A Banter That Sings


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A BANTER THAT SINGS by Claire Fullerton

from WELL READ Magazine January 2023

by three dogs write press

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from ‘WELL READ Magazine January 2023’

MILLER’S CAFE by Mike Hilbig

A Banter That Sings by Claire Fullerton

The streets of Galway were gray that night. Everywhere I looked, gray buildings, gray sidewalks, gray sky beneath a mist floating in from the Atlantic, hovering ominously and imprinting coronas on the sidewalk from the interior light of pubs still open in the midnight hour.

Our footsteps echoed as we walked from The Kings Head to the hackney office on Dominic Street, across the street from Taylor’s, which was Kieran’s favorite pub. Kieran used Taylor’s as his personal office. Many were the nights he summoned Darren and Shannon and me to Taylor’s to talk business because Kieran never saw the line between work and play. Were it any other night, the four of us would have gone into Taylor’s; we would have sailed through the door in Kieran’s wake, following his bouncing, proprietary swagger as he made his way to the back section designated for Irish traditional musicians. But the evening had been exhausted at The Kings Head. It was past time to call it a night, and I had to get home to Inverin.

I was standing on the sidewalk when the hackney driver brought his two-door Honda around. I bid goodnight to the three of them and got in the front seat for what would be a thirty-minute ride up the coast road. You’d think the memory I retain of that night would center on the activity in The Kings Head. Close to one hundred people had turned out for The Galway Music Centre’s inaugural showcase of local musicians, which the four of us had spent an entire month orchestrating on behalf of the nonprofit business we’d started. But as Ireland has a habit of making art of the contrary, what stands in my memory is the hackney ride home.

It wasn’t often I had cause to make the journey from Galway to Inverin at night, but when I did, it was an eerie experience. The total darkness on the two-lane road, how the moon illuminated the sea in shifting hues of black, cobalt, and silver; the lonesome stretch of treeless landscape beneath the absence of sound made the journey surreal as I watched for signposts guiding me home. It was a gradual change of consciousness as I left the energy of Galway City and crept into the bleak solitude of Inverin. Whenever I took a hackney, there’d be a conversation with the driver to fill in a silence too fraught with possibilities, but then travelling with a stranger in the dark of night tends to create a tacit alliance.

On this night, the hackney driver was a local named Michael Connolly, and I admit I started it all because I’m uneasy with weighted pauses. I have a nervous habit of filling in gaps when I think there’s too much dead air.

“Are you from around here?” I asked Michael Connolly, who was raven-haired and blue-eyed and looked to be in his early thirties. Tall and lithe with graceful hands resting loosely on the steering wheel, it seemed he’d cut through this coastal swath of Connemara so many times that the car no longer required his guidance.

“I am, yeah. Born and raised just up the road, but I’ve done me share of travelling.” His Connemara accent got under the vowels, rolled to a singing pitch, and ended each sentence in a manner that left me expecting more. “You’re an American, yeah?” he continued, in that way the Irish have of letting you know nothing slips by them.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, but I’ve spent the last few years in Los Angeles.”

“Los Angeles,” Michael Connolly said, repeating the name as if he were sorry to hear of my troubles. I can’t say I blamed him. He was so relaxed with himself, so brighteyed and open that he lacked the requisite wary manner it takes to get by in a place where all that glitters isn’t gold.

I gave him a sideways glance. “Have you been to Los Angeles?”

“Oh God, yeah,” he said. “Lived there two years, so I did, and that was enough for me. My idea of heaven is Ireland with Los Angeles weather,” he said. “My idea of hell is Los Angeles with Irish weather.”

It was a seamlessly delivered line with such perfect timing that it left me speechless. Five months on the west coast of Ireland, and I still hadn’t loosened my grip on the thrill of Irish banter. I found all exchanges fascinating and would study the distinctive phrasing of the musical dialect in the vain hope I’d be able to master it one day.

Because the Irish have an effect on a person. They’re so good at being themselves that it makes an outsider want to become one of them, to shed all dissimilarities and drift into that easy way of theirs, where the art of communication is a banter that sings.

Claire Fullerton is the multiple, award-winning, traditionally published author of four novels and one novella. She has recently completed her fifth novel. Claire lives in Malibu, California with her husband and three German shepherds.

Book Review: Reef Road by Deborah Goodrich Royce

My Book Review, as it appears in the New York Journal of Books:

Author Deborah Goodrich Royce’s psychological thriller Reef Road hits the high notes of suspense with breathtaking sleight of hand, building as it unfolds in alternating chapters written in two tenses like puzzle pieces that keep the reader on their toes.

The story is one-part true crime detective novel that reads like creative nonfiction concerning a decades’ old unsolved murder, and one-part literary thriller involving a woman enmeshed in a self-created chain of events now careening out of hand. Reef Road seamlessly weaves two storylines while suspensefully delaying their linkage, oscillating with a slow burn between what is perceived at face value and what really happened.

The story opens in media res, under the prologue’s heading The Wife. It is May 2020, in the advent of Covid-19’s lockdown, when two boys find a disembodied hand washed up on Palm Beach, Florida’s sand. When the boys alert the authorities, so begins Reef Road’s harrowing backstory that leads to that severed hand.

An unspecified voice under the heading A Writer’s Thoughts narrates intermittingly throughout Reef Road. The writer researches the 1948 Pittsburg death of 12-year-old Noelle Huber, whose murder to date remains unsolved. Now living abjectly alone in Palm Beach with an aged dog named Cordie, the decidedly peculiar writer has personal interest in the case and reports, “I grew up under the shadow of a dead girl—a girl I had never met, whose family had not heard of me, a family I would not know if I passed them on the street, nor would they, in turn, know me.” The weight of the dead girl’s shadow is due to the writer’s neurotic mother, once a close, childhood friend of Noelle Huber’s, who remained indelibly scarred by her murder in such a way that made her exceedingly nervous and cast a pall on the writer’s childhood.

Investigating decades’ old evidence, the writer’s feelings are complicated by residual resentment associated with the case. In speaking of the damage incurred from growing up with her paranoid mother in a small town on the outskirts of Pittsburg, the writer says, “My mother’s imprint of her friend’s murder was that of the twelve-year-old child she’d been at the time. A large part of her was frozen in 1948.”

In addressing what it was like to grow up with a damaged mother, the writer says, “I didn’t want to have that kind of mother. I did not want to be that kid. I did not want to come from the family I did, with some string attaching us all to a dead girl.” In explaining what clearly becomes an unhealthy obsession with Noelle Huber’s murder, the writer says, “A single act of violence does not end. Noelle Grace Huber was murdered seventy-two years ago this year, but, for me—for others like me—it never ends.”

Linda Alonzo does not speak Spanish. Married to a prosperous Argentinian named Miguel Alonzo, she is the mother of two young children who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in the tony section of Palm Beach’s Reef Road. The marriage is difficult, and with regard to Miguel, “Linda increasingly chafed under the yoke of his control.” Yet the perks of the marriage outweigh the obvious. “Linda and Miguel were walking the edge, all right. The edge of what, precisely, she did not know.”

Diego Alonzo is presumed dead. The elder brother of Miguel, his last known whereabouts was in the mountains of Bolivia decades prior, after he fled another fight with his mother, before all lines of communication went dead. In the dark of night, the mysterious Diego manifests at the Alonzo’s Reef Road front door, and ushers in familial upheaval complicated by the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, making his visit protracted, adding chaos to Linda and Miguel’s fragile marriage, and leading to an inciting incident in the tumultuous story: “At eleven a.m. on a Sunday morning, Linda picked up the phone to call the police and report her family missing. Why she had not called the cops, the day it had actually happened was an act of omission that would come back to haunt her.”  

The exciting, page-turning intelligence of Reef Road cannot be overstated. The clever story will please lovers of mystery, crime, and thriller genres. Author Deborah Goodrich Royce handles the balance of Reef Road’s off-kilter story with a magnificent, firm grip. The novel is rife with uncanny connections and flawed main characters with hidden agendas. It’s tense with secondary characters, whose impacts are stunning, as events ricochet in a series of strange chain-reactions sprung from perfectly timed twists you’ll never see coming.  

Meet the Author: Deborah Goodrich Royce

Deborah Goodrich Royce’s literary thrillers examine puzzles of identity. Finding Mrs. Ford and Ruby Falls will be joined by Reef Road in January 2023.

Deborah began her career as an actress, starring as Silver Kane, sister of the legendary Erica Kane (played by Susan Lucci) on the ABC soap, All My Children. She went on to star in feature films such as April Fool’s Day and Just One of the Guys, TV movies such as Return to Peyton Place and The Deliberate Stranger, and series such as Beverly Hills 90210 and 21 Jump Street.

After the birth of her daughters, she moved with her family to Paris and worked as a reader for le Studio Canal Plus. In the 1990’s, Deborah was the story editor at Miramax Films in New York. There, she oversaw readers, manuscript acquisitions, and script development, editing such notable screenplays as Emma by Doug McGrath, and early versions of Chicago and A Wrinkle in Time.

