Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Quick Reads Edition

I took a couple of days off last week for a trip with my granddaughter, and it threw me so utterly off my schedule for everything. Of course, it's odd to say I took days off at all, considering that in my present circumstances, I don't exactly have on days. I suppose that's the same sort of thing as designating Monday - Thursday evenings as school nights, and using that as a reason not to go to the movies on them, when you've not had a school aged child in your home more than a decade. What I did manage to do, though, was get a little ahead in my reading, so this week's review post gives you a double dose. 

The two books I'm reviewing in this one space could not be any more different, which is the way I like to stagger my book choices. 

Just before finishing Karin Slaughter's brutal novel Pretty Girls, I headed to the library looking for something lighter and friendlier to have at the ready. I'd put off reading any of Alexander McCall Smith's novels featuring Mma Ramotswe, but this seemed the perfect time to begin at the beginning, with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. 

I expected to be charmed, and I was. My friend SuziQ, author of the Whimpulsive blog, tells me I really need to hear these on audio, and if I were better at staying awake and/or intensely focused I would love to try one in that format. I actually listened to, and enjoyed, the original Serial podcast on NPR, but even so I found myself snapping out of reverie so often and having to back up that I was months longer getting to the end that anyone else I knew who was listening. 


I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Precious and her friends and suitors and clients. McCall Smith interjects what are sometimes jarring reminders that human beings are prone to frailties, sadnesses, and darker impulses. Most of the mysteries Mma Ramotswe are hired to solve she handles with delicious wit and common sense. I found myself chortling more than once, and when she attempts to intimidate a person she's questioning by telling them that she just cut a cobra in two pieces, I nearly fell out laughing. (You need to find out for yourself why, of course.)

Was it a great book? No. Not by a long shot. There was a tendency for things to move along so quickly that at times it read more like a series of vignettes than a novel. But I will go back to Botswana to spend more time with Precious, because it was tonic. I can certainly foresee using them as "breathers" between novels that require a little more from me, or which leave me clamoring for places and people that don't get under my skin in a bad way. 

Published in 2003 
Anchor Books


Minette Walters wrote a couple of novels some years back--The Sculptress and The Scold's Bridle--that were unnervingly good. I'm not sure whether it was a her thing or a me thing, but I quit getting a rush from her novels, just a skosh at a time, until I quit reading her entirely. She's been off the radar for a few years, but when I learned that she was releasing a new book hope began to well up that she'd honed those sharp edges again. 

The novella, The Cellar, is the story of Muna, a young woman kept slave for years in the cellar of the home of the Songali family. She has spent her years with them being cruelly abused by more than one member of the household. When one of the sons of the family goes missing it becomes necessary for the family to introduce Muna as their daughter, and to allow her access to the world beyond her dark confines. Suffice it to say, she has a number of issues that come up those stairs with her, and the moral of the story has something to do with reaping what one sows. 

It was a fast, fast read, and at nearly every turn a predictable one. 

Published in February 2016
Mysterious Press

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Beyond Books (sort of) - My Cookbook Shelf

I have never fancied myself much of a cook. I say that out of no false modesty. Until a couple years ago it was something I didn't like to do. It was also something by which I was intimidated, quite frankly. 

My mother had a handful of recipes on which she relied, but unless she was cooking for a luncheon or throwing together some funeral food, what came off her stove or out of her oven didn't vary much. The things at which she excelled,though--potato salad, skillet chicken, cornbread dressing, pimiento cheese; pound cake--well, I could live on those things. 

My grandmother--her mother--was much the same way. We often wound up around her table on Sundays, and there are only three things I remember about those meals: my Grandpappy's mumbled blessing, which always included the words, "...and God bless all the little men and all the little women," because we were his heart; the butter pecan ice cream Nannaw'd serve in her Johnson Bros. Devonshire china; and having a one-in-four chance to be the lucky grandchild selected to wield the snuffer to extinguish the candles at the table at the end of the meal. 

