Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mercedes Lackey is Full of Fantasy and Fairytales!

How is it that a book I enjoyed so much is so hard to describe?!
I just finished Mercedes Lackey’s newest Elemental Masters novel called “Unnatural Issue.”  Just as in her 500 Kingdoms Series she has twisted an old fairytale or folk story with her own signature twists. “Unnatural Issue” is a take on the “DonkeySkin” tale. It is filled with magic, intrigue, drama, love, suspense and creepiness.  I really enjoyed it but every time I try to describe it I feel like there is too much to explain and I want to say to you, my friendly reader, just go out and get it!  If you like magic and intrigue you will like this whole series. 
So here’s what I have decided to do.  I am going to give you a word list that describes “Unnatural Issue” and leave it up to you to decide if this is enough to want to read the rest….here goes:
Unrequited Love

Seen enough?  Each of the novels in the Elemental Masters series stands on its own but I think you will get more out of them if you read them in order so here they are:
The Fire Rose
The Serpent's Shadow
The Gates of Sleep
Phoenix and Ashes
Reserved for the Cat
The Wizard of London
Unnatural Issue
P.S. isn’t the cover art for these books awesome!?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is dark and dreamy

I have this friend at my job and we talk books all the time and except for her unhealthy obsession with all that is “Gone With the Wind” and never reading any “Harry Potter” our tastes are pretty similar.  She turned me onto Kristin Hannah’s “Firefly”, Sue Monk Kidd’s “Secret Life of Bees” and Lisa Unger’s “Black Out.”  I have in turn given her some great titles to enjoy like the “Book Thief” by Markus Zusak and “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman.  She has consistently resisted Potter. It is one of my favorite parts of the day when I visit her office to gab about books.  We both belong to  I get their monthly newsletter but she is a paid member.  One of the benefits of paid membership is on occasion a member can sign up to receive an advance reader addition of a new novel, for free.  Yes, I said for free!  How cool is that?  It is by way of this service that “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern came into my life. 
Erin Morgenstern
I was doing my daily rounds when I stopped by her office and she excitedly told me about this book she KNEW was right up my alley.  It was all about magic and illusions and make believe.  She said she read it faster because she wanted to get it to me so we could talk about it.  She doesn’t read fantasy.  She sticks with more reality based fiction.  She reads much more classic style literature than I do so she was tickled that she liked this book so much.  It is a fantasy but it is a fantasy in the style of Charles Dickens or the Brontes.  It is dark, deep, and confusing.  It wraps you up in a web of illusion and magic and for me, never let’s go.  This is a richly drawn novel full of word pictures and textural descriptions. I would love to say more but I am afraid too much description will give some of the mystery away. Suffice it to say I could touch, taste, smell and hear her tale. Even at the end when Ms. Morgenstern wraps it all up in black and white striped paper I am still wondering who won.

This story is about the great experiment Nurture versus Nature.   Two old guys who have been debating the argument for more years than 2 or 3 people have lifetimes have picked another round of guinea pigs.  They are children when they are chosen.  One child has no particular talent in magic but he has the drive to survive.  The other child is full of magic and longs for someone to love her.  They are told from the early ages of 6 and 8 they have been entered into a game.  They can’t know who their opponent is nor are they told how the victor is determined.  The rules are obscure.  Even the order of play is unclear.  The game will make itself clear once they are officially on the playing field.
You guessed it.  The playing field is the circus.  Not your ordinary Ringling Brothers either.  One day the field outside of town is empty and then, overnight without fanfare or announcement, the field is filled with tents.  Not the brightly colored tents you are used to seeing but striking black and white striped tents.  This circus doesn’t have a midway of carnies trying to convince you to knock down the milk bottles or shoot the ducks.  This circus is filled with living statues, mystical gardens of ice and paper.

A clock that not only shows the hours but glows and fades with the day and night.  The circus is open only during the hours of sundown and dawn.  It is a magical place that is never the same.  No matter how many times you visit, there will always be something you haven’t seen before. 
It is here the two opponents will compete.  Is it the illusionist, Marco who will carry the day?  Maybe Celia, the magician that will declare victory.  For most of the story I am not even sure the game has started.  Then someone made mention of a move and I knew the whole circus and its creation was the game.  What can one do with imagination and determination?  What kind of world does illusion create?  Where does the magic end and reality start?
This story is confusing, jumping back and forth in timeline, between locations, and point of view.  Celia and Marco might be the combatants but I cannot say they are really the main characters because one chapter belongs to the clock maker.  Another chapter goes to the young man, Bailey, who fell in love with the circus when he was eight.  Then twins become the storytellers. Depending on the chapter the main character could be almost anyone.  This is also a love story between the Marco and Celia.  Their lives are so entwined they begin creating for the other and through these creations they know each other in a way no other could.  When they discover how the victor will be chosen they are both determined to beat the game and save each other.
My friend thinks the circus is a metaphor for dreams.  I think it is more real than that.  Aren’t we all caught up in the game of life?  Isn’t it our minds that create the shape of our reality?
My friend and I both think you should read “The Night Circus”.  It goes on sale September 13th, of course.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Blood, Bones and Butter by Grabrielle Hamilton is anything but reluctant

I don't normally read non-fiction.  I prefer the world of make-believe much more than the troubles of reality.  I avoid it as much as possible,  hehehehee.  So why did I pick this one up?  Truth?  It was the title.
"Blood, Bones and Butter."  I didn't even look at what it was about because the title captured me immediately.  I downloaded it to my NOOK before I even realized this would not be about mass murdering, vampires, zombies or pirates.  When I did realize this was a memoir of a chef I was let down, so much so, I read 3 books before I looked at it again.  Boy, was I silly.  This book was fantastic.  Gabrielle Hamilton is so passionate about what she does she makes some paranormal characters seem dull.  On the face of it the book is her memoir of how she came to be who she is, Owner/Executive Chef, of the restaurant Prune but really it is an adventure in growing up and finding yourself even if who you are is a sometimes cranky, sometimes crazy cooking dervish.
The story, of course, starts at her beginning in a family of odd people.  Her mother was a French ballerina with OCD and her dad was a theatrical set designer who was more buddy than daddy.  Dad was very loose in his parenting which was in direct contrast to the controlling manipulative mom.  Ms. Hamilton’s growing years were the typical dysfunctional story most of us have experienced to some extent.  Parents divorce, no one is taking care of the kids, drugs, a little homelessness thrown in.  It is the stories in between the dysfunctional episodes that pulled me in. Every summer they would have a lamb roast.  Her dad would select the lambs for slaughter, secure them to large spits and slow roast them over an open fire. Then with the male guests he would hoist the spits up and parade them across the yard to sawhorses for carving and serving.  Kids would be running around and the adults would be feasting and drinking wine. I would fall in love with food too.  The mom was no slouch in the culinary area either.  She was a frugal woman to the point of obsessive compulsive disorder.  Everything was used.  She pickled vegetables, meat and eggs.  Crusty bread and cheese veiny and stinky were mainstays of their diet.  Chickens gave eggs until they couldn’t and then they would become dinner and then they would become leftovers and then they would become feed for the other animals.
It was in college when she was trying to get her degree in writing that she took up with another foodie who was a caterer and her love deepened as she worked with fruity olive oil, ripe tomatoes, fresh pasta, and seafood of all varieties.  She moved to New York and she discovered a whole subculture of the catering world.  Who knew New York caterers often used massive kitchens of the same staff regardless of the catering company?  Like a catering factory.  Everyone smoked, dressed in black and cursed a blue streak.  She falls in love with a woman but marries the Italian man she had an affair with.
This is all lovely but it wasn’t why I loved this story.  I loved this story because Gabrielle Hamilton is a real woman following her real passion and sometimes her life really sucks.  She had falling outs with family.  Her restaurant is small and cramped and she wouldn’t be anywhere else.  She was married to a strange man who she didn’t live with but had two children with.  Through it all she cooks.  Her Italian mother-in-law can’t speak English and Gabrielle can’t speak Italian but in a kitchen over a pile of flour, egg and water they speak the mutual language of pasta and the love of cooking for family and friends.  She sits on a panel with other female chefs to share with upcoming young female chef wannabe’s and she wants to scream at them, “Cooking is work, it isn’t about celebrity or money, it is about love and life.”  She doesn’t say this because she recognizes she can’t burst their bubbles.
I loved her direct, funny writing style that made me see the omelet station she worked while she was nine months pregnant with her second son.  I felt her surprise when on family day at the camp she was cooking for the dad she met of her favorite camper was none other than Mark Bittman.  She made me cry for dead lobsters!  I laughed with her and cried with her and she reminded me following my passion isn’t about accolades or immortality or whatever.  It’s about living out loud and being less than you are if you don’t.  She inspires me to not give up on my passions and not to follow them but to live them. 
Thank you Ms. Hamilton.  I will be visiting your restaurant, Prune, in the near future to tell you personally.