“There is no past; there are just versions of the past.” ~~Andre Aciman
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. 🙏
- AT THE EDGE OF THE HAIGHT
- Written by Katherine Seligman and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwn
- ISBN: 978-1643750232
- Algonquin Books (January 19, 2021)
Who Can A Marginalized Woman Trust?
Ever wondered what it’s like to live on the streets? Curious about how people become marginalized? Ever imagined yourself disappearing? With a blend of compassion and grittiness, Katherine Seligman explores the life of Maddy Donaldo, a twenty-something survivor, living with a couple friends in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in her first novel, At the Edge of the Haight .
Maddy belongs only to herself, though she’s a caregiver for her protective dog, Root. She cherishes her independence, and perhaps she loves Root because he can’t talk back. One day she sees a young man bleeding out in a dense grove in the park. She also sees a possible perpetrator, who threatens her before running from the scene. Though she did not see the violence, her private world vanishes in the aftermath of his death. Does she tell the police? What does she say to the parents who track her down and encourage her to return to her own parents? Who can she trust?
This story is about coming of age when someone else’s needs trump your own, even though you’re broke, homeless, and directionless. It’s also about the conditions that drive people to live on the street, what they’re running from, and how they cope.
A San Francisco journalist who has researched homelessness and mental health issues, Seligman sees a huge wealth gap in San Francisco’s economy. The homeless population is enormous, rents are exorbitant, and jobs are scarce. How do you get one without an address? Seligman has the skills and knowledge to articulate the experiences of living in San Francisco for both the haves and the “have nots.” She’s channeled her knowledge and concerns so effectively that she won the Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for At The Edge of the Haight.
Why do so many people look right past the homeless, ignoring their needs and circumstances? How can we fix what is broken in people? Seligman’s story will help readers empathize with those who choose to live on the streets and those facing tough choices and family crises. This is a book for the socially conscious and those who need to become more aware of others. It has something for everyone.
- REAL WOMEN WRITE: Living on COVID Time
- Edited by Susan F. Schoch and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN #: 978-0979532962
- Published by Story Circle Network, Inc.
How a Pandemic Alters our Perceptions
If you watch the news, you know that 2020 was a frightening, challenging year. The news reports facts and statistics. Story Circle Network’s latest anthology, REAL WOMEN WRITE: Living on COVID Time, edited by Susan F. Schoch, takes us inside the experiences of 52 women who didn’t make the news.
In 80 pieces REAL WOMEN WRITE: Living on COVID Time explores the impact of masks, fears, social distancing, and much more on our lives. It goes on to analyze the impact of the pandemic seek out the benefits and discoveries throughout this disaster. Experiences and discoveries are recorded for posterity. While I liked too many pieces to list them all, I was struck by the variety of moments that stood out: loss of family connection, the impact on a doctor and a nurse, the pressure on a parent, the new appreciation for parents, the philosophizing, and the power of Zoom. Discoveries touched me as much as losses. Maybe more, though I am stunned by the increase in deaths since these pieces were submitted to the anthology.
There’s prose about the blessings of isolation and appreciation of nature. There’s poetry about memory, politics, and how a pandemic alters our perceptions.
Sometimes I only read a few pieces in an anthology but this was different. I hungered to hear all of the voices and was reminded that all of us have great stories to tell. The quality of the writing is responsible for that.
These authors share their stories with grace and wisdom. Want to meet them?
Fortunately author biographies list many websites. When stories speak to you, tell the authors. There’s no finer compliment than a personal note to a writer from an appreciative audience member.
Whether you’re looking for analysis, insight, or good stories, you’ll find it in REAL WOMEN WRITE: Living on COVID Time. If you’d like to learn more about Story Circle Network, visit https://www.amazon.com/dp/0979532965/storycirclenetwo.
- THE PART THAT BURNS
- Written by Jeannine Ouellette and Reviewed by B. Lynn Goodwin
- ISBN # 13- 978-1952897061
- Split Lip Press
A Complex and Poetic Memoir
What do you remember? What do you choose to forget? Author Jeannine Ouellette describes The Part That Burns as “a memoir in fragments.” That’s an accurate assessment of the way her memory works. Yours too, if you’re being honest. Think back on your own childhood. Do you remember the scenes that had an emotional impact on you? Do you sense that the day-to-day memories have faded? Have you embellished or rewritten any scenes from your life?
Ouellette records the memorable scenes of her life as she remembers them, creating an exquisite patchwork of people, places, and dogs. Her family includes Mama, a younger sister named Rachel, Daddy Jack, a step-dad named Mafia, several boyfriends, a husband, and a daughter. Her family travels from Duluth to Wyoming to other locations, and she starts her story with the family dogs and the memories they bring up. The dogs, the daddies, and her shifting relationships with Mama and Rachel are all part of a time-line that shifts back and forth as she remembers new levels of misunderstanding and abuse. Readers will appreciate that as the story goes deeper as we watch her cope with the dysfunction caused by poverty, an unstable mother, shifting father figures, sexual frustrations, and the love her daughter brings.
The author writes in vivid poetic prose. Talking about her daughter, Sophie, Ouellette says, “Maybe healing, when it happens, is the result of a quantum entanglement, the swirling of a thousand winds. Maybe it comes when you give your daughter your own heart like another stuffed toy she will drag with her everywhere, clenching it in her baby fists whenever she screams in fear or sadness or pain, soaring through the air with it as she jumps from a swing at the highest possible point in the July sky, stuffing it into her backpack as she skulks off to high school on a bad day, locking herself away with it, broken, when her first love leaves her.” The love she never felt from her parents blossoms as she cares for her daughter.
No one is perfect, of course. “Sometimes Sophie bites.” Like life, an astute reader might say. Life is a series of opposites, a fact the author confirms when she states, “The part that burns is the part that glows.” Good and bad, power and weakness, courage and fear all compete for attention.
The conclusion, written by the author and her daughter in alternating voices, confirms that opposites not only exist but also attract one another. Life is complex, and her beautifully rendered story confirms this. It’s a short, immediate, and powerful account of coming to terms with what life has dealt you and how you handle it. Both Jeannine Ouellette and her daughter Lillian Ouellette-Howitz are authors worth watching.
- 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.