Book Review: Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan

Holding Her Breath: A Novel

Image of Holding Her Breath: A Novel

Author: Eimear Ryan

Release Date: May 17, 2022

Reviewed by: Claire Fullerton As it Appears in the New York Journal of Books

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.   

Buy on Amazon

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Eimear Ryan’s debut novel Holding Her Breath is published by Penguin Sandycove (Ireland/UK) and Mariner Books (US).

Her short fiction has appeared in Granta, The Dublin Review, The Stinging FlyThe 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, ImageStranger’s GuideWinter Papers and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book about camogie. She lives, writes and plays in Cork city.

The Good Left Undone by Adriana Trigiani

My review, as it appears in the New York Journal of Books

Adriana Trigiani’s three-part The Good Left Undone reads like a multigenerational saga extolling the power of family. Part one begins with the sobering epigraph, “Let whoever longs to attain eternal life in heaven heed these warnings: When considering the past, contemplate these things: The evil done; The good left undone; The time wasted.” From the poignant beginning, the template is cast and incrementally filled in two timeframes fully played out by the Cabrelli family, in a pitch so passionate the reader remains personally involved throughout the story.   

The Cabrellis are working class people, proud, salt-of-the-earth Italians whose everyday lives are devoutly guided by their Catholic faith. They live among the Birtolinis, Savattinis, Spiranzas, and Mattiuzzis. They drink espresso from moka pots and dine on bombolini during coastal Viareggio’s annual Carnevale. They are jewelers, and sailors, parents, and nurses, with ties to Italy, France, and Scotland. At the center of the story is the Cabrellis’ ancestral history. The family exists in modern times because some survived the second world war.

It is 81-year-old Matelda Cabrelli Roffo’s birthday as she sits in her third generation, seaside home in the village of Viareggio, Italy. Closing her eyes, she reminisces on those now gone, and understands, “a family was only as good as their stories.”

At 25, and engaged to be married, Anina Tizzi is a dazzler. Arriving at Matelda’s house to keep their scheduled appointment, she reminds her grandmother of their family tradition and says, “Your grandmother gave you a piece of jewelry to wear on your wedding day, your mother gave jewelry to my mother, and now it’s your turn to give it to me.”

When Anina asks Matelda to disclose a bit about her own mother, Matelda looks out to the Ligurian Sea and, knowing her days are numbered as the family lore archivist, concedes, “Anina would soon find out where the sea had taken Domenica Cabrelli before it swept her away, along with her true love and their secret.”

Freeing significant family heirlooms from their hiding place to present to Anina, each a building block contributing to the overall family story, Matelda is visited by the shadow of history. It is 1920, and her mother, Domenica Cabrelli, is 11 years old, on a treasure hunt with her best friend, Silvio, along the dunes of Viareggio’s white sand beach. When bad luck finds the inseparable friends, Silvio needs stitches, and Domenica, accompanying Silvio to Dottore Pretucci’s office, decides then and there to train as a nurse. It’s a fateful decision that spawns a trajectory of events ultimately effecting Domenica’s life and carrying forth to future generations.

Upon learning something about her great grandmother’s surprising story, Anina wants to hear more, and remarks of Domenica, “There might be something else in her story that would inform my life now. One person in the family impacts the whole group.”  

The sea is a pervasive image in The Good Left Undone, as is the satisfaction an artisan receives from doing valuable work with committed hands. In the multi-layered, wider sphere, Trigiani’s focus is character driven and personal, with underlying themes of perseverance in the face of fate and chance, and an eye to preserving family lineage.

The heart and soul story of Domenica Cabrelli is thoroughly realized. It concerns the life and loves of a woman devoted to her family and heritage as set against the painstakingly researched backdrop of the Second World War, peppered with fascinating, little-known facts about the war’s impact on the Italian people.

In her compelling story, Trigiani’s detail is beautifully nuanced. Her sense of place is illuminating and vibrantly alive with the small details that make an Italian life meaningful. Matters of day-to-day survival are equally balanced with affairs of the heart in such a way that serves as a grandmother’s cautionary tale to her granddaughter. When Anina’s doubts about marriage arise, Trigiani’s dialogue is deadpan, quick-witted, and pithy as Matelda imparts her brass tack advice, “Listen to me. Love yourself. That’s the greatest adventure. When you love yourself, you want to find your purpose, something only you can do in the way only you can do it. Make things. Create. And if a man comes along—and believe me he will—the relationship is already off to a good start because both of you love the same person. You.”

The Good Left Undone is a poignant expose on the value of the unsung heroes in a multigenerational, working-class family, and through the power of story, author Adriana Trigiani reminds us that our own family stories are important. As Matelda reveals family secrets, the dawning of awareness comes to Anina. She becomes more and more enraptured and wants to hear everything about her family from her grandmother. “Mostly, Anina wanted to reach into the years ahead and bring her children into the present so her grandmother would know them. She wanted them to hear the family stories from the source. After all, her grandmother didn’t just tell the family stories; she was the story.”

