Fans of Christopher Swann know Susannah Faulkner has baggage. In his wildly popular 2020 thriller, Never Turn Back ( A Faulkner Family Thriller Book 1,) Swann details her backstory: that her parents were murdered before her 10-year-old eyes, that she and her elder brother, Ethan, were raised by their Irish Uncle Gavin who owns an Atlanta bar named Ronan’s that’s probably used as a front, that their shared tragedy caused the siblings to turn out differently, yet their bond remains indelible.
Christopher Swann is a novelist and high school English teacher. A graduate of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, he earned his Ph.D. in creative writing from Georgia State University. He has been a Townsend Prize finalist, longlisted for the Southern Book Prize, and a winner of the Georgia Author of the Year award. He lives with his wife and two sons in Atlanta, where he is the English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.
A tragic story beautifully rendered by an author known far and wide to consistently pay attention to painstaking detail. In Ash Wednesday, Author Paula McClain depicts a harrowing moment in American history by penning a fictional account of a fire in an improperly designed school building, in as industrial area of Cleveland, Ohio, on the outskirts of downtown.
It is Ash Wednesday, 1908-, and forty-six-year-old Swiss immigrant, Fritz Hirter, is the janitor of Collinwood’s community School. It is winter, and Fritz, the father of five and married to Eva, takes pride in his supportive role, in a community that seems to give short shrift to its immigrant population. Well aware of corners cut during the school’s recent expansion, Fritz is vigilant in his task of keeping the building properly heated, in the face of the school’s structural vulnerability. It is dangerous work, tending to the basement’s boiler system, and Fritz’s heart is in every gesture of maintaining the building where his young children are being educated.
In this tightly woven, present tense short story, McClain gives minute-to-minute details of a spontaneous event spinning out of control and ending in community tragedy. Questions of responsibility, blame, and community shame are at issue in this seemingly personal story, in view of its central character.
Ash Wednesday is Paula McClain at her reliable best and is an installment in her A Point in Time, a transporting collection of short stories about pivotal moments, past and present, that change lives. It’s a riveting, compelling story with a troubling aftershock made important by the fact that McClain has expertly brought it to light. Paula McLain
Note: Ash Wednesday is available on Amazon as an E-Book!
Paula McClain received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996.
McLain’s essays have appeared in Town & Country, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, O the Oprah Magazine, Huffington Post, The Guardian, the New York Times and elsewhere. She is also the author of the memoir, Like Family: Growing up in Other People’s Houses, two collections of poetry, the debut novel, A Ticket to Ride, Circling the Sun, The Paris Wife, and When the Stars Go Dark. She lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.
A resonate, heart wrenching story in the best of ways, written with nostalgic subtlety detailing eighty-year-old Sam Peek’s remaining years as he adjusts to being a widower. It is 1960’s rural Georgia, and life as Sam Peek has known it is changed when his beloved wife of 57 years dies, and his five, well-meaning children begin to hover. Alone in his house, Sam is now a focus of concern as his children strategize at keeping their father company, all within Sam’s hearing range. A kind and patient man, Sam handles his grief with a brave face, and tries to placate his children while holding fast to the last curve of independence in a manner that won’t offend. With pitch-perfect, Southern nuance and vernacular, author Terry Kay spins a tale from the multiple points of view of well-rounded characters that reads like a round-robin treatise detailing the push and pull of aging. It is an uncertain road navigated by the small details of day-to-day living, where Sam’s memory is a sustaining thing in a small-town environment where little has changed though his life is forever altered. In the midst of remarkable scene setting, delightful dialogue, and wonderful pacing, a white dog enters the story and the reader questions whether it is real or due to the lonely heart of Sam Peek’s imagination. That the angelic white dog avoids the detection of all but Sam lends the story a mystical, magical air, as the “ghost dog” appears and disappears, while Sam’s children fear he might be losing his grip on reality, and the reader hopes Sam has found a faithful companion. To Dance with the White Dog is deceptively deep in its use of clear language and resoundingly poignant. It’s a story to last the test of time, beautifully told and indelibly memorable, the kind of fully realized story that hits an existential bullseye and deserves the status of American classic.
Terry Winter Kay (February 10, 1938 – December 12, 2020) was an American author, whose novels examined life in the American South. His most well-known book, To Dance with the White Dog, was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Three of Kay’s books became movies. TERRY KAY, was a 2006 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame . Kay was a sportswriter and film/theater reviewer (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), a public relations executive, and a corporate officer. He was the author of nine other published novels, including The Valley of Light, Taking Lottie Home, The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene, Shadow Song, The Runaway, Dark Thirty, After Eli, and The Year the Lights Came On, as well as a book of essays (Special K) and a childrens book (To Whom the Angel Spoke).”
I saw the following on my recent walk through the neighborhood of Point Dume, which ends at the Headlands, where a series of paths take you either up the incline or down to the beach. On my walk, I followed the trail through the headlands then down to Westward Beach’s parking lot, which hugs the sand, and all in all, the walk took me a little over an hour. What strikes me most about Point Dume as a residential neighborhood is how quiet it is, as well as the monstrous, indigenous succulent plants that line the road. The historic area was once hallowed ground to the Chumash Indians, and the three-sided ocean view is endless. Point Dume juts far enough into the Pacific Ocean to be the favorite local destination for the yearly whale migration, which happens in in both north and south directions from January through March. Point Dume is an extraordinary, beautiful area, exemplary of what can be found along southern California’s coastline.
“In this tensely wired, swiftly paced, starkly realistic story of human trafficking set beautifully among nuanced clashing cultures, author Johnnie Bernhard defines each character’s motivation to portray the collision of opposing sides while casting a wide lens on a human atrocity.”
The human heart is fearless in author Johnnie Bernhard’s Hannah and Ariela. It’s a vividly drawn, timely story shedding light on an unspeakable crime against humanity.
Hannah Durand takes the coat her husband left by the door, wraps his scarf around her, and pushes against the winter’s howling blue norther to open the front door. Casting her teary eyes upon the 640-acre Texas working ranch that she and her husband ran for 48 years, the newly widowed, 73-year-old Hannah speaks aloud: “August Durand. I know you’re here. I can feel you in the wind and in the breaking of cedar branches covered in ice. Hold me just one more time and tell me what you think I should do with the rest of my life, my life without you.”
An unconventional, self-sufficient woman born to Anglo prosperity and the great Texas outdoors, Hannah’s life is centered on the Durand Ranch, in the town of Rocksprings, between central and West Texas, “where the land was just as hard and mean as the predators lurking in the shadows waiting for the next easy kill.” It is modern day, and facing an uncertain future, Hannah fears she might not have the stamina to stay on the land alone. Hannah thinks, “I’ve loved this land . . . I feel like I’d lose a part of myself if I sold it.”
Ariela Morales is born to Zaragoza, Mexico, where “life is hard because it was too close to the Texas border.” In a town with little opportunities, the dutiful Ariela helps her family, babysits her siblings for her mother, and squeezes in time to spend with her friend Katia. In telling of that friendship, Ariela says, “Some people in Zaragoza had a harder life than me and my family. My best friend, Katia was one of them.” Together, the teenage friends go to mass “to get our mamas off our backs,” paint their nails, read magazines, and mostly dream “about getting out of Zaragoza.” When Katia flirts with danger by consorting with two cartel members, it leads to perilous, unforeseen consequences drastically changing the trajectory of both girls’ lives.
A dog barking on a lonesome stretch of highway connects the fates of Hannah and Ariela, and wheels are set in motion affecting a cast of characters on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Bernhard portrays the landscape with laser-precision and layers the harrowing story in multiple, first-person points of view covering all angles of what spins into the urgency of safeguarding the traumatized Ariela from further ramifications having to do with the cartel’s sinister, illegal plans.
When Rocksprings’ sheriff discovers Hannah is harboring Ariela, he jumps to conclusions and wants to get border patrol involved, without knowing Ariela has just survived a terrible backstory. Taking Hannah aside, he says, “Now Hannah, I’m going to remind you of this very specific law. When someone enters the US without following immigration laws, it’s a crime.”
Joseph Gonzales is the bilingual, longtime trusted employee of the Durand Ranch, whose involvement Hannah solicits to serve as Ariela’s interpreter. When Hannah weighs the law of the land against doing the decent thing, Joseph joins Hannah in an attempt to get around punitive issues of immigration, while the cartel and law enforcement from either side of the border try to intuit their covert maneuvers, in a do-or-die dynamic begging the issue of right versus wrong.
In this tensely wired, swiftly paced, starkly realistic story of human trafficking set beautifully among nuanced clashing cultures, author Johnnie Bernhard defines each character’s motivation to portray the collision of opposing sides while casting a wide lens on a human atrocity. Hannah and Ariela is the story of one woman’s bravery in rescuing another, only to rise phoenix-like into a newly defined, far-reaching life purpose.
About Johnnie Bernhard
A former teacher and journalist, Johnnie Bernhard’s passion is reading and writing. Her work(s) have appeared in anthologies and in national and international publications, including Southern Literary Review, Houston Style Magazine, The Mississippi Press, the international Word Among Us, and the Cowbird-NPR production on small town America.
Johnnie Bernhard is a multiple, award-winning author and sought-after speaker.
Hannah and Ariela is Johnnie Bernhard’s 4th novel.
I am sure like me, there have been times when you have wondered what difference might have been made to your life, if your younger self had been gifted with the experience and knowledge you have accumulated over the years.
I invited several friends from the writing community to share their thoughts on this subject which I am sure you will enjoy as much as I did.
Today author Claire Fullerton shares her memories of the home that her mother grew up in and returned to with her own family when Claire was ten years old.
I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now! ‘Home’ by Claire Fullerton
79 Morningside Park
The house in which I grew up anchors me in the larger world as a frame of reference, although while I was growing up, this was an unrecognized fact. Youth takes given things for granted. I had no…
A collection of Essays by one of The South’s favorite Writers!
My Review :
You’ll savor every essay in Susan Cushman’s Pilgrim Interrupted. The essays are wise, beautiful, soulful, insightful, as opposed to confessional. They strike the perfect pitch that hooks the reader’s attention, lures them in, and keeps them authentically engaged. What strikes me most about Pilgrim Interrupted is its lack of pomposity. These are thoughts spun to gold in a manner so artfully subtle as to make the reader care about the writer, even as they are prompted to reflect on their own interpretations of existential concerns such as commitment, perseverance, spiritual meaning, and the beauty to be found in life’s seeming little things. This is a collection of essays to read slowly– many you’ll want to return to again. Author Susan Cushman shares a piece of her intelligent, soft-spoken heart in Pilgrim Interrupted, and you’ll be grateful that she has done so, for all the impactful resonance of what adds up to a series of deeply moving experiences.
The title essay in this collection, “Pilgrim Interrupted,” is set on the island of Patmos, Greece, during one of Susan’s pilgrimages with her husband, Father Basil Cushman, an Orthodox priest. Pilgrimages. Orthodoxy. Icons. Monasteries. It’s all in here. But so are stories about mental health, caregiving, death, family, and writing, including a section on “place,” a key element in Southern literature. And how is Susan’s pilgrimage “interrupted”?
By life itself.
Pilgrim Interrupted is a collection of 35 essays, 3 poems, and 5 excerpts from Susan’s novels and short stories. Coming of age during the turbulent 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi; marrying young and adopting three children; leaving the Presbyterian Church of her childhood for the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith in 1987; Susan finally began to chronicle her journey in the early 2000s. Pilgrim Interrupted is her eighth book.
Susan was born in Jackson, Mississippi and went to school at the University of Mississippi. She moved to Memphis in 1988 where she and her husband continued to raise their three children.
Her published books include five she has written: Pilgrim Interrupted (essay collection), John and Mary Margaret (novel), Friends of the Library (short stories), Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s (a memoir), and Cherry Bomb (a novel). She has edited three collections of essays: A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be, Southern Writers Writing, and The Pulpwood Queens Celebrate 20 Years! In addition she has over a dozen essays published in five anthologies and various journals and magazines.
Much of Susan’s writing is infused with elements of her own life, including the very mystical spirituality of her Orthodox Christian faith and the personal demons she has been chasing since childhood. Her essays, short stories, memoir, and novels all reflect what she has learned through many dark nights of the soul, but also contain elements of hope and healing and honor her Southern roots.
“An important, sensitive look at the triumph of the human spirit over evil, The Teacher of Warsaw is based on a true story and epitomizes the very best of poignant historical fiction.”
A nostalgic tone sets the stage of Mario Escobar’s The Teacher of Warsaw. In the prologue, an editor is in receipt of a hidden diary now typed as a manuscript from a woman named Agnieszka Ignaciuk, who survived the WWII, German occupation of Warsaw, Poland. The editor says, “That small, lovely woman with the wise eagle eyes placed into my hands Janusz Korczak’s typed manuscript. She acted like she was passing along a forbidden fruit that would eternally expel me from the semblance of paradise my life had recently become.” Taking the manuscript, the editor reflects upon its author, “I remembered the Teacher. Everyone I know called him the Old Doctor . . . I heard his voice. . . . It was just he and I in the middle of a ruined world.”
It is September 1939, and 60-year-old Janusz Korczak is the director of Dom Sierot, a Warsaw home for 200 orphaned children. He’s a man of deep integrity, a beloved and devoted teacher who views his job as a calling and structures the home with no differentiation based on age or rank, where tutors and students equally cohabitate as a family. When one of the orphans asks why he’d never had his own children, the unmarried Dr. Korczak reveals what he has told few others. “The truth is, my father went insane, and I’ve always been afraid that the same thing will happen to me. I thought that if I had children, they might inherit that disease.” It is this reason that makes Korczak all the more committed to the children.
Dom Sierot’s building, which houses Jewish orphans, has been in a Christian neighborhood for 27 years. Korczak shares, “We were there on purpose so that Jewish and Christian children could live together. Long ago I had learned that the only way to knock down the walls of prejudice and hatred toward difference was coexisting and building friendship that allowed the children to fight and the be reconciled again.”
It is November of 1940, and a shock to Korcsak’s system comes when the Germans relocate Dom Sierot from the working-class neighborhood outside the city to a squalid area in Warsaw’s walled Jewish ghetto, consisting of “400,000 within an area no larger than 1.3 miles.” In preparing for the change, the sensitive Korczak softens the blow to the children, “We’ll probably long to be back here in our wonderful house. But the walls that you see around us are not our real home. The real refuge of each one of us is inside our hearts. As long as we’re together, we will keep being happy and belonging to our big family.” When one little boy cries at the sight of the new living quarters, Korczak hands him the treasure map he’d prepared the night before, and says, “Treasure hunts always occur in exotic, remote places. No one’s ever done anything amazing without leaving home first.”
As winter wears upon the ghetto, living conditions become more desperate in the orphanage’s unheated, dilapidated home, where water is scarce in the midst of a food shortage, leaving Korczak to solicit and rely upon the help of charitable donors. When the Gestapo confiscates a cart of food and supplies belonging to the orphanage, Korczak bravely holds his ground and says to the German officer, “This food is for the children and under no circumstances can I allow you to take it from them.” When told to take his complaint to the Gestapo headquarters, the optimistic Korczak goes to plead his case at the German administration offices, only to be thrown in jail for not being in compliance with wearing the requisite Star of David on his arm, intended to signify those who are Jewish.
Upon being unceremoniously grabbed by a German soldier and transported to jail, Korczak says, “For them, life was a useless sketch through which to imprint their senseless brutality and show the world that they were the bosses. For me, life was a perfect beautifully framed painting full of meaning and hope. For them, life was prosaic and frivolous, ever so light, whereas for me it was so heavy I could hardly take a step without feeling the mud stuck to my feet.”
A year on since the Nazis came to Poland, nothing improves in the ghetto. Korczak writes, “Typhus had run its course around the city in recent months, given the deplorable hygienic conditions and insufficient nutrition of the population. It seemed the Germans preferred to kill us off slowly. Their program was designed to weaken our spirits and erode our morale.” Korczak, in the habit of calling assembly whenever a new problem arises, and always serving as inspirational motivator, poses the question to the orphans, “What does it mean to be happy?” “Life in and of itself is an act of happiness . . . Happiness is not about things. We look for it outside of ourselves, but it’s something that’s in our own minds. The work of our hearts is to give pure love.”
As time wears on and conditions worsen, Korczak delivers a speech intended to inspire the orphanages’ dispirited teachers and caretakers. “We sleep and dream of better days but wake to find ourselves here. Yet here, where we serve, we are doing all we can to make better days for the children. We’re in this world to serve one another, to give our very last breaths for our neighbors.”
With a supporting cast of characters in various official positions who are incrementally ready to help Dr. Korczak escape the ill-fated ghetto, the doctor refuses each offer. “Leave me be,” he says to a sympathetic German captain who knows things are nearing an end. “I will go with my children and will not leave them alone.”
In hindsight, after the worst has happened, trusted companion and co-worker of Korczak’s, Agnieszka Ignaciuk—the deliverer of Korczak’s left behind diary chronicling the personal tragedies of war—remembers the good doctor and says, “Janusz Korczak had lit up a country swathed in darkness. All of Poland had to know his story and admire his example. I vowed to make that happen.”
In The Teacher of Warsaw, Escobar’s intimate, first-person delivery is flawlessly researched. Its historic timeline unfurls with heightening drama from the vantage point of one selfless man dedicated to the wellbeing of Polish children in harrowing wartime conditions against all odds and costs. It’s a sobering, memorable story taking the reader through tragic events in occupied Warsaw, from September 1939 to May of 1943. An important, sensitive look at the triumph of the human spirit over evil, The Teacher of Warsaw is based on a true story and epitomizes the very best of poignant historical fiction.
Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.
“Holding Her Breath is a generational story written in descriptive language with steady pacing. . . . an engaging, sensitive story set in Ireland, sure to resonate with readers far and wide.”
A compelling look at coming-of-age concerns beneath the taboo of generational mental illness, Eimear Ryan’s debut novel, Holding Her Breath, is the story of a young Irish woman coming into her own by pursuing the buried truth of family secrets.
It is modern day Dublin, and overwhelmed university freshman, Beth Crowe, has mishandled her sports scholarship. Once lauded a natural athlete in swimming, Beth remembers, “At one point in her adolescence, she realized that the adults in the club were describing her in nearly supernatural terms: unreal, savage, unbelievable.” Possessed of the discipline of devoting her youth to “getting up at dawn for training, slipping into the water again after school; her world became narrow but deep. It was only when she stopped, abruptly, that she realized how tired she was.”
After her self-imposed sabbatical, she returns with her own practice out of love for the sport. Ryan pinpoints Beth’s affinity with water: “It feels illicit somehow, being alone in the water. No coach towering over her at the pool’s edge, saying surely she can do better than that. Now she does as she likes. After a hundred laps she feels calm and rejuvenated, her body pinging with the tremors of exercise.”
Now with a focus on psychology, the taciturn Beth is paired in college housing with the gregarious Sadie, who takes her to a campus book event and introduces her to poet and university professor, Justin Kelleher, a class lecturer on the widely acclaimed poet, Benjamin Crowe, who happens to be Beth’s deceased grandfather.
When a relationship grows between Beth and Justin, Beth is optimistic. She “never thought she could be one of those people to whom things actually happen. Every moment of drama or triumph in her life has taken place in the pool and been rendered less impactful for the hours of repetitive practice that preceded it. She is not used to things happening out of the blue.”
An hour away from campus, Beth’s mother Alice lives with her elderly mother Lydia, the widow of Benjamin Crowe. The fame of Benjamin Crowe is the stuff of legend kept under wraps by Lydia, who won’t part with her husband’s coveted archives, nor reveal what she knows of events leading to his death, a mystery that casts a wide shadow upon Beth and Alice, as well as passionate Crowe scholars.
Because Beth is hesitant to pursue the subject with the formidable Lydia, she asks Justin what he knows of rumor surrounding her grandfather’s death. When Justin mentions a never-published Crowe biography by author Julie Conlon-Hayes, he says, “It’s a story among us Crowe scholars. Now, how much is true, I don’t know. She was friends with your grandparents, so she had great access . . . But then Ben died, and Lydia squashed the project.” Continuing, Justin says, “Because of the nature of his death, we are all the time searching his work for clues and explanations. But perhaps we should consider the poems simply on their own merit.”
When Beth asks her mother what she knows of her famous father’s death, Alice skirts the issue of mental illness. “I was told Dad had an illness that made him confused, which in turn made him fall into the sea. I didn’t connect the dots.” On the tight-lipped comportment of Lydia, Alice says, “Her intent was to preserve, as she called it, the honor of the family. She didn’t want anyone poking around in Dad’s memory, and she never spoke publicly about his death.”
Sensing that the mystery at the center of her family lineage would help Beth better understand herself, Beth visits Sadie at her family’s rural home in Portlaoise, and the girls set out on an adventure to visit the elderly Julie Conlon-Hayes at her home in West Cork, in hopes of learning her side of the story concerning the events that led to Benjamin Crowe’s death, which took place in the area.
Stopping cliffside along the road to Julie Conlon-Hayes’ home, Beth “closes her eyes and tries to put herself in her grandfather’s place over thirty years ago. She pictures him barefoot, his toes gripping the earthy edge of the cliff. Crouching, tucking his chin to his chest, pointing his palms to the water. Except it couldn’t have happened like that.”
Holding Her Breath is a generational story written in descriptive language with steady pacing. Author Eimear Ryan captures youth’s perseverance in the search for one’s place in the world, and weaves in mental illness’s nuances while unravelling long guarded family secrets. It’s an engaging, sensitive story set in Ireland, sure to resonate with readers far and wide.
Her short fiction has appeared in Granta, The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, The Long Gaze Back (New Island) and Town & Country (Faber). She is a co-founder and editor of the literary journal Banshee and its publishing imprint, Banshee Press.
She is a sports columnist with the Irish Examiner and has written about women in sport for The42.ie, Image, Stranger’s Guide, Winter Papers and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book about camogie. She lives, writes and plays in Cork city.
I was late to the reading of this novel, having read author James Wade’s extraordinary book, River, Sing Out, first, which made me immediately turn to this compelling debut novel.
All Things Left Wild is the ultimate “Road Trip” story, made all the better for being on horseback through the wilds of 1910 East Texas. It grips the reader from the start, with a sense of building urgency spawned from two horse thieving brothers on the run– one with a conscience; the other a loose cannon verging on sociopathic– who become entangled with disreputable characters hiding questionable agendas, while the erudite, gentleman the boys wronged is completely out of his comfort zone but has something pressing to prove by giving the brothers chase, on what becomes his life-altering, personal odyssey.
A gripping story written from two points of view, in intriguing, thought-provoking language that soars like poetry, and realistic dialogue that keeps you steeped in the moment. The story is set in the raw American West and has it all: cowboys, Indians, thieving, murder, and characters with such heart and soul as to make the whole page-turning story utterly plausible.
An action-packed, character driven, viscerally atmospheric, and stirringly beautiful story, All Things Left Wild seals the deal for me: I’ll be reading all of James Wade’s future books!
An Added Bonus is to tell you that Author James Wade does a weekly video he calls Sunday Sessions, where he reads inspiring sentences from books he admires and breaks the sentences down to discuss precisely why he likes them. Interesting and informative, the videos remain up after they debut, and I recommend you follow James Wade on Instagram and Facebook to see them!