Monday, May 25, 2020

The Kitchen Without Borders

  The Kitchen Without Borders:  Recipes and Stories from Refugee and Immigrant Chefs
Author:  The Eat Offbeat Chefs, 
Publication Information:  Workman Publishing Company. 2021. 232 pages.
ISBN:  1523504048 / 978-1523504046
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This story starts like so many other cooking stories - with a grandmother's recipe."

Favorite Quote:  "And so it was for the variety of countries that people fled, looking for a better life, often leaving everything behind except for their beautiful memories immortalized in the recipes they brought along with them. These tasty dishes represent cultures where cooking is valued as an act of love for your family, not just an elevated art that professionals practice in restaurant."

Eat Offbeat begins with Manal Kahi's story. Manal Kahi came to New York City in 2013. With her, she brought the food and heritage of her culture. From New York City, her adopted home, comes the opportunity of new beginnings. It began with her grandmother's hummus recipe that friends so liked and recommended that she sell. With that was born the idea of all the refugees and immigrants settled in New York City representing themselves through food. The result is Eat Offbeats. The company provides catering, featuring the food from the contributing chefs from around the world.

The current cadre of chefs represents refugees and immigrants from Venezuela, Iran, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Guinea, Syria, and Iraq. This book is a representation of the melting pot of New York City with not only recipes but also the stories of the Eat Offbeat chefs. While the food may not be familiar to some readers, all will relate to the idea that the smell or taste of even the idea of a dish can bring to mind memories. It is these stories that bring the recipes of this book to life as they do in The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook, another New York City enterprise that seeks to  highlight the diversity of our community.

The book is organized into typical sections you might find in a cookbook - appetizers and dips, salads and soups, rice and grains, vegetarian dishes, meat dishes, and desserts and drinks. The beginning of each section provides a list of recipes with the culturally correct name and then a brief description of the dish itself. The ingredients and methodology is clearly laid out, and several include a picture of the dish. I love being able to see the end product.

The book also contains a "pantry" section describing some of the international ingredients that may be less familiar to some readers. Also provided are conversion tables between different measurement systems - Fahrenheit to Celsius and US imperial to metric. The chefs have also provided recommended pairings and menus to assemble the dishes into a complete meal. Finally, the book is expected to contain an index which is not in this review copy. All these features make a cookbook easier to navigate and more user friendly.

My favorite part of the book is the stories and pictures of the chefs. Each tells of their relationship with food and how and why they came to their adopted home of New York City. The personal stories of these family recipes makes them truly special.

The publication of this book is also being done in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). In fact, from May 15, 2020, to May 15, 2021, (including any preordered copies that ship during this period), Workman Publishing will donate 2% of the cover price for every copy of The Kitchen without Borders cookbook sold in the United States and its territories, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and European Union member states, to the IRC, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict, with a minimum contribution of $25,000 USD.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Jungle Book

  The Jungle Book
Author:  Rudyard Kipling
Publication Information:  Macmillan. 1894. 174 pages.
ISBN:  None for the original. Multiple subsequent editions.

Book Source:  I read this book through the Serial Reader app.

Opening Sentence:  "It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in the tips."

Favorite Quote:  "One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterward."

The Jungle Book is a book I have never read in its entirety. My vision of these stories is based on the many children's book and cartoon adaptations. Most, if not all of those, have focused on the story of Mowgli.

In fact, the name The Jungle Book has become synonymous with Mowgli's story. This is the story of an orphaned human boy who is raised by animals as one of their own. As he grows though, there are those who would sow discord and point out the differences. That seems a familiar story in humans even today even though these stories were originally written in 1894. Sadly, some things never change.

The next most familiar story for me is the story of Riki-Tiki-Tavi, the story of the mongoose versus the pair of snakes. The name is a memorable one.

Most of these stories are based around animals. Research states that some may have their origin in Indian mythology. Rudyard Kipling was born in India and lived there for the first six years of his life. He then moved to England, but returned to India a decade later for about another six or seven years. So, these stories written originally for his daughter are perhaps a reflection of his own childhood experiences. Interestingly, other than the rare reference to a region, the books do not specify where the story takes place, making them more universal.

Most of these stories are based in the animal world. However, the stories are fables, and the themes and lessons are decidedly human. Mowgli is an orphan made a part of a family and then abandoned again. He returns to his human family but is again made to feel the outsider. Riki-Tiki-Tavi is the underdog who overcomes a powerful cobra. Toomai is the little guy who is greatly underestimated but proves what he can accomplish. The white seal is the one who is "different" and who seeks his own path; in doing so, he emerges a leader.

