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.

A Trio of Twins (Sort of)

What are the odds that I would randomly read three books in a row that featured twins?  Two books maybe, but when twins showed up in the third book, even though they were minor characters, it started to get a little creepy.

Beside Myself  Eleanor  The Good Goodbye

Ann Morgan’s Beside Myself, out from Bloomsbury back on January 12, is a disturbing, little thriller, one that would make any set of twins think twice about pulling the switcheroo trick on folks.  As a young girl in late ‘80s/early ‘90s England, Helen convinces her twin Ellie to swap places to see who they can fool.  An innocent game, right?  Not so much, and the consequences bring disastrous results for Helen for the rest of her life.  Much emotional trauma and mental illness ensue and it’s difficult to tell the villains from the victims.  I felt for Helen and her predicament at times; at others, when she managed to dig her hole even deeper, I just wanted to give her a good smack.  Sometimes, I wondered if the entire identity switch never even happened, instead possibly being contained entirely within the confines of Helen’s scrambled-egg brain.  At all times, I deeply loathed Helen and Ellie’s utterly rigid and dysfunctional mother, a beast of a woman whose main goal is to appear perfect at all times.

Ann Morgan is a decidedly British writer in style and tone which suited me just fine, and she has crafted a fantastic psychological debut novel in Beside Myself.  Take the time to check this one out.

January 12 also brought Crown’s release of Eleanor by Jason Gurley, which features another set of identical twin sisters, Eleanor and Esmerelda.  A car accident claims Esmerelda at the age of six or seven, leaving Eleanor and her parents adrift.  Her mother retreats inwardly into alcoholism, while her father abandons the family home, leaving Eleanor to grow up with her mother’s drunkenness and increasing rage.  As Eleanor enters her teen years, her reality begins to shift in the weirdest of fashions.  As she passes through a school doorway, she suddenly finds herself plunked smack in the middle of a beautiful cornfield.  She eventually manages to fall back into her own world only to find much more time has passed than she realized.  The next time her world shifts she’s thrown into a rainy, muddy wilderness.  These transferences, always against her will, increase and ultimately she learns much about her family’s loss and her shattered parents.

As I read Eleanor, smartly-written and compelling, I couldn’t decide whether Gurley was aiming his tale at adults or young adults.  These days I realize that just as many adults are fans of YA lit as teens are so I suppose it’s a moot point.  It could also be called a modern fantasy novel, given its dream-world dimensions, or even literary speculative fiction.  Whatever.  I should just shut up and say I found it lovely and ethereal and sad.  No matter what you call it, Jason Gurley’s Eleanor is a damn good book.

Twins also factor in The Good Goodbye (release date:  January 19) by Carla Buckley, although they’re the younger brothers of Arden, who is the main event here along with her cousin, Rory.  Arden and Rory might as well be sisters though, growing up tightly together with Rory as the ringleader and Arden as her loyal disciple.  Told from the differing perspectives of Arden, Rory and Arden’s mother, Natalie, Buckley’s novel explores family dynamic and dysfunction in the wake of a dorm room fire that leaves both girls clinging to life in a hospital ICU.  How did the fire start?  Who started it?  Were Arden and Rory two points of a love triangle that suddenly disintegrated?  What secrets were they keeping from their parents?  There was more than enough suspense and trepidation to keep me turning pages.

Several themes abound here:  the strength of familial bonds and how much it takes to break them, parental pressure, teenage secrecy and manipulation of parents and each other.  Rory and Arden are complex characters, each driven by different impulses to succeed in academics and life in general.  They have a fierce, sisterly love for each other, yet Rory is more than a little manipulative with Arden, and Arden almost always willingly caves.  It was hard to like Rory, but even harder to like her domineering mother, Gabrielle; as a result, while I found Rory’s ways more than a little objectionable, it was easy to understand the source of her psyche.

I was absolutely dying to find out the cause of and motivation for the fire, and I have to say, while some reviewers have indicated the ending was a let-down, I found it completely satisfying.  But no spoilers here.  You’ll have to read it yourself.

Full Disclosure: A review copy of Beside Myself was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley; a review copy of Eleanor was provided to me by Crown Publishing via NetGalley; and finally, a review copy of The Good Goodbye was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley. I would like to thank each of these publishers for providing me the opportunity to read and review these titles. All opinions expressed herein are my own.