17 December 2018

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: Escape Reading at Its Best

5 books to read in DecemberI can't tell you how happy I am that we got ready for Christmas early, because this last week needed every bit of energy and attention I had.

We had sad things and happy things to deal with plus my clients had lots of last-minute (preholiday) jobs for me. In between I kept my house in order, did a little cooking, and tried to have a life. Hahaha.

Once again, I wonder how I'd survive if I didn't have audiobooks. They are truly blessings when I'm overwhelmed with the world and with life.

In case you missed it, I posted my favorite books of the year on Friday. And here's what I read last week.

Review of The Blackhouse by Peter MayThe Blackhouse by Peter May (Quercus, 2014). I've read and loved several of May's books, so I'm not sure why I've never read his Lewis Trilogy, which is set in the Outer Hebrides. The print book has been on my shelf for a few years, so I did a sort of read plus listen, depending on what was going on. Detective Fin Macleod escaped his native Isle of Lewis almost the moment he graduated high school, heading off for university. Instead of graduating he joined the Edinburgh police force, where he investigated murders. When a childhood acquaintance is murdered under unusual circumstances back home, Fin's superiors send him up north to investigate. While there, Fin discovers much more than just who the killer is; he must confront the past he was so eager to leave behind forever. I loved the atmosphere of the book and the descriptions of the people and the landscape. I felt so bad for Fin and the issues he contended with both in his youth and as an adult. I'll probably read or listen to the next book before the year is out. Note that this book is as much about Fin as it is about the crime. The unabridged audiobook (Hachette Audio; 12 hr, 20 min) was brilliantly read by Peter Forbes. Not only did he keep me on track with the characters, but his pronunciation of the Gaelic words and names enhanced my enjoyment of the mystery. I'm thrilled that he comes back to perform the other books in the series. (print and audio copies provided by the publisher)

Review of Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann HoodKitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann Hood (Norton, December 2018): I wasn't sure whether to write about Hood's memoir here or for a Weekend Cooking post because these essays are very much tied to cooking and eating and each piece in the book ends with a recipe or two. Hood writes about her Italian grandmother's cooking for a large family in a small kitchen in Rhode Island, she remembers the year she learned about dieting, she shares her Midwest relatives' best fried chicken, and all the while she muses about families, marriage, friends, motherhood, loss, and love. Her current (and presumably last) husband is none other than Michael Ruhlman, a writer and most notably a cook and cookbook author. Hood's food memories include comfort food and cooking for and with her children (ramen, anyone?) as well summer pesto and tomato pie. I loved the stories of the first dinner parties Hood hosted and of how she learned to use a backyard smoker with her son. Some incidents (the death of her daughter, for example) are retold in several essays, but I think that's because this collection includes some previously published pieces. Regardless, I can recommend Ann Hood's memoir without reservation. Although I listened to it for a freelance assignment (see AudioFile magazine for my review), I had a copy to read as well. I can't wait to try her mother's meatballs with her grandmother's Sunday sauce. Lovely in audio, but probably a better read in print because of the recipes. (eGalley provided by the publisher; audiobook for freelance assignment)

Review of Counting Sheep: Reflections and Observations of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel LindénCounting Sheep: Reflections and Observations of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén (Atria, November 2018). I picked up this little gem of a book because I like personal essays, I love Scandinavia, and I have a growing interest in books in translation. This short memoir is a series of diary entries about Lindén's experiences of leaving academia to settle on his parents' farm, when they decided to leave the land. He writes about the difference between what he thought farming would be like (part boring hard work and part wonderful to be self-sufficient) and what it eventually became (a way of life, a means of subsistence). Some of the diary entries are only one sentence long, and they all apply to his relationship to his sheep, though we see glimpses of his children and other people. Much of his attention is focused on literally counting sheep: have they survived the night and are they all in the pasture? Does he have too many rams for his herd? How many lambs were born and how many survived? This is a quiet little book that is full of charm but is (frankly) probably not for everybody. The print book includes lovely black and white drawings of sheep that I intend to revisit. I listened to the audiobook (Simon & Schuster; 1 hr, 53 min) read by Peter Nobel, who captured Lindén's intent and moods very well. I decided to listen to the book over the weekend, when I had some household chores because the length and timing were just right. Unfortunately, I feel as if I didn't give the audiobook enough attention (totally my fault), so I plan to skim it in print again, looking at the drawings and rereading some of the more poignant entries. This is a quiet memoir that would appeal to those of you who like to connect to the natural world. (eGalley and audiobook copies provided by the publisher)

Review of Death of a Bore by M. C. BeatonDeath of a Bore by M. C. Beaton (Grand Central, 2006). I listened to the 20th entry in the Hamish Macbeth cozy mystery series, which takes place in northern Scotland and stars a lovable, smart, but ultimately unambitious village copper. I've written about this series many times over the years, and it's near impossible not to spoil the earlier books at this point. Every series has its ups and downs, but so far Beaton has let me down only once, and that was a few books ago. In this entry, Hamish meets the new schoolteacher, sets local gossips a-talking, solves a mystery, reconnects with some old flames, and has to work with some new superior officers in the city. Of course, Hamish manages to get the killer plus help a few villagers past some of life's bumps. These mysteries are pure fun and pure escape, and I urge you to start at the beginning if you're going to read them. The books are short and will take you just an afternoon or so. But if you're an audiobook fan, I strongly encourage you to listen instead of read. Graeme Malcolm is the narrator for the series (Blackstone; 5, hr, 17 min). He took over from Davina Porter (and in fact re-recorded the earlier books). Although I was a little taken aback at first, Malcolm has totally grown on me, and I can't wait to hear him perform the next books in the series. (personal collection)

Charmcaster by Sebastien de Castell (Orbit, September 2018). This is the third entry in the Spellslinger series, and I was as taken in by this book as I was by the first two. As I've said before, the world and its rules are fresh and unique, though the familiar fantasy elements shine through. There will no spoilers for this book, but I can't help a few subtle ones from previous books in the series. In this installment, Kellen, our hero, is still struggling to come to terms with the fate life has given him. He was born into one of the strongest families of his region and clan, but was denied entry into the elite world he grew up to expect. As an outlaw, he has had to make a new family, find his strengths, and overcome his weaknesses. This entry was a major turning point in the story. Kellen discovers things about his companions and his estranged sister and father that solidify his worldview. He is maturing and becoming more confident, but he is not perfect and still makes mistakes and doubts himself. I love being on his journey with him. The book doesn't end on a cliff-hanger, but new things will be happening in the next story. As I said before, the series is a great mix of action, character study, and magic mixed with humor and a Wild West feel. If you're a fantasy fan, you should be reading these books. Or better yet, listen to the unabridged audiobook (Hachette Audio; 11 hr, 42 min) read by Joe Jameson, who is fantastic. His characterizations perfectly project the characters' personalities and his comedic timing is spot on. I love the way he keeps the dialogue moving and pulls us completely into the action. Stay tuned for book four. (audiobook provided by the publisher).

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15 December 2018

Weekend Cooking: Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent (Film)

review of Jeremiah Tower: The Last MagnificentDo you know who Jeremiah Tower is? I hope you do. But regardless of whether your answer to that question is yes or no, you should take some time to see the 2016 documentary Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, directed by Lydia Tenaglia and Morgan Fallon. Anthony Bourdain both appears in the film and is one of the producers.

I know Chef Tower first from his association with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse and later from his San Fransisco restaurant Stars. He also had a brief tenure at Tavern on the Green. He is most known for transforming the American food and restaurant scene and for being one of the first to promote the idea of eating local foods.

Beyond his resume, however, I didn't know much about who Tower was as a person. The movie is primarily documentary, mixing vintage footage and family photographs with more recently shot scenes. The film also uses some reenactments when Tower tells us stories about his privileged and eccentric but less-than-ideal childhood.

After watching Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, I have a different view of the chef as a man: I admire how he rose above a difficult youth and his vision for how best to pursue one's passions, yet I wonder how much of his aloneness is his own fault or perhaps manufactured to create a kind of mystique.

Review of Jeremiah Tower: The Last MagnificentI loved hearing from the range of food elites who appear in the documentary, such as Martha Stewart, Ruth Reichl, Stephen Torres, Wolfgang Puck, and Anthony Bourdain. We also meet other people who knew the chef well, such as friends and people who worked with him.

If you're interested in the rise of the American food scene and the local food movement, then you should get to know Tower, one of the very first celebrity chefs. Although food and cooking are strong threads in Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, the focus is much more on the chef than on showing beauty scenes of the food he cooked and served at his restaurants.

The documentary is currently streaming on Netflix and is well worth your time. Here's the trailer.

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. 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.

NOTE: Mr. Linky sometimes is mean and will give you an error message. He's usually wrong and your link went through just fine the first time. Grrrr.

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14 December 2018

8 Best Books of 2018

I know we’re not quite halfway through December and there’s still plenty of reading time left. Still, I thought I’d share my best of the year list today.

I haven’t divided my selections into audiobooks and print or into genres. And what’s more, I have only 8 titles on my 2018 list. Although I read plenty of books I liked and many I’d recommend, when I went through my reviews, these are the books that really jumped out and made me say, "Oh, yeah—that was a great book."

So here, in alphabetical order, are my top 8 reads of the year. The links lead to my reviews/thoughts.

  • Best books of 2018 from Beth Fish ReadsThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press): a novel set in Alaska in the 1970s. I liked the difficult themes (PTSD, domestic violence) and the tribute to the stark and beautiful Alaskan landscape.
  • Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books): a novel about a group of special-needs sixth graders, set in New York. Through the voices of the children we learn how many of the larger contemporary social issues affect even the most innocent.
  • The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara (Ecco): a novel set in New York at the start of the AIDS epidemic (based on true events). A heartbreaking story of the Latino ball scene and the boys and men who were rejected by their families and society, left resource-less with few options for survival.
  • How Long ’Til Black Future Month? by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit): a collection of short stories; speculative fiction. The powerful and fully realized pieces in this book explore feminism, fertility, being different, motherhood, and other themes universal to Jemisin’s work.
  • Best books of 2018 from Beth Fish ReadsI’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara (Harper Books): investigative journalism; true crime. An engaging yet graphic account of the search for the Golden State Killer; includes details on the crimes, victims, and suspects.
  • Look Alive Out There by Sloan Crosley (Macmillan): a collection of personal essays. Through sharp observations and a dose of humor, Crosley explores adulting in contemporary New York.
  • Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth (Harper Books): a novel set in the Australian outback in the late 19th century. A coming-of-age story of two very different brothers finding their place in a harsh world in the aftermath of a family tragedy.
  • Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison (Viking): a novel set in Rocky Mountains in the 1880s. The story of survival, choices, and consequences as a young woman searches for her brother, an outlaw with a bounty on his head. A fresh look at the lawless American west.

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10 December 2018

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: Preholiday Reading

4 short book reviewsThis has been a crazy two weeks: I've been working hard, reading a bit, finishing the shopping (we're done!), and getting the house holiday ready. I swear, every second of my time has been taken up.

The good news is that we're in great shape and it's only December 10. For the first time in years, we'll be able to relax and enjoy the season. My stress levels are near zero!

Have you seen Netflix's version of Dumplin' yet? We really liked it, and I thought the film stayed true to the spirit of the book, even if some things were different. But isn't that always the case when a book is adapted for the screen?

For example, I love the series Outlander, even if the arc of a few characters has changed and even if the show isn't 100 percent following the books. It's still good. I think the writers and directors have captured the magic of the books, and I'm fine with that.

Here's what I read over the last two weeks. If you're interested in food or drink writing, I encourage you to look at my Saturday post, which covers three books that would make great holiday gifts.

Review of Red Sister by Mark LawrenceRed Sister by Mark Lawrence (Ace, February 2018). This first in a fantasy trilogy starts off slowly, introducing us to the characters, setting up the premise, and showing us the alternate world. I can surely understand why some readers gave up early, but if you stick with this book, you're in for a treat. In the world of Red Sister, nuns do more than hold the faith; they are also warriors and scholars. Our primary hero is young Nona Grey who, despite being just a child, is accused of murdering a grown man who was hurting her friend. Saved at the last second by Sister Glass of the Sweet Mercy Convent, Nona eventually settles into her new life as a initiate in the convent, learning to fight and use poisons along with her regular lessons. Over the course of her youth, Nona also discovers the meaning of friendship and her true heritage. Mixed in with familiar fantasy plot lines are some surprises, a unique universe, and many strong women. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Recorded Books; 19 hr, 21 min), read by Heather O'Neill. This is my first experience with O'Neill, and I was pretty impressed. I thought she did a great job with the dialogue, giving appropriate vocal tones to each character. Her diction was clear, and she kept my interest throughout. I was relieved to see that she performs the second book in the series, and I sure hope she's also around for the final installment. (library book)

Review of Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-BrenyahFriday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner Books, October 2018). Okay guys, I think I'm now a short-story enthusiast, because this is the second collection that I just couldn't put down. Wow. Some of the stories in this collection are very loosely connected in setting, but they all share similar themes of being black in America, touching on family, power, death, poverty, working for minimum wage, education, and ethics. Adjei-Brenyah's worlds are mostly futuristic or semi-dystopian (some are full-on speculative), and each character's journey grabbed my attention. In one, a young man is working at an outdoor store at the mall, hoping to earn top sales so he can give his mom a new winter coat. In another, a usually straight-laced black teen reacts to a news story of a white man who killed seven very young black children and used self-defense as justification. In the title story, frenzied mall shoppers are afflicted with a zombie like condition, destroying stores in their quest for the perfect gift. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Recorded Books; 7 hr, 8 min), read by Corey Allen and Carra Patterson. The bulk of the stories are read by Allen, whose performance is near-perfect. Patterson's work is equally impressive. Highly recommended in print or audio. (For more on the audiobook, see AudioFile magazine.)

Review of The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace JohnsonThe Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson (Viking, April 2018). So many things about this book called to me, particularly true crime, fly fishing, and evolutionary biology. In 2009, a young, promising American musician, studying abroad, broke into a satellite branch of the British Museum of Natural History and stole 299 specimens of tropical birds. These weren't just any old stuffed birds, but were important examples for scientific study and included many collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently came up with the idea of natural selection at the same time as Charles Darwin. The birds were all rare, endangered, and very important to ornithologists, evolutionary biologists, and even climate scientists. So why did Edwin Rist commit this crime? He was a world-renown salmon flytier, who was obsessed with obtaining the rare bird feathers, which would advance his craft and bring him almost unlimited income from selling the bird carcasses, one beautiful feather at a time. Investigative journalist Johnson, a trout fly-fisherman, became intrigued with the case. Although Rist was arrested 18 months after the heist, he didn't serve jail time, and quite a number of the stolen birds remained unaccounted for. Johnson was captivated by the crime and the idea that someone would be driven to steal feathers just to tie flies that would never actually be used to catch salmon. He also wanted to know why Rist was released by the British courts and whether he worked alone. I was totally drawn in to Rist's story and Johnson's investigation. The crime is heartbreaking and mind-boggling and shows how some passions can have a dark side. You don't have to be a fly-fisherman to enjoy this book; Feather Thief would appeal to anyone who likes true crime. (library book)

Review of Impossible Fortress by Jason RekulakImpossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak (Simon & Schuster, February 7). I had absolutely no idea what this book was about when I reached into my backlog of review copies and decided to give this a try. Set in 1987, when few people had a home computer and CompuServe ruled the dial-up-connected world, this is part coming-of-age story and part homage to a simpler, more private era. Billy Marvin has two loves: writing computer games for his Commodore 64 and Vanna White (of Wheel of Fortune fame). When he and his fellow nerdy friends develop a scheme to steal copies of Playboy magazine featuring Vanna in her birthday suit, Billy discovers that he's not alone in dreaming of becoming a world-famous computer game coder and that, despite his better instincts, he's not above getting into very bad trouble. This was a fun, cute, and nostalgic story. I really liked Billy and completely understood the issues he faced--his loyalty to his best friends, his passion for programming, and his budding romance as well as his genuine regret when he becomes involved in something he knows is dead wrong. This novel (not a YA book) is for those of us who remember the 1980s--even those of us (like me) who were well out of high school by then. The plot is somewhat predictable but no less charming and is full of pop culture references. This is the perfect stress-reducing read. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Simon & Schuster Audio; 7 hr, 23 min), read by Griffin Newman, whose expressive performance added to the emotional depth of Billy's story. I liked his characterizations and good delivery of the dialogue. The audiobook has some well-done sound effects as well. (review copy from the publisher)

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08 December 2018

Weekend Cooking: Gift Guide for Food-Loving Readers

As we finish up Hanukkah and head into Christmas (the perils of the dual-religion family), I find myself relying heavily on tried-and-true dinners and less on experimentation.

For example, this last week we had beans and rice, chicken parm, quinoa Buddha bowls, and grilled salmon. All tasty and all family favorites, but not necessarily good fodder for blogging or for sharing on Weekend Cooking.

I suspect that you too are saving your culinary energy for holiday meals and Christmas cookies, so today, instead of a cookbook or a recipe, I want to tell you about three good food-related books that crossed my desk this fall. I liked them all but never got around to writing full, formal reviews. My procrastination paid off, though, because these niche books are perfect for gift giving.

Review: How to Drink Like a Mobster by Albert W. A. SchmidHow to Drink Like a Mobster by Albert W. A. Schmid (Red Lightning Books, September 1). This cocktail book, written by a mixologist and Gourmand Award winner, is as fun as the subtitle suggests: "Cocktails Guaranteed to Bring Out Your Inner Gangster." The first part of the book includes a mobster glossary, just in case you're not a Button (official member of the Mafia), along with equipment, speakeasy rules, ingredients, techniques, and some base recipes. The second part is a series of short biographies of famous gangsters and descriptions of important events, laws, and places related to the mob. The cocktail recipes are in the final section, arranged by main spirit (vodka, rum, and so on). The drinks range from classics, like the Gibson, to more unusual drinks, like the Gunfire (a coffee drink). Schmid ties each cocktail into the mob world by explaining the origin of the drink's name or by providing a short history of the cocktail itself. This is a delight to read and would make a great gift for the cocktail-loving Mafia fans in your life.

Review: What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking by Terry TeiseWhat Makes a Wine Worth Drinking by Terry Teise (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November 6). This collection of linked essays is written by a wine importer and writer who has won multiple awards, including the James Beard Foundation's Award for Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional. The book is not a how-to guide to buying wines but is a contemplation on the interconnections among the wine growers, their land, their wine, and those of us who enjoy the results. Teise compares our connection to small wine producers to our relationship with the vendors we get to know at our local farmer's market. He also writes about contemporary issues in the wine world, his own wine journey, and how very personal wine drinking can be. His approach is based on his experiences as both a wine drinker and a professional, and he prefers wines that enhance his life rather than those that have a muting effect or take over the moment. To Teise, a wine should be "honest and authentic. That and nothing more." From casual sipper to avid collector, the wine lover on your gift list will find a lot to think about.

Review: The Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites by Dawn DrzalThe Bread and the Knife: A Life in 26 Bites by Dawn Drzal (Arcade, September 11). Written by a former cookbook editor and well-known food writer, this collection of twenty-six personal essays highlight the strong link between food and memory. The pieces are arranged alphabetically from "Al Dente" to "Zucchini Blossoms," and each ingredient, technique, or cooking term prompts Drzal's thoughts on family, childhood, travel, friends, work, and relationships. She tells us about her grandparents, summer camp, dinner parties from her early years in New York City, M. F. K. Fisher, and the year she learned about dieting. You'll also find a few recipes (such as her stepfather's stromboli stuffing) intertwined with Drzal's descriptions of memorable meals (including a thank-you dinner at La Colombe d'Or), thoughts on quasi-vegetarianism, and stories about her marriages. I read this one slowly, one yummy bite at a time. This is the perfect book for the foodies on your gift list, and you'll want a copy to put by your own bedside as well.

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. 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.

NOTE: Mr. Linky sometimes is mean and will give you an error message. He's usually wrong and your link went through just fine the first time. Grrrr.

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