Monday, February 20, 2017

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

Readers, you’ve been asking me for recommendations of novels similar to A Man Called Ove, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Several of you, especially those living in areas hard hit by winter, have asked me to suggest a charmer. So, a literal charmer it is. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper follows 69-year-old Arthur Pepper, a Yorkshire widower, as he leaves his contented comfort zone of a home to discover the stories behind the eight charms on his late wife Miriam’s gold charm bracelet. 

Each day, Arthur got out of bed at precisely 7:30 a.m. just as he did when his wife, Miriam, was alive. He showered and got dressed in the grey slacks, pale blue shirt and mustard tank top that he had laid out the night before. He had a shave then went downstairs.

At eight o’clock he made his breakfast, usually a slice of toast and margarine, and he sat at the pine farmhouse table that could seat six, but which now just seated one. At eight-thirty he would rinse his pots and wipe down the kitchen worktop using the flat of his hand and then two lemon-scented Flash wipes. Then his day could begin. . .

But today, the fifteenth day of the month, was different. It was the anniversary he had been dreading for weeks. The date on his Stunning Scarborough calendar caught his eye whenever he passed it. He would stare at it for a moment then try to find a small job to distract him. He would water his fern, Frederica, or open the kitchen window and shout ‘Gerroff’ to deter next door’s cats from using his rockery as a toilet.

It was one year to the day that his wife had died.

Arthur has a tenuous relationship with his two grown children. Neither one attended Miriam’s funeral. His son who lives in Australia cited the distance and business needs and his daughter who lives nearby wasn’t feeling well. Thus, Arthur has turned inward and relies on his daily habits to distract him from his woes. Finding the charm bracelet, a piece of jewelry that was entirely unlike anything Miriam would ever have worn, shakes Arthur out of his doldrums. As he heads to London and places beyond, his naiveté leads him into trouble while each escapade offers growth.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper isn’t literature with a capital “L,” instead, it’s a heart-warming story best told by a narrator with a British accent. This is a book to be heard, not read. Pretend that you’re a child and listen to this book as you sit in a cozy chair or drive off on a road trip to warmer climes. James Langton, the novel’s narrator, was born in York, England and studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. His voice is absolutely spot-on in evoking Arthur and those he encounters.

I’ve read several novels using charm bracelets, letters, and other mementos as plot devices and most have been saccharine wastes of my time. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper with its wry humor, cast of unexpected characters, and yes, even the lessons it imparted, was an enchanting trek into a life I thoroughly enjoyed observing.

Listening to Arthur and his adventures made many a trip on Chicago’s not so delightful expressways enjoyable. I wonder if those who saw me as I stepped out of my car with a giant smile on my face imagined that it was a book that had me smiling. Arthur’s grief and his probable depression are expressed through a candid portrait of sincere emotional anguish, but the book is never maudlin. Rarely do I drive along laughing out loud then seconds later shed a tear while heading for my exit and I thank author Phaedra Patrick and narrator James Langton for providing such an adventure.

Summing it Up: Listen to The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper for a sentimental novel that will charm you, make you laugh, and brighten your worst day. This quintessentially British tale is as perfect for a winter day as a cup of tea and a hand knit afghan. If your book club is looking for relief from reading too many heavy tomes, this will be a “blinding” (excellent) choice. If you choose to read the novel in print the paperback edition was released on January 31, 2017.

Rating: 4 stars   

Category: Fiction, Dessert, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Road Food, Book Club

Publication date: May 3, 2016

What Others are Saying:

“Phaedra Patrick understands the soul. Eccentric, charming, and wise, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is about finding courage, generosity, and compassion, even when all seems lost. With clear-eyed prose and a moving story, Patrick reminds us how selfless people can be – she reminds us to be brave. The Curious Charms is not just for those who are mourning over love or the past. This book will illuminate your heart.” – Nina George, New York Times bestselling author of The Little Paris Bookshop

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain

One Good Mama Bone’s first sentences are enough to capture even the most demanding reader’s attention.

“One night, deep into it, when sounds are prone to carry, a baby boy lies crying on Sarah Creamer’s kitchen table. He is minutes old, still wet with his mother’s blood, and hungry for his mother’s milk.

But she does not hear his cries. She is no longer there.

Only Sarah. Only Sarah remains. Her body bent over his, her hands rummaging the wooden planks for a towel still white enough to wrap him in. Blood is everywhere, puddled up as if there had been a hard rain. The smell of it saturates the eighty-one-degree air, pushes aside the dry tang of bleach, and fills the heat with the moistness of a long-shuttered earth, now free.

