Lady Banks' Commonplace Book is a blog for people interested in Southern literature, sponsored by booksellers who are members of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) and featuring the latest literary news and events around the South from Her Ladyship, the Editor.

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What is it like to release a new book in the middle of a pandemic? Last week Susan Beckham Zurenda wrote a little about what she was doing at home instead of touring for her book, Bells of Eli. One of the most common questions from audiences at the Reader Meet Writer Author series is "has the coronavirus crisis affected your writing?" "Yes," they all say, "yes, yes, of course. How could it not?" faces reflecting the blue-tinged light of a computer screen as they try to channel across a video chat at least some of the energy and enthusiam that happens by magic when they are in a room full of avid readers.

Renea Winchester, a dear friend of her ladyship, the editor and (she likes to think) a gardening soul sister, has taken a slightly different route.

Her ladyship, the editor, and Ms. Winchester bonded over seeds. One spring day many years ago her ladyship found in her mailbox an envelope with a handful of rosy pink kernels of corn. "This is dent corn from my Granddaddy Lum," said the short note tucked into the envelope, "it's been grown in the family for generations." The seeds were from Ms. Winchester, who had sent them after reading a post from her ladyship about her inability to grow corn.

That generous impulse is typical of Renea Winchester. She is all about doing things for others, whether it is donating books to libraries, saving daffodils in danger from a bulldozer, campaigning for the protection of the Tuckasegee River, or delivering elderberry syrup to local health care workers. She bribes road works crews with cookies to get them to spare wildflower patches. She is one of those people who manages to fit two hours worth of work into one.

The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter So when her new novel, Outbound Train, was published just as most of the country was told to stay at home, Renea didn't let that stop her. She has donned her mask and visited local indie bookshops to sign stock. She donated copies to assisted living centers, because one of her friends said her 88 year old aunt had read and loved the story. She has also -- and this is no surprise -- been tireless in supporting the work of other writers in the same situation: Jim Hamilton, Claire Fullerton, Beth Kephart.

Outbound Train, set in her hometown of Bryson City, North Carolina, is the story of the iron-willed women of a local textile plant. There is a beautiful interview with the author about the book at the Advance Reading Copy blog that will make you want to buy a book for every woman in your family you've ever looked up to.

Reader, meet writer! When the country shut down last month in response to the COVID-19 crisis, one group of people left high and dry were authors with new books just published. Overnight, appearences were canceled and tours put on hold. The confusion and dismay was overwhelming.

The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, which represents independent bookstores in the South, literally leapt into the fray and created the Reader Meet Writer Author Series -- a series of virtual author appearances accessible via Southern indie bookstores. Ask your local bookseller how to tune in.

Reader Meet Writer

Steven Wright's appearance on Reader Meet Writer is now available to watch on video.  A piercing portrait of our fragile democracy and one man's unraveling, The Coyotes of Carthage paints a disturbingly real portrait of the American experiment in action.

A blistering and thrilling debut—a biting exploration of American politics, set in a small South Carolina town, about a political operative running a dark money campaign for his corporate clients.

"Dark humor and dark money make for a compelling combination and Dre Ross may be the most sympathetic villain around. A cautionary tale for our times full of heart and dire warnings of how politics can go wrong."
~ Jan Blodgett, Main Street Books, Davidson, NC

Steven Wright is a clinical associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, where he codirects the Wisconsin Innocence Project. From 2007 to 2012 he served as a trial attorney in the Voting Section of the United States Department of Justice. He has written numerous essays about race, criminal justice, and election law for the New York Review of Books.

Download the first chapter of The Coyotes of Carthage


Her ladyship, the editor, and, she ventures, anybody who has been a child at some point during the last forty years, lost one of the most beloved voices of that childhood when Betsy Byars passed away last week at the age of 91.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Mrs. Byars made her home in Seneca, South Carolina, where she was a mentor to writers, a tireless advocate for literacy, a dog lover, and -- something her ladyship did not know -- a pilot. She also wrote over 65 novels for children including The Summer of the Swans, which won a Newberry.

The books we read and love as children are perhaps the ones that find the deepest, most secure place in our hearts. Years later, when favorite novels have come and gone as our lives change and evolve, those early stories are still with us still at the foundation of how we read, how we learned to see the world. We might forget about the book we read last year, but we never forget the one we read twenty or thirty years ago.

It puts the task of the children's writer into perspective does it not? What a daunting responsibility, to write for readers who, if you do it well, will remember what you wrote for the rest of their lives.

The stories that her ladyship knows were the ones from the 70s -- Midnight Fox, Summer of the Swans, After the Goat Man, The TV Kid, The Pinballs. Plus her personal favorite, Trouble River.

But Betsy Byars wrote stories for over forty years. There are readers who hear her name and think of an entirely different set of stores. The Cybil War, The Glory Girl, Cracker Jackson if they were children in the 80s. The Joy Boys, Tornado, the Golly Sisters, and Mud Blossom if they grew up in the 90s.

How many generations hold her books in their hearts?

Read independently, and shop local.

American Dirt

When American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins went from one of the most anticipated novels of the year to one of the most controversial, it proved a challenge for bookstores that had high expectations for the book.

A novel about a Mexican mother and her child fleeing to the United States to escape the violence that killed the rest of their family, the book was billed as "A Grapes of Wrath for our times" and a definitive book about the contemporary immigrant experience.

Once the book was published, however, it generated a rising swell of controversy and pushback, especially from the Latinx community. American Dirt was criticized for perpetuating stereotypes, and cultural appropriation. The waves have been felt at all levels of the book industry, from  independent bookstore to Oprah.

Southern booksellers, by and large, have responded to the controversy as an opportunity for discussion and raising awareness. "I have been discussing with customers the controversy of the book, and how the publishing industry has overlooked authors #OwnVoices," said Deanna Bailey of Story on the Square in McDonough, GA. "Criticism are valid, and I'm happy to listen to them," said Angel Schroeder of Sunrise Books in High Point, NC. "Any book that generates discussion and debate is welcome in the bookstore," said Laura Taylor of Oxford Exchange in Tampa, FL.

Because booksellers are a group that believes reading more about an issue can only help, many of them expanded their store displays to include other books about immigration, discrimination, and Latinx and Mexican culture, like Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC:

American Dirt Display at Scuppernong Books

Charis Books & More, the feminist bookstore in Atlanta, anticipated the controversy and posted one of the more considered statements to their social media followers after Oprah selected American Dirt for her book club, along with, naturally, a suggested reading list:

Today Oprah Winfrey chose American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins as her newest bookclub pick. Jeanine Cummins identifies as a white woman with a Puerto Rican grandmother. American Dirt, a novel about immigration and the crisis at the Mexico and U.S. border has received an enormous amount of publishing industry praise and buy-in. And a significant amount of concern, sadness, and anger from Mexican-American and Latinx authors who feel harmed by the book's broad portrayal of Mexican culture. We believe it is important to acknowledge the opportunity costs to Mexican-American writers whose works do not receive the fiscal or political support that American Dirt is receiving. #OwnVoices is a social media movement designed to focus support on authors who are writing books from within their own cultures, not because it is wrong to imagine a world outside your own experience but because when white writers are elevated for telling the stories of people of color it is writers of color who often fail to receive financial and political support to publish their own stories.

Today we invite you to explore these #OwnVoices authors whose books are currently on our shelves (along with many others). Thank you to Myriam Gurba for her leadership in this discussion. #FeministBookstore

Suggested Reading from Charis Books

1. Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez
2. Mean by Myriam Gurba
3. Una casa propia Historias de mi vida by Sandra Cisneros
4. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
5. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
6. Everyone Knows You Go Home by Natalia Sylvester
7. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa
8. The Affairs of the Falcóns: A Novel by Melissa Rivero
9. Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir by Cherríe Moraga
10. Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Read independently, and shop local.

okra winter 2020

For immediate release: January 1, 2020

Announcing the 2020 Winter Okra Picks

(Asheville, NC) Southern independent booksellers have selected thirteen titles for their 2020 Winter Okra Picks, their seasonal list of great forthcoming Southern books. The Winter Okra Picks publish in January, February, and March and feature southern voices, southern stories, and southern writers. Each and every one of them also has a cadre of southern bookseller champions, eager to place these books into the hands of adventurous readers.

Southern independent bookstores – we grow good books!
For more information visit:

Hill Women by Cassie Chambers
Ballantine Books, January, 2020

"An honest narrative about the challenges of life in one of the poorest regions of the country while giving voices to the women who lifted up her life." –Beth Seufer Buss, Bookmarks, Winston-Salem, NC

Overground Railroad by Lesa Cline-Ransome, James E. Ransome (Illus.)
Holiday House, January, 2020

"How James Ransome hasn't been awarded a Caldecott yet is beyond me." –Elese Stutts, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC

Wilmington's Lie by David Zucchino
Atlantic Monthly Press, January, 2020

"This is truly a book to shake your world view." –Rosemary Pugliese, Malaprop's Bookstore/Café, Asheville, NC

Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
St. Martin's Press, January, 2020

"A wonderfully nuanced novel with two engrossing, engaging heroines." – Tracie Harris, The Book House, Mableton, GA

Just Like a Mama by Alice Faye Duncan, Charnelle Pinkney Barlow (Illus.)
Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, January, 2020

"Just Like a Mama is the perfect way to honor everyone who fills the gap when Mama cannot always be there." –Angie Tally, The Country Bookshop, Southern Pines, NC

Remembrance by Rita Woods
Forge Books, January, 2020

"Rita Woods has blended together a story that is both historically and currently relevant, told across three timelines with four different protagonists, all women of color. This is an exciting and important book!" –Carl Kranz, Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg
Hachette Books, January, 2020

"Strong as a traditional true-crime recounting of murder, the investigation and subsequent trial…an allegory for the on-going challenges faced in the rough [Appalachian] landscape." – Doloris Vest, Book No Further, Roanoke, VA

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
Tin House Books, February, 2020

"A mix of memoir and biography. Anyone can paint a broad outline of a writer's life, but Shapland reveals Carson McCullers in a fresh way." –Sissy Gardner, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN

Race Against Time by Jerry Mitchell
Simon & Schuster, February, 2020

"It reads like a novel and is essential reading for southerners." –Lia Lent, Wordsworth Books, Little Rock, AR

The Boatman's Daughter by Andy Davidson
MCD x FSG Originals, February, 2020

"Like a johnboat ride through the depths and darkness of the subconscious, under the canopy of the bayou." –Stuart McCommon, novel., Memphis, TN

Bells for Eli by Susan Beckham Zurenda
Mercer University Press, March, 2020

"Like visiting with a long-lost friend over a cup of tea." – Suzanne Lucey, Page 158 Books, Wake Forest, NC

The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee
Tin House Books, March, 2020

"A fairly thorough search for fairness and cab fare in the world that barely leaves the car or Mississippi. I laughed and (sadly) related." – Ian McCord, Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin's Press, March, 2020

"A blend of Romeo and Juliet with Hatfield and McCoy, set in a 'nice' contemporary American neighborhood where 'these things shouldn't happen.' A heart-breaking, eye-opening must-read!" – Cathy Graham, Copperfish Books, Punta Gorda, FL

Authors 'Round the South |

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