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Saturday, January 27, 2024

Friday 5ive- January 26, 2024

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

1)  It was a bookish week, with two events. It began with Zibby Media's New Year, New Chapter event at the Whitby Hotel on Saturday. There were over 40 authors speaking at several panels, including Rom-Coms, Your Deepest, Darkest (Thrillers), Advice for Debut Authors, and Don't Make Me Laugh among them. The great Anna Quindlen gave the keynote address (more on her later) and the discussions  and authors were so interesting. I got to connect with authors I've met before, like Jane L. Rosen (whose upcoming June novel Seven Summer Weekends is one I can't wait for) and Caroline Leavitt (her upcoming book Days of Wonder is on several lists of 2024 Eagerly Anticipated Books). I also got to meet in person Nancy Johnson, whose debut novel The Kindest Lie holds a place on my All-Time Favorites Shelf. That was such a delight! I met a few Instagram friends, and connected with some people I used to see at Book Expo (I miss that.). It was a great day and the turnout was so good I hope it encourages more bookish events in the future. Zibby Owens and her team did a wonderful job.

The authors

Meeting Nancy Johnson

Keynote speaker Anna Quindlen

2)  On Tuesday evening, the Book Cellar Book Club gathered at the Vanguard Wine Bar to discuss Helene Hanff's classic book 84, Charing Cross Road. The book consists of twenty years of letters written between Hanff, who lived in New York City, and the Marks & Co. Booksellers in London following WWII. Hanff was a freelance writer and literature lover who would order books from London to be sent to her. She struck up a friendly correspondence with the used book dealer and her letters were funny and a bit snarky at times. Eventually she got to know his family and others who worked at the bookstore, and she would arrange to have food and other items sent to them that were hard to find in post-war England. It's a lovely little book that restores your faith in humanity.
While on the way out, we ran into a group of women who were meeting for a book swap and we had a lovely chat with them. Apparently Vanguard Wine Bar is the literary salon of the Upper East Side.
Our new friends

3)  On Saturday evening, my husband and two of our friends went to see the fantastic Nick Fradiani portray Neil Diamond in A Beautiful Noise- the Neil Diamond Musical on Broadway. If you are a Neil Diamond fan this show is a must-see. The music will make you smile and dance in your seat, but please don't sing until the Sweet Caroline singalong at the end. Nick sang at the ArchCare gala in October and we went backstage after the show to congratulate him on an amazing performance. He graciously took a photo with us on stage. With so much bad news and chaos in the world, this show will leave you singing and smiling. 

4)  Somone suggested we watch Beef , a limited series on Netflix, and after it won several awards at the Golden Globes and Emmy Awards recently, we gave it a try. It is crazy good! Ali Wong and Steven Yeun play two people who have a road rage incident that spirals out of control. Both of them make one bad decision after the other that threatens their work, family, sanity and even their lives. Everyone involved deserves all the awards, especially Wong and Yeun who are just brilliant. 

5)  After hearing Anna Quindlen speak at New Year, New Chapter, I couldn't wait to dive into her upcoming novel, After Annie, publishing in February. From the first sentence- "Annie Brown died right before dinner", I was hooked.  Annie was a 37 year-old wife and mom to four young children who worked as a nurse aide in a nursing home. After she dies in their kitchen, her husband Bill, who owns his plumbing business, is lost and doesn't know what to do. Thirteen year-old daughter Ali becomes the caretaker to her dad and three younger brothers, and we see the story of what happens 'after Annie' through Ali, Bill, and Annie's lifelong best friend Annmarie's eyes. They bring Annie to life in this heartbreaking and emotional story. Annie was the glue that held the family together, and helped Annmarie through her addiction to pain killers. We watch these people as they grieve, which Quindlen likens to spring. "Grief was like spring, maybe. You thought you were getting out from under it and then it comes roaring back." After Annie is one of the most visceral novels about grief that I have read, and it will stay with me for a long time. I started reading it and five hours later I finished it because I could not put this book down. I give it my highest recommendation. 

 I hope you have a safe, healthy week, Until next time.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Missing Witness by Allison Brennan

The Missing Witness by Allison Brennan
Published by MIRA ISBN 9780778369653
Hardcover, $30, 416 pages

I have always wanted to read one of Allison Brennan's novels so I jumped into the fifth book in her Quinn & Costa series, The Missing Witness. While it can be difficult to join an established series without having read the previous books, I was able to catch up, though it did take awhile to place all the characters relationships.

The book begins with LAPD Detective Kara Quinn returning to Los Angeles to testify against a dangerous human trafficker she went undercover to catch. Kara Quinn has been on loan to the FBI in Washington DC where she works closely with Agent Matt Costa, and with whom she has a more than collegial relationship.

Kara is eager to testify, and threats against her life by the trafficker's people have given her LAPD and FBI colleagues concerns about her safety. When the trafficker is shot and killed on his way into the courthouse, there is one witness to the killing- Amy, a civilian IT consultant who has been working undercover to get information on white collar financial crimes that may implicate people high up in the city government as well as the trafficker. 

Amy disappears following the killing, and there are questions as to whether she is a witness or the killer. Quinn and Costa and Quinn's former unit in the LAPD have to work together to find Amy and unravel the white crime syndicate that has now turned to murder to protect their secrets.

Brennan does a good job explaining the complicated scheme that involves nonprofit organizations that have contracts with the city to build housing for unhoused people, and the web of deceit that has created millionaires out of people high up in the government and their family members.

There are some truly tense scenes in this fast-paced novel, including a few shoot-outs, a rooftop chase, and Kara racing away on a motorcycle from killers on her trail. I was biting my nails on these scenes.

I found it interesting how Brennan built her story around a real world problem, the homeless issue, and dealt with it from the perspective of people living in the middle of it. She clearly did her research on it. (Here is a link to an essay Allison Brennan wrote about this.)

For people who have read the previous Quinn & Costa novels, they will no doubt enjoy seeing what their favorite characters have been up to in the interim, and there are a few surprises for them. After reading The Missing Witness, I will be looking the first four books in the series- Kara Quinn is a badass.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Friendship Club by Robyn Carr

The Friendship Club by Robyn Carr
Published by MIRA ISBN 9780778311881
Hardcover, $28.99, 336 pages

Nobody writes about female friendships better than Robyn Carr and her latest novel, The Friendship Club,  is a perfect example.

Marni hosts a successful cooking show on television. Like Ina Garten ( The Barefoot Contessa), the show is filmed in her own home, where she is ably assisted by Ellen, who has been with her for twenty years. Ellen is creative with food but has no desire to appear on camera, she is happy to leave that to Marni.

Sophia is interning with Marni and hopes to have a career in broadcast journalism. Marni's daughter Bella  is anxiously awaiting the birth of her first child with her husband Jason.

Although Marni has very successful career, her love life could use some work. She was widowed at a young age and now is divorced from her second husband after she caught him cheating on her. Ellen was a longtime caregiver for her seriously ill husband and is wary about getting into a new relationship. 

Sophia is excited about a new man in her life, but soon discovers that he is possessive and potentially dangerous. Marni had experience with that with her first husband and begins to worry about Sophia. Bella has concerns about her own marriage as well.

As the story progresses, Marni finds herself unexpectedly attracted to a new man in her life and Ellen's retired firefighter neighbor would like to start a romance with her. Marni jumps in with both feet and encourages Ellen not to let her past get in the way of a possible happy future.

I liked that we see relationships at all stages and ages- young Sophia, Bella and her husband as they await the birth of a baby, and Marni and Ellen in the 60s opening up their hearts to new possibilities. 

Robyn Carr's characters are always so interesting, and seeing older women excited about new romance is enjoyable and refreshing to read. And no matter how long ago you went through a pregnancy, you can relate to Bella's situation. Carr's male characters are well drawn and realistic too.

I enjoy foodie books, and reading about Marni and Ellen's recipes and Ellen's volunteer work feeding people fleeing wildfires was fascinating. The Friendship Club is a wonderful book to gift to your girlfriends on Galentine's Day, I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Harlequin Books for putting me on their Winter 2024 Blog Tours.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Friday 5ive- January 19, 2024

Welcome to the Friday 5ive, a weekly-ish post featuring five things that caught my attention this week. One of my 2024 resolutions is to be better about posting this weekly. 

1)  I thought I had missed my chance to see the Rockefeller Center tree this year, but I managed to get there on January 11th, two days before it came down. This year's tree was particularly beautiful, so full and bright, and there were no crowds of people on the night I was there.

2)  The reason I got to see the tree was because I was on my way to see Broadway's Days of Wine and Roses. They turned the 1962 classic movie starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick into a musical starring two of Broadway's best performers- Brian d'Arcy James and Kelli O'Hara. It tells the story of a public relations executive in the late 1950s who meets and falls in love with a secretary. Joe often has to wine and dine people in his business, and he shares his love of alcohol with the teetotaler Kirsten. Kirsten begins to enjoy alcohol as much as Joe, and that love of alcohol causes problems for both of them. Even the birth of their daughter can't stop them from drinking. It's an emotional, powerful, and sad story. James and O'Hara are in fine form, their musical voices dominate this moving show. It's not a feel-good story, and I was suprised that they turned this into a musical rather than a dramatic play. It's a limited run show, 16 weeks only so if you are in NYC soon I recommend this show for the outstanding performances.

3) We found a fantastic little Italian restaurant in our neighborhood called Donna Margherita. I pass by it frequently on my journeys, and from the outside it looks rather nondescript. Then I looked up reviews for them and they were glowing. Everyone praised their authenticity, the delicious food and the attentive staff. We visited on a recent night with three other people and we were wowed by the food. Most of us had the Sunday Sauce pasta with short ribs that had simmered for seven hours. It was fabulous. The place is small inside, but very cozy and they have an outdoor seating area when it warms up. It will be on regular rotation and if you come to visit us, we'll probably take you there.

4)  If you watched any of the film awards ceremonies in the past few weeks, you have seen Paul Giamatti winning Best Actor for his pitch-perfect performance as a lonely, irascible, tough, unliked by everyone boarding school ancient history professor in the movie The Holdovers. We watched it on the Peacock streaming service and it was wonderful. Da'Vine Joy Randolph also won for her magnificent performance as Mary, the head of the cafeteria, a Black woman who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War. The movie, set in 1970 over the holiday weekend where everyone has gone home for the holiday but one student, the professor who draws Holdover Duty and Mary. The three end up forming an unlikely bond. It's a rare movie that both my husband and I like, but we really enjoyed this one and recommend it to everyone. If you liked the movie Sideways from back in the early 2000s, director Alexander Payne and Giamatti reunited from that one here.

5) Speaking of the Vietnam War, I have two books with that setting for you this week. The first one is Tim O'Brien's classic war novel The Things We Carried, which is my January edition from my Banned Books gift my daughter-in-law gave me last year. I can't wait to read his powerful novel of men in war.

Kristin Hannah's upcoming novel The Women is also set during the Vietnam War. Frankie McGrath leaves her upper class home in Coronado, California to join her brother who left to fight in Vietnam. She becomes a nurse specifically to go to Vietnam and her eyes are opened to another world, one she couldn't have imagined. Frankie becomes friends with her roommates Ethel and Barb, and the although the three women couldn't be more different, they become lifelong friends. Hannah puts the reader right in Frankie's shoes as she quickly learns how to save the lives of young men blown apart in war. We also see the aftermath of Frankie's service, her return home where people spit on her, call her a baby killer and alternately disregard her service by saying "there were no women in Vietnam." I loved the TV show China Beach, and The Women mines that same territory as well as the TV show. I found one small plot point at the end a little disappointing, but The Women overall continues Hannah's streak of writing deeply moving historical fiction (The Nightingale, The Great Alone, The Four Winds).  I highly recommend it.

Welcome to 2024 where winter has finally come to NYC. Stay safe and warm everyone, until next time.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Two great reads from 2023 begin my 2024.

Reprinted from auburnpub.com

Welcome to 2024 and a new year that means new beginnings. Many people make resolutions, and reading goals are a popular project for readers. Websites like Goodreads encourage people to set a goal for the number of books read, and you can find Reading Challenges with prompts for the different types of books to read- i.e.- Books Set in a Foreign Country, Books That Begin With a Different Letter of the Alphabet From A-Z, Books With A Flower on the Cover- you get the idea.

That can be a fun project and a way to connect with other readers, as well as a way to expand your reading choices and get out of your comfort zone.

I began 2024 with a goal to read one fiction and one nonfiction book from 2023 that was critically acclaimed. For the fiction book, I chose Amanda Peters The Berry Pickers. It tells the story of Ruthie, a four year-old Indigenous girl who disappears from a Maine orchard where her family works every harvest. 

