First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen
First Frost is a pleasant, mostly gentle read that may make you hungry. I didn’t realize at first that it’s a sequel to the author’s first book, Garden Spells, set ten years later in Bascom, North Carolina. Claire is living in the house she inherited from her Waverley grandmother, but now makes candy with edible flowers instead of catering. Her niece Bay enjoys helping out, but Claire is increasingly tense. The Waverley women all have minor magical talents. Elderly cousin Evanelle gives people unusual gifts they may need later, such as a spatula. Claire’s affinity is for flowers and cooking, while her sister Sydney is a wonderful hair stylist. But Claire’s young daughter seems quite ordinary. Bay knows where some people and things belong, making her a great organizer, but when she gives Josh a note telling him that he belongs in her life, he doesn’t know how to respond. When a stranger in town tries to convince Claire that she’s not really a Waverley, it takes the magic of first frost, when their apple tree blooms, to set things to rights. It’s nice to visit with the Waverleys again, and Bay is an appealing narrator, but I wanted more back story to remind me what happened in the first book. Actually, I’d really like a book set earlier than First Frost. Complaints aside, this was a very enjoyable book to read, and I will probably re-read Garden Spells.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen describes life and food in 20th century Russia, the Soviet Union, and former Soviet republics. Born in Moscow in 1963, Anya and her mother Larisa moved to Philadelphia in 1974. By telling the stories of her grandparents and parents, Anya describes each decade of the 20th century, along with the food popular then. Her Jewish grandmother Liza was from Odessa on the Black Sea, her grandmother Alla was an orphan born in Turkestan and raised by a Bolshevik feminist in Uzbekistan. Her grandfather Naum was an intelligence officer, and her father Sergei helped preserve Lenin’s body through science. Through visits to family with her mother and later travels in the former republics with her boyfriend, Anya immerses the reader in the food and culture of each place and time. Trained as a pianist at Julliard, she became a James Beard award-winning food writer. We learn that standing in lines in Moscow could be a social event, as was the case when her parents met in a line for ballet tickets. The alternating availability and scarcity of various foods, such as bread and corn, could make anyone obsess over food, especially if forced to use a communal kitchen or eat caviar in kindergarten. While I don’t know if I’ll be trying any of the recipes at the end of the book, Anya’s memoir really kept my interest.
The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin
Another notable historical novel from Ariana Franklin, finished after her death by Samantha Norman, her daughter. The story is narrated by a dying abbot to a young monk, which makes a good frame for the book. After 11-year-old Em is attacked in the fen country of Cambridgeshire, archer Gwilherm de Vannes rescues her. Em has amnesia, so Gwil calls the red-headed girl Penda, dresses her as a boy, and teaches her archery. They join a troup of tumblers and travel as entertainers, giving archery exhibitions. Along the way, Gwil is searching for Thancmar, an evil monk who preys on redheads. Then their story joins the larger one of war in 12th century England between Empress Matilda and her cousin King Stephen, fighting for England’s throne. During a blizzard they meet Empress Matilda and two of her knights, and end up at Kenniwick castle, where young Lady Maud is forced to play host to Matilda. The castle is soon under siege by King Stephen, and the archers’ skills are needed. While it is wartime and there is violence, the tone of this book is not dark, as it focuses on the relationships and daily lives of Gwil, Penda, and Lady Maud, all appealing and memorable characters. Readers of medieval fiction will enjoy this book, especially fans of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries.
As Chimney Sweepers Comes to Dust by Alan Bradley
Only Flavia de Luce, amateur detective and chemist, would be happy to have a long dead body fall out of the chimney in her bedroom. Flavia has reluctantly left England to attend boarding school in Toronto, and it’s clear that her sleuthing skills will be needed. Three girls have reportedly gone missing in the last few years, and everyone seems to be keeping secrets. I would have liked more classroom and dining room scenes, and more news from her home in England, but Flavia is as curious and clever as ever. Flavia’s late mother attended Miss Bodycote’s Academy. The teachers remember her mother, and may even induct Flavia into the Nide. a secret society. New to Flavia’s award-winning mysteries? Start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, set in 1950 at Bishop’s Lacey, England. Read all seven books and can’t wait for the final three books to be published? Visit Media on Demand to read the digital short story The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
Sarah Grimké is shocked when she is given a slave for her 11th birthday. Hetty, or Handful, age 10, must leave her mother Charlotte, a seamstress, to sleep by Sarah’s door in case she is needed during the night. Sarah, though she often stutters, dreams of being a lawyer like her brother, unheard of for a girl from a wealthy family in Charleston, South Carolina. When Sarah teaches Handful to read, both girls are punished. Handful is fascinated by her mother’s story quilt and worries about her association with a former slave. Handful’s spirit stays strong, while Sarah and her younger sister Angelina struggle to make their voices heard. I thought Handful was a very interesting and memorable character, and wanted her to be safe and find a way to become free. A very readable novel, with well-researched insights on Quakers, abolitionists, and the lives of women in the pre-civil war South.
The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
I was disappointed by this sequel to the funny, charming book The Rosie Project. Although Don Tillman has moved to New York City with Rosie, very little of the city’s atmosphere is described, not even museums or baseball stadiums. Mostly, Don works at Columbia, Rosie is a student, and they mostly connect at dinner. Their marriage is threatened by a simple failure of communication. Rosie would like to have a baby, but thinks that Don isn’t interested. In his own unique way, Don goes about trying to observe, learn about, and have contact with babies and children, but keeps getting in trouble, and keeps secrets from Rosie. Gene even comes to live with Don and Rosie, but this doesn’t help. The Rosie Effect is a quick read, but if I hadn’t cared about what happened to Don and Rosie, I wouldn’t have finished it. Here’s hoping any future books bring back the charm of The Rosie Project.
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
A very unusual teen fantasy novel introduces Seraphina, 16 and very musical, who is assistant to the court music master in the kingdom of Goredd. Seraphina has an enormous secret; her late mother was a dragon and music instructor Orma is her uncle. Seraphina is also plagued by visions of other unusual people, and Orma trains her to organize them in a virtual garden. Dragons are emotionless and fierce, gifted in science and mathematics and can take the shape of a human to interact with them in Goredd, but half-dragons are against their code. Forty years ago, humans and dragons signed a peace treaty, but there now there is unrest. While helping the music master with a state funeral and preparing for the celebration of the treaty, Seraphina draws unwanted attention to herself. She gives harpsichord lessons to Princess Griselda, and is befriended by Griselda’s cousin Kiggs, who is trying to protect the royal family and keep the peace with the dragons. This book is hard to describe, but really caught and held my interest. A sequel, Shadow Scale, is to be published in March.