Friday Book Whimsy: The Gown

Sometimes I just want to set aside all of my serious mystery books or sad stories about unhappy people going through difficult times and read a book that will just make me smile. Maybe it’s not great literature, maybe it won’t be reviewed by the New York Times. But it will be like eating a dish of ice cream for dinner — not particularly nourishing, but oh-so-enjoyable.

That’s why I was drawn to The Gown, an historical novel by Jennifer Robson. The title is perfectly apt. The book is about making the wedding gown of then-Princess Elizabeth following the announcement of her engagement to the dishy Greek fellow who later became Prince Philip.

It’s 1947, and while the war is over, England is still experiencing very difficult times. There is rationing and some foods are unavailable altogether. People are trying to put their lives — and their cities — back together after the Americans have gone home.

So the announcement of a royal wedding brings light and joy into the downtrodden people of Great Britain. And the question of the day is what will her dress look like.

Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassan work for the queen’s dressmaker, real life Norman Hartell, as embroiderers. They, along with their coworkers, are the ones who use great care and immense talent to embroider the luscious gowns worn by wealthy women around the world. And Norman Hartell’s shop has been tapped to make THE gown.

Both Ann and Miriam, the best of friends and extremely talented embroiderers, have their own stories to tell.

Jump forward to contemporary times. Heather’s beloved grandmother Ann has just died in Toronto, Canada. She left Heather a mysterious box that includes embroidery samples and photos of her grandmother with a woman Heather doesn’t recognize. And why the embroidery samples when her grandmother didn’t embroider? Heather is determined to find out and travels from Toronto to London to do some digging.

The plot is predictable, in part because everyone already knows that the dress was a huge success. But the story is interesting and Robson’s writing kept me intrigued nonetheless. The details of the dress and what went into making it was fascinating. I’ve dabbled at embroidery in my life, but the artful mastery involved in the making of the dress was ice cream for dinner.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Baker’s Daughter

Reba Adams is a journalist working for an El Paso magazine. She has been asked to write a feel-good Christmas piece featuring German immigrant Elsie Schmidt who runs a German bakery using the recipes she learned from her German parents. Thinking it will be a slam-dunk, Reba is surprised to find that she is entranced by the story of this immigrant who lived in Germany during World War II. She is so entranced, in fact, that she comes back again and again to the bakery where she is fed bodily and spiritually by the story of this strong woman.

Elsie’s story includes being engaged to a Nazi officer, while at the same time, rescuing a young Jewish boy who nearly brings disaster to Elsie and her family.

The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, is a wonderful account of what it was like to be a typical German family and business owner during the time of the Nazis. Being a baker’s daughter myself, I loved the stories of how the family offered the baked goods for the German people who often didn’t have enough to feed their families.

The main problem with the story, at least in this reader’s opinion, was the sideline story of Reba’s boyfriend who is a border agent in El Paso. I liked his character and his story at the beginning, as it seemed to show both sides of the issue. But it troubled me that the author tried to compare the immigrant issue to the Holocaust, and I found that distracting and offputting.

Still, the story was enjoyable and any book that ends with recipes captures my attention.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Where the Crawdads Sing

I will admit that upon reading the prologue of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, I was reluctant to read further. While lyrical prose appeals to me (after all, Willa Cather is one of my favorite authors), I need a strong and interesting storyline to keep me engaged. The prologue led me to believe there would be no appealing storyline.

But I kept on, and was rewarded almost immediately with one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in quite some time. Yes, the writing was gorgeous. In fact, it was so beautiful that I was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief when it came to a 6-year-old girl being so capable of caring for herself.

Kya is, in fact, only 6 years old when her mother walks away from the home deep in the middle of the marsh country of North Carolina where she lives with Kya, her older siblings, and her abusive alcoholic husband. Kya expects her to return, but as days go by, she doesn’t. Thus begins the story of the resiliency of humans and the ability of nature to make us strong.

It isn’t long before the rest of her family are also gone, leaving Kya to care for herself. She teaches herself life skills, and with the help of a few kind people, she manages to grow up to be an absolutely brilliant writer and observer of nature.

But every human being yearns for the love and comfort of another human being, and this basic need leads to the girl referred to as the Marsh Girl facing unbearable circumstances.

The book is part mystery and part love story, but mostly an ode to nature. The marsh IS, in fact, the most important “character” in the book.

The book is bound to stay in your mind long after the unexpected conclusion. It is unlikely that the Marsh Girl won’t stick with you for a long time after you put down the book.

Where the Crawdads Sing was a delightful and compelling read, and might be one of my favorite books that I have read — or will read — in 2019.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Whiskey in a Teacup

I have a THING for cookbooks. Well, at least I USED to have a thing for cookbooks. Now I have a thing for Pinterest and cooking shows with recipes that I can save to Pinterest and read from my iPad. Still and all, the Joy of Cooking cookbook that my mother-in-law gave me many years ago remains one of my most precious possessions. Why, it even tells me how to dress a deer (and I don’t mean dress as in put it in knickers and a cardigan sweater and call it ready for church).

I rarely make it into bookstores these days, but when I visited a bookstore recently with a friend, I found myself wandering through the cookbook section. One of the cookbooks reached out to me: Kris, your southern roots are calling your name, it said.

I have no southern roots, but just as I would like to like to garden, I would love to love my southern roots. Unfortunately, I have never lived south of the Mason-Dixon line. At least not in this life. I am convinced, however, that I was a southern belle in a previous existence.

The book that caught my attention was Whiskey in a Teacup, with the unexpected author being Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon, of course, is best know for being an actor, with my favorite of her movies being Walk the Line. What can I tell you? My southern roots from a different life.

In her introduction, Witherspoon says that her grandmother Dorothea always said that women’s combination of beauty and strength made them “whiskey in a teacup.” I love that description, and I equally love that title for the cookbook.

The cookbook does actually have a fair number of recipes; in fact, there is one or two in nearly every chapter of the book. Good southern recipes, in fact; recipes I’d like to try. But the book is more of a combination of nostalgia and common sense advice on handling an uncivilized world in a gracious manner. Knowing how to make a room beautiful or how to set a pretty table doesn’t make a person incapable of making strong business decisions. Beauty and strenth: whiskey in a teacup.

While I may not feel the need to monogram anything that isn’t moving, I agree that knowing and using (and teaching your children and grandchildren) good manners will make the world a nicer place.  I loved Witherspoon’s memories of growing up, her stories of bringing up children with good manners and a kind spirit, and even her suggested playlists for different occasions.

I enjoyed Whiskey in a Teacup, and plan to rent Walk the Line sometime soon.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: November Road

I, like every other living Baby Boomer on earth, remember exactly where I was when I heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. The Warren Commission’s report, requested by President Lyndon Johnson, did very little to squelch the various conspiracy theories that arose almost immediately. Many people simply didn’t (and don’t) believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy, at least not acting alone. This reviewer is staying silent. But author Lou Berney expressed his opinion, at least as far as his novel November Road goes.

The book’s protagonist Frank Guidry is a lieutenant in the New Orleans mob, answering to mob boss Carlos Marcello. As soon as he hears of the assassination, he realizes Kennedy’s murder was orchestrated by Marcello, and that he unknowingly played a role, though he didn’t know it at the time. Almost immediately, everyone involved in the assassination is being killed one at a time. No witnesses, no fear of being caught.

Guidry immediately begins running from the mob. He knows all their tricks, but he has friends of his own. Still, it’s the mob. As he makes his way to a friend that he thinks will help him, he comes across a car that is broken down on the side of the road carrying a woman and two children He realizes traveling with a woman and kids would be perfect cover.

