The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan (Historical Fiction / Women’s Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

Warm-hearted, home-front WWII story about the way people (in this case mostly women) pull together in times of hardship. Based on the real life “Kitchen Front” radio cookery program which was designed to help its listeners make the most of wartime food rations — this is the tale of a competition to find a new, female, co-presenter for the BBC show. Four women in sleepy Fenley Village take up the challenge: Audrey, widowed mother of three trying to eke by with a home baking business; her estranged sister Gwendoline, married to the Lord of Fenley Hall and possessor of Audrey’s crippling mortgage; Nell, undercook at Fenley Hall and terrified of the outside world; and Zelda, a London chef bombed out of her kitchen and sent to the Fenley Pie refectory to work bringing a surprise with her. Alternating between their four voices we get the backstories, recipes, and current challenges (plenty of drama there!) while we follow their inspiring journey from fierce competitors to best friends using will, determination, and compassion to overcoming terrible adversity.

Definitely an upbeat story along with impressive food and food preparation descriptions (though I am only interested in eating food so I kind of skimmed those bits). This is one of those books where human initiative solves problems with the help of some luck and overly-easy good results, but it’s a nice, buoyant glimpse into a world with some obvious parallels to approaches to the problems of today.

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on February 23rd, 2021.

Chronicles of a Radical Hag by Lorna Landvik (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 4.5

When 81 year old columnist Haze Evans (the titular “Radical Hag”) slips into a coma, the local paper in Granite Creek, Minnesota decides to reprint selected columns from the last 50 years until she can start again. Always uncensored, these columns range in size and topic and bring history (both local and global) back to life in a personal way. The entire community relives events such as the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma bombing, the Exxon Valdez spill as well as the meeting of her lifelong best friend, her short but loving marriage, the birth of local quadruplets, etc.

The characters in the novel are wonderful and run the gamut from newspaper publisher to RV salesman to nurse with assorted retirees and high school students thrown in. Each handling his/her own concerns while working towards his/her own definition of a good and decent life.

I loved the way the characters spent time *thinking* about what they were reading in the columns and engaged with those with differing opinions. One high school teacher instituted “Radical Hag Wednesdays” where students discussed column-instigated topics. In other conversations, the impact of #metoo style accusations on young boys, or love, divorce, and adultery were discussed — all with depth and a desire for understanding rather than condemnation. An artfully done blending of “homespun wisdom” with open minds.

I’ve been a fan of Lorna Landvik since her 1995 Patty Jane’s House of Curl. Her writing is simultaneously humorous and heartfelt, thought provoking and tolerant, touching on real people dealing with life in a real way.