Thursday, April 23, 2015

Just Jennifer

The Brink, Stories by Austin Bunn


In this debut collection of ten stories, screenwriter Bunn navigates the human condition with all its flaws and messiness but reminds the reader of an innate goodness, that all is not lost.  Though none of Bunn’s characters appear to have anything in common---they are to have anything in common---they are all different ages, in different settings, some times in different centuries, there is an interconnectedness to them as each faces odds that they feel at the time are insurmountable, but that offer hope, often in most unexpected places, ways or people.  Words and props are carefully chosen, the sentences sometimes sparse.  Visceral and startling, Bunn’s stories will fascinate and mystify as they form a story from which no one will be able to look away. 

Just Jennifer

Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn (Harper Perennial)


Many young actors never make the bridge to adult actors, whether due to lack of industry interest once the “cute factor” is gone or through personal missteps or tragedy (drugs, pregnancy, jail or death); not so with Amber Tamblyn.  Not only was she able to continue a successful movie and television career, but she has mined her experiences and those of legendary actors to use as material for her other passion: poetry.  In this, her third collection of poetry, Tamblyn pays homage to the women whose careers, and in many cases their lives met tragic ends.  Some names will be familiar:  Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Heather O’Rourke and my favorite childhood star, Anissa Jones (Buffy from Family Affair).  Poems about less familiar names will arouse readers curiosity and have then turning to Google to learn more about their careers and realize they do know who the actress is after all, if Tamblyn’s verse doesn’t provide enough clues.  Illustrations and images add to the poems except in a couple of cases where they obscure the words a bit.  Neither maudlin nor overwrought, these poems celebrate the lives of these women rather than their tragedies, but face reality and their fates nonetheless.  An unusual but startling tribute written by an actress whose time may have come but is by no means near the end. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Just Jennifer

Eeny Meeny by M.J. Arlidge (NAL, June 2015)


In this debut thriller, a UK import, Detective Inspector Helen Grace investigates one of the most bizarre crimes she has ever heard of: a young couple is abducted, locked in a drained pool and left with a gun and the instructions that only one of them will be released, but in order to win your freedom, you must kill your fellow captive in a cruel, gruesome game, one in which there are no winners.  While investigating this crime, a second abduction occurs and another until Helen Grace sees a link between at least one of each pair of victims, and that link is her.  Now the game is personal but who will the final players---and survivor--- be?  Helen Grace is one of the most interesting detectives to come along in a while.  She has demons deep inside that she cannot and will not release and secrets that could cost her her life if she is not careful.  She is also smart and strong and in some ways fearless.  This is a book not to be started unless there is time to read it through to the end.  M.J. Arlidge will be a welcomed new author on this side of the Atlantic with her follow-up Helen Grace thriller due before the end of the year.  

Just Jennifer

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll (Simon & Schuster, May 2015)


Ani FaNelli has come a long way from her roots just outside of Philadelphia: she has a coveted job as a magazine writer in Manhattan and is about to marry the man of her dreams, handsome and with a trust fund to book.  But Ani’s life is a carefully created façade, a façade that Ani is afraid will crumble exposing her past.  So why, does she wonder, did she agree to participate in a documentary that details the events of her freshman year in high school, events that have shaped Ani and transformed her from TifAni into someone always careful of her appearance, speech and even associations.  A startling encounter with her former English teacher, Andrew Larson makes Ani even more reflective on her decision to participate in the documentary which, after a return weekend to the Main Line suburbs, causes her to reevaluate her life as it is now and how it could be.  Flashbacks depict a much different image of Ani than she projects, all leading up to a final, startling revelation that makes Ani a more sympathetic character when readers first meet her.  A hard debut novel to classify Luckiest Girl Alive cleverly captures readers’ attention and once it is held, takes them on a ride filled with twists and turns, a ride from which there is no return.

Just Jennifer

Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow (William Morrow, May 2015)

This sophomore book by the author of Indiscretion follows Wylie Rose and his obsession with Cesca Bonet from the time he falls out of her tree as a pre-teen.  Wylie meets the Bonet children, Cesca, Aurelio, and the twins through their uncle Roger as he is on the cusp of becoming a teenager; he finds himself obsessed with the idea of Cesca and longs for his next chance to see her.  Cesca has ruined Wylie for any other girl, teenager or woman, as he can never quite get her out of his mind.  The bohemian existence the Bonet children live is much different than Wylie’s more traditional, though privileged, upbringing.  Their parents are for the most part estranged, their mother living in New York City, their father an artist in Barcelona.  Whether consciously or not, Wylie befriends Aurelio, an artist giving him more chances to be in Cesca’s aura, but Aurelio is much more serious about both his art and his relationship with Wylie.  Through the 1960’s into the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, Wylie continues to obsess over Cesca and grasps at the possibility that they have a future together.  Dubow’s sentences and prose are gorgeous and written with an almost dreamlike quality reflected in the title.  Marriage and relationships are often at the forefront and the only healthy relationship that Wylie is witness to is an older couple, an artist Paolo and his wife Esther, proof that lasting, honest love is possible.  As frustrated as readers may become with Wylie, they will be begin to wonder if we each create our own obsessive cycle from which cannot  be broken at one time or another.  Aurelio is a character readers will ache for and hope he is able to find some peace and his place in the world at long last.  The style of the novel is reminiscent of late 19th or early 20th century classics as Wylie, and the reader, are drawn into the glamorous life of the Hamptons and the artists who inhabited the colonies and into the eternal quest to love and to be loved in return.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Just Jennifer

The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer (Scribner, April 2015)


After being discharged from the Navy in 1954, Bill Blair gets in his car and drives south from San Francisco where he finds a lot with a might oak tree in Potola Valley, what is now known as Silicon Valley.  In short order, Bill proposes to Penny Greenway, builds a substantial house and produces four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James within ten years.  Bill is as dedicated to his family as he is to his career as a physician, but Penny is more wrestles and dissatisfied with her role as dutiful wife and mother, especially after the birth of James.  Though she performs these roles well, she yearns for something else---to be an artist---and slowly disengages herself and distances herself from her family, first moving into a shed on their property and then to Taos at a time when women throughout the United States are testing and breaking away from these heretofore traditional roles.  The narrative is effectively and beautifully laid out, alternating between sections describing the Blairs as the children were growing up, and the dynamics among the children in a group and as pairs, and sections told from the point of view of each adult child, their relationships with their siblings as adults, especially James who has just returned unexpectedly from Oregon, as well as the family each has created, families traditional and not so traditional, but each nonetheless influenced by their upbringing.  These chapters take place about three years after Bill’s death, Penny still all but estranged from her children and focus on James’s return.  James, who has wondered around the Northwest since he left college, is almost certain he is ready to embark on a permanent relationship, but is in need of one thing: money.  Money that can be gotten if he can get his mother to agree to sell the house the four children own jointly with her, but that can only be sold if Penny and one child agree.  As each child struggles with the effects James’s return has on each and where they would go from here if the house that anchored them was no longer heir’s---or even standing.  Each character is nuanced and believable, first as a child, then a teen, young adult and adult and though children and their psychological and physical well-being is a resounding theme throughout the book, it is interesting that the one [living] character, Penny, still has the strongest hold on each, sometimes unconsciously, and is the one least seen.  The social history of women from the mid-1950’s thought the sixties and seventies is subtly woven into this family history and will feel familiar to many readers who witnessed it firsthand.  This family saga, much like those of Jane Smiley, has sentences and paragraphs that are so carefully written, readers will be left in awe and breathless.

Just Jennifer

A Good Killing by Allison Leotta (Touchstone, May 2015)


Federal sex-crimes prosecutor Anna Curtis has just called of her wedding when she receives a call from an old friend from her hometown in Michigan: the long-time, much beloved high school coach has been killed in a car crash and Anna’s sister Jody is accused of the crime.  All outward signs point to Jody’s guilt: she has a crush on the coach in high school, was often seen arguing through the years with the coach’s wife, a woman who graduated only two years ahead of Jody and appears to have been with Owen Fowler just hours before he died.  Anna is confident of her sister’s innocence and with the help of longtime friend and Afghan War veteran Cooper Bolden, Anna finds herself not only investigating Coach Fowler’s death but a town full of secrets and the perfect façade it has created.  When Anna gets too close to the truth, she touches more than one nerve and the town turns against the Curtis sisters as Anna searches for a strategy before the justice system fails her sister more than Anna feels it already has.  Torn between returning to the life she had built for herself and staying with what is left behind of her family in her hometown, Anna knows there is more to Jody’s story and needs to decide how much she wants to know and how much truth she can live with.  Fast-paced and tightly plotted, the narrative effectively shifts between Jody’s story---beginning in high school---and Anna’s story as she tries to save her sister, and maybe in the process, herself as well. 

Just Jennifer

Burnt River by Karin Salvalaggio (Minotaur Books, May 2015)


In the second novel featuring Detective Macy Greeley, almost two years have passed and Macy and her toddler son Luke are living with her mother, Macy still uncertain where she stands with his father Ray, the head of the Montana state police.  After a call from the governor, Macy finds herself in the small northern Montana town of Wilmington Creek to investigate the death of Afghanistan war veteran John Dalton.  John was shot in an alleyway outside a bar and though nothing about it points to a random shooting, including a menacing text sent from John’s phone to his Alzheimer suffering mother, Macy can’t seem to find anyone with any reason to want John dead.  His twin sister Jessie has plenty of secrets, but as Jessie is a recovering addict, Macy isn't sure that any of Jessie’s secrets would help in the investigation.  A series of wildfires and a hotter than normal summers with less rain than usual threaten to uncover secrets hidden in the valley, secrets that may just crack the case wide open.  Macy knows she has walked into a hornet’s nest but isn't afraid what she might stir up in Wilmington Creek. What Macy doesn't expect is the personal ramifications her search for a killer will have.  Fast paced, Burnt River may not keep readers guessing, but has enough twists and turns to keep them engaged and pages turning.  Some readers may be a little disappointed in Macy as she seemingly trades in one set of relationship problems for another, but will cheer as she does what she knows is right and deep down inside knows is better for everyone, herself and Luke included. 

Just Jennifer

Early Warning by Jane Smiley (Knopf, May 2015)


The second book in Jane Smiley’s trilogy begins with the funeral of patriarch Walter Langdon as his children gather at their family home, a farm in Iowa.  Beginning in 1953, each chapter chronicles one year in the life of Langdon’s five children, their spouses, children and extended families.  The children have scattered throughout the country, to California, Washington DC, the New York metro area and beyond.  The Cold War will have more effects on the family than they suspect, the 1960’s and 1970’s will prove liberating for some of the members of the Langdon family.  The Vietnam War will break the hearts of the family but leave a surprise in its wake.  The next generation begins to take its place in the adult world, providing great joy as well as sadness for the family as each Langdon child struggles to find their place in this new world.  No one tells a family saga the way Pulitzer Prize winning Smiley can; she reaches into the heart and soul of each of her characters, exploring their deepest recesses, rewarding readers with a family saga for all times. 

Just Jennifer

The Art of Blind Baking by Sarah Vaughan (St. Martin’s Press, May 5, 2015)


Kathleen Eaden became an iconic cookbook author, life-stylist and supermarket owner in the mid-sixties; she died last year and her empire is looking for someone to put a new face on Mrs. Eaden.  Five very different contestants gather at Kathleen’s home to vie for the title by baking their way through dcakes pies, tarts, biscuits (cookies) and a formal tea tray.  Jenny has been struggling with her weight for years and is now struggling with her marriage as her husband becomes obsessed with his weight and exercise; Vicki has given up her life to be a stay-at-home mom and is still very much under the disapproving eye of her mother.  Karen, from all outward appearances has the perfect life: the perfect husband, son and house, but it takes the slightest thing to crack her veneer.  Mike is a recent widower raising his two children on his own and finally Claire, who has given up her hopes and dreams to provide a life for her daughter.  Together, these five contestants form unusual bonds and confess things to strangers that they will barely admit to themselves.  Little by little, as their recipes come together and final products are produced, each person gets better perspective into their own life and gains a little bit of courage to soldier on a little better off than before.  Full of heart, this debut novel is as warm and inviting as the baked goods created by the next Kathleen Eaden. 

Just Jennifer

Hyacinth Girls by Lauren Frankel (Hogarth, May 2015)

Rebecca has been raising her best friend Joyce’s daughter Callie sine Joyce was killed in a car accident.  Now at thirteen, the quiet, polite girl is accused of bullying a classmate.  Rebecca cannot believe the accusations and with the help of Callie’s friends, gets Callie exonerated.  Soon after, Callie’s alleged victim leaves school and Callie begins receiving threatening notes from the girl after which Callie’s demeanor and behavior change in a way that Rebecca cannot understand, but in a way that brings to mind Rebecca’s own teenage years when she and Joyce were best friends and her cousin’s fiancé’s best friend went missing and found drowned and the secrets that arose from these events, secrets that still haunt Rebecca and have unsettling effects on Callie.  As Callie’s truths emerge, so does the story of Rebecca and Joyce, a story that is eerily reflected in Callie’s story, a story that it is time Callie learned, one that may help her gain a better sense of herself.  Both heartfelt and brutal, The Hyacinth Girls will touch something in everyone who remembers being young.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Just Jennifer

Read Bottom Up by Neel Shah and Skye Chatham


Girl meets boy.  Boy e-mails girl.  Girl and boy date.  Girl e-mails best friend.  Boy e-mails best friend. Girl misunderstands boys e-mail and ignores succeeding e-mails.  Such is dating in the electronic age, almost communication by proxy, if you will. Taking the epistolary novel to a whole new level Read Bottom Up chronicles the urban relationship of Elliott and Madeline, their communications with each other and the often unseen parts of relationships, the conversations (e-mails) between best friends (Madeline and Emily, Elliott and David) where the relationship is dissected and all the insecurities, hurt and anxieties surface.  In writing this book, Shah wrote all the male parts and Chatham the female, neither seeing the “behind the scenes” dynamics between the two women or two men.  With no traditional narrative, the book is almost entirely character driven; everything that is learned is learned through e-mails.  This is a quick, fast-paced read with a minimum of details, yet you will somehow become invested in these characters, their relationships and the bittersweet, somewhat unexpected ending.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Just Jennifer

The Healthy Mind Cookbook: Big Flavor Recipes to Enhance Brain Function, Mood, Memory and Mental Clarity by Rebecca Katz with Mat Edelson

Forgetful in all its various forms from dementia to Alzheimer’s to simply just having too much on our minds affects us all at one time or another and most people have low periods every so often, sometimes for longer times than others. In their latest book, chef and wellness speaker Rebecca Katz and science and health writer Mat Edelson explore how food can contribute, both positively and negatively, to stress, anxiety or depression and how certain foods can improve our memory, cognition and learning.  Before even getting to the recipes, a chapter entitled “Culinary Pharmacy” enumerates a list of foods, herbs and spices, listing which mental function it best aids (such as mood, mental energy, focus, etc.) and explains how and why each food is important.  The next chapter discusses FASS (Fat, Acid, Salt and Sweet), which type of each is Katz’s choice, its function in cooking and health benefits of each.  After laying the groundwork, Katz provides dozens of recipes that incorporate these principles, starting with flavorful and seasonal soups (Roasted Asparagus Soup with Pistachio Cream and Summer’s Best Roasted Tomato and Red Bell Pepper Soup).  The Vegetable chapter contains recipes for interesting salads (Arugula Salad with Roasted Cherries and Goat Cheese), grain based salads (Kale Quinoa Salad with Red Grapes) as well as cooked vegetables (Roasted Orange Sesame Carrots).  A chapter with main course meat and seafood dishes follow and an “Anytime Foods” chapter containing nibbles, savory muffins (make the base and mix and match the flavors and additions---it works!) and dishes for brunch or a light supper.  Salsa, sauce and vinaigrette recipes are provided to add extra flavor to any dish with a handy chart pairing these “Dollops” with preceding recipes.  “Tonic and Elixirs” and “Sweet Bites” recipes provide the finishing touches for any meal.  While most of the ingredients can be found in well-stocked grocery stores, a list of resources is a welcomed appendix as is a robust bibliography.  More than just a cookbook, Katz and Edelson’s book can be used as a guidebook on the road to mental clarity and improved memory and mood---something everyone can use from time to time.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Just Jennifer

Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man by Robert Christgau (Dey Street Books, February 2015)


Bob Christgau , self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, was a music critic with Esquire and The Village Voice for over thirty years.  Christgau’s memoir not only the story of his life, but the story of a city told through art, books, film and most importantly music.  Born in Flushing, Queens, Christgau was a “record nerd” growing up, a label that would serve him well throughout his life.  A graduate of J School, Christgau began his career as a police reporter and sports reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger in the mid-sixties.  From there, Christgau, gean free-lancing and the rest is history.  At that time, Christgau reconnected with Ellen, who he knew from junior high, also a rock critic, a partnership that would be long-lasting.  Not suited to each other for marriage, Christgau eventually married writer Carola Dibbell, with whom he traveled to Honduras in 1985 to adopt their daughter.  There was an assurance, almost arrogance, to Christgau’s reviews and essays that carries over to his memoir.  His story often focuses on the minutia of his personal life and relationships and not as much as the changes, social and cultural that he witnessed in his fifty year career, sometimes by his own admission “But enough about rock criticism.  Let’s talk about me.”

Just Jennifer

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon (Dey Street Books, February 2015)


In 1981, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (then boyfriend, husband of almost thirty years, now ex-husband) founded Sonic Youth, a post punk rock New York band that broke up in the 2011 with the break-up of her marriage.  But that’s not where Kim Gordon’s artistic, musical life began.  Brown was born in Rochester, but her family moved to Lost Angels when she was five where her father got a job as a professor at UCLA.  Growing up, Brown was tormented by her oldest brother Keller, a schizophrenic, something that made her reserved and introspective, music and art being an outlet for her emotions.  Brown’s music was heavily influenced by her father’s jazz collection: Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and especially John Coltrane.  After spending a year in Hawaii and another in Hong Kong, the family moved back to California when Brown was fourteen.  After two years of college in Santa Monica , Brown transferred to a school in Toronto, eventually making her way to Manhattan in 1980.  It was in this gritty, almost bankrupt New York, piled high with garbage due to perpetual sanitation strikes, where Brown was able to just be, working at a midtown bookstore and a Greenwich Village restaurant while absorbing the art and music that was indicative of downtown at the time.  As Brown chronicles her relationship with Thurston and Sonic Youth, she also chronicles a Manhattan, a New York City that is not longer.  She refers to modern day Manhattan as a “caricature of itself” as people try to be what came naturally to Kim Brown and her contemporaries.  After the birth of her daughter Coco, Brown decided to leave Manhattan and headed to Northampton, Massachusetts where Sonic Youth and Brown’s feminist philosophies had a following at the Seven Sisters’ schools.  Brown’s memoir is more than the story of her life and her band, it is the story of an ear, much like a sociological study (her father was a sociology professor) Brown’s tale is honest as she traces her career from art to music to fashion, all the while maintaining her feminist’s sensibilities and strong sense of self. 

Just Jennifer

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova


Boston police officer Joe O’Brien is pretty set at 44.  He knows he’ll never be rich, but is comfortable with his life and his wife Rose and their four children.  When Joe starts forgetting things, falling down and showing unusual displays of anger, Rosie insists on an examination, one that leads Joe to a neurologist and a devastating diagnosis of Huntington Disease, for which there is no cure, only the promise of a frustratingly slow death.  As devastating as this news is for Joe and Rosie, it is even more so when they realize that this disease is a genetic disorder and that each of their children has a 50% chance of carrying the gene that will one day be a diagnosis of Huntington’s for them as well.  As twenty-one year old Katie, the baby in the family, watches her older sister, a ballerina and her eldest brother, soon to be a first-time father, submit to the counselling and genetic testing, she grapples with whether she wants to know or not.  She has just become seriously involved with non-Irish, non-Catholic Felix Martin who wants her to move to Portland with him.  But how can Katie, who can’ t even bring herself to introduce Felix to her family, commit to a relationship knowing, or not knowing, her fate.  Though the story focuses mostly on Joe’s and Katie’s struggles, the effects this disease has on each member of the family is carefully rendered as the O’Brien’s close ranks, even as each adult begins his or her own life, to help cope, as a family with all they will have to endure.  

Just Jennifer

Benefit of the Doubt by Neal Griffin (Forge, May 2015)


After almost killing a suspect, Oakland, California policeman Ben Sawyer returns to the small Wisconsin town where he and his wife Alex grew up, where her father was the chief of police and gave Ben a job and a chance to start again.  Never popular with his colleagues, things get even worse when Lars has a debilitating stroke leaving Ben to the mercies of a new chief and a department Ben feels he can’t trust, for more than one reason.  The Newburg PD is involved in a drug trafficking on the scale Ben would expect in a larger city, making the department ripe for corruption, or so Ben feels.  When a local café/bookstore owner is murdered, Alex is arrested and surely set up for the murder. With only a young Latina copy Tia Suarez on his side, Ben works quickly, though unofficially, as he has been removed from the force, to uncover a plot seventeen years in the making, the truth it tells, if uncovered, could destroy Ben’s family more than imagined.  Authentically detailed with a vulnerable and at times uncertain hero, this debut thriller is carefully plotted and doesn’t give anything up until it is time, making for a fast-paced, though not a quick, as every detail must be absorbed, read. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Just Jennifer

New Cookbooks for Spring

As thoughts turn to warmer weather, fresh peas, fava beans, strawberries and firing up the barbecue, look for these new books from two Penguin Random House imprints:

Mastering Pasta: The Art and Practice of Handmade Pasta, Gnocchi, and Risotto by Marc Vetri and David Joachim (Ten Speed Press, Mar 17, 2015)  Award-winning chef Marc Vetri provides instructions and recipes for many varieties and shapes of pasta as well as sauces best suited for each shape in his latest cookbook.


My New Roots: Inspired Plant-Based Recipes for Every Season by Sarah Britton (Clarkson Potter, Mar 31, 2015) Over 100 whole food, vegetarian recipes from Britton’s popular blog www.mynewroots.com.

Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto by Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay (Ten Speed Press, Apr 7, 2015) Aaron and Stacy Franklin opened a barbecue trailer in Austin Texas in 2009 having no idea how popular it would become; the pair has won every major barbecue award and their recipes legendary.

Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook by Kristen Miglore and Amanda Hesser (Ten Speed Press, Apr 7, 2015) Over 100 recipes from superstar chefs from the Genius Recipes column on the Food52 website will change not only the way you cook, but the way you think about recipes and ingredients.

Brew Better Beer: Learn (and Break) the Rules for Making IPAs, Sours, Pilsners, Stouts, and More by Emma Christensen (Ten Speed Press, May 5, 2015)  Photographs illustrate basic beer brewing techniques and encourage readers to experiment with different infusions. Recipes using the home brews are also included.

Straight Up Tasty: Meals, Memories, and Mouthfuls from My Travels by Adam Richman (Clarkson Potter, May 12, 2015) The first cookbook from the host of Man vs. Food shares over 150 recipes from his travels around the country including food from roadside stands.

Fried Chicken: Recipes for the Crispy, Crunchy, Comfort-Food Classic by Rebecca Lang (Ten Speed Press, May 26, 2015) More than 50 variations on this family favorite are presented just in time for picnic season!


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Just Jennifer

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney


“Where is she?” and “Why me?” are two questions central to Lou Berney’s latest novel, questions to which there may be no satisfactory answers.  PI Wyatt is content doing background checks of prospective employees for Las Vegas casinos and living a quiet life with his girlfriend Laurie.  One of his employees hires Wyatt to go to Oklahoma City to check in on a family member who is being harassed after inheriting a local club.  Wyatt is more than reluctant to return to Oklahoma City where twenty-five years ago he was the only survivor, inexplicably, in the massacre of movie theater employees where Wyatt worked.  Returning to Oklahoma City brings back all of Wyatt’s fears and emotions he thought he had dealt with ---or buried and without realizing it, makes him look hard at the life he is living.  The same summer, sisters Genevieve and Julianna where at the State Fair in Oklahoma City: twelve-year-old Julianna saw her older sister disappear into the crowd and has never seen her since.  Genevieve is considered to be a murder victim, but Julianna, now a nurse, cannot let go of Genevieve until she learns what happened and begins an obsessive search for her sister.  In two gripping, painfully rendered narratives, Julianna and Wyatt each search for a missing part of themselves, a search that provides no easy answers, if any at all.  Each story is distinct and separate, happening independently of each other, the two main characters crossing paths only once, but share the echo of longing of what was, what could have been and what never will be as these two damaged people struggle for a modicum of peace if not closure.  Two haunting tales, Berney’s characters are sure to linger in the minds of readers long after the last pate.

Just Jennifer


The Daughter by Jane Shemilt


Physician Jenny Malcolm feels she has it all: a strong family practice with loyal patients, three healthy, well-adjusted teenagers and a neurosurgeon husband who is at the top of his field.  One night Jenny’s fifteen-year-old daughter Naomi doesn’t come home after her school play and the life Jenny thinks is so perfect begins to show cracks, cracks that go all the way to the foundation and eventually making Jenny realizes she mightn’t have been as astute and aware where her family is concerned as she should have been.  The police launch a nationwide search and Jenny is certain Naomi was kidnapped, but as secrets about Naomi, her twin brothers and even her father begin to emerge, her disappearance takes on new dimensions and Jenny must face a Naomi she never knew, a Naomi who may have just walked away from her life.  The narrative shifts between the time just before and after Naomi’s disappearance to a year later and a Jenny who is still trying to piece together that night, what led to the events and what shape her life will take from here.  Jenny is determined not to let her daughter go, even as painful truths are revealed.  Strands of lives are teased out and tangled together, creating a truth that is even more tragic and heart wrenching than imagined.  

Friday, March 6, 2015

Just Jennifer

You Can Trust Me by Sophie McKenzie (St. Martin’s Press, April 2014)

Livy Jackson is shocked when she finds her best friend Julia dead, but when Julia’s death is ruled a suicide, Livy doesn’t believe it, knowing that she knew Julia better than anyone, or so she thinks, and that her best friend would never have hidden these feelings from Livy.  Livy and Julia became best friends after the murder of Livy’s younger sister Kara who was friends with Julia.  Kara’s murderer has never been found and as Livy looks into Julia’s death, she comes to believe that Julia knew who Kara’s killer was and that person found at she knew and killed Julia before she could tell anyone.  Livy becomes obsessed with the idea that Julia did not kill herself and alienates Julia’s already distant family but finds an unexpected ally in someone who knew as much, if not more, about Julia than Livy.  As Livy races to find her friend’s killer, she lets her family fall to the wayside, a family that is already in distress from an affair Livy’s husband Will had six years earlier, an affair Livy believes he has started again.  When Livy’s search takes an unexpected turn, she realizes she might be able to solve Julia’s murder as well as find the truth about Will, but at what cost? 

McKenzie’s second book to be published in the United States is full of twists and turns, a complicated plot and a list of suspects that is believable and convincing.  Livy is a hard character to get to know and her motives to satisfy her suspicions in her friend’s death rather than to save her marriage and her family is a bit mystifying, unless she is using Julia’s death as a substitute and a way to channel her energies rather than deal with something just as painful and stressful.  When all is said and done, though, Livy has grown and has come to accept things as they are and makes decisions rather than letting her life happen.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Just Jennifer

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman


This new collection of short stories is full of fairy tales and fantastical creatures and beings, but each expresses a truth about humanity and ourselves.  Even the introduction is full of gorgeous sentences and is deserving of a title more grandiose than “Introduction”.  It is almost a disservice to the readers and the discoveries they will make on their own through each story by reading Gaiman’s thoughts of each story in the introduction.  Who but Gaiman could quote a David Bowie song in one story (“The Return of the Thin White Duke” from Station to Station) and combine the classic fairy tales of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty in another?  Homage Is paid to Sherlock Holmes, Ogden Nash and Ray Bradbury.  Individually these stories, many of which have been published elsewhere, are at times allegorical, at times reflective, but when thought about as a whole reveal much more than we may be ready to see.  A collection to savor over and over again.  

Just Jennifer

The Forgetting Place by John Burley


Five years ago, Dr. Lise Shields arrived at Menaker, a Maryland psychiatric hospital which houses patients who have committed heinous crimes.  Over the years, Lise feels she has been able to help the residents, if not completely recover, at least live less tormented existences.  But Menaker holds its share of secrets and the arrival of Jason, a new patient with no paperwork and seemingly limited background information puzzles Lise.  She seeks guidance and receives none from the administration, has her office broken into and ransacked and is seemingly being followed by two men.  What secrets has Jason brought with him and what secrets---and possibly evil---has his presence unleashed?  With tight, fast-paced plotting, a story unfolds with an ending that may not surprise readers but will leave them unsettled all the same.  Smart and suspenseful at the same time, this is not a book to be started unless there is time to read beginning to end.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Just Jennifer

Lighten’ Up, Y’all by Virginia Willis

Virginia Willis is a trained French chef and a born and bred Southern woman---rich sauces and gooey cheesey dishes are a natural for her.  Eating rich, deep fried foods takes its toll over the years and when this Food Network columnist decided to try and eat more healthfully and lose a few pounds, she was adamant she would not give up any of her favorite foods in the process.  Instead, Willis took her knowledge of good, healthy foods and combined that with what tastes good, added a dash of Southern sass and created riffs on traditional Southern favorites such as macaroni and cheese (add broccoli to up the nutritional content and use less of more flavorful cheeses), cornbread (Willis perfected the ratio of vegetables to cornbread batter that will produce the dense, cake-like crumb that is so familiar) and when she needs to ramp up the flavor?  Add a small amount of well-flavored bacon, well-cooked to render as much fat as possible, leaving behind only smoky goodness.  While most of Willis’s tips are sensible, not everyone will want to spray their carefully dredged okra with cooking spray instead of using a small amount of olive oil and some may rather use less cheese than choose the low-fat versions Willis recommends.  A chicken burger stays moist with grated apple and cheddar cheese; a mixture that would be equally at home in a stuffed bell pepper or hollowed out summer squash.  Willis cooks seasonally and pairs sweet summer corn with juicy ripe tomatoes to make a light summer dish; she uses the ubiquitous Southern staple, sweet tea, as a brine for a turkey tenderloin, and no Southern cookbook would be complete without a biscuit and gravy recipe, turkey sausage standing in for a fuller fat pork sausage without sacrificing any taste.  Breezy and chatty, Willis’s style is easy, her recipes approachable and full of easily found ingredients, leaving readers feeling as though they’ve made a new friend in the kitchen and eager to seek out Willis’s earlier cookbooks Bon Appetite, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all when looking for something a little more decadent. 

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Just Jennifer

A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor (William Morrow)


On the streets of late nineteenth century London, Irish sisters Flora and Rosie Flynn sell nosegays of violets and primroses with their mother.  After their mother dies, leaving the two young girls orphans, they continue to try and eek out an existence, clinging to each other and their sweet flowers until the two are inexplicably and tragically separated.  Forty years later, Tilly Harper leaves her home in the Lake District to be the housemother at Mr. Shaw’s Home for Watercress and Flower Girls, a place that provides shelter, food and care for flower girls who are either orphaned or no longer able to sell their flowers, giving them a place to live other than in the doorways of the London streets.  As Tilly settles in, she finds the belongings of Flora Flynn, including her diary, seeded with dried flowers.  Flora’s diary is the heartbreaking search for her sister Rosie and Tilly decides to take up Flora’s quest and try and find out what happened to Rosie, not realizing where her search will lead her and the profound effects it will have on her own life.  Beautifully written, with careful attention to detail both characters and setting, A Memory of Violets depicts two eras in London’s history connected by time and circumstance.  The only thing that could make this book more beautiful would be if the illustrations at the head of each chapter were rendered in color.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Just Jennifer

What You Left Behind by Samantha Hayes (April 2015)


Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher has returned to her home town of Radcote for a vacation.  Staying in the house in which she grew up in with her sister Jo and her nephew Freddie proves to be anything but restful.  Two years ago, a string of teenage suicides left the English village numb and fearing for its teenagers.  Now a young homeless man has been killed in a motorcycle accident that has been ruled a suicide and Freddie has been very tense and secretive, raising suspicion in his aunt’s policewoman’s mind.  As clues start appearing to Lorraine she pushes the local police to look further into the rash of suicides, suspecting that the deaths may not have be suicides at all and that other factors have played into the deaths, but nothing in Lorraine’s training or experience could prepare her for what she is about to uncover and how close to danger her family is placed.  Chilling and twisted, this plot does not stop until the final pages when one last shocking secret is revealed.  

Just Jennifer

Night Night, Sleep Tight by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, March 2015)

Award winning author Hallie Ephron is back with another novel of suspense and betrayal, one that will transport readers back to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and 1980’s, a time when anything went, including murder.  In 1985, Deirdre Unger returns to the Beverly Hills home of her childhood to help her father, screenwriter Arthur Unger, ready it for sale.  Deirdre is devastated when she finds her father’s body at the bottom of the lap pool he has used daily for many years.  Certain that this was a tragic accident, Deirdre is stunned when she learns the police have opened a homicide investigation and is even more shocked when she becomes a person of interest during the course of the investigation.  Dazed by these events, Deidre is even more thrown when she realizes the Realtor Arthur had contracted with was Joelen Nichol, the daughter of a once legendary actress, Bunny Nichol, and Deirdre’s best friend through school, a friend from whom she has not heard since 1963 when they were fifteen.  One fateful night after a party at the Nichol’s home, Bunny’s boyfriend was stabbed to death, a murder to which Joelen confessed.  In his rush to remove Deirdre from the scene, Arthur was involved in a car accident that left Deirdre with a lame leg.  At the time, Deirdre never considered that these two events might be connected, but as she, as literary executrix, begins to sort through Arthur’s papers, she uncovers clues to secrets that have been hidden for over twenty years, secrets that someone is obviously willing to kill for in order to keep them buried; but just how far is the killer willing to go and how many more people will die if these secrets are revealed?

This novel is full of the glitz and glamour of an early era (Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills during this time); subtle reminders of times gone by (Deirdre purchases an outfit ala Jennifer Beals in Flashdance) keep readers firmly in the past lest they forget and wonder where the cell phones and internet are.  It feels as if Deirdre has been floundering in the last two decades since her accident and the divorce of her parents and her mother’s relocation to a meditative compound where she is out of communication most of the time, even with her children (Deirdre has an unmarried brother Henry still living in the family home with Arthur).  Readers watch as Deirdre grows stronger, firmer in her resolve not to be a victim and to find the truth, not only with regards to her father’s death but the truth from 1963.  Once she learns the truth though, she realizes how dangerous the knowledge is and must make a difficult choice to save lives, leading to an unsettling by satisfying conclusion.  Ephron continues to be at the top of her game as she creates tension and suspense with nuanced characters and an unforgettable plot with more twists and turns than the canyon roads Deirdre travels on her way home.

Just Jennifer

Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight (Harper, April 2015)


The author of the 2013 hit Reconstructing Amelia is back with her sophomore effort, a chilling tale with secrets that go back decades in a small Northern New Jersey town, affecting the lives of four women and their families in most unforeseen ways. Molly, her husband Justin and their five-year-old daughter have moved to Ridgedale (a Morristown/Madison-esque town) where Justin has just gotten a job at the university.  Molly, normally the features writer for the local paper, is assigned to cover the story of a baby’s body found on the outskirts of the campus, a story that is a little too close to home for Molly who is still grieving for her stillborn baby.  Barbara, the wife of the police chief, seems to have everything under control until her five-year-old son begins acting out and her seventeen-year-old daughter Hannah becomes more withdrawn; sixteen-year-old Sandy has dropped out of high school and is being tutored by Hannah for her GED.  Sandy is also searching for her mother Jenna who has disappeared taking Sandy’s emergency money with her.  As Molly begins to work on her story, she begins to find cracks in the façade of the seemingly perfect and finds honesty in unexpected places.  Carefully plotted and laid out, sometimes a little too much so, Where They Found Her uncovers secrets never meant to be in the first place and delves into some very disturbing subjects as Molly searches for the identity of the baby and unravels the twisted strands of lives that prove to be much closer to home than she thought.  

Just Jennifer

Against the Grain by Nancy Cain (Clarkson Potter)

After her son was diagnosed with celiac disease, Nancy Cain made a decision that she and her family would be gluten free, a challenge with two teenage boys, especially when homemade pizza night was a family ritual.  Cain set about learning to bake using gluten free ingredients and was frustrated and disappointed with the results.  Learning about the ingredients and techniques essential to quality gluten free baked goods, Cain learned how to make gluten free products that rivaled their traditional counterparts without chemicals or additives, such as xanthan gum.  Hitting upon what Cain considered to be the perfect gluten free pizza crust proved to be the catalyst for a new business venture for the Vermont woman and Against the Grain Gourmet was born; this cookbook is the result of endless hours and experiments, some successful, some not so successful.  Cain generously shares not only her rrecipes but also her tips and advice for gluten free baking and the reasons why certain ingredients work better than others.  Cain not only includes recipes for basic breads (using the startchiness of potatoes and their cooking water to add structure to the bread) to more complex breads made with a sourdough starter and ambitious bagels and donuts.  In addition to chapters on the usual quick breads and desserts, Cain includes a chapter of dishes that use these gluten free products (such as fiesta panzanella) and savory dishes such as lemon-thyme summer squash ravioli, a dish that could easily be adapted for use with traditional pasta.  Full of recipes that really work made with healthful ingredients, Against the Grain is sure to be a hit with those living a gluten free lifestyle as well as to those just trying to eat a little more healthfully without sacrificing variety and flavor.
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Just Jennifer

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon (William Morrow, February 2015)


Stay at home dad Simon Connolly thinks he has done a pretty good job raising his son, 17-year-old Jake and younger daughter Laney.  At times, he has felt awkward around the stay at home moms in the neighborhood, but nothing prepares him for the anger and accusations that will be hurled at him after his son becomes a suspect in a high school shooting.  As Simon waits with other parents to be reunited with his children, beyond his worst fears are recognized when he is the sole remaining parent, even after the parents of children who have been killed are notified and led away.  Jake is missing, but even more confusing, heartbreaking and unbelievable, Jake is considered to be a suspect, along with his childhood friend Doug Martin-Klein who died at the scene of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Simon and his wife Rachel, an attorney supporting the family, begin to doubt each other as Simon searches for Jake, ultimately doubting himself and the parenting job he did with the quiet son he thought he knew so well.  In flashbacks, Simon looks for signs that he could have seen this coming, but in the end, knows in his heart that Jake could never have participated in this carnage against his classmates.  What Simon finds is heartbreaking but affirms that he did know his son as well as he thought.  Well-paced, first time novelist Reardon keeps suspense high as a father searches for the son he thinks he knows and a way to live with the consequences of an unthinkable tragedy.

Just Jennifer

The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos (William Morrow, March 2015)

Ghostwriter Taisy Cleary and her twin brother Marcus have been estranged from their father for over fifteen years, since they were eighteen when he left their mother for another woman with whom he had another daughter and made another life.  Out of nowhere, Wilson Cleary calls Taisy and invites her (and Marcus) to visit for an unspecified period of time to get to know her half-sister, sixteen-year-old Willow, and write Wilson’s memoir.  Taisy is not sure why, or won’t admit to herself why she is willing to make the seven hour drive back to her home town, but does.  Upon arrival, she finds Wilson not entirely recovered from a recent heart attack, his wife Caroline (Caro) an artist, suffering dangerously from parasomnia and Willow, an exceptionally bright young woman who has just begun attending a private high school after having been home-schooled her entire life.  Told effectively from the alternating viewpoints of Taisy and Willow, the story of two families unfolds and the story of a brilliant scientist who often treats his family as if they were a lab experiment, trying to control the environment and outcomes.  Taisy begins to investigate Wilson’s background, against his wishes, for the arrogant man’s biography and finds herself seeking out Ben, the man she left behind but has never stopped loving.  Willow negotiates the minefield that is high school, being ostracized by her new classmates, but receiving not entirely unwanted, though completely inappropriate attention from a teacher.

This novel features strong, almost too good to be true women, and weak, sometimes reprehensible men who do not come to their senses until a woman sets them straight, yet it doesn’t feel heavy handed but almost redemptive for everyone who is deemed worthy of redemption.  A pleasant, quick read, The Precious One provides a glimpse at the families we are born into and how we navigate them and recreate them into the families we need at the times we need them the most.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Just Jennifer

Behind Closed Doors by Elizabeth Haynes (Harper, March 2015)

DCI Louisa Smith has long regretted not being able to find fifteen-year-old Scarlett Rainsford who disappeared ten years ago while on holiday in Greece with her family.  A recent brothel raid in Lou’s district, Briarstone, has turned up Scarlett who appears to be in good physical and mental condition, though she is very tacit and less than forthcoming with information and not at all interested in seeing her family, only asking after her sister Juliette whose own emotional state is considered tentative.  DS Sam Hollands takes the lead on working with Scarlett, trying to uncover the secrets she harbors, secrets Hollands feels goes much deeper than Scarlett’s ten year absence.  Lou and her team are busily working on the murder of a bar owner and the beating of a nineteen-year-old male, two crimes that Lou is certain are connected if only they could just catch a break; when that break comes, no one is more surprised than Lou where it leads.

Haynes’s style of telling the story from various points of view, past and present with short time and date stamped chapters is, for the most part effective, but does get a little confusing with Scarlett’s narrative.  The insertion of police reports helps summarize certain events and interviews without having to devote several pages to them.  Lou is an interesting character, seemingly tough as nails and wholly devoted to her career, but in reality is more fragile and affected by things than she’ll admit to herself and certainly not to her boyfriend Jason.  This second entry into the Briarstone crime series has a different feel from Haynes’s earlier stand-alone novels, but still has the same psychological tension and twisty plots she is noted for. 

Just Jennifer

Down Don’t Bother Me by Jason Miller (Bourbon Street Books, March 2015)

Slim, a single father to a twelve-year-old daughter, doesn’t really like his job in the Southern Illinois coal mine called Knight Hawk; his supervisors know Slim is hardworking but still don’t like him, continue giving him the most distasteful assignments.  A reporter is found deep below ground, dead, a notebook stuffed in his mouth and mine owner Matthew Luster isn’t happy.  In addition, Guy Beckett, a photographer who had been working on a story with the reporter has disappeared---oh, and one more thing: Guy is Luster’s son-in-law.  Slim has a reputation for finding people who disappear “blood-hounding: as Luster calls it; Luster promises Slim a secure pension and secure health insurance for Slim and his daughter if he can find Beckett.  Slim is hesitant, especially after his first meeting with Temple, Beckett’s daughter, and a roughing up by someone posing as a cop, but something Temple said stays with Slim and gives him a slight idea of why Beckett has disappeared, but he just can’t quite put his finger on it yet.  If Slim is correct, life for Slim and everyone connected with Knight Hawk will never be the same again.

A gritty atmosphere, both literally and figuratively, defines this first novel and provides a backdrop against which characters struggle to do more than just survive.  Slim’s daughter is a very grown-up twelve and can see beyond her small Illinois town. Slim’s lady friend Peggy is very cautious in her relationship with Slim, but knows Slim is hardworking and honest and adores his daughter, but also knows her limitations and what she can bear.  Slim knows Luster must have his reasons for entrusting the task of finding Beckett to to Slim rather than the police and he grows even more uneasy---but more determined---when he discovers that he may have stumbled into something much bigger than he ever imagined having to handle.  Good instincts, a calm head and a secret weapon from his past help Slim put all the pieces together before it is too late for him and those he loves, even if it is too late for everyone else. 

Just Jennifer

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell (Harper, March 2015)

The Alter sisters, Lady, Vee and Delph are perfectly delightful if somewhat quirky, to those who know them.  As they approach their mid-fifties and the turn of the twentieth-century they are living together in their family’s Upper West Side apartment and have decided their lives will end as the twentieth-century comes to a close.  But first they need a suicide note, outlining the reasons for their decisions, reasons that stretch back generations to their great-grandfather who was considered by some to be a brilliant scientist and whose inventions and discoveries help people to kill each other more efficiently.  Living with the lore of bad luck and many familial suicides, including their own mother, the sisters feel that the sins, in this case of the great-grandfather, are visited in the next several generations---much like the Kennedys, and decide this curse must end with them.  A mysterious turn of events that begins in a September storm calls into question everything the sisters have learned and believed of their heritage and might---just might---give them a way out of their fate.

A detailed, deeply felt portrait of multiple generations of one family, A Reunion of Ghosts seamlessly, with gorgeous prose, intertwines the lives of historical figures with fictional characters as a family tree of sadness and bad luck is traced by three beguiling, very funny women, who ingeniously use a suicide note for three to define their family and its roll in events of the twentieth century.