31 October 2014

Book to Screen: Olive Kitteridge (HBO Miniseries)

Olive Kitteridge on HBOAs many of you know, I'm a big fan of HBO, which has aired some of the best original content seen on television (Deadwood and True Detective, for example). And because they bring the same excellent writing and quality production to their adaptations, I'm crazy excited about their upcoming (November 2 and 3) miniseries based on Elizabeth Stout's Olive Kitteridge, starring Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins.

The book Olive Kitteridge is a collection of linked stories that together make up a character study and examination of life in a small Maine town, often seen through the eyes of its eponymous character, a junior-high math teacher, known for her abrasiveness. Yet despite outward appearances, Olive is a complex, caring woman who fights bouts of depression, a disease that runs in her family.

Photo credit: HBO/Jojo WhildenThe emotionally strong Pulitzer Prize–winning book, with its unforgettable characters, follows Kitteridge family drama over the course of a quarter century, beautifully exploring the full arc of what it means to be human.

The writers of the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge were faced with turning a short story collection into a single entity. Emmy® winner Jane Anderson rose to the occasion, crafting a teleplay that focuses on the title character but respects Stout's original format. The miniseries is presented in four parts (two on Sunday, November 2, and two on Monday, November 3), each of which carry the name of one the collection's stories. "Pharmacy" and "Incoming Tide" open the miniseries, followed by "A Different Road" and "Security" on the second night.

Photo credit: HBO/Jojo WhildenDespite concentrating on only a few of the stories, Anderson's script, combined with the truly outstanding cast, promises to capture the essence of both the Kitteridges and small-town life. Director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) teams up with McDormand (an Academy Award® winner) and Jenkins (an Academy Award® nominee), who star as Olive and Henry Kitteridge. They are supported by a strong field of familiar actors, including Bill Murray, John Gallagher Jr., Rosemaire DeWitt, Jesse Plemons, and Ann Dowd. In addition, almost everyone on the crew, from the director of photography to the score's composer, is a major award winner or nominee.

Take a look at the trailer to get an overview of the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge. Then watch the short clip to take a peek at a Kitteridge family dinner.

Olive Kitteridge premieres on HBO on November 2 and 3. Check your local listings for air times in your area.

Thanks to HBO for providing the videos and stills. Photo credits: HBO/Jojo Whilden. (Click images to enlarge.)

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30 October 2014

Cozy Seasonal Reading: A Heptad of New Series

Even though Halloween is fast approaching, there is still time to get in some seasonal reading. Although I don't like super-scary books, I do like mysteries, and the busier I am, the more I turn to cozies. I like their punny titles, crazy situations, and fun characters.

This fall Berkley Prime Crime is offering an amazing opportunity for lovers of light mysteries. They are debuting no less than seven new series. Here's your chance to get in on the ground floor and meet a new amateur sleuth right from the start. One of these is sure to capture your interest.

Fat Cat At Large by Janet Cantrell Janet Cantrell's new Fat Cat series, is set in Minneapolis and starring professional baker Chase Oliver and her chubby cat, Quincy. In Fat Cat at Large, Quincy--supposedly on a diet--heads off to a neighboring house in hopes of snagging a tasty treat. When Chase goes to retrieve him, she discovers a dead body. Caught in the kitchen with the corpse, she becomes the prime suspect. Fortunately, Chase's best friend, Julie, is a lawyer, so chances are good that she'll be declared innocent. Enlivening this mystery is the friendship between Chase, her elderly business partner, and Julie and the fact that we sometimes see things from Quincy's perspective. No culinary mystery is complete without a few recipes, and this one includes treats for people as well as cats. (Published in September 2014; ISBN: 9780425267424)

Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates by Kathy AaronsWho doesn't like the combination of books and chocolate? Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates, by Kathy Aarons, is centered in a Maryland bookstore that also sells homemade candies. Best friends and co-owners of the shop, Michelle and Erica, are all set to host a Memorial Day fudge contest, when a local artist is found dead, presumably poisoned by one of Michelle's truffles. Teaming up with Erica's brother, the women must find the real killer before they're forced to close their business. Besides the strong women protagonists, small town life, chocolate, and books, this debut installment in the Chocolate Covered series includes a little bit of little romance involving a local policeman. Look at the back of the book for two sweet recipes! (Published in September 2014; ISBN: 9780425267233)

Nightmares Can Be Murder by Mary KennedyMary Kennedy's Nightmares Can Be Murder is set in Savannah, Georgia, where Taylor, a business consultant, is helping her sister, Allison, open a candy store. The sisters are also members of a group that meets to help each other interpret their dreams. When a dance teacher turns up dead, the circumstances surrounding his death are reminiscent of one of the dreams shared at the club. Because Allison was seen with the murder victim, the police think she's the killer. The club members team up to solve the crime before Allison is forced behind bars. This first in the Dream Club series features a group of women of all ages, a handsome ex-FBI agent turned private investigator, and a couple of lovable cats. The back of the book has a short guide to interpreting dreams. (Published in September 2014; ISBN: 9780425268056)

Bless Her Dead Little Heart by Miranda JamesI love the title of Miranda James's new novel: Bless Her Dead Little Heart. As you can guess, this series is set in the U.S. South, and if you're a fan of James, you'll be happy to know that this is a spin-off series of her popular Cat in the Stacks series. When Miss An'gel and Miss Dickce of Athena, Mississippi, agreed to pet sit their friend's cat, they didn't realize they were going to be put in the path of murder. But after an old friend and her grown children come for a visit, the two are caught up in a killer of a situation. Mix together feuding house guests, old friends, feisty sisters, and Southern charm, and you'll get the fun that's promised by this first in the Southern Ladies Mystery. You do not need to have read James's other series before meeting An'gel, Dickce, and the gang. (Published in October 2014; ISBN: 9780425273043)

Off Kilter by Hannah ReedHow about a mystery set in Scotland and starring a young writer? Hannah Reed's Off Kilter ("Someone's been kilt . . .") takes us to the Highlands and introduces us to Eden Elliot, who is visiting Glenkillen to research her next book and to try to move past her troubles (her mother's recent death and her divorce). One thing she learns is that life in a small village is not always peaceful. When a wealthy sheep farmer has been murdered, the prime suspect is one of Eden's new friends. Can Eden find the real killer before she too meets the sharp end of the sheep shears? Plenty of good characters, a little Scots dialect, beautiful scenery, newfound friendships, and a rural murder make a promising start to the Scottish Highlands series. (Published in October 2014; ISBN: 9780425265836)

Snow White Red-Handed by Maia Chance
Calling all fairy tale lovers! Maia Chance's Snow White Red-Handed, the first in the Fairy Tale Fatal series, is just for you. Set in 1867, the mystery starts off aboard ship heading from New York to Europe. Out-of-work actresses Ophelia and Prudence snag a job with a nouveau riche American couple bound for their castle in Germany's Black Forest. Pretending to be maids, the actresses soon get caught up in strange events: Was the castle really once the home of the legendary Snow White? As if skeletons of little people, poisoned apples, folktale experts, a spooky forest, and the death of their boss weren't enough, Prudence finds herself the prime suspect in the crime. Can Ophelia use her acting skills and intelligence to get her friend out of hot water? (Publishing in November 2014; ISBN: 9780425271629)

Suede to Rest by Diane Vallere
Diane Vallere takes us into the world of wannabe dress designer Poly Monroe in Suede to Rest, the first in the Material Witness series. Returning to the small California town of San Ladron after living in Los Angeles isn't easy for Poly, especially because she's back to take charge of her inheritance, the fabric store that once belonged to her family. Fighting her own emotions as well as the local business developers, the young woman is determined to get her career on track. But when a dead body is discovered in the store's alley, she must put her plans aside and get to the bottom of the murder before she also becomes a victim. Family history, a resourceful protagonist, fashion and fabrics, and couple of cute kittens make for a fun read. (Publishing in November 2014; ISBN: 9780425270578)

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28 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday 313

Fall Evening, 2014

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Today's Read: The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn

The May Bride by Suzannah DunnImagine what it would be like to have been raised in privileged isolation with few friends but your siblings. No wonder the shy, young Jane Seymour couldn't resist being drawn to her older brother's vivacious, lively bride, whose easy charm seemed to captivate everyone.

Twice my life has turned on the step of a girl through a doorway; first when I was fifteen and my new, first-ever sister-in-law came walking into Wolf Hall. The May trees were holding blossoms as thick and thorough as snowfall when Katherine crossed our threshold as the twenty-one-year-old bride of my twenty-one-year-old brother.
The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn (Pegasus Books, 2014, p. 3)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: early 1500s, England, Wolf Hall (the Seymours' home), Henry VIII's court
  • Circumstances: Jane's observations of her brother's marriage, her sister-in-law's behavior, and everyday life in her family castle; later, her experiences as an attendant to Queen Catherine and her eventual introduction to Henry VIII
  • Characters: Jane Seymour and her family; Katherine Filloil, her sister-in-law; various members of Henry VIII's court
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • What I know from reviews: The novel, told from Jane's viewpoint, fills in the gaps of the future queen's formative years, providing many period details and giving insight into the Seymour family; this is less about the Tudor court and more about Jane and how getting to know Katherine Filloil changed her perspective on the world.
  • Recommendation: I've barely started The May Bride, but it looks like it will be an interesting read for Tudor fans. Suzannah Dunn has written other popular novels about the Tudor period and Henry VIII's wives.

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27 October 2014

Review: The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove

The Glass Sentence by S. E. GroveMiddle grade fantasy has had a lot to live up to since the amazing (and well-deserved) success of the Harry Potter books. Nothing, it seems, comes close to the mark set by J. K. Rowling.

Well, hello, S. E. Grove! Her debut novel, The Glass Sentence--a middle grade (with easy cross-over to adults) high fantasy--introduces us to a world like no other you've seen before. There is very little that's derivative in this story about thirteen-year-old Sophia Tims and her uncle Shadrack Elli. The time is 1891; the place is Boston. Earth, however, is unrecognizable, thanks to the Great Disruption of 1799.

Here are my thoughts in a Bullet Review:

  • What's Sophia's world like? All in an instant on a normal July day, time became twisty and unmoored, mixing up past, present, and future all on the same planet. While the eastern half of the United States (now called New Occident) seemed steady in history, Canada was returned to the Ice Age, Africa reverted to the time of the pharaohs, and still other lands were thrown into the future. Explorers and cartologers were on the forefront of understanding the implications of the new reality. By 1891, Shadrack Elli was one of the most respected mapmakers in the known world. Sophia lives with him because her explorer parents set off on an expedition and haven't been heard from in eight years. Are they alive? Or are they lost in time or physical space?
  • What happens? Just as the reactionary government of New Occident decides to close its borders against people from other times, Shadrack is kidnapped, and his precious maps are destroyed. Sophia's only clue to his whereabouts is a hastily written note from her uncle telling her to "go to Veressa." So Sophia, accompanied by an older boy and with help from her housekeeper, sets off for the city of Nochtland in what was once central Mexico and is now in a different time period.
  • Things to know about maps. Maps are not what you think. They can be made of glass, clay, cloth, water, metal, and vegetable matter as well as paper. Some maps contain memories, others show the topography, and some show only human-made structures. Reading maps is a skill, and many people can't even even recognize a map when they see one. Sophia is exceptionally talented at reading maps, though she doesn't yet know how to make one.
  • Creatures and characters. Young Sophia is a wonderful mix of vulnerable and tough, of smart and naive. One of her distinguishing characteristics is having no sense of time: for her, a moment may last five seconds or five hours. She, like her world, seems to be unanchored to clocks. Her new friend, Theo, is guarded, complex, a few years older, and from a different era. Although Sophia agrees to travel with him, she is not at all sure how much she can trust him. Shadrack is a loving guardian and an ethical man who refuses to give the kidnappers what they want, until they threaten to destroy his niece. The cast of peripheral characters includes terrifying thugs who wield grappling hooks, faceless beings who mourn all that has been lost, and people who seem to be only partially human.
  • General thoughts. I love Sophia, Shadrack, and Theo, and I was equally taken with the world Grove created. The maps and how they work are unique in my reading experience, and I was fascinated. I also liked the idea of different time periods existing on the same planet. The novel makes us think about how the Great Disruption affected not only daily life but also art, literature, politics, and travel. The story itself was well paced, varying between intense action scenes and quieter moments. The Glass Sentence is the first in a planned trilogy, and I can't wait to see what happens next.
  • Recommendations. I recommend this debut novel for readers of all ages who like high fantasy, alternative history, excellent world building, and great storytelling. This first in the Mapmakers trilogy stands on its own and introduces us to an appealing new hero in Sophia and a complex, well-developed new world.
  • Audiobook. I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Listening Library; 15 hr, 48 min) read by Cassandra Campbell, whose approach to the novel is near perfect. Her expressive performance and keen sense of pacing bring the story alive. She creates distinctive and consistent voices for all the characters (no matter how minor), and each seems perfectly suited for the personality, age, and gender of the individual. I sure hope Campbell is available for the rest of the series.
Click the widget below to hear a sample of the audiobook.

Published by Penguin USA / Viking Juvenile, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780670785025
Source: Audio: review; print: bought (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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25 October 2014

Weekend Cooking: The Kitchen Journal 16

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.

Although I have a few cookbooks to review, I wanted to finish the conversation I started last week about meal planning. It's been a very interesting month for me; after four decades of never planning, here I am attempting to change my ways.

Thoughts on Meal Planning: On the whole, I've come to like the idea that my dinners are worked out ahead of time, but I still miss some of the spontaneity that I've grown accustomed to over the years. One of my goals was to try to shave our grocery bill without compromising on freshness and quality--not an easy task. A benefit of creating a dinner calendar is that I'm now in the habit of checking what's in the pantry and freezer before I head to the store, which is one way of staying on budget.

This last week we were only $9 over our arbitrary goal, so I consider that a win. What's funny is that even though our bill was less than normal, we seemed to have had an extra-abundance of food. Fortunately, nothing went to waste because I simply ditched one of the pantry meals and repurposed the veggies.

Meal Planning Resources: Yes, I have a good supply of pencils and paper, but I thought I'd do some research into some of the many available meal-planning apps and programs. What I discovered is that none of them is perfect for me, but I signed up for a free 30-day trial with Plan to Eat just to test it out. The program is a combo recipe database, calendar, and shopping list. There are some great things about it (for example, how easy it is to import recipes from the Web), but the shopping list is kind of wonky, and the site doesn't offer much more than I could do with a notebook and Pinterest. I doubt I'll pay for the service.

Seasonal Wine and New Beer: It's Apothic Dark time again. If you like red blends, you might want to pick up a bottle or two of this. The price is right, the flavor is heavenly, and it's available only in the fall. We recently tried KCCO black lager, which Mr. BFR has become fond of. Although I like it and I'm happy to drink it, it's not my favorite black lager or dark beer. If you like dark beer, give it a try and see what you think.

Hit Dinner of the Week: The uncontested winner this week came from the October 2014 issue of Bon Appetit: Roasted Cauliflower and Ricotta Grandmother Pie (the photo is from the website; click the link for the full recipe). This is essentially a sauce-less pizza made in a large rimmed baking sheet. I was going to make my tried-and-true pizza dough, but I decided to use the one from the magazine. We loved both the crust and the pie. The recipe makes a ton, though, and we had if for two dinners and a lunch.

I, of course, had to make a few changes, so I wanted to tell you how I deviated from the recipe.
  • For the dough: I didn't make my dough ahead of time and simply skipped the 24 hours of chilling.
  • For the pizza: I added a diced large red bell pepper to the cauliflower before roasting because I wanted to use it up and thought it'd be pretty. I used only 2 anchovies because we find them so salty. In the optional steps, we discarded the lemon but kept the garlic, which I had cut into a very small dice before roasting.
  • What I'd do differently next time: I'd use only half the breadcrumb topping. We loved the topping but didn't think the pizza needed as much as the recipe called for.
There are three other variations to this pizza in the magazine and on the website, and we'll likely work our way through all of them.

Next week, I hope to have a cookbook review for you. I have several new books I can't wait to share with you.

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24 October 2014

Review: The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee

What does the Renaissance mean to you? If you're like most people, you immediately think of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and basilicas. You might also think of Columbus's voyage and the Protestant Reformation. But you might not remember that the Renaissance was also a time of plague, papal corruption, and a general intolerance for non-Christians and non-Europeans.

In The Ugly Renaissance, Alexander Lee gives us the broader picture of what it was really like in Florence when Michelangelo was carving his David. Few topics are safe from Lee's scrutiny, from sex and greed to disease and poverty. And thanks to Lee's informal and approachable style, the true story of the people and places of the Italian Renaissance is easily accessible and utterly fascinating.

Because the Renaissance occurred throughout Europe and over the course of centuries, Lee narrowed down his scope to three cities in Italy, with a particular focus on Florence, between the years 1300 and 1550. Besides relying on the usual sources (diaries, letters, contemporary publications), Lee also examined various tax and court records to determine, for example, how an artist's income measured up to, say, common laborers in the textile industry. (Hint: You may have been better off to have been a weaver than a studio artist.)

As well as showing us the very human side of the great artists (Michelangelo got into bar fights), Lee takes on a walk through the streets of Florence, into the rich estates of the famous patrons (like the Medicis), and into the papal quarters of Rome. Artists, patrons, and the Church were intimately (in pretty much all senses of the word) connected, and painters were often forced to juggle their own artistic sense with the political ambitions of their clients and the restrictions of Catholicism.

Moving beyond the world of art, we meet the Renaissance popes (such as the infamous Borgia pope) and learn about Rome's relationship to Italy's rich and powerful. Lee airs the Vatican's dirty laundry, including suspicious deaths and family bids for papal dynasties. We also learn about technology and warfare, the prevailing attitude to people of vastly different cultures and religions, the plague, and money and banking.

Although the general thesis of The Ugly Renaissance is likely to offer few surprises, especially in light of the popularity of the Showtime series The Borgias, Alexander Lee presents some less well known details and closely examines representative works of art to show the unromantic side of the "age of beauty." His obvious scholarship is tempered by his entertaining and easy-to-read style, making The Ugly Renaissance widely appealing to everyone from the serious student to the causally curious.

I alternated listening to the unabridged audiobook (Random House Audio; 15 hr, 51 min) and reading the print edition (an approach I often take when reading history and biography). Narrating nonfiction can be tricky, but Arthur Morey did an admirable job of capturing Lee's style and keeping me invested in the book. I was especially grateful for the correct pronunciations of names, places, and so on, which always enhances my connection to a book. As an added bonus, the audiobook comes with a PDF (disk or download) containing the visual material found in the hardcover book, so listeners don't have to scramble to find a copy of the artwork discussed in the text.

Random House / Doubleday, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385536592
Source: Review (audio) / bought (print) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy

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23 October 2014

Review and Giveaway: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Don't you love it when you discover a book you want to recommend to everyone you meet? When I was offered the chance to read Colm Tóibín's newest novel, Nora Webster, I said yes because I usually like novels set in Ireland, especially those that take place in the late 1960s, as the Troubles began.

As soon as I started reading the book, I realized I had stumbled across a moving, thoughtful character study with broad appeal. By the time I finished, Nora Webster had earned a place on my list of best books for 2014.

