Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Review: The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel

The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel The Summer That Melted Everything (11 August 2016) by Tiffany McDaniel

I wouldn't have anticipated that a story set in the small Ohio town of Breathed in 1984, with a whimsical premise and heavily quirky details (example: characters with names like Autopsy Bliss and Dresden Delmar), would turn out to be one of the best books I've read, so far, in 2016, and certainly one of the best published this year. But here we are. I am very, very glad I took a chance on this book.

The aforementioned Autopsy Bliss, a lawyer, publishes an provocative article in the local newspaper (bearer of another quirky moniker: The Breathanian). It's addressed to the devil – 'Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear' – and extends a cordial invitation, politely summoning him to the town. The next day, Autopsy's thirteen-year-old son, Fielding, is stopped in his tracks by a bruised, raggedy boy dressed in shabby overalls. After asking whether there's any ice cream, the mysterious boy says he's there because he was invited, and pulls the newspaper piece from his pocket.

It seems a foregone conclusion that the boy will follow Fielding home, and when his family can't be traced, there he stays. In time he acquires the name Sal, which he picks because it invokes 'the beginning of Satan and the first step into Lucifer. Sa-L.' And there are many suggestions of the uncanny about Sal: his lengthy, incongruously wise monologues, the strange stories he tells about God and Hell and the people there, the inexplicable breadth of his knowledge. Not to mention the fact that after he shows up, Breathed is enveloped by a heatwave that begins to seem endless. In an atmosphere of mounting paranoia and violent heat, Sal becomes a lightning rod for the fears of the townspeople, whose passions are stoked by a self-appointed preacher. It's no surprise (and no spoiler either) that a sense of inevitable tragedy suffuses the whole narrative.

Fielding Bliss tells this story many years later, as a profoundly lonely man in his eighties. The timeline and his age suggest Fielding's 'present day' is circa 2055, but that doesn't mean it has some sort of dystopian bent, as stories set in the near future so often do; there's no suggestion of a world much altered from the one we're in now. There is little in the way of a plotline around Fielding's later life. He is simply the storyteller; but as he drops in anecdotes about his life since those days, we are left in no doubt that the summer of Sal has stamped an indelible mark on his soul.
The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel
Just before I jumped from the plane, I promised myself if I landed on only the yellow blooms, I would take it as a sign of my ghosts allowing me peace. With that peace, I would no longer suffer in the worst shadow of the snake. I would stop skinning peaches. Cease all mad damage. I'd bring an end to splintering my knuckles against picket fences and running chainsaws through rows of American corn. I'd sweeten my heart. Be gentled by the small of a lover's back. I'd no longer scrape my spine against cinder blocks nor cannibalize myself in perfect bites. I'd get rid of my stash of horns and keep hell out of the honey. I would learn how to say June, July, August, September without scream and as one word. Forgiveness.

The Summer That Melted Everything is gorgeously written – lush, shimmering, strange prose more often like a poem or a song lyric than regular fiction. Fielding sometimes seems to talk in riddles; sometimes, as in the passage above, it's not necessarily evident whether he's speaking literally or metaphorically. The narrative is chock-full of unusual metaphors, and every so often they're metaphors that don't really work but end up sounding beautiful anyway. The end result is deeply beguiling, and potent: I felt completely transported to the Breathed of the 1980s, a weird collision of small-town Southern traditions (and prejudices) and the bright, outlandish fashions of the decade, a town where, in Fielding's words, 'everything seems neon lit'. Reading the book on typically grey English days did nothing to hinder its effectiveness in portraying a sweltering, suffocating summer.

Despite its quirkiness and suggestions of fantasy, Melted contains one of the most tender and heartbreaking stories I have ever read about platonic love, particularly the relationship between brothers. It wasn't really until I finished reading the book that I realised exactly how many tricky, contentious topics the story covers – sexuality, disability, religion, loneliness, ageing, phobias, prejudice, HIV/AIDS – the list goes on, but the book really doesn't feel as though it's 'addressing issues'. Probably its greatest achievement is hiding all of that in plain sight, avoiding being preachy or not ringing true.

