“Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam

Genre: Literary Fictions           Leave The World Behind
Publisher:  Harper
Pub.Date: Oct. 6, 2020

How does a reviewer review this very interesting but strange story? We meet a white, middle-class family who lives in Brooklyn. They are renting an AirB&B in the Hamptons for what they hope will be a dream vacation. I start the novel wondering, is this a beach read? They experience that familiar wish of hoping that the vacation will never end.  As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.” Halfway through their vacation, just when they get that feeling that the house is ‘their’ luxurious home, they hear a knock at the door. The intruders are an elderly black couple. They explain that this is their home.  They were staying in NYC but returned early since the city is having a major blackout.  They are hoping to live in their basement apartment until the renters’ lease ends. The white couple does not believe them and the wife is scared of them.  Okay, this must be a suspense story.  However, when the white wife thinks, “those people didn’t look like the sort to own such a beautiful house,” she reveals a glimpse of her white supremacy that she has no idea is a part of her.  Now my thoughts are that this will be a tale about confronting racism. Then the theme changes again.  Both couples begin to realize that the renters cannot go home until the lights are back on in the city. They recognize that they may be stuck living together for a while. Therefore, both couples are desperately trying to like one another, to gain trust, to become friends. You can feel the racial awkwardness between them. Now, the dialogue had me laughing out loud.  Okay, this is a comedy.   Sort of an edgy “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.”  

Although the author is very coy about mixing the genres there is one that finally emerges as dominant: the end of the world. The theme is actually an end of the world story.  This is a dystopian novel!  Here Alam is a master at building his character’s mild fears that grow into full-blown panic. There never was any cell phone reception at the Hampton house, but now they can’t get the TV or radio to work either.  They are desperate for some news that will explain what is going on.  When they can’t find an explanation their imaginations run wild. They become scared. The renting husband goes to the market to buy food, and to see if anyone knows anything.  However, there is no one in town other than a terrified woman who doesn’t speak English. Now in full panic mode, they begin to feel that this is a showdown between good and evil: very Stephen King-like. Both couples are not sure in which category they lay. Together they speculate that this is more than a blackout.  Is it a terrorist attack, or an alien invasion?  Are humanity’s centuries of abusing the planet finally catching up with us? Will we blow up in a million pieces?  I thought their panic jumped to terror too quickly, making it hard to believe the rest of the novel.  I am not sure if that was the author’s intention or not.  I am guessing that Alam was putting up a mirror to the face of America’s persistent insecurity regarding change. 

There is a similarity between this book and the 1959 movie, “On The Beach,” where after a global nuclear war all on earth know that they are about to die. However, oddly, this is a disaster novel without a disaster.  The best I can do is suggest that you think of the last episode of “The Sopranos.”  I was surprised to learn that “Leave the World Behind” was written before the COVID crisis.  Kind of weird how this weird novel taps brilliantly into the feeling of generalized panic that we have due to COVID, which pronounces our fears about climate change, financial inequality, government, and racism.   Overall, the author manages to bring humor into a story about shock and despair. This feat explains why the book won the 2020 National Book Award in fiction.  Going back to my genre confusion, I would say that this book is a literary apocalyptic novel that is confusing yet fascinating. If you don’t enjoy bizarre reads you might want to stay away from this one. However, I should also tell you that I am not a fan of bizarre but I still enjoyed this book.  Meaning you may want to give this novel a shot.

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“The Glass House” by Beatrice Colin

Genre: Historical FictionThe Glass House
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Pub. Date: September 15, 2020

In the twentieth century, a woman in India marries a Scottish man.  They live together in India with their biracial daughter. He is a plant biologist who travels on expeditions around the world in search of discovering rare flowering plants. His wife and child make an unannounced trip to Scotland to visit her husband’s estranged sister who lives on the family’s grand estate. The estate has a glasshouse filled with exotic plants. Yes, you are guessing correctly. There are reasons why they showed up unexpectedly with their suitcases. This was not a social call. I found this book to be way more of a women’s fiction than historical fiction, lots about marriages and not much about history. The only thing I learned is that some wealthy families have always looked down on those that are different.  The one percent rule of black blood has been around before America created that unholy rule. The novel was not for me.  However, if you like twists you will find them in this story.

