Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

I’m super pleased with Mr. Splitfoot. It was longlisted for the Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize, which is how I first heard about it (I was on the committee). It didn’t make the shortlist, but I thought for sure that it was a contender!

Nat and Ruth, both orphans, grow up in a rural New York foster home led by a religious eccentric who really enjoys his paychecks from the state. As Nat and Ruth begin to age out, their life takes a turn that leads them in a round about way into the occult. This multi-character narrative has a few surprises up it’s orange sleeves, and while it is slightly predictable at the end, you don’t really see the twists coming until they are right up on you.

I also need to add a disclaimer that I am partial to books that have pregnant characters, although this one is not your usual chic lit preggo mama book. Far from it. I actually found the character of Cora to be similar to that of Hazel Hayes in The Blondes. But, there can be no doubt that pregnancy, or the influence of pregnancy through the medium of fiction, can definitely 100% provoke thoughts about life’s larger questions. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is my role in bringing life into the world? And even some scarier questions like, Oh God! What have I done? Seriously, pregnancy is a giant mind eff. It definitely melts the brain a little bit.

In any event, I’m probably giving you the wrong idea as pregnancy is not the focus of Mr. Splitfoot, I simply think that the inclusion of it lends a kind of subtle layer of mystery and intrigue to the story overall. Original, a little on the darkside, and well written, Mr. Splitfoot should definitely be on your TBR shelf!

 

Pleasant Reading!

Fake Fruit Factory by Patrick Wensink

What the holy hell did I just read? What do mummies, opera, small towns, and plastic fruit all have in common? Fake Fruit Factory, and that’s about it. I couldn’t quite connect the threads even through I feel like something solid was there just beyond my reach. That seems to be a thing with me recently. Guess I’m on a streak. I’m not sure what it is about these books that I just keep picking them all twisted with the bizarre.

Welcome to the pepper speck town of Dyson, Ohio. We observe the town’s residents under a magnifying glass as they react to supernatural, catastrophic, and just regular old real life drama. As each resident appears to approach each event with a measure of clarity and calm, things just continue to spiral out of control. I mean really out of control. People go nuts, but if you blink, you might could miss it.

Fake Fruit Factory is fun and quirky, a little mysterious, and a lot about change. I wasn’t sure where we were headed, and the ending wasn’t the tidy little package you hope for, but there were a few instances of brilliant truths that really summed things up. For instance, “It was an epidemic across the country. Nobody wants to change and yet nobody is happy….and even when people do change, it takes something with a hook-change has to look like a Vegas show-for people to start turning the their ship a few degrees…it took something that absurd and unrealistic to eek out change in people.” Now tell me that isn’t relevant and eerily familiar?? *cough THE CIRCUS THAT WAS/IS OUR PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION cough*

So, if you want something a little out of the ordinary and don’t mind being left hanging with a ton of questions, Fake Fruit Factory is a delicious choice, even if it is a little burnt around the edges!

Pleasant Reading!

Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jordorowsky

So, let me just begin by saying that I read this based off of NPR’s Book Concierge, which USED to be one of my favorite Reader’s Advisory tools. But after a few bombs in Book Club and then THHHIIISSSS, which I will elaborate upon below, I think I’m going to give NPR’s Best Books list a rest. While I have found their picks to be interesting and diverse, I haven’t fallen in love with anything that I have read based on their recommendations.
If you haven’t seen NPR’s Book Concierge, check it out. It’s a really simple tool that allows you to see book covers and synopses based on a bunch of different categories. BUT, this isn’t a post about NPR. This is about what I thought of Where the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky. And the truth is, I don’t know what to think!
This is the review that sold me on it (I took this directly from NPR at this link): http://apps.npr.org/best-books-2015/#/book/where-the-bird-sings-best

Where the Bird Sings Best is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s brilliant, mad and unpredictable semi-autobiographical novel. Translated by Alfred MacAdam, this multigenerational chronicle introduces a host of memorable characters, from a dwarf prostitute and a floating ghost-Rabbi to a lion tamer who eats raw meat and teaches his beasts to jump through flaming hoops. Fantastical elements aside, Where the Bird Sings Best is a fiercely original immigration tale that culminates in the author’s birth in Chile in 1929 — a complicated time in that nation’s history. Combine that with poetry, tarot and Jewish mysticism and you have a genius’s surreal vision brought to life.

