30 April, 2011

Review: Beaten. Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon

Man, I wanted to love this book.

It's not like I hated it, but five minutes after I finished it I couldn't remember much about it. In theory, this is the perfect book for me. Obsessive memoir about food and the creation of it? Absolutely. (The only way to make it more appealing would be to add a romance and WW2 with a Tudor era European tie in. But those are my fetishes, not yours.) Right, so it's a good book. It's a solid B. There's nothing glaringly wrong with it. I'm sure a number of people will adore it and disagree strongly with me for giving it a firm rating of 'Meh'.

Here's the thing - I didn't like Jonathan very much so I never cared if he succeeded. I know he likes the Grateful Dead, hates salmon, had a girlfriend who helped support him (heavily) through culinary school and that he considered himself a bit of a slacker. Also, he enters culinary school without intending to work as a line chef. That's about it for him. Dixon introduces you to several of his fellow students without much purpose. One or two get a word at the end or a comment through the book but most can be shelved as interchangeable people he knew and we'll never know more about. There's the girl who shares a look, the guy who takes orders, the one who smokes weed, but none of them ultimately matter because this is a book about Dixon and his feelings.

Generally in a memoir there is a wider arc, a larger tale told through the lens of the experience being recalled. This isn't that book. There's no foreshadowing, no passage filled with meaning later illuminated, this is a straightforward telling of the classes he took, the teachers he had, and how he felt about all of them.  If I was considering attending the school I would probably find more value in the book as a 'what to expect' primer, but as a casual reader the experience was ultimately empty. Dixon enters school as a slacker who wants to learn how to cook and he leaves it as a slacker who knows how to cook. Interviews with his classmates or instructors might have given the book more weight, as some alternative perspective is craved toward the second half of the book. It is interesting, however, to watch the development of the fresh food snobbery many chefs understandably adhere to. A discussion of how attainable that standard is for people outside a fairly narrow section of the country might also have added interest. As it is, if you're the sort that can run out to a few local farms to assemble your groceries (or not American), you'll eat better than those that can't. (I think we all knew that.)

28 April, 2011

Review: Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd

Nothing in Girls Like Us will surprise those exposed to how our world works for the less white and wealthy, but everything in it will shock the other half. Both a call to action and a memorable recollection of the author's own experiences, Girls Like Us is a masterpiece.

If you rape an 11 year old girl, you're a child molester, a sick individual who should be buried under the jail. If you rape her after paying a third party you're just soliciting sex and she's a whore. If you prey upon that same girl, buy her things, treat her well then not so well, then abuse her freely, you are a predator who has groomed her. If that girl has no one to defend her, then you're her boyfriend. Everything contained in Girls Like Us is authentic. I can attest from personal knowledge that this happens all across our country in many states. Young girls are kidnapped, are raped, are trafficked, are sold, and nothing is done. Police view it as a victimless crime. (I could tell a story here about my friend's 15 year old niece that would curl your hair if you expect the police to protect you.)

Don't think this is limited to America. Or Thailand. Or any other nation that isn't where you might be sitting. Don't think it only happens in New York. If you have strip clubs, if you have sex for hire, you have child slavery occurring right under your noses. It's easier to blame the victim than it is to face the reality. Children in your town are being beaten and raped right now. Children are adaptable, they can come to see the most horrific circumstances as normal. Girls are taught to blame themselves for the failures of others. She's a fast tail ho, she's looking for it, she's hard to manage. If she were a better girl, she wouldn't get raped, he wouldn't beat her, she wouldn't need to shake that ass for some cash. She's too stupid to know better, too weak to change. All the lies the slaveholders tell the slaves and anyone who looks too carefully. Rachel Lloyd lays it out in a way that defies denial.

26 April, 2011

Review: This Life Is In Your Hands by Melissa Coleman

I've struggled with this review. While I think Melissa Coleman's book deserves all the acclaim it will gather, I also have a serious problem with fictionalized memoir. Adding complexity, I have strong feelings about the movement that she (and I) grew up in.

This Life Is In Your Hands is an exceptionally beautiful telling of a story too rarely told, by a modern day Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This Life Is In Your Hands is a fictionalized memoir. Conversations, expressions, interactions are presented as directly factual where the narrator has no knowledge of events. Things in quotes may be imagined, not documented dialogue.

Each of these two sentences is true. Melissa Coleman relates conversations her parents had upon their meeting - conversations she could not have been present for and they are unlikely to have written down. She is also a gifted writer who has composed a memorable telling of her upbringing with far more forgiveness in her heart than I have. During this resurgence of food-as-medicine anti-technology all-organic glorification, her tale is even more important.

The author strongly defends her parents against charges of neglect, despite laying a strong case for parental neglect with her own words. As another child raised in the glow of kerosene lights and left to my own devices while my formerly affluent white parents found themselves through poverty, I think she is too kind. When she relates her public school experience, it rings very true for me. There are things to embrace in the lifestyle that her parents chose. If her parents had been present and engaged, not worn down by hard work and their own hubris, perhaps her story would have gone differently. Sadly, it did not.

Perhaps her most important message is that food is not medicine, organic will not solve all, and diet cannot prevent everything. (Having faced cancer at 39 and 43, with a sibling who became a type 1 diabetic at a young age, I certainly have trouble being polite to people who beg me to consider holistic and homeopathic care. Been there. Done that. Pass the modern medicine my way, please.)  If there is a secondary flaw to This Life Is In Your Hands it would be the relationship between Coleman's parents and their mentors. Her disappointment in them is obvious, the cause obscured. How she feels failed by them remains veiled. In all other respects, she has presented a brilliant illustration of her childhood and the forces that shaped it.  After reading the book, my spouse largely agreed with my take. I asked him for a second opinion as I recognized my own experiences were coloring my feelings about the work. "Her mother would have been better off in a Burka." was his one sentence summary. I am not sure I disagree.

I do think this is an important book, and an important read. Each generation has a certain amount of people exactly like her parents - driven to cast off what is wrong with their lives they go to the extreme edge. The Coleman's eventually pulled back to make a contribution in the world of organic farming, a goal we can all recognize as in our interests. It's the extreme edges that too often get overlooked.

23 April, 2011

Review: Royal Weddings by Stephanie Laurens, Gaelen Foley & Loretta Chase

I don't really understand this marketing.

Avon isn't the only imprint offering short stories to celebrate the wedding of William & Catherine of England, but I still don't quite get it. These weddings are royal in name only, as none of the couples concerned are themselves royal. To earn the Royal Weddings moniker, the events take place during other weddings - but not at them. I know, I already said the marketing confused me. So let's ignore it. Is this worth your cash? Yea, I think so. This isn't a bargain priced full anthology, these shorts are super short, but it's two bucks. What's two bucks these days? (Ok, yes, it could be lunch. I give you the point.)

Stephanie Laurens and I have been planning to break up. I read the final book in her last series and just couldn't bring myself to read The Black Cobra Quartet at all. Imagine my surprise when the best, most satisfying short is hers. Taking a woman who's drifted into wedding planning and a French aristocrat, she delivers a tasty bite size treat without annoying me at all. It's like running into an ex at a party and realizing they don't make you feel vaguely sick anymore, but not quite waking up at their place the next day.

Gaelen Foley wasn't for me. We split up during her India series and I'm not even sure what she's done since. In this one she takes the set up of a happily (from the outside) married couple and their failure to talk. While she gets the biting internal conversations down, the story itself did nothing for me. Pout, have sex, change jobs. Or something like that. Mostly it felt like an erotic short which works for plenty of people but bored me. Gaelen, we weren't meant to stay together. I know you don't miss me. It's ok. I still have Loretta.

Loretta can call me up at 3 am, ask me to meet her in a pouring rainstorm in a dodgy area of town and I'll have my keys in my hands before she stops speaking. (At least, she can right now. I'm fickle, the future is uncertain, void where prohibited by law.) Her couple were supposed to be at the wedding of Princess Victoria and Prince Albert (Now there is a setting - go to the wedding people!! Describe it! Be there! Discuss it! That's your marketing... oh never mind.) but instead find themselves... elsewhere. It's such a short and so beautifully constructed I don't want to tell you anything about it. It's like someone starts folding up a paper and I yell "Goldfish!" before they've even got to the tail. Ultimately, it left me wanting. The characters were ready for a full length book, or at least a longer novella. I enjoyed every bit of it but it's like settling down with a lovely dessert, slowly savoring it, licking the fork between bites and suddenly someone walks up and says "Wow! I love this cake - thanks for sharing!" sticks a fork in and takes the rest away. It was perfect, but it's gone.

20 April, 2011

Review: The Vampire Voss by Colleen Gleason

This is a unique case.

It's rare for me not to finish a book that I've taken to review, much less move forward with the review. But this is not your typical DNF. So much is right with The Vampire Voss that I think I could adore it if it didn't hit my particular buttons quite so hard. Right, so here is the solution.

I am not going to review The Vampire Voss. Mostly. I'll explain what kept me from enjoying it, and if those are not things that would keep you from enjoying the book then I think it's worth a look. Gleeson has an easy writing style with a nice eye for characterization and description, her pacing is solid, and her worlds are well realized. There's a lot more to The Vampire Voss than my displeasure. (If my Sony hadn't bricked twice during my third go at the book I might have made it to the end!)

In this world of Vampires and Vampire Hunters there are also rare persons with The Sight. One of those is Angelica. Her ability to see the moment of a person's death brings her to the attention of (say it with me) The Vampire Voss. Voss is the kind of kid his mother might describe as 'intellectual, sensitive, easily bored' and the other kids might describe as 'a serious pain in the ass'. My problem with Voss, and thus my problem with the book, is that he is a date rapist of high order. He sees a woman, he roofies her with his magic eyes, and they can get it on. He admits he doesn't really care how willing she is at first because hey, she'll like it later. Maybe he comes to realize this is wrong. I don't know. I didn't care. He 'thralls' half a dozen women and I just see rapist.

Book two is The Vampire Dimitri.  Dimitri's mom might have described him as 'studious, committed, ethical' while the other kids probably called him 'a serious pain in the ass'. You know that these two men will end up together. Dimitri is the required pigs blood drinker, the vampire with regrets. There's a scene where Voss marvels at the unneeded pain Dimitri puts himself through for his beliefs, since in this universe Lucifer continually sends physical signals of his displeasure to the bodies of his men. Being good hurts, what can Voss tell you. Voss proves he's the good kind of rapist when after a scene that's a little bit Merchant Ivory Slasher Flick, a little bit West Side Story With Fangs he comes upon a defenseless Dimitri and... doesn't hurt him. Ok then.

I understand that the Vampire genre either skirts with or embraces non-consent as a very fact of it's existence. This makes many of the books fail for me, because my bad boys need to be a little less bad than the whole 'She'll want it by the time I'm done' thing. Angelica, of course, is somewhat immune to being enthralled. She can't be the one girl in all the world if she isn't, right? Don't let them have the milk, make them buy the cow.

I like Gleeson's style, I like her mechanics, I will absolutely try her again. For me, the sheer Vampireness of Voss keeps me from falling in love.

11 April, 2011

Puff Piece: Pieces Of Paper by Jeannie Lin

I generally like Jeannie Lin's writing, but I like her impulse to offer a piece of fiction set in Tokyo with the proceeds benefiting Japan even more. I don't know if there are region restrictions on this, but I can't see why there would be.

Here is an excerpt.

Try it out and see if it's something that appeals to you. If it does, double bonus. Meet a new author and kick a buck (or part of one)  to Japan all at once. If it doesn't - hey it was one mouse click and just a few seconds of your time.

No, I wasn't implying anything by.... Hey, my time is valuable too. Ok! Fine! Look, it was a suggestion! I'm not the boss of you!

08 April, 2011

A Brief Note From Our Sponsor....

I've got some reviews preloaded, but if there is a temporary lull please check back. We're taking another ride on the cancer train around here, so things may be erratic for a few weeks. No Worries, Righty Tighty.

07 April, 2011

Review: Treachery In Death by J.D. Robb

Does Nora Roberts even need reviews?

With a star author like Roberts it can seem pointless to write a review I could devote to a less well known author. As I only review books I think are worth looking at or ones I think are worth avoiding (I'd say I read five or six for every book I feel inclined to discuss) I generally give the major releases a pass.  Then Roberts writes something like Treachery In Death and knocks it out of the park.

Peabody dies.

Ok, ok, I'm kidding. (Spoiler alert!) Peabody does not die. (Maybe. I think. Who knows? You'll have to read it yourself.) One thing Peabody does do is find herself in an extremely dicey situation. So dicey that everything ends up on the table. This is the In Death I would go ahead and drop the cash on now. It's not that much more as an e-book than the eventual paperback will be and it's one of the best in the series. Tightly focused on Eve and her team, free of the angst that's been weighing the series down, this one brings the page turning suspense to the front and puts several major characters in new situations. This, the 40th (Really? Is that even possible?) story to feature Eve Dallas is also a great place to join the series. Everything you need is in this volume, no wasted time, no wasted characters.

Of course, Eve still ends the book a bit battered. That's how she likes it. Someday Eve is going to have to examine why every case needs to be closed with her face (even her husband is starting to notice) but it won't be today. Eve is too busy showing that she will eventually lead the NYPD and the only thing standing in her way is time.

06 April, 2011

Blatant Yet Heartfelt Product Placement For SodaStream USA

Meet my friend, the Penguin. We got together a few months ago over an earnest conversation with my family about the role of Cola Addiction and High Fructose Corn Syrup in my life. You might call it an intervention, but I think I'll stick with earnest conversation. I freely admit that I am powerless over sugary fizzy drinks. I was one of those kids raised by parents who put discount grocery soda in my baby bottle. (It was cheaper than milk and I seemed to like it.) Soda and I, we go way back. Caffeine  was my close friend, aluminum cans littered my life like beer bottles after a frat party. I would talk to my kids about soda like other parents do about beer. "That's for grown-ups, honey. Get away from Mommy's stash." Just like kids everywhere, things for grown ups took on an impossible allure. Soda was the most desired item on the planet.

It was time to quit.

That lasted about three days. Maybe two if we're honest about it. I actually snuck out of the house to buy and drink a soda. Really, it was like that. I started to get defensive. What's wrong with a little sugar? A little carbonation? Who was I hurting? Pepsi Throwback didn't even use HFCS. Meanwhile, I was getting caffeine shakes and stockpiling cans against future shortages. My girlfriend Amy suggested I get a SodaStream because she lost like, a bajillion pounds cutting out commercial soda. Given that I'd rather skip food than soda (and ultimately deny myself neither) this had it's appeal. Instead of raising a generation of fat soda addicts, I could mix juice spritzers for the kids and sell it as soda. This was huge. Penguin and I hooked up.

SodaStream makes a line of flavors, but the organic ones were out of stock and the basic line was Splenda infested. (Hate Splenda. We had a bad night once.) Penguin and I came home to experiment. I discovered that a 1:5 ratio of orange juice to seltzer makes a pretty outstanding Orangina clone. I stuck to carbonated juices for about three weeks before my eye started to wander. Orangina is delicious and all, but what about a nice lemon lime? Perhaps a slightly sweeter taste.... I was off to the world of flavoring syrups. I woke up a few days later with a litter of Torani syrups around me and a new understanding of the Swedish affinity for Lingonberries. Suddenly I realized I was off the caffeine, my garage was ant free and I hadn't hauled the recycling bin out for over a month. That was a lot of consumer waste avoided by keeping a pitcher of cold water on hand for carbonating.

I still wasn't going to come here and let my addiction flag fly, this is a book blog. You're here for the reading. Two things happened. The first was an offer to review a Soda Cookbook. Seriously! A book on how to actually make soda from a pile of sugar and a dream? Count me in! The second was a school fundraiser. With donations down a call had been made to find desirable items for a silent auction. I am all about the kids having toilet paper and crayons, but our taxes don't pay for glue sticks, let alone fresh markers to sniff. With so many of the parents shopping at the Whole Foods or the Greenwise or the Gourmet Good For You markets, why did I find out about SodaStream from a friend in the (insert regional shudder) North? Obviously our market was underserved. (Do you know how much I've heard about Mona Vie and Acai berries? This isn't a market to keep fads to itself.)

Under the "all they can do is say no" theory I sent out tweets and emails. Nora Roberts stepped up. So did Alina B. Klein. The book community is a generous one. Before the hour was up I was feeling pretty good about the first round of solicitation when suddenly both my tweet and my email were answered. SodaStream would be happy to donate a Genesis unit with a dozen or so syrups for the kids to auction off. Not only was SodaStream my new best friend, they also believe in kids having tissues and construction paper and fresh pencils. As I expected, parents from the two schools were unfamiliar with and intrigued by the product. I bid pretty high myself (hey, I need one at my brother's house, don't I?) but I didn't win. I felt bad taking attention away from the truly amazing Angry Birds cake someone crafted, but an Angry Birds cake is for an evening - SodaStream is more of a long term relationship. I offered to review the product at Amazon and both my blogs, which SodaStream said wasn't necessary, but was awesome. Since I think the product and their donation policy is several shades of awesome, I'm breaking my book only policy to talk soda. Ask me anything soda related, I'll answer in crazy obsessive detail.

I hear this product works great with booze too, but I have kids. If I started drinking alcohol I'd never stop.

04 April, 2011

Review: Ice by Ice-T and Douglas Century

I just want you to read this book.

Simple as.

If you're American you probably know Ice-T as either an actor, a rapper or as a symbol for what's wrong with the country. I think we need to flip that over and look at Ice as a symbol of what's right with our country. Ice is every American myth distilled into one man. Orphaned? Check. Troubled relationship with remaining family? Check. Lived in a war zone and / or wore our uniform? Check that twice. Self made man? Strong personal values? Honest about his faults? Works with our youth? Faced down political enemies? Willing to compromise? Strong work ethic? Whatever you've got on that Great American list you can go ahead and check it off. I have long respected Ice-T, but if the book was bad I'd tell you straight. So would he.

It's not. Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption-from South Central to Hollywood (who titled this thing?) is fantastic. It's his voice, it's his story, it's uncompromising, and it's valuable. If you pay attention, you might learn something. Plenty of people have judged Ice without really knowing much about him. Was he a criminal? Yes. I would argue that there are any number of criminals respected in this nation, and Ice is far more honest than most in repudiating the sins of his youth. He's also a man capable of facing down the right and left when his career was hijacked to serve political interests. Faced with a public stoning, he reinvented himself and thrived. (Even at the time I found it ironic that the man doing the most to speak out against gang violence and thug life was being demolished as a symbol of the same. America, bunch of idiots, God love us.) 

If nothing else, it's a good read. If you pay attention, it's a real look at how America eats it's own and what a person with integrity can do to stay ahead of the mob.