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.

Sharon Kernot’s The Art of Taxidermy

Australian author.  Beautiful book.  I love my Aussies.  The Art of Taxidermy is described as Ms. Kernot’s second novel, but it’s very short, maybe an hour and a half to read, so…..a novella?  Maybe, but who cares?  It is (drum roll, please) poetry.  Read it as poetry, and let the words sing.  Eleven year old Lottie has lost too many loved ones in her short life, including her mother, and she develops a fascination with death.  She begins to collect dead things as she struggles to come to grips with transformation – from life to death to what?  And what again after that?  I was entranced.  Got in bed one night, started to read, and simply did not stop until this book was done.  Spare, lovely and unforgettable.

You can get this gorgeous book with the gorgeous cover on August 23 from Text Publishing. Shop your local indie bookstore to pre-order this title.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Text Publishing 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.

Mary Doria Russell’s The Women of Copper Country

The very first word that occurred to me when I began reading Ms. Russell’s book was “solid”, and then, I swear, there was a sense of relief.  This book is solid, and this is not faint praise.  I knew I could count on it, lean into it, walk around in its rooms and settings and not trip or fall through a weak spot.  Hosanna!

Set in the copper mining country of upper Michigan, the story is a harsh one, based on events arising out of the labor movement of the early Twentieth Century, and in particular the Michigan copper mines strike of 1913 and the Italian Hall disaster.  Characters are, for the most part, actual persons or composites.  There is Anna Klobuchar Clements, the tall woman, wife of a miner, America’s Joan of Arc, who inspired and led a wildcat strike of nearly a year’s duration, protesting low pay, long hours, and dangerous conditions for the miners.  With Anna as its primary figure, the book focuses on the women in the movement, the women behind the miners, their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  These women lived with horror and loss on a near weekly basis – crippling, maiming, work-ending injury and death in the mines.  Not if, but when.

Strong material for sure, and with her deft and artistic hand, Ms. Russell knows just what to make of it. Good material and diligent research, skillful plotting and narrative, fully realized characterizations, sure sense of time and place.  It’s all there.  For, you see, Ms. Russell is not only an artist, she knows her craft, and it is craftsmanship that makes this the good book that it is; good and, yes, solid.  A book you are grateful for, that you can count on.  Lean into it.  It will hold.

You’ll have to wait until August 6 for The Women of Copper Country to hit bookstores.  But why wait when you can pre-order this gem? Click here to support your local indie bookstore or here to pre-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.