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.

  • Tell the World You’re a Wildflower

    by Jennifer Horne
    The University of Alabama Press, 2014
    $29.95, Hardcover; $29.95, eBook

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Mary Katherine Calderini

    Tell the World You’re a Wildflower by Jennifer Horne offers a delightful medley of women from all over the South. Horne has produced a book of stories as varied and unique as a real woman. Her stories range through ages and locations, but all of Horne’s women possess a genuine truth to them that will transport readers into the innermost workings of the characters’ thoughts and lives. Read the complete review

  • The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

    By Marja Mills
    The Penguin Press, 2014
    $27.95 Hardcover

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Nancy Grisham Anderson

    In a June [2014] issue of The New York Times Book Review, two writers for the Bookends section respond to the question “When we read fiction, how relevant is the author’s biography?” This question has been asked about Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, since the author withdrew from public view within a few years of the release of her novel in July of 1960. Several biographies in recent years, a number of them for young readers, have been published without the approval or involvement of the author herself.

    Now The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills, identified as “a memoir,” is an effort to fill some of the voids left by the earlier biographies. Read the complete review

  • The Uniform House

    By Jim Murphy
    NegativeCapability Press, 2014
    $15.95, Paper
    Poetry
    Reviewed by Jennifer Horne

    University of Montevallo English professor Jim Murphy’s third collection of poetry takes its title from the first poem in the book, “The Uniform House of Dixie,” which sounds like a Walker Evans photograph and presents images congruent with Evans’ work. Read the complete review

  • Prosperity

    By B. J. Leggett
    Livingston Press, 2014
    $32, Hardcover; $18.95 Paper; $7.95 Kindle

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Mollie Smith Waters

    B. J. Leggett has written extensively about academic subjects such as authors A. E. Housman, Philip Larkin, and Wallace Stevens. His latest novel, Prosperity, is only his second fictional book. In Prosperity, Leggett introduces readers to a world of crime and a corrupt police force. Read the complete review

  • The Sky Between Us

    By Irene Latham
    Blue Rooster Press, 2014
    $14.95, Paper
    Poetry

    Reviewed by Foster Dickson

    Irene Latham’s slim new poetry collection, The Sky Between Us, caught my attention with its title. Latham, an award-winning poet and young-adult novelist, throws the browsing reader a poetic curveball: the sky is above us, not between us. She is inviting us to open it and read. Read the complete review

  • Thelonious Rising

    By Judith Richards
    River’s Edge Media, 2014
    $19, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Bebe Barefoot Lloyd

    When the masses latch on to a culture, what makes it unique can quickly become cliché, and nowhere is this more apparent than in New Orleans. Scratch the surface of the garish, exploitative caricatures that are Bourbon Street and Jackson Square, and you will find an intricately woven intersection of musical, culinary, religious, and mystical traditions, their history lying just beneath the touristy surface. If you stop, seek, and listen, they will breathe life into two-dimensional misrepresentations, taking you through sides streets and neighborhoods, then into churches and juke joints, and, finally, into the hearts and souls that make up the city’s true essence. In Judith Richards’ novel, Thelonious Rising, this beautifully aged and tattered tapestry is symbolized by an unlikely protagonist, nine-year-old Thelonious Monk DeCay. Read the complete review

  • A Time to Reap: A Novel

    By William Cobb
    SixFinger Publishing, 2014
    $18.99, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    William Cobb is one of the Old Masters of Alabama literature and his eight volumes of fiction have won a mantlepiecefull of prizes, including the Harper Lee Award. It would be understandable if this veteran writer continued to mine the material he is best known for—examinations of racial tensions in the South (especially his home place, Demopolis), coming of age stories, satire of cultural morés, often gothic or even surrealistic in style. His characters have often been struggling blue-collar families or Black Belt aristocrats gone to seed. But, in fact, with A Time To Reap Cobb has chosen to strike out in, what are for him, some bold new directions. Read the complete review

  • The Tilted World

    By Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly
    William Morrow, 2014
    $25.99, Hardcover

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    In Oxford, Mississippi, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly both write and teach writing at Ole Miss. Tom, a novelist, is best known for Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Hell at the Breech, and other works of fiction containing considerable violence and cruelty. Beth Ann is a lyric poet, mother of their three children, but almost as well known for Great with Child, her tender letters to a friend who was expecting. They decided to write The Tilted World together. All marital projects are perilous, from raising children to choosing wallpaper, but writing a novel? Read the complete review

  • 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey (Commemorative Edition)

    By Kathryn Tucker Windham and Margaret Gillis Figh, with a new Afterword by Dilsy Windham Hilley and Ben Windham
    The University of Alabama Press, 2014
    $29.95, Hardcover

