Thursday, May 28, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

From the publisher: When Lars Thorvald’s wife, Cynthia, falls in love with wine—and a dashing sommelier—he’s left to raise their baby, Eva, on his own. He’s determined to pass on his love of food to his daughter—starting with puréed pork shoulder. As Eva grows, she finds her solace and salvation in the flavors of her native Minnesota. From Scandinavian lutefisk to hydroponic chocolate habaneros, each ingredient represents one part of Eva’s journey as she becomes the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, culminating in an opulent and emotional feast that’s a testament to her spirit and resilience.

I absolutely loved Kitchens of the Great Midwest, and experienced an existential crisis as a result: I enjoyed it so much that I could hardly bear to put it down, but at the same time (much like I imagine the diners at Eva's pop-up suppers must have felt) I wanted to savor it for as long as I possibly could. The book tells Eva's story through a collection of vignettes that progress through time, all told from the perspective of various individuals who make appearances (some lengthy, some brief) in her life. This format could have been a gimmicky mess, but it actually really worked for me. Eva is a special kind of main character -- she's so vibrant and well-drawn that I found her to be a presence on the page even when a particular vignette barely mentions her.

It's a rare thing to find a book set sincerely, lovingly, respectfully in the Midwest, with characters and scenarios that feel familiar but never stereotypical. Knowing that some of the recipes that are interwoven through the story actually came from the author's great-grandmother's Lutheran church cookbook?  I'm sold.

I read an advance reader copy of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. It is scheduled to be released July 28, 2015.

Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons

I run the Galesburg Public Library's book discussion group that meets monthly at En Season Cafe at the Sustainable Business Center. We discussed Stalking the Wild Asparagus this month. This book was published in 1962 and is rightfully considered a bible of the environmental movement and a primer for anyone interested in healthy, inexpensive eating.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book very much, but I was wrong. I found it easy to read and full of interesting tidbits. For example, I learned that the Pecan tree is a member of the hickory family! The author has a familiar, jovial narrative style that was very inviting. The whole group enjoyed reading it and we had a great discussion.

This is a reference book broken into chapters on different wild plants. I love oak trees and particularly enjoyed the chapter on acorns. Reading it made me eager to try candied acorns. Gibbons really knows his subject matter. Just like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, at one point in his teenaged years Gibbons saved his family from starving by providing food from the wild.

Stalking the Wild Asparagus has held up very well.
Suburbanites "pay exorbitant prices for tasteless greenhouse produce and week-old vegetables from Florida or California, and never realize that they have driven their station wagons past tons of much better vegetables on the way to the supermarket. They feel smugly superior to the rummaging people they passed along the way. Why? There's nothing smart about eating poor food and getting gypped in the bargain, when nature is offering much better fare for the taking." (p. 226)
Substitute "mini vans" for "station wagons" and this could have been written today.

My only criticism is that Gibbons does downplay the challenge of actually identifying some of these plants in the field. On the other hand, he strongly words his chapter about taking care when foraging for wild mushrooms.

I need to get a copy on my shelf before the collapse of civilization because it would certainly come in handy if we had no electricity and limited food sources. If you are interested in alternative food sources and the environment, I definitely recommend Stalking the Wild Asparagus. It is an easy book to slowly read a chapter at a time.

The Galesburg Public Library owns two copies of Stalking the Wild Asparagus (as well as a copy of Stalking the Healthful Herbs). They can be found in the nonfiction section at 581.632 GIB.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Joyride by Anna Banks

Genres: Romance, Contemporary, Young Adult
Release Date: June 2nd, 2015
Publisher: Fewiel & Friends
Source: ARC from Publisher

Add on Goodreads
A popular guy and a shy girl with a secret become unlikely accomplices for midnight pranking, and are soon in over their heads—with the law and with each other—in this sparkling standalone from NYT-bestselling author Anna Banks.

It’s been years since Carly Vega’s parents were deported. She lives with her brother, studies hard, and works at a convenience store to contribute to getting her parents back from Mexico.

Arden Moss used to be the star quarterback at school. He dated popular blondes and had fun with his older sister, Amber. But now Amber’s dead, and Arden blames his father, the town sheriff who wouldn’t acknowledge Amber's mental illness. Arden refuses to fulfill whatever his conservative father expects.

All Carly wants is to stay under the radar and do what her family expects. All Arden wants is to NOT do what his family expects. When their paths cross, they each realize they’ve been living according to others. Carly and Arden’s journey toward their true hearts—and one another—is funny, romantic, and sometimes harsh.

It's been SO SO long since I felt this bothered by a book. 2015 seemed to be a good year for me book wise and then this book came along. I think this is my first DNF of the year?

Now I don't usually get ranty but here are just a couple of my thoughts because I am SO FRUSTRATED.

  • Why does this book vomit a bunch of stereotypes on us? Don't get me wrong, I ADORE diversity but I feel like it's cheating if the characters are such basic caricatures. 
  • I could get over the stereotypes though; what really bothers me is that there doesn't seem to be enough focus on the VERY IMPORTANT issue of immigration that the book claims to deal with.
  • THE CHARACTERS. I CANNOT EVEN. Carla reminds me of those cliched female leads in PNRs that try to stay under the radar until they meet 'the guy', except this is all happening in a very contemporary and real setting. Also ARDEN. Her reasons for not liking him are so pathetic and basically revolve around her trying not to feel attracted to him. We don't know if she really noticed him before the magical moment of him noticing her! I definitely have more reasons for not liking him than she seems to. For starters, he obviously doesn't take anything seriously and thinks it's funny to prank people (AND THERE WERE GUNS INVOLVED). *shudders* 

That's basically how far I managed to get. Maybe if I had given this book more of a chance I could have seen it bloom into something I might have liked but.... THIS ISN'T GOING TO WORK. BYE BOOK. Maybe a while from now you may get another chance but today isn't that day.  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace

The Case of the Dotty Dowager is a pleasant little cozy mystery, quick and easy to read. It concerns the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency (named because its four members are Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English) and their latest case. The book starts off in a very cozy-ish way – with a dead body in a country manor house (or, at least, in its Dower House).

The book is slow starting, which is a bit of a drag for such a short book, but it gets much better once the relating of all the character introductions and background information is out of the way. The Case of the Dotty Dowager is the first in a series, and I think later entries will be better since they can skip all the back story. I had a hard time picturing the four women and keeping them straight at first. The author tried hard to differentiate them – sometimes a little too hard, as we are told, for example, that Christine has “Mensa brilliance,” “a Mensa-sharp mind,” and a “Mensan brain.” OK, got it, Christine is the extra-smart one!

The Wales setting is fun and will appeal to the armchair traveler or lover of the United Kingdom. The women are of different ages and life situations in addition to different nationalities, and that adds some flavor to the group and their relationships. The dowager (who is not, in fact, at all dotty) and her little dog bring some comic relief.

A mysterious man who gets pulled into the agency’s present inquiry takes an action towards the end that I found pretty inexplicable, and the ending is abrupt and somewhat lame. (I actually wondered if the advance copy was incomplete, but I don’t think that’s the case based on the announced published page count.)

There is much room for growth in future entries. The Case of the Dotty Dowager will appeal to fans of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series. I read a digital advance reader copy from The Case of the Dotty Dowager will be published on July 1. It will be available at the library in the new fiction area under the author’s last name, ACE.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

The Library at Mount Char is one messed up book. The perverted violence was very hard to take at times. But it is populated by characters who are, in their twisted ways, well developed and interesting. The plot seemed to contain some original ideas (although I am not a horror fan and am not well read in the genre). The book is well written; the narrative flows and kept me reading despite my revulsion at what the characters were doing to one another.

The Library is inhabited by an ancient man who has learned most of the secrets of the cosmos. (I would refer to him as a sorcerer, but the characters are quite firm that there’s “no such thing” as magic.) He is powerful – too powerful, and the U.S. government sends a bomb to destroy him. He lives in the United States in a subdivision. His house serves as a kind of portal to the Library; it is not physically present at that spot. He is barbecuing in the midst of a picnic when the attack happens. But he is able to stop time and save himself and many of the children at the picnic. The children then become his apprentices (or “librarians” as he calls them). Each is studying to become a master of a different “catalog” – death, murder, animals, healing, language and so on. He becomes their replacement “Father” – and he is a cruel and abusive parent. The librarian who studies murder and violence is a particularly good student of Father’s techniques.

When the book begins, Father is missing and the portal to the Library is repelling approach by any of the librarians. The librarians are attempting to find their way in and figure out what has happened – but they most certainly don’t all seem to be working towards the same goal.

For the first half of the book, the fantastical plot was the kind of horror I could suspend my disbelief and buy into. After that there were some plot twists I found a little harder to take. Still, the story wrapped up neatly and cleverly.

I liked the idea of a “heart coal” – a memory you keep in your heart to warm yourself with when your world is otherwise cold. I also liked the character of Erwin Leffington, a complex ex-football player and war hero now serving as a special agent who gets caught up in the machinations of Carolyn, one of the librarians. I felt I could relax a little whenever he entered the story.

The Library at Mount Char is creative and imaginative. It is also twisted and horrific. I will admit: I chose to read this book because of the Library in the title and the librarian label on the characters. If the book had been named the Academy at Mount Char and the characters had been called students, I would probably have bailed on this book. So well done, author, to pull me in by appealing to my love of libraries and librarians.

If you are a fan of horror, I recommend this book. If you are a fan of complex plots and don’t mind horrific abuse against children, you might also give it a try.

I read an advance reader copy of The Library at Mount Char. It is scheduled to be published on June 16.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle

Series: Austin Family #5
Genres: Magic Realism, Contemporary, Young Adult
Release Date: May 1st, 1980
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, Giroux (BYR)
Source: Library

Add on Goodreads
After a tumultuous year in New York City, the Austins are spending the summer on the small island where their grandfather lives. He’s very sick, and watching his condition deteriorate as the summer passes is almost more than Vicky can bear. To complicate matters, she finds herself as the center of attention for three very different boys.
Zachary Grey, the troubled and reckless boy Vicky met last summer, wants her all to himself as he grieves the loss of his mother. Leo Rodney has been just a friend for years, but the tragic loss of his father causes him to turn to Vicky for comfort—and romance. And then there’s Adam Eddington. Adam is only asking Vicky to help with his research on dolphins. But Adam—and the dolphins—may just be what Vicky needs to get through this heartbreaking summer.
A Ring of Endless Light is one of my all-time favorite books. I first read it many years ago and when I got the opportunity to re-read it, I was terrified. I worried that even though I had loved this book so many years ago, I wouldn’t feel the same way years later. I was wrong. I feel like I need to bang my head on a wall for ever underestimating this book but there it is. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read and upon re-reading, I can reaffirm that conviction.

I want to keep this short because I have already fangirled enough to last a while but let me just say that this is such an important coming to age novel. Given that it’s set in the 80s, some parts of it may strike some readers as odd but for me, it is still relatable for the 'modern day' reader.

It deals with common issues teenagers have to deal with growing up but it also deals with bigger issues of life and death.

Vicky is a young girl who, during the particular summer this book is set in, is surrounded by death. What she needs, is to find hope amidst all the death and learn to let go and look at the brighter things in life. She needs to rise from her despair and grow as a person but also cross that awkward bridge between teen and adult. It's so great to experience the journey with her because it is so realistic and so relevant but also Vicky is also just a great female lead. I love that she isn’t perfect and sometimes hides from the truth but she is also just fantastic.

This book also comes with an entourage of great family members and great secondary characters (INCLUDING DOLPHINS).

This is a powerful book and one I will continue to recommend 20-30 years from now because it will still be relevant and  will still be important. I  just want to shower the book with all the love because it's so special to me. Definitely a book I’d recommend for ALL readers. So you know, check it out? 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave

Eight Hundred Grapes is a new book by Laura Dave. It is also noted by one of the characters that 800 is the number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine. Additional information regarding vineyards and vintages is woven into the story which involves the owners of a small winery in California and their family. It covers the current status of their relationships with each other, their past histories, their hopes, dreams and desires. There are tensions and issues touching everyone. From all this we see that successfully working to make wine is a tricky, vulnerable business, with its parallel in the even more delicate challenges of successfully making relationships work.

The author includes a few touches of humor, however, I found some of the dialogue between her characters a little awkward to follow. That might be my fault as a reader, but I wonder if the flow might be better. If this book were a wine, I would describe it as light with fleeting undertones of deeper flavor, but not full-bodied, rich and mellow. After finishing it I felt it would be ideal for a Hallmark Channel movie.

The book is due to come out in June 2015.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi has a compelling and believable premise. Set in the near future, water shortages in the west have reached critical levels. In many places, it no longer rains. The states are fighting for what water is available; Texans have become refugees that struggle to cross state borders (often ending up dead and strung up as a warning to others). Catherine Case is a powerful woman who controls much of the water in the west, ensuring that Nevada drinks while other states thirst.

Case employs many people to help her retain her power and her water. One of them is Angel, a former gang member she rescued from prison. He looks like a scary tough guy, scarred and tattooed, but he is a complex and loyal individual. He goes on a mission to Arizona, in its death throes but still hanging on, and gets mixed up in subterfuge over water rights that date back two hundred years. He crosses paths with Lucy, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist in Phoenix to report on the crisis, and Maria, a Texas refugee determined to survive on her own terms.

The world building is all too easy to believe. Americans have been wasting fresh water for decades in ways that are completely unsustainable. As Angel observes:

“Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the ice age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans – vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.” (p. 80 of the advance reader copy)

In Bacigalupi’s world, the Red Cross provides water, and refugee camps spring up around them. The tension between Texans and Arizona natives is palpable. The Chinese build oases for those with money and power. Young women sell their bodies to survive and take drugs to provide false courage.
While the characters are not particularly original types, they are well drawn. They have depth. The intrigue was twisty but not so complicated that it was hard to follow.

Bacigalupi hit only a few false notes for me. For example, Angel thinks about Lucy: “He wanted her. He wanted her like he’d never wanted another woman.” (p. 231 of the ARC). Really? Time to slip into the overblown language of a genre romance? There are descriptions of graphic torture and violence. Angel survives gunshots and trauma that would kill anyone else except maybe Indiana Jones.

Still, I found the book gripping and the future world realistic. If you enjoy dystopian fiction and don’t mind veering off into Hollywood movie territory occasionally, I recommend The Water Knife.

I read an advance reader copy. The Water Knife will be published on May 26. It will be available in the Galesburg Public Library’s New Fiction area after that date.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Deadly Virtues by Jo Bannister

I'm a huge Jo Bannister fan but somehow have fallen behind with her new series about Gabriel Ash. (My favorite is her Castlemere series.)

Gabriel Ash is a man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Once he worked for the government, in a behind-the-scenes computer job. But he apparently got too close to something and was warned to stop. When he didn't, he came home to find his wife and children gone. Disappeared without a clue. It's been four years, and he still doesn't know what happened to them or if they are alive.

He has been hanging on to life, just barely. His therapist suggested he get a dog, and the dog is helping him get better. He talks to the dog, and she talks back. It's a wonderful way of presenting someone coping the best he can under tremendous strain. The locals consider him the town idiot, calling him Rambles with Dog, but he's not an idiot. He is a highly intelligent man who has been broken.

Into this same village comes Hazel Best, a young police officer. A young man is beaten to death in a prison holding cell, and Gabriel Ash is the last person he speaks to. Hazel meets Ash in the course of the investigation and realizes that he isn't an idiot. She is the only one who believes him when he says that the youth knew he was going to be killed. Best and Ash get caught up in a conspiracy that reaches deep into the police department hierarchy. As they seek the truth and fear for their lives, they become friends.

Bannister is great at presenting characters of depth and interest, and she has done so again in Deadly Virtues. I can't wait to get started on Perfect Sins, the second book in the series!

The Galesburg Public Library owns 13 titles by Jo Bannister, including Deadly Virtues.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Cold Blooded by Amanda Carlson

Series: Jessica McClain #3
Genres: Mystery, Urban Fantasy, Adult
Release Date: October 8th, 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Source: Library

Add on Goodreads
Jessica arrives back in town to find her best friend missing and the most powerful witch in the country is blaming her for it. But before they can move to save her, the group is attacked.

On the run, Jessica and Rourke head to the mountains. Several surprises await them, but in order to save her father they are forced to leave for New Orleans early. Arriving on the Vampire Queen's doorstep unexpectedly, and bringing trouble on their heels, the Sects are thrown into an all out war. The vicious skirmish ends up forcing the vamps and Jessica to fight on the same team.

The Vamp Queen ends up owing Jessica, but what Jessica doesn't realize is just how soon she'll have to cash it in...
When I first dived into this book, I only expected to find the book to be pleasant, like its predecessors, yet  a small part of me still hoped it would be better, that there would be something more to it and I managed to hit the jackpot. This book was amazing!

We finally have Jessica and Rourke reunited and to see them function as a couple was definitely fun. Both of them have come so far from the beginning of the series and it’s nice to just see these independent and stubborn characters function in a relationship and be supportive of one another.

Jessica, as we’ve already come to know, is a strong female lead. She doesn’t back down easily and will do whatever she can to protect the ones she loves. The thing about her was that I never really connected with her until this book. I admired her and even liked her but there was just something missing. Perhaps it’s because we’ve finally gotten to a point where we aren’t so confused about her and all the information that has been thrown at us in the previous books is starting to settle in.

Rourke was amazing. Ah how I love him. He is swoonworthy and it’s nice to finally have him around! In book 1, we were barely introduced to him. In book 2, he wasn’t even there. In book 3, we finally get to meet Rourke and get to know him a whole lot better; which was amazing because otherwise I wouldn’t be shipping the two as much as I did!

The secondary characters are as fabulous as ever and Ray is losing some of his hard-headedness so for those of you who were never fans of him in the first place, it’s all good. He’s never going to stop being stubborn but he wasn’t as much of a jerk this time around. The sad thing about this instalment was that the secondary characters didn’t shine out as much as they had in the previous books because Jessica and Rourke finally have the spotlight.

I wasn’t actually all that unhappy about that fact since I know a lot of us have been waiting for the two to finally get together and if you haven’t already figured that out, the romance doesn’t disappoint. It was worth the wait. But you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out how great it was.

Moving on, this book was fast paced. There was a lot of stake and things kept on happening one after the other but the transitions were well done so the book didn’t feel ‘off’. It was just fun. The plot was well developed and incredibly entertaining and it just reminds me why I love Urban Fantasy so much. Urban Fantasy makes the best brain candy.

The book, on the whole was a fantastic addition to the series and if I may say so, the best yet. I can just imagine how much better things are going to get with Red Blooded.