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Hiatus…Blah!

I <3 UGLY by ~BostonBill~

I ❤ UGLY by ~BostonBill~

So you’ve probably been wondering (if, in fact, anyone has actually been reading this) where in the world I’ve been.  I started off the year with high hopes.  I had actually kept posting at least once (if not more than once) a week for a good streak there.  And then…nothing.

Part of my writing hiatus has been work related.  I’ve taken on some new and additional duties that sometimes take up my time at home (in addition to the committee work I already do at home).  And when I have had spare time I can quite honestly say I’ve been wasting it playing the Sims (although my Legacy family is chugging along quite well, thank you very much) and watching old episodes of Ugly Betty and Twin Peaks.

I also have this really bad habit of picking up another book as soon as I finish one and then I look back at my list of titles read and think…oh yeah, I should probably review that book I read two weeks ago.  Which makes writing a review a little difficult (I am a slow writer and, I think, a slow reader).

But…I’m back on the wagon.  So expect new content fairly soon.  You know, if you’re paying attention.

– txlibrarian

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The Space Between Trees by Katie WilliamsThe Skinny: When Evie lies to a stranger at Zabet’s funeral, claiming that her once childhood friend was still her best-friend, she unintentionally becomes involved in figuring out who killed Zabet with Zabet’s real best-friend, Hadley. This is an unusual, haunting, and suspenseful mystery told by a fresh and witty narrative voice. I would recommend this title to fans of mystery and suspense, but also to fans of angsty narrators or darkly gritty realistic fiction.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

On the day Zabet’s body was discovered, Evie was delivering newspapers on her route. She saw the body in a bag being pulled out from the woods, not realizing that her former best friend from childhood, Zabet, was the victim. When Evie becomes friends with Zabet’s current best friend, Hadley, the two young women begin searching for Zabet’s killer. Yet Hadley soon spirals out of control, dragging Evie on a dangerous path.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Unnamed Suburban Enclave

The basic geography within The Space Between Trees is important to the narrative, yet is detached enough from any real place to make the story seem as though it could reasonably happen anywhere. One could divide this unnamed suburban town into the Hokepe Woods subdivision, the surrounding “woods,” the condos full of divorced men, and the less affluent side of town full of rental homes and apartments. Having spent a fair number of years in suburban enclaves and planned communities when I was growing up, I could envision these distinct regions; the setting provided a loose familiarity that I appreciated in a narrative of such raw discordance.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Evie narrates her story and is probably one of the most unique characters I have met in quite a while. Evie has grown up an only child to a single parent and, with the exception of her childhood friendship with Zabet, she has never really had any friends and remains pretty much a fairly satisfied outcast. Sure, she has acquaintances, the so-called “Whisperers,” who have allowed her to sit at their lunch table, but her closest relationships are fueled more by her imagination than any actual emotional intimacy. Evie lies about practically everything: she lies to the “Whisperers” about her relationship with Jonah, a college-age guy who works picking up dead animals in the Hokepe Woods, probably to get them to pay attention to her; she lies to her mother about having friends, so that her mother, a formerly very popular girl herself, will not worry or push Evie to become more involved; and Evie eventually lies to Zabet’s father, claiming a close friendship with Zabet that had ended years earlier. Evie’s distance from most people and her reflective manner make her relationship with Hadley all the more dangerous and, as the two become friends and more entangled in one another’s life, Evie continually believes she can keep Hadley’s behavior in check while things are spiraling further and further out of control. Although Evie’s character does not change dramatically and her actions, even in the end, are shocking, she does seem to finish the novel with the ability to connect in a more truthful way with others and seems to have learned that deceiving others is as dangerous and insidious as deceiving oneself.

Hadley is known around school as a “bad girl,” attending college parties, drinking, smoking, having sex, getting in fights. When Hadley moved to Hokepe Woods at the beginning of high school, she and Zabet became very close friends, although as the novel progresses a reader can see that Hadley was the more dominant and domineering of the two. Hadley knows Evie lied to Zabet’s father, but allows the charade to continue for reasons that are not immediately clear. Hadley is a master manipulator and probably a burgeoning sociopath and, even in the end, she does not seem to have been punished in any way for her behavior, nor does she seem to have changed in any meaningful way.

Jonah, a college drop-out who works picking up animal carcasses from the woods surrounding the Hokepe subdivision, has functioned as idealized eye candy for many of the teenage girls living in the neighborhood and to Evie herself. In her mind and in the stories she recounts to the Whisperers, Evie has a much closer relationship with Jonah than he would think. Evie has an obvious crush on him and engages in some stalkerish behavior – following him around the neighborhood, driving around looking for his truck, calling his place of employment to see whether or not he has returned to work. Jonah is not a particularly well-rounded character, but nevertheless plays and important part in the story: he discovers Zabet’s body and becomes very distraught over the incident; he ultimately rejects Evie’s advances; and he becomes a suspect in Hadley’s mind, resulting in dangerous consequences.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

Evie tells her story in first-person and, due to her compulsive lying, one might assume she is a totally unreliable narrator. Although she never explicitly explains why she feels the need to constantly fabricate stories, Evie does demonstrate a very clear understanding of when others are being disingenuous or performative. Evie is a constant observer (very rarely acting out) and knows when her mother acts or speaks in a practiced, observed, and mannered way and Evie comments on these behaviors in others. Her one blind spot tends to come from Hadley; whether Evie does not wish to truly see Hadley for what she is or if Hadley is just so skillful at hiding her motives, Evie seems a little slow, but believably so, at piecing together Hadley’s disintegration.

