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Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1)Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers

So yes, I’ll admit that this was pretty much a total fun book – it’s got a dash of the supernatural, poison, assassins, court intrigue, and romance. It’s a thick book, but nicely paced so that it doesn’t feel long. Ismae is an intriguing character with a satisfying arc and a believable balance between feeling powerless and impowered.

While it’s billed as the first in a series, I get the impression that each book will focus on a different character. There’s a blurb at the end saying that book two will feature Sybella, a mysterious side character from book one, and I’m guessing that book three will follow Annith, another side character with potential for a good story. If this is the case, it’s a refreshing break from the typical series mold. While another book about Ismae would certainly be entertaining, her story feels complete enough in this first book that I don’t see the need for a traditional sequel.

While the book features an atmospheric historical setting that’s crucial to the plot, it’s the light kind of history that doesn’t dwell too much on exact details and facts from history. Instead, it seems to incorporate the mood and setting without hitting the reader over the head with information.

However, as a historical fiction fan I was disappointed in the lack of historical note – I wanted to know, without having to look it up myself, which of the character actually lived and what liberties were taken with the facts. I wanted to know more about Mortain and the other old gods, and whether LaFevers invented them or used existing lore.

All in all, a very engaging story that I’d recommend to fans of books like Graceling as well as medieval historical fiction.

Source: my public library

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Can I just say that cooking for two has led to much better meals? It makes dinner into more of an occasion, it gives me motivation to try new recipes (even though he’s just as happy eating the same thing every day), and (very important!) there is someone to help clean up. In fact, our division of labor is usually that I make dinner and he does the dishes. This makes me much more willing to make multiple courses or just actual meals instead of sandwiches.

Here are a few things I’ve made and loved recently. I haven’t been getting my camera out lately, so you’ll have to go to the original recipes to get visuals. Or, you can take a peek at my Pinterest recipe board, where I’ve pinned a bunch of these, plus more recipes I intend to try.

Pasta with Garlicky Broccoli Rabe. Super easy, this feels like a garlicky marriage of comfort food and vegetables. I’ve made this at least three or four times – it’s a new favorite. The first time I made it as directed, with broccoli rabe, but the store was out the second time around and it turns out that regular broccoli works just as well (although it doesn’t have that slightly bitter greens taste).

Tomato Sauce. Simple and buttery and delicious – this has to simmer for 45 minutes but otherwise involves so little effort that it’s perfect for nights when you’re lazy but not starving yet.

Granola Bars from both Smitten Kitchen and Orangette. I made SK’s fruitier version in the fall, but Orangette’s chocolately version made me love them in a new way. Great thing to have on hand for snacks.

Potato Salad. It’s kind of blasphemous to say in my family, but I don’t love my mom’s potato salad. There’s no crunch, it’s a little too mushed together, and it’s yellow. I dunno, other people love it. I liked this one much more – I didn’t use the red onion and my pickles weren’t as crunchy as I would’ve liked, but I love eggs in potato salad and the celery crunch.

Buttermilk Roast Chicken. This involves a bit of planning ahead, but then it’s easy the night of, giving you time to make your potato salad to go with it. Or, you know, maybe a vegetable.

Minestrone from How to Cook Everything. I first tried this when visiting Bronwen years ago and it’s become a staple – I like that he gives you proportions of hard and soft vegetables and then leaves it up to you. I almost always make it with potatoes, kidney beans and kale in addition to the carrots, celery, onions and tomato that he calls for. This last time I finally made my own stock with the remains of a roast chicken. I’d like to get into that habit, but the majority of the time I make this recipe, it’s Lent and chicken stock gets thrown aside in favor of vegetable (I use Rapunzel brand bouillon in those situations).

Glazed Fudge Cake from Bronwen’s mom, who probably knows where it came from originally. This was a Long Distance Kitchen recipe from almost two years ago – you can see Bronwen’s post for photos. The instructions have you use a food processor, and I only recently became the proud owner of one, so I gave it a try for my sister’s birthday this month. I think we have a new family favorite, folks – for once we argued over who got to take the leftovers home, and even my cake-disdaining brother ate a slice.

The ApothecaryThe Apothecary by Maile Meloy

I almost wish I’d read this one in print instead of listening to it – the narration is competent, but it never quite added anything to the story. I suspect the illustrations in the print version might have added more. My only quibble with the narration was that her accents occasionally crept over into the narration.

The story itself is a promising blend of historical fiction and fantasy, with the potential to explore larger political themes. I loved the bits of the book that set the stage – the shift from California to London, the weather and food and cultural differences. The fantastic elements were nicely done, explained within the context of the story and with a bit of fun to balance out the serious parts.

I think the primary thing that stopped me from loving the book more was a disconnect between the age of the characters and the tone of the story. I was so surprised to find that Janie was in high school – my first impression of her was that she was much younger, maybe 10 or 11 or 12, tops. She never rang true as a high schooler – and the whole story just felt younger. Perhaps Meloy did that to make her independence more plausible, but I either wanted the characters to be younger or the tone to be more sophisticated.

At any rate, I enjoyed this and would recommend it to kids who enjoy stories that are a mix of reality and fantasy.

Source: my public library

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Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

I must have read a glowing review somewhere that inspired me to pick this up, but I no longer know who to blame. I don’t often read books that sound like Austen fan-fiction, but the beginning felt promising. James takes us through a recap of Pride and Prejudice from an outsider’s point of view, then catches us up on the events of the last six years, which is amusing and manages to entice. Then the mystery plot takes over – murder pollutes the shades of Pemberley! – and before you know it, you want to unravel the clues and find the solution.

Unfortunately, at this point in the game, hooked by the mystery, you realize that James’ prose isn’t nearly as diverting as Austen’s. You realize that she hasn’t done anything amusing or intriguing in terms of character development, and that the characters are still internally rehashing the events of P&P six years later. The mystery is intriguing, but because neither of the Darcys takes an active role in crime-solving, the reader is distanced from the action and is merely a spectator to the action. Indeed, the way the mystery is solved is not at all due to clue hunting or detecting, which really took the fun away from the resolution. By the time the mystery was good and solved, I was so impatient for the story to end that I could barely stand Darcy and Elizabeth’s wrap-up discussion.

I was left wanting to refresh my mind with some actual Austen prose and find some cutting remarks that might apply to James’ pale imitation of style.

Source: my public library

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Howl's Moving Castle (Castle, #1)Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is there to say about Sophie and Howl and Calcifer? What is there to say about Diana Wynne Jones, except that she had some spark of genius, some way of writing books that don’t feel like they could have been written by anyone else? Books, and characters, and marvelous little bits and pieces – objects and places that are infused with the best kind of magic.

Before this, I’d only read Fire and Hemlock, which is completely unlike this book in some ways, but also clearly from the same pen. Somehow, that book convinced me that I would enjoy anything she’d written, but for whatever reason I didn’t rush out to read them, knowing I had a nice large body of work waiting for me.

My kids’ bookgroup chose this as their April selection, based on the recommendation of one girl who’s recently become a DWJ convert. I owe her a debt of gratitude, because it jump-started me.

Sophie had me hooked from the beginning – she believes herself to be completely subject to fairy tale conventions, based on her birth order. As the oldest of three girls, she’s bound to fail at any quest or pursuit, and it’s best for her to just stay home and work at the hat shop and leave it to her youngest sister to successfully make her way in the world. Of course, that’s not how it goes at all, and Sophie turns out to be possessed of a marvelous kind of magic, the kind where she can persuade or harass others (people and things) into doing as she asks. I do love a good stubborn heroine.

Added to the cast of fabulous characters (hilariously vain Howl, grouchy Calcifer) is the moving castle itself. I suppose you can’t quite separate Calcifer from the castle, but it does feel like a another character, and its ability to be in four places at once is the kind of thing I love in fantasy novels. In fact, Jones manages a perfect balance between seriousness and humor in the whole book – I cared deeply about the characters at the same time that I was laughing and enjoying the ride.

Source: my public library

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Shortly after finishing the book, I watched the movie adaptation. While I was a bit distracted by analyzing differences between book and movie, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. They’re completely different animals in some ways, but they still have a core similarity in tone and feel. I recommend both, but maybe not back to back.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire!Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

This is the sort of comedy that is either side-splittingly funny or falls flat, depending on the reader. I found it completely hilarious – the whole bunny world, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny’s marriage, the hippy world of Madeline’s parents, the general dry humor, and of course Sophie Blackall’s illustrations.

 

As a mystery, it doesn’t quite succeed – this is really the only flaw. Nothing much happens for a long time, the bunny detectives sort things out completely by accident, and the reader knows the answers all along while the characters remain in the dark. I’d recommend it more to fans of funny talking animal stories than I would to young mystery fans – I also think it would make a fun read-aloud for sharp young listeners.

Source: my public library

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The Humming RoomThe Humming Room by Ellen Potter

This is a story that could easily be described as sweet, but that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. Being a story inspired by The Secret Garden, the potential sweetness of the story is balanced by the prickliness of the characters. Like Mary, Roo has been stifled by a hard life, but fortunately she lacks Mary’s dislikable sense of entitlement. Roo lives a very internal life, preferring small, enclosed spaces and rarely feeling the need to interact with other people.

Instead of an isolated country setting, The Humming Room is set on an island in the St. Lawrence River, and the setting, and nature in general, are extremely important to the story and to Roo’s opening up. There is, of course, a secret space, walled off and neglected, and another neglected child. It never feels like Potter is slavishly imitating The Secret Garden – instead, it feels like she’s completely absorbed the tone and mood of the original and poured them out into a new story.

It’s been years since I reread The Secret Garden, so some of the details are fuzzy, but there were so many evocative moments and turns of phrase in this book that reminded of it. It’s a joy to read, both as an homage to a classic and as a distinguished story in its own right. Strongly recommended to readers who enjoy the original or who seek stories that connect them to the natural world.

Source: my public library

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Previously, The Kneebone Boy.

Oops, I go missing for a month and have way too much to catch up on! The only thing I’ve more or less kept up with is adding books to Goodreads, with the occasional quick review. I’ve been on a long road trip, a short road trip (for work, to OLA in Bend) and a quick weekend trip. I haven’t read as much as I wanted, but I do seem to be getting close to catching up on my library books. I’ve had way too many books checked out for…oh, the last three years. “Catching up” is an illusion, an unattainable goal. Striving is what counts, and not letting the same books sit there so long that I can no longer renew them (6 months, if there are no holds).

I feel like I keep circling back to the same authors lately – in the last two months I’ve read multiple books by Diana Wynne Jones (why oh why did I never read her as a child?), Ally Carter, Hilary McKay, and Caragh O’Brien (first two in a series). I’ve also been working my way through George R.R. Martin’s books, but those audiobooks are so long that it’s months in between finishing one book and the next.

I’ll be back before too long with a few batches of reviews, plus I’ve been thinking about summer reading and I have some storytime posts percolating. Also, some cooking posts inspired by a recent run of yummy, new-to-me recipes.

*Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

May 2012
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