Treeborne: A Novel by Caleb Johnson


What makes an Elberta so sweet, Lee Malone knew, is how long it’s allowed to trouble the tree.

Could that be true of Janie Treeborne too, being allowed to trouble her own land? This southern fiction debut begins with Janie Treeborne refusing to leave her family land, The Seven in Elberta, Alabama despite knowing that ‘the water is coming.’ The Hernando de Soto dam has ‘served it’s purpose for 80 years’, her grandfather having built it, her own father Ren an engineer but it is failing now, it must be imploded. But there is nothing that will make her leave, no sir. She has fought long and hard to maintain her hold, she would’t even trade her bad eye for a good one to leave this land that she is as much a part of as the trees. “…me and this place is just too tangled up.”

Janie tells her entire family history, and how her aunt Tammy came to be kidnapped, because everything had to be preserved. “Life ain’t easy Sister.” Janie grew up a wild thing, as wild as the land, drinking from the water tadpoles swam in. Growing up wanting nothing more than to be just like her old grandmother Maybelle, filling her ears with great stories about the land. Janie spends her time toting around dirt boy Crusoe, a creation of her eccentric junk artist Grandaddy Hugh, one that talks to her, to the Treeborne kin. A peculiar thing, this living dirt boy, or is the family crazy? Furious that her aunt Tammy and Uncle Wooten want to log trees to sell and to build a new home, even leveling her grandfather’s “assemblies” to make a foundation for the place, she refuses to allow them to destroy everything. Discovering her MawMaw May’s will leave Tammy The Seven feels like a manipulation. Tammy doesn’t love the place, she wants to sell, she wanted all her life to be a movie star.Janie knows it was MawMaw’s true intention to see the land split among the silblings and so she devises a wild mean plan of her own, to ‘take care of’ her aunt. She is desperate to save the land she is obsessed with. MawMaw’s death is the catalyst that causes the wild thing in Janie to grow.

Telling of the past while being interviewed by her grandson, she too shares the story of Hugh Treeborne’s Seven Hundred Acre Junk Garden, his peculiar creations that a ‘Yankee’ took interest in  and took advantage. We get to know many generations of Treebornes in the telling, all their longings and misdeeds. Lee Malone is as much a part of the Treebornes as Janie is, an African-American, the one who owned the Peach Pit bought for whatever money he had in his billfold, who later sells it to Janie, owning it all the same way he obtained it from the wealthy Mr. Prince. But Lee Malone is so much more than just the prior owner of the Peach Orchard, he and MawMaw had their own special relationship. When Tammy goes missing, somehow he is pulled into helping search, a funny thing considering all she has done to him. What happened to Maybelle, we at least understand more in the end, so many seemed to unravel with her tragic death. The stories are more about living with a family for a time, through the years and their antics in the wilds. Stubborn as hell our Janie is, even in her old bone days. Maybe the town has seen battles, but the Treebornes seem to battle each other and themselves more than anything. Hugh and Janie are eccentric characters, and the most fascinating but there were times I was lost in other characters stories taking me in too many directions.  It’s a lot to keep up with, however the language is perfection and the southern dialogue is never abandoned, certainly not an easy thing to write.

I am curious to read more from this author, who understands a south few others can write as genuinely about.

Available Now






Simon Van Booy Fans


Somehow I missed that Simon Van Booy has a forthcoming book, The Sadness Of Beautiful Things: Stories. He is one of my favorite short story writers, so I am excited to share this update. It will be published October 2, 2018 by Penguin Books, and if the Galley gods are kind, I’ll get an arc to review.

Via netgalley: From a family saved from ruin by a mysterious benefactor, to a downtrodden boxer who shows unexpected kindness to a mugger, these masterfully written tales reveal not only the precarious balance maintained between grief and happiness in our lives, but also how the echoes of personal tragedy can shape us for the better.


Whistle In The Dark: A Novel by Emma Healey


She hadn’t anticipated this, hadn’t been rehearsing for doctors and a recovery, had pictured only police press conferences and a funeral, or an endless agonizing wait. 

When Jen’s fifteen-year-old daughter Lana goes missing, she never for a minute imagines she will have her back, alive, and unharmed. Nor did she imagine Lana wouldn’t have anything to tell her of the most horrific four days of her parent’s lives. Days when they didn’t know what had happened to her, or if they would ever see her alive again. Lana’s troubles didn’t begin after she went missing, there was something lurking deep within her that begs the question, did she try to hurt herself- again?

Deep down, Jen doesn’t trust her daughter’s story, that she had somehow gotten lost during the painting holiday they were on. Worse, that she vanished while under her care and husband Hugh is so happy to have his daughter back that he doesn’t want Jen to harass her with questions, questions that demand answers! All Jen wants is to understand her daughter, but their relationship is nothing like the one she has with her eldest. Every interaction has always been exhausting, and she never seems to be able to do anything right by Lana. Her daughter has needed help for a long time, what sort of mother does that make her, when she can’t even guide her own child without professional help? What is a mother to do with a child who hurts herself, how do you save anyone from themselves?

Why is it so difficult with Lana, when she doesn’t struggle with her eldest, Meg? Even Meg tries to crack her sister’s shell of silence, dig for answers. The dynamics in the family may be part of the acting out. It is suffocating to be the ‘problem’ child, just as difficult to be a responsible one, both of Jen’s daughters have their own perspective on how each of them fit in the family. Does Lana really just manipulate her parents as Meg accuses? Is it depression, is it a lie, is this incident just another scream for more attention? Is it ever Meg’s turn, when something enormous is happening in her own life?

There are times you can feel Jen’s frustration with Lana, because she knows how to use her difficulties as a crutch, how to dodge facing things by playing the victim. But that isn’t to say she isn’t one, because she is struggling. This is imperfect parenting, is there any other kind? Going back to earlier sessions with Dr. Greenbaum one can’t help but feel the resentment, shame and helplessness of opening yourself to professional because it is the only way to help your child. It can feel like being tarred and feathered, worst parent of the year. It’s possible to love your child and hate the illness, despair when engaging in the hopelessness, or the rage. Now this, this public disappearance with no way to answer any pressing questions everyone has, herself included. How can Hugh be so happy, think that suddenly all will be right with their broken girl?

Jen decides to find out for herself just what happened those four days and it’s nothing that she imagined.“The feeling that things were happening just out of her sight was growing.” Sometimes it’s the only way life moves ahead, children grow up- out of sight of their mother’s ever watchful eye. The police can’t crack the story, can Jen, without further hurting Lana? All she wanted was to help her, be it through GP visits or research in books on mental health, but there is no true answer to repair her daughter. She doesn’t feel any closer to making things right. Now, all Lana wants is to be left alone, to stop being asked how she is feeling, what she is thinking, what happened. Jen is desperate to understand, is it really spying if everything she does is intended to keep her girl safe? If her daughter shares nothing, keeps those four days locked up tight?

Truth can be horrifying and it can be heartbreaking. This is more a family drama, the horror is in how easy it is to feel lost within your own mind as much as your family. How do you put your family back together when you’re still reeling and the distance is only growing wider? Just how far will Jen have to go to understand the state Lana was in?

Publication Date: July 24, 2018


Missing Pieces by Laura Pearson


And Linda felt like getting inside it, curling up with her daughter and going to sleep.

But the coffin was too small.

This is one of the saddest stories I’ve read this year. A family torn apart by one tragic moment, each person shouldering blame that severs each relationship and demands love and support that is no longer possible to give. It begins with a countdown, 21 days after the nightmare that has Linda longing for nothing more than eternal sleep, but with a baby inside her womb she can’t cave in to darkness. All she wants is make the child go away, there is nothing left inside of her for the newborn on the way, and certainly no comfort to give her eldest daughter, Esme.

