Sunday, June 26, 2016

If You Love Soup...

By Charlotte
Book Review: Broth and Stock from The Nourished Kitchen
Official FC Rating:

...then you need this book. 

This book was delivered to the house and approximately three hours later I'd finished reading it. And then passed it along to others to read. It's been a hit with everyone. It's organized terrifically, beginning with lessons on how to make broth (obviously) and then listing recipes by type (poultry, meat, fish, vegetable). So it's good if you happen to be one of those freaks who smile at all well-organized things (hand in the air) and if you're into any kind of soup. This book is just as useful for the carnivore as it is for the vegan. I'm a Ron Swanson kind of person when it comes to food and I tend to joke-mock people who don't eat meat (all in good fun...) but let me tell you, this book has got me reconsidering my priorities. 

Don't get me wrong, I'll make and love some of the meat recipes. But for the first time maybe ever I read some of the vegetable recipes and thought, "whoa, I need to make this!" Highly unusual, and, I think, a testament to the quality of this book. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone. I often lament my lack of basic kitchen knowledge, and this book may just put an end to that. I know how to cook well enough, but I'm excited to use broth I make myself instead of buy. You know. Also! Cuts down on food waste since it tells you how to use virtually every piece of meat, bone, etc. (There's even a "kitchen scrap broth" that includes using peels and skins you'd normally throw in a compost bin.) And we all know cutting down on waste is hot.

If nothing I'm saying sounds surprising to you because you're some kind of kitchen wiz, buy the book for the recipes. If the things I'm saying are new to you - I've never heard of using onion peels for broth - then buy the book for the nice basics and for the recipes. Basically if you're a human person and you need to eat food to stay nourished and alive, buy the book. 

The pictures are nice, too. ;)  

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Blogging For Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Book of Esther: A Novel

By Charlotte
Book Review: The Book of Esther: A Novel by Emily Barton
Official FC Rating:

Badass, feminist, imaginative, historical.  

I devoured this book. Or maybe it devoured me. 

Let me start by saying that this book is a lot. Barton's writing is awesome, but dense. The vast majority of the reviews I've read for this book mention "info-dumping" and the use of other languages without translation. They're not wrong, but... I almost feel as though these reviewers can't have actually finished the book. The first chapter is the hardest. I put the book down twice (to pick up Harry Potter, of course) because I just couldn't get into the first chapter. But I finally pushed through it, and hot damn I'm glad I did. I went on to finish it in two days because I could not put it down

THAT SAID, I don't necessarily recommend you immediately drop everything and buy the book. Rent it from your library. Or finish this review and read other reviews before dropping $25 on it. 

Because the people who didn't love this book bring up good points. I've seen folks complain that there are too many mystical elements. There are animated clay figures called Golems. There are mechanical horses in the 20th century. There's a man who was born a woman but transformed into a man when he prayed for it while bathing. There's a werewolf. There's also the fact that hundreds rally behind a teenage girl, willfully following her into war. Naturally, people complain that it's a lot to believe. To which I say: just get past it! In the beginning of the book I also struggled to believe everything that was put in front of me. But once I just stopped thinking so hard about it (it's historical fiction, after all), I was able to just relax and thoroughly enjoy the book.

The other major complaints I've seen, and which I feel I need to address before telling anyone to go buy it, are the complaints of language and too much info. Barton uses language throughout the novel that most of us won't understand (Hebrew? Yiddish? Combo? I don't know.) She often translates it, but not always. It was occasionally frustrating, but mostly I thought it was easy enough to understand through context. When I couldn't guess the meaning, I just... got over it. It really doesn't happen enough to distract from the story. Despite not always understanding the occasional blurbs of other-language, I understood and followed the plot. It didn't interfere with character development or rising action or, or, or. And yet, many, many people seemed to really dislike this feature of the book. So I figure it's worth mentioning. If you think this would bother you, it might not be worth reading. And then there's the issue of "info-dumping." There were some parts of the book that were just crazy laden with info - I don't mind it. I thought it was necessary to the story. But if you are more a dialogue and action guy or gal, it's something to consider. For all the info-dumping, though, I thought it was paced just fine. I never got bored.  

And yet, I really, really want to urge everyone to try this book out. It's one of the best books I've read in the last year (up there with The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra and The Mapmaker's Children by Sarah McCoy). The writing was perfection - the kind that makes you think of silk and caramel and hot chocolate and tea and blankets and that attic from A Little Princess. I know you know what I mean. 

~Break to go watch A Little Princess. My dear, dear Sara.~ 

So other than the writing, what did I love about this book? First of all, it's historical fiction. It's one of my favorite genres, and I find it interesting. That said, it really stretches the genre since it flat out alters the world. There's a massive Jewish state between Germany and Russia during WWII. So we're not just reading a fictional story that feels real - we're reading something of fantasy. Also, the characters. Ah, the characters. We have Esther, of course. A young woman living in a society that has strict rules and expectations for women. She's high-born. She's set to marry (joyfully, it's to someone she loves). And yet she feels strongly that there's more to be done to defend her homeland when the Germanii begin to attack. ......So she does something. This book is feminist, and it's badass. We get a lot of other great characters as well, and they span young to old, religious to heretical to atheists to soulless. It was all at once exciting and nerve-wracking to watch how these characters would interact, how the story would unfold with so many different kinds of people needing to live among each other. 

I loved that I was never bored, despite how long it took to get to the climax of the book. I love that there were so many moments throughout the book that forced readers to hold their breath in suspense. There was plenty of action. I also happen to love war stories, don't know why, so I appreciated the latter half of the book just as much as the former. (It read historical fiction --> military fiction.)

And though I think it's a bold endeavor that could have been disastrous, I really loved that Barton mashed so many different genres together. At times this book felt religious. At times it felt like fantasy. It was fiction that felt real. I can't say enough good things about this book. 

Of course, I wasn't entirely pleased. Esther isn't perfect by any means. I found her lovable, but she was disappointing from time to time (nothing like Amir though, thank God). I also didn't love the ending - I thought it left too much unanswered. But it wasn't a bad ending, so I'm alright with that. 

Over all, I thought it was an amazing book. I love when we're given strong heroines. I love when my imagination has to stretch. I love reading really good writing. If you love these things too, I'd suggest getting your hands on this book. 

p.s. If any of you read this book and also happen to be Jewish, let me know what you think of it! I'm Catholic and have only a basic understanding of Judaism, and throughout the book I wondered if being Jewish might change the perception of the book. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Blogging For Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Word for World is Forest

By Liz
Book Review: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
Official FC Rating: 

My partner, Sean, and I have a lot in common, but an area where we definitely differ is the genre of sci-fi. Sean loves sci-fi. When he isn’t reading something non-fiction, his fiction genre of choice is frequently of the sci-fi variety. Me? Not so much. As much as I enjoy weird elements in the novels I read, with limited exceptions, I’ve never really gravitated towards sci-fi.

Sean highly recommended I read The Word for World is Forest by Ursula LeGuinn, who is a renown sci-fi writer. He told me some of the themes of the novel, and I decided I’d give it a shot. This may sound odd, but I did enjoy the themes of the novel, but I didn’t really like the novel itself.

The Word for World is Forest takes place in the distant future where humans are colonizing other planets in the galaxy. It is implied that we essentially destroyed Earth’s natural resources and thus rely on resources from planets far from Earth (referred to as Terra, in the future). As a logging military branch from Terra colonizes the planet, Athshe, they terrorize, enslave, torture and destroy the habitat of the natives, Athsheans, who are described as being like small men, but covered in green fur and hair. Before the humans, referred to as “yumens” by the Athsheans, arrived, Athshe was known for its peacefulness and was covered in a luscious forest. Led by the Athshean Selver, the Athsheans are eventually left with no choice but to abandon their peaceful nature and strike back against their bloodthirsty masters. The story follows through the war that ends up taking place on Athshe.

A clear commentary on the evils of colonialism, greed, racism, and environmental destruction, the themes of this novel are important, and I very much agreed with Le Guin’s perspective. However, I felt that the execution of the novel itself fell flat for me. It was just too strange for my taste, and I always struggle with novels when I can’t get close to any particular character. Maybe I just don’t get sci-fi, but what frustrated me most was just the odd setting of this novel. I feel like the messages Le Guin gets across loud and clear in this novel could have been made in a setting that was slightly less bizarre.

Ursula Le Guin is a respected sci-fi novelist, and while I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel, I entirely respect Le Guin’s writing and skill. This brand of sci-fi might just not be for me; however, for those that are socially conscious and are also sci-fi fans, this book will be a perfect fit for you. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Eleanor: A Novel

By Liz
Book Review: Eleanor: A Novel by Jason Gurley
Official FC Rating: 

How does one single decision, or event, impact the future? It’s a question that many people think at some point or another. Every so often thoughts like these may cross our minds: “What if I had done this instead of that? Could it have prevented that from happening? Could I have done something to change these circumstances? Is it my fault?” These are a few of the questions explored in Jason Gurley’s surreal and heart wrenching novel, Eleanor (which has nothing to do with Eleanor Roosevelt, since I was asked this 800 times while I was reading this).

