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An Unlikely Murderesss   Leave a comment

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Maud is the 88-year-old Elderly Lady up to No Good in Swedish writer Helene Tursten’s terse collection of short stories.

Most of what Maud is up to is murder. She’s an unlikely bad guy (gal), and not just because she’s a woman, It happens that murder is the way she solves a lot of problems; they are often not even her own issues.

Alone and living rent-free in a Gothenburg apartment, Maud’s housing situation is challenged when a demanding artist moves into a smaller apartment. Maud grew up in the spacious living area she still inhabits. A clause in her late father’s will stated that she and her older sister would be allowed to remain until their deaths. Her sister has been dead for 40 years and Maud has no intention of relinquishing her apartment anytime soon.

When not busy plotting how to rid herself from the artist’s attention, she enjoys traveling. Although each of the five stories is a stand-alone narrative, all are tied to Maud’s apartment and travels. The latter often provides an alibi.

Tursten’s writing is witty . The main character takes advantage of ageism and misperceptions to get away with, literally, murder. Even though Maud is not a sympathetic character her actions are not completely unjustified. Extreme certainly, but often warranted.

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good
Four Bookmarks
Soho Press, 2018
171 pages

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Always Time for Cake   Leave a comment

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Even if there’s no birthday celebration on the near horizon, Gaile Parkin’s Baking Cakes in Kigali will make you wishing for a piece of homemade cake.

Reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” Parkin introduces readers to Angel, who bakes cakes in her apartment and helps, by design or coincidence, her friends and neighbors solve problems of which they are often unaware and in the process dealing with her own.

Angel and her husband Pius are originally from Tanzania, but have moved to Kigali, Rwanda, because of his consulting job. Their two grown children have died from AIDS leaving behind their five children in the care of Angel and Pius. Angel’s grief for the deaths of her adult offspring lies just beneath the surface, overshadowed by her involvement with others and dealing with hot flashes.

Angel bakes cakes for all occasions. Her clients visit her home where she makes them tea while discussing the type of cake that will be most suitable. Some clients have a clear, specific idea in mind, while others are less certain.

Angel is always happy to offer suggestions, although she might sometimes disagree with the reason for which the cake is celebrating/acknowledging.

Parkin introduces a variety of characters representing a range of life experiences and means. Each is carefully portrayed making it easy to share Angel’s sympathies or distrust. Initially it seems that each chapter is a separate, independent story, but they all come together in a fun, albeit predictable, fashion.

Baking Cakes in Kigali
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Delacorte Press, 2009
308 pages

Posted March 31, 2019 by bluepagespecial in Uncategorized

Mexican Food In,well, Mexico   Leave a comment

A recent trip to Mexico, as with previous visits, was a sensory treat. Besides the beautiful sites, thanks to the generosity of my cousins in San Luis Potosi in the central part of the country, we were indulged with exceptional meals.

enchilladas potosinas

I’d heard about enchiladas Potosinas, and was happy they were served the night of arrival. This set the bar for subsequent foods. Shaped more like empanadas, red sauce-infused corn tortillas are stuffed with cheese and salsa. They’re lightly fried for a crispy exterior texture that contrasts with the creamy cheese filling.

My cousins provided numerous opportunities to sample other dishes popular in the region, including gorditas, sincronizadas, chiliaquilles, enmolladas and fundido with chorizo.

fundido

Sincronizadas can best be described as stacked quesadillas. Ham, cheese, salsa between layers of flour tortillas made this an especially flavorful brunch that also included beans and freshly-made green salsa. Although, normally served as a snack or simple meal, molletes were added to the menu simply because my cousin knows I like them and it was our last day in Mexico. It was far too much food, yet far too difficult to stop eating.

chilaquilles2

Part of our trip we began one day in Guanajuato with chilaquilles covered with pasilla sauce and ended it with enmolladas (mole enchiladas) and tamarindo margaritas in San Miguel de Allende. Not a bad way to dine/visit.

Tacos are part of the national cuisine, so our stay would have been incomplete without them. Fortunately, the tacos al pastor, among others, at Taqueria Arandas ensured our palates, and stomachs, were well-sated.

tacos al pastor

Not in Kansas Anymore — or Ever   Leave a comment

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The land of Oz serves as the backdrop in Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts, but it’s more than a look behind the green curtain where the wizard was hiding.

The novel’s timeline alternates between 1938 when filming on the MGM classic took place and the life of Maud Baum, whose husband Frank authored the beloved series.

Beginning in 1871, this novel, based on fact, chronicles Maud’s childhood as the daughter of a suffragette, her experience at Cornell University where she was one of 19 women in a class with more than 200 men, and how she came to meet, then marry Baum.

The chapters set in 1938 show Maud striving to impress upon the movie’s power team the importance of staying true to her husband’s book. This, she’s convinced, depends on Judy Garland being able to project Dorothy’s innocence and hope. Maud sees this threatened by the movie studio’s efforts to control Garland through a regimen of diet and sleeping pills. Thus, Maud reaches out to protect the young actress.

The chapters concentrating on Maud’s life are a glimpse into the whimsical nature of her husband, the efforts for women’s right to vote, hardscrabble life on the North Dakota plains and her struggle to find meaning in her own life.

Letts deftly defines the various time frames and landscapes. Even though readers know the ultimate success of the movie, it’s Maud’s growth that is most captivating. How Frank came to write the Oz stories their popularity merely provides the framework.

Finding Dorothy
Four Bookmarks
Ballantine Books 2019
351 pages

Romance and Politics Cuban Style   Leave a comment

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Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton offers an insightful look into Cuba’s history. The trouble is having to wade through the predictable romance stories it’s centered around. Yes, the plural form of story is intentional.

The first begins in 1959 with the Perez family, whose fortunes were built through several generations on sugar production. Nineteen-year-old Elisa has two older sisters, a much younger sister and a brother who’s been banished from the family for his politics. Elisa is first introduced as the family does its best to leave Cuba. Fidel Castro has just taken over the country and the wealthy are being stripped of their status and riches.

The alternating story, set in 2017, revolves around Marisol, Elisa’s granddaughter, who has been tasked with taking her grandmother’s ashes to be scattered in Cuba. There she discovers there was much about Elisa she didn’t know, including a past love, while also embarking on a romantic relationship of her own.

Elisa’s story recounts her affair with a revolutionary, while Marisol strives to learn more about this part of her grandmother’s life. In the process she is attracted to Luis, the grandson of Elisa’s best childhood friend.

Luis is a history teacher at the university in Havana. He serves not just as a tour guide of Cuba’s, but also its political history. As Luis notes, a lot has changed but not much is different in the island nation.

Cleeton manages a few surprises; otherwise the novel’s strengths lie in the historical references.

Next Year in Havana
Three bookmarks
Berkley. 2018
356 pages, plus Reader’s Guide and an excerpt from Cleeton’s next novel

Definition of Relationships   1 comment

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Initially, it was the title of Jackie Copleton’s novel, A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, I found intriguing. Fortunately, as the story progressed, so did my interest.

The novel begins with Amaterasu opening her front door to a disfigured, middle-aged man claiming to be her grandson, Hideo. He was presumed dead 40 years ago following the bombing of Nagasaki. Amaterasu’s daughter was also killed on that fateful August day. Hideo bears the scars of radiation making it difficult to discern any recognizable features. He gives Amaterasu a sealed box of letters written by Sato, his adoptive father, the same man with whom she shares a history she prefers to forget.

The narrative moves back and forth in time to life before and after the bomb based on Amaterasu’s memories, her daughter’s diaries and Sato’s letters. Hideo has no memories of his life before the bombing. He has no stories to share with Amaterasu to convince her he is, indeed, her grandson. She refuses to consider the possibility, yet she meets with Hideo on multiple occasions.

Copleton begins each chapter with an explanation of some aspect of Japanese culture. This is both interesting and helpful in trying to understand Amaterasu’s mindset. She is old and alone following the death of her husband of many years. They left Japan long before in a hopeless effort to try to forget their losses.

Hideo’s fortitude and patience are tested in his efforts to convince Amaterasu of their connection and she must consider her past relationships.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
Three-and three-quarter bookmarks
Penguin Books 2015
292 pages

Neapolitan Novel Book 2   Leave a comment

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Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has hooked me with The Neapolitan Novels. Book Two, The Story of a New Name, picks up where My Brilliant Friend abruptly ended: at a wedding. The narrative moves forward while looking back to further develop the characters and plot line.

The friendship between Lila and Elena is based on the appreciation each has for the other’s intellect. However, due to family circumstances only Elena is given the opportunity to pursue a formal education. Lila studies independently. She is also newly married to the wealthy shopkeeper, but her volatile personality remains unchanged. She soon discovers, in her marriage, that her ability to get her way has more dire consequences than when she was younger.

Much of the beauty of Ferrante’s writing, translated by Ann Goldstein, lies in the vivid descriptions of the small town near Naples where much of the action takes place and of the characters she has created. Some are thoughtful, driven and kind, while others are impulsive and mean, some are smarter than others. None are one-dimensional.

After the wedding, Elena continues in high school where she excels as a student, despite some ups and downs. As the story progresses, life’s responsibilities take hold: military service, work and families. Elena’s education continues in Pisa. Lila has an affair with the young man who Elena has long been attracted to.

This may sound like a soap opera, but in Ferrante’s hands it is a moving story about choices, opportunities and testing the bonds of friendship.

The Story of a New Name
Four Bookmarks
Europa Editions, 2013
471 pages