A Pair of Mystery Story Collections

I recently had the good fortune to read two new collections of mystery short stories. This is my idea of perfect armchair or bedtime summer reading, as the stories are focused on character and setting, but not so much on a detailed plot.

Bruno’s Challenge and Other Stories of the French Countryside by Martin Walker

If you’d like to read about Bruno, Chief of Police visiting the weekly market in St. Denis France, and then cooking or enjoying the local food and drink with a collection of villagers, then look no further. Berries from a local French or farmer’s market make an excellent accompaniment to the stories. Occasional trips around the southwest region of France, horseback riding, and a cave in Lascaux add to the ambience. The mysteries are slight and easily solved by Bruno and company. The other 14 books begin with Bruno, Chief of Police. Some of these get rather dark in tone, though the writing and setting are always top notch.

The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions by Kerry Greenwood

If you’d rather visit Melbourne, Australia in 1928 or 1929, the delightful Miss Phryne Fisher will be your guide. Elegant, witty, and streetwise, Phryne is delightful and extremely well-dressed company, who occasionally takes justice into her own hands. Raised poor and currently rich and generous, Phryne shines in a wide variety of settings and mysteries. Sometimes the mystery is simply to discover if there’s actually been a crime, or just an accident. Another story features an eloping couple and no crime at all. Four of these stories are brand new; some older stories have been recently revised. Phryne is popular for the television series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and has delighted mystery readers in 21 other books, beginning with Cocaine Blues and (so far) ending with Death in Daylesford.

Brenda

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

How We Eat

How We Eat: The Brave New World of Food and Drink by Paco Underhill

The author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping turns his attention to how we shop for food and drink. An environmental psychologist, Underhill is an engaging and authoritative writer on merchandising and trends, focusing here mostly on grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Readers who would enjoy a behind the scenes tour of a trendy grocery store, one that will give you recipe ideas for unusual produce, or wonder just how many bananas Walmart sells, will enjoy this short and hopeful look at the future of food. Perhaps your grocery store will soon start growing herbs, tomatoes, and berries in their parking lot. Or maybe all you’ll shop for in-person is produce, meat, and dairy, with packaged good being delivered automatically to your car while you browse. Some coffee shops now serve alcoholic beverages, and more locally grown or produced foods are headed soon to big box stores near you. Underhill talks to Instagram food influencers and surveys coworkers about how their food shopping has changed during the pandemic. Informal and conversational, this is a fascinating look at the future of food and drink. Grocery : the Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman is a good readalike.

Brenda

Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop

Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim

Vanessa has 26 first and second cousins, but no siblings. Working as an accountant in Palo Alto, Vanessa struggles with visions of the future, sometimes predicting death. Her Aunt Evelyn, who has the same talent, brings Vanessa to Paris for several weeks to help with the opening of Evelyn’s tea shop and to teach Vanessa how to handle her visions. Vanessa would rather tour Paris with fellow Asian-American Marc; foodies and Francophiles will really enjoy their sightseeing and delicious meals. Readers of Sarah Addison Allen and Joanne Harris may also find the hints of magic appealing. I would have enjoyed more scenes with Vanessa’s many interfering but well-meaning aunties, who enjoy bargaining at antiques stores and are as comfortable at a tiny café as at a lavish banquet. Vanessa also shows skills at matchmaking, but has been told she’ll never have a lifelong romance. I found some of the descriptions in the book a bit much; I didn’t need to know the size of Vanessa’s condo or the exact number (75) of oysters appearing on a platter. I also wanted to learn if Vanessa’s sometimes dire visions of the future could be averted. This is a good summer read that’s sure to be popular. This book will be published on August 4; her earlier book is Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck & Fortune.

Brenda

The Spotted Dog

The Spotted Dog by Kerry Greenwood

This is a very welcome new Corinna Chapman mystery set in Melbourne, Australia, centered around a bakery and an apartment house. Corinna and her boyfriend Daniel, an Israeli private investigator, focus on finding Geordie, the dog kidnapped from retired soldier Alastair. Geordie can sniff out explosives, but only responds to commands in Gaelic. Meanwhile, Corinna bakes bread and muffins with apprentice Jason, naps with Horatio the cat, meets a young troupe of actors, and tries to discover why her neighbor, a biblical scholar, is attracting a burglar or two to their building. The appeal here is the quirky characters, the cozy Melbourne neighborhood, delicious food, Corinna and Daniel’s romance, and some mystery and adventure. While there is quite a bit of suspense finding the missing dog and helping a visiting young woman who’s gone mute, it’s not the focus of the book. Jennifer Vuletic has fun narrating the audiobook and I’m not giving away the plot to share that the story ends with a potluck dinner in the apartment building’s rooftop garden. Sadly, no recipes are included. Earthly Delights is the first book in the series by the author of the popular Phryne Fisher books.

Brenda

 

 

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

Edith, a famous pie baker at a Minnesota nursing home, doesn’t have a relationship with her younger sister Helen. Edith’s husband Stanley, a truck driver, and their granddaughter Diana are the center of her life. Helen, the brewer mentioned in the title, is ambitious but has settled. She married a classmate from her college chemistry class because he could help her run a commercial brewery, but their beer is nothing special. Edith can at least take pride in her pies. Diana gets in trouble breaking the law as an older teen but finds a second chance with a job at a small craft brewery. Of course Diana and Helen’s paths will eventually cross. Diana’s small brewery and the eclectic crew, including several grandmothers, are quite interesting, although I can’t tell gose from imperial stout. Readers who are familiar with craft beers will likely enjoy the brewing scenes even more than others, but it’s not essential.

A bittersweet family saga that makes for a pleasant read with an appealing Minnesota setting. I would have enjoyed more scenes with Edith and Stanley and had some questions about Diana’s motivations, but I quite enjoyed this novel overall.

Brenda

 

Eight Flavors

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman

Food historian Sarah Lohman teaches, recreates historical meals, and researches American food. She covers eight flavors that highlight the history of American cuisine, omitting the too-popular coffee and chocolate. While I would have been more enthusiastic about a chapter on chocolate than one on MSG, the chapters on each flavor are interesting reading. Foodies and American history buffs are sure to enjoy reading about black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, monosodium glutamate, sriracha and current food trends. Each chapter has a personal anecdote, most cover a historical figure, a few recipes and descriptions of her travels to restaurants, food trucks, festivals, museums, archives, plantations, farms, or factories to learn more about the flavor. Immigrants played significant roles in the introduction and widespread use of various ingredients, such as soy sauce, garlic, and sriracha sauce. This book was published in December, 2016, so I was interested to read the chapter on current food trends. The predictions that pumpkin spice and matcha or green tea flavoring would be popular are pretty accurate, although other recent trends might have surprised her, such as chocolate hummus.
Happy reading, and let me know if you try any of the recipes, such as black pepper-chocolate ganache or carrot cake with garlic.

Brenda

Death in Provence

Death in Provence by Serena Kent

Winter is a perfect time to read this first mystery set in the picturesque Luberon region of Provence, France. Middle-aged Brit Penny, recently divorced, buys an old stone house near a charming village, only to discover a body in the swimming pool. Helped by her exuberant friend Frankie and estate agent Clémence, forensic-trained Penny investigates the murder while restoring her house and getting involved in village life. Penny is excellent company, and the food and scenery descriptions are luscious. More books are planned, and will be very welcome. Visit the author’s website for photos of Penny’s Provence.

Brenda

Whiskey in a Teacup

Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits by Reese Witherspoon

Actor and film producer Reese Witherspoon has written a love letter to life in the south. Reese grew up in Nashville, where she learned to enjoy music, food, and holidays, and learned the importance of manners and community. I listened to the audiobook, cozily narrated by the author, and glanced at the photos and recipes included as a document on one of the discs. Many of the recipes are from her grandmother Dorothea who was an inspiration to Reese on how southern women can be strong and beautiful. Menu suggestions for all kinds of celebrations and events are included, from a Kentucky Derby party to a book club gathering, along with music playlists and gift suggestions (especially monogrammed items or cake plates). Reese talks about her happy childhood, how she learned that you don’t have to be good at everything or bake from scratch, but be sure to be hospitable, respectful, and have some fun, maybe even catch some frogs. This is a charming, family-friendly look at southern life.

Brenda

You Me Everything

You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac

A heartwarming book about second chances and dealing with a serious illness set in southwest France. Jess broke up with Adam a few weeks after their son William’s birth. He didn’t seem interested in being a father or settling down. 10 years later, Jess, a creative writing teacher in Manchester, takes William to spend the summer with Adam at the chateau and cottages he’s remodeled in the Dordogne region. Jess’ mother Susan is quite ill and it’s her wish that William and Adam develop a close relationship. Adam is quite busy, but two of Jess’ friends arrive for vacation, along with three children. Full of gorgeous scenery, good food, and family drama, this is an engaging summer read. Along the way, there are cookouts, castles to tour, a waterfall to slide down, along with some romance.

Brenda