Win Two Books: Anne of Green Gables & A Modern Retelling: Ana of California

Ana of California by Andi Teran is a Penguin Original retelling of Anne of Green Gables.

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The publisher provides the following information on the story:

Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana (“one n, like fauna—not Anna, like ‘banana’”) Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California. When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, but Ana comes to love Garber Farm. When she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.”

One winner (US only) will receive a copy of this charming-sounding retelling, along with a beautiful edition of the original Anne of Green Gables.

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You can learn more about the retelling from this online book club kit which includes a very cool map, author interview, recipes, and playlist and more.
 
To enter, fill out the form below with your own information (comment field says “required” but it is “optional”). (If for some reason the form does not show up on your browser, add a comment to the post.) A winner will be selected at random in one week, on July 7.

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Review of “The Firebird” by Susanna Kearsley

This is a companion book to The Winter Sea, so while it is nice to read both, and to have read The Winter Sea first, it is entirely unnecessary. Both are very well researched, shedding light not only on the Jacobite Movement in Scotland, but in this book, on the active Jacobite community in St. Petersburg as well.

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The action in The Firebird moves back and forth from the present to the early 18th Century. The protagonist in current times is Nicola (“Nick”) Marter, who works at a gallery of Russian art and artifacts. As the story begins, her boss Sebastian introduces her to a Scottish woman who has a small carved bird she calls “The Firebird”; she claims it was given to an ancestor named Anna by the Empress Catherine (the wife of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great). When Nick holds the bird, she suddenly has a vision of Anna receiving the bird from the Empress. Nick has the gift of psychometry, which allows her to see visions about objects that she touches. She has tried to repress this gift, however; she doesn’t want to be seen as a freak. She doesn’t tell the woman or Sebastian about what she sees; it wouldn’t help in any event to use information derived in that way as “verification.”

When Sebastian asks Nick to go to St. Petersburg for an art exhibit, Nick wonders if she can find some evidence there to prove the true provenance of the carved bird, and turns for help to Rob McMorran. Nick met Rob when she took some tests at an institute researching parapsychology. There was no one there with more skill than Rob, and they began seeing each other. But Nick ran from the relationship; she wanted to hide her skills, even from herself, and have a “normal” life.

Rob has never gotten over Nick, however, and accompanies her to Russia. On the way, Nick tells Rob about Russian folklore concerning the firebird. Although there are a couple of different stories, the point of both of them is that what you bring back with you at the end of a journey might not be what you started out searching for in the beginning. And that of course will clearly be the theme of the book.

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When they get to Russia, Rob and Nick together reach back into the past and find the young woman Anna, who was born in Scotland but later lived in St. Petersburg. As the two go back to their past (via their visions), we learn how and why Anna ended up in St. Petersburg along with other Jacobites. [Jacobites were mostly Irish and Scots in the early 1700’s who were seeking to bring the exiled Catholic King James VIII back from France to take the Scottish throne. James is Jacobus in Latin.] The two “meet” a number of characters from The Winter Sea, as well as some new ones, since Anna was just a very small child in the previous book.

There are parallel romances in both the past and the present, with one character even paraphrasing one of the most famous quotes from Jane Eyre (and probably the one most often paraphrased), saying:

And looking at his face I felt a swift, insistent tug beneath my heart, as though someone had tied a string around my ribs and pulled it sharply.”

The ending will satisfy readers, even though, as with the quest for the legendary firebird, all the various seekers end up with something different than what they thought they wanted.

Evaluation: I’d have to say, to my surprise, that I liked this book a tad more than The Winter Sea (which I also enjoyed), in spite of the fact that this book had a paranormal element and the previous book soft-peddled that aspect. I loved the characters, especially those in the past. Anna is a winning character both as a child and as the 17-year-old she becomes later in the book. The author is very adept at romantic scenes, more interested in conveying the emotional engagement of the characters than giving readers anatomy lessons. And of course it’s hard to beat a setting that combines Scotland and St. Petersburg!

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. in paperback by Sourcebooks, 2013

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Review of “In A French Kitchen” by Susan Herrmann Loomis

This is a combination memoir and cookbook highlighting the seemingly effortless accomplishments of the French in preparing delicious food. As Loomis explains:

Whether or not they like to cook doesn’t really enter into it. Food and eating are simply priorities, equal to if not more important in status than work, exercise, entertainment. And it’s not just any food that they make a priority – it has to be really good food.”

She also observes that the French don’t snack, so they are actually hungry at meal time, a condition that always helps food taste better.

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Loomis sets out all kinds of guidelines to help you achieve what the French have done with meals, from a list of essential kitchen tools, to what to keep in your pantry, which cheese is which, what utensils to use on the table (and where to place them), to how to serve from a platter, and so on. An especially useful section called “A Dozen Great French Techniques” outlines methods for emulsifying, carmelizing, braising, making pastry, making crème anglaise, and other processes that look intimidating until you read her guidelines.

Finally, there are the recipes, interspersed throughout the text and also some arranged seasonally at the end of the book. A few of them, I admit, you will never ever see in my house – such as Succulent Beef Cheeks. But others, like Rhubarb and Ginger Tart (“this combination will send you to heaven”) are definitely on my to-do list.

The author in her kitchen (I think I could cook better to in such a kitchen)

The author in her kitchen (I think I could cook better too in such a kitchen)

Evaluation: Foodies and Francophiles will appreciate this useful and entertaining book. It’s full of “secrets” to increase awareness and appreciation of an activity so central to everyone’s days, and to help make ordinary meals turn into sumptuous repasts.

Note: You can see some of the author’s recipes on her website, here.

Published by Gotham Books, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015

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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!

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Kid Lit Review of “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music” by Margarita Engle

How many girls still grow up being told that “girls can’t do that”? I know I was – not by my parents, but by others, who discouraged me from pursuing my dreams.

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This is a story inspired by a Chinese-African-Cuban girl, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who never gave up her own dream of being a drummer, and succeeded in breaking Cuba’s traditional taboo against female drummers, becoming, at age ten, the first female to play drums publicly in Cuba. Millo was a world-famous musician by the 1930’s, even, at age 15, playing her bongo drums at the New York birthday celebration for U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.

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The story is told in free verse style, echoing the music that courses through her head and heart:

Her hands seemed to fly
as they rippled
rapped
and pounded
all the rhythms
of her drum dreams.”

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The folk-art illustrations were made by Rafael López in acrylic paint on wood board. All the images of a tropical paradise that dominated ideas of Cuba before the Communist revolution come to vibrant life in a riot of sun-drenched color. Like Chagall, López uses the metaphor of flight to show dreams, with butterflies and birds recurring elements in the pictures even when the little girl herself is not launching into the air. Other characters in the pictures reflect Cuba’s multicultural society, as does of course, Millo herself.

The real Millo Castro Zaldarriaga

The real Millo Castro Zaldarriaga

Evaluation: The inspirational story and gorgeous pictures will keep kids (suggested age is 4-8) paging through this book over and over again.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015

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Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Second World War” by Simon Adams

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Like the analogously named book about World War I, this small book is replete with excellent maps, great photos, fascinating fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics. But of course, limiting a vast subject like “World War II” to “fifty things” is going to leave some gaps.

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Perhaps the most significant omission to my mind is the matter of the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States. This involved the forced relocation and incarceration in 1942 of between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 62% of whom were U.S. citizens. Men, women, and children were sent to camps in barren, inhospitable locations. As many as 25 persons lived in spaces intended for four. Their belongings, businesses, and savings were confiscated. (Losses were estimated by the government as more than $200 million in 1942.) None were ever found guilty of disloyalty; a 1980 U.S. Government Commission concluded the incarceration had been the product of racism.

Japanese American Children in an American internment camp

Japanese American Children in an American internment camp

Similarly, Britain’s roundup of Italians and Germans (including Jewish citizens from those two countries who had fled to Britain to avoid the Nazis) gets no mention whatsoever.

The author includes a “blurb” on the 1944 Warsaw Uprising of the Polish Resistance, but nothing whatsoever about the 1943 uprising of the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto, one of the more amazing acts of resistance in modern history. [You can read a summary of what happened here.] Nor is there any mention of The Katyn massacre, a series of mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police in 1940, and only acknowledged by Russia in 1990. (Churchill and FDR both knew about what happened at Katyn, but chose not to criticize their Soviet ally.)

Jews from the Warsaw ghetto surrender to German soldiers after the uprising.   (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Jews from the Warsaw ghetto surrender to German soldiers after the uprising. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Another omission seemed unfortunate to me. Although the author devotes a relatively large section to the British code breakers of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing, it is a shame he did not take the opportunity to report on how the British government “rewarded” Turing for work acknowledged as “essential” in defeating enemy U-boats and helping the Allies at D-Day. (In fact, by some accounts, it has been estimated that the work at Bletchley Park shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years. And yes, the post-war world does receive some coverage, so it cannot be said to be outside of the purview of the work.) Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexuality; forced to undergo chemical castration in lieu of imprisonment; and died of cyanide poisoning in 1954 (whether self-induced or not has never been conclusively established).

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Nevertheless, the author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject as well as some “fun facts” (like the derivation of code names for various military operations) and gives a good, if incomplete, overview of what happened during the war. Importantly, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

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Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the subject of World War II to students. All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear. Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics. A brief “who’s who” photo gallery and glossary are at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2015

Note: This book and others about World War II throws around some pretty big numbers about casualties, but they are not necessarily easy to conceptualize. An excellent animated data visualization by Neil Halloran entitled “The Fallen of World War II” helps translate the abstract numbers into terrifying relatable terms. The video first analyzes soldier fatalities by nation, then civilian deaths, and finally offers a perspective of WWII in the context of previous conflicts and those that followed. It is exceptional and unforgettable, and well worth the eighteen minutes. You can watch it here.

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Review of “The Truth According to Us” by Annie Barrows

Barrows, the co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, here too incorporates some of the same epistolary technique to tell the engrossing story of a small town in Macedonia, West Virginia in the summer of 1938.

