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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Food and Personalities   2 comments

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I enjoy reading titles on bookshelves. I want to know what people are reading; it’s a question I frequently ask. Similarly, I like to know what my friends and family have to eat when they go to a restaurant, host a dinner or are dinner guests. That’s why when a dear friend sent me a copy of What She Ate by Laura Shapiro it was perfect in so many ways because of the content and it’s such a thoughtful expression of friendship.

Shapiro’s book is subtitled Six Remarkable Women & the Food that Their Stories Tell. These are not women that necessarily first come to mind. There’s no Julia Child or Alice Waters among them. While they’re fascinating, the half dozen Shapiro profiles are engaging for a number of reasons, some because they are familiar and some because they are not.

Only one, Rosa Lewis, a London caterer during King Edward VII’s reign, has a direct link to food or cooking. The others are Dorothy Wordsworth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurley Brown.

There is as much about the women’s relationship with food as a reflection of the eras in which they lived. Braun, for example, was more interested in maintaining a slim figure than eating. The foods she ignored, riches only available to the Nazi elite, further highlight that regime’s cruelty.

At times, though, Shapiro gets bogged down with too much detail. Overall, this is an intriguing look at those she researched with food at its heart.

What She Ate
Four Bookmarks
Viking, 2017
307 pages, including notes and index

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Get Lost   Leave a comment

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Watch Me Disappear is disappointing. Sorry. There’s no hemming and hawing on this one. Yet, I read all 300-plus pages waiting for some redeeming elements. Some surfaced only to quickly fade. It wasn’t exactly a slog, but it was far from a nice walk in the woods.

There is a hike, though; at least references to one, which is part of the story.

Jonathan and Billie Flanagan, with Olive their 16-year-old daughter, live in Berkeley. By all appearances they’re a happy family. He’s a workaholic for a hi-tech publication, Billie is an out-doorsy bon vivant, stay-at-home mom occasional graphic designer with a past, of course. Olive is a bright introvert at a private school.

The narrative follows the grief-stricken father and daughter dealing with the presumed-dead Billie who, nearly a year earlier, goes missing while on a solo backpacking trek on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jonathan quits his job to write a memoir about Billie, the love of his life. Interspersed among the chapters are pages Jonathan has written. They reveal as much about him as about Billie. Meanwhile, Olive begins having visions of her mother offering hints as to her possible whereabouts. Thus, the two begin separate searches to find the missing woman.

Part of the problem with Janelle Brown’s novel is that it’s predictable; the few surprises are just that, too few. It doesn’t help that Olive is the only appealing character or that the ending – and this reveals nothing – is very tidy.

Watch Me Disappear
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Spiegel & Grau, 2017
358 pages

Digging Up the Past   Leave a comment

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When reading a mystery I want to be surprised; I also want to reach the solution on my own. This might seem contradictory, but it’s my benchmarks for a good thriller.

Both were achieved in Fiona Barton’s The Child. I was pleased to be right. Of course, it took most of the book to fit all of the pieces together, but I did. Rather than feel disappointed once I suspected how things would end, I was proud of my sleuthing abilities.

Three main characters move the story: Kate, a journalist intrigued by the discovery of an infant’s skeleton when an old house is demolished; Angela, whose infant daughter was kidnapped from the maternity ward more than 40 years ago; and Emma, a middle-aged woman with secrets, including a teen pregnancy. Emma’s mother, Jude, has a pivotal role in the novel’s progression.

Kate is convinced there’s more to the story than the gruesome discovery at a construction site. Meanwhile, Angela’s begins to hope that she will finally have an explanation of what happened to her daughter. Emma fears that her past has literally been uncovered. Meanwhile, Jude has no interest in looking in the rear-view mirror and dismisses Emma’s anxieties as part of the strained relationship between the two.

Through Kate, the author methodically reveals the heartbreaks and fears each woman has suffered in their respective lives while fitting together the ways in which they’re all connected. If intrigue isn’t enough, there’s also a bit of science thrown into the mix.

The Child
Four Bookmarks
Berkley, 2017
365 pages

Lost and Found   Leave a comment

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I lost my library card.

It’s one of my most important forms of identification. I’ve held in my hand far more often than my driver’s license or my passport.

I knew the card was easily replaceable, but I’ve had this particular card for 27 years. Before that I had the one issued to me when I was in high school, but I had to relinquish it when I changed my last name. I was attached to the card as much for the length of time it’s been in my possession as for the access it’s provided to feed my imagination and my intellect.

I’d removed the card from my wallet just before a trip out of the country; I knew I wouldn’t be checking out any books in a Mexico City library because I suspected it wouldn’t be accepted anyway. One of my first stops upon returning home was to my local branch. Fortunately, my license was accepted as alternative ID for the book I wanted. Yet, I worried. I couldn’t remember where I’d placed the card.

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I went through my wallet multiple times; I ransacked my purse – just in case. I searched drawers, underneath piles of papers and books. I ended up organizing the clutter around my computer.

I wondered if I’d left in it the car. I hadn’t. I rearranged more untidiness. I opened one more drawer.

The next best thing to finding something that’s been lost is that sometimes it results in a little bit of cleanup.

library card

Sometimes it Takes More Than a Village   Leave a comment

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Fredrik Backman hit the bestseller list in the United States with A Man Called Ove in 2013. (Several of his books are reviewed here on The Blue Page Special). Beartown, his most recent, is as engaging and character-driven as his previous work. Yet, in many ways, it’s also a departure.

The small, isolated town of the title is cold and bleak, where hockey reigns, followed closely by poverty. This is a story about fitting in, motivation, pain, teen angst, adult misperceptions and misplaced loyalty. It lacks the blatant quirkiness of some of  Backman’s earlier novels and teeters near the edge of predictability. Its salvation lies in the strength of the characters. Some fall into the cliché category while most are remarkable and credible, if not always likeable.

The first sentence is a grabber; actually, it’s more like a full body check: “late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.”

The town’s economy depends on the success of its junior ice hockey team winning a championship. It’s well positioned to do so thanks to the group of players who have been together for years and the exceptional talents of a particular player.

However, as Backman describes the players, their families, fans and town residents, it becomes evident that all is not as it appears. This is about secrets, self-identity and the drive not just to succeed but to survive.

Beartown
Four bookmarks
Atria Books, 2017
432 pages

Disconnecting the Dots   Leave a comment

 

A Separation

The narrator in Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, is never named. Nonetheless, we learn other, more intimate details about her.

The title has multiple implications beginning with the fact that the narrator is separated from her husband, Christopher, and has been for six months. The couple has not announced the split; in fact, the pair has promised vowed to continue waiting before going public with the news.

Kitamura is terse in her descriptions. Yet her characters are well-developed, even the ones we never actually meet. Christopher, for example, has gone missing in Greece. Still, he is seen through the narrator’s eyes and experience.

In London, his mother Isabella, who is unaware of any change in Christopher’s marital status, contacts the narrator since messages to her son have gone unheeded. In just a few sentences, Kitamura deftly portrays the uncomfortable relationship the women share. Isabella is incredulous that her daughter-in-law has no idea of Christopher’s exact whereabouts. Both know he is in Greece and the resort hotel he checked into, but nothing beyond that.

What ensues is the narrator’s trip to Greece in search of the man from whom she is no longer in love. He’s not been seen at the hotel for several days, although all of his belongings are still there.  She’s curious,  but her heart isn’t in it. Her voice is stoic, matter-of-fact, with occasional flashes of anger or disappointment as she discovers new secrets and is placed in the awkward position of being presumed a devoted wife.

A Separation
(Barely) Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
229 pages

At Sea Without a Clue   Leave a comment

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Not all mysteries are thrillers; I like those that make me want to sleep with the light on – lots of lights. I expected to be kept awake by Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10. I wasn’t. I enjoyed it as a mystery, but it fell short as a thriller.

The story is intriguing enough: a small group of passengers aboard a boutique luxury cruise liner bound from England to Norway’s fjords. The 10-cabin ship is owned by an exceptionally wealthy man who has invited a few friends and members of the media for the maiden voyage. Part of the problem is the main character: Laura “Lo” Blacklock, a travel magazine low-level journalist who lucked into the assignment. Ware doesn’t imbue Lo with many attributes that evoke much empathy or interest.

The mystery begins when, after drinking too much on the first night of the cruise, Lo is convinced that the woman in the cabin next door (#10) was thrown overboard. It’s the same woman who had earlier lent mascara to Lo. The problem is, according to the ship’s manifest, the cabin is unoccupied.

Lo knows the woman existed; she had proof. The narrative follows her efforts to determine what became of the woman in the face of incredulity from others. In this, Ware is successful. However, the lack of intensity as Lo strives to prove the reality of what she saw, keeps the novel from reaching the level of thriller. It was easy enough to turn off the lights.

The Woman in Cabin 10
3.5 Bookmarks
Scout Press, 2017
340 pages