Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun inhabits the early life of aviator Beryl Markham so astutely that it should prompt readers to immediately seek out Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, to learn the rest of her story. McLain, best known for her novel The Paris Wife, captures Beryl Markham’s childhood and early adult years honestly and compassionately. As a child growing up motherless and relatively untended in early twentieth-century Kenya, Beryl Clutterbuck learned to survive in a brutal land by observing her friend Kibbii and his tribe and her father’s training of racehorses. Her affinity for animals became both the thing that saved her and that which almost destroyed her as was the instance when a lion attacked her when she was twelve.
“I knew I had no chance at all. He would eat me here or drag me off to a glade or valley only he knew of, a place from which I’d never return.  The last thought I remember having was This is how it feels then. This is what it means to be eaten by a lion.” 

When her father has to sell the farm and relocate, then 16-year-old Beryl marries out of desperation to stay in her beloved land. McLain’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape and her objective rendering of young Beryl’s spicier activities keep the novel from devolving into a titillating soap opera as does the telling of the tale through Beryl’s own, resolute voice.

“When the March rains fell over the plains and the ragged face of the escarpment, six million yellow flowers cracked open all at once. Red-and-white butterflies, the ones that looked like peppermint sticks, flashed in twists against the sparkling air.
But in 1919, the rains didn’t come. Not the soaking spring storms when one inky cloud could levitate for hours spilling everything it had, and not the short daily November rains that winked on and off as if they ran on a system of pulleys. ”

As the youngest horse trainer ever licensed in Africa who leads several horses out of obscurity and previous injury to the winning of top races, Beryl befriends Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa) and falls in love with Blixen’s lover, big game hunter, Denys Fitch Hatton. She’s also linked with the visiting Edward, the Prince of Wales, and his brother Henry, in a flirtation that further mars her spotty reputation. Beryl’s romantic liaisons and marriages propel the story and keep it fresh while showing both her emotional fragility and growth.

McLain bookends Beryl’s story with her view from the cockpit as she soars and sputters across the Atlantic in her legendary 1936 solo flight thus allowing the reader to enter into both her journey and the reasons she was in the air. McLain’s Author’s Note is the perfect ending to the novel as it answers many of the questions that this reader simply had to know immediately. When McLain writes “Beryl was undoubtedly complicated – a riddle. a libertine. a maverick. a sphinx.” I nodded my head in agreement as I felt I knew Beryl Markham very well and agreed with McLain wholeheartedly. 

It's rare for both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly to give their coveted star to such an accessible novel. That they did is a tribute to both McLain's powerfully evocative writing and to her ability to connect Markham's story with the average reader. I too give this five stars. When I read Circling the Sun I felt the heat of the African sun, I saw the ocean below me, I watched as banded colobus monkeys climbed through burlap sacking covered windows, I tasted the licorice and pear candies sent from England to compensate for Beryl's mother's abandonment, and I lived young Beryl's life. 

Summing it Up: Lions, poisonous snakes, mountains, airplanes, love affairs, and more invigorate the sweeping African landscape as Paula McLain’s portrait of young Beryl Markham soars above the changing land and mores of the early twentieth century. Read this book for a superbly written view of an amazing woman who did things 100 years ago that very few would attempt today. I thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Wife, but I adore Circling the Sun. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: July 28, 2015
What Others are Saying:

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Drummond Girls by Mardi Jo Link

If you’re like most women I know, you have some “go-to” friends.  They’re the ones you call when your son’s in a car accident and you don’t know if he’ll make it through surgery, the ones you email when you’re bursting with good news that might sound like bragging to others, and the ones who tell you that you’re being just a tiny bit bitchy when you want everyone to do things your way. If you’re lucky you’ve known these women for many years and if you’re really fortunate, you’ve taken trips with them.

Trips with “the girls” are magic. Whether they’re college reunions, visits to each other’s homes, or luxury cruises in the Greek Islands, they’re magical because you laugh until your stomach hurts, you cry when you hear what a friend you haven’t seen in years has suffered, and you become more of the real self you were when you were seven. Mardi Jo Link’s The Drummond Girls: a Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance is the story of Link’s annual trips with seven of her friends to tiny Drummond Island, Michigan. But really, The Drummond Girls is your story, it’s my story, and it’s the story of every strong woman I know who couldn’t make it through life without her team, her posse, her stalwart friends.

The Drummond Girls begins in 1993 as Link walks out her door:

Mothers who hand sewed their kids’ clothes, who read used Jane Austen paperbacks and stenciled checkerboards and hearts onto their kitchen cupboards, did not go away on weekend benders. Not according to my husband they didn’t.

“This one does,” I told him, tossing long underwear, a disposable camera, and a Led Zeppelin cassette tape into a denim duffel bag.

It was early October; I was a thirty-one-year-old wife and mother of two, a bar waitress with a college degree, and getting into Jill’s red Fiero that morning was the most radical act I’d committed in years.  My older son was three, the younger fourteen months, and I’d rarely been apart from them for more than a few hours. And yet when Jill backed down my driveway, that duffel bag and I were in her front seat.

Link portrays her friends’ escapades with honesty, profanity, humor, and compassion. Her exceptional writing skills deliver this tale beyond the simple recounting of adventures to “you are there” depictions of inebriated driving over two-track roads, late night talks, and ancient sites that strike them dumb with awe.

Before us was an ancient place, a flat circle of silver and gold a half mile across and surrounded by florescent evergreens. The silver came from the concave, unbroken expanse of flat rock under our feet and so damp with dew, fog, or mist that it gave off a metallic sheen.  The poplar leaves, the grass blades, the yellow of fall-blooming wildflowers, and even the wings of birds and insects merged together in the sun, creating an airy layer of gold.

For once the wind was nonexistent and none of us spoke; cicadas celebrating that they were simply alive was the only sound. Bev took a breath and marched off in hiker mode; Mary Lynn stayed right next to Linda’s car, but she was just as awestruck by the sight as the rest of us were. If silver could be spun from rock and gold from grass, what else was possible on this enchanted island?
What else was possible was their evolving story that included divorce, death, happily ever after moments, worries about memory loss, and years of building a friendship by returning every year unless “pregnant or dead” that allowed them to survive it all. The possibilities of this enchanted island began as soon the eight women crossed the mighty Mackinac Bridge each year and became The Drummond Girls. Thankfully Mardi Jo Link invites her readers along on their ride across the bridge and onto their enchanted island.

Summing it Up: Buy this book to enter into a sacred, yet sometimes wild and crazy friendship with a group of real women who aren’t perfect. Read it to think about your own friendships then put it down and call that friend you haven’t seen in a while and make plans for your own trip as this book will make you yearn to rekindle relationships. If you haven’t read Link’s memoir Bootstrapper, read it too as you’ll want to learn more of her story. If you’re thinking of taking your own road trip, Link narrates the audio version so download it and head to your own enchanted place with your best girlfriends.

Note: Link will be speaking and signing throughout the Midwest and you might just be able to catch her and her dry humor.  Tomorrow she's speaking at "Booked for Lunch" at the Perry Hotel in Petoskey, MI and I hear there may be one or two tickets left.  

Caveat: Mardi Jo Link is my friend. I’ve never been to Drummond Island with her and the “girls,” but I have enjoyed meals, wine, and conversation with her. I believe that every reviewer needs to tell readers if he or she knows an author. That said, I also believe that reading Mardi Jo Link’s The Drummond Girls will give readers a glimpse of what it’s like to be her friend and that’s a gift no one should turn down.

Rating: 5 stars (Seriously, who could rate this kind of friendship any less than five stars?)

Category: Five Starts, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Road Food, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: July 14, 2015

Author Website:http://www.mardijolink.com/

Take the quiz - Which Drummond Girl are you?: http://astringaroundmyfinger.com/which-drummond-girl-are-you/

What Others are Saying:

Library Journal: "Captures the lives of blue-collar boomers, this book is great for book clubs, and Link knows the territory."

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

The Little Paris Bookshop’s main character’s name Jean Perdu, or “lost John” in English, hints of the unmoored life that Perdu drifts through both literally and figuratively on his Paris bookshop on a barge floating in the Seine. Perdu, stuck in a time warp since his beloved Manon left him 21 years previously, has never opened the letter Manon left behind. Instead of living life, Perdu advises others via his appropriately named Literary Apothecary store. While unable to solve his own difficulties, Perdu readily diagnoses his customers’ troubles and always prescribes the perfect book to heal them. Monsieur Perdu considers that “a book is both medic and medicine at once.” Readers will enjoy the titles Perdu suggests particularly those like The Elegance of the Hedgehog that many will remember.

When sad, but beautiful Catherine moves into Perdu’s apartment building, he falls for her, tries to solve her woes, and at her urging opens Manon’s letter only to learn that he had not heeded Manon’s request for him to join her in Provence where she was dying two decades previously. While simultaneously grieving and realizing the folly of lost opportunity, Perdu decides to untether his book barge and head south to Avignon. Another neighbor, a young, acclaimed author suffering from writer’s block, joins the journey and along the way they meet others in need of healing books and soon begin to heal themselves.

The Little Paris Bookshop begins unsteadily with cumbersome romantic scenes and descriptive passages that are beautiful yet often come between the reader and the story’s pace. Once Perdu and his fellow traveler Max Jordan set sail, though, the book also catches the wind and begins to soar. As Perdu and Jordan allow themselves to shrug their burdens and enter life in small river towns along the Seine and the Rhone, the book finds a harmony similar to that which the men enjoy. Clever and kind characters join the journey providing lush descriptions of food, river towns, and vineyards along the way. Their visit to Cuisery, the French village of books, a town packed with bookstores, will beckon bibliophiles to make travel plans immediately.

The book was first published in Germany where author Nina George has published 26 novels, over a hundred short stories, and more than 600 newspaper columns. Readers must visit her book site: http://www.readitforward.com/book-apothecary/ where a series of clicks will lead inquiring minds to book cures for what ails them. For fun, I clicked on “Discouraged” then on “General Malaise and Ennui” and found the perfect cures in books including The Enchanted April and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Such cleverness and intricate knowledge of books is indicative of the power of reading that lies within this gem.

A bonus is the last section, aptly titled “Perdu’s Emergency Literary Pharmacy” that contains a list of book titles:
“Fast-acting medicines for minds and hearts affected by minor or moderate emotional turmoil. To be taken in easily digestible doses (between five and fifty pages) unless otherwise indicated and, if possible, with warm feet and/or with a cat on your lap.”

Summing it Up: The Little Paris Bookshop is an ode to the healing power of reading, travel, food, humor, forgiveness, and love. Book lovers won’t be able to resist its charm.

Rating: 4 stars
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: June 23, 2015

What Others are Saying:

Monday, July 6, 2015

As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman

As Night Falls is a thriller featuring evil Nick and his very large fellow inmate, Harlan, who escape from prison then break into a remote hilltop home in northern New York State to seek refuge and get supplies to trek to Canada. If I hadn’t read the book in an advance copy earlier, I’d have wondered if Milchman had mimicked the infamous recent breakout of two inmates from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY.  But no, this like Milchman’s two previous mysteries, is entirely the product of her very clever imagination. The book is, however, even more intriguing as we’re reminded of the details of the search near Dannemora when we enter As the Night Falls fictional search in the deep winter in the Adirondacks.

Much more than a simple prison escape simmers as homeowner Sandy Tremont and her husband Ben, a wilderness guide, sit down for dinner while their teen daughter, Ivy, sulks upstairs. When the escapees forcefully enter their home, neither Sandy nor Ben suspects that Nick has any connection to their family. All they see is that Nick is willing to do anything to escape and that he enjoys their terror. That large, strong Harlan willingly does everything Nick requests makes the duo even more frightening. As Nick’s link to the Tremont family is slowly revealed, he becomes even more alarming. Exposing any of the clues to their connection would diminish your enjoyment of this tale so I won't include them in this review.

The story’s third-person narration alternates between the viewpoints of escapee Nick, homeowner and counselor Sandy, and her daughter Ivy. This approach makes the relationships build gradually as the suspense simmers. It also allows secrets to remain hidden until the reader needs to know them.

It’s not often that a criminal and a dog become the stars of a book but rescue dog, McLean, known as Mac, is more than just a bystander and Harlan, is also more than his limited intellect makes him seem. Rarely does this reader spend so much of a book cheering for and hoping that a dog will survive, but Mac inspires that concern. Mac is named in honor of Edie, the wonderful rescue dog who reigns at one of my favorite places, McLean & Eakin Books in Petoskey, MI.

Milchman’s Cover of Snow was one of my favorite mysteries of 2014. Each of her three titles provides deep psychological insights, glimpses of isolation, and cunning mysteries to solve. I can’t wait to read her next one.  

Summing it Up: As Night Falls is a book you’ll want to read in one sitting then think about for days. Mysteries aren’t always books you want to discuss, but Milchman’s titles make you long for a fellow reader to help you ponder the “whys” of her characters’ actions. Not only is this a mystery that will have you flipping pages to find out the conclusion, it’s also one that will make you contemplate nature and nurture. Pick this up for your book club and watch the discussion soar.

Catch Jenny Milchman on her extended US tour. She’ll be appearing, reading and signing throughout the country in the coming months. http://jennymilchman.com/tour/bring-on-the-night-2015

Rating: 4 stars   

Category: Mysteries and Thrillers, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication date: June 30, 2015

Author’s Website: http://jennymilchman.com/

What Others are Saying:

Publishers Weekly: (Caution: this contains a spoiler) http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-553-39481-8 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In a French Kitchen by Susan Herrmann Loomis

Susan Herrmann Loomis’ ode to cooking in France, In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France, made me smile, taught me several tricks, and had me feeling as if I were sitting at her table or accompanying her on treks to markets in Normandy. In a French Kitchen features 85 great recipes, yet the quintessential ingredients of this tome are the simple ideas it imparts. Designed to answer the question: “How does the French cook do it?” which Loomis notes means “How does the French cook put a multicourse meal on the table at least once every day, and usually more often than that, and still manage to look great, act normal, and do everything else that needs to be done, from working, to raising kids, to taking care of the dog?”

With chapters on leftovers, equipment, and techniques, this isn’t for elitists; it’s for everyone who loves food and wants to eat well. The chapter titled “The delights of French Bread” alone would have been enough to make me buy this book. Join Ms. Loomis as she describes her daily trek to purchase bread:

“I walk to the boulangerie at least once a day, and the pleasure of emerging with a baguette in my hand, rounding the corner and tearing off the quignon, end, to chew on, is indescribable.  But I’ll try to describe it anyway.  It is complete good fortune, laced with indulgence, crowned by the feeling of being absolutely spoiled. After all, a team of bakers has been up since three a.m. baking for me. They’ve prepared the dough in their big, flour-dusted mixers, weighed and shaped it by hand, tucked it into thick, rising cloths, slit it with a razor blade and then slid it into the blustering oven when it’s just the right level of airiness. All of that so that I can enjoy the paradisiacal pleasure of crust and crumb between my teeth. If I ever for one second think I’m in the wrong place, the heel of a baguette brings me back to my senses.”

Yes, fellow readers, Loomis makes every taste explode in your mind just as it does in her mouth.  She delivers us to the places where she loves to shop, shares her secrets for making soups, salads, pastries, and more, and she writes a love note to the people in her adopted land. As an expat American, she also shares a wonderful list of sources to help Americans find the best ingredients, spices, and even wines. 

My husband and I spent several days in Normandy a few years ago and now I’m trying to figure out how I might convince him that we need to return if only to visit Louviers, the town where Loomis and her patisseries and boulangeries reside. I also plan to read On Rue Tatin, Loomis’s previous memoir, and to visit her website often to find new recipes like this one with a video on making the perfect salad

Summing it Up: If you love to cook, read this book. If you don’t care one iota about cooking, read this book for the sheer joy of Loomis’s life in her small French village. If you long to visit France, read this book for it will make you feel as if you’ve been there. Just read this book and give it to someone you love who loves life, recipes, and travel. 

Note: if you’ll be near Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, or the Pacific Northwest in July and August, you may be able to catch Loomis at her book tour events some of which include cooking demonstrations.

Rating: 5 stars    

Category: Dessert, Five Stars, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition

Publication date: June 16, 2015

Author Website: http://onruetatin.com/

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/susan-herrmann-loomis/in-a-french-kitchen/

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781592408863

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tasty Treats for Dad

Whatever you give your father or grandfather for Father’s Day, it will be just what he wants because he loves you and thinks almost everything you do is perfect. Even when you made him a clay hippopotamus that resembled a piano, he loved it and displayed it. Still you’d like to give him something more personal than golf balls or a tie and you may be a little old to make him a clay paperweight so buy him a book that fits his interests.

Contact your local independent bookstore and they'll even help Dad download one of these titles onto his Ipad or e-reader or they'll help you find just what he wants. 

If your dad is happiest when camping, hunting, or fishing yet he’s also a reader who appreciates fine writing then Nickolas Butler’s Beneath the Bonfire will make him smile more than a Cabela’s gift card. It’s a testosterone packed group of stories that puts the reader alongside the men camping out, the couples at a chainsaw party, and those hunting prized morel mushrooms. This is the rare treasure that celebrates male bonding without trivializing it. If your dad missed Butler’s amazing debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs, it’s out in paper and would also be a fine present, especially for Gen X or Millennial Dads.

My husband recently finished Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and he highly recommends it for other Dads. We all know what happened on that 1915 journey when a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, but Larson’s skill is in making what we know exciting by showing us history through the people who made it. Larson paints a picture using letters, telegrams, logs, and the statements of survivors that’s historically accurate, informative, and intriguing.

Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain by J Ivy is a book younger fathers will want to read to learn how the Grammy-winning hip-hop poet forgave his absent father and started a program to help inspire healing through writing for children and adults who grew up in fatherless homes. Read my full review here.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton shows how a grandfather’s love can heal.  Fourteen-year-old Kevin’s brother is dead and his mother “had folded into herself” so they go to her Kentucky hometown where her father, “Pops,” works to save them. The Secret Wisdom of the Earth will have your father holding his breath as he hikes down the mountain alongside these authentic characters. It’s a debut novel that's simply an old-fashioned good read. Read my full review here.

Inside the O'Briens by Lisa Genova celebrates fatherhood even when it's tough. Give it to a father who likes a great story. It will make you remember that "Every breath is a risk. Love is why we breathe."  Read my full review here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is a fairy tale for adults.  Written by Fredrik Backman, whose debut novel A Man Called Ove was one of my favorite books last year, “My Grandmother” shows that stories save us. Precocious Elsa and her grandmother don’t fit regular society and Backman’s words propel the reader into their unique world:

"Elsa is seven, going on eight.  She knows she isn’t especially good at being seven. . . . Adults describe her as “very grown-up for her age.”  Elsa knows this is just another way of saying “massively annoying for her age,” because they only tend to say this when she corrects them for mispronouncing “déjà vu” or for not being able to tell the difference between “me” and “I” at the end of a sentence. Smart-asses usually can’t, hence the “grown-up for her age” comment, generally said with a restrained smile at her parents. As if she has a mental impairment, as if Elsa has shown them up by not being totally thick just because she’s seven. And that’s why she doesn’t have any friends except Granny. . .

Granny is seventy-seven years old, going on seventy-eight.  She’s not very good at it either. You can tell she’s old because her face looks like newspaper stuffed into wet shoes, but no one ever accuses Granny of being grown-up for her age.  “Perky,” people sometimes say to Elsa’s mum, looking either fairly worried or fairly angry as Mum sighs and asks how much she owes for the damages. Or when Granny’s smoking at the hospital sets the fire alarm off and she starts ranting and raving about how “everything has to be so bloody politically correct these days!” when the security guards make her extinguish her cigarette. . . .

She used to be a doctor, and she won prizes and journalists wrote articles about her and she went to all the most terrible places in the world when everyone else was getting out. She saved lives and fought evil everywhere on earth. . . . But one day someone decided she was too old to save lives."

Elsa’s life was complete even though she had no peers, but then Granny died. That meant an end not only to their friendship but also to the tales Granny told about the Land-of-Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas that paralleled the lives of the people in their apartment building. It also meant that Elsa had an assignment; she was to deliver Granny’s letters of apology to the building’s residents via clues to where to find each letter.

In the midst of her grief, Elsa must enlist the assistance of an extremely large, very shy, germ-fearing neighbor known as The Monster, a giant dog, and a cast of unusual neighbors. Elsa must also manage her fears about what life will bring when her workaholic, pregnant mother gives birth.

With multiple subplots and eccentric characters galore, the reader can get lost but Backman faithfully steers the book back to the essentials. Elsa and her companions remind us that stories and our connections to each other matter even when adults are too busy and too self-involved to notice and that grieving isn’t easy.

Summing it Up: Read this fanciful tale to remind yourself that stories matter, that children often see what’s important and that a little suspension of belief can be good for the soul. Read it to slip into Elsa and Granny’s world where charm and tenderness triumph over cynicism and grief. Read it because a book doesn’t have to be perfect to touch your heart.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast,Dessert, Soul Food, Book Club
Publication date: June 16, 2015
What Others are Saying: