Thursday, August 29, 2013

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen

I think this may be the first graphic novel I've written about here. I'm not a graphic novel fanatic. I like what I like. And I find with graphic novels - that sometimes I like the art and hate the story or vice versa. And then after reading some titles, there is my occasional thought of why did they choose to make this book a graphic novel? It is a lot of work!!  Words and pictures! But sometimes those elements can be a powerful combination.

With my previous experiences in mind, I look at graphic novel memoirs with an skeptical eye. But then I discovered Lucy Knisley's latest book Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. I was immediately charmed by the art - quirky, colorful, not too stylized - so I was hopeful while flipping through the pages. And then I read her story.  She tells the tale of growing up with a foodie family in New York. Mom worked at Dean and Deluca, then went on to catering and farmer's markets. Dad was a gourmand. Food was seen as a powerful element in their family, sometimes bringing them together when other forces (time, distance, divorce) separated them.

Her chapters show various stages of her life and the food dishes that have left a place in her timeline, and she has chosen to share with us, the reader, her experiences. And some of them are awkward and funny - aren't all teenage years?


And then there are the recipes. I really thought the recipe graphics after each chapter were great - even when I knew that there was no chance I would ever make the dish. (I think that Knisley would make a great cookbook illustrator!) To me, she brought across the idea that cooking was fun.

So I love this book. But I love the art - it appeals to me, and her story is familiar to anyone who has read a few foodie memoirs. Or those who remember an awkward adolescence and trying to find your place in the world.. And then there is the Chicago angle, that was a surprise. But most important thing (to me) when reading a contemporary memoir is - are you still interested in finding out what is happening currently with that writer? Are you going to look them up? I was still interested, and I did here.

It is a fun frothy read. And I'm looking forward to her other works.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Deadly Sisterhood - Ladies of the Renaissance

Have I been in a Renaissance mode lately? Yep. (Just ask me about the different Italian city/states.) While reading Blood and Beauty, I realized that I did not have enough background on who was who during that turbulent time period in Italy.

So when wandering the shelves of my local library I found this title, The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power, and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance, 1427-1527 by Leonie Frieda. This was a perfect non-fiction match for the Borgia book. Not only does Frieda write about Lucrezia, she writes about her sister-in-laws and the other ladies that were affected by Borgia battles.

And don't let the title fool you, Frieda focuses on the princesses - but their lives are invariably attached and intertwined with the men in their families. She tries to let the women tell their own tales through their letters and writings. And what a cast of characters: Isabella of Este, her sister/rival Beatrice, Caterina Sforza (with her three marriages,) and the women of the House of Medici. Oh yes, and  Lucrezia too!

We learn about the family battles, the gossip, the alliances, the intermarriage, (the fights for choosing a Pope) and how many of these wealthy women influenced the culture around them by sponsoring artists or writers and in Isabella's case - becoming a shrewd art collector. And supporting their husbands, children, and city states along the way.

While to some this may seem a dry history topic, I found Frieda's book to be well written and the stories are fascinating. Truth is often crazier than fiction, and these people lived their lives to the fullest.(Keeping track of the affairs alone can be difficult!)  And since they are all connected via marriage or alliance, the family trees at the beginning of the book were very helpful. I found myself eager to read what happened next in these family sagas. Who needs People magazine when you have the Houses of Medici, Borgia, Sforza, della Rovere, Gonzaga, Aragona and Este? A fun frothy read.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Blood and Beauty

I'm not one to read huge novels lately - I'm still in grad school for goodness sake - but I guess I have made an exception for Sarah Dunant's Blood and Beauty.

Can we say it in one word? Borgia. Yep, that infamous family. Dunant's novel starts up the tale just as Alexander VI takes up his papal throne in 1492 and proceeds to wine, dine and bribe the great houses of the Italian states. And on the chess board is his teenage daughter Lucrezia.  Which family will be the most advantageous to marry into? And what about his son Cesare? Some how becoming a powerful cardinal is not going to be enough for the ambitious and lethal young man.

Dunant takes the reader for a journey with glimpse of the chaos and glamour that was the Italian Renaissance. It really was a time of great contrasts. Wondrous paintings by artists on the Vatican's walls vs. political assignations on the dark side streets of Rome. Great piety shown by their holy men vs. backroom power deals. Powerful Italian city states vs. a  backwater Rome that needs to be rebuilt.  Hmm, how modern it all seems...

The author makes us take another look at the 'evil' Borgias - were they the worst people as the rumors suggest? Or were they merely surviving the best they could in such an environment? This book lets you decide for yourself as Dunant leads the reader through the family's tale. There are characters to love and hate, and whether you find yourself feeling for Lucrezia who seems to bring death where ever she goes, or seeing her as a product of her position and time - that is for the reader to decide. Alexander VI is the proud papa who loves his children and wants them to have the best. Cesare is a genius at seeing political patterns and does not let being in holy orders stop him.  But I would not want him next to me at any dinner party.

Dunant lets the tale flow and brings us this fictionalized version of a true story that is stranger than fiction. You can't make some of the things they did up. Because they did them! A great saga of a controversial family during tumultuous times. Highly recommended for lovers of  long books of historical fiction.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris

Lord Crick has died. While convulsing. And turning yellow. And providing his family with a gruesome corpse. Although young Lord Crick had some health issues (i.e. the pox) and a rather nasty disposition, it really was a ghastly and horrific death. Welcome to the world of The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris.

His sister Lady Lydia decides that there must be a further investigation. The gossip against her husband Captain Flynn, who is her brother’s heir, is becoming scandalous. On the advice of her cousin Francis, she travels to London to meet with Dr. Thomas Silkstone, an American physician who is working, studying and teaching with British anatomist Dr. Carruthers. Silkstone, who is quite taken with Lady Lydia, agrees reluctantly to exhume and examine the corpse and answer questions at the inquest.


When he is at the estate, he finds not just a house in mourning, but a household full of secrets. Silkstone uses his primitive forensic and toxicology skills to study the remains, but he finds more questions than answers, and his list of suspects in the household grows.  The tension swells, and the plot twists,  but will Silkstone (with some help from Carruthers) find the answers with his scientific methods before there is another body found on the estate? Harris writes a layered tale of forensic mystery using engaging characters who struggle with the conventions of their time. Silkstone is wonderful as the outsider looking into their society. Can't wait to read the next one in the series!

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Astronaut Wives Club: The Story of the Ladies Behind the Spacemen.

I'm not sure what it is about July, but I always think July = the Moon Landing. It was on July 20, 1969 to be precise.  Such an adventurous time! Was Neil Armstrong going to disappear in Moon dust? Would they be able to come back to earth? These were questions that were debated before and during the mission.

But what if that spaceman was your husband or Dad and you were waiting for them to come home? Lily Koppel's book The Astronaut Wives Club tells the other side of the story - from the wives' perspective. They too, had a part to play in the space race. They got to be involved in a lot of the PR, whether they wanted to or not. They had to present the perfect home and family life to LIFE magazine writers and photographers even if that was fiction.

Based on extensive interviews with the wives and a vast amount of research, Koppel presents an entertaining and thought provoking picture of these women who went from being military wives on desolate air bases to having tea with Jackie Kennedy in the White House. And all of this was taking place during the turbulent 1960's and 70's.  

Because the wives were living under NASA's shadow and living in 'Togetherville,'  life felt very different when their husbands got out of the space program. Finding out what happened to the couples and their families afterwards is another fascinating part of the story.

Definitively an inspiring story of the women who helped make history and the space race happen - even if it was mostly behind the scenes. I have read many books on the space program, and this one will be added to that shelf. I highly recommend it. 

An advanced reading copy of this title was received (well, grabbed really cause I was looking forward to this title) at the American Libraries Association (ALA) conference from the publisher.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Shakespeare Thefts : In Search of the First Folios

I'm a bit of a Shakespeare geek really, and so when I saw this title I had to add it to my 'to read' list.  The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen is a great book on the book collectors of the first editions of Shakespeare's plays.

Thefts - we got them in spades, destroying folios - it is in here, very strange book collectors - ditto! Rasmussen is a Shakespeare scholar and researcher who led a team of First Folio hunters who have spent years locating and examining surviving copies. And along the way they have acquired stories about the various copies, and which copies have disappeared.

I think one of my favorite stories was the tale of the extreme book collector, Sir Thomas Phillips . He did not like his daughter's fiance who was a scholar but also rumored to be a book thief (probably true) and a scrapbooker who destroyed several rare books. Because his daughter would inherit his collection if it stayed on his estate - he moved it. The transferring of his books to their new home - took two years because he had so many. And later it was noted that his Folio was missing. (See chapter nine.)

This title is written very well and moves quickly (it is not that big a book.) Rasmussen keeps the language clear for the everyday reader, but bibliophiles will enjoy it too. And just incase you don't think that you could ever find a First Folio in your closet - there is a story about that too.

After being a bit giddy (um, book geek) at seeing some of the Shakespheare Folios at the British Library and the Folger Shakespeare Library, I loved how this book complemented those past visits. A great read.

