Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
Harper (2018)
Young Adult
Rating 2/5

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Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton is a coming-of-age tale that takes place in Australia against the backdrop of poverty, violence, and drug dealing. When the story starts, 12 year old Eli Bell knows what his mother and her boyfriend are up to, and he thinks that he can make them better heroin dealers. When their kingpin overload discovers their plot, however, he takes violent action and upheaves Eli’s life. Though Eli feels as if his scheming might have cost the family, he still believes that he has a gift for noticing details, and he plans to use that gift to bring his family together, to catch the Kingpin, and to improve the conditions of his own life. 

I pined after this book for a few months. Everything about it seemed like something that I would enjoy immensely. It has a great cover and title and comes highly reviewed, and so I was sure that I too would be enthralled by it. I was wrong. In fact, this is one of the books that I have least enjoyed in a long while. So much so, that had I not committed to writing this review I would not have finished it. (I think life is too short to read books that aren’t bringing you joy.) 

What sticks out to me most about this book is just how unoriginal it feels. From the brother who is selectively mute, to the ex-convict showing up at the right moment to save the day, and various plot points that you will see coming from a mile away, there was nothing in the pages of this book to make it stand out from any other book that explores the same themes. At the surface, it seems like this book is full of twists and turns, but when you actually experience them it feels like riding a kitty coaster as opposed to the real thing. As an avid reader with an active imagination, I can often dream up where a novel is going, but this one was just too easy and felt very neat. 

Beyond its story problem, there are several elements of this book that made me uncomfortable as a reader. First, is that I do not think that this book goes far enough to highlight the consequences of illegal drug dealing when you are still an adolescent. I really don’t appreciate anything that glamorizes such illicit activities, but especially a narrative where the character still essentially gets all the unrealistic things that they want. I also did not like how the romance played out between Eli and Caitlyn—which to me felt like a teenage boy’s gross fantasy. When Eli meets Caitlyn she is adult enough to be working as a crime reporter at a newspaper, and Eli is still a young teenager. Despite that, Eli tells Caitlyn that when he is a man they will be together, and because I’ve already told you that this story is too neat, that is exactly what happens. To me, it reads as weird reverse grooming, and I cannot imagine a grown career woman going for a teenage boy as her partner—especially one that she has known since his youth.

Overall, I did not like this book, and sadly, I would not recommend it. It’s characters are too predictable and neat, the situations that it invents are too easily conquered, and the bad parts are too bad.

Only some of you will understand this, but my reign as Paula is over.  


Interested in hearing about a book that I love? Check out my review of Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” Kelly Link

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” by Kelly Link
From, Stranger Things Happen (2001)
Fantasy
Rating 5/5

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In “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” a man writes letters from the afterlife to his wife. He tries to remember her name, or any connections he had to the world of the living, but all he can think of is the names of people and things that he knows are dead. He thinks of how if he could just remember her name his situation might improve. In his letters, he confesses, not only the things that he has done wrong to his wife, but also to the love that he feels for her, and to other things that he has done in life that have made him feel guilty. All the while, he explores the place that he is trapped. The story is an interesting examination of place, guilt, memory, and self-discovery.

When I was younger I used to love reading anything epistolary, but, especially in adult fiction, you do not see much. In “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” however, Link uses the form to its full advantage. Reading this story is an exercise in discovery, not only for the reader, but for the narrator as well as he tries to reason out what is left of him as a person. Link manipulates the form to give herself plenty of room to build up the world around the story. This gives readers a chance not only to discover the world around the narrative character, but it also gives them a chance to flesh out the protagonist in a more intimate way. While this certainly isn’t on the epistolary novels that I enjoyed as a child, it does make exciting use of the form that is well worth checking out.

This story is fraught with emotional tension and a sense of unknowing that makes for a macabre read. The monster at the heart of this story is guilt, but the protagonist cannot face his guilt directly because he cannot put a name to it. Yet, through his letters to his wife he is still able to explore aspects of it as fleeting glimpses. This gives the story forward motion from start to finish and allows it to maintain a high level of intrigue while also taking topics that have become rather commonplace in literature—infidelity, death, bullying—and presenting them in a way that feels completely new and fresh. 

If you’re looking for a horror story where the monster is self, then this story is for you. If you want a study on the afterlife, this story is for you. If you’re looking for an impeccably crafted and compelling tale, this story is for you. 

BONUS: Listen to “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” on Pseudopod (read by Ansom Mount)


Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “The Dream,” by Bourbon Princess with this post.

“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” Susanna Clarke

In celebration of Susanna Clarke’s forthcoming novel Piranesi, her first in over fifteen years, we will be reviewing her entire published catalog over the summer. Susanna Clarke’s work is beloved by the blog and we cannot wait to jump into it and share it together—and we especially cannot wait for her new book! Over the next few weeks we’ll be featuring reviews of the short stories from The Ladies of Grace Adieu, read along and let us know what you think!


“The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” by Susanna Clarke
From, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, Bloomsbury (2006)
Fantasy
Rating 5/5

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Women and power are in the forefront of this fantastic tale. Taking place in the same world as Clarke’s New York Times bestselling novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the story revolves around three women, the Ladies of Grace Adieu, who take control of their own fates. The women are all content with the trajectory of their lives and are diligent in doing the song and dance of appearing normal, but when a few new men enter town—among them the famed magician Jonathan Strange—the ladies take action to secure their way of life and show the might of magic in the hands of a woman.

While this story does not require reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to understand and enjoy it, it does enrich the novel’s world and enforces the struggle that some of its characters (I’m looking at you Strange) are grappling with. Even without the novel, this story fills out its characters and the history of the moment that they are in alike. The result is a layered story that can be read once for pleasure and then be read again and again and again to construct the pieces that are before you. 

What I find most enduring about this story is the way that it resists the fantasy trope to make female protagonists purely wholesome creatures who would sacrifice themselves to change one leaf on a tree from changing in the fall. While there is a place for these characters, it is not in this story. “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” features a trio of women who are made multidimensional by the “unpretty” decisions they make in the name of their autonomy and survival. For instance, Mrs. Field did not want to marry Mr. Field, who is double her age, but she knew that it was what was expected of her, and also that it grants her a degree of security that allows her to pursue her other interests with the other ladies. 

The Ladies of Grace Adieu are not just women who pretend to go with the grain, however, they are decisive women who are not afraid to take action to protect what they have worked to build. They use what is at their disposal to deal with the obstacles that present themselves—unfortunately for their enemies, the weapon the Ladies of Grace Adieu have is magic. Free of consternation, they wield magic to do as they please and they will not be told otherwise. 

If you’re looking for a magical tale of empowered women, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story full of rich history and dry humor, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story that would be perfect to read before bed, this story is for you. 

 


Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “Spellwork,” by Austra with this post.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
Grand Central Publishing (2019)
Science Fiction
5/5 Stars
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In this dystopian modern classic, the story of Lauren Oya Olamina is told through her diary entries taking place in California during the 2020s, set against the backdrop of draught, violent political uprising, and mass addiction. While the United States is sliding into chaos, Lauren is lucky that she grew up under somewhat “normal” circumstances. That is, in a protected community that is behind a gate and a wall, where her neighbors were organized, and most importantly, they were armed. Led by Lauren’s father, the local minister, the community wants to believe that one day things might return to the way they were. They cling to the notion that someday the hills around their community won’t be riddled with corpses, packs of rabid dogs, and the starving homeless. Lauren, however, never believes—that the community is safe, or in her father’s interpretation of God. She sees God as a force of change and begins to meditate upon her own religion, called Earthseed, all the while preparing for a time when she might have to survive outside of the walls of her community.

From the first entry in the first chapter of this book the language stands out as alluring. Butler has a way with words that is simultaneously easy to read and rich with intelligent sentences. In Parable of the Sower, this is driven by the poetic religious verses that make up the basis of Earthseed and punctuate each chapter. Butler’s novel blooms beautifully into a tale that is rich with detail, easy to navigate, and that never loses sight of the forward momentum of the story. 

Adding to the beauty of the language of this novel is the potency of its central figure, Lauren Oya Olamina. The story spans over the course of a few years and sees Lauren becoming a woman, but her journey is one of softening while maintaining her healthy skepticism of the people in the world. Lauren’s transformation is from a person who wears a mask in her community because she is taught that that is what is best, to someone who deals in honesty and who invests her energy into trying to build bridges of trust as the basis of her new community. To add to this, she must deal with a condition that she has had since birth called hyperempathy, that causes her to share physical pain and pleasures with others. Making for an interesting barrier in this violent world, as Lauren cannot inflict pain onto someone else without feeling it herself.

While this book is fun to read and one hell of a page turner, it is also full of eerie wisdom, and even though it is nearly thirty years old, it has a lot to say about the moment that we are living in right now. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Butler writes a future that now more than ever seems possible. She explores the distortion the human spirit undergoes when it is denied clean water to drink, reliable food to eat, a place to stay, and a future to count on, making this book feel as important as it is entertaining. 

If you are looking for a frightening tale that starts as a quest for independence and ends as a lesson in the strength of community, this book is for you. If you are looking for a strong female lead character who does not lose her edge, but who most soften for the better of the world she wants to create, this book is for you. If you enjoy reading well-written and entertaining books about a gruesome, violent, and slow burning end of the world, this book is for you.


Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “The Heart of You,” by Anna Calvi with this post.

About the Blog

Edweird World is a blog dedicated to short story & book reviews, writing prompts, music reviews, and literary insights presented through traditional blog posts, videos, and podcasts. New posts every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday! Keep it weird and follow the blog!