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Monday, April 25, 2016

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
Published by Penguin Random House ISBN 978-0-7704-3643-8
Hardcover, $25, 352 pages

Three years ago I read Anthony Marra's debut novel about people trapped in the Chechen war, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I could not stop talking about it and recommended to anyone who would listen (and even those who wouldn't). I was thrilled when the critical accolades came in for Marra; he even won a National Book Critics' Circle Award. It is a brilliant book.

Marra's second book is a collection of linked short stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno, set in the USSR. This collection covers a wider range of years and characters, and it is even more brilliant because of that.

Marra starts off strong with The Leopard, a story set in 1937 that drops the reader into an nearly improbable situation, yet one that happened everyday in the Soviet Union. Roman Markin works in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. His job is to erase people who have been determined by the government to be traitors.

He literally erases them- painting over them in photos and paintings. Families are ordered to turn over any evidence that a loved one ever existed to be eliminated. Roman visits his sister-in-law to collect photos of his brother Vaska, her husband who was executed for his religious practices, and to warn her of the dangers of disobeying the government.

Roman also instructs his sister-in-law to take photographs of her son every year in case she is arrested and he is placed in an orphanage. This will make it easier to find him if she is ever released. That fact just floored me.

Roman continues his work daily erasing people from existence. But he began adding something too- he put his dead brother into every painting he censored. He put images of Vaska as a young boy, a teen, an adult, an older man. Every single image he worked on had Vaska in it to atone for Roman's guilt over his brother.

Others people we meet in the collection of stories include Galina, the beautiful granddaughter of a famous ballerina, who deserted her first love to become the wife of a wealthy oil oligarch.  We read of Kolya, her first love who became a soldier and drug dealer, and his brother Alexei who makes a mixtape for his brother to take into war with him.

A painting by a famous Russian artist of a pasture ties the stories together. Roman puts his brother into it, and Kolya ends up spending too much time in the actual pasture under unfortunate circumstances. Many of the characters in the story have a connection to this painting and it is a lifeline to some.

The writing in The Tsar of Love and Techno just stuns. Writing of how people turned their neighbors in to police for any suspected infraction, he says " Our city was small and whispers easily became verdict." That sentence conveys everything about life then and there in nine words.

Other examples are :
"The obvious is only obvious when it happens to someone else."
"I said nothing, and as is often the case with men who possess more power than wisdom, he took my silence for affirmation."
"Wealth announces itself with what's easy to break and impossible to clean." (Talking about Galina's apartment filled with white carpets and expensive chairs and art.)
"To say he felt guilty would ascribe to ethical borders that were lines on a map of a country that no longer existed."
"Uncertainty recalibrated the moral compass to point toward survival."
It took me a week to read The Tsar of Love and Techno because I simply didn't want it to ever end. I would read a story, and then take time to appreciate the writing, the complexity of the story, and what life was like for these people under the Soviet regime.  What it took to survive, the choices people were forced to make when no good choice existed, just crushed me.

This is another masterpiece from Marra, one that proves that he is a force to be reckoned with in literature for a long time. I cannot do his book justice in this review, suffice it to say that The Tsar of Love and Techno knocked me out and is the best book I have read this yearpossibly in two years. I give it my highest recommendation.

My review of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is here.

I met Anthony Marra at BEA last year and fangirled to him about A Constellation of Vital Phenemona. He was very gracious but he probably thought I was a little crazy.
Anthony Marra signing book sat BEA 2015

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Weekend Cooking- The Breakfast House in Sarasota

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.

On our way to spend the morning at the Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton, my sister-in-law and I stopped at the Breakfast House in Sarasota to fuel up for the day. My husband had eaten there with two friends and he thought his sister would love it.

The Breakfast House is located in a cute little house. The first thing you see when you get to the porch is the collection of jewel-colored rocking chairs. They are so charming and you just want to sit down and set a spell while you're waiting to be seated.

We got there at just the right time because we were ushered right away into the adorable sunny dining room area. There are three different seating areas, all with white tables surrounded by brightly colored chairs. The walls are covered with cheery paintings of flowers that finish the ambiance.

Each table has it's own decoration to match the chair colors. My sister-in-law loves the color purple (just like Prince, may he rest in peace), so we chose the purple table. It had a ceramic duck head, grape salt and pepper shakers and a purple vase.

The Breakfast House is known for their pancakes and we both ordered the daily special- Raspberry White Chocolate Pancakes. You get three huge pancakes in an order (we could have easily shared), and they were as delicious as they were pretty.

The place started to fill up as we were leaving, so we boxed up our leftovers and headed to meet our friend at the Red Barn. It was the perfect start to a terrific day and I recommend a visit to the Breakfast House if you ever find yourself in Sarasota; it's just darling.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Harper ISBN 9780062220608
Hardcover, $26.99, 320 pages

The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear is the only series of books that I have read all the way through. When I was first introduced to the young nurse/psychologist/private investigator and her friends and colleagues in London just before WWI, I was hooked.

I have followed Maisie and company, with all their ups and downs and truly feel like they are friends. Each spring I look forward to catching up with everyone in Maisie's world.

When we left Maisie at the end of book 11, A Dangerous Place, she was returning home to England after a stay in Spain during their civil war. She had suffered two devastating losses and was grieving. It was a very somber and sad story, and we didn't see many of Maisie's friends and family.

Book 12, Journey to Munich brings Maisie back home, trying to rebuild her life. She is living with her best friend Priscilla and Pris' family, who adore Maisie. Soon Maisie is recruited once again to help the British Secret Service.

Maisie agrees to go undercover in Munich to help bring home a British businessman who is being held prisoner by the Germans. The year is 1937 and the Nazi party is growing in power. The man is believed to be in a concentration camp, and Maisie must impersonate his daughter to rescue him.

Times are dangerous in Germany, and another world war is on the horizon. Memories of the horrors of WWI remain in Maisie's mind, and she fears for the future of Europe.

Maisie has also agreed to help find the daughter of another powerful man in England, to convince her to come home. She has a connection to this young lady, one that she would rather forget, yet she agrees to try.

Journey to Munich is a strong entry in the Maisie Dobbs series. Maisie has gone through so much, it's good to see her back on her feet and trying to move her life forward. The storyline is interesting, and as always, Winspear has done her research into what life was like at that time, in that place.

We get to see more of the gang- Pris, Sandra and my favorite Billy- and the end of the book the readers are rewarded with the possibility that Maisie and company will be back together working to solve cases.

As England moves closer to war once again, I expect that the next books in the series will deal with this. England lost so many young men in WWI, an entire generation, that the prospect of going through that again is a frightening one.

Maisie Dobbs is an incredibly strong literary heroine, and these books are great reads for young women and for anyone who enjoys historical mysteries. For a woman in her era to do the things that Maisie does with such strength, compassion and intelligence is a wonderful example for girls. She has her flaws too, and that makes her human.

I give Journey to Munich my highest recommendation and it is one of the best books in the series.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Jacqueline Winspear's tour. The rest of Jacqueline's stops are here.

Jacqueline Winspear's website is here.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Three Books That Deserve Attention

Reprinted from the Citizen:

There are so many books published each year that unless the author is an established one (James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, etc.), it may be hard to cut through the clutter and find an audience. I found three recent books by not-so-famous authors that deserve attention.

Maureen Sherry worked on Wall Street and she uses her experiences in her novel Opening Belle. Sherry takes us into this breakneck-paced, testosterone-fueled world of high finance through the character of Isabelle. 

Isabelle is married to Bruce, who is content to be a part-time stay-at-home dad, part-time not-exactly-sure-what-he-does-for-a-living. They have three young children, and even though Isabelle works full-time, she is still the one responsible for grocery shopping, Christmas present shopping, and arranging playdates for the children. Bruce goes to the gym. And they have a nanny.

The trading floor of the company Isabelle works for is filled with men who behave appallingly towards the female traders and analysts and heaven help the poor female assistants and administrative employees, it is worse for them.

And when some of the women working at the firm decide they have had enough, Isabelle has to decide whether to jeopardize her position at the firm and her family’s financial security to join with them.

Isabelle works hard and she is a great analyst. She has a luncheon meeting with the CEO of her biggest client and who shows up with him but Henry, the man who was once her fiance`until she found out that he was dating another woman just weeks before their wedding.

Sherry never signed a non-disclosure form when she left her job on Wall Street, so “Opening Belle” is filled with little tidbits and stories that you just know ring true, and I bet that some of the people who used to work with her recognize some of the events and characters. They are just too good to not be true.

Opening Belle is fast-paced read, and one that you will devour like a eating an entire bag of chips. You’ll root for Isabelle to get everything that she deserves.

Another contemporary novel is Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest, also set in New York City. The Plumb children are all grown adults who are waiting for the day when they can get their hands on a trust fund set up by their father. 

Each has different plans for the money. Jack needs the money to replace funds he spent behind his husband’s back; he mortgaged their beach cottage to keep his small antiques shop from closing.

Melody is counting on the money to send her two daughters to a good college and to keep from losing the home she has created and loved for so long. Sister Bea wants to quit her job and finish the novel she has started.

But all their plans go up in smoke when brother Leo has a car accident with young lady who is not his wife and she is seriously injured. Their mother gives Leo the money to pay off the young lady, and now the siblings must convince Leo to pay them back. Easy, yes?

Well, not so easy. Leo is a selfish man, and he feels no loyalty to his siblings. The story is interesting and the idea of what parents owe their children is one that will engender a thoughtful discussion for book clubs who choose this one.

The final book, The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett, takes place across the pond in England, starting in 1958 when Jim Taylor runs across Eva Edelstein, who has just had an accident with her bicycle on the way to take a test at university. They fall in love and what comes next is told in three different versions. 

The title of the book comes from the triptych that Jim paints, depicting three versions of a couple. I loved this story, and although you may think that keeping track of three different versions of this couple’s lives over the years would be confusing, Barnett does an amazing job of keeping it all straight in the reader’s mind.

We see what happens or could have happened, over the years to Jim and Eva, and how one decision made changes so many lives in each version. Fans of the books/movies One Day and Sliding Doors will like this one, and I enjoyed it even more than both of those.

Opening Belle by Maureen Sweeney
Published by Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 352 pages

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Published by Ecco
Hardcover, 368 pages

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, 416 pages


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Weekend Cooking- A Visit to the Sarasota Farmer's Market

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.

Last Saturday, my sister-in-law and I made a trip to the Sarasota Farmers Market. We had heard such great things about it and couldn't wait to go.

It's located in the beautiful historic downtown section of Sarasota, and when we came upon it we couldn't believe how big it was. It takes up over two huge blocks.
The market entrance
Breakfast is big at the market, and I thought this red VW bus reinvented as a coffee truck was so cute.

The Alpine Steakhouse had people lined up for their hearty breakfast items.

My sister-in-law loves crepes, so we stopped to get a strawberry and chocolate one.

The vegetables looked so fresh and appealing, like these red onions and patty pan squash.

The flowers were so pretty too, it was hard to resist them. 

My purchase of the day was vegetable and pineapple kebabs that we had with our dinner that night. They were lovely and delicious. 

We had such a wonderful time at the Farmers Market, it will definitely become a regular stop on travels to Sarasota. If you ever find yourself there on a Saturday, don't miss this treat. They even have musical entertainment! Read more about it at their website here.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Total Package by Stephanie Evanovich

The Total Package by Stephanie Evanovich
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06223485-8
Hardcover, $26.99, 244 pages

A few years ago I read a debut novel by author Stephanie Evanovich, Big Girl Panties, and beyond loving the title, I really enjoyed the book about Logan Montgomery, a hot trainer who brings Holly, a young widow, out of her shell. I finished the book and wanted to read more about two secondary characters, baseball superstar Chase and his sassy wife Amanda.

When The Sweet Spot was published the following year, I was so excited that we got to find out how Chase and Amanda got together, and I loved it even more than Big Girl Panties. 

Evanovich just published her third book, The Total Package, about a big shot quarterback, Tyson Palmer, who trashes his career. When Palmer hits bottom, the owner of the Austin Mavericks picks him up and makes him the cornerstone of his team, hoping to win the Super Bowl.

Palmer digs in and works to make himself one of the league's best quarterbacks. When hot young wide receiver Marcus LaRue joins the Mavericks, he hopes that he and Palmer can be a dream team. LaRue's only request is that the team hire a young reporter, Dani Carr, to be his media person. He will only allow Carr to interview him, no one else.

Carr leaves her young son behind in Philadelphia with her supportive family- Mom, Dad and brothers- to take advantage of this possible career-building opportunity. She concentrates on the work, and hopes that no one discovers her secret.

Tyson is attracted to Carr but finds it hard to break through her shell. LaRue too is very secretive. He doesn't party like a rock star and he is never seen in the company of the many young ladies who seek his attention. And for some reason LaRue keeps pushing for Tyson and Dani to get together.

The Total Package is Evanovich's best book yet. Her characters feel like people you would know, especially Dani's close-knit Italian family. They are the family we all want to have. It's nice to read a book where the characters are kind to each other and support each other, even when they make mistakes.

I'm more of a baseball fan than football fan, but that didn't stop me from loving everything about this book. And I cried tears of joy when old friends Logan and Holly and Chase and Amanda made an appearance in the book. It was so much fun to see Chase and Amanda's wedding from a different perspective.

Evanovich's writing is sharp in this book, and you will find yourself racing through it to finish it. Like her first two books, it is sexy (oh, those sex scenes!) and sassy and this one has such a sweetness to it it is heartwarming.

Now I am hoping that the next book will tell us more about Marcus LaRue's story (and not just because Marcus and I share a surname). He may be Evanovich's most intriguing character yet and I want to find out more about where he came from and where he is going.

The Total Package is a great book to give your best girlfriend and you may want to read the steamier scenes out loud to your significant other, you know for inspiration. It's like Fifty Shades of Grey, except much better written and with a lot more heart. I give it my highest recommendation.

Stephanie Evanovich's website is here.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren

Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren
Published by Story Plant ISBN 978-1-61188-218-6
Hardcover, $26.95, 270 pages

For most of the last twenty-five years, I have been surrounded by men (my husband and two sons- even our dog was male), so I am drawn to fiction by and about men. I find that look into the male psyche enlightening.

When the opportunity to review Robert Burke Warren's novel Perfectly Broken came about, I was looking forward to reading the story of a former rock musician now a stay-at-home dad to a four-year-old boy. I'm happy to say that I just fell into Perfectly Broken and loved it.

Grant was part of semi-successful rock band from the grunge 1990's, married to Beth, who works in public relations for musicians in New York City. They fell in love, married and have a sweet little boy, Evan. Beth goes to work and Grant stays home, caring for Evan.

After 9/11, times get tough and Beth loses her job. They move upstate to the Catskills to live in a home owned by their friends Trip and Christa, rent-free while they get back on their feet.

Life has thrown them some curves. Beth's brother is a drug addict, always promising to get straight, and always failing. As a young boy, Grant came home to find that his father committed suicide, and his mother went off the deep end following that.

Grant and Beth are deeply in love, but moving from the excitement of New York to the quiet of a small Catskills community is difficult. When a family tragedy strikes, Beth seems to be dealing with that and a new job that frequently takes her out of town, but the cracks in their marriage begin to show.

And when a former bandmate of Grant's come to visit, one who is now very successful, the crack becomes seismic. At a dinner party at Trip and Christa's, things are revealed that result in damage to some marriages that may not be able to be undone. The torrential storm that rages outside rivals the storm happening inside, with both storms wreaking havoc that changes everyone permanently.

I don't know much about the grunge music scene, but if you do, you will get another level of enjoyment from this terrific novel. All of the characters are well drawn and interesting, but they do take too many anti-depressants. That can't be good for anyone.

Grant makes a decision after the storm that I find perplexing. I found that to be an interesting choice for the character of Grant, and again, this insight into his mind I find to be fascinating.

Warren writes some very steamy sex scenes, and he has some interesting things to say about marriage and friendship. I highly recommend Perfectly Broken, especially for anyone who likes Jonathan Tropper's books. Greg Olear's Fathermucker also came to mind when I read this. It pairs well with another recent book I read, Vicki Abelson's Don't Jump,  about a woman in New York City in the entertainment industry trying to find herself. (My review here.)

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Robert Burke Warren's tour. The rest of Robert's stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, March 8th: Vox Libris
Wednesday, March 9th: Becklist
Thursday, March 10th: I’m Shelf-ish
Monday, March 14th: Worth Getting in Bed For
Tuesday, March 15th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Thursday, March 17th: she treads softly
Friday, March 18th: Art @ Home
Tuesday, March 22nd: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, March 23rd: An Unconventional Librarian
Monday, March 28th: Everyday I Write the Book
Tuesday, March 29th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, March 30th: The Book Chick
Thursday, March 31st: Chaos is a Friend of Mine
Monday, April 4th: bookchickdi

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Weekend Cooking- St. Patrick's Day & Easter

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.

Last weekend, my family had back-to-back celebrations- St. Patrick's Day on Saturday and Easter on Sunday. We always have the same meal for St. Patrick's Day- corned beef and cabbage, champs potatoes, carrots, pistachio bread, and a family favorite, Irish bread pudding for dessert.

This year I had to work on Saturday at the Book Cellar where I volunteer, so I got up early to peel the potatoes and put the corned beef in the slow cooker, a method I had not used before to make corned beef. I ran home during my shift to put the cabbage in the slow cooker at 2pm so that dinner would be ready by 6pm.

The meal was delicious, and even though I made the bread pudding the day before, it tasted fabulous on day two. The recipe for Irish Bread Pudding is here.

Sunday was Easter, and I spent the day in the kitchen. I made Ina Garten's Herbed-Roasted Lamb, which I made last year, and it turned out perfectly. My husband made a tasty gravy from the drippings.

I tried a few new recipes this year, including a scalloped potatoes recipes I found on Pinterest. I used a mandolin to slice the potatoes thin and then cooked them in a skillet on the stove for a few minutes before putting them in the oven.
Simple Scalloped Potatoes

These were the best scalloped potatoes I ever made! I'm not a big fan of scalloped potatoes, but these were fantastic and my husband will be happy to know that I will make them more often now. The recipe is here.

While on a plane a few weeks ago, I watched Giada at Home on the Food Network and she made
Peas, Bacon and Prosecco that I thought would pair well with Easter dinner. It was a big hit with the smoky, crispy bacon complementing the sweet peas, and everyone had seconds. The recipe is here.
Peas, Bacon and Prosecco

We started with a pear salad because someone sent my husband pears from Harry & David, and we ended with three little cakes from Two Little Red Hens- Brooklyn Blackout, Red Velvet and the surprise favorite, Raspberry Filled Vanilla Cake. We also had deviled eggs and strawberry jello salad.
Three Cakes from Two Little Red Hens

There were seven of us for Easter this year, and we had a wonderful time. The conversation was engaging (there was a suggestion that two of our dining companions should start a podcast because their banter is hilarious), and the meal turned out to be the one of the best I have ever made from start to finish. Everything turned out perfectly and that almost never happens.
Our Perfect Easter Dinner

It was a memorable weekend indeed. Have you ever made a meal that you thought was perfect from beginning to end? Tell me about it in comments.