Saturday, December 30, 2017

Professor McNasty's Collection of Slimes

Professor McNasty's Collection of Slimes is an illustrated rhyming book aimed at younger readers.  It's short (32 pages) and available in ebook and paperback formats.  Author Chris Bickley's silly rhyming narrative is paired with Brenda Ponnay's cute digital art. The book is published by Xist Publishing and was released 1st Dec, 2017.

It really is quite cute and the art is quirky and fun.  The things which I personally found less than ideal with the book will almost certainly not be issues for the vast majority of readers.  First, there are a lot of places where the scansion is all over the place.  The grammar and syntax are often incomplete or really twisted to make a rhyme (and the punctuation suffers mightily as a result).  This makes the text difficult to read out loud.  I don't know how much that will bother anyone but me.  The typeface (Garamond) also seemed a bit lackluster given the wacky nature of the story.  It's a very old, regal, staid and static typeface which seemed at odds at times with the frenetic story.  There are a few places where the art textures and backgrounds are also not centered.  Again, my problems with the story and art are relatively minor and really won't detract from the book for the majority of people.

I liked that the kids worked and saved toward a goal by cooperating.   I liked that the whole family pulled together when things went wrong and solved problems together.  I loved the punchline at the very end of the book.  There is a lot to like here.

Three and a half stars.  Very cute book.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Snowbear

The Snowbear is a beautifully illustrated short book aimed at younger children (4+ years).  Sean Taylor's sweet story about how magical snow days can be is gorgeously illustrated and supported by Claire Alexander's charcoal pencil and watercolour illustrations.  This is definitely a cuddle-up and read along story which will become a fast favourite.  It's very short, 32 pages, and is published in hardcover format by Quarto Publishing - words & pictures

Books for children should be of the highest quality, engaging and well written.  This book absolutely fulfills those requirements. Children are our future readers and developing a lifelong reading habit starts most often at a young age. Lot of bonus points for using lolloping in the book.  Wonderful!

I enjoyed it very much.

Five stars.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

The New Dark

Yet another YA dystopian quest fantasy with a young female heroine destined (special triskelion birthmark!) to save everyone and lead to a more enlightened future whilst finding herself. Set in the second generation after some unspecified apocalyptic event that broke down society and left most technology nonfunctional and all but forgotten (despite being roughly 15 years ago), Sorrel goes on a disconnected quest to reunite with her brother and love interest.

There are glimmers of real potential for something out of the ordinary in this first book. I hope the author develops the world further and shares more backstory for the events leading up to the present and the reasons for them.  I had a lot of problems with the motivations for many of the characters, and the dialogue was very uneven and awkward in places.  The love interest subplot felt tacked on, honestly.  It's a YA dystopian novel with a female protagonist, ergo there must be a love interest.  He's unappealing and not very compassion inducing.  Sorrel herself is prickly and immature and I spent most of the book really wishing someone would shake her.  Nearly ALL of the characters wind up making uninformed naive choices that nearly get them killed (taking free drinks from someone you have just said that you don't trust in a dangerous strange place? Not the best judgement on display).

There are a lot of uncomfortable themes including sexual abuse, slavery, racism, violence, torture, etc.

The biggest problem with this book for me was that whatever cataclysmic event(s) which changed the world happened, they happened roughly 15-20 years previous to the narrative.  That is not nearly enough time for societies to form and splinter, developing independent culture and language, and despite the story arc happening in cities that are walking distance from one another, none of them were really aware of one another.  There was so much emphasis on really creepy passages (they're basically the only ones which are well written and fleshed out).  The almost-sexual-abuse was creepy in a sustained manner.  It just went on and on. The roving mutants who attack the peaceful settlement and triggered the whole story are not explained at all.  They just come out of nowhere and maim and murder and rampage.

It was also difficult for me to form any sort of bond with Sorrel. She murders, tortures, poisons and whines her way through the book.  She's not likable in the slightest.

This was a very difficult book to enjoy.  I am, admittedly, not the target audience, perhaps people who really enjoy YA dystopian novels will like this one.

Two and a half stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Tales from the Good Ship KafkaBury

From the author's preface:
What can you say about Franz Kafka and Ray Bradbury except—what wonderful examples of the most precious freedom we have: the freedom of—imagination
That's certainly a high bar to aim for, an homage to Kafka and Bradbury. I opened this book with some amount of trepidation, because, honestly, there are a scant handful of stellar authors who could stand in a room with either Kafka or Bradbury and not suffer a lot by comparison.

I was unfamiliar with Bruce Taylor before reading this book and was very pleasantly surprised by the 26 (by my count) included 'stories'.  I use quotes around 'stories' because very few of them have an overall narrative story arc; for the most part, they're first person PoV vignettes.  Many of them are quite lyrical and almost poetic, they're all quite well written.  Mr. Taylor (aka Mr. Magical Realism) has a very strong and distinctive voice.  He's clearly not trying to be anyone else.  Several of the included pieces seemed very autobiographical or taken from real experiences.  One of the first lessons of writing is 'write what you know', and it's one that the author has clearly mastered.

I read a lot of books.  I find myself often reading a passage in a book and trying to recall where I've read something similar in tone and timbre to a passage.  That didn't happen one single time with this book.  I've literally never read anything that 'sounded' the same to me; nothing that 'went to the same place' in my brain.  The stories themselves are short (the book is 189 pages) and varied.  Like all collections, there are some that resonated more with me than others (that's why I love collections and anthologies).  They're all well written, some of them are very very good, and a few of them are outstanding.  I try to pick at least three standouts from any collection I review and in this case it was difficult since there were several really excellent vignettes. I finally settled on these three which spoke to me.

Watermelonmania - Magical realism with a healthy dose of surrealism in a techno coffee bar. This one's a lot of fun.

The Legend of the Slugosaurus - a truly silly but fun creation fable for anyone who has ever lived in a rainy climate and wondered why slugs exist.

Return - is a sweet and magical love story.

As an aside, these stories are fairly topical and there's quite a lot of current events in the included themes.  Many of them are also set in the Pacific Northwest USA, especially Seattle and environs.  I'm not sure how dated they'll be in 20 years, but right now they're very relevant, readable, enjoyable and well written.

189 pages
E-book and paperback formats. Paperback available via Amazon's printing service. DRM free e-book also available from the publisher.
Published by ReAnimus Press.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Know-Nonsense Guide to Money

This is a fairly up-to-the-minute guide aimed at middle readers about money and currency and how we use (and potentially misuse) it.  The book clearly and humorously explains concepts from debit cards to currency exchanges.

The book is broken up into chapters: What is Money, Earning, Saving, Spending and Borrowing. Each of the chapters contain full page illustrations, some with sidebars, covering such essentials as 'Needs vs. Wants' and setting financial goals.

Quite a lot of the information contained here isn't regularly taught in schools and is really important for life skills mastery. It would make a great addition to a school or classroom library as well.

This book is the third in the 'Know-Nonsense' guide series, following Know-Nonsense Guide to Measurements, and The Know-Nonsense Guide to Grammar.  Author Heidi Fiedler includes quite a number of subtle philosophical points in the text in an easy to digest (non-preachy) manner.  The art by Brendan Kearney is quirky, colorful, and fun and supports and illustrates the text very well.

Quite a fun and accessible introduction to money and its potential effects on our lives.

Four stars.
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Worms Eat My Garbage

The re-release of a classic first published 35 years ago, Worms Eat My Garbage has everything that the beginner to advanced vermicomposter needs to know to make a thriving habitat for earthworms to compost the organic waste produced by an average family.

The book is full of fun illustrations and easy to read and understand instructions.  It's impossible to overstate the importance of shepherding our resources and reusing, recycling, repairing the items we can.  In the western world, we throw away a staggering amount of food which could easily be turned into compost to improve the soil so we can reduce the need to transport food and grow our own.  Even if we don't use the compost in our gardens, it's fantastic for houseplants and starting seedlings.

I have noticed that the compost also seems to make my houseplants stronger and more able to withstand the stresses of being indoors.  None of my 'worm compost' houseplants seem to get aphids or scale or mealybugs or any of the other nasties which attack indoor houseplants.

The book begins by introducing vermiculture and spends a chapter explaining the differences and cultural requirements of the most used species and their strengths and weaknesses. The next few chapters explain the different types of containers, how to build a container (or modify a bought one), figuring out and collecting bedding and how to source your worms.  The introductory and setup chapters comprise roughly 35% of the content and they are well illustrated and very well explained in plain, readable text.

The next chapters describe what (and how) to feed your 'worm workers', how to keep the environment in your worm box(es) optimal for production and growth, what other critters can possibly pop up and what to do about them (in general, they're supporting characters and completely harmless, so leave them alone to help your worms...  the few exceptions are well explained and illustrated).

There is also an interesting chapter of FAQs including a section on the anatomy and physiology of worms and how they do what they do.

The final 10% of the book is given over to worksheets and record keeping examples (extremely useful), resources, links (updated), appendices and indices.

All in all a thorough and entertainingly written and illustrated book about a useful hobby.

Five stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.  

Everybody's Somewhere

This is a beautifully illustrated, sweet, rhyming book aimed at young children (3-5 years).  It would make a lovely bedtime/storytime read along. 
Everybody's somewhere, where are you?
I'm right here, I'm somebody, too.
Some are in the country, some are in the town.
Everybody's somewhere, up or down.
Author Cornelia Maude Spelman has a series of books about feelings and how we deal with them. This book is a little different.  In cheerful rhymes it explains that everyone is somewhere, even when we can't see them.  The book is colorfully illustrated by Alea Marley and the art coordinates and supports the text wonderfully.

I can imagine this book might well be helpful for children who are dealing with separation anxiety or sadness when a primary caregiver has to be away at work/deployment etc. It's a very short book (32 pages) which is exactly the right length for a story read-together.

Five stars for the art and text.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Crazy Like a Fox

Crazy Like a Fox is the 10th book in the "Sister Jane" series by Rita Mae Brown.

I've long been a fan of the author, and enjoyed her cozy Mrs. Murphy series as well as her more serious writing.  The Sister Jane books are cozies and full of the American foxhunting traditions and culture.  If you don't know anything about riding to hounds, you will after reading this book.

The dialogue and writing are pitch perfect (including such southernisms as 'carrying' someone when giving them a lift in your car).  Typically for Ms. Brown, the writing is solidly comfortable and engaging.  Reading her books is almost like visiting with an old friend you haven't seen for a while; you just pick up where you left off the last time, even if you haven't seen them for ages.

I had read the first couple of books in this series, then sort of lost track of it and hadn't read any of them for several years.  I didn't have any trouble following the story or keeping the main characters straight in my head whilst reading.  There is a comprehensive dramatis personae section at the beginning of the book in case the reader needs to sort of who is who.  That being said, it is the 10th book in the series and would probably be best read in order.

I personally love anthropomorphic mysteries, but fair warning, if talking animals bug you, this probably isn't the series for you.  The book also does a superlative job of giving a glimpse into Virginia hospitality and etiquette and the riding subculture.

Four stars (I've put books 3-9 on my TBR pile, that's pretty high praise from me).

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Big Book of Rogues and Villains

This is a BIG book, 944 pages, including 73 stories from both famous authors (O. Henry, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins and many others) as well as authors who are less well known today than they were in their contemporary periods, but may be familiar to fans of the old pulp magazines such as Phantom Detective (C. S. Montanye, Paul Ernst, Donald Keyhoe, etc).

The collection is broken down and arranged chronologically: The Victorians, Nineteenth-Century Americans, The Edwardians, Early Twentieth-Century Americans, Between The World Wars, The Pulp Era, Post-World War II, and The Moderns.  Each of the stories has a short introduction including publication notes and author bios.  The intros were a real treat to read and even though I love detective fiction trivia, there was quite a lot that was new to me.

I love anthologies and collections, and this one is no exception.  The hook for the anthology is that the stories feature one or more rogues/villains.  Sometimes they're portrayed in a more favorable light, like the stories featuring Lupin and Raffles and some are just dastardly, Dracula and Horace Dorrington, for example.

Since the book covers such a broad span of time, some of the stories reflect the language and dialogue of their period, but for anyone comfortable reading a Holmes story, these stories won't present any problems at all.

I enjoyed quite a lot of these and even enjoyed reading a few of them aloud together (fun road trip activity, passenger reads, driver drives :).

Heartily recommend this collection.  I found a number of authors who were not previously familiar to me for further reading.

The anthology's editor, Otto Penzler, has curated another superbly entertaining thematic collection.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

The Fall of Dragons

Immersive epic fantasy series like the Wheel of Time, Game of Thrones, Kingkiller Chronicles, Farseer and tie-ins, First Law and others, everyone has a favorite with 700+ page books and 5 or more books in the series.  These are the series that many fans revisit every few years over a span of years (or decades).

I am a huge fan of what I think of as BIG fantasy.  Doorstop books that you carry around for weeks.  Books that drag you in so deeply that you actually miss your train stop or suddenly realize it's 4 am and you only intended to read a few pages before bed. (Been there, done that).

This is a very worthy addition to that list of BIG fantasy.  The Fall of Dragons is the 5th book in the Traitor Son Cycle by Miles Cameron, out 19th October, 2017 from Orion Books.

The narrative doesn't drag, despite the book's nearly 700 page content.  The entire series, by my rough count, has over 3000 pages of war, grief, betrayal, victory, evil guys, dragons (dragons!), world building, pitched battles, military precision and desperate struggle.  It's very well written with incredibly well drawn characters and confidently written, believable dialogue.  The editing is perfect also, I found no typos, no formatting errors, and surprisingly, no 'book bloat'.

Exceptionally well crafted BIG epic fantasy.

One caveat however, this book (as most epic multi-book fantasy series) is emphatically NOT a standalone.  No spoon feeding or hand holding.  This book encompasses a cast of (literally) thousands.  If the reader doesn't have the background, they'll likely spend most of their time frustrated or confused.

Five stars for this final book and five for the series.  Really top shelf quality epic fantasy.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Tula Pink Coloring with Thread

Coloring With Thread is a new design book + CD from fabric designer and fibreartist Tula Pink
due out 20th Dec, 2017 from F+W Media. It's a short book, 98 pages, but packs a lot of instruction and photography and design into that space.

 The book is full of Tula's whimsical stylized animals and florals, many of which coordinate with existing fabric. They remind me of many folk art traditions, Indian, Scandinavian, Mola etc.  Most of the projects in the book are finished in hoops for artistic cohesiveness (and to encourage the user to further creativity), but certainly they should be used for other purposes such as linens, firescreens, pillows, etc. It's nice to see a resurgence of freehand and crewel embroidery with surface designs instead of only counted thread projects.

The book begins with a short introduction and artist's statement which is followed by a supplies list and how-to section which include many embroidery stitch diagrams.  The introduction and stitch diagrams comprise about 20% of the total content.

The projects each have color coded outline diagrams. There are 17 full tutorials which make up about 75% of the content. Picture sidebars in each tutorial section include closeups of the detail work for clarity along with designer notes and inspirations.At the end of the book there's a very basic resources and biography section.

Very nice and inspirational tutorial book full of color and whimsy.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Dead Man's Chest

This is the 18th book in Kerry Greenwood's series with the Hon. Phryne Fisher. Originally published in 2010, this edition is a re-release from Poisoned Pen Press, in paperback and ebook versions.

I can only think of a handful of series (of any genre) that haven't gone very flat after a dozen books.  But here's Phryne, doing what she does best (beating the bad guys with style and panache) in her 18th outing.  There are pirates and smugglers, disappearing servants, buried treasure, and mysteries galore.  Despite trying to get away from everything and have a peaceful family vacation with daughters Ruth and Jane, Molly (the dog) and her companion, Dot, Phryne can't seem to avoid finding mysteries and wrongs to right.

The books are still fresh and fun.  I enjoyed this one very much.  I loved that Ruth gets to shine and be competent in this book.  I also loved the introduction of Tinker, and hope he'll get at least a cameo in future books.  I love how egalitarian Phryne is.  She could be so smug and supercilious and she's not.  I really look forward to new books in the series.  Yes, it's escapist and fun, but the books are well written and cleverly plotted.  It's good quality escapist fun.

I love Phryne and her family.  Wonderful books.

Five stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher (but enjoyed the book so much I bought my own copy).

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Tethered Mage

The Tethered Mage is the first book in the Swords and Fire series, by Melissa Caruso, from Orbit Books.

I really enjoyed the heck out of this book.  The world building is fascinating and detailed, the magic system is internally cohesive and believable and the political machinations for power (very loosely based on the great dynasties of  renaissance Italy and environs) are well wrought and complex.

This is a substantial book, 438 pages, but tautly plotted and it never dragged. There are several plotlines, well interwoven into an epic story arc. I was very surprised that this is a debut novel; the author has a very strong voice and a gift with dialogue.

Other reviewers have done a very good job of describing the plot and characters.  I really enjoyed the lushness of the setting (which reminded me a lot of Venice) and the way that the fire mage Zaira was not easily won over.  Her unwilling partnership with a 'handler' of a different class and background was organic and well written, it wasn't just a few paragraphs of whining and then besties forever.

There were several mystery subplots which were deftly handled and the denoument was exciting and perfectly paced.  I'm really looking forward to the next installments.

I would not precisely classify this as YA.  It would be appropriate for older YA readers, but also fine for any epic fantasy fans, whatever their age.

Four and a half stars, looking forward to what comes next!

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Scandal in Battersea

This is the 12th book in the Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey from Berkley Publishing.

An ensemble cast including Nan and Sarah, their birds, assorted elementals, Sherlock Holmes, John and Mary Watson plus others from earlier books in the series do battle with, well, 'Cthulu lite' in an alternate-earth in Victorian London.

There are few iconic fictional characters with a more passionate following than Sherlock Holmes.  There are numerous serious groups who study the Holmes canon and meet to have dinner and debate the finer points of Conan Doyle's extant oeuvre.  For those folks, this book and the one previous (A Study in Sable, #11), would certainly bring on apoplexy.

While I love traditional Holmes and have read them many many times, that hasn't stopped me from enjoying the rich abundance of Holmes pastiches and modern narratives.  For those people who are a little stricter in their acceptance of ersatz Holmes, it can be said in defense of this installment that Holmes himself isn't really a central character, more of recurring cameo.  I didn't find his presence distracting at all.  I don't know that I would have rated him a cover appearance (though the cover art is beautiful), he doesn't appear all that much in the book.

My main problem with the book was that I found myself repeatedly jerked out of the story by the really over the top 'dialect' dialogue.  Much of the time I found myself almost having to translate phonetically to see what they were trying to say.  That was my biggest grumble with the book and it certainly wasn't insurmountable, just annoying.

This is a Mercedes Lackey book, the good characters are good, the villains are villainous and there isn't much any blending.

I found it comfortably readable, entertaining and distracting.  I loved the scene with the panto, and I love little Suki.

Four stars, it was exactly as expected, thank goodness.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Electric Pressure Cooker Cookbook

There's such a bewildering array of small (and large) kitchen appliances and gadgets available, it's often difficult or impossible to really know what is worth buying.  I remember my grandmother's pressure cooker and the hissing scary noises it made.  We never actually had any major mishaps when I was a kid, but everyone knew someone who had an explosive situation from a badly vented pressure cooker.  That was then, this is now...

With the safety and materials updates modern pressure cookers have undergone, the old fashioned pressure cookers are a thing of the past.  Today's electric pressure cookers come in a bewildering array of finishes, some nonstick, with all kinds of bells and whistles.  Some even double as slow cookers, rice cookers and yogurt makers.

The Electric Pressure Cooker Cookbook, by Barbara Schieving published by Harvard Common Press is a reassuring and encyclopedic look at the various pressure cooker options along with bells and whistles, as well as a cookbook with recipes which have been tested and adjusted specifically to pressure cooking.

The book is set up very logically with a preface and introduction covering the theory of pressure cooking (why it does what it does), specific models, and a very good how-to section.  The introduction covers roughly 10% of the page content.  The following chapters are arranged by types of food: breakfasts, sandwiches/wraps/tacos, soups, shortcut dinners, 30 minute meals, Sunday suppers, sides, and desserts.  There are over 200 recipes, certainly enough to keep most cooks busy and experimenting for ages.  One of the things I really liked about this book was how many variations there were and how easily the recipes could be altered and mixed up for completely different presentations.

I had no idea my pressure cooker was so versatile and had only cooked chicken and pot roast in it previously.  When reviewing cookbooks, I try to test out at least 3 recipes.  In this case, I tried the Maple-Almond-Raisin Breakfast Risotto (p. 42), which came out beautifully cooked and moist.  My kids have begged for a reprise constantly since...  it could definitely become a family favorite.  We also tested the shredded chicken tacos (p. 49).  They were fine, and this recipe is suitable for experimentation, barbecue, smoked flavor, etc.

I have never used a pressure cooker for dessert/baking before...   So I decided to try out the peanut butter cup cheesecake (p. 284).  My pressure cooker needed a second 5 minute round of cooking in order to get the internal temp up to 150F in the center, but after that, everything went fine and the cheesecake was firm and smooth and delicious.  I have plans to repeat the recipe for a work potluck dinner coming up soon.

The recipes seem varied and well made.  There are a lot of Asian American, southwest/tex-mex, Italian, and lots of 'American comfort food' dishes.  Good solid family food.  The food and recipes are photographed very well.  It's not fussy or overdone. 

The recipe chapters are followed by acknowledgement and bio pages as well as a short index.

Four and a half stars.  I am absolutely sure my pressure cooker is going to get a lot more airplay from now on.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Natural Wonders of the World

DK Publishing and Smithsonian team up to deliver another gorgeous coffee table book of photography and accompanying text devoted to the incredible diversity and beauty of planet Earth.  The photography is nothing short of stunning and the text is interesting and in-depth. Most of the accompanying information is presented as sidebars with the photos inset into the sidebars.

The book is divided into thematic geographical sections: Introduction, North America, Central and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, the Oceans, and Extreme Weather.  This is a substantial glossy book, 440 pages in hardbound format.

The pictures are breathtaking.  DK has never failed in my experience to present gorgeous and timely books.  This one is precisely that, a worthy addition to that legacy.

Five stars, a really beautiful book.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Good Together

Food is such a vital part of our lives.  For many professionals, free time and socializing are almost foreign concepts.  This book is a celebration of getting together and relaxing and enjoying the people we care for at the same time as we eat and enjoy good food.

Almost everyone seems to have some foods from their past which are tied into some shared family history.  Aunt Gen's cranberry orange salad, gran's chestnut turkey dressing, that broccoli cheddar casserole that cousin Judy always brings... etc.

This book is a very adventurous trendy gastronomique version of those homey dishes.  These are edgy, impressive, challenging and (to me) very unusual.  The collaborators in this cookbook are all, as far as I can tell, professional foodies, most of them actively cooking for very high end restaurants.  Many of the ingredients are (again, to me) bizarre and difficult to source. A few examples: fennel pollen (p. 30), moscatel vinegar (p.34, presumably sherry vinegar would be an acceptable substitute?), 300g (10½oz) beef muscle, from a happy, grass-fed cow (p. 42), salted wild garlic capers (same recipe), gentian liqueur (Kamm & Sons for preference, p. 70), etc.  There is also a lot of very specialized and expensive kitchen equipment specified in the recipes.

I usually try to test several recipes before reviewing cookbooks, however, this time around, I could only easily source the ingredients for one of the recipes: Cherry Kirsch Cake (p. 110).  It was lovely, and I closely followed the directions (including adding eggs one at a time with flour to prevent splitting), but my cake split quite ferociously.  I think if I try the recipe again, I will probably add a pan of water to increase the humidity in the oven (or maybe source eggs from truly happy chickens) ;)

The photography is lovely and compliments the recipes very well.  (I was also fascinated by the varied and beautiful tattoos of the creators pictured in the book). 

Final thoughts.  VERY fancy, very trendy, fairly difficult.  For foodies who intend to impress and really love the process of food and creating food.

Three and a half stars, would be 4-5 for die-hard foodies.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

This is a new edition of the 1974 original classic written by Patricia A. McKillip, released by Tachyon Publications.  So much has been written about this book and much of it is absolutely true.  The prose is luminous and beautiful.  The story is deep and profound and entertaining at the same time.  When I was reading, I was completely immersed in the narrative itself, for me one of the benchmarks of a really well written fantasy.  I found myself thinking over phrases and bits of the book when I wasn't reading though; it changed me.  For me, that's a hallmark of great literature.

Patricia McKillip is a fantastically gifted author.  She's really really really good at writing.  The book is beautifully simple to read and wonderfully nuanced and complex at the same time.  It's a story about love and revenge and wanting, and how those things change us and the risks (and rewards) involved in making ourselves vulnerable.

The story itself is appealing, and well discussed in other reviews, but it's the writing, the language, that keeps me revisiting this book.  Every single time, I think it can't be as good as my nostalgic memory of my 40/30/20/10 year younger self remembers, and every single time, I'm blown away and notice things I didn't appreciate on earlier readings.

What a beautiful book.  Throughout a lifetime of almost literal nonstop reading, this is one of the few that I keep coming back to and one that I still own my original physical copy of. 

Five stars, one of my favorite books ever.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Urban Botanics

Urban Botanics is a calm and beautifully illustrated short book by Emma Sibley and Maaike Koster, from Quarto Publishing - Aurum Press.  Although it's only 160 pages, half the page count is taken up by the gorgeous watercolors of illustrator Maaike Koster.  The rest of the pages are given over to the accompanying descriptions and culture tips for the more than 75 houseplants.  Though most of the included plants are relatively common houseplants, there are some surprises included (Epipremnum aureum for example; a lovely plant and one that is widely ignored in the floral trade).

I wasn't sure what to expect from a plant handbook with watercolor illustrations instead of photographs, but the result is lush and beautiful, even better than it would have been with photography in my opinion.

The book is available in ebook and hardcover formats and was released 14 Sept, 2017.

It's worth noting that the Amazon description for this book incorrectly lists the illustrations in the book blurb next to descriptions for other plants which are also included in the collection.  The descriptions and illustrations are correct in the actual book.

Really beautiful illustrations, reassuring and accessible short culture tips.  Well worth a look.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Grumpy Gardener

The Grumpy Gardener by Steve Bender, an editor for Southern Living, is a collection of garden snippets essays and advice arranged in an A to Z format.  Each letter of the alphabet contains several entries often with short (and very funny) reader sent question sidebars with information for getting rid of ants, killing bamboo, and avoiding letting your cat drive the lawn tractor - He's too short to see over the steering wheel and will likely run over your flowers. :)

The entire book is sarcastic and humorous and innocently grumpy.  There's a lot of sensible gardening advice and a fair bit of humor.  The book itself is heavily slanted to the southern areas of the USA (he does work for Southern Living magazine), though there's a lot of info that is perfectly suitable and usable for other areas.  I did recognize a few of the entries, so I believe that at least some of the content is reprinted from past issues of Southern Living.  It's nice to have them collected in one place though.

This book is more of a gardening humor read than an actual reference book.  I sat and read it cover to cover and found myself chuckling along quite often.

256 pages, ebook and hardcover formats, published October 24, 2017 by Southern Living/Time Inc Books.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

The Overneath

Peter S. Beagle is one of a handful of authors who are absolute no-miss-wonderful for me.  I'd try to make a sports or cultural icon analogy, but I am a book nerd at the end of the day.  I read.  I read a lot.  I believe I have read (and reread) everything widely available which he's published.  There are two things I've found to be true with Peter Beagle's oeuvre. 1)The books and stories are accessible, enjoyable, and readable for anyone and 2)the meanings and messages change subtly every time they're read.  That's literally as close to magic as makes no difference, and I have absolutely no idea how he does it.  I guess I don't honestly really want to know how he does it, because I'm afraid that, like most magic, it won't work properly if it's dismantled.

The Overneath is a collection of 13 stories, including two Schmendrick stories.  I was so excited to be allowed to review the Overneath because Schmendrick (and The Last Unicorn) was really the watershed book for me growing up and between Peter S. Beagle and Madeline L'Engle I turned into a ravenous bookworm and never got better.

I therefore expected the Schmendrick stories to be central for me in the collection with 11 bonus stories which I expected to like, but not be blown away by.  I am truly surprised that that wasn't the case.  Oh, both of the stories are wonderful, and Schmendrick Alone has never been published elsewhere, but for me at least, they weren't the standouts in this collection.  It's brutally difficult to pick three to concentrate on, but for me they would be:

Trinity County California: You'll Want to Come Again and We'll Be Glad to See You. Combining modern realism with dragons and drug control, this is a beautifully written gritty fable about monsters... and the illegal dragons they exploit.

The Way it Works Out And All. Avram Davidson, (yet another of my favorite authors) and Peter S. Beagle go road tripping interdimensionally together.

Music, When Soft Voices Die is a melancholy parable about pursuing a connection to the unknowable pain at the center of existence.

I lied, I couldn't quit at three...  They all resonated deeply with me, but two more especially:

Great Grandmother in the Cellar is a wonderful creepy fairy tale about loyalty and family and Olfert Dapper's Day which gives some of the back story of one of the original catalysts for The Last Unicorn.

This is as good as it gets. Peter S. Beagle is an amazingly generous gifted storyteller and we're lucky that he has shared his stories with us.

Five stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Hand Lettering

Due out 6th February, 2018 by Gabri Joy Kirkendall & Jaclyn Escalera, Hand Lettering is bundled as a set including a project book, markers, and drawing pencil.  The bundle is produced by adult coloring book and art publisher Thunder Bay Press.

This book is very short (64 pages) and what text there is is written in a friendly informal encouraging style. After an oddly involved calligraphy element and illustrated history of writing (appealing, but which took up roughly 10% of the page content), the 10 styles included in the book are presented: Art deco, 'coastal', cubism, garamond, Parisian, mid-century modern, retro, southwestern, and tribal.

Each of the 10 styles is covered with approximately 2 pages each along with a sidebar of 'defining characteristics'.  The pages include many examples, and though there aren't any step by step tutorials, there are a number of tips and hints along the way.

The last half of the book includes some tutorial info about special effects, techniques, flourishes,  3D marker techniques, a few project inspirations such as a lettered and drawn illuminated capital, pen and ink scene with lettering, letters with floral and object embellishments, negative space and uses and placement in curved or oddly shaped forms.
At the very end of the book are a couple pages with further inspiration for using brush pens, found objects, cut paper, gouache and metallics, etc.

I received an early galley copy of the project book, so I cannot comment on the quality or colors of the art set which will be bundled with the book.  The book itself is accessible to beginners and encouraging and fun.  More experienced crafters or calligraphers will perhaps not find much to challenge them.

Bundle price, according to B&N is $15.59, of course subject to change before release.

Three and a half stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.


There are many myths surrounding lager, that it's flavorless, lacking in depth or alcohol content, that it's easier and cheaper to make than ales or other types of fermented beers, that it has to be drunk ice cold to mask off flavors etc, etc.  Author and editor of Zymurgy magazine and all around beer nerd and renaissance man Dave Carpenter begs to differ.  This encyclopedic book contains a thorough treatise of lager and associated food and history.

Roughly the first 10% of the book deals with ancient history including the archaeological and historical evidence of very early brewing, malting, and the spread of brewing techniques and beer to Europe.  The history chapters are well referenced with footnotes to provide further reading and reference hunting for the enthusiastic beer historians.  I was tickled to read an ode to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing. There are also nifty pictures of cuneiform tablets and other relics of the very earliest brewing in the fertile crescent and Egypt.

Thereafter follows an interesting (really!) layman accessible treatise on the microbiology and chemistry of brewing.  All of the terms are painlessly well defined and understandable.  Even though I've been a home brewer for years, and I'm a professional bionerd by day, several things he says suddenly made a lot of sense to me. (He provides the best definition and explanation of selective pressure/re-pitching I've ever read).

Scattered throughout the book are tantalizing little sidebar snippets (fun facts!) about a variety of subjects.  For example, I never knew why Anheuser-Busch uses beechwood strips boiled with baking soda in their aging process.  That is explained very well in a sidebar in the book.

Sandwiched in the segue between the early history chapters and  the regional food and brewing chapters is a discussion of the reinheitsgebot (500 year old purity law, some say the first food safety law ever).

Thence follows an information rich chapter about microbiology and refrigeration vis a vis lager yeast and brewing, pasteurization and other info which explains why the industrial revolution and refrigeration made modern lager possible and practical.

The book moves along through the ages to modern brewing history, especially as it relates to the USA, along with with marketing and market building, advertising campaigns and associations with sporting events.

Chapter 7 includes a very thorough essay on how to pour and enjoy  lager.  Most of us, even beer enthusiasts, pour our brew into glass and more or less call it a day.  There are a lot of glass profiles which I've seen but wasn't really clear over when and where to use them.  This chapter clears up any confusion.  

Chapters 8 - 10 discuss the different types of lager, from old world pale and dark lagers to North American lagers (for better or worse).  Each section includes specific examples along with comments on alcohol content, bitterness, color, etc.

Roughly the last  30% of the book is a tutorial on wort production, yeast selection, how-to and recipes for creating a wide range of different lagers based on or reminiscent of famous craft beers. There are 20 very well written recipes included which should keep the home brewer happily crafting for a long while.

After the recipe and tutorial section is a very useful chapter with further recommended reading and an exhaustive bibliography and index.

This is a solidly usable reference book and one that could definitely become a staple of any beer enthusiast's library. Really really useful.  Since I'm a complete medieval recreation dork, I'm personally inspired to batch up some gruit in time for international gruit day (1st February). The recipe's in the book!

Five stars, I just don't see a book on this topic being better than this one.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Few Right Thinking Men

Originally published in 2010, this is a re-release by Pantera Press in paperback format. Written by Sulari Gentill and set in 1930s Australia, it's beautifully written and redolent of classic golden age detective fiction.

The series is written around real life history, with verifiable political and news stories of the time seamlessly interwoven into the narrative.  I have been most impressed with Ms. Gentill's ability to place her characters peripheral to real history and really allow the reader to feel like they're there.

This is the first book in the series and introduces the dashing (and charmingly egalitarian) Rowland Sinclair and an ensemble cast of friends and associates along with a beautifully drawn depression-era Australia.

Having read the series (and looking forward to new installments), one thing that has impressed me very much is the author's facility with a really well planned and executed story arc.  I can't imagine how many books ahead she had planned when writing the first book, but there are foreshadowings in this book which play out in book 8 in the series.  In addition, each book is complete in itself. Honestly, I read them out of order when I could find them, and never felt lost or cheated.  They're really well written enjoyable books.  The dialogue is pitch perfect, the characters and setting are stellar, the writing is great, and the plot adheres to the 10 commandments of detective fiction (the reader gets all the info to 'solve' the crime, no hidden perpetrators, no 'evil twins' etc etc).

Other reviewers have done a good job of describing the plot, so I've concentrated on the books as a series.  I did review book 8 on this blog here.  I've seen this series compared to Kerry Greenwood's Phryne Fisher books, but apart from the setting (depression era Australia), I don't see it.  Both series are fun, but while Phryne's sort of a fantasy cozy, the Sinclair books have a lot more in common with Ngaio Marsh than Kerry Greenwood.

Well written, solid from this, the first, book, beautifully plotted. 323 pages, but I never found my interest flagging. Well worth a read.

Four solid stars
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Bryant & May: Wild Chamber

This is the 15th book for Christopher Fowler's quirky Peculiar Crimes Unit, fronted by the delightfully weird duo, Bryant & May.  Published 5th December, 2017 by Random House, it's available in hardcover, ebook and audio versions.

I've never really found anything that is similar to the PCU novels.  They all have an impossible crime feeling with weird/supernatural overtones which are completely exploded by the time the denouement rolls around.  Christopher Fowler is a masterfully gifted writer.  The novels are truly top drawer, finely crafted, and obey the generally accepted commandments of mystery writing.  And they are funny. Good heavens, they're funny. I read Wild Chamber during my commute and the book often surprised laughter out of me.  (In fact, I wound up recommending the books to several people who were curious what could possibly be so laugh-out-loud funny on my work commutes).

One thing that has surprised me about this series is how very good it was from the start.  There aren't all that many series I can think of which start off really strong and find their stride from book 1.  Honestly there are only a handful of series which haven't seriously flagged (or pooped out) for me after more than a dozen books.  One gets the feeling that many authors are feeding contractual obligations after that many books and, well, 'phoning it in'.  That is emphatically not the case with Fowler.  He's still brilliantly funny and the books are absolutely full of quirky trivia, generally delivered by Arthur Bryant.  If only I could spend some hours in Bryant's library, I would die happy.  In fact, the entire ensemble cast is filled with well developed characters, and the dialogue is pitch perfect. 

The author is prolific and dependably, consistently, good at writing.

The PCU books, generally speaking, function very well as standalone novels and this one would make a good start on the series for readers who are not familiar with the books.

Wonderful series, great book.  I enjoyed it so much.

Five stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Dogs In Origami

Dogs in Origami by John Montroll published by Dover contains exactly what is on the cover, 30 tutorials for origami dogs of a surprisingly broad range.  The book is 128 pages, paperback format, and Dover's usual quality. 

The book begins with a good introduction including the basic folds and symbols. The introduction takes up about 10% of the page content.  The following chapters are well illustrated tutorials, one for each dog breed. It's amazing to me that the sculptures really -do- look like the breeds they represent.  The bull terrier looks like a bull terrier, the Scottish terrier really looks like a scotty. (That might be a bit of a 'duh' moment for most readers, but am still amazed that it's possible to get as much nuance of stance and feature in a one color origami sculpture).

The tutorials are aimed at the intermediate to advanced origamist, though I managed to follow two of the diagrams without much trouble and I would call myself a moderately keen beginner.

I could definitely see this being a really fun activity with family or friends, and it would make a great gift along with a pack of paper.

Classic and fun.  Origami is a great mindfulness training exercise.

Four stars

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.

Cooking With Nonna

I grew up in an area with a large and vibrant Italian immigrant community.  We had a lot of really good Italian restaurants, an annual Italian heritage festival, even an Italian language local radio station.  I grew up, moved out of the area and found myself looking forward to trips back, so I could get my real Italian food fix.

Even though my own family are Irish (through and through), my closest friends were almost all Italian, and I grew up eating and loving so much beautiful Italian food.  I even had my own honorary Nonna Giulia, my best friend's grandmother.

This book is packed full of real Italian home cooking recipes.  The pictures of family gatherings made me very nostalgic.  There's a real connection between family and food.  Hospitality means feeding people with love.  That's a very basic and very real connection; one that this book celebrates and illustrates very well.

It starts with an introduction, including two vital basics of Italian cooking, pasta doughs and sauces.  There is also a good basic introduction of tools and techniques.  The intro chapters comprise about 10% of the total content and do a good job of building up to the techniques and recipes which come after.  And wow, what recipes they are!  Nearly every recipe I remember adoring as a kid is included in this book, pasta e fagioli, focaccia, veal,  tortelli, gnocchi, and bunches more.

The recipes are arranged in chapters in order of their place in a meal; appetizers, soups & salads, vegetables, pasta & first course, second courses, pasta & breads, desserts, and cookies.

I've tried several of the recipes included in the book and in every way they've lived up to my memories of special occasion foods from my past.  The seven layer cookies (which, admittedly are Italian-American) were fabulous and didn't last out the evening.  Pasta e fagioli soup with foccacia bread was a simple, warming, wonderful meal.  These recipes are beautifully simple and do-able.  I'm NOT a gifted cook, but the instructions and tutorial photographs are well done and the results are wonderful.

This is a good all-around Italian cookbook and has many regional specialty recipes.

Cooking With Nonna is a warm and inviting cookbook with delicious well prepared dishes.  248 pages, by Rosella Rago, published by Quarto - Race Point.

Four stars plus nostalgia and *yum* value.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher.