Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Colleen Cambridge****

This charming cozy mystery, set in Paris during the postwar years, had me at hello. Tabitha is an American expat, and her best friend, Julia Child, is teaching her how to cook. But one evening, during one of the Childs’s many soirees, a woman is murdered…and the knife in question came from Julia’s kitchen!  To make matters even worse, the victim was carrying a card with Tabitha’s name and address on it when she was found. For some young women, this would be a wakeup call, and the morning would see them on the next available plane to Detroit; but Tabitha is made of sterner and more curious stuff, and so she begins snooping.  

My thanks go to Net Galley and Kensington Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

To cope with the horror of the previous night’s events, Julia is roasting a ham.  “I just had to take my mind off everything. Can you even believe it, Tabs? Someone murdered a woman in this building—with my knife! That means they had to have been in my kitchen! This kitchen!”

Like many an amateur sleuth in other mysteries, Tabitha begins poking around. Sometimes she has smart ideas, and at other times she is breathtakingly dense, but there is never a time that I am thinking about the author rather than the protagonist, and that means that I believe the character. There are some familiar tropes and the occasional cliche: “She knew too much!” But it never becomes a problem, possibly because this is a novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Now and then the author breaks down the fifth wall, or nearly so. For example, Tabitha tells us that she knows what to do because she has read plenty of Nancy Drew mysteries.

The solution to this whodunit is fairly transparent, and I am able to predict the solution, along with the conclusion of the additional thread of incipient romance early in the book, but the whole thing is so adorable that I never become annoyed. “Just like an Agatha Christie novel—all the questions answered at the end, and the villain is caught, and everyone else is happy.”

Because I had fallen behind, I supplemented my review copy with the audio version, obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons, and narrator Polly Lee does a brilliant imitation of Julia Child! In fact, all of the passages involving Julia are brilliant, and that is my favorite aspect of this story.

Sometimes an author manages to step on multiple pet peeves of mine, and yet I emerge pleasantly entertained anyway, and that’s what has happened here. This is light reading, but it isn’t insipid. I look forward to reading the next in this lovely new series. Recommended to cozy readers.

The Things We Do To Our Friends, by Heather Darwent**-***

2.5 stars rounded upwards.

The Things We Do To Our Friends is a debut thriller by newbie Heather Darwent. Our protagonist is Clare, a young woman who’s studying art history at a university in Edinboro. She’s new and knows no one, but is soon swept up in a small, elite group of students she meets in one of her classes. Before she knows it, they are her main curriculum, and her classes become secondary.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to review. This book is for sale now.

At the outset it’s easy to relate to Clare, who tells us her story using the first person limited. She has never lived here before, and she doesn’t have a lot of resources. She gets a job at a nearby bar, and the everyman proprietor, Finn, punctuates the story now and then with an objective take on Clare’s life and her new friends. She is soon invited to join a clique of students that are flashier, louder, and more confident than most of her classmates, and she wants desperately to become one of them. Tabitha is the ringleader, and it is she that Clare most wants to please.

The opening chapters here make me wonder if we are about to rehash Ruth Ware’s most recent mystery, The It Girl. The elements are certainly there. But there’s an undertone that builds here, teasingly referencing Clare’s unfortunate past. We don’t know much except that she’s estranged from her parents, who don’t want to hear from her.

That can’t be good.

The clique goes to Tabitha’s family home in France over the winter break, and Clare is thrilled to be included. But while they are there, she is pressured to join with them on a moneymaking venture that isn’t entirely legal. They let her know they are aware of her past, so she’d better cooperate.

Here is where the book starts to lose me. Clare is essentially being extorted, and yet her emotional attachment to the group only intensifies. At one point, she tells us that she sometimes forgets whose skin is whose, so tightly bonded are they, and in particular, she and Tabitha. But this makes no sense. Tabitha has threatened to harm her, as have the others. Why does she love them all the more for it?

More and more tidbits from Clare’s past are revealed, and yet Clare herself isn’t developed much. Neither is anybody else. We are told a lot, but shown only a little. I love books that are about character, and if there’s not much plot, I’m fine with that, but these characters are all static. At the 50 percent mark, I become impatient and skip to 62 percent; from there, I read to 72 percent, which is where things should begin to feel urgent, but they don’t. I skip again to 90 percent and read the ending. I seldom skip anything when reading, and on the occasions when I have done so, I sometimes find things when I skim the last half that convince me to go back and read it completely. That didn’t happen here. There are loose threads dangling, and plot elements that appear to have no purpose. Worst of all—and to be fair, this is probably not the author’s doing, but it rankles, nevertheless—is that this weak tale of warped humanity is billed as a “feminist page-turner,” which is what drew my interest initially, and as a lifelong, card-carrying feminist, I can assure you that this is absolutely not that.

I cannot recommend this book to you.

Joan, by Katherine J. Chen****

“Once you lift a sword, it is hard to put down again.”

I’ve been curious about Joan of Arc for a long time. I love military history, and as a feminist, I also love that Joan was responsible for leading French victories centuries before women were permitted to serve in the military of any major power. When I saw that Katherine J. Chen had written a “secular reimagining of the epic life of Joan of Arc…a feminist celebration of one remarkable—and remarkably real—woman who left an indelible mark on history,” I was all in.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

In her end notes, Chen tells us that Joan’s biographers tend to leave out her difficult home life, with a violent, angry father that hates Joan from the moment she draws breath; he has wagered heavily on her being male, and she’s failed him. Chen sees it as a major factor in Joan’s development as a warrior.

When Joan leaves home, after her beloved uncle leaves and her elder sister, her one true friend within the family, commits suicide after she is raped by English soldiers, she expects to labor for her bread, which is nothing new to her. But ultimately, she wants to get word to the Dauphin, the heir to the throne, who is in hiding: she knows how to win this war.

I absolutely love the version of Joan that Chen develops, and my only frustration is in not knowing what aspects of Joan’s life she has had to invent, and which are historically accepted as truth. She tells us that Joan’s biographers would have her praying constantly, and that they depict Joan as little more than a totem that they carry to battle, a sort of human version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. And then I wonder even more: what facts are undisputed? Of course the Church would depict Joan as hugely religious, given that she has been beautified as a saint. Did she actually influence the battle plans? This part is frustrating to me. Had more information been provided, this would be a five star review.

In any case, the battle scenes are riveting, and Joan’s character is unforgettable. I look forward to seeing what Chen writes next.

Recommended to all that love the genre.

The Road Less Traveled, by Philip Zelikow***

Is this going to be on the test?

My thanks go to Net Galley and Public Affairs for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I am initially drawn to this title when I see the subtitle—an opportunity to make an early peace that went unanswered—and I also want to read more about World War I. I love military history, and am sick to death of World War II material, so this felt like it might be a breath of fresh air.

Or not.

There is no doubt that Zelikow knows his field, and his research is above reproach. Students and researchers may find this book useful, albeit with a careful eye toward a very conservative point of view that affects his analysis. However, for those of us just in it for the joy of learning, I must caution that this is a slog. I read the first half in the digital format I was given, and after publication, I also availed myself of the audio version available at Seattle Bibliocommons, and it’s difficult to focus on either for long at a time, because it’s just Zzzzzzzz

Oh, I’m sorry! Was that me? Let me try again. The research is splendid; the analysis is reactionary; the presentation is a little zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I might have spared myself some frustration had I researched the author. Once I was able to focus long enough to get a feel for his political leanings, I ran a brief Google search, and discovered he’d been with the U.S. State Department under the Reagan and Bush administrations.


At this point, you know enough to decide whether you want to read this thing. If you have a strong interest in the topic and aren’t squeamish about drawing information from the far right, then this is your book. Not mine, though.

The Power Couple, by Alex Berenson****

Alex Berenson has done it again! I first read his work when I found a galley for The Prisoner, the eleventh in his John Wells series. When I saw that this stand alone thriller was available, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.  The Power Couple is a fast read and a fun one, and I recommend it to you.

Rebecca (call her Becks) and Brian Unsworth are type A achievers, and both work for the federal government; she is a spy, and he is a hacker. But like so many couples, the similarities that brought them together are getting in their way now. With their children, Kira, who is nineteen, and Tony, who is younger, they take off for Europe to let off steam and spend quality time together. Maybe.

Early in the story, Kira is abducted, and from there forward, the pacing is perfect. Now and then Berenson pulls us back a bit as he shares sketches from their pasts that lead up to this event, but each reminiscence is brief, and the shift between points of view and time periods adds to the suspense. We see their lives through the perspectives of all except Tony, who is a minor character. In the end, Kira is the one we like best. (Trust me.) There’s not a lot of character development, but this isn’t that kind of novel.

I don’t want to give more away, because if I kill any surprises, you won’t enjoy the story as much; what I will say is that even if your own marriage is less than perfect, it is a shining beacon of integrity and affection when contrasted with that of the Unsworths.

This book is for sale now, and just right to take on vacation with you.

Celebrate Women’s History Month With This Terrific New Release

I reviewed this excellent novel in January, based on a true story of American women that travel to France to help civilians during World War I. If you haven’t checked it out, have a look by clicking the link below the picture.

Band of Sisters, by Lauren Willig*****

Lauren Willig is an established author, but she is new to me. Band of Sisters, her newest release, has made me a fan. I read it free and early, and my thanks go to Net Galley, William Morrow, and Harper Audio for the review copies. It will be available to the public March 2, 2021.

A group of Smith College alumni sail to France on a mission to help civilians suffering extreme deprivation during World War I.  “They carry money, supplies, and good intentions—all of which immediately go astray,” says the promotional blurb, and that’s what happens. It’s hard to make plans when you don’t know which way the battle may turn or where bombs may fall, but these are plucky women, two doctors among them, and several of them are members of wealthy, influential American families as well. The story is based on actual women and events, and the teacher in me wishes I were still in the classroom and able to order sets of this excellent novel to share with honors students, girls especially, who need to see more of themselves in the study of American history.

Our two protagonists are Kate and Emmie, best friends and roommates a decade ago, united in this adventure. Kate is the only woman among the “Smithies” that doesn’t come from money and that doesn’t pay her own way; she is led to believe no one else paid their own way, either, but it isn’t true. And this is a chewy, inviting historical truth that we don’t see often in fiction. Though social class divisions are every bit as present and sharp today, assumptions made by most Americans have become more generous. During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a widely held belief that rich people were better in other ways as well, whether they had earned their fortunes or inherited them. They considered themselves to be God’s own chosen ones, and their wealth was one more sign that the Almighty loved them a bit more than others. Poverty was considered shameful, a thing to be concealed; there were no government funds of any kind to help the poor, and if there had been, women like Kate would have just about died before accepting them. Taking charitable contributions was a sign of personal failure and possibly dishonesty to most people back then. And the truth is, Kate isn’t impoverished, and she surely hasn’t failed at anything, but she has to work to earn her living, a thing most Caucasian women in the U.S. didn’t do in 1917. She is horrified when, midway through our narrative, she learns the truth about her travel expenses, and this creates one of the crises within the story.

Willig is a fine novelist. The pace never flags, and there’s never a moment of revisionism that makes me blink. She is true to the time period and the characters. Emmie’s character is a harder sell, to my way of thinking, because she comes from tremendous wealth, but her family has made her feel unworthy because of her physical appearance, and by the end of the book, I love Emmie as much as I do Kate.

I’ve plucked a sample for you, a scene in which Kate and Emmie are evacuating an area which is being overrun by the Germans:

[Kate] wanted Mrs. Barrett; she wanted Dr. Stringfellow; she wanted anyone who could tell them what to do and where to go. Grecourt looked different already, the anemones churned up by the tread of two hundred soldiers, tents dotted around the lawn, Maybe, if she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she could make it a week ago; the ground bright with flowers; slipping into story time and holding Zelie on her lap while Nell read to the basse-cour children in French about little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, joking with the unit around the supper table about their amazing ability differentiate between types of guns.

But it wasn’t a week ago. The Big Bad Wolf was here, he was on the march, with his big, big teeth and big, big guns, and maybe she wasn’t the best the Unit could have, but she was what they had right now.

By the time we reach this part of the story, I could not stop reading if I wanted to. It would have been impossible.  

The hardest characters for many writers are the children, and although we have no child protagonists, there are numerous scenes in which children play a part. How does a child act when he is traumatized by war? Willig is in perfect form here as well.

I received both the digital review copy and the audio, and I used them both. At the beginning there are so many women introduced to us at once that I felt lost with just the audio, and so I listened and read along to keep track. The narrator, Julia Whelan, does a superb job with a challenging manuscript, changing her tone and point of view to let us know which woman’s point of view we are hearing. My only concern regarding the audio version—which is much easier to follow once you have learned the most important characters—is that the story begins with a lengthy list of the women that participated, and it’s not great to listen to. I recommend you fast forward the audio to somewhere between five and seven percent, and then dive in.

I requested this galley because a number of Goodreads friends whose opinions I respect recommended it to me, and all of them were absolutely right. This book is a gem, and I highly recommend it.

The Girls at 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib*****

Anna isn’t eating, and she’s so weak that she faints from time to time. Her husband, Matthias is afraid for her; this isn’t the life they envisioned when they moved from France to the States. She is admitted to a facility for women with eating disorders, and it is that address that gives the book its title. Big thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy, and my deepest apologies for being so late with my feedback.

I never would have expected to want to read a novel about an anorexic protagonist. In real life, Anna would have offered me her fries and her dessert, and I would have cheerfully accepted them. She in turn would inwardly shudder, my stocky grandma body providing her with a cautionary example of what happens to those that eat such things.

When I was a sweet young thing growing up in the 1970s, there were rumors that some of the girls at school kept their figures slender by throwing up after they’d eaten; a friend and I commiserated over our own lack of self-discipline. We had scarfed down our Halloween candy and not even considered ralphing it back up in the bathroom. Now we could barely fasten our jeans, while those classmates were smaller than we were.

We thought that some girls have all the luck.

It wasn’t until the death of singer Karen Carpenter that anorexia became well known, and even then, it took us awhile to clue in on the details. Because it’s about body image, and yet it isn’t. And Zgheib does a wonderful job of educating the reader using that approachable medium, fiction.

In Paris, Anna was a dancer. When she and Matthias married, she planned to go on dancing professionally, at least until they had children. But when he was presented with a prestigious promotion that required him to relocate to the United States, they packed their things; Anna had expected to continue her career in America, but she was never chosen.

The in-patient facility where she is treated has strict, clear rules about every aspect of daily life, and most of the privileges hinge around timely consumption of the food that’s provided. Anna’s struggle is profound, and her story is moving. Because it’s about food, but not really. She has buried a trauma involving the deaths of her brother and her mother, and she’s channeled her self-hatred into this eating disorder. We catch glimpses of this as she expertly dodges questions raised in therapy. One of the most moving moments, strangely, has to do with a bagel and cream cheese. She’s supposed to eat it, and she throws a pluperfect hissy. She never eats dairy, she says. She wants the vegan option! No dice, honey. But as time moves forward and this difficulty continues, she finally reveals that actually, this might have once been her favorite food. It was so delicious, and it took her such iron self-control to forget its taste. All that work, she thinks, and now it’s ruined. And she is genuinely shattered by this.

Only one sufferer in three recovers from anorexia.

Due to a backlog of galleys, I checked out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the voice actor that reads it is perfect.

Highly recommended.

Pancakes in Paris, by Craig Carlson****

pancakesinparisThe American dream has become harder for ordinary people to attain, but Carlson is living proof that it can happen; yet some of us may need to go somewhere else to find it. In his upbeat, congenial memoir, “the pancake guy” chronicles his journey, from the kid of a wretchedly dysfunctional home—and I don’t use the term lightly—to the owner of Breakfast in America, his own restaurant franchise in France. This title was a bright spot in my reading lineup last month, and it can be a bright spot in yours too. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Is this a thing that any kid in America could have done? Not so much. Carlson has a rare blend of  intelligence, organization, and social skills; above and beyond all else, he possesses unstoppable determination, clear focus, and a work ethic that never flags for one tiny minute until he discovers he is close to working himself to death. Those lacking talent and determination may never reach the end of the rainbow as this author has done; that much is clear. But oh, what fun to share the ride with him!

Given his family’s expectations for him, or lack thereof, it’s amazing he finished high school, and his acquisition of a college education is more remarkable still. But it is his junior year at a state college in Connecticut that plants the seed that will sprout and grow into a way of life; he is invited to spend his school year in Paris. Once he’s there, the tumblers click, and he knows that he has found his people.

As Carlson’s story unspools, he debunks stereotypes believed by many Americans, and a few of them are ones I believed too until I read this memoir. Carlson delivers setting in a way much more immediate than any number of Google searches can provide, but it’s his insights regarding French culture, law, and society that make his memoir so captivating. The prose is lean and occasionally hilarious. He plucks choice, juicy vignettes from his journey all along the way, and this makes us feel as if we are riding quietly on his shoulder taking it all in as he goes.

If you’ve never been to France and don’t intend to, you can still enjoy this book. If you don’t like pancakes or any aspect of the traditional American breakfast, it doesn’t matter. Carlson is enormously entertaining, and so his story stands on its own merits. I am furthermore delighted to see that the only recipe that is inserted into his narrative is actually a joke. A small collection of actual recipes is inserted at the end, and although I never, ever, ever do this, I intend to try one of them out tonight! But even if you skip the recipe section entirely, you should read this memoir. It’s too much fun to miss. The best news of all is that it’s available for purchase right now.

Get it, and read it!

Napoleon: A Life, by Robert Andrews *****

napoleonalifeRobert Andrews has created an historical masterpiece in this massive tome, a biography of Napoleon. Thank you and thank you again to Net Galley and Viking Adult Publishers for the ARC.

Andrews is well known among historians; his scholarship and experience firmly establish him as an expert in the field of European history, especially military history and biography. The recent availability of a vast treasure-trove of primary documents made this biography possible, together with a tremendous amount of work and travel. He visited libraries all over the world and battle sites where Napoleon had been before him, before all of us. (And he set off the alarm in Napoleon’s throne three times!)

How long did this take, I wonder? By the time it was published, Andrews must have felt an overwhelming sense both of loss and of satisfaction.

As for your humble reviewer, I came to read about Napoleon, whose military career, rule, and downfall I had studied only at the shallowest level during my undergraduate years a whole long time ago, through the back door. My field is the American Civil War, but I was intrigued by the number of Civil War heroes (and others) who had studied Napoleon’s methods in detail, and referred to them when creating their own battle plans. What was it about Napoleon?

Generally, my advice to those contemplating reading a lengthy biography is to get the basics down first, but I didn’t follow my own advice here. I had the opportunity to get the ARC at the end of November, and it was now or never. I decided to plunge in, poorly prepared though I might be. When I was finished, I found I had bookmarked or made notes in over 700 places in this 926 page work. So whereas I won’t use all of my references, I can truthfully say that there is no filler, no fat. If you haven’t the patience for almost a thousand pages of Napoleon, then don’t go there, but for heaven’s sake don’t pretend that more is included here than is necessary for a thorough, scholarly, yet interesting treatment.

Having said that much, I also have to confess that I struggled somewhat with the ARC. My knowledge of European geography is pretty basic. I know where most of the countries are, what their climates are like, and for the most part, where the borders are located. When we morph into the Napoleonic era, I really, really needed maps, and that’s the price one sometimes pays for an ARC: your “map” is [map insert] noted. There will be a map; I don’t get to see it. So I gamely brought myself to my desktop for the first four Coalition Wars, and was lucky enough to find an interactive map that gave me part of what I needed to know. In some places, Andrews explained what took place so well that I could see most of the battle inside my head. But as of the fifth coalition forward, I quit trying to find my own maps when I couldn’t follow the action, and just read what was in the book.

All told, Andrews corrected some misperceptions I had developed regarding Napoleon. My own view had been that there was a heroic French Revolution, followed by what are usually termed “excesses” by the Jacobins who began the Revolution. (Today these en masse trips to the guillotine would be called atrocities.) But could the whole thing be salvaged? It seemed such a terrible waste to have a popular revolution, throw out not only a monarchy but one unusually lacking in decency toward the peasants and urban poor of France, and then have it all come tumbling down. And it also seems like a waste to have an autocrat take over. This was my perspective before reading Andrews’s biography.

Though his approach is both scholarly and balanced, Andrews offers a positive portrait of Napoleon, whom he treats with a fond, almost affectionate narrative. He points out that Napoleon kept the Bourbons off the throne for over twenty years, and it’s true that they returned in 1815 after Napoleon’s first abdication. Things got really ugly then. And he also points out that Napoleon’s career was unusually complicated. The point is well taken.

For example, who invades neighboring nations, overthrows their leaders, presumes to rewrite their constitution without consulting anyone that lives there…yet bestows upon them more civil rights than they have ever had before? And who else would insist in his terms for peace not only remuneration so that he can pay his troops and the annual benefits of military widows, but also demands that great works of art, privately owned, be turned over to him…whereupon he places them in a gallery where all visitors can enjoy them?

Mind you, the man is no Robin Hood. Far from it! He makes it clear from the beginning that he has no use for the ‘hoi polloi’, and whenever he ceases privately held property, he also sees to it that the previous owner is compensated.

The word “hubris” is often applied to Napoleon, and if not him, then who? Andrews argues that he might have been successful…if only. And there’s the rub, right? Because initially, he and his troops travel fast and hard. In the beginning, he asks nothing of them that he would not do himself. His opponents, on the other hand, are spoiled and effete. They travel with vast amounts of personal baggage and servants. They can’t move until they personally have this, that, the other. And in the end, that is the guy that Napoleon becomes.

The text is made more lively throughout with quotations of Napoleon himself, a prolific writer and a brilliant, articulate speaker.

The chapters are organized according to place, generally speaking, and this is very useful when the reader needs to go back and fact-check.

Andrews argues that Napoleon’s autocracy-as-meritocracy might have been successful if he had applied the standard to all of the dynasties he created after toppling their rulers that he applied to France. Nepotism created endless problems, and though Napoleon somehow thought that he personally might make up for the failings of his relatives, there is only so much one man can do. The many, many worthless siblings and other relatives he installed as instant royalty drained his resources and made problems that didn’t have to happen. His first wife, Josephine, was such an obsessive spender that one hates to think of the number of children under age six who might have lived had the wealth been more widely distributed.

Napoleon’s most loyal base of support was within the military, but he fought so aggressively that too many soldiers died, and the backlash was bound to come sooner or later. Yet the military base he so depended upon wanted him back again after just ten months of Bourbon reign.

Could Napoleon have been successful if he had left the Iberian peninsula alone? If he had avoided attacking Russia? Napoleon himself, upon looking back while in exile during his last years, recognizes that trying to best Britain, with its unstoppable navy, was folly; yet he certainly kept them busy for a good long while.

At one point, he reflects that if he had known he would end up defeated, he could have made different choices. He would like to be allowed to emigrate to the United States; who knows, he could have founded a state there! And here, my jaw drops as I imagine that instead of selling the Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the USA) to the USA via President Thomas Jefferson, he had decided to settle it. But being Napoleon, would it have even stopped there, I wonder? He hated Britain and had nothing against US rulers; maybe he would have been able to kick the British out of Canada instead of fruitlessly attempting to rout them from their homeland.

Suddenly I can see how Andrews has become spellbound by what might have been. He has spent a lot more time with this material than I have, and it’s starting to affect me, too!

I know that some of those who read my reviews are teachers. I don’t see this as high school material; a small portion of it could be selected for honors level seniors or community college students perhaps, but then you have huge books to buy in order to use just a portion. I don’t see even the most gifted teenager sticking it out from start to finish. Though the narrative is engaging, the definitive biography is epic .It requires patience and dedication on the part of its readers. Developmentally, most young folks in their late teens and early twenties just won’t be there yet.

But if you are in doubt, buy one copy and read it yourself, then pass it around a little bit and see how it goes. Likewise, if you are homeschooling a truly extraordinary teenager that you think would gobble this up, buy it, read it (because you can’t home school anyone using a text you have not personally read), and then if you still think it may work and your student is game, give it a try.

All told, the price you will pay for this remarkable single volume biography is nothing compared to its worth in your own library, even if only used as a reference source.