Friday, June 30, 2017

The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

Reviewed by Clancy

The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan is on the surface a story set in WWII occupied France about Emma, a young villager who bakes bread for the local German army commander. Every morning, she is supplied a ration of flour to make 12 loaves of bread. The baker’s secret is that the ration is mixed with ground straw to produce two extra loaves of bread that is then shared amongst the villagers. This small, yet very dangerous act steadily grows into an underground barter network of survival and dissent.

However, Emma is not the typical hope filled character some readers might expect.  She is a very practical woman who truly believes that the allies will never come. Her pragmatism is based on mere survival but her fellow villagers interpret her actions as hope for the future. In the end, The Baker’s Secret is a testament to the necessity of both hope and grueling sacrifice in the face of uncertainty.

The strength of the novel is in its many well rounded characters that capture the interest of the reader. Whether it is the wise and masculine veterinarian who leads the village resistance, the weaselly, traitorous and power hungry town clerk, or the young, cruel, and overconfident Nazi Captain Thalheim, all characters are easy to visualize and are purposeful.  It is much less about one cynical protagonist striving for the survival for her fellow villagers; it is a story about the human reality under military occupation.

The Baker’s Secret is the best novel I have read in years and I rate it as an instant classic. Stephen Kiernan is an award winning journalist of over 20 years and has written two previous novels, The Hummingbird and The Curiosity. His writing style is flawless. No word is wasted. Every sentence is crisp and concise and to the point without sacrificing imagery and descriptiveness. It was very easy to get immersed in the world Kiernan created, especially when he has the ability to produce well rounded characters or settings within one paragraph. An advanced reader would be able to read this full length novel in two sittings. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the human side of WWII occupations or well written literature.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dinner Made Simple

Reviewed by Ambrea

I decided to read Dinner Made Simple by Real Simple, a cookbook which shares the same name as the magazine, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.  Okay, so I know you can’t really “read” a cookbook in the traditional sense; however, I can say with confidence that I looked at every single page in this book and I examined all the recipes, checking it out from cover to cover and even tested some of the recipes.  It has been thoroughly read.

And I loved it.

Now, let me tell you why:

One, I loved the pictures.  They were bright and really very lovely, showing how a dish should look.  Granted, reality is never going to be as pretty as the picture (and I will never get the portions just right, because I like to deviate just a little too much), but I think the book does a fine job of showing readers and would-be chefs how to prepare a dish—and then helping you achieve those results.

Two, I adored the fact that the book had an index; in fact, it has two.  One is similar to a table of contents, which shows you the main ingredient of each recipe in alphabetical order, followed by an easy-to-read table that shows you what’s vegetarian, what’s vegan, and what’s family friendly (read:  what’s good for picky kids), what’s gluten free, and more.  Moreover, it goes on to tell you all the nutritional information and it helps you make healthy choices.  It’s a very handy resource when looking for a way to lose weight and still have delicious recipes.

Three, I liked that it has good food that’s easy to make within an hour or less.  Most of the recipes only take 30 minutes, and that’s including prep time and baking, which I absolutely loved.  As the subtitle suggests, it has “easy recipes” that are loaded with simple but wholesome ingredients and easy-to-read recipes that make cooking so much less of a chore.

For instance, I liked that I could literally reach into my cupboard and cobble together a delicious meal in just an hour after work.  I tried the Shepherd’s Pie (which was pretty delicious), the garlic rolls (equally delicious, but I added some mozzarella cheese and I think it could have used more butter and parsley), and the sausage broccoli calzones (or, more accurately, I took the recipe and made it my own with Italian sausage, spinach, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, and a little bit of parmesan cheese).

All the recipes I tried turned out delicious, and they were seriously some of the easiest meals I made throughout my week.  Moreover, I liked that it had such variety.  I found recipes I loved, and then if I didn’t like the recipe I found next, I simply didn’t make it.  There are more than 350 recipes that range from gluten-free to Vegan with a splattering of other healthy choices in between decadent recipes like Salted Caramel Cupcakes and Hot Chocolate Cupcakes with Marshmallow Frosting, so there’s bound to be something for everyone.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Reviewed by Ambrea

Rick Dockery isn’t the luckiest guy in the world.  After being transferred between teams numerous times and single-handedly costing the Browns the AFC Championship against the Denver Broncos, he’s currently the most hated player in pro-football and blacklisted from every American team.  But football is all Rick knows and he tells his agent, Arnie, he won’t settle for doing anything else.

Despite enormous odds against him, Arnie finds a team that will take Rick as a starting quarterback:  the mighty Panthers—of Parma, Italy, he adds.  With no other teams knocking at his door, Rick agrees to go to Italy to play for the Panthers, even if he doesn’t know a thing about Parma (or where it’s located) or speak a word of Italian.  Rick thinks the Panthers are just a pit stop, until he can get his career going again, but little does he know what Parma and the Panthers have in store for him.

Playing for Pizza was unexpectedly good.  Although I understood very little of the football plays—what is a third down, anyway?—or the jargon that goes along with the sport, I found I really enjoyed listening to Playing for Pizza.  It’s written well and it’s wonderfully narrated by Christopher Evan Welch; more to the point, it’s a rich, vibrant novel peppered with hints of humor.

Granted, it took me a few chapters to really settle into the story, but, once I did, I had so much fun listening to Rick Dockery’s story as he journeyed to Italy and officially became a Parma Panther.  I especially enjoyed Grisham’s descriptions of Italy—the art, the architecture, the culture and history, the romance (most of which comes courtesy of a secondary character from Georgia, who loved and adored all these things)—and, of course, the food.

I was almost always hungry while listening to Playing for Pizza.  Listening to the descriptions of fresh cheeses and wines from the countryside paired with delectable desserts and steaming bowls of pasta had me salivating from chapter to chapter.

Overall, Playing for Pizza was an excellent choice for my Read Harder Challenge and, honestly, it was just a lot of fun.  It’s entertaining, sweet and romantic, but it also doesn’t try to hide the bad things that sometimes happen in life and it doesn’t shy away from the tough choices people have to make; rather, it follows the ordeals of a rather ordinary person who finds himself in an extraordinary situation.  Moreover, while I did find aspects of it sweet and romantic, it didn’t border on too sweet or too romantic.

Playing for Pizza strikes a good balance.  It has an excellent story with an excellent narrator, and it has a little bit of everything for every reader.  I mean, if you don’t like romance, it has regular forays into Italian history and food and football; if you don’t like football, it still has Italy and food.  (Did I mention food?)  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of sports and I can’t understand football americano, but I will note that I enjoyed listening to the games as narrated by Christopher Evan Welch and, more importantly, I found it has much more to recommend it outside of the central football narrative.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Fillet of Murder by Linda Reilly

Reviewed by Jeanne

Talia Marby seems to have come full circle.  As a teenager, she worked for the Lamberts in their fish and chips shop before moving to Boston to work in an upscale real estate office.  Even though the job was lucrative, she loathed it. She ended up ditching the job and her boyfriend to head home to the Berkshires. Bea Lambert is a motherly sort who took Talia back under her wing and gave her place to work while she sends out resumes, hoping for a property manager’s job.  It’s been a godsend for Bea as well, since husband Howie has been laid up in the hospital, leaving Bea worried and stressed.  To make matters worse, neighborhood shop owner Phil has been pestering Bea non-stop to sign a petition against a proposed comic shop. Fed up, Bea says some things she shouldn’t have. . . which is why when Phil is found murdered, Bea goes on the suspect list.

The subtitle is A Deep Fried Mystery, and there’s plenty of frying in this first in series book.  Naturally it was the charming green eyed calico cat on the cover who drew my attention, and one eventually shows up in the book.  This is one of those light, fun mystery books that I enjoy: solid characters, good use of setting, and interesting plot.  As with most cozy heroines, Talia is a bit na├»ve and likes to stick her nose in police investigations but she’s not quite as foolhardy as some.  I like her pluck and her inventiveness as she looks for ways to help Bea make the shop profitable, and I like that she’s comfortable with who she is. (Translation:  she doesn’t sit around moping over men, her waistline, her finances, etc.) Her reaction to a problem is to try to solve it. Bea, a British ex-pat, is lively and motherly, and an effort has been made to flesh out the supporting characters.

The New England setting, while not fully realized, comes through enough to give me a sense of place.  The shopping center where the eatery is located is designed as a sort of faux English village, complete with cobblestones, which adds a nice touch.

The mystery itself was nicely paced, and there was an interesting resolution.

Best of all were the descriptions of the food: the smells, the prep, the sizzle, and of course, the taste.  Recipes are included.

This was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and I will be reading the rest of the series.  

Monday, June 26, 2017

One-Pan Wonders: Fuss-Free Meals for Your Sheet Pan, Dutch Oven, Skillet, Roasting Pan, Casserole, and Slow Cooker by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen

Reviewed by Kristin

Am I the only person who feels like dinner is always the same old boring food, week in and week out?  I am always excited to see a new cookbook and hope to find at least one or two new things to try, then possibly throw them into my family’s cooking rotation.  Cookbooks promising recipes that fit all into one pan, fix it and forget it, or otherwise simplify the planning, cooking, and serving process—well, I’m sold.  When I saw the new One-Pan Wonders, I knew I had to take a look.

First off, this collection of “one-pan” recipes is not just limited to the slow cooker.  Of course I love using a slow cooker, but it’s nice to have a little variety.  Some recipes call for using an oven proof skillet so that you can stir fry vegetables, simmer sauces, then add a topping and finish it off in the oven.  Some involve layering or simply combining ingredients in a casserole dish, popping it into the oven, then serving it straight to the table.
With ideas like “Keep the ingredient list short but flavorful” and “Bring your flavors to life”, and “Create two cooking environments in one vessel”, this cookbook made me consider single dish cooking in a whole new light.

Favorite recipes include:

Shakshuka—a northern African dish made by poaching eggs in a spicy
tomato sauce.  A variety of spices can be used to suit the tastes of those
sitting down to your table.

Pesto Chicken with Fennel and Tomato Couscous—Just what it sounds
like, and if couscous is in the recipe, I’m all for it.

Beef and Three-Bean Chili—using canned beans, tomatoes, lean ground
beef and a few spices, this sounds like the perfect meal for a cool spring

One-Pan Wonders certainly gave me a few ideas to try different things.  I am not one to copy down an exact recipe and follow it to the letter, but some of the techniques in this volume were inspiring.  Give it a try, or just browse the 641.5 area for other new cookbooks at the Bristol Public Library.

Note:  In honor of picnic season, we will be running reviews of fiction and non-fiction books about food all this week.