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The Devil in Pew Number Seven

Rebecca Nichols Alonzo with Bob DeMoss

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. | 278 pages | $14.99

Reviewed by Jill Noel Shreve

rebecca nichols alonzo

“Even though Daddy struggled to appear brave, the anguish in his eyes spoke volumes. Splotches of blood stained his shirt just below his right shoulder. The inky redness was as real as the fear gnawing at the edges of my heart.” In her first memoir, The Devil in Pew Number Seven, Rebecca Nichols Alonzo opens her story in the kitchen of the house she grew up in, her father on the floor, shot by a man lurking in the front bedroom of her house, holding hostages, waiting. Alonzo’s father, fading in and out of consciousness, turns to her and asks the seven-year-old Rebecca to run. “You’ve got to be a big girl…you’ve got to run as fast as you can to Aunt Pat’s house…tell her to call the law.”

Set in the 1970’s in Sellerstown, a rural town in the southwestern part of North Carolina, Alonzo opens the door to her volatile life and to the years when a man terrorized her family. After hooking her audience with the armed man in her kitchen, she rewinds to two decades before, drawing her audience into the life of the Nichols family. She gives them a peek into her parents’ background and how they met and married, offering enough back-story so that her audience understands why her parents settled in this tiny country town.

 She communicates how both of her parents have a deep-rooted faith, about her father’s desire to go into the pastorate, and her mother’s desire to serve a community alongside her father. Alonzo reveals the perseverance of her parents when they believe they have received a call from God, and she shows their commitment to serve the town of Sellerstown. With all of this addressed early on in the story, Alonzo sets a clear and concise stage for the meeting between her folks and this “devil,” along with all the havoc he wreaks on her family before the scene in the kitchen

In the midst of the debacle, Alonzo invites her audience to look at the injustice brought about by this devil in a different, slightly uncomfortable light. She illuminates her story with a glint of forgiveness. While reliving the devastation, Alonzo recalls a conversation she had with her aunt. She shares with her aunt the pain and suffering reverberating through her life and Alonzo quotes her aunt, saying, “Forgiveness is a choice…not a feeling.” Then Alonzo showcases her own struggle with that concept as she moves through the story. She could have just stopped with the gruesome tale of a man terrorizing her family, but Alonzo takes it a step further by offering a narrative reflection throughout the work. It makes her a concrete character and adds depth and beauty to the story.

Alonzo constructs this intergenerational memoir with wisdom and precision by striking a balance between emotional and factual truth. She understands that memoir assumes and ignores most of one’s life, while focusing on a concentrated series of events. Alonzo found a way to stand with one foot in emotions and the other foot in the facts. With the factual information, she doesn’t get bogged down in trying to communicate every detail of every moment. Alonzo did her research, inserted what her audience needed to know and left the other stuff out. Juxtaposed against those facts, Alonzo divulges her heart’s location throughout the events with a vulnerability and authenticity that allows the reader to resonate with her, pulling off a tricky and seemingly effortless balancing act.

Along with attention to truth, Alonzo’s narrative structure and plot progression keeps the audience raptly engaged. She choreographs the memoir in a way that compels the reader to keep turning the page, desperate to know the outcome of the situation at hand. Alonzo uses tension and pacing in a way that resembles a roller coaster ride. Just when the patron thinks the ride’s over, the cars bank to the right and start up another hill. But unlike some memoirs, Alonzo doesn’t leave the reader stuck on the apex. She always satisfies her audience’s desire to know what happened next and she then serves a pure resolution.

The one thing I thought would make this memoir more successful would be the use of tangible language. In its current form, Alonzo opts for a religious vernacular rather than language all people can readily access. In this vein, on initial encounter, it seems as though she wrote the memoir for a particular, churched audience, rather than for a wide range of people. With that said, it might feel off-putting to some, making the memoir seem exclusive rather than inclusive. However, after reading the entire story, it’s evident that Alonzo wrote the memoir for all people to ingest and contemplate, not only for a particular sect or religious group.

I could resonate with the characters in this work, even the villain, not because of my background, but because of Alonzo’s intentionality behind rendering each character as accurately as possible. I could see, hear and understand all of the folks involved in this frightening and heart-wrenching tale. Because of that and the story’s plot, along with the way the narrator discloses her struggle as the plot transpires, I recommend this memoir. So, grab a copy in your local bookstore and walk alongside Rebecca Nichols Alonzo and her family as they stand eye-to-eye with The Devil in Pew Number Seven.

Reviewer Bio: Jill Noel Shreve teaches Creative Writing at Hunter College. You can read more about her at

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Nashville Chrome

by Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 253 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

rick bass

In Rick Bass’ newest novel, Nashville Chrome, he teases out the story and reveals the heartache, endurance, and pure brilliance of the early country trio, The Browns.  The story highlights the story of the eldest Brown, Maxine, but also includes the story of her younger siblings, Bonnie and Jim Ed.  Making appearances in this country music tale are Elvis, and surprisingly, The Beatles (the Browns toured with the Beatles early in their career).

This slice of American country music history is indeed fascinating.  Who knew that, according to Bass, the Browns paved the way for so many country rock stars, with their perfect harmonies and classy style.  Yet this style was also their undoing.  Soon country fans expected and craved a more raw and earthy sound.  Their friend Elvis and all the others left them in the dust.

The story begins as many country singers’ stories do, in the back hills.  In this case, the back hills were Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  Daddy Floyd was a heavy drinker, who worked cutting wood.  He alternated between working the mill and running restaurants (three of which burnt down) with his wife, Birdie, a woman with a “heart of gold.”  The three eldest kids lived close to the land in their early life, wading creeks and playing in the wilderness.  Bass makes the case that this landscape was essential to their growth as musicians.

After the country trio gets their start playing local gigs around Pine Bluff, country music producer and promoter, Fabor Robinson, takes over their career.  This proves a fateful decision.  Like musicians before and after them, they essentially sign their lives away and become slaves to Robinson’s whims and desires.  Even when their songs are on the top of the charts--in 1959, their biggest hit, “The Three Bells” was released--he gives them around a thousand dollars a year.

They tour the country in bad cars, relying on their wits and sometimes working in restaurants to get them from gig to gig.  Yet Bass points out that there was glory in those days, as well, as their flame rose higher and higher.  However, when they were no longer popular, Maxine remains unwilling to accept the fact that their “greatest moments” have past.

Surprisingly, Jim Ed and Bonnie are rather resigned to the fact that their luck has changed—Bonnie marries happily and Jim Ed begins a career on his own, recording and performing as much as he can.  Only Maxine continues clutching to fame with a maniacal zeal.  She becomes a bit of a loose cannon, flinging wine glasses in people’s faces, partying and acting out.  Even the sting of a callous remark, “you’re a has-been,” by a young record executive, doesn’t dissuade her from trying to regain her stardom.

It’s tricky to write novels about historical figures.  There are novels that have succeeded marvelously at walking the fine line between historical accuracy and psychological probing, such as The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which conveys the life of Virginia Woolf. Another fine example is The Master, by Colm Tóibín, which is based on the life of Henry James.  In The Master,Tóibín writes with remarkable restraint and subtlety, yet the emotional impact of the book is immense.  He manages to flesh-out his characters without resorting to clichés or exaggeration.

In Nashville Chrome, the characterization of Maxine and her siblings is sometimes clichéd and overwrought.  Although Bass takes us on the journey—the inexplicable rise of the unlikely trio—he does not allow the reader to feel the resonance of the events he reconstructs.  For example, although he writes about the singers’ early years and the perfect control over their harmonies, he fails to develop these scenes.

We are told that the children were perfect at harmonizing, but he does not depict them singing together.  In fact, as much as their father, Lloyd, is a hero in the book, I never got a sense of his relationship to music.  Bass seems to be saying that the trio arose almost “magically” from their humble origins and that they were simply destined for it.  He writes, “There was no wrong or right in it.  It was all only an elemental force blowing through them.”  By stressing this fact of being “destined” for greatness, he denies the hard work and fortitude that the players themselves possessed.

Bass tries to create emotional weight in the chapters that focus on Maxine as an older woman.  In these sections, a close third person is used, enabling Bass to speak for Maxine.  Maxine’s apparent fragility—she uses a walker and her hands shake—contrast with her unrelenting internal drive.  She has yet to come to terms with the decline of her career and she longs for a movie to be made about her, etc.  She goes about her quiet days feeding a stray dog, drinking cups of tea and reminiscing about the past, but in her mind she is still the restless, young girl with the insatiable desire for stardom.

 Although Bass touches on some broader themes here—who we are through our lives, what we leave behind, and what we carry on our personal journeys—I did not identify enough with Maxine to feel the appropriate sadness or ennui that Bass is trying to convey.  I wish he would have brought more of this introspection earlier in the book, such as when Maxine is in the midst of her horrible marriage—she married a lawyer, an out-and-out scoundrel and womanizer.

This is not to say that there aren’t moments of exquisite language and good story telling in this book.  There are plenty and few surpass Bass in his description of wild places.  His landscapes are rendered with such grace and skill that I can almost feel the darkness of the woods he describes.

As far as the story-telling goes, there are some wonderful vignettes. Two in particular—one story about a dress and one story about Elvis.  Both of these—particularly the story of the dress—seem as if they could hold up on their own as short stories.  Without revealing too much, I will just say that the story of the dress—Maxine’s desire as a teenager to wear a gown that her family is too poor to afford when she is elected prom queen—shows the complicated relationship Maxine had with her father.  One sees the fierce power of the father’s love and how he almost crushes his children with his pride.  That they thrived in spite of him is a miracle.

The part of the book where Elvis courts Bonnie is equally masterful.  Bass describes a romantic canoe ride down a snaky southern river in almost Biblical terms.  None of Elvis’ bravado is apparent in these sections—he’s merely a shy musician, longing for love and a home-cooked meal.  Later, Elvis will turn cold and their friendship will harden when he becomes ‘The King’.  (In another lovely scene, the Browns come to Graceland at Elvis’ calling and have a final farewell with their friend as they shiver on top of Elvis’ car—Elvis is not cold because he’s wearing one of his white suits with a fur collar).

The book does not fully work, yet it enticed me and made me want to know more about the Browns.  I felt I had to hear their music first hand and found myself listening to their harmonies on YouTube early one morning.  It was a recording of one of their most famous songs, “The Three Bells.”  In it, Jim Ed’s voice sang with a deep Johnny Cash kind of seriousness, while the two old sisters—the song was recorded in1999—harmonized with perfect clarity.  For some reason the song really moved me, possibly because of the way the sisters watched each other so intently, their eyes full of emotion.  I noticed that I wasn’t the only one who’d watched the video.  YouTube informed me that 58,000 other people had watched the clip.  Maybe the Browns aren’t so forgotten after all.

Sally Cobau is a writer and teacher living in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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Twilight Forever Rising

by Lena Meydan

Tor Books | September 28, 2010

Reviewed by Katherine Tomlinson

Lena Meydan is a best-selling fantasy author in Russia, where they take fantasy seriously and don’t consign it to a geek ghetto the way fantasy and its blood-brothers, horror and urban fantasy, have been shoved aside in the U.S.  Shoved aside until recently, that is; fantasy in all its guises—dark, epic, urban—is now driving the publishing industry, feeding a seemingly insatiable reader’s appetite for vampires, werewolves, and all creatures paranormal. 

    This novel straddles the line between dark fantasy and horror/romance, with its tale of warring clans of vampires and humans who are oblivious to their existence, but it has more in common with Machiavelli’s The Prince than it does with Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

    Twilight Forever Rising is a terrible name for a very good book.  Meydan’s prose is simultaneously lush and clean, dense with sensory input, and yet remains uncluttered—as if the writer were the love child of Tanith Lee and Ekaterina Sedia.  (The book is gracefully translated by Andrew Bromfield.)  The love story is achingly romantic, despite a heroine who is not always what we’d like her to be, and the overall plot is filled with high-level, high-stakes gamesmanship worthy of any political thriller.

    The world-building here is layered and dimensional.  The writer has filled in the gaps, stopped all the holes, and inked in the details.  The vampires use slang—one of the bad guys slings the epithet “blautsauger” (blood-sucker) at our hero—and they have customs and rites.  Meydan has created a mythos for her paranormal creatures that is original and precise, and in the process, she has crafted an absorbing read. 

      The story opens in an alley in an unnamed city in 1977, where rain has been pissing down for two days.  A vampire necromancer, the master of his house, has come to the alley to meet with a decadent branch of the vampire tree, a member of a family that has little use for their fellow blood-brothers and only one use for humans.  Betrayed by a powerful spell known as “The Medusa Kiss,” Vladislav Volfger is borne away to face a fate he knows will be far worse than death.

    Almost thirty years later, the events set in motion that rainy night have escalated to the point of open warfare.  While most of the vampire “houses” have signed a compact that keeps the peace between humans and their kind--allowing for a benign oversight from the shadows--the House of Nachterret wants to implement a “final solution” known as “The Golden Billion.”  Not only does the master of their house want to upset the status quo, he also has no compunction about puncturing the greatest secret of all—revealing the very existence of vampires.

    The Nachterret and their allies, the Asimans, mount an increasingly violent campaign against the other houses, with Miklosh Balza of the Nachterret whispering dark promises into the ear of an ambitious, beautiful vampire who gave up human love for an ever-lasting party life, and now has her regrets. 

    In fact, there is a melancholy strain of regret that weaves through much of the story like a minor key thread in a Russian folk song.  The novel’s protagonist, Darel, is acutely sensitive to the consequences of turning a human into a vampire, and keenly aware of what a bad bargain it can be for the human involved. 

   Unlike the standard-issue emo vampire, Darel’s gift of empathy is not just a character trait but a talent that makes him invaluable to his clan (the House of Dahanavar) and dangerous to the Nachterret.  He’s also dangerous to Loraine, the woman he loves, but despite all advice against pursuing her, he cannot stay away. 

    Darel has enemies, but he also has one very good friend, Chris, the necromancer who took Vladislav’s place, and earned the title of “Master of Death.”  Chris is a fantastic character and is the “wizard” of this particular magical universe.  He is there to balance the forces of evil represented by the Nachterret, genuinely frightening vampires who have gathered allies to their cause.  Miklosh, the leader of that clan, is more like the godfather of a Russian mafia family, and he is a great villain.  Novels like these need great villains.

    The story takes place in the present, but the backdrop feels more like Venice at the time of the Medici, with the various vampire clans maneuvering and manipulating their way into power.  Each house has its own kind of magic, specific to their clan, and in the world Meydan has created, those born into one house cannot use magic meant for another.  Or so it seems. 

    This is the first novel in a series that so far numbers four, so there is a lot of information front-loaded into the narrative.  While the characters all have ordinary names, there is a bewildering assortment of unfamiliar nomenclature to deal with simply in sorting out the titles of the various leaders.  Eventually, though, everyone’s alliances and allegiances become clear, and all those alien syllables start to click.

     If this book were like most vampire novels, the plot would revolve around the illicit relationship between Darel and Loraine.  His love for her goes way beyond “it’s complicated,” and he literally risks everything for her, an action that plays into the political plotting of his own house and its enemies.   Meydan’s novel is far more complex than that, however, and invites comparisons with sci-fantasy classics like Frank Herbert’s Dune.

   Lady Felicia is in fact very much like Herbert’s “Reverend Mother,” the Bene Gesserit witch who is the puppet-mistress of all that happens in that book and beyond.  Felicia cares for Darel but it’s clear that the fate of her house and the rest of her blood-siblings is far more important to her than one young empath.  Or is it?  The beauty of this somewhat open-ended novel is that we really don’t know what’s going on behind the curtain any more than Darel does.

   Twilight Forever Rising is a book filled with dark mystery and blood magic, the satisfying beginning to a paranormal saga that will play out over the course of several more novels to come.  It will be well worth the wait.

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