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July 2018 Reviews

July 2018 Reviews


The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard. New York, New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2018. 353 pages with several authentic photos plus 18 more pages of “Insights, Interviews and More.” Trade paperback, $15.99.

This novel’s Atomic City girls are young women who got jobs during World War II in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, without knowing that the town of 75,000 was built from scratch by the Army Corps of Engineers in relatively isolated East Tennessee valleys served by unlimited Tennessee Valley Authority electricity in order to develop an atomic bomb before Hitler did. “The Atomic City Girls explores love, war and patriotism, forcing the reader to consider the devastating effects of Hiroshima. Once readers learn that Beard’s own aunt was one of the workers, the intimate knowledge and specific details of Oak Ridge come to life even more.” - San Francisco Chronicle. “Fans of historical fiction will devour this complex and human look at the people involved in the creation of the atomic bomb. A fascinating look at an underexplored chapter of American history.” - Stephanie Garber. “Suspenseful and intriguing...explores an aspect of the Manhattan Project long shrouded in secrecy, bringing to light an important chapter of World War II history.” - Jennifer Chiaverini.  Booklist gave it a starred review which read in part, “This is approachable, intelligent, and highly satisfying historical fiction.”  Although I moved to Oak Ridge in January 1944 months before these fictional characters moved there in November the same year, as a toddler, I did not experience Oak Ridge in the way they did, but this story does ring very true to me. I do appreciate that both the photos and the text include people from Oak Ridge’s African-American community whose role is seldom even mentioned as they were forced to live out of view by the rest of the city in “Gamble Valley,” the residential area closest to the potentially dangerous plants and served by only one road almost never traveled by white Oak Ridgers.  The author, Janet Beard, was born and raised in East Tennessee, earned her MFA at The New School, and now resides in Columbus, Ohio.


Sons of Blackbird Mountain by Joanne Bischof. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2018. 341 pages. Trade paperback, $15.99

In this novel a twenty-one-year old widow arrives during the nineteenth century from Norway to an apple orchard in the Virginia hills only to discover that her husband’s aunt has died leaviing three sons who are grown men, not young boys as she had assumed. This sets up considerable plot tension centering around romantic apprehension, choice, and competition. “Beloved author Joanne Bishof doesn’t disappoint with her latest beautifully written, heartrending tale, The Sons of Blackbird Mountain. Her lyrical style is carefully woven together with authentic faith and unique characters that won’t be soon forgotten. It will be a quick favorite for historical romance readers.” – Elizabeth Byler Younts.  The author, Joanne Bischof is an award-winning Christian romance writer based in Southern California.


Augie’s War by John H. Brown. Castroville, Texas: Black Rose Writing, 2018. 230 pages. Trade paperback, $18.95.

This is a novel about a West Virginia character, Augie Cumpton, serving in Vietnam who is freaked out by superior officers who he feels are making criminal demands upon him and who he fears are capable of relying upon friendly fire to resolve conflicts. Ample flashbacks to West Virginia family and friends flesh out the war scenes. The author, John H. Brown, is a West Virginia native who served in Vietnam and took to novel-writing after a career in public relations and journalism in his home state. “One of the most powerful novels I’ve yet read on the Vietnam War. As a veteran of that awful conflict, I was absolutely riveted by the tale of Augie and his buddies, and every word rang true.” – Homer Hickam.


The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash. New York, New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins, a 2018 paperback reprint of a 2017 release. 378 pages with an 18-pages of “Insights, Interviews & More.” Trade paperback, $15.99.

This novel won the Southern Book Award in Literary Fiction for 2017 and was named a Best Book of 2017 by both the American Library Association and the Chicago Public Library.  Cash’s debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was a New York Times best-seller. This, his third novel, The Last Ballad, centers on the life and murder of Ella May Wiggins (1900-1929) a ballad singer from the Smoky Mountains who worked at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina, and lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood called Stumptown. Two of her seven children died of malnutrition, and she became active in the National Textile Workers Union, where she was an advocate for equality for women and African-Americans. She composed and sang ballads to tell the stories of union struggles.  On September 14, 1929, she was shot to death by company men. She was pregnant at the time she was shot, and her children ranged in age from eleven years to one year old. Wiley Cash was actually born and raised in Gastonia, and has lived in West Virginia and Western North Carolina. He now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. “A powerful book that speaks to contemporary concerns through historical injustice… Cash vividly blends the archival with the imaginative… With care and steadiness, (Cash) has pulled from the wreckage of the past a lost moment of Southern progressivism. - New York Times Book Review. A heartbreaking and beautifully written look at the real people involved in the labor movement.” - Kirkus Reviews. “Beautifully and evocatively written, The Last Ballad should take a place on the honor roll of Southern fiction that will stand the test of time… Cash deftly builds the suspense and tension about what will happen, and why and when… One powerful and haunting story.” Greensboro News & Record. “Cash pulls no punches in this gorgeous, gut-wrenching novel, and that’s entirely as it should be for a story of desperate people. In an era when American workers are besieged as they haven’t been since the Great Depression, I can think of no more relevant novel for our times.” - Ben Fountain


Allegheny Odyssey by L. Cooper. Anchorage, Alaska: self-published, 2018. 255 pages. Trade paperback, $12.99.

Conflict of interest disclosure: Linda Cooper was one of my Berea College student workers when I was manager of the Appalachian Book and Record Shop for the Council of the Southern Mountains in 1979, and she was married for quite a while to a friend of mine. She grew up in West Virginia’s beautiful Canaan Valley before it was discovered by very many tourists and moved easily from being a social worker to becoming an administrator and grant-writer for social service programs and environmental groups.  She now manages her Canaan Valley home as a bed and breakfast while living with her daughter in Alaska. Cooper’s novel is an exciting, funny, and suspenseful romp through West Virginia with a young woman who is fleeing her ex-husband with enough lottery winnings to do good deeds and not have financial worries. Even if you don’t love West Virginia or connect with the particular festivals, parks, and other points of interest that the protagonist, Laurie, cavorts through, this may easily be a delightful fictional ride for you.


Last Mountain Dancer, Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life by Chuck Kinder. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, a 2018 paperback reprint of a 2004 hardback release. 455 pages. Trade paperback, $23.99.

The Press claims this is a novel, but it sure reads like a travelogue covering a trip that Chuck Kinder takes back to his home state of West Virginia while on sabbatical from his job teaching writing at the University of Pittsburg. Probably the Press feels like Kinder must surely be exaggerating, but how do you explain that this book cemented Kinder reputation as one of West Virgina’s “Outlaw Authors” along with the late Lee Maynard?  Probably some readers believe every word in it. Publishers Weekly exclaimed, “At the beginning of this bawdy, in your face, hugely entertaining bear of a book, Kinder explains that he intends to tell readers about his home state, West Virginia, land of ‘legendary mountain dancers, moonshiners, stupendous marijuana farmers, snakehandlers, blood-feudists, mystery midgets, mothmen [and] horny space aliens who drop into my home state as regular as clock-work in order to engage in extra-terrestrial sex with a multitude of juicy West Virginia majorettes’. . . . Family members, old drinking buddies, new drinking buddies and a host of others flood the narrative. Sparks fly, plans are hatched, threats are made and a lot of legally questionable activity is engaged in, and Kinder's fine prose relates it all. . . Kinder's unflappable, humble demeanor and heartbreaking humanity hold this sometimes unwieldy book together.” Booklist exudes, "West Virginians want the world at large to know they can be as bland and boring and ordinary as anybody else in this television-leveled land called homogenized America. That all sounds fine on paper until native son and novelist Kinder, on sabbatical from the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh, returns there and begins explaining it. Colorful enough to inspire Michael Douglas' character, Grady Tripp, in the movie Wonder Boys, Kinder starts with the most interesting West Virginian available: himself. . . . Those who can manage the journey will discover sweet secrets of this overlooked place.”


Snakehunter by Chuck Kinder. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, a 2018 reprint of a 1973 release from Knopf, reprinted in 1991 by Gnomon. 212 pages. Trade paperback, $19.99.

This is the coming-of-age story of Speer Whitfield, growing up in 1940s West Virginia. It is a compelling and artfully-done novel, never really surpassed by Kinder who wrote three more novels and three poetry collections and enjoyed a career as a creative writing teacher and a reputation as one of West Virginia’s “Outlaw Authors,” along with the late Lee Maynard. Is it autobiographical? Probably at least to a considerable degree. “A language feast, sweet and sad as the West Virginia landscape it describes. Ahead of its time when first published, this important novel now at last has a chance to find its true audience.” - Ed McClanahan. “A beautifully achieved novel, wrought in a prose warmed and contoured with kind of a sculptor’s touch, evoked in crystal-bright incidents which bend neither to sentiment nor easy bitterness.” - Scott Turow. “An excellent novel about a West Virginia childhood. Kinder has, to begin with, a good sense of his region: he has rested his story on the firmest possible bases, namely character and place. His dialogue, particularly that of his female characters, is first rate. One would like to secure for this excellently crafted book all the readers one can. - Larry McMurtry.


Countdown: A Jesse Sutherlin Mystery by Frederick Ramsay. Scottsdale, Arizona: Poisoned Pen Press, 2018. 178 pages. Trade paperback, $15.95.

This mystery novel is a sequel to Ramsay’s Copper Kettle. It is set in 1928, eight years after Copper Kettle, in the same area surrounding Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County, Virginia, near the present-day Blue Ridge Parkway. The plot is set off by the sheriff’s discovery of the body of the father of protagonist Jesse Sutherlin, a sawmill worker. The mystery is compounded by the fact that Sutherlin had been notified ten years earlier that his father had died of the Spanish flu while seeking work in Norfolk and that the body was missing both money and a valuable watch. Booklist gave this novel a starred review and wrote: "The cast is delightful, especially Jesse's wife, Serena, a 'sweet mountain girl' who's smarter and tougher than he is and who can't resist letting him know. And a sheriff who hates criminals because they make him work.” Kirkus Reviews advised, "The late Ramsay's second and last adventure for Jesse Sutherlin brings his hero home from the Great War to a world unknowingly on the brink of further disaster. . . . Ramsay's final salute to his hero, completed by his friend and admirer Dana Stabenow, is a fitting conclusion to a career spent chronicling the exploits of hardworking folks in rural America." Publishers Weekly opined, "Unforgettable characters lift Ramsay's sequel. . . . While unraveling the mystery is fun, the novel's real pleasure lies in experiencing life - with all its kindnesses, sorrows, and triumphs - through the eyes of Jesse and his astute wife, Serena." Ramsay was born in Baltimore and did graduate work in Chicago. He worked as both a medical school faculty member and an Episcopal priest. He retired to Arizona and wrote seventeen mysteries before his recent death.


Their Houses by Meredith Sue Willis. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018. 245 pages with Reading and Discussion Questions. Trade paperback, $19.99.

Meredith Sue Willis is one of the true treasures of Appalachian Literature. Her writing career got off to a terrific start with three novels from major New York publishers, A Space Apart (1979), Higher Ground (1981) and Only Great Changes (1985).  Her four subsequent novels, her four short story collections, her four youth novels, and her four books about the writing process as well as reprints of her first three novels have found publishers she wants to help and that she just likes. A native of Shinnston, West Virginia, where her father was a local businessman and her mother a teacher, Willis knows and respects our region well.  She married a physician and has lived her adult life in Metropolitan New York City, where she is active in an organization devoted to preserving neighborhood diversity, so she has a very cosmopolitan outlook. That shows in this book which follows three childhood friends into adulthood where they follow very different paths, from a survivalist to a fundamentalist preacher’s wife, to physician’s wife. “With deep sympathy for her characters, Willis writes in lucid and compelling prose about one of the dark undersides of American life. Their Houses reads fast, as a compelling series of mysteries, and reminds us of how much legacy we all carry, not only in our bodies and our genes but in our stories.” - Jane Lazarre, “Every move in this jolt-filled tale—told in the sweet, slyly humorous cadences of West Virginia—is perfect. Willis has the stuff from beginning to end.” - Diane Simmons. “Full of surprising twists and turns, this sharp, tough-minded, compelling novel takes us deeply into its high-low milieus and conflicted characters. . . . it’s a terrific read.” - Phillip Lopate.



Always Been a Rambler: G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, County Music Pioneers of Southern Appalachia by Josh Beckworth.  Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2018. 226 pages with an Index, Notes, and Bibliography, and photos. Trade paperback, $25.00.

Grayson and Whitter were two of the most influential recording artists in the early days of country music, and this book tells their story. G. B. Grayson (1887-1930) was a blind fiddle player and singer whose life centered geographically around the tri-state area of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, though he also occasionally busked at West Virginia coal camps. He was born in Ashe County, North Carolina, mostly lived across the border in Johnson County, Tennessee, and died across the border in Damascas, Virginia, while riding on the running board of a car.  He adapted many traditional tunes, and his versions have been recorded by Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Ralph Stanley and other very well-known musicians.  Henry Whitter (1892-1941) was born in Grayson County, Virginia, and learned to play the guitar at an early age. Later he mastered the harmonica and other instruments. His recording career began in 1923, the first year that what became known as old-time and country music was recorded, with Okeh Records of New York City. By 1926, he was able to quit his job at the Fries Washington Mill, and in 1927 he recorded for Victor Records at the famous Bristol Sessions. That same year he met G. B. Grayson at a fiddler’s convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, and they became the Grayson & Whitter Duo. Together they recorded many songs that later became bluegrass, old-time, and country standards, including the first version of Tom Dooley, Nine Pound Hammer, and Banks of the Ohio. Upon the death of G. B. Grayson, Whitter never again recorded.  He died of diabetes in Morganton, North Carolina. The author, Josh Beckworth, is a high school English teacher who lives in Ashe County, North Carolina.


Don’t You Ever: My Mother and Her Secret Son by Mary Carter Bishop. New York, New York: Harper/HarperCollins, 2018. 247 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $27.99.

I found this book really difficult to put down. The combination of the subject matter and the skill of the writer grabbed me from the beginning. It is a memoir by a woman whose life is shattered when she discovers that she has a half-brother whose very existence has been kept a secret for decades. How does that change her relationship with her mother?  And what can she expect when she reaches out to her half-brother nine years after learning that he exists?  And what about the three years after that while he is dying?  This story plays out in the Shenandoah Valley and nearby Charlottesville, where the chasm between people brought up like the author and those brought up like her half-brother, Ronnie, exists but is seldom fully comprehended or confronted. “In this profound memoir, Bishop takes an open-hearted and unflinching look at a family history that is equal parts love story and requiem for a brother she barely knew. Bishop turns her formidable investigative journalism skills inward to unearth long-simmering class and culture divides in bucolic rural Virginia.” - Beth Macy. “Bishop is a seasoned award-winning newspaper reporter who reveals a fascinating segment of her life in clear, unflinching style.... [Don’t You Ever is] brave and terrific.” - Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a stared review and commented, “Bishop digs deep into her own past, exposing class structure...genteel poverty, self-loathing, and self-doubt in a deeply honest manner… This powerful tale lays bare the cancer of shame and its often devastating results.”  Kirkus Reviews stated, “The narrative moves fluidly… Both of the author’s key subjects come across as baffling, complicated individuals, deserving of love and respect despite their flaws, shaped by a society that viewed a mother who had a child out of wedlock as shameful. A precise and honest depiction of a family wound that has still not entirely healed.”


The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Mamma’s Table by Rick Bragg. New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 487 pages with photos. Hardback in dust jacket, $28.95

Those who are aware of Rick Bragg’s hugely popular following for all nine of his previous books, along with true national best-selling status for two of them, will not be surprised that Knopf was willing to publish a book of his despite its 487-page length!  Bragg was born in Piedmont, Alabama, and raised nearby in Possum Trot, in Northeast Alabama. He worked for a variety of newspapers before starting with the New York Times in 1994. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his feature writing for the Times. Then in 2003 he resigned from the Times after a minor bruhaha over what some thought was lack of credit given to an intern who worked with him on a story that bore his by-line.  This book does have seventy-four recipes in its 487 pages, but even the recipes resemble stories.  Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, "Heartfelt, often hilarious stories from an Alabama kitchen, a place from which issue wondrous remembrances and wondrous foods alike...Affectionate, funny, and beautifully written: a book for every fan of real food." Publisher Weekly also starred it, "Bragg’s entertaining memoir is a testament that cooking and food still bind culture together." And Library Journal also put a star on their review. "A beautifully written memoir... For readers who crave soul with their recipes this is a fitting tribute to foodways that are fast escaping."


Moon – Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip by Jason Frye. Berkeley, California: Avalon Travel/Perseus Books/Hatchett Book Group, 2018. 358 pages with maps, photos, and Index. Trade paperback, $19.99.

The strength and the weakness of this guide book is that it includes information on towns and cities near the Parkway.  If you love the fact that there are no billboards on the Parkway, and you want to eat and camp or stay right on the Parkway, this is not the book for you. But if you see the Parkway as a road to towns and cities where you want to choose a good restaurant, then this book is just right. It is quite specific, giving you a 14-day road trip, Four days from D.C., and Five days from Knoxville. The Suggested Reading list is probably the greatest weakness and tells you that you won’t get the history, botany or geology you sometimes get in guide books, but the author works as a dining critic for the Wilmington [North Carolina] StarNews, so you can trust his suggestions for restaurants in towns and cities near the Parkway. And he does have a good section on music venues on and near the Parkway.


Moon - Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Jason Frye. Berkeley, California: Avalon Travel/Perseus Books/Hatchett Book Group, 2017. 184 pages with maps, photos, and Index. Trade paperback, $17.99.

This book is best suited for those who really do want guidance, who want concrete suggested itineraries for a day or a week, who want specific short suggestions for what the highlights of the Park really are – both the popular venues and the out-of-the-way options.  The photos are wonderful, and it is really easy to quickly find what you want. Yet, it fails to explain when the Cades Cove Loop Road has the least traffic or other details that could be really helpful, and the books on his Suggested Reading list are certainly not what I would choose. The author, Jason Frye, grew up in Southern West Virginia and now lives on the North Carolina coast. He is a feature writer and dining critic for the Wilmington StarNews.


Southern Folk Medicine: Healing Traditions from the Appalachian Fields and Forests by Phyllis D. Light. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2018. 278 pages with a foreword by Rosemary Gladstar, an Afterword by Matthew Wood, and an Index. Trade paperback, $21.95.

The author, Phillis D. Light, is the director of the Appalachian Center for Natural Health in Arab, Alabama, on Sand Mountain. She is a fourth generation herbalist and healer and claims kin to Creek and Cherokee foremothers. She was a close friend and early student of Tommie Bass (1908-1996) who lived and practiced nearby and was arguably one of the most well-known herbal healers of his generation.  This book considers, Native American, African-American, and European folk medicine as well as the influence of religion upon folk medicine. It has chapters on each of the four basic elements: fire, air, water, and earth. “Written in an easy-to-understand and autobiographical manner, this book will open your mind to a new way of understanding well-being, illness, and health.” – David Winston. “This book is a treasure! It is at once charming to read and chock-full of plant wisdom. . . . Light is able to remain true to her ancestral roots of Southern Appalachian herbal medicine. As such, it inspires our deeper appreciation for Southern Folk Medicine.” – Michael Tierra. “On every page there’s a richly told story, a brilliant passage, a bit of wisdom or practical advice about health and healing that makes the kind of sense that only folk traditions do.” – Rosemary Gladstar.


Top Trails: Shenandoah National Park: 50 Must-Do Hikes for Everyone, Second Edition by Johnny Molloy. Birmingham, Alabama: Wilderness Press, 2018. 331 pages with an Index, Appendix, maps, charts, and photos. Trade paperback. $18.95.

Johnny Molloy is one of America’s most prolific and distinguished authors of guide books. He became enamored of the outdoor life as a student at the University of Tennessee who loved the Smokies, and now lives in Johnson City, Tennessee. He has written over 60 guide books!  This book incorporates all the features that have made Molloy a leader in his profession. Icons in the margins really highlight the distinguishing features of each hike, including waterfalls, streams, great views, ridgeline, summit, autumn colors, geological interest, historical interest, old-growth forest, wildflowers, etc. Topo maps, photos, elevation profiles, milestones, and text bring it all together clear as a bell.



Clinch River by Susan Hankla. Roanoke, Virginia: Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017. 81 pages. Trade paperback, $14.00.

The fact that this book is part of a tangled web of relationships fraught with creativity and rare distinction should be viewed as a positive.  Groundhog Poetry Press was founded in 2016 by R.H.W. Dillard not long before his 80th birthday. He is a Roanoke native who has been a mainstay of the Hollins University faculty since Lee Smith and Annie Dillard were roommates there. In fact, Richard and Annie were married – hence the same last name - before his subsequent marriage and divorce with Cathryn Hankla, a Hollins University faculty member who Dillard published first upon establishing his press in 2016. Susan Hankla is Cathy’s sister. The sisters were raised in Richlands, Virginia, in the coal fields, where their mother was the town librarian. The 300-mile-long Clinch River flows through Richlands on its way to Kingston, Tennessee, its confluence with the Tennessee River.  “There ought to be some hoopla for Susan Hankla’s Clinch River. Her pure Americana—ghosts, abandoned houses, unfinished dreams, and censored lives . . .  can really move mountains and sing.” – Richard Peabody.  “Wry humor and colloquial tone . . . characterizes her collection. Here everyone is connected: by poverty and history, by region and community, by shared stories, and by slant, often wildly funny, perceptions. . . . The author’s sense of the absurd and her love for all that is odd, original and spare animates this memorable, voice-driven, debut collection. – Joan Houlihan. “These sound-loving poems of the Appalachian South give us the truth of place and memory. They tangle coming-of-age stories with hard times in coal country. They juxtapose the girl who cannot leave, clinched by poverty’s snares, with the girl who goes away and can return for the treasure, the gold that lies buried in her childhood: these poems, these golden apples. Take them!” – Marly Youmans.



Hope in the Holler by Lisa Lewis Tyre. New York, New York: Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin, 2018. 314 pages. Hardback in dust jacket. $16.99.

This is a middle-school novel for grades 5-8, and I will let School Library Journal tell you what it is about because I cannot do it with their verve or innuendo: “When her mother passes away from cancer, middle-schooler Wavie B. Conley comes under the care of Samantha Rose, the cruel aunt she's never met. Samantha Rose and Wavie's extended family are crude, verbally abusive slobs, and their run-down Kentucky neighborhood of Conley Holler is the opposite of the quiet life Wavie enjoyed with her mother. Wavie learns that Samantha Rose has taken her in for the sole purpose of frivolously spending Wavie's mother's social security checks. Wavie immediately knows: she can't stay in Conley Holler—known to the locals as Convict Holler—a second longer. With help from her new friends, the rough-and-tumble Gilbert and the super-student Camille, Wavie discovers a secret her mother kept from her…one that might rescue her from Samantha Rose's clutches. This is a masterpiece of middle grade fiction, at once summoning the timelessness of life in rural America while blending in modern elements, such as cell phones, Wal-Mart, and the Internet.”  Kirkus gave it a starred review, apparently not stunned by the idea that Wal-Mart, the Internet and cell phones have penetrated Eastern Kentucky hollers. “Wavie has a delightfully memorable first-person voice that includes pithy observations, such as "If the [war on poverty] was over, my new neighborhood was proof we'd lost." She's so engaged with the people around her that her perceptions breathe full life into a range of characters, from the school principal who high-fives students (while secretly checking for lice) to an elderly, confused ex-lawyer grieving for his beloved lost son. A moving and richly engaging tale of despair and redemption.”