Romance novel round-up

The NPR podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, had a great episode recently all about the romance genre. Just today, there was a bunch of Twitter discussion about the genre in reaction to an article posted to the Mary Sue. And all that reminded me that I should do a catch-up post on some of the romance novels I’ve been reading recently.

Author: Courtney Milan

I first started reading Milan last year, and loved her interesting characters, feminist and social justice sensibility, and especially her smart smart writing. This year, I read some more of Milan’s Brothers Sinister historical romance series including A Kiss for Midwinter, The Countess Conspiracy, and The Suffragette Scandal.

The Suffragette ScandalOf the three, The Suffragette Scandal is the one most likely to land on my all-time favorites of Milan’s books. The novel features Frederica “Free” Marshall, a Cambridge graduate from Girton College, and a suffragette who publishes a paper about women, by women and for women. Edward Clark has just returned from years in France to help a friend who is being hounded by Edward’s brother – a brother who deliberately cut Edward off from assistance during the Franco-Prussian war. It turns out Edward’s brother has the larger goal of shutting down Free Marshall’s press, so Edward seeks to ally with Free against a common enemy. In the course of events, they fall in love.

I was sorry when this book ended as I became so fond of this activist power couple. I loved the dynamic between Edward, who is disillusioned and cynical at the start of the book and Free, who is not naive, but who still sees hope in the small differences she can make for women’s lives through her work. As in her other books, Milan’s characters refreshingly take the direct course in moments when one expects them to beat around the bush.

For example:

“Which of my myriad flaws is making you uneasy, Miss Marshall?” He gave her a long, slow smile. “Is it my arrogant conceit or my wicked sense of humor?”

“Neither,” Free answered. “I rather like both of those. It’s just that you’re trying to use my attraction to you to set me on edge.” She smiled at him. “It won’t work. I’ve been attracted to you since the moment I laid eyes on you, and it hasn’t made me stupid once.”

I held back from including a longer excerpt, so you’ll have to take my word that the conversation continues to gets very interesting and wonderful from there.


Along with the Brothers Sinister books, I also read Courtney Milan’s first contemporary novel, Trade Me. Because I trust her as an author, I was willing to take on a book with this premise: after a blistering debate about income inequality in their college seminar class, Blake Reynolds, a tech billionaire’s son, offers to trade places with Tina Chen for a month. Chen greets this offer with the kind of incredulity that is normal – an early indicator that Milan is able to inject a surprising amount of plausibility to the plot.

Trade Me ends up being quite serious in some of the plot developments, but there’s enough humor in the banter to keep things light in the balance. The romance itself was good, though perhaps not as well-built as those in Milan’s historicals; there’s plenty in Trade Me to balance out any slight disappointment in that regard. Early in the book, Tina delivers this masterful set-down to Blake’s father that made me so happy. I hope I can do it justice with a short excerpt. Context: Tina is at dinner with Blake and Blake’s father. Tina and Blake are pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend for reasons that are plausible but I won’t explain here. Blake’s father has offered Tina money to break up with Blake.

“You’ve admitted that you’d sell him out,” he snaps. “That at some point, money is more important than he is.”

You’ve admitted the same thing. If I’m a faithless whore because I’ll take a check to break up with Blake, you’re the asshole who values your company and lifestyle more than your son.”

“That’s not just my company. That’s my life. It’s his life. It’s -”

“Oh, and you think it’s just money for me?” I glare at him. “You think that you’d give me fifty thousand dollars and I’d spend it all on shoes and diamond-studded cat collars? Fifty thousand dollars would pay for the rest of my college tuition. It would buy my dad a lawyer so that the next time his knee acted up, he could finally get disability instead of scrambling to find some job he can manage. It would make it so I didn’t have to work for the next year and could concentrate on my schoolwork. That’s a really ugly double standard, Mr. Reynolds. When money exists to make your life more pleasant, it’s not just money. But when it’s my family and my dreams at stake, it’s just pieces of green paper.”

Blake smiles softly.

His father reaches across the table and flicks Blake’s forehead. “Stop grinning.”

“No way.” Blake is smiling harder. “She’s kicking your ass. This is the best day ever.”

So if you’re a Milan fan, and have been wary of reading Trade Me because it’s not a historical romance, don’t be. Jump right in.

Author: Julie James

It Happened Julie JamesSpeaking of contemporary, I recently read Julie James’ It Happened One Wedding, #5 in the FBI/US Attorney series. Back in May, Amber from Buried By Books tweeted a quote from Julie James where James said she likes putting Alpha heroes with Alpha heroines because it results in a lot of conflict and tension. I love that she puts Alpha heroines in her books because I enjoy reading about heroines who like their careers, and work hard in demanding professions. In an earlier book in the FBI/US Attorney series, I wasn’t sure which was more swoonworthy: the romantic scenes or the scene where the heroine successfully negotiates for a promotion. In It Happened One Wedding, the heroine is a director of a private equity firm. I like that Julie James always does her research so that the heroine’s job title is never just a short-cut way of saying she’s in a high-powered job. You get a fairly plausible idea of what’s involved in being a private equity firm director without it dragging the narrative down.

I do wish that the characters weren’t quite so uniformly, universally gorgeous and well-dressed, and generally well-off. It’s lot of pencil skirts and high heels and tony restaurants (nothing wrong with pencil skirts and high heels, but it’s basically the professional wardrobe description of every one of the heroines). But I forgive that for the series’ other merits – especially the humor that is sown throughout.

Author: Mary Balogh

The Escape BaloghI’m new to Mary Balogh, who writes historical romance. My library had The Escape available as an e-book. Julie James’ books aside, I often tire of Alpha heroes in romance, and The Escape has such a lovely beta hero in Ben. Ben is a disabled war veteran uncertain about his next stage in life. Reluctant to oust his younger brother from the family estate, he travels to visit with his sister in the north of England. There he meets Samantha, a widow who is also uncertain about her next steps, and whose in-laws have nearly cut her off from friendly society. Learning of Samantha’s plan to escape to some inherited property in Wales, Ben offers to escort her there.

There was a nice quiet quality to this romance, and the Welsh setting in the latter half of the book was an enjoyable aspect. (Mary Balogh grew up in Wales though she lives now in Canada.)

I went on to read Balogh’s Slightly Wicked and A Summer to Remember. The former was fine, but had some plot elements that were not my jam – though the heroine’s outwitting of her scheming relatives was an awesome moment. The latter book was sweet in the best way, and had a charming non-alpha hero.

The Pop Culture Happy Hour mentioned a few other authors I may try out, such as Eloisa James, Loretta Chase, Sonali Dev, and Beverly Jenkins. Have you read any of these authors? Let me know in the comments.


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The Nurses by Alexandra Robbins

Nurses Robbins

The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital

2015. Workman Publishing. ebook. 368 pages.

In a nutshell:

The Nurses is a deep-dive examination of what it is like to work in the nursing profession today. Robbins’ book follows four ER nurses through the events of one year. The names of the nurses and their hospitals have been changed to protect their identity, and of course the city where all of the nurses work is never named. One nurse battles the temptation to relapse into narcotics abuse after the death of her mother; another nurse is newly minted and trying to find her place; the other two nurses have their own personal and professional challenges. These four narratives are balanced with chapters of well-researched discussion of the challenges facing nurses today.


When I was a freshman in college, I lived on a dormitory floor that held a contingent of students from the rigorous nursing program. I had a lot of respect for them as I witnessed the stress of their studies; on occasion, I helped them study for anatomy by flipping flashcards. On Thursday nights, the nursing students had a tradition of gathering in the lounge and watching the tv show ER. I don’t think they necessarily held it as a realistic example of the hospital environment, but I suspect it helped keep alive their inspiration as they waded through their studies. I remember all of them as being tough, kind and smart, exactly the kind of people you would want looking after you in your time of need.

As evident in The Nurses, Alexandra Robbins also holds the nursing profession in high regard. She doesn’t gloss over issues such as the practice of more experienced nurses often “eating their young” or the fact that nurses aren’t immune to workplace cliques, but her main goal is to educate the public about nurses and to tell nurses’ stories. Robbins’ journalistic career has mostly been in the realm of education, but nurses kept asking her to tell their stories, and once she heard the stories, she was hooked, as she says in this interview on BookPage.

One of the main misconceptions about nursing is an old one: the idea of nurses as “hand-maidens” to the god-like doctor. The reality is that nurses are a vital part of the medical team treating the patient, and the “hand-maiden” paradigm is detrimental as it can lead to doctors discounting nurses’ wealth of knowledge, or even doctors mistreating nurses. And the blame for something going wrong disproportionately falls on the nurses. In one account, a nurse verified a dosage with a doctor six times; she had misgivings on the amount, but was unfamiliar with the medication, and it was unlisted in the drug handbook available to her. On past occasions, when she knew the medication, she had no qualms of overriding the doctor. In this case, she did not. The dosage did turn out to be wrong and though the doctor took responsibility for the mistake, the nurse still was written up in her record because she was the one who administered the medication.

I really appreciated the inclusion of the ER nurse who had a past narcotics addiction. What started with a legitimate prescription for Percocet spiraled out of control as the stress of her job and life led her to take advantage of her easy access to morphine and other narcotics.  After hitting rock-bottom, she enrolled in a strict rehab program specifically tailored for medical professionals, which got her clean and eventually eased her back into the profession. Throughout the year covered by this book, she faithfully attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings several times a week. Her story is not unusual; the nursing profession is vulnerable to addiction due to the stress and access to powerful drugs, though many institutions have put in protocols that have made it less easy to get the drugs without being noticed.

Another shocking aspect to the nursing profession is the frequent lack of a safety support structure to protect nurses against assault by patients, patients’ family members, and even other staff.

This is precisely what a Massachusetts judge told a nurse when he threw out her case against her attacker: Getting assaulted is part of the job. This attitude, which I’ll call the “shrug-it-off culture,” can make nurses feel that reporting an attack will reflect poorly on the nurse as an individual, as if the violence is a result of their own negligence or weakness. Partly because assaults are so common, the industry has conveyed that being attacked is acceptable.”

Some institutions are taking appropriate measures. Robbins specifically praises the Veterans Administration Medical Center which decreased the number of violent attacks by 91.6 percent after installing a database to identify patients with a history of violence.

The Nurses casts a critical eye on patient satisfaction surveys, a piece of the Affordable Care Act that can affect Medicare’s funding to hospitals. For example, “the survey doesn’t ask whether the hospital resolved or improved the patient’s medical issue, which one would hope would be the primary determinant of a patient’s satisfaction with the experience.” In early version of the survey, a comment section highlighted how erratic patients’ ideas of “satisfaction” can be, as some patients complained about things like a lack of Splenda, or a dying roommates’ noisy breathing. And of course, there are obvious shortcomings to such surveys: “Molly clocked out and stayed for two hours holding a dying man’s hand because he did not wish to die alone. He won’t be polled about his hospital experience.”

The last chapter of The Nurses is called “What You Can Do: Advice and Inspiration for the Public, Patients, Families, Nurses, Aspiring Nurses, Managers and others.” A few of the take-away points for Patients/Families:

– Appoint one family spokesperson.

– Ask questions – instead of “why” which can put staff in defensive, phrase it more like “help us to understand why he’s getting this medication”.

– Bring hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes.

– “If you want to help the nurse, ask what you can do for the patient.” – family members can bathe patient, “brush their teeth, take them on walks, participate in therapies, and handle feeding”.

Not listed in this chapter, but something I gathered from the book overall, is to try and seek a hospital with a high patient-to-nurse ratio.

It’s funny, for all that this book highlighted the challenges and toughness of the nursing profession, it kind of does make you want to drop whatever profession you are in, and go become a nurse to care for people and save lives. And then, following on the heels of that thought, I admit to myself that I am probably not thick-skinned enough to succeed in that environment.

On that note, I will conclude with one of the most moving accounts in the book:

Juliette was hooking the woman up to the cardiac monitor when the patient took her hand and said breathily, “I just want to say good-bye.”

“What are you talking about?” Juliette said. The words sounded strange.

“I’m just going to say good-bye,” the woman repeated. Her eyes went vapid. The monitor showed the woman’s heart rate plummeting to zero. There was no time to press a code button. There was no IV to utilize.

Juliette didn’t even think. She did the precordial thump, a method of resuscitating a patient in cardiac arrest: She raised her forearm to her nose and brought it down hard on the woman’s chest. The woman opened her eyes and burst into tears. She seemed to know exactly what had happened. “Thank you,” she whispered, grasping Juliette’s hand. “Thank you.”


Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book’d Out – “Written with heart, detail and honesty, Nurses is an eye opening look at the frustrations and joys of this undervalued profession. A must read not only for any one contemplating joining the field but also for those already embedded within it, and anyone interested in what really goes on behind the scenes.”

