One About the Brooklyn Mom Who Embezzles

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

By Emily Culliton

Few people really enjoy living in obscurity. This doesn’t mean that they desire citywide, nationwide, or worldwide visibility. It simply means they would like to be recognized for something, to standout in some way, even if that means being a little bad. And they certainly want their family and friends to see them, perhaps not to praise them but to at least acknowledge they contribute to the general weal. In many ways, Emily Culliton’s Brooklyn mom fits the bill, wallpaper in a family of four, well off but just not well enough, an uneducated misfit in an upper middle class of smarties, a misfit filled with cunning that feeds off a weak or missing moral core. She’s not likable but she’s enjoyable to watch. And that goes for the circle surrounding her: self -absorbed husband Nathan, rebellious daughter Ginny, lonely struggling daughter Jane, worried and infuriated fellow school workers and volunteers.

The plot is simple enough. Marion, married to once promising poet Nathan Palm, realizes that his small family inheritance is smaller than she thought when she married him. After spending sprees, children, and expensive private school education for the children, she decides to take advantage of her part time job as sort of comptroller at her daughters’ school and embezzle funds. She has a background, is skillful, and possesses an interest in the criminal practice and women who resort to it. She ups and leaves her family without even a goodbye after she gets wind the schools suspects her. But while good at stealing, she’s not quite as accomplished at navigating herself out of Brooklyn. So, she hides in plain sight and becomes, of all things, a cleaning woman to rich Russians visiting their apartment in Manhattan.

Left in the lurch, her family has to learn to adapt, which also means communicating with each other and coping with thoughts of why she left them. They don’t know about her extracurriculars. Prepare for loads of angst, for some growth, and some psychological scarring. Her other family, the school board and coworkers, collectively lose their minds.

The story offers up some plot twists, including a decidedly unrealistic and comical one at the end. Culliton tells it with present-tense, declarative sentences, often with character thought bubbles that are non sequiturs revealing aspects of their feelings and preoccupations and provide comedy. It’s an interesting style, but makes for a choppy journey. And, honestly, many will wonder where all this comedy reviewers cite is hiding. All in all, a good debut but not quite as stunning as reviews might lead you to conclude. w/c

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Woman at the Crossroads

Chemistry

By Weike Wang

Weike Wang’s anonymous character in her debut novel finds herself at a crossroads, three crossroads, if you’re counting.

The first concerns her pursuit of a Ph.D in Chemistry. All her life, at the beckoning of her driven and goal focused Chinese parents, both immigrants, she has been educated and pushed rather blatantly into a life in the sciences. Her mother was a pharmacist back in China. She had supported her husband in his pursuit of a Ph.D. When they emigrated to the U.S., the mother was left without her independence, and her relationship with her husband became strained. She made his success possible, and he seems unable to acknowledge this. However, they agree wholeheartedly on a shared objective for their daughter, the narrator: a Ph.D in Chemistry. The daughter follows their wishes, though unhappy, it seems, with every step of the journey, from child to adult. She reaches a crossroads when she realizes she doesn’t possess the essential element of success: she’s not an original thinker, she’s simply an extremely accomplished technician, not enough to make the jump to Ph.D status. She decides in frustration to abandon her quest four years into her doctoral program. But she can’t being herself to tell her parents.

Also, she has a boyfriend, also a chemistry Ph.D student. Unlike her, he is driven by his own confidence and desire to obtain his degree, which he does. They share a very quirky relationship and readers can see that they really care for each other. On the verge of achieving his degree, he asks her to marry him, the opening of the novel, yet another crossroads in her life. Her response is to put off answering, to push it into the distance so often that he finally departs without her to pursue his dream of teaching in a small college. They leave the door open.

These two relationships and her academic endeavor place stressful demands on her. Please her parents. Fulfill a commitment to her parents. Make a commitment to her boyfriend. She eventually takes up tutoring, which brings her satisfaction. She commiserates with her friend, who is a doctor. She enters therapy. And she and her boyfriend get a dog. It’s with the dog that she has a most interesting and rewarding relationship, because the dog places no demands on her. She’s not forced to make any decisions by the dog, and she’s able to slow down life to wax philosophical on what she herself might want for herself.

In little more than two hundred pages, in short sentences and slim paragraphs, with scientific principles interspersed impelling thoughts about her life, her parents’ lives, her relationship with the boyfriend, her contrasting of her upbringing (difficult) with the boyfriend’s (idyllic), she tries to wrangle her indecisiveness into a decision, and reaches something resembling one in the end.

For many who have been where the author finds herself, this novel will ring with much truth. For everybody else, they’ll find lots of insight, perhaps into their friends with loads of ability but little direction, as well a delightful and charming humor. w/c

The Dangerous Life of an Art History Major

Unbecoming

By Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca Scherm has written an intricately plotted thriller that compels readers forward with curiosity about how Grace ended up exiling herself to Paris, and how she transformed herself from a Tennessee girl who wanted to please the boy and his family that she loved into a young woman who betrayed them as she turned into a pretty good, though neurotic, art thief, specifically of jewelry. It’s as much plot-driven as it is a very good psychological character study (with interesting insight into jewelry and the counterfeiting of it), both admirably accomplished and polished for a first novel.

Grace and Riley grow up together in the small town of Garland, where his family has some prominence and her family leaves her wanting. In her young teen life, she sets herself to beguiling Riley into loving her as much as she loves him and all that comes with him. She’s so successful that she even gets her own room in his house, where she is treated nearly as a daughter, particularly by his mother. More, Riley falls deeply and inseparably in love with her, seemingly what she wants.

Riley fashions himself into a painter, but of limited horizons, satisfied to chronicle the buildings of Garland, not as commentary on small-town life, but purely representational. An art student herself, his ambitions, or lack of them, disappoint Grace. While her romantic attraction to him remains solid, her passion strays.

Riley has two best buddies, Alls and Greg. Eventually, Riley, the buds, and Grace room together in a shared house. Student poor, with Riley and Grace conversant in art, and an old, artifact-filled estate, the Wynne House, practically next door, they hatch a plot to rob the place. Grace subtly takes over as the ringleader, based on the knowledge she picked up while employed in New York City, and from this springs the ever-growing tentacles of duplicity that reach to Prague and Paris.

Paris is where we find Grace at the opening of the novel, working in a jewelry restoration shop, using the name Julie. Naturally, in a world with a foundation of lies and deception, the shop is more a den of thieves. Grace, as Julie, has fled there after romantic and robbery fiascos in Garland, and an even harsher incident in Prague, seeking distance and anonymity for fear the boys will find her after they finish their prison terms. How all this transpired, how Grace changed from a girl who wanted love to a femme-fatale nervous all the time, and how she forges a life of crime, well, that’s the fun of the novel. w/c

Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c

When a Novel Fails …

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Sometimes—maybe for you, too often—a novel comes highly recommended with descriptors such as “beautiful debut,” “scorching vision,” “imagining a terrifying future,” and similar. Then you buy it and wonder what the reviewers were talking about, what did you miss, perhaps you are a dunce? No, probably you rely more than you should on reviewers opinions, says us who review books regularly. Case in point: a 2015 debut by short story writer Claire Vaye Watkins, a literary novel with a dystopian disposition. Why do we think it fails?

Well, for starters, let the title be a warning to literary fiction fans who like their writers to make a dollop of sense and to dystopian novel fans who cherish sharp conflict and galvanic plotting: if the title makes little sense, don’t expect the avalanche of words following to clarify things.

Doubtless, Watkins can write evocative descriptions. Unfortunately, in her novel, these become the centerpiece of the entire literary venture. The plot boils down to no more than wandering aimlessly in a desert (yes, it worked in the Bible, but not here), the desert an unwanted gift of from humankind’s reckless disregard of natural resources. Her characters, the wanders, mull much over, but instead of intriguing you and stimulating your own thoughts, they commit a cardinal sin of literature, for which, you will feel them justly condemned to the desert: they bore you to distraction.

And this is a shame, for there lurks within these pages a potentially interesting novel. Less time getting out of L.A., less time baking under the sun, less time waxing on and on about what things look and feel like, more time expanding upon the chaos caused by the drought, perhaps expansion of the mining section and a rant on authoritarianism, a more coherent crystallization of the mad prophet of the desert, and the addition of more consciousness to the desert, an anthropomorphism often hinted at but never realized, perhaps these might have made this a better novel, or at least a more enjoyable one.

As this draft stands, a peek at potential, but a disappointment as published. But, hey, who are we. See for yourself, if you have a library nearby. w/c

The Alphabet Kills the Author

Dead Letters

By Caite Dolan-Leach

At the outset of this puzzling journey of Ava Antipova to determine if her identical twin sister Zelda is really dead, victim of a murder or suicide, or running an elaborate gaslight to torment Ava and slip out from under a mountain of debt, debut author Caite Dolan-Leach provides insight into why she chose the alphabet as the structure of her novel. Seems Ava has been away, escaping the grasp of her dysfunctional family in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York to study, among other things, the OuLiPo movement in Paris. Simply, OuLiPo is a method of writing that places constraints upon the writer. These might be as challenging as writing a piece without, say, using a letter or series of letters (a lipogram). Or, as with this novel, writing a twenty-four chapter novel, starting each chapter with a letter of the alphabet, and having each chapter contain a clue. While a clever way to write a mystery novel, it can, and in this case does, force the author to come with a long series of clues from the supposedly dead Zelda that can leave readers sighing in exasperation. Perhaps if the payoff at the end had been a dramatic twist, persevering would have been worth it.

So, the story goes, Ava returns from Paris when she learns of her twin’s death in a barn fire on the property of their family’s winery. This event forces Ava to return to a family she has always wanted to escape from, particularly after her sister beds her boyfriend Wyatt Darling (yes, unbearably cute), who comes across as milquetoast left too long in warm milk. Ava again has to face this, as well as a father who walked out on the family, a mother in the last throes of deadly dementia, a tragic family history, a history of alcoholism and drug use, and a mediocre winery now weighted down with debt, stumbling like a drunk to its demise. Can’t blame her for putting an ocean between herself and constant aggravation.

Each of Zelda’s clues brings back memories and in dribs and drabs fill readers in on the dark family doings (here think another twin’s death, matricide, irresponsibility, and the like). Then there’s the currency of the clues giving the idea that Zelda’s watching and cackling over the helter-skelter of Ava, and readers, trying to figure out if Zelda is alive or truly dead. In short, it all gets to be just too much.

While an interesting effort, it’s not a particularly satisfying one. And if you need the alphabet prominent in your mystery, well, you might want to give Sue Grafton a look. She’s closing in Z, you know. w/c

What is Utopia?

All Our Wrong Todays

By Elan Mastai

Elan Mastai has conjured up something exciting and fun, a mashup of alternative history, time travel, and dystopian genres, with a healthy dose of romance mixed in. Though he does run off the rails—or maybe falls out of the time slip—a couple of times, readers will find the story, told in first person in 137 micro chapters, generally races along, with small cliffhangers interspersed to goose you along. If you’re looking for something different, you’ll find it in All Our Wrong Todays.

Tom Barren lives in the world of 2016, but it is not our 2016. It’s the 2016 we dream of, that our sci-fi writers for decades have imagined, a sleek world without want, with every need catered to, with an ecologically healthy planet, and with cities of swirling curves and technology dreamed of and captured on film from the days of the opening scenes of Metropolis. However, Tom is something of a failure, a botcher of most things, a young man of thirty-two with a difficult relationship with his brilliant physicist father, who lost his mother years before in a tragic accident (they still occur in the near perfect future, because, as Tom points out several times, every invention comes with an accident built in).

The Goettreider Engine, first turned on by Lionel Goettreider on July 11, 1965, has made Tom’s utopian world possible. As you might expect, the world honors and worships the memory of Goettreider. Tom’s father, Victor, wants to do more; he wants to make visiting the very moment that changed the world forever the introduction of his new invention, a time machine, for maximum impact, visiting on the fiftieth anniversary date. Since Tom can’t do much of anything on his own, Victor puts him on the backup team of chrononauts shadowing a picture of perfection named Penny Weschler. Oh well, in every plan, no matter how brilliant and meticulously conceived, potential disaster lurks. So it is here, when Tom makes two mistakes and propels himself to the fateful day, and back again to the world we know as 2016. In this world, he finds the meaning of his life, his true self, and something he never had, true and abiding love.

Elan presents the story as Tom’s own account of how we ended up with the world we have, but different, too, because after saving the world, and as he likes to say, reality, Tom and his family gives us something we hope for but have no certainty of gaining: a bright future approaching the utopia he once lived in. w/c