Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks, by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books, 2013

Nature seems to love making alcohol; take any plant with sugars present in it (any fruit and a lot of grains) and let it sit out where wild yeasts can land in it, give it a little time, and alcohol will appear. Humans have been taking advantage of this for thousands of years and show no signs of losing their enchantment with alcohol. It seems that no matter what area humans lived in, there was *something* that could be turned into alcohol. And if it couldn’t be turned into alcohol, it could be used to flavor alcohol.

Stewart has written a book that, while small, is encyclopedic in style. First she takes us through the plants- grains, potatoes, cacti, grasses - that are fermented and distilled to make hard liquors; then she goes through categories like fruit, sap (sugar maple),  and roots that are fermented and the herbs, seeds, nuts, and barks that are used to flavor the brews. For each plant she tells us how and where it was/is used, what it adds to the brew, which brands of the brew are best, and for many, how to grow the plant. This is where the book ties into gardening: while the average gardener won’t be growing grain and setting up a still, most gardeners are able to grow some mint for mojitos, jalapenos for some special margaritas, cherry tomatoes for a Blushing Mary, or a fruit tree. Face it; nearly everything in an alcoholic drink comes from plants except for bacon vodka and Irish cream. And a lot of those things are easy to grow. The author includes over 50 drink recipes for the home mixologist.

The book accomplished two things for me: I have a lot better understanding of alcohols and the history of drinks, and I want to try a lot of things I can’t afford but really want to taste, like violet liqueur and fancy vodka. And I’m looking at my garden with a new eye: what can I grab out of it to make a drink?


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shocked: My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me, by Patricia Volk. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

When I picked up this book, I thought that the author’s mother was perhaps friends with Schiaparelli and that she had grown up with both women in her life. No, it turns out,, neither mother nor daughter ever met the imaginative designer- the only connection was that Audrey Volk wore Schiaparelli’s perfume ‘Shocking’ for much of her life. But when the precocious reader Volk was ten years old, she picked up her mother’s copy of “Shocking Life”, Schiaparelli’s autobiography. What she read there presented her with a version of womanhood that was diametrically opposed to that which her mother lived.

Audrey Volk was incredibly beautiful, smart, and personable. She excelled in school, married comfortably, had children and devoted her life to doing things *right*. Her life was full of rules: rules for how one dressed, rules for decorating, rules for how to have the right friends, rules of decorum. The most important thing, to her, was how one presented oneself, and protected oneself. Her friends never met each other, because, she reasoned, what if two of her friends decided to do something together and leave Audrey out? When this did happen, she dropped both friends permanently. There were no gray areas with Audrey. Patricia Volk, even from a young age, had problems with that. Schiaparelli- or Schiap as she referred to herself- was no classical beauty and relied on her talents to survive. Her life was colorful and she took chances- with her life and with her art. Her way of being a woman was diametrically opposed to that of Audrey’s. She didn’t wear neutrals or have monocolor rooms, and her friends were chosen to be exciting and interesting. Patricia Volk could pick the best from both her mother’s way and Schiap’s way. And she did have to pick, because neither woman was perfect. Schiap spent little time with her daughter; she sent her away to live & be educated, letting someone else bring the girl up. Audrey demanded strict adherence to her rules; once when Patricia spoke back to her, Audrey hit her in the face hard enough to damage a tooth to the point of needing a root canal.

The author switches around in viewpoints; she follows Schiap, Audrey and herself from childhood as they grow up and assume lives as women, but I had no trouble following who was who. It’s a fascinating exposition on having a narcissistic mother with control issues. I’m sure Patricia Volk could not have written this book while her mother was alive. It would have been the ultimate betrayal. 

The above is an associate link. If you click through it and buy the book, Amazon will give me a tiny amount of money. 

'Shocked' was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells, ed. By Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling. Tom Doherty Associates LLC, 2013

I made the mistake of thinking this was a steampunk anthology; it’s not. It’s Gaslamp Fantasy; fantasy stories set in the Victorian era with magic included. Here you will no find brass goggles or airship pirates. But it was a happy mistake, because I enjoyed this book very much.

Victoria reigned for a very long time, so there is variety of events, inventions, real people, and movements to choose from when writing in the era. A couple of the stories are actually about Victoria; the title story is, if you know about the relationship between Victoria and Prince Albert, heartbreaking as well as a warning to be careful what you wish for when working magic. I loved ‘For Briar Rose’ simply because it involved Edward Burne-Jones and William and Jane Morris; the pre-Raphaelite artistic movement is simply my favorite ever. In other stories, the Bronte family, Frankenstein, Scrooge and the Crachit family show up. There is true horror- one story features one of the women who worked in the match factories who developed the terrible ‘Phossy jaw’ where the phosphate from the matches eats away the jaw bones. And ‘The Fairy Enterprise’ wherein an amoral industrial decides to take advantage of gullible society and ends up getting what he deserves made is a dark story, but made me laugh.

It’s a very solid anthology; while there were, of course, a couple of stories I didn’t like, they are all good and well written and I’m glad I read them. 

The above is an affiliate link; if you click through it and buy the book, Amazon gives me a tiny bit of money.

Ganymede, by Cherie Priest. Tor Books, 2011

This book in the Clockwork Century series has air pirate Andan Cly thinking about quitting the business and settling down in Seattle to be near Briar Wilkes, now sheriff of the broken city. He intends to quit running the Blight gas to the people that make it into the horribly damaging drug Sap. To do this, he must have his airship refitted into a regular cargo ship, not possible in Seattle. By coincidence, he is offered two jobs at the same time- one from the new head of the city to make a supply run, and another, mysterious one, from an ex-lover, Josephine, in New Orleans. He can take care of all three of these things in one trip! Of course, he doesn’t know what Josephine’s job entails, but that’s not something to worry him too much.

Once down in New Orleans he finds that the Texians are holding the city under martial law. It seems they are looking for a machine- a machine that could end the Civil War (which has been going on for over 20 years in this universe). This machine, the Ganymede of the title, is an ‘underwater airship’, and the people who attempt to run it keep dying in the attempt. This is where Cly comes in; Josephine thinks that an airship pilot will have better luck with it than a boat captain. Of course, because of the Texians, the Ganymede must be moved in complete secrecy, which doesn’t make it easy to work out any problems in running it.

Unlike the other books in this series, Ganymede doesn’t move along with breakneck speed. There is much less action; almost none until near the end of the book, when there is a great battle scene on and in the water. There is a lot of suspense: will they get caught by the Texians? By zombies? Will the Ganymede kill them, too, or will they figure out how to pilot it safely? Why are there zombies down in New Orleans, anyway, when they originated in Seattle via exposure to the Blight gas? The pace is very different from the other Clockwork Century books, but different isn’t a bad thing. 

The above is an associate link. If you click through it and buy the book, Amazon gives me a tiny bit of money.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Clementine, by Cherie Priest. Subterranean Press, 2010

‘Clementine’ is the new name of the ‘Free Crow’, the recently stolen air ship of Captain Croggon Hainey. It’s making its way across the United States, carrying something heavy to a sanitarium in the east. Hainey, escaped slave and air pirate, is chasing it in the airship that he stole in turn, the Valkyrie, and has found himself the unwilling partner of Maria Isabella Boyd- Belle Boyd- former Confederate spy, former actress, and currently a Pinkerton agent – and, by the way, an actual historical person. Belle’s job is to see to it that the ‘Clementine’ makes it safely to the east and to capture Captain Hainey if possible; Hainey just wants his air ship back. But something is definitely wrong about the story Belle has been told, and temporarily teaming up with Hainey looks to be the best way to find out what’s going on.

This is a fast paced story, trimmed down like a race horse to fit into novella size. Yet despite the short length and nearly non-stop action, Priest has room to create fleshed out characters and to address the race relations of the late 1800s (in her Clockwork Century world, the Civil War is still going on after two decades), where having Belle, a white Southern woman, and former slave Hainey working and traveling together is unusual. A word from Belle against Hainey and he’d be strung up without question; Hainey’s all black crew doesn’t trust Belle and wants her gone as soon as possible because of this. This gives the short adventure story an extra tension and depth that many fantasy stories don’t have. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click it and end up buying the book through that link, I'll make a few pennies. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Girl Land, by Caitlin Flanagan. Reagan Arthur Books, 2013

Girl Land is not a place that exists in physical space; it’s a place in time. Girl Land is the time between childhood and womanhood, when girls turn inward, write in diaries, and dream of romance. Teen girls need protection during this time; protection from the cruel world, from boys, from the internet. They need a strong father in their lives to provide this protection, yet divorce makes it common that a girl grows up without her father present in the house to protect her from boys. Modern life is destroying Girl Land. Rather than turning inward and writing in a diary, the modern teenage girl is posting her every mood and deed onto Twitter and Facebook. Worse, she is giving oral sex to boys and thinking she is still a virgin. Refusing to allow the girl internet access in her bedroom is the best gift the parents can give her, because this will protect her from the cold, cruel world.

I found Flanagan’s stand rather at odds with modern thought. Rather than teaching girls to be strong and independent, she wants them to rely on their fathers to protect them. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m all for keeping both parents present in the girl’s life! But I don’t feel that having the father absent from the dwelling is necessarily worse for girls than it is for boys, and I don’t feel that the couple has to be heterosexual to raise a healthy girl. Nor do I think that denying ‘net access in the privacy of a girl’s bedroom will keep her from seeing the wrong things; most modern phones will allow her to see all the wrong places anyway.

I just don’t think that putting a teenage girl in a cocoon is the best way to prepare her for adult life. If going through adolescence is as traumatic as Flanagan says it is, girls need to be given the tools to deal with it, not hidden in fluffy pink womb. Oddly, given that she has sons, the author ignores teenaged boys in this world. Shouldn’t boys be brought up to respect girls and not rape, rather than laying the burden of avoiding rape on the girls? There is something very old fashioned in this book’s message, and I don’t mean that in the good way. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click it and buy the book from the page it takes you to, I get a tiny amount of money.