Thursday, September 19, 2013

Introducing...Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Introducing books through the first chapter or so...

My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the giftwrap counter at Davison's downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn't right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James's marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.

-- Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

REVIEW: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

Hardcover, 336 pages
Published September 10th 2013 by Little, Brown and Company
ISBN 0316243914 (ISBN13: 9780316243919)

About the Author

Photograph by Nicholas Purcell, obtained from Hannah Kent website
Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide in 1985. As a teenager she travelled to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange, where she first heard the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

Hannah is the co-founder and publishing director of Australian literary journal Kill Your Darlings, and is completing her PhD at Flinders University. In 2011 she won the inaugural Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award.

Burial Rites is her first novel.

Check out the author's website
Follow the author on Twitter 

My Thoughts
They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.
And so we are introduced to Agnes Magnusdottir, as she navigates the end of her life.

This book takes place in the small village of Kornsa in northern Iceland. People here live on farms in small turf-roofed homes.
Grassodenhaus auf Island Foto von Stefan Schafft  
The year is 1828 and Agnes Magnusdottir, along with two others, has been condemned to die by beheading for the murders of two men. But the government has spent too much money on the axe to be used for the beheadings, and they can't afford the upkeep of the prisoners until their execution. So Agnes is sent from the prison to the home of Jon Jonsson of Kornsa, the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, and his wife Margret. They are ordered, as part of his duty as District Officer, to take charge of Agnes until the date of her execution. The family is not happy about these orders, but feel they have no choice but to perform their duty.

This novel is a fictional story based on actual events. As the author explains in her Author's Notes: "Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland." Many of the events in the book are drawn from local history and lore.

Little by little, the life of Agnes is laid bare to the reader, and as heartbreaking as it is, you realize that it is nothing uncommon. This is the life of orphans and paupers.

However this novel is uncommon. It's a modest story, slowly pulling you in, absorbing you bit by bit. It is heart-wrenching at moments, and you yearn for Agnes to find some relief from her fear, and to find love and affection.

Agnes is returned to Kornsa, where she had a family for awhile in her childhood, and gains a family again before her death. She was fostered as a young girl by Inga and Bjorn until Inga died. 
Yesterday, when I was shut up in the storeroom of Stora-Borg, Kornsa would have seemed a heaven….But I see now that it will be a humiliation. People will know me in the valley. They will remember me as I was-- as a baby, as a child, as a woman running from farm to farm-- and then they will think of the murders and that child, that woman will be forgotten. (p. 36)
Agnes requests as her spiritual attendant Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, otherwise known as Toti. He is unclear why Agnes has requested him, and is uncomfortable with the assignment. He is still in training, and nervous about attending to a murderess. But he, like the Kornsa family, performs his duty as ordered.

Toti and Agnes form a bond as he permits her to pour out her soul and rehash her past.
 ...although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate. (p. 69)
I can turn to that day as though it were a page in a book. It’s written so deeply upon my mind I can almost taste the ink. (p. 106)
Jon and Margret's daughter Steina is fascinated with Agnes, and seeks a bond with her, but Agnes holds Steina apart from herself.
She is not like me. She knows only the tree of life. She has not seen its twisted roots pawing stones and coffins. (p. 132)
One of my few complaints is that I would have liked to have seen more development in the relationships between Agnes and the family members. I would have liked to have felt warmth between them growing, and her opening up to them. Her relationship with them remained rather stilted.
And one thing I hate is when a book has lots of foreign words, names and concepts. I know that it is often needed for authenticity, but it can make it an uncomfortable read for me. The use of these words are foreign to me, and they pull me out of the story as I struggle with them, and detract from my enjoyment. Even the odd names throws me off a bit as I try to wrap my mind around the proper way to pronounce the name. But that is a minor inconvenience here.

