Friday, May 7, 2021

Freeform Friday - The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race - Jesmyn Ward

Summary: In response to recent tragedies and widespread protests across the nation, National Book Award-winning writer Jesmyn Ward looked to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time for comfort and counsel.  In the essay "My Dungeon Shook," Baldwin addresses his fifteen-year-old namesake on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  He writes: "You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon."

Jesmyn Ward knows that Baldwin's words ring as true as ever today, and she has turned to some of her generation's most original thinkers to write short essays, memoirs, and a few essential poems giving voice to their concerns.  The Fire This Time is divided into three parts that shine a light on the darkest corners of our history, wrestle with our current predicament, and attempt to envision a better future.  Of the eighteen pieces, ten were written specifically for this volume.  

In the fifty-odd years since Baldwin's essay was published, entire generation have dared everything and made significant progress.  But the idea that we are living in the post-civil rights era -- that we are a "postracial" society -- is a callous corruption of a truth that our nation must confront.  Baldwin's "fire next time" is now upon us, and it needs to be talked about. (Summary from book flap - Image from simonandschuster.com)

DISCLAIMER:  As I write this review, I feel it's important for me to be up front.   As a 40-something white woman, living in a rural area with a population that is 0% Black, located just outside a town that is 1.56% Black, I don't have a lot of opportunities to interact with the Black community face-to-face.  During the increased racial tension of 2020, it has been very easy for me to see the 'police perspective.' because my husband is a detective and 18 year veteran of the local police department.  However, I fully acknowledge that the police perspective is only one side of an often complicated issue. I read books like this one to learn more about what it means to be Black in the U.S. and how I can help promote anti-racism in my home and community. 

My Review:  The Fire This Time is a collection of  essays and poems from a new generation of BIPOC authors.  Editor Jesmyn Ward was inspired by James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which she turned to in her mid-twenties, longing for the acknowledgement of racial inequality in our nation.  Ward wanted to gather a new generation of voices and "provide a forum for writers to dissent, to call to account, to witness, to reckon."  The collection is divided into three parts which address the past, present, and future of the Black experience in America.

I learned a great deal while reading these essays and came away with a lot to mull over.  There were several essays in particular that felt incredibly powerful.  I'll talk about a few of them here:

In Lonely in America  author Wendy S. Walters talks about the emotional complexity of being Black in America, carrying the weight of history, and the enormity of racial/class disparities in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  I was especially moved by her discussion of the lack of respect for Black places of rest in New England, specifically, graves that had been desecrated and paved over with city expansion.  

In The Dear Pledges of Our Love author Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers calls into question the validity of our historical record in regards to people of color, stressing the importance of verifying sources and considering the perspective of those sources, especially if they might have been influenced by racial stereotypes.  

Both Where Do We Go From Here and White Rage highlight an important topic -- the cyclical nature of Black progress closely followed by a white attempts at suppression. White Rage's Carol Anderson said it best, "For every action of African American advancement, there's a reaction, a backlash."  Anderson then supports this controversial (to some) statement with historical facts and further explains the concept of 'white rage.' <-----I am going to expound on that term in a minute...

The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning by Claudia Rankine discusses the incredible emotional toll taken on Black Lives that are forced to "exist in a state of precariousness" and near constant fear -- fear that a loved one may not make it home because someone might view them as a threat based solely on the color of their skin.  I admit, the daily strain of such an endeavor seems unfathomable.   

In This Far: Notes on Love and Resolution Daniel José Older's writes letter to his wife, as she worries about having children and bringing more Black lives into a country that doesn't seem to value them.  He also advocates for more reform and diversity whilst also calling out the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaims equality for all without ever actually having it.  

Edwidge Danticat's Message to My Daughters talks about being torn between the responsibility of preparing her daughters for the challenges they may face in this country and wanting to allow them to live unafraid a little longer.  She also makes a sobering point that felt like a *mic drop* in a silent auditorium -- If any immigrant group were subjected to the same treatment in their home countries that Black citizens receive daily, they would likely qualify for asylum in the US.    

Know Your Rights discusses the "talk" that most Black parents are compelled to have with their children (what to do when contacted by the police) and the difference between how white children and black children must "behave" in order to be safe.  (My thoughts on this are straightforward:  Parents should not need to talk to their children about how to 'protect themselves' from the police.  If they feel it is necessary to have that talk -- then the police have a problem that needs fixing.)  

One of the most powerful essays, for me, was Black and Blue. The author Garnette Cadogan writes about growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, roaming the streets till the wee hours to avoid going home to an abusive stepfather.  He never had to worry about sticking out; he was simply another Black face in the crowd.  When Cadogan attends college in New Orleans, he continues to roam the streets, only to find himself the subject of intense scrutiny from passersby.  In an effort to make complete strangers less fearful, he begins dressing a certain way, adopting specific behaviors and intentionally avoiding others in order to project a 'safe,' non-threatening image.  Even then, a friendly wave at a police car one night ends with Cadogan in cuffs, detained for his 'suspicious' behavior.  A few days later, a brief visit back to Jamaica offers a welcome break.  In the author's own words: 

I was astonished at how safe the streets felt to me...no longer having to anticipate the many ways my presence might instill fear and how to offer some reassuring body language...In Jamaica, I felt once again as if the only identity that mattered was my own, not the constricted one that others had constructed for me.

Later, when the author moved to NYC, he had to employ the same behaviors to avoid being unfairly labeled.  The author calls his carefully constructed behavior a 'pantomime undertaken to avoid the choreography of criminality.' It may have had the desired effect on his audience, but Cadogan himself felt anything but safe.  One night Cadogan was running to the subway and had another interaction with the police, this time with their guns drawn.  The ensuing pat down and questioning was incredibly traumatic, but the author knew that "anything beyond passivity would be interpreted as aggression." Although Cadogan was eventually released, it was with a warning that if he had not been polite, things would have 'gone differently' -- an implied threat, indicative of a much bigger problem.  

Black and Blue was one of the most impactful essays for me because of the should-be-ridiculous ways that Cadogan had to moderate his behavior so that others felt more at ease in his presence.  So preoccupied was he in this endeavor that he could no longer enjoy walking in the manner to which he had become accustomed in Jamaica and was forced to 'tiptoe' around New Orleans and NYC, rather than fully experience them in the way a white person is able to experience them.  (This brings up a simple question -- why should Black people bear the responsibility for making white people feel safe?  Answer: They shouldn't.)

The Fire This Time brings up a lot of good points that I needed to hear.  Here are the ones that stood out most to me, in no particular order:.  

  • First, was the the very clear message that Black people feel their lives are not valued or safe in this country.  They are saying it in every way that they can and white people need to do a lot more listening to the reasons why they feel this way.  
  • Second, racism is often more subtle now than during the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement.  It frequently surfaces in a more passive aggressive way -- which brings me to the concept of 'white rage' and how that rage (and the racism behind it) is most often expressed.   Put simply, white people channel their rage differently than Black people, because they have more options and avenues to express that rage.  White rage is most often expressed by white leaders in positions of power enacting policies that adversely effect people of color, or abolishing practices that benefit them.  
  • Third, history is filled with accounts of conservative backlash to Black advancement.  It is important to acknowledge that history so that we might be able to avoid adding to it.  We also need to always consider how if any legislation is 'retaliatory' in nature or may disproportionately affects people of color
  • Fourth, we have a tendency to center whiteness in this country, meaning that white problems, white issues, and white solutions are given center stage and full consideration while BIPOC problems, issues, and solutions are brushed off. We need to surrender the limelight or, at the very least, learn to share it.  
  • Finally, the behaviors Black people have adopted to appear 'non-threatening' and avoid negative encounters with the police should be unnecessary.  The fact that they are common practice among Black people, and especially Black men, is a huge indicator that racism is still a problem in this country.  

If I'm being totally honest, this wasn't a particularly 'pleasant' read.  I can't speak to how a BIPOC person would feel while reading, but as a white reader, it brought up a lot of emotions -- especially shame, anger, and frustration -- and yet if there is one thing I have learned it is that I cannot deny or dismiss the accounts, feelings, and experiences of others simply because they make me uncomfortable or frustrated.  I believe understanding those feelings is essential if we are to confront racism in all its forms and move towards true equality.  I am not sure that I understood the full meaning of every essay or caught all the terms and references, but I loved hearing from such a vast array of experiences and voices.

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some swearing.  At least one use of the "N" word.  A small amount of sexual innuendo.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Third Pole: Mystery, Obsession, and Death on Mount Everest - Mark Synnott

Summary:  A hundred-year mystery lured veteran climber Mark Synnott into an unlikely expedition up Mount Everest during the spring 2019 season, which came to be known as the year Everest broke.  What he found was a gripping human story of impassioned characters from around the globe, and a mountain that will consume your soul -- and take your life -- if you let it.

The mystery?  On June 8, 1924, George Mallory and Sandy Irvine set out to stand on the roof of the world, where no one has stood before.  They were last seen eight hundred feet shy of Everest's summit, still "going strong" for the top.  Could they have succeeded decades before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?  Irving is believed to have carried a Kodak camera with him to record their attempt, but it, along with his body, has never been found.  Did the frozen film in that camera have a photography of Mallory and Irving on the summit before they disappeared into the clouds, never to be seen again?  Kodak says the film might still be viable...

Mark Synnott made his own ascent up the North Face along with his friend Renan Ozturk, a filmmaker using drones higher than any had previously flown.  Readers will witness firsthand how Synnott's quest led him from oxygen-deprivation training to archives and museums in England, to Kathmandu, the Tibetan Plateau, and up the North Face into a massive storm.  The infamous traffic jams of climbers at the very summit immediately resulted in tragic deaths.  Sherpas revolted.  Chinese officials turned on Synnott's team.  An Indian woman miraculously crawled her way to frostbitten survival.  Synnott himself went off the safety rope -- one slip and no one would have been able to save him -- committed to solving the mystery.  

Eleven climbers died on Everest that season, all of them mesmerized by an irresistible magic.  The Third Pole is a rapidly accelerating ride ot the limitless joy and horror of human obsession.   (Summary from book flap - Cover Image from amazon.com)

DISCLAIMER:  My brother was part of this expedition.  I received daily updates on the team's progress and knew about the overall outcome before this book was released.  I do not personally know the author, Mark Synnott, nor did I receive any compensation for this review (other than a free review copy).  I will give an honest review of this book, regardless of my personal connection, but please forgive any sisterly pride that seeps through.

My Review:  In 2019, a record number of climbers attempted to summit Mt. Everest, creating a 'traffic jam' in the perilous Death Zone, an area above 26,000 feet where oxygen is scarce and temperatures are well below freezing.  Eleven people died.  However, as crowds of hopefuls pushed for the peak, one team of veteran mountaineers hung back.  They had not come to summit Everest, indeed several already had.  Their primary mission was to search the harsh landscape surrounding the peak for the remains of Andrew 'Sandy' Irvine, a British climber last seen on June 8, 1924, just below Everest's summit with his climbing partner George Mallory.  If found, Irvine, or rather, his camera, could hold the key to solving a mystery nearly a century old.  Had Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay really been the first to stand atop the world's tallest mountain?  Or had it been conquered nearly three decades earlier by Mallory and Irvine?  

The Third Pole tells the story of the team's arduous search for Irvine as well as the harrowing stories of many others who have dared attempt the summit.  Many of the chapters are packed with historical, geopolitical, and scientific information which places the mission within the context of a much larger story.  The author layers the account of his own expedition with a fair amount of background and historical detail, especially regarding the expedition that claimed the lives of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine, frequently switching between the modern and historical perspectives.  This had the unfortunate side effect of disrupting the flow of what I felt was the main story...but it also kept me reading late into the night.  As someone unfamiliar with the mountaineering field, I was fascinated by the accounts of the different expeditions, but felt a little overwhelmed by the massive influx of additional information, however relevant.  That having been said, I do believe that the extra details ultimately served to enhance my overall understanding of the Everest experience. 

Without a doubt, The Third Pole is a must-read for anyone who is even remotely contemplating adding 'Climb Mt. Everest' to their bucket list. The author refrains from romanticizing the mountain, instead offering a realistic view of the team's experience as they endure frigid temperatures and cyclone-force winds, battle the effects of high altitude exposure, maneuver around corpses and camps strewn with trash, and tiptoe around the troublesome Chinese Tibetan Mountain Authority.  He also doesn't shy away from discussing the rampant commercialization of the Everest climbing industry, which has led to an influx of inexperienced climbers, clogging routes and putting the lives of others at risk, which is valuable insight for prospective climbers.

Toward the end of the expedition, in what was, perhaps, the most compelling section of the book, the author draws attention to the moral dilemma that climbers may face in the Death Zone -- what to do if they come upon a climber in acute distress.  Though the answer may seem clear from the comfort of our couches, morality often gets muddled on the high mountain, and many pass by, choosing to push for the summit with the assumption that the struggling soul is beyond saving.  The author highlights this dilemma, along with perils of the climb, and other economic and environmental concerns, inadvertently (or perhaps, intentionally) raising the question: Is the summit worth the cost? 

Personally, I loved reading about the team's expedition. Although I already knew the basics of the mission, reading about the adventure in its entirety was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.  I was also pleasantly surprised by the author's inclusion of accounts from other climbers on the mountain.  I can't say I 'enjoyed' reading about hardship and death, but the additional material was riveting.  Overall, I gained a greater understanding of the rich, tumultuous history of Everest, an increased sense of respect for the mountain, and nothing but admiration for those who climb responsibly.  I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone who is thinking about climbing Everest or anyone who simply wants to learn more about the complex issues surrounding the mountain.  

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some death and description of dead bodies, ranging from non-graphic to moderately graphic.  Occasional instances of profanity*

*My brother needs a swear jar.      

Monday, May 3, 2021

Bearmouth - Liz Hyder

Summary: Life in Bearmouth is one of hard labor and isolation, the sunlit world far above the mine a distant memory. Newt has lived in the mine since the age of four, and accepts everything from the harsh working conditions to the brutality of the mine’s leaders—until the mysterious Devlin arrives and dares to ask the question, “Why?” As tensions rise, Newt is soon looking at Bearmouth with a fresh perspective—challenging the system and setting in motion a change of events that could destroy their entire world.

An utterly distinctive voice, propulsive and page-turning storytelling, high stakes, heart-stopping twists, and a sense of moral purpose make Bearmouth an unforgettable and unparalleled debut. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I didn’t know at all what to expect from this book. I read the description, I looked at the cover, and yet nothing prepared me for what it would be like to read it.

I felt like this book and its presentation made the story almost tangible. I saw one reviewer on Goodreads who rudely insinuated that this was a “Hooked on Phonics nightmare,” and I would just like to point out that it was a conscious decision of the author to have the writing style such as it was, and I, for one, thought that it was very effective in conveying the age and learning of the first person narrator. There is no doubt that the style could slow one down at times. I’m a very fast reader, and this relatively short book took me a little longer to read just because of the writing, which is very phonetic, but also includes the dialect. However, as I said, it was extremely effective in creating an environment and fleshing out the narrator’s character. I thought it was brilliant, actually, and made the voice of the character extremely strong and ever present.

Straight up, this book was frightening. It starts out scary, and the environment is foreboding and devolves as time goes on. There is nothing scarier than the evil of an evil human, and the circumstances alone were scary let alone making the children out to be prey. This book was so disturbing to me that I had to look up the historical situations it was based on i.e. children used in mines and, unfortunately, it was very true. And that scared me even more! I know I’m not alone in saying this, and I certainly don’t have the corner on the market of feeling different after having children, but it is hard to read about child exploitation, abuse, and endangerment after having children. It just makes it so much closer and scarier to think of my own children being put in a situation like this. However, it wasn’t just because I have children that this was a very scary book. Hyder does an incredible job of creating an atmosphere, one that is as contained and unique as the mine in which it takes place. The culture that was created to force the miners to stay and not revolt was also really interesting, and when I did my online research and looked in the faces of those poor children who actually lived down in mines, it made it even more difficult.

I thought this book was super interesting and one of the more noteworthy ones I’ve read in a while. It is not for the faint of heart though. There is violence, sexual violence, exploitation, and oppression. I was really surprised it was a YA book because I would be very careful about which teens I let read it. In fact, I would be careful about what adult I recommended it to, but that is not because I didn’t think it was a really great book with an incredibly developed atmosphere, possibly one of the best I’ve read. It is a really great book, about a very important historical topic, and well-written. But it is scary. You’ve been warned.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is not a good book for a sensitive reader of any age. There is violence, sexual violence, exploitation, oppression, and even some language.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Freeform Friday: Home is Not a Country - Safia Elhillo

Summary: Nima doesn't feel understood. By her mother, who grew up far away in a different land. By her suburban town, which makes her feel too much like an outsider to fit in and not enough like an outsider to feel like that she belongs somewhere else. At least she has her childhood friend Haitham, with whom she can let her guard down and be herself.Until she doesn't.

As the ground is pulled out from under her, Nima must grapple with the phantom of a life not chosen, the name her parents didn't give her at birth: Yasmeen. But that other name, that other girl, might just be more real than Nima knows. And more hungry.And the life Nima has, the one she keeps wishing were someone else's. . .she might have to fight for it with a fierceness she never knew she had.

Nothing short of magic...One of the best writers of our times.-- Elizabeth Acevedo, New York Times Bestselling author of The Poet X. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I have to admit that it is not my natural inclination to pick up a book written in verse. I have read them, I am fine with them, and I will even sometimes enjoy the odd poetry book here or there. It just isn’t my natural inclination. However, I felt like this book really worked in verse. I think one of the strongest capabilities that verse has is to say things in a weighted way, and yet it can be sparse. The heaviness is in the beauty of the writing. Elhillo used this heaviness well. The pages, so bare of words, were rich with meaning and feeling and it was a perfect mirror of what was happening in the life of this girl who felt like an outsider. It made for very poignant and moving reading.

I enjoyed this book not only because it was a good story, but because it took unexpected directions. I did not expect it to go where it did. I’m always happily surprised when this happens, and I think that a little surprise and some twists and turns make for good reading.

The book only took me a few hours to read. The story was engaging and moved along, and the writing style was easy to get into once I got going. The story sucks you right in, and you can’t help but feel bad for this girl who felt on the outside and could have so easily been invited in. It made me question relationships I had had in my life, especially when I was in high school. Did I deny anyone the simple act of an easy smile or a friendly “hello” that would have made all the difference? I certainly hope not, but as with all high school experiences, I can find the truth somewhat from this lens of age and experience, but its hard to see past my own feelings and not re-write history.

I think this would be an excellent book for an English class reading, or anywhere YA readers would be and be able to discuss and reflect upon the themes in this book. Because of the nature of a book in verse, I’m not sure that a standard YA reader would pick this book up, although I certainly think that some more avid readers would, but I want it to touch many YA readers and allow them to sit with the experiences and thoughts this book brings about. I think adults will really love this book as well, and will also connect with it on many levels.

You should read this book. Go do it.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and discussion of an affair.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Milk Street: Tuesday Nights - Christopher Kimball

Summary: It's Tuesday night at Milk Street. And that means a fresh, flavorful meal that comes together in minutes, such as Ginger-Soy Steak, Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp, Hazelnut-Crusted Chicken Cutlets, Pasta with Seared Cauliflower and Cuban-Spiced Burgers.  

Christopher Kimball and his team of cooks and editors search the world for straightforward techniques that deliver big flavors in less time.  Here they present more than 200 solutions for bold weeknight cooking, showing how to make simple, healthy, delicious meals using pantry staples and just a few other ingredients.  

Tuesday Nights is organized by the way you cook.  Some chapters focus on time -- with recipes that are Fast (under an hour, start to finish), Faster (45 minutes or less), and Fastest (25 Minutes or less) -- while others highlight easy methods or themes, including Supper Salads, Roast and Simmer and Easy Additions.  And there's always time for pizza, tacos, "walk-away" recipes, one-pot wonders and ultrafast 20-minute miracles. 

And for dessert?  Sweets such as Brazilian Chocolate Fudge Candies and Raspberry - Pistachio Meringue.  Great food in quick time, every night of the week.  (Summary from inside the back cover - Cover images are from amazon.com, All other pictures taken of the cookbook pages from my phone)

My Review:  I am a huge fan of the cooking show America's Test Kitchen, so when I saw that Milk Street: Tuesday Nights was authored by its host, Christopher Kimball, I knew I needed it in my life ASAP.  I am a reluctant chef, easily bored making the same-old-same-old in the kitchen, and like to spice things up by working my way through a quality cookbook, testing out new recipes, and finding the next favorite family meal.  

Milk Street: Tuesday Nights is built around the idea that cooking delicious meals with basic ingredients doesn't have to be difficult or time consuming.  Around half of the recipes are organized into three sections -- meals that can be prepared Fast (under 45 minutes), Faster (30-35), and Fastest (under 30), -- followed by Easy Additions (aka 'Sides'), Supper Salads, Pizza Night, One Pot, Roast & Simmer, and Sweets.  

It's important to note that I don't have any special cooking training, nor was I taught to cook from a young age, but I am reasonably intelligent and as long as a recipe isn't overly complicated (or I'm not trying to help with homework at the same time) I can usually follow it and get dinner on the table.  For the purpose of this review, I tried eighteen different recipes.  I pulled over half of them from the Fast, Faster, and Fastest sections (because, duh), but also ventured into all the other sections, barring Sweets.  I tend to avoid learning how to make delicious treats myself; it's bad for my waistline.

After I cook a meal from a cookbook I plan to review, I always ask my family their thoughts and then jot them down next to the recipe so that I can refer back to them later.  If the meals is amazing, I write it.  If it needs tweaking or simply fell flat, I write that too.  Here are the meals we tried (with my notes in italics):  

  • 💓Indian Spiced Beef and Peas (Keema Matar) -- Yum!  All loved -- must do yogurt topping
  • Tibetan Curried Noodles -- Good flavor but not worth the effort or cost (didn't eat leftovers) 
  • Taiwanese Five-Spice Pork -- When paired with the Gochujuang Potatoes this tasted a lot like the Macanese-Meat and Potato Hash...except it was harder to make these two dishes at once.   
  • Vietnamese Shaking Beef (Bò Lúc Låc) -- Loved the salad part the best.  Try to cut meat thinner and/or cook meat less than called for.  
  • 💓Black-Eyed Pea Stew -- Just the right amount of heat.  Spicy but not too spicy, with light curry flavor.  Loved this one!  Serve with lime wedges, salt, and biscuits.  Fed our whole family without alteration.
  • Macanese Meat-and-Potato Hash (Minchi) -- I really liked this one. Sweet and savory.  Great with an egg over top.
  • Kale and White Bean Soup -- Great with Italian Soda bread.  A nice sunday meal. 
  • Peanut-Sesame Noodles -- Flavor was too intense, but probably from trying to double it.  Hard to find dry noodles.  
  • Soba with Edamame and Watercress -- Next time try less chili sauce and more soy.  Fast and easy.  Substitute arugula for water cress because it's hard to find.
  • 💓Garlic and Cilantro Soup with Chickpeas (Açorda a Alentejana) -- (See image, above right) Bright and wonderful flavor.  Croutons are essential and so amazing.  I was surprised by how much I liked this and the chickpeas were an almost buttery texture.  
  • Rigatoni Carbonara with Ricotta --Yummy.  We had to 1.5X the recipe.  The sauce was a little runny but it thickened up.  
  • Posole Rojo with Chicken p 335 Almost right.  Next time do not used canned tomatoes.  Good, but not as good as Maria's (aside: the lovely Mexican grandma who lives next door).
  • Ginger Beef and Rice Noodle Salad - Light and refreshing - with cold noodles, mint, and lime. A good special birthday dinner.  Reminded me of fresh spring rolls.  Make extra sauce. 
  • 💓Fish Tacos with Lime-Pickled Jalapen̄os Loved these.  Could tweak this recipe in so many different ways.  Nice level of heat and acidity.  Get better tortillas next time!
  • Gochujuang Potatoes -- Flavor is good, but strong.  Add more potatoes than called for next time.  
  • 💓Sweet-Soy Braised Pork -- (See image, below left) I loved this meal!  No lefotvers.  Sweet & spicy with just the right amount of molasses.  The lime wakes it all up.  Perfect combo of salt/fat/acid/heat.  Would be great with arugula tossed with lime.  Had to 1.5X it.  
  • Columbian Coconut Chicken - Yummy, but a lot of steps.  Might be interesting to try in an Instant Pot.  
  • 💓Spicy Pork with Leeks -- So delicious!  All plates cleaned!  So flavorful with good heat.

