Smoke by Dan Vyleta

51hNZ0nGxXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Imagine that every time you do something wrong – tell a lie, steal something, think an uncharitable thought – everyone can see it, in the form of a little puff of smoke that comes up from your body. It leaves soot on your clothes, your pillowcases, your furniture. You must be perfectly good at all times, or clean everything constantly, or both. And if not – everyone will know.

That’s the world of Smoke, a tremendous new literary fantasy by Dan Vyleta. In Victorian England, the aristocracy are trained from childhood to never Smoke, to repress all their baser instincts to demonstrate their inherent superiority over the lower classes. But what if it doesn’t really work that way? What if Smoke isn’t sin, but something else? Thomas and Charlie, two boys at an elite boarding school in the countryside, begin to question what they’ve been told after a trip to Smoke-filled London, and before long their whole world is unraveling.

I loved this book and its incredible explorations of good and evil, sin and repression. In addition to telling the story of Smoke, it’s also full of all the things that make Victorian novels great – family secrets, corrupt leaders, criminals with a heart of gold, murder, disguise, horse chases, and romance.

Caution: may cause hunger pains (Part I)

Movies – I enjoy a good film about cooking, food adventures, and or anything that features cooking. Food and movies go hand in hand. Here are couple of films without fail always make me hungry.

onesheetThe first one always makes me crave brie with pears, and fried egg sandwiches with a good beer. Spanglish, star Adam Sandler as a chef of a small restaurant. The movie is about boundaries and relationships, where they should start and end. Cultural and family dynamic differences are the major cause of drama in the movie. But it’s his fried egg sandwich that gets me every time.

chefNext on the list is Chef. It stars Jon Favreau as a chef who loses it after a bad review and his rant goes viral causing him to rethink his career and family responsibilities. This sends him from LA to Miami with his ex-wife and son, and into a new venture, the food truck business. While driving the truck back to LA, various stops are made and include beignets from New Orleans and brisket from Austin.  Brisket looks amazing and this film makes me want tostones (pressed fried plantains with garlic sauce) and yuca with garlic and vinegar! Mmm!!!

91XUvt3NWxL._SL1500_Tortilla Soup stars Hector Elizondo as a chef and father of three women. Hector has lost his taste and needs others to taste the food as he preps. The food shots of the films are gorgeous and tempting. His red snapper and nopales (cactus) make me crave breakfast by the ocean in Puerto Vallarta, MX. It also reminds me of my aunt in Mexico making fresh flour tortillas and huevos con chorizo (eggs and sausage). It always takes me back to when I was a kid!

chocolatFor dessert I give you Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche. A movie about a wandering women and her young daughter who come to a small French village to open up a chocolate shop on the eve of lent. Her hot chocolate drink is rich and thick the way it is traditional made in Spain. She uses her chocolate to change the lives of the citizens of this small village. It is only right for them to change hers as well. She also makes a chocolate with a kick from chili peppers. It’s a good thing I know a place that sells chocolate jalapeno ice cream. Hope I didn’t make you too hungry.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

13158378BookTop Chef meets Pirates of the CaribbeanCinnamon and Gunpowder is a fun adventurous seafaring tale that mainly takes place on a pirate ship called the Flying Rose in 1819. Owen Wedgwood is the renowned personal chef to Lord Ramsey, the wealthy owner of the Pendleton Trading Company.  The ruthless pirate is Captain Mad Hannah Mabbot, who murders Owen’s employer and has her right hand man Mr. Apples kidnap the chef.  Though the ship has a cook, Hannah feels that she deserves a gourmet meal once a week and tells Owen that she will spare him his life as long as he obliges her.  Though his culinary skills are extensive, even Owen is challenged to create edible fare with the limited supplies on board, such as gruel, rat meat, and moldy potatoes.  Though a prisoner, Owen dines with Hannah weekly and learns that her mercenary pursuit of another rogue pirate, the Brass Fox, might be for noble reasons.  As time goes on his cooking skills evolve with the help of provisions picked up along the journey and the reader’s mouth will water with the delicacies he creates.  This swashbuckling read is a pure delight!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

17333319Book – Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been convicted of murder, and in the spring, she will be executed. The governor has decided that it’s too expensive to send her to the seat of government in Denmark, so she’s been sent to the farm of District Officer Jon Jonsson, to live there with his family until the execution date can be set.

Between scattered documents – real translations; this is based on the true story of the last woman executed in Iceland for murder – detailing the problems the government is having in getting an execution set for Agnes and her two co-defendants, we learn more about the family hosting her and about Agnes’s own life. She grew up practically an orphan, working for her keep in a variety of small farms, before falling in love with Natan – the man she’s been convicted of murdering.

This was a moving story, stark and bleak but beautifully told, of a woman who is famous but not very sympathetic in her home country. Hannah Kent helps us to understand Agnes, who has been so terribly isolated for much of her life, who fell in love with the wrong kind of man, who lost a life she had never been very successful at in the first place.

Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway

emmyBook: One does not forget their childhood best friend. Especially if their childhood best friend was kidnapped. Emmy will never forget Oliver, her next door neighbor and best friend. She will also never forget the day Oliver’s father took him out for a day of fun and never returned him. The whole town remembers. Emmy’s parents remember and responded by keeping her close, afraid that something similar would happen to her.

10 years later, Emmy is a high school senior, with a secret she is keeping from her over-protective parents. 10 years later, Oliver is finally found and comes home. How do you react when your childhood best friend returns home after being missing for 10 years? What should you say? What can you do? Can you go back to how things were before? These are the questions that plague Emmy’s mind as Oliver returns to the house next door.

As Emmy and Oliver reconnect, they realize that their friendship and their connection did not diminished over the last 10 years. Robin Benway is a fantastic writer as she weaves this adorable story together along with the mystery of what happened to Oliver all those years ago.

Emmy and Oliver is a romance, mystery, coming-of-age story. It is about family. Its about growing up. Its about love, lost and found.

 

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

WceGgDUNlCA8RPHOz66AbHHs4RI12Vqg+OoBRGBrKx2plCphEkAr3aizNSRpuGHkIoDZcS4gLRs3LNNbucM2t9F9fdaEYpGYGalgPVZQmRtQ5iDKyCBWtzAWMsmQ+7PKBook – It’s been a long time–possibly the year-and-a-half since Counting By 7s, another book featuring an unforgettably brilliant young character–since I’ve encountered a novel as tempting to recommend and hard to put down as Be Frank With Me.

Practical, responsible Alice Whitley, twenty-four, accepted the position of assistant to an affable New York publisher as a way to stave off the inevitable day when she would put her accountancy degree to its logical use.  She wasn’t expecting to be dispatched to L.A. as chief cook and bottle washer to caustic author M.M. Banning, real name Mimi Gillespie, who wrote one classic as a teenager and hasn’t published a word since.  Now in her fifties, Mimi has recently been swindled out of her fortune and needs to write another book, fast–not so much for her own sake as to provide for her son, Frank.

Frank Banning is the beating heart of Johnson’s book, as the title suggests.  A miniature genius eccentric, this nine-year-old powerhouse dresses and talks like a jazz-age tycoon, rushes through the world like a disaster-prone human hurricane, has a seemingly bottomless well of facts at his command, and alternates between social ineptitude and piercing emotional insightfulness.  Alice’s new role as Frank’s caretaker and companion shapes her relationships with Mimi, whose resentment sours her underlying gratitude, and with Frank’s “itinerant male role model,” the gorgeous handyman Xander, who bonds with Alice over their shared inside-outside place in the Gillespies’ world.  But it is Alice’s growing friendship with Frank, often undemonstrative but deeply affectionate nonetheless, that makes Be Frank With Me so irresistible, as we fall in love with Frank–in all his glory–through Alice’s eyes.

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

uprootedBook – Agnieszka grew up next to the dark enchanted wood, in the shadow of the Dragon’s tower. The Dragon is a wizard, not a fire-breathing lizard; he doesn’t eat the girls he takes, but he does take one every ten years or so, and she never comes home again. At least, not for very long. Everybody knows that he always takes the best, the cleverest, the most beautiful, the most talented girl, so they’re shocked when he picks Agnieszka instead.

But unlike the other girls, Agnieska’s been picked for a reason – she has the talent to become a wizard herself, and by the king’s law, she must be trained. (No matter how much she hates it.) And then, as  war threatens and the enchanted wood begins to overflow its borders, spilling monsters and poison out into the surrounding lands, she has to learn, if she wants to save her home and everyone she loves from a terrible end.

I absolutely adored this book, and I resented everything that made me put it down until I could finish it. While it has a lot in common with fairy tales, it’s also a deep, complex story full of very human people who make the wrong decisions for the right reasons (and sometimes the right decisions for the wrong reasons), and how they face the consequences of their actions. Fans of Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon series and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor will love this, too. It also has a Hungarian flavor that would go very well with Steven Brust’s Dragaera series.

The Boy (2016)

boyMovie – Dolls, dolls, dolls!  A favorite playtime toy of many little girls and boys. But when nighttime falls, all dolls must be put away. Look away from those baby cheeks, especially the eyes, which threaten to sparkle, to twitch, or worse, to blink. Tuck them in tight.  Lock the closet doors. But don’t bother checking in on them after bedtime; they are already out to play.  And so begins the typical horror tale of a doll.

The storyline of The Boy intrigued me: A woman named Greta takes a job as the nanny for a young boy in a secluded mansion. She travels all the way from America to England for the job.  Interesting. Once there she finds out that the boy is actually a life-size doll, a doll that the parents treat as their real son. It is revealed that their son, Brahms was killed in a fire when he was eight years old, a long time ago. The parents reiterate to Greta that she must complete every task on Brahm’s list of rules and be good to him. Greta simply assumes the family is bonkers. She soon learns that bad things happen when Brahm’s rules are ignored, leading her to believe this doll is a real boy.

The lead in this film is Maggie from The Walking Dead! Obviously the doll was creepy as heck, but even more so because of its size. The story plays out in typical horror movie fashion, with jumps and scares and of course the soulless eyes of a doll. But there were a few twists and turns that I really enjoyed. Even though there were many questions left unanswered, I did enjoy this film. If you’re like me, be prepared to sleep with the lights on for awhile. But hey, that’s probably just a me thing. Happy viewing!

Maria Full of Grace (2004)

Maria_Full_of_Grace_movieMovie – The reporting on the narco-wars in Mexico in the recent years has caused the rise of interest in narcotics trafficking. Maria Full of Grace came out in 2004 and will give the viewer a story of someone who is a drug mule. Mules are people who traffic drugs for the cartels into the US.

Maria Full of Grace is set in Colombia. Maria needs a new job now that she has discovered she is pregnant. She receives an offer to traffic drugs to New York. Maria decides the risk is worth it. The film follows what happens when Maria and a group of other women trafficking the drugs by swallowing huge pills (small balloons filled with cocaine) into the US. I feel the film does not try to persuade viewers to side with any of the characters. It is merely telling a story and presenting the outcomes of decisions the characters make. The decisions Maria makes are her own. It is her actions that will ultimately decide which way her life will proceed.

The film is in Spanish with subtitles and those with interest in a more real side of narcotics trafficking should find the movie appealing. It falls in line with the film Traffic, and the series Breaking Bad, where the story becomes more real because of the minor details the directors pay attention to and include in the film. If you are looking for an action packed, guns blazing, and/or US drug agencies versus drug cartels I would suggest American Gangster and/or Sicario. Those looking for a film about the cause and effects decisions have on the life of someone involved in this world will find it eye-opening.

The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison

silent wifeBook – “… that her notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.”  So begins the gripping story of The Silent Wife. Jodi and Todd have been together for 20 years. Jodi is very content working as a psychotherapist part-time and filling the rest of her time with cooking, walking the dog, taking classes, and enjoying their expensive Chicago lake front condo. She even overlooks the fact that Todd strays once in a while, as he always comes back. Jodi never confronts him about it, since she is convinced that he is drawn back to their tranquil life together and her gourmet meals. Regardless, she feels that they make a great couple. Todd begins a relationship with the daughter of one of his friends. But something happens and he doesn’t come back. His new girlfriend gives Todd an ultimatum and suddenly he is moving out with threats of divorce and the prospect of being a father. Jodi’s illusion of the perfect relationship is shattered. Initially she is broken, but a “well meaning” friend advices her as to what she should be entitled to and encourages her on a course of revenge. This is a page turning psychological thriller that would probably appeal to fans of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and The Good Girl.

A movie based on the book is currently in production and will be starring Nicole Kidman.