Book Review: Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

There is a family of ten (10!!!) sisters who live in my neighborhood, a suburb of Washington, DC, and I am friends with almost all of them. I see some of them almost every weekend as they are all parishioners at my church. They have created something like 32 first cousins among their respective families. As I have no sisters, I am somewhat envious of them, with lifelong best friends as they seem to be, always there to support each other, to lean on each other, to draw strength from one another, to celebrate together, to grieve together. It is this very notion that drew me into Ann Napolitano’s latest novel, Hello Beautiful

My first experience with Ann Napolitano was her bestselling novel Dear Edward. That book, the very last book I checked out of the library on the day before the pandemic shut down the public libraries in my county, stayed with me a very long time. While tragic in its exposition, the central part of the book was pure beauty. Napolitano created the absolutely perfect demeanor for two people faced with a huge challenge, raising their recently orphaned nephew. These two people did everything right. I just loved that book so much, and when I was given the opportunity to read an advanced copy of Napolitano’s latest novel, I JUMPED at the chance. I was not disappointed.

This story will stay with me for a very long time, once again. It has sparked in me once again my yearning for sisters, since I was only blessed with two brothers. I absolutely loved the relationship between the four Padavano sisters, their delicate and sometimes challenging relationship with their parents, and their very different and distinct outlooks on life, fueled by their own unique talents and ambitions. Napolitano deftly managed to fully develop each sister as a complete and whole individual, but also to create a family unit of four sisters who were everything to each other. 

I took my time reading this book, partly because I was busy with my day job teaching middle school English and literature, but largely because I simply didn’t want it to end. I was happily ensconced in the Padavano world, in the tragedies that separated the sisters, and in the familial love and strong genetics that connected them at a much deeper level. Napolitano must have sisters; she simply couldn’t have written such strong bonds without having experienced them herself. 

As I was reading this book on a Kindle, I could see by the percentage read that I was getting closer and closer to the end. Yet, I didn’t feel closure coming, and I was somewhat anxious that this book was going to end with me wanting more. I was right. The book seems to just end. No spoilers from me, but I sense that Napolitano is not done with the Padavano sisters and is already at work on a sequel, picking up where Hello Beautiful ends. I’d be quite happy to go back to Chicago and revisit the Padavano world again. Thank you to Random House for the advance copy of Hello Beautiful, and thank you Ann Napolitano for a beautiful story!

Book Review: When the Moon Turns Blue by Pamela Terry

“You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl.” The older I get, the more I identify with this old saying. 

I’m a Southern girl, born and raised in Louisiana, but have now lived in Maryland (NOT the South, no matter what you Yankees say to me), longer than I lived in Louisiana. But, when I read a truly Southern novel like When the Moon Turns Blue by Pamela Terry, I feel the Southerness in my bones. I remember who I am and what I am, a GRITS, a “girl raised in the South,” a girl who grew up in a small town, far smaller than Terry’s Wesleyan, Georgia, but nonetheless filled with the same kinds of people and kinds of drama that Terry captures so well.

This is Terry’s second novel, her sophomore effort. Kim Wright in her essay “Why a Sophomore Novel is So Different from the First” posits that it’s not the novel that is so different; it’s that “first-time writers are different from second-time writers. It takes a whole different mindset to get through your second book.” I’ve found this to be true whenever I stumbled upon a debut novel that I loved, and then gobbled up that author’s subsequent novels, which I also loved but in a completely different way. The second novel always seemed deeper, more substantial than the first. I found this to be true with the jump from Terry’s first novel The Sweet Taste of Muscadines to this her second, and likewise with the stark differences between Kirstin Chen’s first novel Soy Sauce for Beginners and her second novel Bury What We Cannot Take. Both Chen and Terry have a lifelong fan here. 

