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"Sutton" by J.R. Moehringer

Reading Sutton, a first-time venture into fiction by author J. R. Moehringer (The Tender Bar) was like watching a movie for me. I could visualize each scene as it occurred and it almost felt as though I was there—-watching the story unfold. This novel opens in 1969, with the unexpected pardon of infamous bank robber Willie Sutton. He was 68 and in ill health at the time, having spent the last seventeen years in prison. All told he had actually spent almost half of his life behind bars with periods of incarceration followed by break-outs from various prisons and years spent hiding from the authorities. Willie was almost as famous for his prison escapes as he was for robbing banks!
The author begins the story with Willie’s release into the hands of a journalist and photographer who have “scooped” the story from all other publications and are hoping to hear the true story of Willie’s bank robberies and of his involvement in an unsolved murder. But Willie has another agenda in mind. He produces a map with locations marked that he wants them to take him to. As the trio arrives at each location, the reader is treated to Willie’s memories of that place and all that occurred there. I loved the way this moved the story along. The reader was with Willie in the present (1969), and then traveling through his past, finding out the history of Willie Sutton’s life.
Willie Sutton was born in Brooklyn, New York into great poverty. He was also born at a time when there was soaring unemployment, recession, and banks that were out of control. Consequently, when Willie did begin to rob banks, it was seen as a victimless crime since Willie was stealing from the banks, not from individual people. He was also considered a “gentleman robber” because he never fired a shot and his robberies were quiet, low key affairs. He took to using costumes during the heists which earned him the nickname “The Actor”.
Willie was also a hopeless romantic. The object of his one great love was the daughter of a very wealthy shipyard owner which made the reality of their love affair an impossibility. It is actually Bess who starts Willie on his path of crime. She comes up with a scheme to rob her own father’s office safe so  they can elope. Willie’s innocence in believing the possibility of this really working is rather shocking but he was a good person and had never seen crimes such as this as a way out of his hardships.
That all changes when Willie gets involved with a gang of bank robbers, learns the trade, and as they say, the rest is history! Sutton was very successful and prosperous for short periods of his life but the law always caught up with him. He did use his various prison stays to educate himself by reading anything and all things that were available, including Plato, Aristotle, Freud. and Joyce. But being in prison was always more than Sutton could bear so he always came up with an escape plan. Upon escape he would eventually go back to robbing banks and eventually he would be caught and the cycle continued!
I was fascinated by  reading the story of this man’s life and career as a bank robber but the book is so much more than just a look back at the events. Moehringer takes the reader much deeper into the psyche of Willie Sutton. He was an innocent in many ways, and certainly had a genius for certain criminal activities. But as the story progresses one begins to see just how wrapped up in self-delusion this character really was.
The events surrounding the unsolved murder are finally addressed at the end of the story but it seemed a bit anti-climatic. This was the whole point of the reporters interviewing Willie so I thought perhaps it would be a bigger deal at the end. But I do think the author must have done exhaustive research and obviously he did not intend to change the true story so he chose not to make a bigger deal of this event than it really was. There are certainly enough other events throughout this book to keep the reader not only informed but entertained. I would definitely recommend giving Sutton a chance!
Last night we had the pleasure of hosting a phone interview with J.R. Moehringer.  We asked him what his favorite novels were and he gave us an amazing list.  We thought you might be interested in checking out a few of them too:
Stoner - John Williams
A Month in the Country - J. L. Carr
Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes
Any Human Heart - William Boyd
The Sot-Weed Factor - John Barth
Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter
Selected Stories - Alice Munro
Burning the Days - James Salter
Light Years - James Salter

Filed under Sutton J.R. Moehringer Willie Sutton book review

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Interview with Karen Russell author of “Swamplandia!”

Today at 4:00pm on WCHE listen to Sam’s  interview with Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia and the newly released Vampires in the Lemon Grove

The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline—think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades—and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness. 

Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

Karen Russell graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program in 2006. Her stories have been featured in The Best American Short StoriesConjunctionsGrantaThe New YorkerOxford American, and Zoetrope. Her first book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in September 2006. In November 2009, she was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. In June 2010, she was named a New Yorker ”20 Under 40” honoree. Her first novel,Swamplandia!, was published in February 2011.

Filed under Swamplandia! Karen Russell Interview Book review Vampires in the Lemon Grove

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Interview with Hugh Howey author of “Wool”

Today at 4:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Hugh Howey the author of Wool.

This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

Meet Hugh:

Born in 1975, I spent the first eighteen years of my life getting through the gauntlet of primary education. While there, I dabbled in soccer, chess, and tried to write my first novel (several times).

Out of school, I became fascinated with computers, repaired them for a brief stint, then moved to Charleston, SC and attended college. To save money, I purchased a small sailboat to live on, and nearly got myself killed bringing it down from Baltimore with a friend.

After my junior year of college, possibly out of fear of the real world, I left my safe little harbor and sailed South. I hopped around the islands for a while, went through two hurricanes, and spent the last of my cruising funds re-stepping my mast. It was time to head back to the States, where I began a career as a yacht captain.

This began an exciting phase of my life, traveling all over the East coast and Caribbean, from Barbados to Chicago. I worked on boats in New York, the Bahamas, even Canada. One of these adventures brought me together with my wife, who was able to lure me away from my vagabond ways, dropping anchor and buying a house.

Physically settled, my mind continued to roam, concocting adventures and whisking me off to fantastic places. Some of these tales seemed worth sharing, so I tapped into my love of books and decided to write them down. My first stories detail the life of a character that I’ve been mulling over for quite some time. Her name is Molly Fyde, and she draws inspiration from the awesome women in my life.

My Wool series became a sudden success in the Fall of 2011. Originally just a novelette, the demand from Amazon reviewers sent me scurrying to write more tales in this subterranean world. The resulting Omnibus has spent considerable time in the Amazon top 100, has been a #1 Bestseller in Science Fiction on Amazon, and was optioned by Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian for a potential feature film. The story of its success has been mentioned in Entertainment Weekly, Variety, and Deadline Hollywood among many others. 

When I’m not writing, I like to go for hikes with my family, take a stroll on the beach, and keep up with my reading. I currently live in Jupiter, Florida with my wife Amber and our dog Bella.

Listen to Sam’s interview with Hugh on Podomatic or you can download the podcast on iTunes.

Filed under Wook Hugh Howey Radio Interview Book Review

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"Battleborn" by Claire Vaye Watkins

I am tempted to begin this review with a short biography of the author, but that somehow seems unfair.  Claire Vaye Watkins has a shocking tale of her own, but to focus on it robs her of the recognition she deserves for her writing talent.  A collection of ten short stories, Battleborn,is her stunning, albeit gloomy, debut.

Set in the author’s home state of Nevada, the stories mirror the parched, desert landscape of their settings. There are few happy endings here and if you are someone who favors a Cinderella story, I suggest you keep looking. 

Like anyone who loves to read, I pick up bits and pieces of information about books anywhere I can:  magazines in doctor’s offices, discussions with customers at the Bookshop, online reviews, snippets of conversations overheard while out and about.  I discovered Watkins through a short article she wrote for the college magazine where she teaches.  Typically, I prefer short stories in small doses and infrequently pick-up an entire collection.  So drawn in was I by her writing, that I grabbed a copy of her new book as soon as I got back to the Bookshop. She weaves her tales with similar setting and tone giving the book cohesiveness.  It’s as if the author chose not to divulge the fact that the characters from different stories, even different time periods, all know each other or are connected in some way.

While, technically, this is a book of fiction, there is much truth the author reveals about herself right from the beginning.  She is the daughter of Paul Watkins, former follower of Charles Manson, and her mother did commit suicide.  Watkins’ awful past comes through in these haunting stories.  She weaves sorrow, suicide, addiction, and abandonment into her stories, all things with which she claims first hand experience. 

Without reservation, I would call Watkins the most promising new writer I have read in a long time.  I would suggest checking out critical reviews of Battleborn. 

While grateful that I discovered Watkins through her teaching position, I want her to immediately quit her job and get on with the business of writing her novel.  I want more.  I want it now.

Watkins says this about writing, “I believe every successful piece of art contains some pieces of its creator…Leave a part of yourself on the page.”  In Battleborn, thankfully, she has succeeded.


Filed under battleborn claire vaye watkins book review short stories

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"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

This debut novel by Rachel Joyce is appealing for its simple goodness despite the all too human failings and tragedies inherent in the character’s life. Harold Fry is recently retired and living out his days in quiet desperation and estrangement from his wife, Maureen.  He receives a letter from an old friend and coworker, Queenie.  She is dying in a hospice far away. He pens a short bland note back to her and as his day stretches before him with vast landscapes of emptiness, he decides to walk to the corner mail box and post it. He arrives at the mail box and as its a nice day he decides to walk to the next one a little farther away. He makes the decision to keep walking again and again, and by the end of the day he impulsively (and markedly out of character) decides that if he walks the entire 500 mile distance to Queenie she will stay alive.  All he has with him is a credit card and the cash in his wallet. So begins the journey of faith that takes Harold through the countryside and small cities of Great Britain. Along the way he experiences the kindness of strangers and listens to their stories.  Eventually he become a reluctant cult figure of sorts and people flock to his side to share his walk. While Harold walks he opens up to his own story, one of joy, pain, and great sorrow.
Maureen, Harold’s estranged wife, is experiencing a parallel journey of her own and Harold checks in with her along his way. Much of the tension in the book revolves around what went wrong between them and will they be able to repair it.
Harold and Maureen are appealing characters. They are very much like you or I and this is the true magic of the story: the theme is universal- like Harold and Maureen we all have joy and pain, mistakes and missed opportunities. We also all have the opportunity to review our lives and attempt to make sense out of it, and repair damages before its too late.
Harold and Maureen are good people doing the best they can late in their lives. Is it too late to renew their relationship? Is it too late to make sense out of the events of their life?  Can they come to terms with themselves and each other?  Can they accept what life has dealt them and make something meaningful from it?
You’ll root for Harold and Maureen every step of the way.  Its a great read that once begun its difficult to put it down.
~Judy #2

Filed under the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry book review rachael joyce great britian

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"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield

Just so you know from the start, I was badgered and harassed into reading this book. My friend and former co-worker at the book shop started talking about this book the day she was hired. In fact when asked what her favorite book was, this is the title she named. Then for the next two years she made it her mission to get me to read this book. She tried everything. She compared it to other books she knew I loved. She continually told me (and anyone else who would listen) that I (we) HAD to read this book. She’d say, “Just read it, you’ll love it! It’s such a  great story!” I complained that there was probably magic or witchcraft or some such nonsense involved, but she assured me that was not the case.
But I resisted. Partially out of a time constraint, partially because she couldn’t ever really tell me what the book was about. And I really didn’t like the cover.
Well, how long can one hold out against such a lengthy, unrelenting siege?? I admit it—I caved…..but not with intent. I was strolling through the library (yes, book store employees still utilize the public library!) and there it was! Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing there holding The Thirteenth Tale. I thought—-what the heck…and proceeded to the check out line. (Of course I made sure to have several other titles as well. I wanted to have plenty of back-up in case The Thirteenth Tale didn’t turn out to be everything it had been built up to be.) I immediately texted the aforementioned friend, told her what I had done, and told her to get off my back! She just laughed because she knew she had won.
I surrender! Yes, I liked the book—I really liked this book but I now know why said friend could never give me a clear sense of what the story was about. It’s impossible without telling the whole tale from start to finish! It just wouldn’t make sense if summarized. The story has so many twists and turns, lots of interconnected characters—if I began to tell you the story line it wouldn’t make a lot of sense unless I told you the next part, and the next part, and so on and so on.
So I will tell you that it IS a great story. It is a tale about telling the truth. It is a story about a young inexperienced writer who is commissioned to write the biography of an older, extremely successful writer whose life has been cloaked in mystery. It’s that older writer’s life story you’re reading but it also becomes the younger biographer’s story as well. It is a story about mothers and daughters, the relationships between twins, sanity and insanity. It’s The Forgotten Garden on steroids!
So….now I’ll tell you…..just read it! Don’t try to analyze what you’re reading, don’t make assumptions about what you’re reading—-just read it and listen to the story. You WILL be satisfied at the end.
Thank you Bethany. 

~ Judy

Filed under Diane Setterfield The Thirteenth Tale The Forgotten Garden Book Review

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What’s Cooking? - “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook”

Yea!  I was waiting and waiting for Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen to write a cookbook.  I have been following Deb’s blog since I discovered the chocolate peanut butter cake recipe that made my in-laws accept me a birthday parties.  Deb is my go-to person for homemade marshmallows (one you have a homemade marshmallow you will NEVER have one from a bag again!).  But enough about why I love her blog, here is why I love her new cookbook.

Deb provides one of the most helpful notes and tips sections I’ve found in a cookbook.  For example, what to do if you don’t have buttermilk in the fridge or how to make brown sugar if you run out.  I mean really, I never have buttermilk but I always want buttermilk pancakes and biscuits.  This in itself is worth buying the book! 

True to the recipes on her blog, the recipes in the cookbook are straight forward and delicious.  I did my usual recipe sampler so here it goes:

Breakfast:  Gingerbread Spice Dutch Baby - I’ve never had a dutch baby pancake, I’ve barely ever heard of them.  It is a light, cripsy pancake that you make in the blender and oven.  I might never go back to regular pancakes and the mess again.  All you do is whiz them up in the blender, pour into a pan (that can go into the oven), pop them in the oven and bake.  What this means is that you can make them on a busy school morning, they are so simple.  The gingerbread spices make the kitchen smell wonderful too!  I also made the Apricot Breakfast Crisp - if you love cobbler, this is going to be your new breakfast go-to.  Baked fruit (I made it with peaches) with a crumbly topping is served with yogurt and delivered to the table in about 30 minutes.  This is absolutely wonderful and it is even better cold so you can whip it up at night and have it for breakfast.

Salads:  Roasted Baby Roots with Sherry-Shallot Vinaigrette - This is a complete salad but can also be served as a side if you would like a heartier meal.  You can roast any root vegetable that you like and once they are cooked you toss them with a vinaigrette, some quinoa and goat cheese.  My family couldn’t stop eating this!  The sweetness of the veggies with the tangy dressing was a perfect.

Veggie Main Dishes:  Gnocchi in Tomato Broth - Don’t let this intimidate you, gnocchi is pretty easy to make.  Basically, roast your potatoes and mix with egg, flour and a few other things until you have a dough.  Then you just roll it with your hands and cut into chunks with a knife.  What you end up with are light, fluffy gnocchi that you won’t want to stop eating.  Deb pairs this with a simple tomato broth.  I did change this up a bit though because when it came to strain the veggies out of the broth I found I just could not do it (I’m a bit of a veggie fanatic) so I pulled out my hand blender and made a smooth sauce.  It was delicious.

The Main Dish:  Vermouth Mussels with Tarragon Oven Fries - I am a sucker for mussels and fries.  I always get them when they are on the menu in restaurants and they are simple and quick to make at home.  And as crazy as it sounds, my toddler loves them too!  Deb’s mussels with the vermouth and tarragon were scarfed down in record time.  Mustard Milanese with Arugula Fennel Salad was my more complicated foray into the book.  Chicken breast fillets are dredged in flour, mustard sauce and panko breadcrumbs and then pan fried and served with a simple arugula and fennel salad on top.  Another hit with the family!  The chicken was moist and crunchy and Deb’s tip to bread the chicken and then put in the fridge for an hour was the answer to why I don’t fix many breaded dishes.  I hate when you bread something (chicken or fish around here) and then all of the breading falls off!  Popping the breaded fillets into the fridge for an hour really set the breading so every bit stayed on the chicken.  My hubby asked if I would make this dish again.

Desserts:  About one third of the cookbook is dedicated to desserts and I have to say they all look amazing but I haven’t had a chance to try them out.  Based on the chocolate peanut butter cake and the marshmallows I have no doubt they will be spectacular.  I am especially anxious to try the S’more Layer Cake, need I say more?

Filed under smitten kitchen cookbook marshmallows chocolate peanut butter cake book review

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'The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling

Well, well, well….where DO I begin? If you’ve read this blog before you’ve heard me say I’ve been accused of never reading a book I didn’t like. Can I tell you folks——I’ve just found one!!

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, takes place in the small English town of Pagford where a young council member has died suddenly leaving what is known as a casual vacancy. The rest of the story follows the antics of various townspeople as a replacement is sought and eventually elected.
Reading this book was much like driving past an automobile accident…you don’t want to look but you have to. The characters are really unlikable people doing horrible things—but I couldn’t look away! The only character who may have had some redeeming qualities was the man who died! And since he dies at the very beginning of the book one can’t even be sure about him! 

Rowling does a great job intertwining the plotting and scheming of the various characters so that one behavior directly affects another behavior that directly affects another and so on. But none of the behaviors serve any good purpose.

The real trouble between council members stems from a disagreement over an area that lies between Pagford and Yarvil- a larger city a few miles away. After World War II Yarvil began building affordable housing that eventually spilled into and filled all of the city’s available land between themselves and Pagford. The construction was cheap and the community had multiple problems and soon Yarvil was delegating certain responsibilities to Pagford-the greatest being that a large section of the poorest housing known as the Fields would send their children to the school in Pagford. In a classic tale of “haves” versus “have nots” some on Pagford’s council were determined to rid themselves of  this burden but had never had the votes needed to accomplish the task. Now with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother (who had been born in the Fields and was a strong proponent of Pagford support) the anti-Fields group saw their chance to tip the scales in their favor—if, of course, the “right” Pagfordian was  elected to the casual vacancy. And so the plots and schemes and undermining and character destruction begins!

You’ll meet a morbidly obese, self important gourmet deli owner and his snobbish wife. They have a son, an attorney, who follows in his father’s attitudinal footsteps. He is married to a woman who wants to be her teenage daughter. There’s also a husband who physically, emotionally, and verbally abuses his wife and two sons. The teenage son seeks revenge at one point which begins a tragic chain of events. You’ll also meet a heroin addicted mother of a teenage daughter and a two year old son. The little boy has just recently been returned to the household and the teenager pretty much runs wild. One of the characters is a social worker who briefly gets involved with this family even as her own situation is deteriorating. She moved to Pagford to live with her boyfriend but he is losing interest fast and her very unhappy teenage daughter is looking for revenge of her own.

Are you getting the picture here? There are many more characters, each with his or her own failings and part to play in the ultimate disaster the community becomes. It’s almost as though Rowling made a list of all reprehensible human behaviors and characteristics and then created a character that displayed each one. I just got so tired of reading about these misfits and their despicable behaviors. I know…shame on me for continuing to read the book, but I was sure something good was going to come of this mess. Spoiler alert—-it doesn’t!! Believe it or not the story actually gets worse at the end!

I absolutely believe that people like these characters really do live among us—we’ve all met them. But honestly…all at once? All in one town? All in one book? Spare me.


Filed under Casual Vacancy J.K. Rowling book review pagford

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Interview with Craig Brown author of “Hello, Goodbye, Hello”

Today at 5:00pm on WCHE 1520am, Sam interviews Craig Brown author ofHello, Goodbye, Hello.

From “one of the funniest writers in Britain—wise, clever, hilarious, and a national treasure” (Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones’s Diary) comes this delightful book of “101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous” [The Observer (London) Best Books of the Year]. Can you imagine more unlikely meetings than these: Marilyn Monroe and Frank Lloyd Wright; Sergei Rachmaninoff and Harpo Marx; T. S. Eliot and Groucho Marx; Madonna and Martha Graham; Michael Jackson and Nancy Reagan; Tsar Nicholas II and Harry Houdini; Nikita Khrushchev and Marilyn Monroe? They all happened. Craig Brown tells the stories of 101 such bizarre encounters in this witty, original exploration into truth-is-stranger-than-fiction.

"Captivating… . A glittering daisy chain that reads like a mathematical proof of the theory of six degrees of separation… . Mr. Brown constructs portraits that have all the immediacy of reportage, all the fanciful detail of fiction. He has whipped up a gratifying summertime confection — funny, diverting, occasionally sad."  —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“The book that made me laugh most was Craig Brown’s quirky game of biographical consequences.” —Julian Barnes, Times Literary Supplement “Books of the Year”

Craig Brown has been writing the Private Eye celebrity diary since 1989 and is a columnist for London’s Daily Mail. He has also written parodies for many publications, including the Daily Telegraph, Vanity Fair, The Times, and The Guardian. The author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, he lives in London.

Filed under hello goodbye hello craig brown wche interview book review