A Modern Irish Murder
I know a Good Story / August 9, 2018

Fact: Ireland is a Modern Country Sad Fact: Few people outside of Ireland realize this. Thanks to the impressions of popular culture, many Americans still tend to think of bombs, booze or leprechauns when they hear the worlds “Irish” or “Ireland”.  Those who read, remember Yeats or the Potato Famine.  Movie-fans recall Darby O’Gill or The Quiet Man.  Few of either group think of murder. Yet, Murder in a very modern context is the background of Tana French’s brilliant debut, In the Woods.  It’s the story of Irish police working a contemporary crime site that, unfortunately, has ties to the past.  It also has one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in several years.  Rob Ryan tells the story of when past and present collide in the head of a traumatized survivor and the damage that radiates from that impact.  And he tells it in a beautiful, lyrical voice that hints but never tells you what’s what. In the Woods is also the brilliant first novel of what is known as the “Dublin Murder Squad” series.  So far, each story is told by one detective on the Squad who may (or may not) appear in later tales.  Each…

A Sense of Taste, A Sense of Place,

With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food.  That’s great because I love to eat; but awful because I’m a lousy cook.  I mean world-class lousy.  I’m the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out.  I’m slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it’s hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, “When it comes to cooking, I’d rather read.”  Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap.  When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul. Cross Creek Cookery I’ve written before about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her great love-affair with central Florida.  One of the most remarkable chapters of her wonderful book, Cross Creek, recounts Marjorie’s own development from lousy to gifted cook and her joy learning Southern cuisine. The only problem was the book was published during World War II…

The Murder Mystery No One Expects
I know a Good Story / November 9, 2017

At one point, there was just Jane Austen.  A British lady, (by which I mean gentlewoman, not a member of the aristocracy) gifted with humor, keen powers of observation, and the tenacity to create fiction in a time where few men and no women were encouraged to write. Her novels were known to humorists and English Majors but considered too esoteric for the hoi polloi.  In those days, she was just Jane Austen. Now, Miss Austen is an industrial source.  Her six major novels have been analyzed, adapted, pillaged, and parodied beyond belief (I have friends who debate the merits of filmed version of P&P), there are shelves heavy with revisionist tales drawn from her original stories and Jane-mania  has spawned at least two books of its own: Austenland and the Jane Austen Book Society. None of this surprises me.  In our culture, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. What I did not expect was murder, that darkest, most obsessive of crimes, would be linked to Jane Austen. And yet, the tie may be true. Of course, it would take a crime writer to see it. The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen Enter Lindsay Ashford, a crime journalist, late of the BBC.  With a reference…

Blossoms of Evil
I know a Good Story / August 29, 2017

The Memory Everyone has memories they don’t like but can’t shake.  This is one of mine. I was small and my parents were driving back through a desert in the southwestern states.  We hadn’t seen a town for hours, and I’d gotten used to seeing the endless miles of saguaro, yucca, and empty skies. So, when we started to pass a row of shacks that lined the empty road, I was surprised.  These structures didn’t seem to be part of any town or village, and it would be generous to describe them as houses.  With concave walls, covered with tarpaper and tin, they were the worst excuses for houses I’d ever seen but, judging from the faint light coming from the windows, someone seemed to be living in them.  Even odder, each shack’s sway-backed porch seemed to hold at least one shiny, white, refrigerator or washer and dryer. My mom made a noise of disgust.  “It’s terrible the way they are treated,” she said.  I asked what she was talking about.   Then, with a soft, but angry voice, Mom related this country’s history concerning Native Americans as if she was telling me an unhappy bedtime story.  Attacked, betrayed, segregated…

The Stories We Hide

The Story Everyone has secrets they want to keep. Keeping secrets is harder when you live in a small town. Small towns are the original spots where everyone knows your name.  They also know your parents, your siblings, and whether you went to reform school or college.  But they have secrets they want to keep too. Sometimes, this can make small-town society seem like an insulated conspiracy of silence. Until curiosity or a stranger shows up, that is. This is the premise of Annie Barrows’s 2015 novel, The Truth According to Us. Set in the fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia in 1938, The Truth According to Us is almost an experiment in human psychology.  What happens when a couple of curious souls look at decades of mythology and lies? One mind belongs to Layla Beck, the WPA writer commissioned to transcribe Macedonia’s history; the other to twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn. Presented with conflicting reports, Layla has to decide what deserves to see print, the truth or a glossed over fiction. Was the town’s founder a hero or tyrant? Was their legendary preacher a charismatic saint or sexual predator?  Layla’s present and future become tied up with Macedonia’s history.  To Willa,…

Redeemed by the South
I know a Good Story / August 1, 2017

Strangers to the South take a look at this place and react in one of two ways: either they loathe it or love it.  Either they see nothing but the region’s excesses and sins and complain endlessly about both (“Oh God, it’s so hot! And what happened here! I couldn’t live in this place.), or they fall in love with the South, history, Kudzu and all.  Southerners understand both reactions because they tend to fall into the same camps, except the South is a part of their identity.  Still, love it or hate it, few people can claim they were rescued by the American South.  The exception is one dear, troubled, fictional child. Ladies and gentlemen, meet CeeCee Honeycutt, a girl who really needs saving. Today, Cee Cee would be called an abandoned child, but they didn’t talk like that in the 60’s, when she was young.  If her father is rarely home, well, he travels for his job.  And CeeCee’s mom is…well, let’s say a bit odd. To CeeCee’s schoolmates and the citizens of their Ohio town, Camille Honeycutt is a bona fide loony, with her flamboyant behavior and fashion sense. To CeeCee, she’s mom, by turns loving and…

Victorian Tale/Modern Mind
I know a Good Story / July 25, 2017

I’ll admit I’ve been on a Brontë kick this summer; heat tends to drive me toward stories about simmering characters in cooler climes, a sure recipe for a Brontë book.  But, for all of my repeated readings of Charlotte Brontë‘s prose and my disaffection for sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, I never bothered to read the work of Anne Brontë.  Now, I want to bang on the front doors of all my English teachers and yell, “Why didn’t you assign her books to your courses?  What were you thinking?” Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be the surprise sensation of my summer reading.   It seems the book has always defied expectations. Published when English Women had no right to vote, own property or even have custody of their children, it’s a challenge to that “civilized” society.  It dealt with issues like addiction and adultery so realistically it was a literary sensation when it was first published. It was so controversial, that sister Charlotte tried at one point to suppress the book’s being reprinted. The story’s subtitle could be “the mysterious new girl in town, ” and it’s told by Gilbert Markham, a young, rather satisfied, gentleman farmer whose family has “always” been part of the community….

The Obsessive Story of the Obsessed Bronte

My obsessions don’t make me a better person.  They eat up too much time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I have to know everything about it.  That’s the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes that drive yields obscure treasures. Obsession is one reason I love Daphne Du Maurier’s stories. Two of her most famous works, (Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel) are about the mania of being haunted by a subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the Du Maurier had a literary obsession that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense. The Unforgettable Bronte Siblings The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strove to support themselves as writers, when the publishing world of publishing was pretty much closed to women. The sisters created poems and novels that often dealt with obsession. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  The Bronte girls all attained incredible literary success but Ms. Du Maurier didn’t want…

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

The Swans He called them his swans. It’s the story literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens all know. The story of a covey of fascinating young women who were known for being beautiful; graceful as swans. Beauty made them famous and envied and rich but it didn’t make them happy, Instead, Beauty made them insecure and lonely.  They wanted friends who’d value them instead of their looks or the powerful men they had married. Then one day, this flock of sad, lovely, women befriended an unusual man,  An odd, little man, who liked but didn’t lust after them. A clever talker of a man who cheered them up with the juicy gossip, whenever they were blue.  The strange storyteller listened to each woman when she talked. and told each woman he adored her.  And, because he was gay and understanding and fun, the women showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets with him. Secrets he wrote down. The Story This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the story of a fascinating literary scandal.  It stars some of the original American taste-makers of the mid-20th century like Babe Paley, and Slim Keith, and Truman Capote, the man they…

Murder Takes a Hike
I know a Good Story / June 1, 2017

Summer is here in all but fact, the season when most people take vacations.  If you grew up in the United States, the odds are pretty good that your vacation history involves one or more of our National Parks.  That’s great! The National Park system is one of the smartest, most democratic ideas this country put into place: beautiful spaces are preserved so they can be used by everyone, at an affordable price.  The only problem, for the addicted reader, is how all that natural beauty can get between your eyes and a book. I mean, as much as I adore the magnificence of nature, (and I do) I start jonesing for a good story to read, even when I’m face to face with the Grand Canyon or El Capitan. Of course, the minute I bury my face in a book, I feel guilty because I’m not paying attention to the gorgeous Park. It’s a no-win situation   At least I thought it was until my friend, Edna, introduced me to Nevada Barr.  In case you haven’t heard, Nevada Barr is the writer of the Anna Pigeon mystery series.  Why are her books the solution? Because Anna Pigeon is a…

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