Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "The Art of Crash Landing" by Melissa DeCarlo, Served with a Greek(ish) Pearl Couscous Salad with Lemon-Caper Dressing

On today's TLC Book Tour stop I am reviewing The Art of Crash Landing, a debut novel by Melissa DeCarlo. If you think you have problems or don't make the best choices, wait until you meet Matilda (Mattie) Wallace who is crashing fast and seems bent on repeating many of her late mother's mistakes. Mattie is not going down without a fight however, and although there is potential for some heartbreak in the story of a woman who is close to reaching bottom, there are plenty of laughs too. Accompanying my review is a fabulous Greek(ish) Pearl Couscous Salad with Lemon-Caper Dressing, inspired by my reading. 

Publisher's Blurb:

Broke and knocked up, Mattie Wallace has got all her worldly possessions crammed into six giant trash bags and nowhere to go. Try as she might, she really is turning into her late mother, a broken alcoholic who never met a bad choice she didn’t make.

When Mattie gets news of a possible inheritance left by a grandmother she’s never met, she jumps at this one last chance to turn things around. Leaving the Florida Panhandle, she drives eight hundred miles to her mother’s birthplace—the tiny town of Gandy, Oklahoma. There, she soon learns that her mother remains a local mystery—a happy, talented teenager who inexplicably skipped town thirty-five years ago with nothing but the clothes on her back. But the girl they describe bears little resemblance to the damaged woman Mattie knew, and before long it becomes clear that something terrible happened to her mother. The deeper Mattie digs for answers, the more precarious her situation becomes. Giving up, however, isn’t an option. Uncovering what started her mother’s downward spiral might be the only way to stop her own.

Paperback: 432 pages P
ublisher: Harper Paperbacks (September 8, 2015)

My Review

I really enjoyed the humor in The Art of Crash Landing. Mattie has a sarcasm and snarkiness that I responded to and she made me laugh out loud several times with her thoughts and comments. On the other hand, Mattie was a hard character to connect with for much of the book. She is immature for her age (30), has the soul of a grifter, possesses a lack of any accountability for her actions and choices, and is completely insensitive to others. It's a risk to have a main character that is hard to like and does not appear to be headed for a big character arc of redemption, but Melissa DeCarlo accomplished what I thought she wouldn't--she made me warm to Mattie as the book progressed. I would still place her in the category of "fun to have a cup of coffee with" rather than a good trustworthy friend but, by the end of the book doggonit, as much as I wanted to shake her and tell her to pull up her big-girl panties and stop blaming a tough childhood for her issues, I wanted to give her a hug too. I appreciated her spunk and snark, her push to find answers, and seeing glimpses of a heart. The book leaves optimism for her further growth, but I could just as easily see Mattie sliding back into past behaviors and bad choices. Yes, I want to shake her again...

There was much that made The Art of Crash Landing an enjoyable read. The loyalty of Mattie's stepfather 'Queeg' was touching, her pain at her mother's death and the memories of the events leading up to it were soul-wrenching. Those spots of sadness were offset by Mattie's own humorous outlook and attitudes which provided plenty of fun, as did her grandmother's smelly French bulldog twins--both named Winston, and her relationship with the uniquely-pierced, snarly, potty-mouthed Goth teen Tawny. I loved the small town of Grandy, Oklahoma with its quirky residents and how much DeCarlo made it come to life with her descriptions. The mystery of where things went wrong for Mattie's mother is absorbing and while I expected Mattie to figure it out as soon as I did, it kept me reading chapters to see what happened when she put everything together. The Art of Crash Landing is a smart and fun read with moments that pulled at my heartstrings and moments that made me snicker and snort. Melissa DeCarlo has crafted an impressive debut novel that shines with wit and energy from start to finish. 


Author Notes: Melissa DeCarlo was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and has worked as an artist, graphic designer, grant writer, and even (back when computers were the size of refrigerators) a computer programmer. The Art of Crash Landing is her first novel. Melissa now lives in East Texas with her husband and a motley crew of rescue animals.
Find out more about Melissa at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


Food Inspiration:

Maddie is broke and pretty much exists on a combination of stale food in her grandmother's cupboards and freezer, handouts, swiped apples and crackers from her library job, some fast food, and a couple of dinner dates, so it was a bit of a struggle to find my food inspiration. It seemed insensitive to make a drink with the alcoholism in the book, or to pick a food with painful connotations of Mattie's past. If I ate meat it surely would have been pork chops as it completely cracked me up when Mattie called a woman she was in a tug-of-war with over a pink bike "pork chop" (as in "F*#% off, pork chop.") Who does that and gets away with it? ;-)  Finally a dinner date between Mattie and attractive paraplegic paralegal Luke sparked a dish as it seems Mattie and I share a love for Greek salads. 

Wanting a more substantial meat-free meal and having boxes of Israeli couscous and chickpeas in the cupboard, I decided to add them to the usual mix of cucumber, tomato, red onion, and feta. I have been looking for a reason to make April Bloomfield's Lemon-Caper Dressing (recipe below) and I thought it would be an excellent addition to the salad since it has a bold flavor that would be readily absorbed by the pasta and beans.

I am not going to give you a detailed step-by-step of how to make a Greek (or Greek(ish) in this case) salad--you should just pick your ingredients and toss in the amounts you like. 