Overall the writing was beautifully lyrical. a dead woman they will bury me in the earth, pocket me like a stone. (p. 235)
Her poetry made lamps out of people...Rosa’s poetry kindled the shavings of my soul, and lit me up from within. (p. 184)
He smelt of snowmelt and fresh cream. (p. 94)
My final word: This was one of those gentle reads, at times so entrancing it is almost hypnotic, like being rocked to sleep. Affective and sensitive, it moved me. I would consider this novel to be rare and extraordinary, and it will carry you along to the bitter end, if you allow it, with tears streaming down your face as you take those final steps. But you aren't alone. Agnes is with you.
“Do you know what it means, to have a hollow palm? It means there is something secretive about us. This empty space can be filled with bad luck if we’re not careful. If we expose the hollow to the world and all its darkness, all its misfortune.”

“But how can one help the shape of one’s hand?” I was laughing.

“By covering it with another’s, Agnes.” (p. 145-146)
Buy Now:
Barnes and Noble

My Rating: A


I received a complimentary copy of this e-book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof, and any quotes could differ from the print version.

Monday, September 16, 2013

REVIEW: 50 Best Plants on the Planet by Cathy Thomas


This encyclopedic guide to cooking the 50 most nutritious fruits and vegetables in the world comes from Melissa's Produce, the largest supplier of specialty produce in the United States. Cooks of all skill levels will love these 150 recipes for simple sides, breakfasts, dinners, and healthful desserts that make the most of fresh, accessible produce, from memory-boosting blackberries to antimicrobial chili peppers to vitamin A–rich watermelon. Featuring health and nutritional information, tips for buying and storage, quick recipe riffs, and gorgeous shots of finished dishes as well as photographs of individual fruits and vegetables, this impressive package is an indispensable resource for home cooks looking to put more fruits and vegetables on the table every day.

Paperback, 352 pages
Published March 12th 2013 by Chronicle Books
ISBN 145210283X (ISBN13: 9781452102832)

My Thoughts

The rest of the title on this book is "the Most Nutrient-Dense Fruits and Vegetables, in 150 Delicious Recipes", and that is just what this book does. It presents 50 fruits and vegetables in alphabetical order. Each section has a description of the food, nutritional information, and other health benefits like it fights cancer, builds your immunity, or helps control your cholesterol. It then lists cooking and prep suggestions, some suggestions for ways to "try it!" (simple things like sauteed in oil with carrots and red onions, or cooked with potatoes and drizzled with balsamic), and then has three detailed recipes-- some with photos, and some without, but all with nutritional information.

One recipe I tried, that I looooved, is the one for Peachy Oatmeal.

Peachy Oatmeal with Bittersweet Chocolate Bits
Makes 4 servings

2 1/2 cups milk (I used almond milk)
pinch of salt
2 cups quick-cooking oats
1 1/2 tbs agave nectar
1 tsp vanilla
2 tbs chopped bittersweet chocolate (I used about 1 tbs semi-sweet chips per serving)
2 ripe peaches cut into thin slices

Bring milk and and salt to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Mix in oats, agave, and vanilla. Lower to medium heat and cook until thickened, about 4 minutes. Divide mixture into four bowls, sprinkle with chocolate and press lightly into mixture and top with peach slices.

I used semi-sweet chips, and used about 1 tablespoon rather than 1/2 tablespoon per serving. So good! It was like eating dessert!

I also tried a recipe for sugar snap peas. It was very pretty. However I found the shallots and watercress lent too strong of a flavor for my taste.

So I jotted down a variation to try next time, and that is what I will share here, since there were aspects of the recipe that I liked.

Sugar Snap Peas with Warm Vinaigrette (my variation)
Serves 4

12 oz sugar snap peas
Arugula (optional)
2 tbs oil
1/2 cup thinly-sliced sweet onion
2 tbs seasoned rice vinegar
1 1/2 tsp sesame oil
Coarse salt
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds

Add 4 cups water to large pan. Bring to boil on high heat. Add the peas and blanch until tender-crisp, 30-60 seconds. Drain and refresh the peas with cold water. Remove strings if needed, when cool. (Can toss in a medium-sized bowl with some arugula, if you like. I found the watercress to bitter for my taste, and think I will try arugula next time.)

Heat oil in pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and reduce to medium-low. Cook until light brown, 10-12 minutes. add vinegar and sesame oil and season. Cook until heated through, about 30 seconds. Add pea mixture and toss, heating for another 30 seconds or so. Serve topped with sesame seeds.

