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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Hidden in Darkness   Leave a comment

Snowblind
I get on book kicks and my latest has been mysteries; they’re my reading guilty pleasure. It’s especially satisfying to come across something as well-written and intriguing as Snow Blind by Ragnar Jonasson.

Set in a small town in northern Iceland, Jonasson’s novel is dark –thanks to the limited hours of daylight so close to the Arctic Circle – and is filled with intelligent characters with plenty of positive traits and foibles – like most of us.

Ari Thor is in the process of completing his exams at the Reykjavik police academy when he’s offered a job in a small, but once-thriving fishing community on the other side of the country. Without consulting his live-in girlfriend, he accepts the position and leaves her behind.

What he initially encounters is the difficulty of fitting in where most of the residents have lived, if not all at least most, of their lives. He’s an outsider. He’s repeatedly told by his captain “Nothing ever happens here.”

The narrative is told in two different parts: one beginning in spring 2008 and ending in January 2009; the other, set off in separate chapters and in italics, describing a murder. The reader knows the two will intersect, but the question is not just when but how. Jonasson deftly teases curiosity while leaving very few clues along the way.

In the place where nothing happens, Ari Thor deals first with an accidental death and then the brutal beating of a woman. Yet, these are only part of the plot.

Snow Blind
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Minotaur Books, 2010
302 pages

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The Girl Who is That Girl   Leave a comment

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium Series #5)
David Lagercrantz is no Stieg Larsson, but at least Lisbeth Salander, the notorious bad girl who, ironically, stands for good and justice, has been given new life.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is Lagercrantz’s second contribution to what started as Larsson’s Millennium Triology. This fifth novel resurrects most of the original characters, including Salander along with Mikael Blomkvist, Holger Palmgrem, chief inspector Jan Bublanski and several others.

Salander remains an intelligent, obstinate young woman. She’s physically and mentally strong. She is also intolerant of ignorance and injustice.

This most recent addition to the series finds Salander in prison where she manipulates a bad situation to her advantage. In the process, she comes to the aid of an inmate, a Bangladeshi woman, who is threatened by Benito, another prisoner who essentially runs the roost.

The narrative features two paths, one involving Islamic extremists and the other focusing on a sadistic study of twins. Salander traverses both. Consequently, there are plenty of near-death misses, brutal encounters and last-minute escapes. Thus, a strong ability to suspend disbelief is a requirement for getting through the book. The beatings the main character endures, for example, would defeat most mortals.

Salander feeds small pieces of information to Blomkvist to pursue, while she does the dirty work. He knows she’s onto something big but it takes him longer to digest. Still, the element of suspense is strong and once again it’s easy to cheer for Salander, even if her tactics are not always palatable.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye
Three-and-three-quarter Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2017
347 pages

Hippie Meals   Leave a comment

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Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters is like dining at what’s supposed to be a very good restaurant but only a few of the entrees are enjoyable. Unfortunately, not all of Waters’s memoir is interesting. The parts that are, really are though.

Waters is credited with helping change the culinary scene in the 1960s by opening Chez Panisse which relied on a prix fixe menu that changed according to what was fresh that day.

Waters shared too much minutiae from her childhood. I don’t care about a costume party when she was four years old or that her step-grandmother was a cold woman. Things pick up when she transfers from college in Santa Barbara to Berkeley. What I found most interesting was how a trip to Paris her junior year of college and her years in Berkeley made such an impact.

The narrative is told mostly in chronological order leading up to the opening of the restaurant. Anecdotes about life post-opening are indicated in italics throughout most of the chapters. These asides are noteworthy, but they are also distracting.

The story of Chez Panisse begins with Waters’s desire to replicate flavors she experienced in Paris through a cozy, hip bistro-like ambiance. What set her apart at the time was what is now recognized as the slow food movement and the reliance on the freshest possible ingredients. Yet, there’s scant mention of either, nor of her recognition today as an advocate of sustainable agriculture.

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
Three-and-three-fourths Bookmarks
Clarkson Potter Publishing, 2017
306 pages

 

Art Inspires Art   2 comments

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Author Christina Baker Kline brings “Christina’s World,” the painting by Andrew Wyeth, to life in her novel, A Piece of the World.

Kline blends reality with imagination as she recounts Christina Olson’s life, the woman who provided friendship, hospitality and inspiration to the young artist. It begins in 1939 when Christina first meets Wyeth. The story is also told in flashbacks to the late 1800s when as a young child she’s stricken with a neurological disorder that affects her legs and hands. The story chronologically alternates between each time period: the former illustrates the relationship between Christina and Wyeth; the latter tells of her life and family history. Christina and her brother, Al, live in the house in which they were born. It’s been in the family since the mid-1700s.

Christina’s existence is full of hardships and disappointments. Kline’s portrait of her subject doesn’t gloss over the hardscrabble difficulties of living on a remote farm near a small coastal town in Maine. The descriptions are vivid and at times painful as Christina’s dreams are repeatedly cast aside. Yet, she is not a character who evokes pity. She is strong-willed and often frustratingly stubborn.

Wyeth’s character is more of a supporting character. For 20 years he comes and goes in the summer months using the Olson house as his studio while bringing Christina out of her past and her reclusive ways.

In addition to the rich images of the landscape and people, Kline’s fusion of fact and fiction is creative and engaging.

A Piece of The World
Four Bookmarks
William Morrow Publishers, 2017
310 pages

 

Cheers to Servers   Leave a comment

parkwayinterior

Everyone should have at least one special server; the one who remembers, if not your name, at least your preferences; who knows about your kids/parents/pets; who is aware of your aversion to goat cheese.

For my mom, that’s Tim at Parkway Grill in Pasadena. She asks about his shorter commute; he asks how she’s been and remembers what she ordered on her last visit a while back. It’s not flirtatious on either side, but a friendly exchange and genuine interest. This along with the well-prepared food makes the Parkway stand out from the crowd of upscale restaurants.

parkwaybread

We started with drinks, including a lime basil-infused martini that caught my eye. It was strong and refreshing.

The salads are large enough to share, and the Caesar was a nice way to start the meal. I don’t need to see the anchovies, although I like their flavor.

parkwaygrill

parkwayrib

Short ribs are a favorite and something I consider one of my specialties. I’m always curious about different preparations. The braised meat was fork-tender and the taste was good, but it didn’t pose a threat to my recipe. The addition of toasted pine nuts with a dark basil pesto was a nice touch. The mashed potatoes were rich and creamy.

parkwaydessert

Dessert offered several choices, but we settled on a Crème Brulee Napoleon. This spin sandwiched the vanilla custard element of a brulee between flakey pastry.

Goat cheese was never part of the conversation, but it’s nice to know it would have been if necessary.

Parkway Grill
Four-and-a-half Plates
510 S. Arroyo Parkway
Pasadena, Calif.

Tacos Plus   Leave a comment

 

sal sign

A neighbor who frequently visits Los Angeles shared the names of a few tacos stands he frequents while there. While I didn’t go to any of his recommendations (I’m saving the list for next time), I did enjoy Salazar which isn’t a stand, but a casual eatery serving impressive tacos.

sal tables

This is a dirt-floor establishment with plastic chairs and metal tables. It’s a covered patio complete with live trees, cacti and a Southern California vibe that comes, in part, from the restaurant’s bones. It used to be an auto shop.

The focus now is on hot, fresh from the kitchen corn and flour tortillas and tacos that drip with flavors. The regularly-changing menu also features chilaquilles, machaca, and four different types of tacos – among other items.

sal machaca

The clever plating of the machaca is as appealing to the eye as the meal is satisfying to eat. Braised beef is served in a cast-iron pan set on a thick-wood cutting board. A fried egg sits atop the shredded meat. I ordered tacos, but I enjoyed scooping out the pieces of beef that had caramelized on the bottom of the pan. (I was obviously with a good friend who allowed, perhaps even encouraged, me to do so.)

saltaccos

The tacos were the real treat, particularly the carne asada. Corn tortillas were piled with cubes of marinated steak topped with cilantro and diced red onions. I liked the chicken asada and al pastor for the fresh flavors, but the carne asada are my favorites.

Salazar
Four plates
2490 N. Fletcher Dr.
Los Angeles, CA

Refugees, love and peace   Leave a comment

Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is part parable and entirely too timely.

Hamid’s story follows Nadia and Saeed who meet in an unnamed war-torn country. She is distanced from her family because of her strong desire for personal independence. He lives with his devoutly religious parents. The two fall in love as the world around them crumbles.

Through a series of doors, which conjure images of Alice in Wonderland or Platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter’s world, the couple escape from one refugee situation to another. The settings include the Greek island of Mykonos, London and Marin, California. They are different and in many ways similar to one another. Of course, the common factor is the large number seeking refuge from countries all over the world.

Although, the narrative is important because the question of immigrants/refugees/asylum seekers is something facing most Western countries, it is also heavy-handed. There is no doubt this is a serious issue with no easy steps toward resolution. Ultimately, the story is less about Saeed and Nadia. They’re simply the vehicle making the journey but the matter of what to do with the influx serves as the passenger.

Hamid’s writing is stark, yet evocative. There is a sense of fear and relief from one passage to the next. There’s a feeling of hope, initially for Saeed and Nadia, but eventually for something larger. Yet, something in the telling of the story falls short. Perhaps, because it’s somewhat fantastical, but mainly because the characters never truly come to life.

Exit West
3 Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2019
231 pages