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December 2021 Reviews

December 2021 Reviews


In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House, 2021. 421 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

This youth novel for teenagers was named a Best Book of 2021 by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews. The story revolves around Cash Pruitt and Delaney Doyle, who live by the Pigeon River in East Tennessee. Both have a parent addicted to opioids, and Cash’s papaw is dying of emphysema, but they are the smartest Appalachian teens in literature. As a result of Delaney’s scientific discovery, they are both recruited to attend a prestigious Connecticut prep school. "Heartfelt and deeply moving...a book that readers will unhesitatingly take to their hearts."—Booklist, starred review. “With profound, evocative prose and lyrical insights into the world surrounding a struggling main character, Zentner's powerful, emotional novel is one you won't soon forget.” —Buzzfeed.A wise, gorgeous exploration of loss and survival that will make readers cry...Lyrical and heartbreaking.”—School Library Journal, starred review. "Zentner conjures a moving and rich novel about friendship, loss, kind strangers, the blindness so often present in the pursuit of love, and love itself.  His protagonists have their eyes raised to the sky."—Daniel Woodrell. This is Zentner’s fourth youth novel, all of which have been award-winning. Before he turned to youth novels, Zentner worked as a musician in Nashville where he lives.

Lorraine: The Girl Who Sang the Storm Away by Ketch Secor. Napierville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, a 2021 paperback release of a 2018 hardback release. A 32-page picture book illustrated by Higgins Bond. 9.5” X 10.5” trade paperback.

Recommended for ages 4-8 years, but uplifting for all. Lorraine and her Pa Paw are rural African American hill folk as revealed in the luminous illustrations by African American artist, Higgins Bond, the winner of the Ashley Bryan Award. When Pa Paw’s harmonica and Lorraine’s pennywhistle disappear, they raise their voices in song that covers their disappointment, but then a seemingly destructive event ends up returning their instruments to them in a testament to silver linings. The author, Ketch Secor, is a white man and the founder of the Old Crow Medicine Show. "This not-to-be-missed story appeals to the ear as much as it does to the eye as Lorraine shows readers that music can make any situation more enjoyable." - Kirkus Reviews. "Musician Secor deftly mines his songwriting talent in this paean to music and family bonds... Bond captures the narrative's melody and changeable moods in luminous paintings featuring precisely rendered feathers, blades of grass, and emotive facial expressions." - Publishers Weekly. "[A] bouncy tribute to Southern folkways and intergenerational relationships." - School Library Journal. "This musical, folkloric story is a delightful read-aloud." – Booklist.

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2021. 56 pages illustrated by Christian Robinson. 8.75” X 10.75” hardback in dust jacket.

This picture book for children 4 to 8 is recommended to readers of all ages as it illuminates the life of Nina Simone (1933-2003), the amazing African American musician. The book also has a five-page re-hash written for adults at the end. The author, Traci N. Todd, is an award-winning African American author of many books, including the ABCs of Black History, a New York Times best-seller. The illustrator, Christian Robinson, is an African American artist who, in 2016, was named both a Caldecott Medal Honoree and a Coretta Scott King Award Honoree for Last Stop on Market Street. This book tells the inspiring story of Eunice Waymon, who was born and raised in the town of Tryon, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Her mother was a preacher, and her father played the piano. At the age of 3 (!) Eunice began playing at her mother’s church. A white woman who employed her mother as a domestic worker, convinced a white friend who taught music lessons to take Eunice on as a student. When Eunice graduated from high school, her music teacher helped her apply and be accepted at the famous Julliard School of Music in New York City. When she graduated, the only work in music that Eunice Waymon could find was in clubs where alcohol was served, so she adopted the stage name of Nina Simone out of fear that her mother would not approve. Soon, her music became inspired by and a reflection of the Civil Rights Movement and earned a nation-wide audience. 

Otter’s Coat: The Real Reason Turtle Raced Rabbit: A Cherolachian Tortoise and Hare by Cordellya Smith. Versailles, Kentucky: self-published, 2021. A forty-page picture book illustrated by Blueberry Illustrations. 8.5” X 11” trade paperback.

Cordellya Smith coined the term, Chrolachian, but that does not mean it needs to come into common usage to describe Cherokee people living in Appalachia. She is a white woman, without a tribal number, who claims Cherokee blood and grew up in Eastern Kentucky. This story combines several rabbit stores based more on Aesop’s fables than Cherokee lore.

Saving Granddaddy’s Stories: Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia by Shannon Hitchcock. New York: Raycraft Books, a 2021 paperback edition of a 2020 hardback release. A 32-page picture book illustrated by Sophie Page. 8.75” X 11” trade paperback.

Ray Hicks (1922-2003), who lived on Beech Mountain not far from Boone, North Carolina, became the best-known traditional teller of mountain tales in the second half of the 19th Century.  He was the recipient of a 1983 National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. He told Jack Tales in the way his grandfather Ben Hicks learned them from his father-in-law, Council Harmon, who learned these traditional European tales from his grandfather, Cutliff Harmon (1749-1838) one of the very first white settlers in what became Watauga County, North Carolina. This picture book, recommended for ages 5-9, tells of Ray Hicks learning Jack Tales from his grandfather, Ben. “A distinctive biography of a distinctively American voice.” —Kathleen Isaacs. This is the first picture book by the author, Shannon Hitchcock, a North Carolina native now living in Asheville who is also the author of four middle-grade books. The illustrator is Shophie Page, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.

She Sang for the Mountains: The Story of Singer, Songwriter, Activist, Jean Ritchie by Shannan Hitchcock. New York: Reycraft Books, 2021. A 32-page picture book illustrated by Sophie Page. 11.75” X 9.5” hardback in dust jacket.

Jean Ritchie (1922-2015) was the youngest of fourteen siblings in what her autobiography dubbed the Singing Family of the Cumberlands, a traditional family that lived in Perry County, Kentucky. This picture book, recommended for ages 7-14, tells the story of her rise to prominence as a nationally-known folk singer known for preserving traditional songs and composing songs that protested environmental threats to the land she loved. She was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. "A hearty portrait of the 'Mother of Folk,' emphasizing the belief that music can create change." --Publishers Weekly. “The illustrations leap off the page with characters that will remind older readers of stop-motion animation, here set against collage backgrounds. In stark scenes, children will also learn about the art of protest songs and Ritchie's own work against strip mining. A great addition to existing literature on climate change, this biography adds the subject to the rich list of activists explored in today's literature. Ritchie's words are featured throughout; the eccentric art fits the atmosphere of Ritchie's life and the heart of the book perfectly.” – Aryssa Damron. This is the same author/illustrator team that created Saving Granddaddy’s Stories: Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas in West Virginia adapted from the poem by Clement C. Moore. Napierville, Illinois: Hometown World/Sourcebooks, 2021. A 32-page picture book illustrated by Jo Perry. 8.25” X 8.25” hardback with a pictorial cover.

Perfect for those chauvinists who want Clement C. Moore’s famous Christmas poem to deal in West Virginia in occasionally.



Bessie Smith: A Poet’s Biography of a Blues Legend by Jackie Kay. New York: Vintage Books/Penguin Random House, a 2021 paperback edition of a 1997 British release. 224 pages with Notes, Selected Reading, and a Thumbnail Sketch. Trade paperback.

As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, Jackie Kay first became enamored of the music of Bessie Smith. After publishing many books of poetry, becoming National Poet of Scotland, and writing both a memoir and an award-winning novel, Jackie Kay combined all these literary forms to create a unique and compelling literary biography of Bessie Smith (1894-1937). Kay believes that all of today’s problems and challenges were addressed in her blues. Smith was born into an impoverished family of nine in Chattanooga and began singing for spare change at the age of nine after the death of her father. At the age of 18, she began to join various traveling musical troupes, and when almost thirty garnered a Columbia Records deal that catapulted her into fame and acknowledgement as the “Empress of the Blues.” In 1930 she began touring the South again, this time with her own Bessie Smith Revue, until her death in a car crash in Mississippi in 1937. "A uniquely lyrical book by an exceptional writer about identity, racism, sexism, and the cultural life of a complicated, profoundly influential blueswoman.” —Booklist. “Eloquent and emotive. . . . Bessie Smith remains an act of intimate witnessing, a biography about a black, bisexual, working-class American artist by a celebrated Scottish poet who first recognized her own blackness and queerness in Smith’s songs, her wild mythos and 'beautiful black face.'”—The Guardian. “Jackie shows an empathy unusual in a biographer, the writing being enhanced by the fact that its author is also a stellar poet. Biographies don’t usually bring the subject to life again. This one did. I finished the book then started it again immediately.” —Peggy Seeger.

