Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Penguin Random House ISBN 9780385538916
Hardcover, $26.95, 304 pages

Chris Bohjalian chooses fascinating topics for his novels, and then pulls the reader into these worlds that one gets lost in for a few hours. His 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls,  about the 1915 Armenian genocide in Syria, a story that sadly resonates too much today, is a novel I frequently recommend to shoppers at the Book Cellar where I volunteer.

A Light In The Ruins takes us to Italy during WWII, with a family caught up in the crosshairs of war.  His novels set in contemporary times, like the brilliant The Double Bind, which deals with a young woman violently attacked on bike ride, and The Guest Room, about a bachelor party host who gets involved with a young woman forced into sexual slavery, have twists that leave you gasping.

Bohjalian's newest novel, The Sleepwalker, takes on a topic not frequently dealt with in fiction. A woman prone to sleepwalking disappears from her home while her husband is out of town. Her two daughters, college-aged Lianna and 12-year-old swimmer Paige, were home that evening and heard nothing.

As searchers look for Annalee Ahlberg's body in the nearby river, we slowly find out more about her life. She only sleepwalks when her husband is out-of-town, but why that is remains a mystery. The girls, particularly Lianna, feel guilty about what happened.

The Ahlberg family is falling apart. Dad Warren retreats into his job as a professor at the local college and drinks himself into oblivion at night. Lianna takes a leave of absence from college, smokes weed all day, and gets side jobs as a magician while caring for her sister Paige.

One of the police officers on the investigation becomes involved with Lianna. She discovers that he and her mother met at a clinic that deals with sleep disorders and they became a kind of two-person support group. But was that all they were to each other?

The Sleepwalker has a very eerie quality to it, and as Bohjalian slowly unwinds more information about Annalee's disorder and her relationship with her husband and the cop, an uneasy feeling overcomes the reader.

There is a shocking twist at the end, but upon reflection, Bohjalian gives a few clues that could be picked up on by a careful reader. The Sleepwalker would make a fabulous movie, as it has a very cinematic element to it. The characters are intriguing, the story moves briskly, and watching this family fall apart is heartbreaking.

I highly recommend The Sleepwalker, both for fans of mysteries and of family stories. If you read Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, you'll want to put The Sleepwalker on your list.

Chris Bohjalian's website is here.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Books About Celebrities

Reprinted from the Citizen.

Books by and about celebrities have a built-in audience. People are curious to read more about their favorite stars, how they got to be where they are, who influenced them and yes, even for some good old gossip.

Three recent books by and about celebrities have published, all different and interesting in their own way.

Leslie Bennetts “Last Girl Before Freeway”: The Life, Loves, Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers” is the lone biography here. Bennett covers Rivers’ entire life, where she was Joan Molinsky, to her rise as a stand-up comedienne, her successes and failures, to her eventual death in September of 2014 during what was supposed to be a simple surgical procedure. 

The book is comprehensive, and with a subject such as Rivers, who accomplished so much in her life, it flies by quickly. Joan Molinsky grew up in a household where her doctor-father, a kind and hard-working man, never made enough money for his wife, who feared poverty and always tried to keep up with the Joneses. 

Joan was one of the first successful female stand-up comediennes, and the book is filled with anecdotes from younger female stand-ups who sing the praises of Joan’s generosity, even though Rivers often resented being called a mentor. She always wanted to be hip and relevant, and her fearless stand-up routines, which she continued weekly even up to her death, reflected that.

The early sections of the book rely on material from Rivers’ own writings (she wrote several books, including two memoirs), but once Bennetts interviews people who worked with Rivers, who knew her well, the book gives the reader a better overall picture of this complicated woman.

Rivers was driven, and her many self-reinventions, rising from the ashes of her failed Fox talk show after her very public falling out with Johnny Carson to become not only a successful stand-up comic but also a hugely successful businesswoman designing and selling jewelry in the fledgling QVC network, are an inspiration to anyone who has been knocked down in life.

Actor Bryan Cranston’s “Life in Parts” tells his story of a journeyman actor, where he began as a soap opera actor on “Loving” and became famous as the goofy dad on “Malcolm in the Middle”, and then hit the stratosphere playing high school science teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White on “Breaking Bad”.  

“Life in Parts” recounts his childhood, with a father who wanted to be a successful actor but failed, and then takes you through the life of an actor trying to make it. Cranston is successful because he treats acting as a craft, something to be finely honed. 

He shares stories from his early days on “Loving”, including how he found out he was fired, and there is a little good gossip here. He speaks fondly of his days on “Malcolm in the Middle”, and there are a few chapters on “Breaking Bad”, with some interesting inside information for fans.

For anyone who loves the craft of acting, “Life in Parts” is wonderful book. Cranston has such a reverence for the work of acting, and reading about his process, about how much he cares about doing good work, is fascinating. 

Trevor Noah is best known as the new host of “The Daily Show”, but his book “Born a Crime: Stories From A South Africa Childhood” is about his life growing up as the son of a black African woman and white Swiss man in South Africa. 

Noah is a terrific writer, and he grabs your attention right from the beginning. He grew up when apartheid was ending, after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, but things didn’t get easier for South Africans right away. There was a strict caste system, and black Africans were pitted against colored Africans, and since Noah was half-white, he didn’t fit in anywhere.

“Born A Crime” gets its title from the fact that it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry, so his parents had to hide their relationship, and Trevor was never allowed to walk next to both of his parents.

The book is a really a love letter to his mom, who pretty much raised Trevor alone, although Trevor spent a lot of time with his grandmother. His stories of childhood are touching, funny and sad.

Anyone who likes a good memoir will enjoy “Born a Crime”. It gives the reader a look at a place many of us are unfamiliar with, yet his story of a mother who worked hard to give her son a better life is universal.
Last Girl Before Freeway” by Leslie Bennetts-A 
Published by Little Brown
Hardcover, $28, 433 pages

A Life in Parts” by Bryan Cranston- A-
Published by Scribner
Hardcover, $27, 289 pages

Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah- A+
Published by Spiegel & Grau

Hardcover, $28, 304 pages

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Weekend Cooking- Four Hits and A Miss On Pinterest

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.

I tried a few new recipes these past few weeks from Pinterest; four were hits and one was a big old miss.

My friend Jackie told me about a Stuffed Pepper Soup she made that she and her husband just loved. I'm not a big stuffed pepper fan, but my husband is so I made it for him last weekend. He loved it! He even had two helpings for dinner that night and said that he'd eat the leftovers for his Sunday lunch. (He's not big on leftovers, so that is a big deal.) The recipe is from Cooking Classy.
Photo from Cooking Classy

My younger son stopped by and he had a bowl too and raved about it. This one will definitely be in the winter rotation.

My only Pinterest miss came earlier this week. I wanted to have a slow cooker recipe ready for when I got out of work on Tuesday. I chose a Balsamic Chicken recipe that was simple. I asked my butcher for two whole bone-in chicken breasts, split in two, so four half-breasts total. I didn't look at the chicken until I got home and was ready to cook it. It was two half chicken breasts that he halved, so they were tiny pieces of chicken. I mixed together the balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, garlic, chicken broth and spices and placed in the slow cooker. It didn't turn out well, mostly because the chicken pieces were too small. I also found the sauce too vinegary and thin.

I tried to rebound this past Friday and made three new recipes for dinner. I started with a Creamy Chicken Mushroom Soup, which was perfect- not too thin, not too thick. Goldilocks would approve.
The recipe is from Damn Delicious.
 Photo from Damn Delicious

With that, I made a French Onion Chicken Slider sandwich that was super simple. Caramelize the onions, cook chicken cutlets cut in half, top with swiss cheese and place on a slider roll with dijon mustard and lettuce. This was very flavorful and paired well with the soup. It's from Creme de la Crumb. 
Photo from  Creme de la Crumb

For dessert, I tried a Bananas Foster Bread Pudding recipe from the New York Times that was inspired by the dessert at the famed New Orleans restaurant Brennan's. The pudding was delicious, but the sauce called for 1/2 cup of rum, which I thought was too much. I ended up adding more cream to the sauce to cut the rum and it turned out fine. Add some vanilla ice cream on the side, and you've got a mighty fine dessert. The recipe is here.
Photo credit- Sarah Ann Ward from the NY Times

So overall, I batted .800, which would mean I had a good week. Or more to the point, my husband had a good week, haha.

Did you make any good recipes this week? Share them in comments.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Loner by Teddy Wayne

Loner by Teddy Wayne
Published by Simon & Schuster ISBN 9781501107894
Hardcover, $26, 202 pages

A friend whose taste in books I truly respect told me I must read Teddy Wayne's Loner. So of course I did.

Told from the perspective of 18-year-old David Federman, an intelligent, but socially inexperienced, freshman just starting at Harvard. David wasn't popular at his middle class New Jersey high school and was looking forward to being with people he had something in common with at the prestigious university.

He hangs out with a group of people who were much like he was in high school- on the fringes, not the cool kids. Then David meets Veronica, a self possessed, beautiful young woman from a wealthy Manhattan family.

David makes it his goal to date Veronica. He decides that to get closer to her, he would date her roommate Sara, part of his group of friends. Sara is sweet, smart and hardworking, and close to her family.

Veronica seems to be the kind of girl who gets by on her looks, but how she got into Harvard seems to be a question in my mind. She gets David to write a term paper for her, and it appears that she is using David, but he believes she will come to see him for the great man he is.

As the story progresses, David's obsession with Veronica grows and you get a sinking feeling in your stomach that something is going to go wrong here.

Wayne writes beautifully, and his characters are very well drawn, even as Veronica and David are not quite what they appear to be. Wayne also takes on the charged atmosphere on college campuses today, with the timeless issues of belonging and wanting to fit in clashing with the sexual politics of today.

Loner is a quick read, only 200 pages, but the story will stay with you a long time. I recommend it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams

The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062405029
Hardcover, $26.99, 384 pages

The first thing you notice about Beatriz Williams' new novel, The Wicked City, is its striking cover. A woman wearing a vibrant red dress dress under a red umbrella, walking in what looks like 1920's Times Square in New York (the cars are the key clue to the time frame).

Immediately a reader would pick this book up off a shelf to check it out. Reading the back cover, you discover that a character from Williams' last novel A Certain Age, society maven Theresa Marshall's son Billy, has a role in this novel.

One of Williams' strengths in her novels is the connection between characters in her previous books. The Schulyer family has been prominent in several of her most recent books- One Hundred Summers, The Secret Life of Violet Grant, Along The Infinite Sea, and The Forgotten Room- and they have a role here as well.

The story begins in 1998 with Ella Hawthorne moving into an apartment at 11 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in New York City. She has just left her husband after finding him cheating on her. Her lifestyle takes a dramatic turn, from living in a gorgeous condo to moving into a tiny apartment in a small, older building.

She meets an intriguing (and handsome) man, Hector, in the laundry room basement, who gives her the lowdown on the building and its tenants. She hears music coming from the the other side of the wall, from the building next door. Hector tells her that it used to be a speakeasy, back in the days of Prohibition.

And then the story takes a turn to the 1920's where we meet Gin Kelly, a real-life flapper, who spends her time at the speakeasy drinking illegal alcohol after working at her job as a typist at Sterling & Bates. Gin is a real dame, the kind of woman Barbara Stanwyck would have played in a the movies.

Gin is dating young rich college boy Billy Marshall, who has fallen hard for her and wants to marry her. She is also being pursued by Anson, a federal Prohibition agent who is leaning on Gin to help him shut down the flow of illegal moonshine, coming from the man Gin ran away from- her stepfather, who has become a powerful alcohol distributor in Maryland.

Gin's story intrigued me more than Ella's did, perhaps because there was more physical action and more of a sense of danger. There is a powerful scene near the end of the story that had me at the edge of my seat, with Gin and Billy and Anson and Gin's stepfather; it was incredibly harrowing.

Beatriz Williams'  writes characters you care about, and her ear for the 1920's dialogue felt very much like watching an old movie on TCM and even put me in mind of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, the Prohibition-set TV series.

She is also very clever at weaving her characters' stories and histories together, and their connection to the Schuyler family gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling seeing some of my old friends again. If you are a fan of Williams' previous novels, The Wicked City is a must-read, and if you haven't yet read any of her books, this is a good one to start with; I guarantee you will be running to grab her previous novels to catch up with what you have missed.

Beatriz Williams' website is here (with a handy family tree for the Schuyler family!)

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Beatriz' Williams tour. The rest of her stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, January 17th: Girls Just Reading
Wednesday, January 18th: bookchickdi
Thursday, January 19th: West Metro Mommy
Friday, January 20th: A Chick Who Reads
Monday, January 23rd: Books and Bindings
Tuesday, January 24th: Kritters Ramblings
Thursday, January 26th: 5 Minutes For Books
Friday, January 27th: BookNAround
Monday, January 30th: I Wish I Lived in a Library
Tuesday, January 31st: Thoughts On This ‘n That
Wednesday, February 1st: Literary Lindsey
Thursday, February 2nd: The Book Date
Thursday, February 2nd: Reading Reality
Friday, February 3rd: View from the Birdhouse
Monday, February 6th: StephTheBookworm
Tuesday, February 7th: Tina Says…
Wednesday, February 8th: Reading to Distraction
Thursday, February 9th: A Bookish Affair
Friday, February 10th: Life By Kristen
Friday, February 10th: Library of Clean Reads

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Weekend Cooking- Cooking Light Recipe

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.

Flipping through the January/February edition of Cooking Light, I bookmarked several recipes that looked tempting to me.

The first one is a Pumpkin Soup with Almonds and Sage that looks similar to Rachael Ray's Pumpkin Soup recipe that I made for Thanksgiving; it was a big fan favorite. I may try this one to see which we prefer. The recipe is here.

Next is a Turkey and Swiss Sloppy Joe Sandwich that I may pair with the Pumpkin Soup for a Sunday lunch. The recipe is here.

My husband wants to eat more vegetables this year, so we decided that soups would be a good way to accomplish this as he is not a big vegetable fan overall. There is an Immunity Soup recipe with onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, kale, chickpeas and chicken that looks like it will fit the bill. The recipe is here.

I tried brussel sprouts for the first time on our Florida vacation (I know, I know) and liked them, and the Broiled Flat Iron Steak with Brussel Sprouts and Sweet Potatoes is a recipe I might have avoided but now will try. The recipe is here.

Pork tenderloin is a good weeknight meal because it is a quick cooking meat, and that makes the Pork Tenderloin with Mushrooms and Onions recipe that takes 23 minutes one I will be making on a workday. The recipe is here.

My husband loves beef stroganoff, so to mix it up, I will try the Chicken Stroganoff recipe. That recipe is here. He likes Chicken Cacciatore and I like slow cookers (another good weeknight meal), so the Slow Cooker Chicken Cacciatore is also going to get a look. The video for that dish is here.

I did manage to make one recipe from the magazine this week- BBQ Beef-Stuffed Potatoes. It was pretty easy, but I did have an issue. You make a brown sugar/tomato paste rub for the boneless chuck roast and place baking potatoes wrapped in parchment paper on top and cook for 8 hours.
BBQ Stuffed Potatoes- from Cooking Light 

I have never cooked baking potatoes in the slow cooker and I think my potatoes may have been too large because they were not cooked enough after 8 hours. Next time I may cook the potatoes in the microwave.

The dish was tasty, full of flavor and at only 385 calories, it's a terrific lower-calorie dinner. You top the potatoes with the beef that you shred, shredded cheese, sour cream, and green onions. It's similar to the Taco Potato we used to sell at our Taco Maker restaurant. We'll have it again. The recipe is here.

Did you try any new recipes this week? Let me know in comments.

Monday, January 9, 2017

All the Time In The World by Caroline Angell

All The Time In The World by Caroline Angell
Published by Henry Holt ISBN 978-1-62779-401-5
Trade paperback, $15, 321 pages

There is nothing so exciting as discovering a debut novel.  Caroline Angell's first book, All The Time In The World, brings to life the world of the Upper East Side of New York City, as seen through the eyes of Charlotte, a young woman who is working as a nanny to the two young Maclean boys.

Charlotte is also a music composer who is trying to come to terms with why she is not working in the music business. She finds herself distancing herself from her college friends, and her friends and family worry that she is becoming too attached to the Maclean family and forgoing her own dreams.

She adores Matty and George, the two young boys she cares for. She and Gretchen, the mom, get along well, and she doesn't see Scotty, the dad who works long hours in the finance industry, very often.

When a tragic event occurs that threatens to tear the Maclean family apart, Charlotte is thrust into a different role; she becomes the glue that holds them together. It is up to her to get the boys to school, to deal with their teachers, run the household, and help them understand a world that no longer makes any sense to them.

Charlotte is very close to her sisters and they are becoming more worried for her, afraid that if she doesn't get out and begin her own life now that she never will. But Charlotte loves Matty and George and feels an obligation to them.

I loved the character of Charlotte, and even though I am years older than her, I related to her a great deal. Her sense of responsibility to the Macleans was something I understood in my heart. Her relationship with her sisters felt so true-to-life, I'm sure that Angell must have sisters of her own.

Her connection with Matty and George was so sweet, and yet frustrating as well. I have two sons of my own and I smiled with recognition, thrust right back to the days when they were little guys as I read of Charlotte trying to corral them in their everyday lives.

Charlotte also has a complicated relationship with Scotty, the boys' dad, and Patrick, Scotty's slightly irresponsible playboy brother.

Angell writes some powerful, emotional scenes, such as one set at a hospital that just tore my heart out. All The Time In The World is the kind of book that worms its way into your heart, and you will feel so many different emotions reading it. Charlotte is a woman you will not easily forget. I highly recommend All The Time In The World.

Caroline Angell's website is here.