Maureen Johnson’s ‘Truly Devious’ Series Goes Out with a Bang in ‘The Hand on the Wall’

the hand on the wallThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

The ‘Truly Devious’ series goes out with a bang in its final installment. The intrepid Stevie Bell makes it back to Ellingham Academy after a series of tragedies disrupt the school’s idyllic environment. She knows who committed the crime of the century, as the original Ellingham kidnapping/murders came to be known. But, now, she must piece together the present-day murders. Are they connected to the original killings? Are they even connected to each other?  In The Hand on the Wall, a page-turner from start to finish, Maureen Johnson provides those who have followed the mysteries of Ellingham Academy from the beginning with a satisfying conclusion.

Stevie’s deal with the villainous Edward King – a Senator cut from the Donald Trump mold – damages her budding romantic relationship with King’s secret problem child, David. After getting himself beaten up on purpose at the end of The Vanishing Stair, David is missing and, on top of that, Stevie’s advisor has been killed in a house fire. The uncertainty of the school’s future after these tragic deaths, combined with Stevie’s personal problems and academic demands, provide an anxiety-driven sprint to the finish as pieces of the puzzle start coming together in unexpected and chilling ways.

As with the two previous installments, Johnson alternates between perspectives told from the players of the original Ellingham affair and Stevie’s efforts in the present. The link between past and present becomes clearer as time passes, and the mysteries of the school continue to reveal themselves. Stevie’s advisor was convinced Albert Ellingham made a codicil in his will stipulating that any individual who discovers the whereabouts of his daughter, Alice, and returns her, alive or dead, will receive millions of dollars. If such a codicil exists, Stevie wonders, are the present-day murders motivated by the same entity that spurred the original crimes? Money makes a monster of us all, and it seems there are those who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

While this novel and its predecessor, The Vanishing Stair, suffer a little from the sophomore slump destined to plague most sequels, the entire series is a satisfying whodunit for young adults. Rereading the first two installments would be ideal before plunging into the final book, but Johnson’s unflagging ability to engross readers with her suspense-filled prose and character-driven narratives shines through in this ending – a perfect way to spend a few hours in the dead of winter.

Nicolette Polek’s ‘Imaginary Museums’ Is a Surreal Exploration of Timeless Themes

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Nicolette Polek’s debut collection of short stories, Imaginary Museums, contains a surreal world in miniature. These stories – more accurately categorized as flash fiction – are parable-like sketches, elegantly rendered, ranging from uncanny to mythical. Moving back and forth between the Midwest and Eastern Europe, Polek exhibits a preternatural control over the tone of her narrative snippets. Each tale, from the runaway bride in “Arranged Marriage” to the mathematician seeking reinvention in “A House For Living,” successfully distills the nature of isolation. Polek’s characters, disconnected in various ways from the realities that face them, move in a dream world that mirrors our own in almost every way. The few unsettling differences that rear their heads are enough to make the reader feel out of step.

Yet, Polek’s stories are not without a sense of profound grace – a need to amend disconnection (between lovers, to one’s homeland, with God) in order to heal the rifts that form. She uses her masterful command of compression to encompass a range of scenarios, from interpersonal relationships (“Garden Party” and “The Dance”) and the prospect of death (“The Nearby Place”), to larger themes such as immigration (“Invitation,” “Your Shining Trapdoor”) and the anxiety that comes with experiencing grief and uncertainty (“Doorstop,” “The Rope Barrier”). In these glimpses, Polek manages to move fluidly from scene to scene without veering outside the collection’s atmospheric tone.

This sense of consistency lies in the smallest details aligning with the collection’s overarching thematic elements, from the stories’ placement in each of its four sections to the pointed strangeness of her sentences. In the title piece, “Imaginary Museums,” the protagonist’s sister is described as someone who “picked vegetables, read the Bible, and always had bad phone reception.” Such incongruous descriptions crop up around Polek’s characters in almost all of these fictions. But, as is the case with most stories that border on the surreal, kernels of truth are embedded in the characters’ strange traits and observations. In “The Rope Barrier,” a woman finds that her habit of cordoning herself off from things and people with a literal rope barrier cannot save her from life’s difficulties. Polek writes:

The woman both despised the rope barrier and hissed at those who approached it. She felt singled out and angry at things that were bigger than her. It felt, now, as if she were forced to put herself on a side of things she encountered, and that she often chose the wrong side.

— excerpt from Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums

The beauty of these stories rests in their simplicity and control, something that Polek has honed to a point in this particular craft of flash fiction. While there are individual stories that lack the structure to stand on their own outside the collection, the whole is well worth revisiting for its elegance and technical accomplishment.

Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Memoir ‘Rust’ Is a Poignant Debut

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Eliese Colette Goldbach has lived every dreamer’s nightmare. In her book-length debut Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, Goldbach details how the recession and her struggle with bipolar disorder effectively precludes her from securing meaningful employment post-university. Through the overarching framework of her working life at the mill, Goldbach’s memoir describes a downward trajectory of disappointment. The largely halcyon days of her childhood – distinguished by ambition, promise, and a naïve, unguarded piety – give way to years of self-doubt and loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood. Most strikingly, her account of working in a massive steel mill encapsulates the dark side of a certain fantasy peddled to millennials since their youngest days in elementary school: if you get a college degree, you are guaranteed work. Like many others in her position, Goldbach finds that the combination of a liberal arts degree, an economic recession, and a severe illness do not lead to the image of success imparted upon us by working-class parents.

When relating her early memories as a child growing up in a devout Roman Catholic family, Goldbach describes what I imagine is the near-universal desire among young girls in the Church to become nuns. The obsessive, fearful need for goodness, combined with the competitive nature of a younger sibling trying to out-do an older sibling in everything, imbues the author with what she comes to describe as a hunger for the extraordinary. As with most strict religious upbringings, and a future weighed down by expectation, Goldbach’s later years are marred by disillusionment followed by the need for course correction. She finds that the institutions she once believed represented justice, morality, and compassion are not so when difficulties arise in her life, namely her battle with bipolar disorder and a sexual assault during her college years.

The mill provides Goldbach with financial stability as a union laborer. And while her illness continues to cast a shadow over her personal life during these years, she finds herself part of a community among her fellow workers. By extension, she finds a new identity underneath the auspices of Cleveland’s famed grit – a place where the backbone of America’s infrastructure is born. Steelwork is known for its hazards, and Goldbach makes a point of comparing the steelmaking process with hellfire. The extremity of the work – along with the “snitches get stitches” attitude of her fellow workers – requires a new level of toughness, or else, a newbie will get chewed up and spit out by the mill. This rough-and-tumble education belies everything she thought she knew about the blue-collar industry in her hometown. Goldbach writes:

I heard about it from pundits and economics professors, and I’d come to believe that the Rust Belt was the collection of tidy metaphors that everyone else wanted it to be.

-excerpt from Rust

Goldbach’s personal experiences during this time of young adulthood provide a poignant, relatable reading experience for those who have been negatively affected by the post-recession economy, for those who have struggled with an incapacitating illness, or for those teetering with the religious values of one’s youth.

But, in the same vein as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and other post-election literature, the strongest components of Goldbach’s memoir rest on keen observations of life at the steel mill, specifically as a woman in a largely male environment; how the identity of laborers is consistently exploited by politicians; and the myriad ways households are divided by hyperbolic political rhetoric. In a characteristically Biblical description, she describes the “rift” between Americans as something that “had been borne from a particularly human failing.” Goldbach writes:

 We had forgotten how to see each other. We had let our guard down. We had closed our eyes. Now the weavers of shrouds and fantasies had come along recognizing our self-imposed darkness. They believed that we were too blind to know better, so they covered our eyes carefully, hoping that none of us—both steelworkers and lawyers alike—would ever see clearly again.

-excerpt from Rust

Unfortunately, Goldbach fails to delve into the nitty-gritty of the economic disillusionment and pure rage that changed the tide of our 2016 election, which would likely uncover a slightly more nuanced portrait of this oft exploited demographic. Human failing certainly plays a role, but decades of poor economic policy and plain old political opportunism likely play a larger one.

As a whole, Rust is a moving portrait of Goldbach’s formative years, with gems of societal observation strewn throughout the narrative. Its shortcomings, which stem from too many narrative threads vying for center stage throughout the book, are mitigated by the author’s clear talent for observational storytelling.

On “The Need” by Helen Phillips

the need2019 ended on a strange note with a reading of Helen Phillips’ widely acclaimed second novel, The Need. In this heady blend of domestic fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, Phillips creates an atmospheric narrative that begins with a mother sensing the presence of an intruder in her home. In her fear, Molly, our narrator, operates solely on instinct in what becomes an increasingly futile effort to protect her two young children from such a violation.

Phillips’ strongest efforts in this novel can be attributed to her clever layering of a complex narrative timeline. Molly’s work as a paleobotanist brings her into contact with an excavation site known as “the Pit,” where, prior to the events of the novel, she discovers several everyday items with strange variations in their composition: a toy soldier with a monkey’s tail; a Coca-Cola can with the font shifted the opposite way; and a Bible that references God as “she.” Each is harmless, but something about these differences lends the objects an uncanny, otherworldly quality. The latter object in particular makes a splash in local papers, leading to a rapid increase in tourists to the Pit–some of whom do no take kindly to this new edition of the Holy Scriptures. In this way, Phillips introduces another threat of violence to the narrative, infusing the skewed world of the novel with dread.

As Molly confronts the prospect of an intruder in her home, the narrative cuts back to her time at the Pit and the significance of these small objects. When the plot pushes forward to Molly coming into contact with the intruder–an excellent buildup of suspense from Phillips–we find that this interloper is none other than Molly herself. “Moll”, as this variant of Molly comes to call herself, is a version of our narrator from a different reality–one of an infinite number of realities in which a tourist viewing the discovered Bible detonates a bomb, killing Molly’s children. In her grief, Moll finds her way to Molly via the Pit–a seam in the fabric of the universe that allows the alternate realities to come into contact with each other.

Moll demands access to the children, forcing Molly into an arrangement in which the two share care-giving duties. The threat of violence, combined with the weight of grief and the physical need to be with the children form this novel’s backbone. Phillips uses Molly’s experiences–and by extension Moll’s experiences–to explore motherhood, from the quotidian grind of caring for small children, who are more creature than human, to the extreme lengths a grieving mother will go to for the sake of those children…or what she will do to avenge their deaths.

Phillips writes with unparalleled beauty and grace about how the instinctive, physical  elements of motherhood–the trappings of nursing combined with the touch and smell of these small lives produced from one’s body–transcend mortal pinions to the realm of some unknowable universe; a higher existence in which infinite realities can take shape from a knowable present.

While Phillips’ prose is not consistently clean in craft, it is often stunningly understated and clear in intent. At just 272 pages, the author shows her ability to expand the short story form for which she is known, successfully executing the same succinct exploration of theme in the extended novel form.

A bit bleak for year’s end, but well worth the time.

Jac Jemc’s ‘False Bingo’ Defies Convention

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In her latest collection of short stories, Jac Jemc explores the tenuousness of morality, plotting the ways in which good and evil intermingle with fear, desire and violence. Each story—touched with a sense of foreboding or uncanniness—depicts some small imbalance in the realities of its characters. From a woman who takes refuge in a crumbling, allegedly ghost-ridden former plantation to an ex-con delving into the therapeutic effects of taxidermy, Jemc reveals herself to be an ambitious writer willing to take risks for the sake of cutting into the heart of something sinister.

Jemc presents readers with a mixed bag of odd stories, alternating between sketches like “Any Other” and “Loitering” with longer pieces such as “Manifest” and “Don’t Let’s.” In some instances, Jemc writes deceptively simple narratives that contain a hint of unease. Other stories eschew conventional plotting altogether for something more impressionistic. We see this in “Get Back,” where she begins with the following sentence: “Villard took my grace with an undone, half-paralyzed anger, and so I found him daily and burned his house down on what I deemed a repeated whim.” A succession of violent acts ensue, none of which come with context or explanation. Is this the psychological portrait of a torturer, or is it another exercise in questioning the boundaries of morality?

Jemc’s transition between these modes of narration can be jarring, like encountering mismatched set pieces in a pristine stage design. But these stories beg to be reread and reexamined, and, in so doing, the grand scheme of the author’s thematic vision becomes clearer. She leaves it to readers to piece together the jagged edged remains of her broken characters and their shame, but the doomishness of it doesn’t come entirely without levity, as in “The Principal’s Ashes.” Can you imagine a classroom of seven-year-olds reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? You know, the poem with “waving genitals” and cigarette burned arms, etc. Such is the product of Jemc’s imagination.

Despite its incongruity on first inspection, Jemc manages to construct a masterful collection similar in tone to Maryse Meijer’s staggering 2016 debut, Heartbreaker. These stories, when experienced as a whole, will linger with readers as they attempt to complete the puzzle Jemc has left for us to solve.

Margaret Renkl Melds Personal History with the Natural World in ‘Late Migrations’

Margaret-Renkl-Late-Migrations-Book-Review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Margaret Renkl‘s debut, Late Migrations: A  Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.

Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.

In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.

When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patterns and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things.  She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.

On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:

The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.

In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.

The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.

Melissa Rivero Explores the Immigrant Experience in Her Debut Novel ‘The Affairs of the Falcóns’

Melissa-Rivero-The-Affair-of-the-Falcons-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, is a rich, multilayered narrative about the struggles of a young Peruvian family attempting to make a life in America. Ana Falcón, and her husband, Lucho, live in a vacuum where everything is dictated by money–trying to make it, not having enough of it, or coming up with ways to find more of it. Ana is driven to keep her family together in New York and clings to her dream of one day opening a restaurant. But the endless struggle for a comfortable life has Lucho prepared to send the children back to Peru–or have the whole family return. After all, he wasn’t the one who wanted to come to America in the first place.

The novel spans just a few weeks in time as the Falcóns’ troubles come to a head. We see how Ana is forced to bear the brunt of her family’s financial concerns, while also bearing the judgment leveled at her from her husband’s relatives with whom they are forced to live until they can find another place of their own. The threat of deportation and an unexpected pregnancy add fuel to an already blazing fire.

Through Ana’s experiences, Rivero creates a deeply moving portrait of immigrant life in the United States, focusing on the ways in which large communities of people are forced to live in the shadows as they silently form the backbone of our society. The endless struggle to make ends meet only reinforces Ana’s resolve. The opportunities available to Lucho in Peru–a college educated young man from a family of European descent–would never be available to Ana. As an indigenous woman from the hills of Santa Clara, Lima was not a welcome place. She was an outsider. Even Lucho’s mother never ceases to remind her that she is only a Falcón because her son was obliged to “do the right thing” when she became pregnant. Why else would her son marry so far beneath him?

Despite the violence of Peru’s military and its rebel fighters, Lucho longs for his days as a student and activist in Lima. Working as a laborer makes him bitter, leaving Ana with the feeling that life with her and the kids is a burden he never wanted to carry.

In The Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero masterfully explores the intricate dynamics of family, love, and longing while effectively illustrating the intersections of race, class, and identity. It will almost certainly become one of this year’s finest debuts.