Southern Saturday Lit

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Gods of Howl Mountain takes us far down onto the Southern Literary Trail, deep into the mountains of North Carolina. Taylor Brown has created a very dark, intense, somewhat mysterious tale of bootlegging, clan wars and folk healing set in the turbulent 1950s.

Rory Docherty, a Korean War hero, has returned home to live with his grandmother, a folk healer. There he runs whiskey for one of the most powerful bootleggers in the mountains. It is also where he fights his demons – from the war, the loss of his men and his leg, the past that took his father from him at the hands of his own mother. This is a very noir, but realistic, look at the mountain folk of the south throughout twentieth century – not just the 1950s but even, somewhat, today. There are secrets, mysteries, the unknown, that are easier to hide in the mountains than they are in the open land.

This is not a “thriller” or even a suspense novel, but a slow moving tale of these mountain people. There were times that I felt there was too much emphasis on description and too little on the actual plot. However, southern writers tend to be more descriptive and disquisitional so that should be taken into account.

Brown has been compared to Wiley Cash and Cormac McCarthy, both of whom are favorite authors of mine. Although all three write dark, atmospheric tales set in the south, there is a depth that is missing in this Brown novel that would prohibits it being placed in a category with the others. I do see a similarity between Brown’s characters and those of Flannery O’Connor; whether or not that is intentional or a product of southern literature, I’m unsure.

Gods of Howl Mountain is not going to be a book for everyone, however, if you like good, narrative fiction with great detail to character development and setting, then you will enjoy reading Taylor Brown. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4 for quality.

 

The Cyprus Papers

The Cyprus Papers is a fast paced thriller that you will not want to put down until you know the ending….

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For this week’s Southern/Midwest Saturday, I bring you a new author: C.W. Bordener. Bordener is originally from Chicago, studied in my home state of Indiana and now resides in D.C. where he is a financial consultant. His financial expertise is very apparent in his writing which is interesting and intriguing. Bordener is to financial espionage what Grisham was to legal thrillers in his early days.

In The Cyprus Papers, financial consultant Emily is tasked with the financial forensics of a political rising star – a Congressman who is prepping for a run for the White House. However, in doing due diligence, Emily soon discovers a paper trail with deadly results. Every where she turns, she is one step behind a mastermind killer. With her life in tatters, she has two choices – give up and give in or follow the trail to its ultimate, and deadly, conclusion.

This was a quick read for me since I refused to put it down until I was finished. There is a lot of political drama and references to world events that contained a lot of information but Bordener writes this in such a way to make it fascinating rather than overwhelming. There were details revolving around DC were spot on, something that writers who do not live in the beltway have a difficult time mastering. These details helped, not only to flesh out Emily’s character, but to bring the book to life in a very real, salient manner. This topic is very current – from the Panama Papers to the Cypriot international money laundering schemes – The Cyprus Papers very much mirrors today’s reality. If you enjoy espionage, political intrigue or well written, fast paced thriller, then you definitely will enjoy The Cyprus Papers.

 

A Little to the Midwest

On this “Southern Saturday,” we move to the Midwest. Sadly, there are not nearly as many amazingly talented authors from the Midwest region as there are from the south but both have an agrarian feel to their writing at their roots. So, in my world, they are combined.

Throughout history mankind has used to myths, stories – if you will – to explain the inexplicable, to retell events that are monumental or to drive home lessons that desperately need to be learned. Some of these were in the form of pictures (cave drawings,) some set to music, still others were passed down orally and told and retold through each generation, across lands and waters and continents and generations. It is how mankind has learned. It is how we have adapted.

More Than True

In “More Than True,”  poet Robert Bly surmises that fairy tales have been a way for man to learn very valuable tools of civilization. Using the ideas of philosophers as varied as Kierkegaard to Carl Jung, as well as interspersing his own poetry throughout the book, Bly closely examines six well known tales, such as The Frog Prince, and looks deeper at their hidden meaning.

At this juncture, if the reader is not familiar with Bly and his work, it might be good to note that he is the leader – the Leader – of the mythopoetic men’s movement. This is the movement that suggested that “men” had lost their masculinity due to the industrial revolution, the five day work week and <gasp> the feminist movement. In order for these wayward, lost men to regain their masculinity they had to go to sweat lodges, retreats (male only of course) and drum circles. Yes. That’s correct.

This movement is important to this review for two reasons: First, his primary supposition is correct. There is wisdom in fairy tales. Anyone who has studied the “flood narrative” that most have read in the Bible, knows that it is found in every civilization, in every culture, throughout time, although few include Noah or an ark. If you’ve ever said the children’s poem, “Ring Around the Roses,” then you have told the story of the Bubonic Plague which was told and retold through stories, myths and even in rhyme. So the premise is correct. However, the poems that Bly has chosen has been carefully done so in order to further his errant beliefs regarding this men’s movement. He uses the hierarchy of needs by Carl Jung to prop up his own ideas of masculinity when Jung was an existentialist who couldn’t have cared less about gender issues.

All of that to say and explain why this book was fascinating and frustrating and a complete failure for me as a psychology major and as an historian. I absolutely do not recommend this book. The very last thing this world needs is more men sitting around a circle getting hyped up on testosterone and beating drums!

 

 

 

Hour Glass

As we head down the Southern Literary Trail this Saturday, we are going deep in the heart of Texas where we find Michelle Rene, author of Hour Glass.

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Americans love westerns and few characters stand out as vividly as do Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Long after the west ceased to be “wild,” these two took their skills on the road and created a wild west show for all of America to see. They became the stuff of legends. In Hour Glass, we find Calamity Jane toward the end of her life, less of a star and more of a legend but still as brassy and sassy as always. This, however, is a story as much about Jimmy Glass and his sister, Flower aka Hour, as it is about Jane. It is a story of a young boy whose father was dying who fought against the elements, the town and against all hope, and found help in the least likely place – Calamity Jane and the patrons of the saloon in which she was living.

The story of Jimmy Glass and his sister, is a beautiful, albeit heavily fictionalized, one. Michelle Rene crafts a wonderful tale that invokes an era that many have only seen in old televised westerns or on Deadwood. Her prose is elegant and vivid. However, and I really do hate to add the whatever to this review, as an historian I would prefer the accounts of the real people used in historic fiction either to be very accurate or fictional characters used in their stead. This is not Calamity Jane any more than her version of Vincent Van Gogh was the real Van Gogh. When using real, actual characters who are not so far removed from our current generation, the writer has the power to re-write history and whitewash the actual character as well as the times, events and places. This was not a beautiful time – it was ugly, mean and very dirty. I prefer real facts with all of the dark realities that go with them over the poignant re-telling that some authors are doing today, including Michelle Rene. It’s easier to tell a pretty story and make hard characters soft than it is to show the reality of our history.

If you want to read a very fictionalized account of American history then you will probably like this book. I, however, cannot rate it above 3 stars and, for me, that is being generous based entirely on her writing ability.

 

Not That I Could Tell

untitledFive women gathered around the fire-pit, happily sipping their wine while their baby monitors crackled in a circle. By morning there only would be FOUR. 

Not That I Could Tell is the sophomore novel by Jessica Strawser, a captivating tale of suburbia, the secrets that are hidden behind neighbors’ closed doors and the question we all ask ourselves – how well do we really know our neighbors?

Clare hosts the party for the women in the neighborhood to christen her new patio. They are simply thrilled to have a night away from the kids, a chance to gossip among themselves and to share secrets with one another that, normally, they would tell no one. However, one of the women – Kristin – has a dark secret that she has shared with no one. They never suspect the things she has kept hidden – no one would believe her if she told them. When the women awaken, Kristin and her children are gone without a trace. Did she leave willingly or did something more sinister happen to her? Suspicion falls on her husband, a doctor, but some – like new neighbor Izzy – want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Is he innocent as Izzy believes or is she walking into danger as the other women fear?

There are those who have compared this book to Sally Hepworth’s, The Neighbor Next Door; however, while both books draw on the idea of suburban housewives, Strawser does a better job of keeping her characters believable. These women, all of them, are women that I feel as though I know or have known. Strawser is a Midwestern writer and the story is set in a small town in Ohio, so the characters and the community seem quite familiar to me as a reader from the Midwest. That said, the book does have some flaws, the largest is that it is too long – or rather, it could have done with some editing. There were conversations that these characters had with themselves – in their own heads – that were repetitious. After a while I found myself skipping over some of them because I wanted to scream, “I get it!” This wasn’t enough to detract from my overall satisfaction with the book, but it does keep me from rating the book higher. I had this same issue with Strawser’s first novel, I Almost Missed You, so hopefully by her third book someone will get the message.

For a second book it’s amazing, most fall far short of the first. For a domestic thriller, it is top notch. As a mystery, it is a slow burner, so if you like fast paced thrillers this is not for you. However, I highly recommend it and am very pleased to say that we, in the Midwest, have another good writer to add to our shelves.