Book Review
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Ancestral Curse Complicates a Gifted Woman's Journey

"Home Schooling: The Fire Night Ball" by Anne Carlisle (Booklocker ebook, $4.99, paperback $15.95)

Small town living, with a lot less tolerance than what Key West offers, is the backdrop for Anne Carlisle's new book. As a full-time resident and writer in our Southernmost sinful-seaport city since the 1980s, Carlisle has a handle on the impact of rumors, sex and scandal, which she weaves with ample spoof into a mountain tale of Alta, Wyoming.

Alta is a composite of Wyoming villages that Carlisle has created with the help of her husband, a native of that state. The real Key West, however, does get cameo appearances when two lesbians offer the architect heroine a job redesigning a house they own in Old Town.

"Home Schooling" is a 600-page trilogy by a Ph.D. in 19th-century British literature who's currently an associate professor and course chair for the University of Maryland, where Carlisle also teaches writing online to military students all over the globe. "All three books feature paranormal romantic-suspense elements," she says, although not about the home schooling movement. "They are novels about self-education, choice and finding one's way home through the main focus of three generations of sirens."

Carlisle admits she is "intrigued by sirens," those temptresses in Greek mythology who, through their singing, lured mariners to destruction. Consequently her heroines are "beautiful, successful and witty women with a slight case of paranormal powers."

Each gets tangled up in her own web of sexual affinity for men and the presence of a family curse. As a result of the curse, the men involved with them, one by one, suffer untimely deaths.

"In part, this is my very free adaptation of a 19th-century British classic, Thomas Hardy's 'The Return of the Native.' It has a great plot but Hardy kills off the best characters. By recreating Hardy, I keep the interesting characters from 1900 to modern times and teach myself how to write a cautionary tale through these sirens."

Temptress Dr. Carlisle knows something about living and learning. She has traveled extensively, lived on both U.S. coasts and has been married five times -- Key West husbands, you know who you are. She lures readers into Book One of the trilogy, "Home Schooling: The Fire Night Ball" through an up-and-coming San Francisco architect, whose world crashes at a 1977 holiday family reunion in Wyoming. Here, young Marlena Bellum's life challenges manifest quickly with an unplanned pregnancy by her dominating, married lover and the demise of her ancestral home in the remote mountain village of Alta.

The book's action climaxes when Alta's over-the-top conservative crowd of religious fanatics (the antithesis of Key West) attempts murder amid a natural disaster at the Christmas Fire Night Ball.

Herein lays the reader's challenge: Accepting the standard weakness of most first novels that feature bursts of brilliant writing and some things that are not as clear as they could be. Not until the end of the book is the Christmas Fire Night Ball clearly revealed as an evening filled with a series of bonfires, lit at varying intervals across the Wyoming mountainside.

Carlisle explained that the bonfires are transposed from Hardy's controversial 1878 work, then turned into a more elaborate myth by the author. So a few readers' tips are in order to enhance the first book's reading pleasure:

1) Before you start Book One, at the back of the book read Cassandra's story, an excerpt from Book Two that begins in October of 1900.

2) Pay close attention to who descends from whom. The Wyoming family tree is as thick and complex as the familial trail from Green Turtle Key in the Bahamas to Key West in the early 1800s.

3) Know up front that only an English Lit. professor who teaches writing can get away with every cliché ever written in time. Consider it the blatant part of the spoofs that wind throughout the book.

"I don't mind being corny," Carlisle laughed. She said the second book in the trilogy continues the contrast of life's lessons with playfulness. "It's just about finished and chronicles the story of the ancestral curse and Cassandra, the original siren back in homesteading days. I'll have more news on that soon."

Mariners, meanwhile, should beware of all holiday bonfires on our two-by-two-by-four-mile island.

-- Reviewed

by Barbara Bowers

"Walkin' Lawton" by John Dos Passos Coggin (Florida Historical Society, $24.95)

This is the first biography of Florida native Lawton Chiles, a three-term U.S. Senator and two-term governor of the state. In his 1970 bid for the U.S. Senate, Chiles faced well-funded opponents and resolved to campaign on foot to even the odds. He walked 1,003 miles from Century to Key Largo, shaking hands and earning votes. He won the race and became a legend. Ultimately he served in public office for 40 years and never lost an election. The author of this biography is the grandson of John Dos Passos, author of the classic "U.S.A." trilogy and no stranger to Key West, home of his erstwhile friend Ernest Hemingway. John first learned of the Chiles legend in 2004 after joining the League of Conservation Voters to elect John Kerry as president. "'Walkin' Lawton' is a marvelous account of Florida's most colorful politician in full populist glory," says Douglas Brinkley, author of "Cronkite" and editor of the notebooks of Jack Kerouac.

-- M.H.