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September 2020 Reviews

September 2020 Reviews


Cattywampus by Ash Van Otterloo. New York: Scholastic Press: 2020. 288 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, 17.95.

This middle grade novel is set in Howler’s Hollow. The two young narrators of the book are Delpha McGill and Katybird Hearn, both of whom consider themselves witches and who come from rival mountain families with a history of feuding. Will the hex that went haywire bring the two together?  Watch out for zombie grannies and an enchanted outhouse. The author lived in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, but now resides in Bremerton, Washington. This is her first book.



An Outlier’s Tribe: Growing up between Appalachia and the Liberal Coast by Morgan K. Edwards. Potomac, Maryland: New Degree Press, 2020. 146 pages. Trade paperback, $16.99.

The author grew up in Frostburg, Maryland, and attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. True, Frostburg is way up North for Southern Appalachia, and a regional university is its largest employer, but it is in Allegany County where Donald J. Trump secured 72% of the vote in 2016. Outside of his hometown is an incomplete structure with signs indicating that it is Noah’s Ark under construction. Some of the mountains near Frostburg rise over 3,000 feet, higher than the elevation in many Appalachian localities.  Yes, Morgan Edwards does have Appalachian bona fides. And Bowdoin really is a selective liberal arts college way up in New England. This is a memoir of a young man who is forthright and has put considerable thought into the cultural divides of today’s America. "In An Outlier's Tribe, Morgan Edwards brings both head and heart in his analysis of the politics and people of his native Appalachia. It is a smart, well-written book that brings intellectual and emotional depth to a topic that is so poorly understood and which has implications for communities in all of America's 50 states." -- Alec Ross. "Morgan Edwards possesses the rare ability to weave together personal experience and broad ideas, uncovering the complexity of Appalachia and many of its current issues. In An Outlier's Tribe, Morgan provokes thought and conversation during this critical time in our country's history." -- Sally Rubin. "Morgan Edwards' thoughtful reflections provide a much needed window and youthful spotlight on great social challenges of our times.” – Bradley Babson.

Did I Sleep in My 66 Ford for This: Mayberry to Nashville, a Songwriter’s Journey by Larry Alderman. Nashville: self-published: 2020. 139 pages. Trade paperback, $15.00.

Larry Alderman started keeping a journal in 1971 when he was 19 and first came to Nashville from Mt. Airy, North Carolina. He began referring to his entries to create a book in 2007, but he starts the book way before that with colorful stories about his earliest years back in the North Carolina hills. If you like stories about Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Jr., and Travis Tritt and want an inside view of the Nashville scene or if you yearn to hear about growing up in the North Carolina hills, this is the book for you.



Betty by Tiffany McDaniel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020. 480 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26,95.

Yes, this is a highly-anticipated novel. An Indie Next “Great Read for September,” one of O Magazine’s “Best Books to Pick Up before Summer Ends,” one of Entertainment Weekly’s “20 Late-Summer Must-Reads for August” and that’s just the half of it. No wonder. It is compelling and lyrical. The novel is set in the Ohio hills and loosely based on the life of the author’s mother who was raised and lived there but was actually born in Arkansas to a Cherokee father and white mother. The fictional Betty is the sixth of eight children who seeks solace in the woods and in the written word. "Betty is Betty Carpenter’s gripping coming of age story and is bold, inventive and profoundly moving. It is not a story blind to the character’s abuse, but also reveals the love, sweetness, and magic in her life. Betty is too brown, too female and too poor for the world, but her story reminds us that despite all obstacles there are those blessed times when we can still manage to find our voices and sing. A triumph!”—Stephanie Powell Watts. “So engrossing!  Tiffany McDaniel's Betty is a page-turning Appalachian coming-of-age story steeped in Cherokee history, told in undulating prose that settles right into you.” —Naoise Dolan. "This novel broke my brain. The lush, hypnotic prose, the voice, so authentic and compelling, as Betty Carpenter holds your hand and leads you through a world filled with familial tragedy. Each more haunting than the last, until you're left holding your breath, with a tourniquet on your heart. This is powerful, relentless storytelling at its best." —Jamie Ford. "Tiffany McDaniel has given us a vivid and haunting portrait of the writer as a young girl. Betty Carpenter survives the brutality of her childhood through her father's stories and his steadfast belief in her own. A novel of tragedy and trouble, poetry and power, not a story you will soon forget." —Karen Joy Fowler. "I felt consumed by the ambitious enormity and sadness of this book. Betty is about the power of words and the language it is written in rings with this. I loved it, you will love it." —Daisy Johnson. This novel shares the fictional Breathed, Ohio, setting of Tiffany McDaniel’s first novel, The Summer That Melted Everything. She is a poet and visual artist born and raised in the Ohio hills.