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“Walking with Ghosts” by Gabriel Byrne

Walking with ghosts

Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Grove Press
Pub. Date” Jan. 12, 2021

Mini-Review

Let me begin this review by saying that I wanted to read this book because Gabriel Byrne has always been one of my Hollywood crushes.  I went in thinking I was about to read the usual gossipy, self-centered Hollywood memoir. What I ended up reading was Irish poetry, written as an autobiography. Byrne lyrically describes growing up in the 1950s and 60s in working-class Dublin within a devout Catholic family where he is the eldest of six siblings.  From the beginning of the book, it is clear that Bryne had no intention to write about his fame. There is no hint of self-indulgence or vanity. When he does talk about his accomplishments as a successful actor, film director, and film producer, they are mentioned as an afterthought. Unlike many famous actors, there is no “look at and love me” feel.  When he is frank about his alcoholism, and now being sober for over twenty years, again he is not going for a dramatic Hollywood downfall and then survival vibe.  Instead, in moving poetic prose, he compares how his emotions were similar when opening a theater and bar door. In this very original memoir that is often as sad as it is humorous, Byrne shows us his soul. Turns out, the handsome actor is also a talented writer. He possesses a unique descriptive power in telling us about the many years of his career. If you are looking for an “Inside Out,” Demi Moore type of memoir this one is not for you. If you are looking for a surprisingly well-written autobiography, this is your book. Before reading Byrne’s life story, his face is what impressed me. After reading his poignant memoir, I now admire him the person, and of course his writing ability. However, I still think he is easy on the eyes.

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“Dangerous Women” by Hope Adams

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery and ThrillersDangerous Women
Publisher: Berkley
Pub. Date: February 16, 2021

Mini-Review

Let me start off by saying the Adams mixes the genres in this one. This is not the best nor the worst historical fiction that I have read. I always enjoy reading historical facts that reads like fiction, which you will find in this novel. The author takes us back to the year 1841.  The story revolves around a true historical event.  Approximately, 200 English women, who have been convicted for mostly petty crimes are released from their cells. The government places them on the real-life historical vessel named the “Rajah,” which will take them to Australia to start a new life. Adams does a good job showing us how many of the women were forced into a criminal life for survival.  She also nails the dialogue/emotions between her characters on the ship with their bickering, their fears, and sometimes their kindness to one another. On their voyage, they create a real-life giant quilt, which now hangs in the National Gallery of Australia. The author explains that she has seen this Rajah Quilt and it was her inspiration to write this novel. The women received the quilt’s materials from the Ladies Society of England who were promoting the reformation of female prisoners.  On the ship, there is a real-life character from this society who organizes the project. In the novel as well as in actuality she ends up marrying the captain—very sweet. The author surely did her research homework. Through the making of the quilt, we feel the women’s sorrows as well as their hopes, while enjoying their newfound friendships. I found all of this captivating.  Getting back to the mixing of the genres, at the beginning of the book, on the ship, a young mother is killed.  This subplot stays with us throughout the entire story.  I did not think it was necessary and actually took away from the story rather than enhancing it. I kept skimming the murder mystery scenes to get back to the fascinating, old-fashioned, straight historical fiction. If the story stayed in that mode and didn’t throw in a “whodunit,” I would have enjoyed “Dangerous Women” so much more than I did.

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“To Dare” by Jemma Wayne

Genre: General Fiction/Literary Fiction To Dare
Publisher: Legend Press
Pub. Date: July 1, 2020

This novel explores many themes through a multi-layered style, maybe one too many. You will read about addictions, domestic violence, rape, child abuse, dysfunctional friendships, jealousy, class biases, miscarriage, and claustrophobia. Wayne does a good job in all her themes.  However, I am not sure that they all need to be addressed in one novel. Taking on too much can create a cramped read. Wayne’s astute observations make for a good literary fiction tale. Think the author Ann Patchett. Yet in this novel, the characters’ troubles, written in detailed and lengthy prose, gave off a melodramatic women’s fiction feel, especially the ending. No matter the genre, this story is dark. This reviewer has no problem reading disturbing fiction though others may.

Three women narrate the story. Two are childhood friends and the other is a neighbor to one of them. Their lives are interwoven by chance and proximity.  Simone grew up with money but in adulthood, she lives in poverty. Rebellion against her parents led her to a teenage marriage with a boy who lived in the slums. After his death, drug abuse and loneliness bring her into a disastrous second marriage. This time to a man who is mentally and physically abusive to her and her children. Here the author shines in exploring the reasons for her character’s spiraling downfall where she confuses abuse with love. Through Simone, Wayne does an excellent job of showing the reader the definition of Battered Women’s Syndrome.

We also meet Veronica who is a wealthy teacher.  She and her husband just moved into their dream house. However, she is mentally depressed. The trauma of her miscarriage and the stress of not being able to conceive again are destroying her marriage. Again, Wayne shines in her descriptions of Veronica’s emotions regarding her infertility.  They are good enough to make you wonder if she interviewed couples going through this issue. Then there is Sarah who in the present is a middle-class lawyer married with two children. In Sarah and Veronica’s childhood years, they were best friends. When she re-enters Veronica’s life the adult friendship goes haywire. I compliment the author by nailing their preteen jealousies complete with dangerous dares and power games, which hurt one of them so terribly it left her with claustrophobia.  In the present, both of them revert to their childhood personas.  Here, I thought things became unbelievable. It is hard to swallow that two grown women would have a “Mean Girls” sort of friendship.  It reads like a corny women’s fiction novel.

All three women are fighting their own demons, meaning the reader should be cheering them on. However, I did not. Or I did until the plot began to feel silly to me. When the three female stories are weaved together, rather than enhancing the novel they lose some of their intended punch. I do give the author credit for writing about three often-unlikable female characters. At least, I think that she did this on purpose.  (Spoiler: The tale has an open ending, but hints that the women will do well in their futures), which is usually the case in women’s fiction. Women’s fiction can be done well as it taps into the hopes, fears, and dreams of women today. However, in this novel with its many themes it comes off as excessive, exhausting, and sometimes silly.  This is a shame Wayne is clearly a talented author and I would read her again. I found “To Dare” to be a decent read that with some editing could have been a very good book.

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“The Lost Village” by Camilla Sten

Genre: Mystery & Thrillers  the-lost-village
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: March 23, 2021

This novel had so much potential to be a horror/thriller that keeps the reading on their toes, but the ending simply ruined the whole story for me. The plot went from scary to silly. The tale goes back and forth in time from the 1950s to 1979.  The location in both timelines is the same. The author takes us to a small Swedish mining village.  In the 50s, an entire village disappeared without a trace, no bodies, no explanations. In the story’s present, a young independent filmmaker, Alice, brings a small crew back to the village to create a documentary on this mystery. The story is personal to her since her grandmother could have been a victim but she moved out of the village before they all vanished. Alice grew up on stories regarding the village and Sten uses them to tease the reader’s curiosity about what happened.  Some thought the village experienced supernatural events, or possibly a mass suicide.  Others thought it had to do with the new pastor who may not have been what he appeared to be. The writing in the past gives you a good feel of the community’s simple and sweet lifestyle then later in the story, how their personalities slowly begin to change. Sten does an excellent job to make you jump with her 1979 descriptions of the houses and the church.  They were left eerily untouched creating a very creepy atmosphere were our imaginations could take us all over the place. However, the ending, which is the actual explanation of the phenomenon, is so unbelievable that it reads campy. Even zombie stories have to feel real to scare you. I think with a better editor and rewrites “Village” may have kept its earlier ability to continue to terrify.  As is, my first Halloween read for this year was very disappointing.

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“Cardiff, by the Sea” by Joyce Carol Oates

Cardiff by the sea

Genre: Suspense
Publisher: Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press
Publication Date: October 6, 2020

How does a reviewer review anything written by the living legend, Joyce Carol Oates?  Is there any new critique one can possibly add? It is fair to say that Oates is one of the great writers of our time. For decades, she has written in a variety of styles and genres. Particularly effective are her portrayals of violence and evil in modern society. She is a master storyteller in all genres: “We Were the Mulvaneys,” is the family saga that explores its breakdown, “Blonde,” is the ultimate study of Marilyn Monroe through a bio-fiction, or in “The Accursed” she is at her gothic best.  “Cardiff, by the Sea” consists of four previously unpublished novellas. (I am interested in learning when the author wrote these stories). In these four, we get a good understanding as to why she has been dubbed the “grand mistress of ghoulishness.”  Or her more personal nickname of, “Princeton’s Dark Lady of Fiction.” 

Oates’ protagonists are usually feminine as they are in this book. The title novella, “Cardiff, by the Sea,” which is my favorite in the collection, reads like a fever dream. A young woman in academia, who was adopted at the age of two, receives a phone call from a lawyer concerning her birth family. She inherited a house in Cardiff, Maine from her biological grandmother whom she has never heard of before.  Let the terror begin. She travels to Maine and for the first time and meets her great-aunts and their nephew who is her uncle.  The aunts in this short reminded me of the eccentric aunts in the black and white Cary Grant movie, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” The aunts in the film are portrayed as sweet loving old ladies who just happen to poison lonely men to put them out of their misery. Also, the psychopath uncle from the old movie reminds me of the uncle here in Oates’ imagination. In “Cardiff” the aunts speak so rapidly, without a breath in between words, that the young woman as well as the reader can get a headache. I believe that this is a trick by the author to confuse us. No one is poisoned in the novella but this is best that I can do to get my point across without spoilers. However, I can share, while the young woman stays with her biological family she remembers her traumatic early childhood. These memories are written in a manner that reads as if they are outbursts from the young woman’s unconscious.  She, nor the reader, is ever sure if they are real or fake memories. Either way, they are blood curdling scary.

My least favorite and the most bizarre in the collection is “Miao Dao.” The story centers on a young teenage girl who’s one of the first in her class to reach puberty. Bad things have been happening to her as she has begun to mature. Unfortunately, her new breasts make her a target for boys who like to bully by “accidentally” bumping into her while making lewd remarks.  Simultaneously her parents divorce and she now lives with a lecherous stepfather.  She shuts down from all in her life and becomes almost a hermit.  Her only friends are a pack of feral cats living in her neighborhood. Oates does such a good job of making us feel the girl’s loneliness, and how these cats become her lifeline.  She has taken to sneaking out at night and sleeping with them. And, here is where things get weird. Her new friends become her fierce protectors. One of them grows large and turns into a ferocious cat that may or may not have killed one of the boys who tormented her.  In this novella, the famous author reminds me of a modern day Kafka. In his novella, “The Metamorphosis,” did the salesman really turn into a bug, or was his transformation a psychological interpretation of his feelings towards his family and his life. In a way, the same could be said here. Did the cat magically grow strong enough to become able to kill a human or is Oates using its transformation as an analysis of her character?  On the other hand, is her character the actual killer and there is nothing mystical at all going on?  Damn, Oates is good. The reason I was a bit disappointed in “Miao” is that the teen is written more like a girl obsessed with feral cats than a girl expressing her feelings through them. Still, the author gets her point across.

The other two stories revolve around plotlines that Oates has looked at before. One is about a female student who is obsessed with her older professor including all the crap that goes into such a relationship. The other explores motherhood when a female poet has a fatal attraction to a man whom she marries. They are both top quality reads and as always between the horrors, Oates makes you think about aggression against women by the hands of men. “Cardiff” carefully goes back and forth from psychological suspense and supernatural events, but the tales are always creepy.  I do not believe that I have ever not recommended a book by my favorite author.  This one is no different. As usual, when reading, “Princeton’s Dark Lady of Fiction” you will probably end up having nightmares.

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“Four Dogs and Their Tales” by Marcella Bursey Brooks

Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Matchstick LiteraryFour Dogs and Their Tales
Pub. Date: Dec. 13, 2012

Mini-Review

This certainly isn’t the first nor will it be the last novel written from a dog’s point of view. However, it may be the first one that takes on the sport of competition in Dog Agility. The initial and most interesting of the dogs that we meet runs away from his abusive owner.  He becomes a street dog and is not particularly trusting. Eventually, he is won over and taken in by a kind woman. The other three are well-loved dogs each with their own unique personality.  All four dogs and their families become friends.  We follow them on their journey to become show dogs and beyond.  The dogs speak to each other as if they were human. At one point in the story, the author ups the fantasy when the humans and the dogs can actually talk and understand each other.  Unfortunately, it comes late in the novel and is written clumsily with none of the finesse of “The Story of Doctor Doolittle.”  I did not care for this novel.  At it’s best, the writing is sophomoric.  I wonder with a good editor, cutting out most of the endless and tedious competition scenes, plus changing the genre, then possibly “Four Dogs” has the makings of a good children book.

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