Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Sandburg Connection by Mark De Castrique

Sam Blackman and his partner, Nakayla Robertson, have a new case.  Having opened a detective agency and riding high on solving several cases in Asheville, NC, they are more than willing to serve as contractors in a medical damages case.  A professor at UNC-Asheville, Janice Wainwright, is sueing the surgeon who performed her back surgery.  She claims that the operation left her in such pain that working is almost impossible.

Sam and Nakayla agree to do surveillance on Janice to see if she is truly disabled, or if they will find her going about her everyday life, lifting heavy objects or performing physical tasks that a person with a valid case couldn't do.  In the case of this surveillance, they follow her to Connemara.  Connemara is the former home of Carl Sandburg, the people's poet, and now a historic landmark.  It is home to the Flat Rock Theatre and near steep hiking trails.  Janice heads up a trail, and sure that this is a breakthrough for the case, Sam follows.  He gets to her location as she screams, falls and is killed.  Was it a slip caused by post-surgery painkillers or did Sam see someone slipping away through the woods after pushing her?

The case is complicated by Janice's daughter, Wendy.  Agreeing to help her, Sam and Nakayla meet her father and aunt, various individuals either in the teaching profession or the arts or interested somehow in Asheville's history.  Each provides a piece of the puzzle.  Can Sam and Nakayla discover what really happened on the mountain that day?

Mark de Castrique grew up in western North Carolina.  He has worked in both television and the film production industry, and still serves as an adjunct professor at UNC-Charlotte.  He has written three Sam Blackman mysteries,  five mysteries in the Burying Barry series and a stand-alone thriller, The 13th Target.  The 13th Target will be reviewed here in the coming weeks.  This book is recommended for mystery fans.  The pace is nice, the characters well-drawn and the kind of people you can imagine meeting and getting to like.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Duke Don't Dance by Richard Sharp

The Silent Generation.  These are the men and women between The Greatest Generation who won World War II and The Boomers who resulted when that generation came home and made families.  The Silent Generation didn't have a war that everyone supported; they had Vietnam.  They didn't have a President from their ranks.  Instead the political crown skipped from men like Eisenhower and Nixon to John Kennedy.

But what did they have and what did they contribute?  The start of the computer industry that changed the world.  The rise of rock and roll; Janis and Jimi to Motown.  Flower Power.  The desegration acts that gave African Americans their dignity and rights.  The rise of feminism and reliable birth control.  The Cold War  and the post-Bomb era.  An era when going to college became imaginable instead of just reserved for the wealthy and powerful. 

In The Duke Don't Dance, Richard Sharp tells the story of the Silent Generation.  He follows a group of friends from 1960 to the present.  The reader follows their lives and is privy to their loves, their politics, their work and careers.  In doing so, the contributions and issues of this generation come alive. 

Richard Sharp is a member of this generation.  Born in 1941, he traveled with his career all over the world and currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ring Of Fire by Bill Cokas

Wally Gibbs has a master plan.  Not content with being a professor of marketing, he has come up with the ultimate marketing plan; a plan that will make him rich beyond his wildest dreams.  So what if a few deaths have occurred during the planning stages?

The plan involves class rings, gemstones found only on a Greek island, miniature cameras and sophisticated database software.  Can Gibbs be stopped before his plan takes hold and more people die?  The only ones who might be able to stop him are a cartoonist who happens to be one of Gibb's students and a surly campus policeman with issues of his own.  They form an unlikely team determined to stop the plan and expose Gibbs.

Bill Cokas has created an interesting, quirky mystery that is bound to please mystery lovers, especially those with a North Carolina tie.  His characters are interesting and the plot moves along at a perfect pitch.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers who enjoy mysteries that are more cerebral than gory.

Cokas graduated from the University of Carolina-Chapel Hill and then went into the advertisement business, writing ads and commercials.  He is now back in North Carolina, and teaching at the university he graduated from.  Ring of Fire is his most recent mystery, but fans will hope it is not his last.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Enchantment by Orson Scott Card

Just as in the fairy tales, Ivan has discovered his purpose in life.  While in the Ukraine visiting his uncle and working on his graduate dissertation, he comes upon a sleeping princess, whom he kisses and awakes.

That much of the story is familiar, but Orson Scott Card's take on the Sleeping Beauty tale is skewed into an enchanting tale that will leave the reader full of wonder and hope.  There are witches, both good and evil.  A talking bear.  A princess who has no use for a modern man who doesn't even know how to handle a sword.  Spells and charms abound, but are there enough spells in the world to make such dissimilar individuals fall in love and live happily ever afterwards?

Orson Scott Card is well known for his science fiction.  He has won both the Hugo and the Nebula Prizes in consecutive years for Ender's Game and Speaker For The Dead, the only author to receive this honor.  Card has written multiple books, most of them best sellers.  He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

Look Homeward, Angel is Thomas Wolfe's masterwork, the novel that made his reputation.  Born in Asheville, NC, in 1900, he was educated at the University of North Carolina and at Harvard.  He spent his time teaching and traveling, building his reputation as one of America's master novelists.  Wolfe died in 1938.

The novel tells the life of the Gant family in a small mountain town in North Carolina.  It is widely acknowledged that the town is Asheville, NC and that the book is a thinly disguised account of Wolfe's own life there.

The Gant family was made of Oliver and Eliza Gant and their children, Steve, Luke, the twins Ben and Grover, the girls Daisy and Helen, and the baby, Eugene.  Eugene is the individual whose life most closely mimics Wolfe's own.  The family is portrayed for the twenty years of Eugene's childhood and early manhood, as he grows up and learns that he must move on to achieve what he wants from life.

The daily lives of the Gant family are richly portrayed, each detail building upon the next to demonstrate daily life in the mountain region of North Carolina from 1900 to 1920.  Oliver is a stone mason, Eliza becomes the owner of a boardinghouse.  They both are so consumed with the thought of money and what it takes to make a living that they neglected the emotional lives of their children.  The children are left to provide emotional support for each other, to force their way through life trying, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing to achieve their goals.

Education was a great good, although expensive and those who had the opportunity to get an education were reminded daily of their great fortune.  Wolfe details the daily working life of laborers, of those revered in small towns such as lawyers, doctors and politicians.  He covers the relationships between men and women, and those between the races.   The first Great War and the iinfluenza epidemic are covered.  The United States was changing and the Gant family is a representation of how the country changed over this time period.

This book is recommended for readers interested in knowing how daily life was in western North Carolina during the early years of the 19th century as the population moved from a rural to a city focus.  It is intricately detailed and moves the reader through the daily life of this family and the constant questions of why we are here and what we are to do with our lives. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Traitor's Wife by Susan Higginbotham

The Traitor's Wife is the story of Eleanor de Clare and her love for and marriage to Hugh le Despenser, known as Hugh the Younger in the early 1300's in England.  The couple were both royalty and highly placed politically.  Eleanor was the granddaughter of Edward the I and the niece of the current king, Edward the II.  Hugh's father, Hugh the Elder was a trusted advisor of the King.

The book follows the couple over their entire lives together, through their marriage, their nine children, and their political ups and down in a tumultuous period in English history.  The reader will be surprised at the constant political maneuvering that led to treachery and betrayals, to a family being feted one day and scorned or imprisoned the next.  The country was in upheaval as the nobles tried to rein in the power of their kings and force them to rule in a manner they approved of. 

As the years passed, Hugh and Eleanor became ever more entangled in court affairs.  Hugh became the King's Chamberlain, basically the King's right-hand man.  He was the conduit between others and the King, and Hugh used this position to enrich himself and become ever more powerful.  Over the years, Edward and his queen, Isabella from France, became estranged.  Isabella eventually joined forces with her lover, Roger Mortimer, and they enlisted enough support from the nobles to force Edward to abdicate in favor of his son. 

This was disastrous for Hugh and Eleanor.  Hugh was arrested and given a traitor's death, while Eleanor and her oldest son were imprisoned off and on for many years.  Eleanor was left with nine children and the Queen's enmity.

This is a richly written, painstakingly researched account of one of England's leading families.  The Princess of Wale, Lady Diana, was a descendant of Hugh and Eleanor.  Although the reader will learn much about 13th century England and the military and political forces sweeping the country, The Traitor's Wife is above all a love story between Hugh and Eleanor.  This book is highly recommended for readers of historical fiction.

Susan Higginbotham is an attorney by education, and currently in addition to writing, works for a legal publisher.  She lives in Apex, North Carolina.  The Traitor's Wife was her first book, published in 2005 and republished in 2008 by Sourcebooks.  It received ForeWord Magazine's 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and the 2008 Independent Publisher's Award for Historical/Military Fiction.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Watery Part Of The World by Michael Parker

Michael Parker's hauntingly beautiful novel, The Watery Part Of The World, tells the story of one of North Carolina's barrier islands, Yaupon Island.  A tiny strip of sand between the ocean and the sound, it serves as the land's first break in the water; a tough land where survival demands the same toughness from its inhabitants.

The novel moves in time between the early 1800's to the present.  The earlier time is the story of the island's first inhabitants; shipwreck survivors, pirates, fishermen and slaves.  Among these is Theodosia Burr Alston, an aristocrat.  Daughter of the Vice-President, Aaron Burr and wife of Joseph Alston, the governor of South Carolina, she is brought to the island where her ship is wrecked by pirates.  She survives with the help of Whaley, a man who fights for her release by the outlaws and takes her as his wife.  She lives out her life in this new environment, unsure that her former privileged life had ever really existed.

Fast forward to the future.  After decades when the island thrived as a tight community, it has dwindled down to three people.  Theodosia and Maggie Whaley are the great-great-great-granddaughters of Theodosia and Whaley.  Woodrow Thornton is the descendant of the slave that Whaley bought and freed and who lived out his life on the island.  Woodrow takes care of the two white women, even at the expense of his own life.  Woodrow is married and he and Sarah have a large family.  Over the years, all drift off to the mainland, but Woodrow refuses to leave his responsibility to the Whaley women, even when Sarah dies. 

Parker has written a book that explores the ties that people have to specific landscapes and places; how the land can shape lives and the relationships that grow there.  It is a grand mixture of love and duty, of the relationship between black and white people in the South, of the toughness and will to survive, of an old culture whose vestiges remain.  This is not the 'beach' of tourists and gaudiness; it is the coast, stripped down to the mechanisms of survival and the love that allows people to survive there.  This book is highly recommended to all readers who want to understand one of the cultures of North Carolina.  Michael Parker is a professor in the MFA writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

NC Writer's Workshop


Writers of fiction, memoir, poetry and even music can now register for an annual workshop known for helping seasoned writers and first-timers alike to recharge their creative batteries in one of North Carolina’s most glorious mountain settings.

Applications are being accepted on a first-come, first-served basis for this year’s Table Rock Writers Workshop, to be held Sept. 17 -21 at the rustic Blue Ridge Mountain artists’ resort, Wildacres Retreat.

SOLATIDO, a southern singer/songwriters’ workshop that runs concurrently in adjacent facilities at Wildacres, is also open for registration.  Table Rock, originally known as the Duke University Writers’ Workshop, was reorganized in 2010 and continues with the same leadership and philosophy of support for writers of all genres and levels of experience.

Georgann Eubanks, who has directed the popular literary workshops for more than 20 years, also runs Solatido.  Table Rock enrolls a maximum of 50 writers, using a non-competitive, first-come, first-served application process. Eubanks said some registrants are returnees, but newcomers always infuse the weeklong sessions with creative diversity.

The faculty for Table Rock includes North Carolina writers Abigail DeWitt, Darnell Arnoult, Anna Jean Mayhew and Scott Huler. This year participants can also choose to take advantage of a first-time Reader-in Residence, Dawn Shamp. Writers can submit up to 25 pages of manuscript and Dawn will provide a detailed critique that includes copy editing and structural and technical advice.

Music producer and composer Richard Putnam leads this year’s Solatido workshop. The keyboardist and arranger is comfortable with all musical styles and has been a session player in the Southeast for 30 years.

“This is a unique opportunity for participants to have quality time with excellent instructors, away from day-to-day distractions,” said Eubanks. “And the individual and group discussions led by the experienced, published writers on the Table Rock faculty as well as the polished, savvy musicians of Solatido are made even better by the breathtaking surroundings.

More information is at and
Contact Cindy Campbell, 919.923.8857,

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Lovely, Indecent Departure by Steven Lee Gilbert

Anna had to leave.  Caught in a marriage with a man who needed to control her every move, she left for her sanity.  But she never meant to leave Oliver, her five year old son.  When Evan, her ex-husband, tries to manipulate her through Oliver, making her joint custody more and and more difficult, she makes a momentous decision.

Since Anna has joint citizenship with both the United States and Italy, she is able to take Oliver and flee overseas.  She leaves everything else behind; job, house, family, friends.  Her remote relatives, most of whom she hasn't seen since she was a small girl, help her to get reestablished in Florence.  But can Evan ever concede failure in what he regards as a battle to establish his rightful dominance?

Evan enlists the big guns.  He goes to the police, for Anna has indeed committed a crime, kidnapping.  He goes to the press to make sure his side of the story is the one that gets told.  Finally, after months with no results, he hires a private investigator to locate Anna and kidnap Oliver back.  Evan's single focus brings the rest of his world into jeopardy; his job and marriage soon show the cracks of his obsession. 

Steven Gilbert has written a masterful debut novel.  The reader can empathize with each character in turn and the motives that drive their actions.  The writing is crisp and spare, yet portrays each side of this situation; mother, father, law enforcement, family and friends, fully.  Gilbert lives in the Piedmont region of NC.  In 2007 he was the recipient of a Durham Arts Council Emerging Artist Grant for Literature.  A Lovely, Indecent Departure is recommended for all readers interested in a compelling story and excellent character portrayal. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

North Carolina Tribute Month

I am lucky enough to live in one of the best states in the country, North Carolina.  We have it all.  There are beaches with wide sandy shores and mountains with steep climbs and gorgeous foliage.  There are bustling cities and rural paradises.  We have a thriving public university system and a large community college system.  Did I mention the North Carolina Tarheels, one of my obsessions outside of reading?  There is wonderful seafood, barbecue and apple butter from the mountains.  There is a thriving pottery industry and some of the most beautiful furniture every created.

North Carolina also has wonderful authors.  Some of these include Clyde Edgerton, Betsy Byar, Srah Dessen, Charles Frazier, Kaye Gibbons, Margaret Maron, Tom Robbins, O'Henry, Maya Angelou, Orson Scott Card, Doris Betts, Fred Chapell and Patricia Cornwell.  Others are Marianne Gingher, Michael Parker, Thomas Wolfe, Michael Malone, Jil McCorkle, Robert Morgan and Ron Rash.  There are new NC authors just hitting their stride like Wiley Cash.

I've decided to set aside June to celebrate all things North Carolina.  All books reviewed in June will either be by a NC author (born here or currently living here) or have a North Carolina location.  I hope you will enjoy this month as much as I plan to!

A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash

The mountains of North Carolina have their own culture.  The families have lived in their own specific valley for years and everyone knows everyone else's business; whose farm is doing well, who is drinking a bit too much, who is sleeping with whom.  It is a culture ripe to grow feuds; an atmosphere where wrongs can be brooded about and allowed to fester for generations. Loyalty and betrayal are everyday affairs that echo across the years.

It is also a culture in which religion can play a large part.  This is the land of small rural churches where some of the more fundamentalist beliefs play out.  Churches where snake-handling or poison drinking to prove belief that God will protect the righteous is not unusual.  Churches where charismatic preachers can hold huge influence over the families that attend their churches.

Jess Hall is a curious young boy, living on a farm with his parents and his older brother, Christopher, known as Stump to everyone.  Stump is a mute and Jess is protective of him even though he is the younger.  The boys stumble into a secret that will have consequences that impact the entire community and make life change in ways they could never foresee.

A Land More Kind Than Home is Wiley Cash's debut novel.  He grew up in this area of North Carolina and his portrayal of the area brings it to life.  The plotting is intricate and the pacing is excellent.  The characters are portrayed realistically.  This book is recommended for readers interested in family relationships.