A City Baker’s Guide to Country Living

9781101981207_p0_v2_s192x300  With a dash of Sarah Addison Allen (The Peach Keeper) and a drizzle of Ruth Reichl (Delicious!), Louise Miller creates a charming story about food, relationships, and finding a home in  The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living.  

After pastry chef Olivia Rawlings drops the flaming baked Alaska in the posh Boston restaurant and sets the whole place on fire, she retreats with her dog to a bucolic Vermont Inn.  Her changes of hair color from purple to orange reflect her moods and her talent, as her backstory unravels.  Not only a talented baker but also a banjo player, Livvy connects with her new surroundings, despite the small town gossip and her initial ostracism as an outsider.

Some tension between Margaret, Livvy’s boss, an upstanding New Englander who owns the inn, and Jane, an old stalwart rich matron who owns half the town, and seems to be bidding to buy the inn, creates a mysterious rivalry running throughout the story.  Although they both grew up together, a dark secret floats around the main plot.

Other characters fill the expected round of friends and family.  Livvy’s love interest is a tall dark handsome rebel, who has returned to the fold to help run the family farm when his father, Henry, becomes ill.  Henry may be one of the more likable characters, along with Chef Alfred, the behind the scenes admirer.

Miller provides romance, mystery,  and some angst but the best is the description of food:

”  And then dessert, Pumpkin creme brûlée baked in hollowed out miniature pumpkins.  Apple galettes with frangipane in puff pastry.  Pears stuffed with cognac-soaked figs and wrapped in phyllo, baked to a crispy golden brown, the fruit inside tender and succulent.  Ant then chocolate shells, filled with a thick amber caramel, studded with toasted pecans and a layer of dark chocolate ganache just barely sweetened.”

Is your mouth watering yet?

Overall, the story is easy and captivating – a lovely summer read with a bonus – the recipe (with tips for success) for the award-winning apple pie.

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Summer Thrills

A Ghost at the Door – cousin to The House of Cards

9781471111549_p0_v3_s192x300   Having become a fan of the Netflix series House of Cards, changed from the British version to the American political system, I was delighted to discover its creator, Michael Dobbs, is the author of mystery thrillers.  When I met Harry Jones, former Special Forces operative and Member of Parliament, in Dobbs’ sixth book in the series, he had has recently lost his millions in an accounting mistake and is looking for clues about his father’s death.

Our hero travels from London to Bermuda, through the cloisters of Christ Church College and into the Lake District with exciting twists to the plot. Although I had not read the first five, I relished submerging in the world of intrigue and politics in Dobbs’s sixth book – A Ghost at the Door.

Two More Spy/Thrillers I Am Looking Forward to Reading:

images    The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr

” Bernie Gunther, former Berlin homicide detective and unwilling SS officer,  is living on the French Riviera in 1956.  A local writer needs someone to fill the fourth seat in a bridge game that is the usual evening diversion at the Villa Mauresque. Not just any writer: W. Somerset Maugham. And it turns out it is not just a bridge partner that he needs; it’s some professional advice. Maugham is being blackmailed.  Maugham once worked for the British secret service, and the people now blackmailing him are spies.” Penguin Random House

9781250077349_p0_v3_s192x300 Into Oblivion: An Icelandic Thriller by Arnaldur Indridason

“Many years before, a schoolgirl went missing, and the world has forgotten her. But Erlendur has not. Erlendur is a newly promoted detective, and he is contending with a battered dead body, a rogue CIA operative, and America’s troublesome presence in Iceland. In his spare time he investigates a cold case. He is only starting out, but he is already deeply involved in his work.”   Macmillan

Unfinished Business – Hystopia

9780865479135_p0_v1_s192x300  David Means’ Man Booker Prize longlist finalist – Hystopia – begins with twenty-three pages of a fictional editor’s notes, and I was tempted to skip over them to get right to the story of John F. Kennedy’s fictional third term as President of the United States.  Yet, without these pages and those ending the book, which I read too –  interviews explaining the imagined new order created to deal with Vietnam veterans – the story does not make sense, but maybe it was never meant to make sense anyway.

Hystopia is a novel within a novel.  The fictional editor introduces and ends fictional author Eugene Allen’s story of John F. Kennedy’s continued presidency, until his assassination in 1970.  Allen, a veteran of the Vietnam War participated in a treatment called “enfolding,” involving the re-enactment of past events used with a drug called Tripizoid to repress traumatic war memories.  As a result, he eventually commits suicide, leaving behind his novel, “Hystopia.”

The dystopian landscape is sometimes hard to travel, with Kennedy’s Psych Squad, based in Michigan, hot on the trail of veterans not cured by the enfolding.   The character profiles offer no  relief: Rake, a psychopath who has kidnapped a young girl, Meg, the girlfriend of a soldier who served with Rake and was killed in Vietnam; Wendy , once in love with a veteran who lost his legs in the war and an agent in the Pysch Squad; and Singleton, a soldier who has been successfully enfolded, and cannot remember his trauma.

The book is a wild ride through the United States involvement in the Vietnam War, reliving the anger and its consequences.  This was a ride I couldn’t finish, and the idea of therapeutic forgetfulness is already working – the story and Michigan’s alternative universe  are already fading in my memory.

Maybe I don’t need to read all the long listed books for the Man Booker this year, after all.  Have you read this one?

The Other Side of the Bridge

9780385340373_p0_v1_s192x300  Steadily and quietly, Mary Lawson affirms the continuity of life in the remote Northern Canadian town of Struan in The Other Side of the Bridge.  Despite the hardships of severe weather, the war, farm life, and the love/hate relationship of two brothers, the strength and forthrightness of its people forge a universal tale, with suspense and romance, guaranteed to keep you riveted to the page.

Across two generations, Lawson examines the relationship of two brothers, Arthur and Jake Dunn, growing up on a farm in the 1930s before the war.  Ian Christopherson, a smart high school student and the son of the small town doctor, connects to the brothers twenty years later when he gets a summer job plowing the Dunn farm.  By alternating across time zones between Ian’s story with Arthur as a grown man with three children in the present and Arthur’s life as a boy in the past, Lawson cleverly manages to maintain suspense – despite the reader knowing some of how the story will turn out.

The three main characters each follow a predictable type:  Arthur is the good but slow, plodding older brother who prefers plowing behind the horses to doing schoolwork; Jacob is the diabolical  younger, smart, handsome rake who can charm anyone; Ian is the love-struck adolescent, scarred by the desertion of his mother, who chafes at the town’s expectations to follow his father’s footsteps as the town’s next doctor.  After establishing the stereotype, however, Lawson breaks the mold for each of them.

The best part of reading one of Lawson’s stories is getting to know her characters.  After awhile, they become so real, you will be engulfed in their lives and feel their insecurities as your own.  Although the outcome of Ian’s struggle to grow up is predictable, how he gets there is still satisfying.  The constant sibling rivalry between Art and Jake fuels the plot, providing some moments of humor, but more often an anxious recognition of their competition for their parents’ love and their understanding of each other.

Lawson punctuates her storytelling with shocking incidents –  tragedy, resentment and betrayal, but in the end decency and goodwill win out – with humanity pulling all the story threads together.

The Other Side of the Bridge had the well-deserved honor of being long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

List of Books – Looking Back Ten Years

Halfway through my fourth Man Booker Longlist selection for this year (Hystopia), having read My Name is Lucy Barton, Eileen, and The Many, I needed to break away for awhile.  After reading Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake, I looked for her second book – on the Man Booker longlist for 2006, and immediately got lost in its characters.

imagesI found publisher’s summaries for the 2006 books and wondered how the world has changed in the last ten years to create this year’s longlist – or has it?  In 2006, The Other Side of the Bridge shared its distinction with a few familiar authors.  Sadly, not all the books on the list are in my local library.  Have you read any?

  • Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story

                  “Michael ‘Butcher’ Boone is an ex-“really famous” painter, now reduced to living in a remote country house and acting as caretaker for his younger brother, Hugh. When a mysterious young woman named Marlene walks out of a rainstorm and into their lives,  she sets in motion a chain of events that could be the making–or the ruin–of them all.”

  • Kiran Desai’s  The Inheritance of Loss – the 2006 Winner

“Explores the lives of characters trapped in India’s class system—both the lower class and the upper class. The characters’ hopes and dreams are conveyed in the novel, along with their ultimate dream of immigrating to America and finally escaping the rigid caste system of their homeland. The story is set in the 1980s in Kalimpong, located in the northern part of India near Darjeeling.”

  • Robert Edric’s  Gathering the Water

“Set in 1848, the story is of engineer Charles Weightman sent to The Forge Valley to oversee the gradual flooding of the village, an enterprise undertaken by The Water Board for almost nefarious financial reasons. Of course the locals resent both his task and his presence, and Weightman’s life is not made easy. He finds a friend in the middle-aged Mary Latimer, herself also a partial outsider, who has returned to the village to arrange alternative accomodation for her previously incarcerated mentally ill sister.”

  • Nadine Gordimer’s  Get A Life

“A young man’s treatment for cancer inspires profound changes in his family.
Paul Bannerman, an ecologist in South Africa, believes he understands the trajectory of his life, with the usual markers of vocation and marriage. But when he’s diagnosed with thyroid cancer and, after surgery, prescribed treatment that will leave him radioactive, for a period a danger to others, he enters an unthinkable existence and another kind of illumination: the contradiction between the values of his work and those of his wife.”

  • Kate Grenville’s The Secret River

“The first book in a trilogy, this historical fiction set in Australia tells the story of an early 19th-century Englishman transported to Australia for theft. The story explores what may have happened when Europeans colonised land already inhabited by Aboriginal people.”

