Monday, September 26, 2016

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06249179-4
Hardcover, $27.99, 336 pages

I can vividly remember reading Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto on my front porch one summer. I was mesmerized by her stunning story of a hostage situation in an unnamed South American country, and how I just fell into the book and didn't come out until the end.

Her last novel, State of Wonder, about a research scientist who goes to the Amazon to search for her missing mentor, also brought me into a completely new world, one I wouldn't know that much about or even dream I would be interested in.

Her newest novel is set closer to her own home. Commonwealth is the story of a blended family- a man with four young children leaves his wife and marries a woman with two children. (This happened to Patchett's family.) How that comes about, and the repercussions of the man kissing a woman who is not his wife at a neighborhood party, makes for a story that may be more relatable to most people.

Albert is a district attorney in Southern California in the 1960's. He goes to a christening party for the daughter of Fix, a police officer he doesn't know well, and becomes enchanted with Fix's beautiful wife Bev. He kisses Bev and soon leaves his wife and children and takes Bev and her two daughters to Virginia to live.

The opening scene of the party is brilliantly done. Fix the cop describes DA's as "the guys who smoked your cigarettes because they were trying to quit." Soon Albert is not only smoking Fix's cigarettes, he has stolen Fix's wife Bev.

Years later, Fix tells his adult daughter Franny that Bev "didn't have her own character. She turned into whoever she was sitting next to. When she was sitting next to Miss Free Love then free love sounded like a great idea."

The story spans five decades, and we see the children grow from six children thrown together in summers in Virginia to adults, all bearing the scars of a childhood that included a tragedy most of them never got over.

Franny, the baby at the christening, grew up and met Leo Posen, a famous novelist who falls in love with her. She tells Leo her family's tale and he turns it into his comeback novel titled 'Commonwealth'. Franny is staying with Leo at the home of a wealthy actress in the Hamptons, and ends up acting as servant to the many people who decide to descend uninvited, including her younger stepbrother Albie, who comes to confront her about the book.

There are many characters in this moving story, and Patchett excels at crystalizing each one in a few scenes. A book that covers five decades of a family could easily clock in at over 600 pages, but Patchett manages to create this world in just over 300 pages.

Fix was my favorite character in the book, an honorable man who loves his children and even shows great kindness to Albert's first wife when she needed it. I also loved that Albert's first wife picked herself up and got a great job to support her family when her husband left her.

Commonwealth is based on Patchett's family, and Franny is her doppleganger. Patchett has said in interviews about the book that she spoke to all of her siblings about the book, getting their blessing to tell the story. I'm not sure how many families would be OK with that. As I read the book I kept thinking, "what would a book about your childhood look like?"

I think perhaps she felt the time was right to write this intensely personal book, one so close to home. At one point Frannie and her sister Caroline are riding in the car with their ailing father and Frannie thinks of Fix:
"All the stories go with you, Frannie thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn't listen to, won't remember, never got right, wasn't around for."
I think that line sums up Patchett's place in her life, one that many middle-aged people are dealing with as well. You get to a certain point in life and you contemplate how you got to where you are, and how your family played such a big role in that.

Commonwealth is not a story that you race through to finish. It's one to savor and ponder, and upon reflection I liked it much more a week or so after I finished it than when when I closed the book. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Ann Patchett's tour. The rest of her stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 13th: BookNAround
Wednesday, September 14th: Books and Bindings
Thursday, September 15th: Vox Libris
Friday, September 16th: Art @ Home
Friday, September 16th: 5 Minutes For Books
Monday, September 19th: A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, September 20th: Books on the Table
Wednesday, September 21st: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, September 22nd: Luxury Reading
Thursday, September 22nd: Tina Says…
Monday, September 26th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, September 28th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, September 29th: West Metro Mommy
Monday, October 3rd: Fictionophile
Tuesday, October 4th: Literary Quicksand
Wednesday, October 5th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Thursday, October 6th: Lit and Life
Friday, October 7th: The Well-Read Redhead

Ann Patchett's website is here.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Weekend Cooking- Sweet Corn Zucchini Pie

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

Although it's back to school and Labor Day the unofficial end to summer has passed, it's still 90 degrees outside here in NYC. I like fall because it means a return to cooking hardy dinners, but that will have to wait until it cools down.

I'm always looking for a way to get more vegetables in our diet, and with the abundance of sweet corn and zucchini this time of year, I found a recipe on Pinterest for Sweet Corn Zucchini Pie that looked appetizing.

The recipe comes from A Pinch of Yum, and I liked this one because it is a crustless pie, which means no extra calories. It also has mushrooms in it and I am a big mushroom fan.

The recipe calls for cutting the corn off two cobs. I found a trick for doing this the easy way. Pull out a big, deep bowl (I use a mixing bowl). Place an overturned small cereal bowl inside the big bowl, place the ear of corn on top of the smaller bowl and slice the corn off the cob. The corn falls into the large bowl, and when you are done, pull the small bowl out of the large bowl and voila, the corn is inside the large bowl and ready to use. I wish I knew where I found this trick so I could give proper credit.

Saute onion, mushroom and zucchini, add the corn and saute some more. Add a mixture of cheese, eggs and herbs and blend with the sauteed vegetables. Put the mixture in a pie pan, bake in the oven and there you have it.
My tasty zucchini pie

My sweet corn zucchini pie turned out fabulous. My sons loved it, and my husband even had it as leftovers the next night. If you are looking for a way to use up some of the end of season vegetables, I recommend this recipe. You can find the full recipe from A Pinch of Yum here.

If you have any end-of-summer recipes you'd like to share, please post it in comments.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Perfect Girl by Gilly MacMillan

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks ISBN 9780062476760
Trade paperback, $15.99, 464 pages

Author Gilly Macmillan follows up her 2015 gripping debut novel What She Knew, about a mom whose eight-year-old son vanishes, with another tense and topical suspense thriller, The Perfect Girl.

The Perfect Girl opens with 17-year-old Zoe Maisey and her stepbrother Lucas ready to perform a piano recital. Zoe's mom Maria and Lucas' dad Chris sit proudly in the front row, ready to hear their talented children play. Zoe then tells us that six hours later her mother will be dead.

Now that the author has your attention, we shift narrators to Sam, a solicitor whom we find is having an affair with Zoe's Aunt Tessa. Sam and Tessa met a few years prior, when Sam was Zoe's lawyer. When Zoe was 14 years-old, she was involved in a car accident that took the lives of three of her classmates, and Sam relates that part of the story to us.

We also get Tessa's point of view. Tessa loves her niece Zoe and sister Maria fiercely. She is having trouble in her marriage; she and her husband have been trying for years to conceive a child, and her husband has slid into alcoholism and depression.

The timeline shifts back and forth, but it is never confusing. The title refers to not only Zoe- who is trying her best to be the perfect girl her mother wants, but to Tessa, who has always been the perfect girl in her family, and Maria, a former wild child who, after Zoe's accident, has worked hard to be the perfect wife to Chris.

But what is the cost of trying for perfection? When Zoe was fourteen, she went to a party, had what she thought was one drink, hoping to get the attention of Jack, the guy every girl wanted. She thought she was using good judgement, but in trying to impress Jack a terrible tragedy occurs.

Maria changed her life when she married Chris. Her marriage to Zoe's husband broke up after Zoe's accident, and Maria rebuilt her life with Chris and his son Lucas. She designed the perfect life for her husband- they had the perfect house, she had a beautiful kitchen where she created wonderful meals for her husband. The cost of attempting perfection, especially for women, can be too much to pay.

So how did Maria end up dead? That is the ultimate mystery here, and you'll fly through the pages to find out the answer.

Reading The Perfect Girl put me in mind of HBO's series, The Night Of. A seemingly good kid makes a few bad decisions that leads to more trouble. There's also a lawyer's point of view, as in the HBO series. Fans of The Night Of will want to follow-up with The Perfect Girl. 

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Gilly Macmillan's tour. The rest of the stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 6th: Mama Reads Hazel Sleeps
Wednesday, September 7th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Thursday, September 8th: bookchickdi
Friday, September 9th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Monday, September 12th: Tina Says…
Tuesday, September 13th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, September 14th: Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, September 15th: West Metro Mommy
Monday, September 19th: she treads softly
Tuesday, September 20th: A Bookworm’s World
Wednesday, September 21st: Comfy Reading
Thursday, September 22nd: Book Hooked Blog
Monday, September 26th: I Brought a Book
Tuesday, September 27th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, September 28th: Vox Libris
Thursday, September 29th: What Will She Read Next

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

New in Paperback- The Total Package by Stephanie Evanovich

The Total Package by Stephanie Evanovich
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06223486-2
Trade paperback, $15.99, 256 pages

A few years ago I read a debut novel by author Stephanie Evanovich, Big Girl Panties, and beyond loving the title, I really enjoyed the book about Logan Montgomery, a hot trainer who brings Holly, a young widow, out of her shell. I finished the book and wanted to read more about two secondary characters, baseball superstar Chase and his sassy wife Amanda.

When The Sweet Spot was published the following year, I was so excited that we got to find out how Chase and Amanda got together, and I loved it even more than Big Girl Panties. 

Evanovich just published her third book, The Total Package, about a big shot quarterback, Tyson Palmer, who trashes his career. When Palmer hits bottom, the owner of the Austin Mavericks picks him up and makes him the cornerstone of his team, hoping to win the Super Bowl.

Palmer digs in and works to make himself one of the league's best quarterbacks. When hot young wide receiver Marcus LaRue joins the Mavericks, he hopes that he and Palmer can be a dream team. LaRue's only request is that the team hire a young reporter, Dani Carr, to be his media person. He will only allow Carr to interview him, no one else.

Carr leaves her young son behind in Philadelphia with her supportive family- Mom, Dad and brothers- to take advantage of this possible career-building opportunity. She concentrates on the work, and hopes that no one discovers her secret.

Tyson is attracted to Carr but finds it hard to break through her shell. LaRue too is very secretive. He doesn't party like a rock star and he is never seen in the company of the many young ladies who seek his attention. And for some reason LaRue keeps pushing for Tyson and Dani to get together.

The Total Package is Evanovich's best book yet. Her characters feel like people you would know, especially Dani's close-knit Italian family. They are the family we all want to have. It's nice to read a book where the characters are kind to each other and support each other, even when they make mistakes.

I'm more of a baseball fan than football fan, but that didn't stop me from loving everything about this book. And I cried tears of joy when old friends Logan and Holly and Chase and Amanda made an appearance in the book. It was so much fun to see Chase and Amanda's wedding from a different perspective.

Evanovich's writing is sharp in this book, and you will find yourself racing through it to finish it. Like her first two books, it is sexy (oh, those sex scenes!) and sassy and this one has such a sweetness to it it is heartwarming.

Now I am hoping that the next book will tell us more about Marcus LaRue's story (and not just because Marcus and I share a surname). He may be Evanovich's most intriguing character yet and I want to find out more about where he came from and where he is going.

The Total Package is a great book to give your best girlfriend and you may want to read the steamier scenes out loud to your significant other, you know for inspiration. It's like Fifty Shades of Grey, except much better written and with a lot more heart. I give it my highest recommendation.

Stephanie Evanovich's website is here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Finding Libbie by Deanna Lynn Sletten

Finding Libbie by Deanna Lynn Sletten
Published by Lake Union Publishing ISBN 9781503937154
Trade paperback, $14.95, 352 pages

I was intrigued by the premise of Deanna Lynn Sletten's novel, Finding Libbie. Emily is helping her grandmother pack up the family farm when she finds a hatbox filled with old photos of her father as young man. Her grandmother tells Emily that they are photos of Emily's father Jack with his first wife Libbie.

His first wife? Emily had no idea that her father was married before. Her own mother died last year, and Emily knew how much her parents loved each other and how devastated her father was when she died.

The story of Libbie, a beautiful young woman from one of the town's most prominent families, and Jack, the hardworking son of a cabinet maker who lived on a farm, is related through flashbacks. Jack was head-over-heels in love with Libbie when he swept her off her feet in high school.

Libbie's mother was openly hostile to Jack and Libbie's relationship, looking down on Jack as just a lowly mechanic, someone who couldn't possibly make her daughter happy. But Libbie was in love, and Jack's family treated with kindness and respect, unlike her mother and older sister Gwen.

We see how Jack wooed Libbie with romantic gestures, and was thrilled when she agreed to marry him, over her mother's strenuous objections. They lived in a little cottage on a small lake, and Jack worked as a mechanic. Life was good.

Libbie tried hard to be a good wife, keeping house and cooking meals she learned from Jack's mother, but she soon grew bored. She began to drink, and her moods swung wildly. She feared that she was becoming more like her mother, who increasingly began to spend her entire day in her dark bedroom, drunk and taking pills.

Jack was distraught; he did everything he could to help make life easier for Libbie, but when her father bought them a big house, Jack had to work more hours just to keep up with the bills, and so he spent more time away from home. The isolation that Libbie felt only made matters worse.

Eventually we discover what happened to Libbie and Jack, and Emily sets out to try and find Libbie. In her journey to find Libbie, Emily discovers some things about her own life. She has been living with and supporting her boyfriend while he goes to school, and she has to decide if this is the life she is willing to settle for.

I loved Finding Libbie, and it's not the genre of book I usually enjoy. I found myself so caught up in Jack and Libbie's story, and Emily's journey too. I read it in two sittings, and it even kept me on the treadmill longer, the sign of a truly good book.

Sletten handled the topic of addiction and mental illness with sensitivity, and I daresay that anyone who has experienced that for themselves will probably appreciate this beautiful story even more deeply. Since the story takes place in the late 1960's/early 1970's, people didn't understand as much about these issues as we do now, and so didn't know how to handle them.

Everything in this story- the well-drawn characters, the plot and the Minnesota setting during the Vietnam War-worked for me.  I admit to tearing up at the end of the story, and if you liked Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook, this book is for you. I liked it even better than The Notebook. I highly recommend Finding Libbie.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Deanna Lynn Sletten's tour. The rest of her tour stops are here:

Deanna Lynn Sletten’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Tuesday, September 6th: Bookchickdi
Thursday, September 8th: Reading Reality
Wednesday, September 14th: From the TBR Pile
Thursday, September 15th: Back Porchervations
Friday, September 16th: A Chick Who Reads
Monday, September 19th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Wednesday, September 21st: Mama Vicky Says
Monday, September 26th: All Roads Lead to the Kitchen
Tuesday, October 4th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, October 5th: Books and Bindings
Thursday, October 6th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Friday, October 7th: View from the Birdhouse
Monday, October 10th: Snowdrop Dreams of Books
Wednesday, October 12th: Write Read Life

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Weekend Cooking- Indigenous in Sarasota

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food.

When we visit our vacation home near Sarasota in Florida, our friends always have a new restaurant for us to try. There are so many great restaurants down there, foodies are in heaven.

On our most recent trip, we visited Indigenous, located in the downtown Towles Court area. It's located in a big old house, in a mixed residential, small business area. There are tables on the big front porch, with billowing white awnings overhead, and tables along the side of the house.

We sat inside, where there appeared to be a dozen or so tables of various sizes which overlook the open kitchen. It is a little dark inside, and it was raining hard that night, so you may need to use your phone flashlight app to read the menu.

The menu is not extensive, but everything we tried was fantastic. I always check out Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews before we go to a restaurant to see what people recommend, and this time I went with two appetizers as my meal.

Three of us ordered the Wild Mushroom Bisque, which was phenomenal. It was very rich, and the crispy rye croutons added just the right crunch. I convinced the table to order the Parmesan Beignets, which were served on a honey, pear and thyme sauce. We went crazy over these, trying to be polite over who would get the last tasty, fluffy beignet morsel. (My husband and I split it.)
Parmesan Beignets

I had the Pork Belly appetizer as my entree. It was such a mouth-watering burst of flavors, served over a charred corn tortilla salad, with salsa verde and salsa roja, bacon and queso fresco. The entire dish was just perfectly blended.
Pork Belly

Indigenous is known for its Hook to Fork, a daily fish special featuring the freshest local sustainable ingredients in creative dishes. One of our friends had the Hook to Fork special, a cobia dish. You can't get much fresher or more beautiful than this.
Cobia- Hook to Fork 

The service was terrific and the ambience and food were wonderful. We will return to Indigenous again, and next time I'm not sharing the Parmesan Beignets.

Indigenous' website is here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Carry On by Lisa Fenn

Carry On by Lisa Fenn
Published by Harper Wave ISBN 978-0062427830
Hardcover, $25.99, 256 pages

Every once in a while, I read a book that affects me so deeply, when I finish the book I feel the need to run and tell everyone I see "You must read this book!" Lisa Fenn's Carry On is one such book.

Fenn grew up in Cleveland, and became a producer for ESPN. On a visit home, her father showed her a newspaper story about two high school wrestlers from a high school in a poor section of the city. One of the young men was blind, the other had lost his legs in a tragic train accident.

She became intrigued, and convinced her boss at ESPN to film a short documentary piece on the young men by giving him a visual- "The one who cannot walk being carried by the one who cannot see." What came out of that piece changed Fenn's life forever.

Fenn got to know the young men- Dartanyon, a big guy who got shuffled from place to place, who always carried a duffel bag of his belongings with him because he didn't know where he would be sleeping that night, and Leroy, who lost his legs in a train accident when he was eleven and was living with his grandmother.

Both young men grew up in poverty in addition to their physical challenges. They became best friends. Dartanyon would literally carry Leroy on his back into wrestling matches, and he would frequently be found at Leroy's grandmother's home where he got a decent meal.

Their bond was unbreakable, and it took Fenn a long time to break through the defenses they had to get them to open up to her. They were suspicious of Fenn, of her motives for doing the documentary. She spent many hours watching them play video games in Leroy's grandmother's basement, eventually gaining their trust.

The resulting documentary was so moving that many viewers responded by asking how they could help these courageous young men. Fenn helped set up a fund for the young men to get them into colleges, a dream they couldn't even begin to comprehend.

She found people willing to help and through sheer force of will she got them to take the SATs and both of them were able to go to college. But Dartanyon and Leroy were completely unprepared for college life, and it became Fenn's full-time job to keep these guys on track.

Carry On is a book that looks at the bigger problem of  race, privilege, class and poverty through the prism of these two young men. For everyone who says, why can't people just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed, the complications of that type of thinking is in here.

Fenn is a woman of faith, and I enjoyed that aspect of the book. She believed that she couldn't just walk away from these young men, that she could make a difference even when most people would give up.

Carry On will appeal to anyone who loves a good story about sports and the difference we can make in other people's lives. I cried throughout the book several times, and it reminded me of  Jeff Hobbs' brilliant book, The Life and Tragic Death of Robert Peace. Both books do a fantastic job of showing us a way of life most of us are unfamiliar with.

If you are the kind of person who only reads one book a year, make it Carry On. I would love to see this become a book read in high schools, colleges and in city reads program. It is the best non-fiction book I have read this year, hands-down.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Lisa Fenn's tour. The rest of Lisa's stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, August 16th: Emerald City Book Review
Thursday, August 18th: Becklist
Friday, August 19th: Dreaming Big
Monday, August 22nd: Mother’s Circle
Tuesday, August 23rd: bookchickdi
Wednesday, August 24th: Tina Says…
Thursday, August 25th: Literary Quicksand
Monday, August 29th: Helen’s Book Blog
Tuesday, August 30th: Cait’s Cozy Corner
Wednesday, August 31st: Book by Book
Thursday, September 1st: Many Hats
Wednesday, September 7th: Back Porchervations
Thursday, September 8th: Rebecca Radish
Monday, September 12th: Reading Reality
Tuesday, September 13th: The Paperback Pilgrim
Monday, September 19th: Reading is My Super Power