Saturday, April 29, 2017

Just Jennifer

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor
Shaka Senghor is a member of Oprah’s Super Soul 100, a group of 100 leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity (website).  He is also a convicted murderer who plead guilty to second-degree murder and served nineteen years in prison, seven of those years in solitary confinement.  Senghor grew up in a neighborhood on Detroit’s east side during the 1980’s.  He was a good student who had good grades and ambitions, wanting to become a doctor.  Just before he became a teenager, his parents’ marriage dissolved and the abuse from his mother increased; Senghor ran away from home and began dealing and taking drugs to stay alive, and was shot three times on a street corner in his neighborhood, but no one offered him any help or any hope.  By age nineteen, he was imprisoned for murder, angry with himself and his world, both of which had let him down.  In prison, after becoming the “worst of the worst” Senghor spent time in solitary confinement, but something unexpected happened there: after a letter from his young son, he rediscovered his passion for learning and his gift for journaling and storytelling and most of all: Hope.  He read everything he could from the prison library, began meditating and journaling to learn more about himself and to learn to forgive himself, and ask the same of others, for the wrongs he had committed.  Upon his release from prison, not quite forty-years-old, Senghor vowed to continue his work of self-discovery and became an activist, writer and speaker to help mentor young men and women who might find themselves in similar situations to his own, and help them find a different way out.  Senghor’s story is not an easy one to read about, but there is something in his story that offers hope for his future and for the future of others in this raw and honest memoir.  Senghor is a Fellow at the MIT Media Lab and Kellogg Foundation and has spoken at TED.

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

Cookbooks for the Spring

Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables by Joshua McFadden with Martha Holmberg
Joshua McFadden, the former chef de cuisine at Franny’s in Brooklyn, has relocated to Portland, Oregon where he is the chef at Ava Gene’s and taking full advantage of all the vegetables available to him.  Subdividing summer into three season, early, mid-, and late, McFadden takes vegetables most typical of that micro-season and finds new and inventive things to do with them.  Potatoes make two appearances, early and late, as do beets, carrots, turnips, and onions each with completely different results.  Go to recipes include the typical toasted nuts and seeds, and dried breadcrumbs, but brined and roasted almonds and frico will add another dimension to almost any vegetable.  McFadden provides a chapter “My Larder” which includes his favorite go-to ingredients complete with storage tips though no sourcing.  The recipes in the book range from the typical, English Pea Toast to the more unexpected Raw Brussels Sprouts with Lemon, Anchovy, Walnuts, and Pecorino.  Artichoke Hearts and Asparagus, typically steamed or roasted, star raw in an early season salad.  While some of the dishes include the addition of pasta, grains, or meats, most are vegetarian but hearty enough to be a stand-alone light meal with a loaf of bread.  This cookbook is one that home cooks will find themselves turning to repeatedly.

The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School by Alison Cayne
Alison Cayne founded the Haven’s cooking school in New York City five years ago and has written a book with one hundred recipes and basics that new as well as more seasoned home cooks will be glad to have at their fingertips.  Cayne, the mother of five children, necessitated her to become an efficient, health-conscious, sometimes thrifty home cook.  She has taken those skills and turned it into her vocation, helping other home cooks master the basics and have confidence to go beyond them.  Each chapter not only has step-by-step recipes but focuses on the skills necessary to create them so that home cooks can improvise when ingredients are not readily available.  Toasted Farro with Roasted Winter Vegetables and Tahini Dressing gives a basic recipe but then leaves the three cups of winter vegetables up to the taste of the cook. Brussels Sprout Salad with Parsnip Ribbons or Braised Parsnips with White Wine and Vanilla are simple in technique for any weeknight dinner, but elegant enough to be added to any Thanksgiving table.  The chapter on dressings offers the basic proportions and step-by-step instruction and then some out of the ordinary recipes such as Carrot-Ginger Dressing.  Cayne’s confident tone will not deter readers but fill them with confidence cook their way through the book and then venture out on their own.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

All These Wonders

The Moth Presents: All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown
For 20 years, The Moth Radio Hour has been inviting some of the most creative minds of the time to tell their stories to audiences.  While the tradition of oral storytelling and oral history is paramount to our live and stories, if they are not captured and preserved they can lose or change meaning with each retelling, or worse, be lost to time forever.  Sadly, though, many stories told aloud do not always translate well to the written word.  Not so with this collection.  Mining twenty years and untold number of hours, of podcasts (or their predecessors) forty-five stories are presented here for readers to enjoy and listen to.  As with any diverse audience, each person’s experience will be their own, though reading is often a solitary endeavor and the shared experience of others is missed; however, this collection lends itself to a discussion group whether read in its entirety or each piece used as a springboard for discussion, such as for a Socrates CafĂ©.  Emmy winning actor John Turturro tells a story about a blackout in New York City which becomes a short history of his family and familial love.  Best-selling author Meg Wolitzer describes her time at a summer camp where she meets Martha a woman with whom she still remains friends.  A man faces a kidney transplant, a mother deals with her daughter not only coming out to her but then learning her daughter is also transgender; the mother must now recognize and acknowledge her feelings, her daughter’s feelings, but also how she views her family and even herself as a mother and woman.  A musician muses on his life in foster homes, away from his parents who drank heavily until he meets the one person who changes his life.  First love, favorite childhood toys, or transformative journeys are all contained within these short vignettes, glimpses of an everyday life event that because extra ordinary because we talked about it.

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

Just Jennifer

The Forbidden Garden by Ellen Herrick

As the Sparrow sisters and their New England coast town of Granite Point slowly heal from recent events, including the near destruction of the Sparrow sisters’ nursery. Sorrel finds herself invited to bring her special gardening gifts to an English country estate where Sir Graham Kirkwood would have her restore a Shakespeare Garden that has lay fallow, perhaps even toxic, for many years.  Graham’s wife Stella is recovering from a serious illness that may have been brought on by her attempts to restore the walled garden.  While Sorrel can feel the grief and sadness emanating from the garden, she does not believe it is cursed.  As Sorrel sets to work learning about the house’s history---much of the story, which is woven into tapestries---she finds an unlikely ally in Graham’s university aged daughter Poppy and in Stella’s brother Andrew, a minister, currently on leave who, like the garden, is filled with sorrow and heartbreak.  Sorrel is determined to heal the garden and bring it back to its former glory, perhaps at the same time helping Andrew to heal, and healing parts of herself that are still broken.  This lush story is filled with history, plant lore, Shakespearean references and English tradition.  The characters are quirky and will quickly become beloved to readers, even with Sorrel’s sisters across the Atlantic, available only through Skype.  Add in the mystery of the tapestry and the “curse” of the garden, this inviting book will draw readers in and have the air filled with the heady scents of the flowers.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Just Jennifer

The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

World War II has taken its toll on Europe and especially on the small Normandy village of Vergers in this familiar yet dependable novel.  The town is occupied by German soldiers and food and supplies are in short supply, yet they are buoyed by the hope and sustenance provided to them by their young village baker.  Emmanuelle, Emma, began her apprenticeship to Ezra Kuchen the village baker at thirteen.  Now twenty-two, she has seen the horrors of war, including Ezra being forced to suffer the indignity of wearing a yellow star and being forced away from his shop at gunpoint, taken away from the village never to be seen or heard from again.  Taking over for her mentor, Emma bakes her baguettes for the soldiers and manages to bake enough bread to share with the villagers and is able to established an underground network allowing for her to trade for the supplies the villagers need to survive until the Allied troops arrive to save them.  Many of the usual World War II are present here, the characters often stereotypical, but overall, Emma’s tenacity and the resilience of her neighbors provides an uplifting look into a small village shortly before the D-Day invasion.

Coming in May

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Fans of Hawkins’s first psychological thriller Girl on the Train have been clamoring for her second novel but many may be disappointed with her sophomore offering.  In a small English town, the river meets residents and visitors whichever way they go.  At one point, the river opens up and forms what is known locally as the Drowning Pool, a place where many women have drowned over the years, local lore claims women accused of being witches were drowned there hundreds of years ago, but this year, the river has claimed the lives of two women: fifteen-year-old Katie Whittaker and now Nel Abbott, the mother of Katie’s best friend, a photographer and author who was writing a history about the secrets of the Drowning Pool, many of the locals angry for her bringing these incidents to light and writing about them with a certain distanced eye.  Nel leaves behind a fifteen-year-old daughter Lena and a sister from whom she had been estranged, Jules, who now returns home to sort through her sister’s affairs and care for the niece whom she has never met.  Nel’s story, and those of the most recently drowned women, unfold through the narratives of over half a dozen characters, most of whom are unreliable and have reason to either wish harm to Nel or even be glad she is gone.  This technique makes it difficult for plot cohesion and for pacing which doesn’t pick up until about three-quarters of the way through the book.  If readers haven’t skipped ahead to the last few chapters in impatience, there is a final twist waiting at the end that will surprise most readers, but the trip to get there can be arduous at times.

It’s Always the Husband by Michele Campbell
When Aubrey Miller drops her duffle bag in the ivy-covered Whipple Hall at Carlisle College, an Ivy League school in Belle River, New Hampshire, she feels she has finally made it out of Las Vegas and has no intentions of ever turning back.  She loves her roommates, hard-working, focused Jenny Vega who grew up in Belle River, and spoiled Kate Eastman whose family, currently father, have been longtime donors to the college and board members.  The three form an uneasy and unusual friendship until an event during their freshman year binds them even closer together.  Twenty-two years later, the three are back in Belle River: Aubrey, a yoga teacher with two children, is married to a philandering surgeon; Jenny is the mayor of the town, married to another townie who owns a construction company that benefits from the college and Jenny’s connections to the college, and Kate, who is married to Griff, the boy who adored her through college and until recently, had a trust fund of his own.  Before the weekend is over, one of them will be dead, their husband the first blamed, because it’s always the husband…or is it?  Slowly, long kept secrets are revealed, affairs exposed, and financial and marital troubles come to light providing a cast of suspects, in this twisty suspense novel with an ending that isn’t as easy to figure out as it first appears. 

The Heirs by Susan Rieger
After Rupert Falke’s death, his widow Eleanor and their five grown sons are shocked to learn their father may have had a second family.  Harry (an attorney), Will (a Hollywood agent), Sam (a medical researcher in a committed relationship with Andrew), Jack (a musician), and Tom (a federal prosecutor) grew up privileged in Manhattan, their father an orphan from England, and self-made man with a little help from his wife’s Eleanor’s family fortune.  All five boys attended Princeton and made solid lives for themselves.  A letter from Vera Wolinski claiming her two adult sons were also Rupert’s stating that they should share in the man’s inheritance and legacy sets the boys reeling but not Eleanor. She has plenty of money and is willing to share and it doesn’t really matter one way or the other to her whether or not the boys are in fact Rupert’s.  Her sons do not share her sentiments and as they sort through this new twist in their histories each finds himself examining his life and future leading to some difficult and surprising decisions.  At the same time, more of Eleanor’s past is revealed casting doubt on what the reader knows, leaving room for speculation as to what was and what might have been.  

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda
Boston newspaper Leah Stevens needed a new start after being accused of fabricating a source; a chance meeting with an old roommate Emmy Grey, also in need of a change, lands Leah and Emmy in a small town in western Pennsylvania, Leah with a fresh teaching certificate and a new outlook.  When a woman, looking eerily like Leah is found left for dead near a lake in the town and Emmy goes missing, Leah’s reporter instincts kick in and she finds herself searching for answers about Emmy, answers she thought she knew until the police are able to not only locate Emmy, but verify she even existed.  Now that the police know about Leah’s past, they being to question her credibility, especially when they find Leah has a connection to the man they have in custody for the attack on the woman by the lake.  Leah knows they only way she can restore her reputation is to find Emmy, but how do you find someone who may have never existed in the first place?  How well do we know our friends, but even more, how well do they know us?  Sometimes, it seems, too much, in this psychological thriller with keenly observed characters.

Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor
Eighteen years ago, in a small Arizona town, a teenager disappeared.  Jess Winters and her mother Maud had just moved to Sycamore and Jess often took late night walks, always leaving a note for her mother, always returning.  When she does not return one morning, Maud becomes frantic to find her, hoping that Jess ran away, but not believing that Jess would leave and not get some word to her mother that she was safe.  Now, newcomer Laura Drennan who has also moved to Sycamore to recover from her divorce and start a new life finds bones in a dried out crevice, bones that prove to be those of Jess Winters leading to the entire town wondering, what happened to Jess? Was it a tragic accident or murder?  Told in both the past and present, and from multiple points of view, the tale of a sad town emerges, a town full of sad people, but people who stay with hope.  As the story of the last months of Jess’s life in Sycamore are relived and revealed, her story, and those of her friends, becomes sadder, more tragic and senseless.  As the community comes together to learn what happened to Jess, they begin to forgive and to heal.  This debut novel is full of compassion and wisdom and compelling characters, broken and flawed, but not without hope nor the possibility of redemption. 

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
This much different novel from Lehane tells the story of Rachel Childs, whose mother was a best-selling author of a classic relationship book yet has never known her father, something Rachel struggles with, searching for him from time to time; Rachel, a journalist who, while on assignment in Haiti, has a breakdown on air and becomes a reclusive shut in, something that causes her marriage to fall apart.  A series of chance meetings finds Rachel with a second husband who helps her out of her shell and back to the world until another chance meeting makes Rachel question everything she thought she knew about her seemingly perfect husband, drawing her into a web of conspiracy and deception until she no longer knows who to trust.  Rachel knows she must steel herself if she is to learn the truth about her husband and stay alive in the process but must overcome her fears, real and imagined, before it is too late.  Rachel’s story slowly unfolds and readers are lulled into a certain sense of security and comfort until one moment changes everything and they are drawn into Rachel’s world and the fast-paced, high tension chase that ensues.

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman
Lilian Girvan is the mother of two young children and still grieves for the husband who died in a car accident not fifty feet from their home.  Lili has recovered from a mental breakdown and is able to care for her daughters again, and works as a graphic illustrator and still depends on her quirky, often over-sexed sister Rachel for support and backup.  When Lili is asked to illustrate a series of gardening books for the Bloem seed company she agrees, even though it means taking weekly gardening classes at a local botanical garden.  Encouraged to bring her daughters and sister, Lili arrives and finds an odd assortment of gardeners, all there for different reasons; as the group plans, plants, and tends to their gardens, they begin to form an unusual friendship and begin tending to each other.  Lili predictably finds love with the instructor Edward Bloem, but continues to hold him at arms’ length until she knows her own heart.  This tried and true plot is anything but boring as Waxman keeps the wry observations coming from the most unlikely places, often Lili’s five-year-and seven-year-old daughters, wise and mature beyond their years.  This heartfelt and often humorous story will win many fans for debut author Waxman. 

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
The daughter of two attorneys, Alexandria thought she knew she was firmly against the death penalty until her first summer job at a law firm in Louisiana where she watches a video of convicted child molester and murderer Ricky Langley.  Alexandria has such a visceral reaction to this man, and wanting him to die for his crimes, she begins to question everything she believes and starts to dig more into not only Langley’s case but into his past.  As Alexandria starts to learn more about Langley, a familiar cord is struck. There are no direct parallels to how the two grown up, or so she thinks, there is something that feels very familiar to Alexandria; she finds herself comparing Langley’s childhood with her own and learns family secrets that had long been kept from Alexandria and her siblings, some secrets Alexandria even kept from herself.    As Alexandria begins to face her own past and learns more about the narrative of Langley’s case as it has evolved, she learns more about herself, forgiveness, and the will of the human spirit to triumph even amidst the bleakest of circumstances. 

The Awkward Age by Francesca Segal
After the death of her husband, Julia Alden never thought she would find love again; when she finds it with divorced American obstetrician James Fuller she is more surprised than anyone.  Neither willing to commit to remarriage at this time, James, along with his teenage son Nathan, moves in with Julia and her teenage daughter Gwen.  Gwen and Nathan appear to hate each other and the new adults in their lives and Julia is at her wits end to figure out how to make a go of her new relationship and her new family.  In addition, Julia’s former in-laws, also involved in a tense relationship are still a large part of hers and Gwen’s lives and then there is James’s ex-wife who flits in and out of their lives.  As Gwen and Nathan’s hormones take over the new family’s life turns on end in a predictable twist with predictable outcomes.  What is not predictable however, is the ease and grace with which the story is told and the characters portrayed and laid out.  Segal doesn’t let anyone off with an easy answer or solution, but allows the family to work their problems out with love and humor.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
If ever there was a heroine readers wanted to cheer for, it is Eleanor Oliphant.  Eleanor is an office worker in Scotland who is very strident and has her life scheduled to perfection: Wednesday nights are her weekly chat with Mummy, Friday nights are vodka and pizza from town.  Eleanor has awkward social skills and an often bad habit of saying exactly what is on her mind, being very precise in her observations.  While Eleanor feels all this is perfectly normal for her, she has no friends and still bears the scars, physically and mentally, of a fire she was in and subsequent time in the foster care system.  When her company hires a new IT man, Raymond, and Eleanor’s path begins to cross his, her life begins to change in subtle ways.  When the two rescue Sammy, an elderly man who has fallen in town, they become bound even closer and Raymond, who is unkempt and awkward in his own way, but much less regimented, sees something in Eleanor and becomes determined to be her friend.  Along the way, Eleanor begins to become more a part of everyday life and finally faces the truths and a past that have damaged her and kept her from having relationships and perhaps, a happier life.  

Just Jennifer

Death at Breakfast by Beth Gutcheon

This first in a new mystery series finds former private school head and recently widowed Maggie Detweiler and her friend Hope Babbin on their way to the Oquossoc Mountain in for a weeklong cooking class in Bergen, Maine, where Hope’s son Buster, a former student of Maggie’s is the deputy sheriff.  The Inn is lovely, as are the owner and his staff, but one particular guest, Alex Antippas, is so odious his mere presence threatens to ruin the week for everyone.  While death is always a shock, no one is surprised when it is learned Alex was murdered in his room.  The women are surprised to learn the local police are focused on the Inn’s recently fired receptionist Cherry Weaver as their suspect.  Maggie and Hope disagree and push Buster into investigating further, helping it along with their own theories and observations.  While the storyline has a lot of potential, the characters feel a little stiff and very similar to one another at times and there are a few too many coincidences and loose ends left, loose ends that are not likely to be tied up in a future entry to the series.  An intriguing set up at the end provides the clues to Maggie and Hope’s next adventure and Gutcheon’s prose is lovely as she describes Maine in the early autumn. Readers are likely to be curious enough to return to the next installment.  One word of caution:  while the book by all appearances is a traditional cozy, a genre that generally lacks strong language, the f-word is used, while judiciously and in-character, several times by the most unpleasant Mr. Antipass.