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Archive for the ‘Southern Books’ Category

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were the Three Musketeers back in the day, celebrating college graduation Memorial Day weekend 1971 at Martha’s Vineyard. In the summer of 2015, they reconnect at the same cottage, haunted by the ghosts of their former selves, the Vietnam draft and the missing Fourth Musketeer, the blue-blooded sorority girl Jacy. Ever wonder what happened to her?

Richard Russo’s Chances Are. . . (Random House, digital galley) is part teasing mystery, but mostly it’s a familiar reunion novel of friendship, memory and regret. But it’s also about fathers and sons, small towns, first love, male bonding and things that go unsaid. Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are all good guys but flawed in recognizable ways. Lincoln’s a commercial real estate broker in Nevada, happily married to his college sweetheart who contends with his tyrannical father. Solitary Teddy, who is about to lose his job as head of a small press, has a secret he’s kept so long it’s like a vital organ. Mickey seems the least changed since college — still riding a Harley and playing in a bar band up and down the Cape. All three were in love with Jacy back when, and she remains the epitome of dream girl, the rich rebel who could sing like Grace Slick.

Russo’s narrative goes down easy, helped by humor and a modicum of suspense. There’s the expected Big Chill nostalgia, and a couple of subplots involving a retired cop and a bully of a next-door neighbor. The ending’s less of a reckoning with the past than a resolution that comes second-hand. Still, this is good-hearted summer reading. Chances are you’ll like it.

I love it when I start reading a book and the next time I look up, I’m four chapters in and eager to return. That’s the way it was with Chanelle Benz’s wonderful first novel The Dead Gone (HarperCollins, digital galley), a daughter’s journey into the past to examine the circumstances of her Civil Rights-era poet father’s death. Billie, a Philadelphia grants writer, hasn’t been to small-town Mississippi in 30 years, but returns to claim the derelict cottage where her father once lived. It’s full of memories and spiders, a suitable metaphor for the web in which Billie’s soon entangled. Her relatives tell her to leave well enough, and the local law proves less than helpful. After she finds a chapter of her father’s memoir of the region’s racist history, she enlists the help of a well-known scholar and becomes involved with the wayward son of the neighboring landowner. Threats and violence stalk Billie and her dog Rufus.

Billie’s is the book’s main voice, but Benz also orchestrates a distinctive chorus that adds to the lyricism and atmosphere. Even an old juke joint, Avalon, has a say, recalling times now dead and gone. Sadly, injustice lingers as the past bleeds into the present.

You don’t have to know a PBR from an IPA, or even like beer, to like J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is as refreshing as a cold one on a hot summer day. Stradal,  who delighted foodies and readers with his novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest, now rides the wave of enthusiasm for craft beer.

Sisters Edith and Helen are close growing up in 1950s Minnesota, until Helen convinces their father to leave her his entire farm so she can invest in her new husband’s family brewing business. The betrayal leads to a long estrangement, until Edith’s orphaned granddaughter Diana displays a talent for making craft beer that also incorporates Edith’s famed pie-making abilities. Turns out a family feud, strong women, beer and pie are just the ingredients needed for an engaging tale. Stradal’s a first-rate storyteller.

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Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.

 

 

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An Iron Age mummy found in a Jutland peat bog inspires Anne Youngson’s epistolary novel Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books, ARC), an appealing story of friendship and second chances. Celebrated in a poem by Seamus Heaney, the perfectly preserved Tollund Man has long fascinated English farmwife Tina Hopgood. She always thought she’d visit Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, but an early marriage and three children intervened, and now 40 years have gone by. Then a letter from Tina about Tollund Man inadvertently crosses the desk of museum curator and widower Kristian Larsen, who writes her back. A correspondence develops, and then a relationship, although the two have yet to meet. When Tina’s letters and e-mails suddenly stop, Kristian fears the worst. For fans of Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Beatriz Williams again uses her winning formula for beachy historical fiction with The Summer Wives (Morrow, digital galley). Set on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound, the story toggles between 1951, when 18-year-old Miranda’s mother marries into the wealthy Fisher family on Winthrop, and 1969, when Miranda is a famous actress reluctantly returning to the island. The events of 1951, including her relationship with islander Joseph Vargas and a murder that divided them, are eventually revealed, as are secrets with present-day reverberations. Suspend disbelief and go with the flow. For fans of Williams’ A Hundred Summers and Lisa Klausmann’s Tigers in Red Weather.

It’s the time of year on campuses across the country when the Greeks recruit new members. Lisa Patton’s entertaining Rush: A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) goes behind-the-scenes at a fictional Ole Miss sorority where tradition clashes with modern mores. Miss Pearl is the longtime and beloved Alpha Delt housekeeper who is in line for a promotion, but not if influential alum Lilith Whitmore has anything to do with it. But Lilith’s own daughter, another pledge hopeful with a secret, and Miss Pearl’s “girls” in the sorority have their own ideas about how their house should face the future. It’s a coming-of-age story mixed with mother-daughter drama and social commentary. For fans of The Help and Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel. (My favorite Southern sorority novel remains Babs H. Deal’s 1968 The Walls Came Tumbling Down).

Marcia Willetts’ British charmer Summer on the River (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) centers on a large family house in the picturesque village of Dartmouth. Recent widow Evie Fortescue inherited the house from her late husband, somewhat to the consternation of her London stepson Charlie’s wife. Charlie and his family still come for holidays, like the annual regatta, and this year, his cousin Ben, a photographer going through a divorce, is also in residence. When Ben introduces Charlie to a new friend, and Evie confides a secret to her old pal Claude, things get complicated. For fans of Willett’s Indian Summer and Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers.

 

 

 

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The solar eclipse was cool, wasn’t it? Even if you saw only a partial, like what we experienced here in Central Florida, it was memorable. The light was strange, darker but still somehow bright, and the temperature dropped in the shadow of the moon. It was lovely and odd, an exclamation point in a long, hot summer.

I like books that arrive like an eclipse, turning things off-kilter, punctuating the ordinary scheme of things. Natasha Pulley’s new novel The Bedlam Stacks (Bloomsbury, digital galley) has the air of an 19th-century historical adventure, one where explorers search for lost cities and/or fabled treasure in the Amazonian wilds  In 1859, smuggler Merrick Tremayne travels from England to Peru for the East India Company, which is in need of quinine to combat malaria. Merrick finds the rare trees that are its source high in the Andes, but he also encounters dangers and secrets: an enigmatic priest, mysterious moving statues, clockwork lamps, illuminated pollen, a village carved out of volcanic glass and rock next to a border of salt and bone. It’s all quite wonderful and weird, the lines between reality and imagination cunningly and plausibly blurred. There’s also  a tenuous connection with Pulley’s whimsical first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, another tale of fate and friendship touched with subtle magic.

With Meddling Kids (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Edward Cantero pays gleeful tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Enid Blyton, Scooby-Doo, Escape to Witch Mountain and other 20th-century pop culture touchstones. It’s a lot of fun finding the Easter eggs in the careening narrative, but the madcap adventures of  the Blyton Summer Detective Club keep you plenty busy. In 1977, the four kids and their dog made headlines for unmasking the identity of the Sleepy Lake Monster. But 13 years later, tomboy fugitive Andy convinces biologist/bartender Kerri, her mentally unstable cousin Nate and her Weimaraner Tim (descendant of original dog Sean) to reconvene in the small Oregon mining town, scene of their past triumph. Teen movie star Peter is with them in spirit, having presumably committed suicide several years ago. Something strange is still  going on in Sleepy Lake, and legends linger of lost treasure at the old Deboen Mansion. It’s time to lay the ghosts or whatever to rest. The story moves along at quite a clip, including a terrifying chase through the old mine tunnels before a thrilling show-down with a powerful alchemist plotting the apocalypse. E-ticket ride, for sure. With tentacles.

If you’re a fan of Fargo, movie and TV series, then check out The Blinds (HarperCollins, purchased hardcover), Adam Sternbergh’s third novel. The title refers to Caesura, a small West Texas community whose residents are all either criminals or crime victims who’ve had their memories voluntarily zapped by an experimental institute. No one knows who’s who. Allowed to pick new names from lists of movie stars and vice presidents, the 50 or so citizens live without interacting with the outside world — no cell phones, mail or internet — although there is a TV in the makeshift laundromat. The institute delivers groceries and supplies to the general store, and life is humdrum and safe under the watchful eye of sheriff Cal Cooper. Until there is a suicide, and then a murder, and outside suits come to investigate. Meanwhile, Fran Adams, mother of the town’s only child, eight-year-old Isaac, is having disturbing memory flashbacks, and a new resident has a message for a notorious serial killer. Sternberg weaves issues of guilt, innocence and redemption into his involving story, but contrivances cut down on the suspense. The body count multiplies as secrets are revealed and identities recovered.  I liked The Blinds — except for the coydog massacre — but I think I like Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lost series more, which has a similar premise minus the memory tampering.

I’m taking my time reading The Clockwork Dynasty (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), the new novel from Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson. It’s a complicated but engaging tale of intricate and lifelike automatons living among us, their origins dating back to the courts of the tsar. Chapters alternate between June, fascinated since childhood by antique automatons, and Peter, a clockwork man with a curious history and a mission. Lucy Keating’s Literally (HarperCollins, digital galley) is nifty YA metafictional romance  as a  high school senior’s life is upended when she discovers she’s a character in her creative writing teacher’s new novel. Will Annabelle ever figure out how to wrest control of her life from clever Lucy Keating? I thought Rachel Caine was wrapping up the Great Library series with the third volume, Ash and Quill (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley), but it looks as if there will be at least a fourth book of the adventures of book smuggler Jess Brightwell and his cohorts trying to save the Great Library of Alexandria even as they rebel against it. Having escaped from Alexandria and London, they’re now imprisoned in a frontier Philadelphia, controlled by the Burners. Lots of action and atmosphere, as in Ink and Bone and Paper and Fire, and another cliffhanger ending.

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The title of Rachel Khong’s pithy first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin (Henry Holt, digital galley) doesn’t make sense until you read the book, and then it makes perfect sense. So do the neon-colored lemons floating on the cover. They’re as unexpected as this darkly funny story in which a daughter tries to make sense of her life even as her beloved and brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. Ruth, a 30-year-old medical sonographer recently jilted by her fiance, returns home for Christmas, and her frustrated mother asks her to stay for a year and help out with her father. An admired history professor, Howard Young is on a forced leave of absence from teaching because of his dementia, and he knows what’s going on — except when he doesn’t. Then he wanders off, throws plates against the wall, tosses pillows in the neighbor’s pool.  In a chronological series of vignettes, Ruth narrates events, everything from fixing nutritious meals full of cruiciferous vegetables (Howard calls them “crucified”) to joining with Howard’s grad students to convince him he’s still teaching a seminar. Brief excerpts from the journal Howard kept when Ruth was a little girl add smiles and depth. It’s a happy/sad story, heartfelt, semi-sweet. Not your usual summer book, perhaps, but one of my new favorites. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers.”

Superheroes play an integral part in Joshilynn Jackson’s eighth novel The Almost Sisters (William Morrow, review copy), which cements Jackson’s rep as a Superwriter. She knows how to pack a plot with quirky characters, realistic emotions and thoughtful observations on the Old South and the New. Here, self-confessed dork and successful graphic artist Leia Birch Briggs has a one-night stand with a costumed Batman at a comic-con and two months later realizes she’s pregnant. Just when she’s getting ready to tell her very Southern family that a bi-racial baby is on the way, her perfect stepsister Rachel’s marriage falls apart in Virginia and her 90-year-old grandmother Birchie reveals to her Alabama small town that she has full-blown dementia. With her teenage niece in tow, Leia heads to Birchville to size up the situation with Birchie and Wattie, her lifelong best friend and daughter of the family’s black housekeeper. It’s not good, and things get worse when old bones turn up in an attic trunk and the law comes calling. Then Batman reappears. Class, privilege, racism, family history, small-town norms: Jackson connects them all with panache. Superbook, and a summer selection of the SheReads online book club.

A summer camp in the Berkshires provides the setting for Mandy Berman’s first novel, Perennials (Random House, digital galley), billed as an evocative coming-of-age tale. Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin bond as campers at Camp Marigold, although Rachel is a city girl who lives with her single mom, and Fiona’s the middle child of a well-off suburban couple. Their friendship flourishes in the freedom of summer, but by the time they return as counselors after their freshman year, secrets have come between them. As to those secrets, Berman chooses to disclose them in flashback chapters told from different perspectives, including Rachel’s mother, Fiona’s younger sister and the middle-aged camp director who still sees himself as a young man. Then there’s an incident at book’s end that undercuts the credibility of the whole. Too bad. Berman is good at depicting the roiling emotions of teenagers and the rituals of summer camp, but the linked short story structure doesn’t work, and Perennials is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Five years ago, both first novelists Claire McMillan and Francesca Segal channeled Edith Wharton, with McMillan reinventing The House of Mirth in Cleveland, Ohio with her Gilded Age, and Segal transporting the plot of The Age of Innocence to a Jewish community in London via The Innocents. Their second novels find them moving in different directions, although there’s a distinct whiff of Wharton in McMillan’s entertaining The Necklace (Touchstone, library hardcover). In 2009, Portland lawyer Nell Quincy Merrihew arrives at the Quincy family home in Cleveland after her Great Aunt LouLou’s death. She and her cousins are surprised to find that the matriarch has made Nell her executor and also left her a gaudy necklace from India. When the necklace turns out to be a valuable antique that hints at an old family scandal, Nell has to fight for her rights as a true Quincy. In alternating chapters set in the Jazz Age, the Quincy family history unfolds with a doomed love triangle at its heart. The Necklace is fast-paced and fascinating, and I read it in one sitting. Segal’s The Awkward Age (Riverhead, digital galley) may borrow the name of a Henry James novel, but it’s a thoroughly modern drama of a blended London family. Julia and James are blissfully in love despite the resistance of Julia’s 16-year-old daughter Gwen, who can’t stand James nor his snarky 17-year-old son Nathan. Julia’s former in-laws and James’ first wife further complicate the new marriage, but they can’t compete with the storm of emotions unleashed when Gwen and Nathan hook up. Awkward, to say the least, but it makes for a good story.

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Beatriz Williams Cocoa Beach (William Morrow, digital galley) has sun, sand, mangroves and mosquitoes, as well as mystery and romance. And it’s appropriately steamy — no AC in 1922, which is when Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in Cocoa with her toddler daughter to inherit her estranged husband’s estate and shipping business. She met British Army surgeon Simon while an ambulance driver in World War I France, and the narrative toggles between the two timelines: Even as Virginia motors to Miami Beach with her sister-in-law, her backstory is played out in New York, France and Cornwall. (Readers of Williams’ A Certain Age will recognize Virginia as the sister of that book’s heroine, Sophie Fortescue). Not one to play the little widow, Virginia is soon asking about Simon’s death in a fire at his seaside villa and poking into his business affairs, much to the dismay of his enigmatic brother Samuel. Everybody, even Virginia, has secrets in this exotic Prohibition Era setting, where fortunes are made by rum-runners, and rogues are more than ready to sell swampland to unwary dreamers.

If you can’t buy happiness, perhaps you can rent it? Artist Heather Wyatt is hoping she can at least find some peace at Primrose, a quaint cottage on South Carolina’s Isle of Palms, while she carries out a commission to paint shorebirds for a series of postage stamps. Perhaps the solitude will cure her crippling social anxiety. But when cottage owner Cara Rutledge suffers a terrible loss, she wants to return to Primrose, and shy Heather winds up sharing space with an unwanted roommate.  And then there’s the handsome guy building a new deck on the cottage. In Beach House for Rent (Gallery Books, digital galley), Mary Alice Monroe returns to a favorite setting and familiar theme: Primrose as a safe haven where the wonders of nature help heal troubled souls. Although it’s one in an occasional series, the book is a pleasing stand-alone that begs to be read beach-side, where you can hear the gulls and watch the pelicans and sandpipers.

The Whitaker family mansion in seaside Connecticut was a once-famous artists’ colony, and Issy loved growing up there with her grandparents. But her family is a hot mess, and in Shelley Noble’s The Beach at Painter’s Cove (William Morrow, digital galley), she’s left to pick up the pieces when her selfish sister Viv drops off her three kids  with ailing grandmother Leo and disappears. Eccentric Aunt Fae can’t be counted on, and Issy’s mother, film actress Jillian, is off in Europe with her latest lover. Noble heaps cascading troubles on the Whitakers like sand in a bucket. Issy discovers Leo’s bank account has been emptied, bills are outstanding, and the house and its contents are in danger of being sold. A penniless Jillian arrives on the scene to contribute to the chaos. Leo is apparently losing her mind, living largely in the past, which also haunts Fae. The plot follows a predictable path, but the Whitakers, especially insecure and imaginative 12-year-old Steph, win you over, and you really hope they’ll win the day.

With its picturesque Cornwall setting, gentle good humor and a cast of engaging characters, many of them in the autumn of their years, Marcia Willett’s new novel Indian Summer (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) reminds me of a Rosamunde Pilcher favorite, Winter Solstice. Famous actor and director Sir Mungo Springer loves his country retreat, part of the family farm run by his brother Archie and his wife Camilla. When his old friend Kit visits, she brings with her memories of good times shared and of other old pals, including a troubled actress. One of the book’s running jokes is the presence of an aspiring novelist, who spies on the locals and concludes they’re a dull bunch. Little does he realize that a young Army wife is on the brink of a dangerous affair, that two old men once buried a body in the orchard, that Kit is contemplating a second chance with her long-ago lover Jake, and that Mungo will do most anything to keep safe his family and friends. I’m getting this one for my mom.

My mom and cousins also will be happy to hear about Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bonfire (Henery Press, digital galley), the sixth in the lighthearted series featuring P.I. Liz Talbot, who tied the knot with her partner Nate Andrews in Lowcountry Bordello. Their client Tammy Sue Lyerly, after receiving proof that her mechanic husband Zeke was cheating on her, sets fire to his favorite possessions in his favorite car. She claims she had no idea Zeke’s body was in the trunk. Liz and Nate are about the only ones on the little South Carolina island of Stella Maris who believe her. Determined to prove Tammy’s innocence, they start digging into Zeke’s colorful and mysterious past, which supposedly included stints as a DEA agent and a NASCAR driver. Seems trouble may have started at a bonfire on the beach back in the spring, although the mystery is almost overshadowed by all the lowcountry talk, atmosphere and food. Fine with me. I want to move in with Liz, Nate and their golden retriever Rhett.

Speaking of food — always a good idea, IMHO — fans of Mary Kay Andrews’ best-selling beach books (Savannah Blues, Deep Dish, Beach Town) and the Callahan Garrity mysteries she originally penned as Kathy Hogan Trocheck (Heart Trouble, Homemade Sin) know her characters eat well and that she sometimes tosses in recipes for food mentioned in the stories. For example, you can find the recipe for Beyond the Grave Chicken Salad in Little Bitty Lies and now in The Beach House Cookbook (St. Martin’s Press, review copy), which is what she wrote for  this summer instead of a new novel. It’s a treat, full of themed meal plans and recipes, plus anecdotes and pictures from Ebb Tide, her Tybee Island beach house. I need to note that Kathy is a longtime friend and a fabulous cook, and I can personally vouch for the chicken salad, the lemon cream cheese poundcake, the pimento cheese made with Duke’s and other goodies. Shrimp and grits. Crab cakes. Peach and berry cobbler. Trust me, the woman can start with a bag of Fritos and whip up a casserole, an appetizer or a gooey dessert.  Beach-alicious!

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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