Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jane Eyre Approximately

Team Edward  ROCHESTER

There haven't been a lot of Jane Eyre adaptations (thank god) when compared to other classic novels like Pride & Prejudice; but there are a few! Here are some I've personally come across:

jenna starborn cover
Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn
Sharon Shinn is one of my favorite authors, and Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books, so you can imagine my excitement when I heard about this novel. If you just read the summary and not the book itself, it might seem like Shinn did a good job of adapting Jane Eyre to a sci-fi setting; but in practice I didn't see what the point of Jenna Starborn was, because it was so similar to the original.

nine coaches waiting cover
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
This is probably one of the best adaptations I've read, although it still falls short of the original. One of the reasons it's good is that Stewart is a neogothic writer, so her writing style is already perfectly suited to an adaptation of Jane Eyre. Another point in her favor is that she definitely puts her own spin on the story and adapts it to a contemporary (at the time) setting.

rebecca cover
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Du Maurier is another neogothic suspense novelist whose style is perfectly suited to putting her own twist on Jane Eyre. Rebecca is more of an "inspired by" than "copied after" adaptation. Like Stewart, du Maurier lets her own characters and setting move the story, not the original Jane Eyre.

Jane cover
Jane by April Lindner (review here)
In this version, Mr. Rochester is a rock star. It's very Jane Eyre-lite, but was enjoyable, if totally ridiculous.

Jane Slayre cover
Jane Slayre by Sherri Browning Erwin
I've seen this book around and have managed to avoid it. I suppose I could be persuaded to try it if someone told me it was good, but I haven't seen any reviews of it.

flight of gemma hardy cover
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
This is another novel where I'm not really sure what the point of writing it was. It's very similar to Jane Eyre in the plotting, but with none of the great characters and emotions that come with the original.

Have you read any adaptations of Jane Eyre?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Cheese Please!

a mouse's dream

According to Chuck Hughes from Chuck's Day Off, there is a renaissance of artisan cheese making happening in America right now, and I really have to agree with him. In the '80s it seemed like there were only three kinds of cheese: Velveeta, Kraft, and Philadelphia. Admittedly I was pretty young in the '80s, so my recollection might not be that great, but nowadays you can get so many different specialty cheeses in the grocery store. That definitely wasn't around when I was a kid.

When I was living in Oklahoma, there was a fromagerie--aka cheese shop--in the town I lived in, and I started to become obsessed with all trying all the different types of cheeses that were available. Then, while watching The Big Cheese one night, I started to wonder if there was a way to make cheese in a home kitchen. Although I doubted it (I figured you needed raw milk and specialized equipment I definitely wasn't going to buy), I put the question out on twitter. I probably could have googled it, but sometimes I just like to ask questions on twitter to see what will happen. Sandy from You've Gotta Read This said she'd just gotten a book called Artisan Cheese Making at Home that looked like something I'd be interested in.

artisan cheese making cover

My library had it. Yay! This book has absolutely fabulous, delicious-looking photographs that make me crave cheese like a crazy person, and recipes for everything from marscapone cheese to Stilton; as well as yogurt, butter, and recipes for dishes to make with your home-made cheeses. It's also very informative about the types of cheeses you can make and starts out with the easier stuff (ricotta, butter, yogurt, etc.).

That being said, I had the same problem with this book that I did with many of the bread-making books I looked at last year: even though the recipes are scaled-back for home kitchens, they still require a lot of special equipment and ingredients. In other words, it's written by a chef (Mary Karlin, in this case) who is writing what are "simple recipes" from the perspective of a chef, which is still way more time, money, and work than the average person wants to put into it.

pear galette

Just for example, Karlin's recipes are in what she calls "small batches" of ONE OR TWO POUNDS of cheese. Do you know how long it would take my family to eat a whole pound of cheese, assuming they would even agree to eat it? That is not a practical-sized batch for the average household. Another pet peeve of mine: her butter recipe requires a food processor, which 1. isn't listed in the required equipment chapter, probably because she just assumes EVERYONE must have a food processor; and 2. is something I don't have. Even Karlin's simplest recipes require ingredients I've never heard of. Take the ingredients for her ricotta recipe, one of the first in the book:
1 gallon pasteurized or raw whole cow's milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon citric acid powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
What the heck is citric acid powder? How many people just have that sitting in their cupboard? The recipe also calls for sterilized equipment, nonreactive-strainers, -bowls, and -pots, and butter muslin instead of cheese cloth. Cuz that's totally necessary.

Fortunately, Sandy also gave me a link to a simpler ricotta recipe she found in Food & Wine magazine by Helm Sinskey; otherwise I never would have attempted to make cheese. By comparison, this recipe uses easily-found ingredients and the batch is 1/2 the size of Karlin's:

    1.    2 quarts whole milk, preferably organic
    2.    1 cup heavy cream, preferably organic
    3.    3 tablespoons white vinegar
    4.    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

    1.    In a medium pot, warm the milk and cream over moderately high heat until the surface becomes foamy and steamy and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the milk registers 185°; don't let the milk boil [note: at high altitudes, milk will boil at this point. wah-wah]. Remove the pot from the heat. Add the vinegar and stir gently for 30 seconds; the mixture will curdle almost immediately. Add the salt and stir for 30 seconds longer. Cover the pot with a clean towel and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours.

    2.    Line a large colander with several layers of cheesecloth, allowing several inches of overhang. Set the colander in a large bowl. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the colander. Carefully gather the corners of the cheesecloth and close with a rubber band. Let the ricotta stand for 30 minutes, gently pressing and squeezing the cheesecloth occasionally to drain off the whey. Transfer the ricotta to a bowl and use at once, or cover and refrigerate.

Make Ahead The fresh ricotta can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.
Notice that this recipe also uses less salt and more cream than Karlin's. I followed this recipe (halving it), and it turned out fabulous! Very fluffy and creamy. It takes about three hours to make, but only thirty or so minutes of that requires your attention. Here are some pictures:

Making the cheese:

making cheese

Of course, once I'd made the ricotta, I had to figure out what to do with it. Here are some of my recipe attempts:


I decided to make this after Memory from Stella Matutina said she liked ricotta with honey. This has honey and pepper sprinkled over it. It was okay, but a little bland, and not very filling.


I got this recipe from Real Simple. It's ricotta, butter, lemon zest, parsley, tarragon, and chives. I added a ton of herbs and pepper, but it was still very bland--okay, but definitely missing something.


This bruschetta was pretty good. I squeezed out the tomato's juices into the bread, then chopped the tomatoes, which made them easier to eat. The basil and prosciutto added a lot of flavor.


This is a pretty similar recipe to the bruschetta, but adapted for pizza. This was by far the best of the snacks I made. The only thing I would change is to add more tomato paste.

I also wanted to try making a dessert with the ricotta, and chose this recipe from Noshtopia for ricotta chocolate pudding. I had my doubts about turning cheese into a chocolate pudding, but it was really good!

So that was my cheese-making experience. It went pretty well (I count any cooking experiment that doesn't end with me in the ER a success at this point), and I am definitely encouraged to try to make different cheeses and butter. However, I don't think I'll be trying the recipes in Artisan Cheese Making at Home any time soon. They probably do taste better than the very basic cheese and butter recipes I've found so far, but I'm looking for easy at this point. It's a great resource if you're an experienced cook ready to put a lot of time, patience, energy, and money into making cheeses; but I think for the average person it's more like a book of food porn than something for practical use.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Love Is a Leap

Does anyone besides me remember The Butcher's Wife (the trailer is too cute!)? It's a romantic comedy from the '90s starring Demi Moore and Jeff Daniels. Demi plays a clairvoyant named Marina who travels to New York City with her new husband, a butcher. Her husband is freaked about Marina's ability to see into the future, so he sends her to a psychiatrist played by Jeff Daniels. It has so many elements that I love in a story: charm, humor, a sense of community, destiny, clairvoyance, self-discovery, and love of course. It's what so many romcoms strive to achieve but never do.

There are tons of great lines in this film, but the one that's stuck in my head the most is "Love is a leap that won't be denied." TOTALLY CHEESY, I know, but it must have permanently affected my prepubescent brain, because I completely buy into that concept. Not necessarily in real life--the jury's still out on that one--but narratively? Heck yeah.

the butcher's wife

Think about it: how much does denial really build romantic tension in stories? Personally, I hate that trope, especially when the characters deny their attraction for no good reason. Then eventually all obstacles are removed and they still STILL deny it (I'm looking at you, Castle and Bones), because the writers are under the mistaken belief that if their characters don't get together, then all romantic tension will be lost.

The thing is, people in general want to do things to ensure their own happiness. And typically being in a loving relationship does equate to happiness on some level. Ipso facto, one expects characters to take the chance on love at some point no matter the obstacles, external or internal, put in their path. There comes a point where the dithering grows tiresome and they have to either leap or find new fuel for the fire, and if that point passes with no action on the characters' part, the "romantic tension" becomes bullshit no one can buy into anymore.

I think that's one of the things I like most about The Butcher's Wife--the characters leap. Sometimes in the wrong direction, but they take chances because they think it will make them happy. Occasionally I worry that we've become a society so afraid of taking chances, we're even too afraid to write about what might happen when you do.

