Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Recipe for Secrets

The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan

It wasn't as if Lila didn't know what she was getting into when she married Sam, but she didn't know what Sam was going to get into when he got his dream job of restaurant critic for a major Philadelphia newspaper. With her toddler daughter and another baby on the way, Lila knows that moving to a new city isn't going to be easy. However, Sam is making it even harder for her, because he's suspicious of everyone, including the neighbors. That's because if a restaurant critic doesn't have his anonymity, he can't write an objective review, since the chef and staff will never treat him like just another customer. To top it all off, not only is Lila lonely because she can't make friends, she's also aching to go back to work. Unfortunately, going back to her high-profile position as a crisis manager for the Addison Hotel chain can only put Sam's attempts at obscurity in even more danger.

Yes, I know what you're thinking, not another "wife of" book, but seriously, is the title of a book so important? I mean, if the book is good, certainly we can forgive the author (or publisher, or editor) for giving us a title that seems a bit less than creative or original. Of course, there's the old saying that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, so perhaps we shouldn't judge a book by its title either. That said, I love the cover of this book, but I have to admit that the title almost put me off. What grabbed me, however, was the blurb. I do like culinary fiction stories, as well as ones that have female protagonists, so this one seemed to fit the bill.

What LaBan gives us here is wholly Lila's story. Here's a woman who was a professional, and successful in her job. Not very long after she breaks up with her (mostly long-distance) boyfriend of two years, she meets Sam Soto and they fall in love. One thing leads to another (in this instance, a pregnancy that leads to a marriage). The focus here is on how Lila tells the reader the trials and tribulations of becoming a stay-at-home mother, while her husband's job makes her almost go into total hiding. While that seems to be enough of a problem, Lila soon realizes that as much as she loves being a mother, she also needs to be back in the workforce, for her own sanity as much as her own self-worth.

LaBan's style is light and comfortable, with just enough seriousness to build Lila into the type of woman that we come across every day. Mostly we like her, but there are times we want to slap her when she's blind to some of the stupid things she does. Lila is also a truly modern woman who doesn't depend on a man to make her happy, yet finds one that does. Even so, she sometimes falls into situations where she forgets her own strengths, and allows the weaknesses of others to control her actions. I'd say that Lila has the potential to be the type of model feminist that we all aspire to become, especially because we can appreciate and understand her frustrations when sidetracked or she loses focus.

What makes this book fun is how creative Sam gets in trying to keep his identity a secret while visiting these restaurants. We laugh at his amateurish attempts to disguise himself while patting himself on his back at his cleverness, but Lila knows when Sam's failed to fool anyone but himself. Unfortunately, Sam's paranoia at failing to stay incognito also becomes Lila's problem, when the gossip columnist Sy Silver spots her at eateries or with people connected to the restaurant business around town. Adding to this are the delicious descriptions of the foods that they sample along the way, together with each chapter headed by a snippet from one of Sam's reviews (each one of which foreshadows the coming chapter).

However, fun isn't everything, and what brings this out of the genre of simple comedy is how LaBan incorporates levels of self-analysis and introspection into Lila's character. In turn, Lila uses these aspects of her narrative to try to get to grips with her precarious circumstances, while at the same time, trying to understand her own feelings as well as what she really wants for her future - both professionally and in her growing family.

LaBan carefully balances the mixture of these two elements throughout the book (with one small exception), keeping this story from being either overly silly or overly serious. This only becomes obvious when LaBan makes the mistake of letting Lila over-psychoanalyze herself and all the people in her life for a handful of pages near the end of the book. A more self-indulgent writer wouldn't have been able to keep that single false step so nicely contained and that is, if you ask me, close to a stroke of genius. Those few pages are the only thing keeping me from giving this book a full five stars. All told, I really enjoyed this book; I liked Lila and all the other characters, and drooled at the foods along the way. That's why I can warmly recommend this book with a strong four and a half stars out of five. 

"The Restaurant Critic's Wife" by Elizabeth LaBan, published by Lake Union, release date January 5, 2016, is available (for pre-order) from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publisher for allowing me to read the ARC of this book in exchange for a fair review via NetGalley.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Teaser Tuesday - December 22, 2015

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read (or the next book on your reading list)
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teaser:
 "Waiting for a table at Igloo can be like running the Iditarod sled race— it’s a test of endurance, and it might even involve sledding, not to mention encounters with bear noses and free-range venison. But once you settle beneath the fur in your igloo and start in on some good old Inuit bison-marrow dumplings, you’ll realize it was worth the wait to find the Eskimo’s house. —Sam Soto" 
--  The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment on Jenn's latest post, here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Depths in simplicity

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

If there is one quote from this novel that both sums it up, and yet is also the exact opposite of what this story tries to do, it is this: "we never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully. It seems a simple thought, but as I get older I see more and more that she had to tell us that." The "she" in this quote refers to Sarah Payne, an author that holds a writing workshop that Lucy attends. This is a very truthful and telling line, both for writers and readers alike. Yet, this is exactly what authors attempt to convey to their readers - a story where we can understand another person fully. That Elizabeth Strout (author of the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories Olive Kittredge) is able to reveal the character of Lucy Barton to her readers so fully, is only part of her genius. The other part is that she does it with such economy of text (just over 200 pages), making this book virtually magical.

Strout gives us Lucy Barton, who is a very simple person, in self-observed hindsight. The event at the center of this story is Lucy's hospitalization due to mysterious complications following appendix removal surgery. More specifically, Lucy's catalyst for telling this is her mother's visit with her, as she was recovering. This chapter in Lucy's life appears to be smack dab in the middle of her timeline, but since Strout tells Lucy's story in hindsight, we also get glimpses into events and incidents from both before and after that episode. This, of course, rounds out Lucy's character as we gain insights into both her life and why she writes down her thoughts in this semi-memoir of a story.

As I mentioned above, what is most incredible isn't the story itself, or even Lucy Barton's character, but how Strout presents us with this story in relatively few pages of prose. The best word that comes to mind is obviously evocative, while some might even call it poetic. This brings to mind something akin to the style of my all-time favorite writer, Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje began his writing career as a poet, and this heavily influenced his fiction, whereby he always seems to include elements of poetry into his prose. The artistry in this is that both Strout and Ondaatje achieve this depth of redolence without ever sounding flowery or poetic.

Obviously, if I'm comparing Strout with Ondaatje, I must be enamored. So yes, I admit it, I adored this book, not only because Strout makes me feel and see her characters; but also because after I finished reading, I believed I really knew and understood them. Most importantly, I loved this book because she did all this with a surface of simplicity that belies the complexity that lies seamlessly underneath. This book gets five out of five stars, and I'm already reserving a top spot for it for my "best of 2016 books" next year.

"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout, US release date January 16, 2016 (UK release date February 6, 2016), is available for pre-order from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, UK, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for allowing me to read an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Feature & Follow Friday (December 18, 2015)

Feature & Follow is a blog hop hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read. The purpose is to meet new people and gain more followers in the book blogging community. 

If this is your first time here, welcome! You are about to make some new friends and gain new followers. But you have to know, the point of this hop is to follow other bloggers also. I follow you, you follow me.

Question of the Week: 
If you could write a book what would it be about? - Suggested by Go Book Yourself.

My Answer:

Surprisingly enough, The Chocolate Lady wouldn't write a book about chocolate. In fact, I've actually started writing a book. The book I am writing is historical fiction, which takes a few of my family's stories/legends and combines them together with the (real life) contemporary discovery of the 1940 census that lists the names of two girls and has them entered as my father's younger sisters (but... he was an only child). I want to follow those two girls, and the fictional brother I'm giving them, from their birthplace in Estonia to my father's apartment in Chicago and then make up what happened to them afterwards. What do you think? Would you read that book?

Feature & Follow is a blog hop hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read. The purpose is to meet new people and gain more followers in the book blogging community. 
If this is your first time here, welcome! You are about to make some new friends and gain new followers. But you have to know, the point of this hop is to follow other bloggers also. I follow you, you follow me.

Question of the Week: Question of the Week: If you could write a book what would it be about? - Suggested by Go Book Yourself.

- See more at:


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Confessions of a Frustrated Reader

Anachronisms & Inaccuracies

My friend, author Rabbi Ilene Schneider recently wrote a post on her blog called "Blueberries in Hammonton in 1920? - Doubtful," which discusses researching something that seemed to her to be an historical inaccuracy from the TV show "Boardwalk Empire." Such anachronisms can ruin watching movies, TV shows and of course, reading novels. I'm sure that like you, I've come up against these kinds of problems of inaccuracies with many novels; most of which have to do with areas I know quite a bit about. Of course, even when that is the case, before I say anything about these problems, I'll start researching the items to make sure my initial impression is correct. Two of my most prominent examples are as follows:

When I read the novel "Melting the Snow on Hester Street" by Daisy Waugh, I couldn't believe just how many mistakes I found. For example, while the author knew that many Jewish immigrants worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (the place of the huge 1911 fire that killed 146 people, mostly women), that the author couldn't get someone to fact check that immigrant Jews wouldn't be speaking Hebrew to one another, but rather Yiddish, was surprising to me. This seemed to me to be one of the more easily checked points she got
wrong. Other mistakes were less obvious. For example, there's the important heirloom necklace with the distinctive charm on it. The author said that charm was a "hamsa," which is a hand-shaped charm that's supposed to ward off the evil eye (like the one in the picture here). While many Jews wear such things today, most of the immigrants to the USA in the early 20th century were from Eastern Europe. Since this symbol is Arabic in its origin, only Jews from North Africa would have worn these back then. The blending of the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions is something that is relatively new, mostly through the melting pot of Jews coming to Israel and the various cultures borrowing from each other. Another one I particularly liked, but that most people wouldn't notice, was one scene where a woman decides to make her husband a traditional Jewish breakfast. One of the items on the menu was a dish called shakshuka. Once again, the author included a Sephardic item that an immigrant from Eastern Europe couldn't have known about.

Shakshuka - NOT an Ashkenazi dish!

More recently, someone sent me a copy of his self-published novel, which takes place in Israel. According to his biography, the author lives here in Israel, but I assume he doesn't live in Jerusalem. In case he does live in Jerusalem, I have to assume that he and his family are extremely healthy and never had to step inside the hospital where the opening scene of his book takes place. Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with the hospital in question. Many years ago I was hospitalized there, and since then, I've had both very close friends and relatives hospitalized and/or treated there. Therefore, when an author writes that a patient's room is on the fourth floor, I know that this can't be right. That floor, despite its number, is the main entrance floor, and I know for an absolute fact that there are no patient rooms on that floor - and there never have been any. When the author then wrote that the protagonist bought a book "downstairs" in the hospital gift shop, I balked completely. That hospital's gift shop is on the fourth floor, so you can't go down to the gift shop if your (fictitious) room is on the fourth floor. Aside from that, I have my doubts that the gift shop even carries the type of book the protagonist bought, and it is even more doubtful that they'd have it in English.

While I was saddened that Ms. Waugh's fact checkers needed to be fact-checked themselves, the inaccuracies of this other book actually angered me. How difficult would it have been for this Israeli writer to take a day-trip to Jerusalem to visit this hospital, and get his facts straight? Even if the writer lives in one of the furthest corners of the country, one day would be the very most he'd need. Even if that is impossible, he must know at least one person in Jerusalem who could have checked this out for him. Baring all that, the very least he could have done was pick up the phone and spoken to someone at the hospital. I'm sorry, but that's just laziness on the part of the writer, and that is unacceptable.

If you are beginning to wonder where this rant was going, now is where you'll find out. You see, I've been dabbling with the idea for a novel of my own for a few years now. Our family has many fascinating, old stories that I've recounted to people on many occasions. I don't know how true most of them are, and I'm sure they've morphed over time to be more interesting. The thing is, often when I tell the stories people tell me I should write a book about them. Until a few months ago, I always laughed these suggestions off. Seriously, how many books are there about Jews leaving or forced out of their homes, only to overcome a myriad of struggles until they reached the 'promised land' of America? Too many, I'm sure, by far.