The baby’s cries penetrate Sarah’s bosom and bounce around its emptiness.”

Those sentences offer the promise of a good story with fine writing and the rest of One Good Mama Bone delivers on that promise. The book opens in 1944 on the day of Emerson Bridge’s birth and his mother Mattie’s death. It soon skips ahead to a dark November day in 1950 when a mother cow delivers twin calves in an empty pasture where she watches her first-born, a female calf, die. With fierce determination, the mother cow returns to her feet and saves her second-born, a male calf, with no one around to show her what to do.

“She would know, and it would come from a place deep inside where maternal love lives and maternal love grows, a place that is regardless there, never wavering there, nonnegotiably there.

It lay in her bones.”

Four months later Sarah Creamer’s husband, Harold drinks himself to death and she’s left to raise “her” son Emerson Bridge without a cent to her name and a huge debt on their farm that threatens to leave them homeless. Emerson Bridge is the evidence of the affair Sarah’s best friend and neighbor Mattie had with Harold. Sarah who had lost her only child in a birth that also took her ability to have more babies loves Emerson Bridge unequivocally. Taking care of Emerson Bridge is made difficult because of Sarah’s fears that she can’t be a good mother. Seared in her memory are her mother’s words told to her when she was six, “You-ain’t-got-you-one-good-mama-bone-in-you.”

Sarah is unwavering in her efforts to provide for Emerson Bridge so when she reads in the local newspaper that a boy has won $680 with his Grand Champion steer at the recent Fat Cattle Show & Sale, she sees this as the financial deliverance they need. She obtains a young steer from a neighboring farm, but the calf bellows his discomfort at having been weaned too soon from his mother. Mama Red, the same cow who’d been so determined to save her calf at his birth, breaks through a barbed-wire fence and travels to her calf. She calms and nurses him and teaches Sarah how to be a mother. Soon Sarah is moving toward winning the money that will change their lives, but an evil neighbor threatens her success. Still, Sarah seems primed to win until she realizes just what the price of winning will be.

One of the ingredients that sets this novel apart from the usual tales of motherhood is that it’s Mama Red and her care for her calf and the lessons Sarah absorbs from watching them together that form the novel’s core. The novel is a fine example of the southern tradition of using place to portray the effects of isolation and poverty. Readers may need to acclimate themselves to Sarah’s simple speech, but once under its spell, they’ll see how it delivers them into the world that shaped her. This extraordinarily original novel veers from typical southern fiction in its use of animals as behavioral models. Just as Mama Red’s love for her calf “lay in her bones,” Sarah’s gumption rises out of her being to form one very good mama bone.

One Good Mama Bone brilliantly, yet softly, addresses the deep connection between us and the animals in our world. It delivers a universal tale of love as seen through the compassionate depiction of a mother cow and her star pupil. I don’t lightly compare any book to one of my all-time favorites, but it would be difficult to ignore the similarities that One Good Mama Bone shares with Charlotte’s Web.

Summing it Up: Animal lovers, southern fiction fans, and those who simply like a well-told story will devour One Good Mama Bone just as they would the best home-made biscuits and gravy. There's a reason the late Pat Conroy wanted this for his imprint. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Grits, Pigeon Pie, Book Club

Publication date: February 14, 2017

Q & A with the Author:

What Others are Saying:

“In spite of being an animal lover all my life and feeling the centrality of that love in how I see the larger world, I have never directly addressed that theme in my writing. I no longer have to. Bren McClain’s brilliant and ravishingly moving One Good Mama Bone speaks eloquently for all of us who find our deepest humanity intimately connected with all the sentient creatures around us. Humane and universal, One Good Mama Bone is an instant classic.” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler

“Bren McClain writes of elemental things with grace, wisdom, and power. One Good Mama Bone speaks with a quiet authority that comes through on every page.”  Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Best Historical Fiction of 2016

Writing historical fiction is a juggling act. Historical fiction authors must painstakingly research every detail of what their characters wear, what’s happening around them, what they eat, and of a myriad of seemingly minor details that, if inaccurate, will diminish the credibility of their novel. While making sure their book is historically accurate, they also have to write a compelling narrative and build characters that engage readers. In 2011, Bill O’Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard published Killing Lincoln, a novel about the President’s assassination. Immediately after publication, errors including scenes set in the Oval Office (which wasn’t built until 1909) made critics wince and even caused the book store at Ford’s Theatre to refuse to carry the book because it was “riddled with inaccuracies.” Later editions corrected the errors and the book sold extraordinarily well, but historians and reviewers still found it lacking.   My choices for the best historical fiction of 2016, combine meticulous research and a compelling story. Readers of historical fiction should expect nothing less. 

My Best Fiction of 2016 list featured seven novels set primarily in the past. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Heirlooms by Rachel Hall, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and Wintering by Peter Geye. Links to full reviews of each are found in the titles.  

I also read eight other outstanding historical fiction novels in 2016. Links to full reviews are found in the titles of those I reviewed previously.
  • As Good As Gone by Larry Watson
  •  Eliza Waite by Ashley E. Sweeney 
  • The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (written in 1981, US publication 2014)  
  • The Muse by Jessie Burton·
  •  The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Best Historical Novel of 2016 that Will Make You Read (or Reread) Kate Chopin’s classic The Awakening and Beg Your Book Club to Discuss Both:  
Eliza Waite by Ashley E. Sweeney, Eliza is a resolute widow who moves to Alaska during the 1890s gold rush where she opens a bakery and awakens to her own needs and abilities. Tying this book to Kate Chopin’s classic The Awakening enlivens the story while the plot twists and evocative weather imagery make this a winner of a debut novel. GPR/PP/SN, BC

The Best Historical Novel I Read in 2016 (U.S. publication in 2014) that Reads Like a Classic:

The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam is an absolute charmer. The voices of the young English boys, Bell and Harry resonate. Harry is from London and his parents are renting a house on farmland owned by Bell’s family. The two very different boys explore the countryside and grow along with the land where they meet unique characters. Gardam offers wry British humor and her own brilliantly economical use of just the right words to illuminate characters, time, and place.  Lovers of the Old Filth trilogy will rejoice to hear that this novel is in print. It's set in the 1960s and is told in stories that could be read on their own but make for a cohesive novel. (Written in 1981, it won the Whitbread Prize.) GPR/PP

The Best Historical Novel of 2016 that Transports You to 1850s Ireland:
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue is set in 1850s rural Ireland where a young girl has supposedly gone without food for months. A scientifically trained nurse who studied with Florence Nightingale doubts the veracity of the tale and is sent to watch over the girl in a tiny village in the middle of Ireland. Donoghue’s exploration of prejudice against Irish Catholics is masterful. The Wonder is a wonder of tension and storytelling dexterity with great voice and historical detail. Perfect for fans of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. G/GPR/PP, BC

The Best “Hybrid” Historical Novel of 2016 that Illuminates a Little-Known U.S. Historical Event:

The Bowl with Gold Seams by Ellen Prentiss Campbell reimagines little-known history between VE Day and VJ Day when the Japanese ambassador to Berlin, his staff, and their families were held in a Pennsylvania resort which the U.S. commissioned as an internment center. The novel focuses on Hazel Shaw, an imagined young woman, working at the hotel where the detainees were kept, and on her life years later when she faces a moral dilemma. I call it a “hybrid” historical novel because part of it is set in the present day and part in 1945. GPR/PP/SN, BC

The Best Historical Novel of 2016 that Combines Art, Love, Words, and a Touch of Mystery
The Muse by Jessie Burton links Odelle, a Caribbean immigrant in 1967 London with Olive Schloss, an English heiress, and Isaac Robles and his sister Teresa, poor villagers in Spain in 1937. When a painting rumored to be by Robles is brought to the Skelton Institute of Arts, where Odelle works, questions arise about its provenance. G/GPR, BC

The Best Historical Novel of 2016 that Examines Little Known Women of World War II:

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is based on the true story of Caroline Ferriday and her work to help women survivors of Ravensbruck concentration camp as well as of Herta Oberheuser, one of the Ravensbruck doctors prosecuted at Nuremberg and on a teenage resistance fighter sent to the camp, Kelly makes these stories of World War II bravery and cunning come alive as she makes them human through showing romantic interests and society doings. GPR/PP/SN, BC

The Best Historical Novel of 2016 That’s Difficult to Read:
Mischling by Affinity Konar exquisitely bears witness to the atrocities perpetrated by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, but reading of the abuses suffered by so many children in Mischling was almost more than I could endure. Twins Pearl and Stasha’s dual narratives offer prize-worthy, lyrical language and ask deep questions about forgiveness, yet this novel is only for those able to stomach the horrors. G/PP/SN, BC

The Best Historical Novel of 2016 that Evokes the West:

As Good as Gone by Larry Watson takes place in 1963 in a small Montana town when Bill Sidey visits his recluse father Calvin, now living off the grid, and asks him to stay with his grandchildren for a week while their mother has an operation in Missoula. Calvin’s behavior goes far beyond the stereotypical western man’s man. He’s fearless beyond a fault. Cast Clint Eastwood or Robert De Niro as Calvin.  GPR/PP, BC