Bueno (The Things I Learned from Papi)

Reviewed, 18 June 2022

Bueno: (The Things I Learned from Papi) is a treasure of family lore. The entwining threads of bloodlines and marriages, successes, and losses shape the story of each member. Bueno gathers what it can of the rich Sosa history into a volume, preserving it for future generations. In it, Elsa Sosa explains what she knows of her father’s life and legacy, pulling together tales of family and childhood in the Dominican Republic.

Accompanied by family snapshots, Sosa’s memoir imparts her feeling for the island way of life. She gives airport and shopping advice alongside a basic geography of the island and highlights for tourists. She makes her own memories of homelier stuff. Far from resorts and nightclubs are the rural places and far-flung beaches where the author and her eight siblings spent their childhood. She remembers homemade toys, outdoor games, and cooling off under a waterfall on scorching afternoons. When she returns as an adult, she seeks local vendors, secluded getaways, and authentic tostones. Under the mango tree, Papi sits smoking cigarettes and chatting to pretty women.

Bueno, though it records Sosa family memories, is more a love letter to a departed father. In it, Sosa longs to sort through the past and cement her connection to her immense extended family. Life lessons are hard to discern, unclear until late in the book. Sosa attributes only one piece of wisdom directly to Papi; “He taught us not to spend our lives with regrets, grudges, and to let people live their lives.”

Photo by Drift Shutterbug on Pexels.com

While Sosa explains how she struggles to live up to Papi’s ideal, she comforts herself, knowing she and her siblings doted on their parents in old age. She wrestles with her father’s stoicism, her mother’s domineering, and familial links more complex and fragile than she realized. With gaps in the story, questions left unasked, names forgotten, and connections unraveled, many dimensions of her adored Papi (and Mami), Elsa Sosa will never know.

There is rich material in Bueno, though it’s hard to dig out. The author’s stream of consciousness brings us through flashbacks and flash-forwards so often that Sosa, herself, loses track of her trajectory. Sometimes we hear the same advice twice. Other times, forgotten details leave holes in the stories that make them difficult to interpret. While Sosa can tell us virtually nothing of her parents’ early lives and even less of their ancestors, we hear travel directions and culinary recommendations multiple times. She observes near the end of Bueno that she is a keen photographer, recording memories throughout her life with a camera, not in writing. Like photography, memoir writing is a refined art requiring many years to master.

Thanks to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. Bueno (The Things I Learned from Papi) launches on 15 July 2022.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

If I Survive You

By Jonathan Escoffery

Reviewed, 7 June 2022

Escoffery’s new collection of short stories fit together as neatly as a novel. “In Flux,” the collection’s opening piece gives the author’s answer to the peculiarly American question, “What are you?” As a nation obsessed with lineage, we’ve all considered mail-order DNA kits and websites promising to reveal our connections to royalty. We’re familiar with playground questions about ancestry. When Escoffery’s character, Trelawny, faces blunt identity questions, he examines that overwhelming American trait, assimilation.

These eight stories combine to form a picture of a Jamaican family in transition. As they gain a foothold in Florida, the needs of extended family and wishes to return to simpler times pull them back to their roots. Between biting winters at a northern university and sunny Jamaican beaches, the youngest son, Trelawny, finds an uncomfortable middle ground in his hometown, Miami. But misfortune hounds the family. Hurricanes, unpredictable income, and secrets from the past batter them as they struggle to stay connected. Underneath it lies a cracked foundation, a cherished house sinking.

It’s hard to avoid phrases like, “powerhouse short stories,” and “dazzling debut.” Each story enlightens the rest, making the collection a perfect balance of tenderness and grit, hope, and despair. Escoffery’s dark humor rings throughout, hip and down-to-earth. Defiant in the face of adversity, Trelawny wills himself through hard times. Even in despair, the faded American dream calls. There must still be a way to realize it. If there isn’t, he’ll make one.

Thanks to Net Galley for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. If I Survive You launches, September 2022.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

The Untamed Passions of an Enigmatic Jamaican Man

By Donovan Moore

Reviewed, 20 May 2022

Donovan Moore is certainly an enigma. He presents his thoughts out of sequence, arranged more by importance than chronology. He is possessed first by one facet of his life, then the next, but the threads tying it together hide between the lines. Explicitly sexual and searingly graphic, Moore isn’t shy with the juicy details. Not so with matters of the heart. He withholds recollections of childhood and close friendships. On an endless quest for a love that satisfies the soul, he admits himself a philandering husband doomed to the sadness of repeated losses.

Jamaica is more complicated than Montego Bay’s squeaky-clean resorts and beaches. Moore’s horror stories of rampant crime, police brutality, and murder contradict the island’s good-time, ganja smoking reputation. A history of racist colonialism, Christian moralizing, and income disparity infuriates Moore. His anger fuels discord at church and at work. A string of affairs with gullible women leads him not to love and fulfillment, but to repeated disappointment. When he moves his teenage lover into his marital home, we know it can’t end well. Yet the girl’s brutal murder is a terrible shock. And Moore, desensitized to the violence and ducking police suspicion, cannot even grieve.

The island’s ingrained

violence, misogyny,

and homophobia will

trouble readers unfam-

iliar with post-colonial

politics and African-

Caribbean culture

Moore intends to leave us with an enigma. He engages readers with the memoir of an educated, unassuming Jamaican man, ending with a sly refusal to tie up the loose ends. Instead, he promises his future books will fill in the gaps. But as he loses his moral compass, the island’s ingrained violence, misogyny, and homophobia will trouble readers unfamiliar with post-colonial politics and African-Caribbean culture. It’s hard to read the outdated terms ‘third world country’ and ‘mulatto’ in 2022. The influence of Jamaican patois crossed with Moore’s MBA business-speak holds us at a distinct emotional distance. If we are dedicated to equality for marginalized people, authentic voices are crucial reading. Though Untamed Passions is disquieting, it adds insight to the mountains left to climb.

Thank you to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Readers Copy of this title. Untamed Passions of an Enigmatic Jamaican Man launches 1 June 2022.

This review appeared first on Reedsy.com

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Send Her Back and Other Stories

By Munashe Kaseke

Reviewed, 13 May 2022

With her superb collection of short stories, Munashe Kaseke leaves a lasting impression. Topical and insightful, Send Her Back and Other Stories attacks race and gender stereotypes with grace and resonance. Bound to top lists of recommended diversity reads, we’re mistaken if we think Send Her Back is for an exclusive audience. In its hard-hitting stories, Kaseke creates glimpses of her protagonists’ secret lives. In her Author’s Note, she tells us she hopes we “feel seen” in her work. She is reaching out through stories of love and optimism; her only mission is to connect.

These pages barely contain their characters. They hold strong Zimbabwean women, led by their education to every corner of the United States. Whether they are braving northern blizzards or stuffy boardrooms, they survive on their determination and quick wits. New immigrants and first-generation Americans bring life into focus. Through their eyes, we see ourselves again for the first time.

Photo by Jackson David on Pexels.com

If microaggressions are hard for Americans to identify, Send Her Back gives an accessible look into the mechanics. Kaseke’s stories point out foibles, pitfalls, and thoughtlessness for what it is, while giving due credit to Civil Rights Era achievements. Her Zimbabwean characters earn PhDs, rise to the top of their fields, and outsmart their rivals. Others support themselves with vigorous studies and endless work, wiring their small paychecks to far-away families who always need more. But these fierce spirits rarely break in the fight. Kaseke gives us heroes who change our hearts, entreating everyone to act with respect and care.

In the fracas of Twitter politics, hearing any voice clearly is a challenge. Trading on emotionalism and indignation, the news circuit perpetuates itself, drowning out many who have important stories to tell. Kaseke is among the authors and thinkers of our time who bring clarity. Her lead characters show us what the media misses, even when it seeks own voices. With stories that see so much in so many of us, Send Her Back holds its own against the noise.

Thanks to NetGalley for an Advance Readers Copy of this title. Send Her Back and Other Stories launches 25 July 2022. Read it, share it, post on social media.

This review appeared first on NetGalley.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

In the Marble Maze: A Widower’s Memoir

By Olafur Gundnason

Release date, 3 June 2022

Photo by Benjamin Suter on Pexels.com

Icelandic literary tradition stretches back a thousand years and more. Its sagas of love, loss, and endurance are a unique contribution to the world’s literary heritage. They contain myths and legends, family histories and genealogies. Gudnason’s memoir echoes these ancient forms, building his lost wife, Engilbjort’s modern legend. Iceland’s current writers and artists record present-day sagas of triumph and tragedy with lyrics and lines of poetry aimed straight at the heart. The author draws on these as he shares his love story.

In the Marble Maze stays grounded through painful moments, bringing us inside Intensive Care units, guest houses, and the empty home to which the author returns without his beloved Engilbjort. Descriptions of complicated treatments and emergency surgeries don’t make for light reading, but Gudnason makes us members of Engilbjort’s circle. We are among those pulling for her as she fights for her life. The Facebook chat messages which could become myopic and exclusive are, instead, a warm way to touch our hearts in shared human grief.

“I don’t recall

experiencing denial

or anger, nor having

attempted to bargain

my way out of

my loss,”

Olafur Gudnason

Gudnason wants to remember. Counselling and books on living with grief are a comfort, but he is honest when the advice doesn’t resonate. “I don’t recall experiencing denial or anger, nor having attempted to bargain my way out of my loss,” he writes in response to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet, in optimistic Facebook posts, he denies that a stopped heart is the end of the line. Each risky surgery and private prayer for Engilbjort’s survival is a bargaining. The botched arrangements for the return of her remains provoke an anger Gudnason knows is out of character. As a grieving husband, he faces the sadness and acceptance of laying a loved one to rest.

In the Marble Maze is one of many memorials Gudnason creates for Engilbjort. As he sorts through relics, photos, and clothing, he takes time to remember. With songs and poetry from Iceland and around the world, he tells their story. He emphasizes family and community while giving it the gravity and timelessness of the greatest ancient sagas.

Thank you to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. In the Marble Maze launches on 3 June 2022. This review appeared first on Reedsy.com.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com


by Jamie Boud

Reviewed 29 April 2022

Jamie Boud illustrates Figurines with skilled sketches guiding us through a story where reality, fantasy, and dreams are interchangeable. Parallel casts are introduced, and four different mothers emerge from the mix, but the story will be told by one mother (Anna) and her biological daughter (Rachel). Sorting the tangled threads of family dysfunction, adopted children, and the specter of mental illness is a tall order. When two very similar narrators (mother and daughter) compete to tell their stories, distinguishing between their voices is a challenge for readers who may get impatient with these ambiguities.

As Rachel and Anna unravel in tandem, there’s a missed opportunity to unpack changing approaches to mental health care. Modern psychiatric methods fail Rachel, who turns to self-medication. Anna, diagnosed in 1955, endures shock treatments to stop the voices in her head. Misguided therapies destroy Anna but failing to treat her is also an abuse. Rachel, fending for herself against depression, receives no professional help and never sees this paradox, ever unable to get better or worse. These themes are obscured by the minutiae of a teenager’s journal and the listlessness of untreated chronic depression.

It is too late in

history to raise

these issues with-

out acknowledging

decades of feminist

activism and the

modern movements

they inspire.

Figurines is a women’s story, but men direct it. Domineering mothers aside, the plot hinges on the opinions of men in authority. Anna and Rachel both try modeling (and other means) to reassure themselves they are desirable. Anna pines for her brother, Frederick, to rescue her from the male doctors who won’t release her. Rachel’s adopted father repeatedly devalues her. To get started on her quest to find lost relatives, she needs her boyfriend to do the first Google search. But is he a boyfriend? She doesn’t know until he reassures her. It is too late in history to raise these issues without acknowledging decades of feminist activism and the modern movements they inspire. Rachel doesn’t see herself controlled by men, but the book won’t resonate with readers who do.

Boud provides all the pieces of this novel but leaves his readers to make them fit. Long passages of detailed narration demand careful attention, but when the time comes to draw a conclusion, we are left on our own to discover meaning. The author trusts us to make sense of what we are reading. But when readers have that kind of license, they might use it to find a more approachable novel.

Thanks to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. Figurines launches 3 May 2022. This review appeared first on Reedsy.com.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Vigil Harbor

by Julia Glass

Reviewed, 22 April 2022

National Book Award winner Julia Glass gives us her seventh novel, Vigil Harbor, set in the near future on the New England coast. On a Massachusetts peninsula, the town of Vigil Harbor is steeped in history while besieged by a tumultuous world. Political turmoil, terrorist violence, and inundation by rising seas make Vigil Harbor an isolated outpost, slow to adapt, too slow for its restless inhabitants. Many leave, most return, and no one ever passes through. Until they do.

Glass imagines the world which will exist when my six-year-old is in his twenties. It’s a place we know well with attitudes we recognize, technology we expect to be using, food and fuel prices forcing changes we know we should make now. But what has happened in the interim? That’s the question. Lost time. Gaps in our history, actions delayed, mysteries hidden and never resolved. As readers, we know in our bones what must have happened. The Harborites’ stories let us put the pieces together. But we’ll never know the entire story until we’ve lived it.

Vigil Harbor can’t be

pigeon-holed as an

environmentalist wake-

up call any more than

we can label it a dirge

for 21st century politics

gone wrong.

Vigil Harbor can’t be pigeon-holed as an environmentalist wake-up call any more than we can label it a dirge for 21st century politics gone wrong. Readers (alongside the Harborites) may be unnerved by the radicalization of causes they support. With the ocean eroding their beaches and storms lashing their homes, the people of Vigil Harbor have everything to lose in the race against global warming. But the way of life they know keeps its hold. There’s more interest in winning races at the Yacht Club. What can challenge entrenched values and rigid social structure?

Uncertainty, fear, faith, and endurance resonate through the pages of Glass’s novel. The story glimmers with the refracted light of folktales born of reverence for deep waters. They are voices speaking to us from the past, reminding us of our symbiosis with nature, and surging through the morass of public debate. Storms devour shorelines just as the daily news cycle eats at our souls, ceaseless and unstoppable as the rising tides. Many characters look too young to know all they know. But, of course, the youngest eyes see most clearly.

Thanks to Net Galley for an Advance Reader’s Copy of Vigil Harbor, pub date, 3 May 2022.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

By the Iowa Sea

by Joe Blair

Reviewed 16 March 2013

Joe Blair’s excellent memoir roils and surges like the flooded Iowa rivers which were his inspiration. He is fearless and honest as he recounts a year of parallel tragedies.

Beyond his blunt and scorching truth telling, Blair has an ability to transform the banal. A butterfly caught beneath a windshield wiper offers an opportunity to recollect and interpret events from a deep personal past in language so sparse and perfect it left me aching and breathless. The tree in autumn was so bright it looked like it had been plugged in… I’m speechless.

Of course, there’s no way I can know, but I feel as if every single thing about Joe Blair is in this book, that he was brave enough to tell the complete story. That quality made this, for me, a compelling read – most of my actual friends have told me far less about themselves.

And I’m sorry that he left Iowa, though I understand. I was born there, and I left, too.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Fred: An Unbecoming Woman

By Annie Krabbenschmidt

Reviewed, 24 March 2022

Photo by Juan Vargas on Pexels.com

Annie Krabbenschmidt writes, in their introduction, “This project started with a question: ‘Why is it so hard to come out of the closet?’… why is it that for some, we can more easily picture killing ourselves than living full and happy lives? ‘… What does it take to feel free?’” With these questions, they reach out to the reader they can’t believe is really there. From the first page, they address us directly. Midway through, they wonder if any of us have made it this far. At the end they thank us, their “dozens of readers,” for listening. Self-effacing to the last page, Annie knows they’re telling a story not everyone wants to hear. Their humble words belie how often people have turned away from them.

Annie is charming because they are trying not to be charming. No doubt, they hate charming people. But in their honesty, complete though never brutal, they draw readers into their story. Whether or not they want to, they charm us. That’s the tension in this narrative. Annie shows their flaws, but their messy, mixed-up coming of age is a shared story among humans. Though they have faced ugly criticism and emotional harm, they’ve emerged, not in self-satisfied triumph but in burgeoning self-knowledge that shines a light on our humanity.

Fred: An Unbecoming Woman

is a book of hard-won insights

and long-pondered problems.

Fred: An Unbecoming Woman is a book of hard-won insights and long-pondered problems. Through the lens of their LGBTQ+ experiences, friendships, and romances, Annie tackles the feelings of “otherness” that dog humans on their way to authenticity and fulfillment. Their sexuality magnifies the ostracism they face; they can’t ignore the tangled strands of their life. Their fight to be free will inspire many who do not share their specific challenges. Betrayed by labels like “privileged,” “introvert,” and “lesbian,” they attack stereotypes and share their journey, even though they’re pretty sure a lot of us will tune them out. In their unrelenting self-awareness, they dare us to keep going. The reward is a story of resilience, a life lived with intention, and a human being still on the road to their truest self.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Thanks to Reedsy Discovery for an Advance Reader’s Copy of this title. The book launches, 13 April 2022.

This review appeared first on Reedsy.com.

Remembrances of Things to Come: Daily Life in France from 1003 to 1975

By Douglas Bullis

Release Date, 28 March 2022

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Douglas Bullis is not a medievalist. If he were, we’d know how and where he uncovered every piece of the LeFief Family puzzle. Remembrances of Things to Come would begin with baptism records retrieved from long-forgotten chapels. It would progress through land grants, letters, and diaries. Notes in the margins of books, inscriptions on gravestones, church registers; medievalists use these sources to walk back in time. They’re the hallmarks of well-founded research where speculation fades, and every assertion stands as sturdy as a barrel vault.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In Remembrances of Things to Come, Bullis tries something much more readable. He promises to transport readers to a lost world. Stories of domesticity, celebration, and despair emerge without strings of citations and sources. Instead of a scholar recording LeFief origins via medieval documents, Bullis is a tour guide conducting readers through the landscape. In 1003 CE, a land grant is given by a local lord to a family without a surname. “When the family was later confirmed in the church by the lord’s bishop, the lord attended the observance but would not yield to them permission to adopt his name. They therefore took unto themselves the name of the fief itself, to last as long as the family should live.” (Remembrances of Things to Come, D. Bullis. pg.4) We don’t read it from the church annals. It’s not drawn from the inscription on the first LeFief’s tomb. It wasn’t uncovered in a 1000-year-old ledger. It simply happened. The rest of the book follows the family up to modern times, recreating one day for one LeFief across successive centuries.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Remembrances uses art for its reference points. Hundreds of high-quality reproductions taken from period manuscripts illustrate the scenes of daily life in Bullis’ narrative. The art inspires him to recall the sounds, smells, colors, and customs familiar to the LeFiefs as they navigate nine centuries in the Loire Valley. He invites readers into the kitchen, the field, the country lane. These flights of imagination dispel the illusion of distance between the LeFiefs and us. Bullis reminds us that French baguette smells the same today (and is made in much the same way) as it did a millennium ago; in a thousand years, unless bread is no longer baked, it will be as fragrant. It’s a touchpoint, a memory we can share of the past, present, and far future.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on WordPress.com

Thanks to Reedsy Discovery for an advance reader’s copy of this title.

This review appeared first on reedsy.com: https://reedsy.com/discovery/book/remembrances-of-things-to-come-douglas-bullis#review