Fox 6 Books: January 2020

These are the books I took to WBRC Fox 6 in January. A great way to start the reading year!

How to Walk is by Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the best-known Zen teachers in the world today. IMG_6341In this little book, he shows how the everyday act of walking (walking!) can offer opportunities to realize and express gratitude. I usually walk with a friend or, if alone, listen to the podcast Stuff You Should Know. But this book, which I first saw at Ten Thousand Waves spa in Santa Fe, New Mexico, this past summer, kept calling for my attention. It’s tiny, but filled with Hanh’s practices, meditations and touching stories. Each one shows how each step has the impact to increase our concentration, insight and joy. He makes it sound easy: “When you walk, arrive with every step. That’s walking meditation. There’s nothing else to it.” Of course, there’s more to it. But Hanh’s gentle guidance is there every step of the way to help readers become more aware of each step and of their breathing. Jason DeAntonis’s pen-and-ink drawings are the perfect playful accompaniment. Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, has been teaching mindfulness for more than 70 years, and he has written scores of books including the other tiny, tip-filled books:  How to See, How to Eat, How to Relax and How to Love.

I should have already read Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson. I think everyone in the entire state of Alabama should read this book. IMG_6338That it should be taught in high schools. I’ve heard Stevenson speak (he’s amazing) and this book has been on my shortlist for a while, but the new movie out now made me finally get to it. It is, as the subtitle says, a “story of justice and redemption.” It also is about the sweet, overwhelming power of mercy. Stevenson, one of the most influential lawyers of our time, founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, wrongly condemned and those underserved (or just flat-out forsaken) by our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian who was sentenced to die for a murder he didn’t commit. The story, I’m sure, is transitioning to the big screen quite well. It’s one of political dealings, legal wrangling and tangled conspiracies—and a black man accused of killing a young white girl in south Alabama in the 1980s. But Walter’s is just one of several cases detailed here that, together, have made Stevenson a champion for justice and mercy.

Under Stevenson’s leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults. He led the creation of EJI’s highly acclaimed cultural sites, the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in 2018. Stevenson’s work has won him numerous awards, including 40 honorary doctorates, the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Prize, and the ABA Medal, the American Bar Association’s highest honor.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides promises a thrilling twist, and it delivers. IMG_6343I never saw it coming in the day and a half it took me to devour this book. Alicia Berenson was living a lovely life as a famous painter married to a famous fashion photographer—until she shot her husband five times in the face and then stopped taking. She refused to talk—to try to explain her actions—and that made Alicia even more famous. She ends up housed at a secure psychiatric unit in North London. And criminal psychotherapist Theo Faber is determined to unlock her silence and figure out why exactly she shot her husband. This therapist-turned-detective is very good at uncovering clues, and he ends up finding out more than he ever expected.

Dreyer’s English is by Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, and in this book, he champions clarity in a way that is informative, interesting and even entertaining. IMG_6339We are not all writers, but yet, we are. We all write all the time:  emails, texts, more texts, blogs, online reviews, more emails. In his book, Dreyer shares much of what he has learned in his more than two decades of professional life. And it’s a playful, useful guide for writers of any sort who want to simply write better.  He offers lessons on punctuation—from the underappreciated semicolon to the en dash. He explains the basic rules of grammar; “Only godless savages,” he says, “eschew the series comma.” He advises against what my kids’ elementary school teachers called “dead words” like “very” and “actually.” And he says it’s OK to start a sentence with And (thank goodness!) and But (even better!).

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: November

It’s not too early to think about gift giving. And when you give the gift of a book, it just keeps on giving. All these are worth wrapping, and I brought them with me to WBRC Fox 6 on November 5.

 Inland is the latest book by Tea Obreht, and it’s awesome. Two remarkable lives intersect in the lawless, drought-ridden Arizona Territory in 1893. Nora is a tough frontierswoman awaiting the return of her husband who has gone in search of water. Her two elder sons have vanished after an argument, and Nora waits with youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking them.

The other main character, Lurie, is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sets out on a momentous expedition across the West with camels! The way in which Lurie’s death-defying trek intersects with Nora’s plight is the surprise and suspense in this great book by the New York Times bestselling author of The Tiger’s Wife, which I also loved.

Ordinary Girls:  A Memoir by Jaquira Diaz is a Barnes & Nobel Discover Great New Writers Fall 2019 selection. These selections are pretty much always spot on. Jaquira Diaz has won two Pushcart Prizes and has been published in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and the Guardian. This shining life surely seemed unlikely when she was growing up a black sheep in housing projects in Miami and Puerto Rico. She will tell you she was a juvenile delinquent—arrested over and over, a street fighter, a runaway, a high school drop out and a suicide risk. She always longed for love and security and a family and a home. This incredibly candid and beautiful and powerful memoir is a true story of survival and more. Diaz says she was a kid who loved to read. “You could say that books saved me.” But as much as she loved books, she didn’t see people like herself in the pages. “I wrote Ordinary Girlsfor girls and women who are like the girl I was, like the woman I am now. For those who never saw themselves in books.”

God Save the Queens:  The Essential History of Women in Hip-Hop by Kathy Iandoli recognizes that the history of hip-hop has, for far too long, revolved around men. But women have always been incredibly important to this musical movement. From rap’s earliest moments, they have been out front and keeping pace with their male counterparts. These “queens” have paved the way for Nicki Minaj and Cardi B and those who will top the charts after them. Music journalist Kathy Iandoli offers a fast-paced, heavily researched history of ambition and spirit and attitude and girl power. She tackles issues of gender, sexuality, violence, body image and objectification and more in this feminist history of hip-hop.

The Ryman Remembers with a foreword written by Will Campbell is a hybrid kind of cookbook that traces the colorful history of a building and those who played within its walls and ties it in with easy-to-follow recipes for foods from all over– just like the people who have played here.

Readers might be surprised to know just who has been on the beloved stage of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Long before bluegrass and country music legends played here, orchestras and symphonies from New York, Boston and Chicago played the Ryman. Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Nijinski and the Ballet Russe all danced on its wooden stage. Charlie Chaplin, Katherine Hepburn and American explorer Robert Edwin Peary appeared here, too. Then, of course, there was the Grand Ole Opry, which made its home at the Ryman beginning in 1943. Over the next 30 years, the greats of country music played here—from Hank Williams to Loretta Lynn to Johnny Cash and Elvis and more. After falling into disrepair, the Ryman has been restored and is once again a thriving theater. It is, in fact, Nashville’s most revered venue.

The recipes here make this book extra special and trace a Southern heritage of favorite foods associated with famous names who have played this stage—ranging from Amy Grant’s Buttermilk Fudge to Nashville Symphony conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn’s Soul Pasta to John T. Hall’s favorite Hot Water Cornbread to Dolly Parton’s Beefy Cowboy Beans.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: October

Let’s get cooking! It’s not too early to think about holiday dinners with friends and family. A new batch of cookbooks is just what we need right now. I brought these with me to WBRC Fox 6 on October 1.

Seeking the South:  Finding Inspired Regional Cuisines by Rob Newton with Jamie Feldman is part inspiring travelogue, part user-friendly cooking guide. “There’s no genre of American cuisine as storied as Southern,” Newton writes. “It has the longest history, most distinct terroir, and the most pronounced traditions of any food in the country, built largely by enslaved Africans and their descendants. For these reasons and more, Southern food can be a tricky topic, with a tendency to rile people up both in and out of the geographic boundaries of the South itself.”

Newton, born in Arkansas, is the executive chef at Gray & Dudley in Nashville. This new book, with lovely photos of foods and places, showcases a new kind of South that draws from all corners of the world for its modern cuisine. Consider Hot Potlikker (a Chinese-style hot pot from Mississippi made with potlikker from cooking greens); boiled peanuts with lemongrass, star anise and lime; heirloom tomatoes with peanut chaat; charred okra with Sichuan pepper, garlic and green onions. Familiar recipes here include buttermilk biscuits, deviled eggs, BBQ Gulf snapper and fried chicken. But then there are lots of favorite foods prepared in a brand new way:  Raw collards with coconut and grapefruit; fried bologna sandwiches with chow chow; turnip and potato pancakes  with yogurt, dill and dillybeans.

The book is divided into five chapters representing different regions of the South—Upper South, Deep South, Gulf Coast, Coastal Plains and Piedmont, and Low Country and Southeast Coast. “I wanted to tell the story of the Southern food that I knew and loved:  dishes that went beyond the clichés and illustrated the diverse bounty across its many distinct regions,” Newton writes. Each chapter features appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts that define each region in beautiful, delicious ways.

Kindness & Salt:  Recipes for the Care & Feeding of Your Friends and Neighbors by Ryan Angulo and Doug Crowell features food and hospitality advice and prep techniques and tips especially for the home cook. Ryan Angulo and Doug Crowell are the owners of Buttermilk Channel and French Louie in Brooklyn. The book, with a fun retro cover, features 100 recipes for the foods and drinks that draw their passionate customers from around the corner as well as across the globe. They believe that every great meal starts with two essential elements:  kindness and salt. “Kindness,” they write, “is the spirit of warmth and hospitality that underlies every meal at their restaurants. Salt is shorthand for cooking carefully and brining out the best in your ingredients.” There are 21 foundational recipes from a chapter called Pantry that include aioli, parsley pistou, oven-dried tomatoes and hollandaise sauce. These are everyday items to elevate your dishes.  From there, you’ll find hundreds more for salads and veggies (radishes with butter and black olive salt), fish and shellfish (mussels Normande), birds and beasts (cast iron-roasted chicken) as well as baked things (cornbread with chile-lime butter). There’s an entire chapter devoted to cocktails and another for brunch dishes, reflecting the full range of what makes their restaurants popular. But everything is carefully explained, tips are given freely and techniques are detailed so the home cook can easily re-create this bistro cuisine, which is, after all, inspired by home cooking.

The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley is a cleverly named James Beard Foundation Book Award winner that is all about real food. Namely, indigenous American fruits and vegetables, wild and foraged grains, game and fish. “Locally sourced” takes on a whole new meaning in this breakout cookbook by Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef and founder of The Sioux Chef, a group of people—from chefs to growers to food truckers and food lovers—committed to revitalizing Native American cuisine.  There’s no fry bread here. It does not rely upon European staples such as wheat flour, sugar and dairy products. The dishes are indigenous to the Dakota and Minnesota territories, but home cooks can find most of these ingredients quite easily. (There’s a list of suppliers at www.sioux-chef.com if you have difficulties.) A short guide to using this book lists straightforward techniques and simple tools such as a cast-iron skillet and a deep stockpot and essential ingredients including salt, honey, sumac and herbs. Each chapter features a short essay to explain the foods and food traditions of the recipes that follow. You’ll learn about and how to cook crispy bean cakes, deviled duck eggs, rabbit braised with apples and mint, autumn harvest cookies and real wild rice. Sherman shares space in the book with other chefs he met at the Native American Culinary Association’s “Native Chef’s Symposium.” You’ll find recipes like Chef Lois Ellen Frank’s Coriander-Cured Elk with Dried Chokecherry Sauce and Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz’s Two-Fruit Jam Scattered with Seeds. All in all, this book is a beautiful, thoughtful celebration of truly homegrown culinary traditions.

Buttermilk & Bourbon:  New Orleans Recipes with a Modern Flair is a new cookbook by Jason Santos, a Hell’s Kitchen runner-up and an expert on Bar Rescue. Turns out, a birthday trip to New Orleans inspired Santos to open his Boston restaurant Buttermilk & Bourbon. “I love everything about that city,” he writes, “the food, the people and the passion!”  In his restaurant and in this book, he relies upon food that is authentic in flavor and prepared in inventive, surprising ways. Consider Buffalo Duck Wings, New Orleans BBQ Shrimp with Jalapeno Grits and Flamin’ Hot Cheeto Mac & Cheese. The chapter on adult beverages is particularly fun with a Boston-Nola Hurricane; a Who Dat? made with chocolate-mole bitters and rye; a rum-fueled Lagniappe; and a Cajun Bloody Mary, of course.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: September

Let’s explore what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on September 3. School has started so a trip might not be possible, but you still can explore close to home and far away.

In Back to Nature:  A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain, by Mark Kelly, photographs by Bob Farley, design by Melanie Colvin, Birmingham’s past, present and future come together in the most satisfying, family-friendly way on Ruffner Mountain, just minutes from anywhere in our metro area. This new book explores the mountain’s geological formation, its part in Birmingham’s industrial history as a center for mining and the ongoing efforts to preserve this special place.

Ruffner Mountain is, in fact, one of the largest urban forests in the entire country, and it’s right here in our own backyard! Ruffner’s beautiful and varied terrain, crisscrossed with well-maintained trails and marked with remains of mining sites and equipment, has drawn generations of nature lovers.  Hikers can visit incredible views at the overlooks and literally walk through eons of earth’s history in the quarry. The Nature Center informs and entertains people of all ages. The annual plant sales, with native plants large and small dug straight from the land, attract hundreds of visitors and have spread some of the best parts of Ruffner all over Alabama.

This gorgeous book celebrates the beauty and the importance of this unique and awesome place.  Kelly writes: “Every aspect of Birmingham’s existence—geological, anthropological, social, economic, political, technological—is encapsulated in the Ruffner story.”

You can hear some of this story from Kelly and get a signed copy of this book tomorrow (Wednesday, September 4) from 5 to 6 p.m. at the Alabama Booksmith. There’s another opportunity to hear from the author and photographer at Ruffner Mountain on Thursday, September 19 from 5 to 7 p.m.  Go to www.ruffnermountain.org for more info.

With Morag and the Land of Tir Na Nog, local writer Marie Pridgen (who was born and raised in Ireland) has written a delightful little book about fairies for young readers. Pridgen says her childhood was filled with wonder and imagination and stories of wee people told by her mother and passed down from her grandmother. And so she shares some of that culture and folklore and love here with a story of a beautiful fairy who ventured into the mortal world. This book, told in that same continuing story-telling style, is clearly the first of several. Pridgen says she wrote this book to “bring happiness to all who read it and to let you escape to a world of fae, magic and innocence.”

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris is a New York Times bestseller based on a true story of love and courage and survival in one of the darkest times in human history. In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. An educated man who speaks several languages (including fluent German), he becomes the tattooist, putting the permanent numbers on his fellow prisoners. One day, he inks the number 34902 onto a scared young woman, but something is different this time. Lale vows to survive the camp in order to live the rest of his life with Gita. But in order to do that, he has to get creative in this place of unimaginable brutality. So he risks his own life trading jewels and money found in the clothing of those who died for food for his fellow prisoners. In the process, he helps countless people survive. Lale told his story to Heather Morris years after escaping, and she shares it in a way that is powerful, heartbreakingly sad and yet incredibly hopeful.

Lady in the Lake is a new novel by Laura Lippman, the New York Times bestselling author of Sunburn. Lady in the Lake is a psychological thriller set in 1960s Baltimore. Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz leaves the comfort of her married life to make her own way and make a difference. When her own closely held secrets help the police find a murdered girl, that leads to a job at the city’s afternoon newspaper and another murdered young woman. Cleo Sherwood was found in a fountain in a city park, and no one seems to know or care why she was killed—except for Maddie. And she is determined to find the truth. But that truth might come at a tremendous personal cost to Maddie and to those she loves.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: August

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on August 6, and there’s truly something for everyone–a memoir (with recipes and a link to much more), a surprisingly awesome book about grammar, mesmerizing short stories and a romp of a novel. Enjoy!

From Scratch is a memoir from actress Tembi Locke. It’s also a love story with recipes. Tembi married a man from Sicily (it was love at first sight when Tembi met Saro, who was an apprentice chef, in Florence, Italy). But his family was not happy with their son marrying a black woman from America. When Saro died of cancer, Tembi and their adopted daughter sought solace in Sicily … at her mother-in-law’s kitchen table. The close-knit community; the simple, fresh food at the table; and her memories of a great love gave Locke the strength to heal her heart. Now she’s paying that forward. Read the book, and also check out www.thekitchenwidow.com.

“This is a modern take on the age-old kitchen table conversation—an inspirational online platform dedicated to raising awareness about how we can support each other through times of illness and grief,” Locke says. “Here we reclaim the lost art of comforting the soul. We do it around delicious food.” You’ll find advice on dealing with grief, information for caregivers and healthy recipes.

Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson, is brand-new nonfiction, and it’s creating a buzz. This book about “The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark” is both funny and informative. It’s about language rules, sure, but it’s also about the love of language and a celebration of creativity. The semicolon was invented in the 15thcentury; by the 1800s, it was “downright trendy,” Watson writes. Today, some people love the punctuation mark; others loathe it. It was designed to create clarity; misused, it creates confusion. Watson considers how the semicolon has impacted society and law as well as literature. She says it can do more, too. When she finished researching and writing this book, Watson says:  “Not only did I become a better and more sensitive reader and a more capable teacher, I also became a better person. Perhaps that sounds like a fancifully hyperbolic claim—can changing our relationship with grammar really make us better human beings? … I hope to persuade you that reconsidering grammar rules will do exactly that, by refocusing us on the deepest, most primary value and purpose of language:  true communication and openness to others.”

Orange World is the newest collection of short stories from Karen Russell, the bestselling author of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist Swamplandia! (which I’ve talked about before; also, I brought Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove to Fox 6 last time). I just love this writer, who never ceases to amaze me with her imagination and her way with words. This is her most recent collection of short stories, and, as expected, they are cleverly funny and a little bit creepy. In “Bog Girl:  A Romance,” a young man falls in love with a 2000-year-old girl he unearthed in a northern European peat bog. In “The Prospectors,” two young, idealistic, Depression-era girls head out West in search of a new life and find themselves fighting for their lives when they end up at the wrong party. In “The Bad Graft,” a Joshua tree makes a “Leap” into the consciousness of a woman. August is busy; find an hour or so for yourself to spend with these stories.

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? by Brock Clarke is a delightful novel. Calvin Bledsoe is an ordinary man destined for an extraordinary adventure. After his mother, a theologian and bestselling author, dies in an explosion, Calvin’s world is changed forever. At the funeral, a mysterious woman, claiming to be Calvin’s aunt, shows up and insists he accompany her to Europe. Right now. For Calvin, who has never ventured far from his small hometown in Maine, this is not easy. Then danger ensues:  Calvin encounters antiquities thieves, spies, religious fanatics and his ex-wife who is stalking him. By the time Calvin realizes he’s been kidnapped, he has to figure out how to escape and how to live the life he’s meant to live. (This book goes on sale August 27.)

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: July

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6  on July 2. These vacation-ready must-reads include a LOL trip around the world, a thriller from Down Under, an important story of self-invention and some easy-to-pick-up, easy-to-pick-up-later short stories.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer is laugh-out-loud funny and poignant and important all at the same time. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about Arthur Less, a not-so-successful novelist about to turn 50 who is not at all happy with his life. He’s alone, but even worse, his boyfriend of nearly a decade is about to be married to someone else. When the wedding invitation arrives, Less realizes he needs to leave—for anywhere else. So he cobbles together a trip around the world—courtesy of a bunch of half-baked literary events and what little savings he has left. The jaunt takes the novelist to Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, India and Japan—all far, far away from the everyday life he doesn’t want to face. It’s a love story and a satire of an American abroad and a whole lot of fun to read.

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is an impressive debut novel by Felicity McLean. Tikka Malloy remembers the hot summer of 1992 for two reasons:  all the ongoing debate about the exoneration of Lindy (“dingo took my baby”) Chamberlain, and that was when Tikka’s best friends disappeared. The Van Apfel sisters—Ruth, Hannah and Cordelia—simply vanished. Were they taken? Did they run away from their strict, evangelical parents? Their disappearance shook their small town and left lasting trauma. Tikka and her older sister know something of what happened, and when Tikka returns home years later, she’s confronted with questions. This is a thrilling, at times darkly comic, coming-of-age story about childhood memories, female friendships and unexpected consequences. It’s scary good and was named a Barnes & Noble Summer 2019 Discover Great New Writers Selection.

Educated by Tara Westover is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read. Tara Westover was 17 years old before she ever set foot in a classroom. She grew up in the mountains of Idaho with a survivalist father and a mother who was a midwife and healer. Isolated from all of mainstream society, she never even saw a doctor and there was no one to intervene and protect her from family violence. When one of her brothers got himself into college and returned home talking about the outside world, Tara decided she wanted that life, too. So she taught herself enough math, grammar and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. It opened her mind and her heart and her entire world. She learned for the first time about psychology and philosophy about the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust. Her self-invention and thirst for knowledge transformed her and took her to Harvard and to Cambridge University. This memoir is about truly finding oneself and the absolute pricelessness of an education. It’s also about family loyalty and the price of severing ties with those you love.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is by Karen Russell, the bestselling author of Swamplandia! (yes, I’ve talked about this Pulitzer Prize finalist before). In this book, she offers a selection of short stories that I think are vacay-perfect for a couple of reasons:  They are highly entertaining, and they can be picked up and picked up again later as your day dictates. Summer is made for short stories! Russell writes beautiful prose with a definite dark edge. A group of boys finds a militated scarecrow that looks a lot like a missing classmate. A community of girls held captive in a Japanese silk factory transmute into silkworms and plot a revolution. And in the title story, two vampires in a lemon grove try to slake their thirst for blood as they consider their immortal relationship. You won’t soon forget any of these pieces.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: June

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6  on June 5. These beach-ready reads include some inventive historical fiction and all will inform and entertain and take you places you didn’t expect—from the marshes of the North Carolina coast to the Oklahoma prairie, from Victorian-era London to frontier Illinois in the 1800s.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is what just about every bookgroup I know is reading right now. The library wait list is long, long, long, and it is, at this moment, #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

Kya is only six when her family begins abandoning her one by one—beginning with her mother. She ends up raising herself in the marshes off the North Carolina coast, befriending gulls and living off the land and sea. But she longs for friendship and love. Two young men from the nearby town are intrigued by her, and slowly, she lets herself dream of a different life. But then something terrible happens. The story goes back and forth in time—from Kya’s days as a child surviving on the mussels she collects and sells to people in the black community (who are exceedingly kind to her) to the possible murder of the local town’s favorite son 17 years later. If you liked Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, you’ll love this one.

Prairie Fever by Michael Parker is a literary novel that is as lovely as it is intriguing. The book is set in the unforgiving landscape of Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The Stewart sisters couldn’t be more different—Lorena is practical, Elise often gets lost in her own imaginations of adventure. But they share an intense emotional bond that supersedes everything else. Then Gus McQueen arrives in Lone Wolf as a first-time teacher, and the dynamic between the sisters shifts. When a rash decision traps Elise and her horse in a devastating blizzard on the prairie, McQueen helps Lorena find and rescue her sister, and everything changes forever between the young women. Parker describes Prairie Fever as “about the sacrifices and settlements we make with ourselves and others as we attempt to navigate romantic and familial relationships.”

This is great brand-new fiction from the author of The Watery Part of the World, which I also loved.

The Darwin Affair by award-winning playwright Tim Mason is highly visual and makes Victorian-era London come alive. The inventive literary thriller is centered on the real-life events that followed the controversial publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is tasked with protecting the royal family. This becomes complicated after an attempted assassination of Queen Victoria and the discovery of a murder nearby. Field knows that these two violent acts are somehow connected to the Queen’s nomination of Darwin for knighthood. He ends up chasing a serial killer through England, and his investigation uncovers secrets and conspiracies that threaten some very powerful people.

When writing this novel, Mason relied upon Queen Victoria’s journal entries, which were put online and open to the public for the first time in 2012 during Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee year. The mix of historical and fictional characters makes this a wild ride of a read.

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard is a look at Abraham Lincoln’s early life, before he realized his potential. When Mary Todd first met Lincoln, he was a country lawyer living above a dry-goods store. Mary was a clever, self-possessed debutante with an interest in politics. Lincoln had no manners or money but he did possess an amazing gift for oratory.  Mary is intrigued and tells Lincoln’s roommate, Joshua Speed, “I can only hope that his waters being so very still, they also run deep.” This historical novel, told in the alternating voices of Mary and Speed, is many things:  a wonderful portrait of Mary (perhaps the most telling to date), a moving story of the complex and deep connection between Lincoln and Speed and a look at the unformed man who would become one of our nation’s most beloved presidents.

Bayard knows how to write compelling historical fiction:  He has been shortlisted for both the Edgar and Dagger awards for his historical thrillers, which include The Pale Blue Eye and Mr. Timothy.

Fox 6 Books: May

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 in May. Read and learn with some works of informative nonfiction. One is set right here at home. Then there’s some fiction … because fiction is awesome.

Showdown at Rickwood:  Ray Caldwell, Dizzy Dean and the Early Years of America’s Oldest Ball Park by Art Black will surely get you ready for the  23rdAnnual Rickwood Classic, at 12:30 p.m. on May 29th, 2019. The  Birmingham Barons will play the Montgomery Biscuits, and Lou Piniella will be the special guest at that game at historic Rickwood Field. Showdown at Rickwood, by Birmingham author Art Black, will get everyone in the proper spirit. This book is a celebration of the beginnings and the growth of a minor league baseball team that survived the First World War and the start of the Great Depression. Some of the names here are familiar—Pie Traynor, Dizzy Dean; others, like Pop Boy Smith, are not. All, however, were part of a hard-won championship played at our country’s oldest ballpark. It’s important to note that the Birmingham Barons and the Birmingham Black Barons shared this space (playing on alternate weekends). The Black Barons made plenty of history of their own here with legends like star pitcher Leroy “Satchell” Paige who won more games for the Black Barons than for any other professional team. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Art Black kept a scorecard at Rickwood on lots of summer nights. In this debut book, he shares a special time and place in our city’s history. His passion and detailed descriptions of the personalities and talents of the men he writes about make this history come alive.

A Craftsman’s Legacy:  Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning by Eric Gorges with Jon Sternfeld is a celebration of all kinds of artists. “Despite our technological advances, we’re busier than ever …,” Gorges writes. “That’s why the handmade object, created with care and detail, embodying a history and a tradition, is enormously powerful. It can … speak in ways we don’t often hear, or that we’ve forgotten.” The host of the popular public television show, A Craftsman’s Legacy, introduces readers to craftswomen and –men using centuries-old methods to create beautiful, unique things—from calligraphy to pottery to glass to yarn. He shares the joy and insight that comes from pursuing hard, often-dirty, satisfying work with passion. He talks to Jake Weidmann, the youngest master penman in history; David MacDonald, whose pottery reflects his African heritage; April Wagner, who has her own glassblowing studio, Epiphany Studios; and Maple Smith, who spins alpaca fleece into gorgeous yarn; watch her do it here. Gorges embraced his own journey of working with his hands because of a health crisis. He reevaluated his life, sought out one of the best metal shapers in the country and signed on to be an apprentice. That apprenticeship eventually led to Gorges opening his own custom motorcycle shop, Voodoo Choppers, in Detroit and a life of creativity.

The Cat’s Table is by Michael Ondaatje, one of the best writers alive right now. The author won the Man Booker Prize for The English Patient and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize for Anil’s Ghost. I happen to really love his lesser-known novella about New Orleans jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden called Coming Through Slaughter. In this book, from 2011, he tells the story of an 11-year-old boy who, in the early 1950s, boards a ship in Colombo (in what is now Sri Lanka) bound for England. He spends mealtimes at the “cat’s table,” as far from the Captain’s Table as possible, with some “insignificant adults” and two other boys. As the ship journeys across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean, the boys explore every corner of the ship and meet some unforgettable characters—the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, who is more than what she seems; a man who talks to them about jazz and women; and a shackled prisoner below decks. The narrative moves from the ship and his adventures there to his adult years when he looks back on a singularly magical and unexpected childhood.

The Right Side by Spencer Quinn is the perfect read for dog-lovers and those who love thrillers, too. LeAnne Hogan went to Afghanistan as a rising star in the military but came home mentally and physically scarred. She doesn’t really remember the doomed desert operation that nearly killed her but suspects that the fault is her own. When her hospital roommate, Marci, dies, LeAnne takes to the open road—on a cross-country drive to contemplate her past and decide whether or not she has a future. When she arrives in the small Washington State town where Marci once lived, she discovers that Marci’s 8-year-old daughter has vanished. LeAnne feels duty-bound to find out what happened, and when a strange and powerful stray dog adopts her, she has an unlikely and crucial companion in this effort, which, ultimately, will be as dangerous as her Afghan mission.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: April

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on April 2: Two of these books—one for adults and one for kids—are by local authors! Then there’s an important book about African-Americans and our country’s history and a moving novel about some brave young women set in India.

Glory Roadthe new novel by Birmingham author Lauren K. Denton, is about Alabama and gardening and three generations of strong women. It’s also about healing and the possibility of new beginnings. Set in fictional Perry, Alabama, this is the story of Jessie McBride, who is one busy woman—keeping up with a teenage daughter; looking after her own feisty mother; and running her garden shop, Twig. (There’s lots of gardening wisdom planted in these pages.) Denton writes what she knows, drawing from her own experiences living in Mobile, where she was born and raised, and Homewood, where she’s raising her own family. This familiarity is evident throughout the book. “One of my favorite things about writing novels is including things I love in the hopes that readers will enjoy those same things. The story’s setting on Glory Road came from the actual red dirt road where my maternal grandparents lived for my entire childhood,” Denton says. “As a child, I loved how the dirt road made the place feel separated from the real world, and I knew I wanted these three women to enjoy that same peace and quiet.” Check out Denton’s other books, The Hideaway and Hurricane Season.

Ernestine’s Milky Way is written by Kerry Madden-Lunsford who directs the creative writing program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The lovely illustrations by Emily Sutton take readers into the beautiful Appalachian mountains and introduce readers to the people and animals living there. Five-year-old Ernestine has been given a special job to do:  carry two jars of milk down the holler to Mrs. Ramsey and her children. The way is long and hard, but Ernestine is “a big girl” and she’s not too afraid of the critters she meets along the way. When she stumbles in her task she thinks she’s failed, but sometimes mistakes are blessings in disguise. Kerry is the author of several books for young readers including the Appalachian Maggie Valley trilogy:  Gentle’s Holler, Louisiana’s Song and Jessie’s Mountain. This book takes place in that same Maggie Valley setting. Kerry wrote, and her daughter Lucy illustrated, a book about the beautiful friendship between author and storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham and folk artist Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas called Nothing Fancy About Kathryn & Charlie.

American Founders:  How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World by Christina Proenza-Coles shines a light on some important historical facts. Most people relate the African-American experience in our country’s history to antebellum slavery and later the civil rights movement. But, in reality, Africans preceded the English by a century and arrived in the Americas in numbers that far exceeded European migrants up until 1820, and they played a comprehensive role in creating and shaping the country we know today. The author consulted hundreds of sources to collect stories of people of African descent who developed and defended New World settlements, undermined slavery and championed freedom for centuries before that happened in Selma and here in Birmingham. She shows how Africa-descended people contributed to American history as explorers, soldiers, lawyers, nurses, mathematicians, artists and artisans, translators, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, scholars and much more. This is an important book.

A People’s History of Heaven is a brand-new work of literary fiction by award-winning Indian-American writer Mathangi Subramanian, and it’s about geography as much as characters. Five girls—almost women—share an unbreakable bond even though they are quite different—Muslim, Christian and Hindu. They also all are marginalized people—living in tin shacks in a slum hidden between luxury high rises in Bangalore, India. When the government threatens to demolish their homes to build a shopping mall, the girls and their mothers (women also discarded by their husbands because they’ve produced no male heirs) refuse to go quietly. They wage war on the bulldozers sent to raze their homes and are fierce in their refusal to be ignored anymore.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Fox 6 Books: March

Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on March 5: Two of these books—one fiction and one not—are about spies. Then there’s a cookbook of sweets by a local author and a literary thriller—perfect for vacation reading.

Transcription is by Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors who wrote Life After Life (one of my favorite books ever; I also loved her Case Histories). Transcription is set mostly in 1940 when 18-year-old Juliette Armstrong is working—somewhat reluctantly—as a spy for an obscure department of MI5. Now, 10 years later, she’s a radio producer at the BBC and she thinks her days as a spy are long gone. That is a mistake because mysterious figures from her shadowy past begin showing up, and Juliette realizes that most actions do, in fact, have consequences.

Spies of No Country:  Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, by Matti Friedman, grew out of a single conversation. The award-winning journalist and author writes about four young men who were recruited into a small, amateur, ragtag group of Arab-speaking Jewish spies in 1948. This unit was the beginning of what would become Israel’s intelligence service and a precursor to the Mossad. Here’s how this book came about:  “In 2011, I happened to meet an Israeli man in his late 80s, a retired spy, who told me an incredible story about how he and a few of his friends experienced the birth of the state of Israel in 1948,” Friedman says. “He was originally from Aleppo, Syria, and had been recruited by the Jewish pre-state underground in 1945 because he had native Arabic and could pass for Arab. His story was strange and gripping on its own, but what was especially striking to me was that it was an entirely Middle Eastern story. Israel usually speaks about itself as part of the story of Europe … but this old spy’s story was very different.”

Hello, Sugar! by Beth Branch, a local food blogger and test-kitchen chef, is a delicious collection of classic Southern sweets—cakes, cheesecakes, pies, tarts, no-bake goodies and other Southern favorites like lavender-lemon bars, red velvet moon pies and a truly impressive giant orange sweet roll. It’s also quite lovely. Some of these recipes are best suited for experienced bakers, I think, but lots more of them are easier to follow even if the results look complicated (caramel apple rose tarts, I’m thinking of you!). The tropical key lime pie, in particular, looks like something I can do (and Branch offers a delightful way to decorate it with “palm trees” made of lime slices and toasted coconut). Branch is a Birmingham native who began her first food blog—The Collegiate Baker—in 2011 when she was a student at the University of Alabama. Her early baking adventures included creating over-the-top birthday cakes for her friends and family, but she also spent a lot of time cooking from old family recipes and finding treasures in her grandmother’s recipe box.

The Current by Tim Johnston (the author of the New York Times bestselling debut novel Descent) is a tightly woven, literary psychological thriller about the impact of crime on innocent people. Outside a small Minnesota town, in the dead of winter, police pull two young women and their car from the icy Black Root River. One woman is found drowned downriver, the other is half-frozen but alive at the scene. Turns out, this was no accident. Another young woman died in the same river a decade earlier, and the killer might still be living in the town. The surviving woman begins her own investigation and soon realizes that she’s connected to the earlier unsolved case in ways she never expected.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.