Tag Archives: North Carolina

“The Moonshiner’s Daughter,” by Donna Everhart

Kensington Books. Trade paperback $15.95.

It’s 1960 in Wilke’s County, North Carolina and sixteen-year-old Jessie Sasser has a problem. In fact, she has several problems. One is an awkward and demeaning relationship with her father. He seems remote and silently critical. Jessie has asked him over and over to explain the death of her mother, which occurred when Jessie was four years old. However, she never gets a meaningful response. Her questioning is basically ignored. Her father resents her questioning, and Jessie interprets this to be, in part, the result of his complicity in her death.

The relationship is further complicated by Jessie’s rebellion against the family business of making and selling moonshine – illegal alcoholic beverages. This business supports her family, and many other families, in this place and time. It supports Jessie’s uncle, aunt, and cousin. This lazy trio does little assist Jessie’s father. They thrive on complaining.

Her younger brother, Merritt, idolizes their father and the moonshiner culture he proudly represents. Thus, Merritt cannot relate to his sister in any positive way.

In her high school, Jessie is almost totally without friends. She connects this condition of being left out or made fun of with the disgrace of the family’s low social status. Her one friend betrays her in various ways. Jessie also sees her isolation as being a consequence of her appearance. She perceives herself as obese, and to fight this vision of herself she has developed poor eating habits. She alternately binges, starves, and purges. The author’s fine, sympathetic delineation of the teenager’s severe eating disorder, along with its causes and consequences, is one of the novelist’s most powerful achievements.

Ms. Everhart provides hints that Jessie misperceives how others see her; however, her lack of self-esteem keeps reinforcing her self-image. Only her elderly neighbor, a woman of shrewd insight and compassion, takes the time to offer Jessie some tools and insights that slowly ameliorate her miserable condition. Mrs. Brewer, who is also a school nurse, is a remarkable character, drawn to perfection by the author.

At first, Jessie is defined as a rebel, fighting against the family’s moonshiner identity and the risks of such an enterprise – risks including the violence of a rival moonshining family and the county agents assigned to apprehend and jail moonshiners as criminals.

Donna Everhard-Credit Gina Warren photography

However, perhaps to win her father’s favor, she becomes cooperative and takes on a share of the work. Neither her father nor her brother is willing to trust her. Because Jessie is the narrator, we know that her change of heart is serious, but after a while she begins to have qualms about her shift in direction. When her father is arrested and sentenced to jail, she must fight the assumption of those who believe that she turned him in.

As the novel progresses, Jessie seems to be accepting the fact that she was born to the life of running moonshine stills and conveying the product to their customers. She’s good at it. She proves herself worthy. When her father is released, he finally offers Jessie some of the positive recognition that he had held back for so long. He also opens up, to a positive outcome, the truth about his wife’s participation in the business and the details about her death twelve years back.

Part of what makes Jessie a compelling character is that her flaws are recognizable. They define her without pushing the reader away. She slowly recognizes who she really is and what she can attain. This is not a story of unexpected epiphanies, but of gradual growth to an enhanced, effective self-awareness. Jessie has miles to go, but she is on the right track. She has developed inner resources that are likely to serve her well.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in running an illegal distillery, this book can serve as a training manual

Originally published in Southern Literary Review as the January Review of the Month.

Click here: Moonshiner’s Daughter

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A landslide buries secrets in new Ryder Creed K-9 thriller

Silent Creed, by Alex Kava. Putnam. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

If you missed the opening title in this powerful new series, catch up by plunging right into this one. The action is nonstop, the suspense is wound tight, and the concerns of the plot, while they go back in time, are extremely timely.  JacketSILENTCREED

Ryder has come to the scene of a huge landslide in North Carolina. A search and rescue dog trainer, his task is to set his animals on the trail of any people who might be buried and to save whomever can be found alive. Ms. Kava’s ability to smoothly blend fascinating details about this rescue process into her narrative is not the least of her skills.

Time is the enemy when people are buried in the mud and cannot extricate themselves. In fact, readers are not far into the story when Ryder himself almost becomes a victim of the continuing bad weather, especially the torrential flooding and the unsure footing.  Surprisingly, Ryder just barely dominates this novel, as he is on several occasions unconscious or physically compromised. Fortunately, there are other major characters who hold our interest.

One of these is Ryders’s acquaintance, FBI agent Maggie O’Dell, who is sent to be the eyes on the spot for the civilian security establishment. The man she should report to, Logan, who served with Ryder in Afghanistan, is rarely to be found as matters get worse and worse. Sparks of attraction will fly between Ryder and Maggie, but will anything ignite?

Jason, Ryder’s assistant, is another well-crafted and highly original character. An amputee because of a war injury, Jason – like Ryder – must deal with PTSD and anger management to work effectively in society. His job with Ryder’s dog training enterprise is an opportunity to prove himself.

Alex Kava photo Deborah Groh Carlin

Alex Kava photo Deborah Groh Carlin

Nature can be hell, but as Ms. Kava makes clear, it is the human factor that is most demonic.

Guess what has been buried by the landslide. I’m counting . . . oh, you’ll never guess. It’s a secret government research facility charged with preparing to defend against chemical and biological warfare. Naturally, this means it has on hand the instruments of death for which antidotes must be developed. This facility, one of many spread around the country, does its work without clear oversight.

Rescuers discover that one of the recovered scientists died ahead of the landslide – shot. Is the landslide a literal cover-up for murder? A happy accident for people who have a lot to hide? Will more victims of murder be found entombed in mud?

To read the entire review, as it appears in the August 5, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the August 6 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Silent Creed

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Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye

The Big Finish, by James W. Hall. Minotaur Books. 304 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

The cover flap announces that this book is the series finale, but I can’t believe it. It’s hard to say goodbye to an old friend. James W. Hall’s Thorn novels have long been such a central, exemplary, and yet distinctive part of the Florida mystery tradition that many readers will be going through separation anxiety. Mr. Hall, please say it isn’t so.  BigFinish,The

The current of ecological concerns that has gained strength over the series reaches flood stage in “The Big Finish,” the title perhaps a spoof on expectations in life and art. Thorn’s son, Flynn Moss, whom he and the readers have only recently met, is in trouble. Flynn – or someone – has reached out to Thorn about criminal practices in the North Carolina pig farming industry.

Thorn’s son, a member of the underground environmental activist organization known as ELF, has been working to expose and destroy a major player in this industry. At least four kinds of evil are running wild in this remote town. One is the exploitation of workers through intimidation. Another is the cruelty to the piglets crowded together and pumped up for sale to slaughterhouses. Yet another is incredible pollution from mismanagement of the toxic waste from the pigs.

Finally, there is the secretive nurturing of a plant with “downward hanging trumpet-shaped blooms” from which a dangerous drug is produced.  Some of Dobbins’ workers “had tragically succumbed to an overdose of the trumpet flower’s pollen. Losing a well-trained man was always a setback, but it was the unlucky cost of doing the kind of business he was engaged in.” Such is the moral code of Webb Dobbins. This drug business is supporting the hog farm, which is staggering under enormous debts.

Thorn sets out with a plan to partner with his old detective buddy Sugarman, but from the beginning the mission is compromised by a scheming, unstable former FBI agent, Madeline Cruz. This woman has her own plans and motives and is manipulating Thorn, understanding his need to rescue his son at all costs. She is suspicious of Sugarman’s new girlfriend, Tina, who is along on the ride to North Carolina. Cruz suspects Tina of criminal activity.

James W. Hall

James W. Hall

So, Thorn’s mission has grown far more complicated and desperate. He perceives the trouble signs, but feels he has to play this game out in order to find Flynn. Cruz admits (or perhaps lies once more) that the plan is to use Thorn as bait to draw out suspects in a big government operation.

Other characters provide further complications.

X-88 is a rock of a man who served at Railford in the same cell block with Manny Obrero, a drug dealer who had been Madeline Cruz’s husband. Manny has connected X-88 to Madeline, so X is now part of her enterprise and enjoying the company of her daughter, Pixie. Am I going too fast? Here’s more: X-88 murders Sugarman’s deceitful girlfriend Tina by forcing three hamburger patties down her throat to suffocate her.

Murder by force feeding. Something like how they fatten pigs. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the January 21, 2015 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 22 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Big Finish

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“A Land More Kind Than Home,” by Wiley Cash

Set in rural Madison County, North Carolina in the mid-1980s, this quietly gorgeous novel is most remarkable for its exquisitely rendered sense of place. Mr. Cash not only gives us every kind of sensory news about the community in which he locates his story, but he also paints the cultural environment – the atmospherics – in memorable, thematically enhancing brushstrokes. The major theme is the interaction of religiosity and cruel, cunning evil. Though the flavor of its manifestation is penetratingly Southern, Wiley Cash’s novel leaps beyond its place and time to a profound universality. WileyCashCover

The author builds his novel by employing three narrators; that is, three perspectives and three distinct voices processing events that bring their lives into contact. Adelaide (“Addie”) Lyle is a woman well into her eighties who knows the community inside out. As the town midwife, she has had a professional intimacy with almost every family, and she has already outlived many people whom she helped bring into the world. Though she no longer spends time in church, she has taken on the task of giving the church families’ children their religious education. In fact, she has insisted on it and prevailed: in her view, children should not be exposed to what goes on in that church.

Wiley Cash

Wiley Cash

The second narrator is nine year old Jess Hall. Wise beyond his years and curious about what goes on around him, Jess is not adverse to risk or responsibility. In fact, he is more or less responsible for his older brother Christopher (nicknamed Stump), a mute who is challenged developmentally. What these boys see, individually and together (they to spy into things that no one is meant to discover), includes the doings in and out of church of the man who ten years earlier took over the church, formerly in the county seat of Marshall, and brought to this more isolated community. . . .

To see the entire review of this highly acclaimed novel, as it appears in Southern Literary Review, click here: January Read of the Month: “A Land More Kind Than Home,” by Wiley Cash

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