Adriana Trigiani’s The Good Left Undone will delight book clubs, and those who enjoy historical fiction and women’s fiction. It’s a deeply felt, epic tale that transports the reader straight to the heart of Italy.

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.

ABOUT ADRIANA

“One of the reigning queens of women’s fiction.” –USA Today

“A comedy writer with a heart of gold.” – The New York Times

“Trigiani is a master of palpable and visual detail.” – The Washington Post

Beloved by millions of readers around the world for her “dazzling” novels, (USA Today) Adriana Trigiani is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty books in fiction and nonfiction. She has been published in 38 countries around the world. The New York Times calls her “a comedy writer with a heart of gold,” her books “tiramisu for the soul.” She wrote the blockbuster The Shoemaker’s Wife, the Big Stone Gap series, the Valentine trilogy and Lucia, Lucia.  Trigiani’s themes of love and work, emphasis upon craftsmanship and family life have brought her legions of fans who call themselves Adri-addicts (a term coined by book maven Robin Kall). Their devotion has made Adriana one of “the reigning queens of women’s fiction” (USA Today).

Adriana was among the first creators on Bulletin, Facebook’s platform launched in 2021. Her newsletter “Adriana Spills the Ink,” covers all aspects of living with ideas gleaned from the world’s best authors and their books. Adriana provides the tips to help you find the tools to unleash the creativity in your own life. You can read the newsletter here.

Adriana is an award-winning playwright, television writer and producer, and filmmaker. She wrote and directed the film adaptation of her debut novel Big Stone Gap, shot entirely on location in her Virginia hometown with an all-star cast including: Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Whoopi Goldberg, John Benjamin Hickey, Anthony LaPaglia, Jenna Elfman, Jane Krakowski, Judith Ivey, Mary Pat Gleason, Dagmara Dominczyk, Mary Testa, Paul Wilson, Chris Sarandon, Jasmine Guy, and introducing Erika Coleman and Bridget Gabbe, with music by John Leventhal, and songs performed by his lovely wife Rosanne Cash, the legendary Ralph Stanley, Papa Joe Smiddy and the Reedy Creek Boys, If Birds Could Fly and Michael Trigiani. Glorious local talent performed on the soundtrack and acted in the movie, sharing their gifts beyond the peaks of the Appalachian mountains.

Book Release: Untethered by Laura Whitfield

In immediate, accessible writing, author Laura Whitfield’s starkly confessional memoir, Untethered, begins when tragedy strikes the heart of her tightly knit, Southern family. At fourteen years old, the author’s world is shattered by the death of her beloved older brother, leaving Laura to find her way in the world without the brother she relied upon as a compass.

Throughout the mid-1970’s and into the 1980’s, Laura embarks on a promising modeling career in New York city, and the reader is taken into NYC’s inner sanctum, where the sky is the limit for this young, and beautiful woman from North Carolina. But a series of disastrous love affairs cause the author an overwhelming sense of disillusionment, and, after fleeing back home for safety, it is many years before she realizes the mistakes she made were an unconscious attempt at filling the void over the significant loss of her brother.

Untethered reads as an unfiltered testimony to coming of age concerns during the simple times of the 1970’s and 80’s. Issues of familial and societal expectations collide with a world newly accommodating to women in the work place, and all the while the author tries to reconcile a past riddled with wrong choices and blind mistakes.

With an unstoppable spirit and belief in herself and better days, Laura Whitfield navigates the minefield of adulthood as she returns to school, becomes employed, and assists her parents in their declining years. With one failed marriage behind her, she finds her way to God, a love that endures, and, wiser now, sets out on a path to a bright future.

An engaging, confessional memoir both heart wrenching and inspirational, Laura Whitfield’s Untethered is fascinating reading sure to delight readers who enjoy a multilevel, thoroughly realized memoir.

About the Author:

Laura grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughter of a journalist and a teacher. She has been an advertising copywriter, newspaper columnist, staff writer for an international relief agency, travel writer, blogger, teacher, communications director for several nonprofits, and personal assistant to a New York Times bestselling author. 

Her coming-of-age memoir, Untethered: Faith, Failure, and Finding Solid Ground (She Writes Press) is now available from your favorite independent bookstore or wherever books are sold. 

Laura is passionate about her faith, books, travel, nature (especially the beach), social justice, and her family. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with her husband, Stephen. 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/21993777.Laura_Whitfield

https://www.instagram.com/laurawhitfieldwriter/

#Book Release! Greetings from Asbury Park by Daniel H. Turtel

Greetings from Asbury Park

Image of Greetings from Asbury Park

Author(s): 

Daniel Turtel

Release Date: 

April 5, 2022

Publisher/Imprint: 

Blackstone Publishing

Buy on Amazon

Reviewed in The New York Journal of Books by

Claire Fullerton

“a pithy, enjoyable, modern-day story from start to finish, with a cast of fully realized characters you’ll champion to the end.”

The sphere of activity in Daniel H. Turtel’s Greetings from Asbury Park epitomizes character as place, vacillating along the New Jersey shore between Asbury Park, Deal Lake, and Long Branch, in a vivid and vibrantly described setting. “The boardwalk followed the sand from the northern tip of Asbury Park all the way south to Belmar and beyond—a stretch of more than three miles before the Shark River Bridge interrupted it.” On the boardwalk’s half-mile commercial strip between Convention Hall and the Casino, “there were restaurants and bars all down the strip . . . and it was always busiest in the summer.”  

It is the summer of 2016, and affluent Joseph Larkin is dead. A philandering, self-serving, unlikable man who lived in a Long Branch estate, he, seemingly for the sport of creating chaos from the grave, leaves an unresolved web of interconnected characters in his wake, who are primarily unaware of each other.

Greetings from Asbury Park is Casey Larkin’s story. In his early twenties and on hiatus for one month from his job in New York City to attend Joseph Larkin’s funeral, he spends the hot summer days coming to terms with his identity against a backdrop of disparate characters from varying backgrounds all touched by the long shadow of his deceased, biological father. 

Twenty-six-year-old ne’re do well, Davey Larkin, is the pill-popping, heavy-drinking, legitimate son of Joseph Larkin, who “had a personal stool at the bar Pop’s Garage in Asbury Park and bought a drink for anybody who approached him to offer condolences.” Davey is well aware of Casey, his illegitimate half-brother born of his father’s mistress, who’s kept conveniently on the other side of town in an area named Allenhurst. Casey explains their relationship: “Davey’s mother was Joseph’s wife and Allenhurst was as close as she would allow him to keep his mistress . . . I did not even meet Davey until I was eight years old, and did not go to live with them, until three years later, when my mother decided that she’d had enough of being a mistress and headed to New York with the money she’d squeezed out of Joseph in order to try her hand at life as a single woman.”

Casey and Davey have an awkward relationship, and neither have knowledge of their biracial, half-sister, a promising teenage singer in the boardwalk nightclubs named Gabby, whose mother, it is discovered, was Joseph’s maid for 20 years. When Casey and Gabby unexpectedly meet after Joseph Larkin’s funeral through circumstances involving Casey’s inheritance, a complicated relationship ignites, and the moral line between the taboo of shared blood and the unwitting spark of attraction is highlighted.

Meredith Hawthorne is the daughter of an Irish immigrant who works as a landscaper. A year ahead of Casey while they were in middle school, Meredith grew up next door to Casey in Allenhurst and knows of his history with Joseph and Davey Larkin. In reconnecting with Casey, while he’s in town for Joseph’s funeral, Meredith is equally as tentative and inarticulate with her feelings for him as she was when they were younger.

Julie Kowalski owns an upscale boardwalk dress shop named Madame K and employs Gabby part-time. Known regionally as Madame K, Julie is the mother of the free-spirited Lena, with whom Casey has a one-night stand on the night of Joseph’s funeral, after meeting her in a boardwalk bar. Every morning, Julie takes her cup of coffee to her front porch, and watches in fascination as 19-year-old Jacob Besalel runs four laps around Deal lake’s eastern tip.

A serious, disciplined young man from a devout Syrian Jewish background, Jacob is dismayed that his younger sister, Sophia, goes beyond their strict upbringing to test society’s fringes on the boardwalk, where she crosses paths with Madame K, Gabby, and Davey. Because the Besalel family spends summer in the area, all characters in this surprising story are brought into wonderfully crafted, uncanny alignment in ways that add depth, dimension, and clever layers to the tightly entwined story of fate and chance and the inescapable bonds of family connections.  

Daniel H. Turtel artfully weaves multiple storylines centered on Asbury Park and stemming from the life of the duplicitous Joseph Larkin. Varying points of view amid clashing cultures are used throughout this modern-day, progressive story that reads like a sign of the times amid a dysfunctional family, whose hidden story is finally brought to light.

Through the use of economic language and the power of a wildly engaging story, Greetings from Asbury Park explores existential questions such as right versus wrong; nature versus nurture; morality versus self-direction, and ultimately, to whom we are accountable. It’s a pithy, enjoyable, modern-day story from start to finish, with a cast of fully realized characters you’ll champion to the end.  

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.

River, Sing Out by James Wade: Book Review

In the captivating River, Sing Out, author James Wade weaves lyrical prose and character driven regional dialect against a hardscrabble backdrop along the East Texas Neches River. 

Thirteen-year-old Jonah Hargrove lives in a trailer beside the river that “sat clumsy and diagonal, and faced the small clearing, looking out at the world as if someone had left it there and never returned.” Motherless and at the mercy of a hard-drinking, abusive father only at home part time, Jonah is a friendless, social outcast left to his own devises. When he finds a secretive, seventeen-year-old girl on the run in the woods, his life is upturned when he nurses her to health and helps her search for the lost backpack holding the meth she stole from shady John Curtis, which she plans to sell, in hopes of starting her life over.  

John Curtis is not a man with whom to trifle. Wiley, quick-witted, and ambitious, he runs an East Texas drug operation, and is regionally feared. When Dakota Cade, Curtis’s muscle-bound, right-hand man, asks about the secret to Curtis’s success, Curtis replies, “If it weren’t for the rage inside of me, I don’t believe I’d be able to take another breath. Wasn’t always like that, of course. I used to think there was something wrong with me. Something missing, maybe. But the older I got, the more I understood what I had was a gift.” 

When Jonah asks the girl he found to tell him her name, she casts her covert eyes to the water and says, “Call me River,” and with literary existential sleight of hand, author James Wade metaphorically writes, “The river flowed and the world turned, cutting paths both new and old, overwhelming those things which came before but could not adapt to the constant movement, the everlasting change. The river and the world together, and both giving life and both swallowing it whole, and neither caring which, and neither having a say in the matter. The boy watched both passing by, his choice and his path each belonging to some current long set in motion.” 

Jonah and River are wary misfits, each without the skills to humanly connect even as they fall into collusion in their mutual flight from the pursuit of the determined John Curtis. With riveting pacing, a heart tugging relationship grows between the youths in fits and starts, “But such solace in those first days was rarely more than a whisper, fading so quickly and completely, the girl was left to question whether it had been there at all.” As the two wade together in the Neche River, their relationship dares to take root, “And somewhere in the beyond, a single fate was selected from a row of fates, no one more certain than the other, yet each bound to the world by threads of choice and circumstance.” 

A sense of page-turning urgency drives River, Sing Out. It’s a high stakes story in flight by a babe in the woods who helps the first love of his life run from a criminal so cleverly sinister as to be oddly likable. Action packed and visually drawn with dire cliff-hanging crafting, River, Sing Out has the extraordinary one-two punch of fascinating high drama written in deep-thinking, elegant prose.     

https://www.jameswadewriter.com/

James Wade author headshot

“An extraordinary piece, exemplifying wonderful positive restraint by letting the narrative solve the condition. Just very well done. No wasted words.”

–Paul Roth, editor, The Bitter Oleander

ABOUT JAMES

James Wade is an award-winning fiction author with twenty short stories published in various literary journals and magazines. His debut novel, ALL THINGS LEFT WILD, was released June 16, 2020 from Blackstone Publishing. His second novel, RIVER, SING OUT, also from Blackstone Publishing, was released June 8, 2021. He has 6 additional novels forthcoming from Blackstone Publishing.

James spent five years as a journalist, before serving as a legislative director at the Texas State Capitol during the 83rd Legislative Session. He also worked as a lobbyist on behalf of water conservation in Texas. 

James lives in the Texas Hill Country, with his wife and daughter. He is an active member of the Writers’ League of Texas.

Represented by Mark Gottlieb with Trident Media Group

Awards and Honors:

Winner of the 2021 Reading the West Award for Best Debut Novel (ALL THINGS LEFT WILD)

Winner of the 2021 Spur Award for Best Historical Fiction (ALL THINGS LEFT WILD)
A winner of the 2016 Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest (Historical Fiction)
A finalist of the 2016 Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest (Thriller)
A finalist of the 2016 Tethered By Letters Short Story Contest
Honorable mention in the 2016 Texas Observer Short Story Contest

Honorable mention in the 2015 Texas Observer Short Story Contest

Work by James can be found in the following Publications and Anthologies:
The Bitter Oleander | Skylark Review (Little Lantern Press) | Tall…ish (Pure Slush Books) | Intrinsick Magazine | Dime Show Review | Bartleby Snopes | Jersey Devil Press | Typehouse Magazine | After the Pause Journal | J.J. Outre Review | Potluck Magazine | Yellow Chair Review | Through the Gaps | Eunoia Review 
 

FOLLOW JAMES

Instagram
James Wade Writer Facebook
James Wade Writer Twitter
James Wade Writer LinkedIn

The Best Southern Books

As it appears on Shepherd: Best Books

https://shepherd.com/best-books/southern-books

Claire Fullerton Author Of Mourning DoveBy Claire Fullerton

Who am I?

I’m the multiple, award-winning author of 4 novels and one novella, raised in Memphis, Tennessee, and now living in Southern California. The geographical distance gives me a laser-sharp, appreciative perspective of the South, and I celebrate the literary greats from the region. The South is known as the last romantic place in America, and I believe this to be true. The South’s culture, history, and social mores are part and parcel to its fascinating characters, and nothing is more important in the South than the telling of a good story. As a writer, I’m in love with language. I love Southern turns of phrase and applaud those writers who capture Southern nuance. It is well worth writing about Southern sensibilities.


I wrote…

Mourning Dove

By Claire Fullerton

Mourning Dove

What is my book about?

An accurate and heart-wrenching picture of the sensibilities of the American South. Millie and Finley Crossan move from Minnesota to their mother’s genteel world of 1970’s Memphis and learn to navigate the social mores of the Deep South, where all that glitters is not gold. Southern nuance, charismatic characters, a sibling relationship, and an opulent setting underlie this 13-time book award winner that asks how it is that two siblings who share the same history can turn out so differently. 

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The Books I Picked & Why

The Prince of Tides

By Pat Conroy

The Prince of Tides

Why this book?

A resounding Southern family saga. A sins-of-the-father story told in the first person by one of the South’s most revered authors. The Prince of Tides is set on a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina and depicts the haunting secrets of the working class Wingo family in a multi-generational story rife with Southern nuance and now considered a literary classic. The story opens when narrator Tom Wingo flies from the South to New York to meet with his sister’s psychiatrist, and the astounding family saga unfolds from there. 


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Peachtree Road

By Anne Rivers Siddons

Peachtree Road

Why this book?

Peachtree Road is considered a modern-day Gone with The Wind, in that it is set in the pivotal, changing times of 1960’s Atlanta, and concerns the opulent area of Buckhead, where the privileged who built modern-day Atlanta live. The story is narrated in lyrical language by Shep Bondurant, an insightful young man born to privilege, who tells the coming-of-age story of Southern traditions and hypocrisy, and the impact of growing up alongside his troubled cousin, Lucy. A deeply probing story on multiple levels concerning society and the impact of family. 


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Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories

By Ron Rash

Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories

Why this book?

Ron Rash is a national, literary treasure. The author of multiple award-winning novels, this book is an assembly of 34 short stories, most set in Appalachia, and depicting the social nuances and landscape of the American rural South. I recommend this because it will provide a great introduction to the incomparable author known as The Appalachian Shakespeare. As a writer, Ron Rash epitomizes the idea of landscape as destiny, and his well-drawn characters come to life from his flawless use of regional language. 


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All Over But the Shoutin’

By Rick Bragg

All Over But the Shoutin'

Why this book?

Pulitzer prize-winning and best-selling author Rick Bragg depicts hardscrabble, family life in rural Alabama, with a bad-tempered, hard-drinking father and a mother who won’t see her children go without. Bragg’s honest voice is immediate and compelling, and the visceral feel of the setting is the perfect backdrop for this rags to riches story of a man who triumphs over adversity to become a widely acclaimed writer. Bragg’s use of Southern vernacular is what makes this story. 


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The Fighter

By Michael Farris Smith

The Fighter

Why this book?

The Fighter is Southern noir at its best, and the spare, economic voice of the narrator adds to the guttural bleakness of a man down on his luck but willing to persevere against all odds. Set in the sultry Delta, Jack Boucher has put behind him 25 years of bare-knuckle fighting but is given cause to step into the ring one more time. A dark desperation colors this popular novel, and readers will be shown why Michael Farris Smith is considered one of the finest writers now on the American literary landscape.   


https://shepherd.com/best-books/southern-books

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

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This Review first appeared in The New York Journal of Books: https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/these-precious-days-essays-0

It takes a writer with supernatural depth of field to remind us that life’s seeming trivialities matter. In the aptly named, These Precious Days, author Ann Patchett brings a sense of the sacred to twenty-three, deeply introspective vignettes that shed light on her uncommon life even as they entertain. Each essay is a slice-of-life meditation in topics ranging from family to knitting to the incremental growth of the author’s career. In equal measure, the engaging essays are uniquely personal and resoundingly universal.

Beginning with Three Fathers, Patchett examines the oddity of her paternal background, and reflects upon the individual influences of her mother’s three husbands by noting, “Marriage has always proven irresistible to my family. We try and fail and try again, somehow maintaining our belief in an institution that has made fools of us all.” With full disclosure, Patchett adds, “My problems were never ones of scarcity. I suffered from abundance, too much and too many. There are worse problems to have.”

In The First Thanksgiving, Patchett tells the story of learning to cook as a freshman away from home for the holiday and ties it into a life lesson: “On that freezing holiday weekend when my adult life began, I not only learned how to cook, I learned to read,” and “I then went on to use this newfound understanding to great advantage for the rest of my life. Books were not just my education and my entertainment; they were my partners.”

With regard to the beginning stages of her writing career, in the essay, To the Doghouse, Patchett writes about the mysterious powers of childhood influence: “Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when our hearts and minds are fully open.” Just as the reader prepares for something erudite coming, Patchett waxes rhapsody on the dog, Snoopy, from the Charlie Brown comic strip. “Did I become a novelist because I was a loser kid who wanted to be more like the cartoon dog I admired, the confident dog I associated with the happiest days of my otherwise haphazard youth? Or did I have some nascent sense that I would be a writer, and so gravitated toward Snoopy the dog novelist?”

Going deeper into the topic of her writing career, in A Talk to the Association of Graduate School Deans in the Humanities, Patchett shares, “I went to Sarah Lawrence College in 1981 and had as good an undergraduate experience as any writer could dream up,” then goes on to depict her two-year experience at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, in which she studied with visiting faculty while teaching literature. Patchette writes, “What I learned in those two years of graduate school came not from being taught but from teaching.” “Teaching made me a better reader and a better thinker. I became more conscious about how I expressed myself, which in turn made me a better writer.”

On friendship, the essay, Tavia, depicts a life-long friendship beginning in the second grade, in which Patchette writes, “Insofar as life is a game show, Tavia Cathcart is my lifeline.” But it is in the book’s eponymous essay, These Precious Days, that Patchett dives deepest while recounting the incremental stages of a significant friendship formed later in life. Of These Precious Days, Patchett writes in the book’s introduction, “It wasn’t until I wrote the title essay, These Precious Days, that I realized I would have to put a book together. That essay was so important to me that I wanted to build a solid shelter for it.” And Patchett did. The introspective essays that lead to the book’s focus catalogue life’s vagaries in such a way as to place your own powers of observation beneath the lens of scrutiny.

In the essay, These Precious Days, Patchett tells of the chance events that aligned to bring one Sookie Raphael into her orbit. An invitation to interview Tom Hanks on stage started a series of email correspondence with Sookie, Tom Hanks’ assistant, and the seeds of friendship planted between Ann and Sookie take root at Ann’s home in Nashville. Under uncannily coincidental circumstances having to do with sheltering Sookie during the treatment of her dire medical prognosis, the women create a dynamic bond that now reads like fate. It is a heartbreaking essay, but in the hands of Patchett it is poignant, life-affirming, and testimony to the power of friendship. In the open-ended conclusion, Patchette writes, “As it turned out, Sookie and I needed the same thing: to find someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves.”

Two more essays lead to These Precious Days epilogue, serving, by turn, as an opportunity to revisit Ann’s writing career and the subject of her biological father. At this juncture, the reader is intimately familiar with the voice of the author. They’ve been given the great largess of looking beneath the hood of a world-famous writer’s life, and the reprieve given is a chance to regroup before the last essay, A Day at the Beach, in which comes the end of the story of Patchett’s dear friend, Sookie Raphael, the vividly drawn inspiration behind the collection’s title essay.

Like a foray into the heartbeat of a widely beloved author, These Precious Days by Ann Patchett is a powerful essay collection, wonderfully executed and deeply human.

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels, including Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction. She writes for the New York Times Magazine, Elle, GQ, the Financial Times, the Paris Review and Vogue. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Author photo by Heidi Ross

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Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

As it appears in The New York Journal of Books:

Reviewed by: Claire Fullerton

In 114 pages, author Claire Keegan delivers an odyssey of the soul in her gem of a novel, Small Things Like These, without leaving the setting of New Ross, beside the River Barrow.

It is 1985 Ireland, and coal and timber merchant Bill Furlong knows times are hard with Christmas coming. The married father of five girls, Furlong is a self-made man who comes from nothing, his deceased mother having lived with shame as an unwed mother who reared her child by being a domestic servant of the wealthy, Protestant Mrs. Wilson.

Furlong’s days feel mechanical for all their routine. “Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.”

Just days before Christmas, Furlong keeps his employees at the yard while he makes deliveries to customers long loyal to his business. When a large order from the Good Shepherds Convent arrives, Furlong takes personal responsibility for delivery, but shudders with the recollection of the troubling time he’d last had on the grounds, when he was approached by a waif of a girl asking him to help her escape. The memory haunts Furlong, who recalls his wife’s response when he’d voiced his concerns over the place purported to be a training school for girls that also ran a laundry business.

Furlong knows well of the harsh rumors attached to the convent as a place for wayward girls, and author Claire Keegan, capturing the very bone marrow of Irish sensibility, writes of Eileen’s response to her husband’s worry: “She sat up rigid and said such things had nothing to do with them, and that there was nothing they could do, and didn’t those girls up there need a fire to warm themselves, like everyone?” The pragmatic Eileen continues, “If you want to get on with life, there’s things you have to ignore, so you can keep on.”

Furlong has conflicted feelings about his own childhood. Raised in his mother’s employers’ home, he knows had it not been for the sufferance of Mrs. Wilson, his life would be disadvantageously different. Feeling hit close to home, Furlong responds to his wife’s comments, “Isn’t it a good job Mrs. Wilson didn’t share your ideas? Where would my mother have gone? Where would I be now?”

Furlong’s Christmas delivery trip to the convent is fateful. While opening the latched storage shed to unload his coal, he discovers a young girl trapped within, and, when he takes issue with the nuns on the girl’s behalf, he suspects all is not as it seems. Being told one thing by Sister Carmel at the convent, his heart intuits a darker truth that rings in a similar tone to the plight of his mother, and in time, Furlong is inspired to act. “He found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another?” Furlong wonders, “Was it possible that the best bit of him was shining forth, and surfacing?”

Spontaneously spurred to action to help the young girl, Furlong knows, “The worst was yet to come.” “But the worst that could have happened was also already behind him; the thing not done, which could have been—which he would have had to live with for the rest of his life.”  

Small Things Like These is a succinct, heart and soul story of a man coming to terms with a consciousness born of his personal narrative. In precise, unadorned language, it personalizes a once taboo subject recently come to the fore, and now considered a blight on Irish history.

All praise to author, Claire Keegan, for masterfully adding to her arsenal of widely acclaimed, human interest stories. Small Things Like These is a fathoms-deep, poignant novel that will appeal to fiction readers enamored of the sub-genre categories small town and rural fiction; holiday fiction; and family life.  

Author Claire Keegan

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Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan

Release Day!

Image of Once Upon a Wardrobe

Author(s): Patti Callahan

Release Date: October 19, 2021

Publisher/Imprint: Harper Muse

Reviewed by: Claire Fullerton for the New York Journal of Books

Once Upon a Wardrobe tells the story of the inspirational threads author C. S. Lewis wove together in his 1950 fantasy novel for children, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Author Patti Callahan unfurls the story through the eyes of siblings in two timeframes, maintaining a sense of awestruck wonder, while revealing the inner workings of the man behind the magic.

The story opens in idyllic, 1950 Worcestershire, England, at the bedside of eight-year-old George Devonshire, who suffers from a congenital heart condition that in no way dampens his shinning spirit. A voracious reader with an unstoppable imagination, George tasks his 17-year-old sister, Megs, a mathematics student on scholarship at Oxford University, with tracking down the university’s English literature tutor, author C. S. Lewis, to ask where the land of Narnia came from in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Although she loves her brother to the point of no refusal, at first Megs balks and tells George that C. S. Lewis’s famed book is mere fantasy, but reconsiders when George says with heartbreaking sincerity, “I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think the world is held together by stories, not all those equations you stare at.” And so begins the journey of discovery that changes Megs by widening her focus from the neat grid of numbers and equations to the realm of uncharted imagination—all in the name of selfless love for her brother.

Snow is on the ground in the month of December when Megs follows C. S. Lewis to his house after one of his Oxford lectures. It takes her two returns to muster the courage to knock on the door, yet when she is discovered hiding on the grounds by C. S. Lewis’s elder brother, Warnie, she’s invited into the brothers’ home to meet the great author and is received with open arms.

The magnanimous C. S. Lewis, known as Jack, understands the question Megs asks regarding Narnia on behalf of George, yet sets about answering it in a protracted way that requires multiple return visits. Rather than succinctly telling her where Narnia came from, Jack encourages Megs to form her own conclusion as he incrementally tells her the story of his own life. Jack says to Megs, “Who knows when exactly a story begins? Probably at the start of time. But maybe Narnia had its first seeds in a land that my brother and I imagined as children in our attic,” and adds, “Perhaps I was training myself to be a novelist.”

There are myriad mysterious influences that spawn a novelist’s inspiration, and Callahan suggests many with a gentle hand and deep wisdom through Once Upon a Wardrobe’s characters. With regard to the importance of reading, Jack tells Megs, “Every life should be guided and enriched by one book or another, don’t you agree? Certainly, every formative moment in my life has been enriched or informed by a book. You must be very careful about what you choose to read—unless you want to be stuck in your opinions and hard-boiled thoughts, you must be very careful.” 

Because Jack suggests that Megs listen to his stories then go home and write them down from memory, each time Megs returns to the bedside of George, she reads from her notebook and, in time, surprises herself by developing the finesse of a seasoned storyteller. The series of stories she tells is fascinating in that they parlay the background and maturity of a world class author as he navigates the ambiguity of life’s tribulations. From the building stories she tells George of Lewis’s life, Megs realizes, “George’s imagination is taking him places while I ramble on about stories and facts about Mr. Lewis. George takes something of this world and travels to another as if the story world and the real world run right alongside each other.”

At 17, Megs centers her life on education and her beloved brother, but when she is befriended by Padraig Cavender, an Oxford student who hails from Northern Ireland, the wheels are set in motion to fulfill George’s only wish for Christmas, which is inspired by C. S. Lewis’s popular book, and results in a thrilling adventure to Ireland that illuminates the answer to George’s initial question.  

The broadly researched Once Upon a Wardrobe is written in enchanting language apropos to the setting’s time and place and regales the reader with little known tidbits pertaining to the inspiration behind The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. With elegant prose, Callahan invites the reader to intuit creativity’s source. Once Upon a Wardrobe is a captivating story for all ages; a standalone book combining fact, and fantasy, and its peek behind the curtain crafting is an important adjunct to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles.

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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Book Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton.

Home Stretch: A Novel

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Author(s): Graham NortonRelease Date: June 22, 2021Publisher/Imprint: HarperViaPages: 368Buy on AmazonReviewed by: Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

Home Stretch by Graham Norton is a vibrantly written, delightful story with coming-of-age elements operating within a family saga’s network that begins in small-town Ireland, travels to New York, spans 32 years, and sweeps back to where it started.

It is 1987 Ireland, and Dan and Chrissie Hayes own a local pub in Mullinmore, not far from Cork City. As the tight-knit community prepares for the wedding of two young locals, 22-year-old Connor Hayes agrees to join the bride, groom, and three others on a trip to the beach the day before the wedding.

Tragedy strikes on Barry’s roundabout when the car flips on the way home and three of the six youths are killed. In a community whose citizens live like threads in a fabric, Mullinmore is blindsided, and when word spreads that Connor Hayes was driving, the stage is set for this intricately entwined story involving the ramifications of that fateful car crash.

Connor’s parents arrange for Connor to take a construction job in Liverpool, thinking the day will come when Connor’s presence doesn’t serve as constant reminder of the town’s tragedy, that one day it will be safe for Connor to come back, but Connor’s motivation is influenced by Ireland’s cultural mores and his return to Mullinmore is a decades-long journey.  

The fully realized characters in this cause-and-effect story are written sympathetically; the drama that unfolds is due to the times. Connor is a young man grappling with identity issues, and as he comes to terms with his sexuality, he fears bringing shame to his family and cuts all ties with his past, including communication with his parents and sister.

Leaving Liverpool for London without telling his family, Connor settles in and finds a new family. He thinks in hindsight, “If he hadn’t been forced to run away, who knows how long it would have taken to become this man?” His confidence builds, and he wonders, “Had this life that he was now living been available to him all along?”

Connor’s elder sister, Ellen, wants to distance herself from her family’s stigma, and doesn’t suspect the attentions of Martin Coulter are divisive. The son of the Mullinmore’ s doctor, Martin Coulter is connected to Connor as one of the survivors of the car crash, and when he marries Ellen Hayes, the marriage swiftly becomes unhappy. “The change was so abrupt, she doubted herself. The young bride wondered what she had done wrong. What had changed?” In time, Martin follows in his father’s professional footsteps and two children come along, but “Marriage, it seemed to Ellen, wasn’t about being happy or making someone happy. It turned out it was just a matter of deciding whose unhappiness was easiest to deal with. It was hers.”

In London, Connor crosses paths with an international businessman named Tim and moves with him to America. The years transpire, Connor is 44 in the year 2012, and a twist of fate comes in New York City when “Two Irish men walked into a bar.”

Finbarr Coulter is newly arrived in New York from Ireland. Twenty-two, he lands a bartending job and on his first week of employment, when Connor walks in to drown the sorrows of his 16-year relationship ending, it comes to uncanny light after a few too many that the two are related. Connor wonders, “What version of the story did Finbarr know? He knew he was afraid—but of what precisely? He felt he could bear hearing about the town still blaming him for what had happened,” but “what terrified him was the idea of discovering that everyone had simply forgotten him and gone on with their lives.”

A trajectory begins that leads Connor home to Ireland, and wheels are set in motion to repair the past. The Irish culture has changed, and with it the minds of Mullimore’s locals, and the truth behind the car crash 32 years before brings all characters in the story to alignment.

Author Graham Norton is a masterful storyteller. The layered crafting of Home Stretch is rife with pithy innuendo and story-driving personality. His sharp eye captures the nuance of small-town Ireland in the process of evolution as he unfurls this interconnected story with spellbinding verve and finesse.

    

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.

Graham Norton – Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Norton

Graham William Walker (born 4 April 1963), better known by his stage name Graham Norton, is an Irish actor, author, comedian, commentator, and presenter. Well known for his work in the UK, he is a five-time BAFTA TV Award winner for his comedy chat show The Graham Norton Show (2007-present) and an eight-time award winner overall. Originally shown on BBC Two before moving to other slots on BBC One, his chat show succeeded Friday Night with Jonathan Ross in BBC One’s prestigious late-Friday-evening slot in 2010. From 2010 to 2020 Norton presented the Saturday morning slot on BBC Radio 2 and since 2021 has presented on Saturdays and Sundays on Virgin Radio UK. Since 2009, he has been the BBC’s television commentator for the Eurovision Song Contest, which led Hot Press to describe him as “the 21st century’s answer to Terry Wogan”. He has been noted for his innuendo-laden dialogue and flamboyant presentation style. In 2012 he sold his production company So Television to IT

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