Friday, May 13, 2016

Review | Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking

Publish Date: July 28, 2015

Source: Book - Library, Audiobook - Library
Find it here:  Goodreads / Amazon 

When Lars Thorvald's wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine--and a dashing sommelier--he's left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He's determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter--starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva's journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that's a testament to her spirit and resilience.

Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal's startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life--its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises. It marks the entry of a brilliant new talent. 
 (from Goodreads) 

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

My Thoughts:  Sometimes when I read a book, I fall in love with it but I have a hard time knowing exactly why I loved it so much. Characterization, story structure, setting, writing style - it could be any combination of these things. Perhaps I read the book during a really great time in my life...or maybe I have a great memory attached to it. In the case of this book, it was a combination of all of the above. I read Kitchens of the Great Midwest for the first time in January 2016 on a flight both to and from Boston to see my dearest friends. I almost missed the plane once because I didn't hear the announcement that it was time to board because, you know, reading. When I got to the end of the book, I loved it with a fierce, book-hugging love and yet I couldn't quite pinpoint why exactly. 

Note: This happens to me fairly often and is not a negative thing. It is, in fact, the opposite. It happens in the very best of circumstances and I would call these books: some of my favorites. 

I needed to figure out exactly why I couldn't stop thinking about this story, so I decided to reread, which was one of the best decisions ever. 

I added the audiobook to this reread and loved it even more. The thing that jumped out to me the most during my first read and even now is the structure of the story: the book starts out with Lars Thorvald, his wife Cynthia, and their new baby Eva. As we learn a little about Lars, we learn that he loves to cook, but not just anything - he loves good, quality food made from fresh ingredients. He wants his daughter Eva to grow up with a love for food that mirrors his, so from a very young age, he feeds her the best that he can afford. Food from scratch. Cynthia, Lars' wife, grows bored with the all of the food and the baby stuff, and takes off to pursue a career as a sommelier. Lars is left to raise Eva with the help of family. From here, the story belongs to Eva -- except that it sort of doesn't. 

See, after the first portion of the story centers around Lars, the second centers around someone else in Eva's life, and so on and so forth. Each portion of the story - vignettes, really - has a main character that is not Eva even as she continues to remain the star and focal point of the story until the very end. So while she is never the main character at any time in the book, this is still her story. Her coming-of-age, if you will. 

It is brilliant. I fell in love with this structure. Since I did not read any reviews or summaries or articles about Kitchens of the Great Midwest before I began it, this "new-to-me" style knocked me off of my feet as I moved through the book. I wasn't expecting it, but wow, I really loved it. This is such a neat way to read about Eva growing up and coming into her own: through the eyes of the people around her. 

Even though we spend only an abbreviated portion of the book with each character, I felt like I knew them well enough to enjoy them all. Sure, there are some that I felt like I knew a little bit better than others, but I think this was mainly because of personal favorites and preferences. I believe that each reader will "favorite" different portions of it, but every single section is equally essential because of the sequencing of Eva's life and because of the placement of all of these characters along the way. (I will say that the first time I had favorites and some characters that I didn't care for very much, but on the reread-with-audio, I loved the entire book and all of the characters.)

The Midwestern setting is super fun because it is so obviously Midwestern. I loved the traditions and customs and the accents and turns of phrases. The audiobook enhanced these things tremendously. 

This book is charming. Very, very charming. And such a great story. I have been purposefully vague with plot points, characters, and pretty much everything else related to the book. The best thing about my reread (aside from the accents on the audiobook) was being able to pick up on little details that I missed the first time; knowing how the book ends let me relax a little bit and dig deeper for these little things and I loved making the deeper connections in this story because they were in there, waiting for me, where I glossed over them during my first read. Names dropped here and there, associations, things like that. These little secrets made me smile to myself as I read. And I feel like I know the characters even better after a second read, which is always a plus. 

I'm not sure what J. Ryan Stradal has coming up for his next book, but I'm excited for it. And even after reading this one twice in a short period of time, I'm not ruling out yet another reread. I think this one goes on the "feel-good reads" shelf for me. This story makes me happy. I'd like to own a paperback copy of this book and I'd like for it to have tattered edges because I've returned to it often. I can see myself in so many of the non-Eva characters, and perhaps a teensy bit in Eva. Maybe that's another reason that I love this story so much? I love Eva, I love that she is whip-smart, super cool without trying to be, she does her own thing even when it isn't necessarily the coolest thing to do (like fangirl over food), and becomes successful and builds a career at what she loves. There is so much to love in this story, so much story here, and it is for both men and women. I love everything about it. I want everyone to read it. I think it is just THAT good. 

Or perhaps I just happened to pick it up at the right time for me. Either way, I totally recommend it. 

Audiobook Notes: The audiobook format of Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is published by Penguin Audio and is 10 hours and 7 minutes, Unabridged. It is narrated by Amy Ryan and Michael Stuhlbarg who are both new to me as far as narration goes, but are absolutely perfect for their roles in this book. I cannot imagine having anyone else read these parts and found myself chuckling out loud throughout the book at their delivery during the humorous places and with particularly funny characters. The first time I read this book, I read print only and loved it, but adding the audiobook to the reread made the book POP! for me. I would easily recommend the audiobook format to readers that are looking to read this book for the first time or for those wanting to reread, like myself. This audiobook was a very good decision for me! I'll be looking to add it to my audio library as a purchase as soon as I can. 


Kitchens of the Great Midwest will appeal to fans of:

Contemporary Fiction
Romance: Very light, no triangle. Not the central 
focus of the book. 
Setting: Midwestern US.
Food, cooking.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
is currently available for purchase.


Love the two different covers of this book!  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review | Summer Days & Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories (Anthology), Edited by Stephanie Perkins

Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories 
Edited by Stephanie Perkins
Published by St. Martin's Griffin
Publish Date: May 17, 2016

Source: Publisher
Find It: Goodreads / Amazon 

Maybe it's the long, lazy days, or maybe it's the heat making everyone a little bit crazy. Whatever the reason, summer is the perfect time for love to bloom. Summer Days & Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories, written by twelve bestselling young adult writers and edited by the international bestselling author Stephanie Perkins, will have you dreaming of sunset strolls by the lake. So set out your beach chair and grab your sunglasses. You have twelve reasons this summer to soak up the sun and fall in love.

Featuring stories by Leigh Bardugo, Francesca Lia Block, Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Brandy Colbert, Tim Federle, Lev Grossman, Nina LaCour, Stephanie Perkins, Veronica Roth, Jon Skovron, and Jennifer E. Smith.

Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories

My Thoughts:  Before I read My True Love Gave To Me, also edited by Stephanie Perkins, I didn't really think I read enough short story collections/anthologies. Perkins' previous collaboration with various well-known YA authors made me feel sort of excited about the possibility of shorter story collections because there are often periods in my life that I don't have a chunk of time to set aside to read but I still want to. I love that there is another book like My True Love Gave To Me for instances like these. (I'm sure there are probably others out there that I haven't found yet, but these are the two that I know!) 

Like the previous anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights started out fairly strong and was fairly evenly distributed as far as diverse stories go - not only in terms of characters but types of stories. There truly is something in here for every reader, whether your favorite stories are contemporary, contemporary with issues, or fantasy.

One of the best things about reading a collective group of shorter stories is that almost always, I come across authors that I've read before AND I am exposed to new authors for the first time -- WHICH I LOVE. For me, this particular reading experience introduced me to work by Brandy Colbert, Tim Federle, and Jon Skovron. This is a very diverse of authors and storytellers, both the ones that are new to me and the ones that are not, in terms of their stories. The stories and romances are just as varied as the authors are, and I love that. 

Something fantastic about the first collection is that it included very real issues and characteristics, even though some of them were a little embarrassing for the characters: food allergies, trying to come to terms with low socioeconomic status, race issues. With this collection, there are new characteristics and issues PLUS PLUS PLUS one of the short stories is a continuation from the first anthology (shout out to Stephanie Perkins for this!). LOVED. Love love love that. 

I liked several of them, but I had two absolute favorites among this group: 
Stephanie Perkins' IN NINETY MINUTES, TURN NORTH pulled at my heart, not only because it is set in my own home of North Carolina, but because I love that she continued the story that she began in the first collection. More development for these characters and a broader setting made me *heart* this story as hard as I possibly could. 
Jennifer E. Smith's A THOUSAND WAYS THIS COULD ALL GO WRONG was a true winner. Can we get this story in a full-length novel, please? Smith gives us a girl with a mad crush on a very interesting boy, and he tells her a secret that could make or break their entire relationship before it ever gets going. Good. grief. I really loved this one, please make it a full-length story. (Now I'm just begging and that's never attractive.)
Special nods to the contributions from Leigh Bardugo and Veronica Roth! I loved their shorts also. 

Summer Days and Summer Nights is just a unique and fun and neat group of stories pulled together by Stephanie Perkins, again, for the second time. I'm beginning to see a trend with these collections that are edited by Ms. Perkins and I'm fairly certain that if I keep seeing more like this, I'll probably always pick them up and continue to reread them. 

I read this one slowly, a story at a time, and I think that's the best way to go about this collection and the one that was published before this one. I believe that they're most deliciously savored that way. 

I recommend Summer Days and Summer Nights to readers that love short story collections, readers that find themselves having to cram reading into small breaks of time, readers that love summer-y stories, and readers that are looking to find new YA authors to love. Just like with the previous My True Love Gave To Me collection during the holiday season, I absolutely see myself rereading this one next year and in the years to come as the seasons approach spring and summer. 


Summer Days and Summer Nights will appeal to fans of:

Young Adult Anthology/Collection
Summer-themed Stories

Summer Days and Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories
Edited by Stephanie Perkins
will be available for purchase on May 17, 2016. 


Stephanie Perkins has always worked with books—first as a bookseller, then as a librarian, and now as a novelist. She's the author of the international bestsellers Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door, as well as Isla and the Happily Ever After. My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories is her first anthology. Stephanie and her husband live in the mountains of North Carolina.

Find Stephanie Perkins:  Website | Tumblr | Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram 


Anthology Collection Edited by Stephanie Perkins: