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Teresa Weaver


The Shelf: Mary Kay Andrews, Through the Pale Door, and Dead Docket

Mary Kay Andrews

Mary Kay Andrews of Avondale Estates was a feature writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the mother of two small children when she wrote her first novel. Sixteen books later, she is a popular attraction at literary events and seminars throughout her native South and beyond. Among her priceless advice to aspiring writers: “Write the damned book.” No excuses, no whining. Andrews wrote ten witty, wiseass mystery novels under her real name, Kathy Hogan Trocheck, which spawned a loyal fan base but never gave her the breakout success that she’s found under her pseudonym. The Fixer Upper (Harper, $25.99) may be her most blatantly Gothic novel yet, but Andrews has always had a way with oddball, misfit characters. In The Fixer Upper, Dempsey Jo Killebrew—a young, unbearably naive associate at a D.C. lobbying firm—has become entangled in a sordid Washington scandal. Left with limited options, Dempsey retreats to an antebellum, Pepto Bismol–pink eyesore called Birdsong in Guthrie, Georgia, that her father recently inherited. Dad, as unsentimental as he is unlikable, wants her to restore the mansion to some semblance of glory so they can sell it and split the profit. As she settles in, Dempsey discovers many things: an affinity for home renovation, a cute attorney who lives nearby, and an octogenarian relative with a gun who refuses to leave Birdsong. The big picture of Andrews’s fiction can be fairly predictable—readers expect characters to end up happy, after all, in books with candy-colored covers—but the devil in the details is a charmer every time.

Through the Pale Door

Hub City Writers Project, $24.95

Marietta native BRIAN RAY won the inaugural South Carolina First Novel Prize for this mesmerizing coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a looming, otherworldly steel mill. “After four summers working in one, I finally realized the exotic beauty of steel mills,” Ray says from Greensboro, North Carolina, where he’s working on his Ph.D. “They’re almost Gothic. Steel mills are cathedrals, caves, and surrealist landscapes.” In Through the Pale Door, a young artist named Sarah West takes a summer job at her father’s steel mill in South Carolina, hoping to earn money for college while also avoiding the life with her psychotic mother in Marietta. Her mother is insane, “like an unwound ball of yarn, tangled and sprawling, dangerous . . . My dad had asked me to stay here and keep my mom’s yarn clumped together.” In the unlikely sanctuary of the steel mill, Sarah finds a kindred spirit, Edgewood, who wrangles steel by day and paints magnificent murals on company property by night. Their story is so gently told, in a setting so beautifully grim, it’s easy to forget this is a debut novel.

Dead Docket

Forge, $24.95

Keep this in mind: Nobody reads John Grisham for the lyricism of his prose. Readers of legal thrillers want action, suspense, strong characters—and a little steamy sex whenever possible. MITCHELL GRAHAM, who practiced law in New York City for twenty years and now lives in Marietta, is another in a long line of attorneys who have jumped from the law into the potboiler. Initially a fantasy writer, Graham published his first legal thriller, Majestic Descending, in 2007; it featured two characters that return now in Dead Docket. Katherine Adams, a whip-smart Atlanta attorney, and John Delaney, an NYPD detective turned lawyer, have settled into a long-distance love affair since the horrific events of the first novel threw them together. When the daughter of John’s late father’s former police partner—got that?—dies in an “accident” in Atlanta, John comes to town to settle her affairs but uncovers some nasty secrets that put Katherine at great risk. The story is compelling for the most part, with neck-snapping twists, but the wooden prose and formulaic dialogue—“I said, ‘Just give it to me straight, Doc’”—are sometimes scarier than the bloody scenes.

The Shelf: Jennifer Manske Fenske, A Year on Ladybug Farm, and Driftwood Summer

Jennifer Manske Fenske

Jennifer Manske Fenske’s new novel, The Wide Smiles of Girls (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $24.95), opens gracefully and mysteriously: “Before Ruth died, before there was a fall or a push or a jump from the old bridge, she lived on Langdon Island and loved Hale Brock.” The dead Ruth and her grieving husband are central characters in this elegantly written story about the minor dramas that tend to tear families apart and the catastrophes that somehow seem to bring them back together.

As the novel begins, young do-gooder Mae Wallace has left her job in Atlanta at World Matters, a nonprofit agency loosely modeled after CARE (where the author was a consultant for four years), and moved to an island off the South Carolina coast, right next door to grieving widower Hale Brock. Mae has relocated to be closer to her younger sister, March, who is rehabilitating after a devastating fall from a horse. Ultimately, the ending is a little too tidy, but the characters—whether alive or dead—are compelling and believable. The author, a former Atlantan who now lives in Colorado, is especially adept at conveying the incomparable, sometimes mystifying love-hate relationship possible between sisters.

A Year on Ladybug Farm

Berkley Books, $14 paperback

In this novel by Georgia’s Donna Ball, three women of a certain age leave the comforts of suburbia and sink every cent they have into a century-old money pit—a rambling house on sixteen acres in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley: “The quietness was so intense, it was almost a texture—as light as silk, as soft as velvet.” Through a renovation that may never end, Cici, Lindsay, and Bridget discover the charms of small-town life and the art of aging gracefully.

