Sunday, November 3, 2013

How can so much awesomeness exist in one little book? How?

5 out of 5 stars

Okay, I really hate Ann Aguirre. I am dead serious here. She writes the best action-adventure/sci-fi/fiction/YA of anyone out there today. To the point where I could literally swallow my tongue out of jealousy whenever I read one of her books. Hyperbole? Nope, not even close.

Horde is the final book in Aguirre's Razorland Trilogy , and what a finale it is! If Enclave was the skeleton and Outpost was the muscles and organs, Horde is the tattooed, punk-ass skin on this most awesome literary creation. Horde begins where Outpost left off: the town of Salvation is under siege by Freaks, the remnants of humanity gone savage, and in order to save the place they've come to love and call home, Deuce, Fade, Stalker, and Tegan must leave their families behind in order to find help in one of the surrounding settlements. But this is no mere rescue mission. Because things have changed. The Freaks are no longer just the mindless beasts they once were; they've become more cunning and resourceful, and in order to save her family and free humans from the threat of these mutants, Deuce will learn to lead an army which has forgotten how to fight. This war isn't just for the sake of her family or the families in Salvation, however. This is a war to save the entire human race, a war that must be won at all costs, and that's a burden Deuce might not be able to carry.

When I started reading this book, I promised myself that I would try to take it as slow as possible, in order to savor it, but I couldn't help myself. Aguirre throws you right into the action and makes it impossible to slow down. Which is probably why I stayed up until 6 a.m. the day I finished reading this. Even as I reached the end and was satisfied every step of the way, I mentally cried because I just did not want the story to end. (I might've also physically cried a little bit as well.) Deuce has been such a fascinating, deep, and rich character from beginning to end, and part of that comes from Ann's writing in that she's allowed Deuce to grow and to change as she learns more about herself as well as the people and world around her. Yet Deuce isn't alone; the supporting characters are all real and tangible individuals, making us care for them even as Ann plays with their “lives,” even going so far as killing someone off in a scene you'll never see coming. The bitch. And I mean that in the best way because it's only the bravest author who'll let a character die in service of the story, regardless of how much an audience might care for that character. With this novel, Deuce, already having come so far from where she started, has to keep fighting uphill battles every step of the way and Aguirre lets us see her weariness, lets us see when Deuce reaches her breaking point and very nearly snaps, feel her terror, her hopelessness, her confusion and despair. And yet she keeps moving, planting one foot in front of the other and in the end manages to come out of such blackness carrying victory on her shoulders. It's a journey that'll wring you out in so many ways, but is so fulfilling you'll want to cheer.

I have a feeling it's only the easily parsable books that are made into movies, those books that can be broken down into tropes and cliches and easily understood themes so that the dollar sign-eyed movie studio execs do a little dance for joy in anticipation of all the money they'll make off a new tentpole franchise.* Take, for example, The Hunger Games. Don't get me wrong, I read the first book and thoroughly enjoyed it as it's a well-written book. But, the thing is, The Hunger Games is also part of a trilogy, yet as much as I thought the first book was fabulous, I still have not read the other two. With the Razorland Trilogy , I couldn't not read each entry in the series even if I tried. The only way would've been to have physically stopped me, because I had to, I just had to find out what happened next. What trouble would next find Deuce, what would become of her relationship with Fade and Stalker, what Tegan would do to find her courage and place in the world. And those things may sound like issues common to any other YA book or series of recent publication, but with Aguirre's writing, there's always a little something extra, a different take or new angle on the situation. There's always more to the story. Out of the YA trilogies that have lately been made into movies or are in the process of being made, of none of them have I read beyond the first book, no matter how good that first book might've been. Though it may sound mean and counterintuitive, I really hope no movie producer or production company purchases the rights to the Razorland Trilogy , because no-one, no script writer, no director, no studio, could do it justice. Bold claim, perhaps, but just read the books and ask yourself if I'm exaggerating.

I'm not sure any of this is coming out intelligibly and I know I probably sound like some kind of squeeing fan girl. You know what, though? I totally am that squeeing fan girl and proud of it. Taut, tight, well-crafted, and often heartbreaking, her books have totally become my book candy, those titles I hoard miser-style, savor even as I speed through the pages, and turn to whenever I need a comforting pick-me-up.

*I had to edit my previous remarks to be a bit less inflammatory. You'll have to excuse them, and me, as when I wrote this review, I was coming off a major "OMG! I've just read the most awesome book in the world, finishing up the most awesome trilogy in the world!" high. In that kind of situation, enthusiasm overrules any restraint or common sense a person might possess, hence the rather bombastic nature of what I'd written. That said, I realize I'm still courting controversy and anger from others with what I've said in my review; however, I stand by my remarks and opinions.        

Read October 28-November 1, 2013
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program November 4, 2013

Truly, anyone can now bake fresh bread at home!

5 out of 5 stars

I am an avid at-home baker, especially when it comes to bread. (It's my one weakness, which is why I could never do the bread-free diet.) However, I've always stuck to quick breads because I've been intimidated by the thought of working with yeast. All that kneading and resting and proofing, not to mention the pitfalls to avoid such as overworking the dough, not using fresh yeast, and turning out an end product that's heavy and hard and far away from the fluffy, fresh bread it's supposed to be. So, yeah, because I'm a chicken, I've stuck with quick bread. The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day takes away all those fears--it is truly a revolution.

Firstly, there's an in-depth overview of equipment and tips & techniques which not only answers a lot of questions about the bread-making process, but also gives you a lot of choices in how you actually go about making bread so you can use or adapt one of those techniques to your specific needs (and budget). The instructions themselves are clearly written and easy to follow, literally foolproof, with measurements given in both volume and weight. (Even though professional bakers know that you get better results using weight measurements of ingredients, novice bakers often prefer going with volume measurements--cups, teaspoons, etc.--as they are familiar and perhaps not as intimidating as working with a scale and tare button. If they even have a kitchen scale, that is, which many don't--like me.) The best part is how hands-off the directions are. I mean, literally, you mix up the dough, cover, let it rest, and then refrigerate. Then when you're ready to bake a loaf, you pull out a piece, shape it, and bake. Poof! You've got fresh bread, just like that! Almost no muss and no fuss.

I can't say I'll ever become an expert or even a fully confident yeast bread baker, but with this book, I'm coming closer to that point. I no longer feel intimidated by the bread-baking process and with the many master recipes and variations given in The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, I have a feeling I'll never run out of ideas. I may even get to the point of feeling confident enough in my skills to come up with my own variations.

Read October 3-24, 2013
Reviewed November 3, 2013

For fans of good, classic food (and, perhaps, Phryne Fisher).

5 out of 5 stars

I came to this cookbook by way of the Phryne Fisher series of mysteries by Kerry Greenwood. In those books, one of Phryne's adopted daughters, Ruth, wishes to be a cook and the family's cook, Mrs. Butler, recommends The Gentle Art of Cookery as the best source for beginners. And as she's generally known to be, Mrs. Butler (not to mention Kerry Greenwood) was right.

The Gentle Art of Cookery was originally published in 1925 and presents seemingly complicated, French-flavored recipes in straightforward, plain, and easy to follow English, allowing you to create such dishes as Filets de Boeuf à la Carlsbad, Herrings à la Bohemienne, Épinards au Sucre, Navets Glacés, and Mousse au Café without having a dépression nerveuse (mental breakdown) over long-winded and complicated directions. Recipes are arranged by ingredient (Vegetables, Fish, Meat, etc.) and then broken down alphabetically according to the specific type of ingredient (beans, beetroot, cabbage, carrots, etc.), with some ingredients like Chestnuts and Mushrooms getting a chapter all to themselves. Then there are specific chapters devoted to specialty cooking; for example, there's a chapter devoted to Dishes from The Arabian Nights, Home-made Wines and Cups, Flower Recipes, and even Cooking for Children.

This edition is part of a series of reprinted classic cookbooks put out by Quadrille Publishing Limited and I, for one, am grateful Quadrille is reprinting these lovely books and hope they give us more. Not only are they a fun and quite readable glimpse into the past, they reintroduce us to classic dishes that have either been forgotten or put aside as being too fussy and fusty. This new edition is a lovely hardcover, with a sturdy sewn binding, allowing the book to be fully opened to any page. Not only that, but you can be confident of opening the book to the same page repeatedly without worrying over the binding coming apart as it would had it been simply glued. There's a silver satin ribbon bookmark to help you keep your place, and the pages are a slight off-white color with a clear typeface which reduces eye strain considerably. I don't know what the original edition of The Gentle Art of Cookery looked like, but what Quadrille Publishing Ltd. has created here is almost an exact duplicate of a book you might've seen being published a century ago. High-quality and hard-wearing, this is a book destined to become a family heirloom, one of those cookbooks read by young and old alike as its pages are turned, folded over, and dog-eared, and favorite recipes are starred, dripped on, modified, and drooled over. Just like Ruth, you might even keep this cookbook on your bedside table, to read at night and send you into delicious, food-centered dreams.

Read October 20-24, 2013
Reviewed November 13, 2013    

Illuminating and well-researched, but ultimately didn't do much for me.

3 out of 5 stars

I'll be honest. I have very little interest in the English monarchs of the Stuart period. I'm more interested in those that came before, the Tudors, and those that came after, the Georgians. The most I knew of Queen Anne was that she was the daughter of James II, and so got caught in the middle of the Catholic/Protestant tug-of-war; she was the sister of Queen Mary, whose husband, William of Orange, invaded the country and bloodlessly took the throne from James; she had multiple (and I do mean multiple) pregnancies, with most of them ending in stillbirths or miscarriages; and she gave her name to a style of furniture and architecture. That's about it. Well, after reading Anne Somerset's biography of Queen Anne, I can say I know more about the woman, but dislike her more and care about her even less than I did before.

According to the book's blurbs, Somerset's work is supposed to have redeemed Anne's name, yet I can't see how. Yes, Somerset definitely presents the most sympathetic view of the woman and, granted, Anne had a difficult life. Caught between a father and political advisers who each wanted to use her to their own ends, not to mention warring religious factions, and Anne's conflicting desires to be a good mother and wife while also being a just and effective queen, hers wasn't the easiest row to hoe. Especially since she lacked any sort of proper education and suffered from multiple health issues her entire life. Yet, to my mind, Anne's biggest handicap was her own personality. She was a possessive, neurotic, jealous, needy, paranoid mess of a woman, with an almost insane desire to control everyone in her life, including her friends, to the point of dictating who they could be friends with. Sadly, those traits dominate and overshadow any of Anne's other accomplishments, even her greatest one of creating a united Britain, making her a thoroughly despicable and unlikeable personage.

This is not a quick or light read, mostly because Somerset also gives in-depth coverage to the political maneuverings of the time, and I do mean in-depth, to the point where it felt like my eyes would cross from all the information flying at me. Lord Something-or-other plotted this, Duke Important-so-and-so objected and introduced such-and-such motion in Parliament, and so on. Don't get me wrong, knowledge of the politics of the time is important, but it just seemed to go on a bit too long. This dryness combined with Anne's petulant and unimaginative personality made for an occasionally dull and lifeless read.

Somerset is an absurdly thorough biographer, making this book probably the most trustworthy and authoritative portrayal of Anne. In the end, however, I also found it to be a rather dull and tedious portrayal as well, never lifting Anne above the historical footnote I always took her for.

Read October 1-November 3, 2013
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program November 3, 2013