Review: A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan

Buy it here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

Remy and Alicia, a couple of insecure service workers, are not particularly happy together–but they are bound by a shared obsession with Jen, a beautiful former co-worker of Remy’s who now seems to be following her bliss as a globe-trotting jewelry designer. In and outside the bedroom, Remy and Alicia’s entire relationship revolves around fantasies of Jen, whose every Instagram caption, outfit, and New Age mantra they know by heart.

Imagine their confused excitement when they run into Jen, in the flesh, and she invites them on a surfing trip to the Hamptons with her wealthy boyfriend and their group. Once there, Remy and Alicia try (a little too hard) to fit into Jen’s exalted social circle, but violent desire and class resentment bubble beneath the surface of this beach-side paradise, threatening to erupt. As small disturbances escalate into outright horror, Remy and Alicia tumble into an uncanny alternate reality, one shaped by their most unspeakable, deviant, and intoxicating fantasies. Is this what “self-actualization” looks like?

Part millennial social comedy, part psychedelic horror, and all wildly entertaining, A Touch of Jen is a sly, unflinching examination of the hidden drives that lurk just outside the frame of our carefully curated selves. 

Review:

There are some things about Beth Morgan’s debut novel, A Touch of Jen, that make it very polarizing. The story can be broken down in many different ways, from many different angles, because this is a journey more than a story. Split into four parts, the sections all have a different feel, as if the story is parts of an Instagram scroll. The first part is an introduction to Remy and Alicia, a couple who are obsessed with Jen’s Instagram page, Jen being someone who Remy used to work with. The relationship between Remy and Alicia shows that there is a great deal of connection, almost with some borderline codependency tendencies that could be unhealthy. The second part is about a trip Remy and Alicia take with Jen and her friends. This section delves into Remy and Alicia as individuals, some of the weird things that they feel and the way that they interact in social settings. This section makes us understand that these aren’t normal and healthy people. Part three is where it all starts to fall apart in earnest. And Part four is a horror novel. 

Many readers probably find the first two parts uninteresting with boring people doing boring things, but I liked these parts for what they were just as much as I liked the ending for what it was. The main focus of Remy, Alicia, and Jen really make for a tense and sometimes one sided love triangle that honestly reeks of unhealthy connections. I didn’t like any of these characters, but I also liked that I did not like them. Remy is just like that one prick that we all know who is cruel and negative about everything, Alicia is the girl who is hanging on the arm of the worst man in the room, and Jen is the fake on social media that really does not have as good of a life as she pretends. When all of this is added up, it feels like a quirky, depressing, and subtly insane indie movie, like something by Miranda July or Yorgos Lanthimos.. It is easy to compare this novel to one of these films because there is a cinematic quality to the whole thing. 


I liked that the novel breaks really are breaks. From part one to part four, A Touch of Jen is a completely different novel. Beth Morgan really puts space in the story, and the directions that it goes do not fit together perfectly. This makes A Touch of Jen one of those novels that I will remember structurally as well as for the content. I do not know if I can recommend this to any reader, but there is definitely a group of readers that will find this novel to be one of the must read books of the year.

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Review: Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva

Buy Here:

Open Letter, Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

Giving voice to people living on the periphery in post-communist Bulgaria, Four Minutes centers around Leah, an orphan who suffered daily horrors growing up, and now struggles to integrate into society as a gay woman. She confronts her trauma by trying to volunteer at the orphanage, and to adopt a young girl—a choice that is frustrated over and over by bureaucracy and the pervasive stigma against gay women.

In addition to Leah’s narrative, the novel contains nine other standalone character studies of other frequently ignored voices. These sections are each meant to be read in approximately four minutes, a nod to a social experiment that put forth the hypothesis that it only takes four minutes of looking someone in the eye and listening to them in order to accept and empathize with them.

A meticulously crafted social novel, Four Minutes takes a difficult, uncompromising look at modern life in Eastern Europe.

Reivew:

There are many different things happening in Four Minutes, the debut novel by Nataliya Deleva, so many different ideas compacted into a 135 page book. The larger story is about Leah, a gay woman who has aged out of a orphanage and is trying to make sense of her life. She is haunted by her childhood, but she still continues to volunteer at the orphanage, seeking answers. She does connect with one child, Dara, but the politics of her adopting the child makes it impossible. Interjected in the story of Leah is nine short pieces, each one about a different, non-connected person, each one in theory is supposed to take four minutes to read. The four minutes theme is a tribute to a social experiment that says that if you look someone in the eye and listen to them for four minutes, you will accept them and find empathy for their stories. 

There are so many things I love about this novel, but the main one is the tone of the book. There is not a single moment when the darkness and sadness of human reality is not on display. There is very little hope, very little joy in any of this story, and the tone is so heavy that you cannot walk away from this novel without being affected. From the very first paragraph, when the girls are huddled in the dark, waiting for daylight, hoping that they are not picked for the nightly abuse, we know that we are in for a heartbreaking novel.

If you are invested in someone’s heartbreak, you know that you do not come out of the other side of the story feeling good. This is a prime example of this. Four Minutes will not make you feel good. You will not be happy at the end. You will feel that empathy and sadness that is pressed on every page of this novel. I am a person that likes a novel like this periodically, one that is bleak and beautiful. I want people to read this novel. I want to share the sadness that I now feel. 

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Review: The Queen of the Cicadas by V. Castro

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Buy Here:

Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

2018: Belinda Alvarez has returned to Texas for the wedding of her best friend Veronica. The farm is the site of the urban legend, La Reina de Las Chicharras – The Queen of The Cicadas.

In 1950s south Texas a farmworker—Milagros from San Luis Potosi, Mexico—is murdered. Her death is ignored by the town, but not the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacíhuatl. The goddess hears the dying cries of Milagros and creates a plan for both to be physically reborn by feeding on vengeance and worship.

Belinda and the new owner of the farmhouse, Hector, find themselves immersed in the legend and realize it is part of their fate as well.

Review:

In V. Castro’s first of two books published this year, The Queen of the Cicadas, the story starts with Belinda flying to Texas to attend a wedding. The wedding takes place at an old farm where a vicious murder of Milagros, a farmworker, occured and is still haunted by an urban legend, the Queen of the Cicadas. The rest of the novel is Belinda’s journey into the past, to find the truth and try to show respect for Milagros and for the Queen of the Cicadas.

I like the way that V. Castro uses the theme of women, particularly marginalized women, taking control of the situation after putting up with so much from the world. Belinda and Milagros have the same motivations, trying to get the power back from the social structure that has taken it from them. Belinda is trying to find the source of the power that Milagros has found, and her companion through most of the journey is Hector, a gay man who is a friend and not a love interest. Hector works better as a companion because all of the men that are portrayed throughout the first 3/4ths of the novel are those in control. If Belinda would have found a relationship at the wedding, which is kind of what she was hoping to do, the next journey probably would not have happened. Not having that masculine voice in her ear to make Belinda question herself or just quit the quest to learn the truth behind Milagros and the Queen of the Cicadas before it is finished, Belinda is able to open the world she belongs to. There needs to be more books like this, those that give the power and control back to women without a male to try to convince her that she is wrong or wasting her time, because so much of horror and crime have a female victim, the damsel in distress, that needs saving by the strong male influence. The Queen of the Cicadas is one of the strongest examples of this trope being worn out that I have read in a long time. 

I liked most of this book. The beginning and the end are very engaging. I found the middle to be too unfocused. There were so many voices and ideas coming from so many different directions that it was hard to keep track of what was happening. This was more when the narrative slipped too far off of Belinda and Hector and onto other characters and narrators, just for short periods of time, but long enough to stop any momentum that was built. If the focus would have stuck tighter onto those two there would not be a single flaw in this story. Even with this muddled middle part, I still love this story, and I love the ideas behind it. I cannot wait to read V. Castro’s other books because she is another must read female horror writer. 

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now by Andre Perry

Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now

Buy it Here: Two Dollar Radio, Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

With luminous insight and fervent prose, Andre Perry’s debut collection of personal essays, Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, travels from Washington DC to Iowa City to Hong Kong in search of both individual and national identity. While displaying tenderness and a disarming honesty, Perry catalogs racial degradations committed on the campuses of elite universities and liberal bastions like San Francisco while coming of age in America.

The essays in Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now take the form of personal reflection, multiple choice questions, screenplays, and imagined talk-show conversations, while traversing the daily minefields of childhood schoolyards and midwestern dive-bars. The impression of Perry’s personal journey is arresting and beguiling, while announcing the author’s arrival as a formidable American voice.

Review:

Andre Perry’s first collection of essays Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now is an exploration on being out of place. He splits the essays up into three different sections, “Coastland” where he is living in San Francisco, “Heartland” where he is living in Iowa City, and “Heart” where he is living inside himself. There is a great deal of commentary about being a black male in America, where you can never fit in anywhere because of the color of your skin, and if you do start to feel comfortable in a situation, it is only a matter of time before someone comes along to remind you that you should not feel comfortable. 

Some of these essays are really interesting even though they ask questions more than answer them. The first essay, “Language and Other Weapons” is probably my favorite, not only because of the questions that it raises, the use of the “N-word” and the “F-word” and how the racial and homophobic slurs are used to separate and degrade people. There are no answers to these questions, but the thing that draws me to this essay more than some of the others is the structure. Perry uses a variety of voices and styles that keeps the reader off center and so that the punches Perry throws land better. 

Most of Perry’s motivations in these essays are going to see bands and drinking. For the highlights brought by his essays on race and feeling out of place and how it is never comfortable to be a black man in America, the lows of him going from bar to bar, meeting friends, watching bands, and going to sleep on some ratty couch or bed (sometimes with a girl). Those stories of his life, the moments that lean toward a memoir of a poorly guided 20s, are not very interesting. I found myself thinking that I might be too old for some of these stories, that I have enough late night bar stories that I don’t need anyone else’s. 

Some of these essays are really interesting, but there is too much time telling about his wild nights and his struggles with relationships (and leaving them). I do not expect him to be profound and have depth at every moment of his life, but I also think that there are so many times when I am trying to find the thread that I feel like all of it, even the important concepts and ideas, feel more like bar musings.

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Review: Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Winter in Sokcho

Buy here: Open Letter, Bookshop, Amazon

Synopsis:

As if Marguerite Duras wrote Convenience Store Woman – a beautiful, unexpected novel from a debut French Korean author

It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea. The cold slows everything down. Bodies are red and raw, the fish turn venomous, beyond the beach guns point out from the North’s watchtowers. A young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a tired guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives: a French cartoonist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape.

The two form an uneasy relationship. When she agrees to accompany him on trips to discover an ‘authentic’ Korea, they visit snowy mountaintops and dramatic waterfalls, and cross into North Korea. But he takes no interest in the Sokcho she knows – the gaudy neon lights, the scars of war, the fish market where her mother works. As she’s pulled into his vision and taken in by his drawings, she strikes upon a way to finally be seen.

An exquisitely-crafted debut, which won the Prix Robert Walser, Winter in Sokcho is a novel about shared identities and divided selves, vision and blindness, intimacy and alienation. Elisa Shua Duspain’s voice is distinctive and unmistakable. 

Sokcho Beach travel guidebook –must visit attractions in Sokcho-si – Sokcho  Beach nearby recommendation – Trip.com

Review:

Sokcho is a resort town with the East Sea on one side and Seoraksan National Park on the other. In the summer people come to vacation. In the winter, the town is quiet and deserted. This is where the stark, quiet, and eerie debut novel by Elisha Shua Disapin takes place. Winter in Sokcho is the story of an unnamed receptionist at a guesthouse who is working and spending time with her mother, a relationship that she rebels against because her mother pokes at her looks and her weight. Her boyfriend is in Seoul, trying to be a model, something that she does not particularly care about, and a town that is slowly moving by. 

A French graphic artist named Kerrand shows up, and she is intrigued by him, mostly to alleviate her boredom, but it eventually turns into intrigue. He asks her to take him places, like the North Korean border, which is a heavily militarized checkpoint, and the Naksan temple.  The narrator does not find these things as interesting as Kerrand, and tries to explain to him. “Winter isn’t very interesting,” I said, beginning to lose patience. “Soon the cherry blossoms will be out and the bamboo will be green, you should see it in spring.” (p.77).

Kerrand seems very content with being in Sokcho and the receptionist does not understand how. There grows a tension between the two, as if she is trying to show him that there are other places much better than Sokcho and South Korea, but Kerrand is satisfied with setting his graphic novel right there. She tries to figure out Kerrand and his motivations, and all of the tension and underlying mystery is not to be solved. 


