Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review: Under Winter Lights: Part One

Under Winter Lights: Part One Under Winter Lights: Part One by Bree M. Lewandowski
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

3.75 Stars

As most of my readers know, I typically don't read in the romance genre. So I was a little caught off-guard when author Bree Lewandowski asked me if I would review her book. After reading through its summary, my interest was piqued because it is set in the world of a fictional ballet company, The Bellus Ballet, which seems somewhat loosely based on The Joffrey Ballet. My mother was a ballet dancer who trained with a Russian ballet master before she married. I was raised attending performances and watching Russian films of the Bolshoi and Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet. In my childhood, all our kitties were named after Russian ballerinas- Maya, Galina, Natalia, and Ekaterina. Ballet feels warm and familiar. So I accepted the review request.

First things first, let's get it out of the way, since the book is titled Under Winter Lights, Part 1: let me assure the readers that hate them that there isn't a cliffhanger here. Think of this as a ballet in two acts. This book is Act 1.

Set in Chicago, Under Winter Lights details a sometimes frustratingly tentative and unsure of herself protagonist, Martina Mariposa (the surname being the Spanish word for 'butterfly' but we have no idea about this redhead's Latin origins), age nineteen. Martina was brave enough to move away from home and join The Bellus Ballet but is so timid about so many things that at times it was hard to envision how she got to where she is. I tried to make peace with that thought by thinking that Martina isn't sure, either. The other main character is her dashing dance partner, Maraav Levondovska (whose first name is the Hebrew for West and whose last name is mostly Ukrainian or Polish and appears to be a feminine rather than masculine form of a surname, and whose parents are Laine and Bruce Levondovska and yeah, Bruce is clearly not a Russian name either so like Elsa in Frozen, let's let it go about names already) who is about twenty-four or twenty-five. Young Martina has been elevated from a young and relatively inexperienced corps de ballet dancer to principal dancer in a production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker because of the desire on the part of unpleasant Bellus Ballet director Alan Jung to cast an innocent and childlike dancer in the role of Clara Silberhaus (Clara Stahlbaum in the original ballet). When questioned about Martina's ability to rise to this challenge, Jung seems to relish the idea of his formative role in developing her as a principal dancer. Or, as Jung so pleasantly puts it at one point during a media event, "It's as if, before her entrance into The Bellus, she did not exist." Jung has to be every reader's least favorite character, and in a dark backstory about a prior dancer he elevated, the ill-fated Daisy, we learn that he is without scruples or empathy. I was quite put off by this believably egotistical and Svengali-like character. For a brief moment I was worried that there would be a love triangle here, with this predatory director, but thus far that's not been fully realized. (And thank goodness. In the Harvey Weinstein era, this creepy man is all too real.)

Although we see a lush amount of detail about the ballet world from Martina's perspective, the novel's focus remains tightly bound to Martina and Maraav. The evolving relationship between Martina and Maraav is built out nicely by Lewandowski. Maraav, whose moniker "The Wolf of the Mariinsky" has provided him with the handy insulation of not true in reality bad-boy reputation, is actually a charming character. Maraav also has a fair amount of insight into self-worth and how to get some. Lewandowski spends more time building out Maraav's history than she does building out a backstory for Martina. While I'm sure she means to contrast the simple origins of Martina with the complex ones of Maraav, I was sometimes left feeling she lavished more writing love on Maraav than on her heroine. Lewandowski is also a little too prone to the telling us, instead of showing us, style of writing. But the story she builds is interesting enough to keep the reader reading.

I found much to like in this book. Lewandowski's love of the city of Chicago, and of ballet, is woven through this book wonderfully. Her depiction of Martina's loneliness, especially over a bitterly cold Thanksgiving day, is genuine and poignant. Lewandowski has given me enough enjoyment so that I'm planning to follow up with Part 2 over the holidays.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

This review first posted in December 2016 on Goodreads. It is republished here in advance of the release of  The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy #2).

"Come in, Vasya. It is cold."

The Bear and The Nightingale might be better titled "Vasilisa the Brave Meets the Bear and Death, and Befriends a Nightingale." This is a book "of bears and sorcerers, of spells made of sapphire and the king of the sea." It is more than enough. This is a delightful book, something like a Bildungsroman of a young woman realizing her potential for magic and embracing it. It also makes it clear that the greater part of magic is truly seeing the world around us. With an unconventional take on Russian folklore, in which the rich natural world of folklore is in no small measure pitted against the restrictive Russian Orthodox Church and the stifling limitations of gender-typical roles for women, Arden gives us a tale that is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente's Deathless, which I hold in high esteem. Vasilisa is not a young woman willing to be caged in. This is a very polished debut novel and I will look forward to more from the author! I am glad to know she has more of Vasya's world planned. This is the first of a trilogy.

I'm offering a Giveaway of this book!

Appropriate for mature middle school readers through adult readers.

Domovoi by Vladimir Chernikov
Domovoi by Vladimir Chernikov

and a wild slip of girl named Vasilisa...

Vasilisa Encounters the White Horseman by Laura Bitano

Vasilisa Encounters the White Horseman by Laura Bitano

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: Crooked Kingdom

Crooked Kingdom Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

Completing the duology begun with Six of Crows, Crooked Kingdom closes on a world that was so dark at the start by giving us a heartbreaking loss for one character but also with much hope for all.

In addition to my love of Bardugo's masterful character development in these books, I am awed by the skillfully handled and powerful message to young adult readers about the power of choice, of a simple touch, and of the fragile emotions that lie at the heart of even those who feign indifference for survival reasons. Kaz, Inej, Wylan and Matthias give the reader insight into the rehabilitation of injured and broken souls.

With breath-taking turnabouts that sometimes strained my credulity a bit (yes, even though this is fantasy!), Crooked Kingdom is almost non-stop action. With shocking revelations aplenty, the sharp moral focus of Kaz Brekker and his band is drawn in contrast to the façade of respectability and honesty by the Merchants like Van Eyck and the ever-slimy Pekka Rollins. One plot feature I much appreciated was the good stepmother, Alys, who enjoyed a congenial relationship with her stepson to the very end of the story.

I cannot wait to have time for further exploration of the Grisha world. Though late to the game, I'm no less appreciative of its wonders.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Review: Sticks 'n Stones 'n Dinosaur Bones

Sticks 'n Stones 'n Dinosaur Bones Sticks 'n Stones 'n Dinosaur Bones by Ted Enik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through Net Galley, in exchange for an honest review.

I’m always interested in children’s books which encourage children to read about science. And so, I was predisposed to liking a book about dinosaurs, since dinosaurs, and evolution, are such a sticky topic in recent times in the US. Providing kids with information about paleontology and the ages of dinosaur skeletons is so important.

While this book seeks to make children enjoy the topic of the famous paleontology Bone Wars of the latter half of the 1800’s, I’m concerned that their emphasis on Cope and Marsh’s overblown claims may fan the flames of dinosaur and evolution doubters by emphasizing what these men did wrong instead of the many things they did right. After all, Marsh was a respected member of the National Academy of Sciences, and both scientists, without the aid of modern techniques, would have been unable to discern species that should be consolidated any more than a person could predict, without modern methods, that the remains of a tadpole were the same species as the remains of a frog.

This is a nicely illustrated book with a rhyming structure. I just hope emphasis is placed on the end pages- what these two men gave us in terms of paleontological science.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review: The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden

The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden The Book of Joe: The Life, Wit, and (Sometimes Accidental) Wisdom of Joe Biden by Jeff Wilser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe Biden is one of the most liked politicians in modern America politics and this book highlights some of his many facets that make him likable. From his early days as a procrastinating law student to a grieving widower and father, to his ascendancy in the Senate, his tenure as Vice President and his enduring an unthinkable additional loss, Biden has typified the average Joe and the antithesis of average in his compassion, empathy, and championing of women's causes. This book lays all of these things out for the reader in an enjoyable series of vignettes. While Wilser is an obvious longtime Biden fan, that allows him to build an intimate portrait of Biden's adult life and his contributions and losses. The kernels of wisdom offered are simple ones. Joe Biden embodies the idea of "just get back up." He's done it again and again.

I received a copy of this book via Blogging for Books and Three Rivers Press, a division of Crown Publishing.

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Review: The Only Harmless Great Thing

The Only Harmless Great Thing The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was fortunate to receive an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

I'm going to need a word count for my 2018 Hugo nominations in order to know whether this is a novelette (as I suspect) or a novella (what so many other people are saying).

This very affecting, slender book was so emotionally powerful that I set it aside for a bit half way because I kept crying while reading it. A story about dangerous, terrible lies, both the ones others tell us to use us as fodder, and the ones we tell ourselves to just barely get by. It is also about injustice and abuse that was real, read Kate Moore's Radium Girls and astonishingly cruel and grotesque human abuse of an animal, see Electrocuting an Elephant which shows the fate of the real-life Topsy, who was killed because she had killed an evil man who deliberately burnt her tail with a lit cigar. (I'd be unmanageable too if people took pleasure in burning me with lit cigars, wouldn't you?)

This book is like a prose poem about human brutality and injustice. Brooke Bolander's writing has already received acclaim, but this... this fierce and searing story is in another league.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: Helping Your Transgender Teen, 2nd Edition: A Guide for Parents

Helping Your Transgender Teen, 2nd Edition: A Guide for Parents Helping Your Transgender Teen, 2nd Edition: A Guide for Parents by Irwin Krieger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This slender book is an invaluable resource for parents, and for anyone with a transgender youth in their life. With an excellent listing of resources, frank talk about transgender and especially non-binary gender identification, this book can help guide caring individuals. It conveys a sense of how vital support is in the life of transgender youth, a group who have a high rate of suicide when lacking supportive family and friends in their lives. The book pragmatically explains what gender identity is and why it is one of the most fundamental parts of an individual.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Double Review: The Flower-Powered Garden and The Less Is More Garden

The Flower-Powered Garden: Supercharge Your Borders and Containers with Bold, Colourful Plant Combinations The Flower-Powered Garden: Supercharge Your Borders and Containers with Bold, Colourful Plant Combinations by Andy Vernon
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

4.5 Stars

This is a fabulous book for gardeners looking to develop color themes in their garden. With an impressive selection of seasonal (early, late) perennial blooms supplemented by some annuals, this book is dense with instructions, suggestions, and ideas. After a generous number of color scheme suggestions, Vernon offers what he terms a florapedia organized by color, to further assist the gardener in planning.

What is lacking in this book is a sense of planning for scale. The florapedia has no information about the height of the various flowers, only colors and sun/shade requirements. Unless you know that pansies are groundcover height and hollyhocks can be five to six feet tall, you are not going to have the best sense of what should go where, especially if you are planting seedlings. Aside from that fault, this is a fabulous book for inspiring a floral garden.

For a sense of how important scale is to planning an elegant yard space, look no further than Susan Morrison's The Less is More Garden.

The Less Is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small YardThe Less Is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard by Susan Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The goal of this book is to help the homeowner design beautiful gardens for smaller spaces. Whether you're in a townhome or a freestanding home with a small yard, Morrison offers ideas for how to develop rich-looking, inviting garden spaces. The idea of carefully assessing the scale of what you can do in your space, by selecting plants, accessories/features, and especially furniture that fit the space but doesn't make the user feel, as Morrison puts it, like an adult squeezing into elementary school furniture. Morrison skillfully addresses the error of thinking that one large patio surrounded by a bit of lawn will feel larger than a number of smaller well-designed nooks or regions in your yard. She also examines planning for your year-round climate and its importance with regard to actual outdoor use. Climate should be what determines the features you elect to use in your garden. For example, do you really need a firepit in South Florida? The same space might be better served with a quiet water feature, like an urn fountain.

There's much to be learned from Morrison's suggestions. This is a useful book that helps the gardener understand the vital importance of scale in design.

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Review: Unqualified

Unqualified Unqualified by Anna Faris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has been my slow-read, on my iPhone (that's a book on my phone's Kindle app that I read whenever I need to kill time, or can't listen to my audiobook. I only do this with books that are episodic or with anthologies) over the past two weeks. 

I've sometimes enjoyed Anna Faris' odd, almost nerdy but still broad form of comedy. I've listened to her podcast once in a while. But I'd have to be honest to say that I  don't know what to make of this book. It's three parts love letter to her ex-husband Chris Pratt, two parts all about relationships (not just with her men but with her friends, and even with her son) and one part TMI. (I really don't need to know how long it took her to be comfortable with masturbating or how long it's been since she did while her husband was away for four months...) Faris also talks about acting and the business in some forthright passages. The thing that is confounding about this book is precisely the "three parts." Her love for Chris is written all over this book and yet as a reader, sadly, you question some of the veracity of what she relates because of the breakup and because of their joint statement about how hard they worked to make it work and it didn't, etc. None of that comes across in this book. While I don't need to read anything about the reasons why they broke up, given that they did (which is very sad, mind you) I don't know how much of what she's written about him or about the two of them (which is a lot, by the way) is true or was just sugar coating, Hollywood style. Would I have questioned any of it if they were still together? If she waited five years after they divorced and published it as a memoir of her early life and marriage, would it have been the same book? Who knows. It's an odd feeling to get to the end of a memoir and be wondering how much of this is true. Although, honestly, I guess you can wonder that about almost anyone's recounting of their version of their life. Ultimately, this book made me sad for both Faris and Pratt. 

Beyond the veracity issue, I felt the book could have been more tightly edited. I felt it would have served her better as an author to have pinned things down to a rough timeline. After the first chapter things just jump around in an almost ADHD way. It may be representative of Faris' thought processes or it may be because she wrote the book over a period of time in an almost stream of consciousness fashion and her editor didn't want to overhaul it.

All in all, an odd read.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Six of Crows

Six of Crows Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

 I received this book as a birthday gift from a good friend, Alex of AlexCanRead. That was back in late August. At the time, my cat was (and still is, sadly) seriously ill and I was too distracted to read much, but then I had to evacuate because of Hurricane Irma, deal with a slew of post-hurricane repairs, and I was ultimately really jammed with my October and November ARC commitments. So I said to myself, the only way this book is getting read right now is on audiobook.

I bought the audiobook and whoa, was it a dark start. I actually messaged Alex at one point in the beginning and said, "this is what you gave me?!" "Stick with it," she said. "It's a great book," she said.

We briefly discussed our favorite character (same favorite!) and I went on my merry way, listening to 15 hours of audiobook while driving, doing laundry, chopping vegetables (after shushing husband, who wanted to know what a grisha was). And I get, finally, to the end of the book only to find a CLIFFHANGER INVOLVING MY FAVORITE CHARACTER!!??

Messages exchanged:

Me: Nooooooooo! ALEX!!!!! It ended in a cliffhanger for [INSERT FAVORITE CHARACTER FOR HUNDREDS OF PAGES HERE]!!!!

Alex: Hai! Wasn't it a great book? Wasn't it fantastic character development? Yeah, there's that cliffhanger with [Insert Favorite Character Whose Fate Hangs In The Balance Here]. But now you like Kaz better, right? 


Also me: Do you know how much I hate cliffhangers?

Alex: But the sequel is already out! Go read the sequel. And it's just a duology. Wasn't it great?

Me: I know it's a duology, Alex. I just bought the second $@#$%#%#$@% audiobook. 

Alex: See! It's such a great series.

Me: I bought the three Grisha books, too.



Alex: BWAHAHAHAHAHA. (Clear Silent Message:  Aw, poor you. Found a good series because of me. Poor, poor you.)

Reader, the above was part of an actual exchange with Alex. Be warned, Reader. Alex Can Read puts books laden with jurda parem in your hands, and you, like an innocent little grisha reader, will get hooked.

This was a very good book, but it's a dark world. I wasn't always on one hundred percent on board with plot plausibility but the character development is off the charts. All the characters have complex, rich and surprising personal histories that inform who they are when we meet them and how they react. One of the central characters has a physical disability and an important secondary character appears to have dyslexia. Bardugo had me at the sophisticated inclusion of characters with disability. And well, with everyone in the band of thieves and grisha. I liked all of them by the end.

As mentioned, I'm now reading Crooked Kingdom. It's all Alex's fault. Well, I guess some is Leigh Bardugo's fault, too.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: The Emerald Circus

The Emerald Circus The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this Book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

3.5 Stars

Jane Yolen is a revered and highly lauded writer of poetry, folklore, and fantasy who has been publishing for decades. At the outset, we should say these stories are fairy and folktale retellings for a young adult or adult audience. They require a certain level of insight and sophistication that will be lost on a younger child. Many of these short stories have previously appeared in other anthologies and while it's great to have these Yolen short stories all in one anthology that is not the reason you will be interested in this book, at least if you are like me. What you want is the rich trove of notes about the stories at the end of the book. These notes make for fascinating reading and an insight into Yolen's life and world.

Andersen's Witch as story built on the platform of Hans Christan Andersen's magnificent Snow Queen in which a boy, Kai, has a shard of ice put into his heart and rejects his beloved playmate Gerda, takes on a whole new meaning in Yolen's retelling but a new meaning on top of that in a poem related to the HCA story in which Yolen speaks of losing her husband and widowhood.. Likewise Lost Girls gives us notes about the outrage of Peter's inability to credit Wendy for fixing his shadow problem in J. M. Barrie's story, and thoughts about the callousness of children. From Baum to Keats to Dickenson, the origins and ruminations of the stories in this volume are seen through the paradigm of Yolen's world. I do have to confess there were times I liked the notes and their accompanying poems more than I liked some of the stories.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Into the Drowning Deep

Into the Drowning Deep Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

4.5 Stars!

My obsession with the Mariana Trench began when I was ten years old. It was that age when kids want to know about the biggest, the smallest, the oldest, the youngest, the highest and the deepest. I was thoroughly absorbed with the Mariana Trench, Challenger Deep, and... what was down there. I was briefly incensed when I saw something about how the Tonga Trench's Horizon Deep might be deeper, having invested a lot of energy on graph paper analysis of how Mt Everest would fit into the Mariana Trench. Plus, hey, I was a Northen Hemisphere girl. But no, Challenger Deep is the deepest point on this planet. How deep is the Challenger Deep crevice in the Mariana Trench? Jaw-droppingly deep, at 35,814 feet below sea level. Deeper if you believe the sonar studies. The Mariana Trench has also been the subject of wry urban legend. (Be sure to check out

Beyond my Mariana Trench obsession, after growing up on stories of sweet little mermaids (á la Hans Christian Andersen or Günter Spang), then taking plenty of biology classes and having dealt with enough barracuda when fishing or diving, let's just say I was ready for a more realistic mermaid that accurately reflected that time-honored quote, 'the sea is unforgiving.' Rolling in the Deep, Mira Grant's fierce and relentless 2015 novella gave me the unforgiving and vicious mermaids of my dreams, I mean, nightmares. In that novella, an entertainment company with a broken moral compass seeks to make a splashy documentary (see what I did there?) that goes deadly wrong out over the Mariana Trench. Into the Drowning Deep is the novel that follows up on the Atargatis disaster of the novella, giving us a new journey into madness, seven years later, as scientists pursue the truth about the fateful journey of the Atargatis and her crew. The scientists aboard the Imagine Entertainment-owned and aptly-named Melusine want to know the truth about mermaids or sirens, as one scientist prefers to call them. Do they or don't they exist? Was the terrifying video footage, found and released by the US Navy, of the events on the Atargatis real or fake? And if mermaids are real, where can you get one? Of course, not fools, they provide heavy security and big game hunters of questionable morality to keep the dozens of scientists recruited for the mission safe. You know how that's going to work out...

Grant starts off slowly in this 436 page novel, building characters and relationships that, as we have already experienced in Rolling in the Deep, will serve to magnify the inevitable losses. It will be a full 165 pages in before the first of these shocking losses occurs. While some might be thinking of this as conventional horror, it's good to remember that Mira Grant does science-based horror. There will be no blood and gore without ASL, echolalia, odd symbiotic organisms, neurotoxins, and bioluminescence.

In spite of its initially slow pace, this book was an engrossing read. It hasn't escaped my notice that this is #1, as in first in a series, where #0.5 was Rolling in the Deep. I'm hoping that in #2 we get to learn more about a mermaid I'll call Savior.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: How to Instant Pot: Mastering All the Functions of the One Pot That Will Change the Way You Cook

How to Instant Pot: Mastering All the Functions of the One Pot That Will Change the Way You Cook How to Instant Pot: Mastering All the Functions of the One Pot That Will Change the Way You Cook by Daniel Shumski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was approved for an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, but then they archived it a day later. I bought the book, not just to review it, but because I'm always eager for more Instant Pot recipes! LOL

The Instant Pot craze seized my household several months back. It hasn't let go. From beans to meats to cooking rice, and even making yogurt, Instant Pot can do it all. It's a pressure cooker, slow cooker, multipot. We had toyed with the conventional pressure cooker earlier this year and my husband, who loves lentils, was frustrated with problems gauging temperatures and cooking time. Our first electronic pressure cooker was a dud and we had to spend $25 sending it back to the manufacturer. Taking a leap of faith based on a recent series of articles and recipes in the NY Times cooking section, I ordered the Instant Pot and was an instant fan. It's so easy to use, so fast when you need fast (I've yet to use it as a slow cooker, actually) and the stuff that comes out of this pot is just delicious. But I'm always scouting for more recipes!

One of the benefits of How to Instant Pot is that this book actually teaches you how to use your Instant Pot in practical ways that both the manual and some other cookbooks don't do. There are a fair number of recipes for Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice Cooker and Yogurt Maker modes. The ones I've tried (Pineapple Skirt Steak and Fragrant Lamb and Chickpeas) have been delicious. I do have to say that I wish there were more recipes. (For instance, there are only 31 recipes in the Pressure Cooker section, about the same for the slow cooker section, and then substantially fewer for the Rice and Yogurt sections) However, that's actually about the same or more than NY Times writer's Instant Pot cookbook, though that has a bit greater diversity in recipes, including seafood among other options. One of the best things about Shumski's book is that it is well-organized so you can easily choose a pressure cooker recipe over a slow cooker recipe, without having to read through all the recipe details to understand what you're getting into. (Important to note that some books do adapt recipes for either mode.)

This Instant Pot cookbook is the one that will live on my phone's Kindle Reader, because of how well-organized it is and for its clear listing of ingredients and steps. It's a sure bet for the spur of the moment grocery store recipe selection and purchasing.

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Review: The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook: Charming Recipes from Anne and Her Friends in Avonlea

The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook: Charming Recipes from Anne and Her Friends in Avonlea The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook: Charming Recipes from Anne and Her Friends in Avonlea by Kate Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a Courtesy Reading Copy from Net Galley and Quarto/Race Point Publishing House in exchange for an honest review.

Reader, you know they had me at Anne.

I was happy to receive a courtesy copy of this beautifully illustrated reissue of Kate Macdonald's 1985 book, The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook. I was even happier to see that many of the recipes are gluten-free or readily adapted to gluten-free! And I was also happy to see that celery and cucumber are evidently popular in the P.E.I. kitchen, since I love both.

This book is clearly targeted to middle grade to high school age readers who are learning to cook. The recipes are simple enough so that any child age eleven or older, with a bit of low-key supervision, will be able to have success. (I'm pretty sure grown-ups can enjoy them, too.) There is a brief set of useful tips at the start and a glossary for common cooking terms like folding, kneading and simmering. Photos for each dish help the young cook visualize how the finished dish should look.

These recipes are drawn from foods and beverages mentioned in the books Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne of Windy Poplars. I've only tried two of the recipes thus far (Raspberry Cordial and the best and yummiest egg salad sandwich, using gluten-free bread and goat butter or ghee!) but a number of the recipes, while simple and homespun, look quite lovely. The vegetable soup is up next for me (part of my Instant Pot project, actually. But that's going to be another review...) And who knows, if I can figure out how to adapt it, Anne's Liniment Cake might be after that. (Sans Liniment, I promise.) Then I long to try to adapt the Rebecca Dew-inspired Orange Angel Cake. (Yes, that's a lot of eggs to be experimenting with. And you guys wonder why I want to raise chickens?)

This is a beautiful, if slim, cookbook, already available in hardcover or Kindle edition.

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: Havana Forever: A Pictorial and Cultural History of an Unforgettable City

Havana Forever: A Pictorial and Cultural History of an Unforgettable City Havana Forever: A Pictorial and Cultural History of an Unforgettable City by Kenneth Treister
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

This is a beautiful and moving book and is more than a coffee table volume. As a Miami-native, it's impossible not to meet Cuban-Americans whose families left before the Castro regime took hold or those who left in the 80's, 90's and 2000's. Even in my own family, though my grandfather was born in Tampa in 1879, of a merchant family of Canary Islands heritage, business concerns in led him to have businesses in Cuba in the 1920's and 30's and several of my aunts were born there. With a treasure trove of family photos from the 1930's in my hand, it is moving to see that so much of the beautiful architecture is still there in Havana but is languishing in disrepair. For every gracious structure like the Hotel Nacional, which is expected to host tourists, there are many more modest structures, including many with façades which are crumbling. In this book, we also get to see many of the lovely public spaces like Miramar, a lovely, if simple urban park, or famous historic places like La Quinta de Molinas, built in 1837.

Havana Forever's two concluding chapters are food for thought: the distressing "Doomsday Scenario" in which a Cuba newly opened to Americans (newsflash: it never stopped being open to most other countries!) gets overdeveloped in hideous ways (think a new Cancun), and "An Uncertain Future" in which yet another change in policy by the Trump administration has made Cuba less accessible to Americans once again, point to the tenuous future of all that makes Havana beautiful, stately and unique. Will it crumble? Will Havana be overbuilt by major hotel chains? Or will Raul Castro or whatever elected leadership succeeds him manage to move the Cuban economy forward, without losing control of the process and development. Tough questions, with no certain answers.

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Simply luminous.

I have read only a handful of five-star works of fiction this year and this book was a joy to read. A work of magical realism, Lang gives us a gentle protagonist, his sister, and his dearest friend and builds out the story that finds a marriage of magic and science that works beautifully and flows naturally, without a ridiculous need for contrived conflict. (Alex Can Read knows just what I mean by this statement...)

This book was a delight. I found it in some way reminiscent of Robert McCammon's Boy's Life albeit with more elements of overt magical realism and covering a longer period of adulthood in the protagonist's life.

Can't wait to read it again on audiobook.

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Monday, November 6, 2017

Giveaway: “And So I Step Up” Literary Lacquer

“And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.” 

~ Margaret Atwood's Offred, from The Handmaid's Tale

My selection of this Literary Lacquer Giveaway was inspired by women like Asia Argento, Annabella Sciorra and countless other women, and Anthony Rapp and Harry Dreyfuss and other men, who have stepped up to talk about their suffering sexual harassment, sexual assault, and even rape at the hands of those in positions of power over them. A lot of people don't understand the struggle and PTSD that stepping up and speaking out can entail.

Whenever I think of not being seen as having ownership of your own body, or rights of refusal, I think of Margaret Atwood's powerful dystopian (and hopefully not visionary) novel, <i>The Handmaid's Tale</i>.  The idea of stepping up, facing the darkness of memories within, captures the past month, with news filled with those who are brave enough to step up and speak out.

Your body is your own, whether you're male or female or in between. And only by people stepping up and speaking out will we stand a chance of preserving those boundaries.

You can see this gorgeous merlot glass fleck color at Literary Lacquer's Etsy shop:

You can enter by commenting below and following additional entry rules on the blog's FB page:

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Review: Bonfire

Bonfire Bonfire by Krysten Ritter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

So let's get the obvious out of the way. Anyone who knows Krysten Ritter's work as an actor knows that she's a compelling performer (Marvel's Jessica Jones, Breaking Bad). As it turns out, Ritter has considerable skill as a writer, as well. This is definitely not a vanity publication such as one might see with many other performers of various genres. So just get that one right out of your head, if you were wondering.

Set in the fictional small town of Barrens (such an apt name), Indiana, Bonfire is a suspense novel that initially seems to have an Erin Brockovich feel but takes a sharp left turn into a mystery. Abby Williams, a local woman who left Barrens at eighteen and who has become a lawyer, has returned to her hometown to investigate reported environmental contamination by the corporation which practically owns the town and its residents, Optimal Plastics. Abby is haunted by memories of her frenemy Kaycee, a young woman who seems to have run away from Barrens after being caught in a web of deceit. In a town where everything seems to be built on a platform of lies and graft, Abby encounters peers from her past and comes to terms with her aging father's health. The element of claustrophobia from the small town atmosphere is palpable. The foibles of Ritter's characters are so well written and the passages dealing with Abby and her father are very poignant ones. The ways we process, sometimes incorrectly, our blurred memories of the past were so well-drawn. As the mysteries of what is going on with Optimal Plastics and Kaycee deepen and eventually intersect, the reader gets drawn into a classic "can't put it down" story. While you may suspect some facts of that story early on, the whys and hows play out in surprising ways.

While I found some aspects of the plot to be rather hazy in rationale toward the end of the book, on the strength of her character development, this is a strong debut novel. I look forward to Ritter's next novel.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Double Review: The Wildcrafting Brewer and Fermented Probiotic Drinks at Home

Every once in a while I like to review non-fiction books that are of general interest, whether gardening, cooking or hair styling. Yes, even I can't read only fantasy and sci-fi. Today I'm looking at health and beverages, by considering two excellent books on fermenting beverages. Fermented foods and drinks are increasingly known to be gut-healthy sources of probiotics. This is a topic near and dear to me because I have celiac disease, a complicated autoimmune disease of the small intestine in which your gut microbiome health is important to stabilizing your overall health. It's easy to get started with fermented beverages like kefir. Once you tackle those, you can appreciate all that these two books offer. The Wildcrafting Brewer is a great resource for information on cultivating wild yeasts that can be used in some of the recipes in Fermented Probiotic Drinks at Home.

The Wildcrafting Brewer

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

4.5 Stars

I've been fascinated with wildcrafting ever since I saw the movie Where the Lilies Bloom when I was about thirteen. I promptly inhaled the book by Bill and Vera Cleaver (I still have the 1974 release) and embarked on an interesting summer stay at my aunt's house in Burnsville, North Carolina, trying things like sodas made with Queen Anne's Lace (aka wild carrot) flowers and baked goods made with wild carrot seeds at the farmer's market. It was a short hop to my wild berries obsession. So I hesitated over whether or not to try this Net Galley offering because, having celiac disease, I feared the disappointment of seeing a whole bunch of gluten-based brewing recipes that would leave me disappointed. Boy, was I wrong! This book is a treasure trove for the alternative beer and winemaker. As a treatise just on growing wild yeasts it's a thrill. And to top it all off, this book is truly beautiful to look at.

This book may not be something an urban dweller will find easy to work with (although if you have a good farmers market there are plenty of workarounds). My only hesitation about recommending it is that, like a real wildcrafter, you had better be very sure about what you're picking and fermenting. The whole debate about thujones in wolfsbane aside, there are a lot of mildly to very poisonous things out there, from pokeweed to bittersweet to yew-berry to holly. Some are well known to be poisonous and some are lesser known. For city-raised brewers, having a guidebook or other resource to the plants and fruits you're planning to use is vital. Likewise, as Baudar points out, using these recipes if you're pregnant would not be wise.

With those caveats out of the way, this is a beautiful book that is going to be purchased for my New Hampshire kitchen. One of these days I'll hope to post photos of my version of the Mountain Raspberry/Blueberry soda!

Probiotic Drinks at Home: Make Your Own Seriously Delicious Gut-Friendly Fermented Beverages

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Anyone who has purchased storebought probiotics knows how expensive it is to get high colony forming unit products. One great solution to that problem is to make fermented food and beverages. While sauerkraut and kimchi might not be to everyone's taste, it's a sure bet that at least one of the fermented probiotic beverages in this book will be. This is an excellent book with crystal clear instructions on how to make cultured fermented beverages (kefirs, kombucha, jun) and wild fermented beverages (kvass, pineapple tempache and honey mead). Evans tells you what you should expect in terms of scent, taste and appearance and what to do if that's not happening for you.

I'd coincidentally started making goat's milk kefir about a month and a half ago and it would have gone more smoothly with this book in hand. Now I'm planning to try to make ginger bugs and pineapple tepaches, as well.

One thing that I felt was missing from the book was a list of resources for kefir grains and SCOBYs. While you can buy kefir grains on Amazon, for instance, some may have concerns about whether those grains come from organic, grass-fed animal milk products or some mass-produced farm. Also, I found no warnings about fermented products like kombucha if you are immunosuppressed (cancer patient, some autoimmune patients, etc.). Those with fragile immune systems should consult a physician before consuming some of these drinks.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: La Belle Sauvage

La Belle Sauvage La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.25 Stars

(I also listened to the audiobook, read by Michael Sheen.)

Philip Pullman has returned to the world of Lyra in La Belle Sauvage, the first book of The Book of Dust series, which is reportedly a trilogy like His Dark Materials. The book is set in Lyra's Oxford but not in Jordan College. It begins in the humble Terrace Room of the Trout Inn. Giving us two new children to follow, Malcolm, age eleven, and Alice, age fifteen to sixteen, Pullman again grounds the story in the perspectives of adolescence. Malcolm, a curious and resourceful child, becomes fascinated with a baby and her daemon at a nearby Priory and becomes quite protective of her and determined to keep the baby safe. (And for any of you who don't think a male child could show this level of protective interest in younger children, I would like to have you meet my nephew, Jorge.) That baby is, of course, none other than Lyra, placed in the safekeeping of nuns at the Priory by Lord Nugent, head of an organization called Oakley Street. It is very obvious that from the moment of her scandalous birth Lyra is a baby that everyone is interested in. And by interested, I mean interested in possessing and controlling. The witches' prophecy about Lyra is known seemingly from the moment she is born. The Consistorial Court of Discipline wants her, people trying to curry favor with the CCD want her to give her to the CCD. Mrs. Coulter wants to know what she gave birth to. And Lord Asriel... well, Lord Asriel wants to see his daughter, to croon to her in the moonlight, to keep her safe and happy. One of the surprises of this book is how much Asriel seems to love his little daughter. It adds a layer of complexity to his character because I was never sure it was love as much as a cool attachment in The Golden Compass.

Among the new villains and heroes, we have the disgraced, predatory, and truly odious Gerard Bonneville, a younger Coram Van Texel (yes, Farder Coram!), an Oxford researcher named Hannah Relf, and a beautiful witch queen named Tilda Vasara. Most heroic of all though, are Malcolm and Alice, who will go to great lengths to safeguard Lyra from Bonneville, Mrs. Coulter, and the CCD people. Malcolm is also really good at safeguarding treasured objects that later end up in an older Lyra's hands.

The broad-reaching control of the Magisterium, into the classroom, families, and the social milieu is shown in all its glory. In a manner not unlike (ironically) that of the Cultural Revolution in China or the Hitler Youth, the Magisterium has found a way into the lives of the young as a way to guarantee control of future adults. The vile organization whose goal is absolute control, the League of St. Alexander, glorifies the memory and actions of a boy who sent his parents to their deaths for apostasy. The growing reach of the organization is rather horrifying. It manages to turn its child members into fearsome tyrants. Pullman has created a cautionary tale for young people in telling them about this type of organization.

There are a few interesting developments in this book vis a vis the HDM story and Dust. But I'm not exactly sure where they are taking us, frankly. Whereas His Dark Materials gave us portals to many other worlds within other universes, Pullman turns the spyglass around in this book and gives us a story that takes place in the worlds within Lyra's world. I was intrigued by the title of the second book in the series, already listed as The Secret Commonwealth because as a lifelong reader of folk and fairy lore, the one Secret Commonwealth I knew about was that of Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th-century Gaelic folklorist, who wrote a book titled The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. This unpublished book was later taken up by Sir Walter Scott and later by Andrew Lang (yes, that Andrew Lang) in the 19th Century. I can tell you, reader, that there is a definite correlation to that book within La Belle Sauvage. What is far less clear is how this all relates to Dust and our journey to figure out what Dust is and does (beyond what we know from The Amber Spyglass). Frankly, though I loved the passages in LBS that relate to the Secret Commonwealth, I'm at a loss to where this is headed. I'm also chastened to realize after searching in The Golden Compass that there is nary a mention of a Malcolm and the only Alice is the false name Lyra gives a man who buys her some food after she's run away from Mrs. Coulter. Thus, the fates of these new children are obscured. At the time of TGC they would have been in their mid-twenties. By the way, the idea that an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old are a romantic pair, as some reviewers have suggested, is pretty absurd. Malcolm, as the central character, is entering puberty at age eleven and starting to realize that he is attracted to girls. That does not make the relationship between Malcolm and Alice a romantic one.

The story of La Belle Sauvage develops slowly, in the typical richly detailed Pullman fashion. It would sort of work as a standalone for those who have not read His Dark Materials but I'm not sure how well it works. There is far less information about what daemons represent in this book that the reader is given in The Golden Compass. The narrow constraints of Malcolm's world also may provide less interest to the reader. This book is about how a baby Lyra got to where we meet her in TGC. It shows us that the battle over Lyra has been going on since she was born and that the study of Dust and alethiometers has been going on for just as long, if not longer.

Caveat 1: One thing that may bother some readers is that this book ends very abruptly. I wouldn't call it a cliffhanger because we arrive at a clear point of safety, but it ended leaving me turning pages back and forth going "wait, what?!" I know for some readers that may be frustrating.

Caveat 2: This is a big one. Parents seeking to put this book in the hands of younger children should be aware that there is a shocking scene in this book. Malcolm does not fully understand it and so younger children may not quite either, but it is very clearly implied to be a rape scene. As it does involve a central character, for some, this may be a deal-breaker. It is not discussed or detailed in any degree but it is clearly there. I was very taken aback that Pullman wrote this scene and I'm not fully sure it was necessary.

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