What happens when quirky characters, unique structure and recipes are combined? You get J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. No, it’s not a coffee table book filled with staged photos of luxury Midwest kitchens; rather, it’s the compelling tale of misfit Midwesterner Eva Thorvald, a girl with a “once in a generation palate” who overcomes a tragic childhood to become a nationally renowned top reservationist chef.
Is this a great rags to riches story? Definitely! But it’s Stradal’s uncommon structure that makes this novel outstanding. Nine offbeat Midwesterners in nine separate chapters tell their respective stories. Outcasts in their own lives, each one is connected to Eva. This is a winning move by Stradel. Not only are we presented with Eva’s viewpoint, but we also see how she’s perceived by others and how their actions propelled Eva forward in her career. Eva only speaks to the reader as a middle schooler with a talent for both growing and using habaneros as a weapon. We learn of her early childhood through her father Lars, a good chef but socially awkward man with a passionate hatred for Lutefisk. We discover how she decided to pursue “theme” dinners from Octavia, a twentysomething wife cheating on her husband. Each character is both believable and flawed. They will make you laugh, cringe and reflect, but more importantly, care. You will want to know what happens to them and to Eva. And, as an added bonus, real Midwestern recipes from actual North Dakota Lutheran church members are scattered throughout the story. You may even want to try a few.
If you have been searching for an enjoyable, mind-fulfilling read that you do not want to end, you must read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. And like a favorite meal, be prepared to devour it. It is that good!
Whether you’re a recent graduate cautiously beginning your post-college existence or someone who has been fumbling through adulthood for years, you will find something to inspire you in these two new books about living a brave and compassionate life.
Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown by Pema Chödrön was originally a commencement address made at Naropa University to the graduating class of 2014 — which included Chödrön’s granddaughter — on the “fine art of failing.” Chödrön, an American-born Buddhist nun, has written extensively about the themes she touches on in her speech, and her message resonates at any stage of life: Prepare for the inevitability of failure, and welcome the unwelcome. This slim volume with its simple brushstroke illustrations also includes an interview with the author where she addresses a variety of real-life situations, including what to do when your failure is so great that it results in another person’s death.
Memoirist and novelist Cheryl Strayed gives us Brave Enough, a compilation of quotes from her previous books, including Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and her “Dear Sugar” advice column. Rather than recounting anecdotes from 18th century Tibet, Strayed uses metaphors and imagery more grounded in the contemporary experience. “Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar,” she writes. “Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill”. Devoted readers will enjoy revisiting Strayed’s most memorable and favorite bits of advice, but new readers will also find sagacity in her straightforward yet gentle voice.
Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus introduces us to a world where the gods are among us, but can’t quite cover their bar tab. A tragedy some hundred years ago left most of the Greek gods dead, and now Bacchus, the God of Wine and Revelry, is an old man with the “deadest looking face you’ve ever seen,” and the only hints of his former glory are the two horns that occasionally peek out from under his hat before he falls down drunk at the bar. But when he sees his old rival Theseus being interviewed on live television, he gets a taste for the old days and sets out to settle the score.
Thus begins one of the most epic shaggy-dog stories ever put to print. Bacchus’ adventures are never what you expect them to be. He’ll set out on a quest, get discouraged, stop somewhere for a drink and then decide to visit the islands instead. It’s less an Odyssey than a pub-crawl through Greek mythology. And at his side is his faithful follower, Simpson, a Greek literature buff whose history lessons fill in the blanks for Bacchus, whose recall isn’t what it used to be (“It’s all a bit of a blur after I invented wine,” says Bacchus, on childhood.) Along the way they get wrapped up in mob rivalries, the search for the skull of Poseidon and a really weird guy named the Eyeball Kid.
Campbell’s detailed artwork and historical knowledge result in a book that’s both highbrow and slapstick, that knows when to be reverent and when to let the drunk god belch. It’s a must read for fans of Alan Moore’s classic From Hell, which Campbell illustrated, or the mythology-dense fiction of Neil Gaiman, whom Campbell also illustrated in The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains.
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With the release of its third volume, the conclusion of the series’ first major story arc, now is the perfect time to catch up on Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera’s pulp sci-fi romp Black Science. Grant McKay and the Anarchist League of Scientists seek the infinite possibilities of the multiverse using the taboo science of interdimensional travel, but things go astray when they discover that “the Pillar,” the device they’ve designed to navigate them through other dimensions, has been tampered with, and is now juggling them between seemingly random alternate realities and parallel dimensions.
The inks and colors by Matteo Scalera and Dean White, respectively, are vibrant and full of energy. This spectacular art team transports the reader to fantastical locations: a swampy landscape ravaged by a war between humanoid fish and frogs, a parallel North America where Native Americans have advanced technologically far beyond the rest of the world and a planet inhabited by flying spider-hippos and millipede-like religious fanatics are just a few examples. (It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds.)
As action-packed and outlandish as Black Science is, Rick Remender’s strong sense of pacing keeps the drama focused on the characters. In addition to the threats that the group encounters as it tears through the walls of reality, the members also struggle with more personal troubles like handling the responsibilities of parenthood and dealing with the aftermath of infidelity.
Those who enjoy Black Science may also want to try Rick Remender and John Romita Jr.’s take on Captain America, which is infused with a similar sci-fi flair.
The longlists for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were announced yesterday, and 20 outstanding titles have made each list. Congratulations to Baltimore’s own Anne Tyler, whose A Spool of Blue Thread made the fiction list, while another Baltimore native, Ta-Nehisi Coates, was selected for the nonfiction list with Between the World and Me. It’s been a very good year for Coates, who is also on the National Book Award longlist and was named a 2015 MacArthur Fellow on Monday.
The Carnegie committee is a joint project between RUSA, a division of the American Library Association, and Booklist. A shortlist will be announced on October 19, and the winners will be announced on January 10, 2016.
Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes by Jules Moulin first introduces readers to Ally when she is 31 and struggling to balance her career as a professor with the demands of single motherhood. In addition to her 10-year-old daughter Lizzie, Ally also has to reckon with her interfering and frequently disapproving mother. Needless to say, there is no room for dating, romance or even a casual fling in her life.
But one weekend Ally has her house to herself and finds herself alone with Jake, a 21-year-old former student who has volunteered to make some needed repairs to her home. Their chemistry is palpable and Ally gives in to a steamy weekend of passion. As the weekend draws to a close, Jake wants to pursue a lasting relationship, but Ally sends him packing. Flash forward 10 years and Ally is still single, living in Brooklyn and coping with the recent death of her mother. Lizzie, an aspiring actress, brings home a co-worker for dinner who turns out to be Jake, now a Hollywood mega-star. Ally panics because she has never forgotten him or their magical weekend and Jake’s memories are equally vivid. Their attraction still sizzles and Ally must decide if she is willing to give their relationship a real chance.
Moulin effortlessly weaves between the two time lines and brings a real spark to this star-crossed couple. Jake and Ally are honest and relatable characters whose happily ever after is 10 years in the making. Supporting characters, zany plot lines and zippy dialogue are the perfect complements to this funny, romantic and sexy story.
What appears to be the mundane investigation of a stolen farm tractor becomes a tangle of lies and a conspiracy of fools in Peter Robinson’s In the Dark Places. How is it possible for such a large piece of equipment to disappear so completely? An abandoned airplane hangar, the perfect location to transfer stolen goods, may be the answer, and there is ample evidence a murder has been committed at the site. This leads to the investigation of the sudden disappearance of two young men, one the son of a local farmer.
The missing boy's girlfriend may be the key to finding the missing men. While Detective Annie Cabbot guards the potential witness, Detective Winsome Jackman is working closely with Terry Gilchrist, the witness who found the bloody crime scene, but the recently returned veteran of Afghanistan is far more interested in Winsome than he is in solving the crime. The body count rises when a fateful auto accident high in the Yorkshire hills reaps a grim harvest.
Peter Robinson draws on the brooding atmosphere of the Yorkshire hills setting to examine the theme of isolation — in both the physical surroundings and in the lives of the characters. Taut, suspenseful, with a richly developed storyline and unforgettable characters, In the Dark Places is headed for award territory. Once you have read this novel, you’ll be sure to add Robinson to your must-read list. Readers of Ruth Rendell, Deborah Crombie and P.D. James will be delighted they discovered Robinson’s Inspector Banks.
Bestselling author, architect and Westminster resident Charles Belfoure will join Baltimore County Public Library for a librarian-led group book discussion on Friday, September 25 from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in The Ivy Bookshop tent at the Baltimore Book Festival. Mr. Belfoure will discuss his new historical novel, House of Thieves, as well as his well-regarded first novel The Paris Architect. Both stories feature an architect who ends up using his skills for precarious endeavors. In The Paris Architect, set during the Nazi's occupation of France, Lucien Bernard collaborates with a local industrialist to design hiding places for the Jews. In House of Thieves, architect John Cross is forced by gangsters to use his blueprints to expedite home burglaries to save his son from a gambling debt. Recently, Charles Belfoure answered questions for Between the Covers about House of Thieves.
Between the Covers: You do such a masterful job placing readers in late 19th century Manhattan. What made you choose New York’s Gilded Age for your setting and this lively time period?
Charles Belfoure: That was my favorite period in architectural history and I was also fascinated by the social history of the period. I spent a lot of time doing research on the worlds of the super-rich, the miserably poor and the underworld of the Gilded Age.
BTC: You introduce your readers to John Cross, an architect who gets drawn into the criminal underworld to protect his family. Did you have anyone from real life in mind when you created this character?
CB: I came across a real historical figure named George L. Leslie. He came from a wealthy family in the Midwest and had come to New York in the 1870s to practice as an architect, but gave it up because he preferred the life of a bank robber. When I was young, I had done a project for a Mafia boss who’s since been murdered. That was also an inspiration for doing a book about the underworld.
BTC: In many ways this story is a tale of societal contrasts. Was this deliberate on your part?
CB: Yes, there was an incredible contrast between rich high society and the miserably poor in New York City. The poor of that time had no social safety net like unemployment insurance or Medicaid to help them as they do today. The poverty was staggering. I wanted the lives of people in these two different worlds to intersect.
BTC: Both of your novels revolve around the world of an architect using his skills and training in ways never imagined. Can you talk a little about your own world as an architect?
CB: I still practice as an architect or as a historic preservation consultant. I help recycle historic buildings into new uses. As an architect, I’m doing three buildings on Eutaw St. on the block up from the Hippodrome and one on Howard St. As a preservation consultant and historic tax credit consultant, I’m currently working on a dozen buildings.
BTC: Tell us about your Baltimore roots?
CB: I grew up in Woodlawn in the 1960s and early 1970s. I graduated from Woodlawn Senior High. Woodlawn is right on the western city-county line so I went into Baltimore City quite a bit on the bus. I’d go down to Howard St. to go to the big department stores and movie theaters. It’s strange that I now work on projects on Howard St., which is this dangerous rundown deserted area so different from when I was a kid with crowds of shoppers. I think I do these historic rehab projects to try to bring back the city the way it used to be.
BTC: Baltimore has its share of noted local authors? Do you have a favorite?
CB: Anne Tyler, one of America’s finest novelists. No one has a finer insight into human nature than she does. She’s the only writer that I’ve read consistently.
BTC: Are you working on a third novel?
CB: Yes, it’s set in England in 1905 and about an architect who has hit rock bottom.
Mr. Belfoure will be signing copies of both novels, available for purchase, during the event.
Private investigator Michael Kelly is used to the mean streets of Chicago. Even so, in The Governor’s Wife by Michael Harvey, Kelly finds himself embroiled in some nefarious dealings that even he finds troubling. The case starts out fairly straightforward for Kelly. Someone wants him to find former Illinois governor Ray Perry, who mysteriously disappeared after being sentenced to 38 years in prison for corruption. It doesn’t even bother Kelly that his client remains anonymous or that they've deposited a $200,000 retainer fee in his bank account. However, when the bodies start piling up and Kelly’s own life is threatened, he begins to wonder if he is being set up. Can he trust anyone to tell him the truth?
Michael Harvey obviously has a penchant for the hardboiled detective stories in the style of Mickey Spillane and Nero Wolfe. His fast-paced plot is filled with clichés of the tough–as-nails private eye who is one step ahead of the bad guys. There's plenty of action, rough language, plot twists, gun play and femme fatales, but Harvey has updated these elements for the 21st century. If you enjoy a throwback to a time when a P.I. lived by a code of honor and the bad guys were thoroughly evil, then The Governor’s Wife will appeal to you.