The title of Terry’s second novel apparently comes from W. H. Auden’s libretto of the operetta Paul Bunyan, and the literary allusions do not stop there. Awash with literary devices, Terry’s descriptions of Marietta’s house and furnishings made me wish for dinner on a tray in front of the fire in Logan Hargis’s library. In the prologue, Terry sets a scene that really sang for me: “A thin stripe of morning light occasionally touched his shoulder like a knighthood.” I loved her use of imagery and her highly descriptive style of writing, which I found to be as southern as the proverbial gilding of the lily. Nature was a recurring theme throughout, whether it be dogs, birds (one in particular), horses, or the ice storm that envelops the town causing floods and power outages that force the main characters together. I also loved Terry’s chapter titles, which were simply a list of the characters featured in each chapter, much like the stage directions for a play, listing the characters in each scene. 

While technically realistic fiction, given the mentions of certain political developments of recent years, it has an old-school feel to it, a sense of old southern gentility. However, the racial tensions in the book really show there is much work to be done in this country on that front, especially in the South. Terry does a good job of showing how race can divide a community, even in today’s society, but she also shows how divisive racism can be in a family as well. 

I really enjoyed this novel. I loved how clever it felt to me, I loved how she had many of the characters grow and evolve into better versions of themselves throughout the story. I loved how there was an element of mystery that wasn’t resolved until the very end. When the Moon Turns Blue is a worthy sophomore novel from a true Southerner. 

Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC of this novel. 

Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

A few months ago I was reading through my April issue of Bon Appetit magazine when I stumbled upon a personal essay called “It Was Quite Possibly the Worst First Date Ever. Then I Ordered the Scallops.” It was one of the funniest things I had read in quite a while. I read it aloud – in its entirety – to my husband that night. 

At the end of the essay was a tag that really got my attention: Bonnie Garmus is the author of the novel Lessons in Chemistry, in bookstores now and soon to be a limited series on Apple TV+. I immediately added her book to my TBR list on Goodreads and Amazon (waiting for a Kindle deal or a gift card from a student). I also jumped in the queue on Libby, figuring I’d read it in the first place I could get to it. Yes, all this off of one essay about a “bad date” and a plate of scallops.

My good intentions of waiting to read this on my library card failed me, however, and when I stopped in for a haircut at my favorite shopping center, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the Barnes & Noble next door where I promptly laid down full price for the hardback. Yes, off of one essay. 

I vowed not to start reading it until my school year was over, as a treat of sorts, to celebrate the summer off. A week later, school was out and while packing for a trip to California to visit our younger daughter, I managed to refrain from packing the hardback, looking longingly at it on my nightstand as we left at the crack of dawn for our flight. 

A few days into the trip, hallelujah, an alert from Libby that I was up next on the waitlist for the ebook version! Feeling just a bit guilty about taking a copy of the ebook out of circulation when I already had purchased the hardback, I downloaded it and began reading it immediately. It only took a few lines to remind me of this author’s witty writing style and why I so loved that essay. I mean, there’s a reason this book is being adapted by Apple TV for a series starring Brie Larson!

Even with a hectic five days visiting my daughter and taking full advantage of the California weather and the largely unused pool at our hotel, I finished the book on the last day of our trip–bittersweet, I must say, because I loved this book and I hated for it to end. In fact, it is my favorite book out of all my summer reading! My obsessive googling provided me with this shocking bit of news: IT’S HER FIRST EVER NOVEL! Debut novels are not usually this good or optioned by a major streaming service or represented by the one and only wife of Stanley Tucci, literary agent Felicity Blunt, which I learned in the author’s acknowledgments.

Since this is supposed to be a book review and not a love letter from a new fan, let me say that the writing is crisp and the story moves along at a good clip. One of the things I loved most about this book is that it models one of my favorite lines: There is a lid for every pot. There is someone out there perfect for you, if only you are open to the possibility, if you are willing to compromise, if you can look past external factors and judge a person by his or her character. Unfortunately, it also models another saying I’m very familiar with: Bad things happen to good people. No spoilers here, however, you’ll have to read this book to understand this. 

The storyline is equal parts funny and poignant. The main characters are so well developed I had an entire cast list of actors that I thought would be perfect for the roles. I’m sure Brie Larson is a wonderful actress but I have pictured Emily Deschanel as Elizabeth Zott and I think Jim Parsons could easily pull off Calvin Evans. Yes, I know I am slightly typecasting both of these actors based upon their most famous roles to date, but hey, that’s what I pictured in my head while I was reading. So, I am a forever fan of Bonnie Garmus, and I will wait patiently for her next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. I highly recommend that you tuck into Lessons in Chemistry before the Apple series premiers. Check out her scallops essay while you are at it!

Book Review: Fauci, Expect the Unexpected, Ten Lessons on Truth, Service, and the Way Forward

After seeing Dr. Fauci on televised news conferences for months on end and hearing his name bantered about by both supporters and detractors, when I saw this book on the new release shelf at my library I picked it up to hear from Dr. Fauci himself.

First of all, this book is not exactly written by Dr. Fauci per se, nor was it edited by him. It is a book of excerpts from interviews and speeches that were developed (their word) by National Geographic Books in connection with a documentary also being produced by National Geographic. This is a short read,  only 96 pages, and it reads like one of those books quickly put together after a particularly good celebrity commencement speech, such as Maria Shriver’s Ten Things I Wish I’d Known … Before I Went Out into the Real World.

Each of the short chapters is titled with a life lesson and is laid out with examples from Fauci’s long historied life as a doctor, NIH scientist, and advisor to six different presidents over eleven terms of office. The title of Chapter 4 supplies the title for the collection, Expect the Unexpected. We get to learn a bit about Fauci’s childhood, education, and career choices while the book focuses primarily on his work during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Surprisingly, the very issue that made Fauci a household name, the Covid-19 pandemic, is not even mentioned in the bio on the book jacket.

I found this book interesting but not compelling. Perhaps its abbreviated format and indirect narration made it so. Fauci recently announced that he will retire at the end of this year, and perhaps he will devote some time to an autobiography that will give us a more complete picture of this interesting man.

Book Review: Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout changed my life as a reader, and more importantly, as a writer. If you read my review of Strout’s Oh William, you know that I was introduced to Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge by my local librarian. While reading Strout’s masterpiece of thirteen interwoven short stories, I finally (FINALLY) came up with a plan for my own novel, an idea I came up with a long time ago but couldn’t figure out the structure I wanted to deploy. Now, I carry Strout’s stories and words around with me, a kind of mental inspiration board designed by my own personal muse, as I work on my novel.

Since reading Olive Kitteridge and its sequel Olive, Again, I have been reading my way through Strout’s back list, including I Am Lucy Barton, the first in Strout’s Amgash series, which includes Anything is Possible (Amgash #2), Oh William mentioned above (Amgash #3) and now, Lucy by the Sea (Amgash #4), Strout’s latest novel, to be released on September 20, 2022.

Strout’s latest novel, which is set during the coronavirus pandemic, will NOT be for everyone. Some of us are still too raw and wounded by the isolation, death, and economic fallout of COVID to cozy up on the couch with a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a 300-page novel about the stress and anxiety we have all been through since March of 2020. Add to that the election of November, 2020, the BLM protests, and the subsequent political upheaval of January 6, 2021, and honestly, this book should have a few trigger warnings on the cover: miscarriage, divorce, adultery, isolation, riots, loneliness, aging, and yes, death.

Yet, I loved this book. At times, I felt like Elizabeth Strout had rented space in my head for her pandemic writing room. If you read books 1-4 of the Amgash series you know that Lucy had a terrible childhood, and that is an understatement. She is STILL carrying that baggage around, even when she packs her small purple rolling suitcase to leave NYC as the pandemic cranks up and her scientist ex-husband William insists she go to Maine with him to ride out the attack of the coronavirus. He occasionally has to remind her that he is trying to save her life. 

Once in Maine, she is a duck out of water, seemingly calm above the water but paddling furiously below it. She longs for the hustle and bustle of the city, even as she takes her daily walks along the rocky coastline of Crosby, Maine, even as she admires the beauty and majesty of the ocean. She doesn’t talk about whether she is reading much, or even writing much, unlike Strout, who managed to write this book during the same international pandemic her main character was living through. Instead of using her writing to help move her through her anxiety over the pandemic, her relationship with her ex-husband William, her grown daughters and their own marriage issues, she suffers sleepless nights, her only consolation to her angst is her near constant conversations with “the nice mother I had made up,” as opposed to her dark thoughts of her “real mother, not the nice one I made.” How sad is that?

I had what I think most would call a “normal childhood,” and I loved my mother dearly. She struggled with showing her emotions but I am sure she loved me dearly, too, but I too have my baggage, and some nights I am restless, unpacking and repacking the effects of Hurricane Katrina on my family, as well as a few personal demons that periodically visit me. Lucy at one point says, “Everyone needs to feel important.” This is yet another example of where Strout creates a character with elements that really resonate with me. As a veteran teacher with retirement on the horizon, I fear that once I am not a teacher, in my middle school language arts classroom, shaping readers and guiding young writers, will I still feel important? 

As the world went on lock down, many felt listless, wandering from room to room in sweats, watching CNN on repeat, learning how to Zoom, trying to work from home. If Lucy by the Sea wanders around a bit, like all of us during lock down, I’m okay with that. If Lucy rehashes all the pains and pangs of her life, and Strout rehashes bits and bobs of other story lines, I’m okay with that. As a relatively new–but avid–fan of Strout’s, I’m okay with it all, as long as she keeps writing.  

(Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for the advanced e-book.)

Book Review: The Essential Instant Pot Cookbook by Coco Morante

At what point when reading a cookbook do you make the decision to just go ahead and purchase a copy for yourself?

Wait, you don’t read cookbooks? I do. I check out bags of them from the library and read them cover to cover like my favorite mysteries or biographies. Sometimes I jot down a recipe or two and sometimes I just read them and return them. But, every now and then, one comes along that screams to me, “You must own this book.” Coco Morante’s bible on Instant Pot cooking is one of those!

Amazon Prime Day I took the plunge and ordered myself an Instant Pot. I haven’t used it yet, but after reading this cookbook, I am all set to give it a whirl! And, by the time I got to Risotto with Lemon and Peas on page 43, I had decided I needed to buy myself a copy of this cookbook.

The introduction is packed with information for the Instant Pot newbie. The directions are clear and concise, giving me the confidence to try pressure cooking for the first time. The recipes are both familiar and new at the same time. Irish Beef and Root Vegetable Stew (page 85), sure, a standard. Korean Braised Beef Short Ribs (page 89), can’t wait to try it!

Growing up near New Orleans, I’ve decided to christen my Instant Pot with a pot of red beans. While this book has lots of great info and recipes on cooking beans in the Instant Pot, I’m going to try the recipe on the Camellia website. I use Camellia red beans whenever I can (which means when I order them on Amazon), so I’m thinking the Cajun Nation has experimented with this classic standard and given it a thumbs up.

Do you have an Instant Pot? What is your favorite, go-to recipe when using it? Please post below!

While I love spending lots of time in the kitchen–it’s my way to relax–I’m hoping the Instant Pot helps me put healthy home-cooked meals on the table faster after a long day of teaching. I’ll report back when I have enough data to confirm! Stay tuned and happy cooking, whether in an Instant Pot, a slow cooker or on the stovetop!

Book Review: Jazz Age Cocktails by Cecelia Tichi

Don’t be confused by the title of this book. Yes, it is about cocktails popular during the Jazz Age, but this is not just a book of cocktail recipes. It is a history book, a book of US social history during the time of Prohibition, with recipes for the cocktails of the day sprinkled throughout. And, that’s a good thing, a very good thing.

Jazz Age Cocktails is well-written, well-researched, and well-illustrated. In the “spirit” of the subject matter, it is not dry or flat, but told with a strong narrative, dropping famous names right and left. I particularly enjoyed the sections giving us a peek in the lives of the lost generation.

I really enjoyed this book. As a long-time middle school English and literature teacher, I loved the chapters that delved into the lives of Ernest Hemingway and his frenemy F. Scott Fitzgerald. I also enjoyed Fitzgerald’s RSVP to an invitation to a cocktail party, where he conjugated the word cocktail as a verb, demonstrating his mettle with the English language.

Cecelia Tichi’s mettle with the English language is also on display with this book, and I look forward to reading more of her work, including her Kate Banning mystery series, perhaps while sipping a Cat’s Pajamas, a recipe that stirred (never shaken!) my interest in Tichi’s latest book.

Thank you to NetGalley for a digital ARC of this book.

Book Review: Soomi’s Sweater by Susie Oh

This is a short and sweet picture book, but for me the illustrations are far superior to the story line. Susie Oh’s drawings have captured the soft, maternal feelings that I know so well from having raised two daughters of my own. I could feel the excitement from Soomi when she received a new sweater, obviously a gift, but we don’t find out who sent it to her. That would have been a nice detail to know.

As a long-time language arts teacher, I can’t help but search for theme and moral as I read a new piece of literature. This is where my struggle with Soomi’s Sweater started. What was the message? As I read, I kept waiting for it. As I scrolled past the last page, I wondered what Susie Oh really wanted me to take away from this book. Is it the special nature of a treasured gift? Is it not being able to wait for something to come, as in Soomi growing into the sweater? Is it that accidents happen and sometimes things just go wrong? Or, as the last few pages seem to indicate, is it that little girls have to run home to mommy to make things right?

This genteel story is beautifully illustrated, but the story left me wanting more, even from a children’s picture book. Give it a read and decide for yourself, and while you are at it, revel in the beauty of Susie Oh’s illustrations of Soomi and her mom.

Book Review: The Dig by John Preston (Other Press, 2007)

At some point during the pandemic, my husband and I watched the Netflix original film The Dig (Netflix, 2021) starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. We were both quite taken with it. I immediately googled it and found that it was based upon a work of historical fiction of the same name by John Preston. My next step was to request a copy of the novel from my library.

After months of waiting in line for a copy of the novel, and then several weeks spent reading other things for NetGalley, I finally opened Preston’s slim book. What I found between the covers of this battered library paperback was a story just as intriguing and charming as the movie. Preston’s fictionalized retelling of the story of an archeological dig in Suffolk, England, was inspired by his learning that his aunt had actually participated in the 1939 excavation of an Anglo Saxon burial ship, discovered in a mound on farmland owned by Mrs. Edith Pretty.

Peggy Piggott, portrayed by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James in the film, was on her honeymoon with her first husband when he is called to Suffolk to participate in the dig. She is asked to help as her smaller and lighter frame was more beneficial in the excavated and delicate remains of the ship. Piggott was born Cecily Margaret Preston, and after divorcing her husband in 1956, had a second, unsuccessful marriage to Luigi Guido, a Sicilian. In her later years, she and her first husband, archeologist Stuart Piggott, reunited to share a post with a historical society in Wiltshire.

With the country on the brink of entering WWII as a backdrop, Preston tells his story in alternating 1st person narratives in the voices of Basil Brown, Edith Pretty, and Peggy Piggott, starting and ending with Basil Brown, whom Edith Pretty, the wealthy landowner, has hired to conduct the initial dig. The story moves along swiftly, with the main characters guiding the reader through the ups and downs of archeology as well as the ups and downs of relationships of the characters involved in the dig.

One of the things that I found so charming in the book is the genteel way in which Preston handles the relationship between Mrs. Pretty and her servants, both those inside the great house and those who work for her outside the house. They are all very protective of Mrs. Pretty, who was widowed at a young age and left with a small boy to raise on her own, and Mrs. Pretty, who by all accounts is acknowledged as the woman in charge, is truly gracious and respectful to them in return. In the book, Mrs. Pretty appears to be suffering from some malady that is not discussed. In the film this is represented more directly. Another slight difference is that Preston handles his aunt’s first marriage with great discretion, while the film does pull away the curtain a bit more.

Usually, I recommend that you should read the book before seeing the movie, and on only a few occasions have I veered from that. One notable exception is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The Hitchcock film is every bit as good as the movie, and I don’t think it matters which comes first to someone unfamiliar with them. The Dig will be another exception to my rule. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even though I was “forced” to visualize the characters in the book with the faces and voices of the actors from the film, something I usually do not enjoy. The actors cast in their roles so perfectly fit the characters in the book it was no hardship at all to continue with them in their parts.

If travel is still out of the question for you due to COVID restrictions, take a literary trip to the countryside of England while reading Preston’s fine book, and finish off your getaway with a viewing of the Netflix film. You won’t be sorry.

Interview: Eman Quotah, author of Bride of the Sea

See my most recent published piece for Washington Independent Review of Books: