Monday, January 22, 2018

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Published by Putnam ISBN 9780735213180
Hardcover, $26, 352 pages


At last year's Book Expo Editors' Book Buzz, six books were presented as books to look forward to in 2017/2018. Ayobami Adabeyo's Stay With Me was one presented and it was the most compelling book I read in 2017. (The complete list is here.)

 A.J. Finn's The Woman in the Window was also on that list and it shot to the top of the bestseller list when it published last week. (My review is here.)

A third book at that presentation was Chloe Benjamin's novel The Immortalists. It asks the question "if you knew the exact date of your death, how would you live your life?" Four young siblings find out that a psychic lives near them, and for a price she will tell you the date of your death.

The year is 1969, and the country is in turmoil as Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon pay her a visit and one by one learn of their fateful date. The three oldest share their dates with each other, but the youngest, Simon, keeps his information to himself.

Years later Daniel is at college studying to be a doctor, and Varya is also away at school with dreams of a medical career when a family tragedy brings them home. Klara has always been the flighty one, and Simon has been the dependable one, the one who is being groomed to take over the family tailoring business.

Each sibling gets to narrate their own story. Simon chafes at his destiny of being trapped in the family business. When Klara decides to go west to San Francisco to become a magician, she convinces Simon to come with her, and that is where his story begins.

Simon finds his true self among the San Francisco scene and it was his story that moved me the most. His search for his authentic identity and for love is so emotional, it draws the reader in.

Klara's dreams take longer to come true. She works dead-end jobs while she perfects her magician craft. Her story and Simon's intersect for many years, until Klara's struggle to make it as a magician and her own love life take her on the road.

Klara's story has a bit of a mystical touch to it, and I found the denouement of her story the most troubling.

Daniel gets to be a doctor. He works for the government as an army doctor, certifying young men as healthy for military duty. Could his career choice be a result of the psychic's words, an attempt to influence someone's else's fate?

Varya stayed at home to care for their mother, giving up her dreams of being a doctor. She is resentful that Simon escaped while she carried the burden for all of her siblings.

She eventually ends up working in medical research, working with research animals to discover why some people live longer than others.

All of the Gold children's lives as adults seemed to be influenced by what the psychic told them. Their mother said something that is prescient of the future:
"Nobody picks their life, I sure didn't." Gertie laughs, a scrape. "Here's what happens: you make choices and then they make choices. Your choices make choices."
The Gold children made choices, some based on their experience with the psychic. Did her predictions make choices for them?

After reading the engrossing, brilliant The Immortalists, you can't help but ask the question of yourself- if you knew the date you were going to die, how would you live your life? You'll be pondering that long after the book ends, and isn't that the sign of the good book- one that makes you think?

So far, the Editors' Book Buzz has been three for three; can they extend the streak? My post about the Book Expo Editors' Book Buzz can be found here.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

You Don't Look Adopted by Anne Heffron

You Don't Look Adopted by Anne Heffron
Published by Anne Heffron ISBN 9780692755648
Trade paperback, $9.99 ($3 on Kindle), 163 pages

One of the most important things that reading can do is to put the reader into the shoes of another person. For the writer, it can be a cathartic experience, especially when she writes about her own life.

Screenwriter Anne Heffron was adopted at ten weeks of age and writes about how that has colored her entire life in You Don't Look Adopted.  She begins her memoir by stating that for most of her life she has felt "both real and not real" because an infant is born "with a sense of self not separate from the mother", and she believes that her "brain took a nosedive in the gap between mothers".

We have always been told that adopted children should feel special because they were chosen by their family. But Heffron states that while that is true, in order to be chosen, you must first be unchosen. Heffron felt that no matter what reason her birth mother gave her up, she still chose to let her go. This thought caused Heffron to believe that there was something seriously wrong with her for her own mother to give her up.

She also wondered what happened to her and her mother in the ten weeks between her birth and her family adopting her. All her life she felt that something was wrong with her, and as a teen she sought out therapists and doctors to help battle with her "depression, eating disorders and inability to stick with jobs, schools and people."

Heffron was adopted by a couple who also adopted two boys. Her mother wanted to prove that she could have it all- take care of her family, run a household, and have a fabulous career. She was a writer, but her dream of writing a great book became the reality of being a stringer for a small town newspaper. Her mother was not a happy woman, and she took some of that unhappiness out on Anne.

Anne did eventually find her birth mother, but she did not want anything to do with Anne, and asked her not to contact her anymore. This led to even more difficulties for Anne.

Relationships were difficult for her. She was married multiple times, and when times were tough, she walked away or pushed others away. Her daughter going away to college completely unmoored her.

Teaching writing in a girls' juvenile hall was an eye-opening experience for Anne, and she told the girls there some of her life story. From that experience, and that of talking to others who were adopted and finding that many of them had similar feelings and experiences as she did, Anne found that "it's the stories we don't tell that keep us in various states of paralysis."

Anne Heffron lets the reader see inside her heart, soul and mind in this heartbreaking and honest memoir. It feels like we are reading her journal, similar to stream-of-consciousness, so it has a bit of an unpolished feel to it.  Her story brings attention to a subject I didn't know much about and I'm glad I read it.

Anne Heffron's website is here.

Thanks to TLC for putting me on Anne Heffron's tour. The rest of her tour stops are here:

Anne Heffron’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, January 8th: The Sketchy Reader
Wednesday, January 10th: I Brought a Book
Thursday, January 11th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Friday, January 12th: Stranded in Chaos
Tuesday, January 16th: Run Wright
Wednesday, January 17th: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, January 18th: Bookchickdi
Monday, January 22nd: Book Mama Blog
Wednesday, January 24th: Readaholic Zone

Friday, January 26th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books




Wednesday, January 17, 2018

New in Paperback- Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani


Kiss Carlo by Adriana Trigiani
Published by HarperCollins ISBN 9780062319234
Hardcover, $27.99, 532 pages
As regular readers of this blog know, I always look forward to a new Adriana Trigiani book. I feel like I am an honorary Italian when I read her books, filled with family, food, romance and people with a good work ethic.

Trigiani's latest novel, Kiss Carlo, is a big, beautiful novel, stuffed with all of the above and more.  The story begins in Roseto Valfatore, Italy in 1949, with Carlo, the ambassador, heading to Roseto, Pennsylvania to seek help from some Italian-Americans in rebuilding their road.

From there, we meet the Palazzini brothers of Philadelphia, Dom and Mike, who once owned a taxi company together, but after a falling out, they now have competing taxi companies and no longer speak to each other.

Dom is the frugal one, and his wife Jo has spent her life caring for their home and (now grown) children, and her nephew Nicky who lost his parents at an early age. Jo is the kind of woman who makes homemade pasta in the basement, and irons everyone's underwear.

Mike is the flashier guy, and he has a more successful taxi business. His wife Nancy has the fancy clothes, and visits the hair salon weekly. The sisters-in-law used to be close, but because of the feud no longer speak. It's almost Shakespearean, you could say.

Speaking of Shakespeare, Nicky drives Uncle Dom's taxi by day and by night volunteers at a local Shakespearean theater, run by Calla Borelli, who is trying to keep the doors to her father's theater open. This new television craze has hurt live theater.

What's interesting in Kiss Carlo is that the main character is Nicky, a man. Nicky feels a little lost, even though his aunt and uncle love him very much. He is engaged to Peachy, a woman who feels her time is running out before she is officially a spinster.

When Nicky gets the opportunity to perform onstage at the theater, he comes alive. Now he knows what he wants to do- be an actor. Peachy, however, will not hear of it.

There is a lot going on in Kiss Carlo, and watching how Trigiani weaves the story and characters together is just amazing. It's like seeing someone take a skein of yarn and a few minutes later a beautiful blanket materializes.

