Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On your marks, get set, BAKE!


The Great British Baking Show is back!

Armchair bakers, rejoice!  The drama-filled Great British Baking Show returns for its second season on PBS on Sundays beginning September 6.  It will air from 7:00 - 8:00 PM (but check your local listings to verify the broadcast time).  All of the favorites from the first series are back, including Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (the Doyenne of Baking).  Episode one looks ready to get off to a delicious start, when all of the challenges involve cakes (don't watch on an empty stomach!).

The 13 amateur bakers will be challenged each week in three categories.  The Signature Bake generally requires the contestants to bake a tried and true recipe in a given category.  The Technical Bake gives ingredients, but not much in the way of instructions.  The Showstopper Bake involves creations of jaw-dropping complexity and creativity.  It is no surprise that the winner of last season's show was a carpenter!

The 10 week series will be sure to have plenty of drama, tears and stress as the bakers compete to be crowned Master Baker of the week, as well as to avoid elimination and to move on to the next round. The Great British Bake Off (to use its UK title) has won several awards in its five seasons, and so we can hope that more seasons will be shown here in the US!  

If you miss the Sunday night broadcast, there are numerous ways to catch up!  The episodes will be available for streaming through your local PBS station's website the morning after the original airing, and can also be streamed through Roku, Apple TV, Xbox and apps for iPhone and iPad.  Additionally, for those who are brave enough, you can visit PBS Food to see recipes (in case you're feeling creative), video clips, or just to learn more about the contestants.

I'm really looking forward to another season of this great series!  You wouldn't think there would be that much drama in the kitchen, but it's amazing to see how well the contestants (if not always their creations!) perform under pressure.  

Friday, July 24, 2015

Let's stay in the 1600s please!

Viper Wine concerns the exploits of Venetia Stanley, one of the great beauties of the 17th century.  Five years older than her husband, the explorer and adventurer Kenelm Digby, she was so concerned about growing older and losing her famous looks that she retreats from society.  She asks her husband to prepare a tonic for her that will help her to regain her youthful beauty, but he refuses, still seeing her as the beautiful woman he married.  She eventually finds someone else to provide her with the Viper Wine potion which will make her beautiful again.  As a couple, the Digbys are each immersed in their own worlds and too distracted to really seem a believable pair.

This book was very hard to read.  I wasn't sure what was happening most of the time.  There were elements of time travel and descriptions of things like radio transmissions sort of thrown in here and there (in a book set in the 1630s) that were distracting and annoying. The characters and setting were interesting enough (and based on real events), but I guess the author felt a straightforward narrative wouldn't be challenging enough.  The result was a confusing, meandering, mess of a story.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Viper Wine from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Life beyond death row

Mitch Rutledge is someone who started out life with the cards stacked against him.  Born to a 13-year-old mother and never knowing his father, he never really had a family to be a part of.  His mother was in and out of his life, so he and his 3 siblings were passed among family members, only to be briefly reunited when his mother showed back up.  Eventually, his path led to prison.  Death on Hold tells the story of how he ended up in prison, and eventually began a correspondence with Burton Folsom which would change both of their lives.

Mitch Rutledge had several opportunities to turn his life around before he ended up in prison, but he was always held back by one obstacle:  illiteracy. The shame of being unable to read or fill out a job application led him to a life on the streets.  After his mother died when he was only 15, he was well and truly on his own.  Before long, he ended up in prison, after an attorney convinced him to plead guilty to a burglary he didn't commit (although he rationalized that there were plenty of crimes he had gotten away with up to that point, so maybe things were just being evened out!).  This put him into the criminal justice system, where he learned to adapt to the system.  He talks of being jealous of other inmates who had family members to visit them in prison and to care about their welfare.

Eventually, when he was released from prison, he continued his life on the streets and ended up killing someone during a robbery.  Luckily for him, a lawyer associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center defended him during his trial for murder.  The new lawyer taught him how to speak and behave in front of the jury, something Rutledge had never before considered.  Even so, he was convicted and sentenced to death row.  While on death row, Time magazine sent a reporter to interview inmates, and he was featured in a story that caught the attention of Burt and Anita Folsom. The article painted a grim picture of several death row inmates, with Rutledge being described as having an IQ of 84, defective and concluded, "His death would not be unbearably sad."

Both Burton and Anita Folsom read the article and were incensed at how Rutledge had been portrayed.  Both were teachers and both were unable to forget the friendless man sitting on death row in Alabama.  Burton Folsom reached out by writing a letter to Rutledge, and the two became friends.  As well as the Folsoms, several other people were moved by the Time article and also began regularly writing Rutledge.  This small group became his family, and even testified on his behalf when he attempted to get his death sentence commuted.

Eventually, Mitch's sentence was commuted to life without parole and then he moved into the general prison population at Holman Prison.  His story continues as he discusses the problems he faced adjusting to life in prison, even as he taught himself to read and write and went on to earn his GED and take college courses.  This book is mostly from Mitch's perspective, taken from letters he's written to the Folsoms over the years.  It is fascinating to read about all he was able to accomplish behind bars, from speaking to at-risk youth groups, to tutoring and mentoring his fellow inmates.  Overall, this is an inspirational story about a man who was able to see the terrible wrongs he had committed in his youth and to become a useful member of society, even from behind bars.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Death on Hold from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Does the habit get caught in the wheels?

The Case of the Sin City Sister concerns searches for missing family members.  Sister Evangeline Divine (pronounced Di-VEEN) is a Harley riding nun who has become entranced with her father's private detective business.  Her father Jackson, a retired cop, lives in Madrid, New Mexico.  Sister Eve takes a leave of absence from the convent to help her father when she learns her sister Dorisanne has gone missing.

Dorisanne lives in Las Vegas, and has always had money troubles.  Her husband Robbie is a known gambler and troublemaker, and the family worries that he's dragged her into his troubles.  At the same time, the detective agency gets a new case:  to find out what happened to a man who came to the area in the 1880s to mine turquoise, but was never heard from again.  Skeletal remains have been found in a cave, and a man from North Carolina hears about it and wonders if the body could be that of his long lost great-great grandfather.  So much time has passed that the Divines are unsure what they can find out, but they take the case and set to work.  Another client asks Jackson to dig on his property to see if he can find any of the rumored gold that's buried there.

Sister Eve decides that she has to go to Las Vegas to see if she can trace Dorisanne's movements.  Although she's perfectly content with her plans to ride her Harley all the way to Vegas, her father has other ideas.  Daniel, a current cop and her father's former partner, takes a leave of absence to travel to Vegas with Eve.  It seems that Daniel is quite fond of Las Vegas, and goes there rather frequently.  The pair begin at Dorisanne's apartment, where they meet Pauline, a neighbor and fellow casino cocktail waitress who seems to have befriended Dorisanne.  Pauline has problems of her own, but she agrees to speak with Eve, even though she claims not to know much about Dorisanne's mysterious departure.  As Eve and Daniel investigate, they begin to notice several strange people and vehicles following them.  Could they be connected to Dorisanne's disappearance?

I enjoyed the unconventional Sister Eve and her adventures, which included being stranded in a hospital morgue and hot-wiring a motorcycle.  She has to make a decision about whether or not to return to the convent, but given her love of investigation, it won't be easy for her to choose one life over the other.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Case of the Sin City Sister from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, July 6, 2015

A literary dose of melancholoy

Even though M. Perdu has a job that sounds perfect, he's still pretty miserable in The Little Paris Bookshop.  He runs an "apothecary bookstore" moored in the Seine in Paris.  Visitors to the shop know that they might not leave with the book they came in for, but that M. Perdu will unerringly be able to recommend the book that they need at that precise moment in their lives.

Unfortunately, he's not able to fix his own problems so easily.  Twenty years ago, when he was 30, the great love of his life, Manon, left him with no explanation.  He was totally broken by this experience -- so much so that when a letter arrived from her a few weeks later, he was unable even to open it.  He put it in a drawer in a kitchen table, in a room which he then walled off with a bookcase.  There matters have stood for two decades, until he's bullied into donating some furniture to a new tenant in his apartment building.   The new tenant, Catherine, is a middle-aged woman who has been abandoned by her husband, and is terribly distraught.  When she discovers the letter in the drawer of the table M. Perdu gives her, she invites him over for dinner to read it.  These two broken souls might be just what the other needs, but M. Perdu can't give up on his heartbreak just yet.

Another tenant in the building is Max Jordan, a young man who's just found literary success with his first novel.  However, he finds the rabid, enthusiastic fans hard to take, so he's trying to hide out while he waits for inspiration to strike so he can begin on his follow-up novel.  When M. Perdu decides to unhook his literary barge and set off in search of his long-lost love, Max impulsively jumps on board for the journey.

And so they begin a journey toward the south.  Along the way, they pick up more people who are searching for lost loves (among other things).  Scattered throughout the book are selections from Manon's travel diary from 20 years earlier.  Also, the end of the book features recipes and a suggested "Emergency Literary Pharmacy" recommending books for various "ailments."

The book starts off strongly, but then meanders along aimlessly, much like the characters on board the barge.  I had a hard time accepting that everyone could just pick up and leave their current lives, with no thought of how they would support themselves, and then immediately, wherever they ended up, just miraculously be taken in and given food, shelter and jobs by the people they randomly encounter.  The whole book, from about chapter 5 on, was a huge let-down for a promising book.  The characters were all so woe-is-me that I really didn't care if they were ever happy again.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Little Paris Bookshop from Blogging For Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Stella gets her 15 minutes

I knew that one of my favorite writers, Marian Keyes, had a new novel coming out, so I was thrilled to be able to buy it a few weeks early on my recent trip to London (it had already been released in the UK).  It was a good thing I decided to invest in the book, since long delays at the airport meant that I had plenty of time to get engrossed in the story.

The Woman Who Stole My Life concerns Stella Sweeney, a Dublin-based woman who is the author of the recent book One Blink at a Time.  Stella had suddenly developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome and spent months in the hospital recovering.  She was unable to speak or move and could only communicate by blinking her eyes.  Her neurologist, Dr. Mannix Taylor, takes the time to actually try to talk to her, working out the blinking code to ask questions.

Stella is married to Ryan, but their marriage, after 18 years, has reached a somewhat boring plateau.  Ryan has always dreamed of becoming an artist, but through a series of events has gotten into the custom bathroom remodeling business. He's very successful, but unfulfilled.  Their two children are typical teenagers:  Betsy is dreamy and laid-back, while Jeffrey is petulant and moody.  Stella co-owns a salon with her more driven sister, Karen. When the illness strikes, everyone must try to get along without her.  At the same time, there seems to be an undeniable spark between Stella and her neurologist . . .

Once she's back home and recovering from her illness, Stella is stunned to receive a box of books.  It seems that while blinking out messages to Mannix, he was keeping a log of her thoughts and sayings.  He's assembled them into a book and had it privately printed.  Stella is touched and gives out the books to family and friends.  When one of her books makes its way into the hands of a celebrity, suddenly agents and publishers are knocking at her door.

Eventually, Stella splits fairly amicably with Ryan and, after a similarly civilized divorce between Mannix and his too-good-to-be-true wife Georgie, the former patient and her doctor begin a torrid relationship -- much to the disgust of Jeffrey.  The publishers are so enthusiastic about the prospects for Stella's book that they insist she relocate to New York City to begin book tours and publicity work.  Mannix quits his job and follows along, as do the children.  Ryan is understandably miffed that his ex-wife is becoming world-famous when he is the "artist" in the family.

During exhausting rounds of publicity, Stella is grateful for the help of her new best friend.  Gilda Ashley bumps into Stella in a store, and immediately becomes her personal trainer, stylist, and confidant.  But is Gilda really too good to be true?

The book shifts back and forth in time, with present-day scenes letting us know that Stella is back in Ireland, broke, jobless, and without Mannix.  So what happened to the glamorous NYC life?  Those events fill out the story, as she struggles with her new-found fame, and the demands of trying to write a follow-up book.

Marian Keyes's books have always been favorites of mine due to being laugh-out-loud funny, while at the same time dealing with difficult and sometimes tragic subjects.  This book did have some funny moments, but overall, it was something of a let-down.  Stella was so wish-washy, especially where loutish son Jeffrey was concerned, that it was hard to feel anything but exasperation for her.  There were also some very strange elements to the story, such as when she and Mannix were faced with financial difficulties -- it apparently never dawned on either of them that he could just resume his medical career.

I'm always thrilled to read a new book by this wonderful author, but I can only hope that in the next one she'll regain her comedic spark.  She's already given each of the Walsh sisters her own book, but maybe she'll discover a long-lost Walsh cousin or something to take up the reigns of the next story!

Final Verdict for The Woman Who Stole My Life: Two Gherkins a somewhat disappointing look at the life of an expected celebrity

Monday, June 8, 2015

It is better to keep a secret and die, than tell it and live

I remembered reading some news stories about some clusters of suicides among young people in a Welsh town, and was intrigued that the plot of the book What You Left Behind seemed to focus on the same type of phenomenon.  Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher comes to the sleepy rural English town of Radcote to visit her sister, Jo.  Radcote was the scene of a rash of suicides among young people a few years previously, and recently it seems as if the cycle is starting up again.

Jo, who has a history of expecting Lorraine to bail her out of trouble, is separated from her partner and has an 18 year old son, Freddie.  Freddie is moping about, being generally moody and uncommunicative, but it turns out his behavior is due to more than growing pains.  For several weeks, he's been the target of a particularly nasty online bullying campaign.  He hasn't told anyone about it, but he is becoming increasingly disturbed by it.

Jo is close to some people in town, Tony and Sonia Hawkeswell, whose son Simon recently committed suicide.  Sonia tries to overcome her grief by working at the local homeless shelter, and she's browbeaten her daughter Lana into also volunteering there.  Sonia has decided that Lana is going to become a doctor and that volunteering will look good on her university applications.  Their household is also made up of Tony's autistic brother, Gil.  Gil lives in a separate building from the main house, but is pretty much involved in everything the family does.  He's also an extremely talented artist.  When Lorraine sees a drawing he made of the scene of another supposed suicide, she becomes convinced that all the new suicides might instead be foul play.

I really wanted to like this book, due to the setting and intriguing premise, but it was too annoying to be enjoyable.  All of the characters seem to be harboring secrets, which they refuse to tell anyone, but which could likely be easily remedied if they would just SAY SOMETHING!  You know it's all going to come out in the end, so why keep going over and over how, for instance, Freddie just *can't* tell anyone about the bullying because "that would make it worse."  Just how exactly, we never hear.  It's not that Freddie is embarrassed about being targeted, or afraid of physical harm -- his reasoning is that the non-stop online abuse "will get worse."  Um, OK . . . As the various characters are wrestling with their secrets which they can't tell anyone, they seem to continue to have the same conversations over and over (especially Freddie and Lana).  Nothing ever gets sorted out and they continue to cover the same useless ground over and over, chapter after chapter.

The author does try to throw in a few red-herrings to point us toward several suspects, but I'm still not very clear on why some of the suicides were arranged to look like murder. By the end, we know who the supposed murderer was, but the motivation is still murky.  There are also lots of forged suicide notes, false confessions to crimes and contradictory statements (in one chapter Lorraine has read a supposed suicide note, in the next she's wondering what was in the note) which don't really add up to a cohesive and enjoyable story.  The novel ends with something that is supposed to be a shocking twist, but by that time I'd long since stopped trying to make any sense of what the characters were doing and why.

Disclaimer:   I received a copy of What You Left Behind from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review