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

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

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Massachusetts Election Haiku

Question 1

Better access to
Nurses is preferred until
Fear of high costs equals No

Question 2

Repeal Citizens
United so Koch Brothers
Can’t buy elections

Question 3

Is wrong when based on gender
Or any other time


(Gender-based identity)
Must be prevented

(Q3 needs work: the longer words are a challenge)

Early Voting

Early voting’s great
But even Nate Silver lacks
Knowledge who will win


Why don’t people vote?
When so many fought so hard
For the privilege

On Election Day
The Bay State will lead the way
Repudiating Trump

Will you vote today?
Send a message to DC
That hate won't prevail

Man in the White House
Is more appalling each day
Not my President

Politics is grim
Root root root for the Red Sox
Escape ‘till November


If the Midterms fail
To send the needed message
We’ll feel even worse

It's harder than it looks!   Anyone want to join in?

Marilla of Green Gables (Book Review)

Title: Marilla of Green Gables 
Author: Sarah McCoy
Publication: William Morrow hardcover, October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: This book imagines the life of Marilla Cuthbert before she took in orphaned Anne Shirley, beloved heroine of Anne of Green Gables.  In 19th century Prince Edward Island, Marilla and her older brother Matthew lived in Avonlea in the newly built homestead known as Green Gables.  That is most of what we know about the middle-aged Cuthbert siblings.  In this story, Marilla loses her beloved mother at 13, and takes over her responsibilities of caring for their home as well as her father and Matthew.   However, it is her mother’s twin, Izzy, a woman who left Avonlea and made a career as a dressmaker in Ontario who both intrigues and puzzles Marilla.   She cannot imagine leaving home but she is curious about someone who has.  There are familiar names: Rachel White who becomes the infamous Rachel Lynde, the Pye family, Andrews sisters, and – most importantly – John Blythe, who was Marilla’s beau.  Marilla’s sarcastic tongue and outlook are recognizable in this younger version and are actually responsible for the rift with John Blythe, father of you know who. . .

Audience: The book works as a standalone but is more likely to appeal to Anne of Green Gables fans
In 2014, I visited Green Gables with my friends Joan and Ellen
My Impressions: Everyone who read and loved Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery knows how Marilla Cuthbert originally wanted to provide a home to a male orphan who would help her brother Matthew with the chores, and got Anne instead, but came to love her.   Late in AOGG, Marilla mentions that John Blythe was once considered her beau.   Due to her love-hate relationship with John’s son Gilbert, Anne is intrigued but gets little information from Marilla.   Like many of us diehard Anne fans, Sarah McCoy wondered about Marilla’s backstory and she eventually undertook to write it.

There is a lot to like about this book: it is well researched and takes place in Prince Edward Island, a place many of us love without having visited or, in fact, have pilgrimaged to, as I did.   But it is very hard to decide how I feel about it.  In some ways it is successful in what it attempts to do – tell a plausible story about Marilla’s life before Anne Shirley.   But is it convincing?   I admire Sarah McCoy’s writing and enjoyed meeting her in person several years ago.   The book is very readable and interesting (although I dreaded the inevitable rift with John Blythe) but, ultimately, I was not convinced she captured more than just the names of inhabitants and places of Avonlea and environs.  Matthew is recognizable but the Marilla who is engrossed by Canadian politics and who becomes an abolitionist is just not recognizable as the woman who quizzes Anne on Sunday sermons and tells her she is vain, although both have a strong sense of duty.   I was reminded of another L.M. Montgomery character who tells Emily Starr that the best countries like the best women have no history (granted, (a) this is sexist and (b) at 10 or 12 I had no idea what it meant for women to have a history).  There was a lot of Canadian history in this book, which I found interesting, but was different from LMM’s focus on small town interrelationships.
"Anne" strolls about Green Gables in costume

The writing was usually very strong but I found little things extremely jarring, such as the use of contractions, not by characters in conversation, but in the narrative prose.  I do not believe that Rachel’s mother, Mrs. White, who is Protestant, would have made a half-hearted sign of the cross out of courtesy to a nun (another character’s irrational suspicion of Catholics is probably more typical of the time).  I thought Marilla’s father was too dour to kiss his wife or daughter as often as was depicted.  Her mother puts her feet up in the parlor (!) saying, perhaps anachronistically, that she hates to spoil the fun of a trip to town.   And giggly Rachel White, although a good foil for serious Marilla, bears no resemblance to forthright Mrs. Lynde, except in their love of gossip.  

Top Ten Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe Romantic Moments: I thought I would share this again.
Source: I was provided a copy of Marilla of Green Gables by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes.   You should read it yourself and let me know what you think   Other reviews from the tour are available by clicking below:
October 23rd: Joy Runs Deeper
October 26th: Into the Hall of Books
October 30th: BookNAround
October 31st: A Chick Who Reads
November 5th: The Book Diva’s Reads
November 6th: Instagram: @writersdream
November 7th: Literary Quicksand
November 9th: Instagram: @wellreadmama
November 12th: Openly Bookish
November 13th: Tina Says…
November 16th: Instagram: @hothanjama_
November 16th: Kahakai Kitchen

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Witch of Willow Hall (Book Review)

Title: The Witch of Willow Hall
Author: Hester Fox
Publication: Graydon House, trade paperback, October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Massachusetts, 1821
Plot: In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. Mr. Montrose is a prominent businessman and is busy with new ventures while the women in the family have little to do but squabble.  The estate seems sleepy and idyllic, but a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia and her younger sister, Emeline.
All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, and Lydia will be forced to draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end, for good or for evil . . .  Audience: Fans of dark and haunting books such as The Widow’s House and Imaginary Girls
The Barrett House parlor
My Impressions: The premise of this book was interesting and it was certainly an atmospheric Halloween-season read as I flew from Boston to St. Louis yesterday but I couldn’t help thinking my mother’s verdict would have been: “Overwrought!” and I have to agree.  How many scandals can one family experience in a few months?  Rumors of incest, a broken engagement, mysterious sobs on the night, ghostly figures, a young lady carrying on improperly in public, another calling on a young man without a chaperon, a tragic death, an attempted suicide, a much-telegraphed pregnancy, a dramatic illness and recovery, blackmail – and that doesn’t even include finding out your ancestor is a witch or the many scandals in another character’s past (birds of a feather flock together).  I became weary of all the drama and it was not very convincing.   For example, if you know your sister is a liar and wants to hurt you, why would you believe anything she says that contradicts more reliable sources?  If you are being blackmailed, maybe it is time to stop hiding things from your father, who might be able to help (mine would have!), rather than trust someone already proven to be completely unreliable.  Perhaps better not have tossed so many elements together like a salad but woven them together more subtly or simply crafted the plot less extravagantly in the first place.
Barrett House, the inspiration for Willow Hall
The strength of the book was the depiction of the sisters’ menacing new home, Willow Hall.  It is not surprising to read that author Hester Fox based this on real-life Barrett House in New Ipswich, New Hampshire at which she interned long ago.  I liked that it had made such a lasting impression on her.   Fox writes with precision and careful research most of the time but a good editor would have replaced the jarring “like” with “as” and made a few other judicious replacements to maintain the 19th century feel.  
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. 

Review Tour:

September 24th: Moonlight Rendezvous
September 25th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
October 2nd: Jessicamap Reviews
October 3rd: A Dream Within a Dream
October 8th: Cheryl’s Book Nook – review and excerpt
October 11th: Broken Teepee
October 15th: Laura’s Reviews
October 16th: Booktimistic and @booktimistic
October 17th: @hotcocoareads
October 18th: @bookishmadeleine
October 19th: Books and Bindings
October 19th: @bookishconnoisseur
October 22nd: Really Into This
October 23rd: Fuelled by Fiction
October 24th: Katy’s Library and @katyslibrary
October 25th: Bookmark Lit
October 26th: Girls in Books and @girlsinbooks
November 3rd: The Lit Bitch