On the surface, Nora Webster is about a forty-year-old Irish-Catholic woman who finds herself widowed too young with four children who still need parenting. On deeper levels, however, Tóibín explores independence, the Church, and need for people to find their own path.

Right from the start, Tóibín masterfully creates a fog of mourning around Nora, letting us experience a feeling that is often difficult to describe. As in real life, Nora reengages only slowly and is, of course, not quite the same person she was when her only concerns were being a wife and mother. Nora is a complicated person who can sometimes seem cold or weak. But the truth is she's simply struggling to figure out who she really is, now that she's completely in charge of herself for perhaps the first time in her life. Nora Webster is an immensely personal and inner examination of one woman's journey through grief.

The biggest thorns in Nora's side are all the well-meaning (or are they controlling?) friends and family (and even a nun), who think they know just what the widow needs. What she really needs is the privacy, space, and time to handle things in her own way. Her other issue is her kids. The girls are older and can take care of themselves, but the younger boys are a mystery to her. Having grown up with a nosy and opinionated mother, Nora does her best to stay out of her children's way. But, she wonders, is she too distant? Yet she cannot bring herself to pry.

Running throughout the novel are cultural and historical details that bring a richness to Nora Webster. Besides touching on the more obvious concerns that Nora shares with all women of her generation, Tóibín makes it clear that the Webster family is not living in isolation. The Church and small-town dynamics are forces to be reckoned with in Nora's Ireland, and the rise of the IRA and the Troubles are on everyone's mind.

Over the course of three years--from her husband's death to the end of the book--the world is beginning to shift. Nora is adjusting to being single, radical Catholic groups are becoming violent, Americans have walked on the moon, and the Webster children are finding their paths. Colm Tóibín's beautifully crafted novel is a testament to the importance of being true to oneself, even (or especially) during times of great change.

The Giveaway: Thanks to Simon & Schuster, I'm happy to be able to offer two of my readers with a U.S. mailing address a copy of Colm Tóibín's Nora Webster. All you have to do to be entered for a chance to win is to fill out the form. I'll pick a winner via random number generator on November 3. Once the winner has been confirmed, I'll erase all personal information from my computer. Good luck!

More Information and Opportunities: For more on Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín, be sure to visit the Simon & Schuster website, where you can read an excerpt, check out other reviews, listen to a sample of the audiobook, and download the reading group guide.

For more great content from Simon & Schuster and to be among the first to learn about new books and blogging opportunities, join Simon & Schuster Insiders. This program is geared to book lovers who like to help spread the word about good reads. To join in the fun, click the link and be sure to search for #simoninsiders on all your social media.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Simon & Schuster. All thoughts and words are completely my own and reflect my honest opinion. #simoninsiders

Simon & Schuster / Scribner, 2014
ISBN-13: 9781439138335
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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21 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday 312

A Whole Mess of Gourds, 2014

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Reading on Topic: These Old Houses

In the department of random publishing trends for 2014, I've found a number of novels that incorporate the theme of fixing up an old house. It can be scary thing to renovate a home--and I'm not talking about costs and sawdust. Sometimes, however, if you enter such a project with your family, you may discover some peace and happiness at the end.

Today's Reading On Topic looks at old houses. Warning: You might think twice about accepting that inheritance from your grandmother.

Family Drama behind Closed Doors

  • Three Story House by Courtney Miller Santo (William Morrow; ISBN: 9780062130549; August 2014): Lizzy, Elyse, and Isobel--cousins and best friends--are reunited to save their late-grandmother's Memphis house from the wrecking ball. As the cousins learn the perils of renovation, they also learn some family secrets. In the end, will they find a future not only for the house but also for themselves? An engrossing contemporary novel told from three viewpoints.
  • Rooms by Lauren Oliver (Ecco; ISBN: 9780062223197; September 2014): Caroline and her children inherit their house not from Grandma but from Caroline's ex-husband. Although they can handle cleaning out decades of junk from the old place, they don't know what to do about the ghosts who use the house itself to communicate their feelings (hissing radiators, for example). Plenty of family drama on both planes of existence as all beings hope to be freed from their pasts.
  • The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (Viking; ISBN: 9780525426684; July 2014): Although not really a renovation story, this novel is centered on an old house and includes family secrets. As the younger members of the Devohrs family uncover their home's deep history, they begin to gain perspective on their own privileged life. The novel starts in the 1990s and moves back in time, so the mysteries of the present are eventually revealed in the past. A quirky family drama with elements of suspense and hauntings.
Mysteries under the Rafters

  • The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar (Atria; ISBN: 9781476760094; August 2014): Breaking the mold, Hannah and Will Riley actually buy their rundown country house and set about getting it into shape so they'll be ready to adopt a child and start the family they've always dreamed of. All goes fairly smoothly until a major Suffolk snowstorm isolates Hannah in the house while Will is in London. With no electricity and spotty cell reception, Hannah is already a bit freaked out. But when she suspects that she's no longer alone in the house, she begins to fear for her life. This is a creepy psychological thriller.
  • The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White (Authonomy; ISBN: 9780007523580; June 2014): When Nowell and Vivian Gardiner moved into his late-grandmother's country house, hoping to renovate it for sale, the couple was looking forward to a quiet life in a small town. What they found instead was the body of a 17-year-old girl and a whole lot of secrets. This character-driven mystery reveals its clues slowly, building the tension.
  • A High-End Finish by Kate Carlisle (Signet; ISBN: 9780451469199; November 2014): Jane Hennessey inherited her California Victorian from her grandmother and hired her best friend and contractor Shannon Hammer to help transform the house into a hotel. Ruining her manicure became the least of her worries when the body of a real estate agent is found on another job site and Shannon is accused of murder. This is a fun cozy mystery with interesting characters, strong women, and maybe even a little romance.

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20 October 2014

Review: Convesation 1 by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson

I was intrigued by the concept of James Kochalka's Conversation series: For these books, Kochalka taps a fellow cartoonist with whom he has a conversation via cartoon panels. As the book summary says, the authors, "draw together, trading the pages back and forth, adding to each others drawings as the conversation turns in unexpected directions."

In Conversation 1 Kochalka (American Elf, Marvel) teams up with colleague Craig Thompson (Blankets). The pair talk about art, the universe, their profession, imagination, and more.

The conversation opens with Kochalka asking about the meaning of the universe, which takes them on a trip to the depths of the sea and into the woods. They talk about the power of art to help explain life's mysteries, the difficulty of being a cartoonist, the purpose of comics, and even a little bit about God. The world the two travel through is fantastical, and the authors interject a little humor whenever the text seems to be getting too heavy.

Although I liked the art and the premise, I didn't really love the result of Kochalka and Thompson's joint work. I think the principal issue is that I'm not really the target audience. I bet a book like this would have much more appeal to die-hard fans who are intimately familiar with each comic artist's work. I have a feeling that there were inside jokes and references to the authors' other comics and novels that were lost on me.

On the other hand, I liked the drawings, and it was fun to see how the two artists drew together, sometimes even in the same panel, as shown in the two scans here (pp. 20 & 24; click to enlarge).

copyright James Kochalka and Craig Thompson

Conversation 1 would appeal to readers who are familiar with James Kochalka's and Craig Thompson's styles and work and to those who are curious about how two graphic novelists carry on a conversation in the cartoon medium.

If you want to read more in this series, see Conversation 2, in which Kochalka gets in an argument with Jeffrey Brown about the interplay among art, comics, and real life. I plan to read it, despite my disappointment with Conversation 1.

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18 October 2014

Weekend Cooking: Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach

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.

Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny RosenstrachWhat's in the air these days? So many of my blogging friends have gotten the urge to jump on the food-planning bandwagon, and I'm no exception. In fact, I'll be starting my fourth week of meal planning tomorrow, and although I'm seeing results, I can still use all the advice I can get.

I started my new approach to dinner and shopping with a stack of recipes, my own ideas, and what I had learned from Jenny Rosenstrach's first book, Dinner: A Love Story, particularly scheduling dinners and picking recipes that fit my time constraints. After reading her new Dinner: The Playbook, I think I'm ready to take my planning to the next level.

Although Rosenstrach's strategies are specifically geared to busy families with kids, everyone can benefit from her tried-and-true method of cooking dinner almost every single night. Her tips and recipes will work for you, even if you think you can't cook or think you have the world's pickiest eaters for children. Her own daughters, for example, have exasperating deal-breakers: no eggs for either of them and no pasta for one. Yikes! But still, she and her husband manage a nutritious dinner each evening, despite working full-time and juggling their girls' after-school activities.

So how the heck does she do it? In Dinner: The Playbook, Rosenstrach shares every trick in her arsenal: how to plan meals, how to get the family on board, how get organized, how to save time, and even what to cook. All of this information is presented in a conversational, friendly style that makes it easy to absorb and will make everything seem possible.

copyright Jenny RosenstrachHere are some things I love about the book:
  • The weekly plans, complete with notes about how to save time and how to repurpose ingredients to cut down on waste.
  • The tips on how to shop and how to stow your food when you get home.
  • Advice on how to be more efficient with your time, so dinner gets on the table more quickly.
  • The broad range of easy, flavorful, and nutritious recipes (each with a photo).
Even though I don't have the same issues as Rosenstrach does--I have no kids and my husband is happy to eat whatever I put on the table--I wish I were more organized when it comes to dinner. And although I know it's not the case for many of you, I never really feel stressed at dinnertime; I like to cook and I'm good at it. But I would love to save time, money, and energy, and Dinner: The Playbook has helped me with all my goals.

More important, thanks to Rosenstrach, I've relabeled myself from being a lazy cook to being a smart cook. All those quick (yet fresh and healthful) recipes I'm drawn to? That's probably the key to my being able to make dinner about 320 nights every year. All this time, I thought I was just unambitious . . . who knew I was actually being sane?

copyright Jenny RosenstrachThe recipe section of Dinner: The Playbook is chock-full of easy, family-friendly, and flavorful dishes. There are Asian-inspired soups, Southwestern tacos, Italian pastas, and all-American sandwiches. The ingredients are generally fresh and most of the recipes can be made in about a half hour. Throughout the book, Rosenstrach offers tips on how to adapt foods to picky eaters and how to save time in the kitchen.

If you're an experienced cook with file folders (or Pinterest boards) full of recipes, you won't feel locked in by Rosenstrach's sample dinners and meal plans. It's easy to take her principles and use your own recipes for your weekly schedules. On the other hand, if you're at a loss, are unsure in the kitchen, or are simply tired of being a short-order cook, then the recipes in this book will form the backbone of your new life.

No matter what your situation, your evenings will dramatically improve after you read Dinner: The Playbook. Jenny Rosenstrach's advice is based on her real-life experiences: she and her husband cook and shop, attend their daughters' functions, and work full-time. They don't have household staff or a live-in housekeeper. If they can do it, you can too.

In the coming weeks, I'll tell you about other resources I'm using as I join the modern world of meal planning. In the meantime, for more on Rosenstrach, check out her blog, which includes many tips and recipes. Note on photos: the photos were scanned from the cookbook; all rights remain with the original copyright holder.

Random House / Ballantine, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780345549808
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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16 October 2014

Sound Recommendations: Eclectic Trio

I've been going through a ton of audiobooks lately and thought this would be a good time to catch up on some titles I listened to and reviewed for AudioFile magazine. For my full audio review of each of these books, click on over to the magazine's website.

The Long Way Home by Louise PennyFirst up is Louise Penny's latest installment in her Armand Gamache series, The Long Way Home, which is set in Québec. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I've read Penny's multi-award-winning work, and I've started with the tenth book. Fortunately, it wasn't difficult to be pulled right into the world of the former chief inspector of homicide. When the book opens, Gamache has settled in the small town of Three Pines to enjoy his retirement, surrounded by his wife and dear friends. But before he can fully adjust to being an ordinary civilian, his neighbor Clara asks him to help her track down her estranged husband. The story takes us from the village into the wilderness along the St. Lawrence Seaway and deep into the world of art. Despite coming late to the game, I didn't feel lost, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The unabridged audiobook (Macmillan Audio; 12 hr, 8 min) was read by Ralph Cosham, who was absolutely fantastic. Among Cosham's many talents was his ability to switch seamlessly from male to female and from English to French. I cannot wait to start listening to this series from the beginning. On a sad note, Cosham died last month, and the audiobook world lost a great star.

Edge of Eternity by Ken FollettA couple of years ago, I reviewed the first two books in Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, which focuses on a handful of families from the Soviet Union, Germany, the UK, and the United States as they face the major political, sociocultural, technological, and economic changes of the twentieth century. Edge of Eternity, stars the third generation of the original families and covers the post-World War II years up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. (The epilogue mentions Obama's election.) Although the novel is complex, it's easy to follow, and we see the significant European and American events take place on a personal scale, through the eyes of the characters. What I particularly liked about this last entry in the trilogy was that there were so many historical events that I remember happening and historical figures whom I saw on TV or in the newspapers. The unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 36 hr, 55 min) was read by the wonderful John Lee, who managed the many needed accents and kept all the characters distinct. True he is no impersonator, but his rendition of the famous men and women who appear in the novel were nonetheless believable. Despite it's length, this sweeping family saga is well worth the listen.

The Spark and the Drive by Wayne HarrisonThe final audiobook is Wayne Harrison's The Spark and the Drive, which grew out of a short story. This coming-of-age novel, set in Connecticut, opens as seventeen-year-old Justin Bailey begins an apprenticeship with one of the best car mechanics in the East. Because it's the dawn of the computer age, Justin is part of the last generation to have learned how to diagnose car problems without the aid of modern technology. As the young teen strives to emulate his mentor, both in and out of the garage, Justin learns much more than just how to repair an engine. Although the story is not really about cars, it was difficult for me to become fully invested in Justin's transition to young manhood, his family's issues, his mentor's marriage, and the relationships among the mechanics. Maybe it's because I didn't relate to much of Justin's behavior or perhaps it was because of the audiobook itself (Recorded Books; 9 hr, 2 min), which was read by Quincy Dunn Baker. Baker's characterizations and his handling of the dialogue were fine, but I thought his voice was too mature for a teenager. What's more, the rhythm of his performance didn't match the flow of the plot, and that began to bother me. If the premise of the novel appeals to you, then I suggest you listen to an audio sample before you commit to reading with your ears.

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14 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday 311

Dahlia, 2014

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Today's Read: A Life Intercepted by Charles Martin

A Life Intercepted by Charles MartinImagine you had everything you had ever dreamed about. Now think about how you would feel if, on the very eve of the start of your professional life, you were accused of a horrible crime you did not commit? For Matthew "The Rocket" Rising—the winningest college quarterback ever—the evidence was compelling, but he knew he was innocent. Who would stand by him? As he leaves prison after a twelve-year sentence, he's about to find out.

The novel opens with the story of another young player:

He sat on the floor, towel around his neck, drenched in his own sweat, eyes trained on the screen. Football in one hand, a half-eaten banana in the other, a bottle of Gatorade in his lap. She sat next to him. Jeans. Older sweatshirt. Legs crossed. Remote in one hand, laser pointer in the other. Staring through reading glasses. Her hair had turned. Once deep mahogany, now snow gray. The turn was not unexpected; the timing was. Life had amplified genetics. In her early thirties, she was technically old enough to be his mom, but the last third of those years had not been kind. It wasn't so much the wrinkles as the shadow beneath them. He was a rising senior, a seventeen-year-old kid strapped with immeasurable talent, high hopes, and dreams he'd only whispered. . . .
Life Intercepted by Charles Martin (Little Brown / Center Street, 2014, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: U.S. South, modern times
  • Circumstances: Before Matthew can make it to his first NFL practice, he is accused and convicted of a horrible sex crime he says he did not commit. Now out of prison, he decides to risk all to help a young football player and to regain his wife's love.
  • Characters: Matthew (then and now); his wife, Audrey; his best male friends; Dalton, a high school player; various people from his football days, his prison days, and current life
  • Genre and audience: contemporary fiction; women's fiction
  • Themes: trust, love, making the best of things, second chances, redemption
  • Some early positive thoughts: I picked this novel up intending to read only a couple of pages, but before I knew it, I was about 75 pages into the story. I like that Matthew is not a feel-sorry-for-me kind of person, though he of course wants his good name back. I'm also glad to see that his friends are, understandably, a little uneasy around him now. The story obviously pulled me in, so that's a good thing.
  • What I'm still questioning: Although I'm intrigued by the premise, I wonder if the story is going to be too predictable. Because I don't know much about Matthew's wife or Dalton yet, it's hard to say. I'm not a huge fan of women's fiction or unrealistic love stories, but I find the prose to be engaging, and I'm interested in Matthew and how he ended up in prison.
  • Recommendation: Too early to tell, but I'm hooked. It seems to be a quick read and would be great for a lazy Saturday, an airplane ride, or the beach.

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13 October 2014

October Selections for the Scholastic Mother-Daughter Book Club

Remember when I introduced you to the Scholastic Mother-Daughter Book Club for middle readers? I'm committed to featuring or reviewing all the books selected for this club because I think Scholastic has picked winning titles that have broad appeal.

Don't forget that the Scholastic book club site includes more information about the books, recipes, reading guides, and contests. The resources are perfect for book clubs, teachers, homeschoolers, and any one who wants to get more out of reading books with middle grade readers.

This month, book clubs will have a hard time deciding between an exciting new fantasy that takes place in the modern world or an intriguing mystery set in the 1950s.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassanda ClareHolly Black and Cassandra Clare have teamed up for a new fantasy series. Book 1, The Iron Trial, sets up the premise, introduces us to a diverse group of characters, and gives us plenty of action. On the surface, Callum Hunt is an ordinary kid who lives with his father near Asheville, North Carolina. Look more carefully, and you'll see that he has a bum leg, but what you won't know is that he's been gifted with magic.

At twelve years old, Call's been tapped to take a test to see if he will be picked for the Magisterium, a mysterious school of elemental magic hidden in the Virgina mountains. All he knows about that realm is what his father, a Magisterium graduate, has told him: magic is evil and it killed his mother. So the boy's mission is simple; he must either fail the entrance exam or find a way to get kicked out of the academy. But once Call enters the caves of the Magisterium and discovers his talents, he's not so sure he wants to leave.

The Iron Trial is an intriguing fantasy that bears only some similarities to the beloved Harry Potter series. Yes, there is a school of magic, a great enemy, a young hero, and a mixed group of students, but Black and Clare have breathed new life in to the middle grade fantasy genre. Older readers may guess at the true nature of some of the students and teachers, but the authors have woven in some unexpected twists and surprises. Who, exactly, is evil and can anyone change his or her destiny?

The strengths of The Iron Trial lie in the characters. Friendships develop slowly and naturally, and each preteen has a distinct personality. Some have secrets, some are ambitious, and almost all of them grow and change from their experiences at the school. The plot moves along quickly, and it's pretty difficult to put the book down. The story ends on a satisfying note but with enough unanswered questions that you'll be sure to read the next installment in the Magisterium series.

The most obvious topics for discussion involve friendship, family, and bullying. But other book club groups might want to talk about the ideas of failing on purpose and the importance of keeping your mind open to try new experiences. More great questions can be found on the Scholastic mother-daughter book club site. The suggested recipe is for a fizzy lemonade, which is the favorite drink of one of the students. As a bonus, be sure to check out the Iron Trial website, where you can find games, quizzes, and other activities related to the book.

The Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon G. FlakeSharon G. Flake's Unstoppable Octobia May is set in the early 1950s. Ten-year-old Octobia is sent up north to live with her aunt because her parents want her to have better opportunities. The girl with the insatiable curiosity gets to know her neighborhood well and befriends all the elderly people in her aunt's boarding house. Because of a congenital heart condition, Octobia is supposed to take it easy, but her love of both making up stories and exploring are hard to suppress.

When a war veteran moves into the house, Octobia begins to think he's a vampire because he never comes out of his room during the day. She channels her inner Nancy Drew and learns some disturbing things about Mr. Davenport. Unfortunately, no one believes her . . . until the man himself goes a step too far. Will it be too late for Octobia May to save her friends and aunt from death or jail? Who will believe the outspoken little girl?

It's no wonder that Flake is a Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner. Octobia is full of spunk and possibilities, despite her medical condition, and there's a lot to admire about her. At the same time, however, her curiosity gets her in trouble, and some of the adults think she a little too privileged. Besides the good characters, Flake adds wonderful and provocative period details: segregated troops in World War II, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, and other issues that would be become important in the civil rights movement over the following years.

Book club discussions will inevitably revolve around race issues--not just blatant prejudices against blacks but also the idea of passing for white, antisemitism, and women's rights. Other topics include family and friendship, honesty and respecting privacy, and living with a disease. Don't forget to see the great questions on the Scholastic mother-daughter book club site. The suggested recipe is for a strawberry tart, which will remind young readers of what a good cook Octobia's aunt is.

The Iron Trial: Scholastic Press, 2014; ISBN-13: 9780545522250
Unstoppable Octobia May: Scholoastic Press, 2014; ISBN-13: 9780545609609
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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11 October 2014

Weekend Cooking: A Year in Burgundy (Film)

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.

A Year in Burgundy (Film)This week I'm sharing another interesting foodie documentary I found while checking out my streaming services. A Year in Burgundy, written and directed by David Kennard, lets us visit a handful of wine-making families in the beautiful French countryside.

The year is 2011 and the spring is unusually warm, which means the vines are growing faster than normal. By summer, the growers are worried about drought, and at harvest time, there is the threat of hail. Each family has a different approach and attitude when it comes to growing grapes and turning it into some of the world's most expensive and treasured wine.

Here are some things I learned:
  • Burgundy is the native region for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
  • Wine has been made in Burgundy for over 2000 years.
  • According to law and tradition, the vineyards in Burgundy cannot be watered or irrigated.
  • The French are crazy controlling when it comes to who can be hired for picking grapes.
  • Some of the wine makers are crazy controlling when it comes to picking and sorting their grapes.
  • The wine from one field can taste different from the wine grown in the field across the lane.
Although this movie isn't a diary of the daily routine of growing grapes and making wine, it does give us an idea of what life's like for the people who are following the generations-long traditions of their individual families. Plus the filming and scenery are simply gorgeous!

Take a look at the trailer and see what you think. By the way, most of the film has an English-speaking narrator, so there isn't an exhausting amount of subtitle reading.

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09 October 2014

Review: This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy

This Is the Water by Yannick MurphyVery few authors can find a unique voice and style, but Yannick Murphy did it at least twice. First in her wonderfully different The Call and now in the mesmerizing and rhythmic This Is the Water.

It's difficult to capture this novel in just a few words: it's a character study, it's a psychological thriller, it's a kind of murder mystery, it's an examination of competitive teen sports; it's a look at life in a small town; it's about marriage. This Is Water is in a class by itself.

One of Murphy's strengths is the deep authenticity of her characters' inner dialogue. It's what made me fall in love with her earlier novel, and it's what made me connect to a group of swim parents with whom I share very little.

She is also one of the few authors who can pull off a novel told mostly in the second person, with many sentences beginning, "This is you . . ." And many more echoing that with "This is the water . . .," "This is the night . . .," and "This is our killer . . . ." The crazy thing is, it works and works well: the rhythm mimicking the everyday routines of the families we meet, of the swimmers in the pool, of time moving on even when our thoughts return to the past.

I can't promise that this is a book for everyone, but This Is the Water was a book for me and will appeal to anyone who likes character-driven novels and to those who like to step out of the ordinary. It's one of the best books I've read this year, and I cannot wait to see what Yannick Murphy comes up with next.

As much as loved This Is the Water, it's hard to imagine the challenge narrator Karen White faced when she sat down to record it (Harper Audio; 10 hr, 22 min). And yet her performance was nearly perfect. She avoided every easy way out -- no singsong tempo, no leading the listener, no overly dramatic, no judgment. But still her reading had emotion and tension and personality. White slipped as easily into Yannick Murphy's prose as swimmers enter a pool. An excellent listening experience.

HarperCollins / Harper Perennial, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780062294906
Source: Review (audiobook) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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07 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday 310

Fall Grasses, 2014

cbl © www.BethFishReads.com

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Today's Read: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

Belzhar by Meg WolitzerWhat if you were hurt so much by the loss of a loved one you could no longer move forward? For fifteen-year-old Jam Gallahue, the world stopped one fall morning while she was walking across the high school practice fields on her way to class. Will a new school help her find the strength or peace or determination to look to the future?

I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me. Finally it was decided that the best thing would be to send me here. But if you ask anyone on staff or faculty, they'll insist I was sent here because of "the lingering effects of trauma." Those are the words that my parents wrote on the application to get me into The Wooden Barn, which is described in the brochure as a boarding school for "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent" teenagers.

On the line where it says "Reason student is applying to The Wooden Barn," your parents can't write "Because of a boy."

But it's the truth
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (Penguin USA / Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2014, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: Vermont; modern times
  • Circumstances: Reeling from the loss of her boyfriend, Jam is sent to a special high school in hopes that she will once again embrace life. To her surprise, she is chosen for the most coveted class: Special Topics in English, which promises to be life changing. The five students spend the semester reading Sylvia Plath and keeping a journal. They grow close, and for reasons they cannot share with anyone else, the class is indeed deeply transforming.
  • Characters: Jam and her parents and brother; Reeve, her boyfriend; the four other students in her English class; various other friends, teachers, and even enemies
  • Genre and audience: magical realism; contemporary fiction; generation-crossing young adult fiction
  • Themes: grief; mental health issues; friendship; trauma; healing; forgiveness; family; love; reality vs fantasy
  • Messages I loved: That words and books have the power to heal, that what we get out of books and poetry is affected by our personal experiences and expectations, and that by examining and accepting the past we can often find a way into the future.
  • Characters and plotting: Wolitzer doles out the facts slowly, so that although there is no mystery in the traditional sense you still feel tension: What experience brought each young person to the school? Who will find healing and who might be lost forever? I bought the premise and thought the execution of the story was excellent. But although I grew to care about Jam and one of the boys in her class (Griffin), some of the other kids were not quite solid enough for me.
  • Recommendation: Read this one! It might not have been perfect, but I loved it. Had I not been listening to the audiobook, I would have read it one sitting.
  • Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook (Listening Library; 8 hr, 6 min) was narrated by Jorjeana Marie. Although Marie has dozens of audios under her belt, this was my first time listening to her. In a word? Wow. Marie gave her voice a believable teen quality, and her tempo and feel for the story drew me in and held me. In addition, her characterizations, although not overdone, were consistent and clear. Don't hesitate to give the audio a try.

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06 October 2014

Reading On Topic: Death and Dying

Reading on Topic at Beth Fish ReadsMaybe it's the colder weather or maybe it's all the Halloween decorations that are popping up in stores and around the neighborhood, but this week my mind has taken a morbid turn.

Today's Reading: On Topic is focused on death and dying. Each of today's featured books offers a different view of death in America; one is young adult fiction and the others give us the unvarnished truth of what it's like to make death the focus of one's everyday life. I finish with two older but highly recommended books and a heads-up on another coming out early next year.

The Secrets of Lily Graves by Sarah StrohmeyerLet's look at the fiction first. Sarah Strohmeyer's The Secrets of Lily Graves is a murder mystery with a twist. Lily isn't your ordinary black-dressing teenager; she lives in a funeral home run by her mom, grandmother, and aunt. This woman-only family may deal with cold bodies, but they're warm-hearted and have each other's backs. When the most popular girl in school is found dead after having had an argument (and cat fight) with Lily over a boy, you can imagine who the prime suspects are. Can Lily figure out the truth before she or the boy in question end up in jail? This light mystery offers a glimpse inside a family-owned funeral home and is great way to kick off your Halloween reading. (HarperTeen; ISBN: 9780062259608; May 2014)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin DoughtyIn Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Caitlin Doughty shares not only her journey from medieval history scholar to licensed mortician but her own coming to terms with death. It's well known that Americans don't do death, and Doughty believes this attitude has had profound effects on us as individuals and on our society as a whole. With humor and great respect (and some very vivid details), she explores the rituals of death around the world and through history to offer us a way past our own fear. She notes that most of us hide from death and wonders about the current trend of trying to stay alive as long as possible, even when the quality of life is poor. Quick to realize that "Your relationship to mortality is your own," she nonetheless questions the way we (don't) care for our elderly, especially those without monetary resources. Lots to cringe at (death isn't always pretty) and lots to think about. (Norton; ISBN: 9780393240238; September 2014)

Working Stiff by Judy MelinekWhen Judy Melinek gave up surgery for pathology, she immersed herself in one of the most intense fields available to her. In Working Stiff, she relates her first two years of on-the-job training as a New York City medical examiner--a stint that began just weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the city. In her twenty-four months in the city, Melinek learned the extremes of death, from large-scale disasters to everyday crimes and accidents. But being a medical examiner is much more than microscopes and autopsies, it also involves talking with grieving families and being involved with the legal issues surrounding death. This memoir isn't your Hollywood version of the profession but covers the real-life daily business of investigating violent death, waiting for lab reports, making meticulous observations, and honoring the victims by learning their story. The book ends with an account of the overwhelming job of sorting out evidence from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. (Scribner; ISBN: 9781476727257; August 2014)

If you just can't get enough true stories of what happens after we die, here are three bonus recommendations.

The American Way of Death, Stiff, The Undertaker's Daughter

The classic is Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death. I read the original version sometime in the 1980s, but shortly before she died, Mitford revised her work, which is the edition shown here. I remember being riveted by this well-researched expose of our country's funeral business. (Vintage; ISBN: 9780679771869; 2000). I read Mary Roach's Stiff soon after it was published. As someone who used to analyze skeletons from archaeological sites, I was fascinated with this examination of what happens to our bodies once we die. (Norton; ISBN: 9780393050936; 2003). I don't know much about Kate Mayfield's The Undertaker's Daughter except what I read from the publisher's summary. Mayfield's father was a white undertaker in a small Kentucky town during the heart of the civil rights movement. She writes about how living in a funeral home meant being privy to town secrets and witnessing people at their most vulnerable. I'm looking forward to this. (Gallery Books; ISBN: 9781476757285; January 2015)

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04 October 2014

Weekend Cooking: Mexican Chocolate Cake

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.

With the recent chillier days and evenings, I was tempted to bake last weekend. I didn't want anything too big or too rich, and I wanted something that I could make with what I had on hand.

Thank you September 2014 issue of Southern Living. With only one small adjustment to your  original recipe, I found just what I needed. This Mexican Chocolate Pudding Cake was a snap to put together. We're not huge fans of runny cake, so I simply left it in the oven until a toothpick came out clean -- maybe another 7 or 10 minutes (I forgot to pay attention).

The chile in the batter gives the chocolate a nice depth of flavor, and the little bit of salt in the topping offered a nice contrast to the sweet. The cake was light, moist, and perfect with coffee in the afternoon or for dessert with wine after dinner.

I baked this in a 9- by 9-inch pan, and we cut it into at least twelve pieces. If you leave the cake soft in the middle, you'll likely get fewer servings. The photo is my own (I was too lazy to sign it), so you can see what it looked like right out of the oven. The recipe is just as it appeared in the magazine.

Mexican Chocolate Pudding Cake
Serves 6
  • 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate morsels
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle chile pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350°F. Microwave chocolate and butter in a large microwave-safe bowl at high 1 to 1 1/2 minutes or until melted, stirring at 30-second intervals. Whisk in granulated sugar. Add eggs, 1 at a time, whisking just until blended after each addition. Whisk in flour, next 4 ingredients, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Pour batter into a greased (with butter) 2-qt. baking dish. Stir together sliced almonds, next 2 ingredients, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle almond mixture over cake batter. Bake for 30 minutes. (Center will be soft.) Cool on a wire rack 5 minutes. Serve warm.

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