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review 2018-03-29 18:37
Steal Away Home by Billy Coffey
Steal Away Home - Billy Coffey

Owen Cross grew up with two loves: one a game, the other a girl. One of his loves ruined him. Now he’s counting on the other to save him.Owen Cross’s father is a hard man, proud in his brokenness, who wants nothing more than for Owen to succeed where he failed. With his innate talents and his father’s firm hand guiding him, Owen goes to college with dreams of the major leagues—and an emptiness full of a girl named Micky Dullahan. Owen loved Micky from the first time they met on the hill between their two worlds: his middle-class home and her troubled Shantytown. Years later he leaves her for the dugouts and the autographs, but their days together follow him. When he finally returns home, he discovers that even peace comes at a cost. And that the hardest things to say are to the ones we love the most. From bestselling author Billy Coffey comes a haunting story of small-town love, blinding ambition, and the risk of giving it all for one last chance.





Owen Cross is a young boy from a lower middle-class family who just happens to have superior natural talent when it comes to the game of baseball. His father is a hard-working but embittered man nursing a broken spirit after a career ending injury brought his own professional sports dreams to a screeching halt. Now the father puts all the hopes on the son to bring pride and fame back to the family name. From an early age, Owen shows laser focus when it comes to his MLB dreams. That is, until the fateful day he comes face to face with Shantytown girl Michaela "Micky" Dullahan. From that day forward, professional baseball and Micky will play a constant tug-o-war on Owen's heart and mind. 


"Your love's all wrapped up in a thing that can't love you back,

and you'll only come to harm because of it." 

~ Micky


The time period of Steal Away Home alternates between grown Owen as a Minor League player in the early 2000s and his childhood spanning the 1980s and 90s. In the retrospective chapters, or "innings" as Coffey playful titles them here, we follow Owen from the first meetings with Micky, through junior high and high school up to the day he leaves his hometown of Camden, Virginia to attend college in Ohio. 


Owen always has to keep his relationship with Micky as secret. Though they go to the same school, they avoid any acknowledgement of each other beyond furtive glances. It's explained that because Micky is from Shantytown, socially she's basically considered the town's unclean, untouchable, too-poor-to-be-anything-but-pitied/reviled-from-a-distance population. Hard to make sense of this though, when you consider that Owen's economic situation wasn't really ALL that much better: his school clothes primarily come off the JC Penney clearance racks, his mom makes minimum wage at the town library and his dad works as the janitor at Owen's school. Owen flatly points out that his baseball skills are literally the only thing that keeps him from being socially ostracized himself. Still, he's all about keeping his seat at the cool kids' table. 


"People's just lost... It's like we don't even understand

what living is no more." 

~ Micky


It took me about half the book to realize it, but at that point it dawned on me that I did not like Owen. The guy was pretty selfish when you get down to it. It seems like Owen never hesitated too much to throw Micky under the proverbial bus whenever his social standing was even slightly at risk. Yet Micky continued to profess love for this kid! When Micky finds a dream she wants to pursue for herself and the good of her fellow Shantytown residents, he harps on her to drop it and do what HE wants if she TRULY loves him. Nope, this reader was not having it. Micky was clearly the better soul in my book. 



With the novel starting in the millennial era and periodically looking backwards, there is a mystery / possible crime story hinted at, clues to which are only given to the reader in the tiniest portions until at least the halfway point where the action on that front picks up a bit. Once Owen leaves Camden for college, we see that some characters from earlier in the story have gone missing in his time away, and certain clues hint that possible criminal activity may be linked to these characters.  Be patient though, because Coffey's holding some cards up his author sleeve and he's not going to let you make sense of it all til the closing moments! 


Of all of Billy Coffey's novels that I've read to date, this has not been one of my favorites. Many of the elements felt pretty underdeveloped, at least with the home drama storylines. It certainly can't be said he skimped on the baseball game sections, those portions actually dragged a bit for me. Just a lot of Owen in the dugout with his thoughts for pages on end, least until it was his turn at the plate... but it felt like he spent a lot of time on the bench for a catcher! LOL Speaking of the game though, Coffey notes at the beginning of the book that the game described here (the opening game, I think he's referring to) is actually inspired by an actual game that went down between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees in the summer of 2001. 



The romantic relationship between Owen and Micky did, at times, have a charm to it that I enjoyed. Theirs was a young relationship that was full of sweet, naive, intense promises that most of us can probably relate to on some level, remembering back to our first loves. But something there fell short for me, didn't quite hit maximum heartstring tug. 


One thing I will give this book though -- even if the plot had some missed opportunities (IMO), there were some undeniably great lines of prose I would tip my hat to, if i wore one while I read. If you're familiar with Coffey's previous books and wonder about his trademark light fantasy / magical realism touch he tends to weave into his stories, it is still present here but it's much more faint than in his previous novels. 


There is always tomorrow, until there is not. 



FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 







*Musician Eddie Heinzelman composed a song entitled "Dandelion", inspired by Coffey's Steal Away Home! You can check out the song HERE.

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review 2018-01-24 00:00
Steal Away Home
Steal Away Home - Billy Coffey I tried a few pages of this book and just couldn’t get into it.
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text 2017-11-04 06:59
Some Small Magic by Billy Coffey
Some Small Magic - Billy Coffey

All Abel wants is a little bit of magic in his life. Enough money so his mom doesn’t cry at night. Healing for his broken body. And maybe a few answers about his past. When Abel discovers letters to him from the father he believed dead, he wonders if magic has come to the hills of Mattingly, Virginia, after all. But not everything is as it seems. With a lot of questions and a little bit of hope, Abel decides to run away to find the truth. But danger follows him from the moment he jumps his first boxcar, forcing Abel to rely on his simpleminded friend Willie—a man wanted for murder who knows more about truth than most—and a beautiful young woman they met on the train. From Appalachia to the Tennessee wilds and through the Carolina mountains, the name of a single small town beckons: Fairhope. That is where Abel believes his magic lays. But will it be the sort that will bring a broken boy healing? And is it the magic that will one day lead him home?





Our protagonist, young Abel (I believe he's possibly in his teens at the story's opening?) was born with a medical condition that causes his bones to remain very brittle and his spine crooked. This also leads him to have disfigured limbs that make movement difficult. Abel hates that his health problems cause his mother so much stress and financial strain. Both he and his mother try to live good, honest lives, Lisa (the mother) putting in long hours a local diner in their little town of Mattingly, Virginia, often working double shifts to just to barely make ends meet. Abel suffers through bullying at school but tries to make the best of it until one day he just reaches the end of his fuse and fights back in a rather unique way. Though it's well known who the main school bully is, Abel still seems to get the short end of the stick when the bulk of the disciplinary action falls on him.


"What if things could be better?" he asks.

"They can't, Abel."

"But what if they could? Would you be happy?"

"I'm happy now."

"Maybe you ain't. Maybe you been sad for so long, you think that's what being happy is."

Lisa cannot answer this. 

"Don't worry, Momma."

"About what?"

"About nothing."

 He gets up from the table and leans in close for what Lisa believes will be a kiss. Instead, he snatches a nickel from behind her ear and places it on the table. 

"What's this for?"

"For what I owe. I know it's not all of it, but I'll take care of the rest too."

 He walks inside, letting the screen door shut behind him. Lisa can only sit and drink her beer. She fingers the nickel and wonders how long Abel had been carrying that around, wonders what just happened, and whether it was Abel who just got punished, or her. 



One night, while he remains home alone while Lisa works through another late shift, Abel comes across a box of letters addressed to him that he's never seen before. He doesn't recognize the North Carolina address but when he opens one letter he finds the writer signs off as "Dad". Lisa had always told Abel that his father passed away when Abel was just a baby, but these letters seem rather recent. 


Make sure you laugh and love and stop to watch the sun fall. Keep your eyes on the things that matter and don't, and learn to know the difference. 

~an excerpt from one of the letters


Abel decides on a plan to jump the first train boxcar out of town, taking along his best friend, Willie Farmer. Willie, known to most of Mattingly as "Dumb Willie" (for being mentally challenged) is in his early 20s but has the mental development of a small child... and the physical strength of a superhero. Due to an unplanned scuffle with a local meanie, Willie is now possibly wanted for murder, so it's important Abel keep his friend by his side. Meanwhile, Abel is also hoping that the trip will lead him to meeting his father face to face and give him the answers to a better, more comfortable life for him and his mom. 


Once on the train, Abel & Willie meet an enigmatic young girl who doesn't readily give up her name, so Abel, inspired by his love of The Wizard of Oz, names her Dorothy. Dorothy has something mysterious & special about her, and her utterances here and there -- such as "It was a mistake, bringing them here." -- clue the reader in on the idea that her presence isn't entirely by chance. *If you've read Billy Coffey's work before, you likely remember that he likes to play with light themes of supernatural and even touches of magical realism, so you can likely make a good guess of where the story heads from this point.


Abel stares down at his cast, which has been left dented but whole. He stares and will not look away, because even now he can feel the girl's eyes upon him, those pretty blue ones set inside that pretty face. He feels that look as one that speaks not of friendship, but of options weighed and regrets counted. 


The perspective of the story shifts ever so slightly between our three key players -- Abel, Willie and "Dorothy". Coffey does an especially nice job of subtly bringing in Willie's voice. Without changing the rhythm of the writing in a jarring fashion, Coffey changes his writing just a touch -- making it more simple in style or writing words in a more phonetic way -- to quietly let readers know they've shifted from the thoughts of Abel to Willie (and back again, later). Coffey's way of laying all this out brought to mind John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. 


Willie is one of the most endearing characters here, drawing readers in with his boundless love and faith in good people, even when Abel lets you in on his friend's story. Willie's mental slowness? His parents claim it was caused by him falling off a wagon as a child, but Abel suspects the source is more along the lines of Willie's father beating and abusing him for years, Willie's parents treating him more like a burden / source of free labor than a beloved son. Abel's suspicions seem confirmed one day when Abel goes to Willie's house to find him chained up with just a small jug of water at his side, parents nowhere to be found. It breaks your heart and at the same time makes you think of Willie as the kind of soul too good for this world.


"Then you got ones like Dumb Willie. They're the special ones, Abel, and you know why? Because they ain't meant for this life at all. They're so tuned to the next world that it leaks into this one here, turning it all to a wonder they can't bear up against. You tell me Dumb Willie's pa is the one broke Dumb Willie's mind. I don't know about that. I think maybe it's more Dumb Willie's always been so full of heaven that he ain't got much use for earth. That's how it is for those few blessed enough that their souls point to other lands, but cursed such that they got to live in this one. Folk call them dumb. Call them crazy. But they ain't neither. All they are's closer to heaven than anybody else." ~Dorothy


This turned out to be my favorite of Coffey's books to date. The novel warmly touches upon the theme of family and friendship, the lengths we go to to creating (or at least contributing to) a fulfilling life for the ones we love. Some Small Magic also ends up being a nice illustration of just how far a little hope, a dash of that "faith of a mustard seed", can take a person in life. Key characters are living out hollow, painful, sad existences, punishing themselves for things largely beyond their control. Depressing as that sounds, Coffey turns it around, showing that no matter how far gone one's situation seems, there's always time to learn how to let go and live for joy again.


For the first time in a long while and perhaps even forever, laughter filled this small patch of forgotten wood in the midst of a bustling mountain town. The noise is full and whole and worthy of wonder. It is magic, this laughter, and one not so small as to slip through Abel's knowing. The feel of it lodges into the cracked places of his insides where not even his brittle bones dwell, telling him things will be all right now. Wherever that dark road leads, Dorothy and Dumb Willie will travel with him. And Abel's daddy will be at its end, and healing, and the world will be made right. Yes, that is how Abel knows it will be.. because most every road is a dark one. Especially the ones that hold a light at their end. 


For those interested in using this as a possible book club pick, a page of discussion questions are included at the back of the book.




FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 


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review 2016-06-02 00:12
There Will Be Stars by Billy Coffey
There Will Be Stars - Billy Coffey

No one in Mattingly ever believed Bobby Barnes would live to see old age. Drink would either rot Bobby from the inside out or dull his senses just enough to send his truck off the mountain on one of his nightly rides. Although Bobby believes such an end possible—and even likely—it doesn’t stop him from taking his twin sons Matthew and Mark into the mountains one Saturday night. A sharp curve, blinding headlights, metal on metal, his sons’ screams. Bobby’s final thought as he sinks into blackness is a curious one—There will be stars. Yet it is not death that greets him beyond the veil. Instead, he returns to the day he has just lived and finds he is not alone in this strange new world. Six others are trapped with him. Bobby soon discovers that this supposed place of peace is actually a place of secrets and hidden dangers. Along with three others, he seeks to escape, even as the world around him begins to crumble. The escape will lead some to greater life, others to endless death . . . and Bobby Barnes to understand the deepest nature of love.





Bobby Barnes is a mechanic and father to twin boys. He lives hard, drinks even harder. A personality trait that gets him in trouble the night he decides to drink and take his boys out for a night drive. Something distracts Bobby and in an instant his truck is plummeting off a cliff. In his final moments, what he believes to be his final thought on this earth ends up being "there will be stars"... whatever that might mean. 


But instead of death, Bobby finds himself waking up in a sort of alternate reality. In the first moments, it appears he's been transported back to the day of the crash, his boys happily watching cartoons in the living room. Confused but curious, Bobby carries out his day as he normally would, seeing the same neighbors and townspeople he interacts with every day. It takes him a few double takes, but the more people Bobby interacts with the more he starts to realize something is off. No one seems to be acting quite like themselves and it's creeping him out! What happened to him after that crash? Is he in some sort of heaven? Purgatory? Why does it feel like the Twilight Zone around here?


One of Bobby's acquaintances thinks Bobby is the one acting weird, asks him to visit with Dorothea. Again, Bobby knew her in life pre-wreck, but here she explains that he is "one of them", a group of people who died (in one way or another) and came through what's referred to as "The Turn", to end up in this reality. Though some variation to the days are allowed, mostly the townspeople end up reenacting their last day on Earth ad infinitum. Dorothea has pronounced herself leader in this reality and expects everyone to call her "Mama". Dorothea likes to say that this is heaven and anything you could ever want is here, but Bobby comes to see that she's running the place like a mob boss. Why does it seem like everyone is in fear of angering her? What is it he's not being told?


Given some time, things eventually settle into a peaceful, almost comfortable routine... at least at first. But little moments of creepiness seep through the calm veneer. Some of Bobby's friends meet up with him in secret, trying to let him in on the secrets Dorothea doesn't want out, but when Mama herself gets word of these "rats", lessons in obedience are quickly doled out. As terror grows, Bobby becomes consumed with finding a way out this place he now sees as some sort of hell. 


The plot here reminded me a bit of the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, even down to the surprises that aren't really surprises! I don't know what it was about this plot but most of it felt SO SLOW for such a potentially creepy premise. Felt like it took me forever to make progress, but finish it I eventually did. I stuck with it mostly for the characterizations. I thought those were done pretty well. It was pleasantly surprising to see what a dedicated dad Bobby was, given his struggle with alcoholism. I also liked the character of Juliet, her patience and kind demeanor made a nice balance in such an eerie, unstable environment and I found myself rooting for her and Bobby's friendship, because it seemed like she would be the perfect calming influence against his inner demons. I also liked that right from the very start she seemed like one of the few characters who was absolutely, without much hesitation, willing to risk the wrath of Dorothea to always tell Bobby the truth. I was also touched by the tender, bittersweet closing conversation Bobby has with his twin boys!


The plot is not the most fast-moving, but there are bursts of intensity in the action that give it a nice jolt from time to time. Mostly what I took away from There Will Be Stars was the allegorical bit, the way this story has a way of illustrating what can happen to a person when they make themselves their own worst enemy, not allowing themselves forgiveness for a past mistake (or mistakes!), even if everyone else has, essentially trapping themselves within their own mental prisons. I found a good message for the power and importance of self-forgiveness. 



POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: One character in this novel suffers multiple rapings and spousal abuse. 



FTC DISCLAIMER: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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review 2016-05-23 07:14
There Will Be Stars
There Will Be Stars - Billy Coffey

I think this one might find itself the most confusing read of the year.


Set in some kind of a Groundhog day limbo, Bobby Barnes and a group of other people are forced to relive the same day over and over again. Strangely though, they go through this together, even though they died at different times and are forced to reenact there final day in quite some detail.


I was curious about the book, I think that is one of the main reason why I kept reading (and the fact that I don't like to DNF books). The premise was promising however the execution was very confusing. I kept wondering about the rules regarding their Groundhog day. Why did not every person who died in the village join them? And more, but I'm about to enter the spoiler territory.


The rest of the story was less to my liking though. At times the pacing was terribly slow and also relatively repetitive. All in all, I think it just wasn't the book for me.


Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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