Friday Book Whimsy: Shelter Me

A few months ago, I reviewed The Tumbling Turner Sisters, author Juliette Fay’s most recent novel. That particular novel may well end up being one of my favorite reads of 2017 (though it was written in 2016). What’s more, following my post, I got a very nice email from the author thanking me for my review. Now, my mom would say that was just good manners, no?

Because I enjoyed that book so much, I decided to give another of her novels a try, and started with her debut, Shelter Me, written back in 2008. First novels can be risky business. The characters can be flat. The story is often somewhat predictable while the style can be unpredictable.

Shelter Me hooked me with the storyline, and kept me with the realistic characters and behaviors. I really liked the novel.

Young mother Janie is still reeling from the unexpected death of her much-loved husband, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. Feeling totally unprepared to be a single mother to her young kindergarten-aged son and toddler daughter, and unable to fully accept what has happened, she lives a life full of anger, confusion, and loneliness.

But suddenly a few months after her husband’s death, a stranger shows up at her door holding a piece of paper that turns out to be a contract for him to build a front porch on to their house. Her husband had made the arrangements, planning to surprise her with the beautiful addition to their home.

After getting over the surprise, Janie gives Tug permission to go ahead with her husband’s wishes.

Now, stop right there. Isn’t that a sweet premise for a book plot? There is just something so delightful as the idea of a husband surprising his wife with a front porch. I think I would have loved this novel even if that was the only thing good about it.

But it wasn’t. Janie’s sadness, often displayed as anger, is so realistic that I could practically feel her rage around me. The supporting cast – an aunt who could be annoying if she just didn’t love her niece so darn much, a neighbor who simply won’t let Janie push her away, and Tug, who is using the front porch to hide his own issues – are believable and likeable.

There was a story line relating to the parish priest who tried his best to provide Janie comfort that seemed unnecessary and simply odd, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Highly recommend.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: The American Heiress

Still reeling from Downton Abbey withdrawal, I enjoyed watching PBS’s Victoria this past winter. Though based on a true story, there was enough romance and intrigue to keep me interested in a way that I wouldn’t have had it been a documentary. And as I watched the credits after the first episode, I saw that the series was based on a novel written by Daisy Goodwin. And I remembered that while I didn’t have that novel, I did own – and had owned for four or five years – another novel by that author called The American Heiress, a novel I had never gotten around to reading.

The American Heiress is the story of young Cora Cash, a New York socialite living in the late 1800s whose father was rich as triple chocolate fudge and who ran with the likes of the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. However, not being old money like the Astors, Cora’s mother thought the way to bring the family name up to that caliber was by having her beautiful daughter marry a British royal. A trip to England ensures that happens.

Cora’s wedding to Ivo, Duke of Warham, appears to be a perfect match. She gets a title and he gets all of that money to keep his dukedom running. And he’s so darn cute and she’s so darn pretty. But marriage to a royal when you are not only NOT nobility but not even British brings its own set of problems. And why is Ivo so quiet and withdrawn? Drama and intrigue abound. But also romance and the glorious upstairs/downstairs relationships we came to love with Downton Abbey.

The American Heiress is Goodwin’s first novel, and I found it to be captivating and interesting. The author sets the stage so clearly that I could practically smell the dust on the chandeliers. I was sorry it took me so long to finally read this book, and I will read Victoria next (even though I know FOR SURE how that one ends).

Highly recommend.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Whole Town’s Talking

Quite frankly, no one could have gotten away with this book except the author Fannie Flagg. For what other author would someone be patient enough to read a book in which most of the characters are dead and buried? Especially if it’s not a horror story?

As far as this reviewer is concerned, Fannie Flagg will never write a story as funny, poignant, and compelling as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, but I’m glad she keeps trying. While I don’t absolutely LOVE every one of her books, I think it’s safe to say that they nearly all – or at least the ones I have read – make me smile.

That’s because the stories are all character-driven, and her characters are all lovable. Even if they’re dead.

The story begins many years ago with Lordor Nordstrom, an immigrant from Sweden homesteading in Missouri. The area in which he lives is made up entirely of Swedish immigrants. With Lordor taking the lead, the people eventually begin building the makings of a town, which they call Elmwood Springs, with Lordor serving as mayor. They build businesses, churches and even a cemetery.

The town becomes a bustling community with loving friends and neighbors, business owners, preachers, and all manner of people who make up a normal town. But things become interesting when people begin to die. Because lo, and behold, though they are buried in the cemetery, they are still able to talk and observe what’s going on in their little community.

And that’s about all that happens in the book. The story is told almost primarily through the voices of the dead. And it’s okay. Because they people of Elmwood Springs watch out for each other whether living or dead.

There are so many characters over so many years that it becomes confusing for the reader, or at least for this reader. Still, I enjoyed the book very much and it left me feeling good.

That’s about as good a compliment as I can give a novel.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Hundred-Foot Journey

I’m a big fan of books that deal with food and cooking. Think Julie and Julia, which remains one of my favorite books (and movies, for that matter) of all time. So despite never having seen the movie, I was excited to read The Hundred-Foot Journey, a novel by Richard C. Marais.

But despite my eagerness, I have to admit that I was disappointed.

The novel actually is two stories. The first part of the book tells the story of the Haji family, Muslims who operate a restaurant in pre-World War II Bombay, India. Young Hassan watches his exuberant and frankly, almost overbearing father and gentle, food-loving mother as they take over the restaurant from his grandfather. Hassan grows up smelling the aromas of cumin and turmeric and curry, and learns to cook by watching the family. Eventually, tragedy strikes, and the family is forced to leave Bombay and move elsewhere with some unexpected money.

They first land in England, but that never quite pans out. Eventually, the Haji family’s truck breaks down in a small French village called Lumiere, and Mr. Haji decides that destiny mandates Lumiere is where they stay. He opens up an inexpensive Indian restaurant across the street from a restaurant operated by a well-renowned Michelin two-starred chef. But Madame Mallory will not have it, doing everything in her power to run the Haji family out of town. She becomes particularly enraged when she discovered that young Hussan has a perfect palate.

Once again, tragedy strikes, and Madame Mallory ends up taking the young man under her wing and teaching her everything she knows about cooking.

And then we move on to the second story, which I found, frankly, boring. Haji cooks at a variety of restaurants until he finally opens his own in Paris. He has a series of love affairs which never really amount to anything. There is only a vague tie-in with the previous part of the novel.

One of the main problems that I saw was that the food part of the novel – always my favorite – simply didn’t grab me. Generally when I’m reading a novel dealing with food, I begin yearning for the food being described. It’s true that at the beginning of the book, I craved Indian food. But in the second half of the book, the food descriptions simply didn’t connect with me. There was not much description of the cooking or the enjoyment of the meals. The author simply told us that Hassan made this or that. Boring.

Personally, I would have liked to see either an emphasis on the relationship between Madame Mallory and Hassan, or a more interesting story of Hassan’s time in Paris. The two stories simply seemed disjointed to me.

The book isn’t awful, but I couldn’t overwhelmingly recommend it either.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Once you start reading books that take place during World War I and World War II, it’s hard to get away from it. Amazon and Goodreads both start feeding you recommendations based on what you’ve been reading and there are somewhere in the neighborhood of a million books that take place during the world wars. Most are terribly sad. The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a glimpse of blue sky in the dark sadness of death and hatred that war brings.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is a debut novel by writer Jennifer Ryan. Though certainly not a deep and meaningful literary look at WWII as, say Sophie’s Choice, I truly enjoyed the story and the characters.

When it becomes clear that England must become involved in World War II, the small English village of Chilbury isn’t immune. One at a time, the men of the village are called to serve their country, leaving the women to carry on. Though the vicar advises that the town disband its choir because there are no male singers, the women elect instead to continue, making the controversial choice to have a women’s-only choir. Egad! But the women’s choir not only provides an outlet for singing, but more important, it provides a support group for the women of this village.

The story is told primarily through letters, which give readers a look at five particular women and how they are impacted by the war. Among the five women, particularly meaningful to me was a timid young widow whose only child is called to serve. As the weeks and months go by, she becomes stronger and more independent. She eventually becomes a driving force in keeping the town together.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir was a gentle reminder that war not only affects those fighting the battles, but also those left behind.

I loved the book and give it a strong recommendation.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Certain Age

I’ve gone through a period where it seems as though many books I’ve read take place during either World War I or World War II. I don’t need to tell you that, while they are often interesting, they are also invariably and understandably sad.

Perhaps the time period in which it takes place – the 1920s — is the thing I liked best about A Certain Age, a novel by one of my favorite authors, Beatriz Williams. That time of glamour and jazz in which people acted as though Prohibition didn’t exist, and women were freed from their corsets and gaining more and more independence. And what could be better than a novel set in the Roaring Twenties in New York City?

Wealthy Mrs. Theresa Marshall, a woman approaching middle age and bored with her marriage to a rich older man who is a serial philanderer, fights her boredom by becoming involved in an affair with a considerably younger man. She has no plans to divorce her husband, as they have a kind of understanding. But her young lover Octavian, has fallen for her and would like to get married. That is, until he meets Sophie, the daughter of a newly-wealthy man who has a mysterious past. If you are an opera fan, the plot might be familiar to you as the book is loosely based on an opera by Richard Strauss called Der Rosenkavalier.

One of my favorite things about Beatriz Williams is that many of her novels are based on different members of the wealthy Schuyler family. As such, many of the stories are loosely related. In A Certain Age, Sophie’s best friend is Julie Schuyler, who we learn is the great aunt of the main characters in three of my favorite Williams novels: Tiny Schuyler of Tiny Little Thing, Pepper Schuyler of Along the Infinite Sea, and Vivian Schuyler of The Secret Life of Violet Grant, all of whom are sisters. Not necessarily pertinent to the story, but fun nevertheless.

I will admit that it took me a bit of time to get into the novel. I felt it started slowly. Furthermore, I initially found Theresa to be offputting. She appeared to be shallow and every time she called Octavian Boyo, which she did all the time, my skin crawled. As the novel progressed, however, I began to understand the complicated Mrs. Marshall, and even grew somewhat fond of her. Sophie was a wonderful character, and I loved watching her come into herself, despite her sad past.

A Certain Age is a romantic novel wrapped in a mystery, and the ending was satisfying, if somewhat predictable. I love Beatriz Williams’ writing, and A Certain Age didn’t disappoint.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

I love coincidences, I love alliteration. I love coconut cake. I had high hopes for a book with a title that encompassed all three loves.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake, by Amy E. Reichert, didn’t quite satiate my reading appetite. More like a Hostess Twinkie than a made-from-scratch coconut cake, it was too predictable. Promised by the publisher to be a cross between How to Eat a Cupcake and You’ve Got Mail, it unfortunately didn’t have the wit or romance of either.

Reichert is described as being an author who likes happy endings about characters that you would invite to dinner. The Coincidence of Coconut Cake had the requisite happy ending – and I do like me a happy ending — but I’m not sure I’d particularly like to dine with any of the main characters.

Luella – called Lou – is the owner and chef of a French restaurant that is just barely making it in Milwaukee. A mean-spirited restaurant critic puts the nail in the coffin when he writes a scathing review of the restaurant after dining there on a particularly bad night for Lou, who just caught her fiancé in bed with another woman.

Lou drowns her trouble at a neighborhood bar, where she meets British-born Al, and they strike up a friendship. Al mentions to Lou that he hasn’t found anything good about Milwaukee so far, and she agrees to show him all of the wonderful food traditions in the area. They agree to not talk about their jobs. Eventually a romance blossoms.

It won’t come as a surprise to you to learn that it turns out that Al is the restaurant critic who is responsible for Lou’s restaurants ultimate failure. All the expected angst transpires, and is eventually settled happily.

The premise is cute, but the plot is fairly predictable and the characters are a little too one-dimensional for me. The Coincidence of Coconut Cake isn’t horrible, and the parts where they talk about cooking and food are fun for someone who likes to cook and eat as do I. But don’t dive in expecting a great novel with a lot of interesting twists. It won’t happen. Just enjoy it for what it is, a simple romance novel with a spattering of recipes and cooking.

Here is a link to the book.