30 November 2012

Imprint Friday: Life among Giants by Bill Roorbach

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Algonquin Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Maybe because I like conventional mysteries, I am particularly fond of literary fiction that includes elements of the mystery genre. Bill Roorbach's Life among Giants is just such a novel.

Here's the publisher's summary:
At seventeen, David "Lizard" Hochmeyer is nearly seven feet tall, a star quarterback, and Princeton-bound. His future seems all but assured until his parents are mysteriously murdered, leaving Lizard and his older sister, Kate, adrift and alone. Sylphide, the world's greatest ballerina, lives across the pond from their Connecticut home, in a mansion the size of a museum, and it turns out that her rock star husband's own disasters have intersected with Lizard's—and Kate's—in the most intimate and surprising ways. Over the decades that follow, Lizard and Kate are obsessed with uncovering the motives behind the deaths, returning time and again to their father's missing briefcase, his shady business dealings and shaky finances, and to Sylphide, who has threaded her way into Lizard's and Kate's lives much more deeply than either had ever realized. From the football fields of Princeton to a stint with the NFL, from elaborate dances at the mansion to the seductions lying in wait for Lizard, and ultimately to the upscale restaurant he opens in his hometown, it only takes Lizard a lifetime to piece it all together. A wildly entertaining novel of murder, seduction, and revenge—rich in incident, in expansiveness of character, and in lavishness of setting—it's a Gatsby-esque adventure, a larger-than-life quest for answers that reveals how sometimes the greatest mystery lies in knowing one's own heart.
If Roorbach's Life among Giants took a straight path,  I would have been able to say the story follows Lizard as he tries to make sense of his father, his sister, and the enigmatic Sylphide. The novel, however, is not linear, and the switching from different points in the past to Lizard's present adds to the mystery behind what exactly happened the year of the deaths. Another twist is that Lizard himself tells the story, and we sometimes have reason to question his reliability. Is it just that he was so young when the precipitating events occurred? Or does he have things to hide?

Besides the family story and Lizard and Kate's discoveries, I loved the food theme. It's obvious that Roorbach knows his way around a kitchen because the restaurant and food scenes are evocative: the ground spices, the onions spattering in oil, the perfect BLT, the earthy mushrooms. Roorbach's experience in the food industry and his own love of cooking have brought an authenticity to Lizard's post-football career.

Life among Giants is a look at family, fame, destructive relationships, and misplaced love. It's also a story of food, and last meals bookend Lizard's tale nicely.

In the following short video, Bill Roorbach talks about Life among Giants:


For more about Bill Roorbach, visit his website (and blog) or follow him on Twitter. He's granted a number of interviews in conjunction with Life among Giants, including at Pearl Snap Discount and with Samuel Snoek-Brown.

Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011. Don't forget to follow Algonquin on Twitter and Facebook and read their blog (where you can sign up for the Algonquin newsletter).

Buy Life among Giants at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Workman / Algonquin Books 2012
ISBN-13: 9781616200763

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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29 November 2012

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts 4

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts are my random notes about books I've read, movies I've watched, books I'm looking forward to, and events I hope to get to.

Audiobooks

It's hard to believe, but I haven't listened to many audiobooks since my last update. I blame it on the two Follett books, which together ran for more than 60 hours. I listened to and reviewed The Turning by Francine Prose and Ancient Light by John Banville for AudioFile magazine. I'm currently listening to The Legend of Broken by Caleb Carr, which is historical fiction, fantasy, and alternate history all rolled into one. It takes place in Europe in the 700s and I'm loving it. Good thing because the audio is 30+ hours long.


Over at the SheKnows Book Lounge, I featured three great audiobooks that tie in to a Thanksgiving theme.

Print Books

I'm in the middle of two print books, and they're very different from each other. Tell me, how could you resist a middle grade book titled The Pirate Captain's Daughter (by Eve Bunting)? Especially when the first sentence is this: "I always knew my father was a pirate and I always knew I wanted to be one too." Look for a review soon. The other is a kind of mystery, The Life of Giants by Bill Roorbach. It's a great read that pushes the boundaries of the genre. For more, tune in tomorrow.


My most recent "Armchair Travels" column for the SheKnows Book Lounge focused on colonial America and includes suggestions for the whole family. Besides Thanksgiving cozy mysteries, I also featured fascinating new biographies and memoirs.


Movies and TV

As I mentioned last time, Sunday night on TV is crazy. Why does everything good have to be on one night? I think I already mentioned that we watch Boardwalk Empire. I love the Prohibition era, maybe because one of my great-uncles served time in Leavenworth after being caught for rum running. I sure wish I had asked him more questions about his wild life. On Wednesdays, we've been watching Nashville. The music is good and the plot is okay. If it veers too much into a nighttime soap opera, we'll likely drop it. On DVD we're watching season 1 of Blue Bloods. It has a great cast, headed by Tom Selleck.


In the Stacks

Eclectic describes the three books at the top of my stacks this week. First is Alibis, which is more than your usual travel writing. You'll see this on a Imprint Friday in a couple of weeks. Still on the wanderlust theme, is Simon Garfield's On the Map, which is all about, well, maps. I love maps and this looks to be a fascinating read. The third is the latest Harry Bosch mystery by Michael Connelly, The Black Box. You know you can't go wrong with Connelly.


What's on your read, watch, listen, or review list?

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27 November 2012

Wordless Wednesday 213

November Garden, 2012

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Today's Read: Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

What happens to the youngest son of a law-enforcement family who decides to take a walk on the wild side? Now imagine it's Prohibition and young Joe Coughlin has built quite the reputation as a rum runner. Here's the situation when we first meet him:
Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had ever happened in his life—good or bad—had been set in motion that morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould. (p. 3)
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins / William Morrow, 2012; quote from uncorrected proofs)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: Boston, Tampa, and Havana; Prohibition
  • Circumstances: Joe Coughlin rises and falls in the rum running game
  • Characters: Joe, Boston friends, a couple of dames, various gangsters
  • Themes: family, power, morality, racism, crime, betrayal
  • Audience: Lehane fans, gangster fans,
  • Miscellaneous: Leonardo DiCaprio has bought the film rights.
Want to know more? Watch the following interview with Lehane, in which he discusses the book and his love for the Prohibition era.


Buy Live by Night at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
ISBN-13: 9780060004873

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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26 November 2012

Review: It's Fine by Me by Per Petterson

These days, when American readers think of Scandinavian writers, Stieg Larsson, Camilla Läckberg, and Jo Nesbø quickly come to mind. Although I'm a huge fan of these authors, I'm also very aware that Scandinavian literature reaches far beyond crime fiction.

Per Petterson, a prize-winning Norwegian author, writes some of the region's finest literary fiction. He homes in on the essence of his characters, revealing at once their inner vulnerabilities and their public bravado.

Per Petterson's It's Fine by Me is a haunting coming-of-age story, stripped down to its essentials. Audun Sletten was only thirteen when his mother relocated her three children from the country to a working-class neighborhood of Oslo. Starting on day one at his new school, Audun set himself apart; a childhood spent with a mean drunk of a father dissolved his trust, and he's just fine on his own, reading books and dreaming of being a writer.

Over the ensuing five years, Audun finds little happiness. Tragedy, money troubles, and a growing distance between him and his family, has left the teen unsure of his direction. When events from his past begin to collide with the present, he finally takes action, hoping for both independence and peace.

In many ways, Audun is a typical teenager, caught in limbo between childhood and adulthood. He's essentially a good kid, but his lingering anger at his father and deeply buried sadness sometimes get the better of him, causing him to act out. Audun is such a realistic character, it's easy to become invested in his story.

I'm not quite sure what I can add to the conversation about Per Petterson. Perhaps my experience with It's Fine by Me can be summed up by Audun's reaction after reading a passage from a friend's book:
. . . I read the page, and the next; it's pure, concise writing about things that you walk around turning over in your mind. I have to have this book, there is something different here, open, bold. (p. 34)
And indeed, Petterson writes about ordinary people in everyday situations. But his perspective makes it new and his strong characterizations makes it personal. Audun Sletten with remain in your thoughts long after you've finished his story. I hope he finds the future he deserves.

Buy It's Fine by Me at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Published by Graywolf Press, 2012 (translated by Don Bartlett)
ISBN-13: 9781555976262
Rating: A-
Source: Review (see review policy)
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24 November 2012

Weekend Cooking: Review: Toast (Movie)

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. More information at the welcome post.

_______
Happy Thanksgiving to all my Weekend Cooking friends. One thing I'm grateful for is the people I've connected with since I started this feature/meme 161 weeks ago. The success of Weekend Cooking rests with all of you. Thank you.

This week I have a foodie movie to share. Nigel Slater is a well-know British chef, television personality, and writer. I was unfamiliar with Slater's personal life, so I was curious about Toast (directed by S. J. Clarkson), which is loosely based on Slater's memoir of the same title.

Nigel's childhood was far from happy. Only two things seem to have brought him joy: dreaming about well-cooked food and the love of his mother. His mother, however, was a notoriously bad cook; if it didn't come from a can, she didn't serve it. Many a night, dinner in the Slater house consisted of toast and tea. Nonetheless, Nigel was devastated when she died when he was only nine.

Later, Nigel's father took notice of their housekeeper. Mrs. Potter was a conniving woman who seemed to be out to make a better life for herself. She and Nigel didn't get along at all, and they competed for Mr. Slater's attention, especially when it came to food. As far as Nigel could tell, Mrs. Potter's only redeeming qualities were her abilities to clean and cook.

It wasn't until Nigel took home ec in high school (he was the only boy in the class) that he began to gain control of his life and finally find happiness.

Toast stars Oscar Kennedy, Victoria Hamilton, and Colin Prockter. It's very well acted, and Kennedy is particularly brilliant as the young Nigel. I recommend the movie to anyone who wants to know more about Slater, who likes true stories, and who likes foodie films.


To learn even more about Slater, visit his website.

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23 November 2012

Imprint Friday: Comet's Tale by Steven Wolf

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Algonquin Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

When Steven Wolf met his first greyhound outside a grocery store in Arizona, he had little knowledge of the breed. Just weeks later, he was at a greyhound rescue facility, trying to choose a dog for adoption, when Comet picked him. Wolf attributes his own salvation to the relationship he developed with this special dog. He tells their story in his memoir, Comet's Tale.

Here's the publisher's summary:

Forced into early retirement by a spinal condition, Steven Wolf reluctantly left his family and moved to Arizona for its warm winter climate. A lifelong dog lover, the former hard-driving attorney is drawn to a local group that rescues retired racing greyhounds. When Comet, a once-abused cinnamon-striped racer, chooses to "adopt" Wolf, he has no idea that a life-altering relationship has begun—for both of them.

Racers, cruelly treated and exposed only to the track and cage, have no inkling of the most basic skills—walking on tile floors, climbing stairs, even playing with toys or children—so Wolf must show the mistrustful greyhound how to thrive in the real world. Gradually, a confident but mysterious spirit emerges from the stunning animal. And when Wolf’s health starts to worsen, the tables turn and Comet must now help Wolf with the most basic skills.

Wolf teaches her to be a service dog, and soon enough she’s hauling his wheelchair at top speed through airport terminals, towing his cart through the grocery store, helping him get out of bed, and attracting friends to Wolf’s isolated world. She plays a crucial role in restoring his health and even saving his marriage. Their unshakable faith in each other makes them winners once again.
Books about pets can sometimes come across as overly sentimental. Books about coming to terms with a personal illness can come across as miraculous or religious. What saves Comet's Tale from any of these fates is Steven Wolf's willingness to share the good and the bad about himself and his family life while telling us about his incredible relationship with Comet and her work as a service dog. Further, Comet's story is presented against the backdrop of a broader discussion of the history and plight of greyhounds in general.

Comet's Tale is a moving (yes, my eyes welled up several times) story about the love between a man and his dog. I can't believe anyone could come away from this book untouched. In fact, I'm giving you fair warning: You may find yourself thinking about adopting your own greyhound.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, Wolf has a lot to be grateful for, and much of that is a result of his relationship with Comet, a special dog who came into his life almost by chance. Read Comet's Tale for yourself and then add it to your holiday gift list.

For more about Steven Wolf and Comet, watch a recent video of a television interview.

Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.

Buy Comet's Tale at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Workman / Algonquin Books 2012
ISBN-13: 9781616200459

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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22 November 2012

Review: The Right Hand by Derek Haas

Yesterday after cooking the bulk of today's holiday meal, I was tired but ready for some entertaining reading. Thus I turned to one of my trusted imprints: Mulholland Books. I gave the first paragraph of Derek Haas's The Right Hand a try. A couple hours later I was still reading, and I didn't move until I had finished.

The Right Hand introduces us to CIA agent Austin Clay, who has reputation for always completing his mission. He's used to working independently and on only the most secret of assignments. This level of self-reliance has made him a deadly force.

In a post-9/11 world, public eyes are on the Mideast, al-Qaeda, and Afghanistan, but Derek Haas reminds us that the U.S. government still keeps tabs on the old Soviet Union. When one of our agents in St. Petersburg goes missing, Clay is sent to retrieve him. Within hours of his landing in Russia, it's clear that this is anything but a straightforward search-and-rescue operation. Instead, Clay has entered a dangerous game of double agents and moles, betrayals and treason.

Although I'm not usually a fan of espionage novels, Haas won me over on several interlinked levels, especially the characters and the structure of the novel. Haas is a master at the slow reveal, which allows the tension in The Right Hand to grow in increments. The principal focus is on Clay, but we're also privy to other characters' points of view, which gives us a broader perspective on the situation and keeps us guessing.

Austin Clay is not quite your typical 1950s spy, and he certainly doesn't have a girlfriend in every capital city around the world. He's used to being totally on his own and has no qualms about killing, both in self-defense and to hide his trail. Yet, despite his violent streak, he has a sense of humor and also has the ability to empathize with others. It's true he has an almost superhero knack for getting out of scrapes, but isn't that the way it is for all the really good spies?

Derek Haas's The Right Hand is an action-packed thriller that takes cold war espionage into the twenty-first century. The Soviet Union may be dissolved, but the United States and Russia are hardly bosom buddies, and Austin Clay has the skills and resourcefulness to navigate the dark recesses of the spy's world. I hope Haas has more Clay stories to tell.

Buy The Right Hand at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Published by Little, Brown / Mulholland Books, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780316198462
Rating: B+
Source: Review (see review policy)
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20 November 2012

Wordless Wednesday 212

Barn Hardware


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What's in a Name 6: Sign Up

Welcome to the sixth What's in a Name challenge This challenge was originated by a young blogger named Annie, who hosted it for two years. When she decided to give up on being the host, I took over the challenge.

I credit this challenge with being one of the prime reasons for my becoming a blogger, so I am thrilled to be its new host.

Here's How It Works

Between January 1 and December 31, 2013, read one book in each of the following categories:
  1. A book with up or down (or equivalent) in the title: Deep down True, The Girl Below, The Diva Digs up the Dirt
  2. A book with something you'd find in your kitchen in the title: Loose Lips Sink Ships, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Breadcrumbs
  3. A book with a party or celebration in the title: A Feast for Crows, A Wedding in Haiti, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness
  4. A book with fire (or equivalent) in the title: Burning for Revenge, Fireworks over Toccoa, Catching Fire
  5. A book with an emotion in the title: Baltimore Blues, Say You're Sorry, Dreams of Joy
  6. A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title: The Book of Lost Fragrances, The World We Found, A Discovery of Witches
The book titles are just suggestions, you can read whatever book you want to fit the category.

Other Things to Know

  • Books may be any form (audio, print, e-book).
  • Books may overlap other challenges.
  • Books may not overlap categories; you need a different book for each category.
  • Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed but encouraged.
  • You do not have to make a list of books before hand.
  • You do not have to read through the categories in any particular order.
On January 1, I'll publish 7 posts, each with a Mr. Linky (one for each category and one for your wrap-up post), on this blog so you'll have a place post links to your reviews (bloggers) or leave comments (non-bloggers) as you finish up each category. You'll be able to find these posts during the year by clicking on the button in the sidebar. (I'll create those links on January 1.)

Tip: If you're ever struggling to find a title to match a category, check out what other people have read so you can get ideas or be inspired. And remember to be creative.

To join in, sign up with Mr. Linky below. If you aren't a blogger, just add a comment. If Mr. Linky ever disappears, either try again later or click on the Email Icon in the side bar and send me your information, and I'll add the link myself.

To use Mr. Linky: put your name or your blog's name in the top box and the URL (web address) of your blog in the bottom box. If you don't have a blog, use your tumblr account, your Facebook page or simply mention your intent to join the challenge in the comments.

Thanks to @Uniflame and @SuziQoregon for suggestions for, inspiration for, and confirmation of this year's categories. Feel free to suggest ideas for 2014 in the comments.

It's never too late to join!

I hope you like the categories! Have fun and good luck.

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19 November 2012

Review: November Picks for Scholastic's Mother Daughter Book Club

Remember earlier this summer when I introduced you to the Scholastic Mother Daughter Book Club for middle readers? I'm committed to featuring or reviewing all the books selected for this club because I think Scholastic has picked winning titles that have broad appeal.

Don't forget that the Scholastic book club site includes more information about the books, recipes, reading guides, and contests. The resources are perfect for book clubs, teachers, homeschoolers, and any one who wants to get more out of reading books with middle grade readers.

Meg Cabot is one of the most-loved authors of middle grade and young adult fiction (and adult fiction), not least because of her amazing ability to create realistic characters whom young girls can quickly and easily relate to. Thus it's no surprise that Scholastic would recommend her books for their mother daughter book club. Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day is the first in a fun middle grade series about a nine-year-old who wants to do the right thing even though she sometimes stumbles.

Allie has a lot to contend with. First, she's having trouble getting along with Mary Kay, her BFF since kindergarten. Second, she just found out that her parents want to move across town, which means a new house, new school, and new friends. Even the promise of a kitten isn't enough to make Allie warm up to the idea of moving. And to top it off, no matter how many rules she tried to follow, she somehow ended up on the bad side of her friends and parents. Can Allie figure out a way to make peace with all these changes?

Moving Day is a terrific book club pick for young readers. The story can be read on several levels, all of which offer plenty of avenues for discussion. The most obvious approach is to focus on Allie's rules, one of which is given at the start of each chapter. Some are serious (be polite to adults), and some are particular to Allie (don't eat red foods); some she already knows well (don't cross Brittany Hauser), and others she discovers along the way (sometimes things are better than they first appear). Other topics for discussion are the meaning of friendship, standing up for what you believe in, adjusting to change, and helping your family. For more ideas check out the Scholastic book club site.

Earlier in the year, Scholastic picked Raina Telgemeier's Smile for the mother daughter book club. This month, they've tapped Telgemeier's Drama, a graphic novel geared to older middle grade readers (and teens and adults).

At the core of Drama is Callie's work on the middle school's spring musical. She loves working back stage, especially on set design. She has grand ideas, and through hard work and the help of her friends, Callie is able to meet most of her expectations. Drama, however, is less about the play and more about relationships (making sense of crushes and friendships), self-discovery, and acceptance of others.

The drama in Callie's life occurs both on and off stage as she tries to understand her crazy feelings for her good friend's older brother and then for two cute boys, who just happen to be twins. In the meantime, she and the other drama students are helping each other with the musical production.

Raina Telgemeier approaches the many types of relationships with sensitivity, in both her writing and her artwork. Young readers will want to talk about crushes and finding the right person, homosexuality, and same-sex and opposite-sex friendships. Other discussion topics for Drama include getting involved in extracurricular activities and gaining self-confidence.

The scan is from page 37 and shows a scene in which Callie's friend Liz, the student in charge of costumes, asks the others to go with her down to the basement prop room. The page has no spoilers but gives you a preview of the illustrations. Click the scan to enlarge it.

This post will be linked to Kid Konnection, hosted by Julie at Booking Mama.

Buy Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day at an Indie or at a bookstore near you (link leads to an affiliate program).
Scholastic Press, 2009; ISBN-13: 9780545040419
Buy Drama at an Indie or at a bookstore near you (link leads to an affiliate program).
Scholastic Press, 2011; ISBN-13: 9780545326995
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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17 November 2012

Weekend Cooking: Pure Vanilla by Shauna Sever

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. More information at the welcome post.

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Stand aside you deeper, darker, more loved chocolate. Vanilla is tired of being in the shadows and is ready to take center stage. Its current starring role is in Shauna Sever's beautiful, mouth-watering Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques.

In a word, Sever's new cookbook is simply gorgeous. I love the cool, soothing lavender and cream theme; easy-to-read, yet playful fonts; and the stunning photography (by Leigh Beisch). But Pure Vanilla isn't just another pretty face; it contains both useful and fascinating information and doable, delicious recipes.

First of all, this cookbook isn't about skipping the chocolate. Instead it's a celebration of vanilla. Whether waffles, baked goods, candy, or drink, Sever's dishes showcase the bean in its many forms. And some, like the recipe I share below, offer up double and triple vanilla heaven.

For many home cooks, Pure Vanilla will be an eye-opener and the gateway to new kitchen adventures. Did you know that vanilla comes in many forms? My pantry holds pure vanilla extract, vanilla paste, and whole vanilla beans. Vanilla also comes powdered and ground. Furthermore, not all vanilla extracts are the same, and some people swear by Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, whereas others are interested in vanillas from Mexico, India, Africa, or someplace else. Yes, vanilla can be just as complex as chocolate.

There are so many fantastic recipes in Pure Vanilla, I really couldn't decide what to try first. Here are some I've flagged:
  • Vanilla Bean Bread Pudding
  • Vanilla-Stewed Fruit
  • Triple Vanilla Pound Cake
  • Vanilla Biscotti
  • Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies
  • Frosted Vanilla Almonds
  • White Hot Fudge (for ice cream)
  • Vanilla Martini
Frankly, I could have listed almost every recipe: doughnuts, iced tea, ice cream, cookies, cheesecake . . . you get the picture. The recipes are very straightforward, and Sever offers tips when needed. She also includes instructions on how to make your own extract, vanilla sugar, vanilla coffee creamer, and other useful mini recipes.

You may think that you'd never give up your chocolate, but that's only because you haven't yet seen Shauna Sever's vanilla creations. Pure Vanilla may just change your life.

Lemon-Vanilla Dream Bars
1 dozen
  • 10 ounces white chocolate, chopped divided
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla bean paste
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • ½ cup store-bought lemon curd
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat an 8-by-8-inch pan with cooking spray and line it with a strip of parchment paper that's 8 inches wide and 14 inches long, so there is an overhang on two sides of the pan; this will make it easier to remove the bars from the pan after baking.

Melt 8 ounces of the white chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, stirring. Remove bowl from heat and stir in sugar and salt.

Whisk in eggs 1 at a time and then whisk in vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste. With a spatula, gently fold in flour; when just a few streaks of flour remain, fold in the remaining 2 ounces of white chocolate. Scrape batter into prepared pan.

Dollop lemon curd onto batter in 5 to 6 equal portions. With a knife, swirl curd into batter with a figure-8 motion. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean but not dry, 25 to 28 minutes.

Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely. Grasping the parchment overhang, lift out the entire block and cut into 12 bars.

Note: Sever suggests other flavors and types of spreads that would work well with these bars.

For more information about the cookbook, Shauna Sever, and vanilla, visit the Pure Vanilla page at Quirk Books. For recipes, photographs, and more, visit Sever's super blog, Piece of Cake.

Buy Pure Vanilla at an Indie or at a bookstore near you (link leads to an affiliate program).
Published by Quirk Books, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781594745966

Source: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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16 November 2012

Imprint Friday: Married Love and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Harper Perennial. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Some of you may be familiar with Tessa Hadley from her critically acclaimed novels or because you've read her short stories in The New Yorker. I, however, had never read her work until now. Her latest collection, Married Love and Other Stories has made me a fan, and I plan to explore her backlist.

Here's the publisher's summary.
Married Love is a masterful collection of short fiction from one of today’s most accomplished storytellers. These tales showcase the qualities for which Tessa Hadley has long been praised: her humor, warmth, and psychological acuity; her powerful, precise, and emotionally dense prose; her unflinching examinations of family relationships. Here are stories that range widely across generations and classes, exploring the private and public lives of unforgettable characters: a young girl who haunts the edges of her parents’ party; a wife released by the sudden death of her film-director husband; an eighteen-year-old who insists on marrying her music professor, only to find herself shut out from his secrets. In this stunning collection, Hadley evokes worlds that expand in the imagination far beyond the pages, capturing domestic dramas, generational sagas, wrenching love affairs and epiphanies, and distilling them to remarkable effect.
Most of the stories in Married Love look at modern relationships--within families, marriages, and friendships--and how they become warped and changed through time. On the surface, Hadley writes about everyday scenarios, such as families in conflict, social class divisions, and old friends meeting after many years apart. But Hadley gives these situations a unique slant, digging just a bit deeper to find a darker, hidden layer.

The stories that resonated with me most were those in which Hadley carried the plot into the future, past the initial turning point, allowing us to see the effect of time on the characters. For example, in the title story, Hadley doesn't leave us in the early days of the marriage between student and teacher. She skips through the years so we get a glimpse of a harried mother of three who has lost the spunk of her youth. In "Post Production," we return to the family on the anniversary of the film director's death to learn that even from the grave, he is a binding force.

Hadley's writing is both simple and thoughtful, and I found myself rereading paragraphs just to fully absorb her words. The following passage is one of many that stuck with me. The quote is from the story "The Trojan Prince," which is about a teenage boy who missed the Great War and has decided to test himself by going to sea. Here the crew is forced to abandon ship during a storm:
When it's his turn, apprentice James McIlvanney can't get rid of the idea that everything is happening in a story, to someone else whose role he seems to be carrying off convincingly. To his relief it turns out that this someone is not a coward: he's resourceful and determined and strong enough. Here he is, swinging above the terrible sucking water, above his certain death if he falls in. (p. 67)
And another from the opening page of the title story, "Married Love":
The kitchen in that house was upstairs, its windows overlooking the garden below. It was a tall, thin, old house comfortably untidy, worn to fit the shape of the family. The summer morning was rainy, so all the lights were on, the atmosphere close and dreamy, perfumed with toast and coffee. (p. 1)
The Harper Perennial edition of Married Love and Other Stories will be in stores next week. Tessa Hadley will appeal to readers who like character-driven stories that offer a fresh perspective on familiar themes.

Harper Perennial is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For information about the imprint, please read the welcome note, posted here on June 18, 2010. To discover more Harper Perennial books, use the Topics/Labels pull-down menu in the sidebar. I encourage you to add your reviews of Harper Perennial books to the review link-up page; it's a great way to discover Good Books for Cool People. For more about Harper Perennial, follow them on Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook.

Buy Married Love and Other Stories at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. (This link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by HarperCollins / Harper Perennial, 2012

ISBN-13: 9780062135643

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15 November 2012

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I'm probably the last person in the book blog world to have read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which is part mystery and part psychological thriller. The book has garnered big buzz and much praise. It was an Indie Next pick for June 2012, it was given starred reviews, and big-name mystery writers wrote blurbs.

In case you don't know the plot, I'll summarize it: A young, once-rich couple lost their journalism jobs in New York City during the economic downturn. For a number of reasons, they move to Nick's Missouri hometown to start over. Amy is not at all happy about the move, and over time their marriage begins to fall apart. Then on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. Who is responsible for her disappearance and what exactly happened to Amy?

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but here's the thing. I liked Gone Girl and thought the twisty minds of the characters were well crafted and definitely creepy. I was not, however, blown away by it. Very early on in the novel, I had two theories of what happened. By halfway through I had narrowed it down to one. When the big reveal occurred, it only confirmed my suspicions. I didn't figure out the details of the ending, but I had the gist.

The story is told in alternating perspectives: from Nick in real time and from Amy's diary entries. Flynn does an excellent job creating two distinct personalities and voices. I loved hearing about the same incident from two points of view. Unfortunately, unlike most readers, I didn't develop a clear picture of either character. Both Amy and Nick seemed elusive, and because of that I don't think I was particularly invested in the novel.

Regardless, I think I'm right in saying that fans of psychological thrillers won't want to miss Gone Girl. Gillian Flynn exposes the dark recesses of Nick and Amy's marriage, and it's a marriage like no other (or so we can hope). Even though the novel won't make my top ten list, I recommend it as a good read. My advice is to keep your expectations in check.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 19 hr, 11 min) read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborn. Whelan's performance was excellent, and her inflections and emotional range were well suited to Amy. Heyborn's voice seemed a little young, however, and I had to remind myself that Nick was a man in his thirties. On the other hand, Heyborn's characterizations were believable and nicely done. I appreciated that Whelan's and Heyborn's performances complemented each other, making the transitions between them smooth and natural. If I had been reading Gone Girl in print I might not have finished it, so that's a recommendation to try the audiobook.

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13 November 2012

Wordless Wednesday 211

Fall at the Lake Shore, 2012


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Guest Post: From Food Writer to Novelist by Megan Mulry

Bronte Talbott is a modern woman who is decidedly career oriented. Getting married would be nice, but not if it means sacrificing her own ambitions. Of course, she's not all that no-nonsense feminist. She'd still like to date Mr. Right, and she's not giving up her obsession with reading the gossip columns about the British titled gentry and royalty.

But what happens when she discovers her new boyfriend is really a duke? Reading about royalty and fairy tale romances is one thing, living in the limelight is quite another. Bronte has some soul-searching decisions to make about what she really wants her future to be like.

Megan Mulry's A Royal Pain has been described as a fun (and very adult) story that's a cross between romance and woman's fiction. I'm getting the impression Bronte has her feet on the ground and isn't going to be too quick to turn her life upside down for the duke.

I'm thrilled to welcome author Megan Mulry to my blog today. It likely comes as no surprise that I encouraged her to write something foodie. What will come as a surprise is just how perfect that topic turned out to be. Take a look.
From Food Writer to Novelist

Cultivation to the mind is as necessary as food to the body. —Cicero

I was so excited when I heard you enjoy blogs about food and food research! My daughter recently asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up (what I imagined I wanted to be when I was her age), and I told her I wanted to be an architect and then I wanted to be a food writer. At first, I wanted to be an architect so I could design my own house to include little hydraulic chutes like they have at the drive-up teller of the bank, so I could have holes in the wall—near my desk or where I sat watching television—where those Plexiglas cylinders could come flying out with that satisfying whoosh and inside would be a can of Coke or a Pop-Tart. Those were my childhood food fantasies; today the chute would provide a glass of micro-brewed beer and a plate of butternut squash ravioli in sage butter.

When I realized architecture school would force me to learn lots of other Very Important Things before I would ever get around to building Barbie's Gastronomic Dream House, I tried to figure out a simpler way to get paid to eat.

When I was in Italy for the summer between my junior and senior years of university (ostensibly learning about the Italian Renaissance, but really eating and drinking), one of my classmates suggested the idea of becoming a food writer. Genius! It has caché! It has style! I would do it! It took a while, but eventually I became a lifestyle editor at Boston Magazine and was able to go to restaurants and write about them. It was a great gig, but like all good things, it came to an end. My husband's company offered him the opportunity to work in their London office. Did I want to go? Uh. Yes!

Upon our arrival there, I discovered magazine jobs were *cough* rather low paying. ("But you'll be able to say you work at fill-in-prestigious-intellectual-British-magazine-name-here . . ." one kind interviewer explained when I gasped at the paltry salary. To which I replied, "But I won't be able to afford my dry cleaning!") I ended up getting an entry-level (higher-paying) job in banking. And eating. And looking.

Being an expatriate is really the ideal way to do book research without appearing to be a fool or a snoop. "I've never had a summer pudding . . . please enlighten me!" "Squab? Really? Yes, thank you!" Being American meant my ignorance was easily passed off as an eager desire to become culturally literate in my new home. If I was caught staring at the window of Allen & Co. butchers—their website proudly declares that from the day they opened in 1887: "carcases have been hung at 117 Mount Street ever since"—I merely explained that I was an ever-curious American.

I didn't know it at the time, but it turns out all those episodes of looking and snooping and foolishness were percolating into lots and lots of stories. I love that scene in Out of Africa where Karin Blixen offers to tell a story if someone else will provide an opening line. I figure every little snippet of my British experience is an opening line. That startlingly handsome man working at the car repair shop with the pain in his crystal blue eyes; the former army engineer who described the isolation of his occupation; the friend of a friend who died in the plane crash. Now that I'm writing full-time, I feel like I finally know what to do with all of this particulate information. All of those conversations and experiences and observations were feeding my mind all these years. I just didn't know it.

I don't write about actual people I know, but as a dowager duchess might say, one hears things, especially while sitting adjacent to a quarrelling couple at a table for two in Mayfair.

Some of my favorite restaurants in London are
Thank you so much for having me to your blog!
No, thank you for such a terrific post. Now you have me dreaming of those hydraulic chutes so my coffee could be delivered to me in the morning and my wine at night. What fun that would be! By the way, I have a particular obsession for the movie Out of Africa, so I know exactly which scene you mean. And I love your restaurant recommendations; when I get back to London, I'll give one or two a try.

Buy A Royal Pain at an Indie or at a bookstore near you (link leads to an affiliate program).
Sourcebooks / Sourcebooks Landmark, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781402269974
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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12 November 2012

Review: Jack of Fables 3: The Bad Prince by Bill Willingham

If you've been following my Fables reviews, then you know I wasn't all that crazy about the first two entries in Bill Willingham's Jack of Fables spinoff series. I'm so glad I decided to keep reading, though because volume 3, The Bad Prince is one of my favorite Fables installments.

Here are the major plot lines as best as I can do without including spoilers. Jack is on the run from a questionable organization that is out to control the memories of the Fable beings and thus strip the world of magic. The person in charge is named Mr. Revise. In The Bad Prince, we learn more about the background of Revise and his family.

While Jack and his new sidekick, the Pathetic Fallacy (who now wants to be known as Gary), are wandering around the American Southwest, they're picked up by one of Revise's minions. That adventure proves to be an eye-opener for our buddy Jack. He learns something about his origins, and we witness an event of great significance. Jack, however, is so busy stewing over his origins that he hasn't yet realized what happened.

Finally, somewhere in Manhattan, a Mundy (human) may be about to expose the Fables and their Fabletown home to the world at large. Click on the scan to see the first page in this story arc. There are no spoilers on the page, and you'll get an idea of artwork.

As always, there is quite a bit of humor (visual and verbal) in the story. In addition, I like the artists for The Bad Prince, and despite the cover, Jack is pretty handsome in this book.

I'm now looking forward to the next Jack books, the great cross-over book, and my return to the main Fables series.

The story is by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges, and the art team includes Tony Akins, Russ Braun, Andrew Pepoy, Daniel Vozzo, and Todd Klein. The cover art is by Brian Bolland.

Buy The Bad Prince at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Published by DC Comics / Vertigo, 2008
ISBN-13: 9781401218546
Rating: B+
Source: review (see review policy)
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10 November 2012

Weekend Cooking: Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, beer, wine, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. More information at the welcome post.

_______
Entry into the adult world for the Pandl children occurred on the day each one worked the Sunday brunch alongside Dad, George Pandl. For Julia, that fateful weekend came when she was twelve and was caught watching TV instead of doing something more useful, like playing outside or reading a book.

Most kids would have seen being put to work as cruel and unusual punishment, but Julia, the youngest of nine kids, knew her day was coming and accepted it with pouty grace.

Julia Pandl's Memoir of the Sunday Brunch is a tribute to her parents and to the family business, a restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It'd be safe to say her upbringing was a bit unorthodox (her father let her drive the car by age fourteen), but all those tough Sunday brunches brought her closer to her father and taught her valuable life lessons.

Most of Pandl's memoir focuses on her family life and relates stories about her parents, her place among her siblings, and working in the restaurant. I particularly liked her descriptions of the brunch service. It takes an enormous amount of hard work, and George accepted no excuses for being late or for poor workmanship.

I had to laugh at Pandl's descriptions of the food eaten at home. As she herself mentions, the cobbler's kids are always barefoot. In a like way, the Pandl kids were often subjected to out-of-date restaurant food Dad just could bear to throw away. I'm surprised no one died of food poisoning.

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch is short, heart-felt memoir that is neither inspirational nor sentimental. Julia Pandl's family life was just different enough to make for interesting and sometimes funny stories, without verging into the realm of craziness. My only complaint is that I wish more of the book had been set in the Bayside restaurant.

Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.

Buy Memoir of the Sunday Brunch at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Workman / Algonquin Books, November 13, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781616201722

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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09 November 2012

Imprint Friday: The Trial of Fallen Angels by James Kimmel Jr.

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Amy Einhorn Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Do you ever wonder if you'll ever really be accountable for all your actions--big and small, good and bad--to some higher power? If so, you've probably imagined some version of standing at the pearly gates arguing your case to St. Peter (details depend on your religious beliefs). In James Kimmel Jr.'s The Trial of Fallen Angels, Brek Cuttler is faced with a completely different scenario.

Here's the publisher's summary:
Brek Cuttler has it all: a husband she loves, a daughter she adores, a successful law practice. And then one day everything she has ever known disappears. Brek finds herself standing on a deserted train platform, covered in blood. As she tries to comprehend what is happening to her, a man from her past approaches and explains that she has been chosen to join the elite team of lawyers charged with prosecuting and defending souls at the Final Judgment.

As Brek struggles to find her way back to her husband and daughter, she will discover that her first client holds the shocking secret of her fate. That seemingly disparate events during her life have conspired to bring her to a single moment in time that will determine her eternity. And that every act of kindness and cruelty sets in motion things beyond our wildest imaginations.
Let me be honest here. All I really want to say about The Trial of Fallen Angels is this: I loved it. I read the novel before I read the summary and before I knew the first thing about it. So let me reassure some of you from the start. This isn't a religious/Christian book, this isn't an inspirational story, and Kimmel isn't pushing a personal spiritual agenda.

The story of Brek Cuttler's afterlife is part mystery and part philosophy and can be read on either level or both. We know only what Brek knows, and at first that's not much. For Brek, death temporarily blocks her memory, especially of the last few hours of life, and restores it only in bits. Eventually, she is able to piece everything together to see a broader picture of the interconnected events and acts that ultimately set her fate. Only when she sees the entire web, through time and place, can Brek understand what happened to her and why.

The other aspect of the novel has to do with the trials, the lawyers, the defendants, and the judges. This is the meat of The Trial of Fallen Angels and the part that will spark conversations in book clubs and among readers. What can I say that won't lead you or give away the crux? I'll put it this way. It's all about making a choice. You'll wonder if there is a right or wrong option, you'll imagine what you'd do in Brek's place, and you'll think about whether Kimmel's vision matches your own. I found similarities to a particular question Shakespeare asked; others may find a more strictly religious interpretation.

I don't want to leave you with the idea that The Trial of Fallen Angels is heavy with sadness, deep intellectual thought, or no plot. In fact, Kimmel teases us with hints of Brek's fate both in life and in death. His descriptions of the central Pennsylvania landscape and way of life are spot on. And the action scenes have you reading as fast as you can. Those who don't want to dwell on questions of fate or the afterlife can read the novel as a unique and engaging story. This was my principal approach to the story.

I have a feeling The Trial of Fallen Angels will provoke strong feelings in readers, depending on individual expectations and beliefs.

Amy Einhorn Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Amy Einhorn's open letter posted here on January 25, 2010, or click the Amy Einhorn tab below my banner photo. To join the Amy Einhorn Books Reading Challenge, click the link.

Buy The Trial of Fallen Angels at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Putnam
/ Amy Einhorn Books, November 2012
ISBN-13: 9780399159695

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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08 November 2012

Review: I, Q: Independence Hall by Roland Smith

One of my favorite middle grade publishers is Sleeping Bear Press, a publisher I first discovered at BookExpo America (BEA) a couple of years ago. I've loved every book of theirs I've read and was looking forward to giving Roland Smith's I, Q spy/thriller series for young readers a try.

Although the first book, I, Q: Independence Hall, has many jobs--setting up the premise of the series, introducing us to the characters, and telling its own story--it never stalls and kept my attention from the beginning. Almost immediately, we learn that Quest Munoz (13) and Angela Tucker (15) barely knew each other when their rock star parents, Blaze and Roger, decided to get hitched on the eve of a yearlong concert tour.

The newly forged family plans to leave the wedding reception by tour bus, which will be their home for the next year. Q, our narrator, is used to cramped spaces because he and his mom lived on a boat after his dad, also a musician, left them years earlier. It's going to be harder on Angela and her dad, who are used to stationery digs. From the very first day on the road, Q learns that life with his step-sister is going to be both better than he could have imagined and much, much more dangerous.

There is so much I love about I, Q: Independence Hall, starting with the characters. Q and Angela are good kids who are determined to make the best of their situation for the sake of their parents. But that doesn't mean they are insufferable goody goodies. They stay up late, spend their allowance on forbidden cheeseburgers, and keep secrets from their parents. They also each have a special talent. Angela's late mother worked for the Secret Service and trained her daughter in basic spy techniques. Q is an accomplished magician and loves card tricks. These skills come in handy when the teens are suddenly tangled up in a real-life spy mission.

