Editor’s Note: Valerie McEwan runs one of the best websites of Southern writing there is, the Dead Mule School (formerly the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature). The essay below appeared at the Mule recently. If you like Southern fiction by some of the hardest working writers today, you should check out her site of fiction, poetry, art, and all kinds of Southern peculiarities.
A Couple or Three Books by Mule Alumni
Why do we read? Neil Gaiman says we read fiction because it can show you a different world. One essential “function of fiction in human life” he says, lies in “its ability to introduce us to different versions of the world by envisioning alternate possibilities for the way things are.” A book forces us to see possibilities and to envision alternate realities. Reading also fosters empathy.
These days my reading seems to lean more toward fiction more than non-fiction. While I enjoy essays and always have, the Covid19 reality is that I like to be divorced from the real and immerse myself into someone else’s world.
I spent last week reading through JoJo Moyes’ books and, since the pandemic began, I’ve read all of Kate Atkinson’s fine novels. Then there’s the ever-present John Grisham novel. Or reading a Donna Tartt novel can take you into such detailed descriptions that you come out a week later, bruised and tattered, worn out from the prose but all the better for it. She’s remarkable. But I need to tell ya’ll about some new fiction, Mule Fiction.
I’ve got two really interesting murder mysteries for y’all to read, both from Mule writers. Both really great novels. You can find links to ordering the books within the text, so grab yourself a credit card or use your Amazon Prime account (lol) and order copies of these books today. Really, reading is fundamental, buy yourself a prize. Your supporting our writers is like a great big thank you to 25 years online for the Dead Mule.
Not long ago, as I sat in my office, looking out the window to my front porch, I noticed a stranger coming up my steps. He had a book in his hand. After he knocked on the door, I donned my mask and opened the door, storm door in place, to find Rod Barfield. He said, “I’m looking for an editor.” Looking for me, the editor of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. On his way to Salter Path, NC to a book signing, Rod stopped by my house to hand deliver a copy of his book “Tempest on the Outer Banks”. He wanted to thank me in person for publishing his flash fiction on the Mule, must have been oh ten years ago. I was gobsmacked!
He mentions me in the Acknowledgements and I’m so honored. I tell y’all to do the happy dance when you get accepted in the Mule and Rod took this to heart. And he happy danced all the way to writing a great murder mystery.
The book? Oooh. It’s a good one. It take place on “Croatan Island” on the Outer Banks (of North Carolina), so it’s close to home for me. Rodney Barfield’s descriptions of the people and the place are so true, I feel as if I’m reading an essay on life on the island, as much as a mystery. Rod’s book with entertain you and make you think, take you out of your Covid19 reality. Rod spent time as the director of the North Carolina Museum of Maritime Museum. He’s articulate, entertaining, and tells a darn good story.
Rod knows his Outer Banks history and lore. The rich background history of the area lends great credence to his amazing story. It’s not just for NC coastal fans, don’t be swayed by his geographical identification. Every novel needs sense of place, don’t you agree? Part mystery, part romance, all historical wonder, this novel really has it all.
Barfield describes the B&B on the island: “There was a fresh breeze flowing off the bay, fluttering the sheer curtains, a faint taste of oysters in the air. The room was clean and neat and sparse, covered with print wallpaper that dated from the 1950s. Plaster over lath walls, heart pine floors, and beaded cypress ceilings dated the inn to the late nineteenth or maybe early twentieth century. There were two rooms on the second floor and a shared bath.” You can feel the island oozing out of his words. If you’ve ever been to the Outer Banks, you’ll remember. If you’ve never been, you’ll get a real sense and feel of the place in Barfield’s book. As a frequent visitor to the Outer Banks, I can testify — Barfield nails the place with his apt prose. Ahhh, the sense of place in a good southern novel.
Another Mule writer, Philip Thompson, has a new novel “Old Anger”, released right now in December 2020 by Brash Books. Old Anger is book number two of the Colt Harper stories. The novel takes the reader into the mind of a rural county sheriff and his quest to solve a brutal murder. Colt Harper, the sheriff, works his way through the landscape of questions and bitter answers with finesse and style. He’s a complicated guy. Once more, the sense of place looms large. Set in rural Mississippi, Thompson creates the scene as well as the action and every character is unique.
Thompson’s writing is tight, concise, and his descriptions are spot on. The very first page gives us a wonderful glimpse into how it’s going to be. Here’s his take on character Donnie Wample: “…a gristle of a man, his arms were like steel cables that shot out of his short-sleeve shirt and ended in hands that, Colt was sure, made fists like wrecking balls.” Got it, I see that man. Great description and the whole book fills your head with great character studies such as that. One liners resonating with reality, oozing with details.
Outside the Law, the first book featuring Colt Harper, review available by clicking here.
If, as Rebecca Solnit says that “a book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Thompson’s book gives us characters whose souls are exposed, laid bare, like a heart beating outside the chest. Both of these novels show us how the act of reading changes us. Makes us whole.
Neil Gaiman: “Books will endure past the age of screens.” This is true. Order books from independent publishers and bookstores, support small businesses. This Christmas, give the gift of literature. Think about it, encourage your loved ones to spend time in an alternate reality. We all need an escape from pandemic fatigue, don’t we? It’s a way to be alone in the company of others, that’s how I see reading. Buy books for your loved ones, share words and let them escape along with countless others into another reality. It’s a great anecdote to binge watching cringe worthy shows.
I recommend Rodney Barfield’s Tempest on the Outer Banks and Philip Thompson’s Old Anger not just because they’re part of the Mule family. I recommend the books because they’re darn good reading. Give yourself or someone else a gift of fiction. Buy these books, support Mule writers. It’s worth every penny. And stand up and salute a couple Southern Writers.
Mule writer CL Bledsoe’s book: Goodbye, Mr. Lonely is in my “to read” hopper and I’ll write about it soon. Bledsoe is one of the most talented writers to ever grace the halls of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature so I know it’s gonna’ be pretty damn skippy.