Ruthie was sitting on a rock eating a sandwich with her older brother and then she was gone. Her family- mother, father, three older brothers and one older sister- was distraught and searched for her for weeks with no success.

The family returns to their home on Nova Scotia but they are never the same. Her mother insists that Ruthie is alive somewhere. Her brother Joe, the last one to see her before she disappeared, spirals out of control feeling guilty that he left her alone.

The family’s story is interspersed with the story of Norma, the only daughter of a couple who struggled for years trying to have a baby before Norma came along. Norma’s mother refuses to let Norma out of her sight except for school, and Norma comes to feel stifled by her lonely life.

The Berry Pickers is a beautifully written debut novel, with characters the reader cares deeply about. We feel their pain and sadness and although you know where the story is going, it is the journey that keeps you reading this wonderful book. I give it my highest recommendation. Fans of Jacqueline Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean will like this one.

Rachel Maddow’s nonfiction Prequel- An American Fight Against Fascism takes the reader back to WWII. In the run-up to WWII, Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party decide that the key to winning the war in Europe is to keep the United States out of the war. 

Many Americans were reluctant to get involved another world war far from our shores, particularly wary after the loss of life in WWI. The Nazis used that reticence to their advantage, and they stoked the divisions in American life to accomplish their goal.

The Germans used money to influence Congressmen, religious leaders, and other influential people to achieve their goal. The Nazi Party had many members in the United States, even filling Madison Square Garden with an event.

(If you read Susan Elia MacNeal’s fascinating novel Mother Daughter Traitor Spy you will be familiar with the popularity of the the Nazi Party in Los Angeles at this time.)

Maddow lays out in meticulously researched detail how the German government used antisemitic feelings in the United States to turn people against President Roosevelt and members of his government.

One of the most interesting parts of the book shows how the Germans used the franking program to spread their propaganda to the American people. Congresspeople are allowed to send mail for free to their constituents, and everything that gets read into the Congressional Record (like speeches made on the House floor) is eligible to be mailed for free.

The German government hired people to write speeches for certain Congresspeople who would then read those speeches verbatim, get them into the Congressional Record, and then mailed across the country. It was actually a direct mailing advertising company owner who figured out this scheme and blew the whistle on them.

Prequel reads like a fictional thriller yet it is reality. It’s got a suspiciously timed deadly plane crash, a trial that is part Marx Brothers movie, and an intrepid reporter who gets directly involved in the story. It resonates with current events and I’m not sure if that is frightening or reassuring.

For podcast fans, Maddow’s podcast Ultra is the companion to Prequel and also very well done. I give Prequel my highest recommendation as well. History fans will love it.

The Berry Pickers by Amanda Peters- A+

Published by Catapult

Hardcover, $27, 306 pages

Prequel by Rachel Maddow- A+

Published by Crown

Hardcover, $ 32, 382 pages

Friday, January 5, 2024

The Weekend Retreat by Tara Laskowski

The Weekend Retreat by Tara Laskowski
Published by Graydon House ISBN 9781525811456
Trade paperback, $18.99, 352 pages

Tara Laskowski's newest novel, The Weekend Retreat, appealed to me because of the setting of a family winery in the Finger Lakes region. (I grew up in the Finger Lakes region and I love a good winery.)

The novel takes place during the wealthy Van Ness family's annual birthday celebration for Richard and his twin sister Harper, along with their spouses and younger brother Zach who is bringing along his new girlfriend whom no one has yet met.

The recent death of the Van Ness matriarch looms large over the gathering. She was tough-bordering-on-emotionally abusive on all her children, especially her daughter Harper. Richard's wife Elle has taken over the reigns planning the perfect birthday weekend retreat, one that would please her mother-in-law.

Things turn ugly as everyone turns on each other and someone on the outside of this heavily secured fortress has designs on getting revenge on the family- but why? Everyone has secrets they are hiding, secrets that can destroy the family. When a torrential rainstorm plunges the estate in darkness something deadly this way comes.

The Weekend Retreat has a real Succession vibe as the characters are generally unlikeable rich people with a parent who treated them cruelly at times. (The rich- they're like us. Not really.) There are lots of twists, some you'll see coming, some that will take you by surprise. The book has been called "Succession meets Agatha Christie" and that is an apt description. It's a good book to read on a rainy weekend curled up under a blanket with a cold glass of Riesling.

Thanks to Harlequin for putting me on their Fall 2023 Blog Tour.