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book review: A Girl Returned

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio. Europa| July 2019| 160 pages | $16.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-528-6

RATING: *****/5

A Girl Returned is a short, strong, brilliant novel. In 1975, a 13-year-old girl is returned to her birth family, a family she doesn’t know at all. She’d been living in the city with the only mother she’d known. It’s unclear why her adoptive mother sent her back. We know early on that the wealthy mother wanted a child and the other mother could hardly afford to have another child and it was best all-around if this girl went off to live on the shore. The narrator is looking back on her life twenty years later. She’d grown up affluent, cultured and educated. It’s a shock to return to an impoverished, dysfunctional and abusive family.

She shares a bed with her sister, sleeping head-to-toe. The sister, Adriana, wets the bed. She recalls: “In order to get at least a little sleep, I would remember the sea: the sea a few dozen meters from the house I’d thought was my home and I had lived in since I was an infant until a few days earlier. Only the road separated the yard from the beach, and on days of libeccio, the southwest wind, my mother closed the windows and lowered the shutters completely to keep the sand from getting in. But you heard the sound of the waves, slightly muffled, and at night it made you sleepy. I remembered it in the bed with Adriana.”

Her teenage brothers also share the room. One of her brothers, Sergio, torments her. He’s bad, cruel and crude. He masturbates while staring at her breasts. He once throws a pigeon with a broken wing, who became trapped in the children’s bedroom, out the window. He’s spiteful about her upbringing. Vincenzo, the oldest brother, sexually abuses her in a confusing we’re related-but-are-we-really-we-don’t-know-each-other way. Her parents beat the children. There oftentimes isn’t enough money for food. There’s a lot of neglect. Despite everything, the girl becomes close with her sister Adriana. She’s protective of the younger girl. Then a tragedy befalls the oldest son Vincenzo which affects the entire family.

She’s hopeful for a while that the “seaside mother” who she’s known for the longest time will come get her and bring her back to the city house. She writes to the mother and although she never receives answers, the mother starts to send money as well as various necessities such as a new bed, a comforter, a set of sheets. The other mother will pay for the girl to attend school. When she receives a high mark at school, she thinks: “My mother would indeed have been pleased, if she could have seen it. She still worried about me, albeit from a distance, more than she worried about her illness: I refused to stop believing that. And yet, in certain melancholy moods, I felt forgotten. I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.”

Can you even imagine being sent back to a family you don’t know as you’re growing into adolescence? As you go through puberty and your mind and body change to no longer have the anchor of your home and mother would be brutal and exhaustive. It’s truly the epitome of a nightmare. Even if you didn’t have the best relationship with your mother during your teenage years, you had a familiar mother. The novel’s written with brutal moments and scenes and beautiful turns of phrase. It’s also a redeeming story about perseverance and resilience. This girl makes the best of the situation. She bonds with her sister and she learns to survive. She finds some positive in all the negative and that’s truly remarkable and heart-warming. She’s a smart, brave girl. A Girl Returned is thoughtful, provocative and extremely moving.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Claire Gibson

“When they finally reached the hill, Dani watched the rest of her female company mates zigzag across the valley, providing cover fire and dragging the rest of the guys in their platoon, with their various feigned injuries, up to the safe zone. Apparently the ambush had been swift and fierce. Bodies were strewn everywhere. The girls had all survived, while the boys in their platoon had all been taken out of the game. Apparently the boys had been a bit overly aggressive; the girls had the presence of mind to assess the threat before taking action.”

Beyond the Point is an intriguing and engrossing novel that focuses on three very different women—Dani, Avery and Hannah—who meet at West Point. Beyond the Point follows them through school and post-graduation. They’re such strong women and well-developed characters that it’s easy to invest in them. They attend the mostly male West Point in preparation for a male-dominated military career. As they navigate life, the women confide in, encourage and support each other. It’s fascinating, infuriating, inspiring and moving.

