#BookReview: Kinfolk by Sean Dietrich

A Rare View Of The South As It Really Is. As a native Son of the South – and in particular of a region *so* steeped in most *all* of its history, from prehistoric Native American burial mounds to the first female (and last slave owning) US Senator – it is rare for me to find a book that portrays Southern life *well*, both in its strengths and its weaknesses. This book does exactly that. It doesn’t shy away from our ne’erdowells, it doesn’t make excuses for assholes. But it shows that most everyone is somebody to someone, even if it takes them a lifetime to figure that out. There’s a lot here that may make some uneasy, including a violent on screen suicide to open the book, a detailed discussion of breast cancer in an era before that particular affliction was as well known as it is now, a mother’s untimely death, and I’m sure even more depending on the reader’s own sensibilities – those are just the biggest ones. But even there, Dietrich uses those things in furtherance of the story he is telling, and he does in fact wind up using every single one quite well to paint a particularly vibrant tapestry of words. There are many stories to tell of Southern life, but if one is looking to read a zany at times tale that will pull the heartstrings quite a bit – and yes, even make the room quite dusty a time or two – this is absolutely one of those types of tales. What Jimmy Buffett’s fiction did for the Caribbean, Sean of the South’s is doing for the American South in general. Very much recommended.

This review of Kinfolk by Sean Dietrich was originally written on December 29, 2023.

#BookReview: Play To Win by Jodie Slaughter

Extreme And Pervasive Racism Mars Otherwise Spectacular Second Chance Romance. Ok, white dude claiming racism on a book that features few white characters – none of whom are portrayed kindly, fwiw. So let me explain up front: My standard for detecting bigotry is to flip the demographics. If it would then be considered bigotry, then it is bigotry in the original form as well. Here, we have several characters both primary and secondary openly inquiring if a particular local small business is “black owned” or not, all throughout the text. Now, if a book that barely had any black characters had a bunch of white characters asking if a particular local small business was “white owned” or “straight white man” owned… there would be HELL to pay in certain segments of society. Thus, by the standard I stated above, the racism here is quite clear. As it happens frequently throughout the text – including the aforementioned extremely few white characters being portrayed as racist caricatures – it is also pervasive, though you’ll either have to read the book yourself or take my word for that.

Beyond the racism though, this is truly a *spectacular* second chance tale. One that many, no matter their demographics, will deeply understand – particularly those who grew up in the lower echelons of wealth and/ or in the small town rural South, as I did. The motivations for all of our characters here… well, many of us have seen similar shit within our own families, if not directly within our own lives. So truly, kudos, Ms. Slaughter, for staying so *real* and yet also providing a few hours of solid escapism.

While others may claim that the motivations for the separation were “unclear”… no, they weren’t. You just may never have been close to a similar point in your own life, and may not have felt just how close you yourself could have been to making such a boneheaded decision. Even in my professional adult life – not just my initial years in the trailer park – … I’ve been closer to this than most ever realized, and I remember *that* as much as I do my trailer park years, really moreso.

Now, a word for the “sweet” and/ or “clean” crowd that wants anything beyond a peck on the cheek to be completely off screen or at least “behind closed doors”… yeah… apparently Ms. Slaughter doesn’t know how to write that kind of tale, at least not based on the now two books (after Bet On It) I’ve read from her. Instead, as with Bet On It, this is active, in your face (literally, in the case of the characters’ faces ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) damn near erotica level sex. So if Ron White / Wanda Sykes type comedy isn’t your thing… you might want to avoid this one, as this gets *so much worse*.

Another thing to like here, and that I mentioned in Bet On It as well, is just how *normal* Ms. Slaughter shows modern Southern living to be, here including even up to casual acceptance of GSM (Gay and Sexual Minorities, a truly inclusive term that doesn’t need constant modifications ever few years) / “LGBT+” people and even couples. While so many tales try to show some level of hostility or animus to such people or any other divergence from lily white WASPy types, Ms. Slaughter’s small town embrace of these characters of some of their own shows the modern South I too grew up in quite realistically and quite well, and for that she is to be commended.

Finally, again, if you can get past the blatant and pervasive racism (or perhaps if you even agree with it), and if you don’t mind the damn near erotica level sex scenes… this really is quite a strong tale and quite well told, given the above caveats. Very much recommended.

This review of Play To Win by Jodie Slaughter was originally written on July 9, 2023.

#BookReview: The Moonshine Messiah by Russell W. Johnson

Complex Almost Anti-Hero Leads Layered World Into Promising New Series. This is one of those books that touches on a lot of things – the opioid epidemic, the crash of coal in the push for so-called “green” energy, land speculation, family, the complexities of being on the right side of the “law” when your family isn’t, high school romance and the fallout thereof, traditional Southern living vs the newer get-rich-quick ethos… and even a strong dash of the militia movement and the mistakes on both sides of Ruby Ridge and Waco and the long shadows both of those events cast in certain communities. In the process, it creates a truly layered and compelling world that while just as complex as our own, still allows for a high degree of escapism (for most). And yet, it is also a brutal tale of survival and betrayal, of losing yourself and finding yourself over and over and over again. Of trying to become something you want to be, even as your community and even family are doing their damndest to drag you in other directions. Overall truly a remarkable tale for what it is, and one I am very much looking forward to coming back into this world. Very much recommended.

This review of The Moonshine Messiah by Russell W. Johnson was originally written on May 9, 2023.

#BookReview: The Southern Way Of Life by Charles Reagan Wilson

Solid Exposition, Lacking Bibliography. This book is truly a phenomenal look at southern culture from the time the first Europeans came to the southern North American region through today and how various in and out groups have viewed and shaped that culture along the way. Divided into a few different eras, Reagan truly does an excellent job of showing just what Southern culture and Southern Civilization meant to the various peoples of the given eras and how those views would come to shape later generations. Indeed, the only issue I could find with this book (even given its 600+ page length!) was that its bibliography comprised just 10% or so of the text, when 20-30% is more normal for a nonfiction text in my experience across literally hundreds of Advance Review Copies over the last few years alone. Thus, the one star deduction – which even I admit may be debatable in this particular case, as 10% of a 600+ page book *is* 20-30% of a 200-300 page book. Still, I’ve seen similar length books still hit that 20-30% mark, so I’m sticking to my guns here even as I openly admit others may feel different. Very much recommended.

This review of The Southern Way of Life by Charles Reagan Wilson was originally written on November 22, 2022.

#BookReview: The Mystery Of The Undying Man by J. Kent Holloway

Fun Amalgamation Of Scooby-Doo, Stranger Things, and The Sandlot. This is one of those fun, nostalgic types of kids-solving-mysteries tales that will bring back all of the above + Nancy Drew/ The Hardy Boys type vibes, as well as a touch of Johnny Quest. Now, if I’ve named enough popular franchises to get you this far, know that this book *does* still have its own feel – it isn’t merely a clone of the other franchises, though it does share a genre and general vibe with them. Here, Holloway manages to spin is own form of the tale and involve science fiction ala the *earliest* science fiction (yes, there’s a touch of Frankenstein and his monster involved here) while centering the tale in his own “native” (and actually native) Kentucky and Southern lore and mythology. Ultimately this is simply a fun romp through a simpler time that still had its evils and mysteries, and Holloway shows the period and style – and his own particular culture – particularly well. Very much recommended.

This review of The Mystery Of The Undying Man by J. Kent Holloway was originally written on October 25, 2022.

#BookReview: Bet On It by Jodie Slaughter

Gen Z Mental Health Dang Near Erotica… Romantic Comedy? Up front, there was nothing technically wrong about this story – hence the five stars here. There is nothing for me to hang a star deduction on as objectively wrong here, and indeed there are several things to actively like. Such as the interracial romance in the South, where neither character tries to bring in bygone eras that were dead long before either of them were alive. As a Xennial / elder Millenial Southerner, this was genuinely refreshing to see in novel form, since so many try to depict the South as some racial tension hotbed that isn’t actually present in reality. Or at least that’s not what the *entire* South is, nor any that I’ve ever experienced in a lifetime of living here. So for fellow Southerners tired of so many novels looking down on us and trying to force depictions of us that aren’t always accurate… give this one a try, I think you’ll like it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Now, onto the stuff that those same fellow Southerners might actually have more of an issue with.

For one, if you don’t like hot and heavy, dang near erotica level sex in a book… this one isn’t for you, no matter where you’re from. If you prefer “sweet” / “clean” romances where the couple barely kisses or where anything beyond maybe heavy kissing is “behind closed doors”… this book isn’t going to be something you enjoy. There are two sex acts performed essentially in public – one in a car in a parking lot, the other inside the Mayor’s Mansion during a town festival (and on a couch in a room, rather than in some closet!). Along these lines, there was much talk of condoms and STI testing (at least at first), and again, these are some issues that I know some will LOVE being included but others will wish had not been, so either way you now know to expect them and can proceed according to your own attitudes on the subject. ๐Ÿ™‚

For another, and this is absolutely one where your mileage may vary depending on any number of factors, there is a LOT of talk about mental health here, to the level of being fairly preachy at times – particularly in espousing a more Gen Z view of the field. Both of our leads suffer from anxiety, and at times it feels the focus of the book is on these issues rather than anything remotely romantic or even comedic. While it is absolutely refreshing to see these issues discussed so openly, and I absolutely love that a book featuring this is on the market, I also realize that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. So hey, better to skip the book because I warned you than to read it and leave a 1 star review complaining about all the “pansy ass whiny bullcrap” or some such that I know several people personally would absolutely complain about. ๐Ÿ™‚

In the end though, this *was* a mostly fun, relatively light (particularly given its subject matter) romantic comedy, and it *does* work within that genre, just far from your typical entry there. As someone who constantly seeks new wrinkles I hadn’t seen before, I enjoyed it from that side in particular. Very much recommended.

This review of Bet On It by Jodie Slaughter was originally written on July 6, 2022.

Featured New Release Of The Week: The Cicada Tree by Robert Gwaltney

This week we’re looking at a dense, dark, and disturbing Southern Gothic tale from a debut writer who clearly has a strong career ahead of him. This week we’re looking at The Cicada Tree by Robert Gwaltney.

Dense, Dark, And Disturbing Southern Gothic. Gwaltney here manages to craft a Southern Gothic tale that will give fans of the genre chills. The world as seen through the eyes of 3rd grader Analiese… well, who knew that the third grade schoolyard could be so reminiscent of the corporate boardroom and its constant behind the scenes power plays? The back third is where the book gets particularly disturbing, as a massive brood of cicadas emerges to devastating effect right as the events of the last several weeks in Analiese’s life begin to come to a head. The finale will disturb many for its revelations, and for those that like perfectly tied up endings… be prepared, you don’t get that here. Which actually speaks to just how well Gwaltney commands his genre here. Indeed, the one knock I have on this book is just how very *dense* it is. It is supposedly around 300 pages, but reads as though it were twice as long. Still, the tale is intriguing enough that you’re going to want to stay in and see just what happens next, and Gwaltney here truly does show great prowess as a storyteller. Very much recommended.

Featured New Release Of The Week: Deconstructed by Liz Talley

This week we’re looking at a book that is a solid cross between Mark Twain and the 2014 comedy The Other Woman that also does a great job of showing a wide swath of Southern US culture. This week we’re looking at Deconstructed by Liz Talley.

More Amusing Than Timing A Centipede Across The Kitchen. Yes, the title here is actually a play on a line from the book. So sit down, grab some popcorn (Michael Jackson meme style), and get ready for a funny yet poignant cross between Mark Twain (as another Goodreads reviewer noted, which I found appropriate) and the 2014 movie The Other Woman (the one with Cameron Diaz, Leslie Bibb, and Kate Upton’s boobs). This book has a solid look at “well, maybe the grass *aint* so greener on the other side” as we see two women from different sides of the tracks – one an ex-con, the other a respected banker’s wife who owns her own antique shop – realize that they actually have quite a bit in common and quite a lot to offer each other as they develop a solid friendship. And this is a world that feels like this particular book does a good job setting up… and which could be fun to come back to in a loosely coupled series that maybe looks at some of the other characters introduced here while having many of the primary characters “drop by” in those future stories. Who knows, I’ve suggested similar in reviews before and the author later ran with it, so maybe Talley will too. ๐Ÿ˜€ Overall truly a fun book, and a solidly relatable dose of humor set in the Southern US, but relatable to most anyone. Very much recommended.

#BookReview: Much Ado About Barbecue by Sally Kilpatrick

Fun Southern Enemies To Lovers Romance. The title of this review tells you most everything you need to know here. This book has quite a few moving parts, but overall they work together to create a solid, fun Southern romance – in this case, centered on the titular barbecue and the retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The intricacies of barbecue – and no, you damn Yankees and foreigners from other nations (joking, an allusion to Southern comic Jeff Foxworthy’s “Redneck Games”), simply putting something on a grill is not “barbecueing”, nor is the grill itself a “barbecue” – are discussed well, but always in context with and service to the overall story and character development. Small town southern life, with all of its greatness and pitfalls, are also shown well – yes, including the one person who claims to be able to speak to ghosts. The pranks are mostly in the past, and it is always quite clear that they were in the past. The reasons for the enmity between the leads are compelling, tragic, and completely “reasonable”-ish for where the characters were at those points, and the slow-burn nature of the romance allows both to see that perhaps there is more to the adult versions of each other than they remember of the kid versions. And that perhaps there was more going on with the kid versions that their own kid versions didn’t fully know about. For the clean/ sweet crowd, this has very minor cussing – including a grandma who actively admonishes such words in her presence – and no even fade-to-black sex. (Some heavy kissing though, for those more absolutist against absolutely anything physical.) Oh, and there is a more minor subplot – revealing even its nature would be a spoiler – that is refreshing, accurate… and yet still feels mostly thrown in due to the author’s own political leanings. It totally works, and it is nice to see an author defying the normal conventions of the genre to even subtly go there, and yet it also *does* feel a bit forced, as though this was a wrinkle intentionally placed to draw the eye away from the actual main subject to a degree. Still, on the whole a solid, fun romance novel that does a great job of explaining Southern Barbecue, and very much recommended.

This review of Much Ado About Barbecue by Sally Kilpatrick was originally written on August 11, 2021.

#BookReview: In A Jam by Cindy Dorminy

Sweet Home … Well… Er… Georgia. This was a sweet and fun yet angsty look at small town Southern life mostly through the eyes of a woman who was raised as a damned Yankee. Being a native Georgian and actually having lived in Leesburg – home of Luke Bryan, Buster Posey, and Phillip Phillips and County Seat of Lee County, where the *real* Smithville, Georgia is located – I can testify personally that the small town life depicted here is pretty damn realistic. (And if you can’t tell from the pair of D’s I’ve already used, I can also testify from the side of being a bit of a black sheep/ outsider in these realms, despite arguably having a *deeper* connection to Southern History than many I’ve encountered in these real-life small Southern towns. ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

But you’re not reading this book for reality. You’re reading it for hilarity. And if you like the style of Southern rom-com ala Reese Witherspoon’s Sweet Home Alabama, you’re going to enjoy this tale. It’s got plenty of fish out of water hilarity as this Yankee tries to learn Southern speech and customs. It’s got the crazy old lady hilarity. It’s got the zaniness of various family / friends / neighbors oddballs and their connections. And yes, it has a bit of heat (though nothing more than heavy kissing “on screen”, for those that care about such things – either direction) and a lot of savory.

Overall, a solid “homemade” jam that has a deeper profile than many might expect, but hits all the notes it has to hit to be beloved by many who appreciate what it is. Very much recommended.

This review of In A Jam by Cindy Dorminy was originally written on June 5, 2021.