Sunday, July 26, 2020

Women in the Kitchen

Title:  Women in the Kitchen  Twelve Essential cookbook Writers Who Defined the Way We Eat, From 1661 to Today
Author:  Anne Willan
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1501173316 / 978-1501173318

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

Opening Sentence:  "A woman cook basting meat on a spit in front of the open fire."

Favorite Quote:  "It is often the women in the kitchen who set the scene, and establish the family tastes, particularly on the children."

In the first few pages of this book, the author defines exactly what to expect: "I have chosen twelve cookbook authors and each is described in a biography followed by a handful of their own recipes as they appeared in the original, together with those same receipts adapted for the modern kitchen. Together these books trace the development of domestic cookery in England and America as recorded by women, whose position and career paths in both countries were very different from that of men." The book then goes on to deliver exactly that. The chefs included in the book in chronological order from the 1600s to current times are: Hannah Woolley, Hannah Glass, Amelia Simmons, Maria Rundell, Lydia Child, Sarah Rutledge, Fannie Farmer, Irma Rombauer, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, and Alice Waters.

Being an avid peruser of cookbooks, I am familiar with the books from Fannie Farmer onwards. The names prior to hers are an education and now send me on a search for some of these books. For the chefs more familiar to me, I learn about their lives more so than I have from their cookbooks. The author does not specify her reasons for picking these chefs - a term the book teaches me "was not used for women until the 1960s and the television shows of Julia Child..." but does explain the contribution of each to the world of cooking. A key point to note is that this is not a book about female chefs in general; it is specifically about women who wrote cookbooks.

In other words, these women combine a knowledge of food, an ability to convey that knowledge in writing, and the business acumen to publish and sell the end product. More than that, many of them do it in a time and place in which women in such roles were unheard of. That makes their accomplishment all the greater.

Reading the original recipes reminds me of the recipes I cherish from my own mother and grandmother. Many are more notes with no amounts or measurements and a general description of the process. For example, Hannah Woolley has a recipe for a "boiled sallad" which is carrots seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, sugar, currants, vinegar, and a little salt. There are no amounts or cooking times. The recipes in this book are, however, all presented twice - once as the original and a second as tested with "US ingredients including all purpose unbleached wheat flour, granulated (US castor) sugar, unsalted butter, and Grade A large eggs." The modern translation of that given in the book is a spiced carrot puree which "tastes more like carrot cake than a salad." The originals are a joy to read, but I might take the revised as a starting point to cook with.

The recipes themselves provide a window to the time and place represented by the author. For example, recipes from Amelia Simmons, the writer of the first American cookbook, include pickled cucumbers, griddle cakes, and rice pudding. The recipes of Edna Lewis from the American South feature buttermilk biscuits, caramel pie, and fried apples. Marcella Hazan's Italian heritage brings polenta, risotto, and a granita. This book is a wonderful tour of cookbooks through time and history.

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Follow Me

Title:  Follow Me
Author:  Kathleen Barber
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1982101989 / 978-1982101985

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

Opening Sentence:  "Everyone on the internet is a liar."

Favorite Quote:  "If I had learned anything from working with social media, it was that pretending to have confidence was just as important - if not more so - as actually having it." 

Follow Me. Audrey is the one being followed. In some aspects of her life, she wants to be followed. She invites it, encourages it, and makes it her very lifestyle. However, it gets out of hand and terrifies her. The question is who is doing the following?

The book has only a handful of characters. Audrey lives her life online and is considered a social media influencer. Cat is an attorney and Audrey's friend from college. Nick is an old and perhaps new friend with benefits. Connor is Cat's colleague and crush. Lawrence is Audrey's colleague. Max is someone's from Cat's past. Ryan is Audrey's neighbor. Finally, "Him" is Audrey's stalker. The question is which of these individuals is "Him"?

The narrative clearly sets up the main characters. The chapters alternate the narrative from the perspective of Audrey, Cat, and "Him." That leaves Nick, Connor, Lawrence, and Max - the men - as the possible candidates to be "Him." That is, unless, the story introduces an unknown into the mix at some point.

The characters feel like they are in middle school. This girl likes that boy, but that boy likes this other girl. There is the popular girl and the bullied girl. This guy is the outgoing, athletic one. This one is sweet but shy and awkward. This other one is just weird. Parents and families are the cause of anxiety and insecurities. Life is about being liked.

The issue is that these are not middle schoolers. These are adults - two attorneys, a social media manager, and two others whose have jobs but I don't know what they are. The "adult" aspects of their lives are glossed over even though the story relies on major moves due to jobs and stresses about promotions. The even bigger issue is that the characters do not develop or evolve or grow up. Sadly, that means that none of them are particularly likable. 

That is surprising given the seriousness of the topic. One of these characters is being stalked. Her computer has been hacked. Her apartment has been broken into. Yet, the tagline of the main character is, "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you more interesting." Somehow, the seriousness of what is happening to her seems lost for me in what seems to be middle school drama. I find myself not taking the threat to her seriously and not investing in the outcome for her.

Also, surprisingly, I guess about one of the outcomes of the book about a quarter of the way into the book. This outcome is only somewhat related to the stalking. It comes clear nevertheless because it runs true to the stereotype for the relationship set up. That is a cryptic explanation but anything more would be a spoiler. However, the setup of a woman being stalked has a rather prosaic and anticlimactic ending. Again, no spoilers. However, this again takes away from the seriousness of the topic. This "thriller" leaves the thrills by the way side and ends up more like 300 pages of teenage angst.

The chapters are short, and nothing much really happens to develop the characters or the depth of the story. Overall, the book is a very quick read. A missed opportunity to showcase a very real and very serious hazard of living life online.

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

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Holdout

Title:  The Holdout
Author:  Graham Moore
Publication Information:  Random House. 2020. 336 pages.
ISBN:  039959177X / 978-0399591778

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

Opening Sentence:  "Maya Seale removed two photographs from her briefcase."

Favorite Quote:  "What she missed the most about the person she'd been, Maya realized, was her hope for a coming world that turned out never to have been possible. She was nostalgic for an imaginary future."

Maya Seale was the lone holdout in 2009. She had been on a jury in a murder trial. Twenty-five year old Bobby Nock, a teacher at a school, was accused of killing Jessica Silver, a fifteen year old student in one of his classes. Jessica Silver's body was never found. Twelve random strangers came together in a jury. In the fist vote, eleven voted guilty. One - Maya - voted not guilty. By the end of the trial, all twelve unanimously voted to acquit. 

Ten years later, Maya Seale is a defense attorney in Los Angeles. She has taken great care to run from and hide from those weeks in her life. Now, a reunion is being scheduled, and one other juror, Rick Leonard, claims he has incontrovertible evidence that Bobby Nock was guilty. The focal point of the reunion, of course, will be Maya because she was the lone original holdout that led to Bobby Nock's acquittal. Reluctantly, Maya agrees to be part of the reunion. Why? Many reasons. The most important though is that she has built her life around seeing where the evidence leads, and if there is new evidence, she must see where it leads.

The first night of the reunion brings its own surprise. One of the other jurors is found dead, and Maya becomes the key suspect.

The current day murder investigation brings out the secrets of the ten year old case - the victim, the victim's family, the accused, and the jurors. Every one has secrets they want to hide. The question is which ones are relevant to the case now and which might have been relevant to the case then. "Anyone would look like a villain in a catalogue of only their worst decisions." The book references Agatha Christie's work including Murder on the Orient Express. While this book does not go quite in that direction, it does have the same flavor of lots of lots of secrets and layers.

Beyond the story, the book is a cynical commentary on the legal system, the jury trial, and the role of truth in a courtroom:
  • "Wanting to know. Everybody wants to know. But maybe growing up means accepting that you're not always able to."
  • "In the stories, there's always an answer at the end. Resolution. The detective confronts the killer; the killer admits it. We know for sure. But out here - it's not like that. Out here, maybe somebody goes to jail. Maybe somebody doesn't. But we never know the truth. The real, whole, definite truth. It's impossible."
  • "In courtrooms all across this city, Maya had seen people get verdicts they'd wanted, and she's seen just as many get ones they didn't. But the verdicts had nothing to do with truth. No verdict ever changed a person's opinion. Juries weren't god. The people who went into courtrooms looking for divine revelation came out bearing the fruits of bureaucratic negotiation."
  • "His resolution was the Platonic ideal of a concept from a first-year law school lecture ... In an adversarial system, it is the solemn duty of both adversaries to do their very best to win. Let the system worry about producing truth."
The mystery and the urgency to solve the crime before someone else shows up dead contribute to the pace of this story. I want to know what happens and turn the pages until the very end to find out. Each twist and turn adds another element of surprise. The story and the implicit commentary both make this a memorable read.

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Bermondsey Bookshop

Title:  The Bermondsey Bookshop
Author:  Mary Gibson
Publication Information:  Head of Zeus. 2020. 448 pages.
ISBN:  1788542649 / 978-1788542647

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

Opening Sentence:  "Oi, Noss Goss!"

Favorite Quote:  "Words are cheap ... It's what people do that matters. If he's cruel to you, then no matter what he says, he don't love you." 

How disappointing the a book with a bookshop name as the title has very little to do with the shop or with books! Bermondsey is an area in Southeast London. Bermondsey has been home to factories producing tin boxes as featured in this book. Based on certain historical websites, there was once a Bermondsey Bookshop. Since the 1970s, much of the area has been designated a conservation area.

Although this story was not really about the bookshop, I did appreciate the introduction and enjoyed learning about the bookshop through some research. The Bermondsey Bookshop, established by Ethel Gutman, was in business from 1921 until 1930. Its purpose was to bring books to an audience - the working class of Bermondsey - who had no other access to books or the arts. The shop offered books for sale and also to borrow for a subscription fee. Individuals were encouraged to come and at read as  long as they wanted in the shop for no fee at all. The shop also hosted programs, lectures, and its own newsletter.

I wish the shop had been more than just the background of the story. Nevertheless, now on to the story of this book...

Kate Goss grows up on the wrong side of the tracks in Bermondsey. What she knows is that her mother died of a fall when she was little, her father is off seeking his fortune, and she is left in the care of her aunt. Kate is somewhat the Cinderella of the house - she lives in a garret, can do nothing right, and is mistreated by her aunt and her two cousins. By the time she is seventeen, "life had taught her the precious lesson of how to hide and disappear and stay out of people's way." Her only dream is that one day her father will return and whisk her away to a different life.

Kate has a job at the tin factory and a place to stay at her aunt's house. An incident results in her aunt throwing her out. Desperation and the need for money to survive brings Kate to the bookshop as a cleaner. Here, she meets new friends and an old crush from the neighborhood. There is talk of meetings and worker rights and a new community for Kate. This community, although interesting, is not exactly what the book is about either.

A chance meeting at the bookshop leads Kate right back to her past. She discovers that nothing is as it seems an that dreams can sometimes turn into nightmares. Throughout it all, Kate learns to use her voice not only for herself but also to help others. "She'd learned the folly of pinning her hopes on someone else to giver her a better life, but she'd also learned her own power." That voice is the strength of the book even when the story takes a decidedly melodramatic turn. Read the book to find out where the drama in this book leads. The end of the romance I saw coming; the end of the drama I did not.

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

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Light After the War

Title:  The Light After the War
Author:  Anita Abriel
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1982122978 / 978-1982122973

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

Opening Sentence:  "Vera Frankel had never seen a sun so bright or streets teeming with so many people."

Favorite Quote:  "There's wasn't only one perfect life. If one set one's mind to it, there were many ways to be happy."

Hungary to Austria to Naples to the United States to Venezuela to Australia. This is the journey Vera Frankel and Edith Ban. According to the author's note, Vera Frankel was the author's mother. This book is based on her story. The object of the writing is clearly stated at the ending of the book itself. "One of the great things about human being is their capacity to learn ... We'll tell the story of our children, and they'll tell their children, and no one will every forget." 

Vera and Edith were best friends as children in Hungary. They ended up on a train to Auschwitz. After an escape from that train, the hid out the rest of the war on an Austrian farm. The possibility of a job for Vera brings the two to Naples.

Many of the stories of the Holocaust that I have read are about the atrocities that took place. This book begins with Naples in 1946 at the end of World War II.  Vera and Edith's childhood in Hungary and their journey from Hungary to Naples is revealed slowly in flashbacks. The scars of war they both carry gradually emerge and carry through the story. The loss of loved ones and the guilt of survival haunts them both in different ways. I would say that some of the connections and events seem far fetched and contrived. However, if this is the author's mother, then I hope the story is what it was.

The focal point of this story is what happens after the war. It is about refugees trying to find a new home while longing for the one they lost. It is about the unrelenting search for answers as to the fate of loved ones. It is about starting over again and again if needed to build a new life. It is about the possibility of loving and laughing again. It is, of course, about friendship that began in childhood and perhaps was cemented through the shared experience of survival.

Much of the book also becomes about Vera's relationships. She finds love in Naples which in some way brings her to the United States. A twist of fate at Ellis Island puts her on her way to Caracas. I say "her" for much of the story and the destinations are driven by Vera's stories; Edith comes along.

The remainder of the story is about relationships - good and bad - and about careers. Vera and Edith both start over so many times in so many ways. Do not expect a book truly focused on the war or the horrors of the Holocaust. It reads in many ways like a romance about a young woman making her way in life. The latter part of Vera's story in fact has nothing to do with the war at all. It has to do with marriage and family.

The book ends up a light, quick summer read but not quite what I expected from a World War II story.

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Black Swan of Paris

Title:  The Black Swan of Paris
Author:  Karen Robards
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 480 pages.
ISBN: 0778309339 / 978-0778309338

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Summer 2020 Historical Fiction Blog Tours from Harlequin Trade Publishing free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When the worst thing that could ever happen to you had already happened, nothing that came after really mattered."

Favorite Quote:  "As she'd already learned to her cost, there were no guarantees in life, no guarantees that the person you loved would be here from one day to the next, no guarantees about anything all all. And this was war. Death waited around every corner. It came rocketing out of the sky, zipping through the air, blasting up from the ground. It came with no notice, no warning, no chance to say goodbye."

The Black Swan of Paris is a nickname "... inspired, she assumed, by her coloring - black hair, milky skin, and changeable blue-green eyes." The woman behind the nickname is Genevieve Dumont, a performer with star power. She is French, and yet she entertains theaters full of Nazi soldier and the Nazi elite. Some view her as a Nazi collaborator. No one, not even those closest to her, know who Genevieve truly is or what she hides in her past.

Paris 1944 - war, espionage, family, personal and community losses, danger, and a love story. This story has so many elements of a great read. The one thing I could do without, however, are some graphic descriptions of torture. Yes, that was real during World War II. Yes, it happened. I think the inclusion of the graphic descriptions in this book do not add to the story. I think the horrors of war are terrible enough without the descriptions.

Putting aside those descriptions, the book does a wonderful job of finding a balance between the different elements of the book. That, for me, has to do with creating a strong, believable main character in Genevieve. In each element - espionage, family, the past, and the love story, this is very much Genevieve's story. The reading has some slow parts, but overall, this story really does make for a wonderful, fast paced book. In fact, I could see it becoming a movie. The writing paints a vivid image  

I love when books  I read, although unrelated to each other, touch upon the same stories. This book makes several references to another entertainer who made Paris home, Josephine Baker. "... in the summer of 1931 when her parents brought their daughters to Pairs to celebrate her sister's fifteenth birthday. The highlight of that trip had been being Josephine Baker..." Josephine Baker is an inspiration for Genevieve. The parallels are interesting. Both women are performers, and both use their "star" status as part of the war effort. Their stories, of course, are completely different, but they shed a different light on the history of the Resistance.

What I love about books is that they tell the story of the role of civilians - particularly women - in the Resistance. In this book, the primary focus is Genevieve, but many of the other main characters - Lillian, Emily, Berthe - are also strong, independent women fighting for their lives and their freedoms. The conquest of this war effort is a true collaboration of a team not fettered by gender stereotypes. Genevieve's strength and the courage of these women is the real story.

These two books also highlight the risks artists and performers took. Their positions allowed unique access and freedom of movement. Genevieve is, at the beginning, a reluctant participant. She feels like she has no choice, and with everything that has gone before in the her, nothing much to lose. Over the course of the story, though, the resistance becomes much more personal.

The Black Swan of Paris
Blog Tour

Author: Karen Robards
ISBN: 9780778309338
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
Publisher:  MIRA Books

Author Bio:
Karen Robards is the New York Times, USA TODAY and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of more than fifty novels and one novella. She is the winner of six Silver Pen awards and numerous other awards.

Book Summary:
For fans of The Alice Network and The Lost Girls of Paris comes a thrilling standalone by New York Times bestselling author Karen Robards about a celebrated singer in WWII occupied France who joins the Resistance to save her estranged family from being killed in a German prison.

In Occupied France, the Resistance trembles on the brink of destruction. Its operatives, its secrets, its plans, all will be revealed. One of its leaders, wealthy aristocrat Baron Paul de Rocheford, has been killed in a raid and the surviving members of his cell, including his wife the elegant Baronness Lillian de Rocheford, have been arrested and transported to Germany for interrogation and, inevitably, execution.

Captain Max Ryan, British SOE, is given the job of penetrating the impregnable German prison where the Baroness and the remnants of the cell are being held and tortured. If they can't be rescued he must kill them before they can give up their secrets.

Max is in Paris, currently living under a cover identity as a show business impresario whose star attraction is Genevieve Dumont. Young, beautiful Genevieve is the toast of Europe, an icon of the glittering entertainment world that the Nazis celebrate so that the arts can be seen to be thriving in the occupied territories under their rule.

What no one knows about Genevieve is that she is Lillian and Paul de Rocheford's younger daughter. Her feelings toward her family are bitter since they were estranged twelve years ago. But when she finds out from Max just what his new assignment entails, old, long-buried feelings are rekindled and she knows that no matter what she can't allow her mother to be killed, not by the Nazis and not by Max. She secretly establishes contact with those in the Resistance who can help her. Through them she is able to contact her sister Emmy, and the sisters put aside their estrangement to work together to rescue their mother.

It all hinges on a command performance that Genevieve is to give for a Gestapo General in the Bavarian town where her mother and the others are imprisoned. While Genevieve sings and the show goes on, a daring rescue is underway that involves terrible danger, heartbreaking choices, and the realization that some ties, like the love between a mother and her daughters and between sisters, are forever.

Author Website:
TWITTER: @TheKarenRobards
FB: @AuthorKarenRobards

Buy Links:
Barnes & Noble

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Things in Jars

Title:  Things in Jars
Author:  Jess Kidd
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1982121289 / 978-1982121280

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

Opening Sentence:  "As pale as a grave grub she's an eyeful"

Favorite Quote:  "Stories, particularly the bad ones, are told in their own time." 

1863 in London is a time both of wealth and poverty. Birdie is an unusual woman for the times. She calls herself a widow. She lives independently with her seven foot tall, rescued housekeeper. She is a private investigator with many stories in her past, stories she does not want shared with the world.

The plot of the book is a missing child, a parent who would rather not involve the police, and a private investigator hired to find the child. Added to that is the back story of the private investigator, people from her childhood who are now part of this missing persons case, and a literal ghost from her past.

This book took me two weeks to read, which is long time. I kept picking it up and putting it down. I read other things in between. I wanted to know how this story ends. I wanted to know what happens to Christabel, Birdie, Ruby, and even Rose. I wanted to know who and what Christabel was. By the end, I liked Birdie's story and the way the plot of this book ties to her history. However, I found myself not wanting to read the book to get to the end of the story. I finished by one day deciding I was going to read to the end.

One issue is that initially the focus of the story is a missing child. This is no ordinary child. The initial descriptions are of a cage, snails, and heads bitten off of snails. At the same time, the descriptions are of a child calmed by stories - dark, disturbing stories but stories nevertheless.

The description of a "merrow" eventually comes up. As with the background of Himself by Jess Kidd, the idea of the merrow is found in Irish folklore. However, this book does not really go into that history and background. It is the setting for the book but not the story.

I want to know more, but more never really comes. Although the book starts with the missing child, this is ultimately Birdie's story. The child, her oddity, and her ultimate fate become secondary to Birdie's story. The "things in jars" are the background to Birdie's story not the story itself. That leaves me wondering why that background? It also leaves me wondering if that background, why is not developed more?

I also think the writing style got in the way of the story. Here are one description... "The red hair that peeps out from under her widow's cap is rich in the firelight, is likely abundant. When she raises her dirty-green eyes to him his mind conjures images of fickle wood nymphs in dappled glades." This description is of the main character, Birdie. Birdie is an independent, pipe smoking, private detective. The words of the description do not match the personality. It does not fit the character or the story.

Ultimately, this story set in folklore, darkness, oddities, and disturbing images turns into a much more prosaic one of the scars of childhood. I wish it had been more.

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