Meanwhile, housewife Charlotte is living an unhappy life with her kind but alcoholic husband and two kids. She decides to make the big escape on Thanksgiving night as her husband is passed out. The three take the car and head towards LA, where Charlotte’s aunt lives. Their plans are thwarted when their car breaks down along the side of the road. They are rescued by a kind man. As for Frank, he lies completely about who he is and where he’s going.

But it isn’t long before Frank realizes that he actually does care about Charlotte and the kids, and that isn’t part of his plans at all.

Berney develops the story and the personalities of the main characters deliciously. This isn’t a love story, though love is involved. It’s the story of loyalty and greed and the need for love, told in such a way that this reader couldn’t put down the book. Reliving those days of confusion and fear following the assassination was scary, reminding me about that time when the unbelievable actually happened.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Dark Sacred Night

I got a feeling that I can’t let go.

Those are the words in the haunting theme song for the very popular television series featured on Amazon Prime called simply Bosch. The shows are based on a few of the earlier novels written by one of my favorite mystery writers Michael Connelly that feature Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch.

I have been a fan of this particular detective series since The Black Echo, published in 1992. The words in the television theme song describe Detective Bosch’s approach to every murder he covers — he can’t let go until it’s solved. He runs into problems, he breaks rules, he angers both friends and foes, but he gets his job done. He can’t let go.

Over the years, Connelly has been wise enough to make Bosch change with the times. He has grown older; he has been kicked out of police departments; he has faced legal obstacles; he has lost loved ones; he has developed a relationship with his daughter; he’s even forged a relationship with his half-brother, the star of another of Connelly’s writing, Mickey Haller (The Lincoln Lawyer). But his approach to solving the crime, and his tenacity, has never changed.

That’s the reason why despite the fact that Bosch has been featured in 21+ novels, I’m not sick of him. Nevertheless, Connelly’s latest novel featuring Detective Bosch takes a different turn. This time, he meets Detective Renee Ballard, and together, they solve a cold case.

Ballard isn’t some beautiful police detective who runs in high heels. She works for the Los Angeles Police, and has a mysterious past. She sleeps on the beach. She is tough as can be. And when she gets to work one morning and finds a stranger going through files to which he has no access, she is taken aback. It’s Bosch, (now working for the San Fernando Police Department) who has once again gotten a cold case under his skin.

It doesn’t take long before the case gets under her skin as well, and together, Bosch and Ballard are a formidable team. They not only solve the mystery of who killed 15-year-old runaway Daisy Clayton, but in Connelly’s inimitable style, face and handle other issues along the way.

It is this reviewer’s sincere hope that the Ballard Bosch duo is going to stick around, because the two are tough and realistic. The ending hints on further books. Yay!

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: An American Marriage

Ripped from the headlines, and a book I almost didn’t read because of the uneasiness brought about by the topic. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones is the story of a young African American couple whose lives are dramatically impacted by a false accusation.

Celeste and Roy haven’t been married long when they make a visit to his parents. Celeste is an artist and Roy is a successful business executive. On their way home, they stop in a small motel, and do what many couples do — have a verbal disagreement about something or other. Roy storms out of the room to cool down, and runs into an elderly white woman at the ice machine, where they have a brief conversation.

Later that night, the woman is raped by a black man, whom she insists was Roy. Celeste knows that it absolutely wasn’t, because he was with her the entire night. Nevertheless, he is convicted and sent to prison for the crime which he did not commit. Celeste tries to hang on to hope, but as years pass, she turns to her best friend Andre for comfort.

An American Marriage is the story not only about a situation we often hear on the news, but also the story of how love exists under dire situations. The author is a beautiful writer, and while the story line is serious, the book wasn’t depressing. Perhaps that’s because I’m a white woman. But I tend to think it can be attributed in large part to Jones’ beautiful and uplifting use of language.

While I approached the book with some trepidation, I found I couldn’t put it down, and it has stuck with me despite having read it some time ago.

Very good book.

Here is a link to the book.