The book also has an index that is sorted by ingredient as well as recipe, and those handy folding flaps inside the cover that are great for marking the spot of your next cooking adventure.

This book is filled with recipes I want to try, and a wealth of information on the health benefits of the plants deemed the "most nutrient-dense". I think this one is destined to become one of my favorite cookbooks (and I have lots and lots of them)!

My Rating:

Mailbox Monday (09-16-13 edition)

 Image licensed from
Copyright stands

Mailbox Monday is hosted by a different blog each month. See the official list here. I've received a few new books recently:

My Mother's Secret by J.L. Witterick

A novel based on a true story, a mother and daughter risk their lives to provide shelter to two families and a German soldier--all unbeknownst to each other--in a tiny two-room house in Sokal, Poland, during the Nazi invasion.

Based on a true story, MY MOTHER'S SECRET is a profound, captivating, and ultimately uplifting tale intertwining the lives of two Jewish families in hiding from the Nazis, a fleeing German soldier, and the clever and "righteous" mother and daughter who teamed up to save them.

Franciszka and her daughter, Helena, are unlikely heroines. They are simple people who mind their own business and don't stand out from the crowd. Until 1939, when crisis strikes. The Nazis have invaded Poland and they are starting to persecute the Jews. Providing shelter to a Jew has become a death sentence. And yet, Franciszka and Helena decide to do just that. In their tiny, two-bedroom home in Sokal, Poland, they cleverly hide a Jewish family of two brothers and their wives in their pigsty out back, a Jewish doctor with his wife and son in a makeshift cellar under the kitchen floorboards, and a defecting German soldier in the attic--each group completely unbeknownst to the others. For everyone to survive, Franciszka will have to outsmart her neighbors and the German commanders standing guard right outside her yard.

Told simply and succinctly from four different perspectives, MY MOTHER'S SECRET is a reminder that there are, in fact, no profiles of courage and each individual's character is a personal choice.

This book was inspired by the true story of Franciszka Halamajowa, who, with her daughter, saved the lives of fifteen Jews in Poland during the Second World War. She also hid a young German soldier in her attic at the same time. Before the war, there were six thousand Jews in Sokal, Poland. Only thirty survived the war and half of those did so because of Franciszka.


Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

Six months after the formation of the NYPD, its most reluctant and talented officer, Timothy Wilde, thinks himself well versed in his city’s dark practices—until he learns of the gruesome underworld of lies and corruption ruled by the "blackbirders,” who snatch free Northerners of color from their homes, masquerade them as slaves, and sell them South to toil as plantation property.

The abolitionist Timothy is horrified by these traders in human flesh. But in 1846, slave catching isn’t just legal—it’s law enforcement.

When the beautiful and terrified Lucy Adams staggers into Timothy’s office to report a robbery and is asked what was stolen, her reply is, "My family.” Their search for her mixed-race sister and son will plunge Timothy and his feral brother, Valentine, into a world where police are complicit and politics savage, and corpses appear in the most shocking of places. Timothy finds himself caught between power and principles, desperate to protect his only brother and to unravel the puzzle before all he cares for is lost.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Mailbox Monday (09-09-13 edition)

 Image licensed from
Copyright stands

Mailbox Monday is hosted by a different blog each month. See the official list here. I've received a few new books recently:

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning.

Leaving Haven by Kathleen McCleary

Getting what you want is just the beginning. Now you have to discover what you truly need. . . .

Georgia Bing and Alice Kinnaird have always been there for each other. Eager to help her best friend have another baby after several miscarriages, Alice donates one of her eggs. When Georgia learns she's going to have the baby boy she's always wanted, she's thrilled—until a devastating discovery destroys her dreams.

While Alice is happy to help her friend get pregnant, she also feels a twinge of disappointment that her own life is missing something . . . something she desperately craves. On the surface, Alice has everything—a busy social life, a great job, a faithful husband, an amazing teenage daughter. But her well-ordered world is knocked off its axis when she's tempted by a forbidden passion that threatens the bonds of friendship, marriage, and motherhood that sustain her.

As the safety of their past is shattered, Georgia and Alice must embark on journeys of self-discovery—odysseys filled with surprising challenges that will test them and force them to confront the truth about their lives . . . and the choices they've made.

The Preservationist by Justin Kramon

To Sam Blount, meeting Julia is the best thing that has ever happened to him.

Working at the local college and unsuccessful in his previous relationships, he'd been feeling troubled about his approaching fortieth birthday, "a great beast of a birthday," as he sees it, but being with Julia makes him feel young and hopeful. Julia Stilwell, a freshman trying to come to terms with a recent tragedy that has stripped her of her greatest talent, is flattered by Sam's attention. But their relationship is tested by a shy young man with a secret, Marcus Broley, who is also infatuated with Julia.

Told in alternating points of view, The Preservationist is the riveting tale of Julia and Sam's relationship, which begins to unravel as the threat of violence approaches and Julia becomes less and less sure whom she can trust.

The Last Neanderthal Clan by Lisa Lareau and Charles Boring

As Humanity Evolves, Two Competing Species Struggle for Survival! Lisa M. Lareau and her father Charlie Boring share a lifelong interest in prehistoric civilizations. Lisa grew up listening to Charlie's tales about cave-dwelling clans, and the characters in those stories have been developed and expanded in The Last Neanderthal Clan.  

Purchased from Barnes and Noble:

Lost in Shangri-la by Mitchell Zuckoff

"A lost world, man-eating tribesmen, lush impenetrable jungles, stranded American fliers (one of them a dame with great gams, for heaven's sake), a startling rescue mission. This is a true story made in heaven for a writer as talented as Mitchell Zuckoff. Whew--what an utterly compelling & deeply satisfying read!"--Simon Winchester

Former Boston Globe reporter Mitchell Zuckoff unleashes the exhilarating, untold story of an extraordinary World War II rescue mission, where a plane crash in the South Pacific plunged a trio of U.S. military personnel into a land that time forgot. Fans of Hampton Sides' Ghost Soldiers, Marcus Luttrell's Lone Survivor & David Grann's The Lost City of Z will be captivated by Zuckoff's masterfully recounted, all-true story of danger, daring, determination & discovery in jungle-clad New Guinea during the final days of WWII.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

REVIEW: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara


In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu'ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub "The Dreamers," who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

Hardcover, 384 pages
Published August 13th 2013 by Doubleday (first published August 1st 2013)
ISBN 0385536771 (ISBN13: 9780385536776)

My Thoughts
I am Ronald Kubodera-- but only in academic journals. To everyone else, I am Ron. Yes, I am the Dr. Ronald Kubodera about whom you have no doubt read in the magazines and newspapers. No, not all the stories are true-- they rarely are, of course.
This is the fictional story of scientist Norton Perina's adventures in the fictional islands of U'ivu, the research that developed from his time there, his ethical breaches, awkward social relationships, and unsettling personal life. This book begs the question...
If a great man does unspeakable things, is he still a great man? (p. 2)

This book is loosely based on Nobel laureate Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who won a Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for his work on the infectious brain disease kuru, which was prevalent among the South Fore people of New Guinea, and who was later convicted of child molestation in 1996.

Norton was something of a scientific misfit, not respected among his peers, young and inexperienced in much else than killing mice and injecting animals with various things as part of the lab experimentation he performed for a more respected scientist.

Then one day he is sent to the remote Micronesian country of U'ivu, for what reason he does not know. He soon discovers that he is to assist anthropologist Paul Tallent, who is searching for a mysterious tribe that lives on Ivu'ivu, the most remote of the islands of U'ivu. (I know. The names of the islands and the people really confused me. It's like reading a book full of women named Mary, Marie, and Maria!)

While on the island, they discover this "forgotten" tribe of  U'ivuans on the island of Ivu'ivu who appear to have abnormally long lifespans that are triple the norm or longer, living 200 or 300 years or more. And Norton theorizes that their long life is connected to their ingestion of a certain turtle. However the same individuals who live extraordinarily long lives are also lost to a serious  mental degradation that leaves them stumbling around with severe cases of a condition resembling Alzheimer's.

This book follows Norton over the decades, shifting from his childhood to his professional life, and then ending on a more personal note. It repeatedly made me think of the movie Medicine Man, warning of the risks to our most fragile areas and cultures by drug companies and science. It starts off with news articles about Norton, and a foreword by Norton's friend and colleague Ronald Kubodera, who is the narrator and "editor" of the book. The book is presented as the memoir of Norton, and Kubodera will insert footnotes to further explain things for the reader.

The detail with which the author shares through the narrator boggles my mind. It really feels as if there is a narrator who is commenting and expounding on what is noted by Norton, and that this is a real scientific memoir.
This concept of la-- which Norton here translates as “meaningless”, though others have interpreted it as something closer to the Zen Buddhist concept of mu, or “nothingness”-- is arguably the most important governing principle in traditional U’ivuan philosophy (not to be confused with their mythology, or their religion, which is largely animistic). (p. 111)
By page 43, I was noting, ", great writing...but I'm getting impatient to get to the meat of the story. All of this 'alluding' is driving me nuts!" This was just such an intriguing story, arousing, weird and uncomfortable, and you wanted to find out what would happen next, what was this all about. At times it was quite gripping.

Considering that this novel is written in the form of a memoir, you have to give the fictional character of Norton Perina credit for his honesty. He is unabashed, as a child, in his frank exposure of himself, his thoughts and motivations. He is unapologetic. Well, occasionally he makes excuses, blaming everyone but himself. Other times he accepts responsibility for events, but doesn't really apologize for them. He is simply stating the way it was.

Norton carries an infatuation for the anthropologist Tallent, although it is never clear whether or not it is a romantic infatuation or just admiration and a desire to be what he is-- a “man crush” perhaps. But it becomes evident that Norton is the narrator’s “man crush”-- Norton is Robert Kubodera’s infatuation.
But as I was saying, no, people are not sympathetic to Norton’s current situation. Indeed, people condemned and dismissed him before he was officially condemned and dismissed, legally, by a jury of his supposed peers-- what must it feel like to be a man of Norton’s intellect and have your character determined and your fate writ by twelve incompetents (one juror, as I recall, was a tollbooth clerk, another a dog-washer), whose decision renders virtually every one of your previous accomplishments insignificant, if not entirely meaningless? From that perspective, then, is it any mystery that Norton should now find himself depressed, bored, and unstimulated? (p. 14)
"Is is not relevant whether he did or not,” I said. “Norton is a great mind, and that is all that matters to me and I should say to history as well." (p. 13)
Later on Norton begins adopting children from the islands of U'ivu, as things there begin to degrade. Eventually he adopts a total of something like 40 children, offering them a chance at a better life.

My final word: I found this story to be intriguing, and it kept me wondering how it would all play out. However I found it did read something like the scientific memoir it was presented as. And by the end of the book, I noted that it began to feel like one of those movies that winds up being about 20 minutes too long. With 60 pages to go, I was left thinking "How much more can there be? Haven't we covered just about everything?" And yet when those 60 pages ended, I answered "Yes, there really was that much still left in the story!" None of the characters are especially likable, but the story keeps pulling you along, dying to know how this will all play out. By the end of the story, as you are welcomed into Norton's personal life, you find yourself squirming in your seat, sort of uncomfortable in your own skin, almost physically cringing. Was it a fun read? No. At moments it could be touching or beautiful, but often it was awkward, uncomfortable, disturbing and a little stiff. But it was also fascinating, peculiar, and felt almost "profound". While not as beautifully lyrical as Ann Patchet's State of Wonder, I found that I actually enjoyed it more, despite being left with a bad aftertaste. It's an unsettling story, but read it anyway.

Buy Now:

Barnes and Noble

Cover: A+
Writing Style: A-
Characters: A-
Storyline/Plot: A
Interest/Uniqueness: A

My Rating


I received a copy of this book to review through Netgalley and the publisher, in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. The book that I received was an uncorrected proof, and any quotes could differ from the print version.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Introducing...The Returned by Jason Mott

Introducing books through the first chapter or so...

Harold opened the door that day to find a dark-skinned man in a well-cut suit smiling at him. At first he thought of reaching for his shotgun, but then he remembered that Lucille had made him sell it years ago on account of an incident involving a traveling preacher and an argument having to do with hunting dogs.

-- The Returned by Jason Mott