“The Drowning Kind” by Jennifer McMahon

Genre: Mystery & ThrillerThe Drowning Kind
Publisher: Gallery Books
Pub. Date: April 6, 2021

Itsy-Bitsy Review

The book’s genre is marketed as mystery and thriller. It is much more a supernatural tale with a creepy and atmospheric feel. However, the plot is farcical at best. Plus, the novel’s entire story is pretty much told in the blurb. Furthermore, it is easy to figure out how the characters in the 1929-1930s are connected to the characters in the present.  This is why I was surprised that I finished the novel.  What kept my interest is that I was intrigued on how the author changes a haunted house story into a haunted body of water tale. Although I didn’t care for this novel, I may try the author again.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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“This Aint No Normal Fire!” by Gerry Stanek

Fire Cover

Genre: Short Story Collection
Publisher: Bituminous Press
Pub. Date: March 29, 2021

“This Ain’t No Normal Fire!,” is a collection of short stories set in the 20th century. The shorts all revolve around a fictional Pennsylvania coal mining town named Plattsville. This book is the second in a series although it can be read as a stand-alone collection. When I received this Advanced Review Copy (ARC), I saw that the author, Gerry Stanek, received praise on his first Plattsville stories from the respected author, Peter Orner. I was expecting stories that would be similar to Jennifer Haigh’s, “Heat and Light” and “Baker Towers.” Novels that I enjoyed, which are also about America’s industrial coal mining past in Pennsylvania.  Is this a good comparison? It is and it isn’t.

Some stories were what I expected. The author gives us an intimate view of individual marriages, dramas, and violence that play out against the backdrop of a gritty coal-mining town.  I also found something that I was not expecting. This collection had me thinking of the unconventional, often experimental writer, George Saunders. The first story, or possibly it is a prologue, is entitled “Fire.” There are no characters, nor a setting.  The writing seems to be philosophical thoughts written in a stream of consciousness. It gives the reader a hint of the stories’ themes—love, life, survival, and death. 

Next comes, “1922,” which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mining but still captures the underbelly of some mining workers’ culture, complete with men who like beer, whisky, and partake in wife beating. The main character is an unnamed priest who has a crush, really a sexual obsession, on the beautiful Mrs. Dietrich. She is a parishioner who happens to be married to a brute. It is an interesting story that hits a nerve regarding how we can all be vulnerable without being aware of it. I was surprised that it left me with strong emotions of empathy for the priest.

In “Union Supporter,” we meet John Sokol who will appear along with his eldest son, Joseph, in interconnected stories throughout the book.  In “Supporter,” I hit upon the sort of tale that I have always appreciated: fictional yet filled with facts that were previously unknown to me. We learn that John was concerned about Ku Klux Klan meetings that were happening near his town. The author makes John endearing to the reader by letting us know that naïve John admits that he didn’t know much about the KKK. He only knew that they were troublemakers who hated Catholics. We get a good feel into what makes this character tick. John was born in Poland and found work in the Pennsylvania mines. In the great flu of 1918, John loses his wife leaving him with four young boys. In a search for a mother for his existing brood, he goes to a church social. There he meets his second wife. They have a baby daughter but the father of the baby is questionable. With threadbare writing (the opposite of “Fire”), the author makes sure your sympathies are with John and not with his second wife.

In “Union Riot,” John’s son, Joseph is a young adult.  He helps put out a fire on the lawn of an Italian church that was started by the KKK. “Riot” is not a long short story. Still, it is an expository piece that gets under your skin with limited pages. The author writes on Joesph’s calloused hands fighting the coppers, who were using their billy clubs on those who were trying to put out the fire. He talks of the sort of bravery that can lead young men to an early death. He uses the word ‘fire’ as a metaphor to talk about the abject poverty where people are living in wood shanties without fire for heat or cooking meals. Stanek puts you intimately inside the oppressive Tammany Hall-like politics that took place in the old coal mining towns.

We find the book’s title, “This Ain’t No Normal Fire,” in the story “Gratification.” Here Joseph is at the Polish Legion for a dinner where the attendees are young single Catholics. The event reminded me of the wedding scene in the movie, “The Deer Hunter.” There is a strong flavor of the ethnic background of the guests. Everyone is working class, a bit drunk, and hoping to dance with someone cute. Here we see a darker side of Joseph. Patty, who is a pretty girl at the dinner, catches his eye. Joe is on his best behavior and is a complete gentleman with her. However, when they go to a Halloween party he drinks too much, which brings out his self-doubt, depression, and anger regarding the circumstances of his lifestyle. He thinks about heat, oxygen, and fuel, which is the face of the fire that he cannot escape.  Just as he can never be rid of the black coal dust embedded underneath his fingernails or in his lungs.

Besides coal, the author brings into his damp and dark stories the immigrant experience, religious bigotry, betrayal, love, hate, goodness, evil, and sometimes a bittersweet sort of hope.  I get the feeling that the author is saying that his characters believe that it is better to quietly survive, even if it’s on the bare minimum, than to give up.  For instance, John makes the best of his loveless marriage. I had a hard time reviewing this short story collection. It is well written and reads a bit offbeat. It frequently allows symbolism to tell its tales and is sometimes written in poetic prose.  However, I am someone who enjoys uncomplicated storytelling. What immediately comes to my mind is the classic “How Green Was My Valley,” which was also about a coal mining family. Of course, not everyone can write a future classic. So another example of the type that I enjoy can be found in the memoir and film, “The Coal Miners Daughter.”  So, this book was not a good fit for me. However, this is Stanek’s third novel. I am sure he will find his audience.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) from the author at no cost in exchange for an honest review

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“All Adults Here” by Emma Straub

All Adults Here

Genre: Domestic Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Group
Pub. Date: May 4, 2020

“All Adults Here” celebrates families and the communities we live in. With humor and insight, the author creates a dysfunctional family worth cheering on.  Straub reminds us that we should not be so hard on ourselves, because aren’t all families a bit dysfunctional?  “Adults” has similarities to Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge.” In both novels, the protagonist is an older woman living in a small town where nothing and everything happens.  Both authors have a gift for zooming in on ordinary moments of ordinary people, which makes the reader reflect on the highs and lows in their own ordinary life.

In the present, she finds herself in a lesbian relationship that she has trouble admitting to herself, never mind to her children and to her friends. The novel is not about a lesbian partnership. Still, when the protagonist acknowledges her sexuality she grows as a person and her relationship with her children improves. Straub is exploring the fact that humans can grow at any age. This is the core of the novel. With a sharp eye for her characters’ shortcomings, she writes “Being an adult was like always growing new layers of skin, trying to fool yourself that the bones underneath were different too.”  

Although Straub takes on numerous issues:  sexuality, gender, politics, abortion, school bullying, the subject matter never seems heavy-handed. The writing is filled with a certain sweetness as well as moments of comic release. “This was the job of a parent: to fuck up, over and over again. This was the job of a child: to grow up anyway.” The only criticism that this reviewer can find is that the feel-good mood, optimistic view set in the tale suggests most things will work out in the end. In reality that is not always true. Still, this multi-generational saga is a very good heartwarming read.

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“West With Giraffes” by Lynda Rutledge

Genre: Historical Fiction/Coming of AgeWest with Giraffes
Publisher:  Lake Union Publishing
Pub. Date: Feb. 2021

Itsy-Bitsy Review

An old man relives the adventures of his youth while he spends his last days in a nursing home. Reminiscent to the novel, “Water for Elephants,” “West With Giraffes” is also a romantic period drama set in the Depression.  It too is part: historical fiction, coming-of-age, an unconventional love story, and discovering that animals can be your most meaningful friends. “West” is based on the true story of two giraffes that made headlines for surviving an overseas trip where they were left for dead. The tale is a good one, giving us a snapshot of the extreme culture of zoos, but the writing often had a predictable feel—one too many clichés. However, I did appreciate that the author included the actual newspaper clippings on the giraffes in her novel.  It added authenticity to the story. Possibly, because I am a huge fan of “Elephants,” with its flawless pacing that I did not see in “Giraffes,” unfairly influenced this review.  Still, I recommend that you try this novel if you enjoy historical fiction centering on animals. I believe, like “Elephants,” the novel would make a very good movie.

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“All Girls” by Emily Layden

All Girls

Genre:/Literary Fiction/Women’s Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: Feb. 16, 2021

Mini-Review

This novel is marketed for fans, which I am, of Curtis Sittenfeld’s, “Prep.” That novel is set in an American boarding school, “a hotbed of privilege, ambition, and neurosis, every bit as snobbish and competitive as anything dreamed up on this side of the Atlantic”. … Google Books.  That pretty much sums up “All Girls” but, add in a sexual assault of a former student by a male teacher that took place twenty years ago.  The girl is now a woman, who wants revenge on the school for kicking her out and covering up the teacher’s crime. The girls in the present, attempt to figure out who the teacher was so the story morphs into a mystery. The reader will follow nine students, which would have been okay if the author had spent time on their character development.  However, this is not the case. Each character comes and goes so quickly that there is no time to be acquainted with them. It is easy to get lost on who is who. This is a shame because the novel has much potential. Layden does such a good job of capturing boarding school female teenage angst. With a good editor, “All Girls” would then read more like “Prep.”

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Wild Women and the Blues” by Denny S. Bryce

Genre: Historical FictionWild Women
Publisher: Kensington
Pub. Date: April 2, 2021

I disagree with the title. The women were not wild, but rather they were living in wild times working as showgirls. It seems to me that the title is to attract certain readers. Bryce transports us to the1920s with vibrant scenes of the Chicago Jazz Age.  She gives the reader a vivid feel of the real-life infamous black neighborhood known as the “Stroll,” which was peppered with nightclubs, pool halls, tattoo parlors, speakeasies, and vaudeville houses.  She brings you directly inside the middle of it all. She does a stellar job of filling us in on the early days in the career of the great ‘Satchmo,’ Louis Armstrong. You will feel like a fly on the wall observing how he just loved people.

There is a dual timeline, the roaring twenties and in the recent past. Language and slang for both periods are spot on.  In 2015, a male film student is researching Oscar Devereaux Micheaux.  In the early 20th century, he was a real-life pioneering, African-American author and film director/producer. The student visits a nursing home to interview a 110-year-old (hard to swallow) woman who was a chorus girl in 1925 and danced in one of Micheaux’s films.

The novel began to lose my interest when the chorus girl witnesses a murder. This is easy to believe considering that the mob ran the club that she worked in. Right here the story morphs into a sort of crime thriller that is heavy on the sappy side. The feel goes from historical fiction to women’s fiction. It is clear from the novel that Bryce is a gifted writer. She has written reviews and articles for NPR.  As much as I enjoyed the historical aspects, I do not enjoy romance novels, which “Wild Girls” borders on. If you do and you enjoy reading about the Jazz Age, you should enjoy the entire book.

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“The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See

Genre: Historical FictionThe Tea Girl
Publisher: Scribner
Pub. Date: March 21, 2017

I did not receive this book from the publisher. It was a gift. Technically, that means I do not have to write a review. Nevertheless, See is such a gifted writer that I wanted to share my thoughts on “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.” I know from reading See’s previous novels that her writing will combine a haunting tale that is hard to put down with gripping depictions of Chinese history. In her 2005 novel, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” one reads vivid descriptions of the excruciating process of footbinding, where daughters were crippled in the name of beauty. Still, the reader comes to have compassion for the characters that inflict and enable this violence.

With “Tea,” See explores another horrifying Chinese practice: the killing of newborn twins. What makes this story even more shocking than “Snow Flower” is that the tale is set in 1988. See transports readers to a remote mountain village where we meet the Akha people. While immersing us in Akha’s rituals and taboos, See reveals that twins are considered a bad omen. Custom requires their father to immediately kill the newborns, even if one is a boy. Furthermore, the parents are then run out of town. Their house and all of their possessions are set on fire—that is the Akha way. As in “Snow Flower,” “Tea” will cause you heartache for unexpected parties. In this case, parents who’ve murdered their children. Once again, by drawing us into her world, See denies us any illusion that we might have behaved any differently under the same circumstances.

“Maybe our lives are like gigantic jigsaw puzzles,” the novel’s female protagonist muses. “You find the right piece and suddenly the whole picture has meaning.” She is the only daughter of a tea-growing family who, after witnessing the murder of newborn twins, begins to question the practice. “The birth of the twins and what happened to them, although traditional, has transformed me as irreversibly as soaking cloth in a vat of dye.” The author’s poetic language allows us to experience the disturbing with a sense of intimacy that we cannot obtain from flat historical records. As a result, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” succeeds not only as a unique study of violence, but its remedies. “Rice is to nourish. Tea is to heal.”

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“Sisters” by Daisy Johnson

Sisters

Genre: Gothic fiction
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group 
Pub. Date: August 13, 2020

Mini-Review

The cover suggests a story about mental illness, which it is.   However, it is also has a gothic plot, and I do love my gothic reads. Still, I think will I need a break from twisted plots for a while. One can suggest that the novel is part horror and part mystical. A mother and her two teenage daughters are fleeing their home because of an unspecified tragedy that happened while the girls were at school. They move from Oxford to a broken-down house on the Moors.  The sort of house that gothic reads are made of, “The empty house, owned by the girls’ aunt, is ramshackle, and not in a charming way: It sags and bulges, “squatting” in a mess of broken roof tiles, old scaffolding, thorn bushes, and sheep excrement.”  I found the writing style a nice surprise. Because this is a dark read, I was not expecting the writing to often be filled with stream-of-conciseness verses. “Sleep is heavy, without corners, dreamless…My throat is dry like sand. I swallow and swallow. Peel myself up.”  “Sisters” is a hard read filled with domestic abuse between the sisters. If you can get through that, you will be able to enjoy the ending’s “shocking” twist.  I did guess it when the girls lose their virginity, but I was never sure until I finished the book. If you do read this one, let me know if you too guessed correctly.

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