Current Book Review

Jewel by Bret Lott

Jewel

Jewel

Bret Lott (Adult Fiction)

“I say unto you that the baby you be carrying be yo’ hardship, be yo’ test in this world.  This be my prophesying unto you, Miss Jewel…The Lord smiling down on you this way.”  This is what Jewel Chandler Hilburn was told about her unborn child—her sixth and last.  It was 1943 and she had already been blessed abundantly with a good marriage to a loving man, five beautiful children, and a comfortable life in the woods of Mississippi.  With this child, Jewel just wanted a living, breathing baby with ten fingers and ten toes.  Certainly, that couldn’t be too much to ask?  But life can change in an instant and Jewel soon finds herself with a baby who is both a blessing and a burden and who will forever change the way she views life and love.

Bret Lott delivers a poignant and touching story about a mother’s relationship with her special needs daughter.  Jewel is a woman who has lived a thousand lives and has seen hardship and tenderness, cruelty and kindness, but the heart of this story is the bond she shares with her daughter, Brenda Kay.  Lott brings to the surface the gut-wrenching and life-altering moment when a mother looks upon her precious child—when heart and head finally reach mutual agreement—and says the words, “Something’s wrong”.  We feel the heartbreak as Jewel mourns the future that she has imagined for her daughter that will never be and we see her burdened with the regret of not being there for her other children or her husband.  Life is no longer measured in minutes or months, but in milestones and Jewel is there to celebrate each and every one of Brenda Kay’s.  She even organizes a family picnic when Brenda Kay takes her first step at age five.

Jewel is a celebration of the love between a mother and child.  Bret Lott reminds us of the tremendous gift that our children give us.  As each day brings with it some amount of pain, joy, frustration, heartache, sadness, and love, we are also reminded that it is one day less that we have with them all to ourselves for the job of a parent is to love our children, protect them, guide them, and then let them go so that they can make lives of their own.  It is a bittersweet role that we take on willingly and relinquish reluctantly.  Our legacy is often measured through our children.  They carry on our hopes, our dreams, our stories, and a bit of ourselves.  As Jewel said, “My life would never end, I saw, not even in my own Brenda Kay, because of those eyes turned to me and asking what to do, the only true victory any mother could ever hope for: the looking of a child…to you for what wisdom you could give away before you left for whatever reckoning you had with the God who’d given you that wisdom in the first place.”  Our children are indeed a blessing and a burden, but through their words, actions, and deeds, we too are able to see the Lord smiling down at us.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Dovey Coe by Frances O’Roark Dowell (YA)

Dovey Coe

Dovey Coe

Frances O’Roark Dowell (Young Adult Fiction)

“My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not. I’m here to lay the record straight to let you know them folks saying I done a terrible thing are liars. I aim to prove it too. I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn’t kill him.”

The youngest of the three Coe children, twelve-year-old Dovey would just as soon carry around a pocketknife than a pocketbook.  She’s wasn’t a skilled tracker like her brother Amos and she certainly wasn’t pretty and charming like her sister Caroline, but Dovey was loyal and honest and had a mind of her own.  You never had to guess what Dovey Coe was thinking because she would tell you exactly what was on her mind…whether you cared to hear it or not.  As you can imagine, this resulted in a few awkward situations and quite a number of bruised egos.  Such was the case with Parnell Caraway.  Son to the richest family in town, Parnell always got whatever he set his eyes on and at the present moment, his eyes were set on Caroline Coe.  No other girl in Indian Creek, NC deserved his arm more, but Caroline was set on going to college in Boone.  Covey was certainly not going to let the likes of Parnell Caraway tear her family apart, but would she resort to murder to keep her family together?

I am an absolute and unashamed pushover for plucky and feisty heroines: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Matilda Wormwood (Matilda), and Fern Arable (Charlotte’s Web) to name a few.  Dovey Coe handily earns a spot among these lovable, irrepressible, undaunted, and spirited young ladies.  Whether she’s confronting a school bully or the son of the man who owns half the town, Dovey is righteous in her convictions and uncowering in the face of injustice, unfairness, or just plain meanness.  No matter how few nickels she had to rub together, Dovey never considered herself or her family poor.  Her life was simple and satisfying and when something got her down, it wasn’t anything that a slice of her MeMaw’s chocolate cake or hammering a few nails into a two by four wouldn’t make right again.  Failure was not only not an option for Dovey, it simply wasn’t in her vocabulary.

Dovey Coe was shelved under the Young Adult section in my local library; however, the book is listed for ages nine to twelve and I highly recommend younger readers seizing the opportunity to meet Dovey and her entire family.  Older readers may feel the writing style is a bit simplistic, but the lessons Frances O’Roark Dowell lays out for her readers are ageless.  Loving who you are, standing up for what is right, defending the weakest among you, and finding joy in life’s smallest pleasures are things we should all aspire to do.  I think Dovey summed it up best when she said, “The way I seen things, us Coes had everything we needed in this world.  Some might see us as poor, but that was their problem.”

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

The Girl in the Red Coat

The Girl in the Red Coat

Kate Hamer (Adult Fiction)

“We took the train that day.  I wanted it to be special for Carmel and taking a train rather than the usual bus was a treat.”  That is how the day started for newly single mom Beth and her daughter, Carmel.  A day that Beth would look back on as Day 1.  A day brimming with excitement and anticipation, but ending with every parent’s worst nightmare.  On Day 1, Carmel disappeared during an outdoor festival.  You wouldn’t think that an eight-year-old girl wearing a red coat could be so easily overlooked.  Could so easily vanish.  But a heavy mist had settled on the grounds, visibility was deteriorating, and just like that, Day 1 had started.  While Beth begins an exhaustive search for her missing daughter, Carmel starts her own harrowing journey into a religious sect with a man she must trust to survive.  As days turn into weeks and then months, will Beth ever see her little girl in the red coat again?

I have yet to read a modern British author’s work that I didn’t enjoy and Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat is surely no exception.   Hamer—born in Plymouth and raised in Pembrokeshire (she’s says she feels Welsh)—gives readers a thrilling story that alternates between the points of view of Beth and Carmel.  As a parent myself, I’m not sure which of the two stories was more disturbing to read:  a mother helpless and tormented by guilt over losing her child or a child being emotionally manipulated and fearful of losing her identity.  Both stories keep the reader breathlessly captivated and drawn into a nightmare scenario that no one should have to bear.  Hamer delves into the subtleties of loss, grief, and shame as Beth seeks personal absolution for Carmel’s disappearance.  We feel her guilt when she completes an errand or leaves the house and only realizes later that she didn’t think of or search for Carmel during that time.  Her stages of grief are excruciating and Hamer boldly lays it out so that we may process and endure it with Beth.  In turn, she allows us equal time to share in Carmel’s isolation, confusion, and fear as she is ripped from everything she knows and loves and is forced to accept a new way life with a stranger whom she feels obligated to trust.  Both Beth and Carmel feel an overwhelming amount of guilt and regret over their actions, yet they desperately cling to the smallest modicum of hope that they will once again be reunited.

The color red is used liberally throughout this book and represents different things.  This story has a strong religious component so for Christians, red symbolizes atonement and sacrifice.  Red is also an intense color representing extreme emotions such as hate, jealousy, and anger which we see through certain members of Carmel’s “surrogate” family.  It’s the color of danger and Carmel’s beautifully unique coat unfortunately turns into a beacon for an unscrupulous stranger.  For Carmel, it serves as an interesting color choice.  She is fiercely drawn to this color whose main purpose is to make the wearer stand out, yet Carmel is desperate to break loose from her overprotective mother and often seeks out dark, far-off spaces to hide.  For someone wanting to disappear, red wouldn’t be an obvious fashion option.  But it would be this same color that would serve as Carmel’s anchor to holding on to her identity.  Red would remind her that she is Carmel Wakeford and that red, above all else, is the color of strength, heart, and love.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Top 10 Picks for 2019

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Below is our annual Top 10 Picks for 2019.  This year, we’ve added an Honorable Mention list since there were SO many great books for younger readers, we simply couldn’t leave these little gems out.  We hope you find this list is helpful in choosing some books to read in 2020 and look forward to sharing more great dusty jackets in the upcoming year.  Happy reading!

The Dusty Jacket’s Top 10 Picks for 2019*

Adult Fiction/Biography

  1. Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter & Me (Memoir) by Lorilee Craker (reviewed January 2019)
  2. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (reviewed January 2019)
  3. The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander (reviewed January 2019)
  4. Memoirs of an Invisible Friend by Matthew Dicks (reviewed February 2019)
  5. Chosen By a Horse (Memoir) by Susan Richards (reviewed March 2019)
  6. The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst (reviewed April 2019)
  7. The Human Comedy by William Saroyan (reviewed May 2019)
  8. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (reviewed June 2019)
  9. Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard (reviewed October 2019)
  10. Saints at the River by Ron Rash (reviewed December 2019)

Juvenile/Young Adult

  1. I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (YA Historical Fiction) by J. B. Cheaney (reviewed January 2019)
  2. Alchemy and Meggy Swann (YA Historical Fiction) by Karen Cushman (reviewed January 2019)
  3. Bud, Not Buddy (J) by Christopher Paul Curtis (reviewed March 2019)
  4. An Elephant in the Garden (YA Historical Fiction) by Michael Morpurgo (reviewed March 2019)
  5. The Wheel on the School (J) by Meindert DeJong (reviewed April 2019)
  6. The Lightning Dreamer (YA Historical Fiction) by Margarita Engle (reviewed April 2019)
  7. King of the Wind (J Historical Fiction) by Marguerite Henry (reviewed May 2019)
  8. Return to the Willows (J) by Jacqueline Kelly (reviewed June 2019)
  9. The Hundred Dresses (J) by Eleanor Estes (reviewed August 2019)
  10. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (J Biography) by William Kamkwamba (reviewed September 2019)

Honorable Mention

Silent to the Bone (YA) by E. L. Konigsburg (reviewed February 2019)

The Birchbark House (J) by Louise Eldrich (reviewed February 2019)

Abel’s Island (J) by William Steig (reviewed March 2019)

Bed-Knob and Broomstick (J) by Mary Norton (reviewed April 2019)

Bluefish (YA) by Pat Schmatz (reviewed July 2019)

Adam of the Road (J) by Elizabeth Janet Gray (reviewed August 2019)

 

*List contains selections reviewed in 2019

 

Saints at the River by Ron Rash

Saints At The River

Saints at the River

Ron Rash (Adult Fiction)

It was during Easter break when twelve-year-old Ruth Kowalsky lost her life to the Tamassee River.  One minute Ruth’s wading to the river’s middle to place one foot on the South Carolina side and the other on the Georgia side and the next minute she’s pulled downstream—her submerged body forever trapped in a deep eddy.  Soon, Ruth’s drowning becomes both a local tragedy and the center of an environmental debate with long-reaching political ties.  Caught in the middle is photographer Maggie Glenn who returns to her Oconee County hometown to cover this story for her newspaper.  Maggie must not only choose between grieving out-of-towners and her beloved river, but she must also confront events from her past that has driven a deep chasm between her and her estranged father.

Ron Rash provides a compelling story and serves up the question, “Should human life take precedence over environmental sanctity?”  When I came upon this book, I found myself a bit skeptical of the story’s premise.  How can you build a meaningful and suspenseful story around environmental activists waging war on grieving parents without making either side look unfeeling or unsympathetic?  But I had unfairly underestimated Mr. Rash who takes great care in presenting both sides of this debate and does so with passion, honesty, and neutrality.  He gives equal time to both positions and allows his reader to make up his or her own mind without fear of judgement or reprisal…unlike our protagonist, Maggie, who must bear and witness the full brunt of her choice.  Although the reader doesn’t get a chance to know young Ruth Kowalsky, her tragic death serves as a catalyst to understanding the motivations of her father, Herb, as well as the actions of Maggie’s own father during her childhood.  Both men are alike in their desperate search for redemption and closure.

Although I didn’t quite connect with Maggie and had little interest in her unfortunate and turbulent backstory, I was drawn to the Kowalsky’s plight and to the small South Carolina town caught in the middle of a bitter legal battle to protect its most precious natural resource.  Saints at the River is a cautionary tale of political influence, government overreach, and the delicate balance between life and the law.  Although there are many interesting characters in this book, the central figure is undoubtedly the Tamassee River.  It is a power onto itself and its water courses through this story like blood through veins.  It is to be admired, respected, protected, and—most importantly—never underestimated as history professor Douglas Brinkley once wrote, “Thus did nature triumph over man’s attempt to conquer it.  Nature always wins.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The White Stag by Kate Seredy (J)

The White Stag

The White Stag

Kate Seredy (Juvenile Fiction)

“Hadur, Powerful God, Thou hast indeed turned the sword against me, Thy sword, Hadur, not mine!  But Thou hast given me a scourge in its place and I swear to Thee, I, Bendeguz the White Eagle, that I shall use that scourge, that I shall make it into the most dreadful weapon ever known to men.  Thou hast given me a son, Hadur, he will be that scourge!  My son, Attila the Red Eagle, the Scourge of God!”

