July 31, 2012

Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I think the biggest lesson we can take from Martin's books is never get attached, ever.  And that's all I'm saying about that.  Storm of Swords is the third book in the Song of Fire and Ice series.  If you haven't read the first two books then reading this review will be a waste of time for you, you have to start at the beginning or be hopelessly lost.  Heck, I've read them all in order and I still get lost at times.

Storm of Swords pretty much takes up after where the second book left off.  Joffrey is still in power while Robb is slowly losing ground in the North.  Sansa is married off to Joffrey's uncle Tyrion in an effort to secure some sort of claim to the North.  Arya finds herself in the care of The Hound and while she wants to kill him, she also know she needs him to survive.  Jon is busy in the North, running with the wildlings and trying to figure out what his next step will be.  Daeynerys has her dragons and is slowly building an army.  And like the other books, everyone is plotting and planning and wanting the throne for themselves.

There are a lot of characters in this book.  So much so that I can't keep track of them all the time.  So I stopped trying to and that actually made the book a little more enjoyable as a result; not as much stress.  The important ones are easy to remember and my definite favorite is Daenerys.  She has a lot of strength but is also trusting.  My least favorite characters would be the Lannisters, with the exception of Tyrion.  I know I'm not supposed to like them but I just can't stand reading about them.  Everyone else is just so much more interesting.

The plot, like always, is brutal.  There is a lot of murder, rape, war, cussing, you name it.  It's as real as it gets and Martin does not hold back.  This time though there is a lot that is happening and it's kind of a whirlwind ride.  The story bounces back and forth between most of the main characters so you're continually being drug around in the timeline too.  But despite this, it remains fairly consistent and you aren't too lost when you come back to a certain character and their point in the story.  I do think this book could have easily been split in two, it's quite large and there is a lot happening.  Although it wouldn't have slowed the pace down at any rate, all the actions here would happen no matter if it were one, two or three books.

I liked it and will continue to look forward to the next in the series.  It's a solid fantasy to be reading and intriguing as well.

Storm of Swords
Copyright 2000
924 pages

July 28, 2012

Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut by Salma Abdelnour

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program**

I've never really thought about Beirut, or even Lebanon much before. Sure I can point to them on a map and I know a little bit, but it's one of the areas of the world that never really captured my attention. I now think that should change, and thanks to this book, I know a little more.

Salma was born in the United States, but with her parents, moved to Lebanon at a very early age. Then, when civil unrest made it dangerous to stay, her parents moved she and her brother back to the United States, to Texas. But she's always felt the longing for Beirut and decides to move back there for a year. Luckily her career as a journalist and writer allows her to do so, even though she'll have to leave behind a relationship to uncertainty and find her way around a city that hasn't been her home in awhile. But as she stays she meets with friends and family, learns about the political unrest and problems the city still has, and samples amazing food.

There is a lot of people to keep track of in this book. Salma is easy enough, since she's the writer, but I never feel as if I'm really getting to know her outside of her relationship woes. Her other feelings just seem to take a back burner. There's a little there, but not as much as I thought there would be. The rest of the people are her friends and relatives and there was just so many that I couldn't keep track of who was who or really gain interest in any of them.

What did capture my interest in this book was the descriptions of the food. I could feel my stomach rumbling as I read and the only thing in my city is a Greek restaurant, which was not nearly the same but the closest I could get. (Yes I did take a break from reading and went to get some food). Everything just sounded so delicious and Salma did a great job describing the different Lebanese dishes. She even included some recipes at the end. I also like the way she touched on the social and religious problems in Beirut. It was enough to make you realize that there are still problems with it, but it wasn't a predominant thing in the book. Which made the book more of an enjoyable read rather than a political one.

An enjoyable read. It made me want to visit Beirut and explore (and eat the food), but I also learned a lot more than I would have expected to about Lebanon.

Jasmine and Fire
Copyright 2012
325 pages

July 22, 2012

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

I must say, I enjoyed this one even more than the first.  I had mixed feelings about that one.  A Clash of Kings is the second book in Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series.  As it is the second you have no hopes of understanding it unless you've read the first.  And I can't even begin to summarize the first for you as there is so much detail, characters, etc. packed into each of these novels.  So, if you haven't read it, you need to go start there.

For those who have read the first book, Clash of Kings starts where that one left off and takes up the storylines of all the characters.  Sansa and Arya each have their struggles renewed while Sansa remains a prisoner of the young King and Arya joins a band of people headed to take up the Black of the Night's watch.  Daenerys has her dragons, and now seeks to take back the kingdom that was her families, but is having trouble finding the help to do so.  Four kings all try to rule the seven kingdoms, Joffrey the young King, Stannis and Renly, brothers of the slain King, and Robb of Winterfell in the North, who was proclaimed by his own men.  They all have reasons for wanting the throne and must look to their backs as there are traitors everywhere.  The Game of Thrones is still played, and played more deviously by some more than others.

