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Posts Tagged ‘Louisiana’

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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lovesickCrimes of the heart. Sins of the flesh. The four novellas collected in James Driggers’ evocative Lovesick (Kensington, review copy) are linked by the fictional  South Carolina town of Morris, located somewhere near Florence, an hour or so north of Myrtle Beach, and firmly in the territory of Southern Gothic. Sure, it’s the land of Faulkner, O’Conner and Crews, as well as a host of younger writers. Driggers is right at home.

“Butcher, the Baker,” set in the 1930s, features a black ex-con whose extraordinary baking talents have society ladies passing off his treats as their own. When war widow Virginia Yeager offers to give him credit for a cake, Butcher proposes they secretly partner to enter the Mystic White Flour baking contest in Atlanta. Wearing a big white hat and armed with Butcher’s recipe for Angel Biscuits, Virginia makes quite an impression on the racist company owner, but another competitor’s threat to expose her leads to blood and betrayal. “The Brambles,” set in the 1950s, puts a dark and unexpected spin on Arsenic and Old Lace as two middle-aged sisters marry for money and murder. “Sandra and the Snake Handlers” focuses on a recent widow whose obsession with a television evangelist has tragic consequences. Then there’s the contemporary tabloid tale, “M.R. Vale,” in which a gay florist confesses how he wound up in motel room with a dead body and a brutish mechanic. Driggers’ small-town South of secret scandals, stained-glass windows and judgmental neighbors proves both familiar and strange.

sewingTupelo Honey Lee, the appealing narrator of Darlyn Finch Kuhn’s first novel Sewing Holes (Twisted Road, review copy), is the first to admit she’s not as sweet as her name. Honey can’t help but say what she thinks, and her forthrightness can get her into trouble. But candor is a gift for a storyteller like Honey as she recounts her eventful coming-of-age in 1970s Jacksonville, where the South of bait shops and home-ec classes is giving way to suburbs and the wider world.

Honey’s heroines are Joan of Arc and Lois Lane as she copes with a troubled and troublesome family. Her chronically ill father and her unhappy mother are often at odds; her older brother becomes a war resister; her good-for-nothing uncle can’t support her young cousins, one of whom shares Honey’s room and her mother’s attention. As Honey’s growing-up years are marked by love and loss, faith and forgiveness, a bookish, burdened girl becomes a thoughtful, compassionate woman. You can picture her telling you these stories over a glass of sweet tea on the porch, stitching one memory to another.

sunshineThe nameless narrator of M.O. Walsh’s lush first novel, My Sunshine Away (Penguin, library hardcover) looks back to the pivotal summer of 1989 when he was a gawky 14-year-old enjoying a free-range childhood of bikes and backyards in sultry Baton Rouge. He secretly spies on neighbor Lindy Simpson, a pretty 15-year-old track star, and casts himself as the hero in her life instead of the dorky pal. Then Lindy is sexually assaulted, and her unknown assailant escapes into  the evening shadows. The narrator is one of several initial suspects and, as weeks go by with no arrest, he becomes determined to solve the crime and win Lindy’s heart. That his efforts go awry and cause pain to those he loves causes an aching regret that follows him into adulthood. A family tragedy also complicates his memories, and the wish to exorcise the ghosts results in a novel with the feel of a memoir.

“I imagine that many children in South Louisiana have stories similar to this one, and when they grow up, they move out into the world and tell them.”

Perhaps, but one doubts that those coming-of-age stories so effectively mix mystery and memory.

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At the beginning of  Attica Locke’s atmospheric novel The Cutting Season, a cottonmouth the length of a Cadillac falls from a live oak during a wedding at a restored plantation. “It only briefly stopped the ceremony, this being Louisiana after all.”

Still, plantation manager Caren Grey takes the snake as a sign that Belle Vie’s beauty is not to be trusted. “That beneath its loamy topsoil, the manicured grounds and gardens, two centuries of breathtaking wealth and spectacle, lay a land both black and bitter, soft to the touch, but pressing in its power.”

Caren knows this better than most. She grew up in Ascension Parish, daughter of Belle Vie’s cook, descendant of the freed slave Jason, whose mysterious disappearance more than a century ago still haunts the estate-turned-tourist attraction. When a migrant worker from the adjoining sugar cane fields is found murdered at Belle Vie, Caren’s good intentions and curiosity put her at cross-purposes with the local authorities, the plantation’s owners, much of the staff, her own preteen daughter, and the girl’s father, a D.C. attorney. Past secrets lead to present dangers, love and loyalty collide, and the murder mystery winds through the plot like a slithering snake. But larger questions of class, race and identity complicate the whole, and it is those mysteries that Locke so artfully explores in prose as seductive as Belle Vie’s magnolia-scented grounds.

Dennis Lehane chose The Cutting Season as the first book for his new imprint at HarperCollins, so it’s fitting that one of our best crime novelists also has a new book. Live by Night is a sort of sequel to The Given Day, but this layered historical novel of the Roaring Twenties in Boston, Tampa and Cuba stands tall on its own.

Joe Coughlin, the younger son of a corrupt Boston cop, comes to crime as a teen “because it was fun and he was good at it.” By 20, he thinks of himself as an outlaw, with his own code of love and loyalty that allows him to work for established gangsters despite his aversion to senseless violence.

Joe’s conflicted conscience doesn’t keep him out of trouble. Quite the contrary. Falling for a rival mobster’s sultry girlfriend leads to her disappearance and presumed death while bad boy Joe is toughened by prison. He’s mentored by a Mafia don, who sets him up as a rum-runner in Tampa on his release. Still good at what he does, enterprising Joe builds a boot-legging empire and marries a Cuban social activist. Over time, he takes on all comers and uses some of his dirty money for good deeds. Still, blood and betrayal are inescapable.

This all makes for entertaining Prohibition-era noir, and Lehane bends the genre conventions to his own ends so that the past takes on the vivid solidity of the known present.

Open Book: I bought two copies of Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (HarperCollins), one for me and one for my cousins Meg and Gail. As Caroline Cousins, we’ve written three cozy mysteries set on a restored plantation, and I enjoyed the familarity of Locke’s setting and details. I wish we’d thought of the falling snake, although we’d have played it more for laughs, like our marauding seagulls and ghost gator, and Locke’s book is deadly serious. I admire it very much. Dennis Lehane is a long-time favorite, and I read a digital galley of Live By Night (Morrow) via edelweiss.

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