January 30, 2013

The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

Barrowcliffe describes Dungeons and Dragons, at the height of its fame, as being played by millions of boys and two girls.  Well, I was one of those girls.  And that's ok, I'm comfortable in the fact that I was and still am, a total nerd.  And a memoir about Dungeons and Dragons in quite unique.

Barrowcliffe was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons at a young age.  And once immersed he stayed in the life for quite awhile.  In fact, he became obsessed with it.  All his pocket money went to D&D figurines, books, and other such fantasy role playing games.  His free time, playing games with large groups or one other person.  And his normal conversation?  Well, it couldn't get out of the Dungeon either, and not many people want to know the hitpoints of a dire wolf.  As he grows he stays immersed in the Dungeons and Dragons world, until finally hitting his twenties and leaving it for what he calls reality.

Barrowcliffe freely admits that he was obnoxious and annoying in this book.  And I have to agree with him.  There were so many times I wanted to roll my eyes or shake my head that I lost count.  And while it makes for a true seeming memoir, it can also irritate because you don't like hanging around those types of people let alone reading about that.  He did describe the other players fairly.  He was sure to list out their bad qualities, but also tell why he looked up to them.  And he gave a bit of an epilogue letting you know what happened to them and if they escaped their D&D addiction.

I was once a halfling cleric named Nyaevae.  If you're already lost at this point you're going to be hopelessly lost while reading this book.  There is a lot of technical language about D&D that someone who's never played before isn't going to recognize.  Sure Barrowcliffe explains some of the terms, but it still would be quite confusing for those who haven't even played one game.  Also, there is some cursing and a little bit of violence and sex in this book, for those that pay attention to that sort of thing.  The memoir itself has some interesting aspects, and it did bring up a lot of old memories.  However, at times I found it boring and tedious as I really didn't care about some of Barrowcliffe's exploits.  Especially since they were repetitive in the fact that he gamed and there was friction amongst the players in the game.  I was also a little sad at how he seemed to look down on the players of the game now, most significantly if they were adults playing the game.  I don't consider myself to be too pitiful and I would still play a game at this age if given the time and opportunity.  Or maybe that says something about me I just haven't realized yet.

An interesting book for all those fellow D&D nerds out there.  You may agree or disagree with Barrowcliffe, but he does stir up the memories.

The Elfish Gene
Copyright 2007
277 pages

January 29, 2013

Empress of the Seven Hills by Kate Quinn

Talk about a punch to the gut! Of course if I knew my Roman history better it wouldn't have been. And just so I'm not leaving you completely in the dark, I am referring to the ending of this book. And that's all I'm saying on that matter.

It's been a few years since "The Mistress of Rome" and Vercingetorix (Vix) is now an ornery boy of eighteen. He leaves the safety of his parents home for Rome where he wants to join the army and make something of himself. He quickly learns that a role there is a long time though and as he makes his decision, takes a job as a guard for an old friend of his parents. There though is the intelligent and intriguing Sabina, daughter of the household, who quickly uses Vix to her own ends. After feeling betrayed he does go and join up to fight and starts making his career on the battlefield while Sabina marries for adventure. Under the rule of Emperor Trajan, a beloved Emperor of the people, they set out on their own destinies, despite a few enemies who would like to see them fall.

Vix is very brash. I was glad to see some growth and mellowing of him in the book but he always is very hard headed and at times weak in his actions. I enjoy reading about him, but sometimes I have to shake my head at some of the things he does. Sabina though, while I admired her for being adventurous, I can honestly say I didn't really like her. She seemed very selfish in some ways and not caring of other people's feelings. Still, I'd rather root for her than some of the antagonists in this story, which was really the whole point of things. I just wish I had felt more connected to her since she was a main character. I much prefer her sister as she grows up, who isn't as adventurous but appears to have a whole lot of heart. I also enjoyed the character Titus who was just self-deprecating enough to be lovable. You could only hope good things for him and I'm eager to find out what happens in his story.

I thought the plot was pretty good. It spanned quite a bit of history and while not entirely accurate (as Quinn admits and gives reasoning for) it does have a lot of good research that went into it. I tired a little of the war scenes, but the character development and non-war scenes made up for it. I guess I'm just cut out for campaigns. And it was nice to see a lot of the characters come back from the previous book. I will warn that there is violence, sex, and other such things in this book. If you don't like that sort of thing, don't read it. I personally think it makes things realistic. The writing style too is more modern, not written in an authentic voice, and rather than it detracting from historical aspects of the book, I feel that it makes it more approachable for the average reader. I will warn that the ending on this book is a cliffhanger, so readers should approach it with caution if they are reading it with still a good chunk of time left waiting for the next one to come out.

A very good book and while I didn't quite enjoy it nearly as much as Mistress of Rome, it was still entertaining. I would definitely recommend Quinn to any historical fiction fan and plan to read her next book when it comes out.

Empress of the Seven Hills
Copyright 2012
486 pages

January 28, 2013

The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend

I read the author's first book, "Hit By A Farm", and really enjoyed it. This one however, felt forced and rushed to me, and I didn't find it nearly as informative or entertaining to read. The author raises some good points, but lacks the follow through to really make an impact.

Catherine Friend runs a sheep farm with her partner Melissa. They are low scale farmers, and produce a small amount of sheep bound for the slaughter as compared to larger farms or factory farms. But because of her daily workings with these sheep, Friend decides to take a more in-depth look at the type of meat she's eating in other areas other than lamb. More specifically, she raises the question of whether she should be eating these creatures if they were not raised humanely. As she explores these questions she looks at research from factory farms, methods used to slaughter animals, and the diet of the average American when it comes to meat.

I'm not going to say that factory farms aren't painted harshly, because they are by Friend. She offers data and research to back up her claims and I don't disagree with her either. She also is careful to mention that just because someone is a small scale farmer, doesn't mean they treat their animals well. There is good and bad animal husbandry at all scales of farming. And she doesn't condemn the people eating factory farmed meat, but offers alternatives and says to start small with a goal to change personal consumption. It's easier to take baby steps instead of going full force into something. As someone who was a vegetarian for almost three years (but alas succumbed to bacon) I agree on many of her points. I've thought about going back to vegetarianism not because I don't like meat, but because I can't afford the types of meat I think I should be eating (sustainable, organic, and humanely raised). I like Friend's compromise in saying that just shoot for one meal a week that would have this type of ingredient to make it more doable.

While Friend has many good points, the book does appear rushed though. We're bounced about from facts, to Friend's own farm and animals, to different methods of slaughter, etc. and are never really set on one specific topic for a great amount of time. It's like she was just trying to get everything on paper and the format suffered a little bit. I found it hard to read continuously even though topics like this usually keep me hooked into a book. Additionally, some of the websites she mentions (but not all) didn't work for me when I tried to type them in. Considering the book isn't that old it is surprising, but such is the way of life in the internet world and books should be careful referencing websites because they can be short lived. I did like that she provided a list of questions to ask a farmer about when looking for humanely raised local meat. I fully intend on referring to those questions when I do have an opportunity to buy meat like that.

Some good facts but a very rushed book. It can also cause a lot of contention between farmers who practice the methods Friend doesn't like in this book and on the other side of the spectrum, her thoughts about compassionate carnivores may not sit well with vegetarians who believe any meat consumption is cruel. There really isn't one right answer for everybody though because as with religion, people's thoughts on food are volatile and everyone thinks that they have the right answer. This is one opinion out of many that seeks a middle ground between no meat and all meat.

The Compassionate Carnivore
Copyright 2008
261 pages

January 26, 2013

Never Be Lied To Again by David Lieberman

I won't quite call this quackery, but I'm pretty dubious as to the actual uses of this book. I even tried out some of the methods in here and even though I knew the people I asked weren't going to lie to me, according to this book, they were. But I'll get into that later.

Never Be Lied To Again goes through all the different ways of lying, how to determine if someone is lying, how to get to them to tell the truth, and other strategies you could ever want to know. It helps determine body language, phrases used by liars, and methods they use to cover up their lies. It also tells you how to coax the truth out by different methods of interrogation or giving people the "easy way" out of a lie. It says that you can get to the truth in five minutes by using these methods.

Ok, well here's the problem. In order to begin to memorize these strategies and use them, it's going to take way more than five minutes. In fact, by the time you get the hang of it, you may not even need the skill anymore. And then there are the dubious ways that you would go about getting the answer you want. A lot of it involves lying yourself, which I've always heard two wrongs don't make a right. And then there's the promising good things will happen if the person tells the truth, without really saying if you should back it up. If you lie about not getting mad, etc. the person is only going to believe you once, and this method will become ineffectual after the second time. In fact, the whole process for ferreting out a lie seems sleazy and relationship damaging. Especially if the person you suspect is lying, is telling the truth.

Then there's the recognizing if someone is a liar or not. There are some well known truthful ways to determine that in here. For example, body language and no eye contact. But then there's the little test I ran. The book says that if someone is recalling a memory, they look up and to the opposite side of their dominant hand. If they are making it up, they look up and to the same side as their dominant hand. I walked up to my mother (who did not know the book I was reading) and asked her what the color of her first car was. She looked up and to the left (she's left handed) and said that it was copper. And she has the pictures to back up the fact she was telling the truth. Ok, that was one time, I did the same thing with my brother, asking him a memory question and he looked me straight in the eye when he answered. So to me, even though I know this wasn't a full experiment, it was a pretty big clue that not everything in this book is true or useful.

Another criticism I would have is that aside from a couple sentences, the book doesn't go into socio-paths, mental disease, and other types of people that this book would have no bearing on. If you don't care that you're lying, believe your lie is the truth, or are convinced that your lie is in the best interest of everyone, nothing is this book is going to work at ferreting out that lie. And having been in a relationship with two liars, one of which would probably have admitted to things using a couple of the applicable yet sleazy methods in this book and one who was a socio-path and lied because he had no care of its effect, I can say firsthand that it is the second person who scares me the most. Not the first. Lies, while they hurt, are easier to deal with than someone who can lie without impunity and not care about its effects.

To just comment on the overall writing style of the book. It's written in a clear precise way with bullet points outlining the helpful steps and tips. I can't find fault with the way the book is formatted. It also reads simplistic, and easy to understand for most anyone who would pick this book up.

I know I sound rough on this book, but I really didn't find it helpful at all. I would never practice the methods here for fear of becoming a worse person (and a liar) myself. If I suspect someone of lying and need to use the methods here, it's probably best I don't associate with that person at all instead of going through all the trouble this book suggests. Not a book I would recommend to anyone.

Never Be Lied To Again
Copyright 1998
205 pages

Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

I love food. Any type of food, and I love the gadgetry that comes with the preparation of food. Some new kind of blender? I want to see it. A trip through the antique store to check out old egg beaters and mandolines? I'm there. But I never really thought about some of the basic stuff, which this book explores.

The author takes eight chapters and breaks down certain kitchen sciences and inventions into histories. The chapters are as follows: Pots and Pans, Knife, Fire, Measure, Grind, Eat, Ice & Kitchen. Some of these titles are fairly simplistic. For instance, Ice encompasses not only Ice Boxes, but Ice Cream and modern refrigerators as well. And some of the others are explanatory, like Pots and Pans. Each take you on a history as far back as the gadget existed and brings it to the modern and the different types we use now. There are also little sections at the end of each chapter that explore a single type of gadget, like a nutmeg grater. Such things as measuring cups, spoons, and even ice cream makers are discussed. But even down to the explanation of the fork through history, there's a lot in this book that isn't readily available in other history books.

Gadgets are interesting. It is possible to have a kitchen filled with gadgets that only do one thing (like an avocado cutter) or to just have a few trusty tools like a knife and stove. Each of these approaches takes a different kind of cook just like modern vs. traditional cooking takes a different type of cook. And the author does mention the use of sous-vide and it's rising popularity. I'm actually intrigued by the concept myself but have no room for any additional gadgets, especially after my latest foray into a juicer (and as the simplistic would say, what was wrong with an old fashioned manual juicer). For this whole book to be about the most simplistic of cooking utensils though makes it different from a lot of others. There is no technique being discussed here, just a simple history of some things we take for granted.

The writing itself was kind of dry. While I eagerly wanted to learn more about kitchen history, I had a hard time just sitting down and reading this book in one sitting and had to break it up a bit. There's a lot of fascinating information here, but sometimes the minute details are a little too much, such as the listing on and on of different types of spoons the Victorians used. I might have been a little more interested if there was a picture of all these spoons, but when trying to picture them all in my head, they all looked remarkably like teaspoons to me. And I'm not trying to say there aren't any pictures in this book. There are a few illustrations scattered throughout the entire thing. But I feel that this book could have been made so much better by actual photographs. Maybe not of everything, but there was a lot in there that I could try to web search each time, but it would be preferable to have it right there on the page. It would have broken up the monotony of all the detail as well. Wilson does tell it with a warm voice, but it's more like listening to a senior citizen wax on eloquently about how they walked uphill to school in the snow both ways.

It is an interesting book if taken in small portions. There's a wealth of information to be had (and a want for a Marshall Ice Cream machine) and it did inspire me to visit Ivan Day's website ( a guy who cooks historically). This is a good read for a foodie or historian.

Consider the Fork
Copyright 2012
279 pages

January 23, 2013

Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy

I'd like to join the Peace Corps someday.  And I had thought that if I did, I would very much like to serve in China.  So this was a good book for me to read, as it brought about some things about volunteering in China that I would never have thought about.  Plus, the author is just downright funny.

Michael Levy decides to join the peace corps and is shipped off to China where he is to be a language teacher.  There, he faces each day with students who are eager to learn, but not in a way he is accustomed to.  And to add to this, he comes from a Jewish background, which makes him a little different than the Americans the Chinese he meets have experienced before.  It makes him an oddity among oddities yet still able to have mostly positive interactions with his community.  Having come down from the strict rules of Mao, they are still finding their way in a new government in which things are very different for them.  But he makes numerous friends and even joins a basketball team.  And while there is some culture shock, he loves the job he is doing and truly enjoys the company of the people he meets (except for the guy who punches puppies).

This book is mostly about the people Michael interacts with.  From businessmen, to his basketball coach to the students, they all are different from him, but he is surprised to learn how different from each other they are as well.  Not only are some of them just trying to make a better life for themselves, they are experiencing new trends in their culture like popular music, the notion of romance, and holidays from other countries.  And while these may seem like silly things to be obsessed with, it's such a difference and such a freedom that wasn't there before that these are big things.  And I like the way he describes everyone as being so enthusiastic about things.  You rarely see someone get that excited for Christmas or pizza here that it's refreshing.  He has a few students that identify with the Communist party but he even describes them as being deeply intelligent with good points on a lot of topics and is fair to them even though their views differ from his own.  Actually that's about the best compliment (although there are many) that I could give Michael; he is exceedingly fair to everyone around him.

This is definitely a memoir and covers the two years that Michael spent in the Peace Corps.  While it made me rethink my China notion because of some of the customs there I might have trouble with (learning to eat dog, contests not being fairly won, not being able to exercise in some parts because of air quality) it still made me realize I want to be a volunteer, no matter where I would end up.  There are so many opportunities and learning experiences and while you may not be lifting people from poor living conditions in every case, you can still do a lot of other things like provide education and cultural understanding.  And sometimes that is just as important.  I do have to say the book was a little fast paced, I could have kept on reading it because I was so enthralled and it ended too soon for me.  Michael is a very funny guy and his humor comes out in his writing.  He isn't afraid to make fun of himself either, which is a very important quality.

A great Peace Corps memoir and one I would highly recommend.  If nothing else it made me aware that if I was to go to China, I need to work on my drinking in order to keep up with their social norms.  Drunk on one wine cooler just isn't going to cut it.  Four and a half stars from this reader for an enjoyable memoir.

Kosher Chinese
Copyright 2011
240 pages

January 22, 2013

Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas

This book absolutely exhausted me. But by the end I knew I enjoyed it despite that fact; there is something utterly heartwarming about this memoir.

Jeanne has been a city girl for a long time. Single in her late thirties, she finds herself in a relationship with a man a decade or so her senior but the relationship works and she finds herself wanting other things. Alex is a pretty easy going guy too so when she gets the "farm dream" in her head, he's right there with her helping to look for a piece of property in which to go homestead on. Him and his poodle that is; one of Jeanne's greatest bewilderments with Alex is the fact that he likes poodles. They do find a farm though and start a great adventure, involving locals, groundhogs, stubborn brush, and a myriad of other things that city girl just wouldn't expect.

Jeanne is very fair to the people she describes. In fact, her neighbors sound like the best people on earth and she is very lucky to have them. I'm jealous in fact, I would love to have neighbors like that. Maybe one day, or maybe you just have to be in a rural area, it's hard to say. She also doesn't hold back on her affection for Alex either. It's plain to see that they both appreciate and love each other and that's special. Even her love for the animals comes right out of the pages. You feel very close to the people and animals and can definitely picture them in real life.

Her writing style is a bit wacky. As I said before the book made me exhausted and that's because the voice of the book was like an overexcited five year old. It jumped from topic to topic in a stream of consciousness and it was all I could do to keep up. I wasn't overly thrilled with that kind of writing style, but Jeanne was so open that I couldn't help but like her anyway. And I loved the way she did the ending, I very much appreciated the epilogue of sorts she provided. Since the book covers a year or so of her life I thought it was the appropriate length. A lot happened in that time and while the book could have been dull, it wasn't because she was able to make her activities sound exciting, even if they were as mundane as planting grass seed.

A hyper active book but one that's a good read and inspiring. Jeanne makes me want to have a farm of my own again someday.

Fifty Acres and a Poodle
Copyright 2000
272 pages

The Muffin Tin Cookbook by Brette Sember and Melinda Boyd

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

I take forever to review cookbooks, mainly because I like to try as many recipes as I can possibly stand before reviewing. To date (1/22/2013) I have made 42 of the 200 recipes in this cookbook. And I would say that I would give this cookbook a 3.5 to 4 star rating.

The main concept of this book is that everything is cooked/prepared in a muffin tin. This requires three different sizes of muffin tins; mini, regular & jumbo. It should be noted that you could probably get away with just one size of muffin tin but in doing so would sacrifice the calorie counts the cookbook author has provided. Even so, three muffin tins for 200 recipes isn't a bad figure for equipment needed for a cookbook. There's also a short introduction in the book that explains the muffin tin sizes and a little section on liners as well. This section also includes using pie crusts and crescent rolls in the muffin pans (how to prepare them). It also explains the Nutritional Analysis charts and the little leaf icon that notes a healthy recipe.

The first chapter of the book is the appetizer section. The scallop bites were easy to make and had a distinctive Asian flavor. I felt a little foolish making individual scallops in a tin as they are pretty easy to separate out for a calorie count though. The spiral snacks too were hard to wrap my brain around muffin tinning, but they had a good taste, despite the gigantic mess they made in preparation. Mushroom Stuffed Brien in Croute was great right out of the oven, but didn't reheat well. And the Crab Dip Cups had a strong hint of horseradish but everything else had a moderate flavor. A real standout in this section was the Hot Nuts. They were a favorite appetizer at the family Thanksgiving and only had three ingredients.

Breakfast was the next section and even though I'm not a big breakfast fan, I ended up making several of the recipes in this chapter. The Egg Crescent Pockets were a good concept, but following the directions exactly (and yes the oven was the appropriate temp) yielded eggs that had a plasticky texture to the top of them. Luckily, the Ham and Egg Cups turned out ok and were tasty, yet simple to make. Coffee Cakes were light, simple, but not overly abundant on flavor. The Denver Omelets tasted like a mini quiche and were a quick recipe. The first recipe I ever made out of this book was the Apple-Granola Yogurt cups which were tasty, but definitely required a fork to eat. I did try the book's method for baking hardboiled eggs and it turned out successful. No harder to peel than a boiled hardboiled egg either.

Chapter three was Beef and Pork and while I'm not a big beef eater, I did try a few of the recipes in here. Meatballs in Spaghetti Nests were time consuming but they tasted good and had a unique concept of making a noodle dish. Bur-Ogies involved meat and pierogies but the amount called for wasn't enough to encase the pierogie in the meat. And the taste was only so-so. Finally, the Cheeseburger Pies were easy to make, but tasted like a cheap fast food cheeseburger despite using premium mustard, ketchup, etc.

Chicken and Turkey was next. The Moroccan Chicken Pot Pie was one of the recipes I tried here and it had an interesting mix of flavors, but I found it a little too sweet. The Chicken Parmesan also had that noodle bowl technique, but was bland and very messy. There was also the Chicken with Caper and Dill Sauce that I thought was too lemony and the chicken too dry. It seemed an odd thing to make in a muffin cup and I think that because it was cooked in the muffin cup with few other ingredients, that's what made the chicken so dry. A waste of liners on that particular recipe. Mango Tandoori chicken, by contrast, was delicious. It was time consuming to make, but worth the extra effort. Likewise, the Chicken Coron Bleu had a very good flavor. The Chicken Fettucine returned to the noodle cups but this time did it justice with a great mix of flavors and creaminess.

Chapter Five is seafood and that just seems a very odd thing to cook in a muffin tin to me. I tried the Shrimp and Pesto in Phyllo and it was moderately successful though with few ingredients. The Crab Cakes were a good idea, but I noticed as I was mixing it up that the mixture was too soupy and had to add more bread crumbs than called for. The creamy shrimp in puff pastry was messy and light on taste and not a particular recipe that I'd recommend.

Chapter Six is where the carbs seemed to be located. Titled Potatoes, Rice, Pizza and Pasta it had the hearty fare. I tried making the Duchess Potatoes which were like fancy mashed potatoes but extremely messy when trying to eat. And the Hearty Deep Dish pizzas were good despite their very doughy texture. Maple Sweet Potato and Kale had a good flavor for the sweet potato, but the kale turned out more like dried out kale chips (and not the good kind) rather than a nice side dish. The Yorkshire puddings tasted of grease and didn't have a whole lot of flavor otherwise. The last dish in the chapter, Shrimp Risotto, was a favored dish at New Years and while it was a tad bland, it cooked very nicely in the muffin tins.

Vegetables! The Cauliflower Gratin here had an excellent flavor. This is good because the very next recipe was a dud with the Cherry Tomato Cups just tasting like spaghetti sauce. The Roasted Swiss Chard didn't roast well in the cups and was light on flavor. But then the Zesty Corn Cups were full of flavor and easy to make. I've just started eating brussels sprouts this year and the Brussels Sprouts Cups weren't bad. I doubled the sauce though and they were still kind of dry. I might recommend tripling the sauce on those. I also liked the Smashed Pea Cups which were different but quick to make and nice and cheesy. The Green Beans and Mushrooms tasted good and almost seemed garlicky, despite not having garlic directly in them.

Muffins and Breads is chapter eight. I made the Pizza Muffins and was tired of them after eating one. They were dry and didn't hold a lot of flavor. The Irish Brown Bread Squares (well round for me, I didn't bother buying a square muffin tin) tasted like regular Irish brown bread. I was really excited for the Mango Coconut Muffins, but sadly they weren't very flavorful. They mostly tasted like flour with a hint of coconut and no mango flavor at all. The Buckwheat Pear Muffins though did ok on flavor, although a tiny bit more sweetener could have been used.

The last chapter, Desserts, is not one I used much. I'm just not much for sweet things. I did like the Poppy Seed Cupcakes. They were nice and light and airy with a delicious flavor. The poppy seed really came through. The Cookies and Cream Cupcakes with Oreo Frosting made good use of a cookie. The frosting was the best part and I'm not even a frosting person. And the Hot Chocolate Muffins were popular at work, but they were extremely messy to eat.

The reason I'm rating this book in the four star range rather than at a flat three star range is probably because of its convenience for dieters and calorie counters. Since every recipe tells how many calories there are per tin, it makes it extremely easy to know what you're eating. Likewise, these can be individually frozen for the busy person to take out and eat later and makes it even easier to make ahead and have a variety of meals later on. So even though there are a lot of so-so recipes here, for someone who's not as obsessed with food as I am, it would be a convenient book to cook out of. Especially considering none of the recipes take a particular amount of skill. Your average cook would be just fine with this book and a beginner might only have a little trouble.

Ingredient availability for the recipes in here is pretty good. In fact, you buy one thing for a recipe and you can almost guarantee that there is another recipe you can use the leftovers in. This happened for me several times with items like pie crust, pepperoni, and certain cheeses. The ingredients also aren't that premium (excepting seafood of course) and I'd say that while not a budget cookbook, it certainly isn't an expensive one either.

My biggest complaints about the book though would have to be its format. For one, all the pictures are in a section in the middle which I detest. Either have them with the recipes or not at all. I don't enjoy flipping back and forth to try to look at things. Then there's the binding with the book. I haven't had this book for even a year yet and it's coming apart. Granted I've used it almost exclusively the past few months, but even so, most of the pages are loose and just shoved in where I could get to them later and at this point, only half the pages are still attached to the binding. I sent a three hole punch is in this books future. Which is a shame, because there really isn't an excuse for having that problem in a cookbook. Of course, even when the binding was intact you couldn't open this book to a recipe and lay it out flat. The tight binding would automatically close the book unless you lay something on each side to hold the pages down.

Great for dieters and it does have a lot of unique ideas, this is a decent book. I probably wouldn't refer back to it repeatedly, but there still are a few recipes left in there that I might give a try.

January 20, 2013

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga

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

So I'm only partially familiar with the Walking Dead universe. I've seen the first season of the tv show, and that's about it. This was my first introduction to the Walking Dead in written form. And I have to say, it was well done. Gruesome, but exciting.

With the Biters (zombies) taking over the United States, a small band comprised of Philip, his brother Brian, Nick, Penny (Philip's young daughter) and another buddy are on their own trying to survive. Hearing about a safepoint in Atlanta, they begin an excruciating journey to get there only to find that the city has been taken over by Biters and there are few normal humans left. And everybody is out for themselves, as things get worse and worse, sanity gets hard to hold on to.

Philip is a pretty compelling character. He's smart but neurotic and he has a mean streak he can't seem to control. His greatest love is for his daughter and when he gets into a rage, even she disappears from his view sometimes. You're never sure what's going to happen with him, which is thrilling and scary at the same time. Brian, his brother, is more of a wimp. He's the heart of the operation, and he seems to genuinely care for his family, but as he follows along he doesn't add much to the group. Even his musings on the cause of the zombies doesn't get far. And Nick, well in the beginning he's normal, but turns into somewhat of a religious zealot and becomes nearly as unbalanced as Philip. The zombies aren't actually described as much aside from their rotting and want of flesh, but that's to be expected, they aren't exactly human and capable of emotion anymore.

For a plot I think it was pretty exciting. They're in danger at every turn and having to carry around a little girl who's father is unstable adds a whole new element to the story. I'm not familiar with the character of the Governor, but if this is his back-story, he must be a pretty warped individual. This book definitely kept me reading because I wanted to see who would survive and what would happen to them. And surviving was tough, with all the blood, gore, and even rape in this book it's a rough read. The TV show is just as bad, but there is so much violence in this book I had to look away from it at times and give my head a little break. It's not for those people who have weak stomachs. My only complaint would be, that despite being over 300 pages, this book just felt rushed. They were constantly hurrying around and there wasn't much in the way of meaningful dialogue because of it. It was mostly just action scenes.

A good book, and because of this one I'll probably check out the others in the series. And I might return to the TV show to see what happens after the first season. As gruesome as it is, it makes you root for human survival.

The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor
Copyright 2011
308 pages

The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People by Neil Hegarty

Apparently this book is a companion to a TV series by the same name. I would really like to see that series, if it's half as descriptive as this book it should be pretty good. But this book was well done, considering the amount of history that was crammed into a little over three hundred pages.

The Story of Ireland takes the reader through Ireland's history back to when the Christian religion first came into the country (and the story of St. Patrick) to modern times detailing the bombings and civil strife that accompanied Irish politics for many years. In between it covers the rule of Ireland by England, and it's many tries at having home rule. It details the tension between the Catholic church and that of the Protestants, a strife that has encompassed many United Kingdom countries throughout their history. And it also says a little bit on the famines that hurt the population of Ireland.

The majority of the people talked about in this book are those that had some political standing or rule over Ireland. The average person in Ireland is not referred to much unless discussing the famines. So because this book features the people active in religion and politics, the storyline does much the same. The result is that despite the title saying this is a History of the Irish People, it's more a book of the history of politics that effected the Irish people. I'm not saying this to criticize the book, but more that I expected to learn about daily lives of people to a greater extent than I did with this book.

There's a huge period of history that's covered here and it's done quite well. For having to put all that detail into a small place, Hegarty is able to do it in a way that is readable, yet still interesting. I learned much more about the history of Ireland than I ever knew before. Especially the turmoil that has taken place in the last century that I never would have suspected. I also enjoyed reading about the real St. Patrick and will try to remember the facts about him while drinking green beer this March. When going deep into politics it is hard to remember who's who as so many names are mentioned, but that would be my only complaint with the writing. There is a nice timeline section in the back as well as a notes section.

A very nice, concise look at the history of Ireland. If you've ever been interested in Irish politics or the way religion has impacted the country, this would be a good read. While not quite textbook detailed, it still provides a lot of information for the standard reader.

The Story of Ireland
Copyright 2011
343 pages

January 19, 2013

Lost Kingdom by Julia Flynn Siler

I wanted so desperately to like this book. When I saw it on the shelf with its bright turquoise cover I immediately snatched it up. But now, after forcing myself to finish it, I find myself largely underwhelmed. Two stars from this reviewer.

Lost Kingdom says on its cover that it is about Hawaii's last queen, the sugar kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure. I'd say to an extent it's about those things, but largely it was about the Queen Lili'uokalani. The history covered a little bit about when traders, Captain Cook and missionaries came to the islands, but really started going into detail when Lili'u (shortened for ease) was born and then follows her through the time she is deposed and Hawaii is annexed by the United States. There is a little bit about what happens after she's gone, but like the time before she was born, it was only briefly covered.

Lili'u is described very favorably in this book. Especially when compared to the myriad of other people that are described. Those sugar barons, Thurston, Dole, & Spreckel, who were big businessmen in Hawaii. Her husband is also somewhat described, but not in favorable terms. And of her adopted children, barely anything is said about them. She is the main focus of this book. And while she's well described, I was looking for more than that since I thought the book would be about more than just her. The average Hawaiian person is barely mentioned in the book at all. Which is another thing I fault it for. Hawaii is its people, much like any other country, and to only show the rich, royal or powerful does a disservice to the history.

The writing style is very dry. There is a lot of detail, and I hesitate to call it textbook like because there have been many textbooks I've enjoyed, but there's just nothing to really sink into in this book. You can be reading a paragraph about one topic only to immediately jump into the next paragraph about something completely different and the overall effect wasn't cohesive. Important details, like her husband's death and other things are told in only a few sentences. And could easily be missed if you are just skimming the book. It's clear that she did a lot of research (as evidenced by the over one hundred pages of sources, end-notes, indices, and bibliography at the end of the book. In fact, I'd say that section takes up a good third of the book so you end up finishing it sooner than you think you would. And as this is the first book I've really read on Hawaii, I can't comment on if the facts are actually true or not. It looks like a lot of research, but as others have said, when calling the Hula sensual, it just doesn't ring authentic.

One aspect I did enjoy was the list of terms at the front for different Hawaiian words. It helped when I encountered them within the book itself, although struggling with pronunciation in my head was difficult.

I can't say that I'd recommend this book to anyone. It took a very interesting topic and made it dull. It was so hard for me to finish the book that I had to take it just a chapter at a time, which is very unusual for me. Perhaps somewhere out there will be a book about Hawaii that will captivate me.

Lost Kingdom
Copyright 2012
302 pages (415 pages with all the misc. stuff)

January 15, 2013

The Springs of Namje by Rajeev Goyal

In my quest to find out if the Peace Corps is right for me, I'm picking up as many books about travel and the Peace Corps itself to read about other's experiences and memories of their time. This was a very good book, and it certainly gave me a lot more history on the Peace Corps than I knew before.

Rajeev Goyal spent two years in the Peace Corps in Nepal. First in one village where he was teaching, but was moved because of upheaval caused by the political tensions in Nepal, and then to Namje, a small town where he also taught. But he did much more than teach in Namje, because it was a village with scarce access to water, Goyal started an initiative to create a pump to pump water from a distant river to the town. His goal was to better the lives of the people there. After his term was over, he moved on to Washington DC, where he became part of an initiative to secure more funding for the Peace Corps. The goal was 450 Million, and the amount asked for equivalent to 5-6 hours of what we spend on our forces in Iraq (figures obtained from the book). That's right, it's in the millions, which when it comes to a government agency, is a small number. He details his struggle at getting this amount and the lobbying he does with lessons learned from his time in the Peace Corps. In the last part of the book, he returns to Namje and Nepal to further work at improving peoples lives through permaculture programs.

Goyal is very generous to those people he gives descriptions of in Nepal. It was easy to see that he really connected with the people in the villages and had great respect for them. He truly wanted to get to know their culture and not change it, but improve living conditions for them. I would say he definitely embodied what the Peace Corps is supposed to be about. When he returns to DC his descriptions are less than flattering of some of the government officials that he has to deal with, but seeing his plight I can kind of agree with him on some of those descriptions. It's hard to face so many walls when you're not asking for much in the grand scheme of things. But even when he's being unflattering I think he is still fair, he never outright insults anyone who turns him down (excepting one representative from TX and I completely agree with him on his thoughts for that guy).

I enjoyed the part of the book that Goyal spent in Nepal. It was descriptive, inspiring, and it really made me see what good a volunteer can do. Not that everything Goyal did was good; he was very realistic in the failures he had as well and what he learned from them. The part where he's running around DC I wasn't as fond of. It's not that it wasn't informative, it certainly was. But it was so rushed and so many names mentioned that I could feel myself getting confused and having to reread paragraphs several times to get an idea of what he was doing. I think slowing it down and expanding on that section could have done a world of good for the book. As it was, I still got the importance of the matter and the disappointment when the requested funding didn't come through for the Peace Corps. One can only hope that in the future that will change. Because it deals with politics as well, there are bound to be some people who are insulted by the ideas presented in this book. I don't think Goyal leans too heavily towards any one party, but I also know when it comes to politics people have strong opinions.

I would have liked to see more on the results of the work he's doing in Nepal now, but it's understandable that it's not included. This book was published and he's still working on it so hopefully another book is still in the making. I would definitely read it if there was one. A splendid book on a Peace Corps member's experience and an inspiring way to look at changing policy in DC, I would definitely recommend this book.

The Springs of Namje
Copyright 2012
210 pages

January 14, 2013

A Dose of Tia by Dina Mauro

**This book was received as a free advanced reviewers copy**

I've always wanted to do more volunteering. But work, commutes, and other things have led me to believe that I just don't have the time. Which is false, I do, but I need to find a volunteer opportunity that I'm passionate about. Which is what Mauro explains and lives in this book. She shows that if you have passion, it's not an obligation, but rather a way of life.

Through little stories and vignettes, Mauro tells about how she adopted Tia, her dog that goes with her on volunteering jaunts, stories of the patients they visit, and just different lessons she learns about life while volunteering. Sometimes she relates conversations that she has with patients while other times she shares the musings in her head as Tia visits with them and she waits quietly. At the end of the book, she provides resources for those looking for volunteer opportunities.

Although short, the stories offer a look into different patients lives and while we don't know medically what's wrong with them, we get to see a different side. A side that tells about pets at home, family life, or just old stories that they feel a need to share. And even though the stories are short, they are detailed enough that you get an idea of what the volunteering time was like. About herself she shares her feelings and her goal to try to stay positive, and even a small glimpse into her family life. So you know the person who's working with the dog Tia, even if everyone they visit is more interested in Tia (which is fine by the author).

The book is almost like a series of short stories and thoughts. And it jumps around a little bit, but it's still highly readable. I was a tad disappointed that there wasn't more about Tia herself. The volunteering was more of a main focus than the dog, which somewhat belies the huge picture of Tia on the front of the book. But for those looking for an inspirational book about volunteering, this fits. My only other complaint would be that the conversations Mauro had with people seemed more simplistic than they would be in real life. I'm sure this is partly because they are recalled from memory, but I just picture conversations as having more detail than what they are portrayed here as. Still, it's not that distracting and having a warm, happy read is nice when there are so many books out there that focus on the bad instead of the good.

If you're interested in volunteering or enjoy stories about animals and people working good deeds, this is probably a good book for you. Short, sweet and simple, it expresses why someone would volunteer their time for a good cause.

A Dose of Tia
Copyright 2012
142 pages

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

I had read "Daughters of Rome" before reading this book and enjoyed it.  This one was just as good.  Quinn has a beautiful way of writing history.

Thea is a slave girl and has been one for quite some time.  Captured from a defeated city, she has worked for many people until her pre-teens when she is bought to be a maid for a spoiled girl named Lepida.  Lepida resents Thea's intelligence and when she finds Thea with a gladiator that she would like to have as well, Thea is sold to a brothel.  While Thea struggles out of the brothel and into a role as a famous musician, her Gladiator must fight countless battles, surviving against all odds, and her foe Lepida, is slowly coming up the ranks in Roman society.

Thea is an interesting character.  She has many personality quirks and really isn't afraid of too much, which is sometimes a flaw for her.  She's not afraid to say what she thinks as well, and that also gets her into trouble.  But she's a likable character, and you can feel yourself sympathizing with her over her plight.  Her Gladiator I didn't care for as much.  He's a little rough and while I can understand her wanting freedom with anything, he just isn't as relatable of a character to me.  Lepida is downright annoying and you can't help but wish she'll meet a horrible demise even when she is a pre-teen.  There are plenty of other characters of course, from the kindly father of Lepida to the stern and slightly deranged Emperor.  And they all have their place.  I can't say that this book had any unnecessary characters.

The plot was well done.  I can't comment on how accurate this is for Roman history, certainly quite a few of the characters are made up, but Quinn is able to present it in a way that if this history is true, it is memorable.  It's written with a modern tone too, so if you're expecting authentic voice in this book, it's not here.  Some of the writing is rather brutal.  There's violence, abuse, self-mutilation, sex, and many other mature topics.  It's all done as tastefully as it can be, but still might not be appropriate for readers who don't handle reading those types of things well.  But the story is magnetic and I stayed up far too late on a work night to read it through.  I just had a hard time putting it down.

I'd give this book 4.5 stars.  Very imaginative, compelling characters, and a bleary eyed morning from staying up all night reading it; it has all the right components.

Mistress of Rome
Copyright 2010
468 pages

January 13, 2013

Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

Hmm, maybe I just couldn't get into the book that well, but I had a lot of trouble seeing how this rooster made the author a family man. But I suppose if you're going to write a memoir, throwing a rooster into it makes it interesting at least.

Brian McGrory has lived a pretty good life. He's got a job he loves, that pays well, and while his first marriage didn't work out so well, he got a wonderful dog out of it. Sadly when that dog dies, he's on his own again, except for the fact that he becomes involved with the dog's veterinarian. And she comes with two kids, a dog, two rabbits, and a rooster. Yes, a rooster, who isn't too fond of Brian. But it's through this rooster that Brian sees himself able to leave the exciting life in the city he's used to, to settling down in the suburbs with this pre-made family.

I think Brian is pretty funny. He doesn't paint himself as perfect but he's reasonably funny, has a few flaws, but cares for people too. I actually enjoyed reading about him, especially when the story was focused on him and his dog Harry. His fiance and her kids I wasn't as attached too. He tries to describe them as nice and special, but they all seemed kind of spoiled and not very caring of Brian's feelings to me. Now granted this is from his point of view, but a lot of things that he described just didn't seem fair. The animals he describes particularly well, and his scenes with his dog Harry about moved me to tears. The chicken, well, I can tell you right now that Buddy and I wouldn't have gotten along. I like my roosters to respect the humans that come into their yards.

The memoir flowed easy enough. The first third described Brian's life with his dog Harry and I think that was my favorite part. He had a really good connection with the dog and it was easy to see what a good pet owner he was. But then we got to the madness of the kids, more dogs, rabbits, and rooster and I think I was a little overwhelmed, just like Brian was. As much as he described wanting to be a part of that family, I somehow wonder if he's as happy as he says he is. It just didn't seem like the right fit for him when he describes his life with them. In fact, those parts of the book I didn't find as interesting or enjoyable, it really was that first third that I enjoyed most in this book. But at least the book had a humorous voice to it and it made for easy reading. I can't say I took any important lessons out of the book, but it was a nice way to relax.

A different sort of animal memoir. It's not often you run across one involving a rooster. I can't say I thought it was stupendous, but it was a decent read.

Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me A Family Man
Copyright 2012
311 pages

January 12, 2013

Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

I found this book pretty entertaining. I haven't read any of Quinn's other works, but based on this one, I probably will. And since it's considered the prequel to the others, it's as good as any to start with.

Cornelia, Marcella, Lollia and Diana are cousins in a turbulent time. Brought up together closely, they have been there through marriages (mostly Lollia's) and the horrific events of the upheaval in Rome as it goes through four emperors in a year. Cornelia just had dreams of being the perfect wife until that hope is dashed away from her. Marcelle wants to be left to her histories, until even that isn't enough excitement for her. Lollia enjoys her dalliances, but has a good heart, and goes through her many marriages as a result. And Diana is only concerned with her horses and chariot racing and can't be convinced to care for anything otherwise. With war going on, these seem like small matters, but to the women, they have to struggle to hold on to what ever kind of life they can.

There were a lot of characters in this book. So much that it was hard to keep track of them once in awhile. Eventually you can get it sorted out, but it does take some time. Cornelia, I started out disliking her to liking her and Marcella went the opposite. In fact, I'm not sure what happened to Marcella, it's like she became a completely different person with the turn of a page. Same with one of the men she was associated with. Lollia I found amusing and endearing and really enjoyed her character. She knew how to have a good time! And Diana, I didn't care for either way. She could have been written out of the story and I wouldn't have noticed.

The plot was mostly interesting. A lot of intrigue and some romance, and a smattering of adventure. It told a lot of stories so it was jumpy, but that didn't bother me too much. I should say that if you're looking for an accurate accounting of history, this probably isn't it. The base facts are true (and at the end she explains why she added certain things) but even the voice of her characters is really modern. No women would have spoke and I suspect act like they did in the book in real life. Otherwise there is a little violence and a little sex in the book, but nothing that overwhelms it. The main focus is the four cousins and their adventures.

I look forward to reading the other books in this series. They are well written and fun to read. And this one was a good accompaniment to a cold winters day and fireside couch.

Daughters of Rome
Copyright 2011
367 pages

January 04, 2013

Thinner by Stephen King

I wasn't really a big fan of this book, which puts me in the minority.  I like a lot of King's other works, Different Seasons and The Shining were terrific.  But this one left a lot to be desired for me.

Billy Halleck is a local lawyer who has more than just a few pounds under his belt.  He's fat.  Or at least he is until he's cursed by a gypsy after running over one of the clan.  The problem is he got away with the manslaughter, and the man wanted revenge.  So now Billy is losing weight at an alarming rate and there's nothing he can do to stop it.  Short of finding the gypsy and reasoning with him, Billy is going to die.

Billy is not a sympathetic character.  He whines and moans and blames others for his problems.  In fact, I don't really see any growth in him at all until perhaps the very last chapter of the book, and by then it was too late for me to really care for him as a character at all.  And then there's the gypsies.  They're pretty much stereotyped and not in a kind way at all.  In fact, there weren't any redeeming characters in this book at all.  No one to root for, which aside from a cheap thrill doesn't really make the book worth reading.

I do have to say that the descriptiveness of the writing was very good and up to King's usual standard.  You can't complain that it wasn't filled with horrifying detail or scenes that you could absolutely picture through the description.  But when broken down the plot just didn't hold up because of the stereotyping, lame attempts at humor using racist jokes, and other flashy tricks with no real substance.  This could have been a great book for showing a man trying to do right and correct things to make his suffering go away; but instead you have him whining and blaming everyone else the entire time and ending up just the way you predict he will at the end.

I'll still read King's books, he's got some decent stuff out there and few clunkers like this one.  But I can't say that I'd recommend this particular book to anybody.

Copyright 1985
318 pages

Our Kind of People by Uzodinma Iweala

I've read "Beasts of No Nation" and thought it was a good, insightful book.  So when I saw this book by the same author, and saw that it dealt with another hard topic, I decided to give it a try.  And I thought the message he was trying to put out there was worthy, certainly viewing AIDS/HIV in a different way than it is commonly perceived is a good thing, but I'm not sure if he pulled it off successfully.

In this nonfiction, Iweala travels back and forth between the United States and his family's native country of Nigeria.  Most of this book takes place in Nigeria and centers around the HIV positive people he meets and interviews.  It tells the perception of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, by the people who have it, people who don't, and just the overall thoughts of the disease.  It also goes a little bit into the different treatments available that makes this disease no longer have a fatal end and also the different campaigns in Nigeria to try to stop the rampant spread of AIDS/HIV.

I thought he was very fair to the people he described in this book.  He told it in a "voice" that seemed authentic and like the stories were actually from the people themselves rather than him completely paraphrasing it.  So in that regards the people here are very real and Iweala is able to tell stories that wouldn't normally be told.  For himself, he is merely the narrator and while he mentions certain things that relate to him and his family, he doesn't really go into why this topic is so important to him other than having worked in that area in medical school.  I guess it would have been nice to really get a feel for why he is so passionate about the subject.

The actual stories from the people he talks to are compelling.  And they are the best part of this book.  Unfortunately though, they are spaced in such a way and included in with so much other information, that reading this book is somewhat exhausting.  It's like holding your breath for a long time while running and then struggling to keep up when you become tired.  I think better spacers and a sense of focus would have helped this book.  The topic of AIDS/HIV is a hard one to write about as there are so many rumors and falsehoods that Iweala is correct in saying that people with HIV are perceived as different or even bad.  But unlike Iweala, I disagree that this focus is on Africans primarily.  I think that a bad stigma is placed on anyone with this disease, regardless of where they live in the world or their access to medicine.  And that it's just as harsh here as it is there.  And while people who aren't promiscuous or share needles get this disease, it shouldn't be ignored that risky behaviors increase the risk of getting the disease.  It's not a cultural problem but rather a personal one as each individual contracts the disease for a different reason.

It's a thought provoking book, and I'm glad that Iweala took the time to show us a look at people in Africa with AIDS/HIV and their perception of the disease.  You might not learn anything new about the disease from this book, but it does help someone relate to the people who have it and recognize that they are not any different from people who don't have it.  A little more focus and this could have been a very outstanding book.

Our Kind of People
Copyright 2012
217 pages

January 01, 2013

Big Sky River by Linda Lael Miller

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

 I'm not going to lie, I read Miller's books because of the covers. Oh my! Well, that and the fact that she's my guilty pleasure, I like her romances generally. This one wasn't too bad, it makes me want to go back and read the rest of the Parable series (although you don't really have to, this can be a stand-alone).

After a rough divorce, Tara moves to Parable County Montana to start life as a chicken rancher. She's sad to be leaving her stepdaughters, but life in the country is just what she needs right now. The only problem she has to deal with is the eyesore double-wide next door owned by handsome Sheriff Boone. And he's got his own problems, after his wife died a few years back he sent his sons to live with his sister. But her husband was in an accident and now the boys have to come back and live with him. He's secretly pleased, but scared at the same time. At least they'll have someone to play with though since Tara's stepdaughters are also coming for a visit. And despite her snooty ways, he's looking forward to seeing Tara a little more as well.

I have to say that Tara got the bad end of the bargain in this book. Sure Boone is handsome and helps out a little bit. But the man abandoned his kids (which is softly ignored in the book, although Tara does think about it at some point) and couldn't even keep his house up to par. I know grief does things to a person, but if you have responsibilities and can still handle being a sheriff, it shouldn't excuse you from being a parent for so long. Tara herself is wonderfully nice. She has a way with children and while I can't figure out how she's making a living at chicken farming, it still provides a background for her. There are numerous side characters that are always harping on them to not be single, which is a bit disingenuous, but maybe I'm just jealous because my friends don't set me up with handsome cowboys.

The plot was formulaic, as Miller's books tend to be. She always has a headstrong couple that doesn't like each other at first but then blossom into passionate feelings for each other. I'm not complaining, it makes for some steamy romance scenes, but if you like variety, it's probably not going to be found here. All the kids added in made this book kind of interesting too, since they added to the dynamic and the troubles that the main characters had. One element I wasn't expecting was the religious tone in this book. Miller's other books had hints of it here and there, but this one was a little more in your face than her other books, and I just couldn't wrap my head around it. It wasn't preachy, but it wasn't her normal either. But it was an entertaining read, perfect for a glass of wine and a bubble bath on a cold winters day.

So as it stands I want the cowboy on the front cover. But I suppose I'll just have to live vicariously through another one of Miller's books as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Big Sky River
Copyright 2012
338 pages