Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites by Libby O'Connell

History + food=me laying on my couch reading voraciously and getting grossed out by the idea of eating beaver tail.  Yes, it was, at one time, considered a yumalicious treat for trappers.  Full of fatty goodness, it was a good source of protein and best cooked over a campfire.  And I've always wanted to know just what exactly pemmican tastes like, thanks to all that history I read in my earlier years about the West and Native American food. (pemmican is dried meat, berries, and animal fat mixed together for a high protein snack bar).

I'll stick to hamburgers.  If you're a foodie like me ( and I say foodie in a very amateur way), this is the  kind of book that will make you giddy.  100 "bites" of food history, from the early 1400's and the three sisters (maize, squash, and beans), to trendy foods of today's American food scene.  Read a few pages, put it down.  Pick it up, thumb through, and turn to something that catches your eye.  You certainly don't have to read cover to cover, although it does move in a chronological order.  But skipping around is certainly part of the fun.  

O'Connell is the chief historian for the History Channel, and it's evident she's a big fan of history and food.  Her personal asides add to the book, as well as some recipes for dishes you may (or may not) want to try.  This would make a wonderful gift for anyone on your list who likes to cook, or is interested in history--or even is a big fan of Uncle John Bathroom Readers.  Short chapters chock full of those little nuggets of history that remind us how unique and interesting the American plate really is, and how far we've come in our food tastes.  These are the stories that make history so darn fascinating.

I'm hoping with fingers crossed this is developed for the History Channel as a series.  I will certainly be glued to the TV--and probably snacking on popcorn.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.

Rating:  8/10 for short, tasty bites of American culinary history.  You won't be able to resist it!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Look of Love by Sarah Jio

If you've been following my reviews for a while, you know I love Sarah Jio.  I believe I've read all of her novels.  When Penguin's First Read program offered up this one, I immediately hit the download button and actually read it on my laptop.  This is something I never, ever do.  I am firmly in the "holding a book in my hand" camp and miss the connection I have with a story when I'm reading it on a device.  

But I digress.  I've had a chance to mull over this book for a few days, and the more I think about it, the more it takes on a rosy glow in my head and I realize I enjoyed the whole idea of it.  It's not the usual Sarah Jio, where she mixes a dual storyline and a bit of history.  This is firmly contemporary and yes, you could say a holiday novel.  Jane Williams is 29, runs a wonderful flower shop in Seattle, and is a bit wary of love.  She finds out on her 29th birthday that she has a special gift:  she can actually see love.  All her life she's had "neurological" problems that come and go, affecting her eyesight.  Her doctor tells her she must have brain surgery to correct the problem, or it can result in permanent brain damage.  Jane, however, believes the surgery will ruin her gift, and she has until her 30th birthday to identify six types of love.  If she doesn't, she will lose her chance of ever finding a love of her own.  

Luckily, Jane's friends and her brother are all deep in the throes of major love issues, so there's no shortage of finding the six types of love.  Her brother Flynn is in love with a woman he sees only through his apartment window; her friend is having an affair with a married man, and her hairdresser finds herself connecting with a man working on her kitchen while her husband continues to put his career before his marriage.  Oh, there are more!  I found myself getting sucked into all of these love dramas, and by the end, I was reading with my fingers crossed.  Not everything works out perfectly, people make choices.  But what's important is Jane's quest:  does she make it?  Does she herself find love? 

This is a quick read, and a sweet treat to enjoy during the holidays.  It will have you looking around at people you know, and trying to figure out just what kind of love, if any, they have with their special someone.  If you're a fan of Sarah Jio, be prepared for something a little different that her usual fare.  But you will love it!  

Rating:  7/10 for an imaginative plot line and characters you will cheer on in their quest for love.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander

The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander combines a bit of modern day fantasy with  one of the most horrible historical women I've ever read about: the notorious Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.  She was known to bathe in the blood of virgins and was walled up in her castle as punishment.  Lovely lady, right?  

I should also mention two other historical figures who feature prominently in this novel:  Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley.  Dee was famous in his time as a mathematician, astrologer, and all around "magic man" to Queen Elizabeth I.  Kelley was Dee's assistant and had a reputation for channeling messages from angels.  In this story, the men find themselves traveling through Poland at the request of the Polish King to save his sister Elizabeth Bathory from certain death.  
The other side of this story continues in today's world, with Jackdaw Hammond. She's a 30-something young woman who has an unusual life--she's actually dead.  What keeps her alive are the symbols on her skin and the mystic potion she drinks regularly to stay alive.  And where do these come from?  Yep.  Dee and Kelley's trip to Poland, hundreds of years before Jackdaw modern England.   

Is Elizabeth Bathory  still around, hunting victims in present day England? Who is draining other people like Jackdaw of blood?  Jackdaw is working to save  people who have been assigned a time to die, but are saved from certain death by the symbols and potion created by Dee and Kelley. It's a lonely existence and quite frankly exhausting keeping death at bay.

 We all know messing with a sure thing like death is never a good idea, and all of this comes back to create high drama for Jackdaw and occult expert Felix Guichard.  The novel starts a bit slow, with back and forth between Dee and Kelley's adventure in 1585 Poland to present day England and a crime scene Felix has been called to investigate for occult symbolism. Soon, however, the novel picks up speed and I found myself on the edge of my couch, hoping Dee and Kelley would fail on their mission, but knowing their success was creating a puzzling and potentially horrible situation for Jackdaw and Felix.  

I did enjoy this novel.  It was very different from the usual sci-fi/fantasy stuff I usually read, and that's not a bad thing.  I always love a mix of history and fantasy, and I thought this was a clever plot.  At the end, I was left wanting to read more of Jackdaw and Felix.  Surely there are more adventures for them!  The major theme of triumph over death made me ponder the whole idea of everyone having a time to die.  Whether that time is young or old, peaceful or not, should we ever be able to choose or change it?  Or even stop it completely?  

Rating:  7/10 for a clever mix of historical figures and fantasy.  A good book for a sci-fi book club to read and discuss.  This is a novel that requires a bit of reflection after you've turned the last page.  

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Christmas at Tiffany's by Karen Swan

At first glance this looks like a Christmas novel.  And part of it does take place at Christmas, but the majority of it doesn't.  This time of year I love to read holiday novels.  They put me in the mood for the season and give me a good break from real life stresses.  Christmas at Tiffany's was awesome!  I really, really, liked it.  Seriously.  As in a "I'm going to be late for work/I can't go to sleep just yet/I don't want to do anything else" kind of read. 

It's a fairly simple story.  Four life-long friends:  Cassie, Anouk, Kelly, and Suzy are in their early 30's, and have gathered together to celebrate Cassie's tenth anniversary with a party at her husband's Scottish estate.  Kelly lives in New York and works in the fashion industry, Suzy lives in London and is a wedding planner, and Anouk likes in Paris and designs high-end jewelry.  Cassie has been happily married for ten years to her stuffy husband, Gil.  He's promised her they can start to think of having children after they've hit their tenth anniversary. 

At the party, Cassie's world crumbles, and her friends bundle her off to New York to escape the pain of a broken marriage.  They have all decided that Cassie will spend four months with each friend, and in doing so, rebuild her life and decide what she wants to do as a single woman.  First stop is New York and Kelly. Cassie's world in New York is the complete opposite of her country life in Scotland. Wow.  I mean completely opposite!  A whole lot of stuff happens that I can't share because then you wouldn't read the book.  Needless to say, Cassie has a lot of choices to make.  Suzy's younger brother, Henry, gives Cassie a list of things to do in each city.  It's Henry's way of helping Cassie move along and rebuild her life--and I have to say the lists are pretty awesome. 

Paris and London follow New York, and in each location Cassie undergoes tremendous change; grows up, and experiences a lot of life.  I couldn't put this book down!  And it clocks in at almost 600 pages.  No kidding.  But you will get completely sucked into Cassie's adventures.  I loved it!  I'm kind of sad to see it end. 

This novel is a bit more serious that the usual chick-lit.  I would recommend it to fans of contemporary women's fiction, college-age ladies, and pretty much anyone looking for a good read with some great international locations.  It's all about friendship, looking at yourself and your choices, and most importantly, timing.  As you will see, timing is everything in this novel. 

Rating:  8/10.  I loved Cassie, Anouk, Kelly, and Suzy and their friendship.  The different locations around the world added a sophistication to the novel that I had me itching to pack my bags. 

Available in paperback and e-book.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Seven Letters from Paris by Samantha Verant

I saw this book at work last month, and after reading the back blurb I was ready and willing to read a memoir about a woman finding a lost love from 20 years before and falling in love all over again with her handsome French man.   

I must confess that if I was not madly in love with my sweetie Bud, I would have scoffed at the notion of  someone keeping letters written 20 years before by a man she met and knew for only a few days on a trip to Paris.  Being in love has led me to believe that people come and go in our lives at certain times to teach us lessons; and sometimes the time isn't right to have the relationship we want--sometimes we have to wait for it.  But--when you do find that special someone, you embrace the wonderfulness of that love.  Sounds corny, I know.  

Samantha is turning 40, and in an unhappy marriage she doesn't have the courage to end.  She's just been laid off her job, and over wine and whine with her friend Tracey they reminisce about a trip they took to Paris 20 years before, when they were 19 years old.  On that trip, they met two attractive French men:  Jean-Luc and Patrick.  The attraction between Samantha and Jean-Luc was immediate and intense.  With only a few days left in Paris, Samantha and Jean-Luc spend every moment together.  He begs her to stay longer, but she insists on keeping to travel plans (and a non-refundable train ticket) and leaves her man behind. She longs for him, but realizes it was too much too soon.  

Jean-Luc writes Samantha 7 letters which are waiting for her when she gets back home to California.  They really are quite extraordinarily romantic letters, full of longing and a desire to see Samantha again.  You get to read them and realize that there is something to be said in receiving a love letter.  

But she never replies to Jean-Luc's letters, and instead packs them away.  Until 20 years later.  She acts on an idea Tracey has to start a blog about those special letters, and after re-reading them, finds Jean-Luc on the internet (it makes these connections so much easier now!) and writes him, apologizing for never replying to his letters.  And so a rekindled romance begins.

There are no surprises in this memoir.  Yes, Samantha and Jean-Luc do find each other again, and get married.  Yes, they live happily ever after in France.  The journey  of Samantha from a confused, very unhappy woman at a major cross-roads in her life is one that we can all identify with in some way.  She's starting out with nothing again--no job, no home, no money, no husband.  To top it all off, she has to move in with her parents.  Pretty much hits rock bottom in her life.  

Enter Jean-Luc and a love story that will make you sigh and smile.  It's truly a wonderfully sweet and romantic story that makes you believe in the power of love and those powerful connections we find in other people that make no sense and aren't explainable--they just are there.  Love works in magical, mysterious ways.  

Rating:  7/10 for a sweet memoir about finding love again and navigating a new beginning.  

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett--Win a Copy!

What if Jane Austen wasn't the actual author of Pride and Prejudice?  What if she lifted the idea of Elizabeth and Darcy from someone else?  Yes, I think you felt the earth shake just like I did at the mere thought of this crazy idea.

Charlie Lovett centers his new novel, First Impressions  around that idea and does such a wonderful job of it that I was sad to turn the final page. I'm happy to say this novel will certainly be in my top five favorite reads for 2014.  

First Impressions tells the story of Jane Austen and her friendship with an elderly clergyman, Richard Mansfield.  They meet one day while Jane is strolling through the countryside, and strike up a conversation over books.  This friendship soon develops and grows into a very deep and meaningful exchange of ideas and a love of books.  Jane is in the throes of writing what will eventually become Sense and Sensibility, and bounces ideas off of Mansfield.  He, in turn, shares ideas with Jane.  Could one of those ideas be the kernel of what will become Pride and Prejudice?

Along with Jane's story, we have a contemporary tale of Sophie Collingwood, just graduated from Oxford, who has a passion for old classic books.  She's inherited this love of books from her Uncle Bertram, and her family's country home has a huge library full of precious editions that her father is itching to sell off in order to maintain the family's ancestral home.  Sophie is in a bit of a romantic snafu--she's met Eric, an American who can match her love of Jane Austen quote for quote, and Winston, who comes to Sophie with a request for an obscure book--by Richard Mansfield.  Strangely enough, another man  also requested this book the day before from the rare book store that Sophie works at in London.  

What is the connection between this small, obscure book and Jane Austen?  Why is it so important to find?  And why is Sophie given the task to find it?  What does it have to do with her Uncle Bertram and her family library? Can she trust either Eric or Winston to help her solve the mystery?

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this novel.  It is obvious Charlie Lovett has a passion for books and a reverence for the written word.  And if you're like me and sometimes feel like you're the only one around who feels the same way, well... it's like meeting a kindred spirit.  Toss in Jane Austen, some romance, a cad, and a summer in England and you've got a winning combination.  

And you can win a copy of First Impressions!  Just follow the rafflecopter directions below, and I'll be announcing a winner next Tuesday, October 20th.  Open to U.S. residents only.  Thank you to Viking/Penguin for sending me a copy of this book. 

 It really did make my week to take a break from studying and devour this book.  There are so many wonderful sprinkles of Pride and Prejudice (including the title of this book--which was the first title Jane had for P&P) running through this novel that I found myself smiling as I turned the pages.  

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Rating:  9/10 for a wonderfully entertaining novel about the origins of Pride and Prejudice.  Read my review of  Charlie's first novel, The Bookman's Tale  here.  First Impressions will be released October 20th in hardcover and e-book.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas is a favorite writer of mine.  I know when I pick up her latest book she'll give me a great story featuring strong women who keep marching forward no matter what the situation.  Sandra has a love for quilts and quilting; they show up in every book she writes, and this book is no exception.

A Quilt for Christmas takes place in Kansas during the last year of the Civil War, 1864.  Eliza Spooner is left at her family farm with her two children, Luzena and Davy while her husband Will goes off to fight the Confederates.  All she has of Will are his infrequent letters home.  Eliza decides to make a  quilt for Will, to keep him warm in the coming winter months.  It's a special quilt, made with stars and stripes, and stitched with Will and Eliza's names.  With that quilt, Eliza sends all her love and prayers to keep Will safe in battle.  

Meanwhile, Missouri Ann, a woman Eliza only knows through infrequent town visits, has found out her husband has been killed in the war.  She has nowhere to go, since her husband's family, the Starks, are a cruel, vicious household of men who will force Missouri Ann to marry one of them in order to keep her taking care of the house.  Eliza takes Missouri Ann and her little daughter, Nance, into her home.  A rich friendship develops between the two women over the cold winter.  

And when tragedy strikes, Eliza must find a way to move forward and take care of her farm.  The war is drawing to a close, but the loss of the husbands of her close friends, and the uncertainty of those left waiting for their husbands to return from war weighs heavily on every woman left behind.  Only their quilting circle keeps them together, sharing secrets, concerns, and their meager food supplies. 

This is a gentle story, full of sadness and grief, and perserverence in the face of  grief and uncertainty.  Eliza is a strong woman who takes out Will's letters and reads them when she needs strength.  And her quilt comes full circle, but you have to read the story to find out how and why.

And for those of you who have read The Persian Pickle Club, you'll be happy to know it's the 20th anniversary of the first publication, and it has a lovely tie to this novel.  Both together would make a wonderful gift for Christmas.  Anyone who likes historical fiction, civil war novels, and novels of the West will enjoy this tale.  Sandra just simply writes a great story, and may give you that push to start quilting.  

Rating:  8/10 for a gentle story about the price of war, and the powerful value of friendship.  

Available in hardcover and ebook.    

Here are a few of my other reviews of Sandra's previous books:
Fallen Women 
 True Sisters