There are so many great characters in this story- Jo Palazzini, Calla, Nicky, Mamie Confalone- but my favorite is Hortense. Hortense is a black woman who works as a dispatcher for Dom's taxi service. She has been with them for years, and she brooks no nonsense. Don't ask Hortense what she thinks unless you really want to know.

Hortense finds herself involved in a crazy caper with Nicky, and through that experience she meets a woman who will change her life. I love that Hortense wants a better life for herself and when she sees an opportunity, she works hard and uses her brains to make it happen. (It's that work ethic that shows up in every one of Trigiani's books.)

I had the chance to speak briefly with Adriana and I told her that I think Hortense is my all-time favorite character of hers. She told me that Hortense was a real person, and she actually shows up in the Acknowledgements page.

Soap opera fans will get a kick out of the fact that uber-producer Gloria Monty has a cameo appearance in this book. I told you, there is a lot packed into this book.

I gave a copy of Kiss Carlo to one of my Italian-American friends, and she read the 500+ page book in two days, telling me she couldn't put it down. I totally agree with her, this is one of Adriana Trigiani's best books.

Whether you're from a big family or just yearn to be, Kiss Carlo is for you. And if you take this book to the beach, bring along plenty of sunscreen because you will not be able to stop reading it until you finish. I give it my highest recommendation.

Adriana Trigiani's website is here.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Weekend Cooking- A Visit to Downton Abbey- The Exhibition




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.

This past week I visited Dowton Abbey- The Exhibition on East 57th Street in New York City. It is a must-see for fans of the iconic BBC/PBS show. In addition to costumes and sets, there are historical references to events that give context to the time period of the show (post-WWI England).

There was a lot of food-related items in the exhibit. Like Upstairs/Downstairs, Downton Abbey showed the life of the wealthy landowning Crawley family as well as the lives lived by the downstairs servants. 



You can't miss the sign on the building on East 57th Street.

This panoramic photo of the staff greets the visitors to the exhibit, much they would greet visitors to Downton Abbey.

Everyone who watched the show recognizes these stairs that many a servant climbed to get to the dining room.

Thomas' formal footman uniform


Anna's formal dress uniform

The kitchen is the first room you see in the exhibit- the costumes are Mrs. Pattmore's and Daisy's.








I think I liked the bells the best; I could almost hear them ringing!

This is the servants' dining room

Carson's pantry was very interesting. You didn't really get a great view on the show because it was so dark on the show. The costumes belong to Mr. Carson's and Mrs. Hughes.

This is Mr. Carson's desk.


The visitors spent a lot of time in the family dining room.

A closeup of the table setting







Each character had their own display, including Mrs. Pattmore, the cook.
They had examples of cookbooks that Mrs. Pattmore would have used.




The exhibit closes with this, my favorite Violet saying.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

The English Wife by Lauren Willig
Published by St. Martin's Press ISBN 9781250056276
Hardcover, $26.99, 376 pages

It is most fitting that much of the action of Lauren Willig's new novel, The English Wife, takes place on a cold, snowy winter evening in February 1899 at a home along the Hudson River. It's been so cold here in the Northeast, this just fits right in.

There are two settings for this crackling good mystery- 1895 England and 1899 Cold Springs, New York. The book opens at the Twelfth Night Ball that American heir Bay Van Duyvil and his English wife Annabelle are hosting at their new home on the Hudson River, a replica of her English home.

Amid gossip that Annabelle was having an affair with the architect of the home, Bay is found stabbed and Annabelle is missing. Bay's sister Janie swears she saw Annabelle's body floating in the Hudson River, but no body is ever found.

The action moves back to 1895 England, where Bay meets and falls in love with Georgie, a dance hall performer. They marry and Georgie assumes the name of her cousin Annabelle, a wealthy heiress herself who is nowhere to be found.

Bay's sister Janie teams up with Burke, a reporter from a New York paper, to discover what happened to her brother and sister-in-law. Janie feels she owes it to Bay and Annabelle's toddler twins, now orphaned.

Janie's mother Alva was not thrilled with Bay's choice of wife, and she is the very epitome of an overbearing mother-in-law. Alva rules her household with an iron fist, and believes it her duty to keep the name Van Duyvil untarnished.

Anne is Janie and Bay's cousin, they all grew up together, but Bay and Anne were especially close, even after Anne stole Janie's fiance and married him herself. Anne's marriage has collapsed, much to the disgust of Aunt Alva.

The scenes between Alva and Anne, and then Alva, Anne and Janie crackled with tension and fantastic passive/aggressive dialogue. If Andy Cohen were around in 1895, he would have signed these ladies up as the original Housewives of New York.

The timelines of 1895 and 1899 eventually dovetail, and we find out more information about Georgie, and her cousin Annabelle (does she even exist?), what is really going on in Bay and Annabelle's marriage, and what happened the night of the Twelfth Ball.

The characters are fascinating, especially Georgie, and I liked watching Janie blossom from a mousy young lady into a force to be reckoned with. Burke the reporter was an intriguing character with his own secrets as well.

There are a lot of secrets in The English Wife, some you can guess and others that took me completely by surprise, which I love in a good story.  I also enjoyed the attention to period detail, it is clear that Willig did a great deal of research to get everything just right.

I highly recommend The English Wife, for anyone who loves a good historical mystery, mixed with a little romance. (And the book cover is just stunning!)

Lauren Willig spoke about The English Wife at the Corner Bookstore in NYC, my post about that is here.

Lauren Willig's website is here.



Lauren Willig at the Corner Bookstore

The English Wife

I made my first trip to the lovely Corner Bookstore on Madison and 93rd Street in New York City for a book launch for Lauren Willig, author of The English Wife. The Corner Bookstore holds a special place in Willig's heart as it was her neighborhood bookstore growing up (her parents still live nearby), and she has been launching her books (starting with The Pink Carnation, thirteen years ago) there since she began writing.

Willig was set to write a book set in WWII Paris, and she had been in the middle of her research when she had a vision of a woman with a Gibson girl hairdo and 1890's clothing falling from a parapet into the Hudson River. This vision led her to drop the Paris book and write The English Wife. (Her agent suggested a saga set in Palm Beach, which the enthusiastic crowd groaned at.)

The English Wife is about an wealthy American man, Bay, who marries Annabelle, an English woman "with a dodgy past". He builds his wife a replica of her English home on the Hudson River, and amid rumors of an affair between Annabelle and the architect, on the night of a grand Twelfth Night Ball, Bay is stabbed and Annabelle goes missing.

The action in the book takes place in 1895, with Bay in England, and 1899, with Bay's sister Janie investigating the events of the evening. Eventually both timelines merge until we get to the the denouement of the mystery.

Willig then read a few a passages, and took questions from the very engaged audience. When asked if she knew the ending of the novel before she wrote it, Willig stated that she never knows how her books will end; she goes on a journey with her characters and she figures it out when they do. She stated that she "feels like I stumble on my characters in a bar and they follow me home", which the audience laughed at.

When asked about writer's block, Willig said that she finds two forms of it- the first is "I don't wanna write", and that the cure is just to sit there and pound away at the keyboard. The other happens when she tries to force her characters do something they wouldn't do. When that happens, her sister calls it  "going into the barn", which refers to a time when Willig was writing a scene set during the Dublin uprising and she had to get characters into a barn for a scene. She spent a month trying to figure a way to get them into the barn when her sister finally said "just don't go into the barn.'

Willig is a charming, delightful speaker. She is very at ease in front of an audience (and not all authors are), and there was a lot of great conversation between Willig and her audience. It was really one of the most enjoyable author events I have had the pleasure of attending. (I can't believe I didn't take a photo that night.)

The English Wife is now on sale, and I just finished it and it was a crackling good story. My review is here.

Lauren Willig's website is here.
The Corner Bookstore website is here.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

The Seven Days of Us By Francesca Hornak
Published by Berkley ISBN 9780451488756
Hardcover, $26, 368 pages

Many of us spent the holidays surrounded by family. It's enjoyable to spend times with loved ones, but what if you were quarantined with them for seven days? That is the premise of British writer Francesca Hornak's novel The Seven Days of Us.

Emma is delighted that her eldest daughter Olivia will be returning home for the first Christmas in a long time. Olivia has been volunteering as a doctor in Liberia, working to help people dying of Haag, a disease similar to Ebola. Olivia is the reason the family must be quarantined at Emma's ancestral family home.

Emma wants everything to be perfect for Christmas. From the food to the decorations to the gifts, she has attended to every small detail.

Her husband Andrew used to be a war correspondent but he left that for a safer, more boring job as a restaurant critic. Younger daughter Phoebe is engaged to George, who comes from a respectable family.

And everyone has a secret. Olivia has been hiding her relationship with a fellow doctor from everyone. Waiting out seven days to make sure neither of them has Haag is stressing her out. Emma is hiding her own health crisis from everyone, not wanting to ruin Christmas. Andrew received a mysterious letter from a young man that he hides from everyone.

Phoebe is obsessed with having the perfect wedding, and Olivia finds her obsession shallow. (I admit to finding Phoebe a bit of a selfish brat.) Olivia obsessively refreshes the news on her IPAd browser, looking for information on the Haag crisis. She has trouble readjusting to life at home.

Andrew appears to hate any kind of conflict, and for someone who used to be a war correspondent, he seems kind of useless. He has a special relationship with Phoebe, taking her along on his restaurant trips, but he should have more in common with Olivia.

 Along with secrets, there are coincidental meetings that come back into play later in the story creating complications.

The Seven Days of Us would be a wonderful Christmas movie, there is so much here for everyone who has a family to enjoy. I most identified with Emma, naturally, and there are even some terrific passages for the foodie fan (Emma is a wonderful cook and at one time considered opening up a catering business).

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Woman In the Window by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062678416
Hardcover, $26.99, 448 pages


In A.J. Finn's spine-tingling debut psychological thriller The Women in The Window, Anna Fox sits in the window of her Harlem townhouse watching her neighbors. We learn that she is an agoraphobic and hasn't left her home in ten months. Her husband Ed and eight-year-old daughter Olivia no longer live with her after an incident that has been hinted at, but Anna remains in contact with them.

She rents out the basement of her home to David, a young man who helps around the house in exchange for reduced rent, and Anna gets her groceries delivered by Fresh Direct, and her many medications delivered by the pharmacy. As long as they keep bringing her meds and cases of Merlot, Anna can make it through the day (usually drunk).

She plays chess online (and usually wins) and dispenses advice on an agoraphobic message board. For entertainment, Anna watches old black and white movies, heavy on the Hitchcock thrillers. 

Anna has little physical contact with the outside world until the day a new family moves into the neighborhood- a husband, wife and teenage son. Anna can see inside their home and becomes fascinated by them, even more so when the son and mother stop by separately to see her.

Like Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's "Rear Window", Anna witnesses something amiss at the new neighbors and is drawn into a situation she is unequipped to handle.

The Woman in the Window is a pulse-pounding, heart-stopper of a book. Like blockbusters Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, our protagonist is unreliable. Anna is drunk much of the time, and so what she tells the reader cannot be trusted. The addition of her agoraphobia heightens the tension of the story, and Finn does such a great job making the reader feel the anxiety of her illness.

Finn also unspools important information about Anna a little bit at a time, so that reading The Woman in the Window is like putting together pieces of a puzzle. We learn how Anna got to be where she is, and although the reader may guess a few of the mysteries, the last few chapters of this fast-paced story surprised me, and at one point I actually gasped aloud.

The Woman in the Window is sure to be a bestseller, and fans of both Alfred Hitchcock movies and Agatha Christie novels will be love it.  I liked it better than Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train. I heard all about this book last spring at the Book Expo, and you'll be hearing a lot about it in 2018. It definitely lives up to the hype, and I read it in one sitting, unwilling to put it down.