Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Tag: coming of age

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

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I received this ARC through NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.

Author Kate Mayfield tells us what it was like to grow up living above her family’s funeral home in Jubilee, Kentucky, in the 1970’s.  The plot is simple but there are plenty of stories to fill the book.  The author tells her story in first person, and the story spans years as she grows up and comes of age. In all honesty, I almost gave up about 25% of the way through: the first part of the book is slow going, almost Southern-treacle slow. Things happen, but there is not much interest generated, as dead bodies share the same amount of urgency as meals or talking to neighbors.  The only reason I kept going with it was that I was stuck at work with nothing else to read, so I kept going in desperation.

I’m really glad I did. Somehow Mayfield gets out of first gear and her stories take on more energy. We come to realize that it’s not just about growing up above a funeral home and experiencing death on a daily basis–it’s about living with a sister with a terrible mental illness. It’s about learning that  your father is human and fallible. It’s about discovering yourself at the same time that you find out how insidious discrimination can be, in a small town in the 70’s. It’s about secrets, large and small, and finally grasping that the one thing all dead people leave behind are secrets.

As the pages turn I followed Mayfield through the minefield of junior high, and her first crush. Her father’s actions are still nebulous until almost the very end of the book, when we finally find out why he befriended a dotty old woman that the town shuns, and where he really got that mysterious “war wound” . Mayfield stays true to herself, seemingly the only one with a strong head and firm sense of self, overshadowed as she is by a vague older brother, a psychotic older sister, and a mother who stays by her man no matter what wrongs are perpetrated (alcoholism, infidelity). I found Mayfield’s mother the most irritating character there, with her inflated sense of Southern gentility and lack of outward emotion. The author more than adequately describes the stifling atmosphere in her childhood home.

The ending is poignant, as she explains how things finally turn out after the death of her father and everyone goes their separate ways.  I especially enjoyed how she explained her visit to her childhood home, formerly the funeral home, now renovated into an apartment building. I’ve always wanted to go back to my childhood home, and I think Mayfield nails the feeling:

Each time a door opened, I experienced something familiar, but it was like walking with a veil over my face.

The downstairs area, where the business of dying had taken place, was the most changed. One of the apartments downstairs was newly renovated and empty. I stepped onto the new carpet and admired the fresh paint job, then walked through a door into a closet or storage area, a small, narrow room with no windows. We couldn’t find the light switch and stood in almost complete darkness. In the silence a sudden shiver rippled up my spine, and then I knew. This was the embalming room. I was sure of it. I could scarcely breathe. As chilling as it was, it was the most peculiar and familiar feeling, the closest I had yet come to reexperiencing my childhood home.

The sound of the real estate agent’s keys brought me out of my trance and we left. I was shattered.

I recommend this book–move past the slower start and you will be rewarded. Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link asin=”1476757283″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here.[/easyazon_link]

Calves in the Mud Room by Jerome O. Brown (plus INTERVIEW and GIVEAWAY!)

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Many thanks to author Jerry Brown for gifting me these copies in exchange for this honest review.

Calves in the Mud Room is a study in contrasts; hard working teens and irresponsible adults, the haves and the have-nots, dreams and responsibility. Cows become angels, a boy becomes a man, and all the while, the winter wind howls and snow falls relentlessly.

Wade Summers is trying to borrow his mom’s car and finish his chores so he can get cleaned up for a date with Glory Schoonover. He’s done nothing but dream about her, and when she asks him to the Valentine’s Day dance at their high school, he can’t believe his good fortune. This may be the only chance he gets with Glory, she of the  “juicy fruit lips, dark chocolate eyes, honey streaked corn silk hair with the chamomile-lavender scent“.

As Wade is finishing up the evening feeding he sees a heifer off by herself, not interested in food, restless. His joyous anticpation of the evening quickly turns to despair when he discovers his stepfather’s cows are calving early, in the middle of a ferocious blizzard:

Not tonight, no, not tonight, please.

He finishes feeding and swings the truck back around. The snow etches an opaque curtain and he loses the isolated heifer. 

A black cow pie in the headlights sprouts a pair of legs and tries to rise. Wade hits the brake hard. The engine croaks. 

Snowflakes eat at the newborn. There’s no story of birth in the snow. No fluids, no hoof prints, no imprint. The mother could be twenty feet away but all he sees are shreds of snow. 


Wade’s stepfather is mean and useless, Glory’s moneyed family is condescending, and  Wade is a teenager with raging hormones. Nothing but adversity surrounds him, and Brown’s lyrical, flowing prose shows Midwestern hardscrabble life in a terribly beautiful way. Almost every page illustrates the despair of farm life lived just on the brink of bankruptcy, made tolerable by alcohol and dreams of a way out. Brown creates unsympathetic characters with ease, giving the reader authentic dialogue and spot on introspection.  Don’t let the simple plot (boy wants girl, simple things conspire against him) fool you—it’s told in a new light. The undercurrents of the subplots are telling and poignant also, and there are some unforgettable characters I’d like to know more about.

Is Wade forced to do the right thing because of the specter of his grandfather and the desire to rise above the bleakness? Or is Wade a good person deep down, regardless of his environment and dead end life? His character is revealed slowly, carefully, with information right in front of you, and plenty to see in between the lines.

What makes this book sing is the rolling, lyrical prose. Simple things like cows in a field, or detritus in a pickup truck take on a new light as Brown paints a picture on every page. Calves in the Mud Room must be read at least twice; once to see how things happen, and the second time to savor the words slowly, like a gourmet dish with its flavors perfectly blended.

This novella is truly a hidden gem that is a quick and lovely read. I loved it.

The author has generously donated a softcover copy of his book for a giveaway! He also agreed to be interviewed by us. Click here to read the interview. Use the box below to enter the giveaway!

a Rafflecopter giveaway
Don’t want to wait for the contest to be over? You can get your own copy [easyazon_link asin=”0615967507″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here.[/easyazon_link]




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