From Scratch

From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke

This memoir is about love, family estrangement and reconciliation, cancer, a little girl, Sicily, and food.

Tembi Locke was studying in Florence, Italy, when she met Saro, a Sicilian chef. They later married and lived in New York City, before moving to Los Angeles for her career as an actor. Tembi’s Black Texan family embraced Saro, but Saro’s parents and sister wouldn’t attend their wedding in Florence. Years later, the family reconciled and welcomed Tembi and Saro’s daughter, Zoela. Saro’s long illness further reconnected the families. After Saro’s death from cancer, Tembi and young Zoela spent parts of three summers with Nonna, Saro’s mother, in tiny Aliminusa, Sicily. Nonna was a wonderful cook, and the memoir finishes with a number of Sicilian recipes. This summary doesn’t begin to convey the love, the struggles of caregiving, or the pain and joys of family connections.

The summers in Sicily are the most vibrant and memorable parts of this memoir, with a wonderful sense of place, history, and, of course, the wonderful food. The author has a helpful website for those who are caregiving, grieving, and their friends: thekitchenwidow.com. The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager is a readalike.

Brenda

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Long ago, the factory robots of Panga became self-aware and left for the wilderness, and the humans of Panga returned to a more agrarian lifestyle, in small villages and The City. The setting feels Japanese-inspired, perhaps because of the importance of tea. Sibling Dex, a monk, leaves the City monastery they enjoyed visiting as a teen, to become a self-taught traveling tea monk, seeking to get closer to nature. The order provides Sibling Dex (they/them) with a bike-powered wagon, complete with a comfortable bed and an outdoor kitchen and shower. Dex has some challenges in the beginning, then learns their craft and has a circuit of small villages they visit regularly. Dex harvests and serves tea, provides a place to relax, offers advice when requested, and is welcomed into the social life of the villages. After a few years, the wilderness calls, and Dex leaves their usual routes and encounters Mosscap, a robot. Mosscap is seeking to learn what humans need. They journey together for a while, while Dex struggles to find contentment and their true purpose in life.

I listened to the audiobook of this novella, narrated in two and a half hours by Emmett Grosland, and was charmed by this engaging and reflective story. Leisurely paced with an excellent sense of place, the dedication says it all: “To anybody who could use a break.” A sequel, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, is expected this July. Readalikes include Chambers’ The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, and the middle grade novel The Wild Robot by Peter Brown.

Brenda

 

Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

In the early 1900s, Edwin is exiled by his wealthy British family, and is walking in the woods in western Canada when he hears the music of a violin and what turns out to the the noise of an airship terminal. Set partly on the Moon, this intriguing, challenging, and rewarding novel moves through time and space, exploring the importance of art and connection, and playing around with the nature of reality. Best known for Station Eleven (a current television miniseries and an earlier book group selection) and The Glass Hotel, this book includes character from a couple of her novels. We also meet Olive, a novelist from the Moon who is on a book tour on Earth when a pandemic begins in 2203, and Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in 2401 who is sent back in time for an investigation that includes an airship terminal. Mandel beautifully weaves together the different scenes and themes, without quite resolving all the plotlines. Hard to put down and difficult to describe, likely to be very popular when published in early April.

 

Brenda

Apples Never Fall

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

The Delaney family ran a tennis school in the suburbs of Sydney for several decades. Recently retired, Joy Delaney feels like she and husband Stan are in a rut. No grandkids are on the horizon, and none of their four children became a tennis star. Then Joy, 69, after sending a garbled text, goes missing on Valentine’s Day, 2020. Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke cope in varying ways, and Stan is a suspect in Joy’s disappearance, as they had been seen arguing that morning. Then the story goes back to the September, 2019, with the four younger Delaneys reacting to their parents’ unexpected house guest, Savannah. Savannah, who’s almost like another daughter, cooks beautifully, cleans, and enjoys shopping with Joy. There must be a connection, but how? This is a great read for fans of relationship fiction and psychological suspense. There is quite a bit about tennis, though not a strong sense of place. The main focus is the Delaney family and their relationships, and of course, Savannah. While not a quick read at over 450 pages, this novel is hard to put down. Readalikes include Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown, All Adults Here by Emma Straub, and Watching You by Lisa Jewell.

 

Brenda

 

The Kaiju Preservation Society

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Three cheers for Scalzi’s Plan B! This is not the science fiction novel that the award-winning author meant to write during the pandemic, but it’s one that will entertain and delight his many fans. In this very funny adventure thriller, New Yorker Jamie Gray is unexpectedly fired at the beginning of a very bad year. Demoted to food delivery driver, Jamie renews his acquaintance with Tom, a frequent customer who gives Jamie a job lead with KPS, the Kaiju Preservation Society. Jamie ends up in a warmer parallel earth with a jungle full of flying insects, creatures called tree crabs, and the super colossal kaiju, whose rare visits to our world inspired the Godzilla films. Jamie’s smart, snarky coworkers all seem to have a Ph.D. (unlike Jamie), and are studying the kaiju and trying to encourage a pair to mate and produce offspring. Suddenly Jamie encounters his terrible former boss, a billionaire tourist who almost gets himself kicked off a helicopter. Soon, Jamie and his coworkers have to strategize to protect the kaiju, themselves, and a small Canadian city from danger. Pure escapist reading, sure to be a hit. Readalikes include Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth.

Brenda

Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Ready or not, novels written in 2020 or early 2021 are now being published, and a number of them are set during the pandemic. Accomplished storyteller Jodi Picoult was in Mexico for a wedding then traveled to Aspen, Colorado in March, 2020. She has been back home in New Hampshire ever since. A story about a Japanese tourist stranded near Machu Picchu in March, 2020 who finally got to tour the ruins that October caught her attention. Never having visited Peru, she didn’t want to set her next novel there. Happily for the reader, Picoult had visited the Galapagos Islands (600 miles west of Ecuador) with her family.

Diana, a New Yorker, works for Sotheby’s, and is about to sell a remarkable painting owned by a famous widow (a fictional version of Yoko Ono). She travels on a long planned trip to the Galapagos Islands without her medical resident boyfriend, Finn, at his urging. Diana ends up stranded on Isabela Island, without her luggage as the shutdown begins. Befriended by an unusual family, she explores the island and trades sketches for clothing, wondering why emails from Finn about the pandemic seem like they’re in two different worlds. Diana’s mother, a photographer, is at high risk from Covid-19, but the two of them have never been close.

I forgot that Picoult likes to throw in an occasional plot twist, and this one takes the story in a very different direction than I expected. This pandemic-inspired novel is a compelling, memorable read. If you’d rather read a contemporary novel set in the Galapagos Islands without the pandemic, try Shipped by Angie Hockman, a romantic comedy.

Brenda

All the Queen’s Men

All the Queen’s Men by SJ Bennett

In this sequel to the delightful mystery The Windsor Knot, Queen Elizabeth takes center stage at Buckingham Palace, where the atmosphere in the autumn of 2016 is a bit darker than in the first book. The Queen has been secretly sleuthing with the aid of her assistant private secretaries for years. A few female staff members have been receiving poison pen letters, including her new assistant private secretary, Rozie Oshodi. One of them is found dead by the pool at Buckingham Palace, apparently accidentally. Brexit has passed, and the palace needs expensive renovations. The Queen discovers a painting of her former royal yacht at a Navy exhibition, and tasks Rozie with investigating how it ever left the palace. Rozie explores tunnels beneath the palace, and in the end, others get the credit for solving the mystery. I will definitely read the next book, and hope the Queen and Rozie get to spend more time together, perhaps at Sandringham or Balmoral, and enjoy the scenery even more than at Windsor Castle.
Brenda

Disappearance of a Scribe

Disappearance of a Scribe by Dana Stabenow

Perfect armchair travel reading for mystery readers; this is the sequel to Death of an Eye, but can be read on its own. Set in Alexandria, Egypt in 47 BC, Cleopatra is a secondary character. Tetisheri, partner in a trading company with her uncle, is occasionally needed to investigate mysteries for the Queen. The city, including the famous Library, docks, and a gymnasium, are vividly described. The city is in a rebuilding phase and there is plenty of traffic, noise, and occasionally, cement. After the body of a missing scribe is found in the Middle Sea, Tetisheri gets involved, and looks for a connection to rare books going missing from the Library. When a messenger boy helps her escape a dangerous situation, Tetisheri invites the boys and his friends to work for her, while wondering how she’ll get reimbursed. This is a witty, humorous, colorful, and exciting mystery. I look forward to another visit with Tetisheri in Alexandria.

 

Brenda

 

 

Matrix

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Set in 12th century France and England, this stunning, richly detailed novel was inspired by poet Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and later Queen of England. At 17, Marie is living at Eleanor’s court, but is considered unmarriageable due to her great height, lack of beauty, and uncertain parentage. She’s well educated and ran her mother’s estate for two years. Eleanor sends Marie off to England to be prioress at a rundown, impoverished abbey, with twenty nuns. After reluctantly settling in, Marie rides her warhorse to evict a family who refuse to pay rent, installing a family who can supply the abbey with much needed food. When poetry sent to Eleanor doesn’t have the desired result, Marie helps improve the abbey and its lands, with sheep, a scriptorium, and even a labyrinth. Visions of Mary often guide her to new and bigger projects. Later, as Abbess, Marie makes enemies but has plans to make her island of women safe, secure, and often pleasurable. Readers will be swept up in the tales of abbey life and the bold ideas Marie introduces. To read more about strong women in religious life in the Middle Ages, try The Joys in My Life by Alys Clare, Hild by Nicola Griffth, or the delightful Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, including The Bastard’s Tale. Two of many novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine are The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland and Captive Queen by Alison Weir.

 

Brenda

Three Romantic Comedies

I recently read a historical romantic comedy and two contemporary romantic comedies, or rom-coms, and enjoyed reading all three books. If you’re in the mood for some light, entertaining reads, check out one or more of these titles.

Never Fall for Your Fiancée by Virginia Heath

Hugh Standish, an earl in 1820s England, has a matchmaking mother who lives in America with his stepfather. He doesn’t think he’d make a good husband, and invents a fiancée named Miranda to keep his mother from finding him a real wife. His letters about the fictional Miranda’s serious illness and father’s death have delayed any wedding plans, but Hugh has run out of excuses. When Hugh helps a lovely engraver collect money she’s owed, he is stunned to learn her name is Minerva. Quite soon, Miranda and two two younger sisters are visiting his country estate, along with an actress hired to play their mother, getting lessons in etiquette and fine dining, when his family arrives early. Hugh’s mother is surprised to learn that Miranda can’t ride a horse or sing, and is getting suspicious. Some very funny scenes delight the reader while Hugh and Miranda bicker, and of course, fall in love. Readers of Julia Quinn’s Smythe-Smith quartet will likely enjoy.

 

How Sweet It Is by Dylan Newton    

 

Kate Sweet, an event planner known for weddings with an “aww” moment, is asked by her best friend to fill in and organized horror writer Drake Matthews’ book launch. The pair are uncomfortable spending time together, especially after a disastrous introduction. Drake is secretly writing a historical romance, while super-organized Kate is struggling with her plans for the elaborate book party. While I’ve never heard of a book launch quite so elaborate, it makes for entertaining reading. Kate and Drake’s chemistry is fun to read about, especially as the both deny their mutual attraction.

 

Well Matched by Jen DeLuca  well matched jacket

Another pretend relationship turns friends into lovers when April Parker asks Mitch Malone for help with some home improvements so she can sell her house and move to a nearby city. Mitch, a high school gym teacher and coach, is known for his performances in a kilt at the local renaissance Faire, yet needs a pretend girlfriend for a big family dinner. When Mitch’s family unexpectedly visits the Faire, April steps in again, and somehow their relationship doesn’t feel so fake anymore. Well Played and Well Met are the earlier rom-coms set at Willow Creek’s Renaissance Faire.

 

Brenda