The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gothic academia at its finest, this story of angsty teens in the 90s UK, moodily traipsing through the corridors of a decrepit mansion on a cliff by the sea, will scratch all your itches for an eerie and haunting tale. Inappropriate and taboo relationships take centerstage, stern nuns, invisible help, and plenty of mean girls are the supporting characters. Brains and beauties, the clash of the classes, all come together to tell a story of a mysterious disappearance and its consequences.
An advanced copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher. The opinions are my own.
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RELEASE DATE: FEB 23, 2021
GENRE: Collection / Speculative Fiction / Magical Realism / Literary
With Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, award-winning author Keith Rosson delves into notions of family, grief, identity, indebtedness, loss, and hope, with the surefooted merging of literary fiction and magical realism he’s explored in previous novels. In “Dunsmuir,” a newly sober husband buys a hearse to help his wife spread her sister’s ashes, while “The Lesser Horsemen” illustrates what happens when God instructs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to go on a team-building cruise as a way of boosting their frayed morale. In “Brad Benske and the Hand of Light,” an estranged husband seeks his wife’s whereabouts through a fortuneteller after she absconds with a cult, and in “High Tide,” a grieving man ruminates on his brother’s life as a monster terrorizes their coastal town. With grace, imagination, and a brazen gallows humor, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons merges the fantastic and the everyday, and includes a number of Rosson’s unpublished stories, as well as award-winning favorites.
Excerpt from “Brad Benske and the Hand of Light” by Keith Rosson
Splay-legged in my recliner, I’ve just returned from putting another note under Marcus’s door (In the next life your penis shall be multipronged, insectile, hot and bristling with pustules, gloriously prone to infection) when someone knocks on my door and I choke back a cry, startled. It’s midafternoon and my social life, never strident to begin with, has atrophied in recent months. Who could possibly be knocking? Reluctantly, I rise from my recliner and pull on my robe and, realizing at that moment that it might actually be Marcus, a Marcus angry about the insectile penis-note, and all the other notes, I open the door with a mad flourish, trying to be as intimidating as possible.
The day seems obscenely sunny, garishly so. I wince and blink. The man in the doorway is a stranger, and he takes a step back when he sees me. He’s wearing some kind of uniform—a blue shirt with a nametag and a pair of blue shorts. A little clipboard.
“Brad? Brad Benske?”
“Yes,” I say. It comes out tremulously; for a moment even I feel unsure. Is this who I am? And then, more confidently, “Yes.”
The man marks something off on his clipboard and flicks his thumb against one of his nostrils and says, “Brad, hey, what’s up. I’m with the water bureau.”
He says, “Water bureau. Your water?”
“You’re late with your payment.”
“Really late,” he says, and consults his clipboard. “Couple months late. As in, if you can’t pay it by the end of day today, we have to shut it off.”
He seems to see me for the first time then—the robe, the dishevelment, the haphazard leaning mess of the inside of the house that he can spy through the open doorway. I have a zit on my cheek that has over recent days gotten woefully infected and is now nearly the size of a ping-pong ball. Fifty-one years old and getting zits, if you can believe it. I need to drink more water, I think, and then have a moment of shock as I realize the water guy is right here in front of me. It’s like some kind of weak serendipity, some petulant magic.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I say.
The nametag above his pocket says Cameron, and he looks like a Cameron. A beefy young man with big calves and a certain dumb purity, someone who did keg stands in college and can differentiate between different types of vape oil. A man who wears a hemp bracelet and sleeps on a futon, I decide, a man who sniff-tests his socks. Cameron peers into the dank chamber of my little house and his nose wrinkles. I step out onto the porch and shut the door behind me.
“Oh man, my grandma got shingles,” Cameron says, pointing a blunt finger at my face. “She was only sixty-two. It messed her up.”
“This is just a zit.”
The world beyond my yard writhes with life; a little boy wheels by on his bike, leaves on the trees tremble and sway, and I can hear the bass-heavy thump of music strobing through the window of a passing car. The air is rich with the smell of cut grass. And everything trills a memory. Emma has been gone for nine months now. Nine months! I spend a moment hoping Marcus’s penis becomes riddled with pustules in this life, and draft an internal note saying such.
Cameron clears his throat.
“My checkbook’s inside,” I say. “How much is it?”
He gives me a number. It seems a reasonable enough amount if I haven’t paid in months—Emma handled the bills, and it’s yet another instance where I have lagged, where I am lost without her—but he sounds unhappy about it.
“It’s okay,” I say. “You’re just doing your job.”
“I mean, I’m in a band,” Cameron says. “I do community theater. You know? There’s more to me than just this.” He sweeps a hand along his outfit, his clipboard.
“Of course there is,” I say. I walk inside and eventually find my checkbook beside an old sandwich on the floor that’s furred in ants. I write the check and step outside and kind of shake the ants off and hand it to Cameron, and his blue eyes as he watches this are rife with something like pity. “I hope you feel better soon,” he says quietly, and it’s clear he’s not talking about my goiter.
• • •
Melinda says, “So you’re still leaving him notes.” She lights a menthol and blows the smoke up to the ceiling.
“No,” I say.
She laughs outright and flips me off. “Oh my God, you’re such a liar. Such a bad liar, too.”
“I left one today,” I confess. May maggots tumble from thy dong, it read, and then it had a little doodle of that, a little picture.
Melinda winces. “Honey, why his penis, though? Why talk about his penis?” She adjusts her headband.
“I don’t always.”
“Well, when you tell me about it, the notes are always penis-related.”
“I’m trying to keep it funny. Light. Less worrisome than actual threats.”
“Maggots from his dong, though? That sounds like an actual threat to me.”
“It’s medical,” I say.
It had seemed a simple message, one suffused with appropriate dread and then buoyed a little by the silly drawing. I wonder for a moment if I have in fact turned some corner, gone some further distance than I intended. One I won’t be able to come back from. Maybe I have crossed some line.
“You know it’s illegal, right?” says Melinda. “It’s gotta be harassment or something. Menacing. You better hope you don’t get caught.”
“I won’t get caught. Marcus is too enmeshed in his bullshit.”
“If he installs one of those cameras above his door. You’re done.”
“Look,” I say, “can you just give me a reading? Please?”
Melinda, when she’s working, goes by Madame Ouellette. She has a palm reading and tarot practice out on the jagged stretch of 82nd Avenue, in a weird mobile home kind of thing that rests in an otherwise empty parking lot. She’s decked the place out in tapestries and unicorn sculptures and salt candles and incense; the atmosphere goes a fair way toward canceling out the brazen drug deals out front, the endless traffic, the shirtless guy screaming about aliens in his teeth at the Wendy’s across the street. Melinda and I slept together once in college, badly, and have ever since been continually thankful of the friendship that has sprung from it. Our shared history buoys us. Emma, at best, had tolerated Melinda during our marriage. Felt threatened by her. Which always surprised me, as she seemed otherwise so sure of everything. “Why can’t you just scratch your balls and yell about football with some guy from work? Drink beer and talk about cars?” she’d say, a rare instance where I saw the underpinnings of her insecurity. Melinda gives me readings for free now, and I ask her where Emma is, where they’ve sent her. If she’s happy, if she’s safe where she is. This, and bothering Marcus are as close to penance and relief as I get. Madam Ouellette offers me her visions and I imagine that they’re true. Half the time it seems like Melinda’s just trying to come up with the most outlandish shit she can, and I’m grateful for it. It almost assuredly beats the true narrative.
She makes me a cup of tea as we chat some more. I drink the tea and tell Melinda the story about our wedding day and how Emma had spilled a cup of coffee down the front of her dress, the same dress her mother had worn to her wedding, and had had to wear a last minute back-up dress that showed way more cleavage then she intended. It is a well-worn story; Melinda has heard it a million times. Hell, she was at our wedding, watched the entire event take place. But it’s part of the process of the reading, Melinda says. And when I’m done with the tea, she has me upend the cup on a plastic slip mat and we talk for a moment about my hopes with this, what it is I want to get from this. I say something, some bland proclamation. I want to feel close to her, I think. I want to believe that what you’re saying is really her life. We’ve done this perhaps a dozen times since Emma left me to join the Hand of Light. This is one of the only things I do anymore.
Melinda really gets into character, adjusting her jeweled headband, her hands taking on these exaggerated movements as she tries to withdraw the “intentionality” from the leaves. Tea has started to bead out from beneath the rim of the cup. Eventually she lifts it and frowns at the chiaroscuro of dark leaves on the plastic mat.
She talks, fully Madam Ouellette now. Her voice is clipped, more precise, colder.
She tells me that Emma is in a carwash in Biloxi, Mississippi.
“She’s working in a carwash? In Mississippi?”
“No, no. She’s in a carwash. In a car. Someone’s yelling about atonement. Maybe it’s the radio. There’s a baby in the backseat, but it’s not hers. The sudsy cleaning things slap against the window. It’s a kind of transformation for her.”
“You’re so full of shit,” I say, grinning. I can’t help myself. I’m almost happy.
“She got a haircut. She’s wearing sunglasses in the carwash. It’s dark.”
“Oh, yeah? Did they shave her head? Is she wearing a potato sack, Melinda? Are there snacks?” Part of me relishes these fantasies she makes up. I simultaneously wish they were true and only feel safe when I’m mocking them. I’ve had a private investigator on the payroll since she’s been gone, but he’s come up with nothing. He talks to me like I’m an aggrieved husband, speaks respectfully, and part of me hates the guy for it.
Of the two people in the world who know what an utter fuckup I am, one has absconded with the Hand of Light, and the other one’s looking at me right now, waving her palm over a bunch of wet tea leaves, offering at least some minute solace.
At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The summer of love is long gone but some people hope to prolong the “glory days”, some are searching for something, some are hiding, and some are just hoping to make it another day. This honest look at life on the streets details the daily routines of seeking shelter, food, money, and purpose. Follow Maddy while she navigates Golden Gate Park, investigating a crime that just won’t let her alone, and battles a past that simultaneously haunts her and keeps her going when times are tough.
Reading this elicited feelings of frustration regarding the state of things; the lack of help and the unwillingness to receive help when offered. The general attitudes of law enforcement and people towards homeless, and the attitudes of the homeless towards law enforcement and other people. Spotlighting the many issues that those who do not have permanent housing face while not glossing over the many reasons why.
I am thankful for the honest perspective I received by reading this book.
Thanks to @algonquinbooks and @kr.seligman for a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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