Reading Room Blog

07/26/2010 - 6:42am

This is Week 8 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

The morning of her wedding day, seventeen-year-old Pell mounts her horse, Jack, scoops up her mute little brother Bean, who insists on joining her, and gallops away from her small English village into a new life.  So begins Meg Rosoff's latest book, "The Bride's Farewell."

Pell has left behind her childhood sweetheart and her fear of ending up like her mother, worn out and drained of joy from giving birth to nine children.  She’s making for the great Salisbury Fair. There she hopes to use her unerring ability to discern a horse’s temperament with just one look to make enough money to pay for food and lodging. Things look up when she and Bean are taken in by a gypsy family at the fair, and Pell is hired to help a horse dealer identify good buys.  But within a day, Pell has lost her money, her horse and, worst of all, her brother.
 
07/23/2010 - 8:35am

Anita Shreve's The Weight of Water has been around for a while [1997], but I'd never read it until a friend suggested that maybe I could find it in the public library, and that it would be the perfect literary accompaniment to a summer vacation planned around Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the nearby coast of Maine.  How right she was. 

Shreve structures a page-turner around a murder that occured on Appledore Island, one of the tiny rocky components of the Isles of Shoals, located in the Atlantic less than ten miles out from Portsmouth.  The murder occurred in 1873, scandalized and horrified at the time, and resulted in the last hanging in the state of Maine.

The novel is a first-person narrative set in our own time, the protagonist a photographer on assignment to capture images of the island to accompany a magazine article about the murder. As she explores the dramatically isolated harsh and rocky terrain where the crime occurred, the narrator's artistic eye captures and renders surface detail and her mind's eye envisions what life must have been like for the individuals inhabiting that confined space.

07/21/2010 - 8:56am

I've been following Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks blog for several years now, and although I doubt I'll ever become a vegetarian, I do turn to her blog often when looking for tasty, healthy recipes.

She started her blog by cooking recipes from her favorite cookbooks, and now she's written several of her own: Cook 1.0: A Fresh Approach to the Vegetarian Kitchen and most recently, Super Natural Cooking, a 2007 James Beard Foundation Book Awards Nominee in the "Healthy Focus" category.

Although many of her recipes use ingredients you might not normally have or be familiar with, most recipes are fairly easy and approachable. Her first chapter, "Build a Natural Food Pantry," helps to break the ice for those of us who might not be familiar with ingredients such as amaranth flour or agave nectar.

07/19/2010 - 1:59pm

    Bastille Day (July 14) provides a great excuse for sharing a few French-flavored books.  Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline” series, set in Paris, is just the thing for preschoolers.  The rhymed story about “twelve little girls in two straight lines,” the daring Madeline (”to the tiger in the zoo Madeline just said ‘Pooh-pooh’”), and the dramatic appendicitis attack in the middle of the night (“Miss Clavel turned on her light and said, ‘Something is not right!’”) makes a read-aloud that children will ask for over and over. 

08/16/2010 - 4:17pm

This is Week 7 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

Fever Crumb, heroine of Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb, is a 14 year-old girl with an unusual appearance. First of all, she’s bald. Second, she has two differently-colored eyes – one blue, the other brown. And third, she’s absolutely beautiful. But she doesn’t know that. She has been raised by Dr. Crumb and the Order of Engineers since she was a baby, and they’re not in the habit of telling her that she’s beautiful. Her upbringing has been rather dry and very self-composed, with both emotion and beauty being looked down upon.

Fever lives in London, but it’s not like any London that we know of. London is recovering from being occupied by “the Scriven,” a different species with speckled skin and long lives. The Scriven were overthrowed by the Skinners, and the New Council now rules the land. No one is as hated in London as the Scriven are, for being different and for being harsh rulers.
 
Fever is called out on her first official Engineer assignment, to assist archeologist Kit Solvent on a dig. While traveling to her job, Fever’s eyes attract some unwanted attention, and she is quickly branded “a Patchskin” or Scriven. A renowned Patchskin hunter follows her, determined to find out if she is human or Scriven.  Events occur that lead to rioting in London, even while barbarians are approaching the city to conquer it.
07/21/2010 - 4:26pm

Just listen!  Barbara Kingsolver has earned a world-wide reputation for her writing, but who knew she is a fantastic reader as well?  Her performance of her newest novel, The Lacuna, kept me looking for errands to run so that I could hop back in the car to hear more.  The 16 CDs brought the story to life in a way I doubt I would have appreciated in reading the words without her voice in my head.

 The book jacket blurb summarizes the plot:

"BK takes us on an epic journey from the Mexico City of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the America of Pearl Harbor, FDR, and J.Edgar Hoover ... a poignant story of a man pulled between two nations as they invent their modern identity."

True enough, but doesn't get at the nuances of character development Kingsolver accomplishes in her extended portrait of protagonist Harrison Shepherd and the people impacting his life.

Harrison Shepherd is a writer, following from boyhood that compulsion common to many writers to chronicle their days. Year in and year out Shepherd fills notebooks comprising a detailed journal of his life.  How we come to read those journals and empathize with the writer and move with him from the "interesting times" he experiences in mid-1950s Asheville, North Carolina, back to his coming of age in Mexico is to acknowledge writer Kingsolver's extraordinary skill in structuring her narrative.  On paper,  the novel is 500 pages long, yet the tension as the story develops keeps the reader [or listener] hooked. As her protagonist says, more than once, "the most important part of the story is the piece of it you don't know" --- until the end!

08/16/2010 - 4:20pm

First Light by Rebecca Stead is a compelling story told by two different narrators. First there is Peter, the only child of two talented scientist parents. His father, a glaciologist, receives a grant to travel to Greenland and study global warming. He takes along Peter and Peter's mother, a molecular biologist, who is writing a book about mitochondrial DNA. Peter, like any normal 7th grader, is excited to leave behind New York City for 6 weeks, but he's worried about his increasingly frequent headaches. Is he going to end up like his mother, whose headaches cause her to simply "check out" for days at a time?

Second, there is Thea, a 14 year-old girl who lives in Gracehope, a community entirely hidden under Greenland's ice. Thea's ancestors fled here a long time ago to escape persecution. Thea has never seen the sun. Her people's population has expanded to the point where resources must be severely rationed and births are limited. Thea feels that her people were meant to return to the surface, but her grandmother, who leads Gracehope, is set against expansion.

Peter and Thea's tales alternate as the plot's tension increases, and they eventually come together in this exciting story that mixes adventure with science and fantasy. Both characters are strong and independent thinkers, trying to make the best decisions with their limited knowledge. The adults in this novel seem strangely paralyzed by the past in many respects, unlike Peter and Thea, who are constantly looking forward to and advocating for the future.

You can read an excerpt from the book here and explore the world of First Light in its own Web site. A similar read is The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. The library owns both the book and audiobook, which our family enjoyed listening to. Recommended for ages 10-14.

07/20/2010 - 11:17am

Benjamin Weaver, retired prize fighter and now professional thief-taker, is back in action on the streets of 18th-century London. What seemed a simple job—cheating a card cheat—turns nightmarish when Weaver discovers he’s the one who has been rooked in David Liss' The Devil’s Company. The mysterious and wealthy Mr. Jerome Cobb has a very dangerous plan in which Weaver is an essential player. His physical skills, intelligence, connections, and indeed his very character are necessary to make the plan a success.

No one else will do, and in order to secure his cooperation, Cobb and his cronies have drawn a diabolical net around those Weaver holds dear. The Devil's Company referred to in the title is none other than the terrifically wealthy East India Trading Company. Their near monopoly on imports of tea, fabrics, and other luxury items began more than 100 years before this story opens in 1722, and it is this fortress-like institution that Weaver must infiltrate.
 
07/20/2010 - 11:18am

I bought my first grill last year and although I've learned how to get the coals going, I'm ashamed to say I haven't actually grilled anything myself.

That's all going to change, and I'm going to use Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries & Shakes to help me get over my grilling jitters. My plan is to master grilling one thing this year, and it's going to be the burger!  Making the same burger over and over again might lose its appeal though, and that's where Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries & Shakes offers real inspiration. I can grill until January and never make the same burger twice!

Flay's burgers range from the elegantly simple "Garlic Butter Burger" (using just butter, garlic, shallots, herbs and pepper) to the Cuban inspired "Miami Burger" (a take on the classic Cuban sandwich with swiss cheese, ham and pickles) to the "Oaxacan Burger" (dressed with a homemade mole sauce which includes chile powder, chocolate and maple syrup). It might be a good idea to give the arteries a break with the "Salmon Burger with Honey Mustard-Dill Sauce" or the "Tuna Burger with Pineapple-Mustard Glase and Green Chile-Pickle Relish." Speaking of being health conscious, each red meat burger recipe states that you can use 90 percent lean ground turkey as an alternative.

It's going to be hard to choose which one to make first!
Maybe the "Crunchburger (AKA The Signature Burger)," which is topped with potato chips and is the house burger at Flay's "Bobby's Burger Palace."

07/20/2010 - 11:22am

January 30, 1649, was chosen to be King Charles’ death day. Among the sober observers were tall, flaxen-haired Gideon Jukes, musketeer and spy for Cromwell’s New Army, and lovely Juliana Lovell, the still loyal though seemingly abandoned wife of a Cavalier officer.

Juliana has criss-crossed wartorn England and now lives in London on the brink of starvation with her two young boys. She has a lady’s manners but has had to develop cunning to survive her years alone while her husband serves in the King’s army. Her path crosses with Gideon’s when they both flee the Tower in the aftermath of the King's execution.
 
Their lives before the war were so very different. Gideon, rebellious son of a wealthy merchant, nonetheless was cheerfully apprenticed to a printer of many things, including seditious literature. When the call came to join Parliament’s cause with the London trained bands, he quickly volunteered, eager to get away from a strange and unpleasant marriage. Without family and in need of a protector, Juliana had wed a trickster, a lesser noble, who fascinated her and kept her true to him despite their years apart.
 
Rebels and Traitors is a massive novel—nearly 750 pages—set in a time most Americans know little about. But they should and this story is an engrossing way to immerse oneself in a time every bit as exciting and compelling as the American Civil War or the French Revolution. Those who enjoy James Michener’s historical sagas and Bernard Cornwell’s military tales of the British past should find summer solace in this lengthy tale. The pacing fluctuates between battles and sackings of towns--punctuated with periods of domestic normality, friendships, love, and even humor.