Book review: ‘Between, Georgia’ by Joshilyn Jackson

Oh, Joshilyn Jackson. How do you craft such intriguing, lovable characters? And create a menagerie of love and amusement out of such weird, dysfunctional people? And because I loved this book so much and the description itself is funny and awesome, here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Nonny Frett understands the meaning of the phrase “in between a rock and a hard place” better than any woman alive. She’s got two mothers, “one deaf-blind and the other four baby steps from flat crazy.” She’s got two men: a husband who’s easing out the back door; and a best friend, who’s laying siege to her heart in her front yard. And she has two families: the Fretts, who stole her and raised her right; and the Crabtrees, who won’t forget how they were done wrong.

Now, in Between, Georgia, a feud that began the night Nonny was born is escalating and threatening to expose family secrets. Ironically, it might be just what the town needs… if only Nonny weren’t stuck in between.

To say I raced through this book is an understatement. As I borrowed an audio version from the library (time crunch!), I found myself prolonging errands so I could spend just a little more time in Between. I loved that Jackson incorporated completely out-of-the-box characters like Stasia Frett, a blind and deaf woman who felt compelled to become Nonny’s mother when her biological mess of a teenage birth mother couldn’t care for her.

As Between is such a small town, the Fretts and Crabtrees no each other very well. Tthe Crabtrees might be hardscrabble poor and vicious, but that doesn’t mean they take kindly to their own flesh and blood being taken in by a holier-than-thou Frett.

Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why you mesh so well with a story, but I’ve quickly become enamored with Jackson and find myself savoring each and every one of her words like an expensive truffle. Though Nonny could be boneheaded at times, I thought she was a wonderful and caring person — a truly great daughter — and couldn’t help but laugh at the Frett sisters, all of whom were good-hearted but more than a little eccentric. Bernese was probably my favorite. Jackson always has at least one character that brings the zingers, making you laugh or cry at the most unexpected moments. That was definitely Bernese for me.

Entertaining and heartwarming by the close, I wanted to drive my own self down to share a glass of tea with the ladies of Between, Georgia. Nonny’s struggles with family — those who gave you life versus those with whom you make a life — will ring true for many. Fans of Southern fiction and Jackson’s exquisite storytelling will find plenty to love here, and I can’t wait to pick up her newest novel: A Grown-Up Kind Of Pretty.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446699454 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal audio book borrowed from my local library

My thoughts on the narration: As with Backseat Saints, my first experience with Jackson, Between, Georgia was narrated by the author herself. She has impeccable timing and a warm, pleasant voice. I thought her take on Henry, Nonny’s unlikely love interest, was a little exaggerated — he sounded like a Creole caricature, really — but loved everything else about her sweet Southern lilt. She’s awesome.

Book review: ‘gods in Alabama’ by Joshilyn Jackson

When Arlene Fleet fled small-town Possett, Alabama, she made a pact with God: in exchange for his help in keeping a murder quiet, she would stop sleeping around and telling lies — and flee, never returning to Possett again. Rebuilding a life in Chicago built around academia, Lena convinces herself that her torrid, unpleasant past is nothing but a memory. Life in Chicago is good. Life in Chicago is calm and quiet, void of the chaos that swept through her formative years.

But everything changes when high school classmate Rose Mae Lolley darkens her doorstep, asking too many questions Lena doesn’t want to answer. Her presence disrupts the carefully-created facade Lena has cultivated in Illinois and manages to throw her lawyer boyfriend on red alert, too. Burr is successful, handsome, supportive — and black. Deeply in love with her but frustrated by their stagnant relationship, Burr keeps asking to be introduced to her family. Lena can’t fathom bringing an African-American man to meet her conservative, religious Southern brethren, but forces conspire to draw her back to Possett for the first time in more than a decade. And it doesn’t seem like some remains can stay buried forever.

Joshilyn Jackson’s gods in Alabama is a sweeping, emotional and evocative story of love, redemption and family. If I was utterly absorbed in Rose Mae’s saga in Backseat Saints, a parallel piece to this one, then gods in Alabama totally blew me away.

What impresses me most about Jackson’s characters is their immediate way of burrowing into my heart. While I didn’t feel as though I knew Lena well in Backseat Saints, I knew enough of her past to feel somewhat wary of her at the start of this narrative. But her unique voice and humor definitely won out; like Rose Mae, I really felt for her. Wanting to protect and support Lena was effortless.

Being so swept up in Lena’s history with Jim Beverly, Rose’s high school love and star quarterback, I almost forgot to follow up on what was happening in the here and now. Burr was impossible not to love, being so patient and kind. You’d be hard-pressed to find a man willing to date such a damaged, skittish woman for years at a time . . . especially when their relationship could never progress beyond the passionate-kissing stage. When Lena promised God to stop sinning and “fornicating” with boys, she meant it. And after 10 years, she still means it . . . meaning Burr, already a sweetheart of a guy, had to have the patience of a saint.

As Lena makes her sojourn back to Alabama, I was on the defensive; Lena was fragile, I knew, and I didn’t want anyone criticizing her relationship with Burr. Furthermore, I was terrified of what her return to Possett would mean for the murder mystery that surrounded the story. But Lena’s obvious tie to Clarice, her cousin, was heartwarming; I loved how, despite many years and great distance between them, Lena was still so protective of Clarice. Their family history was heartbreaking and very telling of her Aunt Florence’s future actions. But despite her erratic and judgmental behavior, I couldn’t fault Aunt Flo for the things she did and didn’t do.

Having read Backseat Saints before gods in Alabama, I didn’t know what had become of Jim Beverly. When Rose leaves her abusive husband and goes on a search to uncover what happened with her first love, a man she once trusted more than anyone, I had no idea what had actually happened to him. The unraveling of Jim’s fate was riveting. Like its sequel, I listened to this one on audio — and more than once I found myself sitting in the work parking lot just to listen to a bit more before ending my lunch break. Errands became a welcome chance to reunite with Lena, Burr, Clarice and the family. And the story was anything but predictable.

If you’ve never read Jackson and love Southern fiction, especially when combined with mystery and family dynamics, I highly recommend both gods in Alabama and Backseat Saints. An infectious blend of love, intrigue, humor and tenderness, both novels bowled me over. They’re everything I love in storytelling: novels that make me chuckle, tear up, squirm, cringe, shift to the edge of my seat and back again. Don’t miss out.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446178160 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audiobook borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘Backseat Saints’ by Joshilyn Jackson

Ro Grandee has been running from her ghost of a past for years now — but not even her husband’s unforgiving hands can shed her of her old life. Rose Mae Lolley — the hardscrabble girl she was in Alabama — still simmers beneath Ro’s perfect housewife persona. Now settled in Texas with Thom, her brute of a husband, Ro tries to make peace with the unpleasant hand life has dealt her — and keep her abusive spouse as calm as possible.

When a gypsy catches Ro’s attention at a nearby airport, she begins to question the many choices leading to her violent small-town life. At the top of her list is the sudden flight of her mother, who left her in her father’s drunken hands when Rose was young. When she searches her heart, Rose can’t help but also think of her first love, Jim Beverly. Jim swore he’d always protect her, but he disappeared just when she needed him most. Now determined to save herself before Thom changes everything irrevocably, Rose hatches a plan that may finally give her peace — and room to seal the past forever.

Joshilyn Jackson’s Backseat Saints is an emotional, disturbing and incredibly well-written novel centering around one of the most unique characters I’ve ever encountered. Throughout this compelling novel, Rose is Ro Grandee, Rose Mae Lolley and Ivy Wheeler, filling out each woman completely and in a different way. Her many incarnations are fascinating, and Jackson did a remarkable job of crafting an unexpected, believable tale.

To start, it’s impossible to discuss Backseat Saints without delving into domestic violence. Rose — temperamental, damaged, beautiful Rose — is a battered woman. Thom is a terrible, frightening brute — a man I wanted to come to a violent end almost from the beginning. There were parts of this book that were almost impossible to get through. I listened to this one on audio over the course of a week and, though I was desperate to know what would happen, my stomach often ached with anxiety. If I’d been reading a physical copy, I’m sure I would have skipped large passages.

Despite its disturbing subject matter, Backseat Saints was utterly absorbing. Jackson based a multi-layered tale on a broken narrator I cared for deeply, choosing to trust her despite her bad decisions. Each unexpected plot twist brought us closer to understanding how Rose became Ro, and I spent most of the story waiting for her to finally break free of Thom’s terrible bonds. All I wanted was for her to taste sweet freedom. But I knew that freedom had a price.

I loved Jackson’s peripheral characters, too, especially the kindhearted old dear Mrs. Fancy. Parker was a nice parallel to the horrible force that was Thom, and even Jim Beverly had a certain appeal through Rose’s eyes. After finishing Backseat Saints, I learned this book is a companion novel to Gods In Alabama. The latter explores the history of a sidebar character and greatly explores the fate of Jim Beverly, a character that fascinated me in Backseat Saints. I’m glad I didn’t know what became of him as I was reading. Everything about this book was a total surprise to me.

Listening to Backseat Saints on audio was a pleasure. Jackson herself narrated this strong Southern fiction, and her lilting twang was both comforting and engaging. Rose was brought to life by Jackson’s pitch-perfect narration. She did a wonderful job of differentiating between characters, too — even if her male voices sounded a bit hokey. Having Jackson read her story aloud was like Rose climbing into the car with me, vowing to fill me in from the beginning.

Fans of Southern fiction, women’s fiction and family dynamics will find a unique, unforgettable tale in Backseat Saints. The role of Rose’s Catholic faith in her decision-making was fascinating, too, and I felt like I’d been on an epic journey with her by the close of the novel. I’ll be backtracking to read Gods In Alabama next, and I have a feeling I’ll love it just as much. Jackson has an enthusiastic new fan.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446582379 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Chick Lit Is Not Dead

Book review: ‘On Folly Beach’ by Karen White

Emmy Hamilton arrives in Folly Beach, South Carolina with a heavy heart. Her beloved husband, Ben, has been killed while fighting in Afghanistan; her mother, though compassionate, can barely stand for the grief of it all. Devastated at having to watch her own daughter lose someone so dear to her, Emmy’s mother encourages her to travel to the East Coast and purchase an old bookstore — Folly’s Finds — after purchasing boxes of old books on eBay.

Sifting through the novels, Emmy begins to feel a kinship to whomever owned the books before — especially after she begins finding handwritten notes in the margins, many of them with a loving or longing quality to the words. Since her mother has such fond memories of Folly’s Finds and Emmy is almost completely adrift, lost and without purpose, the idea of getting away — to another place, another time, a world about which Ben knows nothing — becomes . . . if not appealing, then not unappealing.

Life on Folly is a different animal. Emmy rents a cottage from Abigail Reynolds’ (no relation to the author!) son, Heath, a contractor with a past of his own. As Emmy adjusts to island time, meets the locals and is introduced to Lulu, Heath’s great-aunt, a tapestry of a story begins to unfurl.

Karen White’s On Folly Beach is, in fact, two stories skillfully told at once: Emmy, living in the present day and nursing her grief like a child; and Lulu, a woman who grew up during World War II and became quite adept at keeping secrets. Intertwined with Emmy’s portions of the novel in 2009 are stories from 1942, when Lulu was a child living with Maggie, her older sister, and Cat, their wild and recently widowed cousin. At 19, Cat was beautiful, seductive — and living dangerously, much to the anger of her cousins. All orphaned, the three girls lived on Folly Beach decades before Emmy arrived — but there may be more linking them than Emmy first realizes.

At this point in the game, White has proven to me that she’s a top-notch storyteller. I loved The House On Tradd Street and its sequel, The Girl On Legare Street, so to say I went into On Folly Beach with high expectations is accurate. And were they met? Absolutely.

Take several love stories, plenty of intrigue, a giant mystery, some supernatural qualities — then shake it all up, pour it out and take a long drink. White’s novel, set in the South, has a small-town charm with plenty of questions lurking just beneath the surface of the text — and that’s what I loved most about it. Like Tradd Street and Legare Street, Emmy possess an almost metaphysical ability to “know” things before they happen — or while they’re happening, as the case may be. The fact that White doesn’t make A Big Deal about this reminds me of Sarah Addison Allen’s novels, which I love, in that characters are just . . . sort of magical. I love the unexpected touches so much that I don’t question them.

And Maggie’s romance. I loved it. I was absolutely, totally swept up in it — which is how I felt through the majority of the novel. Caught up in an age where ordinary Americans blacked out their windows, fearing German attacks, and young women were trained to spot enemy aircraft approaching the shores. When rationing kept silk stockings and sugar off store shelves, and thousands of young men left home and never came back. A lover of history and historical fiction, it’s hard for me to imagine what life was like in 1942 — and that’s why I read books. So I can feel like, even in a tiny way, I might begin to understand.

The interplay between sisters and family reminded me of Elizabeth Berg’s Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, another novel I adored. Lovers of historical and contemporary fiction will be taken in by the secrets, mysteries and questions in this atmospheric drama. And having closed the final page, I can still hear the siren song of the Atlantic Ocean calling me.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451227999 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

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Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Book review: ‘Saving CeeCee Honeycutt’ by Beth Hoffman

For 12-year-old Cecelia Rose “CeeCee” Honeycutt, life has become a haze of keeping her head down and staying out of the way of cruel neighborhood kids. With her father nowhere in sight, CeeCee is left to plunge into the world of books to avoid the embarrassing antics of her mentally-ill mother, Camille, a former beauty queen who has sunk deep into psychosis. When Camille isn’t traipsing about town in tattered sashes and faded ball gowns, she’s nearly burning down their small kitchen with her attempts at cooking. And CeeCee doesn’t know what to do about it.

After an accident claims her mother’s life, CeeCee’s father briefly reappears to help sort things out — and part of that process is, in fact, to move his only daughter elsewhere. Tallulah Caldwell breezes into CeeCee’s life like a warm summer breeze, bringing with her the promise of a different life . . . of a better life. With barely any notice, CeeCee is swept up in her great aunt’s loving embrace and brought to Savannah, Georgia, where she will meet a great many new friends and maybe — finally — come to terms with her mother’s death . . . and, more importantly, her life.

Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, set in the 1960s,  is Southern fiction at its best — poignant, lush and enveloping like breakfast in a sunny nook. That’s pretty much how I felt while reading this story: wrapped up in a comfortable world with colorful characters willing to share their secrets with me. CeeCee is a bright, introspective young lady who absorbs everything she sees and desperately hopes she’ll find security in Savannah. That’s what she seems to crave, more than anything: friendship. Love. Support. Understanding. Things most of us probably take for granted — myself included — but which she has never experienced after caring for her ailing mother for so long.

Hoffman’s cast of characters — almost exclusively female — include the outspoken but charming Oletta Jones, Aunt Tootie’s housekeeper; eccentric next-door neighbor Thelma Rae Goodpepper; town hussy Violene Hobbs; and Gertrude Odell, CeeCee’s elderly neighbor and surrogate grandmother from Ohio. With the help of these women — all powerful in their own way — CeeCee will learn the value of unconditional love and friendship, and I couldn’t help but want the very best things for our girl.

A minor quibble of mine involves CeeCee’s ability to think philosophically and well beyond her years one moment, but still say something adolescent and sweetly oblivious the next. Maybe that’s the jaded cynic in me bursting forward, but I felt a little annoyed with CeeCee’s naiveté a few times in the story. CeeCee as a narrator seems much older than CeeCee the character, and that may have been part of my unease. Still, it wasn’t a major issue — and certainly didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the story.

Lovers of Southern fiction and coming-of-age tales will fall in love with CeeCee Honeycutt and the friends she makes in Georgia, and those of us with a sweet tooth will savor every recipe and dish Oletta lovingly prepares in Aunt Tootie’s kitchen. My stomach grumbled so loudly at the mention of Oletta’s famous cinnamon buns that I almost had to shove the book aside and make a bakery run. I can taste that sweet icing from here! Hoffman’s ability to make my stomach gurgle — and tug at those old heartstrings — is quite a feat. A heart-warming read I’ll be passing on to friends.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0670021393 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by the author. Thank you, Beth!

Book review: ‘The Girl On Legare Street’ by Karen White

Ghosts surround Melanie Middleton like cobwebs — present in the corners of every encounter, but typically just filling the background of her life, feather-soft and unintrusive. After almost 40 years of practice, she’d learned how to block out the voices only she can hear — until she inherited an historic home in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. And after solving a decades-old mystery on Tradd, her attention is called to a new location: Legare Street, site of her family’s ancestral home, sold when Melanie, now a Realtor, was young. The house is back on the market and though she’s promised a big sale, the listing comes with a price — a reconnection with her mother, Ginnette Priloeau Middleton, a famous opera singer who’s emerged on the scene after spending decades away from her only daughter with hardly a word.

As we learned in Karen White’s first novel following Melanie’s escapades, The House On Tradd Street, our narrator is a determined but very vulnerable woman — still susceptible to the pain of remembering her mother’s abandonment, which is never far from the surface of the narration. Ginnette, herself a psychic, has returned to Charleston with a warning for her daughter, and with one cryptic sentence — “We are not as we seem” — events are set in motion which will require Melanie to work with her mother to figure out what — or whom — is haunting the Legare home. Before things really get dangerous. Of course, the promise of a new mystery to unravel is enough to lure writer Jack Trenholm, Melanie’s obvious-to-everyone-but-her crush, back into the picture. And thus the trio sets out on trying to make sense of the ghosts haunting Legare — and Melanie must sift through her tangled feelings for both her mother and Jack in the process. And when a reporter arrives on the scene asking some hard questions, everyone has to come up with answers.

I can say unabashedly I enjoyed The Girl On Legare Street as much — if not more — than its predecessor, which I thought was funny, well-written, interesting and romantic. It’s been a long time since I felt the familiar zing! of well-written romantic tension, and White’s book has everything: family dynamics, love, friendship and mystery. Though Melanie’s grudge against her mother did become very tedious about halfway through the novel, I knew that she’d have to forgive her eventually — and eagerly waited for that scene when all would be revealed.

The mystery in this novel — centering around an old, sunken boat discovered off the coast of South Carolina — was, to me, much more intriguing than the family saga unfolding in The House On Tradd Street. Perhaps because this novel directly impacted Melanie, I felt more personally invested in what would be discovered, and felt more about what was happening. This one also spooked me far more than the first book! Though I’m admittedly skittish by nature, The Girl On Legare Street seemed to pack much more of a paranormal punch — but never to the point of gore or violence.

All family secrets were revealed gradually — too gradually, some might argue. And I can certainly see the validity of criticism that the novel moved too slowly, left us without new information for too long, forcing readers to try and fit the myriad of random puzzle pieces White gave us into some semblance of order. And that was a little frustrating. But I guess the difference for me came with the fact that I loved Melanie and Ginnette and was totally intrigued by their muddled relationship, and I didn’t mind that we spent long stretches in the present without historical details to help us solve with the mystery. I knew all would be revealed in time, and I was content to run along for the ride.

Fans of Southern fiction will find much to love in the lush, charismatic South Carolina setting, and those who get a kick out of paranormal fiction will appreciate the ghost stories and family secrets binding the book together. The push-and-pull tension between Jack and Melanie will please romance fans — like yours truly — and I am happy that plot moved forward a bit with this book. And an unexpected ending leaves me wondering whether or not we’ll see another adventure from White yet. Would I return again to her world where nothing is as it seems? You bet, y’all!

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451227999 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

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Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours