Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Southern books’

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Man Martin’s Paradise Dogs  shouts “retro’’ with its neon title riding in the sky above an aqua car, roadside diner and pink (!) alligator. Indeed, we’re boarding the wayback machine to Central Florida in the 1960s B.D. (Before Disney).

“Interstate 4 had come through,’’ Martin writes early in the book, “but the region still fairly trembled in anticipation of the next big thing, the thing that would lift it from being a largely rural cracker town into  something like modern glory as had happened in Palm Springs and Miami.’’

Adam Newman, 47, is a homely real estate agent/dreamer with lots of charm, great expectations, and a talent for reinventing himself at any given moment. As he gases up his car at the Sinclair on Eola, he ponders his sort-of plan to win back his ex-wife Evelyn, with whom he once ran a restaurant serving only hot dogs. A pocketful of loose diamonds should help his cause, but what of his clingy young fiancé, Lily?

To say complications ensue as Adam tries to return to the Eden of yesteryear proves to be an understatement. Martin’s allegorically-named characters get up to all sorts of mischief, and the resulting comedy of errors borders on high farce and tomfoolery.  A major plot point, which includes mysterious land purchases, will come as no surprise to Central Floridians, but Martin – who grew up in Florida and now lives in Georgia – has a deft hand with local color and shows true affection for his goofy hero.

Paradise Dogs may not be what old-timers call an “E-ticket,’’ yet it’s still an agreeable ride back to an orange-blossom-scented past not yet paved with theme parks.  Easy “A.’’

Open Book: Paradise Dogs by Man Martin (St. Martin’s Press) is a SIBA summer “Okra” pick from Southern booksellers. I bought the e-book edition for my nook, although I wish I had a larger picture of the cool cover.

Date Book: Man Martin will be signing copies of Paradise Dogs at 7 p.m. Wednesday July 6 at the Orlando Barnes & Noble on E. Colonial Drive. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Read Full Post »

I picked up Katie Crouch’s YA novel The Magnolia League thinking it sounded something like last year’s Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. Forget that.

Despite a similarity in plot — motherless girls whisked away to genteel Savannah — Hoffman’s coming-of-age tale is sweetly conventional. Not so with Crouch’s spicy story, in which 16-year-old Alexandra Lee lands among the mean Magnolias and discovers “nothing in Savannah is what it seems.”

Wicked fun ensues as dreadlocked Alex, raised on an organic farm commune in California, is taken in hand by her formidable grandmother after her bohemian mother Louise is killed in a car accident. Grandmother Lee heads the elite Magnolia League and immediately deputizes two of its younger members, the impossibly privileged and pretty Hayes and Madison, to transform Alex into a designer-clad debutante so she can assume her rightful place in society.

Alex is an uneasy Cinderella, comfortable in her vintage T-shirts, aghast at her new friends’ consumerism, longing for the boyfriend she left behind who seems to have forgotten her. She finds a pal in Dexter, another high school outsider who doesn’t care about the Magnolias, but she’s still impressed by Hayes’ handsome prepster brother. She’s curious, too, as to why her grandmother keeps her mom’s girlhood room locked and warns her to stay away from Dr. Sam Buzzard and his family, who appear to have a strange hold on the Magnolias. Can you say hoo-doo?

Alex is both fascinated and repelled as she learns more of the old African rituals and potions. Suspense builds as the annual debutante ball approaches. Will Alex accept her “destiny”? It’s no mistake that “That Old Black Magic” (Savannah’s Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics) is playing in the background as Crouch adroitly sets the stage for a sequel. Can’t wait.

In such previous books as Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Sarah Addison Allen has captivated with her own brand of dreamy Southern magical realism.  She’s a kinder, gentler Alice Hoffman, so her tales are not as dark nor deep.

The Peach Keeper, set in a North Carolina mountain town, offers family rivalries, secrets, superstitions and an actual skeleton that appears when old peach tree is uprooted during the renovation of the old Jackson family mansion, The Blue Ridge Madame, into a ritzy inn.

 Willa Jackson, who has returned to her hometown after a disappointing decade, runs a small sporting goods/coffee shop catering to out-of-town hikers. Paxton Osgood, whose family ascended into society after scandal befell the Jacksons, is overseeing the opening of the Madam with the same poise and efficiency with which she runs the local women’s club founded by hers and Willia’s grandmothers.