Craft and Culture: Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, 1946-2021 by M. Anna Fariello. Cullowhee, North Carolina: Cultural InSight, 2021. 94 pages with Notes and most pages having one or two black-and-white photos. Trade paperback.

The Qualla Boundary is the official name of the homeland of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, those who managed to remain in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, after the Andrew Jackson administration removed as many as it could from their homeland to Oklahoma on the notorious Trail of Tears. Some hid out in the mountains, and others lived on land protected by North Carolina deeds registered mostly through the help of Indian trader, William Holland Thomas, who did not want his providers of pelts, creators of crafts, and customers to move to Oklahoma. The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual was founded in 1946 to promote and market Cherokee handicrafts. If you want an authentic Cherokee craft from an enrolled member of the Eastern Band, be sure it has the Qualla Co-op seal – pictured on the cover of this book – on its tag. And if you want to know more about this Co-op and Cherokee crafts, read this book by a white archivist who has made virtually a life’s work out of documenting and celebrating Eastern Band crafts, including writing and publishing three of her six other books on the subject.

Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia by Kris Maher.  New York: Scribner, 2021. 352 pages with an Index and Note on Sources. Hardback in dust jacket.

This is the story of seven hundred Mingo County, West Virginia, citizens and their lead attorney, Kevin Thompson, who from 2004 until 2011 pursued a legal battle against Massey Energy, a leading West Virginia coal company, from a Williamson, West Virginia, hotel. They were waging a valiant effort to seek justice for those who suffered from the pollution of their water which resulted in terrible health issues. "A comprehensive account of the seven-year legal battle waged by residents of southern West Virginia against the state's largest coal company... details of Thompson's financial and marriage troubles make his battle to secure a $35 million settlement for his clients seem all the more heroic. Readers will be appalled at how hard these communities had to fight for a modicum of justice."—Publisher's Weekly. "In the early 20th century, Mingo County in southern West Virginia was the scene of several violent clashes between coal companies and local miners seeking better pay and living conditions... A century later, “Bloody Mingo’’ was the scene of another years-long clash between a coal company and local residents. This time, it was over clean water. Kris Maher... draws parallels between the two events in his superb new book."—Pittsburg Post-Gazette. "Maher's book documents one of the most important court cases against some of the country's most notorious polluters, revealing along the way the inherent pitfalls of single industry economies."—The Daily Yonder. "Kris Maher has written a deft, illuminating and often riveting account of a modern-day David and Goliath legal battle, expertly revealing the devastating consequences of regulatory disregard and corporate greed behind our energy policies. Timely as ever, Desperate gives us reasons to believe in the still small possibility of justice--and the unsung heroes fighting to defend our right to a glass of clean drinking water."—Jeff Biggers. The author of Desperate, Kris Maher, has been a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal since 2005.

Lost in Transition: Removing, Resettling, and Renewing Appalachia edited by Aaron D. Purcell.

Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2021. 283 pages with an Index, Notes, and several photos. Hardback with pictorial cover.

Aaron D. Purcell, the head of special collections at the Virginia Tech library, does an outstanding job of bringing together well-published experts to paint a picture of Appalachians displaced by government projects ranging from national parks to Oak Ridge and from TVA to Duke Power. The fact that this is a short review in no way signals that I disrespect this book or denigrate the importance of this subject. It is simply easy to describe both my friend, Aaron, and his latest book. The shortness of this review is exacerbated by the fact the UT Press, inexplicitly, does not bother to solicit blurbs from readers. I have never been paid for providing a blurb for a soon-to-be published book. We provide blurbs for publlishers because we love to promote a book we like and because it gives us exposure as “experts.” When I sell books to academic libraries, they often immediately place a book in their “to buy” pile once they have seen a blurb about it by a person they respect or once a blurb has revealed the value of the book. I assume the same thing happens with readers and librarians when they read a blurb on a publisher’s website or on Amazon. End of rant.

The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People by Rick Bragg. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 256 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

This memoir made the New York Times best-seller list and is on the Garden and Gun magazine list of the best books of the year. The author, Rick Bragg, won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter before becoming a compelling author of books that portray life in the Northeast Alabama hills. Speck is an ill-behaved mongrel dog that somehow arrived at Rick Bragg’s home at a time when he was despondent over his own health issues and needed Speck as much as Speck needed him. “Bragg has done it again, focusing his lyrical prose on one aspect of his Southern roots while managing to embrace much larger terrain in the process . . . [The Speckled Beauty] delights the senses and is as honest as the day is long.” —David Holahan. “I knew from the beginning that I would love The Speckled Beauty, but I did not realize just how much. Once I began this memoir, I did not want to put it down. Though Speck is the center of the story, Bragg’s compassionate portraits of his family members made me love them all. As the family grows and changes, so too does Speck, and Bragg creates a profoundly moving tableau.” —Ashley Riggleson.



And the Crows Took Their Eyes by Vicki Lane. Raleigh, North Carolina: Regal House Publishing, 2020. 304 pages. Trade paperback.

The title of this book reinforces the terror of a day in January 1863 in the Shelton Laurel community deep in the Madison County, North Carolina, mountains. There, a Confederate regiment executed 13 accused Union sympathizers in one of the most notorious massacres of the Civil War. This historical event is the focus of Vicki Lane’s novel, told by five narrators - four actual historical characters and one a totally fictional one. This novel was a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award given by the Western North Carolina Historical Association. "And the Crows Took Their Eyes accomplishes what only the very best historical fiction can ever hope to accomplish, connecting us, not only to our history, but to our humanity as well." — Tommy Hays. "Vicki Lane casts an unforgettable spell in And the Crows Took Their Eyes, a compelling and humane reimagining of a heart-wrenching period in our American history." — Jessica Handler. "Lane’s richly detailed vision of the past expertly underpins a dark story of complex divided loyalties in an isolated, war-torn mountain community." — Charles Frazier. Vicki Lane teaches writing in Asheville and is the author of several previous novels.

The Finder of Forgotten Things by Sarah Loudin Thomas. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2021. 352 pages. Trade paperback.

The finder of forgotten things in this novel is Sullivan (Sulley) Harris, an intermittently successful dowser (person who can determine where to site a water well). When he helps residents find good water easily, they are tempted to think he can also find other things they can no longer locate. That’s the title and one of the lead characters, but the real focus of the novel is something so terrible it needs a distracting theme – The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, America’s worst industrial disaster. Probably well over a thousand workers, mostly Southern African-Americans, died from silicosis while building a tunnel for a power plant for a subsidiary of Union Carbide on the Gauley River in central West Virginia in the nineteen thirties. "Loudin Thomas introduces a multifaceted cast desperately trying to survive the Great Depression in 1930s West Virginia, in this strong historical. . . . The small-town plot's set against the real-life Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. . . . giving Loudin Thomas impetus to underline the impact of acts of caring in a community." --Publishers Weekly. "In a hardscrabble 1930s setting, complex characters wrestle with justice, mercy, inequality, honesty, and the fact that they are all prodigals still searching for the way home. Loudin Thomas delivers a stunning tale of one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history, underlined with a moral imperative to love one's neighbor that still hits home today."--Library Journal. "Sarah Loudin Thomas never disappoints! The Finder of Forgotten Things brings together a rich cast of characters, each at war with conflicting desires and ultimately destined to decide whether, even in the worst events, redemption waits to be discovered."—Lisa Wingate. The author, Sarah Loudin Thomas, is a fund-raiser for a Christian Children’s Ministry in Asheville and the author of several award-winning books.

A Fire in the Night by Christopher Swann. New York: Crooked Lane Books, 2021. 288 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

The protagonist of this novel, Nick Anthony, retreats to the North Carolina Mountains to mourn the recent death of his wife. Then he discovers that his estranged brother and his wife have died in a house fired survived by their missing sixteen-year-old daughter, Annalise, who witnessed the arson and is being pursued by the arsonists. This is the third novel from Christopher Swann, who teaches English at an Episcopal high school in Atlanta. "Swann really delivers with his latest, a solid murder mystery starring Nick, a grieving former professor with a secret past and an orphaned niece who shows up on his doorstep. Tense and action-packed, with an ending that will make your heart stop. A Fire in the Night is a nail-biter with a Southern twang." —Kimberly Belle. "I don't know how Swann did it -- he's written a mesmerizing book that's literary fiction, a spy novel, and a relentless thriller all in one." —Lee Goldberg. “A Fire in the Night is a searing story about the ties that bind and how sometimes they begin to strangle us. Christopher Swann has created a nuanced yet thrilling novel of family, grief and ultimately hope. Not to be missed.”—S.A. Cosby. "A rural noir that’s loaded with surprises, Christopher Swann’s A Fire in the Night blends the moral grays of the best espionage stories with a taut, relentless mystery steeped in setting. Character-driven and memorable, A Fire in the Night is Swann’s best yet.” —Alex Segura.

