Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Book Review: "Ordinary Grace" by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace William Kent Krueger
Published: March 26, 2013
ISBN: 9781451645828
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Postal Book Club
Highly Recommended

New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were at the ready at Halderson’s Drug Store soda counter, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a summer in which death assumed many forms.

When tragedy unexpectedly comes to call on his family, which includes his Methodist minister father, his passionate, artistic mother, Juilliard-bound older sister, and wise-beyond-his years kid brother, Frank finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal.

My Thoughts:
This book is many things: a mystery, a family drama, a snapshot of small town life.  I've actually struggled with how to approach it with this review because, in my mind, it fits too many and too few boxes.  But one thing that this book was, without question, was magnificent.

It succeeds on so many levels.  Having the narrator of an adult book be a young boy can be problematic, but it worked here.  I also liked that Frank was not a model child--he disobeyed his parents and frequently made trouble for himself.  Krueger was able to show the reader who Frank was as a child and who he would become as a man.

The dynamics in Frank's family are complicated, but Krueger lays them out well.  Both of his parents have a history, which the reader never fully discovers (because Frank himself never discovers it), but it gives the characters some meaty layers.

Krueger also makes some wise choices when it comes to the town of New Bremen.  He doesn't draw in to many characters, but he fully utilizes the characters he does bring in.  The largest of these characters is Gus, a man living close to transiency but beholden to Frank's father.  Even though he is an adult, he is both a partner and guardian to Frank.

The language of this book is absolutely breathtaking.  This particular sentence sold me (found on page 5 of my copy): "Night was the dark of the soul and being up in an hour when the rest of the world was dead with sleep gave me a sinful thrill." Once I read that, I knew that Krueger was a writer of great note.

This book has a mystery-type plot and mystery fans won't be disappointed.  However, it didn't read like a mystery to me.  I figured out the "whodunnit" fairly early, but it really didn't impact my experience with this book.  To me, this was a family drama combined with a coming of age novel that worked on every level.

I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.

Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger

Friday, August 28, 2015

Saturday Snapshot - August 29

To participate in Saturday Snapshot: post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky below. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don’t post random photos that you find online.

Earlier this summer, I posted pics from a walk my family and I went on at Jackson Bottom Wetlands near our house.  This past week, we headed back there for another walk and I thought I'd take some late summer pictures to share.  We're in the midst of a drought here, and it really shows in the wetlands!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Maria Semple
Published: August 14, 2012
ISBN: 9780316204279
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy (Book Club Selection)

You might enjoy this book if you like: Sit coms, Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, books from a teenaged girl's point of view, Seattle-ish things

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world. 

My Thoughts:
When I first said I was reading this book, I received a cavalcade of, "Oh, I just loved that book" from people.  But, in the midst of that, there was one person who said they enjoyed it, but they really had to suspend their disbelief.  I have that person to thank for me actually finishing this book.  I'm afraid that, if I hadn't known that I had to give up on reality or this one, there would be no way I could finish it.

Don't get me wrong, I did think this book was entertaining and there are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, but it can be, at times, just too much.  The entire book had sort of a set up-laugh-recover feel that I tend to experience when watching sit coms on television (this isn't surprising as the author was a sit com writer)..  This isn't a bad thing, as it keeps the flow of the story going from scene to scene and provides a pretty stable rate for the narrative.  However, it is hard to sustain this throughout the entire book, at least not a book of this length.

This book is also mostly an epistolary novel.  I don't mind that, but it may not be everyone's cup of tea.  I don't write that to knock the book, but I think it might be something to think about if you are considering this book.  Personally, I liked the epistolary style as it was an effective method of controlling what information the read would have and when they would have it.  I think, if you went into this book knowing everything, it just wouldn't work.

I will say this, I wasn't overly fond of any of the characters in this book.  Most were a bit, well, too cartoon-ish for me to take seriously, but I wish that I would have been able to feel more empathy with Bernadette, Elgin, and Bee.  It's not that I actively disliked them--it was just that I couldn't ever conjure up any real feelings for them.  They were just sort of there.

Then, there was the last 25-30% of the book.  This is where you need to hang up reality and just go with it.  Frankly, it doesn't make a lot of sense and, if you think about it, it all falls apart.  It's a bit ridiculous and unbelievable, but it does fit into the fabric of the book so I can't just write it off.  But...still....if I hadn't been warned, I would no have been able to finish this book.

Am I glad I read this?  Well, I said, I was entertained by it.  I was also completely exhausted by the time I finished, thanks to the sort of frenetic energy of it.  I would probably recommend this book to some people--people who I think could handle the sort of unique demands it makes.

I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Saturday Snapshot - August 22

To participate in Saturday Snapshot: post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky below. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don’t post random photos that you find online.

As you saw, we spent last weekend up in the Seattle area visiting my in-laws.  It really was a last minute sort of thing--we decided late Thursday night that we'd go on Friday as soon as my daughter was done with theatre camp.

Here are a few snaps from our weekend:

My kids really wanted to go to the Marine Science center in Poulsbo, which they first visited over the 4th, but it was closed for maintenance.  They had to settle for crawling all over a giant octopus.

Puget Sound from Bainbridge Island (Fay Bainbridge Park)

The kids never turn down a chance to get wet....

The Tacoma Narrows bridge with Mt Rainier in the background.  The picture doesn't do it justice.

Mt. Rainier looks like it's floating.....

Friday, August 14, 2015

Saturday Snapshot - August 15

To participate in Saturday Snapshot: post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky below. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don’t post random photos that you find online.

We're making an impromptu trip up to Washington to visit my in-laws for the weekend (the kids still have no idea!), so Alice will be watching things while we're gone....

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Book Review: "Kitchens of the Great Midwest" by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest J. Ryan Stradal
Published: July 28, 2015
ISBN: 9780525429142
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Short Stories
Source: Netgalley
Highly Recommended

You might enjoy this book if you like: Food, The News from Lake Wobegon, Lorna Landvik, Fargo, Cooking, Recipes, (did I mention food?)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, about a young woman with a once-in-a-generation palate who becomes the iconic chef behind the country’s most coveted dinner reservation, is the summer’s most hotly-anticipated debut. 

When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent. 

My Thoughts:
I really don't know if there is a book out there that is more suited to my tastes than this one. I love food and cooking (well, I don't always love cooking--but I love the idea of cooking), I love short story collections (this is a short story collection in novel form, if that makes any sense), and I love the Midwest.  So, you know, sign me up.

This book lived up to all of my expectations and then some.  The mechanics of this book are unique, which is something I don't come across too often.  As I said, it is a short story collection in novel form.  By that, I mean that each chapter is a distinct chapter, but they are all tied together through the character of Eva Thorvald.  So, is Eva the main character?  Well, yes and no.  She is definitely the axis around which this book turns, but she appears less and less in the book as it progresses.  In turn, other characters take center stage as their lives are touched in surprising ways by Eva.  Honestly, if someone told me this was how it went, I never would have thought it would work  But it does--marvelously.

At its heart, this is a story of parents and children, specifically mothers and daughters--but you don't see that until you've read the last word.  Stradal is not overbearing with his theme and lets it develop organically over all the stories he includes.  I appreciated that I wasn't hit over the head with THIS IS WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT and that Stradal let me discover it on my own.

And the food!  Yes, there are recipes and I have a mostly love, but a little hate relationship with recipes in novels.  I appreciate them but, unless they are collected at the end of the book, I find that they sometimes break up the flow of the narrative.  Stradal not only doesn't save the recipes for the end, he puts them right smack dab in the middle of the narrative.  Again, this should irritate the heck out of me, but he does it in a way that actually works.  This is partly because there aren't that many recipes and also because, when he does include them, it is part of the action of the plot.  Oh, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be making Pat Prager's Peanut Butter Bars in the very near future!

Let me close with this, several people that I know will most likely receive copies of this book for Christmas.  It is that good!

I received an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest review.  I received no other compensation for this post.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest
by J. Ryan Stradal

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Book Review: "The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach" by Pam Jenoff + GIVEAWAY

The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach Pam Jenoff
Published: July 28, 2015
ISBN: 9780778317548
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: TLC Book Tours
Highly Recommended

You might enjoy this book if you like: Love stories, immigrant stories, World War II History, Gone with the Wind, Marvel's Agent Carter

Young Adelia Monteforte flees fascist Italy for America, where she is whisked away to the shore by her well-meaning aunt and uncle. Here, she meets and falls for Charlie Connally, the eldest of the four Irish-Catholic boys next door. But all hopes for a future together are soon throttled by the war and a tragedy that hits much closer to home. 

Grief-stricken, Addie flees—first to Washington and then to war-torn London—and finds a position at a prestigious newspaper, as well as a chance to redeem lost time, lost family…and lost love. But the past always nips at her heels, demanding to be reckoned with. And in a final, fateful choice, Addie discovers that the way home may be a path she never suspected.

My Thoughts:
When I said that I was reading this book, a number of people told me how much they loved Pam Jenoff's books.  I was a little ashamed to admit that this is the first of her novels that I've read.  But, I can say now, that it definitely won't be the last.

This book had a lot going for it with me from the get go.  I love immigrant stories and World War II historical fiction.  Addie is a strong female character who is working to make it on her own but is enamored by the big Irish family next door (at least during the summer).  Jenoff delivers on all these points and then some.

I really enjoyed Jenoff's voice.  The story is told from Addie's point of view and she sounds like, well, like a young woman in the early 40's--not like an author from the early 21st century.  I also really appreciated that Addie faced not only the obvious challenges like, oh, World War II but also some more subtle ones, such as gender equality in relationships.

This book is all over the place, but I mean that in a good way.  Addie travels from Italy to the United States and then to England and back, but the action of the only spans 4 years.  I found it fascinating how much Addie's world changed in such a short time, but I did question how easily she was able to travel across the Atlantic at pretty much the spur of the moment during wartime.

It shouldn't be a surprise that Addie is the most developed character, but Jenoff keeps the supporting cast from becoming to static.  Each of the Connally brothers has a distinct personality, which helps to keep them straight at times.  I also liked how Jenoff drew Addie's Aunt Bess.  The impression the reader has of her is clearer (and fairer) than the one that Addie gives us.

This was a perfect read at the perfect time for me.  It was an intriguing read that kept my attention with a fast plot and tight writing, but it wasn't so heavy that it became a chore.  I would definitely recommend this book and I know I'll be reading more by Pam Jenoff in the future.

About the Author:
Pam Jenoff is the Quill-nominated internationally bestselling author of The Kommadant’s Girl. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from Cambridge, and she received her Juris Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Jenoff’s novels are based on her experiences working at the Pentagon and also as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school. (Website / Facebook / Twitter)

I received a copy of this book in return for an honest review.  I received no other compensation for this pots.

To read more about this book, check out some of the other stops on the book tour.  The schedule can be found here.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours, I have a copy of The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach by Pam Jenoff AND a Chelsea Beach Limited-Edition Beach Bag.

The giveaway is open until 11:59pm on Monday, August 17th (Pacific Time) and is open to readers in the US and Canada.  To enter, just fill out the Rafflecopter form.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, August 10, 2015

It's Monday...What Are You Reading? (8/10)

Welcome to another week.  You know, sometimes it seems like this summer is flying by and, at other times, it feels like it just crawling along.  We only have a little over 2 more weeks left of official summer here as my daughter starts back at school in late August (my son goes back in mid-September).  I'll be glad to have our routine back, but the thought of getting up early every day just scares me to pieces!  I get a taste of it this week as my son has his preschool camp.  It's just 4 mornings, but that is 4 mornings when we have to be dressed, out of the house, and someplace by a decent hour.  Yikes!

