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

Genre:  MemoirFrom Scratch
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
Pub. Date: April 30, 2019

I usually feel apprehensive when beginning a memoir. There are hundreds of memoirs written, usually ghostwritten, often from those in the entertainment business.  Tembi Locke is an actress and I wondered if I was in for a poorly written, vanity book. From the first sentence, I knew this was not going to be the case. “In Sicily, every story begins with a marriage or a death.” I was already hooked.

The author is an African American from Texas.  Besides being a mom and an actress, she is also an activist.  She meets her future Sicilian husband, Saro when she is in college and doing a semester in Italy. He is a chef who was born, lives, and works in a part of the world that holds onto their traditions with a firm grasp. Even though the couple has their wedding reception in Italy, his parents do not attend. His father has forbidden anyone in his family from attending because his son is marrying a black, non-catholic woman. Her parents gladly attended, arriving in full Texan gear while dancing the Harlem Shuffle at the reception. The author gives you enough information to make you wonder, how could this cross-cultural couple make it? Yet, “He soothed the places I hadn’t known needed soothing… Together we had engaged life as two forks eating off one plate.”  Tembi writes as if her marriage was a great love affair. “Our undoing was cancer…Pain is part of life. That much I knew.” However, she makes it clear that nothing could prepare her for the years of caretaking and the crippling grief once Saro dies from the disease. The entire book might have been an exercise in catharsis. If so, she made it work.

When Tembi returns to Sicily to bury Saro’s ashes, she develops a new bond with her mother-in-law through the Sicilian food they prepare in Saro’s parents’ tiny kitchen. She writes, “Cooking is about surrender.”  In the tradition of “Like Water For Chocolate,” “Scratch” is a recipe book and love story that is told through cooking a meal.  Tembi and her daughter come to spend their summers in Sicily and she embraces the slow-paced lifestyle.  One of her favorite chores is after a meal, joining the other village women to shake out their tablecloths—in the middle of the road—so not to attract ants into their home.  The author comes to know and understand her late husband’s family. Okay, there are some “Godfather” jokes, but in the end, a Sicilian neighbor, who does not understand a syllable of English, tells her family that their daughter, Tembi, “is one of us.” As Tembi says, “Sicily was the water and sun that fortified me to stand stronger in my life after loss.”

Locke’s memoir immediately reveals to the reader that she is a powerful storyteller. She fills her book with sensory experiences of Sicily. “The hot air was pregnant with jasmine and eucalyptus.”  Although the lyrical prose is glorious, I sometimes found that the vivid imagery throughout the memoir took over her story. I would have enjoyed reading less poetry on the wonders of Sicily (to be fair she also educates her readers on its history) and learned more about the details of her married life in America, which seems to have been skipped over.  I’m guessing this was done on purpose since the author’s tale is really about the salve that she found in Sicily.  Also, sometimes, the connection between food and kitchen wisdom was a bit too overplayed.  But, who am I to contradict her memories and healing process?  I devoured this book.  Once finished, I could not wait to celebrate life by going into my own kitchen to boil water for pasta. The author’s soul-searching words make for a heartfelt memoir that is part devastating, part uplifting, and always a beautiful tribute to life and love.

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“The Island” by Elin Hilderbrand

Genre: Beach Read The Island
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pub. Date: 05/01/2012

Mini Review

I had just lost a pet and wanted/needed a beach read. Something fluffy, something to lift my spirits, and to help me get through the mourning process.  I had read Elin Hilderbrand’s  “Summer of ‘69” as an Advance Review Copy (ARC.)  I very much enjoyed the novel so I went looking for something from her.  I usually don’t buy books.  But, I bought “The Island,” because I thought it would fit the bill.  It did not.  The story revolves around a family of four women—a 50 something mom, her sister, and her two grown daughters. The eldest daughter had a mental trauma surrounding the death of her ex-fiancée and is in a deep depression. They decided to revisit the family’s bare-bones cabin on a tiny island near Nantucket to help her regroup.  The plot sounds like a perfect beach read.  I was expecting lots of female bonding. My issue was with the characters and their love interests.  When it comes to the women’s’ love life, I swear the dialogue sounded like they were all in junior high. How could four intelligent, successful females talk as if they are in the TV series “Saved by the Bell?”  Quote from the middle-aged mom, “My boyfriend doesn’t love me.” From mom’s 30-year-old daughter to her 32-year-old sister (the one who is too depressed to come out of her room), “You are trying to take him from me.”  Enough already. I enjoyed reading about the island and beach life, which did help me forget my sadness, but not enough to enjoy this tedious chick-lit novel.

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“The Motion of the Body Through Space” by Lionel Shriver

Genre: Literary Fiction/SatireThe Motion
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pub. Date: April 20, 2020

I have enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s previous books but this one disappointed me.  “The Motion of the Body Through Space” is an okay read if you remember that you are reading a satire regarding the many Americans who take physical fitness to extremes and how easy it is to fall into mass conformity. It can get truly tiring to read an entire novel with a one-message theme pounded into your head nonstop.  If you are not in on the joke, the novel will drag on and on.  And, even if you are, the story still can get on your nerves.

The tale revolves around a happily married couple who are in their early 60s, living in Hudson, N.Y. Due to profession and physical bad luck, their senior years are not going as smoothly as their earlier years. The husband is fired from his job.  His self-esteem goes out the window.  He decides to run a marathon although he has never had any interest in any physical activities before.  That was always his wife’s gig until recently when her knees gave out.  However, she did her running by herself not part of a spectator’s sport. He makes his announcement to his wife. “In a second-rate sitcom, she’d have spewed coffee across her breakfast.” Adding more tension into the marriage after the marathon, he announces a new goal: a triathlon, under the guidance of an extremely toned, pretty, personal female trainer.  The author’s fictional MettleMan triathlon is her tongue in cheek way of not even bothering to hide the comparison to the real-life Metalman triathlon.

The novel is good at establishing the us-versus-them mentality. Wife to husband: “You do realize that organized sport is an industry?”  Husband to wife: “Soft drinks are an industry. We still buy soda water.” The trainer puts in her two cents, “anyone who says a discouraging word about MettleMan: you’re just gutless, indolent, and weak.” Suddenly, the wife is out of the window along with her husband’s job.  She wearily cries, “MettleMan isn’t just an exercise regime it’s a cult…The man I fell in love with has been kidnapped.”   The argument made throughout the book suggests that extreme sports might be a form of mental sickness.  Once at the multisport event race—that could do permanent physical damage to most of us— the founder of MetalMan gives a speech that leans more Nazi than motivational.  The wife thinks, “Leni Riefenstahl, where are you?”

Although the book can be funny, the punchline wears thin.  The story had the makings of a good romp regarding our weight-fitness obsessed culture, but the satire falls short.  In “Motion,” Shriver also attempts to take on parent-child issues, racial tensions, and politics, but they are hard to find due to the nonstop fixation on physical fitness. I do give her points for daring to write a novel with no likable characters. It is interesting getting into the psyche of those who train for marathons. Still, you might want to run, as fast as you can, away from this novel.

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“Virtue” by John Moot

Genre: Literary FictionVirtue
Publisher: Roads End Books
Pub. Date: August 4, 2020

Itsy-Bitsy Review

The media department for this novel reached out to me, via email, on reading and reviewing this novel. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in this book.  First, the genre is not literary fiction as marked. “Virtue” is more a contemporary family drama intertwined with politics. Secondly, and this is my own entire fault, the email reads, “Virtue is similar to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.”  But, I was thinking the novel, “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld, which is modeled after the life of Laura Bush as recorded in Ann Gerhart’s biography “The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush.”

“Virtue” revolves around a marriage in trouble and their struggling teenage children.  The wife wants change.  She is sick of being an at-home mother. The husband is a college philosophy professor who is writing a political book. The President of the college wants him to tone down his political views, for fear of losing donors.   He refuses and may lose his job. Since a good chunk of the plot revolves around politics, I didn’t realize my mistake until I started to write this review. Possibly, if I went in knowing I was about to read a family drama, which I can enjoy, I may have enjoyed the tale more than I did. The novel has some thought provoking elements. Still, I do not usually care for novels that end neat enough to be wrapped up in a bow, as this one does.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“A Good Marriage” by Kimberly McCreight

Genre: Murder Mystery/ThrillerA Good Marriage
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date: May 5, 2020

Thrillers are usually at their best when read in the summer, while on vacation, on a beach, or just relaxing in the yard. At this time of year, many of us are not interested in books that require effort.  Unless you are a student, there is nothing thought-provoking on our summer reading list. We are looking for unadulterated entertainment.  At least, until we return to the real world.  But, until then summer, for readers like myself, means spending a lot of time doing nothing but lounging around while getting lost in escapist fiction.  “A Good Marriage” is a good summer thriller.

The story is a combination of Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” and any legal thriller by John Grisham. In a nutshell, “Marriage” is the tale of a white-collar criminal defense attorney, Lizzie Kitsakis, who takes on the case of a millionaire, Zach Grayson, accused of the brutal murder of his wife, Amanda, in the super-wealthy section of Park Slope, Brooklyn NY. Zach and Lizzie knew each other back when they were in law school.  Although they haven’t had any contact in almost twenty years he tells her that she is the only lawyer who can represent/help him. Yes, you should be wondering why a now stranger is his only hope.  Lizzie, who has her own baggage, is swallowed up in a whodunit case revolving around women who are forces to be reckoned with, a ritzy private school, a hacking scandal, blackmail, and a sex party.  There are so many secrets that they pile up on top of each like a multi-car collision.

As in “Lies,” there are three female best friends and a newcomer to the neighborhood, which is Amanda. She is constantly struggling to understand her Park Slope friends’ ways. “The ladies of Park Slope prefer calculated indifference in matters of dress, a contrast to the glossy perfectionism of their Manhattan neighbors.”  Upping the ante for a delicious summer thriller, a chunk of the murder investigation revolves around the parents’ annual party, which they call “Sleepaway Soiree.”  The name refers to the fact that the kids have all left for summer camp meaning the parents can run wild. The Soiree is a wife swapping party just like in the 1997 movie, “Ice Storm” where appearingly wholesome couples experiment with casual sex. There are actual invitations, caterers, and everything else that goes into putting together an expensive party. “It’s harmless. And no one talks about it after.  It’s like it never happened.” The author enjoys poking fun at her rich characters.

In “Marriage,” McCreight manages to keep the “Lies” theme fresh without having a copycat feel by not retelling, “Lies” but rather repeating its great tensions. “Marriage” is told through multiple points of view. Amanda is killed off early in the book.  The author cleverly keeps her in the plot by using intermittent chapters, on how she spent her last week alive making for further dark suspense. McCreight does a good job of weaving multiple storylines together. However, a few characters felt like walk-ons and did nothing to enhance the story. In the tradition of “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan, the story is told in different formats such as grand jury testimonies, inner-company memos, school emails, and diaries. This reviewer can usually guess who the murderer is—not this time.  I applaud the author for changing directions so often that she keeps her readers on their toes.

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“Redhead by the Side” of the Road by Anne Tyler

Genre: Literary FictionRedhead
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

If I was to host a dinner party with my favorite female authors whose first name is some sort of derivative of “Ann” my guests would include Ann Napolitano, Ann Patchett, Anna Quindlen, and Anne Tyler. In Tyler’s latest novel, the narrative’s tone is overflowing with laugh-out-loud dry wit.  Her protagonist, Micah (an example of a difficult name to remember that I just switch to Michael in my mind) Mortimer is another likable yet quirky character, the kind that the author favors. It takes talent to write comedy with a rather dull hero.

Micah is a fastidiously well-organized 43-year-old tech geek who follows his routines to the point of bordering on OCD.  He heeds all rules, big or small, believing that this gives his life a sense of order. He pretends that there is a Big Brother-like Traffic God watching his every move in the car, which is why he always, always signals—even in his own driveway! When those living in the building he manages do not follow the guidelines, he writes them “friendly” reminders. Most residents get one or more per week. And the poor guy can’t figure out why women keep dumping him.

Micah is the extreme opposite of his lackadaisical family, which makes for some very funny dialogue between himself and the other Mortimers. His brother-in-law asks him “What day is it today? Is it [your] vacuuming day, a dusting day? Is it a scrub-the-baseboards-with-a-Q-tip day? In all seriousness, Micah replies, “it is kitchen day.” His family roars. Halfway through the novel, we meet a new character. A teenager shows up at Micah’s door claiming to be his son. Since Micah is not built for life’s unexpected developments, his world becomes unmanageable. It is not a spoiler to inform you that the redhead in the title is not referring to the boy. Tyler cleverly uses the word redhead throughout the novel as a metaphor for the protagonist’s powerlessness to see clearly.  Is that a redhead child? No, it is a fire hydrant.

Micah fails to understand the ‘need’ to accept—or at least try to accept—the yin and yang of life. He stubbornly refuses to see that he might be the problem.  In the hands of a lesser author, he could easily come off as Mr. Magoo. Tyler keeps him human. She also makes us wonder. Is Miach even capable of change?  Are any of us capable of change?  In the tradition of “Akin” by Emma Donoghue, or “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman, “Redhead” is a feel-good story about having second chances in life. Wouldn’t we all like a do-over? Yes, you have read this story before. Still, right about now in these crazy times, can’t we all benefit from a heartwarming tale?

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“Little Disasters” by Sarah Vaughan

Genre: Mystery and ThrillersLittle Disasters
Publisher: Atria
Pub. Date: August 18, 2020

Mini-Review

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book is not a mystery (though this might be upsetting if you had your heart set on one). You may be able to call this a thriller but only because you will wonder the fate of a nine-month-old baby.  The novel is actually about examining mental health issues concentrating on postpartum depression at its most severe. The author does a wonderful job of showing how shocking the illness can be. This is also a story about female friendships being tested.  A doctor is faced with the dilemma of abiding her Hippocratic Oath when her good friend’s baby is in the emergency room.  The baby is there with a head trauma and there is reason to doubt the mother’s explanation of how the accident took place. The author does an excellent job writing on the baby’s mother’s feelings of shame, anxiety, and trying to keep her baby safe from herself—Heartbreaking.  However, I was disappointed when the author throws in side stories about the two women’s childhoods with abusive parents. It is the author’s attempt at writing on the differences between actual abuse and thoughts. Insight into mental illness is always good, but this came off as obvious.  As if the reader couldn’t figure out the differences on their own.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“A Week at Surfside Beach Short Stories” by Pierce Koslosky Jr

Genre: Literary Fiction/Short StoriesA Week
Publisher: Vertel/Loba
Pub. Date: June 9, 2020

Author Pierce Koslosky Jr. has created sixteen slice-of-life short stories with unrelated characters.  What they do have in common is that they all rent the same beach house with an ocean view, Portofino II-317C. All the characters become temporary inhabitants for one week in a single rental season that spans from May to December.  As a beach lover, how could I resist this collection?  To further capture my interest, Koslosky Jr., along with his family, has gone to Surfside Beach, South Carolina for over twenty-five years, staying in the same blue home where his shorts take place. The image of the house on the book’s cover is the actual house.  My first thought was of Mark Twain’s famous quote, “Write what you know.”Although set at the beach, this is not a typical beach book. It is not fluff. The stories’ characters are of all ages and come from varying backgrounds.  The tones of the shorts fluctuate. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some are sad, some are thought-provoking. However, they are not all hits with this reviewer. Some are unsurprising, Some are unsurprising, feeling repetitive.

My favorite and, one of the funniest, is “The Right To Bare Arms, June 20-27.”  Going on a vacation with close friends who have a brood of children the same age as your own always seems like a good idea.  However, being on vacation disrupts one’s everyday routines, which is what bonds these two families to one another in the first place.  The battle begins the moment they arrive. They are large families so they rented two homes that sit next to one another, but Portofino II-317C has a glorious ocean view and Portofino II-317B does not. The family that is stuck with 317B begins the feud. Not helping a bit, a Romeo and Juliet situation emerges. The young teens learn to kiss between their braces, making their already annoyed parents see red. The night before they are to return home, the wives set up a dinner at a restaurant on the pier. The purpose is to discuss how to ease back into their normal suburban routines, which force them to depend on one another for car-pooling, school meetings, and after school activities. I chuckle just remembering the scene where they arrive at the restaurant. Two long tables await them—one faces the ocean, the other faces the kitchen.

When a stressed young family with three children goes on a vacation, there is no vacation from the fighting between mom and dad.  Spending every waking moment with three children all under twelve years old would cause any parents to quarrel. “Lucy, June 27-July 4” is a story about three-year-old Lucy who goes missing on the beach while her parents are bickering. This tale is too preachy for my taste.  The author does a good job of laying the foundation, yes. There’s that first moment of panic, the call to the police, the visions of their child on a milk carton. There is good suspense going on here. Also, the author did make me wonder why we enjoy reading so many stories about missing children. Is it because we are grateful that our kids are safe, no one has abducted them? However, none of this stops the tale from feeling tedious. The moral is obvious.

“Swimming Lessons, July 4-11” could feel preachy but doesn’t.  Readers will follow a father brave enough to take on the challenge of going on vacation with his two teenage sons and one of their friends. One thing that can grind the fun to a halt faster than bad weather on a beach vacation is a group of teenagers. Of course, the plane ride is hell, constant bickering and shoving among the boys. Naturally, dad needs a cocktail to calm himself down. Once inside the blue beach house, the attitude among the boys necessitates further cocktails. “Get out of my life, but first drive me here, and buy me this, etc.”  What could be worse?  How about if the oldest, most sullen son was recently arrested for stealing? The week on the beach isn’t a reward, but rather the dad is hoping to teach his oldest a lesson on owning up to one’s mistakes through relaxed, heart-to-heart conversations. If you have ever had a teenager you can guess how these chats can go. This short has many funny scenes because the dad is so over his head. The scenes in which he learns his own lessons also land.  I think this story didn’t have that holierthanthou vibe because of the humor that dominates the tale.

The author has an appealing, folksy style of writing. He packs his characters’ suitcases with sunscreen, kids’ toys, and their individual life experiences. There may be one too many tales with a happy ending. Still, the themes of community, friendship, family, love, and loss create scenarios in which all readers can relate. I mean, who hasn’t spent at least one rainy vacation cramped in a rental or someplace that brings out your worst behaviors?

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Jackie and Maria” by Gill Paul

Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionJackie & Maria
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Pub. Date: August 18, 2020

Mini-Review

In this historical/women’s fiction, the emphasis is on women’s fiction. The story revolves around Jackie Kennedy and the world-famous opera singer, Maria Callas, with whom Jackie vies for the affection of Ari Onassis. By the third chapter, I went to check the endnotes. I was not surprised to see that there weren’t any.

What you get is a lot of already known gossip about Jackie and Jack Kennedy’s marriage, how heavily she leaned on Bobby Kennedy after Jack’s assisination, all the rumors swirling around the Kennedy boys and Marilyn Monroe, Jackie’s transformation into Jackie O, and of course, the love triangle between Jackie, Ari, and Ari’s longtime lover, Maria.

At one point, the novel’s lines come straight out of the 1978 film, “The Greek Tycoon,” based on Maria, Jackie, and Ari.  I remember this clearly because of the harsh words Ari used in bed with Maria when describing his wife’s skinny American thighs. He was all class. In addition, many would say Maria was a fool for staying with him after he married Jackie.  

It has been suggested that this book was meticulously researched—hard to imagine, at least with the version I read on Kindle. If you are in the mood to read about famous women and their trouble with love then this is for you.  If you wish for some well documented history, I’d skip this one.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
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“Daddy: Stories” by Emma Cline

Genre:  Literary Fiction Short Story Collectiondaddy
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Sept. 1, 2020

Once again, due to an injury I am writing this review via voice to text. Please forgive any errors.

I wish this short story collection had a different title. “Daddy’” makes it sound like you’re about to read erotica. Thankfully, these stories are not. Maybe Cline wanted the reader to be surprised. I certainly was. What captured my interest when agreeing to read and review this book was its description as “literary short stories.” It’s the word “literary” that sold me. Plus, I appreciate short stories.

What you get in these ten stories are edgy slice-of-life tales that explore human nature. Cline portrays moments in her characters’ lives that reveal the dark parts of themselves that they would prefer to keep hidden. She does this well. Dare I say, there are traces of Joyce Carol Oates in this young author. Connecting all the stories is a father or father-like figure, though they are often not the main character.

One story in the collection, “Marion,” was the winner of the 2014 Plimpton Prize. From its first sentence, the writing is vivid. “Cars the color of melons and tangerines sizzled in cul-de-sac driveways.” Here, Cline takes the reader inside the mind of an eleven-year-old girl who does not understand the sexual desires of her 13-year-old best friend. There is a ”Mean Girls” vibe to it, but the reader will find themselves forgiving the older girl since she appears to be at the mercy of her own unstable parents and the questionable boundaries between herself and her father. The short is good but I found “Arcadia” more chilling.

“Arcadia” is the type of story that sticks with you and you really wish it didn’t. An older brother acts as a parent to his 18-year-old sister. The sister is pregnant. Her boyfriend, the protagonist, moves in with her and her brother. The three live in the house the siblings grew up in. The sister and her boyfriend sleep in her childhood bedroom, still decorated as when she was a child. This is the author’s first hint that something might be off with this brother/sister relationship. What is so creepy about this short is that the boyfriend slowly begins to realize that there are inappropriate sexual intimacies between the siblings. He tells his girlfriend ”this is no place to raise a baby.” The power in this short is how the boyfriend chooses to look the other way because he gets sucked into the unhealthy family’s dynamics.

”Son of Friedman” is a sad tale of a father who is, rightly or not, disappointed in his son. George Friedman, a washed-up movie producer, has dinner with an old friend, who still has a thriving acting career. The actor is also the godfather of Friedman’s adult son. The reason for this get-together is that Friedman’s son is having a screening of a short movie he created, a pure vanity project. During dinner, the actor asks Friedman about his godson. Friedman thinks, ”It never even crossed my mind to invite him to their dinner.” With that line, we know what we are about to read. A father who is utterly embarrassed by his son’s project. I thought the author’s talent shines brightest with how she goes deep into the relationship between father and son without ever spelling it out. The father thinks, ”he was always a nervous child.” He often recalls the many expensive drug addiction centers his kid has been in. He never admits his own drinking problem to himself.

In 2017 Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. Her perceptions are close to brilliant. With a few more years under her belt, I believe she will get there. Part of what makes this collection so good is that in each story there is some sort of perversity right underneath the surface. You can sniff it but you cannot see it. And what will really scare you is when you recognize some of her characters’ traits in yourself. Well done, Emma Cline.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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