Blue Mountains of Dan by Larry Alderman. Nashville, Tennessee: self-published, 2020. 192 pages. Trade paperback, 12.99.

Larry Alderman, one of Nashville’s most successful songwriters, became a performer himself, and now an author.  With two books this year, first a memoir, and now this, his first novel, he has turned his way with words and his nostalgia for his Western North Carolina roots into book-length manuscripts. The protagonist of this book, Dan, is fifteen-years-old, and it is 1903. Alderman weaves stories that his grandparents and great-grandparents told him, as well as the history of the region, into this novel set even deeper in the Blue Ridge than Mt. Airy where he grew up.

Daughters of the Wild: A Novel by Natalka Burian. New York: Park Row Books, 2020. 304 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, 27.99.

The foster daughters of this book set in West Virginia really are in the wild, in a family that tends the vine with rituals and devotion. Joanie’s arranged marriage goes terribly wrong and she returns with the baby to this farm where she grew up. And then her baby disappears.
"With prose as luminous and transformative as the psychoactive plant at this novel’s core, this is a book about dignity, intuition, and the sustaining vine of friendship. A perennial read. — Courtney Maum. “Daughters of the Wild is that rare thing, a gorgeously written and richly imagined page-turner that plows full speed across your heart.” – Adam Wilson. “Natalka Burian’s Daughters of the Wild is a stunning portrait of a woman seeking to recover her stolen child and her own autonomy in the face of control and confinement. Saturated with magic and mysticism, this novel is a luminous and blisteringly real exploration of the bonds of motherhood, the limits and expansiveness of love, and the possibility of transcendence.”—Jessie Chaffee. “Daughters of the Wild is a magical, gripping exploration of women’s power and the ties that bind. I was hooked by Joanie and Cello’s journeys to survive and grow and by Burian’s writing, which is as lush as the garden her characters give their all to. I won’t forget the complexity and the strength of these characters."— Danielle Lazarin. "Daughters of the Wild is a gorgeous, different, and completely engrossing book. Burian's writing is transporting - and exactly what I needed right now."— Jessica Valenti. This is Natalka Burian’s third book, after a youth novel set in Las Vegas, and A Woman’s Drink, a non-fiction book bolstered in credibility by the fact that the author co-owns two bars in Brooklyn where she lives.

The Librarian of Boone’s Hollow by Kim Vogel Sawyer. New York: WaterBrook/Penguin Random House, 2020. 368 pages with a Reader’s Guild. Trade paperback, 17.00.      

The publicity for this book pitches it unabashedly to those who enjoyed The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes and the Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Richardson, the two recent best-sellers portraying the librarians who brought books up the Eastern Kentucky hollows on pack-horses during the depression. It is great that these ladies are getting some long-deserved recognition, but I’m not particularly excited about a Christian romance writer trying to profiteer off the successes of other authors. The romance in this book is between a pack-horse librarian who is a University of Kentucky drop-out  and a local man who has just arrived back home with a college degree. Booklist gave it a starred review, and called it “a delightful look into the rich history behind the historic pack-horse librarians of Appalachian, sweeping readers into the backwoods of 1936 Kentucky with fantastic period details and dialects. . With a grace-based message of self-worth, this suspenseful historical romance is sure to charm readers.” The author of The Librarian of Boone’s Hollow is a highly successful Christian romance writer with over a million and a half copies of her sixteen books already sold in seven languages. She lives in Kansas.

Mountain Laurel by Lori Benton. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House: 2020. 464 pages with discussion questions. Trade paperback, $15.99.

When a Boston cabinetmaker arrives in the village of Mountain Laurel, North Carolina, in 1793 to claim land left him by his uncle, he has no idea what is in store for him. His uneasiness with the fact that his kinfolks own enslaved people grows as he discovers the artistic talent that Seona, owned by one of his relatives, has previously been able to hide. This is a Christian romance that features a fairly untypical pair of lovers. “Lori Benton’s Mountain Laurel is a compelling masterpiece, a stunning dance of romance, sacrifice, yearning, betrayal, and redemption. Benton weaves an exquisite tale that delves into the world of slavery while unearthing the treasure of what it truly means to be free. Seona and Ian’s story continues to captivate me long after the pages have closed.” -- Tara Johnson. Lori Benton is the author of at least half a dozen Christian historical romances, all set around the time of the turning of the 19th century.  She won the Christy Award for first novel in 2014 and subsequently the Insy Award and was a finalist for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Book of the Year.  

Murder Ballad Blues: A Mystery Novel by Lynda McDaniel. Santa Rosa, California: Lynda McDaniel Books: 2020. 332 pages. Trade paperback, $14.95.

Set in the little fictional mountain town of Laurel Falls, North Carolina, this is the fourth book in the author’s Appalachian Mountain Mysteries Series, but it can easily be read as a stand-alone novel. Each chapter is narrated by a particular character. Most often the narrator is Abit Bradshaw, a mandolin player with the Rollin’ Ramblers bluegrass band and a native of the town. The other primary character/narrator is Della Kincaid, a former crime reporter in Washington, D. C., who is investigating a fraud case. When murders happen, and it seems it must be a serial killer, the FBI gets involved, and the question becomes whether they will take seriously what Abit and Della have dug up about the case before it is too late. “The emotional components of each character are thoroughly explored as they fight anger, loneliness, loss, and helpless feelings in the course of their choices. The characters come alive not because of the mystery's overlay, but because McDaniel takes the time to explore the wellsprings of their pasts and their reactions to adversity. What lends faith and encouragement in the face of devastation, and what influences create the type of 'justice' that ties into a killer's logical process and mindset? These and other questions place these events above and beyond a simple 'whodunnit' mystery.” – The Midwest Review. “Readers looking for a murder mystery strongly centered in regional culture, the different lives and focus of two equally powerful investigators, and a puzzle that draws them into far more than a singular investigation will relish this story's superior tension. Its sense of place and people in a cat-and-mouse game that unfolds over the course of a riveting mystery is designed to keep readers on their toes and guessing about the outcome to the end.” --Diane Donovan. The author grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and now lives in Santa Rosa, California, but has lived all over the country, including briefly in the North Carolina mountains where she first started her writing career that now includes over a thousand magazine articles and 18 books. So far, her non-fiction books have been more successful than her fiction

Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine. New York: Mira/HarperCollins, 2020. 320 pages. Trade paperback, $17.99.

The protagonist of this novel, Wylondine, clasps seeds she hopes will assure a future after two years when spring never comes. She and a small group of followers are taking to the road out of winter. They are leaving the hills of Ohio where her family condemned her to a life of poverty and paranoia as marijuana growers. “Alison Stine's Road Out of Winter focuses on the true seeds of hope during a climate apocalypse: the things that nurture both our bodies and our souls. A startling and intimate look at what happens when our planet turns against us." -Mike Chen "Stark, dark and strangely urgent, this is a book that grabs you on the first page and doesn't let go. Alison Stine is a master at the craft. She takes us on a wild ride inside a future that feels all too real, with characters we care about, and a story that we start wishing will never end." -Rene Denfeld. "Stine's prose is crisp and atmospheric, and though bleakness abounds, the ending strikes a lovely balance of hope and pathos. Fans of climate fiction and found family stories will be entranced." -Publishers Weekly "Sublimely written and with much for book clubs to discuss, this book is highly recommended for all collections." --Booklist, starred review. The author, Alison Stine, has recently, like the characters in this novel, left Appalachian Ohio, thankfully, not born out of the necessity of a perpetual winter. She and her partner and her son are now living in Colorado. She is the author of the novel, Supervision, and two books of poetry. She is a free-lance writer who has published in many of the most widely read newspapers and periodicals.