But despite the fact that Evie is not the most admirable of characters, her voice is frank, unique and interesting. She has a particular view of life that struck me as fresh and endearing and her, although somewhat slight, transition was subtle. As a constant observer, Evie lived life in a dreamlike state, disconnected from the world and from people. By the end of the novel, things are definitely not rosy and many questions are left unanswered, yet Evie’s response to these events shows some maturation and some sense of having learned that part of living life is in the relationships we form.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

Katie Williams writes beautifully. With a quirky, intelligent and mostly antisocial narrator, The Space Between Trees is certainly haunting, but with very humorous moments. While the tone might at times seem more sophisticated than one might expect of a teenage girl, I never doubted for a moment that this was Evie’s voice. Williams executes teen dialogue in a spot-on way and she balances Evie’s introspective nature with a fast-paced and compelling plot.

 

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Structured almost like a who-dun-it mystery and with Evie’s lies initiating the action, the question of truth plays a vital role. Evie has made a habit of being a storyteller, sometimes of very tall tales, yet she has a very clear sense of the facades people show to the outside world. Evie’s mother takes great pride in a clean and well-maintained household and in presenting herself in the best light; yet Evie seems cognizant that there is discord underneath her mother’s practiced stance and years of former tenants who showed less respect to their rental homes. Evie is also struck by the disparity between the exterior of Hadley’s home, in such an affluent neighborhood, and the interior with fractured parents and piles of garbage, dirty clothes and dishes. Although readers get a sense of this earlier on, Evie eventually discovers that Hadley is a walking contradiction; that while Evie seems to want to defend Hadley from what she considers abuse at the hands of volatile young men, Hadley often picks fights, hurls abuse, and initiates discord. This is not a traditional murder mystery; no reader could piece together exactly what happened to Zabet and who was responsible. Instead the mystery lies in figuring out the truth of Hadley’s irrational behavior and how both girls will (if they can) come to terms with the irrational.

Wildthorn by Jane EaglandThe Skinny: The moment Louisa Cosgrove arrives at Wildthorn Hall, she knows something is not quite right. Although she expected to begin work as a companion to a wealthy, slightly older young woman, Louisa is instead stripped of her possessions and her identity at what turns out to be an insane asylum. This is a suspenseful, beautifully written novel that is a unique addition to the ranks of historical fiction in its handling of love relationships between women, changing cultural norms of gender, and the history of psychiatric institutions. I would recommend this title to historical fiction fans, to readers of GLBTQ young adult fiction, or to romance readers.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

After the death of her supportive father, Louisa Cosgrove feels trapped taking care of her distraught mother and denied the opportunity to attend a Women’s Medical College in London by her older brother. When her brother forces her to take a position as a companion to a slightly older young woman, Louisa reluctantly agrees and finds herself on a journey to the country mansion. Deposited on the steps of a massive estate, Wildthorn Hall, Louisa is whisked away, locked up, her belongings taken, her identity stripped. This is no private home, but an insane asylum, where the attendants are brutal, the inmates deprived, and where Louisa is now known as Lucy Childs. Louisa struggles to comprehend what has happened to her, what has led her to this miserable fortress, and how she might escape.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Victorian Era England

Eagland excels in her descriptions of setting, from the lush estates of Louisa’s family, to the fetid and claustrophobic environs of the asylum, to the grim apartment in London that Louisa’s brother, Tom, calls home, making each scene almost cinematic. The author further situates the novel in the period with attention to dress and through very physical demarcations between the classes and the sexes.

 

 

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Louisa Cosgrove/Lucy Childs narrates the novel and, at least until it becomes more obvious why she has been institutionalized, a reader might assume she is not a very reliable one. From childhood, Louisa was always more of a tom boy, interested in science and experimentation, and wished one day to be a hero, to become a doctor, and to make a difference. Although this routinely brought her into conflict with her traditional mother, Louisa’s father, himself a physician, encouraged her dreams and allowed for a less-traditional (and much more masculine) education. Once in the asylum, Louisa routinely demonstrates her incredible strength: she tries to hold onto her sanity against incredible odds; she forms a strong relationship with one of the attendants, Eliza, and she continually plots her own escape (where her medical education learned alongside her father comes in handy). Although Louisa eventually learns why she was institutionalized and who was responsible, she never quite forgives or forgets and rather than sink back into expected roles of women, Louisa comes out of the asylum with greater strength and determination.

Grace, Louisa’s cousin, figures predominantly throughout much of the novel as an ideal. Louisa clearly has feelings for Grace that go beyond the love of family, yet Louisa fails to fully see Grace’s shortcomings. Grace routinely reminded Louisa throughout their childhood that Louisa’s dreams were impractical and inappropriate for girls and, in what seems an arranged situation rather than a love match, becomes engaged to an older man who clearly typifies the age in his feelings toward women. Although Grace is one of Louisa’s most ardent supporters to the end, it is clear that Grace does not have the strength of character to step outside of traditional feminine roles and ultimately sacrifices her own happiness for duty.

Tom Cosgrove, Louisa’s brother, seems a very perfect, albeit somewhat tragic, villain. Even in their childhood, Tom appears a very vindictive sort and always looking for ways to draw attention to Louisa’s failings or away from himself. Tom pursues a medical education while simultaneously depriving Louisa of the opportunity and his personal vices leave him open to manipulation. Despite the complex and often unpleasant relationship between Tom and Louisa, Tom eventually gets his due and remains a sympathetic (if mostly pathetic) character.

Eliza, an attendant at Wildthorn Hall, is one of the few employees of the asylum who has sympathy for the patients and attempts to improve their quality of life within her limited sphere of influence. Eliza and Louisa strike up a friendly relationship and, once Louisa is transferred to another ward, Eliza continues to visit Louisa where their friendship grows. Eliza routinely puts her own well-being at risk to help Louisa and through their relationship, Louisa learns to trust others again and finds love in the process.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

In this first-person narrative, Louisa Cosgrove (Lucy Childs) tells her story in real-time and through fragmented memories of her childhood and the more recent past. As Louisa spends more time in the asylum and as she tries to piece together what could have led up to her internment, readers could begin to question her reliability as a narrator; most especially as she becomes isolated in solitary confinement and as her memories progress from childhood to more recent events, Louisa begins to question herself, her resolve, and whether or not her confinement really is a mistake. But despite her self-doubt, Louisa remains a strong and observant narrator.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

The language of Louisa’s narrative reads consistently with her time, yet does not read as though it would alienate modern readers. And whereas the slipping of time between events that happen to Louisa in real-time and her childhood and recent memories might seem likely to lead to confusion, the memories and current events are clearly demarcated. As the pieced-together memories begin to expose the reasons for Louisa’s confinement, Louisa’s experiences within Wildthorn Hall also build in intensity to the culminating escape attempt.

Eagland also situates the story in the Victorian era through dialogue. The ways in which individuals address one another demarcate both their station and their sex. Despite her status as an inmate, Louisa is constantly referred to as “Miss” by Eliza, marking Louisa as of a higher class. Louisa’s experiences visiting other ladies with her mother demonstrate very rigorously maintained social roles of appropriate decorum for young women. And Louisa’s interactions with her family, such as at the dinner party where she explodes to defend her dreams at becoming a doctor, result is severe reprimands. Eagland also employs the use of regional dialect, marking Eliza as native to a particular region or marking those who have less formal (or educated) speech.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Perhaps one of the most complex themes of Wildthorn rests in how insanity or sanity become socially and culturally defined. Particular members of Louisa’s family believe her unfeminine actions (her education, her desire to be a doctor, her outspokenness, her rebuking of marriage) mark her as mentally unstable or suffering from a sexual disorder. Louisa even doubts her moral or ethical make-up because of her attraction to women, although she clearly believes she is not insane. Some 21st century readers might not understand how this situation could even have happened, yet Eagland thoroughly places this judgment in its historical context. Despite affluent women’s increasing access to advanced education, there were many men and women who felt threatened by these changes and viewed these women as a danger not only to themselves but to society as a whole. In passing, Grace mentions that her husband reads many papers coming out of Vienna; both Germany and Austria were home to many influential thinkers in the burgeoning field of psychiatry. The confluence of a system of thought to explain and categorize mental illness comes at a very complex social and political time throughout the world. Wildthorn brings some of these social and cultural changes to light.

In terms of interpersonal relationships, Wildthorn is also a story of trust and love. Louisa’s trust is broken with some members of her family, those who worked together for their own personal motives to institutionalize her. Yet Louisa also begins to learn that her mother, with whom she has never had a particularly strong relationship, is much more aware and less fragile than Louisa once believed and that, through honesty, they can have a better and more supportive bond. Eliza also teaches Louisa to trust and take risks again, leading to a loving relationship between the two.

Trash by Andy MulliganThe Skinny: In a relatively-distant future, in an unnamed developing country, three boys living in a garbage dump discover a discarded bag, leading them on an adventure that uncovers political corruption and changes their lives forever. Trash is full of interesting characters, but ultimately a quick, plot-driven, adventure and mystery. I would recommend Trash to readers who enjoy adventure stories, mysteries, books that take place in an international context or books that focus on big issues . As a slim volume that reads quickly, I would also recommend this title to reluctant reading boys. This could also be an interesting, cross-disciplinary title for environmental science and social studies.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

When Raphael discovers a small leather bag that has been discarded in his village, a trash dump where hundreds of families live, his luck seems to have changed. Inside this small leather bag, Raphael finds money, which he splits with his friend Gardo, a small key and an ID card. When the police arrive shortly afterward, looking for the bag, Raphael and Gardo team up with Rat, a small boy with no family, to try to figure out why this bag is so valuable to the police and, ultimately, to solve a recent crime perpetrated by the man who once owned the bag. Leaving everything they own and the only home they have really known, the boys embark on an adventure that takes them from their trash dump village to the big city to the gloriously beautiful Sampalo Island.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Unnamed Developing Country in a Not-so-Distant Future

Although Mulligan presents Trash as happening in a relatively distant future, this novel seems realistically present, and while the country or geographic area are not specified, the celebrations of the Day of the Dead seem to point to Mexico, a nation influenced by Mexican cultural traditions, or one of the few other Latin American countries that have similar celebrations. The Behala trash dump, the area the boys call home through the first part of the novel, appears a desparately squalid land where the most impoverished people dig through mountains of garbage to carve out a livelihood for themselves and their families. Behala is an environment of constant change, following the fluxing piles of garbage with each delivery from the trucks; the village itself has had to periodically move once the overflowing heaps of garbage claimed their homes, leaving the surviving and homeless inhabitants to rebuild slightly further away from the disaster, yet still among the garbage. Neither Gardo nor Raphael seem to have ever left Behala, so their descriptions of the big city depict both wild-eyed wonder at the pace and the lives of the more affluent, as well as deep worry at being noticed, of not blending in, and in being caught. Sampalo Island, where Rat (a.k.a. Jun-Jun) claims to have once lived with his people, appears through most of the novel as a picturesque dream, a location where everything is beautiful and where its people can live in pleasurable industry.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Raphael lives in Behala with his aunt and cousins, helping make his way and supporting his family by picking through the trash heaps for reusable items and those he could sell. Raphael discovered the bag, with money, key and ID and split the money with Gardo; finding something of so much worth is unusual, almost a fable that keeps the villagers of Behala continuing in their day-to-day existence. When the police question him, both at Behala and again in the city, Raphael realizes that what he has found could potentially put his remaining family and the other villagers at risk. Like most of the characters in Trash, Raphael is a survivor and he ultimately chooses helping his neighbors of Behala over his own self-interest.

Gardo, Raphael’s best friend, makes his living side-by-side with Raphael. Gardo and Raphael have a close relationship, yet Gardo seems to be the more boisterous of the two who takes more risks, has more swagger, and acts as a protector.

Rat (Jun-Jun) has lost his family and lives alone in one of the worst parts of Behala. Although Raphael and Gardo originally go to Rat thinking he would be willing to help them (and perhaps easily manipulable), Rat soon becomes key to discovering what has happened to the missing money and in helping formulate the final plan to ensure a better future for themselves and their neighbors. Rat perhaps grows through the most character development, from the isolated Rat to the integral Jun-Jun.

Father Julliard is a Catholic priest, close to retirement, who came to Behala to help run a school for local children. Yet because the children of Behala often had to help support their families, many of the children left school early or never enrolled. Father Julliard has real compassion for the people of Behala and has dedicated his life to the village. He assists the boys, sometimes unknowingly, in their adventure.

Olivia seems to be a member of an organization like the Peace Corp, who came to Behala not knowing what she would discover, but becoming enamored of the people and the place. Olivia is often naïve, not realizing that the boys are playing on her sympathies for their own gain, but ultimately her role is integral in the plot.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

Trash is a first person narrative from the perspective of multiple characters, including Raphael, Gardo, Rat (Jun-Jun), Father Julliard, Olivia and a few other minor characters who help tell the story. Although the narrators identify themselves, their voices do not always seems separate. Raphel and Gardo, in particular, seem almost interchangeable with very little to distinguish the two. Although the narrative is not necessarily confusing, the number of narrators makes it difficult to become attached to any one of them.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

Together the first-person narrators help tell the story, each offering different perspectives and allowing the narrative progress as one character hands off the story to the next. Although readers never get to know any one character with the depth one might if the story were told only by Raphael or Gardo or Rat, readers instead get the opportunity to become acquainted with more of a community of individuals whose stories intersect.

Trash reads easily, with a conversational and stark tone. Mulligan’s descriptions of the setting and individuals never overwhelm the action; nothing overshadows the quickly-moving plot; and the dialogue between characters contributes directly to the boys’ adventures and their piecing together of the puzzle. Newspaper articles and political cartoons later in the novel also help place the story within the larger frame of political corruption and explain why a discarded bag could become of interest to local police and politicians.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Throughout Trash readers become acquainted with many present-day problems, including poverty, extreme economic disparities, and political corruption. While those living in Behala might not routinely think of their situations as the result of an elite few depriving their fellow citizens of basic necessities, the boys quickly discover something that seems to happen routinely: a few individuals involved in collection international aid abuse their power for personal gain rather than being stewards of monies that could make a real impact on the lives of the most impoverished. In an adventurous mystery, where a group of young and disempowered people spend the narrative tracking down one piece of a puzzle they ultimately solve (something one would expect of a mystery), readers are treated to larger and complex political problems.

