By Heidi Simmons


“Bull Mountain”

by Brian Panowich



“Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase”

by Louise Walters



Summer has waned and so has my reading list (CVW June 4).  Books are a wonderful way to enjoy the long leisurely days of sunshine.  I’ve come to the end of my summer stack.  Last but not least, two debut authors put an exclamation point on my summer reading fun.  Discovering new talent is like finding treasure.


Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain (Putnam, 304 pages) and Louise Walters Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase (Putnam, 288 pages) are polar opposite narrative genres, but both focus on the significance of family.

Bull Mountain tells a generational tale about the Burroughs clan who has made a living over the years making and selling illegal substances.  It started with alcohol during prohibition, then marijuana and now methamphetamine, which is cooked on the family’s remote mountaintop in Georgia.

In 1949, one brother wants to sell the trees and go legitimate for the benefit of future generations.   Like Cain and Able, this leads to immediate conflict resulting in the family becoming more deadly and dangerous.   But third generation, Clayton Burroughs has taken a different path.  He has become a local sheriff in a nearby town and left his brothers to their outlaw business.

When an FBI agent approaches the sheriff with a deal for the Burroughs gang, Clayton hopes to save his brother from prison or worse.  But Clayton is seen by the family as a traitor and things heat up before all hell breaks loose on Bull Mountain.

What is the saying? “The sins of the father will be visited upon the children?”  This is a captivating story of how one bad man can influence multi-generations.  Each chapter is marked with a place and date.  As the story unfolds and moves around in time, the reader gets to know more about how this family degenerated and the horror of those in the Burroughs family grip.

Author Panowich beautifully weaves these characters as they struggle with violence, crime, relationships and family loyalty.   I especially appreciated the God’s-eye-view into the hearts and souls of these men and women.   The reader gets to know things about the family that the characters are never privy to.  This is not only insightful and entertaining, but generates anxiety, sadness and a weird compassion for those caught up in the Burroughs clan.

Unexpected twists and surprises make this read one of my favorites this year.  It’s not the subject or setting – it’s the magic of Panowich’s writing.  The author is a fireman who wrote at the station between fires.  This is his first novel!  I hope he moves beyond the “mountain” and gives us more than just sequels and horrible hillbillies.

On the other side of the story spectrum is Louise Walters’ Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase.   This is a modern as well as a historical romance that moves back and forth between today and the start of World War II.

Roberta Pietrykowski works in a new and used bookstore.  She hasn’t much life beyond selling and dusting books.  She’s in her 30s, she’s having a boring affair with a married man and her father is dying.   Her favorite pastime is to collect letters that have been forgotten within the pages of used books.

When her father gives Roberta a suitcase that belonged to her grandmother, she sees it has the name D. Sinclair inside.  Roberta’s grandmother is 109 living in a care facility, but her name is Dorothea Pietrykowski – not Sinclair.

The suitcase also has a letter hidden inside addressed to Roberta’s grandmother from her grandfather.  But the letter doesn’t make sense and the date isn’t right.  Who is D. Sinclair?  And why is the letter from her grandfather telling her grandmother he can never see her again?

This mystery sets Roberta on a course to search her family history and a journey of self-discovery.

Back in the 1930s, Dorothy marries a man and moves to the English countryside.  She gets pregnant several times, but miscarries.   She’s pregnant again and makes it to full-term, but the child is born dead.  Dorothy is heart-broken.  Her husband loses interest in her and abandons Dorothy.

As the war takes shape, Dorothy takes in two teenage girls whose families have sent them into the country where it’s safer.  Dorothy becomes like a mother to the girls.  She does not miss her husband and wonders if he’s been killed in war.  When Dorothy meets a Polish pilot serving in the British air force, a friendship and love affair begins.

The two worlds finally collide as Roberta uncovers the secret about her grandparents and the truth about her family lineage.

I got caught up in the story quickly as author Walters moves back and forth in time between Roberta and Dorothy.  Each chapter begins with letters and notes.  Some of the correspondence is between Roberta’s grandparents and others are from strangers found in the pages of books.

The women in this novel are antiheros.  They are simple, not beautiful or super smart, yet they are fearless and strong as they dare to live independently and ignore the harsh judgment of society.   They long for love, but make no demands.

Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase is a story about mothers and what it means to be a mom.  Some of us come to it naturally, while others find it an unbearable challenge.

Walters’ debut novel has twists, turns, scandal, sex, and surprising emotional depth. She’s an author I hope to read again.

That’s it for summer!  On to the great books of Fall.


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