‘The Immortalists’

immortalists_1This is one of the most unexpected, yet refreshing novels of the year. Kudos to Chloe Benjamin!

A brief encounter with a fortune teller sets the life paths for four siblings with each interpreting the teller’s message in different ways. If you were told the exact date of your death, how would you react? The back and forth between the path and present, sibling to sibling, lays out a life line for a family that has more than its share of lows. The highs, however, are extraordinary, yet short-lived.

The youngest brother, Simon, lives life on the edge, but his sister Klara literally lives by a thread. The older siblings, Daniel and Varya, re more reserved, but they, too, cannot escape the past prediction and move on to a solid future. The stories of two brother and two sisters are simply fascinating!

Like the title suggests, the characters aren’t easy to ignore, escape or forget.

ARC provided by Net Galley

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‘A Good Girl’

a good girlA diagram of a family tree precedes the first chapter in “A Good Girl,” the second novel by Johnnie Bernhard, who calls the Mississippi Gulf Coast home. While the novel starts out with the protagonist driving from the Magnolia State to Texas along I-10, this gifted author’s work takes readers across states and through time to follow a tangle tree of family, faith and enlightenment.

In 2015, Gracey Reiter, 52, is following the coastal interstate, “the umbilical cord leading her home,” to visit her dying father, Henry Mueller, in Loti, Texas. It’s a nine-hour drive, but Gracey, known in her family as “a good girl,” the peacemaker, feels it’s her responsibility emotionally and physically to care for the cantankerous man.

“I’m lost,” reads the first line in the novel.

Gracey has mixed feelings about her family. Dad, “the last surviving patriarch of a chaotic gene pool,” was a mean drunk, and Mom was unfaithful. Gracey’s older brother Tom and younger sister Angela have their own recollections of a dysfunctional family past, so there’s no love lost or fond memories found among the siblings.

“Henry Mueller was the last of the Mohicans; the last surviving member of a tribe who lived hard, worked hard, and loved in vain,” Bernhard writes. “Their lives were do or die contests, living paycheck to paycheck until they dropped dead.”

After her dad’s funeral, Gracey finds a family Bible with a family tree drawn by her great-great-grandmother. As she learns more about the six generations of her Irish-German family, Gracey finds both sadness and happiness in their stories. As she explores the chaotic gene pool of the Walsh-Mueller family, she finds that people are products of their time, but that their destinies are sealed by personal actions.

Her family story begins in Ireland, travels across oceans to south Texas in 1847 and then back again in present time. As her daughter prepares to marry an Irishman and move to Ireland, Gracey must learn to accept that “family” lives on through blood ties and dreams. A trip to Ireland for the wedding festivities puts the past into a new prospective rich with tradition and kinship.

Vignettes about various family members and snippets of historical events present a multigenerational tale of women and men who did what was necessary, good or bad, to survive. Two lonely young Irish girls forced to find their way in a faraway country called America. Starvation. A man who loved his family, but can’t overthrow the hold of liquor. Theft and lying. A grandmother who takes on caring duties when a lonely mother skips town for an affair.

Bernhard’s novel tugs at the heart. She has crafted a story that survives through tough characters and grueling circumstances. Readers will finds parts of themselves in the tale of extended Walsh-Mueller family. How many of us have similar branches in the family tree? We may think we know about those who went before us, but secrets usually only darken with time while successes grow dim.

“A Good Girl” is a finalist in the 2017 Kindle Book Awards and a nominee for the 2018 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. It has been a featured novel at several book festivals, including statewide events in Mississippi and Louisiana.

‘The Specter of Seduction’

specterRaissa James and Reginald Proctor take on a spirit of a different sort in “The Specter of Seduction,” the third novel in the “Pluto’s Snitch” series by Carolyn Haines. The author and her wicked imagination again take readers back in time through carefully detailed research and descriptive dialogue.

The historic fiction series focuses on an unlikely pair who have found they have a knack for helping those plagued by unwanted entities whether they be living or dead. In their latest adventure, Raissa and Reginald, partners in the Pluto’s Snitch detective agency, have been asked to investigate a young girl’s invisible playmate named Polly. However, all is not quite what it appears to be at Waverley House, a once prospering plantation in northeast Mississippi.

At times, Amanda, the daughter of Royal and Ann Sheridan, acts much older than her 8 years. The mansion and grounds under renovation are isolated from the nearby town, but the area is known as a hot spot for college-age lovers. It’s rumored that young women became aggressively amorous, so couples are willing to risk the wrath of the shotgun-toting property owner. When a man is found dead in the woods, Royal Sheridan is arrested for the murder based on the eye witness account of a mysterious young woman.

Raissa and Reginald soon discover that sexual appetites aren’t just for the young. They encounter the spirit of Nora Bailey, a woman hanged for spying against the Confederacy. The mysteries at Waverley don’t stop with her, though. Raissa, who is “sensitive” to spirits, encounters an evil spirit who wants to take over her body. It’s up to those close to Raissa to try and save her body and soul.

While the Pluto Snitch novels are Haines’ lastest series, ghost stories aren’t new for this prolific writer. The Alabama transplant with Mississippi roots is well known for her “Bones” books and Sara Booth Delaney, the “Fear Familiar: series, and other writings under the pen name of R.B Chesterton. No matter which one of Haines’ books grabs their attention, readers can be sure that the female protagonists are strong, determined and “live” in the moment, whether past or present.

‘If the Creek Don’t Rise’

if creekThis debut novel has everything a reader wants: well-detailed characters, interesting settings, unexpected plot twists.

Leah Weiss has created characters that touch emotions, whether it’s Sadie Blue and her wife-beating husband, her cantankerous grandmother or the unexpected strength of a new, yet older school teacher. All the characters come together in the rural and mystery-laden Appalachian backwoods to fuel a novel that’s rich, honest and gritty.

Everyone in Baines Creek knows Sadie isn’t safe, but few have the physical or emotional strength to protect her. Life isn’t easy in their community. Those who can live, and the ones left behind – well, they get by the best they can.

All that changes when the preacher brings a new teacher to town. Kate Shaw is older than expected, and she comes with her own emotional baggage. She’s determined to make a place for herself in Baines Creek and to lend a hand to those who seem unable to help themselves.

Readers will find themselves wanting to know more about the characters, and Weiss feeds that hunger with well-developed back stories. The characters literally jump off the pages as they try to come to grips with how the past (superstitions) and the present (knowledge) work together to create a stronger community.

For this reader, the Creek does rise – all the way to top of my favorites list for 2017.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘Manhattan Beach’

manhattan beachI wasn’t sure I would enjoy this novel since the time period is not one of much interest to me. Boy, was I wrong!

“Manhattan Beach” is so much more than a story set during the 1940s. Author Jennifer Egan has created a story that draws readers and holds their attention long after the last page is read. Thanks to the author’s detail character building, this novel is not only historical fiction, but it’s a tale of love, redemption, bravery and personal strengths and weaknesses.

The heroine is fascinating, standing out not only for her quest to become a diver in a man’s world, but for her strength to build her own life. The two men most important to her are different in their own ways, but similar in their fight to escape their past.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘Edgar and Lucy’

edgarVictor Lodato is a master of literature!

Who would have thought to make an 8-year-old albino boy the protagonist in a rich story about loss, forgiveness and personal growth? In “Edgar and Lucy,” it works as does the not-so-motherly role of Lucy who lives in the shadow of her husband’s death and the belittlement by her Italian mother-in-law Florence.

Edgar’s world is divided into two, before and after his doting grandmother dies. Without her protection, he’s alone both spiritually and physically. Despite their shortcoming, he and his mom are trying to cope, just not on the same page or wavelength. Lucy mourns for her late husband in her own way, while Edgar is left to look for signs of his deceased grandma.

Kindness, or what Edgar takes to be such, comes in the form of a man in a truck and a hidden mountain cabin. A prisoner, yet not a prisoner, Edgar learns that people and dreams don’t always look the same when brought into the daylight. Bad choices can come from good intentions, and the past can bring down the present – if you let it.

“Edgar and Lucy” touches on so many emotions and reaches so many depths that it becomes difficult to put into words. I cried. I laughed. I cussed. I was drained, yet I wanted more.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘In the Shadow of Alabama’

alabamaJudy Reene Singer has moved to the top of my “favorite authors” list with this novel. She has created characters that are deeply flawed, but each has hidden – and redeemable – values. Some of are difficult to like, but as Singer points out, you have to walk in an soldier’s boots before you know what war times have taken him.

Rachel Fleischer didn’t want to be there when her dad died. There was no love lost between. When a mysterious gentleman, an elderly black man who served in the military with her father, offers to tell her more about her dad, she reluctantly agrees.

What she discovers is that time changes a person – for better or worse. And that what you see may not even be the tiniest glimpse into a person’s past and how it shapes the present.

ARC provided by NetGalley