30 April 2013

Wordless Wednesday 235

Fading Magnolia, 2013

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Today's Read: Lowcountry Summer by Dorothea Benton Frank

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to realize that your family may be looking at you to guide them now that the family matriarch has died? Caroline Wimbley Levine finds herself in just such a position. And everything is complicated by that strange combination of jealousy, competition, and fierce love that can be found only among relatives:

It is a generally accepted fact that at some point during your birthday, you'll reassess your life. When you are young, and by "young" I mean the sum of your years is under twenty, your whole life is still in front of you. Your un-juandiced eyes are sunlit and wide. Your lungs rise and fall with breathless optimism. Whom will you marry? Who will you become? Will you be blessed with good children? Live in China? Climb Everest? Visit the Casbah? Sail the Amazon? Will the riches of the world find their way to your door? The details of your future life are still shrouded in the opaque mists of time's crystal ball and you, the anxious and impetuous young you, hopping from one foot to the other, cannot wait to get there.

But, darlin', when your years creep north of thirty, your assessing eye blinks, drifts to the past to scan your scorecard because your future is pretty much a foregone conclusion. Or is it?
Lowcountry Summer by Dorothea Benton Frank (HarperCollins, William Morrow, 2010, p. 1-2)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: Tall Pines Plantation, South Carolina
  • Circumstances: family problems come to the surface just as summer blooms; Caroline wonders what her mother would have done
  • Characters: brothers and sisters; family friends; lovers new and old; children, neighbors
  • Genre: women's fiction, Southern fiction
  • Themes: family, love, finding oneself, coming to terms with the past; facing the future
  • Miscellaneous: features the same characters as the novel Plantation
  • Personal: I love the way Dorothea's personality shines in this short video about the novel

Buy Lowcountry Summer at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
ISBN-13: 9780061961175

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

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29 April 2013

Review: Bitten by Kelley Armstrong

Elena Michael's idyllic life was shattered when her parents were killed in a car accident when she was a young child. Years of dysfunctional foster care in multiple homes left her distrustful and tough. Once she met Clayton, though, she saw a chance at real happiness and love. There was only one problem: Clayton bit her. And it was no ordinary love nip; it was the bite of a werewolf, and against all odds, Elena became the only female to have ever survived the change.

Although the pack offered her a family she had always craved, Elena had no desire to give up her humanity and doesn't always relish her status as the only woman  werewolf. Thus several years after her change, she gets permission from the alpha male to leave their upstate New York home to try to live among humans in Toronto.

When the pack's safety is threatened by enemy wolves, Elena is forced to return home, where she not only must help protect her friends but must assess her loyalties and obligations.

Kelley Armstrong's Bitten is the first entry in the Women of the Otherworld series, featuring Elena Michaels and the werewolf pack that took her in. Sometimes it seems as if were animals were becoming the new vampires, and there couldn't possibly be anything new in the genre. But Armstrong builds a unique were culture that is more in line with contemporary urban fantasies than with the old tales of full moons and silver bullets.

Elena is a strong woman learning to deal with a life that she would have never picked for herself. She is understandably distrustful. And although she still has feelings for Clayton, she can't really forgive him for turning her into a creature. At the same time, she has always been a bit outside of mainstream society and has had to rely on her own strengths and resourcefulness. Thus being a werewolf fits her personality in many ways.

Besides Elena's personal growth, Bitten involves a struggle for power between two were factions. Armstrong nicely sets up the tension and action, balancing the characters' dual natures of wolf and human. The wolves are not domesticated, and the fights can be bloody whether the characters are in human or wolf form.

One of the particularly interesting aspects of Bitten is how Kelley Armstrong plays out the two cultures (human and wolf) against each other. For example, the made werewolves have different attitudes toward human society than do the weres by birth. In addition, the made weres cannot fully shed their human personalities when they are in their wolf forms, which makes them better able to understand or read each other than can the genetic wolves, who were never fully human. These factors play into the plot, giving Elena's world a feeling of reality.

If you like action-packed plots, urban fantasy, strong female characters, and little hot sex, you'll like Kelley Armstrong's Bitten, which is a solid start to a promising series.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Brilliance Audio; 12 hr, 59 min) read by Aasne Vigesaa. Vigessa does an excellent job with the variety of accents (Canadian, Southern, New England) and with both the male and the female voices. Her pacing amped up the tension, and her ability to project the emotional state of the characters without becoming overly dramatic is impressive.

Buy Bitten at an Indie or at bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Penguin USA / Plume, 2010 (reprint edition)
ISBN-13: 9780452296640
Rating: B+

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

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27 April 2013

Weekend Cooking: Today's Special (Film)

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, 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. For more information, see the welcome post.

I love haunting the streaming services for good movies that focus on food. I'm not quite sure what I expected when I picked Today's Special, but it turned out to be a good film that both Mr. BFR and I enjoyed.

Samir (Aasif Mandvi) has big dreams of becoming the head chef at a major New York restaurant. Although he's a respected sous chef, he isn't moving up the ladder fast enough, so he decides to go to Paris and study under the direction of a master. When his father, the owner of the Tandoori Palace restaurant, falls ill, Samir is obligated to keep the business afloat, although he has never cooked Indian food. Will Samir succeed in rescuing the failing family restaurant?

Although the plot may be a little predictable, Samir's journey to self-discovery and success is fun to watch. The cast, including cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey, do a wonderful job avoiding the worst of the Indian America stereotypes while maintaining enough of the universal immigrant themes to keep us laughing. I especially loved the character of Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah) and the way he helped Samir. Oh, and his philosophy of cooking is the best; okay, I might think that because it matches my own.

Besides Samir's story, there are lots of kitchen scenes, and I guarantee you'll be craving a good curry before the movie is over. Take a look at the trailer:

Directed by David Kaplin and produced by Inimitable Pictures, Sweet180.

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26 April 2013

Imprint Friday: The Third Son by Julie Wu

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.

If you're like most Americans, you don't know much about Taiwanese history, the 228 Massacre, the White Terror, or what it might have been like to grow up in an island country whose ruling powers and party seemed to change with the seasons. Even Julie Wu, first-generation American, didn't know much about her parents' childhoods, until, in her thirties, she finally sat down with her father and a recorder and learned the details of his life.

Her debut novel, The Third Son, was inspired by her father's stories and is founded on solid research. Here's the publisher's summary:

In the middle of a terrifying air raid in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo, the least-favored son of a Taiwanese politician, runs through a peach forest for cover. It s there that he stumbles upon Yoshiko, whose descriptions of her loving family are to Saburo like a glimpse of paradise. Meeting her is a moment he will remember forever, and for years he will try to find her again. When he finally does, she is by the side of his oldest brother and greatest rival. Set in a tumultuous and violent period of Taiwanese history as the Chinese Nationalist Army lays claim to the island and one autocracy replaces another and the fast-changing American West of the late 1950s and early 1960s, The Third Son is a richly textured story of lives governed by the inheritance of family and the legacy of culture, and of a young man determined to free himself from both. In Saburo, debut author Julie Wu has created an extraordinary character who is determined to fight for everything he needs and wants, from food to education to his first love. A sparkling and moving story, it will have readers cheering for a young boy with his head in the clouds who, against all odds, finds himself on the frontier of America's space program.
Like many of you, I've been a fan of Asian American stories starting with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which I read way back in the late 1970s. Since then, I've read Amy Tan, Lisa See, and many other authors who talk about the difficulties of immigration and assimilation to American culture as well as the horrors of war and rebellion.

So what's different about The Third Son? Lots. First, this is a story about how an unloved boy grows into a successful man, despite the odds. It's about the strength of cultural bonds and how difficult it is to break them, especially if you have no support. It's about the basic need we all have for love and tenderness. And it's about the incredible power that stems from having just one person believe in you.

Although the details are historically correct and the characters are the product of a constantly changing Taiwan, The Third Son is not as much about politics and war as it is about Saburo's journey to freedom, in all its many guises. In fictionalizing her father's story, Wu was careful not to idealize Saburo: he is sometimes weak and too naive, he tries to be a good son long after his parents fail to deserve his filial piety, and he is sometimes timid. Yet, just when most people would give up, he calls on his stubborn streak, forcing himself to do the seemingly impossible.

I'm not sure any book has had the power to distract me from my workday as much as The Third Son did. I started it one evening and sometime the next morning, I put aside everything else to finish the novel in one go.

Saburo is such an incredible character that I couldn't stop thinking about him. His family life broke my heart, and his early experiences in America were fascinating. Although Tiawan was hardly in the backwaters of the world, they were years behind in everyday modern technology. That even poor students could have an electric refrigerator/freezer in their apartment was a thing of wonder.

In addition, although Saburo could speak English, he was not well versed in American culture and social behavior. I particularly loved his reactions to the many firsts--from tasting sugary soda to wearing shoes in the house to seeing American wildlife. I won't soon forget his slow awakening to what America and personal freedom could give him.

You may have read other Asian American historical novels, but you've never read anything like Julie Wu's affecting and emotional The Third Son. It's one of the don't-miss books of the year.

For more about Julie Wu and The Third Son, read this in-depth interview at Taiwanese American and request a copy the Algonquin Reader and read her amazing essay "Listening to Dad" (NB: I'm not sure if the reader is still available). Don't forget to visit Wu's website, which includes her tour schedule and blog. You can also like her Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

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 The Third Son at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Workman / Algonquin Books 2013
ISBN-13: 9781616200794

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

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25 April 2013

Review: Black Irish by Stephan Talty

Absalom Kearney was adopted by a Buffalo, New York, police detective when she was just six years old. Growing up in the Irish Catholic section of the city, known as "the county," wasn't easy for the Gypsy-looking Abby, who was always treated as an outsider. Back in the city after a Harvard education and a stint in a Florida police department, Abby is not just taking care of her senile father but is following in his footsteps as a local detective.

When a killer begins targeting members of a semi-secret Irish society, Abby is put in charge. Her usual rational cool begins to crumble when the murders hit close to home and evidence begins to point directly at her. The deeper she looks, the more she is pulled into the killer's deranged world.

Stephan Talty's Black Irish is a psychological thriller-cum-murder mystery built over a police procedural core.The setting, the plotting, and the characters work together to create a strong and chilling debut novel. In fact, the three elements are so closely intertwined, it's almost impossible to discuss them them separately.

The bleakness of Buffalo, a city in decline, is underscored by the unrelenting winter cold and the seemingly unemotional deliberateness of the murderer. Although other American cities are known for their Irish American heritage (Boston, for example), this is Buffalo's story, and the cops, victims, and citizens are decidedly from the Lakes, not the coast. Furthermore, Talty emphasizes the unique Buffalo-Ireland connection, creating characters that have been deeply colored by that history.

You'll note that I said very little about the actual crimes and the ending of the book. As with most mysteries, the less you know beforehand, the better. I'll simply say that the clues are there. If you are cleverer than I am, you might figure it all out, but it won't matter because the characters and the story will hold your attention just as much as the specific crimes.

If you like complex psychological tangles with easy-to-visualize characters, you'll like Stephan Talty's Black Irish. I've read reviews that compared him to Jo Nesbo and Tanya French, but I think Denis Lehane comes to mind for me.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition (Random House Audio; 10 hr, 4 min), read by David H. Lawrence XVII. Although the protagonist is a woman, Lawrence seemed to be the right reader for Black Irish. His slightly gravely voice and expressive reading fit the mood of the novel and of the city. He added to my enjoyment of the story by creating tension and boosting the feelings of terror, confusion, or relief, as needed. Although I'm no voice expert, I felt his careful use of an Irish accent was believable, strengthening the listener's connection to the story. Thanks to Random House Audio, I'm able to share a sample of the audiobook with you:

Buy Black Irish at an Indie or at bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Random House / Ballantine Books, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780345538062
Rating: B+

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

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23 April 2013

Wordless Wednesday 234

Red Maple Buds, 2013

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Today's Read (& Giveaway): Dark Secrets by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt

What if the police decided a missing person's report is nothing to worry about, figuring it is just a sixteen-year-old boy up to normal teenage antics? But what if the boy is still missing days later? The local police finally send out a search team to comb the woods and waters. The report is sent to one of Sweden's most senior police chiefs:

Torkel knew that this was exactly the kind of case the tabloids loved to get a hold of. It didn't help that the preliminary cause of death—established where the body was found—indicated an extremely violent assault, with countless stab wounds to the heart and lungs. But that wasn't what bothered Torkel the most. It was the short final sentence in the report, a statement made by the pathologist at the scene.

A preliminary examination indicates that most of the heart is missing.
Dark Secrets by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt (Hachette Book Group / Grand Central Publishing, 2013, pp. 27-28)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: Vasteras, Sweden, and surrounding areas
  • Circumstances: a young boy is brutally murdered; the police and criminal profiler must catch the killer before he strikes again
  • Characters: Roger Eriksson (the victim) and his mother and girlfriend; Torkel Hoglund (police chief); Sebastian Bergman (psychologist and profiler); various townsfolk and police officers; the killer
  • Genre: thriller; mystery
  • Themes: besides the twisted mind of the killer, Bergman is going through some personal issues concerning his family
  • Miscellaneous: originally published in Swedish; has been made into a TV series in Europe
The Giveaway

To celebrate today's release of Dark Secrets, Grand Central Publishing has offered to send a copy of the novel to two of my readers. To enter for a chance to win, just fill out the following form. Because the publishing company will be mailing the books, only people with U.S. or Canadian mailing addresses are eligible for this giveaway. I'll pick the winners via a random number generator on April 30. Once the winners have been confirmed, I'll delete all personal information from my computer. Good luck!

Buy Dark Secrets at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
ISBN-13: 9781455520756

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

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22 April 2013

Review: April Selections for the Scholastic Mother-Daughter Book Club

Remember 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.

Although this month's selections share some elements, they will appeal to different types of young readers. The first is a fun mystery and the second is a thriller/spy novel turned on its head. But each one stars an appealing young teen who is observant and likes to solve puzzles. Both books are also the first installment of a series.

Jane B. Mason and Sara Hines Stephens's Play Dead introduces us to Cassie Sullivan, twelve-year-old daughter of the town's police chief. Cassie definitely takes after her mother because she just can't help trying to solve whatever case her mom talks about at the dinner table.

Cassie isn't alone, though, she has her trusty ex-K-9 dog, Dodge, who also loves to sniff out clues. The pair is inseparable, and Dodge's police training comes in handy when Cassie begins to figure out what happened to the man who went missing, leaving behind his mansion and estate.

The story is told both from Cassie's point of view and from Dodge's. The dog's chapters are especially fun because he is sometimes distracted by food smells and has an ongoing dislike of the family cat. There is plenty of action, and kids will easily fall for the mystery-solving duo.

Besides solving crimes, Cassie is a normal young teen. She has friends, goes to school, and has chores at home. She also helps out at the local animal rescue shelter, and we learn a little bit about how to care for abandoned pets. We also get to know the Cassie's sister, brother, and dad.

Young readers will find a lot to talk about after reading Play Dead. The main topics will likely revolve around dogs and pets, friendships, and family as well as how Cassie and Dodge solve the mystery. The recipe at the Scholastic book club site is particularly appropriate because one of Cassie's friends loves to bake treats, especially ones with pecans.

The second selection is Jeffrey Salane's Lawless, featuring twelve-year-old M Freeman. Although M (not a nickname) has been home-schooled by tutors all of her life, her mother suggests that it's time for the girl to go to school with other kids, and the school she has picked is the one M's late-father attended.

Within twenty-four hours after her interview, M realizes that Lawless is no ordinary school. It's really a training institution for learning to spy and pull off heists and thefts! Not only does M discover that her exceptional observational skills are perfect for her new life path but she learns that her parents are also involved in the criminal world.

This is an action-packed story that will capture teens' attention. Besides trying to pull off her initiation mission, M must adjust to being in school with other kids and making new friends. She also discovers that the school has enemies and that her dad's death may not have been accidental.

Book clubs will want to explore a variety of topics after reading Lawless, such as right from wrong, paying attention to minute details, different types of private schools, family, friendships, and adventure. The recipe at the Scholastic book club site is great way to get a boost of energy after a long day of spying or before doing homework.

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

Buy Play Dead at an Indie or at a bookstore near you (link leads to an affiliate program).
Scholastic Press, 2013; ISBN-13: 9780545436243
Buy Lawless at an Indie or at a bookstore near you (link leads to an affiliate program).
Scholastic Press, 2013; ISBN-13: 9780545450294
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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20 April 2013

Weekend Cooking: The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman

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, 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. For more information, see the welcome post.

There is nothing I love more than a hardworking cookbook. Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman are well-known for their books on organic gardening and for their own Maine property, The Four Season Farm. In addition, Damrosch has quite a following for her popular "A Cook's Garden" column for the Washington Post.

Their new book, The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook, takes us from seed catalog to the garden and into the kitchen. The first half of the book is devoted to growing your own fruits, vegetables, and herbs, and the second half focuses on how to turn your crops into delicious meals.

I know I sound like a broken record, but I love the designers at Workman Publishing, and the visual appeal of the Gardener's Cookbook meets my expectations. The earthy colors and fun (but clear) fonts make the book a joy to read, and the scrumptious photographs of gardens, vegetables, and completed recipes are so inviting that you'll be inspired to either get weeding or get cooking or both! You'll also find useful and pretty garden drawings, fun lists, and practical charts.

I want to say very quickly that you do not have to be a gardener to love this book. Although Damrosch and Coleman make a good case for all the reasons you might want to grow your own food, you can take their ideas and recipes to the farmer's market, local farm stand, and even the grocery store. They stress the emotional connection we make to the food we grow and harvest, not to mention the startling full flavors of just picked produce.

As I mentioned, the first half of the book concentrates on gardening. Damrosch and Coleman talk about soil, help us with garden planning and figuring out what to grow, and tell us how to make our gardens flourish. They even share their tips and hints and favorite tools to make the job easier. Newbies will appreciate their casual style and sane advice, and veteran gardeners are sure to learn some new ticks. I love their reassuring attitude:
It isn't about having a green thumb. In fact, it isn't even about you. It's about the generosity of the natural world. Given a few basic skills, there is very little you can't accomplish in the garden if you trust the systems that are already in place. Plants want to grow, and despite what you might have heard, there are not armies of pests, plagues, and other misfortunes lying wait, poised to thwart your efforts. (p. 5)
The second half the book is all about making delicious fresh meals for your loved ones. Although many of the recipes are meat free, this is not a vegetarian cookbook. The principal philosophy behind the Gardener's Cookbook is to eat seasonally fresh foods. This is just the type of cookbook a gardener or member of a CSA needs. The key is first to harvest (or buy) produce that is at its peak and only then plan your meals. This can be a difficult mental switch for those of you who are used to planning meals and then going shopping.

Yet no matter how you go about putting meals on the table, you'll love the recipes Damrosch provides. From appetizers to desserts, the flavors are varied but not extreme. There are a couple of dishes geared for the home gardener (like stuffed squash blossoms), but all the rest will work for those of us who rely on others to grow our food.

Here's a recipe from each chapter that calls to me or that has already inspired me in the kitchen:
  • Roasted Pepper and Tomato Dip
  • Fish Soup with Tomatoes and Fennel*
  • Chicken Salad with Spiced Peaches
  • Broccoli Bread Pudding
  • Couscous with Pine Nuts and Raisins*
  • Summer Tart with Roasted Tomatoes
  • Cabbage with Caraway Butter
  • Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Onions and Bacon
  • Sesame Chicken Breasts with Vegetables*
  • Plum Custard
The asterisks mean I either made the recipe as given or used it to create my own kitchen creation.

The directions are all straightforward, the ingredients are readily available, and the tips and recommended substitutions help you find success. Furthermore, you'll be able to use this book all year round, because there are plenty of cold-weather dishes and the gardening section gives you advice on how best to store summer's bounty.

At the back of the book you'll find helpful charts and resources for both gardeners and cooks. Plus the index is excellent, meaning you'll quickly be able to find whatever it is your looking for.

Whether you harvest your own veggies, shop for locally grown produce, or hit the supermarket, Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman's The Four Seasons Farm Gardener's Cookbook will inspire you throughout the year.

We love cooking greens, and I make them at least twice a week. Here's a dish from Gardener's Cookbook that we both loved, although I'd cut the maple syrup in half the next time. The recipe calls for beet greens, but a tip tells us we can use any strong-flavored green. We used mustard greens.

Beet Greens and Scallions
Serves 4 as a side dish
  • 2 ounces slab bacon or salt pork, cut into ¼-inch cubes (¼ cup)
  • 1 pound beet greens, leaves sliced into ribbons and stems cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1 bunch scallions (about 6 ounces), both white and green parts, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1½ tablespoons maple syrup
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Saute the bacon in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring, until the pieces crisp uniformly and cook to a tan color, about 7 minutes. Remove the bacon pieces to a plate with a slotted spoon and set them aside, leaving the bacon fat in the skillet.

Add the beet greens, beet stems, and scallions to the skillet, cover and cook over low heat, stirring from time to time, until the beet stems are tender and the scallions have turned slightly golden, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size and age of the greens.

Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the maple syrup and the reserved bacon. Season with salt (if needed—the bacon might be salty enough) and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Buy The Four Season Gardener's Cookbook at an Indie or a bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Workman, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780761156697
Rating: A-
Source: Review (see review policy)

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19 April 2013

Imprint Friday: The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Picador USA. 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.

Ever since Anna Stothard's The Pink Hotel was long-listed for the Orange Prize, I've been curious about it. If you too missed the initial publication of this moving novel, you're in luck. Picador's paperback edition is due to be released on Tuesday, and I encourage you to pick up a copy.

Here's the publisher's summary:

A seventeen-year-old girl pieces together the mystery of her mother’s life and death among the bars and bedrooms of Los Angeles in this dazzling debut novel.

A raucous, drug-fueled party has taken over a boutique hotel on Venice Beach—it’s a memorial for Lily, the now-deceased, free-spirited proprietress of the place. Little do the attendees know that Lily’s estranged daughter—and the nameless narrator of this striking novel—is among them, and she has just walked off with a suitcase of Lily’s belongings.

Abandoned by Lily many years ago, she has come a long way to learn about her mother, and the stolen suitcase—stuffed with clothes, letters, and photographs—contains not only a history of her mother’s love life, but perhaps also the key to her own identity. As the tough, resourceful narrator tracks down her mother’s former husbands, boyfriends, and acquaintances, a risky reenactment of her life begins to unfold. Lily had a knack for falling in love with the wrong people, and one man, a fashion photographer turned paparazzo, has begun to work his sinuous charms on the young woman.

Told with high style and noirish flare, Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel is a powerfully evocative debut novel about wish fulfillment, reckless impulse, and how we discover ourselves.
Right from the first page, Anna Stothard sets the mood that prevails throughout the entire novel. Like our unnamed protagonist, we're dropped into the end of Lily's story and can't quite find a way to anchor her in reality based on the scant initial clues. Yet, like the girl, we are compelled to know and understand Lily, hoping that each fact or person will offer a key and let us in on the secrets. Who was this woman of multiple husbands, who left her three-year-old daughter, who was once a nurse turned model turned hotel owner, who rode motorcycles and wore silk dresses?

The Pink Hotel is difficult to describe. It's a well-proportioned mix of coming of age, contemporary commentary, and character study. But it's also an observational narrative, as told by the teen. The girl definitely has street smarts, but they are tempered by a level of naivete that befits her age and experience. At the same time, little escapes her attention, and it's the details she notices combined with her strong desire to connect with her mother that eventually help her get a handle on the past.

Stothard doesn't provide her protagonist with an easy path, but once you start reading The Pink Hotel, it's near-impossible to leave the teen on her own. Although you never learn the girl's name, you'll come to know her and hope she finds all she seeks.

I'll leave you with a passage I flagged to share:
At the bus stop everything was two-dimensional in the afternoon heat with the smoggy sunlight flattening the palm trees to the concrete buildings and the glassy yellow sky. Everything was stuck flat to everything else, like the cardboard cut-out background of a child's puppet theater. (p. 126)
Picador USA is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, visit the Picador's website. While there, take a look at the Picador book club and reading guides and sign up for their newsletters. For up-to-date news, don't miss their Tumblr site or Facebook page and follow them on Twitter.

Buy The Pink Hotel at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Macmillan / Picador 2013
ISBN-13: 9781250026804

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

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18 April 2013

Review: Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

In an odd coincidence or as a sign of a new trend, this is the second book I read in a week that starts out with a teen being expelled from private school. In both cases, the girls were good students, lived in a single-parent household with their hardworking moms, and faced a problem they felt they couldn't share.

That's pretty much where the similarities between Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots (reviewed on Monday) and Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight end. The first is a sweet food-filled story of found families and building a support network; the second is much darker.

When Kate, a high-powered lawyer, gets the call telling her she must come to Grace Hall and pick up her daughter because she's been expelled, she is sure there has been some mistake. When she arrives on campus, she learns to her horror that Amelia has jumped off the roof of the building to her death. Just as Kate is trying to rebuild her life in the aftermath of the tragedy, she gets an anonymous text message telling her that Amelia didn't commit suicide.

Reconstructing Amelia is told from multiple viewpoints and via a variety of media: text messages, Facebook, phone calls, and notes as well as first- and third-person narration. The mystery is what exactly happened to Amelia, who always seemed so happy and stable. As Kate investigates her daughter's life, she learns unpleasant things about teenage girls and discovers some surprising things about herself.

Kimberly McCreight's debut novel is well-plotted and carefully builds up the tension. I liked the way we get to know Amelia through her own voice: She, unaware of her fate, tells us about her life with all the innocence and angst of a young teen; we, however, know the eventual outcome but not the events that led up to it, which can make it painful to read her tale. Alternating with Amelia's sections, the novel follows Kate and the police as they try to piece together the facts to understand just how the teen came to her death. The juxtaposition of these two storytelling techniques works very well.

