Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: Off the Menu

By Melissa Amster

Considering that I've enjoyed each and every one of Stacey Ballis' novels, I was eagerly anticipating the release of "Off the Menu," as I knew it would have her amazing storytelling flair. I am pleased to report that she is now six for six in my...um...book!

Alana Ostermann is the executive culinary assistant to Patrick Conlon, a celebrity Chicago chef and demanding diva of a boss. She not only has to answer to him at work, but also for middle of the night snacks, one-sided venting sessions, and unnecessary phone calls on weekends. He has even incorporated himself into her family meals. So there's a reason why she barely has time to spend with her adorably mismatched dog, Dumpling. Then she meets RJ, a gorgeous Tennessee transplant, thanks to an online fluke. Before they know it, not only does Dumpling have a rival for Alana's affections, as Patrick also finds himself competing for her attention. And when she's presented with a huge dilemma, she has to factor in everyone's needs along with her own in order to create a delicious dish of balance.

There are books where I feel connected with a lead character and other books where I feel like the author came into my home and spied on my life. "Off the Menu" represents the latter. While I know this was inspired by her courtship and romance with her husband, some things are just eerily similar to my relationship with my husband. I found myself e-mailing Stacey multiple times a day to tell her "this happened to me!" I even shared some embarrassing dog and cat stories with her, which came to mind while reading about all the crazy stuff that Dumpling managed to pull off. (Mind you, Dumpling is a dog, yet he is front and center for the entire story. He's quite a memorable character in that way.) Anyway, I also found that I am similar to Alana in personality, especially when it comes to food quirks and her positive outlook on life. We also have similar body shapes and curly hair. Add Judaism to the mix and we're practically soul sisters! (It was especially nice for me to get an inside peek at one of Alana's family Shabbat dinners.)

"Off the Menu" is a happy-go-lucky piece of comfort food for the soul. If you're expecting heavy drama, you're "barking" up the wrong tree. Patrick Conlon may seem like a male Miranda Priestly at first, but really, he's quite a cool boss. He manages to get under Alana's skin, but then he makes it up to her in such fabulous ways. He even lets her tell him off without it coming back to bite her in the behind later. While I didn't envy her love life at all (given how much I could relate), I did envy her job, aside from the midnight snack sessions.  I wouldn't mind doing what she does, but working for a high profile author instead. (Just as long as they knew their boundaries.) So, if you're looking for a story that feels like a giant hug, you've come to the right place and you will revel in this embrace throughout the entire story. It gave off the feel of that warmth you get in front of the fireplace after a homemade meal on a winter's evening. It's like the hot cocoa and fresh out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies that make a perfect snack to top off the evening. I especially loved reading about the beginning of Alana and RJ's courtship; all the e-mails they exchanged, their easygoing phone calls, the nervous and heady anticipation surrounding the first date. It brought me back to the feelings I first had ten years ago, upon meeting my husband. The excitement of knowing something is there and trying to figure it out together. And all the inside jokes...I really enjoyed reading the ones between Alana and RJ. I didn't even have to understand them to find them amusing.

There were a few other things I really liked. First was that Stacey brought back a character from a previous novel so that we can see what she's been up to. It was nice to find out more about what was going on in her life and I hope Stacey will do that for other past characters in future novels. It's also great that she reinforces the value of healthy food while still making all the dishes sound delectable. Food doesn't need to be fattening to taste good and she proves this through the meals presented throughout the story (with recipes at the end). The cover is warm and inviting, with a nice mix of pink and brown. I don't know if those are cupcakes or muffins, but I just want to grab one for myself. They look so tasty!

While I had an enjoyable time reading "Off the Menu," there were some things that I would have been fine without. I felt that the foreign accents were a bit exaggerated. I don't recall her doing this in any of her previous novels, so it threw me for a loop. While the potty humor in relation to Dumpling wasn't that bad, there were times where I really didn't want to picture what he was doing. And I wouldn't have minded less details when bodily functions were used in relation to humans. It reached a "too much information" level at times. Finally, the F-word seemed prevalent throughout the story and I wouldn't have minded Stacey cutting back on it. None of the above issues kept me from reading and loving the story. I would have just preferred a hot and heavy "romantic" scene (which were just alluded to and not actually described) to a toilet scene.

Whether you're a huge Stacey Ballis fan or this is your first time reading one of her novels, I definitely recommend "Off the Menu." It's a fun, sweet story that's basically a love letter to her husband. I can feel that love emanating through and it just fills the story with a rich warmth that rivals the descriptions of some delicious sounding food. It's like Nora Ephron meets "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." If you want a virtual tour of Chicago, some delicious recipes (and there are TONS in the back of the book), lots of laughs, and/or are looking to believe in true love or a reason to fall in love with your significant other all over again, this is the novel for you!

Our giveaway for "Off the Menu" is going on through tomorrow at midnight EST. (US/Canada only.)

More by Stacey Ballis:

1 comment:

FABR Steph said...

I have not read this author, so thank you for your lovely review and recommendation. I will add it to my TBR for a time when I am in the mood for a lighthearted read.