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.

Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars

Looking for more of a “beach read”, I guess, and, while this debut novel is not exactly that, it served its purpose pretty well.  A “just take me away” sort of read even though the basic, stripped down plot manages to sound both goofy and foreboding.  A tiny little girl is on the lam after having witnessed the murder of her drug-addicted mother.  Eight-year-old Ursa has a genius IQ level and claims to be from the Pinwheel Galaxy, here on Earth to earn a Ph.D. in humans by witnessing five miracles.  Under all that, she is so very frightened and attaches herself to an actual Ph.D. candidate, Joanna, who’s living in a woodsy cabin studying the nesting habits of indigo buntings.  If this sounds……, well, yeah.  However, Ursa is charming and quirky, and, by George, you wonder if she’s not going to make that alien gambit fly.  It’s her story, and she’s sticking to it.  There’s a little romance (young farmer next door), the mystery behind Ursa and what will become of her, a gun battle, and a “happily ever after”.  I wish I could tell you how well done this is, but characters are a mite flat, the story is a little much, and you’ll wonder why some elements are even there.  However, unblinking reality was the last thing I needed or wanted, so I hid out with Ursa, and, eventually, this old world looked better for both of us.

If this fits your bill, you can pick up this title at Amazon.com or, if you prefer, support and shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Lake Union 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.

A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming

Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kansas, is a perfectly ordinary looking man, living with his wife and two children in a small ranch house, working reliably, going to church and rearing his nice family.  Dennis Rader is a serial killer known as BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) who terrified Wichita for thirty years, taunted the media, and killed eight adults and two children.  Dennis Rader is Kerri Rawson’s father.  Kerri’s innocence and that of her family ended on February 25, 2005, when Dennis Rader was arrested.

The secret life of a loved one.  Unimaginable, isn’t it?  Devastating, emotional ruin…..but Kerri tells her story with fairness for the father she loved while offering no possible explanation for or understanding of the killer she didn’t know existed.  How could she?  How could anyone?  Her father writes from prison, and she writes in return, initially – and then she turns away.  Fits and starts, years of on-again, off-again therapy, a PTSD diagnosis, a loving, insightful husband, supportive family, a growing strength in her faith, and, to some extent, the saving grace of humor, as in the chapter title “PTSD Blows Chunks”.  Ms. Rawson’s story is a difficult one to read.  How difficult must it have been for her to endure and to tell?

Shop your local indie bookstore for this wrenching memoir. Also available at Amazon.com

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Nelson Books / Thomas Nelson 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 Year of No Summer: A Reckoning

I did not finish this, though I feel that, at some point, I might go back.  Certainly I think I’ll be tempted to do so.  Odd and intriguing.  My first thought was stream of consciousness, but…well…maybe.  Freeform history?  Some sort of literary tone poem?  Or something like that.  Say what?  The language is beautiful and poetic, sometimes coalescing into more straightforward prose; and I wanted to read this simply for the words, lovely words; but then that coalescing comes along, taunting me with the possibility of narrative.  I’ll let the author speak for herself, and she ends by saying, “I’m standing here thinking it all fits together, but how or why, I know not.  My hands are too small for God.”  Yes, right there, and Rachel Lebowitz, I admire what you’ve done, and I think it fits together, too.  I want it to.  Maybe I’m just not ready for it.

But you might be and, if so, click here to order from your local indie bookstore or from Amazon

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

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad

The western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad was built almost entirely by immigrant Chinese, 20,000 or so of them.  I expect most of us are vaguely aware of that, and I expect most of us are aware this was hard, dangerous work.  Begun in 1864, finished in 1869, this portion stretches from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevadas, to the desert scrub of Promontory Point, Utah, a distance of 690 miles.  This is history we think we learned in eighth grade.  Gordon Chang takes our tiny tidbit and returns a thoroughly human story, extensively researched and rich in detail.

There was an impression then, and I suspect now, that the “Railroad Chinese” were enslaved workers, but California (the Gold Mountain of the title) was a free state, so it was important that incoming Chinese laborers were not being traded as slaves.  Most of these men were contract workers who came willingly, following opportunity.  However, Chinese women were bought in China and sold here as prostitutes, primarily for the “Railroad Chinese” – hmmm, the sex trade, as old as time and still with us today unfortunately.

All the work was done by hand – men with hand tools, wheelbarrows, black powder (a Chinese invention), horse carts and supply trains as the tracks extended.  Teams of three men using an eight-pound sledge hammer and a pole with crude bit-end could tap roughly three blasting holes a day, mile after mile, for roadbeds and tunnels.  Avalanches, explosions and fire, rock slides, entrapment, maiming injuries that would, as likely as not, ultimately kill a man.  We can only estimate the number of deaths, however.  Complete and/or accurate records of workers don’t exist.  The railroad united our country coast to coast, but, except for a scant few, we don’t even know who these men were – the survivors or the fallen.

After the railroad was completed, some of the “Railroad Chinese” went back to China as they’d planned to do.  Some continued as railroad workers here, in Canada, and elsewhere.  Some remained, took jobs or opened businesses, and their descendants live among us.  However, federal law immigration law prohibited anyone born in China from becoming a naturalized citizen, and that law was not changed until 1943.  Nothing brings today into focus as blindingly as history does, and so I offer you Ghosts of Gold Mountain, a thorough, scholarly work and a good read as well.

Available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 7.  Click here to order/pre-order from your local indie bookstore or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 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.