With writing partner, Mitch Giannunzio, Deborah won a grant from the Massachusetts Arts Council in 2002 to develop and workshop their original screenplay, Susan Taft Has Run Amok.

With her husband, noted small-cap investor, Chuck Royce, Deborah restored the 1939 Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT. Under her leadership, the Avon hosts an ongoing series of film luminaries, most recently, Mira Nair, Richard Gere and Chloe Sevigny. The late Gene Wilder, a longstanding advisory board member of the Avon, was an early advocate for Deborah’s writing.

Deborah and Chuck have restored several hotels (Ocean House, Deer Mountain Inn, Weekapaug Inn, and The Margin Street Inn), a bookstore (The Savoy in Westerly, RI), and numerous other Main Street buildings in Westerly, RI and Tannersville, NY.

Deborah serves on the governing boards of the New York Botanical Garden, the Greenwich Historical Society, and the PRASAD Project and the advisory boards of the American Film Institute, the Greenwich International Film Festival, the Preservation Society of Newport County, and the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach. She is a former trustee of the YWCA of Greenwich and the Garden Conservancy.

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Bryson City Recipes by Renea Winchester is Here!

It’s here! The recipe book that acts as a companion to Renea Winchester’s celebrated novel, Outbound Train, and first published in France is now available in the US! Bryson City Recipes was inspired by the authentic characters in the Appalachian set Outbound Train, and the classic, Southern recipes are amazingly easy to follow! From Appalachian Spiced Tea to Macaroni and Cheese with Tomatoes, you’ll delight in this recipe book!

In 1976, memories from a night near the railroad tracks sixteen years earlier haunt Barbara Parker. She wrestles with past demons every night, then wakes to the train’s five-thirty whistle. Exhausted and dreading the day, she keeps her hands busy working in Bryson City’s textile plant, known as the “blue jean plant,” all the while worrying about her teenage daughter, Carole Anne. The whistle of the train, the hum of those machines, and the struggle to survive drives Barbara. When an unexpected layoff creates a financial emergency, the desperate pressure of poverty is overwhelming.
Unbeknownst to Barbara, Carole Anne sneaks out at night to walk the tracks so she can work at Hubert’s Bar. She’s hoarding money with plans to drive her mother’s rusty, unused Oldsmobile out of Bryson City, and never return. She only needs one opportunity … if she can just find it.
When Carole Anne goes missing, Barbara finds herself at a crossroad—she must put aside old memories and past hurts to rely on a classmate for help finding her daughter. But this is the same man she blames for the incident years ago. Is she strong enough—or desperate enough—to do anything to keep her daughter safe?
In Outbound Train, the Parker women struggle to make frayed ends meet in a town where they never quite do … at least, not without expert weaving and a bit of brute force.

Renea Winchester

Renea was born and raised in Bryson City, North Carolina. She began her writing career in Georgia where she penned several non-fiction works including Farming, Friends & Fried Bologna Sandwiches (Mercer University Press) which was nominated for the prestigious SIBA award, earned Renea a nomination for Georgia Author of the Year, and received the endorsement from The Pulpwood Queens, the largest book club in the country. After winning the Wilma Dykeman Award for Essay and the Appalachian Writer’s Award, Renea focused on transitioning to fiction.

Renea has served on the Atlanta Writers Board, Georgia Writers Association, and judges multiple literary awards. In April 2020, Firefly Southern Fiction released Outbound Train. Set in her hometown of Bryson City, North Carolina, in 1976, Outbound Train is a triumphant story of perseverance and hope despite the harshness of poverty.

Renea is passionate about literacy, Appalachian Heritage, preserving rare seeds, cultivating endangered plants and meeting new friends.

Book Release: Scare Your Soul by Scott Simon

Most books are meant to be read.
This one is meant to be lived.

It’s not easy to be courageous. Feelings of fear and uncertainty often stop us dead in our tracks. But what if you had the courage to take action anyway? What changes would you make to transform your current reality into the life of your dreams?

Here’s the good news — like a muscle, courage grows stronger the more you exercise it. And Scare Your Soul will not only teach you how to exercise courage but will guide you in taking small, boundary-pushing actions to expand your comfort zone (so that you feel less fear and more confidence with each action).

By combining research on positive psychology with real-life stories of Scare Your Soul participants, international thought leader and happiness entrepreneur Scott Simon challenges you to confront your limiting beliefs. With writing prompts, activities, and real-world challenges, Scare Your Soul is an interactive roadmap to building bravery.

Scare Your Soul teaches you that the greatest antidote to much of what ails you in your life isn’t achievement, it’s action. So if you crave an extraordinary life but feel like you don’t know how to take “extra” ordinary action, this book is for you.

It’s time to Scare Your Soul.


Editorial Reviews

Review

“This is an empowering and inspiring book! If you want to lead the life you’re meant to lead, this is the compass you ought to take along.”―Tal Ben-Shahar, author of international bestsellers Happier and Being Happy

“In a world that feels so dark and full of fear, this book is a lantern for the courageous way forward.”―Jennifer Pastiloff, best-selling author of On Being Human

“I used to think being fearless was enough, until I read this book. It’s a game-changer.”―Turney Duff, author of the New York Times bestseller The Buy Side

“For any wallflowers desiring to encompass boldness—this is for you.”―Janne Robinson, author and poet –This text refers to the hardcover edition.

About the Author

Scott Simon is a happiness entrepreneur and founder of Scare Your Soul. He is dedicated to creating, curating, and leading opportunities for people around the world to be happier and more courageous. Scott founded the Scare Your Soul organization in 2015, organically growing it from one Facebook post to a global movement with sixty volunteer ambassadors worldwide. He has presented to groups around the world, appeared widely on TV and podcasts, given a TEDx Talk, and brought his passion for courage to retreats, a life coaching practice, and mindfulness meditations in person and online.

The Parting Glass by Lisa J. Parker: Book Review

The five verses of the Scottish traditional folk song, The Parting Glass, are appropriately spaced throughout Lisa J. Parker’s gem of a book by the same title. A consistently voiced assemblage of poetic prose crafted from the vantage point of a transplanted Southerner in appreciation of her Appalachian roots, the introspective vignettes are widely universal and deeply personal, tinged with nuanced nostalgia for the ways and means of the land that raised her.

The 48 poems are poignant vignettes written from the vantage points of both near and far concerning the rural Southern experience. In the 18-lined, Ars Poetica: Northern Virginia, it is man against nature when a goose is struck dead on Route 66,“it’s brown feathers cockeyed on one wing, turned toward traffic as if waving.”

The concept of “downhome” is addressed with the ambiguity of regional pride and the knowledge of being culturally misunderstood. From You Can’t Leave It When You Go, “My mother’s practiced tongue never gave away the hollers … she learned ridicule quickly, tucked accent and dialect quietly behind teeth and tongue, made herself bookish.” In addressing the idea of downhome, Parker says, “Downhome was the constant background song we could hum but never bring to full voiced or lyric… all the meaning of the words broken and blessed and kin.” In The Preacher’s Daughter Studies Her Reflection, Parker depicts the exploration of a downhome, taboo subject. A thirteen-year-old girl stands before a full-length mirror and lifts her skirt to see “the place her mother covers with a washrag when she bathes her.”

A series of nine poems beginning with the title Hillbilly Transplant are set in New York City and illustrate the adage that you can take the girl out of the South but can’t take the South out of the girl. From the poem, Hillbilly Transplant: Working at the Metropolitan Opera, “No amount of staring out the floor to ceiling windows at the grand fountain or City Ballet in Lincoln Square can disenthrone those faces of voices, singing mountain ballads, hymns, and Stanley Brothers standards, sweaty hands clasped, voices perfectly imperfect, soul-savingly beautiful, my hearts familiar redemption.” In the poem’s final note, a declaration is made, “I know as sure as I’ve known anything here that I will leave this city and its grandeur, return South, settle in a tree-laden space with mountains around me.”

The disparity between past and present is observed in the poem, Hillbilly Transplant: In 72nd Street Subway Tunnel a Meditation on Home. It begins with the memory of a drive through rural Virginia that winds through “605 to rutted cattle guard spots where names meet rural routes, where horse farms give way to small plots of corn,” and ends with open eyes that, “Finds yourself still city-gone,” among “wool coats, shoulder satchels, unstoppable current of the mass.”
Other Poems dedicated to life in New York City concern the unsettling aftermath of 9-11. In Hillbilly Transplant: Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, the deathly silence three hours after the Twin Towers fell is depicted, when “no mimes play the sidewalk’s edge like tightrope… no sound but the elm leaves twisting against each other.” In Hillbilly Transplant: Upper West Side, October 10, 2001, “A woman carries a fresh baguette from the Hot N’ Crusty on 71st and Broadway, flinches slightly at the sound of a jet going over. She does not look up.”

A series of poems explore the presence of grief from different angles. In The Passing of Grief, memory takes hold visually with, “Your boots in the corner of the closet slump against hardwood where you left them by the door.” In What Becomes of Song, grief has a sound, “I’ve listened hard these months, sometimes for your off-key song, sometimes the snap of twigs behind me on our path beside the pond, so sure of it I extend my hand behind me, expecting.”

Lisa J. Parker’s second book of poetry reads like a personal diary written in controlled, soaring language that leaves an impact for all its emotional clear-sightedness. The Parting Glass is beautifully rendered with an overall mood of light upon life’s precious moments, crafted in a way accessible to all.

By Claire Fullerton

Lisa J. Parker is a native Virginian raised in the Shenandoah Valley in a large extended Appalachian family. She comes from loggers, miners, and musicians, and grew up surrounded by the music and stories of those Buchanan County hills her family called home for generations.

Parker is a poet, musician, and photographer. Her first book, This Gone Place, reissued in 2022, won the 2010 ASA Weatherford Award and her work is widely published in literary journals and anthologies. Her second poetry collection, The Parting Glass, won the 2021 Arthur Smith Poetry Prize and was published in November of 2022. Her photography has been on exhibit in NYC and published in several arts journals and anthologies. She has worked in the Department of Defense for nearly twenty years, was a first responder for fifteen, and continues to work as a volunteer disaster relief responder with Team Rubicon. 

Little Tea is Free on Kindle Unlimited!

Southern Culture … Old Friendships … Family Tragedy

One phone call from Renny to come home and “see about” the capricious Ava and Celia Wakefield decides to overlook her distressful past in the name of friendship.

For three reflective days at Renny’s lake house in Heber Springs, Arkansas, the three childhood friends reunite and examine life, love, marriage, and the ties that bind, even though Celia’s personal story has yet to be healed. When the past arrives at the lake house door in the form of her old boyfriend, Celia must revisit the life she’d tried to outrun.

As her idyllic coming of age alongside her best friend, Little Tea, on her family’s ancestral grounds in bucolic Como, Mississippi unfolds, Celia realizes there is no better place to accept her own story than in this circle of friends who have remained beside her throughout the years. Theirs is a friendship that can talk any life sorrow into a comic tragedy, and now that the racial divide in the Deep South has evolved, Celia wonders if friendship can triumph over history.

Review

Every so often you read a novel so intricately and exquisitely crafted that it reaffirms an admiration for the whole art of writing. Little Tea by Claire Fullerton (Firefly Southern Fiction) accomplishes this considerable feat with sensitivity as graceful as Southern charm. But not everything about the tradition-steeped culture of the past is as pleasant as it looks on the surface. The reader, through the intelligent and reserved perspective of protagonist Celia Wakefield, steadily discovers these alarming discrepancies while attempting to both discern the present and understand what came before. As flashbacks clarify Celia’s context, the supporting characters take on fully-fledged lives of their own, practically dancing out of hers and into their own rich narratives. The conclusion binds their stories together with some utterly satisfying twists and revelations. 
Little Tea has many strong points thanks to the adept Claire Fullerton. She clearly thrives when employing her métier. Themes and motifs including illuminating the complexities of Southern culture, delving into gritty yet convincing family dynamics, examining racial tensions, wrestling with mental illnesses and addictions, and, above all, proving the tenacity of enduring love between friends, all are handled with tremendous skill yet a delicate touch that keeps the prose elegant and highly readable. Fullerton has great fun when setting the stage for a scene, painting a vivid image with lush language such as, “In the air, a vibrato of cicadas pulsed so discordantly as to be concordant, like one wall of sound that tricked the ear until I could feel its heartbeat.” As the reader jumps back and forth between the past and the present, it never feels jarring or incongruent when the author can create a sense of place this deftly. Every character is complete and complex, hiding profound secrets under their Southern guise of composure, and it is a joy to understand them better with every memory that Celia invokes. 
Though gorgeously penned and sometimes as dainty as a fine cup of the title beverage, Little Tea also manages to raise profound questions and demand critical reflection upon some challenging truths. Celia’s bond with Little Tea faces many obstacles and pressures, with the ugliness of prejudice twisting an apparently compassionate cultural climate into something destructive and disturbing. Some characters have moved forward from old sins while others have not, wrenching families apart. While racism underscores the narrative, its presence doesn’t, unfortunately, mean that the characters avoid life’s other misfortunes. Marital dissatisfaction, identity crises, battles with depression and addiction, and death itself still haunt the pages of the novel. In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, there is a persistent sense of hope and joy illuminating the pages; it inspires Celia, Ava, and Renny to come out of this trip with a better understanding of their lives through the lens of their friendships. Love runs deeper than hate, and that reassuring truth is the real crux of Little Tea. ~ BOOK TRIB 

