Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Reprinted from the Citizen
July 21, 2014 6:15 am  •  
Southern fiction is an interesting genre, especially to those of us who grew up in the North. Contemporary southern writers like Lee Smith and Joshilyn Jackson feature characters in their novels who are distinctly southern, with all that implies.
Wilton Barnhardt’s newest novel, “Lookaway, Lookaway,” even has a title that conjures up the South, in just two words from the iconic song "Dixie." You are most likely not going to pick up this book expecting anything else but something set in the South.
“Lookaway, Lookaway” tells the story of the Jarvis/Johnston families. Each member gets one chapter to tell their story, so this engaging novel almost feels like linked short stories. The stories are set in different time frames, and each person’s story is more interesting than the one before.
The first story belongs to Jerilyn, who is heading off to college at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She is the youngest child of Duke Johnston Jr., a former football hero at UNC who married the formidable Jerlene Jarvis.
Jerilyn can’t wait to get to college and join a sorority, and not the staid, studious sorority her mother belonged to. No, Jerilyn wants to join the crazy sorority, where the girls drink too much, inhale coke and cigarettes to stay thin, and need her to bring their house GPA up.
Jerilyn’s older sister Annie is a real estate mogul. Annie was a difficult child (and teen), completely rebelling against all the things her mother held sacred. She has been married three times (twice divorced on the way to number three), and her real estate empire is falling apart during the housing crisis.
Brother Bo is a pastor, married to Kate, a vibrant young woman he met in the Peace Corp. Bo is torn in his job; he wants to be a good pastor, and likes the public adoration, but he is not sure that this is the life for him. The politics of the job irk him. Kate wants to go back to the Peace Corp to make a difference.
Josh is the other brother, a man whose best friend is a black woman named Dorrie. Josh’s parents question why Josh and Dorrie are not married as they spend all their time together.
Jerlene’s has two siblings, the most colorful of whom is Gaston Jarvis, a celebrated Southern novelist who followed up his brilliant debut novel with a series of awful books about a brave female who fights for the Confederacy during the Civil War. He hates what his life has become and has become a reclusive, nasty alcoholic.
Each person has a secret they are trying to keep- insolvency, affairs, sexual orientation, a secret child born years ago- and some of these secrets spill out during a raucous, crazy Christmas dinner at Jerlene and Duke’s sprawling, ancestral home that they will soon have to sell.
This is such a great scene, I had to go back and reread it. It reminded me of Adriana Trigiani’s Valentine trilogy of novels, which always has a crazy family holiday dinner scene, but this one has more of an edge to it, and much less love. (But it does involve an ambulance.)
Reading “Lookaway, Lookaway” drops the reader right into this North Carolina family and their surroundings. They try to keep up appearances amid the chaos and secrets, and watching them try to stay one step ahead of the secrets makes for fascinating reading.
We find out how Jerlene and her siblings’ upbringing, with a brutal, alcoholic father, made them into the adults they became. Jerlene was determined to make a better life for herself, and for the most part she did.
She is one tough cookie, and anyone who thinks they can get the better of her had better think twice. The term Steel Magnolia comes to mind. She will protect herself and her family with everything she has.
Although the book is 385 pages, it is such a quick read. You can’t stop reading, you feel compelled to turn to the pages to read the next person’s story. I also liked putting together the puzzle of what happened to whom when.
The characters are so well drawn, these people feel like someone you would run into if you spent time in Charlotte, which is also a character in the story. And if you think maybe your family has issues, the Jarvis/Johnston’s may just have you beat.
I loved “Lookaway, Lookaway”; this is a terrific, juicy, summer read.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger

The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger
Published by Lake Union Publishing ISBN 9781477822791
Trade paperback, $14.95, (Kindle edition $3.99), 282 pages

When I read the description of Susan Schoenberger's novel, The Virtues of Oxygen, about a woman struck by polio as a child who lived her life in iron lung, I knew I wanted to read this book.

As a child, my mother would drive by this certain house in her hometown and tell us that a young girl she knew had polio and lived in an iron lung. Her parents would position the machine in the front window so that the girl could see the cars go by and people could wave to her. That story had such an impact on me.

Vivian is just a young girl of six and her sister Darlene is ten when the girls contract polio. Darlene dies, and Viv can only survive in an iron lung, with just her head and neck outside the machine. Her parents take good care of Viv, as she requires round the clock care.

They move from their farm to town, and as her parents age, people from the town volunteer to sit with Viv to keep her company and make sure that she is okay. One of her caretaker volunteers is Holly, a young widow with two sons. Holly lost her husband and now has serious financial troubles.

Her mother helps when she can, but soon the situation changes. Holly's mom has a disabling stroke and  the newspaper where she works may not survive. The town in upstate New York where they live is suffering greatly from the recession. Manufacturing is closing, people are losing their jobs and their homes, and Holly is struggling to make her mortgage payments and may lose the house she and her husband worked so hard to make their own.

She describes how
"her goals have become crude and basic. To maintain their home. To stay out of the homeless shelter. To keep her boys from being filleted and boneless. To prevent her children from knowing just how poor they might become."
Viv invests in a Cash For Gold store in town, and hires Holly part-time to help her by dealing with the store's operator, a handsome man named Racine. Holly and Racine become friendly, but Holly has doubts about Racine and the whole business. She fears Viv may lose her money.

Schoenberger brilliantly captures the feel of what it's like to live in a small town at a time of economic troubles. The way people support each other, but also the fear of what is to become of them, watching their lives and town change due to circumstances beyond their control.

Her characters feel like people I could know, especially Holly. She is a good mom, daughter and friend, trying to do what's right, but she is so close to losing everything she holds dear, her fear is palpable on the page.

Viv is also an amazing character. She is "the spiritual center of town", and she truly means the world to everyone there. Although she has her times of (deserved) self-pity, she made the most of her life, learning how computers work, even going to college and becoming a stock market whiz. When she talks wistfully of her death and how if she had died like her sister her parents would have been free to grieve and start over, it was like a punch to the stomach to read.

 I became so emotionally invested in The Virtues of Oxygen, this beautiful story hit me where I live. The characters are honest, and the story will resonate with anyone who has faced struggles in their own life. It is one of the best books I have read this year, one that I will recommend to anyone who asks me, "What's a good book to read next?"

rating 5 of 5

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

Susan Schoenberger’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, July 21st:  Bookchickdi
Tuesday, July 22nd:  Kimberly’s Bookshelf
Wednesday, July 23rd:  Bibliotica
Thursday, July 24th:  Fiction Zeal
Monday, July 28th:  Books a la Mode – guest post/giveaway
Tuesday, July 29th:  Lavish Bookshelf
Wednesday, July 30th:  Reading Reality
Thursday, July 31st:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, August 4th:  Literary Lindsey
Tuesday, August 5th:  Library of Clean Reads
Wednesday, August 6th:  Good Girl Gone Redneck
Thursday, August 7th:  Sidewalk Shoes
Friday, August 8th:  Mom in Love with Fiction
Monday, August 11th:  A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Tuesday, August 12th:  BookNAround
Wednesday, August 13th:  Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Monday, August 18th:  Kritter’s Ramblings
Wednesday, August 20th:  Reviews from the Heart
Thursday, August 21st:  Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, August 22nd:  Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, August 25th:   I’d Rather Be at the Beach
Tuesday, August 26th:  Missris
Wednesday, August 27th:  Time 2 Read
Wednesday, September 3rd:  Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Weekend Cooking- flight

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. 

Dresner's was a longstanding restaurant in our neighborhood. It was an Irish bar/restaurant with a German name, which I always found intriguing. They drew mostly an older crowd, who ate there frequently and I'm guessing their menu hadn't changed much over the years- fish and chips, chops, burger and fries, etc.

A few months ago, it closed for renovations and when it reopened last month, it had a new name- flight. I started volunteering at The Book Cellar, a used book store located in the basement of the Webster branch of the New York Public Library, and on Thursdays I work until 6:30pm, so my husband and I met at flight for dinner.
flight's interior- from their website
What a change! It used be all dark wood and dim, but now when you walk in, you see how they opened everything up. The front has several tables that abut the sidewalk, but are still behind glass walls. The bar was redone to make it lighter, removing barstools and adding comfortable chairs, and they put in a counter with some stools for extra dining seats opposite the bar.

They kept the brick wall, but took out the dark booths and added a banquette that runs the length of the north wall. We sat in the corner and our server brought us some pita and a dip to go with it that was very tasty and kept us happy until we got our entrees. The service was very pleasant as well.

We each ordered a flight of wines- my husband got the reds, with a Chianti he very much enjoyed. I got the Chardonnays, and was equally pleased with all three.

I got one of the night's specials- Filet Mignon Grilled Cheese. It was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had! A delicious thickly sliced filet, portobello mushroom, bleu cheese and tomato on sour dough bread. It was heavenly, and served with hot, crispy fries on the side.

My husband had the strip steak and he enjoyed his as well. We shared a fudgy brownie with vanilla ice cream for dessert and practically licked the plate clean. We decided that we would return soon.

And we did- on the following Thursday. This time, I had the appetizer special, a plate of Beef Chili Nachos. The blue corn ships were covered with melted cheese, tomatoes, jalapenos, green onions, beef chili, sour cream and guacamole. It was perfectly seasoned and only $9!

My husband raved about his Cheesesteak Sandwich special. He said the steak was perfectly cooked, and the peppers and onions on top were wonderful (he opted out of the bleu cheese).

When we got the check, I was shocked. It was only $35.63, practically unheard of in NYC. That made the meal even better. The owner came around both times we were there, and they had a pretty full house both times we were there, so I hope that flight will be around for a long time. It may just be our new go-to place.

flight's website is here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

On Broadway- Aladdin

Last month I won two tickets to any Broadway show from United Airlines at the Stars in the Alley to promote the Tony Awards. I took a friend to see Aladdin and what a joy it was.

James Monroe Iglehart won the Tony award for his role as Genie in the show, and if there was ever a star making performance, this is it. The opening song Arabian Nights, which features him and the entire cast, sets up the tone of the show. It is bright and bold, with moving scenery and beautiful costumes, singing and dancing that lets you know what you are in for- a dazzling show.

Aladdin and his three friends sing Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kasim and they are also bright spots in this show. They have each others' backs and their puns are silly enough to make the adults in the audience laugh.

When Iglehart belts out Friend Like Me, made memorable by Robin Williams in the animated film, the audience is stunned. His singing and dancing literally stopped the show, something I have rarely seen in all of the many, many Broadway shows I have seen. My jaw literally dropped.

The crowd rewarded this amazing performance with thunderous applause that stopped the show. (Thank goodness, it gave Iglehart a chance to catch his breath.) Although I really liked the entire show, it is worth it just to see this performance. It will be difficult to cast this role if Mr. Iglehart leaves the show.

Another very cool thing was the flying carpet. Jasmine (Courtney Reed) and Aladdin (played this evening by Joshua Dela Cruz) sing A Whole New World while flying on a carpet just like in the movie, and I'll be darned if I couldn't figure out how they did it, but it was pretty incredible.

Jafar is played by Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the role in the movie, and his parrot Iago (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) is now a man played beautifully by Don Darryl Rivera. His comic performance had the audience in stitches.

Like the movie, Aladdin has much to keep the adults in the audience happy. I would argue that this is more of an adult fairy tale than a children's show. I highly recommend it for all age groups, it made me smile throughout the entire show.

For more information on Aladdin, click here.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

New in Paperback- Help For The Haunted by John Searles

Reprinted from auburnpub.com

Help For The Haunted by John Searles
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks ISBN 978-0-06-0779641
Trade paperback, $14.99, 368 pages

The recent movie The Conjuring recounts the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a Connecticut couple who specialized in ridding homes of demons and ghosts. Author John Searles grew up in the same town as the Warrens and recalled seeing them at church and in the grocery store.

His new novel, Help For The Haunted features a fictionalized version of the Warrens, Sylvester and Rose Mason. The Masons have made a living helping people who feel there are demons or ghosts in their home, or have family members possessed by some evil force.

The Masons have two daughters: Rose, an angry young woman at war with her parents, and teenage Sylvie, who tries always to be the good daughter. A local reporter wrote an unflattering book about the Masons, questioning whether the Masons actually helped people or it was all a ruse.

The book opens with the Masons getting a late-night phone call, which happened often. This time, though, it was young Rose who had been sent away to boarding school. She wanted her parents to come meet her at an abandoned church to talk over their problems.

Sylvie goes along and waits in the car with her mother while Sylvester goes to talk to young Rose. A long time passes and the older Rose goes inside the church to see what is happening. Sylvie falls asleep and is awakened by two gunshots. She rushes inside and finds her parents dead.

The rest of this terrific novel mixes a murder mystery with a coming-of-age story, adding a dash of the supernatural and generally scaring the heck out of the reader. Sylvie ends up living with her sister, who is still angry and barely cares for herself, let alone her young sister.

Sylvie had named the man whom she believed she saw in the church after her parents’ murder and he was now in prison. But Sylvie was having doubts. Did she really see this man or was this something she had been led to believe? She must discover the truth.

We see Sylvie’s life with her parents told in flashback. Her parents were devoutly religious, and they traveled the country speaking about their work, as well as helping people who send for them.

One young girl is particularly troubled. Her father sends for the Masons, and as a last resort, the Masons bring the girl to live with them. The girl stays in their basement, where Sylvester has set up his “office”.

The basement plays a big role in the novel, almost a character unto itself. Also involved in the mix is an oversized Raggedy Ann doll, which ends up locked in a cage. (Searles got the idea for the Raggedy Ann doll from one his own mother had.)

The genius of Help For The Haunted is that Searles successfully combines so many genres. He gives you a heroine to care about and empathize with, some scares and chills along the way, a dysfunctional family with a secret, all the while trying to solve a murder mystery. The solution to the mystery is surprising, and I doubt that many people will have figured it out before the big reveal.

Sylvie is an intriguing young heroine; she belongs up there with Stephen King’s Carrie, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and even Harper Lee’s Scout Finch. Searles has written such a real, honest, believable character. Her outsider status is one that many readers can identify with.

All of the characters are richly developed here. Even a minor character, like Dereck, an old high school boyfriend of Rose, is so fully realized and I admit to a little bit of a crush on him. Uncle Howie is an interesting character as well; we don’t really know what the deal is with him. Does he love his brother or despise him?

With Halloween on the way, this is the perfect time to read Help For The Haunted. If you like a brilliantly written scary book, one with interesting characters and a puzzle of a mystery, pick this one up. Just be sure to leave all the lights on while you read. And lock the basement door.

rating 5 of 5 stars

To celebrate the paperback release of Help For The Haunted, John Searles is going to Skype/Facetime/Meet in person with one book club in every state- for more info click here.

Searles spoke with author Wally Lamb about his book last October in New York. My post about that is here.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Weekend Cooking- An Excerpt From Wilton Barnhardt's Lookaway, Lookaway

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. 

After picking up an ARC of Wilton Barnhardt's juicy novel about a Charlotte NC family Lookaway, Lookaway at last year's Book Expo, I finally got around to reading it last week. I pulled it out at the pool and had to reapply several layers of sunscreen as I did not want to put down this incredible story.
Although it clocks in at almost 400 pages, it is such a quick read, I finished it in two sittings.

The members of Jarvis/Johnston family each get a chapter to tell their own stories, and when Duke, the patriarch of the family, takes his adult daughter out for barbeque, I knew immediately that this would be the perfect Weekend Cooking post.

The twin ideals of North Carolina barbeque- the phrase "pork barbeque" would be a redundancy- divide down the line where the flat and sandy, piney coastal plain meets the rolling red clay, deciduous-forested slopes of the Piedmont. Piedmont barbeque is pork shoulder, slow-cooked, eight or nine hours over hickory coals in what's known as "Lexington-style." Down east, they roast the whole hog on a spit in a smokehouse, letting the organs and marrow flavor the meat which becomes more tender and delicious than any pork recipe known to man. The pork is light as ash on the tongue- a mousse of pork, aerosolized. Both methods are delicious- there is virtually no bad barbeque- but Duke and Gaston, after the requisite sticking up for the native Piedmont style, spent many a university Saturday in spring on forays into the flatland of the east to go "whole hog."
Slaw. Just as important for Duke and many North Carolinians is the slaw. In the Piedmont there is "barbeque slaw", which uses the juices of the pig and vinegar and sometimes cracked dried chilies to make a red-tinted, spicy slaw of chopped cabbage. When combined with the chopped-up shoulder on a sandwich or just side by side on a tray, where one can intermingle the piles alchemically on one's fork, well, you have as North Carolina patron saint Andy Griffith would have said, "Goooood eatin'." Slaw down east is mayonnaisy cole slaw, which often, even in the greasiest of barbeque shacks, can taste store-bought from the supermarket deli counter. Sadly the best slaw (the Piedmont) and the best pig (down east) are never found together in the same operation. And then you got South Carolina. They can cook pig south of the border, too (Kingtree, Manning, Hemingway), and they tend to cook whole hog over wood chips like the east. Some barbeque joints make a hash out of the course ends of the chopped barbeque pile, which is then turned into a stew and served over South Carolina white rice...which is right up there for satisfaction with first love and winning the lottery. Anyway, they have a mustard-based sauce and that may not sound good but it is: creamy, tangy, sharp with a latent heat.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to make dinner reservations at Blue Smoke as reading that passage has made me crave barbeque for dinner.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Sweet Spot by Stephanie Evanovich

The Sweet Spot by Stephanie Evanovich
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-223481-0
Hardcover, $26.99, 272 pages

Last summer I read a debut novel Big Girl Panties, about a young lonely widow who meets a hot personal trainer and not only gets her life back, she gets the guy. I'm not a big chick lit reader, but that book grabbed me and didn't let go. It was funny and sexy as all get out, and the perfect beach read.

I had the chance to meet the author, Stephanie Evanovich, at her book launch party last year and I told her that I enjoyed her book immensely, and that I found the secondary characters of Chase Walker and his wife Amanda so fascinating and I hoped we would hear more from them.

Evanovich told that I would be happy to hear that Chase and Amanda's full story would be the subject of her next book, which is titled The Sweet Spot. I was elated and counted down the months until I could find out how Chase and Amanda met.

I'm a huge baseball fan, so the character of All-American baseball hero Chase Walker as our protagonist made me so happy. Sportscasters called him "one of those naturally gifted corn-fed boys out of Iowa", and in addition to being a baseball superstar, Walker is good guy, raised well by his parents.

I love this quote from his dad, told to Chase when he was a college standout: "Son, no matter where your talent takes you, you're going to be a man a lot longer than you're going to be a ball player. Knowledge is the only true power. Learn all you can."

Walker became a star for the New York Kings (standing in for the powerhouse Yankees). He dated a lot of women, but the night he had dinner at Cold Creek Grille, owned and operated by Amanda Cole, he became smitten at first sight.

Amanda was raised well by her parents too- Dad is a retired Family Court judge and Mom is the District Attorney of Essex County. They instilled in their daughter the importance of being "shrewd, smart and strong." She poured her heart, soul and everything else into her restaurant.

Amanda knew of Chase's reputation with the ladies and studiously avoided his attempts to date her. She didn't want to be a notch on his belt. But Chase was persistent; he came to Cold Creek Grille after every home game, and sat at the bar, kindly signing autographs and taking photos with fans.

All of Amanda's employees told her she was crazy not to give in and date Chase, he was obviously crazy about her. But maybe he just liked the fact that she was hard to get?

Eventually she gives in, and their relationship blossoms. Slowly she begins to trust Chase. Evanovich really nails the feelings of a burgeoning romance. The careful doling out of trust, the butterflies, as well as the misunderstandings that occur because you don't know each well enough yet; it's all there and brings it all back to any reader lucky enough to have experienced it for herself.

Chase seems to be almost the perfect guy, but he has one little secret. He likes spanking as part of his sexual play. Readers of Big Girl Panties will remember that there was an allusion to an incident regarding this, and we get the background on the whole thing in The Sweet Spot.

The Sweet Spot stands on its own, but if you've read Big Girl Panties, you won't want to miss this one. For the millions of women who read the Fifty Shades trilogy, this is a much sweeter and sexier adult relationship and, quite frankly, much better written.

I adored The Sweet Spot, even more than Big Girl Panties. Maybe it's because it has baseball in it, maybe it's because the two characters are strong, mature, successful people who make their mistakes and learn from them, maybe it's because it is just darn sexy, but for me this is the beach read of the summer. Toss it in your beach bag and be ready to jump in the water to cool off after all the steamy scenes.

rating 5 of 5
Stephanie Evanovich is on Facebook here.
My review of Big Girl Panties is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Stephanie Evanovich's tour. The rest of the stops are here.

Stephanie’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, July 8th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, July 9th: Ageless Pages Reviews
Thursday, July 10th: From the TBR Pile
Monday, July 14th: What She Read …
Tuesday, July 15th: A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, July 16th: Tina’s Book Reviews
Thursday, July 17th: Walking With Nora
Monday, July 21st: Stephany Writes
Tuesday, July 22nd: Book Loving Hippo
Wednesday, July 23rd: Snowdrop Dreams of Books
Thursday, July 24th: Books à la Mode
Monday, July 28th: Always With a Book