Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062986153
Hardcover, $27.99, 528 pages
I enjoy historical fiction most when the story is one that I am unfamiliar with, and it is based on real people. In this vein, author Lauren Willig introduces the reader to The Smith College Relief Unit, a group of women from the Smith College in the United States who volunteered to go into the Somme in France during WWI, working to help French viilagers displaced during the war in her novel "Band of Sisters".
These young women, who didn't even have the right to vote yet, got on a ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean to go to a war zone, to help people they didn't know. Willig discovered this in a memoir titled "Ladies of Grecourt" by Ruth Gaines, a member of the unit. Then she found a cache of letters and journals written by the young women of the unit. Many of the stories in those letters ended up fictionalized in this fascinating novel that I could not put down.
I got so caught up in the individual stories of these interesting young woman, like Kate, the Irish young woman, a school teacher who was recruited by Emmie, her former roommate at Smith. Julia, Emmie's cousin, is a doctor with a serious demeanor. Mrs. Rutherford is the formidiable woman who was the driving force behind this enterprise.
Mrs. Rutherford told the ladies that they will be planting food, helping to build new shelters and schools, whatever was needed. The women drove huge trucks, learned how to give first aid, procured supplies by any means they could, and figured out how to get it to the people who needed it. They did all that and more in a time before Excel spreadsheets and Google docs, and did it in extremely uncomfortable clothing.
Willig drops the reader right into the war zone along with these brave, enterprising women. We see them at the best, working together to help people who were much worse off than they were led to believe, and at their worst, as close quarters during a crisis can cause some people's behavior to deteriorate.
When the war comes to their doorstep, the tension rachets up as the women work to save as many villagers as they can. I bit my nails to the quick as I was reading this section.
I also enjoyed the callback to the most recent novel by Lauren Willig, Beatriz Williams and Karen White, All The Ways We Said Goodbye, with a character and setting from that collaboration making an appearance here.
Readers of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series should definitely put Band of Sisters on their TBR list and buy it now. I know so many women who would love this book. This is Lauren Willig's best book yet, I can't wait to see what research she stumbles upon for her next book.
My review of All the Ways We Said Goodbye is here.
It's Never Too Late by Kathie Lee Gifford
Published by Thomas Nelson ISBN 9780785236641
Hardcover, $26.99, 208 pages
Kathie Lee Gifford has been a part of popular culture for many decades. Most of us know her from her fifteen years cohosting with Regis Philbin on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, a daily talk show that revolutionalized daytime television, and then her eleven years cohosting the fourth hour of the Today Show with Hoda Kotb.
But she has done so much more in her life. In her new book, It's Never Too Late- Make the Next Act of Your Life The Best Act of Your Life, Kathie Lee Gifford takes us through each stage of her life and the lessons she learned that brought her to a happy place, and can do the same for you.
After a Foreword written by Dolly Parton, who wrote of the importance of having dreams for your life and working hard to achieve your dreams and goals, Kathie Lee writes 35 short chapters each titled with It's Never Too Late to... and then things like Never Give Up, where she decribed leaving college before graduation and moving to Los Angeles to become an actress. She struggled, going on many auditions (and usually losing out to Nancy Morgan, John Ritter's future wife), but finally she got her first big break on Name That Tune, where she got to use her beautiful singing voice.
She recounted a tough year in 1995, which began with her thrilling appearance singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl, moved on to her being accused of using sweatshop labor for her women's fashion line at WalMart, and then her husband was caught cheating on her in a highly publicized tabloid scandal.
In Change the Ending, Then Change It Again, she shares her tale of landing in Scotland ready to film the movie she wrote for Craig Ferguson and herself, Then Came You. Ferguson tells Kathie Lee that she has to change the ending of the movie- just as they were to begin filming. When director Adriana Trigiani shares Ferguson's opinion, Kathie Lee reluctantly agrees to change it. Then in the middle of the shoot, Gifford writes a song with her writing partner that convinces her to change the ending yet again. (Oh, poor Adriana Trigiani!) If you have seen the wonderful movie, you know the ending works perfectly.
Kathie Lee shares funny stories- like the time Al Pacino came to her home for lunch and they tried to top each other with crazy celebrity true encounters (Kathie Lee won), frightening stories (her sister Michie nearly dying), and disappointments (the Broadway show she wrote closing after three weeks), and through it all her faith in God sustains her.
Kathie Lee Gifford reminds of Joan Rivers- they both worked hard, followed their dreams through good times and bad, picked themselves up, and never let anyone stop them from achieving their goals. People have strong opinions about both of these women, and I respect each of them for being true to themselves and never giving up.
It's Never Too Late is a must-read for Kathie Lee Gifford fans, and people who have strong faith in God will get an extra level of appreciation from this book. It's inspirational and enjoyable, and it's good to be reminded especially during these troubled times that you can change your life for the better, no matter where you are in life.
My review of Kathie Lee's movie, Then Came You, is here.
Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Kathie Lee Gifford's tour. The rest of her stops are here:
Monday, March 1, 2021
A Theory of Everything Else by Laura Pedersen
Published by She Writes Press ISBN 9781631527371
Trade paperback, $16.95, 305 pages
One of the funniest books I ever read was Laura Pedersen's Buffalo Gal, about her growing up in 1970's Buffalo, NY. I grew up a few hours away in the same time period, and there were so many events and touchstones that I could relate to, especially her stories about lake effect snowstorms. (Now we both live on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. I would love to run into her on the street someday.)
Her newest effort is a book of essays, A Theory of Everything Else, that is both by turns hilarious and philosophical. There are four classes of essays- Quadipeds, Bipeds, Estrogen-Americans, and Human Kind.
Beginning with Quadipeds, we learn about Pedersen's love of all things dog. She jokes about giving her dog a messy bone, and every time he will drag it on to the most expensive oriental rug to chew it on. If the dog is on a bathroom floor and starts heaving, it will immediately jump up on a bed or a "sofa covered in cream-colored silk brocade to vomit." Dog lovers will recognize many of her observations.
She has humorous human observations as well. She noted that today, when bridal parties are preparing their hair and makeup on the big day, it is now a celebration with mimosas being freely poured. Combine this with the dieting that these ladies did to fit into their dresses, and it could be a problem. At one friend's son's wedding, the maid-of-honor began to sway at the altar, and then the bride and bridesmaids each began to fall. Luckily an athletic coach-guest ran to his van, brought back Gatorade, and the ceremony continued on with the bridal party seated in chairs.
Pedersen shares more Buffalo stories, going into how the majestic churches there were built by the church members themselves. They'd go to their factory jobs during the day, went home, ate dinner, then went to build their community's church until ten at night. Her comparisons of the different religions to sports (Buddhism is badminton, Mormons are a marching band, Shakers would be cliff divers) is clever and funny.
I love her chapter on her OCD nurse mom, who once was able to prove (without hidden cameras) that her apartment manager was using her apartment as "love nest" when she was in Florida. Her retirement community apartment was so meticulously organized and maintained that she was able to get a rent reduction because they could use it a model when prospective residents wanted to view a furnished apartment.
As Pedersen gets older, she finds she is more like her parents. For example, when she was younger, her schedule was completely filled every day. Now, she will do only thing per day. If a friend asks her to dinner, and she has an 11 o'clock hair appointment and can't make dinner, her friend will reply "Call me when things calm down." (Oh dear, I think I can relate...)
The latter chapters turn more philosophical. As this is the beginning of Women's History Month, Pedersen delves into the struggle women have historically had to tell their stories, the problems facing women in comedy, and the importance of encouraging girls to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).
In the Humankind section, Pedersen talks about the transformative power of art, trying to get home to NYC after 9/11, and how to find The Good Life.
I have always appreciated Laura Pedersen's ability to make to me laugh in her books, and in A Theory of Everything Else, I now also appreciate her ability to make me think about bigger issues. How can you not like a book that makes you laugh and think in equal measure? Laura Pedersen is a treasure.
Friday, February 26, 2021
Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. I can't believe it's the last Friday in February, time is flying by.
1) After watching the first two episodes of Stanley Tucci -Searching for Italy on CNN, it made us long for our trips to Italy and all the fabulous food we had there. While placing an order from Vincent's Meat Market in the Bronx this week, I saw that they had Guanciale, a cured meat product (like pancetta) made from pork cheek and jowls. As that was a featured ingredient in one of the fantastic looking dishes on this week's episode, I ordered some. Now I just need to find that recipe....
2) Today is National Take A Walk Day, highlighting the health advantages of walking outside. Al Roker from the Today Show walked from his home near Central Park to the Today Show studio on Fifth Ave. and 49th Street, a pretty decent walk, at least a few miles. I did my walk a few days earlier on Tuesday, walking 6 miles from our apartment on on the Upper East Side to run errands (post office, dry cleaner, drug store, grocery store) to the Barnes & Noble store on Fifth Ave. and 46th Street (very near the Today Show studio) and back home. On Sunday, we had six people from our family on their Peloton bikes doing Jenn Sherman's live 80's ride, which was a lot of fun. Exercise is a good antidote to being cooped up inside all day. The Today Show has a 31-day walking plan that looks great.
3) This week was filled with online book discussions . The Peloton Moms Book Club hosted a Facebook Live with author Jane L. Rosen, discussing her wonderful novel, Eliza Starts A Rumor, about four women who live in a bucolic Hudson Valley town and form a bond over a rumor gone wild. It's about social media, marriage, friendship, and reaching out to others. I loved the book, my review is here. Thanks to Jennifer for hosting the discussion.
Next up was a large (250+) Zoom gathering with author Sarah MacLean in discussion with Lauren Willig about Lauren's first novel in her Pink Carnation spy series, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. Published in 2003, the book is set in 1803 as British spies are embedded in Paris to try and foil Napoleon's plans to invade England. I so enjoyed the discussion, and look forward to joining in for the next 11 books in the series. Each month for a year we will read the next book in the series and discuss. You can watch it here. Join in the fun!
The last one was Adriana Trigiani's Facebook Live talk with Matthew McConaughey about his critically acclaimed memoir Greenlights. It was such an entertaining and fascinating discussion! Adriana asked great questions and Matthew was a wonderful guest, regaling us all with stories from his childhood and acting career. I must read this one.
4) We binge-watched all seven episodes of The Queen's Gambit on Netflix this week. Lots of my friends have recommended it, including my son, and once we started it, we were hooked. It tells the story of Beth Harmon, a young girl orphaned when her mother commits suicide. Beth is sent to live at a girls' school where the school janitor teaches her to play chess and discovers she is a prodigy. Set in the 1950s-1960s, we see how Beth becomes a world-class chess champion, fighting sexism and her own demons. I never thought anyone could make watching chess interesting, but they sure do here. This is must-see TV, and Anya Taylor-Joy is a phenomenal as Beth. She may win a Golden Globe this weekend for her performance. The music is great too.
5) In preparation for the Zoom this week, I read Lauren Willig's The Secret History of the Pink Carnation. What a fun read it was! It's got history, romance (a few steamy sexy scenes), spies, action, strong women, humor and more all rolled up into a rollocking good read. In the present day, graduate student Eloise Kelly sets out to discover who the mysterious Pink Carnation spy was during the time Napoleon was about to invade England. She is led to letters written by a young Amy Balcourt, which make up the bulk of the story. Amy, her cousin Jane, and chaperone the tough and prim Miss Gwen travel to Paris to stay with Amy's brother, and they get caught up in intrigue with the Purple Gentian, a masked man who is a thorn in the side of Napoleon's Chief of Police. If you smugly assume (as I did) that you guessed who the Pink Carnation was (wasn't it obvious?), you will enjoy the denouement of this delightful story. I loved the characters (especially Miss Gwen) and there are so many great scenes here that scream out for a Netflix series. If you liked Bridgerton, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is your next read.
Friday, February 19, 2021
Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week.
1) Sunday was Valentine's Day, and I saw on CBS Sunday Morning that Martha Stewart had a delicious brunch recipe for Grand Marnier French Toast. It was too late to make it for brunch on Valentine's Day, but I made it the next morning and it was so tasty. Adding milk to the eggs, and using a good brioche bread made the difference. This recipe will be in regular rotation. The video is here if you want to make it.
2) I received my medal for my 7th virtual bike ride since this summer. I rode the 312.4 mile St. Francis Way from Florence to Rome in Italy. I finished it in 23 days, and I enjoyed getting my "postcards" along the way. You can join virtual walks/rides across the world through The Conqueror Challenge here.
3) Zibby Owens' essay anthology collection, Moms Don't Have Time To- A Quarantine Anthology published this week and she hosted a Zoom with the 50 authors who each wrote a short essay for the book. It was a fun Zoom, with Zibby asking each author a question that related to their section. The authors of READ shared book recommendations that got them through the pandemic, and there were so many great books there. (My To-Be-Read pile expanded exponentionally.) The authors from EXERCISE shared their pandemic exercise routine, EAT section writers spoke of the food they couldn't live without during pandemic, SEX section writers answered the question "When do you find time for sex?" (mornings were popular), and BREATHE authors shared how they catch their breath during pandemic (everything from yoga to looking into a baby granddaughter's eyes to painting family members' portraits). It was one of the best Zooms I have had the pleasure of joining, and Zibby had it so well organized, it was over in an hour. The proceeds from the book go to COVID research, and the book is great for those of us who have shortened attention spans now.
4) While looking for a documentary to watch on Netflix, we found Tricky Dick & the Man in Black, about the time when President Nixon asked Johnny Cash to play at the White House. In 1970, Nixon was trying to solidify his Southern base, which up to that point were usually reliably Democrats. Many Southerners were turned off by the protests against the Vietnam War, they saw the protesters as unpatriotic. Nixon's advisers thought that bringing popular country performer Johnny Cash would appeal to the South. Cash was opposed to the war, but he did not want to turn down the President. The archival footage of the White House performance is terrific, and the song choice is pure Johnny Cash. I recommend it for Johnny Cash fans.
5) I spent a lot of time working on our taxes this week, so I only read 1 1/3 books. I started and finished Mateo Askaripour's hilarious and deep debut novel, Black Buck. Darren lives with his mother and when he is not working as a shift supervisor at Starbucks, he is spending time with his girlfriend. Darren was valedictorian of his competitive high school in New York City, but didn't go to college. His mother wants him to find his niche, and when a start-up CEO offers Darren a position as a salesman at his company, Darren reluctantly accepts. As the only Black man at the startup, Darren has to live with the constant microaggressions (a running gag is everyone at the company telling him he looks like every Black man from Morgan Freeman to Barack Obama) and outright hostile racism. This book is phenomenal, I literally could not put it down, I can see why Jenna Bush Hager chose it as her January book club pick for the Today Show. I love a book when I don't where it's going, and it suprises me. I give it my highest recommendation.
I'm one-third through my Book Of the Month Club pick, Kristin Hannah's The Four Winds. Set in 1934 during the Dust Bowl, Elsa and her family live on her husband's family's farm in Texas and things are going well until a severe several year drought and the Great Depression forces them to make a decision- stay in an untenable situation or head to California where so many families are moving hoping for a new start. The characters are relatable, and Hannah brings them and their desperate situation to life. She has a real knack for putting the reader in her characters' shoes, and this book has garnered much praise already.
Stay safe and socially distant, wear a mask, wash your hands, and get the vaccine when it's your turn. And to those of you have already done that, yay for you!
Thursday, February 18, 2021
All The Ways We Said Goodbye by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062931102
Trade paperback, $16.99, 464 pages
All the Ways We Said Goodbye, a triple timeline saga, is the third collaboration by authors Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White (collectively known as Team W).
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062931102
Trade paperback, $16.99, 464 pages
All the Ways We Said Goodbye, a triple timeline saga, is the third collaboration by authors Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, and Karen White (collectively known as Team W).
All The Ways We Said Goodbye opens up in 1964 on an estate in Devonshire, England. Babs is still mourning the recent loss of her beloved husband Kit, who spent time in a prisoner of war camp in Germany during WWII.
Babs receives a letter from an American lawyer whose father also fought in WWII and is now dying. He asks Babs’ to meet him at the Ritz Hotel in Paris to discuss La Fleur, a famous female French spy whom Kit knew, and who betrayed his father.
Aurelie is a young French woman living with her mother at the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1914 during WWI. Aurelie’s mother entertains German writers and philosophers in her salon, much to the dismay of Aurelie.
When Aurelie leaves Paris to go to her father’s ancestral estate in the countryside, the German army is not soon behind, and they confiscate her family’s estate to make it their headquarters during the invasion. The Germans take over the town and force the townspeople into starvation and humiliation. Aurelie does her best to help her friends, even at risk to her own life.
Daisy lives with her American-born grandmother at the Ritz Paris in 1942 during WWII. Daisy’s grandmother is part of the Resistance, and soon Daisy helps the cause by delivering messages hidden in books from the local bookstore.
All these stories collide, and part of the fun is watching these three authors skillfully blend their storylines together to create one taut mystery. Who was La Fleur and what is her connection with all three women?
The research that goes into all of Team W's books shows up on the pages here. I'd love to see their notes and photos for this one. I also appreciate their strong female characters, they all show great growth as they realize what they are capable of doing.
Fans of Team W’s previous two books- The Forgotten Room (my review here) and The Glass Ocean (my review here) will enjoy the cameo appearances by characters from those two books (especially the annoying Prunella Schuyler) in this latest one. And if you liked Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Couldn't See and Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow you will want to pu
Tuesday, February 16, 2021
The Vineyard at Painted Moon by Susan Mallery
Published by Harlequin ISBN 9781488077760
Hardcover, $27.99, 400 pages
I have been interested in wineries and vineyards since a trip we made a trip to Napa Valley a few years ago, so I was intrigued by Susan Mallery's newest novel, The Vineyard at Painted Moon.
Mackenzie is a well-respected winemaker at her husband Rhys Barcella's family vineyard, Bel Apres Winery, in Walla Walla, Washington. She met his sister Stephanie at college, and they have been best friends ever since. All four of the Barcella adult children live on the grounds of the winery, under the careful and critical eye of their mother Barbara.
Barbara freely shares her harsh opinions of her children with them- Rhys, Stephanie (divorced with two teens), Lori (who just wants her mother's respect), and Elizabeth (whom she calls Four). Elizabeth is an artist, a free spirit with a happy marriage and wonderful young children, which makes her mother crazy. Barbara adores Mackenzie and respects her work ethic and talent, and feels like Mackenzie is family.
Rhys and Mackenzie seem to be just going through the motions of a marriage. They love each other, but there is no passion there. When Rhys asks for a divorce, Mackenzie decides it's time to strike out on her own.
This decision enrages Barbara, who sees this as a betrayal. Her family took Mackenzie in and gave her a career. Mackenzie might be willing to stay if she could own a piece of the winery, as all of Barbara's children do. She has worked hard to earn that, but Barbara refuses.
I very much enjoyed learning all about the winery business from the perspective of the vineyard owner, I haven't read many novels with that setting. The family dynamic is fascinating, combining the normal familial relationships with the business relationships.
There were some wonderful touches- flying the "cookie flag" outside the house when someone has made fresh cookies, inviting other family members to bring their takeout containers, the personal chef who makes dinner every night for the family members and leaves lunch for the next day (I want that service), and the fact that tea towels became such a big seller in the cafe with the tourists.
Mackenzie has to face big changes and decide what she really wants out of life. Is owning a piece of a vineyard worth losing the only family she has?
At the end of the book, Susan Mallery includes helpful information about wine pairings- what type of wine to drink with any dish, as well as a few quinoa salad recipes.
We've been doing wine-tasting Zooms, and I think that The Vineyard at Painted Moon would be a great way to combine Book Club with Wine Tasting Zooms. If you enjoy wine and interesting family stories as I do, put The Vineyard at Painted Moon on your to-be-read list.
Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on Susan Mallery's tour.
Friday, February 12, 2021
Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention during the week.
1) Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday, and while I am not a football fan, I do like watching the commercials and the halftime show. The Toyota commercial with the paralympic swimmer was moving, and the Will Ferrell General Motors commercial was pretty funny. Although I only know a few the Weeknd songs, I thought he did an amazing job with his spectacular halftime show. He used the fact that there weren't a lot of fans there to create a fantastic set design.
Of course, it's all about the snacks for us. Even though we were only two, I made Ina Garten's Warm Spinach and Artichoke Dip recipe from her new Modern Comfort Food cookbook, and Clean Food Crush 's Irish Nachos, made with sliced potatoes rather than tortilla chips, a recipe that my sister found online. Both were delicious and we didn't need any dinner after that.
2) I was walking by the local YMCA and saw this Kiddie Cart outside their preschool. Whomever has to push the car with six children in it must be very strong.
3) Under the heading "when it rains, it's pours", on Wednesday there were two online upcoming book presentations. From 1-3 pm, the terrific trio of Virginia, Chris, and Lainey from Library Love Fest marketing team presented the upcoming summer books from HarperCollins imprints. We had a three-page printout of all the great upcoming books. My highlighter almost went dry as I busily noted all the many books I can't wait to read- Jennifer Chiaverini's historical fiction The Women's March, Barbara Chase-Riboud's The Great Mrs. Elias, and Jessica Anya Blau's Mary Jane among them. You can find the presentation on their YouTube channel here.
At 2pm, Carol Fitzgerald from the Book Reporter website presented Bookaccino Live, featuring her February reading suggestions. Again, my highlighter worked overtime with her suggestions of wonderful books such as Lauren Willig's brilliant novel Band of Sisters and Julia Cooke's nonfiction Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of The Women of Pan Am. Book Reporter has lots of great author interviews on their YouTube channel here.
From 2-3pm, I listened to both presentations, one on my computer, one on my Ipad. Thank goodness I had the printouts so I could go back and forth and listen to the books I most wanted to hear about.
4) On our last Zoom wine tasting, our guide Seri recommended we watch the 2008 movie Bottle Shock, about the small family California winery that won the Judgment of Paris competition in 1976. Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, and the always fabulous Alan Richman star in this delightful movie that will appeal to anyone who enjoys wine. Englishman Steven Spurrier travels to Napa Valley to find American wines that can compete against French wines in this new blind tasting competition in Paris. It's a real underdog story based on a true event. We ver much enjoyed the movie, and were surprised to find a bottle of wine from Chateau Montelena (the winning winery) in our wine cooler that we drank during the movie.
5) I read one book and am in the middle of a second. Melanie Benjamin's historical novel, The Children's Blizzard is based on a true story that occurred in 1888 in Nebraska. A dangerous blizzard rapidly comes out of nowhere just as students are about to be released from school. Many students, as well as other people, died during the horrific storm, some just steps from their own homes. Benjamin tells her story through two young sisters, both teachers. One sister sends the children home just as the storm begins, and the other keeps the children in school, even though if they run out of fuel to keep warm, they will surely die. It's such an evocative book, you feel like you are right in the middle of this storm and this story, and you feel for these young adult women who have to make a terrible decision. I highly recommend it.
I'm in the middle of Susan Mallery's novel, The Vineyard at Painted Moon. Mackenzie is a celebrated winemaker at her husband's family's vineyard in Walla Walla, Washington. The family took her in when her grandfather, her only relative, died when she was in college. When Mackenzie and her husband come to the sad conclusion that their marriage is over, Mackenzie decides it's time to move on to a new job. The head of her husband's vineyard, his mother, is enraged over losing her winemaker, and is determined to make Mackenzie pay. Mallery writes family, friendship, and love stories so well, and of course I really enjoy the winery setting. (I think we have established that I like wine.) My full review will publish on Tuesday.