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Friday, January 29, 2021

Friday 5ive- January 29, 2021

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. This week we went back to Tuscany, even if only virtually.

1)  I saw Bobby Flay on the Today Show, talking about his trip to Italy. He cooked a Ragu of Beef and Red Wine with Fresh Fettucine, and  I decided to make it for dinner that night.  It reminded me of the delicious cingale (wild boar) pasta dinner we had in Montelpuciano at a favorite little restaurant of our friends and traveling companions, Osteria di Porta Al Cassero. Luckily our neighborhood Italian grocery store has fresh fettucine, and all of the other ingredients I needed. It turned out really well, but it would have been better if we had cingale instead of beef and pork.
My Ragu of Beef and Red Wine with Fresh Fettucine

2) Continuing our Tuscan theme, we did a virtual wine tasting on Thursday night with Alberto from Cortona Wine Tours. We met Alberto through AT Escapes, a NYC company who arranged our wonderful  trips to Italy in 2018 and 2019. We tasted two Brunello wines, and Alberto gave us an overview on the wineries. It was good to see him again, and we are enjoying our virtual wine tastings with family and friends. If you enjoy a good wine, a virtual wine tasting is a fun activity you can share with friends. You can find Cortona Wine Tours on Facebook, Instagram and here. 
Prepping for our wine tasting

Our wine tasting zoom with Cortona Wine Tours

3)  Following our wine Zoom, I jumped on a Zoom hosted by the New York Public Library. Amber Ruffin, a writer/performer on Late Night With Seth Meyers on NBC and host of the Peacock show, The Amber Ruffin Show, and her sister Lacey Lamar were in conversation with Alison Stewart about their book, You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism.  Amber and Lacey grew up in Omaha, where Lacey still resides. The book is filled with true stories of things that people have said to Lacey. The one story that Amber likes best is when Lacey was cashing one of her checks that feature  different photos of historical Black figures on them. The clerk looked at the check and said to Lacey- "How great is that- you have your own picture on the check. How did you do that?" The picture was of Harriet Tubman, and Amber told us, that yes, it is that famous photo of Harriet Tubman that was on the check. 
Lacey said that the book's stories came from a binder she kept of things that people said to her. She has enough for a binder. Alison asked her if people's attitudes changed when Obama was elected, and Lacey said yes, that some white people she worked with were angry when that happened. They said that America was going to hell. When Trump was elected, it became worse. She said overnight it changed, people told her that their leader was elected, and their behavior became egregious. I just received my signed copy of their book from Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, and my review will publish in the next few weeks.

4)  We watched Da 5 Bloods movie on Netflix this week. Spike Lee directed this critically acclaimed story of four Black Vietnam Vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their buddy who died in battle- and to find the gold bars they found and buried there. It's an astonishing film, the cinematography is stunning, and the performances by Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., and Clark Peters as the four returning vets and Chadwick Boseman as their dead friend, are fantastic. The film just won the National Board of Review Award for best film, Lee won for best director and it is well deserved and Delroy Lindo is a front runner for an Oscar nomination as best actor. I highly recommend this film. You can watch the trailer here

5) I read three books this week. I read two books in a new WWI spy series by Kelly Oliver. We meet Fiona Figg, a file clerk for Room 40, the British spy agency. Fiona is plucked to get information on a South African big game hunter and newspaper reporter to discover if he is a German spy. While undercover as a male doctor, Fiona deals with agents, double agents, and a dead countess in Betrayal at Ravenswick. In the second book, High Treason at the Grand Hotel, Fiona is sent to Paris to continue her mission. Here she gets involved with real-life people like Mata Hari and and infamous serial killer. Both books are good reads for those who enjoy the Maisie Dobbs and Maggie Hope historical mystery series. My review of both books are here. 

I'm almost finished with Melanie Chartoff's memoir Odd Woman Out- Exposure in Essays and Stories.  I remember Melanie Chartoff from her days on ABC's late night answer to Staurday Night Live, Fridays. She was beautiful and hilarious, and she has such distinctive voice. While this memoir has a little backstage Hollywood gossip, it's her story of a life trying to hone her craft and find her authentic self. I found her stories about her family, especially her mother's heartbreaking life, most moving. She's a good writer, drawing the reader into her life, from Off-Broadway to Broadway to TV to ending up on Rugrats cartoons, where most people recognize her voice. I'll have a full review on Monday. 

Stay safe and socially distant, wear a mask, wash your hands and get a vaccine when it's your turn.

This post was shared at The Intrepid Reader.  You can more food related posts there.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Betrayal at Ravenswick and High Treason at the Grand Hotel by Kelly Oliver

Betrayal at Ravenswick by Kelly Oliver
Published by Historia ISBN 9781947915282
Trade paperback, $16.95, 240 pages

While we're all stuck inside, due both to the pandemic and hunkering down for winter, the start of a new mystery book series is a reason for joy. While readers are patiently (or impatiently) waiting for the new Maisie Dobbs book from Jacqueline Winspear and the new Maggie Hope book from Susan Elia McNeal, Kelly Oliver has written a book series for them.

Betrayal at Ravenswick is set in 1917 during WWI. Fiona Figg is a file clerk with Room 40, a war intelligence agency in England. She just discovered that her husband has been having an affair with his secretary, and he wants a divorce. 

England is attempting to get the United States to join the Allies to end the war, and haven't yet come up with a way to convince them. When Fiona gives her bosses a suggestion they haven't thought of, she becomes a part of the team. Her photographic memory makes her a valuable asset as well.

While on her first undercover assignment she dresses as a man, Dr. Vogel, who specializes in poisons and gynecological issues (an odd combination), she becomes involved in the murder of a countess while staying at the countess's family estate. 

There is no shortage of suspects, from the countess's husband, children, and the man Fiona was sent to watch, Frederick Fredericks, a South African big game hunter and newspaper reporter. Fiona has been ordered by her bosses not to get involved, stay to her assignment, but she gets involved, even having to testify at a trial in her disguise.

The mystery behind who killed the countess is intriguing, the characters interesting, (there are agents and double agents galore), and although it is a little incredulous that no one sees through Fiona's disguise as a man, if you can suspend your disbelief there, you've got a good start to a new spy series. I like that Fiona is a feminist, unhappy that even as she is now a full-fledged spy she is expected to make tea for the men at the office, and clean up the break room.

High Treason at the Grand Hotel By Kelly Oliver
Published by Historia ISBN 9781947915909
Trade paperback, 272 pages, $16.95

High Treason at the Grand Hotel picks up right where Betrayal at Ravenswick ends. In the second book, Fiona is sent to Paris to once again follow Frederick Fredericks, who is believed to have something to do with British ships being sunk by the Germans. She has been explicitly ordered by her bosses not to don any disguises this time, an order Fiona disregards.

She goes undercover as a bellboy at the Grand Hotel to gain access to Fredericks' room. She also becomes involved with notorious spy Mata Hari, and infamous serial killer Henri Desire Landru. I found Fiona's interaction with actual historical figures added a extra level of interest to the story.

Once again, a countess is murdered (countesses are not safe in Oliver's books), and Fiona finds herself surrounded by agents and double agents, with Fredericks in the middle of the action. Clifford Douglas, who works for British intelligence, pops up again here, and like Fiona, the reader finds him less insufferable in this second book than the first. He starts to grow on you as he and Fiona are becoming a team.

One of my favorite scenes takes place in a library, where Fiona retreats to dig for answers to some of her questions. Even spies know that you can find the answer to anything in the library.

I enjoyed the combination of action, a little romance, humor (Fiona having to lug people's bags all day while undercover as a bellboy), and the interesting facts that Oliver throws in the story (the US made Puerto Rico citizens to open up a new avenue for war recruits, the color mauve was created a chemist looking to extract quinine from coal tar). I look forward to reading more of Fiona Figg's upcoming exploits.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Kelly Oliver's tour. 

Friday, January 22, 2021

Friday 5ive- January 22, 2021

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week.
This week it was all about the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the 46th President of the United States.

1)  I decided that I really need to up my coat game after seeing all the beautiful coats at the inauguration. All of the former first ladies- Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama- looked stunning, as did our new Vice-President Kamala Harris and new First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden. As I looked in my closet, filled with various shades of NYC black coats, it made me long for something colorful and lovely. Here is a link to an article from Insider.com about the stylish coats worn that day (and Bernie Sanders functional outerwear). 

2) The highlight of the inauguration was Amanda Gorman's stirring reading of her poem,  The Hill We Climb. I saw a story on CBS This Morning about her last April, and I was instantly enchanted and impressed by her. This is the story here. I know we will be hearing from this remarkable young woman for years to come. (Her inaugural coat and headband were gorgeous too.) 

3)  I joined a Zoom with Zibby Owens, host of the podcast Moms Don't Have Time To Read, interviewing author Jane L. Rosen about her wonderful book, Eliza Starts A Rumor. (My review is here.) The novel tells the story of Eliza an empty-nester mom who runs a Facebook moms group in her Hudson Valley home. When a new Facebook moms group becomes more popular because they have more controversial and intimate postings, Eliza anonymously posts a rumor on her own message board that creates an uproar. It's a terrific book about female friendship, and the discussion was interesting as well. You can watch Zibby interview Jane about Eliza Starts A Rumor here.    

4) I watched the fantastic movie, One Night In Miami, on Amazon Prime this week. The movie, directed by Regina King (one of the best actresses of her generation), is based on a play by Kemp Power. It is a fictionalized account of the night Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) defeated Sonny Liston, and then spent the evening with Malcolm X, NFL superstar Jim Brown, and singer Sam Cooke. It's a powerful piece, about life for these four famous black men in America. King does an impressive job directing, and the performances by the four actors, Eli Goree (Ali), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) and Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcom X) are riveting, particularly Ben-Adir and Odom, who have been on many awards lists for their performances. This is a must-see movie, and you can never go wrong when Leslie Odom Jr. gets to sing.

5) I read one book this week, and it was a remarkable one. Nancy Johnson's debut novel The Kindest Lie, tells the story of Ruth, a young Black Yale-educated engineer married to Xavier, a Pepsi executive, living in Chicago. When Xavier tells Ruth he wants to start a family, Ruth has to face an incident from her past. When she was seventeen years old, she gave birth to a baby boy. Her grandmother gave the baby up for adoption, and Ruth soon left for Yale without looking back. 
Now Ruth wants answers to what happened to her baby, so she heads home to the Indiana town and her grandmother and her older brother. She becomes attached to Midnight, an eleven year old white boy who lives with his grandmother after his mother died giving birth to his baby sister. 
It's a heartbreaking, brilliantly written novel, one that tackles race, class, and small town life that depends on one industry and what happens when that industry goes away. I think many people can relate to this story, and the characters in it.  There are many children being raised by their grandparents for several reasons. People make decisions that seem right at the time, and Johnson allows us see each side of the story here. The Kindest Lie will end up on as one the best books of the year for me, and I can't wait to see what Johnson writes next. READ THIS BOOK.

Stay safe and socially distant, wash your hands, and wear a mask. We'll get through this together.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Three Great Reads

Reprinted from the Citizen:

We’ve turned the calendar page to a new year, and that means setting new goals. Reading websites like Goodreads engage their members to set goals for the year and give them tools to do so. I aim to read 100 books annually and usually end up in the 85-90 range. Last year I took advantage of being home most of the year by reading 137 books.

I’m off to a good start this year as well, and today I’ll share three novels that help me forget everything that’s going on in the real world for awhile.

The Queen of Suspense Mary Higgins Clark sadly passed away last year, and her latest collaboration with talented mystery writer Alafair Burke is Piece of My Heart. True crime TV show producer Laurie Moran is preparing for her wedding in the Hamptons when her young nephew Johnny goes missing from the beach. 

Did he drown in the ocean or was lured away by someone? Does the fact that Johnny resembles Laurie’s son Timmy mean that Timmy was the target? Laurie’s husband and Timmy’s father was murdered, and Laurie’s job means being involved with dangerous criminals at times, so that possibility had to be considered.

Laurie’s father is a retired high level police officer in the NYPD, and he becomes convinced that a man he put behind bars years ago is behind it. The man has made recent accusations that Laurie’s dad lied about his confession that help lead to his conviction.

Piece of My Heart grabs the reader right away and never lets go, and although we know that Johnny is alive, the puzzle to discover who took him and why is one that will keep the reader guessing until very near the end. The book is part of a series, but you don’t have to have read any of the others to follow this one. It will encourage you to read the others in this excellent series.

Scottish author Douglas Stuart’s debut novel, Shuggie Bain tells the story of a young boy’s life with his alcoholic mother. Shuggie lives with his mother, father, older sister, and brother in his mother’s parents’ home in Scotland.

Shuggie’s mom Agnes left her first husband for her handsome second husband. She soon tires of his cheating, and he tires of her alcoholism. He moves the family to a remote, impoverished neighborhood into a home of their own. 

The neighborhood women take an instant dislike to Agnes, with her stylish clothes and good looks. Agnes looks down on them as well. Shuggie’s dad stays away for longer and longer at a time until he finally leaves for good, and Agnes falls deeper into her depression and alcoholism. She spends the money the government gives her for food on alcohol.

Shuggie’s sister leaves to get married as soon as she can, and Agnes throws out his older brother in a fit of anger. Young Shuggie is the only one left to care for his mother and himself.

Shuggie Bain is a lyrical, emotional portrait of a young boy whose life is defined by his mother’s alcoholism. The writing is powerful and beautiful, and Stuart based his book in part on his own life. It also gives the reader a look at how Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies affected everyday people. It deservedly won the prestigious 2020 Booker Prize for fiction.

Julia Claiborne Johnson’s new novel, Better Luck Next Time is a lighter read. She takes us to the Flying Leap, a dude ranch in 1938 Reno where wealthy women go to complete a six week Nevada residency in order to obtain a quick divorce.

Told from the perspective of a handsome young cowboy Ward, we meet some of the women staying there one summer. Nina is an aviatrix who arrives to stay for the third time in order to divorce her latest husband. She is a lively one, always ready with a quip or cutting insult.

Nina takes a shine to Emily, who came from San Francisco to await her divorce from her wealthy husband. Emily misses her teenage daughter terribly, but her husband has left her for a younger woman and she has no choice.

The writing is crisp and very witty; I laughed out loud several times at some of the dialogue between the characters. Ward is such a wonderful character, you can see while some of the women fall in love with him. Better Luck Next Time would make a delightful movie.

Piece of My Heart by Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke- A

Published by Simon & Schuster 

Hardcover, $26.99, 319 pages

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart- A+

Published by Grove Press

Trade paperback, $17, 448 pages

Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson- A

Published by Custom House

Hardcover, $28.99, 288 pages

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

At The Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman

At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN 97816437510231
Hardcover, $26.95, 304 pages

One of the many consequences of this pandemic is that is has brought to the forefront hidden problems like hunger and homelessness. People who were living on the edge found themselves for the first time visiting food pantries to feed their families, and turning to charitable agencies to help them pay rent.

Katherine Seligman's novel, At the Edge of the Haight, shines a light on the problem of homeless young people in San Francisco. As we meet Mad, she is chasing her dog Root who has run off into the underbrush of the park where she and her friends spend most of their day. 

Root and Mad stumble upon a young man in the throes of death, and a man standing over him who threatens Mad. Mad runs, fearful for her life.  Mad's father left her when she was just a child, and her mother suffered a psychotic break a few years later. She went to live with relatives in a foster care situation, and left as soon as she could.

She ran to San Francisco and found other young people like her- running away from bad situations at home, many who aged out the foster care system with no support or place to go. Mad and her friends sometimes spend the nights in shelter, where they have to be in by 8pm and out by 8am. She goes to the public library, or hangs out in the park during the day.

In addition to the everyday stresses of homelessness- where to get food and money, clean clothes, avoiding the police- Mad now has to avoid the man who killed the young man. The young man's father, Dave, comes around looking for answers to what happened to his son. Dave and his wife want to help Mad out, but they make Mad uncomfortable.

We learn so much about life on the streets in this powerful novel. The scene where Mad and her friend Ash get soaked waiting out a rainstorm in a doorway overnight rather than spend the night in a dangerous shelter is so vivid you can feel the shivering rain on your own skin as you read it.

There are people who are kind to these kids- a librarian who gives Mad paper, envelopes and stamps to write letters, store keepers who let them hang out, people who work in the shelters who try to help them get assistance. There are also people who are not kind, like the gang of thugs who regularly take Mad and her friends' food and money as a toll payment. The people (some with their young children) who want to take photos with the "hippies" made me cringe, as if these young people are tourist attractions.

One thing that caught my attention was something that Mad's mother said- "You can't judge people because you just never know why they do what they do." That line resonated for me.

At the Edge of the Haight won the 2019 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize initiated by author Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite authors. Good fiction makes people more empathetic, and At the Edge of the Haight made me look at homeless people in a more compassionate light. We can all use a little more compassion these days. I highly recommend At the Edge of the Haight, it's remarkable and enlightening.

Thanks to Algonquin Books for putting me on Katherine Seligman's book tour.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Merciful by Jon Sealy

The Merciful by Jon Sealy
Published by Haywire Books ISBN 9781950182077
Trade paperback, $17.95, 294 pages

One of the TV series my husband and I have been watching is Showtime's Your Honor, about a judge who tries to hide the fact that his teenage son accidentally killed a vicious mob boss's son in a hit and run accident. It's a gripping story, with one bad decision leading to the next.

Jon Sealy's new novel, The Merciful, mines some of the same territory. A young woman named Sam is killed riding her bike home from work late at night on a lonely road in a South Carolina tourist town. Daniel Hayward, the man who hit her, leaves the scene. He drives home to his wife, Francine, his college sweetheart, telling her (and himself) that he hit a deer. 

Word gets out about the accident after Sam's boyfriend goes looking for her and finds the body. People in the town are horrified that someone would leave after hitting Sam. They want her killer caught and punished.

The story shifts between the various people involved. Daniel's father contacts Henry, a big-time Charleston defense attorney whose client base is shrinking. Claire is the young state's attorney who is prosecuting Daniel. Years ago Henry berated Claire after she made a mistake, and she is determined to prove to him that she is a good lawyer.

Henry prepares Daniel for the upcoming trial, which consumes the town. In her last trial, Claire's affair with a police officer led to her losing the case. She knows that she must do everything she can to win this case, get justice for Sam, and repair her reputation. 

Daniel can't believe what has happened to him. He loses his job, Francine leaves him, he is shunned by everyone. His life was going well, how did one night change everything? 

Sam's boyfriend asks the same thing. He wanted to pick Sam up in his car that night, why did she not let him? And what happened between the time she left work and was hit? There is an hour of time missing, and that is tormenting him. Henry and Claire want to know the answer to that as well.

The Merciful is an intense novel that puts the reader in the shoes of several characters. We get the backstory to many characters- Daniel, Sam's boyfriend, Sam's sister, Henry, Claire, even the judge on the case- that lead up to the conclusion of trial, and the answer to the big question- "Why do people behave as they do?"

I was provided a review copy in enchange for an honest review.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Friday 5ive- January 15, 2021

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that attracted my attention this week.

1) The merry-go-round of "what to make for dinner" is really wearing on me. I just don't feel inspired to try to new recipes, but on Wednesday I decided to make Pioneer Woman's Bruschetta Chicken. Many of Ree Drummond's recipes can be less than healthy, but this one looked relatively healthy and easy to make. You cube three cups of crusty bread, bake it for five minutes. Dice roma tomatoes, garlic, basil chiffonade, add olive oil, salt, pepper, and balsamic glaze or reduction. Fry chicken cutlets, put on a platter. Add bread cubes to tomato mixture, place on top of chicken, drizzle more balsamic on top, add basil leaves to garnish. It was delicious, so fresh tasting. I will make this one again.
The full recipe is here. 
Chicken bruschetta

2)  I started following a new Facebook group, View from my Window, which is just what it says. During the lockdown in March, a woman started a Facebook group where people would submit photos taken from their windows. I saw a story about it on the Today Show, and ordered the book the creator made from submitted photos. I ordered the book on Tuesday and it arrived in NYC from Belgium on Thursday. Isn't that crazy? I sent a book from NYC to my friend in Elmira, NY on December 7th and she received on January 8th. You can see the story on Today with Hoda and Jenna here.

3) BookReporter.com hosted a Bookaccino Zoom on Wednesday. Carol Fitzgerald from Bookreporter.com puts together a monthly presentation on upcoming books that would appeal to book groups and clubs. If you are a reader, this is a great way to find out about new books, and if you join the presentation live, you can enter to win some of the books. A few of the books discussed that I'm interested in are:
The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson
When Harry Met Minnie by Martha Teichner
Eternal by Lisa Scottoline
You can find out more about Bookaccino here.

4)  I'm watching two new sitcoms. NBC's Mr. Mayor with Ted Danson and Holly Hunter, is created by Tina Fey and has that 30 Rock sensibility and humor. I have laughed out loud at some of the one-liners. Ted Danson is perfect as a retired wealthy businessman who becomes mayor of Los Angeles, and it's great to see Holly Hunter (his nemisis whom he makes his deputy mayor) doing comedy. 

In ABC's Call Your Mother Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) plays a retired Iowa schoolteacher who moves to Los Angeles where her two adult children reside. It's from the creator of The New Adventures of Old Christine, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom from the mid-2000s. (Scott and I DVR episodes of that from TV Land and watch it very night before bedtime- it is hilarious!) Episode one was good, I like the cast, Kyra and especially Patrick Brammell as the landlord. It shows real promise. 

5)  I finished two books this week- Serena Burdick's historical novel, Find Me in Havana, a mother-daughter fictionalized account of the life of Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban actress who came to the United States as a teenager, and made films (mostly Westerns) in the 1950s. I had never heard of her before this book, and her story, particularly her return to Cuba during the revolution, was very interesting. (Che Guevara does not come off well here.) The author interviewed Estelita's daughter for this novel, so there is a real ring of authenticity to it. My full review is here.

Katherine Seligman's At The Edge of the Haight is a novel that won the Pen/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction. She tackles the issue of homeless young people living in San Francisco. One young woman finds a young man in the throes of death in the underbrush of the park, and a man standing over his body. The man threatens her, and now she must live with the fear of his finding her, in addition to all of the other daily stresses of life for a person without a home. Seligman pulls the reader into the everyday life of these young people,  finding food, shelter for the night, and even clean clothes. You feel true empathy for these young people, even if you don't always understand them. These characters will stay with me for awhile. My full review publishes on Tuesday. 

Stay safe, healthy, wear a mask and wash your hands,  get a vaccine when it's your turn and we'll get through this together.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick

Find Me In Havana by Serena Burdick
Publsihed by Park Row Books ISBN 9780778389361
Trade paperback, $17, 352 pages

I'm a big fan of novels that feature real people, and Serena Burdick's novel Find Me In Havana tells the story of Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban actress from the 1950s with whom I was unfamiliar.

Young Estelita came to the United States when she was fifteen years old with her mother. She began as a singer, but her mother Maria encouraged her to become an actress, so they moved to Hollywood where Estelita worked primarily in movie Westerns.

Find Me In Havana tells a fictionalized account of Estelita's life in letters between Estelita and her young daughter Nina. While Estelita spends her time working and socializing with John Wayne and Angie Dickinson, Nina spends her time alone with her grandmother or at her Catholic boarding school near her home.

Nina wants her mother's attention, but Estelita's work consumes her.  Nina's father, popular Mexican singer Chu Chu Martinez who hasn't seen Nina in years, shows up at her school and takes Nina to Mexico, telling her that Estelita no longer wants her. Estelita is distraught, and plots a way to rescue her daughter.

The story moves back to Cuba, where Estelita's father has been taken by the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro. Estelita, Maria, and Nina go to Cuba, where they find Estelita's sisters and their young children living together in the family home. The men who have not been taken by the revolutionaries have fled to Miami, leaving the women alone.

Soldiers have invaded the home, including Che Guevara. With no men to protect them, the women and children are at the mercy of the soldiers. They have been told not to harm Estelita, as she is their ticket to getting the United States on their side.

The section of the book set in Cuba is the most captivating. Nina enjoys spending time with cousins she has never met, and Estelita revels in being back home with her sisters. The soldiers, however, soon become less amenable, and they become hostile and violent to the women.

One of the themes of this novel is that women, particularly of this time, were at the mercy of men. Nina watched as her four-times-married mother "appeased the good men, hoping they'd stay with you; placated the bad ones hoping they wouldn't hurt you." In the end, it didn't serve Estelita.

I found Estelita's story fascinating, and even more so when I realized that the author exclusively interviewed her daughter Nina. It adds such authenticity to this novel. If you enjoy novels based on real people as I do, Find Me In Havana is one to put on your to-be-read list. I will be looking for more information on the life of Estelita Rodriguez.

Thanks to Harlequin Books for putting me on their Historical Fiction Winter Blog Tour.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Everywhere You Don't Belong by Gabriel Bump

Everywhere You Don't Belong by Gabriel Bump
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN 978164370859
Trade paperback, $15.95, 272 pages

Gabriel Bump dedicates his thought-provoking debut novel Everywhere You Don't Belong to his Grandma and young Black men like Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Travon Martin, among others. 

Set in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago, teenage Claude lives with Grandma and her friend Paul. Grandma participated in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Paul is gay and unlucky in love. Grandma gets Claude into a Catholic school on the other side of the tracks, but Claude is bullied at school because he is "bad at sports, no jokes, no rich parents, no excellent homework to steal and copy."

A few months into his tenure at Catholic school, his Grandma and the nuns had a disagreement about sexual abstinence (Grandma is against it), and Claude and Catholic school part ways. Grandma is quite a character, but she loves Claude.

Basketball was everything in Chicago at this time- the Bulls had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, who were all on team that won multiple championships. Claude wasn't any good at basketball, but his best friend Jonah was a superstar. When Claude was badly beat up by Jonah's rival, Jonah's parents move him away, and Claude is left alone.

The South Side was also home to the Redbelters, who Grandma says thinks they are Black Panthers, but they recruit kids to sell drugs for them. When Claude and his friends are caught in the middle of a deadly riot between cops and the Redbelters, the neighborhood is being torn apart live on the nightly news.

Claude wants to escape and so he goes to college in Missouri to study journalism. His hopes of being his own person is hindered by his fellow students and teachers who once again want to define him by his race. When a young woman from home tracks him down, he has to decide where his future lies.

Everywhere You Don't Belong is a worthy addition to the best coming-of-age novels, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to The Catcher in the Rye to more current ones like Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give. Bump creates a character in Claude who comes alive on the page. Good authors put us in the shoes and minds of their characters, and Bump does that with great empathy and a little humor (Grandma and Paul provide that). I highly recommend Everywhere You Don't Belong, and I'm not alone. The New York Times chose it as one of their 100 Notable Books of 2020.

Thansk for Algonquin Books for putting me on Gabriel Bump's tour.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Friday 5ive- January 8, 2021

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. I'm not going to include the ugly event at the Capitol this Wednesday, as I think that captured everyone's attention. Let's hope we can turn a page on January 20th.

1)  I get up at 6:30am and head to the laundry room in our apartment building twice a week. I'm usually the only one down there, so it's a good time to do laundry. When I got up this morning, I saw this beautiful sky over the East River, just as the sun was coming up. It was a very vivid sight to start the day.

2)  My friend from back home Barbara called me this week and cryptically asked if I was home. When I said I was, she said that I was going to get a delivery today, a surprise. A few hours later, an Instacart delivery person rang my door with all the ingredients to make Barbara's famous meatballs and sauce- along with Italian bread and salad. What a thoughtful, lovely gift! She sent me directions on how to make it, and it was the best meatballs and sauce I've ever made. We had it for two nights and put the rest in the freezer. Sometimes I just open the freezer to look wistfully at it. I love this idea, I hope it catches on.

3) I received my medal from my latest virtual bike ride. I have been riding the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, a 124.3 mile journey. I love that I get "postcards" along the way, describing interesting sights along the way. Next up, I'm riding St. Francis Way, a journey from Florence to Rome in Italy. 

4)  My husband and I starting watching Homeland on Hulu (originally on Showtime). Damian Lewis plays a Marine who is rescued after being missing and presumed dead for eight years and held prisoner by Al-Queda. His homecoming is difficult for his family, his fellow soldiers, and a CIA operative played by Clare Danes who has questions about what happened to him while in captivity. We're into season two, and the acting by Lewis, Danes and the great Mandy Patinkin, as Clares Danes' boss, is fantastic. 

5) I'm back in the groove with my reading. I read Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke's latest collaboration, Piece of My Heart, while watching a New Year's Day Odd Couple marathon. The fast-paced novel quickly captured my full attention as I was drawn into the story of a young boy missing from a beach. It's one of a series of books about Laurie Moran, a producer of a true crime TV show (like 48 Hours or Dateline), but you don't to have had read any of the other books to understand this one. I couldn't put it down and it kept me guessing right up until the end.

Gabriel Bump's coming of age novel, Everywhere You Don't Belong was on the New York Times list of the Most Notable Books of 2020. He tells the story of Claude, a young Black boy growing up on the South Side of Chicago with his Grandma and her friend Paul. Good books put the reader into the mind and shoes of their character, and Bump does an amazing job at getting us to understand Claude's life. My full review publishes on Monday. Fans of Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give have their next read.

Julia Claiborne Johnson takes us to a 1938 dude ranch in Reno, Nevada where wealthy women stayed for  while they waited out their six week residency requirement to get a divorce in her delightful novel Better Luck Next Time. It's witty and had me laughing out loud more than once. 

Stay safe, socially distant, wash your hands, wear a mask, and get a vaccine when it's your turn and we'll make it through this.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington

The Fortunate Ones by Ed Tarkington
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN 9781616206802
Hardcover, $26.95, 308 pages

Ed Tarkington's novel The Fortunate Ones opens with Charlie Boykin fulfilling his duty as a casualty notifications officer at Fort Campbell, on his way to break the news to a family that their son had died in service to his country.

While there, he sees on the family television that popular Southern Republican Senator Arch Creigh had committed suicide. Charlie is stunned by this news, and the story moves to how a young Charlie, son to a single teenage mother living in the working class section of Nashville, ended up best friends with Arch, the golden boy of Nashville.

Young Charlie was routinely beaten up after school, being the smallest of the few white students at his school. His mom managed to get him a scholarship to the elite prep school, where all of the privileged scions are educated. 
Charlie meets Arch Creigh, who takes Charlie under his wing and introduces him to his best friend Jamie Haltom and Jamie's twin sister Vanessa. Charlie is entranced by Vanessa, but she and Arch have a relationship. Charlie becomes involved in the lives of these three, spending all of his free time with them, and leaving his lifelong best friend Terrence behind back home.

 Charlie becomes seduced  and captivated by the lifestyle of his new friends and their parents. Arch's father died when Arch was young, so Jamie's dad became a surrogate father to him, a role he seemed willing to assume in Charlie's life as well. Jamie's mother drinks heavily.

When Charlie's mom is offered a position as Jamie's mother's personal assistant, he and his mom move into a guest house on the Halstom property. Things are going well for Charlie and his mom, they have moved up in the world.

Secrets and lies abound, and the moral of the story is told by Charlie on the day of his fateful interview at his new school-"If not for that day, I would have never have left East Nashville for Belle Meade, nor would I have understood how much the conditions of life in one world depends on the whims of those who live in another."

The Fortunate Ones is called "a Southern Gatsby", and that is an apt comparison. Much like Charlie is entranced by his new life, Ed Tarkington entrances the reader by bringing us into this world of wealth and privilege, filled with interesting and flawed people. I felt like I was dropped in this Nashville scene. Fans who are missing the writing of Pat Conroy have found a worthy successor. I recommend this one.

Thanks to Algonquin Books for putting me on Ed Tarkington's tour.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

My Year By The Numbers

The year 2020 is one that is destined to be remembered by us all for a long time. We will look back on it as the year we hunkered down in our homes, trying to stay away from the Coronavirus. When my friend Dorothy and I closed and locked the door at the Book Cellar on March 12th, we did not think we would still be closed ten months later, not knowing when we will go back.

It's been ten months of trying to keep busy at our apartment in New York City- trying everyday to decide  what to make for dinner, figuring out how to order groceries on Wegmans.com and Instacart for delivery. We rented a summer home in Westchester and got grocery deliveries from Costco and DeCiccos, a beautiful family-owned grocery store.

On this look back at 2020 by the numbers, we received:
14 deliveries from Wegmans
8 deliveries from Costco (New Rochelle)
4 deliveries from DeCiccos (Pelham) 

Thank goodness we had our Peloton bike, it kept me sane and healthy, and a reason to get out of bed every morning to ride. In 2020:
I rode 2627.20 miles
Took 382 cycling classes (Yacht Rock was my favorite!)
101 Strength classes 
My favorite Peloton instructor- Jenn Sherman

I did 6 virtual bike races- (these total miles are included in the above Peloton numbers)
Summer Around the Finger Lakes- 408.2 miles (cycling around the 11 Finger Lakes- my sons joined in)
WNY Rail Trail Foliage Challenge- 269.26 (the distance of the Western Region and Finger Lakes Rail Trails)
Manhattan to Montauk- 180 miles (two friends joined in)
Run for Ruth- 87 miles
Winter Quest- The New York State Snow Belt from Niagara Falls to Albany- 300 miles
Ring of Kerry- ride around the Ring of Kerry in Ireland 124.3 miles 
My WNY Rail Trail medal and jacket

Of course I read- a LOT. My usual goal is to read 100 books, and I usually end up in the 80-85 book range. There were many days during the summer when I could read a book in a single day. This year-
137 books read
47,507 pages read
113 female authors
24 male authors
113 fiction
24 nonfiction
20 historical fiction
9 thriller/mysteries
21 romance
11 series books
3 books by Jenny Colgan
2 books by Chris Bohjalian
20 books that made multiple Best of 2020 lists
My bookshelves
Here is a link to the best ten books I read this year.

Let's hope for a better 2021, in the meantime, stay safe, socially distant, wear a mask and wash your hands until we can beat this virus with the vaccine.