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The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve

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.

Show Off by Sarah Hines Stephens

I don't care if you are a kid, teen or adult - it feels great to be able to do some impressive tricks for your family and friends at the next backyard barbecue, like blowing a bubble within a bubble or slicing an unpeeled banana. If you want to move beyond mere parlor tricks, you can learn how to identify clouds, ride a boogie board or fold fortune cookies thanks to the super-easy directions in Show Off: How to Do Absolutely Everything One Step at a Time by Sarah Hines Stephens and Bethany Mann.

What makes "Show Off" a fantastic book are the step-by-step picture directions. Since I am a graphic learner, this makes it so much easier for me than trying to decipher a page of text describing how to fold a ninja star. The ingredient lists tend to be very slight, which is a bonus for parents. If you want to learn more about an activity, several of them have longer descriptions in the back under "tell me more." The 224 activities are grouped under the categories of "amaze," "investigate," "create," "explore," "cook," and "move." Most of these are easy to do by yourself if you're at least 10 years old, while others will require adult help.

Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson

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.

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia of the blushing smiles and flaming hair merited only a few lines in the last books of Virgil’s Aeneid. That Lavinia was simply another lovely and dutiful princess to be married to the hero in accordance with the gods’ wishes. But Lavinia’s character is imagined and fully fleshed out by Hugo-winning writer Ursula K. Le Guin, transformed into a woman of strength and nobility in Lavinia.

The original heroic poem, written in the tradition of Homer’s famous works, traced the journey of Aeneas, a surviving prince from the fall of Troy, to his ultimate destiny as Rome’s progenitor as husband to Lavinia, princess of Latium. Son of Venus and therefore a target of her rival Juno’s spite, the gods themselves conspired in the affairs of these hapless mortals. It was by Venus’ intervention that the African queen Dido loved Aeneas and spared his life. Likewise, it was a messenger from Jupiter that convinced him to leave her for his greater destiny as a founder of Rome. The gods directed every important decision made by mortals. 
 
The battle death of Aeneas’ first wife and abandoned Dido’s suicide are just the sort of collateral damage that happens when the gods insert themselves directly into heroes’ lives—nothing to be taken personally because, after all, the gods’ purpose is to found the Roman Empire, and Aeneas is their agent. What’s a dead wife or royal lover when the divine legitimacy of the Empire is in the balance?

12 Weeks of Hot Summer Reads: Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve

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.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

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!

First Light by Rebecca Stead

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.

The Devil's Company by David Liss

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.
 

Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries & Shakes

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."

12 Weeks of Hot Summer Reads: Nothing by Janne Teller

This is Week 6 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

What matters to you? What really, really matters in your life?

What if someone told you that nothing in life matters? NOTHING AT ALL.
"It's all a waste of time ... Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you began to die. That's how it is with everything." What if they kept saying it over and over again and you couldn't make them shut up?

This is exactly what happens to the students in class 7A at Taering School in Janne Teller's novel Nothing.