That was until I read about an author who decided to write a fictional novel about one of her real family's long-standing mysteries. Since she couldn't solve the mystery in real life, she decided she would solve it through fiction instead. Isn't that a brilliant idea? Well, I thought so. Mostly because this immediately reminded me of a family mystery of my own, and suddenly I started thinking how that family mystery could be the perfect thing to bring all our family stories together into an interesting novel - one that is different from all the rest. However, I can't allow myself to be lazy like that author I mentioned with his self-published book that I couldn't finish reading. I want to make sure that what I write has no anachronisms, and no inaccuracies. Oh, sure, I'll let myself take poetic license here and there, but there's no way I'll let things into my book that are glaringly wrong. That's a promise to both me, and my potential future readers!

Now, how do I stop getting overly involved in the research and start spending more time writing? I will gratefully welcome any suggestions!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

How do you eRead?

Seeing as I'm in between reviews, I thought I'd discuss something a little different. No, not chocolate (although I certainly could), but rather what I've discovered about eReading, and how I read eBooks these days.

Anyone who read either of my early posts about print vs. eBooks will know that I'm still certain that dead tree books are still very much long for this world. Although those posts are both over two years old, I haven't changed my mind. I also don't intend to, because frankly, I doubt I'll ever tire of reading from the printed page.

Of course, who knows what will happen with the next generation of readers? If there's one thing we need to do is continue to encourage people to read. The young readers of today will be adult readers of tomorrow and they'll spawn their own young readers. If that means that we'll eventually have libraries that only have shelves of flash-drives for hooking up your eReader to borrow books, well then, so be it. However, that's unimportant, because what I want to discuss right now is my eReading experiences.

I first started reading eBooks when my lovely sister bought me a Nook. It was just a simple touch model (not like the fancy GlowLight ones they have today), with WiFi that I never used. (This is one of the disadvantages of living in a country where bookshops aren't yet compatible with eReaders. Even there are, they probably only sell books in a language I find too difficult to read for pleasure - due to my dyslexia.) The Nook is actually a nice item that reads many different types of files. In fact, nothing beats it when it comes to a PDF file that I know of. Of course, because I didn't use the WiFi, the battery life on this baby is incredible - I mean, sometimes I could go for over six weeks without having to charge it. Since the eBooks I get from NetGalley are available as ePub files, this was a real boon to my reading - and my reviewing, of course.

Unfortunately, the Nook isn't perfect. First, since my model is a very simple one, the biggest drawback is that it has no backlight. That meant that if I want to read this somewhere without light (on a plane, or in bed while my husband is sleeping), I had to get my own - not terrible, but somewhat inconvenient. More importantly, the NetGalley files I send to my Nook expire after 55 days. That means I had to be careful not to download a book too soon. Since NetGalley files have archive dates, I also had to make sure I download before that date. The first time that happened to me, I realized that I needed a backup (but more about that later). Then there's the problem with technology, which advances extremely quickly these days, and gadgets like Nooks aren't built to last all that long. Recently my poor old Nook started hiccoughing - not literally, but it would do things like lost my place even though I'd bookmarked the last page I read, or it would suddenly flip over to the home page. However, the last nails in my Nook's coffin began when I upgraded my desktop to Windows 10. That's when my Adobe Digital Editions started screwing up and not accepting my NetGalley files. Mind you, I was able to scrape through using one of the laptops we have, but I soon realized that I needed that backup plan even more than ever.

The first backup plan I had was downloading eReader apps to my tablet. (Yes, Barnes & Nobel does have a reading app, but surprise, surprise - it isn't available in my country!) Being a person who likes to support the "little guys," I took down practically every eReader I could find, except for the Kindle reading app. Of course, this didn't help if I downloaded a file and didn't get to read it before it expired. When that happened, as a last resort, I broke down and finally got the Kindle reading app for my tablet. The biggest advantage to this is that the NetGalley files never expire; the drawback is that you can't lend those files to anyone. This made sure I didn't miss downloading a book before NetGalley archived it, as well as working with other ARC sights like Edelweiss.

So, why did I eventually abandon my Nook? Well, a combination of the Windows 10/Adobe Digital Reader disaster and my old Nook's hiccoughing is what did it for me. You see, I don't like reading on my tablet because the little icons that tell me things are happening in the background are distracting. In addition, because I have my tablet hooked up to the WiFi all the time, the battery needs charging far too often for me to read on it as much as I do. That's why I broke down and ordered a Kindle Paperwhite.

There are two drawbacks to buying a Kindle. The first is that they only take certain files, so all my ePub books I had on my Nook before I got the Kindle reading app are useless, unless you get a program to convert them (I did find one, that gives me 10 conversions for free, but that doesn't help with the files that have expired). The other is that the US site doesn't ship to where I live, and the UK site charges a whole lot for shipping (not to mention that customs here like to charge duties for these because our postal service is in the pocket of our largest chain of bookstores). Thankfully, my buying the Kindle coincided with my daughter's trip to the US, who stayed with my best friend - that gave me a US address and free shipping via my daughter's suitcase!

What do I like the most about my Kindle? First, I can send my NetGalley (and Edelweiss) files directly to my eReader with just one click. That's a huge convenience after having to go through the triple steps of downloading the files to the Adobe Digital Editions, then plugging in my Nook and then transferring the files from the PC to the eReader. I also like how light and thin the Kindle is, compared to the Nook it fits in my handbag much better, leaving room for a print book as well. I love having a backlight on my eReader, since I don't need any external lighting to read my books anymore. Of course, because it is new, it's working beautifully and I just hope that lasts a long time. As for the battery, since I keep the WiFi off except for when I'm downloading a book, I hardly have to charge it (but the battery on the Nook is still better). Finally, as soon as I get accepted for an ARC, I can send it to my Kindle right away, and I don't have to worry about the file expiring and I'll never miss getting a book because it was archived.

There you have it; that's how I'm eReading these days. Now it's your turn. Do you read eBooks? If so, what do you use to read them?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Teaser Tuesdays (December 1 2015)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read (or the next book on your reading list)
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teasers:
 "Between Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, Harry had certainly seen stretches that seemed to bear out the jibe, but as he left the Battlefords behind and drove the laden cart along the almost deserted dirt road towards Cut Knife, he was pleased to see mature stands of trees and then even a hill or two. It wasn't exactly Derbyshire, he told himself, but neither was it Norfolk.
-- Page 199, chapter nineteen, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment on Jenn's latest post, here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

My Favorite Books of 2015

The Year of the "Tied for #X Place" Books

Despite the fact that there are two books published in 2015 that I haven't even begun to read (Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter, and Therese Walsh's The Last Will of Moira Leahy), being dyslexic, and considering the length of my present reading list, I have my doubts I'll be able to finish either before the year finishes. Because of this, I've decided that I'm going to give you my top five fiction books of 2015 a little early.

While last year a slew of curmudgeons dominated my list, this year seems to be much more eclectic. However, the glut of excellent books made is especially hard to pick only one title for each of my top five slots, hence the year of the "tied for #X place" book list for 2015 with the following countdown (which is also my 200th post to this blog).

5. The Sunken Cathedral: A Novel by Kate Walbert and The Room by Jonas Karlsson

Both of these two novels are innovative and unusual, but equally as compelling. These come together because of their particularly interesting concepts. With Walbert's novel, the use of impressionism in her writing was what impressed me the most. Karlsson, on the other hand, uses very plain language to investigate what seems to be a type of mental illness.

4. It's. Nice. Outside. by Jim Kokoris

This book takes on a subject that most authors have ignored - dealing with a young adult learning-disabled autistic son. That's one that (as far as I know), even Jodi Picoult hasn't tackled, and that's her loss. Good thing too, because this book isn't the least bit sensationalist, nor is it sentimental. Furthermore, it packs a punch with a level of literary flair combined with simple language that makes every page sing. My only worry is that someone will want to make this into a movie that won't do the book nearly the justice it deserves.

3. Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb

This genre fascinates me - historical fiction spotlighting unknown or lesser-known women who played important parts in the lives of well-known men. In this case, we learn about the sculptor Camille Claudel, a talent in her own right, who studied with August Rodin, and with whom she had an affair. Webb brings Camille into beautiful focus, showing us both her genius and her flaws, and how those two elements led to a tragic life, partially because she lived in an era when women in the arts were woefully under-appreciated. (Despite the fact that I read this book in 2014, it wasn't published until 2015 so it deserves to be on this list.)

2. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood and Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Say what you will about these two authors, but the thing that unites them is their ability to use just the precise level of satire in their genres to express their political opinions. Atwood's novel takes on the dilemma of the growing economic gap, and speculates what kind of solution the 1% might decide to employ to solve that problem. Rushdie, on the other hand takes fantasy and magical realism to debate the growing polarization between those driven by blind faith in their religion and those who abandon religion in the face of logic, science and reason. Together these two books hit on the most sensitive nerves of today's world.

1. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler and My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman

Okay, so maybe this was obvious from my reviews of these two books, but yes, these two are certainly my favorite books of 2015. The absolute and pure enjoyment I felt while reading these two novels is precisely the reason why I read in the first place. I loved these books so dearly, I cannot stop recommending them to everyone I meet. What more can I say besides "read them, please," because if you do, you won't regret it? 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Merchant Prince's Woman

What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age by Renee Rosen

One of the first jobs I ever held was as a salesperson for Marshall Field & Co., in their Evanston branch (just north of Chicago). At the time, all new employees had to undergo three days of training in their flagship State Street branch. I was no stranger to that store. I spent many happy hours wandering around its luxurious interior, looking at things I couldn't afford to buy, and even standing outside in the cold to see their incredible Christmas window displays. Marshall Field's was part of my history, part of the history of Chicago, and a huge chunk of the retail store industry's history. Where I grew up, everyone knew that, respected it and it made us proud*. That's why I knew that a historical fiction novel about this particular woman behind this particular empire-building man was exactly my kind of story.

The novel begins with the Great Chicago Fire, and how Delia meets Marshall for the first time, and from there we follow the two and their paths - both separate and together - until Marshall's death. It is, of course, a love story, but one filled with quite a few hardships. To begin with, Marshall Field was married to Nannie Douglas Scott, and two of their children reached adulthood. Dalia Spencer was married to Arthur Caton. After the deaths of Arthur and Nannie, Marshall married Dalia - his "long-time friend," as the papers called them, despite the rumors about an affair between them, which certainly caused a scandal in their day.

On the side of commerce, the Chicago Fire wasn't the only disaster that befell both the city and Field's business. These included another major fire, a financial panic that lead to a depression and the rise of the labor unions, which Field opposed. Put these two together, with a heavy dose of conjecture, and that's just the perfect recipe for a rip-roaring historical fiction romance novel, which is exactly what Rosen gives us.

With all that information available, Rosen needed to make sure she didn't include too much history and not enough fiction. Thankfully, Rosen shows she knows her stuff, carefully treading that fine line like a professional tightrope walker. That means that Rosen had to put the love affair at the very heart of this story, and then weave everything else around that, even at the expense of some facts going astray. As necessary as this focus is, there was one small section where I think she got a touch carried away with the romance part, which I feel could have been left out of the final version. That said, I did like her idea about how she solved the problem of Nellie Field being suspiciously absent, while Marshall, Delia and Arthur were constantly seen together hobnobbing around Chicago's high society.

Rosen achieves all of this with a very simple prose style, which has enough touches of formal language to give us a feel for the era, without sounding archaic. Furthermore, she builds Delia's character with precision so that we cannot help but empathize with her. This also helps us believe how both Arthur and Marshall would fall in love with her. Despite how Rosen shows Marshall's harsher side, in his relationship with Delia he is both charming and endearing, which of course, is exactly why Nellie loved him as well. This leaves Nellie to be the prime antagonist in the story, and Rosen has her play that part with all her might.

All told, this book is simply a joy to read from beginning to end. Rosen's style is engaging and era appropriate with elements that made this almost into a page-turner mystery novel. The only small problem was the part of the story that bordered on being too romantic for my taste, but otherwise this novel is hard to fault. Despite my already knowing many of the facts behind this story, I found some non-fictional things that I didn't know anything about, together with some very enjoyable fictional additions. For all of this, I can warmly recommend this novel with four and a half out of five stars.

(*This is why many Chicagoans - myself included - boycott Macy's, because they refused to leave the name "Marshall Field & Co." up on that the State Street building when they bought them out.)

"What the Lady Wants" by Renee Rosen is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), from an IndieBound store near you as well as new or used from Alibris.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A well-punctuated road-trip

It's. Nice. Outside. by Jim Kokoris

John Nichols isn't doing very well. He's 50-something, divorced and unhappy with his job, so with his two daughters no longer at home, his whole life surrounds his 19-year-old autistic and mentally disabled son, Ethan. What's more, as much as John loves his son, it's getting harder to handle him. Aside from that, John's feeling like the life he dreamed of having may slip away forever, unless he does something about it soon. Now he's driving with Ethan from Illinois to his daughter Karen's wedding in South Carolina, with a secret plan that will change everything.

Excuse me for playing the "literary comparison" game, but I'm surprised that no one else has called this something like "Mark Haddon meets Fanny Flagg" by now. Actually, that's not far from being accurate, to tell the truth. Of course, the Haddon comparison comes with any book that has even one character with any kind of autism spectrum syndrome, but there's no avoiding that. The Fanny Flagg part is another thing altogether, and what I mean by this is the type of wit and humor she brings to her writing, particularly when the subject matter could have been very heavy. With this book, Kokoris combines exactly these two elements - a serious subject, and a heavy dose of humor.

Sure, this is nothing new, but what makes this novel special is how Kokoris leads us through the story with varying levels of frustration and satisfaction. Of course, some of this comes from Ethan, and his unconventional behavior. Ethan can be wholly unpredictable, with days when he's so difficult that you can't believe anyone can figure out how to cope with him. On the other hand, there are those things that always evoke a positive reaction from Ethan; and in that, he's also predictable. Kokoris uses this to parallel the complexities of all the relationships in this family, some of which are so convoluted, they make Ethan seem almost normal at times. At the same time, any one or combination of these characters can be ultimately straightforward.

Isn't that what life really is like? Basic human behavior and routine interactions, punctuated with those anomalous events that - even temporarily - rock our world and sometimes cause us to react atypically, despite ourselves. This is what makes this book into an amazing delight of a story. It is real, it is honest, and every one of the characters is believable, because we've met them all before, or see something of them in ourselves. How often do we get to read books like this that make us laugh out loud, and then make us nod in total recognition, and even bring a tear to our eyes? Not that often, I can assure you.

I should note that when I told a friend about this book, the first thing they said was "this sounds like it would make a good movie." That reaction somewhat surprised me, but after I thought about it, I think they were right. One reason for this is the vehicle Kokoris uses to help the story unfold, that being the elaborate road-trip from Illinois through to South Carolina and then from there to Maine. This would certainly make it a visually interesting movie to watch. Since large amounts of the text here are conversations, both between characters and internal ones, I can easily see this as a screenplay. However, if you want the full impact of this story, you really should read this book. Furthermore, I have to admit that I couldn't find anything that didn't feel right to me (well, there was one character who preferred the White Sox to the Cubs, but hey, no accounting for taste), so I'm wholeheartedly recommending this book and giving it a full five out of five stars.

"It's. Nice. Outside." By Jim Kokoris, release date December 8, 2015 from St. Martin's Press - Minotaur Books is available for pre-order from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What is your superpower?

My Grandmother Sends her Regrets and Apologises (aka My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry), by Fredrik Backman

Anyone who has been reading my reviews will know that my favorite book of 2014 was Backman's, "A Man Called Ove." This Swedish author took the world by storm with his poignant story of a man who has given up, and the people who keep him going. I was lucky enough to get that novel as an ARC, but when this one showed up on NetGalley, the publishers rejected my request. Undaunted, we paid good money to buy this book, and it's an investment we will treasure for years to come. In fact, Backman's second novel immediately became heavy competition for Anne Tyler's "A Spool of Blue Thread" for the #1 spot on my 2015 list.

If you've read Ove, you'll know that Backman knows how to tug at your heartstrings, as well as how to develop a character that is fully out of the ordinary. In his second novel, Backman takes us into the precocious mind of the almost eight-year-old Elsa, and her relationship with her grandmother, who seems to be certifiably insane, while dying from cancer. Of course, things aren't as they seem, and these two females have a slew of people to contend with as well as the rest of the world. You see, Elsa is the type of nerdy girl that kids in school are always picking on. Elsa's mother, Ulrika, is a high-powered hospital executive, divorced from Elsa's father and now pregnant with a new baby with her second husband. Not long after Elsa was born, granny decided to retire from her career to help take care of her, and became Elsa's best, and only friend. Of course, Ulrika appreciates this, but she's upset that her mother suddenly abandoned her career for Elsa, because she did the exact opposite when Ulrika was a child, running off across the globe to save the lives of strangers instead of taking care of her own daughter. Now that she's dying, she's not going to be there for Elsa much longer.

There are actually two parts to this book. First, there's the fantasy/fairytale world that Elsa's grandmother makes up - the Land-of-Almost-Asleep, which is actually several lands, all connected, and filled with princes, princesses, heroes, wild beasts, strange creatures, villains, magic, battles, destruction, love, disappointment and even a few happily-ever-after endings. Then, there's the world that they really live in, which includes the apartment building complex and its conglomeration of neighbors, and their dysfunctional relationships with the grandmother and with each other. These two worlds slowly come together with the "quest" that granny gives Elsa to carry out for her - to send her regards and apologies to the people she wronged throughout her life.

What makes this book so magical has nothing at all to do with the magic in the stories that granny tells Elsa. Rather, this novel delights us because through it, granny guides Elsa's moral compass using stories that anyone can understand. Not the least of these the lesson that we need to try to be understanding of people who are different, and be open enough to see through their differences to discover their "superpowers." Because, you see, everyone has some kind of a superpower, and that's something we can admire. More importantly, granny doesn't discourage Elsa in questioning any of the parts of granny's fairytales that she sees as being illogical or unreasonable. Granny's main lesson for Elsa is that she needs to observe, listen, and then come to her own conclusions regarding the best way to act and react to the things and people around her. Of course, Granny also teaches Elsa that none of us is perfect, and that's why she has Elsa apologize to all the people Granny believed she wronged. That, in itself, shows Elsa a weakness on Granny's part, which also further proves her point.

If there is anything that doesn't sit completely right in this book, it is how Elsa and Granny feed "the werst" - the very large dog living in their building - chocolate. I've always heard that chocolate is poisonous to dogs, so I decided to look it up. What I found is that yes, it certainly isn't good for them, but it might not kill them either. Since "the werst" is a very large dog, it is possible that the amounts they give him aren't large enough to be fatal. Then again, this could be a misguided translation, and what they give it is actually a well-known Swedish treat that doesn't actually have chocolate in it. Either way, although it did bother me a touch, it certainly didn't ruin the story for me.

Most importantly, in this novel, Backman doubled (if not more) the charm he displayed in his telling of the story of Ove. There isn't a page where you won't feel one kind of emotion or another, in some degree, making you smile, chuckle, guffaw or try to suppress that lump in your throat. Furthermore (and once again), I dare you to finish reading this without using up many tissues in the process. It is just that beautiful, that heartwarming, and that wonderful. Read it, please, because I can't recommend it more highly, and couldn't give it less than a full five stars out of five.

You can buy this book (and you really should buy this book) from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook, US audiobook or UK audiobook), The Book Depository in both US and UK versions (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an Indie Bookstore near you.

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