The Recipe Box Revisited

In my previous post, I talked about a soon-to-be-published novel that had me mesmerized from page one. Now that I’ve completed my official review, I would like to share it with my patient readers. (As mentioned, this review is double the length of most that come out of my [virtual] pen.)

Readers are in for a literal and literary treat.

Viola Shipman’s delectable story opens in the fall of 1939. Alice Mullins looks out the window of her northern Michigan farmhouse to see her husband, Leo, and their dog Mac approach from the orchard. Alice decides to make something special for Leo with the apples he brings her. While the apple crisp bakes, she writes down the oft-used recipe for the first time. A few days later, Leo presents his wife with a handmade locked recipe box. For the next several weeks, Alice writes down every recipe she can think of—and keeps the key on a chain around her neck.

Fast forward to 2017. Sam Nelson, Alice’s great-great-granddaughter, has left home to follow her dream: attend culinary school and work in New York City. The twenty-four-year-old is a pastry chef on a reality TV show hosted by “Chef Dimples,” a pompous man with no culinary skills who relies on his staff’s creations. On a dreary summer morning, Sam arrives at work at the same time as Angelo Morelli, a young man delivering fruit to the bakery. After Angelo expresses his appreciation to the young woman for encouraging him to attend college, the two enter the premises—only to discover that Trish, another chef, has quit rather than continue working for their unscrupulous, callous boss. When Chef Dimples arrives, he orders Sam (in the absence of a “real” pastry chef) to make a pie for the show, which is being featured on Good Morning America.

In the first of many perfectly-placed flashbacks, we meet Sam on her 13th birthday. Disgruntled about having to spend another summer on the Mullins Family Orchard, picking fruit and greeting guests, she shares her desire to see the world beyond northern Michigan with her grandmother Willo and mother Deana. That evening, the new teen is introduced to two family traditions: her own recipe box and key, complete with recipes written over the generations, and a baking session. As grandmother, mother, and granddaughter prepare Sam’s first peach-blueberry slab pie, Willo tells her to make it whenever she wants a “taste of home and family” and to demonstrate that appearances are not what matters; what’s inside is what counts.

Back in the present, Sam recalls her grandmother’s words as she fingers the recipe box key worn on a chain—and bakes the unattractive but delicious peach-blueberry slab pie. Despite the fact that her boss obviously enjoys the pastry, he acts true to form. Chef Dimples throws it into the garbage, ordering Sam to bake a real pie. She has had enough: she quits.

Confused and unhappy, Sam flies back to Michigan, feeling like she is returning with her tail between her legs. Even though she keeps her recent experience a secret, her grandmother and parents sense there is something Sam is hiding—and find opportunities to talk about their own life events. Hearing how a young Willo sought out a deserted spot to rethink her life and whether what others expected of her was what she wanted for herself; the chance her recently-married father had to follow what he thought was his dream until a simple event opened his eyes; and the memory of a story about a teenage Deana’s experiences that mirrored her own all shed new light on Sam’s perception of reality.

However, before Sam has an opportunity to come to terms with everything, she receives two calls: one about a promising job opportunity in New York, and the second from Angelo—who drops the bombshell that he is coming to Michigan. Now Sam—with a little help from family and friends—must discover where her path lies.

Viola Shipman’s heartwarming novel is like a breath of fresh Michigan air. While there are many quality works of fiction published every year, one that tells a memorable story and is free of strong language, sex, and violence is a rarity. From the moment readers meet the scions of the Mullins family and those who carry on their legacy, they are hooked. All the people in Sam’s world—past and present—are believable. The author paints such a vivid picture of the settings, whether crowded Manhattan streets or secluded Lake Michigan beach, the reader can visualize the rain-dampened pavement and see and smell a dew-laden orchard at sunrise. Each chapter centers around a deliciously appropriate dessert, complete with a recipe at its end.

Shipman’s gift of language is nothing short of amazing: “The lake extended as far as Willo could see—a watery blue fabric that moved in the wind, the lighthouse watching over everything.” “Sam expected to smell the spices from the Indian restaurant, Naan Better, that occupied the ground floor of her Brooklyn apartment building and to see a brick wall across the narrow street that served as a sort of Broadway backdrop to the choreographed chaos of the city streets that greeted her every morning: people scurrying to work, cab horns blaring, sirens whirring, a world of music echoing up to her.”

By the time readers reach the end of this achingly lovely tale, they are certain to have a new favorite literary heroine (or two or three). It should not come as a surprise if, like this reviewer, readers find themselves returning to the beginning and treating themselves to a second helping.

Now that I’ve delighted in this gem twice, I am looking forward to checking out Viola Shipman’s earlier novels.

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A Story As Sweet As Pie

I think I might have just read the book of the year.

Several years ago, I joined netgalley.com, a source of about-to-be-published books available for review. The titles I’ve chosen to read range from so-so to exceptional. When, earlier this winter, a book caught my attention, I jumped at the chance to request it.

The title of this gem is The Recipe Box by Viola Shipman. The author is relatively new to the scene; her first novel, The Charm Bracelet, was published in 2016.

After I finished reading the story, I returned to the beginning for the purpose of taking notes for my review. However, the tale drew me in–and I found myself rereading the novel. When, midway through the second reading, I felt it was time to write the review already, I did so (while continuing to read). By the time my thoughts on The Recipe Box were complete, the review was a whopping 900 words–more than double my normal length. (And that is without giving away the glorious ending!) I’ve reread the review several times, but I cannot bring myself to cut more than a few words here and there.

But I’ve kept you in suspense long enough. Even though I cannot include the review here (at least until I submit it to Netgalley close to the publication date), here is a sample.

In 1939, Alice Mullins looks out the window of her farmhouse as husband Leo and their dog return from the orchard. When they enter with a basket of apples, she decides to make an apple crisp; and, on a whim, writes down the often-used recipe for the first time. When, several days later, Leo presents her with a locked homemade recipe box, Alice puts the key on a chain around her neck, writes all the recipes she can think of, and begins a family tradition.

The year is now 2017. Sam Nelson, Alice’s great-great-granddaughter, is following her dream of working as a pastry chef in New York City. Her boss is the famous “Chef Dimples,” a pompous, callous man with a reality TV show. However, he has never baked a thing in his life; his bakery is full of the creations of his staff. When pastry chef Trish quits because of her employer’s attitude, Sam is under orders to bake a pie because Good Morning America is featuring Chef Dimples.

Remembering her official introduction to the world of baking on her 13th birthday, the young woman fingers her own recipe box key on a chain and decides to make the unattractive but surprisingly delicious peach-blueberry slab pie.  Recalling grandmother Willo’s advice to bake it whenever she wants to demonstrate the fact that appearances are not important, and what is inside is all that matters, Sam puts together the pastry. She watches with satisfaction as her boss and two others react positively to the finished product. Yet, Chef Dimples quickly reverts to his true form and dumps the slab pie into the garbage. Infuriated, Sam becomes the second pastry chef in a day to walk out.

A confused Sam returns home to northern Michigan (feeling like a dog with its tail between its legs), but does not tell anyone what happened. However, her wise yet young-at-heart grandmother, along with mother Deana and father Greg, understand that Sam is hiding something. Rather than pressure the young woman, they tell stories about their own experiences. These tales, presented as a series of flashbacks, and the loving concern of their tellers finally convince a distraught Sam to tell the truth.

Sam’s journey of discovery is the stuff of memorable novels. Her story, masterfully told by an author who tells this powerful yet lovely multigenerational gem with simplicity and grace, is refreshingly free of sex and strong language–unusual for a modern novel written for teens and adults. The Recipe Box is scheduled for publication on March 20, 2018. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore and treat yourself to the delectable story of Sam and her family.

Let me know if you think 900 words are too many to describe this magnificent book.

 

The Big 65

I’ve made it. Yesterday was the birthday marking a milestone–reaching 65 years of age. (It was actually a double. Observant Jews observe their birthdays according to the date on the Hebrew calendar. This year, both Jewish and secular dates came out on the same day. How often does that happen?) Since I now qualify for Medicare (and have already put the plan to use) and reduced fares on New York City subways and buses, it must mean I am officially a senior citizen.

My body has been telling me for some time that I am not as young as I used to be. Whereas a few years ago, we could take long walks and navigate uneven and hilly country terrain, such activities are now challenging. Vacations are as much for relaxing at the hotel as exploring the local attractions.

Yet there are perks beyond assistance with health insurance and half-priced transit fares. We no longer feel the pressure to take part in activities that we do not feel up to. And there is a marvelous bonus: grandchildren! Nothing beats the enjoyment of cuddling an offspring’s infant, reading one story after another that a two-year-old keeps bringing, or watching a video of a not-yet-literate youngster “reading” a book from start to finish without missing a word.

You might have noticed that two of the above examples involve one of my favorite pastimes. And since reading is a pleasure that being elderly has not diminished, I naturally think of several books that touch on the grandparent-grandchild relationship.

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For starters, there is the delightful Silly Frilly Grandma Tillie by Laurie Jacobs. When their parents go out for the evening and Grandma comes to babysit, Sophie and Chloe know that the fun is about to begin. Grandma Tillie has a way of disappearing as a remarkable character shows up. For example, there’s Chef Silly Tillie and her menu of hilariously delectable treats. The fun doesn’t stop until the youngsters are asleep–dreaming, I would think, of the next time Grandma Tillie comes to babysit.

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On a more serious note, Getting to Know Ruben Plotnick by Roz Rosenbluth is an unforgettable tale of friendship, first impressions (which do not always tell the whole story), and family relationships. David has mixed feelings when exuberant Ruben Plotnick wants to come over to do homework. He’s excited that the most fun kid in the class is interested in him–and nervous about what Ruben will think of his increasingly senile grandmother. David in in for a pleasant surprise when the two meet.

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Grandpa for Sale by Dotti Enderle opens with 11-year-old Lizzie taking care of her grandfather’s antique store while he takes a nap on a sofa. When wealthy Mrs. Larchmont enters the establishment and decides there is only one thing she wants–Grandpa–and offers an exorbitant sum for him, Lizzie thinks of all the things she could do with the money. Yet would any of them be any fun without Grandpa to enjoy them with?

(I realized that all these books were published by the phenomenal Flashlight Press. I have no official relationship with the publisher!)

As the stories illustrate, grandparenthood is not something that happens as we approach the sunset years. It’s the beginning of a new, exciting chapter in our lives.

 

It’s That Time–Again

Time has a way of moving quickly. It seems like it was just last week, or last month, or even last year. When I read the last article I posted on this blog (eleven months ago!), it felt like something newly written. And how could it snow when my summer clothes are yet residing in closet and dresser? After I dug out my boots and fleece tights, it seemed like only yesterday that I wore them.

Maybe the sensation that time is passing quickly–too quickly–is a product of age. After all, next month (thank G-d) I reach the big 65 and join the ranks of those on Medicare. (Social Security payments are already partially replacing the income lost when my job of twenty-four years was eliminated. But that’s another story.)

With time galloping like champion race horses, I have the feeling of being left in the dust at the starting gate. When the question pops into my head as to what I really accomplish, the answer all too often is “not much.”

So, when family members began looking forward to and making plans for Chanukah, I decided to ignore the feeling that we had just celebrated the festival–and tackle something that’s been on my to-do list for some time.

Some years ago, our eldest son gave us a large and lovely menorah–the candelabra used to kindle the festival lights. To our offspring’s disappointment, my husband preferred to use another one. The menorah was put aside and gradually lost its shine as tarnish took over. The situation was such that an earlier attempt at restoring its luster was unsuccessful.

This week, hours before the commencement of the holiday, I rolled up my sleeves and tackled the blackened menorah. To my delight, after a half hour of applying liberal amounts of polish and determined rubbing, the tarnish (mostly) gave way to shine. This was, I thought, a labor of love; I did not expect my husband to actually use our son’s menorah. Perhaps realizing how much work went into restoring the menorah, my better half surprised and pleased me by choosing to light it this year.

This small success got me thinking. After all, wasn’t the miracle brought about by an inspired group who believed in their cause? The philosophy-loving Greek occupiers of the Holy Land had no problem with Jewish teachings as long as the will of the Creator was not part of the equation. This situation was unacceptable to the members of the above-mentioned group. So, with a rallying cry calling to those who were for G-d, a small fighting force met and faced down the mighty Greek military machine. When the victors entered the Holy Temple,  they discovered all the oil used to light the menorah had been defiled by the pagans–except for one bottle.

The fact that one day’s supply burned for eight, which gave rise to the festival known as Chanukah (dedication), continues to inspire us today. And makes this member of our people realize that small actions–even those that do not seem significant–can have positive effects beyond anything believed possible.

 

The Lunar Chronicles: More Than Fairy Tales

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Five years ago, the first book in a promising new series appeared on the scene. As a librarian always on the lookout for eye-catching reads to share with my young patrons, I ordered the available titles. Since “reworked” fairy tales are popular with kids from beginning readers to teens, it was with anticipation that I began the first volume.

I was hooked. Even though Marissa Meyers is not the only author–or the first–to write a classic fairy tale with a twist, her series is something special. (An aside: In a post I wrote after reading the first three novels, I dubbed the series a mix between Star Wars and classic fairy tales.)

From the moment we meet Cinder (no surprise as to the identity of the original character), we know we are in for a treat. The traditional elements are there–a handsome prince, an evil stepmother, a ball–but the story takes off in a whole new direction. For Cinder is harboring a secret, and others are privy to important information of which our heroine is unaware. By the time I completed her story, I was more than ready to continue the saga.

Scarlet is a worthy successor to Cinder. We meet another fairy-tale character and follow her on a journey to rescue a beloved family member. While characters and events from the classic story are present, Scarlet and her friends (and enemies, and someone who might be both) are unique to this telling. In a stroke of literary genius, Cinder reappears, and her story intertwines with those of her new acquaintances.

And then comes Cress. The heroine, a teen who has spent her entire life in isolation while performing a service for the powers that be, finds a new purpose. When a daring rescue does not go as planned, Cress finds herself in the midst of an adventure beyond anything she could have imagined. When I reluctantly turned the last page, I knew that there would be a wait before the next installment arrived on store and library shelves–and turned my attention to other books to fill in the gaps.

This winter, after delighting in blockbusters like The Orphan Queen and its worthy sequel, I remembered Cinder and company. There were two new novels in the saga: the background story Fairest and Winter, the grand finale of the series.

Like her new friends, Winter is an easily recognized fairy-tale personality–yet there is a depth to the young woman not found in the original character. (And she makes her way in the world without the assistance of seven little men.) As the heroes and heroines endeavor to realize their goal against all odds, we thrill to their triumphs and feel their frustration when things go awry.

Marissa Meyer’s series deserves a place alongside the tales of Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, and other authors who have so successfully adapted traditional fantasies. Don’t take my word for it: if you or a teen in your life have not yet had the pleasure of meeting Cinder and friends, you’re in for a treat.

 

Back to Trelian

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When we left Meglynne at the conclusion of The Dragon of Trelian, she was accepting her dual roles: as a companion to the dragon Jakl, with whom she shares a strengthening bond, and her future as the princess heir of Trelian. However, as the continuation of Meg’s story commences, the young royal is learning that the transition is not an easy one. For Meg is experiencing nightmares and sudden angry outbursts; and, since she and Jakl are connected, the dragon feels the temper flares as well. On top of her unease about these unwelcome intrusions, the princess fears (with some justification) that Trelians will not be comfortable with the “dragon princess” as their future queen. There is one person in whom she can confide her concerns, but he is not available.

Calen, the apprentice to king’s mage Serek, has reached a milestone. He and his master have traveled to the Magistratum, where the teen will receive his first true mage’s mark. Once the painful ordeal of obtaining the facial tattoo is over, Calen attends the ceremony in his honor. However, a devastating surprise attack by sinister creatures (who only Calen, with a gift unique to him, can perceive) throws the Magistratum into chaos. The suspicion the apprentice’s ability arouses–made stronger by a prophecy that he is connected to the return of a ruthless, power-hungry mage–leads to the trip becoming an ordeal rather than a celebration. Serek, with the help of his eccentric friend Anders, spirit Calen away from the intolerable situation.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, there is unwelcome news. A neighboring kingdom suspects that Jakl is behind attacks the nation is experiencing, and its monarch is threatening a military invasion. Meg knows her dragon is not involved but is unable to convince her royal parents. In an impulsive move, the princess undertakes to prove that Jakl is being unfairly blamed–and finds herself in danger. As things go from bad to worse, Calen makes a heart-wrenching decision in the hopes of not only protecting Meg and her family but ending the evil that threatens the world.

The continuation of Meg and Calen’s story does not disappoint. As both teens grow into their roles and attempt to prove themselves capable and worthy of the trust of those around them, we simultaneously cheer their efforts and groan at decisions more impulsive than wise. It remains for the concluding volume in the trilogy to hopefully bring their story to a satisfying conclusion.

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I had planned to write a comprehensive review of The Mage of Trelian, the blockbuster final volume in this series. However, any discussion of the plot would result in spoilers–not a good idea since there are readers out there who have not yet read the first two books.

There are a few things that I can say which will not give away any plot details. It is gratifying to see Meg and Calen grow into their roles as royal and mage while remaining true to themselves and those around them. Readers are given a glimpse into the hearts and minds of the people in their world. As the friends forge their own paths and face seemingly insurmountable odds, we cannot help but cheer them on. The immensely satisfying conclusion is a fitting finale to a marvelous series.

Michelle Knudsen: More Than Picture Books

When I think of author Michelle Knudsen, I associate her with the beyond phenomenal Library Lion. This picture book tells the story of a lion who visits a library and stays for story time. When the last story is read, the big cat expresses his sadness by roaring. The remorseful lion soon understands that he may stay only if he is quiet. So, with the approval of the kind-hearted librarian (and over the objections of her straight-laced assistant), the feline comes every day and makes himself useful until story time. He becomes a common sight as he dusts shelves with his tail, licks stamps, and lets children stand on his back to reach books on high shelves. The climax and conclusion of this story are heartwarming and appeal to book and library lovers of all ages.

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Now, ten years after the publication of Michelle Knudsen’s classic, I discovered this author’s talent for telling an unforgettable story to an older group of readers. The Dragon of Trelian (published in 2009, making me wonder why the novel escaped my radar until now) has all the elements that make a story great. As the tale opens, we meet Calen, an apprentice to the king’s mage. His apparently limited magical abilities mean that his master assigns him endless learning and memorizing tasks. Calen has sneaked into an unused room in the palace to watch the approach of Prince Ryant of Kragnir, the betrothed of Princess Maerlie of Trelian. The royal marriage is taking place to end a war between the two kingdoms that has lasted a hundred years.

It is here that he meets Princess Meglynne, who decides that she can share a secret with Calen. And what a secret it is: a young dragon she keeps hidden. The fourteen-year-old royal’s relationship with the creature she calls Jakl is developing into a strong bond. Calen, touched that the princess has confided in him, begins frequenting Serek’s off-limits library to learn all he can about dragons–and shares his knowledge with Meg.

However, there is trouble brewing. Calen, under Serek’s direction, conducts a ritual that portends dark days coming to Trelian. When the apprentice and his new friend stumble upon a scheme that threatens not only the life of Princess Maerlie but the future of both kingdoms, they realize it is up to them to thwart the plans of those behind the sinister plot. With more than a little help from Jakl and Calen’s blossoming magical abilities, the teens come up with a plan to put an end to the danger facing them all. The satisfying yet incomplete conclusion to the story points to a sequel. I now await the opportunity to read The Princess of Trelian and the newly-published The Mage of Trelian.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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