Sweet Trouble

Rants, raves, book reviews and one girl's thoughts on life, the universe and everything.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sweet Trouble Has Moved

Please come and visit the blog's new home at www.amusebooks.com

Monday, June 08, 2009

Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

This debut novel from Cindy Pon has received a lot of buzz from a surprisingly diverse set of authors. I first heard about the book from Sherwood Smith, author of the Inda high fantasy series and then again from Meg Cabot, best known for The Princess Diaries. These women, whom I admire, both praised Pon for creating a wonderful new fantasy adventure that accurately Eastern myths and fairy tales instead of Western ones.

Silver Phoenix is the tale of Ai Ling a young woman who lives in a small town in the Kingdom of Xia. Her father is a scholar who once advised the Emperor before being exiled in disgrace. Ai Ling's mother was an orphan. Due to unusual circumstances her parents were able to marry for love in a society where marriages are usually arranged, often at a very young age. Raised in such a household our seventeen year old heroine is leery about entering an arranged marriage. She flees her household when an unscrupulous fellow tries to force her to become his fourth wife while her father is away on business.

It is once Ai Ling's adventures on the road begin that Pon's tale becomes more fantastic. Demons, monsters and other mythic creatures out of Chinese lore begin to appear as Ai Ling herself becomes aware that she has a special talent of her own. Allies and traveling companions enter the scene and Ai Ling's search for her father rapidly escalates into an epic quest to save her realm.

While there are times when the narrative seems a bit disjointed or things too convenient Silver Phoenix remains a fantastic debut novel. Cindy Pon paints a lush environment full of sights, smells, tastes and feelings. The descriptions of the food alone made my mouth water, and I always appreciate it when the characters on epic quests get tired, dirty and hungry. Colors are vividly described in terms of jade, celadon, cinnabar and ivory: terms that are more uncommon in the west and help root the tale even more so in it's Eastern heritage. I enjoyed this glimpse into another culture and think this book would appeal to fans of anime series such as Inu Yasha as well as to any reader who loves a good coming of age tale in a fantasy setting.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is a classic name of children's literature. Perhaps such gems as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach are the better known titles today, thanks to the movie adaptations. My favorite as a child was always the tale of Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean) and the Fox whom they face off against in a battle of the wits.

There was a time during my formative years where I read the whole book to myself each night before I went to bed. It's only 80 pages, an easy early chapter book. When my half brother reached an appropriate age he received a copy and audio tape of the book and it became HIS bedtime favorite. Now, my own son and I read aloud the adventures of Mr. Fox and his friends and it's like going back in time. Forget the likes of James Joyce and John Updike; in my book THIS is a real classic...its right up there with Good Night Moon!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Little Bitty Lies by Mary Kay Andrews

Deep Dish by Mary Kay Andrews was one of the best books I read last year. I just loved it and have been passing it around to all of my friends and family. While I enjoy sharing such a great book, I also miss having it in the house to reread. To help pass the time until the release of Mary Kay's latest offering The Fixer Upper (due June 23) I found myself hunting some of her older novels...

As far as I can tell Little Bitty Lies was the second book to be published under the Mary Kay Andrews name (a Booklist review on Amazon cites the author as also having titles - mostly mystery series - available as Kathy Trocheck) to see publication. Like all of her novel's thus far it is set in Georgia. There's something especially voyeuristic about reading a book that reflects one's own lifestyle, hometown, or social setting with such accuracy. While I am not quite at the stage of life for the protagonist Mary Bliss McGowan to resemble one of my immediate neighbors she definitely seems very much like someone I might know. The Atlanta social niceties, so much like those in my own home town, are skewered here with such love and humor that it is almost squirm inducing!

Mary Bliss is a hard working teacher, mother and wife. She's a dutiful daughter-in-law and a good friend. Prim and a wound a little too tightly in the first chapter, I found her almost nauseating in her perfection, the kind of woman who both intimidates and frustrates me in real life. Even as her life spirals rapidly out of control she seems like an automaton, a reincarnated Stepford wife in the Atlanta suburbs. It wasn't until Mary Bliss steps out to water her tomatoes during a drought that the character clicked with me and from that point on I couldn't put the book down.

Full of equal parts humor and pathos, Little Bitty Lies is probably best as a summer read if only because that's the best time of year to get the fresh tomatoes you'll soon be craving after reading it! As an extra bonus Mary Kay includes the chicken salad recipe that is featured in the novel as one of Mary Bliss's specialties.

Luscious Lemon Desserts by Lori Longbotham

Cookbooks aren't always good reading material, but Lori Longbotham's delightful Luscious Lemon Desserts treads the fine line between function and art to deliver the perfect combination of practicality and entertainment. The photographs by Alison Minsch are elegant in their simplicity and impart to the slim volume the feeling of a coffee table art book. Longbotham's recipe's really are luscious, but each recipe also comes complete with an anecdote or description that makes for pleasant casual reading.

If you need to make lemonade with your lemons this book will tell you how. From a quick tutorial on the history of lemons themselves to how to select the perfect fruit at the store, this cookbook is chock full of helpful tips. Intimidated by zesting? Fear not! Curious about the difference between Lemon extract and Lemon Oil? The answers are all here.

