Posts Categorized: Book Reviews

The Romanovs
by Simon Sebag Montefiore

March 24, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0



The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore | May 2016 | Knopf | Hardcover $35

In this fascinating chronicle, Simon Sebag Montefiore focuses his gifts as historian and storyteller on the greatest and most complex of the emperors and empresses of the Romanov dynasty (1613-1917), on how their courts worked, and on the meeting of personality and power in each reign. Scouring archives that opened up only after the fall of the USSR, the author reveals the real world of the most storied and myth-shrouded rulers — Catherine the Great, Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra — and introduces readers to the lesser-known but even more scandalous Elizaveta (daughter of Peter the Great) and Alexander II (whose wild sexual passions were bestowed upon a teenage mistress). The author illuminates the eighteenth-century Age of the Imperial Petticoat; makes clear the full extent of the remarkable political-amorous partnership between Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin; and uncovers a deep vein of decadence and stupidity underneath the accepted, romantic portrait usually presented of Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars. As with all of his previous and widely acclaimed works of history, Simon Sebag Montefiore gives an absolute scholarly and archival foundation to a book that is both exceptionally informative and dazzlingly entertaining from first to last.

The Romanovs is due to be published in the US in May 2016 (it’s already out in the UK). This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher, Knopf, via Edelweiss.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Despite its impressive length — nearly 800 pages! — this is still a rather whirlwind tour of Russian history. After all, the Romanovs ruled the country for over 3 centuries, and any one of the tsar or tsarina’s lives would make for an interesting book alone.

The book is divided into “Acts” (sections/parts/whatever) and “Scenes” (chapters). Each chapter begins with a cast of characters and concludes with a handful of notes regarding various events and people that might help clarify some points for the reader. This was particularly helpful for me, because I was reading this book in little half-hour chunks during my lunch breaks over the past month or so.

Being only passingly familiar with a few events in Russian history (most of them fairly recent, in the grand scheme of things), I admit that I got a bit lost at some points. It doesn’t help that royalty likes to recycle names, or that Russian names can begin to look like little more than a bunch of letters randomly strung together if you aren’t comfortable with the language. Montefiore did try to alleviate the confusion a bit by referring to each major player with a consistent name or nickname, though.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I did enjoy the occasional little references to what all was going on in the rest of the world while Tsar So-n-So was forcing religious reform or Tsarina Such-n-Such was beheading all her enemies. I’m much more familiar with the history of a couple of other European countries, so this was particularly helpful for my own comprehension.

One thing I was surprised by (though I shouldn’t have been, really) was the impressive amount of violence perpetrated both by the Romanovs and against them. Public torture, dismemberment, and death by impalement were common occurrences during the reign of Alexis I (and later reigns as well), while his contemporary Louis XIV in France resorted somewhat less enthusiastically to execution by the slightly more civilized guillotine. The murder of the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, was frenzied and bloody.

On a similarly disconcerting topic, serfdom was the fate of the vast majority of people in feudal Russia up until the mid-19th century, while feudalism in Western Europe had been mostly done away with after the dark ages, or by the end of the 1700’s at the very latest. Blood and oppression made up the foundation of the Romanovs’ autocratic dynasty — as well as the foundation of Russia’s current autocratic state.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The book is obviously well-researched and — be still, my heart! — includes plenty of notes and citations. Montefiore writes in such a way that it is obvious that he’s trying to make his subject accessible to non-scholars, too, but I still had to look up a lot of terms and events on Wikipedia just to catch up and figure out what the heck was going on.

Overall, I’d say that this is a good summary of the long rule of the Romanov family over Russia, though it might not be the very first title a person should pick up if they’re just getting started on Russian history. Anyway, I’m quite glad I got a chance to read it.


Publication information: Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York: Knopf, 2016. EPUB.
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

March 6, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0



Ready Player One by Ernest Cline | November 2011 | Broadway Books | Paperback $16

In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win — and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

I didn’t actually intend to review this particular book here on the blog — about 1/3 to 1/2 of the books I read will just get a few stars and maybe a quick paragraph or two on Goodreads, especially backlist stuff that I’m not reading for a particular challenge/event.

But I’ve been in a little bit of a reading slump lately. Not that I’m not reading, because I am, but I’ve been taking it pretty slow, plus I just don’t have much to say about what I’m reading. So maybe it’s more like a reviewing slump. So when I felt like blathering on just a little bit about Ready Player One, I figured I’d better seize that feeling and run with it!

– – –

My husband received this book a few months ago in his Loot Crate, a monthly subscription box that delivers themed “loot” for geeks — he’s gotten all kinds of things, from a Fallout Vault Boy bobblehead to a World of Warcraft hearthstone stress ball thing. Now our dog gets a monthly box (Loot Pets), too, and they get matching t-shirts. It’s adorable.

Anyhow, mi esposo really enjoyed Ready Player One, and even though our taste in books doesn’t always match up he was pretty sure that I’d like it, too.

Plus, get this: Spielberg is working on a movie based on this book, due out in 2018!

– – –

But… I almost DNF’d this book before I even got through the first couple chapters. It starts off like just another YA dystopia, all doom and gloom and “energy crisis” this and “giant evil tech corporations” that. Which, y’know, I get it. The human species is slowly suiciding and taking this little planet with it, yes, OK, but after a while the dystopia fatigue starts to set in. And the beginning of Ready Player One seemed to me like just another teenager bemoaning the predictably broken state of the world… which I was frankly just not in the mood to pay attention to.

Anyway, I’m glad I continued on with it. Once the plot picks up, the pacing and tension and character development help keep it moving and make the book pretty hard to put down. There are a lot (A LOT) of fun references to 1980’s pop culture — not just video/arcade games, like you’d expect with a title like Ready Player One, but also tabletop games, movies and TV, music (lots and lots and lots of music), and technology.

– – –

My only real complaint is the unnecessary amount of exposition, especially at the beginning of the story. And listen, I’m normally one of those readers who loves exposition. I can’t resist a carefully built, detailed world, and I don’t do well with stories are so plot-centric that they have barely a sketch of a setting/history. So, you know the exposition must be pretty excessive if even Louise is getting tired of it. The first quarter or so of the book is like 90% infodumping!

I’m also not sure how to categorize this book for my review index. I think it is being marketed mainly as an adult SFF because the whole focus on 1980’s pop culture probably appeals mainly to grown-ups who lived through that time period. But the age of the characters, some of the experiences they go through, and the kind of “stick it to The Man” mentality are all very YA-ish. Anyway, Ready Player One did get an Alex Award for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults” from the American Library Association’s YALSA group, so I guess it really does have some serious crossover appeal.


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.

Publication information: Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. Print.
Source: Loot Crate
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson

February 27, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson | January 2012 | Basic Books | Hardcover $26.99

Since prehistory, humans have braved sharp knives, fire, and grindstones to transform raw ingredients into something delicious—or at least edible. Tools shape what we eat, but they have also transformed how we consume, and how we think about, our food. Technology in the kitchen does not just mean the Pacojets and sous-vide of the modernist kitchen. It can also mean the humbler tools of everyday cooking and eating: a wooden spoon and a skillet, chopsticks and forks.

In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson provides a wonderful and witty tour of the evolution of cooking around the world, revealing the hidden history of everyday objects we often take for granted. Blending history, science, and anthropology, Wilson reveals how our culinary tools and tricks came to be, and how their influence has shaped modern food culture.

I don’t know about you, but I rarely ever give much thought to the basic technologies that facilitate (or complicate) my cooking and dining experiences. I mean, whoever actually does consider the fork? Bee Wilson, apparently.

This book includes some fascinating insights, like the details of the mid-century kitchens on display at the exhibition where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate discussions over the merits of communism vs. capitalism in the context of model American homes. And there was quite a lot of detail included about each featured technology, from the long evolution of the “simple” table knife to the quite literally life-saving advent of refrigeration.

– – –

So, yes, the information presented in this book is interesting and the writing certainly isn’t bad, but something about the flow of it all didn’t click for me. The book felt, at times, more like a collection of essays than a comprehensive history of food tech, and at other times it seemed to ramble and drift from whatever point or thesis the author was trying to get at. But, again, I think that’s more of a stylistic preference issue than a quality issue.

I do wish there had been more in the way of footnotes or endnotes. I suppose, given the extensive bibliography tacked on at the end of the book and the author’s professional reputation, that it must have been very well-researched. I guess I just prefer the more academic way of citing things when it comes to nonfiction like this.

– – –

The only thing that really rubbed me the wrong way was the low-level but pervasive snark towards whatever cooking techniques/attitudes the author isn’t fond of. I don’t agree with her idea that cooking isn’t really (or shouldn’t be) a science — because ignoring all the science (accidental or otherwise) that goes into producing a meal is willfully, well, ignorant.

I also really don’t care how silly she thinks the American way of using cups and other volume measures rather than metric weight is — that’s how we do it and it’s a ridiculous thing to make an issue of. Americans are happy to put our flour in measuring cups, pour gravy over our biscuits, and dump your stupid tea straight into the harbor.

– – –

I’m afraid that’s all I have to say about Consider the Fork. My brain is feeling a bit fuzzy lately (blame it on allergies, terrible sleep habits, measuring cups, or whatever) and it’s all I could do to concentrate on this book long enough to make it through a chapter or so at a time. But I’m glad I read it and get to count it towards my Foodies Read challenge this year.


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.

Publication information: Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.
Source: Purchased from public library used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

February 13, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind Book Cover

(… yes, that is one star)

Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind | January 1994 | Tor | Mass Market Paperback $7.99

In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher’s forest sanctuary seeking help … and more. His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.

In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword — to invoke within himself something more noble. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed … or that their time has run out.

I was — at first — pleasantly surprised by Wizard’s First Rule. I put it on my Classics Club list because (a) it consistently ends up on lists of best fantasy books/series and (b) it’s frequently compared to the Wheel of Time series, which I love. This book is one of the most recently published titles on my CC list, too (my rule being only that the books have to be at least 20 years old).

I was kind of skeptical about this one going in because I’d read several critical reviews calling it “derivative” or poking fun at the author. (I should have listened to their warnings….) Plus, I had been expecting to like the last SF book I read for CC, Foundation by Asimov, but ended up being rather disappointed. So I didn’t want to let high hopes get the better of me this time.

But even though the book clearly wasn’t perfect, it was appealing to me. The overall plot and setting are not particularly unique. Nice village boy discovers he’s The One who can save humanity, with the help of a wise old wizard and a pretty, secretly powerful lady friend? It’s been done… but I’m also a huge sucker for that type of story. And Goodkind’s political philosophy (Objectivism à la Ayn Rand) shines through in some places. It wasn’t particularly subtle and it’s not my favorite flavor of philosophy, but this issue in particular wasn’t so terribly distracting that it ruined the story for me.

My feelings about the whole thing changed in the last 1/3 of the book, where things took an abrupt turn for the worse.

Spoilers from here down.

– – –

I do not enjoy reading about rape. I understand that sometimes it is something that is going to happen in a brutal world like the one Wizard’s First Rule is set in. I understand that sometimes it can be an important part of the story, just like murder and war and other evils can be. But at some point (though I can’t really specify where), it can cross over a line between plot device and plain old gratuitous violence. It crossed that line in this book.

One of the main characters is repeatedly tortured and raped, although it is never actually called rape — he is his rapist’s “mate” (ew). Worse, his rapist explains that the reason she tortures and rapes him is because she was tortured and raped as a girl, and it’s somehow her job to do the same thing to him. He develops Stockholm syndrome and begins to feel sorry for her, as the reader is presumably meant to do as well. Was this meant to be some kind of BDSM fantasy fulfillment? If so, it missed the mark by a mile.

I felt sick while reading this. All the fun of the earlier chapters was gone. I almost quit reading at this point. The only reason I kept going is because I had enjoyed the first part of the book so much and thought there might be some redeeming qualities in the conclusion of it.

The last few chapters were boring at best, almost offensively so. The magic system that had seemed interesting and well-organized devolved into random new, just-in-time powers and spells. The derivative-yet-fun-anyway storyline sank into predictable “Power the Dark Lord knows not” and “Luke, I am your father” clichés.

I am so, so disappointed by this book. That’s why I’m rating it 1 star, a rating I have so far used only for books I flat-out hate or books that are just too stupid to exist (and a rating I have never yet used on this blog before now because why bother writing about stupid bullshit, but this is different because it’s for a reading challenge), because after finishing it I felt like the whole thing had been a tragic waste of time. 

– – –

I know this book has an average of 4+ stars on Goodreads. If you’re one of those who’s read it and liked it: What about it was appealing to you? What do you think I’m missing?


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge. (Bought before the new year.)

Publication information: Goodkind, Terry. Wizard’s First Rule. New York: Tor, 1994. Print.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Middlemarch – Book I
by George Eliot

February 12, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Book I – Miss Brooke
Middlemarch by George Eliot Book Cover

I’ve decided to tackle Middlemarch by George Eliot as part of the Classics Club’s year-long Women’s Classic Literature Event. I’m reading it one book at a time because I have previously had some difficulty with Victorian social/realistic fiction and I wanted to give this book the fair attention I’ve been told it deserves.

Book 1 took me about a month to read. I enjoyed reading it while I was sitting down with the book in my hands, but I also found myself easily distracted by other books and whatever else was going on in the house.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Book 1: Miss Brooke (and Prelude)

The novel starts off with a discussion of Saint Theresa (Teresa) of Ávila, a passionate religious scholar/reformer in the 16th century. The narrator goes on to compare this book’s titular character, Dorothea Brooke, with Saint Theresa. Dorothea takes her faith seriously and would like to make a real study of it, beyond what she’s expected to do as a well brought-up young woman; the difference between her and the saint is that Dorothea doesn’t feel she has the freedom to pursue her religious studies freely or passionately.

A more extreme way of putting it is that Dorothea might have been perfectly happy offering herself up as a martyr or otherwise suffering in hopes of attaining holiness, if only she had lived in Catholic Spain about 3 centuries previous. As it is, she does as much as she can to deprive herself of pleasure because of this religious fervor, which makes her a particularly odd character among her peers. She dresses plainly and avoids frivolity of any kind, even going so far as to declare that she’ll give up riding her horse simply because she enjoys it too much!

St. Teresa by Gerard

St. Teresa of Ávila
François Gérard

– – –

This is all in contrast to her younger sister, Celia, who is not generally considered as intelligent (or beautiful) as Dorothea, but who does at least seem seem to desire the expected feminine life of marriage and motherhood. There is a scene in which Celia convinces Dorothea to let her wear their mother’s jewelry (the girls being orphaned and living with their uncle), where Dorothea acts very high-and-mighty about personal ornamentation but can’t resist taking just a few particularly nice pieces. Celia is hurt by Dorothea’s judgement of her vanity and is compelled to point out her sister’s own hypocrisy.

They later make up after this fight, but this pattern of their relationship continues throughout the book: Dorothea makes an effort to be pious and ends up insulting others in the process, which Celia notices and comments on sarcastically in a kind of self-defense. I don’t have a sister so I don’t know whether that kind of relationship is typical, but I did enjoy all the little nuances of their interactions/conversations. They clearly care about each other but also find each other rather incomprehensible in some ways.

Two Sisters by Chasseriau

Two Sisters
Théodore Chassériau
(representing Dorothea and Celia)

– – –

Sisterly stuff aside, I was particularly interested in Dorothea’s relationships with her two suitors, Sir James Chettam (a neighboring landowner who has been trying to court her for some time) and Edward Casaubon (a middle aged clergyman scholar). From what I’ve read — and I did end up following along with some previous online book club stuff to help me get through it — most people are of the opinion that Dorothea made an obviously terrible choice in marrying Casaubon. Any modern reader with a tiny bit of romance in her soul could be expected to see Chettam as the obvious choice: he even brought her a puppy at one point… be still, my heart!

But I have to say that I sympathize with Dorothea’s choice of Casaubon, even if it is obviously naïve from an outsider’s persepective. She sees him not as a lover or even as a provider/protector, like women were (are?) expected to see their husbands, but as a teacher, as a kind of socially acceptable conduit to greater knowledge that would usually be denied to her on account of her sex. She focuses so much on her future studies of Greek and Hebrew (motivated purely by her desire to help her husband with his big “Key to All Mythologies” project, surely) that she fails to consider her other needs — and as much as she would like to deny herself these things, she does need affection, small enjoyments, and a purpose of her own.

– – –

I have to say that the switch from Dorothea’s story to the lives of the other characters was a bit jarring for me. I’d assumed that since this book was titled “Miss Brooke” that it would all be about her. But nope!

We are also introduced to Dr. Lydgate, a newcomer in town; Rosamond Vincy, the local beauty who catches Dr. Lydgate’s eye (and who also happens to be the mayor’s daughter); Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s ne’er-do-well brother; their elderly uncle, Mr. Featherstone, from whom they hope to inherit despite lack of blood relation (their mother’s sister was one of his wives); and Mr. Featherstone’s caretaker/neice, Mary Garth, who has caught the romantic attentions of Fred Vincy.

Sophie by Winterhalter

Princess Sophie of Sweden
Franz Xaver Winterhalter
(representing Rosamond Vincy)

Parsing out this who’s-who of all the semi-related families took a bit of effort, not least because there are a handful of other characters that also make appearances in the chapters of this first book and I kept losing track of which person was doing what. Really, the cast of characters is quite large already and we’re only in the first book.

– – –

Mary Garth was perhaps the most charming of the characters introduced in the second half of this book. She’s practical and honest (sometimes disparagingly so) and has the kind of dry wit that reminded me of the titular character of Daria, that animated show on MTV in the late 1990’s. I couldn’t help but imagine her delivering all her lines in that same deadpan, almost depressive tone of voice.

Madame Leblanc by Ingres

Porträt der Madame Leblanc
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
(representing Mary Garth)

Mary has even somehow managed to convince Fred to bring her gifts of books, despite her uncle insisting that he stop encouraging her reading habit. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what becomes of her. But — despite her obvious affection for him — she’s already decided that she couldn’t marry Fred if he asked, though she doesn’t give a real reason for this decision (and he hasn’t asked anyway; the whole affair seems to be an invention of Rosemond’s imagination).

– – –

I have to say that the edition I’m reading — the Barnes & Noble Classics version — seems riddled with typos, which has been a bit distracting. I can’t comment on the quality of the endnotes/comments as I haven’t bothered to read them.

I’ve also been taking notes in the margins of this book, which is something I haven’t done since my undergrad days. I forgot how satisfying underlining and commenting on particular passages can be. One thing I didn’t expect was how humorous some of the narrator’s statements have been. Eliot has a sharp wit.

Have you read Middlemarch yet? What did you think of the goings-on in Book 1?

(No spoilers, if you please; even though this book is nearly 150 years old, I have somehow managed to avoid knowing very much about its plot so far.)


The Yellow Wallpaper
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

February 6, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman Book Cover

★ ★ ★ ★

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman | January 1892 | Project Gutenberg | Public domain

First published in 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper is a very short novella, which traces a woman’s descent into madness, when she is subjected to the Weir Mitchell Rest Cure and forbidden to use her imagination or undertake any activity.

My goodness, what a creepy/depressing piece of literature this is.

It’s clear to the modern reader that the narrator is suffering from some form of mental illness. Postpartum depression, perhaps, or an anxiety disorder. Of course, in the Victorian era (when this short story was written), a woman with these kinds of problems was simply labelled “hysterical” or was said to have a nervous condition.

The narrator’s husband, being a physician, is the one who has diagnosed her with a slight hysterical tendency and ordered her to take a rest cure in the countryside. Thus she must spend all day every day under his direction, and her schedule consists of nothing much more than brief walks in the garden, meals, and solitary time in the room with the yellow wallpaper.

She hates this yellow wallpaper, with its irritating and repellent pattern which has been stripped off the wall in some places by previous occupants, and she begins to obsess over it.

The poor woman is not only anxious/depressed, but she has absolutely nothing to do to occupy her time. She is not even allowed to write, much less have any useful exercise or roll in the running of the household. Her own baby is being nursed by someone else. Her husband infantilizes her and tells her that she would get well if only she had more self-control. This, as much as any preexisting mental condition, is what ultimately drives her over the edge of sanity.

It’s amazing to me how much of a punch can be packed into a short story of only 15 pages. I couldn’t help but feel sadness for this woman who slipped so quickly into severe mental illness, exacerbated by the patronizing treatment she’d been subjected to.

This is a tough one to rate, partly because it’s so short and partly because it’s brilliant but not in any way a favorite of mine. I won’t personally re-read it (it is very disturbing!), but I do want to recommend it to anyone interested in the way mood disorders were handled in the late 19th century.

This is a selection from my Classics Club list, and counts towards the Women’s Classic Literature Event.


Publication information: Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. Salt Lake City, UT: Project Gutenberg, 2008. EPUB.
Source: Project Gutenberg Ebooks,
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

From Silk to Silicon
by Jeffrey E. Garten

February 1, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★

From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives by Jeffrey E. Garten | March 2016 | Harper | Hardcover $29.99

This is the first book to look at the history of globalization through the lens of individuals who did something transformative, as opposed to describing globalization through trends, policies, or particular industries. From Silk to Silicon tells the story of who these men and women were, what they did, how they did it and how their achievements continue to shape our world today.

This is the story of globalization in historical and personal terms, starting with Genghis Khan conquering vast swaths of Asia and to build a massive empire and concluding with the efforts of more contemporary characters like Margaret Thatcher, Andrew Grove, and Deng Xiaoping. Each individual profiled in this book had some huge impact on the way our modern world works.

I knew very little about Genghis Khan, Henry the Navigator, Cyrus Field, or really any of the other people featured in this book before reading it. Each chapter is really a broad summary of each person’s life with particular emphasis on their contributions to globalization, rather than an in-depth biography. But I’m intrigued now by these people and plan to find more books about them, or maybe track down some documentaries or something. The details of their lives must be fascinating.

Of course, not every person profiled here is what I’d call “admirable”… not by a long shot. They were conquerors and capitalists and probably other questionably-virtuous things that start with the letter C. War, slavery, and questionable ethics in general abound in their stories What they all have in common, saints or sinners or something in between, is that they actively transformed the world in irreversible ways.

The book entirely “readable” in that you don’t have to be a historian or economist or whatever to understand the language or the salient points. (See above re: my unfamiliarity with most of the highlighted people.) One of the things I really liked about it was the inclusion of maps. Maps! I mean, I like maps in general, but in this case they really were necessary for me to be able to visualize the spread of each profiled person’s impact on the world.

I’m afraid I can’t personally comment on the accuracy of any of the information in this book because I am not a historian of any kind, but the author is an economics professor at Yale and former international trade official for the federal government, plus he’s been widely published in the topics of global economies and politics… so I’m inclined to believe that what he has to say in this book is probably accurate. Garten is also careful to qualify statements when the historical record is incomplete or when scholars disagree on the details, and I very much appreciate that kind of intellectual honesty.

– – –

Please note: I received an e-ARC from the publisher for review via Edelweiss. From Silk to Silicon will be released March 1, 2016.


Publication information: Garten, J. E. From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives. New York: Harper, 2016. EPUB. 
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss. 
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science
by J. Kenji López-Alt

January 31, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Keni López-Alt | September 2015 | W. W. Norton & Co. | Hardcover $49.95

Ever wondered how to pan-fry a steak with a charred crust and an interior that’s perfectly medium-rare from edge to edge when you cut into it? How to make homemade mac ‘n’ cheese that is as satisfyingly gooey and velvety-smooth as the blue box stuff, but far tastier? How to roast a succulent, moist turkey (forget about brining!)—and use a foolproof method that works every time?

As Serious Eats’s culinary nerd-in-residence, J. Kenji López-Alt has pondered all these questions and more. In The Food Lab, Kenji focuses on the science behind beloved American dishes, delving into the interactions between heat, energy, and molecules that create great food.

López-Alt is a director and columnist at Serious Eats, one of my favorite food websites. Almost every recipe or technique I’ve tried from SE has been worthwhile, so I had high expectations for this cookbook. I was not disappointed!

First, here’s something you need to know about me: I love science-based anything. If someone is going to put the time/effort into trying out different techniques or gathering data on the most efficient use of X, I am happy to read all about it. (See my review for Cooking for Geeks for another example of excellent food experimentation.)

Here’s another thing about me that affects this review in particular: I enjoy cooking (and enjoy eating good food even more), but I’ve been in a cooking slump lately. This is due to a number of factors: schedule changes, high-stress events, finally coming to terms with the fact that my spouse just does not enjoy about 80% of the stuff that I like to eat, and other stuff like that. So when I do cook these days, it’s almost always going to be something tried-n-true and not too labor/time intensive. So that’s a huge part of the appeal of this book for me — the recipes have already been thoroughly tested and a great many of them happily do not require the cook to spend hours in the kitchen (although several do, if that’s your thing).

Beyond that, though, this is also a “book-book” as well as a cookbook. In other words, it isn’t just a collection of recipes. Personal anecdotes, investigations of various methods, and informative graphs/charts abound.

As an example of exactly how thorough López-Alt gets in this book, let’s take the section on making chicken stock. He explains a bit about the history of making/using stock and the various versions of it before jumping in to the experimentation. What part of the chicken makes the tastiest stock, or the most gelatin-y stock: wings, legs, breasts, or the leftover carcass? What is the best method for clarifying the stock or removing extra fat? What is the best storage method and how long can it be stored? And then: what kind of soups make the best use of this perfect homemade chicken stock?

Of course, you can use the traditional method of throwing a bunch of stuff in a pot and simmering it for a few hours, or you can just buy the dang stock from any grocery store, but that’s not the point. If you want the best possible chicken stock that makes the most efficient use of your time and kitchen resources, The Food Lab can tell you how to do that — and more importantly, WHY you should do it this way.

The thing that pushed this into 5-star territory for me, though, is the physical qualities of the book. There are a ton of full-color illustrations, the pages themselves have a nice thickness and a slight gloss to them (helpful for messier cooks like myself), and the binding is sturdy and — best of all — the book lays flat so that the pages stay open to whichever recipe you need with no struggle. These things are all signs of a cookbook constructed with real attention to detail.


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.

Publication information: López-Alt, J. Kenji. The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015. Print.
Source: Purchased from Barnes & Noble.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

by Isaac Asimov

January 29, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Foundation by Asimov Book Cover

★ ★

Foundation by Isaac Asimov | October 1966, originally published 1951 | Avon Books | Paperback $1.99 (Used)
This book is one of 50 titles on my Classics Club list.

For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future — to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire — both scientists and scholars — and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a future generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation. But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun — or fight them and be destroyed.

Kiiiinda disappointed in this one.

I had high expectations… maybe too high. Really, this is one of the (if not the) sci-fi classics that defined and elevated the genre beyond pulp in the mid-20th century. But now I’m left feeling confused as to why exactly so many modern SF readers still rate this book among their favorites.

It’s supposed to be an epic space opera (well, the first book of it anyway) with a focus on compelling, universal themes/ideas. And I guess it is? There is very little in the way of character development, so the entire plot revolves around the long-term revelation of the nature of humanity, especially in terms of scientific curiosity and governance/social control. The pace of the story is quick, covering decades in mere chapters, so the story necessarily can’t be about the individual characters (but rather the fate of Man as a whole).

– – –

Which brings me to my primary problem with this book: it’s all about Man. There is literally not one single woman with any impactful dialogue whatsoever. There is one woman with a speaking part, who exists only as an incidental appendage of her spouse and who spends all her brief page time complaining about her husband like some kind of midcentury housewife cliché. Of all the anachronistic little things that served as constant subtle reminders that this book was a product of the 1950’s, this was the thing that I found most jarring.

Is it fair to judge a 65-year-old novel by the standards of modern culture? Not wholly, no. I can respect that Foundation had a huge impact on the SF genre as we know it. I can certainly enjoy Asimov’s imagination and engaging storytelling skills. And, as I haven’t read any further in this series nor read anything else by Asimov yet (for shame! I know), I have to be fair about withholding judgement on the author’s intentions/beliefs in general (which some brief web surfing indicates were comparatively feminist for his time, anyway).

It’s just that the near-absolute lack of any women at all in this particular book is just so surprising that it pulled me right out of the story. That “suspension of disbelief” threshold, so important to the enjoyment of well-written SF, was crossed and my suspension was suspended, so to speak.

I certainly wouldn’t be surprised by a novel of this era that featured some two-dimensional damsel in distress, doting mother, femme fatale, or some other trope version of a lady companion/sidekick/love interest or whatever. Women had been featured as such in stories for hundreds of years before Foundation, and I knew better than to expect a Princess/General Leia or Lieutenant Uhura here. It’s the focus on a 99% male cast of characters — for no apparent reason — that baffles me.

– – –

My other problem with the book is that… well, I just had trouble caring at all about the plot. It’s as though the author wanted to show us this massive, complicated world, but zoomed too far back with the telescope so that all we can see is the general shape of things, with a few intriguing details here and there if we squint a bit.

All that said, the dialogue and the setting/event descriptions are great, though the latter are far too sparse. It might seem like an odd complaint, but I really think this book should have been longer and a bit slower paced, with more time spent on that fascinating world-building! Of course, Asimov was writing in a time when genre novels were far less frequently allowed to be the door-stoppers that they often are today.

– – –

This brings me to my decision to not read the remaining books in the series, at least not anytime soon. My understanding is that there are a few more lady characters and the plot twists get to be considerably weirder in the following books, but I’m just not interested in trying them out right now.

Have you read Foundation, and did you care for it? If so, what do you think I’m missing about the appeal of this book???


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge. (Bought before the new year.)

Publication information: Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York: Avon Books, 1966. Print.
Source: Local used bookshop, Galveston Books.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Circle
by Dave Eggers

January 18, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★

The Circle by Dave Eggers | October 2013 | Vintage Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday | Paperback $15.95
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America — even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

This book was chosen for a community-wide book club, Galveston Reads, sponsored by the local public library and some local foundations and businesses. This program always includes several themed events and book discussions, which I look forward to participating in this year.

I can see why The Circle is so popular. There’s even a movie based on it due out in 2016, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks (which I’m very much looking forward to seeing). Comparisons to dystopian classics Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are apt, except that this time the boogeyman isn’t Big Government or Big Industry — it’s Big Tech.

– – –

It is flawed, mind you. I got the feeling that Eggers was trying to be subtle about the moral of the story at first — that allowing the encroachment of technology into private lives is perilous — but I personally thought it was immediately obvious and got to be a bit tiresome. And I’m a librarian, for heaven’s sake, practically a card-carrying member of the Privacy is Fucking Important League. So perhaps my impatience with this is merely a function of being steeped in the issues on the daily?

And I have to admit that I bristled 2 or 3 times at the descriptions of the young, hip techies — including our supposed heroine, Mae — just blindly accepting whatever shiny new thing their company asked them to swallow (quite literally, in one instance… except it wasn’t even a consensual swallow, which I know sounds dirty, but it just bugged me, and I’d better stop talking before we get into Spoiler Territory).

Maybe I’m just a little touchy about all the “Millennials blah blah this,” and “Snake People blah blah that,” swirling around in the media these days, but the assumption that pretty much everyone, but especially almost all young adults would just unquestioningly accept some of the shit that went down in The Circle really rubbed me the wrong way. Things like SnapChat exist primarily because there is already a widespread  understanding of the need for some level of privacy or erasability among the up-n-coming generations.

Mae, the main character is… annoying in a sympathetic sort of way. She’s self-centered and often purposefully oblivious to actual human communication, ready to lie (even to herself, especially to herself) in even the most ridiculous circumstances (even when she’s being “transparent”, especially when she’s being transparent), and she has terrible taste in men. Unfortunately, she genuinely thinks she’s doing the right thing in most situations, she wanted so badly to get out of her home town that she took a huge risk to make it happen, and she often wishes that someone else would make important/confusing decisions for her… which I all find embarrassingly relatable.

Speaking of terrible taste in men… there was one “twist” in particular that I didn’t find at all surprising, and I won’t say too much about it in order to avoid spoiling the plot for potential readers — except to say that it should be obvious to just about anyone who isn’t an oblivious idiot like Mae. Once I had this figured out, nothing at all about the rest of the novel was a surprise. There are some plot holes related to this particular revelation, too.

– – –

So… why 3 stars? Because despite all of that, I practically devoured the book. I stayed up too late reading it and couldn’t stop thinking about it after working through a few pages during my lunch break.

Even a week after finishing it, I kept thinking about it. I got more and more irritated with the premise and the bleak assumptions about human nature, but I kept thinking about it, and that’s something.

The plot pacing is addictive. The insidious way that a giant tech company can fool the world (starting with itself) into believing that it cares is depicted in a perfectly creepy way (… and yes, I’m writing this on a Google platform). Warts and all, it’s still a well-written, provocative book.


– – –

Publication information: Eggers, Dave. The Circle. New York: Vintage, 2014. Print.
Source: A gift from my local public library for Galveston Reads.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.