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Friday, December 30, 2016

The Most Compelling Books of 2016

Reprinted from auburnpub.com

The year 2016 is quickly coming to a close, and it’s time to reflect on all of the reading I’ve done this year with my list of the most compelling books of 2016. These are books that long after I finished reading, I find myself still thinking about them.
I didn’t read much non-fiction this year, but two titles in that genre made the list, including the one book I was most moved by: Lisa Fenn’s Carry On. Fenn, a producer at ESPN, was looking for a good documentary subject when her father told her about two high school wrestlers — one was blind, the other lost both legs in an accident, and both lived in poverty. Fenn becomes involved in trying to help these young men make better lives for themselves. It restores your faith in humanity and helps you to understand the world better. 
Jeffrey Toobin, whose book was the basis for the FX smash TV series The People v. O.J. Simpson, turned his attention to the Patty Hearst kidnapping in American Heiress. Toobin brilliantly immerses the reader in the mid-1970s as he tells of wealthy heiress Hearst’s kidnapping by a group of ragtag political extremists, and what happened when she became an ally to their violent cause. 
American Heiress
Mysteries and thrillers were tops on my reading list, something different for me. Chris Bohjalian’s novel The Guest Room shows how easily one mistake can turn the life of a happily married father into a nightmare. You can feel a pain in the pit of your stomach as his life unravels after a bachelor party, and the ending is shocking. 
The Guest Room
Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger opens with a woman’s husband lying dead at the bottom of the stairs and her on the run. We discover she was already on the run for something else and when she is saved by a stranger, their lives become entwined. You’ll hold your breath the entire time you’re reading. 
The Passenger
Irish writer Tana French’s latest Dublin Murder Squad mystery The Trespasser is the best of the series so far, with a protagonist, detective Antoinette Conway, who is tenacious as she maneuvers her way in an all-male environment to solve a murder that hits close to the squad. 
The Trespasser
Much of the fiction I read this year was just outstanding, and emotional. Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World, set in the early 1970's, follows a 16-year-old girl who runs away with her teacher, and how that affects her sister and Iris, the woman who raised them. Iris’ story moved me most, and these characters are unforgettable. 
Cruel Beautiful World
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Louise Erdrich’s LaRose starts out heartbreaking, as a man accidentally kills his best friend’s young son and, following his tribal tradition, gives his young son to the grieving parents as amends. This beautifully sad book is filled with the fascinating characters affected by this act, and the writing is devastating. 
Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and Light tackles the topic of fracking and how it impacts the lives of a small Pennsylvania town where the factory work is gone and people are torn between saving their environment and making enough money to survive. Haigh’s brilliant novel especially resonates in today’s atmosphere. 
Heat and Light
Richard Fifeld’s The Flood Girls is set in a small town as well, in Montana. Rachel comes home to make amends for all the trouble she caused and befriends her teenage neighbor, a young man who doesn’t fit in. Again, the characters here are so well-drawn, and the ending is just shattering. 
The Flood Girls
Deanna Lynn Sletten’s Finding Libbie is a novel that didn’t get a lot of attention, but should have. When a young woman finds a wedding photo of her father with a woman not her mother, she sets out to find out what happened to the bride. It’s about first love, the difficulties of marriage, and the heartbreak of mental illness and addiction. 
Finding Libbie
Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno perfectly places all of the pieces of the puzzle in a story that spans a century, telling how a 19th-century Russian painting affects a variety of people. Given the current interest in Russia, this one is a must-read, and Marra is a genius storyteller. 
The Tsar of Love and Techno
And finally, the book that everyone (including Oprah) has on their list: “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. I don’t normally like books that everyone loves, but this one is incredible. Cora's story, a slave who runs away on a literal underground railroad, is just one punch to the gut after another. Every American should read it. 
The Underground Railroad
Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and blogs about books at http://bookchickdi.blogspot.com. You can follow her on Twitter@bookchickdi, and she can be emailed at laruediane2000@yahoo.com.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Weekend Cooking- New Holiday Recipes

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 is the time of year when my mailbox is stuffed full of catalogs for companies that I am not entirely sure how I got on their list- Little Princess catalog, really? I don't have a young daughter as a matter of fact, I don't have any daughters. I'm not quite sure how that one happened.

What I do enjoy showing up in my mailbox are the holiday issues of food magazines. The covers are so cheery and bright, and there are always great recipes that I want to add to my holiday repertoire.

Cooking Light has a lovely little mini raspberry cheesecake on the cover that just screams Christmas. Last year we celebrated New Year's Eve with a dinner at our home in Longboat Key, Florida. We bought a huge beef tenderloin from Costco, seasoned it up and grilled it outside. (We never used to be able to do that in Central New York in December!)

This December issue has a Holiday Survival Guide section, and a recipe for the Perfect Beef Tenderloin is there, along with a Board Dressing that you place on the cutting board for your roast. You mix the herbs, oil and vinegar, then place the roast on top after it cooks, roll it and then slice. We are definitely trying this one on New Year's Eve. The link for the recipe is here.
Photo by Jennifer Causey- Cooking Light magazine

food network magazine has a special pullout Favorite Holiday Party Foods section that takes you from appetizers like Party Peppers (stuffed jalapenos) and Spinach-Artichoke Soup Shooters to drinks like Apple Cider Floats to desserts like Pear-White Pepper Tiramisu.

The main issue has 120 holiday recipes, 25 cookie recipes, and 100 gift ideas for the food lovers on your list, with price points from $8 to $100. There is also a cute section on ideas for gingerbread houses- roofs made of Crispix cereal and Necco wafers, doors made of spearmint gum, windows from Oreo cookies. You'll ace any Gingerbread House competition with these clever ideas.

The link for food network, with pages of holiday food ideas, is here.

Do you have any favorite food magazines? Let me know in comments.

Monday, December 5, 2016

I'lll Take You There by Wally Lamb

I'll Take You There by Wally Lamb
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06-265628-5
Hardcover, 272 pages, $25.99

Wally Lamb is a writer who grabs the reader emotionally, taking them on a heartfelt journey in each book that he writes. I first discovered him in She's Come Undone, which I read at work. I cried so hard, people would stop by and ask me if I was OK. That's the kind of writer he is.

When I began his latest novel, I'll Take You There, I got a different kind of vibe, a lighter tone. Felix Funicello, cousin of 1960's star Annette Funicello, is a divorced dad of Aliza, a young woman working as a writer for New York magazine.

I loved the interplay between Aliza and her dad. Felix teases Aliza about her coarse language (an unfortunate side effect of living in NYC) and is supportive and encouraging in her career. Kat, Aliza's mom and Felix's ex-wife, is a strident feminist, and Felix and Kat still get along well even though they are divorced.

Felix runs a Monday movie night club at a old theatre that used be a vaudeville theatre. He has heard talk of ghosts that inhabit the place, but hadn't seen any until one day he is accosted by the ghost of Lois Weber, who made her name as a female director of films of the silent era. Lois tells Felix that she is going to show him a film of his life, starting when he was ten years old.

Felix actually enters the film and he becomes the young boy he once was. We meet his older sisters, Simone and Frances, as they are going to the theatre to see a movie. We learn about Felix's family and their relationships to each other.

The story deepens midway, when Frances faces some issues that she has been unable to deal with. The entire family is affected by Frances's problems, and the children learn some secrets that threaten the family's cohesion.

I grew to love I'll Take You There. I enjoyed the nostalgic look back at 1950's Brooklyn, and the history lesson of the Miss Rheingold beer competition that the Funicello children became personally involved in when their former babysitter was a finalist.

Lamb tugs at the heartstrings of the reader in the latter half of the story, with a tale that brought tears to my eyes. (Damn you Wally Lamb, you did it again!) The Funicello family worms their way into your heart and you love and identify with them. (Fans of TV's wonderful new show This Is Us would love I'll Take You There. It has a similar sensibility and blend of humor and pathos.)

Aliza is given the task of writing about the Miss Rheingold competition, which galls her since she was a Feminist Studies major in college. But she learns something interesting, and Lamb ends the novel with a blog post written by Aliza to her mom about the new generation of feminists that will particularly enlighten feminists of my age who may not quite recognize the feminists of today.

I'll Take You There features a grown-up Felix, whom we first met as a young boy in Lamb's sweet Christmas novel Wishin' and Hopin', and while you don't have to have read that book to appreciate this one, those who have read it will enjoy it on a higher level. I highly recommend I'll Take You There, and it would make a great gift for the literary feminist on your list.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Wally Lamb's tour. the rest of his stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, November 22nd: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, November 23rd: Dolce Bellezza
Monday, November 28th: Turn the Page
Tuesday, November 29th: West Metro Mommy
Wednesday, November 30th: Lit and Life
Thursday, December 1st: The Well-Read Redhead
Monday, December 5th: bookchickdi
Tuesday, December 6th: What Will She Read Next
Wednesday, December 7th: Bibliophiliac
Thursday, December 8th: A Bookish Way of Life
Friday, December 9th: Booksie’s Blog
Monday, December 12th: Girl Who Reads
Wednesday, December 14th: Mother’s Circle
Thursday, December 15th: SJ2B House Of Books

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard

Under the Influence by Joyce Maynard
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-225766-0
Trade paperback, $15.99, 327 pages

Joyce Maynard's fantastic novel Under the Influence is one of those books that grabs your attention right from the beginning and never lets go. It doesn't start flashy, with a grisly murder or great drama, rather we learn that protagonist is moving to a new town with her son when she sees a woman she hasn't seen in ten years.

Maynard takes the rest of the novel to share why Helen hasn't seen Ava in ten years and tells us the story of how they came to be friends. Helen was thirty-eight, divorced from her husband and trying to raise her three-year-old son on her own. She had no family to speak of, and she adored her husband's family who took her in and loved her, and then threw her out when her husband left her for another woman.

Helen turned to alcohol and when she was frantically driving her son to the hospital with a burst appendix after she had been drinking, the police stopped her and she watched helplessly as her son was taken away in an ambulance while she was taken away in handcuffs.

She lost her license and then she lost her son to her ex-husband. She had visitation twice a month for six hours and felt that her life was over. Then she met Ava and Swift, a wealthy couple who made her feel like she was worthy again.

Ava was confined to a wheelchair and her husband Swift was a larger-than-life bear of a man, a self-made millionaire who lived life to the fullest. They took Helen in under their wing, inviting her out to dinners, bringing her into their home, and eventually hiring her as a photographer.

Helen blossomed with Ava and Swift, and soon her young son Ollie, now eight, was brought into this makeshift family. Ollie was mesmerized by Swift, who acted like a child himself- all id, no superego.

Helen also began dating Elliot, an accountant she met through online dating. Elliot was the anti-Swift. He was not flashy, boring even, but Helen and Elliot liked the same things- staying in and watching old movies, trying new restaurants.

Ava and Swift did not approve of Elliot; they told Helen he was a dud and not good enough for her. Ollie didn't like Elliot either; he wasn't as exciting or cool as Swift.

The title refers not only to Helen's DUI conviction but to the way in which Helen fell under the influence of this golden couple, two people who picked her up when she was at her low point. Why couldn't Elliot understand that?

Maynard reveals these characters so slowly and brilliantly, they feel very real. Helen's anguish, loneliness and humiliation at losing her son, the only light in her life, is so visceral, you can feel it vibrate on the page.

Her imagery is vivid too, such as her description of Helen's childhood with a mother who didn't love or want her:
"I remember a great many bologna sandwiches and granola bars. A Top 40 station playing seventies hits, and the television always on. Old lottery tickets piled on the counter, never the winning number. The smell of marijuana and spilled wine. Stacks of library books under the covers of my bed: the thing that saved me."

The story has a sense of foreboding throughout. We know that something happened to destroy Ava and Helen's friendship, we are waiting for it to be revealed.

At the end of the book, the Author's Notes share that Elliot (my favorite character) is based on Maynard's husband and it made me wish that everyone had an Elliot in their life as Maynard and Helen did.

I read Under the Influence in a few hours, I truly did not want to put it down. It is a book that I will recommend and ponder and know that my thoughts will return to many times in the future. I will not forget Helen and how she loved her son with a ferociousness most mothers have in them. I give it my highest recommendation.

Joyce Maynard's website is here.

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

Tour Stops

Tuesday, November 22nd: BookNAround
Wednesday, November 23rd: Books and Bindings
Monday, November 28th: I’d Rather Be At The Beach
Tuesday, November 29th: Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, December 1st: bookchickdi
Monday, December 5th: Comfy Reading
Tuesday, December 6th: Dreams, Etc.
Wednesday, December 7th: Vox Libris
Thursday, December 8th: A Splendidly Messy Life
Friday, December 9th: 5 Minutes For Books
Monday, December 12th: Ace and Hoser Blook

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

New in Paperback- The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz
Published by Simon & Schuster ISBN 978145686647
Trade paperback, 320 pages, $15.99

Lisa Lutz’s “Spellman Files” series is a comic look at a family of private investigators. Those light-hearted books are a world away from her latest, “The Passenger,” which begins with a woman on the run after her husband dies falling down the stairs. 
It is not the first time Tanya has been on the run. The story of her background slowly unfolds and she has to deal with someone from her past who wants to kill her. But why?
Tanya meets another mysterious woman named Blue, who also appears to be on the run, she claims from an abusive husband. The two reluctantly team up — but is one of them using the other to cover up another crime?
“Tanya” ends up on the run again, taking different identities along the way. She moves from place to place, shedding her identity like a snake sheds its skin. She has to decide who she can trust, and just when Tanya decides she has had enough of life on the run, she returns home to face her past — and Blue is there, too.
“The Passenger” is a twisty, can’t-stop-turning-the-page thriller that will have the reader trying to figure out exactly what happened to start Tanya on this path and what kind of person she truly is. You have to ask yourself, “Would I go as far she did to save myself?”

Monday, November 28, 2016

Books Are Great Gifts Guide 2016

reprinted from the Citizen.

Now that all the turkey has been used up in casseroles and hot sandwiches, it’s time to turn to thoughts of holiday gift shopping. Books make great gifts because they are never the wrong size or color, and they can take the gift recipients to places they could never have imagined.
And so here is my annual Books Are Great Gifts Guide. We begin in the fiction section. For the person on your list who likes romance and football, Stephanie Evanovich’s “The Total Package” is the perfect choice. Superstar quarterback Tyson Palmer has trashed his career and is given one last chance to make a comeback. Dani Carr is beginning her career in sports journalism and is assigned to help Palmer stay on track. But of course there are secrets and romance and very sexy scenes.
The Total Package
For the person who listens to the “Hamilton” cast recording on repeat, Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie’s historical novel “America’s First Daughter,” about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy, is a fascinating look at a founding father and the role of women at the time of America’s founding.
America's First Daughter 
For your friend who believes that good fiction creates empathy, Jodi Picoult’s “Small Great Things” tells the story of a black nurse accused of causing the death of a white supremacist’s infant son from the perspective of the nurse, the father and the female lawyer of the nurse. It is thought-provoking literature.
Small Great Things
For the person who likes to have the wits scared out of her, B.A. Paris’ debut novel “Behind Closed Doors” will keep her up at night finishing this story of what appears to be the perfect couple. But why is the wife never seen outside of the house without her husband at her side? It’s a creepy story.
Behind Closed Doors
From the non-fiction section, fans of TV’s “Seinfeld” (which would be everybody, right?) will adore Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s “Seinfeldia," which takes a deep dive into the show about nothing. What makes it most entertaining is Armstrong’s interviews with the writers of the show, who provide an interesting perspective on the iconic comedy.
For the science and math enthusiast on your list, Margo Lee Shetterly’s “Hidden Figures” tells the story of a group of black female mathematicians who worked for NASA and helped the United States win the space race with Russia. You can give this book along with two movie tickets to see the film adaption out this winter.
Hidden Figures
If Erma Bombeck (remember her?) made you laugh out loud, Laurie Notaro’s “Housebroken” is the 21st century incarnation of Bombeck. She uses inappropriate language as she hilariously describes how she is definitely not the heir apparent to Martha Stewart.
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For those who do know their way around the kitchen, Ina Garten’s new cookbook “Cooking For Jeffrey” shares her recipes of her husband’s favorite dishes, along with lovely stories of their life together.
Cooking With Jeffrey
In the children’s section, preschoolers love trucks, and Hope Vestergaard and David Slonim’s “Digger Dozer Dumper” is a cute book with the story told in poetry. Add a toy truck and you’ve got a great gift.
Digger Dozer Dumper
For the elementary school set, Andrea Beaty and David Roberts follow up their “Iggy Peck, Architect” and “Rosie Revere, Engineer” picture books with “Ada Twist, Scientist.” These stories encourage young children’s interest in science, technology, engineering and math, and are fun as well.
Ada Twist, Scientist
The middle schoolers on your list will devour “The Secret Keepers” by Trenton Lee Stewart, who wrote the popular “The Mysterious Benedict Society” series of children’s mysteries. He has created an imaginary world filled with magic, humor and secrets, and this one will keep the kids busy reading at over 500 pages.
The Secret Keepers
Young adults who loved Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor & Park” will appreciate Nicola Yoon’s “The Sun Is Also A Star,” which was nominated for this year’s National Book Award. Natasha is spending her last day in New York City when she meets Daniel, who is applying to attend college in Yale. They each alternate chapters telling the story of their time together.
The Sun Is Also A Star
If your young person prefers his history in graphic novel form, the winner of this year’s National Book Award for Young People's Literature is “The March Trilogy,” written by Representative John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The three graphic novels tell the story of the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a young John Lewis.
I hope you have enough suggestions here for everyone on your holiday list, and that you all had a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Weekend Cooking- Thanksgiving Dinner for 36

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 year my husband's entire family, plus a few extras, made it home for Thanksgiving. My sister-in-law and her husband hosted all 36 of us for Thanksgiving dinner and that is no small feat. But my sister-in-law was well organized and with everyone pitching in, bringing side dishes, desserts and helping with set-up and cleanup, it was a fantastic day.

We started with appetizers- bruschetta with a fig jam, blue cheese and walnut topping, along with a spinach dip and a vegetable tray and two antipasto trays, one of which had prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears that disappeared quickly.
Appetizer table

A few hours later, we brought out the stuffed mushrooms and Rachael Ray's Pumpkin Soup with Cran-Apple relish that was served in little shooter glasses. The mushrooms and soup were voted among the best dishes of the day.

At 4pm, dinner was served. The cold food table was set just outside the dining room and it held the breads (pumpkin, cranberry orange and apple cinnamon) and jello salads (cranberry and fan favorite lemon).

The kitchen island held all the hot foods- three turkeys, fifteen pounds of mashed potatoes, three stuffing (two with sausage, one without), two broccoli casseroles, two green beans wrapped in bacon, roasted squash and fennel, sweet potato casserole, sausage rolls and Plainville Turkey gravy.
The turkeys looked beautiful

The ovens worked overtime

The feast

The feeding frenzy

Red Velvet, Brooklyn Blackout and Pumpkin Harvest cakes from Two Little Red Hens

Krause's Candy- yum!

We all retired to the dining room to eat and reflect upon our many blessings. Everything was so delicious, it became very quiet as 36 people thoroughly enjoyed their meal and each other's company.
The dining room for 36

Such beautiful place settings

We began the following day meeting for lunch at Dallas Hot Wieners, a family tradition, and then we headed for the bowling alley to celebrate one of the cousins' 13th birthday. I haven't bowled in over 25 years (and my previous record high score was 63), but I won my grouping with a 96 much to the dismay of others in my group. I had great accuracy, right down the middle but if I had more speed on the ball I would have broken 100.

It was back to the sister-in-law's for leftovers (which we completely polished off) and then we celebrated all the November and December birthdays-8 of them!- with a cake my mother-in-law brought.
The November/December  birthday cake

We headed home to go to the Syracuse University basketball game on Saturday at the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn (don't ask how that went- we lost big-time) and then it was home to our apartment in NYC to recuperate.

All in all, it was a terrific weekend, and many thanks to my sister-in-law and her husband for hosting the entire family.
This is what our Thanksgiving looked like