literary fiction · review

Mother Country, by Irina Reyn

Trigger warning for rape.

What should a mother do? Everyone has ideas about this, even people who aren’t mothers. It seems that, no matter who we are or what culture we’re a part of, we can’t help but have opinions about how women are raising their children. The protagonist of Irina Reyn’s thoughtful, troubling novel, Mother Country, is the target of judgment from friends, nannies, and relatives. Worst of all, Nadezhda’s own daughter judges her mothering. And yet, at every step in this heart-breaking novel, Nadia is absolutely convinced that she’s doing the right thing for her little Larisska.

Nadia has had one all-encompassing mission in life: to keep Larissa safe. This directive has manifested itself in her determination to bring her diabetic daughter from the war-torn western Ukraine to the United States. She tried once, just after the turn of the millennium, only to find that Larissa was too old to travel as her child. At 21, Larissa would have to apply independently. But Nadia’s own application was approved. So, in the interests of saving her child, Nadia made the awful choice of traveling thousands of miles away from her only child, leaving Larissa in her grandmother’s care in their small town. Nadia’s plan is to make as much money as she can and work the American bureaucracy to bring her daughter over.

By the time we meet Nadia—who is working two jobs to try and save money—it’s been years since she left Ukraine and Larissa is almost 30. Nadia is still trying to bring Larissa to the United States, but the years (during which war broke out in western Ukraine) have done a lot to separate the two. Nadia still sees her daughter as a child. In all of Nadia’s reminiscences about Larissa, Nadia always seems to be stopping her daughter from making choices about food, boys, and her future. It’s all done in the name of “saving” Larissa. But, even though I was getting things from Nadia’s point of view, I couldn’t help but wish that Nadia would make the effort to really understand who Larissa is and what Larissa wants.

Mothers will always be mothers, however. If Mother Country teaches us nothing else, it’s that mothers will always try to save their children. The hapless mother Nadia nannies for tries to shape her daughter into an idealized Russian child. The American mothers are all helicopter parents who also want to be their children’s friends. The Russian and Ukrainian women all want their daughters (and each other) to be “safely” married to a male breadwinner. It’s clear from an outside perspective that no one is going to get what they want. But, of course, who’s going to listen to an outsider when it comes to raising children?

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for mothers and daughters who don’t understand each other.


The Ghost Notebooks, by Ben Dolnick

Trigger warning for suicide.

In upstate New York is the home of an obscure American philosopher who went off the deep end into spiritualism—a fact that some of the board members of the museum established at that home have tried to suppress. As if to stymie their efforts, the Edmund Wright House has been the site of strange disappearances and mental breakdowns. Even more strangely, The Ghost Notebooks, by Ben Dolnick, begins on a hopeful note as a newly engaged couple takes up residence at the house so that Hannah Rampe can become a live-in curator.

Nicholas Beron and Hannah Rampe have been together for several years by the time we meet them. They have their ups and downs, like any couple, but their relationship is complicated by Hannah’s mental health history. Their downs get a little lower than most. After a small crisis, Nick proposes, Hannah accepts, and they head for upstate New York for Hannah’s new job.

Things go well for a little while, but the house’s history as a spiritualism hotspot and Hannah’s mental health seem to conspire against their happiness. Hannah begins to disappear around the house, only to be found reading Wright’s papers or furiously scribbling in her own notebook. She is anxious, depressed, and insomniac. Because The Ghost Notebooks is narrated by Nick, we don’t quite get a clear look at Hannah’s decline until—near the halfway point of the novel—something devastating happens.

About half of The Ghost Notebooks is a portrait of unbearable grief. Another part is about the experiences of life: the pains, the joys, the banality of everyday life. I’m not sure I was completely convinced by the book’s arguments about being about to step into someone else’s skin. I was convinced by the book’s argument about the inadequacy of words to fully capture a person’s life. Even though one can document everything à la Samuel Pepys or people suffering from hypergraphia, it doesn’t mean that we can truly understand what it means to be that person.

The Ghost Notebooks is not a comfortable book to read. Though many characters struggle to reconnect with their dead loved ones, this book carries a strong tone of futility. This is very much a book about when grief goes terribly wrong.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend for readers who want to help someone through grief or depression but who struggle to understand the depth of emotion that person is feeling.

literary fiction · review

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, by Anissa Gray

In Anissa Gray’s devastating novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, the fact that the matriarch of the family and her husband have been sentenced to prison for committing fraud is just the latest in a series of ruptures and betrayals for the Butler family. As the three Butler sisters take turns telling their stories, we realize that this crisis has just shown a spotlight on to all of the family’s closet skeletons.

Althea Butler is the oldest sister. Years ago, when her mother died, Althea was left to take up the role of mother to her younger siblings because their itinerant preacher father refused to stop traveling. Althea lasted four years, until she was 18 and married her sweetheart. Viola, the next youngest, bailed on her youngest sister and only brother when she got into college. Lillian struggled alone against her violent brother. Now, the sisters seem locked into the rolls they formed when they were younger. Althea is extremely stubborn and not always caring. Viola is terrified of responsibility and suffers from bulimia. Lillian struggles to care for leftover and abandoned family members to make up for things that were not really her fault.

I expected that this novel would focus mostly on Althea’s crime; I was very wrong. Althea’s crime remains in the background so that we can focus on what end up being more serious (but unpublishable) crimes the sisters have committed: playing favorites, abuse masquerading as tough love, emotional abandonment, refusal to apologize for past wrong. The emotional wounds run deep in the Butler family. All this might sound like it would make for a depressing novel. But, while there are parts of the book that are quite depressing, Althea’s sentencing may be the kind of crisis that forces the family to finally start making amends.

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is a deft but powerful portrait of a broken family. Above all else, it’s emotionally honest. Anything else would have felt cheap or too neat, especially given the effort Gray went to to create characters with fully realized mental illnesses and emotional trauma. Again, this sounds very depressing, but the characters–particularly Viola and Lillian–are stronger than they know. I love characters who discover their hidden depths even though they’ve been bruised and battered for years.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken has lurked on the edge of my bookish awareness for a while, praised by other readers whose opinion I trust. But my aversion to short stories has always steered me away until. Now that I’ve finished Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: Stories, I’m a little miffed at my past self for not diving in earlier. These thoughtful, often funny stories all feature cuckoos, people who either don’t fit into their families or who are made to feel as though they don’t belong.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware” is an uncomfortable but fascinating tale of a found family. After their mother dies, the narrator’s father starts to take in boarders. This in itself isn’t so unusual. What is unusual is that the narrator’s father is only interested in taking in boarders who have an interesting story to tell. Money is not a priority. And then, one day after years of life with a parade of oddballs, the narrator’s father disappears. Thankfully, the oddballs are more responsible (and less macabre than the father) and decide among themselves to raise the two children left behind.

“Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” is possibly my favorite story in the collection. In this story, Aunt Helen Beck comes to stay with one of her many relations. Aunt Helen Beck is notorious in the family for dropping in and staying for months or years. She’s not onerous company; she tries to make herself useful wherever she goes. The problem is that no one seems to be sure how they’re related to this brusque, practical woman with a past that is never the same way twice. Aunt Helen Beck is definitely a character for my growing pantheon of audacious old ladies.

“Secretary of State” is bittersweet funny story that vies with “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” for my favorite tale in the collection. In this novel, a young narrator sees her sensitive father struggle with bombastic siblings-in-laws. The Barrons debate endless with themselves about what would be the worst fate for one of their children, what they would do if they were suddenly in charge of the government, and what everyone in their extended family should do for a living. They are absolutely sure of their decision-making abilities, to catastrophic effect for the narrator’s father. In the end, the narrator and her mother have to make a choice about which side they’re on and if they’re willing to pay a terrible price for making the right decision.

The reactions to these cuckoos range from grudging tolerance to horror to ostracism. I fully realize that my summaries might make these stories sound more grim than they actually are. Thankfully, McCracken’s wit keeps things from getting too heavy; I really loved her turns of phrase and sharp observations about her quirky characters. I laughed more often than I felt teary. In addition to their wonderful writing, the stories also feel complete in themselves. (Too short stories are one of my big problems with the format.) I didn’t feel as though things were wrapping up too quickly, so I have no hesitation in recommending these stories even to readers who don’t like short stories. Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry is one of the best collections I think I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who feel like a cuckoo in their family or who have someone in their family they don’t understand.

review · science fiction

Here and Now and Then, by Mike Chen

The wonderfully gripping novel, Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, opens with one of the worst moments in Kin Stewart’s life. Kin is on a routine mission to stop a time-traveling mercenary from meddling with history when he is shot right in the beacon that allows him to return to his own time. Instead of going back to 2142, Kin is stuck in 1996.

Eighteen years later, after Kin has built a new life for himself, an agent from the Temporal Corruption Bureau comes to retrieve him. Kin has a wife and daughter he loves in 2014 and a decent job at an IT firm. Even with the lapses in his memory and bad headaches, Kin is content with his life. When a retrieval agent, who turns out to be his previously best friend Markus, comes for him, it is not the rescue he had hoped for back in 1996. He fights hard to stay in 2014, but eventually goes back to 2142 after extracting a promise that his family will be done right by.

Complicated? Not hardly. Kin and his faulty memory are thrust back into his life in 2142. Only two weeks passed in the future while he experienced 18 years. Still, Kim might have been able to re-acclimate to his actual time if he hadn’t figured out a way to send emails to his fourteen-year-old daughter back in 2014…which leads to his daughter unwittingly becoming a temporal threat to the TCB. It isn’t long before Kin has to figure out a way to go back and save his child.

Here and Now and Then is beautifully written, full of complex plotting and terrific character building. Readers who enjoy time travel stories will love this book. My summary above doesn’t do justice to Chen’s skill at creating a knotty time travel paradox while keeping it all as plausible as possible. Kin and his previous/future fiancée, Penny, are great characters, who are so well drawn that they give emotional depth to this wild ride of a novel. Here and Now and Then is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. It’s certainly one of the best time travel novels I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweis.

historical fantasy · review

Miraculum, by Steph Post

The name of the traveling carnival in Steph Post’s Miraculum oversells its attractions, but not by much. Pontilliar’s Spectacular Star Light Miraculum features a bearded lady, dancing girls, Russian acrobats, games, rides, and our protagonist, the tattooed, snake-charming Ruby Chole. It also featured a geek show at the beginning of the novel, but the geek and his sudden replacement by a sinister man in a tuxedo quickly clues us in to the fact that all is not right with this traveling show.

The Miraculum is one of the few homes Ruby has ever known. Ever since she agreed to be tattooed—at the request of her unscrupulous showman of a father, Pontilliar—Ruby can’t go anywhere without being stared at. She is covered from head to toe with strange symbols. These marks are so unusual and so different from what most Tattooed Ladies wear that Ruby has had to turn herself into a snake-charmer in order to have an act people will pay money to see. The traveling show is all she has, which is why she can’t allow anyone to mess with the Miraculum.

Daniel Revont wants to mess with the Miraculum. It’s his nature to mess with things. This strange man arrived just as the previous geek hanged himself after the night’s show. In spite of his lack of experience, Pontilliar hires him on the spot. Small things and short interstitial sections clue us into the fact that Revont is not what he appears. He can hypnotize people to do his bidding. He charms and menaces by turns. And all he seems to want is something to alleviate the boredom of centuries. The only person he can’t get his hooks into is Ruby. For some reason, she is immune and this fact fascinates Revont.

Unfortunately, Miraculum never quite lives up to the promise of having a supernatural interloper in a traveling carnival. There is just enough world building to make for an interesting setting and plot, but the ending was a complete disappointment to me. It undercuts all the wonderful tension that had been building since the geek’s death by just fizzling out.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

review · science fiction

Sourdough, by Robin Sloan

Food is life. Food can also be a joy. Sourdough, by Robin Sloan, tells us a story about the tension between those who seek maximum efficiency and strip the joy out of life and those who seek to find the best expressions of food that feeds the body and the soul. This sounds very serious and existential, especially considering how delightfully silly it is as protagonist Lois Clary deals with a strangely powerful sourdough starter and bleeding edge Silicon Valley firms. In the audiobook version I had, the reader tells the tale in a lively narration that I enjoyed very much.

Lois Clary is a new comer to San Francisco when she takes a job as a programmer for robot arms. The company’s objective is to make manual labor obsolete for people by training robot arms to do all kinds of work. The work is stressful and all consuming and Lois suffers physically after long hours at the office. She even starts eating slurry, a nutritive gel that her co-workers consume, in the hope that it will make her feel better. One day, a menu arrives advertising a spicy soup with sourdough bread. The double spicy combo is so good, so just what Lois needed, that she falls in love with it. So much so, that it’s a blow when the men who make and deliver her double spicy and bread have to leave the United States.

On the day that the men leave San Francisco, one of them gifts Lois with a crock of the starter used to make the bread she loves. Lois is not a baker but she becomes one so that she can use the strange, occasionally humming starter. Her decision to bake leads her on an incredible journey. Events snowball like the reproducing bacteria in her starter. Before she knows it, Lois is baking for her coworkers and for a new, experimental farmers market that also sells coffee roasted with lasers and tube grown barramundi. The plot really kicks off when Lois’ starter starts to behave even more strangely than normal. To say any more would ruin the gleefully whacky ending of this novel.

Each chapter gets a little weirder and a little sillier, but it’s all underpinned by a more serious question about the value of food. Sourdough ultimately argues that food is not just fuel and should be treated with respect. When people seek maximum efficiency in work or in nutrition, they end up stripping those things of their quality and value. The possibly quixotic quest of Lois’ colleagues at the new market want to maintain that value and refine their craft. Thankfully for us readers, this fight goes down with a nice, tangy slice of sourdough.