Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorites of 2013

It was hard to choose, but here is my list of favorite books I reviewed this year:

1. Fever by: Mary Beth Keane
A historical fiction book about Mary Mallon, A.K.A. Typhoid Mary. Keane examines the question if Mary actually understood that she was spreading the disease or not. The story follows Mary as she is discovered as a healthy carrier of the disease and how she was treated by the authorities. It was an excellent book. Completely engaging, while inviting the reader to think about how we treat people when we are frightened of them.

2. The Saga of the Icelanders by: Various Authors
A collection of sagas and tales selected from the Icelandic five volume set. This is an excellent collection of some of the lesser known tales. Although the more popular sagas such as: The Saga of the Volsungs and Njal's Saga are not included, you will discover similar tales in this book that you will like. The Penguin edition contains a lot of supplemental material which explains about the time period, how the political system worked, and maps.

3. Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by: Anne Somerset

I enjoyed learning more about Queen Anne. She is a monarch you do not hear a lot about despite the role she played in some major historical events such as: The Glorious Revolution, The Seven Year's War, The War of Spanish Succession, and The Act of Union. Anne Somerset gave us another exceptional biography with Queen Anne.

4. Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children by: Ransom Riggs

Jacob travels to an island to see what he can discover about his Grandfather. He learns more than he could possibly imagine. I loved the use of vintage  photographs as an idea and illustration for this story. Having the photographs as part of the story almost makes you believe the story is real. This was an imaginative tale full of mystery that kept me engaged in the story. I cannot wait for the next book Hollow City to be released.

5. Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute by: Jonathan L. Howard

This is the third book about the anti-social necromancer Johannes Cabal. I loved reading this book! Johannes Cabal is an anti-hero, which makes for an amusing read. In this book he becomes a guide for The Fear Institute on their journey to the Dreamlands to find embodiment of fear. I thought this was a very entertaining tale.

6. Harvest For Hope by: Jane Goodall

The perfect introduction to mindful eating. Goodall clearly explains why it is important to know about what we eat, where it comes from, and how it is grown/raised. She writes about farming practices, factory farms, water, CSAs, and much more. I learned a lot from this book, and joined a CSA when I was done reading it. If you care about what you eat, or are curious why other people do, you should read this book.

7. The Greek Myths by: Robert Graves

I love mythology, and Graves' collection is one of the best for the Greek myths that I have read. He provides additional notes about each tale, and this edition has some beautiful pictures. If you want to know more about the Greek myths, this is a great edition.

8. Eleanor Of Aquitaine by: Alison Weir

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a powerful woman. She married two kings, and was the mother of three kings. She lived a long and very active life. I was particularly impressed with how much she traveled. She traveled back and forth between France and England. She also went on one of the Crusades to Constantinople and Jerusalem. This was a well researched and engaging biography. I really enjoyed learning more about Eleanor.

9. The Cookiepedia by: Stacy Adimando

This is a cookbook of classic cookie recipes. It is my new go to cookbook for cookies. I love the wide variety, and the easy to follow recipes. Full of tips on how to change the recipe slightly or how to make some steps easier, it is the ideal cookbook for the new or experienced baker. I've made several of the recipes already, and am looking forward to making more.

10. Catching Fire by: Suzanne Collins

This is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. It is my favorite of the three. I loved the introduction of previous winners of the games. They all have such strange personalities, you cannot help but love them. This book also captures the different emotions of the people and events better. I had a great time rereading this book before I went to see the movie. I like it more each time I read it.

11. We Band Of Angels by: Elizabeth M. Norman

The account of Navy nurses deployed to the Philippines during World War II. They end up as prisoners of war, and despite horrific conditions all of the nurses survive their imprisonment. The amazing part is, they continued to do their best to care for the wounded, even when they could barely stand from illness and starvation. It was a very moving book, and I highly recommend it.

12. Nick And Tesla's High Voltage Danger Lab by: Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

Nick and Tesla go to their Uncle Newt's house for the summer. They get to use their Uncle's lab for experiments. Nick and Tesla start using their experiments in their adventures around Half Moon Bay. I read and reviewed this book with my nephew. We had a lot of fun reading this book. There are instructions for five experiments from the story that you can do yourself. This book is a fun way to expose kids to science.

Eleanor Of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women in the Middle Ages. She was married to Louis VII King of France, and after that marriage was annulled, she married Henry II King of England. Eleanor was very involved in politics from an early age because she inherited Aquitaine, which was important politically. She is also well known for being the mother of Richard the Lionheart and Prince John. She lived to be eighty-two years old.

In Eleanor of Aquitaine Weir does an excellent job separating fact from fiction. There are stories and songs about Eleanor that grew over the years, and many of them were untrue. I liked that these stories about her were addressed, but not used as a factual representation of Eleanor's life. There was an excellent discussion on why these stories would have developed, and why they could not be true.

This was a well researched biography. Despite the lack of sources such as letters and diaries, Weir manages to piece together Eleanor's life from Court records and other contemporary sources. There is a lot of discussion of Henry II to help determine what Eleanor would have been doing, particularly when there is a lack of record about her. While I wish there had been less of Henry II in the book, I think this was unavoidable, and it was handled well.

I really liked this biography. Weir does excellent research, and presents her findings in an engaging way. If you are interested in Eleanor or this time period, I recommend reading this book.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

As I Lay Dying

Addie Bundren dies at the beginning of the book. Before she dies, she extracts the promise from her family to bury her where she grew up. It is a several day journey from where they are currently living. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character in the book. It explains their thoughts on what is happening, and their motivation for fulfilling Addie's dying wish. Some of their reasons are noble, and others quite selfish.

Normally, I do not like stream of conscious writing, but it worked really well in this book. The way the writing style was used to tell the story tricks you. It feels as though you are reading a bunch of jumbled thoughts from the various characters, but there is actually great subtlety to the presentation that draws you in. You grow to appreciate each character's unique voice as you begin to understand their thoughts about what is occurring.

Honestly, this is one of the books you read, and want to read again to go back and see what you missed in the first reading. This was my first time reading a complete Faulkner book, and I liked it. As I Lay Dying leaves you thinking long after you have finished it. There is a dark beauty to this book. I am looking forward to reading more Faulkner in the future.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Cookiepedia

Cookiepedia is for anyone that loves to make and eat cookies. The simple and easy to follow directions make it perfect for the newbie baker. If you are a more experienced baker this will still be a great addition to you kitchen. It is full of tips on how to make the recipes your own if you feel more adventurous. There are simple cookies with a few basic ingredients, and some with more steps. Anyone will be able to find a cookie they feel confident baking.

I won this in a Quirk Books DIY contest.* Winners use the craft or cookbook to compete in a contest for more books. I really liked this cookbook. There are pictures for every recipe, which I like. It always helps me decide what recipe to choose when I can see it. It is also useful if you have never made the recipe to see how it should turn out. The cookbook is divided into sections by the type of cookie buttery, chocolate, etc. At the start of each section is a picture of all the cookies found there. At the end of every recipe there is a place to write notes about it. This is an extremely useful feature. I have so many notes in my cookbooks wherever I can find space, so I love this feature! Some of the cookies I have already tried are:

Thumbprint Cookies

An easy cookie to make. This is a great cookie for a group. You can make the fillings different to please the various tastes of your guests. I used three different fillings here. 1. Blueberry Jam
2. Pumpkin Butter 3. Chocolate Pudding
There are numerous possibilities for these cookies.

Mint Thins

I no longer have to track down the Girl Scouts once a year. These are very tasty, and are very good if you stick them in the freezer, and let them get cold. The only problem is they disappear quickly!

Crinkle Cookies

I used the basic Crinkle recipe, but added my own twist. I crushed Andes mints into small pieces and added them at the end of mixing. The chocolate and mint flavor is delicious! I had never made crinkles where you melted the chocolate, but I really like the flavor of the cookies. I also liked how small these are.

I'm looking forward to making Shortbread cookies. My recipe for Kormos calls for them, and last time I made it I had trouble finding plain shortbread cookies. Now I don't have to worry about finding them at the store, or what is in them. I can't wait to try it out and all the other delectable looking cookies in this book. If you like to bake cookies or want to learn how I recommend Cookiepedia.

*Quirk Books does not require a review or stipulate what kind of review should be given if you are inclined to review the book. It was simply part of a promotional event for their book. Winning this book does not change my review. It merely provides me with a book I would not have read, or gotten to as soon.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Saga Of The Volsungs

The Saga Of The Volsungs follows several generations as they achieve great renown, and are killed by people jealous of their success. The following generations try to avenge their fallen ancestors. Filled with compelling elements such as: cursed gold, a ring with the name Andvaranaut, a broken sword to be reforged, fights with dragons, dwarves, shapeshifters, magic, and epic battles it is a story you will not want to miss.

Revenge is what motivates the characters in this saga. What I find absolutely fascinating in this story, is the varying methods the Volsungs use to get their revenge. From one on one fights to training from a young age in the woods, the Volsungs seek and obtain justice for their murdered family.

Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings trilogy was partially inspired by The Saga Of The Volsungs and several other sagas. The broken sword reforged and the magic ring are some of the more obvious inspirations. What I appreciate about Tolkien is while clearly inspired by this tale, he uses it to make his own story. He does not create a cheap imitation. It is an excellent example of how appreciation of a story can influence a person without overtaking their work.

I enjoyed reading this saga, and only wish it was longer. I recommend reading this book if you are new to the sagas. It is an excellent one to start with. It follows many of the typical themes in the sagas without completely overwhelming a new reader with a lot of different terms.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Heart Of The Lion & The Lion Unleashed

The first two books in a series about King Richard returning to England from the Crusades. The first book: The Heart of the Lion, has King Richard captured by Duke Leopold of Austria who trades him to King Henry of Germany in exchange for a portion of the ransom. Back in England, Queen Eleanor and Princess Joanna try to thwart Prince John in his attempt at a coup in Richard's absence. In book two: The Lion Unleashed, King Richard remains imprisoned waiting to be ransomed. Although Queen Eleanor raises the ransom, Prince John does everything he can to stop it from being paid. Princess Joanna hatches a plot to free Richard and puts it in motion.

I won these books in the Goodread's First Reads Program*. I really like this time period, and have read much about it, so I was excited to try Barlog's books. I was extremely disappointed! I found the overall plot, the character development, and the writing style unsatisfactory. In fact, the only reason I finished the first book and continued on to the second was because I won them, and I think it is in the spirit of the program to finish the books and give an honest review. Otherwise, I would not have wasted my time reading these books.

To expound lightly on my dissatisfaction, the author used a great deal of language to say very little. The  best writing tries to show, rather than tell. In addition, the number of adjectives overwhelmed the narration, making it difficult to read. There needed to be less description with more action and dialogue to further the plot. I was also wary of the lack of character development, in the first book, and would have hoped to see more depth in the second.

While the second book improves some in the overuse of adjectives and plot development, it still falls short. As a second book in a series there was a particular lack of character development. Motivations were often stereotypical. Each character appeared to be made from a template, and the author did not succeed in making me believe they were real. For example, there were various knights mentioned in the book, but there was no spectrum to their thoughts. I need more development to stay engaged in a story.

I would recommend reading different books about Prince John and Richard III.

*The Goodreads First Reads program does not require winners to give a review. Winners are encouraged to review the book, as the authors and publishers offering the books for free are trying to get the public interested in their book. If a review is given, it is not stipulated that it should be positive or negative, only an honest review.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Almond Tree

Ichmad Hamid is from Palestine, and his story takes place from 1950-2010. He is a gifted mathematician who struggles to help support his family from a very young age. His family is living in occupied territory, and they must do as the military demands. When his father is wrongfully imprisoned Ichmad struggles to maintain his ideals and avoid the hate his family is rapidly succumbing to. He must choose between feeding his family and getting an education.

Knowing his father wants him to get an education to have hope of success in life, Ichmad struggles to get his education against many of the odds against him. He tries to live up to his father's ideals and advice. It is moving to read about the hardships Ichmad suffers with poverty, lower wages because of his race, his father's imprisonment, prejudice professors, and overcoming his fear of the Israelis.

I won this book in the Goodreads First Reads Program*. I found it to be a captivating book. I liked that the author told the Israeli/Palestine conflict from a Palestinian perspective. It is a view that is not often portrayed in the West, although that seems to be slowly changing. I also liked the emphasis in the story of the need to form relationships with people to create understanding.

I thought that was a completely engrossing book. Despite the hopelessness that is present throughout the book, there are moments of beauty that give you kernels of hope. This is a poignant story that will stir strong emotions, and make you reevaluate what is important in your life. I recommend reading this excellent book.

*The Goodreads First Reads program does not require winners to give a review. Winners are encouraged to review the book, as the authors and publishers offering the books for free are trying to get the public interested in their book. If a review is given, it is not stipulated that it should be positive or negative, only an honest review.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Catching Fire

The second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy has us following Katniss and Peeta as they go on their Victor's tour of the 12 Districts and the Capitol. The tour does not go as planned when they encounter unrest in the Districts. Katniss is filled with despair when she realizes winning the Hunger Games means the Capitol will never let her be free, particularly as she becomes the symbol of the rebellion.

I like this part of the trilogy. We are familiar with the world, but it is before the story culminates in its grand finish. I enjoyed reading about the victors from the previous games. They are different from anyone else in their world. They appear to have an easy life compared to everyone else, but on closer examination, they all seem crazy because of the methods they use to cope with surviving the games.

I reread this book right before seeing the movie. It is my favorite book in the trilogy. There is so much more depth to the characters and the story. The balance of hope and despair throughout the book is outstanding. We learn that there is a darker side to winning the Hunger Games. I loved the first book, and this one is even better. I recommend continuing to read this trilogy.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Ghost Bride

Li Lan lives in Malaya during the 19th century. Her mother died when she was young. She lives with her father, who is addicted to opium, in reduced circumstances. One evening, her father returns home and asks if she would like to become a ghost bride. Her bridegroom is the recently deceased son of a wealthy family. While contemplating this choice, Li Lan is visited by the ghost of her prospective bridegroom. He becomes increasingly insistent that she marry him. Li Lan travels to the afterlife to figure out why he continues to haunt her.

I read this book for my Historical Fiction class. I enjoyed the exploration of the afterlife in this book. It was a different focus for a historical fiction novel. I like to read mythology and explore cultural beliefs and how they influence history. This book embodied my interests in a fascinating way. It also made me want to read more about Chinese folk tales and ghosts.

The Ghost Bride has a complex plot, which is wonderfully executed. I liked the second half of the book the best, where Li Lan explores the afterlife. The use of myth and history was combined beautifully to me. I recommend reading this book.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Heir To The Empire

It is about five years after Return Of The Jedi, the New Republic is in control of the galaxy. There are only a  few remaining strongholds of the Empire that they have left to defeat. A new leader for the Empire emerges, and has a plan that will return the Empire to its former glory. Suddenly, the New Republic finds itself in a perilous position--they might loose everything they have fought for, to the Empire.

This was one of the first Star Wars books I read, and was one of the reasons I became obsessed with Star Wars. I particularly enjoy books in this universe, that Timothy Zahn writes. He creates a suspense that keeps you turning the pages to see how the plot turns out. You will not want to stop with this book. He also introduces some of my favorite characters: Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, and Grand Admiral Thrawn.

This is the beginning to one of the more satisfying trilogies in the Star Wars Universe. If you are interested in Star Wars, and are not certain where to begin with the plethora of books that are part of this universe, I would strongly suggest beginning here. You will encounter characters you have already become attached to, and become invested in a whole bunch of new ones. I highly recommend starting this trilogy, and discover where in the galaxy you end up.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Mary Mallon lives in New York City around the end of the 19th century, and early 20th century. She works as a cook for some of the wealthiest families in New York. In 1907, it is discovered that Mary is a healthy carrier of Typhoid fever. She was the first identified person with the capacity to be a healthy carrier of the disease. She was quarantined on North Brother Island where doctors ran tests on her. A judge ordered her release after several years in quarantine, on the condition she would stop cooking for other people. Lacking the ability to earn a significant wage in another position, and taking pride in her ability as a cook she finds herself a job cooking.

I read this for my Historical Fiction course. I was anxiously waiting to get to the portion of class where we read this book. I was not disappointed. It ended up being my favorite book from the class. It was well written, and covered a fascinating person. I had always heard about Typhoid Mary the same way I heard about Mrs. O'Leary and her cow starting the Chicago fire in 1871. Both were always depicted as women that caused horrible things to happen through their own carelessness, or malice depending on the story. Of course, there is much more to these women.

Keane depicts Mary Mallon in a compelling way. I loved the richness of her character. Rather than showing Mary as completely innocent or guilty, we are given all the complicated parts that make up Mary, and her case. We are given questions that are difficult to answer: Did Mary really understand what was happening? Is it okay to imprison someone for something they might do? Perhaps it is easy for us to judge being removed from the situation, but when confronted as a reality in our own lives, I think it is not. It became harder to blame Mary for her actions as the book went on.

Fever held my attention to the very end. I found it to be an engrossing tale, despite knowing how it would end. This book made me remember how little I actually knew about Mary, and that was mostly stereotypes. I can't wait to read more books about Mary Mallon. I highly recommend this book.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The American Way Of Eating

"We're facing a dire health problem related to poor diet. Is it really in America's best interest to maintain a food system where eating well requires one to either be rich or to drive a total of thirty miles? Nearly two years after leaving my job outside Detroit, I think the answer is no."

Tracie McMillan is a journalist interested in America's food system. If minimum wage is considered a living wage, you should be able to pay for basic necessities such as rent and decent food. She goes undercover as a field worker--picking food from fields in California, working at Walmart selling produce, and working in Applebees in food prep. She explores what really is happening with the food we eat, and who can afford it.

Picking Food:

McMillan worked for hours (16+/day) in the fields to earn less than minimum wage. It was appalling how in the fields the workers were taken advantage of. The workers perform hard labor and are paid less than minimum wage, and have no health benefits. She watched as pay information was changed on the books to appear as though workers were paid minimum wage, when really they were not. Workers were also exposed to chemicals in the field, which is dangerous for them. Many of the workers put up with this because they did not have proper papers, or could not get another job.

Working in Produce:

MacMillan talks about the lack of training employees received at the Walmart where she worked. Employees had little to no training in how to take care of the food they were stocking. There was no real system for storing the food, and when it should go on display. As a result food would sit rotting in bins in the back of the store, waiting for someone to do something with it.

For me, one of the most discouraging parts of this book was the amount of waste that goes on. People are going hungry, and cannot afford decent food because of high prices, while food rots because it doesn't make it to the produce area in time for someone to buy it. Since the book was published, I have heard several large companies have developed plans for reducing food waste that happens in their stores. I hope they can accomplish this goal.

There was also the issue of how fresh the food is. The produce is shipped across the country, and by the time it reaches the shelves it is at best, already wilting. People are not getting the best quality of food, as they are loosing much of the nutrients from the food when they buy it this old.

Preparing Food in a Restaurant:

Much of the food being cooked and served in the restaurant seemed to already be prepared and frozen. Frozen food isn't necessarily bad, but you have to wonder what is used to preserve the food. It seemed the meals served were a pricier version of fast food, which people have deluded themselves into thinking is good for them. The importance of training was again mentioned in this section. There is a lack of food safety training Macmillan writes, that can be detrimental to the people handling and eating the food.

It was revealing to read how she struggled with expenses while making minimum wage. Even with little splurging she struggled with basic necessities. There is a problem with our current food and wage system. People should be able to live off the money they make, and they should be able to afford real, and decent food.

I heard the author give an interview about this book on the radio, and was intrigued. I think too much of the American food system is hidden from the public. More transparency is needed in the food industry, so people can afford good food. I thought it was an important book to read, and I am glad that I found this book.

I liked how statistics about food and wages were conveyed through personal experience. This book is important to understand the current food dilema facing America, and why school lunches, farmer's markets, farm bills, minimum wage, and food stamps are issues that effect us all, and need to be addressed in a well thought out plan. If you are curious about where your food comes from I would recommend reading this book. It is an enlightening read, and will hopefully raise awareness on some of the changes that need to be made in the food industry.