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Happy Like This
By Ashley Wurzbacher
University of Iowa Press, 2019
Paperback: $17.00
Genre: Fiction, Short Fiction
Review by Laura Lilly Cotten

In Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe is a minor character, a painter who almost never paints. Mrs. Ramsay, the novel’s subject, is a mother and match-maker. She is such a force that even after she dies, Lily is pondering and reacting to advice she had given a decade earlier. Only after Mrs. Ramsay’s death is Lily finally able to paint the portrait of her that Lily has imagined for a decade, to make Mrs. Ramsay into an object. Lily delights at the thought of informing Mrs. Ramsay that those she tried to influence haven’t listened: “It has all gone against your wishes. They’re happy like that; I’m happy like this.”
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Felon
By Reginald Dwayne Betts
W.W. Norton, 2019
Hardcover: $26.95; Trade Paperback or E-Book: $16.95
Genre: Poetry
Review by James E. Cherry

Nigger.

In the mouths of white Americans, the word drips with humiliation, degradation and death. But when African Americans use it among themselves, however right or wrong, it’s an attempt to lessen the pain of a century’s old weapon and can even, as twisted as it may sound, become a term of endearment.
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Shining Man
​​​​​​​By Todd Dills
Livingston Press, 2019
Hardcover: $26.95; Trade Paperback or E-Book: $16.95
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Review by Edward Journey

The new novel, Shining Man, by Todd Dills, begins with six pages of “Dramatis Personae” that include the names of actual characters in the novel along with about three pages of names of characters mentioned once, maybe twice, in the book. The “Dramatis Personae” is followed by a cryptic “Prologue.” These preliminaries, however, become superfluous. By the time Chapter 1 and a rather ragged plot emerges on page 9, the reader has been plied with a great deal of information that does not necessarily encourage initial engagement. Read more...

The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods
By Emily Blejwas
University of Alabama Press, 2019
Hardcover $25.99, Paperback $15.95
Genre: Children's Book
Reviewed by Carla Jean Whitley

Though my childhood memories take the form of Mrs. Winner’s on Parkway East in Birmingham and Popeye’s in a Florida suburb, the homemade chicken Emily Blejwas describes in The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods makes my mouth water. The crispy crust. The tender meat that crust gives way to. (I always preferred dark meat.) It’s simple but, in my mind, it’s a symbol of family gathering. Read more...

A Superhero for God
By Rosemary Broadway
Archway Publishing, 2014
Hardcover $25.99, Paperback $15.95
Genre: Children's Book
Reviewed by Jan White

Rosemary Broadway has written a children’s book based on a true story about one of her grandsons. The story teaches an inspirational lesson for all ages, reminding readers of God’s love, forgiveness, and mission for each of us. Read more...

Alabama Noir
Edited By Don Noble
Akashic Books, 2020
Paperback $15.95
Genre: Short Fiction
Reviewed by Philip Shirley
Sixteen new short stories covering 255 pages in Alabama Noir send a message that short fiction is alive and well in Alabama. The compelling stories collected here by Don Noble are set in Alabama by well-established, and a couple of emerging, writers. Read Full Review...

The Fireball Brothers
By M. David Hornbuckle
Livingston Press, 2019
Paperback $16.95
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Edward Journey

In the brief first chapter of M. David Hornbuckle’s novel, The Fireball Brothers, an aging couple in present-day Birmingham is exploring their blossoming romance in a bedroom in a Redmont Park mansion overlooking the city. The woman is a jazz and opera enthusiast while the man leans toward roots music. Such small talk leads to the man launching into a story of his family and a life-changing adventure in the late-1950s. Read Full Review...

Once You Know This
By Emily Blejwas
Random House/Delacorte Press, 2017
Hardcover $16.99
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Reviewed by Katie Lamar Jackson

Knowledge is power, especially when you feel powerless.

That’s one of many empowering insights that middle-grade readers — readers of any age, actually — can find in the pages of Emily Blejwas’s unflinchingly truthful, yet unerringly optimistic, debut novel, Once You Know This. Read Full Review...

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
By Margaret Renkl
Hardcover, $24
Milkweed Editions, 2019
Reviewed by Carla Jean Whitley

“I was just calling to tell you I’m going to be fine. I love you, baby.”

The rest of that conversation is fuzzy now. I believe my father and I spent a half hour or so talking about football—the college season would kick off a week later—and rock music, both among our favorite topics since I was a teenager. I sat on my balcony during that phone call, enjoying a pleasant, late-summer Sunday in Birmingham while my father was confined to an intensive care unit in Florida. I don’t think we discussed much of significance, beyond briefly touching on the unexpected surgery he would undergo the next day.

But I know for certain he ended that call, as he always did, by reminding me of his love.

It was the last time I would hear his voice. Read full review...

Selected Poems
By Dennis Sampson
Homestead Lighthouse Press, Inc., 2019
Hardcover $24.95; Paperback $14.54
Genre: Poetry
Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturo

The poems in Dennis Sampson’s eloquent collection, Selected Poems (Homestead Lighthouse Press 2019), are haunted with a wrenching tenderness, as well as gentle grace and certain beauty. These are lovely, lonely poems that resonate with humanity, easily assessable to readers, fueled by an inquisitive mind, and filled with rich, lush language.  Read full review...

This is the Story of His Life
By T.J. Beitelman
Black Lawrence Press, 2018
Hardcover $15.95
Genre: Poetry
Reviewed by Robert Bullard

T.J. Beitelman’s book of poetry takes on the task of transformation. He looks at how lives can be changed at the linguistic as well as the personal level. Throughout this process, his poems confront shifts of perspective and character of the lyric I, often through the medium of physical objects. His best poems are playful and ironic. They view topics such as flight, language, or spiritual rebirth with an impressive freewheeling wit. Read full review...

Girls Like Us
By Randi Pink (Feiwel and Friends)
MacMillan Press, 2019
Hardcover $18.99
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Kirk Curnutt

Randi Pink’s debut novel, Into White (2017), told the provocative tale of an African-American teenager in Montgomery, Alabama, who wakes up one day to discover she is Caucasian—a prayer Jesus himself has answered to spare her from insidious bullying at her high school, much of it coming from fellow black students. Read full review...

Let Us Imagine Her Name
By Sue Brannan Walker
Clemson University Press, 2017
Paperback $15.95
Genre: Poetry
Reviewed by Alyx Chandler

A poetry memoir in the form of an abecedarian is something one doesn’t happen upon very often, but for former Alabama Poet Laureate Sue Brannan Walker, it’s a challenge she skillfully navigates, easily drawing readers into her world of curious speculation and her own personal, unresolved identity. Not only has Walker mastered the art of sharing her wisdom with us, she digs through the trove of history to show us the gems of truth in the legacy of women across the globe who have passed. Read full review...

Dusting for Prints, Poems by Bonnie Roberts
By Bonnie Roberts
Flownwords, Swansea, South Wales, UK, 2019
Paperback $16 or £15
Genre: Poetry
Reviewed by Susan Hazen Guthrie

“I am Truth’s complete fool… A starving pilgrim.”
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Bonnie Roberts is a philosopher-king, perched on a precipice between Asia and Europe.  The moment the cover of Dusting for Prints is opened, she has already, long ago, leapt into the Hellespont…Leander-like.

We – you and I, are the Heroes, holding the Light, as we read.

If I am the guide, then I recommend Dusting for Prints, Poems by Bonnie Roberts, with mind and heart…which, upon reading, may have become a little more whole. Read full review...

Treeborne
By Caleb Johnson
Picador, 2019
Paperback $17.00
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by Laura Lilly Cotten

At a church reception this weekend an in-law told me, “We live on the worse half of the farm; the better’s under the lake.” It’s a familiar Southern tale: power company bought land, built dam, lake swallowed town. In Caleb Johnson’s debut novel, Janie Treeborne tells her family’s history and in doing so tells the history of the Hernando de Soto Dam and Elberta, Alabama. Elberta’s not a swallowed town, its neighbor is, and Elberta’s people benefit from the lake—that is until eighty years in when the dam’s ready to quit and The River Authority decides to implode it, come high water.

Even with fair flood warning, Janie won’t leave the peach orchard where she lives. Assessing the young man who’s come with tape recorder and microphone to get her reasons for staying put, Janie lands on a phrase which must’ve been a cliché in Elberta back when: “A Treeborne…right down to the bone.” What does she mean? All we have in answer are the stories she tells. Now God hates a frame-narrative, and Treeborne doesn’t escape judgment simply because it’s a novel about storytelling. But if you read past the current day chapters—cleverly titled “Stories We Tell // Today”—you’ll be rewarded with the kooky and often surprising saga of a family and a small Southern town. The tales are pulled from 1929 and 1958, mostly following Janie’s Aunt Tammy, her grandmomma Maybelle, granddaddy Hugh, and a few might-as-well-be family members.

In 1929 Hugh Treeborne works as a digger for The Authority building the dam. The pay’s good, but he’s never at ease with helping erase “more than ten thousand acres of deep woods and pastureland and homesteads that’d belonged to generations of local families.” He eventually discovers a gruesome higher purpose in the work and most of his remaining narrative takes place on what becomes “Hugh Treeborne’s Seven Hundred Acre Junk Garden,” a reimagining perhaps of Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia. Hugh calls his folk art “assemblies,” and perhaps it’s a propensity for parsing some sense from gathered junk that makes someone “Treeborne to the bone.” These narratives make up Janie’s assembly—and Johnson’s. Treeborne isn’t precisely a novel-in-stories, but it is a novel of stories sculpted out of bits’n’pieces found in Alabama woods.

Not all of Johnson’s novel glorifies storytelling. The stand-alone chapter “This Didn’t Make the Paper Either // 1958” follows a former high school football star after his fall from favor. Ricky Birdsong is reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s (unrelated) main protagonist in Jesus’ Son (1992). Though they differ in innocence as their names suggest, Birdsong’s brain is similarly addled, in his case by repeated football injuries rather than drugs. And he too is more of a mystic than any of Elberta’s bible-beaters. Toward the end of the novel, Ricky sits at Elberta’s most popular diner counter, the go-to haunt of “big-talkers....” He sips coffee and talks to a teenage waitress while “all around him a people’s particular past hung on the walls in pictures and jerseys and clipped newspaper articles stuck inside frames.” Johnson’s handling of Birdsong is as heartbreaking as his prose is poetic. Birdsong’s story is an admonition against small-town apotheosizing and gossip.

Maybe then the frame narrative is a refrain, reminding us: these are stories we tell today. Or stories we should tell today. Regardless, the novel tells us “people’s memories [are] worth preserving. Memory the only thing keeping us from being nobodies from nowhere.” This core belief accompanies all the Treebornes’ most desperate acts. There’s an anxiety in Johnson’s assembly over what happens to those about whom stories aren’t told, or about whom the wrong stories are told, and I can’t help but wonder if his narrative comes from a longing to convey that the backwoods of Alabama’s a someplace, populated by somebodies.

I mentioned Treeborne to a friend recently, and she told me she couldn’t read any more about “lonely people wandering around in the woods.” And let me tell you, there’s a lot of that here. Johnson thoroughly demonstrates his understanding of loneliness and its manifestations, the often overwhelming burden of memory. But memories can be funny and wild and fun too, as the Treebornes’ often are. This novel includes a kidnapping, a tornado, a rattle snake heist, vanished hot-air balloon, prison concert, multiple searches for missing persons, stolen sculptures, grave-robbers and runaways, a film-shoot, a suicide, and bungled murder in broad daylight— during a peach parade! Johnson’s prose too is full of wild treats: “ribs…ringed in with a beautiful pink halo just inside the hard black bark,” “unripe muscadines that popped out of their hard skin like snotty pimples,” and “big bald birds [who] rode an updraft like screws being loosened from a hard board.” How does it all fit into 300 pages? Johnson’s answer: Look what all can fit in a small Southern town.

Laura Lilly Cotten is the co-owner of Thank You Books, a new independent bookstore coming to Birmingham this November.

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