Review: “Downfall,” Rob Thurman

Pros: Book nine and I’m still enthralled!
Cons: I feel like I missed some things
Rating: 4 out of 5

Rob Thurman’s Downfall, book nine in her Leandros Brothers/Cal Leandros series, could see the end of Cal and his brother Niko. They’ve been reincarnated over and over, and they’ve never lasted long. They’re trying to take on Grimm, the only other human/Auphe crossbreed other than Cal. Grimm is much better at creating Gates than Cal is, but Cal can be much more inventive in their uses. It’s up to Robin Goodfellow–who has been friends with the brothers throughout most if not all of their incarnations–to save the brothers from themselves.

 

Whatever you do, this is not a good installment to start with. It’s wrapping up (or at least bringing together) many threads from previous books, and you really need the background in order to understand it. Personally I think it’s worth hunting down the other eight volumes to read in order; this is an extremely good series.

The narration is split between Robin Goodfellow and Cal. Each one has a very strong voice, and it’s interesting to see Cal becoming more introspective over time… in some ways, at least. It’s also fun to get to see some of the things Robin has secretly been up to–getting inside his head is very useful in that way! Over time there are some monologues in here, but they remain interesting rather than breaking the pacing, probably because of the characters chosen for narration.

I remember that in a previous book I was skeptical of the introduction of reincarnation as a plot point, but I like how it’s handled. I found that it didn’t pull me out of the narrative or interrupt the pacing, and in fact some of the stories added to things.

I do feel as though I missed some of the things leading up to the climax. I may have to read the book again at some point to see whether I can pick them out after-the-fact. Right now it feels a little like a deus ex machina, but I have a feeling that if I’d picked up on more, it would have been fine.

Arson–it wasn’t a compulsion, but it was an entertaining hobby.

As always, I have to recommend the latest Rob Thurman/Leandros book, because the setting is original and fascinating; the characters have buckets and buckets of personality without becoming stereotypes; and the plot and stakes pull me right in!

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Review: “A Bone to Pick,” Mark Bittman

Pros: Many excellent points; thought-provoking
Cons:
Rating: 4 out of 5

Mark Bittman’s A Bone to Pick: The good and bad news about food, with wisdom and advice on diets, food safety, GMOs, farming, and more is a collection of his essays on food and how it relates to: health, income, diets, public policy, GMOs, factory farming, costs and prices, animal cruelty, environmental damage…. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few in there somewhere!

There’s a lot of frustration that leaks out of the pages; you can hear how sick Bittman is of all the things we should be doing differently, especially when we have all the evidence we need to show that we’re doing the wrong thing. It’s easy to get swept up in his dissatisfaction with the current state of things.

There are a couple of things that made this book less-than-perfect for me. I understand the reasoning behind organizing the essays by topic rather than time. Unfortunately, this resulted in some cases where I read two somewhat different views on something and had no idea which came first; it made it harder to see how Bittman’s opinions developed over time. I also found one example of an odd break in format. Bittman is admirably careful about relying on data, surveys, and studies rather than anecdote–until he gets into the reasons why he’s cut dairy from his diet. That essay ran entirely on anecdotal evidence, and it was a weird divergence.

I felt as though when he got into the topic of poor people not being able to afford fresh foods, he missed one or two issues that contribute to that problem, and thus classified it as easier to solve than it really is. Also, he makes several references to Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” documentary, and last I heard it has been largely dismissed as having non-reproducible results, as well as containing inaccurate information. (That said, some of these essays are from a handful of years ago, so that might not have been known at the time.)

One of the great things about this book is that I felt Bittman was generally very even-handed. For example, while he does rail against some of the environmental side effects of current GMO crops, he explains that he’s more disappointed in the current state of GMO research than he is against GMOs in general. There are a ton of great things GMOs could be used to accomplish, but most of what we’ve done is use it to better deal with pests and weeds–both of which are evolving to withstand the current GMO changes, and both of which can have negative repercussions for the environment. (Dumping extra weed killer onto farms tends to end up with it getting into water supplies via runoff, for example.)

Whether Bittman is talking about ways to encourage poor families to eat better (such as doubling the value of food stamps used at some farmer’s markets), quasi-fast food establishments that would move us toward healthier eating in small steps, or how diet impacts Alzheimer’s disease, he makes his points very eloquently. You can learn a lot about, for example, how public policy affects what farmers plant and produce. His arguments are clear and concise, and he often references studies and information that shed more light on what he’s discussing. If you have any interest in food, the environment, etc., I think you’ll find A Bone to Pick to be a fascinating read.

 

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Tendonitis, arthritis, carpal tunnel

I apologize for the lack of posts recently. In addition to medication changes, I’ve had a severe flareup of my tendonitis, arthritis, and a mild case of carpal tunnel. That doesn’t lend itself to use of a computer or holding onto a book or e-reader for a few hours. I’ll post reviews when I can! At some point today I hope to post a review of Mark Bittman’s collection of essays, “A Bone to Pick.”

Posted in News & Musings, Reviews

Review: “The Monstrous”, ed. Ellen Datlow

Pros: Excellent tales of monsters of all kinds
Cons: Some still confuse me
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher for this review.

I rarely rate anthologies above a three–maybe a four at most. The thing is, it’s in the nature of anthologies to have some stories you’ll enjoy and some you won’t (the specific good and bad stories depend upon the individual reader of course). So it’s next to impossible to have a truly great anthology. Editor Ellen Datlow’s The Monstrous is one of the very few exceptions to this rule. There were a few high-concept pieces that confused me a bit (another reader-dependent issue), but by and large I loved these stories and the range of definitions of what comprises a ‘monster’. There are some good stories in which man proves to be the greatest monster of all–but there are plenty of other, more literal monsters to keep them company. There’s a long list of stories in this, so I’ll include a few words on some of the ones that made an impression on me rather than trying to sum up all of them.

Gemma Files’s A Wish from a Bone appealed to me; I’m fond of archaeology-related horror tales and stories of the Old Gods–dark and unfathomable creatures with alien agendas. In this tale, a group stumbles across an ancient temple with evil forces locked within, and watching how characters reacted fascinated me.

The Last, Clean, Bright Summer, by Livia Llewellyn, horrified me–something that doesn’t happen often any more. The material gets quite dark as a young woman’s family travels to a family reunion. This tale is grotesque with some fairly dark sexual material, so it won’t be for everyone. The gradually-revealed setup is imaginative and horrific.

Adam-Troy Castro’s The Totals gives us a monster and killer called Clutch and then dares us to empathize with him. I love the twisty nature of this one, and the very unusual cluster of characters.

Terry Dowling’s Jenny Come to Play involves an unusual relationship between sisters, and the grotesque manner in which it devolves.

There are many other excellent stories in here by such authors as Peter Straub, Brian Hodge, Dale Bailey, and Kim Newman. Each story is horrific, touching, dark–it’s easy to get drawn in. There were no stories in here that put me off, although I’ll admit to not quite figuring out what some of them were getting at (high-concept, semi-abstract stories are always a shot in the dark, since you never know whether the majority of your readers will get it or not–but when they work, they can be utterly fantastic).

Whether you’re looking for old-fashioned or new-fashioned horror stories, I think you’ll enjoy The Monstrous. Some monsters are more literal than others; some monsters are very, very human. And sometimes, the monster isn’t quite who you think it is.

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Review: “Next Victim,” Michael Prescott

Pros: Some nice unusual tidbits
Cons: Other not-so-surprising parts
Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Prescott’s Next Victim (Tess McCallum & Abby Sinclair Book 2) involves a serial killer from previous times (Mobius) and a new terror plot. Tess McCallum manages to worm her way onto the task force with some difficulty. Most of the characters she meets there have dimension and interest. Naturally there’s the one who thinks he’s God’s gift to women and who will happily mess with Tess’s job and reputation when she doesn’t return his interest.

What fascinates me is how the terrorism plot is deftly woven together with the serial killer plot, and how they affect each other. Both are hot topics in crime fiction right now, so figuring out how to join them together ought to make readers happy! I love that the woman delivering the terrorism materials is smart but has a blind spot. I also love how Mobius, instead of being mechanically repetitive in his actions, works new and interesting information into his plans. Most depicted serial killers are notoriously bad about accepting and handling change.

Most of the characters have dimension and personality, from the police to the feds to the people introduced along the way. I love that the Mobius plot has so much more to it than the standard repeated crime scenario. When he finds out about the terrorism plot his plans change drastically. I also like the fact that while he takes an interest in Tess’s attempts to catch him, he isn’t obsessed in the creepy manner that fictional serial killers often take on. It’s a different sort of protagonist fixation; it really works and makes things that much more interesting.

There’s plenty of suspense in this book. It might have helped to read book one first, but I didn’t feel particularly lost in reading Next Victim first. The pacing is nicely varied, ratcheting up as the stakes grow.

Content warning: there are some semi-disturbing scenes in here, so, not for children. (That should be obvious when you’re talking serial killer plots, though.)

I would definitely read more by Prescott, and more books starring McCallum.

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Review: “Genius Recipes,” Kristen Miglore

Pros: Best blueberry pie ever!
Cons: Definitely not a book about taking shortcuts.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Kristen Miglore’s Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook is about finding the little (and not-so-little) tricks that turn good recipes into great recipes. It includes everything from complete recipes to smaller tips and tricks. Recipes range from no-knead bread, to warm squash and chickpea salad with tahini, dry-brined turkey, mushroom bourguignon, fried asparagus with miso dressing, and even strawberry shortcakes. These recipes come from all over the place; for instance, the strawberry shortcake is a James Beard recipe.

Recipes are formatted well; it’s easy to tell the opening monologue from the ingredients from the recipe steps. Each opener has interesting information on where the recipe comes from, how it works better than others of its kind, etc. Some very pretty photos are included.

We tried several of the recipes. One was a recipe of spiced braised lentils and tomatoes with toasted coconut. It’s a simple recipe, although not everyone will have access to the black or brown mustard seeds. It was great the first night, but it’s only okay as leftovers. The ‘trick’ in this one is to cook the dry lentils in strong flavors before adding liquid, in order to really get the flavor into the lentils. I’m not sure it made that much of a difference over other lentil dishes I’ve tried. (I’m fond of lentil dishes so I’ve tried a lot of them.)

Simple Roast Chicken

Simple Roast Chicken

The simple roast chicken worked much better than I thought it would. You simply roast it at 500 F, no basting. I was sure our chicken would end up with blackened skin, but it came out perfectly. Since we currently tend to go through a roast chicken every couple of weeks, this is a nice discovery. A tip next to the recipe points out that the one difficulty is spattering (leading to smoking), and points out that you can put some chopped potatoes or other hardy vegetables to the pan where they’ll cook in the juices and prevent spattering. We tried that and were quite pleased by the results.

Best Blueberry Pie!

Best Blueberry Pie!

Our absolute favorite recipe from this cookbook was a fresh blueberry pie. I had a hard time imagining how it could make much of a difference over all the other blueberry pies we made, but I have to admit this really was the best blueberry pie I’ve ever eaten. The crust is made extremely flaky through the use of frozen butter. In rolling the butter into the dry ingredients the recipe resembles the instructions for making puff pastry, and that isn’t a coincidence. This is not an easy step, and certainly not a step that someone with arthritis or tendinitis in the hands could do.

It isn’t just the super-flaky crust that made the pie so good, though. Instead of baking all the berries in the pie, you pre-bake the pie shell and that’s it. You take one quarter of the blueberries, cook them down to jam, and thicken with cornstarch. You fold this into the other, uncooked blueberries, fill your pie shell, and allow to set for a couple of hours. It gives you the best of both worlds: a thickened filling that has that perfect fresh, bursting berries flavor.

I don’t think of every recipe in here as having some mysterious ‘genius tip’ that will make the recipe better than others of its ilk. I’ve had better lentil dishes than that one, for instance. But frankly, that pie alone makes it worth learning the book’s techniques, and there are plenty of recipes that really do have that working genius step. I think we’re going to have to make that blueberry pie again soon.

 

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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Review: “Ghost,” Laura Cardinal

Pros: Plenty of wrinkles in the plot
Cons: One-dimensional characters; not advertised as YA; some ridiculous plot developments
Rating: 2 out of 5

Laura Cardinal’s Ghost is about a high school that seems to suddenly come down with a haunting. Just to make everything even crazier, a sort of force field goes up around the school. Anyone who was inside when it went up is trapped, but anyone who enters afterward can come and go as they please. A group of young ghost hunters makes it their business to figure out–and get rid of–the haunting.

 

There’s a problem I’ve noticed in the world of e-pubbed books: often times the descriptions or tags attached to books fail to match up with what the book really is. I don’t know why. Maybe the author just didn’t think of this other tag that’d be more appropriate. Maybe s/he thinks they’ll get more sales if they spin the book’s premise a certain way. There’s a problem with this, however. Maybe the book will get more sales, but the reviews are likely to be more negative. If you think you’re getting one kind of book and you end up with something else, you’re likely to feel a bit put off by that seeming bait-and-switch. Take Ghost, for example. I had to go back and look to make sure there was no “Young Adult” tag on this one, because it most certainly reads like a YA novel. Most of the characters are high school age–in particular the protagonist, Natalie. Much of the plot surrounding the ghostly visitations involves other high school students, bullying, cliques, etc.