For this salad (about 4 good-sized portions) I used:
  • 3 cups cooked pearl (or Israeli) couscous
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 of a small red onion
  • 1 pint of grape tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1 English cucumber, skin on, halved length wise, then sliced (I don't bother scooping out the the seeds)
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, sliced in half
  • 3 Tbsp each coarsely-chopped fresh mint and flat parsley
  • about 4-oz good feta cheese, crumbled
  • black pepper to taste (you shouldn't need salt with the dressing & capers, olives & feta)
  • Lemon-Caper Dressing (recipe below) + lemon segments from dressing recipe, chopped, to taste. (I used the whole 3/4 cup--the pasta soaks it up

A few quick tips: 
  • Make the salad dressing and pour 1/4 cup of it into a large bowl with the sliced red onion and let them sit for 15 minutes or so while you cook the couscous and chop and prepare the other ingredients. This will take some of the bite out of the onion.
  • Put the warm couscous and the chickpeas into the bowl with the onions and add another 1/4 cup of the dressing. Gently mix it together. This will allow the couscous to absorb the dressing flavors.
  • Add the other ingredients (except for the feta) and gently stir to mix. Add the final 1/4 cup of dressing, or add remaining dressing to taste. Season to taste with the black pepper--you should not need much (if any) additional salt.
  • Don't add the feta until you are ready to serve the salad.
  • This salad is good cold but I really like it better at room temperature and even better several hours after being made or the next day when the flavors are blended and absorbed. 

Food 52 says, "At first glance, this is a shockingly brash dressing. April Bloomfield uses not just lemon juice, but whole lemon segments, and more mustard than could possibly seem like a good idea. But she also knows about restraint, and adds just enough addictive nips of caper and shallot to keep you going, and gentler undercurrents of lemon juice, salt, and sugar."

I made a few changes based on what I like (whole capers) and what I had on hand (honey instead of sugar). I ended up just segmenting one lemon and chopping the sections because (I am lazy and also) I didn't want big pieces of lemon competing with the other strong flavors in the salad. Because you get more juice sectioning, I added the juice from another 1/2 lemon. My changes are in red below.

Lemon-Caper Dressing
Very slightly adapated from April Bloomfield via
(Makes 1 Cup) (I got about 3/4 cup)

2 medium lemons (I used 2 1/2 lemons--see note)
3 Tbsp finely chopped shallots
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard (choose one whose flavor you like on its own)
2 tablespoons drained capers, finely chopped (I used 3 Tbsp, drained, unchopped)
1/2 teaspoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt
1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar (I used honey)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Segment the lemons over a bowl to catch the juices (see note below). Set aside. 

Squeeze the juice from the membranes into a separate bowl, add the rest of the ingredients, and stir well. 

Add the lemon segments and toss gently to coat them without breaking them up. Use straightaway or chill in the fridge, covered, for up to an hour. 

Note: To segment the lemons: Use a sharp knife to cut off just enough of the fruit's top and bottom to expose a full circle of the flesh on either end. Stand the lemon on one of its ends, place your knife point at the seam where the fruit meets the pith, and use a gentle sawing motion to cut away a wide strip of pith and skin, following the curve of the fruit from top to bottom. Repeat the process until all you have left is a nice, round, naked fruit. If you've missed any white pith, trim it off. Make a cut down either side of each segment, right against the membrane, and gently pry out each segment, one at a time. Flick out any seeds, and set the segments aside in a bowl, reserving the juicy membranes.

Notes/Results: Colorful and packed with flavor, this salad really hit the spot. Not a traditional Greek salad--why I called it Greek(ish), but with similar flavors. I really love the dressing but I am a fan of the three big flavors in it--lemon, mustard, and capers--and it is pungent with all three. I think it made a nice change from the sometimes strong vinegar taste of some Greek salads and it's pungency really works well to flavor the couscous and beans. You can adapt it to your tastes with other veggies--fennel, carrot, or red pepper, or switch out the couscous to a whole grain like barley or farro, or use quinoa or rice if you want something gluten free. I find pearl couscous to be fun to eat (love those little pasta spheres) and the beans add protein and the fiber the couscous lacks. I will definitely make this again--both the dressing and the salad.

I am linking this review and the dish inspired by the book to Novel Food--an event celebrating food inspired by the written word and hosted by my friend and fellow Cook the Books co-host Simona of Briciole. The deadline for this round (#25!) of Novel Food ends Monday, September 28th. 

Note: A review copy of "The Art of Crash Landing" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.


  1. Wow!! Thank you do much for the great review--AND the great recipe! I'm making that one for SURE!! It looks delicious (and now I need to look back over your blog for some more recipes.) What a fun idea for a blog. LOVE IT!

  2. salad season is ending here but I love all these flavors, will bookmark for warmer days:)

  3. That salad looks amazing!

    I love when an author can play with my feelings about a character. I think that's a really hard balance!

    Thanks for being on the tour!

  4. Your review along with the Oklahoma connection has me intrigued. And, I agree....who gets away with calling someone "pork chop" (and telling them to F-off!)!

  5. Your book reviews are always a pleasure to read, Deb, and this is no exception. The book's title is definitely catching. I love the salad you made and the dressing sounds quite interesting. Thank you so much for contributing to Novel Food.

  6. I agree -- I didn't think I would like Mattie, but she really grew on me. I love how authentic she is. Even her redemption is true-to-life -- it's not complete, it's not perfect, but it's a start. I also thought DeCarlo did a good job of making her sympathetic. Mattie and I would never get along in real life, but she makes for a fun fictional friend. Glad you enjoyed the book!

    P.S. I'm loving your blog! Adding it to my Bloglovin' feed right now.


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