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Monday, January 24, 2022

Three New Books to Dip In and Out Of

Reprinted from auburnpub.com:

One of the side effects of being cooped up inside for so long is that our attention spans have shrunk. After binge-watching episode after episode of the latest Netflix craze, we need a break. When it comes to reading, the thought of tackling a big novel or doorstopper of a biography can be too daunting. This month’s Book Report has three suggestions for books you can dip into and out of to give your self a break.

Todd Doughty’s book Little Pieces of Hope had its origins on March 11, 2020 when he began to make a list of “happy-making things in a difficult world” and posted the list with a photo on his Instagram account (@todddoughty). That was the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. 

The post became the basis for his book. Most of his lists are a single page, so this makes it the perfect book to just grab when you have a few minutes and want something to bring a smile to your face as you recognize things that brought you joy as a youngster or give you hope today. 

He lists things like “Staying up late and hearing “Live From New York, it’s Saturday Night!”, “A day at the state fair”,  and “Ripping open the presents” that evoke a visceral memory for so many of us. He has pages titled “Bucket-List Suggestions” (seeing a Red Sox- Yankees game at Fenway), “Things You Might Consider Doing Today” (make Ina Garten’s weeknight Bolognese), and “That Moment in Life When You” (realized your parents are people too). 

There are many things in this delightful book to make you think, make you smile, make you nostalgic. Sometimes it’s just one word- “Kevin!” (from the movie Home Alone), or his Mixtape pages of songs that will have you rushing to make a Spotify playlist to dance to that bring you happiness. I particularly like his lists of characters from my favorite TV shows of yore, or books I Ioved. His name-checking of famous paintings and photographs had me Googling them to take a look. 

Little Pieces of Hope is the kind of book you’ll want to take a highlighter to so you can refer back to your favorite sections, or call your siblings or best friends to ask them if they remember this or that. It will bring a smile to your face and earn a permanent place on your favorites bookshelf.

Ann Patchett’s book of essays These Precious Days compiles some of her best pieces of nonfiction writing where she asked herself “what mattered most in this precarious and precious life.” The first essay, “Three Fathers” is a beautiful homage to the men her mother married, including her own father, and recalls what each brought to her life. She shares a lovely photo of her with the men at a family wedding in 2005, shortly before she began to lose them. 

In “Flight Plan”, Ann relays her doctor-husband’s love of piloting his plane, and how even though she worries when he takes off, she knows how much joy it brings to his life. The title essay, “These Precious Days” is the best of the book. Ann met Tom Hanks’ assistant Sooki at an event and was drawn to her right away. 

Sooki had a serious illness, and one of the medical trials for her condition was taking place in Nashville, where Ann lived. Ann’s husband was able to get Sooki into the trial, and Ann insisted Sooki stay with them during the trial. Shortly after Sooki arrived the pandemic hit, and she ended up staying with Ann for much longer than expected. Sooki staying with Ann and her husband changed their lives, and this essay is one of the most moving I have ever read.

Crime fiction writer Laura Lippman’s short story collection Seasonal Work is filled with unforgettable characters, mostly girls and young women. “Seasonal Work” is the first and strongest story, about a family whose van filled with their Christmas gifts is robbed on Christmas Eve. “Snowflake Time” is a sly story about “the woke culture” and how it affects a television news personality. People spying on others is a theme- a woman thinks her neighbor is up to no good, a wife finds her husband’s secret burner phone- and it doesn’t always end well. Even though you can read one story at a time, I admit I devoured this delectable collection in one day. 

Little Pieces of Hope by Todd Doughty- A 

Published by Penguin Life

Trade paperback, $16, 245 pages

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett- A

Published by Harper

Hardcover, $26.99, 336 pages

Seasonal Work by Laura Lippman- A

Published by William Morrow

Hardcover, $26.99, 336 pages

Friday, January 21, 2022

Friday 5ive- January 21, 2022

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly-ish blog post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. It's been a cold week here in NYC, and the weekend is supposed to be even colder. It's a good time to stay inside and read.

1) Last week we were in Florida, where the weather was warm and sunny. I spent one perfect day at the beach, not too hot, no breeze, just sun and sand. 

2) I've been trying to cook more now, and I pinned some recipes from The Washington Post 's Top Ten Most Popular Recipes from 2021. I made Aaron Hutcherson's Baked Chicken Thighs with Butter and Onions, and it was hit. Next up is the Leslie Brenner's Classic Ragu Bolognese. They all look really great.
I also made Katie Lee Beigel's Banana Cake after I saw an episode of The Kitchen on the Food Network. If you ever thought "You know what would make this banana bread better? Cream cheese frosting", then this recipe is for you. My husband loved it.

3) There's a new type of 15 minute grocery delivery service in New York City. They have small store fronts filled with things like diapers, water, fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, poptarts- lots of stuff. You place an order on an app, and within 15 minutes (or so), your order is delivered. I passed by Fridge No More in my neighborhood and I am curious. It's great if you're home and need something quick for a recipe or you're not feeling well and don't want to go out. There's no minimum order, and the prices seem pretty reasonable compared to the grocery stores. I haven't tried it yet, but I may just to see if it works.

4) One of my favorite books is JR Moehringer's memoir, The Tender Bar, it's always on my Staff Recommends shelf at the Book Cellar. I've been waiting for the movie based on the book to hit Amazon Prime Video, and we watched it this week. George Clooney directs the movie, with Ben Affleck playing Uncle Charlie to JR, who is played by Daniel Ranieri (as a young boy), and Tye Sheridan (as a young man) All of them are very good. JR is being raised by his single mom, played beautifully by Lily Rabe. They moved back in with her parents, brother (Affleck), and various other siblings and nieces and nephews who seem to come and go depending on circumstances. It's a lovely movie about family, and having a mom who believes in you. I adored the 70's music, I hope I can find the soundtrack. You can watch the trailer here.

5) I read a fabulous book this week.  Adriana Trigiani's upcoming novel, The Good Left Undone is an epic, sweeping story about a family of artisans in Tuscany, Italy. The Cabrelli family has been creating and selling beautiful jewelry for generations, and now Matelda, the elderly matriarch, is reflecting on her life as her 25 year-old granddaughter Anina is questioning the choices she has made in her own life. The story is told in present day and in the days leading up to WWII where Domenica is a young nurse who runs afoul of the local parish priest and is sent away from her family to Marseille, France to work with nuns in a hospital. She meets handsome Scottish sea merchant captain John McVicars there and quickly falls in love. 
As war approaches France, Domenica is sent to Scotland, and then Liverpool, England, where Italians are sent to an internment camp because the British government feels they can't be trusted, as Mussolini has aligned Italy with the Nazis. Trigiani once again gives us a fantastic generational family story, and layers in a historical lesson that many of us did not know- Italians (many whom had lived in England and Scotland for years) were rounded up and imprisoned based solely on their heritage. (Susan Elia MacNeal's The King's Justice dealt with this topic as well.) This is similar to what the United States did to people of Japanese descent after Pearl Harbor.
One of the best things about reading an Adriana Trigiani novel is that it is a treat for all of your senses.You can hear the tents snapping in the wind at Carnevale, smell apple strudel baking, taste the delicious cherry cake (I would love that recipe!), and see in your mind's eye the beautifully crafted jewelry "glistening like ribbon candy" in its case. 
As someone who grew up attending Catholic school, I appreciated the nuns in the story. The care they provided as nurses to their charges, the kindness they showed to Domenica, the strength they exhibit, these are the women I grew up knowing. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Anina and her fiancé go to their parish priest for advice. The priest is a wise man, who listens to their concerns and relates his best advice- "Forgive.Forget.Repeat."
At a time when we have all missed seeing our family- parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles- falling into this big, beautiful book about, as Matelda says, how "a family is only as strong as its stories" will encourage us to share our own family's stories with each other. And as Father Fracassi says, we must "reflect on the past, (and) make peace with it. You cannot control the evil done to you. You cannot turn back and right the good left undone." There is so much to ponder in The Good Left Undone, it's the kind of book that once you turn the last page, you want to immediately begin to reread it. I give it my highest recommendation. It publishes in April, preorder it today from your favorite bookseller.

I hope you all stay safe and healthy and warm. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton

The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton
Published by Graydon House ISBN 9781525811609
Trade paperback, $16.99, 352 pages

January seems to be the month for domestic thrillers about shady husbands (I read Kimberly Belle's My Darling Husband last week). Karen Hamilton's twisty novel, The Ex-Husband, takes the reader through the relationship between Sam, a charming cruise ship croupier and grifter/con man and Charlotte, the woman who becomes entranced with Sam and his exciting and dangerous lifestyle.

The novel opens up in the present day with Charlotte, now separated from Sam and building an events planning business in Cornwall, England. When she gets word that Sam has disappeared and feared dead, Charlotte thinks it is just another one of Sam's cons.

The story then moves back in time. We see how Sam swept Charlotte off her feet when they both worked on a cruise ship. Charlotte became a willing participant in Sam's cons, believing Sam when he tells her that the people they are stealing from are not victims. Those people have more than enough money, they will never miss what Sam and Charlotte are taking from them. 

At first, it was exciting, and Charlotte enjoyed the gifts Sam lavished on her. But soon, Charlotte sees a darker side to Sam. He cheats on her, and eventually becomes violent when she dares to criticize his plans. When they nearly get caught stealing an expensive necklace, and Sam leaves Charlotte holding the bag, she has finally had enough.

In the present day, Charlotte takes a job as an assistant planner on a luxury yacht sailing to the Caribbean. Things seem fine at first, but then someone leaves threatening notes for Charlotte, telling her that she must pay up or she will die. Charlotte has no money, and when she begins to suffer from "accidents", she believes that Sam is somehow behind all this.  

Fans of Bravo's Below Deck will enjoy the luxury yacht setting, as so much of the story takes place on the yacht with the demanding and wealthy travelers. The "locked room" trope of the story rachets up the suspense as Charlotte is trapped on the yacht with someone who means her harm. The Ex-Husband will appeal to readers of Ruth Ware and Lucy Foley's novels. 

Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on Karen Hamilton's book tour.

Monday, January 10, 2022

My Darling Husband by Kimberly Belle

My Darling Husband by Kimberly Belle
Published by Park Row on March 8, 2022 ISBN 9780778311560
Trade paperback, $16.99, 352 pages

In Kimberly Belle's newest thriller My Darling Husband, Jade's life, while hectic, is pretty good. Her husband Cam is one of Atlanta's most celebrated chefs, known as the Steak King of Atlanta. He owns several popular high-end restaurants, and they live in a McMansion in a wealthy neighborhood.

Jade spends her days shuttling her nine year-old daughter Beatrix, a possible violin prodigy, and six year-old son Baxter, a typical energetic little boy, between school and activities. One day they returned home to find a masked man with a gun in their garage.

Frightened, Jade offers to give him her SUV, her wallet, phone, anything, if he will just leave. But that is not what he wants. He moves them all into the house and instructs Jade to call Cam and tell him that if her doesn't bring a very specific large sum of money to him by 7pm, he will kill the family.

Cam is dealing with a disasterous fire in his most profitable restaurant when Jade calls him. Although he tells the man he can't get that much cash in that short a period of time, the man reiterates his threat to Jade and the children.

The masked man knows a lot about Jade's husband, and tells her that her husband isn't the successful, wonderful man she thinks he is. Jade has to use her wits to figure out who this man is and how to keep him from hurting her children. The action moves between Jade in the house and Cam racing to find enough money to save his family.

My Darling Husband is breakneck thriller that gets parents right where they live- the safety of their children's lives. Your heart will pound as you read, and you'll wrack your brain as you try to figure out along with Jade how this man knows so much about Jade and Cam.

This novel has all the makings of a great Lifetime thriller movie, I wouldn't be surprised to see it next year on my television screen. If domestic thrillers are your favorite reads, My Darling Husband should be next up on your list.

Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on their Fall 2021 Mystery & Thriller Blog Tour. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Friday 5ive- January 7, 2022

Welcome back to the Friday 5ive, a weekly(ish) blog post about five things that caught me attention this week. It's been awhile since I posted a Friday 5ive, the holidays and work kept me very busy, but now that it's 2022, it's time to get back on track.

1) Like everyone else in the world, I was saddened to hear of the death of Betty White. I know that most people associate her with The Golden Girls, but for my money her best performance was as the Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I have been watching reruns of that show on my Echo show in my kitchen while  making dinner at night and I'm up to seasons 6 and 7, when Sue Ann had some great storylines. (Season 6, episode 15- What Do You Want To Do When You Produce?, Season 6, episode 23- Sue Ann Falls in Love, Season 7, episode 3- Sue Ann's Sister are standouts.) You can find it on Hulu. 

2) We had family visit us for Christmas, and my rusty coooking skills got a workout. Two breakfast recipes were so popular, I made the each twice. The first is Berry Croissant Bake, a recipe I found on Kara Creates on Pinterest. You make it with already baked croissants from the bakery, top with fresh or frozen berries and a cream cheese, eggs and milk mixture. It was so good, there were nearly fistfights over the leftovers. The recipe is here, and the photo is from Kara Creates webpage. 

The second recipe is for Baked Western Omelet is from The Seasoned Mom, and is one I have made in years past. It's an easy casserole with eggs, milk, cheddar cheese, diced peppers and onions and ham (I also made a smaller dish without ham for our vegetarian fans). This recipe makes a great lunch or light dinner too. The recipe is here. The photo is from The Seasoned Mom. 

3)  Last night I listened to a fascinating Zoom conversation with author John Searles in discussion with Laura Lippman celebrating 25 years as an author  (20 novels, 2 essay collections, and 2 short story collections) and her current book of short stories, Seasonal Work (which is terrific, especially the title story.) I like both of these authors and their discussion ranged from Lippman's pandemic closet remodel and her daily posting of her outfits she bought on ThredUp on Twitter (she is marvelous on Twitter!) to her channeling of the voices of her characters in Seasonal Work. Lippman has always been interested in female characters, particularly young women and girls, and that comes through in this amazing collection set mostly in her beloved Baltimore. Searles' upcoming novel, Her Last Affair, out in March, is also a great read, especially if you like creepy psychological suspense stories, and the setting of an abandoned drive-in is genius. The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore hosted the event. 

4)  I watched the movie Being The Ricardos on Amazon Prime this week. Nicole Kidman's astonishing transformation into Lucille Ball really impressed me, especially in light of all the criticism she took on prior to the filming. Javier Bardem is great as Desi Arnaz, and although the movie focuses on one week in the life of Lucy when she was accused of being a Communist during the filming of season two of I Love Lucy, we get flashbacks to their early relationship. The rest of the cast is fantastic, including JK Simmons (as William Frawley aka Fred Mertz), Nina Arianda (as Vivian Vance aka Ethel Mertz) and Tony Hale as executive producer Jess Oppenheimer. Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed the movie, and it's a must-see for anyone (aka everyone in America) who grew up watching reruns of I Love Lucy. 

5)  After a brief hiatus from reading, I managed to get four books read over the Christmas break. Dana Spiotta's critically acclaimed novel Wayward is set in Syracuse. Spiotta is a professor at Syracuse University and her novel is centered around Sam, an upper class woman in her 50s who, after the 2016 election, has a midlife crisis and decides to leave her husband and buy a dipidated home in a troubled neighborhood in Syracuse. She has a good relationship with her mother, but her relationship with her seventeen year-old daughter is fraying at the seams. Sam is trying to connect with the people in her neighborhood, and when she witnesses a police officer shooting a young black man, she grapples with how to deal with that.  There is also a lot of architectural history about Syracuse (I grew up in nearby Auburn) in this deeply moving story that I found so interesting, it makes me want to research it more thoroughly. 

Kimberly Belle's My Darling Husband would make a terrific Lifetime movie. The story centers around Jade, a woman married to Cam, a celebrated chef and restauranteur in Atlanta. They live in a McMansion with their two young children and all is well until a man follows Jade home and holds her and the two children hostage. He demands that Cam bring him a very specific large sum of money by 7pm or he will kill the family. Cam has been hiding things from Jade, and she must use all her skills to figure out who this intruder really is and how to keep her children safe. My full review posts January 10th. It's a pulse pounding read. 

If you remember watching the sitcom Roseanne, Jenny Pentland's memoir This Will be Funny Later is one you will want to read. Pentland is Roseanne Barr's daughter, and she, her older sister Jessica, and younger brother Jake were youngsters when their mother rocketed to fame as a standup comic and then sitcom superstar. The family lived in Denver and eventually moved to Los Angeles when the sitcom took off.  The family came apart when Roseanne divorced their father Bill and became involved with Tom Arnold. Jessica and Jenny were both sent away to various facilities over the years to deal with their behavorial, psychological and drug problems, and Jenny's descriptions of the places she lived in are harrowing at times. The price of fame for the Pentland family was way too much, and if you ever dreamed of what it would be like to be rich and famous, this book will disabuse of any notion you have. 

And finally, as mentioned above, I read Laura Lippman's brilliant short story crime fiction collection Seasonal Work. Lippman excels in creating full-bodied characters in these short stories that many novelists would not be able to do in a full novel. The first story, Seasonal Work, is the strongest one about a down-on-their-luck family whose car is broken into on Christmas Eve and all their presents are stolen. Tess Monaghan, the star of many of Lippman's twenty novels, makes a welcome appearance in this story and another for true Lippman fans. The other stories, including the hilarious Snowflake Time, with its Bill O'Reilly-type main character, draw the reader in immediately. Many of these stories have been seen in other collections, but the new one, Just One More, combines Lippman's love of the TV show Columbo with a bored couple during the pandemic. If your attention span suffered during the pandemic, Seasonal Work is a great cure. 

I hope you all had a happy holiday season, and that you stayed safe and healthy. Until next time.