Nannaw made a great Chicken Tetrazzini and her Sunshine Sauce is something I wish I had a good excuse to make. Oh, and her stuffed celery was always highly anticipated at holiday gatherings. Again, though, I certainly never got the sense that cooking was something she particularly enjoyed. 

On my maternal side, then, spending time in the kitchen trying anything new just wasn't part of my experience. What I grew up seeing were women who knew how to make some things that I loved, who'd prepare them without spending much time talking about the what or how. Mama did coach me in the making of her famous potato salad, and I say with no false pride -- because I have earned it -- that mine is almost always almost nearly as good as was hers. 

In spite of my protestations and natural aversion, I have managed to put together a really nice collection of cookbooks. For the longest time I'd walk past them, running my hands against their spines, hoping that kitchen osmosis might somehow cause me to begin talking like Julia Child, and stirring the pot in a way that would actually, you know, feed somebody. 

It wasn't until I'd ordered one of Mark Bittman's cookbooks to give to my son that the little light began to go on. Because, you see, Mr. Bittman gave me written permission to not be perfect, to leave out an ingredient I didn't have or didn't like, because mostly, recipes will work just fine with most of the things on the list...and if it was a key ingredient, Mr. Bittman whispered to me, "Just rename the recipe."

Some of the books here are in heavy rotation. Some I just like to peruse. Because I came to this about as tabula rosa as it's possible for a person to be, I learn something new every time. 

But my sentimental favorites are these. Both Blue Moon cookbooks used to be delivered to us at the bookstore by their author, until he ran out of copies he had in his garage. It was, perhaps, the single bestselling book we had at the bookstore, because no self-respecting Montgomery bride could set up housekeeping without a copy. There's a smattering of cookbooks published by the UMW of my church in years past. Seconds, Please!, another local one long out of print, is highly sought after and there are times I feel guilty for holding on to it when I know somebody else might actually cook something from it. (I hold on to it because one of the authors gave me a salad spinner as a wedding gift nearly 4 decades ago.) Oh, and that copy of White Trash Cooking was given as a joke, but lordamercy, there's some dangerously delicious stuff in it, and on a couple occasions, I've heard a sentimental sigh from my husband for some of the foods from his childhood he finds in there. 

(Lest you think I can claim high culinary ground here, my Mama routinely gave us mayonnaise and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, with a sugar sandwich for dessert. And even now, my mouth is watering for them. Damn. If I only had some white bread in my kitchen....)

Like any other good Bible, cookbooks that have been used and loved need to bear witness to the people who sat and thumbed through their pages looking for inspiration. I'm fortunate that the inherited cookbooks are chock-through with marginalia and clippings. Is there anything better than running across ink put to paper in the hand of someone you loved?  

Although I also use and rely on several food sites on the internet for inspiration, there is just nothing quite like sitting on the sofa with a cup of hot tea, flipping through pages of possibilities, is there? 

I just eat it up. 

I'm linking up with Weekend Cooking hosted by Beth Fish Reads

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Pretty Girls - Karin Slaughter

We had a really nice family dinner a few nights ago. All the adults at the table are in various stages of making healthy changes to our diets and lifestyles, but we were celebrating and I steadfastly believe that some things just do not need to be healthified. You enjoy them like they are, maybe being a little more mindful of how many pounds of bad-for-you food are on your plate. And then you eat a big ol' slice of cheesecake because you have clearly already thrown the evening over to total gluttony, and 30 minutes later your belly hurts so badly you would only be able to move if somebody on the other side of the room offered you Milk Duds or something.  

The answer to the question, "Why'd I DO that?' is a smug, "Because I'm a grown adult, and I just wanted what I wanted and I ate it all. Got a problem with that?" 

Well, that, my friends is the food equivalent of reading a book by Karin Slaughter. 

"Pretty Girls is the story of Claire and Lydia -- sisters, strangers, survivors. And now, in the wake of a shocking murder, they've been reunited after more than two decades to investigate both a present-day killing and the tragic disappearance that destroyed their family all those years ago."  -- from the publisher

This may be the shortest review of a book I've ever given.

It is not for the faint of heart.

I could not put it down, although I did read whole passages in scan mode. 

I'm conflicted about this, frankly. I'm not sure how to review it. Slaughter's characters are brilliantly drawn. Both the complicated family relationships and the unraveling of the crime that changed Claire and Lydia's family so profoundly are so well developed that from a critical standpoint I can say without reservation that Slaughter does her job here really, really well. 

But, my word. I'm a pretty hardened old soul, and I could not bear to read the increasingly graphic details of the crime at the heart of this story. 

I don't know what to do with the idea I had that I would not have finished this had a man written it, and I just don't want to spend time analyzing that too much. 

This recommendation, then, comes with a honkin' big warning sign: don't you dare read this and blame me for your bad dreams. You've been warned. 

Published in hardcover by
William Morrow
September 2015

Thursday, March 17, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

You'd be surprised, probably, to find out how many bestselling books I never got around to reading when I was a bookseller. The reason was simple: When a book began to light up bestseller lists, as well as the enthusiasm of customers who took it upon themselves to promote it to their friends,  it meant that a book I had not yet taken the opportunity to read didn't really need my help to find its way home with someone. My limited reading time needed to be spent finding the next book they should adopt.  

I didn't keep a list of the great books I missed out on over the years because of this. It's just as well. You'd think ill of me if you knew what some of them were. 

The worst thing about this, of course, is that I rarely ever went back and picked up whatever blockbuster beloved book it might have been, because staying current was just part of the job description. To the list of reasons that being a used-to-be-bookseller isn't completely horrible, then, add this: I can take yet another piece of my own book advice:  Any book you haven't yet read is a new book. Never apologize for being late to the party. 

Of course, there are risks associated with being one of the last people to read a book that everybody has read and most of them have loved. Chief among them is that expectations are heightened, and that can lead to disappointment. 

Such was not the case with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. 

If you somehow have managed to avoid knowing anything about this book, it's set during WWII, just before and during the Nazi invasion of France. Marie-Laure, a young teen who has been blind most of her life, and her father flee Paris and take refuge with her eccentric great-uncle. Marie-Laure's story is entertwined with that of Werner Pfennig, a young man who was brought up in an orphanage in Germany. 

Doerr helps us navigate Marie-Laure's world of darkness along with her, effectively allowing the reader to try on her disability. But the most extraordinary thing Doerr does in his novel is, in much the same way, drawing us into empathetic understanding of Werner, even as he is drawn more deeply into the Nazi machine. It is a most eloquent reminder that the the highest cost of any war is the cost to the souls of those who, having no truck with the ideology of their leaders, are compelled to serve in support of choices they did not make.

All the Light We Cannot See is an utterly complete and satisfying story, one that I suspect will find its way into my thoughts for years to come. 


Published in hardcover by Scribner, May 2014

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Whites - Harry Brandt

I suppose as long as there are those whose life's calling it is to insure that wrongdoers are brought to justice there will always be those who elude their efforts. In Harry Brandt's gripping novel, these folks are referred to as The Whites, and every member of the South Bronx anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese had at least one bad guy who managed to wiggle off the scales of justice. 

When the book opens, though, that group of officers has long ago disbanded, most trading in their careers in law enforcement for other pursuits. Billy Graves, however, is now a sergeant in charge of Manhattan's Night Watch. He and the other members of the Wild Geese have remained friends, and each of them are well aware of each other's "whites," so when those bad guys begin to turn up dead, Billy begins to struggle with the idea that some of his former comrades have decided to exact their own justice on the unpunished. 

None of these criminals are folks about whom you'd weep: they all fall under the heading of "had it coming," but Billy's commitment to law and order force him to care at least enough to try to piece things together. All this while his family--his wife Carmen, his sons, and his father, once an officer himself now wrestling against dementia--are becoming the targets of a stalker whom Billy assumes must be coming after him. 

Even minor characters are realized well enough to fairly leap off the page, and they all add such texture to the story. 

