Friday, December 2, 2016

Leopard at the Door

Title:  Leopard at the Door
Author:  Jennifer McVeigh
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399158251 / 978-0399158254

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The steward has said we will dock at 9:00 o'clock, but I am too excited to sleep, and I walk to deck in the dark, log before the sun comes up, watching for the first sight of land."

Favorite Quote:  "Men have legitimate voices, even if they are not sanctioned by your press ... Authority is not a substitute for the truth."

I requested this book because of the beautiful cover and because it is set in Kenya, a location about which I have read very little. I was intrigued by a story that delves into the history of Kenya during British colonial times.

That is indeed the setting of this book. However, this is not really a book about Kenya and its history brought to life through the story of one young woman. It is a book about a young woman who survives traumatic experiences that happen to be set in Kenya. This book is Rachel's story in Kenya during the 1950s, not Kenya's story through Rachel's eyes. The glimpses of political history are interesting, but they are a distant second to the main story of the book which is Rachel.

Rachel has a traumatic childhood. As a child, in one day, she witnesses a man killing another and loses her mother in an accident. Her widowed father cannot cope and sends her off to England to live with relatives. All this happens prior to the start of the book. Fast forward a few years, Rachel returns to Kenya. She thinks she is returning home, but in her case, the cliche holds true. You really cannot go home again.

She returns, but the home she left behind is completely different. Her father is basically in the background, with seemingly no voice of his own. He has not remarried, but is living with someone. Think Cinderella's evil stepmother, and you might get close to Sara. Sara has a son of somewhat indeterminate age. He is old enough for the army but comes across as a young boy to be sheltered; his role in the book is unclear. Her mother, of course, is gone. A former teacher, who happens to be of Kenyan origin, suddenly seems to appear to her in a completely different light. A British officer is a stereotypical bad guy.

In other words, the political history of this book is interesting, but the characters around which the story is based are difficult to engage with. I do not care for any of them, not even Rachel. For a bulk of the book, it is unclear to me how old Rachel really is. She is old enough to go off on her own and partake in some "adult" activities; yet, at the same time, she often comes across as a little girl looking to be saved and protected.

Her story would have more power if the character showed reflection or introspection about the broader history of the book. However, this book stays pretty narrowly focused on events that happen to Rachel. Some are related to the politics, but most occur because of the bad guys wanting to keep their agenda going. The further I get into the book, the more narrowly the book focuses on what happens to Rachel.

Unfortunately, Rachel's story just does not connect with me so I wish the book had explored the broader history or the grand vistas and beauty of Kenya more.


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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Butter: A Rich History

Title:  Butter:  A Rich History
Author:  Elaine Khosrova
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2016. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1616203641 / 978-1616203641

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "... catch up to his mother."

Favorite Quote:  "Indeed, one of the best lessons learned from my career in food and cooking is that gratification is something of a paradox:  To much of a good thing often diminishes the pleasure we derive from it. (Would you really want to eat your favorite dessert every day?) Call it the Goldilocks principle. Balance isn't just right for your body; I think it also assures real satisfaction."

Butter - Yum! What's not to like? A book about butter perhaps does not have the same wide appeal as butter itself, but for foodies, it absolutely does. After all, most of us have some in our fridge. These days, it could be a stick, a tub, a tube, or the many other ways in which butter can be bought. Butter at times has gotten a negative reputation. Eat it. Don't eat it. Cook with it. Don't cook with it. The advice changes with the research you read.

At the end of it all, how much do any of us really know about butter itself? For me, the answer is not a lot until reading this book. This book starts in the mountains of Bhutan and travels the world through the different sources and uses of butter. For many of us, the search for a specific butter from a specific milk from a specific farming technique may not be affordable or practical. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to read about, and the global economy of today may put it more within reach than we think.

This book is structured in two main parts - The Story and The Recipes. The Story is not a chronological history but rather a set of chapters centered around specific topics such as the advent of butter, the role of women in the butter trade, tools and techniques, sacred traditions that surround or use butter, the invention of margarine and its purported health claims, and the rise of artisan butter today. (Note:  The galley I received has certain words missing in this section. I assume that is a function of the galley and not the final book. I am able to infer much of the information from the surrounding text so it does not impact my enjoyment of the book.)

The Recipes are just that; as the author states, since butter is such a widely used ingredient, the selection here is a limited one. "I chose to include classic dishes that owe their character to butter, to both its flavor and behavior as an ingredient. It's a collection of Butter's Greatest Hits, you might say."  About half the recipes, as you might suspect, are for baked goods. The next selection is for sauces and toppings. The final section is on making variations of butter such as smoked butter and brown butter. The recipes have a European / North American bent, as far as cuisines go which differs from the the global focus found in the narrated story of butter.

