Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: DEATH ON THE MENU

The Monday Book is reviewed this week by Martha Evans Wiley.

Death on the Menu, by Lucy Burdette

Wendy knows my predilection for cozies and asked61ZCCieFZNL._AC_US327_QL65_ if I would like to review the newest release in the Key West Food Critic Mysteries, published by Crooked Lane Books. Although I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series (there are seven), I soon found that isn’t necessary to enjoy the story.

Hayley Snow, the protagonist, is indeed a food critic who lives in Key West, and the setting is integral to the plot and the characters. Having never been to Key West, this was a vicarious journey through the historic architecture and tropical feel of the city for me.  Hayley lives on a houseboat with an elderly friend and gets around town on a scooter, quirky details that lend an air of authenticity to the overall exotic yet small-town feel of the locale. Along with the sights and sounds of a bustling community, Burdette focuses on the food, itself an important part of the Cuban culture. Whether we’re sampling restaurants with Hayley for a review or watching her caterer mother cook for a crowd, the food is almost as important to the story as Hayley herself – so important that the author includes recipes at the end for all the mouth-watering dishes she refers to throughout the book.

The story revolves around crimes committed during a conference planned to promote relations between the cities of Havana, Cuba, and Key West. There’s a lot riding on this, as anyone who keeps abreast of current events might imagine. Tensions rise, personalities clash, and throughout it all is the lingering pain and legacy of the mass emigration of Cuban refugees to the US in the 1990s, and the parallels to the current plight of the migrants on our southern border cannot be ignored.

Burdette at times gets carried away with filling the story with topical references that can distract from the meat of the tale. Former President Barack Obama makes an appearance, as do Jimmy Buffet and an NPR reporter. More germane to the subject matter are the gone-but-not-forgotten figures of President Harry S Truman, who lived in the Little White House where much of the action takes place, and literary giant Ernest Hemingway, whose legendary status still looms large over the island.

Hayley Snow is a likeable hero, with all the predictable foibles  of feminine amateur sleuths – headstrong, anxious, romantically involved with the local police chief, naive and yet loyal to the end. The characters are believable and for the most part endearing, and as mentioned earlier, Burdette’s descriptions of the Cuban food and the colorful beauty of Key West provide the real enjoyment of the book.

It won’t be long before  winter rears its cold head, and I for one plan to curl up with more of Burdette’s Key West mysteries for a snowy day escape.

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The Monday Book: THE SOUND OF HOLDING YOUR BREATH by Natalie Sypolt

breathThis book is out from West Virginia Press and I received a review copy for the Journal of Appalachian Studies. (I’m their book editor.) If anyone would like to review it for the Journal, please drop me an email or PM.

The short stories in Sypolt’s fiction debut are engrossing character studies. Most have wonderful characters who drive the plots around them. Siblings who see through each other’s deepest weaknesses. Young people who find reasons to stay or go. Nasty and nice Christians. In many ways, it’s like Sypolt took a classic Appalachian problem and wrote a “what if” story about it: what if you were gay and couldn’t tell your parents, but your elder sister knew because you fancied her husband? What if you were young enough to leave home and old enough to know you’d take your upbringing with you wherever you went?

Although you might be able to read the slim volume in a couple of hours, I recommend savoring. The prose is well-crafted, the words backlit with mountain sunsets. If it sounds like these are bib overall hayseed stories, think again. Stereotypes exist to be played with not to make the stories go. For instance, in one story of summer lake holidays, a boy aware of his beloved elder brother’s proclivities to violence suddenly finds himself seduced by the girl he thinks is pure. These are not easy straw characters. A preacher’s daughter finds nothing redeeming in her dad, but the way the story goes down gets complicated. Nobody gets off easy in a Sypolt short story.

If you are interested in Appalachian politics, culture, and families, you will find much to chew on here. If you like short stories that are well-written and character driven, you’ll love Sypolt’s debut. And remember, order it from your favorite local bookstore, not Amazon.

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The Monday Book: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler

contentYes, yes, I know it’s Tuesday. YOU try making the buses run on time the week after vacation. *grumps*

Sad thing is, although I really enjoyed reading it, this book didn’t cheer me up at all. I got it from Rachel, our shopsitter, when I went rushing through the bookstore the day before we left on holiday.

“Something to read, something to read,” I muttered, and Rachel almost without looking hauled this baby off the shelf.

“You’ll love it. It’s amazing,” she said, and I grabbed it from her hand and packed it.

And almost lost my mind night after night in the lodgings as I entered a world where chimp and human babies were raised side by side in an experiment that was subject the vagaries of funding, public pressure, and human fickleness. You can see from the beginning (and also the back blurbs) that this is a heartbreaking book. You know from the beginning what’s going to happen; in fact much of the book is tracing back from what happened. I like the way the author says, “I’m going to start my story in the middle, then go back and fill in, but on the way we’ll stop at the ending.” That’s not an exact quote but that’s what she does.

Her depictions of life through the eyes of a narrator you can’t quite trust, of events that seem surreal, among characters you feel you know (remember I’m a sucker for characters, and it is true they drive plot)… amazing work. I kept reading EVEN WHEN I KNEW A KITTEN WAS GOING TO DIE because Fowler writes so matter-of-factly about hearts and feelings and fear and hope. It’s just life, she seems to say. Get on with it.

My guess is that tender-hearted people and CEOs read this book on two different levels, which really interests me. It is hard to get a story going that holds humor and lessons that vary by reader, but Fowler has created a “He said/she said” that doesn’t answer questions so much as ask them: What does it mean to be human? What is our responsibility to each other? Who’s in charge here?

Two opposable thumbs up for We are all completely beside Ourselves.

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The Spoken Blog

Those of you keeping up with the Madcap Adventures of Jack and Wendy will know that we are leaving for a long-overdue holiday this Sunday, after a short series of concerts by longtime friend Barbara Dickson. She and her husband Oliver Cookson will be joining us for a Way Out West extravaganza that loops through Wyoming to Montana and back down through Wisconsin, just to bag as many states as possible.flying_away_by_cinnamon_sim-d45l4fp

Getting ready to go has been wild, with the usual bookstore, college, healthcare, and foster cat duties going on. So in lieu of getting a blog written, I offer a really pleasant interview I did for my latest book, Fall or Fly: the strangely hopeful story of foster care and adoption in Appalachia.

Enjoy! And I look forward to blogging from new and strange mountain peaks over the next two weeks.

Wendy’s interview on Fall or Fly

 

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Sunset, Sunrise

sea-sky-sunset-8101My friend Jenny got told she should go home and make peace with herself and God. Since she already was, she came home, opened her door, and said, “Come say goodbye.”

Jenny had the kind of cancer that made it dangerous for her to have visitors, but being a gregarious person, this rankled during her time. We sent a lot of FB messages while she was fighting off the body invaders. When she knew it wasn’t going to work, the invites went out, and we all went.

Jenny died while I was on a plane flying from East Coast to West. When I touched down in Seattle for a writing retreat, the first thing I got was a text from Jack saying she had left us.

And a reminder that he was going to our friend Destiny’s wedding reception that night. After living through a great deal of trauma, Destiny had found a guy who wanted to look after her and her two children; her life was about to turn, on the same day Jenny’s turned the other way.

Jenny was saying goodbye, ready to go, excited almost to think about what would happen when she met God and what her physical body and spiritual soul would turn into. On one of two visits I got in before the end came, Jenny took a sip of coffee and said, “I wonder what happens to us when we die? Do we disappear or turn into something?”

Her sisters froze. We looked at each other. All I could think was You’re about to find out, but you can’t tell us after you know. That’s part of the plan.

Destiny’s first husband’s death was a community gossip tragedy, but she’s the one who knows what it feels like to lose a guy who’d been fighting for years to reclaim his own life. And who knows what it feels like to love again. The community judgement she faces for either husband is irrelevant, and she knows it. She doesn’t say much.

Sunset, sunrise: two women with stories locked inside them, a story they can’t tell for different reasons. Unlocking the stories, giving voices to those whose stories are inconvenient, or indicting, or scary for the rest of us: that’s what I came to Seattle to be part of. It’s a writing retreat for women telling their stories, some in first person, some couched in fiction. The stories are inconvenient, indicting, and scary. And wonderful.

The world feels dimmer without Jenny in it, the world feels happier because Destiny and Ira got married. The world tilts at an incredible pace, and sometimes we can’t write fast enough to keep up with it.

Sometimes we can, though. And we should. Chronicle the sunsets, chronicle the sunrises. Find your voice and use it.

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The People’s Flag – – –

It’s Thursday so it must be time for Jack’s Wednesday guest post!

Since there wasn’t a Monday book review he gets to do that too – –

World Politics 1918-1936 – R. Palme Dutt (1936)

We get some pretty weird and wonderful books here in the bookstore and I often find myself drawn to them. This one caught my eye as it’s about a period of history that fascinates me and was actually published just as things were getting out of hand.

When I read the book I had no idea who Dutt was and had never heard of him, so I read with an open mind. I was fairly astonished by much of his commentary on the first half of the period covered and how ambivalent the UK, France and the USA were towards the German and Italian Fascists as well as the Japanese Imperialists. There was a common fear of the rise of Soviet power and until late in the period various attempts to form an alliance to counter Communism. Even after Mussolini was established in power and Hitler was cementing his foundations there were powerful figures in favor of forming a common front against the USSR that would include the USA, the UK, France,Germany, Italy, Japan and Poland.

However the tone of the book becomes different as it reaches the latter part of the period. Dutt clearly believes that war is inevitable and argues that the best thing is to delay it for as long as possible through diplomatic means. This would allow the Soviets to build enough strength to defeat this unholy alliance!

What’s ironic, of course, is that the UK and the US ended up in concert with the USSR against Germany, Italy and Japan, with the Soviets playing an enormous part in the victory.

Being a pretty cynical kind of person, I believe that WW2, just like WW1 was fought between Imperial powers with ambitions to divide up the world and very little to do with any democratic principles. Afterwards the anti-Soviet line came back and the justifications for the war emerged with much banner waving. There was just as much anti-Jew pressure in the US, the UK and the USSR prior to hostilities although without someone quite as effective as Hitler to run with it.

If I was the late Mr Dutt I might be looking at the current political situation and thinking things are beginning to line up for another Imperial confrontation with the same shadowy figures pulling the strings and another religious group being demonized as a diversion – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

After finishing the book which was published in the US, I wanted to know more about who’d written it –

Rajani Palme Dutt (19 June 1896 – 20 December 1974), generally known as R. Palme Dutt, was a leading journalist and theoretician in the Communist Party of Great Britain. (From Wikipedia)

I don’t hold that against him, though – –

 

 

 

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The Monday Book: RISE- how a house built a family by Cara Brookins

houseI heard about this house on Facebook long before the book came floating through our shop. Tiny houses and self-built places fascinate me, so I pulled it to read. It’s a quick read, not heavy on building details.

Cara was married to a succession of abusive men after being born into poverty and pretty much having a miserable time in school. She got herself into college and a good job, and began writing teen books, and things were looking up – except for the guys. It didn’t go well and she wound up married to someone who was certifiably insane in a kind of “could kill somebody” way.

So part of the book is about the safety needs of her four children, three of them old enough to participate in building a house, one of them a toddler. Part of the book is about her becoming a competent and confident enough woman to stride into a bank and come out with a builder’s loan–and then do the building. Part of it is about watching her children rise to the challenge.

I’m not sure this book would please everyone. I got bored with the parts about guided meditation and the places where she glossed over things — her childhood being so poor, she ate one meal a day, why her mom and dad are divorced, whether the abuse she accepted in marriage started at home, for instance. There are stories here she’s not telling.

For all that, I loved reading about how she kept the kids entertained and safe and fed while they were toting and lifting and literally bleeding their life’s blood into making a house. Two nails up for RISE

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