Sum­mer books: Mur­der, mis­chief, de­sire

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY DANNYE ROMINE POW­ELL dpow­[email protected]­lot­teob­

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!


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.


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.


Lisa Tad­deo


Col­son White­head


Lori Got­tlieb

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