Monday, November 28, 2011

Nowhere Else On Earth

Nowhere Else On Earth
Author: Josephine Humphreys
Penguin, 2001
368 pages

At a professional development conference late last year, I met a woman who asked me where I grew up. When I told her I was from Robeson County, her eyes lit up. "Have you read a book called Nowhere Else On Earth?" she asked. I hadn't. We exchanged business cards, and a couple of weeks later, I received a copy of this book (which won the 2001 Southern Book Award for Fiction) in the mail as a gift from this new acquaintance.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that my books tell me when I'm supposed to read them - not the other way around. So although I wanted to read it, Nowhere Else On Earth sat on my shelf for a while. The long wait ended on Thanksgiving Day. I spent the weekend in Robeson County, and I think the book wanted me to start reading it there, where this story takes place.

It starts in 1864. The US Civil War is winding down, yet to the people in the settlement known as Scuffletown, it seems like the war many never end. Once a player in the turpentine industry, the area is home to all sorts of folks. Caught between Union soldiers (who take whatever they want - even if it's everything a family has - and often give empty promises in return) and the local Confederate sympathizers (who want to punish them for "supplying" the Union - as if they had a choice), the residents of Scuffletown are just trying to get by in these desperate times. When the Home Guard starts taking their young men away to use as laborers at Fort Fisher, tensions thicken. But soon the situation escalates, and a group of men known as the Lowrie Gang sets out to avenge the many wrongs perpetuated on Scuffletown's residents.

This is the story of Henry Berry Lowrie (sometimes spelled Lowry), the young man from a prominent Indian family who led the "gang" and became a sort of local folk hero to many, and vilified by others. Henry's story has been told many times and in many different ways, including the outdoor drama Strike At The Wind. Nowhere Else On Earth tells it from the perspective of Henry's young admirer Rhoda Strong. The daughter of an Indian mother and Scottish father, Rhoda eventually becomes Henry's wife and the mother of his children. The author does take some liberties with the story (it's historical fiction, after all). To tell you more than this would be to give too much away.

Nowhere Else On Earth is good, solid historical fiction. I found myself wanting to know more about the place I'm from, asking my Dad lots of questions, and searching maps to find some of the places mentioned. I've come away with a new appreciation of the place where I'm from and a new respect for its history. And that's pretty cool if you ask me.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Author: Tom Franklin
William Morrow Books, 2011 (reprint)
304 pages

As a kid growing up in the rural American South, I learned how to spell Mississippi the M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-humpback-humpback-I way -- so I knew upon seeing the title of this book that it had a Mississippi connection. Sure enough, I was transported to a small town and rural community in the southeastern part of that state, and into the lives of two men. Silas Jones -- known as "32" -- is black, with a past he's still trying to figure out. Larry Ott is white, a lonely mechanic with no customers . . . or friends.

Many years ago, 32 and Larry were secret friends -- it had to be that way for a variety of reasons. Then one night Larry took a girl out on a date, and she never made it back home. Although no evidence was found, everyone assumed foul play on the part of Larry, and since then he's lived his life in sad isolation, ostracized by everyone. 32 was the local baseball star who left town seeking glory, only to blow out his arm and return years later as the town constable.

In the present day: When the daughter of the richest man in town disappears, everyone thinks Larry had something to do with it. But then Larry gets shot in the chest at close range, and it's not quite clear whether someone shot him, or whether he shot himself -- perhaps out of guilt? As 32 investigates, the story moves back and forth in time. We learn how as a child 32 and his single mother came to Mississippi from Chicago, and the rather odd circumstances under which he and Larry first met. Larry was always a little "different" -- while other boys liked to hunt, fish, and play sports, he preferred reading Stephen King novels. Because of this, it wasn't all that hard for 32 to deny their friendship. Yet 32 doesn't think Larry had anything to do with the disappearance of either girl.

You won't have to wait until the end of the story to find out whodunnit, nor will you have to wait to find out the other big surprise (yes, there is another one) in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter seems like a crime novel, but it's really much more than that. The intertwined stories of the men, from their two vastly different perspectives, is compelling, and the writing is exquisite. I've read online that some people are comparing this book to The Help and even To Kill a Mockingbird. There's a strong sense of place that pulls you in from the first few sentences. Some people have complained in their reviews that the prose is a little overdone -- for example, in the opening sections when Larry's doing his farm chores. But I could totally relate to the mundane, everyday activities such as feeding the chickens and driving the tractor -- based on my own farm experiences. I've seen the result of trees being cut and companies closing and jobs being lost, and the long term effect that has on the psyche of a small community. I know people like 32 and Larry and many of the secondary characters. I went to school with them. I get them. I am them.

Fortunately, there's an undercurrent of hope and plenty of opportunity for redemption in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. That may be why I loved it so much, and why I didn't quite want it to end when it did.

In short, I think Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a fine example of contemporary literature. It's my favorite fiction read of 2011 by an American author, and IMHO, is highly deserving of every accolade and award that it gets. I'm hoping that someone out there in Hollywood-land will find it, because it's got terrific movie potential. Anybody?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Espresso Shot

Espresso Shot
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2008
321 pages

Book #7 of the Coffeehouse Mystery series starts out with a bang -- literally! Main character Clare Cosi manages the Village Blend, an independent coffee house in New York's Greenwich Village. Her friend/housemate/ex-husband Matt Allegro is about to take a walk down the aisle with wealthy fashion magazine publisher Breanne Summour. When a Breanne lookalike is shot dead while walking down the street with Matt and Clare after the bachelor party, Matt recalls an earlier incident where the real Breanne was almost run down by a car. It seems as if someone is out to get Breanne -- and they don't seem to care who gets in the way.

As a favor to Matt, Clare agrees to hang out with Breanne for a few days in order to investigate. Breanne is definitely in bridezilla mode, and there are several amusing scenes à la The Devil Wears Prada; Breanne and Meryl Streep's characters have a lot in common. Clare also spends some quality time with Breanne's friend, food writer Roman Brio (whose name cracks me up because I'm just barely old enough to remember the mid-1970s TV commercials for the cologne of the same name). Roman has been entrusted with the wedding rings, which were designed by a famous Italian sculptor. There are a couple of side stories involving the sculptor and the rings, but you'll have to read the book for that. :)

In addition to her sleuthing duties, Clare's got a gourmet coffee and dessert bar to prepare for the wedding festivities. Guests have come from all over the coffee world for the big event. But there's still a couple of questions that haven't been answered: Do the groom and bride really love each other? Will they actually get married? Is someone really trying to kill Breanne? If so, who? And why?

Answers will be revealed in Espresso Shot, which may be my favorite in the series so far. The characters continue to grow, and I keep learning interesting stuff about coffee (Espresso Shot will always be memorable for the tale behind the world's most expensive coffee.) I can hardly wait to read Book #8 . . . and since it's called Holiday Grind, I have a feeling I'll be reading it soon!

Previously read books in this series:

On What Grounds (December 2009)
Through The Grinder (January 2010)
Latté Trouble (June 2010)
Murder Most Frothy (January 2011)
Decaffeinated Corpse (April 2011)
French Pressed (August 2011)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Sourcebooks, 2010
544 pages

When I got into genealogy a few years ago, I learned that several of my ancestors came from Scotland. Among these was a young man who fled that country after the Battle of Culloden. He fought on the losing side of said battle and was considered an outlaw by the English. This personal connection got me interested in the Jacobites, which somehow I missed in my history classes. I've been looking for a good historical novel set in that era for several years now, and I found it in The Winter Sea.

There are two main storylines in The Winter Sea. One is first person, told from the perspective of Carrie, a present-day author of historical fiction who's recently arrived in Cruden Bay (near Aberdeen) to research and write her next book, which takes place at nearby Slains Castle.

A Canadian of Scottish descent, Carrie grew up hearing her Dad's stories about their Scottish ancestors, who were from the western Shires -- the other side of the country. Yet for some reason, upon arriving in Cruden Bay, Carrie has a feeling that she has come home. Almost immediately, she's compelled to begin writing the story of one of her ancestors, Sophia.

The second story is Sophia's. A strong, clever girl, she has come to Slains from the west to live with a distant relative, the Countess of Errol. The Countess and her son (the Earl of Errol) are both Jacobites, and Slains castle is a hub of Jacobite activity. As Sophia is drawn into the day-to-day affairs of the castle, she develops a relationship with a young soldier who will change her life forever.

Back in the present time, Carrie becomes increasingly drawn into the story she's writing about Sophia. It turns out that many of the things she writes about (without researching first) are actually true: names of people and ships, descriptions of the castle layout, and so on. Carrie begins to wonder if she's sharing some sort of ancestral memory with Sophia. When she's not writing, she's dealing with two brothers, Stuart and Graham, local lads who are competing for her affections.

The Winter Sea is probably most accurately categorized as a historical romance. But don't let the "R" word put you off. Canadian author Kearsley does a fabulous job explaining the very complex history of the Jacobite era, which is so complicated I found myself consulting Wikipedia and other internet sources on occasion, just to catch up. For example, I never knew about the Darien Colony, a failed attempt by Scotland to establish a territory in Panama. This is the reason it took me so long -- about 3 weeks -- to read The Winter Sea.

Whether or not you have connections to Scotland, if you appreciate good historical fiction, I'm pretty sure you'll like The Winter Sea. (Or Sophia's Secret, if you're in the UK.)