31 July 2014

Graphically Reading: Buying, Reading, & Reviewing

On Monday, I talked about graphic novels (or comics) in general, shared a little of my own history with the medium, and told you about a good book that covers the basics of comics. Today, I want to say a few words about types of graphic books and how they're published and then talk a little bit about reviewing. Tomorrow I'll give you an annotated list of GNs I've already read, am reading, or want to read.

First, before the people who know way more than I do about graphic books get all bent out of shape, I should say a little something about the terms I use. Experts in the medium make a distinction between illustrated books, graphic novels (and nonfiction), comics, and so on. Not only am I aware of the difference among these types of graphic books but I understand the importance of having clear terminology. For the sake of my Graphically Reading posts, however, I use the term GN (for graphic novel) to mean pretty much all these, fiction or not. This is just to make it easy on myself when I'm writing about the story form in general.

Publication crazies. Normally when you buy a novel, you have three choices: print, eBook, or audio. But no matter what the medium, you are still buying the same book, from page one to the end. Simple and familiar. When buying a GN, however, you are faced with other options. Of course, some GNs are stand-alone books (Sailor Twain) and some are parts of a short series that have been bound or boxed together (the Essex County trilogy, Boxers & Saints), just like a "regular" book.

Buying GNs gets trickier, however, when you start to get involved with longer series. Many of these are first published as individual issues (Sweet Tooth, Saga), which are later republished in bound collections. In addition, some very long series (Northlanders) are available in bound story arcs. So you have the choice of reading issue by issue or by collected volumes, either chronologically or by plot. And just to make it crazier, some comic artists give their readers bonus issues (called one-shots), which usually focus on a side story or a particular character.

If you are unsure of how to read a long and complex series, like Fables, you can opt to read them in the order they were published or you can do a little research or ask friends about the best way to approach the books. For more linear series, you can choose to read each individual issue as it comes out or wait for a bound volume. These are matters of personal taste and economics.

Reviewing. I have been a bit lax with reviewing GNs lately. It's easy enough to review a stand-alone book, and I'm fairly caught up in that department. My real problems come with the series and stem from two places. First, some of the series I'm reading are really, really long. Let's face it, even though the characters grow and change and they find themselves in new situations, what more can I say about Fables seventeen that I didn't already say about the first sixteen volumes? Instead of writing about each installment, my new approach is to wait until either I finish the series or I reach a logical pause in the overall plot line.

The second problem occurs when I read a series issue by issue, as I'm doing for Sweet Tooth. So for those GNs, do I review each twenty-page issue as I finish it? Do I wait until I've read the issues collected in, say, the first bound volume? Or do I review the series when I think a story arc has ended? I haven't fully decided on my approach, except that I will not be reviewing each individual short issue.

Finally, I'd like to encourage those of you who review GNs to remember to comment on the medium itself. Because the heart of a GN is the interplay between art and words, don't just concentrate on the plot, tell us a little something about the pictures and how they affected your connection to the characters, action, and setting.

Tomorrow look for my current GN reading list. You'll find series and stand-alones, fiction and nonfiction. I'm reading adventure, historical fiction, dystopian, memoir, and mystery. Some of the GNs are in full color, others are monotone; some are read left to right, and others right to left. Hope you find something that calls to you.

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29 July 2014

Wordless Wednesday 300

Busy Bee, 2014

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Today's Read & Giveaway: Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding BrownImagine it's the 1670s and you, an English woman, are helping carve out a piece of civilization in the American colonies. Now imagine that after you witness the brutal murder of your neighbors, you are captured by Indians and find yourself alone and enslaved in the harsh New England wilderness. Could you conquer your fear and keep your faith in God long enough to survive? That's the true story of Mary Rowlandson, who lived to tell her tale to the world.

Later, Mary will trace the first signs of the Lord's displeasure back to a hot July morning in 1672 when she pauses on her way to the barn to watch the sun rise burnt orange over the meetinghouse. She feels a momentary sinking in her bowels as it flashes like fire through a damp haze, putting her in mind of the terrors of hell. She has never been adept at reading omens.
Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown (Penguin USA / NAL, 2014, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: New England, 1670s
  • What I know of the historic Mary Rowlandson: Rowlandson was born in England and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During King Philip's War, she was captured and sold into slavery and lived for almost a year among the Indians under both physical and psychological duress. Near starving and grieving her losses, she fought to keep her fear in check and survive in the hopes of being reunited with her children. Although she began to see the Native Americans as people, she never truly thought of them as anything but savage heathens. Several years after she was restored to her husband, she wrote her story, which became the first best-seller of the New World.
  • What I know of the novel: I haven't yet read the book, but my understanding is that the first half tells the story of life in the colony, the massacre, and Rowlandson's months in captivity. The second part of the story imagines how Rowlandson struggled to fit back into the Puritan community. She faced two principal issues: First, her neighbors now considered her damaged goods. Second, after living in the wilderness, she began to feel uncomfortable under the constraints of her church.
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Why I want to read it: I've read Rowlandson's original narrative, and I'm curious about how Brown has filled in the gaps and details of the story. I'm especially interested in how Brown imagines Rowlandson's life after she reentered society.

Thanks to the nice people at NAL, I am pleased to offer one of my readers a copy of Flight of the Sparrow. Because the publishers will be mailing the book, this giveaway is open to only those with a U.S. mailing address. All you have to do to be entered for a chance to win is to fill out the following form. I'll pick a winner on August 8 using a random number generator. Once the winner has been confirmed, I'll erase all personal data from my computer. Good luck!

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28 July 2014

Graphically Reading: Thoughts on the Graphic Medium

One of the wonderful benefits of blogging has been the chance to broaden my reading horizons. Until I started Beth Fish Reads, my exposure to comics consisted of my lifelong, daily addiction to comic strips and the comic books I read as a kid.

I guess I should start by admitting I was kind of a lame comic book reader. My favorites were of the Richie Rich ilk. I loved Archie, and I read Superman sporadically, but I was never a superhero fan. I have a few bound comics from my childhood, including a couple of Tintin books as well as some comic strip collections.

I was/am completely eclectic when it comes to daily comic strips. I read everything except Mark Trail. I remember Apartment 3G and  Mary Worth (neither of which appear in my current local paper); Peanuts when there were still new strips; and Pogo, Bloom County, and Calvin and Hobbes (R.I.P.). I read them all from Prince Valiant (so slow but oddly addictive) to Shoe, Nancy, and Doonesbury.

So why did it take me until 2009 to return to reading graphic books? No idea. (Note: My reviews for all the books shown in this post, except the last one, can be found by clicking "Graphic Novel" or "Graphic Nonfiction" in the "Select a Label" pull-down list in the sidebar.)

Over the last few weeks, my Twitter stream has shown a rise in interest in the graphic format, which prompted me to check my archives. I was surprised to discover I've written 80 posts tagged as either graphic novel (includes comics) or graphic nonfiction, especially because I haven't written about all the graphic books and series I've read since I picked up that Nancy Drew (don't bother) almost six years ago.

One of the points I like to make when I review GNs (the term I'll use here for fiction, nonfiction, comics, series, and stand-alones), is that graphic is a format, not a genre. No matter what your reading tastes are, there's a GN for you. So many people associate GNs with only superheros or only fantasy. Others are sure they all are geared to children or teens or that they're meant only for fun escape reading. The truth is very different.

I've read GNs that have explored serious issues, such as the Holocaust, immigration, family, love, sexuality, death, and sickness. Others took me into the kitchen, back through history, into the future, and to makebelieve lands. From fantasy to historical fiction, from mystery to true crime, from contemporary novels to contemplative short story collections: artist/writers have covered every conceivable genre and have written to audiences from the earliest readers to the most sophisticated scholar.

