Review: The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost

I was a big fan of the series Twin Peaks, which I watched faithfully each week until some time into the second season, after which I felt the series took a nosedive (I did ultimately watch all the episodes at some point last year). I read Laura Palmer’s secret diary (and wished I hadn’t). I watched Fire Walk With Me (and wished I hadn’t). When it was announced that the series would return, I was excited because I thought I’d have some answers about what, exactly, was going on. Well, if you watched Twin Peaks: The Return, maybe you liked it. Maybe after it was over, all you could think was “WTF did I just watch?” (That was me, by the way.) I think I did like parts of it, but in general, I can’t really recommend it because I felt it dropped too many threads and didn’t resolve much of anything. I was so frustrated by the ending of the series, that I decided to read Mark Frost’s book, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, hoping it might offer some answer. I also decided I would check it out of the library rather than buy it because I had a feeling it wouldn’t be something I’d need to own. I have to say that it did explain the series a bit, but not enough.

The book presents itself as a dossier compiled by a “mysterious” person the FBI refers to as “the Archivist.” No one who has watched the series will likely be surprised by the Archivist’s identity, but they might be surprised by a few of the revelations the book offers. Recorded weirdness in the area near Twin Peaks dates all the way back to Lewis and Clark, and the book implicates everything and everyone in this weirdness, from aliens and UFOs, the Air Force, Richard Nixon, Jack Parsons, L. Ron Hubbard, Aleister Crowley, the Masons, the Illuminati, the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, and Douglas Milford, who you may remember married a young siren named Lana in the original series and died on his wedding night—it’s strongly implied sex with Lana did poor Dougie in. However, much of the series still remains unexplained. Frost has another book coming out on Halloween, and perhaps this final tome will put the mysteries to bed, but I am starting to feel about the Twin Peaks franchise the same way I feel about Anne Rice.

Let me explain.

I really loved Interview with the Vampire. I rushed right out and read the rest of the Vampire Chronicles that had been published at the time. I also loved The Vampire Lestat. I didn’t love The Queen of the Damned, but when I enjoyed The Tale of the Body Thief, I decided maybe The Queen of the Damned was a fluke. Then came the others. MerrickThe Vampire ArmandMemnoch the Devil (which remains the only book I’ve thrown across the room). I couldn’t finish Blackwood Farm. I decided maybe I should quit Anne Rice because I was disappointed time and time again. But then I’d give her another chance. Finally, I gave Prince Lestat a chance, and it was just bloody awful. I kept trying because I kept hoping Rice would return to the storytelling I enjoyed in the first few books I read, but after being disappointed time and again, I was forced to conclude that I should quit Anne Rice. And I was a big fan. I used to check her fan website for news nearly every day in 1995 or thereabouts.

I won’t give too much away because part of the fun of reading this “dossier” is discovering the creepy history of Twin Peaks and trying to figure out how some of the events in Twin Peaks: The Return fit in. For example, this crazy episode. No, it still doesn’t make complete sense, but it makes a little more sense after I read this book. Also, some of the characters’ histories, ret-conned or no, definitely take on more significance than they appeared to have in the original series. The book also has some inconsistencies, both internally and connected to the series. I always find it frustrating when that happens. The book definitely goes in a more X-Files direction than the original series did.

Honestly, some of the episodes of Twin Peaks, both the original series and The Return, remain some of the creepiest things I’ve seen on TV, and for my money, villains don’t come much scarier than the ones you find on Twin Peaks. But I admit my patience with the franchise may be at an end—not that it’s clear that Lynch and Frost plan to continue.

So am I going to give Twin Peaks another chance with this book on Halloween? Probably. I mean, I still have too many questions about what the hell I watched this summer. But let’s just say I’ll be wary of anything else that comes down the pike if this next book disappoints as much as the series. And as I did with this book, I’ll be checking it out of the library. I’m wary to say the least.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


R. I. P. XIII am counting this book as my first selection for this year’s R. I. P. Challenge, as I found it sufficiently creepy (just like the series) to be an R. I. P. read.

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Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

My school’s Upper School read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I initially picked this book up some years ago, but something interrupted my reading, so I wasn’t able to finish it. I had always wanted to go back and finish it, so I was glad of an opportunity.

If you are not familiar with the book (though probably most people are by now), it’s the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family (as well as how Rebecca Skloot obtained Henrietta’s story). Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She had cervical cancer. Her doctor excised tissue samples including both normal cells and cancer cells. Her cancer cells, known to science as HeLa, became the first immortal cell line. It has been used to create the polio vaccine, and also conduct research in AIDS, various forms of cancer, and innumerable other projects. Henrietta Lacks’s family, however, did not know about the research done with her cells, nor did they benefit monetarily from their use. This book explores not only the story of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science but also the ethical dilemma introduced by lack of informed consent, as well as racism and poverty.

This book raises some interesting questions. I found it fascinating. I love reading about people’s stories. However, the story, in this case, is in the hands of a white woman who is no part of the Lacks family. Some have argued she blurred the line of objectivity toward one’s subject in how close she became with the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. I have also heard others argue that Skloot took advantage of the Lacks family as much as Johns Hopkins did. I would argue she was not going to obtain the story without blurring that line, and it’s also possible that family members would not have been able to tell the story without Skloot’s interest and help. Still, it’s an important consideration in terms of what happened to Henrietta Lacks’s cells. The cells are outside of the control of the family, and many argue that it’s too hard to figure out how to compensate the Lacks family, who have struggled in poverty and often (ironically) without health insurance. Anyone can order a vial of HeLa cells online, but the Lacks family receives no part of the profits on those sales. HeLa cells have benefited humanity tremendously, and a great deal of good has come from the research done with them, but very little consideration has ever been given to her family. For instance, Henrietta Lacks’s genome was released a few years ago, though it was later withdrawn after the Lacks family voiced concerns about privacy. In this era, when information like that is out there, it’s impossible to put back in the bottle. Henrietta Lacks’s medical records have also been released. It’s a shame the Lacks family has been treated the way it has, and though it’s hard to say whether or not the treatment would have been different had she been a white woman with the means to pay for her healthcare, my personal belief is that her race and class played a role in how she and her family were treated. It’s still true that once tissue is excised from our bodies, it is no longer considered ours, and doctors and scientists can do whatever they like with it. I suspect that will change some time down the road, but right now, case law says we do not own our tissue once it’s no longer part of our body. Think of all the times you may have had blood drawn, or a biopsy. Or even signed up for 23 and Me or a similar DNA site. In fact, the agreement you make with 23 and Me is that your DNA can be used for research, and you don’t get your results about family, ancestry, or health information without making that agreement.

This books definitely exposes interesting ethical issues in science and medicine, and it finally tells the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, and I think both stories needed to be told. I really enjoyed reading the book. It raised a lot of questions and made me think.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I am counting this book for the Backlist Reader Challenge, as I have been meaning to go back and read it after starting it years ago. This time, I started over at the beginning rather than pick up where I left off, which turned out to have been a good idea since I read the book quite some time ago.

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TLC Book Tour: Whispering in French, Sophia Nash

Sophia Nash’s novel Whispering in French begins as Kate Hamilton flies to Biarritz in the south of France to see if she can convince her grandfather to sell the cliffside villa that has been in her family for generations. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with the place herself and to risk everything to save it, finding herself and discovering a new confidence and ability to take risks in the process.

Meanwhile, her grandfather’s neighbor asks Kate, a psychologist, if she will help his great-nephew, Edward Soames, whose PTSD as the result of several tours of duty threatens to destroy the man’s life and perhaps even, his uncle fears, cause his suicide. He proves to be a difficult case, and Kate breaks some of her own rules in order to reach him.

Kate weathers a string of crises, from lack of money (never actually a serious crisis, as it turns out), to a violent storm, to a reconciliation with her family, to discovering family she didn’t know she had, bureaucratic red tape. I was curious as to why so many crises hit the protagonist in such quick succession only to be neatly resolved within a chapter or two. The basic plotline meandered a bit, not quite resolving itself for this reader. I wondered also at the inclusion of the adventures of the neighbor’s cat and a hedgehog, who were later joined by a dog, in the garden. However, Kate’s self-realization and acceptance of herself felt realistic in light of the challenges she faced as she decided to stay in France. The setting is rendered realistically and vividly. Readers looking for a light beach read might enjoy this one.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

From the Publisher

• Paperback: 384 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (August 1, 2017)

Award-winning romance author Sophia Nash makes her women’s fiction debut with a beautifully crafted, funny, and life-affirming story set in the Atlantic seaside region of France, as one woman returns to France to sell her family home and finds an unexpected chance to start over—perfect for fans of Le Divorce and The Little Paris Bookshop.

Home is the last place Kate expected to find herself…

As a child, Kate Hamilton was packed off each summer to her grandfather’s ivy-covered villa in southern France. That ancestral home, named Marthe Marie, is now crumbling, and it falls to Kate—regarded as the most responsible and practical member of her family—to return to the rugged, beautiful seaside region to confront her grandfather’s debts and convince him to sell.

Kate makes her living as a psychologist and life coach, but her own life is in as much disarray as Marthe Marie. Her marriage has ended, and she’s convinced that she has failed her teenaged daughter, Lily, in unforgivable ways. While delving into colorful family history and the consequences of her own choices, Kate reluctantly agrees to provide coaching to Major Edward Soames, a British military officer suffering from post-traumatic stress. Breaking through his shell, and dealing with idiosyncratic locals intent on viewing her as an Americanized outsider, will give Kate new insight into who—and where—she wants to be. The answers will prove as surprising as the secrets that reside in the centuries-old villa.

Witty and sophisticated, rich in history and culture, Sophia Nash’s novel vividly evokes both its idyllic French setting and the universal themes of self-forgiveness and rebuilding in a story as touching as it is wise.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Sophia Nash

Photo by Mary Noble Ours

Sophia Nash was born in Switzerland and raised in France and the United States, but says her heart resides in Regency England. Her ancestor, an infamous French admiral who traded epic cannon fire with the British Royal Navy, is surely turning in his grave.

Before pursuing her long-held dream of writing, Sophia was an award-winning television producer for a CBS affiliate, a congressional speechwriter, and a nonprofit CEO. She lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs with her husband and two children.

Sophia’s novels have won twelve national awards, including the prestigious RITA®Award, and two spots on Booklist‘s “Top Ten Romances of the Year.”

Find out more about Sophia at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Harper Collins provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can catch the reviews of other readers on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, August 1st: Girl Who Reads
Wednesday, August 2nd: Just Commonly
Wednesday, August 2nd: I Wish I Lived in a Library
Friday, August 4th: Art @ Home
Monday, August 7th: A Chick Who Reads
Wednesday, August 9th: Reading to Distraction
Thursday, August 10th: BookNAround
Monday, August 14th: Tina Says…
Tuesday, August 15th: StephTheBookworm
Wednesday, August 16th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

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TLC Book Tour: Strange Contagion, Lee Daniel Kravetz

Strange Contagion coverLee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves was born out of tragedy. A series of teen suicides among students and alumni of Palo Alto’s Gunn High School suggested an epidemic was underway. Kravetz, a new father and resident of Palo Alto, was concerned about his community. What was causing these students to commit suicide? Could the epidemic be stopped? How? These questions prompted Kravetz to explore the way emotions and behaviors are communicated in a society.

Kravetz learns that emotions are not terribly different from communicable diseases. We are highly suggestible creatures, and the emotions of others are easily transmitted. We catch everything from the goals of others around us to courage or bravery or fear to the host of feelings, positive or negative, that others around us bring into the room.

In fact, we are so susceptible to the spread of viral emotions that we don’t really even need to come in contact with individuals to be influence by them. Their emotions can be communicated through others who bring them to us or even through social media. As Kravetz says, “role models are so influential that oftentimes we don’t even know whom we’re modeling—or that we’re modeling them at all. And that at once enthralls and frightens me” (118).

Given our current social and political climate, the concepts that Kravetz discusses are frightening, but they also explain a great deal about the collective mood on both sides of the political spectrum. Kravetz doesn’t have solutions because the problem is too complex. Navigating viral emotions means we need to be aware of our own feelings and what is causing them, and we also need to be aware of our susceptibility to the emotions of others. We also need to accept that others influence us. Kravetz concludes, “Beneath the surface, we are all connected” (220). This idea might not be new. After all, Emerson explored in his writing about the concept of the oversoul. But Kravetz’s psychological and sociological exploration of the way we are connected offers more explanation of how we are all connected. If social contagion is a part of the human experience, we need to learn how to live with it and fight it (when it’s negative) in the best way we can, just as we have done with communicable diseases.

This book gave me a lot to think about, especially as I teach high school students like those who go to Gunn High School. Though we do need to be on guard for negative social contagion, such as the suicides that prompted Kravetz to explore the topics in this book, we can also channel social contagion positively to spread love and care for each other. In a discussion of the communicability of bravery and courage, Kravetz writes that “the trick to passing along lasting courage is one of overwhelming the system with examples of it, flooding the environment with models of generosity, authority, demonstrations of personal responsibility, and examples of calm in the heat of battle” (114). In the end, perhaps the best way to combat negative social contagions is to be what Kravetz calls the interrupter. We can do what we can to be the model of courage, bravery, kindness, compassion, and happiness. As Stephen King says, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.”

Rating: ★★★★★

From the Publisher

About Strange Contagion

• Hardcover: 288 pages
• Publisher: Harper Wave (June 27, 2017)

Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.

In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.

A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?

The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicable—from mirroring someone’s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a “strange contagion”: a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.

Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one community’s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Lee Daniel Kravetz AP Photo by Ian TuttleAbout Lee Daniel Kravetz

Lee Daniel Kravetz has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a graduate of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and children.

Find out more about Lee at his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Harper Collins provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can catch the reviews of other readers on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, June 27th: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, June 28th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, June 29th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Friday, June 30th: Books & Tea
Tuesday, July 4th: Wining Wife
Tuesday, July 4th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, July 5th: Based on a True Story
Thursday, July 6th: Readaholic Zone
Thursday, July 6th: she treads softly
Friday, July 7th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Monday, July 10th: StephTheBookworm
Tuesday, July 11th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, July 12th: Books on the Table
Thursday, July 13th: Library of Clean Reads
TBD: Sapphire Ng

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Review: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge

John T. Edge’s book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South explores a culinary history of Southern food from the Civil Rights era to the present day. What is potlikker? According to Edge,

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. (6)

What Edge sets out to do in this book is explain how the cuisine we think of as Southern food emerged from black cooks. Edge also explains the ways in which Southern cuisine has changed over the years and discusses some of the major movers and shakers in the world of Southern cooking. In addition, he discusses issues related to access to food and poverty as well as movements in fast food and farm-to-table cooking and the gentrification of Southern food (and restaurants), ending with discussion of the influence of immigrants to the South on Southern cooking.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South” (read more here). He was recently featured, as was Michael Twitty, whose book The Cooking Gene comes out later this year, on the Gastropod podcast.

I found this book fascinating from start to finish, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I gained a lot of insight into Southern food, and I also learned quite a lot of history that I didn’t know. One really interesting story that Edge shares early in the book concerns President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. I had always assumed that he really had to be prodded quite a lot to sign the Civil Rights Act, and probably to an extent, he did, but he as he tried to garner support for civil rights, he often told the story of his cook, Zephyr Wright, being unable to use the restroom during a stop on a cross-country trip. He varied the story to suit his audience, but like many of the people who heard the story directly from Johnson’s lips, I found it to be quite moving. As Edge explains, “The Zephyr Wright story reduced a national issue to a personal one. It moved the argument from the senate chamber to the cloakroom and then to the kitchen” (27).When Johnson signed the Act, Zephyr Wright was there, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. He handed her one of the pens he used, saying “You deserve this more than anybody else” (28).

I think it’s hard not to see things differently when you hear someone’s personal story. It’s one of the reasons politicians bring up everyday Americans during conventions or on the floor of Congress. We are moved by stories. To a certain extent, this book stitches together the stories of Southern cooks from Georgia Gilmore, who fed Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in her home/restaurant to Michael Twitty, who recently attempted to engage Paula Deen in conversation after her infamous declaration that she had used the n-word. Twitty invited Deen to learn “why so many people were so upset by her comments” (278). He wanted her to know that “the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform, is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy” (279). As far as I understand, Twitty never received a reply from Deen. It’s a shame because it might have gone a long way to repairing the damage she caused.

Edge’s main point, I think, is captured when he says “The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South. Those limited categories failed the people of the region. The South was never monochromatic” (2). As Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, says “Who can lay claim to the South?… I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too” (309). That South included black barbecue pit masters and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Stephen Gaskin’s commune the Farm and chefs Paul Prudhomme and Nathalie Dupree. It included grits, boiled peanuts, fried chicken, okra, hoppin’ john, biscuits, cornbread, and yes, pot likker. I think anyone interested in food history would enjoy this book, but I think it will speak especially to anyone who has called the South, with all its messy contradictions, home. As Edge says, “In this modern South, the likkers at the bottoms of those vessels sustain many peoples. And they remind Americans of the vitality that drives regional foodways” (308).

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

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Review: The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato books a flight to visit her historian older brother Ben, who raised her after the death of their mother, in Melodie Winawer’s debut novel The Scribe of Siena. Ben dies suddenly of a heart ailment before her flight, but she decides to go anyway, this time to settle Ben’s estate. He had seemed so happy in Siena; he had finally found his home. Ben’s studies involved medieval Siena during the Plague (1347-1348). He had apparently uncovered some interesting information and was preparing to publish it before his death. Beatrice feels compelled to take on his work and protect it from rival scholars. As she takes up Ben’s research, she finds herself entranced by the story of fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi. She has Accorsi’s journal from the 1340’s, and as she studies one of his frescoes, she is stunned to find her own likeness in the corner. Before she knows what is happening, she is swept into the past, to Siena in the summer of 1347… right before the Plague is about to devastate Siena. Beatrice must figure out how to avoid catching the deadly disease and return home safely, but she finds herself even more entranced by the real Gabriele Accorsi than she was by his journal, and she establishes ties in medieval Siena as she becomes a scribe in the Ospedale, today a museum called the Santa Maria della Scala.

A few of the details and mechanics involved with time travel might bother some readers (admittedly me among them), but this was a pretty good read. For one thing, Winawer is a doctor herself, and the descriptions of Beatrice’s surgeries and medical knowledge rang true. Often when I read time-travel novels, the past is romanticized to such a degree that the parts when the protagonist is in the present are irksome (Diana Gabaldon is pretty guilty of this), but I found Beatrice’s present as interesting as the past she travels to. In fact, maybe a little bit more (but not by much). Winawer argues in her book that one reason Siena has maintained its distinctive “medieval” character is that its evolution was stunted by serious losses to the Plague. Siena may have lost up to half its population, more than other comparable cities in Tuscany. Winawer comes up with an appropriately sinister explanation for why, too. If the mechanism for time travel is a little fuzzy, at least the historical details are mostly accurate (admittedly, I found one big historical error that really bothered me), and the story moves along at a nice clip. Ben’s discovery, which Beatrice must uncover, makes for a page-turning mystery. The characters are well-drawn, though one in particular is quite a lot more credulous than seems logical, and in general they feel like real people (with the possible exception of a few caricatures, and you’ll know them when you see them). A Library Journal review touted on the book’s cover proclaims that “Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be swept away by the spell of medieval Siena.” I can’t disagree with that assessment. In many ways, the setting of this book was as much a presence as the people that inhabit it, and I just love it when books have settings with strong character.

I received this book as part of my Cozy Reader box subscription. I’m not sure it would have been on my radar this soon (and perhaps not at all), if not for that subscription.

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

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Review: Heartless, Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer’s novel Heartless tells the story of how the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland became the heartless monarch Alice encounters after falling down the rabbit hole. Meyer’s Queen of Hearts is Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove in the Kingdom of Hearts. More than anything, Cath wants to be a baker, and she dreams of opening a bakery with her maid, Mary Ann. Cath’s parents, however, have other plans. When the King of Hearts sets his heart on marrying Cath, she can’t figure out how to make her dream come true without disappointing her parents. Meanwhile, a court joker named Jest shows up at the palace and is employed by the King. Cath finds herself strangely drawn to Jest. The kingdom has bigger problems as a Jabberwock, a beast not seen in Hearts for centuries, returns and wreaks havoc on the kingdom. Cath’s dreams slip further and further from her grasp as she is drawn towards her inevitable fate to be the notorious villain we first meet in Alice in Wonderland.

I have to admit this book surprised me by the end. Partway through it, I was having trouble keeping going with it because I really wasn’t all that interested in Cath’s burgeoning interest in Jest. He’s your classic YA-novel charmer, and if I’m being honest, I’m bored with that guy. I assume the book’s audience (teenage girls) would find that part of the story more interesting than I did. However, after Cath bakes a pumpkin cake to enter into a baking contest with some devastating results for a new turtle friend of hers, the story grows more interesting. Cath is drawn to travel to the neighboring (and mythical) land of Chess to help Jest and Hatta (the Mad Hatter) in their quest, and she meets her fate precisely because of her heart—her inability to be heartless and put her mission before her loved ones. At that point in the story, I found it more difficult to put down and finished the book in one gulp. I admit this book was sitting on three stars for me until the last half, so my advice is if the premise intrigues you, but you are not digging it yet after 50 pages or so, maybe give this one longer.

I think I would have enjoyed the story even more had I re-read Alice in Wonderland first. Meyer brought in all the important characters and elements from that book and also explained the origins of few of those beloved characters as well. I know some of the references went over my head because it’s been too long since I’ve read Alice in Wonderland.

Meyer says this book began when she wished aloud to her agents for Gregory Maguire to “write the origin story for the Queen of Hearts.” Her foreign rights agent Cheryl Pientka replied, “Marissa, why don’t you write it” (453). I think some of the best books are born when writers wish the story existed, and because it didn’t, they decided to create it.

I haven’t read any of Meyer’s other YA books, though I understand they are popular, and she has sold film rights to the first of her Lunar Chronicles, Cinder. YA books certainly have become hot Hollywood properties lately. I am not sure if I’ll read Meyer’s other books. I might not have read this one had it not arrived in my Owl Crate box with a special edition just jacket just for Owl Crate subscribers back in November of last year. My copy is going right into my classroom library, where I know some of my students who like fantasy may enjoy it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Because this book’s been on my backlist since it arrived in November, I’m counting it for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

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Review: Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice, Alexandra Stafford with Lisa Lowery

Bread Toast Crumbs
Image via Alexandra Cooks blog

I have not reviewed cookbooks on this blog before, though I have been collecting cookbooks for a few years, and I have some really good ones that I should share with you all.

Cooking is not really something I have a ton of time to do, but I actually do like cooking. I am a very slow cook, and I make a great big mess when I cook, but I enjoy the process.

Bread, however, is something I have always shied away from, especially after some failed attempts. I tried to make a pie crust for my pumpkin pie and failed. I made a white bread recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, and it was okay, but certainly nothing to write home about. The only bread successes (discounting breads like zucchini bread and pumpkin bread, which didn’t use yeast and did not need to be kneaded) were my Thanksgiving dinner rolls. I credit the really excellent instructions for that success.

Everyone knows bread is picky. You have to knead it just right or else it will not turn out well. You have to have to fuss with the yeast, and everyone knows how finicky yeast is about how it’s handled. So, like many people, I was always a bit afraid to experiment with bread. A few weeks ago, that changed when I found Alexandra Stafford’s mother’s famous peasant bread recipe at her blog Alexandra Cooks. I read over the recipe. I watched one of the videos. It didn’t look hard. So I tried it with all wheat flour, not knowing (because I am not a bread baker) that I was going to get a denser loaf of bread. But you know what? It was still amazing. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I hit on Alexandra’s advice to keep the flour weight at 512 grams, and the next time I made bread, I used about two cups of wheat flour and made the rest of the weight up with unbleached white flour. It was perfect. Measuring by weight was the trick. The consistency was just like Alexandra’s pictures, and the bread was not too dense. That’s how easy the recipe is. No kneading. The time you spend actually fussing with the bread is maybe five minutes. The rest of the time is just letting it rise. It’s a very forgiving recipe in that even if you mess up on a step, it still seems to turn out just fine.

My family loved the bread, too. The recipe makes two loaves, and twice, I’ve come into the kitchen to find my son has taken half a loaf before I could even cut it. I knew I wanted to try the variations on the recipe in Alexandra’s book Bread Toast Crumbs: Recipes for No-Knead Loaves and Meals to Savor Every Slice. I have read through the book, though I haven’t made many of the recipes yet. The recipes are straightforward and easy to follow. Alexandra offers some tricks and advice for those of us who don’t often bake (for example, toast nuts before using them in breads—this is a trick I had picked up from a friend of mine at work, but it was nice to see it validated in the book). The book has many variations on the peasant bread recipe in the Bread section. In the Toast section, Alexandra shares recipes for spreads, jams, soups, sandwiches, entrées, and desserts that use the various bread recipes. In the Crumbs section, she shares salads, soups, side dishes, pasta, entrées, and desserts that use crumbs made from the various breads. Each section has its own introduction with more tips.

The photography in the book (like most cookbooks) is beautiful and serves as a nice guideline for bakers. I can’t wait to try more of the recipes. I’m especially eyeing the Roasted Garlic Bread. Today, I tried out the Oatmeal-Maple bread on p. 41. Here are some pictures of one of the loaves I made today. It’s already been eaten, by the way.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

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