Monday, November 26, 2007

The Daring Book For Girls

This is a Mother-Talk book review.

Upon first perusal, some might wonder why The Daring Book For Girls is getting such rave reviews. In this age of cell phones, video games and instant messenger, do girls really want to know how to press flowers or make a daisy chain? Isn't that a little old-fashioned?

Yes. Yes it is. And old-fashioned is good. Old-fashioned can be fun. But the old-fashioned ideas in The Daring Book For Girls, by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz (founders of Mother-Talk) are also interspersed with such common-sense information like how to change a tire. How to negotiate a salary. The Greek and Latin roots of words. All useful information that anyone (girl or boy) should know.

I read thru this book and kept thinking "Oh, man, I wish this was around when I was a kid." There were so many things that I used to do, that I could have done better, taken further, if only I had this book. It's sort of like a big sister, without the annoying get-out-of-my-room-you-pest business.

There were far too many things that jumped out at me to write about here, but there are a few that I do want to mention.

Besides the cool things to make, like daisy chains and friendship bracelets and sit-upons, there were whole sections on famous women. Famous women inventors, famous firsts by women and even famous women pirates. The two women who caught my eye were Helen Free and Clara Barton. Most people are familiar with Clara Barton; she founded the American Red Cross. She was also born and lived most of her life in the town next to the one where I grew up. Her name graces one of the best camps for girls with type 1 diabetes in the country. We're big fans of Clara Barton in this house. The other was Helen Free. She was a urinalysis expert (how one becomes one of those is, thankfully, a detail left out of the book). In 1958 she developed the first home diabetes test. She was inducted into the inventors Hall of Fame for this invention.

Another section that caught my eye was a bit on words that will impress. I love words. When I was a kid, a favourite after dinner game was to pick a word out of the dictionary and have everyone guess its origins and meaning (I think we may have invented Balderdash), so my interest was piqued by their list. Included on it were: crepuscular, jejune and one of my top five, all-time favourite words: sesquipedalian. Oh, how I love that word. There were other words, but frankly, my little heart was singing too loudly upon spotting sesquipedalian.

And finally, there was advice about boys. "1. If a boy doesn't like you the way you are, the problem is him, not you. 2. Don't try to make a boy change for you - it's important to appreciate people for who they are." I think I was about 30 before I figured that one out.

I can't recommend this book enough. It is an excellent resource for something other than television, video games or chatting on the phone when you're looking for an activity to do with your daughter. The writing is crisp and not condescending. The sections are short, the activities are fun and interesting and definitely not boring.

If you know a girl between the ages of 8 and, oh, 13 or 14 (or older - it's also a great resource for babysitters), add this one to your holiday shopping list.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This is a review for MotherTalk.

I love books. I mean, I really love books. I just moved recently and I had forty boxes of books. And that was after giving away 5 or 6 grocery bags full. It's pretty safe to say I am a book junky. I'm also picky. I don't like books that broadcast the plot on page three. I don't like books that have stilted dialog or ridiculoulsy complicated plots. I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to books and I'm unapologetic about it.

When I opened my copy of The Thirteenth Tale I had no preconceived notions about the plot. I hadn't read a review, I didn't know anyone who was reading it and had never even heard of it. It didn't take more than five pages before I was immersed. I fell into this book and didn't want to come out. This passage was what got me:

"As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so. For it must be very lonely being dead."

Margaret Lea works in her father's antiquarian and rare books shop. She dabbles in writing biographies, always of obscure people, those that would otherwise have been forgotten.

She recieves a letter one day from Vida Winter, a famous, and famously evasive, aging author. Miss Winter wants Margaret to write her biography after having read Margaret's biography of two brothers. Margaret is reluctant at first, since every interview Miss Winter has ever given has contained stories and nothing close to the truth. But she agrees to the task and travels to the Yorkshire to write this woman's tale.

The Thirteenth Tale is a ghost story. There are ghosts that are obvious: When Margaret was born, she had a conjoined twin. They were separated and her twin died. Margaret feels this loss sharply and often sees her twin when she's going about her every day activities. There are ghosts that are teased out in the process of telling the story.

As she is writing her biography, Margaret walks the Angelfield estate where Vida was raised as Addeline Angelfield, along with her twin sister Emmeline. The girls were left to run wild after their mother was committed to an asylum and their uncle went mad with grief. There are not-so-subtle hints at incest between the girls mother, Isabelle, and their Uncle Charles. There is a half-deaf housekeeper and a gruff but kind gardener who look after the children, but they have little control over the girls' behaviour. A governess is eventually hired, with somewhat disasterous results. A ghost, abandoned babies and a massive fire round out the gothic notes of the story.

There are nods to Jane Eyre and Rebecca in The Thirteenth Tale; it weaves a similar spell over the reader. Vida Winter's hidden life story proves to be much more fascinating than the tales she wove to journalists over the years. Anyone who loves reading with a visceral, nearly animal pleasure is sure to enjoy this book. It tips you headlong into the story, allowing you to completely suspend disbelief, which is, in my opinion, the sign of an excellent storyteller.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Reincarnationist

This is a Mother Talk book review.

The Reincarnationist, by M.J. Rose is a fun read. Josh Ryder, a photographer, is badly injured in a terrorist bombing. This triggers in him memories, or lurches, when he experiences the life of Julius, a pagan priest in Rome in 391 A.D.. Julius is attempting to save his temple as well as the life of his vestal virgin lover Sabine. These memories lead Josh to The Phoenix Foundation, a group that works with children experiencing past life memories.

His work with the Phoenix Foundation leads him to Rome again, to a tomb being excavated. When Josh discovers this tomb, it causes another memory for him and as he's pursuing that memory, the archaeologist working in the tomb is killed and a pouch of gemstones is stolen. Josh is held as a suspect but the other archaeologist on the team, Gabriella Chase gets him released.

Josh and Gabriella have the inevitable feelings for each other, but they are beset by break-ins, chases and kidnapping, all further attempts to discover the mystery behind these stones and to discover who wants them badly enough to kill for them.

The story is woven together well. There are a few predictable moments, but for the most part, the suspense is there and the book is a page-turner. There are some reviews that compare this book to The DaVinci Code, but I didn't really get that. I found this book to be much better written than TDVC and there weren't any real similarities in topic to that book.

I thought this was a fun, entertaining read. I really enjoyed the historical aspect of Julius's time. My knowledge of what happened when the Christians took over is a bit sketchy - I knew it wasn't pleasant but I didn't realize it was so violent. This book did a great job describing the fear Julius had of the Christians and the Christian's treatment of those who didn't agree with them.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Diabetes Fit Food

I love to cook. I don't get to cook the way I want to cook a lot of the time because I have two toddlers and a picky teenager and it's difficult to get things done, what with the whining and screaming and throwing of toys. And that's just the teenager.

A while back - actually, an embarrassingly long time back now - I was asked to review a cookbook geared towards people with diabetes. Since I'm a bit of a cookbook freak, I said I'd review it. They aren't paying me for this one. It's called Diabetes Fit Food and was compiled by Ellen Haas, founder of a website called Several celebrity chefs contributed to this cookbook, including Todd English (sorry about that cheesy music on his site) and Alice Waters.

The book is broken down into food types, like grains, vegetables, fruits and proteins. Those sections are then broken down further into things like stone fruit (peaches, plums, etc.), fall vegetables, poultry, etc. Each section gives you nutritional information as well as a bit of history and general info about the foods in question. There are then ten or twelve recipes using the featured ingredient. It's very informative without being overwhelming.

I made several recipes from the book. The first was Aztec Quinoa Salad. I'd never used quinoa before. It reminds me of bulgar wheat, only larger. The salad recipe I made was similar to tabbouleh, using cilantro and tomatoes, but the quinoa gave it a more rustic feel. The salad was excellent - I brought it to a party and there was nothing left when it was time to go home.

Next up were Whole Wheat Griddle Cakes. The recipe, as made, made a very thick, yet fluffy pancake. The whole wheat flour gives the pancakes a slightly nutty flavour. I added blueberries to half of the pancakes I made. They were delicious with and without berries. Unless you're a fan of the IHOP-style mushy, thin pancake (*cough*my husband*cough*), these will probably be right up your alley.

I lucked out one day and got a buy one, get 2 free on shrimp rings (whatta bah-gin!) and the next night, found a recipe for Lemony Risotto with Asparagus and Shrimp. Oh. My. Goodness. This was delicious. My husband, who doesn't like Parmesan cheese (freak!), was practically licking the plate, he enjoyed this so much. My toddlers ate it up, too. Olivia even enjoyed it and she is the Queen Of Picky Eaters. This would make a great side dish, but is definitely enough for a main.

The only dish that I didn't care for was the South-of-the-Border Soup. It's similar to chili, only with pork tenderloin rather than ground beef. It also called for pasta, which was odd, but good. The downfall of this recipe was a lack of flavour. I loaded it up with cumin, chili powder, hot paprika and oregano and it was still kind of off. I'm not sure what it was lacking, but it was definitely lacking.

One of the nicest things about this cookbook is the nutritional information. If you make the recipe as is and serve it in the suggested portion, the nutritional information is on every recipe. You don't have to break it down - something I have a lot of trouble doing when I cook from scratch. This book does it for you. That is a huge help.

My other beef (arf!) with the book is the index. It doesn't always give recipes based on an ingredient. For the South-of-the-Border soup, for instance, you'd have to know that the recipe called for pinto beans in order to get the recipe. And if you just look up soup, you don't get anything. That, to me, is odd. You don't want to have to read an entire cook book, and remember significant ingredients, in order to be able to locate said recipe again. It's not a huge flaw, but it is pretty annoying, especially for someone like me, who likes to glance thru the index of cookbooks when I want, say, soup, just to see what recipes are there and if I have the ingredients in my pantry to make it.

Overall, though, I would recommend this cookbook. It's simple. None of the recipes call for outlandish or hard-to-find ingredients or special pans or equipment. If you have a halfway decently equipped kitchen, you can make just about anything from this cookbook. Most of the recipes are not complicated. They are laid out well, with large print and easy instructions. Having the nutritional information and the blurbs about the featured ingredients before each chapter adds a friendly touch to the book. It's food for people with diabetes, but it's not a bland, supermarket Diabetic Cookbook. It's just good, healthy food that's easy to make. And really, you can't ask for much more.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Mama Knows Breast

Mama Knows Breast: A Beginner's Guide to Breastfeeding by Andi Silverman is a handy little book for anyone considering nursing their baby. Whether you're a first-timer or a veteran, there is information in here that will come in useful. The style is friendly and down-to-earth, with sensible advice, the kind you'd get from a friend or big sister (not the bossy big sister, either, the nice, let's-you-borrow-her-favourite-sweater sister).

There are loads of tips and information that, even now, after having nursed three babies, I wish someone had told me. The tip about getting a footstool seems so basic, and yet I didn't figure that one out until baby #2. The advice about what to keep at hand while nursing is also key - I never remembered to keep the phone next to me. Never. Water I had, the phone, eh, not so much.

There are tips for getting your spouse to help (and I won't insert any sarcastic remarks about my husband here), how to take some time for yourself and even some snappy answers to give to pesky questions and comments. Even the size is great - you can read it with one hand, as illustrated on the cover. The pages are thicker than normal, too, making it easier to handle one-handedly than a regular paperback.

All in all, this is a good, useful book. I'd definitely keep this in mind as a baby shower gift. I know I certainly could have used it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Splendor of Silence

This is a Mother Talk book review.

The Splendor of Silence, by Indu Sundaresan, is a lush, sweeping novel, set in India in 1942. It weaves a love story, culture clashes, some espionage and anarchy into four boilingly hot pre-monsoon days.

Sam Hawthorne comes to India via Burma, where he had parachuted in behind Japanese lines to rescue a missionary. During his mission for the fledgling OSS, he's injured and comes to Rudrakot ostensibly to heal. In reality, he is searching for his missing brother Michael.

In Rudrakot, Sam stays with Raman, the political agent who is, unusually, an Indian. Sam meets, and falls in love with, Raman's daughter Mila, who is, of course, promised elsewhere. Not just any elsewhere, but to the local raj. Sam learns that his brother is a prisoner at a detention center and also finds out that Mila's younger brother Ashok has become embroiled with a nationalistic group intent on assassinating the British representative to Rudrakot. If Sam reveals the plot, he loses his chance to free his brother.

This tale is revealed to Olivia Hawthorne, Sam's daughter, who receives a mysterious trunk on the day her father died. Thru an anonymous letter-writer, Olivia fills in the holes of her childhood and learns about her parents affair during a time of racial tension and political upheaval.

While the tale takes a while to develop, the writing is generally excellent and the details are exquisite. The descriptions of life in India, in Rudrakot, bring to life the heat, the misery and the class divide that permeated the kingdom. The heat simmers on the page and while the plot twists and hopping back and forth in time can be a bit confusing, overall it's an enjoyable read, especially to anyone interested in the many historical aspects of this book.

This is another great book group possibility. There are so many questions that could be discussed: Race relations, history, non-violent reform and civil disobedience, class lines in both India and Britain and inter-racial relationships. I haven't read anything by this author before, but I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for her books when I'm out perusing the libraries and used bookstores I frequent.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On Borrowed WIngs

This is a review for Mother Talk.

On Borrowed Wings, by Chandra Prasad, is a coming of age story with a twist.

Adele Pietra grew up during the Great Depression in Stony Creek, CT, a town divided between the haves, or Cottagers, and the have-nots - the quarry workers. Adele's father was an Italian stonecutter and her mother was a former Cottager, disowned by her wealthy parents over her marriage.

Adele has a brother named Charlie who is a year older and their mother's favourite. Their mother pours all of her spare energy into educating Charlie, tutoring him into the night so that he can get into Yale.

When Adele's father and brother are killed in a quarry accident, Adele and her ambitious mother decide that Adele should assume the role of Charlie and take his place at Yale, where he'd been accepted shortly before his death.

Arriving at Yale, Adele not only has to conceal her impoverished background but also her gender. While she grapples with trying to pass as a young man, she also has to deal with her feelings of revulsion over her work-study job with a professor of eugenics. This work brings her into contact with many poor families in New Haven, but specifically centers on one Italian-American family, the DiRisios, whom she tutors and develops a pseudo-familial relationship.

While afraid that these young men might find out her secret, she easily falls into a friendship with several classmates.; Harry, a slight Jewish boy from Manhattan, Phin, a mysterious legacy student and Wick, an irrepressible daredevil who fascinates Adele. She manages to navigate these sometimes-treacherous waters fairly well, but with believable pitfalls and near-misses over the discovery of her identity as a woman.

The characters in this book were all excellently developed and I found myself pulling for Adele from the beginning. She's a very real heroine, flawed, but essentially a good person. She makes mistakes, she shows vulnerability, but she also stands up for people and develops real relationships in spite of the strain she's under about her identity.

As Adele progresses thru Yale, she realizes how much she loves learning just to learn. She spends hours in the Stacks, dipping into books as the fancy strikes but eventually becoming more disciplined in her choices. In her work with the DiRisios, the Italian family, she discovers a real joy in passing that knowledge along to others. It is this that drives her to stay at Yale, over her mother's eventual protests.

This book was great on so many levels. It would make a terrific book group book because there are so many topics to delve into for discussion: race, class and gender identity, to name but three. In fact, I may suggest it for my book group; I enjoyed it that much. It would be fascinating to get other women's opinions on this excellent book.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Interred With Their Bones

This is a Mother Talk book review.

Interred With Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell, is a roller coaster of a book, weaving the mystery of the whereabouts of one of Shakespeare's lost plays with the mystery of the actual identity of Shakespeare himself.

I love books like this. Big, fat, entertaining books that assume you know a bit about the subject at hand. Books that take you on a rollicking ride while never pandering or talking down to you. Books that have you on the edge of your seat, eager to find out What Happens Next. Best of all, they're based on actual facts and real history. These books are fun, especially when you stop and think about history. People get intimidated - "Oh, I could never get my head around historical fiction." Codswallop. Of course you can - all history is is gossip, gussied up and given the patina of age.

On to the plot:

Kate, a stage director at the New Globe theatre in London, is drawn into this mystery by her former mentor, Rosalind Howard. Roz gives her a gift and begs Kate to follow it where it leads. When the Globe is burned and Roz is killed - in a way that mimics the death of Hamlet's father - Kate sets out to discover the secrets behind Roz's gift: A Victorian mourning brooch featuring flowers that that are associated with Ophelia.

Kate is accompanied on her hunt by two people; Sir Henry and Ben Pearl, Roz's nephew. The plot twists and turns as the group is chased across Europe and America in search of the answers to these great literary mysteries. People double- and triple-cross each other, and as each Shakespeare-inspired murder mounts up, the tension ratchets up another notch. The ending is one, huge, breathless chase that had me turning pages at a furious rate, anxious to find the answers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was well-paced and had plenty of twists and turns (although I will admit to having my suspicions about one of the characters very early on). The author seems to not only know the plays of Shakespeare inside and out but also the history behind who he was and the ongoing debate over whether he even existed at all.

I'm not a Shakespearean expert, nor have I read that many of his plays, but I didn't find that to be a detriment. Instead, I found myself wanting to read his plays (I own them all - thank you, Grandma) and I'm very interested in learning more about Shakespeare's life. A book that can draw me in like that and pique my curiosity is all right with me. When there are so many dreckish mysteries out there (I'm looking at you, Mr. Patterson *ahem* ), something intellectual yet readable, challenging but intensely satisfying is a wonderful find. I'll definitely be recommending this one to my friends and family. I give it four out of five stars.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Dark Dreamweaver

This is a book review.

The Dark Dreamweaver by Nick Ruth, a young adult fantasy fiction novel, tells the story of David, a young boy plagued by nightmares. In spite of his fractured sleep, he still manages to be cheerful and content, engaging in a Monarch butterfly-raising project with his parents.

One of these caterpillars turns out to be a cursed wizard from the land of Remin. The wizard, Houdin, needs David's help to stop Thane, the evil wizard from David's dreams, who is draining the land of Remin of its energy supply, a commodity called Spectrum.

David travels with Houdin to Remin, where they have several adventures in their effort to restore Spectrum to Remin. David starts to learn wizardry, which he seems to have an aptitude for, and meets several fantastical characters along the way.

The premise behind this book was good - conserve resources, discover alternative energy sources, be open to those who are different from you. The writing, however, was spotty. At times, it was interesting but for the most part, I found it plodding and dull. There was too much effort to make cutesy names the way JK Rowling did in the Harry Potter books, but for the most part, they weren't nearly as successful. Of course, it's hard to improve upon names like Grimauld Palace and Durmstrang.

The characters lacked development and dimension. I never felt anything for any of them - their story lines seemed forced or were rendered dull, even when they should have been interesting. The final scene was the most interesting in the book, containing exciting, dynamic passages that were woefully missing in the rest of the book.

The story seemed to be trying to ape the Potter books, with the evil wizard, the young boy wizard -in-training and the older wizard instructor. Thane, the evil wizard, was able to control people a la Voldemort, and had managed to corrupt several other species as well.

All in all, I thought this was a rather weak effort. I'm a fan of YA fantasy fiction and fantasy fiction in general, but this is not something I'd recommend to anyone.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

MotherTalk Review: Little Black Book Of Style

This is a book review. Check out their site for more information or if you'd like to sign up to be a reviewer.

I was recently given a copy of Nina Garcia's Little Black Book of Style. Ms. Garcia is the fashion director at Elle magazine as well as a judge on Project Runway. I am a huge fan of Project Runway and always enjoy Ms. Garcia's sometimes scathing, sometimes laudatory comments of the clothes the designers create. I am not, however, a fashionista. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I like my clothing to be comfortable and functional - I have an almost-three year-old and a 13 month-old. Even on their best days, they're little grime machines, so right now, I need clothes that will withstand their assaults.

That said, I enjoy fashion and when I do have the chance to get gussied up, I want to look put together. This book was definitely a primer on how to do just that. She urges women not to fall victim to fads of fashion, but rather to sculpt their own sense of style.

The easy, conversational tone of this book make it feel, for the most part, as though you're having a discussion with a good friend about clothes and shoes and handbags. She's never patronizing and she's not all about high-end fashion, telling you that you can find gems at H&M and Target and that an L.L Bean tote is just as classic as a Coach bag. Her description of being yanked out of the hot-house fashion world she inhabited in Columbia and being plunged into the preppy world of a Wellesley, MA boarding school are rather amusing - I'm a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander and I would imagine she stuck out like a sore thumb.

The illustrations in this little tome are fantastic. They are by Ruben Toledo and they perfectly complement the text. My only quibble with this book is the section of interviews she does with people like Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera. She asks each person the same set of questions and after the first few, it gets monotonous.

I enjoyed this book. It's not a deep read and it didn't really tell me anything that I didn't already know, but it was informative nonetheless. The illustrations alone are worth the cover price - even if you don't get anything out of the book, you can always frame those fabulous pictures (which, sadly, I couldn't find online - just trust me, they're fantastic).

Friday, August 24, 2007

Maximum Ride: Saving The World And Other Extreme Sports

This is a book review. Check out their site for more information or if you'd like to sign up to be a reviewer.

I should be right upfront about things and state that I am not a James Patterson fan. I find his books to be poorly written with pointless plot twists and bad writing. Sadly, I wasn't disappointed with this latest Patterson oeuvre either.

Patterson has delved into the world of children's fantasy fiction. Children's fantasy, when done well, like the ubiquitous Harry Potter books or Madeline L'Engel's A Wrinkle In Time. This book is plodding, with senseless plot twists and bad dialog.

I wanted to enjoy this, at least. I love children's and young adult books when they're creative and well-written with great plots and good character development. This book had none of that.

I couldn't figure out why two side characters, who formerly wanted to kill Max, the female leader of this group of avian kids, have suddenly changed their minds. There wasn't much of an explanation for that. There were allusions that one of the group was a snitch, spying for this School who had designed these, and many other, mutant children. That never panned out. It was just haphazard, disjointed and random.

And I swear, someone needs to tell Mr. Patterson that half a page does not a chapter make. It's ridiculous. Also, you don't end a chapter and then start the next one with the next sentence in the conversation. Chapters are supposed to be capsules. Sure, they can be cliff hangers, but they need to be more than one page. It's like a kid padding out a writing assignment. "Maybe if I write bigger, the teacher won't notice my lack of content." More chapters does not a better book make.

This book was a huge disappointment. Read Phillip Pullman if you want some good YA fantasy.