Tag Archives: Great Depression

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

maids version

The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company; 176 pages; $25).

No one brings the Ozarks region to life like Daniel Woodrell, critically acclaimed author of Winter’s Bone.  Woodrell’s newest work The Maid’s Version explores the causes and repercussions of a dance hall fire in West Table, Missouri, in 1929, in which 42 people were killed.  The bodies were so horrifically burned that loved ones identified many victims only by the trinkets and effects they left behind.  Woodrell ably illustrates how tragedy knows no income level and can reverberate through many generations.

Woodrell’s masterful talents are on full and prominent display in ThMaid’s Version as he mines the depths of real history in this novel.  A similar and equally dreadful catastrophe occurred in a dance hall in West Plains, Missouri, in 1928.  The explosion took the lives of 39 men and women; the cause of the fire still remains a mystery.

In The Maid’s Version, Alma DeGeer Dunahew thinks she has the answers.  Alma, mother of three young boys, wife to a husband who is mostly absent, and maid to a prominent family, lost her outrageous but much-loved sister in the explosion.  Convinced her sister’s illicit love affair with a powerful and very married man caused the fire, Alma upsets a lot of people and opens wounds that never healed.  Her long and fierce quest for the truth alienates her from those in her community and in her own family.

Years later, she tells all to her beloved grandson, urging him, “Tell it.  Go on and tell it.”  Alma is illiterate, and his words are her words.  It is a very powerful thing as his separation and distance from the awful event set him apart.  He is unbiased; he is meticulous; he is her proxy.

Woodrell superbly juxtaposes the end of the carefree and spirited 1920s with the dance hall fire followed by the Great Depression.  When tragedy first strikes the town, it never leaves as dejection, suspicion, and fear envelope the community.   Since The Maid’s Version is a fictionalized version of  an actual historical event, the story becomes even more compelling because it is painfully real and stunningly rendered.  With spare prose, unforgettable characters, and a setting that fully captures the period, The Maid’s Version is a quick read but one that lingers and deeply satisfies.



Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction

Spotlight on Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford’s debut Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet ranks in my top 10 favorite novels of all time.  I was so excited to get my hands on his newest work of fiction, Songs of Willow Frost, out today from Ballantine.

About the Book:

songs of willow frost

Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.

About The Author:

My name is James. Yes, I’m a dude.

I’m also the New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet—which was, in no particular order, an IndieBound NEXT List Selection, a Borders Original Voices Selection, a Barnes & Noble Book Club Selection, Pennie’s Pick at Costco, a Target Bookmarked Club Pick, and a National Bestseller. It was also named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association.

In addition, Hotel has been translated into 34 languages. I’m still holding out for Klingon (that’s when you know you’ve made it).

I’m an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a survivor of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp.

My next novel, SONGS OF WILLOW FROST, should be hitting shelves September 10, 2013! And I’m also working on a YA (Young Adult) series that even my agent doesn’t know about…yet.

Bookmagnet Says:

Four words: Wow.  My God.  Wow.  I guess that’s technically three, but you’ll probably share my sentiment once you read Ford’s story.

This book has everything.  It’s steeped in rich history, placed during a time of great suffering yet also a period in which modern cinema was born.  The characters leap off the page right into your heart.  The well-paced plot means you will not be able to put Songs of Willow Frost down until you finish the book.    A quest for identity, for forgiveness, for understanding, for reunion, Songs of Willow Frost proves you sometimes have to suffer to recognize and seize true happiness.  I loved Songs of Willow Frost every bit as much as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  Jamie Ford is no one-hit wonder.  No one writes a boy’s coming-of-age like he can.  


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Book Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

yonahlossee1.jpgWe’ve all known girls like Thea Atwell—girls who made mistakes so big they were sent away, fast girls, precocious girls, daring girls.  Thea narrates Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an exquisite period piece and a provocative, passionate, and bold coming-of-age tale. Much more than just a precocious teen, Thea is a magnificently well-drawn character, a trail-blazer, wholly modern, and a feminist (before there was such a thing).  No one who reads this story will be able to forget Thea, one of the most memorable characters in fiction today.

Exiled from her family, from her Florida home, and from her beloved horse, Sasi, Thea is sent to a school for girls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  In a voice that is at times worldly and sometimes naïve, Thea reveals, “It was called the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, but it was neither a camp nor a place for girls.  We were supposed to be made ladies here.”

Her place in the family had once been well-defined, but now Thea is displaced and struggling, “a confused, wronged girl” whose parents punish her for a misdeed by banishing her.  Her twin brother, Sam, who commits a transgression of his own, is left unpunished.

DiSclafani uses two story arcs, one present and one past, to tell her story.  The two narratives are like Thea herself—on the cusp of something.  Each story arc leads up to a shuddering climax, while Thea herself is a character also on the cusp, at a crossroads of adulthood, womanhood, and budding sexuality.

Thea slowly comes to realize it is a man’s world.  Whether she is in Florida or in North Carolina, she must obey either her father or the headmaster.  She must obey their rules and abide by their laws.  And she is not alone.  At Yonahlossee, her new friends must also follow the dictates of their fathers and the depressed economy.  Friends like Leona, mistress of the showing arena, who must leave her horse behind when her father can no longer afford his daughter’s tuition.  They are “but daughters.” It’s no wonder these girls ride horses: only in the saddle do they have any semblance of control.

Interestingly, Thea seems to assume the role that others have assigned her at Yonahlossee.  “Did my parents hope I’d been taught a lesson?  They thought they’d sent me somewhere safe.  Away from men, away from cousins…If my parents had kept me home, I might have learned their lesson.”  Thea, though, chafes at convention.  She is a girl who wants too much and who desires desperately, a girl who has been introduced to the world of men and finds she likes this world, even if she does not always understand it.  She is fearless, an attribute that aids her “in the [horse] ring” but “badly in life.”

At fifteen, Thea wants to explore who she is and what and where the boundaries are.  Today, her rebellion is a rite of passage, but it was unusual in 1931 for a girl to behave as risky as Thea does in the novel.  Since her parents have expelled her, she feels that there is nothing left for her to lose.

With reckless abandon, Thea sets her sights on the headmaster, Mr. Holmes.  And what Thea wants, she usually finds a way to get.  She knows “what it was like to want, to desire so intensely” that she is “willing to throw everything else into its fire.”

When DiSclafani reveals both the shocking act that led to Thea’s expulsion and the scandalous way in which she leaves Yonahlossee,

Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclafani

you are speechless, shaken, and consumed with awe.  DiSclafani writes, “I wanted everything.  I wanted my cousin.  I wanted Mr. Holmes.  I was a girl, I learned, who got what she wanted, but not without sadness, not without cutting a swatch of destruction so wide it consumed my family.  And almost me.  I almost fell into it, with them.  I almost lost myself.”

Yet it is only because of her intense desire and wildness that Thea is able to forge her own path, a place in the ring where she rules supreme and where fathers and headmasters are absent.  Neither her parents nor Thea expected this surprising turn of events when Thea was cast out.   In the end, Yonahlossee shows Thea her life is hers and no one else’s. Thea must “lay claim to it.”

Penetratingly plot-driven, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a literary stunner and will be one of the most talked-about novels of the year.  Get a head start and read it now.







Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, coming of age, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Interview with Anton DiSclafani, Author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Anton, for letting me ask you these questions.  The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, your debut novel, is a masterful and exquisite period piece.  Did you always want to be a writer?


Anton DiSclafani alt (c) Nina Subin (2)Anton DiSclafani: Thank you for the questions!  And the compliment.  I did not always want to be a writer–for a long time I wanted to be a professional horseback rider, and then I went to college and took a creative writing course, and gradually the path became clear.  But I didn’t scribble away in journals in elementary school, and if I were stuck on a deserted island I wouldn’t be writing.  I’d be trying to figure out a way to ferment coconut juice so I could have wine.  


JB: How would you describe your book in ten words or less?


AD: Girl sent away to a new world.   


JB: What provided the impetus for The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?


AD: I love the Blowing Rock [North Carolina] area, where the book is set, and so first came the place, and then the girl, and then her crime.  I worked backwards from setting; it’s impossible for me to imagine this book on a beach, or in the tundra.   


JB: How did you come up with the title? 


AD: There is a real Camp Yonahlossee, in Blowing Rock, but it’s called that, and not The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  I just love the rhythm of it.  But honestly, I can’t remember coming up with it, exactly.  


JB: What was it about the 1930s and the Great Depression that prompted you to set your story in that era?


AD: I wanted to write about the beginning of the Depression, when everyone thought the worst might be over.  Little did they know…and that’s where I wanted to set my story, on the cusp of something awful, in that hopeful to them, hopeless to us, moment.   


JB: Like your main character, Thea, you grew up in Florida, where you rode horses.  I often hear that novelists should write what they know best.   Is that true for you?


AD: Yes and no.  It’s difficult to write about something that’s technical–horseback riding, or tennis, etc–without knowing it really well, and knowing something really well usually means doing it.  I can’t imagine learning all about bridge but never playing bridge.  I can always tell when someone who isn’t a rider, or a horse person, writes about horses, but most readers probably can’t.  Same with bridge–not being an expert, I could probably fool 99% of my readership.  Does the expert 1% really matter?  I’m not sure.  


JB: Do you have a favorite character in your story?  If so, who, and why?


AD: Hmm…good question.  I like Leona, the character in the book who’s least like me.   But most like me, perhaps, in her obsessive tendencies.   


JB: Are any of your characters based on real people?


AD: No.  Not a single one.   


JB: Thea is so mature and wise by the end of the novel, prepared to make her own way on her own terms.  She’s so modern and ahead of her time.  Is Thea a feminist in a time when feminism did not exist?


AD: Yes.  I said in another interview that she was an “unconscious feminist” and my husband made fun of me for weeks (as in, she’s unconscious and a feminist!) so maybe I should say she’s unconsciously a feminist.  Semantics aside, yes, absolutely, Thea is a feminist.   


JB: If you had set the story in 2013, how would it have been different?  Would Sam have been punished?  Would Thea?


AD: I don’t think it would be a story in 2013.  At least not the same story.  The punishments meted out to the characters are so dependent on the particular morals of the day.  Things happened in the book that would still be frowned upon today, yes, but the way information is handled now seems so different to me.  


Is it possible now, to completely remove yourself from the stream of information?  Perhaps the first, and biggest way the story would be different is that Thea wouldn’t have been so isolated.  She would have gone to school, and met other children.   


JB: How different would Thea and her life have been had she not been exiled from her family at 15?


AD: Oh, so much different, in so many endless ways.   


JB: You teach creative writing at Washington University.  How has teaching writing made you a better author?


AD: Teaching makes me a better person.  Well, to back up, having a job makes me a better person–a sense of purpose, getting up in the morning and being accountable to something besides my laptop.  I’m one of those boring people who needs routine and structure, and plenty of it.  I also have an insane need to be busy at all times, so teaching satisfies my need to be busy and to have structure and still leaves time for writing.  And teaching doesn’t feel like work.  Not even the tedious parts of it.  To be fair, I teach really excellent students at a really excellent school.  I find my time in the classroom utterly energizing–it’s like having a captive book club.  


JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?


AD: Not knowing if it was going to sell, and being sure at many times during the process that it would not.   


JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing this book?


AD: I have more patience than I thought.   


JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?


AD: I get up a few hours before my earliest obligation–usually teaching–and write for two or so hours.  I can revise for longer than that, but if I’m writing new material, I lose steam after those few hours.  I also look at writing like a job, and set page limits (it’s generally one single-spaced page a day) and try not to let myself off the hook too often.  


Sometimes what I write is horrible, yes, but first of all, I won’t know that until later, when I go back and read everything as a whole, and second of all, the muse can’t visit you if you’re not sitting in front of your computer.  Or something like that.  


JB: Please describe your publication process.  Did you get any rejection letters?  How many drafts did the story go through? How were earlier versions of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls different from the final copy?


AD: The earlier versions are pretty different, though the main plot points and characters are the same.  I revised first with my agent and then with my editor.  And Yonahlossee was the first piece of writing I’d had accepted, so yes, I’d gotten a lot of rejection letters before that, from fellowships, literary journals, agents, etc.   


JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?


AD: Read, cook, take my dog on walks, and ride horses.  I spend a lot of time talking to my family on the phone (my parents live in Florida, my sister lives in Texas).  I also seem to go to the grocery store five times a week.  My husband says I’m in constant motion.  


JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?


AD: The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Arcadia by Lauren Groff.  


JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?


AD: Yes.  I’ll go from city to city in North Carolina and Florida, and then Houston, then Chicago, then northern California.  And of course I’ll start in St. Louis, where I live.   


JB: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is already getting a lot of buzz.  Did you have any idea while writing it that it could be big?


AD: No.   


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls?yonahlossee


AD: I hope they feel some sort of sympathy for Thea and her world.   


JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?


AD: Yes, a novel set in a modern-day town in Georgia.  I’m only in the beginning stages.   


JB: Thanks, Anton, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!


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Book Review: Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio (Plume; 320 pages; $15).

                Blackberry Winter, the new novel from Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow, is the October She Reads Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book, comment on reviews, meet Jio, and find out how she came up with the premise of the story by going to the She Reads web site.  There are some yummy giveaways you don’t want to miss either!

Click here for discussion and giveaways!

Jio is a novelist who knows how to pull at her readers’ heartstrings.  She draws you into a story, and, suddenly, you forget everything else around you.  The rest of the world falls away; you are immersed in Jio’s world.  That is how it was for me when I read her two previous novels.  Jio is back, and she has not lost her gift.  In fact, Blackberry Winter is now my favorite of her works.  Blackberry Winter is a mystery/love story with appealing characters, a strong plot, and a setting Jio knows well: Seattle, her home.

In Blackberry Winter, Jio focuses her narrative lens on two women, born decades apart, who have experienced deep loss and heartache.  Vera Ray trudges home to her three-year-old beloved son, Daniel, early one May morning in 1933.  Vera is struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the Great Depression.  Fresh from her shift at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel, she steps out the door to a late-season snowstorm, or “blackberry winter” as it was once referred to.  To her horror, Daniel is nowhere to be found.  More horrible still: no one seems to want to help her find her son.

Fast-forward to present-day Seattle and to Claire Aldridge, a reporter for the Seattle Herald.  Her boss assigns Claire to cover their own blackberry winter.  Like Vera, Claire is struggling.  She recently suffered a terrible accident and endured the death of her baby.  Her marriage is falling apart.  She is unhappy to be given such a fluff piece and searches for an angle.  When she discovers Daniel’s disappearance, Claire is intrigued; she has her story.

In alternating chapters Jio tells the story chiefly from the first-person perspectives of Vera and Claire.  The “I” definitely made the novel more intimate.  I do not think Blackberry Winter would have had as much of an effect on me if Jio had told the story in the third person.

Initially, I was no fan of Vera’s.  I detested her inaction.  She is a woman who does not act; rather, she waits for other people, namely men, to act.  I wanted to shake her.  The more Jio delved into Vera’s character, though, the more I came to understand her.  Vera lived in the 1930s, during a time of economic crisis much worse than our own.  As a single mother, she had to work; she had no other choice.  Yet, many scorned her for working.  Upper-class women looked at her with contempt.  But they didn’t have to walk in Vera’s shoes, riddled with holes.  Vera’s story is truly a tragic tale and reminded me of the 2008 movie The Changeling, based on actual events.  In 1928 Los Angeles, a woman was reunited with her son who had been missing.  When she adamantly told the authorities that the boy was not her son, they vilified her and deemed her an unfit mother.

Claire, for me, was the star of this story.  I loved her spunk and her drive.  She really is Jio’s most likeable, relatable character.

Jio brings her dual time narratives together in the end for a very satisfying conclusion.  What she writes is unexpected, yet always plausible.  Once you start reading, you will want to finish this in one sitting.  The story is engaging; the characters are compelling; the setting is timely.  Jio’s themes of maternal love, loss, jealousy, redemption, hope, and healing will resonate with readers.

Blackberry Winter is a well-timed, beautifully told story from one of the masters of the dual time narrative.  I highly recommend it for fans of Sarah McCoy, Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton, Jenna Blum, and Tatiana de Rosnay.



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Spotlight on Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

I am currently reading Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio.  Let me say this is my absolute favorite of all her novels!  She is truly a master at weaving together past and present storylines.

From Goodreads:

“In 2011, Sarah Jio burst onto the fiction scene with two sensational novels–The Violets of March and The Bungalow. With Blackberry Winter–taking its title from a late-season, cold-weather phenomenon–Jio continues her rich exploration of the ways personal connections can transcend the boundaries of time.

Seattle, 1933. Single mother Vera Ray kisses her three-year-old son, Daniel, goodnight and departs to work the night-shift at a local hotel. She emerges to discover that a May-Day snow has blanketed the city, and that her son has vanished. Outside, she finds his beloved teddy bear lying face-down on an icy street, the snow covering up any trace of his tracks, or the perpetrator’s.

Seattle, 2010. Seattle Herald reporter Claire Aldridge, assigned to cover the May 1 “blackberry winter” storm and its twin, learns of the unsolved abduction and vows to unearth the truth. In the process, she finds that she and Vera may be linked in unexpected ways.”


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