Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe

What wild wretched excess this book is.  A creative furor.  You know how we’re often told that it’s not wise to do something or other just because we can, that some things are better left undone?  Well, Trent Dalton can and does.  He not only pulls out all the stops, he pulls it off, and it is wonderful – over the top, packed to the brim, a real gusher of a read.  We meet Eli Bell at the age of twelve, an old soul with a lucky freckle on his right forefinger.  He is younger brother to Augustus, who is mute by choice and otherworldly.  When too young to remember, both boys were nearly drowned by their biological father and now live with their Mum and boyfriend Lyle, small time drug dealers and users.  Their babysitter is Slim Halliday, a notorious prison escapee, who may or may not have murdered a taxi driver with a hammer, and something of a philosopher.  You tend to get that way when, like Slim, you’ve been through some stuff.  But it’s not all bad ‘cause the boys love and are loved by Mum, Lyle and Slim.

Don’t you know, though, original sin will get you every time.  Lyle gets ambitious and runs afoul of some seriously ugly evil in the drug trade:  “Back Off” Bich Dang, Vietnamese entrepreneur, pillar of the community, supplier to Lyle and a wicked, wicked woman; the wonderfully named Tytus Broz, manufacturer of prosthetic limbs, also pillar of the community, filthy rich drug kingpin and truly heartless bastard; and Iwan Kroll, unlikely llama farmer, cadaverous, shivery, sadistically cruel, and Tytus Broz’s hitman.  Sub-plots, mysterious depths and reflections, secondary twists, back stories, side roads and diversions in abundance, lyrical, silly and gory; but, good gravy, it all works, so let’s not analyze it.  Set in Australia by an Australian.  Some of the best writers on the planet.  Nature or nurture?

Boy Swallows Universe is in bookstores now.  Shop your local indie bookstore for it.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Wild Boy: A Memoir

Italian writer Paolo Cognetti grew up in the city, but until the age of twenty, spent summers in the Italian Alps, free to roam, a wild boy.  At thirty, Paolo suffers a rough patch and cannot write.  So he reads.  Thoreau’s Walden, Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, and Elisee Reclus, The History of a Mountain, and he decides to return to the Alps hoping to live an essential life and to find that wild boy again.  Renting a refurbished cabin at 6,000 feet above sea level, he spends three seasons there, “…where the last conifer trees gave way to summer pastures.”  Not dangerously isolated as was Chris McCandless of Krakauer’s book, Paolo has a couple neighbors across the way; there are summer cowherds who come and go; and he even gains a dog that didn’t make the cut as a herding dog.  While this book is neither as gripping and gritty as Into The Wild nor as introspective and philosophical as Walden, Cognetti is an excellent writer, and this is a beautiful book.  Did he find what he was looking for?  Did he even know what he was seeking after all?  Do any of us?  Get away for a while with Mr. Cognetti, and find something for yourself in his breathtaking Alps.

Currently scheduled to hit bookstores on July 2, 2019. The Wild Boy can be pre-ordered here from your local indie bookseller or click here to order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Young-ha Kim’s Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories

A shameful confession.  After several weightier works, I was in the mood for something more, well, let’s just say it – lurid!  From this title, wouldn’t you say I’d found it?  Ah, but it’s a translation from Korean so maybe not.  And, no, it’s not.  Not really, although the first of the four highly original pieces included here is, actually, the diary of a “retired” murderer who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.  That may sound gimmicky or comic, but again, no.  Believe me.  It is chilling – for the protagonist and for the reader.  In “Missing Child”, a kidnapped boy is returned to his parents after ten years, but he is just as lost to them as before and they to him.  The common theme across these short works of fiction is, I think, reality versus perception, the intermingling of the two, and the coloring of our expectations.  Lastly “The Writer”, a man once hospitalized, convinced that he is “a cob of corn”.  He’s released, but returns in terror, explaining to his doctor that he knows he’s not a cob of corn, but the chickens don’t.  He does move on and into tangled relationships and a complex murder plot….before the chickens come back.  Again, this is not for giggles.  My first experience with this author, and I believe he is a different kettle of fish.  Provocative work.

Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories drops from Mariner Books on April 16. Click here to order/preorder from your local indie bookstore or from Amazon.  Support local if you can, but let your conscience be your guide.

Full Disclosure:  An advance copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / Mariner Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin

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Written and set in Germany just after the end of WWII and the fall of the Nazi regime, this novel is not a pleasant read.  An ambitious country and a proud people drank the Kool-Aid for twelve years, and now lie in ruin.  The German people are almost universally held in contempt; any Berlin building with windows intact is a miracle; conquering armies (Russia, in this instance) are feared.  Conflicts arise between those who supported Hitler and those who did not, and even some of the latter are beginning to view his regime as a time of plenty and, perhaps, to wish for its return.  Understandably in distress, characters show their baser sides, and most are quite dislikeable.

Though this novel is widely considered autobiographical, Hans Fallada (pen name of author Rudolf Ditzen) denied this.  However, his central actor, Dr. Doll, is a German author of note, and most of his story here does seem to parallel that of Fallada, who has been compared to Mann and Hesse.   As Germany struggles with the aftermath of all-out war, Dr. Doll struggles with financial ruin, addiction, frequent hospitalizations, a difficult, much younger wife (also an addict) and the contempt of his neighbors, and, even though Dr. Doll has hopeful moments, you somehow know that he is not convinced.

Yes, this resurrected novel is dark, dark and challenging, but it is important for its contemporaneous look at Germany after the war, for its probing insight into human honesty and deceit, and for the artistry of the work.  Fallada/Ditzen wrote only one more work, Alone in Berlin, before he died in 1947, but Dr. Doll and a fallen Berlin will return to you time after time.

Click here to order Nightmare in Berlin from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribe US via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher and Edelweiss+ for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Lu Yao’s Life

What an opportunity we readers have here.  Chinese author Lu Yao had only two published works and died at the age of forty-two, but Life, this superb novella published in 1982 and still a bestseller in China, is now in English translation.  It’s the early Eighties, rural China begins a slow forever change, begins to turn away from the community and culture of eons; and we meet Gao Jialin, the educated son of peasants.  A sympathetic character, he’s lost his prestigious teaching job, lost face, and is in despair.  Lu Yao shares only a brief span of this young man’s life with the wrenching decisions he must make between the known past and the unknown future, a story that portends China’s path from rural to urban.

So very Chinese, yes, but absolutely stunning in its universality.  Human beings, past, present, and forever, have acted and will act as this young man does and as those around him do.  What is loss of face, but pride, hubris?  Do we choose generosity of spirit or cunning ambition?  Betrayal or trust?  What are we but “I want”?  Lu Yao’s quiet work could have played out on a stage in ancient Greece.  And one of the simplest, most beautiful opening paragraphs I’ve ever read begins “On the tenth day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar, the evening sky was…”

Available now at Amazon.com or shop your local indie bookstore

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by AmazonCrossing via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City

“All that’s left now is to listen.”  And “listen” you must to this beautifully poetic and original novel.  In and around the Estate (think the projects), it is hot summer, and London simmers.  A “soldier boy” is killed.  Protests block streets.  Skinheads.  Young  Muslim enforcers.   “Britain first.” The mosque burns.  Riots.  Okay, current, topical, in the news, right?  Important, too, and ugly, right?    Oh, certainly, but it is the language and the individual voices telling this story that make all the difference here, all the difference.

The young men here are black, Pakistani, Muslim, Irish; they are street and cynical; and they all speak the same language.   A rich, rich broth that is both slang and dialect, sometimes verging on patois, and it made my heart sing – again and again.   There is the lilting voice of a gentleman from the Caribbean islands remembering the violence of the Teddy boys against black immigrants.    A hard, single mom from Dublin is another with a reminder of religious-based violence in Ireland.   The human spirit, the will, is in the voice.  So, listen, please.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MCD x FSG Originals via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Wu Ming-Yi’s The Stolen Bicycle

What a glorious, magical, mystical novel!  About a stolen bicycle.  What?  Those words and it’s about a stolen bicycle?  Indeed.  Let’s start with bicycles.  You’ll find that’s a much deeper subject than you ever knew.  And Taiwan, a culture and territory almost totally unknown to me.  WWII in southeast Asia with elephants.  Can’t lose with elephants, now can you?  And more, but this book is far, far more than its oh, so interesting parts.  This is a magnificent swirling crystal of a book.  Look into it and lose yourself.  A modern masterpiece.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Text Publishing / Text UK via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher and the author for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.