‘The Mars Room’

mars‘The Mars Room” is a gritty, get-down-in-the-dirt novel, and I liked it!

Rachel Kushner gives us a rough lead character named Romy Hall, and by the end of her story, readers will either love or hate her. It’s her interaction with a contracted teacher that gives insight into the desperation of seeking freedom whether from a prison or life’s hard knocks.

Some say the character of Gordon Hauser, a teacher in a fictional women’s prison, is the storyteller in the novel, but I disagree. Romy is a woman of strength in a rough setting, whether it’s at the Mars Room where she’s a stripper, or as an inmate sentenced for murder. Her love for her son is complete, despite the circumstances and her failed attempts at motherhood. That deep emotional need to be with him is what gets Romy out of her cell bunk each morning. It’s what pushes her to take action – for good or bad.

Kushner describes an environment of give and take, and each has its own intentions. Does a man surround himself with woman purely with no desires but to help? Does a woman, imprisoned or not, seek out men without ulterior motives? In “The Mars Room,” is there room for selfless giving?

The author has said in interviews that she wanted to know more about the our society’s structural use of prisons. Yet she also insists her book is not a “prison” novel, but only a novel. I can’t say if her description and perceptions are right or wrong since I’ve never been in her characters’ shoes. I can say, though, that Kushner touched me with her words.

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‘The Pisces’

piscesI was looking forward to reading this novel after seeing all the publicity touting it. Unfortunately, I could not get past the offensive language and situations. A few chapters were more than enough.

Some may say the writing is current, but not to me. I look for good writing, good stories and ideas that expand my horizon. “The Pisces” did none of this for me.

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‘The Broken Girls’

brokenI didn’t know what to expect when I started ‘The Broken Girls.” The prologue left me wondering where the story was going. It didn’t take more than a few more pages, though, to get me hooked.

Simone St. James has done an excellent job of combining the past and present in this ghostly tale of a missing girl, heartbroken friends and a young woman, Fiona, determined to set herself apart from her famous father. The 1950s goings-on at Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for unwanted girls, lead to the 2014 search for answers.

Four friends are trying their best to survive life at Idlewild. They are most forgotten, abandoned by families, and with few hopes for the future. When one of the girls never returns from a rare visit to a relative’s home, they are left to deal with their own ghosts literally and figurately.

Decades later, someone wants to restore the old school, but the skeletons won’t stay buried for long. Fiona, haunted by the murder of her own sister, is determined to find out what happened to the missing friend. As she works to track down the old friends, she learns that there’s more to the story than just an old abandoned school. I’ll stop here, so it’s up to the reader to read what happens.

St. James, good job! Add me to your fan list.

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‘The El Paso Red Flame Gas Station’

old el pasoJ. Reeder Archuleta (Rio Sonora) uses the rural West Texas nothingness as the backdrop in “The El Paso Red Flame Gas Station.” a group of short stories focusing on a boy trying to find his place in the world. The

We’re introduced to Josh, a boy growing up in the 1950s and ’60s with the help of broken-down cowboys, bar owners, bar regulars – and no mother. Through the author’s eyes, we see the despair, hope and maturation of a young man who learns, often by the hard way, that if he wants a better life, he has to do it for himself.

Kudos to the author for his choice of settings. I grew up in West Texas. It’s a beautiful region, but it comes with hard knocks and self-determination. The small town and rough landscape are the perfect backgroup of this coming-of-age collection.

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brassMothers, daughters and those who come between them are the focus of “Brass,” a debut novel by Xhenet Aliu. The novel is written from two perspectives – Elsie, a mom whose earlier dreams of a house with a picket fence are crushed by her Albanian boyfriend; and Luljeta, a daughter who wants answers and a college education.

The paths Elsie and her daughter take are interesting, criss-crossing without their knowledge. The blend of Albanian perspective on work ethics and family add flavor to the novel.

Keep in mind that this is a debut novel. The author has taken her first steps, and time will tell how she develops her writing talent.

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‘White Houses’

white housesAmy Bloom offers a different perspective on public life vs personal secrets in “White Houses.” The fictional account of a relationship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok may take some readers by surprise.

The novel is written from the perspective of Hickok, nicknamed Hick, as she tells of her time as the secret lover and confidante of an extremely protected, yet vulnerable wife of the president. There are few explicit sex scenes, and the reader is left with a candid, while fictionalized, look into the relationship from a personal, emotional point of view.

In the modern world of no-holds-barred social media and publicity frenzy, “White Houses” steps back into time when private lives could be led and enjoyed. Kudos to the author for taking a brave and about-time look at love from a different angle.

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‘Mr. Woodreeve’s Reflection’

mr woodreeveRobert Bluck has created an oasis within a forest in this complex story about family roots, love of the earth and the magic of Mother Nature.

Its English setting makes slow reading for those not familiar with English countrysides, but the spirit of the story pushes through. Who wouldn’t want to live a seemingly magical location surrounded by rivers, mountains, forests and gardens? After all, the fictional location is the creation of a writer deeply affected by nature, meditation and spiritualization.

Matthew the Woodreeve draws the Forster family into his magical world with mysterious rhymes, clues and teasers. What the family finds is more than they expected as they learn more about their new surroundings and the man who created their new home.

“Mr. Woodreeve’s Reflection” is a deeply personal look at the past, the present and how it’s interpreted.

ARC provided by NetGalley