Out of the books reviewed this year on HottyToddy.com, book editor Allen Boyer revisits the 10 most memorable – five novels and five works of non-fiction.
“Ohio,” by Stephen Markley (Simon & Schuster, $27.00). A strong, late-in-the-day contender for the title of Great American Novel: a book as rawboned as “The Grapes of Wrath,” about a Midwest where young people become opioid junkies, nursing home aides, or combat veterans. In Markley’s first novel, he handles masterfully a dozen interlocking plot lines and a slowly unfolding murder mystery.
“The Reckoning,” by John Grisham (Doubleday, $29.95). There is nothing of the whodunit about Grisham’ latest novel, in which a Delta farmer shoots a Methodist minister, his friend and pastor, and then refuses to present a defense. As readers hunt for a motive which must be hidden in plain sight, a portrait emerges of small-town Mississippi life, in the years after the Second World War and the civil rights movement.
“Varina,” by Charles Frazier (Ecco, $27.99). This slim masterpiece of a Civil War novel is a broader, grander book than “Cold Mountain,” Frazier’s sprawling epic of a Civil War novel. It is the story of Varina Howell Davis: Natchez belle, plantation mistress, society hostess, New York World columnist, and First Lady of the Confederacy.
“Bearskin,” by James A. McLaughlin (Ecco, $26.99). In this taut thriller, crime comes up against the forces of the natural world – poachers and drug cartel gunmen against a Virginia forest preserve and its wary, dogged caretaker. This debut novel has a skeptical intelligence that recalls Raymond Chandler and the intensity of its landscapes rivals James Dickey.
“The Past Is Never,” by Tiffany Quay Tyson (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95). Centered on a haunted pool in the Delta town of White Forest, this is a story of a family trying to wake up from Mississippi history and break free of a familial curse. “Someday you may feel them watching you,” the author counsels, “those creatures crouched behind the trees … But I tell you they aren’t beasts or ghosts … Those eyes you feel watching you are the eyes of your family. They mean you no harm.”
“The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy,” by Paige Williams (Hachette Books, $28.00). Tupelo native Page Williams, who writes for The New Yorker, has produced a scintillating book on an offbeat topic, a heist story about the skeleton of a tyrannosaur and its dubious, eventful journey from Mongolia to New York City.
“Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi,” by Ellen B. Meacham (University Press of Mississippi, $28.00). In April 1967, Robert F. Kennedy spent a day driving through the Mississippi Delta. The trip began in Greenville, paused in Cleveland, and ended in Clarksdale – a journey of seventy-odd miles, charged with those ironies that make history. As well as haunting scenes of poverty, Ole Miss journalism professor Ellen Meacham gives a capsule history of RFK’s engagement with Mississippi.
“Runaways, Coffles and Fancy Girls: A History of Slavery in Tennessee,” by Bill Carey (Clearbook Press, $34.95). “Coffles” were columns of slaves, marching to market, chained together. “Fancy girls” were light-skinned, pretty young women, who might end up as planters’ mistresses, in New Orleans bordellos, or barmaids on riverboats. Using antebellum newspaper ads, Nashville historian Bill Carey gives a broad, fascinating look at slavery in Tennessee – and an intriguing, detailed group portrait of runaways, hundreds of people who bucked that system and struck out on their own.
“A Fierce Glory – Antietam: The Desperate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery,” by Justin Martin (Da Capo, $28.00). The story of the bloodiest single day in the American Civil War, in which the musketry was a ceaseless din, remembered as the sound of “rapid pouring of shot upon a tin pan, or the tearing of heavy canvas.” George B. McClellan and Robert E. Lee fought each other to a standstill, but Abraham Lincoln took the outcome for a Union victory
and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Portals,” by Glennray Tutor (Yoknapatawpha Press, $55.00). This handsome volume reproduces 236 paintings by Oxford artist Tutor, spanning the years from 1983 to the present – every painting a study in surface, reflection, theme and metaphor, captured in likenesses of landscape details, store windows, cars, still-life collections of toys, candies, marbles, and fireworks.
Courtesy of Allen Boyer