Thursday, June 26, 2014

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek is as gourmet a piece of writing as an author can produce and the fact that this is a debut novel is mind boggling. The writing is so smooth it goes down like lobster dipped in melted butter. It feels as if Henderson’s impeccable phrasing has translated English into a whole new language.  Yes, you may need a dictionary to get every nuanced sentence exactly as intended and the book is a tad long but Henderson’s words aren’t prim or academic.  The book is primarily set in Montana and the characters’ cadence and speech reflect their setting.

Fourth of July Creek is a brutally shattering tale of families that go off track without knowing they’ve slipped. Pete Snow is a rural Montana social worker whose own family makes dysfunctional seem like a step up. When he meets mountain man Jeremiah Pearl through Pearl’s son Benjamin who has scurvy and giardia, he hopes to gain Pearl’s trust. Pearl is a paranoid survivalist hell-bent on preparations for the Biblical End Times and he doesn’t stay in one place long enough to listen. When the FBI and other agencies enter the search for Pearl, Snow is caught in the cross-hairs.

Pete Snow is a flawed man; he drinks too much and he’s lonely and confused but he consistently tries to do the right thing by the kids on his watch. He shows up when and where he thinks there’s need.  That should be a good thing but the book’s epigraph predicts that it may not be so: 
If I knew for certain’ty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.  – Henry David Thoreau

Snow’s “conscious design” to help Cecil, an emotionally damaged boy, has several unintended consequences no one could predict.  Even Snow’s turning out of his own brother, a fugitive running from a demented parole officer, doesn’t work as it should.  The side story of Snow’s 13-year-old daughter Rachel who’s on the run and its reminder that Pete can’t find his own child to save her is almost too bleak to be palatable.  The reader knows Rachel will end up in deep trouble yet it’s still difficult to watch her descend.  In Rachel’s tale, Henderson’s ability to write so well is something of a curse as it forces the reader into her downward spiral.

This novel’s grace is Henderson’s dialogue and his pacing.  As Pete Snow sits in a diner, the waitress says “I could just spit.”  Snow replies, “I’ll bet you could do better’n that.”

She has had a hard life – you can tell from the way her face has aged, the frowns etched there – but Pete’s remark elicits an endangered smile. He’s recognized her, something deeply true about her, and it is a pleasant thing to be seen and for her toughness to be acknowledged.

“Yeah, I could do better than that. What’ll you have hon?”

Summing it Up: Smith Henderson has written a novel that recognizes that people, even people like Jeremiah Pearl and Rachel Snow, who’ve run away from life, still want to be acknowledged. Fourth of July Creek has already been nominated for the Laherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the prognosticators predict more nominations and awards to come.  Read this debut novel to taste the flawlessly rendered, authentic America that Henderson serves up on a polished-to-a-high-sheen platter.  Cormac McCarthy fans will love the setting and language if not the length. At 467 pages, it’s just a touch too long.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

It’s officially summer so you may be hopping on a plane, heading to the beach, or for the unlucky - working countless hours at the office while under stress that makes it difficult to relax.  Regardless of your summer circumstances, Karin Slaughter’s new police mystery, Cop Town, is the perfect novel to help you make your summer escape. Sometimes violent crime, a serial killer on the loose, and a little blood and gore are just the right recipe to combat a hot summer day.

Slaughter, best known for her acclaimed Will Kent series, has written a stand-alone novel set in 1974 Atlanta where the cops are almost all racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, women-hating creeps. Maggie Lawson is a young, but seasoned cop from a family of policemen, a very dysfunctional family with a sad history. She hates the way the department functions but knows enough not to fight city hall. But then Maggie’s brother Jimmy’s partner is killed by a serial cop killer and Jimmy only escapes because the killer’s gun jams.  Maggie can’t call this business as usual especially when some of the reported details of the murder don’t support the evidence. Soon Maggie is paired with rookie cop Kate Murphy, a pretty, privileged widow, who’s smarter and more tenacious than the rest of the squad expect. Her first day on the job is much worse than a “girl” from her background could have imagined but she simply won’t quit. Kate has lots to prove and solving the biggest crime in Atlanta would demonstrate that she’s more than what others expect. Kate is a character who could star in almost any award-winning literary novel.  Slaughter develops her before the reader’s eyes as if she were a Polaroid print coming into focus.  Here’s hoping Slaughter decides to grow a series around Kate Murphy.

The 1974 setting is brilliantly evoked especially with the playing of Carole King’s Tapestry album in the background of many emotional scenes. The setting also showcases the low regard for women and minorities in the workplace forty years ago. These details make the book much more than a police procedural – it’s a nuanced portrait of the way people treat the “other” when they can get away with it.

Good mysteries ask questions.  This one asks many including: Who is this shooter who’s executing cops in pairs?   Who are these people who treat the law as their own personal smorgasbord, taking whatever they wish from it regardless of who gets hurt?   Will Kate and Maggie capture the killer before becoming his next victims?  Have things really changed in the last forty years?

Masterful mystery writers have one essential characteristic in common – pacing. Slaughter’s unrelenting excellence in using pace to make her plot twists sing make this thriller one that will keep even the jaded mystery reader turning the pages for more.  There's much more to Cop Town than this review will divulge and readers will discover many secrets as Slaughter's careful pacing cleverly reveals them. 

Summing it Up: When you pack for the beach, make sure you include Cop Town with the hot dogs, beer, and beach toys.  This thriller will reward you as much as s’mores and fireworks.

Rating:  5 stars   
Category: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers
Publication date: June 24, 2014
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Friday, June 20, 2014

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

I thought this was going to be one of those outstanding but sad novels like The Yellow Birds or Billie Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  I thought it was going to be a beautifully written book that would help me bear witness to the effects of war and poverty.  I love those novels because they challenge me and imbed me in a world I need to understand.  But, We Are Called to Rise is a different animal.  Yes, it’s beautifully written, bears witness, and challenges but in addition it offers incredible hope.  It blindsided me with the unexpected pleasure of watching people do the right thing and it astonished me with the simple joy of observing people who care.

Set in the Las Vegas most of us don’t know, the Las Vegas where real people live oblivious to the neon and glitz of the strip, four realistic characters weave intersecting stories into a cohesive whole. Bashkim is an earnest eight-year-old boy working to help his Albanian refugee parents survive. He seems older than eight because the turmoil and poverty in his home force him to be wise.  Given a school assignment to write a local soldier serving in Iraq, Bashkim pens a letter that sets up a chain of unexpected events.

Luis, the tormented recipient of Bashkim’s letter, lies in a bed at Walter Reed Hospital recovering from an injury he doesn’t recall happening. His anguished thoughts and dreams spill onto the page making the reader wonder if he’ll ever be able to tell enough to be helped. Enter Dr. Ghosh, a VA psychiatrist, who listens and offers him caring treatment and possibly a way out of his troubles.

Average-seeming Avis opens the book as her husband unexpectedly leaves her for another woman.  She’s also deeply concerned about her son Nate’s mental health after his third stint in Iraq. She lost her baby daughter Emily when she was barely pregnant with Nate and her life is a testament to “how quickly life could change, how quickly everything important could disappear, to always be trying to feel this unexpectedly beautiful life to its core.”

Roberta is a lawyer, a Las Vegas native. She serves as a volunteer advocate for children. She cares deeply and sometimes gets hurt.  She’s anxious to make certain that Bashkim and children like him get what they need not what the system spits out for them.  She and other “helpers” in the novel try to do what’s right.

What if everyone worked together to do what was best for a child?  What if “the helpers” all really helped?  What if the staffs at all our VA hospitals had the time, training, and temperament to help returning veterans as Dr. Ghosh tries to help Luis?  The epigraph of the novel tells us what’s to come as it hints at what could happen if . . .

We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies
-- Emily Dickinson

Author Laura McBride says, “I wanted to tell a story that might make a reader have a big feeling, the sense that no matter how cruel life could be in a given moment, no matter how terrible the consequences of a tiny mistake, it was ultimately beautiful to live.  I didn’t set out to write a book about war or poverty or racism, I just wanted the reader to love a child enough to feel devastated when that child’s heart was broken and euphoric when that child got a chance at hope.”  Readers: Debut author McBride accomplished her goal.

Summing it Up:
This novel gave me hope and a feeling that all might just be right in the world if each of us answered the call to rise. Laura McBride eloquently showcases a group of people who rise to help others who probably wouldn’t make it without their help. She touches the sky with this authentic, uplifting story of a boy I’ll never forget and the people (they aren’t characters to me – they’re real people) who cared enough to try to help him and others in need.  I’ve never wanted to travel to Las Vegas but I could change my mind if I could visit Bashkim, Luis, Avis, Roberta and some other people I already know and love who happen to live there. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: June 3, 2014
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Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

The Farm is a psychological thriller in the vein of Gone Girl or Tana French’s novels. Daniel lives in London and his parents have retired to what he believes is a bucolic life on a remote farm in Sweden.  His father calls him and suddenly everything changes.

Your mother...she's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things - terrible, terrible things.

His father says his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has been committed to a mental hospital.  So Daniel rushes to Heathrow to fly to see her. Before boarding he gets a call from his mother who says:

Everything that man has told you is a lie.  I’m not mad. . . Meet me at Heathrow.  If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son.

Tilde, Daniel’s mother, says his father is involved in a criminal conspiracy and wants her out of the way. Who can Daniel believe?  Tilde carefully lays out a strange tale packed with facts that may or may not prove her allegations. Daniel, too, is harboring a secret – he’s never told his parents that he’s gay.  Smith, known for his espionage thrillers set in Russia, takes a new tack with this riveting tale of trolls, elk, strangely carved wood, and the darkness of Sweden. Smith’s Child 44 trilogy is a superb trio of espionage tales but this stand-alone might just top them all.  

This is a short review as revealing too much of the tale will rob the reader of delightfully diabolical discoveries. I’ve included a link to an interview with the author on National Public Radio.  Read it AFTER you read the novel – not before.

Summing it Up: Devour this suspense-filled thriller and watch your mind spin as you try to surmise just who’s telling the truth.  What would you do if your mother and father, whom you’ve always trusted, told you conflicting tales?  Could your gentle father be a criminal or is your strong mother imagining it all?

Caveat: This is one of the books involved in the fight between Amazon and Hachette Publishing which means that it’s probably going to be less expensive to purchase or download The Farm from independent bookstores or other sites as Amazon is currently selling it with no discount. Many independent bookstores are offering deep discounts on Hachette titles so shop carefully.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Gourmet, Chinese Carryout, Book Club, Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers 

Publication date: June 3, 2014

Interview with the Author (Listen to or read this AFTER your read the book): http://www.npr.org/2014/06/09/319542618/the-farm-is-a-terrifying-break-from-reality-or-is-it

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Friday, May 9, 2014

Last Minute Treats for Mother’s Day

Of course you should take your mother or wife out to dinner or brunch and perhaps buy her fancy chocolates or a fine bottle of wine she’d never buy for herself. But to linger in her heart, select the perfect read that she’ll enjoy long after the meal ends. Whether your Mom reads electronically, prefers hardcovers because they last, likes audio books so she can listen on the way to work, or enjoys paperbacks because they’re easy to take to the beach – choose something that fits her reading interests. 


For the Mom who Loves History, Mystery and a Great Story:

The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson is set in 1946 when Regina Robichard, a young lawyer working with Thurgood Marshall in the New York NAACP legal offices, heads to a small town in Mississippi to investigate the death of an African-American GI who died near his home as he was returning from the war. Ms. Robichard is intrigued by a letter about the case from the reclusive white author (M.P. Calhoun) who wrote her favorite childhood book.  She soon learns that racism is different in the south but not in the ways she expected.  She doesn’t feel alone in her blackness there but is wary of the almost magical forces that control the town and its people. Mom will escape into this novel and emerge wanting to suggest it to her book club.


For the Mother who Likes Baseball, World War II and a Story with Meaning:

The Powers by Valerie Sayers tells of life in New York in 1941 when war looms and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak entrances everyone. Seventeen-year-old Agnes O’Leary lives with her father, sisters, and the indomitable Babe, her grandmother, who’s cared for all of them since her mother’s suicide when she was very young.  Babe, a diehard Yankee fan, knows that her prayers and powers fuel DiMaggio and the Yanks. She’s the glue that holds the center in this novel and DiMaggio is her alter image.  His scenes are magnificent and he too has superstitions that seem magical.  Agnes’ two inseparable buddies are in love with her. One has become a pacifist influenced by the Jesuits and Dorothy Day. The other is of German descent and Babe worries that he might be a Jew.  Reminiscent of Wait Till Next Year and The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson this novel will appeal to baseball fans, WWII aficionados, and those looking for a simple story of love and doing what’s right. Ron Charles of the Washington Post calls Babe a “baseball loving Olive Kitteridge.”  The narrative grips but Babe and DiMaggio reign. It also cries for discussion of war, stereotypes, prejudice, mental health, and responsibility. 

For Every Mother who Loves Books – The Perfect Mother’s Day Gift:

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin 
I was lucky enough to be at McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Michigan this week where I heard Ms. Zevin speak.  She’s brilliant, kind, and is a champion of books and bookstores. I didn’t think I could like the book more but even though I’d already read it in an advance copy from the publisher on my e-Reader, I paid retail to buy a hardcover copy because “it’s a keeper.”  Read my review here: http://hungryforgoodbooks.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-storied-life-of-j-fikry-by.html


For the Mom You Call “The Church Lady:”

Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans is a wonderful look at Christianity today. Evans grew up in a fundamentalist church in the town where the Scopes “Monkey” trial took place.  Her book was originally titled “Evolving in Monkey Town” and evolve she does and “church lady” mothers will enjoy observing her trek. Evans confesses: “As a Christian, I’ve been hurtful. I’m judgmental of people I think are judgmental. At twenty-seven, I almost always root for the underdog, and sometimes I get the feeling that God does too. . .  I’m a lot of things, but fair and balanced I am not.”  She says that the more she learned, the less she felt she knew and the less she felt she knew the more she learned. If your mother likes to follow faith journeys to enhance her own, she’ll adore this memoir.

For the Mother who Enjoys Escaping into a Romance - One with a Foodie Twist:



Delicious! by Ruth Reichl is happiness distilled in a novel.  






Read the full review here: http://hungryforgoodbooks.blogspot.com/2014/05/delicious-by-ruth-reichl.html

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl


Delicious! is happiness distilled in a gingerbread cake.  Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic, editor of Gourmet magazine, and acclaimed author of memoirs Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples cooks up a romantic romp in her first foray into fiction. 



Delicious! Ingredients:  
·         1 cup girl with a palette so discerning it can identify every ingredient in a dish and know just what else it needs
·         ½ cup insider gossip about magazines like the late, great Gourmet
·         1 brimming cup of a handsome, witty man known as “the Complainer”
·         ½ cup sumptuous hidden library of culinary history
·         ½ cup World War II mystery/romance revelation
·         ¼ cup prejudice toward Italians during the war effort 
·         ¾ cup view of delectable New York bakeries, delicatessens and restaurants
·         1 splash of James Beard and his imagined World War II correspondence
·         A pinch of an epistolary novel in the daily emails the heroine sends her sister
·         Several dashes of humor
·        Recipes including one for the celebrated gingerbread cake

Twenty-one-year-old Billie Breslin, the girl with the uncanny palette, leaves California and college for New York and a dream job at Delicious!, a Gourmet-like magazine. She misses her sister Genie and emails her every day describing her new life. She also works weekends at a quintessential New York gourmet delicatessen. When the magazine abruptly closes, Billie is kept on to field the Delicious! recipe guarantee and she finds a trove of WWII letters from a 12-year-old Akron girl to James Beard hidden in a secret room behind the magazine’s locked library.   Puzzles abound as Billie falls for a shop customer known affectionately as “the complainer.”  

Summing it Up:  Delicious won’t be nominated for a Pulitzer but it’s the kind of romp you enjoy for what it is - a simple, uncomplicated gingerbread cake of a romantic treat that isn’t meant to be a deconstructed masterpiece.  You don’t care that it’s a bit predictable because you like the characters, cheer for the romance, and above all you absolutely adore the recipes and insider foodie information.  It makes you want to head to the nearest Italian deli to find your own romantic stranger then cook a gourmet meal.

Mother’s Day Alert:  If your Mom still keeps her copies of “Gourmet” or “Bon Appetit” and adored Meryl Streep as Julia Child then this is absolutely the best non-edible gift you can give her this year. P.S. You will probably read it yourself BEFORE you wrap it.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Dessert, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast
Publication date: May 6, 2014
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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass

I swiftly tumbled into Julia Glass’s enticing portrait of Kit Noonan and his very domesticated life. Glass immediately captured me with Kit whose “only true occupation these days . . . is fatherhood; his only reason for getting up at this dismal hour is getting his children to school.” Kit, an unemployed art historian in his early forties, is a model father but at the same time he’s treading water in his marriage and his pursuit of employment. His wife wonders if his not knowing who his father is and his inability to challenge his mother to learn the man’s identity is causing his inertia. Unable to stand another moment of stasis she forces him to seek out his stepfather, Jasper, for possible clues.  Jasper is a typically nuanced Glass character, an aging ski bum running a resort, teaching kids to ski, and managing a dog sled team.  Kit arrives with an early blizzard that affords both men time to remember their joined past.  Jasper had promised Kit’s mother that he’d never give away her secret but instead he decides it’s time to connect Kit with Lucinda and Zeke Burns.

Lucinda Burns makes this novel sing.  Revered for her charity work helping young, single mothers and her support of her state senator husband, Lucinda is the grandmother we’d all love to have. Her husband’s recent stroke has her thinking more about her son, Malachy, a music critic who died of AIDS. Readers of Glass’s National Book Award winning novel, Three Junes, will recall Lucinda and Malachy as well as Fenno McLeod, Malachy’s long-time friend who also reappears in this novel. These characters lives soon intersect with Kit’s as he continues to learn about his father’s identity and his mother’s reasons for resisting his quest.

Soon Kit is united with his father’s family and I felt like I was with them in their awkward gathering with everyone jostling for position and searching for identity in a shifting world in a setting that hadn’t changed for generations.  I was deep in the rabbit hole which is why as a reader I was utterly devastated when Glass threw in a grenade of a plot device so abrupt and inconceivable that it made reading the last portion of the book almost impossible. But continue to read, I did and the reward was a sentimental, cloying ending that should have made me rejoice in what it means to be a father, to live in an imperfect family, and to forgive but instead left me yearning for the real Julia Glass to appear and call for a rewrite.

And the title, oh, the title is a clever homage to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” with “the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night.” During couple’s therapy Fenno McLeod and his partner Walter’s therapist brings up the song and Walter says, “Well, I am definitely the day, and boy is he ever the night.” The therapist then notes that he must mean “that your past is like the night: dark yet sacred.”  I think Glass intended for readers to see each character’s journey as a way of honoring the dark past and heading into the light of day but for this reader, it simply never happened.

Summing it Up: This novel is as uneven as a cobblestone street in an ancient Greek city. The beginning two-thirds are vintage Glass with detailed sketches of real people living life and trying to find answers to what it means to be a family but the last third is its antithesis with a disastrous twist and a much-too-tidy ending.

Rating: 3 stars (The first portion of the book is a 5 but the ending barely rises to a 2 thus I’ll call it a 3.)
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast
Publication date: April 1, 2014
What Others are Saying: