Secrets in an Irish Village   Leave a comment

52661162

The Searcher, like most of Tania French’s mysteries involves an Irish setting and new characters. Here it’s Cal Hooper, recently retired from the Chicago police force, in a remote village where he’s renovating a fixer-upper.

Hooper’s content to fish, repair his house and ready to mind his own business. His plans are interrupted when a local kid pleads for help in finding an older brother who disappeared months ago.

Despite efforts to not get involved, Hooper agrees to see what he can discover. Aware, he’s an outsider and not wanting to overstep local authorities or customs, Hooper goes about his investigation as stealthily as possible. It isn’t enough.

French’s description of Hooper’s run-down home, the harsh landscape and the village residents is like a travelogue designed to keep tourists away. Sure the area has some visual appeal, but little else going for it. Hooper soon learns he’s not as clandestine as he’d hoped in his efforts to locate the young man who’s gone missing.

In fact, he misreads the words and actions of most of those he encounters. He’s surprised when it’s clear the villagers, his neighbor in particular, are aware he helping the taciturn kid who showed up uninvited at his house.

Of course, the question, beyond the whereabouts of the missing person, is why everyone is keen to keep Hooper uninformed. French is a master at creating tension. The element of suspense veers towards the realm of thriller. It’s almost necessary to keep several lights on while reading.

The Searcher

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2020

451 pages

Save Room for Dessert and Snacks   Leave a comment

20579295

I’m a cooking magazine and cookbook junkie. I like discovering new recipes and techniques, but I especially enjoy the narrative accompanying them. Ovenly is an excellent example of a cookbook with delectable recipes and engaging storytelling. It’s also the name of the authors’ New York City Bakery.

Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin are self-taught bakers. In her introduction, Patinkin writes, “… (recipes are) not just about food of a certain time, but also about relationships, culture and tradition.” Kaluga also shares her own insights. Many of the bakery items were adapted from recipes handed down from their grandmothers.

The pair met through a book group. Ovenly’s early days were auspicious relying on a borrowed kitchen and an old Ford Explorer in which they made deliveries. Slowly, they built their brand, established relationships with neighborhood artisans (including a local dairy and brewery, among others).

Except for the first chapter which offers baking tips with suggestions for equipment and ingredients to have on hand, subsequent chapters focus on specific baked goods: biscuits, muffins, cookies, you get the idea. While most are sweet, as the subtitle implies several are also savory like cheddar mustard scones and bacon and blue cheese quiche.

The chapter on bar snacks is a surprise given that everything else, even the non-sweet goods, are associated with bakeries; for example, flavored popcorns.

Most of the recipes, rest assured, appeal to sugar cravings. Easy-to-follow instructions, impressive color photographs, and personal stories introducing each chapter make this enjoyable and sweet tooth appealing!

Ovenly: Sweet and Savory Recipes from New York’s Most Creative Bakery

Park Row, 2021

Four Bookmarks

272 Pages

Homage to the Maestro of Mysteries   1 comment

54221749

It’s difficult not to marvel at Marie Benedict’s how’d-she-do-it in The Mystery of Mrs. Christie which takes the famous mystery writer’s disappearance as inspiration while adding a twist the title character would surely applaud.

Agatha Christie did, indeed, disappear resulting in an extensive search, massive media coverage and abundant speculation – something that continued long after she was found. When her car was discovered abandoned in early December 1926, the worst was feared. The explanation, when she reappeared 11 days later, was amnesia.

Benedict divides the chapters in her novel into two sections: The Manuscript and Days after the Disappearance – beginning with Dec. 4 to Dec. 14. The former recounts the relationship between Agatha and her husband, Archie, from courtship to his later infidelity and demand for a divorce.  The alternating chapters describe Archie’s reactions, suspicions toward him and efforts to find the renowned writer.

References to Christie’s early works are made and Benedict provides a glimpse as to how mysteries became the genre of choice for the British author. The writing is engaging and the characters are vibrant. Archie, for example, is portrayed as a complete cad. He’s selfish, cold and calculating. However, when it comes to calculating, Agatha Christie, literally, wrote the book – several of them, in fact. Something Archie’s self-centered personality keeps him from recognizing, let alone appreciating.

Admittedly, the initial significance of the manuscript and its tie to the mystery eluded me. I’d likely be a disappointment to Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot; Marie Benedict would not.

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Sourcebooks, 2021

264 pages plus Reading Group Guide and “A Conversation with the Author”

Women at War   Leave a comment

43726511

Although beautifully written, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King was initially frustrating. I was anxious to meet the title character. He isn’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel at which point it becomes difficult to put down.

