphoria and terror. And she talked incessantly, a very bad sign.” 

The Velveteen Rabbit was a beautifully tender children’s story, and after reading this gorgeous novel about the author Margery Williams and her gifted daughter Pamela the children’s tale has come to mean much more. Being real hurts terribly. Laurel Davis Huber has taken the true story of mother and daughter and fictionalized it but with precision, following facts so much that she seems to be channeling the entire family. From the beginning pages I was already hooked and feeling heart sore.

Pamela is an unusual child, a wunderkind artist but her state of mind is a fragile one. The struggle her mother Margery has is one to keep her safe from the world, but this puts her at odds with her husband Francesco and his exciting plans for their daughter’s success. Margery knows her daughter’s talent could leave her vulnerable to the attention, her child’s delicate mind may not withstand it but Francesco cannot be stopped. Francesco’s wild aspirations will change their entire lives and one later wonders, had she kept her daughter’s talent hidden until she came of age would things have turned out differently? Pamela adores her father, as they are so very much alike and will do anything to please him. As with true artists, Pamela’s natural talent is a thing she is driven to do, not for attention, simply because it is like breathing for her. It’s not about the masses, it’s always been about the undivided attention her father gives her. With her mother, she can let her guard down and reveal her broken insides. As she says “Mam’s eyes are vast almond-shaped seas, liquid navy, flowing with an endless depth of understanding and compassion. When she listens to you, she takes you in and you can’t help it, you simply give yourself over to her…”  It is this very knowing that induces fear for her daughter.

Periods of melancholia consume Pamela as she comes of age and can no longer contain it. What pushes her more, the attentions of the world or her father’s driving force? Life takes a toxic turn, if her father’s obsession is sharing her talent with the world, then her own obsession isn’t for art but a man. When love enters in the form of family friend Diccon (a poet)  and becomes her infatuation, longings blossom  in her tender heart like a poisonous flower her family fails to see. It is an all consuming desire that begins at the age of 13, she feels Diccon (20 years old) is her destiny and her reality blurs. Back and forth Margery and Pamela spill their hearts to the reader, each coping with Pamela’s illness in different ways. A mother is always real, and with snippets of The Velveteen Rabbit weaving it’s way into the novel, my heart became a wound. Pamela knows there is something wrong with her, and she is beset by periods of deep affliction that require hospitalization and therapy. A mother is as close to God as children can get, but we are all too human and Margery, despite her wisdom and heart, isn’t any different than the rest of us. Each time her daughter breaks against the harshness of the world, Margery too loses heart.

Years pass, in a moment of compulsion Pamela makes a decision that ends with a child, Lorezno. She has her own secrets to keep from her boy, and the novel is written with flashes from past to present. The cloud of melancholia never leaves Pamela entirely, interfering with her art there are times when she cannot paint. She needs her mother to help raise her boy, but her son may well be the one blessing in life that keeps her anchored to the world. I am simplifying the novel, it is a gorgeous historical literary fiction that reads more like a memoir of both mother and daughter. We are privy to the constant invading thoughts in Pamela’s mind, her desires, her attempts at trying to soothe and calm herself and how she fails. Margery’s thoughts are the bleeding of a mother’s heart that readers feel as their own.

Today we are far more aware of the states of mental health, and I’d like to think more understanding, but times were different then. So much remains unknown still today, and back then mental illness was far less defined. One cannot dismiss the crippling effects, not just on the patient but on the parents too. Margery watches her daughter, for mothers are detectors of the slightest nuance in their child’s being. Those with children who have any sort of illness can relate to the knot that lives inside said mother. One can never be ‘at ease’, one is always waiting for the bottom to drop. It’s a constant state of fear for your child, and as Margery wrote in The Velveteen Rabbit, “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.” Margery hurts daily for her beloved, gifted, tormented daughter. Francesco is blinded as he only sees Pamela’s talent and his wild ambitions for her future, but Margery recognizes something that surfaces from the depths of her daughter’s being from early on. Francesco is a force that can’t be stopped, just as is Pamela’s illness, but without her father’s pushing her means of living may never have been reached. It’s cruel to be punishing to either parent, and later we learn Francesco and Pamela may be more alike than different. This constant watching never goes away in adulthood either, as mental stability is a fragile state. There are ups and downs, storms that pass and those that come to stay and incapacitate. There are no quick fixes, no miracle cures in real life.

Love in this family is a sour heart and a gift. What happens with Diccon is dangerous, but it’s the self-delusions that are most damaging to Pamela. Her mother’s staunch support and love is her salvation, as is Pamela’s son, Lorenzo.  What makes this particular historical fiction deeply touching is the love between mother and daughter, is there anything more pure? Laurel Davis Huber based the novel on more truth than fiction. There are no sad endings nor happy ones in life, we encounter both always. The Velveteen Rabbit is one of the most tender, beautiful children’s stories I have ever read but after knowing about the author and her daughter, I will never read it without this heaviness. If ever my heart overflowed with compassion, it is with this novel. We follow the family to the end of Margery and Francesco’s lives, and keep close to Pamela into her later years. What a beautiful, crushing story about a gifted and REAL mother and child!  Add this to your summer reading list!

Publication Date: July 11, 2017

She Writes Press

Meet Me In The In Between: A Memoir by Bella Pollen

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“I also had a passion. In my free time  I liked to torture dolls and stuffed animals. Run-of-the-mill stuff really- singeing their hair, twisting off their heads. My parents encouraged it.” 

When I first started reading I thought, oh- is this going to be a new age memoir? It’s not, keep going through her struggle with her night visitor, it all makes sense. I spent many nights when I should have been asleep laughing. I love her childhood and her eccentricities. She’s a child I would have loved to befriend and who can’t help but laugh when she admits to adults what she wants to be when she grows up? Living on two sides of the pond after her parent’s split, her world seems richer for it in experience. Her burning, fiery love affair with the smoldering Giacomo turns hilarious when his ‘titty squeezing’ daddy enters the scene. It’s either laugh, or cry! That these folks are actually real is just more solid proof that life is stranger than fiction. It’s as though she has entered the twilight zone but with the Godfather as the main attraction.

Escaping to the American West has to be the cure to what ails her, courting her past in solitude is just what she needs. But the locals she encounters are even wilder than anyone before them. Just how do you confront yourself, squelch your panics, lock out your sleep demons, channel your creative side, and be a good mother and wife at the same time? Maybe she becomes more vagabond than supermom, and it’s the raw honesty and hilarity of her journey that endears the reader to Pollen. I was tickled reading about her childhood and her adult years aren’t any less fascinating. Just how the heck does she find herself with smugglers in Mexico, surely she’s too delicate to journey into the country to learn about the perils migrants faced? Making editors and friends alike laugh, she does just that. The woman’s got grit, she does- but not so surprising when the reader remembers the earlier chapters of little blue-eyed girl walking to and from school, channeling Pam Grier in her beautiful Afro wig.

Her mother and father are interesting too, and there are losses and heartbreak but there seems to remain a ‘twinkle in the eye’ sort of humor that flows through her veins, and may well have come from her father. A beautifully written memoir about a woman who is just like any of us, trying to be a good wife and mother, struggling with her inborn hunger for periods of solitude, trying to be creative while filling her roles in life, winning and failing because she is human. Relationships are never happily ever after, we are all a work in progress, we can’t always keep up with each other or ourselves. Somehow, Pollen is able to use humor to keep the reader riveted, even when writing about the loss of her father. Wide eyed, wild, messy, honest and raw but never boring! Lovely.

Publication Date: June 6, 2017

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara

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“Everyone, perhaps, had these faint, staticky shadow selves following them around, like degraded clones. Yourself, but not yourself. Things you’d done, but couldn’t believe you’d done, would never acknowledge. Parts of yourself you couldn’t bear to own.”

It is summer in 1980s Toronto when Lily Takemitsu vanishes. Her daughter Rita is familar with her mother’s wanderings but never have her absences lasted this long. When she decides to find out what happened to her mother, as the police aren’t taking it seriously, she ends up excavating her family’s secrets from their time spent interned at a Camp in California during World War II. Her father is an unknown, a question mark that forever hovers over her life, a wide gap. Her mother never seems to tell things straight and certainly glosses over any memories of the internment camp. It isn’t long before Rita begins to understand why her mother wants to forget and how her mind has lasting damage.

The story follows Lily from past to present, at a tender age she falls stupidly in love as any 18 year old might. Normally the consequences aren’t as dire for the rest of us, we get burned in young love and move on. But blindly loving a ‘bad seed’ during dangerous times when your own country has imprisoned you can set a young woman on a path of destruction. Guilt is a rotten shadow to follow you the rest of your life. It touches Rita long after her mother has left the camp, poisoning her mother’s future. It’s hard to understand for those of us that have never lived through these experiences. It’s interesting to me that children today don’t even realize Japanese Americans were sent to camps, that they lost businesses, homes… it isn’t often something shouted from a mountaintop in the way other unconscionable events in history are. Much of that reason is Japanese culture itself, which I learned so much more about living in Okinawa for 3 years. They don’t spend much time complaining, it isn’t done in their culture, but don’t forget they were denied basic rights, rounded up and sent to live in military style barracks. Imagine that today, regardless of where you come from, you are an American citizen and you are taken from your community, your home, losing your successful businesses or careers all because you are the ethnicity that is now the enemy. Much of what I learned was outside of school, I remember this moment in history was glossed over during my early years. The paranoia remains, people still afraid to speak about reparations, because you never know when the tide will turn and again someone will be out to get you.

In After The Bloom, Rita starts to understand why her mother doesn’t seem to fully function. Full of shame from that time, actions taken in her fiery youth, her heart’s confusion she keeps so much of herself hidden. Denial has become her coping mechanism, but the gaps in her mind will out all the trauma of her past. That Lily’s new husband doesn’t really know Lily, or that she was once interned at a camp in the USA speaks volumes of her denial. She hasn’t been the best mother, but in closing herself off has been her way of existing sadly it has clouded Rita’s own mothering skills. War is a beast, not just for those fighting battles but for generations long after it’s end. For some it is a silence, a gaping hole in the family’s history. There is a zone  in families where no questions are asked, but much like a ghost there is a looming presence that pulsates with all things unsaid. Deep down, you know there is something huge missing but you don’t know what it is, it’s simply felt in the silence.

Rita  was in the dark ‘not knowing’ as much as her mother was in the dark full of knowledge. That Lily disconnected from her truth may well be the reason her memory is flawed. Don’t come into this novel expecting happily ever after where ‘EUREKA’ now everything is out and mommy is fixed. When Rita’s father becomes a person with each uncovering, what does it change for Rita? What does understanding finally mean for the absence in her life?  Lily’s life is heartbreaking, we can only understand such an existence on the periphery and it’s the same for her daughter. But I dare anyone to think they would make wiser decisions in Lily’s shoes. What I always try to do when reading novels of this sort is imagine myself at 18, in the same situation older now I realize it’s easy to speak from wisdom but at 18 with that dreamy naivete I imagine I’d be just a stupid with love, blinded and trusting in the wrong things.

Lily’s family is a dysfunctional mess before everything that comes to pass, and it is disturbing. This is a sad tale that is about more than just transgressions against Japanese Americans, it is also about how we wrong our families, and ourselves with consequences that can last for generations.

Publication Date: May 9, 2017

Dundurn

 

 

 

The Dark and Other Love Stories By Deborah Willis

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“We were hungry for feral time. That’s why we loved the dark.”

There is something feral about girls on the cusp of womanhood, what better place than camp to explore the dark things the world wants to protect them from. One friend always seems to be the one who pushes the limits more, the one who should end up as a face on a milk carton if what the grown ups warn is true. There is a pulsing hunger for danger and a paralyzing fear of it. The Dark is not so much in the young girls hunger and desires but in the world itself. Nothing happens, everything happens. Each story continues in this vein, people stepping out of ordinary acceptable behavior like in Optimus Prime when a father struggles with 12 steps and gives his son a Halloween night law abiding parents wouldn’t.  In my personal favorite The Arc, “I lived in fog, a beautiful fog like in paintings of winter. Memories passed by like clouds on the other side of a window” there is nothing beautiful about Leanna’s suffering, but the strangeness of the turns her life takes pulled me in. Love and hate are the same emotion sometimes, and both can be our salvation or damnation.The mind and body don’t always heal, sometimes you just live through the fog. I felt for Leanna as much as I feel for a character in a long novel. She is every woman who has placed her faith in the wrong person, because at some point in life- most of us do. Life drags her along confused, broken and trapped in an endless fog unable to answer “Why is God so mean sometimes?”

This is a dark and strange collection. Some moments are small, but life altering. I can’t wait to read more by Willis.

Publication Date: February 14, 2017

W.W. Norton & Company