Monday, January 16, 2017

Pasta Wars by Elisa Lorello

Katie Cravens is a successful CEO of Pasta Pronto, her very own diet frozen food company; she's a size 2, and happily engaged to a lawyer.  Everything sounds great, right?  

Except Katie comes home one day and finds her finance in bed with another woman.  And there are candy wrappers all over the floor!  Her finance's last zinger, as he moves out, is that his lover doesn't worry about what she eats, and that's what makes her more attractive than Katie.  Ouch.  That hurts.  

Katie's blows continue, as her company struggles to survive a recall notice on one of her meals after it makes people sick.  Hoping to save her company, she agrees to partner with the Caramelli family in Italy, famous for their restaurants and quality Italian cuisine. Luci Caramelli invites Katie to Italy to go over paperwork and meet each other.  Luci's twin brother Luca is the moody, extremely sexy chef who doesn't want to partner with Katie and considers her food fake and, well, crap.  But they need a shot in the arm in order to keep their restaurants open, and Katie's partnership just may help them do that.  

As you can imagine, Katie and Luca don't hit it off; the calorie-conscious workaholic and the Italian chef who values fresh, handmade pasta dishes over "plastic" food.  Luca introduces Katie to fresh pasta, biscotti, and the delights of antipasto.  Katie's trip to Italy gives her a chance to look at her life and heal her wounded heart.  Attracted to, yet completely infuriated by Luca, she's torn between raging lust and knowing she's got to go back to New York and take care of her company.  There's just no room in her life for Luca. 

I won't tell you anymore, because there is a little twist in the last bit of the story involving Katie, Luca, and a televised competition.  I liked this novel, but it is definitely on the lighter side and certainly a fun tale to read leading up to Valentine's Day.  I have to say the food descriptions made me want to try my hand at homemade pasta.  Katie's journey from a hard working woman who is so focused on being perfect and in control, to a woman who learns to relax, enjoy life, and enjoy food is one that is certainly believable.  Sometimes we get so focused on walking that straight line we forget to look up, take a breath, and slow down.  In a world where we're all so rushed and it's too easy to eat garbage, this book was a reminder to me to pay attention; most especially that eating the good stuff is worth the time and effort it takes to make it.  

Rating: 6/10 for a light romantic read full of delicious food, the Italian countryside, and a heroine who isn't perfect (and is actually kind of klutzy).  

Available in paperback and e-book. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Kicking off the new year with a dystopian teen novel about a future America where there is no disease, everyone has everything they need, and no one goes hungry.  Sounds great, right?

Well, everything has a price.  With medical advances and a system that has people who have accidents going to revival centers coming out good as new a few days creates a whole lot of people living, and not so many dying.  So the world came up with scythes.  These are special people who are trained, and become for life, someone who goes out and "gleans" people.  Gleaning is another word for killing, murdering, finishing someone off.  When a scythe shows up at your door, your life is over.  Some scythes use statistics to decide who will die, others take a random approach.  Each scythe must glean approximately 250 people a year, which equals about 5 million people world wide.  Not nearly enough people as those who died from disease, accidents, and old age back in the day.  Scythes are respected and feared, and the rules the surround the world of the scythes are unbreakable.

Enter Citra and Rowan, two sixteen year olds who find themselves asked to become apprentices to Scythe Faraday.  Reluctant, both decide the immunity from gleaning granted to their families is worth the terrifying prospect of becoming a scythe.  Both Citra and Rowan are smart, capable teens who each have their own reasons for accepting Scythe Faraday's apprenticeship.  

But, there are dark forces within the scythe community, and they believe they should be able not only enjoy the gleanings they do, but have the limits imposed on all scythes lifted, so that they may glean however many people they wish, however they want.  Those forces won't stop at the underhanded ways they take to ensure the old guard disappears, and the new order of scythes take over.  Citra and Rowan stand in their way.  

I liked this novel.  It took me a bit to figure out what exactly the world was like for Citra and Rowan.  It's a world that we all think we want, but once we have it, probably won't like it.  With the threat of death pretty minimal, plenty of food, and no worries about growing old (people can reset themselves to a younger age--and even have more kids!) or not having enough money, can get a bit boring, and even pointless.  What is there to strive for?  What is there to propel you forward, to try new things, work hard, or take a chance?  

Big themes are morality, mortality, the meaning of death, and sacrifice.  The Thunderhead, the thing of all knowledge, memory, and control of humanity is a fascinating idea and one that plays a good foil to the world of the Scythes.  When people finally pass on, their memories go directly to the Thunderhead, and are stored there, along with all of the rest of human history.  But where, exactly, do we go when we die?  What about the soul of each of us?  Lots of discussion opportunities here!  And, lucky us, this is the first in a series.  We get to find out what happens to Citra and Rowan and see if the scythe world and the Thunderhead remain separate or clash.  My interest is peaked enough that I will certainly want to read the next book in this series.  

Rating:  7/10 for a different dystopian teen novel, with big themes on quality of life, making the right choices, and what life means when the threat of harm is eliminated.  Citra and Rowan are solid characters and I look forward to seeing their adventures continue. Scythes do go about the business of gleaning, so there is a lot of death in this novel.  If you're super sensitive to that, you may not like it.  It's doesn't get overly descriptive, but people are gleaned via poison, knife, gunshot, and flamethrower.  You've been warned. 

Available in hardcover e-book, and audio. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village by Louis de Bernieres

I spotted this paperback at my local bookstore and picked it up, not expecting much at all.  What I got was a wonderful collection of short stories about a fictional village in England called Notwithstanding.  

Each chapter is another story about someone who lives in or around the village.  I spent some time trying to figure out the time frame, but eventually gave up when I realized that there was no firm time frame; rather the families and stories remained the same and lent a familiar air to other stories.  I got a sense of the history of this village being knitted together each time I started another tale.  

The stories range from humorous, to sad, to tender, to simply fond memories about people and events.  Some of my favorites:  Mrs. Mac and her ghostly husband; Colonel Barkwell and his disastrous dinner (was the fish bad?), the beautiful house that a young man never wants to leave; the big fish that must be caught in order to save the baby birds that make the pond a home, too. I especially loved Miss Agatha Feakes.   You quickly understand the layers of memories, people, and lives lived that have made Notwithstanding a home to many souls.  It is, in some ways, the quintessential English village we all expect in our wild imaginings to be scattered across England.  

Well, as Louis de Bernieres writes in his afterword, he wrote these stories based loosely on the village he grew up in; a village that was slowly becoming a modern space.  It was becoming less and less of the countryside and quirky folks who made villages such a solid foundation of our collective British yearning for the old days.  Because yes, even those of us who have grown up elsewhere all have that tiny bit of longing for that romanticized village with the bakery, the friendly postman, the police officer on the bike; the crusty old military man who lives in the large house on the hill and dreams about the good old days. The mysterious woods, the wildflowers, the batty old ladies who drink their tea every day at the same time, on the dot.  It is a way of life that is gone, mostly, in today's world; but these delightful stories give us back a piece of it.  

This book was first published back in 2009; the stories were all separately published over the years in magazines, and finally in 2016 Penguin/Random House put them all together again with a new cover.  A definite must read for any Anglophile or short story fan.  I'm not one to read short stories, but I found these captured my attention quickly and with the overall theme of one village tying everything together, they seemed less like short stories and more like a novel to me. 

Rating:  8/10 for a lovely collection of stories about the people and goings-on in the fictional village of Notwithstanding.  Easy to read one chapter (story), then put down and pick up again without feeling lost.  A magical, time-warp feel to this one.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bonjour Kale: A Memoir of Paris, Love, and Recipes by Kristen Beddard

My first read of 2017 was about Paris and kale.  Yes, you read it correctly.  Sounds a bit strange, but actually it was an interesting read about moving to a completely brand new environment and having a bit of a rough time adjusting.  Paris may appear to be a dream, but it can often times prove to be a difficult place to make a new home. 

Kristen Beddard was living in New York City, happily single, when she met Philip at work.  They dated, fell in love, and got married with the realization that Philip's job was sending him to Paris for long periods of time and the best plan was to move to Paris and live there for the next five years.  Kristen had been to Paris years earlier, and loved it.  She was excited to go, and read heaps of blogs about Americans living in Paris.  She thought she was prepared, and was headed to a lovely life, complete with ballet flats, red lipstick and, hopefully, a job teaching in English.

She was, sadly, wrong on all counts.  And to top it all off, she quickly realized one of her most beloved foods was nowhere to be found in Paris:  kale.  Yes, kale.  Kristen grew up eating it, and never had a problem finding it in the United States.  But for some reason, all of the farmer's markets, and all of the stores she visited had no idea what she was talking about.  Her frustration led her to create a blog called The Kale Project, with her desire to bring kale back to France. This all happened at a time when the French were at the cusp of a new food revolution, and kale was a part of it.  If only Kristen could convince enough farmers to grow and sell it.  

There is more to this story.  Kristen's young marriage is under a bit of strain because of her frustration at living in Paris.  One of the main points in this memoir made it, for me, a refreshing read:  that it is not easy, and often very difficult, to move to another country.  Struggling to learn French, learning the intricate dance of grocery shopping, conversing with vendors, and the tricky bits of French government added to Kristen's stress, and that caused some growing pains in her marriage.  Happily, Kristen's husband is pretty supportive and understanding of her struggles.  He too finds himself underestimating life in France. 

 Kale, for Kristen, is more than just a vegetable.  It reminds her of her home, of her childhood, and is her favorite vegetable.  Each chapter has recipes for different kale dishes.  Some are strictly vegetarian, others can be made with meat.  I had no idea just how many different varieties of kale there are, and that every other country in Europe regularly grows and eats kale.  Everyone but France.  Until Kristen and the Kale Project came along. She is a perfect example of taking what you love and making something wonderful out of it just through sheer passion.

I have read many memoirs about living in Paris, and I think this was the first authentically honest one I've read.  The people Kristen meets along her journey are kind, rude, indifferent, charming, friendly, and a lot of times difficult to understand. Many colorful characters form the backdrop to Kristen's Paris.  You can check out her blog by clicking on The Kale Project.  

Rating:  7/10 for a new look at moving to and living in Paris, and how a passion for something can lead each of us in a surprising direction.

Available in paperback and e-book.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Bookalicious Babe's Upcoming Reads for January, 2017 (Is it really 2017?!)

The new year always gets me revved up to read.  A whole year ahead for me to discover, explore, and digest the books that make their way into my world.  I'm hoping to bounce back into my reading groove and have challenged myself to read 100 books this year.  I know people have read 150, 200, 225 in a year;  that's a pretty lofty goal for me, even reading 3 or 4 at a time.  Life sometimes keeps me from reading as much as I'd like, and keeping my blog does take up some time each week.  So far there are no weddings planned for 2017, no big trips to take, nothing on the horizon to interrupt the flow of my reading mojo.  I am hoping to retrain myself to sit still long enough to read large chunks at a time.  I'm certain I can easily meet my goal of 100 books, and hope to exceed my expectations!

Too many years of having too much to do has left me with a habit of only reading 20 or so pages at a time, then feeling the urge to get up and do something else, then sit down again.  And of course reading at night just makes me sleepy.  With better healthy habits and regular exercise I will have the energy to get more done during the day and have plenty of reading time each week.  It's important for me to give reading a prominent place in my weekly activities; after all it is the thing that calms me down, de-stresses me, and fires up my imagination.  

Here's my planned reading list for January.  It's a mix that seems a perfect introduction to 2017.  Do you set reading goals for yourself each year? 

Hawaiians diagnosed with leprosy are forced to live in isolation.

A collection of stories about the inhabitants of a small English village.
The latest from Shusterman about teens who must play the role of Death.
Victorian England and spiritualism.

Non-fiction about an American in Paris and her quest for kale.
A romance that takes place in Italy.  Yes!

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Bookalicious Babe's Top Ten Reads of 2016

Wow!  It's the last week of 2016, and time to reflect on what I've read and pick  the books that impacted me the most this year.  I always like to look at my reading choices and try to see a pattern over the year.  What I noticed the most this year is my lack of historical fiction.  It's my favorite genre, and I'm quite surprised to see I didn't read much at all.  I did, however, read a lot of nonfiction, which is a switch from previous years.  Mainly this was due to listening to audio books on my daily commute to work, and reading nonfiction books to present at my hospital book talks.  I also didn't read much science fiction, which is another of my favorite genres.  This was all a surprise to me.  I also was a bit disappointed in my inability to get more reading accomplished.  Just so darn much going on this year it was hard to carve out dedicated reading time.  

I also worked hard on posting what I was going to read each month so I could have some discipline and structure in my reading choices.  I've got so many books stacked at home, sometimes it's hard to make a choice and stick with it.  I'm not sure if it helped me or stressed me out!  I certainly don't want to disappoint my followers and not review a book I've said I would review.  As it is, I'm still two short for the month of December.  I'll confess:  I start out with good intentions, but easily get distracted by other books coming into my view.  I can't help it!  

So 2017...I don't know what it will bring, reading wise.  I'll try again to chip away at the stacks and boxes of unread books I've got at home.  I'll definitely try to read more historical fiction, science fiction, and teen books.  I'll even throw in some young reader novels, too.  And I will stick with my policy of not finishing books if they don't grab me in the first 100 pages.  I'm happy to say I've checked out more library books in the past year than I have since I was a kid.  It's certainly been a money saver for me and a chance to support the local library system.  

Without further ado, here are my top ten reads of 2016.  Some were published this year; others have been out for a few years and remain popular book club choices and bestsellers.  It was hard to whittle it down to ten.  


I listened to these letters on audio, and was thrilled to hear about Laura's life with Almanzo in Missouri in their later years.  Bought the book to keep permanently on my bookcase.  

This was one of the few historical novels I read this year, and I rediscovered my love of the Revolutionary Era of America.  Thomas Jefferson and his daughter Patsy had a fascinating relationship against the backdrop of a young country struggling through growing pains.  

This was a heart-tugger about a man's adventures to discover just who his recently deceased wife really was before they met and married.  Did he keep her from being her true self?  A sweet novel.
I resisted reading this for awhile due to the huge buzz, but a friend recommended it at our book group and handed it to me, so I dug in and was glad I did!  A plane crash leaves a young boy and one man as the lone survivors; what happened on that short flight?  We get the story from each of the people on the plane in the days leading up to the crash; the ending was a heart-tugger.  The novel also talks about the glare of media and the harm speculative journalism can do to people.  


The Family Plot was a creepy read about a haunted house and the very angry spirit that wants vengeance.  Cherie Priest does an amazing job setting an uncomfortable atmosphere.  I don't scare easily, but it certainly made me uneasy.


This historical novel about a family's struggle to start a successful apple orchard in frontier Ohio is a study in familial dysfunction.  I loved learning about orchards, apples, and the redwood forests of California. 


Listened to this on audio, and was immediately sucked into the lives of four women: two Yankees and two Confederates. Women who disguised themselves, used their charm, thought on their feet, and did whatever they had to in order to help their side win the Civil War.  Fascinating women! 


This book had been on my TBR list for years and I finally read it for a book talk at my hospital.  Wow!  I had no idea James Garfield was such an amazing man. That his life was cut short by the inept medical decisions of an egotistical doctor is a disgrace.  Oh, what he could have done as president.  Highly recommend this book.  

I think this was the only teen novel I read all year, and it was fantastic.  Lady Jane Grey's true tale of political intrigue and execution is radically changed into a clever alternate story that will have you cheering.  Not just for teens!

This was a charming novel featuring my favorite character of the whole year.  Young Frank is a nine year old who dresses like a star from old Hollywood, quotes classic films, and doesn't fit in with his fourth grade classmates.  It's up to Alice to take care of him while his mother writes her comeback novel.  I laughed out loud throughout this novel about motherly love, comebacks, and the struggle to find your own niche in the world.  An excellent book club recommendation. 

There it is!  My top ten reads of 2016.   May you all have a safe and happy New Year full of good friends, great books, and lots of reading time.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Rules of Love and Grammar by Mary Simses

I read Mary Simses' first novel The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop and Cafe last year, and while I enjoyed it, wasn't wowed by it.  In her second novel, Mary Simses does a much better job keeping my interest, but I still have some issues with characters and plot.  

Grace Hammond is a 33 year old New Yorker who comes home to Dorset, Connecticut one summer to stay with her parents while the ceiling in her apartment is repaired after a water leak in the apartment above hers.  She's also just broken up with her boyfriend, and lost her job.  A whole lot of misfortune all at once.  Fleeing to her parent's house gives her time to lick her wounds and figure out what she's going to do when she returns to New York.  

That summer, director Peter Brooks is in Dorset filming a movie that is semi-autobiographical.  He's a son of Dorset, and people are very excited to have a famous director and his stars descend on the town.  Grace and Peter were friends as teens, and were thisclose to a romance when Grace's older sister Renny was killed in a car accident at 18 and Peter's family moved away to Arizona just a few weeks after that.  Grace's longing to recapture that happiness with Peter comes roaring back when her friend Cluny tells Grace he's back in town.  

Grace has time to burn, so she's helping her parents get the house and yard ready for her father's 65th birthday party.  She finds Renny's old Schwinn in the garage, and decides to have it restored as a way to honor her sister and help Grace lay down the guilt she feels over her sister's death.  Mitch, a ruggedly handsome man, helps his father at the bike shop during the summer months. Grace and Mitch have a bit of an antagonistic relationship, and her focus is all on Peter.  The star of the movie, Sean, has a run in with Grace and seems to be smitten with her.  Gee, three men!  How will Grace ever decide where her heart lies?

Underlying all of the summer romance possibilities is Grace's floundering over her career and life in general.  She's haunted by Renny's death, and coming back home seems to have brought it to the forefront of her mind.  She feels like her parents always preferred Renny, and doesn't believe she has any talent.  I have to say this part of the novel seemed wrong, somehow.  It's been 18 years since Renny has died; I am a bit puzzled that Grace is still struggling over how she thinks her parents really feel about her. They've been nothing but encouraging, but I feel like her behavior belongs to someone much younger.  I could see this being a stronger plot if Grace was in her mid-twenties, not her early thirties.  She seems to bounce from one potential romance to another without any kind of real focus, and when the big talk happens with her parents, I felt like it was long overdue and made the ending a bit rushed.  I do, however, like the ending, and that we are left with a satisfying conclusion, but not a neat ending tied up in a bow.  There's room for perhaps another story, and I'd be happy to read it.  

Rating:  6/10 for a novel that was enjoyable and quick read.  The town of Dorset came alive, and sounds like a place I'd like to call home.  Grace seemed a bit immature for her age, and the main plot line would have worked better if she'd been in her twenties.  But overall,  a novel that would be a good choice for Moms, Grandmas, and those who like contemporary women's fiction.  

Available in hardcover, and e-book.