Winter in Sokcho is hard to talk about without talking about the plot because there is so much lying beneath the surface, as if we are walking on ice. We can see the ice and even a little bit below the surface, but we also know that below that is a dark and rich story to be discovered. The motivations of all of the characters are a mystery, and this is what makes Winter in Sokcho feel very eerie, like we are shown a story that is shut down for winter, waiting for the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom and the bamboo will be green. This is a winter version of a summer story.

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Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

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Buy Here:

Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

Review:

review originally published at mysteryandsuspense.com

Rivers Solomon is carving out a unique and exciting corner of the world for their writing and stories. All three of their long works are filled with people who do not follow gender norms, who are marginalized, and for those who do not always have main characters in fiction that represent them. The easy things to talk about are the way Solomon represents the LGBT+ community, the nonbinary community, and the black community, but it is important to not overlook how great Sorrowland is as a great piece of fiction.

The book opens with Vern, an albino pregnant with twins, escaping a cult (The Cainites on the Blessed Acres of Cain), to raise them the way she wants to raise them. Vern runs with her twins, Howling and Feral, even though the cult is following her, tracking her because they need her back. The Cainites are physically changing through experiments sponsored by the government, and Vern is the most successful of the group. They need her to survive. Vern does not want to return so she uses her cunning and some help to try to stay hidden.

As the novel unfolds, the tension and anxiety continues to increase. We know that Vern is not going to be able to stay hidden forever, that they are going to find her, and that even though the sympathetic response of fleeing eventually has to turn to fighting, we do not know what the outcome is going to be. By the end of the book, Vern has changed, become stronger, but with this strength comes pain and hurt. The physical metamorphosis of Vern changes with the mental metamorphosis, that she needs to have a final standoff with the cult instead of running. Of course the “final standoff” is not what she expects at all. 

Solomon writes Sorrowland in a way that all of it feels very real. One aspect is the way they use the impact of the cult to influence some of Vern’s decisions. Vern is attracted to women and this is against the teachings of the Cainites. Even after she is away from the cult for years, she feels the oppression and guilt from her upbringing. The guilt that she expresses feels very real, and it all makes sense to the way that she was raised and the things that she was admonished for while still living on the Acres of Cain. 

The entire novel, particularly Vern, the physical transformation that she endures and the visions that get stronger and stronger throughout Sorrowland, feels very real. It is one of those novels that you want to talk about because there are so many layers that can be explored. From the history of the way the government has experimented on people of color in this country, to the way that the visions and haunts are used to fill the gaps in the story, but in such a subtle way that it is acceptable, to the end, this needs to be read by everyone so that it can be discussed at length. All of River Solomon’s works beg to be discussed at length, and they should not be overlooked.

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Review: The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The Ones Who Don't Say They Love You: Stories

Buy Here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

A collection of raucous stories that offer a panoramic view of New Orleans from the author of the “stunning and audacious” (NPR) debut novel We Cast a Shadow.

Maurice Carlos Ruffin has an uncanny ability to reveal the hidden corners of a place we thought we knew. These perspectival, character-driven stories center on the margins and are deeply rooted in New Orleanian culture.

In “Beg Borrow Steal,” a boy relishes time spent helping his father find work after just coming home from prison; in “Ghetto University,” a couple struggling financially turns to crime after hitting rock bottom; in “Before I Let You Go,” a woman who’s been in NOLA for generations fights to keep her home; in “Fast Hands, Fast Feet,” an Army vet and a runaway teen find companionship while sleeping under a bridge; in “Mercury Forges,” a flash fiction piece among several in the collection, a group of men hurriedly make their way to a home where an elderly gentleman lives, trying to reach him before the water from Hurricane Katrina does; and in the title story, a young man works the street corners of the French Quarter, trying to achieve a freedom not meant for him.

These stories are intimate invitations to hear, witness, and imagine lives at once regional but largely universal, and undeniably New Orleanian.

Review:

I reviewed Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel We Cast A Shadow, so I was interested in reading his follow-up collection of short stories, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You. I remember really enjoying We Cast a Shadow, and there were a great deal of feelings and thoughts about the meanings and messages in this novel.  This collection of short stories has a different message than We Cast A Shadow. The story lengths vary from standard short story length to stories less than a page long, but each of them have a great deal to say. 

The backdrop of this collection is New Orleans. When I think about this city, there are many things that make it unique. The way that tourists treat it like Las Vegas (coming in to party and not much else), and how there is a definitive split in New Orleans. Post-Katrina New Orleans will never be the same as Pre-Katrina New Orleans. Most of these stories show a city that is years later still trying to recover and rebuild. This city as a setting for this collection really brings another dimension to the decisions and motivations of the characters. Many of the characters are showing the same drive to recover and rebuild, even when the means to do so no longer exist. The struggle of people of color and people without money to impact their lives and make better for themselves is a universal story, and does not need a particular setting, but having the backdrop of New Orleans give these characters another layer, as if it does not need to be told that most of these characters have lived through losing absolutely everything.

In the final story of the collection, “Before I Let Go”, the main character, Gailya, is trying to save her house in a neighborhood that is going through gentrification due to the abandonment of a great deal of the neighborhood post-Katrina. She states that the changing of her neighborhood is not just a white and black issue but a money and power issue as well. I can see the money and power theme in all of these stories, how those without are trying to get enough to get some of the power back in their lives that they lost when they lost everything in the hurricane. Some of the characters rob, some of them sell their bodies, some of them just hustle harder to try to save a little to get ahead, but the main thing all of them are doing is trying to get back some of the power that they lost when the storms came. 

Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s story collection using New Orleans as a backdrop has great impact. All of these characters are desperate in a way that you feel for them and want them to turn the corner, find their luck or their power and get back to where they deserve to be. You cannot read through these stories without hoping for a good outcome for all of them, but you can also respect that Ruffin writes the stories in a way that lets you know that not everyone is successful because that is the way the true world works. 

I received this as an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

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Review: Coffin Shadow by Glen Krisch and Mark Steensland

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Buy Here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

12 YEARS AGO

Janet Martlee’s infant son died under mysterious circumstances.
Consumed with grief and anger, she ran away to start again…

YESTERDAY

A 12-year old boy with dead eyes appeared in her classroom,
begging for help. But Janet doesn’t believe in ghosts…

TODAY

Her psychiatrist tells her she must return home to confront
her past and uncover the mystery of what happened…

Only some questions don’t want to be answered.

And some answers hide in the shadows…

In the

COFFIN SHADOWS

Review:

Coffin Shadows is one of those books that prove that good horror can come in a small package. The official page count is 126, but that seems a little generous. The truth is that this novella can be read comfortably in one sitting, preferably on a rainy afternoon, but the story feels like it will be in my mind for a long time. Coffin Shadows starts with Janet, pregnant with her boyfriend, Brian’s, baby, working at a private school. She starts seeing a dead boy in a red jacket, asking for her help. The writing is so good, the tension and reactions that Janet feels so real that the book pulls the reader deep into the story within a few pages. 

Janet’s therapist thinks that this boy is the manifestation of the son that she had when she was a teenager, a son that died in a car wreck with Janet at the wheel, an accident she really does not remember. Her therapist thinks it is best to go back to the town she fled, to patch things up with her family and clarify her memories of what happened to her son. We learn quickly that the small town has many secrets that Janet needs to be uncovered. 


There are so many elements that make this a great horror story. From the apparition begging for help, to the old burned out mansion she finds on her parent’s old property, to the secrets and lies that her town feeds her, there are so many classic horror plots wrapped into one great story. And it moves so fast that it does not bog itself down. I can see this being written by someone else as a 600 or 700 page book, a long saga that would take weeks to read. As it is, the speed of this book is really a bonus. It allows the story to really pack a punch. The only thing that I wish could have been done a little differently is that the kid in the red jacket does not appear again when she goes back to the town of her youth. I would have liked him to continue to be part of the story, since he was the catalyst that made her pursue the truth in the first place. Other than this small piece, Coffin Shadows is a perfect story.  To be able to do so many things without slacking on the character development and the storytelling really makes this novella a treasure.

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Review: Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery by Brom

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Buy Here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

A spirited young Englishwoman, Abitha, arrives at a Puritan colony betrothed to a stranger – only to become quickly widowed when her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. All alone in this pious and patriarchal society, Abitha fights for what little freedom she can grasp onto, while trying to stay true to herself and her past.

Enter Slewfoot, a powerful spirit of antiquity newly woken… and trying to find his own role in the world. Healer or destroyer? Protector or predator? But as the shadows walk and villagers start dying, a new rumor is whispered: Witch.

Both Abitha and Slewfoot must swiftly decide who they are, and what they must do to survive in a world intent on hanging any who meddle in the dark arts.

Review:

The old adage of “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” has been proven time and time again to be true. Sometimes the cover makes the book more attractive. Sometimes it makes it less attractive, and sometimes, like in the case of Slewfoot, it can be misleading. This cover is a woman hovering in front of the moon on a broom, holding a skull. Her feet and legs are cloven and furry, but the drawing looks peaceful and somewhat charming. This means I started this book thinking it was going to be whimsical, like most tales about witches. I was totally wrong. 

The story takes place in 1666, where the puritans are punishing women for talking out of turn and anyone who does not obey the town’s reverends and the Word of God. One half of the story is about Abitha, a widow who has to repay the debts of her missing (presumed dead) husband. Her husband’s brother is a real villain, and he is only trying to save his farm by taking hers. The other half is about Slewfoot, who wakes from a deep sleep and is trying to figure out his place in the world. A few people from the village see him and call him what they think he is, Satan. All of these worlds collide, and the fallout is swift and severe.

I did not have a great amount of motivation to read coming into this novel. I had not read Brom before, and I expected something like my misconceived notions about stories involving witches, that it is going to be fun and light. The truth is that this is a horror novel. There are no arguments against it. This is dark and muddy. This is bloody and gory. This is a revenge story. This is a slasher. This is Slewfoot doing what Slewfoot needs to do to protect Mother Earth and his friends.. And it could not have had a better setting, a better main character, a better villain, and a better ending. Brom writes in a way that is cinematic and emotionally captivating. The feelings that I have for these characters, the attachment I have for the plot, and the love I have for the story really transcends more than just the page. I had not read Brom before, but I have now poked around his website some, and I realize that he is the one that drew the cover, that he has been writing novels and creating art for a long time. I will be reading some of his back catalog based on the strength of Slewfoot.

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau

Buy here: Amazon, Bookshop

Synopsis:

For readers of Claire Messud and Mary Gaitskill comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.

Hausfrau
haus·frau \haus-frau\ n 1: Origin: German.
Housewife, homemaker. 2: A married woman. 3: A novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.

Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army knife, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel is an unforgettable story of marriage, fidelity, sex, morality, and most especially self. Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz is an electrifying heroine whose passions and choices readers will debate with recognition and fury. Her story reveals, with honesty and great beauty, how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves.

Review:

Literary works about marriages and infidelity are pretty much the most boring books that you can possibly read. You have to bring something different or unique to the tired plot if you are going to write an adultery book that is worth reading. Hausfrau is just different enough for it to be interesting. Most of this is from the writing and from the character of Anna. 

The writing is very powerful in places, one of those books where you want to bring a pen and underline sentences and paragraphs. There are thoughts that are written in a very quotable manner. Like I could see memes floating around Instagram that says, “An obsession is a defense against feeling out of control. A compulsion is the failure of that defense.” or “There’s always a correspondence between one’s dreams and one’s wounds.” There are also interesting patterns that Jill Alexander Essbaum uses to tell this story. Like there are short breaks where she describes German vocabulary and grammar. These pieces have a metaphorical meaning but more it is a pause in the action that is going on, one that is needed at some points, to give us a second to process the things that happened before. There also seems to be patterns with the way certain lovers come up, like most of the time she is travelling when she is thinking about her history with Stephen and the language breaks are a large part of telling her time with Archie. The correlations between lovers and events is very well established, and an interesting way to tell the story. 

Anna is an expat from America who is living with her husband and children in Switzerland. She does belong, does not know the language, does not have many friends. There is so much existential dread and depression in her that she is trying to fulfill her life with something that can help her cope with not feeling like she belongs. Her choice is the comfort of other men, which is a pretty easy way to deal with the loneliness and sadness of feeling like you do not belong in the life you have created. The story, like all infidelity stories, is a cautionary tale and we know from the beginning that it is not going to end well. 


If this was not a well written and quotable as it is, Hausfrau would be just another boring marriage book, but Jill Alexander Essbaum writes the story in such a way that it is well worth the time and effort to consume it all, write down some of the quotable sentences and ideas, and mull over them.

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