Ever since reading Melted, I've kept having these occasional flashbacks to just how good, how evocative, how moving it was, how clearly I could picture Breathed and how deeply I was drawn in by Sal and the Bliss family. I was so consumed by this book that it feels like a memory, like something I've seen. I can't wait for other readers to start discovering it. I try not to trot out that book-review cliche – saying I feel envious of those who are yet to read it for the first time – too often, but in this case it's not just hyperbole. Even if it doesn't sound like your sort of thing, I urge you to give it a try, and I hope you fall in love with it like I did.

I received an advance review copy of The Summer That Melted Everything from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Sunday, 26 June 2016

This week's links: 26 June 2016

  • Brassed Off is one of my favourite films, and is very close to my heart; I really appreciated this in-depth revisit from Den of Geek, which rightly recognises that Danny and Phil are the main characters and the driving force behind the story.

    From Totems by Alain Delorme

    From Façades #3 by Zacharie Gaudrillot-Roy

    Books & literature:
    Book lists and reviews:

    The last stop: America's disappearing roadside rest stops – in pictures

      'This week's links' is a compilation of interesting things I've seen or read online recently. Important disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing every word of it.

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      Saturday, 25 June 2016

      Review: Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

      Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand Errantry: Strange Stories (2012) by Elizabeth Hand

      When I started the first story, 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon', I thought I knew what I was getting. The protagonist, Robbie, begins by reminiscing about his first job, as a security guard at a museum of aviation, and remembering a particular gallery in which a projection of a disembodied head was the main attraction. But the narrative quickly moves away from the obvious creepy angle here and instead weaves a detailed and character-driven tale around Robbie and two of his ex-colleagues; it's certainly uncanny, but evasive about exactly how. The characters – like most of the characters in most of the stories collected here – are middle-aged, not inclined to fantastical speculation, and many of the most effective moments are touching rather than unnerving. 'The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon' is unusually lengthy for the first story in an anthology, almost a novella in itself, and it sets the tone for a collection in which the 'strange' is often not what you expect it to be, and the longest stories are the most rewarding and surprising.

      'Winter's Wife' is told by a boy whose neighbour, the eccentric Winter, suddenly brings home an inscrutable young Icelandic woman as his wife. Winter meets her on the internet, and our narrator thinks she looks like Björk – it's these humanising touches that make Hand's stories so effective; we identify ourselves in the backdrops, if not the mysterious cloud of hummingbirds in the forest, or the character with an apparent ability to bend nature to her will. 'Uncle Lou' spends so much time establishing the relationship between the main characters, a woman and her flamboyant uncle, that the ending has powerful emotional clout, despite taking a real turn for the fantastic. The brief 'Cruel Up North' is memorable chiefly because it doesn't explain its mysteries – what, for example, might the 'lava fields' be?

      There are missteps – or, at least, some stories are weaker than others. 'Hungerford Bridge' – a short scene in which an old friend introduces the narrator to a fantastic creature – feels too thin against the richness of many of the other tales; 'The Far Shore' contains some beautiful moments but goes in a predictable direction, the opposite of the clever feints performed by the strongest stories here; and 'The Return of the Fire Witch' is an oddity, the one slice of high fantasy among a set of what might otherwise, per the subtitle, be termed 'strange stories' in the Robert Aickman sense.

      But the jewel in Errantry's crown is 'Near Zennor', a flawless work of art that has to be one of the best short stories (strange or otherwise) I've ever read. It starts with a discovery: Jeffrey, a 'noted architect', is organising clutter belonging to his late wife, Anthea, when he finds a tin containing a bundle of letters and a cheap locket. The letters are in Anthea's hand, all returned to sender; when he investigates the recipient, Robert Bennington, he discovers the man was a children's author later vilified as a paedophile. Disturbed by references to a meeting between Anthea and Robert, and tortured by the idea that she could have been a victim of abuse she never told him about, he journeys to her native England to meet with one of her childhood friends. There, he hears a story that will lead him on a journey through the places of Anthea's past; to Padwithiel farm, near Zennor, and to Bennington's abandoned home.

      Everything about 'Near Zennor' is absolutely pitch-perfect. The Cornish landscape is lovingly described; there is a true sense of reverence, and an awareness of the power – and menace – of nature runs throughout the whole story. The revelations about Bennington's crimes and reminders of his pariah status mean there's also an underlying current of real horror that has nothing to do with unexplained phenomena. Hand captures the force of a disquieting experience endured in childhood, how the memory can magnify it, give it the status of a legend. Jeffrey's ordeal at Golovenna Farm induces pure terror without resorting to anything as prosaic as an explanation. And there is a final twist that is shocking, and almost grimly funny, but not histrionic. All in all, it achieves the strange, wonderful duality of feeling perfect and complete but also leaving you wanting more, and more, and more, and it feels so real that I was tempted to google Bennington's Sun Battles books and the Cliff Cottage B&B. (This short interview with Hand gives some fascinating context – not just the fact that she deliberately set out to write an Aickmanesque story (an aim at which, in my opinion, she has absolutely succeeded) but that the three girls' peculiar adventure was, in fact, based on an inexplicable childhood memory of her own.)

      'Near Zennor' is the second story in the book, and after finishing it, I had to take a break – to absorb its greatness, and because I was so sure nothing else could even begin to live up to it, I wasn't sure I wanted to read on. It's one of those stories that's so good, it's worth buying the whole book for it alone. Errantry is a strong, unpredictable collection of stories, but 'Near Zennor' is a masterpiece.

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      Sunday, 12 June 2016

      This week's links: 12 June 2016

      First things first: I've been struggling to find time for blogging lately, so (the now inappropriately-named) this week's links will be going up every two weeks from now on. I love putting these posts together, but they take ages! Plus blogs are dying, etc etc. I'm very attached to having a blog, and I'm not planning to kill it off, but life gets in the way. A lot. As ever, I'm still reviewing everything I read, however briefly, on Goodreads.
      • Flavorwire's always-entertaining annual list of Trashy Beach Reads includes Karl Ove Knausgård, a 500-page history of America's class system, and erotica from an octogenarian author.
        Corners by Chris Dorley-Brown
        From Corners by Chris Dorley-Brown

        L'inachevé by Julien Lombardi
        From L'inachevé by Julien Lombardi

        Books & literature:
        Book reviews:
        From Dantilon: The Brutal Deluxe by Daniel Brown
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          Saturday, 4 June 2016

          Reading round-up: May

          May 2016 books

          The Countenance Divine by Michael HughesPre-order
          A genre-defying novel with multiple timelines, from the 17th century to the 20th, that converge in a fantastical alternate-history climax. Real historical figures (William Blake, John Milton, and... Jack the Ripper) appear in the story, and they're given surprisingly authentic voices, but the best plot strand involves Chris, a young computer programmer who's working to eradicate the millennium bug. The Countenance Divine is being compared to the novels of David Mitchell, and I think there's a genuine resemblance. It's thoroughly readable, but clever, nuanced and original.

          What Belongs to You by Garth GreenwellBuy
          An anonymous narrator – an American working as a teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria – weaves together two stories: that of his obsession with manipulative yet vulnerable hustler Mitko, and an account of his own coming-of-age. The resulting story feels so personal and confessional that it can be difficult to remember it's fiction, not memoir. With its clear crisp prose, stripped-back, lonely story and strong sense of place, it's pretty much my ideal novel – but something held me back from completely falling in love with it. Although it's brilliantly written (and deserving of all the hype), parts of What Belongs to You left me uncomfortable.

          The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter HapgoodFull review / Buy
          A lovely YA romance, with added physics. I'm always wary of even the most acclaimed YA books and am often disappointed (unsurprisingly, since I am not, in fact, a young adult), but this really surpassed my expectations. It's a great concept, a warm, heartfelt story, and wonderfully evocative of the momentous summers of adolescence. Reuter Hapgood's heroine Gottie is, crucially, a believable 17-year-old girl; a character I was happy to root for, but with just enough everyday magic (like her loveably eccentric family and their country bookshop) to hit that aspirational sweet spot. And her grief for beloved grandfather Grey – really, a stronger theme than the love story – is heartbreaking.

          This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets, translated by Valerie MilesFull review / Buy
          Is this a sexy beach book or a philosophical deconstruction of the grieving process? It's both, which doesn't always make for the smoothest read. The protagonist is the frequently insufferable Blanca, who, in the wake of her mother's death, decamps to her ancestral home along with her kids, best friends, and not one but two ex-husbands. Her plan for dealing with the bereavement involves hooking up with as many men as possible and shirking all responsibility – but there are also startling, moving insights into life and death, marriage and infidelity, ageing and parenthood.

          When She Was Bad by Tammy CohenFull review / Buy
          A completely addictive thriller set in a 'toxic' office environment. When a ruthless new boss takes control of a recruitment team, her divide-and-rule tactics stir up resentment and rivalry among a group of colleagues. But who is she really, and what's her connection to the parallel story told by an American child psychiatrist? This had me hooked from the start and kept me guessing right to the end.

          Revision by Andrea PhillipsBuy
          A fun and forgettable conspiracy thriller with a sci-fi edge and the tone of chick-lit. Ditsy NYC heiress Mira discovers her boyfriend's tech startup, Verity, may have the power to actually alter reality. After that, she's contacted by a former employee who faked her own death, and the two do some amateur sleuthing to get to the bottom of Verity's true purpose. It's enjoyable and an easy read, but the stakes never feel very high, and Mira is pretty annoying.

          The Essex Serpent by Sarah PerryBuy
          I've been looking forward to this for ages, and it was worth the wait. Perry (whose first novel was the sublime After Me Comes the Flood) has crafted an unusual, rare thing: historical fiction that feels exhaustively well-researched and meticulously put together, but never forced, overwritten, or deliberately bent to cater to modern sensibilities. The tale of headstrong widow Cora Seaborne (and a wide cast of equally engaging supporting characters) is a dialogue between science and faith, and a love story that's mainly about friendship. The titular serpent, a monstrous beast rumoured to be dragging unsuspecting victims into the marshes, adds a measure of gothic intrigue. It seems to be much easier to think about/mentally inhabit this book than to write about it, which I think says it all; it's an experience to be savoured.

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          Monday, 30 May 2016

          This week's links: 30 May 2016

          This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
          Phnom Penh by Marylise Vigneau
          From Phnom Penh of the Future by Marylise Vigneau
          Disparitions by Mathieu Bernard-Reymond
          From Disparitions by Mathieu Bernard-Reymond

          Books & literature:
          Birds by Manu Mielniezuk
          From Birds in the morning sing simply to eat by Manu Mielniezuk
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            Sunday, 22 May 2016

            This week's links: 22 May 2016

            This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
            Swamp by Chloe Sells
            A Vibrant Look at the Landscape of Botswana

            Coppélia by Kyra Kennedy
            From Coppélia by Kyra Kennedy

            Books & literature:
            Shanghai by Aly Song
            Shanghai's Holdout Neighborhood of Guangfuli

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              Sunday, 15 May 2016

              This week (and last week)'s links: 15 May 2016

              This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
              China Night by Mark Horn
              From China Night by Mark Horn
              Kourtney Roy
              Kourtney Roy

              Books & literature:
              Pretoria by Ralph Bull
              Pretoria, 2010 by Ralph Bull

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