Saturday, May 29, 2010

State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy

State of the Onion is the first book in the White House chef Mysteries series by Julie Hyzy

From Publishers Weekly (via amazon)
White House Assistant Chef Olivia Paras—you can call her Ollie—faces challenges aplenty: a heated competition for the soon-to-be-vacant top chef's job, the sneering antagonism of the president's newly appointed sensitivity director and, of course, the mysterious intruder she unwittingly stops on the White House lawn with a couple of swift blows from a frying pan—an unarmed man with news of a threat to the president. Though the Secret Service disapproves of her interference, Ollie soon takes on the mantel of amateur sleuth, which could endanger not only her life but her cozy relationship with handsome Secret Service Agent Thomas MacKenzie. The tension mounts as the president negotiates a major peace plan for the Middle East, Ollie stumbles on the path of a nearly invisible enemy known as the Chameleon, and obnoxious TV celebrity chef Laurel Anne Braun shows up to threaten Ollie's career. Hyzy (Deadly Interest) launches her White House Chef Mystery series with a compulsively readable whodunit full of juicy behind–the–Oval Office details, flavorful characters and a satisfying side dish of red herrings—not to mention 20 pages of easy-to-cook recipes fit for the leader of the free world.

Totally outrageous, over-the-top circumstances but that's what made this so much fun to read!

Rating:  3.5/5 (Mystery Scale)

Dedication:  For Mike...Thanks

First Sentence:  I slid my employee pass into the card reader at the Northwest gate of the White House, and waited for verification--a long, shrill chirp that always made me wince.

2009 Anthony Award for Best Paperback
2009 Barry Award for Best Paperback

Next in the series:
Hail to the Chef
Eggsecutive Orders

Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy Anniversary!

May 24, 1975

Unwearied still, love by love,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air,
Their hearts have not grown old...
Wm. Butler Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Red Thread by Ann Hood

Ann Hood has suffered the loss of a child and felt the happiness of adopting a child.  Those personal experiences combine in her novel, The Red Thread.

From Booklist (via amazon)
Hood’s latest engaging novel is a timely exploration of the adoption process, specifically the adoption of Chinese girls by five couples in Providence, Rhode Island, brought together by Maya and her Red Thread Adoption Agency. One by one, Hood introduces each couple: there’s a compulsive investment banker and her consultant husband; a social do-gooder and her immature husband who still pines for an ex-girlfriend; Maya’s friend Emily, who longs for her own daughter, tired of vying with her stepdaughter for her husband’s affection; an ex-baseball player who fears losing his wife’s love and attention to the new adoptee; and a mismatched couple with their own mentally challenged daughter whom the wife struggles to love. Maya is an upbeat ringleader who believes every child is connected by a red thread to those fated to play a part in his or her destiny. Hood intersperses the stories of these diverse couples with the sad stories of five Chinese babies slated for adoption, resulting in part soap opera, part enlightening look at contemporary adoptions, and an altogether entertaining read.

On the red thread
There exists a silken red thread of destiny.  It is said that this magical cord may tangle or stretch but never break.  When a child is born, that invisible red thread connects the child's soul to all the people--past, present, and future--who will play a part in that child's life.  Over time, that thread shortens and tightens, bringing closer and closer those people who are fated to be together.

On learning to knit
Susannah's grandmother had taught her to knit when she was ten years old.  Susannah had sat on her lap, facing out, and her grandmother had placed the needles in her hands, wrapped her arms around her, and knit.  Their hands, making the motion together, were like being on a sailboat, rhythmically rocking.

I wanted to love this book, but instead, I just liked it.  While each family situation was unique, I never really got them straight in my mind and had to keep turning back to refresh myself on which family was which.  When I was on page 235 of 302, I started thinking how will the details of these families come together, and then they did--bing, bam, boom, done, the end.

In her Acknowledgments, Ms. Hood references the adoption of her daughter through China Adoption with Love in Brookline, MA.  Click here to read more about this organization.

Every year, the Concord Museum decorates and displays Christmas trees with bookish themes throughout the museum.  Several years ago, I Love You Like Babycakes was one of the featured books.  It is a wonderfully told and illustrated book about finding the child of your heart.

Rating:  3/5 (Fiction Scale)
Dedication:  For Annabelle
First line:  In her sleep, Maya dreamed of falling.

Love in Mid Air by Kim Wright

Love in Mid Air by Kim Wright is the latest take on the marriage-in-trouble theme.

