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!