Friday, January 1, 2016

The Coincidence of the Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert

image by LibraryThing
I LOVE coconut!  That drew me to this book.  My mom makes an amazing coconut cake and as I read I kept tasting it in my mouth.  And that flavor made me especially enjoy this book.

This is a love story times three.  There is the love story between chef Lou and Al the food critique.  Then there is another love story between each of these main characters and food.  Finally, there is the love story written to the city of Milwaukee, introducing us to the wonders of a nearby place.

I really enjoyed this book.  Yes, I sort of guessed the direction it would take early on.  But, that didn't really dim my enjoyment!  Instead, it made it more relaxing and comfortable - drawing me in like a wonderful soup or a creamy pastry.  Although I knew what to expect - there were some great surprises.  Like the elderly couple demonstrating what a second chance looks like, or the fashion writer who hides behind his homeless man looks or the calloused, jaded food critique who still had his grandmothers cast iron skilled hidden in his shelves.

More than anything this book made me want to cook - to really cook and enjoy the process as much as the product.  The description of the Thanksgiving meal really demonstrated that for me!

And I will admit - I was completely teared up at the end!!  Another great read!!

The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper

image from LibraryThing
I read this series years ago and decided I wanted to revisit it this fall.

Rod and I took an in-state vacation this summer - traveling over unknown roads in Iowa.  As we drove, this story came back to me.  What I remembered was the need to stay on the old ways - to remain on the roads that had been established long, long ago.  I thought about that as we drove down winding two-lane roads through NorthEast Iowa from one copse of trees to the next.

I want to be clear that these books are WAY more than that!  The premise of this series is the world contains good and evil - has since the very beginning.  And there are certain preordained times when the Light can take over for good. These books are the record of that final battle.

For me, this series was one of the first Good vs. Evil I met.  In true YA fashion the players in this battle are teenagers - three normal, average siblings, an old one (the 7th son of a 7th son) and the son of King Arthur who has been removed from his own time to keep him safe.  This group of five together with Merriman, their seasoned guide, face evil in different places and different times preparing for the final battle in the last book.

Rereading these after all these other recent YA dystopian books was interesting.  I don't know if I could entice my niece to read these - they are fairly dense - but, so rewarding!  Yes - you know who is going to win, but there is more to it than just that.  There isn't a romance or flashy techno toys - it is just the kids and the elements.  Instead there is a sense of a larger story - King Arthur's story woven through these books ties them in to a timeless story line.

I really liked these - again!!

Trans-sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian

image from LibraryThing
This was the November book for our book club.

I have to admit I wasn't overly enthused by the topic of a trans-gender love affair - especially when one of the characters is an elementary teacher. As a former elementary teacher in a book club of elementary teachers my experience and understanding made me pre-judge this.

The premise - a lonely elementary teacher, Allie, falls in love with Dana. Sounds simple - but so not!  Dana is a college professor who has began the process of gender reassignment when he and Allie meet, she was a student in one of his classes.  As their love affair grows he nears the reassignment surgery deadline and a lot of decisions have to be made.

This story is told over the airwaves of a NPR public radio station managed by Allie's ex-husband and narrated by her daughter. Each of these secondary characters adds to the depth of this complicated story with their perspective.  The narrative moves between first person action and a retelling of the details.  It adds an interesting dimension.

What did I think?  As an elementary teacher I did not agree with all of the actions of Allie.  She made some ridiculous decisions as a teacher - allowing 6th graders to swim in a lake on a field trip only partially clad would never happen in my Iowa town!!  But, I did care for her. I felt the pain of her lost love - changed love  - confused love!  I don't know that it changed my feelings on the topic - but it did make me pause and consider. I think that is what a great book does - force us to face a part of life that we may not bump against very often.

We had a great discussion in book club.
And then following our meeting this happened...

I was so excited that @Chrisbohjalian tweeted me back!
I felt just like a little kid - a real author responded to me!

It reminded me again why I love technology and the immediacy of connection and the power of the words we put out there to the internet.  It also reminded me how much I love the printed word and the power of those words to remain current even 17 years after they were first published!

I am happy we read this book and I am happy for the discussion that followed.
Thanks Chris Bohjalian!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

image from LibrayThing
Serafina hides and scurries and watches from the dark recesses of Biltmore house.  As the C.R.C (Chief Rat Catcher) of the estate she she stalks and destroys the mangy beasts from the deepest corners of the basement that she calls home.

It was on one of those evening rat chases that she comes across something completely different -something evil lurking in her domain.  A man wearing a black cloak attacking a young girl in a yellow dress. Serafina tries to save this girl, fighting desperately to help her escape - when the girl simply disappears in the folds of the cloak and the dark, putrid smelling cloaked man turns his attentions on Serafina.  She narrowly escapes with her life.

