Review of “Six of Crows” by Leigh Bardugo

This is the beginning of an excellent young adult fantasy series about a group of six smart, resourceful, and very likable members of the underclass of Ketterdam.

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This Amsterdam analogue is a teeming soup of gangs, brothels, gambling dens, and a greedy, ruthless merchant ruling class that uses its false patina of respectability to control assets and power in the city. Kaz Brekker, de factor leader of one of the gangs captures the truth of it succinctly:

“’I’m a businessman,’ the 17-year-old leader of the “Dregs” gang Kaz told Inej, one of his gang members. ‘You’re a thief,’ she counters. ‘Isn’t that what I just said?’”

In this world, there are a set of people called Grisha, who can manipulate matter at its most fundamental levels. Under the influence of the stimulant parem, those manipulations are enhanced somewhat, but with the development of jurda parem, a stronger variation of the drug, the Grisha’s senses are sharpened to the point that “[t]hings become possible that simply shouldn’t be.”

Kaz is approached by a merchant, Van Eck, who wants Kaz’s gang to retrieve the kidnapped scientist who developed jurda parem and holds the secret to making more. Van Eck is willing to pay out the enormous sum of 30 million kruge if Kaz is successful. Kaz picks five others to help him do the job. These six unlikely allies agree to this very dangerous undertaking because a cut of the prize could allow each of them finally to escape the lives they never wanted and realize their dreams.

But there are unforeseen complications and betrayals, and whether all of them will make it out is never a foregone conclusion.

Discussion: I love the way the author describes Ketterdam. Anyone who has been to Amsterdam will recognize it immediately:

“. . . most of the buildings in this part of the city had been built without foundations, many on swampy land where the canals were haphazardly dug. They leaned against each other like tipsy friends gathered at a bar, titling at drowsy angles.”

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I also liked the way social commentary is woven into the story:

The merchant Van Eck says to Kaz, “I try to find men honest work.”

Kaz laughed. “What’s the difference between wagering at the Crow Club and speculating on the floor of the Exchange?”

“One is theft and the other is commerce.”

“When a man loses his money, he may have trouble telling them apart.”

Kaz Brekker is a wonderful protagonist. Unlike other “bad boys” of young adult literature, he actually is “bad,” but he has his reasons, and there is never any question of reader sympathy for him. And his relationship with Inej, one of his gang, is quite enchanting:

“He needed to tell her . . . what? That she was lovely and brave and better than anything he deserved. That he was twisted, crooked, wrong, but not so broken that he couldn’t pull himself together into some semblance of a man for her. That without meaning to, he’d begun to lean on her, to look for her, to need her near.”

And Inej, to Kaz:

“I will have you without armor, Kaz Brekker. Or I will not have you at all.”

The other relationships among the six are as interesting and nuanced, and never seem in the least bit unrealistic or contrived. The possible exceptions to the complex characterizations are the villains of the piece, such as Pekka Rollins, the merchant Van Eck, and Jarl Brum, a Nazi-like commandant. All of them are purely bad, and while their characters are not inconceivable and certainly have historical precedents, their portrayals stand in contrast to the many-layered depictions of the six main protagonists.

Evaluation: I put off reading this for quite a while because I saw it described as a “heist book” in the style of “Oceans Eleven.” It is so much more than that. The plot and pacing are terrific, and you won’t want the story of the main characters to be over. Fortunately, it isn’t. A second book follows.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Holt Books for Young Readers, an imprint of MacMillan Publishers, 2015

New York Times Notable Book of 2015
2016 Teens’ Top Ten Nominee
★ Starred Review – Kirkus
★ Starred Review – Publisher’s Weekly
★ Starred Review – Voya
★ Starred Review – School Library Journal

★ Starred Review – The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

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Review of “City of The Lost” by Kelley Armstrong

This story has some “trademark” features of a Kelley Armstrong plot, but they work well, and I’m not complaining.

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One recurring feature is a very capable heroine who, however, was damaged in her past. It has made her strong, but left her with an air of vulnerability that appeals to the male hero.

Another is the male character: strong, attractive, brooding, and a man of few words but great passion, when he releases it. He has a mysterious past that gives him much pain. But he is also absolutely magnetic and sexually irresistible. He is the quintessential “bad boy” that sensible women warn you away from, but the heroine knows he has a soft part under that shell. Not only can she rely on him, but against all appearances, he needs her.

