June 1, 2017

Review: The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction

View From the Cheap Seats By Neil Gaiman
Available now from William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

I can't quite remember if I was in junior high or high school when I first read a Neil Gaiman novel. I remember instantly searching through the library for more, because I was hooked. I remember, on a school trip in eleventh grade, barely beating out a good friend for a signed copy of ANANSI BOYS. I saw it on the bookshelf first and grabbed it with alacrity; my then boyfriend paid for it. I let my friend read it once I was done (and another friend besides); I have never believed in collecting things that I won't actually use. I've since bought a more practical ebook for rereading, but I rest more easily knowing my signed copy has been loved.

As a long time fan, I know that Gaiman has experience with nonfiction, having worked as a reporter. The pieces in THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS are not reportage, but a collection of speeches, articles, essays, and introductions. They're taken from throughout his career and organized loosely within subjects, not chronologically. I personally found myself hopping from subject to subject, looking though the table of contents for which titles appealed most to me. I have only ever been a sporadic reader of nonfiction, and I tended to wander away from THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS if I read too much on one topic at once.

Many fans will be familiar with several of the pieces in THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS. Even non-fans are likely familiar with "Make Good Art," which is also available for purchase on its own. But there was certainly plenty I'd never read, from conferences I'd never attended and publications I'd never purchased and things that were simply written before that nebulous year that I first picked up a Neil Gaiman novel. I appreciated that there was context included for each piece, although the details available varied. The who and when a piece was written for are important, and I wish those snippets of context were at the beginning of each piece instead of the end, but I did like that they were included at all.

Gaiman has an easy manner to his nonfiction. There are some lovely turns of phrase, but it is approachable and friendly. It's a tone that feels thoughtful but not pretentious. (Not that a little pretension doesn't slip in here and there. I think any author has those slips of pretension, however.) I also loved coming across with gems in old material such as, "[The novel] has a working title of American Gods (which is not what the book will be called, but what it is about." 19 years later we know that not only did the novel stay titled AMERICAN GODS, but it is now a TV show by the same name as well. Sometimes the working title sticks, even though that wasn't the plan. There's no special attention brought to the line, since there is no commentary, but it still leapt out to me. Such lines are insights into Gaiman's process that go beyond the intentional.

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS is an entertaining read for Gaiman fans. Non-fans might find some pieces interesting, especially the ones about Gaiman's relationships with other authors. Mostly, though, I think this is a book for the fans. But it is not a cheap cash in on their interest. There's good material, not all of it readily available, presented well. I enjoyed reading it.


May 16, 2017

Review: Signs and Seasons: An Astrology Cookbook

Signs & Seasons By Amy Zerner and Monte Farber with Chef John Okas
Available now from HarperElixir (HarperCollins)
Review copy

SIGNS & SEASONS is a cookbook arranged around astrology signs and the astronomical seasons. There's a foreword explaining how these two things work together; a section on how each sign relates to eating, cooking, and entertaining; and each seasonal recipe section contains more astrological explanation. I ignored most of this, because I consider astrology ridiculous.

The first words in the cookbook are: Are you looking to find epicurean as well as spiritual satisfaction? Do you want to make meals not only a time of communion with family and friends but also an opportunity to deepen your understanding of your appetite and how it connects you to the cycle of the seasons and thus to nature and the very universe itself?

This is obviously tosh of the highest order. But there's plenty of sensible nuggets throughout, like this note on entertaining: Food allergies and sensitivities can affect anyone. Astrology aside, if you entertain, proper etiquette dictates that there be something on the table for everyone to enjoy. Asking your dinner guests beforehand about what they do and do not eat is the most reliable way to do this. This is excellent advice. As the authors did not ask me what I do and do not eat, three of the eight Pisces recipes are not to my taste.

The general Pisces description named several foods I love, especially flounder, spinach, and sweet potato. And I will admit to being sentimental. They also hit it dead on with Spaghetti alla Carbonara for my pasta. Cheese, cured meat, and black pepper are all far more to my taste than tomato. I was quite satisfied with this version of the classic.

I wanted to try SIGNS & SEASONS because I enjoy cookbooks divided based on the foods that are  in season. It's wonderful that we can grow many crops year round now, but out-of-season crops rarely taste the same. Each season is divided into starters, seafood, salads, meat, pasta, sides, vegetarian, and desserts with a recipe of each type for each of the three star signs found in that season.

This suited my purposes well, but astrology fans might find it disappointed. For example, there is no guide to cooking for a Taurus year round (except for the general advisory in front); the only focus is in the spring. Seasonal food fans can skip over the hookum, but astrology fans can't will additional content into existence.

