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.  A LibraryReads pick for May.

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

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.