The fact that the book has the subtitle "A Rich History" gives me an indication that the author approaches her storytelling with a sense of humor. This holds true throughout the book. Books such as this one can at times be dry reading. Fortunately, this one is not. The book packs in a lot of information, but in an easy to read package. The photographs, the quotes from other sources at the beginning of each chapter, and the conversational tone of the book help with the readability of the book.

A fun, informative book for foodies that will leaving you craving "butter's most common and beloved application ... a thick melting smear on toasted bread." Yum!


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Sunday, November 27, 2016

To Capture What We Cannot Keep

Title:  To Capture What We Cannot Keep
Author:  Beatrice Colin
Publication Information:  Flatiron Books. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250071445 / 978-1250071446

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The sand on the Champ de mars was powdered with snow."

Favorite Quote:  "Were beautiful things more beautiful when you couldn't keep them."

Caitriona "Cait" Wallace is an impoverished widow who takes a job as a chaperone to brother and sister Jamie and Alice Arrol. Their uncles sends them on a European tour to get some "culture." Their wanderings around Europe of course bring them to Paris. The year is 1886. The story in Paris is the construction of giant metal tower, expected to be completed for the World's Fair. Some call it a coming monstrosity. Some argue its dangers to the surrounding neighborhoods. Some question the judgment of those who work on the project. Today, we call it the Eiffel Tower.

A chance encounter in a hot air balloon introduces Cait to Émile Nouguier, an engineer working of Gustave Eiffel's tower. She is poor, Scottish, and a widow. He is the son of an affluent French family, in line to inherit the family business. Their worlds couldn't be more different. Yet, they are pulled together.

Surrounding them are a cast of characters with their own stories. Gabrielle is an artist's wife but Émile's mistress with all the complications that brings. Jamie Arrol is young, selfish, and irresponsible. Alice Arrol is young and naive; she wants only to be admired and to find an eligible husband. Émile's mother has dreams for her son which differ from his own. Alice has admirers, or so she thinks. Cait has admirers, and many who think that, as a widow, she should settle for whatever is offered.

The individual characters and their stories don't really grab my attention in this book. Some of the events seems implausible. Too many connections are left completely unexplained or unexplained until too late in the book. Why is Émile with Gabrielle? Why is Gabrielle with him? How does Jamie Arrol's relationship begin and progress? Why is a lovely young woman like Alice so unsure of her prospects at a time when physical beauty seems to be the a determining factor in the eligibility of a young lady? What else lies in Cait's past other than losing her husband in an accident?

The ending in particular seems to come out of nowhere. No link exists between the story told throughout the book to the revelations towards the end and then the ending itself. I won't give a spoiler, but to me, that ending truly seems to not belong with the rest of the book.

What gives this story its substance is the historical time and place. Paris in the 1800s is a time of class structure and of strict societal rules; it is also a time for the subversive breaking of those rules in affairs and brothels. The importance is to maintain appearances. The artist's community and the rise of impressionism also finds its way into this book. All of it is set against the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the so-called metal monstrosity that is now the symbol of the city. The details of the design and construction, down to the number of steps and the number of rivets is fascinating. It is this history I will remember from this book not the character or the story.


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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Orphans of the Carnival

Title:  Orphans of the Carnival
Author:  Carol Birch
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2016. 352 pages.
ISBN:  038554152X / 978-0385541527

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This is where your lost toys went, the one the dog chewed, the one your mother threw out without asking when you left home, the ones you always wondered about."

Favorite Quote:  "Names are important ... When a thing has a name, that's when it really counts."

Julia Pastrana is a young woman who speaks multiple languages and sings and dances beautifully. She performs on stages around the world. She learns how to manage her career from a business perspective. Yet, none of that is her claim to fame and none of that is why she is remembered. Her place in history is because of her physical appearance. She is billeted on the freak show circuit by different names - ugliest woman, half ape, half bear, and monkey woman to name a few.

I started reading this book wondering at the author's imagination in creating the character and the world she inhabits. Then, I started the book over when I discovered that Julia Pastrana actually existed. She was a real woman, and this story is a fictionalized account of what her life may have been. The shell of the story is fact based; the details are the fiction. This realization totally changed my outlook on the book and my feelings towards the characters.

Julia Pastrana was born in Mexico in 1834 with a genetic disorder and a rare disease. As a result, her face and body were covered with hair. Her facial features were large and irregular. The whole, put together, gave her an animal like look. Underneath the physical appearance, Julia was a young woman with a great capacity to love and a young woman looking to be loved for who she was not what she looked like.