Esme’s grief and shame is burying her, she needs her mother now more than ever. But Linda can’t stomach even looking at her little girl without wanting to hurt her. Still, in the beginning she tries, she attempts to rally enough energy, some remnant of ‘life’ to at least be present. She knows it isn’t fair to her husband Tom and daughter, nor to their unborn child but fair is no longer reality, not for any of them. There is no such thing as fair, she knows this now, it is a brutal truth the universe has taught them all. After losing Phoebe, everything isn’t just a challenge, it’s an impossibility. She is sinking in depression that is feeding her rage, and Esme is trapped between her parents, protective of the mother that seems to hate her so much. Her childhood is over, she is only 7 years old when her mother decides to erase all reminders of Phoebe, so that maybe she can go on, so that maybe she can breathe and get through just one day. When Linda isn’t feeling judged by other mothers for collapsing under her grief and being a terrible mother to Esme,  resentful of husband Tom, then she is hearing her dead daughter’s voice. She needs help! When the new baby arrives, it should be a moment of rebirth for the entire family, a chance to heal, but Linda cannot escape her sorrow. Esme becomes Bea’s second mother of sorts, a stand in for the love and care her mother can’t bear to give. That care verges on suffocating, because she will do everything to keep Bea safe.

Fast forward to the future, Part 2 and Bea is about to have a child of her own. There is a strain between she and Esme. This novel beautifully exposes how children, with an age gap, can live a completely different upbringing within the same family. All Esme ever wanted to do is protect Bea from the heavy weight of the grief she has lived and breathed since before Bea was born. To keep Bea safe becomes a second chance for the unforgivable mistake made with Phoebe. Esme hasn’t had much of a life of her own, hasn’t felt she deserved one, not after her mother Linda fell apart, and what about Tom, her father? If there are secrets that have been kept from Bea, there too are things Tom and Linda had kept from Esme, that changes everything she believed about that ill-fated day when she lost her beloved little sister. Just who is to blame?

It is about regret, how making one poor judgement can cost you everything. How many moments have we ourselves dodged, simply through fate? One may never know. It is not having the full story, and how Bea’s relationship with her family is damaged by fear, by the unspeakable truths we keep close thinking it’s the only way to salvage the remains of happiness, the only chance to keep someone safe. It’s how much of our future we give away to guilt, to pain. This is a heavy read, and as a mother one can understand Linda’s struggle with shame, rage, hopelessness and bottomless grief. Tom has his own burden to bear, he too made a mistake, as did Esme (though of all of them, surely Esme is the least to blame)? What a position for so young a child to be in. It seems like an impossible scenario, but such things have happened, and I always wonder ‘my god, how does a child move on from such a terrible accident.’ A heavy read. Maybe there is hope for healing, but tragedy is an unwanted guest that refuses to leave. Will they ever be a family again, will Bea ever have all the Missing Pieces and finally know what happened? What about her pregnancy? What does it mean for her future? This is a weeper.

Publication Date: June 21, 2018

Ipso Books


In The Midst Of Innocence: A Novel Deborah Hining


Jake Hatton came by today, looking for a pint of whiskey. I told him never to come to the house, but to hide out in the woods by the creek and wait until he sees me out in the yard. He can whistle a hooty-owl call to me, and I will meet him down by the big  sycamore.

It is the Great Depression, 10-year-old Pearl Wallace lives in the mountains of rural Tennessee. In this holler, she makes money by skimming off her daddy’s homemade whiskey, in a time when prohibition is in effect, this dabbling in criminal activity is a bit of a worry for her, after all Al Capone has the law after him and he bootlegs, and it’s a sin but going without nice shoes and being unable to give much-needed to gifts to her loved ones makes it a sort of necessity, if you will. Her best friend Darlene is a ‘white Negro’, whose step daddy is a mean bully, beating on her and her mamma. She fears for her daily, even if she is a catholic!

Emily Weston is a missionary come to save the hillbillies  from their  savage ignorance, to be a holy guiding light to the boys and girls of the holler so they can one day become God faring young men and women. She has led a privileged life in the city among the elite, and while heart is in the right place, she is the one blinded by ignorance. She will be shocked by their sins of drunkenness and humming, Halloween celebrations. The charm of this novel is that the telling alternates between both Pearl and Emily. Pearl makes is delightfully humorous and tender.  Emily’s perspective is given through letters to her parents, much more reserved than the letters to her sister, and letters to Jonathan whom is in love with her. Pearl’s voice is heard through her journal entries for class (Miss Emily’s idea) and her own private, grittier version that she writes for herself. Her childlike innocence in not understanding why ‘kilts’ would scare ‘colored folks’ perfectly expresses childish naiveté. Emily will come off her high horse as she begins to see just how knowledgable these ‘hillbillies’ really are, their godliness is evident in their community, brotherhood. Some speak French, teach it to their children, not so uneducated as Emily thinks. Just like anywhere else, you have the good, bad and the ugly.

Emily is much more likable as the teacher becomes the student. Young herself, her heart is lost in confusion and she is all mixed up, with her feelings toward Jonathan in particular. Pearl wants so bad to be good herself, and is ashamed of her anger and sins (stealing and selling his moonshine), especially when she thinks life would be easier without her daddy and his drinking. To say times are lean is an enormous understatement, but the people of this community pull together to survive. Not everyone has someone to protect them, and sometimes standing up for someone who is different can endanger your own family. Pearl and her family have courage, even with the threat of violence, Pearl cannot allow fear to stand in the way of solving Darlene and her mamma’s troubles. Emily will be a changed woman, fall in love with the very people she once held in scorn, set out to save. There is a murder, and sometimes lies are necessary to save others.

Beautifully written, I felt like I was in the holler myself. I have a tender spot for mountain fiction, I’ve likely mentioned that so often that people are sick of hearing it. This book is a delight, but isn’t as light as it seems, it deals with some weighty topics of  bygone days. Most people will love Pearl, she is a fierce little thing!

Publication Date: April 17, 2018

Light Messages Publishing


The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind: My Tale of Madness and Recovery by Barbara K. Lipska;Elaine McArdle


Despite all my years of studying brain disorders, for the first time in my life I realize how profoundly unsettling it is to have a mind that does not function.

The doctor becomes the patient in this fascinating memoir. Exhibiting symptoms of dementia and schizophrenia, much to the horror of those who knew and loved her best, Barbara Lipska’s doctors do everything possible to figure out what is going on.  Why was her frontal lobe failing her? From where was her madness coming from?  It is melanoma, brain cancer. Amazingly, when immunotherapy began to heal her, she remembered everything that happened during her descent into madness, bringing with her firsthand knowledge about what happens in the mind (brain), aiding science in better understanding.

Mental illness today is still a mystery, there is so much we just don’t comprehend. How does a brain injury alter behavior? What about traumatic events? Are the answers only in the brain? Is schizophrenia a disease, something going haywire in the brain, what about anxiety? Depression? How do such conditions relate to Lipska’s brain tumors and the effect they had on her mental state? Thirty years of studying mental illness couldn’t teach her as much as her own experience. More than anything, this memoir is eye-opening, humbling in relating what those with mental health difficulties and brain disorders live with.  It is frightening to think no one is immune. At any time, an injury, an illness, a mental disturbance could plunge our fragile mind in a state of madness. It’s easy to dismiss this brain we don’t think too much about, that does so much for us our entire lives, never imagining it could fail or trick us. We all will age, studying the brain is crucial to our health, to our very being.

I remember a law class I took in high school, meeting a lawyer who warned us against riding motorcycles because he had a client that was in a horrific wreck and suffered a brain injury. He told us, his entire personality changed, this once kind man became violent, believing he was being persecuted by everyone. What can understanding cancer, brain injuries do to help with treating dementia? Other mental illnesses? It’s important to understand the science behind the mind, what a vast universe that demands exploration. Could it help, I wonder, understand how our environment, our experiences change our brains? The mind is a mystery, as Lipska’s unraveled she was able to find the right treatment and return to herself, mind intact and with first hand knowledge to add to her years of study.

I’ve always wondered, what is it that causes the individual with mental illness to lose their grip on reality, why does a certain treatment work for one person and yet not another. Is it all the brain? How do experiences in life alter the mind, why? Is mental illness a curable disease? Is it something bigger than science? I have an uncle who has schizophrenia, it is somewhat known he used LSD during his time in Vietnam (in the army).  He also had something traumatic happen, either witnessed or was involved in. He was never the same. We always wondered, was it genetic, caused by drug use, trauma? A combination of all three? I don’t know the answers. I hope in the near future we understand mental health far better than we do today, and more that we can have compassion. Truth is, it terrifies people, it makes them uncomfortable and it’s a shame because instead of understanding what is happening in the mind, people are shunned. My son has an austism spectrum disorder, so understanding the science behind the mind has been important to me. How does it happen? When? Thinking on Autism alone, there there are so many variations, different ways stimulating the mind can help with higher functioning. As much as we know, there is still far more we don’t.

It is vital to every human being to understand the workings of the brain, we all have one, despite evidence to the contrary we sometimes see. All kidding aside, this is a fascinating memoir. Also, anyone dealing with mystery illness can relate to the struggle of trying to get the proper diagnosis.  Dr. Barbara Lipska  is highly educated, she has the means, and even for her it’s a fight to understand what is happening. Imagine the obstacles for those with little to no money and poor access to the best doctors. It’s vital we understand our own health, our needs. Demand doctors who are knowledgable in whatever disease, or mysterious illness that we suffer from. Easier  said then done, though.

A memoir about a woman who is both patient, and doctor. Interesting read.

Publication Date: April 3, 2018

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Baby Teeth: A Novel by Zoje Stage


Hannah kept the words to herself because they gave her power. Inside her, they retained their purity.  She scrutinized mommy and other adults, studied them. Their words fell like dead bugs from their mouths.

First it has to be said do not go into this lightly thinking you are going to be uplifted or that it’s a champion for those with mental disorders. Go back, turn around, this isn’t that type of novel. Baby Teeth cuts deep, leaves all the adults and other children who come in contact with Hanna wounded, bleeding, in fear for their lives. We Have To Talk About Kevin just tore me apart, it is one of my favorite novels, this is something else entirely. It’s a hard book compare with. With that said, it’s disturbing and dark. There is nothing darling here, and the mother isn’t without fault. I cannot imagine…

Suzette ‘rallies’ behind her girl, hoping to figure out what is wrong while Alex is adamant it’s nothing. I’m supposed to feel for her, but is she the problem? Does she need control, has this messed up her kid? There are small moments when it seems Hanna truly feels cast out by her mother, and we’re never really sure if it’s so. There is a tug of war going on to win Alex over, Hanna wants him all to herself, the only thing right with the world is her magnificent Daddy who sees nothing sinister about her. It’s clear he wants to believe the best about his child, but there is something broken within her. Suzette cannot muster enough love, not when the child she knows is not the same Hanna who appears before her husband. She pretends to be a good girl, she makes her mother into a liar. Or does she? For a while there, I wandered if there was going to be some mind bending twist. Maybe it’s good old mommy imagining things?

If only she could siphon the love her husband feels in buckets for their girl, but it’s so hard when it seems Hanna wants to annhilate her. When she poses an idea to send Hanna to school, all hell breaks loose.

I struggle with these sort of stories. I have a sensitivity to anything written about mental health issues, mind you this is s thriller, it’s fiction and it certainly grabs you by the throat. It is engaging, horrifying and a sprial into a nightmare. I took issue with Suzette, I know she’s the ‘victim’ but she is a little too quick to want to forget her child. I don’t know, maybe it’s a mother thing, maybe I love blindly but I cannot imagine pushing my kid off somewhere and brushing off my hands with a ‘well that’s taken care of, where was I, let’s make love honey.’ But that is why I tend to read more literary fiction. I knew what I was getting into, and for that- this is a hell of a disturbing novel.

This is the story of a born psychopath, what’s scarier than a child harboring such violence, hatred, a twisted mind? It’s terrible, the paths her mind takes, particualrly the fascination with a witch. The reader sees what’s coming, while mommy and daddy are oblivious, thinking maybe things will calm down now that they are both aware. Suzette is terrified of her little girl, for good reason. It’s a novel that will make a lot of people uncomfortable but it is well written. There will be many different reactions, and it depends on your reading ‘fix’. Why do I imagine this as a horror film, that comes out on Christmas, because it would rattle people?

If murderous children are your thing, this is right up your alley!

Publication Date: July 17, 2018

St. Martin’s Press