Local Arts

Summer books: Murder, mischief and West Mills

Women’s sexual desire, a black Charlotte neighborhood devoured by bulldozers, the shadow side of beloved Southern writer Harper Lee, a real-life therapist who obsessively Googles her own therapist, a lawyer with a weakness for warm peach pie. This year’s list of summer books is anything but lazy.

Pulitzer-winning author Colson Whitehead returns along with N.C. native De’Shawn Charles Winslow, whose debut novel, “In West Mills,” is destined for the big time. And Charlotte’s own Amber Smith treats us to a novel about a transgender teen boy’s first romance.

Read. Laugh. Weep. Ponder. Enjoy!

Nonfiction

Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo. Avid Reader Press. Simon & Schuster. $27. July.

Shock-proof book clubbers, add this to your list. Connecticut journalist Lisa Taddeo (Esquire, New York Magazine) spent eight years and thousands of hours interviewing three women on the subject of desire. There’s teenager Maggie, in North Dakota, romantically involved with her married high school English teacher. (“She would have eaten a roach to be able to hold his hand.”) And married Sloan who “always wanted an evening to evolve into something more complex.” And Lina in suburban Indiana, whose husband won’t kiss her on the lips. How these women navigate their lives — and their desires — is the stuff of this riveting investigation. Spoiler alert: After Maggie graduates, her mother takes the teacher to court. But no one believes Maggie. Not the jury. Not her friends. At 23, Maggie is working as a waitress. The teacher? Oh, he’s now Teacher of the Year, and there he goes, riding a float, “waving like a king.”

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep. Knopf. $26.95. Available now.

If you’re fascinated with Harper Lee, who at age 34 gave the world the Pulitzer-winning, bestselling novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and if you’ve ever wondered why she never published another book, you will inhale “Furious Hours.” Years after “Mockingbird,” Lee decided to write a true-crime book about a black Alabama minister, Willie Maxwell, who raked in half a million dollars from insurance policies on people who later suspiciously died or disappeared. But as many notes as Lee took, as many facts as she gathered, as many interviews as she held, she never wrote the book. Now Harvard graduate Casey Cep, using Lee’s research as a base, tells the true-crime tale Lee hoped to write. But even more fascinating is Cep’s story of Harper Lee’s own trial as a writer. Why did Lee fail at this second book? Alcohol? Grief? (Her mother and a brother died young.) An inability to fully harness the complete story, the way years earlier Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff had helped Lee harness “Mockingbird” from two separate manuscripts? We’ll never know for certain. But Cep’s careful, insightful speculations seem to be kissing cousins to reality.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, by Lori Gottlieb. Houghton Mifflin. $28. Available now.

At last. A therapist who confesses she stalks her own therapist on Google. Hooray for Lori Gottlieb, the Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” columnist and a psychotherapist in private practice. She not only introduces us to her clients and their struggles, but in a poignant show of vulnerability, opens the door to her own therapy sessions with Wendell, where she lands weeping after her boyfriend’s stunning exit from her life. By sharing her pain and the pain of her clients, Gottlieb makes it clear that everyone is afraid. “We are afraid of failure and we are afraid of success,” she writes. ”We are afraid of being alone, and we are afraid of connection. … We are afraid of being unhappy, and we are afraid of being too happy.” The therapy room, Gottlieb says, seems to be “one of the only places left where two people sit in a room together for an uninterrupted fifty minutes” and talk about pain and fear. A clear-eyed, unabashed tour through the thorny groves of healing.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness, by Jennifer Berry Hawes. St. Martin’s Press. $28.99. June.

On a humid June evening in 2015, Felicia Sanders gathered her Bible and headed toward Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — Mother Emanuel — South Carolina’s oldest AME Church. Meanwhile, in Columbia, a slight young white man with a bowl haircut, “slipped into his creaky old black Hyundai Elantra and steered it toward the city he’d visited a half-dozen times over the past six months, seeking his target.” So begins Charleston Post and Courier’s Pulitzer-winning reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes’s account of the lives of the nine black church members murdered on the evening of June 17, 2015, and the loved ones they left behind. With meticulous and compassionate accruing of detail, Hawes shows us a Charleston struggling to extricate itself from its long history of racism, and a justice system struggling to understand a remorseless executioner.

FICTION

In West Mills, by De’Shawn Charles Winslow. Bloomsbury. $26. June.

With the fictional finesse of a Eudora Welty and the perfect pitch of a Reynolds Price, De’Shawn Charles Winslow, a native of Elizabeth City and a 2017 graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, spins a tale of the tiny black community of West Mills near Ahoskie, N.C., 1941 to 1987. Within its confines lies all you need to know of human nature — its stubbornness and grit, its tenderness and devotion, its longing and its sorrow, and how the best-kept secrets will threaten to take apart the heart, chamber by chamber. Star of the show is ornery Knot Centre, well-read (she loves Dickens), selfish, smart, cheeky, freedom-loving and hell-bent on destroying herself with whiskey and men. Two doors down is Otis Lee Loving. Although comfortably married, he’s devoted to Knot – their relationship is platonic — and determined to save her from herself. You’ll be hearing more about Winslow and his stunning debut novel.

The East End: A Jack Patterson Thriller, by Webb Hubbell. Beaufort Books. $24.95. July.

As usual with the “Jack Patterson Thrillers,” the stakes are extremely high. The latest, “The East End” by Charlotte’s Webb Hubbell, is no exception. Hubbell gives you warm peach pie with ice cream to drool over in the same novel where four men lay a trap for Jack when he arrives at the Little Rock airport, string him up in a tree in a swampy wood and leave him to die. Bam. Hubbell is off to a rollicking start in this one about a widowed doctor who runs health clinics for the poor in Little Rock’s East End neighborhood. Somewhere Dr. Jana Hall has stepped on some powerful toes and someone wants her clinics shut down. Jack to the rescue. But can he succeed without ruining the good doctor’s reputation? Will she be “grist for easy gossip”? Court room scenes to keep you up late, but as with any “Jack Patterson” tale, don’t let your breath out too soon.

Something Like Gravity, by Amber Smith. Simon & Schuster. McElderry Books. $18.99. June.

Advocates for worthy causes don’t always make the best writers, but Charlotte’s Amber Smith is an exception. An advocate for increased awareness of gendered violence and LGBTQ rights, Smith is a natural storyteller, who in her third young-adults novel gives us a tender story of first love between a trans boy, still reeling from a brutal after-school attack the year before, and a teen girl grieving the sudden loss of her older sister. The couple meets one summer while Chris is visiting his aunt in Maia’s hometown in rural North Carolina. Told in alternating points of view, each chapter draws us more deeply into the throes of teen love. Delicious. Complicated. Painful. Enlightening. Book Riot lists Smith’s latest as one of 2019’s most anticipated LGBTQ reads.

Tomorrow’s Bread, by Anna Jean Mayhew. Kensington Fiction. $15.95. Available now.

Some novelists can re-create a neighborhood so vividly you can stroll its streets and smell supper cooking. With lyrical sensitivity, former Charlottean Mayhew, who also wrote the novel, “The Dry Grass of August,” gives us now the old Brooklyn neighborhood of the 1950s, a mostly-black area in Charlotte’s center, bulldozed for urban renewal in the 1960s. She weaves in the love story of black Loraylee Hawkins and white Mr. Griffin, Loraylee’s boss at the old S&W on West Trade, to whom she dared not speak during working hours, despite the birth of their light-skinned son Hawk. This is also the love story of a people for their doomed neighborhood as they watch their beloved homes and churches bulldozed, their cemeteries emptied. A must read for anyone who wants to understand fully the history of black Charlotte.

Only Ever Her, by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen. Lake Union Publishing. $14.95 paper. Available now.

In her eighth novel, Marybeth Whalen of Matthews offers all the ingredients of a snoozer. Small South Carolina town, upcoming wedding, beloved hometown bride. Even a busy hair salon. But guess what? “Only Ever Her” is anything but ho-hum. A young lawyer asks bride-to-be Annie Taft for her help in freeing a man convicted 23 years earlier of Annie’s mother’s murder. New DNA evidence points elsewhere, and Annie, only three when she named Cordell Lewis as her mother’s assailant, agrees to say she was mistaken. No sooner is Lewis free, than Annie disappears. But any number of characters might want to harm Annie, and it’s maddening to try to guess. Complications mount. The reader sniffs a culprit. Ah! Foiled again. Whalen pumps the suspense and burrows deep into these complex characters to show how tragedy can loosen the grip on defenses and usher in change.

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. Doubleday. $24.95. July.

Sometimes grandmothers can save the day. Sometimes they can’t. In Colson Whitehead’s latest, set in the mid-1960s, Elwood Curtis’s black grandmother raised him to be polite and law-abiding. But she’s helpless when he unknowingly accepts a ride in a stolen car and is dispatched to the Nickel School, a monstrous juvenile reformatory outside Tallahassee. Whitehead bases the school on a Florida institution that operated for 111 years and “warped the lives of thousands of children,” according to the book jacket. Amidst the beatings and sexual abuse, Elwood aims to do as he’s told and get out as quickly as possible, preferring hope over despair as does his hero Martin Luther King. But Turner, a black, street-smart boy at Nickel, argues, “You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other.” The two viewpoints merge into a strange alliance and an even stranger outcome. As he did with his Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Underground Railroad,” Whitehead has chosen fiction as a more palatable way to present brutal truths.

The Last House Guest, by Megan Miranda. Simon & Schuster. $26. June.

Megan Miranda of Huntersville transforms setting into character in her latest thriller, set in the fictional resort town of Littleport, Maine, with its ragged cliffs, crashing waves and off-shore gusts and storms. Here, she explores the lopsided relationship between the resort’s wealthy summer people and those who live here all year, many dependent upon the summer people for their livelihood. So when wealthy vacationer Sadie Loman offers Avery Greer not only a share-everything friendship (including Sadie’s expensive wardrobe), but a permanent home in the Lomans’ guest house, a “world of untouchable things” comes her way. But why exactly did the Lomans single out Avery? Only after Sadie Loman plunges to her death in the sea can Avery begin to pry into long-held secrets and cover-ups. Miranda serves up a smart, gutsy protagonist and a plot-line as chilling as the waters off the Maine coast.

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