Driftwood Summer

NAL Accent, $15 paperback

Atlanta author Patti Callahan Henry’s Driftwood Summer also features three women, plus a 100-year-old house. Estranged sisters Riley, Maisy, and Adalee reunite in coastal Georgia to celebrate their mother’s seventieth birthday and to try to save the family’s bookstore. Beyond the sibling melodrama, Driftwood Summer is a loving tribute to the role a good bookstore can play in a community.

Armchair Traveling

Sacred Places: A Guide to the Civil Rights Sites in Atlanta, Georgia

Mercer University Press, $18

U.S. Rep. John Lewis provides the foreword for Harry G. Lefever and Michael C. Page’s brilliantly executed pocket guide: “What you will discover when you walk these roads of history is that the actions of everyday citizens—people just like you and me—transformed these plain, ordinary buildings into monuments of democracy.”

Newcomer’s Guide to Georgia

John F. Blair, $18.95

Longtime newspaperman Don O’Briant stuffs an awful lot into this slim volume. “I’ll try to give you all the information you need to become a Georgian,” he writes, “or at least to act enough like one to fool the natives.”

The Out Traveler: Atlanta

Alyson Books, $15.95

Native Georgians Jordan McAuley and Matt Burkhalter appeal to a more specific audience in this pint-size celebration of Atlanta’s bustling gay community. Their recommendations for what to see and where to go are personal and well informed, if a little boosterish, with a proud emphasis on “the luxurious, the classy, or at least the truly unique.”

The Shelf: Marc Fitten and The King James Conspiracy

Marc Fitten

As the editor of the Chattahoochee Review, a respected literary journal based at Georgia Perimeter College, Marc Fitten has earned a reputation for taking risks. That instinct is on grand display in Fitten’s brilliant debut novel, a fable for adults called Valeria’s Last Stand (Bloomsbury USA, $24). In the Hungarian prairie village of Zivatar, sixty-eight-year-old Valeria is the town crank, an equal-opportunity hater who loathes everything old, new, familiar, foreign, whatever. Even going to the village market is an act of aggression for Valeria, who clutches her basket ahead of her “like a battering ram.” “Valeria wasn’t interested in foreign fruits and vegetables, mostly because she could not grow them, but also because of their blatant sensuality,” Fitten writes. “Tropical fruits were swollen with flesh and juice. They were sticky. They were uninhibited. The first time she held a banana, Valeria was offended.” This never-married woman finds herself inexplicably, suddenly drawn to the aging village potter, who is already entangled with the strong-willed Ibolya, the owner of the sole tavern in town. That unlikely triangle, along with the arrival of a smooth-talking chimney sweep, upsets the delicate balance of village life beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Every character is perfectly drawn, creating a smart, funny, unabashedly affectionate portrait of village life in the heady early days of capitalism in Hungary. Author Fitten was born in Brooklyn to Panamanian parents in 1974 and raised in the Bronx and Atlanta. He has traveled widely, including a four-year stint in his twenties in a small apartment in Hungary, when that country was in the throes of tremendous changes in politics, culture, and economics. The effect of such seismic shifts on people is tricky territory for a young novelist, but Fitten writes with the grace and quiet wisdom of a village elder. This is a stunning debut.

The King James Conspiracy

St. Martin’s Press, $25.95

Phillip Depoy’s eleventh novel—after five Fever Devilin mysteries and five Flap Tucker mysteries—is a dizzying mix of historical facts and figments of the author’s imagination. Set in seventeenth-century England, the story centers on a group of scholars assigned by King James I to create a definitive English translation of the Bible, much to the consternation of Pope Clement in Rome. One of the scholars is murdered and horribly mutilated, setting into motion a high-stakes conspiracy that could rock not only the project but the foundation of Christian beliefs. Author DePoy is a true Renaissance man—folklorist, playwright, composer, director of the theater program at Clayton State University—who brings his talents for dialogue, pacing, and character development to the mythical table. Brother Timon, a nutmeg-oil-smoking monk who is equally skilled at killing people and memorizing thousands of pages of text, heads a brilliant cast of villains and saviors, most of whom have some grounding in history.

Also new:

Beach Trip
Ballantine Books, $25
Former Atlantan Cathy Holton (author of The Secret Lives of the Kudzu Debutantes) reunites four forty-something college friends in North Carolina’s Outer Banks to relive their glory days and share all the secrets of their disparate lives.

Baggage Claim
Berkley/NAL Accent, $15 paperback
Two women with look-alike luggage but very different emotional baggage
meet after they inadvertently pick up each other’s suitcase at the
Houston airport. Marietta author Tanya Michna’s setup may not be
terribly original, but she wrings a few surprises out of the journey.

 A Tree for Emmy
Peachtree Publishers, $15.95
Mary Ann Rodman, a former school media
specialist and university librarian who lives in Alpharetta, celebrates
the fuzziest, pinkest of trees in this sweet tale for young readers
(illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss) of a little girl determined to have
her own mimosa shrub.

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