Friday, May 29, 2015

The Candy Shop War - Brandon Mull

Summary:  What if there were a place where you could get magical candy? Moon rocks that made you feel weightless. Jawbreakers that made you unbreakable. Or candy that gave animals temporary human intelligence and communication skills. (Imagine what your pet would say!) Four young friends, Nate, Summer, Trevor, and Pigeon, are befriended by Belinda White, the owner of a new candy shop on Main Street. However, the gray- haired, grandmotherly Mrs. White is not an ordinary candy maker. Her confections have magical side effects. Purposefully, she invites the kids on a special mission to retrieve a hidden talisman under Mt. Diablo Elementary School. However, Mrs. White is not the only magician in town in search of the ancient artifact rumored to be a fountain of youth. She is aware that Mr. Stott, the not-so-ordinary ice cream truck driver, has a few tricks of his own.   (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review: My kids love candy.  All kids love candy.  I've never, in living across two continents, found a kid who would turn down a piece of candy.  And that's boring candy that doesn't even taste good!  So what happens when four friends find a new candy store with the best candy they've ever tasted?  And the owner likes them enough to let them earn special candy ... candy that can make them almost immune to gravity?  They're still kids ... they actually do chores and get the candy!  It's not until they're in a little too deep before they realize that what they're doing doesn't make them feel right.  Perhaps it's the fact that they've addicted their parents and teachers to a fudge that has made them essentially forget about their kids.  Perhaps it's the fact that they've committed a few more crimes than they'd care to admit.  Or perhaps it's because the trusted old ice cream seller has told them that their candy friend is a witch trying to take over the world.  He knows because he's a wizard who's come up against her before.

I'm a fan of Brandon Mull.  I like his imagination.  I like his characters - they're not perfect.  But they're good kids at heart.  They grow, they mess up, they learn.  Most importantly, they are characters that my kids can not only identify with, they can look up to and emulate.  (I love sneaking learning lessons into their leisure reading!  Mwahaha!)  This series is no different - Nate and his friends get hoodwinked by a cheerful, grandmotherly witch and under the justifications she offers them, they find themselves breaking laws, promises, and have to do some serious soul-searching.  Oh, and then there's the whole matter of helping the good guys win and saving the world. 

There is of course a little suspension of reality, but that's what books are for.  I love it when books help my children expand their imaginations, test (in a good way) their moral boundaries, and provide some entertainment in the meantime.  Are these books the next Chronicles of Narnia?  No.  They're not.  But they're a fun series to grab on a road trip or for a day in bed.

My Rating:  Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There is some intense magical battling, some juvenile deception, bullying, and a little insolent behavior.  There are also some magical consequences that can possibly cause a nightmare or two.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

Summary:  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
 (Summary and Image from goodreads.com).

Review: Fad books are tricky little beasts to review.  On the one hand, if you loved the book like so many, you run the risk of your review sounding like every other piece out there.  If, on the other hand, you didn't like the review, you run the risk of not only sounding like either an uncultured swine, a sourpuss, a snob, or angered fans with torches and pitchforks knocking down the door of your blog!

Excuse me while I go release our moat alligators.

Let me start by saying this:  Anthony Doerr is a talented author with a very gripping style.  He is certainly capable.  I wonder, however, if this book was a little too ambitious for his experience of writing, or if it just wasn't as well executed or edited as it ought to be.  Stories with two different protagonists are tricky, especially when the perspective jumps between the two.  But then when the author throws in time jumps, leaping between characters and timelines, it takes a master to maintain a seamless story.  I don't feel like that occurred here.   The big reveal is partially revealed at an earlier point, as the later story line is progressing faster than the flashback storyline.  So when I got to the BIG REVEAl that should have had me clutching my pearls, I shrugged a shoulder.  It wasn't as gripping as I had wished.  Not to mention that it took me a few jumps to get the hang of how Doerr differentiates between his characters' perspectives and their timelines.  (Note: he doesn't really.  Keep sharp.)

The story is sweet.  It's tragic and nostalgic. Doerr presents it in such a passive, assuring voice that I can understand why so many readers are raving about this book.  But could it be more?  Yes.  I believe it could.  Am I sorry I read it?  No, he is an author to keep an eye on.  Is it my favorite book of the year? No, I personally believe it's a little overhyped.

