BLOG TOUR! Alex George’s The Paris Hours

The Paris Hours by Alex George

Publication Date:  May 5, 2020

Publisher:  Flatiron Books

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for The Paris Hours!  Check out my thoughts and ruminations on the book, as well as an excerpt, below.

What do an Armenian puppeteer, a down-on-his-luck artist, a French journalist with dreams of America, and Marcel Proust’s former housekeeper all have in common?  At first you’ll think “absolutely nothing”, but oh, you would be wrong.

Author Alex George’s newest offering rambles unhurriedly through a single day in the City of Lights in the time between the Wars, introducing us to this foursome of Parisians (both native and not), each with a quiet purpose, each unknown to the others.  Armenian Souren Balakian is a refugee, who scrapes out an existence giving free puppet shows in a local park each day for coins thrown in a suitcase.  The quintessential starving artist, Guillaume Blanc, needs a big sale from one of his works in order to pay off an unsavory mobster.  Journalist Jean-Paul Maillard, who pines for his wife and child, is perhaps the most melancholy of the quartet (although Souren could give him a run for his money there); he’s constantly looking for his daughter but will he ever find her?  Finally, Camille Clermont embarks on city-wide search for a lost journal belonging to Proust and harboring a black secret.  And while our protagonists are seemingly ordinary folks, they also rub elbows in Paris with Gertude Stein, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, Mr. Proust, and host of other only slightly-lesser celebrity lights.

The characters are the thing here, and these characters are Alex George’s strength.  As the day unfolds, stories and histories are revealed, and we come to know and understand Camlle, Jean-Paul, Souren and Guillaume a little bit better with each passing page.  This is a novel on a constant, slow burn and, if you’re looking for a quick payoff, you won’t find it here.  Kindling is steadily and masterfully thrown on the smoldering embers of each individuals’ story until they all come together in one blazing conflagration.  This is a novel that rewards patience.

Many thanks to Flatiron Books and Cat Kenney for inviting me to be a part of the blog tour and providing me with a review copy of The Paris Hours.  Many more thanks are due to Alex George for creating this lovely story and sharing it with us.

During these difficult days, it’s more important than ever to support our small and local businesses.  If you’re so inclined, you can click here to purchase this title from your local indie bookstore.  And check out the excerpt below!

1
Stitches

THE ARMENIAN WORKS BY the light of a single candle. His tools lie in front of him on the table: a spool of cotton, a square of fabric, haberdasher’s scissors, a needle.

The flame flickers, and shadows leap across the walls of the tiny room, dancing ghosts. Souren Balakian folds the fabric in half, checks that the edges align exactly, and then he picks up the scissors. He feels the resistance beneath his fingers as the steel blades bite into the material. He always enjoys this momentary show of defiance before he gives the gentlest of squeezes, and the scissors cut through the doubled-up fabric. He eases the blades along familiar contours, working by eye alone. He has done this so many times, on so many nights, there is no need to measure a thing. Torso, arms, neckline—this last cut wide, to accommodate the outsized head.

When he has finished, there are two identical shapes on the table in front of him. He sweeps the unused scraps of cloth onto the floor, and picks up the needle and thread. After the sundering, reconstitution. Holding the two pieces of material in perfect alignment, he pushes the tip of the needle through both layers of fabric, and pulls the thread tight. He works with ferocious deliberation, as if it is his very life that he is stitching back together. He squints, careful to keep the stitches evenly spaced. When he is finished, he breaks the thread with a sharp twist of his fingers and holds the garment up in the half-light. A small grunt of satisfaction.

Night after night Souren sits at this bench and sews a new tunic. By the end of the day it will be gone, a cloud of gray ash blowing in the wind, and then he will sit down and create another.

He lays the completed costume on the work surface and stands up. He surveys the ranks of sightless eyes that stare unblinking into the room. Rows of hooks have been hammered into the wall. A wooden hand puppet hangs from every one. There are portly kings and beautiful princesses. There are brave men with dangerous eyes, and a haggard witch with warts on her ugly chin. There are cherubic children, their eyes too wide and innocent for this motley group. There is a wolf.

This ragtag crowd is Souren’s family now.

He unhooks a young boy called Hector and carries him to the table. He pulls the newly sewn tunic over Hector’s head. He turns the puppet toward him and examines his handiwork. Hector is a handsome fellow, with a button nose and rosy cheeks. The tunic fits him well. The puppet performs a small bow and waves at him.

“Ah, Hector,” whispers Souren sadly. “You are always so happy to see me, even when you know what is to come.” He looks up at the clock on the wall. It is a few hours past midnight. The new day has already begun.

Each evening Souren battles sleep for as long as he can. He works long into the night, applying fresh coats of paint to the puppets and sewing new clothes for them by candlelight. He stays at his workbench until his eyes are so heavy that he can no longer keep them open. But there is only so long he can fight the inevitable. His beloved puppets cannot protect him from the demons that pursue him through the darkest shadows of the night.

His dreams always come for him in the end.

2

A Rude Awakening

RAT-A-TAT-TAT.

Guillaume Blanc sits up in his bed, his heart smashing against his ribs, his breath quick, sharp, urgent. He stares at the door, waiting for the next angry tattoo.

The whispered words he heard through the door scream at him now: Three days.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

His shoulders slump. There is nobody knocking, not this time. The noise is coming from somewhere closer. Guillaume turns and squints through the window above the bed. The first blush of early morning sunlight smears the sky. From up here on the sixth floor, the rooftops of the city stretch out beneath him, a glinting cornucopia of slate and glass, a tapestry of cupolas and towers. There is the culprit: a woodpecker, richly plumed in blue and yellow, perched halfway up the window frame. It is staring beadily at the wood, as if trying to remember what it is supposed to do next.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

It is early, too early for anything good.

The shock of adrenaline subsides enough for Guillaume to register that his temples are pounding. He rolls over, spies a glass of cloudy water on the floor next to the bed, and drinks it thirstily. He rubs a dirty palm against his forehead. An ocean of pain to drown in. An empty wine bottle lies on its side in the middle of the small room. He stole it from the back of Madame Cuillasse’s kitchen cupboard when he staggered in last night. It was covered in dust and long forgotten, not even good enough for her coq au vin, but by then Guillaume was too drunk to care.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

It feels as if the woodpecker is perched on the tip of Guillaume’s nose and is jabbing its sharp little beak right between his eyes. It’s typical of his luck, he reflects. The bird has no business in the dirty, narrow streets of Montmartre. It should be flying free with its brothers and sisters in the Bois de Boulogne, hammering joyfully away at tree trunks, rather than attacking the window frame of Guillaume’s studio. And yet here it is.

Rat-a-tat-tat.

The woodpecker’s head is a ferocious blur, then perfectly still again. What goes through its head, Guillaume wonders, during those moments of contemplative silence? Is the woodpecker asking itself: who am I, really, if I am not pecking wood? Am I, God forbid, just a bird?

Three days.

Guillaume lets out a small moan. There are lightning bolts erupting behind his eyes. He casts his mind back to the previous night. He was wandering through Montmartre, anxiously trying to outpace his problems, when he had seen Emile Brataille sitting alone in the bar at the end of his street. Brataille is an art dealer who spends most of his time at the zinc of the Closerie des Lilas, schmoozing with collectors and artists, striking deals, and skimming his fat commission off every painting he sells. He has no business in Montmartre anymore: all the painters whose work hangs on the walls of his palatial gallery on Boulevard Raspail have left Guillaume’s quartier for the leafy boulevards of Montparnasse, where the wine is better, the oysters fatter, and the women more beautiful. Guillaume pushed open the door and slid onto the chair next to Brataille.

The alcohol lingers sluggishly in his veins. How much had they drunk, in the end?

After they were three or four carafes to the good, Emile Brataille made his mournful confession: he’d come to Montmartre to declare his love for Thérèse, but she wanted nothing to do with him. And so here he was, drowning his sorrows.

Thérèse is a prostitute who works at the corner of Rue des Abbesses and Rue Ravignan, next to Le Chat Blanc. Guillaume knows her, albeit not professionally: he has painted her many times. Lubricated by the wine, he embellished this acquaintance into a devoted friendship, and suggested to Brataille that he might be able to intercede on his behalf. At this, the art dealer began to weep drunken tears of gratitude. How can I ever repay you? he asked. Guillaume scratched his chin. I don’t suppose you know any rich, art-loving Americans, he said.

Brataille began to laugh.

 

Saint X: A Novel

Release Date:  Today, February 18, 2020 / Available here from your local indie bookstore!

There are two sides to everything.  Simple folk wisdom that we use and hear so much it’s almost meaningless.  Nevertheless, it is still wisdom.  And it is this universal dichotomy that Alexis Schaitkin examines in her excellent novel Saint X.  Further, where I am today is rainy, foggy and gloomy, just nasty, so, heck yeah, let’s go to a Caribbean island.  Saint X itself is an island with two sides.  There’s the beautiful side where the resorts are, and the not so beautiful where the islanders go about their lives.  The beautiful side is still relatively unspoiled, not overrun by tourists, so the Thomases congratulate themselves on their choice of vacation spot on Indigo Bay.  Their two daughters, college freshman Alison and seven-year-old Clair, are of two minds about the whole thing.  Pretty, vivacious Alison wants to party.  Clair is a rather odd child, pale and awkward, an observer.  On the last morning of their vacation, Clair wakes her parents and tells them that Alison is gone.  Just gone.  Her body is found sometime later under a beautiful waterfall on an uninhabited island overrun by goats.  And two black men employed by the resort, Edwin and Clive, are suspected.  She partied with them.

Ah, so it’s a murder mystery then?  No, no, it most definitely is not. Certainly it is reminiscent of the famous Natalee Holloway disappearance on the island of Aruba.  In this case, we know that there is a death, but, as in Natalee’s case, we don’t know if it’s a murder.  Unquestionably there’s a mystery, and there are bereft parents, searches, law enforcement, news media, interrogations, witnesses, all that.  However, the depth and unquestionable quality of this book places it well above a “murder mystery” in the customary sense of that term.  Two sides.  Heads, tails.  Concave, convex.  Beauty, squalor.  Edwin and Clive.  Alison and Clair.

Clair is left to grieve and come to terms for the rest of her life – her shining star of an older sister, the beautiful, accomplished girl who snuck out at night to party, drink and dance with Edwin and Clive.  “My sister was an innocent, blameless in her horrific fate.  And it was all her fault.”  Edwin and Clive, too, must start over, and Clive moves to New York where Clair pursues him and, ultimately, develops an odd relationship with this man, built on both suspicion and trust.  “I had to find a way to understand how truth and untruth make each other.”  Saint X  – truly excellent fiction.

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

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.

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.

Q & A with Tiffany McDaniel, author of The Summer That Melted Everything

Last week I hope I inspired you all to trot right out to your local indy bookstore, B&N, or log on to Amazon to purchase Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything.  Hopefully, you’ve all had copy in your hot little paws since then reading away.  If not, SHAME ON YOU!!  Get off your keister right this second, buy the book, then sit down with it, crack it open, and don’t do anything else until you’ve finished it!

Tiffany McDaniel  Photo Credit JENNIFER MCDANIEL 2016

This week, I was lucky enough and honored to have a little Q & A session with Tiffany to pick her brain about this book that I love so much:

1.  The Summer That Melted Everything is your debut novel.  Your writing is so lyrical, mature and confident.  How long have you been writing and what has the journey been like from beginning to published book?

First off, thank you for the kind compliments about my writing.  To answer your question, I’ve been writing since I was kid and was old enough to hold a crayon in my hand.  I didn’t know at that time when I was scribbling on the page that I was creating story.  I just knew I was putting down what was in my head.  I wouldn’t realize writing was a profession I could have until I was in middle school and the guidance counselor came to my class to talk to us about what we wanted to be when we got older.  Writing was just so wonderful to me I didn’t think you could get paid to do it.  My parents had jobs, very hard jobs that made them tired and not a lot of money.  So I thought that’s what I would have to do.  Have a job that I didn’t like and that didn’t make me happy.  Though it took me eleven long years to get a publishing contract, realizing I could have writing as a career was like being given wings and the sky to fly for eternity.  Though at that time I didn’t know how hard it is to become a published author.  To answer the second part of your question, the journey to publication for me has been long and difficult.  I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen.  I wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine.  It was eleven years of rejection and fear I’d never be published.  Publishers don’t take a lot of risks on accepting literary fiction, especially darker literary fiction like what I write.  This struggle to get published is the narrative so many authors have.  The road to publication is discouraging and heart-breaking.  I feel for those still on the journey to publication.  To them I say, never give up.

2.  It’s now been a little over a week since the release of the novel.  What were your feelings leading up to the release, and what has life been like since The Summer That Melted Everything made its appearance in bookstores?

My feelings leading up to the release were a lot of nerves and fear.  It took me so long to get here.  Even with the book contract, I didn’t know that on average it takes two years to move a book through a traditional publishing house, so with all the years added up I’ve been waiting thirteen years to see a book on the shelf.  That’s a rather long time, so there’s that fear of what if The Summer that Melted Everything doesn’t do well enough that I get to have a second book.  As in the case of every author, sales determine an entire writing career.  Life since The Summer that Melted Everything made its appearance has continued to be a nervous time watching the book fall on the list, rise a little, and then fall back down.  Watching that can make an author go insane, so I’m trying not to focus too much on that and continue to do what I can as the author to get the book out there to readers.  Half the battle with a debut is just getting people aware the novel and the author even exists.  There are so many great books out there and so much competition, it’s hard to think the book will have any success and very easy to feel defeated by those thoughts.

3.  What was the genesis of The Summer That Melted Everything?  Was it a random thought or observation that inspired you, is the novel semi-autobiographical, or was it spurred on by something else entirely?

The Summer that Melted Everything started first as a title.  It was one of those Ohio summers that was so hot I just felt like I was melting.  All of me just dripping and dropping under the summer sun.  So that’s where it first started.  Just one hot summer.  I always start a new novel with two things.  The title and the first line.  These two things determine what the entire story is going to be about.  I never outline or plan the story beforehand.  It evolves with each new word and page.  There wasn’t a particular event or moment that made me write The Summer that Melted Everything.  It hard to say where the ideas come from exactly or what inspires them, just because creativity is hard to explain because even I don’t know where these ideas come from.  My answer to that is usually the ideas come from the elements that make me.  From some sort of chaotic spiraling shape twisting through the universe of my soul.  Rather dramatic of an answer, but I think the dramatics of creativity is what spurs us all on.

4.  Fielding Bliss narrates the story of the devil come to town in the form of a young black boy named Sal.  Fielding and Sal are the two main characters and driving forces of the novel.  Who are your favorite characters?  Who is your least favorite?

It’s hard to say my favorite character because I love them all.  One of my favorite characters to write was Sal.  He’s the one come to answer the invitation, so he presents himself as the devil.  This type of mysterious character is always interesting to write because it’s not often an author gets to write dialogue for the so-called fallen angel.  More than that, Sal is an old soul in a young body.  That sort of poetics and wisdom is always a joy to write.  My least favorite character is perhaps Ryker.  I won’t say why he’s my least favorite character because I don’t want to spoil the novel for anyone.  But once readers read the book, they’ll understand what I mean when I say Ryker is such a jerk.

5.  While I loved Fielding and Sal, I was most taken with Grand, Fielding’s brother.  I also thought Aunt Fedelia was a hoot!  Were there real-life inspirations for either of these characters or were they born straight from your imagination?

I love Grand.  He’s one of the characters that is so easy to fall in love with because he’s…well….Grand.  And Aunt Fedelia was really fun to write too, especially her foul language.  There weren’t real-life inspirations for either of them, or any of the characters for that matter.  For me, my characters have flesh and bone and are as real as any of us.  They are truly their own people.

6.  Besides the ever present heat imagery throughout, snakes also seem to be a recurring theme.  I happen to like snakes and have had a couple as pets in the past, so I loved the line, “You can tell a lot about a man by what he does with a snake.”  So true in many, many ways and symbolic of actions taken by man out of ignorance.  Any particular reason snakes play a role in your novel?

I like snakes too.  They catch me off-guard sometimes in the garden when a garden snake goes slithering by, but they don’t bother me and I don’t bother them.  I remember a neighbor talking once about how her and her husband will kill a snake if they see one.  Their hatred of snakes is due to the biblical story we all know so well of Adam and Eve.  A negative association has been bestowed upon snakes since that Garden of Eden moment and unfortunately snakes have been given a bad rap.  Because of their religious associations, snakes naturally found their way into the novel.  I hope their role in the novel reminds us all that we have to worry more about the man whose hands hold the snake, than we have to worry about the snake itself.

7.  Having lived through the ‘80s as a teenager and 20-something, I was astounded at how well you evoked the decade as the timeframe for the novel.  Bananarama, Aqua Net, Van Halen, the AIDS epidemic, Rambo, even a Delorean makes an appearance in small Ohio mountain town of Breathed.  What made you choose that decade?

When I was thinking of the time-frame in which to set the novel, the 1980s came to mind almost immediately.  When I think of the ‘80s, I think of neon colors, big hair, and sun-tans by the boom-box.  It almost seems like a decade-long summer, so of course I felt it was a natural fit for the summer in the novel.  I was born in 1985, so I don’t know how the 1980s really were, but for those of us who didn’t experience the decade we can get a sense of the atmosphere from shows filmed in that decade and the photographs taken.  Furthermore the year 1984 fit with George Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984, which is referenced in the novel.  I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but having his book and the year of the summer line up was important to the core of the story.

8.  If you could pick one thing, what do you wish readers would take away from The Summer That Melted Everything?

I suppose I hope readers take away the thing that most of us are taught from an early age, but that which we seem to forget as we get older, and that is to love each other a little more and remember that the only thing hate will get us, is a lot of regret.

9.  What’s next in store from you for future readers and those of us who have already become huge fans?

I have eight completed novels and am working on my ninth.  The novel I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with is titled, When Lions Stood as Men.  It’s the story of a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and end up in my land of Ohio.  Struggling with the guilt of surviving the Holocaust, they create their own camp of judgment.  Being both the guards and the prisoners, they punish themselves not only for surviving, but for the sins they know they cannot help but commit.

 

There is no way to thank Tiffany McDaniel enough for giving me the opportunity to pose these questions to her, and more importantly, for writing a novel that has completely transformed my summer!  I hope you give it the chance to do the same for you.  The Summer That Melted Everything is, by the farthest of fars, the best book I’ve read in 2016, and, with a bit less than half of the year to go, I have very little doubt that it won’t end up being my favorite read of the year!

The Devil Went Down to Ohio: Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything

Sometimes a book affects you so deeply as to render you speechless, or nearly so.  Other times, a book will fill you with so many thoughts, ideas, questions and so much inspiration that you want to shout from the highest elevation, “Read this book or else!”  Sometimes a book accomplishes both feats simultaneously.  Such a wonder is Tiffany McDaniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything, due out from St. Martin’s Press on Tuesday, July 26.

The Summer That Melted Everything

“The heat came with the devil.  It was the summer of 1984, and while the devil had been invited, the heat was not.  It should’ve been expected, though.  Heat is, after all, the devil’s name, and when’s the last time you left home without yours?”  The devil’s name is also Sal, who arrives in Breathed, Ohio in the form of a young black boy who likes dogs and yearns for ice cream.

Sal comes to Breathed at the invitation of Autopsy Bliss (simply one of the most fabulous names in all of literature!), father of two and town prosecutor.  But Fielding Bliss, Autopsy’s youngest son, encounters Sal first and invites him home:  “If looks were to be believed, he still was just a boy.  Something of my age, though from his solemn quietude, I knew he was old in the soul.  A boy whose black crayon would be the shortest in his box.”  And so begins a summer of blistering heat, rising paranoia, and childhood innocence lost.

Tiffany McDaniel spins her tale from the point of view of Fielding, who speaks as both his teenage self and as the ruined 84-year-old man he eventually becomes.  As you begin to read The Summer That Melted Everything, you wonder how he ended up so hopeless and bitter.  By the end of the book you know.

Breathed is populated with myriad characters, all deep and fully-fleshed:  the aforementioned Autopsy; Dresden Delmar, an odd, introspective girl with a prosthetic leg; Fielding’s optimistic mom, Stella, with her global interior decorating skills and her phobic fear of rain and boiling things; rancorous, foul-mouthed Aunt Fedelia, whose method of staying cool in the heat is to lick her forearms; Elohim, a cruel midget whose paranoid leadership fosters hatred throughout the town; and finally, Grand Bliss – ah, lovely Grand with the perfect moniker – Fielding’s god-like, idolized older brother, who turns out to be just as human and tragic as any of us.

The Summer That Melted Everything is that rare book that I want to revisit yearly.  It’s so incredibly meaningful and lush that you could read it many times over and each time gain something new and glorious from it.  Passage after passage are both beautiful and painful at the same time.

Tiffany McDaniel’s book isn’t a joyful one and, in fact, can be downright depressing, reminding you of all of the evil in the world and the follies of misguided men.  But the language sings and soars, and you still feel better somehow for having read it.

How many sentences, paragraphs, entire pages did I want to quote for this review, to memorialize for my own remembrances?  Countless, but I only have so much space here and too many spoilers can ruin the wide-eyed experience of a new reader’s discovery.  How many times did I cry tears inside while reading Fielding’s and Sal’s story, yet in some way it’s not a complete downer.  I came away from the book wanting to be a better person and wanting to help others to be better people too.

I don’t know how to state it more clearly:  The Summer That Melted Everything is an astonishing accomplishment for any writer, much less a debut author like Tiffany McDaniel.  Equal parts Harper Lee and Shirley Jackson, with a dash of Ron Rash thrown in, McDaniel’s novel is destined to be a modern classic.  It should be required reading for all high schoolers and/or college students for the lessons it teaches of tolerance and intolerance, and vanished innocence (though it’s most definitely NOT young adult/new adult lit), and it should mop up come literary awards season.  If not, something is even more amiss with this already screwed-up world.

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