Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Obligatory Top 10 of 2013

Well, 2013 is nearly gone and 2014 is almost upon us. Susan and I have spent a bit of time discussing our best (and worst) reads of the past year, and as I’ve never met a list I didn’t like, I thought I’d write out the run-down of my 10 favorite books of the last 365 days. To be clear, this is my top ten books that I read in 2013, not that I read that were published in 2013. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even read ten that were published this year. Hold on, let me count…yep, only four on my list were published this year. But what does it matter when a book was published if it’s good? That reminds me of another life improvement I made in the latter months of this year—dropping bad books. I used to always want to finish reading every book I started, even if I didn’t particularly like it, just for the sake of completeness, giving the book a chance, finishing things I start, etc. This unfortunately led to me getting mired down in books that ended up being poorly written or just not for me and sometimes even taking a break from reading all together because I was so sick of the book I was in the middle of. Then I read some quote (on Pinterest, in a cool font on a pretty background, naturally) about how you only have so many hours of reading time before you’re dead, so make sure you’re not wasting those hours on things you’re not enjoying reading. This of course applies to life in general and not just reading, but seeing it made me finally realize the ridiculosity of forcing myself through books that were boring or just plain bad simply because I had the misfortune to pick them up in the first place. This new knowledge having dawned on me like a glowing sunrise of the brain, I decided to test the waters and quit reading the book I was attempting to slog through at that moment. I returned it to the library. And I. Felt. LIBERATED! Within 2 weeks I’d abandoned two more books I wasn’t enjoying. It was great! No time in this life for books not worth the time required to read them! And from that vantage point, I present to you the ten books I read in 2013 that were most worthy of my time. The first four are in order of my top very favoritest favorites, and the rest of the list is in no particular order.

A’s Best Books of 2013

  1. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. This book hit so many of my awesome book buttons it’s not even funny. I enjoyed it SO MUCH that I didn’t even write a review of it for the blog because I couldn’t properly organize my thoughts about it to say anything beyond OH MAH GOD SO GOOD. I’ve been describing it to people by saying it’s what might result if The Phantom Tollbooth and Abarat had a baby, with something else magical added to the mix. It’s got whimsy, it’s got cleverness, it’s got intelligence, it’s got a solid foundation in folklore and the storytelling tradition, it’s got FEELS…and it’s got one of the most suckerpunch final paragraphs I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read this book, go do it now. Catherynne Valente is good stuff.

  2. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. Speaking of suckerpunches…this is the book that made me cry for the last 50 pages. Which might not sound like fun, but it was. It’s a sad book about friends involved in the British war effort of World War II, but it’s not Jodi-Picoult-weepy by any means. It’s the kind of book that makes you feel fuller and better after having read it. It’s twisty and turny and a wonderful book about friendship. I can’t wait to read the companion novel, Rose Under Fire, which just came out this year. Elizabeth Wein—good stuff again. (Full review here.)

  3. A Conspiracy of Kings, by Megan Whalen Turner. Oh MWT, you have been on my list of favorite authors for even longer than Holly Black. How I wish I could visit the Ancient Mediterranean/Byzantine-inspired world of your books and hang out in the courts of Attolia, the forests of Eddis, and the…well, I can’t think of anything in particular to recommend Sounis, other than Sophos. Sophos was sweet and adorable in The Thief, and I am so, so glad he got his own book. He grows up as the world around him is facing tumultuous times, and he learns to take his place in that world and help change and guide it through what is coming. People love Gen, and I most certainly do, but I love Sophos, too. I felt such a sense of joy upon finishing this book that I’m not sure I’ve felt after reading all that many others, and I can’t wait for the next one. If you haven’t tried this series, you don’t know what you’re missing. Get on it.

  4. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black. Megan Whalen Turner, and now Holly Black! So many of my long-standing favorite authors provided some of my best reads this year. This compulsively readable, edgy vampire tale was a great standalone, and I wouldn’t say no to any sequels if they were to come along. I don’t know what the magic is in Holly Black’s writing, but she enchants everything she touches, and I can’t wait to read what she does next. (Full review here.)

  5. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi. When people talk about their favorite sci-fi books, John Scalzi’s name usually comes up. His books had always been on my mental longlist of things to read someday, but seeing him at Phoenix Comicon in the spring spurred me to bump his debut novel up the list. I’d not have predicted that military sci-fi would be my thing, but while there were certainly moments of squeamishness for me, the book was funny, intelligent, and a pleasure to read. It was the sort of book where I’d put it down to eat a meal, and then after eating, think, okay, maybe a couple more pages… and before I knew it the book was over. I still haven’t gotten to the sequels, but I definitely have them on my list to pick up in 2014. (Full review here.)

  6. Paper Towns, by John Green. I guess there’s not really much for me to say about John Green that hasn’t been said before, eh? His books tap into what it feels like to be a young adult, but you don’t have to be a young adult to understand and appreciate the stories he tells and the characters he creates. In my opinion at least, they have an undeniable realness to them that can’t help but engender empathy in the reader. Paper Towns is witty, thoughtful, and compelling. The question of what happened to Margo kept me tearing through the pages until there was no more to read.

  7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Unknown. I listened to the audiobook of Simon Armitage’s translation of this classic, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. This is a poem that is meant to be heard, and the translator’s foreword helped me appreciate aspects of the text I might have missed otherwise, such as the purpose of the alliteration and the bob-and-wheel pattern. All poetry geeking aside, though, I think anyone can appreciate the rhythm, flow, and legendary quality of this poem. Check your library’s digital collection for the audio version, and then read it, too! (Full review here.)

  8. Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne M. Valente. Hey look, it’s Catherynne Valente again! Whereas her other book on this list is a middle grade/YA-ish novel, this one is most decidedly for grown-ups. The poetry of her writing is staggering, and this Wild West Snow White tale is drenched in mythology and folklore, as I’ve come to expect from her. It was my first read from Cat V, and it immediately cemented her into my pantheon of favorites. If you can track this one down or download it for your e-reader, it will be well worth it. (Full review here.)

  9. The Different Girl, by Gordon Dahlquist. This quiet, intelligent, slow-burn of a book has really stuck with me since I read it in November. Gordon Dahlquist was already a favorite of mine when I picked this up, but I’d never read any sci-fi from him before and I think he nailed it. The way it makes you think about things, and then think about thinking about things, and examine what defines “human” is really quite masterful. And did I mention how refreshing it is to read a YA book without any romance at all? It’s the sort of book that leaves you with questions, but the mystery and the need to use your brain to make inferences is half the fun. (Full review here.)

  10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman. I thoroughly enjoy Neil Gaiman, and his latest was no exception. This slim volume is by turns creepy, eerie, and moving. The story of a man remembering a frightening and otherworldly experience from his childhood and the family of three women who helped him through it reminded me a little of Doctor Who at times (in all the best ways), and the little twist in the final moments of the book really tied it all together and made it extra affecting.

I’m looking forward to more good reads in 2014, especially with my newly adopted stance of dropping books I’m not enjoying. Off the top of my head, I’m looking forward to more from Cat Valente, Libba Bray’s next Diviners book, and the final volume in Moira Young’s Dust Lands trilogy. And of course I hope to make more progress on my backlogged to-reads as well! What were some of the best things you read this past year? What’s looking good to you in 2014?

We at Read This / Eat That thank you for your readership, comments, and kindness this past year as we tried to work out the kinks in running a books-and-food blog, and we wish you all the best in the coming year as the countdown begins. 3…2…1…

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Docket: The Name of the Wind

Hello, dear readers! We are so sorry for the long drought of post-less days and weeks. WE ARE DESOLATE WITHOUT YOU!!! But, holidays. You know how it is. Book club waits for no season, however, and our WordNerds pick for December, and in all likelihood January, and due to the 700+ page count, maybe even February too, is the much-loved first entry in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, The Name of the Wind. (Alyssa has an unfortunate tendency to mix its title up with that of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, despite the completely different subject matter.) People love love LOVE this book (maybe you are one of these people?), and fantasy-enthusiast Alyssa doesn’t know how she has managed to not read it yet. Susan has lately been expanding her forays into the realms of fantasy fiction for grown-ups and has started this one already. Have you read it? Do you love it? Here’s what Amazon has to say about the plot:

The riveting first-person narrative of a young man who grows to be the most notorious magician his world has ever seen. From his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime-ridden city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that transports readers into the body and mind of a wizard. It is a high-action novel written with a poet's hand, a powerful coming-of-age story of a magically gifted young man, told through his eyes: to read this book is to be the hero.
Based on what friends have had to say and the smattering of pages we’ve progressed through, this seems to be a book that defies blurbing and has the weight of the praise of highly regarded authors and publications behind it. Think Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Robin Hobb, Locus…all give it glowing reviews. We hope to add ours to theirs in the coming weeks, so please join us as we get into it! Pick up a copy at the library, purchase it from your local bookstore, borrow one from a friend…or if you’re not as late to the Rothfuss party as we are, just join us in chatting about it when we finish. Allons-y!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Ermahgerd, how is November almost over?!

Hello readers! I can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving. Things have been a little slow around here due to the inescapable reality of things being busy in life, but I wanted to get one post in before the holiday madness begins. I haven’t been finishing many books lately (again with the busy), but I thought I’d do the review-in-progress thing for a couple that I’m flailing about in the middle of, note a few upcoming ones I’m looking forward to reading, and other sundry book-related stuff. I’m also very excited for Entertainment Weekly’s holiday shopping guide! It’ll have a section dedicated to books, so you can expect me to prattle on about that for a while whenever it arrives in my mailbox. So, what have I oh-so-valiantly been trying work my way through?

Books I’m Reading

Look! A pretty cover! And a biography of Cleopatra!

I’ve been stuck in the first hundred pages of this one for a couple weeks, and I just don’t understand. When this one was sitting on the library stack in the corner of my room, I would cheat on the books I was actually reading by going over and flipping through its pages, and the passages I opened up to would be really absorbing and I’d have to tear myself away to go finish the books I was focusing on. But strangely enough, now that it’s time for me to focus on this one, I can’t. It’s not that it’s boring—it’s just very slow going for me for some reason, which is so confusing considering how I got sucked in before. Ten pages is about my limit before I starting thinking to myself, I’ll just rest my eyes for a minute, and then read some more… before nodding off.

I’ve learned a lot, though—for instance, I somehow completely missed in my years of education that the Ptolemies of Egypt were not actually Egyptian at all, but Macedonian Greek. Pharaohs who weren’t Egyptian?! I feel a little betrayed! The writing somehow dances a line between feeling academic and popular history-ish, which I’m mostly okay with. But I do keep wanting the footnotes to provide deeper explanation of things mentioned in passing in the text above, rather than tangents with little to do with the thing they’re footnoting. And that’s another thing I’m having trouble with: The author, though writing a biography for general consumption, presupposes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and mentions esoterica in passing with a feeling of, “Oh, everyone knows about that!”, or will refer to interesting things obliquely and then not provide further information. For example, there’ll be something like, “Though Cleopatra made terrible snickerdoodles, there was in fact an ancient king in the middle east who made the most scrumptious cookies around,” and then move on to talk about Cleopatra and Marc Antony’s home life WITHOUT TELLING US WHO MADE AWESOME COOKIES. So…we’ll see. This one might be going back to the library without me finishing it, but I’ll try a little more first.

I’ve only read one of the short stories in this anthology, but I’m enjoying it so far. It’s a book of retro sci-fi stories about “Old Mars,” a.k.a the Mars of aliens and canals and Edgar Rice Burroughs, compiled by longtime partners-in-editing, George R. R. Martin (of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fame) and Gardner Dozois. I like the idea of taking the older, pre-space exploration sci-fi ideas and bringing them back and revisiting them in an era after the discovery that the reality of Mars is not completely in line with the imaginations of those early sci-fi writers. There’s an element of fantasy to it (which I guess can be said of all sci-fi, when you get down to it), and it’s really fun. More thoughts to come after I’ve digested more stories! It’s hard to go wrong with GRRM. Which bring us to…

Books I’m Excited to Read

I know a lot of book blogs do the “Waiting on Wednesday” meme where each week on Wednesday they highlight an upcoming book that they’re excited to get their hands on, but…I’m not sure memes are my thing. And I don’t know if I could keep it up every week. AND it’s Tuesday, so I choose to be the salmon swimming against the meme current. I do what I want!!

Anyway, I am very much looking forward to the fantasy anthology Dangerous Women, edited (again) by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, out on December 3rd. Many of the stories appear to be set in fictional worlds with which I’m not terribly familiar (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, to name a few), but many seem to be standalones, too. And, of course, the main reason for my interest is GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire novella “The Princess and the Queen,” which while sadly doesn’t feature Dunk and Egg, covers the tumultuous period of the Targaryen civil war 200 years or so before the events of the ASoIaF cycle proper. I am definitely one of those OH MY GOD GAME OF THRONES BOOKS WESTEROS I LOVE YOU I WILL READ ANYTHING YOU WRITE ABOUT IT GEORGE people, so this is a wonderful thing to be published right around the holidays (say, you think they did that on purpose?). You can read an excerpt of GRRM’s story here, and find excerpts of the other stories via Tor.com as well. Entertainment Weekly gave the overall collection a B and George’s story a B+, so I’m excited to read and see how my own evaluation holds up against theirs. Oh, here’s the not-particularly-inspiring cover:

What books are you reading? What are you looking forward to picking up soon? Let us know!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: The Different Girl

Title: The Different Girl
Author: Gordon Dahlquist
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication Date: February 21st, 2013
Read: November 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: Sci-Fi
Rating: 4 Good Questions

The Quick and Dirty:

Veronika, Caroline, Isobel, and Eleanor are four girls living on a remote island with their two caretakers, Irene and Robbert. They spend their days taking walks, learning to analyze their surroundings, and napping, until one day Veronika comes across a new girl washed up on the shore. This first contact with the outside world will contrast the 4 girls’ lives in isolation with that of the different girl, and have consequences when other outsiders finally discover their island. It’s really hard to blurb this book without spoiling the fun in reading it, but I thought it was fantastic—steady, lulling reading with an unassuming depth and underlying tension that slowly builds to an affecting climax.

The Wordy Version:

Let me preface this by saying two things: First, that this wordy version will necessarily have things in it that could be deemed spoilery, and second, that this is not a book for everyone. I have been a huge fan of Gordon Dahlquist’s since reading the epic The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters (so much so that I ordered the final book of the trilogy from the UK when I learned they weren’t going to publish it in the US—who publishes 2 books of a trilogy and then backs out on the 3rd??), and while this is very, very different from that, it was so, so good. However, it is a book that requires some work on the part of the reader to get the most out of it. You have to read between the lines, look at what is going on beneath the surface, analyze things, and make some inferences if you want to piece together the greater picture. In short, you have to think like the girls in the book. If you like things laid out for you by the author to be easily understood and prefer your endings tied up in a neat bow with no remaining questions, this book might frustrate you. But it quite clearly advertises what it is. Here’s what’s printed on the back of the book: “You will have many questions. You will receive some answers. You will learn to think differently.” Big letters, bold font, easy to see. And so I was very frustrated by all the poor reviews this book has gotten on GoodReads, because in them were many complaints about the book being EXACTLY LIKE IT SAYS ON THE COVER! To my mind, those are the three perfect sentences to sum up the reading experience of this book. I had many questions. I received some answers. I had to come up with other ones myself. And I learned to think differently.

But let’s back up a bit. A self-contained YA volume with no romance?! How refreshing! And although this book is categorized as YA, I think it would be just as at home on the normal science fiction/fantasy shelf, too. The book opens with Veronika telling us this story from sometime in the future, starting with their former daily life on the island, before the different girl arrived. While Veronika, Isobel, Caroline, and Eleanor seem fairly normal for the first few pages, when it is revealed on page 17 that they go to sleep with a button click behind their ear, it becomes obvious that they are (highly advanced) androids or artificial intelligence of some sort. This early revelation resituates the reading of the book, and for me, altered conceptions that I was unaware I’d already formed. Veronika’s straightforward, almost stark narration makes more sense now. Robbert and Irene must be scientists of some type, not simply guardians. Their walks around the island and lessons are teaching the girls to analyze and think the way humans do. The girls know they are different from Robbert and Irene, but they do not see themselves as “robots”—can’t see themselves as robots since the word is never used—just a different type of people.

In their lessons they learn how to analyze, how to think, and I found this exploration of cognition and thought processes to be fascinating. For most people, how you look at the world and process things to arrive at conclusions is second nature, or first nature, really. You don’t actively think about it, you just do it. It happens in your brain without actively trying. But seeing the girls learn how to learn gave such a new, enlightening perspective. Watching them develop their thought processes in the lessons with their caretakers, and then extend that learning to things beyond what those caretakers intended and make decisions for themselves was compelling. As Caroline has dreams while she is “asleep,” and as Veronika starts making decisions to deviate from Robbert and Irene’s instructions, you see them coming closer and closer to what could be considered “human.” Some other readers seemed to find it “boring” or “slow,” but I did not.

And then comes May. Veronika finds a girl from the outside world washed up on the beach, and Robbert and Irene nurse this shipwreck survivor back to health. They don’t really know what to do about her, and worry about how she will react to the girls. When May does find out about them, she reacts with scorn and anger, in part from her grief at losing her uncle in the shipwreck, and also because of the outside world’s mistrust of technology. She sees the girls as “other,” but the girls just see her as a different and thus inherently interesting person, and as May spends time with them she learns to see them more as Robbert and Irene do.

The plot has rising action, a climax, and falling action, but it’s not the slam-bang save-the-world sort of plot that is found in a lot of dystopian fiction. It has a much more sedate, thoughtful pace, but there is a tension underlying everything that happens, and you know that it is building to something. When it gets to that something, I found the deaths to be affecting and a testament to how very real, how very person the android girls are. May goes on a similar journey, and seeing her evolving attitude toward the girls has an emotional payoff.

A lot of my enjoyment of the book came from watching things unfold as more information was revealed and pieces started to come together. My perceptions and conception of the characters, the world, and its elements were ever-changing. For example, the reader learns early in the book that the girls are some sort of advanced artificial intelligence, but as you continue reading you develop a more complete picture of them, perhaps different from your prior idea. The girls are described as one each brunette, blond, black haired, and redhead, but as you continue reading and pick up little things here and there you realize that it’s not hair like human hair, but a part of their design to convert solar energy into power. They initially seem capable of most action and movement that humans are (with the exception of swimming), but recurring mentions of the difficulty of walking in sand and holding the banister when climbing stairs show the limits of their mobility and the dangers of them falling. And it’s not until the final conflict of the book when you realize that their hands and feet are not only not capable of the dexterity and range of motion of their human versions, but also look very different, too.

This slowly unfolding and assimilation of different pieces of information also serves to fill in the background of the world. There is no infodump fully explaining the world, but here is the picture that I arrived at from all the clues and reading between the lines: Some time in the future, there is a rift in society concerning technology. Irene describes the two camps as the people who go to school and the people who “believe” (it’s been a couple weeks since I read the book, so forgive me if that wording is a little off). The people who believe have a problem with technology and, by extension, AI. The people who go to school seem to be the learned people of the world—scientists, inventors, the educated. The people-who-believe group distinction is a little murkier—it could be interpreted as the religious, or simply as anti-progress Luddite types. At any rate, the people who believe seem to have the upper hand in this conflict, as demonstrated by the fact that Irene and Robbert have to take such pains to keep the girls hidden on this remote island, and that May’s uncle seemed to be a smuggler of electronics. At one point someone mentions how the sea levels have risen, so it must be after global warming has had some effects. It may sound confusing out of context and the picture is certainly vague, but there’s enough there for the greater situation to take shape in your mind.

And yes, I did still have questions at the end, as the jacket copywriters so cleverly foresaw. Did May’s uncle and his friend die in the shipwreck? Why were Irene and Robbert the ones on the plane with the girls when they were taken to the island, and the other 16 scientists on a different plane? Were Caroline’s dreams a ghost-in-the-shell sort of occurrence, or was their prophetic nature related to her AI analytical capabilities? But these questions didn’t bother me—I enjoyed having thoughts to carry with me and ponder after the last page. I was okay with some things being left to mystery and imagination.

Overall, a really great book, and really different from most other things I’ve been reading lately. I’ve said things like exploration of cognition and the book requires work to get the most out of it, but it isn’t dense or difficult to read like that might suggest. It’s not like reading a textbook or some self-important specimen of literary fiction. I didn’t feel like it had an Agenda or anything like that. It explored the ideas of humanity and hatred-ignorance-intolerance vs. curiosity-acceptance in a microcosm of the greater world in which the story is situated, and did it in ways that I found compelling. The simplicity of the story and writing belie its depth and emotional resonance, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll go all in and recommend this book to everyone (especially sci-fi fans) to at least try, unless you know you don’t like vagueness or being left with unanswered questions at the end of a book. You may find it’s not your cup of tea, but then again, you may end up really enjoying it.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Summer's Last (Foodie) Hurrah

Though I imagine summer is already long gone in most places, in my part of the world it was still in the 90s last week and has only just dipped into chillier temperatures. So for the last hurrah of warm weather and a long-due food-related post, I thought I’d revisit some of my cross-country dining spots on the road trip this past summer that took me to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove and the Betsy-Tacy Houses in Mankato, among other places.

Now, I love the TV show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on the Food Network. I think it’s so cool that there’s a show that highlights the local mom-and-pop, something-different eateries around North America. It’s even cooler that the show helps bring these places more business—people write in to the show to suggest their favorite local spots, the powers that be choose ones for host Guy Fieri to showcase with his unique blend of jovial humor, foodieism, and respect and appreciation, and people watch the show and are inspired to go try out these places for themselves. So after discovering the nifty Flavortown USA website, with its lists and maps of all the places featured on Triple D, my ma and I decided to hit up a few of the joints in the course of our summer road trip odyssey. We also visited a couple tasty places that, while on our own local food radar, have yet to be featured on the show. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find yourself driving on the long highway through open country USA, when a belly-rumblin’ hits and you find yourself in the vicinity of one of these fine establishments. Even if you’re not, the Flavortown website is good for helping to break out of the fast food routine and find nearby Triple D locations, or to inspire an adventure to discover your own local treasure. Feeling hungry yet? All right people, let’s look at some foodstagramming!

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Mama E’s Soul Food, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. We relied on cell phone navigation to guide us to this place slightly off the beaten path, in a more residential area without many other restaurants or shops around. This no-frills establishment is located in a bright yellow structure that reminded me a bit of the portable buildings at my elementary school, but the food was darn tasty! It was my first ever chicken and waffles experience, and the Guy Fieri special was written right on the menu chalkboard displayed in the ordering area. With our meal we got chicken, a waffle, a side salad, yams, a brownie, and all-you-can drink Kool-Aid for about $14 (if I remember correctly). It was more than enough for food the both of us, and we ended up tucking the yams and brownie in our cooler for a car snack later. It looked like many a visitor had left their mark on the restaurant’s walls, but I was too shy to ask for a marker and add mine! Located at 3838 Springlake Dr., Oklahoma City, OK.

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Crispy chicken + soft waffle = texture heaven!

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Smokin’ Guns BBQ, Kansas City, Missouri. Our next Triple D stop was BARBECUE. Can’t go through Kansas City without trying it, right? As we are deviled egg aficionados, we ordered those to start with—they were pretty standard, with the restaurant’s “sweet heat” rub to liven up the classic a little bit. (They were nommed too quickly for me to get a photo.) Ma got a turkey sandwich, which she expected to be smoked turkey (since it is, y’know, a bbq place), but if it was smoked she couldn’t taste it. I, however, went all in with the spare ribs and sweet potato fries, which were also speedily nommed, as you can see in the photo. The barbecue sauce didn’t make me get up and do a jig, but it was tasty. Overall, while not the best barbecue I’ve had in my life, it was good, and a sure sight better than the fast food options that we were blowing by on the highway. Located at 1218 Swift St., North Kansas City, MO.

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OMNOMNOMNOM. I mean, yes, delicious ribs!

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Lola’s Larkspur Market, New Ulm, Minnesota. Lola’s is a nice little hipster café in downtown New Ulm. The design/décor inside is comfy, eclectic, and cool. You can eat inside or on the patio, which at the time of my visit was covered in pretty flowers in full bloom (see above photo). I ate here many times during the course of my visit. My first experience there was a disappointing pupusa that was the day’s special (I think maybe the masa had gone wonky?), but I’m happy to say things only went up from there. One day I had a Cuban sandwich with some really delightful homemade pickles (honestly, the pickles were probably my favorite part of every meal I had there…slightly sweet and spicy! Yum!). The café also has a full menu of coffee and tea drinks, along with other beverages (I think alcoholic as well?), and some tasty-looking desserts and ice cream. A wide range of drinkables and eats to suit all tastes and cravings—if you find yourself in New Ulm, stop in for a bite before heading to the Wanda Gág House, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, or some other nearby literary destination. Located at 16 North Minnesota St., New Ulm, MN.

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The Cuban sandwich with fantastic pickles!

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Cousin had a chicken potpie with a nice, flaky crust on top.

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All this, while enjoying one of the best views of the main street downtown! Lovely architecture.

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The Valpo Velvet Shoppe, a.k.a. Brown’s, Valparaiso, Indiana. While searching for this restaurant’s website, I was a having some difficulty because I couldn’t find one. Everyone in my family always refers to it as “Brown’s”—that’s the name of the family who owns and runs it, my relatives know them (indeed, many of aunts worked here in their youth!), and thus we always call it Brown’s and that’s what I was Googling. Turns out the real name is the Valpo Velvet Shoppe, after the ice cream which they are so famous for! They’ve been making ice cream since 1947, and there are all sorts of memorabilia and info about the history of the place decorating the colorful parlor. But ice cream’s not all they’re good at—they make some darn good soups and sandwiches, too. Ma and I each had a different type of breakfast sandwich, which were both so good they had disappeared by the time it occurred to me to take a picture. We also had a tasty cheesy potato soup, but strangely enough, no ice cream. Highly recommended for a light lunch or a sweet treat! Located at 55-57 W. Monroe St., Valparaiso, IN.

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Soup and a bright, welcoming atmosphere.

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Even the menu is colorful!

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Dressel’s Public House, St. Louis, Missouri. Dressel’s is located in a very hip-seeming neighborhood in St. Louis, and though we had to pay to park nearby, it was well worth it. Funnily enough, I had just been watching Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives the night before, and it was an episode featuring this place. The coincidence was too much to ignore, so we stopped here for a very yummy dinner. Although the place was hopping, we were seated immediately. But oh, what to choose from the menu of locally-sourced, sustainable goodies…

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We had no choice but to start things off with the fancy deviled eggs, and from there we decided to go with the dishes Guy Fieri sampled on Triple D. The Dressel’s pretzel with rarebit cheese dip was very tasty (although I could’ve done with a higher cheese-to-pretzel ratio), and the porchetta Louie sandwich with pork, rapini, and melty cheeses on a baguette that Guy raved about was very good, too. Of the three, though, I think my favorite was the deviled eggs! Yum. Great atmosphere, friendly staff, and awesome housemade food. Located at 419 N. Euclid Ave., St. Louis, MO.

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My photography didn’t quite capture the porky-cheesy tastiness of the sandwich, but I assure you it was great!

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Standard Diner, Albuquerque, New Mexico. For our final Triple D stop before making it back home, we gorged ourselves at the Standard Diner. Located in a remodeled Route 66 gas station from the ‘30s in downtown Albuquerque, this diner puts a modern spin on comfort food classics. Having recently discovered that the only way I like Brussels sprouts is if they’re roasted, we decided to start the meal off with some of those tossed with walnuts, capers, and I believe a bacon vinaigrette. It was phenomenal, and I will be attempting to recreate it in my own kitchen sometime soon. We also tried the day’s soup, which I think was a roasted red chile concoction? Regardless of my poor memory where soup names are concerned, I do remember that it was scrumptious. We really didn’t go wrong with the starters.

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Damn good Brussels sprouts and SOUUUUUP!

At this point we may have already been starting to feel full, but we saw that as no good reason to stop. For dinner proper, Ma went with the bacon-wrapped meatloaf that Guy recommended when the restaurant was featured on Triple D, but I was having trouble deciding between the country fried tuna and the smoked salmon + green chile mac ‘n cheese. When I explained my dilemma to the waiter, he suggested ordering the tuna and a kid’s portion of the macaroni. Best. Idea. EVER. Thanks, waiter! (Like I said, it was a decadent meal.) We shared and tried bites of everything (the lemon risotto cake with the seared country fried tuna was quite good!), and boxed up the rest to put in the hotel mini-fridge and eat for breakfast the next morning. But did we stop there? Of course not! When you’ve come that far you might as well go the whole nine, so we shared a cute little cake (seen above) for dessert. And with our bellies full and happy, we rolled ourselves back to the hotel for a nice, restful food coma. And I already have my next meal at this place picked out for whenever I find myself in Albuquerque again—huevos rancheros with hashbrowns. YUM. Located at 320 Central Ave. SE, Albuquerque, NM.

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All meatloaf should be wrapped in bacon.

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Country-frying tuna would not have been my first thought, but whoever dreamed that one up knew what they were about.

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Spicy, decadent macaroni and cheese.

The Cookbooks

So far there are three Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives cookbooks written by Guy Fieri in conjunction with Ann Volkwein, and they’re full of recipes adapted from ones provided by the proprietors of some Triple D alum restaurants. There are also lots of stories from Guy and the show’s crew about some of the behind-the-scenes things that went on and other stories from on the road, along with funny photos from filming and stories from restaurant owners about how being on the show changed their life and their business. The recipes aren’t super-detailed and the photos included are more of the good times had in making the show than in helping you to prepare the dishes, but it’s enough to teach you how to make some of the good stuff that’s graced your TV screen. And if you’re a fan you might already have an idea of how things should look and how to make them from watching the show! The printing is done in black and white with either blue or red ink thrown in (depending on the book) to liven up the pages a little. Of course I prefer full-color given the option, but this makes them a little more affordable than their color-printed brethren, with a list price of about $20 each. Ann Volkwein and Guy seem to have collaborated really well to end up with a finished product that captures Guy’s personality and way of speaking in a book that makes you feel like one of the crew. They read a little like scrapbooks of the show with recipes included, and there is a handy checklist in the back of each with the addresses and phone numbers of all the restaurants featured on the show at the time of publication. Especially enjoyable for fans of the show, but still interesting for other Triple-D-uninitiated, food-interested folk, these are a lot of fun. Fun fact: Standard Diner’s bacon-wrapped meatloaf and Pok Pok’s Vietnamese chicken wings are featured in the most recent one!
Rating: 3.5 Red Convertibles

Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives: An All-American Road Trip…with Recipes!
by Guy Fieri and Ann Volkwein
Published by William Morrow Cookbooks (2008)
Read in Fall 2013; Got it at the library

More Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives: A Drop-Top Culinary Cruise Through America’s Finest and Funkiest Joints
by Guy Fieri and Ann Volkwein
Published by William Morrow Cookbooks (2009)
Read in Fall 2013; Got it at the library

Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives: The Funky Finds in Flavortown: America’s Classic Joints and Killer Comfort Food
by Guy Fieri and Ann Volkwein
Published by William Morrow Cookbooks (May 14, 2013)
Read in Fall 2013; Got it at the library

What are your favorite local dining gems?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: The Madman’s Daughter

Title: The Madman’s Daughter
Author: Megan Shepherd
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: January 29th, 2013
Read: October 2013
Where It Came From: Library
Genre: YA-horror-science-fiction-historical
Rating: 4 H.G. Wellses

The Quick and Dirty:

Juliet Moreau has been living on her own in Victorian London, trying to scrape together a living in the shadow of her father’s disgrace. Once a prominent surgeon, Henri Moreau’s mysterious experiments led to scandal for his family, exile for him, and poverty and hardship for his daughter. As Juliet struggles on her own, she is left wondering whether her father is the warm man she remembers, or the monster that everyone says he is. So when she comes across Montgomery, her father’s old assistant, and discovers that he is still working for her father on an island in the Pacific, she convinces him to take her along on the ship back in order to finally get some answers. On the way they pick up a mysterious shipwreck survivor named Edward, who has no choice but to travel to the remote island with them. Things escalate after their arrival and less-than-welcome from her father when Juliet discovers that he has been experimenting on animals to make them more human-like, and that a killer is on the loose. Juliet knows she needs to escape the island, but doesn’t know if she will be able to escape the madness of her father’s blood in her veins. This novel, inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, while probably not for the squeamish, is an absorbing gothic thriller that I quite enjoyed.

The Wordy Version:

When this book started off with a vivisection and a wrist-tendon-cutting in the first 50 or so pages, I wasn’t sure it was the book for me. Vivisection reminds me of a traumatic experience with a Mark Twain short story, and y’know, I just like animals too much to not get upset when I read about them being tortured. (You might judge me for finding that more upsetting than someone getting the tendons in their wrist severed, but that tendon-cuttee totally deserved it, so there.) I was feeling a little nauseous, but decided to stick with the book a bit longer because despite the grossness, there was something undeniably enticing about the writing. And I’m glad I did. When I tear through a 400+ page book in less than 36 hours, that says something! (Mostly that I should probably put more of a premium on sleep and social interaction, but hey, it happens.)

The amount of horror was just right for me, since I don’t like hardcore horror very much. If you’ve inhabited society and pop culture in the past century, you probably know what The Island of Dr. Moreau is about and thus have some idea of what Juliet’s dad is up to, but there is an air of mystery and suspense in Juliet getting around to discovering the extent of her father’s nuttiness and finding out how the other characters are involved that pulls you through the story. And then of course there’s the question of how she’s going to extricate herself from this remote island incubator of crazy, AND THEN how she might manage to reintegrate into society after experiencing all of that (although that second question might be best left for the next book). Juliet herself is very concerned with the possibility of having inherited a little bit of her father’s crazy, which adds an interesting psychological slant to the story, although from the reader’s perspective it’s pretty clear that Juliet isn’t as much like her father as she fears.

And yes, this book does have THE DREADED LOVE TRIANGLE. I’m not one of those knee-jerk reaction love-triangle-haters—it can be done well, and I try to give each a fair chance before passing judgment. The Montgomery-Juliet-Edward love triangle falls firmly in the middle of the spectrum. It’s definitely not an equilateral—maybe more of an isosceles? By which I mean that 2 sides of the triangle are well-developed, but one leg is less developed and left sort of flapping in the wind (although if any triangle had a leg flapping in the wind, I guess it wouldn’t really be a triangle, so there goes my metaphor). The attraction and romance between Juliet and Montgomery was convincing and made sense—they had a history, there was chemistry, and there was appropriate conflict. How would you feel if this nice-seeming guy suddenly reveals that he’s been complicit, if not an active participant, in horrifying medical experimentation with your nutso father? There was good internal conflict for both Montgomery and Juliet, and it built into realistic obstacles to their relationship. Now, castaway Edward on the other hand… I mostly just felt he was useless. Not really offensively so. I just…didn’t know what he was doing there. Juliet kept talking about being so drawn to him, and I just didn’t feel it. It didn’t feel real. There wasn’t much chemistry, neither the readers nor she knew much about him, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t really have much personality. We are told that he is clever and educated, but it is never really shown to us in what he says or does. It wasn’t rage-inducing; I was more like Why are you here? Why aren’t you interesting? And why do you keep distracting Juliet from Montgomery? And yes, yes, Edward has a somewhat important part to play at the end of the story, but even that development failed to impress me with regards to his character. So, Montgomery and Juliet—fun to read about. Edward and Juliet? Less so.

Aside from my confusion about why Edward needed to be in the story, the only other thing that I had qualms about was the amount of time characters spent running around the jungle. And like with Edward, it was less, “This is stupid, I am angry at this writing!” and more, “Why are we doing this…? Oh, okay…” It may have bewildered me for a moment, but it didn’t disrupt my reading of the story and it was easy to forget about it and keep turning pages.

And that ending!! Oh man. Action right up until the last page, and then that cliffhanger. It was pretty awesome, and set up some promising conflict for the next book in the trilogy. (Yes, another YA trilogy. I thought with being inspired by The Island of Dr. Moreau it would be a standalone, but it looks like the next entry will take inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.) Overall, I enjoyed this one a lot. More upfront, moderate horror than truly frightening, creep-down-into-your-bones, insidiously chilling horror, it drew me in and kept me reading, even with my worries about squeamishness and a limp-legged love triangle. I plan to read the sequel come January 2014, and would think about purchasing a copy of this for my shelf.

It turned out this was a good unplanned Halloween read! Have you read anything spooky this October? What’s next on your TBR?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cookery Bookery: Pok Pok, by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

Title: Pok Pok
Author: Andy Ricker with JJ Goode
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Date: October 29th, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Cooking
Rating: 5 Phrik

I almost went to Thailand once. While I was teaching in Japan, a friend and I planned to take a trip there one summer, but there was some unrest going on at the time we needed to be booking tickets. To err on the side of safety, we forewent our Thailand plans and visited Bali instead (a real hardship, I know). Bali was, of course, lovely and we had a great time. The food was lip-smackingly delicious, and I encountered my favorite rhizome, galangal, for the first time (it’s like ginger, only better!). Though I am no longer situated in that general area of the globe, I would still like to visit Thailand someday, and this cookbook has further cemented that desire in my mind. I love Thai food, but am by no means an aficionado. Pok Pok makes me want to become one.

How many chef/cook/restaurateurs can say they’ve appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives AND won a James Beard Award? I don’t know the actual number, but I would hazard to guess “not many.” I guess that’s to whole point of Triple D, though—you don’t have to go to a fancy, trendy, exorbitantly priced restaurant to get great food. For a long time I have wanted to eat at Ricker’s much-loved Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, and this cookbook, inspired by his adventures eating in Thailand and his desire to share the joy of Thai food with others, was my most anticipated cookbook of 2013.

He makes a point to say it’s not a Thai cookbook, though—rather, it is a collection of recipes, seen through the lens of his travels to Thailand and other places, that are the result of his drive to recreate something as close as possible to his favorite things that he ate in those countries. He spends a lot of time in Northern Thailand, so yeah, there are a lot of Northern Thai recipes. He explains that through much trial and error he has found how to replicate authentic Thai flavors using ingredients available in the Western world and how to convey these techniques and flavors to others, first through his restaurant Pok Pok, and now through this book with the same name. He describes his goal for the book thusly:

My hopes for this book are simple: to show you how to cook some of the dishes that made me fall for Thai food and to provide a sense of place—context for a country, culture, and cuisine that can be so inscrutable to an outsider, which I once was and in many ways still am.
Beautifully and simply put.

In the introduction, I loved reading about how Ricker got to this point in his life—how he came to fall in love with Thai cuisine, how he ended up opening a restaurant, and his hard-won success. He is very down-to-earth in his approach, and the whole tone of the book sounds like you’re just hanging out, listening to stories from a buddy who knows a lot on the subject of traveling and eating in Thailand and would like to share some of what he’s learned over the years. He dispels the myth of “authentic” and “traditional” with regards to food, explaining that there is no Platonic ideal, no “right” way to make a certain thing. People in one part of the country may add, say, tomatoes to a certain dish, and people in another part of the country may not. It doesn’t mean one is more “authentic” than the other. He also doesn’t look down on Americanized “pick-a-protein” Thai food either, instead viewing it as a gateway to get people interested in other Thai fare. He states that he doesn’t consider himself a chef and he’s not putting his own spin on Thai—he’s a “proud copycat,” and as this book is his best effort at replicating his favorite things that he’s eaten in Thailand, the credit goes to the Thai people who have cooked and perfected them. And I agree with him—credit to the Thai people for inventing and perfecting this stuff, but credit to Ricker as well for being fastidious, motivated, and perseverant enough to bring it stateside.

In the “How to Use This Book” section that follows the intro, he seeks to dispense with the notions that a) Thai food is too much work to make at home, and b) you can’t make Thai food in the US, but at the same time he wants to acknowledge the effort involved in making it. In his words, “You shouldn’t be dissuaded by nonsense, but you should know exactly what you’re getting into.” And there is admittedly a lot of commitment involved in making these recipes, whether it’s monetary (in buying the ingredients and investing in the equipment), or time (for completing all the steps to pull a recipe together), but he has convinced me that it’s both doable and worth it. This section covers a lot of important and thoughtful information, ranging from substitutions, to the difficulty of seasoning to taste in a cuisine where you might not be sure how it’s supposed to taste, to how to eat the food. He is thorough in his explanations and unerring in his choices to do things a certain way—he talks about why he made the choices he did in creating the cookbook and what he’s hoping to accomplish, and I was right there with him all the way. It all made sense and it all felt right.

The design of the book is great—very colorful, fun, and well organized. The photos of people and places in Thailand sprinkled throughout the book are both evocative of the culture and transporting, and I am a big fan of the simple photo staging for the recipes. The perspective is a bird’s-eye view looking down on a plate of the prepared food (plus any accompanying sauces and condiments you make to go with it), with the plate sitting on a simple, uncomplicated (often colorful or wooden) tabletop or countertop. This puts the focus smack-dab on the colors and textures of the food, which might as well be whispering eat me, eat me... As it is one of my cookbook pet peeves, I am happy to say that there are photos for all the finished dishes—yay!!! There aren’t photos with the rice cooking instructions or to go along with the recipes for condiments and sauces in the final chapter of the book. The rice—okay, fine, I’ll give him that one. But I would’ve liked some helper photos to go along with the sauce and condiment recipes.

In broad terms, the recipes in the book cover the categories of dishes eaten family-style with rice, one-plate meals, and sweets. Within the category of the smorgasbord family-style dishes, there are chapters dedicated to rice, the papaya salad and its brethren, other Thai “salads,” fish, stir-fries, Thai minced meat salads, grilled foods, curries and soups, and chile dips. Due to the inadequacy of single English words to properly translate and convey the meaning behind the Thai words for these groupings of food, there is often fascinating (to me at least, in all my language-nerdiness) discussion of what the names for these categories actually mean. Following those chapters are ones dedicated to the aforementioned one-plate meals, “foreign food” (including Chinese and Vietnamese dishes), sweets, and the final chapter of recipes for things like stock, condiments, and other pantry staples.

Here’s a rundown of some more components of the cookbook that I love:

  • For recipes with steps that can be done in advance, he includes a plan of attack for how to break it down and make it easier to accomplish.
  • At the beginning of each recipe he lists what special equipment will be needed to prepare it, so there’s no getting halfway through and then going, crap, I don’t have a granite mortar and pestle! or something like that.
  • For each recipe he provides a flavor profile, giving guidelines such as “slightly sweet,” “tart,” “smoky,” and so on, to help you nail the flavor for a dish you may have never tasted or attempted to cook before.
  • He also provides suggestions of other dishes to go along with each recipe.
  • Before getting to the recipes, he gives a rundown of the veggies, fruits, herbs, spices, noodles, and other ingredients (things like fish sauce and shrimp paste) used in Thai cooking, and there are labeled photos to help you identify them when shopping.
  • He also lists out the special equipment and utensils needed to make these dishes (things like woks and the above-mentioned mortar and pestle), and there is a picture showing them. The picture isn’t labeled like the foodstuffs one is, but it might be helpful if it were.
  • He gives a list of online retailers where you can buy many of these ingredients and equipment in case you don’t have a well-stocked Asian or Thai grocery near you.

As for negatives? Aside from my quibbles about wanting pictures included in the chapter of sauce/condiment recipes and labeling on the equipment/utensil photo, I’d be hard-pressed to find any. Probably the main negative, for some readers, at least, would be the complexity of many of the recipes, and the cost and effort (and in some cases, difficulty) involved in acquiring the ingredients and tools necessary to execute them. But having read through the book, I understand why it’s that way and I’m totally okay with it. More than that, though, I think the value of this book exceeds that of a simple cookbook. It certainly has great value as a book of recipes, but it’s more than just that—it’s a repository of Thai culture as experienced and seen through food and the human interactions surrounding that food’s preparation and consumption. It shows how culture, language, and food are all inextricably entwined, and it shines a light on the people, friendships, interactions, stories, events, adventures, and ingredients that all play a part, leading to the dish you have sitting on the table (or in the book) before you. Here, it’s about Thai food, but the same is true of food anywhere. And it is a pleasure to read.

If you buy this cookbook wanting to sit down tonight and make Thai food, you may be a little disappointed. But Ricker has convinced me that the wait and effort to get the necessary tools and ingredients for making these recipes will be worth it. Even if I had no intention of cooking any of the recipes in Pok Pok, I would still want it on my shelf. It’s so full of beautiful images, truly fascinating information, stories and anecdotes that draw you in, and sincere, funny, heartfelt writing. I absolutely loved it.

Two last things—pok pok is the onomatopoeia in Thai for the sound of a pestle hitting a mortar, and phrik are chiles.

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

Friday, October 25, 2013

YA Round-Up: Vampires and dystopias and Georgians, oh my!

Over the past few months I’ve accumulated some YA reviews that are purely internal—I have thoughts in my head about the books, but haven’t gotten around to typing them out, and now it’s been so long since I’ve read them that the details are no longer fresh in my mind. But some of these were books I quite enjoyed, and I’d really like to pass that on so maybe some other people can hear about them and possibly enjoy them, too! You see my #booknerdproblems-hashtag-worthy conundrum? Anywho, my solution is to write a mini-review for each (as mini as a verbose individual like myself can manage, anyway), preceded by the Amazon/Goodreads blurb, since too much time has passed since reading and/or I’m too lazy to blurb it myself. Let’s start things off!

First up we have a delightful specimen from the squished-together genre of YA-urban-fantasy-vampires:

Tana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.

One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

“Snarf” would be the word to describe how I consumed this book. I’ve loved Holly Black ever since my first acquaintance with her work once upon a high school drive back from California, when I turned around and asked my friend in the backseat what she was reading (it was Tithe, now one of my all-time favorite books). Count on this lady to inject some life back into vampire stories (har har) by making them scary and compelling again! I liked how vampirism in this world is like a disease, and the echoes of contagion/zombie fiction I found in the story were a nice twist on what I’m used to in vampire books. Tana is a strong, relatable main character, and in the usual Holly Black fashion the side characters are just as complex and complicated as the protagonist. I believe the book was meant as a standalone (yay for YA standalones!), but while it is self-contained and stands on its own perfectly well, there is room for more to come, and I would definitely read that “more.” Awesome book, and kudos to the author for writing the story that was in her heart, despite naysayers and skeptics in the post-Twilight (post-vampire?) YA landscape. Rating: 4 1/2 Garnets in a Necklace

In the middle of our YA sandwich we have a classic-meets-sci-fi story inspired by one of my favorite books:

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology.

Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth--an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret--one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever.

Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

I loved Persuasion when I read it a couple years ago, so I thought this YA adaptation sounded fantastic. I looked at the cover, read the title, saw that the Wentworth character was a ship captain, and got really excited. What’s not to love about Persusasion in SPACE?!

…only it’s not in space. Malakai Wentforth is not a space ship captain, but rather an actual boat ship captain. While the blurb, cover, and title don’t explicitly state that it’s taking place in outer space, I think my assumption wasn’t completely out of the bounds of reason. I mean, look at the cover art!!! Needless to say, finding out the setting was in a post-apocalyptic agrarian dystopian society rather than THE FINAL FRONTIER was a little disappointing for me. But I got over it (mostly), and found the book to be quite enjoyable. It was full of Persuasion-y deliciousness, but was different enough to make it the author’s own. I liked the shout-outs to the original, such as Elliot being the protagonist’s first name rather than her surname and Wentworth becoming Wentforth, but the letter that is such an emotional lynchpin of the original felt a little phoned in to me in this one. Overall, though, it was a fun read, and the science vs. religion and genetic manipulation aspects of the story were an interesting sci-fi twist.

One subtle yet important difference I found between the two was that in Jane Austen’s book I never really found myself putting either Anne Elliot or Capt. Wentworth at fault for the tension between them (though there were times I wanted to shake them and tell them to stop being so silly!). You could say Anne’s at fault for allowing herself to be persuaded by Lady Russell to not marry Wentworth and his resentment is thus at least partially merited, but I never really felt like it was a “fault” thing—it was a decision, it happened, it had repercussions, and it wasn’t fun for anyone involved. By contrast, in Peterfreund’s adaptation, because Elliot is a good person she kind of had to refuse Kai—if she hadn’t, her estate and all the people on it would have suffered and probably died due to her father’s mismanagement. Which is a very valid (noble, even) reason for her to not marry him! It still sucks for both of them, but she had a responsibility to these people. Which is why it made me SO MAD when Kai was being a prime douchebag and generally jerky to her. Don’t take it so personally, dude—there were hundreds of lives at stake!!! So I spent a chunk of the book wanting to punch him in the face and for Elliot to run off with her neighbor Horatio, but this new slant to their relationship somehow ended up adding to my enjoyment of the book. I quite liked it, although I still wonder what it would’ve been like in space… Rating: 3.75 Genetically Enhanced Wheat Sheaves

And for our final entry, we have a historical spy adventure set in the royal court of Georgian England:

“A warning to all young ladies of delicate breeding who wish to embark upon lives of adventure: Don't.”

Sixteen-year-old Peggy is a well-bred orphan who is coerced into posing as a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I. Life is grand, until Peggy starts to suspect that the girl she's impersonating might have been murdered. Unless Peggy can discover the truth, she might be doomed to the same terrible fate. But in a court of shadows and intrigue, anyone could be a spy—perhaps even the handsome young artist with whom Peggy is falling in love...

History and mystery spark in this effervescent series debut.

Although it sounds like the sort of thing that would be right up my alley, this one was just…okay. The first person narration by Peggy is mostly enjoyable, but sometimes her flowery language and clever sentence structuring felt a bit overwrought. Though it was a little much for me at times, for the most part I found her distinctive voice to be an amusing and interesting perspective from which to see the workings of the Georgian court. It was clear that the author has researched the history and culture of Georgian England, but that research manifested itself at times in the form of slight infodumps. They didn’t completely eject me from the story, but I felt the info could’ve been woven in more smoothly at times. But then at other times, I was left wanting to know more of the history and culture! Okay, King George I is from Hanover, and there’s a pretender hiding out in France. Wait, how did a German become King of England?? Luckily, the ever-faithful Wikipedia was there to help me fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the history of the British crown.

I was also confused about Peggy’s place in the social hierarchy. Her uncle didn’t seem to be a nobleman, but had a high enough standing that he could marry off his niece to the son of a lord. Peggy’s mother was at court, but did not seem to have any title. So where does that leave Peggy? Was there a well-to-do merchant class at the time that was able to hobnob with the nobility? I don’t know if it’s just my lack of knowledge about the time period, but I thought that could’ve used some clarification to make the story seem more grounded in reality.

Unfortunately, one of my main problems with this book involved something that the entire story hinged on: Peggy’s ability to stand in at court for the deceased Francesca. I really had trouble suspending my disbelief that, even with makeup and a wig, Peggy would be able to impersonate her without anyone noticing. I found it very difficult to believe that she looked enough like Francesca that, especially with the dissimilarities in their personalities piled on top, even Fran’s close friends could not tell the difference.

Even taking these concerns into account, I was still pretty okay with the book until it got to the point where Peggy was jumping to some new, ill-reasoned conclusion every page about what was really going on with the intrigue. I found it to be tiresome, tedious, and a little exhausting to take the ride with her in arriving at each of these new conceptions mostly lacking in evidence. So I had a good laugh when on page 269 she said, “I listed my own proven inadequacies as a reasoner, and that list was depressingly long.” And how! At least she’s aware of it? Despite these criticisms, the book was still okay—I wasn’t shaking my fists and shouting at the heavens to get back the time I spent reading it, but I probably won’t be checking out any sequels. Rating: 2.5 Lace Fans

Have you read any good YA lately?

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (September 3, 2013)
Read in August 2013; Paper ARC from Book Expo America*

For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund
Published by Balzer + Bray (2012)
Read in September 2013; Bought it

Palace of Spies, by Sarah Zettel
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers (November 5, 2013)
Read in October 2013; eARC from publisher via NetGalley*

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The 2013 Man Booker Prize (and Banquet)

As you may remember, we are great admirers of the pomp and pageantry that accompanies the Man Booker Prize. So, it was with great excitement that we looked through the official pictures of last week's 2013 banquet and shortlisted authors. Naturally we were also pretty excited to find out who the winner of the prize was and compare it to our predictions.

Guess what? We lost. Both of us failed to predict the winner (here and here, and the only thing that we could have come close to taking credit for was not giving We Need New Names a superlative in the post leading up to the announcement. In fact, the winner was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, an 800+ page historical fiction novel about prospectors in New Zealand. Aside from all the praise we hear about it (and its landmark Man Booker accolade), we note that it garners the superlative Most Difficult for Booker-phile Americans to Have Read Before the Prize Announcement. Perhaps some of you were able to land a copy as soon as it was released, but it would take terrifyingly fast reading to get through all those pages before the prize announcement a few hours later, and we completely failed on that account. We consider this as the Booker reaffirming its place as a BRITISH prize, even if all English-language novels are eligible next year. (Although we trust the book is excellent in and of itself.)

But as happy as we are to still have the Man Booker winner left to read this year, we are THRILLED to check out the photos of the banquet provided by the Man Booker Media page. As if the fancy place-settings weren't enough, this year THE DUCHESS OF CORNWALL was a guest of honor! (Actual Royalty trumps any mere royal-looking hall.)

The Man Booker Prize dinner 2013
In a scene very similar to the 2012 Booker Banquet, everything looks posh.

HRH The Duchess of Conrwall gives a speech at the Man Booker Prize dinner - c Janie Airey
Hello, Duchess of Cornwall! (And well played.)

2013 Man Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton, is announced - c Janie Airey
The winner is...Eleanor Catton, whose lighting makes her seem attracted to the podium like Aurora is to the enchanted spindle.

2013 Man Booker Prize trophy - c Janie Airey
But if an Apple TV with the Man Booker name were waiting for YOU, wouldn't you feel the same pull?

HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, Eleanor Catton and Robert Macfarlane, 2013 Chair of judges - c Janie Airey
HRH is not so sure, but the Chair of Judges, Robert Macfarlane, has a smug smile that says YES, the Apple TV is better than about a dozen royal palaces.
Also, how cute is the skewed bow-tie?

2013 shortlisted author NoViolet Bulawayo with her Editor, Becky Hardie - c Janie Airey
Up there in charming points with shortlisted author NoViolet Bulawayo posing with her editor, Becky Hardie.

HRH The Duchess of Cornwall meets 2013 shortlisted author Jhumpa Lahiri 2 - c Janie Airey
Shortlisted Jhumpa Lahiri chats with (or listens to) HRH The Duchess of Cornwall while fellow shortlisted author, Ruth Ozeki, mingles with people not as important to prominently place in photos presumed favorite for the prize, Jim Crace.

Anne Robinson and daughter Emma Wilson at the Man Booker Prize ceremony - c Janie Airey
Unlike the shots of gentle camaraderie we see with authors and publishers, this media-involved mother/daughter pair seems pretty intense. Like, WE ARE HERE BECAUSE WE ARE LITERARY AND PART OF THE CAST OF DALLAS.
(Okay, to be fair we have heard of the mother, Anne Robinson, who was the snarky host of The Weakest Link way back when. We're still not sure why that gets her an invite to the Man Booker banquet, though.)

Harvest by Jim Crace
But over all, everyone seems happy. Here's retiring author, Jim Crace, holding his uniquely bound edition of his shortlisted novel. The artist thankfully chose not to make this memorable copy look like the horror movie the US edition seems to promise.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Everyone is in such good spirits that they will pretend that Colm Tóibín is not the Branson of the bunch, the one gentleman not sporting a bow tie because he's Irish and too proud to bother with English tradition.
Better luck at universal bow tie wearing next year!

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