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In order to help pay the bills, the Romeyn family rents out a room to Layla Beck, the 24-year-old daughter of a senator from Delaware, who has coerced his brother Ben to give Layla a job with the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. [The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to provide work during the Great Depression.]

Layla’s assignment is to write a history of the town of Macedonia. Layla, who has lived an affluent and sheltered life, is convinced she is being send to a place where the house of the supposedly respectable family with which she is to live is, like the town, “probably encrusted in coal dust, and I will probably die of starvation of lice within weeks.”

But as soon as Layla arrives and takes up residence with the Romeyn’s, the close-knit members of whom who cycle in and out of the house, she finds she has been full of misconceptions, and after only three hours admits her “ignorance is already a scandal.” She quickly warms up to the Romeyn’s – Jottie, 35, who runs the household, her handsome brothers Felix and Emmett, her twin sisters Minerva and Mae (both of whom are married but who spend the week at Jottie’s house), and the children of Felix’s short-lived marriage, Willa, 12, and Bird, 9.

As she talks to the townspeople to learn its history, Layla discovers that this small town is full of charm and a complexity she never anticipated:

I was expecting, not lascivious turnip farmers, exactly, but something close. Bumpkins, anyway. Instead, I’ve found a small town that looks like any small town, with wide streets, old elms, white houses, and a tattered, dead-quiet town square – all seething with white-hot passion and Greek tragedy.”

Layla becomes invested in her assignment, wanting it to be more than just a throwaway project, wanting her history of Macedonia “to spurn the dull and amuse the witty.”

And as she becomes more attracted to Felix, she wants to learn more about the Romeyns, who used to be one of the “first families” of Macedonia, when their patriarch owned The American Everlasting Hosiery Factory. In 1920, however, there was a fire that destroyed the factory and in which Vause Hamilton III was killed. Vause seems to be a forbidden topic in the Romeyn house and both Layla and spy-wanna-be Wilma set out to discover what really happened.

Discussion: Barrows doesn’t overdo her evocation of the time and place, but has an eye for selecting sensory details and incorporating them so thoroughly into the story that you can picture the scenes precisely in your mind, feeling the sweat dripping down your back, and the way an iced tea could taste like heaven on a hot day. When all the neighbors gather on hot nights on the Romeyn’s porch to gossip, it is as if you can actually hear their laughter against the backdrop of the clear starry nights.

Her prose is thoughtful, astute, and poetic at times as she limns life in that small town:

Time softened on Sundays; it stretched itself out in vast rubbery lengths, and by two o-clock, there was more of it than would ever be needed for anything.”

I didn’t like one of the main narrators, young Willa, whose lack of understanding of the adult world causes her to be sneaky, resentful, and judgmental. Even at the end, after she gets an epiphany about hate and lack of forgiveness, she doesn’t apply such standards to herself. I couldn’t see how that unusual depth of understanding about others could co-exist with a lack of insight about her own behavior. “The truth of other people is a ceaseless business,” she says, in discussing her family. But what about the truth of herself?

By contrast, Jottie is a wonderful character – fiercely loving, affectionate, loyal to, and protective of her cobbled-together family, patient with and generous to her neighbors, and full of energy and humor in spite of the pain she carries and the burdens she bears.

The other characters are memorable as well, and make you wish you could have been along on Layla’s voyage of discovery of this memorable town.

Evaluation: I adored this book. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4/5

Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, 2015

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Review of “After We Fall” by Emma Kavanagh

This book might be described as an “oblique” police procedural. That is, the focus is elsewhere, and the procedural skirts along the edges of the main thrust of the story. It centers on a plane crash in Wales on a night with bad weather, but in a situation that the experienced pilot should have been able to overcome. Thus an investigation is launched into what actually caused the plane to go down.

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The story, told from four different points of view, begins with the flight attendant Cecilia Williams, one of thirteen survivors of the crash. This flight was to be the first step of abandoning her police detective husband Tom and their almost-three-year-old son Ben.

Tom is another of the narrators, and while he struggles to cope with the dissolution of his marriage, he also has to give his mental energy to the murder of the daughter of retired police superintendent Jim Hanover, who narrates as well. Jim’s daughter Libby was a Police Community Support Officer, so the South Wales Police force is particularly affected by this loss.

The fourth narrator is Freya Blake, the 23-year-old daughter of the pilot who died in the crash. Freya’s mother and young brother Richard, 17, are unable to cope; Freya takes it upon herself to find out what happened.

As the two investigations proceed, the stories of each of the four invariably intersect. The suspense heightens as secrets are gradually revealed having a bearing on both cases.

Discussion: The author trained as a psychologist specializing in human performance in extreme situations, providing training and consultation for police forces and military personnel. This expertise is evident in her deft handling of the wild stew of emotions affecting each of the trauma victims in this story.

Evaluation: This engrossing story will please fans of both thrillers and police procedurals. It is quite well done, and I look forward to reading more work by this author.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in the U.S. by Sourcebooks, 2015

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