Devilishly Thought-Provoking Adult Fiction: The Summer that Melted Everything

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the summer that melted everthing

Today’s book is that most elusive of creatures – literary fiction that is eminently readable and skilfully demonstrates how reality and our perceptions of reality can merge in ways that result in unexpected personal consequences.  The Summer That Melted Everything is Tiffany McDaniel’s debut novel and an impressive little number it is.  We received a copy from Scribe Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.

Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.

When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

While this is by no means a book that’s going to leave you strolling away whistling once you put it down, there is something to be said for storytelling that explores the baser aspects of human existence without casting any particular person as “the monster”.  McDaniel has produced an extremely well-crafted novel for a first-timer, and if you are prepared to delve into a world in which nobody’s flaws are glossed over, then I would highly recommend you take a look at The Summer That Melted Everything.

The book is narrated by Fielding Bliss and alternates between a particularly memorable summer of 1984 and Fielding’s moribund situation in the present.  The story begins with a style that borders on magical realism, with larger-than-life, quirky characters and the unexpected arrival of a young boy whose other-wordliness seems to seep from his very pores.  As the book goes on, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems, although the “truth” of the matter does turn out to be at least as strange as the fiction.  Sal, as a thirteen year old boy, isn’t a particularly authentic character, being too wise for words in some instances, yet remains incredibly endearing and vulnerable in spite of his apparently redoubtable exterior.  Fielding is a much more genuine portrayal of a young boy, although his narration as an elderly man is quite harrowing at times.  The story is rounded out with Grand, Fielding’s older brother and golden boy of the town, his agoraphobic mother, criminal lawyer father, diminutive, angry and zealous neighbour (named, interestingly enough, Elohim), and a collection of small-town folk whose secrets and personal shames are variously brought to light throughout the story.

By the end of the novel, most of the “magic” of the story has fallen away and the reader is left with the stark and disturbing aftermath of unimaginable actions driven by a town’s collective imaginings.  As I mentioned earlier, the book won’t leave you with an uplifted spirit and the desire to prance along the street, but neither does it employ gratuitous shock tactics simply to provide an action-packed finale. While the content toward the end is reasonably challenging, it certainly leaves the reader with plenty to ponder over and this pondering is aided by the treacle-slow pace of the writing, which brilliantly reflects the apparent stopping of time that occurs during a prolonged heatwave.

The only problem I had with the book is that although it is set mostly in 1984, the characters and dialogue had me more in mind of the 1950s.  This may have been deliberate on the part of the author, and to be honest, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the story, but it was an interesting side-effect nonetheless.

We highly recommend The Summer That Melted Everything to readers who are looking for realistic literary fiction with a masterfully constructed fantastical streak.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Memoir as Fiction: Black British…

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black british

We’re having a bit of a change of pace today on the shelf with some historical adult fiction that reads like a memoir, written by an Australian author and set in 1960s India during a time of social upheaval.  With India being one of the countries in whose history we are particularly interested (the other, of course, at the moment, being Japan), it would have been remiss of us not to get our collective paws on Black British by Hebe De Souza.  We were lucky enough to snag a copy from Ventura Press for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In the turbulent years that follow the British Empire’s collapse in India, rebellious and inquisitive Lucy de Souza is born into an affluent Indian family that once prospered under the Raj. Known as Black British because of their English language and customs, when the British deserted India Lucy’s family was left behind, strangers in their own land.

Now living isolated from the hostile locals who see her family as remnants of an oppressive regime, a young Lucy grows up in the confines of their grand yet ramshackle home located in the dry, dispirited plains of Kanpur. But when it is time to start her education, Lucy finds herself angry and alone, struggling to find her place in this gentle country ravaged by poverty and hardship, surrounded by girls who look like her but don’t speak her language. Encouraged by her strong-minded mother and two older sisters, as she matures the ever-feisty Lucy begins to question the injustices around her, before facing a decision that will change the course of her life forever.

Black British is, for the most part, a thinly-disguised memoir dressed up as fiction.  The story revolves around a woman who has returned to her ancestral home and ends up telling her life story to a stranger who asks a simple enough question: “Where do you come from, lady?”  The majority of the tale occurs in 1960s India, with extremely brief flashes back to the original chatting pair at the end of each chapter to link the sections together.

While I enjoyed the book, narrated by thinker and independent spirit Lucy, the youngest of three sisters living a comparatively wealthy upbringing as English-speaking, private school-attending young ladies surrounded by great swathes of people living in poverty, it was not the suspenseful and tumultuous ride suggested by the blurb.  I was expecting a lot more insight into the social upheaval of the time, but most of the story takes place within the walls of Lucy’s family’s compound and the girls are largely shielded from their family’s precarious social position and its implications by the adults in their lives.  Basically, I wanted the danger to feature more largely in the telling of a story that sees Lucy go from her early years of schooling to the cusp of adulthood with nary a scary experience to report – except for an overzealous monkey intruder and a very hairy cab ride after she ventures as a young adult into the community with her father.

Even though the book didn’t end up being quite as exciting as I expected, it remains an absorbing snapshot of a time and place undergoing rapid and permanent social change.  As English-speaking Catholics, Lucy’s family are well outside what was considered typical in her community and the struggles of being the outsider, even in one’s own home, are thoroughly explored. The prominent motif throughout the book is the security provided by a loving family unit and the ways in which adults nurture the enquiring minds of young people, even in situations that will cause the young person to move up a rung on the ladder of social maturity.

The book deals with a number of social issues including domestic abuse and the place of people identifying as homosexual in an unforgiving culture and time, and as the reader experiences these issues through Lucy’s eyes, it is clear that situations that one might consider black and white, move through every shade of grey when considered in a larger social context.  The implications for individuals of their life choices – whether to remain in an unhappy marriage or relegate oneself to a life of hardship, for instance – are offered as fodder to fuel Lucy’s own looming crisis: to remain in the only home she knows, despite her outsider status and the ever-present threat of violence and hardship, or leave her roots behind for the sake of building a comfortable future.

This is certainly a book that focuses on familial relationships as a means for exploring the wider social conflicts that influence the decisions we make as individuals.  As a fictional memoir, it is engaging and the characters are fleshed out and authentic.  I would have liked to have seen more made of the Lucy of “twenty-one years later”.  The tiny flashes we get of the Lucy who has returned to her homeland in search of belonging felt a bit contrived, as so much of the focus was on the period set in the 1960s, and I would have liked to have been privy to what Lucy did with, at least, some of her life since her family’s decision to move away.  Nevertheless, this is a strong debut from De Souza and I would be interested in seeing what she comes up with next – particularly something that is wholly fictional.

If you are looking for historical fiction that reads like a memoir and places an emphasis on growing up as an outsider in one’s own land, you should certainly give Black British a look.

Until next time,

Bruce

Skycastle, The Demon and Me: Introducing the GSQ Review!

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Good morning all! I am very excited today because not only do I have a fun, cheeky fantasy book to share with you, but I’ve also got a whole new review format to unleash! You see, my psychologist decided that I was too stony faced…not adept at sharing my emotions…unskilled in letting forth my true feelings about books…and so I have delved deep into my psyche to present a review that really encompasses a range of emotions about this book. I give you the very first “The Good, The Sad and The Quirky” review!

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So away we go! Today’s offering is Skycastle, the Demon and Me by Andy Mulberry, the first in a new series for middle grade lovers of fantasy and adventure and unhelpful demons who have been accidentally foisted on you.  The book follows Jack Harper, who discovers a strange piece of advertising under the fridge (as you do) and inadvertently uses it to order a demon for his castle-turned-museum home.  Brinkloven Crowley (III), or Brink to his (non-existent) friends, is the aforementioned demon, and a more surely young example of his kind you would be hard pressed to find, although part of the surliness may be attributed to Brink’s imprisonment in a reasonably small crate prior to delivery at Greencastle.  As Jack attempts to use Brink as a hauntingly exciting addition to current tours provided at the castle (with mixed results), he begins to think that maybe having a demon around isn’t such a bad idea after all.  But when the Demon Collection Agency shows up to receive payment for Brink (or to repossess the demon…no pun intended), if Jack can’t come up with the money Brink might be looking at another eternity stuffed in a crate.  What are a boy and his demon to do?!

skycastle

What else can I say but, this book was meant for readers of my ilk.  That is, readers who love a story about unearthly creatures that is mixed with the funnies.  I loved this story and I predict that middle graders will love it too.  Jack is your typical “everyboy” and Brink is your typical slightly emo, understandably cranky demon kid.  It was a fun, fast-flowing romp/cautionary tale that everyone should read prior to ordering a demon for their home.  So here’s the Good:

image* Characters with loads of kid appeal (and grown-up who likes kid stories appeal)

* A well-paced plot that doesn’t waste time on overburdening the reader with detail, but leaves plenty of space for humour

* The provision of a useful cautionary tale for those considering demon-ownership…remember kids, a demon is for life, not just for Christmas.

 

The only problem I had with the story (if problem it could be called, was that I was left wanting more…and more and MORE!  I know this is the first book in the series (and I will certainly be hanging out for the next), but after finishing the book in one quick sitting, I had that feeling that I often get when reading graphic novels – the bittersweet pang of contentment at finishing a good story, mixed with a yearning to know the next bit. Immediately.  This struck me as an adult (and super-speedy, if I do say so myself…and I do) reader, but may not affect readers of the target age-group quite so much (due to their inferior reading speed, you understand).  So here’s the Sad:

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* As I finished it in one sitting, I was left wanting more, which is a little painful when the second book hasn’t been released yet.

This book has got quirky in bucketloads.  While reading I was reminded of  the cheeky characterisation in Matt Haig’s “Shadow Forest”, and the wry tone of Caro King’s “Seven Sorcerers”.  This book is a lot shorter than either of those though, so it was just enough of a hit to keep me going until the next wry, cheeky novel comes along to entice me.  So here’s the quirky:

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* A cliffhanger ending that involves an inanimate structure in a very deft piece of escape artistry

* The hiding of a very important plot device in the last place you would ever look…under the fridge

So there you have it.  My emotions laid bare for your entertainment.  And if that wasn’t enough, I will also be featuring Andy Mulberry, author of Skycastle, the Demon and Me in an author spotlight in the very near future.  And there may even be a giveaway.  You’ll just have to wait and see…..oh, who am I kidding, there’ll DEFINITELY be a giveaway.  So keep your eyeballs peeled!

Until next time,

Bruce (and the various facets of his personality)

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