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Archive for the ‘Southern Books’ Category

From the deck of his big new house on Brushy Mountain Road, JJ Ferguson can look down at the rooftops of the North Carolina community where he grew up as a foster child. The view is even better at night when lights twinkle in the darkness that hides Pinewood’s shabbiness and depressed economy.

If this scene from Stephanie Powell Watts’ involving first novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, digital galley), recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s no surprise. The publisher is billing the book as a contemporary re-imagining of the classic with African-American characters and a Southern setting, but that’s not the whole story. While Gatsby may echo through its pages, No One Is Coming to Save Us — a great title — stands on its own as it explores the nature of family and home, the currents of change, the persistence of dreams.

Watt moves fluidly among the perspectives of her memorable characters. JJ — “Call me Jay” — returns to Pinewood after a 15-year-absence, hoping to rekindle a romance with childhood friend Ava, desperate to be a mother after several miscarriages. She’s married to handsome underachiever Henry, who is keeping a big secret from her. Ava’s mother Sylvia, close to retirement, has her own disappointments and sorrows, including a lost son and her estranged husband Don. The latter, the baby of his family and “always a good time,” now lives with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter but keeps showing up at Sylvia’s. And no wonder. Sylvia is a woman of substance — literally — who nurtures people and her garden. She finds solace in accepting the calls of a young man in prison she’s never met. She realizes that JJ is looking for family and “to be the hero of his own story.” So do they all, that recognition of worth dignifying their busted lives. They beat on. “Haven’t we always done this trick? If you can’t get what you want, want something else.”

Soon after Landon Cooper moves into the downstairs of an old rental house in south Birmingham, she meets Abi, her lively upstairs neighbor, who tells her she’s going to love living on this street.  “Really, we’re like a family. I didn’t mean to pry when I asked you what your story was. It’s just that most of Mr. Kasir’s tenants have a story.”

What those stories are and how they intertwine is the premise of Vicki Covington’s perceptive novel Once in a Blue Moon (John F. Blair, digital galley).  As Barack Obama campaigns for president in 2007 and 2008, Covington’s diverse characters are marked by hope and cope with change. Just moving is a jolt for Landon, a recently divorced psychologist who has her own mental health issues. She meets many of her new neighbors when a drunken stranger passes out in her living room and they rally to her screams. Abi’s the country girl trying to escape her rural roots by taking college courses. Roy’s the athlete with big dreams who deals weed on the side. Jet’s a former prostitute who recently discovered the surprising identity of her birth mother. Their landlord, Abraham Kasir, lives “over the mountain” but keeps a fatherly eye on his tenants as he trains his young grandson Jason to take over the property business.

It’s pure pleasure to read a new novel from Covington, an assured chronicler of the contemporary South at turning points. Night Ride Home, for example, takes place just as World War II begins, while The Last Hotel for Women calls up 1961 Birmingham and the era of Bull Connor. Now with Once in a Blue Moon, Covington gently reminds us of when hope and change brought people together.

Other good Southern books to put on your reading list include Bren McLain’s One Good Mama Bone: A Novel (University of South Carolina Press, review copy), about a hardscrabble 1950s South Carolina widow, the boy she is raising who is not her own, and a mama cow with a strong personality; Taylor Brown’s The River of Kings (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which combines family history and adventure as two brothers journey down Georgia’s Altamaha River to scatter their father’s ashes; and Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields (Crown, digital galley), a coming-of-age saga of father and son in a small Appalachian town. All three were recent Okra Picks chosen by Southern indie booksellers.

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blackrabbitA spooky old house. Skeletons in the attic. Ghosts on the stairs. Two first-time novelists have gone gothic. I am so there.

Two young women’s family secrets intertwine in Eve Chase’s atmospheric Black Rabbit Hall (Putnam, digital galley). London schoolteacher Lorna Dunaway wants to hold her upcoming wedding in picturesque Cornwall, where her family vacationed when she was a child. Pencraw Hall calls out to her from a website, but its reality is altogether different. Black Rabbit Hall, as the locals call it, is sadly neglected, with ivy tugging on its crumbling walls, flowers pushing up from the floorboards, rainwater dripping from holes in the ceiling. Still, the elderly woman hovering over the premises tells Lorna it could be a charming venue and suggests she stay a couple of days.

Readers already know via an alternating storyline that Black Rabbit Hall was once the happy summer home of the Alton family. But in 1969, mother Nancy was killed in a riding accident, and the magical, carefree days ended for her grief-stricken husband and four children. Teenage Amber tries to cope with her angry twin Toby, young rascal Barney and baby sister Kitty, but things worsen when her father remarries an old friend Caroline, with a smile “like a paper cut” and an enigmatic teenage son Lucian. The stage is set for further tragedy, including forbidden love and treacherous lies.

Chase’s writing is seductive as she moves between Lorna learning about Black Rabbit Hall’s history and Amber living that very past. That the two story lines will merge is inevitable, but Chase keeps readers in suspense. If you like Kate Morton’s novels, book a trip to Black Rabbit Hall.

evangelineI have some reservations about Hester Young’s busy The Gates of Evangeline (Putnam, review copy), which oozes Southern gothic with its Louisiana plantation, abandoned sugar mill and ominous, gator-filled swamps. Narrator Charlotte “Charlie” Cates is a divorced journalist who, after the death of her four-year-old son from a brain aneurysm, has disturbing, strangely prescient dreams about young children needing her help. One such dream features a little boy in a boat adrift on a bayou, and when she arrives at the historic Evangeline plantation to research a true crime book, Charlie immediately recognizes the place. Could the little boy be young Gabriel Deveau, who disappeared from his bedroom in 1982 and was never seen again? Charlie  immediately plunges into the family mystery, asking questions of ailing matriarch Hettie, secretive son Andre, his conniving sisters, and various members of the household — the too-handsome estate manager, the friendly young cook, and a visiting landscaper. She makes friends with the local sheriff and his wife, who are also grieving a child’s loss.

All this is well and good, and Young makes Charlie’s visions believable. Her often irrational behavior is another thing. She falls into bed and in love with a man with whom she has little in common and knows little about. She tackles witnesses head-on, leaps to conclusions and walks into traps. She’s also an elitist snob, constantly comparing her Northern lifestyle and sophistication to the uneducated Southern rubes she’s dealing with. This is supposed to be the first book in a trilogy, but I’m not sure I’d read a second unless Young quits condescending to readers and her characters with unneeded snippets of  “dem and dose” dialect. Shame on her and her editor.

Open Book: I want to note that The Gates of Evangeline is a winter selection of the She Reads online book club, http://www.shereads.org. The web site is a great resource for readers and features reviews, author interviews, Q & As,  and recommendations in a blog-post format. I’ve been an e-mail subscriber for five years now, receiving the posts by founders and authors Ariel Lawhon and Marybeth Whalen several times a week. I also recently joined the She Reads Blog Network, a group of book bloggers who review She Reads selections on their individual sites from time to time and link to She Reads. It’s a pleasure to be a part of this literary community. Check it out!

 

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oppositeTrust me: You want Paula Vauss on your side. The formidable Atlanta divorce lawyer eats other lawyers for lunch as she wages war on their clients. Her tongue is as sharp as her black stilettos, their “blood-red soles promising all sorts of carnage.”

The narrator of Joshilyn Jackson’s layered new novel, The Opposite of Everyone (HarperCollins, digital galley), is battle-hardened. The mixed-race daughter of a free-spirited white mother, Paula moved from place-to-place in the South as a child, until one of her mom Kai’s drug-dealing boyfriends got busted. Kai went to jail and Paula — whom Kai called Kali after the Hindu goddess — ended up in the foster-care system. Then a betrayal led to a long estrangement, and Paula assuages her guilt by sending monthly checks to an address in Texas. When a check is returned along with a cryptic note, and a young man with Kai’s green eyes turns up on Paula’s door, her past converges with her present. With the help of her ex-lover Birdwine, a troubled private detective, Paula begins the search for Kai and the family secrets that will change everything.

