Comfort & Joy

British journalist India Knight's semi-biographical novel Comfort and Joy (2011) is "clearly warm-hearted holiday fun".

Christmas is the most important holiday for Clara Dunphy (a follow-up to My Life on a Plate, 2000). She demands nothing short of "perfect" for her family and friends, never mind family these days means 2 ex-husbands, 3 children, sisters, parents, in-laws, out-laws and sundry hangers-on. So on a frantic and rainy Dec. 23, after fighting the crowds on Oxford Street, a giant cocktail in the swanky hotel bar sounds like just the reward she deserves before heading home to a houseful of guests. But then a handsome stranger asks her to stay for another drink. Oh well, all good intentions...

As we follows Clara, "a witty, blackly funny everywoman" through three successive Christmases, we witness changing roles and shifting family dynamics. Well-paced dialogue and amusing and insightful anecdotes captures the spirit of the season while giving us a glimpse into one modern family's struggle with children, marital turmoil, and materialism.

In Kristin Hannah's Comfort & Joy (2005), recently divorced and having no family of her own, Joy Candellaro is beginning to dream of a new life with widower Daniel O'Shea and his son, Bobby, until a fateful Christmas Eve forces her to make a painful choice. A modern-day fairy tale of a woman who gets a miraculous chance at happiness.

I first read Jim Grimsley's memorable and moving Comfort & Joy in 1999. It is still one my favorite to revisit at Christmas time.

Ford McKinney is a devastatingly handsome, successful doctor, raised in an old Savannah family among good breeding and money. His longtime boyfriend, Dan Crell, is a shy hospital administrator with a painful childhood past. When the holidays arrive, they decide it's time to go home together. But the depth of their commitment is tested when Ford's parents cannot reconcile themselves to their son's choices. "Grimsley triumphs in (this) novel in which two unlikely lovers must reconcile what is expected of them with what they know in their hearts is right."

Wishing you comfort and joy this holiday season...

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #302

Just about now - as the days get shorter and the temperature dips below freezing, my reading drifts toward the upbeat and heartwarming, and I am glad to have found Angelina's Bachelors : a novel, with food *.

Angelina D'Angelo's Frangelico Chocolate Dream Cake (recipe included) is to die for and unfortunately her husband Frank did just that. Grieving and listless, she turns to her one passion - cooking. To make ends meet, she gathers the hungry bachelors in the neighborhood and offers to feed them. Apart from the out-of-this-world meals she painstakingly prepared daily, each of them comes to find community and riches far beyond his/her expectations.

Angelina marks the fiction debut for cookbook author and TV cooking-show producer Brian O'Reilly whose "keen ear for the neighborhood (South Philly) swells lends a charming, timeless quality to the tale."

And the recipes by Virginia O'Reilly... they are fabulous. The O'Reillys are no strangers when it comes to food and cooking. Between them, they have published two cookbooks (Mission: Cook!: My Life, My Recipes, and Making the Impossible Easy, and Impossible to Easy: 111 Delicious Recipes to Help You Put Great Meals on the Table Every Day), with Robert Irvine, the star of the Foodnetwork television program they produced, called Dinner Impossible.

Unlike recipes in other novels, these are neither cute nor cheeky. They are gourmand-serious and kitchen-tested. I have ordered my own copy of the book so I could try out the Stracotto (Italian Pot Roast) this holiday season.

* = starred review

Of Dragons and Singing Ships...

Anne McCaffrey, author of nearly 100 books, and best known for the Dragonriders of Pern series, died of a stroke on Monday at her home in Ireland. She was 85. She will be remembered as the writer who created magical worlds full of daring female characters whether riding dragons or navigating ships. The way women were portrayed in scifi/fantasy was transformed by her. Some of her books were written as a response to how women were unrealistically portrayed in the mostly male-dominated genre of scifi/fantasy at the time. McCaffrey was the first woman to win a Hugo Award, for her first Pern novella "Weyr Search"(in 1968) published in the magazine, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and the first woman to win a Nebula for her 2nd Pern story, Dragonrider (in 1969). These two stories plus a third ultimately became her first Pern novel, Dragonflight. Her other book, White Dragon was the first hard cover science fiction book to make the New York Times bestseller list. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2006. Other series she will be remembered for include the Crystal Singer series, the Petaybee series, and the Acorna series, to name a few.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #297

Michigan author Caitlin Horrocks will be at Nicola's on Friday, November 11 @ 7pm to read from her debut collection of short stories This Is Not Your City *.

In these darkly comic stories, 11 women confront dramas both everyday and outlandish. Isolated by geography, emotion, or circumstance they find no simple escapes. Their acts of faith and acts of imagination in making do are as shrewd as they are surprising.

The first story "Zolaria" in particular hits close to home. Though the title of the collection cautions one that it is not your city, Ann Arborites will recognize landmarks such as Little Sister Lake, Dolph Park, Wagner & Newport roads, Forsythe Junior High,and the gas station at Miller and Maple that stood empty for years. In this story a young mother looks back on the enduring yet troubled bond with a childhood friend and its chilling effect on her relationship with her young daughters.

In "Going to Estonia," Ursula's desire for a relationship leads her into an unusual involvement with her Helsinki neighbor.

In the titular story, Daria, a mail-order bride struggles with the barricades of culture and family after her teenage daughter goes missing.

"Many of the stories are bleak, painfully and realistically detailing lives gone awry, to sometimes disturbing effect" but they never fail to offer earnest and compelling perspectives.

A note about the author... (Visit her website)

Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan by way of Ohio, Arizona, England, Finland, and the Czech Republic. Her stories and essays appear in The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize , The Paris Review, among others. Her work has won awards including the Plimpton Prize, and a Bread Loaf Writers Conference Fellowship. Currently, she is an assistant professor of writing at Grand Valley State University. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the writer W. Todd Kaneko.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #295

Now for something fun... try The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: a novel in pictures * by novelist Caroline Preston. It is the first of its kind - a scrapbook novel.

Former archivist at Harvard's Houghton Library, Preston pulls together her personal collection of vintage postcards, letters, magazine ads, ticket stubs, catalog pages, fabric swatches, candy wrappers, fashion spreads, menus and other prized ephemera to create an engaging Frankie Pratt as she makes her way in the dazzling world of the1920s. Preston chronicles Frankie's growing up a small New England town, the grief of losing her father, crossing paths with the likes of “Vincent” (Edna St. Vincent Millay) at Vassar, meeting exiled Russian princes, living free and wild in Paris as she searches for success and love.

"Lighter than lightweight but undeniably fun, largely because Preston is having so much fun herself." A total pleasure and visual feast. Definitely for scrapbookers and vintage hobbyist.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #284

Once in awhile, a book comes along and moves you so unexpectedly that you keep thinking about it long after you'd turned the last page. Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut The Language of Flowers * (being released today) is as memorable as anything I have read of late.

32 foster homes, 18 years of abuse, neglect and disappointment fail to prepare Victoria Jones for life on her own after being emancipated from the California foster-care system. Squatting in the local park is dangerous but it allows her to care for the personal garden she secretly (and illegally) cultivates. Flowers and their language she understands. People she avoids.

When a local florist discovers Victoria's gift with flowers, she offers her a job and soon her talent is in demand as word gets around that her bouquets have the ability to transform and affect change. All the while, Victoria guards her solitude - until a mysterious vendor at the flower market marks her with his own unique offerings, the meaning of which sends Victoria to the San Francisco Public Library, and forces her to come to terms with a secret that haunts her.

Readers wanting to learn more about the symbolic language of flowers would be pleased to find a glossary included at the back of the book. Or check out The Language Of Flowers : Symbols And Myths by Marina Heilmeyer and Kate Greenaway's definitive The Illuminated Language Of Flowers.

Readers might try She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb for another moving, character-driven, bittersweet, coming-of-age story of grief and self-acceptance. In Julie Orringer's debut collection How to Breathe Underwater: stories we meet young protagonists trapped in awkward, painful situations who discover surprising reserves and wisdom in themselves.

* = Starred review (and one on NPR)

The Kitchen Daughter and the SIMMER Blog

Back in June, we were contacted by Jael McHenry, author of The Kitchen Daughter. She liked our blog and agreed to come visit. On Thursday, August 18th, Ms. McHenry will be at the Downtown Library at 7 pm. She will talk about her debut novel and sign copies (Don't worry if you don't have yours yet. Copies will be available for purchase).

Jael is also an enthusiastic amateur cook. Her food blog SIMMER is very popular with foodies. Bring questions about food, cooking and writing for an evening of great discussion and fun.

AND she is bringing us FOOD! We were sure that the TSA won't let her bring them on the plane but her mom is going to step in and BAKE! So come and taste one of the fabulous recipes in The Kitchen Daughter. Are we in for a treat!

BTW, if you don't already know... since our blog was published in April, The Kitchen Daughter was named "Pick of the Week" in the Boston Globe's Word on the Street, and in June Oprah picked it as one of this summer's "Tantalizing Beach Reads."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #281

Jennifer Close's debut novel Girls in White Dresses * is a perfect way to wrap up a lovely summer, like putting on your favorite frock just one more time.

"Wickedly hilarious and utterly recognizable, Girls in White Dresses tells the story of three women grappling with heartbreak and career change, family pressure and new love—all while suffering through an endless round of weddings and bridal showers." You get the picture.

Sunday after Sunday, Isabella, Mary, and Lauren in their pastel dresses, attend bridal shower after bridal shower, drink champagne, eat minuscule sandwiches and doll-sized cakes, all the while thinking when-it-would-be-their-turn.

"Close's novel in a series of linked stories, expresses the perfect blend of mid twenties angst, collegiate nostalgia, and plentiful laughter."

For fans of Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing and J. Courtney Sullivan's Commencement (in audio)

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #275

Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress * * is the story of Cora Cash - beautiful, vivacious, spoiled and very wealthy (Gilded Age - Newport). The only thing missing in her life is a title, so her domineering mother thinks.

So off they go, to the playground of the aristocracy, and sure enough, they land the most eligible bachelor in England. Cora suddenly finds herself Duchess of Wareham, and madly in love. Ivo Maltravers, (beleaguered by death duties and a crumbling country estate), Cora comes to find, could be withdrawn, secretive, and increasingly duplicitous (no surprise to the knowing reader). Though her fortune is eagerly anticipated, it does not smooth her way with her powerful mother-in-law, snobby servants, or the insular English society. Cora soon learns that wealth cannot buy everything, and she must decide what is truly worth the price in her life and her marriage.

"Witty, moving, and brilliantly entertaining".

"A shrewd, spirited historical romance with flavors of Edith Wharton, Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen, Upstairs, Downstairs and a dash of People magazine that charts a bumpy marriage of New World money and Old World tradition."

"...Goodwin, borrowing elements from a variety of beloved romance classics, keeps you guessing until the very last pages of this fun and finely tuned historical".

Daisy Goodwin attended film school (Columbia) after earning a degree in history (Cambridge). She is a British television producer, a poet 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life , and chaired the judging panel of the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction. This is her debut novel.

* * = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #273

If you enjoy a leisurely afternoon browsing in antique shops, or find yourself searching out flea markets in your travels, then I think you will find a little treasure here. 13, rue Thérèse came out earlier this year but I waited for the audio book, and I was not disappointed. Jefferson Mays and Mia Barron did an amazing job bringing drama and breathing life into this recording of Elena Mauli Shapiro's debut novel.

Trevor Stratton, an American academic working in Paris is fascinated with a box of personal artifacts found in a filing cabinet in his new office. Sorting through the photographs, postcards, handkerchief, letters, and other vintage keepsakes that once belonged to a woman named Louise Brunet, Trevor begins to imagine and invent a life for her at 13, rue Therese, Paris, - from losing a young lover on the WWI battlefield, a marriage to someone of her father's choosing, to a daring and passionate affair with a married neighbor.

As Louise's life takes shape in Trevor's mind, he begins to notice Josianne, one of the young secretaries, and her eerie connection to the box. Trevor is intrigued and must find out why.

Elena Mauli Shapiro was born and raised in Paris, France, in an apartment below the real-life Louise Brunet’s. Shapiro found herself in possession of a box of Louise’s keepsakes after her neighbor died. They became the inspiration for the novel. See the real artifacts online at the book's website.

Joyce Saricks, Readers Advisory guru, focused her attention recently on the Unexpected Pleasures of audiobooks. I especially enjoy listening to translated works or works set in exotic locales. I often find them impromptu language lessons, with a bit of serendipitous armchair-traveling thrown in. 13 rue Therese was a real find.

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