My own tastes are wide ranging, although I tend to be attracted to fantasy (as a huge, broad category) and memoir. I still don't read X-Men or superheroes, I'm not much taken by Manga (yet), and I don't like traditional print novels that have been turned into GNs (based on a sample of about four). I love beautiful, colorful art (Saga) as much as simple black and white (Anya's Ghost). I am as addicted to more literary GNs (The Unwritten) as I am to the fun and goofy (Bones).

If you're new to the graphic medium, you might want read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. I read it soon after it was published (my copy is from 1993), and I remember it as being a fascinating look into the graphic medium throughout history and as comic artists geared up for the changes coming in the twenty-first century. Although the book may be due for a revision (adding eComics and new color technology, for example), it remains a serious, comprehensive introduction to this form of storytelling.

Among other topics, McCloud discusses comics lingo, different styles of art, and the evolution of common icons. He talks about how and why comics work as sequential art and explores some of the issues unique to the format (such as how to draw sounds, movement, and time). If you're unsure how to read a GN or want to know the difference between Western and Eastern comics, McCloud comes to your rescue.

One of the more frivolous things that stuck with me was this (and I'm paraphrasing): When it comes to comics, you really can judge a book by its cover. After all, comics (GNs) are where words and pictures meet.

Thursday: There is still so much I want to say about the graphic medium, I'm going to continue this discussion later this week. I want to talk a little bit about the range of artwork in GNs as well as the different forms (collected issues, single issues, series, stand-alone titles). In addition, I want to share some of the GNs I've read and not yet reviewed plus the titles I have on my reading stack.

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26 July 2014

Weekend Cooking: Hey Bartender (Film)

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend 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.

Hey Bartender (documentary)The cocktail is back! Actually, it's been back for a number of years, but some of us are still hooked on wine and craft beers and think of cocktails as either the businessman's martini or those sweet, unimaginative "ladies' drinks" from the 1950s and 1960s.

Director–writer Douglas Tirola is here to elevate bartenders to their rightful place. Bartending in the big leagues is not about rum and Coke but about mixing and developing drinks using the freshest ingredients and the best of flavors. The art, science, history, and career of bartending are the subjects of Tirola's Hey Bartender, an award-winning 2013 documentary film.

This fascinating look at the life behind the bar focuses primarily on two men: A middle-aged man who owns a local bar in Westport, Connecticut, and a young ex-Marine who works at one of the most popular bars in New York. Their very different experiences and places in life offer a nice counterpoint, but we also meet influential men and women who are at the top of the heap in the cocktail universe.

If you've ever wondered about the rise and fall and rise again of the mixed drink in America and/or the art, wisdom, science, and showmanship of the men and women who stand behind the bar, this film is for you. Whether you drink or not, have a favorite bar or not, you'll discover something new in Hey Bartender. This film is not about how to make a cocktail; it's about the individuals who are striving for recognition and respect in the food world. And guess what? They are finally getting their place in sun, exemplified by newly developed James Beard awards, a week-long annual conference in New Orleans, and the ever-growing attention of the media.

This is a don't-miss film that will have you staking out your own spot at the corner pub and asking the bartender for his or her recommendation.

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24 July 2014

Review: The Age of X Series by Richelle Mead

Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle MeadLast month, I finally got around to reading (well, listening to) Richelle Mead's Age of X series, which is set in the future but in a world that is familiar enough to be easily recognizable. The first book, Gameboard of the Gods, was initially published in June 2013, and the second book in the series, The Immortal Crown, came out this May.

I haven't read any of Mead's earlier work (most famously the Vampire Academy books), but I was curious about the Age of X books--despite some mixed reviews--because the series is geared to adults, has dystopian elements, and touches on several complex themes and issues.

Rather than talk about the novels separately, I focused this bullet review on the series so far.

  • Setting. Sometime in the future, the world has been severely altered by a virus that was likely the result of genetic manipulation experiments. People living under the protection of a major government have access to education, the data stream, mass transportation, and so forth. This comes with costs, among which are that all citizens must wear an embedded chip that contains their identity and that religion is regulated to the point of being mostly illegal. Outside the boundaries of the new countries, people are free but live in a dangerous world.
  • The Immortal Crown by Richelle MeadGeneral plot. Mae Koskinen, beautiful debutant turned Uber soldier, is sent to the wilds to retrieve an exiled government worker who is needed to help solve several unexplained murders that appear to have a religious base. She has little trouble tracking down Dr. Justin March, an expert in religion and history, but returning him to RUNA (a country consisting of parts of Canada and the United States) involves some negotiation. Once back in Seattle, the two team up to investigate the murders, which leads them to discoveries about politics, the power of gods, the role of religion, and even their own self-identities. Their work eventually takes them back into the unprotected lands, where the pair uncover human rights violations, forcing them to juggle the purpose of their mission with their own sense of right and wrong.
  • Underlying, deeper plot. Mead draws on the myths and traditions of a number of religions from the Norse to the Greeks and Romans and to the more familiar Western faiths. Although RUNA officially denies any possibility that the gods could be real entities, Mae and Justin's experiences are causing them to question their government, despite the dangers of delving into religious matters. The Age of X books are not about spirituality. Instead Mead explores the idea that the gods do exist, competing with each other for power. We (and the characters) are left to ask, Just how binding are the rituals and agreements the gods demand from the devoted? How would one know which god to trust? Do the gods have compassion for us or are they interested only in using us for their own purposes?
  • Other themes. Gameboard of the Gods and The Immortal Crown also touch on friendship, loyalty, class divisions, medical and genetics issues, doing the right thing, family, and fate.
  • Characters. Mae, Justin, and their friends and family are generally well developed and have distinct personalities. Mae is tough and strong and has a lot to learn about herself. Justin is smart and observant, but is struggling with his own interactions with divine beings. Tessa, a teenage ward of Justin's shows us how RUNA appears to an outsider. She is resourceful but still a bit naive; I'm sure she'll have an increasingly large part in the series.
  • Likes and dislikes. Mead's world building is excellent. The future she envisions is internally consistent and very believable. No huge jumps in civilization as we know it. There are medical  and technological advances, but generally Mae's Seattle is completely recognizable. The intrigue of the gods, their priests, the believers, the shunners, and the politics will keep me reading. On the other hand, Mead is slow to get things moving. By the end of the second book, I wanted to have more answers. Instead, Mead is teasing us, pulling us into the story by increments. Less patient readers may be frustrated.
  • Recommendation. Those who like dystopia and/or books that make you think will do fine with the Age of X series. The more you know about mythology, the more you're likely to get out of the books. On the other hand, I have only average knowledge, and I don't feel lost, so don't be put off by that. Action, mystery, violence, romance, sex, and even some humor carry the plot along. Are these the best dystopian books I've every read? No. But I think they're worth your time.
  • Audiobooks. I listened to the unabridged audiobook editions (Penguin Audio: Gameboard of the Gods, 16 hr, 9 min; The Immortal Crown, 15 hr, 54 min) both read by Emily Shaffer. Shaffer's performance was well done in terms of emotion, pacing, and characterizations. Most of the people we meet in the Age X series are adults who have been through some tough experiences; unfortunately, Shaffer's voice has a teenage tone to it, and I had to keep reminding myself that Mae, in particular, was a grownup. Although Schaffer was not the best choice for these books, she held my interest for 32 hours. However, I may pick print for the third book.
Published by Penguin Group USA / Dutton
Gameboard of the Gods (2013) ISBN-13: 9780525953685, The Immortal Crown (2014) ISBN-13 9780525953692
Source: Review (1 print, 1 audio); bought (1 audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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22 July 2014

Wordless Wednesday 299

Along the Tracks, 2014

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Today's Read: The Visitors by Sally Beauman

What if you were among the last living people to have witnessed one of history's greatest moments? Would you talk to the press, stripping off the patina of romance, and tell the world how it really was? This is the decision the elderly Lucy Payne must make when a man asks to interview her for a BBC/HBO documentary about the discovery of King Tut's tomb.

When I had been in Cairo a week, I was taken to the pyramids; it was there I saw Frances for the first time. It was January 1922, and Miss Mackenzie, in loco parentis, my guardian for our travels in Egypt, planned our visit with great care. She believed that if I could see the pyramids, "One of the greatest wonders of the ancient world, remember, Lucy, dear," and see them in the most powerful way possible—at sunrise—they would effect a change. They would stimulate; they would enthrall; they would snap me back to life, and persuade me to re-engage with the world. For six days she had postponed this visit: I wasn't yet strong enough. On the seventh day, the great moment finally arrived.
The Visitors by Sally Beauman (HarperCollins / Harper, 2014 [U.S. edition], p. 3; uncorrected proofs)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: Egypt (Cairo, Luxor), 1920s; England (London, Cambridge), 1920s and 2002
  • Circumstances: When eleven-year-old Lucy is sent to Cairo to recover from typhoid fever, she and her guardian stay in Shepheard's Hotel, home to visiting archaeologists from all over the world. There she befriends Frances Winlock and learns about the excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Decades later, Lucy is approached by an American documentary filmmaker and must decide what she is willing to tell the world.
  • Characters: Lucy (both young and old); famous archaeologists and their families, such as Howard Carter, Harry Burton, and Herbert Winlock; local staff; fictional characters and historic figures involved in Egyptian antiquities
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Why I want to read it: As many of you know, I was an anthropologist in my youth and have maintained my strong interest in the field. Plus who isn't still fascinated with Howard Carter and the discovery of the King Tut's tomb? I know the story from an academic point of view and have read several fictional accounts of the archaeology of the Valley of the Kings; I can't wait to read Beauman's take on the discovery.
  • What I'm anticipating: Even in the 1920s, there was controversy surrounding Carter and his methods, the invasion of foreign archaeologists and antiquities collectors, and Egypt's desire to maintain control over its own historical record. The individuals involved had differing thoughts on who had rights to the artifacts and how archaeological digs should be conducted. Complicating matters, the scientists themselves had personal issues: too much alcohol, class and race prejudices, and dishonesty. I am hoping Beauman delves into some of these issues.

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21 July 2014

The eMerging eReader #7: Updating Technology and Sources

Welcome to another edition of the eMerging eReader. If I've learned anything about transitioning from print to eReading, it's this: The process is an ongoing learning experience--at least for me.

Here's what's new in my journey.

Gadgetry and apps. I think my biggest frustrations are still with the technology. I want to read all my books on a single device and I want to switch seamlessly from eInk to color and from PDF to ePUB. In this day and age, I find it difficult to believe that I can't get what I want.

I love my Kobo eReader for the clarity, size, and ease of use. If I'm going to read electronically for pleasure, I will choose eInk over a back-lit screen every time. Although the research is inconclusive, my own experience says that back-lit screens cause eye strain.

On the other hand, after less than a year of serious eReading, I find the vast array of gadgets to be overwhelming and, frankly, a pain in the ass. I hate maintaining all the things. When my friend Swapna had issues with her eReader and started talking about giving up on eInk, I had a sudden fit of jealousy. Sounds odd, I know. But all I could think of was that she had one less device to recharge, load, and carry around.

We had a short conversation about devices, and both of us agreed that it'd be nice to have all our books in one place instead of PDFs on the now gone Readmill and ePUBs on the Kobo. The big problem was that nothing really felt like a good Readmill replacement.

After my talk with Swapna, I decided to give iBooks, a free app for the iPad and iPhone, a second chance. It has some pluses, most notably a sepia setting for ePUBs, which is more kind to my eyes than just black on white. It also has a lot of font choices and is fairly easy to use. Unfortunately, iBooks is not without its flaws, and some of the issues are, naturally, with PDFs. When reading PDFs in iBooks, you can't access the sepia setting and you can't change fonts.

The other thing I don't like is that, as far as I can tell, you can't see all your books on the same display. Instead, iBooks divides your books by format, which means ePUBs and PDFs are shown in two different lists. So I have to remember to switch between the two views. Not a huge deal, but it's annoying.

Just as I was giving up on the notion of sending my Kobo to the dry dock, the good people at Bluefire saved the day. The newest version of the app has two features I love plus a couple of other advantages over iBooks. First, the most important improvement to me is that I can now read PDFs in sepia! That feature alone would make me a Bluefire fan, but I also love the new integration with Dropbox--it is now possible to access my Dropbox account directly from my Bluefire library. Nice! I always like saving a few steps.

Finally, Bluefire puts all my books in the same list, so I don't have to switch between the PDF and ePUB view. (Note, however, that the app allows you to make separate collections, if you like that idea.) I can sort my books by title or author and I can display them as a list or by covers.

For the last month or so, I've read all my eBooks on my iPad. The best part is not having to deal with a separate gadget. The worst part is that I miss the eInk, especially when reading outside. I also find the iPad Air to be a little heavy. But all in all, I can see that I'm heading in the direction of simplicity over clarity and weight.

I still store all my books in Calibre (discussed in an earlier post) on the PC and then upload them to Dropbox. So each book is in two places: on the laptop and in the cloud. It may seem complicated to you, but I find I have the most control over my eBooks this way. I know many people download directly to their reader app, but I'm less likely to forget about a book if I can see it in my Dropbox or Calibre list.

Sources. A friend of mine recently told me about BookBub, which is a service that alerts you to eBook bargains of the day. You can check off the types of books you are interested in and the formats you can read (Kindle, ePUB, Nook, etc.), Several times a week you get an email that lists the books on sale (or for free) that day. I haven't found a lot to buy, but you can't beat the prices.

Several of my graphic novel buddies (SuziQOregon and Swapna, in particular) turned me on to Comixology, an excellent source for graphic novels of all kinds. Except for a couple of series (Fables, for example), I plan to start buying many of my GNs digitally. If you decide to go that route, be sure to check the prices carefully. I almost bought a collected volume of a series I'm interested in, but realized that buying individual issues saved me a few dollars. The price difference isn't a lot, but a couple of dollars here and there can add up.

Current status. I seem to be doing more eReading than ever before. I'm not sure if it's because I've consolidated to a single device or whether it's because I've fully integrated the habit of eReading (discussed in an earlier post). I'm still looking for the perfect device (eInk, sepia, color, and equally adept at ePUB and PDF), but for now, anyway, the tablet and Bluefire are working.

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19 July 2014

Weekend Cooking: Another Look at My Cookbook Collection

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend 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.

When I asked on Twitter for ideas for today's post, @celialarsen responded first with a request for a look at my cookbook shelves. I always love taking a random stack of books off one of the shelves and seeing what pops up.

This groups is a good mix of food writing, foreign food, and fun. (Click on the photo to get a better look at the titles.) Because I pulled these from a section of my library that has older books, I'm not sure how many are still in print, but you should be able to find them in a good used-book store, particularly one specializing in cookbooks.

I'll start at the top of the stack and work my way down. Some of these are old friends and a few I forgot I owned!

