‘The Broken Girls’

brokenI didn’t know what to expect when I started ‘The Broken Girls.” The prologue left me wondering where the story was going. It didn’t take more than a few more pages, though, to get me hooked.

Simone St. James has done an excellent job of combining the past and present in this ghostly tale of a missing girl, heartbroken friends and a young woman, Fiona, determined to set herself apart from her famous father. The 1950s goings-on at Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for unwanted girls, lead to the 2014 search for answers.

Four friends are trying their best to survive life at Idlewild. They are most forgotten, abandoned by families, and with few hopes for the future. When one of the girls never returns from a rare visit to a relative’s home, they are left to deal with their own ghosts literally and figurately.

Decades later, someone wants to restore the old school, but the skeletons won’t stay buried for long. Fiona, haunted by the murder of her own sister, is determined to find out what happened to the missing friend. As she works to track down the old friends, she learns that there’s more to the story than just an old abandoned school. I’ll stop here, so it’s up to the reader to read what happens.

St. James, good job! Add me to your fan list.

ARC provided by NetGalley


‘The Past is Never’

the past is neverIs the past ever dead? Can it be put behind you, and if so, how far back in the past can you leave something? Can the present – and future – be affected by a past you didn’t even realize existed?

Those are the questions readers will be asking themselves after the final page is turned in “The Past is Never,” the latest novel by Tiffany Quay Tyson. The author first left her mark in Southern fiction with “Three Rivers,” a finalist in the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction. With “The Past is Never,” Tyson uses her native Southern voice to tell a story of family dysfunctions, historic myths and courage to look behind the past.

Sixteen-year-old Willett and his two younger sisters, Roberta Lynn “Bert” and Pansy, live in fictional White Horse, Mississippi. It’s 1976, and there’s not much for entertainment in the small town. Fun is something they make for themselves. They can’t help but be drawn to an old rock quarry and its cool swimming hole waters.

When their dad is home, which isn’t often, he warns them to stay away from the cursed Devil’s place. He tells them frightening stories about how the quarry was built, the lives it has claimed and haunted woods that protects it.

Dad’s away, Mama is busy, and it’s hot outside. There’s no keeping the siblings from the quarry. The three walk there together. Only two leave.

The disappearance of six-year-old Pansy changes life as they knew it for the entire family. Pansy, the unexpected “miracle child” born with four teeth, coarse black hair, a blotchy tan and a large purple birthmark on her thigh. Pansy, the feisty, the spoiled, the charmed … the gone.

So begins the unsettling future of Willett and Bert, neither who can let go of what happened that day. There’s more than enough self-blame, accusations and heartbreak to go around as their dad stays away and their mom dies of a broken heart and cigarette habit.

In turn, Willett and Bert leave home, not only to find themselves but also search for clues about their family’s past. Reports of their dad’s lonely death in Florida takes the brother and sister to the Everglades where they learn the past becomes the present, which leads to the future. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” To say more might spoil the thrill for readers.

Those three elements – past, present and future – are at the heart of “The Past is Never.” Readers will learn about Fern, Granny Clem, Earl and a host of others. About the creatures beyond the trees who long to give voice to the past. Tyson ties them together through alternating voices as she explores family lines, tragedies and curses.

“Those eyes you feel watching you are the eyes of your family,” Bert tells her niece seven years after Pansy disappears. “They mean you no harm.”

The author’s skillful storytelling reaches a high mark with this novel. Nothing is as it first appears in this dark, complex story that draws upon inner strength, extended family ties and personal determination. As with her first novel, Tyson has an award winner on her hands.

‘The Chalk Man’

the chalk manThis was my first time to pick up a C.J. Tudor novel, and I’m glad I did! The debut novel by this English author, who has quite a colorful biography, has set the bar high in the thrill and mystery factor.

‘The Chalk Man’ is being hailed as the “must read” novel for 2018.

Too often a mystery novel is predictable. The plot line is easy to determine, and you know who did it long before you get to the end. Not so with “The Chalk Man.” The story about a group of boys and a girl, the passage of time and a handful of chalk had me guessing until the last two or three pages.

Eddie aka Ed to his adult friends and his buddies are still haunted by something that happened 30 years ago. To tell more might give away the secrets that unfold, often against the characters’ wishes, and the consequences of those untold tales.

ARC provided by NetGalley


poisonIt’s not often I will give a novel the equivalent of “five stars.” “Poison” deserves a 5-plus rating! From the first few lines, author Galt Niederhoffer had my attention – and she refused to let go.

The story of Cass, Ryan and their marriage is not a love story, but rather a tense thriller to the last page. The author’s analogy of marriage and a broken machine corresponds with the characters’ thoughts and deeds in a deliciously tense manner. A poisoned marriage can take many shapes and colors, and truth is seldom just two-sided.

In the pages of “Poison,” Cass becomes convinced that Ryan is cheating, lying and trying to poison her. What was once an intimate relationship is now toxic literally and physically.

The parallels between Cass, a former writer and now a college instructor, and her journalistic approach to females and legal equality plays right into the storyline. Who many witnesses does it take for a female victim to be taken seriously?

Kudos to a well-written novel with depth and narrative seldom seen in today’s fiction.

ARC provided by NetGalley

‘The Specter of Seduction’

specterRaissa James and Reginald Proctor take on a spirit of a different sort in “The Specter of Seduction,” the third novel in the “Pluto’s Snitch” series by Carolyn Haines. The author and her wicked imagination again take readers back in time through carefully detailed research and descriptive dialogue.

The historic fiction series focuses on an unlikely pair who have found they have a knack for helping those plagued by unwanted entities whether they be living or dead. In their latest adventure, Raissa and Reginald, partners in the Pluto’s Snitch detective agency, have been asked to investigate a young girl’s invisible playmate named Polly. However, all is not quite what it appears to be at Waverley House, a once prospering plantation in northeast Mississippi.

At times, Amanda, the daughter of Royal and Ann Sheridan, acts much older than her 8 years. The mansion and grounds under renovation are isolated from the nearby town, but the area is known as a hot spot for college-age lovers. It’s rumored that young women became aggressively amorous, so couples are willing to risk the wrath of the shotgun-toting property owner. When a man is found dead in the woods, Royal Sheridan is arrested for the murder based on the eye witness account of a mysterious young woman.

Raissa and Reginald soon discover that sexual appetites aren’t just for the young. They encounter the spirit of Nora Bailey, a woman hanged for spying against the Confederacy. The mysteries at Waverley don’t stop with her, though. Raissa, who is “sensitive” to spirits, encounters an evil spirit who wants to take over her body. It’s up to those close to Raissa to try and save her body and soul.

While the Pluto Snitch novels are Haines’ lastest series, ghost stories aren’t new for this prolific writer. The Alabama transplant with Mississippi roots is well known for her “Bones” books and Sara Booth Delaney, the “Fear Familiar: series, and other writings under the pen name of R.B Chesterton. No matter which one of Haines’ books grabs their attention, readers can be sure that the female protagonists are strong, determined and “live” in the moment, whether past or present.

‘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

‘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.