Brandt's ability to keep the heat up on the crime elements of this story while he fleshes out the very real, very poignant circumstances in his characters' lives sets this novel apart from others of its ilk. There is something nearly Shakespearean going on here, and it is, simply put, a magnificent story. 

I highly recommend The Whites to fans of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly most especially, but also to anyone who just loves a well-told story with an irresistible cast. 

Published in hardcover by Henry Holt
February 2015

Published in trade paper by Picador
February 2016

P.S. - I understand why some writers take on pen names to write novels unlike those their usual readers expect. There's a long history of that in publishing, after all. What I don't understand is why they no longer even attempt to keep it secret. As you can see from the picture of the book's jacket, well-established, well-regarded author Richard Price chose to publish this writing as Harry Brandt. Whatever works. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Beyond Books - Music! Poetry! Leaving One's Mark! - March 4, 2016

A weekly-ish look at stuff I had fun doing or finding or thinking about this week, mostly outside the pages of a book. 

Last summer I big-splurged on a pair of Bose sports earbuds. The difference between them and all others I'd tried was profound. So profound, in fact, that every time I'd see Bose speakers of any sort advertised anywhere I'd pine away, wishing I could justify the expense. Paul Harvey was right about this brand, folks. 

Well, a couple weeks ago I saw an ad for a Bose portable bluetooth speaker, and the price was right, and I realized that since I've been a full time homebody I listen to music all day long. (Well, except for a break I take at lunch to watch The Bold and the Beautiful, but that's a story for another day.)

Since I figured I could now justify the expense, I bit, and I couldn't be happier. It's simple to use, and the sound is more than acceptably good for the cost. I've particularly enjoyed using it in the kitchen as I prep supper, and in the dining room. Last weekend my grandchildren enjoyed their supper while listening to Boris Karloff's telling of Peter and the Wolf.  I am really looking forward to summer afternoons in the hammock that will now come complete with a soundtrack. 

Granted, this small speaker is no replacement for a fully rigged out sound system. We have a Bluetooth Sound Bar in the den, but even in our small house it can be hard to hear well without cranking it up. My neighbors should be as happy about this purchase as am I. 

She particularly likes her perch in my kitchen window, 
where she keeps me company as I fix supper and wash dishes.  

And now, for something completely different....

Whilst continuing on my course to eradicate my home of years of accumulated stuff, I ran across a cache of spiral bound notebooks that I tucked away years ago. They were filled with notes I'd jotted down, those half-formed thoughts you have that you think you'll want to remember later if you ever decide to write for a living. They also contained dozens and dozens of drafts of angry letters I wrote over the years to people, a bit of therapy my mother suggested to me when I was a child, and while that might make for amusing reading for somebody someday, I spent most of a day shredding every single page. 

But in of one of those notebooks, I discovered this: a half-begun draft of the last poem I ever tried to write. It served as a coda to years as an angst-ridden young woman who had a few really awful poems published in high school. I fully own that I was a pathetic poet, but I'm sharing this one here because I thought it less lousy than most. It was written just after my husband's heart attack in 2003. I am sure it's not complete: I never went back to fix it or finish it. 

Steady cadence for half a century
And then a pause--
Just enough to call us to attention; 
But not enough to halt the march. 

Yet, even so, 

When the rock crumbled
She became strong as stone ~ 
Shoring up against a tide of tears. 


And in the margins....

I'm still enjoying relearning this whole library thingI can't help but wonder, as I'm thumbing through a borrowed book, who might have been there before me. Last night I ran across this, and as I read on discovered many other such notations. I felt as though whomever did this is my kindred spirit. I am forever looking things up while I read a book: words that are unfamiliar or obscure; foreign phrases I don't understand; and venues that are important in the telling of a story. 

I would never write in a borrowed book.... but there is something charming about the enthusiasm this reader had in learning that compelled them to cast off such convention. 

Reading this week: 

Just finished: The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt
Just started: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
And via Serial Reader, continuing with Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery