Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sins and Secrets of the Ancient Epicure

Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

Apicius was a rich Roman merchant and famous gourmand who reached the height of his fame during the first century of the Common Era. His dream was to become gastronomic advisor to the Cesar. After his previous cook died of mysterious circumstances, he heard about the slave Thrasius that had just come on the market. Since Thrasius was a cook for one of his rival gourmands, he knew he must make this purchase. King tells this story through the eyes of Thrasius, imagining a relationship that will bring Apicius fame and lead to a collaboration in writing the world's first cookbook, all while navigating the ever changing conspiratorial waters of Roman politics.

What drew me to this book was the idea of the combination of culinary fiction with ancient roman historical fiction. Regarding the latter, many years ago, I read Colleen McCullough's "Masters of Rome" books, which began my fascination with this place and period in history. What amazed me about McCullough's books was the sheer volume of political underhanded dealings and intrigues that surrounded this early model of governance, elements of which still live today in modern democracies. Any historical fiction that takes place during these times must include a good measure of these complexities to be worth its salt. King decided to do this on a micro level by focusing on one family and the members of its household, who happen to have actually been at the eyes of some real major political storms.

As for my love of culinary fiction, of course, Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an early favorite, but I think my real fascination with this tiny genre started with the obscure 1976 book Someone's Killing the Great Chefs of Europe by Nan and Ivan Lyons. (Trust me; if you can get your hands on a copy, it is a "must-read" for lovers of both culinary fiction and murder mysteries.) That led me to other authors such as Joanne Harris among others, and now it always piques my interest when I see food entwined with a fictional plot. With both of these two things in place, King's debut novel was one I absolutely had to read, and I'm pleased to say that she didn't let me down!

My regular readers will recall that I've always said there's a fine line between just enough and too much information in historical fiction - particularly when it comes to times where there's an abundance of information. As noted above, ancient Rome is certainly one of those instances. King does a commendable job of keeping the facts from overwhelming the fiction here, although I also felt that she could have cut down on some of the crisis that Thrasius and the Apicius family had to overcome. This can lead to a type of roller-coaster effect, which can be a touch tiresome; too many climaxes tend to lessen the impact of them as a whole. However, knowing what King was dealing with here made me feel that this was only a minor problem with this novel. On the other hand, what worked surprisingly well here was King's artful use of smatterings of Latin into the text, without disturbing the flow of the narrative. Mind you, there were some instances where King used phrases that felt a touch too modern for the period (for example, would someone from the 1st century use "okay?").

When it comes to the food parts of this book, King delightfully describes the meals and different types of banquets, including both their distinctive gourmet elements as well as the ostentatious methods of these events, down to the types of napkins they used. Although I already knew that many of the foodstuffs adored by Romans of the time are either unfamiliar or disused today, some of the ingredients could bring about both shock and awe for even the bravest of eaters (like dormouse, for instance). This clearly shows King's massive research here, the crumbs of which (pun intended) she artfully merges into the action, making sure their flavors don't overshadow the plot or the characters themselves. Therefore, regarding the essential elements of the culinary sphere, again King did a laudable job of balancing a high level of accuracy of facts into her fictional imaginings.

However, at its basis, this story belongs to Thrasius, which I might call a multi-faceted love story. We have Thrasius' love of food, cooking, and devising new recipes. We also witness his falling in love with a fellow slave. Furthermore, we see how Thrasius comes to love his master and the members of his family. Shakespeare said, "The course of true love never did run smooth" and so as King developed Thrasius' tale with many obstacles. As a character, Thrasius is is one readers can easily identify with, and will find themselves rooting for him with every barrier in his way, making for a story that will grip us from the start. Together with this, King also didn't hold back with developing the cast of characters surrounding Thrasius, making them no less vibrant and creating a believable and well rounded ensemble. Overall, I felt this novel was simply delectable. If this, King's debut work, is an appetizer of King's talent, we should all hungrily await the courses she has on her forthcoming menus. I think this book deserves an appealing four stars (literary, not Michelin) out of five.

"Feast of Sorrow" by Crystal King, published by Touchstone, released April 25, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, eBooks, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), 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 novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Eves of Winter Stories

A Snow Garden & Other Stories by Rachel Joyce

In this collection, Rachel Joyce connects seven stories spanning from just before Christmas Eve through New Year's Eve. Joyce not only arranges these tales chronologically, she also links them with other elements. The stories here are:

  • A Faraway Smell of Lemon - Binny wasn't interested in preparing for Christmas when she steps into a shop to avoid one of her neighbors (reviewed previously, here)
  • The Marriage Manual - where the perfect couple assembles their son's new bicycle as their marriage falls apart
  • Christmas Day at the Airport - chaos ensues when the computers go down at the airport and a woman goes into early labor
  • The Boxing Day Ball - set in the 1960s, Maureen steps out and finds herself on her way towards her own future
  • A Snow Garden - Henry is still fragile after his breakdown, but insists he's ready to take care of his teenage boys while his ex-wife is away on vacation
  • I'll be Home for Christmas - Sylvia's son comes back to his humble home for a short break from his hectic life of stardom
  • Trees - on New Year's Eve, Oliver's father insists on planting trees in strategic spots 

As usual, Joyce hands us charm and wit as well as insights into the types of things that ordinary people experience every day. This combination is what made Joyce's readers fall in love with Harold Fry and Queenie Hennessy as well as her characters in Perfect. Hers are are the types of characters that evoke honesty and reflect the reality of the mundane. At the same time, they surprise us with just how extraordinary they these simple people can actually be. Yes, that may sound like an oxymoron, but that is Joyce's stock in trade. This idea is similar to what John Irving employs, but without the addition of absurdities (and endless digressions leading to more tangents) added to the mix. 

As I mentioned above, these stories are all very cleverly connected. For example, there's a red coat noted in the story "The Boxing Day Ball," and that same type of 1960s red coat shows up on a woman in adverts noted in a few of the modern day stories. Another example is how Binny's boyfriend Oliver in the first story ends up as the protagonist/narrator of the last story. Joyce also gives us a group of men dressed as Santa showing up in a few of the stories. Joyce ingeniously weaves these ties into her stories to be just subtle enough as to be noticeable, without becoming blatantly obvious. This, combined with Joyce's tender and almost simplistic writing style brings each these stories to life. Furthermore, although we could easily read any these tales on their own and in any order we choose, the adept compilation makes this book feel almost like a novel. 

I should note that as much as I enjoyed these stories, I'm not completely convinced that the short story is really Joyce's best venue for her talents. While Joyce gives us very sympathetic characters in each story, I sometimes felt that she didn't have enough time to develop them so that we could truly fall in love with them. I felt this most with the story "I'll be Home for Christmas," where just as we are starting to feel something for both Sylvia and her son, the story ends. In addition, I was somewhat confused by the story "The Marriage Manual," with its inclusion of some magical-realism that didn't sit right with me. 

Despite these small drawbacks, what Joyce gives us here is a delightful collection that reminds us that no matter how normal or ordinary our lives may seem, if you look in the right places, there are always some small miracles to be found. It seems to me that this message of hope is an appropriate theme for Christmas (or any time of celebration, for that matter), which even non-Christians (like me) can appreciate. This is why I'm going to recommend this book with a very strong four and a half stars out of five.

"A Snow Garden & Other Stories" by Rachel Joyce is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris and Better World Books.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Post: Co-Authors Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks.

Weave a Murderous Web is a mystery novel by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks. In this guest post, they talk about their lives and their books.

We both have a thing about New York City. Anne was born here and she never would have left except that her parents dragged her off to what was supposed to be a better life in Scarsdale when she was nine years old. She still refers to that time away as “The Exile.”

Ken was raised in the suburbs of Abington, outside of Philadelphia, but remembers clearly his first visit to New York with his parents, and his second with a school band in Junior High, and the third with his roommates from college, and... Well, you get the idea? The city made an impression.

Eventually, we got married and have lived in New York City since 1973 and raised three children, who have also vowed never to leave. We have walked these sometimes-messy streets from top to bottom, explored the various neighborhoods, parks, museums, and bridges, and we still feel we have things to learn.

So now, what do we write about? We write about people in situations that put them under stress and cause them to grow, but those people are usually residents of New York City. And the neighborhoods of the city are an integral part of every story.

Concerning our mainstream novel, Kate and the Kid, one reader wrote:

It's almost as though the city itself is another character in the book. The writer seems to know where all the best parks are, the best playgrounds, and exactly how to get there. New York neighborhoods come alive is this novel so if you live in New York City or want to live in New York City or have even just thought about New York City, you'll enjoy the way Kate And The Kid makes it all seem familiar. Stanford Gal, Amazon Review, Feb. 8, 2015

The same is true of our other books. Weave a Murderous Web, the chronological first in the Jane Larson series, involves a hotshot Wall Street lawyer who helps a friend and gets involved in a seamy matrimonial case that leads to murder, attempts on her life, and general mayhem. The plot unfolds in and around the New York State Supreme Court building at 60 Centre Street, the posh law firms of Park Avenue, the seedy back alleys of TriBeCa, and the tenement buildings of the less developed sections of the Upper East Side. There is even an excursion out of the borough to Long Island City and elsewhere in Queens.

The result? One reader, who is also an author, said:

I love books where the setting comes alive. Where I feel like I’m in the place, with people who live there. This is true in this novel. These authors know the setting and make it real. Conda Douglas, Author.

So, if you want to take a visit to New York City without leaving your favorite reading chair, we have some suggestions. First, a cozy mystery (Weave a Murderous Web). Second, a mystery that will give you chills (Mind Me, Milady). Third, a thriller with lots of mayhem (Praise Her, Praise Diana). Fourth, a mainstream novel in which a young woman learns how to let love into her life when she takes care of a traumatized child (Kate and the Kid). And Fifth, a fantasy in which a talking pigeon leads a brother and sister on an adventure all around Central Park (Things Are Not What They Seem).

Well over 50 million people a year visit our city. We hope you will be one and will open up your minds and hearts to any one of our novels. We look forward to hearing from you!

Readers can connect with them on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.
To learn more, go to

"Weave a Murderous Web" is one of three books in the Jane Larson series, published by Melange Books, and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

No good deed goes unpunished. When Jane Larson—a hotshot litigator for a large firm in New York City—helps a friend, she is sucked into the unfamiliar world of divorce and child support. Jane's discovery of the deadbeat dad's hidden assets soon unravels a web of lies, drugs, and murder that keeps getting more dangerous. Soon, Jane is involved in a high stakes race to recover a missing suitcase of cash and catch the murderer before she becomes the next victim.

“A sleuthing lawyer returns to the streets of New York in this mystery of drugs, murder, and financial skulduggery… the husband-wife team of Rothman-Hicks and Hicks has again produced a fast-paced, engaging story… overall, this is a satisfying read. An enjoyable romp involving a shady attorney and the mob that should make readers look forward to the next Jane Larson caper.” - Kirkus

“The action is breathtaking and the writing beautiful. Weave a Murderous Web: A Jane Larson Novel is a story that reminds me of the characters of John Grisham’s Gray Mountain… Jane Larson is the kind of character that will be loved by many readers… The plot is well thought out and masterfully executed, laced with numerous surprises to keep readers turning the pages. This is one of those books that should occupy an enviable place in your shelf if you are into fast-paced thrillers and compelling investigative stories.” - 5 Stars, Ruffina Oserio, Readers’ Favorite

“MURDEROUS WEB is a classic whodunit with classic New York City characters.” - Gimme That Book

Weave a Murderous Web is an enthralling murder mystery. It gets your heart pounding with action and passion, while simultaneously entangling your mind with its ambiguity. The dynamic duo has done it again. The husband and wife writing team of Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks pens another on-the-edge-of-your seat murder mystery. Engaging. Witty. Fast paced. I love the Hicks’ contemporary writing style. The narrative is full of delightful metaphorical statements. The setting takes you into the heart of New York City – it reflects just the right amount of ambiance… As the plot progresses, the intensity heightens, catapulting you into a surprising twist, then plummets you into a sudden, yet satisfying end.” - 5 Stars, Cheryl E. Rodriguez, Readers’ Favorite

Weave a Murderous Web involves a hotshot Wall Street lawyer who is a sassy, cynical New Yorker through and through. To help out a friend, she gets involved in a seamy matrimonial case that quickly pulls her into a vortex of murder, drugs, and dangerous games of deception.” - The Big Thrill

Weave a Murderous Web is a smart and entertaining mystery by Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks that will leave lovers of the genre anxiously waiting for another installment starring the intrepid protagonist, Jane Larson… Weave a Murderous Web has plenty to keep the reader engaged as Jane digs in her heels, determined to get to the truth. Witty dialogue, supported by great writing and some understated humor, makes this book not only a must-read – but also a darned good one!” - 5 Stars, Marta Tandori, Readers’ Favorite

About the Authors:
Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks have been collaborating on books for forty-six years. Their first joint effort was a student project while Anne was at Bryn Mawr College and Ken attended Haverford. Since then, they have written over twenty books together. They are members of International Thriller Writers. They live and work in New York City, where many of their books are set.

Their Jane Larson series of mystery/thrillers involves a high-powered New York City attorney with a penchant for getting involved in situations that she would be better off leaving alone. These novels have been praised by reviewers for their gritty portrayals of city life, lively characters, fast action, surprise endings and highly polished prose. Jane is cynical and rebellious, but she finds herself drawn to the simple life her deceased mother lived as an attorney who served women unable to afford legal services. The first two books in the series are Weave A Murderous Web and Praise Her, Praise Diana, both published by Melange Books, LLC. A third novel, Mind Me, Milady, will be published in early 2017.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Life in Steps

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

On the evening of December 31, 1984, Lillian Boxfish set out for her traditional New Year's Eve dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. Despite not being hungry after absentmindedly consuming most of a package of Oreo cookies while speaking on the phone with her son, she is determined to walk all the way there, thinking it might bring her appetite back. Walking the familiar streets of New York brings back over 50 years of memories, where once people knew her as the "highest paid advertising woman in the world." Based on the story of Margaret Fishback, Kathleen Rooney's book is a journey of imaginings using grace and elegance, together with humor and tragedy to investigate the life of a woman we otherwise would never have known.

The concept of this book is simply ingenious. On the one hand, we follow Lillian's paths along the streets of New York from the last hours of 1984 until the first moments of 1985. Her stops along the way include not only her original destination (her traditional New Year's Eve Italian restaurant), but a list of spontaneous favorite spots that have significance to her - from both her past and her present. While she makes her way, we not only get to experience the strangers she meets, but also the memories from her past that come to mind along the way. In this way, we get an overview of Lillian's New York life, and what a life that was!
Furthermore, Rooney gives Lillian a very liberal outlook on the world, one that is (for the most part) non-judgmental, and accepting of practically everyone, even to the point of possibly putting herself into harm's way. (Think about it, an 85-year-old woman, walking the streets of New York at night, alone, in 1984-5! How much more vulnerable can you make yourself?)

This is certainly my favorite type of fiction (although usually this happens more with historical fiction, and less with contemporary fiction - of which this is essentially both), shining a light on real people about whom we know little to nothing about, and Rooney's spotlight was as startlingly bright as it was flattering. To begin with, Rooney's writing style is so sophisticated and charming that you can't help but believe that Lillian was not only a talented writer and poet, but that she must have been even more beguiling than Rooney portrays her. Rooney's use of language is also endearingly witty, and I'm trying to figure out how many words in the thesaurus I'll need to use to describe this book, because it's already starting to run out of appropriate adjectives.

As you can see, I'm in love with this book, and that makes it terribly difficult to review without becoming so effusive that my readers get sick of me. So rather than go on and on with piles of compliments that get not only whipped cream but several cherries on top, I'm simply going to say that I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and it deserves more than just a full five stars out of five! (Note to self: where have you been all my reading life, Kathleen Rooney?)

(PS: If you want to read more about the inspiration behind Lillian Boxfish, you can go to Duke University's Guide to the Margaret Fishback Papers, 1863-1978 and undated, take a look at the Wikipedia page about her, as well as read the official New York Times obituary, which doesn't say all that much, I'm afraid. However, below you'll find links to some of her books of verse that I found available on Amazon - just in case you're interested and have the money for these apparently collectable, long out-of-print volumes.)