SIGNS & SEASONS is a beautiful cookbook. There are borders and sign illustrations throughout, and each seasonal section begins with a four-color insert with a beautiful astrological and seasonal-inspired illustrations and pictures of each recipe. The recipes themselves focus on Greco-Roman food, to tie in to the astrological theme. It's a good choice for narrowing the focus but still providing a broad range of foods. (I am definitely making Sriracha Salmon Cakes and Coconut-Peach Crisp.)

I think the astrological aspect of SIGNS & SEASONS silly, but it has entertainment value and there are many it will appeal too. This cookbook would make a good gift for any astrology fan. What matters is that SIGNS & SEASONS delivers where it counts: solid recipes for the home cook. These recipes call for fresh ingredients, which can be intimidating, but the instructions are simple and delivered in clear language. Combined with the seasonal organization, this is a practical cookbook to have in one's kitchen.


May 1, 2017

Movie Monday: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

I am a massive geek for everything to do with the Matter of Britain, so it was a foregone conclusion I'd go to see King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Getting to see an early screening at the local AMC was a bonus.

I wasn't sure about Guy Ritchie doing King Arthur, since his focus tends to be fast-talking criminal sorts and hyperkinetic action. I found, however, that his style meshed well with the subject. His King Arthur does grow up a fast-talking criminal, in the manner of an ambitious boy who grew up with nothing. There are many moments of gloriously daffy banter, and many montages set to hard-driving music that keep the epic story moving along swiftly.

Let me tell you, I'm not one who usually notices scores, but I am buying this soundtrack. It's percussive, hooky, and will get your pulse pumping.



Charlie Hunnam is a good fit for Arthur. He's got a natural confidence that meshes well with leadership roles. He also seems very grounded, which makes him a great foil for the theatrics of the villain King Vortigern, played by Jude Law. I think Law was having a great deal of fun playing a ruthless, cruel man who would nonetheless like to believe that his people love as well as fear him. There's a nice touch of vulnerability to his performance. I honestly wish they shared more scenes.

The supporting cast is also quite game, including the always fantastic Djimon Hounsou, although I wish the story involved more women. Neither of the most famous women of King Arthur legend make an appearance in Legend of the Sword. There are clear hooks for a sequel, but surely there was room for Guinevere or Morgan to make an appearance? (For trivia buffs, Katie McGrath played Morgana in BBC's Merlin and has a small role in this film.) The mage is cool, and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey plays not-quite-human very well, but I'd have loved more women as main characters.

This is not a serious take on the legend, nor one that plays true to the most common tales. But it is a fun movie, and one that understands the heart of the story.  King Arthur brings all parts of society together, and ushers in a rule of equality and respect. That's a bit of escapism I can get behind.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens May 11.

April 20, 2017

#ProjectReadathon

To celebrate UNESCO's World Book Day, Penguin Random House is hosting a readathon through April 23th.

All you have to do is read from the excerpts available on their #ProjectReadathon website. The more you read, the more books Penguin Random House donates to Save the Children.

For more information about Save the Children or on how to double your impact, see About #ProjectReadathon.

I know I'll take advantage of this chance to try out some books for free and help children access books to read for pleasure.

March 10, 2017

Review: Labyrinth Lost

Labyrinth Lost Brooklyn Brujas, Book 1
By Zoraida Córdova
Available now from Sourcebooks Fire
Review copy

Zoraida Córdova's The Vicious Deep trilogy is my favorite thing to come from the mermaid mini-trend in YA. I knew I wanted to read her next YA urban fantasy novel, so I was sold on LABYRINTH LOST even before I saw the gorgeous cover.

LABYRINTH LOST did lose me a little at the beginning. Alex is a bruja with great potential, about to step into her full power at her Deathday celebration. But she doesn't want the power, because she believes her power drove her father away. (I found it obvious that this wasn't the full truth, but it is understandable that Alex can't see past the trauma of childhood abandonment.) When she meets a mysterious hot boy named Nova who promises he can help her get rid of her powers, she instantly believes him. No one but Alex is surprised when the spell he gives her goes horribly awry.

Once Alex, Nova, and her non-magical best friend Rishi travel to the liminal Los Lagos to rescue Alex's family, I was fully onboard. I loved the quest through a magical, dangerous land filled with strange people who could be enemies or allies and had their own motivations and stories. But the journey to that point was a slog, with Alex making one obvious bad decision after another.

I'm pretty sure when I reread LABYRINTH LOST I'll skip over most of the beginning. Because the rest of the novel, honestly, was exactly what I wanted. I'd even idly thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if X happened?" and the book delivered. LABYRINTH LOST even recovers from the lame, cliche bad boy setup and develops a believable romance with sparkling chemistry.

I also found the world Córdova creates fascinating. Her brujas are of her own creation, and they stand out from the usual crowd since she syncretizes various Latin American myths and folklore. Fans of Daniel José Older's SHADOWSHAPER and Bone Street Rumba novels will find much to love. 

The beginning had me worried, but I was write to trust that Córdova would deliver a book that I found enthralling. I am eagerly awaiting the second Brooklyn Brujas novel.

March 7, 2017

Cybils 2016: Graphic Novel Winners

The Cybils announced the 2016 winners on February 14th; I apologize for only posting now.

This year I had the honor of serving as a second-round judge (for the first time!) in the Elementary/Middle Grade and Young Adult Graphic Novels categories. Choosing a winner from the finalists was difficult, because graphic novels are such a broad category. How do you compare an excellent fantasy work to a moving memoir to charming adventure story? Somehow, we managed.

You can look at the finalists' lists to see the excellent works we had to read and vote on:
Elementary/Middle Grade
Young Adult

In the end, our winners were:

Lowriders to the Center of the EarthElementary/Middle Grade

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth (Lowriders in Space, Book 2)
By Cathy Camper; illustrated by Raúl the Third

I wrote our blurb about why we chose Lowriders as our winner:

Lupe Impala, Elirio Malaria, and El Chavo Flapjack are back in an adventure that takes them to the underworld of Mictlantecuhtli. When their beloved cat Genie goes missing from their auto shop, they go on a quest to find her—and her epic true identity, as it turns out. Their quest takes them on a tour through Latin pop culture, from el chupacabra and La Llorona to lucha libre wrestling. Bad puns delivered in two languages abound, and every panel (inked in ball point pen!) is bursting with visual detail that adds to the story. This unique art, by Raúl the Third, brings to mind diverse influences such as graffiti, tattoos, and thirties cartoons. The clean lines and busy scenes are a perfect companion to a story that twists and turns while remaining approachable for elementary readers. Unlike the Lowriders themselves, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth is never bajito y suavecito (low and slow). The cultural and linguistic lessons are woven seamlessly into a fast-moving adventure that will entertain readers of all ages.

March: Book Three Young Adult

March: Book Three
By John Lewis and Andrew Aydin; illustrated by Nate Powell

You can visit the list of winners to see our blurb about this powerful work.

I thought March: Book Three was a strong conclusion to the trilogy as well as a work that can stand on its own, capped by tragedy and success. It is both informative and personal, and shows how the Freedom Summer, Selma marches, and other fights for Civil Rights are more relevant than ever. At points it feels less like history and more like a timely call to action.

March 6, 2017

Movie Monday: Logan

Logan As a superhero movie fan, I couldn't resist going out opening weekend to see the final X-Men movie featuring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier.

Logan is set in the future of 2029, where many mutants have died off and none are being born. Tired of his long life and poisoned from the inside, Logan is working as a chauffeur across the Mexico-Texas border to provide from himself and the aging Professor X. Age is interacting with Charles' telepathic powers in deadly ways; when he has a seizure, everyone around freezes in pain. But Logan can't abandon the man who has been like a father to him.

Of course, a wrench has to be thrown into the works. That wrench is Laura, or X-23, an eleven-year-old mutant with suspiciously familiar powers being tracked down by government goons.

Don't go into Logan expecting slick bombast. James Mangold has taken clear inspiration from westerns, most obviously the classic Shane. It's an elegiac film, albeit one that does have plenty of brutal action scenes and sprinklings of humor. Since Deadpool proved to Fox that R-rated superhero films can make buckets of money, Logan leans into its higher rating. The violence is bloody and the language is salty.

I enjoyed seeing two of my favorite characters playing off of each other, and Dafne Keen as Laura works perfectly in the mix. She's an adorable ball of rage with flowered sunglasses who spends over half the movie communicating only in grunts. When she does finally speak, she still accompanies it with a punch to help Logan get over his self-pity. (And let me say that I appreciate Logan's linguistic efforts. Characters born in Mexico speak Spanish.)

 Logan is a moving film about the regrets of the past and the hopes of the future. It also happens to feature Wolverine vs. Wolverine action, for the best of both worlds. I don't think fans of these characters will be disappointed.

January 21, 2017

Guest Post: 12 Ideas to Help Harness the Power and Magic of Hugs

Laura Duksta, author of I'LL HUG YOU MORE, has a special message to share for National Hug Day.

Where are My Huggers At? 12 Ideas to Help Harness the Power and Magic of HUGS 


1. HUGS... wondering what you can do to foster healthy self-esteem in your children, HUG THEM, it creates a sense of connection and belonging which they’ll take with them into the classroom and out into the world.

2. HUGS allow us to love and to be loved, and to feel connected, some say these are the reasons for our existence.

3. HUGS can shift our energy. An upset child can often be comforted by taking a few deep breaths, meeting them at their height and offering a hug until their upset subsides. This works the other way too, a child often senses when you’re upset, let them come in and give you a hug. Hugs can remind us what’s important and help us regain perspective.

I'll Hug You More 4. HUGS can express empathy, by saying “I’m with you,” “I understand what you’re going through,” “We’re in this together,” “You matter,” “I’m here for you.”

5. HUGS heal. Researchers have only scratched the surface in studying the heart’s electromagnetic waves. When we connect in a heart to heart hug there’s a chance were harnessing the most powerful ‘medicine’ of all.

6. HUGS can help put a smile on our face as well as our heart. As a friend shared, “Hugs make me smile on the inside and out.”

7. HUGS help generate oxytocin which reduces stress producing hormones. Hugs also release dopamine which give us a feel good feeling and helps to motivate us.

8. HUGS ... a healthy dose, says family therapist Virginia Satir, “We need four hugs a day for survival, eight hugs a day for maintenance, and twelve hugs a day for growth.”


9. HUGS are a one powerful way to experience the healing and nurturing power of touch, but there are others, consider a mani/pedi or a massage. Not quite ready for human touch, test out the power and magic found in hugging a tree!

10. HUGS are perfect by design. We live in a universe of duality where we have support and challenge, happiness and sadness, health and sickness, winning and losing, though experiencing these things at different times often knocks us off balance. A HUG is the perfect gift where we share the power of giving and receiving simultaneously.

11. HUGS connect us soul to soul. They’re a universal language we all can understand.

12. HUGS can say “Hello” and “Good-Bye,” “I’ll Miss You,” “Thank You,” “I’m Sorry,” and more, and underneath it all every hug says “I love you.”

13. HUGS BONUS .... your biggest benefits will come from 20 second HUGS, so extend your heart and your arms, take your time and make it count!

January 11, 2017

Review: Fudge and Jury

Fudge and Jury The fifth Bakeshop Mystery
By Ellie Alexander
Available now from St. Martin's
Review copy

Ashland, Oregon is a small town that's built up a Shakespearean tourist industry, as well as an annual chocolate festival. As the co-owner of Torte, Ashland's resident bakeshop, Jules is cooking on all burners. She's considering expanding the business, and using the festival as a chance to renovate her current storefront. She's also got a couple of guys vying for her attention, but she's not ready to move on from her estranged husband.

When Evan Rowe, the infamously mean owner of Confections Couture, dies of an allergic reaction during the festival, everyone suspects foul play. The desserts he was served were supposedly nut free. Jules would be interested in the case just to clear her own name, but her friend Lance pushes her to become even more involved in probing for answers. As is the case in many mysteries where the victim is a real jerk, there's a plurality of suspects.

I haven't read the previous four Bakeshop Mysteries, but I was able to dive right into this tale. There is some exposition at the beginning about Jules' business and husband which helped me understand the basics of the setting, although it made me think Jules' husband would actually show up in the story. The series has a fairly standard cozy mystery set up, which made stepping into the series in the middle still feel familiar.

What I found stood out about FUDGE & JURY is the importance of Jules' career. Her professional development often overtook the murder mystery as the most important part of the book. I don't think that's a bad thing, since there's a new murder per book but investment in Jules is what will keep readers coming back. I know I'm thinking about checking out the previous four books from the library. I find that most cozy mysteries are centered around hobbies, or people starting new careers, so it was unusual to read one about a woman who is excelling in her field and finding increasing success.

I thought the cast was likeable. The array of romantic options seemed like a bit much, although Ellie Alexander sold the scene where Jules turns one of her suitors down. I felt for the guy and appreciated how maturely Jules handled the situation, by making her feelings clear but being compassionate. That's always a rough situation.

The details of the various confections are lush and mouth-watering. I know I wanted some chocolate pasta of my own! (And I greatly enjoyed Jules' defense of cocoa-powder based brownies. This Smitten Kitchen recipe proves they don't have to be grainy.) The solution to the mystery surprised me, and will certainly make me more careful about serving one of my favorite sauces to guests. The denouement happened quickly, since FUDGE & JURY does focus on so much more than the mystery, but I found the clever solution satisfying.

I have one copy to give away. US only, 13 and up.



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