Jeff Minick

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Dear Christine Simon,

Normally I write a book review in this space, and I intend to do so here in regard to your novel “The Patron Saint of Second Chances” (Atria Books, 2022, 304 pages). But as this is also a thank you note as well as a look at your book, I am breaking ranks with my usual template of review.

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Annus horribilis is Latin for a horrible year, a time of disaster, and aptly applies to the first months of 1942. On all fronts the Allied Forces — Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States after the attack on Pearl Harbor — suffered defeat after defeat.

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In the past 10 days, whim, a desire for a breather from our breathless age, and heaven knows what else tempted me away from contemporary literature and into the past.

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In “A Fatal Booking” (Crooked Lane Books, 2022, 304 pages), Victoria Gilbert’s third novel in her series “Booklovers B&B Mysteries,” we again meet Charlotte Reed, owner of Chapters Bed-and-Breakfast in Beaufort, North Carolina. Charlotte is a former school teacher and 40-something widow who has inherited this inn from her great-aunt Isabella. With a passion for books and reading, Charlotte remodels the old mansion, turning it into a literary lovers paradise. 

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Before proceeding to reading and books, a note on circumstances and environment.

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Daniel Pink’s “The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward” (Riverhead Books, 1922, 256 pages) opens with a brief account of Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” or “I regret nothing,” a song which includes the lines in English “No, not a thing.”

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To be human is to suffer. In the case of third-grader Michael O’Brien, that meant watching the apparent disintegration of his family: a father who left home and divorced his wife, a series of moves that eventually led to making a home in Utah, and the struggles of his mom as she tried to pay her bills and raise her four children, of whom Michael was the youngest. 

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About halfway through “Blue Fire” (Kensington Publishing Corp., 2022, 326 pages,) John Gilstrap’s apocalyptic novel about a worldwide nuclear war, I paused and asked myself a question: “Given the state of the world right now — the sabre rattling of nations like Iran, North Korea, and China, the war in Ukraine, the economic and cultural devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the foolish fiscal policies of our federal government — do you really want to be reading a book about hundreds of millions of people dying while many of the survivors become savages?”

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Novels that touch on faith and God have long intrigued me.

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Too much time has passed since I last visited the coast.

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Sometimes a book I’ve read, particularly a novel, will leave me mystified, which is not always a good thing.

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Recently in this space I reviewed “The Broken Spine” by Dorothy St. James, a murder mystery set in a small town in South Carolina. At one point, I described the novel as “a perfect book for an escape from the trials of the day or for that trip to the beach.”

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Cypress, South Carolina is a moderately-sized town surrounded by farms where neighbors know one another and the pace of life is low-key.

But that is about to change. 

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So why take a look here at two books by a philosopher and polymath, neither of which may appeal to a broad audience?

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Some men pick up a copy of Ellery Adams’ “The Book of Candlelight: A Secret, Book, and Scone Society Novel” (Kensington Publishing Corp., 2020, 320 pages) might read the blurb, flip through a few pages, and return the novel to its shelf, judging it a chick-lit book and unworthy of their attention. 

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“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy….” So begins one of the George Gershwin’s greatest songs, an aria in “Porgy and Bess” reproduced by scores of musicians ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Willie Nelson to Norah Jones.

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Sucker-punched. That’s how I felt when I finished reading Johann Hari’s “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again” (Crown Publishers, 2022, 368 pages).

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What month other than April could possibly be designated National Poetry Month?

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Time for the book review machine to travel back a few years.

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Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that the graphic books on the shelves of my public library are multiplying faster than a battalion of rabbits. 

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A friend who was a fan of the Lee Child’s novels used to wear a T-shirt reading, “What would Jack Reacher do?”

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What’s up with me?

In my old age, am I regressing backwards to my teenage days? Or is Jay Hardwig’s novel “Just Maria” (Fitzroy Books, 2021, 133 pages) aimed at an adult audience as well as adolescents?

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Several years ago, when my children and grandchildren were gathering for a week at the beach in a house I’d rented, a good friend gave me a pre-vacation tip that put me in the winner’s circle with the grandkids. “Make them an ice cream breakfast,” she suggested.

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It’s late Saturday afternoon, February, that hour before supper when the little ones go bananas, and the 5-year-old and his sister are driving you bonkers, to the point where you want to plop them down in front of the television watching “Arthur” while you slosh some red wine into a glass and smoke a cigarette, though you only drink wine with supper or in the evenings, and you gave up the cigs years ago in college. 

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Many readers of The Smoky Mountain News, particularly younger adults, are probably familiar with Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL officer who is now renowned as a podcaster, speaker, and author. My sons and some other young men I know — and women too, for that matter — listen to his podcasts, and are inspired and learn from them.

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Sometimes the right book just comes along.

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Good grief!

Let me say that again: Good grief!

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Let’s kick off 2022 with a bunch of books.

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In the years after the Civil War, train travel in America exploded. Rail lines soon crisscrossed the country, bringing travelers from San Francisco to New York, from Savannah to Boston. 

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Popcorn has little nutritional value, but it’s great when you have the munchies (and no, I don’t puff dope or ganja or whatever name it goes by these days). Maybe you add salt and butter, or some other spice, but you just keep nibbling away giving little thought to how much you consume or whether it’s good for you. It’s a pleasure, pure and simple.

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Time to head off to Santa’s workshop and see what Christmas books he and the elves have in mind for the kids.

Sometimes the world seems pretty crazy, especially for those of us who follow the daily news and commentaries online.

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With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I raided my public library, brought home an armload of books having to do with Turkey Day, and am delighted to share them with you here.

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As of this year, around 19 million Americans are veterans, which is less than 10% of our population. Currently, 1.4 million Americans are serving in the military. 

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Recently I posted another first to my list of lifetime accomplishments: I managed to hit myself in the head with a lawn mower.

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Ever had one of those times when every day brought bad news?

In addition to our boatload of national catastrophes these last two months, the last two weeks brought me one report after the other of the struggles of friends and family members.

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There are at least three reasons why Nicholas Sparks has sold over 100 million copies of his books and seen 11 of them made into movies.

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“The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.”

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It’s late summer, but the song lyrics still work: living is supposed to be easy. So I’m looking for some light reading. No politics, no massive histories or biographies, no novels with tangled plots and emotions, no suspense stories where the protagonist leaves behind a trail of dead bodies thicker than Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs. 

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Years ago, a friend and I were watching some news show like 60 Minutes about juvenile murderers. The point of the report was that these young criminals showed little or no remorse for their shootings and stabbings, and in fact seemed to lack any sort of moral compass that most of us take as a given. When I wondered aloud about a solution, what might be done to change these stonehearted murderers, my friend looked at me and said, “Some people just need killing.”

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Readers generally look for a special place to sink into their books, to escape the noise and hubbub of the household, to find that sanctuary where they can give themselves over to the reverie and escapism of stories.

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So it’s a late Thursday afternoon, and I’m sitting on the front porch finishing up a novel when my eyes prickled, and then blurred, and the old saltwater ran down my age-raddled cheeks. 

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I’ve long been a fan of Stephen Hunter’s novels, particularly his series about Bob Lee Swagger. Swagger is a sniper, reflecting Hunter’s interest in firearms, and I’ve reviewed several Swagger novels for The Smoky Mountain News. I’ve also recommended the movie “Shooter,” a fine film where Mark Wahlberg plays the part of Swagger. 

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The last four months of 1862 brought blood and slaughter to the armies of the South and the North. Earlier that year, a series of battles led to the September battle of Sharpsburg, also known as Antietam, in Maryland, where in the bloodiest single day of fighting during the war George McClellan’s Union forces turned back Lee’s attempted invasion of that state.

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On April 15, 2019, Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the world’s most beloved architectural landmarks, caught fire. The blaze started in the roof, incinerating the enormous ancient wooden beams located there and causing the collapse of the central spire, which “leaned sideways, snapped like a matchstick, and crashed through the flaming roof of the nave.”

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Recently I realized I needed to laugh more often. 

I do laugh when I’m on the phone with one of my children or a friend, and occasionally if I watch some YouTube video.

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On the shelves around the room where I write and work a visitor would find all sorts of books, including a few “self-help” guides and manuals on writing and composition. My theory on spending money on such books is this: If they contain even one piece of advice, however small, that might improve my life or my writing, then the money I paid for that book is more than worth that expense. 

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Sometimes a book can overwhelm us with its energy and its wisdom.

Like most readers, I love when a writer, especially one completely unknown to me, reaches out from the pages, grabs me by the shoulders, and says, “Listen to me!”

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In 2018, Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos became an international bestseller, and Peterson himself became a celebrity, speaking to packed auditoriums and lecture halls around the United States and other countries. He then fell ill, in large part from various legal drugs he was taking, almost died, recovered, and has now written and published a sequel to 12 Rules For Life.

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