Category Archives: publishing


Book Review – Clay’s Quilt

bookcover_claysquiltI assigned Clay’s Quilt, by Silas House, as part of an Appalachian Literature course I was teaching, without ever reading it. I recognize House as a major player in the modern Appalachian Literature movement but sadly, I have read only a small sampling of his work. I chose Clay’s Quilt based solely on its name. Superficial, yes. My hope was that House titled this work not only as a clever homage to Appalachian cultural practice but also as an attribute of how the story unfolds.

Clay’s Quilt is an authentic representation of modern Appalachian life and culture. The novel follows Clay Sizemore, a young miner living in rural Kentucky, through his young-adult years. A flashback scene serves as the novel’s opening. In this scene, we learn that Anneth, Clay’s mother, died when he was only four years old. Since his mother’s death, Clay has been searching for the comfort and peace that can only be found at “home.” For Clay, however, the road that leads him to this proverbial home is as winding and untamed as the old coal roads that deliver him into the dark, foreboding coal mines each day.

Through House’s narrative, the reader is able to piece together Clay’s life and the relationships held within it much like piecing together a quilt. Clay’s character is first established as a bit of a wild party boy. House is able to paint this picture through Clay’s weekly visits to the local bar, the Hilltop, where he and his friend Cake usually end up drunk, stoned, and looking for trouble. Clay’s entire character shifts when he meets Alma, an abused wife and fiddle player with steadfast morals that are deeply rooted in her family’s Pentecostal faith. The story’s greatest tension derives, ironically so, from the internal struggle Alma faces as she considers officially filing for divorce in an effort to foster a relationship with Clay. Alma’s struggles introduce the reader to the violence and drama that provide this story with an interesting turn of events. The story ends in a very generic “they lived happily ever after” way, complete with a final scene that helps support the novel’s title.

I loved the effortless way House uses narrative to embed aspects of Appalachian culture into the story. The ways in which he creates vivid images of place relates directly to the characters’ quest to find “home.” The reader is able to visualize every setting – the feel of a muddy path up to a wildflower field or the smell of home cookin’ in Aunt Easter’s kitchen. Each description is tangible. He is able to articulate the importance of family and close-knit relationships felt within many Appalachian families. House deposits idioms and regional colloquialisms that help establish the work as authentic without seeming fake or forced – an aspect I appreciate above all others.

One of the strengths of this novel is the authenticity of its delivery. Whether in dialogue between characters, descriptive phrasing used to create settings, or the non-abrasive influences of faith, family, and music, House is able to weave together these elements in an effort to create each character’s storyline. The language used throughout the novel seems real instead of forced. House is able to integrate multiple aspects of Appalachian culture, especially in terms of familial relationships and religious undertone, that work together to create the bonds shared between the characters and their homestead.

On a personal note, I reached out to House and asked for help and advice with my own Appalachian Literature course. His response was helpful, optimistic, and timely – all things I can appreciate. He shared in my charge to ensure that this body of work – Appalachian Literature – continues to have a place and a champion in today’s literary cannon.



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It has been just over twenty-MC Beaton The Witches' Tree Book Jacketfive years since Marion Chesney, under the name  M. C. Beaton, penned the first Agatha Raisin detective mystery. Her most recent in the twenty-eight novel series, The Witches’ Tree (Minotaur Books, October 2017, 277 pages), is by design a not-so-cozy cozy mystery.

The Witches’ Tree takes place in the Cotswold village of Sumpton Harcourt, not far from Agatha Raisin’s cottage in Carsley. The novel begins at the home of bumbling Sir Edward Chumble with a disastrous dinner party to welcome the new vicar and his wife to the village.  It is a foggy night, but the dense mist thins enough for Rory and Mollie Devere to discover an elderly woman’s body hanging from a gnarled witches’ tree on the edge of the village.  Later two more bodies show up, and Agatha Raisin feels pressured to find the murderer so her Mircester detective agency benefits from positive press coverage.

People who live in Cotswold cottages do not lead squeaky-clean lives, so Agatha enlists the help of her ex-husband James and potential love interest Sir Charles Fraith to dig up dirt on the neighbors and ferret out the killer. A coven of witches in Sumpton Harcourt complicates the plot, and Agatha soon becomes a target because she does not scare off easily.  In the end, though, she gets her man—the villain, not a love interest.

One of the driving forces through the entire cozy series is Agatha’s desire to be successful, settled down, and madly in love with her husband.  She is successful (retired public relations executive, owner of a respected detective agency) owns a lovely thatched cottage in the Cotswolds (instead of a luxury London flat), and—whoops—no husband yet.  Time and again, Agatha’s pursuit of eligible bachelors sets her up for grave disappointment, which keeps her life far from perfect. By the end of this particular novel, Agatha has an epiphany, and diehard fans can appreciate the poignant moment when she finally sees her knight.  For once she doesn’t mess things up, and readers feel her pain and disillusionment when her love interest recognizes the moment of truth and blows it.  The chaotic pace of Agatha’s life is reflected in the book, and in the end, readers are desperate for a twenty-ninth Agatha Raisin novel so their heroine can take another stab at happiness.  Hopefully, the next murder weapon is not a knife.

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Inspiration vs. Perspiration (or, The Games Writers Play)

The time when inspiration is most likely to strike is twenty minutes before you have to be somewhere, while you’re brushing your teeth. You will not be dressed for this event, nor will any household dependents be in progress toward getting out the door or setting up to stay home.

This is why God invented notepads. And cellphones with that voice dictation function. Depending on which is easier for you in your time crunch, jot down the idea, or grab your phone and send yourself a voice email. “JoAnne, self-protection, dogs and doctors” is one I just sent myself at 8:50. I was due at 9 am to help the local churches pack for the food pantry distribution, a thing I have wanted to do since arriving here in Fayetteville.

28235827_1906944399316615_289168906_nI’m in Fayetteville because of a wonderful program at Lafayette Flats, run by Shawn and Amy. You can look it up with that link. The point being, at 8:50 the link to how Chapter 14 related to the rest of the story so far, the way it could be shoehorned in to being a part of the whole, not a side journey, flowed into my brain as I brushed my hair.

Those key words will get me back to where I need to go (as soon as I finish writing this blog). They will not get me past the BS games writers play with themselves that “if we only had time, what glorious things we could write.” Now I have time, and now I have the note that says how to do it. Now my butt and the chair need to be best friends for awhile. Writing is 90% butt sloth and finger exercise, 10% inspiration. This is why many writers have big bums and you should never offer to thumb wrestle with one. The wrist of a writer should be registered as a deadly weapon.

Big bums, strong fingers, notepads (or iPhones) and time: that’s how writing gets done. Plus a little human interaction now and then. I loved helping the team at the food pantry.

Back to writing now….




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Fighting with Time

Exactly half-way through this three-month writing residency, I’m aware that the hours left in which to write tick down the slope now. While this is motivating, it’s not a big deal. I’m feeling really good about having drafted the book I’ve always wanted to write, and getting the first feedback from the very helpful beta readers. (Mostly: good idea, bad execution – this is fixable and fun. It’s those bad ideas in good writing that make one ashamed, because you might try to sell it anyway.)

That’s not the kind of time fight I’m having, the fear that I won’t get enough done while here. I’ve been diligent.

No, the problem is the other book I’m working on as the feedback rolls in from the January draft. I’m trying to write a memoir that doesn’t run chronologically, but around ideas related in clusters. When you’re trying to string your smaller narratives, your pearls of storytelling, onto a connecting thread, time is the simplest one to use. It only makes sense, doesn’t it, to tell a story in the order in which it happened?

Until it doesn’t, and those of you who write know the frustration. That didn’t happen then, but it relates, so it gets put there, and then you realize you’re relying on a character in Chapter 3 who doesn’t come into his own until Chapter 8. Or a setting that hasn’t been built yet.

It’s part of the fun, putting faces to people and places without using the face of a clock. Meticulous fun, one might say, but fun nonetheless.

The transitions of time can be the most poetic pieces in a book. The Cost of Hope by Amanda Bennett comes to mind; she hops between 1980 and 2010 like there’s no tomorrow OR yesterday. And it works, hooking concepts together and increasing irony with her juxtapositions of then and now. I’m learning a good bit from her.time

And from trial and error. As Ira Glass says, if you’re making mistakes, you’re learning. Fair enough. I’ve got time to make the mistakes–six weeks left–and I’ve got time to write about, and time to write in. Who could ask for anything more?



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Jeanne Powers’ Monday Book

Billy Feather BrainedFeather Brained:  My Bumbling Quest to Become a Birder & Find a Rare Bird on My Own by Bob Tarte

Let me start out by saying I am a not a birder.  I can identify cardinals, robins, blue jays, and woodpeckers—providing the latter are pecking on wood when I see them.  That’s about it.  I thought birders must be born, not made.

Then I read Bob Tarte’s book Feather Brained. Bob was not a natural birder.  At the tender age of nine in an effort to be cool, he set out for the park armed with a second-hand book on birds and a set of opera glasses. Let’s just say that first foray was less than successful.

A mere twenty five years later, Bob was ready to strike out again.  This time the impetus was due to an even rarer find: a red haired lady named Linda with a love of life in general and nature in particular.  He gets identification books, listens to recordings of bird song, and joins online birding groups where alerts are posted so members can rush to an area and maybe, just maybe, spot a bird for their life list. It becomes Bob’s mission in life to spot such a bird so he can alert the group and be the hero for once.

The phrase “easier said than done” springs to mind at this juncture.

As with his earlier books (Enslaved by Ducks; Fowl Weather; Kitty Cornered), Bob writes with a self-deprecating humor.  Comparisons to Charlie Brown and his little red haired girl will not go amiss, although Bob also has to deal with Churchill’s black dog of depression.  His eye for detail and description is as keen as ever, even when prowling around a sewage pond for rare birds.  He’s accompanied on many of his expeditions by Bill Holm who, as Bob explains, “didn’t particularly like birds, but he liked them more than he liked people.” Bob’s strength as a birder is to identify birds by their songs, so he depends on Bill to spot the birds, point out his errors, and make unmerciful fun of him for being so wrong.  Even though some of the episodes border on slapstick in Bob’s recounting—I laughed out loud as he and Linda risk life and limb to check out an osprey’s nest built on a train trestle—the book was a wonderful look at how birders can indeed be made, not born.  I found it reassuring as Bob misidentified wrens, grew frustrated at distinguishing calls, and sulked at birds that wouldn’t show up where they were supposed to be.

But above all else, Feather Brained is a romance. Oh, sure, Bob learns to love birds and birding, but it is his love for Linda that shines through the pages.  They would seem to be polar opposites:  Linda is the free spirit who lived happily in a small trailer in the woods while Bob enjoys creature comforts like electricity and running water. Where Linda sees rainbows, Bob sees dark clouds with tornado potential.  Love conquers all, however, and throughout the book Bob’s devotion never waivers, not through feeding mealworms to orphaned starlings, chipping away ice for the ducks, or being pelted with soggy monkey chow by a cantankerous parrot.  It must be true love.

And, hey—maybe I’ll take another look at that bird book I have in the basement.



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Erica Susan Jones’ Monday Book

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Age of Innocence againWhen I was a teenager, Penguin produced a range of classics for a pound a book. I’m not sure how mid-90s money translates across the Atlantic, but for this reader who’d only very recently discovered the joy of bookshops it was a revelation.
All of a sudden I went from being able to afford a book a month to what felt like an unlimited supply of new reading material. No matter that some of the classics I bought were as inaccessible to a teenage girl as A Clockwork Orange is to most human beings, I suddenly had the ability to visit a bookshop and buy more than one book. I browsed, I bought, I read.
Among these purchases was The Age of Innocence. If bookshops inspired my love of reading, it’s this book that opened my eyes to the possibilities of what books can hold. This book grabbed me, shook me, chewed me up and spat me out the other side, leaving an exhausted woman wondering what I could possibly read next that could ensnare me in such a way.
All this in what many misinterpret as being just another society love story.
In some ways that interpretation is correct. The main strand of the book is Boy Meets Girl, but the setting of that introduction (I don’t just mean 1870s New York) and the subtle storytelling are what make it so much more than a story of love versus responsibility. After all, this was the first Pulitzer Prize-winning book by a woman.
The Age of Innocence is the book I recommend and/or gift the most, and I’m currently re-reading it for a book club. For some, like teenage me, I fully expect them to comment on the love story, but I’m also looking forward to the other aspects they question: the freedom, or otherwise, of the different women; the rules that constrict our hero’s choices; and maybe even the impact today’s societal conventions have on our own lives – we’re technically more free than the characters in the book, but how much do we bind ourselves in our attempts to fit in?
Edith Wharton writes with intelligence and humour, encouraging her readers to question the sense of that world and its hypocrisies, and while her focus might have been a few centuries ago The Age of Innocence is as relevant now as it was then.
dolly readingErica Jones is a bookshop blogger, owned by a rescue cat called Dolly.
Feel free to either link to my blog as a whole or to this post:


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Turning off the Writing Blocks

house-mouse-mus-musculus-coloured-mouses-in-hamster-wheel-B1YTC6I work with a bunch of writers in a program called Memory to Memoir, and I mentor two writers each year for a year, thanks to a grant from the American NewMedia Foundation (thanks Debra Hallock). And I write, so I’ve seen a fair bit of the things that get in the way of writing, those little foxes in the vineyard, demons of destruction–whatever you want to call them. Here are a few of the most common blockades for  writers:

The Inner Critic: You’re doing it wrong, you haven’t got anything interesting to say, you’re not smart enough/sassy enough/sexy enough/strong enough. ENOUGH. You are enough because you are. Best way to deal with these bitches (who seem to travel in swarms) is to get a little medicine bottle and label it inner critic voices. Every time one goes off in my head, I open the lid and blow her into the bottle. A friend has an imaginary brick. When the girls show up, she picks up her brick and scatters them like roaches fleeing Raid.

The Hamster Wheel: You’re gonna write, of course you are–as soon as you earn the time by doing just those few little chores that have been hanging around and you just can’t sit down with a clear conscience until you’ve done them…. Make a list of things you need to do. Now prioritize the ones that have to be done to keep your world from blowing up. Literally, put numbers next to them. “Write something today” is not allowed to be below number four on that list. Now do the things above writing, and then write before you get to number five. Write for an hour at least.

The “I’ve Only Got an Hour” Fritter: You’ve only got an hour, and then you have to leave for someplace. Fine. Set a timer for 59 minutes, sit down, and go at it. The timer will keep you from forgetting to leave. Meanwhile, you can write with freedom of mind.

Oops I Forgot Syndrome: Similar to but kinda like putting a spoke in the hamster wheel, these are the “oops I forgot” moments that intrude on writing time. “I forgot to call my mom back; I forgot to get the laundry out of the dryer.” Keep scrap paper or a notepad by your writing area. Jot down the “I forgots” and let them wait there until you’re done. You have a note to remind you.

Interruptions: First, find a place where your family and work aren’t going to hunt you down, if you can. If not, establish an in-house writing zone in both time and space. Then establish the rules. Kids can’t show you blood? Don’t knock. Spouse needs to know RIGHT NOW? Then you get more time tomorrow while s/he watches over the rest of it. That’s the deal. If you have a home office, but closing the door isn’t enough, put up a color sticky when writing. When the family sees purple, they know you’re not to be interrupted unless the house is on fire. Make sure the family respects this, and you do too. Don’t blow off your time in there. It’s being paid for by other people who respect you enough to give it to you. That’s important. And validating.

These are the biggest writing bugaboos I see day to day. What are yours?



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