Friday Book Whimsy: The Chicken Sisters

I will admit that the first thing that drew me to this book was the title. I then learned that the story was about two families who are fighting over fried chicken. Boom! I was hooked, and set out on a chicken adventure — The Chicken Sisters, by K.J. Dell’Antonia.

A small town in Kansas is the home of two fried chicken restaurants run by separate families. Both make fried chicken — one pan fries and the other deep fries. The sisters who now own the restaurants hail from the two families who have been feuding for over 100 years as to who makes the best fried chicken. is it Chicken Mimi’s or is it Chicken Frannie’s.

The feud reached the boiling point when one of the daughters — Amanda — married the son of the other family. It has reached the point where neither restaurant is making money. So Amanda reaches out to a food network that features a program — Food Wars — that pits rival restaurants against each other. The network selects the two restaurants for their program. That’s when the fun and fury begin.

At the same time that Amanda is appealing to Food Wars, her sister Mae loses her NYC television job. She doesn’t particularly care about her mother’s restaurant, but she sees Food Wars as being a stepping stone to a national career.

The competition starts out slowly, but quickly becomes, well, a war. What was once a simple rivalry becomes a mud-slinging and finger pointing disaster. Will this family be saved? Will the restaurants survive? Who will win the chicken war?

The story is mostly a light-hearted look at small town politics and the importance people place on their local restaurants. Underneath, however, there are some important messages about social media, mental illness, and the importance of families.

I enjoyed The Chicken Sisters very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Wife Upstairs

I first read Jane Eyre, By Charlotte Bronte, sometime in high school, and it has remained one of my favorite novels. It has everything a reader needs in a gothic thriller. There is a plain orphan who grows up and is hired by a handsome widower who lives in a mansion in the English countryside. You root for Jane — who runs into obstacles again and again — throughout the book. It has a happy, yet unexpected, ending.

Rachel Hawkins, author of The Wife Upstairs, gives away any surprises simply by comparing her novel to Jane Eyre, something she does in her foreward. She loved Jane Eyre just as I did. Hawkins took on the difficult task of writing a novel with a comparable storyline.

Hawkins’ Jane escapes her past by running away to Birmingham, Alabama. She barely makes a living by walking dogs in a neighborhood of made up of newly-rich 30-somethings. She subsidizes her salary by stealing their jewelry that she knows the bored housewives won’t ever miss. Jane looks at her employers with a mixture of loathing and envy.

That changes when she meets Eddie Rochester, a handsome widower whose wife died in a boating accident. The two of them hit it off, and before she can say McMansion, he has asked her to move in with him and make the house her home. But it’s hard to get past Eddie’s wife’s legacy. Bea was brilliant and beautiful and the owner and CEO of a popular line of home goods and jewelry. Still, his interest in her seems real, and, after all, he gave her free reign to use his credit card. And he has even proposed to her. She begins planning their wedding, when she discovers a big surprise.

Jane Eyre and The Wife Upstairs have similar stories. The difference, however, is that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane was a sympathetic — even loveable — character. The fiery Mr. Rochester was heartbreakingly sad and sexy. The best friends — Helen, in particular — were good women who endured tough lives.

On the other hand, Hawkins’ Jane is inherently unlikeable. Her so-called friends are shallow and back-stabbing. Even Hawkins’ Mr. Rochester is dull and uninteresting. Nevertheless, the author’s writing is very good, and the story — while predictable — still kept me interested.

I can’t enthusiastically proclaim it to be the best thriller I’ve read this year, but I would recommend it to those who like thrillers, even if it’s just to see how the Other Half lives.

Friday Book Whimsy: Better Luck Next Time

Julia Claiborne Johnson wrote one of my favorite books of all time: Be Frank With Me. My fondness for that book made it an easy decision to read Better Luck Next Time, the author’s latest novel.

It’s 1938, and it’s not as easy to get a divorce as it is nowadays. So rich women with cheating or abusive husbands came to a dude ranch in Reno, Nevada, where they spend the necessary six weeks to become a Nevada resident at which time they can easily divorce their husbands. The dude ranch — the Flying Leap — provideed women with a pleasurable experience while they waited out the six weeks. The ranch catered exclusively to these women.

Ward came to work at the ranch after his family lost all of their money in the stock market crash. He is handsome, fun, and knows how to keep a secret. And these women have lots of secrets to keep. He became particularly close to Nina — whose time at the dude ranch wasn’t her first. Nina not only befriends Ward, but also young Emily, who has left her abusive husband in San Francisco, and a teenage daughter who is taking her father’s side.

Nina teaches Emily about life, fun, and friendship. With Ward’s help, Emily experiences life in a way she never thought possible.

The author develops likeable characters with interesting lives. I was rooting for the band of women who are leaving their comfortable lives with their wealthy families and learning how to live on their own.

I enjoyed the novel very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie almost since I learned to read. Dame Christie helped define my taste in literature. I learned to love the mystery book genre by following the activities of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Tuppence and Tommy taught me how to work together as husband and wife to solve a murder, a skill that I shockingly haven’t had the opportunity to put to use.

And yet, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about Agatha Christie’s personal mystery. In 1926, Mrs. Christie went missing for 10 days. She drove away from her house just after lunch, and her car was discovered not far from her home. Mrs. Christie was no where to be found, and her winter coat was in the back seat, despite the frigid weather. It became a worldwide news story. She was later found at a hotel not very far from her home, and claimed she had amnesia. Though many theories were put forth, the mystery was never satisfactorily solved.

Author Marie Benedict presents her own theory in the historical novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. Ms. Benedict’s theory is as good as — and perhaps better — than any I’ve heard. And it made for a clever story.

Agatha Christie was born into a upper class family in England. In 1914, she married handsome Archie Christie after dating only a few months. In 1916, she wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Her career was off and running.

At first the marriage was a good one. She gave birth to a daughter, and the two were very happy. And then Archie became bored with marriage, jealous of her success, and began a relationship with another woman. Mrs. Christie suspected his daliance, and shortly after, she disappeared.

Just like in an Agatha Christie’s novel, Benedict’s story is carefully laid out, doling out hints and secrets like Hercule Poirot. While we all know how the story ends, it was fun to read about one person’s solution to the mystery.

I loved this novel, and recommend it to mystery readers, particularly any Agatha Christie fans. As you well know, her writing career went on for many more years.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Authenticity Project

One of my favorite books from 2020 was Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby. I reviewed it here. Based on my strong recommendation, my sister Bec read it. I asked her what she thought, and she told me, though she thought the writing was amazing, the story was too depressing for this period when life itself is difficult. Fair enough, I told her. But I went on, I have a book recommendation for you that will be perfect.

I had just finished reading The Authenticity Project, and the delightful story of friendship and, well authenticity, left me feeling good about the world. I knew it would strike the perfect cord for her and anyone else who needs cheering up during this difficult period. The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley, is story of unrelated people with secrets to share who find each other through a notebook,

SeptuagenarianĀ Julian Jessop is an artist who has been driven crazy from loneliness since his wife died. Even after five years, he mostly stays in his junky apartment and has pushed away all of his former friends. He is convinced that everyone is living a false life what with Instagram and Twitter and Tik Tok. So he decides to create the Authenticity Project. Using a plain lined spiral notebook, he explains that whoever finds the notebook should write the TRUE story of his or her life. He starts it off by writing about his own sadness at the loss of his wife. He drops it off in a nearby coffee shop.

Monica — the owner of the shop — finds the notebook, and decides to participate. She writes her truth, and leaves it out on a table. From there, the notebook begins its journey that ends up changing people’s lives.

The book’s premise is interesting, and the author’s characters are quirky and unforgettable. There is a drug and alcohol addict who is determined to change his life by sobering up. There is a new mother who is exhausted from caring for her baby, but paints a perfect life on Instagram. You get the picture. The notebook encourages honesty.

The Authenticity Project was a pleasant read, and left me thinking about characters in a way I normally don’t.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Our Darkest Night

There have been about 1,207,436 novels written about World War II in the past 15 years. I’ve read a lot of them, because I find that period of time interesting and tragic. Some have been bad; many have been good. I picked up Our Darkest Night because I found the plot description interesting. Moreover, while I have read many books about England and France and Germany during World War II, I haven’t read many about Italian Jews.

I will also admit that I was interested in the novel because I enjoyed author Jennifer Robson’s novel The Gown, a novel (I reviewed it here) that took place just after WWII, and gave the back story about Then-Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. The Gown was a wonderful book, and I was optimistic about Our Darkest Night.

I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed the book very much.

Antonina lives with her family in Venice. It’s 1943, and as the Germans appear to be losing the war, things are getting even more difficult and frightening for Jews in Italy. In an effort to keep his daughter safe, Antonina’s father takes a drastic step to keep his daughter safe. He, with the help of a friend who is a priest, convinces Nico Gerardi, a Catholic man (who left the seminary to help care for his family’s farm,) to pose as Antonina’s new husband, and take her to the farm near a small Italian village. Antonina reluctantly agrees to this arrangement. They not only have to convince the German authorities that they are married, but they also have to convince Nico’s family, who can’t know the truth for their own safety.

The novel could have been satisfying as simply a romantic story. Robson, however, takes the reader to the dark side of the closing days of the war. It wouldn’t have been as good a novel had she not done so. It was World War II, after all. The descriptions of life in concentration camps was disturbing and terribly sad. The story paints a clear picture of the strength of family and love.

While I know the Germans were the bad guys in WWII, it would be nice if an author could resist caricatures of German soldiers. There must have been some who recognized the evil with which they were surrounded. Having said that, I was happy to see a Catholic priest presented in a positive light for a change!

I highly recommend this book, as I did The Gown.

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Friday Book Whimsy: Confessions on the 7:45

I love trains. I love fast trains, slow trains, A-trains, commuter trains, cross-country trains, Polar Express trains. You name it; I love it. My fondness for train travel leads to me liking books — particularly mystery books — set on trains. Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train, The 4:50 From Paddington.

Prior to now, I had never read a single book by Lisa Unger, a prolific mystery writer. But the title of her recent book, Confessions on the 7:45, caught my attention. I love trains and I love confessions.

Selena lives a storybook life with a great job, her handsome husband Graham, and two great kids. Except is her life a romance or a horror novel? Following a hunch, her nannycam catches her husband Graham having sex with, who else? The nanny. This fact won’t be posted on the artificial life she characterizes on social media. She’ll keep this to herself.

Except, when she gets on the 7:45 commuter train, she immediately notices an attractive woman sitting all by herself. For reasons Selena can’t explain, she’s drawn to the woman. She sits down next to her and strikes up a conversation. Before she knows it, she is confessing that her husband is having an affair with the nanny. The woman — Martha — confesses her secrets as well. And then the train ride is over, and the two go their own separate ways.

Over the next few days, Selena tries to figure out if she should give her cheating husband another chance. In the meantime, she begins getting text messages from Martha, even though Selena never gave Martha her telephone number.

The author lays out the rest of the story very well, dribbling pieces of information to the reader little by little, allowing us to try and figure the curveballs she delivers until the very end of the book. I found Unger’s writing extremely readable, and the characters satisfyingly complex and real.

While I had not read any books by Lisa Unger in the past, I will be reading her in the future.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Moonflower Murders

With a title like Moonflower Murders, I would have picked up this book even if it hadn’t been authored by one of the cleverest modern mystery writers, Anthony Horowitz. And the icing on the cake is that it is the second in the so-called Magpie Murders Series. Magpie Murders was one of my favorite books of 2017, and I reviewed it here.

Horowitz’s second Magpie murder once again features his protagonist of sorts Atticus Pund. I say “of sorts” because Atticus Pund is the fictional detective in a series of murder mysteries written by Horowitz’s own fictional author Alan Conway. Are you confused yet?

Alan Conway was murdered in Magpie Murders, and that mystery was solved in part by Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland. When this book opens, Ryeland has quit the editing business and she, along with her love interest, is running a small hotel in Greece. She is second-guessing her choice when a Mr. and Mrs. Trehearne arrive at the hotel. They tell her that their daughter Cecily disappeared the same day as a murder took place at their hotel Farlingaye Hall located in Sussex, England. The hotel handyman was arrested for the murder. It seems Cecily had just finished reading a mystery novel by Alan Conway featuring detective Atticus Pund based on that hotel. Something she read in that novel made her believe the arrest was an error and she believed she knew the real murderer. Unfortunately, she went missing before she could tell what she knew. The Trehearnes ask Ryeland to come to England and, using her familiarity with Conway’s writing, try to solve the mystery.

Horowitz’s writing is exceptional, and his stories are always so unique and unpredictable. For example, included as part of Moonflower Murders is the entire Atticus Pund novel written by Alan Conway that Cecily read. Since we are able to read the same book as Cecily, it allows us to try and solve the murder as well.

I failed.

I always look forward to a new novel by Anthony Horowitz, and Moonflower Murders did not disappoint. I highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Bright Lands

I really don’t like to write bad book reviews. I know that just because I dislike a book doesn’t mean that many others won’t like the book very much. Based on my own experiences, however, I think that I might dissuade someone from reading this book and that doesn’t seem fair. In fact, I wish someone would read the book based on this review, and offer me a contrary opinion. I would love to know what I’m missing.

The publishers offered a general description that intrigued me. High school football in a small town in Texas. Having grown up in a small football-loving town myself, and understanding full well the prominence in which football players are placed in these communities, I was up for a rip-roaring read. I was totally unprepared for what I read.

Joel Whitley moved to New York City years before when being a gay man in Bentley, Texas, became unbearable. He was relatively happy until he received a mysterious telephone call from his younger brother, Dylan, who happens to be the star quarterback of the hometown team, and a very gifted player. The vague telephone conversation led Joel to believe that his brother was in trouble. Joel traveled to Bentley to see what he can do.

He almost immediately runs into the deputy sheriff, Starsha Clark, who not only was his first girlfriend, but whose brother vanished years before and was never found. Hours later, Dylan also disappears.

What follows is one of the most crazy, mixed-up, and dark stories I’ve ever read. It is called a thriller, but it is a mish-mash of mystery and thriller with a very confusing dash of horror. I am not a prude, but the amount of sordid sex that was part of the story — and I’m talking about sex involving minors — was enough to make me close the book.

Except I didn’t. Because author John Fram’s debut novel, while horrifying, was also quite well written. When I would be about to give up, he would write something that made me feel as though I simply HAD to find out what the Bright Lands were.

Having said all of the above, I simply can’t recommend this book. Still, if you have the stomach to read the book, I would love to receive comments on what you thought.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: One By One

Agatha Christie’s mysteries were the first I read when I graduated from the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden level of the genre that I still love the best — mysteries. While I must admit that my favorite Agatha Christie book is and will always be Murder on the Orient Express, a close second is And Then There Were None. Imagine being in a secluded place with nine other strangers, having been invited by an unknown person. Imagine further how frightening it would be when one by one, they are being murdered.

Undoubtedly, prolific mystery author Ruth Ware had Dame Christie’s novel in mind when she wrote her spooky One By One. In this novel, a group of people working for a high tech start-up company that offers an app that allows you to not only learn what famous people are listening to at any point in time, but also allows you to listen to the music at the same time. The company — called Snoop — is led by a former couple who, while no longer a couple, still work together and are on the brink of great success.

The cofounders organize a company retreat at an isolated mountain lodge in the French Alps with all of the employees in attendance. It is a time for the employees to learn more about the company. More important, there will be team-building activities like snowing and snowshoeing. Things are going smoothly until there are whispers about one of the cofounders underhandedly trying to sell the company.

Adding to the distress, unexpected weather, including an avalanche that buries the nearby village, leaves the people helplessly stuck in a freezing cold lodge with no electricity or cell service. Still, the lodging is top-notch, and the food is delicious. Things aren’t looking too bad until people start dying, one by one.

Just as in Christie’s novel, they know someone among them is a murderer. No one is to be trusted. Who is the killer?

Ware provides just the right amount of tension as the people try to figure out who they can trust. In the end, this reader was caught off guard by the killer and the reasons for the murders. The book kept me up past bedtime as I tried to figure out who was next in line.

This is the best novel by the author that I have read. Agatha Christie would be satisfied.

Here is a link to the book.