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The Mother Garden 

By Robin Romm (Simon & Schuster, $22)

The majority of Robin Romm's debut collection is concerned with two things: dying mothers and literary quirkiness. The Berkeley-based author seems to be, in the accusing words of one of her characters, "a little bit attracted to the spectacle of decline." Bizarre little turns — a garden planted with human mothers, ghosts, sinister goldfish, a date with Satan — crop up again and again, almost like the author's apologies for repeatedly playing, in the words of another character here, "the dead mom card." There are only so many cancer-stricken mothers a reader can handle meeting in a 12-story collection; though these stories are sturdy, laced with black humor and surreal glimmers, the repetition wears away their magic and their agony. An awful loss anchors each of the stories — in addition to the several moribund moms, there are disappeared fathers, lost loves, and dead children — but Romm seems to be flipping a coin when she wants to be shuffling a deck: There just isn't enough variety to keep a reader from becoming inured to what ought to be a series of tragic and enchanting stories. —Frances Reade


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