This encounter changes Serafina and her connections to her Pa and to the only home she has known.  She begins to question her Pa's wisdom of staying hidden in the darkness.  She longs to figure things out and that draws her upstairs into the edges and shadows of the rooms where the beautiful people live.  Here a chance encounter with Braeden Vanderbilt changes her entire future.

This book follows a girl's self-discovery journey.  There were things I really liked about this book and things I didn't.  I thought Serafina's inner dialogue was a bit stilted - not really the words of a young frightened girl.  And there were moments bogged down with description of the behind the scenes workings of a huge estate.  I felt at times that this Disney published book was trying to jump on the Downton Abby craze with American's own aristocracy.  But - it's an interesting story with twists that I didn't quite expect.  That makes it fun to read. I did care about Serafina and her quest to figure out who or what she is and what is happening to the disappearing children.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

image from LibraryThing
This is the story of 4 friends, 4 weddings, one divorce, one shooting and one carefully guarded secret.

Friendships - are the centerpiece of this book.
Male friendships in a small midwestern town.
Male friendships that span decades - and that fray and tatter and rebuild.

I liked this book.

I liked Henry and Beth - the down-to-earth, live on the farm, stalwart couple with their own secrets - Henry paints landscapes and burns them before anyone can see and Beth was not always the mild-mannered house wife!

I liked Lee the rock star who made it big - yet carried a part of Little Wing with him in his lonesome songs.

I liked Kip the stock broker who came home to show the town how important he was by trying to restore the long defunct feed mill. Kip who was all 'bluster and strut' to hide his real longing to just watch the sun come up over the mill each day and belong.

And I really liked Ronny the washed up rodeo rider.  Ronny with a heart of gold and a brain sloshed around too often from booze and bulls.  Ronny who loves deeply and openly and isn't afraid to share that. Ronny who is sort of the butt of all jokes - but the real glue.

This is a melancholy look at what happens when you have to grow up - and leave behind what you thought you knew for what really is.

I liked this book!

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

image from LibraryThing
This was my book club's October book. I am not sure I would have read it on my own. I really loved To Kill a Mockingbird and after hearing the reviews and uproar about this book I probably would have passed it up.

After reading it - I don't know. It wasn't my favorite book - but not for the reason's I would have expected.  I usually like books where very little happens and much of the story is interior dialogue.  That pretty much describes this book - Scout telling the story all inside her head.  But - it just didn't work for me.  Scout reminded me of a an old movie with a young Katherine Hepburn talking so fast that none of the other characters could keep up with her and it felt like she was talking only to hear herself.  Scout is mad at the world of her home town and yet drawn home in a deep way.  And when home isn't what she had maintained in her mind she doesn't know what to do.

And what an awful world she comes back to - Calpurnia wants nothing to do with the family and her beloved father is hosting a racist town meeting and thinks all is well.  That is awful! And I want to be outraged and I am. But, I am also put off by Scout.

It is one of those books that I am glad I read.  But, I can't really recommend.  It is one that you want to discuss though.  I want to hash it over with others and see what I missed or misunderstood!

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

image by LibraryThing
Now this one I liked - a lot!

This builds on The Winter Sea and moves the story along. This is the story of Anna, Sophia's daughter.  Anna's life could have been a tragedy - given up at birth by her mother and raised by a neighbor and later sent to live with nuns and finally landing with a new family in Russia.  But it isn't a tragedy - instead it is the story of strength and poise and love.  Anna accepts each stage of her life for what it is and what she can learn from it. That sounds a little ridiculous, I know. But, I really liked her plucky attitude and stamina for a 1720 girl!

This story is told in pieces by Nikola - an English girl with a gift for 'seeing.'  Her connection to Anna is not through written words like Carrie's was - but by touching an object and 'seeing' the history and the events that the object was involved with.  Nikola is a Russian art dealer who was asked to appraise a small carved bird - the firebird. She sees the Tsarina of Russia handing this bird to Anna - but doesn't know who Anna is or how she can prove the object was actually important.

Nikola enlists her friend Rob to help with the process - Rob has a stronger inner eye and together they embark to Russia to discover Anna's story. In the same way that Winter Sea told a double story  - so does The Firebird. As the story of Anna is being told - Nikola and Rob's story is also unfolding.

I liked this book much more. I was very vested in the characters!  There were a couple twists that I didn't quite anticipate that made the end very engaging.  The history was important - but somehow it was easier for me to follow along without really knowing all the details.  Maybe that happened because I cared for Anna more.

I would recommend this one!  It was a fun and quick read.