Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween from TRR

Happy Halloween from The Rainbow Reader

Those of you that are regular visitors to The Rainbow Reader know that I usually start out each book review with a short essay that somehow, at least in my humble opinion, relates to a theme, plot point, or cavernous leap-of-faith residing deep within the story.  I've talked about beady little eyes influencing my faith, bearded women, the base-4 notational system, and life in a small town.  

I've raved about a few books, and had to find a way to politely say that few others didn't really do it for me.  

I had the good sense to ask a few special guests to write reviews, and the better fortune that many of them accepted. 

I was honored to be asked to write pre-release reviews for Carol Anshaw, John Irving, and our very own Susan X. Meagher. 

I even got to unveil TRR's inaugural Very Best Awards in December of 2011.

But one moment stands out for me as truly the very best, and that happened on Halloween.

Let me slow down and explain a little of the backstory first...context is everything.

You see, for quite a while now, authors and publishers have been contacting me about reading and reviewing their books.  I try hard to accommodate everyone, and keep a running list of stories to review. On occasion, just as I'm about to do a review, the author or publisher will contact me and ask that I hold off on my review for one reason or another.  In that case, I almost always go to the next book on the list.  However, sometimes, if someone has just slipped a new book into my hands, I work it into the open slot.

That's where this whole story started...

It was October 25th, and I got an email from Casey at Bedazzled Ink.  After a few lovely compliments, she got down to business, as she is wont to do—she had two books that had just come out, and she wanted to know if I could review them.  I told her that wasn't a problem, and mentioned that I might just be able to slide one of them into the slot for the coming week, since I had a pending cancellation.  

She jumped on that little opportunity like a vegan on a lavendar cake...

By nightfall I had the book on my beloved Kindle, and even though I didn't know it at the time, I started to read the story that would change my life. 

It began like this:

"By faith the walls of Jericho fell down..."
                       — Hebrews 11:30

Many of you know the book I'm talking about, but for those of you who don't, it was Jericho by Ann McMan.  While the book had a handful of technical and editorial flaws, I couldn't deny the fact that there was something special about it—I knew the town, I knew the people, and I knew the love story.  Somehow it resonated deep within me, and it made me feel like someone had slipped a ruby into my pocket.

It was a pretty amazing experience, especially given that I'd never heard of this Ann McMan before.  

Still, I had a review to write, and I did my best to give it the review it deserved—that little ditty debuted on this site on All Hallows' Eve, a year ago today.

Quite often, authors contact me after a review to say "thanks," or to challenge something I said—that's part of the process.  Still, it would be over a month before I heard anything from Ann McMan, and that was only because I awarded her the TRR trophy for "Sexiest use of jagged verbal jousting and intellectual tête-à-tête in a mountaintop romance," and I happened to see my name scroll by in the left hand column as I logged onto Facebook—and you just know I had to say something about it.

The rest, as they say, is herstory...

I can't say I was ever a believer in love at first sight, and I sure as heck didn't believe in the concept of "soul mates."  But, when I really and truly met Ann McMan, it was all over for me.  We were legally married in North Hero, Vermont in April of 2012.  

Make no mistake, it was the best thing I EVER did.

So, this post commemorates the book and the review that changed everything.  

The only truly sucky thing to come of this is that I can't review Ann's books anymore.  

Thanks for stopping by and sharing this special moment with me.

Salem West
October 31, 2012
Winston-Salem, NC

Monday, October 1, 2012

Almost Heaven by Susan X. Meagher

Book:  Almost Heaven
Author:  Susan X. Meagher
Publisher:  Brisk Press

Any given Sunday.
I was raised in a small, non-descript town that was more southern than it was northern.  While my ancestors were all Moravians, my siblings and I were raised in a non-denominational protestant church because my grandmother, who was from a different small, non-descript town in another state, had never heard of the Moravians. 

For the record, the Moravian Church puts an enormous emphasis on basic religious principles in the form of faith and practice—for more than 500 years, the only stated requirement for entrance into Heaven is show up with a covered dish.

But I digress.

As a kid, I would always sit in the back row of the church, a four-seater pew, with my grandmother, and with Florence and Stuart Woods. Without fail, another little old lady named Mary Magdalene would sit directly in front of us.  Mary was what you’d call “an eclectic.”  She was born in my hometown, but married a rich man and moved to the city.  When her husband passed away in 1966, she retired and moved back home.  Mary’s last name was Krichbaum—and she was loaded.

Mmmm, herbicide
Of course, back then and in that place, the definition of “loaded” was that your car had four matching hubcaps, and your drinking water didn’t taste like Atrazine.

In all seriousness, Mary loved the finer things in life—from her late model Cadillac, to her silver tea service and her Italian leather, little-old-lady pumps. Of course, often “the finer things” included her fox stole.  And what made Mary’s fox stole memorable was that it had about 18 beady little eyes that stared right at me throughout some of the holiest moments of my life. 

Still, Mary was a character, and wasn’t like any other woman in my hometown.  Mary had plenty of opinions about plenty of things, and she wasn’t afraid to state any one of them out loud.  I distinctly remember one blustery, winter morning as we all filed out onto the front steps after yet another sermon on Agape love, Mary proclaimed in her gravelly smoker’s voice that what we all needed was “a little Southern Comfort.”

Even as an 8-year old in a dry county, I somehow knew she wasn’t talking about warmer temperatures.…

Not Mary Magdalene's fox stole.
No, Mary Magdalene’s wealth and outspoken personality set her apart from everyone else in town, but she fit in just fine because no matter how long she had been away from it, she was of it.  Yet, had someone come into town to help feed and clothe those who barely made ends meet or tried to make the community a better place, they would have been summarily shunned because they were considered an “outsider.” 

It’s part of the logically illogical hierarchy of prejudice in small communities that’s a bit like dinosaur mentality—only with more staying power.   

Susan X. Meagher’s latest offering, Almost Heaven, takes on life in a small, insular community and shows that as much as things change, they stay the same.  Cody Keaton hails from the mountain grotto of Ramp, West Virginia.  She’s from a long line of mountain people, and isn’t used to taking more than she needs or needing more than she has.  A chance good deed—trying to return a lost one-dollar bill—leads her to an unexpected and surprisingly unwanted mega lottery win.  Cody is a smart woman, and even though she doesn’t know how banks work, she knows she needs to protect all that money. 

Enter one Maddie Osborne, the up-and-coming Branch Manager of Appalachian States Bank.  Maddie quickly realizes that Cody doesn’t know the first thing about money or financial management, and works hard to gain her trust and offer ideas to help keep Cody protected.  But, Cody wants to help her large, extended family have the things they need—like food, medicine, guns, and clothes.  But the more she gives, the more they expect. 

Maddie has never had much place in her life for the great outdoors, but as her friendship with Cody deepens, she finds herself appreciating things like fishing and hiking—especially fishing and hiking with Cody Keaton.  Before long, their relationship becomes physical. And even though Maddie can’t wait until she gets a new job in a civilized city like New York or San Francisco, she finds herself falling in love with Cody.  But, one thing Cody is very good at is not allowing herself to dream of things she can’t have, and she knows absolutely that Maddie will leave when the first civilized offer comes in…people like Maddie want more than the hillbillies in Ramp can offer.

Despite their glaring differences, Maddie and Cody are good together.  But, can Maddie walk away from her lifelong dream of the Big City and be happy on a mountainside? And can Cody give up the independence and solitude that has shaped her Spartan life, and share everything with Maddie?

In so many ways, Almost Heaven is a textbook example of a Susan X. Meagher novel—the premise is unique and interesting. The storytelling is patient and fully developed. And the characters have a distinct visual and literary appeal. 

Beyond the expected however, is a wealth of riches that bring this story to life. 

Among them, the research into the cultural, historic, and scenic aspects of West Virginia, and Ramp in particular, is stellar and lends an air of authenticity to the lives of the women and men who populate this story. And the depiction of life in a small and poor, rural community is spot-on—at times majestic, and at times painfully dispirited.

Ms. Meagher skillfully draws two strong and independent protagonists, with seemingly little in common, other than a bunch of dead presidents. However, their relationship manages to be both instant and slow to develop—and the real depth comes as each learns through the other how to step outside of their safe familiar. Additionally, the author takes great pains to detail the deep and wide roots of Cody’s family tree, which in turn, lends credence to Cody’s on-going struggle to choose between blood and good sense. 

One aspect of the story that I found to be amazingly authentic is Cody’s experience of coming out to her hillbilly family.  In this instance, none of them were thrilled—but none of them were surprised either. Outside of a few mentions that she could find a good man—and being quoted a few things that people want in the Bible but that aren’t really there—her family “accepted” it, and went on with their lives. 

This is a classic example of the logically illogical hierarchy of prejudice in small communities that is so hard to explain to people who have never had to consider the list of alternative uses for Sears catalogs or corncobs.

 I’ll admit that I always love to get my hands around a new Susan X. Meagher novel, and Almost Heaven didn’t disappoint.  While some readers might not cotton to the more rural tone and setting of this story, I absolutely loved the rustic setting, the characters, and the sensibilities that I recognized from my youth—and the message that, sometimes, less really is more. 

Cody Keaton’s life changed forever when she won the lottery, but the most valuable things the money had to offer were all those things the money couldn’t buy.  It was a sober reminder for me to stop and appreciate the most important things in my life.  For a solid book that entertained me for hours, I’m giving Almost Heaven a 5.0 on the Rainbow Scale.  Because it made me hug the stuffing out of my wife and my pets, it get’s another 0.1. 

That’s a solid 5.1 for Almost Heaven.