Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
Published by Riverhead ISBN 9781594633669
Hardcover, $26.95, 326 pages

Reprinted from The Citizen:

One of the most buzzed about books has published this past week. Paula Hawkins “The Girl On A Train” has been called this year’s “Gone Girl”. (It even has the word ‘girl” in the title.)

Like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl”, “The Girl On A Train” features an unreliable narrator, a twenty-eight-year old woman named Rachel. Rachel rides the train everyday from home in Ashbury to work in London.

We get a little foreshadowing when Rachel looks outside the window on the train and sees a pile of clothing lying on the side of the train tracks. Her overactive imagination wonders what could have possibly befallen the person who belongs to those clothes.

Every day, Rachel passes by a neighborhood where she frequently sees a young, attractive couple on their terrace. She has named them Jess and Jason. She imagines Jess is involved in the arts, and Jason works for an NGO, helping poor people. Each day, the story she creates becomes more elaborate.

Slowly we get more information about Rachel. She likes to drink on the train, not only on the way home, but also on the way to work. Rachel has a serious drinking problem.  She lost her job because of her drinking, but hasn’t told anyone yet, so she takes the train everyday with nowhere to go.

We also find that Rachel’s husband had an affair, divorced her and moved his new wife into their home. Rachel was forced to rent a room in the home of a college acquaintance. She lives in a room basically, has no job, no husband and drinks too much. Life is not good for Rachel.

One day, she sees Jess on her terrace, kissing a man who is not Jason. Rachel is upset about this, for in the world she created for them they are blissfully in love. A few days later on the news she sees a photo of Jess, whose real name is Megan, and discovers that Megan has gone missing.

Rachel goes to the police to tell them what she saw. The police take her information, but have questions about her. Rachel decides that she must tell Jason, whose real name is Scott, what she saw.
Her only hesitation in seeing Scott is that her old home, the one that now houses her ex-husband, his mistress-now-wife, and their young daughter, is just four doors away from Scott and Megan.

When Rachel gets drunk, she calls Tom, her ex, and cries. His new wife, Anna, has had enough of Rachel’s harassment, but Tom still seems to care for Rachel. He says he is sorry for what has happened, and wants Rachel to be happy and move on with her life.

Rachel goes to Scott and tells him that she was friends with Megan, and she saw Megan kiss another man the day before she disappeared. Scott is devastated, and while he wonders why he never heard Megan mention Rachel, he begins to question if he really knew his wife.

The story is told from the perspective of Rachel, Anna and Megan. Megan’s dead body is found near her home, and the race is on to find her killer. Of course, the husband is a prime suspect, as is the man Rachel saw kissing Megan on the terrace.

Rachel insinuates herself into the police investigation. She meets with the boyfriend, and becomes closer to Scott. Anna doesn’t like Rachel hanging around her and Tom’s neighborhood, and wants Tom to cut all ties with Rachel.

On the night that Megan went missing, Rachel was in the neighborhood, very drunk, stumbling, and Tom found her bloody and dazed under an underpass. She had a bump on her head, and remembers nothing after leaving the train stop. Did she see who killed Megan?

Careful readers may pick up a few of the clues Hawkins has placed to figure out who killed Megan, and there is a “holy cow” moment halfway through the story that explains a character’s motivations.

“The Girl On The Train” is a fast-moving, heart-pounding thriller that keeps the reader on the edge of her seat, particularly the tension-filled last chapter. Fans of “Gone Girl” will like it, but it also reminded me of another terrific book with an unreliable narrator, “The Other Typist”.  You can’t trust anyone’s memory or motive.

rating 4 of 5 stars 

This book satisfies my Book Set In A Different Country for Reading Challenge 2015

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Matter of Mercy by Lynne Hugo

A Matter of Mercy by Lynne Hugo
Published by Blank Slate Press ISBN 978-0-9858086-1-7
Trade paperback, $14.95, 263 pages

Using a real lawsuit from 1996 between wealthy vacation home owners and sea farmers who cultivated oysters and scallops on the outer banks of Cape Cod as a stepping off point, author Lynne Hugo weaves an intriguing story in her terrific novel, A Matter of Mercy.

Caroline, known as CiCi to her high school friends, moves back home to Wellfleet, a small fishing community in Cape Cod to care for her dying mother Eleanor. Slowly, we find that something bad happened to Cici, something for which she served time in jail.