Last week on the blog:
Wednesday, August 5 - Book Review: A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
Friday, August 7 - Book Review: Sweet Water by Christina Baker Kline
Saturday, August 8 - Saturday Snapshot

Right Now, I'm Reading:
The Main Book:
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Okay, I have nothing to say about this one because I will be reading it by the time this post goes live, but as of this writing, I haven't even cracked it open yet.  It arrived through one of my postal book clubs and I'm not letting myself read the synopsis ahead of time.  I don't have too many opportunities to go blind into a book, so always grab them when they come.

The "Purse" Book:
The Other Side of the Bridge by Katharine Swartz
So, ditto the above on this one--although I did read the synopsis this time and it looks intriguing.  I recently read a novella by Swartz and enjoyed it.  Notice, though, that I've switched from calling this my "phone" book and now it is my "purse" book.  Basically, my paperwhite now just lives in my purse, but the purpose is the same: it's the book I whip out to read when I'm waiting somewhere or something like that.  It will take me a longer to get through this one, though, as I took my son out of 5-day a week swimming lessons.  Let's just say he started to show some signs of stress that little 4 year old boys sometimes show.  I can't tell for sure if it was because of swimming lessons every day, but it started at the same time....  Anyway, my daughter still has swimming lessons, but only twice a week, so my "purse" reading might be a little limited for a while.

With My Daughter:
Ivy and Bean and the Ghost Who Had to Go (Ivy and Bean #2) by Annie Barrows
Well, its official.  Ivy and Bean ranks up there with Laura and Ramona in my daughter's eyes.  She loves these books and I will admit that they are pretty fun and not saccharine, like some of the chapter books we've read together.  There are 8 more books (as of now) in this series, so we'll be reading them for quite some time!

Last week, I finished reading:
Sweet Water by Christina Baker Kline (finished 8/3)
My review already went live, so you can click over and see what I thought of it.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (finished 8/4, review 8/21)
Since this one was for my book club, I won't be posting my review until after our meeting.  I will say this, though.  Last week when I said I was reading this, Pechluck commented that I needed to suspend my disbelief for this.  THANK YOU!  Normally, that might fall into spoiler territory for me, but I really needed to hear that for this book.  I think if I wasn't warned, my experience reading this would have been much different.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (finished 8/9, review 8/13)
Okay, I finished this book right before I started this post, so I'm still a bit in processing mode over it.  However, this was a "purse" book that just took over and I couldn't read anything else until I finished this.  And, yes, there are recipes!

We'll see how much reading I get done this week with our "tiptoe" into routine again.  I could just plow through everything--or next week's post may look very similar to this one!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Saturday Snapshot - August 8

To participate in Saturday Snapshot: post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky below. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don’t post random photos that you find online.

It is no secret that we've been having a hot, dry summer here.  I mean, I complain about it incessantly.  Well, last weekend was a scorcher.  My brother-in-law was visiting and we went to the county fair on Friday, stayed in the AC on Saturday, and then, on Sunday, we decided to escape the heat by heading out to the beach.

We opted to go to Oceanside this time for 2 reasons.  First of all, the drive that way--through the Tillamook forest--is much prettier than many of the other roads out to the coast.  Secondly, it is probably the least touristy beach town on the coast.  We knew that we were not the only people heading west and we thought that Oceanside would be less crowded.  It ended up that it was far more crowded than we ever remember it being, but I heard the more popular destinations at the coast were packed, so we made the right choice.

