Monthly Archives: March 2014

Review: Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Cookbook

Fans of Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove stories have a new element to experiencing the stories: food, by way of Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove Cookbook.

Given the role of food and family in the stories, a cookbook is another way to bring life to the stories. The recipes are arranged by types of food (appetizers, breakfast, holiday-themed food, etc.), and each section is associated with a particular character and location within the books. The beginning of each section is preceded with an introduction by protagonist Charlotte Rhodes talking a bit about the characters and their cooking (with some spoilers for the books). The recipes themselves are simple, wholesome fare, with little notes and tips included (and sometimes entertaining notes from the characters themselves, as in the case of the Hearty Bran Apple Muffins: “My friend Helen claims these will keep you regular as clockwork”).

Quite a few of the recipes looked tempting, from the Sunday Sour Cream Coffee Cake to the Fresh Summer salsa. This has plenty of simple, delicious recipes and would work as a good general recipe book, but the only major value added from a general, Betty Crocker-esque cookbook is the connection to the novels. Those novel tie-ins would make it a great Christmas present for a foodie who loves the Cedar Cove novels. It might also be good for book clubs discussing the novels.

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Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and when it proves true, the result is absurdity too weird and hilarious to make up. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson, better known to her fans as The Bloggess, is by turns hysterically funny and poignant. Mostly hysterically funny, though.

While few people can claim childhood traumatic incidents involving taxidermy and never would have dreamed of artificially inseminating a cow in high school as Lawson did, many readers will find something to identify with in this rollicking memoir. Some experiences are just universal: panicking over blurting out the wrong thing at a social event, losing a pet, getting annoyed at a spouse’s repeated behavior like not picking up the wet towel off the floor. It’s always comforting to realize others have experienced the same struggles—and can turn them into comedic gold.

As I was not, prior to this book, a reader of her blog, it took me a bit to get used to the rambly, tangential style, but once I did, I frequently found myself giggling aloud. And the madness is not entirely without method—it is, for the most part, a chronological series of stories that can be read in short installments for busy readers with limited dedicated reading time. I most appreciated the later entries grappling with being an adult when everyone else seems to have it together because, wow, could I identify; this would fit well with other new adult reading, I think.

This is not necessarily a book for everyone—people with delicate sensibilities who are averse to lots of swearing will most emphatically disapprove. Those offended by casual and frequent discussion of genitalia would also do well to walk away from this book. (Possible trigger warning: one chapter does also deal with the heavy topic of miscarriage.) Do pick it up if you have a) ever had such a strange childhood that you are dying to know someone else had it just as rough, b) are grappling with being a mature adult and not losing a sense of humor, or c) read and enjoyed the likes of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs and are looking for something equally entertaining.

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What’s in a Name?

I firmly believe that names have… not so much power as, perhaps, significance. One of my cats is named after a poised, regal character in a favorite sci fi TV show; the other is named a one-syllable word that reflects his troublemaking nature. My crafting projects too have fitting names.

Some of my projects just get simple descriptive names. Others are a variant on the pattern name. Yet others might play off of the name of the yarn colorway(s) that went into the project. And sometimes I just get cheeky in my choice of naming conventions, for which I have paid dearly.

I here present Exhibit A:

Kerchief of Copious Swearing +10

This shawlette was cursed from the moment I named it.

The Age of Brass and Steam Kerchief had been a pattern that came to my attention by virtue of its fun, steampunk-y name. Still a relatively new knitter, I decided it would be a good pattern to make my first foray into shawls, a good beginner project at that sweet difficulty spot of just a hair past what I had been comfortable with but not too complicated. The first few rows were beset with stupid, beginner mistakes, and I cheekily named it the Kerchief of Copious Swearing +10, riffing off of RPG naming conventions. Ha ha, aren’t I clever, I thought. It’s all a great joke that I’ll laugh about when it’s done.

