The Gypsy Moth Summer: A Novel by Julia Fierro

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“He’d wanted to hate Avalon, to feel the same disgust he’d reserved for her parents, who lived as if Jules were dead and her children never born.”

The islanders can hear the feeding mouths of the voracious gypsy moth caterpillars that have invaded Avalon Island. Their bodies, and excrement covering their clothing, the grounds, and the people are left to wonder if the insects will eat every bit of vegetation on the island, leaving nothing behind but skeleton trees and dead plants?  Or is it more likely the people themselves will devour each other with their racism and superiority?

When Lesile Day Marshall, daughter of one of the most prominent family’s who own a home known as ‘The Castle’ returns to the island with her  husband Jules, an African American botanist and their bi-racial children the people are turned upside down. Everyone is curious, and not all are open or accepting of their marriage. The bigotry on the island is both loud and quiet, despite the resentment Jules feels, the island’s native species of plants has him mesmerized. He and Lesile may well be King and Queen of the castle now, and to hell with the darlings of Avalon. Their son, Brooks has fallen hard for Maddie Pencott LaRosa,  whose stuck between two worlds from birth. Her mother, daughter to the Colonel that fathered Grudder Aviation and his wife Veronica, married a man from the working class side of the island. Maddie’s father has held tight to the grit of his origins, Veronica and the Colonel have kept their distance from their disgraced daughter and her family but as the Colonel begins to lose his mind, Veronica seems to find her own. With the arrival of Jules, Veronica’s true self seems to be splitting out of her body, much like the caterpillars covering and devouring the island.  She has always been just like the women of island and yet by falling in love with her granddaughter, her  clouded perception of the world is clearing. Watching as Maddie has trysts with Brooks, their forbidden love allows Veronica to long for life again, despite the sickness inside of her. She finds herself charmed, and drawn to Jules and his passion for plants. That he is witness to her husband’s vulnerability bonds the two, but is it dangerous for Jules and his family to let down their guard, giving the islanders benefit of the doubt?

Graffti covers war memorials alerting people that ‘Grudder Kills’, and the cancer that it spreads is evident in the sickness that tears through the island’s residents, including young Penny, Maddie’s friend. Too, something is causing barren wombs in women. This is a military island, Grudder is an aviation company that for generations has been feeding the war effort. The island is an Eden for the wealthy whites and a hell for the workers that support their riches. There is animosity beneath the surface, everything has come to a head as Veronica’s husband, The Colonel is losing his mind to dementia and truly is no longer fit to run their company. She takes fate into her hands, with the strict, controlling man now as confused and lost as a weepy child Veronica feels a strength she never knew existed inside of her. It’s not too late to set things right for her family, before exiting the earth. A pity she has just now begun to live, no longer under the watchful controlling eye of her husband.

Brooks is a city boy and hasn’t even seen so much stardust. He is street wise and yet has a tender gentleness that the rough boys Maddie dates lack, as fed by pornographic treatment of women as they are. Their forbidden love must be hidden from her father, and she even fears telling her friends. Lesile, Brooks mother, encourages her son to bring the aggressive kids they first encountered to their grounds to party. Jules is less enthusiastic about the arrangement, and knows because of his skin color that they must remain far more distrustful and vigilant yet just what will happen when he lets his guard down? Maddie’s brother Dom is confused sexually, has been bullied to the point of breaking and wants to prove himself worthy of the family name. As his grandfather says “Sometimes, you’re the mouth. Sometimes, you’re the meal.” With that on his mind, he will become the protector of his family, but what does it mean for Maddie and Brooks love affair?

There are a lot of characters in this story, and not all of them are likable. The author has sent a plague of moths unto the people, who are already plagued by their narrow minds and greed. People are plotting, and one character that has ‘lost his marbles’ is polluting an already confused mind with his own poisonous nature. Is it a surprise when he has already polluted the island  and it’s residents with toxins from his company? They are hungry, brutal, drugged out, sexed up, vengeful, manipulative… I can’t think of anything Fierro’s characters aren’t struggling through. Family strife, racism, disease, dementia… did I mention racism. It is as smeared throughout the novel as the caterpillars guts. Who knew a lawn jockey statue could so disturb? Well, who didn’t?  There is a lot of stereo-typical behavior, but one has to ask how does something become stereo-typical? It’s a hell of a story, and a part of me thinks the racism serves its purpose and another part of me thinks it was laid on a bit too thick. No one can write about racism with a light pen, and Fierro doesn’t.

With the arrival of Lesile and her family, everything ugly about the people of Avalon grows into a beast. Lesile has her own agenda and Jules can’t resist his wife’s desires and needs but it may cost his family more than he ever imagined. As far as character’s go, his relationship and conversations with his son were moments I enjoyed. He adores his wife, and their passion is fiery. He is an intelligent, loving family man but should he have so much faith in Leslie, rather than wonder at her reasons for returning to the very place she turned her back on? Veronica and Maddie’s growing bond reveals who Veronica should have been, before wealth  and society’s expectations corrupted  her. How she feels about men, after being with the Colonel for so long is a hell of a reason to be so bitter now, ” I’m sorry, my dad’s always telling me to think before I speak.” “Yes, “Veronica said. That sounds just like the kind of advice men like to give women. Especially young women.”  Don’t say or think anything important, edit yourself, keep yourself in check, be a good little lady- that sort of sexism is rampant in all social classes. Is there a lick of hope for any of these seemingly doomed characters? Will anyone escape being eaten?  I think this novel is engaging, but at the same time it is a tough read. Times are ugly, that it’s set in the 90’s doesn’t make the bigotry any easier to take. Was it really this bad? I don’t know, open your eyes today and ask that same question.

Publication Date: June 6, 2017

St. Martin’s Press

 

 

 

Mothers And Other Strangers: A Novel by Gina Sorell

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“Like the cancer that had claimed her a week earlier, my mother has been like an illness to me, and eventually I’d had to cut her out.” 

Toxic mothers create a strange condition in some children whether they’re a son or daughter and grown or still young. A mother/daughter relationship is a different entity entirely. There is often a yearning, a hunger for nurturing unfilled and often said children continue to try and forge a bond with the estranged mother long after it’s healthy to.  Elsie’s mother  Rachel was forced, at gunpoint, to marry Elsie’s father despite the fact she was pregnant with a dead man’s child, an ominous step into her future and one that darkened her mind. That isn’t the only shocking secret buried in her mother’s past.

As Elsie grew up to the cold shoulder of her vain mother who was always distracted by her  own beauty,  many flirtations and strange cult, Elsie learned not to expect any attention to be spent on her. Growing up too fast, her escape hatch a career in a dance company while still underage, her mother took no interest in her performances nor successes. Pushing her body to it’s limits, creating a family of her own among the close knit dancers, somehow her mother  still managed to make her feel an unworthy, valueless failure. Rachel also manages to bring two men into Elsie’s life that alter the trajectory of her future and their relationship.

From her earliest memories, Elsie dreams of fire but there is no prodding that could open her mother’s past. Her mother’s brutal, calculated choices lead to a terrible betrayal between the two. Years of therapy,  and her lover Ted’s affections can’t fix the broken pieces of her soul, constant motion is the only thing that keeps her sane. “For a long time, getting to the root of the problem only made me feel worse. I had too many loose threads , and it was dangerous to pull at them.”  Rachel is a plague on her relationship with Ted, a man with an optimistic world view.  He becomes a buffer between them, but in order to survive, she ‘cuts the cancer out’ completely. Not all women should be mothers, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are. Elsie’s hopes and dreams are ripped from her when she can’t create the family she needs to ‘rewrite’ her history, and so she abandons her future and Ted.

Barely having survived her mother, carrying a shameful trauma from her youth that was the seed of her mother’s biggest betrayal, she must return to the source of all the damage when her mother dies. Her choice is to take up the mystery her mother’s final message offers her, the ‘truth’ finally-  or bury it with her. Elsie’s decision throws her on the path of the very cult that her mother devoted her life to, the very insidiousness that was the wedge in their relationship and the men that nearly destroyed Elsie. Everything she knew or had guessed about her mother will be turned inside out but will she be ready to learn the devastating truth about who her mother really was?

What makes this a riveting debut is the emotional autopsy the reader witnesses Elsie undergo through different parts of her life. It tackles a very sensitive subject, the complex bond between mothers and daughters is difficult enough, even in the best of relationships but when a mother is poisonous, narcissistic it is a chilling, barren world for the daughter. Somehow, it can seem like the coldness seeps into every cell of one’s being, turning every future hope into a frozen tundra. How does one evict the many cruelties suffered at a mother’s hands from one’s head? How does a woman dream of becoming a mother and doing it ‘right’ when she never knew a mother’s unconditional love? Just how much of an ugly past can forgive the sins of a mother? At the conclusion of the novel, I didn’t feel it altered my feelings about such a woman. Truth can be a balm that heals, understanding the full story of any life can sometimes give license to past mistakes but just how much? It’s not about whether or not the reader, or even Elsie, chooses to forgive, it’s about dissecting the deceptions, uncovering truth, and salvaging from the ruins some semblance of a life. This was dark, and heartbreaking. What is more painful that feeling abandoned by one’s mother?

Publication Date: May 2, 2017

Prospect Park Books

 

The Goat Fish and the Lover’s by Knot Jack Driscoll

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..she insisted nobody ever won: “Nobody, Sam. Remember that. Above all else, remember that when the fairyland dream smoke clears, women like us, like you and me, we always, every single solitary time, wake up elsewhere. And that other life we wanted so badly? The one back there? It’s nothing more than a mirage, the simple-sad story of our botched and misguided lives.”

The writing in this collection of stories is wonderful, the characters are raw, some stuck in their hopeless lives and old enough to know it’s not going to get better, others are scratching to escape households where their parents are miserable with the struggle of staying afloat, some still altered after being burned by love physically, bottom dwellers and those just ‘knocking around’. The children are just as perceptive and believable as the grown ups, maybe a little criminal but for good purposes.

Young boys ‘speak with bigger words ‘ than their mother’s loser boyfriends, those ‘stand ins’ they’re stuck with until the real father’s might possibly return, women remember their vanishing youth and wonder at the turns life takes-this is full of human reflection. Some mother’s look for and clip miracles, while her child laughs behind her back. A fourteen year old boy finds in his mother’s friend a mermaid like soul as she shares an intimate moment with him on the water.  People are let down, so many try but just can’t be good, just can’t shake the misery induced by a life that isn’t turning out right. Some homes are alive with quiet violence. “I hated how every conversation took on the urgency of a hurricane or tornado drill, and all I really wanted was to get as far away from the dangers of that house as quickly as I could.”  There are big moments and small moments we carry with us. The reader climbs inside so many character’s minds that they are dizzy with emotions: their hatreds, loves, regrets, hopes -all of it. Heavy stuff.

This collection is from the Made In Michigan Series, set in Michigan. The author is very perceptive, the characters are birthed fully in his imagination but feel like real people. Like all of us, in spite of their struggles they still cling to hope, and their fictional lives live parallel to our own in a strange manner. I have to read his other books, not every writer can capture the essence of people in sentences.

Available Now

Wayne University Press

 

Girl In Snow: A Novel by Danya Kukafka

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“If this moment were a song, Cameron thought,  it would be a quiet song- the sort of song that drowned you in your own miserable chest.”

Every school seems to have their ‘golden girl’, some have several, and usually they aren’t so golden. I think of the quote by Leo Tolstoy, “What a strange illusion it is to suppose that beauty is goodness.” So many people are blinded by it, just as much as being different often leads to shunning. Let’s face it, people that are misunderstood are often feared. Any deviation from the norm is suspect. So what happens when a beautiful, popular darling Lucinda is found brutally murdered?

Cameron Whitley loved Lucinda, he knew her more intimately than anyone, though they didn’t speak. Everyone knows he is weird, that he was obsessed and watched her. Love makes people do strange things, but with her death he begins to unravel. He deals with his grief and horror through his art, but do the drawings tell a story of their own, one he doesn’t want anyone to know? His actions are getting even crazier, and people have him pegged as the killer, after-all, unrequited love is often a motive! He is a watcher, but he isn’t dangerous, is he? How caged he feels, how animal simply because of his inability to navigate the world just like all the ordinary people. Why, why does he have always have to be cast out? Why does he flip between a childlike innocence and creepy stalker? As they say, even serial killers have mothers who love them.

Then there is the hateful, angry, bitter Jade Dixon-Burns who could always see right through Lucinda’s phoniness. She knows firsthand how imperfect the darling was. Jade knows that she wasn’t the angel everyone imagined her to be. Lucinda cost her so much more than her job! Lucinda’s beauty, her very existence was a black-hole that ripped everything Jade had from her. The wounds were bad enough, but the salt was Lucinda’s indifference to the hurt she caused. Jade had genuine love, in her best friend  Zap (Édouard) but she took that too. It’s no wonder she can’t dredge up enough empathy for her little sister Amy, mourning the loss of her friend’s older sister, but it’s a bitter brew when someone eclipses you. If such suffering isn’t enough, her mother is an abusive nightmare. While Lucinda lived the charmed existence of a beloved daughter, admired older sister and popular school girl, Jade suffers at her mother’s hands for adding to the disappointment her mother feels about her own miserable life, her looks guarantee she’d never be popular among her peers, and her family’s financial situation made her job vital.  She is no one’s ‘beloved.’ Her tongue is vicious, the result of her poisonous surroundings. Hiding her suffering, only one person was allowed access to the bruises on her skin and pain in her heart and that was Zap. If only she could go back in time, if only her changing body didn’t betray her, if only life wasn’t a popularity contest some of us are bound to lose, then maybe she wouldn’t despise Lucinda’s golden life, then maybe she could feel sorry for her and squeeze out a lone tear. What ifs are fantasies, and Jade knows this more than anyone. So the princess suffered, so what? But did she kill her? Could she hate Lucinda so much that she would leave her lying dead in the snow?

Officer Russ Fletcher has ties to Cameron, and a heavy guilt that he carries. Will his past cloud his investigation? Everyone is pointing at the strange boy, and there seems to be a lot of signs that point to Cameron, which sets a personal dilemma for the detective.  The town itself “knows the truth”, they have their criminal drawn and quartered in their mind. It’s easy to solve the case, it could be no one else but Cameron, right? Cameron and Jade are pulled together, and every one of Lucinda’s secrets come out, reminding us we never truly know things in the way we think we do.

I wouldn’t compare this to other novels, it stands perfectly fine on it’s own. It made me feel people’s most common thoughts can be their worst. I’ll be watching this author.

Publication Date: August 22, 2017

Simon and Schuster

 

 

 

The End Of Temperance Dare: A Novel by Wendy Web

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“Death lived within these walls; she could feel it hanging in the air, as tangible as the fog outside.”

Eleanor Harper, as fate would have it, has become the director of an artist’s retreat at Cliffside Manor. That the place and it’s grounds were once ‘a waiting room for death’  (a sanatorium housing adults and children infected with tuberculosis) may well be the reason this ‘peaceful manor’ is anything but. Is it possible suffering clings to the surfaces or is it something more malevolent? Nervous about her inexperience, this change in career is what she needs, as is the escape from her former life as a crime reporter, dealing with the most heinous, viciously murderous crimes. She is beyond burned out and run down, could that be the reason she feels uneasy? Maybe her mind is playing tricks on her?

Nothing could prepare her for what happens to the woman that hired her, nor is she in command when the artists arrive. Eleanor isn’t sure what’s solid, her imagination must be running rampant, seeing things differently than they are, as they would be in the past, an uneasy feeling consuming her from the moment she stepped through the doors of Cliffside Manor. It’s on her now, and she cannot fail. There is an instant attraction to one of the men, a photographer named Richard, but something about the manor’s resident doctor whom she meets prior to the arrivals has her mystified. A wicked force begins to torment the group immediately. As she learns more, she soon realizes everyone chosen, including herself wasn’t random, but just what was Penelope Dare up to? Did she set them up, have nefarious intentions? Why did Penelope have faith in her and leave so much to her, a veritable stranger really? The author plays with a fascinating subject of tuberculosis and sanatoriums then sprinkled in a bit of horror and romance for good measure creating this strange concoction of a thriller. While I enjoyed it, I really wanted more focus on the tuberculosis patients as a haunting and while they have a part in the story, I just didn’t like the evil seed so to speak.  I was sold on the terrible heavy sorrows of a place people went to die, all of that would be foreboding and haunting enough but the child… well… that’s my one sore spot here.

Now, the romantic interests… it was creative but the reactions any living person would have would be less ho hum. The revelations were passed over much too fast for my tastes and accepted a bit too easily. But I don’t want to give away the story-line. It’s strange because it’s a thriller, romance, horror, supernatural story and yet not fully any of those things. Any fan of ghost stories and investigative haunting knows hospitals, sanatoriums, and mental asylums have such breathtakingly heavy stories that it seems if there were a place to house tormented ghosts this would be prime real estate. Such abandoned places stand as foreboding shells of their former lives, and what scarier setting for activity and terror?  The author picked the perfect atmospheric setting and for whatever reason, throw a lake in and it’s raises the spook factor. Water and ghosts just go together. Creepy children always raise of few hairs on the arms don’t they?

It’s a good little story, while I wasn’t horrified, it was fun. It takes a lot to scare me though and I nitpick horror stories. I think when you have seen too many horror films and know too many ghost legends you scoff at everything. There was just enough to keep me reading to find out what the heck was going on.

Publication Date: June 6, 2017

Lake Union Publishing

 

 

Seeing People Off: A Novel by Jana Beňová

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“Voices are so bewitching. They bore into the body. Gradually uncover all the paths. Some of them shut gates forever, burn bridges.  Close openings.”

The voices in this novel are wonderful. I hated to hold off reviewing this book until closer to it’s release date, because it’s incredibly unique. Living packed in with your neighbors, where I know I’d go mad, it’s impossible to be private. “The neighbor is an emphasized character.”  The novel centers around Elza and Ian  living in an apartment complex outside of Bratislava. Why are the walls so talkative and musical, awwww the people… the people. The reader is a bit of a voyeur peeking at their neighbors, where Szegedin goulash can move a person firing off memories of their family, and rats have tasters assuring the survival of their “mischief” (group), some feel like they “stink of loneliness”, and some are spiritual hitchhikers. Through the walls, Elza hears the “agitated voices, political commentary..”  within the already small space, Ian makes a smaller one for himself and so it goes.

Somehow the author slips in Carl Solomon, through her visits with Rebecca, “Ginsberg’s first born lunatic”, whom by the way helped Solomon gain his fame. These characters are ‘swallowed up by sadness’, terrible swimmers, filled with terror, marching on, bearing too much noise and closeness, stuck in old age homes or sick of old wartime memories, “The war ended a long time ago, today we can’t get anymore mileage out of it.” The best quote of the novel, “Youth camp for some people started again in old age. Elza’s aunt lived in an old age home in Budapest.” Just the idea of such homes, of living your last days stuck in such places, youth camps indeed!

This review is all over the place, and the novel bounces around beautifully. I wonder, as I always mention when I read translations, how different the novel reads in it’s native tongue. Two Dollar Radio publishes some of the most unique literature, so I am more than happy to review anything I can get my hands on. There is a dreamy quality to it, and the writing is humorous even when it seems the subject would be heavy. It’s different, and I welcome different. I am a hunter of novels from other countries, God Bless translators, I mean that. In a perfect world I would be a polyglot, but sadly I am not, I sit and grieve all the books that are out in the world I will never read, sigh…

Publication Date: May 16, 2017

Two Dollar Radio

The Road To Bittersweet

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I thought The Education Of Dixie Dupree was fantastic. Everhart’s forthcoming novel is about fourteen-year-old Wallis Ann Stamper, her family and their lives in the Appalachian Mountains.  When the Tuckasegee River bursts, they must flee and everything changes. For those of you that request arcs, have a look on Edelweiss for more.  I can’t explain what set off my love affair with said Mountains, but I can never seem to get enough fiction set there. I’m looking forward to Donna Everhart’s new novel, looks like it won’t be out until December 26, 2017. Fingers crossed for an arc!