Monday, May 27, 2024

Summer Reading

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Memorial Day is the traditional kickoff of summer in the U.S. Schools are (mostly) out, pools are open, vacations are planned. And for us bookish people, it's the time of year when we are inundated with ads for SUMMER READS!!! We talked about "beach reads" on the blog the other day, so I'm wondering if we can differentiate a "summer read" from a "beach read?" (I love, by the way, that SUMMER READING is the title of our Jenn McKinlay's wonderful novel from last year–and if you somehow missed it, add it to your list!) I am taking a stance on this and saying that "beach read" is a sub category of "summer read!)

Either way, heres a start on summer reads from Bookbub, with a lovely shout out to our Jenn's LOVE AT FIRST BOOK!

And here's another Bookbub list--this one designated "beach reads--several of which are already in my to-read pile. A glut of riches!

So do those of us not actually going on vacations still get to have "summer reads?" (The closest I ever get to vacation reading is on my trips to England, when I get to read whenever I want, for as long as I want–sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning, a luxury I seldom get at home.) I certainly don't want to feel left out, so here are a few books that I've earmarked for some special summer time.

I've bought all four of Liz Williams' Fallow Sisters novels, starting with COMET WEATHER. This series is described by Paul Cornell as "...a golden slice of British rural fantasy…" which I adore, and I've been saving them for a time when I could clear the decks a little.

Also, Susan Coll's BOOKISH PEOPLE, which is described as a "quirky gem" and sounded just the thing to enjoy while having a cup of tea in the garden.

And Nancy Thayer's THE SUMMER WE STARTED OVER, which I think, as it's set on Nantucket in the summer, crosses over into beach read category, but I'm fine with that.

Oh, adding two more on the British front!! Sara Nisha Adams' (author of THE READING LIST) THE WINTER GARDEN, and David Nicholls' (author of the fabulous ONE DAY) YOU ARE HERE!

What have you saved for summer reading, dear Reds? And how are you all spending Memorial Day?

JENN McKINLAY: Thanks for the nod, Debs. SUMMER READING was so much fun to write! 

As for what i’m reading this summer, I am trying to catch up to all of the recent cozy fantasy books since I’m stepping into that genre, so my beach reads are mostly in that vein with A WIZARD’S GUIDE TO DEFENSIVE BAKING by T. Kingfisher, HALF A SOUL by Olivia Atwater, and THAT TIME I GOT DRUNK AND SAVED A DEMON by Kimberly Lemming. You can tell by the titles, I’m in for a good summer!

LUCY BURDETTE: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Jenn??? That sounds irresistible though I don’t think I’ve ever read cozy fantasy. I started LOVE AT FIRST BOOK yesterday and I’m trying so hard to read slowly so it doesn’t go by too quickly. I love being in Ireland with you and your characters. And I love this line: “Don’t talk.” I held up my hand as I took another spoonful of the chowder. “I’m having a moment with my food.”

I think next up will be Ruth Reichl’s The Paris Novel. I certainly won’t go to Paris this summer with the Olympics happening, so I can go on the page. I’m trying to save the paperbacks for a long plane ride…

HALLIE EPHRON: I’m listening to Meryl Streep reading TOM LAKE by Ann Patchett. Harmonious mother and daughters, my favorite subjects. It’s a little confusing the way it moves back and forth in time… something that would NOT be confusing if I were reading the printed page. Just one of the many differences between reading/reading and listening/reading. 

RHYS BOWEN:  I loved the WIZARD’S GUIDE TO DEFENSIVE BAKING, Jenn. So different! And I’ve read Nancy’s Nantucket book–having had a lovely lunch with her there last year I feel a special affinity!  I’ve just had a rather busy week (British understatement) with two lots of copy edits and one proposal plus three chapters all due at the same time, but I have been sneaking a few minutes each day for Jenn’s LOVE AT FIRST BOOK and nearly finished it but I don’t want to.  Next up is Harini’s NEST OF VIPERS. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I am so happy that I get to read Ruth Ware’s new  ONE PERFECT COUPLE –it takes place on an island, so THAT’s summer, right?

And in preparation to interview him, Chris Whittakers’ new ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, a big fat book–and that’s summer too, right? The perfect time for epic drama.

And for another interview–something completely different—Kristy Woodson Harvey’s A HAPPIER LIFE . It has a beach chair and a floppy hat and the beach on the cover–so that’s summer, too! 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Put me down as another Nancy Thayer fan - summer doesn’t start until I’ve read her most recent Nantucket novel. I’m a reader who likes her books in season, which means from June through August, I want to read mysteries, thrillers, romances and adult fiction set in expensive summer resorts or on east coast beaches, or at a tropical island. 

For the first, Lucy Foley’s latest: THE MIDNIGHT FEAST. If you’re a fan (I am) you know you’re going to get a luxurious, isolated setting, a Clue-like list of victims guests, and rich people behaving Very Badly. The fact the murder occurs on the summer solstice is just the chef’s kiss for this book.

JACKPOT SUMMER (Elyssa Freidman) scratches the second itch, as four siblings gather on the Jersey Shore to pack up their widowed father’s house - oh, and to win millions on a Powerball ticket. Will sudden wealth solve all their problems, or tear the family apart?

Finally, THE DESIGN OF US (Sajni Patel) coming out in July, presses all my rom-com buttons: fake dating, enemies-to-lovers, raincloud meets sunny-side-up-egg PLUS an Indian wedding, all set on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

Oh, and bonus goodie: LIES AND WEDDINGS by Kevin Kwan, author of CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It’s a pastiche of Anthony Trollope’s DOCTOR THORNE, with lots more money, travel, and sexy men!      

DEBS: How will we ever squeeze in a fraction of these??? I have to admit that I started Liz Williams' COMET WEATHER and it is absolutely delicious!! So glad today is a holiday and I can indulge myself a bit because I don't want to put it down!

Readers (at least our American set) how are you spending Memorial Day? And what are you cooking?     


Sunday, May 26, 2024

Dinner Anxiety aka Supper Stress @LucyBurdette


LUCY BURDETTE: All through last week, I couldn't get settled about making dinner. I had food, I had recipes, but nothing sounded quite right nor did I feel like making it. For the first time in a while, something I made tasted and smelled terrible to me. That only fed the uncertainty. (I suspect that this has to do with how hard I'm working on a draft of Key West food critic #15. All my creative juices are running in that direction.) This is kind of a silly question, but do you ever suffer from dinner anxiety?

This soup was one of the things that turned out well, the result of bits and pieces I had left to use—leeks, carrots, and kale. Apparently, Olive Garden has a popular chicken gnocchi soup though I’ve not tasted it. But I started with that recipe and tweaked it to add more vegetables. It’s a good recipe to use up leftover cooked chicken that you have in the freezer.


3-4 tablespoons butter

4 or so small leeks or two large

3 sticks of celery, sliced

1 cup carrots, diced

2 small garlic cloves or one large, minced

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 to 2 cups half-and-half or whole milk

4 cups chicken broth

½ teaspoon mustard powder

2 cups diced cooked chicken

12 oz. frozen potato gnocchi

1 cup fresh spinach or kale, roughly chopped

Fresh parsley

½ tsp red pepper flakes, optional but really good

Salt and pepper, to taste

Slice the leeks, the celery, and the carrots. Melt the butter in a large pan and sauté those vegetables for a few minutes until soft. Add the chopped garlic and sauté for a minute or more. Add the 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour and the mustard powder and stir that until beginning to thicken. Slowly add the chicken broth, stirring frequently like a gravy. Sprinkle in black pepper and red pepper.

Simmer for 10 minutes or so, then add the chicken and the gnocchi. Simmer another few minutes until the pasta is cooked through.

Add the milk and the kale and simmer until the kale is soft. (I also added some chopped fresh parsley because I had it in the fridge.)

We found this delicious—I added no salt, but more black pepper. And served with corn bread. Yummy!

What's for dinner at your house, especially when you can't think of a thing? Are you a planner or a pantser when it comes to supper?

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Lucy’s Tom Sawyer Garden by John Brady

LUCY BURDETTE: Read on, you'll see that today's blog needs no introduction!

JOHN BRADY AKA MR. TOP RETIREMENTS: When Lucy and I moved into our first house together 30 some years ago, it didn’t take long before she announced that we were going to have to have a garden, just like she used to have in her natural woman days in Tennessee. The new back yard was sunny, so we dug up a spot and got busy. She was insistent that it was going to be organic - manure and compost, but no chemicals of any kind. She chose plants like chard, radishes and tomato plants. We had a pretty good garden in no time, and even started an asparagus patch. That was one of our biggest successes because it not only tasted unlike anything you can buy, but it comes back up year after year. The chard was a big hit with our two guinea pigs, Tommy Moe and Chubby Checkers. The zucchini was so prolific that the kids drew the limit: no more zucchini boats! No more zucchini anything!

Then twenty five years ago we moved down the street to our current home. By that time Lucy had me hooked like Tom Sawyer, so we went through the same garden process again, including a new asparagus patch. One development I started noticing was that the master organic gardener’s enthusiasm seemed to be flagging a bit. Yes, each spring she was the driving force behind selection of plants from the nursery and seeds in vast quantities. But Lucy‘s appearances in the garden, particularly for digging and weeding, grew more and more into cameos. 

If I couldn’t count on Lucy for weeding, I was enjoying what she did with what was coming out of our plot.  One of the best successes was our bountiful cucumbers. Using skills from her days in Tennessee, we turned countless cucumbers into delicious bread and butter pickles. Another skill from her old southern days was okra. She found a variety that could thrive in Connecticut,  and we enjoyed those rounds dipped in batter and fried. Tomatoes, green beans, and beets were mainstays as well. The butternut squash not only thrived, but it actually climbed over the fence into the driveway. For some reason having to do with our soil, eggplant and lettuce pretty much refused to grow.

All is Not Well - Huns and Pestilence

But all is not well in our little garden of Eden. You might have a vision of coastal Connecticut as a fairly benign place. In fact, it is a dangerous, hostile environment, one where vegetative predators roam like the desperadoes of the old west.  Anxious to protect our hard earned crops, even the calmest person could turn into an obsessive-compulsive mess.   

Rabbits were the first destructive force we found. To counteract them we paid for a beautiful fence around the entire plot. Unfortunately, the devastation to our plants continued. Finally, we noticed a series of holes in the fence - it was made out of plastic, and our little bunnies just just chewed through it to enjoy the all you can eat buffet. A new, more expensive, wire fence ensued, 

After a season of feeling safe behind our new fort walls, more devastation returned. When you go to the garden in the morning and see that the crop that you were so proud of the night before is now a row of of plants clear cut about 2 inches above the ground, you are hosting a new friend, the woodchuck.  Otherwise known as a groundhog, Phil might be popular in Punxsutawney, but his cousin Woody is certainly not welcome in our garden.

Then there is the problem of raccoons, At age 25, our wonderful asparagus plants are starting to peter out. So last spring I researched the perfect replacement variety for our Connecticut plot. I followed the instructions carefully, digging deep, preparing the soil with topsoil, compost, and of course, organic fertilizer. Over the summer I weeded and gradually covered the young asparagus shoots with soil to get them back to ground level. About that time I noticed the asparagus was getting nipped off, but some managed to survive. I had high hopes that what would emerge in the spring would justify my many hours of backtracking labor. 

Returning from Florida last month I saw asparagus spears emerging from the ground in a few spots - hurrah! That joy didn’t last long, however,  as each day another spear was gnawed off about an inch off the ground. Desolation and desperation followed.

Lucy has been following what ensued with wry amusement. Since she refuses to sit in the garden all night with a shotgun, all of my compulsive urges have kicked in. I constructed cages around all the remaining plants from stakes and netting. I sprinkled cayenne pepper and coffee grinds around the plants. 

Then I bought a battery operated video camera with motion detector, hoping to find the perpetrator. After about a week, I discovered via a grainy video who the culprit is - a young raccoon. Somehow Rocky has figured out how to climb over 4 foot tall fence (topped with additional bird netting) to enjoy the feast. 

Hope springs eternal.  I ordered 25 more asparagus roots and planted them this week, hoping that my latest protections can keep Rocky a bay. Along with them, I ordered wire panels that I intend to circle around each plant. 

At this point Lucy has confirmed that I fit at least one description in her old psychiatric reference tome. But she only draws the line at violence. Since trapping or shooting are out, this sheriff welcomes any suggestions on how we can maintain the peace in the wild West of this Connecticut garden.

John Brady is Lucy's adorable and funny husband and the creator of Top Retirements, his website crammed with advice for baby boomers thinking about the how and where of retirement. Here's an article about his retirement with a Q and A about yours.