From Publishers Weekly (via amazon)
Wright hits it out of the park in her debut, an engaging account of a woman contemplating divorce. Despite finally getting her husband, Phil, to attend counseling sessions with her, Elyse Bearden realizes her marriage is dead in the water. Though Phil's a doting father and a decent man, he's also the occasional jerk who snickers at his wife in lingerie and is generally indifferent to her. Elyse already knows she's going to leave her husband when she meets Gerry Kincaid and soon begins an affair that allows her to escape from the crushing banality of her suburban life. Serving as Elyse's foil is her beautiful best friend, Kelly, now married to an older, wealthy man. While the idea of housewives complaining about their husbands over lunch may strike some as a conventional hen-lit trope, Wright conveys friendships and the blasé everyday with authenticity and telling detail, while passages depicting Elyse's inner life are rife with the same wit and insight that infuse the dialogue. Though this story is one that readers may have seen many times before, Wright delivers fresh perspective and sympathetic characters few writers can match.

On the turning point
He turns slightly more toward me in the seat and I turn slightly more toward him. I tell him it seems strange that a person who can climb mountains is afraid to fly, and he shakes his head. It's a matter of control, he says, and he tells me about the scariest thing that's ever happened to him on a climb. Years ago, when he'd just begun the sport, he'd found himself linked to a guy who didn't fix the clips right and something broke loose and both of them slid. There's nothing worse, he says, than to be halfway up the face of the mountain, past the turnback point, and all of a sudden to realize you can't count on the other person. I ask him what the turnback point is and he says there's a place you get to in every climb where it's as dangerous to retreat as it is to advance. I nod. It seems I should have known this.

On Yankee and Southern women
I think of the Yankee woman in the barbecue scene in Gone With the Wind and how she referred to the southerners as "puzzleling, stiff-necked strangers." I suspect that is now Nancy sees us, as puzzling and stiff-necked, as people who splash around a kind of surface friendliness but who are easily offended when she breaks rules she didn't know existed. Perhaps she views her time in North Carolina as some sort of extended anthropological study. She does look a bit like Margaret Mead, peering out from her oversized hats and gauzy scarves, taking mental notes about the incomprehensible rituals of the aboriginal people. Because there are a lot of rules and even though Kelly and I may not always follow them it's a bit shocking to come up against someone who doesn't even seem to know what they are. You don't put dark meat in your chicken salad. You write a thank-you note and send it through the U.S. Postal Service instead of relying on an Ecard. You don't correct anyone's pronunciation of anything. You call anyone over seventy "ma'am" and you call your friends "ma'am" if you're mad at them. You don't brag about how cheap you got something, or, even worse, how much you paid for it. Especially not real estate. Now, on the flip side, it's perfectly okay to drink like a fish, or curse, or flirt with someone else's husband. In fact it's a little insulting if you don't. To refuse to flirt with her husband implies your friend chose badly, and if you and she both damn well know she chose badly, you need to flirt a little bit more just to help her cover up the fact.

On a book club discussion
"You can't expect everything to be some old-fashioned romance," says Kelly, picking up the plate of brownies and walking into the den. "It's supposed to be a realistic treatment of an affair." "What do you mean?" Belinda asks, following her. "That things have to be sad to be realistic?" "What she means," Nancy says, as patient as a saint, "is that in novels women run off with their lovers. In real life, women stay."

On the making of a happy night
There are men everywhere here, all over the city, looking down from office windows or even higher, suspended in mid air, circling in planes, heading to the beds of women like me. Women who take off their wedding rings, women with bright red mouths who wait alone in darkening rooms, drinking Tanqueray. I lie down and pull the nubby gray comforter over me. I am drunk and alone in a rented bed. Nobody here knows me and nobody at home knows exactly where I am, and I think, somewhat illogically, that this is the happiest night of my life.

On the beginning
Our actual affair began sometime back. Yesterday morning when I boarded the plane, or perhaps last Tuesday, when he e-mailed me the ticket information, or maybe it was even earlier, when I agreed to come to New York, when we set a date to meet. Or maybe the turnback point was the very first day he called me, when I was watching Tory on the ball field, or when I kissed him, in the chapel in Dallas. The idea that you can change your fate is illusory and I do not indulge it for long. This decision was made years ago. Before I ever met Gerry Kincaid.

On self discovery
...I'm smeared with potting soil so I go into the house to take a bath. At the last minute I squirt a dollop of bath gel into the water. This bottle of Vitabath has been in the bathroom cabinet for years but I can't remember who gave it to me or what I was saving it for. It falls from the bottle with a big gelatinous thud and makes the bottom of the tub so slick that when I step in I slide straight down and make a splash. The sound of my laughter surprises me and I look up, thinking maybe somebody else has come into the room.

On thoughts and potato chips
Belinda says that maybe she should get a job, but she barely got through two years of college and the only job she'd be able to get would be a crap job. Nancy has started tutoring high school kids in math, and maybe Belinda could do something like that. Not math, of course, because Beinda stinks in math, but something like that, part-time. She doesn't want to end up like her mother. You know, bitter. Kelly says maybe we can list all the things Belinda is good at while we walk, but I suspect this will be no help at all. Women like Belinda never get jobs that have anything to do with what they're good at. Belinda is very close to that most dangerous of questions--"But what about me?"--and I dread this for her. It's the potato chip of thoughts. You're better off not opening the bag.

On the anonimity of terminals
...for airports are the great equalizers, aren't they? The beautiful and the strong, the discheveled and the frightened, they are all sitting with magazines and bottled water, waiting. You turn to the story of the rock star's daughter who drunkenly rode her motocycle onto the patio of a Santa Monica restaurant. She hit a women who later claimed to be her father's greatest fan, and finally, yes, it's starting at last, that sweet numbness that slips over you in airports, that sense of being neither here nor there. You need these pockets of time and you feel for Nicole and the woman who was hit in Santa Monica and even for the model who sources say got pregnant just to avoid doing jail time. She assaulted a photographer who snapped her in an airport. They say she kicked him, flew at him in a rage. She screamed profanities and the contents of her purse went flying. But you know how she felt. There are times when a women doesn't want to be seen.

Reading Love in Mid Air was like watching a car accident.  You know you should look away, but you are compelled to stare, trying to absorb the details.  Elyse and her friends border on giving us too many intimate details and you want to say, "Enough!"  Then you realize that the details are necessary to knowing the whole story of these loves and lives in free fall.  Publishers Weekly says the details are filled with "wit and insight."  I'll give them insight, but not sure about wit.
Aside:  The book being discussed at the book club is never named, and the man Elyse meets on the plane is named Gerry Kincaid.  Those of you who have read that other book about a woman who stayed will recognize the reference.
Rating:  4/5 (Fiction Scale)
First line:  I wasn't meant to sit beside him.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Laughed 'Til He Died by Carolyn Hart

Laughed 'Til He Died is the latest installment in the Death on Demand series by Carolyn Hart.

From Publishers Weekly
In Anthony-winner Hart's lively 20th Death on Demand mystery (after 2009's Dare to Die), more than one death in Broward's Rock, S.C., engages Annie Darling and her husband, Max. First, Click Silvester, a black teenager who hung out at the Haven, a teen activity center, apparently falls to his death from a wooden viewing platform in the woods. Later, someone shoots obnoxious Haven board member Booth Wagner on stage during an outdoor evening benefit for the center. Many had motives for killing Booth, including his stepson, Tim Talbot, who feared and hated him; his wife, Neva, who's curiously unmoved by his death; his former mistress, Jean Hughes, who was terrified of being fired as the Haven's director and becomes police chief Billy Cameron's prime suspect. A group of local ladies, led by mystery writer Emma Clyde, assist Annie and Max in the hunt for the real killer. Well-developed characters and a complex, fast-moving plot make for a satisfying read.

On her bookstore
Each book was utterly original.  Annie loved recommending these authors and she was thankful for mysteries, old and new, that made her bookstore a magnet for mystery lovers.   Annie was convinced her customers also came for the ambience, a molting raven perched above the children's section near a photograph of Edgar Allen Poe's tomb, comfortably cushioned wicker chairs and potted ferms a la the days of Mary Roberts Rinehart, and posters from famous mystery movies, including The Cat and the Canary, Charlie Chan Carries On, The Thin Man, Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring, and Murder by Death. 

On letting the reader know that things are about to heat up
She [Annie] hummed the melody and waltzed across the floor of the coffee bar and back.  Sometimes, when she was happy, she had to dance.  She was happy today, happy to be in her wonderful bookstore, happy to adore her demanding cat, happy that she and Max had planned a very special evening tonight....

On Agatha, Annie's store cat
She [Annie] approached cautiously, a veteran of many losing skirmishes with her gorgeous but iron-willed cat.  The choice of Agatha to honor Agatha Christie had perhaps been a mistake, since the celebrated Queen of Crime had been known as a kindly person.  Maybe she should have named Agatha, gender aside, for Mickey Spillane.

Annie and Max Darling are quickly becoming a favorite mystery couple for me, and along with the cast of "regulars" who live in Broward's Rock, SC, promise hours of mysteriously happy reading as I catch up on 1-18 in this series.  Then, there's all the titles and authors that Annie recommends....

Rating:  4/5 (Mystery Scale)

Dedication:  To Dorothy Sayre, whose goodness shines like a beacon.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

Mom, Me and Patty Puddles

Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime.
~William Shakespeare

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ain't Too Proud To Beg by Susan Donovan

Ain't Too Proud To Beg by Susan Donovan was the May selection for the Barnes & Noble (Burlington, MA) Romance Readers group. 

From Publishers Weekly
Donovan whips up a fine frappé of romantic comedy and suspense. Josie Sheehan, obituary feature writer, joins her dog-walking friends in a vow to give up on men. After a drunken motorcycle crash left Rick Rousseau nearly crippled and his date comatose, he swore repentant celibacy. Of course, the two can't resist each other, and their first date is laugh-out-loud hilarious, but when Rick's old girlfriend slips from coma to coffin, drama ensues. Donovan creates delightful characters in Josie and Rick and a fine supporting cast in the dog-walkers and Rick's rehab buddy. Even the villain is a sympathetic character, though the end of his plot is cut disappointingly short. Excessive gushing over the trappings of Rick's wealthy lifestyle is the novel's only flaw.

On the joy of dogs
Just then the front door opened and Genghis charged through, the leash gripped in his teeth as he raced down the hallway, his wiry fur blowing back enough to expose a pair of eyes wild with the joy of living.

On the proper presentation of tea
"Umm, Gloria?"  Josie took a deep breath.  "Have you done this sort of thing before?"  The woman's eyes brightened with a devilish gleam.  "Do you mean have I ever been forced to drink off-brand tea in a cheap Styrofoam cup?"

Well, not to contradict Publishers Weekly, but the group found a few more flaws than the excessive gushing about Rick's wealthy lifestyle.  Mainly, we felt none of the secondary characters (Josie's circle of friends) were all that well developed and were surprised to see that this book was the first in a series.  The concensus was that Genghis, the Labradoodle, was one of the best things about the book.

Rating:  2.5/5 (Romance Scale)

Dedication:  This book is dedicated to my dear friend, Arleen, with appreciation for the thousands of miles weve trekked with our dogs, our double strollers, or dogs and double strollers.  Frische Luft, baby!

Epigraph:  The more I see of man, the more I like dogs.  --Madame de Stael

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

There was a lot of pre-release buzz about Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt.  I will readily admit, however, that this was a the-cover-got-me book (Still Life with Kettle, 1977, by Lennart Anderson).

From Publisher's Weekly
Family tragedy is healed by domestic routine in this quiet, tender memoir. When his daughter Amy died suddenly at the age of 38 from an asymptomatic heart condition, journalist and novelist Rosen-blatt (Lapham Rising) and his wife moved into her house to help her husband care for their three young children. Not much happens except for the mundane, crucial duties of child care: reading stories, helping with schoolwork, chasing after an indefatigable toddler who is “the busiest person I have ever known,” making toast to order for finicky kids. Building on the small events of everyday life, Rosenblatt draws sharply etched portraits of his grandchildren; his stoic, gentle son-in-law; his wife, who feels slightly guilty that she is living her daughter's life; and Amy emerges as a smart, prickly, selfless figure whose significance the author never registered until her death. Rosenblatt avoids the sentimentality that might have weighed down the story; he writes with humor and an engagement with life that makes the occasional flashes of grief all the more telling. The result is a beautiful account of human loss, measured by the steady effort to fill in the void.

On learning to speak (this theory fascintated me!)
Bubbies has been attending to his own education, proceeding from one word, to several, to two-word sentences, to three and more.  Some say that children learn to speak in order to tell the stories already in them.

On an IBM Selectric typewriter (I remember clearly the day in 1966 when the first IBM Selectrics were brought into Katharine Gibbs School in Boston to replace the Royal Standards)
Jessie wants to know how my IBM Selectric typewriter works.  It fascinates her to see me at it--one antique using another.

On reading
In a rare tranquil moment on a March afternoon, I sit on the green couch in the lower-level play area, rereading Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.  It is around four-thirty, and the light has gone from the day.  Jessie comes downstairs and asks why I am so quiet.  "I'm reading," I tell her.  She takes one of her own books from the coffee table and sits beside me, extending her long legs over the front of the couch.  We sit in silence, reading, five feet from where Amy collapsed and died.  I look up from time to time, then return to my book.

On Yeats
She [Amy] had a gift for custom and ceremony--the qualities Yeats wished for in "A Prayer for My Daughter."

This narrative of the events following the sudden death of Ginny and Roger's daughter Amy is full of those peeking-through-windows moments for the reader.  There's the expected sad, grieving and empty moments; but there's also the sweet and healing* moments that let you know that this family will be ok.

Les at Lesley's Book Nook has written a very touching review of Making Toast which you can read here.

Rating:  3.5/5 (Non-Fiction Scale)

*5/7/10 Update:  If you read the comments for this post, you will see Nan's spot-on comment regarding "healing."  I've been thinking about what she wrote for several days now, and I think the more correct word I should have used would be "mending"--mending in the sense of an attempt to hold things together.  I'm still thinking about this; might have to return yet again with more thoughts on this. 

Dedication:  For Amy