As a technical note, there are some formatting problems in the Kindle book that make some of the pages difficult to read. Such as, words that have one letter per line
l
i
k
e

t
h
i
s
.

The characters in Ghost are very flat, one-note creatures. Nasty, bullying high school students are just that. Sweet, bubbly people are exactly that. Smarmy adults don’t have anything else going for them.

There’s one plot development partway through that ruined any last suspension of disbelief that I had. The Secretary of Defense shows up personally with Special Forces and the Secret Service in tow. I wish I was joking. The SoD mostly smirks and throws small kinks into the works. The nameless military grunts don’t do much more than glare at our erstwhile ghost hunters. And I don’t want to get into the numerous reasons why this wouldn’t happen in the first place and certainly wouldn’t happen in the manner in which it goes down.

I think as a YA novel this would make more sense–the wish fulfillment aspects of Natalie’s nascent supernatural abilities, getting the attention of powerful national figures, and the youth of all of the characters would seem less out-of-place. (Still not great, but at least familiar.) As an adult book it just doesn’t hold up.

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Review: “Killing Maine,” Mike Bond

Pros: Fascinating exploration of environmental damage and how that hooks into corrupt politics
Cons: You’d better really want to read all about those conspiracy theories
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher for this review.
Expected publication date: 7/20/2015.

 

Hawkins (Pono to his friends) finds out that an old military comrade–Bucky–is in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. He heads straight from Hawaii to Maine, where he meets up with Lexie. Lexie is Bucky’s bitter wife, who had been with Hawkins until it looked like he’d be in jail for 20 years (he was set free before long, but by then Lexie was with Bucky). Hawkins has never liked Bucky (who was partially responsible for Hawkins’ brief stint in jail), but Bucky did once save his life, so Hawkins owes him.

Instead of a simple murder mystery, Hawkins gets pulled into a big to-do between wind turbine companies and the corrupt legislators who take bribes from them. Soon there are more deaths, and the local cops seem to want to pin them on Hawkins.

 

Mike Bond’s Killing Maine is more about how Maine is slowly dying through the efforts of large corporations who buy legislators by the dozen. Most of that fight revolves around wind power. Are the turbines killing endangered birds? Are they keeping everyone nearby from sleeping and giving them constant headaches? Is it true that their presence is largely irrelevant and useless except as a ‘green’ project legislators can say they’ve contributed to?

Bucky shot up some of the turbines, then hid his gun. Someone found it and used it to carry out a murder, leaving Bucky in the lurch. Hawkins’s investigations take him forward, backward, and sideways. He hooks up with Abigail, whose husband was murdered–Pono has a knack for falling instantly in love with forceful and/or bitter women, and by the end of the story he has several he has to juggle. The fact that he actively cares for/loves these women rather than trying to play the field is a great bit of personality-building. Hawkins suffers from incurable curiosity, so he gets into everything and gets picked up by the cops off and on (they, of course, are looking for a reason to toss him back into jail).

Hawkins is a surprisingly interesting character. On the one hand, he presents rant after rant about political corruption and how that relates to wind turbines. On the other hand, unlike the rants in most books, these come out feeling like they came from the heart of the character, rather than being inserted by the author. That’s actually pretty surprising, and kept me reading where I otherwise might have stopped.

I don’t know if these arguments also come from the author’s mind. I don’t know how much of the information presented on wind power and its consequences is true, and how much is conspiracy theory. It does give the story a rather different ‘feel’. Although I’m usually turned off by lecturing, the fact that it came out in the character’s voice and personality rather than being a bald-faced insertion by the author made it tolerable for me. At least toward the end it had more and more action injected into the story, so it still held my attention.

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Review: “Alive,” Scott Sigler

Pros: Psychologically fascinating
Cons: Overly reliant on secrets and surprises
Rating: 4 out of 5

Review ebook provided free by publisher for this review.
Expected publication date: 7/14/2015.

 

Scott Sigler’s Alive (The Generations Trilogy) starts with a woman waking up in a coffin. She bashes her way free, only to find a room full of similar boxes. Some of them have young corpses in them; others hold people like her. They all believe it to be their 12th birthday, but they’re also all clearly too tall and adult for twelve. Em (so called because her coffin was labeled “M. Savage”, starts organizing and herding the rest of them. Each person has a tattoo of some sort on his or her forehead. It quickly becomes obvious that the ‘circle-stars’ are meant to be fighters and protectors. There’s another problem, however, beyond the fact that they don’t know who or where or what they are: there’s no food or water in their room. They go searching and meet up with a great number of surprises.

 

Although I’m dying to dig further into the meat of things, it’s really difficult to say much about Alive without spoiling the constant little (and occasionally huge) secrets. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is a story that relies on the idea that the reader knows as little about what’s going on as the characters do, and you’re meant to make discoveries in a pace with Em.

The characters are great to watch. They all start out with the vague lack of memory, a symbol on their foreheads, and a last name/first initial from the coffins they awoke in. Slowly they discover (and sometimes adapt) their purposes as they search desperately for food and water. All around them they find the signs of a war long past: skeletons buried in dust. I like seeing how they become more fully realized human beings through their thoughts, actions, and reactions.

I wouldn’t say the final reveal shocked me, but it certainly satisfied the promise of the story’s buildup. The pacing and violence pick up as the story progresses, pulling me in as the reader.

Without adding much more, I’ll say that Alive is a great read. The character arcs are my favorite part of it, and I look forward to seeing other books in the series.

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Review: “My New Roots,” Sarah Britton

Pros: Lots of pretty pictures and some creative healthy dishes
Cons: Variable quality
Rating: 4 out of 5

My New Roots: Inspired Plant-Based Recipes for Every Season, by Sarah Britton, is a good cookbook–it just isn’t a great one. It’s big on plant-based foods, and (in many cases, though not all) raw foods, things which I could certainly stand to eat more of. The pictures are lovely and the recipe layouts are decent and easy to use. The recipes certainly sound enticing: roasted red pepper walnut dip; sorrel hummus; buckwheat crepes with creamy string bean slaw; pear apple blackberry crumble; rooibos-poached pears with raw chocolate olive oil sauce. Most ingredients are easy to find, particularly with all the farmers’ markets and health-food stores cropping up. Chia seeds are fairly easy to find now, and you can raid rooibos tea bags for what you need for the pear recipe.

Many of the recipes use maple syrup as a sweetener. I prefer to use honey where possible–the sweetener is usually a small enough amount in these recipes that the flavor of the syrup would be lost. I grew up in Vermont, so I’ve had all sorts of maple syrup, and I wouldn’t waste it on something where I wouldn’t be able to taste the maple flavor. Particularly given how expensive it can be.

We made three recipes out of this cookbook. Usually lately I remember to take at least one photo of each dish, but in this case I forgot for two of them. Of course the one I remembered to take a photo of is the least photogenic: a lentil salad. The recipe is called “The Best Lentil Salad Ever”, and is good enough that I won’t scoff at the name. I would absolutely make this again, and probably will–it’ll make a great lunch salad. It’s one of those recipes that look complicated when you see the long list of ingredients, but almost the entirety of those ingredients are spices that go in at the same time. There’s a really nice complexity of taste here.

Lentil Salad

Lentil Salad

Next we tried the “Fully Loaded Breakfast Bars”. They include gelled chia seeds, oats, a little leavening, a bean puree, applesauce, dried fruits, and so on. The taste was decent, but the texture left a lot to be desired. These were very dry. They weren’t too bad to eat, but we certainly don’t intend to make the recipe again. These are just… odd.

We’ve been getting a CSA (farm share) this summer, so we’re never entirely sure what we’ll be bringing home. This last weekend we got radishes and a particularly sweet and tender variety of turnip. We ended up making the shaved turnip and radish salad with poppyseed dressing. It’s a lovely little salad, but I’d probably look for a different one next time. I think I’ll always prefer my asparagus roasted rather than raw (I don’t think I’ve ever had it raw before this recipe, actually). I doubt I’ll make it again, but I could see making variations on it–maybe raw pepper instead of asparagus.

We did find some good recipes in here, but those ‘breakfast bars’ have made me wary of the author’s other, similar types of recipes. This is a lovely book, and we’ll probably try out a couple more recipes from it, but I don’t think it’ll end up in our bundle of cookbooks we use repeatedly and frequently.

 

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

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