Oceanside is a little town that is noticeably lacking in hotels and restaurants, and it is at the base of a steep hill, which are factors into why not many people go there.  It does have a really nice wide beach, but then there is the tunnel to the OTHER Oceanside beach.  It is much shorter, but more dramatic.  We ended up going through the tunnel and spending the bulk of our time there.  Unfortunately, we ended up arriving just as the tide was hitting its high point, so we were chased out of that area by the water and ended up on the main beach, where the kids worked on their sandcastles and I did some walking (yes, I enjoy long walks on the beach...blah blah blah).

As for the weather, it was MUCH cooler--I was glad that I hadn't taken our sweatshirts out of the car after our last trip to the beach a few weeks earlier!  But, it was a nice change from the heat in the valley.

This is the "main" beach at Oceanside

This is the smaller beach on the other side of the tunnel

I love the colors in this one

My son is running out some of his energy

The tide is coming in!

My husband and brother-in-law throw out common sense in an effort to take the perfect selfie

The tunnel back to the main beach.

Book Review: "Sweet Water" by Christina Baker Kline

Sweet Water Christina Baker Kline
Published: May 1, 1994
ISBN: 9780060995133
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy

When a grandfather she never knew bequeaths her a house and 60 acres of land in Sweetwater, Tenn., a restless young artist leaves New York to recover her past and rethink her future. Cassie Simon's mother Ellen died when Cassie was only three; raised in Boston by her grieving father, she never knew her maternal relatives. Unprepared for the thick veil of mystery that surrounds them, Cassie is especially bewildered by her brusque grandmother, whom rumor credits with hiding a terrible secret about Ellen's death. In alternating sections told from their respective points of view, Cassie and her grandmother fight their separate battles to cope with the truth about the tragedy. Kline perfectly renders each woman's voice: Cassie's, probing and often uncertain, propels the narrative and creates an appropriate level of psychological suspense; the grandmother's quavers with the weight of memory as Cassie's search forces her beyond family myth to a painful and perhaps dangerous truth. 

My Thoughts:
It is no secret that I, like so many others, loved Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, which was her most recent novel.  Sweet Water was her first novel, and it shows how much she's grown as a writer.

That's a polite way of saying this book is downright painful.

First off, a warning...I will probably tiptoe into spoiler territory.  I try to avoid that when I write reviews, but I'm kind of in the "why bother" mode in this one.  So, if you still want to read this book at this point, you may want to tune out now.

I will say that Kline's writing talent is evident here.  Her prose is readable and mature, but not heavy-handed.  The problem with this book is not in the writing, it is in the construction.  The plot is barely there and ill-defined.  Is it about Cassie trying to "find what she's looking for" with her mother's family?  Is it about Cassie's Grandmother's secret? Is it about Cassie's quest to find out what happened to her mother?  The answer to all those is this: um, kinda, sorta?  I don't think Kline ever had a clear idea of what this book was about and the reader certainly doesn't as they make their way through the story.

Then there are the stereotypes of southerners.  Let's see...we have the catty frenemies, the holier than thou preacher's wife, the wild child (there are a couple of those), the old drunk, and the town gossip.  All of these characters have shown up in any number of superficial Southern novels, movies, or TV shows.  And, if that wasn't enough, there is probably one of the most offensive (and, really, inaccurate) Southern stereotypes out there.  I'll give you a second....yep.  We have a fair dose of explicit cousin on cousin action.  Now, Kline does try to diffuse the situation by stating that they aren't "real cousins" because one of them is adopted.  But, then she includes a few post-coital observations about how much the two look alike--very pointed observations (which are both yucky and annoying because she never closes that loop...).

Yes, I need a shower now.

As I said, the one positive aspect was Kline's language.  It was the one thing--well, that and the fact that I knew what she could do in Orphan Train that kept me going.  However, I'm not going to let this book turn me off Kline's writing.  As I said, this was her first novel and, when you compare it to her latest, you can see how much she has grown.  If anything, it makes me more likely to read her next book.  But, save yourself from the experience of this book and just take my word on it, okay?

I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.

Sweet Water (P.S.)
by Christina Baker Kline