Review: “Victoria of England” by Edith Sitwell

Dame Edith Sitwell was an interesting character. Due to an extremely unhappy relationship with her parents, she lived with her governess for a long time, until that lady’s death of cancer in the late 1930s. She fell in love with a gay artist and never married. As a tall woman who liked to dress in unusual garb, she certainly stood out. Like her younger brothers, Dame Edith had literary leanings and began publishing poetry before the first World War. She also wrote books on poetry, as well as biographies. “Victoria of England” was first published in 1936.

This fact presents one of the major problems with this work: its wording is often somewhat archaic, which younger readers may find tedious. It is also somewhat repetitive: after all, we do not need reminding that Victoria disliked a certain politician or presented herself as a grieving widow after the early death of husband Albert in every single chapter following the event. If you can look beyond those faults, you’ll be delighted to discover a sprightly, slightly gossipy narrative about Victoria’s early life, her ascension to the English throne, and her adult years, occasionally peppered with personal notes from Dame Edith. Most chapters are augmented with quotes from letters to or from the Queen, excerpts from her diaries, and quotations from contemporary biographers. Unfortunately, we find the sovereign such a private person that her daily routine remains largely unexplained; we do, however, learn that she loved her family, never got over her beloved husband’s death, apparently managed to remain quite diplomatic when dealing with foreign powers, and strongly disapproved of women’s suffrage, somewhat ironic considering that she herself was a woman in charge of a nation and a Commonwealth.

Two chapters seem odd among the rest: Edith Sitwell spends a very thorough bit of time enlightening the reader on the plight of the British laborer of the Victorian age, which is certainly interesting, but entirely out of character from the rest of the biography in tone. The same goes for the odd, rambling listing of fashions of the time, inserted after the French Queen’s visit to London.

As an extra, the new edition of “Victoria of England” also includes 1933’s “The English Eccentrics,” which must have been a very short book indeed, considering it barely seems to take up room at the end of the biography.

“Victoria of England” is published by Agora Books. I received an ARC via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are, as always, my own.

victoria

Review: “Simply Bento” by Yuko Yagi and Noriko Yura

It’s been more quiet than usual around here this week, and that has two reasons. For one, I’ve started my new job, which is cutting into both reading and writing time (as jobs tend to do). Secondly, I’m a bit under the weather at the moment. The queue doesn’t simply read itself, however, and there is already another little surprise for my readers in the making, so stuff needs to get done.

I thought “Simply Bento” would be a great title for review, since I’ve been looking for easy lunch options to take with me. Authors Noriko and Yuko also run the popular blog Japanese Cooking 101, which features a huge variety of recipes, many with videos. Their new cookbook begins reasonably with an explanation of what bento is and its history. It turns out that as a meal, bento has been enjoyed for far longer than I would have thought! The seven key points in “How to Make Bento” reemphasize the fact that you are taking a meal for the senses, something that should be prepared with a bit more care than a baloney sandwich wrapped in cellophane, while keeping in mind as well that raw meats or fish and dairy require certain food safety practices.

Next, you learn about essential utensils and accessories for bento, like choices for containers, then move on to find out which staples make regular appearances in Japanese cooking. Finally, as bento aims to provide a balanced meal, there are some notes on how to create exactly that. Now you’re ready to delve into the recipes!

Altogether, there are twelve recipe chapters that cover topics like Classic Japanese Bento, Noodle Bento, Low-Carb Bento, Bento for Special Occasions, Bento at Home, and even Side Dishes. There is even a separate section on Vegan Bento, although I don’t need a whole cookbook to tell me to pack a falafel lunch. On average, the sections feature seven recipes each, some a few more, some a few less. Every recipe is laid out the same way: after a brief recipe introduction, there is a box titled “How to Make this Bento” in which you find a main dish, plus suggested side dishes. The next line tells you the estimated prep time, cooking time, and number of servings for the main dish, immediately followed by the recipe for the main. For people frequently finding themselves in a time crush, there is a very helpful box titled “Plan Ahead” to make quick assembly a snap. This layout makes the book very easy to use. The recipes are accompanied by full-page color photos.

Overall, I think this is a great book for omnivores who are curious about Japanese food. There certainly is a great variety of different dishes in here. Personally, I find it disappointing and, frankly, a bit lazy to say that a lot of the dishes can be adjusted to fit a vegan diet without concrete tips on how to do so, and that is why I would not get this book for myself. The only cookbook I have come across so far that actually tries and succeeds quite well in providing both vegetarian and vegan variations of the vast majority of recipes included, is Kathryne Taylor’s “Love Real Food.” Still, I am at least motivated to check out Yuko and Noriko’s blog for ideas.

“Simply Bento” is published by Race Point Publishing. I received an advanced reader copy from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

simply bento

Review: “The Vegan 8” by Brandi Doming

This past week has been a bit stop and go. Fortunately, the go bits were pretty good, if I say so myself; I have an exciting surprise coming up for you guys, and I just finished two very different but equally interesting cookbooks. One of them is what I’m reviewing today.

If you’ve been in the vegan scene in the US at all, chances are that you have at least had fleeting contact with Brandi Doming’s blog, The Vegan 8. The premise is to create easy, delicious recipes with eight or fewer ingredients, which makes them ideal for beginners and busy people. It seems almost the norm now that when a blog is successful enough, a cookbook is sure to follow (not that I’m complaining), and voila!, here we are.

It’s very hard to dislike this book, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Ms Doming just comes across as so darn likeable. She went vegetarian, then vegan, in order to optimize her husband’s diet (based on medical recommendations) to alleviate his gout, without having to sacrifice the enjoyment that comes from a good meal. Secondly, the first chapter, The Vegan 8 Kitchen, is a thorough introduction to tips, tricks, techniques, and ingredients to assure you get the most out of the recipes every time. I love that she starts out with a reminder to read the recipe ahead of time! You would not believe how many people criticize cookbooks again and again for recipes that “take too long,” have “exotic ingredients,” or require some planning-ahead. It’s called organization; hop to it and do it, people!

The recipe section is organized in a familiar manner according to meal type. Apparently, grouping recipes into meals for, let’s say, specific holidays, creates stress for more cooks than I would have guessed (read some reviews of Bryant Terry’s books if you don’t believe me), so again, for beginners and people who want to pick a meal rather than an occasion, this is just perfect! The individual chapters are: Breakfast, Scrumptious Snacks & Appetizers, Time-Crunch Lunches, Sauces & Dressings, Easy Entrees, Comforting Soups & Stews, Sides & Dips, Crowd-Pleasing Desserts, and Staples.

Every recipe has a header, telling you whether it is oil-, gluten-, and/or nut-free. Each comes with a short introduction and ends with -unusual these days, but surely much appreciated by some cooks – nutritional information. There is a useful tip or note alongside each dish, and each and every one is accompanied by a full page, gorgeous color photo that’ll make you want to zip into the kitchen and get cooking right now!

Ms. Doming loves all things barbecue, and so this particular flavor profile appears in several dishes. She’s also not very big on fruit in desserts, and so that chapter is stuffed to the gills with chocolatey yumminess. If you feel bothered by this, this may not be the cookbook for your kitchen shelf.

I have already bookmarked several recipes to try before my preview copy expires, and I have a strong feeling this might make it onto the wishlist.

“The Vegan 8” is published by Oxmoor House. I received a free copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

vegan 8

Review: “Drink Me!” by Nick Perry and Paul Rosser

We all have a favorite childhood story, don’t we? One whose magic draws us in irresistibly, puts our hair on end or curls our toes, or maybe just makes us feel all warm and fuzzy for the memories connected with it. Generations of children have come to know the magic of “Alice in Wonderland” (even if Tim Burton has tried his best to ruin it), and many continue to love the story of the girl who goes down to rabbit hole -and later, behind the looking-glass- well into adulthood. “Drink It!” is directed at these grown up fans, now old enough to not only enjoy a well crafted tale, but also some well crafted tipple. Each and every cocktail in this book is inspired by an event or a character from the Alice books, like the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar’s Hookah, Pig and Pepper, or Off With Her Head.

So far, so intriguing. The book actually begins with a short introduction into the bits and bobs of cocktail mixing, from common alcoholic ingredients to handy tools and the best glassware. Then we mix. Alas, this is where “Drink Me!” immediately runs into problems. Firstly, the introduction points out that great pains were taken to create unusual cocktails, but there are no pictures of any of them. Zero! Zilch! Which I could have dismissed as an oversight, were it not for the totally redundant photographs in the third part, Batch Recipes, where you also get to create your own syrups, liqueurs, and spirits used specifically in these cocktails! I know what a silly sugar cube looks like; show me the Bread-and-Butterfly Pudding instead!

Another problem is that the authors live in London, where it is easy to purchase a specific, recommended alcohol selection. Of course, if you have a favorite whiskey or vodka, you may be good to go, but in gin-based drinks, different brands can lead to vastly different flavor profiles. I, for example, live in northern Indiana. Here, selection is rather limited, to put it politely. We are also a state that does not allow you to have alcohol shipped to you: no beer clubs, no wine subscriptions, no nothing. And if that isn’t enough, requiring different bitters for every other recipe is a bit out of my budget. Making my own turkey-flavored vodka would be merely the tiniest bit of help (actually, it wouldn’t, because as a vegan, I don’t do turkey flavor, but you get the idea).

Alas, unlike “Death & Co.,” “Drink Me!” would be one bar book that would primarily look cute and gather dust in my house instead of getting proper use. But if the above-mentioned issues are really non-issues for you, if you love “Alice in Wonderland” more than your childhood best friend, and/or you are always looking for the next far-out cocktail idea, this book is for you. I’ll clink my glass to that!

“Drink Me!” is published by Rock Point, part of the Quarto Publishing Group. I received a copy in exchange for a review. All opinions are most definitely my own.

drink me

Review: “Death in Paris” by Emilia Bernhard

Some books require serious commitment before you really get into them. Some require a bit of a warmup. And some start off like being dropped into someone’s cozy living-room with a cup of joe and a cookie. “Death in Paris” is definitely a coffee and cookie book!

In this utterly charming, well-paced novel, two American ex-pats in Paris find themselves suddenly entangled in a murder investigation when Rachel’s former lover ends up face first in his soup bowl. The only clue: a bottle of wine that the dead man was unlikely to have chosen to drink. When Rachel attends the reading of the will, she is presented with an entire set of possible suspects. She and her friend, Magda, decide to follow their hunches to the thrilling conclusion.

There are so many things I love about this book: the characters are well defined and thought out. The pace of the narrative feels like a comfortably brisk walk in a rainy park smelling of wet leaves (what? I for one rather enjoy rambles like that).  The events have an internal logic, something that is not a given, even in crime fiction. And there are no grammatical or spelling errors, and yes, that is so rare that it is worth mentioning. I realize that advance copies are just that and usually not yet finalized, but mistakes are distracting to me, occasionally to the point where I no longer want to finish the book.

Author Emilia Bernhard is an American living in the UK, something that accidentally spills over into the book. At one point, there is a scene describing the utter lack of decent options for a good cup of tea in Paris, something that the vast majority of my American acquaintances wouldn’t give a hoot about. Someone well familiar with the beloved British ritual of tea preparation, however, would.

All in all, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and suspenseful read which I do not hesitate to recommend to you, my dear readers. Hopefully, this will not be the last time we’ve heard from Ms. Bernhard.

“Death in Paris” is published by Thistle Publishing. I received a free copy in exchange for a review. As always, all opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

death in paris

Review: “Happily Healthy” by Lea Lou (Lea Lüdemann)

I still don’t have a start date for the new job, so while I wait, I have time to… clean the house… sleep in… run 5 miles a day… read… yeah, ok, let’s go with read! And this is why you get three days of reviews in a row. Cool!

I had waffled about this particular book for a few weeks. Checked Amazon.com and .de. Waffled some more. Then decided to download the English language Kindle version (German Amazon has so much more selection!). Got mad while previewing: there were far too many errors in the text to make it worth keeping, so I returned it. Waffled some more. Then the price for the German Kindle version dropped six euros, and we were in business. I am happy to report that there are no repeats of the errors of the English version. Text is where it’s supposed to be. The arrangement of photos and text makes sense. There are no odd italics where none should be. This one’s a keeper.

What had appealed to me in this particular book was Lea’s attitude. Having overcome an eating disorder, she now enjoys food, does not believe in punishing yourself through your diet (rather, she subscribes to the oft-quoted notion of 80/20, namely, that if you eat clean -read: fresh and unprocessed- foods 80% of the time, you get to treat yourself the other 20%), has a good attitude towards exercise, and incorporates mental wellness into the package. Her writing style is easy going, never preachy. She encourages her readers to listen to their bodies’ needs and act accordingly. Nowadays, a lot of people seem to have unlearned that essential skill.

Lea begins with a chapter about food: her pantry staples, where to shop for which ingredients, eating seasonally, how you can eat healthy on a budget. The next chapter is about fitness and includes a HIIT (high intensity interval training) session as an example of how to get started. From there, we move on to mindfulness and yoga, complete with a vinyasa sequence that even beginners without major mobility issues should be able to follow. There are tips on breathing techniques that can be quite helpful for stress reduction. The chapter on Happiness gives tips and tricks on cultivating a positive mindset, not as a cure-all but rather another pillar to build a happy, fulfilled life on. Each chapter up to this point includes a quickie checklist of things you can do right now to support your goals.

Finally, we delve into the recipe section. Lea is a pescatarian, but all recipes are vegetarian. Although she promises in the introduction to food to add ways to veganize the recipes, the only two times this happens are rather silly. I don’t need to be told to simply omit the egg or leave out the cheese! Luckily, if you have a little experience with vegan cooking, you’ll quickly find that all the recipes can modified without difficulty. Use chia or flax eggs in baking, substitute non-dairy milk and butter, or add commercial vegan cheeze or flavored tofu in other recipes. We just had the shakshuka for lunch, the husband got his with two eggs, I had mine with tofu simmered in the sauce. THAT is modification.

Alas, I also found a mistake in this particular recipe: it calls for a red (bell) pepper cut in thin strips, but the pepper never makes an appearance again beyond the ingredient list! Add it with the onion and garlic, and be sure to read all recipes completely before getting stumped in the middle later! Oh, and how was it? Very fast, very easy, very tasty. I’ve also had a breakfast smoothie from the book, which I enjoyed, and I’m looking forward to incorporating more recipes in the meal plan in future. There are no “weird” or hard to get ingredients in these dishes; your local supermarket should be able to supply all of them.

There are plenty of photos in this book, but not every recipe has one, so bear that in mind if this is important to you. The photos for the HIIT and yoga sections are very good and helpful.

The English version is called “Happily Healthy by Lea Lou: A Guide to Food, Fitness, Health & Happiness.” It is self-published by Lea Lüdemann. In German, the book is called “Happily Healthy: Mit Rezepten, Fitness und Yoga zum gesunden und glücklichen Leben.” It is published by ZS Verlag GmbH. Lea speaks English and German and did her own translation. She grew up in Germany and now lives in London. To learn more, also visit her blog.

happily healthy

 

Review: “The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade” by M.J. Trow

I thank my lucky stars that made me decide to pick up this excellent book, and whether you’re a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, love good crime fiction, or simply enjoy a well-written novel with a good dose of humor, do not let this pass you by.

