Category Archives: contemporary fiction

Sunday Review: The Reading by Barbara Monier

This is a novel about taking stock of one’s life—and perhaps finding the courage to jettison our defense mechanisms. Esmé, a writer in her sixties, is experiencing a prolonged creative paralysis. Instead of working on a new novel, she’s put off dealing with her writer’s block by continuing to give public readings of her last published work. Then one night someone from her past shows up in the audience, and the unexpected encounter propels her into reviewing both the childhood loss that scarred her and her first year of college, which she views as the worst year of her life. The two events have combined to turn her into a defensive person who deliberately avoids both memory and commitment.

Her voyage of reminiscence occurs at the same time that she faces an upheaval to her current life as major as her long-ago enrollment at a strange university in an alien part of the country. Her lover, Gino, has asked her to live with him, a move that will force her to leave the carefully constructed routine and cocoon that have surrounded and cushioned her for decades. Esmé makes the physical move, but can she risk the psychological and emotional shifts that will be necessary to commit herself to Gino? Or will she once again retreat?

Esmé is a sharply drawn character who makes mordant observants about the world and records her experiences in memorable detail—in sentences such as this one about a childhood visit to Pittsburgh: “The Sound of Music on a screen so immense that I felt pressed back in my seat by a barrage of pictures and sounds—I had nightmares about the Baroness’ nostrils and the way the peals of thunder rattled inside of my chest.”

The COVID-19 pandemic makes its appearance, but instead of dominating the narrative, it works on Esmé as it did on so many of us—as a catalyst toward reevaluating our lives. I found myself rooting for Esmé the entire novel, and the ending felt satisfying without being too tidy or forced.

The publication date for The Reading is September 27, but the Kindle version is available for preorder on Amazon, and the paperback can be preordered at Amika Press.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, Twentieth century

Sunday Review: Fiction about Argentina’s Dirty War

For those who don’t know the history of the Dirty War, I am going to begin with some background. (If you already know, skip to the fifth paragraph.) From 1974 to 1983, Argentina conducted a Dirty War that consisted of state terrorism against its citizens. The government hunted down political dissidents, leftist guerillas, socialists—and any students, intellectuals, and activists the junta feared might become threats. 

People were snatched from school, work, home, the street. They were tortured for information and for punishment. They were beaten, shot, and buried in mass graves. They were drugged and thrown from airplanes, still alive, over open water. Even today, they are known as los desaparecidos, the disappeared. Pregnant women who were taken were held until they gave birth and then disposed of; their children were given to government officials or military officers who wanted to adopt. 

An estimated 30,000 Argentinians were disappeared, and an estimated 500 babies were stolen. Many of the grieving families still have no answers. Many of the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity were pardoned. Not until the 2000s did the Argentine government revoke the amnesty laws and begin prosecution. 

Because of my work on world history textbooks, I’ve known about the Dirty War for decades, but not until recently did it occur to me to read fiction about it. 

In the last two weeks, I have listened to audiobooks of two of them: On a Night of a Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark and Perla by Carolina de Robertis. 

Purely by accident, I chose books that have several plot points and themes in common. Both have main characters who are young women, born during the Dirty War and raised in families that are part of the Argentinian elite. Both Paloma and Perla begin knowing little about their country’s terrible past. Both find romantic partners who help them learn the shocking history their parents hid from them—and their families’ own roles in the Dirty War. 

And yet, the two books are also quite different. On a Night of a Thousand Stars is the more straightforward narrative. It’s a dual timeline novel. One story focuses on Valentina, a young woman who attends college and then begins working as an architect during the opening years of the government campaign of terror. The other story, set twenty years later, focuses on Paloma, a young woman who is raised by Argentinian expats in New York City. Because her knowledge of Argentina has been gleaned mostly from visits to her grandfather, she starts out understanding little about the Dirty War, but she makes some discoveries that motivate her to find out what if any role her father played in combatting the oppression. Paloma’s father, who was once Valentina’s lover, is the link between the two time periods. 

Perla, on the other hand, has elements of magical realism, which felt entirely appropriate for the South American setting. The main character is the daughter of a naval officer, which is a huge red flag to the knowledgeable reader that her family has dark secrets to hide. Perla’s lover, an investigative journalist, nudges her to question her parents, but she can’t—and her inner conflict causes her to break up with him. Then, while her parents are away, she is visited by a mysterious man, who smells of rotting debris on a beach and who constantly sheds water on the parlor floor. This uncanny intruder is the catalyst that helps Perla intuit her past. 

I enjoyed both novels. My personal favorite was Perla, which was more literary and, for me, better conveyed the tragedy of Argentina’s past. But for readers who don’t enjoy magical realism, I can recommend On a Night of a Thousand Stars without hesitation. 

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Sunday Review: How to Knit a Murder by Sally Goldenbaum

I bought this audiobook because a) it was on sale, b) the setting looked interesting, c) I’m a lifelong knitter, and d) I wanted something light but not TOO light. Most of those expectations were fulfilled.

However, before buying, I looked it up on Amazon and saw that it was listed aa #2 of series, so even though I prefer to read mysteries series in order, I thought dipping in this early wouldn’t be too bad, and if I liked it, I could go back and catch up on the opening installment without too much confusion. 

Except the label on Amazon is deceptive. This isn’t book 2 of 5. it’s book 12 of I don’t know how many—16 maybe? Apparently, the author switched publishers after 11 books, and the publisher decided to restart the numbering. Why would they do that? It’s very confusing to readers, and one of the most basic rules of marketing is not to confuse or annoy your customers.

Anyway, the whole time I was reading it, I was having difficulty remembering the characters who seemed to be the recurring cast. I’d get bits of their personalities here and there—but not enough to stick. It was like transferring to a new high school halfway through junior year and not only being unable to break into the in group but also finding it impossible to glean enough information to understand the relationships swirling around you.

The mystery was fine, although I easily spotted the essential piece of information that was tossed out casually about halfway through the book. But I just couldn’t engage enough with the knitting group to want to spend time with this town or these characters further, certainly not enough to go back and wade through 12 books to reach this point and move forward. 

I feel like I’m being unnecessarily negative and I’m punishing the author for something the publisher did, but I don’t like being led to expect something that isn’t what I’m getting. Perhaps if Kindle or one of the audiobook vendors I use offers a really cheap version of the real book 1 in the series, I’ll give it another try, or maybe I’ll eventually see if my library carries the books. But not until I’ve had a chance to let the irritation settle and see whether I develop any curiosity about the characters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, cozy mystery

Sunday Review: How the Deer Moon Hungers by Susan Wingate

The novel opens with a throat-grabbing scene narrated by the spirit of seven-year-old Tessa, who floats above a team of paramedics who are frantically trying to save her life as they transport her to an emergency room after an accident. Then the story jumps back in time several days.

Tessa and her sixteen-year-old sister Mackenzie, live on an island in the Pacific Northwest with their mother Uma, who is stressed out, overwhelmed, and raging since her husband left the family. Mackenzie—Mac—just wants to be a teenage girl, hanging out with her best friend Gemma, rolling her eyes at the things grownups do, and maybe, if she works up enough nerve, giving in to her friend’s urging to try marijuana. But because Uma is too overwhelmed to handle her current life, Mac also has to spend more time than she’d like looking after Tessa. The two sisters adore each other, but having a seven-year-old tag along can really cramp a teenager’s style.

Then the unthinkable happens. On a day when Mac and Gemma planned to do “big kid” things, they have to take Tessa with them. During a few minutes of inattention on the older girls’ part, the local drunk runs over Tessa and her bike with his massive tank of a car.

Tessa dies, and Uma blames her older daughter. So do the police, who decide—based on some dubious eyewitness testimony—to arrest Mac on drug charges. The only people who can vouch for Mac’s innocence choose self-protection rather than honesty, and Mac finds herself being sent to juvenile detention, where her already shattered life turns into a nightmare of terror and abuse.

Fortunately, Susan Wingate doesn’t leave us there but rather takes us through the worst of it and into the early stages of Mac’s road to redemption and healing. I recommend this to anyone who wants to be reminded of the possibility of hope after deep despair.

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Sunday Review: Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

This novel is an enjoyable blend of Southern family saga meets magical realism. Anna Kate is a young woman on the verge of starting medical school, less because she wants to than because she promised her late mother Eden that she would take up the career her father never got to practice. A few months before med school is about to start, Anna Kate’s maternal grandmother Zee dies, leaving Anna Kate an estate with a catch.

Zee practiced folk medicine and ran the Blackbird Cafe in Wicklow, Alabama—a town that Eden left behind when her boyfriend was killed in an accident because his parents unjustly accused her of crashing the car on purpose in an attempted murder-suicide. Because of her mother’s painful feelings about the town, Anna Kate has never been there. Now Zee’s will has left the cafe to Anna Kate with the stipulation that she must run it for two months before she can inherit the property and sell it.

It doesn’t take Anna Kate long after arriving in Wicklow to learn that the Blackbird is no ordinary cafe. The pies sold there are said to have magical powers to bring those who are grieving messages from beyond the grave. Except that when Anna Kate bakes the pies, the messages don’t come. “The pies are broken.”

A whimsical yet poignant tale ensues that encompasses solving family mysteries, establishing bonds with estranged relatives, weighing the value of old promises, and possibly finding love. The novel is comforting and thought provoking at the same time. But be forewarned. It will give you a craving for pie, blackberry iced tea, and buttermilk fried chicken.

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Sunday Review: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

I read this book because a friend strongly recommended it on Facebook, and while I’m not sorry I did, I didn’t love it as much as she did nor as much as I hoped I would.

The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman with a criminal past. She is convinced by a woman she loves to commit one crime, only to learn afterward that she has been set up to be guilty of an entirely different offense. The judge hands her an extremely harsh sentence, but after several years, her lawyer manages to get it reduced and Tookie is released. Her time in prison turned Tookie into a voracious reader, so she applies for a job at Louise Erdrich’s independent store Birchbark Books. This was the first thing that made it hard for me to connect to the story. To have Louise Erdrich write about herself as a minor character in her own novel felt too meta to me, and I didn’t enjoy the archness of it.

Tookie herself is a complex character, scarred but with the potential for warmth and growth. She turns out to be a great bookseller. Because of the wide and eclectic reading experience she gained in prison and has continued on the outside, she is often able to help customers find books they will love. Her most annoying regular customer is a woman named Flora, who does a great many charitable deeds but also insists without any concrete evidence that she too has Native ancestry. Flora dies on All Souls Day, 2019, but she refuses to rest in peace. Instead, she haunts the bookstore by returning every day at her normal time and moving to all her favorite spots within the building. In particular, Flora is drawn to Tookie, and one of the essential questions of the novel is why.

As the weeks pass, Flora persists and Tookie becomes more and more desperate to figure out how to persuade her to leave. The year draws to a close, and as it does, we as readers know something the characters do not: COVID-19 is coming, and their lives will be forever changed. Not only COVID, but this is Minneapolis, so the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest will become part of the storyline too.

And here is where I experienced my other big disconnect from the story. I expected these two catastrophes to stir me deeply, but they did not. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m still too numb (I lost a dearly loved brother to COVID) or if Louise Erdrich didn’t have enough distance from the events to be able to write about them with power and insight. Either is possible—or both in tandem.

All I know is that the book did not move me in the way I’d hoped. Reactions to fiction are subjective—as an author myself, I know that well—so I don’t offer this as a definitive response to The Sentence. If the premise of the book intrigues you, I recommend that you give it a try and decide for yourself.

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Sunday Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King

I don’t read horror fiction, so I’ve never read much by Stephen King. A few years ago, however, I listened to 11/22/63 and really loved it. So when I saw the promotions for Billy Summers. I was intrigued.

Billy Summers is a hit man with an unusual past; his first murder was in response to abuse, and later he served as a sniper in Iraq, which gave him professional training. To reconcile his conscience with what he does for a living, Billy reassures himself that he kills only “bad people.” 

Now in his mid-forties, Billy has had enough and wants to retire. He decides to take one last job—even though he knows from movies and novels that the “one last job” always turns out to be a disaster. His anonymous client is offering a fortune, large enough for him to quit forever, and the temptation is impossible to resist.

The catch is that Billy needs to hole up in a small town for weeks or perhaps months waiting for his target to be extradited from California. He’s going to take the shot from an office building near the courthouse, and his cover for being there is that he’s a writer who needs to be on his own and away from temptation to finish the book he’s promised his publisher. To pass the endless hours, he actually does begin to write his memoir and finds the process of telling his story both addictive and therapeutic. This book within a book is just as engaging as the story that frames it.

However, Billy’s self-protective hackles soon rise as he senses that the job isn’t quite what it seems. The man who’s renting him the office space and supplying the weapon is tense and scared, and Billy deduces that the poor guy is the weak link in the chain and being set up as a patsy. Then, when Billy hears the arrangements that have been made for his own getaway, he suspects that the plans involve putting him six feet under rather spiriting him six hundred miles north. So he goes rogue and puts together his own fake id and method of extricating himself from the crime scene.

More complications arise in the form of an unexpected and unwise relationship with a victimized young woman and an investigation by Billy and his manager into the shadowy figure behind the Byzantine assassination scheme. The reader is left racing through pages to find out if Billy will indeed pull himself out of his underworld life and make it to happily ever after.

4 stars of 5

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, fiction