Luscious Lemon Desserts is a cookbook that will grow with any cook, no matter their skill level. There are simple recipes for beginners and elaborate time consuming dishes for more seasoned chefs. In one of my favorite sections, Longbotham includes a set of instructions designed to help inexperienced bakers graduate from simple shortbread (cookie like) crusts for tarts to more elaborate pastry style pie crusts. Containing a good 70 recipes there's something for every occasion, season and time of day! There are detailed instructions for creating lemony Biscotti, muffins, cakes, cookies, tarts, frozen desserts and even a diving looking souffle!

According to the author's website, this luscious volume was voted cookbook of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2001. I'm a bit behind the times in discovering it, but that doesn't make the taste any less sweet (or tart as the case may be.) I'll definitely be checking out the author's other offerings Luscious Chocolate Desserts and Luscious Creamy Desserts.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani

Very Valentine, by Adriana Trigiani is the coming of middle-age tale of Valentine Roncalli. Valentine is a late bloomer. Although she graduated from college with half-hearted aspirations of teaching it wasn't until she was almost thirty that she found her passion. Now 34 and living with her grandmother, Valentine has left teaching behind to become an apprentice shoe maker, studying the art and working in the family's Angelini Shoe Company making custom order shoes for brides.

The Roncalli and Angelini families are quintessential Italian Americans living in New York. Food and family rule center stage; years are measured by weddings and funerals. One of four children Valentine is "the funny one" and the only child not married. She is divided between her art and between fitting into the mold that is expected of her by others. The story follows Valentine over the course of a year and a half through budding romance, family feuds, economic crisis and the perfection of her craft at the hands of a master in Italy.

Very Valentine is a lovely novel that at times reads like a food memoir, a comedy of errors, a tutorial on craftmanship and a travel guide of Italy. It will make you laugh and cry and most of all leave you filled with a warmth that comes from finding your place in the world, however vicariously, through Valentine's own journey.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Amaranth Enchantment by Julie Berry

Julie Berry's The Amaranth Enchantment is a lovely novel that I happened upon quite by accident. It is a debut book in the vein of writers such as Gail Carson Levine, Donna Jo Napoli, or Shanno Hale. I'm always excited to happen upon a debut book without any help. It's fun to "discover" a new author, especially one writing something so exquisite in one of your favorite genres. That said, I do home Ms. Berry gets some buzz from librarians and other authors as this in one Enchantment begging for wider recognition!

The Amaranth Enchantment is a sort of fairy tale novel. If there were a formula for such things I would say that it is one part Cinderella, one part Prince and the Pauper and the rest is wonderfully new. In other words, there is just enough in the way of familiar fairy tale trappings to help the reader feel comfortable as they are slip into a brand new world.

The prologue introduces young Lucinda, the "princess" of our story. As a child her world is a glittering combination of loving parents and grand affairs. The little girl thinks nothing is better than the treat of watching her mother prepare for a ball...a ball from which her parents never return. When next we see Lucinda it is as a teenager slaving away for her wicked step-aunt. In short order a witch, a prince, a thief, tragedy and a quest come Lucinda's way and her life as she knows it changes once again.

The Amaranth Enchantment is a whirlwind of a read. Everything seems to happen very quickly and the whole story takes place over the course of only a few days. Still, Berry manages to weave lovely flashbacks into the picture to flesh things out. She also introduces a most unlikely companion and champion for her heroine, the goat Dog, who was perhaps one of my favorite characters. Lucinda's happy ending isn't the typical fairy tale answer to ever after, but it is a satisfying one.

In addition to fans of fairy tale retellings by the authors I mentioned early, Enchantment should also appeal to fans of Eva Ibbotson or Noel Streatfield. The book feels a lot like the novels in that the city is almost a character of it's own and there are plucky orphans dealing with a change in class status and romance.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Being Nikki by Meg Cabot

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Meg Cabot, according to the Blogger search feature I've mentioned her in over 13 posts over the past few years. I've read almost every book she's written except Nicola and the Viscount. Thus it's no surprise that I ran out and bought Being Nikki the day it came out a week or two ago.

Being Nikki by Meg Cabot is the sequel to last year's Airhead. Airhead introduces plucky, smart (and slightly geeky) girl next door Emerson Watts. Em is forced by their parents to take her brand snob of a younger sister to the grand opening of a store Em and her best friend would much rather be boycotting. A terrible accident occurs and poor Em wakes up in the hospital to find her life irrevocably changed.

Spoiler Alert!

When Em wakes up she finds herself in the body of super model Nikki Howard. From sweats wearing computer game aficionado to emancipated minor, face of her generation party girl Em's life is upended. This is no Freaky Friday transformation either. Em was the recipient of full on brain transfer surgery. Her body and name are gone, she IS Nikki Howard and is now legally bound to fulfill Ms. Howard's modeling contracts, no matter how loathsome the prospect.

Em learns to cope, but she still has a lot to learn about Being Nikki. When a good looking young man in a Navy uniform shows up in her apartment lobby claiming to be her brother, Nikki/Em's world is turned upside down. Again. Things are not what they seem to be in Em's new life and she is reminded again that there is no going backward, only forward.

Cabot's deft mixture of real world high school living, bizarre science, MTV party scene, evil coroprate giants and lots of humor make for a great little series. Being Nikki ends with quite a surprise, and rather than being annoyed at the cliff-hanger I found myself simply thrilled that there would be a third book. Another job well done, Meg!