Stand Your Ground by A.J. Ullman

This novel follows in the footsteps of Ullman’s previous works of complex, timely, and intense fiction. What it adds to the collection is more reader involvement. Cady, the protagonist, is asked at the end, “How do you live with yourself?” (247). The book compels us to put ourselves in Cady’s shoes and ask what we’d do.

Cady Fox grew up with her aunt January when taken away from her heroin addicted mother. She attended private school, overcoming bullying and other obstacles, graduated from college, hiked the Appalachian trail, then tackled law school. On the eve of possibly being made partner at her firm, Cady shoots a young black man dead in a park. Secrets come out in the case and ensuing media hype, but does the truth?

Like Cady, armed with guns and a sharp tongue, the text is armored with metaphor. It compares Cady to memes and stereotypes. Steeped in pop cultural references, the reader can readily relate and get involved. On the flip side, Cady employs jazz and art analogies in dialogue with her “boyfriend” and a kid she mentors. These push the story to deeper levels in an enjoyable blend of action and contemplation.

Just when Cady seems lost behind a cloud of roles and types, she surprises. The conclusion jumps out, turns the rest of the story on its head, and causes readers to think twice about everything we assume. This novel is an exquisite character study of our schizophrenic age, in a story of a young female vixen-lawyer from Kentucky.

Blind Insights by Richard Krause

An act of creation does not require a how-to manual. Richard Krause’s Blind Insights offers not techniques or tips, but a dare to BE a human with something to write. The aphorisms threaten. They hiss, bite, and snarl. They provoke a reaction: agree or disagree. They throw the reader back on herself. The stronger his response, the more it contradicts, or hints at something deeper going on. The book points beyond emotions to insight and revelation as the sources of inspiration in the messy fight of craft.

The short book toggles between epigrams and longer vignettes in a gratifying balance of dense, bite-sized nuggets of (un)wisdom and bigger (longer) gems of crystalline prose. They serve as examples to follow, or riff off of. Sections of the book feature famous authors in many epigrams. Instead of lifting these authors up as timeless models, they reduce them to men (and women) just like any other writer who must contend with her own limitations. In this way, the book is egalitarian and person-centered; equal opportunity to be as original as the next guy. 

The book is a character study of someone any aspiring author wants to be, but has to break down and destroy in order to become. “Do we live in a world of our own making? Not as long we have a mind that is not” (66).  Let this book illuminate your muse, that you’ll run or dance or spar with her.

Crawl Space by Richard Krause

Get ready to go spelunking in these cavernous stories. More than entertain with escape, they descend, ascend, and pierce into the substance of being.

With the introduction of some themes the book – sex, punishment, family, and irony, among others – the disturbing opening tale of abuse and pleasure, and their intersections, is indicative of the exposition that follows. There is no gently going into the night in this book, rather, characters grope around in a gaping, ever-present abyss of traumas past and present. The stories get inside of a multitude of feelings, indulge and expose, poke and question, but never judge. Judgement is reserved for institutions, like repressive cultures, the law, war, some churches and schools, that limit maneuverability among feelings. “He was the instrument that brought the best out of us” (28), but the music teacher in one story was fired. What could come out is meant to stay inside, festering and fostering internal judgement and strife in several stories. A father combats feelings of inadequacy toward his son and his gregarious friend. A teacher’s high ideals prevents him from accepting love from a desirous woman. In a few stories, men imagine they’ve killed someone by dint of will, with their lustful thoughts. With characters becoming their own enemies, the stories offer an omniscient point of view. Often told in the subjective first person, the audience is invited in as “we.” An objective reality is established through repeated dialogue, reiterating others’ undeniable perspectives. Questions posed throughout the text operate similarly, the stories remind readers of a vast mystery that goes largely unsolvable despite efforts to get to the bottom of things.

The middle stories are shortest, each elucidating one metaphor, like Bull, Pelican, Teddy Bear.  Seemingly innocuous subjects become passages into fraught histories. These shortest stories serve as palette cleansers before the beefiest tale: Crawl Space in which a homeowner searches his house’s air ducts for the source of a noxious smell. He’s convinced it’s from a girl he stalked, who haunts him. Alongside the humorous physical contortions required of him to find her, run his anguished thoughts. A ripe combination of creepy and funny produce an absurd, tantalizing, and unforgettable result in this latest collection from master storyteller, Richard Krause.    

A Syrian Ambassador by Cathy Sultan


Diplomat Rpbert Jenkins follows in his father’s footsteps carrying out America’s dirty work in foreign lands.  Where his father was involved in Central America in the 1980s, Jenkins’ mission is to foment havoc in Syria, to turn peoples against each other in order to gain the upper hand in a “proxy war against Iran” (56).  But as he attempts to bring Bashar Assad down, others try to bring Jenkins down.  Jenkins’ mistress, Nadia, is a spy providing damning information on Jenkins and American politicians to journalists and others in Syria.  Nadia’s ex-fiance, Andrew, a doctor in a refugee camp in Lebanon, is kidnapped by terrorists and only all the warring factions working together can rescue him – and the more peaceful way of relating he represents.  

A meeting between Assad and Jenkins at the start introduces the theme of transformative human encounters that develops throughout the novel.  Jenkins’ shifting conscience is seen in an internal dialogue running alongside the formal exchange he and Assad share over a trip to a tragic bombing site.  Subsequent dialogue is not as successful as this initial scene.  Several interview-type conversations convey background information in a stilted format.  Passages graphically describing Syrian civil war brutality, including lots of death, rape, and torture better set a villainous stage on which complicit characters emerge.  Jenkins’, Nadia’s, and other expats’ dizzying personal entanglements and betrayals, helpfully reiterated from numerous perspectives, bring the nation-to-nation conflict to a more understandable, and entertaining, level.  Nadia is central in the web, with connections to the kidnapped doctor, Andrew, and to Jenkins, as well as to other powerful men.  Nadia masks her hatred for Jenkins but cannot hide her hatred for Sonia, a journalist who has her own history of betraying expats to get stories.  The novel shifts rapid-fire between threads and back and forth in time producing an authentic war-zone-esque controlled chaos.    

“Wars are premised on lies… and truth is its first casualty” (13).  The novel lays a foundation for truth-building by portraying love alongside open combat.   Pictures of neighbors helping one another from destroyed buildings, lovers uniting in spontaneous passion, and strangers-cum-friends sharing delicious-sounding Syrian meals show genuine grounds for trust.  Scenes of Andrew helping patients, insurgents and refugees alike, in clinical settings convince that these characters are equally capable of respectfully working together as they are of destroying each other.  The rescue sequences are an effective encapsulation of the broader changes of heart that facilitate it.  But the surprise ending also shows that hard work is still to come.Ambassador in Syria is a love letter to a country at war.  One ambassador’s story of changing from a promoter of injustice to fighting for peace and diplomacy inspires all readers toward active, ongoing compassion.

Landscape of a Marriage by Gail Ward Olmsted

In 1858, Fred Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park and other national treasures, marries his brother’s widow, Mary, and fathers her children.  Mary reminds herself she’s made of sterner stuff to find courage to adapt to this “marriage of convenience.”  But as she and Fred fall in love, she discovers that sterner stuff might not mean what she thinks.  Perhaps it means leaning on Fred, relying on their companionship and devotion through family deaths, work hardships, and uncertain world events.

Gail Ward Olmsted, a descendant of Fred Olmsted through marriage, sculpts a portrait of the Olmsted marriage like Fred builds his career: project by project.  Each short chapter highlights a characteristic or pivotal moment in the family’s life.  From weekday meals, funerals, or holidays, the vivid scenes convey shared toil and tenderness.  Reliance on dialogue brings out individual personalities with immediacy and reflects Mary’s perspective: her attention to relationship, feelings, and domestic concerns.  In putting family first and herself second, Mary’s concerns seem to run counter to the suffrage movement going on around her.  But her children and husband convince her of her worth and value before the law, and at home.  Mary’s soft-spoken personality and salt-of-the-earth conversations endear her to everyone around her, including readers.

An album of snapshots covering fifty years, this book gives a vivid overview of a turn-of-the-century couple.  Events like the Civil War, Tammany Hall corruption, and the World’s Fair, seen through the lens of women and children, offer a poignant, personal glimpse into the past and into families everywhere.

Trimming England by M.J. Nicholls

A seedy hotel full of despicable characters – and one of them is you.  England has decided to send one person from each of its counties to this heinous destination as punishment.  The crime?  Well, these personal accounts speak for themselves.  One miscreant is a scrooge of a ticket-taker. Another tries every means available to elicit sympathy, while another, a mother, lobotomizes children so her son will rise to the top.  A few are the same photographed face, offered up in smiling innocence.  

In agonizing self-aggrandizement or abasement, made-up words, and constant antics, this book imagines current circumstances taken to their outer limits.  There, laughter is the only response.  The book reads like Monty Python in literary form.Yet, the last and longest chapter, written by “you,” offers a serious proposal.  What if absurdity is the only way to “look the truth in the chin” (231)? M.J. Nicholls, in Trimming England, is the brave and reckless soul facing the facts with dark humor and ribald spunk.

Nives by Sacha Naspini

From a screen writer and art director comes a performative piece of short literature starring a recent widow, Nives.

Nives doesn’t cry after her longtime husband dies suddenly. Struck by loneliness, she invites a lame hen from her farm’s chicken coop to keep her company inside. When this hen goes numb watching a Tide commercial, Nives reaches out to the vet. The two reminisce in the middle of the night. During the course of their confessional conversation, the hen revives, and so does Nives.

A whole history unveils, packed in one dialogue. Entangled relationships in a hardscrabble Tuscan town get exposed. What delights isn’t just the juicy skeletons in the closet, but how they come out. Nives relates her stories with barbs and innuendo. As her conversation partner parses out her point in voicing tales she’s held in for so long – asking her to repeat herself, to her irritation, and arguing with her interpretations to -one notices how the effects of wounds come out sideways, how it’s impossible to tell a bald truth. Truth gets wrapped in anguish and warped in ensuing dramas. Everyone has a Rosa, Nives says. A Rosa is a ghost, a hurt one gnaws on throughout life, that feeds other hurts and incites revenge. And maybe even, if told to the right person at the right time, leads to forgiveness.

Nives’ ribald Rosa declarations inspires readers tell our stories with humor, passion, and gratitude.

At The End of the Matinee by Keiichiro Hirano

In this probing love story, together, a musician and a journalist navigate personal and international traumas in the first years of the 21st century.  

Yoko meets Makino at one of his classical guitar concerts.  Makino is immediately smitten with Yoko’s articulateness, grace and beauty.  She admires his music and his easy-going charm.  They begin a 3 years long conversation over Skype, e-mail and a few in-person encounters.   Although they talk about most everything, they withhold their struggles: Yoko experiences PTSD after her near escape from a 2003 hotel bombing in Baghdad, where she worked as a reporter.  Makino goes through an unprecedented and mysterious lapse in his playing.  Despite these gaps in their knowledge of one another, the two declare their love and make plans to continue as a committed couple, until a miscommunication ends their contact – forever?

Conversations form the backbone of this novel.  The seminal dialogues between Yoko and Makino, an equitable back-and-forth, are fed by internal conversations they have with themselves.  They think separately and together about how past, present and future relate.  Traveling to destinations around the globe, they muse about diplomacy and social responsibility.  Yoko unpacks her estrangement from her father and attraction to war-ravaged places.  Makino thinks about his relationship to silence as a musician.  He often fills uncomfortable social silences with funny anecdotes.  

One provides a metaphor for the novel’s conceit.  Makino tells of following the alluring scent of perfume, hoping to meet the woman wearing it, only to discover the person is a man and the perfume is cologne!  Like his disappointing discovery, the side conversations, philosophical discussions, and Yoko and Makino’s other relationships, can seem like disappointing diversions from the love story.  But, like the cologne leads Makino to recalibrate his biases, Yoko and Makino’s private affairs profoundly affect their unexpected and enduring connection.  This contemporary story provides hope that love and individuality can exist hand-in-hand. 

Into the Garden of Gethsemane, Georgia

Elise never thought she’d return to her childhood home in Gethsemane, Georgia, but she heeds a summons by police after a fire at the house of her mother, the First Lady of Letters, Mrs. Abigail Fisher. Along the ways Elise picks up a strange child, Katrina, and her stuffed bear to steel her for the encounter. But instead of a formidable mother, Elise finds ghosts she and her mother confront, together.

Laraine Herring doesn’t just present a story, but leads readers through a creative process in which characters, writer, and audience all participate. The point of view shifts between Elise, Abigail, Katrina and Pistachio, a character who keeps getting kicked out of Abigail’s novels and who is intent on finding her way back in. With Pistachio’s imaginative prowess, both Elise and Abigail face the narratives they’ve constructed and edit themselves into liberating futures. The genre-bending, layered plot, vivid characters and graphic psychological probing create a robust reading experience. Story building and soul searching go hand in hand in this book. The book inspires readers to become writers, but writers to become better readers of their lives and works.

Red Hands by Colin Sargent

Red Hands 

Colin Sargent

Barbican Press

2020

ISBN 9781909954397

12.99 (UK)

Colin Sarget describes crafting Red Hands, his latest novel about Iordana Ceausescu, like salvaging scattered crystals from a shattered chandelier.  For her, telling this past is not unlike shattering into a thousand shards all over again.  Sargent’s depiction restores her as a luminescent and resilient whole set against a turbulent background.

Ceausescu grew up in Romania’s Nomenclature (communist party).  Both her parents had high positions in the government.  As her father and his colleague Nicholas Ceausescu conflicted over Romania’s direction, Iordana’s infatuation with Valentin Ceausescu tempted her teenage rebellion.  But the thrill of taking risks turned into fear after their clandestine marriage.  The Ceausescu family disavowed her and she, in turn, rejected many of their lavish gifts.  She kept Valentin’s baby despite the family’s disapproval.  She and Valentin divorced amidst political unrest sweeping communist countries in the late 1980s.  She and her son fled the country when the Ceausescus came under attack.

The dangers Ceausescu faces become all the more convincing in Sargent’s depictions of their interviews in which information leaks out bit by painstaking bit.  In contrast, she comes across in the rest of the story as a confident and principled woman.  The novel focuses on the actions she takes to protect herself, her son, and fellow citizens.  “The people were free without Communism and the Ceausescus but they were desperate without someone to blame” (254).  With elegance and journalistic precision, this novel speaks to the timeless struggle of individuals up against powerful collectives.