From the Author

The 2020 International Book Awards named Little Tea a finalist in the Women’s Fiction category. The Faulkner Society named Little Tea a finalist in the 2018 William Wisdom International Competition. The 2020 Chanticleer Reviews named Little Tea a 1st place winner in the Somerset Awards for Literary Fiction. Little Tea is the August 2020 Book selection of The Pulpwood Queens International Book Club. Little Tea is a featured book with Novel Network.

Foster by Claire Keegan

In emotionally evocative, simplistic language, author Claire Keegan tells the story of a young girl sent to live with rural Irish relatives, while her over-burdened mother is due to have yet another baby. First-time experiences and awkward adjustments give the tentative girl her first taste of self-worth and belonging to a childless couple now aching to share their heart. A story profound in tacit nuance and cultural identity, the poignant ending resonates with an appropriateness both heart-rending and satisfying.

      Claire Keegan is an Irish writer known for her award-winning short stories. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, Granta, and The Paris Review; and translated into 20 languages.

An international bestseller and one of The Times’ “Top 50 Novels Published in the 21st Century,” Claire Keegan’s piercing contemporary classic Foster is a heartbreaking story of childhood, loss, and love; now released as a standalone book for the first time ever in the US

Book Review: The Presence of Absence by Simon Van Booy

The Presence of Absence

Image of The Presence of Absence

Author: Simon Van Booy

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Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

Max Little is dying and wants to leave behind something of his life. A young writer of novels, novellas, and short stories, Max grew up in Wales, is of Pakistani descent, and now reclines in a New York hospital bed, in full acceptance of his terminal illness.

Not wanting to beg the reader’s pity, Max does what he does best by writing, and begins his straightforward narrative by marveling at the magic between reader and writer: “You do realize that by turning the page you’ve decided to follow a complete stranger down a possibly meaningless path?” he says. “Stories lead us behind the curtain of somebody else’s life into the deepest chambers of our own.” Max considers that by the time the reader puts eyes to his words, he, himself, might be absent. “None of that matters,” he assures, “because our lives are braided here and now by this sentence.” Seemingly delighted to embellish his point, Max continues, “For instance, I’m writing this in the present, and you’re reading it in the present. Except there is a gulf of time between us. I might even be dead. Yet here I am.”

In Simon Van Booy’s extraordinary novel, The Presence of Absence, each well-wrought sentence builds upon the next, taking us deeper into Max Little’s life with staggering lucidity. The first part of the story is constructed in descending numerical chapters that decline with a sense of fatalism as the narrator reconstructs his life’s highpoints interspersed with uncanny, existential observations on the business of life, death, and dying. Max confesses his mind’s innerworkings with adroit ease. “Do people ever walk around their homes, wondering which room they will die in? Whether it will be a Wednesday night or Saturday morning at the table with toast and coffee?”  And “What would happen to things like knives and forks once I was gone. Would my wife keep them?”

At the center of Max Little’s concern is his wife, Hadley, and the reader is taken to their first meeting even as Max shares his ruminations on how to best tell Hadley he is dying. Pondering his plight alone on a beach, he arrives at a profound spiritual truth, when he comes to consider himself in the third person. Max posits, “When you nurture the ability to witness your life in the third person, in extremis, or through prayer or meditation, there is an unavoidable shift in consciousness as you realize that who you are is not simply how you feel—but a presence beyond desire of any sort.”

Jeremy Abrams’s mother is dying. He comes into Max’s life through the coincidence of their shared New York therapist. The men bond over the similarities in their life circumstances, and as their friendship grows, it is Jeremy who suggests that Max begin keeping the journal the reader now holds in their hands. Max writes, “You might wonder what dying people look forward to. Being visited, yes, but also being left alone—though that takes a lot of practice, managing thoughts . . . I also look forward to reassuring people it’s okay this is happening.”

In The Presence of Absence, Part Two is theatrically introduced as a quick, black scene change. The section brilliantly holds the subheading, Sotto Voce. The third person story moves forward eight years in time, and fittingly alternates between breathtaking poetry, poignant one-liners, and what miraculously transpires from the connections formed in Max Little’s absence. An insight comes at the hands of one such connection, who stands at a sink washing cups in a basin and thinks, “Like the cups draining on a tea towel, absence has a practical value in how it shapes presence.”

A mind-bending, affecting story that breaks the heart open with startling clarity, this book makes the reader want to take pen in hand to underline The Presence of Absences’ passages. That author Simon Van Booy has taken a universal subject most prefer to shy away from and creatively crafted an accessible work of high art is an unparalleled literary feat. The deft use of language in this tour de force fulfills its own mission when Van Booy summarizes, “Language is a map leading to a place not on the map.”   

Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy is the award-winning and best-selling author of nine books of fiction, and three anthologies of philosophy.

He has written for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the New York Post, NPR, Poets & Writers, and the BBC. His books have been translated into many languages and optioned for film. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. In 2013, he founded Writers for Children, a project which helps young people build confidence in their storytelling abilities through annual awards.

Beasts Of The Earth by James Wade

Beasts of the Earth

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Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

We know from the start LeBlanc is wounded, that his limping spirit is tantamount to the spare, prison-like furnishings of the low-ceilinged duplex he’s rented on the shanty side of town for the past 20 years, that his economic speech has little to do with still waters running deep, that it’s born of a wariness from what he’s hiding.

It is the economic downturn of 1987 in Coral County, Texas, where thirty-something Harlan LeBlanc works alongside the small crew of Carter Hills High School’s Grounds and Maintenance Department, and partakes of a cursory friendship with a troubled, young co-worker named Gene Thomas. A man of habit gripping to a rote, daily schedule, LeBlanc tends the high school’s football field with each step carefully taken, in a manner telling of his mind frame. “LeBlanc reveled in such undertakings—the opportunity to create boundaries, to ensure the proper area for the rules to be applied. There was an element of control, an upholding of justice, that brought peace

to his mind.”  

It is 1965 in the bayou of Assumption Parrish, Louisiana, and 13-year-old Michael Fischer’s hardscrabble world grows harder when his regionally shunned, depraved criminal father is released from prison. “A boy should be happy when his father returns, but Michael was not happy. He had memories of Munday—memories distorted by time and hearsay—and though there existed still a longing for the comfort and protection of a father, dread guided the boy.” Used to being the man of the house for his morbidly obese mother and younger sister, Michael is in fear when his hard-drinking father is home, and only breathes easy when he habitually disappears.

After home circumstances take an unspeakable, dark turn at the hands of his father, Michael flees to the woods, where he’s met with more danger still, until he’s found by a dying recluse of a poet named Remus, who takes the injured Michael to his cabin, and begins the long road to repairing the traumatized, now displaced, youth.

Over time, the strangers warm to an alliance, and Michael “played at having a father, and Remus played at being one. But the past is not a thing to sit still, and there are no new beginnings. The world itself was begun only once. And since that beginning its every rotation has depended on the one before—each circumstance born from the last.”

Cassie Harper has broken Gene Thomas’s heart. A student at Carter Hills High, there is

more to her than meets the eye. When Cassie is found murdered on school grounds, it rocks the entire community. When circumstantial evidence comes to include Gene Thomas, it strikes LeBlanc too close to home, casting aspersions on his character, and giving rise to his secret, haunted past.  

Author James Wade treads a tight wire between Beasts of the Earth’s dual storylines. He deftly keeps the reader guessing about common ground throughout the tumult of the three-part storyThe tone is shadowy and off-kilter, with elements of gothic-tinged realism vested upon an innocent heart, and a mind in peril of becoming unhinged.

There is much to keep the reader invested. Wade’s pitch-perfect, personality-driven dialogue sings in the voice of life, and his ability to meld existential thought, situational metaphor, and cinematic setting is a full-bodied experience: As Harlan LeBlanc sets out to right a wrong from the past, “He walked along the river in the morning light and watched it widen and grow as it approached Port Neches and then on to the Gulf of Mexico, and he wondered if the river might hold itself or some piece of itself out there in all that ocean—might cling at some molecular level to whatever made it a river in the first place, salt or no salt. But he knew the answer and knew the difficulty in fighting back against an ever-growing tide.”

Beasts of the Earth satisfies the discerning reader. Its balanced, oscillating chapters are played out in riveting complete scenes that take you deeper into the gritty backstory of Harlan LeBlanc, a man you care about, and somehow understand from what he’s not saying, while the town around him holds him in suspicion and his moral compass covertly guides him to truth and justice sought at a personal cost.

A soul-deep exploration of a wounded man in crisis, James Wade’s Beasts of the Earth follows his two widely acclaimed novels, All Things Left Wild, and River, Sing Out, and secures his position as an author of extraordinary merit.  

Author James Wade

James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of River, Sing Out and All Things Left Wild, a winner of the prestigious MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction, and a recipient of the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel from the Western Writers of America. His third novel, Beasts of the Earth, is now available from Blackstone Publishing.

Book Review: A Place to Land by Lauren Denton

A Place to Land

Image of A Place to Land

Author: Lauren K. Denton

Release Date: October 4, 2022

Publisher/Imprint: Harper Muse

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Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton

“Lauren Denton unfurls a mystery by reconciling a buried past with a modern-day story set in a town with vibrant characters brimming with Southern charm.”

A delightful Southern story extolling the deep bond of sisters, Lauren Denton’s A Place to Land has a heartwarming tone as it unravels a 40-year-old mystery coming back to haunt a cast of small-town characters whose lives are entwined in Sugar Bend, Alabama, which sits on Little River, with a population of under 2,000 just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Violet and Trudy Figg have an extremely close relationship. Now both in their sixties, their bond comes from “more than just being sisters, more than sharing a home and parents and a fondness for chocolate pudding.” From elder sister Violet’s point of view, “It was a single request from their fragile, damaged mother that linked them with something thicker than blood.” “With a father who was often out on the road in his eighteen-wheeler, and a mother who spent most of her energy dodging blows . . . Violet had accepted her role of Trudy’s caretaker long ago.”  

In their youth, the sisters were complimentary opposites. Trudy enjoyed a wide reputation as a popular beauty pageant queen, while Violet was the quiet, introspective sort who spent most of her time outdoors.

The sisters now keep a steady schedule. “Trudy and Violet both navigated life the best way they knew how—for Trudy, it was working with her materials and setting the pieces just right, while for Violet it was through the birds . . . helping them on their way.”

Trudy creates eclectic visual art with the likes of shells, feathers, and driftwood, while Violet works as a surveyor for the Coastal Alabama Audubon Society. Together, the sisters own and operate Two Sisters Art and Hardware Goods in downtown Sugar Bend, where Trudy’s art is sold alongside souvenirs for tourists.

Eighteen-year-old Maya is seeking her place in the world. She’d “been put in the foster care system after the death of her grandmother, and she’d lived in ten different homes since then.” After turning 18, Maya signed the appropriate papers permitting herself to strike out on her own, and following her instincts, she stumbles upon the quaint town of Sugar Bend, which leads her to Violet and Trudy. After a dubious beginning, the sisters come to embrace her.

Frank Roby has an unhealed past with Violet. A retired law enforcement officer, his long ago romance with Violet came to an inexplicable end, which caused him to jump at the first opportunity to accept a job in another town. After 40 years, Frank moves back to Sugar Bend from Pensacola as a widower. In rekindling his interest in birds, he goes to a class at the local Audubon Society, where he is unwittingly paired as a trainee with 63-year-old Violet. Cautious and still harboring feelings for Violet, he keeps his sentiments for her under wraps.  

Liza Bullock is an outsider who’s worked for a year as the editor of The Sugar Bend Observer. Frustrated by living in a backwater, uneventful town, “If she could find a story with enough meat on its bones, she could write a sizzling expose and land herself at a copy desk in Birmingham or Atlanta.” When a decrepit johnboat “awash with age and river detritus” mysteriously rises from Little River, Liza’s reporter instincts are ignited.

Frank Roby’s nephew works as a Sugar Bend policeman and is in the habit of asking his retired uncle for assistance. When he asks Frank to investigate the suspicious boat awash on the banks of Little River, memories of the year 1981 flash to Frank’s mind, when he was a rookie cop in the throes of a promising future with Violet and was sent to the exact location to investigate a domestic disturbance.  

Unbeknownst to the young Frank of 1981, Violet’s sister had recently married local celebrity, Jay Malone, a successful businessman the whole town revered, and who owned the house Frank was sent to look into. At the time, Frank was unaware Violet had fears for her sister, that she suspected there was more to Jay Malone than met the eye, and that the bruises Trudy tried to hide were inflicted by his hand.

Author Lauren Denton unfurls a mystery by reconciling a buried past with a modern-day story set in a town with vibrant characters brimming with Southern charm. Secrets, coincidence, family loyalty, life choices, and questions of right versus wrong as viewed through the lens of the law are woven neatly in two timeframes, seamlessly linking all characters until they each achieve, seemingly by kismet, the perfect place to land.  

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.

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