Saving Tyler Hake: A Novella by Meredith Sue Willis. Charleston, West Virginia: Mountain State Press, 2020. 89 pages. Trade paperback, $15.00.

Tyler Hake is a 10th grader in Southern West Virginia. He needs to be saved because, after the community uproar surrounding the death of his father, Mason Hake, a Gulf War veteran, Tyler brings Mason’s blood-stained shirt to school. The plot thickens when one of Mason’s classmates shows up unexpectantly in her hometown and seems to be joining with his teachers in offering support to Tyler. “Saving Tyler Hake is a realistic story told by English teacher Robin Smith about how she and other educators reached out to help a student following a family tragedy. Willis is a master story-teller and honestly reveals the same challenges faced by educators and families in Appalachia today. Great read.” Kathy Manley.  “Meredith Sue Willis’s vividly drawn characters pull you into their small town in the mountains of southern West Virginia where hurts, jealousies, and secrets won’t lie buried. . . “ – Anna Eagan Smucker. “Meredith Sue Willis is a masterful storyteller who never gives too much away, but uncannily gives just enough to keep me always eager for the next page. This novella is superbly nuanced with not a word misplaced. Meredith reveals the inherent selfishness in even the best of people, without judgment, an accomplishment few of her contemporaries can do as well.” - Marc Harshman, Poet Laureate of Wet Virginia. Since the 1979 when Charles Scribner’s Sons brought out her first novel, Meredith Sue Willis has been West Virginia’s most prolific and versatile author, well-know and well-loved for her willingness to share what she knows and to encourage the state’s prospective writers.


White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia by Kiki Petrosino. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, 2020. 112 pages. Trade paperback, $15.95.

This is Kiki Petrosino’s fourth book of poetry. She teaches at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville.  As the title implies, this is the poet’s look at the state where she now lives. "'I’m a black body in this Commonwealth, which turned black bodies / into money,' Petrosino writes in her fourth book, eyeing race, history, genetics and hope through the crucible of Virginia." ―The New York Times Book Review which deemed this collection New and Noteworthy. "This is an important and remarkable exploration of heritage." Publishers Weekly, starred review. "The result of deep historical research, impressive formal dexterity, and savvy storytelling, this volume of poetry combines genealogy, history, and verse in a way that reflects many American experiences."  ―Foreword Reviews. “Fueled by what it means to identify your own blood, White Blood is a masterful book of poems that excavates, resurrects, and stares clear-eyed into history. Petrosino's intricate attention to sound and the muscularity of the poetic line make these poems explode in both the ear and the heart. Here is a poet at her best.” ―Ada Limón. The poet, Kiki Petrosino is from Baltimore and a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Iowa Writers Workshop who has also taught in Louisville, Kentucky.

Women Speak: Volume Five by Kari Gunter Seymour. Charleston, West Virginia: Mountain State Press, 2020. 158 pages. Trade paperback, $18.00.

Sixty-six women, all with strong connections to Appalachia, have contributed, poems, short short stories, songs, and art-work to make this anthology come alive. “Appalachia holds a multitude of identities and experiences, and the Women of Appalachia Project’s™ Women Speak anthology speaks to the complexity of the region. The essays, poems, stories, fine art, and songs collected here bear witness to the lived experiences of Appalachian women while simultaneously speaking against the narratives dictated to us and about us: acts of God, the notion of what makes a good girl, where and how and when we deserve to be visible. Despite the structures designed to silence us, the women in these pages are fierce and unflinching in sharing their stories and their truths. These are our voices, our women. Hear us.” – Savannah Sipple.  “This is precisely why the Women of Appalachia Project is so urgently important. Sharing our stories and artwork, bearing witness to and for one another, helps us affirm our culture, our history, our unique perspectives. . . .” -- Randi Ward.