“Clementine Lane” by Eoghan Brunkard

Genre: Contemporary Urban FictionClementine Lane
Publisher: Self Published
Publication Date: April 26, 2021

The writer, Eoghan Brunkard, found me on an online book distributor site where authors can submit their books to reviewers.  I usually do not accept books from this site because, in my opinion, they tend to offer low quality novels. (Yes, I can be a book snob). In the author’s request, he wrote, “Clementine Lane is a humorous, often empathetic, look at ordinary peoples’ lives in contemporary Ireland.”  This caught my interest so I figured I’d give it a try. I am glad that I did because I found the novel to be well-written, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny. “Clementine” reminded me of the movie, “The Commitments,” which also took place in Dublin’s working-class inner-city.  Like in the film, there are colorful, foul-mouthed, fast-talking, and loveable characters. “Phyllis and Shane were good people and raised their children with interest, but they also raised them as they were raised.” Phyllis finds her 8-year-old son outdoors at night. “What are you doing out at this fucking time?!” Yet later in the tale, she complains about her 14-year-old daughter’s language. “With that foul mouth of yours? God forgive me, I don’t know where you get it from.”

The heart of the tale begins in an abandoned warehouse when Phyllis’s daughter befriends an adult male who is a homeless alcoholic. She asks him, “how did you end up like this, anyway?”  He replies, “I have been asked that a lot…I have an answer already pre-prepared like a job interview.” His silly answer to the girl answers nothing. This is how the author cleverly reminds us, without preaching, that addiction can happen to anyone. The story’s tension derives from a drug rehab that has been granted permission to open up a center in the lane. The residents take a ‘Not In My Backyard’ stand.  We get an ugly and honest front row look on the stigma faced by those struggling with addiction. “We’ll be terrified that a junkie will have a go or try to sell shite to the kids.” 

The author sets his stage with vivid descriptions of the neighborhood, which include cottages meant for a small family. “However, liberal lust mixed with conservative Catholicism meant they usually housed a larger one.” As the lane widens, you will find rows of flats. Between them lies a basketball court with no hoops in a perpetually locked playground, “an amenity that the locals cannot be trusted with.” There is a former nunnery, where God must still be looking down on them because outside the building sits a thriving, “beautiful cherry blossom, which in April fills the dreary urban landscape with pink petals.” And, in the evenings, the “silver serpent street lamps slowly hissed to life outside Cartigan’s pub.” It could be said that in today’s apostate times the pub is more religiously frequented than St. Luke’s Church. But, don’t worry about the residents’ souls because Father Thomas can usually be found there too since the church closes at nighttime. “The wrong type tended to pray at 9.pm on a Friday night.”

“Clementine” should be read with a pint of ale or cider in hand. Still, while remaining in a comedy-parable style, empathy and the “importance of community in an increasingly isolating and individualizing world” is the recurring theme. A minor character who is a journalist visits the lane and decides to write an article, which he will call “Forgotten Pieces.” His motivation comes from “watching a couple aged by heroin, though they were probably just in their 40s.” Weaved into the plot is a children-scaring nun mystery that has haunted the lane for a century. It is an amusing side plot that does not distract from the story but it is not necessarily needed. It may be overkill. My funny bone did not need further tickling. The novel is peppered with “Irish Speak.” A glossary is included for non-Irish readers like myself. After the glossary, there is an “About The Author” page where he shares that in real life he has worked on inner-city community development projects. When one of his characters says, “We must remember not to lose sight of the human in the addiction,” it is fair to guess that is the author’s sentiment as well. Without resorting to too much sentimentality, “Clementine” is a fun, moving tale that is wiser than it initially lets on.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the author 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.

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

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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 Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” by Lisa See

Genre: Historical FictionThe Tea Girl
Publisher: Scribner
Pub. Date: March 21, 2017

I did not receive this book from the publisher. It was a gift. Technically, that means I do not have to write a review. Nevertheless, See is such a gifted writer that I wanted to share my thoughts on “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.” I know from reading See’s previous novels that her writing will combine a haunting tale that is hard to put down with gripping depictions of Chinese history. In her 2005 novel, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” one reads vivid descriptions of the excruciating process of footbinding, where daughters were crippled in the name of beauty. Still, the reader comes to have compassion for the characters that inflict and enable this violence.

With “Tea,” See explores another horrifying Chinese practice: the killing of newborn twins. What makes this story even more shocking than “Snow Flower” is that the tale is set in 1988. See transports readers to a remote mountain village where we meet the Akha people. While immersing us in Akha’s rituals and taboos, See reveals that twins are considered a bad omen. Custom requires their father to immediately kill the newborns, even if one is a boy. Furthermore, the parents are then run out of town. Their house and all of their possessions are set on fire—that is the Akha way. As in “Snow Flower,” “Tea” will cause you heartache for unexpected parties. In this case, parents who’ve murdered their children. Once again, by drawing us into her world, See denies us any illusion that we might have behaved any differently under the same circumstances.

“Maybe our lives are like gigantic jigsaw puzzles,” the novel’s female protagonist muses. “You find the right piece and suddenly the whole picture has meaning.” She is the only daughter of a tea-growing family who, after witnessing the murder of newborn twins, begins to question the practice. “The birth of the twins and what happened to them, although traditional, has transformed me as irreversibly as soaking cloth in a vat of dye.” The author’s poetic language allows us to experience the disturbing with a sense of intimacy that we cannot obtain from flat historical records. As a result, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane” succeeds not only as a unique study of violence, but its remedies. “Rice is to nourish. Tea is to heal.”

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“White Ivy” by Susie Yang

White Ivy

Genre: Psychological Thriller
Publisher: Publisher Simon & Schuster
 Pub. Date: 11/3/2020

“Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.” The novel is an entertaining character study of a social climber with a secret, which never seems to go out of style. Think of the psychological thriller, “Suspicion” directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Alternatively, think of the more recent film, “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”You get the idea. The main character, Ivy Lin, is a narcissist with self-destructive traits. Desperate to escape her Chinese, low-income, immigrant parents, Ivy aims to marry into wealth. “White Ivy” is chock-full of gripping ideas. What it does not do is give the reader access to her experiences that may show how those ideas became part of her makeup.  While the title seems to allude to Ivy yearning for whiteness, neither she nor any of the characters seem to register the racial differences between her and her rich white fiancée. Ivy becomes a first-grade teacher who “didn’t like children but that didn’t matter.” However, the reader never knows why she went into teaching. Nor does she know why she and her fiancé do not have sex. (The reader can guess but Ivy is clueless until the end of the book). This is not to say that the novel isn’t a page-turner, because it is. In a way, this is a coming-of-age thriller about an unlikeable girl that this reviewer found hard to put down.

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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.

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

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