Tagged: Harper Perennial

The Free

Book cover: The Free by Willy VlautinLeroy Kervin is an Iraq war veteran with a traumatic brain injury. He’s been living in a group home for years now, unable to feed or care for himself. He wakes up one night with uncharacteristic clarity and he’s able to see it all: his life now vs. the life he had long ago built with the love of his life. The sorrow is too much, and he can’t bear the thought of losing this newfound clarity again. He’d rather die than go back into that muddled state, and he winds up in the ICU after a failed suicide attempt.

Freddie McCall works the night shift at the group home and is the person who finds Leroy. He, too, has lost a lot. He once had a wife and family, but his marriage fell apart when one of his daughters required numerous medical interventions to correct a condition she was born with. With Freddie always working to pay for the medical bills and his wife staying home to care for their daughter, the stress took its toll. His wife and daughters now life far away with another man, while Freddie is on the verge of bankruptcy and still works two jobs in order to send money to his young daughters.

Pauline Hawkins is an ICU nurse at the local hospital. Everyone likes her, but her job is starting to wear her out and she dreams of switching jobs and becoming a school nurse. She is single and refuses to be tied down to any man, even though she’s already tied down to one in particular: her father, who is difficult and suffers from dementia. She takes care of Leroy, but it’s another patient who steals her heart. A troubled young runaway with abscesses on her legs obviously needs help, but she keeps running off with heroin addicts.

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The Bride Stripped Bare

Book cover: The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki GemmellA woman disappears, leaving no trace except her car at the edge of her cliff; she’s written off as a suicide. In the months that follow, her mother discovers a secret manuscript that her daughter wrote and is convinced that it sheds some insight into her daughter’s disappearance: that manuscript is The Bride Stripped Bare.

And that’s all in the first two pages. The rest of Nikki Gemmell’s book is comprised of the actual manuscript of The Bride Stripped Bare. The chapters are labeled as a series of lessons that read like a diary. It begins with a couple on a honeymoon; the narrator has had her share of lovers, but none know her as intimately as her new husband, Cole. Still, she has secrets that even he doesn’t know about.

By all outward appearances, the narrator is a picture-perfect good wife. She’s given up her teaching job and now stays at home; soon, she expects they’ll start a family. Cole brings in enough money for her to do as she pleases, and she spends her days working on turning a scandalous Elizabethan-era diary that’s been passed down in her family into a novel. But the doldrums of married life are weighing on her. It’s a chillier marriage than the one she’d envisioned, and her thoughts keeps straying to past lovers. The book she’s working on doesn’t help: the Elizabethan woman who penned it was vocal about her desires. It isn’t long until the narrator begins flirting with her own desires in the form of a handsome stranger named Gabriel.

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Chocolates for Breakfast

Book cover: Chocolates for Breakfast by Pamela MoorePamela Moore was only 18 years old when Chocolates for Breakfast was published. Released in 1956, the book scandalized its audience with its frank (for that time) discussions of sex and illicit love affairs.

The book’s heroine is Courtney Farrell, an unhappy and depressed fifteen-year-old girl who keeps trying to speed through adolescence in her quest to grow up. Her mother is a failed actress living in Los Angeles, and her father works in publishing in Manhattan; he’s present but emotionally distant. Meanwhile, Courtney is flailing her way through boarding school, where her only real friend is Janet, a wealthy and rebellious young girl with emotional troubles of her own. Seeing their daughter struggling, her parents offer to let her quit boarding school and move to Los Angeles with her mother.

Courtney was already hanging by a thread at boarding school, but once she moves in with her permissive mother, things really start falling apart. She begins drinking and smoking; men, assuming she’s more sexually experienced than she actually is (even though she’s never so much as kissed anyone), also begin coming on to her. Her life in LA becomes the classic tale of the screwed up, innocent young girl who becomes drawn to a man who is bad for her. Her only real adult supervision is a mother who, in stark contrast to Courtney, refuses to grow up.

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The Wonder Bread Summer

Book cover: The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya BlauIt’s 1983, and Allie is a student struggling to make ends meet. Her ex-boyfriend stole $7,000 from her, so now she has no way of paying her rent or tuition. She and her best friend have been slaving away at a Berkeley dress shop that’s actually a drug front. In one afternoon it all comes crashing down: her boss refuses to pay her the money she’s owed, and she bolts from the store with a Wonder Bread bag filled with pure cocaine.

Her boss sends a hitman named Vice Versa on her tail, and Allie sets off to LA in search of her parents, hoping that they’ll know what to do. Her father is aloof and hard to track down, and her unreliable mother left them long ago to be a tambourine player in a band that’s currently opening for Billy Idol. In her frantic search for her parents, she’ll also come across an old friend from high school, a paraplegic pornographer (who brings to mind Larry Flynt), and a hot surfer dude who turns out to be a dealer who wants her stash.

The Wonder Bread Summer wants to be that kind of book: an irreverent, zany whirlwind of an adventure that keeps readers entertained with all of its ridiculous scenarios. I do think Blau has the skills to have pulled it off. Unfortunately, what many call “satire,” some call hipster racism. And this book smacks of it.

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The Perfect Meal: In Search of the Lost Tastes of France

Book cover: The Perfect Meal by John BaxterI first encountered John Baxter’s writing a few years ago when I came across Immoveable Feast, about the planning and creation of a French Christmas feast. Baxter had me — a longtime vegetarian — craving all of the amazing meat-based and/or fat-enhanced courses he so elegantly described. Baxter, an Australian expat now married to a French woman, has written many books about France. When I found out that his latest book again returns to the subject French culinary treasures, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

The Perfect Meal tackles a subject close to Baxter’s heart: with the industrialization of food and the desire to find something quick and easy to eat, even France, with its legacy as the bastion of culinary arts, is rapidly ceding its culinary traditions to history. Go to a French restaurant, and you’re likely to find that at least some of your meal came from frozen or pre-packaged ingredients. Even the expensive French restaurants located in beautiful old buildings have lost their traditional French roots. The last straw for Baxter was going to a restaurant located in a magnificent Belle Epoque-era building; hoping against all odds that he’d be served an impressive, unmistakably French meal, he was instead served food that was “precious:” his soup, which was brought out as separate components and mixed before his eyes, was then topped with a pansy.

Where has all the traditional French food gone? A feast you’d have found even a hundred years ago must be impossible to create by today’s standards: the preparation would take ages, and the cost would be astronomical. But even if money was no object, are there even people still making the traditional food of yore? Does anyone really still roast an entire ox? Would it be possible today to compose a menu for a traditional French feast? Unfortunately, money was very much an issue, but Baxter was still intrigued. His actual feast would have to be a fantasy, but the menu planning could be real. With his fantasy feast in mind, he sets off to all parts of France to find the answers to his questions.

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