And so it was that in the year 408, Attila the Hun was born to Bendeguz the White Eagle and Alleeta, a girl captured during one of the many Hun raids.  Alleeta who would die in childbirth but would give her tribe one of the greatest and most brutal leaders it would ever know.  A leader who would take his people on a journey foretold by his great grandfather Nimrod, Mighty Hunter before the Lord, and started by his grandfather, Hunor of the Hun tribe, and his great uncle, Magyar of the Magyar tribe, and then continued by his father Bendeguz the White Eagle.  Great warriors who would bear the flag of the Red Eagle and follow the mythical White Stag from the headlands of wild Altain-Ula in the west toward the east.  A pilgrimage sweeping from Asia to Europe and leaving countless men, women, and children dead, dying, or enslaved.  A journey that wouldn’t stop until the promised homeland was reached.

Through her poetic prose and beautiful illustrations, Kate Seredy delivers an epic story mixing fantasy, legend, myth, biblical references, and history.  Although Seredy doesn’t fully plunge into the breadth of Attila’s savagery and conquests, she gives her young audience enough information to fully understand that the Huns were a rather nasty and savage lot.  Readers know from the onset that what they are about to delve into is going to be more epic fantasy than straight-from-the-books history: “Those who want to hear the voice of pagan gods in wind and thunder, who want to see fairies dance in the moonlight, who can believe that faith can move mountains, can follow the thread on the pages of this book.  It is a fragile thread; it cannot bear the weight of facts and dates.”

Through her rich illustrations that bring this magnificent tale to life, Seredy immerses her readers with a story of moonmaidens and miracles, life and death, and bravery and barbarism.  But above all of these, she gives us a tale of courage and faith and how the two are tightly woven together.  Because my own words often come up short, I sometimes choose to end my reviews with a quote (some known and others not so much) that manages to encapsulate the feelings and lessons I’m left with after the last page is turned and the book has been reshelved for another.  I found the perfect one from self-help writer Edmond Mbiaka who said, “At every given moment in your life, you have the option to move backwards with fears and doubts or to keep pushing forward with faith and courage.”  Although our own personal moments may never compare to those of the Huns or Magyars, we can find comfort in knowing that we too can reach our own “promised land” if we hold fast, stay true, and never waiver in our convictions and belief.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

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River Season by Jim Black

River Season

River Season

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

I think my mom’s patience with Charles, Gary, and myself stemmed from years of working on the pediatric floor at Methodist Hospital in Lubbock.  Maybe seeing so many sick and dying kids makes you look at your own in a different light.  I don’t know.  I do know she was not overly protective or strict back then.  I really think she just wanted us to enjoy the privilege of being kids, and I’ve always loved her for that.  It was easier back then, too, because times were different.  In our small town, we really did sleep with doors unlocked and windows open.  I know now those were the best of times.

Jim Black was thirteen in the summer of 1966.  Growing up in Archer City, Texas with his two best friends, Gary Beesinger and Charles Luig, life was great.  This summer, Jim had big plans: playing baseball, mowing lawns, and hanging out with his friends.  What he didn’t plan on was meeting Samuel “Sam” Joseph Washington, an older black man from the other side of town.  This man, who decided to take up residency at his favorite fishing spot, would not only grow to be a father figure to Jim, but would also become his friend and would show Jim the value of acceptance, generosity, and love.

In an interview with Brothers Judd (brothersjudd.com), Jim Black explained that There’s a River Down in Texas (which, after the addition of fifty pages, would later become River Season) is largely autobiographical with the remainder being pure fiction.  River Season gives us a warm, sometimes bittersweet, and nostalgic look at growing up in small-town America during a time when the only things on a boy’s mind were baseball, pretty girls, hanging out with friends, and getting into just enough mischief to make life interesting but not enough to get you arrested.  It was a simpler time when you knew who your friends were and, more importantly, who your enemies were.  Bullies were never anonymous and disagreements were settled swiftly resulting in either an inflated ego or a black eye.

I picked up River Season at a secondhand book store and after visiting Black’s website (jimblackbooks.com), this may be the only way for interested readers to obtain copies of his books.  Black explains that all contracts with his publisher have been cancelled and his books are no longer being produced.  I hope lightning strikes twice and I am able to find his sequel Tracks so that I can follow a fifteen-year-old Jim as he tackles high school, bullies, and a broken heart.

Although River Season does touch upon the racial tensions that occurred in the 1960s South, Black is not overly preachy on the subject.  He could have easily made this the focal point of his story, but he instead concentrates on the friendship between himself, Charles, and Gary, as well the touching bond he shared with Sam.  American author and businessman, Arthur H. Glasow, once said, “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.”  Most of us would be fortunate to have just one friend like this.  Jim Black was blessed to have found three.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.publishersweekly.com

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