‘Edgar and Lucy’

edgarVictor Lodato is a master of literature!

Who would have thought to make an 8-year-old albino boy the protagonist in a rich story about loss, forgiveness and personal growth? In “Edgar and Lucy,” it works as does the not-so-motherly role of Lucy who lives in the shadow of her husband’s death and the belittlement by her Italian mother-in-law Florence.

Edgar’s world is divided into two, before and after his doting grandmother dies. Without her protection, he’s alone both spiritually and physically. Despite their shortcoming, he and his mom are trying to cope, just not on the same page or wavelength. Lucy mourns for her late husband in her own way, while Edgar is left to look for signs of his deceased grandma.

Kindness, or what Edgar takes to be such, comes in the form of a man in a truck and a hidden mountain cabin. A prisoner, yet not a prisoner, Edgar learns that people and dreams don’t always look the same when brought into the daylight. Bad choices can come from good intentions, and the past can bring down the present – if you let it.

“Edgar and Lucy” touches on so many emotions and reaches so many depths that it becomes difficult to put into words. I cried. I laughed. I cussed. I was drained, yet I wanted more.

ARC provided by NetGalley

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‘Desperation Road’

An unplanned turn down a country road has far-reaching consequences in the latest novel by a Mississippi native who’s already made an impression among the state’s treasury of gifted writers.

“Desperation Road” is the second novel by Michael Farris Smith of Columbus, MSdesperation-road. His first, “Rivers,” earned the 2014 Mississippi Author Award for Fiction from the Mississippi Library Association and was well received nationwide.

The author draws upon his Mississippi roots to set the scene for “Desperation Road.” His childhood was spent moving around south Mississippi while his father preached. The family eventually settled in Pike County and McComb. “I liked being down there around the Mississippi/Louisiana line,” Smith says. “Plenty of interesting people, and I think that area has its own unique personality.”

Now, as he did with “Rivers,” Smith draws upon that uniqueness to pen a story that’s as gritty as a Mississippi gravel road and characters as resilient as anyone who claims the Magnolia State as home. “Desperation Road” takes readers on a journey fueled by revenge, regrets and redemption.

Russell Gaines finally is coming home to McComb after 11 years in the infamous Parchman prison. He’s done his time after a fatal crash following a long night of partying, boozing and cruising back roads. His prison stint – and its accompanying mental and physical scars – isn’t enough for the crash victim’s two brothers. They’re waiting for Russell when he stops off the bus with their own brand of southern justice. With that first beating comes a promise of more to follow.

Roads wandering beneath south Mississippi’s tall trees become Russell’s frequent escape. One turn too many, though, brings him back under police radar when he drives up on a crime scene. One of the town’s deputies has been found shot to death on a rural road. The ex-con quickly ix suspected of knowing more than he’s telling.

A woman named Maben knows what happened. She pulled the trigger. She tells Russell why after rushing at his truck with a gun – and her young child, Annalee. What unfolds is a drama created when unexpected paths cross and lonely souls intersect.

Smith’s taut narrative keeps “Desperation Road” moving at a fast clip. Thanks to descriptive, insightful storytelling, readers are taken for a ride that explores hidden drives and needs. Some might peg the novel as southern gothic, but it’s so much more than that.

The author presents the question, “How does one start over when the past can’t be forgotten – or forgiven?” As Smith shows us, the first step is hard and lonely, but it takes you down a road with an end in sight.

In his own words

 Q: What led you to pick up a pen?

A: This is a long story, but I’ll give you the short version. The idea of trying to write didn’t strike me until I was about 29. By then I had bounced around here and there and worked different jobs, but I had also ended up living in Geneva, Switzerland, and then in Paris for a while.

It was during those years abroad that I began to read, mostly because I couldn’t follow the television and I needed something to do while sitting in the park or in the cafes or riding the trains. So I started reading the names anyone would know – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dickens. Then I began to read Faulkner because I figured he was from Mississippi, so I should give him a try.

It turns out those writers are a pretty good place to start. So as time went on and I ended up back in the United States, something had changed in me, and I decided to give writing a try, not having any idea of what kind of challenge lay ahead.

Q: You’ve received numerous awards and recognitions for your writing. Which means the most, and why?

 A: All of the recognitions are wonderful and validating, but I have to say the Mississippi Author Award for Fiction means a little something extra to me. There’s something about being recognized by your home, particularly when you have a home with such a tremendous literary past and present.

Q: “Rivers” as well as “Desperation Road” (and “The Fighter” due in 2018) have Mississippi settings. Why? What is it about the Magnolia State, and which comes first, the locale or the characters? Or are they dependent on each other?

A: I’m not sure what it is about Mississippi. I’m asked about it wherever I go, and I probably give a different answer every time. First of all, the landscape is so diverse. You have the coast, the bayous, the Pine Belt, the hill country, and the Delta. That’s a pretty wide range, and I’m not sure many people outside of Mississippi realize this.

And with each region, the people have their own ways of cooking, dancing, talking, lying, worshipping, and so on. So when I think about a story, the place plays just as big of a role as the characters themselves. “Desperation Road” needed the desolate stretch of I-55 down in south Mississippi. “Rivers” needed the Gulf Coast. “The Fighter” needed the Delta.

The other part of this is Mississippi also has a diverse population, and so I don’t think it matters who you are or where you are from in this state – there are worlds all around you. You just have to look and listen and be accepting of them.

Q: Lonely and wandering roads play a key part in “Desperation Road.” How do those roads influence Russell and Maben? Is their story dependent on a rural, small-town setting?

 A: The loneliness and wandering certainly do affect them, and I wanted those back roads to play a meaningful part in the novel. So much happens out there on those dark and empty roads, and both Russell and Maben have been set on their course by what only the stars have seen.

I don’t really think much about what a story may or may not be dependent on, I just find comfort in a place and the characters, try to set it all in motion with the stakes running high, and follow along.

Q: Most people seem to tie together Mississippi and racial tension. Your novel doesn’t focus on that, yet there is diversity with the characters of Consuela and Maben. A deliberate move or happenstance?

 A: There have been plenty of novels written about race in Mississippi, and probably plenty more to come. There seems to be no end to them, and it seems very repetitive to me. Yes, racial tensions exist in Mississippi just like they exist everywhere else, but I’m more interested in stories that involve characters who don’t really care what the other looks like. My characters don’t get along, or else it would be a pretty boring story, but those troubles and tensions don’t have anything to do with altering shades of skin. I can’t really say it’s deliberate; I just don’t think about it.

‘Baby Doll’

cover77275-mediumHollie Overton gives us a world shattered by deception in “Baby Doll,” a novel about kidnapping, rescue, consequences and redemption. Lily returns home after being held in a secluded cabin for eight years. Eight years that included emotional and physical torture as well as the birth of her daughter, Sky.

Returning to a “normal” life isn’t easy, though. The years have taken a toll on Lily’s mom, her late father, her twin sister and her high school crush.

This is Overton’s debut novel, so I give her points for character development. However, the writing seems stilted and the story line is very predictable. With that said, I look forward to Overton’s next novel as she develops as a writer and storyteller.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘The Book of Beloved’

carolynGrowing up in Lucedale, Miss., there weren’t many mysteries in the daily life of a young Carolyn Haines. As a child of the 1960s in rural Mississippi, she had plenty of time to ride her bike, play with her brothers and enjoy childhood.

That didn’t slow her imagination, though, as she listened to her grandmother’s ghost stories and read mystery after mystery stories. That love for the unknown and unseen has stayed with Haines, resulting in a prolific writing career with more than 70 books in different genres under her belt. She is best known for the Mississippi Delta “Bones” mystery series featuring crime-solving Sarah Booth Delaney and a match-making ghost named Jitty. Haines also writes under the pseudonyms Caroline Burnes, Lizzie Hart and R.B. Chesterton.

cover artHaines is still seeing ghosts in her latest, “The Book of Beloved,” a gothic tale set in the 1920s around a Mobile, Ala., plantation following World War I. It’s a tale of what happens when past secrets can no longer stay hidden.

Raissa James is a young widow invited to visit her uncle Brett Airlie’s recently purchased estate, Caoin House. She’s ready to shake off her mourning garb and start a new life, perhaps as a ghost story writer. As Raissa quickly learns, there’s plenty of inspiration in the dark history that haunts Caoin House, a pre-Confederate War mansion built as a romantic gesture. It’s a past that includes too many deaths and too few answers.

The ghost of a Confederate soldier leads Raissa down winding roads of mystery, danger and misery. Despite the outwardly trappings of wealth, horseless buggies and southern manners, a darkness has its hold on Caoin House. Bringing its secrets to light is no easy matter, not even with the help of Reginald Proctor, a self-proclaimed medium. Raissa and Reginald, soon nicknamed Pluto’s Snitches, are determined to identify the estate’s ghosts and learn why they linger.

Adding to the mystery is a family photo album, known as the Book of Beloved, filled with haunting images from past generations. Who are those people, and what circumstances do they represent?

Everyone seems to be holding onto secrets. That includes her uncle and his fiancé Isabella Brown as well as Robert Aultman, a soon-to-be suitor Raissa meets on the train to Mobile; Winona and Travis, the estate’s housekeeper and caretaker; Pretta Paul, a local candy-maker and new friend; and her uncle’s attorney, Carlton McKay.

“The Book of Beloved,” the first book in Haines’ new Pluto Snitch series, is not a typical ghostly tale. Thanks to her extensive research, the author touches on many issues of the time, including slavery, bigotry and secret societies. However, what really sets this novel apart from others in its genre are the Haines’ storytelling skills. They are smooth as an aged bourbon, but chilling as a pair of eyes glowing in the nighttime swamp.

No matter what setting or cast of characters, she creates pictures with words. With “The Book of Beloved,” Haines writes with subtle, yet defined shades of black, white and gray, allowing readers to picture another time, one that’s not what it appears to be, and to feel the shock when the past and present collide.

With the first “Pluto’s Snitch” mystery fresh on the shelves, Haines took a break from the animal/horse rescue she runs to answer questions about her Mississippi ties and inspirations.

  • You were born in Lucedale, and now live in Mobile. What keeps you tied to your southern roots?

I’ve thought about leaving the South many times, especially when elected officials make really bone-headed choices. But this is my land. I know the trees and soil and woods and creeks. My memories are here. I’m a person who puts down really deep roots, and I’m a country girl at heart. I have an animal rescue with horses. I take care of them, and I love that connection to the creatures and to the land. I hate the summers in the Deep South, but the winters sure are a lot easier than those in colder climates.

  • You were a journalist for many years. What got you started on that path, and how has that influenced your writing career?

My parents were journalists, and I grew up in the business. I believed if I wrote the truth, people would change and do the right thing. I was a little naïve. But journalism continues to bring me a number of gifts. First and foremost, I learned to write every day and to write on deadline. I learned to be professional about my writing. I don’t procrastinate – well, at least not a whole lot. I was exposed to thousands of things the average person doesn’t see or know about. And I was one of the first female photojournalists in the South. I was part of a world that had been largely confined to men. It gives you a different perspective.

  • Most of your novels include a circle of trust, whether it is with co-workers, friends, family or a community. Have you experienced that growing up and living in the South?

I have. I have been blessed with good friends. Really good friends. My family is small, but I have a lot of friends. And journalists are generally a very trustworthy bunch. Or they were when I worked in that profession. We believed our job was important – to be the watchdog of the community. It was never about money. Journalists were notoriously poorly paid at that time. It was about holding elected officials and those in power accountable for their actions.

  • You’ve written more than 70 novels, including the Sarah Booth Delaney mysteries, Christmas anthologies and southern gothic. Which is your favorite genre?

I love Southern gothic, mystery or thriller. I love a certain type of horror that is not bloody or gory. And I also love humorous stories. My favorite genre depends on the skill of the author.

  • You have a dark side, complete with pen name R.B. Chesterton. Why the name change? It feels as if another person takes over in the pen in some of the novels. How do you switch from the lighthearted fun of Sarah Booth to the ghost-seeing characters in “The Book of Beloved” or “The Darkling?”

I went with initials and a name change to be sure my readers didn’t get an unwelcome surprise. Those who love Sarah Booth may not want to walk on the dark side. And there is a perception that horror is a male genre. I don’t agree, but I thought it might be interesting to try a name that could be male.

I have this crazy idea that each story is a gift. It’s up to me to tell the story to the best of my ability. The story is what it is – mystery, Southern fiction, whatever. So I don’t always control the switch in genre. I just write the story I’m given to the best of my ability.

  •  Several of your earlier novels that featured the town of Jexville, and its descendants are among my favorites. Will there be more from that line?

I am working right now to reissue those three books set in Jexville. I’m hoping late fall. I believe they’ll find new life with a re-release. There is just so much to do! Life is just very exciting right now, but I could definitely use a clone.

Summertime Reads

redemption roadWhen days are long and afternoons are hot, a good book is one way to take your mind off the temperature and humidity. Whether you’re sitting in front of the air conditioner or relaxing under the beach umbrella, the written word can take you places far beyond your current circumstances.

Some may prefer an intense novel, one filled with sharp twists, complex characters and a plot that leaves readers wondering what they would do in a similar situation. Such is the case with John Hart’s Redemption Road, lauded as one of the most anticipated books of 2016.

Be advised that Redemption Road is not a “beach” read, but it is a “vacation” read. It’s not a quick read that can be finished in a few hours, then put down and quickly forgotten. Instead, it’s an intense a story of hopelessness, loyalty and salvation wrapped up in a crime thriller.

When Adrian Wall, a former police officer, is released from prison after 13 years, the victim’s young son Gideon has one thing on his mind – kill the man who murdered his mother. Elizabeth Black, a detective who has been like a surrogate mom to Gideon, has troubles of her own as she faces possible charges for gunning down two rapists. Only she and the rape victim, Channing, know the truth.

When another body of dead woman is found covered in linen and laid on a church altar, everyone turns against them. It’s a repeat scene from 13 years ago, and police suspect Adrian may be a serial killer. The two adults have a past, both together and separately. They may be the only two in the town who believe in each other.

Redemption Road takes readers down many paths, bringing them face to face with good, evil and those who fall somewhere in between. As Hart’s characters illustrate, action is driven by choice, and choice leads to consequences.

Hart certainly knows his craft, especially considering he’s the first and only author to win back-to-back best novel Edgar Awards. Redemption Road, which went on sale in May, is already a New York Times bestseller and sure to be a future award winner.

the girlsAnother well-received novel with a dark side is The Girls by Emma Cline. She’s chosen to center her literary debut around Evie Boyd, a lonely, disillusioned 14-year-old intrigued by Suzanne, a young woman involved in a reimagined Charles Manson cult. Life in 1960s suburbia has lost its appeal, and for the sheltered Evie, the wild life in the desert is a liberating thrill.

Drugs, sex and rock-n-roll soon are shadowed by growing violence and crime, taking Evie forever out of her comfortable zone. How far would she go to win the approval, especially from Suzanne? Evie no longer recognizes herself – or her values.

Cline spins Evie’s world with a startling psychological insight into the need for acceptance and identity. Those struggles even exist for the grown-up Evie, whose life is forever haunted by “what if.”

If dark and twisted aren’t your preferences for a summertime read, don’t fret. There are plenty of entertaining writings out this season that will quench your thirst. My hit list includes:

  • Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. This quirky tale follows 63-year-old Britt-Marie as she discovers a colorful world of quirky characters obsessed with soccer. It’s a story about second chances and unexpected friendships.
  • What-Happened-on-Beale-Street-1-193x300What Happened on Beale Street by Mary Ellis. An elegant Memphis hotel is the setting for the latest in the author’s “Secret of the South Mysteries” series. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, but it reads more like a love story rich with details about how the past, physically and emotionally, holds the key to the present. Thanks go out to the author, who pulls off a sweet story without the need for gratuitous sex or violence.
  • Sunshine Beach by Wendy Wax. Life is never dull for three female friends featured in the Wax series about a circle of former reality TV stars. The fourth novel pulls together mystery, romance and scenic beaches as Nikki, Maddie and Avery joins forces to bring a historic seaside hotel back to life.
  • If you want something really off the wall, check out Can I Ask You a Personal Question? by Jon Steele. It’s a list of questions designed to start conversations and guaranteed to be personal. Some are naughty and others are nice. Some can be asked in family settings, but others are meant only for the bedroom. Share the questions (as appropriate for your circle) on your next long drive, reunion or beach trip, but be prepared for the unexpected.

ARCs provided by NetGalley

 

 

 

Southern experiences

This is one of my favorite times of the year despite the cough-inducing pollen and pop-up afternoon storms. This is the time when everything’s blooming, including a variety of works by Southern authors. Some are more commercially known, while others are still building their fan base.

John Grisham traditionally waits until fall for his next legal novel, and Greg Iles’ latest isn’t due out until next year. That gives plenty of time to experience, and appreciate, other writers with roots in the South.

Two of the more commercially successful authors with releases this season are Carolyn Haines and Nevada Barr. Barr moved from metro Jackson to New Orleans to pursue her writing and painting careers. Haines, a Mississippi native, has transplanted to Mobile, Ala., where she teaches fiction writing at the University of South Alabama.

bonesHaines is well known for high-spirited Mississippi Delta mystery series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney and an entourage of quirky friends, pets and old souls. Her latest novel, Rock-a-Bye Bones,” is the 16th to follow Sarah Booth into another adventure. When an abandoned baby and bloody footprints are left on her doorstep, it’s up to Sarah Booth to track down the mom. Tinkie Richmond, her partner at the Delaney Detective Agency, wants to help, but she also yearns to keep the baby as her own. What’s a Southern girl to do, especially when the resident ghost, Jitty, is hounding her to wed and produce?

The “Bones” books, as referred since each has the word in the title, are not filled with graphic sex or violence. Instead, they build on the quirky characters in small-town Zinnia. I look forward to each addition to find out what they’re up to in their make-believe personal lives as well as their criminal-catching escapades.

Haines also writes southern gothic tales under the pen name of R.B. Chesteron.

boar islandBarr is the award-winning author of the Anna Pigeon mystery series showcasing the national park system. “Boar Island” is the 19th novel featuring the hard-edged national park ranger who finds danger and mystery wherever she goes. Barr herself is a former park ranger, and she builds upon real-life experiences, places and people to bring Anna to life.

As she starts her post at Acadia National Park in Maine, Anna gets a desperate call from her friend Heath Jarrod, who needs helps for her adopted teenage daughter Elizabeth. The girl is being spooked by nasty rumors and online bullying. Anna invites the mom, teen and an aunt to stay with her on Boar Island in the Acadia. Unfortunately, the stalker comes, too. When dead people start turning up in the park, Anna does what she does best – solve the mystery with cunning and stealth.

miss janeAnother southern author who is climbing up my “favorites” chart is Brad Watson, author of “Miss Jane.” The Mississippi native, now a creative writing instructor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, has published several award-winning novels and short-story collections, but “Miss Jane” is something of the ordinary.

Based on the true story of his own great-aunt, Watson introduces us to Jane Chisolm, born in rural 1915 Mississippi. She is burdened by a secret – a genital birth defect that keeps her mostly embarrassed and isolated. Sex, marriage and parenthood are not options.

Within her limited world, Jane fights to find her place – her voice – among the loneliness, melancholy and beauty of the South. Her physical traits do not define who she is as a person. While she can’t enjoy physical love, Jane embraces what she can – independence, love for the family farm and inner peace.

Yes, life is hard for Jane, but it’s not empty. Readers will fall in love with this character and the approach she takes to life. Watson leaves his audience feeling richer and uplifted after meeting Miss Jane.

things like the truthIf you’re in the mood something more personal in the non-fiction area, check out Things Like the Truth: Out of My Later Years” by Ellen Gilchrist. The award-winning poet, novelist and essayist, born in Vicksburg, now shares her time between teaching at the University of Arkansas and entertaining her large family at an Ocean Springs summer home.

In her latest collection, Gilchrist presents more than 50 essays about life, family, aging and change. Her words, whether about grandchildren or life after Hurricane Katrina, stand out with passion, honesty and humor. If you’ve read any of her earlier works, you’ll want to continue sharing Gilchrist’s stories of her later life.

triumphOther outstanding memoirs and biographies include Martha Wyatt-Rossignol’s “My Triumph Over Prejudice” and “Delta Rainbow: The Irrepressible Betty Bobo Pearson” by Sally Palmer Thomason. Both illustrate the personal strength needed to stand up to Old South prejudices.

Wyatt-Rossignol recounts life as a black girl growing up in Mississippi during the civil rights era. Her frustrations came from all directions, including many black leaders. Finally, after many years and a relocation to Bermuda, the author fills the scars of that volatile time in history beginning to heal.

delta rainbowStanding up for civil rights was a struggle also for whites, as Thomason points out in her tribute to Betty Bobo Pearson. Born in 1922 to Mississippi plantation aristocracy, Betty struck out from an early age to make the world a better place. After college and a turn as a Marine, she returned as mistress of a Delta plantation. As readers will learn, this spirited “Southern belle” blazed her own trail for civil rights despite the challenges of that time in history.

ARC provided by Netgalley

 

 

‘The Gates of Evangeline’

evangelineHester Young captures her audience from the first page in “The Gates of Evangeline,” a thriller/mystery that stretches from the East coast to the Louisiana bayous.

A mother’s grief over the death of her young son grabs your attention, and the hold only tightens as Charlotte “Charlie” Cates begins to see young children in her dreams. When she’s asked to write about a child’s disappearance 30 years ago in Louisiana, she takes it as a sign that perhaps she can help.

This southern gothic novel includes mystery, murder, romance and healing all rolled into the swampy, humid landscape of a wealthy family plantation with more secrets than money.

According to the author’s website, this is the first in the Charlie Cates trilogy. All I can say is “Hurry up, Hester!”

ARC provided by NetGalley