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    In 1964 The Strode Publishers of Huntsville, Alabama, released Treasured Alabama Recipes by Kathryn Tucker Windham. A great success, the book’s recipes were accompanied by stories that caught the public imagination. Strode was eager to have another book by Windham, stories this time, no recipes needed. She chose to write up ghost stories from around Alabama. 13 Alabama Ghosts was a hit, too, Read the complete review

  • Birmingham: Then and Now

    By Todd Keith
    Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2014
    Price: $19.95, Hardcover

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Todd Keith, the author of Insider’s Guide to Birmingham, has collected dozens of photographs, the earliest of which seem to be about 1905, and, restricting himself to the old city limits and early suburbs, matched them up with contemporary shots of the same church, office building, street, park, athletic field, or monument. The photos, combined with brief commentaries, make for a pleasing visual trip through Birmingham’s architectural past. Read the complete review

  • The Island Called Paradise: Cuba in History, Literature, and the Arts

    By Philip D. Beidler
    The University of Alabama Press, 2014
    $34.95, Hardcover

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Over a long career, Phil Beidler has written analyses of early American and Alabama literature, sweeping commentaries of the literature of World War II and Vietnam, a number of powerful personal essays based on his experiences as a lieutenant in Vietnam and, most lately, in American Wars, American Peace (2007), savage, outraged appraisals of American political leadership and foreign policy. To all this he brings considerable skill as a cultural critic, usually of the U.S. But here the subject is Cuba. Read the complete review

  • Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How The Swampers Changed American Music

    By Carla Jean Whitley
    The History Press, 2014
    $19.99, Paper

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Through fresh interviews with musicians and considerable research online and in newspaper files, Carla Jean Whitley has generated this compact history. Admittedly most appealing to aficionados, this book will teach any reader a good deal about a section of Alabama often overlooked. Read the complete review

  • Alabama Scoundrels: Outlaws, Pirates, Bandits & Bushwhackers

    By Kelly Kazek & Wil Elrick
    The History Press, 2014
    $19.99; Paper

    Nonfiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Alabama Scoundrels is a short book, 122 pages, of brief sketches of twenty-two Alabama miscreants. Most of the scoundrels of the title are criminals, usually killers of some type and usually nineteenth century, although a few go back further, to before statehood in 1819, when Alabama was part of the Mississippi Territory. READ MORE…

  • On a Darkling Plain: Stories of the Great Depression

    By Betty Jean Tucker
    Livingston Press, 2014
    $17.95, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    These are stories of desperate poverty. The characters are not just making do with last year’s coat, they are constantly hungry, even starving. Sometimes, people who have only a little are willing to share—a romantic mythology we like to impose on hard times. Usually, a Darwinian ferocity takes over and the weak fall. Often, the characters’ hunger and despair leave deep psychological scars. READ MORE…

  • Gruesome: A Novel Drawn from True Crime

    By Donald Brown
    Borgo Publishing, 2014
    $10.95, Paper

    Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Well known to Alabamians as a nonfiction writer, Donald Brown has been executive editor of both the Florence Times-Daily and the Tuscaloosa News, and he has written histories of Tuscaloosa’s First United Methodist Church, The Tuscaloosa Rotary Club, and of his alma mater, Birmingham-Southern College. As he explains in an afterword, Brown, as a reporter for the Birmingham News, covered this crime in southwest Alabama. He had not covered the first trial, in which the conviction was reversed on a technicality, but was assigned to cover trials two and three of the same killing. READ MORE…

  • Halley

    By Faye Gibbons
    NewSouth Books, 2014
    $21.95, Hardcover

    Young Adult Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Faye Gibbons is an old pro at children’s and Young Adult writing. An Auburn graduate and author of more than a dozen books, she won the Georgia Author of the Year award in 1983 for Some Glad Morning and the Alabama Author Award, given by the Alabama Library Association, for Night in the Barn in 1998. Although she lives in Alabama now, Gibbons was raised in the hills of northwest Georgia and sets most of her fiction there. Her characters are generally rural and poor, struggling to get by but holding together, only by virtue of family, sharing, love, church, neighbors. READ MORE…

  • Next: D-Bow’s High School Hoops

    By Kevin Waltman
    Cinco Puntos Press, 2013
    $16.95, Hardcover; $11.95, Paper

    Young Adult Fiction

    Reviewed by Don Noble

    Sports fans know that what football is to Alabama culture, basketball is to Indiana culture: passion, obsession, madness, religion. The young adult novelist Kevin Waltman grew up in Indiana, played high school basketball and attended Depauw University. Waltman, now an Alabamian, took the MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama, and stayed on to teach in the English Department. In Next, Waltman’s third novel, he has created a more accurate picture of Hoosier basketball and done so with considerable elegance and authority and without stereotypes. READ MORE…

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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