Rating:  Two stars

For the Sensitive reader:  One of the protagonists spends an amount of time in a Hitler Youth school, with all the vicious brutality that goes along with it.  There are a few soldiers with filthy minds and mouths.  There is also a scene where one woman and four girls are raped by invading Soviets.  That scene in particular added nothing to the story at all and may have sullied my view of the book.  I found it so unnecessary, I could have happily put the book down and washed my hands of the whole darn thing right then - at the apex of action.


Monday, May 25, 2015

50 Things You Should Know about the First World War - Jim Eldridge

Summary:  The story of the War, brought to life through illustrations, photographs, diaries, and newspaper reports.

In this illustrated exploration of World War I, readers discover what caused the war and why it eventually affected every corner of the globe.

The key battles, events, and figures are all explored and recounted in succinct and easy-to understand text while illustrations and photographs bring the past vividly back to life. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  I can think of  no better time to review this book than today, Memorial Day.  I know that history is taught differently from state to state, but I remember very little about World War I in my U.S. and World History classes.  I was taught the basics, what ignited the war, who fought whom, why, and who won, but it felt like all we learned was just to set the stage for World War II.

I feel like with the successes of series like Maisie Dobbs and Downton Abbey, visibility and recognition of the First World War is increasing.  At least mine is.  This was the War to End All Wars, it was in memory of the men, women, and children who lost their lives (and those who have since sacrificed so much) that we celebrate Memorial Day and other nations celebrate Remembrance Day on different dates.  How can I allow my kids to just hear the basics, (an assassination, land grabs, Lusitania, the end) and move on?

Eldridge has done an incredible job collecting, designing, and presenting fifty facts (definitely more, but fifty key points) for children.  The layout is incredible -- the background to most of the pages are photographs of the events discussed, but then each page is organized like an infographic.  Timelines of each year of the war are interspersed.  The facts are laid out chronologically within this layout, which was so helpful.  With two children  obsessed with nonfiction books (thank you, National Geographic Kids!) Ive noticed that the infographic is a layout that draws kids in.  Eldridge's relaying of the facts is succinct, but detailed enough that I learned so much more than I had in school.  

A secondary benefit of the book is that Eldridge is British.  I found it fascinating learning about the War from that perspective, since America entered the war near the end.  Not only did it impart a different perspective, important dates and events that are often overlooked in America were given more prominence.

This is one of those books that has become a treasured book almost instantly.  I appreciate the humanity it imparted the history.  I honor the work that went into it, and it greatly increased my gratitude for those who sacrificed so much.

Rating:  Five Stars

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath


Summary:  Joan of Arc’s close companion on the battlefield, one of the wealthiest and most respected men in France, became a notorious serial killer, nicknamed Bluebeard, who performed bizarre sexual rituals, brutal mutilations and murders on hundreds of children.  How could this happen to Baron Gilles de Rais, a Marshal of France, a renowned intellectual, a paragon of the high medieval prince, almost Renaissance in his talents and accomplishments?

There is no clear explanation. There is only speculation. Yet historic evidence indicates strongly de Rais, a returning soldier, suffered from severe PTSD, which perhaps triggered his latent psychopathic personality. His extreme depravity, his shocking fall from grace and explosive end, add fuel to the precept that the barbarity of war turned this celebrated hero into a monster. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)


Review:  My entire knowledge of Bluebeard has typically been fairy-tale based. I knew the story of Bluebeard's wives, but I never thought more about it until I listened to a podcast about the real man. Not a week later, I received a review request, and, my interest piqued, I requested it. I've always had a weak spot for the "man behind the curtain", especially with fairy take characters. 

Ogden is a meticulous researcher and an academic writer. She has done an exceptional job researching fifteenth century France, its customs and quirks, superstitions, politics, beliefs, and battle strategies. As her area of focus was a Marshall of France, she disects the battle strategies and history of the wars with the English, specifically the rise and fall of Joan of Arc. To my surprise, Ogden makes a strong case for de Rais' downfall being strongly linked to the loss of Joan of Arc, who had fought alongside and commanded de Rais in battle. To hear her research so clearly presented was gripping. She posits that his downfall, partially due to his childhood andl lack of moral upbringing, is also closely linked to severe PTSD.  And she makes quite a case.

Her thorough research, however, has a drawback.  No detail is spared in the recounting of his crimes.  Although it takes up a mere chapter in the book, I was left quite literally ill and couldn't even fathom tackling this review for days.  It disturbed me. It disgusted me.  In my opinion, it was wholly unnecessary to recount the atrocities in such vivid, disturbing detail.  I was simply umprepared for how truly evil de Rais was. I don't tolerate violence toward children well, and children were de Rais' preferred victims.  History will never know how many acutal victims perished or suffered at his hands, but estimates are upwards of 140.  

I don't know how I was able to continue reading after that fateful chapter, but I suspect it was because I was determined to see what punishment de Rais would suffer.  The details of his trial, conviction, and sentencing were fascinating.  What sickened me further, however, was that de Rais still considered himself a faithful, heaven-bound Catholic.  Just, no.  However, the differences between Church and State trials were unbeknownst to me and I enjoyed reading the implications of both.

This was a hard book to shake.  There was so much good information in it, but I felt like a little more sensitivity and tact could have been judiciously applied in that one terrible chapter.  Ogden's writing skills are good enough that I feel she could have clearly indicated how evil and how disturbed de Rais was without the sickening and unnecessary detail she divulged.

Rating:  Three stars (I averaged writing style and content.)

For the Sensitive Reader:  Bloody battles, brutal sexual and physical violence toward children, various devient sexual acts ... stay away.  For those who are a little less sensitive, I would still recommend skipping that chapter.  You'll know it when you get to it.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Date Night In - Ashley Rodriguez

Summary: Sweethearts, spouses, and parents Ashley and Gabe Rodriguez found themselves deep into marriage and child-rearing when they realized they were spending most of their evenings staring at their computers. Determined not to let their relationship deteriorate, they instituted a weekly date night and reconnected over simple but thoughtful dishes. Just carving out time to talk, cook, and eat together became the marriage-booster they needed, and now Ashley invites you to woo your partner all over again with food, drink, and conversation. (summary from book, photo from perrysplate.com)

Review: Just to clarify, it IS a cookbook, but it's so much more than that. I have never in my life read a cookbook cover to cover like a novel. Nor has one ever brought me to tears.  When I finished the book I was alone in my bedroom, almost afraid that my kids would come in and see the tears streaming down my face. I hadn't even tried out a single recipe, but judging from the to-do list I jotted down as I was reading, I knew it was going to be one of my absolute favorites.

In Date Night In, Ashley shares sweet courtship stories and weaves you in and out of the past as she tells how she and her husband reconnected through weekly date nights at home. She recreates food memories they shared early in their marriage and even opens up and shares some rough patches they struggled through. Ashley put her whole heart into this book, and I admire the couple's determination to intentionally carve out time for each other. I loved her writing and felt like she included me in her experiences -- as if we were sitting down in a little cafe together as friends. I felt like I really connected with her because our life circumstances are very similar as well as our desire to climb out of the child-rearing trenches and reconnect with our spouses more often. Ashley is also the talented chef and blogger behind the blog Not Without Salt.

Ashley organized her book by season (which I LOVE). Within every season she groups recipes into entire meals, and every meal begins with a personal story. This is what I meant about reading it like a novel. Oh, the stories. They're sometimes super sweet and sometimes a little heart-wrenching, but always beautifully written and meaningful. 

The meal I chose from the book was her Caribbean-Style BBQ Chicken Legs, Mango Miso Slaw, and Thyme and Parmesan Roasted Sweet Potatoes. Also, the Caramelized Pineapple Sundaes with Candied Coconut which turned out to be one of my favorite ice cream sundaes ever.

If you'd like to hear more about the meal (and snag the recipe for those chicken legs), head over to Perry's Plate and read my review over there!

Rating: 5

Sum it up: A cookbook with heart. And a whole lot of delicious content to woo your loved one.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mossflower - Brian Jacques


Summary:  The thrilling prequel to "Redwall". The clever and greedy wildcat Tsarmina becomes ruler of all Mossflower Woods and is determined to govern the peaceful woodlanders with an iron paw. The brave mouse Martin and quick-talking mouse thief Gonff meet in the depths of Kotir Castle's dungeon. The two escape and resolve to end Tsarmina's tyrannical rule. Joined by Kinny the mole, Martin and Gonff set off on a dangerous quest for Salamandastron, where they are convinced that their only hope, Boar the Fighter, still lives. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review:  Brian Jacques is back with another epic adventure in the world of Redwall - but this time, Jacques is introducing us to the legendary Martin and relaying the origins of the Redwall Abbey.

