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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Top 10 Picks for 2019

Top

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

 

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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

 

Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

Mr Timothy

Mr. Timothy

Louis Bayard (Adult Fiction)

Tiny Tim is tiny no longer.  The iron brace and crutch have long been replaced by an achy knee and slight limp…a mere lilt, really.  It is December 1860 and although Mr. Timothy Cratchit, now a man of twenty-three, lives off the monetary magnanimity of his “Uncle” Ebenezer Scrooge, he dredges the River Thames for treasure-yielding corpses and lives in a brothel where he tutors the Madam in reading.  It’s a satisfactory life, one in which Tim has grown used to until he comes upon one and then two dead girls, each with the letter “G” branded on her upper arm.  When Tim meets Philomela, a ten-year-old street orphan, he realizes that he must do everything he can in order to protect her for she, like the other two girls, bears the same “G” on her arm.

I must admit that it took me a while to connect with (and eventually enjoy) this book.  Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories and so it was distressing to see the iconic and beloved character of Tiny Tim reduced to desecrating corpses and spending his days living off charity.  I don’t fault Louis Bayard for building a story off an already-established fictional character.  Many authors have done the same in the past and will continue to do so in the future as long as there is a willing and interested audience; however, Bayard’s choice of using a character as cherished, wholesome, and pure as Tiny Tim and then casting him into London’s dark and dreary underbelly seems almost sacrosanct and readers of this story, who adore Tim, may feel a little duped in the process.  Luckily, patience proves to be a virtue and readers can rest assured that Bayard eventually gives us the loyal, spirited, and resilient lad that we’ve come to know and love.

Billed as a “literary thriller”, Mr. Timothy does not disappoint in delivering danger, intrigue, and fast-paced drama.  The story is a bit slow out of the starting gate and seems to drift as multiple characters are introduced and a number of storylines play out.  At about the midway point, things seem to get their bearing and the action moves at a steady and satisfying pace until the end.  Although Dickens wouldn’t have imagined his young hero delving into police corruption, child trafficking, and prostitution, he would be gratified to know that his Tim is armed with a strong moral center, a kindly heart, and nerves of steel…not to mention a leg that makes for a quite dependable barometer.

In A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim was known for saying, “God bless us, every one!”  This phrase was repeated at the end of the book to signify Scrooge’s change of heart.  Like Scrooge, I experienced my own change of heart and am grateful I decided to give this book a second chance.  At times, this wasn’t an easy thing to do for Bayard really puts poor Tim through the wringer, but I’m glad I stayed with Mr. Timothy and accompanied him to the very end of his adventure.  So in honor of second chances—which are indeed a rare and precious thing—I’ll end by simply saying, “God bless us, everyone one!”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County 

Tiffany Baker (Adult Fiction)

The day I laid Robert Morgan to rest was remarkable for two reasons.  First, even though it was August, the sky overhead was as rough and cold as a January lake; and second, it was the day I started to shrink.

Truly Plaice was destined to be a big girl.  During her mother’s pregnancy, the town began to take bets as to what her final weight would be upon delivery.  Turns out, nobody in that town won.  No one came close.  Her school teacher called her a “little giant” and Truly became known for her massive size and build.  Where her sister, Serena Jane, was wispy and beautiful, Truly countered with her girth and homeliness.  But with so many things, Truly simply accepted this genetic disparity as fact and actually said the difference between the two was quite easy, “The reason the two of us were as opposite as sewage and spring water, I thought, was that pretty can’t exist without ugly.”  So, through her own eyes, Truly shares her story of wickedness and witchcraft, of poverty and prosperity, of life and death, and of a very big woman in a very small town.

Throughout this book, I wasn’t sure whether to feel pity or pride for Truly.  Here is a woman who has wholly resigned herself to her situation and although she feels the occasional stab of pity, jealousy, or regret, her unconditional surrender to her circumstances is both admirable and heartbreaking.  Her friend Amelia may have summed up Truly’s attitude perfectly one day when they were both walking home from school, “Things are what they are.  You can’t change them.”  Perhaps Truly realized this early on in life and found that she’d be much happier by choosing resignation over resistance.

Tiffany Baker does a nice job at keeping her story entertaining and engrossing by throwing in several plot turns and twists.  Although there is a lot going on with multiple characters and their individual story lines, Truly proves to be a capable storyteller and manages to keep everything orderly and fluid.  However, despite an engaging story and a unique main character, there was a big plot hole that kept my rating at a four versus a five.  I found that Truly’s need for a cure and her want of one were at constant odds.  The reasons she stated for not pursuing treatment are legitimate to her circumstances at the time save one…money.  You can’t claim poverty as an excuse when you constantly remind the reader that you have a suitcase full of money hidden under your bed.  This was clearly frustrating for me, but not enough to override the valuable lessons contained within The Little Giant of Aberdeen County:  love the skin you’re in, be courageous in accepting that which you cannot change, and never think that you are so full that there is not enough room to let anyone else in.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

The Wishing Trees by John Shors

The Wishing Trees

The Wishing Trees  

John Shors (Adult Fiction)

Kate McCray died ten months ago, but her absence remains as fresh and painful for her husband, Ian, and their ten-year-old daughter, Mattie as the day she slipped away from them.  Upon her death, Kate leaves a letter for Ian expressing her dying wish: “Be happy.  Learn to laugh again.  To joke.  To wrestle together like you once did.  Learn to be free again.”  To achieve these things, Kate wants Ian to take Mattie on the trip the two of them intended to make to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary.  A trip across Asia that would allow Mattie to experience what her parents once shared in so many diverse and wondrous countries: Japan, Nepal, Thailand, India, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.  But can Ian do it?  Can he revisit a past full of memories of his wife in order to forge a future without her?

John Shors delivers a touching and bittersweet story of a husband and daughter embarking on a journey of self-discovery, healing, and enlightenment.  Although deceased, Kate remains a prominent presence and central figure throughout the story.  She has left handwritten notes inside twelve film canisters—six each for Ian and Mattie—which are to be opened upon the pair’s arrival in each country.  Kate’s words of love and encouragement are a constant reminder of the tender and altruistic person so tragically torn from our main characters.  Her careful planning of this trip, despite her weakened state, and her desire for her family to move on without her is heartbreaking in its selflessness and hopeful in its intent.  What’s most striking is Kate’s constant encouragement for her loved ones to make a positive difference in the world.  In one of her letters to Mattie, Kate writes of Buddha, “Do you know what Buddha says about happiness?  He said, ‘Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases by being shared.’”  With each canister that is opened and with each note that is read, we can easily understand how indomitable a task it is for Ian and Mattie to emotionally recover from their loss.

The Wishing Trees is a beautifully written love letter to anyone who has ever lost a love and hungers for a sign—any sign—that they’re still with us.  That they still see us.  That they still remember us.   It’s also a story about the power of kindness and the extraordinary healing powers in doing good.  Numerous books have been written on research connecting helping others to health benefits or, simply stated, doing good is good for you.  Perhaps Kate knew this all the time or perhaps she remembered an Indian saying during her travels, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket