Archive for September, 2015

A Whimsical Look at Owls

Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, by Matt Sewell, (Ten Speed Press), 128 pages, 50 illustrations, release date 22 September, 2015

I’ve spent enough time watching on-line owl boxes to know a bit of their less darling side. They’re fierce predators. They swallow their prey whole, later coughing up a wad of bones and fur—all that’s left of the mouse or vole or gopher or bunny. A family of owls can go through upwards of 24 little mammals in a single evening, providing Dad’s a good hunter.

But to be honest, I am, nonetheless, charmed by owls. If you don’t look at things from the vole’s perspective, watching a pair of owlets tussle over the latest entrée can be almost heart-warming. The adults are nothing less than majestic (if their majesty is sometimes a bit oddly proportioned). The owlets go from wobbly, featherless mini-dinosaurs to fluffy mini-yetis wearing tutus and swiveling their heads in ways that seem impossible, and then somehow take on the majesty of their parents.

Sewell’s owls are most definitely charming. While his paintings aren’t realistic, they capture the essence of the different owl species: posture, head shape, coloring, definitive markings. If you know owls, you can see that he has a knack for capturing the gist of them. If you don’t know owls, you may want to work through his book with your laptop on, so you can pull up photographs to compare to his illustrations.

Sewell’s prose is crisp and good-natured, often humorous. Reading it adds to the fun, though just looking at the pictures is rewarding in itself. This is a book that will leave whimsical adults, budding birders, and the picture-book crowd, well, “charmed, I’m sure.”

September 28 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Monster, Machine, Human, Brother

This Monstrous Thing, by Mackenzi Lee, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 384 pages, release date 22 September, 2015

This Monstrous Thing is a steampunk retelling of the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Set in the eighteen-teens, it depicts a Europe in which prosthetic limbs and organs have been invented, but making and using them is seen as usurping God’s role as creator. The public consensus is that anyone making or making use of these artificial body parts is no longer human.

Alasdair Finch is one of the “Shadow Boys”: the engineers building and maintaining these prosthetics. He is, in fact, something of a prodigy and has secretly brought his brother Oliver back to life after Oliver’s death falling from Geneva’s great clocktower. Alasdair’s partner in this work is none other than Mary Shelley, who lives with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Lord Byron in a Geneva mansion.

Like the book that inspired it, This Monstrous Thing confronts readers with the question of what it means to be human—and also with questions of social stratification, prejudice, opportunity, learning, and violence. In some ways these questions resonate particularly well in this setting, since modern-day readers are accustomed to prosthetics. What the book’s society finds abnormal and threatening is commonplace for us.

Like Shelley, Lee has a knack for creating complex characters, neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Their actions are driven by ambition and fear, as well as by love. Alasdair’s reanimating of his brother may be a great humanitarian undertaking or a hideously selfish project. Mary Shelley uses the brothers as a way of recapturing her pre-Shelley youthful boldness and isn’t completely honest with them about her own identity and actions. The reanimated Oliver is beastly, with little of his human self remaining; he may present a treat to the lives and safety of others as long as he lives.

Ostensibly, This Monstrous Thing is a young adult novel, aimed at middle and high school readers, but its richness and prose style make it rewarding reading for adults as well—particularly adult familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein.

September 22 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Reclaiming an Imaginary Friend

Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, (Felwel & Friends, Macmillan), 256 pages, release date 22 September, 2015


Life is tough in Jackson’s family. His parents are perpetually under- or unemployed. They move from apartment to apartment, sometimes living in their car—and Jackson feels particularly responsible for the well-being of his younger sister.

Into this situation enters Crenshaw, an imaginary friend from Jackson’s past: a human-sized cat, who skateboards and loves bubble baths. Jackson is nonplussed at Crenshaw’s arrival, worrying about his own sanity. But Crenshaw’s advice—”tell the truth”—is valuable, and at least the family dog appears to see him.

The publisher presents this as a book for children ages 8 to 12, and almost any reader in that age range is going to find this novel both engaging and comforting. The cadence of Applegate’s prose means the book would also work well as a read-aloud title for younger children—and some adults, myself included, will certainly find time with Crenshaw time well spent.

September 20 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Apprentice Apothecary Solves Serial Murders

The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands, (Aladdin, Simon & Schuster), 384 pages, release date 1 September, 2015, publisher recommended for ages 10-14

I wish that Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key had been around when I was in sixth grade. It combines so many of the topics I was obsessed with at the time: mysteries and detective work, magic and alchemy, and  characters my own age whose lives were much more adventurous and dangerous than my own.

Christopher Rowe, the central character (and the character I’d imagine myself as, never mind the difference in our genders), has luckily fallen into an apprenticeship before he “ages out” of the orphanage that he’s called home. Many of his peers wind up as servants or common laborers—or are just tossed out into the street to survive however they might, but Christopher is taken in by by Master Benedict Blackthorn, an exceptionally gifted apothecary and an exceptionally gentle man.

Christopher manages to get himself into trouble regularly—the book opens shortly after he’s experimented with homemade gunpowder and an improvised cannon with unhappy results. Trouble brews in the larger world, as well. Just five years after the restoration, Puritans and Catholics alike resent King Charles’ Rule. Meanwhile, apothecaries have become the victims of a series of murders credited to the Cult of the Archangel—though no one really knows who the cult members are or what their goals might be.

Using skills he’s learned from his Master—cryptography, alchemy, chemistry—Christopher determines to stop the Cult of the Archangel before they can do more harm. Not surprisingly, the gun powder-making comes in handy before the novel is through.

The language of the novel didn’t always leave me feeling I was in Restoration England; its rhythms and vocabulary seemed a bit more modern. Nonetheless, the character of Christopher was so compelling that he made his world real to me, despite the lack of more period-inflected dialogue.

If you know any late grade-schoolers or early middle-schoolers who dream of adventure in a world where magic still seems possible, The Blackthorn Key would provide them with a satisfying read.

September 17 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Murder in Reconstruction Atlanta

The Scribe: A Novel, by Matthew Guinn, (W. W. Norton & Company), 304 pages, release date 14 September, 2015

The Scribe is one of those can’t-put-it-down novels. Set in post-Civil War Atlanta, it pulls readers into a time of immense social turmoil and division. Plantations have lost their work forces; a few Blacks have managed to rise economically, earning both respect and hate; Atlanta is banking on an International Cotton Expedition to redeem itself in the world’s eyes and to draw in investment.

This novel’s central characters are an unlikely pair of investigators: Thomas Canby and Cyrus Underwood. Canby left Atlanta in disgrace three years before, unwilling to participate in the cover-up of criminal activity among the city’s upper classes. This makes him the perfect man to call in for an investigation that promises nothing but difficulty and that’s too sensitive for local police to handle. Underwood is Atlanta’s first Black police officer, added to the force against significant resistance and kept on the periphery of law enforcement (he is not, for example, allowed to carry a gun).

Canby and Underwood  investigate a string of murders that grow increasingly confusing. The first victims are wealthy Atlanta Blacks, but as others are killed, the murderer’s purpose becomes less and less clear. One thing all the murders have in common is the letter carved into the forehead of each victim.

The mystery here is engaging, but this is a book to read for its context as much as its plot. Guinn’s Atlanta comes to life like a many-limbed monster. The city’s economic elite are its arms: hiding, misrepresenting, interfering, strangling. This Atlanta may not be a comfortable place for readers to visit, but it is a fascinating one.

September 14 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Root Recipes that Can Beat the Wintertime Blues

True to Your Roots: Vegan Recipes to Comfort and Nourish You, by Carla Kelly, (Arsenal Pulp Press), 288 pages, release date 1 September, 2015.

I want to eat vegan, but so often that involves either compromising taste or investing more time than I really have to spare. If you’re like me—or if you’re just looking to broaden your cooking repertoire—you’ll appreciate True to Your Roots for offering delicious, not-too-fussy recipes.

The chapters of the book offer recipe ideas for the entire day. I’m a salad/side dish/main dish kind of cook, and Kelly gives me plenty of options. These include Carrot and Walnut Ravioli with Carrot Top Pesto; Kohlrabi and Chickpea Burgers; Water Chestnut and Chestnut-Stuffed Tofu.

She also includes breakfast, juices, and desserts, as well as starters and condiments. Each chapter offers a dozen or more recipes, so even if, like me, you focus on a particular meal or type of dish, True to Your Roots will offer you many possibilities.

I particularly appreciate Kelly’s emphasis on root vegetables. I find it easy to cook delicious, meat-free meals in the summer, but doing the same thing in winter feels daunting. By emphasizing variety Kelly demonstrates that root-based meals can go well beyond the oven roasts and purées that most of us are familiar with.


September 10 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Josephine Drollery: Revolutionary-Era Ghost Detective

The Drollery Letters Number One: The Case of the Devil’s Interval, by Emily H. Butler, (EgmontUSA), recommended for grades 3-7, 176 pages, release date 8 September, 2015

I don’t know if it’s always been the case, but I feel as if I’ve seen a lot of books lately published as “volume one” in a series, which leaves me curious. Was the novel so good that the publisher immediately contracted for more? Was the author expressing a sort of writer’s optimism? Whatever the reason, I’ve just finished  a book for grade school-aged (more or less) readers that I’m glad to see is presented as volume one in a series: Emily H. Butler’s The Case of the Devil’s Interval, the first volume in The Drollery Letters.

The central character here is Josephine Drollery and the novel is set in 1784, in the newly independent U.S.—but if you’re expecting something American Girl-ish, you’re in for a surprise. The book is a sort of historical, humor, paranormal, slightly steam punk mash-up.  Josephine is a brand-new ghost trying to solve her own murder with the help of a fraudulent spiritualist, who styles himself as “The Great Montesquieu,” a pair of orphaned African-American cousins, who trade odd jobs in a tavern for the privilege of sleeping in the stables, and a dead-but-still-teaching Harvard professor in the Study of Every Known Scientific Principle.

Josephine is livid because the great Montesquieu has begun publishing the cases they’ve worked on—without giving her any credit! So she’s penning her version of the story and sending it Montequieu’s publisher, with whom she is equally miffed: “I do not wish to mince words, you great nitwit. But if stupidity were contagious, you would be the plague. If it were candy, you’d be a sugar-dusted nut ball.”

While Josephine is tracking her killer (and she’s not the only victim), she’s facing additional challenges. The first of these is learning to be a ghost. Even the lightest material objects, for example, are impossibly heavy for a ghost to lift: “A candle was a luxury in those days, one that my friends couldn’t afford and that I couldn’t carry.” The second is evading a pair of Harvard paranormal researchers who are the Revolutionary-era equivalent of ghost busters. (The equipment they use is where the steam punk comes in.)

Dead or alive, Josephine is a remarkable girl, full of imagination and gumption. She refers to the nursery where she sleeps as the crow’s nest, noting “(I suppose people of limited imagination would refer to it as the nursery.)” Whether or not you’re in grades 3-7, you’ll enjoy spending time in her company and, like me, will be looking forward to meeting up with her again.

September 08 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »


Hey There, Dumpling!: 100 Recipes for Dumplings, Buns, Noodles, and Other Asian Treats, by Kenny Lao, (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), 208 pages, release date 8 September, 2015.

This is the time of year when I start looking for cookbooks that would make good holiday gifts for my foodie friends. I use the term “foodie” in an inclusive, not an exclusive way. If you like food and enjoy trying to produce meals that really taste good, you’re a foodie in my book, and Hey There, Dumpling! would be a great choice for a gift or just for yourself.

Lao’s book is set up in a way that lets absolute beginners build their dumpling skills over time. He starts with tools and basic folds, presents a variety of dumpling recipes, then moves on to dips (no folding required!)—followed by suggested dumpling/dip pairings. And he does all this in the first half of the book. Next come the variations, which include salads, finger foods, drinks, and desserts.

The recipes promise all sorts of edible pleasure: Ma Po Tofu Dumplings; Glazed Barbequed Pork Dumplings; Vinegar Ginger Dip; Creamy Wasabi Dip; Shiitake Mushroom Buns; Chilly Chile Rice Noodles; Peanut Saté Noodle Soup with Crispy Shallots; Watermelon and Mint Salad; Pine Nut-Corn Stir-Fry; Umami Popcorn; Pineapple Drinking Vinegar; Matcha Shortcut Shortbread. With Lao at your side, you’ll find yourself making all sorts of delicious, unexpected treats like these.

The book is also strikingly laid out with lots of photos, so it makes for fun browsing, as well as actual cooking. Anyone who like to eat (and who doesn’t) can have all sorts of fun with Hey There, Dumpling!

September 07 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Mystery and Politics at the Onset of the Spanish Civil War

An Englishman in Madrid, by Eduardo Mendoza, translated by Nick Caistor, (MacLehose Press, Hatchette Book Group), 376 pages, released 7 July, 2015

I love a good historical mystery that really gives me new insights into the period in which it’s set. Eduardo Mendoza’s An Englishman in Madrid is just such a volume. Set on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, An Englishman in Madrid follows the experiences of Anthony Whiltelands, a British art historian, who’s been sent to Madrid to value a nobleman’s collection of paintings—a collection the nobleman may have to liquidate quickly if the war’s onset forces him to flee the country. The collection is a disappointment, but then Whitelands discovers the nobleman own have a previously unknown Velázquez. The discovery could ignite Whiteland’s stagnant scholarly career—and give him a chance to outshine his main professional rival.

At the same time that Whitelands races to authenticate the painting, he also finds himself coming into contact with a variety of characters who will be involved in the Spanish Civil War. There’s the leader of Spain’s reactionary Falange movement; British diplomats and at least one spy; a mysterious Russian agent; Spain’s soon-to-be-deposed president; General Francisco Franco, who will become the leader of fascist Spain; and Spanish security forces. Mendoza’s novel caputres the chaos of the time, particularly the many motives—personal, altruistic, and mistaken—that drive pre-war Spanish politics.

This is a novel that’s doubly worth reading, both for its story line and for its context. The prose of Caistor’s translation is sleek, helping to propel the chaotic events of the novel forward. Mendoza writes with a mix of cynicism and insight that is both heart-breaking and, at moments, hilarious.

September 04 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Community and Character

The Americans: A Novel, by Chitra Viraraghavan, (Fourth Estate India, HarperCollins), 296 pages, release date 4 August, 2015.

Chitra Vararaghavan’s The Americans is a compelling, wide-reaching read. The novel, though written in third person, presents the perspectives of a wide cast of characters, most of whom are Indian-America. There’s Tara, who is unwillingly leaving India to help manage her sister’s U.S. home while that sister seeks treatment for an autistic son. CLN is a widower who has heard little from his daughter since her immigration to the U.S.; suddenly, she wants him in her home, though she has almost no time for him as she pursues her own work and interests. Akhil, a university tech worker, grows increasingly paranoid in the post-9/11 climate in the U.S. Vinod is attempting to escape an arranged marriage via an affair with a much-younger artist. Shantanu is an undocumented restaurant worker, who fears his criminally engaged employers. There are another half dozen or so characters additional characters, including an Israeli-immigrant housekeeper and an African-American student in a basic writing course.

Many of the reviews of this book, describe it as more a collection of short stories than a novel, but I think this misses a key point: this is a novel, one whose central character is an entire community, not just a single individual. Viraraghavan introduces us to a wealth of carefully depicted characters—but their identities become richer as we see them functioning within their relationships with one another.

The variety of characters also allows Viraraghavan to evoke a variety of moods: distraction, disappointment, humor, hope, sharply honed honesty.  When I began The Americans, its multitude of characters and brief chapters led me to think it would be an easy book to pick up, put down, and pick up once more. In fact, I found myself reading it in a single sitting. I didn’t just want to understand events from the perspective of each chapter’s focal character; I wanted to see how these events would influence the experiences of other characters.

We’re just two-thirds of the way through 2015, but I am absolutely confident that The Americans will be one of my favorite titles when I look back on my reading over this year.

September 03 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Next »