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March 2019 Reviews

March 2019 Reviews


Past Due for Murder by Victoria Gilbert. New York: Crooked Lane Books/The Quick Brown Fox and Company, 2019. 297 pages. Hardback in dust jacket. $26.99.

The title and the cover illustration reinforce the series title: A Blue Ridge Library Mystery. And what more could we want than to have our murder mysteries solved by an endearing librarian?  Certainly, that is the perspective of the author, Victoria Gilbert, who happens to be a librarian who writes murder mysteries! And the setting is appropriate for an author who grew up in the shadow of the Blue Ridge and lives in North Carolina. It all starts with the question on page 5, “Have you seen Lacy?”  Is she the murderer or the murdered or neither? And will this spoil the effort of our librarian, Amy Webber, to resurrect a meaningful May Day Celebration in Taylorsford, Virginia? “Gilbert weaves a well-paced, engaging story with strong characters.”―NY Journal of Books.” I look forward to the next book and highly recommend you read not only this one, but the two before it."―MyShelf


LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019. 283 pages with a “Selected Bibliography of Same-Sex Desire in Appalachian Literature.” Trade paperback, $29.99.

The thing about doing an anthology of LGBTQ fiction and poetry from Appalachia is that you have as distinguished and accomplished a group of writers as you would have if you just did an anthology of Appalachian fiction and poetry or even an anthology of American fiction and poetry. I mean, Dorothy Allison, Lisa Alther, doris davenport . . . And who would you choose to do any kind of literary anthology? Who better than Jeff Mann and Julia Watts??  If I was again teaching a course on Appalachian Literature, this would be one of my required books. “This collection, through its poetry and prose, maps the queer ecology of Appalachia and the voices that construct themselves in relation to the landscape and the cultural imagination of the place. Each piece in the book unfolds as paradox of both belonging (being from and of a place) and nearly complete alienation.” - Stacey Waite. “A gratifying diversity of multigenerational voices, styles, and attitudes. The theme of loyalty to place paired with queer identity results in marvelous poetry and fiction.” - Felice Picano. Jeff Mann is a multi-genre writer whose work includes much more than memoir, distinguished nature poems, and cutting-edge homoerotic fiction. He hails from West Virginia and teaches at Virginia Tech. Julia Watts teaches at South College in Knoxville and in the Murray State University low-residency MFA Program. An Eastern Kentucky native, she is the author of over a dozen novels for both the young adult and the trade audience.


Miss Julia Takes the Wheel by Ann B. Ross. New York: Viking/Penguin Random House, 2019. 310 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $27.00.

This is the twentieth (count ‘em) Miss Julia novel from Ann B. Ross and her 24th novel overall. What an amazing accomplishment! And some of them were New York Times best-sellers!  It all started when her children were in college, and she decided she should also go to college. After earning her degree at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, she went to Chapel Hill and earned both a masters and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina and began to teach at UNC-A. In 1999 her third book and her first in the Miss Julia series, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, was such an amazing success that she quit teaching and has been a full-time writer ever since. An interviewer once asked her when she knew what she had just written was good. She answered, “I know it’s good when I fall off my chair laughing.” She lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina.



Wild Yet Tasty: A Guide to Edible Plants of Eastern Kentucky by Dan Dourson and Judy Dourson. Lexington, Kentucky: South Limestone Books/University Press of Kentucky, 2019. 36 pages, illustrated by Dan Dourson. Trade paperback, $14.95.

This little book presents one page for each of 22 Eastern Kentucky plants that are claimed to be tasty – some may prefer the term, “edible.”  Each of these pages has at least one drawing and short essays on three topics, “Identification and Habitat,” “Edible Parts,” and “Best Time to Harvest.” The plants range from the obvious, like blackberry, to the questionable, like sumac. The largest group, eight, are actually trees. Supplementary pages include a Glossary, References, “Preparing Wild Foods,” “Pictorial Description of Terms,” and an Introduction. Dan Dourson is the author of seven previous books dealing with the natural history of the Appalachians and Latin America, including two earlier editions of essentially this book under the title, Red River Gorge’s Wild Yet Tasty, in 1984 and 2017. For nearly twenty years, Dan Dourson, was a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service in the Red River Gorge.  His wife, Judy, is a retired educator who has worked closely with Dan as a researcher, technician, and editor.


Sergeant Sandlin: Kentucky’s Forgotten Hero by James M. Gifford. Ashland, Kentucky: The Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2018. 270 pages with an Index, Chronology, Appendices, color and black-and-white photographs and other illustrations. 7” X 9.5” hardback with pictorial cover, $35.00.

Willie Sandlin (1890-1949) was born on Long’s Creek in Breathitt County, Kentucky. When he was ten, his father was jailed on a murder charge, and his mother died in childbirth, so he went to live with his father’s kin on Hell-Fer-Sartin Creek in Leslie County. He joined the U. S. Army in 1913 and in 1917 was sent to Europe to fight in World War I. On September 26, 1918, during the Battle of Bois de Forges in France, he destroyed three German gun nests and killed twenty-four enemy combatants. In February 1919, General John J. Pershing awarded Sandlin the Medal of Honor for his "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.” When Sandlin was discharged from the service in 1919, he took the train to Hazard and walked the last ten miles back to Leslie County. The next year he married, and worked as a farm hand, W.P.A. road builder, and small farmer. He did volunteer work with Cora Wilson Stewart, the education advocate, and with the Frontier Nursing Service. In 1923 his army benefits were cut from $40 a month to $10 a month despite the lung disease he experienced as a result of exposure to poison gas during the war. Two of his six daughters died in childhood, and his only son became a successful pharmacist. For 33 years, the author, Dr. James M. Gifford, has been the head of the Jesse Stuart Foundation. During that time, he has published and edited 150 books by Jesse Stuart and about Stuart’s beloved Eastern Kentucky.


Modern Moonshine: The Revival of White Whiskey in the Twenty-First Century edited by Cameron D. Lippard and Bruce E. Stewart. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019. 291 pages with an Index, maps, tables, and photos. Trade paperback, $29.99.

You gotta admit, moonshine is resilient. Arguably first prominent because it was an easier way to transport corn to markets; then it became essentially a part of a kind of “outlaw” culture of defying the law back in the woods and out on the highways. It almost disappeared when alcohol became readily available and growing pot or making meth became more lucrative for outlaws. Now moonshine, like craft beer and local food, has become almost an expression of hip entrepreneurship for an adoring public! All this is a perfect focus for the kind of sociologists and historians who wear blue jeans to work. This book brings together eleven scholarly essays divided into three sections: “Socially Constructing the Origins of the Modern Moonshine Revival,” “The Legalization and Marketing of Modern Moonshine,” and “Historic Preservation and Tourism in the Making of Moonshine.” "I like this book very much. The editors have brought together a wide range of scholarly voices, and their essays, taken together, give an excellent overview of the state of modern moonshine." - Michael Lewis. The co-editors are Cameron Lippard, a sociologist, and Bruce Stewart, a historian, both at Appalachian State.


Stilled Life by Sam Stapleton. Bulls Gap, Tennessee: Bloodroot Mountain Press, 2018. 131 pages with poems by George Ella Lyon and Diane Gilliam, an Image Index and Notes, and full-page color photographs throughout. 10” X 12” hardback with pictorial cover, $40.00.

The “life” in this book is the life of beautiful flowers, and it is “stilled” because Sam Stapleton picked them at their height of beauty and put them in a pan of water and froze them. After they were frozen, he photographed them with back lighting both completely frozen and when the water melted. The results are both astonishing and gorgeous. Then to offer some context to the photographs, he has added six poems from George Ella Lyon and four from Diane Gilliam, all of which refer to flowers but expand to illuminate all of life. This book is not for everyone, but it is a book that many will cherish. Sam Stapleton relates that forty years ago he was pursuing rock and roll concert photography, and thirty years ago his subjects were architecture and landscapes; twenty years ago he was immersed in parenthood and working in finance for a university medical center. He has been photographing flowers for ten years, and he has been photographing frozen flowers for six years. Diane Gilliam is an Ohio poet whose ancestors have roots in Eastern Kentucky. She has published four poetry books. George Ella Lyon is a former Kentucky Poet Laureate who has written books for all ages.


Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor. New York: HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2019. 238 Pages with Notes and Recommended Reading. Hardback in dust jacket, $25.99.

Barbara Brown Taylor made the cover of Time in a remarkably unusual way. She lived in Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, and Alabama before earning her undergraduate degree at Emory University in Atlanta, followed by a degree at Yale Divinity School and ordination as an Episcopalian Priest. After serving as a priest in Atlanta, she took a job at Grace-Calvary Church in Clarksville, Georgia, where she fell in love with the Blue Ridge mountains. Then she became a professor at nearby Piedmont College. Now she is a farmer nearby, and also an author whose thirteen books include two New York Times best-sellers. The title of this book refers to the book’s focus: her experience of learning by teaching a course at Piedmont on World Religions. She found herself envying much of the spirituality she found in other religions and even disowning some of her own conceptions as she learned from the spiritual journeys of her students and those they encountered at monasteries, temples, and mosques. Ultimately, she found her own Christianity energized and expanded and enlightened by the experience. “In showing up for the complex beauty of all the world’s great wisdom traditions, Barbara finds her way home to her own faith. Among the finest memoirs I have ever read of the life of a teacher.” - Mirabai Starr. “Taylor nudges her students away from spiritual appropriation and comparison, moving them instead toward challenging discernment of their faith and the faith of others. Taylor, like the best faith leaders, is a great storyteller. . . . Highly recommended.” - Booklist (starred review). “Engrossing, delightful...In short, it is a timely and important book.” - Psychological Perspectives.



Woman in Red Anorak by Marc Harshman. Spokane, Washington: Lynx House Press, 2018. 63 pages. Trade paperback. $17.95.

I admit I looked it up. An anorak is a waterproof, hooded, pull-over jacket, and in British slang it also refers to a person with a strong interest, perhaps obsessive, in niche subjects. But, don’t worry, Marc Harshman actually is very down-to-earth and seldom throws around terms designed to show how much smarter he is than you. Yes, his poems are challenging, and they do almost always provide a springboard for deeper thoughts, but they are not obscure and laced with difficult references. “I have admired for years Marc Harshman’s poetry for its sanity and its eye on our great teacher, history. In this captivating book, Harshman leads us inside a startling rapid-lens simultaneity of events: wars, environmental annihilations, deaths of elders, loves lost and restored, and mysteriously, strangers’ missives and actions which inspire the poet to declare, ‘I am suspicious of magic and compromise, / and satisfied to simply make room for wonders.’ This is a great gift, of course, as it means these poems are the kind we return to and re-read.  . . . Accompanying the breathtaking invisibles, always, are real and present people and things, beheld in beauty.” – Judith Vollmer. “There are no comforting answers in this sobering, absorbing work, but there is the fierce courage and honesty to ask the questions.” – Lynn Emanuel.


WWJD and Other Poems by Savannah Sipple. Little Rock, Arkansas: Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019. 66 pages. Trade paperback, $15.95.

Proceed – if the title of the very first poem in this collection, “I Want You to Fuck Me,” entices you rather than turns you off.  You immediately know that Savannah Sipple is a straight shooter; you will also soon learn that she is comfortable about being queer. These poems take us along for the ride she is navigating away from the parts of a fundamentalist Eastern Kentucky background that shamed her – “a girl that fat should have bigger tits” - and into a full acceptance of who she is. Savannah Sipple is not trying to freak the reader out. She is welcoming the reader into a world that grapples with crucial questions directly, colloquially, wisely, and artistically. “Purging shame with every line, these poems love the Kentucky from which they rise as much as they reject the self-hatred that place instilled in a girl neither thin nor straight, and ultimately (and yes, even miraculously), emerge blatant about desire and body-proud.” – Nicole Brown. “The mingling of fear, eros, and outright violence in these poems is handled with that rare combination of vulnerability and tough candor--as well as a laugh-out-loud humor infused with Kentucky idiom . . . Considering again Sipple's title for this collection: What would Jesus do? . . . Savannah Sipple has been listening. To all of us. Let's stop hiding, y'all. And give a big welcome to one of our most vital new poets.” Justin Bigos. “This is an arresting and triumphant debut."- Julie Marie Wade. The author, Savannah Sipple, taught community college in Eastern Kentucky, and now lives in Lexington.


Grave Robber Confessional by Larry Thacker. Charlotte, North Carolina: Main Street Rag, 2019. 80 pages. Trade paperback, $14.00

In this remarkable poetry collection, Larry Thacker figuratively robs the graves of the dead and confesses to an obsession with the power and the inevitability and the profundity and the omnipresence of death in our lives. “In this beautifully crafted, multifaceted narrative, that examines the ultimate human curiosity, Larry Thacker persists in piercing the ‘stubborn membrane’ of obsession and passing – people, land, tradition, loyalties memory. Yet this collection of characters, places, and perspectives is as light as it is dark, as hilarious as it is poignant, as enlightening, as it is necessarily opaque. While we travel his liminal landscape, the ghostly become gift and our blind future curiously seductive.” Darnell Arnoult. Larry Thacker grew up in Middlesboro and served it as a local politician while working nearby at Lincoln Memorial University in several important positions. Then love called him to Johnson City, Tennessee, where he now lives. His dedication to writing has resulted in a book of paranormal folklore, Mountain Mysteries, a poetry collection before this, and two chapbooks. It also brought him to and through the West Virginia Wesleyan low residency MFA program.




Over the Moon by Natalie Lloyd.  New York: Scholastic Press, 2019. 290 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $ 16.99.

Twelve-year-old Mallie Ramble lives in Coal Top, on top of the mountain where her father worked as a coal miner. Now Mallie supports her parents and little brother by working as a maid for a rich family down in the valley. They pity her because she was born without a forearm, and treat her with dismissive insensitivity. But soon this youth novel leaves the world of realism and ventures wholeheartedly into a fantasy world where Mallie can train flying horses and rescue her family from financial hardship. “Over the Moon is a lyrical adventure through a marvelous and strange world. I loved every moment of it.” – Jonathan Auxier. "Lloyd presents a bleak portrait of a fantasy-world mining community that faces similar challenges to the ones in our own real world, but Mallie's story is essentially one of daring journeys and heroic adventure." -- Horn Book. "Lloyd deftly sketches oppressive social and economic circumstances and firmly establishes Mallie's bravery." -- Publishers Weekly. “This tale sparkles like the stars that once shone above Mallie Ramble’s mountain. I am over the moon for Natalie Lloyd’s testament to love, hope, and perseverance – Kirby Larsen. This is the third youth novel of the author, Natalie Lloyd, whose previous novel was a New York Times best-seller. She lives in Chattanooga where she collects old books and listens to bluegrass music.


Bone’s Gift by Angie Smibert. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Boyd’s Mills Press/Highlights, 2018.  249 pages. Trade paperback. $9.95.

Laurel “Bone” Phillips is a twelve-year-old girl in 1942 living in the fictional town of Big Vein, Virginia, a coal camp near the New River. Supernatural gifts have been handed down to her family members for generations, and she begins to realize that she is developing the gift of seeing happenings from the past by holding objects.  She finds joy in holding a fiddle, but sadness when holding an arrowhead that killed a deer. Holding her mother’s yellow sweater brings both sad and joyful feelings, but when she is warned that her mother’s gift is what killed her, Bone’ s quest for understanding takes on a whole new urgency.  This youth novel is the first of a trilogy. “In a genuine voice that sucks readers into Appalachia during World War II, Smibert tells an absorbing coming-of-age story. The narrative has the feel of the Appalachian folktales that the protagonist loves so much, with a mix of realism and magic. Smibert weaves the folktales intricately into the story. Middle graders won’t want Bone’s story to end.” – School Library Journal.  The author, Angie Smibert, grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, and now lives in Roanoke. She is the author of several youth books of both fiction and non-fiction and worked for ten years at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.


Lingering Echoes by Angie Smibert. Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Boyd’s Mill Press/Highlights, 2019. 176 pages. Hardback in dust jacket. $17.95.

This is the second book in a trilogy of youth novels called “Ghosts of Ordinary Objects,” because the protagonist, twelve-year-old Bone Phillips, has inherited a gift – the ability to see happenings from the past by holding objects. Bone is living in a coal camp near Virginia’s New River.  Her mother is dead, and her father is fighting in World War II. All she has left is her best friend, Will Kincaid, whose father died in the coal mines. Will she lose him or gain a deeper relationship if she uses her gift to learn more about Will’s dad by holding his jelly jar? The author, Angie Smibert, grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, and now lives in Roanoke. She is the author of several youth books of both fiction and non-fiction and worked for ten years at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.