The Book Nurse – “I’ve been a Registered Nurse for 37 years and have practiced in many different settings in hospitals, clinics, EMS, education, publishing, and, now as a school nurse. I can’t think of another career that provides so many different avenues for change and self-fulfillment from one basic degree. As one quote puts it, “nursing isn’t just a job — it’s who I am.” I could relate to almost every scenario presented in this book, and only wish that it had followed the stories of nurses from other departments besides the ER.”

The Nurse Teacher – “I felt like someone had followed me around for my career and took notes.”


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Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

IMG_11291942. Tess Press. Hardcover. 210 pages.


In the early 1920’s, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, freshly graduated from Bryn Mawr, took a transatlantic voyage to England and then to Paris. As far as travel memoirs are concerned, this does not fall into the camp of intrepid daring or visiting obscure corners of the earth. On the scale of adventure, it was perhaps the equivalent of the backpack-and-hostel trip my friend and I undertook in France when we were college students, except Skinner and Kimbrough’s trip was much longer and was without 21st century conveniences such as planes and internet cafes. Cornelia’s parents make appearances in England and in Paris, careful to let the young women have their independence, but thankfully on-hand for various health crises (a bout of German measles, bedbugs) and nice hotel meals.

The memoir is told completely from Cornelia’s first-person perspective – though Emily is credited for remembering most of it. Cornelia and Emily’s ship departs from Montreal, but it runs aground before reaching the Atlantic and they have to arrange for another passage. This is merely the first of a series of misadventures. The memoir is told in a voice of artful self-deprecation, and the authors have a fond indulgence for their younger selves. Most of the humor derives from Cornelia and Emily’s attempts to be worldly-wise, fashionable adults.

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is definitely a very funny, very witty book. The tone is reminiscent of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (which I just saw was Simon of Stuck in the Book’s comparison too). When I was deciding whether to buy this book (having never heard of it before), I read a little of the first page and immediately knew that I was going to get along with it famously.

I, clutching and occasionally kissing our steamship passage, was arriving from New York, Emily from Buffalo. That is, I hoped Emily was arriving. Emily’s notions concerning geography, like some of her other notions, were enthusiastic but lacking in accuracy. Some weeks previous she had sent me a rhapsodic letter which ended with the alarming words, “I live for the moment when our boat pushes out from that dock in Winnipeg.” I had written back in a panic and block letters stating, somewhat crushingly I thought, that the C. P. O. seldom sent its ships overland, that we were sailing from Montreal, Province of Quebec, that the name of our vessel was the Montcalm and the date June 10th, the year of our Lord I shan’t say which, because Emily and I have now reached the time in life when not only do we lie about our ages, we forget what we’ve said they are.

Skinner has a talent for turning herself, Emily, her family and everyone she meets into lively characters who stumble merrily into comic set-pieces. These characters include famous people. Due to a connection with Cornelia’s father, a successful stage actor, Cornelia and Emily, and Cornelia’s parents are invited to H.G. Wells’ house in England and end up playing a sort of train-wreck badminton game with the other guests (Margaret Sanger plays on Emily’s team.)

For the most part, any dated aspects of the book came across as quaint or fascinating. I looked up some cultural references now and again, but the narrative didn’t rely overmuch on them. Less quaint, but important to acknowledge, were the reminders that Cornelia and Emily grew up accustomed to segregated society: the young women gulp a bit when they are seated next to two Senegalese dignitaries during dinner at their Parisian pension. Further ventures into Parisian society lead to a conversation where Cornelia’s mother “explains” homosexuality to the young women in such vague but somber terms that they leave “feeling that even if we had not quite grasped the essentials, this had all been extremely momentous.”

In and around all the misadventures, Skinner does allow for some more contemplative touches. While in Paris, Emily and Cornelia visit regularly with a maimed victim of World War I and help him sell crafts to American tourists. When the man is allowed to leave the veterans’ home for a week’s stay with his family, he invites Cornelia and Emily to visit him at his home, where they “suddenly realized that for this week he was a man of property, a citizen of a community, not just a number in a bleak government hospital.”

There is indeed a poignant layer to Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Published in 1942, its initial readers must have contrasted the exuberance of Paris depicted in the book with the Nazi-occupied Paris, and the peacetime London with the London suffering through the Blitz. Or perhaps for its many readers (for it was a popular book), it served as some much needed entertainment and escapism. Skinner and Kimbrough’s book was selected as one of the titles packaged as Armed Services Editions to be distributed to the troops. As quoted in Molly Guptill Manning’s When Books Went to War, Emily Kimbrough said she was “more proud of that edition than of being selected Book of the Month.” In Steven Ambrose’s The Good Fight, he relates a private’s account of returning to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day:

I came across what was probably the most poignant memory I have of the whole episode. Lying on the beach was a young soldier, his arms outstreched. Near one of his hands, as if he had been reading it, was a pocketbook [paperback]. It was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner. This expressed the spirit of our ordeal. Our hearts were young and gay because we thought we were immortal, we believed we were doing a great thing, and we really believed in the crusade which we hoped would liberate the world from the heel of Nazism.

I feel a little bad for ending this review on such a somber note for what is really a hilarious, laugh-out-loud book, but I definitely think that the context adds to the reading without diminishing its light-hearted spirit. Cornelia Skinner went on to have a career as an actress and writer. Emily Kimbrough had a career in journalism.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

A Penguin A Week – “One of the most endearing qualities of their humour is that there is nothing cruel about it; they have fun only at their own expenses. They celebrate what it is to be young, enthusiastic, and desperate to make an impression.”

Not really a review, but a piece reflecting on the book on The Toast

Danielle of A Work in Progress mailed the book to members of her postal reading group.


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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Round-House2012. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 321 pages.

In a nutshell: The Round House is about Joe, a 13-year-old boy living on a North Dakota reservation in 1988. At the start of the novel, Joe’s mother is raped and nearly killed by a perpetrator she either won’t or can’t identify. Throughout the summer, Joe grapples with the emotional aftershock of his irrevocably changed family, and also seeks to find the person who attacked his mother.


Although the premise of The Round House is grim, I wouldn’t say that this is a dark-toned novel overall. Erdrich lets a lot of light and kindness and even humor thread through the story, mainly in her depiction of the various characters that populate the reservation’s community.

One of my favorite side characters was Linda, a white woman who was raised on the reservation by an Ojibwe hospital staff member after her parents rejected her at birth for a congenital deformity. I liked how Erdrich stopped Joe’s narrative a third of the way through for “Linda’s story” which is engrossing in its own right while also shedding light into Joe’s story. Erdrich also interrupts the narrative later for a folktale/history told by an elderly relative of Joe’s named Mooshum. I use the word “interrupts” but I don’t mean it negatively. Instead Linda and Mooshum’s stories show the importance of telling and listening to each others’ stories. As Teresa of Shelf Love said in her recent review of The Round House the book conveys the idea that “Our stories are our own yet part of others’ stories.” Joe’s mother, Geraldine, also gets a chance to tell her story, after a period of lengthy silence.

I liked that Geraldine – though usually off-screen for the events of this book – isn’t treated as a cipher, as just someone to be revenged. There’s a point where Joe, out of fear, tries to provoke her into leaving the bedroom where she has sequestered herself. She says to him: “Now you listen to me, Joe. You will not badger me or harass me. You will leave me to think the way I want to think, here. I have to heal any way I can.”

Back to the light and kindness and humor, much of the story involves Joe’s friendships with three other boys, who nerd out over Star Trek and get themselves into mild trouble by drinking beer and crashing church youth group events. This kids-of-the-summer vibe brought to mind the appealing kids of the movie Super 8. (In discussion of this book, Teresa compared it to Stand By Me, which is a much more classic reference, but alas not a movie I’ve seen.) The Round House includes the kind of tales that adults relish telling about their own childhood, as in, remember the time Cappy ill-advisedly felt compelled to confess a particular sin to the priest and the priest chased him around the reservation. This kind of ready-made tall tale is juxtaposed with characters’ uncomfortable decisions to keep secrets from each other.

The Round House also reminded me of Ivan Doig’s The Whistling Season. Both are coming-of-age tales told by an older version of the protagonist who drops minor hints about the future. Namely, these crucial events in their youth help decide their future career trajectories. Doig’s book is set about a century before Erdrich’s, but in the fellow prairie state of Montana. Doig and Erdrich both richly depict the dynamics of family and community.

What I also appreciated about Erdrich was her very slight supernatural touches, like a matter-of-fact acceptance of seeing ghosts on occasion. I also liked how the elderly relative of Mooshum has no known age and appears timeless, a tantalizing human bridge to an earlier era that was almost outside of history. That aspect reminded me of some of Lee Smith’s books about Appalachia, like Fair and Tender Ladies or On Agate Hill.

I will be sure to read more Erdrich in the future. This was the first book I’ve read by her, despite always meaning to read works like Love Medicine and the Master Butchers Singing Club. I discovered my co-worker Kim is a huge Erdrich fan and she highly recommended The Last Miracle at Little No Horse.

Excerpts from others’ reviews (found by searching the Book Blogs Search Engine – to be added, go to Fyrefly’s site):

Booklust – “I loved that Erdrich showed just how flawed everyone was, but also made clear the strong bond that tied them all together.”

The Boston Bibliophile – “What I found was a novel that was at once easy to read and difficult to fully assimilate . . . The smoothness of Erdrich’s prose belies the uncompromising toughness beneath the surface.”

The Mookse and the Gripes – “The summertime coming-of-age stuff was partially there to show Joe’s own tendencies toward women, but for the most part it isn’t done well enough to serve anything other than a conventional, rote story.”


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Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Tomato Red1998. Busted Flush. Paperback. 169 pages.


I’m a huge fan of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and have delved into his backlist before by reading his earliest works: the three books that comprise the Bayou Trilogy. Like most of the characters from those books, the central four characters of Tomato Red dwell in the fringes of society.

Tomato Red is told in first-person by an ex-con drifter and self-described “loser” named Sammy Barlach. The first-person narration is used to great effect, especially in the beginning and end of the novel. Sammy’s first words to the reader – “You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen” – starts us off on the tale of how Sammy fell into the company of the Merridew family. With hair the color of the book’s title, Jamalee Merridew is nineteen and wants out of her poverty-stricken life in Venus Holler. Her seventeen-year-old brother, Jason, possesses stunning good looks, and is also, perilously, gay. Their mom, Bev, earns her living as a prostitute; she is practical about her lot in life and disapproving of her daughter’s dreams. Woodrell’s depiction of Bev and Jamalee are very well-drawn, but it is the character of Sammy that has left an indelible impression on me.

Sammy’s mind is marked by poverty, lack of education and damaging familial neglect. He informs the reader early on, “I can’t sleep anywhere until I know I’ll get to eat again if I need to”. He is so desperate to belong, that he is instantly loyal to the Merridews, because they are “the bunch that would have me.” I found this heartbreaking. His desperation also manifests itself in a disconcerting tendency toward violence to those who cross him or the Merridews.

Sometimes Woodrell’s turn of phrase became too elaborate for my tastes, but sometimes the ambitious metaphors paid off. It’s not a comfortable book by any means, but the storytelling is magic. I am still haunted by Tomato Red.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

The Allure of Books – “The real stand out of his books, though, is the writing. Seriously – this man uses the sentence as a weapon. His use of language, humor, irony? It’s ridiculous. I love it.”

Animal My Soul – “The plot of Tomato Red is contrived and wayward with an ending that borders on melodrama. But the novel shows that Woodrell is a writer who can create a vivid and witty portrait of people you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet and places you wouldn’t much want to go to.”

Bella’s Bookshelves – “[Woodrell] ferrets out the darkness in places few people go, he lets in light in ways few people do. There are no filters, and as a consequence we’re not distanced from anything he writes.”

Additional reviews here: Blogging for a Good Book, Dead End Follies, Verbicide Magazine,


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We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam by Peter Blanchard III

005 (2)2010. University Press of New England. Hardcover. 190 pages.

With photographs by David Graham.

In a nutshell:

From 1949 to the 1980s, married couple Art and Nan Kellam lived on a small island off the coast of Maine called Placentia. Though they occasionally entertained visitors and friends, or traveled by dory to nearby Mount Desert Island for supplies, they spent most of their lives with only each other for company – and a couple of cats.

Peter Blanchard III became friends with Nan Kellam a few years after Art’s death. The couple had decided to donate the island to the Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) after their deaths, and Peter Blanchard III met Nan in his role as a volunteer for the Maine Chapter of TNC. In We Were an Island, he tells the story of this couple and the unusual life they chose. He extensively incorporates Nan’s diary and the couple’s other writings.


When I was very young, my family lived in Bass Harbor, Maine, which is on the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island. We could walk down the road from our house to Bass Harbor Light. Elementary school field trips included excursions into Acadia National Park. I imprinted on the landscape, like birds do after hatching. After we moved away to central Maine, trips back to the coast served to encourage fantasies of lighthousekeeping or of living on one of the smaller islands, reachable only by boat.

I heard of this book years ago after a blogger had picked it up at a BEA conference. Once I realized the book was about “my” corner of the world, I knew I had to read it. Here was a couple that didn’t just idly imagine living on an island; they planned for it and accomplished it. We even overlapped our residencies in that same corner of the world. Though my parents don’t recall hearing of the reclusive couple, the Kellams shopped at Reed’s General Store in Bass Harbor just as our family did. I must have seen their island – Placentia – in the distance while playing among the rocks and tidepools below Bass Harbor Light.

Aside from the personal connections, the book is an intriguing, respectful portrait of Art and Nan Kellam. Blanchard wisely chooses not to order the book chronologically. Though the first couple chapters are about the beginning of the Kellams’ life on Placentia, subsequent chapters are thematically driven: one chapter covers Placentia’s history and the Kellams’ discovery of it; another chapter describes their relationship with local Mainers.

Before their move to Placentia, Art and Nan lived in California. Art worked for Lockheed as an engineer focused on the operation of military aircraft. During World War II, they were already scouting for an island to buy, and in 1949, they moved from California to Placentia and lived there for the remainder of their lives together. (After Art’s death, Nan lived a couple of years alone on the island, but eventually moved to a senior living home on Mount Desert Island.)

In their writings, Nan and Art referred to themselves as the “Bears” and developed their own vocabulary and names (a glossary is included in the back of the book to translate terms used in Nan’s diary excerpts). Though rumors abounded among locals as to the reasons for the Kellams’ isolated lifestyle (including a rumor that Art had worked on the Manhattan Project), they were quite clear in their writings about their motivations. Blanchard sums it up: “freedom from material things; freedom from dependence on technology; independence from others and their expectations; a closer rapport with Nature; development of self-reliance; and a better perspective on oneself, on marriage and ultimately on life’s meaning.”

I cannot imagine wanting to live in only one person’s company for most of your life. At times, I found the insularity of the Kellams’ life to be off-putting. I mean, as an introvert, it sounds splendid to go to an island for a while, as a retreat of some kind, but I also find a lot of value to life in a community. My favorite parts of the book involved the Kellams’ interactions with other people: how fishermen would offer to tow the couple’s dory on bad weather crossings; their signal arrangement with the residents of the nearby Gotts islands; their friendships with both year-rounders and summer people alike.

We Were An Island includes beautiful photos of Placentia as well as archival photos of the Kellams and their home. I found some of the chapters a little slower-going than others, but I enjoyed the book overall. I would recommend it to anyone who loves the coast and islands of Maine or anyone who has ever imagined living on an island.

Bass Harbor photo

Bass Harbor. My sister and I, cousins and aunt.

My sisters and I on Cadillac Mountain, with Sand Beach in the background. Mount Desert Island. I'm the one on far right.

My sisters and I on Cadillac Mountain, with Sand Beach in the background. Mount Desert Island. I’m the one on far right.


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Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963 – 1965 by Taylor Branch

Pillar of Fire1998. ebook. 796 pages.


“Stokes raised both hands toward [LAPD officer] Weese, who shot him through the heart from about eight feet.”

This sentence depicts the fatal escalation of the April 27, 1962 conflict between the LAPD and members of the Nation of Islam temple no. 27. The chaotic sequence of events that led to the killing of Ronald X Stokes started with this: outside temple no. 27, Monroe X Jones asked Fred X Jingles to inspect some suits in the trunk of his car to help determine of they had resale value. Two white police officers driving by saw the two men at Jones’ car, and decided to stop and conduct a “burglary sweep.”

The full account of this conflict, where seven unarmed Nation of Islam members were shot by the LAPD, is the starting point for Pillar of Fire, the second of Taylor Branch’s trilogy about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I read and reviewed the first book, Parting the Waters, last year.

This account of the events of April 27, 1962 is one example of how reading history helps us understand how we got to where we are today. Pillar of Fire is full of moments of recognition, where the reader sees the DNA of today’s news in past events.

Pillar of Fire covers events from 1963 to 1965. It is impossible to recount everything that struck me while reading this book. I was highlighting passages in my Kindle edition like mad. What follows is an attempt to highlight some of the prominent narrative threads and themes I noted.

There’s a reason that the recent movie Selma begins with the September 15, 1963 killing of four young girls in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist in Birmingham. It is an event that reverberated throughout the civil rights movement, even though it didn’t quite shame the nation into repentance.

[A] white lawyer made himself a lifetime pariah from Birmingham by blaming every citizen who took discreet comfort in segregation, saying, “We all did it,” but Mayor Albert Boutwell stoutly insisted, “We are all victims.”

Upon hearing the news in North Carolina, James Bevel and Diane Nash, civil rights leaders and champions of nonviolent activism, briefly contemplated vigilantism. In the end, they hatched an idea for a mass nonviolent protest centered around Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, an idea that found form later in the Selma to Montgomery march. (Pillar of Fire‘s chronological coverage extends almost to the point of this march.)

The lack of justice for the 16th Street Baptist bombings is a shadow throughout the book. (No one was convicted for the crime until 1977.) This injustice is joined by the lack of justice for NAACP leader Medgar Ever’s 1963 assassination (no conviction until 1994); the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner (those few of the lynching mob who are convicted in 1967 do not serve more than six years in prison). In an epilogue, Branch also describes the 1966 Klan killing of Mississippi voting rights activist Vernon Dahmer, and how three of the four convicted were pardoned after only four years in prison by the state governor. The KKK leader, Sam Bowers, who ordered the murder was tried for the crime, but deadlocked juries kept him from conviction. In 1998, the case was reopened and Bowers was finally convicted of Dahmer’s murder.

While mulling over this systemic denial of court justice, consider the segregationist congressman who decried the 1964 Civil Rights Bill as a “monstrous instrument of oppression upon all of the American people.” Or the time when Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is told by a fellow plane passenger that the new civil rights law would “just carry on the trend toward federal dictatorship.” (Newsweek polls find that 74% of whites believe that the pace of integration is “moving too fast.”)

The skillful framing of desegregation as a big government imposition was propogated by several politicians of the era. During his presidential campaign, former Alabaman governor George Wallace talked often of “states’ rights” and “sweeping federal encroachment.” Such dog-whistle rhetoric was picked up by the chosen Republican presidential candidate Goldwater. Of Goldwater, King stated, “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist.”

The galling fact is that if anyone was suppressed by big government intrusion, it was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is well-known now that Dr. King was under almost constant FBI surveillance. The loathsome and powerful FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover directed this surveillance and also authorized releases of scurrilous information about King to the press (false accusations of Communistic ties, true accusations of infidelity). Hoover tried to prevent King’s meeting with the Pope and in a press interview, Hoover called King “the most notorious liar” in the United States. Again, the FBI’s surveillance of King is no longer a secret, but I was still surprised and horrified by the persistence, extent, and petty exploitation of it.

The in-depth nature of Pillar of Fire also alerted me to historical events I’d never heard of. I had no idea about the integrationist movement in St. Augustine, Florida, for instance, which called out the fact that the oldest city in the United States remained segregated. I also did not know about the jailing of voting rights activists from Greenwood and Itta Bena, Mississippi (for “disturbing the peace”). Some of these activists were imprisoned in the notorious Parchman Penitentiary, where they were sometimes kept in hotboxes, and also hung by their hands in their cells. I didn’t know about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation that sought seats at the Democratic National Convention, and were denied their place in the political process. And though I knew of Malcolm X, I didn’t know many details about what he did and said.

As I said about the first book, I feel like Pillar of Fire has helped me understand my country better. Not to sound hyperbolic about it, but in some not-fully-realized way, I feel like these books have changed my life.

Excerpts from Goodreads reviews:

Clif – “This book could not be more exciting while at the same time educating the reader about the history of the United States; the subtitle is perfect: America in the King Years. You’ll close it with a deep acquaintance with the leading personalities of that time (not all famous by any means) and a profound appreciation of the courage shown by so many people who risked their lives and their livelihoods to try for a dream.”

Patrick – “The volumes are not perfect–sometimes the panoramic view comes at the expense of narrative momentum. Sentence-level clunkers show up just enough to make you wish that they had spent a little more time polishing the prose. But, those minor flaws aside, it’s an incredible history.”

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