May 28, 2015

An Aromatic Cook’s Paradise

Herbs & Spices: The Cook’s Reference, by Jill Norman, (DK), 336 pages, release date 5 May, 2015

As my kitchen will attest, I’m an herb and spice enthusiast. My cooking tends not to be subtle, and I’m always looking for interesting flavors that will stand out in a dish. For this reason, Jill Norman’s Herbs & Spices has quickly made a place for itself on my “favorite cooking books” shelf. This book has any number of features that make it enjoyable both to peruse and to use.

• First off, Herbs & Spices is published by DK, the absolute masters of photo-illustrated books. There just aren’t any pages composed of text alone. Each entry is illustrated by multiple pictures of the herb or spice under consideration, showing it in its original form and in the varying forms in which cooks use it.

Herbs & Spices has multiple uses. Besides photos, each entry includes tasting notes, buying and storing suggestions, tips for growing one’s own, and a set of culinary uses.

• Because Herbs & Spices is organized in categories, it’s easy to look for a particular sort of flavor. In the herb section there are chapters for citrus/tart herbs, minty herbs, oniony herbs, and half a dozen others. In the spices section, one finds nutty spices, acidic/fruity spices, pungent spices, and more.

Herbs & Spices has an entire chapter devoted to salt, just the thing for folks like me who can’t resist buying interesting salts or salt samplers, but then don’t know what to do with them.

• One additional pleasure of this book: recipes. The recipe section comes at the edd and is about sixty pages long with two recipes to a page. There are recipes for creating original spice blends, for marinades, for every course, and for using every type of meat—or none. While some of these recipes may be familiar, any number of them will be completely new, even for experiences chefs.

The review copy of this book that I originally received was electronic, but as soon as I’d begun looking it over I put in an order for a print copy at my local independent book shop. Herbs & Spices is a keeper, offering beauty, practicality, innovation, and inspiration between its covers.

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May 26, 2015

Deceptive Simplicity Followed by Revelation

The Travels of Daniel Ascher, by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, translated by Andriana Hunter, (Other Press), 160 pages, release date 26 May, 2015

A recent translation from the French, The Travels of Daniel Ascher reminds me a bit of I Called Him Necktie, one of my favorite books of 2014. The similarity isn’t one of theme. Rather, each of these books seems deceptively simple at the beginning, a pleasant enough read, but perhaps not much more. Then comes the moment of sudden revelation about two thirds of the way through: this isn’t just a good read; it’s a remarkable read. And from that moment on the book becomes un-put-downable. One simultaneously feels compelled to race through it and mourns the fact that its end is approaching page by page.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher focuses on Hélèn, an archaeology student, and her uncle Daniel, a writer of a well-known children’s adventure series. When Hélèn begins her studies, she moves into a small room at the top of the building in which Daniel has his apartment. She’s glad for the room, but uneasy about living this close to her uncle, who she’s always found a bit off-putting: larger than life in a rather childish way, describing his adventures in dramatic fashion as though he were the hero of his own series.

Over time Hélèn begins to realize how little of her uncle’s story she knows, and she begins to question him and other family members. The first revelation is that Daniel was a Jewish boy adopted by a French gentile family during World War II. As Hélèn continues her research, she becomes less and less certain of who her uncle is, as he seems to have two very different life stories.

This is the sort of book one can give one’s self as a gift when a day or a weekend opens up and the lure of “a book and a quiet nook” is irresistible. It can easily be read in a day—or in two evenings—but it will stick with the reader much longer. The Travels of Daniel Ascher balances its mix of family secrets, 20th Century European history, and bibliophilia nicely. The reader wonders; the reader mourns; the reader also enjoys. Keep your eye out for this title and don’t hesitate to pick it up when you cross its path. You’ll be surprised by the richness packed into its 160 pages.

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May 18, 2015

My Favorite Fantasy Novel of the Year

The Nowhere Emporium, by Ross MacKenzie, (Myrick Marketing and Media, LLC), 280 pages, release date 18 May, 2015

The publisher presents The Nowhere Emporium as being written for 8 to 12 year-olds. But I’m in my 50s, and The Nowhere Emporium is one of the most delightful reads I’ve come across in a long time.

Daniel Holmes, an orphan, is recruited as an apprentice to Lucian Silver, the proprietor of the Nowhere Emporium. The Emporium is a storefront, moving about in location and time, that opens into an infinite number of magical rooms. People enter it, are awed, then leave, forgetting all they’ve seen, but retaining the sense of wonder the Emporium inspired. The Emporium is created from a powerful blend of magic and imagination, and the aging Mr. Silver can no longer hold it intact on his own. Can Daniel be trained in time to keep the Empoium whole and  save it from its great enemy?

I find myself comparing this book to the Harry Potter series, something I hadn’t thought I’d ever do, since Rowling’s series is pretty much the sacred text of my reading life. The Nowhere Emporium parallels the Potter books in many ways: the hero is an orphan longing to bring his dead parents back to life; it takes place in a magical setting with moving staircases; it warns of the way that doing wrong to others can rip a soul to pieces. Despite these similarities, The Nowhere Emporium is very much its own creature, not a rehash of another work.

Reading The Nowhere Emporium has got me thinking about the nature of fantasy. One the one hand, by definition fantasy should be infinitely varied. On the other hand, fantasy is populated by recurring motifs. Think of fairy tales—pretty much without exception they focus on a young, lonely, unappreciated or ill-used heroine/hero who must overcome a great evil in order to set the world to rights, and who carves out a magical existence for her/himself in the process. And we—readers, children, humans—have an endless appetite for such tales. One satisfying fantasy tale leaves one hungry for more.

The Nowhere Emporium is such a book, making what could be familiar themes fresh and engaging. Ignore the ages 8 to 12 recommendation and give yourself the pleasure of reading this particular bit of magic.


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May 01, 2015

Love, Death, and 70s Film

Harold and Maude, by Colin Higgins, (Chicago Review Press), 144 pages, release date 1 May, 2015

I’m going to begin by assuming that anyone reading this blog has seen the film Harold and Maude, the happy-tragic story of love between a disaffected teenager and an elderly Holocaust survivor. Really that one-sentence summary doesn’t begin to do the film justice. It’s a tour de force of the unexpected. Just go watch it.

The script for Harold and Maude began began as author Colin Higgins’ MA thesis at UCLA Film School. It wasn’t a hit when the film was first released, but has now become the quintessential “cult classic,” a film that fans will travel hours to see and will watch again and again. This novelization of the script first appeared after the film’s release and is now being reissued by Chicago Review Press.

The novel Harold and Maude is a fast, entertaining read, well worth the time invested. Nonetheless, I think this is one of those rare (to my way of thinking) instances when the film is better than the book. In many ways, the novel is primarily a transcription of the film. The dialogue comes from the film. The minimal descriptive material hints at, but can’t capture the visual impact of the film. Higgins doesn’t make use of this new medium to add to the story in ways only possible in a novel.

That isn’t to say that the novel Harold and Maude isn’t worth reading, just that it’s going to be most enjoyable to those already committed to the film. It won’t add much new, but it does give one time to ponder the bones of dialogue without the distraction of the on-screen images. If you love the film, think about getting this book. If you’ve never seen the film, watch it—and then decide whether you want to think about getting this book.

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April 21, 2015


The Invention of Fire: A Novel, by Bruce Holsinger, (William Morrow), 432 pages, release date April 21, 2015

Last February, I reviewed Bruce Holsinger’s novel A Burnable Book, which was set during the reign of Richard II with a central character drawn from history, the poet John Gower, who he also depicts as a blackmailer and detective—and a friend of the better-known writer Chaucer. Now, in The Invention of Fire, John Gower is back, attempting to solve a multiple murder and international intrigue that revolves around the newly developed “handgonne.”

Holsinger, a much-honored scholar of the medieval period, knows (as one would expect) his characters and setting. The Invention of Fire is full of the kinds of details that both make the story ring true and that are of interest in their own right: the layout of London during Richard II’s reign, the interactions between members of different classes, the legal system, the complex politics in English-occupied Calais.

The Invention of Fire is a stronger novel than its predecessor, with multiple strands to its plot that ultimately pull together effectively, but not too tidily. Its ending is appropriately ambiguous, given Gower’s primary identity as a poet. Now that I’ve seen what Holsinger has done with his second volume in this series, I’m eagerly awaiting the next adventure of John Gower.

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April 16, 2015

A Magical Quest for a Cure

The Water and the Wild, by K. E. Ormsbee, illustrated by Elsa Mora, (Chronicle Books), 448 Pages, release date 14 April, 2015

The Water and the Wild is described as being for ages 8 to 12—but that greatly underestimates its charms. This novel travels between present day mediocrity and timeless fantasy laced with both menace and magic. Our present-day heroine, Lottie Fiske, is an orphan being raised by a guardian who cares little (really, not at all) for her. Lottie’s a poor fit in the local school because, “She had the audacity to not be very pretty or rich or even stupid, and at least one of the qualities was essential for a girl.” She’s bullied by the popular crowd and fantasizes with her best friend Eliot about winning scholarships and leaving their small town forever. Unfortunately, Eliot’s always-poor health is worsening, and he may not live long enough to achieve their dream.

The fantasy world is Albion—a place populated by sprites, each of whom has a keen and a genga. A keen is a special talent related to one of the senses that allows a sprite to perceive the world with great intensity. A sprite with a taste keen can taste the words used by those around him to determine the motives behind those words. A sprite with a hearing keen is able to listen at great distances: through walls, in other buildings, even, with the right training, at distances of hundreds of miles. A genga is a bird companion each sprite is born with, and each genga is able to provide a particular kind of aid to its owner.

Unfortunately, Albion is beset by political turmoil that constantly threatens violence. The Southern King and the Northern Rebels each hope to overcome the other. Caught between these two forces are the Wisps, who are dying of a plague. The Southerly Court has a cure for the plague and innoculates its own citizens against it, but “the ingredients are rare. [Southerlies] don’t have enough to hand out to everyone.” As one bored Southerly explains, “[Wisps will] go extinct. Nearly a quarter are dead as it is. By the time [we Southerlies] are grown, there won’t be any more wisps left on the Isle.”

Lottie, searching for a cure for Eliot, finds herself in Albion where she’s hunted by parties on all sides who believe she’s the last of the Fiskes, the family that once ruled Albion. Albion isn’t necessarily any kinder than Lottie’s home town, but with the help of two sprites and a wisp halfling, who may or may not truly be her friends, Lottie sets out to find a cure for Eliot.

The pacing of this novel is simultaneously gentle and urgent. Lottie gradually comes to learn more about herself and about Albion, but at the same time, she needs to accomplish her goal in a just a few days if there’s to be any hope for Eliot. One feels compelled to continue reading, but is able to savor the story at the same time.

Even if you’re nowhere near ages 8 to 12, The Water and the Wild will provide you with an experience that both reminds you of your own world and that transports you to another world entirely.

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April 14, 2015

A Wealth of Ideas

Her Idea, by Rilla Alexander, (Nobrow Ltd.), 56 pages, release date 14 April 2015

Her Idea is a brilliant children’s book about Sozi, a girl with—ideas. They pop up endlessly, follow her about, overwhelm her, and they keep on coming. Sound like any early-graders you know?

This fun, rhyming book-within-a-book is great for read-aloud. It’s also the sort of thing that a young reader can leaf through again and again. The illustrations are whimsical and full of details to be discovered. Those ideas—sometimes they look like baby squid, sometimes like homunculi—are everywhere.

Any children in your life who are thinkers and makers will be delighted with this book.

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April 09, 2015

A Three-Hours’ Tale on the Pakistani-Afghani Border

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: A Novel, by Fatima Bhutto, (Penguin Press), 240 pages, release date 24 March, 2015

Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a novel that deserves wide reading for its topic—but more than that, it deserves wide reading for its writing. The novel recounts the experiences of three brothers on Eid (the Muslim new year) in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, whose populace have been engaged in a long-term civil war against the Pakistani government.

Life in Mir Ali is perpetually violent. In addition to government and local combatants, there are US drones, and an influx of guerrillas from Afghanistan, who see themselves as freedom fighters, but who don’t differentiate between government targets and local targets that don’t share their particular branch of Islam. In fact, the violence has become so commonplace that for the first time ever the three brothers will not be attending the same mosque for Eid. Instead, each of them is going to a different mosque, a way of ensuring that at least someone will survive the violence that is apt to occur.

Although the primary action of the novel takes place during a period of a few hours, Bhutto offers enough back story that readers can unravel the complicated politics of the region. Perhaps not completely—but certainly more effectively and thoroughly  than I’ve seen them explained in any other popular source.

The use of the three brothers allows Bhutto to offer multiple perspectives. Aman Erum, the eldest, has been studying in the U.S. and is desperate to leave Mir Ali for better opportunities elsewhere. Sikandar, the middle brother, is a physician whose son, an only child, has recently been killed in a bombing. Hayat, the youngest, has devoted his life to independence for Mir Ali, having spent his childhood listening to his father’s tales of earlier uprisings. Two women figure significantly as well: Mina, Sikandar’s wife, who has begun obsessively attending funerals of victims of terrorist violence, even when they are complete strangers to her, and Samarra, loved by both the oldest and the youngest, who has risen from a position as a courier for to leader of one of Mir Ali’s most active rebel cells.

As the few hours’ action plays out, readers are thrown from one crisis to the next. Even as each character strives to do what’s right, he (or she) finds himself trapped by circumstances, forced to betray his deepest convictions.

Don’t wait for this novel to come out in paperback. Read it now—both for its political context and for its crisp prose and rapidly paced plot.

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April 08, 2015

A Feminist Field Biologist in a World with Dragons

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan, (Tor Books, Macmillan), 352 pages, release date 31 March, 2015

If it weren’t for the fact that Voyage of the Basilisk is the third volume in the Lady Trent series, I’d have to say there’s nothing else out there like it. Instead, I suppose I’ll say there are only two books out there like Voyage of the Basilisk, and both of them are, not coincidentally, also by Marie Brennan.

Lady Trent is a remarkable woman. Living in an alternate universe at a time that seems analogous to the Victorian era, she travels her world as a field biologist, observing the rarest, most imposing creatures: dragons and their relatives in many forms. Some of them are land dwelling, others aquatic—there’s even an ocean-going giant fire turtle. While she has some of the sensibilities of her time, she never allows these to get in the way of her scientific pursuits. She dons trousers on expeditions, takes to the sea for years with her young son in tow, and even—gasp!—goes on expedition with groups of male scientists.

Lady Trent is a woman ahead of her time, whatever that time actually is. To give readers a taste of the sort of woman she is, here’s her depiction of the plight of governesses in her era:

I imagine many of my readers are aware of the awkward position in which governesses often find themselves—or rather, the awkward position into which their male employers often put them, for it does no one any service to pretend this happens by some natural and inexorable process, devoid of connection with anyone’s behavior.

Lady Trent approaches science with the same precision she uses in her observations of the mores of her time. She takes field notes, studies carcases, translates ancient glyphs, untangles evolutionary trees. She talks (or writes) of ovipositors, vestigal limbs, artificial synthesis of dragon bones.

If you know a young woman who’s dreaming of a career in the sciences and who enjoys books where women do more (much, much more!) than primp, pout, and stand about waiting to be rescued by men, she needs to meet Lady Trent. The balance of the rational and the fantastic in her travels is positively addictive.

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April 06, 2015

Silence in Eden

The Language of Paradise: A Novel, by Barbara Klein Moss, (W. W. Norton & Company), 416 pages, release date 6 April, 2015

The Language of Paradise is a slow read. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s slow because it lingers inside its characters, gives them room to reason and imagine.

Sophie, daughter of a Harvard divinity professor, marries Gideon, one of her father’s students. Gideon is fascinated with the question of what the first human language—the language of paradise—might have been. At first this seems like a harmless eccentricity. But when Gideon meets Leander, who shares his obsession, things quickly spin out of control. The two of them decide that the baby Sophie is carrying will be raised in silence. With no human language spoken to him, they assume the child will go back to humanity’s origins and speak in the original tongue. Sophie’s marriage become a strange sort of triad, with Leander in control.

We spend time with both Sophie and Gideon before this search for the language of paradise becomes an obsession. Sophie is a bit of a wild spirit, dancing in the fields to voices and music only she can hear. When she first sees the fair-haired Gideon, she mistakes him for an angel. Slowly the two move forward to the marriage that seems inevitable—but by time the couple are wed, neither of them is the person s/he was when they first met.

Ultimately, this is one of those novels that works its way into difficult spiritual questions, moving not toward a real resolution of those questions, but toward a new appreciation of the ordinary. The problem is, when one embraces the ordinary, sees what is, one also sees what one is not—simple joys are counter-weighted by a sense of all one isn’t, all one hasn’t accomplished.

This is a book to read when you’re not in a hurry, when you’re willing to mull things over slowly and to spend time immersed in the different characters’ consciousness. What would otherwise seem slow becomes fascinating, the pace perfect for the story.

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