Dani is a competitive force, both intelligent and athletic. Dani’s happy to be at West Point and move beyond stereotypes –“Her small-minded suburban town of Columbus, Ohio, had tried to put her into a box.” She’s successful in many ways but struggles with romantic relationships–“Guys always loved to hang out with her, but they rarely saw her as ‘girlfriend material.’ It was her constant relationship kryptonite.”

Avery is the wild-child who would rather not follow the rules, difficult at West Point and in the military. She comes from a strict family and won’t find much relief. Gibson writes: “The Army, at times, infuriated Avery. All of its rules. Its demands. Its ladders of authority. The Army was a lot like her dad, actually—constantly providing new bars to reach, moving each bar higher every time Avery to close. It wasn’t that she needed to be coddled, but to hear that she was doing a good job every once in a while wouldn’t have hurt. She could handle being read the riot act for leaving a job unfinished or for not meeting the standards. But was she really about to be counseled about who she dated on weekends?” Her bohemian spirit often frustrates her friends. I found her the most relatable–“Relationships didn’t work for her the way they did for everyone else. She was either too trusting and got burned, or too suspicious and exhausted the guy’s patience. She either acted too serious and scared the guy away, or acted too cool, leaving the guy confused about her commitment.”

The West Point legacy, Hannah seems to have it easy. West Point and the military are her destiny. She’s quite religious and a bit more conservative than her friends. She ends up meeting her future husband at West Point. She faces the same sexism as her peers–—“Hannah had been one of the highest-ranking cadets at West Point—guy or girl. Now her ovaries were a flashing neon sign to everyone in the room that she couldn’t keep up.”

Author Claire Gibson completed extensive research and interviews with West Point graduates before writing the novel.  I recently interviewed her via email.

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write this novel about West Point?

Claire Gibson: Anyone that has ever been to visit West Point will tell you that it’s a magical, sacred place. I had the privilege of growing up at West Point right there alongside the Corps of Cadets, while my father was a professor.  I know it like the back of my hand. The only way I could have known it better was if I had attended myself — which continues to be something I wonder about all the time — how would I have handled the challenge? Should I have tried? But college choices aside, when I began writing full time, I couldn’t kick the gut feeling that I was supposed to write something about West Point or the Army. Then in 2013, a group of women West Point graduates asked if I’d be interested in interviewing them for a possible story. The more women I spoke to, the more confident I was that I was meant to write their experiences down as a novel — something that every person could engage with, whether they were familiar with West Point or not.

 

Amy Steele: What do you like about each woman—Dani, Hannah and Avery—and how did you decide to focus on these three characters?

Claire Gibson: All of the characters in Beyond the Point are composite characters — Dani, Hannah and Avery’s storylines are the product of more than 25 different interviews with women who graduated from West Point in the decade after 9/11. However, just because the characters are composite and the story is fiction, much of the content came directly from first person accounts. I love Dani’s grit, Hannah’s faith, and Avery’s boldness. They’re so different as women, and yet so complementary as friends.

 

Amy Steele: How is the Bennett’s house similar to your home growing up?

Claire Gibson: Wendy Bennett is loosely based on my mother, who is as kind and hospitable and wise as any woman I’ve ever met. Like our home, the Bennett’s house is full of antiques, and full of the smell of something fresh baked from the oven. There is always a pan of brownies on our counter and cadets coming through our front door. My family took pride in being a “home away from home” for those college kids in need of a break from the barracks.

 

Amy Steele: You packed a lot of events and details into this novel, how do you organize your writing?

Claire Gibson: I use a software called Scrivener which is so necessary for a long project like a novel.

 

Amy Steele: What was the biggest takeaway from the interviews you conducted in preparation for writing the novel? Particularly about striving in a male-dominated environment.

Claire Gibson: I don’t know if there was one great takeaway. However, I will say that these women learned how to hold their own amongst men starting at age 18. It’s no wonder many of them have gone on to excel in other male-dominated environments. By the time they graduated at age 24, the fact that they were a minority had faded in importance.

 

Amy Steele: What did you learn growing up at West Point?

Claire Gibson: At West Point, I learned the important of selfless service and kindness to others. I also learned to love America, which despite its many faults, is still a nation that strives for ideals that I deeply believe in.

 

Amy Steele: What challenges do women in the military currently face? Have there been any improvements in the military’s handling of sexual assault and sexual assault reporting?

Claire Gibson: Women in the military face the same challenges as women who are not in the military. They struggle to balance work with life. They want to find meaningful romantic relationships. They dream about the future and hope that they’re making wise choices in the present. I know the military is working to prosecute sexual assaults more stringently — and yet, we know now through things like the #MeToo movement that sexual harassment and assault are not limited only to the military. I hope that as a whole, our society will work to eliminate that stain from our culture. Rediscovering the sanctity of sex would help promote progress in that arena.

 

 

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book review: Devotion

Devotion by Madeline Stevens. Ecco| August 13, 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-288322-3

RATING: ***/5*

“At first I slipped the ring off before I left my apartment. Then I started wearing it all the time, even in front of Lonnie. I did it because I was bored. Because watching a baby is so repetitive. Because it thrilled me. Because it made me feel sick with worry. Because feeling anything is better than feeling nothing. Because I didn’t feel guilty. Because they had so much stuff and I had no stuff. Because it meant nothing to her and a lot to me. Because I wanted to prove to myself that this job didn’t mean anything to me. Because this job meant a lot to me. Because it was a test of trust. Because I wanted to know how far I could push her. Because I wanted to feel powerful. Because I wanted to feel powerful like Lonnie must have felt powerful, growing up, wearing this ring.”

This reminded me quite a bit of the film Single White Female. A wealthy couple on the Upper East Side hire Ella as a nanny. Ella and Lonnie are both 26-years-old but at vastly different points in their lives. The couple welcomes Ella to make herself comfortable in their home, to eat whatever she wants and sometimes to stay over. Broke when she accepted this position, it’s a welcome environment for Ella. Lonnie lives a charmed life to be sure. It’s seemingly perfect with her beautiful brownstone, handsome husband and young son. She says she’s a writer but Ella cannot figure out what Lonnie’s writing. Ella seems thrown off when she finds out that Lonnie’s having an affair. She can’t understand why. As Ella become increasingly obsessed with Lonnie and her unconventional lifestyle, she starts searching her belongings and reading her journals– “I had the sensation of stepping blinding as I listed the contents of her house’s hidden spaces. Of grasping at textures, trying to make out changes in light. I didn’t know what it was yet that I was inside, only that whatever I was immersed in was larger than my current understanding.” She enters a dangerous cycle where she’s extremely attracted to and repelled by Lonnie. Does she want to be Lonnie or be with Lonnie?  How far will Ella go to destroy her or become her? While none of the characters are particularly likeable, it doesn’t matter because it’s an effectively languid, moody novel examining wealth and envy. It makes for a satisfying summer read. I didn’t rate it higher because it took me longer to read than I expected and the characters are ultimately rather forgettable.

–review by Amy Steele

I received an advanced review copy of this novel from Ecco.

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book review: Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. William Morrow| July 23, 2019| 352 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-23904-2

RATING: ****/5*

“Alive, I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake, a nasty broken thing, dragged from the fountain after steeping there for months, through the cold winter, then that fitful, bratty spring, almost into summer proper. Face gone, much of my flesh gone.”

“It was only when she started moving her things in that she realized while the apartment was charming, the neighborhood was decidedly mixed. Mixed on its way to being not so mixed. Maddie wasn’t prejudiced, of course. If she had been younger, without a child, she would have gone south to join the voter registration project a few years back. She was almost sure of this. But she didn’t like being so visible in her new neighborhood, a solitary white woman who happened to own a fur coat. Only beaver, but a fur nonetheless. She was wearing it now. Maybe the jeweler would pay more if she didn’t look like someone who needed the money.”

When Cleo, a young African-American woman is murdered in racially divided Baltimore, recently divorced Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz thinks she can solve the mystery.  It’s 1966 and Maddie wants to have her own success apart from her wealthy ex-husband –“The infuriating thing was that her mother was right. Everything about Maddie’s post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.”– She starts working at a newspaper where she’s relegated to answer questions for an advice column. She becomes romantically involved with an African-American police officer who provides her with inside information on Cleo’s case. She’s determined to figure out who killed young Cleo and to earn a better position at the newspaper. Maddie seems to be the only one interested in uncovering the truth about Cleo’s murder. Meanwhile, the ghost of Cleo has her own opinions about Maddie’s sleuthing. Author Laura Lippman effectively takes readers to the gritty streets of Baltimore in the 1960s through the vastly different and unique experiences of a black woman and a white woman.The novel alternates between Maddie, Cleo and a cast of characters (such as a bartender, a classmate, a patrolman, a columnist, a waitress) who may or may not know things about both women and the murder. As the novel progresses, we discover details about each woman. It’s a classic noir novel but also a strong psychological novel that examines what motivates women to make the choices they do, particularly in a white male-dominated society. Will Maddie’s own secrets end her journey of self-discovery, freedom and empowerment?

–review by Amy Steele

I received a copy of this novel from William Morrow for review purposes.

 

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book review: The Tenth Muse

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Ecco| June 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-257406-0

RATING: *****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified: if the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true. The underlying structure of my family was something I’d never questioned. It had formed the foundation of my life. When it suddenly dissolved, I was unmoored. It had never occurred to me to question my mother’s love for me, or our relationship to each other. I had believed these things were absolute.”

Who would expect a novel about a young math prodigy working on the Riemann hypothesis and uncovering her family history in the process to be so riveting? The Tenth Muse is the best novel I’ve read this year. It’s an engrossing work of historical fiction with gorgeous writing, unforgettable characters and events. It’s a sprawling page-turner set in academia.

Katherine always loved problem-solving and equations and that’s what drew her to math: “Math had always seemed miraculous to me because of the beauty it revealed underlying nature, because of the deep sense of rightness that came over me when I understood something all the way through, as if for a moment I’d merged with the grace I only ever caught glimpses of.” Katherine is a brilliant mathematician working in a male-dominated field. During college and graduate school, her classmates remind her that there are few noted female mathematicians throughout history, notably Emily Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. She recalls: “But by then I was resigned to these jokes, to the constant reminder that I was an anomaly, an outsider, a kind of freak. I was aware that even if I contributed to our field, my name would also become a punch line. I didn’t know how to resist, except to make clear that I wasn’t trying to fit in, that I knew I was different and to highlight that difference to make it clear.”

I especially loved all the scenes focusing on Katherine’s academic studies. Reading about books, academia, college and university settings greatly appeal to me. Author Catherine Chung provides plenty of real-life math references and establishes a clear sense of Katherine’s struggles as well as her inspiration. Being one of the few women in a male-dominated field, Katherine is constantly questioned, undermined and often taken advantage of by her colleagues. She has several pivotal love affairs, one with a professor during graduate school.

The novel ultimately centers on Katherine’s identity and I can’t reveal too much. It gloriously unfolds. When Katherine decides to tackle the Riemann hypothesis and it leads her to discover her family story and its connection in World World II. Her Chinese immigrant mother remained an enigma to Katherine throughout her life. Living in Michigan and married to Katherine’s white father, she faced extreme prejudices in post-WWII America. “I heard her called a dirty Jap once, and China Doll, and Red China, and while I flushed red with shame, my mother never so much as flinched at the slurs, so that I was never sure that she heard them.” When Katherine travels to Germany to study abroad, she discovers some shocking information about her family connected to both mathematics and WWII. Don’t think you need to be a math whiz for this book to make sense. There’s so much beauty and bravery within these pages.

 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.

 

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book review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

RATING: ****/5*

Although I read this back in March, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone makes the ideal summer read with its dreamy, cinematic imagery. It reminds me of Jane Campion’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s part mystery and part coming-of-age story.

Raised by religious, strict parents, the three Apfel sisters disappear one summer in Australia in 1992—“We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn’t the one we were trying to recall to begin with.” Were they killed or did they run away? Tikka Malloy was 11 years old in 1992. She and her sister were best friends with the Van Apfel sisters. Tikka returns home because her sister has been diagnosed with cancer. The never-solved disappearance of Ruth, Hannah and Cordelia Van Apfel 20 years ago still haunts Tikka and her sister.

This area of Australia seems one in which children got easily get lost—“Back in those days the valley had only been developed in pockets. It was dissected by a cutting where a skinny, two-lane road wound down and around and across the river and then slithered out again, but the real excavation world had been done long ago by something much more primitive than us. The valley was deep and wide. Trees covered both walls. Spindly, stunted she-oaks spewed from the basin, swallowing the sunlight and smothering the tide with their needles. Higher up there were paperbacks, and tea trees with their camphorous lemon smell. Then hairpin banksias, river dogroses and gums of every kind—woolybutts, blackbutts, bogongs, blue mallets, swamp mallets and craven grey boxes, right up to the anemic angophoras that stood twisted and mangled all along the ridge line.”

Tikka recalls that summer and the sisters. The Van Apfel family has plenty of dark secrets. Maybe these memories of this friendship and growing up will mean something now to adult Tikka that she’d never recognized as a child. The father seems to have most difficulty controlling middle-sister Cordelia, the most beautiful of the sisters and the most independent. That summer, Cordelia falls out of a tree and breaks her arm. That summer, a new male teacher, named Mr. Avery, arrives at their school. He’s the only male teacher. When Cordelia sleepwalks one night, Mr. Avery brings her back home. She’s only wearing her swimming outfit. Cordelia often talks about getting away from her father. She has a plan to leave.

Then there’s Mr. Van Apfel and his suspicious behavior. He seemed to have the most problems with Cordelia. He cruelly killed her pet mice by pouring bleach on them. Another time, when Cordelia was bathing, Mr. Van Apfel held her head under water “to cast away all her sins. Swimming costume sins. Sleepwalking sins. (Cold-car-engines-in-red-hatchbacks sins.) He was careful to keep her cast arm dry, and it protruded like a plaster periscope. While the rest of her shameful body was submerged and washed clean. Baptism among the bath salts and bubbles.” There’s this particularly creepy memory. On the last day of school, Mr. Van Apfel tells Tikka that Cordelia and Ruth aren’t feeling well and won’t be going. She notices that the seats are folded down in the back of the car and she sees “three long black bags zipped securely to the top.” Chills.

Nuanced and more of a character study and a contemplation on memory and experience, it’s quite the page-turner.

–review by Amy Steele

 

I received this book for review from Algonquin.

 

 

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book review: I Guess I’ll Write It Down

I Guess I’ll Write It Down by Beth Evans. William Morrow| June 11, 2019 | $14.99| ISBN: 9780062796134

RATING: 4.5/5*

If you follow Beth Evans on Instagram, you know how relatable and supportive her comics can be. Social media can be difficult but it can also provide a particular sense of community, a place to realize that you’re not alone in your struggles. Beth’s comics allow empathy and encouragement. She’s open about her mental health especially dealing with anxiety which can be scary and frustrating and debilitating for many. It’s also especially lonely to be side-lined by anxiety. Fans of Beth’s work will particularly appreciate this journal. This journal contains 28 never-before-seen cartoons which will inspire people to share their thoughts and desires. Writing can be therapeutic and many people understand the importance of writing down our emotions. Carry around this compact and pretty journal or keep it in a bedside drawer to write down all the feelings when you need to reflect or keep a record of events. Beth Evans has more than 280, 000 followers on Instagram. Her comics help people feel a bit less alone and a bit less anxious. She’s the author of I Didn’t Really Think This Through.

 

–review by Amy Steele

 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

 

 

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