Beth Alston: Easier to read than review; just catching up

Published 4:00 pm Sunday, January 25, 2015

I just found a drawer at my office crammed with books I’ve read recently and failed to write about! Can’t believe it! Please forgive me, but now I will attempt to get caught up.

• “War Brides” — Helen Bryan — Amazon Encore — 2007

You guessed it. I found it on and loved the cover.

Set in the English village of Crowmarsh Priors, this book starts with World War II looming. People being evacuated from London are billeted in local residences, and German air raids occur almost nightly.

This story follows five women, seemingly dissimilar, who grow close as they face the harsh realities of war. They each have their own strengths (and weaknesses) which make for a colorful story.

This one’s a page turner and has a shocking end.

Well worth reading!

• “Olive Kitteridge” — Elizabeth Strout — Random House — 2008

I had read something about this book when it first came out, but I acquired it in paperback from June Shumake, my Book Fairy Godmother. I also heard recently that it’s been made into a mini series for HBO with the excellent Frances McDormand in the title role. Too bad I don’t do HBO, but then again, I’m certain the book is superior to film. The book won a Pulitzer Prize.

This story is set in small-town Maine with scenes of breathless beauty brought to life by Strout.

Olive, a retired school teacher, is going through something, middle life maybe?

What sets her apart is her ability to be herself which makes for some very funny occurrences. Her tongue is sharp but her intellect sharper. Maybe that’s why her husband and son have trouble relating to her. She’s bravely practical and is considered a guardian angel by one of her former students.

The novel carries the reader along on the trail of self-discovery for Olive Kitteridge who turns out to be profoundly human.

I loved this book and hated to see it end. I hope to read more Strout, who also wrote “Abide with Me” and “Amy and Isabelle.”

• “The Boys of the Dark: A Story of Betrayal and Redemption in the Deep South” — Robin Gaby Fischer (with Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W. Stanley) — St. Martin’s Press — 2010

This nonfiction book chronicles the shame of a community that seems to know no shame: Marianna, Fla. Located in this sleepy North Florida town was a boys’ “reformatory” — the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. It has variously been known as the Florida School for Boys and the Florida Industrial School for Boys. Young boys from all over the state were sent here by the courts. How could they know they were being sent to a living hell?

It had been in operation from Jan. 1, 1900, and remained open until June 20, 2011, when the state finally closed it. But the ghosts remain. Thirty-one bodies were unearthed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) in 2009, and University of South Florida (USF) researchers exhumed the bodies of 55 more boys from the school property in 2013, but only after obtaining a court order.

This story is told by two of the victims, part of the informal fraternity of The White House Boys, a club that no one wanted to be a member of. The boys were brutally beaten, tortured and raped, along with many, many others. They will go to their graves with their horrible memories.

The FDLE’s investigation found no evidence that guards killed anyone. The citizens of Marianna didn’t like that the school had sullied the community’s reputation and once it was closed, had cost 200 jobs and $14.5 million to the local economy. But they had started a Troy Tidwell Defense Fund to raise money to help with the legal fees of Tidwell, a former guard at the school, who was especially vicious, according to testimony.

The state ultimately put the site up for sale, but after a lawsuit was filed by someone who wanted the remains of his uncle back, a judge stopped the sale. The USF exhumed and studied remains for three years and finally identified one body, a 13-year-old boy who had died there in 1934.

This book made my blood boil. Justice still needs to be done.

I found this subject and ultimately this book after reading a brief mention of the school on the wire. That’s how many books seem to come to me. I read something interesting in a periodical or newspaper or even in another book, and then research the best sources on that subject.

The Tampa Bay Times just published a two-part series on the school, titled The Lost Bones.” I highly suggest reading it as well. It should win a Pulitzer Prize.

I often think of the boys who had lived in that hell pit, the ones who died there and the ones who managed to survive. Thoughts like that keep me awake sometimes.

• “Middlesex” — Jeffrey Eugenides — Picador — 2002

I knew this would a good read since it was came from June Shumake. She has excellent taste in books and is so very generous.

This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007, follows the history of a Greek-American family. The roots of the Stephanides’ family tree are very much intertwined. The narrator is a hermaphrodite who ultimately solves the riddle of why she is not like other girls. Her/his story will make you laugh and cry. It is a coming of age tale unlike any other.

This international bestseller is bold and beautiful. Eugenides deals with the sensitive subject of gender in a tasteful and even tender way as Cal (Calliope) finally comes to grips with who he/she is.

Eugenides’ his first novel, “The Virgin Suicides” (1993), has also been made into a film. In 2011, another novel, “The Marriage Plot,” was published. He has won other recognition as well. He’s also written several others since. He’s well worth further investigation.

• “Skendleby” — Nick Brown — New Generations Publishing — 2013 and • “The Dead Travel Fast” — Nick Brown — Clink Street — 2014

Brown sent me both of these excellent novels after he sent out a news release on the second one. When I agreed to review it, he graciously sent the first as well. That’s what I call a smart writer and marketer. A backstory never hurts.

Brown, who lives in Cheshire in the U.K., takes the reader on quite a journey. His background in teaching archeology and writing about it make it seem effortless. His writing can be understood by non-archaeologists and his stories take turns that are realistic, even when dealing with the spiritual world.

I liked these two novels because they were fast paced and held my interest until the very end.

After some research, I found that Brown has also authored “Luck Bringer” (2013) and “Tinto Brass” (2011). Frankly I’m fascinated by his work, and look forward to checking out some more of it.

• “The Hidden Life of Eddie Kitchens” — Will Gibson — Easter House Press — 2013

The author sent a news release on this novel and I bit. Glad I did because Gibson tells a passionate story. The plot starts with a girl going through the long-forgotten possessions of her late grandmother. The information revealed in an old trunk is astonishing and provocative. Her grandmother was not the timid, ultra-religious matriarch all her life. In fact, it’s almost as if Eddie (short for Edwina) had two lives.

Gibson is a master story-teller and compels the reader on Eddie’s journey from small-town Iowa to New York City and to China as a photo-journalist. Her history is rich.

I found that Gibson has also authored 10 other novels. I would love to see this one brought to the screen.

Beth Alston, an award-winning journalist, is executive editor of the Americus Times-Recorder. Contact her at 229-924-2751, ext. 1529 or