Exquisite by Sarah Stovell

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“This weakness of mine for the unloved… it was probably pathological.”

This is a tricky, wonderfully dark read. It crawled in the beginning and I thought, ‘well this is going to be boring’ but then everything began to deteriorate in a good way. Bo Luxton has written best sellers but her talent is settling now. Living a charmed life with her husband and little girls in the Lake District, she is content if not feeling ‘to die for love’ for Gus well, she is living the life most people would give anything to have. She counts her many blessings, and loves nothing more than her young children. She is soothed by the nature of her surroundings (the mountains) sure of the idea the rest of the world is sick from being cut off from the natural world. Maybe all marriages become stale, it’s just the order of life. All she needs is her children and her beautiful world, away from the sickness of the city and human mess. She is about to attend a writer’s retreat, picking talent from a pile of hopefuls she comes across a disturbing story by aspiring author, Alice Dark. Entitled “Last Words” it tells a sinister tale, a relationship between it’s author and her dying mother, because surely something this intense has to be autobiography? Alice Dark becomes the chosen, creator of her favorite submission, and the meeting between the women takes place. The two are drawn to each other instantly.

Alice Dark is young, broke, living with feckless, useless boyfriends– her current, Jake. Jake, who refuses the ‘mainstream’ life, a talented artists making a living from his work but his talent can’t push him to thrive, and what once seemed like a promising relationship has expired.  Alice envies Bo Luxton’s “Lyrical Beauty”, where Alice’s writing is haunting and dark, Bo’s can only come from the angelic hands of ethereal talent. “Bo must write with feathers.” Alice and Bo are going to build a unique bond at the retreat, one that extends into emails back and forth and soon an invitation for a visit to Bo’s home. Both become too close for comfort.

This is a strangely complicated relationship the women form, dangerously intimate. Both are exquisite liars and truth tellers, chew on that! Each unravels in her own strange way, both cling to each other but for different reasons. Bo seems to both test her feelings for Alice and deny them, Alice is a wreck pulled this way and that by her emotions and Bo’s attention that seems to wax and wane. One moment their intimacy is raw, the next there is a feeling of indifference. Alice’s stays are more frequent, she wants nothing more than to see Bo happy. But is she seeing too much into their friendship? Does Alice just want a mother that will nurture her, heal the rotting wounds her own mother left? What is Bo getting out of this, is it Alice’s youth, thinking she can feel electric again, that some of Alice’s freedom and wild spirit will rub off on her?

Do we really know what the heck is going on? Who is the prisoner that speaks at the start of the novel? Why is Bo such a champion for young talent? What happened in her past, with another student? Both women are damaged, but who is ripe for destruction? Why won’t Bo ‘pick over old memories’, just what happened in her untouchable past? Why does she collect damaged people, ‘waifs and strays‘, as her husband Gus calls them? Why is Gus warning her to “be careful this time” ? What happened with her own mother, what was so bad that she assures herself she is nothing like her ? Is that why Alice’s story touched a nerve with her? Could the bond be created on the backs of terrible mothers?

The hunger is why things move so fast between the women, the hungry need. Both are empty for reasons we half understand, picking over the wreckage of their pasts, trying to find something solid and vibrant in the now. In Bo’s mind, Alice is ‘fragile’, ‘artless’ and only Bo can untangle her rotten past. It’s all about winning her confidence, taking her under her wing, and in doing so- Alice feels her real life has just begun. Has it?

The reader is on unstable ground, as much as the minds telling the story are unstable. How can a story be tender and brutal at the same time? It’s a mess, you go from passion to hatred, seeing vulnerability as necessary to regretting your character being careless and unguarded. At the end, everything happens fast and my my, strange to think exposure can be a relief to someone fueled by manipulation… but who? You have to read. This is one of those novels where if you dip too much into the review you ruin the shock of it. I liked it far more than I expected, because what is more dangerous and painful than trust and vulnerability?

Available Now (published October 1, 2017)

Trafalgar Square Publishing

Orenda Books

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These Violent Delights: A Novel by Victoria Namkung

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There are so many sharks circling around young girls- in the streets, online, and in their very own “safe” schools- it truly makes me sick!

Dr. Gregory Copeland, chair of the English department, now a married father, beloved, popular with parents, staff and students and for many years seducer of young, lonely girls. The past is about to come calling, karma is ready to collect from Dr. Copeland a pound of flesh! Caryn is an intern working at a newspaper, under her idol Jane, she composes an essay, exposing a secret from her past as a student at the prestigious school Windmere and the sexual abuse she suffered while there. They want to go forward and publish the essay in the paper, and Caryn is struggling, she knows it will ruin a life, divide the community. She isn’t a victim in the sense of the usual word, you can’t see her wounds, she wasn’t left bleeding to death somewhere in an alley or ditch. Just what is a victim composed of? She feels sorry for her abusers children, wife, and for all those people who are going to see their favorite teacher’s darkest side. Is it worth ruining so many lives over such a small transgression, one she feels complicit in, as so many young girls are made to feel? But what about the school, Windmere and it’s own complicity in turning a blind eye? What will her family think? Shouldn’t she have just put this all behind her?

Sometimes it takes one person to give other victims the courage to speak. Dr. Copeland has an eye for the girls that need something, whether it’s praise, attention, a shoulder to cry on, literature, and he knows how to manipulate them into sexual favors. 15 seems to be his lucky number, girls on the cusp of womanhood, still unsure in their developing bodies, just noticing male attention, both unwanted and  sometimes welcome. Some stay silent, even from affluent families, hesitant to ‘bring shame’ upon their grand family name. Others know maybe they won’t be believed, but too- the girls believe this is love, deceived into thinking the shame is solely their burden.

Eva is a mother now, has kept her shameful secret from even her husband, and she must face the repercussions of omission in her life. It’s an interesting spin, I think, for the author to take on. That on top of carrying around the shame of having been manipulated as a young girl, Eva as a wife must too feel shame for ‘not being completely honest’ with her husband, appearing again as ‘deceptive’ through omission. Of course he feels wounded, spouses are supposed to share everything, no? But how is a woman to share all when she hasn’t come to terms with it herself? Jesse is a good man, there are good men in this novel, it’s not a ‘man- hating’ story. Of course, not all women are so lucky in real life. Many cultures over, the shame always seems the woman’s to wear.

Sasha’s fury is fueling her on. Far more angry than the others, the pain radiates off her skin still. He knew just how to work each girl into giving in. With Sasha’s bookish ways, lonely home-life, and lack of friends, Copeland knew how to win her trust. Sasha enjoyed it, the attention, the forbidden love that made her finally feel special, struggling with guilt because she began to seek him out too. He brought literature to life, those deep love stories with his words. That is how they hide, these abusers, knowing how to leave young naive victims hungry, both enthralled and disgusted with themselves. When things got too real for Sasha, a problem very ‘adult’ he tucked tail, shut her out and left her with the aftermath. The taint of it is still staining her soul, it’s time to see him brought down, it’s time to come together with other victims.

This special ‘club’ of victims, one no one ever wants to be a member of,  come together under the support of Jane, a reporter whose big story becomes personal. The community is divided, and the support some people feel for Dr. Copeland, rallying behind him, is like a gut punch, like being victimized all over again. As the investigation picks up steam, it seems everyone has something to say, more stories come out from other former students, and it becomes eye-opening just how many girls are victimized, but let it go, seeming like such a ‘small thing’, like a creeping hand on the knee, or intimate, inappropriate private conversations. In a time when we teach our children to speak up if something happens, so much still does, because navigating an adult’s world and actions can get muddy in a young child’s mind. Women have a hard enough time exposing abuses, how much worse is it when a young girl is lured in and shamed by the pleasure she feels of attention? How does a girl expose and label something when she isn’t even sure anything has happened? Maybe in her naive mind she just ‘misinterpreted’ what the adult intended to say? Abusers know just how to lurk on the edge, they test the waters, they are always keeping themselves safe until they know they have control of the situation, then the arrogance is shocking, as with Sasha and her encounters with Dr. Copeland.

Why do cover-ups even happen, in the most progressive and prestigious institutions? Sometimes, the silence is worth keeping dirt off the illustrious school’s name, even if it means leaving a wolf in the mix.  Some victims heal, some were broken before being further victimized by life and where it takes them. There is triumph, and tragedy.  The important thing this novel does is open a conversation, it’s chilling to think that a mother or father may read this novel, and their own child could be experiencing such a seduction by a teacher, a coach, etc. These things are happening more than we think, just turn on the news.

Most women can remember being in school and I think at least one girl who bragged about being with an ‘older guy’, which seemed ‘star-crossed’ or exciting maybe. Maybe some of you were shocked, disgusted, envious? Ask any two people, male or female, if they think the young girl is complicit? There will be many who think she is, because we’ve forgotten how insecure and needy the young are. How adult they trick themselves into feeling, but an evolved mind should know adults should never cross that line. That with young girls, and let’s not forget boys too, it’s easy for someone more experienced to manipulate them, what place in time is lonelier and more confusing than your teenage years? It’s exciting to play at being a grown up. It happens to the wealthy and the poor, every ethnicity and social standing, there isn’t a child alive that it couldn’t happen to.

Sexuality can feel powerful too, in both boys and girls. Adult attention can feel both humiliating and empowering, it’s a strange time in life. To be both a child and adult, in everything happening with hormones, the mind becoming so much more aware, testing their sexuality, flirting with the edge, some get too far ahead before they are aware of the danger they’re in. But what of that adult, guiding them over the cliff? You hear it all the time, ‘well look how old he/she looks and acts.’ As if a teen with an adult body is game. Let’s really think about the victims here, because it is not the ‘adult.’

Provocative, a wonderful selection for any reading group. As important today as it will be tomorrow.

Publication Date: November 7, 2017

Griffith Moon Publishing

 

Catalina: A Novel by Liska Jacobs

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I’m thinking, Who is this Elsa? Her name is so sterile and dead. It’s not me.

Elsa Fisher is a controlled disaster, her forbidden affair with her boss has reached it’s bitter end. She has been fired from her job at MoMA as executive assistant to the talented Eric Reindheart, what else to do but return home to Los Angeles and party with her friends, sail to Catalina and slowly self-destruct? With pills, booze, young hot guys, anything to keep reality at a distance, but as she sinks, she may will bring her friends down with her. She uses men along the way, young and old, high off her mother’s stolen pills. “He’s young and breakable and it would feel so goddamn good to break something.”  Bitter, jaded, with her stale heart- she just can’t get out of her own way.

Her college friend’s lives have moved along, even her ex-husband Robby has a girlfriend, Jane- who seems so much lovelier than she did when they first met in New York. Jane, athletic, upbeat, just the perfect little package for her ex. The sort of woman that will glow in the intense focus Robby has to give any woman in his life. In the mix again, the men desire her. Her ex-husband Robby can’t seem to let go, always slipping back into an intimacy he should be long past.  Questioning why things ended, jealous of male attention she receives, as if he still has that right. She almost enjoys the misery, the attention it garners from Robby. It’s hard to like Elsa, tangled so tightly in her own mess of a life, blind to the needs of her friends. Charly , her best friend, has been trying for children with her husband Jared. Jared is an over-grown flirt, at times adoring of his wifey Charly and others insensitive, but Elsa doesn’t see everything clearly, she is too wrapped up in her own victim mentality. With her bite, her vicious wit, her untouchable conscious she seems to only bring back destruction to the group. Telling her friends this trip is about a well needed vacation from her fast paced New York life, hiding the truth about her affair and being fired, sleeping with men, tossing back pills and booze, leading Charly astray, slowly the friends have to wonder- just why did she come back?

Her past is surfacing through her dreams, and in hazy painful memories of how she betrayed each of her friends in different ways, particularly when her beauty became ripe. She is remembering her father’s decline, the love she couldn’t muster for her first love Robby, every titillating moment she spent with Eric, her boss at MoMA. Tom has the boat the friends will all travel to Catalina on, a client of Jared’s, wealthy, smug and who has his eyes on Elsa, far more perceptive than any of her friends. He recognizes exactly what she is, exposing her hypocrisy, her needs, her cruelty and weaknesses. Before the trip is over, she will set off events that change each bond she has with her friends. Charly wants her best friend back so badly, possibly at her own detriment. Elsa’s heart is sour, she is a source of poison, and is too boozed soaked and self absorbed to see it. Rather than humbling herself, confiding in her friends, she pretends to be happy, carefree, and cynical. By the end of the trip, everyone will be changed, some will lose something vital to their future happiness, but will Elsa remained untouched by the damage she has birthed?

Publication Date: November 7, 2017

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

In Case I Go by Angie Abdou

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“She put too much weight in little signs, that girls, and allowed herself to believe in the watery promises of the heated moments.”

In Case I Go is a unique story in that it is a haunting of sorts, a ghost story that is more slips through time and a barrage of memories of guilt, shame, and passion. Just who do those memories belong too, though?  “Like you and your family, Elijah.” Mary says. “You’re an invasive species.” Over time, he will come to understand just what she means. Mary and Eli are special, but why is it Eli can hear her speak, see her when no one else can, when everyone knows Mary can’t communicate? Why does he have visions or dreams, how are they speaking this way? Nicholas and Lucy have moved to Coalton, hoping for a peaceful lull, from Lucy’s ‘moods’ from the strain in their marriage, but the mountain town and their own ancestor’s past transgressions will seek to be known through their young son, Eli. Erotic visions and encounters with Mary, a Ktunaxa neighbor, feel more real than anything else happening in the present. Dreams are blending with the waking world and Eli is too young to understand what is visited upon his soul. How can this young boy have memories of when he was a full grown man, in a time before he was even born? How is his neighbor Mary a part of this strange slip through time too?

Lucy and Nicholas have big problems, there is the drinking, the moods, the many apologies Lucy truly means but don’t make a bit of difference. Between trying to eavesdrop on his parents nightly conversations to Mary calling to him in the night, Eli is pulled into two different worlds. Surely, it’s just his imagination? Mary is confusing him with his great -great-grandfather! What had he done to Mary? What is real? With visions of blood, of fires- Eli doesn’t know anymore, and that’s terrifying.

Lucy writes letters to Eli she never sends, shamed by her poor mothering. Afraid when she recognizes herself in his expressions, revealing things far too grown up, but again- her young son will never read these musings. It’s a tender part of the novel, because the reader gets a glimpse of the inner torment Lucy feels due to her mental state. She confides the problems with her relationship with Nicholas, where did their passion go? Just what has it morphed into and is she to blame? She is still haunted by the first years of her son’s life, when he was ill. Thoughts of shame at the fleeting resentments of a life with a sickly child float around in her memories, stinging her for the selfishness. She loves her son fiercely, her strange indigo boy.

As Nicholas works in a mine, and Lucy struggles with her inner demons Elijah is tormented by the sins of his ancestor. The dead have not been well cared for, Sam’s niece is friends with Eli, the real Mary, but he pretends to talk to Mary when she isn’t even there. Sam’s Mary doesn’t speak, so how can that be? Why is Lucy so interested in Sam, when he was Eli’s friend first? Why is Mary pointing out the growing closeness between Sam and his mother? Eli doesn’t like it at all! How can Mary be two people? Why is Mary telling stories, he knows Mary is Sam’s niece, her mother was taken away. Why is she telling another sort of story that isn’t her own? Nothing makes sense, everything is tangled up in his mind.

When he is walking in the woods with the real Mary, he tells himself that other Mary is just a dream, and this is the true Mary, he is just mixing everything up. Maybe a long ago seduction that thrives through the bloodline has found it’s way to the present, is surfacing through Eli. Eli and Mary are the outlets for the source.

The quote I used moved me, there is a time in the lives of many women when they rely on the ‘watery promises of heated moments’, something that transcends ethnicity, a bond women share the whole world over, through time. Call it foolishness, youth, or naivete, many are victim to seductive moments, leaning on sour love.

This all sounds befuddled in my hands, but the writing is wonderful and the story is a lovely creation. I knew next to nothing about the Ktunaxa until I read this novel. When a development disturbs a historic graveyard, everything intensifies. It’s not about fixing the past, because you can’t, especially that of your ancestors. Yet, truth must have it’s way and stories need be told, even if through the voices of the ill remembered dead.

Publication Date: October 16, 2017

Arsenal Pulp Press

 

 

 

 

Pure Hollywood: And Other Stories by Christine Schutt

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But who could blame the girl Cecilia? Cecilia was a girl, and Jonathan was a restless, fully mended little boy. One minute he was in the bedroom watching tv, and the next, he was gone to the terrace.

I wasn’t always a fan of short stories, though having stumbled upon the brilliance of several writers, I am much more likely to pick them up and devour them now. Pure Hollywood is a well written collection but I really wanted to feel closer to the characters, which is strange considering I really enjoyed The Hedges, where it seems the reader is not meant to be that close to the young couple. It’s a strange experience for those of us with unusual names to find our name in a story, as the character Lolly shares mine. Lolly is miserable, exasperated with her sickly son Jonathan, bored by her beautiful surroundings, superior to the other vacationers (so it seems) and just one moment away from disaster. Maybe she has slipped away before, into sleep, into the distance, but this time she will be punished. The reader never dives too deeply in Lolly’s nind, yet it actually works in this story to have the cold distance, you feel just like the other vacationers trying to understand the young couple.

Where You Live, When You Need Me is so weird and short, I love it. Ella, a child care worker of unknown origins, during a time when mothers should be extra cautious of strangers around their children, appears as if from nowhere. But everyone wants her, so great with the kids. Why aren’t the mothers worried? Why is it the opposite reaction can be born in moments of danger? The last sentence in the story expresses such a beautiful defense for the carelessness of letting Ella in, which I won’t write here because it gives away the tale.

Some of the stories are short but hit me between the eyes, others I wasn’t really feeling but as a collection, the writing is solid. Schutt is one to watch,

Publication Date: March 18, 2018

Grove Atlantic, Grove Press

 

In the Midst of Winter: A Novel by Isabel Allende

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“These things happen in life, Richard.”

“Not in mine.”

“Yes, I’ve realized that. But see how life refuses to leave us in peace? Sooner or later it catches up with us.”

Many readers may think this is going to be a stuffy love story between the old folks, it’s not. It’s good for the young to remember that even those of us past our days of blushing youth still feel many of the same yearnings and longing for love as bright eyed youngsters. Richard Bowmaster, a 60 year old human rights lawyer puts too many obstacles in front of any possibility of romance, when he isn’t busy boring himself keeping everything in it’s place and pushing Lucia, his tenant, away he finds himself offending his tenant. He’ll not fall into any trap of romanticism, too busy suffering bowel problems and other illnesses. Lucia Maraz, a lecturer from Chile, was once attracted to Richard but beyond academics, the two are completely different personalities. His shyness that once seemed to hint at a deeper, sexy hidden side proved over time to be just a fantasy of Lucia’s creation. A deep intimacy between them seemed an impossibility, and no amount of flirtation could rattle the man into taking initiative.

A traffic accident creates a chain of events that pulls Lucia and Richard together, as a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala named Evelyn will make them a part of her dangerous story. There will be gangs, murders, and a body.  All three have faced terrible tragedies in their lives and Evelyn, despite her youth, may top them all. As Richard and Lucia are involved in the darker problems facing Evelyn, their love blossoms. One thing is certain, age isn’t a refuge from the whims of fate.

Eveyln’s grandmother did her best to raise her grandchildren to be good, respectful people. But poverty and struggle wasn’t for Evelyn’s eldest brother. Gregorio quits school and wanders the streets high on glue until he finds a family of his own choosing, the MS-13. This is the catalyst for everything that happens to Evelyn before crashing into Richard’s life. It’s a dangerous world she must escape, but in America caring for a disabled boy, she seems to be caught in a strange crime possibly involving the family she works for. Just what are they involved in? What has the master of the house done?

It touches on the topic of immigrants and the difficulties they face back home and in America. Lucia knows all too well the trauma heaped on Evelyn, for her past is one rife with suffering, having endured the brutality of loss within her own family, watching it ravage her own mother. Love hasn’t been any better, now with a full grown daughter, she longs for the touch of a man but for women her age, the sad reality seems to be full of slim pickings. If Richard could just stop being reclusive, could let life touch him once again and move past his own deeply painful losses, then maybe there could be something…. It’s going to take a damaged young girl to break through Richard’s shell, and breathe life into both he and Lucia’s world, if they can survive the danger.

Publication Date: October 31, 2017

Atria Books

 

 

 

Brass: A Novel by Xhenet Aliu

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“One look at my stringy White Rain hair and yeah right I’d ever be the girlfriend of a boy named Laird or Lawrence or Anything the III.”

There are so many stories about girls full of sunshine and promise ,which can be wonderful, reading about their struggles with which ivy league college to pick, or which country to start their European vacation in but this isn’t about the haves. Elsie works as a waitress at the Betsy Ross Diner, her upbringing and surroundings have jaded her but even with her sarcasm and hope to get out of the dreary life she seems destined for she still find herself destroyed by love. Bashkim, an Albanian immigrant has come to the land of opportunity, but all Elsie can see is that it’s ‘the crappiest place on earth.’ Bashkim is far more schooled in the disturbances of the world, has seen things and lived in poverty that no amount of national geographic pictures can educate Elsie on.  It isn’t long before she is seduced by this seasoned man, impregnated and dizzy with shock that Bashkim’s wife may not be as far from his thoughts as she once seemed. Elsie’s plan to earn enough to escape this dying town becomes muddled through the choices she makes. She isn’t sure this rawboned existence is going to work, where Bashkim is satisfied with meager surroundings, Elsie knows this is the dead end she feared.

17 years later, the reader meets Luljeta (LuLu), Elsie’s daughter. LuLu is learning being smart isn’t enough, everything she has worked hard for is slipping through her fingers like sand. She knows to some she is just a fatherless daughter, a lifelong recipient of free lunches… but she has always been good, has a high IQ, she shows promise. Everything is different now, and she is ready to mess up big! Maybe failing is in her DNA, maybe she should simply stop trying!  She has just been rejected by NYU, it was her only escape plan, she isn’t so special after-all. How could she have thought she could compete with exceptional students going to expensive private schools whose education eclipses her own sub-par learning?  Could it really be, is she going to be stuck with her mother in this dead end life?

Now that her plan has unraveled, it’s time to sift through her mothers secrets and omissions about her father. In this novel, everyone’s skin is too tight, they all want out in different ways. For the immigrant experience isn’t always paved with gold american streets and sometimes just surviving is enough for some, it’s better than the hell they left behind in the motherland.  It’s a desperate straining, against the reality of your opportunities, because despite all the Hollywood endings many times lack of money and class will keep you pinned to a life neither you, nor your mother wanted. Sometimes when you go searching for answers, you’re left with just more questions. Some of our stories never settle like the dust in some seedy diner. Could there be family members wondering about LuLu nearby, maybe her father is closer than she thinks?

This isn’t a happy little story, it has bite and it’s painful but I find it far more easy to recognize than stories about people who have everything they want and never face rejection. It’s the American dream sold at a discount because it expired yesterday. Just what I needed to read. Add it to your reading list for 2018. 

Publication Date: January 30, 2018

Random House