Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Year: 2010
Read: March 2017
Where It Came From:Library e-Audiobook
Genre: Non-fiction-biography
Rating: 4 Strands of Pearls

I can't think of the last time a non-fiction book made me cry. Well, I'm sure there are actually lots of tear-jerking and upsetting non-fiction books out there, so let me amend that: I can't think of the last time a non-fiction book about the ancient world, with principal characters more myth than human to modern eyes, made me cry. I first tried to read this book in 2013 (thanks, Goodreads, for allowing me to compulsively keep track of my reading habits!), but I just couldn't get into it. Earlier this month I felt inspired to try again, this time with the audio version, and that did the trick (thanks as always to Susan, who turned me on to the merits of nonfiction in audiobook form). It held my ("rapt" might be an appropriate word here) attention as I listened to it while getting ready in the mornings and on my commute for the last couple weeks. I started listening on International Women's Day, which while not specifically planned, turned out to be apt.

A few thoughts. This book laid open some gaping, heretofore unknown failures in my education. Number one, and one that fits into the category of gape-mouthed shock and mind-blowing world-shifting (ask me about Marie Antoinette and the "let them eat cake" thing or coconut milk vs. coconut water someday if you're interested in more from this same odd subgenre for me)--Cleopatra VII (who was actually VI, but that's not the shocker here), was not actually Egyptian! She, and her entire Ptolemaic dynasty, was of Macedonian Greek descent. They ruled over Egypt and its people, but they and their city of Alexandria were a product of Hellenistic culture (though certainly with some merging and mingling with culturally Egyptian things). Is this common knowledge?? I have spent my entire life (with the exception of a note I remember from a Royal Diaries book I read in junior high mentioning that Cleopatra could have possibly been blonde) under the impression that Cleopatra was ethnically and culturally Egyptian in the way that Ramses and Nefertiti and all those other pharaohs that fascinated me as a child were.

Number two, the more this book went on, the more I realized how little I actually knew of the Caesar/Cleopatra/Marc Antony story. Culturally, it's something probably most everyone is aware of in some way, but I didn't realize how amorphous a blob my understanding of it was, punctuated by random markers (often erroneous, I now know) like "asp" and "love triangle" and "rolled up in a carpet." My weird, literature- and pop culture-influenced understanding of the tale involved a screwed-up timeline, confused relationships, unclear motives, and gaping holes. This book helped straighten out, clarify, and fill in, but only to a certain extent. The broad strokes are there, details too, to an extent, but a great many details are still lost.

And that is in no way the fault of the book. As an adage we all know, used near to the point of cliché, history is written by the victors. And the victors in this case were Octavian, Rome, and a culture supremely uncomfortable with powerful women. The book discusses the fact that there are no contemporaneous accounts of Cleopatra, nothing that remains of her own voice, so we are left to piece together a picture of her based on the accounts of the men telling her story after the fact, and to examine their bias for hints as to how their version of events may be skewed. It’s hard for anyone to get a picture of Cleopatra as she actually was, as throughout history and the many versions of her story, it is easier for the writers (the patriarchy?) to attribute her success to beauty rather than intelligence, to feminine wiles rather than cleverness, to subterfuge rather than strategy, to reduce her power to exoticism and sex. As the author notes in the book, when men do it, it's called strategizing, but when women do it, it's called scheming. It's frustrating, like looking at her through the surface of a pond, able to make out the general shape, but with the details obscured by the shifting surface. In the end, we're left with a picture of Cleopatra as an imperfect, fallible human, but certainly an intelligent, driven, and strong woman, making a stand for her country, her people, and herself, in a masculine world.

I put off finishing this book for a day or two, because I was overcome with that feeling when you know the original story well enough (even considering my aforementioned flawed and incomplete knowledge of said original story) to know that the shit is about to irreparably hit the fan. In the end my tears weren't as much for the tragic end to the Antony/Cleopatra relationship (moving without being overly sentimental here), as they were for the underdogs who had lost, and the woman who had clashed with all Roman expectations of females, and tried to prevent the sun from setting on her land, people, and dynasty. I am left with a hunger for details and questions that can never be answered about these people and their time, and so for the ravages of passing centuries and of those who write the histories, I had some tears, too.

Add this one to the "required feminist reading" list.

*As ever, wherever our copies of the books we read come from, our reviews remain uninfluenced by the source of said copies, or by anyone else, for that matter.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Whatchoo reading?

Hello, bookworms and moths! I can’t believe February is almost over. Though I don’t think I’ll be going full-blown review on any of the books I’ve been reading in January and February, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about them, the ones I’m in the middle of right now, and a couple I’m looking forward to verrrrrry soon. Allons-y!

Things I’ve Been Reading

  • Gemina, by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. This second entry in the Illuminae Files series did not disappoint. In fact, I think I liked this one even more than the first one! I love the way the format of these books continues to push boundaries—it often reminds me of Guillaume Apollinaire's calligrammes (thanks, college French!). These books are action-packed like the best summer movies, but with characterization and a sort of overarching mythology that those summer tentpoles often lack. Romance is a component thread of these books, but it is definitely secondary to the rollicking plot. For these books, I find that that is the perfect balance. There was also a perfect balance of plot twists that I figured out, and ones that I didn't see coming—enough to make you feel smart, but still have the fun of being surprised. Can't wait for book three.
  • P.S. I Like You, by Kasie West. I got this book for S for Christmas because I thought it sounded cute, and then decided I had probably better read it myself to be sure. And how often do you a find a YA that takes place in Phoenix?? After a rough, choppy start (think oddly disjointed sentence flow, stilted dialogue, me thinking, "Grrr, I was an Arizona high schooler and my experience was nothing like this!"), some sort of unseen transition occurred and the dialogue became funny, the characters became real, the romance gave me butterflies, and I was utterly charmed. Enough so that I passed that late night reading point of no return and had to finish the book before finally going to bed around 2 a.m. A quick, cute, fun read! I’ll definitely be looking for more Kasie West novels.
  • Ever the Hunted, by Erin Summerill. Though this book has an absolutely stunning cover design (and I am a sucker for cover design!), my overall feeling about the story inside the covers was a resounding “meh.” I was tentatively interested and engaged in the beginning (world-building concerns were primarily what kept me from being fully interested and engaged), and then halfway through I got bored. The romance, which had an interesting hook and tension to start with, was resolved too quickly for me. Though the plot kept a tidy pace, it still somehow managed to feel mired and slow to me. The plot development on the last page was intriguing, but probably not enough to motivate me to pick up the next book when it comes out.
  • Snow White: A Graphic Novel, by Matt Phelan. I loved the aesthetic and storytelling of this graphic novel. Easy to read in one sitting, it situates the traditional Snow White story in New York in the 1920s and the Great Depression. Samantha White (her mother calls her “Snow”) lives in NYC, and after her mother dies when she is young, her businessman father remarries a star performer of the Follies—enter evil stepmother! You know how the story goes from there. I love the twists that evoke the original fairytale while adjusting it to fit in the new time period. A ticker tape stands in for the magic mirror, seven street urchins remind the reader of dwarves in a forest, and a detective investigating the case of a mysteriously sleeping girl found in the display window of a department store makes for a modern prince charming. There are few words in the graphic novel, but the expressive art clearly tells the tale.
  • The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz. This Canterbury Tales-esque story follows three unique young people and one very special dog in France in the 1240s—Jeanne, a peasant girl on the run from the authorities who experiences prophetic visions; Jacob, a Jewish boy with mysterious healing powers who has escaped the hate-fueled burning of his village; William, an unusual oblate endowed with colossal strength; and Gwenforte, Jeanne’s beloved greyhound, long dead and yet somehow returned to her. Though the storytelling is fast-paced, it somehow still manages to be a slow burner, with a powerful payoff. Also, it's really funny. I mean, there’s a farting dragon! The humor is definitely a hallmark of the story, but it also depicts people in all their complexity, and its ruminations on prejudice and tolerance are especially important. It could also serve as a master class on how to use modern speech in a historical (or fantasy) setting without it sounding jarring, inappropriate, or false. Highly recommended!


Things I’m Currently Reading

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. As I continue my incursions into the Bill Bryson audiobook realm, I recently started this one, wherein BB takes on science, the universe, and everything! Completely fascinating, and makes me want to learn more about all the topics he covers. His wit and his knack for finding and relating bizarre footnotes to history delight, as ever.
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill. This one is hitting all the right fairytale buttons for me. I adore Fyrian the Perfectly Tiny Dragon (he’s prone to crying), and I’m not even 100 pages in. But, I had to take a break from this one so I could starting reading…
  • A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab. AHHHHHHHAGHAIOHGALIFBHALKHGHLGIagahgipuahg’gauug GO AWAY I’M READING


Things I’m Looking Forward to Reading

  • Rat Queens #1, by Kurtis Wiebe and Owen Gieni. Rat Queens is back with Image Comics and a new artist (astute blog readers and comics fans might recognize his name from Manifest Destiny)! It looks like they’ll be doing a kind of reboot of the series, which honestly I’m down with since, storywise, the last issues before all the artist kerfuffle and hiatus went down were kind of going in a weird direction. I’m hoping it’s fun and awesome and helps me forget all the strangeness that went on with the artists and story. Out on March 1st, 2017.
  • The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. You can click on the picture to read the blurb—it sounds amazing, and has been getting some great reviews. I don’t think I’ve read a Scalzi novel I didn’t like, and this one sounds especially cool. Can’t wait to get my hands on it! Too much to hope he’ll be promoting it at Phoenix Comicon this year? Out on March 21st, 2017.


Well, that’s it from me this month. What’s been on your TBR? What are you looking forward to reading next? Let us know in the comments!

**All books purchased or borrowed from the library. An e-ARC of Ever the Hunted was received from the publisher via NetGalley, but this short review is based on my reading of a finished copy. As ever, much as we are grateful for review copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by the source of said copies, or by anyone else, for that matter.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Some of My Favorites From 2016

2017 may be well and truly underway by now, but since it’s been a while since I last posted, I thought I’d take a moment to look back on some of my favorite reads from last year.

New Favorite Series: The Amory Ames books, by Ashley Weaver
These books are so much fun. Amory Ames, a well-to-do uppercrust-y British lady in the ‘20s-’30s, solves murder mysteries and contends with her flirtatious and flighty husband, Milo. Though by the third book the romantic tension that came from her estrangement from her husband has been mostly resolved, the mysteries are interesting enough and her and Milo’s relationship sweet enough that I stuck around. Three books out so far, and I can’t wait for more! Thanks to Susan for turning me on to this series!

Best Non-Fiction Book: All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister
Everyone should read this book, regardless of their sex, but especially, DEFINITELY if you are female. It doesn’t matter whether you are single or attached, gay or straight (this is starting to ring a bell—I feel like I’ve written this for the blog before), rich or poor—it’s a book about feminism and what it’s like to be a woman in the world, what it’s BEEN like to be a woman in the world since time immemorial. It seems to go without saying in our current political climate that there are those who feel threatened by the titular “rise of an independent nation” of females, and this book will empower you to fight back.

Best Graphic Novels of the Year: Too Many to List, Nearly
I read a *lot* of graphic novels last year, and loved most of them. I’ll try to limit myself to one line about each that I’m featuring here.
• Lumberjanes: Female friendship and the fun adventures of summer camp, with a delightful dose of the supernatural and humor added to the mix.
• Bitch Planet: Just what the doctor ordered for reading on 11/09/2016. That was probably the only day in my life when I have seriously (and I mean seriously) considered getting a tattoo, and it was going to say “non-compliant.”
• Paper Girls: More female friendship + supernatural, but with more of a sci-fi bent and some good old fashioned ‘80s fun. It’s kooky! It’s crazy! I loved it! (Also, it seems to live in the same ballpark of my brain as Stranger Things, for what it’s worth.)
• Monstress: Scary/sad/icky-at-times ruminations on war in a fantasy world, but with truly stunning art and an ever-deepening world that continues to draw me in. It’s kinda like a blend of manga and American comic traditions, and the result is completely unique.
• Rat Queens: I just discovered this series in 2016, and I really, really love it. The female friendships (which seems to be a theme for my 2016 graphic novel readings) are hilariously real, and the good-natured pokes at the fantasy genre made me laugh out loud while reading. I know there has been some weirdness regarding the continuation of the series, but I really hope it does continue.

Best Series Ender: Morning Star, by Pierce Brown
The Red Rising series has been one of my absolute favorites of recent years, and though this final entry may not have eclipsed Golden Son as my favorite of the series, it was very, very good. There’s one thing that came up at the end that I’m still ambivalent about that I’m not going to talk about here because spoilers, but it was a sweeping, emotional end to a fantastic trilogy. I’m looking forward to seeing what the author does with this world next.

Best Soul-Nourishing Heart-Book: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
Starting this book felt like sinking into a feather bed. I felt the same way reading it that I did reading some of my favorite books from my childhood—Ella Enchanted, especially—but in a more mature way, if that makes sense. I’m sure it’s already been said in the jacket blurbs for the book, but it is fairy tale for grown-ups, and perfect. I can’t think of one thing I would change about it. The engagement I felt while reading it, the intense need to just not.stop.reading, and the happiness I felt after finishing it—I just haven’t felt that way about a book in a long while.

Best New-to-Me Series: The Shades of Magic Series, by V.E. Schwab
If Uprooted nourished the historical fairytale side of my reading personality, The Shades of Magic books nourish the slightly darker, sharper facet of said personality. These books are witty, and wise, and harrowing, and FUN. I love them. A Darker Shade of Magic and Uprooted are the two books I bought for everyone for Christmas, and everyone knows that when I get militantly insistent about reading a certain book, I must really, REALLY adore it.

Best Book That Nourished Yet Another Facet of My Literary Personality: The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath, by Ishbelle Bee
So, if I had to pick a couple authors to typify these various sides of my literary personality, one might be the Gail Carson Levine/Megan Whalen Turner/Elizabeth C. Bunce side (the side Uprooted appeals to). Another might be the Holly Black/Neil Gaiman side (where The Shades of Magic gets mentally filed for me). And yet another, the present one, would be the Catherynne Valente side. I love books that are magical and poetic and feel like they speak directly to me, touch my heart, in the way that art can. Mirror & Goliath has that sort of sensory language and intense imagery, and at times feels almost stream-of-consciousness (though the storytelling is still quite clear!), similar to some of my favorite Cat Valente stories. It is a beautiful book, and I loved it.

So those were some of my favorites from last year, and here, very quickly, is a preview of the books I’m most looking forward to in 2017!



What were some of your favorite reads of 2016? What are you looking forward to reading in the year to come? Hit up the comments and let us know!

**Where did the books come from? Glad you asked! Purchased: Rat Queens, Morning Star, A Darker Shade of Magic (well, library, then purchased a copy), and A Gathering of Shadows. Library: The Amory Ames books, All the Single Ladies, Bitch Planet, and Paper Girls. ARC from publisher: Lumberjanes (physical copy) and Monstress (digital copy). ARC from publisher, then either purchased or checked out from library: Uprooted (ARC, then purchased) and Mirror & Goliath (ARC, then libraried). As ever, much as we are grateful for review copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by the source of said copies, or by anyone else, for that matter.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath

Title: The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath
Author: Ishbelle Bee
Publisher: Angry Robot
Publication Year: 2015
Read: July 2016
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley + Hard copy from library
Genre: Dark-fantasy-fairy-tale-for-grown-ups
Rating: 4.5 Ladybirds

If your preference is for linear, straightforward storytelling and practical prose in your reading, this might not be the book for you. That disclaimer out of the way, however, I can assure you that I loved this book. Really, really loved it. Y’know, I really hate comps for describing books, because they usually end up being completely off in the ways that matter, but the comps to Catherynne Valente and Neil Gaiman on the back cover did a nice job of approximating the feel of this book. I would add to that a bit—Valente and Gaiman by way of Dickens and Carroll, resulting in something that is in conversation with those authors, but unique in its own right.

Mirror is a young girl traveling back from Egypt with her protector Goliath Honey-Flower. However, Mirror has not always been Mirror—she used to be Myrtle, with two sisters and a sinister grandfather, living in Victorian London. But then her grandfather locked her in a strange clock to die, and something changed, and when the policeman Goliath rescued her and sent her grandfather to prison, something was different. For Goliath, too. No longer a policeman, he can change shape and is determined protect his young charge and help her solve the mystery of what happened to her in the clock.

John Loveheart was an aristocratic young boy, with a sick mother and an evil aunt and a father in over his head. When a demon called Mr. Fingers comes to collect his due from John’s father, John finds himself orphaned and then adopted by the Lord of the Underworld. Driven mad and wicked (though not as wicked as some), now he is a young lord, bound to do Daddy’s bidding around London, and Daddy wants Mirror. Something powerful that has escaped Mr. Fingers for some time resides in her, and he believes consuming it will add to his power.

There are many other characters and plots and tangentially related stories interwoven around this basic story, which may at first seem disparate, but weave together beautifully to form a beautiful whole of interrelated people, pieces, and parts. The climax of what might be called the main plot occurs about a third of the way into the book, and then the reader is left teetering on that edge as the following chapters change narrators and settings and jump back and forth in the timeline (that nonlinear storytelling I mentioned earlier). This could’ve had the potential to be confusing, but in fact has the effect of filling in the story and backstory around our central tale of Mirror and Goliath and Loveheart and Mr. Fingers, giving a greater view of the world and the events of the story, with all of the interconnected threads lending it a great emotional resonance.

The beautifully poetic writing only adds to this emotional resonance, and is evocative in an almost synesthetic way. It’s probably what some may call “purple prose” (which I just think some people use as a pejorative way to refer to lyrical writing when it’s not to their tastes), but I think its lyricism holds magic and power. This story is at its heart a fairy tale, and a dark one—modern in many ways, but as old as time in others, with that current of magic and power and truth you can feel in the old tales, and when you’re lucky, in the new ones, too. It may not be a book for everyone, but it was definitely a book for me.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Comics Review: Monstress

Title: Monstress (Issues #1-6)
Author: Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics
Publication Date: Trade paperback collecting issues #1-6 to be released on July 19th, 2016
Read: July 2016
Where It Came From: Digital ARCs from publisher via NetGalley
Genre: Fantasy-sci-fi-horror-graphic-novel?
Rating: 4 Mask Pieces

Hey, remember when I was talking about how much I love Image Comics? Here’s another one from them! I saw issues of Monstress on the counter at my Friendly Local Comic Shop a couple months ago and was really drawn to the art, but, as is usual for me, I decided to wait for the trade paperback to come out. However! When issues #1-6 recently came up on NetGalley in anticipation of said trade paperback releasing later this month, I couldn’t resist the chance to catch up on what I’ve been missing with this title.

Monstress is the story of Maika, an Arcanic (a.k.a. supernatural hybrid) teenage girl. She lives in a world still rife with conflict between Arcanics and humans after a great war between the two. Arcanics are being captured and sold as slaves to humans, and a powerful religious organization of human women called the Cumaea performs experiments on Arcanics and murders them to harvest a magical substance called lilium from their bones. Maika and her best friend Tuya are just trying to settle down and find normalcy again after surviving the war, but Maika has a secret. There is a monster living inside of her—literally—and it hungers for blood and violence. As Maika’s control over it weakens, she travels to the city of Zamora, located at the edge between the territory of the Federation of Man and the land of the Arcanics, to look for answers in perhaps the most dangerous place possible.

And that’s just the beginning of the first issue! A lot of ground is covered, story-wise, and it took me a few issues to get a good mental handle on the world and the moving pieces of the plot. However, the richness of the world-building really is beautiful as it unfolds, and to call it simply Asian-inspired seems to somehow be an inadequate description. It is a fantasy world, to be sure, but the nods to and nuances of a diversity of Asian cultures from our world are incorporated seamlessly, and come together with all of the imaginative fantasy elements to form something new and singular. I believe in the letters section of one of the issues, creator Liu talks about how she wanted the comic to reflect the hybrid nature of Asia itself, and I think this was accomplished masterfully.

The comic also does a masterful job of demonstrating the horrors and atrocities of war and its aftermath, which only takes on even greater depth and meaning when you learn that some of the inspiration for this story comes from the experiences of the author’s grandparents. And I will be honest—the violence and horror in that first issue (murder of children, implied cannibalism, references to rape) made me feel so sick to my stomach that I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue reading. But I did, and I’m glad I did—violence is still a part of the comic, as you would expect of a story concerned with war, but in later issues I didn’t find it was quite as much at the forefront of the storytelling as it was in that first issue. For me, the story really hit its stride in issues four and on, when other places and characters from the fringes of the world as we know it so far start to become tied in to Maika’s story, and some questions begin to be answered to a degree (and of course new ones come up). And that ending to issue six was a killer!

Let’s talk about Sana Takeda’s art for a moment, because it is absolutely stunning—beautiful, with a sort of Art Deco, steampunk vibe, and manga-esque touches here and there that add to that hybrid-Asia atmosphere that this comic does so well. For all the violent, scary things that her art depicts in this story, there is also room for occasional hits of the super-cute (Kippa the kitsune-like fox child hugging her own big fluffy tail makes me squee every time), as well as really just staggering splendor and detail (Corvin D’Oro, anyone?). Completely frame-worthy.

Overall, though the initial level of violence and gore made me squeamish and I was a bit confused about the history and mythology of the setting, as I continued reading, the decrease in depicted violence and further clarification about murky aspects of Maika’s world (the quick lessons from the cat Professor Tam Tam at the end of each issue were helpful, too) helped me to become invested in the story, and now I can’t wait to find out what happens next (because that issue six, you guys!!). And though I am not one to usually buy single issues of comics, knowing that there are fun extras like letters and additional art might convert me, at least in the case of Monstress!

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copies, our review is uninfluenced by their source.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Cookbook Review: Asian Pickles

Title: Asian Pickles: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Cured, and Fermented Preserves from Korea, Japan, China, India, and Beyond
Author: Karen Solomon
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Year: 2014
Read: 2014-present (future, too, most certainly)
Where It Came From: Digital ARC direct from publisher + hard copy from library
Genre: Cookbook of International Delights
Rating: 5 Happy, Healthy Pickling Beds

Living in Japan cultivated in me a healthy respect for the pickle, far beyond the definition as I came to understand it in my youth (“pickle” being synonymous with “cucumber” to me at the time, and of which there were only the options of dill and sweet). Well, I suppose on my mother’s side of the family we had the purple, Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of pickled eggs, but to my southwestern born-and-bred palate, the color was shocking, as was the thought of a protein rather than the accepted vegetable being the subject of said pickling.

But in Japan, my concepts of what makes a pickle were broadened beyond my wildest dreams. After a trial by fire with umeboshi (seriously, my Western palate ignored the “pickled” part of the translation of “pickled plum,” and focused on the “plum” to expect something sweet. It was not sweet.), it was as if I had survived my hazing to join a not-so-secret society of briny, fermented, vinegary delights. The small side dishes of pickled vegetables to accent the meal became my favorite part of the spread at the dinner table with my host family, and I would question my host mom relentlessly about them. What vegetable? What do I eat it with? Local specialty? Homemade or store-bought? Which is not to say every pickle I encountered in my time living in Japan or in my travels around Asia was exactly to my tastes (I still remember fondly many occasions on the Kyoto city bus when I would suddenly get a hit of a really unpleasant smell and think, “Oh no, farts from strangers,” only to look around and see a little old lady holding a freshly purchased culprit package of some pickled item from the market), but I am rather proud of the fact that I would try at least once nearly anything offered to me.

And after my experiences with Japanese pickles, anything was fair game. Korean banchan! Pickles from Vietnam! I would try all the things!! I loved it all, but it never really occurred to me that these were things I could make at home. Well, it did occur to me, but it seemed like a magical process too esoteric and specialized for me to pull off on my own. Moving back stateside made it much more difficult for me to get my pickle-fix, and my mind turned to making pickles of my own. There were books out there with info about Japanese pickle-making, certainly, but it seemed time-consuming, with considerable expense for materials and special, difficult-to-source ingredients. I tried my hand at some simple Korean pickles, but nothing too complicated. I also made some quick fridge takuan daikon radish pickles for an aunt who enjoys them, but that was about the extent of my experimentation. Overall, I felt kind of blind in my pursuit of pickles like those I ate abroad.

And now we come to the actual book review. I was super excited to hear about Asian Pickles prior to its publication, because a book covering basic pickle traditions from countries across Asia, with an emphasis on accessibility, sounded like just the thing I was looking for. And it did not disappoint! The book covers pickles and pickle-adjacent foods from many Asian countries, from classics to pickles of the author's own creation inspired by the flavors and pickle-making techniques of the country, and from simple pickles with a broad appeal, to more complicated, challengingly flavored ones for those who have reached graduate-level in their pickle studies.

There are chapters devoted to Japan, Korea, China, India, and Southeast Asia (the latter containing recipes from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia). Each chapter opens with a quick, fun look at the history and culture of pickles in that particular place, followed by suggestions and ideas for when and how to serve the pickles that follow, and a primer on basic techniques of pickle-making in the culture in question. And then the recipes, oh delightful recipes! The recipes for each country are divided or categorized in a way that makes sense for them. For example, Japan is divided into traditional recipes, and new recipes inspired by the traditional. India is divided into pickles and chutneys. Korea is divided into kimchis and banchans. And so on. The book is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of pickles in each culture, but rather to provide an accessible way to bring traditional recipes, flavors, and techniques into your home, and to inspire you in your own creations and further forays into the world of Asian pickles. And accessibility is key to the author—in her introduction, she promises to provide DIY alternatives to special equipment, and to not ask readers to buy special tools or hard-to-find ingredients unless absolutely necessary to the success of a recipe. Any unfamiliar terms or ingredients can be found in the glossary at the back of the book (along with ideas on where you can buy them), and there is also a resource list of books, magazines, and websites for further research.

The writing is easy reading, fun, and humorous, like you’ve got a pickle-making friend who is just chatting with you about a mutual interest, sharing her tips and knowledge (one of my favorite tips—use a teaspoon instead of a potato peeler to peel away the thin skin of ginger and other rhizomes. Genius!). It’s as much fun to simply sit and read as it is to cook from. And the photos are absolutely gorgeous! I was having a Pavlovian response as I paged through the book, admiring the bright colors and imagining the walloping flavor punches packed by the pickles on the page. Overall, a great book and one I will be adding to my personal collection. I think next on my to-pickle list will be the Kyoto-specific, Kyoto-nostalgic senmaizuke , or “Thousand Slices” Turnips from page twenty-four.

*Additional important facts:

  • I ate some homemade kimchi before writing this.
  • I have a dog named Pickle, completely independent of any love I bear the food of the same name. (She had picked out her name long before I learned the joys of fermented veggies.)
  • Once, at a school I was teaching at in Japan, I was very surprised to find a huge glass jar of plums sitting in alcohol on the counter, which the teachers were making into umeshu. No one could understand why I was mildly shocked to find liquor being produced in the teacher’s workroom.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Image Comics Round-Up: Limbo, WicDiv, Paper Girls, and More!

I’ve tried some superhero graphic novels in my day, but I can never seem to get into much in the DC/Marvel worlds (Ms. Marvel being the exception). Enter Image Comics! Pretty much all of the graphic novels I read on a regular basis come from this publisher. I’ve been trying a lot of different series of theirs in recent months, and thought I’d do a little round-up post of what I’ve thought of my readings so far.

Limbo is a backwater swamp-noir, with voodoo in its veins and a touch of Lovecraft woven into the mix, with hints of the ‘80s and an analog vibe to round out the palate. Sound eclectic? It is, but the moving parts all come together smoothly to spin a story with some deeply creepy moments, a mystery that starts out simple and gains momentum and complexity, and the overall puzzle of our amnesiac P.I.’s origins and the world he finds himself living in. On a few occasions there was some convoluted philosophical-esque stuff that I wanted to tl;dr, and some of the reveals about P.I. Clay were dark enough to be almost depressing, but overall I enjoyed it. This trade encompasses a complete story arc, but enough mysteries remain that I might seek out the next volume to find out what’s in store for Dedande and its denizens. Also, the included extras were really, really awesome.

I.D. reads like the graphic novel equivalent of a short story. It fits the sci-fi category in terms of both the medical main concept of the story (brain transplants) and the setting (we get hints of non-Earth colonies and terraforming). Still, the main concerns of the story seem to be philosophical and psychological, as three previously-unknown-to-each-other characters consider having their brains transplanted to new bodies. What would motivate a person to take such drastic action? How would personal identity fare in such a situation? The art is absolutely beautiful, and the storytelling has an ethereal, vague quality, creating the necessary shape of the story while leaving much of the surrounding information amorphous, conveying details that create character depth in few pages and hint at further depth, while dancing airily around the questions those hints and nuances tease out of the reader. It’s a story that I can respect, but not the kind of thing I’d go back and re-read.

The Wicked + The Divine is pure delight for me. In an alternate modern day, every ninety or so years twelve gods are incarnated as humans, with a 2-year expiration date on life. For those two years after awakening, they are music stars with fanatic followers, zealot-y anti-fans, and skeptics as well. Are these people really gods in the flesh? Are they just crazy, deluded young people out for fame and fortune? A young woman from the “fanatic follower” category finds herself embroiled in the world of the twelve and their caretaker/advisor, and begins to see that there’s a lot more going on under the surface of the phenomenon. The art is quite stunning, with a fresh, clean-cut style, and a bit of neon-hip edge, unlike anything I’ve seen before. Some shocking moments and reveals keep me plowing through the trades.

Paper Girls comes from Brian K. Vaughan, the mind behind the immensely popular Saga (which it perhaps inevitably draws comparisons to). The short pitch: In the late ‘80s, four preteen newspaper delivery girls out running their routes stumble upon some seriously weird shit. This one was super fun for me because I went into it with no idea that it was going to veer into sci-fi at all. The whole time I was like, “What the hell is happening?!”—and I absolutely loved it. It’s strange and wonderful and weird and crazy and completely its own thing in the way that Saga is, but strangewonderfulweirdcrazy in its own brand new ways, though you can see how the same mind dreamt them up. Awesome art, with a neon suburban ‘80s vibe, and plenty of mystery to keep me looking forward to future volumes.

Shutter is another one that has drawn comparisons to Saga, and unfairly so, in my opinion. (The only time I thought about Saga while reading this was when the main character’s talking, helpful Felix the Cat clock was introduced. I remember thinking, “Hey, another comic I love with a cat that talks! Cool!” And that was it. The word Saga didn’t even come into my brain.) Said main character is Kate Kristopher, who lives in a wild, eclectic version of modern day Earth. As the daughter of a famous explorer, she spent her youth and teen years traveling the world with her father, until a tragedy caused her early retirement. Now, however, sinister and mysterious forces hunting her down have forced her out of retirement and back into the world of adventuring and hidden family secrets. The art didn’t do as much for me as in other comics like Paper Girls and The Wicked + The Divine, but I didn’t mind it. Beware of occasional and unsettling intrusions of gore and violence, though.

What are your latest graphic novel discoveries and obsessions? Let us know in the comments!

Limbo, by Dan Watters & Caspar Wijngaard
Published by Image Comics (June 2016)
Read in July 2016; e-ARC from NetGalley
3.5 Stars

I.D., by Emma Ríos
Published by Image Comics (June 2016)
Read in July 2016; e-ARC from NetGalley
3 Stars

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1: The Faust Act, by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, & Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics (2014)
Read in May 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
4 Stars

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 2: Fandemonium, by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, & Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics (2015)
Read in June 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
4 Stars

Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, & Matthew Wilson
Published by Image Comics (April 2016)
Read in May 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
5 Stars

Shutter, Vol. 1: Wanderlost, by Joe Keatinge, Leila del Duca, & Owen Gieni
Published by Image Comics (2014)
Read in June 2016; Paper copy checked out from library
4 Stars

*As ever, much as we are grateful for review copies, our reviews are uninfluenced by their source.

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