“Little Faith” by Nickolas Butler

Genre:           Psychological FictionLittle Faith
Publisher:    HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

This is a story about religious extremism and how it can destroy a family as well as a town.  But this is not the loud and angry tale one might expect from such a premise.  It’s a quietly and delicately penned.  In many ways, Butler’s “Little Faith” reads like “Plainsong,” written by the acclaimed American author Kent Haruf.   “”Faith” also has similarities to any novel written by Howard Frank Mosher, a much loved American author.  “Plainsong” is located in Denver.  Mosher’s fiction takes place in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   “Faith” is also located in another small American town, this one in Wisconsin.

The residents are plain-spoken people, needing not much from the world, but a good crop, family, friends, and a place to worship together as a community.   The reader will meet grandparents who are in their mid-sixties—not quite old but content being in their autumn years.  They are helping to raise their five-year-old grandson, whom they adore.   He is the child of their single-mother daughter. The daughter may be the only character who is difficult to grasp.  Butler never really explains why she can be unkind and manipulative towards her parents.  She left home years, ago returning with a little boy.  The grandfather is the story’s narrator.  Some of the novel’s sweetest scenes are between himself and his grandson. “Oh he loved the boy; and that was all there was to it.”  The book is divided into seasons.  The lyrics to the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” are the essence of this novel.  “To everything, There is a season, And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

Friction in their little family begins when their daughter falls for a new young preacher who has just come into their little town.  He creates a new fire and brimstone congregation.  He may or may not be selling snake oil.  No matter, she is smitten.  As Dusty sang “The only one who could ever reach [teach me] was the son of a preacher man.”   When he tells her that he is convinced that her son has healing powers, she never doubts him for a minute.  This will lead to a crisis that will boil over into their community.  Throughout the book, the reader will follow all the main characters on their own private religious journeys.  However, although the story is filled with theological questions, and undoubtedly the book is exploring one’s religious beliefs or lack of them, its strength lies in the author’s tender descriptions of how his characters chose to live their lives.

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“A Thing Of The Moment” by Bruno Noble

Genre:          Abuse/Family Drama/Coming of AgeA Thing of the Moment
Publisher:    Unbound Digital
Pub. Date:    June 14, 2018

Not many male authors can write young female narratives as well as this author.  Written as an interwoven narrative, the reader will follow three female characters who suffer from sexual and self-worth issues.  We meet them as children and watch them grow into teenagers.   In the second half of the book they are women in their late twenties.  Finally, there is a quick glimpse of their middle-aged years.   As children: one girl is sexually abused by her father.  Another is emotionally abused by her rejecting parents.  The third, and possibly the most interesting child, has supportive parents who encourage her to spread her wings.  Still, like the other two, she feels alone.  In the first half of the book, Noble manages to write their sad stories in an intellectual and yet still stirring novel—Tear-jerking but not melodramatic.

He uses butterflies as a constant metaphor throughout the novel.  The sexually abusive father is a butterfly collector, reminiscent of the early 1960s creepy novel and movie, “The Collector.”  His daughter can leave her body.  This phenomenon is a well-documented coping mechanism for abused children.  Her experiences are captured realistically through the eyes of a confused child.   Noble brings her alive by exposing her naïve thoughts and childhood vulnerability.  The second girl’s parents, who literally do not want her, seem just as evil as the sexually abusive father.  It is hinted that she may not be the biological child to her father.  He adores his other children.   Her narrative is written a tad too much like “Cinderella.”  The author manages to salvage the fairytale-like feeling when placing the attention onto her mother.  She is a complex character who ignores her maternal guilt by focusing on becoming a well-groomed, successful businesswoman.  The loving and self-sacrificing parents of the third girl put all their efforts into encouraging her to rise above their working poor status.  They want her to be her own person, and to one day leave their misogynistic country.  It is interesting to read how these parents completely miss that their child has trouble making emotional attachments.  This causes the girl to be insecure.   She learns to cope with her insecurity by believing she is different because she is special. Noble does a good job making the reader wonder if this protagonist is mentally off, or just unappreciative—Spoiled by the attention.

Once women, the novel does not read nearly as well as when they were girls.  Their adult lives’ read like an add-on to the real book.   Nothing flows smoothly.  Often written in a free-floating prose, which constantly begs the reader to question; humankind, sexuality, and how we connect to the universe.  Unless you are interested in being part of a philosophy class, this is skimming material.  Then there are endless scenes of thinly veiled references to cannibalism: butcher shops, meat factories, biting in sex, and so on and so forth.  The metaphor of eating another’s flesh, or soul, works brilliantly when written through the eyes of an innocent child trying to make sense of their abuse.  But as adult women, the theme is not needed and becomes tiring.  The author brings in a male character.  He has a relationship with all three women.  Yet, somehow he doesn’t feel like a main character, but another add-on.  And then there is the possible fair (?) ending.  (Spoiler)  The two abused girls become well-adjusted middle-aged women.  The girl whose parents lavished love onto her is a non-likable narcissistic woman.  She demonstrates borderline personality traits (one who enjoys sabotaging others.)  Why?  It feels like a dangerous over-simplification, almost like he’s saying you need to traumatize a girl or she’ll turn out to be insufferable.   This particular character got the short end of the stick.  The latter part of the novel does have redeeming moments.  Noble succeeds in his quest to get the reader to wonder how their own body, mind, and soul are connected.  Still, one is left with the feeling that they have read two different books.  One might prefer one to the other but as a whole, they do not fit.  Is there a way to recommend half of a book?

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“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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“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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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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“Keeping Lucy” by T. Greenwood

Genre:         General FictionKeeping Lucy
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   August 6, 2019

The latest novel by T. Greenwood, author of “Rust & Stardust,” is about a heartbroken mother who gave up her baby girl born with Down Syndrome.  That sounds too harsh.   Let me clarify.  The year is 1969, when women gave birth while under anesthesia.  While still under the influence of the ether, and pressure from her doctor, husband, and father-in-law, the baby, who she named Lucy, is taken from her.  Her husband tells her she is going to a boarding school for the developmentally disabled and that visitations are not recommended since it would confuse the child.  She believes this is what is best for her daughter.  Two years later she learns through the newspapers that the school is actually an institution currently under investigation for all sorts of abuse (the author does a good job with visuals of the abused children).  Still, there are lots of pulling on the heartstrings type of drama that simply didn’t feel real.

It didn’t feel believable, at least to me, because the mother does a complete one-eighty.  She and her friend go on a “Thelma and Louise” sort of adventure to kidnap Lucy.   They go on the run with a broken down car and nowhere to go.  This is done to save Lucy from going back to the fictional Willowridge School.   I am sure that the author chose that name on purpose for its similarities to the infamous Willowbrook State School.   Do you remember that downright evil school located in Staten Island, NY?  I do because as a teen I went to demonstrate against the place.  “The horrors endured at the Willowbrook State School will never be forgotten. Built for developmentally disabled children and adults in the 1930s, the school became an institution where the borough’s most vulnerable residents were abused, starved and neglected…”— January 17, 2017, https://www.silive.com/news/2017/01/the_horrors_of_willowbrook_sta.html

Once the mother character learns the true nature of the school, her maternal instincts kicks in.  I want to know where those feelings have been for the past two years of Lucy’s life.  I believe that the story is about a depressed woman, totally under her husband’s thumb, who finally learns to think and do for herself.   But the writing is not up to par with the author’s last novel, which was a historical fiction.  There are so many clichés in this book, complete with an ending tied up in a bow, that I often rolled my eyes.   Maybe my own experience with such an institution is the reason why I found the story unbelievable.   Parents who left their children in such a horrible place were not the type to look back.  I am sure others may enjoy this novel, but it wasn’t for me.

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“Baby of the Family” by Maura Roosevelt

Genre:           Literary FictionBaby of the family
Publisher:    PENGUIN GROUP Dutton
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

The author, Maura Roosevelt, is the great-granddaughter of Eleanor and Franklin.  Her novel is about a fictional modern-day American dynasty, the Whitbys.  I admit the author’s own family lineage is what captured my eye in choosing this book to review.  The fictional Whitbys will make you think of the once enormously wealthy real-life Astor family.   In the past, the Astors were known as “The Landlords of New York.”  I love how this novel begins:  First, with a quote from George W. Bush: “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.”  Then, in the book’s opening, we learn that the always-foolish, current family patriarch, Roger Whitby Jr., dies after squandering away a fortune.   We learn that, half a century prior, a Whitby death would’ve made headlines around the world—not anymore.  The reader immediately knows that we will be entering the world of Roger’s offspring and their children as they learn to live minus the billions.

Roger Whitby Jr. has many children from four marriages that all ended in divorce.  (The author added in a family tree, which is a nice touch).   After his death, he bequeaths what is left of the fortune to his last son, who is adopted, as well as the baby in the family.  This naturally becomes the tension in the story.  The reader will become familiar with three of his children, each from a different marriage, who play major roles in the novel.  They are half-siblings but still, they share the same feeling of abandonment.   In these three, we learn that the story is not actually about the inheritance, but rather the half-siblings’ childhood and adult struggles that stem from being a member of a famous clan (Heh, I can’t help but wonder about the author’s motives for writing this book).

I believe that Roosevelt attempted to write a novel on family love and healing.  If so, that is not what I read.  Basically, this is a poor little rich kid tale.  There are so many subplots with each grown child that I became confused, which led to lack of interest.  Spoiler:  One daughter, in her early twenties (in the first job of her life) is clearly being sexually abused by the man she works for, yet I didn’t feel the anger that I should have felt.   Her story gets lost in between the others.  This is a shame as the novel has such potential.  It reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections.”   There are strong similarities (meaning lots of Tolstoy-like soap).  I am not comparing the talents of the famous Russian author to either of these current day writers.  I am trying to say that Roosevelt’s “Baby” is missing the American Gothic feel that “Corrections” managed to catch.

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“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Genre:           Literary FictionClock Dance
Publisher:    Penguin Random House
Pub. Date:    July 10, 2018

“Clock Dance,” the latest novel by the author Anne Tyler, affectionately known as the bard of Baltimore, is filled with her familiar themes and quirky characters, but it is not up to par with her earlier works.  The gist of the book is that the heroine has four defining moments of her life, which is categorized into four years.   The reader only gets flashing glimpses of the first three defining moments, which is part-one.  I found this annoying.   Characters come and go as if they are walk-ons in a play.  However, once the novel is completed, the reader will get what Tyler was up to— a slow start with a strong finish.  I enjoyed the novel though I am not sure that the threadbare writing, which she is known for, isn’t too bare in part-one.

Part I:  In 1967, our heroine is a schoolgirl wondering what happened to her unstable mom who has disappeared.  She is too young and frightened to cope.  In 1977, she is a college student flying home with her bossy fiancé.  Suddenly, on the plane, the man sitting on the other side of her whispers, “This is a gun, and it’s loaded.  Move and I shoot.”  Once again she is too frightened to act.  When the flight is over the man just gets up and leaves.  She informs her soon to be husband what happened, and although she is shaking with fear, he tells her that she is being histrionic and that “all’s well that ends well.”  She agrees.  (This was hard to buy,  because although she is subservient, she is not stupid.)   In 1997, she is a young widow too traumatized to do what needs to be done to move forward.  In 2017, she is married, once again to another bossy man who patronizes her.   By this time in her life, she is way too timid, mild-mannered and insecure in her abilities to handle almost any situation by herself.  She is more than willing to be a passive bystander in her own life.  As a female reviewer, I wanted to jump into the pages and scream at her to grow a spine.

Part II continues in 2017, it is the bulk of the book and where all its strength lay.  But by this time, I was almost ready to give up on our heroine.  Which I wonder is what the author intended the reader to feel.  But, in 2017, our heroine surprises us.   She finally takes a stand in her own life and learns she is cable of making not only the simplest of decisions but the major ones as well.  For fear of spoiling, I will not share how her wake-up happens, but it is almost comical.  As usual, Tyler’s warmth for her characters shines through.    I am a fan of the author.  Still, I almost ditched the novel.   If Tyler did intend for a slow start, hoping that it would pay off in the second half of the book, then she made a heck of a gamble.  Or, maybe part-one was not written to be intentionally maddening.   Possibly, Tyler didn’t realize just how frustrating part-one actually read. Though, this is also hard to buy since Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize winner.  No matter, either way, I am glad I read her latest work.  Though I am not sure other readers will feel the same.  Still, I recommend the novel to fans of literary fiction.

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