“The Visitor” by Ti Ca

Genre:          Family Drama/MysteryThe Visitor
Publisher:    Patritus LLC
Pub. Date:    Jan 6, 2019

This is my first novel from BookSirens, which is an Amazon connected book directory for Advance Review Copies (ARC) of books.  I do not usually read Indie authors or Amazon/Kindle First Reads.  Some can be quite good, but I simply have too many books to read and review on my “to be read list.”  My lists are filled with my preferred literary genres, written by my favorite powerhouse authors.    Nor am I usually a fan of best sellers.  Yes, I can be a book snob.  This is why I don’t usually explore books outside of my comfort zone.  I am glad that I did so with “The Visitor.”  I found this character-driven novella to be a sophisticated mystery that includes aging and memory loss, as well as a father-son story about poverty and education.

The story is narrated in the first person by two protagonists:   An elderly woman alone in her home waiting for her husband to return from the store, and the visitor, who is a stranger, but clearly wants to help this woman.   Who is in dire need of help.  We meet them both on Christmas Eve.  Her “furnace has gone out, the breaker needs to be reset, and the cupboards lie empty.”  It is clear that the woman has a failing memory.  “Visitor” has hints of the novel “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey, whose heroine has Alzheimer’s.  There is a tragedy to be found in both of these novels.

Though I don’t believe that “Visitor” is located in Appalachia, I also find elements of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir” by J.D. Vance.  And “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover.  Both books have the same theme that can be found in “Visitor”—overcoming the cruelty of poverty and severe family dysfunction through one’s thirst to learn.  Plus, the father-son part of “Visitor” reminds me of “The Kite Runner.”  Ca is in with good company.

It took me a while to figure out who the mysterious stranger is, or who the librarian is, and how they are connected to the old woman.   I was delighted that the author was able to keep me wondering.  But go in knowing that “Visitor” is sometimes written in a confusing manner.  The author weaves together the underlying sub-plots of past and present timelines a little too abruptly, especially when switching into the third person.  Still, I found the novella interesting enough to go back and re-read the parts where I felt confused.  In this book, what really hooked me is that the author asks the questions:  What exactly is family love?  How do we handle tragedy? Why do some people rise above rather than fall into, the clutches of poverty? Though “Visitor” is not in the same class as the other books I mention, I still recommend you give it a try.  It is a good Indie read.

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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 Shifts” by Mike Nees

Genre:           Literary Speculative FictionMike's story
Publisher:    Typehouse Literary Magazine
Pub. Date:    February 2019

I want to start this review by sharing that the author, Mike Nees, is my son.  I promise you that will not influence my critique.   Mike has critiqued much of my own writing and he is fond of telling me not to heap praise on an author just because I know him, as this may harm his growth in the long run.  He likes to tell me that my reviews often need to show more teeth.  With that said, I will share that I am not always fond of Mike’s stories or even his novel.  He writes in a genre I have never been able to put my finger on—A bit of magical realism in a dystopian setting with a strong dash of speculative fiction.  Or, what he simply calls, “Mike’s crazy stuff.”  Often his work is over the head of my non-speculative thinking brain.  But just because I am not of fan of his preferred genres doesn’t mean I do not appreciate good storytelling.  As a book reviewer, I simply consume too much literature not to be aware of when I am reading good writing.  This short story is written with a skilled hand.  Glad to know the English Lit degree paid off.

“The Shifts” is an entertaining short that carries a moral message.  The title’s name is referring to factory work.  The jobs are “a miracle” for the poor.  Everyone fit will have work (…) twelve hours of pay, twelve minutes of work.  The tale reads like a black-and-white (think “The Twilight Zone,”) mix of sci-fi, supernatural fantasy, and horror.  There is also a strong dose of family drama, asking the question: Just what would you do for your child?  For me, this is the real catch in the story.  It touched my mother’s heart.  The characters are unnamed, living in a village in an unmentioned location.  (The author does write of a Boujaad rug, if that is a hint, I am not sure).  This all gives the feel that you are somewhere in the Fourth Dimension.  The author does let the reader know that his male protagonist is narrating his life story to his son.  Sadly, even living in another dimension no one can afford their medical bills.  Mike does a great job in showing corporate greed. Does “Shifts” read as good as Rod Serling’s best?  The answer is no.  Sterling’s episode “It’s a Good Life” is based on the 1953 short story written by Jerome  Bixby.  That short is so wonderful because it cleverly explains more on why those in power often have no moral compass.  Still, “Shifts” is a merciless-creepy-good short that explores the tensions of society.  Due to the author’s mixing of the genres, I recommend this story to those who enjoy speculative fiction, and to those who do not.   The tale even has an ending with a twist that this reviewer didn’t guess.

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About the author:

Mike Nees is a case manager for people living with HIV in Atlantic City. He hosts the city’s Story Slam series and has a BA in Creative Writing from Stockton University. His work has appeared in Matchbook Literary Magazine and HazMat Literary Review.

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

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“The Parting Glass” by Gina Marie Guadagnino

Genre:           Historical Fictionthepartingglass
Publisher:    Atria Books
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

This novel, set in the 1830s, has all the makings of great storytelling.  You will read much about Tammany Hall (the name given to the notoriously corrupt Democratic political machine that dominated New York City politics during the 19th century.  You will meet Maire O’Farrell and her twin brother Seanin.  They are from Ireland and fresh off a boat that landed them in the poverty-stricken area known as The Five Points.  You might know of the infamous Five Points from the book or the movie “Gangs of New York.”  The Points was a 19th-century neighborhood located in Lower East Manhattan that included Mulberry Street.  Back then, Mulberry Street (historically associated with Italian-American culture, where the Mafia blossomed and made the street a household name) was filled with Irish rather than Italian immigrants.  If interested, nowadays it is Chinese immigrants who walk Mulberry streets.  On the other side of town is Washington Square, which was and still is a very wealthy area.  These families hired cheap labor from the nearby tenements.  This is how the twins end up working as servants in a Washington Square home.  Mary becomes a lady’s maid to beautiful Charlotte Walden, the belle of New York City’s high society.  Seanin, when not busy becoming the leader of an Irish gang, works as a stable groom for Charlotte’s favorite horse.  Both brother and sister fall in love with the mistress of the house.   I am not giving anything away.  All of this is described in the book’s blurb.  Are you in yet?  I was.  So why was I disappointed in the novel?

You must get by now that “Parting Glass” has a strong feel of “Upstairs/Downstairs,” where “Downtown Abbey” meets the “Gangs of New York.”  For this reviewer, the tale should have been a captivating read.  There is love, tragedy, and a good dose of Mulberry St.  A neighborhood I used to live in.  The storylines didn’t feel properly linked together.  By day, Mary is prim and proper.  By night, she is getting drunk with gang members and slapped around (have no fear, Mary gives as good as she gets) in an Irish pub.  I find it far-fetched that her secret nightlife could be as well hidden from her day life as presented in the book. I also had a hard time buying that Mary’s sexuality was as accepted by all as the author writes, especially by the male gang members.  Personally, I wish that was true.  But sadly if I am not mistaken, there was not a thriving gay scene in the Lower East Side for more than a century later.  It is clear that Guadagnino did her research on the history of violence in The Five Points.  This makes it all the more confusing that she depicts a casually accepted gay woman in this setting.  I think the author was attempting to emulate Sarah Waters’ erotic thriller “The Paying Guests,” or Waters’ “Fingersmith,” a historical crime novel.  Both books are set in the Victorian era.  Both books are page-turners that include lesbian love affairs.   Guadagnino, like Waters, does a great job of writing intelligently on what in present time is known as “love is love.”  I applaud the author on this.  The uneven storylines are where I take issue.  I think a good editor could have made this book a far better read than it is.

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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 Dreamers” by Karen Thompson Walker

Genre:           Literary Speculative Fictionthe dreamers
Publisher:    Random House
Pub. Date:    January 15, 2019

This hard to put down, apocalyptic thriller reads like a science-fiction fairy tale.  In Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, “The Age of Miracles” she tapped into our fears about the melting of the Polar Regions.  Once again, global warming is a component in her newest novel, “The Dreamers.”  The book is set in a small college town experiencing a drought. As the nearby lake evaporates, students are struck with a mysterious illness that puts them into a sleep that they cannot be aroused from.   They are the first dreamers—victims of a contagious sleeping epidemic.  Before the college is quarantined, a few dreamers (as they have come to be called) turns into a few hundred.   All need medical attention to stay alive as they sleep. Soon the entire town is quarantined and panic sets in, causing a chain reaction of distrust similar to the AIDS epidemic.  Some residents rise to the occasion and attempt to aid the sick, while others take the attitude of remaining uninfected at all costs.

Walker’s hypnotic tale is reminiscent of a Stanley Kubrick movie: Intelligent, strange, terrifying.  What might be the most interesting parts of the novel is when the author brings the reader inside the minds of those sleeping.  They experience heightened dreams that tap into unused powers of the human brain that only scientists suspect might be there.  The author has clearly done her research homework.  The novel is peppered with statements from the British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science, Oliver Sacks.  All in all, hidden inside this page-turner, Walker asks provocative questions:  What is the nature of consciousness?   What is the nature of a health epidemic caused by global warming?  Why are some ordinary people inclined to help, while others will not?  “Dreamers” may not answer these questions but it does leave the reader thinking, which is the highest form of praise an author can receive.

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“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Literary Dystopian Fictionhandmaid
Publisher: Random House of Canada
Pub. Year 1985

Mini Review

What in the world is there new to say about Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic tale? Probably not much, so instead I will share my personal thoughts. I actually was under the impression that the recent re-interest in “The Handmaids Tale” was due to similarities I noticed in the novel and current affairs. The 45th President of the United States (in my own humble opinion) seems to admire world dictators and believes the news is often fake, not to mention that he has his own desire to build a wall. Then, I learned that in 2017 the book became a TV series (which I will definitely be catching). Either way, I am glad that “Handmaid” is back in public consciousness.

This reviewer is not fond of dystopian fiction. I even say so in my book review policy. But the great Atwood never disappoints with her eye-opening writing. She makes it so easy to see how in the future, a totalitarian society in what used to be New England could become a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property. Like most others, I couldn’t put the book down.

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