There are a lot of characters in this book.  So much so that it's hard to keep track of them all the time.  My favorites by far are Tyrion and Daenerys.  Tyrion is just so cunning and amusing and you're never sure of his motives so he stays interesting.  And I root for Daenerys to get her kingdom back.  The other kings aren't doing a very good job of it and I think she could be much better.  Plus she has dragons, which quite frankly is awesome.  I'm not a big fan of Joffrey, the Queen or Sansa, but I don't think I'm supposed to really like any of them, except for Sansa anyway.  The others I don't really care either way, which is probably a good thing with the high mortality rate in all of Martins books.  It isn't a good thing to become too attached to a character.

The plot was almost kind of filler in this book.  Yes, things happened, battles were fought, but it didn't seem like the book ended any plotlines.  There was just more stories found and different adventures started and always more and more intrigues.  It is hard to follow sometimes.  It did make me look forward to the next book though, I have to see what happens and who wins, etc.  It should be warned that this book doesn't hold back on violence, sex, murders, language, etc.  It's all there and not for the reader who doesn't enjoy these things. (Or rather not enjoy but tolerate).  But it serves it's purpose, the book is gritty and realistic because of these things.

A good continuation of the series.  I'll definitely keep reading and look forward to the next book in the series.

A Clash of Kings
Copyright 1999
761 pages

July 18, 2012

The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook by Emily Ansara Baines

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine program**

Ok, for the moment I'm going to ignore the fact that the way this book is tied in to the Hunger Games series is to regurgitate different quotes and situations from the book, find a relatable food and go from there. I'm going to look at it from it's stance as a cookbook, and the food that you prepare from it. We'll get into the whole Hunger Games thing later.

The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook has 9 chapters and an appendix. The appendix is largely a listing of herbs. There are also acknowledgements and an index and an About the Author section.

The first chapter, Breakfast of Champions, is just what you'd expect it to be. A chapter about breakfast foods. There are such sundries as orange muffins with sweet preserves to a Sumptuous Sausage Sunrise dish. The Fearfully Fried Potatoes (and yes I realize exactly how cheesy the dish names are) were standard fried potatoes. In fact, I was scratching my head a little at why they were included in this cookbook. The Orange Muffins with Sweet Preserves I made as well, and they were very very sweet. The texture was not muffin like though, but more like a very dense cake. The preserves made to go with it filled the equivalent of a regular sized jelly jar, and was way too much to go with the muffins, unless you made ten batches of muffins. The Fruit Frenzy was actually pretty good, but then again it was just a fixture of blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and pineapple. Which is very standard. Cheese Souffle for the Spoiled Snackers was a light dish, and it had a decent taste, but wasn't really something that was sought after in my house. I do have to say that the Cheesy Meaty Hash Brown Casserole was very good and very easy to make.

Chapter 2 outlines bread, which in the Hunger Games is kind of important, so it's a large chapter. It even has a recipe for bread involving seaweed. I didn't really try too much from this chapter, I already have favored recipes for some of the breads included in here, and I'm not much of a bread eater. I did try Katniss's Craved Cheese Buns, but found them very sweet for a dish that was incorporating cheese.

Chapter three involved soups, stews and salads. A Wild Dog stew is including in this listing, but let's face it, who is going to actually get a wild dog to make the stew (even if it does say you can substitute beef). I made the Raging Wild Mushroom Ragout, and while it was simple to make it didn't have a lot of flavor. I also had to add some noodles to it, because on it's own, it just wasn't the meal that the author claimed it was. Rue's roasted parsnips were very time consuming and the reward for all that time spent was a very light flavored dish that wasn't worth it.

Chapter Four is entitled Humble Beginnings and is the chapter for small dishes. To me these could be considered sides or appetizers. The Creamy Bashed Potatoes confused me, I couldn't figure out why they were called bashed when all it was was mashed potatoes. The Capitol Creamy Spinach Fettuccine, like most dishes in this book, didn't have a lot of flavor. And The Propos Grilled Cheese Sandwich was a regular grilled cheese, nothing special about it.

Chapter Five was all about seafood. It was probably the shortest chapter and I only tried one dish, the Spicy Seafood Gumbo, which was actually pretty good, but very very spicy and might not be able to be handled by those who don't like their foot that hot.

Chapter 6 was titled Don't Call Me Chicken, Poultry Dishes for the Brave. There were a lot of recipes in this chapter, but surprisingly, most just didn't jump out at me. I made the Monterey Jack Cheese, Bacon, and Green Chili Stuffed Turkey Breasts, and surprise surprise, it was bland. I also noticed that the cooktime was way off for the dish too. I used think pieces and it still took much longer to cook than the recipe said it would.

