Foodies Read 2015

January 4, 2015 Books 0

Another reading challenge?! Yes, well, I had a hard time narrowing down exactly which ones I wanted to participate in this year. I think limiting myself to 3 challenges (this one, the TBR Pile Challenge, and the Classics Club) is quite reasonable.

The Foodies Read challenge is all about food-focused books, of course. This is one “genre” (really a collection of genres) that I very much enjoy but that I haven’t really focused on in the last couple of years. Yes, I’m one of those weirdos who reads cookbooks for fun, not just for the recipes!

I’ve posted a permanent Current Projects page where I’ll track my progress, but I wanted to write a little bit about why I chose each of the 5 books on my list for this year.

Vegetarian cooking for everyone by Deborah Madison (1997)

This chunkster of a cookbook has fantastic reviews and, from what I can tell, is widely considered a “classic” in the veggie-foodie world. I only just now realized that a revised + expanded edition just came out in 2014, but the edition I have was printed in 2007. Bonus: the chef / author has a really lovely little blog

Cooking for geeks: Real science, great hacks, and good food by Jeff Potter (2010)

I think this was one of the very first e-books I ever purchased on my Nook Color, a Christmas gift from my mother back in 2009 or 2010. I’ve flipped through it a few times but for some reason have never actually sat down to just read it. Maybe I’ll even try a few recipes.

The road to Dr Pepper, Texas by Karen Wright (2006)

This is the story of the Texas-famous Dr Pepper bottling company in Dublin, Texas (the “Irish Capital” of the state). I bought this book in Dublin several years ago… the sad thing about this is that the Dublin bottling plant is no longer allowed to produce their famous cane sugar Dr Pepper.

French lessons: Adventures with a knife, fork, & corkscrew by Peter Mayle (2001)

I got a full set of Peter Mayle books for super cheap at a library book sale a few years ago, but I haven’t read read a single one of them. French Lessons seems right up my alley — I have a seemingly random fondness for Parisian culture and food.

Relish: My life in the kitchen by Lucy Knisley (2013)

I’ve seen this graphic novel / memoir on several “Best of 2013” lists, plus it was included on the American Library Association’s 2014 Alex Award list (for adult books that appeal to teens). It’s a comic / foodie bio / coming of age tale / cookbook.

Blue – Cookbooks
Green – History
Red – Memoirs

Again, keep an eye on my Current Projects page for updates as the year progresses.

TBR Pile Challenge 2015

January 3, 2015 Books 0

Please note: This post is a copy of my permanent TBR Pile Challenge page. That page will be updated with links to book reviews after I’ve read them!

– – – – – – – – – – – –

I’ve decided to join the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge! Essentially, this involves reading and reviewing 12 books that have been wasting away on the ol’ “to-read” list over the course of the year. Hit that link to go to the Roof Beam Reader blog for more details.

This challenge is different from the Classics Club challenge in a few ways. First, the books don’t have to be “classics” at all, so long as they were published more than 1 year ago. Second, absolutely no re-reads are allowed, no matter how long ago I originally read the book. Third, these are books that I already own (my own rule, not part of the official rules).

Here’s the list!

  1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
  2. The adventures & memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
  3. The little prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1940)
  4. The diviners by Libba Bray (2012)
  5. Reason for hope by Jane Goodall (1998)
  6. Vegetarian cooking for everyone by Deborah Madison (1997)
  7. The astronaut wives club by Lily Koppel (2013)
  8. A year in Provence by Peter Mayle (1989)
  9. Cooking for geeks by Jeff Potter (2010)
  10. Founding brothers: The revolutionary generation by Joseph J. Ellis (2000)
  11. Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr. (2012)
  12. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

And the alternates, in case one of the above shapes up to be too awful to finish:

  1. The secret life of bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2001)
  2. Crooked letter, crooked letter by Tom Franklin (2009)

Well, fully half the list is nonfiction — this is deliberate, a reaction to the certain knowledge that I’ll be reading a lot of fiction, particularly YA, primarily prepub or new titles this year.

