REVIEW: THE ASH FAMILY, BY MOLLY DEKTAR

 

When a young woman leaves her family—and the civilized world—to join an off-the-grid community headed by an enigmatic leader, she discovers that belonging comes with a deadly cost, in this lush and searing debut novel.

At nineteen, Berie encounters a seductive and mysterious man at a bus station near her home in North Carolina. Shut off from the people around her, she finds herself compelled by his promise of a new life. He ferries her into a place of order and chaos: the Ash Family farm. There, she joins an intentional community living off the fertile land of the mountains, bound together by high ideals and through relationships she can’t untangle. Berie—now renamed Harmony—renounces her old life and settles into her new one on the farm. She begins to make friends. And then they start to disappear.

 

My Thoughts: We meet Berie, the first person narrator of The Ash Family, as she veers off course, drawn in by a seductive man named Bay. Instead of flying off to college in Virginia, she leaves the airport and heads to a bus station where they meet. Together they journey to the farm community that promises to fulfill her need for something bigger than herself.

Berie apparently lacks something in her life that might be satisfied by such a community, and while I was almost sucked into its promise, I couldn’t understand what was missing in our protagonist that led her to such a community. We know little about her life up to this point, so her actions seem blindly unmotivated. If she had suffered abuse at home, or if she were fleeing something frightening, I could almost see why this young woman might be drawn in to its charms. Later we learn more about how sometimes not feeling anything at all can lead to wrong-footed choices.

The characters and the setting were beautifully described, and I could sense the appeal of Nature and a desire to preserve it in all its glory. Protecting the environment and the people in the family from the “fake world” could be a lure for someone like Beryl, now named Harmony.

It did not take long, however, to feel a sense of stultifying horror as nothing seemed to live up to that promise. A mix of cruelty and kindness, punishment and reward were the confusing elements that felt like a crazy-making scheme designed to hook in new family members. Searching for that sense of family and true purpose were powerful enough to blind new members to the underlying dangers…until it was too late.

In the end, we see hope come in unexpected forms, and the story leaves off just on the way to finding new possibilities. 4 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: GONE SO LONG, BY ANDRE DUBUS III

 

Daniel Ahearn lives a quiet, solitary existence in a seaside New England town. Forty years ago, following a shocking act of impulsive violence on his part, his daughter, Susan, was ripped from his arms by police. Now in her forties, Susan still suffers from the trauma of a night she doesn’t remember, as she struggles to feel settled, to love a man and create something that lasts. Lois, her maternal grandmother who raised her, tries to find peace in her antique shop in a quaint Florida town but cannot escape her own anger, bitterness, and fear.

Cathartic, affirming, and steeped in the empathy and precise observations of character for which Dubus is celebrated, Gone So Long explores how the wounds of the past afflict the people we become, and probes the limits of recovery and absolution.

 

My Thoughts: The story opens as Susan starts writing about her childhood experiences, and about some fleeting memories of her father’s visits to his parole officer. Throughout the book, her creative moments reveal much about her own life and trauma.

Alternating narrators for Gone So Long include Susan, her father Daniel, and her grandmother Lois.

All the narrators sweep back and forth in time, offering a slowly evolving tale of what has happened to each of them.

I especially enjoyed Susan’s voice, and while Danny/Daniel appealed to my sense of a character seeking redemption, it was hard to get past what he had done.

Lois, Susan’s grandmother, was somewhat unlikable, but I could also enjoy parts of her shared moments and admired how she had created a successful antique store. She seemed judgmental, but as the story moved along, we could see her trying to be more empathetic.

As we follow Daniel on his journey toward his daughter, and as we accept his flashbacks as his way of acknowledging his sins, we can finally hope that father and daughter will connect in some way. But there is also a hint of a combustible reunion that will turn everything on its head. I held my breath as the pages turned, wondering what the characters would do next, feeling their joy and sadness along with their regrets, and anticipating how their paths would eventually cross. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: PAPER GHOSTS, BY JULIA HEABERLIN

 

An obsessive young woman has been waiting half her life—since she was twelve years old—for this moment. She has planned. Researched. Trained. Imagined every scenario. Now she is almost certain the man who kidnapped and murdered her sister sits in the passenger seat beside her.

Carl Louis Feldman is a documentary photographer who may or may not have dementia—and may or may not be a serial killer. The young woman claims to be his long-lost daughter. He doesn’t believe her. He claims no memory of murdering girls across Texas, in a string of places where he shot eerie pictures. She doesn’t believe him.

Determined to find the truth, she lures him out of a halfway house and proposes a dangerous idea: a ten-day road trip, just the two of them, to examine cold cases linked to his haunting photographs.

 

My Thoughts: From the beginning of Paper Ghosts, I thought of Grace’s plan as a journey that would surely end badly.

Carl’s behavior, the way he talked, the sense that something was very creepy and off about him…these aspects of him hovered overhead all the way through this story.

I was fascinated by Grace’s bold plan and how she was constantly changing her identity and her look, trying to fly beneath the radar. If anyone had known about her plan, other than those who helped her create her various personas, they would certainly have advised against it.

Grace thought she was in control, but it didn’t take long to see how Carl manipulated and controlled so many things, specifically the “conditions” he kept laying down for her. As if his cooperation was something she could earn with the lists of things he wanted from her.

Could Grace find the answers she was seeking? Would she manage to stay safe and alive until the road trip had ended? And what if everything turned out in unexpected ways that she didn’t see coming? A fascinating study that lagged for me sometimes, but heightened to an intensity near the end that kept me turning pages. 4.5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.