Category Archives: book reviews

Caption This

So you’ve all noticed by now that the blog times and lengths and subjects are sliding all over the place. That’s because I’m writing a book, deadline for delivery Feb. 29, 2016. (Leap Year brought me an extra day!)

The subject is adoption and foster care in Appalachia, and it is a strange writing process this time. I love going back to my journalistic roots, but I’ve never had to be self-protective in writing before. The material is darkness and light in unexpected blotches of both, and you never know when you’re going to hit which. You just listen to the people telling their stories, and refuse to bundle things into patterns where they don’t belong. No square pegs forced into round holes to make us feel better about ourselves as humans.

And you keep a sense of humor about you. Which is why, in lieu of a lengthy angst-ridden blog post about writing Fall or Fly (the working title of the book) I am offering the following.

CAPTION THIS – winner gets three hand-crocheted dishcloths. Second place gets a kitten. :]

Let’s say deadline is Dec. 1, since I think that’s Tuesday coming and a lot of people will also visit for the Monday Book. If I can manage to post it on Monday this week. I’ve got a good one. But not as good as this photo. Have fun!

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The Monday Book: THE ANGEL MAKERS by Jessica Gregson

So you’re in a rural village during World War I and the guys are off fighting and you realize you’re better off without them. A few of you are, anyway. And then this prison camp of Italians gets put in nearby, and they need people to wash and cook…..

Yeah, you can kinda write the script from there. When the husbands come home, they leave again. Feet first. Through the door.

But let’s say some mothers-in-law and maybe an elderly parent or two need help across to the other side as well. How long will it take before the authorities come to investigate? And how quickly will they figure out what’s happening?

This book is all about the plot. Normally I like character-driven books, but this one had me rooting for the bad girls to the end. That plot just keeps rolling forward. It doesn’t even twist and turn. And the whole thing is the fictional retelling of a true story.

Heh heh heh.

There aren’t any particularly wonderful quotes. The writing is solid. The characters are pretty straight-forward. This is all about whodunit, and why, and whether they get caught or not.

Two syringes of poison up for this very interesting novel based on real events.

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The Monday Book: ANYTHING CONSIDERED by Peter Mayle

As Wendy immerses herself in a writing project, Jack takes on  the Monday book this week.


Mayle is best known for his amusing semi-autobiographical books featuring an Englishman living in France (A Year in Provence etc) and in some ways this is another of the same – but not quite!


This does have an Englishman and it is set in France, but it’s also very different from Mayle’s previous books. This is a classic and gripping heist story and even has a femme fatale.


The basic premise concerns the fact that truffles (not the chocolate kind – the ones that grow underground) are worth a fortune and there are no ways to farm them to order. The Englishman gets caught up in the auction of a case containing the formula for growing truffles plus vials of spores in the formula ready to go. The auction involves some very shady and dangerous folk, a great deal of money and a beautiful American girl. There’s humor as well, including a group of drunken monks who aren’t really monks at all – they just dress like they are!


The odd thing is that this time some of Mayle’s characters are just a bit shallow and two dimensional but it doesn’t actually matter too much for two reasons. First of all the story is really great and rattles along at a terrific pace and secondly the descriptions of countryside and villages of the south of France which are spot on. I toured that part of the world quite a few times with my old group Heritage – so I know of whence I speak.


In case that sounds like less than a euphoric endorsement, I should say that if you like a gripping story with engaging characters, a cliff-hanger ending and some tongue in cheek laughs then you will surely enjoy this.


I know I did!

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Monday Books: HANK THE COW DOG by John Erickson

hankWhen the going gets tough, the tough go to the children’s section of the library. There they check out audio books: specifically, HANK THE COW DOG audio books.

These little babies are more fun to listen to than to read, I admit readily. When I have a long trip, or need a crochet break from Netflix, or just want to surrender to silliness for a  few hours, they become my go to boys. hank quote 3

Hank is a self-important idiot cow dog of indistinct origins, hairier than he is smart. Still, Hank manages, with the help of his friends, to solve quite a few crimes on the ol’ ranch. His friends include a father-and-son buzzard team, the little dog Drover (whose voice reminds you of every western you’ve ever seen with the expendable beloved elder sidekick) and sundry horses, chickens, and ranch hands. Also his arch-enemy, The Cat.

hank quote 1Hank’s ponderous thinking processes, the voices Erickson uses for the characters (all done himself) and the cute plots (foiling a fiddling fox in the hen house, living rough with the coyotes when he decides he’s not valued enough at the ranch) make these books laugh out loud fun. Each book features at least one song, lyrical gems such as

Eating bugs is lots of fun, they don’t require a hot dog bun/Nourishment for everyone, eating bugs is fun!!!

That kind of thing.

hank quote 2With 66 to choose from, I recommend spacing them out. If you binge listen, they get the sameness that every prolific author inevitably displays. But if you parse them out over long car drives or desperate needs to stop adulting for a couple of hours, they act like little tea breaks for the mind. Return refreshed from the M-Cross ranch, and Hank’s weird brand of doggie wisdom.

Authors, take note (and heart): Erickson started self-publishing these books in 1982 out of his garage, intending them for adults; they have since been translated into 26 languages and sold more than 8.5 million copies to become one of the most beloved family-friendly series of all time. There’s a lot of joy to be found within believing in yourself.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, book reviews, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, what's on your bedside table, writing, YA fiction

The Monday Book: EAT THE DOCUMENT by Dana Spiotta

EatTheDocumentWhen the front blurb of a book compares it to a cross between Joan Didion and Don DeLillo, I admit to thinking, “Nope, won’t like it.” (Call me a plebian; I’ve never been able to get into a DeLillo novel yet.)

But I started it anyway, and 96 pages later the book fell on my face because I’d dozed off trying to finish it before bed. Spiotta has an odd writing style. She tells the story by describing scenes and letting you figure out how the characters are feeling, almost like a screenplay writer. But her prose is compelling. And her characters drive the plot in magnificent ways. I’m a sucker for well-drawn characters.

It’s not just another tiresome sixties novel; it’s got pep and zest and less moral certitude and condescension than others of the genre; the female protagonist is in hiding, and it is her fifteen-year-old son who finally figures it out. Her boyfriend at the time of their criminal troubles is equally well-drawn, and a sympathetic character in ways her stiffness holds back for this reader. If you like character studies and subtle writing, this is your book.

If you like fast pacing, you may not like this novel. It’s a jumble of words, action/inaction, and ideas, and I finished it in two sittings. For me, the book was more about the action and what happens next than the way the author wrote; the words didn’t get in the way of the outcomes and how the characters were reacting to each other. Which I love in an author; poetry is fine, but don’t spend all your time proving you’re clever. Just tell the story and let your characters take over. Which Spiotta did, with bells on.

An enthusiastic two paws up for Eat the Document.

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The Monday Book: ZEITOUN by Dave Eggars

This is a sad book. It’s hard to read. It tells its story in pieces, and the pretty pieces make the ugly ones stand out all the more.

It’s the true story of a man named AbdulRahman Zeitoun, his wife Kathy, their kids and extended family, during and just after Hurricane Katrina. One small piece of a very big, weird, awful time. And that drill down into what happened to one little group of people makes the bigger picture that much more terrifying.

How fast does society break down, and who gets to decide what that looks like: The police, the criminals, the rich people, or the ones with guns? It was just that chaotic. And that awful.

Don’t read this story if you’re depressed, but do be aware that Eggars has a writing style that borders on poetic journalism for most of it. He jumps back and forth between family history and the days of the storm and its aftermath. I’m glad I read Zeitoun. And I kind of wish I hadn’t.


Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, book reviews, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, post-apocalypse fiction, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Wednesday Book Deal (or: why writing is like mining)

mine entranceMany of you have noticed that “the bookstore blog” has been the wee bit irregular this last month. It’s a combo of two things: the Celtic Festival, which we are wrapping up after its very successful 8th annual permutation Sept. 27-28; and the final “throws” of a book deal.

May 2017 will see Fall or Fly from Swallow Press. It is about adoption and foster care children in the Coalfields, and holds two things I love most about writing, plus one I never experienced before and hate (or perhaps fear).

On the one hand, my journalistic roots show when I write about people, and I absolutely love listening to others tell their life stories. They’re fascinating; people are so cool when they’re not pro tellers but are just telling what they know. It is my favorite part of any writing I’ve ever done.

But, to use a metaphor, writing in this instance is like coal mining. It’s dark, and from the entrance comes an unwelcoming smell of decay. Brave people secretly telling me their stories are the guides, lights that shine in the unhuman, inhospitable environment. They are resilient, these storytellers.

Especially the young’uns who came up through this system. With some of the least opportunity to be so, they emerge from all that pressure shining as diamonds: rock-solid, dependable human beings.

One day, after the bookstore Cafe had closed, I spent two hours talking with one person embroiled in the foster care system. When we came downstairs, Jack said the storyteller seemed “ten years younger” while “you looked as though the whole world had settled between your shoulder blades.”

For all that, they’re amazing stories, amazing people, and I’m so pleased to be writing this book. It will be smaller, more intimate than Little Bookstore. (And yes, for those of you asking, a cat book is in line, but Fall or Fly will be first.)

So deep breath, and here we go, diving deep. It’s a wonderful thing – only this time it’s in a dark pool inside a mine with just a few lights. Scary, but the words will come and make the way to get out of the dark places. And that makes everything worth it, because that’s the second part of writing I love: say what you mean, mean what you say. Find the words to tell the stories that need to be told, that other people will feel validated, empowered, even challenged to hear.

Is there anything more satisfying?


Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, Hunger Games, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, VA, Wendy Welch, YA fiction