Long before Eleanor was born, tragedy strikes her family that seems to leave them with a family curse. Then, in 1985, Eleanor’s twin sister tragically dies, which puts her entire family in further emotional turmoil. Eight years later, when Eleanor is 14, she walks through a door in her school cafeteria, and exits into another world. She doesn’t return to her own world until many hours later. From that point onwards, her life is never the same.

You’d think based on that summary that I would understand going in this book was going to be sad, but nope. I was not prepared for ALL OF THE ACTUAL TEARS I WOULD SHED. Gurley certainly did an amazing job conveying emotion and creating stunning images through his words. I loved how he described the other worlds, especially the realm that he calls the rift. It was one of those novels that evoked both feelings and imagery, which makes for a great novel. The novel also deals with some fascinating themes, which Gurley handled in ways that I found both exceptional at points, and disappointing at others.

Death. Alternative universes. A dysfunctional family. Bending of time. These are all intriguing concepts to me that are featured in Eleanor. The themes of this novel actually reminded of a couple novels I read in the summer of 2015, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. However, in my opinion, Eleanor differs greatly from those two novels in how the main conflicts in its plot were addressed. Gurley, in some ways, uses escapist plot devices rather than tackle depression, specifically, in any kind of realistic way. I think this is likely a classic case of Deus ex Machina because the conclusion of this novel was almost too satisfying.  

From this point forward there will be some major spoilers. Don’t continue reading if you plan to read Eleanor yourself!

Ozeki, Murakami, and Gurley’s novels all use surrealism in fantastic ways that make you question our own world. Each of their novels have bizarre elements, but unlike Ozeki and Murakami, Gurley uses the other worldly aspects of his story to literally solve the conflict his characters were facing. This brings us back to the main theme of the novel, which is the question of “what impact could one event, one decision, have upon the future?” Gurley’s answer to this in Eleanor is everything. The decision Eleanor’s namesake, her grandmother, made to swim into the sea while she was pregnant, thus killing herself and her unborn child alter her family’s future. This event devastates the family to such a degree that the answer to fixing the problem was, in the end, setting the clock back so Eleanor’s grandmother never kills herself.

It was one of those conclusions that really shouldn’t have surprised me, and admittedly, certain elements of the book became predictable, like Mea actually being Eleanor’s dead twin sister, Esmerelda. I don’t mind predictability in novels (unless it is painfully cliché), but in the case of Eleanor, what bothered me was that the other worlds became the tool to handle problems in Eleanor’s family that are very much the result of real problems we have in society.

Eleanor’s grandmother was very clearly battling depression. She married very young, and got pregnant with Eleanor’s mother shortly after her marriage, which led to her having to drop out of college and quit her passion, competitive swimming. As she is pregnant with her second child, she begins to question her choices, and, to some degree, resent motherhood due to her depression. She doesn’t want to go through a second pregnancy because she feels that, at times, motherhood has taken away some of her happiness, and of her own self.

The depression Eleanor’s grandmother faces, her feelings of disappointment with motherhood, and the fact that she didn’t really want to be a mother to begin with, are real problems that women face today. And Gurley, not only doesn’t address these problems in a meaningful way, but uses Eleanor’s grandmother’s depression as the central point of the whole novel. She was the sole reason the lives of her family members were ruined. I don’t think this is the message we should send to young women. Now, should Eleanor’s grandmother have killed herself? No, but Eleanor’s actions were the reflection of a society that puts too much on women’s shoulders (to put it lightly).

It also leaves the message that a woman should sacrifice everything to put her family first. The novel wouldn’t have necessarily set that message if the novel goes on to show how Eleanor’s grandmother does end up resolving her issues without committing suicide. But nah. It’s just implied that everything gets magically fixed, more or less.

~~End Spoilers~~

From all that, it sounds like I disliked the novel, but I truly didn’t! It was a wonderful, albeit sad, book to read. I do recommend this book, but it’s a novel to be taken at face value. While the novel doesn’t examine societal or philosophical problems in a way I usually prefer, the fantastical elements were grabbing and Gurley’s descriptions were fun in a way that makes you want to draw out the scene. If you’re down for a good cry, or three, and enjoy fantasy, this novel is up your alley. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Blogging For Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.