Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Land More Kind Than Home

A Land More Kind Than Home
Author: Wiley Cash
P.S., 2012
306 pages

While browsing in a local independent bookstore recently, I came across an autographed copy of A Land More Kind Than Home by North Carolina author Wiley Cash. I always enjoy finding signed books, so I knew I had to have this one.

The story takes place in 1986 in a small town in the North Carolina mountains, where young Jess Hall (one of three narrators) and his older brother Christopher (nicknamed Stump) live with their parents. Jess is a sweet, curious boy and easy to fall in love with, and you'll know why the moment he starts telling his story. 

But Jess's story doesn't begin right away. The first chapter is narrated by an older woman named Adeline. She's the town midwife and herbalist, and a member of a local church where a charismatic preacher has a strong hold on his congregation. Adeline's first chapter gives us perspective on the events leading up to the present day as she recounts a disturbing incident that happened years earlier in a Sunday service. Adeline reappears to narrate other chapters, providing a sort of old/wise/common sense. She's a sympathetic character, although you can't help but wonder why she doesn't find another church.

The third narrator is the local sheriff, Clem, who suffered a loss many years ago that he's still trying to recover from. Of the three narrators, he's the one I had the most difficult time connecting with emotionally, yet I felt his pain and wanted him to heal.

Other interesting characters include Jess and Stump's parents. Their father was a high school athlete who had a chance at a bright future but chose other options; now he's an emotionally distant burley tobacco farmer. He has issues with his own father, a 'mean' drunk who's coming back into the picture after many years away. Then there's Jess and Stump's well-meaning but completely weak-willed Mom, who's totally under the influence of the preacher.

Oh, yeah, the preacher. Talk about creepy. That's all I'm gonna say about him.

I mentioned earlier that Jess is a curious boy. It's this curiosity that gets him into 'trouble' and sets the events in motion. A Land More Kind Than Home is Jess's coming-of-age story, one so powerful that you won't be able to forget this cool kid for a long time.

I should mention that some reviewers have compared A Land More Kind Than Home that great southern classic To Kill a Mockingbird. I think the comparison is a fair one. I also think this is a pretty amazing first novel, and I look forward to reading other works by Wiley Cash. His second book, This Dark Road to Mercy, was released in January in the USA -- so maybe it won't be long.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Author: Charles E. Patton
CreateSpace, 2010
254 pages

I came across this book while doing some genealogy research and decided to buy it for my family. It's a fictionalized account of one of our ancestors who made the trek across the pond from France in the late eighteenth century, and attempts to answer a question I've had ever since I first learned about this ancestor: Of all places, why did he choose to settle in a remote area of southeastern North Carolina . . . instead of New Orleans? Or Montreal?

Jean Formy was a physician in the Normandy region of France. He was married to a woman named Jeanne Duval whose family had some sort of connection to the royal family such that she was referred to as The Princess. During the Reign of Terror, circumstances (I won't reveal details here because that's part of what makes this story so interesting) caused the family to flee the country for the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) where they would soon be forced to flee again as a result of the Haitian Revolution.

I'm pleased that the author painted a picture of my ancestor that made him seem like a good guy despite the weirdness of the times and the numerous challenges he faced. It's a quick read; I read it in about two hours. Like many self-published books, it could use an editor. But I can forgive this, because as a self-published author myself, I know that the reason people write is because they have a story to tell.

And this is a pretty cool story.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Angel Maker

The Angel Maker
Author: Stefan Brijs
Penguin Books, 2008
352 pages

I love discovering new-to-me authors from across the pond, so I was delighted when my friend Sophie (from Belgium) sent this book by Belgian author Stefan Brijs. :) 

The Angel Maker is a story told in three parts, starting with the return of Dr. Victor Hoppe to his childhood village in Belgium near the place where three borders (Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands) meet. The doctor has three toddler boys who look exactly alike their father, down to the same physical defect. Unlike other boys in the village, they're kept indoors and not allowed to socialize with other children. Curious villagers gossip: What's wrong with the boys? Who's their mother and where is she? Where has Dr. Hoppe been all these years? Yet they look upon the doctor with a combination of sadness and awe, knowing that he has such a tragic past.

Section two fills in blanks on Victor's past. The only child of the odd village physician, he was born with the same genetic defect as his father. At an early age he was mistaken for mentally challenged and sent to live in a religious-sponsored psychiatric institution. In reality, young Victor is a genius who eventually becomes a doctor specializing in genetics. Like the classic Dr. Frankenstein (interesting that the two doctors share the same first name), Victor becomes obsessed with creating life. Victor is super-creepy and oddly captivating as a character. I was repulsed by him, yet I felt sorry for him.

The last section takes us in a couple of new directions as we learn the answers to all the questions that have been building up since Dr. Hoppe came to town. Things all come to a head in the uber-riveting ending, which deserves at least a 9 on the nail-biting scale. It's going to be a while before I forget The Angel Maker. I can't wait to pass it along to my nephew, who has an interest in genetics. I wonder if he'll be as creeped out as I was!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Simple Dreams

Simple Dreams
Author: Linda Ronstadt
Simon & Schuster, 2013
257 pages

One of my favorite albums of all time is Linda Ronstadt's Prisoner in Disguise. I grew up listening to her music and knew that she worked with other artists whose music I enjoyed, such as The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, and James Taylor. I liked her eclectic tastes in music -- for example, Prisoner in Disguise includes songs written by Dolly Parton, Neil Young, and Jimmy Cliff, just to name a few -- and even today I list her among my favorite musical artists. So when I learned she'd written a memoir, I knew I'd want to read it.

Simple Dreams chronicles Ronstadt's life growing up in a musical family in southern Arizona, where she was exposed to all kinds of music (opera, traditional country, Mexican, etc.), her early years as an emerging artist in Los Angeles, and the amazing career that followed. She shares stories about her experiences in the music industry and with other artists, but she never gives away any secrets or dirt on other people (which IMHO, is rather refreshing). What we have here is a musical memoir in the truest sense, with emphasis on her evolution as an artist who went from singing country/rock to old standards, canciones, and musicals.

I especially enjoyed the section in the back that provided information on all of her recordings. When you see the list of songs she's recorded and other artists she's worked with in her career, you'll probably be just as amazed as I was. I would have enjoyed knowing a little more about her life since she retired from singing. Maybe she'll write a sequel someday. :)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Lookaway, Lookaway

Lookaway, Lookaway
Author: Wilton Barnhardt
St. Martin's Press, 2013
368 pages

I first heard about Lookaway, Lookaway from a review in one of our local magazines back in the spring, just prior to the book's release. I knew I'd read it since it's set in Charlotte, a city I know well from living here in the mid-1980s and again since 2010. The author is a North Carolina native.

Lookaway, Lookaway focuses on the Johnsons, an "old Southern money" family living in the Myers Park neighborhood of Charlotte. For those of you who don't know Charlotte or its neighborhoods, Myers Park is an affluent area just south of downtown where the average home price is over $700,000. It's a beautiful, with broad avenues shaded by huge old oak trees. In other words, the perfect location for a family like the Johnsons with their Civil War gun collection, fancy monogrammed silverware and dinner parties.

The family is led by the very determined Jerene, whose sole responsibilities seem to be: 1) keeping up appearances and 2) overseeing the family's art collection at The Mint Museum. Her husband Duke, an attorney who hasn't worked in years, is obsessed with a Civil War-era ancestor and with participating in Civil War re-enactments. Their four adult children are as different as night and day and each have their own struggles. Annie, the eldest, is an overweight, loud-mouthed rebel who wants nothing to do with her family's wealth. Joshua is gay but deep in the closet. Bo is a minister on an upward trajectory in his denomination and a wife who feels more comfortable feeding the hungry than dealing with church politics. And Jerilyn, the youngest, is a sorority girl who feels like she's the only one left who can possibly take her mother's place as the family matriarch.

Two other characters who add a lot of spice to the story are Jerene's brother Gaston, an alcoholic who writes Civil War-era romance novels, and Dorrie, Joshua's best friend. Gaston and Duke have been best friends for decades; Dorrie, who happens to be African-American and a lesbian, often stands in as Joshua's girlfriend.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, starting with Jerilyn, whose story about leaving home to attend the University of North Carolina immediately pulled me in.

The author clearly knows Charlotte, and isn't shy about inserting references to the city's rapid growth and the impact this is having on the environment as well as the culture. Lookaway, Lookaway puts a mirror in our faces and what we see in the reflection is Change with a Capital C. If you're a fan of southern fiction, you won't want to miss this one.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Storyteller

The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013
480 pages

Of all the books I read this year, The Storyteller was my absolute favorite. It has all of my favorite book genres (historical fiction, mystery, contemporary, supernatural twist) wrapped up into one package. But most of all it's just good writing and a good story. Or stories.

Main character Sage Singer is a baker in New Hampshire, working the night shift so she doesn't have to interact with people. A person with scars on the inside and out, Sage goes through life as invisibly as she can. She lives with the guilt of surviving the accident that caused her scars and the death of another person. Reluctantly, she attends grief counseling sessions. There she develops a sort of friendship with an older gentleman. Their relationship intensifies when he shares stories of his earlier life in Nazi Germany and Sage begins to wonder who he really is. Meanwhile, a third storyline about a teenage girl living near a small European village being terrorized by a supernatural creature weaves through Sage's modern-day story and her friend's World War II-era story.

The Storyteller is a ultimately about forgiveness and redemption of the characters and ourselves. Once you get into it, it's impossible to put down. Highly, highly recommended -- this is the book I sent to my reading buddies in Austria and Belgium this year. I hope they'll like it as much as I did!


Author: Ann McMan
Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company, 2011
412 pages

I'm not a huge fan of the romance genre, but sometimes it's refreshing to break out of your comfort zone and try something new. On the advice of a friend, I gave Jericho a try. I was really surprised with how much I enjoyed it.

I love the southern Appalachian mountains, and the main locale of the book is a tiny mountain town in western Virginia called Jericho. The descriptions of small town life were spot on, and the local characters reflected a rural/small town diversity that exists but is rarely shown in works of fiction. I appreciated this busting of stereotypes.

The main characters are Syd and Maddie, but I see Syd as being the "main" main character. As the book opens, she's in the process of moving to Jericho, where she plans to take an 18-month position as a librarian. This move is a big deal for Syd, as she's freshly divorced and at a sort of crossroads in her life. Maddie is a very attractive physician who lives in an awesome house and is friendly with everyone. The two women develop a quick friendship and their lives become intertwined through a series of events that are at times painful, and other times hilariously funny.

Three other characters that bring a great deal of life to the book are David, Michael, and Pete. David and Michael are a couple who own the local inn, which contains an awesome restaurant, of course. Long term friends of Maddie's, they add a lot of humor in tense situations, and they have Maddie's best interests at heart. Pete is Maddie's totally awesome dog, who steals several scenes and is the kind of canine companion that everyone wishes they had.

Jericho is a fine read, and one of the most well-written LGBT-themed books of any genre and probably the best romance novel I've ever read. Kudos to the author for focusing first on friendship, and on nailing the geography and culture.

A Land More Kind Than Home

A Land More Kind Than Home Author: Wiley Cash P.S., 2012 306 pages While browsing in a local independent bookstore recently, I came a...