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A review of The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee.

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The Joy of Cooking

The Secret of Everything: A Novel by Barbara O’Neal (Bantam, $15.00, 400 pages)

Barbara O’Neal presents an enjoyable story about self-discovery, healing, romance, and adventure in her novel, The Secret of Everything.

Tessa Harlow is a woman in her mid-thirties on a quest to discover the details of her hidden past.   Following a traumatic accident that occurred while leading one of her adventure trips, Tessa attempts to heal both physically and emotionally by returning to her birthplace in Los Ladrones, New Mexico.   While Tessa allows her wounds to mend, she begins to do research for a possible upcoming adventure tour in her hometown.   On her journey she becomes romantically involved with a widower, and begins to make instant connections with the townspeople of Los Ladrones, most of whom trigger a memory from the past.   As she delves into the culture and history of this town, she discovers more than she had envisioned and slowly uncovers the secrets of her past.

O’Neal does a remarkable job of bringing her characters to life through description and dialogue, while exposing the true beauty of New Mexico.   Each character is likeable and interesting and, although they become unrealistically connected as the tale unfolds, the reader will enjoy the storyline and become entranced with her novel until its very end.

O’Neal also add a literally delicious touch to her story by describing the culinary dishes that Tessa explores and provides her readers with some of her favorite recipes.   If you’re not a “foodie” then you will no doubt be entertained by the charming dogs that are connected to Tessa throughout the story, each of which has a tail (or is it tale?) of their own.

This novel would make a great summer beach book, or serve as a fun focus for Book Club discussions.   It is light and enjoyable and, therefore, well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Mystery Most Fowl

Buffalo West Wing: A White House Chef Mystery  by Julie Hyzy (Berkley; $7.99; 320 pages)

Author Julie Hyzy writes two series of mysteries, White House Chef Mysteries and Manor House Mysteries.   Buffalo West Wing is the fourth in the White House Chef series.   Earlier this year, her first Manor House Mystery, Grace Under Pressure, was reviewed here.

White House executive chef Olivia Paras has a full plate on her hands with a new first family moving into the White House.   Yes, that White House.   She is well-known for being the first female executive chef and was well-loved by the prior president and his family.   The new first family must be won over to assure her tenure as executive chef.   The family includes grade-school children and a grandmother which makes Olivia’s job that much more challenging.   The mix of characters makes it highly contemporary and easily believable.

The story is based on a mysterious box of buffalo wings that’s delivered to the White House kitchen on inauguration night with a note attached designating it for the new young occupants.   Olivia is a veteran of many an intrigue and exercises her good judgment by withholding the tasty treats as she cannot attest to their source.   The new first lady is not amused when she finds out that Olivia has denied her children a special treat!   But Olivia is proven to be in the right when the wings are determined to be poisonous – danger hits the House.

The plot unfolds as Olivia, her kitchen staff members, the Secret Service and an annoying bunch of know-it-alls vie for the favor of upper management.   Author Hyzy writes knowledgeably about all matters related to White House dining and state dinner preparation.   She brings the reader along as Olivia gets in and out of some terrifying situations.   As is the case with the most enjoyable of novels, this one brings with it a peek into a world not observed by most folks.   There are recipes included at the end of the book for the dishes that are featured in the story.

Well recommended.

This preview-review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   Buffalo West Wing will be released on Tuesday, January 4, 2011.

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With a Little Help From My Friends

The Island: A Novel by Elin Hilderbrand (Unabridged Hachette audio book on 13 CDs; $34.98)

When the going gets tough for Chess Cousins, she and three other East Coast ladies retreat to Tuckernuck Island off the coast of Nantucket.   These ladies are not just anyone; they are Chess’s mother Birdie Cousins, aunt Ida Bishop and sister Tate Cousins.   Tough doesn’t begin to describe Chess’s situation as her recently dumped fiance has died in a rock climbing incident and she has walked out on her editorial job at a prestigious culinary magazine.   To make matters worse, Chess decides to cut her shining golden hair and shave her head.

Birdie masterminds their trip to the family vacation home on Tuckernuck.   The house lacks hot water, electricity, and television and cell phone reception.   After a 13-year family hiatus from vacationing on the property, the ladies come together for the month of July.   The plan is to allow Chess the solitude and support she needs to get beyond her depression.

Author Hilderbrand present a masterfully simple story that expands as the days on the island are counted off, one by one.   The cadence of the story, narrated by Denice Hicks, is one of calm repetition that includes descriptions of the locale, conversations, meal preparation and the introspective thoughts of the ladies.   The activities they perform daily become part of the story line.   There are bursts of emotion that erupt from the interactions of the characters.   The narrator balances the dulcet tones of Birdie with the harsh outbursts from Tate and Chess.   India’s throaty voice is a sharp contrast to those of her sister and nieces.   This is only right as she is a worldly woman who is herself the widow.

The key male character is Barrett Lee, a golden hunk of a man in his thirties, who is the caretaker of the house.   He brings the food, wine, ice and clean laundry daily from Nantucket.   Although Nantucket is only a half-mile away by boat, it might as well be on another continent.   Both Barrett and his father Chuck before him have captured the hearts and imaginations of the respective generations of sisters.

The sense of isolation felt by Birdie, India and Tate serves to prompt them to deal with their own issues even though they are supposed to be assisting Chess.   There is a sense of dancing around each one’s life situation, avoiding the whole truth, shying away and then revisiting them again and again.   Each revisit brings more of the backstories to the fore.   The complexity of the emotions and fears brought on by the need for someone to love is flavored with loving kindness, frustration, self-awareness and anxiety.

In a sense, the book is a confessional.   The four points of view on love and loss, sibling rivalry and what it means to be loved are beautifully portrayed in this multi-generational saga.

Highly recommended, and, yes, it’s a fine example of chick lit.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the audio book was provided by Hachette Audio.

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