— recommended by Juan Vidal, book critic

Sounds amazing right? And it WAS. Jodorowsky is definitely an artist. His writing is vivid and compelling. More character driven than intricately plotted, these larger than life characters seem to burst right off the page in fits of madness. When I began to read it, my first thought was that it was going to be similar to Big Fish (the film, not the novel, which I actually haven’t read). But whereas Big Fish is mostly charming, Bird is…..explosive.  As I finished reading, my final thought was that reading Bird must be what reading a cortical homunculus is like.

humonc
Homunculus

Each character read like a caricature of a human being. Each a slave to their desire or insanity or rage. Each grossly exaggerated and bloated to extreme proportions. It was beautiful and bizarre, whimsical and existential, spiritual and political. It was all things and no things. It was a triumph.

But with all that being said, I am embarrassed that I have recommended it to so many people, and added it to so many Must Read Lists before I read it myself. I’m sure that it will make most people uncomfortable to read it, and I am sure as hell glad I didn’t use it for my book discussion group. I think they might have given up on me if I had. Does this mean that the book wasn’t good? No, it totally was on so many levels. But this is the kind of book you read once, admire the writing, and then move on.

There’s no denying that Jodorowsky is talented, like Juan Vidal said above, he’s a genius. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to put into words how something can be so great, but totally not my thing. I seem to have fallen into a repetitive pattern of reading great books that I didn’t exactly like. It makes it difficult for me to be impartial. Bird took me a while to get through, but I was satisfied I went to the end. I’m glad to have read it, but I’m still looking for my next awesome book fix. I know it’s out there somewhere!!

What did you think? I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this!

Speak by Louisa Hall

A couple weeks ago I wrote that I’m not a huge fan of flipping formats in novels, and then I go and read a book that is part narrative, part diary, part transcript, part epistolary. AND…I enjoyed myself immensely.

In Speak, we hear five voices. Voices past, present, and future. The voices are intertwined through time and space, all tangled up in the mechanics of being human. What would happen to us if AI (Artificial Intelligence) actually existed? Not in the broad sense of a societal revolution, but in the hum drum day to day lives of people?

I love these kinds of questions because although AI is a thing, really we are just on the cusp, somewhere between reality and Science Fiction. But, Hall pulls us out of the realm of Sci-Fi and offers up an alternative history where AI has a place in our history throughout the ages. Through the voices, we learn what it is to be human. Again, not in an all-encompassing universal theory, but in a deeply profound and personal way through the minutia of day to day living both in and out of relationships.

Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven) wrote a review for Speak that said, “That rarest of finds: a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve ever read.” But, what about movies? Her (2013) starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson kept coming to mind. I love when books and movies walk the line between fact and fiction. I love when fiction inspires reality. I love knowing that we are on the brink. That we walk the very edge of truth and vision. 

Hall walks that edge with us, and makes it feel real. Really real. I don’t think a simple narrative would have had the same effect. I was drawn in from the very first page, and was strangely satisfied when I was left dissatisfied at the end. While I had to take some of it with a grain of salt, the more I thought about how chaotically organized the whole thing was, I kind of just let go and enjoyed it for what it was. I’m sure you will too! 

Pleasant Reading!

 

 

 

The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

What would you do if you found out your entire life was a lie? Riley MacPherson has just lost her father. Years before, she lost her mother. Even before that she lost her sister. Only her recluse of a brother remains to help her pick up the pieces of her father’s death. As the pieces fall into place, the truth is slowly revealed. Riley finds herself at the center of a decades old crime that only she can solve.

AND….my book club ladies didn’t let me down! Although we were all in consensus that The Silent Sister was a fun, if not dark, entertaining read, that’s where I draw the line. While some of us totally love, love, loooooved it, I wasn’t thoroughly impressed.

To be blunt, I found it utterly predictable. I figured it out in the first few chapters. There were no surprising twists, no startle effect, no “Ah-Ha!” moment. Kind of a let down really. Although you don’t know for sure what happens until the end, you basically know for sure how it will end by the beginning. So, naturally, I was bored.

The best part about the book was the discussion it generated. We talked about different themes from the book like child abuse and adoption. Lately we’ve been reading a lot of books that make mention of pedophilia and child molestation. I asked why do they think that is? Which led us to a broader discussion of contemporary themes in literature as a whole.

The book itself is not a study in critical reading, but it got a decent discussion brewing. Quick and easy breezy The Silent Sister is a great beach-time summer read. Somewhat engaging but not too heavy. Perfect for this July summertime heat.

Pleasant Reading!

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

A lot can be said about a person in the things that they don’t actually say. Lotto and Mathilde have the perfect marriage. That is, until both sides of the story have been told. Witnessed through two different perspectives, this character driven novel reveals the truth behind what we’ve taken at face value.

Lotto and Mathilde are many things. They are the sum of their many parts: their careers, their hopes and dreams, their secrets. Mathilde, so quiet and mysterious. Lotto, vibrant and warm. We are often left wondering what it is that binds these two together. Neither character is very likeable. In fact, F&F is chock full of an assembly of flawed and selfish characters. But, ultimately, in the end, can’t the same be said of us all?

F&F was a 2015 nominee for the National Book Award. It was also on NPR’s best books of 2015 list, as well as lauded by critic and layman alike. I thought it was ok.

Lotto eventually makes his mark upon the world as a playwright, and Groff switches between prose and script formats. This is a personal bias, but I am instantly jolted out of a story when I’m forced to read scripts, poems, or song lyrics. Rather than enhance, I find they detract, and I often skip over these sections. I have made exceptions, for example, Bats of the Republic, whose entire shtick was to present the story in a variety of different formats. But, in this particular case, it wasn’t working.

I don’t always need to like characters. I actually really, really, enjoy hating characters. But, with F&F,  I couldn’t drum up enough emotional attachment to care either way. Mathilde in particular, who is much more “vocal” in her opinions of others was bothersome.

I believe that you interpret books differently based on where you are in your life, particularly in regard to your emotional I.Q. (and right now I am so low on the I.Q. scale its pathetic). I’m at a juncture in my life that is tangential to the plot and rather than embrace it for what it was, it annoyed the heck out of me. The only other time this has happened to me was when I read Eat, Pray, Love. My friend, who after some serious kudos and a glowing review told me I absolutely HAD to read it, and I will absolutely love it. Wrong. I could barely finish it. Poor baby….BUT, I bet if I read it now I might have a different opinion.

I did enjoy Groff’s stylistic preferences. I was wondering how she would tell the flip side of the story without becoming too repetitive, but she pulled it off rather nicely. The writing wasn’t so good that it compensated for everything else, like Ruby for example, but it wasn’t the worst I’ve read either. Not entirely memorable, but an entertaining read nonetheless.

Pleasant Reading!

Review and Interview with Tiffany McDaniel: The Summer that Melted Everything

Tiffany McDaniel’s stunning debut novel, The Summer that Melted Everything, is everything dark and beautiful and scorching. When Fielding Bliss was a boy of 13, the Devil came to visit Breathed, OH. The tragedy left in his wake is a reminder that evil doesn’t walk among us, it’s inside of each and every one of us.

In the vein of writers like Stephan King, Summer is a charmed novel that will leave you guessing what’s real and what isn’t. Part psychological, part magical realism, Summer is infused with that creep factor that is the uncanny. McDaniel is a seriously gifted storyteller and the proof is in the pages. Full of quirky characters and colloquialism, Summer is a perfect blend of the odd and the profound.

We all have those things that keep us up in the night, and reading Summer is like taking a slice of childhood memory and turning it over in our hands to see inside the dark parts that are usually hidden from everybody else. Simply reading it is a strange form of catharsis even though it is fiction at its core (indeed, it may be more therapeutic because of it).  I was enchanted.

Tiffany McDaniel is a native of Ohio, and is, among other things, a poet, a playwright, and an artist. You can find more about her at her website at http://www.tiffanymcdaniel.com/ . ***She is currently holding a giveaway to coincide with her release date on July 25, 2016***. Pre-order the hardcover edition for eligibility. Prizes include audiobook editions of The Summer that Melted Everything, limited edition prints of a McDaniel original artwork, and more! You can find the rules and regulations here: http://www.tiffanymcdaniel.com/the-contest/

McDaniel was kind enough to allow us a brief interview, so without further ado…Tiffany McDaniel.

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Each chapter begins with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost, was it a defining source for The Summer that Melted Everything? Where else did you find your muse?

I first read Paradise Lost when I was in college.  I was immediately drawn to it because of that eternal battle of good v. evil.  The same battle that is found in The Summer that Melted Everything, which is why when I was thinking of my chapter titles I thought of only Paradise Lost.  Both Milton’s epic poem and my novel are exploring that of the fallen angel, but more so, that of the fallen man.  Bringing that biblical story of Satan’s undoing and placing it in the realm of men and women who are in essence trying to stay in their own bliss and paradise.  I only hope I made Milton proud by including his beautiful lines in my novel.

Another beautiful work I mention in The Summer that Melted Everything is 1984 by George Orwell.  My novel takes place during a summer in 1984, and without giving spoilers away, you’ll learn in the end of the novel why 1984 the novel and the year are tied together in this small town and small community trying to understand how so much can melt during the course of one hot summer.

Who are the writers that inspire you? Could you give us a short list of your favorite books?

I grew up on R.L. Stine and didn’t really read the literary heavyweights until later, so I can’t say a particular writer inspired me because I’ve been writing ever since I was a kid and writing a lot.  But as far as some of my favorite authors and books go there is Shirley Jackson.  I love all her work especially her short story classic “The Lottery” and her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  Donna Tartt’s novels The Little Friend and The Secret History.  I love Ray Bradbury’s complete collection, but especially Dandelion Wine.  I want to be buried with that novel.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is just lovely.  Agatha Christie is an author I always depend on to make me feel better.  She just writes those great cozy mysteries.  I read poets of all sorts, but one of my favorite poets is James Wright whose collection, Above the River, is more beautiful than I can say.

The Summer that Melted Everything is your debut novel, which is an incredible accomplishment. What would you say was the most difficult aspect of getting published, and what advice do you have to give for aspiring writers?

I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen.  I didn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine.  And it wasn’t a contract for that first novel, but for The Summer that Melted Everything that, while it is my first published novel, is actually my fifth or sixth novel written.  It is only the second novel to be submitted to editors though, aside from my first novel written.  Getting published is incredibly hard.  Starting out as that naïve eighteen year old I had no idea I had ahead of me eleven years of rejection and heartache.  So many times I just wanted to give up because there’s only so many times you can feel like you’re just a terrible writer and will never be published.  But I didn’t give up and that’s the advice I have for aspiring writers.  To never give up.

What does your writing process look like? Do you have any strange writing habits, or something that’s a little out of the ordinary?

I never write an outline or a synopsis.  I always start a new novel with two things.  The title and the first line.  It’s that first line and title that really determine what the novel is going to be about.  To date I have nine novels written, and when starting out with all of them I had no idea what they were going to be about or what characters would come to call the novel home.  Really for me, I just sit in front of the laptop and type what’s in my head that day.  I type this way until I get to the end and then I draft through and clean up and began to shape the story.  To answer your second question, I wish I could say I light a hundred candles and hum the theme song to Jaws, but I don’t have any strange writing habits.  It’s very boring really.  I just sit and type.

As a librarian, I am often confronted with the idea of the printed book becoming obsolete. As a writer, what is your take?

First off, let me say that some of my favorite childhood moments were spent in the library.  In my heaven there’s definitely a spot as there was in my town’s old library, where the shelves are metal and stacked full of dusty smelling books, in the back room by the open windows.  So thank you for your service as a librarian.  One of the most important careers, bringing free books to the people.  And to answer your question: I love the printed book.  I don’t read e-books or have an e-reader.  To me reading a paper book is more of an experience, while with an e-book the screen to me can sometimes feel like a barrier.  Like a concrete wall in the middle of a wildflower field.  I just love the way the paper has absorbed the ink and the very tactile feeling of turning the page is more enjoyable for me than the hardness of e-book.  With that being said, I know that in today’s world many people prefer to read an e-book.  My feeling on that is always I would rather have people read something as an e-book than not read at all.  There are people born today who will be so exposed to only technological devices that they may spend their entire life never reading an actual paper book.  But I don’t think paper books will ever disappear.  Books will always be one of those things that we can escape to when modern life or technology can seem overwhelming.  Books connect us to the hands of our ancestors because they held the same things.

And just for fun, and in keeping with our foodie theme. If you could describe The Summer that Melted Everything using culinary adjectives, what would they be? What’s your flavor?

I would say it’s like the good ol’ fashioned American cheeseburger with the world’s hottest chili pepper under the bun.  With a dish of chocolate ice cream on the side.  Melted, because it is the summer that did indeed melt everything.

Sounds delicious to me!!

Pleasant Reading!

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


H is for Hawk is the story of Helen Macdonald’s journey through the grief over her father’s death, and the Hawk that saved her. In the wake of her father’s death Macdonald tries her hand at flying the notoriously fierce and difficult Goshawk. Paralleled with a pseudo-biography of T.H. White, who also wrote a devastating treatise on training his own Goshawk, Macdonald leads us down a bloody, brutal rabbit hole where no bird can follow.

When I closed the book for the final time, I felt as though I knew Macdonald intimately. She has a way of writing that is incredibly eloquent and yet conversational. Through her experiences, Macdonald has extracted and buffed tiny pearls of wisdom, and paired them magnificently with the glamor and magic of medieval England.

But, as a forewarning, for some, the sheer beauty of her writing does not always compensate for the grit and grime that accompanies it. This is, after all, a story about grief. It is at times bleak, with some hard edges. The hawk is fierce, and so is Macdonald in her approach. Macdonald often claims she wanted to be as the hawk, “numb to the hurts of human life.” But though we see periods of this numbness in Macdonald, we ourselves are not immune.

And, though I fell in love with the book from the very first pages, it was not always easy to read. This is one of those books wherein what you get out of it will change significantly based on your values, upbringing, and even your location. City folk, I’m talking to you. Especially if you happen to be a vegan animal rights activist. I’ve heard this book described as “disgusting,” and was seen as a portrayal of exerting control over the uncontrollable.  

I personally did not take offense, but it’s more my style to be open to information whether it galls me or not. The more you know, right? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times, I’m a firm believer in reading what makes you uncomfortable. For all intents and purposes, it makes us better readers, and better people. Did I squirm a bit when White was quite obviously damaging his hawk irreparably? Yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that he did it, or that Macdonald used that knowledge to better her own skill set.

What I saw in Hawk was not tasteless or vulgar. I saw her hopelessness, her despair, her struggle to rise above it. I didn’t see animal cruelty; I saw a vision of a rich and long standing tradition. I saw the love for her hawk. Once you get past the jargon, the grit of the hunt, and the unfortunate retelling of White, you will be amazed at the beauty you will find. I urge you to read it ‘til it’s over. You’ll be better off for it.

  

 

If at Birth You Don’t Succeed by Zach Anner

Let’s take a minute and talk about Zach Anner. I had actually come across this link to an episode of Workout Wednesday, one of Anner’s many YouTube channel shows. It had me laughing to be sure. I definitely had a “what-the-actual-f” moment while I watched. I moved on not giving it another thought, and then his people got in touch with my people and recommended his book If at Birth You Don’t Succeed. What a weird coincidence!? Maybe it was destiny. Also, I actually don’t have any people….

Anner is definitely backed by some HUGE names: John Meyer, Lena Dunham, Rainn Wilson, even Oprah for pete’s sake. Anner got his first big break from the OWN network when he appeared on and consequently won Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star. His show was called Rollin With Zach and aired for one season. His web series include Riding Shotgun, Workout Wednesday, Have a Little Faith, and Top of the Monday (Good News With SoulPancake). You gotta give the guy credit for getting out there.

If at Birth You Don’t Succeed is the story of Anner’s journey to YouTube mega stardom and virality. Anner is a funny guy. Someone who can make light of the dark. He has a real gift of optimism and positivity. If you are struggling with literally anything in your life, Anner’s message is uplifting and supportive. It’s the kind of book you want to read to feel inspired to be better. With that being said….Anner is still a 30 something year old dude. So there are some definite dude things happening here. Toilet humor, sex…toilet humor. There is certainly a frat boy vibe underlying everything.

While I have to say that Anner definitely puts out those feel-good, human-interest stories about his life, there is something distinctly “college application essay” about the whole thing that kind of threw me off. It smacked faintly of the hard sell, and that instantly makes me a little uncomfortable. Throw in the fact that Anner has cerebral palsy, and well, what can I even say to that?? I can’t. BUT, the guy is incredible. Did he make me laugh? Yes. Do I admire his perseverance? Yes. Do I envy his inhibition? Of course. Is this the best book I’ve ever read? No. BUT, I think it may do people a lot of good to get in on his perspective. Sadly, I think that we are missing out on voices like Anner’s, both in the media and in general. It’s a good thing his own voice is loud, and bright, and clear enough to carry a long, long way.

You can find more information about Zach and his book at ifatbirthyoudontsucceed.com

Pleasant Reading! 
 

The Blondes by Emily Schultz

I love book club days. I host them once a month at my branch. Hands down, every time we read a book that no one seems to like we have THE BEST discussions. Every time! I love it! The Blondes was no exception (except that I actually thought it was a decent read unlike my older counterparts). I like to push my group a little bit into unfamiliar territory. I try to get them out of their James Pattersons and Danielle Steeles. I want them to read books that they normally wouldn’t take a second look at. AND, if I have to read for work, well then I’m just gonna come right out and say it, I want to read books that I like, you know!? (Fun Fact: A “!?” is called an interabang. Isn’t that fabulous!?)

So, while my peeps had a hard time getting past the whole “zombie apocalypse” thing, and thought it was all rather silly, the discussion allowed us to get deeper into the novel and revealed some pretty choice things. I’ve actually had a number of patron’s approach me and tell me that they read the books not because they like them, but because I lead them to getting something new out of it. How awesome is that? Makes me feel like I’m doing my job. Spreading the bug. It’s catching isn’t it? But, I digress. And, please excuse my terrible, terrible pun.

Hazel Hayes is a redhead getting by in a world of SHV, Siphonaptera Human Virus, which affects only blondes (natural and well…bleached). For those of you that have not specialized in Latin or in Entomology, Siphonaptera are fleas, which is how “they” think the disease was transmitted. But interestingly enough, Wikipedia (what in the world did we do before the almighty Wikipedia?) says that “[Fleas] are wingless, with mouthparts adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood. Fleas are external parasites.” As a satirical commentary on everything from perceptions of beauty, to human interactions, to mass media, to consumerism, to inequality (you name it you can make a parallel to it), a simple description of a flea does a pretty great job of summing up the most basic of points that (I think) Schultz is making.

Once infected, the blondes exhibit superhuman strength, unintelligibility, and violence. They pretty much turn rabid and destroy anything in their path. Think “Vegan Zombies,” although there was a particularly intense (and my favorite) scene where a toddler goes off and starts biting people. Don’t worry, that was not a spoiler. Anyways, the gore stays at a minimum, though the novel recounts its fair share of tragedy and hardship. One reader said they were left feeling quite cold. While I didn’t exactly feel warm and fuzzy, I was certainly diverted and I definitely had a few chuckles. I think Schultz really hit her mark, and I thought the book was well thought out and put together. You don’t get a lot of closure, but, hey, that’s how life just is sometimes.

In a world full of Kardashians, be an Emily.

Pleasant Reading!

PS. Schultz’s rise to fame is a pretty awesome story. You can read her viral blog posts here: Spending the Stephen King Money