September 10, 2015

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.


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September 08, 2015

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.

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September 07, 2015


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!

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September 04, 2015

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.

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September 03, 2015

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.

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September 01, 2015

The Wars of the Roses Brought to Vibrant, Compelling Life

The Wars of the Roses: Margaret of Anjou, by Conn Iggulden, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 448 pages, release date 16 June, 2015

Conn Iggulden is my new favorite writer of historical fiction, and lucky for me—and you!—he’s in the middle of a particularly rich set of novels. The first volume in The Wars of the Roses, Stormbird, came out last year. At the start of this summer the next volume, Margaret of Anjou, was  published. These books are deliciously long, full of politicking and conflict, and populated with strong, well-painted characters.

I’m imagining that many readers of historical fiction set in the Tudor era are most familiar with works based on the lives of Henry VIII, his six wives, and Elizabeth I. However, the Tudor dynasty has roots that go much further back. The dynasty’s name comes from Owain ap Merredudd ap Tewdwr [Tudor], a Welsh courtier who married Catherine of Valois, widow of Henry V. He was the grandfather of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. The period from Henry V’s death through Henry VII’s claiming of the throne was a particularly turbulent one, one we now label the Wars of the Roses.

The non-fiction volumes I’ve read on the Wars of the Roses tend to be dry things, filled with one skirmish after another and peopled by various cardboard-figure noblemen who have that unfortunate British tendency to go by title as well as name, which makes keeping the cast of characters straight in one’s head a daunting task. Iggulden’s characters are, as is the practice, referred to by multiple names, but keeping the cast of characters straight while reading his work is a pleasure, not a chore.

Margaret of Anjou is focused on the titular character, wife of Henry VI (half-brother to the Tudors who were progenitors of Henry VII) and daughter of a sort of mid-level French nobleman. The pair had one son, Edward. Margaret’s Henry (the VI) came to the throne at the age of two. As might be expected, Henry became a prize in others’ struggles. Any man who had the King’s ear (or at least possession of the King’s physical self) would be immensely powerful.

When Margaret married twenty-three year old Henry VI, she was just fifteen. Henry was known as an odd character, and he grew increasingly odd over time. He kept himself up for days on end praying for the nation, convinced that the country would fall if he paused in his prayers. He was often less than fully aware of the people and activities around him and at times lapsed into a catatonia that could last for months. After her marriage, Margaret was subjected to what was, essentially, a brutal on-the-job training in matters of statecraft and courtly strategizing. Her chief opponent was Richard of York, Henry’s cousin, who served as regent during Henry’s early bouts of madness.

These are the years covered in Margaret of Anjou, and they make for compelling reading. Iggulden gives readers a complex, fierce queen Margaret. He also depicts those around her in rich detail. Margaret of Anjou is no shadow-play with cardboard cut-out characters. It’s a feast of a book in which every morsel offered is delicious. If you like immersing yourself in historical fiction, you may want to begin with Stormbird, Iggulden’s first Wars of the Roses novel, but you can also begin with Margaret of Anjou. Iggulden makes the politics of the time clear, easing readers into this dangerous, fascinating world.

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August 27, 2015

A Marvelous Church of Marvels

Church of Marvels: A Novel, by Leslie Parry, (Ecco), 320 pages, release date 5 May, 2015

My enthusiasm for Church of Marvels is pretty much unbridled. Set in turn-of-the-century Coney Island and Manhattan, it offers an eclectic cast of characters. There are twin sisters, Isabelle and Odille, whose mother, Friendship Church, runs the entertainment palace of the title. Isabelle is a contortionist and sword swallower. Odille, partially crippled, is the woman on the wheel at whom knives are thrown. There’s Alphie, who worked as a child prostitute before setting up her own business as a “Rembrandt”: making up wealthy men who have been slumming by the docks before they return home. She awakes one day to find herself trapped in a madhouse due to the machinations of her mother-in-law. Finally, there’s Dog Boy, an orphan who makes his living mucking out privies by night and who occasionally earns a bit more as a fighter in barroom bouts.

When Dog Boy discovers a still-living baby in one of the privies he cleans, the stories of these four characters gradually pull closer and closer together, building unexpected relationships. Following these characters as they fight to make a way for themselves in the world is engrossing reading. The novel is made even more engaging by a broad cast of secondary characters, all of them interesting in their own rights.

I said I have “pretty much” unbridled enthusiasm for this novel. My one area of ambivalence is the violence that some of these characters face. It’s appropriate to the time and narrative, but still painful to read. Nonetheless, Parry offers each of them a dignity that violence cannot diminish.

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August 25, 2015

An Unacknowledged Resemblance

The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman, (Simon & Schuster), 384 pages, release date 4 August, 2015

Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites provides an engaging blend of historically inspired fiction and magical realism. The history: the life stories of Rachel Pomié Petit Pizzarro and of her son, Jacobo Camille Pizzarro, better know as the artist Camille Pissarro. The magic: life on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where both Rachel and Camille are born.

Rachel is a member of St. Thomas’s small Jewish community—a community that values conformity as a result of the historical oppression it has faced. Community members must not  engage in behaviors that would draw the attention of those outside the community. Rachel chafes at these expectations and dreams of leaving St. Thomas for France, longing for a life of urban glamor and personal freedom.

Educated by her father, Rachel knows how to run the family business, though laws at the time prevent her from doing so. She accepts the marriage her father arranges for her in order to bolster the family business, which means becoming a stepmother to three children closer to her own age than her husband is.

After her first husband’s death, one of her husband’s nephews from France is sent to run the family business, even though Rachel can do so quite capably herself. Rachel and this cousin, Frédéric, fall in love, scandalizing their community as the relationship is considered incestuous, regardless of the fact that the two are only related by marriage, not blood. Refusing to conform, Rachel and Frédéric battle for years to win the community’s permission to wed, ultimately finding success, if not respect.

The irony of this story is that Camille is every bit the rebel his mother was—and she pushes him to conform to community expectations, despite her own refusal to do so. Camille is unsuccessfully placed in varying positions in the family business, but what he really wants to do is paint. After several years studying art in Paris, Camille finds conformity even more impossible.

All this summarizes the central story of Marriage of Opposites, but the book’s real strength is not plot so much as voice. The novel includes two perspectives communicated in third person: those of Frédéric and of Lydia, daughter of one of Rachel’s friends. More importantly, there are also two first person voices: Rachel’s and Camille’s. Readers have a privilege neither Rachel nor Camille has—the opportunity to see how deeply similar these two spirits in conflict really are.

This novel is interesting for its glimpse into a particular moment in history, but it is compelling because of the way Hoffman fleshes out her two central characters.

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August 19, 2015

A Reintroduction to Favorite Characters

Rock with Wings: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel, by Anne Hillerman, (Harper), 336 pages, release date 5 May, 2015

I loved Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, featuring a pair of tribal police working on the Navajo reservation. The mysteries were top-notch, but even more than that, I enjoyed being introduced to a new (for me) culture through Hillerman’s books. Hillerman had a knack for helping his readers think along with his characters, sliding them into a world view that might be very removed from their own.

When Hillerman died, I regretted that I wouldn’t have more adventures with Leaphorn and Chee ahead of me. Then in 2013 his daughter Anne Hillerman came out with Spider Woman’s Daughter, featuring Leaphorn and Chee. I confess I didn’t read that book, much as I would have enjoyed more time with the two tribal police officers—I was uncomfortable with someone else taking on these characters, worried that her characterizations would fall short of what I’d come to expect or that they wouldn’t ring true.

Now Anne Hillerman’s second novel in the series, Rock with Wings, is out. I decided to take a chance on her characterizations, and I’m glad I did. Anne Hillerman’s understanding of these different characters and the forces that motivate them is dead-on. Leaphorn (even with a head injury that’s left him aphasic) is terse and brilliant, noting details and understanding their significance long before anyone else. Chee still straddles the traditional and the modern. And Chee’s now-wife, Bernadette Manuelito, is fierce and quick to act.

The first two thirds of the novel were deeply satisfying, with clues parceled out one at a time, a satisfying range of interactions among characters, and the introduction of some interesting outsiders working on a zombie film being shot in the area.

The mysteries are a bit diffuse, but each provides characters with plenty of motivation. Manuelito can’t understand why the FBI refuses to take action against a man who attempted to bribe her to avoid a vehicle search (although he had nothing but two boxes of dirt in the trunk of his car)—and later investigates the immolation of this same car at a site where skinwalkers have been sighted. Chee is on loan to another police department and dealing both with new coworkers and “Hollywood types,” as well as a newly discovered grave site that may or may not be a promotional stunt for the film. Leaphorn is just beginning to use a laptop computer, which allows him to move beyond simple yes/no responses when communicating with others. He’s working online to try to pin down some of the more ambiguous clues Chee’s encountered.

My primary complaint is that the latter part of the novel changes pace and style. The denouement comes not through detective work, but through two  suspects suddenly deciding to tell their own stories in detail—even though doing so is more apt to hurt than help them. This wraps things up quickly, but I would have preferred that Hillerman had taken the time to let her characters uncover this information in a more satisfying way.

All said, Rock with Wings will prove a satisfactory read for fans of Tony Hillerman’s work. Anne Hillerman, if not quite matching his skills as a writer, is certainly doing his characters justice.

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August 18, 2015

The Ghosts of World War I

The Uninvited: A Novel, by Cat Winters, (William Morrow Paperbacks), 368 pages, release date 11 August, 2015

The women in Ivy Rowan’s family have an unusual gift: they can see “the univited.” Before a death, other friends or family members who’ve died appear to them. Ivy explains: “I likely don’t need to mention that these Uninvited Guests were not welcome sights. My mother saw them, too, and she agreed that such visits always signaled loss. Their presence suggested that the wall dividing the living and the dead had opened a crack.”

Ivy lives at a time when death is ever-present. America has entered World War I, Ivy’s older brother has already died in the conflict, and now the influenza pandemic is sweeping through their town. Other kinds of deaths and violence are occurring as well: German-Americans are being attacked, sometimes lynched; German-sounding street names are changed to more palatable English versions; playing Beethoven is seen as sympathizing with the enemy; neighbors spy on and are eager to report one another.

Ivy is connected to one of these violent deaths. In a fit of drunken rage, her father and younger brother have killed one of a pair of German-American brothers who own the local furniture shop. Ivy is left devastated, wanting to atone for this death, but not knowing how to do so. She leaves the family farm, moves into town, takes a room in the house of a war widow, then goes to the furniture store, offering to help the surviving brother, Daniel, scrub away the blood stains.

Her offer of help is unwelcome, but Ivy and Daniel come to rely on one another in their shared, if very different, pain. They listen to the jazz music playing in the Masonic Hall across the street as they lie in one another’s arms.

In the evenings, Ivy drives a Red Cross ambulance on the “wrong side” of town. Blacks and immigrants are unwelcome in the overwhelmed local hospital. Instead, Ivy and her companions deliver them to a local community hall or private homes, where they receive the minimal care available.

It’s not surprising that in this environment Ivy frequently sees the Uninvited. And each time she sees them, she wonders what new death they presage.

The Univited is a fascinating read with its combination of real-world history and the supernatural. It will keep you reading long past bedtime, and the ending will both surprise and hearten you.

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