Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

Looking for some reading suggestions for the new year? My list of recommended Southern books for 2016 just came out Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but I thought I’d post it here and add some extras that aren’t Southern or that I didn’t know about at press time. At the end is a brief list of favorite books from 2015. For both lists, I’ve linked you to excerpts or reviews if available.

Here they are in order of publication dates:


Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995–2015, Kevin Young

This substantial collection draws from all nine of Young’s previously published books, from his 1995 debut, “Most Way Home,” to last year’s “Book of Hours.” For those unfamiliar with the Atlanta poet, Blue Laws is a welcome introduction; fans will appreciate the special “B sides” and “bonus tracks” from uncollected, unpublished poems. (Knopf)


The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Karen Branan

Veteran journalist Branan pieces together one of the grisliest crimes in Georgia’s history: the 1912 lynching in Hamilton of four blacks — including the wife of one of the accused — for the shooting death of the county sheriff’s nephew. Branan, the sheriff’s great granddaughter, interweaves the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Southern racism with the deeply personal story of her family. (Atria Books)


A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back, Kevin Hazzard

Hazzard spent a decade as an EMT in Atlanta, making daily and nightly runs into city’s meanest streets and eventually joining Grady Hospital EMS as a medic. Writing with moribund humor and an expertise born of attending “the dead and the dying, the drunk, the crazy, the angry, [and] those in need,” Hazzard invites the reader along as he learns the ropes, adapts to ever-changing partners, and gets “hip deep in things that matter.” (Scribner)


Shame and Wonder, David Searcy

In 21 captivatingly offbeat essays, Searcy (“Ordinary Horror”) finds the exceptional in the everyday — the hidden meaning of his childhood Scrooge McDuck comics; a Jewish tightrope walker crushed in a fall in Corsicana in 1884; a rancher who lures a coyote into shooting distance with a recording of his crying baby daughter — and contemplates the mysteries therein with grace and eloquence. (Random House)



What Happened, Miss Simone? Alan Light

Inspired by the critically acclaimed 2015 Netflix documentary, this revealing and harrowing biography of North Carolina singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone by music journalist Alan Light draws from Simone’s private diaries and interviews with many close to her — including her ex-husband, daughter, and longtime guitarist Al Schackman — to tell the story of a musical force of nature as tormented as she was brilliant. (Crown Archetype)


Out of the Blues, Trudy Nan Boyce

Meet Sarah “Salt” Alt, a newly minted APD homicide detective with a psychic bent whose past stalks her in the form of a cold case about a musician who OD’d, dreams about a talking dog, and memories of her late father’s suicide. Veteran Atlanta cop Boyce sets this moody, character-driven series debut amid familiar urban haunts — Manuel’s Tavern, the Krog Street tunnel, Criminal Records, a cinderblock blues club suspiciously reminiscent of Northside Tavern. (Putnam)


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Almost Famous Women for blog“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”

Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.

The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.

Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.

In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich. (more…)

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Us ConductorsThis past June, Sean Michaels stopped in Atlanta as part of an unusual book tour that included a reading and a theremin performance in each city. About a week beforehand, he contacted me on Twitter to say that he’d looked at this blog and read my reviews at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and wondered if the newspaper might be interested in his book. A flurry ensued as I requested a copy from publisher Tin House, asked my editor at the paper if it was something the AJC would like to cover, and got approval for a feature and an interview. When the book arrived, I fell in love from the first page.

Last night, Us Conductors won one of the most prestigious prizes in Canada, the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. I can’t think of a better reason to share my AJC interview and also note the performance by the local Atlanta band that helped make the reading such a phenomenal event. Congratulations, Sean Michaels!

Unusual instrument sets tone for Us Conductors book, musical tour

The theremin. Even if you don’t know what it is, chances are you’ve heard it.

It’s the unearthly, eerie music on the soundtrack of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Lost Weekend” and in the themes of “The Outer Limits” and “One Step Beyond.” Tim Burton re-created it in “Ed Wood” to mimic the soundtrack for “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” A version of it opens the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”; Jimmy Page used it to create the ethereal interlude in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”

Invented in 1921 by a Russian physicist, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the theremin is an electronic instrument played without physical contact. Two antennas sense the to and fro movement of the player’s hands, which control high-frequency oscillators for pitch and volume. These electric signals are then amplified and sent to a speaker. For something almost a century old, the theremin still feels as if it time-traveled out of the future.

Termen, or Leon Theremin as he was known in the West, arrived in the U.S. following a grand tour of Russia and Europe, and was soon playing Carnegie Hall and performing throughout the United States. He patented the instrument in 1928, and RCA began to manufacture and sell theremins across the country. Devotees of the theremin included violinist Clara Rockmore, one of its finest practitioners, and teacher and music theorist Joseph Schillinger.

And then, in 1938, Leon Theremin disappeared.

This is where Sean Michaels comes in. Michaels, award-winning music writer and founder of music blog, Said the Gramaphone,Sean Michaels has written a wildly imaginative first novel inspired by the life of the Russian inventor and reluctant spy. “Us Conductors” (Tin House, $15.95) is a timeless story variously set in Bolshevik Russia, New York City in the Roaring ’20s and the new Soviet Republic’s punishing labor camps.

“It’s a book about love, lies, longing and kung fu,” Michaels says, “with this strange, one-of-a-kind musical instrument at its heart.”

As the book opens, Theremin, imprisoned in a cabin on a ship returning him to the Soviet Union, is writing a letter to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore. (more…)

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This list ran last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was originally limited to Southern writers, but I’ve since added a couple of titles I just couldn’t resist. Here are some of the brightest stars on this year’s literary horizon — several much-anticipated novels, a killer short-story collection and memoirs galore.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. Viking. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) again explores themes of race and women’s rights in a well-researched, convincing historical novel inspired by real-life 19th century American abolitionist, writer and suffragist Sarah Grimke. The standout voice here belongs to the fictional Hetty “Handful” Grimke — given to Sarah as a maid when both were 11 years old — who endures the cruel face of urban slavery that will inspire Sarah’s life’s work. (Full review here.)

Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy. HarperCollins. On the heels of his acclaimed debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash’s second novel unfolds against an unusual background: the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The death of their mother strands 12-year-old Easter and her younger sister in foster care until their long-vanished father, a former minor-league baseball player, reappears to rescue them. The three go on the lam, pursued by a malevolent figure from the father’s past, in a suspenseful story described as “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.” (Read about A Land More Kind Than Home here.)

Amy Greene, Long Man. Knopf. February. Greene follows her well-received debut, “Bloodroot,” with another mesmerizing, gorgeously written tale set in 1930s Appalachia. It opens with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dam the Long Man River, delivering jobs and electricity but flooding the little village of Yuneetah in the name of progress. Even though her husband has found employment elsewhere, Annie Dodson resists leaving — until their little girl goes missing and she’s forced to rely for help on one of the most dangerous people in the doomed town.

Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. Lookout Books. March. With their “insistence on the particular and the specific,” Ben Fountain says the short stories in this smart, global anthology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington offer “a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments.” Preserving that vital sense of place are veteran and new Southern voices, including Rick Bass, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Cary Holladay, Lauren Groff, Robert Olen Butler and Kevin Wilson.

Carol Wall, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn/Putnam. March. Meet Carol Wall, fearful cancer survivor and garden hater. That is, until the day she notices Kenyan Giles Owita beautifying the yard next door. Owita, who works three jobs to make ends meet, is soon prettying up Wall’s eyesore of a yard, too. The heart of this disarming memoir is what took root: an unlikely but steadfast friendship between two people who had nothing — and, ultimately, everything — in common.

Kevin Young, Book of Hours: Poems. Knopf. March. In a poem from his book Dear Darkness, Young once wrote that grief was like gumbo: “you can eat & eat & still plenty left.” His eighth book of poetry is a deeply personal collection that revisits the loss of his father and also celebrates the birth of his first child. If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one — it’s already been named one of 10 essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal. More about Kevin Young here.

Kate Sweeney, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Custom of Mourning. University of Georgia Press. March. From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. Beginning with a museum in Illinois where Victorian-era human-hair lockets keep company with a carriage hearse and a re-creation of a 1930s embalming room, she explores “the American landscape of mourning,” including Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist.

Frances Mayes, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. Crown. April. Mayes, author of the best-selling Tuscany memoirs, grew up in tiny Fitzgerald, Georgia. “I left the South a million years ago,” she writes of her childhood home, confessing that, upon her return at age 22, she broke out in hives. Of her family, Mayes says, “When the plate of unhappiness is passed around … they wanted seconds, thirds.” The family maid, Willie Bell, used to advise Mayes “not to pay them any mind, they all crazy” — but, luckily, she remembers everything in this gutsy, honest portrait of the artist as a young girl.

Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, & Love Affairs. Atria Books. April. Playwright, essayist and novelist Cleage draws from her personal journals covering 1970-1980 for this revealing memoir, which takes readers back in time for a first-hand look at how Cleage juggled marriage, motherhood and politics — back in the day when she was married to Michael Lomax and worked with Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, all the while forging her identity as a writer.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. May. There couldn’t be a better description of this novel than the one found on the author’s blog: “What does the title mean? It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see.” (My review of Doerr’s last book, Memory Wall.)

Tom Robbins, by Stuart Isett

Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Ecco. June. The man who said, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” returns to his Depression-era beginnings as the grandchild of Baptist preachers in Blowing Rock, N.C. Fans can expect “a true account” as improbable, magical and bizarre as his quixotic characters. The now 77-year-old author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year: “Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can’t get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents.”

Amanda Kyle Williams, Don’t Talk to Strangers. Bantam. July. I got a sneak peek at the first chapter of Williams’ third installment in her “Stranger” series, and as usual, could barely stop laughing long enough to double-check the locks in my house. Series heroine Keye Street remains a vulnerable blend of tough, funny and kickass, a recovering alcoholic with a craving for Krispy Kremes. Here’s Keye in Stranger in the Room: “My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say ‘little,’ I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say ‘red-eyed,’ I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning.”

Want more? Here are my favorites from 2013. Or you can try the Millions—their list of most anticipated upcoming books is one of my favorites.

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Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) once again explores themes of race and women’s rights in The Invention of Wings (Viking, $27.95), a powerful story of rebellion and heroism inspired by real-life 19th-century American abolitionist, writer, and suffragist Sarah Grimké.

Set in Charleston, S.C., during the early 1800s, much of the novel is based on actual events and historical figures. Sarah, the daughter of a prominent judge, grew up in an aristocratic, slave-holding family surrounded by privilege. She and her younger sister, Angelina, would eventually break with the family to become outspoken pioneers of the abolitionist movement and early champions of women’s rights.

The novel opens on the day 11-year-old Sarah is given 10-year-old Hetty as a “waiting maid” and playmate. Sarah, who has already begun to express her lifelong hatred of slavery, tries to refuse the gift, even writing out a statement freeing the girl, which her parents ignore.

Hetty’s sass and spirit — much of it learned from her rebellious mother, the Grimkés’ prized seamstress — highjacks the story from the minute she opens her mouth. Like Sarah, Hetty refuses to tow the line at an early age, a trait expressed in the name her mother gave her at birth: Handful. (more…)

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It’s the spring of 1937 when Evalina Toussaint, the narrator of Lee Smith‘s Guests On Earth (Algonquin) first catches sight of Zelda Fitzgerald, wearing black tights and ballet slippers and smoking a cigarette, on the grounds of Highland Hospital in Asheville, N.C.

By then, Zelda had been married for 16 years to Scott, who was so infatuated with the Montgomery belle when they first met that he wrote the same line to her over and over, “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers.”

Never having been imprisoned, Zelda found Scott’s fantasy annoying, never dreaming that she was soon to embark on a life so decadent and reckless it would leave her permanently unhinged, shut away for the rest of her life in clinics and mental institutions throughout Europe and the U.S.

Highland was to be her final stop. In 1948, a fire ripped through the top floor of the hospital’s central building while fire fighters, alerted too late, watched the building burn to the ground. Zelda was one of the nine women who perished in that locked ward. (more…)

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Part swashbuckling Western, part Indian captivity narrative, part coming-of-age novel, Philipp Meyer’s harrowing multi-generational saga about the settlement of the American southwest traces the fates of one Texas family over a period of almost 200 years.

It’s hard to say which is more stunning — its ambition, its savagery, or the extraordinary research that went into it.

It’s the second novel for Meyer,whose first, the highly acclaimed American Rust (2009), embodied the bitter end of America’s industrial, blue-collar cities. In The Son (Ecco, $27.99), he chronicles the reverse: the bloody, murderous rise to power that would eventually lead to a culture that worshipped oil “the way a church depended on God.”

Three members of the McCullough clan come together to tell this epic story, each personifying a different but critical piece of Texas history. Flinty, unsentimental but intimate, their accounts — alternating for 72 chapters and with a few exceptions for longer segments — are short and fast-paced, enabling six generations of McCullough history to flow smoothly for 562 pages.

The first is the Colonel — irascible, leathery patriarch Eli, born the same year as the Texas Republic and now, at 100, delivering his oral history to a WPA archivist. Kidnapped as a child by Comanches in 1849 and trained as a warrior, Eli grows to love his adopted tribe but returns to civilization when the Indians, threatened by disease and white encroachment, need his ransom money to survive. (more…)

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