Friday, November 14, 2008

Cold Rock River by J.L. Miles

'Adie, you did real fine,' Mama said. 'Now stick by your guns.'

'I best not do that, Mama,' I said. 'I might shoot him.' (from Cold Rock River, page 230)

Passages like these help me remember why I love Southern novels, and Cold Rock River easily ranks among my favorites.

When I finished Cold Rock River, two words immediately came to mind: pain and hope. J.L. Miles does a superb job describing the many tragedies that plague Adie Jenkins and her family, and she's able to balance these horrible things with a sense that everything will be all right in the end--even when the end is nowhere in sight.

Adie's family is forever changed when her youngest sister, Annie, drowns in Cold Rock River. Annie was just three years old, and Adie wasn't much older. Adie carries the guilt with her into her teens, as she was the one watching Annie at the time. By letting Adie tell the story in the first person, Miles pushes you in the midst of a family struggling but happy one day, one child short and in shambles the next. The book opens with Adie recalling a memory of Annie as a one-year-old choking on a jelly bean Adie gave her and their father's desperate attempt to save her. Miles immediately grabs the reader with writing that makes you feel as though you're sitting on the porch on a hot summer night and actually hearing Adie's words.

The book jumps forward 12 years. It's 1963 in Cold Rock, Georgia, and Adie is 17 and pregnant. Her older sister, Rebecca, already has a few kids with different fathers; her other sister, Clarissa, dealt with her grief over Annie's death by eating herself fat; her mother has grown cold toward her husband; and her father has turned to the bottle. Adie is thrown out of the house to deal with her situation as a grown up, and she marries the baby's father, Buck Jenkins, and moves in with his mother and his brain-damaged brother. Despite Buck's roving eye, she is determined to make the marriage work. They move to Hog Gap, and Adie meets Murphy, a local chicken farmer and landowner who is immediately attracted to her and allows her and Buck to move into the dilapidated cabin on his property that once belonged to his mammy, Willa Mae.

Adie is forced to care for her daughter, Grace Annie, on her own, and the friendship forged with Willa Mae and Murphy carries Adie through many tough times. On the night of Grace Annie's birth, Willa Mae reads to Adie from an old journal written during the time of the Civil War by a slave named Tempe Jordan. Adie is drawn to Tempe's story, which is filled with hardships Adie could never understand. Tempe's children are sold by her master, and she vows that when she is free, she will find them. Miles seamlessly moves from Adie's story to Tempe's journal, despite the obviously different voices. Tempe's story is just as compelling as Adie's, and Miles knows how you leave you hanging. Here's an example from Tempe's journal (possible spoiler, so feel free to skip the excerpt):

And one night Massah tells him dat, they's a full moon. And Grady goes out by the dogs like he done all the times before, only this time he comes back in. He gots a club in his hand be thicker than that one he beat them dogs with. That be the bloodiest night I ever sees. Lordy, Lordy--only one them mens be's alive come morning. (page 140)

Miles then switches back to Adie's story, and I just about died! The suspense was killing me, and you can bet I burned through the pages to find out what happened next.

Miles throws in twists and turns throughout the book that kept me on the edge of my seat. Would Buck ever change? How does Adie feel about Murphy? Does Tempe find her children? Why does Willa Mae have Tempe's journal? What happened to Willa Mae's children, and what's the deal between Murphy and Willa Mae? But the characters in Cold Rock River are where Miles truly shines. For a young girl without any education, Adie is wise beyond her years, and she is stronger than most people would be in her shoes. Tempe's voice comes through the loudest, and despite all that she endured under slavery, her spirit, her determination, and her love for her children never died. Though Adie and Tempe steal the show, Willa Mae and Murphy are not to be forgotten. Miles presents them as so warm, tender, and genuinely good that I wanted to move into Adie's cabin myself just to be near them. (There's something about the Southern, small-town atmosphere that's always attracted me. It could be the fact that I've spent much of my life living near big cities and need some peace and quiet.)

Cold Rock River has everything I look for in a novel. A good story with multiple subplots and connections that are not revealed until the end, compelling characters, and a setting that comes to life. It even touches on the struggles of veterans returning from Vietnam, and anyone who knows me well knows I'm always looking for books with war themes. This is one of the few books that I see myself re-reading at some point in the future. And I don't say that lightly, as there are so many books I haven't read yet and so little time to read.

Watch the Cold Rock River trailer and read the prologue here.

J.L. Miles' Pump Up Your Book Promotion tour will stop here again on Monday, Nov. 17. Ms. Miles was kind enough to answer some questions about Cold Rock River, her writing, and the numerous recipes in the back of the book. I hope you'll come back to read her responses!

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of Cold Rock River from the publisher for review purposes.


Teddy Rose said...

Wonderful review Anna. I am looking forward to seeing your interview with J.L. Miles.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

Great review, Anna...this sounds amazing. There are so many things that I said to myself, I love that too! the compelling characters, southern literature, war themes...and definitely the desire to re-read--I don't say that lightly either and understand exactly what you mean.

I'll definitely put this on the list!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review - I love books set in the South, too.

Serena said...

I love this review...though I didn't read it all since I haven't finished this one up yet.

I loved this part of your review "Clarissa, dealt with her grief over Annie's death by eating herself fat." I just love the image that invoked for me.

I can't wait for the interview.

Anonymous said...

firstly, i love the cover! i would definitely pick the book up just looking at that makes me very curious! and secondly, that was an awesome review.. makes me want to pick that book up even more!

Cheryl said...

Thanks for the wonderful review of this book. I want to read this one.


Darlene said...

Great review Anna! I'd love to read this one. It sounds like an amazing book.

Marie Cloutier said...

Wow, great review. I'll stay tuned for the interview. And I'll definitely post about The Cloister Walk on my blog when I'm done! :-)

Shana said...

Uggghhh, I don't know what happened on that last comment.

Anyway, I LOVED this book, too. I thought Murphy was such a great, attractive character because of the way he loved Adie, with such an unconditional love.

I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did, Anna.


Anna said...

Teddy Rose: Thanks so much!

Trish: I think you definitely should read this then! I bet you'd love it!

Bermudaonion: You're welcome!

Serena: I can't wait for you to read it so we can discuss it!

Ramya: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the review! I was drawn to the cover, too.

Cheryl: You're welcome! I can't recommend this book enough!

Dar: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read it!

Marie: Thanks! I'm looking forward to your review of Cloister Walk!

Shana: I agree Murphy was hot!! They should make this into a movie and provide us with a little eye candy. ;)

Literary Feline said...

This sounds really interesting! Thank you for the great review. I look forward to reading the interview with the author.

The Bookworm said...

wow, this sounds like a moving read. I like it when the plot keeps you wanting more and you need to know what happens next.
great review :)

Anonymous said...

Anna- I totally loved your review! I dnt think I can survive after seeing my sis drown in front of me!

I have not read Southern Lit much, and I really want to start reading something! this sounds just perfect!

thanks girl!

Ladytink_534 said...

I'm getting this for my mom for Christmas. We both love southern novels, especially ones set in Georgia!

Anna said...

Literary Feline: Thanks! I'm behind in my comments, but I hope you got a chance to read the interview!

Naida: This certainly was an emotional book! And the author did a great job breaking up Adie's and Tempe's stories so you couldn't wait to get back to them!

Veens: I'm so glad you enjoyed the review! Cold Rock River would be a great place for you to start reading Southern fiction!

Ladytink: What a nice daughter you are! I hope your mom enjoys the book!