 Both old ladies reside in the same senior home, but Willa’s grandmother Georgie has slipped into senility. Paxton’s grandmother remains sharp as a tack but keeps secrets as well, especially as regards Tucker Devlin, the traveling salesman who long ago charmed her, Georgie and every other young woman in town.

Paxton and Willa have their own romantic troubles. Paxton believes her love for her handsome best  friend is unrequited, while Willa won’t admit her attraction to Paxton’s twin brother, in town for the gala opening. Oh, what fools these mortals be! Can’t they feel the magic stirring in the shadows, smell the scent of smoke and peaches?

Allen displays her usual light touch. The story’s not much in the way of suprises, but the resolution should please readers. My favorite scene remains one midway through when Willa rescues an unusually drunk Paxton from some local thugs, and the two begin to sift through years of misunderstanding on both sides.

Open Book: I read a digital advance of The Magnolia League (Little, Brown) through NetGalley. I’m probably going to buy a copy to go with my other Katie Crouch books, Girls in Trucks and Men and Dogs, both set in the South Carolina lowcountry. Crouch has family on Edisto Island, as do I, and really knows the local color. I bought my copy of Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper (Bantam).

Read Full Post »

Last summer, the good folks at SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, suggested that its members “get in bed with a blogger,”  which sounded kind of hot. (Remember when we were complaining about the heat?!) Actually, the idea was that indies partner with bloggers to reach more readers and let them know what was going on at their local bookstores.

Alas, my local indie, Urban Think, in downtown Orlando, had recently closed its doors, as had many of its counterparts, casualties of the economy, the chains, the online stores, the warehouse stores, the rise of e-books, etc. Seems like every week now, I hear of the demise of another longtime indie, many of which hosted Caroline Cousins and other Southern writers over the years: The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, S.C.,  Davis-Kidd in Nashville, Bay Street Trading Company in Beaufort, S.C.  They are sorely missed.

But I want you to know my home island indie, The Edisto Bookstore on Edisto Island, S.C., is hanging in there. In fact, things were right busy when I was in there last week making my farewells before heading home to Florida. Several tourists were looking at the books, new and used, and a local woman popped in for a birthday card and a gift, knowing that owner Karen Carter has the best collection of both. Another islander needed a nautical chart. Both rental desktops in the internet cafe were in use (wi-fi is free if you have your own laptop), and one woman (obviously from “off”) rather rudely asked Karen and I to move our conversation about new books to another part of the store. We complied, just as a couple came in to visit Emily Grace.

Emily Grace is the bookstore cat, a pretty girl who wandered up on the porch three years ago. She now has her own private quarters in the tiny back office, but she usually can be found near the front door greeting customers. She likes being petted and picked up — I’ve carried her around on my shoulder while perusing the shelves. She likes laps and laptop bags, and on cold days, she curls up on the wireless router between the two desktops. She makes the bookstore feel even more like home.

Business can be tough, Karen admits: “I had to diversify or die,” hence the cards and unusual trinkets for sale. But, after 20 plus years, she knows her community — the year-rounders, the vacationers, the part-timers (like me) — and she stocks a good assortment of books on the Lowcountry and by Lowcountry authors (Mary Alice Monroe, Karen White,  Sue Monk Kidd, Pat Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons), as well as the new John Grisham, the autobiography of Mark Twain, SIBA’s “Okra Picks,” cookbooks, field guides, kids’ books.

The bookstore doesn’t have a lot of events — there’s just not room — but Karen recently had a signing for silhouette artist and author Clay Rice, and there’s a monthly book club open to all comers the second Wednesday of the month. This week, readers met at 7 p.m. to discuss Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (you don’t have to have read the book).

I’ll have to let you know what the February pick is. Meanwhile, you can visit the website, http://edistobookstore.com (more pictures of Emily Grace and art by Clay Rice) or check out its Facebook page. Hit “Like.” And if you’re on Highway 174 on Edisto Island (an hour or so from Charleston off the Savannah Highway), by all means drop by the bookstore. Make yourself at home.

Read Full Post »