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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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Potato Peel Pie

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

What a delicious read!   I love books with quirky characters and whimsical settings.   This book certainly has those.   Yet it has much, much more.   The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a story about human cruelty, hardship, tragedy, triumph against cruelty, and most of all community, love and hope.   The characters are not only quirky, but breathe life into every page of the book.  

I want to spend the day with Guernsey’s herbalist-witch, Isola.   I want to go birdwatching and beach combing with Kit and Amelia.   I would like to sit and help Juliet interview the Guernsey Islanders as she tries to understand what it was like to live for five years through the Second World War under German occupation.

I learned much about the hardships of life under occupation and about Guernsey Island.   Previously, I knew what a Guernsey cow looked like, and that it was a “Channel” Island, but I had no idea how close it is to France, nor of its occupation during WW II.   Guernsey is a tiny piece of England that’s off the coast of Normandy (France).

This book is truly, utterly brilliant.   As you may have guessed, the characters are gorgeous, three dimensional friends by the end, and the story has intrigue, romance and loss as you follow the correspondence of Juliet Ashton – an English writer – who is randomly contacted by one of the Guernsey Islanders who’s come to own an old copy of a book that she once owned.   The narrative is told through the ensuing correspondence between Juliet, her friends Sophie and Sidney, and various members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The Guernsey Islanders befriend Juliet and slowly reveal how the Society helped them to survive the hardships of war and occupation.   Juliet becomes fascinated with the Society and their efforts to survive and, as a consequence, comes to be deeply involved in their lives.

The sense of community that one gets from reading this book is overwhelming.

The surprising “Englishness” of the book given that the author and her niece (who finished the book after the author’s death) are American needs to be remarked upon.   This book is so well written, so thoroughly researched and lovingly crafted, I was convinced the author was English or had spent a great deal of time in England.   I was, thus, amazed to learn that the writers are Americans.

This is a beautiful, almost ethnographic work of fiction that I won’t hesitate to recommend to others.   It’s a feel good book;  I didn’t want it to end.   As good as chocolate!

This review was written by Amanda.   You can see more of her reviews at http://desertbookchick.com/ .

 

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Waiting for McLean Stevenson

Cakewalk: A Memoir by Kate Moses

“The byproduct of suffering, if you’re lucky, is appreciation…  My windfall has always been a sweet tooth, the gold watch that deflected the bullet aimed straight at my heart.”

I was more than 50 pages into reading a galley of Cakewalk before I realized that this is a non-fiction memoir.   At the start it reads like a novel that might have been written by Anne Tyler or Anna Quindlen, although I should have taken a clue from its overly upbeat nature.   “Mom, did you know the words ‘treat’ and ‘threat’ are separated by just one letter?”   But the tone shifted before many more pages had been turned.

Kate Moses was in first grade in 1969 and this re-telling of her life story reads like a memorial to an earlier time, the 1950’s.   It’s made all the more interesting by the fact that Moses grew up living in several places including Palo Alto, Petaluma, Sonoma, outside of Philadelphia (where the Main Line ended), Virginia and Fairbanks, Alaska.   She also had relatives in San Francisco and Dayton, Ohio (“…along every road in Ohio the corn stood high as an elephant’s eye.”)

This initially appears to be an ode to food, the many treats and meals that an overweight young girl took in growing up.   She sees a cross-country trip as “an opportunity for reunion with Howard Johnson’s coconut cake.”   And she “spent every cent I was given on candy and pink Hostess Sno Balls.”   The impression that this is all about food is given further credence by a recipe that concludes each chapter.   Yet the food talk is a cover.

“My family was totally screwed up…”

This memoir is, to a great extent, about the pain of growing up.   Moses’ parents had a very unhappy marriage.   Her father was an overly serious man and her mother was fun-loving.   It did not make for a good mix.   One fault with the telling is that Moses makes a few too many negative references to her father.   He was “a rigid bullying husband…” and a violent father who caught his wife in “the stranglehold of… marriage” due to his “brutalizing domination.”   The reader gets the point after the first couple of references.

This brings up the issue of editing.   All in all, this is an entertaining read but not so much that the typical reader will want to stick with it for 368 pages.   It could easily have been shortened by a third of its length, and there is a bit too much repetition.   Ah, and a minor point, some of Peter Frampton’s lyrics are quoted incorrectly.

“It was the year we started waiting for McLean Stevenson…”

Still, there are some very entertaining stories included in Cakewalk, some of which prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.   Kate’s mother fantasized about being rescued by the actor McLean Stevenson, and she eventually was arrested – or rather, detained – while visiting the White House after being caught taking something from Pat Nixon’s bathroom!

Further, if you absolutely love food more than life itself, there are plenty of intriguing descriptions here of meals and snacks.   In fact, this autobiography is gorged with tales of food consumption.   Then there are the recipes to try out.   Be sure to try the one for chocolate chip cookies!

Cakewalk will be released on May 11, 2010.   An advance review copy was provided by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House.

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