Unsettled Ground: A Novel by Claire Fuller

Sometimes, I reckon, we need something to come along and trip us up when we’re not expecting it. Otherwise, one day we’re kids playing with the hose pipe, and the next we’re laid out on an old door in the parlour.”

The incident that comes along and trips up twins Jeanie and Julius, aged 51, is the sudden, unexpected death of their mother Dot. The family of three have lived in “rural isolation and poverty” in a cottage since the death of the twins father when they were still children. It has been Dot who has faced all of life’s difficulties keeping her beloved children in a safe bubble. Dot, whose secrets are now going to force Jeanie and Julius out into the world, has kept them tied to the only home they’ve ever known, for better or worse. Jeanie has never been healthy enough to face the challenges of life, learning too was a struggle, unlike her brother who has been the one venture into town taking on jobs here and there, she has spent her life feeling this crumbling home is their only sanctuary. Debts have been collecting, all the things Dot sheltered and hid from her children are knocking at their door, as threatening as monsters. Figuring out how to afford to bury their mother is the least of their woes. Julius has never really had a relationship, and suddenly he thinks about a woman named Shelley Swift who has hired him to fix the window in her place above the fish shop. With their mother gone, his attention isn’t focused solely on whether or not they will lose the cottage, though it is a screaming fact that troubles him along with fears for his needy sibling. How has he let 51 years go by with nothing to show? It disturbs Jeanie, the time he is spending away from her but she isn’t his mother…it’s his life.

Suddenly, the locals don’t feel so forgiving, nor willing to let the pair go on living on their charity. Jeanie feels like their lives, their very way of existence, is being stolen from beneath their feet. Who is she without her daily routine, without her vegetable garden, without chickens to feed, without her mother Dot? Why didn’t they know their mother was sick, when it seems everyone else did? Suddenly every hour seems swollen with worries, all the things Dot protected them from has come home to roost. Jeanie and her brother Julius deal with it in different ways, distance grows between them testing their co-dependence. They will be humiliated and enraged by the actions of others, forced into a different life, lost in their new surroundings. Will they falter or thrive?

It seems like such a simple, quiet story, but the tale escalates with each challenge, every uncovered lie. How did they get through 51 years of life and never really know who their mother truly was? Why did they remain needy children far beyond an acceptable age, never forced to face reality? It gets a bit dark too, and sometimes the weakest link in the family chain is the one who life challenges the most. I was engaged, and admit there is a certain appeal to their self-inflicted isolation, keeping your beloved children near, but it’s a grievous wrong. You can’t hide from life, though they had quite a go of it for 51 years. Trouble will find you in every corner of the world. How much do we owe our family? What do we owe our children? One would think, at the very least, we owe them the ability to stand on their own two feet, if not our truths. Dot was quite a complicated lady. A novel of strength, loyalty and betrayal.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Tin House

Nives by Sacha Naspini

If there’s anything that punishes the living, it is life itself. We don’t need to bring ghosts into it.

In a sense, when you’re of a certain age, every trace of days gone by seem to be populated by ghosts. Ghosts of feelings, of memories and always those we’ve loved and lost (living and dead). For Tuscany native and widow Nives, who has just lost her husband Anteo, everything in the world feels strange. Anteo had bore witness to her life from the age of twenty to over sixty years old and what is a life without someone to share it with? Unable to cry, not even in the presence of her own grown daughter Laura’s tears, she finds herself besieged by thoughts and restless nights once she is alone in the house again. Until…she brings the chicken Giacomina into her abode, replacing Anteo with “the crippled old hen” and what does that mean about her marriage, if she could patch up his absence with the presence of a bird? It seems a bit disgusting, no? Had she wasted her life with him? Then comes all the memories of their early days, why does she feel so bloodless and numb? Every moment with him seems to have sped by like a flash. Shouldn’t a widow feel bowled over by devastation when her beloved is breathing beside her no more? How bad was Anteo’s love that a chicken is preferred company, a happy substitute?

It alarms her daughter, who is back in France with her own husband and children, to discover by way of gossip that her mother has a chicken living in her home. Has her mother gone mad? Of course, Nives enjoys alarming Laura and asserting her right to do as she so pleases! Just as soon as Nives is content with this new arrangement, the chicken suddenly behaves oddly, becoming still as a statue, as if she is the living dead. Nothing she attempts rouses the hen out of her stupor and her only resolution is to telephone her old friend Loriano Bottai, the local veterinarian and drunkard for the cause and cure. It is this phone call that tells the real story, a conversation filled with surprising humor, intimacy and untold secrets. The readers are privy to stories about the locals, some with tragic ends and others who played the gigolo when they were young, handsome and ‘full of fireworks’. Deaths, affairs, murder- intrigues and mysteries abound.

I devoured this novel, we take a little trip through Nives history and find that those old folks who snore like horn-players were once just as wild as the rest of us. That it’s easy to get yourself snared in traps of your own making and that sometimes truth can make you see clearly. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

Europa Editions

Madam: A Novel by Phoebe Wynne

“We shall need you to start impressing us, Rose, rather than having us tidy up your mess.”

Rose is stunned to learn she has been hired to teach at the grand, all-girls boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, an ancestral castle that looks down upon the world from its proud perch atop the rocky Scottish cliffs. Known for its excellence, churning out the cream of the crop, she has been chosen as Head of Classics. It all feels like a strange and yet happy stroke of luck. Her mother is pleased as punch that Rose will be earning her living at one of the most famous, prestigious schools and Rose is thrilled to be getting out from under her mother’s control. Her career is full speed ahead, even if she is more than a little intimidated and full of doubts that she is up for the challenge.

Once inside its great walls, she feels swallowed up by the great swarm of girls, all eyes upon her. Already shame rises, feeling shabby by comparison to these fashionable, fresh-faced beauties. On her first day teaching, despite her experience, she finds herself slipping with little mistakes. Caldonbrae isn’t a place that allows for failure, nor for one to question how things are done. Rose is on her own for the first time and is set on giving her all. She manages well enough until her class with the older girls, bursting into puberty, challenging her from the start. She looks young herself, at 26, and the students test her right away, madly curious of why she is teaching them when she isn’t even married. As if having a husband is a requirement. She feels like she has been thrown to the wolves and knows she must gain the upper hand, or she doesn’t stand a chance.

She takes her job preparing the young ladies for their bright futures seriously, and what is better than a top education? Yet her ideas may be a bit too liberal for the lives these daughters of Caldonbrae Hall are meant to lead. Every school has its traditions, and for 150 years Caldonbrae has produced young women who serve society to make for a better world. As a trip disrupts her teaching, Rose wonders what exactly the students are being presented for, what could be more important than their classes? What has their young, impressionable minds so preoccupied? What is it exactly they are really busy with? She stumbles across a desk drawer with a mysterious handkerchief, remnants of the former teacher she has replaced. There are traces of the woman everywhere, and the students don’t hold back in comparing her to their previous Madam, Jane. The place feels completely out of touch with time, it’s far more “old world” than she could have imagined. As she tries to gain solid footing, she learns there is no limit to the school’s reach. Caldonbrae asserts itself like a master in her entire life, everything within its walls is an old relic, it’s unnerving.

There is a student following her like a shadow, and the former teacher’s absence haunts her. Something is very wrong here. Feeding the girls a diet of classic, feminist heroines, like Dido, Rose is teaching the students to take their lives into their own hands. But will the expectations of their school, parents, and society erase any hope for freedom they may entertain? Can courage be taught, particularly by Rose whose own life has been guided by her mother? Is it possible to imagine a life outside the path laid for them? Rose’s own road has ‘diverged’ with a troubled student, Bethany. Suddenly she is preoccupied with the girl’s tortured mind and disturbed by how the school handles such a delicate situation. Rose starts making a mess of things, risking her future as a Madam, poking her nose where it doesn’t belong. How far will she go in following in the former teacher’s footsteps, will it lead her to the real story of why Jane left?

Institutions like Caldonbrae demand their staff adhere to its strict traditions-with such impressionable, fragile, young, minds it’s always best to maintain an outward display of self-control and respect of the old ways. Rose just doesn’t understand, her modern beliefs don’t fit the mold that has thrived behind these walls for well over a century. Is she really strong enough to handle the truth? More, is she brave enough to confront such a challenge? Does she know best what’s good for the ‘lucky girls’ anymore than those in charge of the place?

There is a gothic feel and with the school cut off even from the locals, it’s a world unto itself. It’s a funny question, how does a woman serve society… hmmm? I agree the tale seems so far from modernity, but the timeless feel is a way to show how sheltered and controlled everything is. How easy it is to do whatever you please when those in charge are complicit in what they believe is for ‘the greater good’. It was a decent read, and the feminist theme using classics to start a fire in young minds was clever. The ending was interesting. I think Rose is meant to be odd herself, afraid of life, seemingly unadventurous, hence she appears to be someone that would easily fall into line with the school’s rules and demands. We wonder, does she have her own flame burning? Curious what others will make of this mysterious, dark tale.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

St. Martin’s Press

The Secret Talker: A Novel by Geling Yan

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

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

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

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

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

Publication Date: May 4, 2021

HarperVia

We Trade Our Night for Someone Else’s Day: A Novel by Ivana Bodrožić, Translation by Ellen-Elias Bursac

“The worst part is realizing you can’t open the door from the inside,” was the first thing she said.

War, displacement, emigration, ethnic cleansing… Vukovar, a city in Croatia, saw one of the biggest battles since 1945 in Europe with the siege by the (JNA) with support by paramilitary from Serbia. Croatian soldiers and citizens were outnumbered but defended against the Serbians, the battle was bloody and ended in people being killed or thrown out of Vukovar. You can go further back in history with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, the tensions didn’t simply begin with the Yugoslav Wars. Ivana Bodrožić was born in Vukovar, lived there until her own father disappeared then she and her family moved to a refugee hotel in Kumrovec. Though this is a fictional story of an unnamed city, the events within are based on actual historical events that touched the author’s own life. I asked my father, who escaped his homeland of Hungary as a young child during communist occupation, a lot of questions about the creation and history of Yugoslavia. He knows a lot more than me about the division between people there than I can even comprehend. This novel deals with the aftermath from nationalism and those who wanted independence, the splitting apart of Yugoslavia and how it effected the next generation. It is what remains after children grew up segregated, Serbian and Croatian, what happened during ‘peaceful reintegration’ when the rubble was cleared away and what clearly remains are the ruins within the hearts and souls of the people. Can you simply unite after the bones of your family has been cleared away? People long for a reckoning after every horror and humiliation has been committed against them and their loved ones. The anger stays after being expelled, imprisoned… What happens to rumored criminal networks? When “gangsters gain legal footing” for their businesses? Money, blood, and power. The people were left to suffer from political and economical damage long after the war ended.

In the middle, always, are the children trying to move forward into a future where division has been set by the adults. Dejan is a perfect example of cultural identity and who you claim allegiance to.

Nora Kirin is a journalist chasing a story, and a juicy one at that, at least for those hungry for tabloid fodder. It began with a sordid affair that ended in a murder, but it is a political fire too. Kristiana is a Croatian- language teacher at the general and vocational high school working with ethnic Serbian students. Her Croat husband Ante (a war veteran, formerly in a prison camp) has been murdered by her lover, seventeen-year-old Dejan. Dejan is a Serbian, whose Grandfather was one of the Chetnik leaders. The salacious story is already making the rounds, a woman seducing a teen to kill for her, “one of theirs”. Nora would far rather expose the system, like the dirty Mayor but is resolved to do her best with her current assignment. What she wants is to tell the woman’s (now a prisoner) side of the story, not just continue to smear her. Her work and this city is taking her back to the past, remembering what she’d rather forget, like the disappearing children from her heavy youth. She must seek out people to interview, despite her discomfort moving through the city streets and every memory it evokes. In interviewing the victim mother, one can grasp the sentiment behind “one of ours” and “one of theirs” that isn’t erased, despite the push for unity, integration. When the war ended, new battles would eventually ensue amongst the people, often through political manipulations , of course. Children of all ages are divided at daycare and school by fencing, Serbs one side Croats on the other. Brigita is the high school principal with bigger ambitions also tied to Kristina’s story, the corrupt mayor and bribery. There are singers who ‘toy with politics’, a PTA president who is a ‘self-appointed guardian of ethnic identity’, a friendly taxi driver Marko-whose story about life in the city during the war engages Nora, a philosophical poet, and many people who have dabbled in the war with no “proof” of any crimes committed. Those in power do not take kindly to being publicly disgraced. The love triangle murder she is covering may well become an “interethnic conflict”. But it is the pursuit of truth, for her father, she is most concerned with.

This is a place where their entire world, for all the people involved, has collapsed even down to their very language. Nora is warned to stay away from dangerous men, who destroy everything, but she has to know why her father was murdered, who did it, regardless of her own well being. Not even the light of blossoming love can stop her from getting justice. What she doesn’t know is so much worse than she can imagine. Everyone is strangely intertwined. A turn of fate, helping someone can lead to more suffering. Unimaginable suffering. “Everything is linked to everything else,” even things that seem inconsequential and so much of it is a part of the war.

You have to pay attention, there are connections you will miss if you don’t read closely. It might help you to research about the wars in the 1990’s in what was once Yugoslavia. Some wanted to keep it a country, others wished to become separate countries. Reading different sides is truly only going to give you a basic understanding as an outsider. The line I quoted is brilliant too, ‘you can’t open the door from the inside’, because it’s hard to comprehend war at all, or even ourselves and everything that happens when we are in the midst of it. Those who are in the war have far more experience, but may not necessarily be able to make much sense of it either. A whole generation can be destroyed by bloodshed. Childhood, community, family, innocence, the future- all of it swept from beneath your feet. War makes prisoners of us all. Yet there are still things worth fighting for, aren’t there? For Nora at least.

Publication Date: April 20, 2021

Seven Stories Press

The Happiness Thief: A Novel by Nicole Bokat

What kind of monster are you?

Natalie Greene has buried the horrible car accident that cost her mother her very life. With her shattered, haunting recollection of that event, hazy at best, the one thing she feels to be true is that it was all her fault. She is the reason her mother is dead. Now in her forties, her marriage has just ended due to her husband’s infidelity, so she turns to her adored step-sister Isabel Walker, once a troubled teen and now a wildly successful, spiritual guru of sorts. Natalie joins her at the annual Happiness Conference at the Cayman Islands, despite having just lost her own father, Isabel (always a powerhouse) works through her grief, surrounded by fans and admirers who long to be self-actualized and happy. Isabel is everything Natalie isn’t, as if Natalie’s happiness and future has been trapped in the nightmare of her own loss, her guilt a heavy stone in her heart. She doesn’t begrudge her step-sister her glorious life and is proud of her accomplishments, including her solid marriage to George. She doesn’t fall apart in the face of loss, not like Natalie.

Behind the wheel with her sister beside her, glorifying in Isabel’s presence, there is a suddenly blare of headlights, causing her to hit something. Once again she is the helpless teen and Isabel takes charge, confronting the other driver. No harm done, the man assures them it was nothing, a four legged creature. She sees the other driver later, a handsome photographer named Simon, who gives her his email. A shared passion for photography, even if her job photographing food is less stimulating, is a happy coincidence. Life goes on, Natalie returns to Boston and wonders about the stranger while she tries to launch herself as a single, working mother to Hadley, her teenage daughter. Hadley pushes her mother to try, make an effort to feel better about herself. Her soon to be ex is moving on faster than either of them are prepared for, putting a fire in Natalie that leads her to seek Simon.

When she receives an eerie email that seems to imply the recent accident is far more sinister than she thought, making her doubt everything that happened on the road that night at the Happiness retreat, she begins to question everyone in her life, including Simon. Could it be he isn’t who he seems? Maybe the trauma of her past is making her insane. She feels like an inept, amateur sleuth trying to figure out who Godfrey (the emailer) is. Memories of her mother’s accident are erupting too, and it has always been Isabel she relies on to supply the facts. After all, it was her devotion to her that caused such a tangle, a rift between she and her own mother. She meets Jeremy, a journalist, and asks him for a favor-help her find out what happened recently the night of her accident but there is a second request involving the past and her family. In turn, she will let him interview her. Jeremy isn’t a fan of happiness gurus or new age healers of any sort, who better to talk to than the popular Isabel’s sister for his piece? She knows Isabel is on the up and up, her passion is helping people, including Natalie herself. She has gone above and beyond to support her when she was at her weakest.

When she informs Isabel about the email, her sister offers to get to the bottom of things. She’s always been there to pick up the pieces, to guide Natalie. She doesn’t understand why she is tormenting herself, assuring her the accident was nothing, this is just the past eroding the present again. She is leaping to impossible conclusions despite the evidence, hurting because of the past, mixing things up. Isabel is greatly concerned, worried about her well being.

As more information rises to the surface, things get more complicated, illuminating the past. There is more to the mystery of their family, so many doubts, holes in Natalie’s memory that maybe a letter could dispel. This is, in the end, a story about ‘the strong habit of love’, the things we see and how much we miss. The story is good, but there were times Natalie got on my nerves. She does act immature, but it could be the writer’s intent, to show how in a sense losing her mother, blaming herself, having relied on Isabel too much and being in such a long marriage infantilized her in some ways. When we first meet her, she doesn’t trust herself, hasn’t fully stood on her own two feet and divorce demands that of you. She suffers from trauma still and it’s hard to move past it when you don’t have the full story and your own memories play hide and seek. You can’t always look to others to save you.

The truth finds a way and it isn’t always pretty.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

She Writes Press

The Little Devil and Other Stories by Alexei Remizov, Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

Many things vanished, even very necessary ones.

Alexei Remizov was an author of literary modernism and an expert calligrapher. He was a great Russian writer of the Russian symbolist movement, which I know little about, and read that it was an intelligent and artistic movement at the end of the 19th century. It was its own branch from European symbolism. Writing about feelings rather than reality. It states within this collection that the author gave up his Marxist beliefs and “became completely immersed in philosophy, cosmogony, and Slavic mythology.” He also put a lot of stock in dream divination and having read Martin Zadeka, the dream musings were wonderful. Alexei was imprisoned and exiled himself in the North Russia, with the information provided before reading it helps to imagine where the seeds for his writing were planted. These stories are bizarre, old customs I know nothing about, folk tales, the Orthodox Church, mysterious happenings. The truth is, much of the meaning is likely lost on me but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment. His pen was masterful in creating eccentric stories, if this collection is any evidence, borrowing from medieval Russian literature. He wrote his own versions of old Russian texts, as warnings, as lessons, sometimes humorous and horrifying tales, some that were in pre-Christian tradition. Food for ever curious minds, ‘suspicious curiosity’ that is.

In the stories there are connivers, inseparable lovers, destiny, the will of human beings, the confusion of fate, death, long cold winters, shoemakers, the revolution, peasants, and a long suffering grandmother. It is this grandmother’s beloved Petka (the little scamp) that broke my heart. Trouble comes for he and his grandmother, with the turn of each page and not even crossing herself when she hears the sound of shooting like thunder, can protect them from a world of hurt. There are so many kinds of poverty, none like the poverty of the heart.

Sacrifice is the theme in the old Borodin house where Pyotr Nikolaevich, joker and eccentric with the odd, pale face lives as if undead. Though a man with strange passions for looking at dead bodies, he is adored by his wife Alexandra, who saves the home from ruin. Then comes the sorrow, the coffins, the funerals. Corpses, rumors, death, the blessed house becomes filled with “anxiety and eeriness”. In The Little Devil, there is a holy fool known as the Drowned Man, and pagan practices. An old woman, who isn’t truly old, falls in love which leads to the casting of a spell. Wanting can be a thing to fear. Children are troublesome or sick but Deniska keeps his sister entertained with his long and cruel stories. The two share a great dislike for the exterminator, the feeling is mutual. The man sees evil and filth everywhere, and he has his own deep secrets. People learn that a witch is better than all the riches in the word in a later story.

A collection populated by people expecting something horrible and unusual, which life readily delivers. The devil is always waiting, all it takes is a thought, and he will “come in a black whirlwind.” Not all hearts are evil, there are devout believers who remain steadfast in their faith. Intoxicating desire heats up in Princess Mymra when Atya is drawn like a magnet to the lodger in his family’s apartment. The boy cannot stop wandering into Klavdia’s room, this irresistible mistress who brings new life to everyone. There is humor in the boy’s innocence, one can’t help but feel for him. The stories are rich, the writing is beautiful and certainly there is an audience for it.

Publication Date: April 13, 2021

Columbia University Press

Leonora in the Morning Light: A Novel by Michaela Carter

It was a kind of quickening, as if some part of her that had been asleep were waking.

Leonora Carrington hungers to abandon the trappings of her upper class future, seduced by the freedom of the surrealists, knowing she will disappoint her parent’s expectations. Finishing schools and approved suitors be damned, she will have a bohemian life where every desire is explored, to hell with what others think! She longs to trust her gut, and her ‘unconscious appetite’ just like the surrealists. No one understands her quite as Max Ernst does, the German surrealist whose paintings have mesmerized her since she first set eye upon them. No lover can unleash the passion within her, make her simmer, soar quite like this older, wildly fascinating man, despite the 27 year age difference between them. After meeting at a dinner party, Leonora plunges into a scandalous love affair with the married man, despite her father’s feelings, that he and his art are immoral.

It is with shock that their daughter, who will never be a well behaved woman as her station demands, informs her parents she is moving with Max to Paris, that he will leave his wife and become her lover. Her father cuts her off without another pence ever again, tells her she will die penniless and that her shadow shall never again darken his door! It’s not marriage she wants, it is the experience of following her passions, the call of freedom and the warm embrace of Max. For a while, she will come alive under Ernst’s penetrating gaze, learn about the many forms of love through his friends, and feel emotions stir inside her that incite fear and pleasure. No one will challenge her like Max, and she is just as intoxicating to him. What if he ever left? How could she go on? In his circle, people like Lee Miller, Man Ray, Andre Breton and lovers people share between them, such unconventional living is a fire in her blood. The company of freedom loving souls is an endless source to her artistic mind, a place she feels most like her real self unlike the stuffy world her parent’s would trap her in. Even dreams have their nightmares, she hadn’t accounted for Max’s violently angry, deeply devout wife Marie-Berthe, who refuses to make escape easy for the pair. That is only the beginning of the obstacles fate will put in their path.

The beautiful paradise the lovers find when they settle into a home in Saint-Martin is marred by the horror of Max’s arrest. Leonora carries on as best she can, working on her paintings and keeping hope alive, her heart warmed only by letters from Max. When he comes back, something has changed about him, deadened inside by being captive. Germany is invading, the world has gone mad and Max is taken a second time- this is where everything falls away. Leonora will be brought to her knees with the waiting, wasting into a shell of herself. Darkness and ugliness seem to be the only thing on the horizon, the Paris they knew is unrecognizable, everyone is fighting to get their visas, to flee to the safety of other countries. She is steadfast in her love, waiting always for Max, until she surrenders the freedoms she fiercely clings to, loses it all, including possibly her sanity when her father has her locked up in a Spanish asylum. Max, she knows, was on his way to an internment camp and now, could be anywhere. She has no way of knowing that he fled and was trying to return to her, his beloved. Salvation comes, but it isn’t Max.

They both make choices influenced by the dangerous times and desperation that drive them further from each other’s arms. Not all marriages are for love. Sometimes, fate takes the strongest of us all and leaves us fragile. Peggy Guggenheim helps artists, labeled degenerates and enemies, escape to America. Max is is dire need of her protection, but what is the cost for them both? When Max and Leonora are once again in each other’s orbit, everything that has happened since they last saw one another has changed them both, maybe even their love. Who is she without Max? How will she ever learn where he ends and she begins, must they remain intertwined for all eternity? What about the others who are left cold by the glow of Max and Leonora’s love? In truth love, just like man, is never an island. How can either of them make a life worth living? Max is free to experience whatever tickles his fancy, but often at the expense and pain of the women who love him. He may have helped Leonora tap into her artist’s heart, but there was already a master within her soul waiting to be released. She will become a great artist in her own right, making thousands of works of art before her death, living to the ripe age of 94. Their love will be stretched as if on a torturer’s rack before fate is through with them. For a time, they will carry each other in their hearts, but love- is it enough?

This isn’t really Max Ernst’s story, it’s Leonora’s, who in the end may be the wiser lover, despite her youth.
Perfect for art lovers and an engaging story about the resilience of one woman who would fight to live the way she wanted, unapologetically in a time it simply wasn’t done.

Publication Date: May 1, 2021


Avid Reader Press

Ruby Falls: A Novel by Deborah Goodrich Royce

The old story. The old name. The scene of the crime, Ruby Falls. I will tell him all of it. It’s just too ridiculous to explain right now.

Summer of 1968: Ruby Falls in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee is the last time six-year-old Eleanor Ruby Russell’s father is seen, before she is swallowed up in the dark of the tourist attraction, left mute and alone with the horror of abonnement. In the wake of the possible crime she becomes famous for a while and a part of the unsolved mystery of her daddy’s disappearance. What she remembers haunts her, but memories are fragmented, confusing to the mind of a child. How could he let go of her hand? Did he? Could something nefarious have happened to him? People don’t just vanish without leaving a trail, do they? Is her name a clue? To be abandoned in a place sharing the same name, what was her father’s intention? Trapped in Tennessee with a long line of questions, she and her mother are left at the scene of the ‘crime’ attempting to explain the impossible.

Ruby grows up trapped by the past, a child who is greatly changed by the incident. After all the options in uncovering what happened to her father are exhausted by the local police, she and her mother return to Michigan where soon Ruby decides to put an end to the torment her name inspires. She discards it with the return of her voice, becoming Eleanor and as if learning a new role, opens her heart to her future career as a soap opera actress. There is strength in disappearing into a new you. Current day, 1987 she is on her honeymoon in Rome with her new husband, Anglo-Chinese Englishman, Orlando Montague. Orlando is an antiques dealer, just like her father was and their love, a whirlwind romance of six weeks. Once they settle into their new beautiful home in Hollywood Hills, Rebecca’s career is on the rise as she takes on the leading role in Rebecca. Soon, her own life begins to mirror Daphne du Maurier’s tale, making her question where fantasy ends and reality begins. She wonders how well she knows Orlando, as he begins to behave oddly, arguing with her one moment, dismissing her feelings the next, and then unsettling her by making her look and feel demented. There is the strange old lady next door, Dottie, who seems to know impossible things. There is an air of mystery about her that doesn’t sit well. Eleanor and Orlando know little about each other, each has their own secrets they aren’t sharing but could his be a danger to her? As she goes down the rabbit hole the discoveries she makes will cause her to question her entire universe, every truth and fiction she has swallowed and what has been born from it all.

As her dreamy new life unravels, so too does her mind. Why is she keeping the trauma of her past from her beloved? Could Orlando be unfaithful? Is he really out to get her, or is she still trying to come to grasp with the disappearance of her father? It’s a labyrinth of lies, but who is the biggest deceiver?

It was a decent storyline and not what I imagined at all. I actually think the truth, yes you get it, of what happened to her father is perfect, makes so much sense. I wish the end didn’t rush upon us so quickly, but it was a good ending. My one issue is the way she and Orlando interacted. Their voices played in my head like a classic movie. You know, that stilted, unnatural, controlled “old-timey” voice. I wonder if that was the intention though, with her state of mind, with being in Hollywood. Hmmm. A decent read.

Publication Date: July 28, 2021

Post Hill Press

My Name Is Monster by Katie Hale

If places could move, these would scurry from my entering them like woodlice on an upturned rock.

Monster was already alone long before she emerged from the arctic vault, before bombs dropped, war and the sickness came and took all the living people. Loneliness was never her fear, in fact, all her life she preferred it, didn’t she? When she is spat out by the ocean on the coast of Scotland, all evidence confirms that she is truly the last survivor. She scavenges through what remains in the wreckage and ruins, visiting memories of her childhood, ruminating on what set her apart, the cold distance she kept between she and her parents, wondering still why others craved human touch, something she found repellant. Reading this book during covid made it that more illuminating, even when time crept along. Monster has always been an outlier, separated from life by more than just skin, unable to truly connect, to feel the same urgency of communion that comes naturally for most. How is it possible in this place, empty of human warmth, she will finally understand need and love beyond basic survival?

There is beautiful writing, particularly when she discovers a lone, unkempt, wild child and allows the girl to enter her world, teaching her the skills of survival. The way in which each perceives the world in the landscape of their own unique minds intelligently questions the meaning of existence. Our desires, needs, wants are never in tune, and we have so much to teach each other. Where to Monster the world is empty, for this girl it is full of life, from the bugs to the wild creatures that roam with hungry bellies. There is hope, there is a future and there is always the possibility of others. It doesn’t have to end with them, does it? How could Monster truly know what remains in every corner of the earth?

Even in this void, with Monster as her only mother, she questions the knowledge, pushes the limits, needs to think beyond what Monster tells her is fact. Even when people are all but erased except for them, there is so much possibility, a chance for rebirth, continuation. Monster seems so cold and disconnected until this child raises like a sun in the bleak future, and it is her thoughts that are a light in the darkness. Monster knows so much more than her, but not everything, the child learns there is so much that Monster doesn’t know, cannot seen, doesn’t feel.

An interesting book, and normally I avoid post apocalyptical novels, ones full of sickness, end of days- I think reality is hard enough and for a time there were so many on the shelf it was suffocating, but the beauty with which Katie Hale has the child expressing emotions was tender as a wound. “Everything collapses inside me, then, like a stone wall tumbling, as I realize that Mother doesn’t know. She has no idea. I am the only on who knows the terrible thing that has happened, and now I have to break it to her.”

Monster is the rock, the hard place but she is also the wound. The child is the light, the hope, the pressing question and maybe an answer. It is a beautiful debut and I can’t wait to see what she thinks up for her next novel.

Published June 2019

Canongate