Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Review: The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak

Title: The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak
Publisher: A John Scognamiglio Book
Genre: Historical, Literary Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss


Set in 1950s Louisiana, Mandy Mikulencak’s beautifully written and emotionally moving novel evokes both The Help and Dead Man Walking with the story of an unforgettable woman whose quest to provide meals for death row prisoners leads her into the secrets of her own past.

Many children have grown up in the shadow of Louisiana’s Greenmount State Penitentiary. Most of them—sons and daughters of corrections officers and staff—left the place as soon as they could. Yet Ginny Polk chose to come back to work as a prison cook. She knows the harsh reality of life within those walls—the cries of men being beaten, the lines of shuffling inmates chained together. Yet she has never seen them as monsters, not even the ones sentenced to execution. That’s why, among her duties, Ginny has taken on a special responsibility: preparing their last meals.

Pot roast or red beans and rice, coconut cake with seven-minute frosting or pork neck stew . . . whatever the men ask for Ginny prepares, even meeting with their heartbroken relatives to get each recipe just right. It’s her way of honoring their humanity, showing some compassion in their final hours. The prison board frowns upon the ritual, as does Roscoe Simms, Greenmount’s Warden. Her daddy’s best friend before he was murdered, Roscoe has always watched out for Ginny, and their friendship has evolved into something deep and unexpected. But when Ginny stumbles upon information about the man executed for killing her father, it leads to a series of dark and painful revelations.

Truth, justice, mercy—none of these are as simple as Ginny once believed. And the most shocking crimes may not be the ones committed out of anger or greed, but the sacrifices we make for love.


Set during the 1950s,The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak is an absolutely riveting novel about a young woman who is a cook at a Louisiana prison.

Ginny Polk works in the kitchen of the same prison her murdered father once worked as a guard. She is also romantically involved with her father’s best friend, Roscoe Simmons, who is now the prison warden. Very much ahead of her time, Ginny is uninterested in marrying her much older lover since it would mean giving up her job in the prison kitchen.  In another divergence from a typical white woman in the deep South, she considers her much older African American co-worker, Dot, to be her best friend and surrogate mother. While Ginny loves her job, her vocation lies in the meals she prepares for prisoners who are about to be put to death for their crimes. Although she never loses sight the horrific crimes these men have been convicted of committing, Ginny also feels they deserve one last act of compassion before they go to the electric chair.

Ginny is quite contemplative as she tries to understand what motivates her to take such care with the death row inmates’ last meal. She is well aware that her traumatic childhood experiences  are a factor in her devotion to ensuring their prisoners last supper has meaning. This curiosity is the catalyst that begins her quest to find answers to questions that have long troubled her, but it is a shocking discovery about her beloved father that jeopardizes everything she holds dear.

As she reminisces about her larger than life, garrulous father, Ginny slowly starts to understand that he had also had a dark side.  Roscoe has tried to protect her from the truth about the man she idolizes but she has no choice but face the fact that her father also had a cruel streak. After she stumbles onto proof that shatters her illusions about him, Ginny sets out to right a horrific wrong, but she inadvertently uncovers the stunning truth about what happened the night of her father’s murder.

The Last Suppers is starkly compelling novel that accurately depicts many of the issues of the time period including race relations and the deplorable conditions at the prison. Ginny is an empathetic young woman who is sometimes a little naive and impulsive, but her heart is always in the right place. With a multi-layered, richly developed and meticulously researched storyline, Mandy Mikulencak’s debut is poignant, through-provoking and ultimately, redemptive.


Filed under A John Scognamiglio Book, Contemporary, Historical, Historical (50s), Literary Fiction, Mandy Mikulencak, Rated B+, Review, The Last Suppers

Review: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Title: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Historical, Literary Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss


The New York Times bestselling author of the celebrated A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy returns with this eagerly awaited new novel, set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 and inspired by actual events. The chronicle of an ordinary woman’s struggle for dignity and her rights in a textile mill, The Last Ballad is a moving tale of courage in the face of oppression and injustice, with the emotional power of Ron Rash’s Serena, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and the unforgettable films Norma Rae and Silkwood.

Twelve times a week, twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins makes the two-mile trek to and from her job on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City, North Carolina. The insular community considers the mill’s owners—the newly arrived Goldberg brothers—white but not American and expects them to pay Ella May and other workers less because they toil alongside African Americans like Violet, Ella May’s best friend. While the dirty, hazardous job at the mill earns Ella May a paltry nine dollars for seventy-two hours of work each week, it’s the only opportunity she has. Her no-good husband, John, has run off again, and she must keep her four young children alive with whatever work she can find.

When the union leaflets begin circulating, Ella May has a taste of hope, a yearning for the better life the organizers promise. But the mill owners, backed by other nefarious forces, claim the union is nothing but a front for the Bolshevik menace sweeping across Europe. To maintain their control, the owners will use every means in their power, including bloodshed, to prevent workers from banding together. On the night of the county’s biggest rally, Ella May, weighing the costs of her choice, makes up her mind to join the movement—a decision that will have lasting consequences for her children, her friends, her town—indeed all that she loves.

Seventy-five years later, Ella May’s daughter Lilly, now an elderly woman, tells her nephew about his grandmother and the events that transformed their family. Illuminating the most painful corners of their history, she reveals, for the first time, the tragedy that befell Ella May after that fateful union meeting in 1929.

Intertwining myriad voices, Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America—and pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to win basic rights for all workers. Lyrical, heartbreaking, and haunting, this eloquent novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.


Rich with historical details and based on real life events, The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash shines a much needed light on the  National Textile Workers Union attempt to secure better wages and working conditions for textile workers in the south.

In 1929, single mother Ella May Wiggins works twelve hours a day, six days a week at American Mill No. 2. Although she relies on the kindness of her neighbors in Stumpton to help watch over her four children while she is working, her $9 a week paycheck barely covers rent and food for her and her family. After attending a union rally in nearby Gastonia where workers at the Loray Mill are being evicted from their homes after going on strike, Ella becomes an unlikely spokeswoman for the union when she wins over the crowd with her moving life story and recently penned ballad, The Mill Mother’s Lament.  Over the next several months, Ella and union organizer Sophia Blevin continue their efforts to integrate Ella’s African-American neighbors and co-workers into the National Textile Workers Union. In the deeply segregated South where minorities and women have no voice or rights, Ella’s work with the union is dangerous and her attempts to include African-Americans in the fight for better wages culminates in heartbreak.

Growing up in poverty in the NC mountains,  Ella marries young and follows her husband, John, from one mill town to another. After the death of their young son, John abandons her and their children and Ella cannot find work anywhere except American Mill No. 2 where whites and African Americans work alongside one another. After coming close to losing her job when she stays home to care for her sick baby, Ella is drawn to the union rally in hopes of improving pay and working conditions for herself and her fellow workers. She is pragmatic and deals with every hardship that comes her way with stoicism yet Ella’s love for her children is fierce.

While Ella is the central figure in the unfolding story, the chapters alternate between various points of view.  Daughter Lilly’s perspective takes place in the present as she shares memories of those long ago days with her nephew, Edwin.  Verchel Park’s acquaintance with Ella’s former husband John has unintended consequences that he only realizes long after their occurrence. The wife of a wealthy mill owner from a neighboring town, Katherine McAdam is drawn to Ella through a shared loss and their unlikely friendship proves to be life saving. African-American train porter Hampton Haywood’s family fled Mississippi in fear for their lives and although he now lives in New York, he cannot resist the call to help the union organizers in the South.  Disgraced police officer Albert Roach is instrumental in setting in motion the final confrontation that ends with a devastating loss.

The Last Ballad is a meticulously researched novel with a thought-provoking and poignant storyline. Based on factual events,  Wiley Cash brings the characters, setting and time period in this compelling story vibrantly to life.  Ella May Wiggins’ struggles to provide for her family are positively gut wrenching and her impressive efforts to improve working conditions and higher wages are captivating.  I absolutely loved and highly recommend this extraordinary novel that highlights a mostly forgotten yet vastly important time in the history of the labor movement.

Comments Off on Review: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

Filed under Historical, Historical (20s), Literary Fiction, Rated B+, Review, The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash, William Morrow

Review: If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss

Title: If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Genre: Literary Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley


He’s gonna be sorry he ever messed with me and Loretta Lynn

Sadie Blue has been a wife for fifteen days. That’s long enough to know she should have never hitched herself to Roy Tupkin, even with the baby.

Sadie is desperate to make her own mark on the world, but in remote Appalachia, a ticket out of town is hard to come by, and hope often gets stomped out.  When a stranger sweeps into Baines Creek and knocks things off kilter, Sadie finds herself with an unexpected lifeline…if she can just figure out how to use it.

This intimate insight into a fiercely proud, tenacious community unfolds through the voices of the forgotten folks of Baines Creek. With a colorful cast of characters that each contribute a new perspective, IF THE CREEK DON’T RISE is a debut novel bursting with heart, honesty, and homegrown grit.


If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss is a gritty yet incredibly poignant character study of Appalachian life. With most of chapters written from different characters’ points of view,  this debut novel offers an in-depth peek into the various people living in the fictional town of Baines Creek, NC.

The starting point of the story is pregnant Sadie Blue and her brand-new marriage to Roy Tupkin. Taken in by the charm that belies his true nature, Sadie discovers the violent truth about her husband right away as he takes his frustrations out on her with shocking brutality. Her Granny Gladys Hicks offers no help other than a temporary place to stay but Sadie does find warmth and compassion with her Granny’s neighbor and friend Marris Jones.  Hope for her future arrives with outsider Kate Shaw, the town’s new teacher and Sadie eagerly accepts the newcomer’s offer to teach her to read.

The fictional town of Baines Creek serves as a character in the story as well as the novel’s setting. These small, rural towns tend to be extremely insular where everyone knows each other’s business and gossip abounds. Despite this knowledge about both the good and bad things that are occuring in their neighbor’s lives, the prevailing attitude tends to be more of a live and let live as friends and family turn a blind eye to abuse and criminal activity. The perfect example of this is Sadie’s situation with Roy.  There is not a single person in Baines Creek who is unaware he is beating her but, with very few exceptions, no one steps in to help her. Yet if an outsider tries to intervene, the townspeople immediately close ranks in order to protect the person under threat. They are also quick to rally around one another when disaster strikes.

There is also an underlying sense of inevitability and hopelessness within families. This is certainly the case with Sadie’s Granny Gladys.  She has firsthand experience with her granddaughter’s situation, yet she never extends her a helping hand. When Gladys is confronted with Sadie’s bruises and beaten down countenance, there is a pervasive sense of “you’ve made your bed and now you must lie in it”. Gladys remains passive and without empathy for Sadie’s plight as she fails to even bring up Roy’s abusive treatment of her pregnant granddaughter.

For much of the novel, readers have no idea when the story is taking place. This omission feels deliberate since an exact time period is somewhat irrelevant due to the fact time tends to stand still in rural or isolated areas such as Baines Creek. A few clues are dropped as the story unfolds that are helpful in narrowing down an approximate year but this sense of timelessness remains even after the specific time frame is eventually revealed.

If the Creek Don’t Rise is a heartbreaking yet occasionally uplifting debut from Leah Weiss . This deeply affecting novel is a compelling and sometimes stark portrayal of Appalachian life. The story comes a somewhat abrupt but immensely satisfying conclusion and readers will revel in the healthy dose of poetic justice that is served to those who so richly deserve it.

Comments Off on Review: If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss

Filed under If the Creek Don't Rise, Leah Weiss, Literary Fiction, Rated B+, Review, Sourcebooks Landmark

Review: In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer

Title: In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Contemporary, Historical (40s), Literary Fiction
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley


Judy Reene Singer’s newest novel is a masterful story of the American experience. Between the past and present, between love and war, between the burdens of race and hope, a woman returns home to discover her father and a history she had never known

Rachel Fleischer has good reasons not to be at her father’s deathbed. Foaling season is at hand and her horses are becoming restless and difficult. Her critical mother and grasping sister could certainly handle Marty Fleisher’s resistance better without her. But Malachi, her eighty-something horse manager—more father to her than Marty has ever been—convinces Rachel she will regret it if she doesn’t go.

When a stranger at her father’s funeral delivers an odd gift and an apology, Rachel finds herself drawn into the epic story of her father’s World War II experience, and the friendships, trauma, scandal, and betrayals that would scar the rest of his life—and cast a shadow across the entire family. As she struggles to make sense of his time as a Jewish sergeant in charge of a platoon of black soldiers in 1940s Alabama, she learns more than just his history. She begins to see how his hopes and disappointments mirror her own—and might finally give her the means to free herself of the past and choose a life waiting in the wings.


Alternating back and forth between the present and the early ’40s, In the Shadow of Alabama by Judy Reene Singer is a heartrending novel of complex and difficult relationships, race relations in the South and the lingering effects of wartime.

Rachel Fleischer’s relationships with her family are fraught with tension and the last place she wants to be is her father’s bedside as he refuses medical treatment for his failing heart.  Marty Fleischer has always been a hypercritical, bitter, angry and deeply dissatisfied man whose hateful words continue to haunt her.  At the urging of her farm manager and friend Malachi Charge, Rachel reluctantly goes to see her father one last time before his death. At his funeral, stranger Rowena Jackson presents them with a puzzling package from her father, Willie Jackson. Intrigued and wanting to understand a shocking allegation against her father, Rachel later goes to Boston to meet Willie where he recounts his tangled history with Marty.

Rachel’s dysfunctional childhood left an indelible mark on her and even as an adult, she cannot escape the legacy of her father’s painful words and lack of love. The owner of a horse farm, she lives with her longtime partner, David, and Malachi. Emotionally closed off and protective of her heart, Rachel is unable to fully commit to David and she soon becomes aware there are deep fractures in their relationship. Reluctant to discuss her fears and concerns with him, she ignores the growing distance between them and instead makes the decision to go to Boston to meet Willie.

Rachel knows absolutely nothing of Marty’s experiences in World War II and she is quite shocked to learn that he was in charge of a colored squadron in Alabama.  Neither man lived in the South prior to their assignment at Gunter Field so they are ill prepared for the reality of segregation and the animosity directed towards Jews.   Although both men are college educated, they are assigned to a squadron that cleans aircraft engines.  Marty is a benevolent leader who looks out for the men serving under him although his efforts are not at all appreciated by the white soldiers on the base. Despite Willie’s best efforts to remain under the radar, he and Marty form a friendship of sorts that comes to an abrupt end following Marty’s well intentioned but misguided efforts to treat his men as equals. The two men eventually go back to their regular lives but neither of them are able to escape the tragedies of their shared history.

Based on the real life experiences of Judy Reene Singer and her father, In the Shadow of Alabama is a deeply affecting and rather poignant novel of reconciliation and healing.  After learning of the events that shaped her father into the haunted man who raised her, Rachel has a better understanding of herself, her mother and her sister. With newfound awareness of the negative effects of her behavior, Rachel tries to repair her tattered relationships, but is it too late to salvage the one that means the most to her?

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Historical (40s), In the Shadow of Alabama, Judy Reene Singer, Kensington, Literary Fiction, Rated B+, Review

Review: One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

Title: One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 176 pages
Book Rating: B

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Edelweiss


A riveting and emotionally harrowing debut about two young brothers and their physically and psychologically abusive father—One of the Boys is 176 perfect, stunning pages by a major new talent.

The three of them—a twelve-year-old boy, his older brother, their father—have won the war: the father’s term for his bitter divorce and custody battle. They leave their Kansas home and drive through the night to Albuquerque, eager to begin again, united by the thrilling possibility of carving out a new life together. The boys go to school, join basketball teams, make friends. Meanwhile their father works from home, smoking cheap cigars to hide another smell. But soon the little missteps—the dead-eyed absentmindedness, the late night noises, the comings and goings of increasingly odd characters—become sinister, and the boys find themselves watching their father change, grow erratic, then violent.

Set in the sublimely stark landscape of suburban New Mexico and a cramped apartment shut tight to the world, One of the Boys conveys with stunning prose and chilling clarity a young boy’s struggle to hold onto the dangerous pieces of his shattered family. Harrowing and beautiful, Daniel Magariel’s masterful debut is a story of survival: two foxhole-weary brothers banding together to protect each other from the father they once trusted, but no longer recognize. With the emotional core of A Little Life and the compact power of We the Animals, One of the Boys is among the most moving and remarkable debut novels you’ll ever read.


One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel is a dark and disturbing portrayal of child abuse, addiction and dysfunction.

During his parents’  acrimonious divorce,  their twelve year old son will do anything to ensure his father gains custody of him.  After successfully winning “the war” as his father calls the divorce, the boy, his older brother and father leave their home in Kansas for a new beginning in Albuquerque, NM.  At first hopeful about their life without mom, whom they all believe provoked their father’s abusive treatment of her, the brothers quickly discover nothing has changed except their dad now takes out his anger on them. While their new life seems to be going well initially, it does not take long for the boys’ father’s behavior to become more erratic and the brothers then try to remain united as he tries to drive a wedge between them.

Their new beginning in Albuquerque feels a bit like an adventure initially but the cracks in the foundation are soon showing. The brothers find it difficult to make friends but the oldest son finds his niche on the basketball team, but his father soon makes trouble with the boy’s coach.  Supposedly working from home, their father retreats to his bedroom for days on end only to emerge suffering from severe paranoia from his drug use.  The boys are often left with the responsibility of paying the bills and eventually, their father forgets to leave money to buy groceries.  Over the course of two years, the brothers are soon holding down jobs in an effort to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads while their father becomes a full blown drug addict.

While at times, their “old” father emerges, more often than not, he lashes out at his sons and often pits them against one another.  The boys try to remain united as their situation worsens to the point the oldest son reconnects with their mother.  Just when escape is within their grasp, the rug is yanked out from under them and they are left with nowhere to turn.  Quickly reaching the point of desperation, the boys are biding their time and planning their escape when their situation turns even more hopeless.  Following a particularly violent beating, the youngest brother has a choice to make when salvation arrives but will he take the necessary steps to save himself and his brother?

One of the Boys is a raw and gritty debut novel from Daniel Magariel.  A heartbreaking story of parental abuse and addiction, this deeply affecting story is not for the faint of heart.  The epilogue is particularly poignant since the brothers’ hopeful beginning takes such a horrific turn. This short novel tackles very bleak subject matter and comes to a rather abrupt conclusion that feels vaguely hopeful.  A well-written, hard-hitting story I highly recommend.

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary, Daniel Magariel, Literary Fiction, One of the Boys, Rated B, Review, Scribner

Review: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Title: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Book Rating: B+

Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Penguin’s First to Read Program


She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

In the male-dominated field of animation, Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses are a dynamic duo, the friction of their differences driving them: Sharon, quietly ambitious but self-doubting; Mel, brash and unapologetic, always the life of the party. Best friends and artistic partners since the first week of college, where they bonded over their working-class roots and obvious talent, they spent their twenties ensconced in a gritty Brooklyn studio. Working, drinking, laughing. Drawing: Mel, to understand her tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.

Now, after a decade of striving, the two are finally celebrating the release of their first full-length feature, which transforms Mel’s difficult childhood into a provocative and visually daring work of art. The toast of the indie film scene, they stand at the cusp of making it big. But with their success come doubt and destruction, cracks in their relationship threatening the delicate balance of their partnership. Sharon begins to feel expendable, suspecting that the ever-more raucous Mel is the real artist. During a trip to Sharon’s home state of Kentucky, the only other partner she has ever truly known—her troubled, charismatic childhood best friend, Teddy—reenters her life, and long-buried resentments rise to the surface, hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

A funny, heartbreaking novel of friendship, art, and trauma, The Animators is about the secrets we keep and the burdens we shed on the road to adulthood.


The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker is an engrossing novel that explores the deep bond of friendship between two women who are also business partners.

Throughout her childhood, Sharon Kisses lost herself in cartoons in an effort to keep loneliness at bay while dreaming of escaping her small Kentucky town.  Winning a scholarship to a prestigious college in Upper New York is her ticket to freedom and while she still feels like an outsider, she is enjoying the opportunity to hone her artistic skills.  Striking up an unlikely friendship with vibrant and gregarious Mel Vaught is a huge turning point in her life and following college, the two women become business partners.  It takes ten years of hard work, but they are finally attaining professional success after their first full-length animated  project, based on Mel’s childhood, garners them a prestigious grant for their next as yet undetermined project.  As Mel begins to self-destruct during a publicity tour, Sharon experiences self-doubt about her role in their partnership.  Dual tragedies strike and the women’s friendship is tested as they begin working on their next project.

Both Mel and Sharon carry the scars from their dysfunctional childhoods but the two women cannot be more different.  Mel is the outgoing, brash life of the party while Sharon is quiet and rather introspective.  Neither have quite come to terms with the damage wrought by their respective pasts but they deal with their emotional pain in very different ways.  Mel drinks heavily and self-medicates with a number of legal and illegal substances.  Sharon is the responsible one who tries to reel in her out of control friend with varying degrees of success. She is also a bit of a follower who often finds herself swept up into Mel’s craziness.

In the aftermath of a health crisis, Mel prods Sharon into confronting the demons of her past.  During their visit to Kentucky, Mel persuades her friend to renew her acquaintance with her childhood friend, Teddy Caudill. Teddy abruptly moved away when they were still children, but a traumatic incident involving him still haunts Sharon. After their reunion, Sharon and Teddy unexpectedly fall in love but will their relationship survive after he uncovers the truth about Sharon and Mel’s current project?

Written in first person from Sharon’s perspective, The Animators is a spellbinding exploration of friendship and professional collaboration between two damaged but very appealing characters. Although portions of the story are easy to predict, the overall storyline is refreshingly unique and quite engaging. This outstanding debut by Kayla Rae Whitaker  is an emotional story of friendship that will linger in readers’ hearts long after the last page is turned.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

1 Comment

Filed under Contemporary, Kayla Rae Whitaker, Literary Fiction, Random House, Rated B+, Review, The Animators