“Where the Edge Is” by Grainne Murphy

Genre: Literary FictionWhere the edge is
Publisher: Legend Press
Pub. Date: Sept. 15, 2020

The book’s title refers to the edge of a sinkhole, where most of its characters find themselves trapped. It may also be a metaphor for those who, through no fault of their own, live on the edge of their emotions. A town in rural Ireland wakes up to the news that a road has collapsed, swallowing up a bus with eight people stuck inside.  As the vehicle slowly falls deeper into the earth, the media is all over the story interfering with the rescue team’s attempt to get them out before it is too late. Doesn’t this sound like an action-packed, plot-driven novel?  It is actually a character-driven tale that explores trauma, loss, grief, and survival. Each chapter portrays the lives of the passengers and their families. As well as a news reporter and her ex-husband who is the fire department liaison.  No, this does not morph into a cheap romance novel. Their reconnection, though a bit contrived, helps explore the novel’s broader themes.

Racial and identity issues are examined when the white male bus driver pulls out a brown-skinned female passenger. The author has such control over her characters’ voices that the reader can hear them speak.  He is a regular sort of guy who just wants to please his beloved aging mom and win back his ex-wife.  A sweetheart of a man, yet months before the incident he was suspended for saying a racial slur.  The woman who he saves has lived in Ireland since she was a small child, married to an Irish man, can sing all the Irish songs, and has adapted to the Irish way of life including going to Sunday Mass, but still, the press refers to her as a Pakistani.  Murphy nails her frustration.

While never feeling forced, the author will tug at your heart describing the underground conversations of those trapped in the bus, and the panic of their families above the ground. The author’s ability to go back and forth in time, to reflect on her characters’ multiple points of view, while never losing the feeling of their desperation is admirable. Her talent makes the characters stick with you, haunting you, well after you have read the last page and know the outcome of their ordeal. I was so impressed with the storytelling in this debut novel that I googled the author.  I was not surprised to learn that many of her short stories were shortlisted and longlisted for literary awards.  Without a doubt, I will be on the lookout for her next novel.

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“The Perfect Guests” by Emma Rous

The Perfect Guests

Genre: Mystery & Thrillers
Publisher: Berkley
Pub. Date: Jan. 21, 2020

Mysteries are not usually a genre that I am a fan of, but I did enjoy this one. I found “The Perfect Guests” to be a fun read, though I am not sure if the author would appreciate why I enjoyed her tale. (Will get to that later).  The premise of the novel is an updated version of Agatha Christies’ “And Then There Were None,” which is the story of ten strangers, each lured to a party by a mysterious host. As with “None,” each character in “Guests” receives a deliciously suspicious invitation, because the invite is tailored to their personal circumstances and needs, such as an offer of employment. Once the guests have arrived, the host accuses each person of murder, and one by one, the guests, now suspects, go missing and are found murdered.  A difference in the novels is that in “Guests” the dinner invitation makes clear that this will be a murder/mystery-themed party. (Always wanted to be invited to such a party).  So the reader will find themselves smack in the middle of the board game, Clue, right down to the silly character names.  Instead of Mr. Mustard and Professor Plum, in this novel, we meet Professor Owl and a Lord Nightingale.  In reality, the popular strategy board game was a mediocre game at its best, but how can you not be in a light-hearted mood when you are supposed to be someone named Mr. Mustard. Get my point?

In “Guests” there are two storylines, one in the present another in the 1980s. In the present day, Sadie is an unemployed actress who doesn’t have the money for this month’s rent. Then, lo and behold, she is offered a gig to play the character Miss Lamb (my favorite name in the book is Miss Mouse) in a murder mystery-themed dinner party. The party takes place at the newly restored gothic-like old mansion—tick-tock—named Raven Hall. In the past, we meet Markus, Lenora, and their teenage daughter Nina. They are living in Raven Hall during the house’s glory days. For reasons that truly do not make sense to the reader, they invite fifteen-year-old Beth, who they found in a home for orphans, to live with them as a companion for Nina.  Even Beth wonders why fourteen-year-old Nina needs a “playmate.” But that is one of the author’s many twists. It does seem that Rous throws  just about every far-fetched murder-mystery twist that has ever been written into her novel.

During the present day game/dinner party, all questions from the past are pieced together. The writing during the party scenes has a campy vibe. I do not think that this was the author’s intention; nevertheless, it worked.  If you are as old as I am, you may remember the Carol Brunette Show where they spoofed soap operas and films. These sketches were notorious for overusing loud organ music when something sinister was about to happen in whatever production they were recreating.  Well, that is how I read this novel, as a parody.  I could almost hear the creepy organ pipes. In hindsight, I probably enjoyed this novel because I went in not expecting an Agatha Christie superior style of writing. Still, Rous’ style is entertaining.  And to be fair, I did not guess every single twist.  So, if you are in the mood for a light murder mystery, I suggest you give this one a try.  And, if you are in a party mood, read it with a friend while dressed up in Clue board game character costumes, and see who can figure out who the murderer is first.

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“Bonnie” by Christina Schwarz

Genre: Historical FictionBonnie
Publisher: Atria Books
Pub. Date: July 7, 2020

Romancing outlaw celebrities makes for good storytelling in novels and hit movies.  Henry Fonda portrayed the likable Jessie James. Paul Newman and Robert Redford played Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid.  And in their glory years, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway played the lawless, love-struck Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The real-life Bonnie would have loved a movie about her since she always wanted to be an actress.  In this historical fiction, the author examines how Bonnie Parker went from being a bright, poetry-writing girl who hated guns to one of the most famous hoodlums of her time. At the age of 17, Bonnie married her high school sweetheart, who ran off early in their marriage. Bonnie never divorced. Later, as a bored waitress, she met Clyde. She was 19 and he was 21. She was living at home with her mother and had never been in trouble. He was already stealing for a living with a brother in jail for theft. She willingly traded her honest life for the excitement of Clyde. They came from Christian families who were mortified that Bonnie was still married while sleeping with Clyde. I did get such a chuckle out of that fact. Nevermind their violent crimes. Still, in this novel, one gets the feeling that they were just two kids from a Dallas slum who fell in love and longed for some fun.

The author reminds the reader that their bank-robbing days took place during the early years of the Depression, when most couldn’t find work, making it easier to forgive the wayward couple. Schwarz shows the reader how Bonnie and Clyde were influenced by the public’s fondness for Jessie James and his gang. In a way, they were victims of their time. They too wanted to be loved from afar, bringing a little entertainment to the poverty-stricken nation. They acted as if their lives were being played out on the big screen. We learn that Bonnie never smoked a cigar or used a machine gun; those infamous pictures were taken for laughs. Bonnie was a pretty girl nonetheless, always happy to have her picture in the papers. Plus, it was clear from the pictures that she and Clyde had powerful chemistry, which helped her maintain her romantic view of their crimes. She liked to imagine herself as a blonde Clara Bow. And in reality, even as a little girl, she did have that “It Girl” personality, loveable and attention-grabbing. It was fun for them, and the public, to watch them elude the law. The author makes it clear how easy it was for people to cheer on these unlikely heroes from the safety of their own homes.

We get a sympathetic picture of their private lives. When Clyde’s brother and his sister-in-law join them to become part of the Barrow Gang, they rent an apartment to live in between heists. The women sound like newlyweds when fixing up the place. It is tenderly written how they played house while pretending to be normal people. However, when the crimes became murderous (though sometimes they were charged with murders that they did not commit), they lost the publics’ favor. As their fame exploded, life on the run became untenable. Schwarz skillfully shows how, near the end of their run, the characters’ exhaustion and desperation overwhelmed them. They came to await their inevitable deaths, hoping only to see their mothers one last time.

“Bonnie” is a well-researched novel, yet it never feels dry with facts. Still, as a woman, I felt that I never really understood why Bonnie stayed with Clyde when life got too tough. This was not as expertly explained as other areas of her life. This is disappointing since I thought that was the reason for the writing of yet another book on the couple. Did Bonnie stay because it was about standing by your man? She did believe that theirs was a love story and not a gangster tale. Did she really prefer death in the spotlight to being a bored waitress? Or, as I think the author intended us to imagine, she simply got too caught up in it all to leave while she, herself, was still not a wanted woman?  Maybe I am forgetting just how young she was.  She was killed at the age of 23-years-old. Whatever her reasons were, she would have been thrilled to know that the movie about her fame even had a hit song entitled “The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde.”  For Bonnie that would have been the best of eulogies.

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“The Wife” by Shalini Boland

 

Itsy-Bitsy Review                                      The Wife

The story is told going back and forth in time (a style of writing that I usually like). This domestic thriller centers on a young woman who faints on her wedding day. She remembers nothing that happened before she fainted. The wedding goes on. Ten years later, on her wedding anniversary, she remembers. This is an easy, boring read that this reviewer found unbelievable. I probably would have enjoyed the novel a bit more if I read it on a beach.

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

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The All-Night Sun by Diane Zinna

Genre: Literary Fiction The All-Night Sun
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pub. Date: July 14, 2020

Min-Review

The book’s title comes from the Swedish holiday, Midsummer Eve, which takes place during Sweden’s summer solstice and is celebrated all day and all night under the light of Sweden’s midnight sun. The story revolves around a troubled 28-year-old female adjunct professor and her unlikely friendship with an 18-year-old female Swedish student who invites her teacher home for the summer. The story is actually about grief for they have both lost their parents and are mentally struggling. The teacher stays hidden in the background.  The student craves attention to fill her empty emotions.   The author shines when capturing her characters’ loneliness and grief. Zinna’s best writing is in the strong sensory imaginary that allow the reader to experience Midsummer Eve with its maypoles, crown flower wreaths, singing, and dancing. As well as the turmoil created, when an adult is trying to fit into a teenage world that celebrates as if the holiday is the infamous Woodstock festival from the 1960s. However, although the prose is deep the story manages to drag.  As a fan of literary fiction, I am aware that the novel will be a slow-paced character-driven read that usually focuses on the human condition, and less concerned with a fast-paced plot, which some readers prefer. So, I understand why fans of popular fiction could be turned off by “All Night.”Still, for literary fiction to keep your interest one needs to be invested in the protagonist’s growth, which I was not in this novel.  Still, this is a debut novel and the author shows talent with its beautiful prose.  I look forward to reading her next novel.

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“Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Genre: Gothic Mexican Gothic
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date:  June 30, 2020

There is nothing like a good gothic novel to escape to an eerie yet romantic world. “Mexican Gothic” has all the key gothic components; the damsel in distress; the cruel husband, the decaying mansion, creepy servants, an unwelcoming family, and a landscape that influences the characters’ behaviors.  In “Wuthering Heights,” it was the winds found in the moors.  Here it is the vapors in the walls. The novel is even complete with a female antagonist that could give Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca” a run for her money. Still, this novel, although a good one, to my disappointment, is not a straight gothic read. It is a mixture of gothic, horror, and sci-fi.

The tale starts with a delicious gradual rise of dread. Noemi is a 20-something privileged socialite living in Mexico City in the 1950s.   Her father receives an urgent letter from her newly married cousin who lives in the countryside of Mexico.  Her letter is irrational and hard to comprehend.  She sounds mentally unstable. So, off Noemi goes to check out just what is happening  at her cousin’s house called High Place (naming the house is yet another wink at the gothic classics).  It doesn’t take her long to figure out that her cousin, as well as life in general, at High Place, is odd, off, and just plain weird.  The family crest, which is located everywhere, is of an ouroboros, which is an ancient symbol of a snake eating its tail. Yes, you are supposed to think of self-cannibalism. Soon Noemi is questioning her own sanity as well as her cousin’s.

All gothic stories have elements of horror.  Sometimes the horror is in the form of gaslighting the virgin bride.  Other times it takes the shape of Mary Shelly’s monster.  But, the second half of “Mexican” goes from gothic/horror to a horror/sci-fi theme that focuses on (spoiler) an unnatural rebirth. But, unlike Frankenstein, the tale begins to read like a campy supernatural novel. The gradual rise of dread does peak into all-out terror, yet written in such a way that I wondered “should I be wearing 3D reading glasses to finish the book?”  I have heard that “Mexican” is to be praised as a new style of gothic gone twisty. I know other reviewers, who I respect, who loved this novel. Heck, the book is already in development to become a TV series. Maybe it’s my age. I grew up with Jane Eyre. I prefer my gothic literature to have more dark romanticism and less Sigourney Weaver from “Alien.”

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

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“The Thirty Names of Night” by Zeyn Joukhadar

Genre: LGBTQ/Historical FictionThe Thirty Names of Night
Publisher: Atria Books
Pub. Date: November 3, 2020

There is so much going on in this beautifully written novel. You will meet artists and three generations of Syrian American women. You will learn about French-occupied Syria during the early twentieth century, as well as a long-forgotten NYC neighborhood called Little Syria.  You will also read about birds and ghosts.  The author mixes up the genres. There is historical fiction, literary fiction, magical realism, coming-of-age, speculative fiction, and always LGBTQ fiction.  All the main characters in this novel are queer. There are two alternating narrators, one from the late 1920s and one from the present. In the present, we meet a young trans man, who moves into his grandmother’s NYC apartment to take care of her since her health is failing. In the past, the female protagonist is also an artist. She paints mysterious birds.  The three generations of Syrian Americans are linked together by their secrets, their art, and—here is the magical realism—a species of a bird that wears feathers that seem to hold the key to unlocking their secrets and allowing the characters to break free from society’s restrictions.

When the author wrote his debut novel, “Map of Salt,” he identified as a woman. He now identifies as a man. I mention this in light of the fact that the trans male protagonist talks about his confusion from when he was a child feeling extremely uncomfortable in his female body. This is written with such lucidity that one cannot help but wonder how much is fiction. The scene where the character gets his period is all-telling and so heartbreakingly sad. The child is devastated because, up until that moment, he held out hope that his true body as a male would surface. As his body conspires against him, his delighted mother says that her little girl is growing up. She tells the child that he is a woman now. To add to the child’s confusion, although he hates the feeling that his body is betraying him, he simultaneously loves the feeling of closeness that he is experiencing as his beloved mother braids his hair, sharing female pearls of wisdom now that he has a woman’s body. (When the girl grows to be the young man his mother is deceased but shows up as a ghost that he can see and talk to.  It reads more sweet than weird).  The author writes the child’s conflicting emotions so well that he makes you want to jump into the pages and give the child the word non-binary.  My maternal instincts had me crying for the boy.

Overall, I enjoyed the Syrian immigrant experience as observed in the novel.  As a native New Yorker, I loved the descriptions of Little Syria, which sounded like an Arab version of NYC’s Little Italy. I could have done without the birds, but then again I have never been a fan of magical realism. However, I did think it was clever of the author to make the trans man’s mother an ornithologist to keep the magic as believable as possible.  At times, there was just too much going on in the story to hold my interest. I found myself skimming to get back to the Syrian-American experience, but then again, historical fiction is my favorite genre.  There is no denying Joukhadar’s talent as an author.  The book could have easily been written as a boring teacher’s manual on all the themes in the novel that many of us do need to be educated on.  Instead, what you get is lyrical prose that is captivating as well as educational.  Still, for someone like myself who has trouble with mixed genre novels, the book wasn’t for me. Though, I feel confident that other readers and reviewers will consider it a story-telling feat.

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“The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter

Genre: Historical FictionThe cold millions
Publisher: Harper/Collins
Pub. Date: Oct. 6, 2020

“Millions” is a richly entertaining historical novel that reconstructs the free speech riots that took place during the creation of the labor union during the early 1900s in Spokane, Washington. The novel is jam-packed with real-life people such as the passionate,19-year-old union organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (known as the Rebel Girl), the young labor lawyer, Fred Moore, and many others. Historical fiction is my favorite genre because I must have been asleep in my school days. For me, there is nothing better than learning while being entertained. Did you know that back then, union activists were called Wobblys?  Dare I admit that I never heard of The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)?  Well, at least I did know who the union-busting Pinkertons were.

The story reads like a John Steinbeck novel with strong shades of “Grapes of Wrath” and a hint of “East of Eden.” We meet two colorful Irish American brothers at ages twenty-one and sixteen. Like many other Americans in those years, they were anxious to work, but there was no work to be found. (Think of the 1954 movie, “On The Waterfront.” A century later but the same situation, where a hundred men are hoping to be randomly picked for a job that needs only a handful of workers).  To eat, the brothers hop freight trains in search of employment.  Once the job is finished, they move on to wherever else they think they might find work, fair pay, and decent treatment. The boys are considered hobos and unwanted vagrants who sleep, with the other unemployed, shivering on the cold ground under the nighttime sky. The cops usually beat and chase them out of town.  The title of the book is referring to the millions who are poor and starving while the tycoons and the ungodly wealthy (in current days we refer to them as the 1% ) have no intention of sharing their wealth. There is a scene where the younger brother finds himself in the unusual position of being a guest in a millionaire’s house (spoiler: it is a set up). The boy cries seeing that such homes exist while he has no home at all.

Written in pristine prose, “Millions” features an unforgettable cast of Native Americans, recent immigrants, crooked cops—complete with a real-life shady police chief—tramps, suffragists, socialists, madams, and murderers. Not to mention, Ursula the Great, a fictional vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar. The dashing older brother has an ongoing sexual relationship with Ursula the Great.  The shy younger brother has a crush on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; told you that you would be entertained. At times, it can feel that the author has taken on too many isms, but it doesn’t detract from the story because all sorts of civil movements were going on in that period.  In reading this novel, you too will get lost in a fascinating tale and may learn a thing or two about the Rebel Girl and other rebel voices of this time in American History, which sounds eerily like the America we know today.

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