#Book Release!

Book Cover

(This book review appears in The New York Journal of Books.)

In It’s a Wonderful Christmas: Classics Reimagined, each of the five critically acclaimed authors crafts a story inspired by their favorite holiday movie. Combined, the novella collection makes for delightful reading, which, author Julie Cantrell suggests, is the spirit of this collection’s intention. In the author’s note for her novella, Cantrell writes, “When the pandemic put a damper on the 2020 holidays, we decided it was the perfect time to pool our efforts into a positive, uplifting project that would bring a little jingle jangle joy to our readers.” And they do. Each unique novella shines as a complete, satisfactory experience.

Julie Cantrell chose National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and centered her novella, A Fun, Old-Fashioned Family Christmas, on a dysfunctional Baton Rouge family adjusting to their new normal, now that their college professor father has abandoned the family for his 19-year-old student. In their disillusionment, teenage siblings, Ellie, and Jake, don a brave front and join their mother on the family’s annual trip to Houston—sans father—to celebrate the holiday season with their maternal grandparents, who hide their dampened spirits over the unexplained and unhealed estrangement of their only son.

Feeling nostalgic, Ellie flips through family photograph albums of happy Christmases past and, wanting to please her grandparents, issues invitations to relatives far afield, setting the stage for the chaotic reunion of the emotionally baggage-carrying clan. Ellie, hip to social media’s influence, documents the family dynamic with posts on TiKTok, which quickly go viral and grab the attention of a national television show intent on, ironically enough, producing a segment on a family enjoying a traditional Christmas. It’s a tangle of false starts and best intentions gone awry, and Cantrell lures the reader with heartwarming insight into the power of family.

The second novella is titled, Lovely Life, by Janyre Tromp, who tips her hat in her author’s notes to the men and women of the armed forces and shares that her novella’s inspiration came from the classic movie, White Christmas, whose script Tromp distills to its core. Tromp tells the reader her novella is about, “Someone helping a veteran save their business with a big musical production.”

With the novella’s setting in the lake area of Frankfort, Michigan, Lovely Life concerns the multi-generational family seat of Vietnam War veteran Robby Willingham, once a mess sergeant returned worse for wear to run the restaurant/music venue that’s part and parcel of his family’s famed castle hotel. The venue is in the kind of financial peril that’s burdened by a ticking clock, while Robby is pressured with keeping the business’s doors open. When his one-time fiancé, Beatriz Harris, returns to help, now that she’s the world-famous singer in the band Robby helped form pre-war, Robby is confronted with an unreconciled past that includes a lover’s triangle made of Beatriz, himself, and his ex-best friend. A spin on the ties that bind and the fears that hold us back, Lovely Life achieves a harmonious resolution while laying bare themes of sacrifice, healing rifts, and working together for the common good in the name of friendship.

Author Lynne Gentry’s novella, Miracle on Main Street, takes its inspiration from the movie, Miracle on 34th Street. Set in the town of Mt. Hope, the West Texas diner Ruthie Crouch started 40 years prior is failing, and all town businesses are suffering, which inspires the locals to stage a Christmas parade to stimulate tourism. The camaraderie of the townsfolk drives the story, and Tromp introduces a wonderful cast of characters who come to Ruthie’s aid when her estranged husband, Earl Dean, from 40 years back, reappears dressed in rags, and Ruthie’s position as sole proprietor of the diner is threatened, which reveals her long held resentment from Earl Dean’s abandonment.

Though Ruthie and Earl Dean’s daughter is now dead, their grandson, Angus, is devoted to Ruthie and her business, and a predicament arises when Angus longs to let the seemingly vagrant Earl Dean into his life. When Mt. Hope’s citizens embrace Earl, Ruthie remains wary, but her guarded heart opens when she hears the explanation for Earl Dean’s decades long absence. Themes of community, friendship, and perseverance are at the heart of this homespun story, as is the willingness to forgive for the betterment of all.

Author Kelli Stuart tells us in her author’s note that the “Sugar Plum Fairy” in The Nutcracker was a figment of Tchaikovsky’s imagination, and nobody knows where she and the mysterious partner with whom she dances the pas de deux came from. In her novella, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Stuart sets out to answer the riddle by creating a fully imagined fantasy world and populating the kingdom with astounding characters, including a despairing young queen named Alyona; a returned paramour turned knight in shining armor named Max; Chak-Chak, his dog; and an evil, arch nemesis named the Mouse King.  

It is December 24, and in an effort toward breaking the Mouse King’s curse set upon The Land of Sweets, the dispirited Alyona’s mettle is tested as she endeavors to save her kingdom. In days of yore, the kingdom knew prosperity, and tradition had it that Alyona appeared yearly before the masses to hand out sweets, the crowning jewel being one plucked from the kingdom’s sugar plum tree, which gave Alyona the moniker, the Sugar Plum Fairy.

When childhood sweetheart, Max Pavlov, appears at Alyona’s door with information about how to break the kingdom’s curse, forces are set in motion on the way to restoring order, including an army, the location of a girl named Marie, the acquisition of a particular nut, and battle with a seven-headed beast. Persevering through hard times, working together, and keeping the faith are themes in this spellbinding story, the least of which is the triumphant insight that it is love that keeps us together.

A Christmas romance rounds out, It’s a Wonderful ChristmasClassics Reimagined, and author Allison Pittman titles her novella, 500 Miles to Christmas, inspired by the 1940s movie, Remember the Night. The novella opens with a car chase as young Leah Anders, an aspiring fashion designer, is pulled over for speeding on a Texas highway by deputy Rick Murray. The attraction is instant, and Rick Murray sees no need for the polite, soft-spoken girl to be jailed, so he takes Leah to his mother’s ranch where she is seen to as a guest, while her bail is arranged.

But Leah’s relationship with her famous, novelist mother is a complicated one, and it was, after all, her mother’s BMW in which Leah took to the road in anger and since her mother seeks to teach Leah a lesson about discipline and self-sufficiency, the wait for bail is a long one with plenty of opportunity for Leah to work her way into the heart of Rick Murray. Freedom from dependency, perception shifts, resiliency, talent, and drive are the themes in this charming Christmas romance, which is set three days before Christmas and ends with great promise for the future.

It’s a Wonderful ChristmasClassics Reimagined achieves what it sets out to do. It’s an enjoyable assembly of novellas sure to lift the holiday spirit of every reader.   

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.

Book Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton.

Home Stretch: A Novel

Image of Home Stretch: A Novel

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

https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith #Book Review.

Author Michael Farris Smith is one of those rare writers who uses language as setting. He opens his fifth novel, Blackwood, in the year 1975 with “The “foulrunning Cadillac arrived chugging into the town limits of Red Bluff, the car having struggled out of the Delta flatlands and into the Mississippi hill country, the ups and downs of the landscape pushing the roughriding vehicle beyond what was left of its capabilities.” Off the bat, the reader knows the stage is set for bad luck and hard times for the drifters come to town. Farris Smith doesn’t snow us with a glimmer of hope, he hands us the premise as a matter of fact. Then the story deepens. Blackwood is a story of loners and outsiders thrown together seemingly by chance. They’d like to connect but lack the fundamental knowledge of how, as each manages their individual vortex trying not to drown in their common sphere.

Red Bluff, Mississippi is lackluster to the point where the town gives away abandoned, downtown storefronts to anyone willing to maintain one. Colburn, haunted by his past, calls himself an industrial sculptor. He returns to the seat of his loveless childhood in his flatbed, looking for scrap metal and such to fashion into art in one of Main Street’s cast-offs. He is looking for something. He wants to confront the demons of his past, and in his search, reunites with a will-o-the-wisp bar owner named Celia, in an attraction so conflicted, it exhumes his childhood pain.

Myer wears his pantlegs tucked in his boots and walks with a limp. He is Red Bluff’s weary law enforcement who gives too little too late to the town’s drifters, who take to the kudzu tangled woods on the edge of town where something sinister lurks.

Rich in tenor, setting, metaphor, and dark imagery, Blackwood is an intricately woven, gritty story of disconnected lives unwittingly affecting each other in repercussive ways, written is language so bleakly mood-setting, reading its pages becomes a state of mind.

Many a luminous author has called Oxford, Mississippi’s Michael Farris Smith one of the best writers of his generation. And he is. And Blackwood proves it.

 

Blackwood Releases March 3rd at all book outlets

 

https:www.clairefullerton.com

Falling up in the City of Angels by Connor Judson Garrett Book Review

Connor Garrett’s Falling Up in The City of Angels sings like a manifesto of youth seen through the eyes of one who misses nothing. It’s a travelogue through the spinning vortex of LA, written from the edge of innocence by an author whose voice is so personal, you want to reach out and hold his hand.

Fresh from college graduation, in a time when the sky is the limit, narrator Tony leaves his Georgia home with little to recommend him than his dream of being a writer. Thinking magic can happen with little in his pocket in a town where anything goes, blind optimism leads Tony from one eye-opening episode to the next as he hits all the highpoints in the City of Angels. The reader visits the Venice Canals, meets posers, and actors, and spiritual seekers; commiserates with Tony through the laws of romantic attraction, pauses at his insights on the back end.

Like a fledgling meeting chance in an odyssey of discovery, Tony’s beginner’s luck navigates west LA without a filter. He is young, resourceful, adventurous, and optimistic. He is resilient, insightful, surefooted, and not a quitter.

Falling up in the City of Angels is a fresh take on an age-old experience. It reads like a roadmap of a young man’s coming into being while avoiding the campy pitfalls of a fish-out-of-water story. With language both accessible and profoundly sophisticated, author Connor Garrett depicts the blossoming of youth in all its first-impression, awestruck wonder.

https://clairefullerton.com

Never Sit If You Can Dance: Book Review

Who among us hasn’t said, “I could write a book about my mother!” We often say such things in jest, though the quip’s foundation is actually complimentary. We study our mothers throughout most of our lives trying to piece together the enigmatic variables that result in their particular formula. For many, it takes a lifetime, yet author Jo Giese has done just this in her delightful book, Never Sit If You Can Dance, which, as you might suspect, is a line she learned from her mother.
It is baby-boomer times, simpler times that began in innocence only to explode into the roar of changing times, and author Jo Giese is raised by a stay-at-home mom named Babe. She plans to rise above her mother’s station and believes she has actually done so until later years give her the time to pause and reflect.
It is the little things in this collection of first-person stories that weave nostalgia so touchingly and seamlessly. It is the commonplace, the every day, the mortar of life that matters, and author Jo Giese tells us why in a series of chapter heading, numbered lessons as demonstrated by her mother—“Don’t be Drab;” “Never Show Up Empty-Handed;” “Go While You Can;” and “The Happiness of Giving and Receiving Flowers” are cases in point.
A wonderfully written, quick paced gem of a book, Never Sit If You Can Dance strikes the middle ground between heartwarming and entertaining. It is an important book in that it gifts the reader with the opportunity to ponder their own mother. In the hands of any book club, there is much fodder to discuss.

An enjoyable book trailer is here: https://youtu.be/LzNj97Rs-pE

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

Book Review: Clover Blue by Eldonna Edwards

A perfectly paced, thoroughly realized, refreshingly unique story that takes the concept of world-building to expert proportions. Author Eldonna Edwards sets her standout novel in a 1970s, Northern Califonia commune’s bucolic setting and regals the reader with an unusual story from the perspective of the eponymous narrator, Clover Blue, who has a personal history, unlike all others. In a coming of age story, Edwards layers her art with the subtle fine-tuning of what it also means to come into awareness. The Saffron Freedom Community’s earthy setting is tangible, it’s free-spirited, well-intentioned residents so finely drawn as to elicit the reader’s acceptance of a lifestyle so beautifully and minutely depicted, one can’t help but become emotionally invested. At the heart of this story is the adolescent Clover Blue’s search for identity within the confines of his deep-rooted sense of place. Once the reader is hooked by Clover Blue’s story, a mystery creeps in to suggest all is not as it seems, in this idyllic world apart from the world, spearheaded by a mesmeric leader whose past is so covert, it’s no wonder his counsel is centered on nonjudgement and living in the present. Clover Blue is a story that rolls, unfurls, and deepens in seemingly simple complexity. It is a resonating, engaging story true to the spirit of its times and satisfying in its unpredictable end.

 

https://www.clairefullerton.com

Book Review: Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New

I came across this book through my fellow author, Susan Cushman’s, blog, who has a wonderful thing going as an author, editor, and champion of great books: http://susancushman.com/about/.  Susan’s engaging Facebook presence called my attention to author Suzanne Smith Henley’s book, which concerns a labor-of-love she engages in making stunning prayer beads. An impressive amount of acclimating research into ancient, religious practices went into this book, then the author brings it all home to modern day with inspiration and sheer delight! I am marveling at the connections that can be made through social media! Below is my review of Bead-by-Bead. If you’re interested in exploring the centering intent of prayer, this book is for you!

 

I am savoring this beautiful book, and turning to it nightly as a touchstone at my day’s end. Written in accessible language so compelling and engaging, Suzanne Smith Henley’s voice is like listening to a friend so rife with personality, I want to hear everything she has to say! There is a wealth of information regarding historical use of prayer practice with the use of beads. I am learning much about various religious practices, and the common thread of a physical ornament to ground one into prayer is something I find reverent in its intent and focus. This is a book for everybody: the devout, the spiritual, the artistic, the seeker. It is a manual of fine balance mixed with humor and intelligence, and its specific aim is something I find admirable as it unites. I recommend this book as a call to worship, no matter one’s proclivity or denomination. It is thought-provoking in its invitation to deepen one’s relationship with prayer, and I am so pleased to have found this book!

 

Whiskey and Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith

The title Whiskey and Ribbons is derived from a toast delivered by Eamon, one of three narrators in this psychological treatment of love spun unexpectedly and repercussively awry. “Women, you are sleek and gorgeous. You hold us together, you’re the ribbons,” Eamon says, yet we hear this speech as his brother, Dalton’s, memory, for the reader learns at the start that the toast maker is dead. Eamon and Dalton have grown up together as brothers, yet the ties that bind are unusual and not honestly revealed for what they are until well into the story. Author Leesa Cross-Smith holds the reader captive in language so creative and au currant that we identify with both well-drawn characters and readily understand why Eamon’s wife, Evangeline, weighs issues of loyalty between the two charismatic young men, though one is alive and the other is dead. That Evangeline is a new mother, having given birth to Eamon’s son after his death as an officer in the line of duty is the dilemma, for who is she to turn to in her prostrate grief but a brother-in-law who equally grieves? Three vantage points are entwined to tell this one story of familial connections, in a seamlessly crafted, roiling momentum that will have you thinking they each have a justifiable point. All praise this spell-binding debut author. Leesa Cross-Smith has penned an uncommon novel in a voice you won’t easily forget.

Girl on the Leeside by Kathleen Anne Kenney.

Because I once lived in a small town in Connemara, at the gateway of the Irish-speaking area called the Gaeltacht, I look for those novels that depict the region as it is, for once one has spent significant time there, its ways and means register in the soul with perpetual resonance, leaving one forever nostalgic for what can only be described as the west of Ireland’s consciousness. It isn’t easy to capture, for all its subtle nuances, yet author Kathleen Anne Kenney has done just that in writing Girl on the Leeside in the manner the region deserves, which is to say this beautiful story is gifted to the reader with a sensitive, light touch.

Girl on the Leeside is deep in character study. Most of what happens concerns the human predicament, no matter where it is set. More than a coming of age story centered on twenty seven year old Siobhan Doyle, it is a story of the path to emotional maturity, out of a circumstantial comfort zone, (which, in this case, is perfectly plausible, due to its isolated and insular Irish setting) into all that it takes to overcome one’s self-imposed limitations to brave the risk of furthering one’s life.

In utter fearlessness, Kathleen Anne Kenney invites the reader to suspend disbelief in giving us an otherworldly character that speaks to the inner fairy in those who dare to dream. Small and ethereal Siobhan is orphaned at the age of two by her unconventional mother, and father of unknown origin. She is taken in and raised by her mother’s brother, Keenan Doyle, the publican of his family’s generational, rural establishment called the Leeside, near the shores of a lough tucked away in remote Connemara. Introverted, with little outside influence, she is keenly possessed by her culture’s ancient poetry and folklore. She is a natural born artist, gifted with an intuitive grasp on words and story, a passion shared by her Uncle Keenan, yet so pronounced in her that she walks the line between fantasy and reality. It isn’t easy to redirect one’s invested frame of reference in the world, if it isn’t completely necessary, yet necessity arrives at the Leeside, when American professor of ancient Irish poetry and folklore, Tim Ferris, comes to compare literary notes with Siobhan and Keenan. It is this catalyst that sets the wheels in motion of a heartfelt, insightful story that involves the willingness to grow. All throughout, author Kathleen Anne Kenney explores the myriad fears that get in the way, and shows us the way to triumph.

Girl on the Leeside is a deceptively soft read. It is so laden with beautiful imagery, so seamlessly woven with radiant poetry that it lulls you into its poignancy and holds you captive, all the way to its satisfying end.