“I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.” —Anna Quindlen
NOTE: If you’d like to write short reviews (350-500 words) for Writer Advice, please send a query and a sample of a review you are proud of. 🙏
- MY LIES, YOUR LIES
- Written by Susan Lewis and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN-13: 978-0062906618
- William Morrow Paperbacks (August 11, 2020)
Are Facts The Only Truths?
Are facts the only truths? Can hidden circumstances alter the truth? What about denial and betrayal? These are only some of the questions that Susan Lewis’s characters face in her plot-twisting novel, My Lies, Your Lies.
When her husband leaves home and takes their daughter with him, ghostwriter Joely Foster takes a job working on the memoir of a well-known writer, Freda Donahoe. The story starts with a 15-year-old student falling in love with her 25-year-old music teacher, along with all the other girls in the boarding school. Freda assures Joely that she is not the 15-year-old. So whose memoir is this and why has she picked Joely to write it? For that matter why has she brought her to this old house far out on the moors, where cell phone signal is limited and the sense of isolation is intense? Why is she trying to dictate exactly how the story should be told when she’s fully capable of telling it herself?
In a series of twists and turns that stretch the imagination, we discover that seemingly crazy Freda has clear intentions as well as the means and determination needed to achieve them. She also has a desire for vengeance and she goes to extremes to satiate that need. There is a wrong to be righted, and she’s like a master puppeteer controlling both sides of an imaginary chess game.
When she’s presented with an unexpected roadblock and an undeniable truth, her nephew reveals a whole new level of motivations. I’m deliberately avoiding specifics because they would be spoilers.
This story takes us through a maze of emotions and relationships and shows that forgiveness is always possible—especially when a person digs deeply enough to discover the whole truth, accept it, and move forward. It’s a wonderful look into regrets, motives, and the powers of the human heart.
- FAMILY IN SIX TONES
- Written by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao
- ISBN: 978-1984878168
- Viking (September 15, 2020)
Mother-Daughter Memoir – A Multi-Cultural Phenomenon
Are you old enough to remember the Vietnam War? Have you seen the news photos of the last helicopter out of refugees leaving Vietnam in 1975? One of the refugees who left that year was a woman named Lan Cao. When she arrived in the States she wasn’t sure when she’d see them again. As time passed she married an older American man and they had an Asian-American daughter. The differences between mother and daughter, one of the subjects of Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao is a story told by two generations about two cultures, where they blend and where they clash.
In her first sentence after the extensive introduction, Lan Cao says, “My American life started with loss.” She lost a country, a culture, and the place where she belonged. In school she suffered indignities from both students and teachers. With the encouragement of a huge extended family that had left Vietnam behind, she fought her way into academic, career, and family success.
Cao’s daughter, Harlan, opens her first chapter with the following lines: “I once saw a goose I thought was pretty and confidently approached it at the park and said to it, “Hello, goose. My name is Harlan Margaret Van Cao, okay?
“And that was that. The goose and I were best friends. I was three.
“If I only had that same confidence as I got older, I’m convinced I never would have become so isolated.”
Mother and daughter tell very different stories of personal assimilation and rejection. Lan Cao was in this country for forty years when she told this story. Her daughter was still in high school. Together they reveal secrets about the lasting effects of war, of maintaining a culture that is not native, and of finding balance.
Both are bright, creative, and see the world through unique lenses. Each has a story rife with personal conflict. Pairing up on this project is a testament to the fact that their world is much deeper and wider than a casual observer might imagine. Both have inner demons that they talk about freely, though the demons manifest in very different ways. Together they find ways to accept the past and move forward. Family in Six Tones celebrates mothers, daughters, and multi-culturalism as well as challenging human feelings that affect us all.
- THE KILLER’S SHADOW: The FBI’S Hunt for a White Supremacist Serial Killer
- Written by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN# 978-0062979766
- Dey Street Books (November 2020)
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Who kills randomly? Who kills based on race or ethnicity? If you watch the news the answer is all too familiar. Race-baiting, xenophobic people—usually men—who were brought up to hate and are bent on a mission to reshape the world their way are serial killers. They cause havoc and their thinking is chilling to the rest of us. John Douglas is an FBI agent writing about his pursuit of serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin. Because this is non-fiction and he is an FBI man first, he shares The Killer’s Shadow, with the assistance of Emmy-award-winning film maker, Mark Olshaker.
Steeped in unwarranted self-confidence, Joseph Paul Franklin is one slippery dude. He’s a white nationalist killer who knows how to take long-range shots, mow people down, and flee. FBI agent John Douglas is equally skilled. Unlike Franklin he has a team of strategic thinkers working with him. He shares this story to examine the motives of an unrepentant perp, analyzing the inside story of a type of killer who’s resurfaced in Trump’s MAGA movement.
The first half of the book sets up the facts. There are lots of references to people and places, but when we get to motive and opportunity this turns into something more bizarre than a murder mystery. This was a make or break case for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. John Douglas and Mark Olshaker are teaming up for their third book.
This is a timely, cautionary tale without the visual gore that often appears in Criminal Minds. The impact of Franklin’s killings on families and the world will be as heart-wrenching to you as any tightly edited episode of Criminal Minds. Reader’s beware. You can’t make this stuff up.
