First to Read · stuff I read

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Summary from Goodreads:
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.

Might it be possible for a parent to groom an infant’s gourmet palate by feeding her things like braised pork shoulder? Puréed, of course, since she hasn’t any teeth, but chef Lars Thorvald wants his baby daughter Eva to share in his passion for good food.  (Ok, parents before you come after me or the author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest with your pitchforks, this is a novel; feeding an infant puréed pork shoulder would probably land you in colicky baby hell.)  Unfortunately for baby Eva, shortly after her sommelier mother asks for a divorce via letter her father suffers a heart attack and dies; she is subsequently adopted by her father’s brother and his fiancée.  Thus begins Eva’s peripatetic journey around the Midwest from Minnesota to Iowa to Chicago back to Minnesota.

As Eva grows up and develops her unique palate, her story is told by a collection of narrators sometimes only tangentially related to Eva: Eva’s father, her cousin, a first boyfriend, a jealous rival (rival? spoiled attention seeker? crazy person?), a good friend’s feckless brother, a Lutheran Minnesota housewife entering her bars in a state fair baking contest (I dare you not to read that chapter with Marge Gunderson’s voice in your head, I dare you), and, finally, Eva’s mother.  Only one chapter is told by Eva herself, at the age of eleven, when she is cultivating habaneros (using her cousin Randy’s marijuana growing operation after he goes to rehab) and being abused by other kids on the bus (that chapter takes place in Des Moines, IA, and it’s pretty cringe-worthy; the kids got off lightly, in my opinion).  Eva’s talent at building unforgettable flavor combinations and meals are a combination of her father’s passion for food and her mother’s passion for wine.  On a first date with her high school boyfriend, she makes the acquaintance of the restaurant’s chef when she suggests the dish has too much rosemary – the chef asks her to identify all the ingredients and Eva does, in the way an experienced oenophile can tell what type of wood was used in the wine cask just by taste.  Kitchens of the Great Midwest is filled with a love of food, and taste, and texture, and family, and kitchens, a room where famililes are meant to come together.

Only one thing is missing from Kitchens of the Great Midwest and that, in my opinion, is Eva herself.  Eva is the wunderkind of foodie culture, a self-taught chef and restauranteur with an innate talent for creating unforgettable meals.  She is considerate, humble, driven, eager to learn, and unhampered by ego.  She is the manic-pixie-dreamgirl of this novel and I wanted to hear more of Eva’s voice from Eva herself.  She becomes so insubstantial at times – the narrators all have such amazing voices and stories that they begin to overpower her.  Where is the eleven-year-old who could eat peppers so hot that others needed to go to the hospital?  One could argue that the final menu in the book is what author Stradal was building toward throughout the narrative but I wanted so, so badly to hear Eva’s voice again.  What did she really think of Cynthia (the crazy one)?  Why Pat Prager?  What did Eva really think about her parents?  The MPDG does not grow or change or have flaws but causes others to change simply by existing.  Eva Thorvald deserves more.

This minor issue aside, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is a great summer read.  The voices are good, the idea of the structure for the novel is great.  The settings – suburbs and crummy apartments in the Twin Cities, lower-income Des Moines, rural Minnesota – are spot on.  There’s a scene skewering hipster, neo-yuppies (no idea what the offical label for those people are, that’s just how they struck me).  There are recipes – I suggest the bars (there’s also a preparation for lutefisk, I ate a bite of that once on a dare – do not recommend as an edible).  Also, the cover art for the US edition is excellent.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is out today, July 28, 2015, in the US wherever books are sold!

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance copy of this book via the First to Read program from Penguin.

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Romantic Reads · stuff I read

The Highlander Takes a Bride by Lynsay Sands (Highlander #3/An English Bride in Scotland #3)

Summary from Goodreads:
A bold, seductive laird meets his passionate match in a scintillating Highland romance from New York Times bestselling author Lynsay Sands…

Sword fighting, swearing, and riding astride come naturally to Saidh Buchanan. Simpering and holding her tongue—definitely not. Raised alongside seven boisterous brothers, Saidh has little interest in saddling herself with a husband… until she glimpses the new Laird MacDonnell bathing naked in the loch. Though she’s far from a proper lady, the brawny Highlander makes Saidh feel every inch a woman.

She has an angel’s looks, a warrior’s temper, and seeks out his kisses with wanton eagerness. Little wonder that Greer is intrigued by his comely guest. When reckless desire overtakes them, he’s more than willing to make an honest woman of her. But Saidh is the target of a hidden enemy, and Greer faces the battle of his life to safeguard the woman he wants above all others.

In To Marry a Scottish Laird, Lady Saidh Buchanan is one of the young ladies gathered in the Sinclair castle to tempt the hero laird into marriage – which is unnecessary because he arrives home married to the heroine, Joan.  At the opening of The Highlander Takes a Bride Saidh has become friends with Joan and has kept her company during the birth of Joan’s first child.  It’s a nice break from Saidh’s seven brothers.  However, Saidh learns that her cousin Fenella’s fourth husband, Laird MacDonnell, has died.  Four husbands in four years….Saidh sets out for MacDonnell, determined to find out what is wrong.

Greer, as the new laird, has a pretty good life, deceased cousin, deceased cousin’s weepy wife, and too many visitors aside.  However, the arrival of blunt-tongued, sword-wielding, braies-wearing Siadh is a welcome addition to MacDonnell.  It’s turns out he thinks she’s pretty perfect – so he invites Saidh’s seven brothers to MacDonnell….so he can marry Saidh.  He doesn’t exactly tell her this.

This is where it really turns into a typical Sands novel.  It’s one thing that always annoys me – that the heroines don’t always get much say in whether they get married and when.  Granted, all the heroes and heroines are usually panting for each other by that time but the marriages are often hasty and sometimes executed in the wake of “ruination”.  Now, Sands does try to make a point here by having Saidh ask each of her brothers of they are “ruined” by having sex without marriage – clearly, being males as opposed to females, they are not – but the sequence feels clunky and rushed, particularly after the brothers try to beat the crap out of Greer on sight.  I enjoyed having Saidh’s brothers in the novel. They brought a lot of humor to the book and the 7-brothers-and-1-sister banter was very sweet.

I am going to caution Sands, though.  She’s starting to skate dangerously close to Stephanie Laurens territory by recycling so may of her murderous plot elements.  This wasn’t quite as bad as the first book in the series, An English Bride in Scotland, but the methodology – and some modern-sounding deductive reasoning – has been seen before in several of her other books.  I’d like to see her work through a novel without a complicated, recycled murder plot.

The Highlander Takes a Bride is available July 28, 2015.

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

All the Ways to Ruin a Rogue by Sophie Jordan (The Debutante Files #2)

Summary from Goodreads:
There was once a lady who loathed a lord…

Lady Aurelia hasn’t always hated Max, Viscount Camden, her brother’s best friend. In fact, as a besotted girl, she thrived under his kind attention – sure that he was the most noble and handsome man in the land. Until her young heart discovered what manner of rogue he really was. Now, though she enjoys nothing more than getting on his last nerve, she can’t deny Max drives her to distraction—even if she tries to pretend otherwise.

…and a lord who was confounded by a lady.

Max cannot recall a time when Aurelia did not vex him. If she was not his friend’s sister, he would stay far away from the infuriating vixen. Unfortunately, they are always thrown together. At parties and family gatherings…she is always there. Infuriating him, tossing punch in his face, driving him mad…until one night, she goes too far and he retaliates in the only way he can: with a kiss that changes everything.

In A Good Debutante’s Guide to Ruin, Aurelia is the best friend who helps sneak the heroine out of the house for an adventure at an early Victorian den of sin.  Max is the hero’s dissolute and dangerous best friend and also the best friend of Aurelia’s brother.  It’s a good set up for the next book in the series.

Now, having encountered Aurelia and Max before, I knew I was in for a certain amount of tension in the development of their love story in All the Ways to Ruin a Rogue.  What I was not prepared for was the level of animosity between them. As a besotted teen Aurelia spotted Max tupping a maid in the garden and it broke her heart; the subsequent public discovery of Aurelia’s unflattering caricature of him caused no amount of embarrassment and earned an unwelcome nickname. During her night out at Sodom (yes, you read that right) with Rosalie in the previous book, she played a game of cards in a deliberate attempt to get Max back seven years later. He let on that he recognized her despite her mask, giving him a trump card to use against her.

Their sniping goes beyond mere bickering. Aurelia deliberately makes snide comments about how he uses women (she’s not far off, Max is more “womanizer” than “rogue”). Max derides her appearance, her unmarried state, her temper. Case in point: at a scene in the park, when Aurelia encounters Max with an awful, spiteful woman who cruelly insults her, Max heaps another insult about Aurelia’s mental state right on top of it rather than defend her. I know the scene is probably meant to play as comedy (and Max realizes he was an ass after the fact but he does so only after noticing the other woman bores him) but I didn’t find it funny. Each of them lacks dimension.  Aurelia draws spot-on caricatures but we are never told why she becomes so upset at the loss of a drawing.  Max is cold, distant, and purposely avoids having children, though the reader can infer the reason in the last chapter (though I was glad to see that the “withdrawal method” fails as it does in real life).  Their problems could have been solved with a good, honest, non-snippy conversation.
There’s also the issue of anger and attraction between Aurelia and Max. Almost every scene that progressed to some sort of sexual activity, be it heavy petting or the whole enchilada, began with a vicious argument. One scene progressed as Aurelia kept saying “Stop”, with little hint that she really wanted him to continue – she was fighting him – and Max just said she wanted it and kept on kissing and fondling her. It was uncomfortable to read not to mention cruel.  There are few scenes of kindness or tenderness between our hero and heroine.  It makes me question whether their Happily Ever After could actually work.  I should be able to see it, not just hear about it or guess at it. Needless to say, my hope that this second book in The Debutante Files series was a good addition to the series did not pay out.

Dear FTC: I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

All’s Fair in Love and Scandal (Scandalous #2.5) by Caroline Linden

Summary from Goodreads:
Nothing wagered…

Douglas Bennet can’t resist a good wager, especially not one that involves a beautiful woman. When a friend proposes an audacious plan to expose the most notorious woman in England, Douglas agrees at once. After all, it would be quite a coup to discover the true identity of Lady Constance, author of the infamous erotic serial scandalizing the ton, 50 Ways to Sin.

Nothing won…

Madeline Wilde is used to being pursued. For years she’s cultivated a reputation for being unattainable and mysterious, and for good reason: her livelihood depends on discretion. When Douglas turns his legendary charm on her, she dismisses him as just another rake. But he surprises her—instead of merely trying to seduce her, he becomes her friend…her confidant…and her lover. But can it really lead to happily-ever-after…or are they about to become the biggest scandal London has ever seen?

I wasn’t sure if I wanted a Happily Ever After for Douglas Bennet. Yet. When he was introduced in Love and Other Scandals he seemed far from ready to settle down and more than a little disappointed to find his best friend Tristan, hero of Love and Other Scandals, in love and at the altar with Douglas’s sister Joan.  But here we find Douglas, bored and swanning around a ballroom and ready to jump at a five pound wager to get the aloof, widowed Madeline Wilde to dance with him in the mid-series novella All’s Fair in Love and Scandal.  Madeline, for her part, never dances and dismisses the attractive Douglas with barely a thought (so she thinks).  Poor, hurt fowl. Douglas who is then goaded by the loathsome Spence into helping him claim a bounty: deliver proof exposing the author of the naughty pamphlet series 50 Ways to Sin and claim two thousand pounds.  Douglas begins to woo Madeline with predictable results…in the direction of the altar.

Now, this is where I wish Linden had made this a full novel in the Scandalous series.  I feel like there’s a lot of “insta-lust” in a very short amount of time without giving it time to turn into “insta-love” so I feel like I have to take her word that Douglas and Madeline are meant for each other.   There are a lot of sweet parts, and the wager-conflict introduced by Madeline is interesting, but it feels very compressed (this possibly may be due to my having read Love and Other Scandals after reading and reviewing Love in the Time of Scandal, Scandalous #3, and I really loved the plotting in that novel).  I would have loved to see Douglas and Madeline’s relationship develop more slowly and perhaps see samples of Madeline’s writing.  We didn’t even get a snippet of 50 Ways to Sin in this installment, so we have to assume Douglas is reading one introduced in the previous two books.

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance copy of this novel from the publisher…but then I bought a copy as well.

movie star drool · stuff I read

As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew by Jen Chaney

Summary from Goodreads:
Acclaimed pop culture journalist Jen Chaney shares an oral history of the cult classic film Clueless in the ultimate written resource about one of the most influential, revered, and enduring movies of the 1990s—in celebration of its twentieth anniversary.

Will we ever get tired of watching Cher navigate Beverly Hills high school and discover true love in the movie Clueless? As if! Written by Amy Heckerling and starring Alicia Silverstone, Clueless is an enduring comedy classic that remains one of the most streamed movies on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes even twenty years after its release. Inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless is an everlasting pop culture staple.

In the first book of its kind, Jen Chaney has compiled an oral history of the making of this iconic film using recollections and insights collected from key cast and crew members involved in the making of this endlessly quotable, ahead-of-its-time production. Get a behind-the-scenes look at how Emma influenced Heckerling to write the script, how the stars were cast into each of their roles, what was involved in creating the costumes, sets, and soundtrack, and much more.

This wonderful twentieth anniversary commemoration includes never-before-seen photos, original call sheets, casting notes, and production diary extracts. With supplemental critical insights by the author and other notable movie experts about why Clueless continues to impact pop culture, As If! will leave fans new and old totally buggin’ as they understand why this beloved film is timeless.

The motion picture Clueless opened the summer between my junior and senior years of high school.  By the time we started school in the fall my classmates and I were fluent in Clueless-speak, “Whatever!” (complete with hand gesture) being the most popular by far. The over-the-knee-socks trend with Mary Janes and plaid miniskirts made an appearance (I had the Mary Janes).  We bought the VHS and watched it a lot – my crowd was mostly music and drama kids so quoting along with the dialogue was a frequent activity.

Now that Clueless is officially having its 20th birthday (and totally partied with the Haiti-ans) – ugh, when did I get old – Jen Chaney has pulled together the cast and crew for a delightful, dope oral history of the production and staying power of the movie.  She originally started the project for a magazine article but there is so much information here that I can’t imagine having to pick and choose what parts to highlight in a magazine article, even a long one.  Almost everyone from the producers to the stars to the set decorators agreed to be interviewed and Chaney pulled in quotes from previously published pieces from the last 20 years.

The absolute best parts of this book are the sections dealing with casting, costuming, locations, and the soundtrack.  What would Clueless have been like had the producers pushed to use Lauryn Hill as Dionne rather than Stacey Dash who was so great in the role? Or if Seth Green was Travis?  The costume designer essentially created an entire fashion trend to put the Clueless girls at the cutting edge of fashion and work against the grunge aesthetic.  Turns out the liquor store with the creepy clown is a real place in LA (Chaney even interviewed the actor who played the robber).  And what Oasis song almost ended up on the Clueless soundtrack?  And what did the Bosstones really think about doing a teen movie that wasn’t really in their target audience?  (And find out how “outtie” is really spelled….spoiler, that isn’t the correct spelling or derivation, to my surprise.)

The only drawback to the book is that everyone is so darned nice about everything.  If you’re looking for juicy Hollywood gossip, this book just doesn’t really have it.  With the exception of some side-eye between producers, no one reports anything crazy happening on set or on press tour.  Amy Heckerling (the writer and director) was so great.  Wallace Shawn is very gracious.  Alicia Silverstone worked so hard (which she did, given that Cher was in almost every shot of the movie).  Paramount really got what Heckerling was going for.  Everyone thought the world of Brittany Murphy and her wide-eyed innocence and mourns her loss.  Etc, etc etc. Though we all look for drama in any Hollywood story, it is actually a little bit reassuring (though my cynical side feels like perhaps everyone was on their best interview behavior) to find that Heckerling’s pastel-colored, happy, inclusive world of Clueless was supported by a lot of hard-working, gracious, talented people who worked as a team to put out an iconic, groundbreaking piece of art.

As If! is available July 7, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received a digital advance of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg

Summary from Goodreads:

A Nature Book of the Year ( The Times (UK))

“The hoverflies are only props. No, not only, but to some extent. Here and there, my story is about something else.”

A mesmerizing memoir of extraordinary brilliance by an entomologist, The Fly Trap chronicles Fredrik Sjöberg’s life collecting hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Warm and humorous, self-deprecating and contemplative, and a major best seller in its native country, The Fly Trap is a meditation on the unexpected beauty of small things and an exploration of the history of entomology itself.

What drives the obsessive curiosity of collectors to catalog their finds? What is the importance of the hoverfly? As confounded by his unusual vocation as anyone, Sjöberg reflects on a range of ideas—the passage of time, art, lost loves—drawing on sources as disparate as D. H. Lawrence and the fascinating and nearly forgotten naturalist René Edmond Malaise. From the wilderness of Kamchatka to the loneliness of the Swedish isle he calls home, Sjöberg revels in the wonder of the natural world and leaves behind a trail of memorable images and stories.

When I started blogging, if you had told me that one day I would jump at the chance to read and review a memoir by an entomologist (and one who lives in Sweden and studies hoverflies, whatever those are, at that), then I would have had a hearty chuckle.  Probably a long one.

But that memoir is the core of The Fly Trap – the reasons why Fredrik Sjöberg lives with his family on an island (Runmarö) off the coast of Sweden, nearer to Stockholm, and studies hoverflies.  (If, like me, you don’t know what-all constitutes “hoverfly”, this is a hoverfly; they are quite good mimics and look a lot like bees or wasps – called Batesian mimicry, which is something I actually remember from Biology I in undergrad – and can be distinguished from bees by having only one pair of wings, not two pairs as bees, etc., do).  Sjöberg collects hoverflies not simply because that’s his academic discipline, but for the satisfaction of collecting the specimens, classifying them, and displaying a collection.  Sjöberg brings in the term “buttonology” – coined by August Strindberg his short story “The Isle of the Blessed” – to describe the lengths to which one goes to perfect one’s collection and taxonomy.

The mention of Strindberg brings me to why everyone should read The Fly Trap, whether you care about insects and the environment or if you think that bugs are the grossest thing on Earth and you don’t give a rat’s backside about hoverflies.  The Fly Trap is so much more than a nature memoir.  It opens with Sjöberg’s recollection of his time working in the theatre – there aren’t a lot of ladies in entomology, if you get his drift – cleaning up after Peter Stormare (yes, that Peter Stormare) who was required obliged to urinate live on-stage every performance of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.  He discusses the pleasures and oddities of living on an island with an excellent biosphere, first by invoking the D.H. Lawrence story “The Man Who Loved Islands” and then by detailing the strange phone calls he takes from people wanting to talk to the resident biologist about their insane “environmental” get-rich plans.  John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (which I am currently reading on Oyster) comes into play when describing the thrill of finding a plant species alien to the island.  He makes a joke about Freudians and dung beetles.  He sneaks in a few thoughts on Milan Kundera’s novel Slowness because the Czech entomologist character is based on a real person Sjöberg knows. Sjöberg’s voice is wry and cheeky as he weaves art and literature around the pursuit of hoverflies.  Kudos must be given to the translator, Thomas Teal, for creating a wonderfully readable English translation.

Throughout the book Sjöberg pieces together the life story of René Malaise, a Swedish entomologist and explorer who studied sawflies and amassed such a huge collection that museum curators are still sifting through specimens from his last expedition in the late 1930s.  Malaise was an iconoclast, to say the least.  He invented the Malaise trap (which Sjöberg uses himself) and developed a fascination with art, leading to a small art collection amassed in the aftermath of the two World Wars.  Which may or may not have had a Rembrandt.  That went mysteriously missing…and that Sjöberg searches for in the final chapters of The Fly Trap.  Malaise, unfortunately, wound up on the wrong side of science history by backing the “constriction theory” of geology (which was the loser to “plate tectonics”) and writing a book titled Atlantis to back up his claim.  Sjöberg tracked that book down, too.

So you should read The Fly Trap!  It was a fun, quick read that was perfect for laying on the couch in a patch of sun with the fan going (I don’t like outdoors, there are insects and spiders and things…).  This is a great book for fans of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (and if you haven’t read H is for Hawk, do that) with similar blends of microhistory/microbiography, memoir, and description of environment.  Happy reading! And ignore that pesky fly buzzing around your head….

The Fly Trap is available in the US wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher.