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Posts Tagged ‘North Carolina’

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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reckoningCable TV shows — Motive, Murder in the First, Major Crimes — got me through the summer, and now it’s back to the books. A flurry of new crime novels last month soon turned into a bit of a blizzard. That’s fine — it’s still hot and steamy here in Florida, and I appreciate the chill of ice and snow, if only on the page.

Winter is not just coming, it’s fast upon the Quebec village of Three Pines in Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover). Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache comes out of retirement to whip the national police academy into shape, searching for long-rooted corruption. An old map literally found in the walls of Three Pines figures into the expertly plotted puzzle, as does the murder of an authoritarian professor, Gamache’s interest in a fierce young cadet, and the almost forgotten lives of World War I soldiers. Loss shrouds the winter-haunted village, but also the possibility of forgiveness. This is my new favorite in the series, right up there with the piercing How the Light Gets In.

brinded-catBooted from boarding school in Canada, intrepid girl detective Flavia de Luce is delighted to be returning home to her crumbling English home Buckshaw in time for Christmas. But what should be a joyous homecoming in Alan Bradley’s clever Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) turns bleak when Flavia learns her beloved father, the Colonel, is in hospital with pneumonia. Unable to be at his bedside, Flavia tears off on an errand aboard her trusty bicycle Gladys and comes upon the body of a woodcarver hanging upside down from his bedroom door. “It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one spirits,” thinks Flavia, seizing on the unusual clue of famous children’s books in the dead man’s possession. The curious cat also on the scene may be the companion of a rumored witch across the road, and that’s just beginning of a curious mystery in need of Flavia’s detecting skills.

sorrowJulia Keller writes atmospheric mysteries set in the mountains of West Virginia, and Acker’s Gap, the hardscrabble hometown of prosecutor Bell Elkins, is practically a character in the series. Sorrow Road (St. Martin’s Minotaur, digital galley) is as chilly as its eye-catching cover, with several snowstorms impeding Bell’s investigation of a law school colleague’s death on an icy road, as well as her daughter Carla’s oral history project for the library. A nursing home where many of the residents have dementia ties several plot points together, including the murder of a staff member and the questionable deaths of several patients. Keller intersperses the present story with a past one about three local boys going off to fight World II and being together on D-Day.

 

wishtrueI grew up in a Charlotte, N.C. subdivision very like fictional Sycamore Glen in Marybeth Mayhew Whalen’s The Things We Wish Were True (Lake Union, digital galley), and I can almost smell the chlorine at the neighborhood pool. It’s the social hub during sultry summer days, kids cannon-balling off the diving board, mothers trading suntan lotion and gossip, young teens hanging out. In Whalen’s story, told from multiple points-of-view, an accident at the pool disturbs the seemingly placid surface of Sycamore Glen, revealing secret undercurrents. It’s not a conventional mystery but rather a domestic/neighborhood drama with elements of suspense. Think Liane Moriarty (Truly Madly Guilty) or Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden), only in an all-American small-town. Zell is the middle-aged empty nester who keeps an eye on the single dad next door and knows more than she’s letting on about his runaway wife. Jencey, hunted by a stalker in high school, returns 15 years later, her country-club life in ruins. Her former best friend Bryte is now happily married to Jencey’s high school boyfriend. Then there’s Cailey, the young girl who lives in a rental house, and the older single man across the street who takes care of his elderly mother. Whalen deftly weaves their lives together, and if some events are predictable, others surprise. Things are not what they seem in The Things We Wish Were True, the September selection of the She Reads online book club.

darkestBe happy you weren’t invited to philandering land developer Sean Jackson’s 50th birthday party, which ended in disaster when Coco, one of his three-year-old twins, mysteriously vanished into the night, never to be seen again. This was in 2004, and now in the present day, Mila Jackson, 27, receives word of her estranged father’s scandalous death. All the houseguests at the ill-fated weekend will be at the funeral, except for her stepmother, Claire, who asks Mila to take teenage Ruby, the surviving twin. In The Darkest Secret (Penguin, library paperback), Alex Marwood skillfully uses flashbacks to tease out and eventually reveal (perhaps) what actually happened to young Coco. So readers do wind up at the scene of the crime, so to speak, privy to the bickering between narcissistic Sean and insecure Claire, and where the self-involved adults plan how to keep the handful of kids quiet while they party into the wee hours.  It’s not pretty, nor is the funeral gathering, where someone else ends up dead.

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weekendersBeyonce hasn’t cornered the market on lemonade. Riley Nolan Griggs of Mary Kay Andrews’ new beach-ready novel The Weekenders (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is batting at lemons as soon as she sets foot on the ferry for North Carolina’s Belle Isle. Her soon-to-be ex-husband Wendell has missed the boat again and isn’t answering his texts. This Memorial Day weekend was when they were going to tell their 12-year-old daughter Maggy that they’re divorcing, maybe break the news to Riley’s formidable mother Evelyn, who dotes on the son-in-law who now runs the family real estate business. Then, right in front of everybody — Riley’s best friend Parrish, her little brother Billy, the gossipy neighbor known as Belle Isle Barbie, old flame Nate — a process server shoves an envelope in Riley’s hands. And more lemons await — a foreclosed house, family secrets, financial scandal, hurricane warnings. And murder! Really.

Andrews packs The Weekenders with all the requisite romance, drama and breezy wit readers want, but she also includes some heavy-duty stuff they might not expect. But before she began writing under the Andrews pseudonym, Kathy Hogan Trocheck wrote the Callahan Garrity series of mystery novels, and she knows how to balance dark times with lighter moments and hopeful hearts. Her well-drawn characters help, especially former TV reporter Riley, dealing with a cheating husband, a manipulative daughter and screwball relatives (talking about you, Aunt Roo), all the while trying to remain true to herself and her dreams. A highlight is her stint as the host of an online video show where she has to wear clothes provided by sponsor Floozy and interview hucksters promoting breast augmentations and colon cleanses. But Riley discovers she’s adept at turning lemons into lemonade, maybe mixing it with some limoncello for added oomph. Just what you want for the beach. Tart and sweet.

summerdays“Summer loving had me a blast…” The whole time I was reading the stories in the stellar anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), I kept singing under my breath the song from Grease. You know: “Summer sun, something’s begun/ But oh, oh, these summer nights.” Editor Stephanie Perkins has gathered contemporary love stories by a dozen authors with YA cred, and their tales range from realistic to fantastic, funny to serious while capturing the ups and downs of first love.

The teens in these stories find love and romance at summer camp, summer school, a mountain park, a spooky carnival and a haunted resort. Nina LaCour’s “The End of Love,” has narrator Flora re-meeting the girl of her dreams while coping with her parents’ divorce. In  Jennifer E. Smith’s “A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong,” a day-camp counselor’s crush helps her understand an autistic boy. Francesca Lia Block strikes a wistful note in “Sick Pleasures,” while Libba Bray goes full-out zombie war in “Last Stand at the Cinegor.” Lest you think that’s weird, check out Leigh Bardugo’s lyrical fairy tale mash-up of mermaids and monsters, and revel in the darkly comic magic of Cassandra Clare’s “Brand New Attraction.” My favorite is the final tale, Lev Grossman’s “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” in which two teens are caught up in a time loop, repeating the events of August 4 every day a la Groundhog Day, apparently forever until the reason reveals itself.  “Summer days, drifting away. . ”

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casebookMiles Adler-Rich, the likable teen narrator of Mona Simpson’s involving new novel Casebook (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) reminds me a bit of Harriet the Spy as he eavesdrops on the adults in his life, especially his mother Irene, “pretty for a mathematician.” Of course, he finds out more than he really wants to know, beginning with his parents’ divorce and their worries over him and his younger twin sisters. But Miles can’t stop spying, and with the help of his best friend Hector, graduates from rigging walkie-talkies and listening at open windows to tapping phones and rifling drawers. Their detective work intensifies when Irene becomes involved with the enigmatic Eli Lee, whose suspicious behavior leads Miles and Hector to a real private eye for investigative help. They also collaborate on a comic book, casting Eli as the chief villain and giving themselves superpowers to rescue incorrigible pets.

Framed as a memoir written by Miles in early 20s and footnoted by Hector, Casebook focuses on their middle and high school years in Santa Monica, the boys’ misadventures and the mystery of Eli. The conceit works for the most part; Simpson has an eye for the trenchant detail and knows her way around family dysfunction. The pacing’s uneven, and the supporting cast shadowy, but Miles’ perceptions ring true. Often funny, sometimes sad, Casebook makes for sweet dramedy.

shotgunNickolas Butler’s first novel Shotgun Lovesongs (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is itself a love song to small-town America and long friendships. It’s an ensemble piece, with the narrative fluidly moving back and forth in time and among five friends who grew up together in the Wisconsin farming community of Little Wing. Now in their early 30s, they’re facing that second coming-of-age where they’re starting to second-guess past choices and wondering what comes next. Hank runs his family farm with quiet competence and is a happily married husband and father. His wife Beth knows her high school sweetheart is a good man but a small piece of her heart still belongs to Leland, Hank’s best buddy who has found fame as an indie rocker. Despite his wandering, Lee keeps returning to Little Wing. Kip, a successful Chicago broker, is also back, ready to develop the closed mill into a commercial enterprise. Another friend, Ronny, was a rodeo cowboy before drink and a disabling accident sent him home to Little Wing, where his old pals can keep an eye on him at the VFW.

There are four weddings in the book, but the only funeral is for the lost dreams and missed opportunities among the group. Butler writes with lyric ease, but his characters are carrying around an awful lot of nostalgia to be so young. They may think it’s the Big Chill, but it’s really just an early frost.

sacredJulia Glass’s new novel And the Dark Sacred Night (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) takes its title from Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World.” It’s appropriate — the world Glass’s sympathetic characters inhabit is richly realized, full of both heartbreak and joy. Unemployed art historian Kit Noonan’s midlife search for his biological father animates the story, but he’s the least interesting of the main characters. The most inexplicable is his mother Daphne, who in this day and age still refuses to divulge the name of his father to Kit, although readers are soon privy to her youthful affair at a summer music camp with a character from Glass’s award-winning 2002 novel Three Junes.

Kit’s search for his father leads him first to Jasper, his former stepfather, a Vermont outdoorsman who eventually points him to Lucinda Burns, glimpsed in Three Junes. Lucinda, the patrician wife of a New England senator, is the heart of the book. As Kit’s paternal grandmother, she’s long been aware of his relationship to her family and the chance to finally acknowledge him allows her to reconcile past and present. It’s not necessary to have read Three Junes to appreciate this one, although its readers also will welcome the return of bookseller Fenno McLeod and the chance to catch up with him and his partner Walter. If only Kit was as faceted as his father . . .

byrdAddie Lockwood’s unexpected pregnancy is just the first surprise in Kim Church’s Byrd (Dzanc Books, paperback ARC), a beautifully written first novel about love, choice and chance. Growing up in a small North Carolina town in the 1980s, bookish Addie finds a soulmate in musician Roland Rhodes. They go their separate ways after high school, pursuing their own dreams with mixed results. When they briefly meet again in their early 30s, Addie becomes pregnant. She decides to have the baby — Byrd — and give him up for adoption without telling Roland. The secret will reveberate through their lives and those close to them.

Church tells her story, past and present, through vignettes, longer set pieces and several letters. The narrative seems a bit disjointed at first, but then Church’s seductive prose takes hold and doesn’t let go.

 

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camperdowns“It was June 4, 1972. The day started out peacefully enough, a creamy soft Sunday afternoon, a sweet do-nothing day. My mother called them tea-finger sandwich days. A day with the crust removed.”

This is Riddle James Camperdown looking back to the Cape Cod summer she was 12-almost-13, when her liberal father “Camp” was running for Congress with the passive-agressive help of her mother, icy blonde actress Greer Foley. This is when charismatic Michael Devlin, Camp’s former friend and Greer’s former fiance, re-enters their lives with his handsome college-age son Harry. This is when 15-year-old Charlie Devlin disappears. This is The Last Summer of the Camperdowns (Liveright/W.W. Norton, digital galley), the truly wonderful second novel by Elizabeth Kelly that I already have read twice and will probably re-read every summer.

Says Riddle near the book’s beginning: “I’m thirty three years old and the memory of that long-ago summer remains as alive to me as something I can reach out and touch. . .If only. If only I could somehow poke a hole through time and space and reach into that old house and shake that girl, slap her silly, tell her to shout out from the rooftops what she knew.”

Because Riddle knows what happened to young Charlie in the stables of a neighbor, although she tells herself she doesn’t, especially when around Gula, the sinister stable manager. Still, there’s a lot that precocious Riddle doesn’t know as regards her parents, the Devlins, and several secrets from the past. It’s The Great Gatsby meets Mad Men (Greer is sooo Betty Draper but wittier and wiser), and Kelly trods familiar coming-of-age territory. But her sharp, evocative writing makes The Last Summer of the Camperdowns seem singular. She describes one supporting character as “Slim and narrow, looking like something Evelyn Waugh might have doodled on a napkin during a lull at a dinner party.”  And the conversations among the characters, especially the Camperdowns, animate Riddle’s observations:   

“Did anyone ever tell the truth about anything? The adults around me loomed like tall trees that resisted climbing, pendulous, dark and mysterious. I was lost in their forest. I was lost to myself.”

yonahThea Atwell, the narrator of Anton DiSclafani’s ambitious first novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Riverhead, digital galley) also wonders about the reliability of adults. Looking back to 1930 and the Great Depression, Thea recalls her 15-year-old “confused, wronged” self exiled to an exclusive girls’ school in the North Carolina mountains after a scandalous incident with a boy on her family’s Florida citrus estate.

Thea witholds the details of the incident, parceling them out in flashbacks from her Yonahlossee narrative so as to sustain suspense. But much can be guessed at because DiSclafani isn’t nearly as subtle with her hints as she is with her lyrical evocation of time and place. Thea, home-schooled with her twin brother Sam, initially feels like an outsider among the wealthy Southern debutantes, but she aligns herself with popular Sissy and her riding skills impress even the resident equestrian-goddess. She also gives riding lessons to the headmaster’s young daughters, which allows her more time with the handsome headmaster.

DiSclafani is better with girls and horses than she is with men and boys, and so Thea’s relationship with her classmates and horses is more richly delineated than her romances. “There was so much of the world to see, and most of us had never held a boy’s hand. We wanted to do more than that, anyway, we wanted boys to hold not just our hands but all of us, gather us into their sturdy arms and ring our slippery curls around their thick but tender fingers.”

But as much as Thea recklessly plays at desire and grapples with sexuality, she eventually realizes that knowing oneself begins at home and that there is plenty of blame to go around back in her beloved Florida. “Danger presented itself, every girl knew, from within the family — your father’s mistress; mother’s thorny relationship with her mother-in-law, your grandmother; the first cousin who had tried to kill himself. But we were no one, nothing, without our families.”

A year at Yonahlossee gives Thea the distance she needs to become someone in her own right, to go home again. And to leave by choice.

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floraIt’s the summer of 1945 and, in a big old house in a North Carolina mountain town, 10-year-old Helen is under the guardianship of her 22-year-old cousin Flora.

From just that outline, I thought I knew what would happen in Gail Godwin’s new book Flora: A Novel (Bloomsbury, digital galley via NetGalley). Young Helen would be dazzled by the sophistication of her older cousin and would want to emulate her in all things, right up to the fateful moment of betrayal when Flora’s feet of clay would be revealed. After all, similar plots have driven other coming-of-age novels, including Anne Rivers Siddons’ Nora, Nora, Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, even Godwin’s 1984 The Finishing School.

Well, I was wrong, way wrong, but Godwin gets everything right in her lovely, nuanced story of girls and guardians and the ghosts who haunt our hearts. Helen Anstruther, a writer in her 70s, looks back to when she was “going on 11,” and still reckoning with the recent death of her beloved grandmother who has raised her since her own mother died years ago. Now her father, the high school principal, has gone off to do secret war work in Oak Ridge and has imported his wife’s cousin Flora from Alabama to look after Helen.

Helen — precocious, imaginative, a bit bratty — is patently disdainful of country mouse Flora, an effusive pleaser who wears her heart on her sleeve. And there is no escape — the two are confined to the house and yard because of a polio outbreak, their only visitors the minister, the housekeeper Mrs. Jones, and the ex-soldier Finn who delivers groceries. Helen is the first to meet Finn and hear his history, and she’s increasingly possessive of his attention, even fantasizing the day when her father returns, Flora goes back to Alabama to teach school, and Finn moves into the house. He’ll be able to choose from the rooms named after “the Recoverers,” the former TB sufferers and ex-mental patients who once lived there under the care of Helen’s doctor grandfather.

Godwin seamlessly blends summer set pieces — Flora and Helen playing “Fifth Grade,” the two entertaining Finn for dinner, Helen talking books and ghosts to Mrs. Jones  — with the rich backstory of family history. Helen clings to Flora’s comments about the mother she doesn’t remember, and upbraids Flora when she unwittingly welcomes a visit from a relative her grandmother despised. But the outside world doesn’t really intrude until news of the Hiroshima bombing arrives on the eve of Helen’s birthday, when Helen herself initiates the events whose devastating consequences follow her the rest of her life.

Years later, she turns that summer over in her mind, remembers Flora, reflects on remorse — and writes this fine book.

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mccorkleAs a hospice volunteer, Joanna knows the importance of moments. Her own checkered past has led her back to the small North Carolina town of Fulton, where she made peace with her daddy and now records the last thoughts and words of the dying at the Pine Haven retirement center. But she also is fully engaged with living and the living, from tattooed single mom CJ to troubled pre-teen Abby to retired third-grade teacher Sadie. The latter optimistic soul uses Polaroid snapshots, cut-out magazine scenes, color markers and glue to assemble collages of her friends in places they have only imagined. “I can make you a memory and I can make a dream come true,” she says.

Jill McCorkle does something similar in her new novel, Life After Life, spinning words and images into a story that rings so true you forget it’s fiction. I once wrote about one of her books — maybe the novel Carolina Moon, maybe the story collection Final Vinyl Days, possibly both — that her characters live so fully within the pages that you swear they also live outside them. They’re that real.

Take former lawyer Stanley Stone, who has moved to Pine Haven with his obsession for wrestling, Herb Alpert and inappropriate remarks. But he is faking dementia because he wants his grown son to have a life of his own. Rachel Silverman, another retired lawyer, may be the one to figure him out, although she has her own secret reason for leaving Massachusetts for Pine Haven — it’s next to the cemetery where the love of her  life is buried next to his wife. The cemetery is also a refuge for Abby, who is mourning her lost  dog Dollbaby and hoping that her parents — social-climbing Kendra and amateur magician Ben — split up. Kendra is carrying on an affair with a married man, while Ben, once Sadie’s favorite student and Joanna’s best childhood friend, drinks too much and perfects a disappearing chamber. “And now ladies and gentlemen, I will make this normal ordinary girl disappear.”

Joanna remembers Ben’s words over the years and once tried to make herself disappear by drowning in a hot tub — only to be rescued by a giant dog named Tammy. And it was Tammy’s owner Luke who gave Joanna back her life, encouraging her to “unpack her heart” of failed projects, toxic relationships, old grievances and wounds. Joanna is still working on that.

McCorkle has the gift of mixing humor and heartbreak so as to make you laugh one moment, cry the next. Death can be peaceful, or it can be sudden, even violent. Happy endings are not guaranteed, and surprises still await the most jaded. In the end, Life After Life is true-to-life.

Open Book: I read a digital galley and review copy of Jill McCorkle’s Life After Life (Shannon Ravenel/Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). It’s not to be confused with the new book of the same title by Kate Atkinson, which I’ll be writing about when it pubs next week. They both are good but different.

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