By Gina Webb
Happy New Year, readers! We could not imagine better timing than Day 1 of 2012 for a first look at the hottest upcoming titles set in the South or written by Southerners, including two much-anticipated music books and novels by emerging authors you won’t want to miss.
“A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty,” Joshilyn Jackson (Grand Central, $25.99).
Just as Mosey Slocumb turns 15, a long-hidden grave unearthed in the backyard threatens to ruin everything her grandmother has struggled to win for the teen since Mosey’s drug-addicted mother brought her home to Mississippi. Jackson’s signature style — the feisty, bighearted voice of “Gods in Alabama” and “Backseat Saints” — propels this funny, dark whodunit, where strong women who’ve made bad choices band together to come out on top.
“The Evening Hour,” A. Carter Sickels (Bloomsbury, $15).
Intense, edgy storytelling and a distinctive voice mark newcomer Sickels’ novel, set in a rural West Virginia coal-mining town devastated by mountaintop removal. Sickels captures in beautifully deft strokes the members of a vanishing community, seen through the eyes of a 27-year-old nursing home aide who steals his patients’ worldly goods and buys their prescription drugs to resell to the many locals who’ve become addicts — including some of his oldest friends.
“The Healing,” Jonathan Odell (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $26).
Sure to draw comparisons with “The Help” — its white, male, Mississippi-born author writes in the voice of a female slave — Odell’s spellbinding second novel tells the story of a pampered housemaid on a cotton plantation who has been raised as the white mistress’ “child.” She finds herself cast out and apprenticed to a witchy, wise-woman slave who teaches the girl the most important thing: who she really is.
“The Rebel Wife,” Taylor M. Polites (Simon & Schuster, $25).
Sweltering heat, madness, hints of a “red death” plague and a narrator straight out of Edgar Allan Poe render Polites’ feverish debut a Southern Gothic to the nth power. After the death of her rich Yankee husband, an Alabama woman discovers that his wealth may have been squandered and her shaky future in the Reconstruction South looks remarkably like the one faced by her former slaves — who are free, but in name only.
“My Cross to Bear,” Gregg Allman (Morrow, $27.99).
Shove over, Keith — Gregg covers it all in this long-awaited autobiography: his 1960s Southern upbringing and the emergence of the Allman Brothers Band’s sound; the dual motorcycle deaths (of brother Duane and bassist Berry Oakley) that upended the band; his six failed marriages; and his battles with drugs and alcohol and Hepatitis C, and the liver transplant he finally received in 2010.
“The One: The Life and Music of James Brown,” R.J. Smith (Gotham Books, $27.50).
A new look at the Godfather of Soul by veteran music writer Smith (“The Great Black Way”), a former columnist for the Village Voice and staff writer at Spin, could be the brand new bag we’ve been waiting for. Based on interviews with more than a hundred people who knew Brown personally or professionally, it also draws from Brown’s love letters (!), documents from the IRS and Oval Office tapes capturing the Brown-Nixon meeting.
“Blue Asylum,” Kathy Hepinstall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24).
A woman put on trial by her slaveholding husband in post-Civil War Virginia is convicted of madness and sent to Florida’s Sanibel Asylum, where she tries and fails to convince the authorities of her sanity and her husband’s guilt. Quirky characters in and out of the asylum — including a superintendent overly fond of the “newest” treatments of the time — underscore the tenuous distinction between sane and crazy in this disturbing look at how society once deemed unfit any woman who defied her traditional role.
“The Cove,” Ron Rash (Ecco, $25.99).
Rash (“Serena”) introduces another memorable female character in this World War I-era story of a young woman living in a remote cove in western North Carolina who has spent most of her life shunned by the superstitious locals as a witch because of her facial birthmark. Her fate changes when she finds love with a mysterious, flute-playing stranger she happens upon in the woods, a man with a secret that links them together in unexpected, dangerous ways.
“The Beginner’s Goodbye,” Anne Tyler (Knopf, $24.95).
It’s easy to imagine Tyler as someone who could throw a great dinner party: She has a knack for matching odd people who can fix each other. In her 19th novel, a husband’s life is shattered after a falling tree crushes his house and kills his wife — until the day he glances up and finds her watching him from down the street. His story describes the events leading up to her death and the people he meets in its aftermath who aid his efforts to put his home back together in more ways than one.
“Home,” Toni Morrison (Knopf, $24).
A new book by Morrison is always cause for celebration, but especially one set in Georgia. After enduring trauma on the front lines of the Korean War, an angry, bitter veteran returns to racist America, scarred in ways more than physical. His need to rescue his emotionally unstable sister leads him back to the hometown he’s always hated — but which also holds the keys to the courage he thought he never could possess again.
“Canada,” Richard Ford (Ecco, $26.99).
Ford’s first novel in more than five years is a Dostoevskian tale of crime and punishment divided between fictional Great Falls, Mont., and the plains of southern Saskatchewan, where a boy whose parents have been jailed for bank robbery goes to live with the enigmatic, cultured — and hunted — brother of a family friend. A coming-of-age story as well as a political one, “Canada” probes deeply into the nature of identity, exile and forgiveness.