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.
  • A Little Bit of Spectacular

    By Gin Phillips
    The Penguin Press, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015
    $16.99, Paper; $10.99 eBook

    Young Adult

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Birmingham writer Kerry Madden is fond of saying, in fiction for young people the writer should run her protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at her. One assumes none of these rocks will hit her in the head and kill her. Gin Phillips follows this pattern. Her heroine, the eleven-year-old Olivia, has just moved with her mom from their home in Charleston, South Carolina, to downtown Birmingham where they moved in with Gram in her condo. Read the complete review

  • Among the Swamp People: Life in Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw Delta

    By Watt Key;
    Illustrations by Kelan Mercer
    The University of Alabama Press, 2015
    $29.95, Hardcover; $20.65 eBook


    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Among the Swamp People is a combination of memoir, nature writing and personal essay. Key, raised in Point Clear on Mobile Bay, writes of his nearly life-long fascination with the Mobile-Tensaw Delta at the north end of the bay. This is the Lower Delta, not to be confused with the Upper Delta. The Upper, he tells us, has more high ground and taller trees. The Lower is swamp. If you are thrown from your boat, or capsize—and you might as there are numerous stumps, submerged logs, and boats with no lights—or are lost overnight, “it will be almost impossible not to come across an alligator or, worst of all, a cottonmouth…cottonmouths are aggressive and extremely poisonous snakes. There are thousands of them….” Read the complete review

  • Angels at the Gate

    T.K. Thorne’s last novel, Noah’s Wife, published in 2011, is set in northern Turkey, near the Black Sea in 5500 BCE. The book is the story of Na’amah, a young woman with unusual powers. Thorne has done, once again, a prodigious amount of research in Jewish and Islamic texts. The novel convincingly recreates the dwellings, utensils, food, business practices, and religious beliefs of the age. Although based on a few Bible verses people are familiar with, this tale is fully imagined and takes great liberties with the Bible story. Lot, for example, is not the virtuous fellow Genesis makes him out to be, not at all. Read the complete review

  • German Rocketeers in the Heart of Dixie: Making Sense of the Nazi Past During the Civil Rights Era

    By Monique Laney
    Yale University Press, 2015
    $35, Hardcover; eBook, $16.99


    Reviewed by Don Noble

    German Rocketeers was published by Yale University Press. Monique Laney, raised in Tuscaloosa and Germany, is now an assistant professor of history at Auburn and this book was her PhD dissertation at the University of Kansas, but do not be afraid. This book is accessible, clearly written with an easily forgivable amount of jargon, and should be of considerable interest to citizens of Alabama. Read the complete review

  • Of Goats and Governors: Six Decades of Colorful Alabama Political Stories

    There can be few Alabamians better situated to write this book than Steve Flowers. In this political memoir Flowers devotes chapters to the major figures of Alabama politics—elected officials such as Wallace, Folsom, Richard Shelby and powerful forces such as Paul Hubbard and Judge Frank Johnson Jr. —and sketches the story of his own life in politics. Read the complete review

  • Reflections of the Civil War in Southern Humor

    “The Shortest Book in the World” is a venerable genre: Career Management by Charlie Sheen; Secrets to a Successful Marriage by Tiger Woods

    At eighty-nine pages, Wade Hall’s study of Southern Civil War humor is definitely in this category. Considering that the war was a four-year bloodbath with, sometimes, tens of thousands dying on the same day, it may even be an oxymoron. It wasn’t a naturally funny subject. But there was, of course, humor, and veteran commentator Wade Hall, way back in a section of his doctoral dissertation in 1961, had found and classified that humor and explained its uses for Southern soldiers, civilians on the home front, even the African-American slaves left behind. Now, for the Sesquicentennial, NewSouth has made this available. Read the complete review

  • The Caterpillars at St. Bernard

    By James Miller Robinson
    Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press, 2014
    $14, Paper


    Reviewed by Harry Moore

    The speaker in James Miller Robinson’s chapbook The Caterpillars at Saint Bernard is on a quest. From the naïve hitchhiker in the first poem, who hears as he is stranded on the roadside “the distinguishable voice / of [his] own particular life / whispering its promises / murmuring its warnings,” to the seasoned pilgrim in the last poem bringing home an entire monastery on his back, the poet is looking for something. Read the complete review

  • The Forest and the Trees: A Memoir of a Man, a Family, and a Company

    By Floyd McGowin
    NewSouth Books, 2015
    Price: $27.95, Paper; $9.99 eBook


    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Floyd McGowin, of the Chapman, Alabama, McGowins, the owners of the W.T. Smith Lumber Company, was born in 1931 and died in 2010, but this memoir takes his story basically up to 1966. At that time, the W.T. Smith Company was sold and McGowin started the Rocky Creek Logging Company and ran it for forty-two years, covered here in an epilogue of only six pages. The Forest and the Trees is the story of his life, but it is also a social history of the times, including race and class relations, a corporate history, and an informed, extensive commentary on developments in private aviation. Read the complete review

  • The Headmaster’s Darlings: A Mountain Brook Novel

    Clark has, most unusually, even unbelievably, written a quartet of novels set not in exotic Alexandria, as were Lawrence Durrell’s, but in Mountain Brook, Alabama. The first of these, The Headmaster’s Darlings, is just out and is first-rate. Clark, a native of that enclave of privilege, attended the Altamont School, here called the Brook-Haven School (and later Harvard), and was clearly paying close attention. Read the complete review

  • The Woman in the Photograph

    Like many another in the recent craze we can, I think, trace to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Dana Gynther is fascinated by Paris between the wars. This novel is a biofiction, perhaps to coin a term. The real Lee Miller was a woman of breathtaking beauty. Born in 1907 and raised in Poughkeepsie, New York, she was a supermodel for Vogue magazine and photographed by the best in the business. The gorgeous Miller is more than sexually liberated; she is charming, tireless, ambitious, endlessly curious, adventurous, and unfaithful without much conscience. Read the complete review

  • Two Legs, Bad: Dog Town Tales

    As many will recognize, the title Two Legs Bad comes from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In that parable of revolution, when the livestock take over, they adopt this slogan, referring to their previous masters: humans. The humans in Pat Mayer’s three books of fiction are not all “bad,” but many are incomplete or damaged. Read the complete review

  • Winesburg, Indiana: A Fork River Anthology

    In 1919 Sherwood Anderson published Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of connected stories set in fictional Winesburg, based on the real Clyde, Ohio. Considered a masterpiece, Winesburg inspired a new sub-genre: “The Revolt from the Village.” i>Winesburg, Indiana, is Michael Martone’s 2015 version of Winesburg, Ohio, but with some differences. Martone and co-editor Bryan Furuness asked twenty-eight authors to contribute stories to this collection, which contains forty-one pieces, each in a different voice. This is not a parody of Anderson. It might be considered an updated report on conditions in flyover country, 100 years later. Read the complete review

  • Bone To Be Wild: A Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery

    By Carolyn Haines
    St. Martin’s-Minotaur Books, 2015
    $25.99, Hardcover


    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Carolyn Haines’ Bones books have moved now from a mystery series to a mystery serial. When Haines’ last novel, Booty Bones, set on Dauphin Island, concluded, the hurricane passed, the pirate treasure found, the innocent freed, the guilty locked up, Graf Milieu, Sarah Booth’s fiancé, learns he has a long-lost daughter and goes to California to be a dad. The heartbroken Sarah Booth reluctantly attends the fundraiser gala her friend Tinkie has arranged in New Orleans. The novel closes at 10 P.M. on Halloween at a Monteleone-like hotel. The final lines are: “maybe sometime in the future, I would love again.” Bone To Be Wild opens about four hours later, around two a.m., the party in full swing, our heroine in an Armani gown, the band, Bad to the Bone, headed up by the sexy blues singer Scott Hampton, an ex-lover of Sarah Booth. Hampton still yearns for Sarah Booth, but understands she will need time. Jitty, her ghost advisor, suggests “Love the One You’re With.” Read the complete review

  • Raising Aphrodite: A Novel

    By Kirk Curnutt
    River City Publishing, 2015
    $26.95, Hardcover; $4.90 eBook


    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Vance Seagrove, PhD, the hero of Raising Aphrodite, however, is divorced, raising daughter Chloe as a single dad. Deb, Chloe’s mom, skipped out when Chloe was a baby. It is a difficult situation. Seagrove is as conscientious a dad as the world could imagine. He worries; he sacrifices; he communicates. But, alas, the novel opens with these lines: “My daughter, Chloe, celebrated her sixteenth birthday by having sex with her boyfriend.” Read the complete review

  • The Redeemers: A Quinn Colson Novel

    By Ace Atkins
    G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015
    $26.95, Hardcover; $12.99 eBook


    Reviewed by Don Noble

    The Redeemers is the fifth Colson novel, and I can tell you with absolute certainty it is a fine beach read. I just read in on the beach at Dauphin Island. But the Colson novels are about more than crime. They really are fictional explorations of contemporary Mississippi life, not exactly Jane Austen, but broader than is usual in crime fiction—more like James Lee Burke. Read the complete review