Gods of Howl Mountain: Raw Realism in 1950s Appalachia

I received an advance reader’s copy of Gods of Howl Mountain through NetGalley. Set in the 1950s in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, the novel focuses on Granny May and her grandson Rory as they struggle to come to terms with a traumatic past that has left Rory’s mother and her daughter locked up in an insane asylum.

The opening scenes of the novel offer a view of what might seem a stereotypical mountain grandmother, rocking and smoking on the porch of her cabin. But while she does seem to be everyone’s granny, offering mountain remedies for ailments and tending to her grandson and his friend, she also wields a shotgun with ease and has her own past to contend with. Plus, she isn’t above a bit of malicious fun when it comes to those who judge her.

Rory, her grandson, home from the Korean War minus a leg, works in the moonshine trade, dodging the revenuers and locals in his big Ford. He is a somewhat reluctant participant but it is the work available to him. One night, he stumbles upon a group of frenzied Pentecostals worshipping in an old garage, speaking in tongues and handling snakes. The scenes of the church have a surreal quality as we move into the crowd with Rory, mesmerized by the chanting and dancing.

The novel itself seems to pulse with the life of the mountains and Taylor Brown uses rich prose to describe people and places. It threatens every so often to spill over into excess but Brown manages to keep control, much like his main characters controls the big Ford. His world is one of raw life: violence, sex, love, grief all rolled into complex characters.

Tracking Down the Templars

James Becker takes on one of history’s greatest mysteries: what happened to the treasures of the Knights of Templar after their demise at the hands of a Pope and a King? In the third book in his The Hounds of God trilogy, we continue on the trail of the treasure with antiquarian book seller Robin Jessop and encryption expert David Mallory as they work to decipher the clues left over 700 years before while dodging both Medieval bobby traps and contemporary bad guys who want the treasure for themselves.

Becker has mastered the art of the page turner: a plot driven story with interesting characters. Even the bad guys get some back story. I did fine myself laughing a bit at them as they can be a bit dull and seem to be easily outwitted by amateurs. As with most bad guys, they are bad shots, too.

Some parts of the book related to cyphers got a little long as Brecker tried to explain somewhat detailed processes. I felt like I wanted a few more illustrations of what Robin and David were doing. The ones that were included really helped a novice to deciphering understand what they were doing.

I’ve just ordered the first two books in the series. I was able to read and understand The Templar Brotherhood without having read the other two books but I am looking forward to filling in some of the gaps.

Having finished all the Steve Berry “Cotton Malone” books, I am excited to find James Becker on my list!

NOTE: I was provided a preview copy of this book through NetGalley. It will be published October 3, 2017.

Reading, Reading, Reading

I am on a bit of a staycation: home with only a little work on the plate. A bit of baking, some cleaning, and lots of reading, almost a book a day.

Here are a few quick reviews of some of the most recent reads:

Nora Webster tells the story of a newly widowed woman left with four children in 1970s Ireland. She struggles against impending poverty even as she finds her new place in her community, a small town where every change is noted and commented upon, from getting a new hairstyle to joining a club. There is a rawness to the book that reflects the rawness of Nora’s feelings. She can be sharp at times. But, Nora grows into her own throughout the novel, learning to not care about what other think about her actions, not being afraid to speak up when her needs are not being met and rediscovering a love for music that promises to enrich her life.

Bellman & Black tells the story of a man who spends his life paying the price for a childhood mistake. To the amazement of his friends, William Bellman kills a rook with an impossible shot. The boys celebrate and then move on with their lives. Bellman works hard to create a successful life and family until tragedy strikes. The second half of the novel tells a more mysterious, chilling tale as Bellman makes a deal that saves at least some semblance of his previous life without understanding completely the deal he struck.  I’m still thinking about the story and the way Setterfield winds in short bits about the lives of rooks.

Rules of Civility focuses on New York life in the late 1930s. The Depression is mostly over and World War II has not begun. Young women flock to the city where jobs are available along with eligible men, some of them scions of wealthy families. The story is told through the eyes of Katey Kontent, an independent woman who finds herself thrown into the midst of this world, hovering on the edge of the glamorous lives of the rich and famous even as she follows her own dreams. Towles uses the slang and soundtrack of the day as he follows Katey through 1938. I found myself queuing up Autumn in New York as I read the final chapters.

