Book Reviews

Each month Book Reviews Online features reviews of books by Alabama authors, books about our state, and books by local publishers. Simply click the book's title to read the complete review.

  • No Hill Too High for a Stepper: Memories of Montevallo, Alabama

    By Mike Mahan
    with Norman McMillan
    NewSouth Books in Cooperation with The Cahaba Trace Commission, 2014
    $27.95, Hardcover

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Danny Gamble

    Complete disclosure: A Montevallo resident, this reviewer is acquainted with both Dr. Mike Mahan and Dr. Norman McMillan.

    Not every Southern boy has a spring-fed swimming hole at the end of his street, a woman’s liberal arts college—known as the Angel Farm—at the other end, and Frog Holler—once a place for illegal horse races, boxing matches, Battle Royals (last black man standing won the pot while the white men stood by & bet), and cock fights, but much later “a perfect playground”—in the middle. Local boy Mike Mahan had all of this and more, and he writes extensively about it in this new memoir No Hill Too High for a Stepper: Memories of Montevallo, Alabama. Read the complete review

  • The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul

    By Joe Formichella, ed.
    River’s Edge Media, 2014
    $34.95, Hardcover with CD

    Fiction/Spoken Word/Music

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    The Shoe Burnin’: Stories of Southern Soul. The title has a story behind it and the subtitle is a pun. The story is simple. On a winter’s night near Brewton, Alabama, a group of kindred spirits were talking, singing, drinking of course, and rather than making a trip to the woodpile, they burned, one at a time, a box of old shoes. This became a ritualized event held around a Fairhope bonfire, the idea being that each shoe burned had a story to tell, or be told about it. At that bonfire last year one young woman happily announced she was finally making a living as a singer and burned her white waitress shoes.Read the complete review

  • Waffle House Rules

    By Joe Formichella
    River’s Edge Media, 2014
    $16, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Joe Formichella has had considerable success with a book on a black baseball league in Pritchard, Alabama, Here’s to You, Jackie Robinson, and a first novel, The Wreck of the Twilight Limited, nearly a true-life novel about the catastrophic 1993 Amtrak train wreck on a bridge over Bayou Canot north of Mobile. His true crime book Murder Creek and the story of a basketball coach, Staying Ahead of the Posse, were less successful, but now, after some time, Formichella is back with a much more structurally complex novel. Waffle House Rules is ambitious and is, surely, Formichella’s best work to date. Read the complete review

  • The Newspaper Boy

    By Chervis Isom
    The Working Writer Discovery Group, 2013
    $27.95, Hardcover

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Jim Buford

    In the first chapter of The Newspaper Boy, Chervis Isom, age about 26, makes a visit to an office on the fourteenth floor of the Empire Building in Birmingham. Possibly he remembered learning as a child that it was one of four tall buildings erected between 1902 and 1912 anchoring the intersection of 20th Street and 1st Avenue North. Though not so tall by later standards, these buildings were skyscrapers of the time and the intersection became known as the “Heaviest Corner on Earth.” The buildings represented Birmingham’s sudden emergence as center of industry and commerce and portended a bright future for the city. And, except for the years when the whole country experienced the Great Depression, that’s about the way things turned out. In 1943, which was the year of Isom’s first memoir essay, the wartime demand for steel had returned the city to prosperity, which continued through the postwar building boom. And even as late as the mid 1950s, Birmingham competed with Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans as one of the premier cities of the south. Read the complete review

  • The White Lie

    By Philip Shirley
    Mindbridge Press, 2014
    $15.95, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed By Mary Beth Mobley-Bussell

    When we first meet advertising executive Peter Brantley he is not having a good day. Depressed over the drug related death of his brother, unable to focus at work, and on the verge of losing his wife, Peter suddenly finds being violently carjacked at gunpoint by a ponytailed fugitive with a gym bag full of cocaine among his growing list of troubles. Read the complete review

  • Send the Alabamians: World War I Fighters in the Rainbow Division

    By Nimrod T. Frazer; Introduction by Edwin C. Bridges.
    The University of Alabama Press, 2014
    $34.95, Hardcover; $34.95, eBook

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Julia Oliver

    The awe-inspiring sculpture of a World War I soldier carrying a wounded comrade was the perfect choice for the cover of this book. As the text on the jacket points out: "The book borrows its title from a speech by American General Edward H. Plummer, who commanded the young men during the inauspicious early days of their service.... Impressed with their ferocity and esprit de corps but exasperated by their rambunctiousness, Plummer reportedly exclaimed: "In time of war, send me all the Alabamians you can get, but in time of peace, for Lord's sake, send them to somebody else!" The time was 1918; the event was The Battle of Croix Rouge. Read the complete review

  • Booty Bones: A Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery

    By Carolyn Haines
    Minotaur Books, 2014
    $24.99, Hardcover
    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Harper Lee Award recipient Carolyn Haynes has now published fourteen Sarah Booth Delaney “Bones” mysteries over the past fifteen years. What started as a series set at Dahlia House, in Sunflower County, Zinnia, in the Mississippi Delta, has done some travelling.

    At home, Sarah Booth is aided by her gang: Madame Tomeeka, the psychic; Cece, the transsexual journalist; Millie, who picks up gossip in her café; and always her fiery detective partner, Tinkie. Some of these characters have even helped Sarah Booth solve crime in Costa Rica.

    At first, Jitty, the antebellum slave ghost of Dahlia House, did not travel but, in Booty Bones, Jitty and Tinkie are with Sarah Booth, and even the hound Sweetie Pie and cat Pluto lend active assistance. The others help by phone. Read the complete review

  • Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist: A Memoir

    By Tim Parrish
    University Press of Mississippi: Willie Morris Books in Memoir and Biography, 2014
    $28, Hardcover

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    A river of books has come out of the civil rights moment: large-scale general histories like Taylor Branch’s three volume America in the King Years and more focused studies such as Diane McWhorter’s investigation of the Movement in Birmingham, Carry Me Home. Likewise there are memoirs by famous activists such as John Lewis and by many minor figures who have contributed their small pieces to the historical picture.

    Up until now we have had almost no reports from the other side of these ’60s and ’70s battlefields. What were the violent racists, brutal policemen and troopers, Klansmen, thinking? Why did they behave as they did? What beliefs, emotions, one might one say misguided principles, caused them to act in vicious, cruel, and finally futile and stupid ways? There is now a trickle of memoirs from those individuals, “recovering” racists, the most articulate of whom attempt to explain why they acted as they did. Read the complete review

  • Lion Plays Rough: A Leo Maxwell Mystery

    By Lachlan Smith
    The Mysterious Press: An Imprint of Grove Press-Atlantic, 2014
    $24, Hardcover

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Just last year, Lachlan Smith, a Birmingham attorney practicing civil rights and employment law, published his debut thriller, Bear Is Broken. Smith was well prepared to write that novel, having studied writing at Stanford and Cornell and then getting a law degree from UC Berkeley in 2009.

    In the opening scene of Bear Is Broken, Leo Maxwell is having lunch with his older brother Teddy Maxwell, famous San Francisco defense attorney, when a hired gun enters the restaurant and shoots Teddy in the head. When Lion Plays Rough opens, Teddy, having survived the shooting, has had some rehab, fallen in love with a brain-damaged girl, and is learning to walk and talk. He will almost certainly never practice law again, but might be able to live independently. Read the complete review

  • Stanislavski in Ireland & Breaking Boundaries

    Stanislavski in Ireland: Focus at Fifty
    By Brian McAvera and Steven Dedalus Burch, eds.
    Carysfort Press, 2013
    $27, Paper

    Breaking Boundaries: An Anthology of Original Plays from the Focus Theatre
    Steven Dedalus Burch, ed.
    Carysfort Press, 2013
    $27, Paper

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Nicholas Helms

    Founded in 1963 by the Irish American actor Deirdre O’Connell, the Focus Theatre of Dublin brought Stanislavskian method acting to Ireland and challenged the country’s parochial preconceptions about theatre. Two recent works chronicle the life of Focus Theatre: Stanislavski in Ireland: Focus at Fifty, a collection of essays that serve as biography of the Focus Theatre and of its talented and eccentric founder, Deirdre O’Connell, edited by Brian McAvera and University of Alabama theatre professor Steven Dedalus Burch; and Breaking Boundaries: An Anthology of Original Plays from the Focus Theatre, a collection of Focus Theatre’s work, edited by Steven Dedalus Burch. Together, these volumes put a microscope to the theatre of Dublin in the 20th and early 21st centuries, charting the type of regional theatre work that, despite its far-reaching influence, so often goes unrecorded. Together they sketch a lively narrative of a theatre that produced high quality work for fifty years while scraping by economically and struggling against the established theatres of Dublin. O’Connell’s Focus Theatre revolutionized Irish theatrical practice, and these two volumes chronicle the far-reaching—and often unremarked—effects that a small theatre on the fringe of the mainstream can have. Read the complete review

  • Rich Man's Son: Poems

    by Ron Self
    Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013
    $15.95, Paper

    Reviewed by Julia Oliver

    This compact paperback printing of seventy-five lyric poems has an attractive cover with a fresco painting by Michelangelo, which forms part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted circa 1511-1512. The collection offers three titled sections: Part 1: As Nature Made Him; Part 2: Family Business; and Part 3: Make It Dance. Read the complete review

  • Come Landfall

    By Roy Hoffman
    The University of Alabama Press, 2014
    $29.95, Hardcover; $29.95, eBook

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Linda Busby Parker

    Fiction isn’t spawned totally from the imagination—it’s generally hatched from an inkling of truth that is combined with inspiration and a flight of fancy. Such can be said of Roy Hoffman’s latest novel, Come Landfall. For Hoffman, the inkling of truth was the loss of his uncle, Major Roy Robinton, U.S. Marine Corps, World War II. Major Robinton was captured and held on Japanese “Hellship” and disappeared with no record of his final days. The story of this lost uncle—Hoffman’s namesake—has become part of Hoffman family history, and via Come Landfall, Hoffman allows readers to share part of this history. Read the complete review

  • What He Would Call Them

    By Harry Moore
    Finishing Line Press , 2013
    $14, Paper

    Poetry

    Reviewed by Norman McMillan

    As I read the seventeen poems in Harry Moore’s chapbook, What He Would Call Them, I thought almost immediately of Auden’s oft-quoted pronouncement: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” With a clear understanding of the importance of family relationships across generations, Moore celebrates his forebears in most of the poems in this collection. But things do not stop there. He brings his readers forcibly back to the present, connecting his current life with previous lives, his own and those of his parents and grandparents. Read the complete review

  • Pickett’s Charge: A Novel

    By Charles McNair
    Livingston Press, 2013
    $30, Hardcover; $18.95, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Julia Oliver

    This interesting, adventure-filled novel utilizes two time frames a century apart. In 1964, the 114-year–old protagonist, Threadgill Pickett, a Civil War veteran languishing in a Mobile retirement home, is obsessed with the belief that something really bad happened to him on his boyhood journey to join the Confederate Army. Read the complete review

  • New Releases—Poetry

    These poetry titles were recently released by Alabama authors or publishers, or they cover subjects related to our state. Simply click a book’s title to learn more. View the complete list

  • New Releases—Young Adult

    These young adult titles were recently released by Alabama authors or publishers, or they cover subjects related to our state. Simply click a book’s title to learn more. View the complete list

  • New Releases—Fiction

    These fiction titles were recently released by Alabama authors or publishers, or they cover subjects related to our state. Simply click a book’s title to learn more. View the complete list

  • New Releases—Nonfiction

    These nonfiction titles were recently released by Alabama authors or publishers, or they cover subjects related to our state. Simply click a book’s title to learn more. View the complete list

  • Legend of the Tallassee Carbine: A Civil War Mystery

    By Larry Williamson
    The Ardent Writer Press, 2013
    $19.95, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Carroll Dale Short

    If the springtime of 1864 was not the darkest moment for the Confederacy in the waning days of the U.S. Civil War, it was definitely high in contention. The South's iconic general Stonewall Jackson had died of war injuries, and Union forces were setting their sights on Richmond, Virginia, for its significance as a stronghold of armories and gun manufacturing. Read the complete review

  • A Powerful Blessing: The Life of Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter, Sr. 1899-1969, Sixth Episcopal Bishop of Alabama, 1938-1968

    By Douglas M. Carpenter
    TransAmerica Printing, 2012
    $24.99, Paper

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Julia Oliver

    In A Powerful Blessing, an absorbing, affectionate, and scholarly biographical narrative about his father, the Reverend Douglas Carpenter notes that his sources were "letters, diaries, notes, and clippings saved at the time of the events, scrapbooks, conversations with people on site, and [his] own memory, which extends back to the summer of 1936, when [his] family moved to Birmingham from Savannah." Read the complete review

  • The Fountain of St. James Court; Or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman

    By Sena Jeter Naslund
    William Morrow, 2013
    $26.99, Hardcover; $14.39, Paper; $12.74, eBook

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Elaine Hughes

    Sena Jeter Naslund first received international acclaim in 1999 for her novel Ahab’s Wife; Or, The Star-Gazer, which some critics called the feminist version of Melville’s Moby-Dick. She was lauded for her extensive research and her mastery of eloquent language in creating this piece of historical fiction. Again, in Abundance (2006), her penetrating portrayal of the period of the French Revolution and of the enigmatic Marie Antoinette earned her praise and a following of loyal fans. Readers will have much to celebrate with her ninth novel, The Fountain of St. James Court; Or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, in which she portrays two strong women, driven by their passion for their art and haunted by their failures as wives and mothers. Read the complete review

  • Jacob's Robe

    By Bob Whetstone
    Lulu Enterprises, 2013
    $40.93, Hardcover; $12, Paper
    Fiction
    Reviewed by Pam Kingsbury

    Bob Whetstone, familiar to many readers for his career at Birmingham-Southern College and his work with the Alabama Humanities Foundation and arts organizations, has written five historical novels prior to Jacob's Robe. Set partially in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, Jacob's Robe uses local history, folklore, and storytelling to lure readers into the love-story—turned-mystery of Jim Dean and Rachel Palmer. Read the complete review

  • Kuponya: Healing in the Heart of Africa

    By Henrietta MacGuire;
    Photography by Katie Faulk
    Mockingbird Publishing, 2012
    $12, Paper

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Julia Oliver

    This impeccably produced book from Ashley Gordon’s relatively new Fairhope, Alabama, press is a triumphant journal/account about Montgomery author and editor Henrietta MacGuire’s stint as a volunteer worker in an orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, in the summer of 2010. The text is enhanced by a plethora of wonderful color photographs, taken by fellow traveler and volunteer Katie Faulk of Memphis. Read the complete review

  • Weaving the Unraveling

    By Heidi A. Eckert
    Sand Island Publishing, 2013
    $12.99 Paper; $6.99, eBook

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Dee Jordan

    Heidi Eckert has penned a riveting novel with all of the elements of good storytelling: romance, a haunting past, a doubtful future, and an unforeseen present. The author uses a unique technique by referring to her protagonist as only “she,” “her,” and “hers” rather than naming her. This nomenclature normally would have been a difficult task, but Eckert writes in such beautiful language, that the reader is able to follow the protagonist. She is both invisible and visible in Eckert’s poignant words. Read the complete review

  • College Mascot Series

    Big Al's Game Day
    Aubie's Game Day Rules
    Big Al Teaches the Alphabet
    Counting With Big Al

    By Sherri Graves Smith
    Mascot Books, 2012
    $14.95, Hardcover

    Children’s

    Reviewed by Pam Kingsbury

    Sherri Graves Smith, a native of Tuscumbia, loves football, reading, and her home state of Alabama. Having grown up in a family of readers and sports fans, when cancer forced her into early retirement she decided to pursue her lifelong desire to encourage reading in children the same way that her parents encouraged her to read. The resulting books—a series devoted to Game Days at various colleges around the country—teach the invaluable lessons of good manners, good sportsmanship, and the importance of healthy rivalry. Read the complete review