31 March 2015

Today's Read: A Fireproof Home for the Bride by Amy Scheibe

A Fireproof Home for the Bride by Amy ScheibeWhat if you unquestioningly accepted the fact that you were to marry the young farmer you've known all your life . . . until he shows you a dark side of himself you didn't expect. Would you go through with the marriage, set your eyes on someone else, or try to go it alone? In the late 1950s, Emmaline Nelson weighs her choices and their consequences as she tries to envision her future.

The day after her eighteenth birthday, Emmaline Nelson sat with her spine hovering a good two inches away from the straight, cold back of an oaken pew, her feet planted next to each other on the pine floor, knees pressed together as she'd been taught. Her wool serge skirt should have been cozy, but the nylon slip her mother had insisted she wear crackled like electric ice against her dark stockings from its contact with the charged January air. Her coat hung cold and useless out in the makeshift foyer, where her mother had made her leave it, even though the inside of the church was not much warmer than the air outdoors.
A Fireproof Home for the Bride by Amy Scheibe (St. Martin's Press, 2015, p. 9 [Chapter 1 opener])

Quick Facts
  • Setting: Minnesota & North Dakota, late 1950s
  • Circumstances: Emmy grows up in a loveless home and is destined to marry an older local farmer, who is far from sweet & gentle. Calling on her inner strength, she breaks the engagement, leaves her rural home town, and moves in with an estranged aunt to work at a Fargo newspaper. While starting her new life, Emmy not only uncovers some ugly family secrets but is exposed to new ideas and different ways to live.
  • Characters: Emmy and her family; Ambrose, her finance; Bobby an ambitious Catholic boy; various teachers, friends, and colleagues
  • Genre and audience: coming-of-age, historical fiction; new adult
  • Themes: family; love; small town vs. small city; faith; race and gender issues; independence; tolerance
  • Why I want to read this: Although some reviewers noted that Scheibe attempts to address a lot of issues in one story, all agreed that this is a winner of a novel. Emmy is easy to care about, the period details are excellent, and the issues are thought provoking.
  • Extras: Scheibe grew up in the area in which she sets her novel, adding authenticity to the story. A reading guide is available at the Macmillan/St. Martin's website. For excellent television interview with Scheibe (North Dakota edition of The Today Show), click here.

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30 March 2015

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe (Bullet Review)

Man at the Helm by Nina StibbeGeneral plot: In 1970, when Lizzie Vogel was just nine years old, her wealthy father left the family for first a man and then another woman. After the divorce and a move to the country, Lizzie is dismayed to find that the villagers hold them at arm's length. Her older sister, at the wise age of eleven, is not surprised, telling Lizzie that they won't be accepted until there is once again a man at the head of the house.

Thus the sisters create a "man list" of potential mates for their mother, dreaming up ways to get various village men--no matter their current marital status--to date their mom. In the meantime, Mrs. Vogel, who is "temperamentally unsuited" for anything practical, becomes unhinged, finding solace in drink and pills and in writing an autobiographical play. When the realities of her new life can no longer be ignored, Mom must find the strength to keep the family afloat.

General thoughts: Although my summary of Man at the Helm sounds a little bleak, Nina Stibbe's novel is actually full of charm and humor to soften the underlying story of a family lost at sea looking for a safe harbor. I was particularly impressed with Stibbe's ability to see the world through a child's perspective. Lizzie's voice seems utterly authentic.

from review aat www.BethFishReads.comEven in the darkest moments, Stibbe remembers her narrator is a just a girl. Lizzie's misconceptions of dating and adult relationships, her confusion over her mother's behavior, her mixed feelings about her father, and her innocent acceptance of her mother's attempt to self-medicate all ring true. These same things, however, are also the source of laugh-out-loud humor, especially as the sisters play matchmaker and attempt to take over laundry duty. Not to be missed: Their younger brother's brilliant scene of acting out in a restaurant during an outing with their father.

Time period: I wonder if younger readers will be put off by the notion of the girls thinking that their mother needs a husband, but many women born in the early 1940s were unprepared to earn the kind of living required to raise three children, and Mrs. Vogel is a classic example. Although times were indeed a-changing, change had not yet caught on in rural England. In addition, the freedom that Lizzie and her siblings had might also be hard to understand. But back then all kids were pretty much on their own during the day, with very little adult supervision. Stibbes nails the time period in other ways too, such as the easy access Mrs. Vogel has to Valium and the music the girls listen to.

Audiobook: Imogen Church read the unabridged audiobook (Audible Studios; 9 hr, 57 min) with great skill, nicely capturing Lizzie's personality. For more on the audiobook, see my review for AudioFile magazine.

Published by Little, Brown, 2015 (print)
ISBN-13: 9780316286671
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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28 March 2015

Weekend Cooking: The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook edited by Kate White

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Mystery Writers of America Cookbook edited by Kate WhiteAs much as I love pop culture, art, and literary themed cookbooks, I generally accept that they're going to be fun to look through and read but not particularly useful in the kitchen. It was in that spirit that I accepted a review copy of The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook edited by Kate White.

Well mark me as totally wrong! This cookbook not only is a joy to read but is a welcome addition to my kitchen shelf. If you're a fan of mysteries, a lover of tried-and-true family recipes, or just looking for an everyday cookbook, then put the MWA Cookbook on your wish list.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the book is the noir/mystery theme: the colors are browns and blacks and the icons are cleavers and skulls. I love how each chapter opens with an old-fashioned manual typewriter with a message still in it (see the scan below).

The end papers list the dozens of mystery writers who contributed to the book, starting, in alphabetical order, with Beth Amos (who contributed a holiday grogg recipe, perfect for her bartender protagonist) and ending with Angela Zeman (who completes her grappa-soaked cherries recipe by telling the cook to take a bow). Here are some of my favorite authors to show you the range of recipes:
  • Alafair Burke: Ellie Hatcher's Rum Soaked Nutella French Toast
  • Harlan Coben: Myron's Crabmeat Dip
  • Mary Higgins Clark: Mary's Celebratory Giants Game Night Chili
  • Lydsay Faye: Valentine Wilde's Chicken Fricassee
  • Lisa Scotttoline: A Tomato Sauce for all Seasons
  • Joseph Finder: Doreen's Apple Crumble
  • Lee Child: Coffee, Pot of One
Each recipe comes with a story. Some are about that author's detective, some are personal stories, and all are worth taking the time to read. Because these are real recipes made by real people (not famous chefs or recipe developers), they all look dead (ha!) simple to make and have universal appeal. A few are gluten free and many are vegetarian, but most are just basic delicious-sounding dishes.

Oh, and while you're waiting for your dinner to finish cooking, don't forget to read the introduction and the sidebars, which talk about poisons, forensics, classic detectives, red herrings, and other fun topics that fit the theme of mysteries and murder.

Even better, all proceeds from the book go back the Mystery Writers of America, which works to promote "higher regard for crime writing and recognition and respect for those who write in the genre." Anyone can join the group, which sponsors the Edgar Awards. For more information, be sure to visit their website.

Award-winning author Sandra Brown, known for her stand-alone romantic thrillers, contributed the following appetizer/snack recipe. I think I'm going to have to try it. I'm so dang curious. What do you think? I may cut the recipe in half for a test run.

Mystery Crackers
Yield: about 40 servings
  • 1⅓ cups vegetable oil
  • 1 packet dry ranch dressing mix
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons cayenne (depending on how spicy you want them)
  • 1 (1-pound) box Premium saltines (all four sleeves)
1. Combine oil, dressing mix, and pepper

2. Empty crackers into a 2-gallon ziplock bag and pour oil mixture over them. Seal and toss to coat crackers.

3. Over the next 6 to 8 hours, toss periodically until all the oil is absorbed into the crackers. Despite the oil, they'll retain their crunch and won't get soggy. I don't know how it works. It's a mystery!

Brown says she keeps "them in the fridge of my office for snacking. If I'm in a lull, I can nibble a few to 'spice things up!' "

Published by Quirk Books, 2015
ISBN-13: 9781594747571
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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27 March 2015

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: The Truly Random Edition

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts are my random notes about books I've read, movies I've watched, books I'm looking forward to, and events I hope to get to.

Original Intent for This Post

I so love Trish's idea of A Day in the Life event that I really wanted to participate. But this is just not the time of year for me to be sharing my day. From February to the middle of April my life is all about the editing: twelve-hour days, seven days a week. So, although I really do have a life outside of work, I didn't think a series of variations on the following photos would make a very good post. Here's my current life:

  • Coffee
  • Work
  • Coffee
  • Work
  • Walk (if possible)
  • Wine
  • Dinner
  • Collapse
Yeah. So fun. If someone reminds me, I'm going to do a Day in the Life of a Freelancer once I recover from spring editing. In the meantime, please, please click through the link and read about everyone else's exciting lives. I can't wait to get to know my friends a little bit better.

What I've Been Listening To

I've listened to a few audiobooks that I reviewed for other venues or haven't yet reviewed here. I'll get to them soon, either as full reviews or as part of a Sound Recommendations post.

Ali Smith's How to Be Both (Recorded Books; 8 hr, 29 min) looks at the fuzzy line between opposites: life/death, past/present, and male/female. So much to think about, and John Banks was a great choice for narrator. James Hannaham did a fab job narrating his Delicious Foods (Hachette Audio; 11 hr, 6 min), which mixes humor with a serious look at race, poverty, and addiction. Nina Stibbe's Man at the Helm (Audible Studios; 9 hr, 57 min) lets us see what happens to one family after a divorce changes their circumstances. Told through the eyes of an adolescent girl (and read by Imogen Church), this is funny, sad, and touching. Kate Mulgrew leaves very little out in her self-read memoir, Born with Teeth (Hachette Audio; 9 hr, 26 min). It's all about her journey from Iowa to acting fame. Fascinating.

This and That
  • Blogging platform: I've been following some of the Bloggiesta posts and chats this week. I really should do some blog maintenance, but I'll have to wait for this summer. I think it's time for a new design/template, and I've been toying with the thought of switching to WordPress, but I need to wait until work slows down so I can get bids from some designers. I want someone else to do the coding this time, and no way I'm moving all my photos, videos, linkies, etc. to a new platform by myself.
  • Reviews: I still love posting reviews, but I've decided to give myself a time limit for writing them. No more three hours of stewing over creating the absolute perfect review for the blog. Seriously, I spend way too much time on unpaid reviews. I have a few freelance writing gigs, and that's where I want to focus my energy. So expect to see more bullet reviews in the future.
  • Fun stuff: I'm getting a new Stitch Fix either today or tomorrow, so look for an unboxing next week. I can't wait to see what I got this season.
  • Comics: Thanks to Twitter friends, Comics February (again, too busy to participate), and especially Panels, I've gotten the comics / graphic novel bug bad. I haven't been reviewing them, but I hope to put together a few mini-review blasts late next month. My wish list continues to grow as I read all of your comics reviews.
  • A look to the future: I wrote a post for Book Bloggers International for April and did an interview with the blog The Things We Read. When those posts go live, I'll announce it here or on Twitter. I'm also really excited to be on a panel at the Audio Publishers Association Conference, which runs at the same time as BEA (late May in New York). I'm really looking forward to talking about promoting audiobooks.
That's about it for me. Did you participate in Bloggiesta this week? Read anything great?

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26 March 2015

Review: Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

Nightbird by Alice HoffmanAlice Hoffman is well known for her many best-selling novels, including The Dovekeepers and Practical Magic. Because I've loved everything I've read by her, I was curious about her latest book, which was written for a middle-grade audience.

• Quick take: The Nightbird is a magical story of family, friendship, love, and self-acceptance. It's set in modern times, but has roots in folk tales and legends of witches. Hoffman has written another winner.

• General plot: Twig Fowler was born in New York City, but when she was very little, her mother (Sophie) relocated them to the 200-year-old family farmstead in the Berkshires. Twig's father was left behind, but her brother (James) was secreted into the house under cover of dark, forbidden to ever venture outside or to be seen. The Fowlers stay to themselves, guarding their secrets well, until the Hall family moves onto the adjoining abandoned property, upsetting the very foundations of Twig's life.

• Characters: Twig—a tall, lanky twelve-year-old—accepts her mother's rules, understanding the importance of protecting her older brother, who is hidden from sight because of a generations-old family curse. Yet when she meets the neighbor girls, she cannot help but crave the pleasures of a true friendship. James is caught between his love for his family and his need to accept himself for what and who he is, even if no one else can. One night, however, he sees the older Hall girl from his window and begins to think about risking everything for the chance to meet her.

from Nightbird review by www.BethFishReads.com• Themes, audience: Although Hoffman had middle graders in mind when she wrote Nightbird, there is no age limit for loving this charming story. There is a little bit of magic and a witch's curse that must be undone, but you don't have to like fantasy to care for Twig and to be interested the quirky townsfolk. The main plot line focuses on the Fowler family's secrets, but as Twig gets to know Julia Hall, the two take it upon themselves to solve the local mystery of who's responsible for a streak of petty crimes.

• Discussion points: Nightbird would make a great book club choice for both young readers and adults. Besides the obvious topics of family, secrets, witches, and friendship, groups could also discuss environmental issues (a subplot to the novel), small town life, tolerance, and self-acceptance.

• Recommendation: As I said on Twitter over the weekend: Alice Hoffman does middle grade perfectly. Nightbird is many layered and emotionally engaging. More important, Twig is a character you wish you knew in real life, especially if she'd let you have a piece of one her mother's famous pies.

• Extra: Hoffman included an apple pie recipe at the end of the book. When apple season returns to central Pennsylvania, I plan to give it a try.

Published by Random House / Wendy Lamb Books, 2015
ISBN-13: 9780385389587
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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