And, for the record, here is the list of books read so far in 2017. I am shooting, as always, for 75 books but if I can really move along this summer, 100 is not out of the realm of the possible:

January: 9
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
We Never Asked for Wings
March, Book One
March, Book Two
March, Book Three
Essays After Eighty
The Care and Management of Lies
Inequality in the Promised Land

February: 6
The Underground Railroad
Hidden Figures Review
Dark Corners
Escape on the Pearl
Bud, Not Buddy
The Good Lord Bird

March 6
The Mighty Miss Malone
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Four Queens
Queen Dolley
Small Great Things
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

April 6
Wonder Boys
The Flame Bearer
Spell or High Water
The Lost Book of the Grail
The Buried Giant
The Earth is Weeping

May 6
The Lost Order
The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent (Audio)
A Company of Liars
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian
Buried In a Bog (Text & Audio)

June 10
Scandal in Skibbereen
The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
13, Rue Therese
Grand Canyon
Thursdays in the Park
Death on Demand
The Hog’s Back Mystery

Nora Webster
Bellman & Black
Killers of the Flower Moon
Rules of Civility
An Unwelcome Quest

Correcting The Flight Path: Review of We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings is a compelling story of a mother and son who were willing to break the rules to make life better for someone else. Letty Esposito was just 16 when her son Alex was born; Wes, the father, was already gone away to school, and Letty never told him. Instead, she turned over much of the responsibility for Alex and his younger sister over to her mother as Letty tried to eek out a living at service jobs. She is currently a bartender at an airport bar near her definitely wrong side of the tracks home. When her parents return to Mexico, Letty finds herself struggling to take care of her children even as Alex seems to be moving away from her into his teenage love and life. She must also navigate her own emotional landscape as she connects with a new and old friend.

We experience the novel mostly through Letty and Alex: their paths have strong parallels as they act out of love, impulsive, without fully considering the consequences of their actions. They are fighting for justice so it seems as though their mantra is by any means necessary. Their “crimes” seem minor as they are committed to break down barriers keeping them from realizing their potential.

One powerful lesson in the importance of your address. In this story, as in real life, it determines your access to not just a good education but also a safe one. The students in those challenging schools did nothing except be born in a certain zip code and, unless their parents are able to better their lot, they are trapped. Their poverty exacerbates the isolation as transportation is often an issue. Cars are expensive to maintain and public transportation enforces limits of time and space. As Wes drives Alex to Stanford, Alex muses on the fact that he had never been on the campus that was not far from his home in East Palo Alto.

Birds, feathers and wings were a recurring theme in the book. Alex’s grandfather created feather art, a Mexican tradition, and gifts Alex with his lifetime collections. Alex loves birds himself and often names them when he is nervous. But it is this one insight into bird migration that speaks to the human beings in the book who seem to be heading in the wrong direction. They are discovering ways to adjust these seemingly unwavering paths:

Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight,
just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction
correct their flight paths all at once.

I enjoyed the book and can recommend for its story and its concern for justice. There were times when it felt like a young adult novel. I don’t think it’s considered as such but Alex’s voice was so strong and it was as much his story as his mother’s.

A Prose Poem: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The year is moving right along, and I have finished my first book.

I decided to start with a “challenging” book this year.James Agee and Walker Evans combined stunning words and arresting images to share the lives of cotton tenants in 1936 Alabama.  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been on the shelf for awhile. I was not prepared for the flowing prose and was actually considering putting it aside.

I picked this up because it seemed like a good companion to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy that I read at the end of 2016. It provides some historical context of the culture that Vance describes.

The prose tumbles along, piling up details and impressions, swirling the story into the midst. Sometimes, it made for daunting reading and I would look ahead for the next break. Other times, I found myself in the flow, not worried so much about exact meaning but absorbing impressions as I rode along the natural energy of the words.

