Book In a Series

Heart Trouble by Mary Kay Andrews is fifth in this mystery series, which starts with Every Crooked Nanny. It continues the story of Callahan Garrity and her merry band of housekeepers who solve crimes. Callahan is a former police officer who quit to become a private detective. Detective work didn’t pay the bills, though, and Callahan bought a house cleaning business and gave up detecting work – or so she thought. Every Crooked Nanny is Callahan’s foray back into the detecting business when she runs into a former sorority sister who needs a house cleaned and a thieving nanny found. Jump several books forward, and Heart Trouble has Callahan dealing with her irascible mother’s heart condition and doing divorce work for a disgraced Atlanta socialite who is divorcing her heart surgeon husband. Callahan is working through her own emotional heart troubles as well.

This book could fit several categories for my reading list, not the least of which is reading a book set in your home town or state. Atlanta was a home to me for many years and this series gives shout outs to many of my favorites – kudzu, the Varsity, the Braves and Dale Murphy, and the University of Georgia. This is a new series to me, but was written and set in the 90s, shortly after I left. Everything mentioned as far as landmarks are familiar and part of the reason I like it so much. The other reason is, of course, Callahan Garrity . She’s a great female protagonist – sarcastic and tough and funny and vulnerable. Her business, House Mouse, is run by her and her mom and has side characters who provide comic relief, but Andrews does not shy away from grim and divisive storylines surrounding the actual mysteries and Callahan’s daily life. Throughout the series there are major health concerns, complexities of relationships, racial tensions, and other heavy topics that weave in and out of the plots.

The ability for Callahan to use the cleaning business as a ruse for her detective work is believable especially when you think about the time period these books take place – ubiquitous cell phones and social media were years away. It also helps provide some lighter aspects to the story. I would categorize this beyond a cozy mystery but not as violent or graphic as the grittier mysteries out there. It’s a pleasant, entertaining read and great for anyone who thinks they don’t like mysteries. So much of the story is about relationships, the reader can sometimes forget the mystery altogether to focus on the Garrity clan and their quirky entourage! Mary Kay Andrews originally wrote these under the name Kathy Hogan Trocheck, so you might find them in a used bookstore under that name, but most are rebranded under the Andrews name if you are looking in the bookstores or libraries for this series.

(A note on the audio versions: I’ve listened to all of these on audio so far. They are really good productions and I like the narrator, Hillary Huber. My only complaint is that some of the local place names or words are mispronounced, but it’s probably not noticeable to anyone but a local. It’s a little “nails on a chalkboard” to me, though. I did notice that in this book, Huber focuses more on a version of a Southern accent, too. Haven’t decided if I like it or not, but, again, that’s a local quirk. Fair warning to any of my Southern brethren who may take a listen!)

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Book Set In a Different Country

I know what you’re wondering and I’ll answer that question first. Yes, there are erotic stories peppered throughout this book. The stories are beautiful and well-written and I would read a whole collection of them if Balli Kaur Jaswal chose to write one. However, there is so much more to this book. There is mystery, romance, tragedy, and the underlying clash of “death before dishonor” India versus the modern Brit Indian who has embraced Western culture and chooses to leave the old ways behind.

This book reads like the best of Maeve Binchy but with Indian voices instead of Irish. Our main character, Nikki, lives in London and is the daughter of Indian immigrants who are fairly progressive in comparison to other families in her community. Nikki applies for and is hired to teach a class on creative writing. Her students, however, show up to be taught how to write. Period. As in how to read and write and learn the Punjabi alphabet which they only speak. Forget about the English language. The group is mostly illiterate and widowed and were recruited by Nikki’s boss to fill seats in the class to make numbers look good. Nikki tries to make the best of the situation and by happenstance, the widows and Nikki decide that they can spend class time to tell erotic stories as a means of creativity and one classmate who can read and write will transcribe them. So begins our tale.

The erotic stories slip out into the community, attracting unwanted attention. The class also makes Nikki aware of the tragic death of a young woman in the community. The scandals interweave, and the community becomes torn between the traditional role of women in the Indian community and the desire for a more important voice as agents of influence on their own lives and destinies.

If you like family stories, this certainly falls into that category as well. Nikki and her sister have very different views on romantic relationships, and there are the universal conflicts any cultural group struggles with for children trying to please parents, and parents projecting their hopes and dreams on their children. There are funny moments, too, plus the subplot involving the tragic death of a young, modern Indian woman that nobody wants to discuss.

It’s a good book, both entertaining and thought-provoking. I listened to the audio and it gives you a real flair for the accents and immerses you in the story in a way I’m not sure I would have gotten from just reading it. However you prefer your stories, put this one on your list!

Cookbook (As A Literary Work)

Do you love cookbooks as much as I do? For a long time, I scoured flea markets and antique malls for those little church potluck publications or someone’s old handwritten recipe book. I have family recipes, too, and I love to shop new cookbooks as they come on the market. Somewhere along the way, however, I started to value cookbooks for their literary value more than the actual recipes. I’m not sure when that happened for me, but my favorite cookbooks have become the ones that tell a story.

Smoke and Pickles by Edward Lee is an outstanding choice in this category. You might know Lee from his 2012 turn on Bravo’s Top Chef or because he’s been a finalist twice for a James Beard award or, like me, saw him on a weekend morning news show where I was intrigued enough to go searching for his cookbook. If you don’t know Lee? Well, let me tell you. Or, better yet, let him tell you himself…

Lee was raised in Brooklyn, part of a Korean-American family. He spent formative years as a graffiti brat before getting a job at fifteen busing tables at Terrace 5, “a small, snooty restaurant” on the 5th floor of Trump Tower in New York City. This was a time in the world where “the cult of food had not yet been born.” Chefs performed well, were largely uncredited, and certainly weren’t stopping to sign autographs and take selfies with the masses in the streets. Lee, through circumstances you can read about in the book, found his way to Kentucky. He found a unique relationship between his Korean food influences and those in his newly adopted American South. According to Lee, smoke (as in bbq and spicy pork) and pickles (as in fried or kimchi) are the common ground in his culinary mashup of two distinct cultures, allowing him to add a new taste to Southern fare.

Among his recipes of Edamame and Boiled Peanuts, Pickled Chai Grapes, and Adobo-Fried Chicken and Waffles, Lee talks about his family, his passions outside of food, and his acquired love of both buttermilk and bourbon. This is a cookbook, yes. Have I actually made anything from it? No, not yet. Have I thoroughly enjoyed the storytelling that pops out between the tasty-sounding recipes? You betcha! Lee’s mantra is, “What I cook is who I am.” Pour yourself a bourbon, and discover for yourself in this great cookbook.

Book Based On Its Cover

It’s a great cover, this one! It’s bright and eye-catching and full of hints of Spring and renewal. Maybe that’s what really hooked me into buying it. The title isn’t bad either – A Book That Takes Its Time. With the rushing of the world around us and the anxiety and stress that skewer me weekly, I think this just spoke to something in me that needed uplifting. I’m all for anything that will give me those rare moments of peace and contemplation, allowing me to sort out my mind. If only there was a word for that…hmmmm.

Something like…mindfulness.

That’s the crux of the book – mindfulness. Flow Magazine, a mindfulness publication, put this book together with many of their stylized ideas in one volume. With tasks like taking one really memorable picture that you purposefully frame instead of bursts of forgettable shots, or making a list of things that give you energy, or taking 15 minutes from your day to work through the section on self-care exercises, this book gives you small tasks you can focus on for short amounts of time, tasks you can and should fully concentrate on while you’re doing them. Write notes to yourself or others, try new spices, purposefully let shit go. (They don’t actually say that last one – it’s my own interpretation!) Practice kindness, thoughtfulness, and uni-tasking. Take some time to take your time.

It’s hard, this mindfulness concept. Hard to give up multi-tasking, hard to concentrate fully on just one thing. I read an article several years ago about Google making us dumber. The gist of the article is that we as a society no longer have to search and read through volumes of information to get a factoid or a definition, much less larger concepts. Google is now a verb and it’s super quick and easy to get anything we need without thought or concentration. We don’t have to think or filter or research for many, if not all, of our daily needs. We’re used to instant gratification and we pay the price for it.

This book has a really crafty vibe, so that could be a problem if you don’t like crafty things. The idea is to take the time to think about mindfulness and find your own way – it’s still a really useful and attractive book even if you’re all thumbs with paper crafts and glue! Mindfulness as a concept is all the rage in the self-help section, too. If you don’t like this book for yourself, there will surely be something else for you nearby. Titles like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Artist’s Way, any of the books on Danish concepts Lykke or Hygge, the Swedish Lagom, or the innumerable books on adult coloring. Whatever helps you find peace in a hectic life, grab it and hold it close!

Sci-Fi and Fantasy for Women – Part 2

I’m referencing the Book Riot article I mentioned in the previous post, and taking a look at some of my favorites from the last half of the list.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear – Really a Steampunk Western, this is the story of (can you guess?) Karen Memory, a prostitute in late 19th-century Seattle Underground – an alternate universe version, of course.  Gold miners come through on their way to Alaska, but airships float in the skies overhead.  Karen and her fellow prostitutes come up against a madman with a scientific mind control machine and a Jack the Ripper wannabe who is leaving dead prostitutes on the doorstep of the brothel where Karen and her comrades ply their trade.  I would have liked more of the steampunk element, but overall it was a good book.  Not sure it would make my top 100 by women, but it was a fun read nonetheless.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – Can you tell I have a thing for King Arthur stories?  This is another favorite of mine, ranking right up there with the Mary Stewart series I discussed in the previous post.  This take on the legend is from the point of view of the women in the story, which made it unique at the time.  Much like real history, women don’t always get the credit due to them for their influence on the course of human events.  Legends are often the same, and Bradley is a master at the take on this story.  Not to be missed, especially if you are an Arthurian enthusiast.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho – Reading it now, so I’ll have to let you know, but I really like it so far.  I know the book has received great buzz since it came out, but I didn’t research too much for this post since I don’t want to accidentally read any plot spoilers.  Huge pet peeve for me!  You’ll have to research this on your own until I finish…

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Just a classic!  Our heroine, Meg, and her brother and mother find an unearthly stranger in their kitchen one night.  From there, the story unfolds in a way that is beyond description if I want to avoid spoilers.  (If you don’t know how I feel about spoilers, see the blurb of Sorcerer to the Crown!)  I read this many moons ago and hope to find time soon to read it again, plus the other four books in the series.

As I stated in Part 1 of this post, many of the other books out of the 100 are either on my TBR list or I’ve read other books by the authors, but not the ones listed.  It’s a still a selection of some great choices, but I would have to read all of them to say whether or not I would include them on a similar list of my own.

What’s missing or worth consideration, at least?  Here’s a few books I would throw out there that I found highly enjoyable…and are written by women.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Not what you think the story will be at all, and has some gender-bending plot points similar to Ancillary Justice.

The Witching Hour by Anne Rice – If we’re going there with the vampires and what not in Dead Until Dark, then let’s really go there with Anne Rice and her glorious Mayfair witches.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater – Each November, water horses emerge from the ocean and it’s up to the bravest (or most foolish) riders to try to get these bloodthirsty mounts to the finish line.  A young woman, Puck, is forced by circumstance to enter, risking her life for her family in a way similar to Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Sci-Fi and Fantasy by Women – Part 1

Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two of my favorite genres to read, especially fantasy.  If it’s not your thing, I get it, but I implore you to not overlook this post or this genre.  Remember, a reading list is about trying new things and you can find all sorts of comments on society in the pages of these books.  Moreover, there’s often the classic hero’s story a la Joseph Campbell; some read like historical fiction; some have Dynasty-level family drama (looking at you, Game of Thrones); some are dreamily romantic; some are downright funny.  Browse the book stores or look at Good Reads and give something in this genre a try.  I came across this great list on Book Riot of what the author of the article considers to be 100 of the “must-read” books in the genre…by women.

(Me getting on my soapbox)  I’ll get my little gripe out of the way first.  I really have mixed feelings about the codicil “by women” or any other similar categorization.  I get that people want to emphasize diversity and make sure all groups are represented and I’m all for that!  Truly!  However, I can’t help but feel that the tags also take away from the authors and their works by making them seem like they don’t stand on the same ground as works by men (or whomever) and have to be judged separately. Can’t we all just get along and say “must-read” without putting them into any other category than genre? (Me getting off my soapbox)

Anywho, it’s a great list.  I think I’ve said that.  Most of them I’ve heard of, many of them are on a TBR list that never seems to end, and some I’ve had the great pleasure of reading and highly recommend.  Here’s my favorites for the first half of the list…

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – What a great book!  I had the pleasure of having a Skype visit with Ann Leckie for a book club where this was our selection.  She was wonderful!  To overly simplify a complicated plot, the story revolves around an android who is part of a space ship – these androids act as the eyes and ears of the space ship and keep the captain informed of what’s happening in multiple places at once.  Boots on the ground, if you will.  Very Big Brother-ish or like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation.  (Yes, I’m THAT kind of nerd!) Treachery happens, as it often does, with the main ship being destroyed and only one android, Breq, is left to figure out what happened to the ship and captain and seek revenge.  The truly remarkable part of this book is that Breq could be male or female – the story (and the author) don’t confirm anything. It’s not a sexual plot line, it’s just that, to Breq, male and female have no relevance (just like me on my soapbox).  The Radsch empire (Breq’s home) makes no distinction between male and female in their language, so you really never know if any given character is male of female.  It really makes no difference to the plot either, but it kind of blows your mind as you’re reading it – just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t!  I haven’t read the sequels yet, but they’re on my list, and I’m for sure going to read this one again.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart – I loved this series! An oldie, but goodie, Stewart takes on the King Arthur saga and brings a realness and depth to the characters that makes you believe they could have existed.  This first book focuses on Merlin and his early life, mixing in historical details of Britain in the fifth century – details that make the book seem like historical fiction.  Don’t miss it or, if you’ve read it, read it again!

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris – aka the television series True Blood, this book introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse and her quirky, deadly entourage.  I haven’t read all of the books in the series, but I really did enjoy the early ones and mean to get back to them one day.  I did watch the television series through to the end and, from what I gather, the book series and the TV series diverge at some point, giving me a chance to see potentially different outcomes for favorite characters – kind of like a choose your own adventure!  This series has the swooning romance and the gruesome gore, so you definitely get bang for your buck. (Fang for your buck?)  Harris has another series I enjoyed even more about Harper Connelly, who can sense the final location of a dead person and see the last few seconds of their lives, and uses this knowledge to help bring closure to murders.  The first in that series is Grave Sight.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – I mean, come on.  It’s Harry Potter.  Get on the knight bus and read it, if you haven’t already.  I’m still checking the mail everyday for my letter from Hogwarts.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – I fell in love with this series, right up to the very end.  It’s dark and gritty and also full of humanity.  Collins has said that the fascination our culture has with reality shows like Survivor greatly influenced the formation of this story and it doesn’t disappoint. Can we debate the ending, though?  You know what I’m talking about!  With social commentary hidden in a futuristic world, do not pass this one by and don’t think you know the book just because you’ve seen the movies.

Post to be continued…

An Audiobook

I’m kind of cheating here, because I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Most of what I’ve “read” in recent years are actually things I’ve listened to. If you’re not a fan of the format (or think you aren’t because you haven’t actually listened to any), a small fiction story or a nonfiction piece might be a good intro. They really are good productions and a far cry from the dry readings of early audiobook days.

For this post, I’m going with The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick. It’s a delightful tale despite the premise of the story. Let’s get to it! Arthur Pepper is leading a dull, dreary life since the death of his wife, Miriam. He has a routine that does not lend itself to interruptions. As the one year anniversary of Miriam’s death looms near, Arthur decides it’s time to at last go through his wife belongings and clean them out. Since Arthur and his wife were married for 40 years, Arthur would never guess that there are still surprises left to be found in the relationship – especially since his wife is, well, dead. Nestled deep within the clothing, Arthur finds an extraordinary bracelet full of gold charms – a decadent piece of jewelry that Arthur never remembers his wife wearing. Turns out, Miriam’s life was pretty exciting before she met and married Arthur and he never knew a thing about it. But, why? What possible reason would Miriam have to keep secrets from him?

Arthur sets off on an unexpected quest to discover the truth about each of the charms and is able to reconnect with his wife in a way they never connected while they were married. Arthur begins to question everything he knew and slowly works his way out of his rut and opens himself up to strangers, neighbors, and his estranged adult children. If the bracelet was a reminder to Miriam of what her life had been, it becomes a token for Arthur about what life still could be.

This was a very sweet and sometimes slapstick story. It’s not a heavy read, so it’s really ideal for an audiobook format. I enjoyed being a part of Arthur’s journey and finding out where the discovery of the bracelet would take him. If you’re also looking for something as a book club selection, this would be a good neutral choice. I’ve included some links below that have discussion questions and other information.

Here’s YouTube ad for the book.

Phaedra Patrick’s site which includes her other books and discussion questions.

Another reading guide and author blurb with additional reading suggestions.