Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup: January 18-22, 2021

Ten Beautiful Things

Book Cover
Molly Beth Griffin
Maribel Lechuga, illustrator
Charlesbridge
Hardcover $16.99 (40pp)
978-1-58089-936-9
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In this gorgeous story about claiming home where we are loved, Lily’s grandma proposes a game to ease the pain of moving: they’ll find ten beautiful sights to celebrate along the way. Though at first Lily’s vision is obscured by grief, she is soon able to note: a brilliant sunrise. A cawing bird. The earthy smell of mud. Her heart opens as their ride reaches its end, resulting in triumph. Its attentive, bright illustrations help to make this a perfect picture book.

MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (December 27, 2020)

To Calais, In Ordinary Time

Book Cover
James Meek
Canongate
Softcover $16.00 (400pp)
978-1-78689-677-3
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

To Calais, In Ordinary Time is a brilliant novel set in medieval times. In it, a group of travelers races against the Black Death on a journey that leads each to an unexpected destination.

In 1348, as the Black Death sweeps into England from France, an unlikely group of travelers heads for the English Channel, intending to cross to Calais. Among them is Lady Bernadine, fleeing marriage to a man her father’s age; Thomas, a Scottish proctor haunted by his past failures; and Will, a handsome young serf on a quest to buy his freedom. A young swineherd, Hab, follows along, dressed in a wedding gown. Claiming to be his imaginary sister, Madlen, he hopes to entice Will, who is engaged to the village beauty, to love him instead.

This quirky tale, with its Shakespearean twists, turns, and bawdy humor, touches on love and its illusions; patriarchy and women’s struggle to rise against it; the power of the church to control through fear; and the worth of a human being beyond wealth, class, or gender identity.

Written in a semi-invented language that’s redolent of Old English, the dialogue is spiked with words like “snorks,” “cratches,” “cunny,” and “pintle,” bouncy in their rhythms and helpful in placing characters within their social classes and professions. The multifaceted, satisfying narrative follows along as the travelers, though they don’t anticipate the development, are provoked to see themselves for who, and what, they truly are: to confront their true motivations, face their fears, and come to know themselves and their desires better.

An immersive and relevant trip into medieval times that features social unrest and a pandemic, To Calais, In Ordinary Time is an existential novel that leaves no one unchanged.

KRISTINE MORRIS (December 27, 2020)

The House on Vesper Sands

Book Cover
Paraic O’Donnell
Tin House Books
Hardcover $26.95 (408pp)
978-1-951142-24-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In Paraic O’Donnell’s chilling mystery novel, The House on Vesper Sands, a young student and a sharp-witted detective are swept up by a sinister threat to the working class.

Naïve, overeducated divinity student Gideon Bliss rushes to his uncle’s house in London after receiving a cryptic letter. He arrives late, but finds momentary respite from the bad weather in a nearby church, where a young woman babbles about brightness and dark air. But then Gideon is attacked, and the woman—a childhood friend—disappears.

Gideon talks his way into working with Inspector Cutter to delve into his friend’s disappearance, and into the fate of a seamstress who stitched words into her flesh before leaping to her death out of her wealthy employer’s home. The mystery deepens as rumors of shadows that seek poor young women as sacrifices spread, leading Gideon and Cutter to an unlikely ally: Octavia, a headstrong journalist who bucks social conventions.

The book defies genre classifications. At first blush, it’s a Victorian-era murder mystery, but as the plot zips along, it picks up elements of a supernatural thriller, a social commentary, and a literary drama. But despite its eerie atmosphere and unsettling development, there’s also a strong undercurrent of humor throughout. The mismatched pair of Cutter and Gideon provide most of the comical touches, and Cutter’s witty retorts elicit hearty chuckles.

Transitions between scenes are deft, subtly pointing out of moral quandaries or expounding on the historical setting. Astonishing details are splashed across the pages, as when a sunset is described with attentive descriptions of its colors, including pewter, ash, syrup, and rosewood.

The House on Vesper Sands is an atmospheric mystery that casts a keen eye on power imbalances and gender inequality.

JOHN M. MURRAY (December 27, 2020)

Vegan Recipes from Japan

Book Cover
Malte Härtig
Jule Felice Frommelt, photographer
Grub Street Cookery
Hardcover $32.95 (250pp)
978-1-911667-04-9
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Informed by Kaiseki cuisine and Zen Buddhism, Malte Härtig’s Vegan Recipes from Japan is an elegant cookbook that reveres cooking rituals.

Härtig writes: “Cooking with love. That’s the essence.” For him, minimalism is key in recipes that bring forth how things “are already what they are and the way they are.” Here, for instance, clear broth is “enveloped in the fullness of nothingness.” But this philosophical outlook is far from esoteric: it’s rooted in pairing a few choice ingredients, treating them with a delicate hand, and showing humble understanding of how one can make the best of available produce.

In the book’s four seasonal sections, tranquil comments introduce small portion dishes that can be enjoyed alone or as accompaniments. Artful photographs emphasize simple plating and soothing ceramics. From interpretations of the classics, including tempuras, tsukemono, and miso soups, to fresh twists, such as beans and radishes with dill and Japanese antipasti, the dishes are vibrant. They also reflect Härtig and gardener and photographer Jule Felice Frommelt’s spontaneity: they were cooked on a Spree Forest island property.

For both creators, cooking is meditative and aesthetic. A nasturtium stands out in Sesame Tofu, Nasturtium, and Ponzu. Matcha-flavored shaved ice is brilliant green. A trio of pears reflect autumn in the playful The Pear as a Pear dessert recipe. The volume encourages creativity while staying true to a Japanese less-is-more approach that underscores natural flavors. The result is an intriguing blend of cultures, in which cape gooseberries are at home with tofu.

A practical side-by-side layout of photographs and recipes, tips about cooking rice and other methods, and a handy glossary add up to a gift that’s as beautiful to browse as it is easy to follow. Vegan Recipes from Japan is a refreshing, healthy, and inspirational cookbook.

KAREN RIGBY (December 27, 2020)

One Simple Thing

Book Cover
Warren Read
Ig Publishing
Softcover $16.95 (282pp)
978-1-63246-119-3
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Rodney is a twelve-year-old with a predilection for adult comics who’s stuck in Hope, a dead end Wyoming town. Nadine is a wary drifter on the run from life and failed relationships, shacked up in the backwoods of Washington state. Louis is a grizzled sheriff contending with age and a mentally addled brother. These three people seem to have nothing in common, but Warren Read intertwines their destinies in his slow-boiling thriller One Simple Thing.

The three-part tale is set in the mid-seventies and focuses on each hardscrabble character in turn. Rodney’s life is upended when his mother shacks up with Otis, a local burger flipper who may have shady intentions; Nadine comes to grips with her itinerant existence when she begins to suspect that her ornery new beau, Lester, is mixed up with criminal activity; and Louis’s investigation into the death of a total stranger threatens to place all of them in peril.

Evoking the feel of life in the prairie hinterlands, the book is often plainspoken, but also sometimes lyrical. Characterizations dominate the novel’s early chapters, as Rodney falls under Otis’s sway. There’s a daring shift in the second act, which relocates to a new setting, with new characters; while these goings on aren’t quite as resonant, they include plenty of intrigue. Multiple mysterious details are introduced: a Chinese couple may be getting smuggled into Canada, there’s a dead man with a Russian passport, and there’s a bloodied car trunk lid. The pace picks up as all of the characters and subplots converge in the explosive climax.

Closing with hard-won wisdom, One Simple Thing mixes compassion and hope among its suspenseful twists.

HO LIN (December 27, 2020)

Barbara Hodge

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