Martin is a warrior mouse that has been driven out of his home by marauding sea rats and is searching for a new home.  He stumbles into an idyllic forest called Mossflower -- well, it was idyllic before the murder of the king and the usurpation of the throne by his daughter, the brutal, insane, and devious Tsarmina.  She's enslaved the residents, is waging war on them as they try to resist, and worse, she's framed her brother for the murder of the king and has taken two little hedgehogs hostage.

Under the direction of Bella the badger, the rightful ruler of Mossflower, borrowing on the courage of Martin and the cunning of Gonff (the prince of mousethieves), they launch a longterm plan to retake the forest, protect their futures, and restore Bella's father Boar to his daughter while they're at it.  

This book is a little more intense than Redwall, and it didn't grab me as much.  I'm not sure if it was my state of mind, or if it was just that the novelty had worn off, but it wasn't as magical as the first.  Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it quite a bit.  I just found it easier to set it down than I did with Redwall.  The story was also a little bit more formulaic - and while it's a successful formula, I would have hope to see a little bit of a shake-up.  Then again, I'm not the target audience, and middle readers like formulas (Babysitters' Club, anyone?), so this may bother your readers less than it did me.

My Rating;  Three stars

For the sensitive reader:  Again, there are battles and deaths, patricide, and one particularly intense battle between an eel and an otter that was truly intense.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Secrets of Life and Death - Rebecca Alexander

Summary:  In modern day England, Professor Felix Guichard is called in to identify occult symbols found on the corpse of a young girl. His investigation brings him in contact with a mysterious woman, Jackdaw Hammond, who guards a monumental secret--She's Dead. Or she would be, were it not for magic which has artificially extended her life. But someone else knows her secret. Someone very old and very powerful, who won't rest until they've taken the magic that keeps her alive.... 

In Krakow in 1585, Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan Alchemist and Occultist, and his assistant Edward Kelley have been summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his niece, the infamous Countess Elisabeth Bathory. But they soon realize that the only thing worse than the Countess' malady, is the magic that might be able to save her...


As Jackdaw and Felix race to uncover the truth about the person hunting her, it becomes clear that the answers they seek can only be found in the ancient diary of John Dee's assistant, Edward Kelley. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying. (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  History.  The Occult.  Vampires, revenants, and the Inquisition.  Oh, my.

Rebecca Alexander's foray into the world of Edward Kelley (a real historical figure) was a truly mind-spinning adventure.  Not only were we jumping between two different timelines, Alexander has done a masterful job explaining the mythology of the world she's created, injecting enough realism into the storyline to make the fantastical seem more tangible, but she has also managed to do so without losing the sense of urgency or reality that her endeavor demands.

The story, which was easy enough for me to follow post-surgery, still twisted, turned, demanded a suspension of belief, and held me on the edge of my seat.

However, this is a horror story.  It's dark.  It's intense.  It's worrisome, but I believe it was well done.  I'm not typically one to dive into the horror genre, so when I do, I demand that the book taking me there is worth the read.  I wasn't disappointed.

Rating:  Three and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This is a horror novel.  There is a lot of what you'd expect in this genre.  If you're a squeamish reader, there are certainly books in the genre that could fit your need (Frankenstein).  But this is more gory than a sensitive or squeamish reader would appreciate.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Boys in the Boat - Daniel James Brown

SummaryThe Boys in the Boat celebrates the 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic eight-oar rowing team—nine working class boys who stormed the rowing world, transformed the sport, and galvanized the attention of millions of Americans.

The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West, the boys took on and defeated successive echelons of privilege and power. They vanquished the sons of bankers and senators rowing for elite eastern universities. They defeated the sons of British aristocrats rowing for Oxford and Cambridge. And finally, in an extraordinary race in Berlin they stunned the Aryan sons of the Nazi state as they rowed for gold in front of Adolf Hitler.

Against the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, they reaffirmed the American notion that merit, in the end, outweighs birthright. They reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together. And they provided hope that in the titanic struggle that lay just ahead, the ruthless might of the Nazis would not prevail over American grit, determination, and optimism.

And even as it chronicles the boys’ collective achievement, The Boys in the Boat is also the heart warming story of one young man in particular. Cast aside by his family at an early age, abandoned and left to fend for himself, Joe Rantz rows not just for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard, to dare again to trust in others, and to find his way back to a place he can call home.
Image and summary from the author's website, http://www.danieljamesbrown.com/

My Review: The Boys in the Boat is the story of the University of Washington rowing team and their quest towards gold at the Olympic games in 1936. Yet it is so much more than this. The story begins in the early 1930's, a time when the United States was suffering through the Great Depression. Times were hard and this story recounts the perseverance these boys' possessed,not only in terms of rowing but in also earning enough money to make it through another year of college year after year. The story paints a vivid picture of life in these times. Earning a dollar often required backbreaking work,building roads in the heat or blasting massive tree stumps or scaling mountains. The story also takes into account the tough living conditions and what family life looked like. It demonstrated the importance of the sport of rowing for both the teams and the spectators alike.

More than anyone this story belongs to Joe Rantz, one of the nine on the winning rowing team. The book documents his childhood struggles. It shows his great work ethic and will. It journeys through his courting of Judy and his very personal family issues. The story does not shy away from Joe's bouts of insecurity, making his character all the more likable and easy to relate to. Viewing the story through Joe's eyes gives it such a personal touch and makes it all the more heartfelt.

Intermingles with the story of rowing are details of Germany at this time when Hitler is coming into power and the country began to change. Lives of both minor and major players in the upcoming war are touched upon. Details of the film star Leni Riefenstahl, who filmed the actual races and captured additional unforgettable footage of Nazi Germany during this time, are mixed in. Although this tidbits are not added in a seamless fashion they do add a greater depth to the tale.

 Time and time again while reading this I found myself amazed a Brown's incredible writing style. Who thought that a book where the ending is well known from the beginning could be so suspenseful. Yet I found myself at the edge of my seat and  holding my breath each time the boys raced, sure that it wouldn't go as planned. This is an amazing story, one that will leave any reader with the utmost admiration for these boys and the others who played a part in their success. You don't want to miss this one.

My Rating: 5 Stars

To Sum It Up: Narrative nonfiction at it's finest. Read it, You won't regret a minute of the time you spend within these pages.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Years of Zero - Seng Ty

Summary:  The Years of Zero-Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge is a survivor's account of the Cambodian genocide carried out by Pol Pot's sadistic and terrifying Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. It follows the author, Seng Ty, from the age of seven as he is plucked from his comfortable, middle-class home in a Phnom Penh suburb, marched along a blistering, black strip of highway into the jungle, and thrust headlong into the unspeakable barbarities of an agricultural labor camp. Seng's mother was worked to death while his siblings succumbed to starvation. His oldest brother was brought back from France and tortured in the secret prison of Tuol Sleng. His family's only survivor and a mere child, Seng was forced to fend for himself, navigating the brainwashing campaigns and random depravities of the Khmer Rouge, determined to survive so he could bear witness to what happened in the camp. The Years of Zero guides the reader through the author's long, desperate periods of harrowing darkness, each chapter a painting of cruelty, caprice, and courage. It follows Seng as he sneaks mice and other living food from the rice paddies where he labors, knowing that the penalty for such defiance is death. It tracks him as he tries to escape into the jungle, only to be dragged back to his camp and severely beaten. Through it all, Seng finds a way to remain whole both in body and in mind. He rallies past torture, betrayal, disease and despair, refusing at every juncture to surrender to the murderers who have stolen everything he had. As The Years of Zero concludes, the reader will have lived what Seng lived, risked what he risked, endured what he endured, and finally celebrate with him his unlikeliest of triumphs.  (Summary and review from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  My goodreads page says it took me four months to finish this book. It didn't. I started the book in December, things got busy, and I picked it up yesterday. And finished it in an afternoon. It stole my breath, broke my heart, and left me filled with hope. 

Ty's story is not an easy one to read. Born to a large family with an educated background in prewar Phnom Penh, his life was devastated when at five years old, the Khmer Rouge took over the city and drove all residents out. Ty fled with his family, was separated from four of his siblings shortly after, and as the youngest, had to watch helplessly as his parents and his closest brother died. He stole to survive, smuggling frogs, snails, or tiny shrimp from the rice fields. He endured mental and physical torture. But he survived. 

He was able to reunite with his surviving family for a time before he realized Cambodia was no longer the place for him. Embarking on his own, at only nine, he crossed the border to Thailand, found a refugee camp, and found himself the focus of a Time article, "The Children of War". This led to his eventual adoption by his American family. 

Ty has seem more and survived more than many of us ever will, but his resilience and his attitude touched me. As he says, "Suffering has demanded that I become better than myself." His further observations  about how doing good and living a full, educated life is the best revenge he could give his former oppressors was so inspiring. Attitudes like that just aren't as prevalent anymore. 

Despite the heavy subject material, this is a fast read. It's obvious that English isn't Ty's first language, but his voice is clear throughout the book, and it somehow purified the narrative for me. I wish I could explain it better. 

The atrocities wrought by the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide are not as familiar to me as others that have occurred in the past 100 years. But I maintain that the burden of educating us falls to individuals like Seng Ty. In this case, he has borne the burden well. 

Rating: Five stars

For the sensitive reader: As a book about revolution and genocide, clearly this is a difficult book. There are numerous recountings of beatings, torture, murder, and the deplorable stare of starvation endured by the people. There are also many mentions of how many bodies littered the roads, lakes, and streams. It isn't for the faint of heart. 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Artisan Caramels - Sandy Arevalo

Summary: Create without the wait! Homemade treats for the holidays don't have to be made from scratch. Skip the baking and get right to the decorating. (Summary and Pic from goodreads.com.  I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

My Review: I’ve never made real carmels before. I’ve made those microwave kind, which are obviously not real carmels, so I was excited to get this book. First off, there are tons of delicious-looking recipes. There are so many different things to try! There are lots of different options, and lots of different recipes that can be modified into even more recipes by adding a different flavoring or topping or cookie crust.

I have to admit, however, that my first go-round wasn’t so smooth. Make that first two go-rounds. I tried to follow the instructions exactly—using all the right ingredients, going to the exact temperature, etc. It was pretty obvious that I had no idea what I was doing. I’m not a novice baker/cook or anything, but I haven’t made a ton of candy in my life, so I was trying to follow the directions exactly. There really isn’t a ton of direction given, but I didn’t feel really lost, despite making such a mess of things. My first batch of carmel was a $10 worth of ingredient failure. And it took forever to make. Forever. Like an hour and a half. And I had somewhere I was supposed to be but I obviously couldn’t just leave carmels a’bubblin on the stove. And then, to add insult to injury, the carmel was so hard that I couldn’t break it (even on my granite counter tops). I took it unceremoniously to my garbage can and dropped it in there where it rested, in one very large unbroken rectangle until it was whisked away to its final resting place. Lather, rinse, repeat again. I don’t learn from my mistakes, obviously.

The second (well, third) batch, I wised up. I bought a nice candy thermometer from Williams-Sonoma and threw away my old glass one with the paper slipping that was, at that point, totally sketch. And then I called my candy making neighbor and asked her about temperatures because it was clear to me that I had cooked it for entirely too long. After a nice chat, I realized that the temperatures in this book were for carmels being made in the Midwest and I live in a totally different climate and altitude than that, so I adjusted accordingly. My next batch, after all of this, turned out great. So great, in fact, that I made another batch of another kind and it was deelish as well.

So the long and short of it:
1.       The carmels, when made right, are delicious. And pretty.
2.       Each batch makes a ton so it uses a lot of ingredients but also you have a ton to share and give away (and then presumably people think you’re cool and a carmel guru).
3.       The book makes no mention of temperatures varying in different areas, but I am here to tell you that that made a huge difference for me, so plan accordingly.
4.       Use a good candy thermometer. It’s worth the investment.
5.       Plan a lot of time when you make the carmels. It takes longer than you’d think.

I’m excited to have this book in my recipe book collection. It’s a really fun addition.

My Rating: 4 stars.

For the sensitive reader: This book is all about sin in the best kind of way.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cheep Laughs - Darren Walsh

Summary:  Darren Walsh, the UK’s first Pun Champion™ and the comedy circuit's Tallest Comedian™, debuts his first and greatest joke book encompassing four misspent years of scribbling and doodling.
Look upon these works and despair and/or giggle:
I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It's Hans free.
Went to my allotment and found that there was twice as much soil as there was the week before. The plot thickens.
Green men make me cross
’My nephew would like to borrow your Toy Story costume.’
‘Oh, Woody?’
If Catwoman decided to go to Nepal, what would Catman do?
Got a free chimney the other day. It was on the house.
K e v i n (Kevin Spacey)

Summary and image from amazon.com.uk.  I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Darren Walsh, the UK’s first Pun Champion™ and the comedy circuit's Tallest Comedian™, debuts his first and greatest joke book encompassing four misspent years of scribbling and doodling.
Look upon these works and despair and/or giggle:
I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It's Hans free.
Went to my allotment and found that there was twice as much soil as there was the week before. The plot thickens.
Green men make me cross
’My nephew would like to borrow your Toy Story costume.’
‘Oh, Woody?’
If Catwoman decided to go to Nepal, what would Catman do?
Got a free chimney the other day. It was on the house.
K e v i n (Kevin Spacey)

Review: Okay, okay, so last year I gave a scathing review for a book that was too full of puns, and today I'm bringing you a book dedicated to them?  What gives?  Well, for starters, Darren Walsh is a British comedian known as the "King of Puns".  He has a mastery of, in my opinion,  one of the more difficult arrows to yield in a writer's shaft.  If not properly executed, or if too plentiful, the puns fall utterly flat, making the author look juvenile or untrained.  This book comes with a warning to NOT read it all at once; rather, to read it in short snippets for fear of getting buried by puns.

I read it all at once. 

I giggled.  I guffawed.  Some puns were either over my head or just didn't culturally translate.  But there were enough witticisms and sketches to keep me happily entertained for a few short hours.  In all fairness, I agree with Walsh.  Under normal circumstances, this is a book best nibbled, not devoured.  However, I'd just had back surgery and didn't have the brain capacity to read anything more daunting, and couldn't sit up to watch a show.  It was a perfect fit!

I read a few of these to my husband and son, and my husband couldn't stop rolling his eyes.  However, I'd see him giggling about them a second or two later.  My son is quite literal, and to our chagrin, doesn't get puns.  At all.  It didn't stop him from giggling -- gotta love the social laugh!

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are some puns and cartoons that are a little saltier than others.   Some could be naughtier than I realized, and I just didn't get the British connotation.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Public School Princess - Augusta Blythe


Summary:
In the world of Hollister Bucksey-Breiten fame, money and power are as prevalent as plastic surgery. Sixteen-year-old Hollister is heiress to the Bucksey real estate empire on her mother's side, as well as a bonafide princess thanks to her deceased royal father. After her troubled mother heads yet again to rehab, the celebutante suddenly finds herself shipped from the privileged halls of Shotley Academy in Los Angeles to a backwoods New Jersey high school. Life at Franklin High isn't what Hollister expects. Instead of being worshipped by her lesser-blessed peers for the usual superficial reasons, Hollister feels ostracized because of them. With the help of her estranged brother and a few new friends, she discovers what's really important not only to her but about her, and that a good heart is her most valuable asset.
Summary and cover art from Goodreads.com

My review:
Cute, predictable, and morally rewarding, this is a book version of a straight-to-video riches-to-rags-but-happily-ever-after movie. The book was a fun, quick read. Hollister was a fun character (think Cher from Clueless) who learns to expect more from herself and sees the good others during her exile to painfully impoverished suburbia.

There’s a little romance, because why not?, but the focus of the story is on Hollister’s transformation from privileged rich girl dealing with her mother’s addictions to empowered young woman making the world a better place by enlisting her new friends in a fashion show to raise money for charity. The concept could make a good episode of Saved by the Bell.

It’s a simple book that reads really young. Like how the High School Musical audience is not really teenagers but 7 year olds? It feels like that. Except there is enough bad language and sexual references to make it inappropriate for audiences younger than 14. There are no outright sexual scenes. The depicted romance is very sweet. But in true 21st century mean-girl fashion, photos of genitalia and sexual acts are texted around in a bullying fashion. Those things are real in modern high schools and I don’t necessarily mind that they were addressed, but the overly simplistic writing style and characterization did not match up with a few of the more mature plot points, making the book feel like it had a bit of a personality disorder. Princess Diaries with a few HBO-worthy scenes thrown in.

My rating: 3 stars

For the sensitive reader: Mild swearing, crude humor, reference to sexual acts, bullying. 


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