Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J Ryan Stradal

>> Thursday, June 09, 2016

TITLE: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
AUTHOR: J Ryan Stradal

PAGES: 316

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

Who is Eva Thorvald?

To her single father, a chef, she's a pint-sized recipe tester and the love of his life. To the chilli chowdown contestants of Cook County, Illinois, she's a fire-eating demon. To the fashionable foodie goddess of supper clubs, she's a wanton threat. She's an enigma, a secret ingredient that no one can put their finger on. Eva will surprise everyone.

On the day before her eleventh birthday, she's cultivating chilli peppers in her wardrobe like a pro. Abandoned by her mother, gangly and poor, Eva arms herself with the weapons of her unknown heritage: a kick-ass palate and a passion bordering on obsession.

Over the years, her tastes grow, and so do her ambitions. One day Eva will be the greatest chef in the world. But along the way, the people she meets will shape her - and she, them - in ways unforgettable, riotous and profound. So she - for one - knows exactly who she is by the time her mother returns.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about the family you lose, the friends you make and chance connections that can define a life. Joyful, quirky or brazen, everyone lends their voice to tell Eva's story - one that's as heartwarming as it is irresistible, taking the bitter with the sweet.
This is the story of Eva, a girl who grows up with a miraculous palate and a deep love of food, in spite of her unpromising upbringing. Eva's father was a chef, but he died when Eva was still a baby. Since her mother had just abandoned the two of them when he died, Eva is then brought up by her uncle and aunt, who are... well, whatever the opposite of "foodies" is!

While Eva is the protagonist of the book, her story is told indirectly. Stradal uses a really interesting structure, with a book that is a novel, but also close to a collection of short stories. Each chapter of the book jumps a few years into the future, and is told from a different perspective. Only one chapter is narrated by Eva herself, and that is one that takes place when she's a young child. The narrator is different in each of the others, and it's sometimes characters we've seen before, often people we haven't yet met. In these chapters, the focus really is on the person narrating. Eva is significant to different extents: sometimes she's almost the whole point of the story (like in the chapter narrated by her teenaged suitor), sometimes she's only a peripheral character (like in the chapter narrated by a lady entering baking competitions with her bars). I liked figuring out the connections (e.g. the lady entering baking competitions? She happens to be the teenage boyfriend's stepmum -there are lots of connections like that), and it all comes to a great climax in a fantastic final episode, where quite a few of the different threads come together.

The structure may sound a bit weird, but I really liked it and thought it worked wonderfully. I liked seeing Eva from the outside. Yes, we do lose some intimacy with her, but I think her slight air of mysteriousness worked.

Something I particularly liked was the humour. There are a couple of instances of laugh-out-loud humour, but mostly it's just a constant, low-key thing, present in pretty much every paragraph. It's an observational and quite gentle kind of humour, just my sort of thing.

I also really enjoyed the setting of the US Midwest. There's quite a variety there, from the Scandinavian heritage prominent in the first few chapters, to the much more multicultural city settings later on. Oh, and the food! I felt Stradal hit a happy medium there. There's a true love of food here, both the traditional and the super-sophisticated, and Stradal pokes fun at both sides (my favourite chapter for that was the one with the baking competitions!).

This is not a deep or deeply affecting book, but it was a deeply enjoyable one.



In Another Life, by Julie Christine Johnson

>> Friday, June 03, 2016

TITLE: In Another Life
AUTHOR: Julie Christine Johnson

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: Contemporary and 13th century Southern France
TYPE: Fiction

Three men are trapped in time. One woman could save them all.

Historian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region's quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life-and about her husband's death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think.
Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time, and the lost loves that haunt us all.
I bought this one (and House of Shadows, by Nicola Cornick, which I'll review soon) after Susanna Kearsley mentioned it in an interview on the DBSA podcast. It sounded like the sort of thing one might like if one likes Susanna's books. It went into my digital TBR and was just sitting there till Kaetrin had a review of it on Dear Author. Kaetrin really didn't like it, and one of the reasons was that it wasn't like Susanna's books in that it wasn't a romance at all -no HEA, or even HFN.

I don't mind unhappy endings if they work for that particular book (and if I'm not expecting one, thinking I'm reading a romance novel!), so that aroused my curiosity. The book did sound like exactly my sort of thing, so I was intrigued to see if it would work any better for me, having had Kaetrin's warning about the ending.

Lia Carrer is still mentally recovering from the death of her husband, Gabriel, in a cycling accident in Southern France. Lia is a historian and her area is the Cathars, so two years after the tragedy, she has overcome her reluctantance to go back to that part of the world, where her mother's family is from, and has accepted an invitation from some close friends to stay in a house they own near their own.

But what she expects to be a quiet time of study and research and healing becomes life-changing when her life becomes entwined with that of three men who've got links to a murder that happened in the early 13th century. This was a murder that led directly to the Albigensian Crusad, the military campaign launched by the Catholic Church to eliminate Catharism in the South of France, and it turns out it still echoes in Lia's present.

I found this book a little bit meh. The ending was actually fine. I thought the way things were resolved made sense for the story (if I've understood it all correctly -Kaetrin and I had quite a discussion in the comments of her DA review!), so I didn't have a problem with the non-happy ending. It felt like the right ending for this particular story. But it's also that it was an ending that didn't really affect me emotionally, because Johnson didn't really succeed in making me care for her characters. My reaction was not "Noooooooo!I can't believe she did that to Lia!". It was "Eh. Ok." That is a bit of a problem, because I felt the book was meant to be quite emotional. There's all the doomed romance between one of the men, Raoul, and his wife in the 13th century, Paloma. There's also the romance in the current day between the modern Raoul and Lia. I didn't particularly care.

The other issue I had is that the paranormal element was not particularly well-developed. For instance (and this is not a spoiler, since it becomes clear pretty quickly), Raoul dies in the 13th century, and then the next thing he knows, he wakes up in the 21st century (this is something that happened a few years before this book starts, at about the time Lia's husband died -ding, ding, ding!). But he's not simply a 13th century man waking up in a radically changed world. He's familiar with it -knows how to drive, understands how it all works, etc. He just has memories of the 13th century. He even has a history as Raoul in the modern world. He’s part of a family (they are all dead by the time the book starts, but we're told he inherited his farm from an uncle). So what happened to the soul of the person who was Raoul until that moment when the 13th century Raoul woke up in his body? This issue is completely ignored. We don’t get told if this Raoul remembers anything of the life before he “awoke”, or what that life was like. That didn't seem to me a deliberate choice, but more a bit of hand-waving of the "it's too complicated, best to just ignore it" kind. There are quite a few elements that are like that. Paranormal things happen with neither rhyme nor reason, simply because they're necessary to move the plot along in a particular way. I could go with it, to a certain extent, but it felt pretty unsatisfying.

All that said, I did enjoy quite a bit of the book. Johnson is really good at creating an atmosphere and a really vivid setting. Both her modern-day and 13th century France settings are wonderfully done (in fact, the one thing that did remind me of Kearsley was the atmosphere in the present-day France bits -put me in mind of her latest, A Dangerous Fortune) and I loved wondering round with Lia and finding out more about the history. If only the story being told had been more engaging!



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