Book Review: “The Cicada Tree” by Robert Gwaltney

The Cicada Tree by Robert Gwaltney

MOONSHINE COVE PUBLISHING, FEBRUARY 22, 2022

Robert Gwaltney’s The Cicada Tree takes place in mid-century, rural South Georgia. A place where racial segregation and social class division serve as a background to a fascinating story about a local wealthy family and the secrets they harbor. And I’m not talking about typical “skeletons in the closet” secrets that all families have, especially in the South. I’m talking about secrets that, if told, could alter lives, towns, perhaps even the course of history. 

The story begins with two young girls, one White and one Black–both third-graders and best friends, collecting “bushels” of cicada husks in their back yard. Analise is the precocious daughter of Claxton, the town drunk, and Grace Newell, a woman “gifted” with forbidden talents. Etta Mae is an orphaned girl living with her grandmother, Miss Wessie, who is the live-in made for the Claxtons. Both girls have extraordinary natural talents for music. Analise, a seeming magnet for trouble, also has a flair for mischief with level-headed and sweet Etta Mae serving as her conscious. 

The 13-year, generational cicadas are a constant presence and din throughout the story. A biblical pestilence that seems to presage a greater storm on the horizon. One that eventually will break over the town of Providence, Georgia, laying bare the troubled secrets of the Mayfield family. 

“They done come back you know?” He cupped his hand to his disfigured ear. “Can’t you hear them? Them ole locusts…they got secrets they keep. Things they know and keep buried deep down in the ground with them–until they have the mind to come back. To sing out what they know…mind your secrets,” Halbert said. “Keep ’em close.”

The Mayfields, Kingston and Cordelia, are wealthy socialites and owners of the Mayfield Pickle Company, the only major employer in town. Along with their daughter, Marlissa—also a third-grader, the family shares a mysterious attractiveness known as that “Mayfield shine.” A bizarre charm and allure that goes far beyond their impeccable beauty. They also share a troubled past—one filled with secrets, tragedy, and perhaps even ghosts. After all, what would a good Southern Gothic novel be without a maybe-ghost that represents past sins?

After a fire burns down the private school where the local rich kids are isolated away from the rural working-class kids, Marlissa Mayfield begins attending the public (White) school where she immediately becomes the most popular kid and begins a complicated and dangerous friendship with Analise. A mind-bending relationship that threatens to pull apart everything Analise holds dear. 

Gwaltney’s descriptions of rural life in the segregated South are cinematic in both texture and girth. His use of dialogue, with only a smattering of vernacular—just enough to feel authentic, is a real treat to read. Equally impressive is his ability to realistically drive the first-person point of view of an eleven-year-old girl from the 1950s. One who is challenged both by the stifling social norms of her time and the magical realism that invades her world. 

Pick up a copy of The Cicada Tree at your favorite independent bookstore or the usual on-line sellers. Clicking on the cover image below will take you to the Amazon site. 

Book Review: “Drowned Town” by Jayne Moore Waldrop

Drowned Town by Jayne Moore Waldrop

THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY, OCTOBER 26, 2021

During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt, established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a one of his New Deal programs. The TVA was tasked with building hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee Valley area to generate electricity, provide flood control, create jobs, and energize the economy of the particularly hard-hit areas of the Southeastern U.S. From the 1940s to 1960s several dams were built across the region, changing the geography and displacing many river-based communities through the use of eminent domain. 

In her debut novel, Drowned Town, Jayne Moore Waldrop explores the impact these reservoirs had and still have on families haunted by their removal from their homes, farms, and ways of life a half century ago. The story follows multiple generations of connected families who once lived in the town of Eddyville, Kentucky. A town now sitting at the bottom of Lake Barkley on the Cumberland River near the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. 

“The sign memorialized U.S. presidents, vice presidents, and governors from Kentucky and Tennessee, but failed to mention the people who had lived in the town and given up their homes as the giant lake rose. They had been told their sacrifice was for the public good. They were never told how much they would miss it, or for how long.”

One of the two main characters is Cam Weatherford, an architect in her late 40s who was six-years-old when her blue-collar family was moved from their ancestral home to the newly-built town of Sycamore during the construction of the Lake Barkley dam in the 1960s. Now living in Nashville, she marries her childhood friend Owen with the wedding taking place near their hometown in a remote, recently-restored church that had been hidden and forgotten for decades after the valley was flooded. 

“For the last few months she had focused on the future—whether to get married, what kind of wedding suited them—but today the past pulled at her.”

The second main character is Margaret Starks, Cam’s best friend since college and a high-powered and successful lawyer from an aristocratic Louisville family. Despite the two women’s contrasting backgrounds they share a sisterly bond. In Cam’s simple but supportive family, Margaret finds a stronger family bond that she had in her cold relationships with her own mother and father. However, because of her demanding legal practice in Louisville and the recent passing of her husband and parents, she has grown a bit distant from her best friend. While at her friend’s wedding, she rekindles her relationship with Cam’s family and meets Neville, an unsuspecting intellectual and another of Cam’s childhood friends. 

As a result of her reintroduction to her Lake Barkley friends and the slow implosion of her life in Louisville, Margaret begins to find what is missing in her prosperous but desolate existence—a supportive family, a sense of purpose, and an appreciation of community. 

“She now saw the place for what it was, one transformed by immeasurable loss but where something beautiful rose from all that was missing.”

In her novel, Waldrop explores many themes, such as love, loss, sisterhood, and the exhausting search for self-worth. But woven throughout the poignant narrative is the notion of change (sometimes unwanted, sometimes desperately needed) and the appreciation of the factors that make a place a home. 

Available in hardcover at The University Press of Kentucky (click on image below), independent bookstores, and Amazon.

Book Review: “Parker’s Choice” by Mike Nemeth

“Parker’s Choice” by Mike Nemeth

BROWN CHICKEN BOOKS an imprint of SOUTHERN FRIED KARMA, MARCH 2021

In Mike Nemeth’s third crime thriller, John Parker is a former entrepreneur, data analytics savant, and ex-con embroiled in two seemingly unconnected crises. On one hand, he uncovers a plot by his employer (India Business Solutions) to deceive insurance companies into moving their customer service jobs overseas based on fraudulent data. On the other, his failing marriage becomes especially complicated when he suspects that his wife has murdered his deranged former business partner. Through an extraordinary set of plot twists, he learns that his many troubles are mysteriously linked complicating the choices he must make.

Nemeth unabashedly shows off thriller influences from masters of crime fiction such as Gresham and Le Carré. His character development for the protagonist is a compelling study in the differences between moral and ethical choices, self-preservation, and doing what’s right, giving the anti-hero an honest quality that becomes perhaps his biggest flaw. 

Well researched and backed up with doubtless personal experience in the IT and business world, the story, at times, reads like a travelogue taking the reader on a trip through Atlanta’s upper-middle-class suburbs, Florida’s ritzy St. Pete beaches, and the decadent streets of New Orleans (the setting of a pedicab chase scene!).

Though often burdened with stereotypes, cliché, and unneeded characters, the story is easy to follow, entertaining, and quite suspenseful. Parker’s relationships with the women in his life—his estranged wife, his college-aged daughter, his ex-business partner, and his sultry colleague—can at times be a bit cringy, but in the end, it seems to work for this off-beat, quirky thriller where every choice has a consequence. 

Pick up a copy of Parker’s Choice at your favorite local bookshop or at the Amazon link below:

Parker’s Choice: Nemeth, Mike: 9781970137149: Amazon.com: Books