Books We Loved, Mar. 2021
Nina Bocci, The Ingredients of You and Me
(Gallery Books, 2020)
Miscommunication is a commonly used plot device in romance novels, and if not done well, it can cause a reader to throw a book at the wall instead of rushing to buy the author’s other books. It can seem lazy, a way to tear the main characters apart while making sure the road to reconciliation can be cleared simply by picking it up and moving it out of the way.
Fortunately, though miscommunication (or lack of communication entirely) is the main theme running through The Ingredients of You and Me by Nina Bocci and keeping its lead players from finding their Happily Ever After, it works in this story. It works very well.
Parker is a New York-based baker who’s found fame through her bakery, Delicious and Vicious, which uses its goods—and the nasty messages baked into them—to help people do uncomfortable things like break up with a boyfriend, quit a job, or let a spouse know their cheating ways have been discovered. But after selling D&V to a new owner only to realize it had become her entire life, Parker lets her best friend Charlotte convince her to leave Brooklyn and join her for a vacation in Hope Lake, Pennsylvania, where Charlotte lives with her boyfriend and group of friends.
It sounds like a good idea, but Charlotte’s group of friends includes Nick—the guy Parker had been secretly seeing for months. That is, until he stopped returning her calls and dropped out of her life completely. Seeing Nick again brings back all the feelings Parker thought were gone, but since she can’t tell Charlotte why he makes her so uncomfortable, she instead throws herself into life in the small town. She makes friends with a colorful and energetic group of elderly ladies, develops a YouTube show based around rediscovering their old family recipes, and does whatever she can to avoid Nick—and especially his clingy new girlfriend.
Of course, this being a novel (especially one taking place in a small town), avoidance is impossible, and the more they find themselves together trying to play at being just friends, the more obvious it is that what brought them together before hasn’t disappeared even though Nick did. And as the old feelings come bubbling to the surface, they have to work through figuring out what came between them in the first place, and if it’s worth giving it another try.—CJH
Gabriel Byrne, Walking with Ghosts (Grove Press, 2021)
Melancholy, meandering, and affecting, Gabriel Byrne’s memoir, Walking with Ghosts, paints his life in impressionistic strokes. I first saw Byrne, an actor, in the incoherent art film Siesta in 1987, where his angular cheekbones and blazing eyes caught my attention. In his book, the sizzling charisma he brought to that long-ago role is not evident. Rather than serve up show business gossip, Byrne’s focus is a sketch of his childhood in Ireland, interspersed with later events from his life. Instead of juicy details of colleagues and lovers, Byrne lays bare his own soul, his old wounds and regrets. What emerges is a portrait of a sensitive man governed by an unusual combination of reticence and raw emotions, emotions he finds useful to process through measured and lyrical recollection.—GM
G.P. Gottlieb, Smothered: A Whipped & Sipped Mystery 2 (D.X. Varos, 2021)
In addition to my passion for historical fiction, I love a good contemporary mystery story, so long as it focuses on psychology and relationships rather than blood, gore, and body counts. I also like novels about women old enough to know their own minds, with real-world problems associated with marriage and motherhood, the work-life balance, and careers. So it was a great pleasure to discover G.P. Gottlieb’s Battered, the first of her Whipped & Sipped Mysteries featuring Alene Baron, the owner of a vegan café in downtown Chicago, who becomes involved in identifying the murderer of a neighbor despite attempts by the Chicago Police to keep her and other amateurs at a distance.
Alene is back in Smothered (you’ll notice that the titles have a double meaning, referring to cooking techniques as well as ways of shuffling off this mortal coil). Here she’s busy juggling employee issues and difficult customers when the sleazy gym owner next door is found dead of an apparent heart attack. The police arrive, including Alene’s very new boyfriend, and before you know it, suspects with motives for removing the gym owner from this world are turning up all over the place. Alene has plenty of other issues on her plate: her ex-husband is subverting the kids when he remembers to take care of them at all; her dad’s in the hospital with a flare-up of his autoimmune disease; her employees have issues that keep them away from work; and her relationship with that new boyfriend is under siege from family commitments. But she is sharp and observant, and the mystery tugs at her until the solution at last becomes crystal clear in a surprising but eminently satisfying way.
For an interview with the author, see my blog.—CPL
Alexander Watson, River Queens
(Orange Frazier, 2018)
River Queens surprises. First, and most superficially, it’s the story of two men who buy a Chris-Craft wooden boat, restore it, and take river trips in the South. At the next level, it’s the examination of life on the rivers of the southern United States—particularly Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Indiana—as seen through the eyes of two middle-aged gay men. And third, at its depth it is a warm, thoughtful telling of love between Dale and Alexander, between them and the people they meet, between them and their boat, between them and the America they see at the river’s edge.
Life in the current United States is anything but peaceful. Interactions are freighted with wealth and poverty, race, gender, and orientation friction and, of course, politics. On the river’s edge these differences still exist, but they aren’t the controlling factor in most interactions.
Dale and Alexander do see some homophobia and some economic jealousy—although that’s less directed to them, more observed—and it’s no mystery what the guys on the side of the Ohio River are doing, but underneath it all, they’re humans and care for one another as humans must to survive in the “hostile environment” that is the river.
To me, the most relatable moments were on the Ohio, because I am not a Southerner. But as my husband’s family originally hails from Tennessee and Arkansas, I recognize the characters, and they ring, in Watson’s sweet prose, as true as a church bell calling you to Sunday worship and a catfish fry to follow.
I discovered this book via Heidi Slowinski’s fabulous book review blog. It is not available on Kindle and is best ordered from Orange Frazier’s website at https://www.riverqueens.us or https://facebook.com/riverqueens.us.—CL