I've Been Roaming Around...

Grad school sometimes does not leave much time for other things. I'm back again after a rather long break. And hopefully I will have more to contribute.

I have been to so many conferences this year and discovered many new authors. Now I am even more behind than usual! This year I have been to Love Is Murder (the Chicago area's mystery writers conference), the Romantic Times Convention (what a wild time!), Spring Fling  (which is the Chicago RWA biennial conference), and I made it to LeakyCon which was held in Chicago this year and I have one more to go in October - Bouchercon in Cleveland (Crime Fiction Rocks!)

I have met some of my favorite current authors and some big-wig authors I never thought I would be standing in front of. Seriously, what do you say to Anne Rice that she has not heard before? I was just gobsmacked that she was in front of me.

But the best part, was meeting all the fellow book fans. And listening to them; rave about their favorites, who they are reading now, and which book to read first and which author has the best FaceBook, blog presence etc...

Sometimes it is just nice to be back with your tribe. ;-)

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Bit of Scandinavian Crime Fiction: The Ice Princess and Sun Storm

Earlier this fall I dived deeply into Scandinavian crime fiction. We are talking a bit beyond the Steig Larsson Millennium series. (Although those were good too.) 

Camilla Lackberg has been labeled the next Swedish crime queen. (You'll find out she is not the only one who has been labeled thusly!) The Ice Princess starts out a bit gruesome with a shocker and gets better. She sets her story in a tiny village (which gave her some comparisons to Agatha C.) with her heroine - Erica - coming back to town after the deaths of her parents. One of her former schoolmates Alex dies - was it a suicide? - no - it was murder. But Alex was the local glamour girl who had everything - looks, wealth, and position. But as Erica starts to write about her, she soon uncovers that everything is not as it appears to be. And her memories of a good childhood are being tested by the realization that others in her classroom had been in hell. The secondary story of her classmate Patrik, who happens to be the police detective investigating the case, and how their work collides and their relationship blossoms, adds a depth and a warmth to the story. A great story of uncovering the evil that lies beneath... A good read.

Asa Larsson writes about the area of Sweden that sits above the Arctic circle in the book Sun Storm. Her heroine Rebecka is called back to her hometown, Kiruna, when she learns that the leader of the town's largest revivalist church has been murdered. Now a tax attorney, she was once a member of that church community, and we learn more about Rebecka's past through flashbacks and the villagers who still remember her. Was it the jealous religious elders who killed their leader? Was it an outsider? The church has made the community wealthy. Where is all the money going? Rebecka finds herself taking care of the leader's sister who seems helpless, or is she just manipulative? Rebecka is a great character who Larsson allows us to see in bits and pieces.  As she asks the questions,  she makes others very nervous. A good read. I'm looking forward to seeing how Larsson continues Rebecka's story in the next book.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Yep - Fallen Behind Again

I've been reading a great deal. Kinda surprising since I have posted nothing! Yikes. Gotta get back into the saddle again.

Meanwhile - here are a few discussion topics: So are e-readers bringing in more new readers or just switching the formats that people read in? Are they just the latest tech gadgets that everyone has to have? And has anyone thought about whether these readers are even vaguely recyclable?

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda

Meet the gang at McQuarrie Middle School. There's Tommy our narrator, who has a crush on Sara.  Kellen is his best bud and there is Harvey who is a bit of a sceptic. And then there's Dwight. He is an oddball and always in trouble, but he has made an origami Yoda. It fits on his finger. And his Yoda talks. And Yoda offers advice, when he is not quoting from his movies. Tommy would dismiss Dwight as a strange dork (Harvey thinks he's a weirdo!) - but his Yoda's wisdom starts making sense and things start happening. Is Yoda for real? Or is this just a scam?

Read Tom Angleberger's The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and find out the rest of Tommy's story and his case book of Yoda adventures. Is Origami Yoda just a piece of paper?

This is a great story for Star Wars fans old and young alike. (And hard-core fans will catch some of the more obscure Star Wars references.) Angleberger, his drawings, the graphics and typefaces make it feel if you are reading Tommy's notebook (with comments from Kellen and Harvey, of course.) It's a fun frothy read. And I just found out there is gonna be a sequel! Squee!

P.S. And if you are really talented - there are origami Yoda folding instructions in the back of the book!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Organize Your Corpses : Murder and More

Mary Jane Maffini does it again! Another great mystery series!
This series is set in upstate New York, with a fun group of characters and some interesting situations... I never thought that being an professional organizer had such dangerous overtones.

Our heroine, Charlotte Adams, a 5-foot tall professional organizer, who is a bit obsessed with order. Yes, this is a woman who organizes her spice rack. But you will like her anyway. Part of the fun of these books is Charlotte and her group of friends. They were the misfits together in high school, and now that they have grown and Charlotte has come back to her home town it is interesting to see how their relationships have developed.

And Charlotte picks up some new friends along the way - her helper is a multi-pierced young gal with colored hair, but who has a flair for organizing and a good work ethic. And then there is her senior citizen friend Rose, who can be relied on for gossip about her latest suspects and a fresh batch of cookies.

And there is Jack, her best bud, landlord, and pusher of stray dogs. Yep, we have some dogs in this series. The fun part is the dogs are believable and funny. If you like bad dogs that is. They even have their own storyline - Charlotte is determined that they will pass their therapy dog class. And we get to see their progress throughout the stories.

Maybe the best part of these books is Charlotte's job psychology. It is cool to see how she finds out about a person and their habits through what is in their closet. And how much is learned by our messy ways...(But then I thought that was the best part of the old TLC show Clean Sweep.) When I first started this series - I admit I was a bit sceptical about the organizer job part - but I have found that Maffini has really incorporated it smoothly into the story.  Now if I can only get Charlotte to my closets..

So for a good mystery, with some original characters, and a bit of a thrill (in some of the books), a bit of romance, and some dogs, come on over to Charlotte's world. You will have a good time. They are fun reads!

They are best read in order:

Organize Your Corpses (2007)
The Cluttered Corpse (2008)
Death Loves a Messy Desk (2009)
Closet Confidential (2010)
The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder (2011) 

For more on Maffini's other series - look here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mama Does Time

Florida native, Deborah Sharp does her home state proud with her book Mama Does Time. Mama's home town of Himmarshee is not necessary the touristy part of the state, but she makes news when a body is discovered in the back of her car when she is at the Dairy Queen. When Mace, her middle daughter gets her Mama's phone call, she tries to spring into action, even though she had just settled down to "wanting to see if she could spot any of her ex-boyfriends on Cops."

Now Mama is southern damsel in distress - what is she going to do in jail (besides making friends with her purple haired cellmate)?  With the help of her cousin, the lawyer, Mace gets Mama out and shows the new detective in town (the one from Miami) what chaos really is. Mace and her sisters try to get Mama out of her mess and manage to involve most of the town, including Mama's latest fiance ( a Northerner!), who is wanting to be spouse number five!

Filled with southern humor, quirky characters, and goofy family dynamics, Sharpe takes us along for a roller coaster ride of fun. And there is a pretty good mystery too! I'm looking forward to the sequels! A fun frothy read at its finest...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious and Perplexing City

David Lebovitz was a pastry chef for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. He decided at one point to move to Paris. His adjustment to living in a foreign country became the material for his blog. His book, The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious and Perplexing City is based on some posts from that blog and more.

While Lebovitz offers some lovely recipes and advice on where to go in Paris, the book is really not a travelogue.  It is more of a expat's love letter to his adopted city, even when he thinks it is a wacky place.  Some points of fun: he earns more respect from his neighborhood vendors after it is found out he is a pastry chef, how customer service is non existent in certain shops, giant French supermarkets vs local markets, and the joys of French cheese and chocolate.

Written with gentle humor, Lebovitz encourages the reader to come over to his side of the pond to experience it all for themselves.  Or at least buy some French cheese and chocolate to munch on while reading it! A Francophile's dream and a fun read.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Murder at the MLA

Is it a skewer of academia or is it a mystery? D.J.H. Jones' book Murder at the MLA is a little bit of both.

The setting is at a convention hotel in Chicago. The convention is the yearly gathering of the Modern Language Association. It is an event attended by English Literature professors, English departments looking for graduate candidates, and candidates looking for jobs from across the country.

As the convention begins - there is an accident- a professor falls over the railing into the lobby. But is it murder? But then a hiring group from Wellesley gets poisoned from their coffee and one dies. Are the two deaths connected? When the detectives come in - they realize they need some background in this world of publish or perish. And they enlist an assistant professor to be their guide.

The author does a great job with their characters (although the third person omniscient point of view is occasionally disconcerting - but funny sometimes) and they make the reader care about the characters and you want them to succeed with the case. The author (one doesn't know whether it is a he or a she) manages to make quite a statement or two about the status of English literature trends in teaching, the fact that universities are so willing to use up young academics and toss them when it comes time to get tenure, and how some of the trendy teachers are just plain ridiculous. And that the parents and students are paying tuition for it!

A fun mystery about academics! And some nice details about Chicago. Give it to the English major in your life! A fun read.