Chapter 7 covered meat as well, this time in Lamb, Beef and Pork. And for such a large selection of dishes that can be made from these items, this was a shorter chapter as well. I did make the Beef Strips from the Backpack and it wasn't too bad. At the very least, it was easy to make.

Chapter 8 is the controversial one. The Wild Game section. Let's forget for a moment that most people just don't have access to this kind of meat (unless they want to scrape it off of the road), this is a chapter that most people would just avoid out of principle. But I'm up to new things, if I ever find a way to obtain a beaver, or tree rat, or whatever, I might give the recipes in here a try. There are some venison recipes, which is somewhat easier to obtain.

The last chapter is Desserts and this chapter was all over the place. I made the Harvest Heirloom Apple Cake and it didn't use the 6 apples it called for. In fact, had I used them the cake wouldn't have held together. So I used half as much and the cake turned out ok and even rose nicely. The Baker's Secret Banana Bread was a standard recipe, but it tasted good and was also easy to make. I think my favorite recipe out of this book was the Brown Sugar Shortbread, it had a very nice taste. The Sweet Sugar Cookies from a Sweetie made a ton more cookies than the 1 dozen the book said it would (and I make big cookies even) but they tasted ok. The same applied to the Big Softie Ginger Cookies. Then came the Opportunistic Strawberry Bread. It turned out horribly. I could tell going into it that it wasn't going to turn out right, but I persevered thinking the author knew what they were talking about. It was dry and crumbly and not bread like at all. It disintegrated when you went to pick up a piece.

So there were ups and downs through the whole book, and the bottom line is, I couldn't see myself returning to this cookbook very much. Most of the recipes just weren't worth the effort or produced weird results. I don't want to have to 2nd guess a cookbook on ingredients and whether or not the author knows what they are doing. I was also confused about who this cookbook was market towards. Obviously it's for fans of the Hunger Games series, but when you look at the recipes they range from wildly complicated to extremely simple, with no rhyme or reason. And that just didn't work for me. If I'm using a cookbook for a souffle I don't want to turn the next page to see how to make a grilled cheese. I think it would have been better to stick with the simple recipes since this is a cookbook geared towards young adults because of the series. At least then it would know what it was instead of having an identity crisis.

So now I'll weigh in on how the book ties to the series. It's awkward. There are little snippets on every page and the titles of some of the recipes are just so hokey that I have to roll my eyes. It was as if the author tried too hard to make it line up exactly and overdid it. I enjoyed the book series and was kind of excited to see the cookbook, but now after having had it for a few months, I'm a little sorry it's sitting on my shelf. I just think that the book could have been more graceful than it was in relating to the series.

Not something I'll refer to often, that's for sure. There just aren't enough recipes that interest me or that I'm confident will actually turn out ok. There are a few good ones, but not enough to warrant promoting the book.

The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo

*This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program*

The whole premise of this novel sounded interesting. Five generations of women, mostly living together, and the oldest being a hundred and twelve. I must confess, even though I know it's fiction I hoped to find the secret to living to such an age in this book. And while it's not in here, there were other secrets that were revealed.

Anna is 112, the 2nd oldest documented person in the world. And she wants to be the first, and even more so, she wants to live to be older than the oldest documented person was, 122. Bets, her daughter, isn't thrilled about the attention it's bringing the family though. A scientist, whom her daughter Callie is much attracted to, wants to study the family. And in doing so he could bring about secrets that she isn't ready to divulge. Her grand-daughter, Deb, is still in prison and it has brought her daughter Erin home for a parole hearing. But apparently the family is meant to grow because Erin comes home pregnant as well. These five women all have their struggles and everything they do in life seems to effect each other.

Some of the women I liked more than others. Anna for example, is hard not to like. She's just too old to get mad at and you have to admire her drive and gumption. Bets, while kind at heart, just wasn't as interesting as Anna, even though she herself is quite old. Callie I didn't like at all, I found her selfish and so was her daughter Deb. Erin, while the focus of a lot of the book, just never really had her character developed that much. I felt like she was just a side note, put there for the sake of a space filler and fifth generation. And their squabbles between each other were just uncomfortable sometimes.

I liked the way the stories weaved in and out of this book. We were taken to some of the women's pasts, to the present, and it all mingled together quite nicely. It could run somewhat slow at times, but was interesting enough that you wanted to keep reading just to see how long Anna would make it. Or at least that's why I kept reading. I can only hope that my grandfather (who is currently 90 and still golfing) lives as long as Anna, although he seems a good candidate for it. It was her story I cared the most about, the others were just filler. I do feel like there were a lot of questions left unanswered and that the book was somewhat unfinished. Unless they are planning a sequel I would have liked for those loose ends to be tied up.

Still, a very good book and one that I enjoyed reading. In fact, I read it in one sitting, it was hard to put down.

The Roots of the Olive Tree
Copyright 2012
320 pages

July 17, 2012

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

*This review is part of the Amazon Vine program*

What's not to like about a dystopian, steampunk, book in feudal Japan? Well, really there's not a whole lot in this book that isn't good, but for some reason, I just had a hard time getting into it. As a side note, my cat is named Arashi, so I got a little smile out of the name used for the griffin in this book.

Yukiko is the daughter of the great hunter for the Shogun (ruler) of their country. In a land filled with toxins produced by the blood lotus, a flower that is a hallucinogen and can be used to make fuel, things have slowly gone from bad to worse. Now, the Shogun has decided he wants an Arashitora (griffin), the only problem is, no one has seen any for hundreds of years. But Yukiko and her father have no choice, they must go hunting for one or risk their lives, and when they do find one, capturing it isn't going to be easy. Through a series of events the griffin and Yukiko must rely on each other and learn more about what kind of world they want to live in.

Yukiko is a good character. She's strong, brave, and manages to get herself into quite a bit of trouble; enough to keep it interesting anyway. But she can also be incredibly naive and wishy-washy. Buruu is a much cooler character. He's a griffin, so that's a little strange, but I really liked his personality. Even the way the author had him "talk" in the book was kind of neat and seemed completely fitting for how a Griffin should speak. I did think the bad guy, while supposed to be menacing, just didn't really make my blood run cold. Some of the side characters did a better job of that because while he talked the talk, he never really did too much where you could read about it. We were just told after of his actions.

The book's pace is kind of slow through the first couple chapters. There's a lot of world building, and while that's important, it made it hard for me to keep with it. Finally, I made myself sit down and really start reading the book and it started getting more and more interesting and the pace improved to where I had to finish it, I couldn't set it down. So at least it ended on a good note. The premise is very unique. While there's all sorts of elements used from other books, they're an odd mix that somehow the author uses very well. I liked how there were fantasy creatures mixed in with steampunk elements. It was unusual. The language was a little strange, not something I'd expect to read for a society set in Japan, it was more American, and slang. And there was even some cursing. I guess I just expected more formal language.

An interesting book, and worth sticking through the slow beginning for. I look forward to the next in the series.

Copyright 2012
324 pages

July 12, 2012

The Littlest Crusade by Desmond Long

**This book was received as a free advanced reader's copy**

I started into this book thinking that it was a fiction book.  Very quickly in though I realized that it was actually non-fiction.  And it's amazing how knowing such a thing can really turn what you thought about a book around on you.  The premise was interesting, but when taken into the context of actually being real, I just didn't enjoy it, and couldn't give the book more than two and a half stars.

The Littlest Crusade is about author Desmond Long's communication with "spirits" after death.  Having recently lost his wife, who could also communicate with the dead, he finds himself in long conversations with her.  He asks her several questions about the afterlife, their stillborn child Tanya, and really whatever comes to his  head.  These conversations later change to be with an entity called "A" where even deeper questions are explored.   I'd probably call this a philosophical book, because most questions are about what it's like after death, what beings of light are, and what happens to the more evil people of the world when they die.  And the answers can get confusing at times as there is a lot that is hard to wrap your head around.  There is talk of Gods and religion and who is right and who is wrong, and who is just on the right path as well.

Now I do believe in ghosts, and to an extent communication with them.  So that part about the book being true doesn't bother me.  What does bother me is that this book is just so inauthentic in the conversations Long has with his deceased wife.  They're so impersonal that it seems like he is talking to a stranger rather than someone he loved.  I just couldn't buy it.  The conversations with "A" are a little better because at least that's someone he wasn't really emotionally connected to.  I could believe their conversations easier.  And his conversations with his daughter, who died before she was born, was also a little strange and hard to believe.  In the context in which he presents the conversations they make sense, but again lack that emotion that one should have when communicating with a loved one.

The book was actually very articulate and well written.  I had no trouble understanding the language but it wasn't overly simplified either.  The ideas were there, and they were expressed through an interview type of style through the book.  There was also a Q&A with the author in the back of the book that was in this same format as well.   I did tire of, in the writing, the use of the IADC hypnosis method he kept mentioning.  This is because it was mentioned quite frequently and always with a little registered trademark symbol afterward.  I almost felt like they were trying to sell me something as a result.  The ideas were intriguing though, and had this been presented differently I might have enjoyed the book quite a bit more.  But my distaste at the way the author communicated with his dead wife, presented to me as being real, definitely made me not enjoy the book very much.  Not to mention the fact that "A" was the one who wanted Long to write this book to me was just strange and not something I'd think a spirit entity would really care about.

Not one I'd recommend, but I'm sure it fits the taste of some people out there.

The Littlest Crusade
Copyright 2012
242 pages