The book is, at its core, the story of three families living as cotton tenants in Alabama in 1936. The book has elements of an ethnography with detailed descriptions of homes, clothing, education and work. But Agee weaves in his own musings about his role in the process and his relationships with the families. And then he seems to leave the path altogether and it may take a moment or two or more for the reader to find herself.

For instance, at one point, he took a break from the main narrative to record his angry responses to a survey from The Partisan Review. An odd distraction. Agee is curmudgeonly towards everyone it seems, except Walker Evans and the three families they profile in the book.

Bruce Jackson in the Winter 1999 edition of Antioch Review wrote:

Some critics write about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a book out of control, a book that is nearly-great but missed it for this or that reason, a book that suffers from excess. One wrote: “When one first reads Famous Men, many passages may strike one as pretentious, mannered, precious, pompous, pontifical, smug, self-righteous, self-indulgent, willfully obscure, doctrinaire, self-congratulatory, sophomoric, belligerent; even Agee’s self-abnegation, self-loathing, and modesty may offend.”

Yes, but.

And there was definitely a Yes, but, for me. I wanted to wade in this book even as there were times when I thought I would just stop. After all, I wasn’t really reading for a climax or the solution to a mystery. I kept going though and am glad I did.


Leaderships Lesson from Rebel Yell

NB: Cross posted from In Another Place, my professional blog

I have been fascinated with the Civil War since first seeing Ken Burns’ epic documentary. Moving to Virginia fueled that fascination, and I have visited many of the battlefields.

One of the most intriguing characters that came out of a war full of intriguing characters was Stonewall Jackson, an odd stiff man who seemed to only come into his own when in the midst of the war. Beyond the battlefield, he was  unsuccessful in many ways. He often let his strong ethics get in the way of his relationships. His tenure in both the military and VMI was fraught with somewhat silly arguments with others. It was only when he found his place in the war that he began to shine as a strategist, warrior and, ultimately, a leader. After his death, even those in the north admired him for his tenacity and religious fervor. Abraham Lincoln, on reading a northern editorial about Jackson, wrote, “I sought my state-room, to weep there. Is it wrong, is it treason, to mourn for a good and great, though clearly mistaken man?” (p. 558).  And, Henry Ward Beecher, ardent abolitionist and editor of The Independent, called Jackson, “Quiet, modest, brave, noble, honorable, and pure. He fought neither for reputation now, not for future personal advancement.” (p. 559).

S.C. Gwynne‘s recent biography of Jackson, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, dissects the man, getting beyond the legend to reveal a loving husband and father and a loyal friend to those who get past the prickly exterior.

But Gwynne also highlights some essential leadership lessons that can be taken from Jackson’s life. One of those is the power of belief to drive men to do more or less than they might otherwise do. He speculates on why groups of soldiers might advance or retreat, writing:

Belief counted for a lot–in one’s general, in the caption in front of you brandishing his gleaming sword, in the bravery of one’s fellow soldiers, in the idea of winning itself…Though it is impossible to measure the effect of Jackson’s growing reputation as a winner on his men, it was undoubtedly strong (p. 321).

Often being a leader means having to influence people to do things they wouldn’t do naturally. When visiting the now peaceful battlefields, I find it unfathomable that soldiers on both sides, having witnessed the carnage of previous fights, were willing to continue to march into these battles. Yet, several times in Rebel Yell, Gwynne comments that the men of the Stonewall Brigade seemed, despite the deprivations and horror, happy as they followed the man who made them victorious against all odds. There is a lesson here for all of us who lead: build confidence by creating opportunities for success.

Slow Reading Plus Loving My Library

Finished The Accidental Tourist and liked it more than A Spool of Blue Thread: maybe a stronger plot with clearer connections between the characters.

Anne Tyler tells human stories with characters that verge ever so slightly on the stereotype. The Leary siblings in The Accidental Tourist seem almost too quirky, tied as they are to the past and their own routines and needs. It makes personal relationships difficult and marriage almost impossible unless the spouse understands those needs and can make accommodations in the name of love. Macon Leary has gotten out, it seems, until an almost unspeakable tragedy leads to the end of his marriage and his return to the arms of his sister and brothers. It takes Edward, his dog, to help him reconnect to an unlikely “fixer” who helps him really see the world outside the cocoon he has built.

Now I’m working through Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne. A think book but Gwynne knows how to tell a story. He fits in the details and yet balances them with human interest. Even the battle descriptions, usually a turn off for me, are well written. I’m reading it for the nonfiction “challenge” on Library Thing but decided it’s more important to me to read slowly than finish it by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, kudos to my library: when I was in a couple weeks ago, the librarian turned me on to their digital magazines. WOW! I’ve printed a few recipes from Bon Apetit, read a feature about Joy Mangano in Good Housekeeping, and enjoyed browsing the other available subscriptions. It’s a wonderful service, easily accessible from my laptop or iPad.

We got about 10 inches of snow and ice during the big storm. Enough to keep me tucked inside: made beef stew and the most amazing Liege Waffles from King Arthur Flour. They were delicious made in my plain old waffle maker and I’m looking forward to toasting them for breakfast this week.

Mid-January Reading Review

I have completed five very different books so far this year, including one audio book:

Here are my impressions:

Library of Souls

Library of Souls is the third book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. Ransom Riggs weaves a fascinating tale of a world beyond our world where human beings with “peculiar” characteristics live in time loops. Jacob Portman discovers these peculiars, their mentors and his own peculiarity in the first book of the series, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. There are evil forces at work and the children fight them in the second and third books. The books are illustrated with antique photographs that Riggs has borrowed or collected. Story and photos intertwine in interesting ways and I found myself wondering about the writing process. Did Riggs look for the next photo or write the next section and then look for a photo that added interest?

I was a little taken aback by the violence: evil is really evil here, chasing the peculiars to drain their souls, and there are scenes of torture. The good guys use one of the bad guys in a similar way and Jacob sees the fear in the creature’s eyes. It lives but only just and Jacob understands that even this horrible beast who would eat him if it got the chance has a bit of its own spark of life and humanity. This is a young adult novel and I think this particular point would be an important one to explore if you are reading the books with young people.

Crossing to Safety

Crossing to Safety is a story of friendship and marriage. Four people, two couples, who connect across their lifetimes as they find their passions, even as they encounter their own limitations. Larry Morgan, who with Sally makes up one couple, narrates the story, focusing his attention on a few seminal events that define the relationships among the four and often help illuminate the marriage of Sid and Charity, their larger than life friends who pull Larry and Sally into their orbit when they meet in Madison in the years before WW II. I found the narrative quietly compelling. The drama has a cerebral quality as Larry examines the relationships and his own trajectory as a writer. We see how money and family affect the group as well as their aspirations for their respective spouses. Stegner is a master of setting and allows it to play a large, sometimes active role, in the story.

Bitter Seeds

I found Bitter Seeds in my Audible feed so downloaded it for a recent road trip. I’m honestly not sure when I bought it or what attracted me to it. I am familiar with the theory of alternate history but haven’t read much and don’t think I realized that was the genre. It was not what I was expecting at all: a dark fantasy set during World War II. I found it fascinating even if it was sometimes a bit too violent for my tastes. There was also a psychologically disturbing edge to the narrative: children raised in a purely evil environment, taught to fear failure, trained only to kill.

I’m not sure I’ll read the next two books in the series or not. It reminds me a bit of Steig Larsson’s books: an evil, cynical world that repels and yet attracts as the author weaves a compelling story amongst the evil. This isn’t gratuitous violence but a narrative of good and evil where neither side really wins. I listened to all three of Larsson’s books and was fascinated by them.

A Spool of Blue Thread

A Spool of Blue Thread is a story of a house and the four generations of the Whitshank famly who live there. It’s a house born of obsession with perfection that houses a sour marriage at the start and then later a large typical family with love and petty jealousies and memories. Each character brings a bit of a surprise and we can find something to like in each one so ultimately this is a story of redemption. It was an enjoyable if not riveting read and as I headed to the last page, I felt like I wanted more answers. But, it occurred to me that the answers simply weren’t there: the characters didn’t know then and so we couldn’t either.

Venetian Betrayal

I discovered Steve Berry last year when I found The Charlemagne Pursuit on my shelf. In the tradition of The DaVinci Code, Berry writes historical thrillers that play on ancient conspiracies brought into the modern world. Venetian Betrayal did not disappoint although I’m starting to grow weary of some recurring devices including supposedly dead people who turn up alive just when you need them. And this book seemed even more violent with the evil dictator seeming to just shoot everyone who angered her and finding other creative ways to kill those who oppose her. The bodies really piled up. Despite its length, I read it in a day, skimming through some of the sometimes complicated history related to the conspiracies.

On a personal note, I checked this out of the library: these kinds of quick reads don’t need to be on my shelf OR my Kindle!



Five Favorite Books from 2015

In the spirit of LibraryThing’s Top Five Books for 2015, here are mine:

  1. A Man Called Ove: I just finished this in preparation for a book club I’m attending next week. What a wonderful uplifting read! At its heart, it is about how doing the right thing can bring joy and love when you are least expecting it. And, I want my epitaph to read, “You are not a complete idiot!” Read this book now…easy storytelling style that masks profound ideas about life. I’m still thinking about it, laughing a bit but also musing on its lessons.
  2. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: I LOVED this collection of long, newsy, thoughtful letters exchanged over the course of a decades long friendship. There is lots of talk of food and cooking but also comments about movies and books, political diatribes, and personal insights into the lives of these two fascinating women.
  3. American Gods: Gaiman combines storytelling and mythology to create a tightly woven tale that sprawls across America. His control of language provides a fluid foundation for an intriguing, innovative story. I read several of Gaiman’s books this year. Neverwere was another wonderfully magical story. Anansi Boys is on my to read list for early 2016.
  4. Two Years Before the Mast: Who knew? This has been sitting on my shelf for awhile, purchased during a time when I felt like I needed to read some classics. I avoided it but once I dug in found it a thrilling memoir of life at sea. Dana moves between gritty details and high minded musings as he narrates his coming of age story.
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces: This is another book that has been on the shelf for awhile. I just adored this crazy story, often laughing out loud! Toole uses New Orleans the way Gaiman used America: an active participant in the story, landscape grown large.

I had a great reading year: my goal was 75 books and I ended at 97. I think you can view the list here. Almost a third were books that have been knocking around for awhile and some of them went into the donation box.  I reconnected with audio books, working my way through Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mystery series. I’m going to join the 75 books challenge again this year but add some more professional reading into the usual mix of history and fiction. I just started Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students by Pernille Ripp and am joining the online book club. And I am finishing up Library of Souls, the third book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series. It feels weightier than the previous two: more serious but also denser in the prose.

I’m planning on a weekly blog post on this blog: reading reviews mostly, maybe some music and travelogues as well. Happy New Year and may 2016 be your best year ever.

A Little Suspense At the End of the Year

I joined the 75 book challenge at LibraryThing and made it to my goal by mid-October. About half were my “own tomes,” that is books I have owned for some time. Most of those ended up on the give away pile to open some shelf space for more books. The suspense mentioned in the post title is whether or not I can get to 100 by December 31. I am currently at 93 so, with lots of free time over the long holiday break, it is possible: I am in the midst of three books right now: Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, the audio version of Angela’s Ashes, and Angela Thirkell’s High Rising. That leaves me just four to go, and I have a list started:

  • Last Bus to Wisdom, Ivan Doig’s last book before his death earlier this year
  • Armada by Ernest Cline (I LOVED Ready Player One and this promises the same thrilling narrative)
  • Either Brooklyn or Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, the book club selection for a book group I’ll join during a visit to a friend in early January
  • Shadow Scale, Rachel Hartman’s sequel to Seraphina, which I read earlier this year
  • Library of Souls, the third book in Ransom Riggs’ series of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children

None of these are lengthy and all promise to be good reads. To be honest, I probably won’t finish Thomas Hardy. It’s been languishing for awhile and it isn’t necessarily figured into the total.

Or…I could just keep reading Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series. I had The Charlemagne Pursuit on my shelf for a long while and it is one of those historical thrillers that I just couldn’t put down. I’ve now moved pretty quickly through The Templar Legacy and The Alexandria Link. But, I think these may the kinds of books that could quickly get old so I think I’ll work on the list above and tuck in another Berry now and then through 2016.