An accomplished novelist (A Grown Up Kind of Pretty, Someone Else’s Love Story), Jackson has a gift for creating quirky, memorable characters in unexpected situations. Here she weaves riveting scenes of young Paula’s experiences in a group home with her adult struggle to remain independent yet not withhold her heart. The judgmental lawyer learns that sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are not the whole stories, and truth comes with forgiveness. Trust me: The Opposite of Everyone is a story you’ll want to read.

onlyloveIf you’re a fan of Neil Young’s music and the novels of Southern storytellers like Pat Conroy and David Payne, and if you don’t let nostalgia and familiarity get in the way of your reading pleasure, than Ed Tarkington’s first novel Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Algonquin, digital galley) is your kind of book. Tarkington darkens his coming-of-age tale with elements of Southern gothic, but the whole is burnished by a sense of place and family.

The place is the small town of Spencerville, Va., in the mid-1970s and 1980s. The family is the Askews — “the Old Man,” his younger second wife, his teenage son Paul from his first marriage, and younger son Rocky. It is Rocky, age 7 when the story begins, who narrates from the vantage point of middle age. Rocky worships 16-year-old Paul, whose long hair and cigarettes brand him as something of a rebel, and he likes nothing better than hanging out with Paul and his pretty girlfriend, Leigh Bowman, listening to Young’s After the Goldrush. Rocky’s on hand when Paul trespasses on the big house up the hill and is shot and wounded by the house’s wealthy new owner Brad Culvert. But he’s left behind when Paul later runs away with Leigh and disappears. Leigh eventually returns, mentally unstable, but Paul is apparently gone for good.

And so Rocky becomes a teenager, his knowledge of life and love helped by his friendship with fragile Leigh and his relationship with Culvert’s daughter Patricia, who extends his duties as the stableboy to assignations in the hayloft. A double murder coincides with Paul’s long-awaited return to reckon with his father, felled by a stroke. Long-held family secrets come to light. Rocky grows up.

Tarkington writes beautifully, and the pages flow. As the title reminds us, only love can break your heart, but as Tarkington tells it, love is also what mends the broken pieces.

 

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place1962. It was Frosted Flakes, the Texaco star, Andy and Opie Taylor, Gunsmoke and Lawrence Welk. But it was also the Cold War, duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Susan Carol McCarthy’s new novel A Place We Knew Well (Bantam, digital galley), set in Central Florida in the fall of  1962, is a curious mix of documentary and daytime soap, American Experience meets Search for Tomorrow.

McCarthy is very good at specifying the details of the era, from B-52 bombers lumbering overhead to U-2 spy planes, looking like “a cluster of fantastic dragonflies,” parked at McCoy Air Force Base. Orlando gas station owner and World War II vet Wes Avery and his teenage daughter Charlotte are viewing the planes through binoculars when an MP asks them to return to their car and move away from the restricted area.

The Averys — Wes, Charlotte and mom Sarah — are the major players in McCarthy’s story as the nation is gripped by the thought of long-range Russian missiles parked off Florida’s front porch. Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, and missiles could reach Central Florida in eight to 10 minutes. Wes, who saw the aftermath of Hiroshima from the air, has no patience with local “Bombworshippers,” and is dismayed when a local insurance company salesman gives him dogtags for Charlotte as preparation for “a worst-case scenario.” Charlotte, meanwhile, is a typical teen worried that the crisis might disrupt homecoming at Edgewater High and her first date with Emilio, a teenage “Pedro Pan,”  sent to the U.S. by his aristocratic parents after the Cuban revolution.

Meanwhile, Sarah, depressed after a recent hysterectomy, is coming apart at the seams, popping uppers and downers as she works with the local women’s civil defense league, overseeing the stocking of public bomb shelters. She totally disapproves of Charlotte’s date with Emilio, even though the handsome teen works for her husband. As tensions mount about possible nuclear war, an estranged family member turns up and long-held secrets are exposed. The subsequent fallout changes the Averys’ lives forever.

A Place We Knew Well begins slowly but eventually builds some suspense. Still, the ending can’t help but be anticlimactic, and a final letter to McCarthy from a character strikes a false note. Overall, the book doesn’t have the dramatic impact of McCarthy’s first novel, Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands, another family story inspired by real events in Central Florida. But it is set a decade earlier, in 1951, when the KKK terrorized the black community. McCarthy deserves credit for her research and her reimagining of an historical turning point, but her fictional characters just aren’t as interesting as the times or the place in which they lived.

 

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WatchmanSo, you say you are disappointed and disillusioned to learn that the Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s newly published book is a racist? Imagine then that you are his daughter Jean Louise, aka Scout, discovering that the father you have worshiped for 26 years has feet of clay.

But you don’t have to walk around in her skin, imagining the consternation, devastation and anger of such a betrayal. Lee does it for you in Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), an unsettling portrait of a young woman going home to the South of the mid-1950s and finding it’s not “the warm and comfortable world” she remembers.  Of course, that small-town Alabama of Scout’s childhood is what Lee so splendidly evoked in her classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman, written several years before Mockingbird, is a more conventional coming-of-age story that was rejected by publishers until editor Tay Hohoff suggested that Lee set it 20 years earlier and rewrite it from young Scout’s perspective.

Speculation has it that Hohoff may have wanted the changes to make the book more palatable to a wider audience, and thus more saleable. Could be, but I contend that she saw in Watchman’s awkwardly structured series of set pieces what Mockingbird could be. For that, we should all be grateful. Although there is much that is familiar about Watchman — descriptions of places and people, a certain tone and turn of phrase — it is a separate book, not a sequel or prequel, written in the third person. The two books share the main characters of Scout, Atticus, Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack, but Jem and Dill appear only in flashbacks, Calpurnia has retired except for one pivotal scene, there is no Boo Radley. Tom Robinson’s trial, the centerpiece of Mockingbird, is a couple of paragraphs with a different outcome. Henry Clinton is the major new character. A young lawyer taken under Atticus’ wing, he is Scout’s longtime friend and possible future husband.

The plot, such as it is, meanders over the the first three days of Jean Louise’s visit and her not fitting in. The old house, with its wide porch and chinaberry trees, has been torn down and replaced by an ice cream parlor. A “morning coffee” given by corseted Aunt Alexandra and attended by perfumed ladies fills Jean Louise with horror and despair. But her seeing Atticus and Henry at a white citizen’s council meeting condoning a segregationist’s hate speech is what guts her, leading to confrontations with both men, a follow-up with Uncle Jack and a hard reckoning with herself.

This then is very much Jean Louise’s story. In Mockingbird, she is the narrator and Atticus the hero, the book’s moral compass and conscience. In this book, her world is rocked when her conscience parts company with his. Although it was written in the 1950s and is obviously a period piece, its publication is remarkably timely as part of our ongoing national conversation about race. I disagree, though, that this is the book Lee meant to write and publish all along.

Much has always been made that To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t read like a first novel. It’s so all-of-a-piece, so assured. It’s been one of my favorite books since I was 10. That hasn’t changed upon many rereadings and I don’t expect it to. Go Set a Watchman is an unedited first novel, flawed and unsubtle. Promising.

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palmettodoveThis was going to be a different post when I started writing it last week. It was called “Summer Lowdown,” and it was about how I was homesick for the South Carolina Lowcountry — family, friends, food — after reading four beach books set in my favorite part of the world. But that was before nine people were shot in a downtown Charleston church, leaving me heartsick that such a hate crime could happen in this day and age in the United States, especially in a city I hold dear.

Many people have written many things about Charleston in the week since the tragedy, and I’ve read news accounts, blog posts, editorials and essays in an attempt at understanding. I’ve heard the powerful words of forgiveness from the victims’ families. I’ve talked with friends who are as surprised and saddened as I am about the ignorance and racial antagonism still showing up on social media. I grew up in the Carolinas and have lived in the South most of my life. My grandmother told me how her mother remembered being a child and her daddy — my great-great grandfather — coming home from the Civil War, walking down the dirt road to their lowcountry farm. I went to college with classmates who had Confederate flag beach towels.

I’m not posting the reviews of the four books today. They’re all good escapist fiction, and I’ll wrap them up with other summer reading picks in the weeks ahead. But if you want something good to read and think about, I’ll make two recommendations. One is something Josephine Humphreys wrote about growing up in the segregated South and posted to Facebook last night. You can use this link to where I shared it on my timeline: Charleston

Humphreys writes about what changed her. To Kill a Mockingbird started the change in me. My aunt gave me Harper Lee’s novel when I was in the fifth grade, and it’s been a favorite ever since, read so many times I know passages by heart. I was planning on a reread before Go Set a Watchman comes out next month. I think I’ll start now.

 

 

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beachtownSun, sand, salt air. All of Mary Kay Andrews’ beach-worthy novels — from Savannah Blues to Summer Rental — have a sure sense of place. But setting is absolutely essential in Beach Town (St. Martin’s Press, advance review copy) because location scout/manager Greer Hennessey needs a picture-perfect coastal hideaway for a bullying Hollywood director’s next big film. No planned communities or condo high-rises need apply, which pretty much rules out Florida’s panhandle. Then Greer finds Cypress Key, the beach town time forgot after the toxic paper plant left town. It has the requisite beach and palm trees, as well as a shabby fishing pier, an aging motel and crumbling casino/dance hall. Greer figures the locals will love having a movie crew in town, but she hasn’t counted on Cypress Key’s mayor and jack-of-all trades Eben Thibadeaux, who wants to revitalize his hometown without exploiting it.

The sparks between Greer and Eben and the ensuing fireworks when the production hits town could be entertainment enough, but Andrews turns Beach Town into a summer blockbuster with a colorful supporting cast and complications galore. Greer’s long-estranged dad, a former Hollywood stunt driver, now lives in Florida. Eben’s rebellious teenage niece is enamored with movies and with this film’s star, a spoiled bad-boy rapper right out of rehab. A local heiress could be friend or foe, depending on how much money is involved. Add in paparazzi, palmetto bugs and portable potties, and you’ve got a hot mess that Andrews sorts out with her usual flair. Beach Town is a whole lot of fun with a side of serious. Bring it on.

summersendSeeing that Mary Alice Monroe’s The Summer’s End (Gallery, digital galley) is the concluding volume of her Lowcountry Summer trilogy about three half-sisters, a little catching up is in order.  In the first book, The Summer Girls, middle sister Carson returned to her grandmother’s home on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., and confronted her wild-child ways and drinking problem. In the second, The Summer Wind, older sister Dora needed the family as she coped with divorce and her autistic son. But both her grandmother, Mamaw, and housekeeper Lucille were keeping life-changing secrets revealed at book’s end.

Now in the third entry, younger sister Harper moves to the forefront as she tries to write a novel and separate herself from her controlling mother. A former Marine with PTSD  captures her heart, but the fate of the family home, Sea Breeze, hangs in the balance and all three sisters face decisions about their respective futures. Monroe’s environmental subplots about wild dolphins, a depressed shrimping industry and the threat posed by development give the books substance, but her characters give them heart. The verbal duel between feisty Mamaw and Harper’s snobbish English grandmother is an entertaining battle between two strong women who want the same thing — family happiness.

guestcottageSophie Anderson and Trevor Black meet cute in Nancy Thayer’s The Guest Cottage (Ballantine, digital galley) when both single parents accidentally rent the same beach house on picturesque Nantucket Island. Still, what follows is as much about family as romance. Sensible Sophie, blindsided by her architect husband’s request for divorce so he can marry a younger colleague, is more worried about her kids — Lacey, 10, and Jonah, 15 — than the demise of her marriage. She isn’t looking for a fling with a younger man like Trevor, the widower father of 3-year-old Leo, who misses his actress mom. It’s really for the kids’ sake that Sophie and Trevor decide to share the conveniently large cottage, and after some initial missteps, the arrangement proves comfortable and comforting. As for the grown-ups’ mutual attraction, it’s tested by romantic opportunities with other interesting parties and some thoughtless behavior. Sure, it’s all as predictable as the tides and light as a beach ball, but hey, it is summer.

 

 

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