Going to the Water by Ann Hite. Birmingham, Alabama: Firefly Southern Fiction/Iron Stream Media, 2021. 246 pages. Trade paperback.

The water that Isla Weehunt returns to is North Carolina’s Nantahala River Gorge where she grew up after her estranged sister dies in a house fire leaving her teenaged son, Randal, with only Isla to raise him. “Ann Hite’s masterful storytelling is on full display in this vivid whirlwind of a read. She had me in the palm of her hand through all the twists and turns. Compelling and atmospheric.” – Lynn Cullen. “A vivid, captivating novel that unfolds with intrigue and nuance, Going to the Water has all the elements you’d hope for in a multi-layered, Southern-set story: complicated family ties, misunderstanding and secrets, a mysterious past that haunts, spunky characters with pitch-perfect vernacular and their own agendas, and a pithy, unpredictable plot in a lush setting that delightfully exemplifies the South as a place.” – Claire Fullerton. The author of Going to the Water, Ann Hite, has written several award-winning novels, She lives near Powder Springs Georgia.

In the Neighborhood of Normal by Cindy Maddox. Raleigh, North Carolina: Regal House Publishing, 2021. 230 pages. Trade paperback.

Mish Atkinson, an eighty-two-year-old widow, lives in a normal neighborhood in Fair Valley, West Virginia. "What do we mean when we say 'normal'? In her engaging novel, Cindy Maddox pushes on norms we may assume around inclusion, intergenerational friendships, and the human capacity to grow and change. She builds a small-town world the reader hopes to revisit, full of characters across the age range who are relatable in their hopes and struggles with family and faith. When Mish sets out to help a new friend, readers will root for her to fulfill her mission." —Martha Spong. “Cindy Maddox’s In the Neighborhood of Normal could rightly come with this warning on the front cover: ‘Necessary for your health. This book may cause tears amidst laughter.’ Mish’s journey is our journey as she learns how to stand up for herself because she always stands up for others. As she follows the love, she spreads it, making strangers’ lives better because ‘I think you find what you are.’ In the Neighborhood of Normal is the exactly right read for this unprecedented post-Trump, knee-deep-in-Covid, uncertain moment. A good dose of Mish’s boldness and optimism is what the doctor ordered.” —Alex Poppe. The author, Cindy Maddox has worked in publishing, earned a Master of Divinity degree, and now lives in Maine with her wife and two children.

Old Fires by Josh Patrick Sheridan. Nashville, Tennessee: April Gloaming, 2021. 194 pages. Trade paperback.

Old fires, both negative from his tour in Vietnam, and positive from his love for Grace, who has recently died, consume Tim. He returns to a West Virginia holler, seriously considering joining his wife in the afterworld. But neighbors, including an alluring waitress and her brother and a snake-handling preacher, intend to save him. The author, Josh Patrick Sheridan, is from West Virginia, but now teaches at the State University of New York at Albany.

Revelator by Daryl Gregory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 352 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

What has been revealed to whom and is the revelation trustworthy and what will be the price of pursuing it? It all begins in 1933 when nine-year-old Stella is taken by her father to Cades Cove in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains to live with her grandmother, Motty. A tragic incident causes her to flee. Years later, making a living as a bootlegger, she returns to the Cove for Motty’s funeral. There she finds ten-year-old Stella who Motty has adopted. “Gripping . . . Gregory’s novel is packed to the gills with action and suspense, and he has an enviable skill for characterization . . . The Smoky Mountains of Tennessee become a character as well, and Gregory writes about them beautifully. This is an excellent work of horror, perfectly structured and dark as a Tennessee night. Smart, original, and scary as hell.” – Kirkus Reviews. “Full of matter-of-fact descriptions of unthinkable horror, Revelator is both weird and wonderful . . . Revelator is full of surprises both fascinating and stomach-clenching . . . Revelator [serves] a slice of cold terror, paired with a view of humanity that is equal parts revelatory and humbling.” —BookPage, starred. “An addictive tale of historical horror . . . Gregory ratches up the tension in stunning prose . . . a thrilling ride.” —Publishers Weekly. Daryl Gregory’s family roots came from Cades Cove, but he grew up in Chicago and now lives in Seattle. He is a prolific author of comics, short stories, young adult novels, and trade novels, many of which have won several awards.