On the other hand, McCreight telegraphed a few of the clues so strongly that at least some of mystery of what happened to Amelia was easy to figure out. There were still a couple of details that were not obvious, but the big reveal factor fell flat for me. I am totally in the minority here, and keep in mind that I wasn't wowed by Gone Girl either.

The good news is that the pacing of Reconstructing Amelia is nicely done, and the varied ways in which McCreight tells the story keeps the reader fully invested. Don't miss this novel, just don't expect it to blow your socks off.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Harper Audio, 12 hr, 15 min) read by Khristine Hvam. Hvam had the difficult task of portraying teens, adults, boys, and men and a broad range of emotions. She did an amazing job keeping consistent characterizations and making each voice seem believable. Although the novel may not make my top ten list, the audio production is excellent, and I highly recommend it.

Buy Reconstructing Amelia at an Indie or at bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
HarperCollins / Harper, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780062225436
Rating: C+ (print) A- (audio)

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

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16 April 2013

Wordless Wednesday 233

Ford Truck

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Today's Read: Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

What if you grew up as a special daughter of the leader of a cult? You know and accept the rules and are content on the compound with your mother and her sister wives. But then imagine that your home is shattered and your mother takes you out into the world. Would you adapt or would you hold on to the teachings of your father?

Two sisters sit, side by side, in the backseat of an old car. Amity and Sorrow.

Their hands are hot and close together. A strip of white fabric loops between them, tying them together, wrist to wrist.

Their mother, Amaranth, drives them.The car pushes forward, endlessly forward, but her eyes are always watching in the rearview mirror, scanning the road behind them for cars.

Amity watches through her window, glass dotted by chin, nose, forehead, and calls out all she can see to Sorrow: brown fields and green fields, gas stations and grain elevators. She calls out the empty cross of the power pole. She is watching for the end of the world. Father told them it would come and, surely, it will. They will see its signs, even far from him. Even here.

Sorrow has her head down and her back curled over so she cannot watch. She cups her belly and groans.
Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley (Hachette Book Group / Little, Brown, 2013, p. 3)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: mostly Oklahoma; Idaho
  • Circumstances: a mother escapes her husband and a polygamous cult, taking her daughters with her
  • Characters: Amaranth, Sorrow, Amity; Bradley, a widowed farmer; Zachariah, the cult leader
  • Genre: contemporary, coming of age, family
  • Themes: power of faith, redemption, hope, belief, family, sisters, cults, parental control
Want to Know More?

In this very short video, author Peggy Riley talks about the inspiration for her novel.

Celebrate Release Day!

Peggy Riley's Amity & Sorrow goes on sale today. As part of the celebration, Riley will be participating in a live Twitter chat today (April 16) at 1:00 PM EDT. Tweet questions to @LittleBrown or @Peggy_Riley and follow along with the hashtags #Amity and #Sorrow.

Buy Amity & Sorrow at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
ISBN-13: 9780316220880

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

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15 April 2013

Review: Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer

After thirteen-year-old Lorca is expelled from her private New York City school for cutting herself with a razor, her mother decides the girl will be better off in boarding school. Although Lorca is on her own most of the time, she doesn't want to leave her mother, who is a famous Manhattan chef. In an effort to win her mother's approval and not be sent away, Lorca decides to reproduce her mother's all-time favorite meal, masgouf, an Iraqi fish dish.

With the help of an older boy, Lorca tracks down the elderly owner of a now-closed Iraqi restaurant and begins to take cooking lessons from her. The results are unexpected.

Jessica Soffer's Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is built on a familiar premise: a troubled young girl in need of nurturing and love meets a grieving widow who is trying to come to terms with unresolved issues. Their bond puts them both on the road to healing. The novel is unique in the way in which the story is told through food and its strong emotional triggers.

All the characters in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots are broken and self-destructive. Lorca is a self-harmer who learns from an accidental burn at age six that pain is something she can really feel. Her mother is distant yet possessive, and her absent father doesn't seem to spend any time thinking about his daughter. No matter how hard Lorca tries, she can never please her mother.

Victoria, an Iraqi immigrant, has never forgiven herself for giving up her newborn for adoption almost forty years earlier. Her fiance, later her husband, had wanted to keep their daughter, but Victoria did not. Over the decades, though, she wondered about what became of her child, and after her husband's death, she regrets that they never talked about their daughter or tried to find her.

Through food and cooking, Lorca and Victoria see in each other all that has been missing from their lives. Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is about found families, discovering love and hope, and learning self-acceptance. The strong characters and delicious prose make this a memorable read.

For a look at some of the recipes Victoria teaches Lorca, visit Scribd. For an interview with Jessica Soffer, visit BookDragon.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Brilliance Audio; 11 hr, 31 min) read by Kathleen Gati and Kate Reinders. My positive review will be published by AudioFile magazine.

Buy Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots at an Indie or at bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780547759265
Rating: B

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

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13 April 2013

Weekend Cooking: Bitter Brew by William Knoedelseder

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, 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. For more information, see the welcome post.

Who needs soap operas and fiction if we can read the real-life story of a family like the Busches? The tale of the St. Louis beer kings is brimming with multiple marriages, drink and drugs, mishaps and scandals, family feuds, and misspent opportunity all played out in an arena of decadence and opulence.

William Knoedelseder's Bitter Brew is a well-researched and easy-to-read look at the six Busch men who made Budweiser and the other Anheuser-Busch (A-B) products the best-selling and most recognizable beers in America. Although beer is at the heart of the narrative, Knoedelseder concentrates on the people, advertising campaigns, and sideline businesses as well as the political atmosphere under which A-B rose to greatness only to be swallowed up by an international conglomerate 150 years after the family tapped its first keg.

Bitter Brew covers a lot of territory, including A-B's philosophy of beer making. But what fascinated me the most was the intelligence and business savvy of the elder Busches, who bolstered the foundation on which the company's successes would be built. They made it a point to meet their distributors personally, provide beer to their workers, and be generous to their community. They carefully planned for both Prohibition and the repeal, placing A-B so far ahead of the other brewers that they remained in the top spot for decades. [Image from Wikimedia Commons; in the public doman (click to enlarge).]

I was interested to learn about Budweiser's long history with sports, especially the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, the Busch family owned the baseball team for a number of years and, of course, built the stadium that was named after them. I also liked reading about the stories behind the various advertising campaigns, such as the Clydesdales, Spuds McKenzie, and the frogs. (If you don't remember these ads, you can look them up.)

The peek behind the security guards and into the Busch compound was equally as fascinating. From the parties, planes, and boats to the affairs, divorces, and accidents, the family never seemed to be a rest or at peace. Perhaps this was part of what led to August Busch IV's inability to hold on to the company and why the family was unable to adapt their product to a new generation and the changing tastes of American drinkers. [Image of August Busch Sr. from Wikimedia Commons; in the public domain (click to enlarge).]

William Knoedelseder's Bitter Brew is a fascinating look at, as the subtitle says, the rise and fall of an an American family and an iconic American brand.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Harper Audio; 12 hr, 12 min) read by Peter Berkrot, who did an excellent job keeping me invested in the book, despite a few mispronunciations. My only regret is that I didn't have access to the photo insert that was bound with the print book.

Buy Bitter Brew at an Indie or a bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
HarperCollins / Harper Business, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780062009265
Rating: B
Source: Review (see review policy)

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12 April 2013

Imprint Friday: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Riverhead 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.

Don't be shocked, but I haven't read Meg Wolitzer's The Ten-Year Nap. However, the premise of her just-released novel, The Interestings, caught my attention, and I'm absolutely hooked.

Here's the publisher's summary:

The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed. In The Interestings, Wolitzer follows these characters from the height of youth through middle age, as their talents, fortunes, and degrees of satisfaction diverge.

The kind of creativity that is rewarded at age fifteen is not always enough to propel someone through life at age thirty; not everyone can sustain, in adulthood, what seemed so special in adolescence. Jules Jacobson, an aspiring comic actress, eventually resigns herself to a more practical occupation and lifestyle. Her friend Jonah, a gifted musician, stops playing the guitar and becomes an engineer. But Ethan and Ash, Jules’s now-married best friends, become shockingly successful—true to their initial artistic dreams, with the wealth and access that allow those dreams to keep expanding. The friendships endure and even prosper, but also underscore the differences in their fates, in what their talents have become and the shapes their lives have taken.

Wide in scope, ambitious, and populated by complex characters who come together and apart in a changing New York City, The Interestings explores the meaning of talent; the nature of envy; the roles of class, art, money, and power; and how all of it can shift and tilt precipitously over the course of a friendship and a life
I'm only about a fifth of the way through The Interestings, but I didn't want to wait before I featured the novel for Imprint Friday because it's arguably the book of the week. I've been seen positive reviews from major media sites as well as from bloggers. I've noticed an ongoing Twitter discussion (use hashtag #TheInterestings) among the bookish crowd, and Riverhead has had some events to celebrate its publication. The time to tell you about Meg Wolitzer's new novel is right now.

Here's what I know about the book and my initial reactions. The story is centered around Jules Jacobson. We meet her on the very night she's been included in the group of the coolest campers at Spirit-in-the-Woods, and we quickly see her decades later after she's become a working wife and mother. Thus, as you can guess, the plot does not unfold in a strictly linear way; it moves smoothly from the deep past to the present to the middle past and back again.

At this point, I'd describe The Interestings as a character study or maybe, more accurately, a generation or era study. Wolitzer interjects many defining cultural references—from books, drugs, and recipes to the first unexplained cases of AIDS—perfectly capturing the America in which Jules came of age. I'm especially curious about this aspect of the novel, because I know my own perspective must be fundamentally different from Jules's. After all, in 1974 she was at summer camp marveling at her first real kiss, whereas I was working, living on my own, and getting ready for my last year of college.

I haven't yet made up my mind about which of the main characters I like or trust, but nonetheless, I'm fully invested in their lives and want to know more. What made Jules stop perusing acting? Did Ash ever become famous or is she riding on the coattails of Ethan? In addition, I've noticed hints of secrets to be revealed and perhaps a less-savory aspect of the bond among the group.

Sometimes a book is worth talking about before you've finished it. I predict that Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings will end up on almost everyone's best of 2013 lists. And I'm saying that after having read only about 100 pages.

Riverhead Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, visit the Riverhead website. While there, explore their terrific book list, check out authors in the news, and view some fun videos. Stay in the know by following them on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.

Buy The Interstings at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Penguin USA / Riverhead, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781594488399

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

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11 April 2013

Whose Birthday Is It? Three Masters of Observation

This month I'm celebrating the birthdays of three authors who are masters of observation. Because their styles and genres are very different, you're sure to find at least one that suits your taste. (Note that this series was started as a regular column for the SheKnows Book Lounge, but will now be posted here.)

Paul Theroux, who turned 72 on April 10, is as well known for his travel writing as he is for his fiction. In fact, The Great Railway Bazaar, about crossing the Eastern Hemisphere by train from England to Japan and back, remains a favorite in the travel genre. About 30 years later, Theroux retraced his journey, recording his experiences in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. His fiction often has a darker side to it, either psychologically (The Mosquito Coast) or physically (The Lower River) and is frequently set in non-Western locales (such as Africa, South America, and India). His protagonists are commonly writers (Hotel Honolulu), and he has even been known to put himself in his fiction (A Dead Hand). Wondering where to start if you've never read Theroux? I suggest The Mosquito Coast, which follows the unraveling of inventor Allie Fox, who relocates his family from a comfortable life in the United States to the wilds of Honduras.

Ngaio Marsh, known as the New Zealand queen of crime fiction, would have been 114 on April 23. Although she wrote some short stories and an autobiography, she is famous for her Roderick Alleyn series, which is set mostly in England. Born into the gentry, Alleyn is a hardworking chief inspector (later promoted) in Scotland Yard's criminal investigation department. The series spans quite a few years, and Alleyn's personal life progresses in each new entry in the 32-book series. Nash's own loves of theater and painting figure prominently in the novels, and in fact several of the mysteries specifically revolve around actors. You can, of course, jump into the series anywhere, but I suggest you start at the beginning with A Man Lay Dead and get to know Roderick Alleyn over the course of each mystery up to the final novel, Light Thickens. By the way, if you're an audiobook lover, you might consider listening instead of reading.

If you're a baby boomer, then you already know Annie Dillard, who will turn 68 on April 30. In the mid-1970s, it seemed that everyone was reading her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, about her observations of nature in the Virgina countryside, where she lived. The Writing Life, a collection of short pieces in which Dillard talks about her experiences as a writer, is almost required reading for budding authors of every type. She has also written about "found poetry" (Mornings Like This) and two novels, including The Maytrees, which I reviewed in 2010. If you're new to Annie Dillard, then you must start with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. If you want to read more, try Teaching a Stone to Talk, a compilation of short nonfiction. I have yet to read An American Childhood, her autobiography, which details her awakening to the world around her and the development of her observational skills, which have informed all her work.

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09 April 2013

Wordless Wednesday 232

Symmetry, 2013

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Today's Read Plus Guest Post: Evidence of Life by Barbara Taylor Sissel

Wouldn't you love to have a weekend to yourself? Imagine that your husband and daughter go camping and your son is at college. Like Abby Bennett, wouldn't you be dreaming of all that wonderful alone time? Now suppose your husband and daughter are lost in the aftermath of a flash flood. Would you ever stop looking for them?

The following scene happens once rescue operations have begun:

It was one of those perfect spring days: a breeze fiddled along under a blue umbrella sky while the sun rose, a butter-yellow balloon above the sudden earth. It was the picture of innocence, a child's crayon drawing. Not one vestige remained of the horrible rain Abby had driven through to get here, and it disconcerted her and infuriated here . . . this weather that lay on her like a blessing, that wouldn't hurt a fly, that would take nothing from anyone. She felt mocked by it.
Evidence of Life by Barbara Taylor Sissel (Harlequin / Mira, 2013, p. 36)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: American Southwest; Texas hill country
  • Circumstances: a father and daughter who may or may not have been killed in a flash flood; as Abby searches for them, she realizes she never really knew her husband
  • Characters: Abby and Nick Bennett and their children, Lindsey and Jake; Kate, Abby's friend; Dennis, the sheriff
  • Genre: mystery; psychological thriller
  • Themes: marriage, trust, deceit, parenting, grief, holding on to hope, moving on
Guest Post

In celebration of the release of Evidence of Life, author Barbara Taylor Sissel stops by today to tell us about the origins of the story. Thanks to Meryl L. Moss Media for organizing this guest post for me.

Question: Can you give us some background on Evidence of Life and how you came up with the idea?

Answer from Barbara Taylor Sissel: As a mother, I’ve always been a worrywart. I know it’s pointless and unnecessary and that it gets me nothing except stressed out and sleepless. Still I do it, even now that both my boys are grown. I’d like to think it’s at least partly an act of the author in me that causes me to dream up a worst-case scenario and then imagine its consequences. But whatever it is, the scaffolding for Evidence of Life was built around this tendency to worry.

Then, of course, the news is filled with stories about natural disasters, heavy flooding for instance, where family members become separated from one another. I combined this idea with an unlikely setting: the Hill Country of Texas. It’s an area I love, that is known to be dry, exceptionally dry, except when it’s not. Floods there are rare but devastating events when they occur. The deluge can come on so quickly, dumping endless inches of rain in a matter of hours, creating flash floods, catching unsuspecting people off guard.

Suppose someone you loved, your husband and daughter, say, were to vanish in such a storm without a trace? What would you do? Sit home and wait? Or try and find them? How long would you keep looking? How would you sustain hope and for how long? As a mom, I wondered about these questions. Abby came into my brain, and I wanted to tell her story. I wanted to find her answers.

I have the same questions! I am looking forward to finishing the novel and discovering whether Abby ever learns the fate of Nick and Lindsey.

Buy Evidence of Life at an indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
ISBN-13: 9780778315162

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

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08 April 2013

Review: Mira's Diary: Home Sweet Rome by Marissa Moss

Last fall, I wrote about the first entry in Marissa Moss's Mira's Diary series, Lost in Paris, noting that it was "fun story for middle grade readers full of mystery and history." Home Sweet Rome, the follow-up book, was released last week.

Mira's mother is a time traveler but is stuck in the past and needs her daughter's help before she can return to her family in the present time. In Home Sweet Rome, Mira must go to Rome during the Renaissance, accomplish a specific task, and safely return to her father and brother in the 21st century.

Time travel is tricky because Mira has to follow specific rules (such as not tampering with history) while she's trying to adjust to life in the past. She also has to hide the fact that she has come from the future. In Home Sweet Rome, Mira pretends to be a boy so she can establish herself in Cardinal Del Monte's household; there she hopes to discover how she can help her mother. When in old Rome, she also meets the painter Caravaggio and the philosopher Bruno.

Although the descriptions of Rome at the turn of the 17th century are vivid, and Mira's adventures have elements of mystery and danger, I'm not sure most middle grade readers will follow the deeper issues behind the story. Mira's task is too vague to provide structure to her trips to past. She is given the name of the man she's supposed to find, but she doesn't meet him until late in the book. In the meantime, she's sidetracked by the painter and the cardinal, and the urgency of finding Bruno is never felt.

On the other hand, it's hard not to like Mira's spirit and resourcefulness. It's fun to see how much more confident she is in Home Sweet Rome compared to her first experiences with time travel. As we learn in the first book, Mira is a budding artist and doesn't go anywhere without her sketchbook. The story of her adventures is amply illustrated by her drawings of Rome and the people she meets.

Marissa Moss's Home Sweet Rome may appeal to middle grade readers who are interested in Rome and particularly in the Renaissance. The back of the book includes an author's note, a map, and a short bibliography for further exploration.

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

Buy Mira's Diary: Home Sweet Rome at an Indie or at bookstore near you. This link leads to an affiliate program.
Sourcebooks / Jabberwocky, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781402266096
Rating: C

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

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06 April 2013

Weekend Cooking: The Kitchen Journals 10

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, 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. For more information, see the welcome post.

Although I have a couple of cookbooks and some food writing books to review, I thought I'd take a break and settle in with another entry in my Kitchen Journals.

Adult Beverages. Let's start with drinks, shall we? We've been in a bit of rut with wine over the winter, but this week we bought a new-to-us red blend from Gnarly Head, called Authentic Red. It was quite drinkable for a weekday table wine, and I'm sure we'll be buying it again. We have been long-time fans of their old vine Zin.

The latest star though was the discovery of a pleasant Irish whiskey. Right around St. Patrick's Day, our local state store had an Irish whiskey tasting, and although we're Scotch fans, we couldn't resist giving some a try. Our favorite of the batch was Bushmill's Irish Honey whiskey, and Mr. BFR made sure we brought a bottle home. Despite the addition of honey, the whiskey is not sweet, just very smooth. A little bit straight up, in coffee, and even over fruit salad is a great evening treat.

After taking a 10-mile hike last weekend, we were in the mood for an ice-cold brew. Our choice? Dogfish Head Indian brown ale. We've always liked their beers, and after a fun, active spring day, this ale went down easily. It made us wish for warm summer nights on the deck, sipping a beer and reading or talking.

Culinary Cozies. I have a small stack of food-related cozy mysteries in my sights, and I'm looking forward to nicer weather and some lazy weekend afternoons indulging in one of my favorite escape reading genres. Here are five titles that caught my attention. I haven't read any of these authors yet, so I'm hoping to find a new favorite series. I admit I like the corny, punny titles of cozies and their fun covers. Have you read any of these?

Fonduing Fathers (Berkley Prime Crime, 2012) is the sixth entry in Julie Hyzy's White House Chef series, starring Olivia Paras, the assistant chef to the president. Of course, these books are set in Washington, D.C. Bewitched, Bothered, and Biscotti (Obsidian, 2012) by Bailey Cates is the second book in the Magical Bakery series. Our hero is Katie Lightfoot, a witch and a baker living in Savannah, Georgia.
Liz Lipperman's Murder for the Halibut (Berkley Prime Crime, 2012), the third in the Clueless Cook series, is about Jordan McAllister, a foodie journalist working out of Ranchero, Texas. A Broth of Betrayal (Berkley Prime Crime, 2013), by Connie Archer, is the second Soup Lover's mystery book. Lucky Jamieson, our amateur sleuth, runs the By the Spoonful Soup Shop in Snowflake, Vermont. Finally, Paige Shelton's If Mashed Potatoes Could Dance (Berkley Prime Crime, 2012), is the second book in the Country Cooking School series. Betts Winston and her grandmother run the Broken Rope, Missouri, cooking school when they aren't solving murders.

Like all good culinary mysteries, each of the five novels listed here includes a handful of themed recipes. It'd fun to make one of the treats to serve at a mystery book club meeting.

What I've Been Cooking. You can sure tell that we're in the heart of changing seasons in my kitchen. We started out the week eating kale lentil soup and roasted root vegetables and ended the week with asparagus risotto and fruit salad. That's winter to spring in just a few days! Our Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) food shares will start with the reopening of the farmer's market in just a few weeks. I wish it it were already May.

The soup  recipe I used came from Ellie Krieger's So Easy, which I reviewed way back in 2010. And I always make pressure cooker risotto following Lorna Sass's directions. I introduced you to Sass a couple of springs ago; check out that Weekend Cooking post if you've been scared to try a pressure cooker.

What food or drink adventures have you had this week?

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05 April 2013

Imprint Friday: The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

Review of The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeighWelcome 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.

I've always had a soft spot for stories that take place in Africa. I guess many of us have a fascination with the continent that is known for its exotic animals and often-harsh environment. Perhaps it's some primordial instinct that makes us want to learn about the place of our origins. In any case, The South African setting of Jennifer McVeigh's The Fever Tree called to me.

Here's the publisher's summary:

Having drawn comparisons to Gone with the Wind and Out of Africa, The Fever Tree is a page-turner of the very first order.

In London she was caged by society.
In South Africa, she is dangerously free.

Frances Irvine, left destitute in the wake of her father’s sudden death, has been forced to abandon her life of wealth and privilege in London and emigrate to the Southern Cape of Africa. 1880 South Africa is a country torn apart by greed. In this remote and inhospitable land she becomes entangled with two very different men—one driven by ambition, the other by his ideals. Only when the rumor of a smallpox epidemic takes her into the dark heart of the diamond mines does she see her path to happiness. But this is a ruthless world of avarice and exploitation, where the spoils of the rich come at a terrible human cost and powerful men will go to any lengths to keep the mines in operation. Removed from civilization and disillusioned by her isolation, Frances must choose between passion and integrity, a decision that has devastating consequences. The Fever Tree is a compelling portrait of colonial South Africa, its raw beauty and deprivation alive in equal measure. But above all it is a love story about how—just when we need it most—fear can blind us to the truth.
If I'm going to be perfectly honest, then I have to admit that by a third of the way through The Fever Tree, I was beginning to wonder if McVeigh had written a historical romance, minus the detailed sex scenes. But soon thereafter I realized that, although some aspects of the plot follow a familiar pattern, the novel is decidedly not what it first appears.

The Fever Tree is instead the tale of Frances's maturation and transformation from a Victorian London society girl to a South African homesteader. And, yes, there is a love story too.

Three aspects of the novel stand out for me. First is the character of Frances, whose personality was carefully and skillfully developed. It would have been so easy for McVeigh to have made Frances a spoiled rich girl or a somewhat dim-witted socialite. But Frances's behavior and choices are rendered compelling because she's a product of her times and upbringing. She isn't spoiled, just properly sheltered. She isn't stupid, just naive and lacking womanly guidance.

So while we may cringe at what she does or doesn't do, we understand that Frances is a victim of her circumstances. Alone in Africa with no personal resources, utterly unprepared to run a household, and lacking all domestic skills, it's no wonder she dreams of a prince who will save her from all her misery.

I also loved McVeigh's descriptions of life in colonial Africa, especially the wilderness. For example:
She discovered that if you look closely at the veldt it transformed itself into a living, breathing thing. The black, lichen-covered rock gleamed green and flickered out a tongue. Two small bushes, indistinguishable from the surrounding scrub, quivered then blew across the plain—ostrich chicks. A clump of brown and yellow soil stirred, thrust out a leathered neck, and ambled, undeniably tortoise-like towards the dam. And the silence resolved itself into the checkered sound of insects, the beating of wings, the wind feeling its way through the grasses. (p. 208; uncorrected proofs)
More than just pretty descriptions of nature, The Fever Tree reveals the harsh life of European settlers and doesn't shy away from how whites treated the darker-skinned people who were native to the land.

Finally, The Fever Tree was inspired by true events recorded in a doctor's diary McVeigh found in the British Library. The doctor described the diseases, especially smallpox, and horrible working conditions he witnessed at the diamond mines. Frances's husband, a young physician with no social connections, tries his best to do the moral and ethical thing, caring for all who need medical attention and attempting to prevent outbreaks of smallpox. Unfortunately, in the book and in the historical record, the diamond kings decided to ignore the signs of an epidemic. After all, they didn't want to scare off their manual laborers and lose their income. The results of their inattention were disastrous.

Other issues addressed in The Fever Tree are diamond smuggling, conservation, women's issues, marriage, and South African politics. These and other aspects of the story I didn't discuss here make the novel a great book club choice.

Do not be fooled by the love story or by the somewhat predictable plot. The Fever Tree, Jennifer McVeigh's debut novel, is a tightly written story of a young woman's awakening from the confinements of Victorian society to discover the beauty of a wild continent and the independence won by hard work.

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 Fever Tree at an Indie or at a bookstore near you. (Link leads to an affiliate program.)
Published by Putnam
/ Amy Einhorn Books, April 2013
ISBN-13: 9780399158247

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