The way in which this story is told is interesting and unclear until close to the end of the book. The bulk of the story is Julia's. In a nutshell, this story is Julia's quest for acceptance and love. It seems, at time, that she may have found it. Fame, success, financial stability, love, marriage, and children all may be possible. I hope such a life is possible for Julia. The book is slow-paced, traveling the world but revolving around this main theme until a major twist.

Throughout, the book moves between Julia's search and segments from the life of a young woman in the 1980s. Rose is alone and a collector of old broken things that others have forgotten. At first, no connection exists between the two. Rose is an interesting character on her own, but it's unclear what role she plays in Julia's story. Eventually, the two stories are connected in a tragic and horrifying way that compounds the impact of Julia's story.

The twist in this story is just that - a twist I could not have seen coming. Without a spoiler, I will say that this story is so unbelievable that it could only be true. I did look up a biography, and the gist of what the book describes is actually what happened to her.

Juila Pastrana was real, and her search for love and the world's judgment on appearance are universal. It is these facts that hold my attention in this book. I want to know what happens to Julia, and I hope that things work out for her. I grieve at the eventual outcome. Julia Pastrana's story is one I will remember for along time.


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Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Clothing of Books

Title:  The Clothing of Books
Author:  Jhumpa Lahiri
Publication Information:  Vintage. 2016. 80 pages.
ISBN:  0525432752 / 978-0525432753

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the house of my father's family in Calcutta, which I visited as a child, I would watch my cousins getting dressed in the mornings."

Favorite Quote:  "The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that a cover is a sort of translation, that is, an interpretation of my words in another language - a visual one. It represents the text, but it isn't part of it."

Don't judge a book by its cover. How often do we hear that idiom applied to so many different aspects of life? This book brings that idea back to an actual book. The main idea - Don't judge a book by its cover as the author often has nothing to do with the design of the cover. The cover represents an artist's interpretation of the author's words. In that sense, to the author, it can represent understanding, acknowledgement, or criticism of his or her work.

I understand and agree with the idea of the book. As an avid reader, a lover of books, and an amateur photographer, I love the connection between words and visual images. So, when I read that Jhumpa Lahiri explores that connection in this book, I was intrigued. I have never really considered a book cover from the author's perspective and looked forward to learning more. Having read it, I am not sure what to make of this book itself. 

First of all, this is not quite a book. At only 80 pages, it is a very slim volume. In the afterword, the author herself states that "I wrote this essay..." I could see it as an essay and am not sure how it evolves into publication as a book. The amount of content is better suited to a short essay format. I expected more - maybe input from other authors, maybe some information on cover design, and maybe some visual images analyzed for their connections to the written word. This book is none of that; it is a philosophical statement that repeats several times during the book - the book is not its cover, and the cover is not its book.

Second, the book to me has a negative tone. The book puts forth the idea that the author has very little (no?) control over a book jacket, but then speaks about her conversations with cover designers about the covers of her own books. The book has several references to her dislike of certain book covers - "ugly covers" and "one that pains me." Finally, "there is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me an almost violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book." The issue is that the negative comments are not backed up with why. Why do some covers appeal and some don't? What determines a reaction to a cover? That cover, too, is someone's work. If this book is to be a personal one, then I would hope to understand her reasons.

Third, the book skirts certain issues that would be fascinating to learn about. A few times, the book mentions different covers for different editions and different language printings. How do cover designs incorporate cultural nuances? The book also skirts the topic of the changing role of book covers in a digital world. Does our reaction differ based on the medium? Does the presentation medium drive the design? Again, this book is a personal essay, and unfortunately does not get into the substance of these topics.

Had I read this as an essay in a magazine, I would have appreciated the sentiment. In a book format, I expect more. Interestingly, it is unfortunate that I am not fond of the cover of this book. Ironic in a book about book covers, don't you think?


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Friday, November 18, 2016

Better Late Than Never

Title:  Better Late Than Never
Author:  Jenn McKinlay
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2016. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0399583734 / 978-0399583735

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "'Let the wild rumpus start!' Beth Stanley cried as the cart of books she had stacked to bursting abruptly regurgitated its contents all over the Briar Creek Public Library's main floor with a loud rushing noise followed by slaps and thumps as the books landed on the ground."

Favorite Quote:  "Being a librarian meant finding the solution - no matter the problem - by using the information and knowledge that the library housed to solve everything from how to build a micro house to how to speak Tatar..."

A mystery set around a library. A library book returned after decades. A librarian turned amateur detective. Some cooking. Some crafting. A whole lot of book talk. A small town where everyone knows everyone. How can I resist such a description? This book is the perfect set up for a book lover.

Lindsey Norris is the director of the public library in the small town of Briar Creek, Connecticut. Briar Creek is the kind of place where everyone seems to know everyone - the mayor, the police chief, the library director, and the other characters around town. It's home to those who have never lived anywhere else and its handful of celebrities who come and stay.

The mystery goes as follows. The Briar Creek Public Library institutes an amnesty day, allowing patrons to return any and all library books in any condition with no risk of penalty. The librarians get a little more than they bargain for on their first every amnesty day. Carts upon carts of books are returned; many of them are in no condition to be salvaged. I love the idea of the stories these book could tell beyond the words written in them, and that is exactly what happens.

Among the books returned though is a book twenty years past due but in pristine condition. Much to their shock, the librarians discover that the book was checked out to a town resident who was murdered on the same day as the book was checked out. The case has never been solved, and this book is now a new clue. It's a chance to find justice for the victim and perhaps also for those wrongfully accused of the crime. For one person, it is perhaps the sign of a day of reckoning. Everyone has their own reasons for being interested.

So begins Lindsey's foray into detective work. As you would suspect with a "cozy" mystery, the book is really more about the town and the characters than about the mystery itself. Mind you, the mystery has a darkness to it and is ultimately solved, but the book is about the journey getting there. The mystery is almost incidental to the main story, which is Lindsey's romance and the small town relationships. A mystery, a healthy dose of friendship, some secrets, much laughter, and a little romance make this book a light, entertaining read. Some added recipes and a craft project add to the cozy feel of this book.

Better Late Than Never is the seventh book in the Library Lover's mystery book series. I did not  know this when I started reading. The characters clearly have a history and relationships that extend from the previous books. However, the book does not feel incomplete and can be read on its own. The mystery aspect of the book clearly stands alone, but I would probably enjoy the characters and relationships more if I read the previous books.

The book ends with Lindsey making a vow not to jeopardize her life and her relationships to pursue detective adventures. Somehow, I think that promise will only last until the next adventure comes along.


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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Dress

Title:  The Dress
Author:  Kate Kerrigan
Publication Information:  Head of Zeus. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1784082384 / 978-1784082383

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The schoolmaster found the boy collapsed against a stone wall at the side of the road."

Favorite Quote:  "The problem with being a perfectionist ... is that life isn't perfect. Dresses can be perfect, because we can make them exactly how we want them. The perfect fit, the perfect finish, we can fashion couture to a standard that would satisfy the gods, but we can't do the same with life. The problem with those of us who make perfect things is that, sometimes, we think we can. The most imperfect things of all are people and love."

Lily Fitzpatrick is a fashion designer turned blogger; her specialty is vintage clothing. The story though begins outside the world of fashion. Lily's beloved grandfather passes away. In her efforts to overcome her grief, Lily latches on to an idea and a project. She comes across information about a woman in the 1950s with a one-of-a-kind magical dress and a last name that matches Lily's. Fashion, a family connection, and a fabulous dress ... Lily is hooked. The book then introduces the story of Frank and Joy Fitzpatrick and of Honor Conlon. Weaving back and forth, the book tells both stories, of the original dress and of Lily who sets out to recreate it.

The book cover and dress descriptions are lovely. The characters set up as likable. Lily is a strong, independent woman with a successful career and a life surrounded by friends. Frank is a man who escapes the brutality of his childhood and becomes a self-made success in a new world. Joy is to the manor born; she makes her life about her love and her marriage despite the disapproval of her family. Honor has a dream and the courage to pursue it even though that takes her far away from home. These back stories are not developed in detail, but the image is conveyed.

The book starts slow, with a lot of time spent on the initial setup and then the first creation of the dress; it details the materials, the artistry, and the investment. For all the details, though, I cannot actually picture the dress; it does not develop into the image on the cover either. I am not really sure how all the different pieces described come together into a magical cohesive whole.

However, I am ready for both the characters and the story to develop further. It does sort of, but in so many different directions. High couture. Blogging. Romance. Child abuse. Runaways. Alcoholism. Competition. Adultery. Miscarriage. Infertility. Theft. Family secrets. High society. 1930s. 1950s. 2014.

These are just some of the topics that come up in this book; the character development gets lost in all these topics. The events and incidents, one after another, become the story rather than the characters which established the initial interest in the story. The "why" and "how" are missing. Why did Lily's grandfather Joe never speak of his family? How did Frank go from a young boy from the wrong side of the tracks to the rich successful man? How and why does one friend betray another? How and why does one person sink into alcoholism?

These are just some of the questions that go unanswered. All of a sudden, everything seems to happen, particularly in Frank, Joy, and Honor's story. It happens quickly and without real development. The characters set up as rather likable and sympathetic turn out to be not so. Those who do find happiness find it almost instantly that it doesn't make sense. Although a plot driven drama can make for a wonderful book, without the explanations, this story loses its sense of reality for this reader.


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