The Book Whisperer Also Bakes!

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In perusing my local library cookbooks this week, I discovered Out of the Box Desserts by Hayley Parker, aka, The Domestic Rebel. Parker’s Web site, https://thedomesticrebel.com/, provides this information about her: “My aesthetic is simple – baking fearlessly in the kitchen by using everyday ingredients and transforming them into extraordinary desserts!”

In looking through the cookbook, I would agree that Parker has taken box mixes to a sublime level. The contents include “Sweet-Inspired Cakes and Cupcakes,” “Brownies, Blondies, and More Sticky, Gooey Bars,” “Chewy, Crispy, and Everything Good Cookies,” “Cheesecakes, Chocolate Pies, and More Creamy Treats,” and “Brownie Bombs and Candy-licious Confections.” Parker has exceeded the mark in each category.

As a baker myself, I like finding new recipes or innovations to old recipes. I like making brownies and often add special ingredients to my favorite brownie recipe, one I found on a can of Hershey’s Cocoa a long time ago. I add dried cherries for a distinctive taste and the cherries also keep the brownies moist longer than usual—that is, if they last. I also like adding Andes mints to the brownies. The mint gives the brownies a zing.

My favorite recipe thus far in Parker’s book, though, is Gooey Chocolate Chip Pecan Pie Bars. The recipe starts with refrigerated chocolate chip cookie dough slightly baked in a 13”x9” pan. Then a delicious filling of brown sugar, dark corn syrup, butter, eggs, vanilla, pecans, and more chocolate chips makes the gooey topping. Find the recipe in Out of the Box Desserts.

On Parker’s Web site, bakers will find her blog where she provides additional recipes such as Old-Fashioned Gingerbread Cake: https://thedomesticrebel.com/2018/12/13/old-fashioned-gingerbread-cake/. See the picture below for purely decadent deliciousness.

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Out of the Box Desserts provides bakers with a whole new world of recipes using some prepared or boxed ingredients. Take a look at the Shortcut Lemon Meringue Bars below. Parker’s recipe is on her Web site.

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The Book Whisperer Delves Into a Japanese Novel

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John Freeman, the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual published by Grove, and author of How to Read a Novelistand Maps, a collection of poems, writes “I think the riskiest kind of novel is the one that tries to rescue us from mundane existence – by taking a closer look at mundane existence.” Sayaka Murata, a part-time convenience-store worker herself, has written that risky novel in Convenience Store Woman.

Keiko Furukura, by her own admission, does not fit the norm of society. She is content to observe others keenly and then to mimic them without their even realizing it so that she appears normal, or like those around her. At 32, she has been working eighteen years at the same 24-hour convenience store, but only as a part-time worker.

Murata draws on her own experiences of working in a convenience store for the themes in her work, both short stories and novels: asexuality, involuntary celibacy, and voluntary celibacy. In Keiko, Murata creates a character who has made a place for herself in a world where she is a square peg in a round hole. While others question her, Keiko remains content in the world she has created for herself.

For a brief time, though, Keiko does wonder if there is not something else besides her existence as the part-time convenience store clerk. This self-questioning occurs when Mr. Shiraha, a discontented man, takes a brief job at the store alongside Keiko. Shiraha rants about women “all after snaring a guy who work at the same company. Women have been like hat since the Stone Age. The youngest, prettiest girls in the village go to the strongest hunters.”

Shiraha complains because he wants a wife who will support HIM. Yet, he is slovenly and unkempt, so no woman will look twice at him, not to mention that he does not want to work himself. He fuels his rage by continuing the rants against women. Not surprisingly, he is soon out of a job. Still, Shiraha’s brief time at the store unsettles Keiko, at least temporarily.

Keiko may not fit into society’s niche the way others expect, but she has found her place in the convenience store. She feels the store’s rhythms and understands the store’s needs. She is friendly  and respectful to the customers, often anticipating their needs by their actions or the temperature of the day.

In an interview, Murata explained why she wrote Convenience Store Woman: “I wanted to illustrate how odd the people who believe they are ordinary or normal are. They are the so-called normal people, but when you switch the direction of the camera, it is they who appear strange or odd.”

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Convenience stores in Japan sell candy, soft drinks, and quick lunches much like Oklahoma’s own QT. However, at the Japanese stores, customers can pay their utility bills and buy tickets to concerts. The stores also sell shirts, socks, and underwear.

Murata’s Convenience Store Woman won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature two years ago. While it is her tenth novel, it is the first published in English.

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Favorite Series

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Kingdom of the Blind is Louise Penny’s fourteenth mystery set in Three Pines. It is the book Penny almost did not write.  In “Acknowledgments” found at the end of Kingdom of the Blind, Penny tells readers that after her husband’s death, she did not think she could continue writing the Gamache series. Michael was the inspiration for the series and always her first reader. Penny was ready to return the advance to the publishers and end her writing career. Or so she thought.

Luckily for the passionate readers of the Armand Gamache series, Penny one day found herself sitting in front of the computer and typing the following: “Armand Gamache.” She followed up with “slowed his car to a crawl.” Kingdom of the Blind was underway and Armand Gamache, his family, colleagues, and friends continue their lives.

On her Web site, http://www.louisepenny.com/, Penny points out that “my books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.

If you take only one thing away from any of my books, I’d like it to be this:

Goodness exists.”

And that’s what we find in all of the fourteen books: Goodness does exist. Many fictional police detectives and PIs are deeply flawed characters. Extremely intelligent, they can figure out puzzles and put pieces together to solve terrible crimes. They often have difficulties forming permanent, strong relationships with other people, however, even their colleagues. They push themselves beyond ordinary endurance and are workaholics, rarely leaving the job behind.

While Armand Gamache exhibits all the intelligence and strength of those other fictional detectives, he also adds another important characteristic: real humanity and love. He works continually on a case, but he does not ignore family, friends, and colleagues in the process. He keeps his own counsel, but he is warm and loving to those around him. He is compassionate and kind. He exhibits goodness in the face of terrible evil.

Readers will remember that at the end of Glass Houses, Gamache made a fateful decision to allow a load of drugs to slip away. That was a purposeful decision in order to stop the larger manufacturing of the lethal opioids and ultimately save lives. The powers-that-be above Gamache do not see the big picture, however, and blame him for allowing the dangerous opioids to slip away. As a result, Gamache is on suspension in Kingdom of the Blind, but that does not stop him from being part of the investigation to locate the drugs and the manufacturing plant as well.

To complicate matters, Gamache, Myrna Landers, his long-time friend and neighbor in Three Pines, and Benedict Pouliot, a young man unknown to the others, all receive a letter from Maitre Laurence Mercier. Mercier asks that the three meet him at a remote farmhouse on a particular day and time. The invitation contains no other information. Out of curiosity, the three show up despite the winter snow and threat of additional snow.

When the three meet Mercier, they learn they are to be executors of Bertha Baumgartner’s will. All three claim never to have known Baumgartner. Myrna then remembers Baumgartner was a cleaner who had worked some in Three Pines for people. She called herself Baroness.

Penny delights her readers with this dual storyline of the strange will and even stranger choice of executors along with the search for the opioids and the opportunity to stop the dangerous drugs altogether.

Dangers abound on all sides from both storylines. Gamache must juggle the search for the opioids and discover the truth about Baumgartner. Secrets and lies from both stories keep the readers guessing. How much does one person know about another?

Through all the horror and the danger, Gamache remains a force for good and humanity. Gamache’s family life helps balance the horror on the streets.

Penny reminds readers that the themes of her books are “inspired by two lines from a poem by WH Auden, in his elegy to Melville. Goodness existed, that was the new knowledge/his terror had to blow itself quite out to let him see it.”

Do not fear that Kingdom of the Blind is the last story from Three Pines. Happily, Penny tells her readers: “Lots of people have written, worried that KINGDOM OF THE BLIND is the last in the series. It isn’t. I plan to write about Three Pines forever.”

While Penny’s fans do not need to be reminded, others who have not begun the series featuring Armand Gamache and his friends should know that Penny has won many awards. Kingdom of the Blind alone was an “instant #1 New York Times Bestseller, a December 2018 Indie Next Pick, BookPage Best of the Year 2018, a LibraryReads Pick for November 2018, Washington Post’s 10 Books to Read This November, and One of PopSugar’s Best Fall Books to Curl Up With.”

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Girl in Disguise

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Choosing books for a book club can be daunting. READ, one of my book clubs (sorry, READ friends, we’re not exclusive!), allows me to choose the books we read. We read three each fall and spring and two each summer, so I read a great deal about books as I prepare to choose. Clearly, I must make choices in advance so that everyone can locate the books. We meet September, October, and November for the fall; February, March, and April for the spring; and June and July in the summer.

We agreed on choosing books that are already in paperback and available as e-books. Often bestsellers are difficult to borrow from the library because of high demand and are more costly to purchase since they are not available in paperback though they are most likely in e-book format from the beginning. Not everyone in the group likes e-books, however.

The other caveat is that I develop a theme and look for books to fit the theme or start with one book and create a theme from it. Luckily, many books lend themselves to a variety of themes; it becomes a matter of identifying one theme and then finding other books to match.

The 2019 fall theme was Strong Women, so I chose The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart, and Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister. When I made those selections, I had read Shattuck’s and Stewart’s books. I ran out of time before reading Macallister’s, but I needed to make a decision, so I did.

I am happy to report that Girl in Disguise met my expectations well. Based on the true story of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton agent, Girl in Disguise gives readers a story based on truth with Macallister’s imaginings about some of the events.

Macallister did a great deal of research only to turn up a small amount of material about the real Kate Warne, so Macallister had to improvise a bit. The true events include Warne’s helping to ferret out Confederate spies, devising a plan to foil an early assassination attempt on President Lincoln, and locating a bank robber and murderer.

Girl in Disguise opens in 1856 with Kate Warne appearing at the Pinkerton Agency to ask for a job. She must convince Allen Pinkerton that he needs a woman as a detective and that a woman can help in cases when a man cannot. Pinkerton gives Warne an assignment as a test and she passes, so he hires her.

Many of the male Pinkerton agents are certain Warne will not last and they are angry that Pinkerton even gives her a chance. Warne does not allow those negative feelings to deter her from her job. She proves over and over again that she is a valuable asset to the Pinkerton Agency.

Booklist calls “Macallister’s story is a rip-roaring, fast-paced treat to read, with compelling characters, twisted villains, and mounds of historical details adeptly woven into the tale of a courageous woman who loves her job more than anything or anyone else.” I would agree with that assessment. I enjoyed the story and learning about Warne and her exploits as a PI at a time when women could generally be cleaners, cooks, and laundresses.

Greer Macallister is not only a novelist; she also writes poetry, short stories, and plays. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from American University. Her first book is The Magician’s Lie which was a USA Today bestseller, an Indie Next Pick, and a Target Book Club choice. Girl in Disguise also won an Indie Next Pick and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review. Macallister’s next book Woman 99 will be available in March 2019: “A historical thriller rich in detail, deception, and revelation, Woman 99 honors the fierce women of the past, born into a world that denied them power but underestimated their strength.”

Greer Macallister maintains a Web site at this link: http://www.greermacallister.com/.

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Favorite!

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I enjoy reading books in a series. One of my favorite series is by Alexander McCall Smith, a prolific writer of books in a series as well as stand alone books. I await the latest installment of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books with great anticipation. The most recent book is The Colors of All the Cattle, book 19 in the series.

As usual, the story is slow-paced and, although a mystery, does not involve gruesome murders. Instead, like the other books in the series, Precious Ramotswe and her team focus on helping people resolve relatively small problems. One of the incidents the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency has taken in The Colors of All the Cattle does involve a violent hit and run which resulted in severe injuries to Dr. Marang, a man from Mochudi, Mma Ramotswe’s home village.

To complicate matters, Mma Ramotswe’s good friend Mma Potokwane, who oversees the orphanage, persuades Mma Ramotswe to run for political office to become a member of the council. The only other candidate is the infamous Violet Sephotho, a frequent nemesis in the stories. Sephotho favors the building of a large new hotel next to the cemetery.

Mma Potokwane and Mma Ramotswe do not wish to see such a large and potential noisy hotel built where people go to mourn their late relatives.  At first, Mma Potokwane does persuade Mma Ramotswe to stand for office as an independent. The meeting of the group which includes Mma Potokwane, Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Mr. Polopetsi, Fanwell, and Charlie gives readers a few chuckles. Charlie insists on being literal when Mma Potokwane calls the meeting to order. Charlie maintains everything is in order.

When Mma Potokwane explains the “call to order” simply means the meeting will begin, Charlie wonders why she simply didn’t say that. The meeting digresses for a bit before the business is actually underway. Of course, Mma Makutsi despises Violet Sephotho and wants to write a scathing statement for Mma Ramotswe agains Sephotho.

Longtime readers will recognize that Mma Ramotswe allows Mma Makutsi to vent about Violet and then Mma Ramotswe gently turns the conversation. Mma Ramotswe will not make promises she cannot keep while Violet continues to promise everything from jobs to higher wages to better streets, all items she would not be able to accomplish.

Charlie works for Mr. J.L.B. Matekon, Mma Ramotswe’s husband, in the garage, but Charlie is also an apprentice to Mma Ramotswe in the detective agency. Charlie realizes he knows Eddie, a friend from school days in Mochudi. Eddie works for his uncle repairing cars that have been damaged in accidents. Charlie wants to ask Eddie if he can help locate the owner of the blue car that hit Mr. Marang and left him so badly injured.

That idea is a good one until someone throws a brick through the window of Charlie’s uncle’s home where Charlie rents a room. The brick could have hit the uncle’s two children who were playing in the room at the time. Charlie rightly feels threatened, so Mma Ramotswe invites him to stay in her home for a time. Mma Ramotswe realizes that Charlie has attempted to blackmail Eddie in an effort to get information. That effort has not yielded the information Charlie hoped to gain.

Mma Ramotswe in her wisdom understands that Charlie is trying. She advises him to “never, never think that you are justified in doing something wrong just because you are trying to do something right.”

In the end, all comes right as one expects in the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories, and that is one characteristic I like about the stories! Other characteristics to like include the continuing growth of the characters as well as the introduction of new characters even if for one book only. Mma Ramotswe continues to be guided by Clovis Andersen’s book The Principles of Private Detection and her own good common sense.

Alexander McCall Smith has developed a robust Web site where readers can find information about all of his books and read a monthly story: https://www.alexandermccallsmith.com/.

Some of my favorite quotes from previous books include the ones which follow below:

From In the Company of Cheerful Ladies: “A life without stories would be no life at all.”

From The Good Husband of Zebra Drive: “And if there’s bad behaviour,” Mma Potokwane went on. “If there’s bad behaviour, the quickest way of stopping it is to give more love. That always works, you know. People say we must punish when there is wrongdoing, but if you punish you’re only punishing yourself. And what’s the point of that?”

 

The Book Whisperer Asks, Need a New Cozy Series?

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I am a fan of cozy mysteries and enjoy reading books in a series. A series gives an author an opportunity to develop the main character and minor characters who reappear in the stories. I like the familiarity of the known characters. Innovative authors keep me returning to their series by keeping the stories fresh. When Don, my friend and fellow reader, suggested I read the Diva series by Krista Davis, I immediately requested from the library The Diva Runs Out of Thyme, the first in the series.

For readers who like whodunits in which everyone, even the main character, is a suspect and food is an essential part of the story, then The Diva Runs Out of Thyme will provide a good book to cozy up with on a cold winter’s night.

I started reading The Diva Runs Out of Thyme on Saturday after Thanksgiving, not realizing the story takes place at Thanksgiving. I enjoyed the references to the foods Sophie Winston, the main character, serves her family and friends on Thanksgiving — and the story contains many references to the food!

Sophie Winston, divorced from Mars, lives alone with shared custody of their dog Daisy. Mars now has a new girlfriend, Natasha, Sophie’s high school rival. Sophie works as a successful event planner. Natasha has a Martha Stewart-like show on a local cable channel. Sophie cooks for her events and decorates beautifully if somewhat low-key. On the other hand, Natasha goes over the top for everything.

Sophie in her last-minute rush to the grocery store for Thanksgiving food supplies encounters a man who is trying to give away a kitten, an Ocicat, in fact. Sophie waves the man away and hurries into the store. Even while she shops for the groceries, however, Sophie cannot stop thinking about the tiny kitten. When she puts her groceries in her car, she sees the banana box that held the kitten; it is sitting on the hood of a car.

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Surely, the man did not abandon the kitten in the box in the cold, but there the kitten is, shivering. Then Sophie notices something else even more sinister, blood. When she looks into the dumpster, she sees the man she had encountered earlier, clearly dead, at the bottom of the dumpster.

Sophie calls 911 and the police and an ambulance arrive quickly. During the interrogation, Sophie meets Detective Wolf Fleishman. Sophie’s groceries are put into the store’s refrigerated unit; Sophie’s car is impounded by the police. After being taken the police station for further questions, Sophie is taken home. Later, Detective Fleishman brings her groceries along with some food for the kitten which Sophie has now rescued.

The story becomes more and more complicated when another death occurs at a hotel where Sophie, Natasha, and others are competing in a stuffing recipe contest. And who finds the body? Sophie, of course!

Food, murders, stalking, and intrigue all figure into The Diva Runs Out of Thyme. Sophie’s neighbor Nina becomes a sleuth with Sophie to ferret out Natasha’s stalker and the peeping tom of the neighborhood as well as finding out who committed the murders.

Krista Davis, an animal lover, has pictures of her various rescue pets on her Web site: http://www.kristadavis.com/.

On the Web site, readers will learn about other books by Krista Davis. The Diva series will soon add its twelfth book in a 2019. Other series include the Pen & Ink and the Paws & Claws mysteries.

Davis also includes recipes for both humans and animals on the Web site. Find the recipe for this lucious orange-soaked bundt cake on the site.

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Below, see a picture of The Diva Runs Out of Thyme sold in Japan.

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The Book Whisperer Says Read The Library Book!

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Ron Charles of The Washington Post wrote, “You can’t help but finish The Library Book and feel grateful that these marvelous places belong to us all.” This quote from Charles’ review of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book is an excellent way to begin a review of an excellent book.

Orlean writes with such passion, knowledge, and care that I read most of the book in one day and finished it the next day. Orlean describes library visits with her mother when Orlean was a child. The pair would go into Bertram Woods branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system, their neighborhood library in Cleveland. Immediately, the two would separate and then reunite at the checkout counter, each with her own books.

Orlean writes “our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so beautiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived.” This description shows Orlean’s love of the library, books, and reading, so readers immediately trust her.

When Orlean moves to Los Angeles, she learns of the 1986 fire which raged for seven hours and thirty-eight minutes. She was living in NY at the time and had no memory of even hearing about the fire in Los Angeles. However, at the time of the fire, April 29, 1986, another world event took the headlines in NY papers: Soviet Announces Nuclear Accident at Electric Plan, Mishap Acknowledged After Rising Radiation Levels Spread to Scandinavia.

The New York Times does mention the Los Angeles library fire on April 30 on page A14.

When the fire alarm first sounded, librarians, staff, and patrons simply walked outside, thinking another false alarm had sounded. Most people left their belongings in the library because they expected the all clear to be sounded soon and they would return to their spots.

Michael Lewis, New York Times, writes “the 1986 fire inside the Central Library, and the subsequent, inconclusive investigation of it, turn out to be a MacGuffin, a trick for luring the reader into a subject into which the reader never imagined he’d [or she’d] be lured: the history and present life of the Los Angeles Central Library.” That is exactly what Orlean does, lures the readers into learning about the fire and then turns the story on end to provide a history of the Los Angeles library system.

Orlean provides background on librarians of the past and present. Mary Foy, for example, became the youngest person to head the Los Angeles Public Library; she was eighteen and a female in a time when men primarily ruled the library. Readers also learn about polymath C.J.K. Jones, billed as “The Human Encyclopedia.”

Orlean devotes a great deal of space in the book to Charles Lummis who is hard to describe in a few sentences. For example, when Lummis got the job as head of the Los Angeles Libraries, many people objected saying “Lummis did not have any experience or training in the management of a library.” Lummis also had a tumultuous personal life which included multiple marriages, divorces, and extra-marital affairs which included a daughter born out of wedlock.

Mary Jones, the head of the library whom Lummis was set to replace, refused to give up her job. The dispute continued for some time before the library board moved from asking Jones to resign to firing her, forcing her out of the job.

Another librarian of importance is Althea Warren who told librarians at a convention in 1935 that librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.” Warren also published tip sheets, “Althea’s ways to Achieve Reading.” These tip sheets offered encouraging ways for people to find time for reading.

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Warren wanted to find ways to boost reading in all ages. When she took over leadership of the Los Angeles Library system, children had to be in third grade or above to have a library card. She declared any child who could “sign his or her name” could have a library card.

The Library Book offers readers history, scandal, and a mystery about the fire itself. Orlean writes with such engaging prose that anyone interested in books and libraries will be fascinated by the sweeping story of the Los Angeles Library system.

Orlean writes about the fire and loss of books: “The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as ‘wounded’ or as ‘casualties,’ just as human beings would be.”

Another quote from The Library Book haunts me with its truth: “In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.”

Oh, yes, and Orlean devotes her research to finding out as much as she can about Harry Peak, the man accused of setting the 1986 fire. Did Peak start the fire? Did someone else start it? Was it an accident, caused by faulty wiring? Read The Library Book.

Near the end of The Library Book, Orlean writes about visiting the library late in the day, near closing time when it was quiet. She describes the library in this quiet time: “The silence was more soothing than solemn. A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know there is voice inside that is waiting to speak to you.”

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Read The Library Book and share it with a fellow reader!

Susan Orlean’s Web site: http://www.susanorlean.com/.