“The Matchmaker’s Gift” by Lynda Cohen Loigman 

Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction The match makers gift
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: Sept. 20, 2022

This novel is women’s fiction written in the form of historical fiction. I suspected as much after reading the blurb. I’m not usually a fan of women’s fiction, but the Lower East Side of Manhattan is the setting of one of the protagonists in the story. My home was in that neighborhood decades ago, in a subsidized apartment not far from the district’s gritty alleys and tenement-style apartments, which in the 1970s, were filled with the neighborhood’s Jewish, Italian and Chinese heritage. I read the book out of nostalgia.

In this dual timeline novel, the author weaves together the tale of a young Jewish child named Sara and her granddaughter, Abby. Sara, in 1910 discovers that she is blessed with the gift of finding marriage matches but only for those in true love. This gift remained with her until she passed away in her golden years. She explains to Abby that when she has found two soul mates, she simply knows, sees, and feels it. In this story, there is a lot of sweet-natured magical realism. Her granddaughter refuses to believe in such nonsense. That is until after her grandmother’s death when she recognizes that she, too, possesses the ability.

Loigman brings feminism into the novel long before it was even a word. When Sara was in her twenties, devout older men who do not believe a matchmaker should be female take Sara to a religious court in an attempt to stop her matchmaking. Without giving spoilers, I will share the decision was not very believable. I loved reading about my old hangouts but this book while charming was too predictable for me to truly enjoy.

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

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“Transmutation: Stories” by Alex DiFrancescoo

Genre: Speculative /Supernatural/Transgender FictionTransmutation
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Pub. Date: June 22, 2021

The ten stories in DiFrancesco’s book fluctuate between tales that are realistic, gothic, and way out there, meaning bizarre. The characters are all in the process of becoming their real selves or changing into something new.

“Inside My Saffron Cave” is a straightforward story.  It centers on a transboy, his mother, and her abusive boyfriend. This is a sad yet hopeful tale showing how in 2021 transgender teens are not as alone with their feelings as they were in the past. Because of this fact, the author has turned a melancholy tale into a positive one. DiFrancesco also gives what feels like an inside look at Battered Women Syndrome.

“A Little Procedure,” has hints of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” centering on evil surgical operations. The short is dedicated to Rosemary Kennedy, which gives the reader a big hint of where the story will be heading. After the ‘procedure,’ the female protagonist speaks in a detached and quiet manner. This is deceiving because she has become a puppet-like ‘creature’ with a desire for revenge. So creepy.

“The Pure,” disavows all the folklore that has been written about vampires and the myths of the undead. Forget about Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Here vampires aren’t scary at all. The female vampire narrator falls in love with a living transgender man. The fun in the story is how the transman is shocked that the vampire has no need and no desire to hurt him. Such an unusual way to point out the good in the world while showing the disservice that misinformation causes.

DiFrancesco is not at all shy to explore the boundaries of magical realism. The writer seems to have a talent for making the unbelievable read real even though our logical minds know it cannot be. The author weaves in trans themes, but this book is for anyone who loves monsters, myths, legends, diversity, surrealism, fun, and even kindness. Finding kindness in these stories was such a pleasant surprise.

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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.

Open link to purchase “The Shifts”

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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“All The Names They Used for God: Stories” by Anjali Sachdeva

Genre:         Literary Fiction
Publisher:    Random House
Pub.Date:    February 20, 201835082451

Possible Spoilers

With this title, I was expecting a novel about the horrors that have been committed in the name of God, such as the Spanish Inquisition.  But the title is misleading.  The stories are more about the concept of how we see God or any power that can change our lives.  This stellar collection is exploring humanity’s strangeness.  The stories read as ominous and compelling fiction that I would call magical realism.  The author, Anjali Sachdeva, is ridiculously creative in writing unusual and dark tales.  After each story, I thought “How bizarre.”  Still, after each story, I felt that the author hit a nerve, making the plot acceptable, even moving.

The title story presents stirring images of Nigerian schoolgirls who are kidnapped by jihadists.  The story goes back and forth between the time they are abducted till they are adult women.  It is so darn sad. As adults, they gain some sort of mystical power over the men who abducted them and they are no longer being abused.  But it is too late.  They have been beaten and raped too many times over the years. They no longer feel human.   It leaves the reader wondering what is left when one survives the un-survivable.  This story made me simultaneously think:  Is surviving even worth it when the cost is that you lose your soul?   And, hoping that in real life, battered women are able to find a way to leave their abusers and still keep their human core.

Dave Eggers, who wrote the best selling non-fiction “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” said Sachdeva’s short story “Pleiades” is “a masterpiece.”  Indeed, it is one of my favorites in this collection of heartbreaking stories. This one is about a couple who are geneticists.  Ignoring the protesters holding signs that read “Seven Deadly Sins” and “Frankenstein’s Children,” they produce seven test-tube sisters that grow to become loving and inseparable.  Unfortunately, over their childhood, teens, and womanhood they are all ill-fated.  Making the reader either hate or sympathize with the grieving parents.  I kept going back and forth thinking that they were thoughtless parents-to-be, thinking only of their careers.  Then to wondering that they were no different from other loving parents-to-be who also happened to be trailblazing scientists.

In “Robert Greenman and the Mermaid,” there is a fisherman, a mermaid, and a shark.  Of course, the fisherman is bewitched by the mermaid.  What makes this story so original is the shark.  The mermaid loves to watch the big fish feed on its prey.  She feels that the shark represents all that is beautiful in the deep sea.  The fisherman wants nothing more than to escape or kill the twenty-foot long hunter.  It is a sweet sad story leaving you to ponder why humans are so afraid of anything different from themselves.

The story that creeped me out the most and haunts me still is “Manus.”  In this story, aliens replace human hands with metal appendages.  This neatly sums up this story, but without producing the Heebie Jeebies feeling. The aliens are called The Masters.  The story begins with a couple looking at their neighbor when he is opening his mail and begins to cry.   He’s just received his draft card.  In this story, getting a draft card means that within two weeks, you must go for an “Exchange Apparatus,” known to humans as the “Forker.”  For the surgery, the human holds out their hands and inserts them into pneumatic cuffs that shut around their wrists.  After removing, the hands are replaced with metal fingers that look like forks.  Ugh.  When it is time for the man in the couple to be forked, I actually wept for him.  When it is his girlfriend’s turn, she rebels.  She does not get forked.   However, to keep her body metal free she self-mutilates. Leaving her body just as gross (I won’t explain more so you can be just as shocked as I was) as if she was forked, shades of the title story, was it worth it?

Sachdeva is clearly talented in her craft.  I usually do not care for the genre magical realism, but this author makes me realize that the genre is about the human condition and how we are conditioned to feel.  I so enjoyed the book, “Love in the Time of Cholera,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I am now guessing is magical realism.  I suspect this reviewer must examine the genre more carefully.   Nevertheless, there are other stories in the collection also showing the damaging results of abusive power.   All the stories in this collection have a unique and thought-provoking prose.  Just know that she also writes like Rod Serling on an acid trip.

I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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