What words of wisdom have you taken away from romantic comedies?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: SILENT IN THE GRAVE by Deanna Raybourn

silent in the grave cover

"To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."
Thus begins Silent in the Grave, a book that people have been recommending to me for years. It took a while, but I finally got around to it and they were right--Silent in the Grave is exactly the kind of novel I enjoy.

Lady Julia Grey is a young widow. When Nicholas Brisbane approaches her to suggest that her husband, who had always been sickly, was murdered, she dismisses the idea immediately. Almost a year later, however, she finds a threatening note in her husband's office and realizes Brisbane was right. Can she and Brisbane manage to find out who poisoned Lord Edward with almost no clues to speak of? It wouldn't be much of a mystery if they didn't, now would it?

The beginning of Silent in the Grave was fabulous--very atmospheric and morbid, but in a humorous way, like an Edward Gorey painting. I loved Lady Julia's voice (the novel is told in first person), and I am a total sucker for books where the hero and heroine argue, which Julia and Brisbane did quite a lot of. I had no idea how they were going to discover the murderer, but I wanted to find out!

That being said, the book started to lose me in the middle. I guessed who the killer was less than a third of the way into the story; Lady Julia began acting inconsistently, occasionally behaving like an idiot for the sake of dragging out clue reveals; and I didn't get any chemistry between her and Brisbane once they stopped fighting. WHY do they always have to stop fighting? Plus, Julia does tend to go on a bit. I started to skim through some sections.

Toby Stephens as Brisbane?

Brisbane is an interesting character, kind of a combination between Sherlock Holmes and Heathcliffe. But for some reason he didn't really interest me that much. Mainly all he does is brood (I'm sure he does other things, but while he's on the page it's mainly brooding). The clairvoyance struck me as cheesy rather than mysterious, and I guessed at his origins almost immediately.

Julia, meanwhile, is supposed to be going through a transformation into her own woman and all that good stuff, but I found the evidence of this was pretty shallow. A deep-cut dress does not a liberated woman make; just ask Marilyn Monroe. For the most part Julia remains as conventional as she was at the start of the story. I did like that she found nearly all the clues in the investigation; but then she does live in the house, and it took her long enough. Her family and her servants, on the other hand, were hilarious and awesome, and I wish they had had a more active role in the investigation.

So there were definitely some weak points in the story, and I'm not sure I want to continue reading the series--not because the book was bad, by any means, but because at this point I'm still not invested in Julia and Brisbane as characters, and I'm not sure I can handle another round of Julia wanting-Brisbane-to-pay-attention-to-her-but-really-not-that-much-attention. For the most part, however, I did enjoy this novel, if only for the fabulous Victorian feel of it, and I'm really glad I finally took the time to read it!

Musical Notes: "Blue Jeans" by Lana del Rey

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Weekend Cooking Review: THE FOUNDING FOODIES by Dave DeWitt

founding foodies cover

I was SO excited about Founding Foodies when I first saw it. I heart cultural history of any sort, whether it addresses dance, art, cooking, literature, film--you name it. Not to mention that one of my favorite things to eat is mac & cheese, and one of my favorite things to think about while making it is that Thomas Jefferson served the first dish of macaroni and cheese. How cool is that? In a way it ties me and Thomas Jefferson together. As a result, I've always been curious about Jefferson and his pals, and how their legacy can be found in food as well as politics. Since many of the men involved in the American Revolution were tavern owners and farmers, it stands to reason they knew their food.

Founding Foodies purports to tell us about the beginnings of "America's diverse food culture," as well as give us original Founding Father recipes like George Washington's beer and Martha Washington's fruitcake. How fun is that?! Unfortunately, the answer is not very fun at all, because this book fails on practically every level imaginable.

My high expectations of Founding Foodies started to plummet in the introduction. Perhaps it's just my years of being in school, but I expect the introduction of a non-fiction book to summarize the topic, lay out the central argument or point of the book, and provide a brief run-down of how that point is going to be made. What was in Dave DeWitt's intro? First, he talks about why he likes Jefferson (he went to the University of Virginia), and then he spends the rest of the introduction defining the terms "foodie" and "founding father." This was worrisome because both of these terms are generally understood by the North American public; so either we as readers are being talked down to, or DeWitt does not know what the fridge he is talking about.

Things, shockingly, did not improve from there. The first chapter doesn't start with the Founding Fathers at all, but with Sir Walter Raleigh, and it takes PAGES before food is even mentioned. The timeline jumps all over the place, from 1492 to 1850, and there is no central argument or point to be had anywhere in this book. Take the chapter on Thomas Jefferson, for example (I was sure DeWitt would at least manage a solid on this one, since he was such a self-professed Jeffersonian), which goes something like this: Thomas Jefferson, man of the world and lover of different cultures, founding foodie extraordinaire. Let's talk about him! Wait, let's talk about his slaves. He fed them! What a guy! Wait, let's talk about tomatoes. Now let's talk about ice cream, but let's discuss muffins while we're talking about that. Now let's talk about Jefferson's garden. What was his favorite vegetable? The debate rages. And why didn't we talk about tomatoes in this section? I don't know! UHG.

Even if there had been a point DeWitt was trying to make, the book is way too generalized to make it. Hey, did you know they served food at the White House? And people ate corn? It's true. They ate corn. I did like that DeWitt included a lot of information about what the slaves ate, but like much of the information in The Founding Foodies, it lacked a whole lot of context.

Furthermore, I really don't think DeWitt has any clue to what someone who would pick up a book like this would be looking for. Just as an example, at no point does he address the famous macaroni and cheese dish. If I've heard about it, it's got to be well-known; and it's one of America's favorite meals to this day. Yet there's NOTHING. ABOUT IT. ANYWHERE, other than a small note in the recipe section that Jefferson did serve a pasta dish with Parmesan cheese. No recipe, no date, no discussion. Does DeWitt know anything about his audience? Anything at all?


Frustrated, I flipped to the bibliography (there isn't a conclusion, which is probably for the best), and realized that was what I should have done in the first place, because many of DeWitt's sources are Wikipedia pages. HE LITERALLY CITES WIKIPEDIA AS A MAJOR SOURCE IN HIS BOOK! Not just a few times, but regularly. In the intro to the bibliography, DeWitt tries to excuse himself by saying he fact-checked Wikipedia to make sure it was correct. Oh, really?! You fact-checked Wikipedia? Why didn't you just use the sources you found while making sure Wikipedia was accurate then, hmmmmm?

To make it matters even worse, the writing style is stupefyingly boring. If I wasn't going to be put off by the total lack of logical organization and saddest excuse for research I have ever come across in a published book, the writing would do it. It's like reading the narration to a History Channel special, and I do not mean that in a good way.

So just to summarize: this author wrote a book that he basically researched using Google. And now we know why it sounds like he doesn't know what he's talking about: HE DOESN'T.

There are some books that make me wonder how on earth people get published, and this is one of them. Even the index is a piece of crap, that's how bad this book is. You can do better. Might I suggest Wikipedia?

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bookshelf Boredom

lolcat shelf

I was contemplating my bookshelves the other day (as I do every day), and I suddenly realized two things: one, I'm running out of space. Again. And two, my unread shelves hadn't really changed all that much since I did my last book purge/donation to the library, and it's beginning to look like it's time to do another one.

But why are my unread shelves so static? I don't read as much as some, certainly, but I do go through the books. One would think there'd be at least some change in my shelves. Then it hit me: most of the books on my bookshelves aren't books I bought. They're either books someone has loaned or given to me, or books I got for review. The books I most want to read and are excited about are usually books I get from the library (indeed, I'm reading a library book right now) because I can't afford to buy books.

Of the dozens of unread paper books I own, only a few are books I've bought for myself, and none of them are purchases made in the last year--maybe even longer than that. If I happen to buy a book these days, it's a 99-cent or $1.99 eBook (or, even better, a free eBook).

This is quite sad, no? It's no wonder I'm feeling bored with my bookshelves lately. But what should the solution be? Should I focus on reading all the books I've bought for myself and then weeding out the loans and gifts? I've already done that three or four times, and I do want to read most of the books people get me... eventually. There just aren't any books that I'm dying to read in my collection and it doesn't seem like there will be for a while.

What do your bookshelves consist of? Library books, books you own, or books people have given you?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick

wonderstruck cover

After reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was there any question of me picking up Brian Selznick's next book? Not really. Wonderstruck has very similar elements to Hugo Cabret: once again there's an orphan boy alone in a city, looking for answers about his father, and receiving help from another child. But in this case the setting is the American Museum of Natural History in 1977, not a 1930's Paris train station. Juxtaposed against Ben's story is that of Rose, a girl in 1927 New Jersey who runs away to New York City. Her story is told mostly in pictures.


Wonderstruck isn't as charming and doesn't have the same fantastical feel as Hugo Cabret, possibly because the setting is much more modern and closer to home (at least for this American reader). But I also think the way Selznick tells this particular story is grittier and more grounded in reality than Hugo Cabret was. We're more directly confronted with the death of Ben's mother than we were with that of Hugo's father, and the tools and clues Ben uses to reconnect with his father's past are much more practical. That's not to say I didn't enjoy Wonderstruck, but the tone is definitely different. While we can imagine Hugo and Isabelle cavorting among the stars in the bright lights of Paris, these characters remain firmly in the gutter, so to speak.


