Archive | Adult Fiction

Overcoming Oppression and Abuse through Love: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

FEBRUARY 2015 UPDATE: I’ve been telling people since last spring about Ruby. This week, Oprah Winfrey announced that Cynthia Bond’s debut novel is her fourth pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. I’m delighted that Ruby will gain so many new eyeballs and spark so many water cooler conversations, difficult as those conversations may be.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

I have been trying to write about Ruby by Cynthia Bond for weeks now without any luck. You see, I want everyone to read this book. I think it is one of the most moving and well-crafted novels I’ve read in a very long time. However, I also feel like I have to offer some kind of disclaimer. One that reads: “This book will upend you.”

I first heard about Ruby from an indie bookseller who was halfway through an advanced reader copy and said it was blowing him away. Thank goodness for indie booksellers. One only has to read the first few sentences of Ruby to understand what my bookseller friend was referencing. Bond’s writing is arresting:

Ruby Bell was a constant reminder of what could befall a woman whose shoe heels were too high. The people of Liberty Township wove her into cautionary tales of the wages of sin and travel. They called her buck-crazy. Howling, half-naked mad. The fact that she had come back from New York City made this somewhat understandable to the town.

In 1963, just two days after the March on Washington, the book’s eponymous protagonist reappears in Liberty Township, Texas. Ruby had been living in New York City with no plans to return to her all-black hometown, but news of a close family member’s death summons her. In Liberty, Ruby confronts the evils inherent in being a mulatto girl raised in a patriarchal small town where doctrine and social class mask a deep well of hatred. Ruby becomes a vessel for all that is ugly in the world, driving her to madness. Only one man in Liberty, Ephram Jennings, remembers the girl from their shared childhood and sees a human being worth salvaging.

I’ve sampled online reviews to see how others have described the book. Gina Webb, book reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, calls Ruby “Bond’s harrowing and powerful debut” when listing it among her handpicked southern titles for the summer. Still other critics are comparing Cynthia Bond to Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.

Ruby does remind me of an old African-American saying that appears in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s protagonist, Janie Crawford says…

“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

Cynthia Bond, author of Ruby

Cynthia Bond, author of Ruby

From birth, Ruby is an object of oppression and abuse. Bond reveals in explicit detail the horrific things that Ruby has experienced. As a reader, you yearn to uncover the root of the town’s problems, of which Ruby has become an emblem. However, the descriptions of physical violence and sexual exploitation of women and children–while necessary to tell the tale–are often hard to endure.

In this interview, Cynthia Bond says that Ruby is “a love story of the heart.” The love story and the fresh prose will deliver you through some of the tougher scenes. Since finishing the book at the end of April, I’ve returned to it many times, to re-read the sentences and passages that I have highlighted, a sea of pastel yellow in my e-reader. To learn more about Cynthia Bond and her debut novel Ruby, visit her website at cynthiabond.com.

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April She Reads Book Club Selection: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle ZevinLess than two weeks of the spring semester remain for me, which is why I haven’t been writing much here at Southern Spines. I have one large research paper and a big essay-only final both happening next week, so I’m trying to sequester myself from social media and the Interwebs as much as possible. It’s a shame because I have so much great content to share with you!

Before I cloak myself in virtual obscurity, I must tell you about the April She Reads Book Club selection, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. I have to read a lot of books–for work, for school, for the Southern Spines blog. Books litter my office; you’ll find them on shelves, in boxes and in plastic bins on the floor. My iPad overflows with ebooks and audiobooks that await my attention. Hardbacks from two different libraries fill my backpack.

Reading on deadline can suck just a smidgeon of fun from the act of reading. The phrase “Required Reading” sounds more like a punishment than a privilege. But reading The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry brought me nothing but pleasure. I loved everything about this book.

The main character, A. J. Fikry, is the owner of Island Books, a widower and an unapologetic book snob. A. J. starts shutting down and drinking too much after his wife’s death, but chance forces him to reconnect with life and the people in his community. As a reader, you will become so engrossed in the stories of the people of Alice Island, you will forget that a mystery lies at the center of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. When someone leaves a strange basket at the bookstore, A. J. enlists the help of the town’s police chief to investigate the circumstances behind the abandoned package.

Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Gabrielle Zevin, author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Gabrielle Zevin plays to an audience of zealous book lovers. She precedes each section of the book with the equivalent of a “Staff Recommendation” from A. J. and sprinkles literary allusions throughout the pages. We learn much of what we know about A. J., the chief, and the other characters by what they read. Because, as the book says, “You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question: ‘What is your favorite book?’” 

To learn more about Gabrielle Zevin, visit the author’s website at gabriellezevin.com. To read what my fellow She Reads bloggers are saying about The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, check out this post on the She Reads website.

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Exploring Invisible Evils and Real-Life Heroines: Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings

Tomorrow morning on her Super Soul Sunday show, Oprah Winfrey will interview author Sue Monk Kidd. In December, Winfrey chose Kidd’s most recent novel, The Invention of Wingsas her Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick. The book has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list since its release in January. The following video is a preview of tomorrow’s show.

I received my own sneak peek this month when Sue Monk Kidd spoke before a group in Atlanta. She read from and signed copies of The Invention of Wings. What did I learn from her speech?

Kidd went to college and became a nurse. Eight years after graduation, Kidd pursued her lifelong desire to write for a living.

Kidd said one of her “weird idiosyncrasies” is that she must have a title before she can start writing a book. Before writing The Invention of WingsKidd completed six months of research and began writing down titles. She took a walk on the beach where she picked up an angel wing seashell. The shell prompted her to think of slaves in the 19th century as having their wings clipped. From this find on the beach, Kidd had her title–The Invention of Wingsand later her first few sentences:

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk KiddThe “when” is November 1803. The “here” is Charleston, South Carolina. And the narrator is Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a ten-year-old slave. The story alternates between the first-person narration of Handful and her mistress, Sarah Grimke. Sarah is just a year older than Handful and receives the waiting maid as an eleventh birthday present. Sarah does not think it is right to own another person and aspires to be the first lawyer in the United States, so she copies a manumission document from one of her father’s law books. This first act of rebellion begins Sarah and Handful’s friendship and sets them both on a turbulent course of resistance.

I did not know that The Invention of Wings was historical fiction based on the lives of Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, before I read my advance copy at the end of last year. As much as I savored Kidd’s prose and wanted to believe that a privileged white girl in the antebellum south would befriend a slave, I was deeply conflicted about such an impossible story. When I read the author’s note at the end of the book, I learned that Sarah Grimke did receive a slave for her eleventh birthday and later devoted her life to the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. While Handful lived only in the imagination of Sue Monk Kidd, many of the other characters and events in The Invention of Wings are based on real happenings in the 45 years that the book covers.

In her speech, Kidd said that writing the book meant delving into the parts of history that we flinch from. She said that she considers slavery the “ground zero of American racism” and believes that we, as citizens and human beings, must “go into the wound” of America’s slave-owning past before we can effectively deal with the racism that still exists today. When writing The Invention of Wings, Kidd says she was most interested in asking, “How does evil gather when nobody’s looking?” and “What is it in a human being that allows these invisible evils to go unnoticed?” Her fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’s life explores the circumstances that led Sarah to notice and challenge the otherwise invisible evils of slavery and women’s oppression. Oprah Winfrey was right when she said, “It is impossible to read this book and not come away thinking differently about our status as women and about all the unsung heroines who played a role in getting us to where we are.” I look forward to her conversation with Sue Monk Kidd tomorrow on OWN.

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My Beach Binge-Read: Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Many of my friends with kids are on spring break this week, which has made me nostalgic for the week I spent at the beach  during my spring break from grad school in March. I’ve included a few photos from our trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast below.

Night Film by Marisha PesslPacking for a week at the beach is complicated, but not because of clothes. Please, I just throw a bunch of t-shirts, swimsuits and flip flops in a bag. But it takes much more thought to pack my trusty straw grass tote with just the right books for a week of reading under a beach umbrella. Yes, I did include a couple of school books and six months’ worth of neglected issues of Writer’s Digest. I finished up Lost Lakewhich was the March She Reads Book Club selection. Still, the book I couldn’t wait to read–that I’d been coveting for almost a year but couldn’t fit it into my list of “required reading”–was Night Film by Marisha Pessl.

Opening Night Film on my iPad e-reader and slipping into the story of this psychological thriller felt like a great indulgence. I couldn’t stop reading the book and completely escaped into its many layers. In one world, the reader follows disgraced journalist Scott McGrath and his young apprentices (reminiscent of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo) as they search for answers to the mysterious death of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of a cult horror film director who has eluded McGrath for years. The other, much darker world is that of the director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years.

To borrow some jargon from my still-neglected copies of Writer’s Digest, Pessl does an amazing job with her “world-building.” At times while reading Night Film, you feel like you are reading nonfiction because Pessl has devoted so much time to the underground world of Cordova’s horror films and the behind-the-scenes stories of the actors and select few who have orbited the reclusive director. She expounds on the narrative by using fictionalized newspaper articles, photos and transcribed interviews. Pessl even wrote and directed this trailer for Night Film:

As a reader, you feel like you are experiencing life on three parallel planes: your reality that exists outside of Night Film, the “real” world according to the journalist McGrath who is pursuing the story that will either redeem him or ruin him, and the mystical world of the director Cordova who experiences so many horrors in his real life that you can’t differentiate between his life and his films. All of these intricate planes converge and create an atmosphere of unknowing that compels you to read quickly through the more than 600 pages of text.

If you want to geek out even more, you can download a free Night Film decoder app from the author’s website at marishapessl.com. Using the app, readers can scan select images in the novel to unlock exclusive multimedia content. As I mentioned, I was reading the e-book, so I didn’t take time to explore the multimedia content. I didn’t want to abandon the story but can understand why you would crave more information. I found myself wanting to view some of the films that Pessl described, even though I’m not a fan of horror films and oh, by the way, these films don’t exist!

You can pre-order the paperback edition of Night Film here; the paperback releases on July 1, just in time for your summer beach vacation. This is not a light and fluffy Scooby Doo mystery or typical “beach read,” but people who love smart, haunting thrillers will enjoy the dark Night Film.

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March 2014 She Reads Book Club Selection: Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

A postcard that inspired Sarah Addison Allen's writing of Lost Lake

A postcard that inspired Sarah Addison Allen’s writing of Lost Lake

I love this vintage postcard from the “California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles, California.” This unusual memento–from an alligator amusement park that was popular in Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century–partly inspired the setting of Sarah Addison Allen’s latest novel, Lost Lake.

Lost Lake, the fictional place as well as the book, blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Grief and loss have hollowed out all of Allen’s characters–all of them misfits–when we meet first meet them. The owner of Lost Lake, Eby, has finally decided to sell the waning property, an inciting incident that brings the misfits together at this mystical place where dead chefs still occupy a seat at the kitchen table and alligators befriend little girls.

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison AllenA great choice for the March 2014 She Reads Book Club, my copy of Lost Lake will stay behind at the beach condo where I’m vacationing this week. I’m sure a future guest will enjoy this escapist novel.

To learn more about Lost Lake and author Sarah Addison Allen, visit her website at sarahaddisonallen.com. As with all She Reads Book Club selections, the author will be posting her insights about the book and her writing life all month long at SheReads.org.

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Blood Ties That Bind: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

The Weight of Blood by Laura McHughThe marketing description for The Weight of Blood promises “a gripping, suspenseful novel” for fans of Daniel Woodrell and Gillian Flynn. Winter’s Bone may be one of my favorite contemporary novels; the makers of the film adaptation pulled heavily from Woodrell’s dialogue in the book, which may explain why the movie was so successful. A then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence had the perfect vehicle for her first trip down Oscars’ red carpet. Gillian Flynn could make a psychopath blush with her first-person accounts of a dysfunctional marriage turned murder mystery. Her bestselling novel, Gone Girl, remains one of the books that everyone likes to discuss, and its David Fincher-directed movie treatment comes out in October.

Thus, we arrive at The Weight of Blood with huge expectations for a debut novel. As in Winter’s Bone, the protagonist is a teenage girl living in the Ozark Mountains who has been forced to take on responsibility well beyond her seventeen years. Lucy Dane still struggles with the fact that her mother disappeared shortly after her birth and is often home alone because her father works out-of-town construction jobs.

The small community of Henbane (the town shares its name with a poisonous member of the nightshade family) keeps a protective eye on Lucy. They circle even closer when the dismembered body of Lucy’s childhood friend is discovered in a fallen tree on the riverbank. As McHugh writes, missing persons are not uncommon in the Ozarks, but found and mutilated girls are cause for conjecture and concern. Feeling guilty that she didn’t try harder to find Cheri when she was missing, Lucy decides to launch her own informal investigation into her friend’s horrible death.

Other narrators take turns revealing what they know about Cheri’s murder and the earlier disappearance of Lucy’s mother. The weight of blood refers to bloodshed; the novel is necessarily violent and raw. But the title also alludes to blood relations, and the burden Lucy bears of being born a Dane. Do you pursue the truth when you know there’s a 95% chance the answers to your questions will hurt you and destroy your family?

Laura McHugh, author of The Weight of BloodThe Weight of Blood is a compulsively readable mystery, worthy of its comparisons to Woodrell and Flynn. To learn more about Laura McHugh and The Weight of Blood, visit the author’s website at weightofblood.com. You can also follow @LauraSMcHugh on Twitter.

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Author Interview and Signed Book Giveaway: The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg Gilmore

The Funeral Dress by Susan Gregg GilmoreOn its face, the story that Susan Gregg Gilmore tells in The Funeral Dress is a simple one: a young mother volunteers to sew the memorial dress for one of her co-workers who has died in a car accident. But readers discover that in this simple act, Emmalee Bullard is simultaneously claiming the only mother she has ever known and the child she didn’t know she wanted. The author also takes us back in time so that we get to know Leona, the woman who died in the accident, and the community that has formed around the Tennewa Shirt Factory, where Emmalee and Leona worked.

I wanted to read The Funeral Dress initially because the novel is based on an actual shirt factory in Dunlap, Tennessee, an area just outside of my hometown of Chattanooga. Susan Gregg Gilmore still lives in Chattanooga. We swapped a few war stories once we discovered that she was working for the local newspaper at the same time that I was working at the local TV station back in the 90s. But Emmalee and Leona’s story transcends the setting. Susan was kind enough to answer some of my questions about The Funeral Dressand I’ve got a signed copy of the book up for grabs, so keep reading.

SS: In The Funeral Dress, you explore some big issues, chief among them I would say are death and what constitutes a family. What did writing the book teach you about death and dying? And what constitutes a family for you? Did writing the book crystallize your beliefs or change any of your opinions?

Susan Gregg Gilmore, author of The Funeral Dress

Susan Gregg Gilmore. Photo credit: Annaliese Araw.

SGG: I’m the granddaughter of a preacher, the daughter-in-law of a preacher, and the daughter of a deacon and Sunday School teacher, all of whom appreciated a good, well-done funeral.  There is a protocol, an etiquette to burying our loved ones that I embrace — it’s a comforting ritual to a life well- and long-lived.

Writing this book allowed me to put a lot of my feelings and philosophies about death and dying on paper – the most important of which is that even a passing in many ways is about community.

Family, for me, is simply defined — two or more people who are wiling to comfort and forgive and respect one another.  In other words, love one another, truly love one another.

SS: I have so much respect for historical fiction writers who carefully walk this tightrope of fact and fiction. How did your background as a journalist help you research and write The Funeral Dress, a novel based upon a real shirt factory in Tennessee? How did it hinder you?

SGG: Not only am I a former journalist but both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are in history.  So I’ve always loved to research a good story.  And I think understanding the patience that good research requires definitely was an advantage as well as fairly strong interviewing skills.  But I don’t think it ever hindered my writing, thank goodness!

SS: How have the people that you interviewed for the book responded to the finished book?

The Sequatchie County Tennessee Friends of the Library pose with Susan Gregg Gilmore (wearing yellow blouse) in front of a hearse.

The Sequatchie County Tennessee Friends of the Library pose with Susan Gregg Gilmore (wearing yellow blouse) in front of a hearse at the Spartan Factory reunion. Photo courtesy of: Sequatchie County Library

SGG: The outpouring from the people in Dunlap has been overwhelming. Shortly after the book was released, a celebration was held in the old shirt factory. A small committee of determined women from the Sequatchie County Library recreated the setting of the original Spartan factories. Sewing machines, pressing machines, patterns, spools of thread, fabrics, buttons, and so much more was hauled back into the factory building which is currently the practice venue for the local roller derby team. But that day was not about me.  It was about the women and men who once worked there. More than 300 former employees attended. And watching frail women finger a machine or hold a pattern in their hands was so moving, so incredibly moving.

SS: Writers often lose a lot of material in the editing process. What was the character, story or other element of the novel that you HATED to part with in the editing process?

SGG: In the final editing process, not anything that comes to mind. But with that said, I must say that after I had written 100+ pages, a year’s worth of work, I threw it all away and started over. The only remaining part was the initial death scene. And Leona, who was only a very minor mention in the first draft, turned out to be the only character who made it into the final manuscript — and she was a very important one at that.

If you’re in the Atlanta area on Monday, February 10, Susan will be visiting Book Exchange Marietta at 6:00 p.m. If you would like to win a signed copy of The Funeral Dress, please follow the contest rules below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Two for Tuesday: New Releases from Ariel Lawhon and Wiley Cash

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel LawhonAs we brace ourselves for the epic, two-inch blizzard that’s predicted for Atlanta, I find myself wishing I could declare a snow day, stay in my pajamas and continue reading my copy of Ariel Lawhon’s The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress. This new book is juicy, historical fiction inspired by the 1930 disappearance of a New York judge as told from the perspectives of–you guessed it–the wife, the maid and the mistress.