"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney published by St. Martin's Press, released January 17, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, eBooks, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), 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 novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

In case you're interested, I found the following copies of Fishback's books of poetry on Amazon here:

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Truth and Politics

The Death of an Owl by Paul Torday

According to the forward (written by the late Torday's son Piers), this book is "about a man who couldn't help but tell the truth, and how that played out when he gets involved in a scandal involving a politician who runs over an owl by mistake." This was supposed to be Torday's ninth novel, but he passed away before he could finish writing it (apparently, leaving the manuscript unfinished, with the writing "stopped mid-sentence, at a key point in the story"). Thankfully, Piers took up the challenge and finished it for him.

It seems somewhat appropriate that the underlying theme of this book is about truth and politics - and how they apparently don't mix. In fact, from what I can see, Torday is essentially saying that politicians are inherently liars (no surprises there). More importantly, Torday seems to believe that as much as they may try to run from their dirty secrets, in the end, they can't really hide. This somewhat optimistically cynical view of British government does have shades of his most famous book, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" (which I read, but never reviewed). In addition, Torday also takes this to somewhat darker, almost mystic corners, which reminded me of his novel, The Girl on the Landing. Torday also inserts a psychological aspect into this book that brought to mind his Light Shining in the Forest.

What Torday was best at in his previous novels was getting quickly to the heart of a story. However, in this book we get quite a bit more back-story than in his other works. This starts with Torday's protagonist, Charles Fryerne (of Fryerne Court, no less), whose family had a glorious past, which has long since faded. Charles begins to find his way at University and decides go on to become a political journalist. At first, we see Charles' budding career, and watch how his lack of guile helps him gain a certain reputation (with little to no financial gain in the process). Charles reports the facts and doesn't allow (what we now call) fake news to get in the way of the truth, he also sees both sides of any story. Being so trustworthy is the very reason people from his past turn to him with their political ambitions, but it also makes him vulnerable for others to take advantage of him. Torday delves quite deeply into these aspects of the story, which I felt was something of a departure for Torday, at least in how they compare to the rest of the novel.

However, it also seemed that Torday forgot some of these pieces of information behind, including some that might have been useful foreshadowing, for later events in the book. For example, the main antagonist in this story is Andrew Landford, a man Charles meets in passing while at university, whose dream is to become Prime Minister. After gathering a think tank to brainstorm how to revitalize British conservative politics, Andrew suddenly goes off to the USSR, and ends up staying there after the fall of the union. This allows him to take advantage of that era's instability and amass even more wealth than he had to begin with. This tidbit is totally ignored later in the book, and I'm not sure why. One explanation is that when Torday's son took on finishing the book, he may have overlooked certain aspects - call them clues - which Torday intended to use for the climax and ending that he originally envisioned for this novel.

I must admit that my feeling that Torday (or his son) ignored this bit could be my own present paranoia, brought on by today's American headlines. I have to remember that Torday died in 2013, before Brexit or Trump. However, as was highly evident in Salmon Fishing, Torday certainly understood how money and power (both from within and without) could influence the workings of government. That's why I'm thinking that while Torday was writing this book, he was also looking at the political world - both at home in the UK as well as in USA - and he was trying to make a statement. I think that statement was an essentially hopeful one (if somewhat naïve in today's world), despite some of the ominous aspects of this book. In other words, Torday was trying to say that honesty, while generally valued on an intellectual and philosophical level, sometimes gets you into as much trouble as deceit.

As for the hints at the unnatural threats in this story, I was hoping that they'd develop a touch more than what we have here. I'm positive that this was Piers' doing, since I doubt that Torday would have let that get such a reasonable explanation - at least not if you've read his book Girl on the Landing. On the other hand, the idea that one freak incident can absurdly snowball into making or breaking a politician is something that comes through beautifully in this novel, and that's to Piers' credit. I also couldn't tell where Torday's prose dropped off and Piers' began, which is certainly a good thing. Finally, I also appreciated how the insertions of wry humor consistently continued from the beginning through to the end of the novel. Overall, while this isn't quite as good as the other books written by the late Torday, it was an excellent effort on Piers part, and I congratulate him on being brave enough to attempt to continue his father's legacy. I also think how Piers concluded this story, made it very topical in light of certain political personalities in the news these days. For all that, I'll recommend it with a strong four stars out of five rating.

"The Death of an Owl" by Paul Torday (with Piers Torday) is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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