Eleanor would like to see CiCi settle down, marry and start a family. She reminds CiCi that Rid, an guy whom CiCi knew in high school, is working as an aquafarmer and looking very good. I love that Eleanor describes him as "built like a brick s@#thouse. Eleanor had abandoned prim language with no explanation after she was widowed."  That is a fabulous line, such a great way to establish Eleanor's character in one sentence.

During a bad storm, CiCi runs out to help Rid, and they end up at her home where they have sex. Rid spent some time in prison for a drug charge, so he and CiCi have something in common. The next morning, Rid races out, leaving a confused CiCi.

The aquafarmers, who have owned and worked oyster beds in the water behind the now-ubiquitous McMansions forever, are being sued by the new homeowners, claiming that the farmers are trespassing on their property to harvest their oyster beds.

Some of the farmers believe that CiCi may be involved in the lawsuit, even though the home she inherited is modest in size and scope, and her family has been in Wellfleet forever too. When someone starts stalking CiCi, trying to scare her and throwing rocks through her window, she becomes afraid.

CiCi accidentally runs into someone she hurt in the past, and she desperately wants to find out how the person is doing, almost to the point of obsession. Does CiCi hope to be forgiven or is this person the stalker?

The characters in the story- CiCi, Rid, Terri the librarian, Elsie (Eleanor's hospice nurse), Billy the bartender- are fascinating and completely realistic. If I ever visited Wellfleet, I believe I would run into them somewhere in the village.

The relationships between the characters are well-drawn too, between Rid and CiCi, Rid and his fellow aquafarmers, with the one between Rid and his faithful dog Lizzie being my favorite.

Hugo's language is beautiful too, with these sentences really moving me:
"And suddenly, she was crying at the too-largeness, the mystery of things, needing to make them small enough to think about, to get her arms around."
"The mercy I can show you is in not asking for your forgiveness."
Hugo manages to beautifully blend a love story with a mystery, with a story about forgiveness, all set in a fascinating place that becomes an important character in the book. My family has vacationed several times in Cape Cod, and so I was particularly interested in reading A Matter of Mercy.

She manages to put us in CiCi's shoes, and had me wondering if I would make the same decisions the characters did. I became completely invested in this amazing story, my heart aching for the characters and what they went through. (Bonus: I learned a lot about aquafarming, something I knew nothing about.) I read A Matter of Mercy in just two sittings, unable to break away from this emotional, moving story.

rating 5 of 5

In Reading Challenge 2015, A Matter of Mercy fulfills my A Book By An Author You've Never Read Before book.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on this tour. The rest of Lynne Hugo's stops are here:

Lynne Hugo’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, January 5th: Life is Story
Thursday, January 8th: Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, January 13th: Bookchickdi
Thursday, January 15th: Book Chatter
Monday, January 19th: Too Fond
Wednesday, January 28th: Suko’s Notebook

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Weekend Cooking- Food, A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan

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.

Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan
Published by Crown Publishing, ISBN 9780804140416
Hardcover, $26, 352 pages

Jim Gaffigan is a well known stand-up comedian and actor whose biggest claim to fame is his "Hot Pockets" routine about the frozen food item eaten mostly by drunk college students and/or lazy people with a microwave.

He has written two books, Dad Is Fat, about living with his wife and five young children in a one-bedroom New York City fifth-floor walkup, and his second is Food: A Love Story, about his love affair with food.

As a stand-up comic who has traveled all over the world, Gaffigan has eaten in many restaurants. When he travels on tour, he tweets to his fans, asking them where and what he should eat. This section of the book is terrific, and in addition to being very funny, it includes wonderful tips for traveling "foodies" (a term Gaffigan disdains).

Gaffigan divides the United States into five major food areas-

  • Seabugland (Northeast Coast)
  • Eating BBQland (Southeast/Parts of Midwest)
  • Super Bowl Sunday Foodland (Midwest/Parts of East)
  • Steakland (Texas to Upper West)
  • Mexican Foodland (Southwest to Texas)
He is not a big fan of seafood, especially shellfish, saving particular distaste for oysters. His discussion of barbeque, which is used as "a verb, noun, and adjective and even a potato chip" is funny and informative.

Gaffigan recounts how each city is proud of its own unique recipe for barbeque, and that in every Southern city he meets the same guy who says the same thing "Obama ate there, and you can get it shipped anywhere you want." He also mentions places that you can get great BBQ not in the South, with Syracuse, NY (Dinosaur BBQ) on that short list.

He tells a funny story about dragging his family to a gas station in Kansas City, MO to eat at Oklahoma's Joe's, where Gaffigan joined a very long line at 11am. The line was filled with "predominantly, pudgy, balding, exhausted men in their thirties and forties," all happy to be there, though if these same men were confronted with such a long line at a grocery store to get milk or diapers, they would leave the store rather than wait for such unimportant items for their family.

Another hilarious story had him following a man in Kmart, who was drinking gravy from a styrofoam cup he got in the KFC located in Kmart.  His description of the ambience of Kmart as a store that always looks like "it was just attacked by a flash mob" brought a chuckle of recognition.

Food: A Love Story, had me laughing all the way through it, and as I was reading in on the treadmill (Gaffigan would disapprove of this- exercise, I mean), my fellow exercisers would look at me as if I was a little crazy. (Note: laughing while reading on a treadmill can be dangerous. If you get doubled up with laughter, you can potentially fall. Not that that almost happened to me.)

Serious foodies may take offense, but Gaffigan is a comedian who has found his niche in poking fun of his eating habits, and most of us can find something to relate to in this humorous book. He also loves his family (I adored his section about taking each child individually to his favorite deli, Katz's), and I got some great ideas on where to eat. (And anyone who believes that Shake Shack has the best burgers in world is my kinda guy.)

If you need a good laugh, and like to eat, (which is, like, everybody) Food: A Love Story, is for you.

rating 4 of 5

In my Reading Challenge for 2015, Food: A Love Story fulfills my Funny Book selection.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg

Reprinted from Auburnpub.com 

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg
Published by Simon and Schuster ISBN 9781451655094
Hardcover, $25, 256 pages
Molly Wizenberg writes a blog, “Orangette”, named by the London Times as the best food blog in the world. She has written columns for Bon Appetit magazine and her first book, “A Homemade Life- Recipes From My Kitchen Table” was a New York Times bestseller.

After writing that book and while waiting for it to publish, her husband Brandon decided that he wanted to open a pizza restaurant in Seattle, where they resided. That journey to owning and operating a pizza restaurant is recounted in her second teriffic book, a memoir titled “Delancey”.

Never mind the fact that Brandon has never operated a restaurant, and that prior to this, he wanted to make violins (he is a music teacher) and after that he wanted to build boats.

She describes her husband in this way- “I love that he‘s the first person our friends call when they’re in trouble. I love that he likes to make people happy. My mother once told me that the reason she fell in love with my father was that she knew she could always learn from him. When I meant Brandon, I knew what she meant.”

Life with Brandon was never boring, and even though Molly was a little wary of the fact that Brandon always threw himself completely into whatever he was doing for the time being, she knew she wanted to marry him.

Wizenberg brings the reader right into the middle of all of the decisions one makes when deciding to open a restaurant. She admits that many people dream (albeit briefly) of running a restaurant, thinking it will be like “having a dinner party every night. Most restaurants are not like dinner parties. Most restaurants feel more like Thanksgiving dinner.”

Once the decision was made, Brandon and Molly went to their friends who had experience in this area. Her brother David, who co-owns several Washington D.C restaurants, advised them to pick a location with other successful businesses.

The great researcher, Brandon traveled the country tasting the best pizzas, and picking the brains of the owners. He became an expert on what makes the best pizza dough, how much yeast and salt to use, and the ideal temperature needed to make the dough rise.

They found the right location, and gathered their friends around to help them physically build the restaurant. They demolished the interior and set to work. Wizenberg’s descriptions of all their hard work exhausted me just reading about it.

As someone who once ran a restaurant with her husband, I understood so much of what Molly and Brandon went through. Dealing with vendors, hiring and managing a staff, and dealing with inspectors from different departments who contradict each other, cooking every night, things that break down- it never ends.

Molly and Brandon’s day would start at 9am, when they would meet the food vendors making the day’s deliveries. Then they prepped the food, dealt with problems, made sure the dough was rising properly, greeted the employees, set the tables, made the pizzas and salads and desserts, served the food, closed up, cleaned up, and made the dough for tomorrow. They were home by 2am.

Wizenberg’s does a wonderful job dispelling the romance of owning a restaurant. It is hard work, and it’s like having a newborn baby, but one that doesn’t ever grow up and need less constant attention.

Eventually Molly realized that working at the restaurant was Brandon’s dream, but not necessarily hers. She wanted to get back to her writing and she missed cooking dinner in her own home at night. Working as the salad and dessert chef was making her miserable.

She screwed up her courage to tell Brandon, and although he was taken aback, he understood. One story she tells about Brandon coming home after a terrible day and saying he wanted the close the restaurant is compelling, and a lesson that all married people eventually learn about being supportive.

Wizenberg has also put in some wonderful recipes , including Sriracha and Butter Shrimp, a Meatloaf using fish sauce, and a Winter Salad with Citrus and Feta that all look amazing.

Wizenberg is a terrific writer with an interesting and conversational voice, and “Delancey” is a fascinating look at the inner workings of running a restaurant. If you have ever worked in one (which many people have), this book is for you. And if you have ever worked with your spouse, you’ll enjoy it too.

rating 5 of 5

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Weekend Cooking- The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

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.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
Published by Alfred A. Knopf ISBN 978-0-307-59565-2
Hardcover, $35, 311 pages

It's been over a month since I've blogged. Between decorating, buying gifts, wrapping gifts, writing out 85 Christmas cards, attending all of the many Christmas work events for my husband's job, and volunteering four days a week at The Book Cellar, (the used bookstore at our local NYPL Webster Library run by all volunteers), blogging was the one thing that got put on hold.

Last week, I found a copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman and I promptly purchased it. It's a gorgeous cookbook, written by a popular blogger who cooks in her tiny New York City apartment kitchen, which is no bigger than mine. (So there goes my excuse that the reason I can't cook anything in my kitchen because it's too small.)

I love that for each recipe Perelman gives the reader a little story about how she came up with the recipe. The ingredients are listed to the side, along with directions, and sometimes a 'cooking note' or 'do ahead' suggestion.

The photos in the book are simply stunning. I drooled just looking at them (the potato frittata with feta and scallions, butternut squash and caramelized onion galette, and peach dumplings with bourbon hard sauce in particular caught my eye), and there are 452 full color illustrations in the book for those of you who like your cookbooks with photos. (Which I do)

The book is divided into the typical sections- Breakfast, Salad, Main Dishes- and close to one-third of the book is devoted to Sweets. At the end, she has a chapter, How To Throw a Dinner Party, that gives you a entire party's worth of appetizers and a few drink recipes that you could follow in its entirety to host a smashing get-together that will impress your friends.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is not for beginning cooks. I'd put this in the category for fans of Martha Stewart or maybe The Barefoot Contessa (if you know what grissini and gougeres are, this book is for you). It is a gorgeous book, and would make a lovely gift for someone you know who is an accomplished and enthusiastic cook.

rating 4 stars

The Smitten Kitchen website is here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Most Compelling Reads of 2014

Reprinted from The Citizen 

This is my favorite time of the year, when publications and websites create their Best of 2014 lists. As is tradition, I present my list- The Most Compelling Reads of 2014, books that stayed with me long after I finished reading them.

A book set in 1686 Amsterdam wouldn’t normally be something that would appeal to me, but I found Jessie Burton’s debut novel, “The Miniaturist” riveting. It tells the story of young woman who finds herself married to a mysterious businessman. She is tested by events that occur in her new home and finds strength she didn’t know she had. 
The Miniaturist
Matthew Thomas’ debut novel, “We Are Not Ourselves” is an emotional book about the daughter of Irish immigrants who lives in Queens, New York, and whose goal is to become part of the middle class. She is on her way, until her husband’s illness derails her plans. 
We Are Not Ourselves

Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Gilead” in which an elderly Iowa minister is writing his history to his young son. Her new novel, “Lila” gives us the sad back story to the minister’s quiet, much younger wife Lila. The goodness in the people in Gilead gives one hope for humanity. 
Emily Arsenault’s “What Strange Creatures” combines a murder mystery with an adult brother-sister relationship at its center. Theresa’s brother is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and she must clear his name. The sibling relationship is beautifully done here. 
What Strange Creatures
Liane Moriarty tops her juicy last novel, “The Husband’s Secret” with her latest novel “Big Little Lies”. Set in the world of an affluent school in an Australian beach community, it also combines a whodunit with a story of helicopter parents and the secrets they hide. It’s like eating a bag of potato chips; you can’t stop reading it. 
Big Little Lies
 “The Orphans of Race Point” by Patry Francis is a gorgeous novel that I have recommended to so many people.  Hallie and Gus are best friends as children and date as teenagers. An unfortunate incident changes their relationship, and we see them grow away from each other, but something pulls them back together. I never wanted this book to end. 
The Orphans of Race Point
“The Golem and the Jinni” is another book I wouldn’t normally gravitate towards. Helene Wecker’s historical fantasy novel shares the story of a golem who loses her master and must hide her identity at the turn of the 20th century in New York. She meets a jinni hiding from forces who want to do him harm, and they are drawn to each other, spending nights wandering the city together, fearful that someone will find their secrets. It is a unique novel. 
The Golem and the Jinni
I love it when I find a novel that is under the radar and I can bring attention to it. Susan Schoenberger’s “The Virtues of Oxygen” is one of those. It centers on a young woman who contracts polio and lives in an iron lung. Her small upstate New York community helps care for her, and it is also a story of this town and how it deals with the changes in economic circumstances. 
The Virtues of Oxygen
Four non-fiction books made my list this year. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” deals with something our society wishes to avoid- how do we handle with the aging process and our own mortality? He uses examples of people and institutions trying to cope and improve our understanding, and this is a thought-provoking book. 
Being Mortal
Roz Chast writes about a similar theme in “Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Using the graphic novel form, she details her experiences with her aging parents and their reluctance to accept that they can’t live alone anymore. It’s heartbreaking and eye opening. 
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
 Todd Glass is a comedian I first heard about when he was on TV’s “Last Comic Standing” years ago. In his memoir “The Todd Glass Situation”, he shares his story of being learning disabled and coming to terms with being gay and trying to hide it from his fellow comedians, family and friends. His description of coming out on Marc Maron’s podcast is riveting, but the best part of the book is when he brilliantly answers people who say that things were better “back then.” 
The Todd Glass Situation
 Kelly Kitell’s memoir "Breathe" will break your heart. Her toddler son was killed when his teenage cousin accidentally ran him over with a car, and soon after, Kelly lost her baby at childbirth. The faith that she and her husband had in the wake of these awful losses, not to mention to the family rift it caused, is astounding.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Beach Club Book Club- GI Brides by Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi

GI Brides  by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-232805-2
Trade paperback, $14.99, 361pages

After talking to her grandmother Margaret about her experiences as a GI bride, author Nuala Calvi knew that there was a book in that. Along with Duncan Barrett, they did much research and from that came the book GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love. 

The focus of the book is on four British women- Margaret, Lyn, Rae and Sylvia. The story begins in the days of WWII in England, where these young women worked and volunteered in the war effort. They each met an American GI, fell in love, and married their soldier.

When the war was over, the men went home, and their new brides soon followed. Our Beach Club Book Club received copies of the book from The Book Club Girls, and we discussed it yesterday over breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien before doing a little Christmas shopping at the Winter Village at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan.
At Bryant Park

One of the topics of discussion included the incredible number of British women who married U.S. soldiers. At the end of the war, over 70,000 women had to be transported to America to begin their new lives. We all marveled at the sheer logistics of doing this, and how the U.S. government, along with aid from the Red Cross, was able to get these women on ships and to their new husbands.

As expected, the adjustment to their new lives was difficult. Along with cultural differences, many of these women didn't know exactly what they were getting into. They only knew their husbands briefly before marrying them, and we wondered if they married so quickly because of the shortage of young men in England (so many were killed during the war), or because they realized that life was short and you couldn't let it pass you by.

We admired the bravery of these women, leaving their families and homes and traveling thousands of miles away. When things got difficult- one husband was an alcoholic, one was a gambler, one was a philanderer, one had mother issues- these women didn't have much of a support system to rely on to help them. And going home was not an option.

Rae's bravery impressed us. She left her cheating husband and found a job as a live-in nanny with a wonderful family. She loved the family, and they loved her, but she knew eventually she would have a build a life of her own, which she did.

Sylvia ended up in Baltimore, living with her husband Bob and his family. Bob had a gambling problem, and his family enabled him, even encouraged his behavior. Sylvia later found support by joining groups founded by other GI war brides.

Lyn ended up with her husband Ben in California. Ben's Italian family were very close, and his mother was a stereotypical Italian mother. She washed and ironed her son's clothes perfectly, and cooked elaborate Italian meals. Lyn could not meet her mother-in-law's impossible standards, and was very unkind to her non-Italian daughter-in-law, and that caused much conflict.

Margaret and the charismatic Lawrence had three daughters, and Lawrence's alcoholism deteriorated into domestic violence. Having nowhere to turn, Margaret moved to Ireland, where her abusive mother took in her and the children.

All of these women showed an amazing ability to overcome tough times and difficult marriages. They made the best lives they could, and eventually thrived and even found happiness.

We all agreed it took awhile to get into the book, and it was difficult to keep the women and their husbands straight at first. But as we read, it became easier and we found each women's story so interesting. We thought that either a chart in the beginning with each woman and her husband and children and family would have helped, or perhaps telling each women's story in their own section as opposed to in chronological order may have solved that issue.

rating 4 of 5