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 fa├žade 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. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

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

Lacy Eye by Jessica Treadway (Grand Central, March 10, 2015)

Three years again, Hanna and Joe were beaten in their home and left for dead: Joe did not survive, but Hanna did.  Their youngest daughter Dawn’s boyfriend Rud was tried and convicted of the attack and murder; charges were brought against Dawn but she was not indicted.  Rud has just won an appeal and a new trial.  Hanna, who has no memory of the attack, vows to remember what happened that night to ensure Rud is kept imprisoned for the rest of his life.  Upon hearing this news, Dawn returns home to live with her mother and slowly, memories return to Hannah, memories that make her questions everything she thought she knew about her daughter, about herself and about her family. 

Although readers may realize from the beginning there is only one inevitable conclusion, Hanna’s trip of discover of the family of which she was proud and discovery of herself, is a fascinating journey. When Dawn was first diagnosed with amblyopia or “lazy eye”, she thought the doctor said “lacy eye” and it became Joe’s catch phrase for when he felt his family was not seeing things clearing or trying to fancy up a situation.  Hanna spends much of her time reliving Dawn’s childhood and teenage years, fraught with teasing and bullying, to see where she may have gone wrong, but misses where she went right with her older daughter, Iris, even though she didn’t lavish Irish with as much attention growing up aw she did Dawn, yet when all is said and done and it is Hanna who needs saving from her memories, her guilt, herself, it is Iris who steps up and provides support, much to Hanna’s surprise.  Even more than the story of a family in crisis, this is the story of a woman in crisis, alone, having lost the person on whom she could truly depend and finding strength within herself and from unexpected people to continue to life safe and free from guilt.

Just Jennifer

Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy (Putnam, March 3, 2015)

Jacob McNeely realizes his life in the Appalachian town of Cashiers, North Carolina is harsher than most.  His mother is a crack addict, living away from her son and husband from whom she stole the drugs, angering the man who runs a profitable meth ring, laundering the money through his garage, keeping the necessary people on his payroll to appear legitimate.  Jacob, who has been working for his father since he was a young boy dropped out of school two years ago at the age of sixteen and has cut himself off from his friends and peers.  The only hope he has left is the distant possibility of reuniting with Maggie, his first and only love, the girl whose heart he broke, he thought, so she could save herself and get far away from Jacob and the place Jacob hates even if he can’t.  When a fatal mistake is made by others working for his father, Jacob realizes this is his chance to get out.  But then events take a turn that make Jacob realize he is forever tethered to his family and these mountains unless he can stand up and face his father, a Sisyphean task that few survive to tell about.

David Joy’s prose is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking and gut wrenching as he portrays the mountains of North Carolina as a harsh a brutal place, but then finds one element about which to meditate on for a sentence or two as he juxtaposes hope with despair and the willingness of Jacob to accept his fate even with the distant promise of Maggie.  As Jacob begins to see glimpses of hope and a young woman willing to take a chance on him, he allows himself to believe it might be possible, until, too late, he realizes all hope is lost for him as he sacrifices everything to keep alive the faith he has in the woman he love as this story reaches its inevitable heart wrenching conclusion.  Fans of the Southern fiction of Ron Rash and Wiley Cash will fall in love with this new voice.