Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Message from Absalom (Book Review)

Title: Message from Absalom
Author: Anne Armstrong Thompson
Publication: Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1975 (available as an ebook from Endeavor Press)
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Plot: Susannah Clarke is former CIA, now safely in the antiques business. On an extended group tour of Bulgaria, she encounters John Novak, once a colleague but now operating under cover. He recognizes Susannah and secretly visits her, arranging for her to receive a secret message relating to the operation he is running which must be hand delivered to the President. When Novak is killed outside her hotel, every American tourist in the vicinity is under suspicion by Novak’s enemies, which include local Bulgarians and their Russian masters. In fact, Susannah falls under dangerous suspicion and must try to outwit the brutal KGB in order to finish her vacation without further incident - if she wants to see her home again . . .

Audience: Fans of Helen MacInnes, Evelyn Anthony, Mary Stewart, Anne Stuart

My Impressions: I requested Message from Absalom from the library when I saw it had been recommended by Susanna Kearsley, an author I have enjoyed for many years (in fact, since I read about her book, Mariana and persuaded someone to get me a copy from Transworld in London nearly 30 years ago).  It reminded me a lot of the best work of Helen MacInnes, whose books I started reading in high school (another author introduced to me by my mother). MacInnes wrote 25 books from 1941 to 1984 (four of which were made into movies) about smart, attractive women who find themselves caught up in espionage and use their ingenuity to live (mostly) to tell the tale. My favorite is While Still We Live which is set in Poland (and which I just recommended to a coworker today). As mentioned above, this book by Anne Armstrong Thompson is reminiscent of MacInnes.  Thompson  is an American who earned a graduate degree at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy just outside Boston.  I don't know if she actually had espionage experience but clearly she was very interested in international affairs and that is why she applied to Fletcher.
Anne Armstrong Thompson

Susannah is an intrepid heroine but this is a very scary book, set primarily in Bulgaria, which at the time was a communist country, and I was on edge the entire time I was reading it. The fearful locals don’t interfere with the Bulgarian security police and they don’t interfere with the KGB. There are a number of men who wish Susannah ill and the reader knows, chillingly, that they could make her disappear painfully and effectively. Ironically enough, one of the threats to Susannah is an American traveling with her who thinks she can be blackmailed into sleeping with him. There are some plot developments that seem like overkill but reveal one of the book’s most interesting characters, a man involved with Israeli Intelligence, who at first seems like a possible love interest for Susannah (by this time she really needs someone on her side!). I can see why this book is a favorite of many - the chemistry between Susannah and one of the main characters is very well done, as is the ongoing tension - and I will keep my eyes open for a copy to own, as well as pursuing some of Thompson's other books (easier now that several appear to be available in ebook format).

Off the Blog: This is the week I mail (and receive) mysterious packages in the annual Betsy-Tacy Ornament Exchange!  Stay tuned!

Source: InterLibrary Loan. Thank you to the Rockland Memorial Library!

Map image copyright to https://www.countryreports.org/canada/Bulgaria.htm

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Once a Midwife (Book Review)

Title: Once a Midwife, a Hope River Novel
Author: Patricia Harman
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Welcome to Hope River, West Virginia as midwife Patience Hester, along with her family and friends, face the challenges of the home front during World War II, in Patricia Harman's latest novel.

The women of Hope River trust Patience, whose skill in delivering babies is known for miles around. But though the Great Depression is behind them, troubles are not, for Europe is at war . . .  and it can only be a matter of time before the U.S. enters the fray.

And while some are eager to join the fight, Patience’s husband, Daniel, is not. Daniel is patriotic—but he saw too much bloodshed during the First World War, and has vowed never to take up arms again.  His stance leaves Patience and their four children vulnerable—to the neighbors who might judge them, and to the government, who imprison Daniel for his beliefs.  

Patience must support their family and fight for her husband’s release despite her own misgivings. And with need greater than ever, she must also keep her practice running during this tumultuous time . . . relying on generous friends, like her old pal Bitsy, stalwart neighbors, and her own strength to see them all through.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, particularly books about the WWII home front; those who enjoyed the PBS show Call the Midwife.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins * Barnes & Noble * IndieBound * Amazon

My Impressions: Hope River's midwife, Patience, arrived at this small West Virginia town in an earlier book when she was on the run, and has since built a happy life with her veterinarian husband, his child from a previous marriage, one they had together, and two they have adopted. However, their life together is threatened when America is brought into WWII after Pearl Harbor because Daniel decides, as a newly determined pacifist, he cannot register for the draft. No one in Hope River, including his wife, understands his position when the cause is good and the enemy is undeniably evil (not to mention, his family needs Daniel’s financial support). 

 Harman’s depiction of a man whose conscience prevents him from doing the easy thing and the mixture of abuse that he and his family suffer as a result – and the friends who don’t understand his reasoning but remain loyal – is well drawn. Harman also does a good job showing how conflicted Patience is about her husband’s controversial stand on the war; she is liberal in some ways but her patriotism limits her perspective. I haven’t read the first book where she was apparently on the run from the law but that and her activist past should make her more sympathetic to her husband’s plight.

Despite the drama of periodic births/deliveries, this book is primarily a story of small town life with the backdrop of war, reading at times like inspirational fiction. It is pleasant if not memorable. Readers who are interested in midwives may wish for more on that topic and should check out my recommended reading list on midwife fiction.

Off the Blog: I was privileged this week to attend the commissioning of the USS Thomas Hudner destroyer in South Boston. It was a dramatic and emotional event, particularly because Medal of Honor winner Hudner died only a year before the ship was completed. I am eager to read the book that captures his story.

Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

November 20th: A Chick Who Reads
November 26th: Into the Hall of Books
November 27th: bookchickdi
November 28th: M. Denise Costello
November 29th: Kritters Ramblings
November 30th: Instagram: @simplykelina
December 1st: The Book Diva’s Reads
December 3rd: Literary Quicksand
December 4th: Tina Says…
December 7th: What Is That Book About

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Start Without Me (Book Review)

Title: Start Without Me
Author: Joshua Max Feldman
Publication: William Morrow, Trade Paperback, 2018 (originally published 2017)
Genre: Fiction
Plot: This novel explores questions of love and choice, disappointment and hope in the lives of two strangers who meet by chance in a story that unfolds over one Thanksgiving Day.

Adam is a former musician and recovering alcoholic who is home for Thanksgiving for the first time in many years. Surrounded by his parents and siblings, nieces and nephews—all who have seen him at his worst—he can’t shake the feeling that no matter how hard he tries, he’ll always be the one who can’t get it right.

Marissa is a flight attendant whose marriage is strained by simmering tensions over race, class, and ambition. Heading to her in-laws for their picture-perfect holiday family dinner, her anxiety is intensified by the knowledge she is pregnant from an impulsive one-night-stand.

Adam and Marissa meet in an airport restaurant on Thanksgiving morning. Over the course of this day fraught with emotion and expectation, these two strangers will form an unlikely bond as they reckon with their family ties, their pasts, and the choices that will determine their way forward.

Feldman casts a knowing eye on the traditional Thanksgiving family gathering, as he explores our struggles to know—and to be—our best selves. Ironic and sad, Start Without Me is a thoughtful and sometimes painful page-turner for the holiday season.

Audience: Fans of bleak dark fiction such as Revolutionary Road (which my book group read in 2014) or movies like Lost in Translation

My Impressions: This was a fast and somewhat entertaining read that was a vivid contrast to my family’s upbeat Thanksgiving where criticism, if any, would have been for the person (usually me) who offers to help once all the work in the kitchen is complete. I know I am fortunate in my family and it was not very appealing to read about so many dysfunctional individuals. I think I would have liked the family of Needham police the best and they were just a distant memory to Marissa, the main character. Still, it was interesting to see how these two lonely characters connect and how that fleeting intersection has the potential to change their lives – at least, we think so, although the author doesn’t make any easy predictions, leaving the reader to guess what will happen.
“Because what if I get back inside and do something stupid?”
She grinned back at him, also knowing, and a little sad. “Imagine that.
He looked at the house, looked back at her. “I feel like I’m nine again and I have to play Chopin in front of a thousand people. What am I supposed to say to them?”
“You don’t have to say anything. Just walk in the door. That’s all you have to do.”
Purchase Links: HarperCollins * IndieBound * Barnes & Noble * Amazon

Off the Blog: I was reading this dark tale of Thanksgiving over Thanksgiving weekend and at the same time as The Perfect Weapon by my talented classmate, David Sanger, which also portrays a bleak future - but under cyberwarfare rather than people warfare. It is also well written and very accessible, and my book group enjoyed hearing him speak tonight.
Source: I was provided a copy of Start Without Me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Tour Stops

November 15th: Write – Read – Life
December 4th: Comfy Reading
December 5th: Jackie Reads Books
Monday, December 10th: As I turn the pages

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Five Things

I found the missing wine in the freezer! I remember now I popped it in to chill for a few minutes before my book group arrived. . . several weeks ago. It’s lucky they were satisfied with the first bottle – usually we can polish off two to three. And also lucky it did not explode.

I just made Pumpkin Pie as well as the Caramel Cashew Bars my friend Jen served at the last Betsy-Tacy party. Cross your fingers they pass muster!
I concentrated the cashews on the left in case anyone dislikes nuts

Fun book – Josh & Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating.   

Most emotional moment: Monday night when Harvard coach Tim Murphy awarded the Yale game ball to former player Ben Abercrombie who had traveled from Alabama to Boston for The Game.

My brother’s new puppy Chloe, just eight weeks old, is the cutest dog ever. I can’t wait until he and his family go on a trip so I can puppy sit and have her all to myself.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Dangerous Duet (Book Review)

Title: A Dangerous Duet
Author: Karen Odden
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, November 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Nell Hallam lives in 19th century Victorian London with her brother Matthew, a young Scotland Yard detective. A gifted pianist, she wants to study at the Royal Academy, and to earn the tuition she has taken a position at the Octavian music hall, disguised as a man. Two men guess her secret: Jack, the taciturn son of the owner, and Stephen, a well born musician down on his luck. However, when the crime ring Matthew is investigating intersects with Nell’s theater world, she is plunged into danger and must make life-changing choices.

Audience: Readers who enjoy quality historical fiction with some romance and suspense; authors such as Tracy Grant, Kate Ross, Diana Norman (all of whom I admire greatly)

My Impressions: What a delightful story!  I don’t know how I missed this author’s debut, A Lady in the Smoke, but A Dangerous Duet is exactly the sort of book I like: well written and well researched historical fiction set in England, varied characters. an engaging heroine (you know how much I like orphans) who is poor but honest, ambitious, and loyal to her brother and friends.  For an attractive young woman to operate in disguise as a man requires suspension of disbelief but, as I always say, a talented storyteller can either charm or distract you from thinking skeptical and disruptive thoughts.  This is an enthusiastic recommendation, and I look forward to more from Karen Odden.

Purchase Links: Barnes & Noble * IndieBound * Amazon * HarperCollins

Off the Blog: It’s Harvard-Yale weekend and the 50th anniversary of the famous 29-29 tie! I ran into several members of the ’68 team at a book signing tonight and look forward to several fun days. Beat Yale!
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Review Stops

November 6th: Into the Hall of Books
November 7th: Jessicamap Reviews
November 8th: Write – Read – Life
November 9th: Literary Quicksand
November 12th: The Desert Bibliophile
November 18th: Ms. Nose in a Book
November 19th: Instagram: @biblio_files
November 21st: Reading Reality

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Spite Game (Book Review)

Title: The Spite Game
Author: Anna Snoekstra
Publication: Mira Books, Trade Paper, October 2018
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Everyone does bad things when no one is watching

Mercilessly bullied in high school, Ava knows she needs to put the past behind her and move on, but she can’t—not until she’s exacted precise, catastrophic revenge on the people who hurt her the most.

First, she watches Saanvi. Flawlessly chic and working hard at a top architectural firm, Saanvi has it all together on the surface. But everyone does bad things when they think no one is watching and Ava only wants what’s fair—to destroy Saanvi’s life the way her own was destroyed.

Next, she watches Cass. She’s there as Cass tries on wedding dresses, she’s there when Cass picks out a cake, she’s there when Cass betrays her fiancĂ©. She’s the reason Cass’s entire future comes crashing down.

Finally, Ava watches Mel. Mel was always the ringleader and if anyone has to pay, it’s her. But one tiny slipup and Ava realizes the truth: Mel knows she’s being watched, and she’s ready to play Ava’s games to the bitter end.

Audience: Fans of very dark suspense, books like The Chalk Man and I Know You Know

Purchase Links: Barnes & Noble * IndieBound * Amazon

My Impressions: Anyone who has ever been bullied or offended has contemplated revenge. Usually, the bright light of day sends such thoughts back to one’s most ignominious depths. Ava, however, is obsessed and can’t move on with her life until she has punished all of those who made her last year of high school so miserable. This poses a problem for the reader: while she was indeed unfairly tormented, her revenge plots are excessive and are hurting her more or as much as her victims, which makes it very hard to root for Ava. Why can’t Ava recognize her machinations are ruining her life? Will she survive her own plots?

Two well known revenge books are The Count of Monte Cristo and Mockingjay, third in the Hunger Games series. I was trying to think of revenge stories I enjoy and wondering if all of them threaten to destroy the life of the revenge-seeker. One frequent theme is heroine seeking to punish a man by making him fall in love with her, whereupon she will dump him. Invariably, she falls in love with him and he can’t forgive her – or at least not right away. There are also books where the hero is trying to make the heroine fall in love with him for revenge. My favorite revenge story doesn't fall into either category: The Dinosaur Club by William Heffernan, in which a man who has been downsized gathers together his fired ex-colleagues, and calling themselves “The Dinosaur Club” they plot to ruin their former employer. It’s a page-turner I recommend.

Off the Blog: In addition to finishing The Spite Game, I used this day off from work to plant tulips and catch up on The Resident, which features Matt Czuchry from Gilmore Girls.
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Review Tour:

October 29th: @scaredstraightreads
October 30th: From the TBR Pile
October 31st: Jathan & Heather – excerpt
November 1st: Cheryl’s Book Nook
November 2nd: Wining Wife
November 5th: @wherethereadergrows
November 8th: Why Girls Are Weird
November 9th: Books & Bindings
Monday, November 12th: Midwest Ladies Who Lit
November 13th: @thecityofdarkclockwork
November 14th: @mountain_reader and Really Into This
November 15th: Books a la Mode – excerpt
November 16th: @novelgossip
November 20th: @bibliotrix.lestrange
November 23rd: Kahakai Kitchen

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Tasting Italy: A Culinary Journey (Book Review)

Title: Tasting Italy: A Culinary Journey
Author: America’s Test Kitchen
Publication: National Geographic, hardcover, November 2018
Genre: Cookbook/Travel
Description: Explore Italy, region by region, and recipe by recipe with stunning photography and mouth-watering recipes.  The experts at America’s Test Kitchen in Boston and National Geographic bring Italy’s magnificent cuisine, culture, and landscapes–and 100 authentic regional recipes–right to your kitchen – or your armchair.

Featuring 100 innovative, kitchen-tested recipes, 300 gorgeous color photographs, and 30 maps, this illustrated guide takes you on a captivating journey through the rich history of Italian cuisine, region by region. Rich excerpts feature the origins of celebrated cheeses, the nuances of different wine growing regions, the best farmer’s markets in Venice, and more. Intriguing prose illuminates key ingredients, from olive oil and how it’s made to the various pasta shapes of Northern Italy. In every region, the food experts at America’s Test Kitchen bring it all home, with foolproof recipes for standout dishes as well as hidden gems: Piedmontese braised beef in lustrous red wine sauce, crispy-custardy chickpea flour farinata pancakes from Genoa (achieved without the specialty pan and wood-burning oven), and hand-formed rustic malloreddus pasta of Sardinia that we are assured is not difficult to make.

Audience: People who have visited or yearn to see Italy (which, I think, is virtually everyone); fans of Italian food and/or cultural history

My Impressions: It would take many hours to fully enjoy this book and even after an hour or two I have barely scraped the surface.  But the great thing about a cookbook is dipping into it.  When my brother lived in Italy, I visited several times but reading a book that examines the country by region makes me realize how much of the country I didn’t see!  The book is perfect for armchair cooks as well as armchair travelers – well, almost perfect – the first two recipes I picked out contain something I never heard of called guanciale, which turns out to be cured meat made from pork jowl.  (apparently, you can substitute pancetta).   My former roommate Jeanmarie got me hooked on Pasta with Amatriciana Sauce when I lived in NYC, so here is Tasting Italy’s version:

8 ounces guanciale
½ cup water
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
¼ cup red wine
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese grated (1 cup)
1 pound dried spaghetti
1 tablespoon salt

Slice guanciale into ¼-inch thick strips, then cut each strip crosswise into ¼-inch pieces.  Bring pork and water to simmer in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat and cook until water evaporates and guanciale begins to sizzle, 5-8 minutes.  Reduce heat to medium low and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until fat renders and guanciale turns golden, 5-8 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer pork to bowl. Pour all but one tablespoon fat from skillet into second bowl and reserve.

Add pepper flakes and tomato paste to fat left in skillet and cook, stirring constantly for 20 seconds.  Stir in wine and cook for 30 seconds.  Stir in tomatoes and their juice and guanciale and bring to simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, 12-16 minutes. While sauce simmers, smear 2 tablespoons reserved fat and ½ cup Pecorino cheese together in bowl to form paste.

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot.  Add pasta and salt and cook, stirring often, until al dente.  Reserve 1 cup cooking water, then drain pasta and return to pot.
Add sauce, 1/3 cup reserved cooking water, and Pecorino fat mixture, and toss well to coat.  Serve, passing the remaining Pecorino separately.  Not too hard, right?  Even I should be able to make it without disaster. . .

Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below.

Off the Blog: I think everyone in Massachusetts (if not the country) is electioned out so Italy was looking pretty good!  It was nice to do something non-political thing; tonight I attended a book party for Dr. Terry Murphy’s book of short stories, Forty Steps and Other Stories.  Stay tuned for a review!

October 31st: Bryanna Plog

November 5th: Always and Forever 
November 6th: Kahakai Kitchen
November 6th: Wining Wife
November 7th: Getting On Travel
November 12th: bookchickdi
November 14th: Man of La Book
Recipe and images copyright to the publisher