January 01, 2016

A Monk on the Trail of Hell’s Herald

The Herald of Hell: A Brother Athelstan Novel of Medieval London, by Paul Doherty, (Severn House, Creme de la Crime), 240 pages, release date 1 January, 2016

Paul Doherty’s The Herald of Hell is a fun, quick read that brings to life an interesting moment in English history. In 1381, London, its population still reduced by the plague epidemic of forty years earlier, finds itself on the brink of an uprising of the Upright Men, the poor and disenfranchised, heavily burdened by taxes and eager to wreak violence on those with more comfortable, secure lives.

At the heart of the mystery is an encrypted document that may (or may not) tell the day of the uprising and that many factions are eager to obtain. England is under the rule of a child-king, Richard II, who is manipulated by his uncle, John of Gaunt. As is often the case during such minorities, England is riddled with factions, each hoping to use the uprising for its own purposes. When the clerk of Gaunt’s “fixer” is found hanged in a brothel, Brother Athelstan finds himself on the case. Meanwhile, the Herald of Hell blows his trumpet outside the homes of the wealthy in the night, threatening them with death and damnation.

For anyone with an interest in English history, particularly those fascinated by the role religious tensions have played in the nation’s politics, The Herald of Hell is a delightful read offering both mystery and a well-grounded depiction of life in the late 14th Century.

 

 

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December 29, 2015

Best Fiction of 2015

My favorite fiction reads from 2015, ordered by the date I read them (which seems at least as fair as alphabetical order that always favors the letter A.)

The Jaguar’s Children, by John Vaillant. A gripping portrayal of the risks undocumented immigrants take in order to come to the U.S. and their motives for migrating.

The Evening Chorus: A Novel, by Helen Humphreys. An oddly gentle novel of life during WWII  in the English countryside and in a German prison camp.

John the Pupil: A Novel, by David Flusfeder. A surprisingly modern tale of a pilgrimage taken by an acolyte of Roger Bacon.

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans. An unusual novel of WWII, pairing a woman con artist and the boy who’s sent to stay with her during the Blitz.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: A Novel, by Fatima Bhutto. An eye-opening account of a single day in a small town in Pakistan, focusing on three brothers who have each responded to their nation’s turmoil in different ways.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley. A remarkable mix of history, steampunk, mystery, and gay love set in an alternate version of late 19th Century England.

Church of Marvels, by Leslie Parry. An engrossing tale set in turn-of-the-century New York that brings together a nightsoil gatherer, a pair of sisters raised in a circus, a young woman in an asylum, and a baby.

The Americans, by Chitra Viraraghaven. A wonderful mix of humor and drama following the lives of Indian-Americans, both those well-acculturated and new arrivals.

The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra. A rich web of interconnected stories that cover much of the 20th Century in the [former] Soviet Union with characters that include a government censor in the 1930s, a minor film star, a pair of brothers whose father has cobbled together a museum of space travel using odds and ends, a prima ballerina, a gangster, and a painting that connects their disparate lives.

The Master of the Prado, by Javier Sierra. A magical exploration of the spiritual messages encoded in masterpieces in the Prado and a young man’s relationship with the mysterious figure who guides him through these works.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine. An absolutely original novel—a cross between science fiction and historical mystery—that uses parallel narrative threads to explore xenophobia and Japanese internment during WWII.

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December 28, 2015

Notorious Justice

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Dey Street Books), 240 pages, release date 27 October, 2015

Notorious RBG is every bit as original as the woman herself. This isn’t your typical biography of a Supreme Court Justice. Instead, it’s a life story at once serious and rollicking, accompanied by all sorts of other treasures—including excerpts from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rulings, social media memes featuring the Justice, even part of an opera about Ginsburg and conservative Justice Samuel Alito.

Ginsburg’s story is a reminder of how difficult a career in law was for a woman only a generation or two ago. Through tenacity, brilliance, and the help of her husband Martin, Ginsburg breaks through glass ceilings, even as more conservative (perhaps bigoted is really the word to use here) members of the profession try to exclude her.

Given her status as the nation’s second female Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg is well deserving of the enthusiasm she’s generated in popular culture—a popularity seems a matter of whimsy, as well as deep respect. The book opens with scenes from Ginsburg’s life when she increasingly found herself on the minority in Court rulings and began to issue her own dissents, giving voice to her frustration with the tenor and quality of a number of majority decisions. This Ginsburg is fierce, articulate, and intellectually rigorous.

Notorious RBG is not a comprehensive biography of Ginsburg, but it is a delightful introduction to her story, one that both honors and celebrates her accomplishments.

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December 23, 2015

Mrs. Hudson on the Case, Take Two

Mrs. Hudson and the Malabar Rose (A Sherlock Holmes & Mrs. Hudson Mystery 2), by Martin Davies, (Canelo), 336 pages, release date 19 October, 2015

Late this past summer I reviewed Mrs. Hudson and the Spirit’s Curse, the first novel in this series. The second volume, Mrs. Hudson and the Malabar Rose, is similar in style to the first, but the characters are gradually becoming more fleshed-out, which adds to the reading experience. In the first novel, Holmes and Hudson were rivals of a sort. This time around they each pursue their own lines of reasoning, but they show a respect for one another’s abilities. The narrator, Flotsam, an orphan who has been pulled from the streets by Mrs. Hudson and now works as a kitchen girl/co-sleuth is growing more perceptive, becoming a participant in the investigation, rather than just a witness to it.

The case this time focuses on an enormous ruby, the Malabar Rose, which has been given to Queen Victoria with the stipulation that it must first be publicly displayed. A magician, whose performances across Europe seem to coincide with the thefts of other jewels, will be performing in London the night the Malabar Rose goes on display, so an attempted robbery is expected. Once again, Mrs. Hudson finds her own route to a solution—one that Holmes would have missed on his own.

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December 21, 2015

A Delicious (and Efficient) Introduction to Mexican Cooking

The Mexican Slow Cooker: Recipes for Mole, Enchiladas, Carnitas, Chile Verde Pork, and other Favorites, by Deborah Schneider, (Ten Speed Press), 144 pages, release date 31 July, 2015

I live in a community that’s more Mexicano than Anglo, so even though I’m one of the Anglos, I’ve developed a fondness for Mexican cooking. Yes, my town has the usual Mexican restaurants with the usual fare—but it also has dozens of small taquerías specializing in the foods of different Mexican and Central American states. Once you’ve tried a few of the taquerías, the “usual Mexican” (at least from an Anglo perspective) becomes completely unsatisfactory.

The “secret” to good Mexican cooking involves complicated seasoning, hours of simmering, and a willingness to create every part of the meal by hand (no more grocery store tortillas). When you are ready to try this kind of cooking (even if you will be using grocery store tortillas), Deborah Schneider’s The Mexican Slow Cooker is an excellent place to start. Some of recipes will still take a fair bit of time, but Schneider finds ways to integrate a slow cooker, so while the food is cooking for hours the cook can be doing other things.

When using The Mexican Slow Cooker, you’ll want to start with the chapter on “Basics, Rice, Beans, and Other Sides.” These recipes serve as the base for every other recipe in the book, and they all feature time in the slow cooker. This chapter includes recipes for beef broth and chicken broth, for several kinds of traditionally seasoned rice, and a variety of ways to prepare beans. You’ll need these foods both because many of the recipes in the rest of the book call for them and also because their delicious simplicity makes them a treat in their own right. You can keep the broths and beans on hand as starters for more complicated dishes, making them when the ingredients are available. I’m planning to try a version of the chicken broth using holiday leftovers. If I make a big batch, I can put half to use now and freeze the other half for later.

The remaining recipes range from the very simple to the complicated, but you can be sure that Schneider will make your cooking process efficient with results that honor the cuisine’s traditions. I’ve got several of them bookmarked, including the Pozole Verde, a stew with tomatillos and pozole (a type of corn also called hominy) and the mole negro, which probably requires more ingredients than any other recipe in the book, but is also quite worth the effort. I’ve also bookmarked pretty much everything in the chapter on street food—most of these are relatively quick-to-prepare dishes that can be held in the hand (less washing up after!).

The Mexican Slow Cooker will ease you into the deliciousness that is Mexican cooking—and the journey will be deeply rewarding.

 

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December 18, 2015

Kick Up the Flavor of Any Meal

Salsas and Moles: Fresh and Authentic Recipes for Pico de Gallo, Mole Poblano, Chimichurri, Guacamole, and More, by Deborah Schneider, (Ten Speed Press), 160 pages, 30 photos, release date 14 April, 2015

Salsas and Moles has been out for a while, but if you missed it, you’ll want to track down a copy. I keep a huge file of salsa/sauce recipes because they often offer an easy way to turn whatever is in the fridge into something special. Salsas also offer an easy way to add some fruits and veggies to your diet. Chop a few things up, throw in some chili or other seasoning, and spoon it across whatever you’re eating.

Salsas and Moles offers a varied collection of recipes that you’ll want to turn to again and again. The five chapters offer all sorts of possibilities: classic table salsas, hot salsas, mole and enchilada sauces, salsas for tacos, and chunky salsas and botanas. The author, Deborah Schneider, has also recently published The Mexican Slow Cooker, and these two books together are enough to keep you happily experimenting in the kitchen for a good, long while.

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December 16, 2015

Penance through Thievery

The Relic Master: A Novel, by Christopher Buckley, (Simon & Schuster), 400 pages, release date 8 December, 2015

Christopher Buckley’s The Relic Master is one of those novels that sneaks up on you. It’s interesting enough at the beginning, but not more than that. However, by time you’re well into the book you’ll find it has become compelling reading.

Set in 1517, The Relic Master follows the increasingly complicated life of Dismas, who makes his living selling more-or-less genuine relics—at any rate, his relics are a lot closer to genuine than those offered by many other dealers. This is the era of Luther’s criticism of the Catholic Church, particularly the ways it works as a fund-raising mechanism: selling indulgences and making powerful church men rich. Dismas’s two biggest clients are rivals: Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and the almost-Cardinal of Mainz, Albrecht. Frederick and Albrecht are in a competition of sorts to see who can amass the largest and most remarkable collection of relics. Frederick is Dismas’s uncle and generally receives the best of Dismas’s relics, while Albrecht is willing to use extortion to demand that Dismas present him with bigger and bigger prizes.

In an attempt to make a little extra money, Dismas and his friend Dürer (yes, that Dürer) cook up a plot to forge the shroud of Christ and to sell it to Albrecht. The forgery is uncovered and Albrecht demands that Dismas and Dürer go on pilgrimage as penance—specifically, a pilgrimage to steal another supposed shroud of Christ owned by another nobleman.

The pilgrimage becomes more and more difficult, requiring that Dismas and Dürer come up with increasingly convoluted means of continuing their mission. Their journey becomes as sort of medieval Marx Brothers movie with false identities, changing loyalties, and much hysteria.

Part of what makes this novel effective is that Buckley balances the absurdities with the characters’ genuine reflections on the true meaning of the sacred. The reader can laugh,  but also has opportunities to turn over more serious questions. In other words, this isn’t just a novel for readers of historical fiction, but also for doubters of every stripe.

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December 15, 2015

A Satisfyingly Accurate Tudor Whodunnit

The Traitor’s Mark: A Tudor Mystery, by D.K. Wilson, (Pegasus),  400 pages,  release date 15 December, 2015

D. K. Wilson’s  novel The Traitor’s Mark takes a small bit of historical uncertainty—the cause of the 1543 death of Henry VIII’s official portrait painter, Hans Holbein—and builds an engaging tale of what might have been. Thomas Treviot, a young goldsmith, is expecting a set of designs from Hans Holbein (who did such work in addition to painting portraits), but when these designs never materialize and Holbein’s apprentice is killed, Treviot finds himself trying to solve a crime that may involve religion and politics—both very dangerous, and overlapping, topics in Henry’s England.

Wilson is a well-known author in his native country, England, with several other novel series and many individual works of nonfiction in print. As a result, the Tudor England in which Treviot lives is not only interesting, but also an accurate portrayal of the time. The Traitor’s Mark is Wilson’s second Treviot novel, but the first of any of his novels to be published in the U.S.

One doesn’t need to know Tudor history to enjoy this novel, but the more one knows about Tudor history, the more one will appreciate Wilson’s attention to historical detail. Holbein fears the changing times in which he lives, noting “Even my old patron, Sir Thomas More, [has] taken to locking men up and having them tortured.” Rival factions of church officials and noblemen struggle to influence Henry VIII. The fates of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and of any number of less distinguished individuals hang in the balance. The activities of individual churchmen are scrutinized for potential heresy, which in Henry’s England is also treason.

If you like historical mysteries, you’re going to enjoy The Traitor’s Mark. If you like historical mysteries and you know your Tudor history, you’re going to find this book unputdownable. I find myself hoping that more of Wilson’s novels will make it to this side of “the pond.”

 

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December 10, 2015

Easy Asian Foodie Humor

Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes, by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach, (Clarkson, Potter), 272 pages, 100 color photos, release date 27 October, 2015

Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes is a winner thrice over. First there are the recipes: all of them reasonably easy, interesting, and with small touches that make even familiar dishes taste new. Second, there are the photos: spend any time leafing through this book and you’ll find yourself planning all sorts of meals. Third, there’s Paul Meehan’s witty, irreverent commentary, which makes reading the book an absolute delight. Lucky Peach has passage after passage that begs to be read aloud to any friend or relative sitting nearby.

Meehan’s story of the St. Paul Sandwich is typical of the humor and knowledge he brings to Asian cooking:

Chinese immigrants build railroads across the continent. Egg foo yung—which is not quite a Chinese dish but has become this iconically Chinese dish to Americans—travels with them as they settle. Somebody in St. Louis, Missouri, liberates and egg foo yung pancake from the brown sauce hell it was doomed to (EFY traditionally being these little egg pancakes ensconced in cornstarchy brown sauce like saber-tooth tigers in a tar pit) and sticks it in the sort of sandwich setup more often reserved for fried chicken cutlets or sliced ham. The results are inarguably good, and somehow get attributed to someone from St. Paul, Minnesota, where the sandwich is entirely foreign.

This book would make a great holiday gift for anyone who enjoys good food—whether or not they’re experienced cooks. The recipes are clear and easy-to-follow, and Meehan will have cooks laughing throughout their time in the kitchen.

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December 09, 2015

Going to the Cats

Catify to Satisfy: Simple Solutions for Creating a Cat-Friendly Home, by Jackson Galaxy and Kate Benjamin, (Tarcher), 272 pages, release date 17 November, 2015.

There are those people who will question why anyone would consider a home remodel just to please the cats. I am not one of those people. At the moment we have no elaborate set-ups for our cats, but we fantasize about the projects we’ll take on when we’re retired: wall perches close enough so cats can jump from one to the other, a walkway throughout the house about 12″ below the ceilings, little tunnels that let the cats move from room to room without having to use the doors.

And, really, you don’t have to do a full remodel to make your cats just a bit happier. Catify to Satisfy is full of great ideas for projects large and small that will win you a thumbs up from your feline housemates. If you’ve got any crazy cat ladies on your gift list—or perfectly sane ones, because it would be insane not to be crazy about cats—this book will be a big winner.

The cats suggest that a small catnip mouse could be used in lieu of a bow when you’re wrapping.

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