Review: Voyage of the Basilisk

Voyage of the Basilisk is the third book in the Lady Trent Memoirs.  It’s a five part series of books about a female anthropologist who studies dragons in the Victorian Age.  If you’re looking for a story to read that has a female protagonist fighting for the fair treatment of women, I highly recommend this series.  There are a few parts that I find as mild let downs, but overall this series is great!  Marie Brennan brings her personal knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, and folklore to bear in creating this wonderful world.

Before I get to reviewing Voyage of the Basilisk, I’ll point out that last year I read the first two books in the series, and since that was before this blog, allow me to give you a brief run down.  The first book, A Natural History of Dragons focuses on the childhood and first real adventure of Lady Trent.  It shows her fight against sexism in the scientific and scholarly communities and it shows a woman who follows her passions, wherever they may lead.  The second book, Tropic Of Serpents, shows Lady Trent’s second adventure, wherein we learn just how bad she is at politics and some of the difficulties being a female adventure in a masculine world I’ve never before seen in a book, but is very true to real life.

There is one downside to the fact that this series is written as memoirs, and that is the very fact that memoirs are often written with allusions to things that happen in the future (at least from the perspective from where you are in the story).  And that happens a lot in these books.  Despite that, Steph and I still like the series enough to recommend the books, but we do warn that the first two books are a bit slow to develop, but the plots get stronger with each passing book and the adventures kick off much faster in the latter books.

Now on to the review.

Voyage of the Basilisk begins with the action taking place as early as chapter two.  Lady Tent goes on an exciting sea adventure to study all kinds of dragons across the world.  She faces challenges at nearly every turn and meets some fascinating characters.

This is easily my favorite book in the series, and I am struggling with what to say to get you excited about this book while also not revealing too much of the plot.  What I can say is this, Lady Trent navigates the great seas, visiting several nations to see their specific breeds of dragons.  Along the way she learns to swim, swims with many sea creatures, and meets my favorite character in the series!  (Which I say having read all five at this point, expect the last two reviews in the coming weeks.)  We also get to see her raising her son as a single mom with a career and learning life lessons.

Based on her writing style, I think this book is a perfectly fine book to read even if you haven’t read the first two.  It might be a bit harder to follow all of her allusions, but she often describes the scenes she’s referring to, even though she’s already written about them previously.  Give this book a read!

Overall, I give this book 5 stars.

Up next:  The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

Review: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

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J.K. Rowling wrote three books to raise money for charities.  I’ve already reviewed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and some day I’ll get my hands on the last one, Quidditch Through the Ages.  For now though, allow me to review The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, there are four short stories, faerie tales, that center around the wizarding world of Harry Potter.  If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, you’re likely already familiar with the last of those four short stories, The Tale of the Three Brothers.  This story is pulled straight out of the final book in the Harry Potter series.  If you haven’t read that far, you should save reading these faerie tales until after you have.  Or else you risk some spoilers.

The other three stories are unique and engaging.  They each teach morals (as so many faerie tales do) and they do it in a fun way.  You’ll recognize the name of at least one from having read the stories and imaging Ron’s perplexed face when he finds out that Hermoine and Harry have never heard of Rabbitty Babbitty.  But the other three I think will be fresh titles and stories for anyone reading this for the first time:  The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, The Fountain of Fair Fortune, and The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.  I found each of these stories to be simply delightful, and if I ever have the joy of raising children, I do believe these stories will be read to them as the drift softly to sleep.

I highly recommend this book.  It’s short and endearing.  I give it a strong 5 star recommendation.

Next up: The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

Review: The Limners: America’s Earliest Portrait Painters

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During the month of May I was having a hard time reading.  By the end of the month I hadn’t read a single book and was in danger of not meeting my objective of one book per month.  We went with my niece and her boyfriend to Seattle, where I snuck into the local library and found a small, interesting, little book to read quickly to meet my requirements.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I choose this book.  It’s a look at art in America as we began to build cities and grow as a nation.  Most people back then were illiterate, so sign makers had to make beautiful signs that showed what kind of business was inside.  Those same artists would also be used by the wealthy to do portraits of them and their family.  Often these portraits would display the profession of the person depicted.  But the artists back then did not aim for life like images.  Often their depictions came out disproportionate and lifeless.  It’s an interesting phase in our artistic history.  And if you’re into art it’s well worth your time to look into this era and how it has effected us today.

This book gave a nice overview of the topic and was fascinating to read.  Overall I give it 2 stars.

Next Up: The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Newt Scamander’s best work.  Newt Scamander wrote a brilliant little textbook that covers many of the mythical beast you’ve heard of (several you haven’t) and (as the name implies) where you might be able to find them.  The addition I picked up came complete with impetuous student notes carelessly written in the margins.

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J.K. Rowling wrote this as a fund raising opportunity.  I’ll be honest it’s hard to read, who enjoys reading a textbook?  It’s a fun novelty item, but it strains the bounds of enjoyment and in some ways the bounds of credibility.  Rowling had Hermione write in the book too, which is something she would have never done.

Overall I give this book 2 stars.

Next Up: The Limners: America’s Earliest Portrait Painters by Leonard Everett Fisher

Review: World Sourdoughs from Antiquity

If Ken Forkish’s book Flour Water Salt Yeast made sourdough bread seem simple and scientific, Ed Wood’s World Sourdoughs from Antiquity made it seem mystical and magical.  It’s interesting as Ed Wood’s biography shows him to be a biologist, someone who should understand the science of how the yeast operates.

Wood makes it seem like exact ratios have little to no effect on final bread product.  He says that the quality of the water doesn’t matter much.  This is problematic for me for several reasons.  Firstly, pure water allows for a better flavor in making root beer from scratch.  It is often what is recommended for all kinds of home brewing.  Secondly, we’ve tried to use tap water to make sourdough bread before and we had problem with the efficacy of the yeast.  It was far less effective.  We theorize that this has to due with the chemicals we put in our water in the US to keep it safe for drinking.  Continuing his nonscientific approaches, he also advocates for measuring by volume rather than weight.

Ed Wood tells some great stories about how he has saved various strains of yeast from different parts of the world and made bread with them.  These stories are entertaining and engaging.  Definitely worth reading if you have interest in this hobby.  However, if you wish to use the recipes, I’d say be prepared to do some work perfecting them.  I will give the caveat that we did lose our levain before I was able to try any of these recipes.

Overall I give this book 3 stars.

Next Up: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander

Review: Flour Water Salt Yeast

For somewhere near eight years of my life I battled stomach pains so intense that I would curl up in a ball for a day or two waiting for it to go away.  I tried and failed to chart what was causing it.  When I married my wife, at the time a chef, I asked her to help me figure it out.  It seemed obvious it was food related but it was so sporadic when it would hit.

We tried a great variety of different diets to pin point what was happening.  We tried removing lactose, gluten, and various other things, and while some of them seemed to alleviate some of the other symptoms of my stomach issues, none of them took away the sharp pains.  One of the last resorts we went to was trying probiotics to see if that would do anything, and amazingly it did!  Probiotics reduced the amount of time I laid in pain and if I was able to sense it coming I could take a pill and eliminate the pain before it started.  But it required constant vigilance to retain a normal feeling stomach.

I wasn’t quite satisfied with it as I believe we can fix many of our bodies health issues by proper dieting and I’d rather work at doing that than taking a mystery pill to fix it.  Probiotics are a concentrated form of bacteria designed to bring your stomach back into balance.  Yogurt is known to be one of the best sources of natural probiotics, but it didn’t serve me well.  And so for a year or two we continued this delicate balance, with no idea what might fix this dieting issue.

Around this time last year, we were watching The Great British Baking Show and I saw a baker bring out a tub of some gooey substance that he claimed he kept in his closet.  Steph and I had a conversation about what it was (sourdough starter) and I got super excited about the idea of making bread with home grown yeast.  Steph began doing some research on it and found a blog where a mom talked about all of her children having stomach issues and starting her own bread using sourdough starter (levain) fixed all of their issues.  With even more excitement we began our own levain.  It instantly healed my stomach but after a month of baking bread we forgot about feeding our levain and returned to our normal dieting regime.

Six months or so later we decided to restart our bread making (both for need of my stomach and also for the delicious results of these efforts).  As part of restarting our levain, we decided to buy a book and work with it to get things going much better.  Steph did some research and found Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish and so began some amazing food experiments.

Book Review – Flour Water Salt Yeast

Ken Forkish writes much about the history of bread, the benefits and drawbacks of various flours, yeasts, and why you only need four ingredients to make a delicious bread.  With exclusion to one recipe in his book, all of his bread recipes are constructed from only flour, water, salt, and yeast.  (That one recipe is bacon bread, because what isn’t improved with a dead pig?  Really, nothing.)

If you want to try making bread with or without levain this book will tell you how to do it and gives you recipes to practice with and suggestions for how you can tweak them into something of your very own.

Ken talks at length about how the best flavored breads come, not from commercial yeast, but from a levain you grow yourself.  His method of growing one is very different than what we tried when we did our little bit of internet research the first time, and I think it has a lot to do with how scientific he gets with his approach.  Throughout the book he includes very engaging stories of his successes and failures in the baking world.  Having made a good number of the recipes I can also say that his theory that all you need is these four ingredients to create an abundance of delicious flavors is very well proven.

This books makes me feel like a bread expert, like I can figure out any issue with the bread.  On a knowledge level that might even be true, I have solved several issues, but on a practical level I have trouble working the dough.  I simple can’t say enough good things about this book.  If you want to know how to bake bread, get this book… it’ll make it seem like baking is as simple as eating cake.

Overall, I give this book five stars.

Next Up: World Sourdoughs from Antiquity by Ed Wood

Recipe: Chicken Curry

In an effort to start going through our unused spices, we looked up a recipe for Curry.  We found one that we only required us to buy 1 ingredient from the store and so we gave it a try.  Our first run was good, but lacked the punch it really needed.  So we tried it again the next night and made some key changes.  It was so delicious we found ourselves high fiving and moaning with delight.  I’m sure there are things we could do to make it even better, but I’m not sure I’d want to mess with this recipe any more…  it’s just too good.

Chicken Curry

Details

Time – 40 minutes

Skill – some

Servings – about 6

Cost – $10 or less

Ingredients

Chicken Rub

2 tablespoons Curry Powder

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons dried cumin

2 teaspoons turmeric

2 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons sugar

8 serving sized pieces of chicken – skinless

1  tablespoon olive oil

1 onion diced

3 tablespoons curry paste

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1 14oz can tomato puree (or crushed tomatoe)

1 1/2 cups rice

Directions

(If going chickenless, use 1/2 the dry spices and 1 tablespoon less curry paste.)  Combine all dry spices in a bowl.  Cut chicken into small pieces.  Spoon spices over chicken until fully coated.  Take the remaining spices and mix in curry paste, ginger, and garlic.  Then set aside for later.

Cook rice using the normal methods ~20 minutes.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat; cook chicken till done.  Remove chicken from skillet.  Add onion to the skillet and stir in hot oil until caramelized ~ 20 minutes.

Add spice mix to skillet, stirring into the onions. Increase heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant ~ 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in the tomato puree (or crushed tomatoes), remove from heat and stir in the chicken and rice.

Enjoy with some garlic naan for an even more delectable meal.

Find the original recipe here.

Review: The Deathly Hallows

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I finally finished J.K. Rowling’s heptalogy, Harry Potter!  I read the entirety of this book in two days, so you know I enjoyed it.  Life got busy afterwards and so it took a couple weeks to get to writing this, which has been beneficial for clear evaluation.  I can honestly say that much of the joy of reading this final book comes from how invested I was in the series.  When you’ve read six books already, it’s kinda hard to not finish the story.  You really want to know what happens to the characters, and that shows some good writing skills on Rowling’s part.

There are certainly parts of this story I like, and parts that I think are just poorly written.  As I was reading it, I counted no less than three coincidences that led to culmination of the story.  The absence of any one of them would have resulted in a very different ending to the story (SPOILER:  I.E. the bad guys would have won).

Now don’t get me wrong, I like a good coincidence and I recognize that life is full of seeming coincidences that lead us down that path we live.  Someone else quits a job so you have that dream opening to apply for; or someone pulls out of a parking spot right as you pull in allowing you to snag the closest spot to the store.  These things happen, but if we’re honest they don’t happen with as much gravity and frequency in real life as they do in this final book.  And that difference makes the story unbelievable.  (Funny I’d say that about a book full of Magic, but magic is more believable than these coincidences due to the rules and structure it follows.  Random happenstance that hands you a first place trophy in the Olympics… that just doesn’t happen.)

If you’re looking for a light hearted book of fantasy and adventure, Harry Potter is a good series, but if you’re looking for meat and potatoes fantasy with a believable (though fantastical) story, this may not be the series to invest in.

Overall I give this book 3 stars.

Next Up: Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish

Review: Side By Side

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What is friendship?  If you were to ask this question in certain parts of the world, the answer would be that a friend is someone you could wake up at 2am and say, “come with me” and they would come, no questions asked.  In still other places a friend is someone you can easily bear your soul to.  Someone who draws out the parts of you that you can’t tell others about because you’re ashamed of them.  Friendship is a bond that knows no bounds.

That’s not what this book is about.  This book wastes no time telling you what a friend is, but instead tells you how you can best help others.  This book provides useful tips on how to create those deep an enduring friendships we all desire.  If gives practical tips on how to engage people in conversation and to move relationships from the common surface level engagements we have today to more meaningful and deep relationships.  It talks about living life together and about how to move conversations to areas of personal growth.  It shows you how to overcome the pride that prevents us from being real with ourselves and others about our innermost thoughts and feelings.  This book is all about how to help your friends become more awesome.

This book is more focused on how to help others be successful in life that it is about you being a better person.  If you can master the skills here you’ll find the people around you are more open and honest with you and with themselves.  And in turn, you’ll get to be more open and honest with them, but the focus is on them opening up and not you.

My main problem with this book is that I’ve read all of this before.  I don’t know if Welch has just combined all these tips from other places and things I’ve read or what, but there was nothing challenging in it.  The book’s language was simple and approachable to all, that is also exactly what I disliked about it.

It’s not that I think I’m a good friend… the truth is I’m not good at employing the principles laid out in this book; even though I do agree that they should be employed.  The kind of person that does what Welch describes will find themselves surrounded by deep and meaningful relationships.  But despite the truth of all of that, I found this book simply a chore to read.  It could be that I read through the book too quickly (the chapters are short and would probably be best served by reading one every few days while you worked to implement the suggestions in your life).  I was reading 2-5 chapters a day so that I could cram it into the last week of March.  So take this review for what it’s worth, the book has great material and possible a boring delivery.

Now, that I’ve spent explaining how boring this book is and only the hardcore readers are still reading, here are two good insights this book made that make it worth while:

1st, we are all helpers.  Welch states that “a young child is most satisfied when helping a parent cook or clean.”  I fact checked this with several families and they all agreed.  (All wanted to clarify that we’re talking about satisfaction and not happiness and a few wanted to clarify that some kids hate certain tasks and are not satisfied or happy to help with them.)  We are designed to help one another and the purpose of this book is to give you tools to be better at it.

2nd, this book really drove home for me just how bad I am at helping my friends be what they want and more importantly need to be.  Perhaps it’s a bit of pessimism, but I suspect that if you read this book you’ll find just how bad you are at helping your friends too.

There are many good reasons to read this book, and if you want to be a good helper of your friends I think it’s worth the effort.

Overall, I give this book three stars.

Next Up: The Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Review: The Half-Blood Prince

32402The Half-Blood Prince is without a doubt one of my least favorite books in this series.  It takes 50-60% of the book for any action to really develop.  The beginning of the book is just so slow that it’s boring.  It’s not as though that boring content is pointless.  I think Rowling did a decent job of making all points of the story come together to tell a consistent story, it’s just uninteresting.  I became tired of Harry’s inability to do anything back in book four and the majority of this story is Harry sitting around and talking to people, but not doing anything.

It’s interesting too, because as I read it I could recognize far more key scenes in this book than in the previous five combined.  What I mean is, I knew ahead of time from having seen the movies that there are 4 or 5 key scenes in this book that were coming up, but I had no idea they would all happen in the second half of the book and that absolutely no development would happen in the first half.  This might be why the book felt so slow.  I was eagerly waiting the cool scenes from the second half and had no patients for the lulls that permeated the first half.

On the positive side, we do continue to see some good character developments in side characters throughout the book.  And we learn more about the magical systems in this world.

Overall, I give this book three stars.

Next Up: Side By Side by Edward T. Welch