The Tuscan Sun Cookbook by Frances Mayes & Edward Mayes

5 Stars Cookbook

I do love my cookbooks! When a message about cookbooks, popped into my inbox, I immediately started looking at my local library to see if they had any of them, as I like to sample them before I actually buy them. They had 4 of them so I felt very lucky. The Tuscan Sun Cookbook looked promising but I wondered how complicated the recipes were and how exotic the ingredients might be, but I remained hopeful. After looking through the book though, I was surprised at my finding.

First off, let me say, that the pictures inside this book are beautiful. Imagine a nice summer day, you’re in the hills of Italy enjoying lunch with your friends. A photographer has stopped by to take some shots and now, those pictures are inside this book. Although there aren’t pictures of every recipe in this book, the ones that are there, look very appealing.

Each recipe does come with how many it serves, the ingredients list and step-by-step instructions. Accompanying each recipe, is a small paragraph or two that describes a bit about that recipe. The book consists of recipes that would actually be served in Tuscany according to the authors. The book is broken up into many sections. The Essential section had a few recipes that I enjoyed. Tomato Sauce (with bay leaves -I love bay leaves!), a Soffritto (looks delicious), Besciamella, a Brine, and Pesto. The Antipasti section contained appetizers. The Primi section was pasta and it began with making pasta and Giusi’s Ragu which looked nice and hearty. Angry Pasta? Oh yes, black olives and red pepper flakes made this recipe stand out. Lasagne with Ragu, using the same ragu, as mentioned before but adding it to a lasagna. Next was the Second section which was meats and I found Chicken Under a Brick and Chicken with Olives and Tomatoes. The Contorni section was salads and vegetables and the last section was Dolci which consisted of desserts. There is an Aperitivi E Digestivi section which is the closer for their meals: the bitter elixirs. There are 2 recipes in this section (Nocino and Riccardo’s Limoncello) which accompany the author’s comments on this topic

What I didn’t find in this book was exotic ingredients or complicated recipes. That was a win for me. I did come across some new words, such as Fascicles of Summer Vegetables but as the author pointed out in their paragraph, fasces in Latin actually means a bundle of iron sticks. The author continued on in their comments, talking about Emily Dickinson’s fascicles of poems. Strawberry Semifreddo? I’d never heard of Semifreddo before but I learned that this dessert is not gelato or sorbetto but that it’s easy to make and doesn’t require a fancy machine.

I did find some recipes that wouldn’t work for me but might for others. Recipes that included ingredients like fish, lamb, veal, and rabbit. All-in-all, this cookbook was a great find for me. If you’re into Tuscan dishes or want to try something different, this is one cookbook you should check out.

Amal Unbound by Alsha Saeed

5 stars Middle School/YA

Amal’s dream of becoming a teacher were put on hold when she must stay home and tend to her mother, who has not recovered since giving birth to her fourth child.  Amal waits with anticipation for the day when she can return to school but an incident with a rich landlord/politician takes her even farther from her dream.  Yet, through it all, Amal continues to keep reaching for that dream.

Becoming one of his servants to pay off the debt, Amal works at his lavish estate and believes that she’s working off the debt, that the incident triggered.  This is a whole new world for Amal and I enjoyed how Amal handled herself.  Locating a library within the estate, Amal begins “borrowing” material until someone spots her and tries to stop her. When she located the library, the first thought that went through my head was Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  I imagined her reaction and amazement to be the same and that brought smiles to my face. 

Amal is wise and clever, which I feel gives her an edge.  She does what’s expected of her and she tries to stay out of trouble.  She just wants the debt to be paid off so she can return home and return to her studies.

I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was a fast read and I really liked the character of Amal. She was a bright individual, a character who matured in the novel and someone that I cheered for throughout the whole book.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

4.5 stars Historical Fiction

I listened to this novel as I painted our fence in the backyard.  This small, section of fence should have taken just a few hours but when I finally made my way back inside, I realized that my morning was gone and I was working into the afternoon.  I know for a fact that I’d stopped a few times while painting, as I realized that I had become so involved in the story, that I couldn’t paint and listen at the same time.  I guess I had done more reading than painting today but at least the fence was done.    

I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  This was a true story.  These individuals were young teens, young men being treated brutally, while everyone turned their backs on them.

As these individuals told their stories, I kept reminding myself that this story had really occurred.  This was supposed to be a reform school, a place where change occurs for the better. The boys were at Nickel Academy either because they were orphans or because of their behavior. They didn’t expect to be someone’s target, they didn’t deserve the harsh punishment and the brutality that they received.  They most certainly didn’t deserve death.

As I listened, I wondered how much longer the people in charge could continue this practice and get-away with it?  Wasn’t there any checks and balances along the way?  I cringed to think that these individuals would take their authority further and push the envelope.  It angered and frustrated me that some individuals feel they have the right to behave this way to anyone or anything. 

I feel that it’s a powerful book, a book that allows their story to be told but now, I have more questions after reading this book, than I did when I first started.  4.5 stars

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of WWII

5 Stars Nonfiction

These stories lives came with a punch, they struck viciously against my heart as I read them. To think that all of these individuals were children, innocent little people, who did nothing yet they received such a life-altering experience, that still haunts them today. I didn’t and I couldn’t read this book, all in one sitting. From the beginning, I wanted to appreciate each chapter: each individual’s situation and account. Upon reading, I realized that this is not a book that I could read straight through. The emotions and the energy in each of their stories lives, makes it a book that needs space.

From the voices of Russian children, we hear their side of what occurred to them during WWII. From a few pages to up to six pages, they tell us what they remembered. The children were affected in a variety of ways by the war: many had to leave their homes, some watched their fathers leave to fight in the war hence leaving them with lots of questions running through their minds, some children had to prepare for the war themselves and some even tried to stay in their own homes while the war ragged outside. They told their account and it was translated but the tone and the feelings are still in the words on the page. It’s as if these survivors were sitting with me, telling me how they reacted to a world that had turned upside down on them.

I could tell you about many of the individuals in this book as every story life in this book is worth mentioning. Their stories are different but every single one of them, are forever changed. How many times I read the word, “Mama!” I cannot count them all. How many times I read, “I was hungry,” I cannot count them all. How many times I read about death, how it had become part of these children’s regular, daily schedule, I cannot count them all.

There was Marlen, age 11, who is now a member of a town council. Marlen remembers always being hungry while living in the orphanage. He remembers needing to be first in line or you might not get anything to eat. With it being -20 degrees outside, Marlen takes off his hat and had a soldier ladle some soup into his hat instead of finding a metal tin. Marlen quickly runs back to the orphanage. He now has frostbite on his ears but he has supplied frozen soup to everyone there. Now, this adventure puts a smile on my face.

This is a book worth reading. I enjoyed this book and I appreciate the individuals who shared their stories lives with me.

A Ticket Around the World by Natalia Diaz and Melissa Owen

4 stars Nonfiction Children’s

This is a book that you can thumb through or you can read page-by-page.  In this book, you are traveling to 13 different countries with a young boy, learning a variety of special characteristics about that country.

This book is short (31 pages) but I think it gives the readers a good variety of information about each country to intrigue and inform them about how that nation is special.  When I first opened this book, I liked that there is a large, colorful world map.  This map is marked with each country that you’ll visit in this book with its name and the page number to find that country (its contents).

On each two-page spread of a country’s information, you get colorful illustrations and over six different facts about that country.  I liked that the pages feel friendly and they’re not too busy and over-stimulating with information and illustrations (everything is nice and neat).  Lying in the background of the information, is the countries map.  From Jordan, to the U.S., to the Philippines, to Botswana, to Greece, to Canada, to Morocco, you will be traveling the globe( there’s more countries).   You will first learn who the boy stayed with and what city.  You might learn about the alphabet in some countries, their food, the household, what he did on his visit, the animals there, etc.

I was interested in the U.S., I wanted to know what was highlighted in those two pages of this book.  It was interesting and not what I expected.  I also was surprised after reading the book, the amount of families who included more than one generation living under one roof.  In Jordan, I liked the trip they made to the Bedouin tribe. 

This book had information that I knew and some that I didn’t.  For children, you’ll have children that might know a few facts but I feel most of this information will be new to them (depending on their age and experience).  At the back of the book, there is a fun “do you remember?” section, as the boy asks questions about his journey which are accompanied by illustrations.  If you read the book, you should be able to answer them or find that section of the book and find the answer.  I think it’s a good nonfiction book that takes a brief look at different countries around the world.     

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

4 stars Realistic Fiction

Jende has heard and seen (from television) that America is the best place to be. So, he finds his way to America, as Jende feels America has everything his family will need to be successful. As Jende works, he saves his money and eventually, his wife and son have the means to join him, in this land of golden opportunity.

As they settle into Harlem, Neni begins her career in home health care and studies to be a pharmacist. Jende applies for a chauffeur’s position with a Mr. Edwards which would be a major step-up from driving a taxi. America is living up to Jende expectations as he lands the position with Clark Edwards and the money starts rolling in.

Jende doesn’t understand how complicated American life really is until he’s thrown into it and now, he’s getting a taste of it.  It’s not like television, Jende. There’s also the issue of immigration that he has to deal with which casts a gray cloud over his head and becomes even worse since Jende is an honest man.  Neni is now expecting their second child which will now be born on American soil, so they need to get their green cards to stay in the U.S.

They are living the American dream but things get better when an opportunity arises for Neni. Asked to help out Clark’s family, Neni accepts the position and enjoys many of the benefits plus many extras.  She soon discovers though that the American dream is complicated as issues come to light.  As Neni gets involved, the story gets entertaining as Neni becomes a part of Cindy’s life and the children from both households meet.

I thought this was a very engaging novel.  I enjoyed both families and the excitement that they brought to the novel.  I enjoyed Neni and how she changed throughout the novel.  When she first arrived from West Africa, she was a quiet individual but as she started to have more influence and statue, she became a powerful figure in the novel.  I think each family could have learned more from each other had they been more accepting of each other.  I was surprised of the ending; it wasn’t how I expected things to play out. 

I did wonder: since some of the notions they got about America came from watching old television shows, do you think they would have the same feeling about America if they watched our television shows today?  This was just something that I thought about ……

Little White Duck by Na Liu and Andres Martinez

4.5 stars Childrens Graphic Novel

I really liked this graphic novel and I have a feeling by looking at the cover of it, many children will not be picking it up.  The cover is really not very attractive.  Inside this cover, there’s eight, great, short stories about living in China during the mid-1970’s. 

I liked how the author gave a first-account of her life in China as a young child. The novel begins with her younger sister getting the opportunity to attend school since only one child per family was allowed.  I thought it was interesting the difference between a family name and a given name and how they used them. There were many things inside this novel that I thought were interesting as I read them. 

I appreciated how the author included some history into the novel both personal and historical.  I feel that the novel includes a great deal of information and I learned quite a bit about China from reading this it.  The information presented wasn’t all personal in nature, but included the traditions and routines of the country and her family’s involvement in them.  

The graphics were easy to follow, they were at-the-most-part big and the text was easy to read.  I thought the colors used in the text, just like the cover, was a bit on the drab side. There were a few pages that were colorful, but most pages carried an olive green or dull yellow tint to them.  I can’t say enough about the content of this graphic novel, it was excellent.  Pick this graphic novel up for the content and for the illustrations, imagine your own color in it.   4.5 (.5 off for the color issue)

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

4 stars Middle School / Children’s chapter fiction

Definitely read the author’s notes in this novel as I felt that they added a great deal to this story. In her notes, Padma discusses some of the many reasons why children become homeless and their status once they’re out on the street. The freedom that these children search for is often not immediate. Out on the street, these children are often met with uncertainty. Discrimination, hunger, poverty, abandonment, and danger on many different levels is often a part of their daily life. There are millions of homeless children living on the streets in India, Padma states, but this problem is global as you know and she hopes that her novel will bring awareness to them and acceptance.

Based on personal stories the author kept in a journal over the years, this novel shows the determination and strength that the children in India have as they search for their own freedom. Determining that it’s not safe living with their abusive father, Viji takes her younger sister, Rukku and they run away. Viji knows it would be hard living on the street, tending to her sister, but didn’t realize it would be this hard. They have no safe place to unwind, to relax, or to breathe easier. Every minute, Viji keeps vigil watch over Rukku, as she tries to find them supplies to keep them going for another day. This task is exhausting yet Viji is not complaining, she’s just waiting for a break.

Relief comes when Viji spots an abandoned tarpaulin tent that’s attached to a bridge. When Muthu and Arul claim that the tent is theirs, it’s finally decided that they’ll all share it. Four children and Rukku’s new dog will all stay under the one tarp.

I enjoyed how the boys showed the sisters how they made their money and they treated them as equals. The character of Aunty was wonderful and her relationship with the girls, especially Rukku warmed my heart. I loved Viji stories, Rukku talent and how Rukku shared that with the others. The waste mart, I couldn’t get this place off my mind. I will have this imaged etched in my mind for a while. The friendship these four had were what a family is all about. The only issue I had with this novel was that I didn’t have that emotional element to the characters that I felt I should have. A few moments in the novel were emotional left downs for me. As they were transpiring, I was expecting this Kleenex moment but no, it just happened and I moved on. It should have been more emotional for me yet it wasn’t.

A great novel that’s a quick read but gives a lasting impression.