ForeWord Reviews

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Other Lives, Other Voices

Debut Fiction

Each of these novels provides a glimpse into the lives of others so different that once you’ve started, it’s difficult to look away. And you won’t want to.

Roads not taken, wines untasted, countries not visited—do these gaps in our lives explain why we read fictional adventures, comings-of-age, romances? Is it that we want to know what we are missing? Or, reassurance that we are not so different as a species? Is it to distract from quotidian life, or is it merely a function of curiosity? Perhaps what we find when we read fiction are other versions of our selves.

This is why characters that are vivid can make almost any story come alive for the reader. Without authentic, original characters who grow, suffer, and, most of all, long for something more, something other, a story will not entertain. In these five new novels by first-time authors, the characters are brilliantly realized creatures who, above all things, desire. They want much: excitement, youth, sex, family, escape, or something they can’t identify.

These novels cover a broad spectrum of experience: from the reminiscences of a bright old woman to the ribald rompings of an international spy, to teen head cases and aging men worshiping art, to youths carving out life during war. Each of these novels offers a look at distinctive people. Their yearnings and struggles echo our own reasons for reaching for novels in the first place—our desire for something else, something more. To follow them through unexplored territories and richly imagined lives is an exercise in looking into a kind of mirror.

Parnucklian for Chocolate

Book Cover B. H. James
Red Hen Press
Softcover $16.95 (266pp)
978-1-59709-790-1

“Three weeks before his sixteenth birthday, Josiah was allowed to move back in with his mother, who had been impregnated with him during an alien abduction her freshman year of college.”

So begins Parnucklian for Chocolate, a pitch-black story about growing up in an alienating world as, well, an alien. Young Josiah’s mother is deeply disturbed, having taught him that his father lives on planet “Parnuckle.” Josiah has (no surprise) spent years with Child Protective Services. When he is released, the pitfalls of teenagerdom and the conniving, nymphette daughter of his mother’s fiancé await. We follow Josiah and his new family into a comical pit of madness that is increasingly terrifying as the stakes rise.

Josiah’s yearnings for love, home and father are even more poignant when set against his polluted notion of reality (he even believes his true mother is “the Goddess Cher”) and disrupted family life. One day he will have a family, he uses, and “live with them, all together … and none of them would ever have to leave that home.” Young adult and adult readers will enjoy this crazy, sad ride into alien adolescence.

Parnucklian for Chocolate is B. H. James’s first novel. James holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska and teaches high school in Northern California.

Being Esther: A Novel

Book Cover Miriam Karmel
Milkweed Editions
Hardcover $22.00 (187pp)
978-1-57131-096-5

Esther Lustig, anti-Golden Girl and heroine of Being Esther, is coping with senescence. Her children are dismissive. Her late husband haunts her. Her friends have died, deteriorated, or moved away. “She considers the infinite frustrations of living in an aging body.” Welcome to old age.

As she navigates her days, counting time, Esther longs for a life of deliberation, of adventure, of autonomy. “She wants to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose … She wants to be something other than the object of concerned looks and condescension.”

Yet Being Esther is no heavy novel. Esther’s quirky anguish is gently humorous, as when she conflates the ineffable with the mundane. In a flashback, when Esther’s mother refused to store a fur at young Esther’s home, the girl yearns, “Tell me you love me … Tell me my closets are good enough,” but says nothing. Indeed, throughout the story Esther confronts what was left unsaid in her life, examining memories and settling scores in a journey to reveal the woman inside—the real Esther.

Being Esther is journalist Miriam Karmel’s first novel. The author writes the story of Esther past and present with remarkable tenderness. Readers of any age will long for more Esther.

Whip Smart

Book Cover Kit Brennan
Astor and Blue Editions
Softcover $14.95 (258pp)
978-1-938231-47-6

Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards follows the emergence of nubile woman-of-mystery Lola Montez—a little-known historic figure who lived in nineteenth century England. Lola, née Eliza Rosana Gilbert, falls in love, engages in profitable rompings, and generally gallivants across Europe.

A sort of Flashman Papers for women, Whip Smart opens on the disgraced young Englishwoman casting around for career options: “But I must be something!” she tells a teacher. More than anything, Lola yearns for identity, escape from herself. Then, destiny knocks and Eliza is recruited to be a spy on the Spanish royalty.

Offering a sharp, tight plot that rarely stops surprising, this little novel rises above its category of “historical romance” by dint of masterful writing and a sympathetic, many layered cast. Our heroine comes alive through her observations and outlook. Of the lovemaking with an older patron, she says, “I enjoyed the honesty of his protruding tummy, like that of a two-year-old playing in his washtub.”

Kit Brennan’s first novel offers a rollicking good time that mature readers will appreciate for its candid attitudes toward females and sex—attitudes that any woman of substance might admire. The author is an accomplished and award-winning playwright and teacher of writing at Concordia University in Montreal. She is known for her play Tiger’s Heart.

The Center of the World

Book Cover Thomas Van Essen
Other Press
Softcover $15.95 (384pp)
978-1-59051-549-5

Imagine a painting so powerful it rekindles passions, revives the libido of a septuagenarian, captures the imagination of dispassionate art collectors, and cause a conspiracy to shroud its very existence. This is the topic of The Center of the World—a lost and much-desired J. M. W. Turner painting so erotic that all those who behold it are changed for life.

It begins in nineteenth century England. A writer visits with historic figure Lord Egremont, his mistress, and Turner himself. In modern times, a woman searches for the alleged painting for her art-dealer employer. Meanwhile Henry Leiden, family man, afflicted by ennui, finds it hidden in his shed. Henry becomes obsessed by the Turner, finding it changes his life and his marriage. He longs for the world and the sexiness it exudes. “No words of mine or even my memories are adequate to the thing itself … Every time I try to recall it, I am aware that my memory is a poor shadow.”

In alternating chapters we learn the story of the painting. Meanwhile, those searching for it are closing in. Mature readers will relish the intellectual examination into the powers of art and eroticism.

The Center of the World is Thomas Van Essen’s first novel. He holds a degree from Sarah Lawrence and a PhD in English from Rutgers University.

The Inbetween People

Book Cover Emma McEvoy
The Permanent Press
Hardcover $26.00 (176pp)
978-1-57962-311-1

The Inbetween People takes place in war-torn, Intifada-era Israel. Against this backdrop two young men, a Jewish pioneer and an Israeli Arab, become friends only to discover that the country’s past holds them in its thrall more than they knew.

When we meet Avi Goldberg, he is in military prison. His Arab friend is dead. It is through Avi’s writings, interspersed with letters from his father to his absent mother, that this novel of longing and sadness unfolds. The boys only wanted to live, to have homes and perhaps families, yet bombs detonate, bullets fly. War intrudes. Stymied by the weight of history, the curse of violence, Saleem and Avi find their lives are not entirely their own.

The writing is rich and nuanced. Even Saleem’s bearing is affected by the world in which they live: He “had a quiet way of moving, as if the world he walked in was very fragile, and everything he touched was brittle.”

Indeed, such sadness and a distinct sense of longing, the longing for normalcy, for home, and for peace, occupy first-time author Emma McEvoy’s devastating yet restrained prose. She now lives in West Cork with her husband and son and formerly lived on a kibbutz bordering Lebanon and Israel.


Leia Menlove received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and is currently embarking on an MFA in creative writing. Her work has also appeared in such publications as Joyland Magazine, Metromode Media, Concentrate, and others. She divides her time between New York City and New Orleans and is at work on a novel.