Books, Yarn, Ink and Other Pursuits

Feb 24, 2011

Review: Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

The Book:

Zoe Ardelay's life in her small village is turned upside down. Right after her father's death, Zoe is informed that she is to become the king's fifth wife.  Ruled by the element of water, coru, Zoe follows the ambassador to the city, only to walk away from the edict and go to the edge of the great river to hide and rediscover herself.  What Zoe finds is that not only does she carry the power of water with her, but she is coru Prime, a power unto herself.  Faced with the challenge of rediscovering her family's place in the palace, and the challenge of the secrets that had laid buried within the palace walls, Zoe must decide for herself how much power she has, and for whom she will use it?

The Yarn:

Sharon Shinn sets forth into a new world where the elements rule.  Each child is given three blessings upon their birth, traits that comes from five elements (earth/skin, air/breath, fire/mind, water/blood, wood/bone).   Zoe's blessings include beauty, love, and power, a trait that is shown more and more life as the story goes on.    More blessings can be drawn at temples for guidance, and Zoe finds more reminders and clues to her life and choices at various times in the book through this.  I loved the use of the elements and the blessings as stones, charms and such as those are things that I relate to in my own life.

Zoe grew up fast.  Her mother died many years ago, and she and her father lived far away from the palace that sent her father away in disgrace.  Both her internal and external conversations - with herself and others - show that she has not been a child for a long time.  However, as many of those who had to grow up quickly, Zoe proves herself prone to selfish feelings and rages, especially when faced with facts about the father she relied on for so long, and truths that she has to accept.  Another facet of that acceptance are the friends and family she picks up along the way.  From the river banks to the palace to her grandmother's house to the palace, Zoe learns the value of the people that surround her, along with the value of the secrets kept by them.

From beginning to end Darien Serlast, the king's advisor, proves an enigma, a friend, and possibly a foe.  More unyielding and blunt (being hunti - with power in wood/bone) compared to Zoe's more restless and mercurial coru, she isn't sure what to make of him much of the time.  The reveals that come through book prove surprising, although sometimes not, at least in terms of the obvious attraction between the two.  Shinn gives a lyrical voice to the ups and downs between Zoe and Darien, their draw towards and fight against each other, and the ebb and flow of the water that Zoe controls both in benefit for and against those around her.

Troubled Waters is a beautiful story of a young woman trying to shape her own life among those who are used to being in control.  Like the water that is the base of her power, Zoe's story flows from a slow roll through the beginning of the book to a storm-fed river racing to the end.  Anyone who has read Shinn's other books, especially the Twelve Houses series, will recognize the strength of her characters and their journeys as ones that bring resolution in a meaningful way.

The Ink:

Title:  Troubled Waters
Author:  Sharon Shinn
Publisher:  Ace Books
Date: October 2010
Read:  Library Hardcover
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Feb 22, 2011

Review: Pale Demon by Kim Harrison

Note:  Some possible plot spoilers from previous books in this review.

The Book:

Rachel Morgan has been accused of practicing black magic and shunned as a witch.  She has three days to make it to San Francisco, where the annual witches conference is meeting, to plead her case and have her shunning overturned or be forced to the ever-after forever.  Blacklisted from flying, Rachel must team up with Trent Kalamack to make it to the West Coast in time.  However Trent is on a quest of his own, and trust is little afforded between these two.  With witches, elves and demons on the hunt, Rachel, Trent and her team are in a race against death, and that is even before the sentence is carried out.

The Yarn:

I have read all of Kim Harrison's Hollows series from the beginning.  Pale Demon is the ninth book of the series. Rachel Morgan has developed a lot since her days being a runner for the Inderland Bureau Services, but her past is coming to catch her.  This is mostly due to the elf that is traveling with her, Trent.  Having known her since childhood, and having fathers that did some unknown experiments on Rachel to ensure her survival, Trent now needs Rachel as part of his quest, plus she needs to still lift the familiar curse that she placed on him.  With an uneasy truce and 3,000 miles to travel, Trent and Rachel, along with Ivy and Jenks, cross the country on their own quests for validation.

Rachel has been working through a lot of relationship issues these past books, and it was good to see this one start to lay the final path stones down for some of them.  Kisten, Ivy, Pierce, Trent and even Al are all spindled through Rachel's heart and mind at one point or another through the book, and Rachel's issues with love and connection finally start to slip into place as she comes to terms with her powers in both black magic and as a possible demon.

Harrison draws a vivid landscape for her readers: whether traveling across the United States or through the ever after, and the action doesn't stop for a moment in Pale Demon.  I had a lot of trouble putting it down because I had to see what was going to happen next, and every time I thought Rachel could go no further, she did.  There are enough twists leading to final pages to keep the reader guessing exactly what the results are going to be. Rachel both wins and loses in this story and her world is laid wide open for the next book.

With plenty of action and suspense, strong characters and exciting storyline, I consider Pale Demon one of the strongest books in the Hollows series so far.  Harrison brings back the Rachel Morgan of old, and I am looking forward to seeing what she does next!

The Ink:

Title:  Pale Demon (The Hollows, #9)
Author:  Kim Harrison
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Date: February 2011
Read: NetGalley ebook
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Feb 17, 2011

Review: Grilled Cheese, Please! by Laura Werlin

The Book:

Cheese between two slices of bread is immortalized in most people's childhood.  In Laura Werlin's new book, Grilled Cheese, Please!, grilled cheese is all grown up.  With 50 new recipes to share, you will find "...everything from basic grilled cheese to exotic, from nostalgic to modern, from ethnic to all-American, from savory to sweet." (pg. 11)

The Yarn:

I was quite happy to find this book in my NetGalley searches.  As the mom of two growing kids grilled cheese is a staple, but having the same-old white-bread-and-American is getting a bit stale for us.  Finding new ways to try this sandwich is a welcome addition to my household.

The chapters include breakdowns by filling types (cheese only, with meat, with vegetables), recipes influenced by other countries and other sandwich shops that Werlin has visited. Some of the recipes can be a bit exotic for children's tastes; the "Anything Goes" section includes sandwiches with cherries, gaucamole, crab meat and hazelnut butter.  However the chapter on U.S. regional grilled cheeses is sure to please everyone with a familiar style of sandwich.  There are also a few side dish and condiment recipes included to enhance the grilled cheese, but not upstage it.

Another good thing about this book is the opening chapter, with tips on how to make the best grilled cheese.  Some are obvious, like putting any butter or oil on the bread, not the pan, and a thinner bread crisps better while cooking.  Other tips such as grating the cheese or covering the sandwich while cooking to ensure the cheese melts may help that next sandwich you make.  Werlin lists several different types of cheeses, including several American artisan types, and explains which ones melt better than others.  She also gives some alternate choices for substituting types of breads, for those days you cannot find that pain de mie.

Being released in time for National Grilled Cheese Month in April, Werlin has presented a nice range of grilled cheese recipes that will please any palette.

Hopefully even my kids.

The Ink:

Title:  Grilled Cheese, Please! 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes
Author:  Laura Werlin
Date:  March 2011
Publisher:  Andrews McMeel
Format:  NetGalley eBook
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Feb 15, 2011

Review: Double Take: One Fabulous Recipe, Two Finished Dishes, Feeding Vegetarians and Omnivores Together by A.J. Rathbun and Jeremy Holt

The Book:

It can be difficult to get people to agree on a meal, but when you put vegetarians and omnivores together, it is near impossible at times to please everyone.  Double Take attempts to bridge the gap and bring common meals for both in one recipe.  With just a couple substitutions, dishes can be prepared for both vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.  From appetizers to soups to entrees, A.J. Rathbun and Jeremy Holt bring both of these lifestyles to the table.

The Yarn:

As an omnivore dating a vegetarian, I was looking for common recipes that could be adapted for both of us and still satisfy my kids.  The premise is good:  one recipe that is started in one pot, but when the meat is introduced, it is split off and finished separately to keep some portions vegetarian.  There are clear instructions for the recipes, and each has notes to make it all vegetarian or for just omnivores.  At the beginning is a good description of kitchen tools and 'Meat Alternatives 101', plus handy tips from both authors throughout the book.

However, the cookbook really seems to be mostly recipes that are meat-based, then adapted for vegetarians using meat substitutes.  Most of the vegetarians I know rarely use meat alternatives on a regular basis, so it seemed a rather narrow view of what could be adapted for both kinds of diners.  It had an overtone of  "the only way to please omnivores is to make sure there is MEAT".  I don't have to have bacon in my quiche, nor do I see it necessary to split a recipe of French Onion soup up just to make half with beef broth and half with vegetable stock. I think this book is more focused on entertaining guests than being an actual family meal cookbook, although the 'Comfort Entrees' chapter contains recipes for macaroni and cheese, fish sticks (using tofu or cod), and biscuits and gravy.  I also found the lack of photographs or any dessert recipes a bit sad, but I guess there is no need for separation of chocolate chip cookies for vegetarians and omnivores (unless they are BACON chocolate chip cookies....).

All in all, Double Take is a nice beginner's cookbook for ideas on common meals for both the vegetarians and meat-eaters who sit around your table.

The Ink:

Title:  Double Take: One Fabulous Recipe, Two Finished Dishes, Feeding Vegetarians and Omnivores Together
Author: A. J. Rathbun and Jeremy Holt
Publisher:  Harvard Common Press
Date:  January 2010
Read:  Library Paperback
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Feb 10, 2011

Review: Roast Mortem by Cleo Coyle

The Book:

Clare Cosi was hoping to reclaim a roaster that used to belong to her coffee shop, Village Blend, but instead ends up in an explosive meeting - literally.  When the local fire station assists in saving her friends, Clare goes out of her way to help support them with showing them how to use their new espresso machine.  Things start to get hot when other coffee shops get torched in the city and firefighters from the station begin to die.  Add to that family trouble leading to a troubling accusation for her detective boyfriend, Mike Quinn, and Clare is determined to tie the events together before everything goes up in flames.

The Yarn:

Roast Mortem is the ninth novel in the solid Coffeehouse Mysteries series by Cleo Coyle.  Clare is a smart heroine and she believes that the explosion at her friend's coffeehouse wasn't an accident. Working with two seemingly different sets of crimes, Clare is able to solve them and bring them together in a not-completely-unbelievable manner.  She has a no-nonsense focus that keeps her basically in control of her situations, her staff and those that she works with outside of the coffeehouse.  Her relationships with her ex-husband and ex-mother-in-law as partners in the business add another layer of fun secondary characters.

I found the focus of this book on Mike Quinn and learning a bit more about his background refreshing after his peripheral character status in the previous books. Having finally reaching a point in Clare's life where her ex-husband has settled into his own relationship more, this started as a good story to strengthen Clare and Mike's relationship. I did find it a little disconcerting to have Mike's cousin Michael thrown in and pursuing Claire.  While circumstances revealed in the book seem to make this believable on some levels, to me it gives the impression that Clare always has to be in some emotional crisis about her relationships.

The one thing that really bothered me about this book had nothing to do with the story.  It was the typos.  Missed edits always jump off the page for me, and I found three within pages of each other.  I think I was a copy editor in a past life.    

Roast Mortem is another fun entry in Coyle's series.  Fans of Diane Mott Davidson will enjoy this book, and as with many cozy mysteries, includes tasty recipes of some of the dishes included in the story along with an explanation about coffee roasting.

The Ink:

Title:  Roast Mortem (A Coffeehouse Mystery)
Author:  Cleo Coyle
Publisher: Berkley
Date: August 2010
Read:  Library Hardcover
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Feb 8, 2011

Review: Berried to the Hilt: A Gray Whale Inn Mystery by Karen MacInerney

The Book:

Off the coast of Maine, Cranberry Island is buzzing with excitement over the find of a sunken ship.  Rumors of its identity take over - could it be legendary sea captain Jonah Selfridge's missing Myra Barton?  Or possibly even Black Marguerite, the pirate ship which disappeared in the 17th century?

The excitement swells as marine archaeologists and treasure hunters come to the island.  Better even for Natalie Barnes and her business, Gray Whale Inn, until a body shows up near the wreckage.  Finding herself again in the middle of a murder, Natalie races to find the killer - and the treasure - in time before she finds herself lost at sea.

The Yarn:

Berried to the Hilt is the fourth book of the Gray Whale Inn Mystery series by Karen MacInerney.  Natalie once again finds herself in the middle of a murder, but with a local friend on the line, she is willing to investigate even after her near drowning from her last experience.  The story focuses on the murder and hunt for the sunken ship, however the fun secondary storyline of Natalie getting ready to judge the annual cranberry bake-off, and starting to think of her upcoming wedding to artist and deputy John Quinton, lightens the load.

Cranberry Island is full of great characters: from Natalie's best friend, Charlene, who is also the postmistress/general store owner and hub of gossip, to Adam, college-kid-turned-lobsterman who is also in love with Natalie's niece, Gwen.  Other island regulars carry from book to book and bring a quirky small marine community to life.  MacInerney doesn't stint on the details.  From boat rides across choppy ocean water to the numerous baked goods flowing through the kitchen doors of the Inn, I felt transported to this isolated island town.

Natalie works hard to help her friend be proven innocent, although her tactics can leave something to be desired.  She is a definite snoop, although a caring one, and some may find that a difficult trait to deal with in a main character.  The suspense builds right up to the end, and makes Berried to the Hilt another strong entry into the cozy mystery genre.

A component of any good cozy, the recipes do not disappoint either!  Based on the meals that Natalie serves through the book, and the winner of the Cranberry Bake-Off, they are a great addition to anyone's recipe box.  I also like that the publisher doesn't take the normal stance of blazing "RECIPES INCLUDED" on the cover, and just leaves them as a nice addition to the book.

The Ink:

Title:  Berried to the Hilt (#4, The Gray Whale Inn Mysteries)
Author:  Karen MacInerney
Publisher: Midnight Ink
Date: November 2010
Read:  Library Trade Paperback
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Feb 3, 2011

Review: Trio of Sorcery

The Book:

Mercedes Lackey brings three strong heroines in a trio of novellas spanning the decades.  Arcanum 101 has Diana Tregarde, witch and Guardian, heading into her freshman year at Harvard with a kidnapping, a psychic and a courseload looming.  In Drums, Osage shaman and private investigator Jennifer Talldeer faces off against an old and angry ghost looking for his lost love.  The final story, Ghost in the Machine, brings in  "techno-mage" Ellen McBride and finds that the power of online gaming isn't always just computer chips and code; it can be magic as well.

The Yarn:

When I was in college and working at the local Waldenbooks, I came across the first Diana Tregarde book, Burning Water.  After devouring the next two (Children of the Night and Jinx High) I was sad to learn there would be no more stories about her.   When I saw this book sitting on the shelf at the local bookstore, 20 years later, I was thrilled to have her back.

This story goes even further back: back to the early 1970s, when Diana was a teen, heading off to college and newer into her Guardian powers.  Called on by contacts in the local police department to sniff out a fraudulent psychic. Diana soon discovers this psychic is no fraud, and must use her power to bring a kidnapper to justice.  Lackey brings a little more of Diana's back story in, her parents' death, her grandmother and her first Guardian battle.  Lackey also brings the time period into focus with vivid scene descriptions.  Diana was always older than her years, being a witch and a Guardian (one who is tasked with helping and protecting others) brings a maturity that is balanced by the other college students living upstairs from her, especially as they become involved in her investigation.

During that time (early 1990s) I also picked up a copy of Sacred Ground.  Jennifer Talldeer was another strong heroine, battling evil spirits and bad businessman as an apprentice shaman and private investigator.  Lackey brings her back right where she stopped: reforming her relationship with her boyfriend David, sparring with her grandfather, and bringing her strength as an investigator and a shaman together to help a young man discover why his girlfriend was dropping out of sight.  While he was fearing a difference in their Native American backgrounds, no one was expecting a ghost to be in the middle of this investigation.  Jennifer Talldeer's relationship with her powers as a shaman and spiritual warrior were balanced by her intelligence and prowess as an investigator.

Ellen McBride is a brand new heroine.  While I do not partake in MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), I have played *cough* several online games and know that the amounts of personal energy that go into them can be tremendous.  Between the players and the programmers' belief in their creation, they bring a Wendigo to life in their game, one that threatens to break out of the machine and enter the real world.  Ellen comes in with her coding abilities - and her magical ones - to help take the creature down.  The interactions between Ellen and the other programmers is quick and smart, and this story is hopefully  (please, pretty please?) the start of a new series from Lackey.

Mercedes Lackey is a skilled author, pulling from many different traditions and beliefs to create the various worlds in her books.  Time and technology actually followed through all three stories: from the lack of it in Diana's college days in the 70's, to Jenni and David lamenting about needing cell phones that were not the size of bricks, to Ellen's elaborate workstation set-up that would make a programmer weep.  Her magical familiar/robot dog was a treat too, especially for those who loved K-9 from Doctor Who.

While the stories here are self-contained, I would definitely recommend reading the previous Diana Tregarde and Jennifer Talldeer books.  Trio of Sorcery is a wonderful collection for anyone who enjoys urban fantasy with smart female leads.

The Ink:

Title: Trio of Sorcery
Author:  Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: Tor Books
Date:  November 2010
Read:  Library Hardcover
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Feb 1, 2011

Review: 666 Park Avenue

The Book:

Can fairy tales really come true?  Architect Jane Boyle has felt like she has been in one the last month, after meeting the most handsome and wealthy Malcolm Doran.  With a diamond on her finger and love on her side, Jane leaves her home in Paris to move with Malcolm to New York and start her happily-ever-after.

However, in New York Jane's tale takes a darker turn as she meets her soon-to-be mother-in-law and the rest of the Doran family.  Being groomed for a position in one of Manhattan's famously infamous families may be like becoming a princess, but what will happen when Jane discovers that magic isn't just between the covers of books, but alive in her world and herself?

The Yarn:

Gabriella Pierce's debut novel takes a bit from fairy tales and present-day romance.  In fact, this book is hard to put a strict label on. I was never sure if I was reading chick-lit, urban fantasy or paranormal romance at times.  For those who tend to be purists in their reading, this may be a little difficult at the beginning while Jane jumps from being romanced by Malcolm in Paris to figuring out her magic in New York.  As Jane learns more about the family she is marrying into and locks wills with Malcolm's mother, Lynne, the action speeds up and Jane goes from being an overwhelmed girl to a woman confident in her self and her abilities.  I enjoyed Jane's utter acceptance of her magic in the modern world, which many times doesn't happen in other books.

With writing that is descriptive and a plot without too many holes, Pierce still leaves room for a sequel.  666 Park Avenue conjures a tale that both modern romance and fantasy readers will enjoy.

The Ink:

Title:  666 Park Avenue
Author:  Gabriella Pierce
Publisher:  William Morrow
Date:  February 2011
Read:  LibraryThing Early Reviewer
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