“Transmutation: Stories” by Alex DiFrancescoo

Genre: Speculative /Supernatural/Transgender FictionTransmutation
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Pub. Date: June 22, 2021

The ten stories in DiFrancesco’s book fluctuate between tales that are realistic, gothic, and way out there, meaning bizarre. The characters are all in the process of becoming their real selves or changing into something new.

“Inside My Saffron Cave” is a straightforward story.  It centers on a transboy, his mother, and her abusive boyfriend. This is a sad yet hopeful tale showing how in 2021 transgender teens are not as alone with their feelings as they were in the past. Because of this fact, the author has turned a melancholy tale into a positive one. DiFrancesco also gives what feels like an inside look at Battered Women Syndrome.

“A Little Procedure,” has hints of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” centering on evil surgical operations. The short is dedicated to Rosemary Kennedy, which gives the reader a big hint of where the story will be heading. After the ‘procedure,’ the female protagonist speaks in a detached and quiet manner. This is deceiving because she has become a puppet-like ‘creature’ with a desire for revenge. So creepy.

“The Pure,” disavows all the folklore that has been written about vampires and the myths of the undead. Forget about Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Here vampires aren’t scary at all. The female vampire narrator falls in love with a living transgender man. The fun in the story is how the transman is shocked that the vampire has no need and no desire to hurt him. Such an unusual way to point out the good in the world while showing the disservice that misinformation causes.

DiFrancesco is not at all shy to explore the boundaries of magical realism. The writer seems to have a talent for making the unbelievable read real even though our logical minds know it cannot be. The author weaves in trans themes, but this book is for anyone who loves monsters, myths, legends, diversity, surrealism, fun, and even kindness. Finding kindness in these stories was such a pleasant surprise.

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“The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America” by Elizabeth Letts

Genre: NonfictionThe Ride of Her Life
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: June 1, 2021

If I was the author’s editor, I would have suggested a name change.  The current title makes me think of a young woman running off on a motorcycle with her boyfriend rather than this heartwarming, true story, of an amazing 63-year-old woman, Annie Wilkins, who in the 1950s crosses the country by horseback.  Annie was bold, quirky, and made up of true grit. What makes her story even more fascinating is that Wilkins had lived in poverty on the family farm, with no electricity or running water and certainly not a television. Yet, through word of mouth, each state was keeping an eye out for her. She became a folklore legend. She was even on Art Linkletter’s popular TV show “People Are Funny.”  Letts does a superb job in making nonfiction read like fiction.  The tale is never dull.

The tale is also nostalgic. Most chapters touch on the cultural history of mid-20th-century America and the postwar prosperity that transformed the U.S. You will read about; the hurrying to build interstate highways for the seven-million-dollar cars that were produced, the brand new supermarkets, McDonald’s, which forever changed how families eat when they travel. In addition, all of America fell in love with, “I Love Lucy.” Most importantly there is an emphasis on Americans helping strangers. Not sure if we could say that today.  The book also relives political points such as, Senator Joseph McCarthy and his hunt for communists in the US, and Brown v. Board of Education with the beginnings of the civil rights movements. And, much more.  Yes, Annie is endearing.  On her tombstone, she asked it to read “The Last of The Saddle Tramps.” Have to love her wit. If you are not into history but you are a horse lover, this book will still be a great fit for you. There is much written about the bond between animal and human.  But, for this reviewer what I enjoyed most was reading about America in those years. The book never read like a boring history book yet I did relearn much.

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

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“Performance Art Stories” by David Kranes

Genre: Short Stories/Black HumorPerformance
Publisher: University of Nevada Press
Pub. Date: Oct. 5, 2021

David Kranes is the gifted author of plays, eight novels along with short story volumes including “Performance Art Stories.” Some of the stories in this book appeared in earlier publications. The title suggests that we all perform for others whether we admit it or not. His characters are more than quirky. They are bizarre which is why I did not finish this novel. I read five of the shorts then skimmed the rest. I was blown away by the first short, “The Daredevil’s Son,” and then had a hard time following the rest of the ones that I finished. In “Daredevil” from birth, his son is pegged as a chip off the old block, a dead ringer of his pop.  Alas, for the father, the boy was more comfortable in his mother’s closet than his dad’s. It is such a good story that shows us that the boy was mentally healthy, and the father was well, nuts.  I did find that the author’s writing to be impeccable. Still, most of the shorts here were surreal, and just too ‘out there’ for me. I get that the tale, “The Stand-Up Phobic” is a dark humor story about a comic who makes tasteless run-on jokes with the audience. I was never sure if the man was hallucinating or not. It reads like an imaginary free-form-art bomb leaving me to recover from the blast.  I should mention that Karnes is the winner of many literary awards.  Maybe it is just me.

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“O Beautiful” by Jung Yun

Genre: Literary FictionO Beautiful
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: November 9, 2021

Mini-Review

Jung Yun authored the critically acclaimed debut novel, “Shelter.” I was expecting to devour her second novel, which follows a biracial Korean-American female freelance journalist as she goes on assignment in her hometown. Yun’s prose is beautiful.  However, this character-driven novel is all over the place taking on many subplots.  I thought I would be reading a tale on the immigrant experience in a divided America. Yet, the emphasis is mainly on the Me Too Movement. The journalist was a model in her youth always admired for her beauty and not her brains. So, what the reader actually follows is a woman who realizes that she was once a gender stereotype for her looks and that there is much more to her than that. Keeping with the leading title, yes, our protagonist does feel like an outsider not belonging or being accepted in either the Asian or American world. Still, for this reviewer, the tale turned felt flat. I do think a good editor could have made a big difference.  

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“The Stowaway” by James S. Murray

Genre: Mystery & ThrillersThe Stowaway
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: September 21, 2021

Professor Maria Fontana was the one juror who changed the verdict that set an alleged serial killer free. Maria is written as a likable and endearing character that you will root for. The author does a good job of showing the believable harassment that the jurors experienced after the trial. At first, they receive anonymous notes. Then photographs of those that were murdered are left at their doors. Finally, verbal attacks turn into physical attacks. Maria begins to show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder due to these attacks. She and her family go on a cruise to help her cope and begin to heal. Here is where the author lost me because the story morphs into a rather predictable thriller on the cruise. An unusual ending twist saves the novel from a poor review.

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“The Sisters Sweet” by Elizabeth Weiss

The Sisters Sweet

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: November 30, 2021

A young woman in a vaudeville sister act must learn to forge her own path after her more talented twin gets married and runs away to Hollywood. I enjoyed this novel because the story resembles the play and movie “Gypsy,” which centers on the life and times of the real-life burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee and her aggressive stage mother. Determined to make her gifted daughter June a headliner the mother drags her other daughter Louise, who is shy, awkward, and decidedly less talented, into their successful vaudeville act. June runs away to get married and the mother pushes Louise to be a star demanding of her what she just didn’t have to give, which is how she becomes the famous stripper.

In “The Sisters Sweet,” both parents come from showbiz backgrounds. Josie is the talented sister and Harriet is written as Louise-like. The likable yet depressed alcoholic father plays the part of the stage mother. When the talented Josie runs off to Hollywood, the father creates a solo act for Harriet. The act doesn’t happen because Harriet finally realizes that she does not want to pursue a life in show business. No burlesque career for Harriet, which paves the way for the author to explore, family dynamics, religion (through a reverend uncle), and buried family secrets. Weiss does a good job weaving the parents’ backgrounds into the plot. However, it is the authentic historical feel of theater life set in the early 20th century that held this reviewer’s interest, more so than Harriet’s coming of age story.

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“Deep Water” by Patricia Highsmith

Genre:  Psychological ThrillerDeep Water
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: May 28, 2012

A marital thriller where all the fears and darkness are based mostly inside a couple’s home. They have that in-your-face warfare that can happen between a husband and wife. Think of the film, “War of the Roses.” I’ve been searching for an intelligent psychological thriller similar to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. Had trouble finding one.  I thought, “Why not try another Highsmith novel.” “Deep Waters” did not disappoint.  If you haven’t read the “Ripley” books or seen the movie, Tom Ripley is an anti-hero, career criminal, a con artist, and serial killer. Vic Van Allen, this book’s anti-hero, shares quite a few of Tom’s characteristics. Vic appears to be more of a tragic figure than Tom. Vic is written as a quiet, seemingly complacent husband with the rather odd hobby of snail breeding.  It’s not that the snail breeding feels creepy, it’s his strange obsessesive love of the creatures that gave me the willies. I wonder if the author was giving us an early clue on the man’s sanity.

Set in a sleepy, affluent suburb, “Waters” unfolds with a drumbeat of quiet dread. The premise is that Vic and Melinda Van Allen are in a loveless marriage held together by a precarious arrangement to avoid divorce. He doesn’t want to been seen as a failure “It isn’t appropriate for a man to divorce his wife” he says. And, she likes the money that comes with their union.  They agree that Melinda is allowed to take any number of lovers as long as she does not desert her husband and their daughter—A recipe for murder.

Once again, the author writes in detail of subtle, “Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance.”  Then not-so-subtle dialogue. Later on in the tale, Vic says, “I do not waste my time punching people in the nose. If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him.” When Vic’s patience evaporates, bad things start happening to Melinda’s lovers.Through the author’s gifts, it is not the murderer or the murder that the reader is afraid of finding. Rather it is the apprehension of murder that permeates every page and keeps you anxiously turning them.

 Recently, I have read so many suspense thrillers that begin with something like, “To everyone around them, the husband and wife appear to be a perfect wealthy and attractive couple.  Then a murder happens to show them not to be such a perfect couple.” “Deep Water” is the only one of them that didn’t turn corny and stayed believable, not to mention, a damn good case study of a psychotic mind. Think of the real-life, likable Ted Bundy when thinking of Highsmith’s sociopathic characters. The deliciously twisted mind games that take place between Vic and Melinda are reason enough to read this thriller. Much better than most novels that end with a not-so-surprising big twist.

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“The Essence of Nathan Biddle” by J. William Lewis

Genre: Coming of AgeThe Essence
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group
Pub. Date: June 1, 2021

The story takes place in the 1950s and revolves around Kit Biddle. He is a depressed, male teenager, who is searching for the meaning of life. This is demonstrated through his actions as well as his writing of existential poems.  The highest critique of this ambitious novel is that it takes very little time for the reader to compare “The Essence of Nathan Biddle,” to “The Catcher in the Rye.” Kit, who is beautifully written, will remind you of Holden Caulfield many times.  In “Catcher,” Holden finds himself in a hospital for the mentally ill.  Kit also lands in a hospital after a car crash, which may or may not have been a suicide attempt. While there, Kit begins his journey of physical as well as mental health recovery. The harshest criticism of “Essence” is that while Kit is learning to find a less depressing meaning of life, the story becomes repetitive. Still, the author does such a good job of showing the reader life’s unfairness and illogicality that I recommend trying this novel.

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