Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern writers on food edited by Peggy Wolff

It's no surprise that our recollections of our childhoods and our heritage is interwoven with memories of our favorite foods.  In Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie several writers explore their memories and the foods that help define specific midwestern places in specific time periods.  Whether you're reading about the new state fair craze to deep fry almost anything and put it on a stick, or the memory of those old time apple varieties, I am sure you will find a couple essays that you make you think about your own food memories.  Although a few entries appealed to the foodies (or food snobs) more than to the down home, I certainly enjoyed this book.  I learned about the lore of the Indy 500 in the late 1950s and early 60s, the Iowans love for their pork tenderloin sandwiches, and the history of Chicago's own beef sandwich.  I only wished there had been more entries about Wisconsin's favorite foods.  Wisconsin writers, where are the stories about the Friday fish fry, our Sheboygan brats, or the perfect grilled cheese?  How about a look back to giant farm meals prepared for the hayers or the combiners? I remember my mom slaving in the kitchen on the hottest days of summer to prepare roast beef, fresh corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, finished off with apple pie, made with the early August apples.  Who would want to return to the fields after such a meal?  But they did!!

The short essay about the history of Minnesota's Nordicware and their development of the bundt pan included a revisiting to the 1970s craze for bundt cakes.  That was enough to entice me to dig out my own seldom used nonstick fluted pan, and as you can see in the photo below, our New Year's Eve dinner will include a pistachio (aka Watergate cake) cake.

To memories and a New Year of making them.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Face of the Earth by Deborah Raney

Deborah Raney has already had one successful novel turned into a movie and has won several romance writers awards.  The Face of the Earth explores a question difficult enough to possibly make to the big screen (at least the home tv screen) -- how and when does one become released from vows or commitment made to another when the other person involved is no longer present.  Neighbors Mitchell Brannon and Shelley Austin face such dilemmas when their shared grief over the unexplained disappearance of Mitchell's wife brings the two closer together.
Mitchell and his wife Joy have always had a strong marriage, but when Joy does not return from a school conference, the authorities and small town gossipers look for evidence that Mitchell could be involved.  But nothing materializes and it appears that Joy is one of the thousands of missing people whose story may never be solved.

When do loved ones put grief aside and build new lives? Is alright for Mitchell to start anew after six months? nine months?  Is he to forever honor his vows when in all likelihood his wife is deceased?  And neighbor Shelly, who for more than fifteen years has been Joy's best friend and total confident, feels just as strong a commitment to Joy, while at the same time knows that each day her own love for Mitchell is growing.  I had expected that I would be most drawn to Mitchell in this book.  Clearly the back cover blurb made it appear that the book would be his story, and in narrative focus, it IS his story.  Yet, I found my sympathies just as strong for Shelley.  At times I felt Mitchell's feelings and actions were described just to provide "backdrop" for Shelley's thoughts and decisions.  I guess what I am saying is that I connected more with Shelley, and for some reason, that made the book less successful, not more so.  Shouldn't I be rooting for Joy's return?

Also, I had this nagging feeling that this is not the first time I'd read, heard, or seen this story.  This
deja vue stayed with me right up until the last page, sending me to the computer to check if this book had ever been published prior to the May 2013 date printed in the book.  I even checked my own handwritten list of books read this year to see if I had read a prepublication copy and forgotten it.  It does not appear so.

Final recommendation - Deborah Raney fans will like the book, those who devour contemporary Christian fiction will also like it.  I, however, did not really find the story "gut wrenching" as described by reviews.  I think the book began with big questions and premises laced with suspense but then took a very predictable path to a predictable ending.  I do have to confess, that, in real life that particular ending would be one of two possible best endings for the small town neighbors, so why I felt slightly let down by the book remains a puzzle to me.

The Face of the Earth

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Whole Enchilada by Diane Mott Davidson

Diane Mott Davidson's mystery series about caterer and super sleuth Goldy Schulz has been a favorite of mine ever since I discovered it more than a decade ago.  However, I would never attend an event catered by Goldy because someone always ends up dead! In fact, I would not even ride in Goldy's van as she seems to be always hitting something, sliding into a snow ditch, or having some other mishap.  Luckily in The Whole Enchilada it is spring in Colorado, and there's no snow in sight. but Goldy faces other mishaps that leave her bruised and sore.  And, yes, someone does die. This time it is an old friend who is co-hosting a dual birthday party for her son and Goldy's son.

Quickly, the catering dishes are cleaned up and Goldy is deep in helping her police detective husband solve the crime.  There are threads of story that run through all the Goldy books --- her disastrous first marriage to an abusive doctor, her long time friendship with the doctor's previous wife, the saga of raising a teenage son, and her long time love of good coffee.

As readers we DO connect with the characters, even in light hearted mysteries such as Davidson's.
I've always loved the catering connection and the descriptions of the tasty foods Goldy and her assistant create, but I have to admit when I gave up caffeine a few years ago ( I now drink decaf), I was a little alarmed at the amount of caffeine short little Goldy was packing away each day.  So I was delighted to see that Goldy has started to limit her caffeine intake.  After one or two espressos, she now switches to decaf for the rest of the day!! LOL

Goldy and sidekicks do solve the mystery, but just as important is the family story that takes a new twist at the end of this book. No other hints from me, except to say that the development opens many new opportunities for story lines in future books.  I obtained a copy of this fun novel through WPLC, our state library consortium for media and ebooks.  I noticed that there are dozens of holds for this book, so I know that Davidson continues to be a popular mystery writer.

The Whole Enchilada Unabridged CD By Diane Mott Davidson

Monday, December 23, 2013

Remembering Christmas by Dan Walsh

Remembering Christmas - Dan Walsh

Almost all Christmas literature centers around a change of heart, and rightly for Christians believe that accepting Christ as our Savior brings about a complete change of heart, attitude, and way of life.  Dan Walsh joins the multitude of authors who've put their own spin on the holiday change of heart story in his novel Remembering Christmas which is set in the early 1980s.  Part of the charm of this story about Rick Denton is the flashback to those 80s pre-cell phone days.  Think the first round of high gas prices, early Ronald Reagan politics, and the shooting of John Lennon.  

The story centers around Rick's return to Florida after receiving a frantic phone call from his mother that his step father has collapsed, perhaps from a stroke.  Readers quickly ascertain that Rick long ago walked away from his Florida life, swearing his mother's and step-father's small Christian bookstore and their way of life held nothing for him.  But when he receives that phone call, he can't say no, so he returns to operate the store for a few days while his mother stays by her husband's hospital bed.  A few days turns to a few weeks, and each day brings a change in Rick.  He can almost feel his head clear, finally away from the stress of his high tension accounting career, and he suddenly finds himself slightly more tolerant of and interested in other people --- except for that vagrant JD who sleeps near the bookstore steps.  Rick wants nothing to do with him and his filthy hair and overpowering smell. But like Scrooge in the classic Dicken's story, Rick will have his eyes opened.

This book was published a few years ago, so readers may have to look to find a print copy.  However, e-copies are readily available from the normal vendors.  Also I am sure that many libraries has this title in their holiday collections.  Remembering Christmas is a fast, encouraging read.  At this time of year, don't we all love a story about someone who sets a new and better course for his life.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford, debut author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has returned with another touching story of Chinese-Americans in the Pacific Northwest.  Songs of Willow Frost alternates between the 1920s and the 1930s as we learn how twelve year old William Eng has ended up at Seattle's Sacred Heart Orphanage.  When he sees an advertisement for a new oriental singing and screen sensation named Willow Frost, William is sure that she is his mother Liu Song.  Despite the nun's assurance that his mother is dead, William and his blind friend Charlotte escape, intending to meet the actress.

We learn, as William learns, that Liu Song has suffered not only from the harsh judgment and restraints of old world Chinese traditions, but also from America's racist attitudes.  Those hardships and abuse forced every decisions she made, and ultimately, shaped William's lonely life at the orphanage.  While telling this tale of essentially the love between a mother and her child, Ford also gives us windows into Chinese culture, the budding entertainment industry of the early twentieth century, and the gloomy existence of thousands of children who were left at orphanages during the Great Depression, often with the promise that their parents would return shortly.  Shortly, too often, never arrived.

There have been several literary novels in the past decade centered around Chinese Americans.  I always find them fascinating. The judgment and restraints thrust upon people coming from old traditions and superstitions run through all these novels, but there are also elements of beauty and grace.  I am happy to say that Ford's stories also depict perseverance, strength, and sacrificial love.
I didn't expect that I would have the time or patience to finish a literary novel during this busy time of the year, but the story beckoned to me.  I am glad that I took time to learn William and Willow Frost's stories.  You should take the time also.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts by Marnie O. Mamminga

If  you own your own vacation cabin or if you've ever vacationed in the same northwoods spot more than once (especially Wisconsin's northwoods), then you'll understand Mamminga's nostalgic look at her family's cabin named Wake Robin by her grandmother.  I first heard of this book when it was being read on Wisconsin Public Radio's chapter a day, but I am not one to faithfully listen to the radio each day, so I sought out the book through the library system.  Lucky for me, the memoir is available as an audio, so while I drove and sewed a few weeks ago, I was able to follow Marnie's family (5 whole generations of them) as the made the seven hour trip annually to their cabin in the Hayward area.   I chuckled as I listened to stories of Marnie riding crammed in the sedan's backseat with her siblings, arriving at the cabin late into the night, and then heading down to the pier in total darkness to say their first hello to the lake.  I could almost close my eyes and hear the fishing fun, feel the sun bathing on the dock, and see the twisting paths through the woods.

As her reminiscences unwound, I found myself smiling and smiling.  First, although I never returned to the same cabin more than once when I was growing up, my parents did take us on several up north adventures, enough that a deep love for Wisconsin's north of the tension line became ingrained in me.
Now that our family does have our little bit of northern heaven, I am hoping that we are building multi-generational memories that will live on beyond Grandpa and Grandma's days.  I believe that the dream is beginning to come true.  Just this week, I stopped by the hallway of my first grader granddaughter to see the Christmas decorations.  On one wall were journal entries of favorite Christmas traditions.  What did Eva's say?  "I like this time of year because we sometimes get to go to my cabin." Last time I checked, the cabin belonged to Grandpa and me, but it delighted me that she is already seeing the cabin as belonging to all of us. Plus a few weeks ago our youngest grandchild, just three, told her mother she really wanted to go to the cabin.   And just as Marnie cherished being chosen to accompany her grandmother for a special "just the two of us" trip north, I hope each of our grandchildren has many "just us" memories.

Check out the this link to learn more about the author and this entertaining book of family, memories, and northwoods magic.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dining with Joy by Rachel Hauck

Imagine someone who was afraid to drive trying to pass herself off as a race car driver!  Sounds impossible, but in the book Dining with Joy, Joy Ballard lives with a similar charade.  Unbeknownst to her food show audience, Joy is nothing like her deceased father  While he was a genius in the kitchen, Joy beaks out in a sweat just thinking about cracking an egg and stirring up a quick omelet.  How she has gained a faithful following among the cable network watchers is due largely to her humorous skill at hiding her ineptitude.
When her show is sold to another producer who has big plans to make Joy a household name, Joy finds the stress of hiding her secret fear of cooking ing too much.  When talented chef and total hunk Luke enter Joy's life, she hopes she has found the answer to her dilemma.  Can she shift all the onscreen cooking to him while she entertains the audience with her other foodie escapades?  And can she possibly deal with the sizzling chemistry that comes to life when the two share a kitchen and a camera?

This is a light, fun read that will appeal to foodies and young romantics. Personally I find the idea that someome can't learn to make the most basic food unlikely, but then the real Food Network did do a reality show about awful cooks, so I guess it is possible.  I've read other Rachel Hauck titles  While I was entertained by this story, I did not feel it was as imaginative or as well written as The Wedding Dress.  I checked out Dining with Joy for my Nook from WPLC.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Rules of Murder by Juliana Deering

Back in the summer I was the winner of a blog giveaway over at Margaret Daley's blog.  The prize, a copy of Julianna Deering's new mystery Rules of Murder arrived quickly along with a nifty pen bearing the book's title.  As always for me, I already had a hefty pile of books which required my attention, some of them for blog tours and others with looming library due dates.  Ever so slowly Rules of Murder moved up the pile until finally, it was time for a warming fire in the pellet stove and some "feet up" reading time. The cover reminds one of a 1930s or 40s Hollywood movie with a debonair leading man who despite his great charm remains slightly aloof.  The beautiful woman, the luxurious limo and the grand estate behind him all point to a story of wealth and privilege.  And so it is in Deering's first Drew Farthering mystery.

It is 1930s England and Drew has just arrived home to his country estate to find his mother and step father giving yet another lavish party.  When Drew finds that his own private quarters have been lent to a Mr. Lincoln, Drew is livid.  How could his mother bring this scoundrel into their home?  When Lincoln is found dead the next day, everyone at the party is a suspect.  As the constable begins to investigate and more deaths occur, Drew, his best friend Nick, and a lovely young American Madeline Parker find their curiosity and shared love of mystery writers compels them to begin their own investigations.  

Deering, I believe, has set out to create a series with the quiet tone of Agatha Christy and other classic mystery writers. Add in a similarity to the current popular Downton Abbey and other period PBS series, and I think she has a successful formula.  I am looking forward to future additions to the series as Drew and Madeline pursue their mutual attraction as they, of course, get caught up in some unsolved mystery. Hopefully, Nick's character will continue to add depth, humor, and spark to the stories.