As you can see, most of the recipes were well-received, some were a huge hit (see 💓), and a few others garnered less-than rave reviews.  America's Test Kitchen tends to know what they are doing, so I suspect some of the problem lies with my children's taste buds or my attempts to stretch the recipe.  Four servings might be perfect for some, but I often had to 1.5X-2X a recipe to ensure we had enough to feed our family of six.  I can't say for certain whether the estimate cook times are accurate because it always takes a bit longer for me to make a meal the first time, but it did feel like those times would be accurate for someone who had made the meal a few times already. 

I have enjoyed my time with Milk Street: Tuesday Nights and will, no doubt, spend considerably more time with it. There are still a plethora of recipes I would like to try, but there are also several that I will probably never attempt either because they contain hard-for-me-to-find ingredients (like sumac or za-atar) or run counter to my family's tastes.  Overall, I feel like I've definitely got my money's worth and found several new recipes to liven up our dinner rotation.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  I mean, it's a cookbook.  There is meat in it.  That might offend someone.  Otherwise, you should be all good.

___________________________________________________

So, what's next in my cookbook queue?  

In Cookish, Christopher Kimball and his team of cooks and editors harness the most powerful cooking principles from around the world to create 200 of the simplest, most delicious recipes ever created.  These recipes, most with six or fewer ingredients (other than oil, salt, and pepper), make it easy to be a great cook -- the kind who can walk into a kitchen and throw together dinner in no time.  

In each of these recipes, big flavors and simple techniques transform pantry staples, common proteins, or centerpiece vegetables into a delicious meal.  And each intuitive recipe is a road map for other mix-and-match meals, which can come together in minutes from whatever's in the fridge.  (Summary from Amazon).

Sounds interesting, right?  
I'm excited to try it (as soon as I can find a used copy) 
and will let you know how it goes!

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Secret Live of Church Ladies - Deesha Philyaw narrated by Janina Edwards

Summary: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies explores the raw and tender places where black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good. The nine stories in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church's double standards and their own needs and passions. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Maybe you’re not a person who loves gossip, or maybe you are? Ideally, we try to keep ourselves out of gossiping, right? We don’t want to be that person that nobody can trust with any kind of information. We want to be good friends, right? Not betray our people? Well, what if you were able to hear the gossip of a certain group of people in a way where you weren’t blamed and could just enjoy it for what it was? I’m happy to report that this delightful little book does just that. It’s delicious, really. A guilty pleasure that not only gives you the opportunity to learn the best gossip around, but also to understand the women behind it. Why they do what they do. Or maybe not, but how they justify it, at least. I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and let me tell you, it was awesome. The narrator, Janina Edwards, has a beautiful, rich voice that is emotive and soothing. I loved listening to it. My only complaint is that I wished there had been a little bit longer pauses in between each chapter and a more definitive reading of the title of the chapter, as this is key. Each section is a different story about another Black woman, and there were a few times when I felt like I wasn’t sure it had switched or not. This is no fault of the author or narrator, and I understand that this was a choice made by the publisher.

This book is, as is discussed in the summary, like you had walked into a church congregation and someone on the inside, someone very well-connected, was able to show you individuals who had a good story, and gave you the opportunity to live in their shoes and see a slice of their lives—their desires, their discretions, their choices. Some of them have very juicy lives indeed! I loved the wide variety of stories and characters in this book. I think that women are so easily categorized by people to be this way or that way, and similarities are exploited into making it seem like women all have the same motivations for doing something. This is not the case, and I loved that this book not only explored the complexity of women and their desires and stories, but also gave voice to Black women who are often faced with different circumstances, opportunities, and judgments than women of another race. As I feel like I’ve preached before, understanding someone is so much easier if you see them close up. It’s also harder to pass judgement or even hate someone close up. If we are able to relate, connect, and understand the motivations and choices that each person is given, it makes it so much easier to be sympathetic to them and more understanding of their choices. I really appreciated this book for that.

As with all collections of short stories, there are some stories I liked better than others, and some characters I liked better than others. That is to be expected. This book is so interesting—there really is something for everyone, and I loved the rich details and beautiful writing. The narration added to the experience of someone telling you about the lives of each person, and I really enjoyed that as well. It added a personal touch and a depth to the stories. 

If you’re brave and your book club open-minded, this would be a great book club book. I will not be sharing it with my book club of church ladies. Ha! There is a lot to discuss and something for everyone. Plus, gossip is best shared, right? (I don’t gossip!) However, there are lots of topics that are not for sensitive readers—adultery, love scenes, languages, abuse.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language, sex, and abuse via neglect. I wouldn’t say it’s exploitive as much as just juicy.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Freeform Friday: Prairie Lotus - Linda Sue Park

In light of the devastating increase in violence toward people of Asian descent, we have added a new category label, AAPI Perspectives, which focuses on books written by authors of AAPI descent and/or stories with characters of AAPI descent.  As with our BIPOC Perspectives label, our hope is to help highlight books and authors from these valuable, diverse communities.  

Summary:  Dakota Territory, 1880.  When Hanna arrives in the town of LaForge, she sees possibilities.  Her father could open a shop on the main street.  She could go to school, if there is a school, and even realize her dream of becoming a dressmaker -- provided she can convince Papa, that is.  She and Papa could make a home here. 

But Hanna is half-Chinese, and she knows from experience that most white people don't want neighbors who aren't white themselves.  The people of LaForge have never seen an Asian person before; most are unwelcoming and unfriendly -- but they don't even know her!  Hanna is determined to stay in LaForge and persuade them to see beyond her surface.

In a setting that will be recognized by fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, this compelling story of resolution and persistence, told with humor, insight, and charm, offers a fresh look at a long-established view of history.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Sometimes a book's dedication is just that -- a dedication -- and other times it sets the tone for the whole book.  Park's dedication is the latter -- To all those whose stories have been erased or silenced in the past: May your stories sing and shape and color the future.   

Prarie Lotus tells the story of a 14-year-old girl named Hanna who has traveled with her father to railroad town of LaForge in the Dakota Territories in order to set up the town's first 'dress goods' store.  Still grieving the loss of Hanna's mother, the two are hopeful that they might be able to start a new life together, but it soon becomes apparent that while the people of LaForge are more than willing to welcome Hanna's white father., they are decidedly less amenable to welcoming Hanna, who is half Chinese.  Hanna is proud of who she is and hurt that others don't see her Chinese heritage in the same light. Although her father wants to keep her safe and hidden, Hanna longs to fulfill her mother's dream that she attend and graduate school.  As classes begin, Hanna is subjected to cruel behavior and mounting opposition to her presence in the classroom.  Disappointed but undeterred, she sets out to change minds, hopeful that if the townspeople get to know her, they will set aside their prejudice.  

Prairie Lotus was easy to read; I breezed through it in an afternoon without breaking a sweat. The setting and Hanna's day-to-day experiences explore what life might be like in a budding railroad town.  Taken alone, it makes for a good story.  However, Prairie Lotus is far more than just 'a good story.'  Although set in the 1880s, much of this book has real-life applications and touches on many important concepts, like kindness, confidence, persistence, inclusivity, thoughtfulness, the effects of trauma, respect for the elderly, and especially racial stereotypes, overt racism, and what to do when unfairness is sanctioned by law.

In my opinion, the most valuable aspect of this book is the opportunity it offers to talk about important issues like racism, racial stereotypes, and racially motivated violence.  Author Linda Sue Park notes that the racism Hanna faces is largely autobiographical and that she wrote this book in an attempt to counteract some of the painful experiences in her childhood (where she was often ridiculed for her Korean heritage).  Just like so many young girls, Park loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books as a kid and longed to see herself on the page, but was hurt and confused by the treatment of Native and African-Americans.  In Prairie Lotus, not only does Hanna observe how she is treated by the townspeople, she also observes the treatment of the local indigenous population and, unlike Little House, the author includes a more accurate view of their treatment and respectful view of their culture. Above all, I loved that Hanna is proud of her heritage and culture, unwavering in her conviction that she deserves to be treated just like everyone else. 

Praire Lotus is also helpful on issues of friendship.  For example, Hanna enters school cautiously, aware that many people will not react positively to her presence.  She carefully observes her classmates, assessing their behavior, and trying to find a safe friend.  Hanna's way of evaluating potential friends based on their actions, rather than appearance, popularity, or obvious wealth, sets an example for readers who might also be trying to find true friends. 

Prairie Lotus it is a valuable addition to children's literature, not only as an inspiring, moral-based story about a young girl who finds the courage to make a life for herself in the face of adversity, but specifically because of its ability to open the door for parents to have important conversations with their children. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, and especially to anyone who hopes to raise children who are more aware and inclusive.  

My Rating:  4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This story addresses racism towards Asian and Native American people.  Hanna experiences racism from classmates and townspeople.  Two drunk men accost and briefly attempt to sexually assault her (mildly descriptive), while making stereotypical comments about Chinese women.  The term "Indian" (the common vernacular of the time) is used in regards to Native Americans.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Thunderhead & The Toll (Arc of The Scythe #2 and #3) - Neal Shusterman

Today's review will cover two books.  Thunderhead is the second book in the Arc of a Scythe series.  The Toll is the third and final book.  You can find our review of the first book, Scythe, here.

Summary: Humans learn from their mistakes.  I cannot.  I make no mistakes.

The Thunderhead is the perfect ruler of a perfect world, but it has no control over the scythedom.  A year has passed since Rowan has gone off grid.  Since then he has become an urban legend, a vigilante snuffing out corrupt scythes in a trial by fire.  His story is told in whispers across the continent.

As Scythe Anastasia, Citra gleans with compassion and openly challenges the ideal of the "new order." But when her life is threatened and her methods questioned, it becomes clear that not everyone is open to the change.  In the thrilling sequel to the Printz Honor Book Scythe, old foes and new enemies converge.  And as corruption within the scythedom spreads, Rowan and Citra begin to lose hope.  Will the Thunderhead intervene?  Or will it simply watch as this perfect world begins to unravel?  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  At the end of Scythe, Citra Terranova proclaims herself Scythe Anastasia, after winning her place in the scythedom.  Rowan Damisch is one the run, having killed the despicable Scythe Goddard and escaped the conclave with only his life. The supposedly-late Scythe Faraday is, in fact, alive!  In Thunderhead, Scythes Anastasia and Curie are threatened by an unknown enemy, while Rowan has taken on foreboding name and a savage new calling.  Meanwhile, the integrity of the scythedom teeters on the edge of a knife as a new order of bloodthirsty scythes makes a play for power.  The Thunderhead -- a benevolent form of all-knowing artificial intelligence charged with monitoring and sustaining humanity -- silently observes the chaos.

Where the first book began each chapter with an excerpt from scythe's journals, the second book begins each chapter with commentary from the Thunderhead, a technological construct which feels like its own character.  I found that these sections were rather illuminating and offered a whole new level of perspective to the story.  Even though the Thunderhead's parameters specifically prohibit interference in the scythedom, as it begins to fracture, the program becomes increasingly desperate to unofficially influence the tide of events.  One of my favorite aspects of the book was watching this incredibly clever computer program try to adhere to rules and simultaneously find loopholes and workarounds.

I have always found that the second book in a trilogy is in a tough position.  It has the unfortunate responsibility of being a bridge between the beginning and end of a story.  It has to keep interest peaked but rarely gets to provide satisfying closure.  Most often, its primary purpose is to stir up trouble.  In that sense, Thunderhead is the quintessential 'second book' -- it stirred up a hornet's nest.  A great deal happens, but those expecting any kind of resolution will be profoundly displeased.  Citra/Anastasia and Rowan get very little page time together, so those rooting for an epic romance between the two won't find much of it in this book.  As with Scythe I spent a most of this 500 page book questioning whether I was going to continue in the series.  It wasn't until the last 40 pages blew up in my face that I decided to keep going.  I mean, it went from 0 to hell-in-a-handbasket, pretty darn quick.  I still have some mixed feelings about it, but there's enough of a pull for me to keep going.  Here's hoping the third book, The Toll brings it all together.

My Rating:  3.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Gleanings are occasionally brutal, but not particularly graphic.  One character named "Scythe Lucifer." Around three instances of profanity and some mild innuendo

__________________________________________________

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SCYTHE and THUNDERHEAD.

PROCEED AT YOUR OWN PERIL...

Summary:  Citra and Rowan have disappeared.  Endura is gone.  It seems like nothing stands between Scythe Goddard and absolute dominion over the world scythedom.  With the silence  of the Thunderhead and the reverberations of the Great Resonance still shaking the earth to its core, the question remains:  Is there anyone left who can stop him? 

The answer lies in the Tone, the Toll, and the Thunder.  

In the highly anticipated finale to the New York Times bestselling trilogy, dictators, prophets, and tensions rise.  In a world that's conquered death, will humanity finally be torn asunder by the immortal beings it created?

(Summary from book flap - Image from simonandschuster.com)

My Review:  At the end of Thunderhead, Scythes Anastasia and Lucifer (aka Citra and Rowan) were finally reunited, only to be trapped in a high-security vault on the not-so-floating city of Endura, while everyone around them is either devoured by sharks or drowned in the cold, dark ocean.  Unaware of these developments, Scythe Faraday and his archival assistant Munira are searching for a hidden fail-safe that may save the world from the power-hungry machinations of Scythe Goddard.  Oh, and the Thunderhead marks everyone Unsavory.  It all comes to a head in the last 40 pages and then, hello, cliffhanger.

In The Toll Scythe Goddard seems unstoppable and Citra and Rowan are torn apart, yet again.  Faraday and Munira end up on a long-deserted island and Greyson Slade takes on a new calling as The Toll, a prophet and the only person alive who can communicate with the Thunderhead.  Meanwhile, that very same Thunderhead has found a loophole in its programming, and throws a crazy, perilous Hail Mary that just might save humanity.  

As with many a book, there are things I loved and things I didn't about The Toll....  

First, the pros.  The plot has some interesting twists and turns and loads of character development, especially in regards to some of the formerly secondary characters that have morphed into primary characters as the series progressed.  None of the characters felt like 'cookie-cutter' good or bad guys, barring the bloodthirsty psychopath-with-a-God-complex that is Scythe Goddard.  Cookie 'cut' he may be, but he's also deliciously easy to hate.  Next pro! Sprinkled throughout the story are letters, journal entries, religious writings, speeches, and mysterious deleted conversations.  I looked forward to each of these missives, as they often gave a great deal of insight into what was going on in other parts of the scythedom, occasionally hinted at things to come, including one of the books biggest twists.  

Now for the cons.  The story hops around a bit, somewhat chronologically, but not completely. It was enough that I had to stop and figure out the timeline every now and then.  On a considerably more frustrating front, Citra and Rowan are yet again torn apart by circumstances and don't get to spend much time on-page together.  Eventually they have their moment, but the author really makes you wait for it.  Believe me, a lot of time passes in 625 pages.  Finally, I didn't hate the ending...but I didn't love it either.  I won't spoil things by going into any more detail, but if I had to put it in percentages, I'd say I was 75% moderately okay with it and 25% Meh.

