Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Women In The Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women In The Castle by Jessica Shattuck
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062563668
Hardcover, $26.99, 358 pages

Two of the biggest publishing sensations of the past few years are Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale and the Pulitzer Prize-winning All The Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Both dealt with people trapped by the horrors of WWII in France and Germany.

Jessica Shattuck's new novel, The Women In The Castle, tackles that same era and will definitely appeal to readers who were so moved by those two books.

The story opens in November of 1938 at Burg Lingenfels, a castle in Bavaria, where the Countess' annual harvest party is about to begin. We meet Marianne von Lingelfels, the Countess' niece-in-law, who will act as hostess to the party. She is married to Albrecht von Lingelfels who fears that the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler have become too powerful.

Albrecht is disgusted by the actions of Hitler, and actively participates in the resistance movement along with others, including Connie Fledermann, a man who is always the charming life-of-the-party and Marianne's dear friend. Connie is married to the beautiful, young Benita, and if Marianne admits it, she is a little jealous.

The action moves back and forth in time, and a few years later we find Marianne and her young children living in the castle, a shadow of its former grand self. Marianne has promised Connie that she take care of Benita and their young son, and along the way also picks up Ania, a refugee with her three children.

The three women and their children band together to survive the horrors and deprevations of war. We learn where Benita and Ania were before they came to Burg Lingenfels, and what they had to do to survive.

We see the horrors of war through their eyes, and some of the scenes are so jarring, such as the one of Ania and her friend seeing what they believe to be sacks of food piled high on open air wagons. As it gets closer they realize that the sacks are actually people. There are more than a few heartbreaking scenes in this searing novel.

The story moves along, following the war's end and what happens to those who survive. Some do their best to move on, forget the past, while others are haunted too much. Marianne does her best to live up to her high principles, even if that hurts those she loves, while others do whatever it takes to survive. Which way is right? That is the big question to be answered.

The women face many moral dilemmas, and the reader is left to wonder what she may have done in their situations. Shattuck does an admirable job of putting the reader in their shoes, making us identify with these women, creating empathy.

The Women In The Castle is a haunting story, one that you cannot rush through, but must read and contemplate. These characters' stories will stay with you for a very long time. Fans of Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls and David Gillam's City of Women should put this one on your TBR list as well.

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


Tour Stops

Tuesday, March 28th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, March 29th: Literary Quicksand
Thursday, March 30th: Ms. Nose in a Book
Friday, March 31st: Just Commonly
Tuesday, April 4th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, April 5th: Diary of an Eccentric
Wednesday, April 5th: Living Outside the Stacks
Thursday, April 6th: West Metro Mommy
Friday, April 7th: Broken Teepee
Monday, April 10th: I Brought a Book
Tuesday, April 11th: Tina Says…
Thursday, April 13th: Let Them Read Books
Friday, April 14th: View from the Birdhouse
Monday, April 17th: Girls Just Reading
Tuesday, April 18th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, April 19th: The Paperback Pilgrim
Thursday, April 20th: Books on the Table
Monday, April 24th: Kritters Ramblings
Wednesday, April 26th: #redhead.with.book
Friday, April 28th: StephTheBookworm
Friday, April 28th: A Chick Who Reads



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Escape Winter Through These Two Books

Reprinted from the Citizen.

It’s been a long, dreary winter and while many of us can’t physically escape the cold climate, our minds can venture to another location through the miracle of books. This month’s Book Report takes you away to other lands through two novels.

For those of us who long to go someplace faraway and warm, Delia Ephron’s “Siracusa” takes the reader along on a vacation with two couples to the beautiful town of Siracusa, located on the Italian island of Sicily. 

Lizzie and Michael seem to be a great couple. Michael is a Pulitzer prize-winning author who is is having trouble with his latest novel, and hopes that he will find inspiration on this trip. Lizzie wants to visit Siracusa because her late father has told her wonderful stories of a beautiful place.

Finn and Taylor are the other couple, who have brought their ten-year-old daughter Snow along. Finn and Lizzie used to be a couple a long time ago, and if the idea of traveling overseas with your ex and their spouse seems like a bad idea, well, it probably is.

Taylor is very controlling, the kind of person who plans a trip down to the very last detail, leaving nothing to chance. She tries to control everything in Snow’s life as well.

Finn is more free-wheeling, a restauranteur who often goes off on his own to find a great little out-of-the-way dive bar. He begins to resent Taylor and her need to control everything.

Michael enchants young Snow with his wild storytelling. He is having an affair with a young waitress at his favorite restaurant back home, and she is beginning to become more possessive and demanding of Michael.

The description of the scenery of Rome and Siracusa is so vivid, you can almost smell the sea air as you read. There are lots of great food scenes, and your sense of taste is engaged in the novel as well.

Something bad happens in Siracusa, and as the truth unravels, so do the marriages of the two couples. We see the story from the viewpoints of the characters, as they each take turns narrating. 

“Siracusa” is a seductive story, and you’ll find yourself lost in the story and scenery of this terrific book. I highly recommend it.

Jenny Colgan takes us to a small town in Scotland in “The Bookshop on the Corner”. Nina works as a librarian in the big city, until the day that her library is closed to make way for a “media center”. 

With no job, and a roommate who insists that Nina must get rid of all of the hundreds of books that are overtaking their apartment, Nina despairs of what come next in her life. Books are her life, her friends, the one thing that brings her joy.

Nina sees an ad for a big van and comes up with the idea of running a mobile bookshop. She has enough books to start an inventory, and with so many libraries closing, she has access to many more.

She heads up to a remote town in Scotland, and meets with the man selling the van at the local pub. It’s much bigger than she thought, and the owner scoffs at Nina, refusing to sell the van to her. 

The men who own the pub like Nina’s idea because their library closed a few years ago and there is no bookshop in town. They buy the van and call Nina to tell her the good news. They are crestfallen when Nina says that she is buying the van to sell books in her city, not in their small village.

But when Nina discovers that her van is too big for the city and she can’t get a permit, she reluctantly moves to the small village, only until she can figure something else out.

She finds a beautiful place to rent from a recently divorced farmer, and slowly makes friends. Nina loves pairing people with books she knows they will enjoy, and soon she becomes a big part of this remote town. But will she find love with the Eastern European train engineer or the brooding farmer landlord?

“The Bookshop on the Corner” is a lovely, light read that drops the reader into this remote part of Scotland. It’s a beautiful place to visit for a few hours as you lose yourself in Nina’s story, and makes you long for small-town life. And if you are a book lover, this one is for you. I highly recommend it as well.



Siracusa” by Delia Ephron A-
Published by Blue Rider Press
Hardcover, 304 pages, $26

The Bookshop on the Corner” by Jenny Colgan A-
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks

Paperback, 368 pages, $14.99

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Weekend Cooking- Food On TV

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.


With the unfortunate turn of weather recently, I have been inside a little more and able to catch some great food segments on TV.

First up, March 9th was National Meatball Day, and we are lucky enough to live near The Meatball Shop, a restaurant that I love to take visitors to for their delicious variety of meatballs.

Local TV show New York Live had a segment on places to get great meatballs, and the three that correspondent Lauren Scala visited are new to me. They all looked good, from the old school spaghetti and meatballs at Emilio's Ballato in NoLita, a place popular with celebrities like Leo DiCaprio and Lenny Kravitz, to Adoro Lei, a Hudson Street eatery that serves an off-menu Meatball Flambe that looks amazing to White Gold Butchers, a new Upper West Side restaurant where you can get a tasty meatball sandwich that will fill you up. Click on the link below to see the segment.

http://www.nbcnewyork.com/on-air/as-seen-on/National-Meatball-Day_New-York-415796513.html?t=170

Daphne Oz from ABC's The Chew visited Do, a little place that has hit on a great concept- they sell different flavors of cookie dough that you can eat raw or buy baked goods made from their cookie dough.

Do has a long line waiting outside, and they even have rules for the line listed on their website. They have become so popular that they no longer can sell their product online. The most popular flavors are Cookie Dough and Cake Batter, and if you are like me and can't resist eating cookie dough right out of the freezer, this is a no-brainer. I will be visiting Do.

Here is the link to The Chew story.

The Today Show ran a segment this week with Meredith Rollins from Redbook magazine on the best new grab-and-go snacks. I bring my lunch to work at the Book Cellar (yogurt and a snack), so I'm always looking for new snack ideas.

One of my new favorites, Sargento Balanced Breaks, which my Pittsburgh sister-in-law turned me on to, made the list and another, Sun Chips Harvest Cheddar Chips, used to be a family favorite when my sons were younger. I'm going to try some of the others to mix my lunch treats up a bit.

The link to the segment is here.

Have you seen any interesting food segements on TV lately? Share them in the Comments section below.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Books Celebrating Women

March is the month set aside for celebrating Women's History Month, so I reflected on some of the non-fiction books I have read over the last few months that fit well into this category.

Tara Clancy's The Clancys of Queens is a memoir about growing up with her extended family in Queens, New York. After her parents divorced, Tara spent her childhood with her beloved maternal Italian grandparents, running around their Brooklyn neighborhood.
The Clancys of Queens




Her grandparents lived in a two-family house with her Aunt Mary. Her grandparents lived on the top floor, Aunt Mary in the middle level, and the basement level was where all of the thirty members of her family celebrated holidays. It reminded me of all the stories my mother told me about growing up with her grandparents, and this was the best part of the book. It sounded like Tara lived in the 1950s, instead of the 1990s.

Tara also spent time living between a converted garage in Queens with her divorced father, and on a fancy Hamptons estate when her mother remarried. Clancy can sure spin a yarn, and she makes you feel like you are right along side of her in her adventures.

Richard Cohen's She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron shares his decades-long friendship with writer/director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally).  Ephron has written extensively about her own life, in her books I Feel Bad About My Neck, I Remember Nothing and her novel Heartburn, a thinly-veiled roman a clef about the dissolution of Ephron's marriage to writer Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame).
She Made Me Laugh

Cohen shows us a side to Ephron that most people didn't see, and he doesn't shy away the more prickly aspects of her personality. He'd seen her through thick and thin, and his wife was battling cancer at the same time Ephron was dying from leukemia and trying to hide it from the world.

Reading She Made Me Laugh brings Ephron back to vivid life, and fans of hers will not be disappointed with this candid look at a complicated woman.

Jennifer Weiner is best known as a novelist, but she also writes essays, appearing in The New York Times and other distinguished publications. Her essay collection Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love and Writing tells her story, growing up as a young woman trying to find her way in the world.
Hungry Heart

Weiner tackles what it was like growing up not looking like a Barbie doll, being a bookworm instead of a cheerleader, her family dodging bill collectors after her father up and leaves, and her steely determination to go to college and be a writer.

Some of these essays have been seen before, (the one about her grandmother being ostracized by "mean girl" women at her new adult living home is heartbreaking) and some are new, but all together they tell a tale of a woman coming into her own, trying to make a living at what she loves best- writing.

I loved her stories as a working reporter for a newspaper best, (as I once wanted to be Brenda Starr, if anyone knows who that is) and this is a great collection for young women to read, giving them hope that persistence, a good work ethic and believing in yourself can pay off.

Cara Brookins has had a bad run with men. One of her husbands was mentally ill, terrifying her and her children. Her next husband was physically abusive, and she would wake up to him grabbing her by the throat threatening to kill her.

She needed to prove to herself and her children that she could take care of them, and so she found a mission: to build a home for their family, which she recounts in Rise: How a House Built a Family. 
Rise


Although her children were young, (the oldest being 15, the youngest a two-year-old toddler), Brookins and her children taught themselves how design a home, frame walls, and lay a foundation by watching YouTube videos. (And this was back in 2009 before YouTube videos were as sophisticated as they are today.)

It sounds astounding that the Brookins family could accomplish this, but Cara's belief and determination was infectious and they all pulled together, along with help from a few people along the way, to make their dream come true.

They had many roadblocks, but when Brookins found herself flagging, her children picked her up. It's an inspirational story, and the next time your children tell you they can't take out the garbage, remind them that Cara Brookins' kids helped her build a house.

Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures tells the story of a group of African-American women who worked in the aeronautics industry as mathematicians in the 1940s. This is a truly fascinating story, as these women overcame prejudice through hard work, determination and an indomitable belief in themselves.
Hidden Figures

They came from families who believed that education was the way to make a better life, and their communities helped too, chipping with scholarships to college, and help with childcare when needed.

Women like Katharine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn and Christine Darden became an integral part of Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia and later helped launch man into space at NASA.

Their story is the perfect example of "luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." They prepared to succeed by working hard in school, taking difficult courses in college. When WWII led to a shortage of men working stateside, and the war effort needed more and better planes, these ladies were ready to step and do the job needed for America to succeed.

These women also gave back to their community. In addition to working 16-hour days, and caring for their families, they were choir members at their church, led Girl Scout troops, and mentored other young black women.

Hidden Figures inspired the movie that was nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards, and the book is even better. There is something for everyone here- technical stuff for the math and science fans, a great narrative of interesting women for those who like a good biography, and a sense of pride for America and what we can achieve when everyone is allowed to contribute to the best of their abilities. Hidden Figures was the best of the books in this category, it is a must-read.



Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On Broadway- Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Does a musical based on a part of the Tolstoy classic novel War and Peace sound like a snooze? Well, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is anything but. With its innovative staging, large cast of mostly newcomers, no spoken dialogue (the show is entirely sung by the cast) and an almost unrecognizeable singer Josh Groban playing a schlubby, bookish Pierre, this is a show that must be seen to be fully appreciated. Describing it doesn't do it justice.

There is no real stage- there are tiers of tables and walkways where the cast sing, dance and play instruments around the tables. The opening number Prologue starts the show with an enthusiastic bang that let the audience know they are in for something fresh and exciting.

The cast is large, and periodically during the show they hand out pierogies to snack on, love letters, pages from the actual book War And Peace, and plastic eggs filled with rice to shake along with a song to audience members. They even sat next to audience members at certain points, involving them in the action.

My sisters-in-law and I sat at a table below the main walkway, and we had to pay attention to the various cast members who sang to us and whirled by us dancing. This is not a show where you can take a little snooze, nor would you want to.

Denee Benton usually plays Natasha, whose fiancee has gone off to war, but at our performance we saw Shoba Narayan, making her Broadway debut. Her role is the largest in the show, and she will be a star if this show is any indication. She played Natasha with a sense of wonder, joy and eventual sadness.

Josh Groban stops the show with his rendition of Dust and Ashes, showing us why he commands the stage at his concerts. It gave me goosebumps.  (You can hear him singing it on the show's website.) Other cast standouts include Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell and Lucas Steele.

The best way to describe this show is if you put Hamilton, Once, and Les Miserables in a blender, you'd come out with The Great Comet. This is a show that you will download the soundtrack (as I did) and play it on repeat to catch all of the things you missed at the theater.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is the most inventive musical of the year,  with an amazing score, don't miss this one. Bravo to Dave Malloy who wrote the music, lyrics, book and did the orchestrations.

The website for The Great Comet is here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Harper ISBN 9780062436603
Hardcover, $27.99, 352 pages


The last few Maisie Dobbs books have found Maisie in Germany and Spain, away from her friends and family, trying to heal from a horrible tragedy. The latest book, In This Grave Hour, Maisie is back in London and back to work as a private investigator and psychologist.

That means that the characters we have grown to love- her assistants Billy and Sandra, her father and stepmother Brenda, best friend Priscilla and Pris' husband and sons- are back too. They were sorely missed.

As the story opens in 1939, England has reluctantly declared war on Germany. We first met Maisie when she was a nurse and ambulance driver in France during WWI, and we have seen the havoc wreaked on her and the people she loved because of war. They are all wary of what will happen, but many (including Maisie) know how dangerous Hitler and Nazi Germany have become.

Francesca Thomas, a Belgian national we have met in a previous book, returns to ask Maisie to investigate the murder of a Belgian refugee in London. Thomas is a shadowy figure, and she doesn't believe that the London police are very interested in discovering what happened.

Maisie takes on the case, and she brings out the trusty case board for her and Billy and Sandra to work on. (This brings me great joy to see the case board again!) Maisie discovers that two other Belgian refugees have been murdered in the same fashion, a bullet to the back of the head while kneeling, so this case gets more complicated.

The story resonates with today's news as war refugees from Syria have been flooding Europe and many of the countries to which they have been accepted are having issues as well. Nationalist movements are gaining ground in countries like England, France and Germany as millions of refugees seek safety from their war-torn home.

Maisie gets involved with a man blinded and rendered disabled by WWI, as well as a young girl found at a train station alone amidst a group of refugees. Maisie recruits her father and stepmother to help her with the young girl.

Using her wits and training, Maisie closes the case. And as WWII looms, Priscilla convinces Maisie to join her as she signs up to drive ambulances for wounded soldiers. It seems that in the next book, we will have come full circle, with Maisie and Priscilla helping out with the war effort.

In This Grave Hour brings Maisie back to her home, family and friends, and it feels right. This is a strong book in the series, and I will be impatiently awaiting next year's story to see where WWII takes Maisie and company.

It is particularly appropriate that each Maisie Dobbs book publishes in March, which is International Women's History Month. Maisie is a wonderful feminist heroine, and this series is great for high schoolers.

My review of Journey to Munich is here.
My review of A Dangerous Place is here.



Monday, March 13, 2017

On Broadway- Sunday In the Park With George


It takes a brave soul who is willing to take on a role so iconically identified with a Broadway legend. In the revival of Sunday in the Park With George, there are two- Jake Gyllenhaal, playing George, the role that Mandy Patinkin made famous, and Annaleigh Ashford, playing Dot and Dot's granddaughter Marie, roles that helped make Bernadette Peters a star.

I have seen Annaleigh Ashford in Kinky Boots, and her Tony Award-winning role in You Can't Take It With You (she was hilarious!), and she is the best thing about Showtime's Masters of Sex, playing Betty, the office manager who holds it all together amidst the chaos swirling around her. I adore her!

I knew she'd be fabulous as always, and she brings such a depth to the role of Dot, with her trademark humor and pathos. She is the definition of luminous in the role of Dot. As Marie, she gets to crack wise as the older woman who gets her chance to hold an audience for just a moment.

But it is Jake Gyllenhaal who was a surprise. As an actor, he has always chosen roles that stretch him- Brokeback Mountain, End of Watch, Nightcrawler and Donnie Darko spring to mind- and he does that again here. His George Seurat is an artist who is driven to create, and he plays him tightly coiled.

Sunday in the Park With George is a Sondheim musical, so the songs are no walk in the park to sing and Gyllenhaal has surprised everyone with his beautiful, powerful voice. (There is a video of him singing Finishing the Hat online that has everyone talking.)


The supporting cast is just as strong, including Robert Sean Leonard and Broadway vets Philip Boykin, Erin Davie, Ruthie Ann Miles and Brooks Ashmanskas.

The musical highlights of the show include the opeing number Sunday in the Park With George and its reprise at the end of Act II, and George and Dot's moving duet We Do Not Belong Together.

Sunday in the Park With George will bring you joy and tears, it is one show that I will always remember. The run ends April 23, and it is worth buying a full-price ticket for this one. It is a must-see, and it is playing in the newly restored Hudson Theatre, which is so lush and lovely.

The website for Sunday in the Park With George is here.