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Posts Tagged ‘Beth Webb Hart’

moonoverI had the perfect excuse to put off packing this weekend to go back to Edisto — I was reading Beth Webb Hart’s engaging new novel, Moon Over Edisto (Thomas Nelson, purchased e-book), which is set on the South Carolina lowcountry island I call home about half the year.

Happily, Hart is not what I call a “drive-by” author, one who chances on a picturesque setting and decides to write a book about it. Hart knows Edisto and the territory in and around Charleston, and has written about it in previous novels such as Grace at Low Tide. Unlike one famous novelist, she’s not about to put a Wal-Mart on an island that doesn’t have a single stoplight. Better still, she understands how landscape shapes lives, how place imprints on memory.

A successful New York artist, 39-year-old Julia Bennett put Edisto in her rearview mirror when she was 19 after an unbearable betrayal. But now, just as she’s preparing to spend a fellowship summer in Budapest and planning her December wedding, she’s plunged back into the “Southern gothic dysfunction” of her family. There’s no one else to look after her three young half-siblings while their mother Marney — Julia’s late father’s second wife — is in the hospital. Certainly not Mary Ellen, Julia’s mother and the first wife, who is still striving to create a life for her divorced self in Charleston. Nor will Meg (“call me Margaret”), Julia’s younger sister, be of any help, what with three kids of her own in Mount Pleasant, a jam-packed schedule and a grudge that won’t go away.

The story shifts among the perspectives of Julia, Mary Ellen and Meg, along with a few interspersed narratives from Etta, a prenaturally wise 9-year-old. Julia does return to Edisto, but only for a week, and a lot happens then and in the following months. There are also storylines involving Jed, the first boy Julia ever kissed, now a Charleston surgeon, and Nate, Mary Ellen’s gruff dog-loving neighbor, and a fisherman named Skipper.

Moon Over Edisto is  family and friends, regret and forgiveness, sweet tea and blue crabs. Things are messy and lovely and real, even if Julia is a little too-good-to-be-true and Jed a whole lot so. Hart can really write, and she gets it right, from the spotty cell service on Edisto to the way it looks from the air.

“As the plane took off, she peered out of the window at the waterways and rivers and salt marsh creeks like enormous snakes winding their way out to sea. The sunlight was almost blinding and the creeks themselves looked like little rivers of gold reflecting the light on their moving surfaces. The thought occurred to Julia that it might not be so easy to put this visit out of her mind, to tuck it away like she had her childhood and seal it closed like so many places in her heart.”

Oh, I’m homesick. Time to pack.

Open Book: Yes, the Caroline Cousins books are set on Edisto, although we called it Indigo Island and fictionalized it quite a bit so as to be more like Edisto when we were kids and the drawbridge still connected us to the mainland. Also, I want to recommend two more new novels about family and place, The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (HarperCollins, digital galley),  and Three Sisters by Susan Mallery (Harlequin Mira, digital galley).

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When Southern booksellers and publishers were in Daytona Beach last weekend for their annual trade show (SIBA), okra was on the agenda if not the menu. SIBA recently announced its dozen “Okra picks” for the fall season as voted on by independent booksellers, and I hear the chosen authors wore bright red sashes on the convention floor.

Alas, I was in South Carolina — where next year’s convention is scheduled — but, as it turned out,  I had two okra picks with me. Both were mighty fine in completely different ways.

Beth Webb Hart’s novels are set in my favorite home territory of the South Carolina lowcountry, in and around Charleston. Her first, Grace at Low Tide, took place on Edisto Island and made me homesick as all get out. Her third, The Wedding Machine, made me happy that the Caroline Cousins wrote Marsh Madness  first so we had already put in our two cents about Southern nuptials. 

Hart writes so-called “Christian fiction,” but the preachiest thing about her new novel, Love, Charleston, is that one of the four main characters is good ol’ boy Roy Summerall, who isn’t sure why he’s been called to pastor the aristocratic faithful of the Holy City at historic, downtown St. Michael’s. A widower with a young daughter, Roy isn’t sure how he’ll fit in, despite the the support of a church matriarch. That he and bellringer Anne Brumley are destined to find one another is obvious, but their path is not nearly as interesting as the ways in which it intersects and overlaps with those of Anne’s sister Alicia and her cousin Della.

Unlike Anne, both are married with children. But Alicia, a doctor married to another doctor, finds her charmed life falling apart after depression descends like a rock following the birth of a new daughter. Meanwhile Della, a writer and teacher married to an artist, would love to have another child, but finances are too precarious. When an old flame returns to town, she wonders how her life might have  been different, maybe still could be.  Doubt and betrayal, love and faith, rocks and hard places. Hart has a light touch and an easy humor, but she doesn’t hesitate to test her characters.

Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a gritty Southern drama of race and class, past sins and present crimes. It takes its title from the way kids often learn to spell/write  Mississippi: “M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.”  

There’s something crooked about the lives of the novel’s two main characters — not in the sense of criminal, although some suspect that, but in that they are misshaped by a sad, shared boyhood incident. For sure, boookworm Larry Ott, son of a white auto mechanic and his wife, and Silas “32” Jones, son of a poor, black single mother, were unlikely buddies from the start, but the friendship worked for them until the night Larry took Cindy Walker to the drive-in and she disappeared.

Cindy wasn’t heard from again, and Larry still lives with a cloud of suspicion hanging over him and the business he inherited from his daddy. He keeps to himself in the shotgun house he grew up in. Silas took off to play college baseball but then returned as a constable in a nearby hamlet in South Misissippi. There’s no reason for the two to meet up, but then another girl goes missing, and the law looks to Larry once more.

Franklin writes lean, no words wasted, no punches pulled. As in his collection of stories, Poachers, and novel Hell at the Breech, he knows where he’s going and takes a reader with him.

At one point, Larry thinks of Silas, “how time packs new years over the old ones but how those old years are still in there, like the earliest, tightest rings centering a tree, the most hidden, enclosed in darkness and shielded from weather. But then a saw screams in and the tree topples and the circles are stricken by the sun and the sap glistens and the stump is laid open for the world to see.”

Open Book: I bought a copy of Beth Webb Hart’s Love, Charleston (Thomas Nelson) to give to Cousin Meg for her birthday. Tom Franklin’s publisher sent me an advance reading copy of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (Morrow). To see a list of the other fall okra picks, go to http://www.sibaweb.com/okra  I’ve already put Fannie Flagg’s November novel, I Still Dream About You (Random House), at the top of my wish list. Also, my fellow book blogger at http://bermudaonion.wordpress.com has started an Okra Picks challenge read. Check it out!

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