  • M J Hyland’s Carry Me Down

“John Egan is an extremely tall 11-year-old boy living in the small town of Gorey, Ireland. As he faces the trials of home and school life, John feels he has no place in the world, and his frustration fuels odd obsessions: with the Guinness Book of World Records , with physical human contact and with his “gift” for detecting lies. His parents, already sorting through their own uneasy relationship, puzzle over their only son with doctors and teachers, pushing John to a moment of crisis, which may prove his undoing.”

  • Howard Jacobson’s  Kalooki Nights

“Cartoonist Max Glickman recalls his childhood in a British suburb in the 1950s, surrounded by Jews, each with an entirely different and outspoken view on what it means to be Jewish. After his friend Manny Washinsky is released from prison, Max is compelled to uncover the motive behind Manny’s crime—the discovery of which leads Max to understand the indelible effects of the Holocaust and to explore the intrinsic and paradoxical questions of a post-war Jewish identity.”

  • James Lasdun’s Seven Lies

“Tells the story of Stefan Vogel, a young East German, whose yearnings for love, glory, and freedom express themselves in a lifelong fantasy of going to America. By a series of increasingly dangerous maneuvers, he makes this fantasy come true, his past seemingly locked behind the Berlin Wall and a new life of unbounded bliss ahead of him. But then his world begins to fall apart.”

  • Mary Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge
  • Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin

“David Carter is an obsessive collector, and the curator of the local history museum. In addition to overseeing the community’s archives, he has, since boyhood, diligently archived the items that tell his own life story: birth certificate, school report cards, movie and train tickets. But when a senile relative lets slip a long-buried family secret, David is forced to consider that his whole carefully cataloged life may be constructed around a lie.”

  • Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

“The book follows the plight of Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy living in Tripoli in Libya, stuck between a father whose clandestine anti-Qaddafi activities bring about searches, stalkings and telephone eaves droppings by Qaddafi’s state police, and a vulnerable young mother who resorts to alcohol to bury her anxiety and anger. The only people he has to turn to are his neighbor Kareem, and his father’s best friend Moosa. The book provides a description of Libya under Qaddafi’s terror regime, and a narration of ordinary people’s lives as they try to survive the political oppression.”

  • Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children

“The novel focuses on the stories of three friends in their early thirties, living in Manhattan in the months leading up to the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Each of the three is well-educated and privileged, but struggles with realizing the lofty expectations for individual personal and professional lives.”

  • David Mitchell ‘s Black Swan Green

“An autobiographical coming-of-age story. The main character, Jason Taylor, like the author Mitchell in his youth, is a geeky 13-year-old poet living in a yuppifying subdivision in Black Swan Green, a Worcestershire village. Also like Mitchell, he struggles with a formidable stammer .”

  • Naeem Murr’s The Perfect Man

“Young Rajiv Travers hasn’t had much luck fitting in anywhere. Born to an Indian mother who was sold to his English father, Raj is abandoned by his relatives into the reluctant care of Ruth, an American romance writer living in Pisgah, Missouri. While his skin color unsettles most of the townsfolk, the quick-witted Raj soon finds his place among a group of children his own age. While the friends remain loyal to one another through the years, it becomes clear that their paths will veer in markedly different directions. But breaking free of the demands of their families and their community, as well as one another, comes at a devastating price.”

  • Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me

“Tells the story of David Anderton, a Catholic priest born in Edinburgh and educated in England who is assigned to a parish in a decaying Irish town with different residents sympathetic to the Orange or IRA causes. Anderton, though, takes no interest in his parishioners, enduring their ill will towards him. He’s been grieving for thirty years for the man he loved who died in an auto accident. The only people in the city with whom he spends time are the local teenagers who live life on the edge, committing petty crimes and indulging in drugs. He senses the life in them that he misses, and finds himself attracted to one of them, Mark.”

  • James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack

“When Reverend Gideon Mack, a good minister despite his atheism, tumbles into a deep ravine called the Black Jaws, he is presumed dead. Three days later, however, he emerges bruised but alive-and insistent that his rescuer was Satan himself. Against the background of an incredulous world, Mack’s disturbing odyssey and the tortuous life that led to it create a mesmerizing meditation on faith, mortality, and the power of the unknown.”

  • Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk

“The fourth of the Patrick Melrose series of five books – In this mordant British comedy, a father determined to protect his sons from the miseries of his own childhood inadvertently initiates new and different ordeals for his family.”

  • Barry Unsworth’s The Ruby in her Navel

“Set in mid-12th century Sicily in the reign of King Roger II,  it’s the story, told in the first person, of a young would-be knight named Thurstan Beauchamp, who works as a purveyor of entertainments and occasional envoy and spy in the palace. Thurstan  finds himself embroiled in a plot that threatens to destroy all he holds dear.”

  • Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch

“Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners—three women and a young man with a past—whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.”


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