Inspector Lestrade is probably the best known of all of Holmes’s police contacts, and like most of them, frequently bumbles his way through a case without the ability to see past his own nose. M.J. Trow decides to turn things on their head, certainly not a novel (ho-hum!) idea. After all, Sherlock Holmes wasn’t all he was made out to be in the fabulously entertaining comedy, “Without A Clue,” starring Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. In the movie, Dr. Watson is the actual sleuth who invents a fictional detective to allow him to solve crimes incognito. He hires Michael Caine’s character, an unemployed actor, to step in as Holmes. Inspector Lestrade, played by Jeffrey Jones, is the familiar jealous doofus.

M.J. Trow, however, not only gives his Lestrade a first name (Sholto), but also a personal life and enough smarts to successfully navigate his career in the police force. If anyone finds Sholto reminiscent of an Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, you are not mistaken. “The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade” is peppered with literary allusions harking back to the Conan Doyle canon. I won’t give any others away in order to not spoil your fun, but I’d like to say that I enjoyed finding them strewn throughout the text.

There is also an imposing cast of characters, from Conan Doyle, Holmes, and Watson as themselves, to familiar faces such as Athelney Jones and Inspector Gregson. A few real-life writers of the time make an appearance in smaller roles, like Oscar Wilde and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. They may be small details, but they imbue the story with a wonderful sense of playfulness, while at the same time betray Mr. Trow’s background as a historian. A couple of scenes center around misadventures with surnames. I thought those were quite funny and not overdone.

Readers familiar with European children’s literature will cotton on quickly to the fact that the murder series Lestrade must investigate is apparently based on Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter” (Shock-headed Peter) stories. On a side note: As someone who loves those frequently gruesome tales to this day, I am more than a little appalled at the clunky and inelegant English translations which lack a lot of the charm of the originals, but I understand that in order to preserve the rhyme, certain linguistic sacrifices had to be made.

Lestrade takes more than a few literal and proverbial beatings in the course of his investigation, as the murderer seems to remain a solid step ahead of the police, while pressure to solve the case mounts as the months drag on. Red herrings abound, and the conclusion is a well thought-out surprise (at least that’s what I felt). I feel utterly satisfied on many levels by this wonderful book – it took me less than a day to race through it!

“The Adventures of Inspector Lestrade” is published by Thistle Publishing. I snagged a free copy for review via Netgalley. All opinions are absolutely my own, unless otherwise stated.

inspector lestrade

Review: “Broken Ground” by Val McDermid

Finally, a new book! There could have been two, but I finally decided to abandon one of the two most current reads in favor of something less boring. Honestly, unless there is an actual plot or a point or at least a pointe, please don’t make me sit through endless pages of self-criticizing journaling; it’s not cute. For those of you who might get suckered in by a diary about growing up in the 60s, I highly recommend “Diary of a Beatlemaniac” which was all the things this other book was not: funny, interesting, and a great read to the end.

I’ve also been disappointed that the copy of “Vegan Yack Attack on the Go!” that I won in an online contest hasn’t arrived. Then again, there hasn’t been much forward momentum as far as giving me a start date to go to work, either. I suppose that means there is no rush on the book. Still… I was however quite tickled to find my copy of “Infinite Tuesday” in the mailbox upon our return from Cleveland, signed by author, video pioneer, songwriter and former Monkee Michael Nesmith. I realize he does that for everyone who orders the book from the Videoranch website, but I’m loving it, anyway.

I don’t know if I have made it clear that I’m a bit of a sucker for good crime fiction. No midlife-crisis-battling, rubber-boots-wearing, quirky divorcees or chicks-who-must-find-their-true-selves for me! Hm, perhaps that doesn’t quite work in this case, because “Broken Ground”‘s lead character, DCI Karen Pirie, is certainly battling a crisis of sorts in this book, and since the setting is Scotland, rubber boots do make an appearance. Early on, in fact: together with an accommodating local, a young couple set out to dig up a pair of war-era motorcycles, hidden for decades in a peat bog. Literally thrown into the bargain is a dead body, significantly younger than the motorcycles. DCI Pirie from the Historic Case Unit now has to solve this murder, while simultaneously assisting in a domestic violence incidence turned deadly.

“Broken Ground” is Ms. McDermid’s 32nd thriller, if I remember the blurb from the back correctly, and it is quite obvious why her books are so popular. I was drawn into the story immediately, the characters are fleshed out quickly and with practiced ease. The suspense is built and maintained excellently; I think it took me two days and a bit to get through this book (primarily because I do have other things to do, regrettably, or it might have been a one-day read for me). If you are a fan of gritty, rain-soaked locales, but prefer your detectives to be allowed a private life, you will love this book. I certainly highly recommend it. The only thing I did not care for so much were the final two chapters. The second-to-last chapter reads a bit like a rush job to tie up loose ends, the last chapter really adds nothing to the story, except laying out the scene of a murder as it had already been surmised by investigators earlier on. Instead of bringing closure, it just reads a bit redundant.

“Broken Ground” will be published by Grove Atlantic this December. I received an advance copy via Netgalley in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

cover145507-medium

What’s Coming Up

It’s going to be a little more quiet here until next week, the reason being that the husband and I are off to Cleveland for a mini vacation. I have, however, several books in the queue as we speak that I think you will find interesting, and it’s a varied lot: there is a lively biography of Queen Victoria, a fast-and-easy vegan cookbook, a novel in which Inspector Lestrade gets to go off on his own adventures, and a thriller set in the Scottish peat bogs!

But speaking of Cleveland, if there are fellow fans of The Cars in my esteemed audience, you may be tickled to learn, as I was, that this November there will be a brand new biography of Benjamin Orr, aptly named “Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars.” You can preorder it now, the official release date is November 11. That is one I’m quite excited about! Probably a bit more exciting is the fact that I’m expecting my copy of Michael Nesmith’s “Infinite Tuesday” in the mail when I return from Ohio – signed by the author. In other reviews, people have nagged that Michael doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about his stint as a Monkee, but considering he has on numerous occasions expressed his exasperation at first and foremost being linked to that particular group, I am not surprised. Would you be interested to have me review “Infinite Tuesday”?

I honestly don’t know how much time for reading I will have over the weekend, considering the trip is clearly dominated by music. It begins with a gig by The Fixx, goes on to a possible blues outing, makes a pit stop at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame (The Cars were inductees this April, part of the reason why I’ve wanted to go) and ends with a gig by The Psychedelic Furs. Just writing that down makes me all excited.

So now you’re in the loop. I will see you next week with fresh material!

Review: “Flamingo Lane” by Tim Applegate

For a brief moment I labored under the illusion that my to-read list was actually getting shorter. Then I took a look at the titles my Kindle app lists as “new.” Yeah… the incredible shrinking book list it ain’t! In the interest of continuing this blog, I suppose that is definitely a good thing.

Yesterday, I finished Tim Applegate’s “Flamingo Lane,” a novel in which writer William Dieter reconnects with an old friend while working on his new novel, “Flamingo Lane.” Dieter’s previous book, “Fever Tree,” was a huge success. I can’t say whether this is also true for Mr Applegate’s prior novel of the same title. If any of his other characters are so obviously inspired by actual persons is hard to tell, and not just because of the usual disclaimer that they’re not.

So, Dieter is in Crooked River, Florida, working on his book. He has gotten back into contact with an old friend he met in Mexico years earlier, Faye Lindstrom. Back when Faye was still young and idealistic, looking to devote her life to the hippie notions of love and peace, she fell in love with a Mexican gangster. As the book starts out, she is just trying to get her life back together, having managed to escape her ex-boyfriend. Alas, unbeknownst to her, there is a paid assassin close on her heels, and he’s got a personal score to settle, as well.

“Flamingo Lane” was a super fast read for me, not because it’s super short, but because it is suspenseful and captivating. If you’re a fan of well written thrillers, don’t let this one pass you by! Having done a little research, I find that “Fever Tree,” the earlier novel, tells Dieter’s own story, from his days in Quintana Roo to his arrival in Crooked River. If ever I have time again, I may have to get my paws on that one, as well.

“Flamingo Lane” is published by Amberjack Publishing. I received a free copy in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own, unless otherwise stated.

flamingo lane