It was stroke of genius that Roland Smith gives us two heroes. First, because the series has solid appeal with tweens of both sexes and, second, because Q and Angela can learn from each other, and neither kid has to have unbelievable superpowers

In addition, Smith created a scenario that works. Sure, it's a bit far-fetched that two teens would be involved in a matter of national security, but the plot is so well conceived that readers quickly accept Q and Angela's participation. Young readers will learn quite a bit about modern spies, terrorism, and history right along with Q and Angela. Instead of being scary, I, Q: Independence Hall offers good information about how governments work together to keep everyone safe.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because it's more fun to be surprised. Smith's I, Q: Independence Hall is a great middle reader thriller, perfect for both boys and girls. The mystery is just difficult enough to offer some surprises but not so complicated that tweens will feel lost. Be warned: You'll want to get all three books (I, Q: The White House, 2010, and I, Q: Kitty Hawk, 2012) at once because they end just as the next adventure is about to start.

In fact, can't wait to read book two. At the end of the first novel, Q and Angela are on their way to have a private meeting with the president of the United States, who has invited their parents to the White House to give a concert. But what could the commander-in-chief want at two in the morning?

Don't miss the very cool interactive I, Q website, complete with games, character lists, and a gallery. Parents, homeschoolers, and teachers can check out the curriculum guides for the series, including student packs and educator materials.

I was surprised to learn that there are many trailers for the first I, Q book (I didn't look for videos for the other books). Most were made by young students as class projects. This one is spoiler free and treats us to the iconic James Bond theme song. Enjoy.


This post will be linked to Kid Konnection, hosted by Julie at Booking Mama.

Buy I, Q: Independence Hall at an Indie or at a bookstore near you (link leads to an affiliate program).
Sleeping Bear Press, 2008
Rating: A-
ISBN-13: 9781585363254

Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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06 November 2012

Wordless Wednesday 210

Horse Team


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Today's Read & Giveaway: The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

What's a retired SpecOps enforcement officer to do when called back to active duty? Thursday Next is expecting to be head of the Literary Detectives but instead ends up as chief librarian of the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat at Fatso's Drink Not Included Library. Besides adjusting to the new job and recuperating from an assassination attempt (not to mention remembering the name of that library), Thursday is also worrying about her kids—the two she knows about and the one who, for now anyway, exists only in her memory.
Everything comes to an end. A good bottle of wine, a summer's day, a long-running sitcom, one's life, and eventually our species. The question for many of us is not that everything will come to an end but when. And can we do anything vaguely useful until it does?

In the case of a good bottle of wine, probably not much—although the very act of consumption might make one believe otherwise. A well-lazed summer's day should not expect too much of itself either, and sitcoms never die. They simply move to a zombielike existence in rerun heaven. Of the remaining two—the end of one's life and that of our species—regular subscribers to my exploits will recall that I had seen myself die a few years back, and given my past record, it was probable that much useful work would be done between then and now. As to the end of our species, the possibility of annihilation was quite real, well documented, and went by the unimaginative title of Astroid HR-6984. (p. 1)
The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde (Penguin USA / Viking, 2012)

The Giveaway: Thanks to the generous marketing team at Viking, I have a hardcover finished copy of Jasper Fforde's The Woman Who Died a Lot, the latest Thursday Next novel, to give away to one of my readers. Because I'm doing the mailing myself, this giveaway is open internationally. To enter for a chance to win, just fill out the following form. I'll pick a winner on November 13 using a random number generator. All personal information will be deleted once a winner is confirmed. Good luck!

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05 November 2012

Review: Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris

On the edge of a cypress swamp in Dead Lakes, Florida, Ella Wallace comes one day closer to losing her land. If only she had listened to her aunt's warnings about gambler, charmer Harlin Wallace. If only she hadn't given up her dream of studying painting. But it's too late now to look back: she has a general store to run and three boys raise. Harlin ran off to devote himself to his true love, opium.

Whether it's Narissa, a Creek Indian, who came looking for temporary work six years earlier, or the stranger Lanier Stillis, who paid to have himself shipped to the store, Ella has a way of getting help when she needs it. But what's the cost of being one of her saviors?

Set in the Florida panhandle in the closing months of World War I, Man in the Blue Moon is, in a general sense, a story of class divisions in the Deep South. The overriding plot is Ella's determination to hold on to the land that's been in her family for generations, land her husband mortgaged to pay for his gambling and drugs. Greed and jealousy drive the local banker to do whatever is necessary to make sure Ella forfeits on the loan and is thrown out of her home.

The novel is, however, much more complicated than that and has at least two other principal story arcs. In addition, Michael Morris's characters have their own versions of reality, leaving the reader to wonder just who is telling the truth. This is especially the case with Lanier. Is he the good man he claims to be, or is he just as worthless as his cousin Harlin? And, come to think of it, is there any reason to believe he's really who he says he is?

Although the action in Man in the Blue Moon is often intense, it's the characters that draw the reader into the story. Each person in Ella's life is easy to envision. For instance, we sympathize with the embittered spinster schoolteacher who no longer understands Ella, her girlhood friend, and we're shocked at how some of the townsfolk treat Ruby, the mentally disabled daughter of a widower who drinks too much. And then there's Ella herself, a complex woman whose potential and dreams, although trampled by circumstances, still smolder in a deep corner of her being.

Other major themes in Man in the Blue Moon are faith, hope, friendship, family, and prejudice. In particular, Morris examines several styles of spirituality and upholders of the faith, including a local reverend, an evangelist, and a faith healer. Although these characters are somewhat stereotypical (the evangelist comes across as greedy and ultra conservative), Morris uses them to talk about broader issues, especially intolerance.

Michael Morris's latest novel is an intimate look at small-town Southern life of a century ago. This is not a nostalgic story, but a masterfully constructed tale of a family in crisis and a town blinded by local history and the fear of those who are different.

Man in the Blue Moon is the She Reads book club selection for November. To see what other club members thought of the book, to enter a great giveaway, and to join the conversation, visit the She Reads website.

Buy Man in the Blue Moon at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Published by Tyndale House, 2012
ISBN-13: 9781414368429
Rating: B+
Source: review (see review policy)
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