Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

I can’t help but wonder how Micah Mortimer would react to the stay-at-home restrictions of the current pandemic. Probably not that much. The 44-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler’s new novel The Redhead at the Side of the Road (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is already mired in his mostly solitary routines. I expect he would still run every morning around his Baltimore neighborhood, only with a mask, and instead of making house calls to fix computers, his “Tech Hermit” business would be by phone. He already is obsessively tidy about cleaning the dreary basement flat he gets in exchange for occasional handyman duties, and the stay-in policy is another excuse not to interact with the tenants or his large, messy family.  No, it would take more than a deadly virus to open Micah’s eyes to the world beyond the tip of his nose. Tyler devises two events to shake up Micah’s life. A rich runaway college student shows up on his doorstep claiming that Micah is his father, and his longtime girlfriend, a patient fourth-grade teacher, dumps him after an insensitive remark proves the final straw. Even then, Micah remains oblivious. What is he thinking? Tyler writes oddball characters who are as endearing as they are exasperating, although Micah’s obtuseness would test anyone’s patience. His four older sisters, all waitresses, are much more fun, and a family dinner at a table with a ping-pong net is one of those hilarious set pieces Tyler does so well. The writing is easy, the tone warm and familiar. The Redhead at the Side of the Road — the title’s an apt metaphor — proves good company when staying home.

Lee Smith’s novella Blue Marlin (Blair, digital galley) is short, sweet and very funny, thanks to narrator Jenny. She candidly relates the events of 1958-59, when she was a precocious 13-year-old and spied on the neighbors of her small Southern town. She is especially fascinated by one unconventional woman, who precipitates a crisis between Jenny’s troubled parents. Both suffer from “nerves,” and while they recover separately, Jenny is sent off to live with her church-going cousins. Then her daddy’s doctor proposes a “geographical cure,” and Jenny and her parents take a road trip to Florida, ending up at the Blue Marlin motel in Key West. Wonder of wonders, the movie Operation Petticoat is being filmed in town, and cast members Tony Curtis and Cary Grant are staying at the Blue Marlin. If this sounds like something right out of Smith’s 2016 must-read memoir Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, it is and it isn’t. Smith separates the fact from the fiction in an entertaining afterword.

The fabulous cover of Grady Hendrix’s new novel is just the introduction to the gory delights of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Quirk Publishing, digital galley). Set in the Charleston, S.C. adjacent town of Mount Pleasant in the 1990s, it pits a group of housewives and moms with a taste for true-crime books against a pale, handsome stranger looking to establish his gentlemanly credentials. After an elderly neighbor chomps on Patricia Campbell’s ear, she meets the woman’s nephew, James Harris, who insinuates himself into her house and her book club. Meanwhile, people are disappearing across town, and Harris assumes no one will make a connection. Hendrix pays clever homage to both classic vampire stories and true-crime/serial killer tales, but his satire is serious, raising issues of racism, classicism and misogyny. Turns out several of the book club’s members’ husbands are monsters of a different kind, and their dismissive and condescending attitudes toward women made my blood boil. Speaking of blood, there’s quite a bit, so Hendrix’s comedy horrorfest may not be everyone’s cup of tea — or beverage of choice.

Conscripted into the Confederate Army in the spring of 1865, young Kentucky fiddler Simon Boudlin survives the battlefield to end up in Texas with a ragtag band of traveling musicians. Paulette Jiles’ lilting ballad of a novel, Simon the Fiddler (William Morrow, review ARC), covers some of the same gritty territory as her 2016 National Book Award finalist News of the World, in which Simon made a brief appearance. From Galveston to San Antonio, Simon plays jigs, waltzes and reels in hopes of saving enough money to marry pretty Doris Dillon, the Irish governess of a Union colonel’s family. But she’s an indentured servant, and her employer has his own plans for Doris. As a character says near book’s end: “Only a small town on the edge of the world here in Texas, but still terrible things and wonderful stories happen. . . Great tragedies, gripping love stories, tales of uncommon heroism.”

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

newsoftheworldI wanted to be a cowboy when I was little. Or a pioneer, or a rider for the Pony Express. These career choices were influenced by my love of horses, the Little House on the Prairie books and the many TV westerns that underscored my girlhood. But if I had known there was a living in riding from town to town reading newspapers to interested folks, I would have signed on for that job, too. My role model would be Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd of  Paulette Jiles’ heartfelt new novel, News of the World (HarperCollins, digital galley).

In 1870 north Texas, the captain is a 71-year-old war veteran, widower, father of two grown daughters. He once owned a printing press, but now he rides from one frontier community to another reading aloud the news to people willing to pay 10 cents to hear about politics in Washington, scandals in Europe and failed expeditions to the Arctic. In Wichita Falls, a cargo hauler offers him  a $50 gold piece to take a 10-year-old girl to her surviving relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was taken captive four years ago by the Kiowa, who recently traded her back to an Indian agent for “fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.” If the captain is reluctant to take the blue-eyed girl with taffy hair on a 400-mile-journey south through the Texas Hill Country, the girl, “Cicada,” is even less enthusiastic. She remembers little of her former life, doesn’t speak English and runs away at the first opportunity.

Still, the gradual, growing bond between the two is intensified by the obstacles they face on their bumpy road trip. For Johanna, it’s civilization embodied by dresses, shoes and bathtubs. For the captain, it’s some brothers who think the newspaper stories should be about their exploits. For both of them, there are the hardships of the trail — finding food, fording rivers — and the attack by outlaws intent on killing Kidd and selling Johanna into white slavery. Johanna proves to be a practical, practiced fighter, although the captain has to stop her from scalping the villains.

Jiles depicts their adventures with an assured ease and a poetic feel for the harsh and lovely landscape, the customs of the time. Readers of Jiles’ Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning will find a similar sensibility of time and place, affecting but unsentimental. Still, the relationship between the captain and Johanna is at book’s heart, and knowing that there must be a reckoning at road’s end caused mine to ache. These two belong together.

The News of the World is a deserved finalist for the National Book Award. But don’t just read all about it. Read it.

Read Full Post »

bordelloIt’s just a few days until Christmas — and P.I. Liz Talbot’s planned wedding to her partner Nate Andrews — when Liz gets a frantic call from bestie and bridesmaid Olivia that she’s stumbled over a body in the parlor of her great aunt’s historic home in downtown Charleston. Oh, and Olivia thinks the dead man is her attorney husband Robert, but y’know it was dark and she didn’t turn on the lights she was so upset. . .  So Liz rushes from nearby island Stella Maris — just a ferry and a couple bridges away — only to find that if there was a body, it’s gone now, and Robert’s very much alive.

But that’s just the beginning of Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bordello (Henery Press, digital galley), the fourth caper in this Southern charmer of a series. The next day, a body does turn up in a nearby park — that of Thurston Middleton, local developer and aspiring politician, as well as a longtime client of Aunt Dean’s high-class house of prostitution. What started as a proper boarding house has evolved into a home where local men keep their “nieces.” Olivia is part-owner of the house and begs Liz and Nate to help investigate, but quickly and quietly. Ha!

Boyer again crafts an entertaining cozy that comes with a supernatural flourish courtesy of Liz’s guardian ghost Colleen. Readers of the previous books will feel right at home, although newcomers might be tripped up by the rush of events — Murder! Wedding! Christmas! Still, a very merry time.

bronteKatherine Reay’s The Bronte Plot (Thomas Nelson, digital galley) is something of a hybrid: literary tribute, romance, travelogue, coming-of-age story, morality tale. Lucy Alling, a Chicago rare book dealer, loves a good story, so much so that she can’t resist telling little white lies. Then her boyfriend James breaks up with her over a big lie, and Lucy realizes that if she wants to emulate the strong literary heroines she so admires, she needs to change her life. The first step is accompanying James’ wealthy and frail grandmother Helen on a two-week antique-buying trip to England, despite James’ disapproval. Helen and Lucy have a lot in common, it turns out, and their mutual reckoning with their pasts proves revelatory as they visit London and then Haworth, the home of the Brontes.  A side trip to the Lake District also proves necessary.

Reay knows England and English lit, so her story is replete with scenic details and appropriate  literary allusions. The main characters — Lucy, James and Helen — are flawed and engaging as they struggle with doubt and moral ambiguity. Will they get the happy ending of a Victorian novel? Reader, I’m not going to tell you.

rufflesThe title character of Nancy Martin’s Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is not a pampered princess pooch despite her fancy moniker. She’s an energetic Texas cattle cur who likes to chase prairie dogs and dig in the garden, as well as snap at the gentleman callers visiting her owner, wealthy widow Honeybelle Hensley. When Honeybelle drops dead of a heart attack, her family, friends and, indeed, all the townspeople of Mule Stop, Texas, are stunned to learn she’s left Miss Ruffles the bulk of her fortune. Honeybelle’s personal assistant and dogsitter Sunny,  cook Mae Mae and butler Mr. Carver will each receive $1 million dollars if they take good care of Miss Ruffles for the next year and then find her a good home.

Sunny, a Yankee newcomer from Ohio, is stunned when she becomes the object of vicious rumors, although she, too, has her suspicions about Honeybelle’s death. But she’s more worried about protecting Miss Ruffles from Honeybelle’s kin, especially her snobby daughter-in-law who was planning on dumping the dog at the pound while she produced her younger sister’s wedding in Honeybelle’s prized rose garden. Then there’s the university president who was hoping for Honeybelle to foot the bill for a new football stadium, and the goodlooking cowboy/attorney who is slated to be the groom in the upcoming rose garden nuptials. When Miss Ruffles is dognapped and held for ransom, Sunny sets out to rescue the rascally canine. Mayhem ensues on several fronts.

Despite some busy plotting and cliched characters, Martin’s tale is an agreeable bit of fluff, wirh lots of bark and a little bite. Miss Ruffles steals every scene she’s in, but it’s lookalike pup Fred who stole my heart.

 

Read Full Post »

speculationFortune-tellers and floods, mermaids and mysteries, a traveling carnival and a tumble-down house threatening to fall into the sea. Erika Swyler packs all these and more into her first novel The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which both fascinates and frustrates with its alternating narratives. In the present, reference librarian Simon Watson lives in the family house slowly sliding into the Long Island Sound where his mother — a circus mermaid — curiously drowned when he and his sister Enola were children. Simon looked after Enola while their grief-stricken father withered away, but six years ago, she ran off with their mother’s tarot cards and no plans to ever return. But then Simon receives a mysterious, water-damaged old book in the mail, and Enola calls to say she’ll be home in July. Simon is alarmed because the book — the logbook of a traveling carnival — shows generations of the women in his family all drowning on July 24th.   In the past storyline, a mute boy known as Amos is adopted by carnival owner, apprenticed to a Russian fortune-teller and is captivated by Evangeline, who may be a mermaid and is possibly a murderess. That the two storylines will eventually converge is a foregone conclusion, but the “how” makes for the suspense. Still, the novel’s rickety underpinnings sag under the weight of so many coincidences, romances and misfortunes that its magic begins to wane. The Book of Speculation ends up being both too much and too little. But I did like the horseshoe crabs.

dayshiftReaders of Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossing know that strangers to the dusty Texas town of Midnight are not nearly as strange as its residents. Phone psychic Manfredo Bernardo learned that when he moved to Midnight and discovered his neighbors included a witch, a shape-shifter, a couple of angels and a vampire. Still, things have taken a turn for the really strange in Harris’ follow-up, the entertaining Day Shift (Penguin Berkley, review copy). For starters, Manfredo is suspected of murder after one of his clients drops dead, and then the Reverend, who tends the little church and adjacent pet cemetery, takes in a young boy who grows taller — really taller — every day. Beautiful Olivia Channing is keeping all kinds of secrets while her vampire gentleman friend Lemuel is away. But what’s really weird is that a mysterious corporation is supposedly turning the abandoned Midnight Hotel into a luxury resort but also has relocated some indigent Las Vegas seniors to the premises. And just to keep things interesting, Harris brings in a couple of characters from her Sookie Stackhouse series as strange events come to a head under a full moon. Some mysteries are resolved, but others only deepen. A third book, please?

boneyardIslands have a certain magic, some more than others.  In author Susan M. Boyer’s mind, the fictional South Carolina island of Stella Maris is located a hop, skip, a couple of bridges and a ferry ride from Charleston. The picturesque beach community is also home base for PI Liz Talbot, although her hunky partner Nate wants her to move upstate in Lowcountry Boneyard (Henery Press, digital galley). As readers of the previous two books in this perky series know, Liz has a secret tie to the island in the shape of a ghostly guardian angel, her late best friend, Colleen, who conveniently pops up to warn of danger or gather clues in the spirit world. This time, Liz is searching for missing Charleston heiress Kent Heyward whom the police consider a rich-girl runaway. After meeting Kent’s family — including her stern father, matriarch Abigail and creepy twin uncles — Liz thinks Kent may have had good reason to leave town, but Kent’s chef boyfriend Matt and her BFF Ansley assure her otherwise. Dangerous surprises await when Liz goes poking around in a local cemetery and digging up family secrets in the lowcountry and upstate, but Colleen can’t come to the rescue if Liz is too far away from Stella Maris. Not to give anything away, but the fourth book in the series is due in the fall.

mysteriousElizabeth George, best known for her Inspector Thomas Lynley series, has a high old time with The Mysterious Disappearance of the Reluctant Book Fairy (Mysterious Press/Open Road, digital galley), her contribution to the Press short story series Bibliomysteries. At just under 50 pages, it’s a tale easily consumed in one sitting, true escapist reading a la Jasper Fforde. Janet Shore, the sickly youngest child in a boisterous Washington state family, perfects the art of escaping into a book at an early age. Literally. “Given a heart rending scene of emotion (Mary Ingalls going blind!), a thrilling adventure in a frightening cave (Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe!), a battle with pirates (Peter Pan and Captain Hook!), and our Janet was actually able to transport herself into the scene itself. And not as a passive observer, mind you, but rather as a full participant in the story.” Janet first entertains herself and classmates with book traveling, but gives it up when she grows older and has her heart broken. Then her best childhood friend Monie conspires to get Janet — now Annapurna — a job at the local library, where the overbearing Mildred Bantry sees a way to make money by setting up a book tourism company, Epic!, with Annapurna as chief tour guide. George has a lot of fun with this conceit, as will readers who can only imagine the joys of escaping into the pages of a favorite book or Greek myth. As for Annapurna/Janet’s choice of the perfect pages in which to get lost, let me just say that I’ll happily join her some gaudy night.

Read Full Post »