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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07 December 2018

7 New(ish) Books for Speculative Fiction Fans

What's your favorite escape reading? Do you turn to a steamy romance, light women's fiction, or a heart-thudding spy thriller? I've been known to read all three, but I think my top genres for ditching reality are good, solid murder mysteries and full-on speculative fiction, especially fantasies. If you're like me, then read on . . . here are seven fall fantasies that should be on your current reading list. (Descriptions are adapted from the publisher's summary.)

review: The Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan AllredThe Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan Allred (Forest Avenue Press, November 6). Genre: epic fantasy. Audience: adult.

When a fisherman receives a mysterious letter about his beloved’s demise, he sets off in his skiff to find her on the Isle of the Dead. Set in the sixteenth century, where bawdy Shakespearean love triangles play out with shapeshifting avian demigods and a fertility goddess, drunken revelry, bio-dynamic gardening, and a narcissistic, bullying crow, who may have colluded with a foreign power. A hopeful tale for our troubled times.
review: City of Ash and Red by Hye-young PyunCity of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun (Arcade Publishing, November 6). Translated from Korean. Genre: dystopian. Audience: adult.
Distinguished for his talents as a rat killer, the nameless protagonist is sent on an extended assignment to a country descending into chaos and paranoia, swept by a contagious disease, and flooded with trash. No sooner does he disembark than he is whisked away by quarantine officials and eventually told he is the prime suspect in his wife's murder. Barely managing to escape arrest, he must struggle to survive in the streets of a foreign city gripped with fear of contamination and find a way to clear his reputation.
Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha NganGirls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (Jimmy Patterson, November 6). Genre: fantasy. Audience: young adult.
Lei--a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara--lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it's Lei they're after, whose rumored beauty has piqued the king's interest. At the palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit a king's consort. Lei's ensuing forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world's entire way of life. Although still a country girl at heart, Lei must decide how far she's willing to go for justice and revenge.
review: Grim Lovelies by Megan ShepherdGrim Lovelies by Megan Shepherd (HMH Books for Young Readers, October 2). Genre: dark, epic fantasy. Audience: young adult. First in a series.
Seventeen-year-old Anouk has been enchanted from an animal form into a human girl but is forbidden to venture beyond her Parisian prison to mix with real humans. She is destined for a life surrounded by dust bunnies and cinders serving the evil witch who spelled her into existence. But when her mistress is found murdered, Anouk is accused of the crime. Pursued through Paris by an underground magical society, Anouk and her friends have only have three days to find the real killer before the spell keeping them human fades away. If they fail, they will lose the only lives they’ve ever known, but if they succeed, they could be more powerful than anyone ever bargained for.
review: Lies Sleeping by Ben AaronovitchLies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch (DAW, November 20). Genre: urban fantasy. Audience: adult. Seventh in the River of London series.
The series follows Peter Grant, a constable turned magician’s apprentice, as he solves crimes in London. This mystery-thriller-fantasy involves the Faceless Man, who is wanted for multiple counts of murder, fraud, and crimes against humanity. Detective Grant soon realizes that in order to bring the criminal to justice and thwart a larger, deeper conspiracy he may have to rely on a woman who once betrayed him.
review: The Mortal Word by Genevieve CogmanThe Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman (Ace, November 27). Genre: time travel / urban fantasy. Audience: adult. Fifth in the Invisible Library series.
The series follows librarian Irene and her assistant Kai as they travel to various worlds fighting creatures of chaos and tracking down important books. In this installment Irene travels to 1890s Paris where a powerful dragon has been murdered in the middle of a top secret dragon-Fae peace conference. Tasked with solving the case, Irene and fellow Librarians find evidence of a larger crime that might involve the Invisible Library itself.
review: The XY by Virginia BerginThe XY by Virginia Bergin (Sourcebook Fire, November 6): Genre: dystopian. Audience: young adult.
Sixty years ago, a virus wiped out almost all men on Earth. Now women run the world, and men are kept in repopulation facilities, safe from the deadly virus. At least, that's what everyone has been led to believe, until River discovers a young man on a country road-—injured but alive. Mason has been outside for five days since escaping from his facility, and no one can understand how he has survived. Hiding the boy violates the rules of their world, but as the women of the town band together to try to save him, River begins to suspect that the truth behind Mason's existence is darker than she could have imagined.

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05 December 2018

Wordless Wednesday 519

Winter Lace, 2018

Click image to enlarge. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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04 December 2018

Today's Read: The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander

The Weight of a Piano by Chris CanderWhat if you found yourself in possession of something you couldn't keep but that was your last link to your parents? This is what happens to 26-year-old Clara, when she realizes she must sell her piano, which is the only thing she owns that belonged to her late-parents. What ensues after she places her Craigslist ad, was totally unexpected.

Here's how the book starts:

Hidden in the dense forests high in the Romanian mountains, where the winters were especially cold and long, were spruce tress that would be made into pianos: exquisite instruments famous for the warmth of their tone and beloved by the likes of Schumann and Liszt. One man alone knew how to choose them.
The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander (Knopf, January 23, 2019)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: 1960s, Soviet Union; modern times, California
  • Circumstances: In 1962, Russia, 8-year-old Katya inherits a beautiful Blüthner upright piano, built in Germany at the start of the century. Her piano and music are her passions, so when the instrument is lost during a time when she and her husband have a chance to immigrate to America, she is devastated. In 2012, Clara, an orphan, has only one physical connection to her parents: a Blüthner upright piano that she never learned to play. When her living circumstances change, she realizes she probably has to sell the piano. Greg, a photographer, wants to buy it, but Clara is not sure she can part with her family treasure. After Greg and Clara meet and she agrees to lease him the instrument, their lives are changed forever.
  • Genre: literary fiction, with some historical fiction elements; not strictly a dual-time-period story
  • Themes: loss, family, music, photography, the arts, the natural environment, relationships
  • Why I want to read this book: I've seen several reviews that say this novel is perfect for fans of Ann Patchett, Annie Proulx, and/or Amanda Coplin. I like the idea of this book and the tie between the arts, pain, and possible healing. It's earned a gazillion starred reviews, and has a 3.8-star rating on Goodreads.
  • An extra: I bet The Weight of a Piano would be a great book club pick, and a reading guide is available.
  • Acknowledgments: thanks to Knopf's for the review copy of Chris Cander's The Weight of a Piano.

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