Thursday, April 17, 2014

Casebook by Mona Simpson

Casebook by Mona Simpson
Published by Knopf ISBN 97880385351416
Hardcover, $25.95, 336 pages

As Mona Simpson's newest novel, Casebook opensMiles is twelve years old when his parents separate. His mom, Irene (whom he calls the Mims) is a mathematician, not an occupation you find frequently in novels. His father Evan is a lawyer in the entertainment industry and they live in Los Angeles.

He has younger twin sisters whom he calls Boop One and Boop Two. His best friend Hector's parents aren't together either. Hector has a bit of a crush on the Mims, and he is more than willing to help Miles figure out why Mims and Evans are separated and whether they are headed towards divorce.

Miles has heard rumblings that Mims cheated on his dad, and to find out the truth he rigs up a phone extension so that he can listen to his mother's phone conversations. Mims soon begins dating Eli, who works for the National Service Foundation in Washington.

Eli seems like a good guy, but he is in the midst of a divorce from his wife and he misses his young son. His mother recently died, and he has a brother who has mental health issues. Eli promises Mims that he will move out to Los Angeles and they will be a family, she just has to give him time. And more time. And more time. And then he has to take care of his dying cat, who seems to hang on forever.

Miles and Hector become suspicious of Eli, so they seek out a private investigator, whose jobs usually consist of background checks on reality show contestants (Big Brother, The Bachelor), but there is something about these boys that gets to him, and he agrees to help them without pay.

Casebook puts me in mind of Caroline Leavitt's recent novel Is This Tomorrow?. They both tell the story of a lonely young boy, who loves his mom very much, and takes on her problems. They both tell the story from the boy as an adult looking back on his life. And they both feature strong characterizations and beautiful writing.

It took me awhile to get into Casebook, but about halfway in, I fell in love. Miles and Hector are such real, wonderful boys, trying to make sense of an adult world. Mims got to me too; she so wants this relationship with Eli to be the real deal.

Simpson creates believable characters that you feel you know. Her description of Sare, one of Mims's friends is a good example.
"She was way cooler than my parents. Sare was a very smart person who never tried anything too hard for her. She had that confidence and that boredom."

My only criticism of the book is that there are many characters, and at first it is difficult to keep track of who belonged to whom. And the fact that Miles had nicknames for his mom and sisters confused me when other characters called them by their given names.

Miles and Hector write a comic book based partly on Eli, and I'm glad we get to see the results of their work. Hector also has footnotes in the book, giving his point of view on things that Miles has written about him, which adds a unique perspective.

The ending is poignant, much like Is This Tomorrow?, and if you liked that novel, you will love Casebook, as I did. It's a beautiful coming-of-age story, sure to touch your heart.

rating 5 of 5

My review of Is This Tomorrow? is here.

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

Mona Simpson’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, April 14th:  Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Tuesday, April 15th:  Book Chatter
Tuesday, April 15th:  Guiltless Reading
Wednesday, April 16th:  From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, April 16th:  5 Minutes for Books
Thursday, April 17th:  Bookchickdi
Friday, April 18th:  She Treads Softly
Monday, April 21st:  Entomology of a Bookworm
Monday, April 21st:  Simply Stacie
Monday, April 21st:  A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, April 22nd:  Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Wednesday, April 23rd:  Anita Loves Books
Wednesday, April 23rd:  Guiltless Reading - guest post “A Rejection”
Thursday, April 24th:  Lit and Life
Friday, April 25th:  Chaotic Compendiums
Saturday, April 26th:  Chaotic Compendiums -  guest post “How I Found My POV”
Monday, April 28th:  Book-alicious Mama
Monday, April 28th:  Daily Mayo
Tuesday, April 29th:  Love at First Book
Tuesday, April 29th:  Fiction Addict
Wednesday, April 30th:  Bookish Ardour
Wednesday, April 30th:  Booksie’s Blog
Thursday, May 1st:  Musings of a Bookish Kitty
Friday, May 2nd:  Missris
Monday, May 5th:  Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, May 6th:  Bound by Words
Wednesday, May 7th:  No More Grumpy Bookseller
Thursday, May 8th:  BookNAround
Friday, May 9th:  In Bed With Books

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Weekend Cooking- Two DC Restaurants

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. 

My husband had a conference in Washington DC that coincided with my birthday, so we celebrated by visiting two fantastic restaurants, Founding Farmers and Le Diplomate.

On the first night we went to Founding Farmers, a restaurant my husband found by accident on a previous visit. It was a good thing I made reservations a few weeks, because this is one hopping place. The bar area was packed with customers waiting to get a table.

We got a tasty drink at the bar, the El Presidente, which had rum, pineapple, lime and a housemade grenadine. I even got a second one with dinner.

The crowd was a nice mix of locals, tourists, couples and families. Everyone would feel comfortable here. It's a really cool looking place, with lots of old-fashioned wood mixed with more modern metal elements.

We started with Farmers' Chips and Crisps served with three dips- pimento cheese, french onion and green goddess. It was so good, we took the leftovers home to snack on the next day.

I had the Southern Pan Fried Chicken and Waffles, and it may be the best entree I have ever eaten. The chicken was so juicy and the waffles with the syrup, oh my goodness, it was the perfect combination. (It came with macaroni and cheese and I ordered potato salad as a side; both were wonderful.) My husband regretted not ordering it too, although he enjoyed his surf and turf, so I reluctantly gave him a taste. Then I reverted to eating like a prisoner guarding her food.

We shared a heavenly vanilla milkshake for dessert and five days later, I am still dreaming about this food. If you get a chance to visit DC, you must go to Founding Farmers. It's three blocks west of the White House.

The following night, we visited Le Diplomate, a restaurant I found on Serious Eats. I loved the vibe in this place, very French bistro. This seemed more like a date place, with mostly couples there.

There is a huge table filled with fresh baked bread, and the cranberry walnut bread in our bread basket was so delicious, i could have just eaten an entire basket of that for dinner and been satisfied.

We started with Onion Soup Gratinee for me and my husband ordered Escargot, which he loved.

For our entrees, I chose the Steak Frites, which came with a butter on top. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My husband raved about his Veal Escalope, which came with a green onion and chanterelle cream sauce. he said it was the best veal dish he ever had, and the accompanying Au Gratin Potatoes rivaled his veal dish.

Before our dessert arrived, two black Escalades pulled up in front of the restaurant, and Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) came in all smiles, and took a table in back. I'm sure they enjoyed their meal as much as we did.

We shared the Chocolate Pot de Creme, and this was the best dessert I have ever had. My husband loved it as well, and there was a little dueling spoons in there for a minute. But have no fear, we both won.

If you find yourself in DC, make sure to visit both restaurants; I know we will be returning on our next trip.

Founding Farmers' website is here.
Le Diplomate's website is here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

New in Paperback- The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
Published by Berkley ISBN 9780425268421
Trade paperback, $16, 368 pages

The timing for Suzanne Rindell's The Other Typist couldn't be better. Set in the 1920's in Prohibition New York City, it it the perfect companion for those who enjoyed Baz Lurhmann's spectacular film of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby.

As the title character in The Other Typist, Odalie Lazare is the female equivalent of Jay Gatsby. She  mysteriously shows up one day to apply as a typist at a police precinct. It is a job that men reluctantly allow women to fill, as they are not as good as typists as the women.

The other main character in the novel is Rose Baker, as unassuming and plain as Odalie is vivacious and beautiful. She grew up in an orphanage and had a boring, lonely life until Odalie walked into her life.
"On that particular day, she entered very calmly and quietly, but I knew; it was like the eye of a hurricane. She was the dark epicenter of something we didn't quite understand yet, the place where hot and cold mixed dangerously, and around her everything would change."
Rose becomes enchanted by Odalie and is thrilled when Odalie befriends her. Odalie takes Rose to wild parties in hidden speakeasies, lends her gorgeous clothes and even invites Rose to move into her fancy Park Avenue apartment with her.

Soon a spider's web encompasses Rose. Seduced by the fanciful lifestyle and believing that Odalie thinks of her as a sister, Rose nevertheless has nagging suspicions about Odalie. She catches Odalie telling different stories about her past, and when they run into a man who claims to know Odalie by a different name, things start to unravel.

The story is told by Rose, who is writing this from some sort of institution. Something bad has clearly happened, and Rose is unspooling the turn of events from her point of view. The mystery of what has occurred is not immediately evident, we must wait (im)patiently for Rose to complete her story.

The Other Typist seduces the reader just as surely as Odalie seduces Rose. Rindell weaves her story, keeping us turning the pages with her fascinating characters and cat-and-mouse plot. The setting of a 1920s NYC police precinct feels fresh, and who knew that women worked as typists there back then?

I found it interesting that when one of the women became pregnant, she continued to work well into her pregnancy, even when she was clearly showing. It never occurred to me that women were allowed to be seen outside of their home obviously pregnant, let alone continue to work back then. But I guess if a family depends on a women's income, she'd have to work.

The end of the story is literally jaw-dropping. I read the last few pages several times, and I'm still not sure that I completely know what happened. It has been called a mashup of The Great Gatsby and The Talented Mr. Ripley, but I also think that the many people who liked Gone Girl will like this book, although I think The Other Typist is much better. It is the best literary mystery of the year, and it didn't surprise me to find that it is an Amy Einhorn imprint. No one finds better debut novelists that Amy Einhorn.

rating 5 of 5

Suzanne Rindell's website is here.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

New in Paperback- The Returned by Jason Mott

The Returned by Jason Mott
Published by Harlequin Mira ISBN9780778317074  
Trade paperback, $14.95, 352 pages

Every year at the Book Expo of America there is one book there is everywhere and people are buzzing about it. Last year, it was Jason Mott's The Returned, which had already been optioned as a TV series by ABC well before the book was even published. (See more info here on the TV show, now called Resurrection.)

The premise is intriguing- what happens when dead people start turning up alive, looking exactly as they did at their death? Agent Martin Bellamy of the International Bureau of the Returned shows up on the doorstep of Lucille and Harold Hargraves, an elderly couple who lost their son Jacob fifty years ago on his eighth birthday when he drowned in a local river.

With him is a young boy who looks exactly like Jacob. He was found wandering in China and Agent Bellamy was bringing him home. Lucille, who thought that these 'Returned' were the work of the devil, changed her mind the minute she saw her beloved son in front of her. She was willing to believe it was Jacob because she missed him so much.

Harold was more skeptical; he didn't know what to make of this boy in front of him, but he didn't believe it was his son. Agent Bellamy asked them if they wanted to keep Jacob, and Lucille prevailed.

More and more Returned kept turning up, and people became frightened and angry. Protests erupted all over the world, some people believing it was some kind of government conspiracy (what kind of conspiracy, they could not say).

As the number of Returned began to swell out of control, the President of the United States ordered them confined to their homes, but soon they begin to confine them in government buildings in specific cities. Harold and Jacob were out one day, and they were caught by the police and confined to the neighborhood school, which now housed hundreds of Returned.

Harold refused to leave Jacob, and Lucille brought them clean clothes and homemade food, visiting every day. But soon the military took over the camps, and visitors were no longer permitted. The situation deteriorated, and people were fighting for limited resources and a place to sleep.

Fans of the TV series Lost will enjoy this fast-paced, thought-provoking debut novel. Mott's theme of science versus faith will resonate with them. There is an interesting scene where the local reverend is watching a TV show in which a scientist is debating with a minister on who exactly these Returned are, and a man in the audience told them they were both useless as they had no definitive answers. In today's uncertain world, there are parallels to be made here.

The Returned is the kind of book that you will read in one sitting, but keep pondering its themes long after you finish. The plot draws you into this unfamiliar world, and you will identify with the characters, particularly Lucille and Harold. There are a few twists and turns and some exciting action along the way, and I think this book will appeal to so many different types of readers that it has the ability to become a real blockbuster.

rating 4 of 5

Monday, April 7, 2014

New in Paperback- The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth  L. Silver
Published by Broadway Books ISBN 9780385347457
Trade paperback, $14, 336 pages

Noa P. Singleton has resided on death row in Pennsylvania for ten years and is within six months of being executed for the crime of murdering a young pregnant woman in Elizabeth L. Silver's thought-provoking debut novel The Execution of Noa PSingleton.

Marlene, the mother of Noa's victim Sarah, argued persuasively and successfully for the death penalty, but now ten years later, she has changed her mind. She now believes that no one has the right to take a life, and that includes the state in retribution for murder.

Noa is rightfully suspect of this change of heart, and as the story unwinds in Noa's voice and letters Marlene has written to her dead daughter, we can see why. It is difficult to review this intriguing story without giving too much away, but here goes.

Noa is what is known as an unreliable narrator; we cannot trust that what she has said is the truth. This novel tries to untangle Noa's story, beginning with life with a sometimes-actress mother who lived with a lot of men as Noa grew up. Did any of them molest Noa, and if so, did that effect her later behavior?

Her father left Noa and her mother, and she had no contact with him until she went to college and found that he owned a bar in the city where she went to school. Noa left college after an incident in the college library that left her physically and emotionally scarred.

She is reluctant to become involved with her father, an ex-con with a lot of problems. He wants to become a part of Noa's life, but she is leery of him. Still, she spends more and more time with him. One day Noa runs into the bar and tells her father a man was following her. Her father chases after the man and catches him.

That sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Noa being convicted of Sarah's murder. The trial scenes that Silver writes are fascinating, from the 12-hour police interview to the juror selection (after just having served jury duty, I found this part really interesting) to the actual trial, conviction and sentencing. Silver is a lawyer and worked on several death penalty cases and her expertise shines through here.

Silver writes Noa's incarceration scenes with empathy and integrity. The reader is dropped into a world not many of us know (thank goodness), and Noa's sense of isolation is palpable. Noa comes to believe that she belongs there, saying
"it's the internal acceptance that finally you have become the person you were meant to be. When you enter, true, you are given a new number, a new residence, and a new wardrobe; but is is only when you place those garments upon your limbs that realize they were meant for no one but you. No former splinters of your personality carry over into prison life. No relationships, fictional or otherwise, accompany them either. Any superficial intimacy you claim to have experienced with another (whether consanguineous or not) when you wore any color other than cocoa brown fades as quickly as a puff of smoke. You are now the person everyone knows you to be."
Reading this deeply affecting novel will have you questioning the use and human cost of capital punishment. Silver sprinkles in some jaw-dropping revelations, from secret relationships to incidents in the Noa's past that are stunning and also explain much of Noa's willingness to accept her fate. The suspense here is so well done.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton put me in mind of another novel I read with an unreliable female character- Marcy Dermanksy's Bad Marie. They have the same dark tone, and unforgettable protagonists.

If you like a story that will make you think and question human nature, this is the novel for you. I'm still thinking about it days after I have finished it. Silver's debut novel has me looking for more from her in the future.

rating 4 of 5
Elizabeth L. Silver's website is here.
My review of Bad Marie is here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Weekend Cooking- Lunch at Nougatine by Jean Georges

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. 

Two of my sisters-in-law and I share a birthday and sometimes the stars align and we can celebrate together. One of my sisters-in-law came to visit yesterday to take The New York Culinary Experience at The International Culinary Center, where the students spend the weekend cooking with 30 of the best chefs in the country. She loves to cook and it is a very thoughtful gift from her family.

Yesterday we visited the Macy's Flower Show, which is a wonderful event that is so welcome after the horrendous winter we have all had. For two weeks, the main floor of the flagship Herald Square Macy's is turned in a Secret Garden with some of the most beautiful floral displays you will see anywhere.

The showstopper is located at the Broadway entrance, and it is a mannequin wearing a stunning red dress made of flowers. If you find yourself in NYC in late March- early April, make sure to plan a trip to this annual show.
Macy's Flower Show
Next, we headed uptown to go to lunch at  Nougatine at Jean Georges, located off Columbus Circle. They do a lovely prefixe $32 lunch and my sister-in-law treated me to a birthday lunch. We toasted our special day with Raspberry Lychee Bellinis, and I started with the Shrimp Salad with Avocado, Tomatoes and Champagne Vinegar Dressing. The flavor of the dressing over the shrimp was fantastic.
Shrimp Salad
For my entree, I chose the Cheeseburger with Crispy Fried Onions and Russian Dressing. It came with a side of crispy, tasty fries and one of the highlights was the homemade pickles that came on top of the burger. The burger was juicy and tasty.
Cheeseburger and Fries
Brigette chose the Organic Chicken with Lemon Meyer and Chili Sauce over a bed of kale. She pronounced it delicious.
Lemon Meyer Chicken
For dessert, we both had the Rhubarb Sorbet, with a nutty crumb topping and they put a cute Happy Birthday White Chocolate decoration with a candle.

We ended our day with dinner at Lusardis, my favorite neighborhood restaurant (actually my favorite NYC restuarant) with my husband, our sons and their girlfriends and it was the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

Macy's Flower Show is here.
Nougatine at Jean Georges is here.
Lusardi's is here.

Friday, April 4, 2014

New in Paperback- The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank

The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks ISBN 9780062132475
Trade paperback, $14.99, 368 pages

One look at the cover of Dorothea Benton Frank's The Last Original Wife, with a woman lounging on the sand near the ocean, wearing a stylish red sun hat, and you know right away this is a book that will be accompanying you to the beach for spring break.

Les is the title character, a middle-aged wife and mother of two adult children, doting grandmother to sweet little Holly. Married to Wes, a driven businessman, they dine at the exclusive country club each Saturday with their group of friends.

But that group is changing. Les' best friend died tragically, and the widower (too) quickly remarried a young, sexy woman who is not popular with the children. When Les' other best friend gives her husband an ultimatum- stop texting his hot young personal trainer at the dinner table or she is leaving, it leaves Les as The Last Original Wife.

Forced to spend time with her husband's friends and their new vapid, young wives, Les starts to wonder if this is what she has to look forward to in the coming years. After a trip to Scotland with her husband and his friend and new wife, Les falls into an open manhole and her husband gets all the way back to the hotel (a 40 minute walk) before he realizes that Les is no longer there.

Call that the straw that broke the camel's back. Les decides she is not happy with her life. Her daughter uses her as a babysitter whenever she feels like it, her son lives overseas and only calls for money, and her husband refuses to allow Les' gay brother Harlan to come visit so Les hasn't seen her him in forever.

She goes to Charleston to stay with her brother. There she runs into an old high school boyfriend and begins to see that she can have a different life, one where she can be in charge of her own happiness.

I loved everything about this novel- characters, the story- and the setting made me want to book my airline ticket for Charleston right now. Frank takes us to this beautiful city, and she gave me some fabulous suggestions for restaurants, for which I promptly made a Pinterest board.

Harlan is a fantastic character, with an even better dog, the supremely spoiled Miss Jo, who has a closet full of beautiful clothes. I really enjoyed his and Les' sibling relationship. Harlan lives in a historical home, once owned by Josephine Pinckney, a prominent feminist and author. I loved the historical homes in Charleston, and you can bet I'm looking for Pinckney's books now.

The novel is told from alternating view points- Les' and Wes'- so we know what each of them is thinking. Wes is completely blindsided and extremely myopic when it comes to his wife, but give him credit for trying to understand. He even agrees to therapy to save his marriage.

The Last Original Wife is the beach read for boomers this spring. I think most women who read it will be able to identify with some part of Les's story, and cheer her on as she makes the decisions that will lead to her living a happy life. I like that it is not just a light read with a lot of humor (Les' one-liners crack me up); it has a lot of depth to it and it is surprisingly moving for a summer book.  I'm buying extra copies to bring to my sisters-in-law for our beach vacation next week.

rating 5 of 5

Dorothea Benton Frank's website is here.
My review of Return to Sullivan's Island is here.