The first 3 titles are also part of my Classics Club challenge. I want to read more than just those 3, though, if I have any hope of catching up! I simply don’t own any of the others on that list at present, so they’re disqualified.

I wish I had more SF/F to balance the list a bit, but as it turns out I’ve already read all but 1 of the SF/F books we have and I’ve been relying heavily on the library for the rest.

Blue – Nonfiction
Green – SF/F
Purple – YA or Juvenile
Red – 20th century
Pink – pre-20th century

My True Love Gave to Me
edited by Stephanie Perkins

December 21, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! Today is the shortest day of the year. Also: Merry Christmas, Io Saturnalia, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Festivus, Happy Kwanzaa… did I miss any big ones?

★ ★ ★ ★
My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Romances edited by Stephanie Perkins | October 2014 | Macmillan Children’s Books  (UK edition) | Hardcover £10.99

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me… This beautiful collection features twelve gorgeously romantic stories set during the festive period, by some of the most talented and exciting YA authors writing today. The stories are filled with the magic of first love and the magic of the holidays.

This is truly a sweet little collection of stories.

I was ecstatic to receive this book as part of a “Season’s Readings” giveaway package from Lisa Schroeder. The rest of the books are ARCs (yes, I’ll be reading them or passing them along to the kids in the near future) but this title was published this autumn… just in time for the holidays, natch.

Now, I’m not normally one for Christmas fiction or holiday romances. Thinking about the usual sticky-sugary stuff makes my teeth ache a little. But this was different (mostly).

I mean, it’s a collection of short stories by a group of YA authors — but Perkins and friends all have quite distinct styles and typical content, and really the only underlying connection is the age group their books are marketed too. Curious about who all contributed to this book? Here’s the full list: Holly Black, Ally Carter, Matt de la Peña, Gayle Forman, Jenny Han, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire, Rainbow Rowell, Laini Taylor, Kiersten White, and Stephanie Perkins (editor).

I’ve read a little from almost all of these authors, and nothing included in My True Love Gave to Me was particularly surprising or “out of character” for them. And that is 100% OK! Consistency can be a good thing.

The reason I bring that up is that even though the “theme” of the book is holiday romance, every author approaches that idea a little differently. Looking for fantasy that’s maybe a bit dark? Try “The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link or “The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor. Like a little meet-cute and butterflies in your stomach? “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins and “Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Peña might be fun for you. Prefer a snarky or goofy POV? “What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman or “Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire will do you good.

And even though some of these stories aren’t really my “thing” (crazy parties and heavy drinking in teen-focused stories really throw me off because I never had that kind of experience as a kid), they’re all quick and paced well enough that it didn’t really matter.

Plus, the page edges of this particular edition are Hot Pink for heaven’s sake. I mean, the US edition has a lovely little Christmas scene on the cover, which is just fine. But. Hot Pink is nothing to sneeze at. Kindergarten me would be thrilled who am I kidding, grown up me is thrilled.


Publication information: Perkins, Stephanie, Holly Black, Ally Carter, Matt de la Peña, Gayle Forman, Jenny Han, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire, Rainbow Rowell, Laini Taylor, Kiersten White. My True Love Gave to Me. London: Pan Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Source: Part of a “Season’s Readings” giveaway hosted by author Lisa Schroeder.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

The Barefoot Queen
by Ildefonso Falcones

December 7, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

★ ★ ★
The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones | 2013 (English edition 2014) | Crown Publishing | Hardcover $28.00

It’s January of 1748. Caridad is a recently freed Cuban slave wondering the streets of Seville. Her master is dead and she has nowhere to go. When her path crosses with Milagros Carmona’s – a young, rebellious gypsy – the two women are instantly inseparable. Milagros introduces Caridad to the gypsy community, an exotic fringe society that will soon change her life forever. Over time they each fall in love with men who are fiercely loyal and ready to fight to the death for their rights as a free people. When all gypsies are declared outlaws by royal mandate, life in their community becomes perilous. From the tumultuous bustle of Seville to the theatres of Madrid, The Barefoot Queen is a historical fresco filled with charaters that live, love, suffer, and fight for what they believe.

I was delighted to receive an ARC of the English translation of this book from Crown Publishing via a Read It Forward giveaway! Even in paperback it is much thicker than I expected. This little beauty clocks in at over 650 pages.

Maybe I’ve just gotten too used to reading short’n’sweet YA lately, because between this and my Classics Club choice for last month I’m just a tiny bit exhausted.

I’ve not read any Falcones before now, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. And I’m afraid I don’t speak or read much Spanish at all, so it feels a bit odd to be judging a book in translation without having a good idea of its quality in its original language. Actually, it has been a long time since I’ve read something that was not originally written in English, which makes me sort of sad because I’m sure I’m missing out on some lovely books!

There were a couple of things I really liked about this book. Well, aside from the Crown version of the cover, which is bee-yew-tee-ful.

First, the setting (18th century Spain) is richly developed, and I am such a sucker for good worldbuilding. I have to admit that I know next to nothing about this period in Spanish history or about European gypsy culture, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the historical stuff. But Falcones does manage to make the reader feel immersed in the world of the story, which is usually a sign of well-researched historical fiction.

Second, the characters usually were very realistic. By that I mean that they seemed like nuanced, complicated, and deeply considered beings — not just vehicles for plot. If you don’t feel connected to at least one of the primary POV characters by the end of the book, well, you’re either a psychopath or a robot who needs an empathy software upgrade.

Unfortunately, this second positive point serves to highlight the one big negative point.

The plot moves so, so,      so,                          so                                  s l  o    w  . .  .   .

This opinion may simply be a side effect of my having read so many plot-tastic YA and SFF books in the last year that I can no longer savour the beauty of a “Crock-Pot” plot. I don’t think so, though. After all, I recently enjoyed Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which is heavily padded with Victorian-style flowery language and introspection. The Barefoot Queen is a brick of a book to start with (the copy I was reading clocks in at 650+ pages). If you’re not a nut about either story settings or character development, you’re not going to get a lot of satisfaction out of this book until about 1/3 of the way through when the plot starts to pick up.

I’ve seen some reviews of The Barefoot Queen comparing it unfavorably to Falcones’s other books. As this is the first title by this author that I’ve tried, I can’t make any comparisons. However, this book did make me want to read other Falcones titles — I generally liked it, and if I generally liked The Barefoot Queen then there’s a very good chance I’ll like some of the “backlist” options that are supposed to be of even better quality.


Publication information: Falcones, Ildefonso. The Barefoot Queen. New York: Crown, 2014. Print.
Source: Publisher, via Read It Foward giveaway
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy

November 30, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

★ ★ ★ ★
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy | 1912, Wessex edition (Barnes & Noble Classics edition 2005) | Barnes & Noble Books | Paperback $7.95

When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future.

Just in time for the Classic Club’s “Victorian Literature” theme for November!

Confession time: this book has been toted around in my bag and moved from end table to end table and desk drawer to desk drawer since… July or August? Shameful! But last month a patron at the library where I work stopped by the Reference Desk to ask about our Thomas Hardy offerings, and I mentioned that I had started on Tess — and she said she’d be back to ask what I thought of it, so I thought I’d better do my librarian duty and finish this book!

The season developed and matured. Another year’s installment of flowers, leaves, nightingales thrushes, finches, and such ephemeral creatures, took up their positions where only a year ago others had stood in their place when these were nothing more than germs and inorganic particles. Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings.

I’ve not read any other Thomas Hardy works before, so this book was an entirely new experience for me. More importantly, I was totally unfamiliar with the story. I know, I know — how does a confessed bookaholic (a librarian no less) make it to her late 20’s without knowing a single thing about this classic story?! In any case, once I chose to read it I decided to make a valiant effort to avoid spoilers. Miraculously, I managed to be surprised by the ending of this over-a-century-old book.

Even if I hadn’t known it from the start, I think I could easily tell that this was written in the Victorian time period — not just because of the technology level (horses’n’buggies, etc.) but because of the general style of the prose and dialogue. It reminded me in many ways of the tone or style of Gaskell’s North and South, though TBQH I enjoyed Tess much more than my previous try at Victorian lit.

I think I enjoyed Tess more than North and South primarily because it didn’t seem quite as preachy, even though it does clearly have some sort of moral lesson to impart to the reader. I also fell a little bit in love with Hardy’s poetic descriptions and… well, I don’t know if rumination is exactly the word I’m looking for, but that’s what comes to mind. I’ve even added some favorite quotes to this review, which I’ve never been tempted to bother with before. Clearly, I ought to try out some of Hardy’s poetry in the near future.

Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.

Yes, Tess was quite bleak — not just tragic, as expected, but outright depressing. It was comparatively feminist-humanist in a time when even Queen Victoria herself thought such ideas were folly, which is unavoidably part of the tragedy for my rather liberal modern self.

The poor girl is beset by 2 men who can’t seem to see her as an actual person. The first, seeing her as an object to be won or a plaything to be toyed with, ruins (well, “ruins”) her physically. The second sees her as some sort of idealized figure, a maiden on a pedestal to be worshiped for her natural purity (again, let me employ some sarcasm-quotes: “purity”) and to be made into a worthy wife. The worst of all this is that our titular character isn’t a weak shell of a woman, content to let the winds of fate make her life for her; alas, said winds of fate blow too hard for our fair protagonist to fight them. When she first rebuffs the first man and then disappoints the second, her life accelerates on a downward spiral from which she never recovers.

Tess had drifted into a frame of mind which accepted passively the consideration that if she should have to burn for what she had done, burn she must, and there was an end of it.

This story is about oppression, double standards, and the cruelty of pitting strict social rules against the realities of nature. Tess Durbeyfield is essentially a sacrifice to the small god of Victorian values and progress.

I must confess that I might not have made it through this book without the generous footnotes, endnotes, and comments. Some of the rural dialect was a bit confusing and I’m not particularly familiar with most of the artists, philosophers, and poets referred to throughout the book. All of the little “extras” in this edition were produced by David Galef.

I haven’t seen any film adaptations of the story yet, but I understand that the BBC/PBS made-for-television version is pretty good and faithful to the book.


Publication information: Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005. Print.
Source: Galveston Bookshop
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


November 27, 2014 Home Sweet Home 0

I’m thankful for my job. I work at a decently funded nonprofit, which is practically a miracle in and of itself. I was somehow promoted within 1 year of being hired on there, and regardless of whether I was really ready for that it was an amazing opportunity. And despite not being 100% mentally prepared for that change, I managed to make it work with the help of my officemates, management, and mentors. The majority of the people I work with are excellent coworkers. Furthermore, I generally like what I do and I look forward to going to work almost every workday. For this, I am thankful.

I’m thankful for my husband’s job. He works and volunteers at one of the best science museums in the world and he gets to be around some really amazing stuff all the time. A lot of interesting and outstandingly intelligent people work there with him. Many of his coworkers have evolved into friends and mentors. He gets to make good use of his talents and knowledge, and there’s a possibility of an even better set of job duties in the future. For this, I am thankful.

I’m thankful for our friends. We have friends who live nearby, with whom we go out for pizza or talk about books and videogames or watch movies. And then there are the far-away friends, whom we don’t get to see nearly often enough, but the truest friendships last despite the distance and time gaps. Some friends are parents, with adorable kids who will necessarily grow up to be awesome people because their parents are awesome people. Many friends are childfree like us and our shared freedom is certainly cherished. A few very dear friends have known us since childhood and have for some reason opted to remain friends anyway. For this, I am thankful.

I’m thankful for our family. Perhaps we don’t get to see everyone as often as we’d like, but the love we share is still strong. Our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so on all helped shape us into the people we are today. Our parents, especially, had to put up with quite a lot of mess — literally and figuratively — but they managed to survive the raising of us. My mother is one of the smartest and most determined people I know. And I couldn’t have asked for a kinder, more wonderful set of in-laws. For this, I am thankful.

I’m thankful for our ancestors. This random assortment of people make up our own little piece of the history of humankind. They were Irish, English, French, German, Austrian, Spanish, and so on; they immigrated because they fled war or wanted adventure or saw economic opportunities or needed to start life afresh; they crossed the ocean in sailing ships or steam ships and they crossed the land in covered wagons, by train, or by foot; they were farmers and carpenters and weavers and watchmakers and roughnecks and preachers and journalists. We have inherited some fascinating stories along with our DNA. For this, I am thankful.

I’m thankful for our home. It isn’t ours, technically, but we are lucky enough to have a fairly laid-back landlord — and even more lucky to share this place with decent neighbors. The dog has his very own back yard. The garden includes a spectacularly self-sufficient and overenthusiastic lemon tree. We have plenty of room and lots of interesting stuff to fill it up with. We have electricity and clean water, which are 2 things that far too many people still have to do without. For this, I am thankful.

I’m thankful for my health and for the health of the people I care about. Neither I nor my husband have suffered any terrible injuries or devastating illnesses over the past few years. We don’t take care of our bodies like we should, it’s true, but we’re both getting better about that. The health insurance our jobs provide gives me peace of mind. And even though our parents and some friends have dealt with health problems recently, they all came out OK (or at least not dead, which is almost the same thing if you look at it from a certain angle). For this, I am thankful.


San Diego

November 22, 2014 Adventures 0

We recently went to San Diego. Just for fun — no special occasion or big event, just a much-needed vacation. A much – much – needed vacation. I even stopped checking my work email after a couple of days.


We had an early morning flight. I’m not normally happy about early mornings, but the nice thing about this arrangement was that we had several hours in the afternoon and evening to just unwind and bum around. We stayed at the Bristol, which is a pretty nice little place within walking distance of the old Gaslamp District.


We ate dinner at Asti Ristorante, an amazing little Italian place on 5th Ave. We liked it so much, we went again later in the week with Gary’s parents. We also walked around Balboa Park for a little while, but we saw much more of it the next day.


Balboa Park is a massive park and cultural center in the middle of San Diego. Besides a bunch of paths and your typical parky bits, it includes several small museums and galleries and shops and things.


We went to the Museum of Man, which is, well, what it sounds like — a collection of exhibits focusing on the natural and cultural history of the human species.

They were hosting a special exhibit called Instruments of Torture. The lady who sold us our tickets suggested that we go through that exhibit first and return to the main museum afterwards so as not to end our visit with bad feelings. I’m glad we took her advice. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t regret going. But it was a bit of a downer, to put it mildly. I had to stop reading the descriptions about halfway through because I was afraid I might cry or barf… there’s a reason they won’t allow young kids in this exhibit. No photos allowed, either.

The rest of the Museum of Man wasn’t nearly as depressing. A new exhibit was under construction, so we didn’t get to see the whole place. But we did see BEERology (an exhibit about the history of beer, natch), some Mayan stuff, some native California tribal stuff, and some Egyptian stuff. This museum was much smaller than what we’re used to, but I think they definitely made the most of their space.


That afternoon we went to the Birch Aquarium out in La Jolla. This aquarium is actually part of UC San Diego. It was absolutely lovely. We got some great photos!

SanDiego_4 SanDiego_5 SanDiego_6 SanDiego_7 SanDiego_8 SanDiego_9 SanDiego_10

That evening we walked down to the Gaslamp District again and had dinner at a place called The Tipsy Crow. We shared a mac’n’cheese bread bowl — yes, just a giant bowl made of bread stuffed with mac’n’cheese and topped with bacon. It was just as delicious and terrible as it sounds.


This was our first day at the San Diego Zoo. We got a 2-visit pass; this would also have been good for 1 visit to the zoo and 1 to their Safari Park, but we decided to just stick to the zoo. I’m glad we did. Anyway, I’ll be writing a separate zoo-only post pretty soon, so if you’re interested in animal pictures keep an eye out for it!

We had dinner at Yard House, a huge 2-sided bar with about a bazillion beers on draft (my husband’s idea of heaven); I had my first ever shrimp ceviche, which was delicious, and we shared some spicy queso, which was pretty good too. We stopped at The Hopping Pig “gastropub” for dessert (amazing chocolate cake, and yes I ate the whole thing by myself, and no I’m not sorry) and then went to Tipsy Crow again afterwards. I confess that I didn’t feel so hot the next morning….


I convinced Gary to take me to the San Diego Central Library on Friday morning. This library is nine (!!!) stories tall — it even houses a high school on 2 floors. The building is only about a year old, and it seemed pretty well-funded as far as public libraries go. They even have a 3D printer! Color me impressed.


We wound up at Seaport Village in the afternoon, where we did a bit of shopping (shoutout to the Upstart Crow bookshop!) and had lunch at Edgewater Grill. We met Gary’s parents at Asti Ristorante for dinner. We stopped in at a highly recommended, trendy little place called Analog for drinks, but they were converting to a dance club for the rest of the evening so we ended up at the Blarney Stone Pub instead. And I’m glad we did. It was much more laid back and the friendly, attentive bartender was actually from Ireland!

SanDiego_12 SanDiego_13

This was our second visit to the zoo, this time with my in-laws. I’m so glad we got to hang out with them at the zoo all day. Spending time with far-away family and seeing super interesting animals from all over the world? Yes, please! Again, keep an eye out for an upcoming post of just a ton of San Diego Zoo photos.


The four of us wandered over to a simply amazing Thai restaurant called Rama for dinner. I had the special duck curry and I can’t even begin to describe how delicious it was. And the atmosphere was perfect; the entire back wall was actually a waterfall and even though the tables were a tiny bit crowded they were separated by long, sheer curtains so it felt pretty private anyway.


Our last day in San Diego was pretty relaxed. The first stop was Coronado, a little (but upscale) beach town town near the main city. I think my favorite shop was Bay Books. Probably no one is surprised that my favorite shop was a book store.


Later that afternoon I popped into a dress shop that caught my eye earlier in the week — Tatyana, a little retro/vintage style place with some super cute stuff and a BOGO sale going on. Alas, I couldn’t find anything that fit. Oh, they carry up to size 4XL, but the problem is that they’re all straight sizes and I’m just too weirdly shaped for them. So that was disappointing but it is incentive to get back to my sewing projects!

The bartender at the pub we went to the night before actually recommended another bar to us: The Shout House, a dueling piano place. You know if a bartender recommends another bar it must be pretty good. I was not disappointed. We got there a little after 7 PM and we stayed until they closed the place at about midnight. The musicians were super talented and very funny, and the food was fantastic too — I tried the Belgian waffle and got a side of fried chicken and this meal was a close second to the Rama curry!


The flight home on Monday was uneventful (thankfully), and our cat was super happy to see us. We picked up the dog the next day. Now it is time to return to “real life”… and yes, this special little face was one of the things that we came back to!


New Texas Wildlife

November 10, 2014 Geekery, Museum Musings 0

The Houston Museum of Natural Science recently reopened their Texas wildlife exhibit. The old exhibit was in dire need of some TLC — one of the dioramas had been so ravaged by moths that it was closed off for at least 3 years and many of the specimens were damaged beyond saving. The new exhibit abandons the “old school” style of neatly lined up, glassed-in shadow box style scenes in favor of something more like the museum’s contemporary paleo hall.

The visitors are meant to feel that they are walking through the displays rather than past them, as though they are nearly interacting with the animals. And in some ways it really is an interaction; several of the animals are animatronic and their movements are apparently triggered by viewers passing nearby. It was rather startling at first!

Before we get to the photos, I have to make a couple of apologies!

First, though it has been about a month since we went to California, I haven’t yet posted anything about that particular trip — a post or two on this subject should be up soon.

Second, most of the photos I took in this new exhibit were so blurry as to be completely unusable, and though I did my best to sharpen them up, the photos below really aren’t top quality. I don’t know if there was something on my lens or if I just had the shakes from too much coffee or what.

Enough blather — now for a few photos!

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by Garth Nix

October 27, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

It’s here! It’s finally here!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Clariel by Garth Nix | HarperCollins | October 2014 | Hardcover $18.99

Sixteen-year-old Clariel is not adjusting well to her new life in the city of Belisaere, the capital of the Old Kingdom. She misses roaming freely within the forests of Estwael, and she feels trapped within the stone city walls. Clariel can see her freedom slipping away. With the discovery of a dangerous Free Magic creature loose in the city, Clariel is given the chance both to prove her worth and make her escape. But events spin rapidly out of control. Clariel finds herself more trapped than ever, until help comes from an unlikely source. But the help comes at a terrible cost. Clariel must question the motivations and secret hearts of everyone around her – and it is herself she must question most of all.

OK, so maybe reviewing a book that I’ve been looking forward to for ages isn’t quite fair. I haven’t finished my “super secret” committee reading homework and there’s still a small stack of ARCs and hot-off-the-press titles awaiting my attention. But come on — when you’ve been waiting this long for another book in a beloved series, isn’t it totally acceptable to drop everything and devour it as soon as you get your hands on it?

Clariel is a prequel of sorts to Garth Nix’s popular Abhorsen series. I first read Sabriel, the first book in this series, about a decade and a half ago. “What is this?!” I can hear you ask. “A teen book series from the 1990’s? Pish-posh! The youths won’t like a thing like that!” You are apparently an elderly British man who doesn’t understand kids these days, in my head. In any case, I think it is a mistake to dismiss Clariel as simply an addition to a too-old-to-be-hip series. Though in recent years YA SF/F trends have veered away from so-called high fantasy towards paranormal and fantasy lite, there are still plenty of “classics” that’ve stood the test of time (perhaps Tamora Pierce is the most obvious example) and new titles that buck the trend and still manage to come out on top (Seraphina by Rachel Hartman comes to mind). I think the Abhorsen series isn’t going to be forgotten, and in fact it is ripe for rediscovery by this upcoming generation. Clariel is a great gateway for that rediscovery.

It isn’t necessary to have read the previous Abhorsen books to get what’s going on in Clariel. I had every intention of rereading the series prior to the newest book’s release, but that didn’t happen and as soon as I had this pretty new hardback in my hands I had to dive right in. Since it is set prior to the events of the rest of the series, there aren’t any major plot points you’ll miss out on if you choose to read Clariel first. There’s plenty of world-building too, which I can definitely appreciate (I love, love, love some good world-building) — and maps galore! MAPS. Maps are so awesome.

That said, I do think you’ll enjoy it more if you’re already at least a little familiar with the series. As it turns out, the title character does make an appearance in previous books in the series. We also get to meet a certain mischievous feline-ish character again, whom fans of the series will certainly recognize. I don’t want to post spoilers here, though, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

This story is a kind of “slippery slope” narrative, with a focus on the consequences of taking away a person’s choices. What happens if a strong-willed and talented young person isn’t allowed to choose her own future? What happens when the hunter begins to feel pity for the trapped but dangerous creature she hunts? What happens when someone tries to use an unpredictable, chaotic power in the pursuit of saving the very thing that keeps that power under control? These are some of the questions that Nix explores in Clariel.

That said, it is practically inevitable that an addition to a series after so long a gap (the 3rd book having been published about a decade ago) is going to be at least a little bit controversial. Even though I loved Clariel, I admit that I may be viewing it through rose-colored glasses because Sabriel was one of the first SF/F I read and Nix was partially responsible for my lifelong love of the genre.

I also want to specifically thank a friend of mine (you know who you are) who ever so kindly picked up a signed copy for me! The author came to Houston a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t in town and couldn’t make it to the event, but my friend was kind enough to grab this book for me.


Publication information: Nix, Garth. Clariel. New York: Harper, 2014. Print.
Source: Purchased for personal collection.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Empire of Sin
by Gary Krist

September 21, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Empire of sin: A story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle for modern New Orleans by Gary Krist | October 2014 | Crown Publishers, a division of Random House | Hardcover $26.00

Empire of Sin re-creates the remarkable story of New Orleans’ thirty-years war against itself, pitting the city’s elite “better half” against its powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, perversity, and crime. This early-20th-century battle centers on one man: Tom Anderson, the undisputed czar of the city’s Storyville vice district, who fights desperately to keep his empire intact as it faces onslaughts from all sides. Surrounding him are the stories of flamboyant prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, dissolute jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all battling for primacy in a wild and wicked city unlike any other in the world.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I hadn’t read any Gary Krist books before now. In my defense, my TBR pile is a pretty intimidating mountain and there are only so many hours in a day. But that TBR pile just got a little bigger, because I now feel compelled to add the rest of Krist’s books to it!

I opened this book without any preconceived ideas of the history of New Orleans. Oh, I knew the basics: it was a French and Spanish colonial city, a major port for immigrants and trade, and rather infamous for the level of debauchery tolerated in certain districts. And really, that’s all you need to know before jumping into Empire of Sin — it’s a book for anyone who’s curious about crime, politics, music, and big personalities in  “The Big Easy” after the Civil War, not just already well-versed historians.

Empire of Sin is written almost like a true crime novel… if you count “playing jazz music” or “being Italian” as a crime, which apparently many powerful people in New Orleans did. There are plenty of sordid details about prostitution and gambling in the city’s legally specified sin district, but Krist also writes about racial tensions, class and wealth and social mobility — or lack of it, murderers and serial killers, and the birth of a new kind of music on top of it all. There’s plenty of tension when the author treats the reader to detailed narrative walk-throughs of particular crimes or incidents, but the scope of the book is actually pretty broad and covers quite a lot of ground. Also included are several photos and other illustrations as well as quotes from newspapers and eyewitness accounts (which I simply love). The author obviously did plenty of research.

One of the things I really liked about this book is its careful avoidance of outright moral judgement. For example, Josie Arlington, prominent madam of a relatively high-class brothel, is treated as not just an ignorant slut or pathetic “fallen woman” but as an actual person with complicated motivations and practical business sense.  The author doesn’t shy away from the problems that were caused or intensified by the rise of Jim Crow laws in the city, either. Black and mixed race merchants, craftsmen, and artists who had enjoyed comparative economic and social freedom even during and immediately after the Civil War began to be denied privileges and even basic human rights as institutionalized racism became more common. Members of the white upper classes aren’t necessarily villainized, though; Krist is careful to explain their motivations from their own points of view, in terms of protecting their families from vice and making their city a safe place to live and conduct what they thought of as ethically acceptable business. It’s an old story, and one that continues in a modern form to this day all over the country.

All in all, this is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone who is used to reading fast-paced thrillers and mysteries but is looking for a little nonfiction for some balance in their reading diet. I think it’s also an obvious choice for folks who are interested in Southern history, especially post-Civil War social problems and even the history of jazz and associated forms of music. It’s also a good starting point for anyone who needs to do some serious research into this particular time and place, as it includes a lovely bibliography and plenty of helpful source notes.


This is a partial draft version of a full review that was submitted for publication to the Galveston Daily News in October 2014. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer.

Publication information: Krist, Gary. Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. New York: Crown, 2014. Print.
Source: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher via a Goodreads giveaway.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.