“Together We Will Go” by J. Michael Straczynski

Together we will go

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Pub. Date: July 6, 2021

While reading the book I was not aware that J. Micahel Straczynski, is the co-creator of many TV shows including “Babylon 5: The Lost Tales.” Even without this knowledge, I could tell that he is a talented and funny writer.  “Together We Will Go” is a tragic comedy.  I say this because the novel looks at the reasons why people commit suicide yet, the author will make you laugh time and time again.  He manages to do this without taking away from the seriousness of the subject matter. For example, the main narrator is a failed novelist with tons of student debt and a degree in writing that pretty much is useless for paying the bills. He thinks, merely coming from Jersey is reason enough to off yourself. If you know any New Jersey jokes, how do you not laugh and that?

The premise of the story is just plain weird.  A group of strangers come together, through the classifieds, for a bus trip where the destination is death. They intend to go somewhere pretty and then drive the bus over a cliff.  The idea is to not die alone. Straczynski gets the reader to ignore how unbelievable the plotline is by making his characters relatable, human. You can probably find a little bit of yourself in each of them. The only condition to join the death bus is that each rider must journal his/her reasons for wanting to die. Each journal reads like a case study on the character. Some journals are so deep and thought provoking they could have been novels by themselves. Among others, the reader will meet, a person living in chronic pain who just can’t take it anymore, a party-loving bipolar woman who cannot be stabilized with medication, a terminally ill man with a hole in his heart that turns his skin blue, and a gentle soul who is mentally ill and wants to die with his dying cat. They are all hoping that their next life will be a better one. The author does not clump his characters together. He makes them individuals. Some characters believe that they will be going to heaven or hell, others think that they will be reincarnated while others feel that they will return to earth as lifeless particles of matter.

The novel is narrated in a gutsy way that forces the reader to pay attention. Think “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. Egan had a PowerPoint presentation, but Straczynski has journals, texts, emails, voicemails, and audio recordings. As expected, all characters become endearing to the reader. Nevertheless, don’t expect a Hollywood ending. This is an intelligent, bizarre, and sad story that will make you think that the characters are your friends. You may even go back and reread some of the journals. Sometimes, the tale is a bit too much for my taste. Such as when they break into a mall, cause why not. They are going to die anyway. While inside they do whatever they want, so all hell breaks loose. Even though this is hard to buy (like where are the police?) I did chuckle when an obese girl whacks a stick-wide mannequin, which no real woman looks like while telling the mannequin that she needs to eat a ham sandwich. “Together We Will Go” is not making light of suicide.  What the author does do is explore those intense emotions that can become deadly. He just does this in a Monty Python kind of way. He uses humor to show us what it looks like to be depressed, or have suicidal ideation, and how anyone can be vulnerable to suicide. The book closes with The National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
 
I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Landslide” by Susan Conley

Landside

Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher:  Penguin Random House Canada
Pub. Date: Feb. 2, 2021

Mini-Review

This is a character-driven story about a family living on an island in Maine who are trying to survive the constant rough waters life throws at them. The husband is one of the few remaining fishermen in their declining coastal town. The wife is a documentarian.  Nevertheless, her husband is the true breadwinner between them and money is always tight. While in Canada, a boat the husband is working on explodes. He is severely hurt and must remain in a Canadian hospital for weeks. Also, he may not be able to continue working once released. This worry and their lengthy separation threaten his already shaky marriage. The author does a good job showing the difficulty in a marriage when one of them is often away for days at a time. In essence, the novel is about a fisherman’s wife, alone with her two teenage sons—whom she calls ‘the wolves’—trying to cope in a home that is falling apart while her sons are acting out. The author nails the complexities of modern-day parenting, for a single mom, since she practically is one.  However, the story’s true strength is that the reader gets an inside view of the current lives of coastal Mainers and the hardships that they endure as a local and not a tourist. The novel sometimes can read uneven bouncing back and forth from global warming, to living with a father-in-law who thinks that his daughter-in-law is too easy on his grandsons, to a marriage in crisis. Still, in limited prose, Cloney writes a compelling read.

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“Dark Roads” by Chevy Stephens

Dark Roads

Genre: Mystery & Thriller
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: August 3, 2021

The only part of this novel that I truly enjoyed was the prologue and the epilogue since they are similar to a book I did enjoy, “These Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold. In both books a teenage girl who, after being raped and murdered, watches from heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives while she comes to terms with her death.  In this crime thriller, teenage girls and young women who may have hitchhiked on a deserted country road, which is frequently used by truck drivers, go missing. Stephens does a good job of scaring us with the highway description as well as the whole setting in this logging-town. I felt empathy for the girl who lost her father whom she was extremely close to since her mother had passed. Now a 17-year-old orphan, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle where life there is intolerable for her. She runs away and becomes another missing female. Other main characters are the sister of the girl who was murdered and found on the dreaded highway from hell. She comes to town searching for answers. There is also a young man in the storyline who seems to be thrown into the tale so there is a love interest. As an older woman, I am guessing his character is there for young female readers.

Then the story morphs into a violent, kidnapping tale with characters that appear to be Wonder Woman-like. I say this because in between the horrendous torture that the two women experience they still manage to have cheeky comeback dialogue.  This didn’t feel believable considering all the mental and physical anguish they went through.  I get what the author was aiming for—empowered females. But the writing comes off as if the message is ‘serial killers should never mess with kickass young women’. This is the real reason for my not being keen on the full novel. Still, I did appreciate the book’s message that needs to be told, and that the novel is based on a true story. Stephens even gives the reader phone numbers and websites with information on women who have gone missing and never found. Still, this novel simply wasn’t for me.  However, it may be for you.

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“Unspoken” by Rebecca Chianese

Genre: Women’s FictionUnspoken
Publisher: Eifrig Publishing
Pub. Date: April 25, 2021

Sexual abuse is a challenging subject to write about in fiction. “Unspoken” is an empowering story about breaking the silence of the assault on girls and women without making it too hard for the reader to digest. I never felt that I needed to skim paragraphs even while reading the darker moments.  Still, the author makes sure that the reader sees the unhealthy results of when victims do not tell of the abuse and/or represses their memories.  Chianese manages this feat by also giving the reader a plotline that is not only about sexual abuse.  The story is also about the strength of female friendship and just how powerful ordinary women can be. The reader meets four women who develop an unlikely friendship. Their friendship is improbable because they are all very different from one another. At the beginning of the story, motherhood and their book club are the only connections that they have to each other.

The women’s differences are written in a witty manner that lets me see each character clearly in my head.  One is a mother whose house is always in a chaotic state.  She refers to her mudroom as her kid’s ‘fight club.’ What mom cannot relate to that? This woman is a bit quirky and is involved with pagan witchcraft.  However, her practice will make the reader chuckle more than make us wonder about her religious sanity. She prays to a goddess that is both Greek and Jewish, as she is, to give her the grace and patience to get through another book club night without too much eye-rolling.

Then another woman is a perfectionist.  Her home is pristine, color coordinated and expensively furnished. Everything inside her home, as well as herself, is designed for guests to oh and ah over.  Of course, on the night she hosts the book club food and drink are selected to coordinate with the book the ladies will be discussing.  Yet, she too is an endearing character.  Don’t we all try to impress others on our social media posts?  Don’t we all want our lives to present just a bit nicer than it is?

Another book club friend once worked as a school librarian. She made serious rules for the club that scared away possible members. Another lighthearted moment for the reader. But, have no fear for boring discussions, wine is also one of the rules. Lastly, there is a divorced woman who is co-parenting with her ex and his new wife. By chance, the new wife happens to be her lawyer. I thought that was too much to be believed.  Women’s fiction is not a favorite genre of mine. I find that it can get too close to chick-lit for my taste. And, the ending is almost always wrapped up in a bow. But, this is how the author masterly sets her stage to incorporate abuse and female friendship dynamics into the storyline.  Yes, the dialogue between the different personalities creates amusing banter and works as a buffer in between reading the novel’s more difficult sections. Still, the women are inspirationally fierce when all four bond together to understand why one of their daughters has been acting out. They are blind-sighted to learn the reason and then they fight like hell for her.

The author nails all the confusing emotions that sexually abused children experience.  Such as, how a thirteen-year-old girl may believe she enjoys the sex with an adult male. Think “Lolita”. Or how a girl can be mentally traumatized by witnessing a friend’s dark secret and keeping it to herself. In a way, “Unspoken” is also a coming-of-age story that does a good job in showing us how trauma causes toxic dissociation, and all the turmoil that comes with it. Her story also shows us the steps to take that can lead to healing from the assault/s. It takes a talented author to write on such an uncomfortable subject that can still make the reader laugh in between tears of shock, rage, and pain.

Unfortunately, unlike in this novel parents are not always receptive to believing their children.  Some mothers live in a world of denial thereby preventing them from intervening to protect their child or children. On the back cover of the book, there is the websitewww.hopesdoorny.org for an agency that advocates for survivors of sexual assault. Shouldn’t all of us do something to end violence against girls and women? Even in this #MeToo era, we still need a reminder that it is all our jobs to keep our children safe.

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“How Beautiful We Are” by Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: March 9, 2021

Imbolo Mbue is a formidable storyteller. Gripping from the first sentence to the last, “How Beautiful We Were” is a novel detailing decades of suffering endured by families in a small fictional African village where an American oil company has arrived ready to drill. (Sounds familiar right)? The oil company is in cahoots with their corrupt dictator. Pipeline spills.  Children die. This multi-generational novel is told through the eyes of the village children while they are still children, as teens, and finally as adults. Different characters at different stages of their life narrate.  However, the storyline is not linear, and slow paced, which can confuse the reader. As the narrators change, the reader learns something new from the perspective of each of them. You will meet a grandmother who was a child herself when the Americans came. She has memories of life before there was an oil company. Her narrations are very different from, Sahel’s, her daughter-in-law.

The village has someone who they appropriately call, the madman. Through him, the author takes an opportunity to pronounce the unfairness to the village by the soldiers. The madman unintentionally pushes the soldiers too far. Blood is spilled. The author ensures that the reader feels just how unsympathetic the government is towards its own people. When questioned the soldiers state how where they to know that he was mad and didn’t understand the meaning of stealing their keys.

Sahel has a daughter, Thula, who didn’t speak for eleven days after the massacre. She is written as a feminist who is inspirational heroine.  We meet Thula when she was an intelligent 10-year-old girl. As a teen, she was always a bit different from the other girls. She was not interested in marriage or having a hut of her own. She was interested in education. In 1980, she leaves her village to go to America for higher levels of education.  It is in America where she takes part in political activism. She returns in 1988 as a revolutionary.  

Mbue creates empathy and feelings of fondness for her long-suffering characters. Their beauty shows when they are not grieving, the villagers find happiness in each other, their village lifestyle, their traditions, and their faith in the spirits. The author’s ability to make every character’s narration uniquely important to the novel is impressive and seldom dull.  Yet somehow, the dialogue is not as engaging as it should be. Still, the author paints such a fascinating picture of people wronged by their government and Western greed that you will become deeply invested in the village and want to jump into the tale and fight with them. Think of the movie, “Erin Brockovich.”  “How Beautiful We Are” is the sort of novel that you will reflect upon long after you have read the last page.

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 Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library

Genre: Literary/Women’s Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pub. Date: Feb. 11, 2021

For someone who loves to read in the wee hours of the morning, how could I not want to read a book with the title, “The Midnight Library?” The novel did not disappoint. It reminded me of the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The book is marketed as literary/women’s fiction.  This reviewer did not think it was either. It is more of a fantasy and feel-good read. The fact that this is a heartwarming tale is interesting because the novel begins with a young woman who has just overdosed on purpose. She wakes up to find herself not in heaven or hell but an immensely large magical library.  Did I mention that she is an avid reader and spent most of her childhood in a library?  Yes, there is a connection. It turns out that this library is the place people go when they find themselves dangling between life and death and not entirely sure about which way to go. I get that a religious person would take issue with this concept. However, if you believe in quantum physics and that we live in multiple universes at the same time you will be thrilled to know that there are other believers out there.  There is even mention of Schrödinger’s cat. It is okay if you never heard of the cat it will be explained to you.

In this magical library, our protagonist meets a kindly librarian who shows her her very own “book of regrets.” We all have them. Now here comes the fantasy. She jumps into each life where she could make a different choice than she did before and that would lead her to a happier existence. In one life, she is a rock star, in another, she is an Olympic Swimmer. In yet another, she is a happily married wife and mother. Still, she doesn’t care to live any of these better lives because it becomes clear that she doesn’t know what she wants. At first reading her alternate lives were fun. Who hasn’t wished they could jump into another life? But, after a while, it becomes tedious to read one after another. I would have been happier with fewer lives. Still, the author manages to keep the story fun because when entering a new life she knows nothing of this life. But, everyone knows her.  She must look for herself online, read her social media accounts, to know who she exactly is in this particular life, which creates humorous dialogue as we observe her winging it.

The author seems to be saying that the universe is full of infinite possibilities, but the story here remains tightly focused on the life of a single woman and all her might-have-been lives. Once you finish the book, or probably before, the moral of the story becomes obvious.  “Oh, Auntie Em – there’s no place like home!” My only real issue in this tale was thinking about people who lost someone to suicide.  How painful it could be reading this fantasy and wishing that their loved one could have also time-traveled to come back to life. Overall, it is clear that Haig pushes her readers to ponder his or her own book of regrets, and make us wonder what we can do to keep from making the same mistakes again. He gets his point across very well.

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“This Shining Life” by Harriet Kline

Genre: General Fiction/Literary Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: June 22, 2021

The Shing Life

This character-driven novel is a sweet yet sad story that revolves around Rich who is a husband, father, brother, and son. Rich will die in the novel. We know this from chapter one. The book takes you through his prognosis until his death and his family’s grief afterward. The author’s descriptive writing will bring you into the mindset of a dying man. As well as his family members who are trying to digest his upcoming death.

Most of the characters have quirky yet lovable personalities including Rich’s 11-year-old son, Ollie, who is autistic. Although, Ollie is very hard to live with his parents adore him. Rich is the best with him when dealing with his rituals. Can you imagine being a parent of a child who will not leave the house without all his socks in case his feet get wet? Yet, Ollie is such a tender and frequently confused soul that it is hard not to like him.  The author never actually states that Ollie is autistic but it becomes obvious through his words, actions, and rituals.  Rich wants to reprimand his parents that it is not Ollie’s fault that their grandson can appear to be disrespectful.  He is not.  It is just that his brain is wired differently. Unfortunately, when he finally gets the courage to confront his stern and ridged father it is too late. Rich is already gone. The message is obvious.

There is much more in this touching family drama than Rich’s premature death.  The author takes on many themes, living with a disability, adult unresolved painful childhood memories, chronic depression, and the stages of grief. Sometimes I thought the author went too heavy on the characters’ exhausting emotions.  It became tedious to read. But then again, maybe that was Kline’s point—to put the reader up close and personal to the death of a loved one.  However, for me, sweet Ollie is what grabbed my interest and held it throughout the novel.  Watching the boy struggle to understand just what is exactly expected of him when the answer is outside his reasoning melted my heart. Without being preachy, the author gives a lesson in patience, understanding, and the meaning of true acceptance.

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“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.

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