When you are harboring a sinister secret, who better to hear the confession than a convicted murderer on death row? In Annabel Pitcher’s new teen novel, Ketchup Clouds, that’s what British teenager Zoe is doing as a cathartic way of telling what happened when she became romantically involved with two brothers and ultimately was responsible for the death of one of them.
To sort out her thoughts and feelings, Zoe begins writing to Mr. Stuart Harris, who killed his wife in a jealous rage and is awaiting execution in Texas. Through a series of letters, Zoe (which is not her real name) chronicles her seemingly typical teen drama of the previous year. There was rising tension at her home, due in part to her father’s unemployment and her mother’s control issues. At a party, she met an amazingly unique guy, Aaron. What she didn’t realize until later was that Aaron was Max’s older brother – Max being the guy she is semi-enthusiastically dating. As the story progresses, her true feelings about Aaron and Max and the series of events leading to Max’s death come to light, as do some missing pieces of her family’s history. Suspense builds as Stuart’s looming execution date coincides with the anniversary of Max’s death.
Pitcher’s first novel, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, was highly acclaimed for its down-to-earth approach to a unique premise, and in Ketchup Clouds she likewise employs engaging, candid writing to solve a compelling mystery: Why does Zoe feel she’s to blame for Max’s death? A refreshingly honest character with a unique outlook on the world, Zoe will resonate with teen and adult readers as someone struggling toward resolution after long internalizing her fear and guilt.
Pastry chef Serafina Wilde is a hot mess. Reeling from the cruelties of her celebrity chef ex and struggling to rebuild her reputation in the cutthroat New York City catering world, she escapes to Santa Fe to lend support to her free-spirited Aunt Pauline. So begins Bliss by Hilary Fields, a yummy debut about picking up the pieces and starting over in a place far from the epicenter of your past troubles.
Aunt Pauline has always filled many roles in Serafina’s life, including guardian when a teenaged Serafina lost her parents. Now Aunt Pauline needs her too, as she has just experienced the loss of her partner Hortencia. In Santa Fe, Pauline is offering Serafina the opportunity of a professional lifetime — to turn her business, “Pauline’s House of Passion,” into a bakery. There’s only one condition: the unconventional Pauline, who in the 1970s started an offshoot of the women’s lib movement, is determined to keep her back room of sex toys and all things Kama Sutra, suggesting to Serafina that it could be a business of both “sinful desserts and earthly delights.” Why not? As Serafina begins to rebuild her life and rediscover love, she learns that being a nonconformist in “City Different” has its perks.
Fans of Beth Harbison or Emily Giffin will love this wacky tale full of laugh-out-loud moments, mouthwatering descriptions of food and a carefree setting of well-developed quirky characters. Perfect as a remedy to post-holiday stress, or as a fun way to ease into the new year. Fields’ message is clear: Happiness awaits those who follow their bliss.
Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.
Oh, the romanticism of falling in love abroad, even when the city is Soviet-era Leningrad in the 1980s. In Natalie Standiford’s new novel, The Boy on the Bridge, Laura is an eager college student who's had a love affair with Russia since childhood. Studying abroad in Leningrad, despite the hardships of the time, is just another way to immerse herself in the culture and language. During a chance encounter, Laura meets Alyosha, a mysterious young man who defies the profile of the typical Soviet youth. He questions his government, is scornful of the blind devotion Russians have towards their leaders and is fascinated by all things American, including Laura. Unfortunately, all of these qualities make him a target for the KGB, and Laura becomes increasingly afraid for Alyosha’s safety, especially as she falls in love with him. But in a time of strained American-Soviet relations, when many Russians dream of escaping to the West by any means possible, can she really trust Alyosha’s affections?
Beautifully written and peppered with details about Soviet food, culture, manners, housing and customs, The Boy on the Bridge transports readers to frozen Leningrad in all its authenticity. Standiford presents a unique and nuanced love story with realistic characters and an honest look at Soviet Russia with its many complexities and contradictions. Like her main character, she spent a college semester abroad in Leningrad, and photos and information on her website provide context and visuals for what is in the story.
The Beltway Sniper. The Green River Killer. The Boston Strangler. Great unease prevails in a community when there is a cold-blooded killer on the loose. Police work tirelessly and civilians are extra cautious about venturing out. But what happens when the investigation drags on without anyone being apprehended and the number of victims continues to climb? This is the story in Joyce Maynard’s latest book, After Her, a novel as much about a serial killer as it is about the complicated relationships between parents, children and siblings. When sisters Rachel and Patty are teenagers, women begin turning up dead in the mountainous area just beyond their home in northern California. The killer, dubbed the “Sunset Strangler” because of his method and time of day he kills his victims, always seems to be one step ahead of law enforcement. The sisters’ father is the local detective assigned to solve the case, and his spirits and physical health decline as the killer continues to elude capture. Eventually, public opinion turns against him, and he is removed from the case, leaving an unfinished chapter in his career. Thirty years later, his daughter Rachel is still trying to make sense — and make peace — with her now-deceased father’s professional and personal struggles.
Maynard crafts a story that is family saga, history lesson and murder mystery melded together. There is suspense, but also poignant moments showcasing the lasting bonds of family. Ultimately, in order to find the missing piece of the puzzle, Rachel must confront unexpected secrets of her father’s past. Maynard based After Her on the real-life case of the Trailside Killer, and the investigating detective and his family. On her website you can watch a trailer for the book with interviews with the real-life sisters behind the story.
Life on the run might appear glamorous. Travelling to new places, assuming new names and identities, and trying out new living arrangements all seem like obvious perks. But as the young heroines of two new teen novels learn, the truth is far from that.
In The Rules for Disappearing, by Ashley Elston, “Meg” (her latest identity) and her family have been in the Witness Protection Program for eight months, and have already lived in six different places. She is tired of the subpar housing and lifestyle, but mostly she is worried about the toll the program is taking on her family: her mom is drowning her anxieties and depression in alcohol, her little sister is a shell of her former self, and her father seems oblivious to it all. Mainly, Meg just wants to know what her father did to land them in the program in the first place. Elston creates grounded characters, realistic depictions of small-town high school life and a suspenseful mystery that draws the reader in.
In Elizabeth Kiem’s debut novel, Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, Marina is a young dancer living in the lap of luxury in the Soviet Union, thanks to her famous ballerina mother’s connections. But when her mother disappears, Marina and her father must defect to the United States to protect themselves. As Marina tries to continue her dance training, she must also juggle more practical responsibilities, navigate Manhattan and Brooklyn and adapt to the new capitalist culture. At the same time, Soviet secrets are casting a long shadow from halfway around the world, and what her family knows about the government cover-ups becomes the crux of this dark tale. Kiem brings the 1980s landscapes of gritty Brooklyn and frozen Moscow to life with a suspenseful story of overprotected teenager meets international intrigue.
Dianne Dixon’s second novel, The Book of Someday, links three seemingly unrelated characters in an intriguing story of betrayal, love, loss and maternal protection. Livvi is a successful author with an abusive past. She has recurring nightmares about a woman in a silver dress, but has no idea why or what the dreams mean. Recently, she has fallen in love for the first time but is confused by her boyfriend’s evasiveness and family secrets.
Micah is a talented photographer who has recently found out she has breast cancer. As a result, she is on a cross-country journey to try to make amends for past wrongs.
AnnaLee is a housewife with a young daughter. Her husband loves her, but he is a disappointment to her career-wise and their financial struggles have further strained their marriage.
Told from the alternating perspectives of these three characters, Dixon slowly peels back the layers of the story to reveal the interconnectedness. There is also introspection and self-discovery as each woman matures and better understands the gray areas of their past and present relationships with others.
Dixon is a screenwriter and employs brisk writing, succinct dialogue and concise descriptions to create context and keep the story moving forward. The complex characters and plot twists contribute to a dramatic tale which will keep readers up late at night to unravel the mystery. Fans of Jodi Picoult or Kristin Hannah will appreciate the unique ending, which answers some questions but doesn’t tie everything up too neatly. Highly recommended as a book club selection, or as a good couch read on a chilly fall day.