Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady

I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde.  And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read.  A novel that ends before you want it to.  Are you with me?  I just wanted a dadblamed book!

So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done?  Well, here’s one.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.”  Let the unpacking begin.  The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon.  It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg.  Scandalous.  How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen.  Did such a tattoo ever exist?  Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld.  In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.

Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy.  To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he.  He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money.  Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen.  She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth.  Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian.  Hmmm.  Antecedents are so important, you know.  A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut.  As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s.  They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist.  The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help.  They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery.  However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished.  Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.

Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring.  And I was off to such a good start, too.  Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring.  Neither can Stephen and Gini.  Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”.  The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up.  And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  This, my darlings, is a book.

Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves.  Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel 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.

Tupelo Hassman’s gods with a little g

I was loving it.  I did love it.  I do love it, but there’s a but, and we’ll get to that later.  Snarkily self-protective high school student Helen Dedleder (hmm, her dad’s a postman) lives in Rosary, California.  Her mother is deceased, so it’s just Helen and her dad, but her dad is zombified with grief, so her Aunt Bev, a psychic, moves to Rosary and opens the Psychic Encounter Shoppe, henceforth referred to as the shoppe.  Now, Rosary, you see, is home to a giant belching refinery, lots and lots of churches and lots and lots of religious folks that Helen calls Thumpers.  The Thumpers pretty much control Rosary, and they are not happy to have a psychic shoppe in their town.  They’re even more unhappy with Aunt Bev’s second job in the back of the shoppe after hours.

Helen and her friends call themselves the Dickheads and they hang out after school at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage, drinking beer.  Thumpers aren’t happy with the Dickheads either, and the Dickheads aren’t happy with the Thumpers, so there you go.  Me, I was riding the crest – sexually-obsessed teenagers, quirky misfit angst, a rollicking good time.  Then, near the end, almost home-free with a standing ovation, Ms. Hassman throws in an ill-advised scene that gave me the vapors.  I won’t go into it, but I will say that no one is hurt, so there’s that.  It is, however, ugly, unnecessary, and unnecessarily ugly.  Now this particular scene might not bother you; it doesn’t have to.  And, when all is said and done, this is a meaningful book, a raucous riot of a book, but……..it did bother me.  So, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Farrar, Straus and Giroux will put this novel in your hands on August 13 as long as you shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 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.

Billy O’Callaghan’s My Coney Island Baby

On a bitterly cold, windy winter day, Michael and Caitlin meet at Coney Island.  It is deserted, shuttered, “…a place for the damned to drift, wait their turn at nothingness.”  They’ve been meeting here for twenty or so years, spending one afternoon a month (first Tuesdays) in a series of worn motel rooms, and this one particular winter afternoon frames the entirety of Billy O’Callaghan’s poignant novel.  This afternoon is no different from all those that came before, but they are growing older, and for all those years, at the end of all those first Tuesdays, Michael returns to Barb and Caitlin returns to Thomas.  Lives are lived, time passes.  We are bound, and the status quo is durable.  But what about endings?  Will there be a hiding place from endings?  Will we even recognize them when they come?

Mr. O’Callaghan is an Irishman with a prodigious gift, the gift of words, words that rasp, tumble, lilt, thunder and ravish.  At times, perhaps, a bit self-indulgent, but if you love the magic of words, this is pure pleasure all the same.  In spite of this bounty, I was not totally invested in Michael and Caitlin as a couple, in their relationship, the doggedness of it.  It just seems so unlikely.  Is “why” the central question, the one we’re meant to ask?  If so, then I’m asking it, but the answer is beyond me.

There are three books of short stories and one other novel, The Dead House, by this talented author, and, based on the richness he brings to the backstories of Michael and Caitlin in Coney Island Baby, I’m thinking short fiction may be his forte, but no matter.  He can write the lights out.

Out now so support your local independent bookseller by ordering here.

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.

Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food

This is quite a Bunny you’ve pulled out of your writer’s hat, Ms. Kirshenbaum.  Who is this Bunny?  I don’t want to pry, but maybe bits of you, maybe bits of someone you know, maybe bits of all of us?  She’s too unique, I think, to be everyone who’s ever been deeply, seriously depressed.  Bunny is a writer, married to sweet, conciliatory Albie; she’s a middle child, brutally honest, a “more or less” friend of some pretentiously intelligent folks, and she does not like party hats.  Oh, and she’s also deeply, seriously depressed.  Deep enough to affect Bunny’s hygiene.  Serious enough to cause self-harm in a weird and public way.

Rabbits for Food?  Bunny and this book of Bunny will devour you, and it will spit you out undigested and wondering, maybe for the rest of your life.  From an opening line you cannot walk away from to the enigma of the end.  An end that you know is a sure and certain truth, but, even so and in spite of, you can only hope is true…….and you must wonder what if it is not.  Maybe for the rest of your life.  Ms. Kirshenbaum, I salute you.

Available now from booksellers everywhere so hop on out for your copy or click to shop your local indie bookstore.

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

Tope Folarin’s A Particular Kind of Black Man

No one fits precisely into a cubby marked this, that or the other.  No one.  So why do we, much like hermit crabs, try to squeeze into one shell after another to see which one fits, to find the one in which we feel at home?  We all do it, but for young Tunde Akinola there are so many shells, so many identities to try and nothing feels like home.  In this coming of age novel, Tunde grows to be a “particular kind of black man”, a first generation African-American, born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents.  But what is that?

Tunde begins school in Utah where he looks around and sees…..no one like himself.  Utah is mostly white and Mormon.  What, then, is he?  His mother develops mental illness and returns to Nigeria, leaving Tunde and his brother with their father, hard-working, deeply religious and now a single parent.  Enter a Nigerian-born step-mother and her two Nigerian-born sons, a family blended in name only.  His Nigerian grandmother, a voice on the phone, is a constant and steadying influence, but he never meets her face to face.

Small town Utah, next small town Texas, then Dallas, college in Atlanta and Maine, on to D.C.  Son, brother, Nigerian, black, white, juju, pop, Western, Southern, small towns, rural, hip-hop, urban, New England, American, male.  How does a wide-eyed child born into this kaleidoscope find his way, navigate, come to grips…….when, more often than not, exploration is squelched, and welcome is never guaranteed?  And how does one such child grow with assurance into the kind of man he is to become?  What will the essence of this man be?  Tope Folarin’s book is not a “how to”.  It is simply the story of Tunde growing up, but it is revelatory, and, I believe, will leave you changed.  A recommended read.

In bookstores everywhere on August 6 from Simon & Schuster.  Shop your local indie bookstore here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster 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.

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.

Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went to the Woods

Ms. Dolan-Leach’s second novel is a good one, well-told and smartly paced.  Its strength, however, is in the characters, a thoroughly unappealing lot, a nest of millennial vipers.  Five self-absorbed twenty-somethings take to an ancient rustic farm/camp in New York State to live a utopian life and show the corrupt and misguided (everybody else, pretty much) a different way to live, how to do it right and save the planet…….in other words.  Why are they the anointed appointed?  Oh, you know.  They are educated, hip, mostly privileged and just all ‘round superior.  They know nothing of agriculture and choose to ignore the failure of previous utopian attempts, but they do have one singular advantage.  The property belongs to the lawyer father of Louisa, the driving force.  Well, hey, now.  That was easy.  And, yet, in Ms. Dolan-Leach’s deft hands, you really want to know what happens to the little snots.  You really, really do.

The story of this ill-fated group is told in the first person by Mack (MacKenzie), the fifth member, and she tells a riveting tale.  The last to join the group, Mack is besotted by them at first and worries whether or not she can truly belong.  With the passage of time, growing hardship and some research, Mack’s perception begins to crumble.  As does the undertaking itself.  You might not like most of these folks, but you will like this book.  You will read, you will care, and you’ll wonder what they’d be like twenty-five years later.

Drops July 2 from Random House.  Shop your local indie bookstore for Caite Dolan-Leach’s intriguing tale.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Random House 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.