- SYBELIA DRIVE
- Written by Karin Cecile Davidson and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN-13 : 978-1732895683
- Braddock Avenue Books; First edition (October 6, 2020)
When You’re Left Behind
Sometimes war takes its biggest toll is on those left behind: wives, sons, daughters, neighbors, and the community. Some families never realize the influence of a parent until that parent goes to war. In the case of Karin Cecile Davidson’s exquisite debut novel, Sybelia Drive, she shows us the emotional tolls of war in linked stories told from the POV of kids who’ve lost their fathers and wives who’ve lost their husbands, or in one case a woman who has lost her son.
The book opens from the point of young LuLu who’s an outspoken, opinionated collector of people’s possessions. She keeps the treasures she pockets as an odd proof that she matters and she’s loved. They stabilize her off-kilter world. Her brother is pushy and their often-distant mother opens their home to Rainey, whose mother has abandoned her for a singing career in Florida. Rainey, a year older than LuLu, is as beautiful as her mother, Eva, who abandoned her to a singing career after her husband died.
The facts are confusing and complicated—just like Lulu’s ever-growing sense of loss countered by her more daring adventures. The life, though, will draw you in because of each narrator’s tone as well as the exquisite description. As we are introduced to one story after another the puzzle pieces click together. Love, loss, and moving on alter the three young people’s perceptions of reality. Maybe that’s what growing up is all about.
Davison’s prose is sensual and evocative. Her characters present the world of the late sixties and early seventies from their unique points on the same prism. What does loss cost young people? Sybelia Drive explores the many layers of complexity contained in this question and escalates short stories with her engaging structure. Outstanding and not to be missed.
- BEGINNING WITH CANNONBALLS: A Novel
- Written by Jill McCroskey Coupe and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN #: 978-1631528484
- She Writes Press
Expectations and Realities
What is the value of friendship? It means everything to Gail and Hanna until life separates them once they are grown. And what do their racial differences mean? Nothing, until Southern expectations in the fifties tell them to stay separate because they are not equal. With skill and precision author Jill McCroskey Coupe explores the way their friendship blossoms until they go their separate ways. A phenomena that make them reunite stirs the story and the relationship in Coupe’s debut novel Beginning with Cannonballs.
Even before they did cannonballs in Gail’s parents’ pool when they were four, Gail and Hanna became best friends. When Bessie, an attorney’s wife and Gail’s mother, needs help, she hires Sophie. She never questions Sophie bringing her daughter, Hanna, to live in the maid’s room with her. Sophie needs to flee from her home to protect Hanna. Gail is Bessie’s only child, but Hanna has an older brother who has never met his father.
The two girls had each other’s backs from the time they attached as babies, sharing the same crib, while Hanna’s mother, Sophie, slept downstairs in the maid’s room. As children in the fifties they knew nothing about society’s expectations, though Gail went to a white school and Hanna attended a black one. They didn’t care what it meant. They cared about being together and sharing the adventures of cannonballs, Billie Holiday’s lyrics, and other young girl adventures.
They soon experienced different perceptions of people, places, and things. And why wouldn’t they? Despite their devotion to one another, the world taught them who they were.
In their late teens, the young women go to separate colleges and live in separate towns. When Gail reaches out to organize a reunion, Hanna becomes defensive. If not for their tight friendship and Gail’s determination to keep Hanna in her life as the sister she never had, they might have forgotten each other. Needs can be stronger than defenses, though, and the support of both their husbands helped.
Told in episodic chapters that span 50 years and several eastern seaboard states, we watch Hanna and Gail work through tragedy, defiance, and grow into the aging that mellows many people. Coupe’s direct, accessible sentences combine with complex relationships and the inevitable tragedies of life to make this a highly readable story. I recommend this book for all women—especially those of a certain age—and the men who love them.
Story Circle Network, storycircle.org, published an earlier version of this review.
- YOU EXIST TOO MUCH
- Written by Zaina Arafat and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN-13: 978-1948226509
- Catapult (June 2020)
Fiction that Reads like Memoir
What happens when a multi-cultural woman struggles to figure out who she is and her mother tells her “You exist too much?” Conflict? Crisis? Self-discovery? You could experiment. You could fold in on yourself. You might even discover that you are a sex addict at a treatment center.
Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much begins with her discovering that girls are not allowed to show their legs in the Biblical city of Bethlehem. She finds comfort and safety inside her uncle’s pants. As she travels through Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and the United States, she sees the flaws in man-made rules and customs. She seeks love and acceptance and finds it with women rather than men. She’s an eager adventurer with a destructive streak, a complex woman with a huge desire to figure out where home really is and what makes her feel comfortable there
For a while the narrator is in a recovery program for love addicts. Is she truly a love addict or is she merely seeking a relationship that will unravel some of the issues that plague her. The narrator explores her life to find her voice, and when she does, she finds truths that many readers will identify with. The scenes of the narrator getting into Palestine for her grandmother’s funeral capture the kind of pressure she has lived with all her life.
Author Zaina Arafat has written numerous articles for major publications and is a writing teacher with a growing resume. An LGBTQ Arab/Muslim-American fiction and nonfiction writer, she holds an M.A. in international affairs from Columbia University and an M.F.A. from Iowa. Currently she lives in Brooklyn where she is working on a collection of essays.
Though You Exist Too Much is fiction, it reads like a memoir. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in exploring who she is and where she fits most comfortably in the world.