Such themes echo throughout the stories. As is expected in a collection of short stories, some resonate more with me than others. They may not have quite the magic that they did in my childhood, but they do bring me back to that magic and complete my knowledge of this iconic children's classic. Most importantly, they take me on a trip down memory lane through the reading I did in my own childhood and through the special moments I cherish of reading with my children. I hope the legacy continues as stories are shared generation to generation.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

This is How I Lied

  This Is How I Lied
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0778388115 / 978-0778388111

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

Opening Sentence:  "Eve wasn't even supposed to be in these caves."

Favorite Quote:  "DNA doesn't lie."

On a cold night in 1995, Eve dies. She is murdered. Her body is found in a cave. Fifteen years later, her murder remains unsolved.

The setting for this book is amazing, and one I was not familiar with. The town is fictional but based around an Iowa state park famous for its labyrinth of caves. Geologically, the limestone caves and the bluffs date back thousands of years. The most abundant residents of the caves are bats. In the fictional town of Grotto, the bluff and the caves are a part of life - a place to be alone, a place to explore, and at time a place to be afraid of.

The cast of characters is a small one. Eve is the victim. Nola is her eccentric, somewhat unbalanced sister. Charlotte is her mother. Nick was the boyfriend. The Harper family is a family with young children who often need babysitting. Maggie is the best friend. She is now grown up, married, and pregnant. She is also a police officer.

Eve's case is cold. Maggie and Nola found the body. Maggie's father was the police chief at the time and conducted the investigation. The boyfriend was blamed. The sister was blamed. A random drifter was blamed. However, no one was ever formally accused or convicted.

Now, new evidence has been found. Eve's boot is found in the caves. Maggie takes on the investigation. The hope is the with the evolution of technology, DNA evidence can be found, and Eve's killer can be brought to justice. It is difficult to believe that an officer who was close to the victim and found the body would be put in charge of the investigation. However, this is fiction. So, suspend disbelief and read on.

The story shifts between the past and the present - the days leading up to Eve's murder and Maggie's  current investigation. Many disturbing details emerge. Trigger warning:  This book contains mutilation of animals, abuse in a relationship, rape, and pedophilia. It is disturbing!

Given the small cast of characters, the book keep me engaged as to who the killer will turn out to be. Interestingly, a revelation by one character comes so early in the book that I know that is not the eventual outcome simply because there is too much of the book still remaining. So, that eliminates one suspect to some extent, but it does make me wonder what the story there is.

The final identity of the killer is not really a surprise, but the ending is dramatic without centering on the killer. The drama is more about women, the traumas they have survived, and the scars they will carry for a lifetime.

For me, the book is as much about the mystery of Eve's murder as it is about her sister Nola's mental illness. There is a progression of disturbing collections and incidents. Yet, it seems that Nola is given no guidance or help. She is left, for most of her life, to flounder on her own. Where are the adults in her life? The whole issue of pedophilia and abuse also raises the same question. At the time of Eve's murder, where are the adults in the lives of these three young women? I do wish that aspect of the story and with that the characters themselves had been more developed. Nevertheless, the book keeps me reading until the end to see where it goes.

This is How I Lied
Blog Tour

Publication Date: May 12, 2020
Publisher:  Park Row Books

Author Bio:
Heather Gudenkauf is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of many books, including The Weight of Silence and These Things Hidden. Heather graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education, has spent her career working with students of all ages. She lives in Iowa with her husband, three children, and a very spoiled German Shorthaired Pointer named Lolo. In her free time, Heather enjoys spending time with her family, reading, hiking, and running.
Book Summary:
With the eccentricity of Fargo and the intensity of Sadie, THIS IS HOW I LIED by Heather Gudenkauf (Park Row Books; May 12, 2020; $17.99) is a timely and gripping thriller about careless violence we can inflict on those we love, and the lengths we will go to make it right, even 25 years later.

Tough as nails and seven months pregnant, Detective Maggie Kennedy-O’Keefe of Grotto PD, is dreading going on desk duty before having the baby her and her husband so badly want. But when new evidence is found in the 25-year-old cold case of her best friend’s murder that requires the work of a desk jockey, Maggie jumps at the opportunity to be the one who finally puts Eve Knox’s case to rest.

Maggie has her work cut out for her. Everyone close to Eve is a suspect. There’s Nola, Eve’s little sister who’s always been a little... off; Nick, Eve’s ex-boyfriend with a vicious temper; a Schwinn riding drifter who blew in and out of Grotto; even Maggie’s husband Sean, who may have known more about Eve’s last day than he’s letting on. As Maggie continues to investigate, the case comes closer and closer to home, forcing her to confront her own demons before she can find justice for Eve. 

Author Q&A:

1. What is your writing process like?
I approach each of my novels with the goal of being a plotter – someone who explicitly organizes and outlines her books – but it never quite works out that way for me. I make notes and outline the plot but ultimately the characters take over and do what they want to anyway. My process is messy and meandering. Thankfully, I have a brilliant editor who is able to see through the weeds and pull out the best parts of my plots and keep me on the right path. This is How I Lied completely evolved from my initial intentions. The characters changed, the plot shifted and the final ending poked its head up near the end of revisions and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

2. Which came first: the characters or plot line?
For me, the two go hand in hand. The basic plot line comes first, and close behind comes the characters. It doesn’t matter how suspenseful of a plot I develop, if the right characters aren’t there to mold the story and carry it forward, it won’t work. Before I begin writing, I attempt to give my characters rich backstories. Often many of these details don’t make into the novel, but by fully developing their personalities and biographies, it helps keep me in tune with them as I write. Knowing the characters’ likes and dislikes, their foibles and strengths helps me to honestly and accurately determine their motivations and the decisions they make as they move through the novel.

3. How do you come up with your plots?
I’m a news junkie! I’ll scan newspapers and websites and a story will catch my eye. It can be the smallest detail or a broader theme but if the idea sticks with me and keeps harassing me to write about it, I know I’m on the right track. For my novel Little Mercies, it was an article about a social worker who ended up on the other side of the justice system because of alleged negligence with her caseload. From this I created an entirely new story about a social worker who was fighting for her own child. In This is How I Lied, I was intrigued by news stories that dealt with the use of familial DNA to solve cold cases and it became a key detail in the novel’s resolution.

4. Do you use music to help set a mood/tone for your books?
I do listen to music as I write. It varies based on the story and what I think the characters might listen to. By curating these playsets, it helps me get into their mindset. As I worked on Maggie’s sections in This is How I Lied I listened to a lot of Avett Brothers and Lumineers. For Nola, I listened to classical music and hard rock – she’s an interesting mix. As for Eve, since she was sixteen years old and living in the 90s, I listened to plenty of Nirvana and Beck.

5. Where did the idea for this story come from?
Before I started writing This is How I Lied, I read I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, about the author’s investigation of The Golden State Killer who, for decades, terrorized northern California. This book both terrified and fascinated me and I became intrigued by how modern technology was being used to close old cold cases. For my project, I thought it would be interesting to explore how this might play out in a small town where the perpetrator thought the truth behind the crime would never be discovered. As I was writing the novel, I learned about the developments in a 40-year-old cold case not far from where I live where familial DNA was used to ultimately convict the killer. Amazing!

6. Do you find inspiration for your novels in your personal life?
I often get asked what my childhood must have been like because of the twisty thrillers I write. Thankfully, I can say that I had a blissfully uneventful childhood with parents and siblings that loved and supported me. For me, the inspiration from my own life comes in the settings of my novels – the Mississippi River, farmland, the woods and bluffs – all found in Iowa. In This is How I Lied, the town of Grotto is loosely based on a nearby town until I moved to this part of Iowa, I never realized that we had cave systems. Visitors to the state park, can literally step back thousands of years. The limestone caves and bluffs are beautiful, haunting and have something for everyone. You can take a casual stroll through some of the caves and have to army crawl through some of the others. Old clothes and a flashlight are a must! The caves made the perfect backdrop for a thriller and I was excited to include them in This is How I Lied.

7. What is the one personality trait that you like your main characters to have and why?
In looking back at all my main characters, though they are all different ages and come from different walks of life, I think the trait that they all seem to have in common is perseverance. I’ve had characters battle human evil and demons of their own creation but it doesn’t matter what traumatic events they have been through or the challenges they will face, they manage to make it through. Changed for sure, but intact and hopeful for the future.

8. Why do you love Maggie and why should readers root for her?
I do love Maggie! As a police detective, Maggie has dedicated her adult life to helping others and is a loving daughter, sister and wife and is expecting her first child. This doesn’t mean that Maggie is perfect. Like all of my protagonists, Maggie is complicated and flawed and has made some big mistakes, but ultimately she is doing the best that she can.

9. What is one thing about publishing you wish someone would have told you?
As a former elementary school teacher, I had absolutely no insights into the publishing world beyond what I saw on television and in movies – which portrayed it as a dog-eat-dog world. I have to admit, as a new author, I was very intimidated. But to my delight - and relief - the people I’ve encountered along the way– my agent, editors, publishing teams, fellow authors, booksellers and readers – all have been nothing but supportive, encouraging and kind.

10. What is coming up next for you?
I just finished the first draft of my next novel, a locked-room mystery about a reclusive writer working on a true crime book when a snow storm leaves her trapped inside her remote home, setting off a series of events that lead to a stunning revelation. It was so much fun to write!

11. Has quarantine been better or worse for your writing?
It’s been such a scary, unsettling time but I’ve found writing a nice distraction and a great comfort during this extended time at home. I’ve been able to turn off the news and get lost in my manuscript or other writing projects. It’s a lot like reading – a much needed escape from the real world.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

House on Endless Waters

  House on Endless Waters
Author:  Emuna Elon
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1982130229 / 978-1982130220

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "One after another the people are swallowed up into the plane to Amsterdam, one after another after another."

Favorite Quote:  "In order to hand me over she had to detach herself from herself, and afterward she never managed to get back inside herself and continued, long after the war ended, living outside herself and observing her life without any emotion."

Yoel Blum is an author. He was born in Amsterdam but has lived most of his life in Israel. He has no memory of his birthplace except for the the fact that mother asked him never to return there. Yet, he returns. He is there to promote his books. With time on his hands, he visits a history museum and is shocked to see an image of his own mother in a video presentation. His mother is with two children - his sister and a little boy who is not Yoel.

So begins Yoel's journey to the past and the history of the Jewish community in Amsterdam during World War II. "Two thousand five hundred. According to the documents Yoel has studied, that was the number of Jewish children hidden by Christian families during the war. Two thousand five hundred Jewish children, most of them from Amsterdam. According to Dutch law only those children with a surviving parent were eventually returned, while according to reality only those children whose surviving parent managed to find where they had been hidden were returned. Many children therefore remained with the families that had hidden them. Many of the hidden children were complete unaware that they were not the biological offspring of the people who raised them, Many are unaware of it to this days."

This is the horrific history on which the books is based. To honor the history, I wanted to love the book. Unfortunately, for me, the way in which the story is told got in the way of the story itself. The book felt like it tried too hard and felt like a literary exercise more so than a story.

On the one hand, the history is spelled out clearly as above. This declaration comes not at the beginning of the book nor at the end. It is given as a historical fact in the middle of the book. I love historical fiction because it introduces me to history I might not otherwise have learned. Typically, though, facts such as this are what I find when I research the history the book is based on rather than in the book itself.

On the other hand, the book shifts repeatedly through Yoel's time in Amsterdam,  his work on his new book, his memories of life in Israel, and the story of his mother during the war.

The intensity of the threads varies as well. Yoel's present and his wanderings through his memories are the story of a man who must come to terms with the fact that his life may not be what he has always believed it to be. There is confusion and sorrow yet it feels at a distant as much time is spent on descriptions of what he sees and does. His story is the impact of the horrific wartime actions carried through to today. This story is entirely character driven.

The story of his mother is the story of this history. It is the story of a woman and the sacrifices she makes to save her family. This is the plot of this book, and the emotions shine through.

The shifts are at times abrupt and unclear. It makes the story challenging to follow. Yoel, the author, describes the writing style in the book itself. "Realistic writing - to describe things exactly as they look. Surrealistic writing - to describe things not the way they look but the way they actually are." Yet, the reality of this history is so poignant that I wish that is what came through fully with the literary accompaniment.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

The Giver of Stars

  The Giver of Stars
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2019. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0399562486 / 978-0399562488

Book Source:  I read this book based on having enjoyed previous books by the author.

Opening Sentence:  "Listen."

Favorite Quote:  "There is always a way out of a situation. Might be ugly. Might leave you feeling like the earth has gone and shifted under your feet. But you are never trapped, Alice. You hear me. There is always a way around."

The Giver of Stars combines the history of the Pack Horse Library Project with a story of strong women coming together to build each other up and support each other. From 1935 until 1943, this Works Progress Administration program hired "book women" to travel by horse or mule through the Appalachians delivering books and other available reading materials to remote homes and schoolhouses.

The Giver of Stars is about a group of such librarians. This is a group of women that otherwise would most definitely not be in the same social circle and might never even have crossed paths. Different reasons bring them to be librarians. What unites them is the realization that despite all their differences, they are the same in their worries and in terms of the role of women in society.

The story begins somewhat in the middle with an assault. No names and no details are given - a prologue. The book then truly begins with the arrival of a new bride. She comes to this small Kentucky town from England. The reality she encounters is not what she envisions. The Pack Horse Library Project gives her an outlet. From this perspective, she sees the role of women in this community, the racial divisions, the prejudice, the poverty, and the hardships. She also discovers a group of women, who in their own way are creating change.

The story focuses on these elements of this Kentucky town and eventually winds its way back to the original assault. Where it goes subsequently is unexpected and in a direction different than I expect. The library project becomes the background, and this group of women standing up for each other becomes the story. I somewhat wish that the story had remained that of the quiet suffering and resilience of this community rather than the melodramatic turn that it takes.

Aside from the story and my review, here is an interesting side note of this book. Kim Michele Richardson's book The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek was published on May 7, 2019. The Giver of Stars has a publication date of October 8, 2019. Both are set in the Pack Horse Library Project. Both of these books are the stories of the book women in eastern Kentucky. Kim Michele Richardson was born and raised in Kentucky. Jojo Moyes is said to have spent time there researching.

Upon the release of this book, Kim Michele Richardson raised a concern about the alleged plagiarism of her work. Based on the articles I have read, the accusation was denied. Ms. Richardson's publisher declined to pursue the matter. Where does the truth lie? Perhaps, we will never know, but a literary scandal was too interesting not to mention. Read both and decide for yourself. For me, Kim Michele Richardson's is the more unique and more memorable book. The Giver of Stars is a book about a strong sisterhood that grows out of need, but I feel that that story has been told before in different ways in different books.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Heirloom Garden

  The Heirloom Garden
Author:  Viola Shipman
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2020. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1525804642 / 978-1525804649

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Harlequin Trade Publishing's 2020 Spring Read blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "We are an army, too."

Favorite Quote:  "Life is but a short journey, filled with such horror and beauty, that too often allows our potential and destiny to die unfulfilled or allow us to bloom in ways we never imagined. But I - all of us - really have only one joint destiny:  to leave this world a better place for those who follow."

The dictionary definition of an heirloom is an object that is passed down from generation to generation in a family. In gardening, heirloom plants and seeds are generally older varieties of plants that are passed down from generation to generation - in families or amongst collectors.

Both definitions apply in this book, that is first and foremost a love letter to gardens and gardeners. Each chapter is titled with the name of a flower, following the blooming seasons of the flower. Each flower is associated with a memory or an event. The book explains the gardening, of nurturing plants, of hybridizing, of creating plant starts, about weeding, and so much more.

Yet, it is done completely in the context of the human story for the flower and their significance become metaphors for the human emotions in the story. "The daisies remind you to be happy. The hydrangeas remind you to be colorful. The lilacs remind us to breath deeply. The pansies reflect our own images back at us. The hollyhocks remind us to stand tall in this world. And the roses - oh, the roses! - they remind us that beauty is always present even amongst the thorns."

Set in a beautiful garden in coastal Michigan, the human story of this book pulls together very serious  themes - war and its impact on soldiers and families and the glass ceiling women seem to hit so often in the corporate world. Gardening, war, and corporate America come together to make a story ultimately about family.

As with The Recipe Box, this plot of this book is a straightforward one with four primary characters. Iris loses her husband in the World War and her daughter to polio. She is a botanist, renowned for her work. With all the losses in her life, she has chosen to close herself off from the world and lives within her garden and her memories. Cory, Abby, and Lily are a young family who rent the adjoining house, which is owned by Iris. Cory suffers from his physical, mental, and emotional injuries from his service in the Iraq war. Abby is an engineer, trying to hold her family together and build a career in an industry dominated by men. Lily is young and innocent and full of love, much like Iris's own daughter Mary was.

The story is predictable; big issues of grief and PTSD seem to resolve somewhat quickly. The life advice is full of cliche reminders. Certain themes - hope, war, tragedy, and beauty - repeat again and again throughout the book as does the symbolism of the flowers:
  • "But most of all, it was a tribute to hope. Hope that something beautiful would grow despite the harsh winter, the frozen earth and a world that was constant at war."
  • "Life is filled with overwhelming tragedy, but it's also filled with incomparable beauty. I read somewhere that god doesn't come to us in the happy times. He comes to us through our scars and wounds."
  • "Isn't an ordinary life a grand one all its own, filled with great drama and tragedy, hopes, love, losses, and dreams?"
I don't know enough about Michigan gardening to know if Iris's garden could actually exist in that way on the shores of Lake Michigan. However, it does not matter. The fictional gardener comes to life. I can picture it, and, as someone familiar with the flower, I can almost smell it. I don't mind the life reminders either. We can all use the reminders at times, or at least I can. That is why the book works for me.

The Heirloom Garden
Blog Tour

Author: Viola Shipman
ISBN: 9781525804618
Publication Date: April 28, 2020
Publisher:  Graydon House

Author Bio:
Viola Shipman is the pen name for Wade Rouse, a popular, award-winning memoirist. Rouse chose his grandmother's name, Viola Shipman, to honor the woman whose heirlooms and family stories inspire his writing. Rouse is the author of The Summer Cottage, as well as The Charm Bracelet and The Hope Chest which have been translated into more than a dozen languages and become international bestsellers. He lives in Saugatuck, Michigan and Palm Springs, California, and has written for People, Coastal Living, Good Housekeeping, and Taste of Home, along with other publications, and is a contributor to All Things Considered.
Book Summary:
In this heartwarming and feel-good novel filled with echoes of Dorothea Benton Frank, Debbie Macomber and Elizabeth Berg, two women separated by a generation but equally scarred by war find hope, meaning – and each other – through a garden of heirloom flowers.

Iris Maynard lost her husband in World War II, her daughter to loneliness and, finally, her reason to live. Walled off from the world for decades behind a towering fence surrounding her home and gardens, the former botanist has built a new family...of flowers. Iris propagates her own daylilies and roses while tending to an heirloom garden filled with starts – and memories – of her own mother, grandmother, husband and daughter.

When Abby Peterson moves to Grand Haven, Michigan, with her family – a husband traumatized during his service in the Iraq War and a young daughter searching for stability – they find themselves next door to Iris, and are slowly drawn into her reclusive neighbour's life where, united by loss and a love of flowers, Iris and Abby slowly unearth their secrets to each other. Eventually, the two teach one another that the earth grounds us all, gardens are a grand healer, and as flowers bloom so do our hopes and dreams.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Summer Villa

  The Summer Villa
Author:  Melissa Hill
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0778359980 / 978-0778359982

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Harlequin Trade Publishing's 2020 Spring Reads blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It was just a little white lie."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm saying it because there comes a time when you need to decide if what you want from life is more important than the trappings you'd forfeit for that freedom."

Then & now. Now and then. Back and forth. Now is the launch of a wellness retreat/resort on the beautiful Amalfi coast. Then is almost a decade prior when three young women meet because they are staying in the same villa for a vacation in Italy for a few weeks.

The setting of the Amalfi coast is simply beautiful. It is the stuff of dreams, which is perfect for a reading escape. "They say that when Judgement day comes, the people of Amalfi will have no change in life, for they are already living in paradise..." The idea of lounging poolside in a beautiful villa with vistas of the coast and the ocean ... need I say more?

Then. Kim is escaping her family's expectations. She is a trust fund baby; she has had all her material needs and wants met, but love has been sorely lacking in her family. At her mother and sister's behest, Colette is taking a well deserved breaking from the responsibilities of an ill parent and a family business. Annie is there because of the generosity of a virtual stranger who wants to set her on a  new path in life. The three meet accidentally but form an immediate bond.

Now. Kim has created a successful business, with help from a mentor and ideas that may not be her own. The central idea:  "La dolce vita:  good food, good drinks, good people. Because life is meant to be lived, and lived well". Kim's business dreams are culminating in the opening of Villa Dolce Vita as a retreat. She invites her friends to the launch. Colette has married, but her dreams of becoming a mother remain unfulfilled. Annie is a single mother and fighting to keep her business alive.

The story goes back and forth between "then" and "now" slowly displaying both the bonds between these women and also the differences. Both then and now, each woman struggles with her own issues and insecurities. Relationships - and men - are involved. It takes a while to settle into the story because the story not only goes back and forth in time but also back and forth between the perspectives of the three women. It takes a few chapters to create a picture of each woman's story.

Of the two, I much prefer the story of the now. The story of "then" is about young women, parties, physical appearances, and romances. Each young woman has other life concerns, but the story reverts back to these matters. The story of "now" is about the ethics of business, about communication and trust in marriage, about trust, about illness, about infertility, and about decisions to be made. It offers more substance.

Gradually, of course, the two story threads wind together. Some of how that happens is completely as I might predict, but, much to my delight, some of it is unexpected. The ending comes back to the expected, but the unexpected in what is a summer beach read makes it more memorable.

The Summer Villa
Blog Tour

Author: Melissa Hill
ISBN: 9780778359982
Publication Date: April 28, 2020
Publisher:  MIRA Books

Author Bio:
MELISSA HILL lives in south Dublin with her husband and daughter. A USA TODAY and international #1 bestseller, she is the author of 13 novels, including The Gift of a Charm and A Gift From Tiffany's. The Gift of a Charm was a USA TODAY bestseller. Hailed "the queen of the big plot twist," she combines all the warmth and humor of contemporary women's fiction with plots that keep readers guessing from page to page. Melissa also cowrites forensic thrillers with her husband, Kevin, under the pseudonym Casey Hill, featuring crime scene investigator Reilly Steel. For more information, visit
Book Summary:

When a little white lie becomes the story of your life, what if the truth comes out?

For three woman, it's a life-changing trip: one finds the man of her dreams, another discovers inspiration amidst Italian food and culture, while a chance encounter with a handsome local ushers in the ultimate life change for the third. But most importantly, it's the beginning of a deep and lasting friendship between all three.

Now years later, Kim Weston - entrepreneur and owner of internationally successful Italian food and lifestyle business, The Sweet Life - has bought and restored the tumble-down villa to its former glory -- and plans to reopen Villa Dolce Vita as a wellness/cultural retreat - a fitting honor to the root of her business inspiration.

To celebrate the villa's grand opening, she and her Italian business partners are throwing a huge three-day party; flying a group of family, business and media contacts to the Amalfi Coast to join in the celebrations. And most importantly, the (still) close friends who started the journey with her.

But in the run up to the planned weekend in Italy, it becomes clear that not everyone is happy about the party, nor are they on board with such ambitious plans for the location. And, as Villa Dolce Vita's grand relaunch draws closer, old memories and past secrets come to light, and the three old friends are forced to question if anything that happened on that first fateful trip to the villa is at all what it seemed.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Secrets of Love Story Bridge

  The Secrets of Love Story Bridge
Author:  Phaedra Patrick
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0778309789 / 978-0778309789

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

Opening Sentence:  "As he did often over the past three years, Mitchell Fisher wrote a letter he would never send."

Favorite Quote:  "... there's no such thing as perfection, just two people trying to make the most of their time together."

In an English town with a river running through it, there are many bridges. Some are old and steeped in history. Some are modern and new. Mitchell Fisher was once a designer and builder of bridges. Now, he works on the bridge maintenance crew. His specific job is to cut off the padlocks people attach to the bridge as a symbol of their love.

The history of love locks dates back over a hundred years. In the past two decades, the locks have started appearing on bridges all around the world. It seems a sweet gesture. However, the locks have actually become a problem for the cities. Each individual lock may be fine, but collectively, locks add substantial weight to the bridge. The weight can be enough to impact the bridge structurally. In fact, the love locks are said to have been one of the contributing factors to a bridge collapse in Paris.

Mitchell relishes the act of removing the locks for his own love story is mired in guilt and grief. He is a single father to nine-year-old Poppy. Poppy's mother Anita has passed away. A love lost is at the heart of Mitchell's grief. The fact that he was not there and the fact that his high-pressure job as an architect often kept him from his family is at the heart of his guilt. The guilt exacerbates the grief and vice versa. It is a cycle in which he is caught.

The story begins with a crisis. Mitchell sees a woman fall from the bridge. He jumps in after her and saves her. This heroic act upends Mitchell's life. A human interest story by a journalist catches public imagination and goes viral. The identity of the woman pulls Mitchell's into the sphere of her family - her mother and her sisters Liza and Naomi. Surrounding Mitchell are also the stories of his friends, each charming and quirky in their own way. All of this together forces Mitchell's life in a new light, beyond his grief and guilt. He begins to truly see his choices and the people in his life.

The aspect of this story that I truly love is the letters. Mitchell copes with his loss by writing letters to Anita. So many people write to Mitchell about his heroism and about their stories of love. A letter becomes the basis of a misunderstanding. In real life, the art of letter writing is almost forgotten. To see it highlighted and cherished in a book is wonderful.

The story of the woman, why she jumped and her backstory feel like they don't belong in this book. Her fall becomes the impetus for the transformation of Mitchell's life, but the details of the story don't fit the rest of the book. That, however, is a minor point in an otherwise charming, story. Of course, there is a love story - several, in fact. They are sweet and clean and focus on the emotions of the relationships. A story that begins in crisis and sadness ends up a sweet, feel-good read with characters who make me smile.

The Secrets of Love Story Bridge
Blog Tour

Author: Phaedra Patrick
ISBN: 9780778309789
Publication Date: April 28, 2020

Author Bio:
Phaedra Patrick is the author of The Library of Lost and Found, Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone, and The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, which has been published in over twenty countries around the world. She studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained-glass artist, film festival organizer, and communications manager. An award-winning short-story writer, she now writes full-time. She lives in Saddleworth, UK, with her husband and son.

Book Summary:

Fredrik Backman meets The Cactus in THE SECRETS OF LOVE STORY BRIDGE (Park Row Books; April 28, 2020; $25.99 US/$32.50 CAN), in which a cynical single father has a surprise encounter on the famous love lock bridge, sparking a journey of self-discovery that may lead him to a second chance at love.

Single father Mitchell Fisher hates all things romance. He enjoys his job removing padlocks fastened to the famous "love lock" bridges of Upchester city. Only his young daughter, Poppy, knows that behind his disciplined veneer, Mitchell grieves the loss of her mother, Anita.

One fateful day, working on the bridge, Mitchell courageously rescues a woman who falls into the river. He’s surprised to feel a connection to her, but the woman disappears before he learns her name. To Mitchell’s shock, a video of the rescue goes viral, hailing him as "The Hero on the Bridge." He’s soon notified by the mysterious woman’s sister, Liza, that she has been missing for over a year. However, the only clue to where the woman could have gone is the engraved padlock she left on the bridge.

Mitchell finds himself swept up in Liza’s quest to find her lost sister. Along the way, with help from a sparkling cast of characters, Mitchell’s heart gradually unlocks, and he discovers new beginnings can be found in the unlikeliest places...

Author Q&A:

Would you tell us what inspired you to write about "love story” bridge?

The idea came to me after I noticed padlocks hanging on bridges, everywhere from my home city of Manchester, England, to Gran Canaria. I was aware of the famous Pont Des Arts bridge in Paris that collapsed under the weight of ‘love locks’ several years ago, and it made me wonder about who hung them there and what the stories were behind them. I had a picture in my head of a man whose job it was to remove the locks, and that he’d probably had his heart broken in the past. I called him Mitchell Fisher after the street my grandparents used to live on, Mitchell Street.

Which character do you most relate to and why?
I have a real soft spot for a minor character in the book, Carl. He’s the concierge of the apartment block that Mitchell lives in. Carl is a real trier in life and never gives up. He’s amiable, eager to better himself and can often be found making origami shapes out of paper. He was a joy to spend time with.

What challenged you the most while writing this story?
Sometimes, when I start a book, I have a small idea in my mind but don’t know the entire story. With The Secrets of Love Story Bridge, I had an image of a man on a bridge who saves a lady in a yellow dress from drowning in a river. But that was all! In the book, the lady in yellow subsequently vanishes, but I had no idea why and where she went to! It was a real challenge to try and work out her story, and I only found out her secret at the same time Mitchell does.

What was something interesting you learned while compiling research for the book?
I was amazed at how widely spread across the world hanging love locks is. Research taught me that some people believe it’s a ritual that stems from ancient Chinese tradition, whereas others believe it started in a small Serbian town during the First World War. Wherever it originated, it’s something that’s still going strong today.

What’s one of your hobbies or something we might not know about you?
I sometimes make my own dresses. I made a floaty cornflower blue one to wear on my birthday last August, and am currently making a bright coral one as a quarantine project. When the coronavirus lockdown ends, I’m going to wear it when I meet my friends for pizza and cider. I studied art at college and was brought up by creative parents, so I dabbled with sewing, mosaics, painting, etc. at an early age. I wouldn’t say I’m brilliant at dress making but it’s a nice way to relax after writing all day.

Where do you get your ideas?
I usually just think about things I’m passionate about, am interested in, or have experience with - places, objects, professions, etc. Then I see what will fit nicely together. For The Secrets of Love Story Bridge, I wanted to write about an English city, and my favourite season is summertime. I used to work for a locksmith company and so had an interest in padlocks. My teenage son is learning how to play the guitar, so one of the female characters in the book became a music teacher. Each of my books takes influences from my own life and mixes them together to form something unique. 

What is your writing process like?
I write full time, but do try to pencil in a weekly lunch with my parents, and catch ups with friends. Writing can be a solitary profession so it’s essential to keep in touch with people, even if that’s only online. I’m fortunate to be still in touch with ex-colleagues from my previous jobs, and also with fellow writers. After walking my dog, I’m usually at my writing desk by 8.30am. I work from a small shed in my garden with a lovely view of the countryside. I try to get my admin out of the way first, which can sometimes take all morning. And then I start writing.

What is the first book that made you cry?
I honestly can’t think of the first book that made me cry, but I do remember sitting down on my kitchen floor crying about my own writing! I’d written six or seven books which received good feedback from agents, but I was told repeatedly that the market was saturated. My tears were ones of frustration, that I wanted to write but couldn’t pick the right story that would get me a publishing deal.

I’d read the book Q & A by Vikas Swarup, which was made into the film Slumdog Millionaire. The idea was so simple and absolute genius, about an orphaned, illiterate boy who is arrested for winning the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The story tells of how he knows the answers to each of the questions one-by-one. I took inspiration from the idea and eventually wrote The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, which became my debut published novel.

What is your writing Kryptonite?
My iPhone! On those days when I’m not in the mood to write, or the words won’t come through freely, it’s so tempting to reach out for my phone and procrastinate. Social media, answering emails, and even doing my accounts can take a huge chunk of time out of my day. Sometimes I put my phone on a high shelf so I can’t reach it, and I’ve also been known to leave it inside my house while I work in my shed.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing, if at all?
I was working for a large UK co-operative in marketing and communications when I wrote The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper. I used to think of ideas for the book as I walked to the train station, and I jotted them down on my commute into work. When I found time to write, it meant I wasn’t staring at a blank computer screen and had lots of notes and ideas to work from. The novel took me eighteen months to write in total. Now, I’m in the fortunate position to be a full-time author, and I treat it very much as a full-time job, working five days a week.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I usually focus on what I know, so don’t conduct much research before starting to write. My second novel required the most exploration. Each chapter of Rise & Shine, Benedict Stone started with the name of a gemstone and its properties, for example, white opals are supposed to help with hope, desire and fidelity. The book has thirty-seven chapters, so I had to find out rather a lot about gems!

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.