Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Grazing by Julie Van Rosendaal

Grazing
by Julie Van Rosendaal
Whitecap Books, 2005
213 pages

I like snacking. There are no two ways around this; finger foods, salty snacks, candy, pickles, grapes, cut veggies -- I love them all. Well, and to be fair, I especially love salty snacks. Chips, tortillas with guacamole, pretzel bites with flavouring: I would try to survive on these alone and indeed have had dreams to this effect. So when the cookbook titled Grazing crossed the desk at work, it was an automatic take-home for me. If I'm going to subsist entirely on snackfood, I should probably make an attempt at healthy snackfood.

Cookbooks like this are excellent for the recipes but also for the ideas. The "oh yeah, I could use that leftover pita that is going to moulder on the counter to make delicious and longer-lasting pita chips!" moments abound in this one. The recipes go from the really easy -- pita chips would rank as one of the easiest -- to much more involved, like Vietnamese rice paper rolls, for when you want to impress your friends with your snack-making prowess.

I recently attempted homemade crackers, a flax seed wafer cracker that ended up looking like something I might buy at a high-end grocery store in a fancy box, and tasted lovely although probably would have been even better if I'd added a touch of salt to the top for seasoning. They're a little nutty, a little sweet, and definitely delicious. The same recipe can be adapted for sesame-parmesan wafters, which will probably be my next outing in an apparent attempt to make them less healthy. Seriously, though, it was extremely easy and despite my habitual anxiousness when trying a new recipe, I think they turned out really well. I can see making these regularly so that I have something to munch on hand at all times.

Add all the good things a good cookbook should have, including nice photos, easy-to-follow directions, good descriptions of what you're making, lots of alternative ingredient options, conversion tables and a complete index (both by recipe title and ingredient) and we have a cookbook that I will be purchasing shortly. Recommended for habitual snackers with a vested interest in avoiding arteriosclerosis, high blood pressure, and all those other good things that come with a steady diet of store-bought potato chips.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Magician's Ward by Patricia C. Wrede

Magician's Ward
by Patricia C. Wrede
Tor, 1997
288 pages

The sequel to Mairelon the Magician sees Kim and Mairelon a year after the events of the first book have closed. I was right; I have read this before. And actually, I think I enjoyed it as much as Mairelon the second time through, so that's good; I remember not enjoying it as much the first time through. There certainly isn't as much adventure, and like Kim I kind of missed the freedom she and Mairelon and Hunch shared while they were out in their wagon. But, since I am in a Regency mood, I quite enjoyed the manners and social protocol stuff, and the restrictions Kim faces are an interesting contrast to the "freedom" she had in the first book. I'm trying to remember if I first read this before I read Pride and Prejudice (I know, I know, it's stereotypical but it was my first Austen and it remains my favourite) and I think perhaps I did, which meant that I wasn't as familiar with or enamoured with that period as I am now. It certainly came before any Julia Quinn, which this also reminded me of.

So, the book starts quickly. Kim has been made Mairelon's ward, and she's been learning magic as well as various other niceties of society. They've arrived in London for the Season. Unfortunately, Mairelon's aunt is also in London for the Season, and she's quite set on making sure that Kim doesn't disgrace the Merrill family, and the best way to do that is to get her married off quickly and quietly, if that's even possible with someone of her background and station. Mairelon's been busy since they've been back in London, leaving Kim to her own (or, more accurately, his Aunt's) devices, and all the attendant societal restrictions. So she's rather miserable. And then, right off the top, someone breaks into the house, into the library. Kim foils the plan, and though the burglar gets away, he leaves behind some tantalizing clues. Things continue to get curiouser and curiouser, and then much more serious when a potentially devastating trap is sprung. Kim and Mairelon will need all their ingenuity and various skills to come through this adventure unscathed.

While I don't think this is quite as good as Sorcery and Cecelia, I do think it's as good as Mairelon the Magician, just in different ways. There's not as much out-and-out action; it's a little more subtle. This is not to say that this book doesn't have some exciting action -- my favourite scene in the book involves Kim dressing up as a lady and blowing into a moneylender's office with all the brashness and physicality of her street days. There are chases, rescues, and magical attacks. There are also some quietly funny moments, and some sweet and tender moments, too.

One of the weaknesses of the book, though not enough to turn me off it, is that there are some threads and characters that are introduced and then seem to vanish almost as quickly. I can think of three off the top of my head, including the possible menace of Jack Stower, one of Kim's street nemeses. He's reintroduced, and then that never really goes anywhere. It's almost as if he's there just to give Kim something to fret about.

Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable rags-to-riches type story; can stand alone but is far better having read Mairelon the Magician first. I don't think there are any plans to bring back Kim and Mairelon, which makes me kind of sad. I really love Kim as a character; she's very human, and refreshing, smart and wry. It was wonderful fun to spend time with her again, and I'm sure I'll revisit.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

sad sack apology post

Okay, all. I know that there are always bloggers apologising for not being around, not posting, etc. but here comes another one. I'm really behind on my blog-reading and commenting, I'm extremely behind on my book reading, and I'm just not excited about the internet right now. I haven't even checked into Twitter in weeks (Bowker keeps following me, though, for some reason). And now that I know this blog template blows up in the latest version of Firefox (sorry everyone who keeps up-to-date with your Mozilla browser), I can't even seem to screw up the interest to fix it. This is a phase, it will pass; I'm going to be doing some Google Reader pruning and I'm going to keep reading. But the truth of it is that I'm a little overwhelmed and feeling a little like I've been slowly slipping away from the (admittedly tiny) little group of blogging bookish friends I've cultivated here. I miss you guys.

The thing is, I will keep posting here, as I read. I even have a review planned for next week already. But after that, I'm out of material, unless I can get my stuff together to read anything at all. I might post a review of a picture book or two, some ideas I've been saving for a while. The big problem is that I'm not excited by reading, and rather than make it become a chore attached to having to blog about it at least once a week, I'm letting myself float a bit. Once that passes, I'll get excited about writing here again, and I'll fix the flawed template, and I'll tweet. These past two months have been intense, as one might guess from the frequency of posting, and the past two weeks especially so. We've got a bit of a break coming up (I've got some post ideas attached to that, too) so hopefully that will clear out the apathy and I'll be ready to storm the blogosphere again. Until then -- it's not you, guys. It's me.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
written and read by Bill Bryson
Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio, 1998
5 discs (abridged)

Soooo. This was not at all what I expected. This is another one of those "It's on the list! You must read it!" books, and knowing I was short on time, and knowing it was one of the few on the list that my library has in audiobook, I decided to go that route. Which was, I think, an excellent decision. I am kind of on an audiobook roll here, my friends. This makes two audiobooks that I have listened to the whole way through in less than a month.

Now, no, this wasn't what was advertised to me when I first came across this title. I've been lead to believe that Bryson is hilarious, laugh-out-loud funny, that this was a sort of slapstick comedy of errors. I also thought this was the unabridged version, and suffered the same sort of unpleasant shock as Nan when Bryson calmly announced the name of the abridger at the end of the final disc. Well damn, I thought, no wonder I was sorry it was over so soon. At 5 discs, this audiobook is very much on the light side for adult-length audiobooks. And I really was sorry it was finished, experiencing an almost physical pang when I slipped that last disc out of the player.

So no, it's not LOL hi-larious, though there are points where I admit to a surprised guffaw. I did smile an awful lot, for someone on an hour long commute desperate to get home. Bryson's sense of humour is not slapstick or obvious. It is dry, subtle, gratifyingly humble, and self-deprecating to the extreme. I think I only had trouble getting used to it because I was expecting something much different. Also, Bryson spends much of the time being quite earnest and serious, though never entirely humourless, about his topics: the trail itself, hiking in general, bears, the devastation wreaked in the name of the US Forest Service and the US Parks Service, the lack of pedestrians and pedestrian-friendly spaces in the US, and you get the idea. These musings on the State of the Union as Bryson saw it (the book was first published in 1999) and in particular on the Environmental State of the Union are interspersed generously between the narrative from the Bryson's move back to the US after decades in the UK through the end of his summer of dedicated AT hiking. And all of it, bar perhaps a few paragraphs where the statistics and facts get a bit mind-numbing, is absolutely fascinating.

One of my pet peeves in books about nature (as discussed before) can be an authors' tendency to slip in a horribly depressing fact ("this beautiful bird, a warbler of some sort AND WARBLERS ARE VANISHING FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH DUE TO HUMANS, YOU BASTARDS is eating spruce budworm and calling to its mate") right in the middle of describing some experience or another. The first time Bryson switched into fact-relating mode, out of the narrative, I thought, Oh jeez. Not again. I got over it, though, largely because Bryson actually delves into the facts, fleshes them out, and creates a chapter of it; I don't feel ambushed, just enlightened. As I've said before, I have no problem with relating these facts -- it's just I don't like the way its normally done. I think Bryson's got the right idea: be clear about your intention, give me enough information to make an informed judgement, and for heaven's sake don't interrupt a narrative to scold me for a sentence before going back your merry way.

His narration on this audiobook also took me a bit of getting used to; he has a very odd accent and his delivery seems at first almost unbearably flat. Stick it out, because there's something about his reading that is deeply approachable and very genuine, when it's not downright hypnotic. I can hear his voice in my head this minute. I suspect, though I can't know yet, that this audiobook has changed something about the way I experience hiking fundamentally. It's also made me think seriously about trying some backwoods hiking myself because I actually think I probably could do it. I've camped before, I've done canoe trips (without portages) before, I've done a bit of hiking though never more than day-trips. Bryson doesn't make backwoods hiking sound appealing, exactly, so much as magnetic. He gets to the heart of the difficulties, the long stretches of monotony, the real and imagined dangers, and the flashes of absolute brilliance that make backwoods trekking so captivating to a certain crowd.

I really, really loved this audiobook, and I'm very grateful that having it assigned for reading meant I actually listened to it. I'm keen to read the unabridged version at some point, but I think I'll probably find myself looking for more of Bryson's audiobooks, abridged or not, in the meantime.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Blackfly Season by Giles Blunt

Blackfly Season
by Giles Blunt
Random House, 2005
326 pages

And now for something completely different. Also, I'm back to keeping track of my editions and page numbers, after a completely inexplicable lapse.

I'm not going to be reviewing all the books I'm reading for the upcoming training retreat, because to be frank, I am not reading them all terribly thoroughly. I am skipping through a bunch of them very quickly in an effort to get through the list in time. I figure it's better to have a taste of more of them than an in-depth knowledge of only a few of them. Well, and if I'm being honest, almost none of the books on the list were books I would ever consider picking up on my own; and while it is a good thing to read outside of my comfort zone every once in a while, there are good reasons that some of those would never have made it onto my list. I'm a pretty good judge of what puts me off a book. And as far as I can tell, I will never be a chick lit fan, for example, and a half-reading of Marion Keyes' Anybody Out There? has not convinced me otherwise. I can see why people like it, but I just don't.

I thought I would review this one for sure because I read the first half very closely, and only stopped reading it as though I would a normal book when ... well, I'll get to that in the review. Blunt is also an author I've been quite interested in, and would eventually have picked up on my own. I'll read more of him, too, if this book is any indication.

The mystery starts with a red-haired woman no one has seen before wandering out of the woods and into a bar in the small city of Algonquin Bay, confused and suffering from amnesia. When she's taken to hospital and examined, it turns out she can't remember anything because she's been shot in the head; the bullet is lodged in her brain. John Cardinal and Lisa Delorme take on the case. And then the body count starts with the discovery of a horribly, possibly ritually mutilated body and the suspicion that perhaps the two cases are connected. Heroin, biker gangs, maggots and strange shamans are all tangled up together in a case where nothing is quite as it seems.

The mystery itself is pretty interesting, but what got me hooked to start was the characters. We don't meet any of the mains other than the amnesiac redhead in the first scene; in fact, it takes place in the eyes of a character we never see again. The first scene is absolutely brilliant, I think, and remains my favourite part of the whole book. The writing is very good throughout; it is intense, occasionally funny, perfectly concise without being choppy or losing any description. Most of the characters are sympathetic and interesting, with enough depth to be believable. The first half of the story was so engaging that I literally did not hear someone calling my name at one point while I was reading.

The other thing I really liked was the humanity of the mystery, the decency of the characters involved. Some of the things that happen are pretty horrific (I'll get to this in a second; first spoiler warning) but the sheer likability and humility of John Cardinal and Lisa Delorme, combined with their careful, methodical and believable unraveling of clues, makes the other bearable. The way Cardinal deals with a situation with his wife Catherine throughout was so tender and honest that I couldn't help but become invested not only in him solving the mystery, but in him as a person.

The book began to lose me in a couple of ways, though. First of all, one of the perspectives we get is of Kevin, a small-time heroin dealer and aspiring poet who is, as we discover slowly, in the thick of things. I think he was supposed to be a sympathetic character, and I guess he was, because watching his storyline was like watching a train wreck in slow motion, pretty much from the moment we meet him. The reader knows that things are going to go south pretty quickly, but Kevin is both obtuse and willfully blind, and while that's realistic it was also really frustrating and somewhat stressful to read.

And then we also get some chapters from the perspective of the murderer, which always bugs me for two reasons: 1) I've never liked spending time in deranged, murderous minds, and 2) it spoils the mystery. We now know who is responsible, rather than having a couple of pretty good guesses. I know some people like this sort of thing, that the mystery and interest comes from seeing if the detectives can figure it out, and if they can figure it out in time; but me, it stresses me out.

I don't read to be stressed out. I guess this means I'm not a big fan of suspense/thriller novels.

/spoiler alert

And finally, I can't discuss why I lost interest without discussing this -- one of the things I was enjoying at the beginning was that the crimes and criminals were ostensibly pretty run-of-the-mill; drug running and rival gangs. Ugly stuff, no doubt, but believable and all the more fascinating to me because of their ordinariness and frightening in their banality. Cardinal and Delorme plod their way through the correct procedures, gathering evidence and consulting experts.

But then it all goes a little bit sideways. It starts out slowly, so one realizes that there might (or might not) be an element of the supernatural in this. This question is never resolved entirely, for which I am glad. But it elevates the ordinariness of the criminal activity to extraordinary evil, the run-of-the-mill storyline to something so weird and horrifying that it was, for me, overload. It was just too much. It was almost a little cliched -- "Look at how AWFUL this guy is! Look at how EVIL!" There are scenes that are there expressly to make us understand just how twisted the murderer is, and also possibly how supernaturally powerful he is.

/end spoilers

That's where I lost interest. The stakes were suddenly unbelievably high, for the story I had started reading, and so I started skipping and flipping through to read the parts about Cardinal and Delorme, and to leave the other perspectives out. Because I did want to know what happened to Cardinal especially, and I did, of course, want to know if they got the bastard.

So, I would recommend this one to people who really like suspense novels, those who enjoy crime novels from multiple perspectives, for fans of police procedurals (that part was extremely well done) and for whom character matters. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea, in the end, but I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another Cardinal and Delorme mystery if it were to come my way.