Second Chance Grill: A Review

I have often read cozy mysteries (where there is a murder, but there are no gory, graphic details or scenes, and the person killed is someone you “love to hate”), but I would describe Christine Nolfi’s 2012 novel, first book in the Liberty Series, as a “cozy romance.”

There are all the elements required for coziness: a handsome, rugged man who works with his hands, a mechanic named Anthony; a female protagonist, in this case Mary Chance, who is a doctor, but has inherited from her eccentric Aunt Meg a cafe and grill in a small town, Liberty, Ohio; a leukemia-striken kid, Blossom, Anthony’s daughter ;and the combination of these elements makes for a fine, inspiring novel.

The book begins with the disastrous opening day of the Second Chance Grill. (Get the connection? Mary Chance is the second “Chance”, after Meg, to run the grill.) Nothing goes right, and the cook nearly runs off the entire town. Mary really gets off on the wrong foot. Blossom decides from first sight that Mary is perfect for her widowed father’s second wife. What she doesn’t know is that Mary is only taking a break from doctoring to escape from the extreme grief she feels over the sudden death of her closest friend, and she intends to take over the deceased girl’s father’s practice just as soon as she meets her obligation to her aunt to get the grill up, running, and making a profit.

Of course, Blossom nearly dies, and the reader meets Anthony’s zany family who immediately agree with Blossom’s pick for her stepmother.  So many miscommunications and plot twists happen that the reader never loses interest or becomes bored. There are thirty-one short chapters that keep the reader swimming in cliffhangers.  It is the perfect escape read, something all of us need from time to time. The next book will be titled Treasure Me, which probably involves the many antiques that make up the decor of the grill.

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THE FORTELLING by Alice Hoffman, a Review

I filled in the gap between Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City and Give a Boy a Gun this week by reading Alice Hoffman’s coming of age story, The Fortelling. This mystical, mythical 2005 publication is set in “ancient times of blood,” pre-dating history, when Amazons rode their magnificent horses across the Russian Steppes.

Rain, born in sorrow and destined to become queen, cannot force the current queen, her mother, to love her. Even the shaded illustrations and patterns on the pages create a misty background for the visions that come out of the fog and the smoke of the women’s fires. What is the significance of the black horse Rain sees when the ancient priestess throws her potions into the fires to accomplish the foretelling? What are the strange dreams she has that haunt and worry her as she changes from a warrior girl to a leader-queen?

Mothers and daughters alike will enjoy this novel where genres of YA and women’s literature are blurred. Better yet, read it aloud to each other, luxuriating in the poetic wording and phrasing handled so well by Hoffman. I recommend this novel to all women, regardless of their age or reading preferences.

THE ALPHABET CHALLENGE: An Update

Just because I haven’t mentioned the Alphabet Challenge in a while, doesn’t mean I haven’t been working on it. So far, I have reviewed A and B; today I wish to add C, D, and E–all of which I finished around the same time, this past weekend.

Coming Home: The Soul’s Search for Intimacy with God by Joseph M. Stowell was published in 1998, and I came upon it in a bag of books donated by a friend to my LFL (Little Free Library) as she was clearing out her bookshelves. The book deals with the “heart’s restlessness” to “live in radical reliance on the God who wants us to enjoy the delight and security of his [constant] presence.” My own New Year’s resolution was to, “draw nearer to God” (and be nicer to My Better Half), and this book helps me attempt to do both. James 4:8 tells us that the reward for drawing near to God is that, “He will draw near to you.”

One of the best parts of this book is its excellent explication of the 23rd Psalm.  I have heard many sermons and read many guide books to this passage, but even so, this book presented some new “angles” I hadn’t encountered before. The title reflects the journey of the Prodigal Son as he attempts to “come home” to his father from the “far country.” Chapters on “Aloneness” and “Connectedness” are extremely helpful in living our daily Christian walk, and the chapter titled, “Great Expectations” tells us just what we can expect at the end of our journey.

Kate Morton’s novel, The Distant Hours, fulfilled letter “D.” It is beautifully written, the descriptions of the English countryside and the old castle receive an A+ from me, and the characterization, as well, is outstanding.  Interconnected families tell their interconnected stories across the decades from WWI through1997. Opening with the following words, “Hush…Can you hear him? The trees can. They are the first to know he is coming,” set the tone of the story of The Mud Man, both the book the father of the castle wrote and the nightmare that haunts its daughters’ dreams on into their senior years. The descriptions are excellent: “The night has slipped on a fine pair of leather gloves, shaken a black sheet across the land: a ruse, a disguise, a sleeping spell so that all beneath it slumbers sweet.” “The moat has begun to breathe. Deep, deep mired in the mud, the buried man’s heart kicks wetly…the girl hears [a low moan rising from the depths.] She hears it, that is she feels it, for the castle foundations are married to the mud, and the moan seeps up through the stones, up the walls, one story after another…” This is Milderhurst Castle, home to three old women, never married, childless, full of mystery, and it is up to Edie (in more modern times) to sort out the stories of these old women and their connection to her own mother. People gave it four stars, calling it, “A nuanced exploration of family secrets and betrayal…captivating.” It is, for sure a novel of “quiet dread,” as stated by The Washington Post, and one which is an example of  “gothic mysteries [with] layers of surprising secrets…” as claimed by the Library Journal. The ending has several twists and turns, but ends on a satisfying conclusion. It was a good read.

A book I was picking up and putting down the whole time I read the other two was Jennifer Egan’s (author of Manhattan BeachEmerald City, a book of short stories. Described by The New York Times Book Review, the narratives are “tales of displacement and blazing moments of truth” and are “Hitchcokian” in nature. Here are women (mostly) of all levels of life from models to schoolgirls. Each story deals with some form of self-discovery, sometimes flattering, sometimes not so.

If I had to, I couldn’t pick a favorite.  Each story made me close the book and think, “Hmmmm.” Then I would reflect on it for the better part of a day.  Some were applicable to me or to people I knew, others were just “interesting.” I am glad I took the time to read this collection of stories.

I just looked at my TBR shelves and have found three books beginning with the letter F.  I hope by the end of the day to have made a decision for the third book I am currently reading (besides Stephen King’s conclusion to “The Dark Tower” series, Book VII and my Third Tuesday Book Club’s selection for March, Where’d You Go Bernadette). Since the three books will be so different, I should have no problem reading them a little here, a little there from each. Wish me luck!

BARKSKINS: A Review

The most impressive thing about this massive novel by Annie Proulx is its size–717 pages.  And, I’m so glad I tackled this big book because it is a book I will continuously look back on and never forget. Prior to reading Barkskins, Proulx’s The Shipping News, first the book, then the film, was one of my all-time favorites. This novel has been described as “…epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic…” and it delivers on all counts.

Barkskins narrates the story of two Frenchmen with nothing to their names and is set in Canada, then known as New France. We follow the Sel and Douquet families for several generations (the families’ charts at the end of the book will explain all the connections). Proulx is a wonderful storyteller, and the story she tells carries the reader along like the great rivers described in the story. Some parts are humorous, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Roughing It. Her “enchanting descriptions” are poetic in themselves, and her characterization skills demonstrate that she understands the human heart. Characters’ motives are always clear, whether they be admirable or dastardly.

It took me months, picking up and putting down this volume for periods of time to finish, but I am so glad I did. This book is not for everyone, but for those who are willing to be swept along by magnificent  narrative and captivated by the history of the barkskins (wood cutters) and their descendants, the undertaking is worth it!

Boy, Snow, Bird: A Review of a strange book

Helen Oyeyemi’s 2014 novel has been described as a “cautionary tale” that includes “post-race ideology, racial limbo, and the politics of passing.” (New York Times) The whole story takes on a magical, fairytale quality, but ends with a shocking revelation. It is divided into three parts: the story of Boy, the story of Snow, the story of Bird.

At the beginning we meet Boy, named so because her rat catcher father refused to care enough to think of a better name. Her mother is absent from her life. She is described as having a long, white-blonde braid and is extremely intelligent. Her life in East-side Manhattan sometime in the 1930’s is horrific and violent. Early on, she runs away and ends up at a young women’s boarding house. During her stay, she double dates with another young woman there and meets Arturo. Her first meetings and dates with him begins a love/hate relationship although she falls desperately under the spell of his lovely 6 year old daughter, Snow. When she meets Arturo’s mother, Olivia Whitman, yet another kind of relationship develops.

After Arturo and Boy’s daughter, a Negro, is born, Snow, Arturo’s daughter is exiled to live with an aunt to prevent competition and conflict between the two girls. (Part Two) As the story unfolds, one layer at a time, Bird, their daughter, seems to have a second sight about “things” and has an insatiable curiosity which strives to unlock family mysteries. Over time, the two girls exchange letters. (Part Three) At the end, all family secrets are revealed sending the characters’ emotions and lives topsy turvy.

The book has a strangeness about it, from its original setting to its unsettling conclusion, and many assumptions and conclusions the reader has made along the way are turned upside down.

This is a satisfying read, not necessarily a book you will like or even one you can understand upon a first reading, but it has literary value, and I definitely will read other books by this author.

“Check Off ‘B’: The Beekeeper’s Daughter: A Review

In my Alphabet Challenge, which thankfully has no time limits or goals on it, I have read the book for the letter ‘B’.  Santa Montefiore’s The Beekeeper’s Daughter was a book due at the public library which I finished up (just in time) and counted as part of the challenge. An experienced writer, Montefiore presents a story of two romances (mother’s and daughter’s ) that span the settings of England during WWII and 1973 New England.

Grace Hamblin is the beekeeper’s daughter, living in England and who experiences a love that can never be fulfilled. Trixie, her daughter falls in love with Jasper, a singer in a band “on the brink of stardom.” He is part of the British Music Invasion of the seventies. Trixie’s story and Grace’s story (the latter told in flashbacks) have more in common than either could suspect. Both are searching for “lost love.”  “To find  what they are longing for, they must confront the past, unravel the lies told long ago, and open their hearts to each other.”

This novel is a very good read, engaging with many twist and turns, and good old-fashioned “escapism.”

TWO RECENT READS–Morningstar:Growing up With Books and Playing with Fire: REVIEWS

The following two books were ones I read purely for escape while waiting for my delayed-by-ice semester to start:

First, Morningstar:Growing Up with Books a 2017 publication by Ann Hood, was a slim volume which needs to be read with one’s TBR list close by. The book might be described as a memoir organized by what the author was reading at various stages of her life. I had read her earlier novel, The Book That Matters Most, and thoroughly enjoyed it, sharing it with friends at my book club, so when I saw it displayed at the library, I checked it out. Hood grew up in a household that “didn’t foster a love of literature but discovered literature anyway. Sometimes lonely as a child she experienced “the companionship of books.” She read eclectically, pouring equally over classics, bestsellers, and books that were “not so nice,” her mother’s description. Because it was so short, it was a quick read and a unique one. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves books and is interested in other people who love them too.

Tess Gerritsen’s 2015 novel is one I found at Half Price Books.  As a fan of the TNT series, Rissoli and Isles, selecting Playing with Fire, was a no-brainer.  The cover alone was enough to capture my interest. Gerritsen employs great skills of characterization, and her plots and sub-plots combine psychological thriller appeal as well as mystery, action, and plenty of twists and turns. Beginning in the US and continuing in Venice, Julia, the protagonist, is soon caught up in espionage and violence, something she never dreamed a concert violinist would experience.  The intertwining stories of the modern-day professional violinist and the Jewish holocaust-era composer provide good reading and good mystery.