Courtney Miller Santo signs 'Three Story House'

Courtney Miller Santo writes about women. The Memphis-based author of "The Roots of the Olive Tree" acknowledges that men in her stories are peripheral, sometimes helpful, sometimes intrusive, sometimes necessary and sometimes not.

santo.jpgSanto will launch her second novel, "Three Story House," Aug. 19 with an appearance at The Booksellers at Laurelwood.  

In Santo's story, three women in their late 20s move into an about-to-be condemned house on the Memphis river bluff. The structure belonged to the grandmother of Lizzie, a soccer player whose hopes of making the Olympic team are stalled by an injury. She brings along her cousins Isobel from Los Angeles, whose career as an actress is in limbo, and Elyse from Boston, who's recovering from a romantic trauma. The bizarrely shaped "spite house" they take over holds answers to several mysteries, among them the source of the grudge that brought it into being.

Santo, who teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis, says she was fascinated 20 years ago when she was a student at Washington and Lee University and came across the Hollensbury Spite House in Alexandria, Virginia, a sliver of a building built in 1830 by an owner who wanted to keep people out of the alley next to his residence.

"It stuck in my head, and I started collecting stories about spite houses," she says. (Such collections abound: The Web Urbanist list of structures "built just to annoy people" is topped by the house painted like a gay pride flag across the street from the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.)

Santo, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, set her first book, about five generations of firstborn women, in an olive grove in Northern California. She says "Three Story House" draws some of its dramatic tension from the difference between her West Coast upbringing and life in the South as a W&L student and after.

 "When I went to Washington and Lee, I was stupidly shocked that I was in the South. My mother said, 'The school is named after a Civil War general....'"

Santo, now 38, arrived shortly after women were first admitted as undergraduates to the all-male institution founded in 1749, which last month decided to remove Confederate flags from its chapel. She says coeducation hadn't yet settled comfortably into the campus. "I was being passed over in class, with someone essentially saying, 'Honey, you don't know what you think.'"

before he wrote his book, 'Wild Tales,' Nash held a book in this photo for the cover of his 1973 solo album, also called 'Wild Tales' (photo by Joel Bernstein)

"Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life" (Crown Archetype, $28) justifies its subtitle by reminding us that Graham Nash is not entirely a bard of cozy hippie domesticity, despite his famous affection for the "very very very fine house" he shared with Joni Mitchell and "two cats in the yard."

Nor was Nash always the environmental and social justice activist who, late in his new book, is able to note his commitment to a shopping list of noble if sometimes vague causes that includes "the homeless, drug education, victims of earthquakes, the needy, Greenpeace, the antinuke movement, Farm Aid, the Bridge School, the California Environmental Protection Initiative, UNICEF, everything important."

the nicely designed book coverNo, the surprise of Nash's memoir is that it is as devoted to sex and drugs and the glory of what might now be called "oldies" rock and roll as one would expect of a book from, say, a Stone or an Animal or a Trogg, rather than from the sweet-voiced harmonist who, with his partners Stephen Stills and David Crosby and sometimes Neil Young, recorded such relatively sophisticated folk-rock album cuts as "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."

This is a surprise that really shouldn't be a surprise. Nash, 72, has been around for basically the entire history of rock and roll, first as a fan of Elvis ("Wham! -- It was as though someone slugged me," he writes of his first exposure to "Heartbreak Hotel") and especially the Everly Brothers, then as a participant in the British Invasion (he was a founder of the Hollies), a Laurel Canyon hippie, a lover of Joni and Rita (Coolidge), performer at Woodstock and a millionaire member of what may be the first rock supergroup promoted as such. (Crosby, Stills & Nash, remember, was constructed with ex-players from the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies.) Nash even contributed seed money to Maroon 5 (a revelation that does his musical legacy no favors).

Graham Nash will sign copies of "Wild Tales" at 1 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 20) at the Booksellers at Laurelwood, 387 Perkins Ext. It is a "line ticket" event, so books must be purchased at the store, and Nash will sign no other memorabilia. (For more information, look here.) The bookstore visit is something of a prelude to a later concert event, when Crosby, Stills & Nash perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Orpheum. (Ticket information is here.)

'Gone Dead Train' runs on Memphis lore and legend

Lisa Turner's fictional Memphis is very much like the real one. The author, whose second crime novel, "The Gone Dead Train," was published last month by William Morrow ($14.99), grew up and lives in Memphis, and her descriptions of the city mostly stick to the facts while also revisiting the legends.

lisaturner.jpgThe book opens as Detective Billy Able sits down for a beer at Earnestine & Hazel's on South Main, where, "The jukebox was famous for spontaneously singling out a man and speaking to his pain." (The "haunted" E&H jukebox also gets credit for its mind-reading abilities on the Memphisghosts website.)

Turner's novel plays out in Memphis locations including 201 Poplar, Court Square, Summer Avenue, AutoZone Park and Beale Street, including Itta Bena restaurant above B.B. King's, with its signature blue-tinted windows and black-and-white photographs of Tina Turner by the late Jack Robinson. In a book ever conscious of its place, one character hides an important clue in "Hellhound on His Trail," by Memphis native Hampton Sides, about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Memphis, of course, provides the backdrop to other crime novels -- John Grisham's "The Firm," famously, and Daniel Friedman's two books about the 80-something retired MPD detective Buck Schatz, "Don't Ever Get Old" and "Don't Ever Look Back." In the latter, you will find such obscure historical notes about the city as the fact that Clifford Davis, for whom the federal building at Poplar and Front was named, was not just a congressman, and Memphis public safety commissioner, but also an avowed member of the KKK.

train.jpg"The Gone Dead Train," in addition to being saturated with Memphis lore and atmosphere, also takes a reader into the realm of the magical African-Caribbean religion of Santeria. Turner says her research on the subject relied on her cousin, the late Lt. James Flatter, a cop for 30 years who worked for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in Key West, Florida.

The plot bursts into motion with the sudden, consecutive deaths of two blues musicians, who are the victims of Santeria curses. At least that's what Officer Frankie Malone, who grew up in Key West, believes. She finds a conjure bag filled with a mixture of eggshell, coal and parts of a wasp nest with one man's body, and convinces Detective Able to go with her to the abandoned South Memphis house where the musicians had been squatting. There Frankie recognizes evidence of curses -- pictures of the two men pierced through by black candles and surrounded by gray hair. "That room, those clues, some of that is the set-up that my cousin would walk into at a death scene," Turner says. "They're either deadly curses or they're meant to ward off curses."

The officers also find a jacket with photographs sewn into the pocket that date back to the civil rights era. Those pictures, which have the power to compromise the legacies of important figures in the civil rights movement, drive the plot.

Turner's cousin is not only on her book's dedication page, he's also the model for a character in the book named James Freeman, a vigilant friend whose trust must be earned. "My cousin would sit at the bar at Huey's Downtown and he'd look at the mirror at the room behind him," Turner says. "He'd say to the bartender, 'There's about to be a problem at table five,' and soon it would happen."

She also talked to Memphis detectives, lawyers and investigators, she says. "A female patrol cop was one of my copy editors. I write scenes and ask them to read them, and they'll say, 'That's how I would do that.' I find out if my scenario works."

Turner and her husband, Rob Sangster, currently split their time between Memphis and Nova Scotia. She previously worked with her mother in the family business, Designer's Choice Interiors, and published her 2010 debut novel, "A Little Death in Dixie," with Debra Dixon's local Bell Bridge Books. Offered initially as a free ebook, "Dixie" was a fiction-writer's fantasy come true. It went to the top of its Kindle category on Amazon for several weeks, trading places for No. 1 on the list with "Mockingjay," the third book in The Hunger Game series.

After that response from readers, Turner got a call from the literary agent Robert Gottlieb, whose clients include Deepak Chopra, followed by a two-book deal with the William Morrow imprint of HarperCollins.

Turner wrote on a blog that the title of her new book was inspired by a tornado and the location of her Memphis home near the Norfolk Southern tracks.

"One morning I was sitting on the floor in my office, surrounded by books, news articles, and scratchy, old photographs of blues players buried two decades ago. But this story was worrying me. ... While I was sitting there thinking, the room suddenly darkened, strange since the windows had been full of light moments before. The wind picked up with a storm blowing in hard from the west across the river. Then the tornado sirens went off. We don't have a basement, so I chose a book of blues lyrics meant to be read as poetry and settled in a chair far away from the windows. The sirens wailed as the wind tore at the oak in our front yard. The book opened to a song by King Solomon Hill. A train whistle blew as I read the title, 'The Gone Dead Train.' I got the chills," she wrote.

"I had my title and an opening scene with Red Davis, a down-and-out New Orleans bluesman waiting at midnight for a train he would never catch."

Hampton Sides in Memphis Aug. 8 with 'In the Kingdom of Ice'

Memphis native Hampton Sides finds fascinating but somehow sidelined moments of American history, then performs deep research to excavate his subjects for book-length narratives.

sides.jpgIn "Blood and Thunder," he hung the history of the American conquest of the West on the story of the scout Kit Carson, a project he pursued to learn more about his adopted home of Santa Fe. In "Ghost Soldiers," his research zeroed in on the World War II-era U.S. Army mission to rescue the survivors of the Bataan Death March.

In "Hellhound on His Trail," Sides revisited his hometown's history to describe "The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His ­Assassin," as the book's subtitle says it. "He wants to deliver a heart-pounding nonfiction thriller," a New York Times review of the book said about Sides. "This must be the first book on King that owes less to Taylor Branch than Robert Ludlum."

"In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette," published this month, is Sides' telling of the exploratory venture that began in San Francisco in 1879 and had its tragic conclusion in Siberia several years later.

kingdom.jpgSides' tour for the book will bring him to Memphis Friday for a talk at The Booksellers at Laurelwood. The 52-year-old author graduated from Memphis University School, got his bachelor's degree in history at Yale, and started his career in journalism at Memphis Magazine. By telephone from a West Coast airport, the author, a longtime editor at Outside magazine, said the tale of the Jeannette was made to order for him.

"I have an affinity for these kinds of harrowing adventure stories in the wilderness," he said. "Because there were 13 survivors, there was a lot of material to work with -- journals, testimony before Congress and the Navy, best-selling books. There was a lot of raw, primary material. There's an increased interest these days both in the Arctic, because of climate change, and in Russia. In terms of the zeitgeist, it was hitting all the right notes."

The mission itself, to sail a ship to the North Pole, seems astonishingly misconceived 140 years after it was undertaken. "It's amazing just how wrong they were," Sides said.

"It seems fantastical, that they thought there might be a hollow earth, a warm sea, a civilization at the North Pole.... What I wanted to write about was the Gilded Age. It's a story of national glory, personal glory, outrageous wealth and power and influence wielded by individuals. It doesn't feel like a story that would have happened any other time."

His research took him from Paris and Germany to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. You can read about his Siberian trip at But advance news of "Kingdom of Ice" was cautiously worded, so as not to give away the fate of the Jeannette's crew. In review copies Doubleday sent out before publication, editor-in-chief William Thomas advised readers: "Don't Google it."

 "You can go online and find out what happened, but the suspense and power of the last thirty pages of the book is bound up in not knowing," Sides said.

He's pausing before deciding on his next book project. He's looking at four possibilities, including "a story that takes place during the Korean war, and another one that takes place in Marshall Islands in the Pacific."


Hampton Sides, author of "In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette" (Doubleday, $28.95), will speak at The Booksellers at Laurelwood at 7 p.m. Friday.

Lisa Turner signs her second mystery set in Memphis

turner.jpgMemphis native Lisa Turner, whose first novel, "A Little Death in Dixie," used her hometown as a backdrop to the murderous mayhem, returns to the scene of the crimes in her second mystery.

Detective Billy Able is once again on the job in "The Gone Dead Train" (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99). In Turner's first book, the character is introduced as he makes this cynical observation: "People shouldn't kill each other on Saturday morning. They should mow their lawns and pick up groceries. Murder ain't your proper Saturday morning activity. Except in Memphis. In Memphis you can commit murder any Saturday morning you like."

But the book also romanticizes the city. As she's describing a rundown roadside stand, Turner writes, "The sign was a lot like Memphis: seductive, old, with hints of grandeur and an aura of risk."

Turner's publisher says the new Billy Able book, which comes out Tuesday, throws the detective into a tale that involves "a disgraced major league baseball player, two legendary blues musicians on the lam, a straight-arrow lady cop tortured by a guilty conscience, and two iconic civil rights warriors with secrets so dark they'll shock the nation." The detective will turn to a voodoo priest for help on this case.  "Turner effectively mines the blues, civil rights struggles and Santeria rites" for a "soulful sequel" to her 2010 debut, said a Publishers Weekly review.

Turner's online biography says her experience in her family's interior design business earned her a "PhD in the peculiarities of human nature." The author will sign her new book at 6 p.m. July 22 at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, 387 Perkins Road Ext. Call 901-683-9801 for more information.

Author of 'Auto Biography' comes to Memphis

auto.jpgEarl Swift will sign his "Auto Biography' at 2 p.m. July 19 at The Booksellers at Laurelwood.

"Auto Biography" (HarperCollins, $26.99) is the true story of a 1957 Chevrolet Townsman wagon and the people who owned it, especially its 13th owner, Tommy Arney, the story's "main driver,"

The book is subtitled "A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream," and Arney is the 'outlaw.'

Swift, a resident fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia, describes the Chevy as "possibly the most recognizable and beloved car to ever roll off an assembly line," a vehicle that embodied "the new suburban ideal that was just gelling in America's collective consciousness in the mid-fifties."

The author sums up Arney as "a rough customer -- he has a fourth-grade education, used to own a chain of go-go bars, and has pounded the daylights out of a goodly percentage of the Norfolk population over the past forty years."

The Booksellers at Laurelwood is at 387 Perkins Ext. For more information, call 901-683-9801.

Author makes Memphis to-do list

crespo.jpgAdd Samantha Crespo's "100 Things to Do in Memphis Before You Die" (Reedy Press, $16) to the multiplying lists of "100 Things" to do, see or eat before it's too late.

The author, a travel writer whose family moved to Memphis in 2010, brings an outsider's appreciation and an insider's perspective to her project, describing herself online as "Floridian by birth, Tennessean by heart."

Her book serves both kinds of tourists: the ones who visit and the ones who live here. So, while she includes the necessary references to Beale Street, Graceland, Sun Records and the National Civil Rights Museum, she also suggests many places off the beaten path, such as the Buccaneer Lounge on Monroe, Jones Orchard in Millington, the Withers Collection Museum on Beale and Black Lodge Video in Cooper-Young.

Crespo will sign her book at 6 p.m. July 15 at The Booksellers at Laurelwood.

A Memphis audience recites poetry with Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni read her poem "Ego-tripping" to a rapt audience at the National Civil Rights Museum Sunday, but she didn't speak alone. Some among the SRO crowd in the 350-seat auditorium murmured along as she read. The voices swelled near the end of the stanza that begins "I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal," and rose to a chorus at the end: "I mean I can fly/ like a bird in the sky."

"Ego-tripping" was the title work in her 1973 collection of "poems for young people," a narrative so compelling it's been a standard for memorization at schools and sororities for decades. Its myth-making voice anticipated hip-hop artists, with lines like: "I am so hip even my errors are correct."

During an hourlong interview moderated by Mearl Purvis of Fox13 News at the museum, Giovanni's mood ranged from indignant when she talked about opposition to paying NCAA athletes to melancholy when she talked about the death of her mother. 

Giovanni, 71, is a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech, and the author of poetry collections including "Black Feeling Black Talk," "The Women and the Men" and "Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea," as well as the autobiographical "Gemini." 

Nikki Giovanni to read Sunday at Civil Rights Museum

Internationally acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni, who received the Langston Hughes Medal for poetry and the first Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, will speak at 2 p.m. Sunday at the National Civil Rights Museum about her work, her life and American culture. 

A distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, Giovanni, 71, is one of Oprah Winfrey's 25 "Living Legends," a list that also included Giovanni's close friend, the late Maya Angelou.

Giovanni's autobiography, "Gemini," was a finalist for the National Book Award. "Rosa," her 2007 children's book about the civil rights figure Rosa Parks, was a Caldecott Honors Book. Her album "The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection" was nominated for a Grammy, and her recording "Truth Is On Its Way" received the Best Spoken Word Album award from the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers.

In her free appearance in Hooks Hyde Hall on the second floor of the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, 450 Mulberry, in Downtown Memphis, Giovanni will perform several of her poems, and talk about her 2013 book, "Chasing Utopia." A book signing will follow.

In 2008, she published three children's books: "The Grasshopper's Song," "Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship," and "Hip Hop Speaks to Children," which was on The New York Times Best Seller list and won an NAACP Image Award. 

Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Lincoln Heights, a suburb of Cincinnati. 

'Further Joy' finds the Florida beyond tourists


Several of the stories in John Brandon's new collection, "Further Joy," pack a novel's worth of conflict and personalities into small packages that might easily have been developed into books of their own.

joy.jpgBrandon, who has written three novels, ends many of these stories without tying up loose ends, and they are effective precisely because of this unfinished, unsettling quality.

Brandon leads his protagonists to the brink of life-altering decisions but then stops before the critical choices are made, giving readers the space to imagine alternative outcomes, each with its own ethical implications.

As a character from "The Inland News" puts it, "There's a moral in anything if you want there to be." That story is about a young woman named Sofia who has the extra-sensory gift of perceiving the guilt hidden in other people's consciences. Will she use that insight to help her uncle, a homicide detective, solve a crime, or will she wash her hands of the affair and allow it to remain a mystery? Sofia's personal life is baffling enough to engage all of her energies; perhaps, the story suggests, we do better to focus on our own problems and leave questions of guilt and innocence to other powers.

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