Friday, March 27, 2009

And She's Off!

I am taking a break from packing to tell you I'll be away for a bit. I'm not going anyplace exciting, but it will be a little warmer than here and I am assured that I will not wake up to 17 degrees and new-fallen snow on the ground as I did here today. It's just the girl and I this time around, and besides the rain boots and hundred pairs of underwear that I somehow fit into our suitcase (I am an excellent packer, you should know) I will also need a book light (sharing a room with the girl) and BOOKS! Ahh, vacation books. There's nothing like them! There are of course a few requirements that a book must meet to come on vacation with me. I generally prefer authors that are known to me - I'm looking for comfort reading here, books must be easily replaceable, that is, I won't bring any that are dear to me or arrived from the UK, and I generally don't travel with ARCs for the same reason.

So here is what I have lined up.

Penny Vincenzi's books are deliciously trashy and long, long, long. I've already begun Windfall and am looking forward to losing myself in the story.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women is the second book in the Mary Russel/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie King and I'm definitely packing this for a bit of mystery.

Is that all? I'm not sure. I don't think there's any chance I'll get through these but I might have to bring that Just In Case book along. What would you bring if you were traveling tomorrow?

Part of my preparations for this trip included finished the books I had started including The Meaning of Night, and today's feature book, Etta by Gerald Kolpan.

Etta is the story of Etta Place, an elusive woman who had a relationship with legendary train robber Harry Longabaugh, otherwise known as The Sundance Kid. Aside from one clear photograph, there is nearly nothing concrete known about Etta Place, if Etta Place was even her true name, and nothing is known of what became of her. Author Gerald Kolpan was intrigued enough with what he did know about Etta Place to conjure up who Etta might have been and what might have happened to her. The result is this novel, his first.

Kolpan uses a variety of narrative methods to tell his story, from newspaper clippings and letters, to Etta's diary and a traditional narrative. I enjoyed the various points of view of this story, but found Etta's words to be most interesting. I am not traditionally a reader of Wild West sorts of stories, so while the Wild West tales were probably my least favorite parts of the book, they don't distract from the focus of the narrative which is Etta's life. Born into a wealthy family, circumstances send Etta off to Colorado, and eventually into cahoots with the Wild Bunch. Life eventually brings her back east to New York City where she becomes close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt (hard to believe) and works in Buffalo Bill's rodeo show (easy to believe). Etta is a fast-paced book, plot driven and entertaining. Naturally, my own interest in Etta Place has been peaked and I'd love to know the real story like many others.

Many thanks to Ballantine Books for this review copy.

So I'm off, and will see you in about a week. Cheers!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Tome

I finally finished The Meaning of Night! I don't think I've mentioned it here, but I realized I've been reading this 700 page behemoth for a month now. Not because I didn't like it, but because this book felt long, full of descriptive passages of location and lengthy life stories of all the main characters. There are 700 page books that fly by, but for me, this one didn't. That certainly doesn't make it not worth reading, but it is a commitment.

The Meaning of Night is written as a confession, a document that it's editor believes to be true. The first words we read from narrator Edward are:

After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper.

As you can see, it starts with a bang and we know from the beginning that our narrator is perhaps not a model citizen. Most of what follows shows how this came to be the case. Edward was brought up by his novel-writing single mother in Victorian England. His father has passed away. After a mostly quiet and unremarkable childhood Edward is sent off to school where as a lover of books he thrives and he first encounters the young main who will become the chief adversary of his life. Edward is dismissed from school in what will become just one of many wrongs against him, that shape the adult he becomes. Upon the death of Edward's mother he discovers her diaries and among them a secret that has been kept from Edward all his life, that of his birth. Thus Edward's quest begins, that to claim what is rightfully his and which will define his every action for the rest of his life.

So did I like this book? I did. The book feels very true to its period, the mid 1850's. Edward is an interesting character, on the one hand we know from the start he is a murderer, but on the other he is a great bibliophile, charming, and on some level I did agree he had been greatly wronged. As a reader it feels very strange to have sympathy for this vindictive and at times deranged man, but that is a credit to the author. The novel picks up speed, and the last 200 pages I found to be very compelling reading that I flew through. There is a twist at the end, one that I saw coming. I'm not sure if reading the description of the sequel gave it away or it just became obvious to me that things were going too well. Speaking of the sequel, it is titled The Glass of Time, and I understand that it picks up 20 years after this book ends. I am really intrigued by the description and in fact, it is what led me to read this book first. I'll certainly be reading it one of these days.

Now, to a totally different subject.

I've never been a watcher of Dancing With the Stars but one of the current contestants has captured my interest. Check out this dance which begins about 1 minute 50 seconds into the video. I'm speechless. And I love that song. Swoon.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What I Ate This Weekend

I worked all weekend so I have nothing bookish to say. Since I was working all weekend I needed something to eat at work and I'm tired of soup. I can't believe I said that! And the food at work, well it leaves a lot to be desired. I wanted to make some sort of grain salad that would hold well and I came across a picture on Tastespotting which led me to someones post (cannot remember where) which led me to Closet Cooking and this post which was my inspiration. Mr Closet Cooking has posted loads of farro salads and I was going to do this one with cauliflower and chickpeas, but with a few minor changes. But Whole Foods didn't have cauliflower but did have asparagus so I went with that. Even though the asparagus is from Mexico, at least my kid wasn't going to eat this.

So here's what I started with.

I already had farro, which is kind of expensive, but wheat berries or brown rice would work well here and cost lots less. I had a craving for blue cheese so that was on the ingredient list. I had those walnut pieces in the fridge and toasted them. Those fabulous roasted and marinated tomatoes are from the Whole Foods olive bar and they are out of this world. But you could use sun dried tomatoes, or halved cherry tomatoes, or no tomatoes. Or even, red peppers which Mr Closet Cooking used. Red onions, chickpeas, that's it.

I boiled the farro for around 20-30 minutes and while that was cooking I roasted the asparagus and onions.

And I made the vinaigrette with everything you see here. Okay, not the pineapple. I love using those jam jars to make dressing in. So cute! The jam that comes in them is not bad either.

I then combined everything: farro, roasted veggies, toasted walnuts, drained chickpeas, diced tomatoes, and crumbled blue cheese and tossed it all with the vinaigrette. Here is the final product.

Farro salad with asparagus, chickpeas, and blue cheese

It was really tasty and I didn't mind eating it for three days straight.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What I've Been Reading Lately

Let me try to get caught up here, I'm not sure if that is going to happen but I'm giving it a go.

First up: The Local News by Miriam Gershow

This was an ARC send to me; the back cover reads:

Lydia Pasternak is a decade out of high school, but inside she's still Danny Pasternak’s little sister, the bookish teenager who lived in her popular older brother's shadow until the night he disappeared. Though she has spent her adult life trying to forget that year she turned sixteen, the memory of her brother’s vanishing still haunts her: her secret pleasure at the attention she received as the missing football hero’s sister, her ambivalence about his possible fate, her emergence as an individual in his absence. As her parents went off the rails, she went to her first keg parties and befriended the school's elite crowd—all the while fervidly helping the attractive private investigator her family hired to search for clues to Danny's whereabouts. The shocking end to that trail of clues—an end that Lydia never prepared herself for—left a wound that has never healed, even now as she prepares to return to her hometown after many years.

From that description I thought I'd be reading about an adult Lydia. That was not so much the case, in fact aside from I think 2 comments early on referring to 'back then' we don't come into contact with adult Lydia until about 30 pages before the end of the book. So, this book wasn't exactly what it said it was. Putting that aside, this was one of those books that I thought was well done, but that I never really connected with. Lydia is a precocious and freakishly intelligent 15 year old - this girl discusses world politics for fun for crying out loud. She's in an awkward stage of life and in her relationship with older brother Danny who alternately annoys, torments, and includes her when he goes missing. What Danny's disappearance does to Lydia's family is the heart of this book. I guess I thought that this story would have been more about Lydia looking back retrospectively, perhaps more objectively at what happened to her family. Instead it was mostly from the perspective of a teenager, which perhaps wasn't as fulfilling for me. So, The Local News was not really for me, but if you're interested in the story it's certainly well done.


The Rose of Sebastopol by katharine McMahon

How gorgeous is that cover? Well, I thought this book was going to be sort of a love affair for me, and this was definitely more of a 'like' than a 'love' relationship.

The story opens when Victorian lady Mariella Lingwood travels to Italy to visit her ailing fiance Dr. Henry Thewell who has been treating soldiers of the Crimean war. In his delirium, Henry calls out for Mariella's cousin, Rosa who had gone to Crimea to nurse the soldiers, and it is apparent that they have had some sort of relationship. We then go back in time and get to know these characters as they came to this point. One interesting thing I've noticed in reading a few reviews of this is that readers found Mariella to be a rather 'dull' heroine. I think in modern Victorian stories we are so used to our heroines being quite modern and ahead of their times, that a girl who behaves like a well brought up Victorian lady does seem a bit dull. About halfway through this book, Mariella throws convention aside and travels to Crimea to try to find her missing cousin Rosa. The story picks up at this point and Mariella really comes into her own. I enjoyed this book overall, particularly the setting and all the descriptions of clothing and travel and sewing. For all the effort the author made to create this Victorian setting though, many times I was surprised by the modern dialogue. For example, I wasn't aware someone might have used the phrase "Back in a sec." back then. This is certainly the sort of novel I am typically drawn to, and if you are too, I'd recommend giving this one a try. Many thanks to Putnam Books for the advanced copy.

Finally, I'd like to mention a book that I've been feeling guilty about. Guilty, because I really liked it when I read it back in January when for whatever reason I was reading at the speed of light and I never got around to reviewing it. Guilty also, because Random House was kind enough to provide me with a copy.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford opens in 1986 when Chinese American Henry Lee discovers that there are boxes in an old hotel that were left behind by Japanese who used to live in the area and who were sent to internment camps. This discovery brings Henry back to WW2 and his friendship with a young Japanese girl Keiko. We follow Henry in the present as he looks for answers and Henry in the past, when he wears a button saying "I am Chinese." so as not to be confused with the Japanese, and as he tries to maintain his relationship with Keiko. This is a sweet and moving story and brought me to tears at one point as I realized how much Henry and Keiko cared for one another. I highly recommend this book.

Whew! That's it? Now whatever will I write about...

OH! Something strange/curious/bizarre/coincidental, recently released felon Sara Jane Olson lives in my neighborhood, and I mean Neighborhood. It's sort of like living in a small town in the middle of a big city here, so I'm trying to gauge what my reaction will be when I run into her at the grocery store....

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The World in Half

I wasn't expecting much. I didn't know anything about the book or its author, all I knew is that I received it from an offer on Shelf Awareness and I needed to whittle down my TBR stack. I picked up The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez and found myself transported to Chicago and Panama, in turn, and entranced by the beauty that I found in this author's first novel.

Miraflores is a geology student at the University of Chicago - I was immediately drawn to the setting since I used to work at the hospital there. She was raised by a single mother who has been becoming ill, and while going through some of her mother's papers, Mira discovers letters from her Panamanian father. Letters that reveal a great love and a different story than the one she has heard all her life and that nearly brought me to tears. Hoping to find something in Panama for herself and for her mother, Mira plans a trip to Panama, without the knowledge of her mother. Mira is quickly befriended by the doorman at her hotel, Hernan, and his nephew Danilo, close in age to Mira. Mira explores Panama with Danilo, searching for her father, and finding herself in Panama. Mira returns home, changed on the inside, and moving forward with a new external life as well and all the struggles that come with it. The way she handles herself is beautiful, she has so much strength of character and the sense that she must do what must be done. There is suspense in this book, wondering whether or not her search will be successful, but at its heart this book is a story of characters, and a beautiful relationship that didn't turn out as I thought it would, but in actuality was more touching than I could have imagined.

Peppered with tidbits about geology and the building of the Panama canal, the setting varying from tropical and steamy, to blustery and cold, this is a quiet book in many ways but one that celebrates humanity and love. I just enjoyed the experience of reading it so much, it transported me, and I recommend it highly.

The World in Half will be published on April 2. Many thanks to Riverhead Books for this advance copy.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I Found the Just Right Book!

Have you heard of Mary Stewart? I was introduced to her by the Bas Bleu catalog who offers her novel The Ivy Tree. I was intrigued by the description of The Ivy Tree (1961) and came across it in a wonderful new edition by the Chicago Review Press along with Stewart's novels Thornyhold (1988) and Nine Coaches Waiting (1958). Nine Coaches Waiting came home with me that day and I picked it up the other day.

It was perfect.

Nine Coaches Waiting is the story of Linda, a young woman living in England who, due to a series of circumstances, takes a position working as a governess in France for the Valmy family. Her charge is Philippe, a nine year old boy who has had a rough time due to the death of his parents. Something about the house where she has come and the people that live there seems....not quite right. Events happen, things are whispered and slowly it is revealed what a perilous situation Linda is in. Linda is such a wonderful heroine. She is clever and smart, and willing to take chances.

I'm trying to be so careful in this little synopsis because I do not want to give anything away that could detract from your enjoyment of this book. There is a wonderful suspenseful feeling about it, but also romance, friendship, and the rather ordinary goings-on for a governess. If it weren't for a few details, I could believe this book was written last week rather than in 1958. That is how timeless and modern the story and writing are.

So - have you read Mary Stewart? Apparently she is best known for her Merlin series, but I am more interested in these romantic-mystery-suspense sort of books. Do tell.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Not My Usual Fare

Welcome to Books and Cooks, a blog about books, reading, and cooking along with whatever happens to be plaguing its author Tara at the moment. Geez, there is a lot of whining going on around here lately, and by the way when did Wednesday become the Day of Doom? Today I have a broken shoe (long story, but a pair of Clarks that I wear in the house every day every hour that I NEED) that I can hopefully replace at a minimum charge to me, a frozen cold water pipe to the upstairs bathroom where I am trying to raise the heat but heat), and a driver's side door that won't open won't unlock manually or otherwise and is necessitating my Fourth trip to a car fixing place this winter when I have not needed a car fixing place more than say 3 or 4 times in the past 8 years. So if you sense a sarcastic tone coming from me today, now you know why.


Yes, I see you are looking at the photo of that book, Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch and I hear what you're thinking - 'that doesn't look like something Tara generally reads' and yes, you are right about that. I read this book to discuss with my book club at our March meeting. I even remember voting for this book, it seemed like the best of three so-so choices at the time.

Time of My Life is the story of Jillian, one of those New York-to-New Jersey transplanted housewives who has a big house, drives a Range Rover, has a beautiful child and a husband Henry who works all the time. Jillian discovers that her old boyfriend Jackson, the guy she dated right before she met her husband is engaged, and suddenly Jillian finds herself transported back to the past to the time when she is living with Jackson and they are happy. Jillian is thrilled to have a second chance with Jackson, and uses her knowledge of the future to finesse her way through her relationship and her job. But...was Jillian meant to be with Jackson or does she have to give up too much??

What I liked about this book was the writing. Winn Scotch is a very good writer, she has a way with words that made me keep reading even when I wasn't crazy about the subject (more on that later). I flew through this book in about a day and appreciated how modern the book felt. I'll be interested to see what else this author publishes, if she sticks to the married-lit sort of genre or moves on.

I was troubled by a few things about this book. First, the author never sold me on the time-travel thing. Now, I am a person who wants to buy into your story - The Time Traveler's Wife - I believed. I felt the shift in time here was too abrupt, and that the book could have been set up differently either with Parts (1,2,3) or a Prologue and Epilogue bookending the main story, but in any case I never bought it. In addition, I really disliked Jillian, the main character. She is so thrilled to be back in the past! Her husband and child were such burdens and now she is free, and yes the word burden is used. Now, if I were to find myself time traveling without my child, I'm guessing I would be pretty hysterical to get back to her or at least put myself on the path to creating her. Jillian is not so much going in that direction, in fact it takes months before she really begins to express that she misses her child. I was beginning to hope that Jillian would lose both Jackson and Henry since I frankly didn't find much about her that was very likable.

I am definitely in the minority when it comes to this book. The reviews on amazon are almost all positive, across the board. I might have been a fan of this book too, five or ten years ago, but now I just think, eh.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Just-Right Books

Whew! Today is a no-school day for us and I am doing the double mommy thing, that is, I have my child's friend here for the day. I figured it would be less work for me - and I think it will be overall - but they're already asking when we're going to lunch (it's 9:30) and my child is crying over losing Whoonu (great game and good for all ages). Okay, now they want to 'challenge' me to make a cheese and butter sandwich in 24 seconds, then they'll give me a prize. Anyway.

So, we all talk about 'just-right' books, those books we read at the perfect time, that wind up being just right. I've been reading a lot of dark books, mystery and suspense, with evil plot lines. I wanted something lighthearted, something funny, something less Victorian and more modern. Something short, since I already had 2 long books on the go. I discovered that I don't have many books that fit that description. I came across some Barbara Pym books that I've collected. I decided No Fond Return of Love might fit the bill.

Dulcie Mainwaring is the heroine of this novel. She is an unmarried 30-something spinster, who has had an engagement broken on her. She lives in the home of her late parents and earns her living writing indexes for books and doing research for authors. Dulcie attends a work-related conference and becomes acquainted with Professor Aylwin Forbes and Viola Dace who seem to have had some sort of romantic entanglement. Upon Dulcie's return to London her niece Laurel comes to live with her and a sequence of events brings Viola to live in Dulcie's home as well. A romantic muddle ensues, involving all three woman and a host of romantically challenged men. Pym has an interesting way of writing male characters - they tend to be rather silly and somewhat undeserving of the attentions of the females.

I wasn't in love with the storyline of this book, but the writing and humor were sublime. I found Dulcie hilarious, introverted, and honest. She's happy to have her niece stay with her, but she hopes Laurel will want to make hot drinks in her room in the evening so Dulcie has the kitchen to herself. I think Dulcie would have been a big fan of Facebook and other networking sites. You see, she develops a crush on Aylwin and thanks to her skills in obtaining information, she gathers information about Aylwin, his estranged wife, her mother, and his brother and proceeds to track them down and sort of 'stop by'. Perhaps her behavior was considered quaint or coincidental when this book was published in 1961, but I certainly found it pretty shockingly stalker-like!

So, was this a just-right book for me? I think the tone of this was just right, the story was just okay, for me. Not unlike this post actually, during which I have been interrupted 93937582 times. Cheers!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Dam Has Broken

I wrote a few weeks ago that I hadn't bought many books in January. Well, I made up for that in February. Let's check out my latest arrivals!

From the top:

East of the Sun is a UK publication I've had my eye out for. Harriet Devine wrote a great review of it here. I was lucky enough to mooch this one!

Grange House is another mooch/swap book - a turn of the century ghost story I understand.

I read about Minette Walters in my Good Reading Guide and ordered The Ice House and Laurie King's second book in the Mary Russell series with my Amazon giftcard. I won Among the Mad from Danielle's giveaway - yeah for Maisie Dobbs!

Here are the latest ARCs that have arrived here. A Lucky Child is a memoir written by a holocaust survivor, The Crimes of Paris, also nonfiction, details the period in 1911 when the Mona Lisa was stolen. The bottom three are novels.

Ahhhh. Here is my latest order from Bookcloseouts (how do I love thee, let me count the ways) minus a Clarice Bean book for the girl. I purchased all 8 books, with shipping, for 42 dollars. What a steal!!

Gallowglass - a Barbara Vine that I didn't have, love her.

The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters -curious about her.

The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates - my bookclub is reading this later this year. Goodness, is it ever long!

A Letter of Mary is the third in the Mary Russell series.

Scapegallows by Carol Birch is a book that Danielle wrote about not long ago. This is the story of a British woman, the cover states "Sentenced to hang not once, but twice, she escaped, and became and Australian pioneer." Sounds good, no?

Sophie Hannah's The Point of Rescue - Hannah's suspenseful books have grabbed me in the past and won't let go. Check out the synopsis.

And finally, A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam is the story of woman and her family set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War of Independence. I've wanted to read this since it first came out and was happy to find this copy - I love the cover.

I'd love to hear your comments if you've read any of these.

I guess I'd better get reading! But first I have to clean the bathroom. Have a nice weekend!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

You Spoke, and I Listened

A few weeks ago I showed a photograph of some new books I acquired. One of those books was The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King and so many people stopped by to comment how much they loved that book! All the comments came at just the right time and I decided that TBA would be my next read.

All I can say is, you were all right! TBA is a terrific read and is just what I like in a mystery. That is, not a traditional who-done-it or fast-paced thriller, but a more character based story with lots of atmosphere.

For the uninitiated, TBA is the story of teenager, Mary Russell, who is preternaturally clever and bright. She literally stumbles over the mysterious Sherlock Holmes on one of her walks around the countryside. Holmes quickly discovers Russell is his intellectual match and thus begins a great friendship, partnership, and yes, apprenticeship. I loved Mary's wit and forward-thinking mind, I loved the very British setting in the early 20th century, I loved that Holmes and Russel solved several cases in the course of the novel, in short, I thought it was splendid. I do have one confession. That is, I've never read any Sherlock Holmes stories! So I can say with great assurance that you do not have to be well versed in the Sherlock Holmes canon to enjoy this book. Though I do suspect that there is a lot in this book that ties into Arthur Conan Doyle's writings.

Here is the rub. There are apparently 8 books in this Mary Russell series - but I've come to understand that this is the very best, the rest don't hold up as well. Nuts! I was hoping for a long relationship with Mary Russell. In any case I've already got a couple more in the series on the way so I'll be trying those out - I'm trying not to set my hopes too high. By the way -
has a few books in the series including The Beekeeper's Apprentice with the above cover for a great price- $4.99 - in the event you haven't read this book.

I thank you all for your advice, and particularly for bringing TBA to my awareness in the first place. I'd love your opinions on the rest of this series, if you have any.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Help

Well, I didn't expect to be gone so long from here. Except for my rant last week I haven't posted in a while. I had so much to do last Wednesday and Thursday since I had to work the weekend and all my plans were derailed thanks to the car issues and snowstorm on Thursday. Whew. And now my back hurts in a scary way, in that 'if I move the wrong way' way I'll be laying flat on the floor for the next week. Yep. I do have a lot of complaints. Anyway.

What I wanted to share last week was a book that I found really excellent. So good, in fact that I'm bordering on using the 'L' word, which I don't often do. So good, that the day after I finished it, I saw it sitting on my nightstand and wished I was still reading it. That book is The Help by Kathryn Stockett and is, amazingly, her first novel.

Imagine Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. There are hippies in California, but here the Junior League ladies reign supreme. All the ladies in town have maids, black maids, who work for minimum wage and do everything around the house including raise the children. Their thanks for this is their meager salary, a 'special' toilet that the family does not use, and possibly an invitation to family weddings where they are expected to show up in uniform. And if your mistress is unhappy with you, why, she can fabricate some story and have you locked up before you can say 'not guilty'. Jackson, Mississippi was not a good place to be in 1962 if you were not white.

The Help is the story of three women, Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen. Skeeter has just returned from college with dreams of moving to New York and working in the publishing business. Minny and Aibileen have worked as maids since they were young. Skeeter runs an idea by an editor of a New York publishing house - what if I were to interview maids here in Jackson and write about it - is there a market for that? And thus begins the relationship between Skeeter, Minny and Aibleen, all three with a common goal, that of creating a book containing the stories of their lives. Each has her own reluctances to become involved with the project, each one is tormented by what could happen to her if she is found out.

The Help is a rich story and one that gives such insight to this period of time. Full of love, hope, fear and sorrow, family obligation and social expectations, I felt as though I saw inside these women's lives and hearts. I sure hope Kathryn Stockett has more to say, because I'll be first in line when she publishes another novel. The Help is highly recommended.