Kearsley and Friends at FoxTale

Pictured L-R: Karen White, Susanna Kearsley, Kimberly Brock and Ariel Lawhon. Photo courtesy: FoxTale

I got my signed copy of The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress last week when Ariel visited FoxTale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA. She moderated a panel that included authors Karen White, Susanna Kearsley and Kimberly Brock. FoxTale still has a number of signed first editions of The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress. Give them a call and they’ll mail you a copy, while supplies last. If you’re in the Nashville area on Thursday, Ariel will be celebrating the publication of The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress with her hometown crowd at Parnassus Books. To view more tour dates and learn more about Ariel Lawhon, visit her author website, ariellawhon.com and follow @ariellawhon on Twitter.

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Another book that releases today is This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash. This is the follow-up to Cash’s critically-acclaimed debut novel, A Land More Kind than Home.

After winning an advanced reader copy of This Dark Road to Mercy, I swallowed this story down in three great gulps. I lent it to my husband because he likes suspense, and this book has plenty of it. It also has baseball, which is always a plus for my sports-obsessed spouse. One of the main characters is a washed-up minor league pitcher and the story takes place in the same year that major league baseball players Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are chasing the home run record.

Watch the official book trailer for This Dark Road to Mercy below. Learn more about author Wiley Cash at wileycash.com and follow @wileycash on Twitter.

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January 2014 She Reads Book Club Selection: Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge

I’ve been a proud member of the She Reads Blog Network for more than a year, but in the past few months, I’ve also been wearing my publicist hat for this incredible online community devoted to sharing the very best in contemporary women’s fiction. That means that in addition to reading the next great title that She Reads founders Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon have selected, I get to spread the word about a truly worthy book and writer.

One way that I do that is by issuing a press release on behalf of She Reads. If you click on the image below, you’ll be redirected to a web page with this month’s press release, which announces the January 2014 She Reads Book Club selection, Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge.

Gallery Books published Love Water Memory last spring, but the paperback version of the book comes out next Tuesday, January 14. I devoured this novel about a woman who loses her memory and is forced to rediscover who she is–and what caused her to forget everything–with the help of a fiancé who is now just a stranger to her. To learn more about the book and the She Reads Book Club, read the press release.

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Remembering the Great Flood: The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

It’s not often that you spend New Year’s Eve discussing the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Yet that’s what I found myself doing on December 31, 2013, while seated around a firepit with friends new and old, sipping sparkling wine. Guests at an intimate outdoor gathering, my husband and I chatted with others about football, home brewing and politics–not necessarily in that order. One of the guests, a native New Orleanian, asked if I’d read John Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. The book had made a great impression upon him because it details the flood’s influence on the southern and U.S. political landscape.

Feeling pleased with myself, I said that I was familiar with Rising Tide, but not because I know anything about politics. I first learned of Barry’s book and the Great Flood because of zombies and one of the trickiest acts of diplomacy to take place in the Mississippi Delta–a husband and wife writing a novel together. To explain, I have to revisit another night in 2013.

Tom Franklin Beth Ann Fennelly

Co-authors and spouses Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly talking about their novel, The Tilted World, at the Georgia Center for the Book on October 9, 2013.

On October 9, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly visited the Georgia Center for the Book to talk about their novel, The Tilted World. Novelist Franklin and poet Fennelly are creative writing instructors at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. They’re also husband and wife. The Tilted World began as an assignment that Franklin gave one of his creative writing classes and himself: write an original short story about zombies. That kernel and a series of events led to Fennelly getting involved in rewriting the zombie story into a tale set in the time of the Great Flood. Exit zombies. Enter moonshiners.

The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann FennellyWhen asked how they collaborated on the novel, Fennelly said that she and Franklin sat laptop to laptop in the same office, reading aloud to each other and swapping ideas. She equated the experience to dueling pianists performing on stage together night after night. The idea of spouses working together in close proximity under a looming deadline seems precarious, but Fennelly said it was a wonderful experience. She and Franklin met on the first day of their MFA program in Arkansas, and have been each other’s first manuscript readers ever since. Besides, as Franklin humbly said more than once, “Beth Ann did most of the research and writing. That’s why it’s a great book.”

A cornerstone of that research was Rising Tide by John Barry, which Franklin and Fennelly duly acknowledged during their talk in October. You’ll also find Barry in the Acknowledgements of The Tilted World. Another fictionalized account of the Great Flood published last year was William Cheng’s Southern Cross the DogI  recommend any of these three books to people who are interested in Mississippi’s Great Flood of 1927 or just great writing.

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