A shadow king, it’s explained, is essentially a double, someone who can pass as the real thing. In this case, it’s a peasant who looks like the exiled emperor in war-torn Ethiopia. Yet, the narrative highlights the role of two women: Aster and her servant, Hirut, in the battle against the Italians.

Before the invasion, before the emperor vacates his country, Hirut arrives at the home of Aster and her husband, Kidane an officer in the emperor’s army. Newly orphaned, Hirut must learn to accept her role as a maid to Aster who is jealous of the younger woman.  

In 1935, Mussolini’s army is ruthless in its assault leaving many dead and homeless in its wake. Kidane assembles a small band of soldiers, with the women serving as cooks and nurses, forced to hide in the hills to avoid capture or worse.

Among the Italians are a ruthless, sadistic officer and his assistant, Ettore, a photographer tasked with documenting the war to put Italy in the best possible light. He has a conscience; his superior does not.

Hirut and Aster want to do more than be supporting players. Their efforts reflect the power and strength of women in even the most dire circumstances, along, unfortunately, with the easy dismissal of their accomplishments.

The Shadow King

Four Bookmarks

W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

428 pages

TV Dinners Can Be Tasty!   Leave a comment

When I was a kid, it was a treat to eat in front of the television, even if the meal was a previously-frozen TV dinner. The flimsy aluminum trays with sections separating the main course from the vegies and dessert were part of the appeal just because they were different. It was the experience, not the food, that made it special.

Thanks to Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar in Colorado Springs, the memories came back to life. This time, though, with much better food!

For $10 each, Lazy Dog sells frozen dinners to reheat at home. Unlike the flimsy packaging containing insubstantial TV dinners from my childhood, these are deep, heavy-duty aluminum trays full of food. The fried chicken meal featured two large, (as in enough for another meal) breaded/fried breasts, mashed potatoes and gravy, spinach with bacon bits and blue corn cake for dessert.

It was difficult to distinguish the gravy from the potatoes since they blended together. Still, the result was creamy with the taste of real potatoes; nothing needed hydration here. The spinach was fine: there was bacon! While the chicken should have been the star of the meal, that honor went to the dessert. I had no idea what to expect from a blue corn cake, but it was sweet and buttery.

The chicken, although plentiful as noted, was not exceptional as fried versions go, but it was still worth ordering. Other TV dinner choices include bison meatloaf, chicken pot pie, enchiladas, fish sticks and several other chicken options. All, except the pot pie, include a side vegie and dessert.

Select a dinner from Lazy Dog, find some retro TV trays and turn on the set. It’s a fun, satisfying way to relive bygone days.

Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar

7605 N. Academy Blvd.

Colorado Springs, Colo.

  2 comments

20758127

What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund is a series of visual sound-bites and the result is a lack of substance.

Granted, Mendelsund is a book cover designer and art director; it makes sense he’s interested in the visual aspects. My initial impression was the author would focus on what the imagination conjures as we read. This is not the case; Mendelsund argues authors do not give readers enough information to complete pictures in our minds.

Through a series of references to Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and To the Lighthouse, along with a few other titles, Mendelsund maintains it’s impossible to see characters the same way the writer does. The content is comprised of numerous graphics and limited text. This includes one word on a page, single sentences, a hodgepodge of visual images, brief paragraphs, pages with terms crossed out and an assortment of illustrations, both familiar and not.

The fact that everything, from the cover to the illustrations is in black and white further emphasizes the author’s premise: readers do not get to know a novel’s characters in a true and intimate way. Frankly, I don’t buy it.

Reading is personal even if a book has universal appeal. Granted, my image of Ishmael  may be different from someone else’s, but is that a bad thing? When I see a movie based on a book I am almost always disappointed. Why? Partly because the characters in the film are not the way I saw them on the page.

What We See When We Read

Two-and-a-half Bookmarks

Vintage Books, 2014

419 pages

Timeless Battles   Leave a comment

50358038

I believe most fiction is tied to facts. Yes, The Cold Millions by Jess Walter is a novel. Still, its back drop is a fictionalized account of the timeless struggle of poor against rich, power versus powerless. It’s also about brotherly love, sacrifice and a desire for a better life when efforts are repeatedly thwarted.

Early 20th century Spokane, Wash., is inhabited by mining magnates, prostitutes, corrupt police and vaudeville performers.  There’s also a small group of unionists and socialists struggling for better pay and free speech. Gig Dolan is part of the latter group and his 16-year-old brother, Rye, is less committed to the cause. Both are devoted to each other.

In addition to the lively descriptions, not only of Spokane, but Seattle and several squalid mining communities, Walter’s characters are vibrant. They include tramps, murderers and suffragists. The faces of many are covered with dust as if their existence is diminished by a lack of opportunities. Gig, an idealist, once dreamt of being on the stage; Rye wants only a place to call home. Partly due to age, he’s uncertain about the causes Gig champions. Nonetheless, he gets caught in the fray when riots instigated by the police break out.

Initially naïve, Rye’s transformation comes about not only because of his love for Gig, but through his own experience of being exploited, and his understanding of what it means when others put their lives at risk.

The era and location represent another time, but the struggle is ongoing.

The Cold Millions

Four Bookmarks

Harper, 2020

343 pages

Stretching the Strength of Family Ties   Leave a comment

43834909

Two sisters, two time frames and two stories are the foundation of Liz Moore’s novel Long Bright River. Mickey is the responsible older sister: an introvert, intelligent and a police officer who patrols the Philadelphia neighborhood of her youth. Kacey is outgoing, estranged from Mickey and an addict.

A spate of murders, including in Mickey’s district, results in her search for Kacey who’s gone missing. The narrative alternates between “Then” and “Now”, as told by Mickey. The former is about the sisters as young children living with their embittered grandmother; the latter follows Mickey’s search for Kacey in hopes she isn’t – and doesn’t become – another murder victim.

Even with its taut element of suspense, making this a rapid page turner, it is more than crime fiction. It’s a family love story about stretching the limits of trust. Moore’s writing evokes vivid images of hookers, drug dealers, corner stores and abandoned buildings along the streets of Mickey’s beat.

Equally as gripping is the girls’ past: their close bonds and the events contributing to the choices each makes. Their mother died of a drug overdose and their father abandoned them.

Mickey’s career choice and her reclusive personality inspire little trust among her family or Kacey’s friends. This stymies Mickey’s efforts to find her sister.

The past is not the only obstacle Mickey faces. Circumstances force her to question those with whom she works. Moore injects plenty of surprises leaving the reader to remember there’s always more than one side to a story.

Long Bright River

Four Bookmarks

Riverhead Books, 2020

482 Pages

Posted February 5, 2021 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized

Not Always Two of a Kind   Leave a comment

43684727. sx318

How close can two people be while maintaining separate, distinct identities? This question and the power of language are the driving forces in Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians.

Anyone with an affinity for words, whether written or spoken, should find this novel intriguing. Twin sisters, Laurel and Daphne, share a secret language. Not only do they finish each other’s sentences, they do the same with one another’s thoughts. They are best friends. Yet, despite their closeness, perforations in their familiarity do surface.  Initially, this happens only occasionally but eventually evolves into something more significant.

The girls’ love of words is as much a part of their personalities as their twinhood. Thanks to Laurel, Daphne is promoted from her job as a receptionist in a New York City weekly to a copy editor. Laurel eventually becomes a poet, but not until her singular love for her daughter further separates the twins.

Most chapters begin with definitions of obscure words from Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Their father brought the dictionary home when the girls were young and it became something they pored over until they left home as young adults.

Identical twins hold a fascination to most. Laurel and Daphne are aware of this, but don’t always relish being the centers of attention. Schine has created two, well-defined characters in Laurel and Daphne. She has also crafted a world which has difficulty distinguishing between them.

The Grammarians

Four Bookmarks

Sarah Crichton Books, 2019

258 pages

A Past Booker Prize Winner   Leave a comment

1768603

The White Tiger is one of many names the  narrator Balram Halwai gives himself  in a series of letters he writes describing his life as a servant, driver, wanted man and entrepreneur. The letters, written over the course of seven nights and addressed to the Chinese premier, are confessional while providing insight into Indian life. Early in the narrative, Balram admits he’s wanted for the murder of his employer.

Aravind Adiga’s novel, through the letters, details Balram’s life as the son of a rickshaw driver in a small village. Although intelligent, Balram’s education is cut short when he’s forced to do menial work in a tea shop to contribute to his family’s nominal income. Eventually, he learns to drive and becomes the driver for a wealthy family. This is a change of fortune in many ways, including a move to Delhi.

This is not simply about the haves and have-nots. Balram can’t help but see the differences between the rich and the poor. As a servant he’s barely acknowledged as a human. Yet he’s philosophical as he earns a token wage which includes a place to sleep, albeit one teeming with cockroaches.

Balram is attentive to the activities and, particularly, the conversations of his employers. His awareness of the discrepancies around him helps set in motion a plan for change.  The letters are more than Balram’s history; they also foreshadow his future. Adiga incorporates humor, mystery and commentary to create an engaging story about survival and success.

The White Tiger

Four bookmarks

FreePress, 2008

276 pages