Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Around the Roman Table - Patrick Faas

Around the Table of the Romans: Food and Feasting in Ancient RomeFood and history are two of the great loves of my life.  I thought Around the Roman Table would fit nicely into those categories. did, but I didn't really like it.  Don't get me wrong--it was okay.  It was just a more boring than I expected it to be.  It includes a lot of descriptions about what people ate, how they ate it, and how food tied into culture in Rome.  That part was interesting.  But there was also an entire second part that included recipes from Roman times.  I thought this was going to be pretty interesting, too...but I wasn't really impressed.  Reading the recipes requires you to pound down some Roman terms for food that Faas explains earlier in the book, or else keep flipping back to those pages to figure out what he's talking about.  Additionally, Roman recipes weren't really "recipes" in the same sense as we have "recipes."  There often weren't fixed amounts, and I'm skeptical as to how accurate Faas' interpretations of them are.  It seems like he might have just guessed at the amounts of ingredients to best suit modern readers' tastes.  That said, I'm really not sure how many people would be putting copious amounts of fish sauce in every dish they make.  Some of the ingredients I've never even heard of; for example, what the hell is lovage?  That was explained, but not very well.  Some ingredients are actually extinct, like laser, a plant that the Romans loved so much they actually drove it to extinction.  And then there are other ingredients that, while technically still around, aren't exactly easy to get.  For example, where would I find half a kilo of minced dolphin?  The writing style wasn't all that fabulous, either; there were multiple cases of sentences that didn't make sense, and the recipes Faas included were also included in Latin, in their entirety.  Really, I don't care about a quarter of a page of Latin that I can't read.  More quoting often meant that, in the first half of the book, Faas quoted more than he actually wrote.  Some of the clumsiness in writing may be because the book is translated (I believe it was originally in Dutch) but that doesn't really excuse it.  Overall, interesting topic, but not the best book.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Royal Seduction - Jennifer Blake (Royal Seduction #1)

Royal Seduction (Royal, #1)Royal Seduction begins when a prince comes to town looking for the lover of his murdered brother.  He wants to ask her some questions.  Unfortunately, he thinks that Angeline is the girl he's looking for, when in fact her cousin Claire is the former prince's lover.  When Angeline insists that she's not the right person, Rolfe refuses to believe her, or even ask anyone else at the party where they meet if she is who she says she is.  Rather than try to verify her story, he kidnaps her and rapes her.  Then, having realized that Angeline is the wrong girl on the basis that she was still a virgin, he refuses to apologize or release her, and continues raping her periodically as he drags her about the countryside in search of Claire.  Along the way, Angeline is kidnapped by other people several more times, and is nearly raped by other men on at least three occasions, while falling in love with Rolfe in a dazzling display of Stockholm Syndrome.  Apparently we're supposed to think that Rolfe's rapes are romantic, while the other near-rapes are horrendous.

Rolfe never apologizes, merely displays a tremendous sense of entitlement that makes him think he's entitled to take whatever and whoever whenever he wants.  He drinks copiously and displays extremely violent tendencies.  This might not be historically inaccurate; of course, horrible things like rape did occur in "courting" and in some places probably still do.  But that doesn't make it right, and it doesn't make it romantic.  Portraying it as so only presents a twisted vision of a severely traumatizing experience and lends itself to the culture of blaming the victim.  It's because of shit like this that people say women are responsible for rape, because hey, they never explicitly said no.  And it's romantic.  Stop crying, bitches.

Hey, Blake, I have news for you.  Rape is rape is rape, and it's not sexy.

1 star out of 5.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Poison Princess - Kresley Cole (Arcana Chronicles #1)

Poison Princess (The Arcana Chronicles, #1)
In a post-apocalyptic world, a guy named Arthur lures a girl named Evie into his home, promising food, drink, and safe rest in exchange for the story of how she got to his little crossroad.  Of course, Evie doesn't know that other girls have been lured here and have met gruesome deaths in Arthur's basement.  She wants the food, and the rest, and to have a shoulder to cry on, so she tells him her story.

Evie thinks she's crazy.  In fact, before the apocalypse (called "the Flash") left the planet barren, Evie had just gotten out of an asylum, where her mother placed her for her "hallucinations."  Actually, though, they're not hallucinations; they're visions of the future, and only Evie seems to know what's coming.

Okay, so, this was part high school drama, and part post-apocalyptic story.  The high school drama occupies the first 30% of the book, and it almost drove me crazy.  Evie struggles to fit in with the other kids at her school, even though she still hallucinates and has visions of the "red witch," whose design has essentially been lifted straight from Batman's Poison Ivy, though the witch's MO is different.  Kind of.  Considering Evie is supposed to be the Empress of the tarot deck, I don't really see where this came from.  See, this

does not bear a lot of resemblance to this

Evie deals with her issues by drawing, and not just any old stick-figure drawings.  She paints murals on her bedroom walls and has a whole sketchbook full of beautifully disturbing images.  This means that she is not only a Popular Cheerleader, but also an Artiste.  She is "friends with everyone," and also apparently thinks she knows better than everyone else.  For example, at one point, she says that "no girl walked the hall with a wardrobe malfunction under my watch," which she's trying to use as an example of how friendly she is, but really just comes across as her trying to force people into a form that she likes.  She is totally into slut-shaming, thinking Clotile is a slut because she wears short skirts and cutoff t-shirts and is "readily available for sex," and that other girls are "slores" because they are attracted to Evie's boyfriend Brandon.  Now, considering that Brandon is supposedly the most eligible guy ever, I'm pretty sure I would be attracted to him, too.  However, when Evie practically hooks up with another guy and wears clothes just like Clotile's, she is considered to be...practically Amish.  Not only that, but her teachers are "bitches" because they won't let her retake quizzes she failed--there is no mention of her ever giving a valid reason for wanting to retake it, other than she didn't know she would have a pop quiz, and she certainly doesn't explain her rather unique mental condition.

As for the other characters, there is the Sweet Boyfriend, Brandon; the Sassy Best Friend, Mel; the Overbearing Mother, Karen; and the Possessive Love Interest, Jack.  Who, by the way, Evie does not like because he is from the Wrong Side of Town and checked her out while she was in her boyfriend's car.  She got mad that he was checking her out when she stuck her butt up in the air in a moving convertible while wearing a skirt. Granted, some of the comments made after this incident were unnecessary, but really, she chose to do that.  He didn't touch her.  He didn't make any rude comments; those were made by one of his friends.

Anyway, the long and short of this is, if the entire story had been like the first part of the book, it would have driven me crazy.  Luckily, though, Cole started out with the creepy post-apocalyptic introduction starring Arthur, and that was intriguing enough for me to go on.  And while I'm not sure the PA part actually redeemed the first part (that would be hard to do) it was very, very good.  It shows what a brutal world earth is after the Flash, with no vegetation, no water, few animals, and even fewer women who survived.  Evie's struggle with her powers and identity was well-done.  I didn't really like how she was hating on Selena for being so secretive when Evie herself wouldn't tell anyone the truth, but Selena was kind of annoying... Actually, she was annoying in a cliche way, obviously intended to sway sympathies even more toward Evie.  However, I did understand Selena's secretive motives, while Evie's secret-keeping was only detrimental to all of her goals.  Finn and Matthew, though, I liked.

Now, about Jack... I like Jack, as a character.  I think his Cajun background was an interesting addition to the story and it will be interesting to see how his Catholic beliefs play with the supernatural happenings of Evie's new world.  The thing is, I don't like him as a love interest.  He's supposed to be Dark, because girls like Bad Boys, but it's just not...good.  I mean, sure, there should be some conflict; I don't expect it all to be sunshine and daisies.  But Jack is a violent alcoholic who wants to possess Evie to the point that she can't make her own decisions regarding her own life. Not cool.  Hopefully Jack will see some serious character growth in future books, because if he doesn't, I'm ashamed of Cole for putting him forth as a desirable boyfriend.

Obviously I had a lot of thoughts about this book; the long and short of it is that I liked the latter two-thirds quite a bit, and I'm interested to see where the series goes.  I'm not sure if I'll actually keep reading it, but that's primarily because I'm terrible about keeping up with series that aren't fully published by the time I get to it.  Still, this has enormous potential, and once you get past the infuriating high-school beginning, the new world and its inhabitants are a great read.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dragon Hunter - Charles Gallenkamp

This book is not about hunting dragons.  It's about looking for dinosaurs.  This is evident from the jacket flap, so I knew it before starting; I just wanted to toss it out there so everyone knows it's a non-fiction biography of Roy Chapman Andrews, focusing on his time fossil-hunting in the Gobi Desert, and not a fantasy story about a guy who hunts dragons.  The title evidently comes from the nickname "dragon hunters" bestowed upon Andrews' expedition by the Chinese and Mongolians he encountered, who supposedly thought that fossils were dragon bones.  I'm always a little bit skeptical when a Western book cites eastern "superstitions," because I'm never quite sure if the superstitions are legitimate or simply an elaborate joke played on gullible foreigners--especially when the author appears to have used only English-language sources, many of them by Andrews himself.  Still, you can't deny that it's a good title, so I guess we'll let that one slide for now.

This was an entertaining book.  It doesn't really drag, except for some excessive listing of names.  Honestly, I have no idea who was "high society" in New York City in the 1920s, and I certainly don't keep track of the employees of museums, so these lists meant absolutely nothing to me--the names went in one eye and out the other, and I don't really know if they were of any importance at all.  I mean, they were obviously supposed to convey how important Andrews was, since he was associated with those people, but aside from a couple really big names (Rockefeller and Roosevelt, for example) they were essentially meaningless.  However, the accounts of life for foreigners in China, Japan, and in the Gobi were very interesting, as were the stories about Andrews' exploits before he went to the Gobi, such as his extensive studies of whales.

That said, this is a White Man's book.  By that, I mean that the native Chinese and Mongolian members of the expedition, or those who worked to help make it a reality in the government, are almost completely missing.  Gallenkamp addresses the terms "boy" and "coolie" near the end of the book, explaining that they weren't really all that derogatory at the time because the Chinese used them, too, so I'll give him that.  However, it's pretty easy to see that without the aid of the Chinese and Mongolians, the expeditions would have gone nowhere.  Not only that, but even out in the Gobi, Andrews was not usually forging new trails, but being pointed in the right direction by native nomads.  Still, Gallenkamp holds to the spirit of imperialism in insisting that Andrews was the first person to "explore" the great "unknown."  Just because an area is mapped doesn't mean it's unknown, you know.  It might actually mean that people know it so well they don't have to rely on a map.  That said, this isn't an intentionally racist book.  It tries to be neutral, and it's relatively successful on that front.  Obviously Gallenkamp is a huge fan of Andrews, and I'm not really sure if he's leaving out any negative aspects that might cast a different light on the story.  As with all nonfiction books, I think it's good to remain a bit skeptical when reading it--every author has an agenda, after all.

A good read, but not a compelling one.  If you like fossils, explorers, or anything like that, you'll probably like this.

3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Abandon Trilogy - Meg Cabot

Meg Cabot's Abandon trilogy is like candy, or soda, or popcorn absolutely smothered in butter and salt.  What I'm getting at here is that it's good, but it isn't good for you.  I really like Meg Cabot's paranormal romances (I adore the Mediator series, and I've also enjoyed the 1-800-Where-R-U books) and this trilogy was no different.  The idea of a modern retelling of the story of Hades and Persephone appealed to me, so I was eager to pick this up.  In some ways, it disappointed.  In others, it did not.  So, here is a brief summary of what I liked and did not like about the three books (Abandon, Underworld, Awaken) in this series.

I liked the setting of Isle Huesos.  This should not surprise me, because Cabot based the setting off Key West, which is one of my favorite places in the world.  Am I sure she captured the spirit of Key West?  I'm not really sure, but since she lives there part of the time, I'm going to assume she knows it much better than I do and put my faith in her basis.  I liked the characters, generally.  Some of them were a little one-dimensional, but the main characters were all pretty well-done.  I generally liked the plot, which revolves around the heroine, Pierce, coming to terms with her position as the queen of the underworld and battling against the evil forces of Furies.  I liked parts of her relationship with John, but certainly not all of it.

So, what did I not like?  Well, the first book in the trilogy is almost entirely setup, and the whole "relationship" aspect doesn't exactly make much sense.  Pierce says at the beginning that her heart is "broken," presumably by John, but she doesn't spend much of the book acting like she likes him.  In fact, she spends most of it terrified of him.  Which makes the sudden romance later a little weird.  The parents in these books also show a remarkable lack of involvement, considering their children are skipping school, disappearing from town entirely, and getting involved in murder investigations.  Seems unlikely to me, even with the "supernatural" aspect.  Also, for a series that is always going on about "consequences," there are remarkably few.  There is a controlling, possibly emotionally-abusive relationship.  There is unprotected sex.  There is an "imbalance" that never actually seems to get fixed, and what the hell is up with Pierce's necklace being purple, anyway?  That's never explained.  And half the plot of the third book appears to have been thrown in because Cabot had nothing better to write about for the first half of the book.  And the syrupy-sweet ending kind of made me sick.  All of these things are things that make these books not good for you.  You should not really encourage teenage girls to run off with guys they met when they were dead, especially when those guys have been stalking you and plan to keep you hostage in the underworld for the rest of, well, forever.  You shouldn't encourage the rampant lying to parents, the investigations into drug trafficking, the fear of the police.

But all that said, I still liked it.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Sekhmet Bed - L. M. Ironside (The She-King #1)

The Sekhmet Bed (The She-King, #1)One of my first thoughts about this book was that it had insta-love.  The protagonist, Ahmose, falls in love with the general Thutmose upon their first meeting and marries him shortly after.  Fortunately, however, romance was not the focus of the book, and it was actually a much richer narrative than I expected from that not-so-lofty beginning.

Ahmose is the second, younger daughter of a pharaoh who left no heirs upon his death.  Thutmose is named pharaoh by Ahmose's mother, the queen, and her grandmother, who occupies a lofty, powerful position called the God's Wife.  Ahmose, who is thought to be god-chosen and can interpret dreams and omens, is wed to Thutmose as the Great Royal Wife in order to help give legitimacy to his reign.  Her older sister Mutnofret, the woman who was always supposed to be Great Royal Wife, is wed to Thutmose as his second wife.  The story follows this family, particularly Ahmose, as they struggle through a difficult time in Egypt.  Mutnofret is a viper, and terrifies Ahmose with violent stories of sex so Ahmose will refuse to lie with Thutmose, so she will not bear any children and Mutnofret will be able to oust her from her position.  Thutmose is gone most of the time, and Ahmose is left alone to deal with Mutnofret and with the struggles of ruling Egypt in her husband's absence.  There is romance, but it is not the focus of the story; rather, the story focuses on Ahmose's struggles both politically and personally, and her maturation is easily seen through the progression of the book.

I'm not an expert on ancient Egypt, but it seems like Ironside (a penname, I presume) has done her research.  She does include a little section at the end which details the areas in which she has speculated on history or deviated from known history, and that's quite admirable.  Her writing is very rich and detailed, giving her Egypt a beautiful life on the page.  All of her characters were multi-dimensional, not just Ahmose; even one of Mutnofret's maids, a very minor character, has multiple dimensions.  The only real complaint I have is that there is an episode in which Thutmose turns downright abusive toward Ahmose, and yet there are not any real consequences for his actions.  I mean, I guess you could say there are divine consequences, but I would have liked to see some backlash from Ahmose herself, rather than her remaining a relatively complacent wife.  While the incident doesn't exactly glorify abusive relationships, it doesn't exactly frown upon them, either, being as Ahmose instantly forgives Thutmose for his actions.  Literally instantly.  On the same page as the abuse.

With that in mind, however, this was a great read, and I'll probably return to the other books in the series.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Suite Scarlett - Maureen Johnson (Scarlett #1)

Suite Scarlett (Scarlett, #1)
Suite Scarlett is a book about a girl whose family owns a hotel.  All of the kids in the family help run the hotel, and receive a suite to care for when they turn fifteen.  Sounds glamorous, right?  Well, while the hotel might seem glamourous at first--designed by a famous Broadway set designer in the 20's, with plenty of history to accompany it and a beautiful appearance--it's kind of failing.  And by "kind of," I mean that Scarlett's family has had to fire their last paid employee, their cook, on the morning on her fifteenth birthday.  In addition to the terrible breakfast her parents make because of an absence of said cook, Scarlett gets some truly awful birthday presents, including a used lipstick sample and an expired ice cream coupon.  She's also given the Empire Suite to care for, and while this is the hotel's biggest, most prestigious suite, it's also rarely rented, suggesting that Scarlett's family doesn't really want her to interact with guests at all.  And THEN they tell her that, instead of getting a summer job, she's going to have to work at the hotel, without pay, for the foreseeable future.

This book also involves a bizarre Shakespeare performance, an eccentric guest, and of course a bit of romance.  The romance didn't sit well with me; Scarlett's love interest is in college, and it kind of skeeved me out to see a college guy going for  fifteen-year-old girl.  I just don't see that ending well, especially because he isn't exactly honest with her about the whole thing.  Johnson tries to redeem this near the end, but the whole thing was just a bit too creepy for my liking.  Oh, and Scarlett essentially falls in love with the guy the first moment she sees him.  Blah for insta-love.  I also wasn't terribly impressed with the supporting characters in this book.  They're all pretty flat, and while Johnson tries to throw in some stuff to make them more multi-dimensional, I wasn't convinced.  Even when Spencer was trying to be a good older brother, I couldn't take him seriously; I mean, his character introduction was him singing about having a butt while he was in the shower.  Marlene, Scarlett's younger sister, is a brat, pure and simple, and really needed a telling off.  She's a cancer survivor, which is the reason behind the hotel's failing state (cancer treatment is very expensive, after all) and one would THINK that she would be a little more clued into that, rather than just obliviously demanding that the world continue to revolve around her.  Mrs. Amberson was too strictly-eccentric to come off as sincere.  Lola, Scarlett's older sister, however, was well-done.  She really struggled with balancing her family, her boyfriend, and her job, and actually acted like a young woman of her age would.  She was very well-written, and I would have liked to see more of her and her boyfriend Chip, who seemed like he had a lot of unexploited potential.

This was a fun story to read, but it wasn't really deep enough to keep me going on the series.  I would honestly rather read about Lola than Scarlett, and while the writing itself wasn't bad, the entire cast of characters with the exception of Lola was too one-dimensional to hold my attention for long.  If you want to read some Maureen Johnson, I recommend Girl at Sea or 13 Little Blue Envelopes, which I believe are of higher quality.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sunbolt - Intisar Khanani (Sunbolt Chronicles #1)

Sunbolt (The Sunbolt Chronicles, #1)Let me begin by telling you a story of my own.  Once upon a time, on a spring break not too long ago, my boyfriend contracted appendicitis.  We didn't know it was appendicitis, though, rather thinking it was a case of food poisoning brought on by a sketchy breakfast at a Best Western.  (I still have not entirely ruled out the possibility that the breakfast was, somehow, involved.)  As we thought he would get better in a day or two, we didn't go to the hospital and instead flew six hours home, where he was advised by the CVS Minute Clinic to stay in bed.  Ten days later, we were in the ER because he still wasn't better.  By this point, all they could really do was put him on heavy antibiotics because his whole abdomen was so inflamed that they couldn't operate.  I spent about a week and a half lying on a hospital bed next to him, and during that time I read Intisar Khanani's book Thorn, and it took my breath away.

The boyfriend lived (and, about three months after his appendix ruptured, he finally had it removed) and I fell in love with Khanani's writing.  When Sunbolt came out, it was obvious that I had to read it.  And I have to say, Khanani has done it again.  While significantly shorter than Thorn, Sunbolt is also a thing of beauty, and if you look at its reviews on Goodreads, you can see that pretty much everyone agrees with that.  It's very fast-paced, jumping from one event to the next, but it never actually seems "jumpy" or choppy.  Everything flows very well.  The heroine, Hitomi, is an orphan who possesses magical powers that she has to hide to avoid becoming a slave.  She works to help free the island of Karolene from the clutches of a dark mage along with the rest of the League of Shadows, led by the mysterious figure known only as "the Ghost." During an operation to save the lives of a powerful family, Hitomi is captured and begins looking for a way to escape.

Let me tell you, Hitomi has the worst luck when it comes to escape attempts.  Every single time she escapes, she gets captured again.  Eventually, she is given to one monster and imprisoned with another, and they have to work together to get free.  The world is rife with werewolves, vampires, and other non-human creatures, though they are referred to by alternate names.  I wasn't sure how this would work out, not being a fan of the werewolf/vampire craze that's swept young adult fiction lately, but this isn't really focused on those aspects.  And towards the end, with Val (a creature whose like I haven't encountered before) I was really, really rooting for them.  I am dying to see more of Hitomi and Val.  I hope he shows up in future books.  I wasn't sure that Sunbolt was going to hold up to Thorn, but it definitely did--however, I attribute that more to the second half of the book.  The first half, while enjoyable, was not as good as the second.  Hitomi's strength and spunk really come through in the second half, and she also has to face the consequences of her actions, which were masterfully handled.

Anyway, Khanani is a fabulous writer, and I can't wait to see more of her work.

5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Perfume Collector - Kathleen Tessaro

The Perfume Collector
The Perfume Collector is perfume in the form of written word.  That sounds cheesy, but it's true.  It's a novel of discovery, starting out misleadingly simple and gaining more complexity and subtly as it goes on. It's like perfume; the longer you wear it, the more complex it becomes as it mingles with your skin, taking on you in addition to its own ingredients.

This is a novel written around two different women, Eva and Grace, in two different times.  Eva's timeline is earlier, ranging from 1927 to 1954, while Grace's timeline is steady in 1955.  Eva's first appearance is as a jaded woman who is dying and trying to straighten out the remainder of her affairs, and from then on we get to see her in her younger days, as a teenager and then a young woman.  Grace is a woman living in London with a marriage that is, if not failing, then certainly not as happy as it can be.  She receives word that Eva left her an inheritance, even though they've never met, and sets out to discover more about the mysterious woman who left her a fortune.  The characters definitely mature throughout the story, and it's just as obvious with Grace as it is with Eva.

There are some awkward point of view shifts in this book, not between Eva and Grace, but between them and other, supporting characters.  There are no page or chapter breaks for these shifts, and the narrative, which is mostly written with a single-person perspective, seems to lurch uncomfortably as we switch to the mind of another character.  The narrative itself is, as I said before, deceptively simple.  I felt that I knew the "big reveal" for most of the book, because it wasn't really that much of a secret or a surprise.  The hints were abundant.  But when the "reveal" came, there was so much more to it that hadn't been hinted at.  It added a delightful dimension to the story, and I found myself enjoying the latter bit of it quite a bit more than the beginning.  I was also extremely pleased with the end, because if it had ended any differently, the whole point of Eva's will would have been...well, not in vain, but I don't think it would have had such a beautiful conclusion.

Overall, and excellent read.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The School of Essential Ingredients - Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential IngredientsIt's not a secret, to anyone who knows me, that I love food and cooking.  Indeed, I stated in my review of Consider the Fork that I would be perfectly content to be a housewife if it meant that I could stay at home and cook (and, consequently, eat) all day long.  This will, however, probably seem less appealing as my metabolism slows down.  It keeps the pounds off now, but in the future... Oh, boy, I'm going to be fat.

When I started reading this book, I expected a book about cooking and learning to cook.  Not a cookbook; I knew it was a novel, about an ensemble cast with their own backgrounds and wants and needs, but I expected there to be more focus on the actual "learning to cook" process than there actually was.  Bauermeister's cooking pro, Lillian, doesn't believe in recipes due to an aversion to the written word (HOW COULD ANYONE HAVE AN AVERSION TO THE WRITTEN WORD?!?!) so there aren't any recipes included.  Mildly disappointing, but I guess  beyond the point of the book itself.

What the book actually is, is a collection of back stories for people who happen to meet in a cooking class and may or may not become involved in each other's lives.  They were good stories--engaging, well-written, and often poetic; Bauermeister is a very good writer in that respect--but there wasn't a lot of forward motion.  Of course, there didn't really need to be, since it wasn't a plot-centered novel, but...  But, well, of the nine stories (eight students and one teacher), six of them take place entirely in the past.  Lillian, Helen, Carl, Isabelle, Tom, and Claire all have stories that abruptly cease when we reach the present day.  We never learn what Claire does that makes her happy, or why Carl and Helen are taking a cooking class and what they gain from it.  They're just there.  Lillian and Tom have a bit of interaction at the very end, but it's still not really integrated in the sense that the class isn't woven into their lives; it's just the place they met.  As for seemed that her story was centered around the idea of being "edgy," and just came across as kind of random.

On the flip side, Antonia, Ian, and Chloe all have stories with forward motion in them, and those were really more enjoyable to me.  Antonia is from Italy and is adjusting to life in the US while trying to convince a couple that they don't really need an industrial kitchen in their Victorian-era home.  Ian is trying to woo Antonia.  And Chloe is struggling with life after high school and living with a boyfriend who isn't exactly the cream of the crop.  Throughout the story, all of these characters actually grew as people and left the class much more "full" than when they started.

When the writing did focus on the class, however, I loved Lillian's voice in how she treats food.  I'm not sure I actually agree with everything Bauermeister put in her mouth, but I want to agree with it.  On some level, it probably is true that people are shaped by the way they eat, but I'm not sure it's to quite the degree that it's made out to be in the book.  And I'm also not sure that, even though I love cooking, cooking is as magical as it's made out to be in the book.  Restaurants, and more specifically restaurant kitchens, are not places where people have cozy chats.  They are hot, sweaty places of work, and while there is certainly something magical about raw ingredients turning into fully-prepared dishes, there is rarely something magical about the attitude that goes into them.

Still, this was a highly enjoyable read with some really great writing and very human characters, all of them with their own quirks and flaws.  While there wasn't as much "motion" as I would have liked, this was a great book to curl up with on a rainy evening and thoroughly devour.  (Devour.  Get it?  Because food.)

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Winter Palace - Eva Stachniak (Catherine #1)

The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the GreatHaving taken a course on Russian history last fall, I spent most of this book trying to match up historical fact to the happenings in the book.  That said, it was a futile effort because my course focused on Russian history, not Russian intrigue.  The plot follows a Polish woman who moved to Russia when she was young in the company of her parents.  When she is orphaned at the age of fifteen, almost sixteen, she finds a place serving in the palace Empress Elizabeth.  She becomes a "tongue," a palace spy for the Empress, and befriends Princess Sophie when the German girl arrives to marry the Grand Duke.  Intrique follows.

This was a book full of much drama, and it was a good read.  There isn't a ton of history in it; large historic events are only mentioned in the background, and the story mostly takes place within the walls of various Russian palaces.  The Winter Palace, while giving its name to the book, is only one of the locations, and spends a large portion of the book uninhabited as it is renovated.  There are plenty of descriptions of sumptuous dresses to please those enamored with royal life.  There are lovers and affairs and forced marriages and plenty of backstabbing among the palace inhabitants.  It has all the elements of a good historical fiction, with plenty of description of Russian foods to add a little cultural flavor (ha ha, flavor, get it?).

The main complaint I have about this book is that none of the characters ever seem to grow up.  Varvara acts like she's sixteen and Catherine acts like she's fourteen throughout the entire book, which spans several decades.  Varvara's daughter acts at age eight exactly the way she acted at age three.  When Catherine and Varvara have a falling out, it's over something that a pair of high school students would quarrel over, not an issue that would sever a long bond of friendship between two mature women.  Presumably these characters, who are playing at revolution and ruling an empire, should have a bit more maturity than that, especially after everything they've gone through.  The characters are completely stagnant.  Maybe there's supposed to be a message in that, something about history repeating itself to those who have not learned from it, but it comes across more as poor character management.  Perhaps it would have been better if the scope had been limited to a smaller period of time, when less character change would be expected, but as it was, it just seemed strange to find adults running around pretending to be children while planning a revolution in their free time.

I also found Varvara's relationship with Egor unrealistic.  I didn't know if she was supposed to hate him or love him or tolerate him, and I really hoped that there would be some other love interest somewhere along the way.  There seemed to be a lot of potential people to fill that role, but nothing ever came of it. Kind of disappointing.  It didn't entirely kill the story; far from it, but it would have been a good side-plot.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Book of Lost Fragrances - M. J. Rose (Reincarnationist #4)

Meet Jac.  She sees dead people.  Well, actually only one dead person, and that's her mother.  But she DOES have vivid hallucinations, an ex-flame from a younger time, and a little brother who's obsessed with finding a perfume that can help people remember their past lives.  The brother, Robbie, wants Jac to help him, because apparently she has the finest nose there is and will be able to identify the perfume's elusive ingredients better than anyone else.  Robbie wants to find the perfume in order to give it to the Dalai Lama, to help his cause by proving reincarnation.  How this will help is never actually explained.

So, there is a lot going on in this book.  There is the story with Robbie, Jac, and Griffin trying to find the perfume.  There is a story line about the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama and the constant struggle in Tibet.  There is a story line about members of the Chinese Triad in Paris.  There is a story set during the French Revolution, and one set during Cleopatra's time in Egypt.  The two "old" storylines, of the Revolution and Egypt, are kind of necessary to a book about reincarnation, but they probably didn't have to be as explicit.  I think more "hinting" would have been better, letting me make up my own mind about whether all of the reincarnation stuff was bullshit or not.  As it was, I felt like it was being shoved down my throat.  The story line with the Dalai and Panchen Lamas probably could have been eliminated entirely; the "purpose" for the perfume could have, instead, been shifted to restoring the memories of Jac and Robbie's father, who has Alzheimer's.  That would have freed up the Tibet storyline for another book.

Also, the blatant political message for a free Tibet was kind of annoying.  I am aware of the terrible situation Tibet is in, but I didn't want it shoved down my throat in a book that was focused more on Paris and Egypt.  Like I said before, I think it would have been best to separate that story and put it in a separate book of its own, where it could have more attention and be more fully explored.

That said, this was an enjoyable, fast read.  It's one of those books that has many short chapters instead of a few long ones, which makes it easy to pick up and put down without losing the thread of the story entirely.  It also has a glossary of Rose's research in the back, in case you feel like learning a little more about some of the topics (i.e. making perfume) that are featured in the book.  I liked the characters, for the most part, though they were all kind of obnoxious in that there wasn't any real character growth until the very end.  I'm also not sure what was up with Jac's mother's ghost, because if the pretense of the book revolves around reincarnation, shouldn't she have been reincarnated rather than just floating around and talking to Jac...?  I also did not like the ending.  It seemed like a cop-out instead of dealing with more complicated issues the characters had.  But still, a light, fast read.  Also, though this is the fourth book in a series, you do not have to read the others to understand this.  I picked it up without knowing it was part of a series, and it all made sense to me, though now I can see where it might have been referencing some of the earlier books.  But still, it stands alone as a narrative and won't leave you hopelessly confused.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Assassins of the Turquoise Palace - Roya Hakakian

Assassins of the Turquoise PalaceThe biggest problem with Assassins of the Turquoise Palace is that I had no idea what it was about.  Having been raised in the good ol' US of A, I have been pretty much perpetually inundated with messages of "Iran is bad.  Bad bad bad."  While I doubt that's true in its entirety--few things ever are--there are a myriad of areas in which it does seem to have merit.  For example, the Iranian government's ordering of the killings in this book.  That wasn't exactly cool.  But what I was left wondering, for the entire book, was why it was ordered in the first place.  I think it had something to do with Kurds.  I don't know much about Kurds, pretty much just that they're a group of people in the Middle East who don't have a country of their own, much like the Roma, or the Jews before Israel was created, or the Palestinians today.  I don't know why the Iranian government wanted these particular Kurds dead.  Or were they Kurds?  Was that ever said?  I think it was mentioned that they supported an independent country for Kurdistan, but just because they supported it doesn't meant they were Kurds themselves.

You might see why this book left me a little confused.  Parts of the book also rambled or jumped around a bit too much; I have never seen more pagebreaks in my life, I swear!  It made following the multiple characters a little more difficult than I would have liked.

Also, despite the book being entitled Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, very little time is spent talking about the Turquoise Palace, the assassins, or even the assassination.  The focus is on the 90's-era trial of the men accused of killing several Iranian activists in Berlin.  Now, don't get me wrong, I love me a good trial.  I am an avid watcher of Law & Order (but only the episodes with McCoy, because he is a badass in the courtroom) and I take law classes for fun at my university.  And I do think that the trial and everything surrounding it was written very well, and was very easy to read; no slogging through legal mumbo-jumbo required.  But, if I'm picking up a book called Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, I really do expect the focus to be somewhat on the assassins.  I would have liked that story.  How did these people get to be killers, anyway?  It's entirely possible that book can't be written, because of a dearth of sources or something like that, but I think it would have been a more compelling read.  Not that a quest for justice is un-compelling, but... I don't know.  It just wasn't what I thought it was going to be, and what it was wasn't enough to make up for that.

One more thing.  While the writing is very detailed, which is what makes it so readable, I'm skeptical of how accurate it is.  Including dreams and feelings can be done in a nonfiction book through detailed interviews, but that would be very detailed indeed.  I'm skeptical if, at times, Hakakian isn't speculating and putting her own words or feelings into the mouths and hearts of the people of the book.

And can we talk about that cover for a second?  It  doesn't influence my opinion of the book, but man, that is some of the worst photo-editing I've ever seen.

So, lacking some information that made it a bit hard to understand, with a bit of a jumpy structure, it was a hard book to really get into.  While its actual topic was well-written, for the most part, it isn't a book I would pick up again.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Two-Way Street - Lauren Barnholdt

Two-Way StreetWarning: This review contains profanity.

What.  The.  Fuck.  I'm not sure I've ever read a bigger piece of trash in my life.  How anyone could get away with writing this is utterly beyond me.  I actually had to take notes on everything that was wrong with this book, just so I didn't lose track.  Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

First, everyone, and I mean everyone, in this book is fucking psychotic.  All of them.  It's a completely unrealistic portrayal of high school/college students.  High school and college students do not spend all of their time fucking and drinking.  They don't.  I don't know how long ago Barnholdt was in high school and college, or what her social life was like when she was there, but for some reason I have a feeling she wishes this was what college and high school were like, not what they were actually like.  Is there sex and partying in high school and college?  Yeah, sure.  But people do not spend every night of the week attending multiple parties.  Especially when they're stellar students, like Courtney and Jordan supposedly are, because you actually can't be a stellar student and still have time to spend every night hooking up and drinking.  Trust me, I know.  And they all, even the adults, run around sharing secrets and blackmailing people.  What?  And let's not forget that not a single parent cares that their children, who are underage (Courtney is 17) are running around at all hours of the night with people they have never met before, and they encourage this behavior.

Then there are Courtney and Jordan themselves.  We are supposed to believe that they had a wonderful, beautiful relationship, that they never fought, and it's wonderful that they got back together.  Uhm, no.  Not at all.  Courtney, for starters, is psycho.  She believes her ex-boyfriend is a liar and a cheat, even when she knew he wasn't lying to her or cheating on her.  Her relationship with him revolves heavily around the use of Myspace, which is definitely not the way to have a successful, healthy relationship.  She also automatically assumes that every girl who isn't a virgin is a slut.  Myspace Girl is a slut because Jordan likes her.  Any girl who ever bats an eyelash at Jordan, even before Courtney liked him, is a slut.  But this logic does not apply to Jordan, even though he apparently hooks up with girls left and right.  Barnholdt apparently still lives in an age where only women can be sluts, and men who sleep around are to be congratulated for their actions because it makes them even more desirable.  And can I mention how Courtney thinks that girls who are desirable, but are honest and never cheat on their boyfriends are "the worst kind of girls"?  What the fuck is that about?  Apparently Courtney thinks that lying and cheating are desirable qualities in a girlfriend?!

Now let's talk about Jordan.  Jordan, as mentioned before, is the type of guy who hooks up with a different girl every night of the week.  He also deeply regrets not having the appropriate amount of time to gel his hair in the morning.  He likes his rap "hard and dirty" and thinks Courtney, who he is in love with, is dressed like a slut because she's wearing shorts and a tank top in Florida in the middle of the fucking summer.  Let me repeat that.  She's a slut because she's wearing shorts and a tank top in Florida, one of the hottest, most humid places in the country.  God forgive her for not wearing a full-length skirt and a bonnet to cover her hair!  He also thinks that, if a girl shows any interest in him at all after they hook up, she is automatically psychotic; heaven forbid that a woman expects a guy she's been intimate with to treat her like an actual human being and not like a disposable fuck toy!  We're apparently also supposed to think Jordan is edgy or something because he bought pot for a party once.  No.  That is not edgy, that's just stupid and a waste of money.  We're supposed to like him because he cries over his breakup with Courtney, but that was all because he was a complete idiot in the first place, so I don't pity him at all.  He broke up with her, after all, and for what was literally no reason.

Oh, and the "big secret" of the breakup is hardly a secret at all, and not nearly juicy enough to justify all of the sheer stupidity, slut-shaming, and overall misogyny of this book.  And the writing sucks.  How many times can you use "totally" in one sentence?  And at least learn to keep your character details straight, because Courtney is some kind of stellar student one moment, is in all AP classes, and the next she can't solve a single math problem on her own.

1 out of 5 stars, because at least it was short.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Consider the Fork - Bee Wilson

Consider the Fork: How Technology Transforms the Way We Cook and EatConfession: I would be perfectly content to be housewife for the rest of my life.  I'm a traitor to my gender, I know.  I should be trying to make myself respected as a working woman in a corporate world dominated by men and all that jazz, but really, I would be perfectly content to stay at home and cook all day long.  Okay, so I'm not such a huge fan of doing dishes or laundry, but I could get past that.  Being left alone all day to do some quick cleaning, read a good book, and whip up a cappuccino fudge cheesecake (recipe from Smitten Kitchen) sounds like absolute heaven.  I would probably become morbidly obese in short order, because even a fast metabolism can't cope with delicacies like that every day, but hey, my apartment building has a gym in it.  I could totally start running on the treadmill with all the time I'd have on my hands!

How does all of this connect with Consider the Fork?  Well, Consider the Fork is "A History of How We Cook and Eat," and that cooking part has largely been the work of women for centuries.  Millenia, even.  Which didn't work so well when women wore long skirts and sleeves that easily caught on fire, but hey, we're past that now in my part of the world, and I can feel safe whipping up some deep-fried ravioli on a gas stove while wearing a T-shirt.  Anyway, the book is broken up into different topics such as "Knife," "Fire," Ice," "Grind," and "Eat," with each focusing on a different area of the kitchen and how it has evolved.  For example, "Fire" is not only about how people have cooked over fires in different parts of the world, but also how the stove evolved and how cultural wants and needs changed that, and how the stove itself changed how we cook and eat.  "Eat" is about silverware, chopsticks, and other eating utensils, and how they fit into our culture of food.  Each chapter is also followed by a one or two-page snippet about something more specific, like the Italian mezzaluna knife or the nutmeg grinder.

The book is full of little anecdotes to focus different parts, and it is immensely readable, especially for a foodie like myself.  Wilson's writing portrays vivid images of meals from all periods of cooking, and makes every single one of them sound appetizing, even when they really weren't.  But what's so different about the book isn't about how humans shaped cooking; it's more about how cooking shaped humanity.  For example, that ever-so-slight overbite that I spent three years in braces to obtain?  That overbite that's supposedly the "perfect" smile for those of my generation?  Yeah, that wouldn't exist without the adaptation of using knives and forks to eat, rather than just ripping stuff up with our teeth.  And the invention of pots and pans completely changed how we eat!  Isn't that awesome?  I think so.  The book also appears to be pretty well-researched in the areas it covers, though there aren't footnotes so I can't confirm that entirely.  There is a "Notes" section, but honestly, I didn't read it, and it's not very long.

My only complaint--and it is a fairly large one--is that Wilson focuses on the USA and UK for her history of food and eating.  Coming in third place would probably be China.  I would have liked to learn more about how people ate all over the world.  What about in Polynesia?  What about in India, or Iran?  What about the Eskimos?  What kind of stuff did they eat, invent, or adopt, and how did it change their cultural evolution?  There's probably, to some degree, a problem with sources in these areas (and language barriers are a bitch) but I would have been very interested to see a more globally-comprehensive history.  Oh, and another, smaller one--the "ye olden days" portions focus mainly on the upper classes.  More "recent" accounts focus more on the middle class.  I would have liked to see more class, as well as geological, diversity.  Still a good, easy read, though, and it might just change the way you look at what goes into your mouth, and how that stuff gets there!

3 stars out of 5.