Category Archives: writing

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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Surprise, Surprise!

Jack’s Wednesday post limps in on Friday this time – –

Well – what a week it’s been and it isn’t over yet!

First of all we had a phone call from California from folk who have read ‘The Little Bookstore’ and intend to visit Big Stone Gap, then we had another call from a couple in Charlotteville who will be celebrating their 51st wedding anniversary by doing the same thing next week (having read Wendy’s book when it first came out five years ago). This is great for the town as they will stay in a local hotel and shop locally while they are here.

(BTW – Wendy and I celebrate our 20th anniversary next Tuesday.)

Meanwhile a radio station in Scotland has agreed to air my weekly radio show ‘Celtic Clanjamphry’, so it will now be broadcast in Tennessee, Virginia and Scotland.

But the icing on the cake happened yesterday afternoon when a group of folk came in the door and explained that they had driven down from Toronto. They were all from Korea originally and included a friend who was just visiting for a short time. He was the real reason they came to the shop because he works at the publisher in Seoul who put out the Korean language version of ‘The Little Bookstore’. He had brought both an English language and Korean copy of the book to have Wendy sign them. They spent some time with us and luckily Wendy was here to socialize and chat. To say we were gob-smacked would be putting it mildly!

book-cover-korea

koreans

That’s Mr Young-Eun Goh of Danielstone Publishing on the left.

We had some fun describing the convoluted email conversation Wendy had with the Korean translator back when that edition was being prepared and we proudly showed the copy we still have.

We actually received six copies from the publisher when it came out and sold five of them here in the bookshop. We thought that was pretty amazing, but getting a visit from the publisher was something else entirely!

We look forward to visits from the Polish, Portuguese and Chinese publishers – – –

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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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Day One: Frankfort to Farmington

MaryAfter ensuring Charles and Mary-the-Storyteller had enough AirBorne to save them from our creeping crud, we set off, a-tired and lighthearted to take to the open road. (Sorry, Walt)

Today held a “get some miles behind us” plan because I had to teach an online writing class that required pulling in at our Farmington B&B no later than 5:30 to set up. No sweat. With Barbara and Jack tucked into the back seat making “stay on your own side” noises, Oliver and I would defy speed limits and sound medical advice (this was his worst of the three-day misery plague this bug seems to give most people; I was on the mend and Barbara was almost back to normal) to play “who’s got enough funding to staff the highways” with assorted state patrols.

We blitzed Kentucky and made our way across Indiana and Illinois into Iowa, a happy chain of I-states that left Barbara and Oliver exclaiming over landscapes  and roadside attractions. We hit on the scheme of looking up “10 Interesting facts about [state name]” which was fun, but we had to work quickly in Illinois, given how fast Oliver was driving.

Did you know that gas pumps were invented in Indiana? And that the world’s largest ball of paint is there? Now you do.

We also invented a car game. Since all four of us have musical careers of some variety, any comment touched on song lyrics meant someone would start singing them. The person who could get the most lyrics out without getting shouted down by the others wins–or perhaps loses. No one is sure yet. Since we are all but Jack sick with a virus affecting the throat at this point, keys were declared optional. My rendition of “Downtown” was a personal low note.

We reached Farmington in good time and said hello to Elizabeth and David, owners of Porch Time Bed and Breakfast. It may tell you something of Farmington’s charms to know that drinks at the American Legion Bar are $3, and the bartender is the mayor. She has a list on the front door of people who have been barred, some for a month, some for life. Be warned, Farmington Visitors: do not mess with Mary.David and Elizabeth

We were there because Elizabeth and David had walked into our bookstore a year or so before, out of the blue, and told us how much they enjoyed Little Bookstore. “It’s so like our town, how people reinvent themselves and make things stick when others say it won’t work,” Elizabeth enthused. “If you come visit us, I’ll show you around. You’ll see. You kind of wrote our story, or at least what we’ve been trying to say with our lives, too.”

Elizabeth had escaped a cult life after 38 years, losing a family member in the process but gaining a real life for which she shows more appreciation than most people. She and her husband married later in life and moved to Iowa to start together in a neutral place. As a graphic artist, he was portable, and she soon found steady demand as a substitute English teacher. They became integral parts of Farmington, this quirky little town holding its own by the side of the Des Moines river, offering artistic refuge and tourism options for equestrians, canoeists, and hikers. There is an artists’ co-op there, and an art festival, and about eight painters, several songwriters, a writing group that feeds out from Iowa’s Famous Writers Workshop, and a general feeling that everyone in Farmington is walking around with some level of masterpiece working its way out of them with less angst than enjoyment. These are nice people.Porch Time

The 1860s carriage house renovated into an upstairs flat and downstairs studio, which David and Elizabeth’s friend Anne created, is but one example. Never let anyone tell you what you want to do can’t be done; they did all the work themselves without a mortgage and that building is magnificent. (No photos because dusk was falling as Elizabeth toured me around.)

swimholeThe river offered a local swimming hole away from the tourism end which Oliver and I availed ourselves of the next morning – there is nothing like swimming in live water. Already at 9 am the shallow river was bath-water-warm, portent of the heat to come as we headed across Iowa to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And made an interesting discovery we will tell you about tomorrow.

 

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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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The Monday TV show, which falls in a Tuesday this week…

800 wordsI’m sorry everyone; Jack is away and things are in transition here and getting the blog out has gotten weird. Sorry!

But I would like to recommend to you a Monday TV show about writing. We watch it on ACORN, so I’m not sure if it’s available on any other services. It’s called 800 WORDS and is about a columnist who moves his family from urban Sydney to rural Weld, New Zealand. The rural-urban split is fun, and the characters are wonderful: zany, sweet, and just this side of predictable.

My favorite part of the show is how George, the columnist whose wife died in a traffic accident, tops and tails the show with the column he’s writing. Remembering the days when I turned my life into fodder for newspaper columnizing (although I got 1,000 words, thank you) makes me laugh as he struggles to create metaphors for when life gets too silly: sex for fireworks, dolphins swimming away at sunset for loss. It’s hysterical.

And heartfelt. About the time you think, nah, it turns you to tears. The characters each struggle for something, want more than they have, are the stars of their own lives, and the ensemble casting makes a jumble of weirdos who mirror small towns everywhere.

I don’t know if it’s available outside of ACORN, but I highly recommend 800 Words for general viewing, and for writers. You’ll learn from it. And have fun in the process.

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