Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites by Libby O'Connell

History + food=me laying on my couch reading voraciously and getting grossed out by the idea of eating beaver tail.  Yes, it was, at one time, considered a yumalicious treat for trappers.  Full of fatty goodness, it was a good source of protein and best cooked over a campfire.  And I've always wanted to know just what exactly pemmican tastes like, thanks to all that history I read in my earlier years about the West and Native American food. (pemmican is dried meat, berries, and animal fat mixed together for a high protein snack bar).

I'll stick to hamburgers.  If you're a foodie like me ( and I say foodie in a very amateur way), this is the  kind of book that will make you giddy.  100 "bites" of food history, from the early 1400's and the three sisters (maize, squash, and beans), to trendy foods of today's American food scene.  Read a few pages, put it down.  Pick it up, thumb through, and turn to something that catches your eye.  You certainly don't have to read cover to cover, although it does move in a chronological order.  But skipping around is certainly part of the fun.  

O'Connell is the chief historian for the History Channel, and it's evident she's a big fan of history and food.  Her personal asides add to the book, as well as some recipes for dishes you may (or may not) want to try.  This would make a wonderful gift for anyone on your list who likes to cook, or is interested in history--or even is a big fan of Uncle John Bathroom Readers.  Short chapters chock full of those little nuggets of history that remind us how unique and interesting the American plate really is, and how far we've come in our food tastes.  These are the stories that make history so darn fascinating.

I'm hoping with fingers crossed this is developed for the History Channel as a series.  I will certainly be glued to the TV--and probably snacking on popcorn.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.

Rating:  8/10 for short, tasty bites of American culinary history.  You won't be able to resist it!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Look of Love by Sarah Jio

If you've been following my reviews for a while, you know I love Sarah Jio.  I believe I've read all of her novels.  When Penguin's First Read program offered up this one, I immediately hit the download button and actually read it on my laptop.  This is something I never, ever do.  I am firmly in the "holding a book in my hand" camp and miss the connection I have with a story when I'm reading it on a device.  

But I digress.  I've had a chance to mull over this book for a few days, and the more I think about it, the more it takes on a rosy glow in my head and I realize I enjoyed the whole idea of it.  It's not the usual Sarah Jio, where she mixes a dual storyline and a bit of history.  This is firmly contemporary and yes, you could say a holiday novel.  Jane Williams is 29, runs a wonderful flower shop in Seattle, and is a bit wary of love.  She finds out on her 29th birthday that she has a special gift:  she can actually see love.  All her life she's had "neurological" problems that come and go, affecting her eyesight.  Her doctor tells her she must have brain surgery to correct the problem, or it can result in permanent brain damage.  Jane, however, believes the surgery will ruin her gift, and she has until her 30th birthday to identify six types of love.  If she doesn't, she will lose her chance of ever finding a love of her own.  

Luckily, Jane's friends and her brother are all deep in the throes of major love issues, so there's no shortage of finding the six types of love.  Her brother Flynn is in love with a woman he sees only through his apartment window; her friend is having an affair with a married man, and her hairdresser finds herself connecting with a man working on her kitchen while her husband continues to put his career before his marriage.  Oh, there are more!  I found myself getting sucked into all of these love dramas, and by the end, I was reading with my fingers crossed.  Not everything works out perfectly, people make choices.  But what's important is Jane's quest:  does she make it?  Does she herself find love? 

This is a quick read, and a sweet treat to enjoy during the holidays.  It will have you looking around at people you know, and trying to figure out just what kind of love, if any, they have with their special someone.  If you're a fan of Sarah Jio, be prepared for something a little different that her usual fare.  But you will love it!  

Rating:  7/10 for an imaginative plot line and characters you will cheer on in their quest for love.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander

The Secrets of Life and Death by Rebecca Alexander combines a bit of modern day fantasy with  one of the most horrible historical women I've ever read about: the notorious Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.  She was known to bathe in the blood of virgins and was walled up in her castle as punishment.  Lovely lady, right?  

I should also mention two other historical figures who feature prominently in this novel:  Dr. John Dee and Edward Kelley.  Dee was famous in his time as a mathematician, astrologer, and all around "magic man" to Queen Elizabeth I.  Kelley was Dee's assistant and had a reputation for channeling messages from angels.  In this story, the men find themselves traveling through Poland at the request of the Polish King to save his sister Elizabeth Bathory from certain death.  
The other side of this story continues in today's world, with Jackdaw Hammond. She's a 30-something young woman who has an unusual life--she's actually dead.  What keeps her alive are the symbols on her skin and the mystic potion she drinks regularly to stay alive.  And where do these come from?  Yep.  Dee and Kelley's trip to Poland, hundreds of years before Jackdaw modern England.   

Is Elizabeth Bathory  still around, hunting victims in present day England? Who is draining other people like Jackdaw of blood?  Jackdaw is working to save  people who have been assigned a time to die, but are saved from certain death by the symbols and potion created by Dee and Kelley. It's a lonely existence and quite frankly exhausting keeping death at bay.

 We all know messing with a sure thing like death is never a good idea, and all of this comes back to create high drama for Jackdaw and occult expert Felix Guichard.  The novel starts a bit slow, with back and forth between Dee and Kelley's adventure in 1585 Poland to present day England and a crime scene Felix has been called to investigate for occult symbolism. Soon, however, the novel picks up speed and I found myself on the edge of my couch, hoping Dee and Kelley would fail on their mission, but knowing their success was creating a puzzling and potentially horrible situation for Jackdaw and Felix.  

I did enjoy this novel.  It was very different from the usual sci-fi/fantasy stuff I usually read, and that's not a bad thing.  I always love a mix of history and fantasy, and I thought this was a clever plot.  At the end, I was left wanting to read more of Jackdaw and Felix.  Surely there are more adventures for them!  The major theme of triumph over death made me ponder the whole idea of everyone having a time to die.  Whether that time is young or old, peaceful or not, should we ever be able to choose or change it?  Or even stop it completely?  

Rating:  7/10 for a clever mix of historical figures and fantasy.  A good book for a sci-fi book club to read and discuss.  This is a novel that requires a bit of reflection after you've turned the last page.  

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Christmas at Tiffany's by Karen Swan

At first glance this looks like a Christmas novel.  And part of it does take place at Christmas, but the majority of it doesn't.  This time of year I love to read holiday novels.  They put me in the mood for the season and give me a good break from real life stresses.  Christmas at Tiffany's was awesome!  I really, really, liked it.  Seriously.  As in a "I'm going to be late for work/I can't go to sleep just yet/I don't want to do anything else" kind of read. 

It's a fairly simple story.  Four life-long friends:  Cassie, Anouk, Kelly, and Suzy are in their early 30's, and have gathered together to celebrate Cassie's tenth anniversary with a party at her husband's Scottish estate.  Kelly lives in New York and works in the fashion industry, Suzy lives in London and is a wedding planner, and Anouk likes in Paris and designs high-end jewelry.  Cassie has been happily married for ten years to her stuffy husband, Gil.  He's promised her they can start to think of having children after they've hit their tenth anniversary. 

At the party, Cassie's world crumbles, and her friends bundle her off to New York to escape the pain of a broken marriage.  They have all decided that Cassie will spend four months with each friend, and in doing so, rebuild her life and decide what she wants to do as a single woman.  First stop is New York and Kelly. Cassie's world in New York is the complete opposite of her country life in Scotland. Wow.  I mean completely opposite!  A whole lot of stuff happens that I can't share because then you wouldn't read the book.  Needless to say, Cassie has a lot of choices to make.  Suzy's younger brother, Henry, gives Cassie a list of things to do in each city.  It's Henry's way of helping Cassie move along and rebuild her life--and I have to say the lists are pretty awesome. 

Paris and London follow New York, and in each location Cassie undergoes tremendous change; grows up, and experiences a lot of life.  I couldn't put this book down!  And it clocks in at almost 600 pages.  No kidding.  But you will get completely sucked into Cassie's adventures.  I loved it!  I'm kind of sad to see it end. 

This novel is a bit more serious that the usual chick-lit.  I would recommend it to fans of contemporary women's fiction, college-age ladies, and pretty much anyone looking for a good read with some great international locations.  It's all about friendship, looking at yourself and your choices, and most importantly, timing.  As you will see, timing is everything in this novel. 

Rating:  8/10.  I loved Cassie, Anouk, Kelly, and Suzy and their friendship.  The different locations around the world added a sophistication to the novel that I had me itching to pack my bags. 

Available in paperback and e-book.