Great stuff: as appealing now as it was in the days of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. And in each of Armstrong’s books, her heroine who wins the heart of the modern-day Rochester, like Jane, is not necessarily the most attractive woman on the scene. Rather, she wins him over because of what is inside her. This helps broaden the appeal of Armstrong’s stories: any one of us (yes! even me! well, okay, not me…) could be part of such a fantasy. Only Armstrong’s heroine can pull this bad boy out of the abyss, releasing him emotionally to reward her faith in him with an unbridled passion only dreamed of in the pages of books with shirtless guys on the covers. But unlike many of those books, Armstrong’s heroines do much more than sport rippable bodices.

Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester

Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester

The heroine of this particular book is Casey Duncan, 30, and a cop. Twelve years earlier she killed her former boyfriend – not that she went to meet him intending to kill him, and not that he didn’t deserve it, but it happened, and it haunts her. Now Casey is a detective for her Canadian police force Special Victims Unit. But she is convinced her past will catch up with her.

Casey’s BFF, Diana Berry, has problems too – her ex-husband Graham is stalking her and abusing her when he can get away with it. Diana comes up with a plan for the two of them to escape – she has learned of a town, Rockton, that takes in people on the run. It’s way up in the Yukon, and the residents live somewhat primitively, but the women would be safe. They are accepted into Rockton, in no small part because the sheriff there, Eric Dalton, needs a detective. Rockton only has around 200 residents, but they are people, as Casey understands, who have “either done bad shit or have got serious baggage.” And a disturbing series of murders have recently occurred.

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Eric is our “bad boy,” who tries hard not to show he has a nice side. It is only when “he’s off his game” that, as Casey observes, “he forgets he’s supposed to be an asshole.” Other times, he is sullen, withdrawn, and suspicious. But:

“The guy … can morph between the rough-mannered lawman and the conservationist outdoorsman and the coffee-shop intellectual in a blink, because he is all those things, bound together in one very complicated package.”

Well, we know how this comes out! However, there is also the mystery of the crimes at the heart of this book, and everyone is a suspect. Can Casey figure it out? And will it come between her and her growing feelings for this handsome but flawed sheriff?

Evaluation: For subtly-developed passionate romances nested inside interesting plots with plucky heroines and without bad writing, you can’t go wrong with Kelley Armstrong. Reading her books makes me happy; you can hardly ask for more than that!

Note: This is apparently book one of an upcoming series. Yay! #patheticfangirl

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2016

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August 27 – National Banana Lovers Day

Today is National Banana Lovers Day, to celebrate the most popular fruit in the world, as opposed to, say, celebrating the so-called Banana Wars, in which the United States carried out a number of “police actions” in banana-growing countries in order to protect U.S. commercial interests. But we digress. Back to the more pleasant subject of fruit.

As one action of many during the Banana Wars, the Marine Corps was called to Haiti July 28, 1915, to occupy and stabilize the nation in an effort to protect American interests throughout the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America.

As one action of many during the Banana Wars, the Marine Corps was called to Haiti July 28, 1915, to occupy and stabilize the nation in an effort to protect American interests throughout the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America.

The average American eats some 100 bananas a year, or about 25 pounds’ worth — compared with 16 pounds of apples, the second most popular fruit in the United States. But alas, our banana-eating days are imperiled.

In the United States, the breed of banana most eaten is the fungus-resistant Cavendish, which superseded the brand introduced in the U.S. all but knocked out by fungus, the Gros Michel. But in the 1990s, a new and vicious fungus began destroying plants in Southeast Asia, with experts predicting it’s only a matter of time until it spreads to South America, where most bananas are grown. Scientists are racing against the clock to develop a modified version of the Cavendish that will resist this new fungus.

Harvesting Cavendish Bananas

Harvesting Cavendish Bananas

In the meantime, we should enjoy our bananas while we can. Although technically National Banana Lovers Day is different than National Banana Bread Day, celebrated on February 23, there is no reason why we can’t combine celebrations. This is a recipe for low-fat banana bread that is easy and surprisingly good, in spite of the “low-fat” designation.

Low-Fat Banana Bread

2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (recipe suggests 3 medium; I use 5 medium)
1/4 cup skim milk
1/4 cup canola oil
4 egg whites (I used the box variety)
1/2 – 1 cup chocolate mini-chips

Combine first five ingredients in a bowl. Add bananas, milk, oil, and egg whites. Beat on medium speed until all blended. Add chocolate chips. No one will blame you if you also throw in a cup of fresh blueberries.

Bake in a teflon loaf pan at 350 for 50 minutes.

Best served warm with ice cream (low fat ice cream, of course)

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Happy Banana Lovers Day!!

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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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Review of “No Love Allowed” by Kate Evangelista

This young adult version of “Pretty Woman” shares many elements with the adult story: there is the rich, seemingly shallow guy, Caleb, who hires a pretty girl, Didi, to be his escort at summer parties, insisting that no feelings be involved (there’s even a no-kissing rule); the need to dress the benighted female in sumptuous clothes; the shock that she can hold her own in his social set; her refusal to take his money; and of course, the aha moment when he realizes he has fallen in love with her. (“Reluctantly he caught himself admitting Didi affected him more than he’d ever thought possible. It scared him. Yet in the pit of his stomach, a thrill mixed with his fear. What was happening to him?”) In the end, it will be no spoiler to fans of “Pretty Woman” to relate that in spite of all Caleb’s assets, it is Didi who rescues Caleb.

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There isn’t any sex in this younger version, but a lot of purple prose nevertheless, replete with breathless longing, bulging muscles, tight, lean bodies, and an eventual kiss that was “hard, hot, and full of promises.” While no one claims Didi is a “Cinder-fucking-ella” she clearly is, and analogously, Caleb finds about Didi that “[e]ven the way she ate a fucking burger fascinated him.”

As for Didi’s past, she isn’t a prostitute, but something perhaps just as shameful – at least as far as Caleb’s father is concerned: Didi is bipolar. [Um, gosh – how can one even come up with a comment on that “equivalency”?]

Unfortunately, a movie version would have helped. We could have seen events unfold instead of reading bad prose descriptions of them, such as “Curses and giggles abounded.”

Then there is the inevitable nod to Jane Eyre: “It was as if an invisible string bound her heart to his, and no matter what happened nothing could cut the connection between them.” Too bad Charlotte Brontë never got royalties for that concept.

Evaluation: For teens not having been exposed to “Pretty Woman,” this modern YA combo of “Cinderella” and “My Fair Lady” may have broad appeal, but I was sorely disappointed at the quality (or lack thereof) of the writing.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Swoon Reads, a division of Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of MacMillan, 2016

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Review of “The Undomestic Goddess” by Sophie Kinsella

It’s not as if there is anything unpredictable in Kinsella’s books, but they are nevertheless full of humor and charm, and worth reading in spite of the lack of significant surprise.

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I loved the premise of this book: a high-powered London lawyer, 29-year-old Samantha Sweeting, running from a horrible mistake at work, stops at a house in the Cotswolds for a glass of water, and gets mistaken for an applicant for a domestic servant. Before she knows it, she has taken the job. She can’t cook or clean; she has always used hired help herself. The handsome (of course) gardener Nathaniel notices her plight, and offers to have his mother Iris help Samantha. Iris (of course) just happens to have learned to cook in Italy, and is fantastic at it.

Samantha doesn’t just need training in cooking and cleaning; even relaxation is not natural to her. She comes from a family for whom a typical Christmas is her barrister mom reading a court report, and her head-of-investment brother taking a Xanax while he checked financial indexes. (She has another brother, but he had a nervous breakdown.) For Samantha, time has always been divided into six-minute intervals (corresponding to how law firms bill clients), and working all hours of every day and every night just seems natural. Iris and Nathaniel aim to teach her otherwise.

Samantha’s new employers, the Geigers, are very funny and very endearing, if a bit benighted. But they are far preferable to her previous employers. In fact, she finds out just how much when she inadvertently discovers the real nature of her “mistake” at the law firm.

Evaluation: This book by Kinsella is delightful. Although the story arcs in her books are similar to one another, she adds so much hilarity that it is a joy to read her books anyway. They are just the thing when you are looking for a light sorbet between your heavier main course books.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Dial Press, a division of Random House, 2005

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