Except it never got done. The plagues and difficulties continued as I somehow mysteriously lost stitches in one row (this determined after multiple recounts) and then several rows later found myself with equally mysterious additional stitches. The final straw came when I realized I had done an entire 145-stitch row wrong out of carelessness. Copious swearing? Oh yes, it happened. Ragequitting? It happened too. I tried to be rational and simply put it in Bad Project time-out, but after a month passed, I just decided to be done with it and rip it out and let the yarn get a fresh start in a project without the negative associations. It’s lovely yarn (Nerd Girl Yarns, on my favorite base, Heart You, in one of her Dr Who club colorways called Spoilers), and it deserves to shine in something that I won’t scowl at in remembrance every time I look at it.

Enter Exhibit B:

Kerchief of Sparkles and Happiness

I have learned my lesson.

I still wanted to make the kerchief because it is a simple pattern that lets lovely yarn shine through (more Nerd Girl goodness, this one on a DK-weight base, Smashing, and in the discontinued colorway Vampires in Venice). This wasn’t going to be a project that I started and haphazardly slapped a name on, no. From the moment I wound the yarn into a cake and saw the subtle glimmer of sparkles, I decided to give this project a name so aggressively cheerful that it would have no choice but to be cooperative.

And thus the Kerchief of Sparkles and Happiness was named. Knock on wood, but it is some of the smoothest, most relaxing knitting I’ve done to date.

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Review: True Sisters

When I was younger, some of my favorite stories were about the Oregon Trail and the pioneers who left everything behind to head west. I had not read much about the Mormon pilgrims seeking their Zion in Utah, who made the trip west on foot and pulling handcarts. Sandra Dallas writes of the disastrous Martin Company expedition that headed out from Iowa in 1856. During the actual historical event, over 135 people died, more than the more infamous Donner Party

Dallas’s novel, True Sisters, follows the friendship of four women on the trail, immigrants from England who heeded Brigham Young’s call. Ella and Nannie are sisters, Ella expecting her first child with her husband Andrew, who has promised never to take another wife, and Nannie having been spurned at the altar once but hoping to make a new life for herself in Zion. Anne is not herself a Mormon but is married to a convert who sold their worldly belongings to make the journey, leaving her with no choice but to follow regardless of the sacrifices the trip demands. And finally, there is Jessie, a young woman traveling with her two brothers westward to create a new life farming land less exhausted than what they left behind in England.

While a relatively fast read, it is not a light one. The novel is intended to depict the friendship and bonds forged through hardship by these women, but an extensive portion of the novel is dedicated to the tragedies that befall the party along the way. Children die, spouses go to sleep one night and never wake up, people drown during dangerous river crossings, and injuries get infected. Partway through, part of the nightly preparations are given over to digging a large grave to accommodate any further deaths that occur before the party moves on the next morning. The constant tragedy almost creates a numbing effect, both for the characters themselves, who are starving and weary, and the reader.

I am of mixed feelings about the author’s treatment of religion here. The main female characters themselves display a range of devoutness and belief and resignation, but the depiction of the male characters is a bit more loaded. It is made abundantly clear over and over that men make their choices, whether in money or plural marriage, and most of the women have no choice or otherwise few options but to go along with it. Historically, it is probably fitting, but in this contemporary treatment, readers are reminded again and again about the unfairness and hypocrisy of it all.

True Sisters also straddles an interesting line in terms of target audience. The emphasis on female friendship is very much women’s literature, but the religious content may be a turn-off for many. There is a lot of praising God and platitudes about how being chosen didn’t mean it would be easy, but a skimming of reviews shows that Mormon readers found the depiction of their faith and fixation on polygamy problematic. On the other hand, readers critical of organized religion may find the hypocrisy and tragedy to prove their beliefs about corruption and manipulation of religious leadership but may be hard-pressed to get through the aforementioned platitudes.

If nothing else, this was an interesting glimpse into a period of history I didn’t know much about. Other, more Mormon-friendly fictional treatment of this history can be found in Gerald Lund’s Fire of the Covenant. David Roberts’ Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy is a nonfiction look at the tragedy.

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Review: Riders of the Purple Sage

Mysterious man in a black sombrero? Check. Stunning western landscape? Check. Mighty fine horses? Check. Stalwart woman trying to hold out on her own in hostile territory? Check. Cattle rustling? Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage has these features and more.

The tale follows two main parallel plotlines. At the center of the tale is Jane Withersteen, an independent and wealthy Mormon woman. She faces censure from her church for refusing to break off her friendship with Bern Venters, a Gentile. At the peak of the confrontation, a mysterious stranger—a gunfighter by the name of Lassiter—rides up and breaks up that showdown. Venters rides off and finds a place to hide out and encounters a beautiful strange woman with a past she refuses to speak of. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the pressure on Jane continues—Elder Tull wants her land and hand in marriage, and moreover, to break her spirit and bring her to her knees. Luckily, she has Lassiter on her side as well as the support of the people she has been charitable to along the way, but that may not be enough.

It’s been a few years since the last time I read any westerns, so I was expecting more “pew-pew” and less romance, so this was a bit of an unexpected turn of events. For a book with a blurb that made it sound like a gunfight was inevitable, much more time was dedicated to describing the stunning Utah landscape and the passive-aggressive tactics designed to bring Jane to her knees than outward violence. The two romantic subplots comprised a large portion of the story as well. Of course the men are noble and brave, and of course the women are good and pure and eventually need to be defended by their men, with everyone riding off into happily-ever-after sunsets after the various trials. This doesn’t sound too far off from some of their romance-novel counterparts, actually, which is probably a strong appeal of the genre.

One thing I had not been particularly anticipating was the strong anti-Mormon angle to the story. Our heroine, while herself a Mormon, is clearly cut of different cloth from her brethren, so it is OK to root for her. What she got out of her faith was what most religions hold up as an ideal—to give freely of charity and worship God. However, pretty much all the other Mormons hold more store by their political clout and are in on the plot to bring her down because of she represents someone refusing to bow to her elders; those who aren’t have been bullied into giving up their support, and in some cases, some of the women urge Jane to just bow her head and submit and not hold out for love because clearly a happy, monogamous marriage is too much for a Mormon woman to hope for. Oi vey. As villains, they were certainly heinous, but I find the broad strokes painting an entire religion a bit problematic.

For my other read this week (historical fiction), I have decided to read Sandra Dallas’s True Sisters, which also follows Mormons in the west, with what I hope is a more sympathetic brush.

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Review: Watchmen

This week ticks off another box of my “books I’ve been meaning to read for a while” list: Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Confession: having now read it, I feel daunted by the prospect of talking intelligently about it as I’m still wrapping my mind around its conclusion. But here goes.

This influential graphic novel, set in an alternate 1985 where the world is on the brink of war, begins with a murder. Edward Blake, otherwise known as The Comedian, a former member of a vigilante justice group, has been murdered. The only remaining active member of the group, Rorschach (who narrates large portions of the story through his journal entries) investigates, re-establishing contact with the other members as it becomes clear someone has it out for them. The rise and fall of masked superheroes (culminating in the 1977 Keene Act which outlawed masked vigilantism) plays out on the pages, interspersed with other subplots that initially seem unrelated, like the pirate-comic within the novel being read by a peripheral character that increasingly begins to coincide with present-day events. It is difficult to concisely summarize this one, which is probably why many blurbs and reviews don’t even try.

This is a dense read, both in terms of word-to- image ratio and concepts. The watchmen themselves are complex characters; Rorschach’s nihilism is particularly intriguing, but so too are the others as they are revealed: Doctor Manhattan’s almost clinical awareness of things as they occur and have occurred and have yet to occur, simultaneously; The Comedian’s cynical militarism; the original Silk Spectre’s self-loathing; Ozymandias bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. They each have their own private motivations for acting as they do, and they do so consistently if not always altruistically.

The bleakness and heaviness of the subject matter do not make this a quick read; indeed, it took a good third of the way in before I felt I had a grasp on how the various storylines fit together, so this is not necessarily a graphic novel to hand to a reader new to the genre. Interspersed between chapters are brief sections containing book excerpts, memos, and newspaper clippings, each further developing backstories and current events. After some of the unmaskings and revelations, the desire to go back and re-read to catch the foreshadowing is strong.

Fans of conventional superhero comics will not necessarily automatically like this. If Superman and Captain America give the reassurance of black and white, good and evil, Alan Moore’s palette is more one of greys—many, many shades of grey. Squeamish readers may also be put off by the violence and mature content. Readers looking for something dark and thought-provoking, however, will devour this.

I’m curious to read some more Alan Moore now, perhaps some V for Vendetta… after a suitable interlude of cute, fuzzy animals and fluffy escapism.

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Photo interlude: The Internet is for cats

My cuddle buddy

There are stereotypes about librarians and their cats, but hey, I don’t need to buck every convention for the sake of bucking conventions. The match-up of books and cats is a perfect one, as cats are generally of a temperament to enjoy a quiet reading evening. This is one of the feline overlords, previously referred to as the Furry Orange Yarn Menace. He is also, however, a fantastic snuggle buddy and loves curling up with his humans, whether on a lap or tucked in next to them. His ultimate jackpot is sprawling across two laps, but barring that, he’ll settle for curling up with one of the living room afghans.

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Review: Grave Mercy

Two word: assassin nun. I know, I know. It sounds like one of those mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Amish vampires, but Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, first of the YA His Fair Assassins trilogy, actually makes this strange pairing work.

Set in a fantasy version of 15th century Brittany, Grave Mercy follows 17-year-old Ismae, daughter of Mortain (Death) Himself, who is rescued from an arranged marriage with a much older man and given refuge in a convent dedicated to Saint Mortain. There, she learns the art of carrying out Mortain’s will through the arts of poison, weapons, and much to her consternation, seduction. Fortunately, she has friends in fellow initiates Annith and Sybella. Ismae takes to her education eagerly, excited to prove herself when the opportunity arises. For her third mission, however, she’s going to have to learn patience and the ways of court intrigue in order to figure out who is betraying Duchess Anne. Fortunately, or perhaps not so fortunately, she is assigned to pose as the mistress of Gavriel Duval to gather intelligence and navigate the social labyrinth—but what happens when the charade gives way to something more, and she is torn between her duties and her heart?

I have to say, the cover art made me intrigued enough to pick this up: it features a young woman in a Game-of-Thrones-esque red dress holding a cross bow with a castle in the background, with the question “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” written across the top. With its fantasy-like cover and promise of ass-kicking protagonist, I gave it a shot. Its premise of a protagonist serving as Death’s handmaiden was an enticing one, and the tools at Ismae’s disposal were delightful, ranging from a headpiece with poisoned pearls to a bracelet containing a thin garrote to a crossbow small enough to slip beneath her dress and, of course, the requisite daggers and stilettos tucked about her person.

Of course, the brutality of the weaponry is only matched by the machinations of court. In a world where even the highest-born woman can be bartered off in marriage for political gains, Ismae clings to the rare opportunity for power Mortain’s covenant provides her. Naturally, she is out of her element when her own feelings develop, but I was expecting that, and while such plot developments usually annoy me, this one didn’t, perhaps because the world-building and intrigues were fascinating enough to compensate, though I would have enjoyed seeing a bit more of her friendships with her fellow initiates. I did, however, love seeing her growth from naïve pawn to independent agent.

This is not necessarily going to be a good fit for all readers of young adult fiction; first and foremost, it is a book targeted toward female readers, between the significant romance subplot and the occasionally heavy-handed empowered-girl theme. Readers of fantasy will enjoy this one; indeed, unlike many readers, they will hardly blink at the 500-page-plus commitment. It is suspenseful and dramatic though not always fast-paced, and readers hoping for a lot of breakneck action and violent deaths will be disappointed as Ismae learns to wait and when to provide mercy.

The fantasy-historical feel to the book reminded me of Cynthia Voight’s novels of The Kingdom, and the premise of a young woman trying to find her own way in a hostile world that affords her few rights reminded me of Sheryl Jordan’s The Raging Quiet. For readers who want more of LaFevers’ world, the second book of the trilogy, Dark Triumph, follows Sybella, and the conclusion, Mortal Heart, centered on Annith, is due to be released in November of this year.

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Review: Mockingjay

Readers and non-readers alike are now familiar with Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, and even non-readers are probably familiar with the events of the second book, Catching Fire thanks to the movie. Mockingjay brings the trilogy to its conclusion.

Peeta has done what he does best—protect Katniss, and as a cost, he has been captured by Capitol forces. Katniss, between the trauma of two Hunger Games and not being able to save Peeta, is a broken shell of herself. Meanwhile, safe behind rebel lines, she finds herself once again used as a political chess piece, this time by the rebel forces who want her to become their Mockingjay, the symbol that will ignite the flames of revolution. But will Katniss be content to be somebody else’s pawn? Or is she too broken to care anymore?

I have very mixed feelings about this book. This is the first time I actually finished reading it, having previously started it and then wandered away from it due to a slow start. Katniss is not terribly likeable in the beginning; she is understandably upset, but it’s difficult to reconcile the proactive “I volunteer as tribute” Katniss with shell-shocked “I should be dead” Katniss. The love triangle persists in the earlier part of the book as well, and I found it frustrating to see our protagonist send such mixed messages and then get upset when others are confused by the signals.

And then, right around a third of the way into the book, it got better—though certainly no lighter. I have to give YA authors credit when they let their works go to dark places where characters are in danger and nobody’s happy ending is assured. There’s a weariness to the rest of the book as choices are made and consequences follow. Terrible things happen in war, and some good people die, while others make decisions that are morally questionable in the name of the greater good.

I’m honestly not sure how they’re going to translate some of the material into the movies (yes, every YA-based movie adaptation must now apparently end with the final book being split in two). I can guess where they might make the break, but I question whether they will be able convey some of the events without significantly lessening the horror of what transpires to maintain an appropriate rating.

Obviously, Collins’ trilogy is probably the most well-known of the YA dystopic fiction trend, but if there are still any newcomers to the genre or series, they should start at the beginning with The Hunger Games (the strongest installment by far) before jumping in with this volume. The closest read-alike to come to mind is Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, with another strong female lead and a movie adaptation due out later this month. For further dystopic picks, I recommend perusing Goodreads’ YA Dystopia list; with over 500 entries, there should be something for every taste.

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Review: Legends in Exile

Re-told fairy tales seem to be a trend these days with the popularity of shows like Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Before them, though, Bill Willingham was exploring the concept in his Fables comics.

Snow White, Prince Charming, the Big Bad Wolf (now known as Bigby), Cinderella, even characters like Bluebeard have all fled their homeland after it’s conquered by a figure known only as The Adversary. Those who can pass as human live in the Fabletown complex in New York, and there are few “happily ever afters” in this world. Beauty and the Beast are having marital issues, Prince Charming is hard-up for money, and Snow White’s party-animal sister Rose Red is missing, presumed dead. Everyone has been granted amnesty from what crimes they may have committed in the homeland, but a number of them could be guilty—it could be that Bluebeard hasn’t left his violent ways behind, or maybe Jack is a jealous lover, or perhaps Snow White herself finally lost patience with her sister’s recklessness in partying with the “Mundies,” or mundane citizens of this world. Bigby is on the case, though, in this whodunit.

The mash-up of fairy tales and classic gumshoe story is an entertaining one. Bigby has the brooding, trench-coated, smoking detective down pat, and even Snow White provides moments of damsel-in-distress (though that seems otherwise at odds with her cool, controlled exterior). Even the big reveal is something straight out of a classic detective story with Bigby, like Sam Spade, having long-since figured things out and finally deigning to fill in everyone else. Each volume begins with a brief preview of events to come, also lending to the pulp adventure feel. And the art? It reminds me of older Sunday comics, a la Brenda Starr, Journalist, a bit on the nostalgic side, but fitting for its coverage of characters nostalgic for what they have lost.

This is a world I want to see more of. Characters’ pasts are alluded to, and some of their history is given, but clearly a lot has transpired between losing their home and where they are now. There are also more characters to come: the creatures who could not pass as human have gone upstate to “the Farm,” and I’m curious to see who resides there and what they’re up to in this world. I also cannot wait to see what other genres Willingham dabbles with as he has so much interesting source material to play with.

I would recommend this for fans of urban fantasy and rebooted fairy tales, as well as readers looking for a series to sink their teeth into—with 19 trade paperback compilations out (and #20 due out later this year), there is plenty of good reading ahead, and if that’s not enough, the series is slated to conclude next year, making it the perfect time to head down to your local comic book store and start a pull file for new issues as they come out.

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