Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062699589
Trade paperback, $14.99, 336 pages

I've become a big fan of Jenny Colgan, having read The Cafe By The Sea and The Bookshop on the Corner, both set in Scotland. (I've talked so much about her books that I've gained her a few more readers at the Book Cellar where I volunteer.)

Her latest book, Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, is set in the little seaside village town of Mount Polbeane in Cornwall, England. It is the third book in the series, (Little Beach Street Bakery and Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery being the first two) and not having read the first two, I feared I may be a little lost.

I needn't have feared, I was able to catch up quickly. Polly is the owner of Little Beach Street Bakery, after her previous life imploded when the fiance company she owned with her boyfriend went under, along with their relationship.

Now she is happy, waking very early each morning in the old lighthouse she lives in with her current boyfriend, Huckle, (an American chap who left his family in Virginia to become a beekeeper and sell honey) to make the pastries and breads that the villagers and tourists adore.

Polly's friend Kerensa is married to Reuben, a blowhard of a millionaire (billionaire?) who has a challenging personality, but loves Kerensa deeply. Kerensa makes a big mistake one night, and this causes a rift between Polly and Huckle, Reuben's best friend.

Polly was raised by single mum Doreen, and never knew her father who abandoned Doreen when she became pregnant. Doreen rarely leaves her home, preferring to watch television. Their relationship is somewhat strained since Doreen had hoped that her daughter would have more financial stability in her life, and Polly is sad that her mother seems so lonely.

I loved the characters in this town- Reuben is a hoot, and could have been a stock rich jerk, but Colgan makes him three-dimensional. His mother Rhonda is a real trip too. And how many books have a puffin as a character? (Yes, Neil is a bird.)

The story revolves around a snow storm that strands everyone at Reuben's mansion on Christmas Eve, where Polly has been talked into making pastries for Reuben's yuge holiday party when she would rather be snuggling with Huckle and Neil and relaxing.

There is a public proposal, snow sculptures, a trip to the hospital and a helicopter ride during the party, but fear not, all is resolved by the story's end.

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery is a perfect palate cleanser of a book. It's a lovely, light read, meant for curling up on the couch under a comfy blanket on a cold or rainy Sunday. It would make a wonderful stocking stuffer for a good friend this upcoming holiday season.

And if you like books with food references in them, this one will have your stomach rumbling, wishing that you lived close enough to the Little Beach Street Bakery so that you could sample some buttery croissants, Christmas twists, and homemade hot chocolate.

I have already gotten myself copies of the first two books in the series, and I can't wait to find out how Polly's story got her to this point.

Jenny Colgan's website is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Jenny Colgan's tour. The rest of her stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, October 10th: BookExpression
Wednesday, October 11th: BookNAround
Thursday, October 12th: A Chick Who Reads
Friday, October 13th: Bibliotica
Monday, October 16th: Buried Under Books
Tuesday, October 17th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, October 18th: bookchickdi
Thursday, October 19th: Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, October 20th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Friday, October 20th: Reading Reality
Saturday, October 21st: Girl Who Reads
Monday, October 23rd: Into the Hall of Books
Tuesday, October 24th: StephTheBookworm
Wednesday, October 25th: A Bookworm’s World
Friday, October 27th: Jathan & Heather
Friday, October 27th: Books and Bindings

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Weekend Cooking- Trying To Eat Healthier

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.

We're trying to eat healthier in our household, something that has been hit or miss. My husband is out to business dinners two to three nights a week and I don't cook on those nights for just myself. I'll eat leftovers or cereal.

I did come across two recipes recently that worked well. One is Chicken Cacciatore with Peppers, Onions and Mushrooms that I saw on the Today Show, made by Anthony Scotto of Fresco by Scotto, a restaurant here in NYC. My husband loves peppers and onions (me, not so much), but I'll eat them in a dish like this.

The recipe calls for using a entire cut-up chicken, but I substituted chicken thighs and drumsticks because my husband prefers those. It also called for using 1/2 cup of olive oil to saute the chicken in, and I cut that back.

It takes about 45 minutes to cook on the stovetop, so this is a recipe that can be made on a weeknight. It was full of flavor, and adding red wine to deglaze the pan added a nice touch to this dish. I will be making this one again now that cooler is (supposed to?) be on the way. I served it over angel hair pasta with a salad on the side.

You can find the recipe for Chicken Cacciatore with Peppers, Onions and Mushrooms here.

I also made an Apple, White Cheddar and Spinach Salad with Honey-Apple Cider Vinaigrette one night, a recipe I found on Pinterest.  It's a simple salad, and the honey-apple cider vinaigrette was a huge hit, one I will make for other salads.

Apple White Cheddar Spinach Salad with Honey Apple Cider Vinagrette
For the salad:
6 cups of spinach (a package of fresh spinach that you find in the produce section works perfectly)
1 large apple, thinly sliced (I used a Fuji)
1 cup grated cheddar cheese (I had Havarti on hand so I used that)
1/2 dried cranberries
1/2 cup sliced almonds (we omitted this)

For the dressing:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tsp. dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Layer the salad in a large bowl. For the dressing, in a small glass jar with a lid add all the ingredients and shake well. Pour the dressing on the salad, toss and place the salad on a platter immediately.

You can find the recipe on Averie Cooks.

Have you made any healthy recipes that you'd like to share? Tell me about them in comments.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Three Terrific Debut Novels

Finding interesting debut novels are one of the great joys of reading. Picking up a book from someone you don’t know, taking a chance, and then being rewarded for that can be very fulfilling. This month’s Book Report will introduce you to three debut novels.

Since so many of us have been consumed watching cable news since the election of 2016, the timing of CNN morning show New Day anchor Alisyn Camerota’s debut novel about a young cable news reporter “Amanda Wakes Up” is fortunate. 

Camerota has worked for many news organizations- Fox, CNN, ABC, MSNBC- and she gives the reader an insider’s look at what that is like. Amanda Gallo works for a small local NYC TV news station when she finds herself the only reporter on scene at a bank robbery in progress.

Her reporting lands her a job as a morning anchor at FAIR News, a new cable news network trying to make a big splash in a crowded space. Her boss wants to score huge ratings, her male cohost is a sexist blowhard, her liberal boyfriend is unhappy that she works for a company pushing a conservative agenda, and her best friend is a producer at a competing news organization who believes in anything for a story.

Camerota wrote “Amanda Wakes Up” following the 2012 election, but so many of the things that happen in the story are eerily prescient to the 2016 election. She sheds a compassionate light on people on both side of the issues, something that many people in the media have been unable to accomplish. If you are a cable news junkie, this one is for you, although I found the ending a little too pat.

If you grew up loving Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women”, Elise Hooper’s debut novel “The Other Alcott”, about May Alcott and to a great extent her complex relationship with her sister Louisa, is a book you will want to read. 

May wants to be an artist, but she is torn between her love and obligations to her family and her desire to strike out on her own. She longs to study in Europe, but she also wants to break free of her financial dependence on her sister. 

Hooper takes us to late 19th century Europe, where May studies to be an artist, meeting famous artists like Elizabeth Jane Gardner and Mary Cassatt, and fighting for the rights of female artists to be taken seriously.

“The Other Alcott” is for fans historical fiction like “The Paris Wife” and “Loving Frank”, and for people who like stories about siblings. 

The best debut novel I have read in a long time is Nigerian writer Ayobami Adebayo’s “Stay With Me”, a featured book at this year’s Editor’s Buzz Panel at the Book Expo in May in New York City. 

Yejide and Akin are a young married Nigerian couple troubled by their inability to have a baby. When their family brings a second wife to become pregnant by Akin, it creates a untenable situation. 

This strains Yejide and Akin’s marriage, and Yejide goes to great lengths, including going on a controversial religious pilgrimage, to become pregnant. Yejide will do anything to get pregnant, and Akin is helpless as he watches his wife struggle with their infertility.

Adebayo’s setting of 1980’s Nigeria, with its troubled political times, is enlightening and adds to the tension of the situation that Yejide and Akin find themselves in. I loved learning about the food, customs and life in general in Nigeria.

“Stay With Me” is one of the most compelling, heartbreaking books I have ever read. It is also one of the most surprising. Just when you think you know which direction it is going, it does a 180 degree turn, and you are taken to a new place.

Adebayo is a superb writer, one who combines fascinating, realistic characters and puts them in a storyline that just breaks your heart at so many different places in the story. I found myself so taken in by her beautiful writing, I would lose myself in the story. This is a book you must read in a quiet spot, where you will be uninterrupted.

The title, “Stay With Me” brings the whole story together at the end, and I confess to tearing up and even outright weeping at the end of this beautiful story. I give “Stay With Me” my highest recommendation.

Amanda Wakes Up” by Alisyn Camerota- B+
Published by Viking
Hardcover, $26, 327 pages

The Other Alcott” by Elise Hooper- A-
Published by William Morrow
Trade paperback, $15.99, 432 pages

Stay With Me” by Ayobami Adebayo- A+
Published by Knopf

Hardcover, $25.95, 272 pages

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062313119
Hardcover, $26.99, 304 pages

Although Wiley Cash's newest novel, The Last Ballad, is set in 1929, the themes of the struggling working class, the politics of rich versus poor, racism and sexism are as relevant today as they were then.

Young Ella May Wiggins is 28 years-old, a mother of four with a husband who deserts her. She works the night shift at the local textile mill, making less than $10 a week, which is not enough to feed her children.

When Ella had to miss to a shift to care for sickly daughter she is called into the owner's office, accused of being lazy and threatened with dismissal by a man who shows no compassion for Ella's situation.

Ella relies on nine-year-old daughter Lily and her friend and neighbor Violet to help care for the other younger children while she works. She is tired of not being paid enough for her work and when a union comes to town, Ella works up to the courage to attend a meeting.

She meets two women who are driving people to the meeting, and when Ella sings them a song she wrote about her situation, they convince her to sing for the crowd. Ella's beautiful voice and song move the crowd so much that Ella becomes a symbol of the labor movement.

Ella agrees to work for the union, and pushes for the union to include the black factory workers in their organization efforts. The factory where she works is one of the few that has black and white workers on the line.

The factory owners accuse the workers of being Communists, and indeed it is the Communist party that helps to organize the labor movement. The workers are threatened with violence and forcibly evicted from their factory-owned homes when they dare to try and organize a union.

The tension rachets up as the workers appear to be on a collison course with the factory owners. When a black union organizer, a Pullman porter named Hampton, comes to town to help Ella organize her neighbors, he is forced to reconcile a past he tried to forget.

Cash's writing is so powerful, and he conveys so much with his words, like this:
"Pretty took the will to be so and the money to do it and the time to see it and the sleep to maintain it, and Ella didn't have any of those things."
"But no matter how long the (Goldberg) brothers and their families lived in town, they never forgot the first night in their new home when some time before dawn they awoke to the orange glow of the six-foot-tall wooden cross afire in the front yard. They also never forgot the next morning's visit from the Christian Ladies' Association, a group largely comprised of the wives of local ministers. The women appeared unannounced that Saturday morning, cakes and flowers and casseroles in hand. They walked single-file up the walk past the blackened grass and the charred, smoking remains of the cross their husbands had left behind."
I'm not sure that reading The Last Ballad made me hopeful that things are better in our country or sad that not enough progress has been made. Cash based his book on a real incident, and Ella Wiggins was a real woman who took on factory owners in Gaston, North Carolina. Like the strong female characters in the movies Norma Rae (based on a real woman, Crystal Lee Sutton) and Karen Silkwood in Silkwood, Ella Wiggins is an unforgettable woman looking to make a more just world. We need more of them.

I highly recommend The Last Ballad, especially for young women.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Wiley Cash's tour. The rest of his stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, October 3rd: she treads softly
Wednesday, October 4, 2017 5 Minutes For Books
Wednesday, October 4th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Thursday, October 5th: bookchickdi
Monday, October 9th: Into the Hall of Books
Tuesday, October 10th: Girl Who Reads
Friday, October 13th: Jathan & Heather
Monday, October 16th: Tina Says…
Tuesday, October 17th: Lit.Wit.Wine.Dine.
Wednesday, October 18th: Stranded in Chaos
Thursday, October 19th: Broken Teepee

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser

The Vanderbeekers of 141 St. by Karina Yan Glaser
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers ISBN 9780544876392
Hardcover, 304 pages, $16.99

The first thing that takes you in Karina Yan Glaser's first middle school novel, The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, is the colorful cover illustration. Looking at the figures in the windows of the bright red townhouse makes you want to look inside the book to find out who these people are. You want to be inside this building.

Once inside, you will be enchanted by the interesting Vanderbeeker family. Mama likes to bake and share her treats with the neighbors. Papa maintains the building, owned by Mr. Beiderman who keeps to himself. The Vanderbeeker children are not your typical plugged-in kids- 12 year-old Isa loves to play the violin, her twin brother Jessie creates scientific experiments, 9 year-old Oliver writes poetry, 6 year-old Hyacinth is an animal lover and 4 year-old Laney loves to draw, and they all love to read books. There is nary a cell phone in sight; instead, there are lots of pets.

When Mr. Beiderman tells the family that they must move after Christmas, the family is devastated. This is the only home they have known. They love their neighborhood- the bakery owned by the family of a boy who has a crush on Isa, the deli, the coffee shop, the library and City College. What if they have to leave the neighborhood and move far away?

The kids get together and come up with a idea to make Mr. Beiderman change his mind and let them stay, but it doesn't go as planned.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street is the kind of book you want to share with everyone in your family- it would make a wonderful book to read aloud. The Vanderbeekers are a lovely family, kind to each other, but in a realistic way. It's refreshing to see children who respect their parents, and who help Mom cook and set the table without (too much) complaint.

The secondary characters are interesting too- the upstairs neighbors who are so sad to be losing their friends, and as someone who had a basset hound, Franz the basset hound warmed my heart. Even Mr. Beiderman's story is moving.

The theme of the book can be best summed up by a speech Papa makes at a farewell Christmas dinner:
"I have always believed that raising kids means more than just being a good parent and trying to do the things," Papa went on, his voice beginning to wobble. "It means surrounding your kids with amazing people who can bring science experiments and jam cookies, laughter and joy, and beautiful experiences into their lives. From every part of my being, I want to thank you for giving me and my family the gifts of friendship and love."
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street brings this wonderfully vibrant New York City neighborhood alive, and I can't wait for the next book in the series. I love the Vanderbeekers and all their friends and family and neighbors! If you have children or grandchildren in your life, you'll want to read this to them. And if you know a teacher, this would be a great addition to their classroom library.

Karina Glaser's website is here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Unforgiveable Love by Sophfronia Scott

Unforgiveable Love by Sophfronia Scott
Publsihed by WilliamMorrow ISBN 9780062655653
Trade paperback, $15.99, 506 pages

Author Sophfronia Scott is by her own admission obsessed with all versions (books and movies) of Les Liasions Dangereuses. When her friend screenwriter Jenny Lumet said that there should be a version of the story with an African American cast, Scott got to work.

Unforgiveable Love- A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons is set in Harlem during the summer of 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first black Major League baseball player, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Mae Malveaux is a wealthy heiress, her mother having made her money inventing a hair gel and using young Mae's picture on the packaging. When her best friend is torn from her, forced to marry in older man and move to Detroit, it is an event that changes Mae forever.

She doens't believe in love, she uses men's affections and throws them away when she is done with them. Valiant Jackson is a man who has a shadier reputation in Harlem- he is always seen in the clubs with a different beautiful woman every night, but Mae is the one woman he desires. He is obsessed with baseball, and follows Jackie Robinson's career rise.

When Mae finds an opportunity to gain revenge on a man who left her, she strikes a bargain with Val- if he beds Cecily, the virginal young woman (and Mae's cousin) who is to be engaged to the man, Mae will finally sleep with Val.

Much of the story takes place at Val's aunt's summer retreat in upstate New York. When Val arrives to begin his mission, he finds his aunt hosting Elizabeth, the lovely wife of a civil rights lawyer currently working down south.

Val decides to while away the time waiting for Cecily by playing a cat-and-mouse game with the honorable Elizabeth. He schemes to get her to into bed, but when he develops real feelings for her, and she for him, it shakes his world.

Even if you are familiar with the story of Dangerous Liaisons, Unforgiveable Love will still surprise you. Scott brings her characters to life, and 1947 Harlem is a terrific setting for this retelling. I also liked the role that baseball played in this story- Val teaching Elizabeth how to play the game is a unique and interesting plotline.

The denouement of the story is set in a church, which is an integral part of the Harlem community. It is a heartbreaking novel, one that had me gasping at times, but ultimately there is some redemption for some of the characters. I also liked how the author shows us that women can own their sexuality, but with that also comes a responsibility to themselves and others.

If you are a fan of Dangerous Liaisons,  you'll want to put Unforgiveable Love on your TBR list. I recommend it. It would make a terrific movie or play, and I found myself casting the roles in my head.

Sophfronia Scott's website is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Sophfronia Scott's tour. The rest of her stops are here:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 26th: A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, September 27th: bookchickdi
Thursday, September 28th: G. Jacks Writes
Friday, September 29th: Sara the Introvert
Tuesday, October 3rd: History from a Woman’s Perspective
Monday, October 9th: Lit.Wit.Wine.Dine.
Monday, October 9th: Tina Says…
Tuesday, October 10th: Openly Bookish
Wednesday, October 11th: Jathan & Heather
Thursday, October 12th: Books and Bindings

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062645333
Trade Paperback, $15.99, 405 pages

I'm not sure there are many women who don't remember reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women at some point in their lives. The characters were based in part on Louisa's own family- Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and of course Marmee and Father stood in for Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, May and the real-life Marmee and Father.

Elise Hooper's The Other Alcott fictionalizes the story of May Alcott. The book begins with the rave reviews for the recently published Little Women. May drew the illustrations for the book, which received much harsh criticism. May was devastated by this because she wants to become an artist.

Louisa isn't very understanding of May's feelings. She appears to be jealous of May's "lucky", sunny nature, claiming that everything usually always goes May's way; perhaps there is a little schadenfreude going on. May is unhappy that people have the perception that it is luck and not a function of her hard work.

May wants to get out from under Louisa's shadow and study art in nearby Boston. The money that Louisa earns from her writing supports her parents and May, and she is beginning to feel constrained by this obligation.

Louisa takes May to Boston with her, and then to Europe to study. May is thrilled to travel to Europe. While there, she meets many famous female artists, like Jane Gardner and Mary Cassatt, and becomes moderately successful, though it takes her a long time and much study and hard work to get there.

After Louisa returns home to care for their parents, she sends letters to May insisting she come home and take her place while she writes. May is torn between her love and obligation to her family and her desire to be her own person and pursue her own career.

The relationship between Louisa and May is complicated and at the heart of this terrific debut novel, and Hooper writes in her afterward that she embellished the length of the strained relationship for dramatic reasons.

I particularly enjoyed reading about the art scene in Europe in the late 19th century, especially how female artists fought for recognition denied to them as the "weaker sex". May made friends easily, and there are so many interesting characters in her life that are well-drawn here by the author.

People who love Little Women, as well as all the novels about wives of famous men like The Paris Wife, The Aviator's Wife and Loving Frank, will want to read the Other Alcott, as will people who enjoy stories about art and artists. I read it in one day, unwilling to put it down.

Elise Hooper's website is here, where you can read the first chapter of The Other Alcott.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Elise Hooper's tour. The rest of her tour stops are here:

Tour Stops

Thursday, September 7th: History From a Woman’s Perspective
Friday, September 8th: Tina Says…
Wednesday, September 13th: Jathan & Heather
Thursday, September 14th: History from a Woman’s Perspective
Monday, September 18th: Lit.Wit.Wine.Dine.
Wednesday, September 20th: Bibliotica
Thursday, September 21st: bookchickdi
Friday, September 22nd: A Bookish Affair
Monday, September 25th: Literary Lindsey
Tuesday, September 26th: BookNAround
Wednesday, September 27th: A Literary Vacation
Wednesday, September 27th: She’s All Booked
Thursday, September 28th: Openly Bookish
Friday, September 29th: Books and Bindings