National Pizza Month Kid Lit Review of “Pizza in Pienza” by Susan Fillion

Earlier this month, we ran a post on October being National Pizza Month for a good reason. Those who know us understand that if we invite you for dinner, we will probably be having pizza. And even if we don’t invite you for dinner, we will probably be having pizza. This is what we have at least two times a week. We have been known to have it every single day in a given week. So naturally I was very excited to find this book, after first hearing about it on Jama’s excellent blog.

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This book is not only about the joy of pizza and the history of pizza, but is bilingual in both English and Italian, something you don’t see often. [This feature will help you memorize appropriate things to say when you travel to Italy to experience the real thing!]

The story is told by a little girl in Pienza, “a small town in Italy where Pope Pius II was born.” The author (who is also the illustrator) takes you through the town via bright, folk-style acrylics under which are simple sentences in English, then Italian. Although the Italian is not shown phonetically, there is a very good guide to pronunciation at the end of the book.

After telling you about her town and about the customs and habits of the people (“Here in Italy, we eat our main meal at midday”), she starts to explain the history of pizza.

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Some of the pictures (the author is also the illustrator) are humorous, such as the one showing Mona Lisa with a slice of pizza. But all of the illustrations are so rich in color and happy in tone, it’s hard to choose a favorite.

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The author doesn’t just keep the action in Italy. She informs us that “The first pizzeria in the United States opened in New York City in 1905.” She notes that “pizza really became popular after the Second World War. Soldiers returning from Italy talked about it when they got home.”

I could go on recapitulating every page for you, but now I can hold back no longer and must go make pizza. This joyous book will inspire you and your children to do the same! Helpfully, the author even includes a recipe at the back of the book, along with some more in depth notes about the history of pizza.

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Evaluation: This charming book filled with delightful pictures and fascinating information will have you watering at the mouth.

Rating: 4/5

Published by David R. Godine, 2013

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

Review of Soulminder by Timothy Zahn

I have heard so many great things about this author, who has written more than forty science fiction novels, but I was disappointed with Soulminder.

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It tells the story of an invention by Adrian Sommer and Jessica Sands of a method to isolate the soul from the body. The “Soulminder” – like a heart-lung machine, works to “trap” the essence of a person who has died, so that if the body can be repaired, the soul can then be put back into it. The Soulminder becomes mankind’s ticket to immortality.

It’s an idea that’s instantly popular and in demand, and immediately creates complications. Because it is an expensive procedure, is it fair that it only be available to the rich? Should its use be subject to government controls? What are the implications for religious beliefs?

In a short time, the ethics of the Soulminder becomes even more complicated. It begins to be used for witness testimony, with the dead temporarily borrowing a body of a volunteer to tell the court who killed them, during which time the soul of the body being borrowed is held in the soul trap. The rich and bored decide that borrowing bodies is a good way to experience extreme sports or extreme drugs. Criminals now have a new way to hide: they can steal other bodies in which to place their souls, killing off the original owners. Terrorist government regimes come up with the idea of torturing people, killing them, and then bringing them back to torture them again. In short, the possibilities for the use and especially the abuse of the Soulminder are endless.

Sommer is desperate to return the Soulminder to its original life-saving medical purpose, and to eliminate the corrupt or deleterious uses of his invention. Does he have to destroy it entirely, or is there some other option?

Evaluation: The narrative really felt flat for me. The issues raised by Soulminder should have been interesting from an intellectual standpoint, but they were just paraded out one after another in a meh-like fashion, and I never got excited about them. Nor did I get invested in the characters. Most of what we learn about Sommer and Sands is that they work too many hours and they “growl” a lot (as in, “‘Oh certainly,’ he growled” or “‘I’m not sure,’ she growled.” A search through my e-book edition yielded 39 instances of growling….) There were a few allusions to the fact that people who, having gone through the soulminder, reported a tunnel with light at the end, but of course, since they come back to life, they in essence abandon the tunnel, so that possibly-intriguing plot line gets abandoned as well.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Open Road, 2014

Review of “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This story is the “autobiography” of the fictional character Theodore “Theo” Decker, whom we meet in his late 20’s or early 30’s. At age thirteen, Theo’s life is shockingly disrupted on a visit with his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. First he falls in love at first sight with a red-headed girl named Pippa. Then, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and dozens of others.

In the rubble after the explosion, Theo encounters an elderly man, who, in a dying gesture, gives him a ring and an enigmatic message. Theo thinks the man is pointing at Carel Fabritius’s famous painting, “The Goldfinch.” [This is a real painting, never actually stolen, and currently owned by the Royal Picture Gallery of The Hague.] It was his mother’s favorite. In the ensuing chaos and confusion, Theo takes the ring and the painting and wanders out of the museum.

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Not really understanding the value of the painting, Theo keeps it and hides it among his scant possessions, because it is the only connection he has to his lost mother, and because the sheer beauty of the painting helps soothe his pain and loneliness.

Theo’s father was long gone when the explosion took place, so he goes to live with a school friend’s family. His life is once again disrupted when his father reappears and takes him to Las Vegas, where Theo develops some nasty habits like smoking, drinking, and drugs.

Theo ultimately returns to New York and becomes a dealer of antique furniture in partnership with James “Hobie” Hobart, the former partner of the elderly man who was killed in the terrorist explosion at the Museum. There he once again meets Pippa, but she is just visiting from her school in Switzerland, and, although their attraction seems mutual, they once again go their separate ways. Hobie is very honest, but not a very good business man. Theo is a much better businessman, but not as scrupulous. Hobie is a talented builder and restorer of furniture – so good that Theo is able to pass off some of Hobie’s work as that of some of the famous old masters at prices commensurate with their inflated value.

Theo’s chicanery is discovered by one of the buyers, Lucius Reeve, who refuses Theo’s offer to repurchase an “antique” at a higher price than he originally charged. Instead, Reeve attempts to blackmail Theo. Reeve figured out that Theo was in the same museum room with “The Goldfinch” during the bombing and believes Theo and Hobie know of its whereabouts. Things start moving very fast when “The Goldfinch” is stolen and Theo tries to get it back.

The novel concludes with Theo’s pondering what he has learned from his past. In particular, he contemplates the painting and “the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire.”

Evaluation: This book is very well written. The author writes authoritatively about the art world and antique furniture. Her ear for dialog is finely tuned, especially when relating conversations at formal gatherings of the wealthy. Moreover, while the narrator (and principal character) is male, I never had the feeling that the author was female.

My one criticism is that the book is a bit too long, although the final chapters move along like a thriller. I should also note that my sister and brother-in-law, both well-schooled educators, felt the book was “overwritten.” This accords with the many reviews that have described this book as “Dickensian.” With Dickens, one either revels in the profusion of words, or reviles it. I would probably be in the former group.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Little Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group, 2013

Note: This book won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Review of “‘Love’ And Other Foreign Words” by Erin McCahan

This author spices up a very predictable plot with entertaining snappy dialogue.

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Josie Sheridan is 15 and intellectually gifted. She takes classes at both high school and the local college, as does her best friend and neighbor, Stu Wagemaker, who is 16. Stu dates a lot of girls but never stays with one very long; gee, maybe he is secretly in love with is best friend. But Josie doesn’t notice; she is preoccupied by the fact that her beloved older sister Kate is about to get married to a guy Josie doesn’t like. Josie admits she doesn’t understand about love – it’s one of the few “languages” she doesn’t speak. (On the other hand, she considers herself adept at the language of high school, which she calls Ohmig*d, and the language of college, which she labels Ohmig*d 2.0.)

Then Josie and Stu get a new instructor for Sociolinguistics at the college, and Josie is instantly smitten. Is this what love is, she wonders?

Josie gets exhausted trying to work all this out, while also navigating all the subcultures in her life, “constantly shifting from one language to the next….”

Her delightful and witty parents try to help, but eventually it takes radical actions by both Kate and Stu to give Josie insight into the language of herself.

Evaluation: This is a fast cute read, and a good break from books with devastating psychological, social, medical, or environmental problems. It’s just a nice story about nice kids in nice families.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Dial Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), 2014

Review of “Prince of Thorns” by Mark Lawrence

This is the beginning of a highly regarded fantasy series that begins when Jorg – prince and heir apparent of Ancrath – is quite young. The narration by Jorg alternates between when he is only nine and when he is all of fourteen.

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At age nine, Jorg witnesses the murder of his mother, who is the Queen, and his younger brother. He vows to get revenge against Count Renar, whose men were behind the assassinations. Five years later, at age fourteen, Jorg has wreaked a lot of havoc as he and his “band of brothers” murdered, raped, and burned their way through the Empire, but he still hasn’t managed to get close to Renar.

By the end of the book though, he at least knows what has been holding him back, and is ready to commence the next stage of his journey.

WARNING! Spoilery Discussion Follows! Skip to Evaluation to avoid all spoilers.

I had several problems with this book. My biggest complaint is that what Jorg does and accomplishes not only at age 14 but at age 9, really, really stretches the limits of believability for me. I’m not just talking about Jorg’s personal behavior, but about his influence over others, all of whom are grown men and are criminals, fighters, and knights. Yet at both ages, Jorg is regarded as their leader, and this is even before they know that he is prince and heir to Ancrath.

In addition, yes, this is a fantasy, but there are a bit too many magic elements for my taste. Not only are there ghosts, necromancers, dream-witches, and other monstrous creatures, but there is the matter of the mages. It turns out that Jorg behaves as egregiously as he does because he is being manipulated by an evil mage. His nemesis is being manipulated by a rival mage. “We’re all pieces on someone’s board…” (i.e., “game of ‘thorns’”). This is all very much in the tradition of classic stories of the chaos and bloodshed resulting from interference of the Greek gods, but I don’t much like it in that context either. I prefer characters to have self-determination.

This book is gory and full of grotesque images, which would be bad enough, but it is also full of amazingly bad attitudes toward women. There is nary a good thing said about any of them except for Jorg’s mother, the Madonna in this world full of whores. Even when Jorg finds a young woman his own age attractive, he considers her a threat to his independence and strength. Thus he prefers “painted whores” to satisfy his physical needs. In any event, none of these women receive more than cardboard treatment.

On the other hand, a rather clever and welcome surprise is the discovery that this medieval world is actually the result of the previous nuclear destruction of civilization – the Day of a Thousand Suns – some 1100 years in the past. Thus this is a post-apocalyptic story set in the future, rather than a story that looks back to ancient times. At least some of the monsters then become explainable as genetic mutations. Similarly, this twist explains the various “Builder” artifacts Jorg occasionally encounters, as well as the references to Western literature.

END OF SPOILERS

Evaluation: This is a brutal, bloody story replete with many disturbing images. The main character is as shockingly charismatic as he is cold-hearted, but the author does supply a reason for his pathology. It is possible his nature will “improve” in later volumes.

Rating: 3/5

Note: This book and the two that follow it (King of Thorns and Empire of Thorns) have garnered a great deal of acclaim, received nominations and awards in the field of fantasy writing, and have resulted in a devoted fan base. It happens not to be my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean a lot of other people aren’t enamored of this series.

Published by Ace Books, 2011

Map of The Broken Empire

Map of The Broken Empire

Review of “Before You” by Amber Hart

This is a story told in alternating narration by two seniors at a Florida high school – Faith Watters, the blond, green-eyed daughter of a pastor, and Diego Alverez, a tattooed and scarred recent immigrant from Cuba.

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Faith confesses early to hiding her “real” self because of being conscious of protecting her father’s reputation in the church, as well as because of something traumatic that happened in the past. From the first day she meets Diego, however, he seems to see through her facade, which she finds disturbing, exciting, and freeing, all at once.

Ordinarily she wouldn’t even encounter Diego: the high school kids are intent on maintaining a separation between Latinos and non-Hispanics. But Faith has been assigned to be Diego’s “peer helper” for his first two days at their school, and she is determined to stick with him. No amount of resistance by Diego will dissuade her.

Faith can hide her traumatic past, but Diego can’t; his tattoos and scars are a vivid reminder to Diego and a hint to others that his past was full of violence. In fact, Diego was in a drug cartel in Cuba. As he explains:

Joining a cartel was my only option if I wanted to live and have my family taken care of. I would’ve done anything for mi familia. The cartel offered protection and food in my stomach. Two things I would not have lived to see eighteen without.”

Diego did try to leave the cartel while in Cuba, but the result tore apart his family, and now he and his father are in Florida, trying to make a new life. But the Latinos on the streets won’t let Diego alone. The gang in his new neighborhood knows what his scars mean, and they are intent that he join up with them, or they will make sure he is sorry.

Evaluation: The author has her heart in the right place, but some of the plot strands and narrative elements are inconsistent or a bit trite. Both Faith and Diego are a little too good to be true. You can see from a mile away that Diego and Faith will get together, and you can also anticipate lots of problems, both from the ethnic differences and because of Diego’s past history. It’s a different ending than Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story so far, but that may be because it’s only part one of a two-part (at least) story. It can, however, be read as a standalone.

Note: This book provides excellent insight into why some immigrants, fearing for their lives, felt they had no choice but to try to get to the U.S.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2014

Review of “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not directed to the inattentive (or squeamish) reader. It can seem abstruse and unreadable at times, and contains a lot of Spanish that is not translated. Rather than be put off, however, I found the writing to be extraordinary.

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McCarthy’s grandiloquence is reminiscent of Faulkner in A Fable or Melville in Moby Dick. When he is not waxing eloquent, McCarthy writes simple direct sentences, albeit with an elevated vocabulary. Indeed, much of the book consists of the simple dialog of uneducated cowboys, accurately and slangily rendered. Moreover, the events described are harrowing in the extreme, enough to rivet the attention of any reader with handy access to an unabridged dictionary in both English and Spanish.

The story is about white scalp-hunters in the American southwest in the id-19th Century. The principal protagonist is an incredibly tough and resourceful unnamed “kid,” who joins a company of savage white Indian hunters. They have contracted with the Mexican government to kill pesky Apaches. The company is paid by the scalp (or sometimes the entire head) of their victims. Lest we sympathize too much with the Native Americans, what they do to their human prey [in this story, at any rate] is even more horrific.

The kid is marginally more moral than most of his companions, who kill not only the target Apaches but also the occasional hapless Mexican or their horses, mules, or dogs when it suits them. McCarthy’s universe, however, seldom awards good deeds although it often punishes bad ones. The company comes to a bad end when it lets down its guard and is decimated by the Yuma tribe. The survivors do a pretty good job of further reducing their number as they turn against one another in a desperate effort to salvage gold, weapons, horses, and water.

McCarthy excels at materializing his landscapes; the Sonora Desert figures prominently in this book in the way it imposes hardships on all the living things that pass through it. In the 19th century, it was a hellish land in which only tough, harsh people prospered or even endured. Having lived in Tucson for ten years, I can vouch that McCarthy accurately depicts the geography and topography of the area.

Evaluation:  This book clearly aspires to greatness, and by and large it succeeds.  It is very gruesome, and could legitimately be considered to be a Dante-esque tour of Hell, with The Kid as our guide. The ending disappointed me; it is a bit mystical and diffuse.  But maybe I just didn’t understand it. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Note: A number of academics and critics have named Blood Meridian as one of the greatest modern American novels.

Published by Random House, 1982

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