As a final note -- I feel like if someone were inclined to write a paper drawing parallels between the world of the Scythes and, say, our world's current political climate or the psychology of dictators or certain military tactics, they would have plenty of material to work with.  At the very least, it's disturbing -- and that's all I am going to say about that.  

Do I recommend?  It's an okay one time read if you like dystopian.  I don't need to own it.

My Rating:  3.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Obviously some violence, but nothing graphic.  One character named "Scythe Lucifer." Some profanity (less than five instances, I think), some reference to intimacy between two characters (no description), and allusions to a relationship between one male character and another character that is gender-fluid.  

Monday, April 19, 2021

All the Tides of Fate - Adalyn Grace

Summary: Through blood and sacrifice, Amora Montara has conquered a rebellion and taken her rightful place as queen of Visidia. Now, with the islands in turmoil and the people questioning her authority, Amora cannot allow anyone to see her weaknesses.

No one can know about the curse in her bloodline. No one can know that she’s lost her magic. No one can know the truth about the boy who holds the missing half of her soul.

To save herself and Visidia, Amora embarks on a desperate quest for a mythical artifact that could fix everything―but it comes at a terrible cost. As she tries to balance her loyalty to her people, her crew, and the desires of her heart, Amora will soon discover that the power to rule might destroy her. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I am happy that I got to read this sequel so close to when I read the first one, All the Stars and Teeth. It is often so hard for me to remember what happened if I read a book that is a new release and then I have to wait for another whole year to find out what happens. How am I supposed to keep all of these errant-heirs-to-their- throne-but-something-goes-wrong-and-they-have-to-fight-to-get-it-and-their-parents-did-so-many- things-wrong-that-no-one-really-wants-it-to-continue-anyway-and-they-have-to-prove-their-worth-in-their-own-way-and-forge-a-new-world straight? It’s a problem, people. It really is.

So as you see, I wouldn’t say that this book’s strength is its uniqueness. I have read many books of late that I feel are kind of like this, which means it’s a thing, and everyone is into it. In the field of YA fic, I think this is ok. The readers are into one kind of story, and so a lot of authors jump on that bandwagon and whip out books that go along with the current thing. And ya know, I’m okay with it. I think it’s boring in some ways because there are very few new ideas being thrown around, but I am all about getting YA readers to read and if they want to read a whole bunch of the same thing with slightly different variations, well, reading is reading. And also, I can’t point too many fingers because obviously I’ve read these books as well of my own free will. It is what it is. So it’s not unique, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile. I enjoyed it and read it quickly and enjoyed the escape for sure.

As with other seafaring adventure YA books I’ve read lately, the characters visit different islands. As might be expected, these islands have different cultures and people, and allows the author to explore different worlds in a small way. I felt that Adalyn Grace did a particularly good job of this. I really enjoyed reading about the different islands and their different cultures. I felt like they were all distinct and had their own unique character and flavor. As an author I can see that this would be fun—you can have lots of ideas for different worlds, but if you do it in a way where your characters can just drop in, you don’t have to have them as extensively developed as the original “home destination.”

I liked the story in this book. Adalyn Grace did a good job of exploring some complicated topics—familial relationships, race relations, violence and its perception and uses, etc. I appreciate when YA books take on some tough topics and address them organically and in a way that exposes the reader to them but doesn’t make it so overbearing that it takes away from the story.

If you are into YA adventure stories where the heir must win back their throne, especially seafaring adventures, this might be your jam. It would be a good idea to read the first one so that you know what’s going on, but it would be possible to get into this one as well without the backstory. However, both books are a quick read and fast-paced. If this is your jam, go for them both!

My Review: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a steamy love scene and some violence.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Freeform Friday: Winter Counts - David Heska Wanbli Weiden


Summary: A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx.

Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.

They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: One thing that I have really appreciated about reading BIPOC authors is their ability to create an authentic setting of language and speech patterns, place, and cultural norms. This is not to say that there aren’t some authors who do a really good job of going outside of their cultural backgrounds and discussing and creating an environment that feels authentic, but I think that if you have read BIPOC stories that aren’t by BIPOC authors you’ve been missing out.

I enjoyed the story in Winter Counts. I do enjoy a good crime story, especially one that’s tense and guttural and feels legit. This is definitely one of those. It’s fast paced but also measured in its movement. There’s an appropriate amount of stuff happening and also the characters being forced to wait for something to happen. This is actually a difficult balance to achieve. There are some books where things happen AllAtOnce so that it feels like the timeline isn’t realistic. You know how tense situations are—sometimes the tension is the wait. No matter how quickly things are moving and how horrible the things that are happening, there are still the interspersed moments where you’re just waiting. For the next thing to happen. For results. Or waiting to hear back. You know what I mean. The tension is also in the wait. David Heska Wanbli Weiden does a good job of this. There are times when things are happening and it just seems like the pacing is relentless, and then there is the tension of the wait. The pacing is great in this book.

However, far and away my favorite part of reading this book was the cultural immersion. I love seeing what it’s like to be in someone else’s life. It’s one of my favorite parts of reading. There is no way that I can experience everything, be everywhere, meet everyone, but I can read, and reading brings me an empathy and an understanding that is sometimes better. If I were to visit an Indian reservation (I grew up about 25 miles from a Native American reservation, so this has happened in my life many times) I would never be able to fully understand the culture or customs or even the interactions. Reading about it gives me the chance to understand and relate. What things are different? What things are the same? How can I be more sensitive to what is going on with his culture that I am not necessarily familiar? It is a great responsibility of every reader to decide what they’ll do with the information that they have gained from a book they have read, and I feel like David Heska Wanbli Weiden created a novel that allows the reader to understand and relate. He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the plight of indigenous people in this country, nor does he shy away from who those problems were created by. I appreciated this. It’s hard to talk about change and responsibility if we can’t even acknowledge the problem.

On the surface, this crime book is a 3 star. The story is good and its tense, but I would say it’s run of the mill. I’ve read lots of good crime books that are very similar to this and I give them a three. However, the cultural relevance and exploration of a culture that is very much alive and part of the human experience and making this exploration very tangible and accessible warrants five stars. I’m settling on a rating in the middle.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is language and violence in this book. It is not more violent than others in the genre.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Chickadees and the Moon Above - Sara A. Simon

Summary:  Mother Chickadee loves her chicks.  She knows they will grow up and one day leave the next.  She wants them to become the best chickadees that they can be.  But no matter how far away they go, she tells hem to look up at the moon and think of her...and she will be looking at the same moon and thinking of them, too.  

(Summary from book - Image from cityoflightpublishing.com - Book given for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:  The Chickadees and the Moon Above tells the story of a loving Mama Chickadee who tries to prepare her young ones (and herself) for the moment when they are ready to fly away and be their best bird-selves.  In doing so, she reminds them that wherever they are, whatever they do, and whoever they become, each can always look at the moon, think of the other, and know they are loved.  

The Chickadees and the Moon Above uses soothing watercolors and simple prose to help chickadees (of all ages) acknowledge and prepare for the pain of separation, but also celebrates the joy of finding a new path.  It also subtly points out that different chicks may find their happiness in different places and define success in different ways.  While the text didn't offer any tangible steps to help prepare for and/or embrace the separation, I still think it would make a thoughtful gift for a mother or child whose 'nesting' situation is about to change.   

My little chickadees are growing up and the oldest is set to leave the nest in the next year and so.  This book definitely brought some of those emotions forward (my eyes may or may not have 'welled' a bit).  I loved the illustrations, especially the image of the Mama Chickadee with her sweet babies gathered round.  If I had to pick one point on which to offer critical feedback it would be that I felt the font (black with a white halo effect) competed with, rather than complemented, the illustrations. Overall, it was a tender and bittersweet reminder of love never lost, the place we call home, and the moon that connects us all. 

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All Clear.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

5 Step Handicrafts for Kids: The Cardboard & Paper Editions - Anna Llimós

I love making things and being creative when I have a little alone time (so....never) but doing arts & crafts with my children tends to bring out my uptight-perfectionist side.  As a result, I try to select crafts that they can do mostly on their own, without a lot of parental input.  I gather supplies, I give them instructions, and then I let the chips fall where they may.   Enter 5 Step Handicrafts for Kids.  Today, I'll be talking about our experience with the Paper and Cardboard Editions. 

Cardboard: 5-Step Handicrafts for Kids

Summary: In five easy steps, you will see how easy it can be to make wonderful objects using only the most commonly available materials and simplest techniques.  In this book we will show you how cardboard can be used to create all kinds of amazing things, from a friendly lion to a useful house-shaped storage box, and many others.

(Image and Summary from schifferbooks.com)

This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: Cardboard5-Step Handicrafts for Kids gives easy-to-follow instructions for 14 different creative projects, including: a bee, an art folio, a toadstool, flowers, gift tags, a wristwatch, a decorative box, a lion, a drum, a hand puppet, a notebook, a paraglider, a snake, and a donkey pulling a cart.  For the purposes of this review I selected three projects to try -- the lion, snake, and paraglider.  In all cases, I made sure we had the materials (or some approximation of them) and turned my 8 and 10-year-old daughters loose.  Some of the projects are easier than others, according to the books own star-rating system, but my girls didn't have any problems following the instructions and the end results were surprisingly good!  I was thrilled that this book and a few supplies enabled them to get their craft on.  

When I think of cardboard, I think of the type used in shipping boxes.  I had no idea how many different kinds of cardboard there are in the universe.  The handicrafts in this book called for colored cardboard, corrugated cardboard, colored and corrugated cardboard, egg cartons, fruit storage trays, cards, card stock, cardboard tubes, cardboard hoops, and, of course, cardboard boxes.  I didn't have a lot of that stuff on hand.  Thankfully, creativity is encouraged  (notice my daughter decided to make a tiger instead of a lion) and several of the projects can be tweaked if certain supplies aren't on hand. Overall, I do wish more of the projects had consisted of standard 'cardboard' projects, but I liked the concept of the book, the straightforward instructions, and the ease with which my kids could get their art on. 

My Rating: 3.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear

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Paper: 5-Step Handicrafts for Kids

Summary:  In just five simple steps, children can make a variety of whimsical objects such as a bowl, a basket, and a hand puppet out of paper.   Fourteen projects make clever use of commonly available materials and simple tools, turning paper bags, streamers, and crepe paper into lasting crafts and toys.  Children five years and older will develop fine motor skills, feed their creativity, and discover new uses for everyday objects. 

(Image and Summary from schifferbooks.com)

This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review.

My Review:  Paper: 5-Step Handicrafts for Kids gives children the opportunity to create 14 different paper crafts, including a dragon, a classroom diorama, a bowl, an apple, a paper-bag puppet, an elephant, a basket, a bus, a bird, a savanna scene, a trumpet, a butterfly, a pop-up gift card, and night-and-day scene.  For the purposes of this review, I selected three projects to for my kiddos to try -- the classroom diorama, the dragon, and the apple project seen on the front cover.  If I'm being honest, my 8-year-old decided to make the classroom diorama all on her own.  I had shown her the book earlier in the day and then headed out grocery shopping.  When I came back she excitedly showed me her 'classroom,' modeled after her teacher's room last year.  She even went so far as to add to it by creating a lap top, pencil cup, and pencils to go on the desk. I was seriously impressed and thrilled that she drew inspiration from the book and ran with it!   

I assumed that most of the projects in this book would be made out of paper or colored construction paper.  However, similar to the last review, I was unprepared for the different kinds of 'paper' supplies I would need to complete all of the projects, including: colored tissue paper, glossy paper, wrapping paper, cardstock, streamers, crepe paper, paper bags, tissue paper garlands, and a variety of different colored/shaped stickers, as well as a few items I will probably need to order online.  Originally, I was a little frustrated that so many of the paper supplies were hard for me to find.  I am one of those people who likes to follow recipes exactly.  However, my daughter had no problems adapting her project to use what we did have, and not only did it turn out well, but it encouraged her to be creative and problem solve.  Overall, this book encourages kids to embrace their own artistic side in a way that is both easy and fun -- just be prepared to be flexible or acquire a some additional supplies.

My Rating:  3 stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is a clown project.  You have been warned. 

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Paper and cardboard not your thing?  

No worries.  

There are CLOTHWOODPLASTIC, and CLAY editions, as well.  

Pick your favorite medium and have fun!

Monday, April 12, 2021

All the Stars and Teeth - Adalyn Grace

Summary: Set in a kingdom where danger lurks beneath the sea, mermaids seek vengeance with song, and magic is a choice.

She will reign.

As princess of the island kingdom Visidia, Amora Montara has spent her entire life training to be High Animancer — the master of souls. The rest of the realm can choose their magic, but for Amora, it’s never been a choice. To secure her place as heir to the throne, she must prove her mastery of the monarchy’s dangerous soul magic.

When her demonstration goes awry, Amora is forced to flee. She strikes a deal with Bastian, a mysterious pirate: he’ll help her prove she’s fit to rule, if she’ll help him reclaim his stolen magic.

But sailing the kingdom holds more wonder — and more peril — than Amora anticipated. A destructive new magic is on the rise, and if Amora is to conquer it, she’ll need to face legendary monsters, cross paths with vengeful mermaids, and deal with a stow-away she never expected… or risk the fate of Visidia and lose the crown forever.

I am the right choice. The only choice. And I will protect my kingdom. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: In case you haven’t noticed, this book has some beautiful cover art. I always appreciate a good cover and I think this one alludes to what it is in the genre (because there are lots of books in this genre that look somewhat like this) but also stands on its own. The cover art! It was great!


It’s always fun to read a pirate book, is it not? I feel like I’ve read several books about the sea lately that could be cousins to this book (not including the ones about the sea that aren’t like this book): Fable, The Vanishing Deep, and the House of Salt and Sorrows. If you took those books and married them with Stephanie Garber’s Caravel series and sprinkled in some Black Witch Chronicles, and Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, this book would come shooting out with a glorious cover and a pirate theme. And it did and here we are.

I realize that I am not necessarily the audience of this book (because I am old and jaded), and so reading lots of books that are very similar is a good thing for a YA reader. Getting a YA reader to read is the point. If there are series that are like other series that lead to more and more reading, it’s a win. For this, I am very happy about this book. First of all, the main character is a strong female character, which is always a good thing. However, she is not strong without faults, and there are some points in the book where she is forced to evaluate herself and her family and how she was raised and examine the beliefs she’s been taught with a more discerning eye. I think we could all use a little more of this, and teaching YA readers to do this, and to show them it’s okay and also that there can be a resolution of old beliefs and new beliefs together is a really good thing. I very much appreciated that. Secondly, it was a book that moved quickly. The story moved along at a good clip with lots of exciting action. I read this book in a short time and I enjoyed it. There were definitely some parts that made me think, which is not always the case for books in this genre, and there were lots of times when I rolled my eyes at place names or made up names of characters that were just a little too ridiculous. I’m okay with names that seem foreign or fantastic, but sometimes (and in all YA books like this) there are always a few makes that make me roll my eyes and come back down to my old and jaded self.

As with all YA fic books worth their salt there is a love story, and this one is complicated and gets more complicated as things go on. That’s ok as well. Grace gives credit to Stephanie Meyer for her love of YA fic and desire to write, but I’m glad she was smart enough to not base the love story off of some of Meyer’s less healthy love stories. It seems for a while, thanks to Meyer, the gold standard was for older fantastical men in power positions to engage in stalking and inappropriate behavior for about a decade or so. There is a sticky love situation that happens at the end of this book that I’m hoping will be resolved in a less icky and dependent manner, and so far, it looks like it will be, but time will tell. PSA to authors: If you are writing a love story, please try and at least model healthy behaviors. Or if they’re not healthy behaviors, make that obvious and show a way out or something. I’m over the love stories that feed into toxic behavior on either party’s end.

For the most part, although I didn’t feel like this story was super original, there was some fun stuff like magic and abilities and all sorts of mythical creatures that made it exciting and a fun read. I think YA readers will really dig it. It’s definitely a good book to read if your YA reader enjoyed any of the books mentioned above, or the plethora that I didn’t mention that are similar. Look for my review of the sequel, All the Tides of Fate, next Monday!

My Rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: Although there isn’t language, there is quite a bit of violence and gore, some of it explicit, and one fairly steamy love scene (without having sex).

Friday, April 9, 2021

Freeform Friday: An Uplifting Duo of Quotes & Affirmations

I'd love to introduce you to two books that have the potential to uplift and brighten your day. 

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If you like adorable animals and uplifting affirmations
you might try....

Summary:
  Hey, You Are Amazing!  Sometimes you just don't realize how hard you've worked and how much you've overcome.  But bestselling author Kate Allan is here to remind you -- you're doing a great job and are a pretty amazing human!

You're Strong, Smart, and You Got This provides the supportive voice you need when you're feeling overwhelmed or stressed.  in it, you will find a source of validation and encouragement for those moments when you need a friendly reminder of your worth.

With her beautiful illustrations, Allan guides you through a series of letters to her younger self to inspire you to treat yourself kindly and feel proud of how far you've come.  By using mindfulness and prioritizing self-love, Allan expresses how you can get through the hardships you face and come out stronger.

In You're Strong, Smart, and You Got This, you will find:
  • Tips for when you're feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, or down on yourself
  • An emotional first-aid kit in the form of whimsical colors and friendly, smiling animals that heal invisible wounds and make heavy subjects easier to face
  • Messages of hope for all ages, coming from a place of understanding and empathy
(Summary from back of book - cover image from mango.bz - Other images taken with my phone -  Book given to me for free in exchange for an honest review) )

My Review:  I have a teenage daughter who struggles with anxiety and loves all animals, real or imaginary, so when You're Strong, Smart, and You Got This showed up in my mailbox, I knew she would be thrilled.  I handed it over and her mouth fell open and she immediately began cooing over the darling animal artwork. After she spent some time with it, I asked her about her impressions and  she loved the combination of adorable animals, soothing scenes, and comforting phrases.  The drawings are super cute and pairing them with encouraging affirmations gave it that extra oomph.  I mean, who can resist a sweet baby seal that reminds you feeling stressed out doesn't mean you are incapable.  Answer: Nobody.

I appreciated that the author, Kate Allan, made things personal by discussing her own struggle with depression and anxiety, the feeling of being overwhelmed and ashamed, and the moment that she realized how helpful art could be in expressing and countering those emotions.  She writes as if she were speaking to her younger self and offers tips for how to best combat negative thoughts, stop the shame, and move forward.  The author doesn't dismiss negative feelings or try to sugarcoat things by pretending to have all the answers; she shares the simple truths that have helped her and encourages the reader to, above all, extend compassion, grace, and mercy to themselves.



Long story short, You're Strong, Smart, and You Got This is a wonderful purse-sized pep talk that offers comfort and encouragement to teens and adults who may be feeling overwhelmed, facing the unknown, or struggling with self-acceptance.  If you are feeling worthless, broken, or a little like you don't fit in, it softly whispers: You are enough.  You are loved.  You belong.  

If you'd like to read more about this book, click here.  (Not an affiliate link.  No $$ for me.)

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  The only reason I wouldn't categorize this book as suitable for "all ages" is three instances where she uses the terms AF and F***ing. I appreciated that she didn't use the actual words, and agree with the sentiments she was trying to convey, but I still wouldn't give it to my 8-year-old. 


Pssstt.  In researching this book, I found that Kate Allan has another one out called 
You Can Do All Things 
and can you say AWWWWWDORABLE?


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If you love collecting quotes and affirmations, 
you might try...

Summary:  It's your day to be inspired!  The right words at the right time can completely change your perspective.  Whether you're facing something challenging or wonderful in your life, an inspiring and motivating quote can help guide your life in a powerful and positive way.  

Celebrated and bestselling author June Cotner has been gathering her favorite quotes for decades.  With over one million books sold worldwide, it is her mission to share carefully curated words to meet you wherever you are on your journey.  With Hey! It's Your Day, you will learn to think positively, gain a new perspective, and start your day off with the right energy.

Hey! It's Your Day is packed with daily affirmations and words of wisdom on a variety of experiences such as: 
  • Forgiveness and personal growth
  • Integrity, social justice, and perseverance
  • Becoming a parent and leader
  • Travel, adventure, friendship, and more!
(Summary from book - Image from amazon.com - Book given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:    Hey! It's Your Day: Inspirational Quotes & Affirmations to Live By is small in size* but packed with powerful words from some of the world's brightest philosophers, writers, artists, philanthropists, scientists, entertainers, religious leaders, and historical figures, as well as ancient proverbs, the occasional scripture verse, and several names I did not recognize.  The quotes are divided into fifty-two different sections according to topic, each with their own introductory heading.  The topics rang anywhere from Courage, Creativity, Family, and Forgiveness, to Kindness, LovePerseverancePositivity and (forty-four) more!  At the back of the book, there is also a small section of 36 affirmations for living, my favorite of which comes from the Buddha: "Each morning we are born again.  What we do today is what matters most."  What a wonderful reminder to make the most of every day!

I am constantly amazed at how a well-phrased quote can speak to me on a soul-level and become a reliable source of strength and comfort. As I read this book, I wrote down my favorite quote from each section, and I'd like to share my top ten fifteen favorites with you.  Narrowing them down from fifty-two to fifteen was no easy feat (ten was impossible), so I hope you appreciate the things I do for you!  
  • If you hear a voice within you say, "you cannot paint," then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.     -- Vincent Van Gogh
  • Grief, I've learned, is really just love.  It's all the love you want to give but cannot.  All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest.  Grief is just love with no place to go.     -- Jamie Anderson
  • Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if he or she were going to be dead by midnight.  Extend to them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster, and do so with no thought of any reward.   Your life will never be the same.     -- Og Mandino
  • Become a possibilitarian.  No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities -- always see them, for they're always there.     -- Norman Vincent Peale
  • Be humble for you are made of earth.  Be noble because you are made of stars.     -- Serbian Proverb
  • Courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity to act despite our fears.     -- John McCain
  • You are never alone or helpless.  The force that guides the stars guides you, too.     -- Shrii Shrii Anandamurti
  • Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.     -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • It's not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.     -- Ann Landers
  • Of this to be sure: You do not find the happy life -- you make it.     -- Thomas S. Monson
  • One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.     -- Chinua Achebe
  • When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this.  You haven't.     -- Thomas Edison
  • True peace requires the presence of justice, not just the absence of conflict.     -- N.K. Jemisin
  • Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.     -- Margaret Mead
  • We are all like one-winged angels.  It's only when we help each other that we can fly.     -- Luciano De Crescenzo
For me, these words cultivate calm, radiate strength, and inspire me to keep trying!

I love the concept and content of this book, but structurally I have a few complaints. First, the small font size (1-2mm) and certain text colors made the words blend more than they popped.  I still managed to read everything, but recommend keeping your 'readers' handy if you normally struggle with small font.  Finally, there were so many categories and quotes.  I realize this is a ridiculous complaint, but I feel that a more focused selection of quotes might have been more impactful and allowed for a larger font size. 

Hey! It's Your Day is a massive collection of wisdom and truth, but it should not be read cover to cover in one sitting.  As with most quote books, it is best enjoyed a bit at a time, and would likely feel 'at home' resting on your end table or night stand, to be picked up and perused during a spare moment..   

* Size: Approx. 6" x 6" x 3/4"

If you'd like to read more about this book, click here.  (Not an affiliate link.  No $$ for me.)

My Rating:  3.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  I think there is one D word.

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