November 20, 2014

YA Novel: Columbus’ Ocean Blue Is Red with Blood

Voyage of Strangers, by Elizabeth Zelvin, (Lake Union Publishing), 270 pages, released September 30, 2014

Elizabeth Zevin’s YA offering, Voyage of Strangers, is essentially a problem novel. But, what problems!: the inquisition, the conquest and forced conversion of Caribbean natives, and slavery.

Set during the time of Columbus’ voyages to the “new” world, Voyage of Strangers tells the story of siblings Diego and Rachel and their Taino friend, Hutia, who Diego meets during Columbus’ first voyage. Diego and Rachel come from a family of recursos: Jews who publicly live as Christians, but who continue to practice their faith in private.

Diego returns from the first voyage determined to find a way to transfer his sister from their aunt’s house in Spain to Firenzi, Italy, where the rest of their family have gone to live. While in Spain, they witness the worst of the inquisition, both the daily slurs and lies of anti-Semitism and the burnings of Jews that serve as a form of pubic entertainment, as well as a reminder of the power of the Christian church.

Rachel would prefer to remain with her brother and, managing to pass herself off as a boy, accompanies him on the next voyage. Once in the “Indies,” both witness the violence of the conquest, including rape, murder, torture, and forced labor. Rachel and Hutia fall in love, which is not just problematic, but life-threatening given their situations.

This book isn’t an easy read. It represents an admirable attempt to wrestle with the past in a way that is appropriate for young adult readers, but that doesn’t gloss over the violence and bigotry of the time. It’s the kind of volume that may lead readers on to other books, both fiction and non-fiction, and a richer understanding of our own hemisphere’s history.

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November 18, 2014

An Array of Sherlocks

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, eds. Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King, (Pegasus), 384 pages, released November 11, 2014

As lovers of all things Sherlockian know, one needs an occasional break between readings of the A. Conan Doyle originals. My favorite neo-Sherlockian is Laurie R. King, who has edited this collection, along with Leslie S. Klinger. King’s Mary Russell is a remarkable creation, fully worthy of working alongside the great detective. However, authors need time to write books—and readers can plow through them at a pace not even the most prolific of authors can match. So I deeply appreciate King and Klinger taking time to edit this collection.

Holmes has existed in many guises since Conan Doyle created him, and it is great fun to see what different writers do with him. Of course, I like some authors’ Sherlocks better than others’, but at a minimum they all have the benefit of providing me with new perspectives through which to view him.

The fifteen stories offered in In the Company of Sherlock Holmes offer a varied, enjoyable reading. The racehorse Silver Blaze (of the case when the dog didn’t bark in the night) retells his story from is own perspective. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” unrolls on social media in “Dr. Watson’s Casebook,” telegraphing the story to us in snippets leavened with humor:

Dr. John Watson was at the Diogenes Club.

It’s always best to leave Holmes along when he needs to think.

Baker Street Tobacco Supplies likes this.

Marylebone Coffee Importers likes this.

Later in this story we are told that

Stapleton [the villain] has joined the group Inconvenient Heirs No One Knew Existed—Until Now!

My favorite by far was “Dunkirk,” in which a certain Mr. Sigerson (one of Holmes’s aliases) helps with the huge civilian effort to ferry over three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops across the English Channel, away from the soon-to-be-captured city of Dunkirk. I am not a fan of military fiction, but the story had me racing across the pages, heart pounding (really!), worrying about the fates of the boat crews, the soldiers, and, of course, Sigerson. While I’ll leave some of these stories with a single reading, this is one I’ll be returning to.

In the Company of Sherlock Holmes is a great book to give as a gift—to another reader or to one’s self. Its pleasures are many, the assortment of Holmes is varied, the different details from the original stories that inspired these authors are a delight to pick out.

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November 13, 2014

Beautifully Bitter

Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan, (Ten Speed Press), 264 pages, released September 16, 2014

I’m not sure that bitter is an acquired taste. Yes, as author Jennifer McLagan points out, the number of our tastebuds decreases as we age, turning flavors we hated in childhood into favorites. Some people come to bitter gradually, others like it from the start, and there are those who never learn to like it. Jennifer McLagan likes bitter—really likes it—and has the culinary, historical and scientific chops to offer us remarkably thorough treatise on this loved/hated flavor.

I’ve liked bitter since I was a kid: mustard, not ketchup, better yet, horse radish; Sen-sen, horehound, or salted licorice, not fruit pie. (OK, that’s an exaggeration. I did like pie. But I did also love those bitter candies.) As a result, as soon as I saw the cover of McLagan’s Bitter, I knew this was a book I’d want to spend time with.

McLagan breaks bitter tastes into six groups, each with its own chapter, everything from “Liquid Bitter” (beer jelly, tea poached pears, even homemade tonic water) to “Dark, Forbidden, and Very Bitter” (lamb with dark chocolate pepper sauce, tobacco chocolate truffles, roasted squab with ganache).

While there are a few “standard” offerings here (Belgian endive bathed in butter, bratwurst in beer, Brussels sprouts, bacon, and chestnuts), things you might find in an issue of Eating Well or Fine Cooking, most of her recipes fall into the I-would-never-have-come-up-with-that-on-my-own category (see the previous paragraph).

Her book gives us the histories of these foods and explains their taste chemistry. There are lots of recipes, but having this additional information makes for interesting reading—and might well convince you to taste something you thought you’d never try.

I acknowledge that I’ll never cook with marrow (yes, there’s a recipe using it) nor with cow bile (only mentioned, no recipe offered), but I’ll be making active use of this book for a good time to come.

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November 10, 2014

A Saint’s Lives

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison, (Doubleday), 400 pages, released October 28, 2014

Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is the best biography I’ve read in quite some time—probably the best one I’ve read in years.

I’m one of those non-Catholic girls who grew up reading lives of the saints and fantasizing about converting (at least while I was still in junior high). My first encounter with Saint Joan took place in the gift shop at Holy Hill, a large Catholic church near my mother’s childhood home that was a destination for Catholics and non-Catholics alike because of the views its tower gave of the surrounding countryside. I picked up a comic-book version of Joan’s life, read it in the car on the way home, and was hooked.

Harrison’s book is very much unlike that first version I read, which was pure hagiography. I may be wrong, but I suspect Harrison has been interested in Joan for quite some time. She’s thought about Joan, looked at her from this angle and that, pondered the way she’s been received by different generations.

In fact, Harrison’s book is something like four books in one (or perhaps the best pages of four different biographies excised and stitch together within a new cover. There’s the straightforward biography; the discussion of the way Joan’s life has been interpreted in the arts (theatre, film, painting); the consideration of Joan in the notions of gender prevalent in her own time; and a very interesting comparison of Joan with Christ. Early on she tells readers:

The life of Joan of Arc is as impossible as that of only one other, who also heard God speak: Jesus of Nazareth, prince of paradox as much as peace, a god who suffered and died a mortal… a messenger of forgiveness and love who came bearing a sword, inspiring millennia of judgement and violence…. More than any other Catholic martyr, Joan of Arc’s career aligns with Christ’s.

Harrison goes on to list some of these similarities in the opening of her book—a birth prophesied, an ability to command the natural elements and foresee the future, a body transfigured—and returns to these regularly throughout the book. (I’m hoping the above quote gives you a taste of her compelling prose style as well as one of her primary tropes.)

Harrison ends the first chapter with a penetrating observation: “It seems Joan of Arc will never be laid to rest. Is this because the stories we understand are the stories we forget?” Not only is Joan remembered, every generation wrestles to understand its own version of Joan. Shaw presents her as a religious reformer (despite her devotion to the religious practices of her own time). Brecht told her story twice; she becomes a hero of the working class in his Saint Joan of the Stockyards. In discussing these works, Harrison illustrates how tempting it is to hold up the mirror of Joan’s life and to see one’s own time.

In her own time, Joan was a heretic simply because she donned men’s clothes: a fact that was overlooked during her early victories, but made much of when leaders of church and government found it useful to have her toppled from her pedestal. Although witch burnings had occurred before her execution by fire, Harrison see Joan’s death as a turning point in European history: “Her trial, its verdict, and the publication of her example united for the three centuries’ worth of zealous, often hysterical, witch hunts amounting to the theatrically cruel execution of as many as a hundred thousand women.”

Harrison is a perceptive, eclectic thinker, and being able to savor four hundred pages of her research and reflections on Joan of Arc is an exceptional treat. Although the year’s not quite yet over, I feel confident that Harrison’s Joan of Arc will be the best biography we see this year.

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November 09, 2014

The Kitchen Ecosystem, Update

The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals, by Eugenia Bone, (Potter), 408 pages, 400+ recipes

Last week, I reviewed Eugenia Bone’s The Kitchen Ecosystem. I had mixed feelings about the book, but some of the recipes did sound mighty good. So for dinner Wednesday night we had her Brussels Sprouts with Cranberries and Shallots. Yum!
Brussels sprouts

The mix of flavors was wonderful: pungent sprouts, tangy berries, salty bacon, and shallots cooked to a lovely sweetness.

If you do pick up a copy of The Kitchen Ecosystem be sure to cook up some of these.

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November 04, 2014

Eating a (Complicated) Ecosystem

The Kitchen Ecosystem: Integrating Recipes to Create Delicious Meals, by Eugenia Bone, (Potter), 408 pages, 400+ recipes

The back cover of Kitchen Ecosystem observes that “Seasoned cooks know the paradox of great meals is this: the more you cook, the less you actually have to do to produce delicious food.” This is a premise I can embrace. Who wouldn’t want to produce delicious food while doing less? I was imagining simple, fresh recipes that I could work up when I get home from my commute at the end of a work day.

Unfortunately, there’s little in this book that will meet that need. What “do less” means in this context seems to be “do a whole lot of work using ingredients you already did a whole lot of work to produce.” In other words, the work seems doubled, not halved.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. The idea is that when one buys something fresh—a fruit, a vegetable, a cut of meat—one can use some of it fresh, preserve some of it, cook later recipes with the preserves, and whip up interesting concoctions (usually cocktails) using scraps. And the organization of the recipes is useful. They’re clustered alphabetically by key ingredients: Apples, Apricots, Artichokes, Asparagus, etc.

For someone like me who lives on the west coast, ingredients like these are easy to get fresh. Other key ingredient choices seem more quixotic: Currants (fresh, not dried), Duck, Figs, Lobster, Mussels. I don’t know which part of the country has fresh currents or where one can buy a duck one hasn’t shot one’s self. I’ve never had such a surfeit of lobster that I needed multiple recipes to use up the extra.

The Kitchen Ecosystem also presupposes a remarkably well-equipped kitchen, with recipes that call for canning jars (and know-how), food dehydrators, stovetop smokers, and several pounds of potter’s clay (for chicken baked in clay with onion sauce, which appears in the Onion chapter, not the Chicken one). Even if I had the time and desire to prepare them, many of these recipes would be out of my reach without several hundred dollars’ investment in new equipment.

The logic of the book also breaks down in places. In the Beef chapter there are recipes for Filet Mignon with Gorgonzola Sauce (sounds good, though not a new idea), Braised Beef Cheeks with Cloves, Veal Tail Stew with Potatoes, Canned Beef, Beef Cannelloni, Canned Beef Pot Pie, Beef Stock, Beef Stock with Poached Eggs and Meatballs, and a Bullshot Cocktail. But recipes for filet, beef cheeks, and veal tail all seem to presuppose that not only have I picked up fresh, grass-fed beef at the local farmers’ market, I’ve decided to splurge and buy half a cow, as well as the back end of a calf.

I have highlighted some recipes that seem reasonably straightforward and yummy: pestos made from asparagus, mushrooms, and carrot greens, procini salt and porcini butter. However, most of these are sides, condiments, or small bites; they won’t  work as entrees and would require buying ingredients in very small quantities.

Bottom line: if you’re an adventurous cook with a cutting-edge kitchen and you enjoy devoting hours to getting a complicated dish just right, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re someone looking for fresh, fast meals for yourself and your family, you’re only going to find about a quarter of the book’s 400+ pages useful.

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October 30, 2014

A Magical Tale

The Twyning, by Terrence Blacker, (Candlewick Press), 432 pages, published 9/9/14

Generally speaking, I am not one for fantasy literature. I prefer books that transform this world over books that build new worlds. Terrence Blacker’s The Twyning does both with great success.

The Twyning is a young adult novel, but most definitely one of those with appeal beyond this age group. The novel is set in the late 1800s. Peter and Caz, the main human characters are in their early teens, living in a rubbish tip in a hollow Peter’s dug into one of the mounds of trash. Peter picks up odd jobs as he can, most regularly working with Bill, who catches rats for use in rat pits, and for a doctor engaged in an obsessive campaign against rats.

But Blacker gives readers a second world, set below the streets of the city where Peter and Caz live. There we meet Efren, a young rat. Of course, readers can see where this is headed: rats hunted for sporting, hygenic, or political ends; two children who are cogs in these mechanisms of destruction deciding whether to place their loyalties with a human world that has treated them harshly or with the Kingdom, the world of rats they’ve been taught to despise.

The Kingdom, the rat-world, is a marvelously detailed creation with complex rituals, a tense political structure, and a variety of courts—the Court of Governance, the Court of Punishment, the Court of Warriors, the Court of Historians. Efren is a very junior member of the Court of Tasters, rats trained to detect poison-laced food. The Kingdom also has a spiritual center: the Twyning, a group of rats congenitally connected who rely on the community for necessities and who function as a single entity. (And, yes, these really do exist.)

This book had me captivated from the moment I began reading. It’s narrated in two voices—Peter’s and Efren’s—and weaves the two stories together in another sort of twyning: a cross-species bonding full of distrust that becomes increasingly central to the survival of both Peter and Caz and of the Kingdom.

This book has violent moments. First off, there are the rat pits, where human “sportsmen” wager against each other, predicting which dogs will kill the most rats most efficiently. There are also two large-scale rat hunts. Normally, I can’t stomach books with violence toward animals, but in The Twyning, this violence is central to the story, and Blacker depicts it clearly, but never luridly.

In all, The Twyning is a remarkable tale that makes for compelling reading. The reader wants to spend time exploring the Kingdom, observing the ethos and actions that hold it together. The reader also longs for a happy ending for Peter and Caz. Once one starts reading, it is very, very hard to put this book down. Whether or not you’re a young adult, this is a book that will have you reading long past your usual bedtime.

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October 28, 2014

Life Within and Outside of the Mind

The Imaginary Life: A Novel, by Mara Torres, (Open Road Integrated Media), 169 pages, pub. August 5, 2014

Fortunata Fortuna, called Nata by her friends, is at a crossroads in her life. Beto, her live-in boyfriend of three years has just left her in that sort of “it’s me, not you” way that leaves one hoping for a rapprochement that will never happen. She’s at a loss about how to move on. She spends time with friends, stays out late, fights the impulse to retreat from the company of others—but none of this is easy.

The other thing she does is imagine. She imagines a reunion with Beto. She imagines conversations with him critiquing her life since him. She also imagines possible new relationships.

What’s interesting about this novel is that the real and the imaginary are related in the same style. Readers get no cues about whether they’re in Nata’s mind or the world beyond it. This is an interesting position to be put in, and I very much enjoyed this aspect of the novel.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing particularly interesting in Nata’s life, either real or imaginary. She works late as an ad copywriter, goes out dancing, spends weekends out of town—but this just reads as a series of events without much in the way of a larger narrative arc to give it form.

So I find myself feeling equivocal about this novel. On the one hand, it left me unsatisfied. One the other hand, it kept me reading to the end. For anyone who enjoys contemporary women’s fiction the strengths will probably outweigh the weaknesses—but if that isn’t one’s favorite genre, reading this novel may disappoint.

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October 23, 2014

Saving Jane Austen

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen, (Viking Books), 320 pages, release date 16 October, 2014

Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale, has a new novel out: First Impressions. Like The Bookman’s Tale, First Impressions is a multi-period literary mystery, but in this case the two protagonists are women and the literary mystery concerns the work of Jane Austen. Austen lovers should love this book. Jane is portrayed respectfully and given a satisfying and appropriate fictional relationship. Sophie Collingwood, the present-day heroine, is an Austen lover determined to find and to disprove evidence that Austin borrowed the plot for Pride and Prejudice from a collection of allegories by an obscure clergyman. The very title of Lovett’s book should draw in Austen fans: First Impressions was the working title for Pride and Prejudice.

As readers of lost-book-and-authorship mysteries will quickly realize, First Impressions is a formula book—but an engaging and well-written one. (I could also point out that formula books exist precisely because they are appealing to readers, formula or no.) Lovett alternates chapters set in the present day with chapters set in Austen’s lifetime, keeping these brief and engaging enough that the reader can easily be tempted to read “just one more chapter.”

The propriety of the Austen chapters provides an interesting foil to the present day chapters, which aren’t really racy, but do present a much different set of morés. Sophie is quite willingly bedded on the third date. When she and her sister Victoria discuss new men in their lives, they sort them into the categories “kill, bed, or wed.” Nonetheless, Sophie comes across as an Austen-like character: inexperienced in love and both shy and genuine in her romantic interactions.

Like some of Austen’s fiction, First Impressions is disproportionately populated by characters with a certain kind of wealth: money, land and/or rare books. Sophie grew up on the family estate, which needs continual repairs, but is quite impressive. Her beloved Uncle Bertram has one of the finest book collections in all of England. Both of the present-day romantic leads appear to be independently wealthy. In other words, while Sophie makes a good every-woman, she lives a life quite different from the lives of most of those apt to read this book.

This isn’t a book that will change readers’ lives, but it is a great deal of fun, particularly for bookish sorts. Readers may learn a bit about the history of publishing and current methods of bibliographic research, but for the most part what they’ll get is several hours of pleasant entertainment with enough references to literature to make them feel like insiders.


I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. The opinions in this review are my own.

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October 21, 2014

Two Pairs of Brave and Lively Siblings

The Sign of the Black Dagger, by Joan Lingard, (Floris Books, Myrick Marketing and Media, LLC), 192 pages, originally published in 2005, new edition released September 1, 2014.

If you’ve got a middle-grader who enjoys historical adventures, you may want to check out The Sign of the Black Dagger. The plot follows two pairs of children: the present-day Will and Lucy and historical figures William and Louisa, who lived in Will and Lucy’s house two hundred years ago.

Both sets of children face similar problems. Their fathers have run up huge debts and have left their families. Will and Lucy’s dad is hiding from unsavory creditors; William and Louisa’s dad must live in the debtor’s sanctuary attached to a noble house. The present-day scenes are written in third person. The historical scenes are written in first person, alternating between the voices of William and Louisa.

This isn’t one of those children’s books that transcend the genre sufficiently to make good reading for adults as well. Nonetheless, for the right age group (perhaps fourth through seventh grades) this book will provide a relatively quick, satisfying read.

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