I loved the opening sequence of this book simply because it highlights what is so great about Selznick's novels: the illustrations aren't afterthoughts or superfluous, they really are an essential part of the book. In this case the illustrations at the beginning did a great job of pulling me right into the story, which I finished in about two hours. Selznick keeps you reading by switching between Rose's and Ben's story at the just the right moments so you want to find out what happens next, but not so often that you start to feel whiplashed.

One of the themes in Wonderstruck is that of collections and how they tell a story about the person who owns them. They're called mini-museums, and collectors are amateur curators. Ben owns a box filled with "treasures" that he carries with him and that reveals stories about his past. That made think about my own collections--to be honest I don't collect that much. I don't like spending money on things with no practical purpose; plus I never saw the point of gathering things that are just going to collect dust. The one notable exception is images--I "collect" images of St. George and the Dragon, for example, not by actually buying them (unless it's a postcard), but by writing down where I saw it and/or taking a photograph of it. It also seems like most of the trips I take develop image themes. The image theme for my trip to Washington DC, for instance, was boats. I suppose in a sense I am curating an museum of images in my mind, although I thought of it like that before.

In any case, I think this novel will inspire readers (adult readers, anyway) to look at their collections in different ways, and I do think it's a good book that's worth reading. I definitely wasn't disappointed.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Weekend Cooking Review: WHAT I EAT by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio

what i eat cover

Several months ago, when I reviewed What the World Eats by Menzel and D'Aluisio, Amanda Gignac suggested I try out What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets by the same authors. Although it contains similar content--photographs of what people eat from around the world--Amanda was totally right when she said that What I Eat is a lot better than What the World Eats. It has better photographs, essays, and doesn't have as many generalizations or preachy moments.

In What the World Eats, Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio photographed families from around the world with a week's worth of food, focusing on how much each family spent. Although it was an interesting idea, the format invited large generalizations. By comparison, What I Eat focuses on individuals and what they eat during the course of one day. This is much better, because it connects food more specifically to a person's lifestyle rather than their nationality. A trucker, for example, logically gets most of his/her food from gas stations and fast food restaurants and needs something that can be eaten one-handed; a German biermeister is obviously going to drink a lot of beer!

curtis newcomer

The book is organized by how many calories each person eats in a day. I really had no idea what the average calorie intake for an individual was before I started reading this book, but it seems like most people eat between 2200 and 3000 calories per day. Below 2000 calories is mostly athletes who need to be light (my aunt, a competitive rower, once told me she limited herself to 1200 calories a day during racing season--now I know just how low that is!), extreme dieters, workaholics who don't have time to eat, or people living in poverty. Even the fashion model Menzel and D'Aluisio photographed, Mariel Booth, eats 2400 calories a day. One might think that at the other end of the spectrum--people who eat 4000 calories or more per day--there would also be athletes who need energy. But actually, this group is almost entirely made up of men who work outdoors, particularly cold outdoors--with the notable exception of an English housewife who binge eats at 12,000+ calories.

If there's one thing I've learned from this book, though, it's that how many calories you eat doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with how much you weigh, despite what we hear on television. Viahondjera Musutua from Namibia eats about 1500 calories a day and weighs 160 pounds, while João Agustinho Cardoso from Brazil eats more than three times as much--5200 calories a day--yet weighs twenty pounds less! How many calories a dish has and how much food you're actually getting through it also seems to vary wildly: even though extreme dieters Rick Bumgardener and Mackenzie Wolfson eat less than 2000 calories a day, there seems to be a lot more food in their calories than there is in Chinese student Chen Zhen's 2600.

Viahondjera Musutua

Part of the reason, as explained in Bijal P. Trivedi's excellent essay "The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Calorie," is that all calories are not created equal. When calories were "discovered" by Wilbur Olin Atwater in the 19th century, he was basically looking for a way to measure the amount of energy a person can get from food. But each calorie is made up of different values and behaves differently depending on what you do to it (processing, cooking, etc.), so what exactly goes into a "calorie" and how it will affect your body can be extremely variable.

There are several good essays in this book, which helps to mitigate the preachy tone I didn't like in What the World the Eats and elevates What I Eat to a more serious study of how humans relate to food. Trivedi's essay and Michael Pollan's "The End of Cooking," where he talks about the irony of America's obsession with foodie television and the fact that less and less people are cooking for themselves, were my two personal favorites.

Overall I found this to be a book worth tracking down and think it should definitely be of interest to anyone who likes reading about food. It would also be a great resource if you're planning a trip to any of these countries and want to find out what a typical meal might be.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Book Review: WHEN NIGHT FALLS by Jenna Ryan

when night falls cover

Remember a few months ago when I begged asked for help finding two books I'd read a really long time ago? Well, this was the first book! I actually found it!

When Night Falls
was published in 1993, which means I was either 12 or 13 when I first read it, and my recall of the details was actually pretty spot-on. Cassie, a crime scene photographer in London, follows a mysterious figure from the scene of brutal murder, straight into 1790. The man she followed, Anthony Lazarus Morgan, is a butler in the house of a baronet--and in his spare time, he travels through time investigating crimes. It turns out the murders in Cassie's London were committed by Jack the Ripper, who is also a time traveler, and he's now in 1790. Dun dun dun!

I'm happy to report that this book is as much fun as I remembered. Here are some of the things I heart about this book:
  • The hero is a butler. Morgan isn't a lord something-or-other (not even a secret one), or someone who is rich, but a butler. Hallefreakinglujah! A hero with an actual profession, can you imagine?!?
  • It's set in Georgian England! This is actually a little odd, because the atmosphere of the book feels very Victorian, and there are a lot of references in the book--everything from Charles Dickens to Courier and Ives--that come from the late 19th century. But I can see why Jenna Ryan pushed the setting back another century, because it gives a fresh twist to the whole Jack the Ripper plot thing.
  • Mystery! Although the mystery starts to seriously drag in the second half of this novel, it's my favorite part of the book. There are tons of suspects who are all interesting, and Ryan keeps you guessing as to which one is Jack the Ripper. Even having read the book before, I was surprised when the killer was revealed.
  • It's the heroine's story. This isn't the type of romance novel where it's all about the hero. The star of the show is Cassie, and it's upon her that the main action in the book hinges. She's smart, tough, quickly adaptable, and also the sexual aggressor in her relationship with Morgan.
Of course, there are some inconsistencies in the story I don't remember noticing when I was 12. Why is Morgan allowed at every crime scene and why do people keep asking his advice on how to investigate, for instance? I don't know! It's a time travel romance, maybe he altered time so that butlers are considered good crime scene investigators. It also bugged me that women of Georgian England kept being referred to as weak-willed and passive, especially when two of three Georgian-era females in this book were pretty damn bossy and clearly in charge of their own domains.

Overall, though, this is a pretty entertaining read. The romance is much more of a subplot than the mystery is, but it develops over the course of the novel and there's no instalove or -lust going on. Jack (the Ripper) also gets his own scenes, which are weirdly enjoyable because he's basically Norman Bates in the 18th century. I'm super-happy I found this book and I'm never letting it out of my sight again! Exclamation mark!

Musical Notes: There's really no logical reason for this, but "Walk Like a Man" by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons kept running through my head while I was reading this.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: DARKER STILL by Leanna Renee Hieber

darker still cover

In 1880's New York City, a young girl who is mute falls in love with a painting. This may seem like an usual plot, but actually there's a long tradition of stories and fables where art either comes to life, traps a live person, or seems to be alive to the point where someone falls in love the subject. What do they all have in common? They all have something to do with sex and the gaze. They all suggest that a truth lies in the image that's hidden by ordinary life. And they're all more interesting than Darker Still.

I really wanted to like this novel. Leanna Renee Hieber was one of the first authors to connect with my blog because I reviewed her first book, and I think she's a great writer. As an art historian, I tend to read every book that has something to do with art I come across and, in a very weird coincidence, I wrote about runes in painting for my master's thesis. Also, Colette from A Buckeye Girl Reads got a copy of Darker Still signed and then mailed it to me! Wasn't that nice of her?

With all that, one might think this book and I would be sure bets--I certainly thought so--but I wound up not finishing it. Perhaps it might be because I know too much about the subject, but I don't think so. I don't expect total historical accuracy from novels, especially in a subject as obscure as the occult in art. However, I DO expect a good story, and that simply didn't happen here.

Darker Still started out okay. It's "framed" in the way novels from the nineteenth century tend to be, as part of a police file that includes the main character's journal. At first I thought this was pretty brilliant and clever, but I was quickly bothered by the fact that the "journal entries" didn't read like journal entries, but like a regular novel in the first person.

When I really knew this book and I wouldn't get along, though, was the first time Natalie sets eyes on the portrait of Lord Denbury. This is basically the meet-cute of the book, yes? Even if it's just a painting, I expected something--some spark, some chemistry, or at the very least something interesting--to happen. But alas, nada. I read over the scene three times just to make sure I hadn't missed a key word or sentence that would tell me why everyone found this portrait to be so intriguing.


To be sure, the portrait has a somewhat curious history (although nothing sensational) and the subject is handsome--or so we're told. But the problem is that as a reader I cannot see this portrait. I'm told Denbury is handsome, but the way he's described makes him sound like Zoolander. The rest of the painting was related in a very stark, bare-bones manner, and sounded like a totally orndinary portrait. Rather boring and old-fashioned, in fact; certainly nothing to cause a Madame X-level of buzz.

Furthermore, while reading about the painting I kept being distracted by inconsistencies that pulled me out of the story. For example, Natalie describes Denbury thusly: "Tiny traces between his nose and the corners of his pursed and perfect lips indicated that his mouth would grow lines of an often wide smile as he aged." First of all, that's a pretty tortured sentence (one of many). And second of all, what seventeen-year-old thinks about how a person is going to age? The whole scene is wrapped up by Natalie declaring, "And yet, there was something terribly compelling about him." UHG. Insta-love much? Not only is that the romance cliche to end all romance novel cliches, but I don't find him compelling, and there's no reason why Natalie does beyond the fact that everyone else seems to.

I kept reading in the hopes the book would improve when Natalie went into the portrait, and it did a bit, but Denbury seemed silly rather than mysterious, and the villains were cartoonishly obvious. I was laughing a whole hell of a lot, and not because the book was trying to be funny. It was because of cheesy scenes like this:
I studied the particulars of the scene. The book The Girl remained jutting out from the shelf.

And then I noticed a new shift. Something else out of place. Different.

On his desk, the pristine blotter bore droplets of ink, and the quill was lying on its side rather than upright in the shaft of the inkwell. Two words seemed to scream up at me from a note that faced my direction on his desk.

Yes, you!
Haha! Denbury wants YOU! Yes, you! Just in case you thought he was telegraphing the cat. Or when Natalie finally meets this supposed 19-year-old heart-throb and he commences with the desk-pounding and exclamation-marking:
"Denbury pounded his fist on his desk in fury. 'The bloody bastard!'"
Two pages later...
"'I'd just begun to live!' He pounded his fist against the desk..."
At this point I'd started to feel like Darker Still was an adaptation of The Nutcracker and Mouse King, where a young girl becomes nonsensically obsessed with a painting instead of a nutcracker. But rather than turning out to be a prince, the guy is a bombastic octogenarian Whig; and instead of sweeping her off to an enchanted palace made of candy, he takes her to a 9x11 office cubicle with a fake fireplace. Très romantic.

On top of all this, I really hated Natalie as a character. Her personality basically IS that she's mute. That's it. There doesn't seem to be any reason for what she does beyond the fact that someone else wants her to do it, or any reasoning behind her ideas other than someone else thought it. Of course, she never really NEEDS to think, seeing as how who is good and who is evil and what exactly is going on and what she needs to do about it is all telegraphed to her, in a painfully obvious fashion. Snorz!

I heard a saying the other day that "A cat sat on a mat is not a story. A cat sat on another cat's mat is a story." This book is about a cat who sat on a mat. Everything just happens, with no conflict or intrigue to keep the reader engaged. There's no sense of atmosphere, historical place and time, characters with personalities, or stakes. And this why it read so young to me--as if it was written for 8-11 year-olds rather than teens or adults--because there's really no depth to the story at all. What you see is what you get, and that's pretty damn boring in art, life, and literature.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Downton Abbey Season Two Episode One Recap!

matthew and lord grantham

Today I'm co-recapping the fist episode of Downton Abbey's second season at Edwardian Promenade. Check it out and share with us what you thought!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Weekend Cooking Review: FED UP WITH LUNCH by Sarah Wu

fed up with lunch cover

You know those people who tweet about what they had for lunch? Well, Sarah Wu made a whole blog about it and then turned it into a book! Blogging "undercover" as the anonymous Mrs. Q, the elementary school teacher mobile blogged pictures of her and students' lunches every day for a year, along with descriptions of what the food was, how it tasted and looked. What did Wu learn from her Supersize Me-like experiment?

I had never visited (or even heard about) Wu's blog, Fed Up with Lunch, until this book came out; but in the interest of learning more about the author and where she's coming from, I looked over her lunch posts. I can definitely see why Fed Up with Lunch is so popular--the blog is really fun and interesting. Most of the attraction lies in Wu's photographs, which aren't professional by any means, but offer a fascinating glimpse into another world. Because most of the food is prepackaged or an appetizing shade of brown-ish, you have no idea what it is until she tells you. The writing itself is really lively and vibrant, but also short--probably about 100-300 words per post. It's said food is a window onto a culture--if that's the case, then the culture of the Illinois school system is like something out of the Jetsons. Their lunches are really bizarre and look like they came out of a space port.

Don't expect any of that from this book, though. This is a memoir of how and why Wu started the blog and her experiences with it, including meeting Jamie Oliver (she had the good fortune to start her blog just as Oliver was airing Food Revolution), being interviewed for Good Morning America, and so on. The pictures of food, which are the heart of Wu's blog, are reduced to 1-inch-square images so small you can't tell what you're looking at, and Wu actually doesn't describe the food she ate that much at all (with the notable and horrifying exception of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich).

Wu states in her book that she felt like a journalist, and I can see that on her blog, but it doesn't translate to this book. If this book is journalism, it's of the fluff variety. She says up-front she's not a food expert, which is fine, but it also shows in that the book reads more like the ruminations of a mom on how we need to watch kids' nutrition, etc. etc. While that's certainly true, as a call to action it's not terribly effective.

There was one really good chapter in the book based on Wu's experiences in the food industry. She worked for Kraft for several years (something she only bothers to mention in chapter seven?), and talks about how food corporations need to show an increase in sales to keep their stock prices up, even though food consumption naturally remains steady. That was really interesting and explained a lot about how food is produced in America.

If you watched Oliver's Food Revolution, you're probably aware that communities' reaction to changing their school food system tends to be met with anything ranging from apathy to antagonism. This book certainly doesn't do any better job than Oliver's TV show at changing that attitude--I have to admit, I'm kind of stuck on apathy at this point. If anything, I'm less inclined to care than I was before, and Wu's really preaching to the choir when it comes to me! While feeding kids freshly-made gourmet meals in cafeterias sounds nice in the abstract, in the concrete I have to wonder if, first of all, kids will actually eat this food; and second of all, who's going to pay for it? Wu didn't persuasively address either question in this book.

If anything, this memoir is an argument for parents to take a more active role in learning about food and cooking freshly prepared meals in their own home. If a revolution begins at home, then Wu did so with her own life, and I think Fed Up with Lunch may influence other parents to do the same.

weekend cooking gif
Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mystery vs Suspense in THE MADNESS OF LORD IAN MACKENZIE by Jennifer Ashley

madness cover

One of the linchpins of a good story, I think, is the element of mystery, which obviously isn't the same as suspense. Mystery is more cerebral while suspense is more visceral. I think that's one of the reasons why suspense works so well in movies. You eat pictures with your eyes but you eat words with your brain, especially when those words are on paper.

In Little Women (the movie with Winona Ryder), Jo says something that has stuck in my head for years: books aren't about what you know, they're about what you don't know. You have to want to know about the characters or what's going to happen to keep reading. Unlike in movies, where information is limited to what's before your eyes, in books your mind has to be engaged. You have to wonder about something. That's why mysteries took off with the rise of the novel.

Unfortunately--I think probably because of the dominance of TV and movies in our lives now--this art of capturing one's interest and stringing it along with questions is really pretty rare in fiction these days. Most of the books I read seem to follow Hitchcock's edict that it's better to have an audience know about a bomb under a table for fifteen minutes than surprise them with an exploding bomb for five seconds. Of course, Hitchcock was making suspense movies, not writing books.

That's why it was nice to read The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, because the author, Jennifer Ashley, does a great job of telling this story by building up the reader's questions about the Mackenzie brothers and then surprising us with turns in the story. "What is up with these Mackenzies, why are they all crazy?" you wonder soon after the story starts. Along with, "Why does Detective Fellows have it out for Ian?" The characters don't act like tropes, but like actual characters with motivation, and I loved how unconventional Ian and Beth were. Beth is a window who, through a series of unlikely events, has risen out of an East End London workhouse to become an elegant heiress. Ian, the younger brother of the Duke of whatever, probably has Ausberger's or a mild form of autism, and was institutionalized as a young boy. But he's not the only odd person in his family--all of his brothers are crazy and obsessive, and as the story unfolds we begin to understand why.

I really loved this book and can't believe I waited this long to pick it up! Even the murder mystery in the novel was very well-done and had me engaged and guessing until the end. The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie restored my belief that great story-telling is still to be had in historical romances.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Au Revoir, Romance Month

romance month button

It's January, which--the last time I checked, anyway--follows December. That means Romance Month is over. Sadface. Thank you to all the people who wrote guest posts and read along with me this month! You deserve cyber cuddles, which sounds uncomfortable but is totally worth it. {{{cuddles}}}

In case you like lists, here are all the posts for 2011's Romance Month:
Counting the book I'm currently in the middle of, I read five romances and chucked seven mid-way through, which aren't the greatest stats in the world. I feel like I accomplished a lot more than that! I think I've become a very jaded romance reader at this point in my life, which is why there were so many DNFs. I really wanted my interest to be engaged and to be shown something new, and that didn't happen with a lot of the books I picked up.

I predict I will read more romances in 2012 than I did in 2011, but right now there are bunch of YAs calling my name. :) I hope you all enjoyed romance month as much as I did, and thank you again to everyone who joined in!


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