Outlaw Cook by John Thorne (HarperCollins) is a book that I remember loving. It was published in 1992, and there is a slip of paper in the book to show that I special ordered it from my local indie bookstore (R.I.P.). Many of the short pieces were originally published in a newsletter the authors put together called "Simple Cook" and are Thorne's personal thoughts on ingredients, cooking, baking, and culinary personalities (in the days before the true celebrity chef). I love his essay "On Not Being a Good Cook" and adore his piece titled "Martha Stewart." Recipes are scattered throughout (ginger pear cake, Creole Lenten split pea soup), and now I want to read this book start to finish all over again.

Linette Creen's A Taste of Cuba (Dutton, 1991) is, of course, all about the foods of Cuba. This is a straightforward cookbook (no photos) that covers the range of foods from breakfast through dessert. The author was introduced to Cuban food in the late 1970s when she moved to the Miami area. Although she later moved to New York, she maintained her love for the tastes of Cuba and wrote the cookbook "to help preserve [Cuba's] culinary heritage." I've never cooked from the book, but the introduction explains the ingredients, and the recipes look appealing and easy.

OK, so I have no clue whatsoever as to why I own a cookbook called A Taste of Astrology (by Lucy Ash, Knopf, 1988). Perhaps it was a gift; I can't imagine spending money on it. The book is broken down by the zodiac and includes information about each sign as a cook and as a guest, complete with recipe and menu suggestions. According to the book, I am supposed to want beef and chestnut loaf, kipper and tomato ring, or Swiss potato dish for dinner. Um, really? What do you say, fellow Capricorns? I know for a fact I've never cooked from this book or read it before today.

Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner (Grove Press, 1986) is an interesting look at nine specific ingredients (corn, salt, lemon, for example). She traces the culinary of history of each food, touching on biology, anthropology, nutrition, literature, lore, politics, and more. I'm sure it's somewhat dated now, but it was fascinating back in the 1980s.

Edna Lewis is one of my favorite food writers and her The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf, 1990) is a kind of cookbook memoir of the foods of her childhood in the Virginia Piedmont. The book is arranged by season and then organized into menus. This is down-home cooking and food writing at its best. Search this book out, find a comfortable spot, and read, read, read.

Do I need to introduce you to M. F. K. Fisher? I hope not. She is another of my favorite food writers, and you can't go wrong with starting with her With Bold Knife & Fork (Hogarth Press, 1983). This particular copy was published in the UK and a friend gave it to me as a gift. The seventeen food essays (most with recipes) cover everything from eggs to meats to appetizers. The writing is filled with Fisher's experiences and personal opinions, and each piece is a delight to read. I've practically worn out my U.S. edition, but this one remains in decent shape.

I've used Sally and Martin Stone's The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 1991), often. Each chapter concentrates on a particular vegetable (onion, beet, yam, etc.) and begins with information about the plant, including buying and storing tips. The recipes are generally easy and cover a world of flavors from western Europe to Asia. This is a great resource. Although I'm sure there are newer books out there, I still use this one, especially in the fall.

Elizabeth David's English Bread & Yeast Cookery (American Edition, Viking, 1980) remains a classic. The first 250 pages are all about flours, techniques, ovens, equipment, and ingredients. Then follows 300 pages of recipes, both modern and historic. I'm not planning to make bread from a 1660 recipe, but it was fun to read. The book is dense and not for the faint of heart, but if you have a serious interest in bread baking, you should take a look.

Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking by John Martin Taylor (Bantam, 1992) is all about cooking from the Carolinas. Here you'll find recipes for boiled peanuts, pimiento cheese, shellfish, grits, barbeque, and so on. I've cooked from this book and liked everything I tried. I was just looking through it and found a menu that ended with "cigars and cigarettes"! I guess that's a sign of the importance of tobacco as a cash crop.

Jane Sigal's Normandy Gastronomique (Abbeyville Press, 1993) is an absolutely beautiful book, full of stunning and mouth-watering photos of the Norman countryside and food. I love everything about this book, from the text to the recipes. I've made a few things from the book, especially game and desserts.

I bought Darra Goldstein's A Taste of Russia: A Cookbook of Russian Hospitality (HarperCollins, 1983) because my grandfather was born in Russia and I grew up eating a few of the dishes my American-born grandmother learned to make. I was curious if the food I ate was authentic or not. Sadly, I've never opened this book. So I can't tell you anything about it, except that it looks like it covers foods from all over the Soviet Republic.

I am big fan of Carol Field, and her Celebrating Italy (Morrow, 1990) is a treasured cookbook. The theme of the book is Italian holidays and feasts (saint days, harvest festivals, the new year, and so forth). Each chapter begins with a description and history of the holiday (including illustrations) and then finishes with recipes for the foods traditionally eaten on that day. Some of the dishes are quite fancy and very involved, but others are more approachable. I haven't cooked from this book, but I enjoyed reading it.

And that concludes this edition of a look at my cookbook shelves. Hope you found something that caught your eye or were at least amused by the astrology book.

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18 July 2014

Review: Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Omens by Kelley ArmstrongHas it really been almost a year since Kelley Armstrong's Omens appeared in my mailbox? When I learned the second book in the Cainsville series was due out in August, I knew I'd better start reading.

I've been thinking about how to describe Omens and keep coming back to the term paranormal light. This novel is perfect for readers who've been curious about Armstrong but who don't generally like books with otherworldly creatures in them. No werewolves or vampires here. There is a bit of a creepy factor; a strange small town; and some second sight, superstitions, old wives' tales, and folk legends. All you anti-paranormal readers need not shy away from Omens. This may be your gateway novel to Armstrong's writing.

  • What's it about? High-society Olivia Taylor-Jones discovers at age twenty-four that she was adopted. When she is told why her true identity was kept a secret--that she is really the daughter of two serial killers--she goes underground to avoid the press and to take some pressure off her widowed mother and her politically ambitious finance. Acting on a tip, she moves to Cainsville, a hard-to-find small town an hour from her native Chicago. What she learns there about herself, her parents, and life in general makes up the bulk of the story.
  • Olivia. Olivia is a smart young woman whose life is suddenly turned upside down. For a number of reasons, she decides to leave home and thus must experience the real world, including finding an affordable apartment and getting a job. She adapts pretty well to being poor, but then again, she has a really strong safety net (she can always ask her mother for money, and she will have access to her huge trust fund in a few months). Regardless, she is likeable as she struggles with finding her new niche and new self-image. Although her mother and fiance are not strongly developed, the people she meets in Cainsville are more fully realized, especially a defense lawyer, Gabriel Walsh, with whom she teams up to investigate the truth about her birth parents (the Larsens) and about her own heritage.
  • Cainsville. The small town is filled with colorful characters. I don't want to say quirky because that implies a whimsy that doesn't exist; the citizens of Olivia's new home have a darker, deeper aspect to them. And, in fact, the town itself is a bit, shall we say, off, with its gargoyles, lack of a church, constant population size, and isolation. It's almost Stepford like--you just know there's a secret history there.
  • Themes and genre. As I mentioned, Omens steps away from Kelley Armstrong's usual paranormal genre. It is a suspenseful, mystery/thriller that is as much about the investigation of the Larsens and their guilt or innocence as it is about Olivia discovering her place in the world and reconsidering her future. The title of book comes from Olivia's knack for seeing and interpreting omens (especially birds and poppies) and her strong superstitions (never leave your shoes upside down; keep the opening of your pillowcases facing out). Armstrong infuses the story with a thread of unease, but much of the action and Olivia's dilemmas are solidly grounded.
  • Recommendation and general thoughts. Omens is the start of a new series, and as such, Armstrong spends some time familiarizing us with Cainsville and its inhabitants. The novel doesn't end on a cliffhanger, but several major story lines are left open-ended, and we have to wait for book two (coming out in a few weeks!) to get more answers. Overall, I really enjoyed Omens and zipped through the audiobook fairly quickly because I found it hard to step away from the story. I was caught up in several of the plot arcs, especially the one about Olivia's parents and, of course, the underlying question, What's the deal with Cainsville? I'm recommending Omens as a promising start to a complex series, with the warning that you'll need to keep on reading future installments to get the full story.
  • Audiobook. The unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 14 hr, 40 min) is narrated by Carine Montbertrand and Mozhan Marno. Montebertrand was the primary narrator, and I'm not a huge fan of hers, although she didn't do a bad job. Marno put in a stronger performance, and I was slightly disappointed when her chapters ended. I'm not quite sure why the producers felt it was necessary to have two narrators for this book; I don't think it added much to the story. If the narrators are the same for Visions (the second Cainsville book), I think I'll be reading instead of listening.
Published by Penguin Group USA / Dutton, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780525953043
Source: Review (print); bought (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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17 July 2014

Product Review: Beam N Read Reading Lights

If you're like me, you are always on the lookout for a decent book light. I've tried many different versions, so when the nice people at Beam N Read offered to send me a couple of reading lights, I quickly said yes.

The first thing I noticed when I took the lights out of their boxes was that they are made to be worn around the neck and come with an adjustable elastic strap. Honestly, I was unsure how I'd feel about wearing a light, so I was surprised by how lightweight and comfortable it was. And, in fact, having the light beam come from my chest meant fewer shadows on my book and no light shining in my face. I've never liked clip-on book lights because they add weight to the book, sometimes fall off, make it awkward to hold the book, and interfere with page turning. The Beam N Read has none of these problems, making them a pleasure to use.

Next, I saw that the small light came with a red snap-on filter and the large light came with both a red and an amber filter. The red filter cuts down on glare from the LED lights and maintains your night vision. But more important, the filter meant that my husband was not bothered by my reading in bed. The amber filter on the bigger Beam N Read also cuts down on the glare and produces a softer light. I'm not sure which I like better, but I've gotten used to using the red filter on the smaller light as my first choice.

The smaller Beam N Read has three LED lights, and the direction of the beam is adjustable (three settings). The larger version has six LED lights, but a switch allows you to choose between lighting up just three lights or all six. It too has an adjustable beam and doesn't weigh significantly more than the smaller light. The bigger light also comes with a clip-on magnifier, which can come in handy, even though it's not meant for reading. (My husband used it when he had to remove a splinter.)

On a recent car trip, I slipped the smaller light into my tote bag. My husband noticed that the red light was much less annoying while he was driving than either the car's map light or the small flashlight I usually use when I need to find something in the car at night. If you can read in the car (unfortunately, I can't read for more than about three minutes without getting motion sick), you might want to give the Beam N Read a try; your driver may thank you for it.

I haven't yet used the light for needlework, but I bet the Beam N Read would make a great crafts light. My husband immediately thought of how much use he'd get out of the lights on our next camping trip, especially when using the red filter, which preserves night vision. And, finally, the company literature mentions that Beam N Reads are great hands-free lights for emergencies and power outages.

Thanks to Beam N Read for the chance to use their lights. I particularly like the filters and the shadow-free light for bedtime reading. We've gotten a lot of good use out the Beam N Reads, and we both feel comfortable recommending them for reading, camping, and general tasks.

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15 July 2014

Wordless Wednesday 298

At the Military Museum, 2014

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Today's Read: Silence of the Lamb's Wool by Betty Hechtman

Silence of the Lamb's Wool by Betty HechtmanWhat if you inherited a lucrative small business that involved a sector you knew nothing about? Would you try to keep it going or would you abandon it? Casey Feldstein, a dessert chef, found herself in just that position when she inherited her aunt's knitters' retreat company, Yarn2Go. Although Casey didn't know how to knit or crochet, she decided to keep her aunt's legacy alive.

There is nothing like being awakened by a ringing phone and finding a pair of yellow eyes staring back at you. I think Julius knew I'd never had a pet and he'd taken it on as his duty to train me in the art of cat cohabitation, which included sitting on my chest when he wanted breakfast. His yellow eyes blinked at me as if to say, "Would you get up and get me some food. Preferably that stuff in the can with the fabulous fishy odor."
Silence of the Lamb's Wool by Betty Hechtman (Penguin Random House / Berkley Prime Crime, 2014, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: Cadbury on the Sea, California (near Monterey); modern times
  • Circumstances: Casey has organized a sheep to shawl class but when one of the participants is found dead, the trip may be over before it starts. Although initially ruled a natural death, Casey has her doubts. Can she find the truth about the death, stop the retreat from falling apart, and keep up with her baking?
  • Characters: Casey and her mother; knitters and friends, especially Lucinda, Bree, Olivia, Scott, Wanda, and Nicole; the cute cop next door; various townsfolk, spouses, and law-enforcement people
  • Genre: cozy mystery
  • What I liked: Casey is a great character, who is smart and thinks before she acts. I like her determination and that she is still trying to decide on a life path. Part of the book's appeal is the group of knitters, who all have different skill levels, different personalities, and different goals. It's hard for me to resist a cozy mystery that focuses on some of my passions (in this case, knitting and baking). I thought it was realistic that Casey's mom would be worried about her daughter's choices. I loved the California coastal setting. And, of course, I found the mystery to be fun and a little twisty. That Casey has the chance for a little romance adds a little heat.
  • Recommendations: Anyone who likes light mysteries and/or fun escape reading will like Silence of the Lamb's Wool, with its great characters, crafty focus, and tight plot.
  • Extras: The book ends with a beginner shawl pattern and a few dessert recipes. If you've never been to a yarn festival, keep your eye out for one near you; I particularly love the sheep to shawl demonstrations and the border collie demonstrations.
The Giveaway

Thanks to Berkley Prime Crime, I can offer one of my readers with a U.S. mailing address a copy of Betty Hechtman's Silence of the Lamb's Wool. All you have to do to be entered for a chance to win is to fill out the following form. I'll pick a winner via random number generator on July 21. Once the winner has been verified, I'll erase all personal information from my computer. Good luck!

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14 July 2014

Review: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

The Book of Life by Deborah HarknessAs you already know, I was counting the days until Deborah Harkness's The Book of Life, the third book in her All Souls trilogy, became available for sale. I was fortunate enough to get an early copy of the audiobook and, as you can imagine, I listened to the book almost immediately.

All versions of The Book of Life will be on sale tomorrow, and fans of Diana and Matthew will be thrilled with Harkness's conclusion to the couple's story. Even though I'm fully aware that Harkness planned only three books, she left the door open for future installments. Diana and Matthew will have more challenges ahead of them, and I'd love to know what happens next. A fan can dream, can't she?

The Book of Life starts almost immediately after Shadow of Night ends, so there is an unbroken flow to the story. Diana and Matthew, back in modern times, are still searching for the missing pages of the mysterious old book that Diana discovered in the Bodleian Library at the start of her adventure in A Discovery of Witches. There are, however, several complications to their life and their search.

I don't want to spoil the book, so I'll be general, but the issues the couple face revolve around four principal areas, although the plot is complex and there is quite a lot more going on, especially on the individual level for some of the main characters.

  • There is a power struggle in Matthew's vampire family.
  • Matthew must face his battle with "blood rage," an illness that seems to run in some vampire families.
  • Diana must make decisions about who she really is and wants to be.
  • Diana's pregnancy has unexpected and far-reaching consequences.
These issues cross and weave and tangle together but also have their own paths. Harkness handles the many layers of her story brilliantly, and readers will find surprises and satisfaction.

Besides the science, lore, religion, personal histories, and deep histories that are all consistent with the world as Harkness created it, I especially loved the genetics aspects to this story, which took me back to my former life (about 30 years ago) when I was earning my doctorate as physical anthropologist and geneticist. Read in the context of a world that contains deamons, witches, and vampires, Harkness did an impressive job with subtly bending the science to work for her purposes.

There's plenty of action in The Book of Life, and although I was sure that Diana and Matthew would have a future, it wasn't always clear just what that future would entail. I was pleased that both characters grew and came into themselves, and I rooted for them to find peace and compromises that would keep their relation strong and healthy.

I love Deb Harkness's world with its blend of science and fantasy, which makes me want to believe that more than just humans walk among us. The Book of Life is a great ending to one of my favorite trilogies. And though I understand that leaving your fans wanting more is often the right place to stop, I sure hope Harkness will consider writing about Diana and Matthew again.

As I mentioned, I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 23 hr, 52 min) read by Jennifer Ikeda, who also read the previous books in the series. As I said in my other reviews, Ikeda does a great job with the accents and languages. She created consistent and distinguishable voices for all of the characters and had a nice sense of pacing. I highly recommend the audiobooks.

Published by Penguin Group USA / Viking, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780670025596
Source: Review, both print & audio (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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12 July 2014

Weekend Cooking: "Perfection Pizza" by Jeffrey Steingarten (It Must've Been Something I Ate)

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend 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.

It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey SteingartenWay back in May 2010, for a Weekend Cooking post, I mentioned that I had a couple of books of food writing that I really wanted to read. At the time I was positive I would add them to my reading list. So here it is, four years later, and I still haven't read either of them. I'm sure that kind of thing has never happened to you.

Anyway, the other day I was once again sorting through my bookshelves and became reacquainted with It Must've Been Something I Ate, an award-winning collection of essays by Jeffrey Steingarten. Then I had a duh moment. I didn't have to read the whole book before writing about it. So, finally, I tried one of the stories. It took me only twelve years to get around to reading it.

Probably because I recently read and reviewed Delancey, I decided to read Steingarten's "Perfection Pizza," originally published in August 2000. What a fun story about his obsession with trying to make the perfect home pizza.

He starts by talking about his newest toy, an instant-read noncontact infrared thermometer:
Sure, it cost way too much. Yes, I should have used the money to upgrade my footwear instead, or have a makeover But everyone turns green with envy when I demonstrate my ST-8, especially the men and boys.
From there he talks about some of the best pizza places in New York and gives us a little history about his favorite pizza styles: Neapolitan and Neapolitan-American. After using his thermometer on wood- and coal-fired ovens in city restaurants, Steingarten attempts to re-create the same conditions at home, with mixed success. Here's what's happened when he tried to fool his home oven's thermostat:
The results were brilliant, especially in concept. My oven, believing incorrectly that its temperature was near the freezing point, went full blast until thick waves of smoke billowed from every crack, vent, and pore, filling the house with the palpable signs of scientific success. Yes, the experiment had to be cut short, but it had lasted longer than the Wright brothers' first flight. Inside the oven was a blackened disk of dough pocked with puddles of flaming cheese. I had succeeded beyond all expectations.
After a number of other misdirected attempts (setting the oven to the clean cycle, trying different grill configurations), he finally found a solution or two. Steingarten ends his tale by sharing his crust and sauce recipes.

If the other essays in Jeffrey Steingarten's It Must've Been Something I Ate are only half as entertaining, informative, and funny, then I know I have a lot of good reading ahead. Maybe I'll get around to reading a second story before another dozen years go by.

Published by Random House / Knopf, 2003 (paperback shown here)
ISBN-13: 9780375727122
Source: Bought (hardcover) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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11 July 2014

Review: Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken

Thunderstruck and Other Stories by Elizabeth McCrackenSo often short stories leave me wanting me more, but Elizabeth McCracken is one of the few authors (Sam Shepard is another) whose careful and pregnant prose fills a small space to perfection. The nine pieces in Thunderstruck are each complete and utterly satisfying.

Although every story in Thunderstruck stands on its own, overall the collection explores death or loss or loneliness. Yet the stories are not depressing in a conventional sense; McCraken shows her characters in their most unguarded moments, and in those moments of vulnerability they remind us of our ourselves.

A few of the stories ("Juliet," about a library patron, and "Property," about a widower) involve unrelated characters, but most of the pieces focus on parents (or caregivers) and children. For example, in "Something Amazing," a woman copes the loss of her young daughter, in "Thunderstruck" a teenage girl changes her family forever, and in "The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs," a couple learns their grown son's true worth.

Despite the darkness, the burden isn't more than we can bear. McCracken occasionally lets her sense of humor shine, and sometimes the broken people find kindred spirits, and through those connections they have moments of, if not peace, at least understanding.

Thunderstruck is a powerful, emotional collection that should be read slowly and savored. Forget what you think you know about short stories; Elizabeth McCracken will leave you, well, thunderstruck.

For more on Elizabeth McCracken and Thunderstruck, see Largehearted Boy's Book Notes for this collection.

Published by Random House / The Dial Press, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385335775
Source: Review, audio (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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10 July 2014

Review: Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana GabaldonI am unashamedly a big fan of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. I'd better be since I've read all gazillion pages of the eight books and have listen to all 366 hours (no exaggeration) of the unabridged audios. As with any series, I've loved some books more than others, and I've hated waiting (four years!) for the next installments.

Written in My Own Heart's Blood, the eighth and most recent Outlander book, is one of the good ones. I listened to all 45 hours in pretty much record time. I couldn't wait to find out what was going on with Jamie and Claire and their friends and family. The following bullet review does not spoil Written in My Own Heart's Blood, but it does assume you've read the previous books.

  • What's up with Claire and Jamie? The book starts in 1778 with the couple in the Philadelphia area, reunited after Jamie was presumably lost at sea. They are, of course, caught up in the ongoing Revolutionary War and the British occupation and abandonment of the city. Claire dreams of going home to the North Carolina mountains, but Jamie has been given command of a regiment. Naturally, they cross paths with the famous--George Washington and Benedict Arnold, in particular.
  • What's up with Roger and Brianna? At the end of the last book, Roger disappears through time to find his son, Jem, who, in fact, never left their present (the 1980s) in Scotland. Brianna and Roger, separated by 200 years, must find a way to get back together.
  • What's up with the rest of the gang? Young Ian is reunited with his mother, Jenny, who was traveling with Jamie from Scotland to America. He also hopes to win the hand of Rachel, a Quaker, despite his Indian ways and previous marriage. Fergus and Marseli are still running their press and seem to have a strong family. Lord John and Jamie are feuding over Claire, and William is dismayed to discover his true parentage.
  • Random thoughts: Generally, I think this is a strong entry in the series, probably because the focus stays on my favorite characters: Ian, Jamie, Claire, and Jenny. I've never been a big Lord John fan, but I'm really surprised at how poorly Jamie and even Claire treat him, when he has been nothing but kind and generous to them both. William, William, William . . . get over it. You're an adult. Deal with your family issues. I like Roger and Brianna just fine, but their story line is less interesting than Jamie and Claire's. There were a few surprises about time travel and about Jem and Mandy, which I'm sure will figure in future books. There were a couple of very sad scenes, which didn't make me cry but definitely pulled at my heart.
  • The ending: I liked the ending. Although there were a few coincidences in terms of some relationship parallels (can't say more without spoilers), there was a generally upbeat feeling for Claire and Jamie. No cliff hanger in this book, but oh I want to know what happens just three seconds after the last page of this one! The wait for book 9 is going to be rough.
  • Overall reactions: I loved being with Claire and Jamie again and knowing that their relationship continues to be solid, despite all they've been through. I'm glad that Jenny has come over to America, I have always liked her character and I'm looking forward to her having a central part in the next book. And I couldn't be more pleased for young Ian; it looks like he's getting a break for a change. Are there things about Written in My Own Heart's Blood that I don't like? Of course. Some are too spoiler-y to mention here; others are likely the result of my own perspective and are not worth getting into. Fortunately, all are minor enough to ignore.
  • Recommendations: Despite the few rough spots, if you're a fan of Diana Gabaldon (and who would read through all eight clunkers if you weren't?), you'll love this installment in the Outlander series. But you already know that because I'm sure you've already read the book! Great characters, hot sex, a historical setting, and a little time travel add up to some of the best escape reading around.
  • Audiobook: As is my habit with the Outlander books, first I listen, then I read. The unabridged audiobook (Recorded Books; 44 hr, 59 min) was read by the wonderful Davina Porter. She is absolutely the best narrator for this series. I love her accent, her characterizations, her pacing . . . everything about her performance. Highly recommended.
Published by Random House / Delacorte Press, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385344432
Source: Bought, both print & audio (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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09 July 2014

Wordless Wednesday 297

At the Marsh Preserve, 2014

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08 July 2014

Today's Read: The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter by Peter HellerAlthough I've written about Peter Heller's second novel twice for other venues and although I've both read and listened to it, I haven't yet talked about The Painter here on Beth Fish Reads.

Here's why: I loved so much about this book that I don't want to dissect and analyze it; I just want to savor the story. So instead of a review, I'm giving you a Today's Read and a teaser. Minus my usual opening questions.

I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.
The Painter by Peter Heller (Penguin Random House / A. A. Knopf, 2014, p. 3, uncorrected proof)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: small-town Colorado, the American Southwest wilderness, Santa Fe; modern times
  • Circumstances: Painter and fly-fisherman Jim Stegner—sometimes short tempered, always mourning his losses—crosses the wrong man on a deserted Colorado road. When his anger gets the best of him, Stegner begins to unravel
  • Characters: Jim Stegner: painter and fly-fisherman; Dell, Grant, and Jason: men you don't want to know; Sofia: model and friend; neighbors and friends, people from Jim's past
  • Genre: part psychological thriller, part character study
  • Things I thought about: the thin line between good and evil; the way life can change in the blink of an eye; the tight-knit communities of small towns; love; violence; doing the right thing (and knowing what that is)
  • Things I love about Heller: his descriptions of the landscape, of the artist at work, and of fishing; his ability to find the aching, tender points of his characters; the starkness and beauty of his prose
  • Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook  (Random House Audio; 11 hr, 26 min) is performed by Mark Deakins, whose sensitive reading is well worth the listen. (For more on the audiobook, see my review for AudioFile magazine.)
  • One more thing: The best book I've read this year

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07 July 2014

Review and Guest Post: The Last Taxi Ride by A.X. Ahmad (The Benefits of Eavesdropping)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManLast year I introduced you to A. X. Ahmad and his debut literary thriller, The Caretaker, about Ranjit Singh, an India immigrant, adapting to life in America while working off-season on Martha's Vineyard.

Ahad's second novel, The Last Taxi Ride, released on June 24, continues the story of the ex-Indian Army captain. Still struggling to find his place in the United States, Ranjit Singh has moved to New York City, joining the ranks of Indian cabbies. The Big Apple is quite the change from New England, but Singh has made friends, discovered where to eat good Indian food, and has adjusted to city life. Unfortunately, trouble seems to find Singh wherever he goes.

When the beaten body of Bollywood star Shabana Shah is discovered in her apartment, police find Singh's fingerprints all over the murder weapon, and the building's surveillance cameras caught him leaving the lobby. With just ten days until his arraignment, Singh must rely on his military training, his knowledge of the city's cab driver culture, and his friends' help to prove his innocence.

The Last Taxi Ride is an exciting thriller starring a great character that shows us a side of New York that many of us are unfamiliar with. This multilayered novel is more than a mystery though; it's also an immigrant story. Ranjit Singh is still between worlds, having moved on from India but not yet settled in America. This murder mystery-thriller combined with Singh's personal story makes The Last Taxi Ride a don't-miss summer read.

In what I hope will be a continuing tradition for all of his novels, I want to welcome back author A. X. Ahmad to Beth Fish Reads. I'm always curious about how authors get their ideas for their novels, so I'm thrilled that Amin chose that topic for today's guest post. I love that his inspiration has a foodie tie in as well.

The Benefits of Eavesdropping

One day at an Indian restaurant in Midtown Manahattan.

About five years ago, I was sitting at a window seat in Curry in A Hurry, eating kebabs and naan bread, and eavesdropping on two Indian cabbies sitting behind me.

“It was her, I’m telling you,” one was saying to the other.

“Don’t be stupid,” the other replied. “What is she doing in New York? She lives in Mumbai.”

“No, it was her, I’m sure.”

“How can you be sure? Did you see her face?”

“No, she was wearing big sunglasses.”

“So how can you be sure it was her?”

This conversation went on and on.

Intrigued, I kept listening, and soon I figured they were talking about the Bollywood Indian actress Shabana Azmi. She had once upon a time been a star, and now had been eclipsed by a younger generations of actresses.

One cabbie kept insisting that Shabana Azmi had actually been in his cab, and the other one wouldn’t believe it. They kept arguing, and never reached a conclusion, but that moment stayed with me: I became intrigued by the idea of a Bollywood star who is now living in New York, and taking cabs incognito all over town.

And I also realized that a cabbie would be a great character in a crime novel.

So I started taking cabs wherever I went in New York, and talking to the Indian drivers. I heard a lot of stories about what happens in the backseats of cabs—couples arguing, businessmen discussing million dollar deals, and of course, the occasional celebrity, hidden behind sunglasses and a baseball hat. I also started hanging around cab driver cafes in New York, and talking to the cabbies. I drank a lot of chai, ate a lot of rice and tandoori chicken, and heard a lot of stories.

Soon I began to write about an Indian cabbie in NYC who gives a ride to a has-been Bollywood actress and then is accused of her murder. From this beginning I spun out an entire novel, populated with characters based on the cab drivers I had met. It’s now a book called The Last Taxi Ride.

And to think it all started because I had a hankering for Indian food!
I too can't resist listening in on conversations when I'm in cafes, waiting in lines, or on public transportation. What a great way to find inspiration for a story. Thanks so much Amin for stopping by today. I'm not a fiction writer, but I am a cook, and I think you've inspired me to make a curry. (The photo is of a curry soup I made a few months ago.)

Although The Last Taxi Ride is the second Ranjit Singh novel, it works well as a standalone. But why miss out on Singh's first adventure? Ahmad is currently working on a third Singh book, which will put the ex-army captain in a completely different American environment.

Finally, don't miss this fun short film about how the death of Bollywood star Shabana Shah affected one budding New York reporter.

Published by Minotaur, 2014
ISBN-13: 9781250016867
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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05 July 2014

Weekend Cooking: BBQ Bacon Bourbon Baked Beans

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend 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.

This has been a holiday week for many of us in North America (Canada Day, July 4), so in keeping with the festive mood, I thought I'd share a recipe I adapted for yesterday's dinner. We had typical American cookout fare: deviled eggs, potato salad, hamburgers, hot dogs (actually, we grilled andouille), baked beans, and lots of snacks. We served beer, wine, soda, and iced tea. And dessert was lemon cake with strawberries and blueberries (more or less red, white, and blue).

The BBQ bacon bourbon baked beans were particularly good and the only dish that was new for the holiday this year. I started with a recipe I found on the Penzeys Spices site and adapted it our tastes. Everyone agreed that it was a hit.

BBQ Bacon Bourbon Baked Beans
(adapted from Penzeys)
  • 1/2 pound uncured pepper bacon (or whatever you have)
  • 1 medium Vidalia onion, chopped fine
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped fine
  • 1/2 large green bell pepper, seeded and chopped fine (yellow or red would have been prettier)
  • 1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce mixed with 2 tablespoons Penzeys 3001 BBQ spice mix (or 1/2 cup prepared BBQ sauce)
  • 2 teaspoons mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1/4 teaspon smoked paprika
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans cannellini beans, rinesd and drained
  • 1 good pour of bourbon
Preheat oven to 250F.

In a large skillet, cook the bacon, in batches, until crisp. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon grease.

Cook the onion and peppers in the bacon grease until soft, maybe 5 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan to get any stuck-on bits. Add the brown sugar, tomato sauce-BBQ mixture, mustard powder, molasses, and paprika and cook, stirring, until well mixed. Add the beans and cook until just heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in the bourbon. Break the bacon up into chunks and stir through. Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper (amounts depend on the saltiness of your bacon and beans).

Transfer the mixture to a small casserole (maybe 3 quarts), cover, and let bake for 3 hours.

NOTE: Penzeys suggests baking at 350F for an hour. I like the longer, slower cooking time so the flavors can develop. I bet this would work in a slow cooker, or even simply simmered on the stove (although you may need to add more liquid).

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03 July 2014

Review: Faceoff edited by David Baldacci

Faceoff edited by David BaldacciAlthough I usually say I'm not a huge short story fan, the truth is that when I give them a chance, I often enjoy them. So when I heard about the International Thriller Writer's collection of stories, Faceoff, edited by David Baldacci, I decided to take a look, especially because of its unique features.

The first thing I noticed was that the list of contributors to Faceoff contains some of the top contemporary crime and thriller authors around, including Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, M. J. Rose, Jeffery Deaver, John Sandford, and Lee Child. Although I'm a fan of many of the writers, I haven't read all twenty-two, and I loved the idea of getting to know new authors and characters in a short form.

But what really caught my attention was the premise of the eleven stories. Here's the idea: The authors were grouped into pairs and each pair was tasked with writing a story in which their well-known protagonists are brought face to face and sometimes head to head. So, for example, you'll find Lincoln Rhyme and Lucas Davenport in the same story, along with their associates, working together to catch a serial killer. In other stories, however, the characters are decidedly not allies, but in either case, the plots are fun and believable within the contexts of each author's series.

Finally, I was interested in supporting the International Thriller Writers (ITW), which is made up of authors who write, well, thrillers. The genre is loosely defined and includes fiction and nonfiction and covers the gamut from paranormal to true crime and from murder mystery to espionage. The ITW "promotes literacy, gives money to worthy organizations, supports libraries, and advances the genre." To learn more, visit their website.

The first story I turned to was M.J. Rose vs. Lisa Gardner, "The Laughing Buddha." The introduction to this (and every) story sets up the premise, introduces us to the main characters, and tell us the inspiration behind the plot. The authors had a couple of issues to resolve, such as how to bring Gardner's Boston detective D.D. Warren and Rose's New York City therapist and reincarnation expert Malachai Samuels together.

Not only are the characters in different cities but they generally deal with very different situations. Warren is used to the real world of big-city murder whereas Samuels deals with past lives and hypnotism. Warren is, of course, on the side of the law; Samuels, however, has no qualms blurring the ethical line when it comes to learning the keys to reincarnation.

It was fun to see how Warren and Samuels come face to face over the murder of a Boston antiques dealer. I don't want to give anything away, but Rose and Gardner did a great job keeping their characters true to form and keeping me guessing until the end. The authors devised a clever twist, kept up the suspense, and wrote a satisfying conclusion.

I haven't read all the stories yet, but I'm recommending Faceoff as good summer reading. You don't have to be familiar with all the characters to like the stories. The introductions to each short piece give you enough background so you won't feel lost. Besides getting to see some of your favorite authors team up, you'll be supporting the ITW, which will count as your good deed for the day.

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2014
ISBN-13: 9781476762067
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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02 July 2014

Wordless Wednesday 296

Wood Walk, 2014 (most popular Instagram photo from June)

Click image to see it full size. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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01 July 2014

June 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.

OK,  I know it's already July (though I'm in denial!), but it's not too late to read the June book club selections. All the materials on the Scholastic site are still available; just click on the "archive" button on the Mother-Daughter Book Club page.

This month the selections are very different from each other, although neither book takes place in the real world. Let's take a look.

Cinderella Stays Late by Joan Holub and Suzanne WilliamsJoan Holub and Suzanne Williams's Cinderella Stays Late is the first in the very cute Grimmtastic Girls series. These books take a modern look at traditional fairy tales and are set in the Grimm Academy, a school that is full of magical surprises.

When her dad remarries, Cinda is enrolled in a new school, and her popular stepsisters are tasked with showing her the ropes. The Steps, however, are jealous of their new sister and try to steer her wrong at every chance. Fortunately, Cinda has made new friends--Red, Snow, and Rapunzel--and has even caught the attention of another new student, who just happens to be a prince. What will Cinda do when she's invited to the school dance but doesn't have a thing to wear?

Middle grade girls will love this fun story of friendship and magic. Although her stepsisters are definitely mean girls, Cinda learns that happiness is found by being true to oneself and through the power of friendship. I love the idea that Cinda is very athletic and actually prefers playing ball to going to a ball. The message that girls can like pretty dresses but still be smart and strong shines in this easy-to-read fairy tale retelling.

The discussion questions on the Scholastic mother-daughter book club site pick up on the themes of family, friendship, and fantasy. The suggested recipe is for chocolate pumpkin brownies, which will remind the book club members of Peter Pumpkin Eater, whose pumpkin plays a part in this story.

A Dark Inheritance by Chris D'LaceyChris D'Lacey's A Dark Inheritance is also the first in a new series. This one stars young Michael Malone, who is coping with the fact that his father, a traveling salesman, disappeared without a trace a few years earlier. The boy had no idea of his dad's fate, until the day he saved a runaway dog from falling off a cliff. From that moment on, Michael learns that nothing is what it seems: time is mutable, ghosts exist, and he may possess a talent for solving mysteries or even finding his father.

This action-packed story is part paranormal and part thriller and follows Michael's adventures after he's recruited by a secret organization that looks into odd shifts in time and history. The twisty plot and quirky characters make for an exciting tale, as the teen makes new friends (mostly girls!), escapes from dangerous enemies, and hunts for his father, all while trying to pretend he's a normal kid.

Book club members will likely talk about Michael's newfound powers and the tough, smart girls who become his allies (or are they?). They'll also want to talk about the ending (no spoilers here!) and what they think will happen in the next book. The questions on the Scholastic mother-daughter book club site encourage readers to think about how Michael's involvement with the secret group affect his relationships with his mother and his classmates. The recipe is for a dragon fruit shake, which is appropriate because a couple of the characters really love dragons.

Cinderella Stays Late: Scholastic Inc., 2014; ISBN-13: 9780545519830
A Dark Inheritance: Scholastic Press, 2014; ISBN-13: 9780545608763
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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