Friday, August 28, 2015

Voracious by Cara Nicoletti

As you've guessed by now, I love books and food.  And I really do usually love books that have food as a large part of the plot.  Cara Nicoletti's Voracious certainly meets those critera, along with wonderful illustrations by talented artist Marion Bolognesi.

Cara is a butcher, a literary enthusiast, and very well read.  Wrapping her book memories around food experiences in her own life, and working as a butcher in New York City give her a solid background  that combines wide ranging literary tastes and scrumptious recipes into a delightful food-writing book.  

Except for one thing.  One thing that had me gasping and talking out loud to myself late last night while I began reading this book.  Something that may not seem so big to others, but had me shouting at the author in horror.  

The first chapter talks about Laura Ingalls Wilder and one of my most beloved books, The Little House in the Big Woods.  I read my copy so much as a kid the spine broke, the cover fell off, and pages fell out.  I still have it on my bookshelf.  Cara also loves this novel, but makes one grave error that horrifies me (and makes me wonder whether the editor was snoozing).  She refers to Ma and Pa as Ma and Pa Wilder. For the love of God it's Ma and Pa Ingalls!  And does this not just once, but multiple times!  And she refers to the Ingalls girls as the Wilder girls.  I am gobsmacked by the complete wrongness of this.  Quite frankly it made me read the rest of the book with a slight doubt that other characters in other novels I haven't read are somehow misnamed as well.  

That said, I enjoyed the combination of literary and food.  It's certainly a career that I would love to have--writing about the history of food and the impact it has had on our literary creativity.  

Rating:  6/10 for that one horrible huge mistake.  It clouded my enjoyment of the rest of the book, which is really quite interesting and mouthwatering, too.  If you can get past that, enjoy!  And try some of the recipes.  They range from simple to challenging.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.   

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman

Another cover that sucked me in.  This seems to be a regular occurrence in my book world.  I've been stewing over the piles of books I have to read at home, and realized as I buy I'm missing out on what I bought to read the week before, the month before...the um...year before!  Crisis situation people!  I bought this novel in May, and just now pulled it out of a pile to read.  I'm afraid to see what's on the bottom of the book piles!  I guess the good thing is that I have plenty of surprises to look forward to as I dig around and discover what I bought and forgot about this past year.  

A Wedding in Provence takes place in, you guessed it--Provence, France.  One place that I'm pretty certain most everyone wants to visit at least once.  The cover certainly set up some longing in me to travel to France, frolic in lavender fields, and drink wine at a rustic countryside inn.  The plot is pretty simple:  Olivia and Brody travel to a friend's inn in Provence to get married.  Joining them are Olivia's two adult daughters, Carly and Nell, and Brody's best friend Jake and his mother, Fanny.  Olivia and Brody are in their early 50's; both marrying for the second time.  They are madly in love and ready to begin a new life together.  For one short weekend, everyone will gather to celebrate their marriage.  

Of course everyone brings baggage:  Carly is a brilliant Silicon Valley businesswoman who leaves her staid and boring boyfriend at home; Nell is the complete opposite--a part-time actress who lives life in the spur of the moment and by the seat of her pants.  She meets a man on the plane and invites him to the wedding.  Olivia's friend Emily and her husband Sebastien own the inn and have a wonderful life.  

But of course no one is happy, and on this weekend, when love and marriage are the center of attention, everyone is examining their experiences with love, being in love, marriage, and relationships.  Some are at a crisis point; others quietly content, yet wondering if their love will thrive in the future.  This story asks you to ponder love, the mysterious wonder of it, and the expectations we all have of it.  What do we demand of love for ourselves?  Do we ask too much, or too little?  

The blurb on the cover says this is an "utterly charming and wildly romantic" novel.  It lead me to think this would be a fun "charming and romantic" novel.  I didn't find that in this book.  The plot was more serious than I had anticipated, and that was a slight disappointment for me.  The setting was beautiful, the writing was good; but I can say if I had planned a weekend wedding in Provence and had the turmoil this novel had--well, I wouldn't be a happy camper at all!  

A novel about love in many different stages.  It will give you food for thought about the love in your life.  

Rating:  6/10 for a beautiful setting.  I found some of the characters a bit immature and wanted to shout at them to grow up.  Does this mean I'm just old?!  Read this if you like to ponder the depths of the human heart and what love means to us all and how it can change our lives.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant


It's been a while since I've come across a novel that I finish in a few days (I would have finished it in a day if I didn't have to work!).  Once again, my theory that books come to you when you're ready to read them has proven to be true for me.  The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant is a novel that I've seen countless times, and yes, even talked about a few weeks ago at two book club meetings--but I had never read it.  A trip to the library ensured that I read it right away.  I am so glad I did, and here's why.

The Boston Girl is narrated by Addie Baum, born in 1900 to Jewish immigrant parents, and the youngest of three daughters:  Betty, Celia, and Addie.  They live in Boston, in a nasty tenement, and scrape by working hard and living simply.  Addie tells her story from the age of 85 to her granddaughter, and it's a wonderful story that will pull you in and make you smile.  No, this is not what some people term an "immigrant success story", but more about a young woman who finds her voice and herself during a time where women (and her cultural heritage) believed marriage and babies were the only type of life suitable for young girls.  

But Addie is made of sterner stuff; she goes to school, but her mother--a real pill!--Mameh wants her to work in a factory to help provide for the family.  Addie joins the Saturday Club, where girls gathered to talk, gossip, and learn about life.  There she forms life-long friendships and begins to understand there is a big world out there to explore.  Addie tells her story with wit and humor, and as we all do, a gentle laugh at the naive young girl she once was; especially with men.  Moving from the early 1900's through 1985, we see Addie grow up, mature, and bounce from secretary jobs, to newspaper columnist, to teacher.  

Addie is probably one of my favorite characters so far this reading year.  Proper, yet never stiff, humorous and faithful to friends, she struggles to be accepted by her Mameh, who always sees Addie as a traitor to their Jewish heritage and a failure.  Addie is a woman who wants more for herself, and is always open to ideas, notions, and the ever-changing role of women in the early 20th century.  

Loved this novel.  Just loved it.  Written very simply and straightforward; yet carries a powerful message.  I wish I had had a chance to have such a talk with both of my grandmothers.  If you're lucky to have grandmothers in your life, sit down and simply say "Tell me about your life.".  You will get an incredible education.  

Rating:  8/10 for Addie and her life story about growing up in Boston in the early 20th century.  A simple and engaging life story told with gentle humor and grace.

Available in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audio.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert

That cake on the cover makes my mouth water.  You'll find yourself dreaming of food while  you read this fun novel that is a combination of romance, foodie fantasy, and a love letter to Milwaukee.  

Lou is recently engaged to a lawyer and operating her own little restaurant in Milwaukee.  It's been hard work, but she's finally seeing good results and making a profit.  Things are looking great, even if there's a bit of a nudge in her head about getting married.  Devlin wants a wife who puts on dinner parties, dresses well, and makes him the focus of her life.  Lou is slightly messy, slightly heavy, and spends hours at her restaurant, Luella's.  Can they make a successful marriage?  Lou's too darn busy to try and figure it out.  

Lou decides to make things up to Devlin by baking her famous coconut cake and delivering it to his apartment before he goes to work.  On the way there, she bumps into a slightly crabby stranger at the local food market.  A brief exchange about coffee, a whiff of coconut cake, and this stranger--Al--is intrigued.  

What Lou doesn't know is that Al is the restaurant critic for the local newspaper, and he's reviewing her restaurant that night.  All would be well, except Lou finds another woman in Devlin's apartment and returns to the restaurant an emotional mess.  And Al is one crabby Englishman who has decided Milwaukee is the armpit of the world and has no redeeming values--especially food.  He's itching to write another bad restaurant review.  

So yes, as you imagine, the worst happens.  Lou's professionalism takes a dive that particular evening, and her food suffers.  Al writes a scathing review, and Luella's hemorrhages customers.  Lou and Al connect again, and Al challenges Lou to show him the food and the excitement of Milwaukee and convince him  Milwaukee is a wonderful place to live.  Both agree not to talk about their careers, so neither knows who the other one is...yes, this train is going to derail!  

How can there possibly be a happy ending?  What happens when Al realizes who Lou is, and what he's done to her career?  Does he give up love and walk away?  
I don't have anything much negative to say about this novel.  I can't think beyond that darn cake on the cover.  Lou and Al are both fun characters--both flawed, both works in progress.  Together they make a great team, if only they can reach a point where they realize how good they are for one another.  The sights, sounds, and tastes of Milwaukee infuse what could be a so-so novel with a bit of Midwest magic.  Doing what you love and doing it well are big themes in this novel.  Being honest to yourself, not settling, evolving and growing are also major threads.  It never hurts to take a good hard look at your life.  

*bonus coconut cake recipe included!

Rating  7/10 for a purely fun look at food, love, and Milwaukee, land of the "fests".  

Available in paperback, e-book, and audio.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George


I'll start out by saying that this book took me a loooong time to read.  It's not very lengthy; I can only say that I don't consider it time wasted spending weeks picking it up and putting it down.  It's the type of book that is meant to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and with a box of tissues at the ready.  Oh, and since it takes place in France, and the characters drink wine pretty much every day...well, stock up on some bottles before you begin this touching, lovely, quietly powerful book.  

Jean Perdu lives in an apartment building in Paris inhabited by an eclectic group of people.  The latest resident is Catherine, a middle aged woman who has been dumped by her husband for a younger woman.  She spends her days crying in her apartment.  Perdu is mildly curious, but only in the way he can give her a book that will help her heal.  Yes, Perdu owns a book barge moored on the Seine, and he's a literary apothecary.  Seriously, a man after my own heart.  

But while Perdu can diagnose and recommend the perfect book for each person who steps onto his barge, he himself is closed off from love, living, and moving on with his life.  Twenty years before, in 1992, the love of his life, Manon, left him for her husband.  They had been having an affair for five years, and their time spent together was magic.  Manon had traveled to Paris before she married her fiance Luc, in hopes of seeing something more than the small village in which she was born and raised.  Luc, being the good, decent man she couldn't say no to, accepted this life she had in Paris with Perdu.  Not being able to give up either man, Manon found love with both men. 

Until one day Manon left, and never returned.  Perdu, bereft, refused to contact her again, closed off the room in his apartment where they spent all their time together, and stopped living.  Until Catherine came along.  She was in dire need of furniture for her apartment, and Perdu reluctantly offers up his kitchen table.  By opening up the forgotten room, memories come flooding back.  Catherine finds a letter in a drawer of the table, and Perdu realizes Manon left him one last, final letter.  He reads the letter.

This sets Perdu off on his book barge, floating down the rivers of France to find Manon's village, and put the past to rest.  So many unexpected things happen on this journey I can't even begin to tell you, and I wouldn't anyway.  It would spoil the whole story.  Needless to say, you will laugh, cry (a lot!), and witness the healing power of books, forgiveness, and love.  If you're lucky, you'll have a life blessed with all three things.  Join Perdu and his friends on a pretty remarkable journey.  

This novel was first published in Europe before it made its way to the U.S.  You really must read it slowly, and savor the language.  It is simply beautiful and so full of color and power that you'll need to take a deep breath.  Lush and lovely.  

Rating:  8/10 for a novel that will break your heart and lift you up all at once. 

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook. 

 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Housewitch by Katie Schickel

Reading from the stacks in my house lead me to this novel about modern witches and magic.  Lots of fun, but also an underlying theme of fitting in, finding what makes us happy (great clothes or a loving family?), and the battle between forces for good, and forces for evil.

Allison Darling lives in the town of Monrovia with her husband and three kids.  It's a picture perfect town, and there's a group of women known as the Glamour Girls.  They have the best of everything, volunteer for everything, and always look beautiful and polished.  They're the envy of every woman in town who struggles to juggle work, family, and bills.  Allison secretly longs to fit in and be part of this group, but she's got a little secret:  she's a witch.  Not a very good one, but a witch.  Her childhood memories are few:  living with her mother Wilhemena  and her Aunt Aurora, learning simple spells and living near the ocean.  Her life with her mother was suddenly cut short at age seven, when she was put into foster care.  Now in her thirties, Allison gets a call that her mother is dying.  It's been 30 years since Allison has heard from her mother, and she's both angry and torn.  Does she go to see her mother one last time?  Can she forgive her?  Meanwhile, Allison is invited to have a Glamour Girls party at her house.  Hosting a party could mean she finally gains entry into the secret sisterhood.  The charismatic Astrid, founder of the Glamour Soap Company, has taken a keen interest in Allison, and what Astrid wants, Astrid gets.  She runs the whole darn town, influencing everyone from the school principal to the mayor.  She can make or break careers and marriages, and make your kids popular or pariahs.  Clearly something strange is going on....

This was an entertaining read, but at the same time, it also is a reminder to keep what's real close at heart.  Remember what matters most in life:  love, family, and forgiveness, as well as embracing who we really are and not trying to bury it.  We all have natural talents, and they will shine through. 

Fans of Sarah Addison Allen, Paula Brackston,  Alice Hoffman, and Melissa de la Cruz will enjoy this tale of modern day witchery.  

Rating:  7/10 for a heroine who isn't perfect, an interesting back story, and all the magical shenanigans that happen in Monrovia.  

Available in paperback and e book. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ana of California by Andi Teran

This novel is presented as a contemporary retelling of Anne of Green Gables.  While I have never read the novel, I adored the series on public television.  It's been long enough that I don't remember quite everything, but I do remember a very precocious orphan Anne, who wins the hearts of everyone around her.  I'm glad I don't remember much of Anne of Green Gables, because I wanted to read this novel on its own, with no echoes of its inspiration.  

Ana Cortez is fifteen, an orphan living in Los Angeles and being moved around the foster care system.  She's just been kicked out of her latest foster home, and has only one chance left before she is put into a group home: to become a farm trainee in Northern California for the summer.  Ana jumps at the chance to get out of L.A. and lands at the Garber farm run by Abbie and Emmett Garber.  Abbie is a whiz at cooking and has a pretty good business selling Garber produce, jams, pickles, preserves, and even hard cider to folks around the small town of Hadley.  Emmett runs the farm, and he's a bit taciturn and all business.  Ana is completely hopeless when it comes to working on the farm, but hopes to make it to her sixteenth birthday, so she can become emancipated.  Afraid to get too comfortable, she's a bit stand-offish with Abbie, who hopes time, good food, and a place to call home will help Ana find a sense of peace.  

Ana's character is pretty interesting.  She's a brilliant artist, and is never far from her sketchbook.  She's well spoken, smart, and very conscious that the wrong word will send her back to a group home in L.A.  She's hard on herself, and afraid to hope for a permanent home at the Garber farm.  Ana meets Rye, a local teen girl who can't wait to get out of Hadley and into the big world.  A quick bond forms, and both girls get into a bit of trouble as the summer progresses and Ana stays on the farm to finish school and help the Garbers.  And then there's the mysterious Cole, a popular kid who keeps trying to talk to Ana. His connection to the Garber family creates tension and jeopardizes Ana's chance of having a permanent home with Abbie and Emmett. 

This was a different book for me to read.  I thought it felt like a teen novel, even though it is packaged as an adult novel.  Themes of abandonment, family, standing up for yourself, and recognizing love it all of its manifestations run through from beginning to end.  If there are more sequels to Ana's story, I'd probably pick them up.  I'd love to see her progress from a fifteen year old orphan finding a new family to a poised, confident young woman ready to experience what the world has to offer her.  

Enjoyable, quick read.  If you're a fan of Anne of Green Gables, by all means read this nod to a classic.  If you're unfamiliar with Anne, don't worry.  It's not necessary to know Anne's story in order to quickly get into Ana's world and cheer her on.  

Rating:  7/10 for a contemporary story about the difficulty of the foster care system in the U.S., as well as warm, not perfect-but flawed characters, and plenty of love and devotion to the small American farmer.   

Available in paperback and e book.