Single in Southeast Texas by Gretchen Johnson

Paige is a recently divorced English professor at Lamar University who hates sleeping alone.  With chapters named after a series of guys she meets, the book is structured like a speed dating game, but with an ironic twist.  Whimsical as summer chick-lit, this third novel by Minnesota native Gretchen Johnson also reaches beyond romance into transcendentalism.  A highlight comes in the “Students” chapter in which she defends Thoreau to her class.  A student discovers through their discussion “that maybe he’s saying a life can be a lot of things, that maybe success can be a lot of things, that what matters… what really matters is how you define success, that you should live your life the way you believe is right and not just assume other people have the right answers for you” (169).  Although the book is about Paige’s attempts at love, it is also about how she listens to her life and learns its spontaneous lessons, however they present themselves.  Paige’s beloved, the fruit of her exploratory labors, is the biggest and best surprise of all.  Enjoy her humorous encounters with aliens of the male kind as well as gossipy girl-talk and Paige’s insights as she plums the depths – and there are depths – of her home, Beaumont, Texas.  publisher’s book info

Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano by Andrea Avery

Some people make music their life while others live life musically.  Andrea Avery writes her life as Sonata.  Using Franz Schubert’s sonata in B-flat D960 as inspiration and metaphor, she shares her memoir of living with RA, rheumatoid arthritis.  Like Schubert, debilitated at the height of his career, Andrea, in college, gives up her dream of playing piano professionally when her body will no longer allow it.  Instead of succumbing to her disability, as directed by a professor at Arizona State, she uses her pain to compose music (129), in this case, music in prose.  

Each chapter is a movement of the sonata (e.g. Allegro Giocoso or Largo) and is accompanied by a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein, brother to one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein.  These headings name the tenor of the chapter and set her story in the context of a community of musicians and philosophers wrapping their heads around the place of pain and illness in art.  Resonant of Olivia Laing’s THE LONELY CITY, Avery manages to make connections out of her individual and isolating experiences.  Reaching out from these dark places, she speaks to us readers in our own.  A climax comes in Target, of all places, where she encounters a curious little boy who asks why she looks the way she does.  The incident, a cadenza of sorts, becomes a turning point.  It is time go beyond the “deflection tactics,” (142), the tattoos and funky clothes, and claim “bi-abled” status, exclaiming, “I am the things I make.  I am not the shape I take” (205).

Andrea’s writing style is like the eclectic look she develops from childhood.  “She’s something else” her physicist father likes to say.  She’s not afraid to embrace a both a hip tone peppered with slang and references from her favorite grunge bands, as well as the academic elegance of research and her mother’s copious medical notes.  Related-able to most every reader, she extends to us the same encouragement as the teachers she takes after to “put some oomph in it!”   find the book via Pegasus

Dark Water by Simon Thould

“Well, I rescued you.  Think I can rescue the girl, don’t you?” (83) Rafter asks his dog, Lonely.  A loner and ex-soldier, Rafter is known to the locals by his solitary walks through the woods of New Forest in all black.  He drinks Blue Label vodka and black coffee.  More than once bar-mates comment that he “sticks out like a spare part at a wedding.”  Are the girl and the dog the only ones who need rescuing?  When asked by sexy car saleswoman, Madeleine, to find her missing daughter, Jac, Rafter puts his military skills to work and makes friends in the process.  Gabriel and his wife Li Li supply him liquor, trust and a boat while Ferret looks after Lonely.  The Southampton Hells Angels also become his unlikely friends as he looks for Jac among their seedy neighborhood.  When the search finally comes to an end it isn’t exactly as Rafter planned, but, luckily he’s good at dealing with the unexpected.  The best part of the story (after the high intensity fight scenes) is unlocking some mysteries surrounding Rafter through his newfound acquaintances, including loyal Lonely.  Like Rafter, Thould’s writing style is to the point and sparse, emphasizing action over poetics.    author’s Goodreads site

Thread and Other Stories by Eric Halpenny

“Thread” is the title story in this collection by first-time author and chemical engineer, Eric Halpenny, but it also refers to the thread of conversation woven between the stories (always cut short by one unwilling conversation partner until the final dialogue), as well as the theme that ties together these tales: what really motivates our actions, what calls to us from outside the ordinary.  In the first story, siblings eke out an existence for themselves and manage to help one weaker than themselves, too, who ends up giving back beyond the scope of his short life.  Then comes a sad narrative about a soldier in Vietnam so traumatized by what he has to do that he becomes like the living dead, “not dead enough that anyone would dig him a grave” (67).  Third is a ghost story in which a child makes a doll that summons a witch, an eidolon.  “Conflict” is historical fiction, based on real experiences by the 7th battalion of the 1st Canadian infantry in WWI.  Jump from real-life to science fiction in the next story about time travel and sociological studies.  What happens when our subjects become The Subject, someone to whom we can relate?  Lastly, the spy is spied upon in a story about Soviet Russia and Ukraine.  The collection ends with the conclusion of the on-going conversation.  Two unnamed conversants try to understand the other’s viewpoint and come to common ground.  What is our understanding based on?  Upon what do we rely in our experiments?  Can we believe everything we know?  The author leaves us with both questions and answers, all explored through introspective characters and twists of plot.  What I liked best is the unpredictability of each ending and the sparse, pithy prose.  book website

De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland by Judy Juanita

DE FACTO FEMINISM: ESSAYS STRAIGHT OUTTA OAKLAND begins with several reprinted works mostly from The Weeklings (theweeklings.com), an online forum dedicated to essay, and ends with an original piece comprised of letters between Faith, a writer, and Alexis, the wife of Faith’s deceased teacher.  The latter brings all the formers to an intense close filled with both grief and joy, making a story of what started out as a manifesto.  Essays on the N-word, guns, cleaning, the Beatles, black chick-lit, growing up in Oakland, and the Black Panthers flesh out what Judy Juanita means by de facto feminism: women who define feminism simply by doing what they must do, and what they do best.  They make the word, not it them.  So, too, the author, like the heroes and heroines she describes, exploits what might exploit her when she uses words and music as tools for change in her high school and college years and later, her own life as a source of creative material.  In the final piece, “Acknowledge Me: a true ghost story/epistolary essay,” instead of cowering beneath a powerful, successful, charismatic, not to mention alluring, older white male teacher, the author (Faith) becomes his medium.  She writes to his widow about their unconventional conversations and through him they become not only friends but collaborators.  This last piece is a brilliant play within a play, showing Juanita’s true talent for showing (not telling) character development while also developing ideas she explores in the previous essays – the artist/writer lifestyle, the role of “the establishment” in her work, friends/loved ones’ support and the spirit world.  

At first, I felt threatened by this book.  How could I relate as an affluent, caucasian, Midwest woman?  Even as fellow artist and writer, am I the establishment even if I don’t intend to be, because I’m white?  But, as the essays became more personal (and when she mentions a fellow writer she likes because she is Midwestern, with a dry sense of humor), I felt inspired.  We’re not enemies.  The enemy might lie within us or outside us, but whatever it is, it keeps us apart, not together, as we are when we work for a common cause, listening to one another as Judy Juanita so graciously and wittily does with herself, her peers, students and those who have blazed the trail for her, to whom she dedicates the book.   the book on Goodreads

A Penny for Her Heart by Alretha Thomas

Vanessa Rossi’s best friend Penelope Newhouse has been brutally murdered at City Hall, where she worked in a position senior to Vanessa.  Friends and competitors since USC, Vanessa learns more of Penny’s secrets after her murder than she knew before.  As Penny clamoured her way to the top, did political candidates use her to undo their opponents?  Did one of them murder her?  It’s easy to pin the blame on those corrupt politicians, but perhaps, Detective Rachel Storme surmises, someone closer to Penny had more of a motive to want her dead and the politicians aren’t as bad as they seem.  “Unbeknownst to the average person, the rapists, child molesters, and murderers aren’t lurking in the shadows; they’re the neighbor, the friendly teacher, or coach.  They’re the co-worker or even the boss” (291).  

Vanessa and Rachel’s distinct voices as co-narrators help Alretha Thomas weave a personal as well as a stark and creepy who-done-it story.  While Vanessa plays the part of empathizer, knowing and accepting Penny warts and all, Rachel is a skeptic from beginning to end.  She’s not satisfied until she considers all angles of the case and each suspect in turn.  The two narrate every other chapter, ending each with a cliffhanger.  Alretha Thomas excels at suspense; with a false ending that deepens the plot, she keeps us rapt until the very end.  This third in a series of Detective Rachel Storme mysteries includes book club questions.      Author site

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley

In THE NEW ODYSSEY:THE STORY OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY REFUGEE CRISIS, journalist Patrick Kingsley follows one Syrian refugee, Hashem Al-Souki, as well as a host of other asylum seekers entering Europe from north Africa, Greece, and Eastern Europe.  He highlights both the individual story and the international phenomenon facing us today.  Kingsley became the Guardian’s inaugural migration correspondent at a time when the crisis was just reaching its height.  He bears witness to the events – voicing smugglers’, politicians, and travelers’ perspectives – and offers his own insights, namely, to European leaders bent on keeping migrants out, that “by denying the existence of these real root causes [wars and dictators] you simultaneously absolve yourself from the duty of providing sanctuary to those feeling from them” (71).  “What values will there be to uphold if we abandon our duty to protect those less fortunate than ourselves?” (230).  “The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation.  The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration.  You can have one or the other.  There is no easy middle ground” (296).  Kingsley cites instances of the latter in Croatia, where citizens are willing to help refugees, having been refugees themselves in the not-so-distant past.  He rides with Hans, a wandering shepherd who voluntarily “shepherds” refugees in his car, just as good samaritans helped his Jewish parents during WWII.  It is hard not to get wrapped up in this story, but Kingsley is not a sentimentalist.  He is a reporter; distant, engaged but not invasive.  The end is cautiously hopeful.  Hashem gets his own say and the others Kingsley updates the status of others he meets.