Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday 5ive- March 27, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post about five things that caught my attention during the week. Well, it's been another week that seemed to last about a year. Everyone in NYC has been staying inside, and grocery stores now have taped lines on the floor at checkout to keep people socially distanced. Some checkouts have plexiglass between the cashiers and customers as well. Some stores have been limiting the number of people they let in the store at one time. Everyday, a new procedure has been put in place.

1) Our doggie picture of the week is of my son and his girlfriend's dog Otto. While his humans have been staying inside working from home, Otto's dog walker took him and his friends to the nearby ocean for a nice run. Otto is living his best life, as you can see from this Instagram post by his dog walker. Otto is in first place in the race.

2) My husband's family had a Virtual Happy Hour last week on the Zoom app. We had 13 homes, and it was alot of fun, if somewhat chaotic at times with everyone talking at once. It was just like Thanksgiving. It was really good to see everyone's smiling faces and catch up on how everyone is coping working from home.

3) Today I spent 4 hours reorganizing my extensive book collection. My husband had beautiful  custom built bookshelves put in for my Christmas present a few years back, and today I finally got around to reorganizing them- I have my Favorites Shelf, Autographed Books Shelf, and several fiction sub-categories. I have a Memoir Shelf, plus sub-categories there as well. The photo below is just 1/3 of the bookshelf. The apartment isn't big enough for me to empty all the books on the floor. Hi, my name is Diane and I am a biblioholic.

4) Since I'm home, I have been cooking dinner every night. We have had Spanish Rice, Pork Roast with Stuffing and Mashed Potatoes, and with the leftover pork we had pulled pork barbeque with John Legend Macaroni and Cheese and ambrosia salad. I also tried a new recipe, Pizza Pot Pie, that was very tasty and I will be making it again. The link to it is here, it's from TasteMade.
Photo from TasteMade

5) I'm about a quarter of the way through a new book, The Office- the Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene. If you are a fan of the show, as most people I know are, this is a fantastic book. He interviews actors, writers, producers, casting director, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with the show. I'll post a full review soon. And if you like The Office, Jenna Fisher (Pam Beesley Halpert) and Angela Kinsley (Angela), host a podcast,  Office Ladies, about the show, that is good too.
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Stay safe and healthy everyone and stay home.

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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez

Afterlife by Julia Alvarez
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN 9781643750255 -publishes April 7
Hardcover, $25.95, 272 pages

It's always something to celebrate when Julia Alvarez publishes a new book, and her latest, Afterlife, is no exception.

As this quietly moving novel opens, Antonia is waiting for her husband Sam to meet her for a dinner celebrating her retirement from teaching English at the local college. Sam never makes it, dying of a heart attack on the side of the road.

A year later, Antonia is still grieving Sam, the "good cop" to her "bad cop". At dinner parties, Sam was the one who spoke passionately about climate change, and put up a sign that read "Move Vermont Forward" after their neighbor Roger, who owns a farm, put one up that read "Take Vermont Back".

The writing here is gorgeous, as Antonia mourns Sam.
"She is keeping to her routines, walking a narrow path through the loss- not allowing her thoughts to stray. Occasionally, she takes sips of sorrow, afraid the big wave might wash her away.' 
People who have known deep loss will know that feeling.

One day, Mario, one of the young undocumented Mexican men who work on Roger's farm, comes over to help clean out her roof gutter. He asks Antonia to help him with a problem. His girlfriend Estela is in Colorado and wants to come to Vermont with Mario. The man who brought her across the border wants more money. When Estela finally arrives, she is pregnant, which further complicates the situation.

Antonia is reluctant to get involved, she is still so fragile. But she can hear Sam's voice in her head, telling her that these two young people need her help. She is willing to help, but only up to a point. She asks herself if this is all Sam's "afterlife will amount to? Sam-inspired deeds from the people who love him?"

At the same time, Antonia's sister Izzy disappears on her way to visit Antonia and their other sisters, Mona, a therapist who rescues dogs, and Tilly, who can't sit still. Izzy is a psychologist, and she is also probably bipolar.

Nobody writes the sister relationship better than Julia Alvarez ( In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Sisters Lost Their Accents). As the sisters revert to their childhood routines, at first angry at Izzy, then afraid for her, they become what Antonia calls "the Dominican Greek chorus".

The sisters also reminded me somewhat of the March sisters from Little Women, with the voice of the deceased mother, Mami, a stand-in for Marmee from the Louisa May Alcott classic. Anyone who has sisters will understand the relationships among these women.

Afterlife deals with the themes of grief, mental illness, family relationships, as well as the issues facing undocumented workers, with humanity, and poignancy. Alvarez writes so beautifully, and the character of Antonia is so fully-realized, we feel her pain.  I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Algonquin Books for putting me on Julia Alvarez's book tour.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Sea Glass Cottage by RaeAnne Thayne

The Sea Glass Cottage by RaeAnne Thayne
Published by Harlequin ISBN 9781488055874
Hardcover, $26.99, 384 pages

RaeAnne Thayne's newest novel, The Sea Glass Cottage, shares the stories of three generations of women. Juliet is a 53 year-old widow who runs the family garden center in Cape Sanctuary. She lost her husband nearly 20 years ago, and then lost her eldest daughter Natalie to a drug overdose shortly after.

Juliet was left to raise Natalie's baby daughter Caitlin. Now 15 years old, Caitlin feels like Juliet is more her mother than grandmother. When Juliet has a serious fall from a ladder, her daughter Olivia has to leave her own life and job behind in Seattle to help her estranged mother and run the garden center.

Olivia has always felt that her mother paid more attention to the troubled Natalie and raising Caitlin, and running the garden center to give her much attention. Coming back home is difficult, made more so by Caitlin's inexplicable hostile attitude towards her.

Caitlin found her mother and Olivia's teenage journals and is determined to discover the name of her father. She believes it to be one of three men, all who live in town. With the help of her best friend Jake, she sets to work to find her father.

Jake's father Henry owns a landscaping design business, and he and Juliet are close friends. Henry would like to be more than friends, and takes every opportunity to help Juliet in her time of need. Juliet has romantic feelings for Henry too, but she is hiding a secret from everyone that she believes makes it impossible to have a deeper relationship with him.

Olivia is feeling overwhelmed trying to run the garden center, care for her mom, and keep up with her clients from her job back home. She reconnects with her best friend Melody, whose husband deserted her and their three young sons, and Melody's older brother Cooper, the town's handsome fire chief.

Oftentimes in books with two or three main protagonists, one story line is stronger than the others. RaeAnne Thayne manages to write each woman's story to be of equal interest. As someone close to Juliet's age, I related to her storyline. She wants to be strong for everyone in her family, and when she lost her husband and daughter, she rose to the task, even if Olivia felt hurt at the time.

Olivia has unresolved feelings about her mother, sister and father, feelings she must now come home and face. She steps up to the task of running the garden center, and her mother gives her the courage to look at the kind of life she really wants.

Caitlin is a stong-willed teenager, who fiercely loves her grandmother, but wants answers about her mother's life. She is a well-rounded character, and anyone who has been around teenage girls can appreciate her.

We were introduced to many wonderful people in the town of Cape Sanctuary, and I hope that Thayne continues their stories in future books. The Sea Glass Cottage is a perfect read to escape from the craziness out there right now. Lose yourself in this lovely story in this lovely town. I recommend it.

Thanks to Harlequin for including me on RaeAnne Thyane's tour.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Friday 5ive- March 20, 2020

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post about five things that caught my attention during the week. Welcome to spring! I can't believe how drastically the world has changed in just a week, especially here in New York City. It's been a week of staying in touch by FaceTime and What's App with loved ones who live elsewhere, and hoping everyone stays smart and safe.

1)  Our doggie photo of the week is of these two cutie pie basset hounds. I see them frequently in the neighborhood, and even though we are all supposed to stay inside, these doggies gotta walk (or ride).

2)  Since Governor Cuomo announced that all restaurants must go to Pickup or Delivery only, every restaurant in our neighborhood has a sign like this one in the window of Bare Burger. People are not ordering out as they normally would, but if this goes on a long time, I hope that people will get tired of cooking and order in. I feel so badly for restaurant owners and workers, it's a tough business in the best of times. There are so many people out of work.

3)  Our local CBS NY News Channel 2 has had a difficult time with this COVID-19. They had staffers infected, and many of the on-air anchors had to self-quarantine. Our local news feed was anchored by people in Boston and Los Angeles. Many of you probably saw that the CBS Morning Show came from Washington DC and now they are in Stephen Colbert's NYC studio. Last night, the local 5pm news was anchored by Maurice DuBois and Kristine Johnson from the sidewalk in front of their building. Their scripts were on their cell phones. 

 4)  We've all been watching the news non-stop- daily press conferences by Governor Cuomo, Mayor DeBlasio and from the White House team. At night I have to have something lighter, so I have turned to old standbys Seinfeld reruns at 11pm on WPIX, and I'm so glad I have new episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine to add to my reruns of the show on my DVR. The standout episodes this season include "Captain Kim" and "Debbie", featuring SNL's Vanessa Bayer. She also has a role on this year's Will & Grace as Friday, Karen's assistant. I decree that Bayer must play every supporting comedic role on TV.  

5)  Since the Book Cellar is closed because the NYPL is closed, I have more time to read. I finished RaeAnne Thayne's The Sea Glass Cottage, abouth three generations of women. The young grandmother (53 years old) fell off a ladder at her garden center, so her 29 year-old daughter comes home to help out. The 15 year-old granddaughter, who was raised by her grandmother, read her deceased mother's teenage diary and now wants to find her father. Thayne writes the three generations so well, I was intrigued by all three women's stories. My review publishes tomorrow. 
The Sea Glass Cottage

Actress Kristen Johnston became famous on TV's 3rd Rock From the Sun, but she also had a terrible alcohol and drug addiction. While she was in London getting ready to open in a play, her stomach literally burst open because of her abuse, nearly killing her. She writes about this in her memoir guts. It is harrowing and honest. 

I just started Kelly Rimmer's novel Truths I Never Told You, told from two perspectives- a mother of four children who has severe postpartum and her daughter Beth, who is also secretly suffering with it while she and her siblings are all dealing with putting their father in a nursing home. I can tell already that I'm going to really like this one, my full review will post on April 6th. 
Truths I Never Told You

Stay safe everyone, and stay healthy. Please be kind to those who are working in grocery stores and pharmacies, and caring for people in hospitals and nursing homes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Two Spring Reads

Reprinted from

(This was published before spring break was extended and baseball cancelled due to COVID-19)

Spring begins this week and that brings to mind certain things- spring training for major league baseball, and spring break for teachers and students. Two wonderful debut novels feature many characters sharing their stories in those settings in this month’s Book Report.

Baseball fans are settling in for the start of a new season, and Emily Nemens’ debut novel, The Cactus League is set during spring training for the fictional major league Los Angeles Lions. Nemens tells her story through the lives of several characters, all of whom have an interesting take on their spring in Arizona.

Jason Goodyear is a former league MVP, one of the best ballplayers in the league, with a reputation as an all-round good guy. He’s handsome, kind to his fellow players as well as fans, with a Derek Jeter-like reputation. 

But something is off with Goodyear this season. His two-year marriage to his schoolteacher wife is over, he is withdrawn, and his personal and professional life seem to be spiraling downward. He is hiding something big from everyone, something shocking.
Other people get to tell their own stories- the pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery trying to hide that it did not work, the batting coach not yet ready to retire, the team owner with a secret, the woman who has a relationship with a different ballplayer every season (think Annie Savoy from the movie Bull Durham), the players’ agent, the agent’s young assistant, and the overhyped rookie who has discovered that he is not as good as he was in high school.

Nemens weaves their stories together to place the reader smack in the middle of a fascinating spring, and each character is so well-drawn, a remarkable feat as there are so many characters. I was completely captivated by this book, and it is a must-read for baseball fans.  Nemens is clearly a lifelong baseball fan and it shows. It would make a terrific limited television series. 

Other good novels with a baseball theme include Stephanie Evanovich’s The Sweet Spot, Linda Holmes’ Evvie Drake Starts Over and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding.

If you’re a teacher going on spring break who will miss your colleagues, Roxanna Elden’s debut novel Adequate Yearly Progress will fill that void. Billed as The Office but set in an urban high school”, we are introduced to the teachers from Brae Hill Valley in a large Texas city. 

We meet Lena, a young spoken-word poet who moved from Philadelphia and is struggling to get her students engaged in English class. Mrs. Reynolds-Washington and Mrs. Friedman-Katz “two middle-aged women shared a love of tremendous jewelry, brightly colored pantsuits, and other people’s business” love to gossip and judge others. 

KayTee is an idealistic second-year teacher from TeachCorps who writes an anonymous blog about her experiences that goes viral. Dedicated biology teacher Hernan is Lena’s best friend looking for more than friendship. Maybelline is an uber-organized math teacher raising her young daughter on her own. Football coach Ray just wants to be left alone to win football games.

A new superintendent is hired for the city, a media superstar who has written a best-selling book and loves the spotlight. He announces a new program- Believers Make Achievers Zone, a group of schools with “poor students and poor test scores who will be receiving special attention” from him.

That special attention comes in the form of a consultant from TransformationalChangeAdvocacyConsultingPartners, whose main objective seems to be getting teachers to write a different Curriculum Standard of the Day in large letters on the white board each day (such as ALL STUDENTS ON TASK, ALL THE TIME). 

Teachers are now required to keep extensive binders filled with abundant data about the students that will be used to “innovate and catalyze disruptive change”. There is now an Office for Oversight of Binders and Evidence of Implementation, which makes math teacher Maybelline very happy as she is a big fan of organized data in binders.

Adequate Yearly Progress is laugh-out funny in parts (the comments on KayTee’s blog are especially hilarious), somber in other parts, and you don’t have to be a teacher to enjoy this clever workplace book (but if you are, you will enjoy it on another level). Like The Cactus League, Eldens manages to make each interesting character’s story stand out as they intersect.  Fans of Laurie Gelman’s Class Mom will enjoy it.

The Cactus League by Emily Nemens- A+
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Hardcover, $27, 272 pages

Adequate Yearly Progress by Roxanne Elden- A
Published by Atria
Trade paperback, $16.99, 378 pages

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Doubleday ISBN 9780385544801
Hardcover, $27.95, 400 pages

Last year Chris Bohjalian's thriller novel, The Flight Attendant, (my review here) was about a troubled flight attendant who becomes involved in a murder done by a murky Russian organization. It was good timing on Bohjalian's part that his book published at the height of the Russian election influence scandal.

This year his book, The Red Lotus, is about a group of nefarious people who are involved in a possible worldwide pandemic. (It makes me afraid to see what his next book will be!) Alex is on duty in a New York City hospital when a handsome man, Austin, comes into her emergency room after being stabbed in a bar by a homeless man.

They discover that Austin also works at the hospital, in fund development. They begin dating, and seven months later Austin and Alex are in Vietnam where they are taking part in a group bicycle tour. When Austin goes off on his own for a ride to visit the places where his uncle was killed in the Vietnam War and his father was shot, he doesn't comes back.

Alex has to work with the FBI, police, and embassy officials in Vietnam to try and find out what happened to Austin.  She  discovers that Austin lied to her- his uncle was not killed anywhere near where he was riding, and his father had not been shot in the war.

These lies bother her, and she wonders if she really knew Austin. She hires a private investigator to dig into Austin's life, and it turns out that there is a lot more to Austin than she knew, and it involves the hospital where they both work.

Once again, Bohjalian writes a smart, fast-paced thriller that had me reading well up past my bedtime. (Note to self- don't start reading his books after 9pm.) He keeps the reader guessing, and his characters are always interesting and well-drawn. I particularly liked Ken, the private investigator and Vietnam vet, and Toril, who worked in the American embassy in Vietnam, as well as Alex.

There is a scene at the end of the book that is so fraught with tension and action, I was gripping the pages so hard my hands hurt, and if it was a movie,  I would have been peeking through my fingers at the screen. I could feel my heart pounding. (The Red Lotus would make a great movie.)

I live in New York City, and rats are a part of life here, and I do NOT like rats. I will warn readers that rats do play a big role in the story, and even though I really HATE rats (did I tell you that?), I still really liked The Red Lotus. I highly recommend it for readers who like a smart thriller. My heart is pounding just writing this review.

Chris Bohjalian's website is here ,where you can read the first two chapters online.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

With all the craziness going on in the world today, it's a good time to get lost in the world of 1955 Jaipur, India in Alka Joshi's marvelous debut novel, The Henna Artist.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
Published by MIRA ISBN 9780778309451
Hardcover, $26.99, 368 pages

Lakshmi fled an abusive arranged marriage, leaving behind her husband and parents to go to the city of Jaipur, following the recent independence of India from the British Empire. She is a henna artist to many of Jaipur's wealthy women, where she has cultivated a large clientele who turn to her to decorate them for every celebration. But Lakshmi dreams of being a matchmaker for wealthy families, and when an opportunity arises, she is ready to take advantage of it.

She also sells sachets of herbs that help people with illnesses of all sorts. Lakshmi learned how to grow herbs that heal from her former mother-in-law, whom she loved and respected. When Samir, a wealthy and influential man, asks her to sell him herbs that prevent his mistresses from getting pregnant, Lakshmi agrees.

Lakshmi is building a home of her own, a place where she can bring her parents to live with her. One day her abusive husband shows up with a thirteen year-old girl, a sister she never knew she had. Radha is angry that Lakshmi abandoned her and her parents, and resents Lakshmi.

Life was moving upward for Lakshmi, but the arrival of Radha seems to bring a turn of luck for her. Her precarious finances take a big hit when vicious and untrue gossip about her cause her clients to drop her.

Lakshmi's striving for independence mirrors the country of India's independence from Great Britain. Lakshmi, like India, is stuck between long-standing traditions of a strict society and a desire to be modern and independent.

I was totally enmeshed in the sights and sounds of 1955 India. Joshi descriptions are rich and she uses the language of the time, with a helpful index in the back of the book that gives you the definitions of the words she uses. Food plays a big part, and she also gives the reader two recipes- one for Batti Balls and one for Royal Rabri. You can almost smell the food wafting off the page.

Her characters capture your heart- Malik, the young boy who acts as Lakshmi's assistant, sister Radha, and even her abusive ex-husband who shows more than one color to his character.

But it is Lakshmi's story. You will root for her to succeed, and ache for her when her struggles seem insurmountable. Lakshmi is a truly unforgettable character. I give The Henna Artist my highest recommendation.

Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on their 2020 Spring Reads Blog Tour. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Hunkering Down

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.

So now that we are prepared to hunker down, we have to make sure we have enough supplies on hand. That can be tough in New York City, where you generally go grocery shopping everyday because you can't carry too much walking from the stores.

I made a Costco trip two weeks ago (it feels like two months ago, so much has happened), so we have enough cleaning supplies and personal care items. Early last week I felt like I should stock up on some canned goods (soups, fruits, peanut butter, etc) so we have enough there. I wish I had more room in my freezer, but alas.
Grouper from Ocean Prime

We just found a great Lenten Friday night restaurant, Ocean Prime, near Times Square, where it was mobbed two Fridays ago and completely empty two days ago.  They have an amazing Florida grouper that they serve with some lobster, peas and the best gnocci I have had outside of Italy. I hope they make it through this. It will the last restaurant outing we make for the foreseeable future.

My husband got a frother yesterday so he could make cappuccinos in his Nespresso and he is delighted with that. It will be good to have a special treat.

We also got treats from William Greenberg Desserts because we are trying to support local businesses when they need it most. I tried their homemade cherry PopTart, which was tasty, but needed more a bit more cherry filling. They are on Goldbelly, where you can order from great restaurants all over the United States if you want to help restaurants, and maybe send some treats to people who can't get out of their homes.

I hope you all have enough supplies on hand and special treats. Read books, bake cookies, play card games, work on puzzles, knit, exercise and catch up on all those TV shows and movies you say you wanted to watch. Be safe and healthy, and be kind to each other.