If there was ever a book to make you crave food, this is it.
I wanted good, delicious Chinese food every time I cracked this book open. You can basically smell it while you read—the hot, sizzling spices, fried rice, heaping plates of beef and eggplant with garlic sauce (my favorite), and bowls brimming with wonton soup—SO GOOD.
I didn’t quite know what to expect diving into this (besides hunger pangs) but I was pleasantly surprised by an inventive and humanistic tale similar in style to Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere or Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World.
I loved each of the characters and their struggles. Each chapter continues the story from a different characters’ perspective, so the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of the whole story—the good, the bad, the incendiary, and the ugly. From the brothers who co-own the Beijing Duck House that was their father’s dream and masterpiece and the less-than-ideal business decisions one of them has been making, to the servers who have been working at the restaurant for just about ever, to the newer generation and their own struggles.
I loved the entanglements of all the characters, how the book reminisced about the past and how where we come from influences who we are, whether we decide to fight it or let it be a part of our story. Li has a true talent for the craft of characters, from dialogue to being able to switch back and forth between all their perspectives and making them feel like distinct people.
There are many different types of relationships handled very deftly here: brothers, sons and mothers, unlikely lovers, young lovers, business partners, coworkers, spouses, teens and their parents—the list goes on. This web is tangled even further as many characters play multiple roles. The book uses the setting of the restaurant and the hierarchy within the restaurant as a metaphor for the rest of the world—who you are when you are at work is not necessarily who you are when your shift ends. But what happens when all of that comes crumbling down?
Identity is a tricky thing. It is tied to our perception of ourselves but also how other people see us. Where we come from, what we do, who we spend time with—all these things shape who we are. But it is not always easy to craft or change this, even if we desperately want something else. This book is a lot about identity, the finding and shifting of it, through food, the past, and those around us.
This is a book with heart—a true feast for the heart. It has moments of comedy and absurdity, but then vulnerability, loss, and heartache where the reader sees what it means to be part of a community that is so tight it is more like a family. And as it is with families—they know nothing about each other’s inner lives and constantly get on each other’s nerves. I ate this book up—Li is a huge talent and I can’t wait to see what comes from her next.
I have not made my love for Wolas’s debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, a secret. It is a brilliant literary work that deserves its comparisons to pillars like Irving, McCullers, Capote, Didion. But it also stands alone and shines with a unique voice—so unlike anything I’ve read before not only in story, but in character, strength of the vision that is created on the page, and sheer enormity of the tangible world and people that come alive. It deserves to be read and savored. It is the type of book that gets into the deepest nooks and farthest niches of your heart and forces the beating, reminds you why you are alive, or maybe why you need to start living.
Yeah, it’s that good.
So I did not enter into The Family Tabor lightly. I had high expectations.
While Joan focuses on one specific character and her struggles, Tabor offers multiple perspectives, switching the narrative view every chapter to a different character of the well-to-do Tabor family.
They have all gathered to celebrate the patriarch, Henry Tabor, who is being named Man of the Decade. But though the family is close, not everything is as perfect as it appears and just a tiny tear at the seams of the façade offers a peek behind the curtain of the past and present struggles different members of the family are all privately facing.
The book has many, many strengths, the first of which would be its beautiful use of language. Wolas has a true talent with words and she does not squander it. This is the type of book you can barely get through a page without wanting to read some sentence over and over, or noticing a carefully constructed or unique phrase, or a detailed description you want to mark with a sticky note.
The characters are also deftly wrought, as to me, both their internal dialogue and their interactions with others throughout the plot ring very true. This novel is very much about the divide between public and private—what we share with the world and what we hide away from it. As the reader, we get to see both sides and I loved that.
This book is also very much about family power dynamics: the expectations of family, living up to your parents or your siblings even if the disparity is only in your mind, and trying to hide any flaws and not be too vulnerable or naked in front of them. Though the Tabors seem open and warm with each other, they are very guarded and keep their secrets to themselves, licking their wounds in private.
A thoughtful and meditative book concerned with the human experience and the way our past can dictate our future if we let it, The Family Tabor is not one you’ll want to zoom through. It is a delicate dessert you'll want to taste every flavor of and truly enjoy. The story is quiet and introspective, but not without drama and high stakes.
The past can dictate the future, but we can also learn from it and change ourselves in the present to create a better future. I don't think that's a new lesson or such a revelatory one, but the deft way Wolas peels back the layers illuminates how what we inherit from our parents and their parents and so on does not need to define us, though it will always be within us, coursing just beneath the surface. After all, blood is thicker than water, as they say.
Anyone with a true love of literature and a longing for the great classics who understood that language and the creation of compelling characters were the cornerstone of good storytelling will fall in love with Wolas’s work.
I am a lifelong fan and will always look forward to reading her new releases and rereading my favorites too.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for providing me with an advance copy of this book.
The highly anticipated novel follows a young mother and exotic dancer who lives in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has been convicted of a horrible crime. She tells her story, the narrative entangling with some of the people she encounters, detailing life at prison, her life before, and how she got to where she is.
If you like Orange is the New Black, this is the book for you. I know that comparison will probably be all over the place, but this book really has a lot of the elements that I love about that show. Witty interesting characters shown to have layers and be real people behind all their banter, interesting prison insights, backstory, and even better, it doesn’t have Piper. (I’m sorry, but she’s so annoying!)
Instead, you’ll fall for the tough, smart Romy Hall, who doesn’t have a glamorous life, but does what she needs to get by. She doesn’t hold prejudices or punches and tells her story like it is without trying to make it pretty. I like her.
The main thrust of the plot following Romy was what I was most interested in and I loved her voice. I wanted to spend more time with this character! It took me a while to really get into the style of the short paragraphs and the back and forth of how she revealed her story, telling a small piece of it and then going off on a tangent about something entirely different before circling back, but though it dragged sometimes, I mostly liked it. It is a bit difficult to read in loonngg stretches.
But overall, I thought the narrative was a little scattered. The way it would jump between different characters narration was sometimes jarring and it took me a sentence or a paragraph to figure out who was talking and what part of the story they were telling. It felt like an unnecessary way to transition. Some of the characters felt a little extraneous and over-written to me, like I wasn’t sure why we were hearing from them at all (Ted Kaczynski?) and as their narratives were not all wound up within the book, those areas could have been trimmed.
The book also felt a little unfinished to me, like there is more that could have been gleaned from the themes of self-imposed isolation (what with all the Thoreau/Kaczynski/woodsy scenes) and the institutional isolation that Romy and the other inmates experience. I don’t know exactly what the book was trying to say about that. Perhaps it is there and I just didn’t get it!
But the book is also interested in injustice, gender in prison, and poverty and other socioeconomic factors that really do affect how the system runs. Too much is being taken on by the book and the narrative doesn’t cover any of it fully.
For me, the disjointed narrative and scattered style—jumping between first and third person, the difficulty in discerning who was speaking (or why they had a voice in the narrative at all), and other reasons really disconnected me from the text. I felt that it lacked the raw emotionality that should have (and could have) been conveyed by a book about such important topics as the realities and injustices of the justice system.
Not quite what I expected, but still a very interesting story by a talented and compelling writer.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
“Am I, this trembling, hallucinating ball of sinew, really any stranger of a creature, any more improbable of an object, than a ghost?”
If you are looking for something a bit different to read, something literary, but with a compelling narrative and totally innovative plot, this is it.
The main story revolves around Nick and Hannah, a couple who are not quite sure if their relationship will make it. To try something new and escape the city, Hannah takes a job as the live-in director of the Wright Historic House, a museum in the middle of nowhere dedicated to a nineteenth-century philosopher who barely anyone has heard of.
There is something about the house, a creaky old maze, enticing and creepy at turns, that draws Hannah deeper and deeper inside Edmund Wright’s research. Nick, the narrator of the story, doesn’t realize that something is wrong with her until she is missing one morning. And then he is left retracing her steps to see what happened, what he missed, and if she can be found.
I loved this one. It will almost certainly be in my top ten for the year. (A huge thanks to Belletrist, without whom I wouldn’t have read this one!)
This is not your typical ghost story or haunted house novel—but that is one of the reasons why I loved it. “Haunted house” might be my favorite narrative to read—there is just so much you can do with that idea! I have read a bunch of them and am always looking for new ones . . . (suggestions please!) And this one tried something really new to great effect. I loved every minute of it.
I spent a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time thinking about and trying to wrap my head around ghosts and the idea of haunting as it is presented in this book. First of all, it takes the story a long time to get to these elements—in fact, it is definitely more about the people, the living people and their own psychology than any ghosts.
But in any case, how they haunt, if they even do haunt, and what a haunting might be (something your own mind creates the space for? Something enacted upon you?)—I don’t want to get into it too far since that is part of the mystery that the book threads along, but it presents a very unique concept of ghosts and what a haunted house is.
I wouldn’t say that this is a scary book by any means. It is quiet, introspective, and lyrically haunting. There is a lot of character development and such beautiful writing, but a very ephemeral nature. It touches on depression, stress, and the potential of the psyche through the lens of a relationship—how much do you really know about your partner?
Nick, as he narrates, is really telling Hannah’s story, but there is this gauzy veil around her; we don’t really know what she was thinking or feeling, only his interpretation of it. I enjoyed seeing how his thoughts grew and changed across the book.
I found the plot to be compelling—I didn’t see what was coming and the mix of an intriguing plot, a good psychological mind puzzle, and great writing that I could linger on was a perfect combination for me. I like a book I can think about, puzzle through, one with characters that feel real and complex, and one with enough buildup to let me imagine that there is more to the world of the story than we know.
Firstly, this book probably wins the award for my favorite cover this year, at least so far! I was instantly drawn in by the design, not even knowing what the book was about—and that is always a good thing. You can spout about not judging a book by its cover as much as you like, but it really does matter. And this one is a winner.
The basic plot revolves around an unnamed narrator who is a new arrival at a boarding school for orphaned boys. He has strange experiences at the school right from the start: no one seems to like him, but they act like they know him, there are weird voices in the night, the principal is definitely a wacko, and his assignment with garden duty turns out to be downright horrific.
But what is really going on at this school? And can he trust anyone to help him figure out the mystery?
Right from the start, this book is utterly disquieting. There is just something off, not quite right. The register is very erudite, but the narrator is supposed to be a young boy. The narrative begins quite abruptly. It is difficult to pin down exactly where this is occurring. And all the characters seem to know more than they are letting on, or perhaps it is our narrator that we can't trust. . .
You see where I'm going.
It gets under your skin. I just wanted to know what exactly was going on and who I could trust!
The book very much reminded me of Lord of the Flies--though there are a few adults, the boys seem to be the ones in control, making the rules, and there is an insular and heightened quality to the story, as though it is going on in a bubble outside of everything else.
It definitely is not a straightforward narrative. This book is more in the realm of a high literary fever dream. Though it has a (mostly) conclusive ending, there is not any hand-holding going on here. You are going to have to dig in and work a little to read this one.
I really enjoyed this book. It gave me vibes similar to I'm Thinking of Ending Things but with a dash of comic relief and some well-timed dialogue. Winnette has an interesting mind, and I'd love to see what comes out of it next.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this to read and review.
This is a stunning debut—multilayered with characters who have unique voices, strong desires, and each their own arc through the story. It is a very realistically written book, both in the characters and setting, which feels eerily too close to home.
The new Personhood Amendment grants all liberties and rights to every embryo. A small, sleepy, rainy fishing town in Oregon hosts the four main voices of this book: the biographer, the daughter, the wife, and the mender, all women who are on their own journeys through understanding these new laws and dealing with challenges that women have always faced: motherhood—whether wanted or not, persecution for lifestyle, accepted gender roles, and their own pursuits of life, freedom, and happiness in the face of social or political objection.
There is also a fifth voice of the novel, a little-known polar-ice explorer, who the biographer has been trying to write a book about. She gets a small section between each chapter, usually beautifully poetic, often with crossed out words, and I loved these interludes into a story of strength and resilience filtered through the mind of the biographer at work.
Even though there is a dystopian near-future setting for this book, it is not the ruling force, unlike so many of these highly popular stylized novels today. Rather it is the characters who run the show and we see them living their lives as completely normal people, some influenced by the changes in the laws more than others.
What is more interesting is to see them each grow as people, independently choosing their own paths to find out who they are and what they want, despite what society (which could mean their own community, or the world at large, depending) thinks of them. Each one is such a strong example of how you can overcome restrictions to get what you want, or change your path in life to move toward a better life.
One thing I'd like to address are all the comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale--this book is nothing like that. I guess it's got such good name recognition right now that it pulls a lot of weight but if you're expecting high dystopia, shocking and brutal conditions for women, and more, to misquote Sir Ian McKellen, this is not the book you're looking for.
Red Clocks is dystopic, yes, but it is on the mild side compared to Atwood's masterpiece and that is where the similarities end. It is completely its own story. Zumas has created a story that is almost more frightening because the background of what the characters are living in, could be just over the horizon for us. You never know. And, they just live through it, every day, like normal—life goes on. While I have a hard time comparing anyone to Margaret Atwood, I just think you're going to enjoy this one if you give it a try.
It really spoke to me as my first 2018 novel, because these are themes that I am contemplating myself—trying to start fresh and overcome obstacles—often ones that I've placed in my own way—to truly start living and doing what it is I believe I'm meant to do.
I'm done walking through every day just going through the motions—I want this to be the year I can look back on and see that I accomplished something, some movement toward my dreams. And it doesn't have to be huge, but it has to be me. I'm the only one who can do it.
No matter what your views may be on abortion—that really isn't the point of this book. Zumas has dug into the lives of normal women and found resiliency, strength, and a desire to change their own lives.
Isn't that what we all want?
My thanks to Little Brown for my finished copy of this book.
It's that time of year again. . .
How did this happen? It is so crazy to me that another year has blown by, though this one was no walk through the park.
But we made it and I know one of the things that kept me sane were books. Books are like an escape—somewhere we can pretend that the rest of the crappy stuff in the world isn't going on, or see a different version of reality that is even scarier than the one we live in, or just laugh for a while, or go on an adventure, or a thousand different things. Books are truly magic that way. I read 145 books in 2017, which is probably an all-time high for me, but I think I really needed books this year, as a safe place to go when it seemed like the rest of the world might just fall apart.
In other areas of my life, I feel like I went a bit inert. I didn't write as much as I wanted to—I certainly wasn't as active on this blog as I could have been! But I am planning for next year, planning that goes beyond just flimsy resolutions. I want to get things done.
Beyond all that, I read some great books, some that really stuck with me. I hope you might take a look at my top ten and be inspired to give these books a try sometime in 2018. I'd love to hear your favorite books too, so I can add them to my list.
THE RESURRECTION OF JOAN ASHBY by Cherise Wolas
Though I usually have trouble choosing one solid favorite book of the year, that slot goes to this debut novel with no contest. At 544 pages, it will take a bit of commitment, but every page is truly a gift.
Exploring both Joan's sprawling life and her own writing is such a dynamic and emotional experience and makes this book unique, but I stayed for the beautiful story of exploration of self and discovery of identity—something we can all connect with.
My thanks to Flatiron, and especially Nancy, for providing my finished copy of this book.
HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado
This short story collection is a must—for women, for readers, for people who just lived through all the crap of 2017.
The stories here pulse with originality, crossing all the genre lines from sci-fi and fantasy to experimental to crime drama and beyond. She doesn't stop for a breath and barely lets the reader breathe either, pushing them into her characters—their space, their experiences, their bodies—in every story. Where she is most successful, she leaves the reader obscured in the fog; you have to let the stories sit with you and entangle with them emotionally, sometimes more than intellectually. Her writing reminded me of Angela Carter at times.
My thanks to Graywolf Press for providing my finished copy of this book.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
This one is probably not much of a surprise to see here, but I think Saunders is one of the finest writers of the modern age and it was great to see his first novel—a genre- and form-bending (if not breaking) masterpiece—get a lot of attention all year. I both read and then listened to the audio (in that order), which if you like the book I definitely recommend. The audio version has a full cast, sort of like a play, where each character has a different voice actor.
Besides just breaking novelistic conventions, the plot and characters of BARDO are brilliantly conceived and developed. It is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, and truly weird story in the way that only Saunders can invent.
My thanks to Random House for providing my finished copy of this book.
TORNADO WEATHER by Deborah E. Kennedy
This is the story of a young girl who goes missing, which doesn't seem like such an innovative storyline, but it really tells the story of all the people who live in her small town, following a group of them after her disappearance as the continue to go about their daily lives. Each of them have some sort of connection to her, whether it be strong or just tangential, but in the end the story is more about the people left behind—an innovative viewpoint for a mystery story. I can't recommend this one enough.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my finished copy of this book.
THE FACT OF A BODY: A MURDER AND A MEMOIR by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
I am a true crime buff (murderinos unite) so this one was definitely on my radar early in the year. What I didn't expect was its beautiful and haunting mix of memoir and reporting elements. The writing is simply stunning, the type of writing that really stops you in your tracks and makes you remember why you love reading so much in the first place. And the story, though not some famous serial killer or the like, goes much deeper and really dug into my heart as I read it.
If you read The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson and loved that, this one is for you too.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my ARC of this book.
HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I'm glad that two books can be represented on my list this year. I just read this one a few days ago, but there was no question that it would join the ranks of my top list. Gay has such a powerful voice and telling her story is obviously not something that she takes lightly. This book carries the weight of the actions enacted against her, how she has tried to deal with it, and also realizes that her story is not the only story out there. That is a lot.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent
This is not an easy book to read. It has difficult moments that have been very divisive, but there is a such a beauty, strength, and reality in the main character of Turtle, one that felt very true to me. I loved the way the natural world and her movement through it was described so fully, but her interiority was kept close to the vest; it takes a long time for her to come into her own.
This book is probably not for everyone but I loved the writing and can't wait to see what Tallent comes up with next.
SHADOWBAHN by Steve Erickson
This book is doing something so different and interesting, it is difficult to ignore. With fiction becoming something that feels sadly mass-produced—one book does well and then six months later I see a bunch of books come out that all seem exactly the same as that one—it is a true pleasure to read something original, not only in narrative, but it structure and style as well.
The story here can't get any weirder, which in itself I love, but the writing is stunning and Erickson's innovative thinking puts him in my top list.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. How have I not read her debut yet? This layered book deals so acutely with the finer points of character, really showing how there is no black and white, no right or wrong, only shades of gray. Maybe this is a lesson that our whole country needs to learn right now. I loved all the characters, likable or not, and the way the stories come together is both heartbreaking and emotionally cleansing. She is a talent.
THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
Another huge one at 582 pages, I might consider this one required reading for the state of our nation today. It is not quiet about bigotry and hatred for all classes of people who have been othered, and Boyne has a real knack for showing both the absurdity and the terror of such situations and how it has a lasting impact. A beautiful and important novel.
My thanks to Crown/Hogarth for providing my ARC of this book.
There are definitely others I could recommend and there are others that I didn't get to that I have a suspicion would fight for a spot on this list. Well, there's always next year!
I am hoping to get plenty of reading done in 2018 of course, but I'm making a resolution to focus more on my current collection of books and reading some classics and other books rather than just frontlist titles. We will see how it goes—there's a whole world of books of course, and I'd like to get started right away!
I mentioned reading two epic novels back-to-back in my post about The Resurrection of Joan Ashby. Well, here comes the other one.
John Boyne returns with The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a novel spanning the lifetime of a Dublin-born lad named Cyril Avery (but he’s not a real Avery, you know, as he was adopted, and as his adoptive mother and father like to remind him all the time). Cyril knows pretty early that he is gay, but any sort of homosexual lifestyle is not condoned in the slightest in Ireland while he is growing up there, so he spends much of his life hiding who he is and, for various reasons, not really understanding what it means to be loved.
Navigating love, tragic loss, confusion, success, family, and the curious cosmic turnings of the universe across several countries and multiple decades, Cyril tries to fit in, to find his place in the world, and to be at peace with who he is.
Boyne has an innate skill for dialogue, cutting surgically straight through situations with such clear, concise language you can see the heart of the matter literally beating right there, on the surface of the page. It makes you want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, while at the same time cry because it is so obvious that some people just won’t ever be able to unclench their hearts and relinquish their hate.
This book could almost be required reading in our nation today with the state of things the way they are. The book lays out the types of bigotry, hatred, violence, and even nonchalant dismissal of people who are deemed other and therefore wrong, shining a fierce light on the behavior of people toward other people. In the end, we are all people who deserve the same amount of respect and chance to life their life no matter what you’ve been conditioned to believe.
This book discusses gay men, unmarried women who are pregnant, people with AIDS, and other minority groups who have been and sadly sometimes continue to be marginalized, ostracized, and even brutalized and murdered for their supposed otherness. The book takes on these topics in a way that is direct and real, through the history of place and how thoughts and opinions changed (or didn’t) as the years passed, just as Cyril experienced them.
While an inherently tragic figure who makes more than a few mistakes and finds himself in tumultuous situations more than a couple of times, Cyril is a very likable character who is the reader’s constant eyes and ears in this world. I found myself getting indignant on his behalf more than once, coming up with some choice remarks for his abusers, but Cyril tended to hold back and was even-keeled, just a constant observer.
I found him endearing and flawed, and by the end of the novel, I was missing him already, sorely wishing I could have seen more of the intervening years of his life that the novel skipped.
In frank, everyday conversations that Cyril has with the wide cast of characters, conversations that are full of easy hate, lack of understanding, and sometimes friendly voices of reason as well, the reader develops a sense of the world he lived in, the fear of persecution he experienced, and the trauma that not being able to be yourself can inflict on a person. A world that many people like Cyril did live in, and a world that many people are currently living in, right here in the freedom of the United States in 2017.
On a smaller scale, it is also the story of Cyril’s personal discovery, a coming of age piece told over the years of his life, as he figures out who he is. He and Joan Ashby are not so different after all—everyone is looking for a way to be happy, to find some semblance of what that might mean, and then catch it and try to hold onto it with all their might—with all their heart.
Thank you to Hogarth Press for sending me an ARC of this title.
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I don’t think anyone dives into a 500+ page book lightly; it’s somewhat of an undertaking. But I have to admit, I do tend to be drawn to bigger books, and although they take a bit of commitment, I have had many good experiences with long books. In fact, I've just finished two back to back, two that were both deeply emotional, propulsive, extended saga-like books—for the characters and the reader—I need nothing more than to lay on the floor and decompress. They were long and brilliant, and I went on quite a journey with the characters. What more could you ask for?
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby is without a doubt in my best-of-2017 list for the year. It is the type of book that as I came closer to the end, I found myself reading smaller chunks at a time, savoring the book and trying to keep it from ending. It is a phenomenal achievement and it is so impressive that it is Cherise Wolas’s debut novel.
The book centers around Joan Ashby, who, in the beginning, is a wildly successful literary author in her mid-twenties. After having sworn off men, love, marriage, and especially children, she gets married and finds herself expecting a child. Knowing full well that it will change her life and the trajectory that she has in mind for herself, she decides to have the baby anyway, to start a family and make her husband happy, though it isn't what she wants. One becomes two, and her writing, though she tries to keep it alive, gets pushed to the background in the intervening years as motherhood consumes her.
The novel is an exploration of self and identity, what it means to find yourself and how your experiences and choices collect and culminate to make you who you are. It is devastating, opening, and ultimately a redemptive story—one that I felt very at home in, despite not having much in common with Joan’s personal struggles.
The character of Joan is so richly rendered that she feels very real, so real, that I expected to be able to walk into a bookstore and find one of her own titles sitting there on the shelf. I loved that bits of her novels were worked into this book; they were an unique passageway not only into her own mind but even more so, into how others chose to view her.
Not only is the story compelling, but the writing is just exquisite. This is the type of literary novel that you want to get completely lost in. Rich descriptions of place and vivid depictions of people (not just characters, but seemingly three-dimensional people) just permeate each page.
During the passages taken from Joan’s books, I often found myself so sucked into the new and gripping narrative of her work that I would completely forget about the main thrust of the plot, or why I was getting to read pieces of her pages anyway. Now that is good writing.
Joan is not a perfect character by any means. She is just figuring out what it means to be happy, to make those she cares about happy, and to live a life that means something—to leave something worthwhile behind. As so many of us do, she struggles with her path in life, and whether or not the reader identifies with her directly, that narrative thread is one that we are all familiar with. The “who am I” part of life where we are just grope about in the dark, searching for some semblance of an answer.
It is hard to explain why I identified with this book so much, but sometimes things find you at the right moment, just when you are looking for something, even if you don't know exactly what it is is. book was soul-searching and redemptive for me, reminding me why I love books so much in the first place. Why I read, why I want to write. Why books are important.
I can’t recommend this book more highly. Not only will it top my list this year, but I will be recommending it for a long time to come.
Thank you so much to Flatiron Books for sending me a finished copy of this book.
Get your copy of The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Find out more about the author, Cherise Wolas
Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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Read on for an interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
This summer is getting hot. So hot all I want to do is stay inside with a big glass of iced tea and a good book, away from the burning rays of the sun. But what happens when the book brings the heat to you?
This book really hit me in ways I didn't expect. For all the bright, dazzling sunshine in it, this is a very dark book.
It is the story of a town turning on its itself, on its own humanity.
It is about loss and grief, and the blaming, paranoia, and mad rage that can follow.
It is about what heat can do to a mind, or perhaps just what the mind blinds itself to and then blames on other elements.
It is a coming-of-age story—but not the warm and fuzzy one that is usually associated with that term.
The summer of 1984, Fielding Bliss's father invites the devil to Breathed. When a scrawny thirteen-year-old black boy shows up claiming to accept that invitation, it is not what anyone expected. But then the heat comes. And unfortunate accidents start piling up, mysteriously connected to the boy who calls himself Sal. Is he really the devil? And what is going on in the previously quiet and quaint town of Breathed, Ohio?
Fielding narrates his story from the future, where he is an old man, still licking the wounds from his past and suffering—for what, we don't yet know. But this technique puts a cloud of dread over the whole book. Something wicked this way comes, but you'll have to read on to find out.
As the summer progresses, the heat stifles everything and things go from bad to worse with secrets coming out— including secrets about Fielding's own family—innocents caught in the crossfire, and even Fielding's neighbor turning everyone against Sal in a strange religious fervor.
The book examines good and evil, presenting the situation bare, sometimes even metaphorically and through Fielding's eyes, you as the reader are the judge. Who is right and who is wrong? Can this even be decided?
The prose is unexpected, sometimes strange or unfamiliar in its description, but always lyrical, something I was continuously wrapping my mind around while reading. McDaniel is a very unique writer and her influences from southern gothic writers and other literature are keenly felt, but adapted in a way all her own.
The book is highly stylized and more like a fairytale than realistic fiction, hovering just above reality and told in a heightened state. But somehow, the little town of Breathed is meant to exist in its own world, and Fielding is trapped there, not only in the summer of 1984, but even later in his life, even just in his mind.
For me the real revelation doesn't lie in who the devil actually is, but in how everyone reacts to who they think he is, or what they are told to think. Perhaps it is that there is that spark of evil inside all of us, waiting for that heat wave to catch flame.
And now, a short interview with author Tiffany McDaniel!
Shelf Stalker: What are you reading right now?
Tiffany McDaniel: I am reading Ruth Franklin’s bio of Shirley Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life. Jackson is a wonderful writer, so it’s nice to be able to learn more about her and her life.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
TM: I still have lots of reading to do, but so far my favorite authors are:
Ray Bradbury—I love his novel, Dandelion Wine. It’s a beautiful, melancholic story that touches on those experiences we have coming-of-age.
Shirley Jackson—I still have yet to read her entire collection, but one of my favorite novels of hers is We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A wonderfully told story of two sisters wrapped around the mystery of who poisoned the rest of their family.
James Wright—A poet from my land of Ohio. Above the River is the entire collection of his writing. His voice is a beautiful contribution to the poetic verse.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
TM: There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world, experienced by both humans and animals. I’ve always thought the superpower to heal and remove pain would be something that one could do a lot of good with.
SS: OK, on to the book!
I know you are from Ohio, but can you tell me how you got the idea for this book?
TM: The novel started first as a title. It was one of those hot Ohio summers that I felt like I was melting. Out of true heat, the novel was born. I start writing a new novel with two things: the title and the first line. Because I don’t outline or plan the story ahead, the title and the first line work together to shape the entire rest of the story.
SS: What was the purpose of having the book set specifically in 1984?
TM: When I was thinking about this story, the 1980s came to mind. When I think of that decade, I think of the neon colors, the big ambitions, and the big hair. It seems like a decade-long summer to me, which I thought made the perfect setting for this particular summer in the book. I chose 1984 in particular because it aligned with my George Orwell 1984 theme. Orwell’s novel is all about herd mentality and the importance of preserving individual thought. This is something the characters in my novel deal with, especially when it comes to answering the question: Who is the real devil?
SS: I loved how heat was an integral and constant part of the narrative—I really felt its presence while reading! Can you talk about why heat is so important to the book?
TM: The heat was an interesting character to write, and I say character because the heat is a character that developed just as the other characters around it did. The arrival of the heat coincides with the arrival of the boy claiming to be the devil. The heat allows for a certain “hellish” atmosphere, all the while becoming the evidence for those who believe this boy to be the devil. The heat has not only a physical effect on the characters, but an emotional and mental one as well. Without the heat, you don’t have the same story.
SS: Fielding acts as a sort of an outside narrator to the events of the novel—he reminded me of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Why are his eyes the ones we see the story through?
TM: I wanted to explore this story through the eyes of someone coming-of-age. I chose thirteen years old because that’s an age when most of us began to shed the skin of our innocence and take on the maturity of who will be as adults. It’s also the age they say Joan of Arc began to hear her voices, so it seems a divine age as well. All the novels I’ve written thus far are told through first person. From the first line, I have the narrator, and his or her voice will deliver the rest of the story. Fielding was the right character to deliver this story because it is through him that we understand the relationships and dynamics of his family and of his community, both before and after the devil’s arrival. The story couldn’t be told through the eyes of Sal because Sal needs to remain a mystery to us, and a first person lens on his story would have opened up the mystery just a little too much. But with Fielding we get the story through a lens that allows us to be both outside and inside the mystery as it unfolds.
SS: The book examines evil as a part of the human condition. But evil isn't necessarily black and white. To what extent do you feel this is true? Or, why were you interested in pursuing this as a subject?
TM: I’ve always been interested in good v. evil, and I think on some level I’ll always be exploring this. But more than that, I’ve always been interested in that gray area between good and evil, the area I think most of us live in. With these characters in the novel, you’ll see that they are all capable of good and evil. Even the villain of the story has his moments where he is revealed to be more than the evil he bears. It’s about nothing being clear cut, and just because someone is called “devil” doesn’t mean they are devilish. Ultimately, it's a story that explores what it is to be human, and the grief and the happiness of that very existence.
SS: Can you tell me about your writing process? Like, do you write a certain amount every day? At a certain time of the day? Do you take lots of notes first or just go straight to the computer?
TM: I don’t have a routine, probably because I’ve never been a very scheduled person. I seem to work in chaos and am always trying to stay or get organized. I’m an insomniac so sometimes I write at night. Sometimes during the day. I don’t have a particular word or page count I strive for. It’s like going to a big faucet with a big bucket. You turn the faucet on and sometimes you have a lot coming out, sometimes it’s just a drip. The trick is to be present. There are lots of distractions in today’s world, so the best thing we can do is to turn off the noise and focus only on the page in front of us. My process is that I don’t take notes. I don’t outline, or plan the story ahead. I think if you plan a story too much, it can domesticate the story, and I like to preserve the story’s wild soul.
SS: Do you have anything else in the works right now?
TM: I have eight completed novels. I should say that while The Summer that Melted Everything is my first published novel, it’s actually my fifth or sixth novel written. I wrote my first novel when I was eighteen, and wouldn’t get a publishing contract until I was twenty-nine for The Summer that Melted Everything. It was a long eleven-year journey to publication, full of rejection and perseverance. I write darker literary fiction and I was often told I was risky to publish, which is something I think female authors hear more than their male counterparts. As far as what's next for me, well, I've returned to that very first novel I wrote when I was eighteen. It’s titled, The Chaos We’ve Come From and it's inspired by my mother's coming-of-age in southern Ohio from the 1950s to the death of her father in the early 1970s. It’s been fourteen years since I first wrote this novel, so it feels like a good time to return to this story and to these characters.
A huge thanks to Tiffany McDaniel for sending me a copy of her book and being so generous with her time to answer my questions!
Get your copy of The Summer that Melted Everything
Find out more about Tiffany McDaniel
Find out more about the publisher, St. Martin's Press (Macmillan)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.