Despite the crushing poverty of Raphael, Gardo and Rat (Jun-Jun), these characters still have a hopefulness, have dreams of better futures, and have confidence in their actions and success. Yet even though these kiddos are sympathetic characters, they are certainly not perfect; they lie and cheat and steal. A strength of Mulligan’s writing is that these characters are realistically imperfect, yet still likable.

If you read my previous post about New Year’s Resolutions, you know that I have made it a priority to learn at least one new recipe a month throughout 2011. I have already learned one recipe for January, South Indian Cabbage with Yogurt, but got a little ambitious this past weekend and decided to try my hand at two more.

Root Vegetable Gratin

Rutabaga by -meredith-

Rutabaga by -meredith-

I was a little wary of trying this root vegetable gratin. For one thing, I had never cooked a rutabaga in my life and the things are kind of frightening looking in an earthy, waxy, hairy kind of way. So to balance my trepidation at trying the rutabaga, I doubled up on the more familiar turnip.

I also had a bit of a misadventure looking for the gruyère cheese. I’m not a culinary maven, so I had never used this particular cheese before and as I walked down the specialty cheese case at my local grocery store, I had a hard time finding it. I paced up and down looking for it (not knowing exactly what it looked like), with my mouth watering over what had to have been a very scrumptious aged gouda, until a man who works the deli/cheese area asked me if I needed any help. Of course, not knowing how to pronounce the cheese, I point to my grocery list and the gruyère turns out to be right in front of my eyes. I was slightly embarrassed, so I just grabbed the cheese and ran off to the bulk food section. It wasn’t until I got to the check out and was getting ready to pay that I discovered this very slight little package of cheese was $10.

Anywho, after doing a little online research, it turns out preparing a rutabaga is much like preparing a turnip. You can either use a peeler and remove the entire skin or, like I did, use a sharp knife to remove the outside so you’re just left with the interior. I tried cutting the rutabaga in half prior to peeling…it wasn’t happening. That waxy shell is almost impossible to hack your way through. It was at about this point that my husband walked in the kitchen and, with suspicion in his voice, said the veggies smelled very “earthy.” I tried to convince him that Martha Rose Shulman had yet to lead us astray and that rutabaga and turnip became sweeter in the cooking process. He didn’t seem very convinced and I was a little worried.

Throughout the cooking process (about every 10-15 minutes) I was opening the oven and smashing the whole concoction down with the back of a spoon to absorb the milk. Toward the end of the cooking time, the veggies, the cheese, and the thyme started to smell absolutely mouth-watering and I began to feel much more convinced that we were in for a treat.

The end result was amazing, filling yet with very delicate flavors. With prep and cook time, I would say it took about two hours (we listened to about two full episodes of This American Life online). So while I wouldn’t make this for just an everyday dinner, it would be great as a side-dish for a big party or potluck. It also reheated well, so you could certainly make it on a weekend and have it as a side dish on a busier night during the week.

baby bok coy by ksbuehler

baby bok coy by ksbuehler

Stir-Fried Quinoa with Vegetables and Tofu

I love quinoa and vegetables and tofu, so I figured this would be a winner. I just got a wok for Christmas, so any recipes that allow me to take full advantage of my new gear have been tempting.

I cleaned and picked through the quinoa before starting anything else and had it cooking on the stove while I prepared all the veggies and spices. Full disclosure: my husband prepared the tofu and had it ready for me when all the cooking began. Thanks, babe! The recipe says to mince the ginger, but I grated it instead. Ginger is really fibrous and stringy and mincing it is down-right difficult (I tried). So I busted out the grater and it went much more smoothly and the result was more like a juicy paste. I’m a little more liberal with the spices than Martha Rose’s recipes ever ask for, so I had a pretty hefty amount of ginger (I grated a piece about the size of my thumb) and garlic (probably seven or so cloves) in the final product.

Once the quinoa was finished, I set to on the broccoli, which needed a quick boil and then ice bath before the stir-frying started. I used to never understand the ice bath. Several recipes call for it and I would always duitifully follow the instructions, but I never really got it until I read that it quickly stops the cooking process and can help retain the flavor and texture of your veggies.

This recipe also called for baby bok choy. I have never cooked with baby bok choy, so, of course, I had to figure out how to cut it. I found a really great video online. Thank goodness for YouTube! I’m a very visual person, so unless a book has some good illustrative diagrams, I’m totally lost.


Once everything is prepared, the quinoa cooked and the broccoli blanched, cook time is incredibly rapid.

This recipe was a definite winner. We were completely stuffed and had a bunch of leftovers that I took to work for lunch. I will say, though, that it definitely dirtied up a bunch of dishes (the wok, one stockpot to blanche the broccoli, one big plastic container to hold the cut bok choy and pepper, two small glass dishes to hold the soy sauce/sesame oil and another to hold the garlic and ginger, a large container for the broccoli ice bath, the large sauce pot to cook the quinoa, all the knives and cutting boards), but the end result was worth it. If only we hadn’t run out of soy sauce!

The Skinny: Historical fiction can sometimes be a tough sell, but MacColl’s Prisoners in the Palace movingly combines intrigue, action, and romance, effectively fashioning a familiar icon into a well-rounded presence that makes history accessible and incredibly exciting. A wonderful and quick read, I would recommend this title to readers who enjoy strong heroines, who regularly read historical fiction, who have recently studied the time period in European or World history, or to someone who is looking for a fun romp.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

With the untimely death of her parents, Liza faces insurmountable debts. Her only hope rests in obtaining a paid position as a servant to the Princess Victoria at Kensington Palace. Lacking noble blood, Liza can never hope to be a Lady in Waiting to the future Queen, yet she is determined to make herself indispensable to Victoria who will one day have the power to reinstate Liza’s fortunes. With her previous education, her fluency in German and the newspaper contacts she has made outside the Palace, Liza supports and ultimately protects Victoria, from Princess to Queen.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: London, 1836-1837

Taking place in the year prior to Victoria’s accession to the throne, Prisoners in the Palace depicts the era through descriptions of Kensington Palace, the streets of contemporary London, current fashions and the distinct roles occupied by servants, the working class, and royalty. From the opulence of the grand hotel Claridge’s to a Kensington Palace that has not been well-maintained, from the bustling crowds on Fleet Street to the dank and squalid neighborhoods of the woefully impoverished, readers become acquainted with an historical geography populated by realistic and memorable characters. Distinctions between economic classes, defined in terms of the spaces occupied, types of dress, and social interactions, help to further situate the narrative in the Georgian Era.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Although the story has an undeniable focus on Princess Victoria, Elizabeth (Liza) Hastings plays the leading role. Having been recently orphaned and left with more debts than income, Liza seeks to make an independent living as a servant to Princess Victoria. Spirited and educated, Liza struggles with her new role as a servant, the loss of her loving parents and her former life of relative affluence. Liza’s fluency in German positions her to spy on the Duchess (Victoria’s mother) and Sir John Conroy on behalf of Lezhen and Princess Victoria and Liza’s budding friendship with Will Fulton allows her access to sway public opinion through popular broadsheet publications. Liza’s situation within the Princess’ household forces her into an in-between class and can help readers further understand the narrative’s historical context. As the daughter of a self-made man who was awarded a knighthood because of his mercantile exploits, Liza is not a true lady (of noble birth) and can never hope to become a Lady in Waiting to the future Queen; but as an educated young woman who once enjoyed a life of privilege and is now serving the Princess, Liza becomes separated from the other servants through her duties and her status. We meet Liza as a frightened young woman, who has no other option than to make her own way in the world, and leave Liza as she embarks on a life of her own choice and in her own direction.

Inside Boy Jones lives inside the walls of Kensington Palace and becomes Liza’s first real friend, as well as her main contact with the outside world. Inside Boy helps educate Liza about those she serves in Kensington Palace, as well as shows her the desperate situations of those living without station, income, or connections. While Inside Boy and Liza first become acquainted out of need (Inside Boy doesn’t want Liza telling anyone he’s been hiding in and stealing from the Kensington household and Liza doesn’t want Inside Boy exposing her as a spy or in any way threatening her livelihood), they come to rely on one another. Inside Boy’s story seems rather unresolved and, if one reads the author’s notes, his future might have been less than rosy.

When Liza first meets Will Fulton, a broadsheet publisher, she has nothing but negative things to say about him; like almost any romantic story, their initial dislike of one another fashions Will into the perfect leading man. Also an orphan, Will had the support of an uncle to start his own business, publishing what seems like contemporary gossip columns. Liza, with the help of Inside Boy, becomes acquainted with Will in an attempt to convince him to stop publishing lies about Princess Victoria (like that she is a spoiled child unfit to rule) and to bend his ear to her own cause in promoting the Princess. While initially Will appears only interested in publishing what will be profitable, he takes risks on behalf of Liza and their relationship becomes one of equals.

MacColl presents Princess (later Queen) Victoria as a well-rounded, imperfect, and believable character. Victoria has lived a life sequestered from family and friends under the control of her mother and Sir John, struggling throughout the novel to come into her own, to become more self-assured, and to live up to the expectations of her station. Desperate for a friend and a life separate from her mother’s sphere of influence, Victoria often crosses the imposed boundaries between master and servant in her relationship with Liza; together they plot to sway public opinion and to embarrass Sir John. Yet Victoria just as often reaffirms these boundaries, reminding Liza of their relative positions in order to get her way or scolding Liza when she has spoken out of turn. Victoria can be both serious and frivolous, both commanding and meek, both intelligent and easily distracted, yet throughout the novel she grows into her eventual role as Queen.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

Told in third-person, Prisoners in the Palace provides readers with Liza’s perspective and follows her adventures, missteps and accomplishments. We see the era through Liza’s eyes, allowing a fresh and previously inexperienced look at the lives of royalty, servants, and the working poor. Readers can experience the same shock with Liza at how low a servant without a proper reference from her employer can fall, as well as feel rebuked when Victoria silences her with a glance or gesture.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

MacColl punctuates her narrative with entries from Liza and Victoria’s journals, with excerpts from printed broadsheets, and with correspondence. Each of these devices can help contextualize the story in its time period and allow readers access to the growing relationship between Will and Liza, as well as give its audience a glimpse of Liza and Victoria’s private thoughts; nevertheless, these entries and epistolary episodes can occasionally be a distraction from, rather than supplemental to, the overall narrative. MacColl excels in her writing of dialogue, as well as her introduction and use of “flash patter” or the dialect of London’s streets. What Liza can or cannot say in particular circumstances becomes illustrative of her relative power to others and the ways in which characters deploy language further situate them economically and socially. While dialogue helps place the narrative, the novel is fresh and accessible to contemporary readers.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Throughout the novel, themes of family, friendship and belonging repeat. Liza, having been deprived of her family and living in a country where she feels no real connections, must create for herself a support group, such as in her relationships with Inside Boy and Will. Victoria, though still within reach of family, feels deprived of real affection; her mother and Sir John have systematically isolated Victoria from outside influence and Victoria feels her mother has consistently put Sir John ahead of her daughter’s well-being. Victoria and Liza’s abilities to create a system of support are juxtaposed with the life of Annie Mason, Victoria’s former maid who suffers abysmal hardships and lacks connections or many friends.

Sapphique by Catherine FisherThe Skinny: Sapphique is just as strong an installment as Incarceron and offers a well-rounded ending to the series, providing closure but also raising interesting questions as to what will ultimately happen to the main characters and their world. With sophisticated themes, the Incarceron series could be read as a rip-roaring adventure, as well as a thought-provoking tale that will incite conversation and remain with readers long after completing the books. Obviously one would recommend this title to those who have already read Incarceron, as I do not believe this would work very well as a stand-alone title. However, I would strongly recommend this series to those who enjoy sophisticated science fiction, fans of The Hunger Games, or fantasy fans who love authors with strong world-building chops.

globe by Patrick Q

globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Incarceron (Inside the Prison) and the Realm (Outside the Prison)

Fisher delineates Inside from Outside carefully throughout this sequel. While both worlds were already well-defined in her previous novel, Incarceron, Fisher continues to vividly depict Incarceron as a cramped, half-mechanical, half-organic world of diverse landscapes and people all controlled by an experimental, sentient technology gone awry. The Realm remains a restricted, lush, and pastoral environment in which the affluent live in rejection of technological advancement (the Protocol), harkening back to a past era of landed nobility in both action and word, and in which the peasantry toil in imposed hardship to maintain a picturesque landscape for aristocratic play.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Claudia, daughter of the Warden, has grown up playing the power games of court, having been raised to one day marry into the royal family and become queen. With her father missing somewhere in Incarceron, however, Claudia is left to handle the machinations of Queen Sia on her own. Backing Finn as the rightful heir leads to considerable trouble, both from the Queen who desires her own son, Caspar, to become King and from the Steel Wolves, a rebel group hoping to take down the Protocol of the Realm. And with Finn’s memory fragmented and his attitude forever changed by living in Incarceron, Claudia believably vacillates back and forth between supporting Finn as the rightful heir, Prince Giles, and in doubting his integrity. While in Incarceron Claudia was a strong, complex character, she seems a little pale by comparison in this installment; in Incarceron Claudia subverted Protocol to undermine the Queen and Caspar, while in Sapphique Claudia is depicted as being thoroughly entrenched in the ritual and pageantry. Claudia certainly still has a fighting spirit, but events seem to happen more to her rather than initiated from her.

Finn, former inmate of Incarceron, is still a well-realized and convincing character. Having been transported out of Incarceron to a world he thought to be full of freedom, he deals with the shocking realization that the Outside is not as perfect as he had assumed or hoped while trapped Inside the Prison. Struggling with an incapacitating guilt at having left behind his brother-in-arms, Keiro, and his friend, Attia, Finn feels lost in the curious and confining Realm. Throughout Incarceron, Finn was thought to be a “seer,” his seizures providing mystical knowledge; in trying to piece together his fragmented, pre-Incarceron memories and in battling his seizures, which he thought would disappear in the relative safety of the Realm, Finn spends much of his time alienating courtiers and upsetting those who say they are trying to help him.

Jared is a Sapient (or scholar of the Realm) in addition to being Claudia’s tutor; the affection between the two continues to be subtly described. In Incarceron, Jared constituted the one adult influence that remained positive, supportive, and genuine, but in Sapphique Jared and Claudia’s relationship becomes strained. In trying to protect Claudia, Jared plants seeds of doubt that Finn is actually Prince Giles and Jared makes a deal with Queen Sia that, at first, seems the ultimate betrayal. Throughout Sapphique Jared becomes a character with considerable more depth; though always an interesting character, Jared appears more independent, with adventures of his own and with an illness making him significantly physically weaker throughout the novel.

Although one might think from the first novel that Attia is a character foil inside the Prison to Claudia’s life out in the Realm, her role grows in Sapphique and she proves a strong, tough heroine who is fiercely loyal and sensitive to the struggles of others. Attia is the first character we met, as she begins making a life for herself after being left behind by Finn in Incarceron. While Attia is not always honest and certainly makes mistakes along the way, she also provides a necessary voice of reason within the tumultuous and sometimes irrational prison. She eventually travels with Keiro again, seemingly out of her love for Finn; while she does not believe Finn will necessarily return for her, she knows of his tie to Keiro. Until the very end, Attia fights to survive, but her sensitivity to the masses of innocent people inside the prison walls make her decisions more difficult and the ramifications of her choices more severe.

Keiro is as arrogant and feisty in Sapphique as he was in Incarceron, but his feelings of betrayal at having been left behind while Finn, he believes, is enjoying great riches and a life of great ease continually appear despite his cool façade. Keiro often acts out of purely selfish considerations and he attempts to maintain an air of indifference; yet his anger at Finn’s betrayal and his occasional kindnesses to Attia belie his spiky exterior. Keiro’s personality and ambitions remain constant throughout the series and a reader can rely on him to initiate action, to fight with little apparent concern for his own well-being, and to be fiercely loyal to his friends.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

Sapphique is told in third person, but providing the perspectives of Claudia, Finn, Jared, Attia and Keiro. Fisher beautifully captures these characters’ distinct voices, which under another’s pen might lead to terrible confusion. Each character is clearly drawn and their voices unique and immediately identifiable to readers. While much of the narrative is action-oriented and dialogue can occasionally be sparse, the interior lives and motivations of the main characters provide richness to the story and make each individual distinct, while simultaneously demonstrating their connections to one another.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

As in Incarceron, each chapter begins with an excerpt from the life of Sapphique (a former inmate of Incarceron, thought to have escaped and imbued with mystical powers and religious reverence) or from a supposed publication of former Prison wardens or ancient Sapienti. These excerpts not only set the tone of the following chapters, but also help establish the world Fisher’s novels have created; these excerpts of folklore or “official” documentation imply a textual, religious, and creative past and present, lending a notion of multiple generations and of a vibrant intellectual, governmental and spiritual world in which these novels take place. Readers get the feeling that Incarceron and Sapphique constitute only one narrative of the many potential stories existing in this world. Fisher also excels in her description of the physical landscapes inhabited by her characters, giving enough detail to provide a reader with a clear sense of the environments, without hampering the reader with tediously long descriptive passages. More specifically, many of the details come in passing, as embedded in the action of the story, thereby allowing readers a nuanced picture with enough space for a reader’s imagination. As an adventure story, Sapphique is full of fast-paced action scenes, as well as moments of perceived calm that quickly turn dark. Fisher writes with an almost cinematic quality, as though one can imagine how the scene is staged and perhaps even hear the suspenseful music that would accompany it.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

As a sequel, Sapphique picks up quickly where Incarceron left off; enough time has elapsed between the two that Attia has found her own way without Finn and Keiro and Finn has become uncomfortably embedded in courtly life. We meet Attia grabbing at straws, trying to find some way to escape from Incarceron, including joining ranks in a traveling magician’s act. After considerable adventures of her own, Attia double-crosses the magician with the help of Keiro and both Attia and Keiro continue their quest, armed with a mystical glove said to have been owned by Sapphique. On the outside, Finn, Claudia and Jared must maneuver the machinations of the Queen and her loyal followers, while trying to repair the portal that allows for travel between the Outside Realm and Inside Incarceron. The Queen tries her utmost to prevent the Portal from being restored, going as far as having her own castle set ablaze, while undermining the cause of Finn to claim the kingdom as rightful heir, Prince Giles. While those on the Outside desperately want to bring their friends back from Inside and those on the Inside struggle to find their own way Out, the Warden (Claudia’s father) has banned together with Incarceron in a plan to fashion a body for the Prison so it might escape itself.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

The story of Sapphique repeatedly brings up the assumed division between the Inside and the Outside. The most obvious division exists between the Inside of Incarceron and Outside in the Realm of the Protocol, but other interior/exterior divisions present themselves. Insiders and outsiders in social groups exist in the Realm of the Protocol, such as those with the knowledge and affluence to exist and thrive inside the elite and those who have systematically been deprived and must toil on the earth to maintain the vision of the nobility. Insiders and outsiders also exist within the Prison; groups and social networks have formed to help those living inside survive hard conditions and strong bonds form between those who might lack other familial ties.

Over the course of the novel, however, the division between inside and outside becomes disrupted as those who have experienced both come to realize the limitations each world holds and the constrained social actions available in each. As the inside and outside come closer to imploding, readers can see how perception plays a vital role in how individuals define their realities. Most especially in the Outside Realm, the appearance of lush beauty is carefully concealing an ugly reality and the mutually agreed-upon delusion becomes reality through the actions of those who believe.