Quick Review: Tuesdays at the Castle and The Night Gardener

Here are two middle grade novels with fantasy elements.

  •  Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
    • Series: Castle Glower #1
    • Rating: ★★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I devoured this book during April’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon. I think it’s a very fun, if not super deep, read. The castle intrigue and politics aren’t the most original, but they suit the story and are a lot of fun to read with the castle in play. The characters are well-balanced. I enjoyed this one and will read the sequel. I would recommend it for young readers who like ‘traditional castle fantasies’ (as I would have said when I was 10 :P). This is a good example of middle grade that could be enjoyed by anyone who likes this kind of story. 
  • The Night Garden by Jonathan Auxier
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I don’t like to say a book is ‘good for middle grade’ – I like to think a book is either good for all ages or none at all. However, lately I’ve been thinking that’s not as terrible a statement as I once thought (“It’s good for middle grade”). Kids have a different mindset, a different set of experiences than adults. A book that’s great for kids isn’t necessarily going to be great for adults. Perhaps what I should be saying is the best middle grade is good for all ages – it doesn’t all have to be that way. Not every book for children needs to refuel my love of reading or spark a strong emotional response or revolutionize how I think. So. Now that I’ve cleared that up, I think this is a good book for middle grade 😉 The characters weren’t as developed as I like to read (though they do each have clearly defined personalities). I hoped for more from the Night Gardener’s story, some depth or ambiguity regarding good and evil but the line is pretty clearly drawn in that matter, but I think that’s appropriate for this book.
    • The story does have some spooky and dark moments, certainly if you’re ten years old and therefore relatively new to this type of story. 
    • I liked how storytelling vs. lying factored into the story.

If I was writing more objectively, I might say these two books are of the same ‘goodness’ level. After writing about The Night Gardener, I thought again about Tuesdays at the Castle and tried to identify why I enjoyed that one more than the other. I don’t think the characters are any more strongly written than in The Night Gardener, which seems to be my main criticism of that book. I guess it just comes down to my personal preference for story.  Have you read either of these books? How would you compare the two? (Can they be compared, given their greatly different subject matter?)

Review: Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper

Author: Kendall Kulper
Title:Salt & Storm
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: September 2014
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Why I Read: Sounded intriguing
Read If You’re: Hankering for a historical, magical tale set by the sea and aren’t too critical of undeveloped romance
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Look at that deep dark purple!! (Well, maybe it’s blue…but I’m sticking with purple.) Unusually, I can’t remember how I came across this book. The cover probably left me with a good impression, though, inviting me to read the description and add it to my TBR.

The premise drew me to this story. I’m learning that I enjoy moody tales with touches of magic in a historical settings by the sea (okay, few stories have all those elements – two out of four is enough to draw my attention). I like that atmosphere. I also enjoy stories that feature a line of women, focusing on one of them. I like reading snippets about impressive ancestors of the past. Salt & Storm tells the tale of the Roe witches of Prince Island, a small whaling island off the east coast of America at a time when the whale industry is collapsing. Avery yearns to become the next witch and take over from her grandmother, but her mother holds Avery against her will to prevent her from doing. While this sounds like something I would love, the story fell short for me because of the romance.

Please noteThe next two paragraphs contains spoilers regarding the romance and origins of the Roe’s magic. Skip to to avoid.

 

The romance develops quickly and unrealistically (even if you’re a fan of everlasting teen romance, you may agree with me here). I can’t accept that such feelings can blossom in so short a time, when they know so little of each other. Admittedly, I am so not interested in teen romance. I wasn’t interested as a teen, and I’m becoming even less interested as I age. Possibly I’m too cynical when it comes to matters of young love. I dislike stories which go “I’m 16 and I’ve just met the love of my life and we’ve been together for a week but we’ll be together forever”. They’re not realistic – which, okay, this sort of romance is often fictional escapism, but they rarely even feel realistic and I can’t imagine why I would want to read that. I guess for me it’s a bit because I’ve never experienced that feeling? But, I also never wanted to experience it (I’m not hankering to be in a relationship, I like to take things as they come and go), so in stories it dulls me. I’d rather see a few relationships (that don’t necessarily end horribly) before meeting the soul mate, but I guess there isn’t room for that in a single novel. Now I’ve digressed probably more than necessary. The point is, at least this romance appeased me with its tragic ending (that I read too quick and got a bit confused about what was happening.)

Another aspect of the story that ties into the romance that I didn’t like was how witches get their power from having their hearts broken by men. Avery’s mother and grandmother both fell in love with ‘bad’ men, had their hearts ruined, and thus gained their magic powers. Perhaps some years ago I would have thought this beautifully tragic, but now I can’t help but find messages like men give women power when they hurt them, women can only be strong if men break them first, women can’t trust their feelings, etc.

 Spoilers finished!

In addition to the romance, the story has a more teenager-y voice than I anticipated. I hoped for something more in the vein of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – less romantic yearnings, more touches of magic, less ego, more dreamy prose. I still intend to read the upcoming companion book (I can’t tell if it’s a sequel or prequel or how much it’ll connect to this book). After all my ramblings on romance, you might think I’d give this book a lower rating. However, I enjoyed all other aspects, especially if I stop thinking about what I wanted to it to be and just take it for what it is. Ditch the romance and I think Kulper could really tell a shining story.

The Bottom Line: A great historical setting and system of magic, unfortunately Salt & Storm is more focused on the underwhelming romance than the magic.

Quick Revew: Emancipation Day and The War That Saved My Life

Both of these books take place during World War II.

  • Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady
    • Rating: ★★½ [ratings guide]
    • This is only the second book I’ve read that uses passing to explore racial identity and prejudice. Boy, Snow, Bird introduced me to the concept, of which I was previously ignorant. 
    • I liked the setting and the incorporation of historical events. I especially liked that part of the story is set in Newfoundland prior to its joining with Canada. 
    • The story is pretty bleak and felt flat overall, to me. Missing that spark that brings a story alive. The final line definitely caught me in the gut, though! Ouch, what a conclusion.
  • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
    •  Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • I like stories about plucky young evacuees during WWII. I suppose that comes from the Narnia books and the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I should read more books about them.
    • A lot of the story felt unbelievable to me. Mam reads as a caricature and Ada teaches herself unaided (to walk, to ride a horse) remarkably well for a nine-year-old who’s been shut in doors her entire life. The ending is a bit of a spectacle. However, if I were younger, I think I would forgive these aspects of the books in favour of Ada herself, whose line of thinking and emotional reactions feel very much so believable. She could be very inspirational. I would cheer when she succeeds because of her bravery and I would admire her devotion to her brother.
    • I wonder if Ada was meant to have an autism spectrum disorder? Her screaming, her distancing moments, disliking touch and the comfort she finds in being wrapped in pressure prompted this thought. (Pardon my ignorance if I’m way off base here – these could also all be symptoms of being locked up her whole life). At least, I like to think a child who experiences these things and reads this book will find someone to look up to in Ada.

Review: Quick and Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott

Author: Nanci McDermott
Title: Quick and Easy Thai
Format/Source: eBook/Kindle
Published: December 2003
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Length: 168 pages
Genre: Cookbook
Why I Read: Want to learn about cooking Thai food
Read If You: Want to learn about cooking Thai food 😉 
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Whoo, my first cookbook review! It’s been awhile since I read one straight through. The last time must have been in high school, when we were traveling through South Dakota and I purchased a fall recipes book.  I remember making some delicious, comforting foods from it… I should go back to it!  
Anyway. I chose this cookbook because I love Thai food and I really want to make it accessible in my home. I think it’ll be best for me to start small, learn the basics through a simplified cookbook like this, then build up my Thai cooking repertoire. Once upon a time, I was interested in making curries. I got a book from the library with recipes from around the world and I made one, but I quickly realized it was a tad ambitious for my abilities. 😛 So, after some exhaustive research (I saved a number of Thai cookbooks on GoodReads, not all as simple as this one), I chose this book as a starting point. I think that was a good idea. I felt reassured to know she lived in Thailand for a few years at least. In the introduction, she recounts her experience with Thai cooking and previously published cookbooks. McDermott decided to write this book in particular as her family began to grow and she “want[ed] to enjoy the dazzling flavors of Thai food even on a weeknight, to be able to cook Thai dishes as easily and happily and quickly as I make other favourite dishes”. She chose recipes for three different classes of food: A) intrinsically easy Thai food that Thai people cook at home, B) street food and restaurant dishes that Thai people don’t cook because they can easily buy them, and C) some complex dishes for which she found “reasonable shortcuts to a simpler but still wonderful version”. I had this book for over a year but I was always too busy with studying, and then preparing to move to Japan…soon I’ll be home with time on my hands to devote to cooking!
I like the cultural notes McDermott includes alongside each recipe, including the recipe’s name in Thai. One day if I feel more ambitious, I could look up McDermott’s other books to find perhaps more ‘authentic’ versions of these recipes. I also really appreciated the informative sections, which include “Useful Utensils for Cooking Thai Food”, “Techniques”, “A Thai Pantry” and “Mail-Order Sources for Thai Ingredients”. I made many highlights throughout the book, colour coding for general information, practical tips, and recipes to try. The recipes themselves seem clear and easy to follow. I saved 35 of the 70 recipes to try, which I think is a good proportion given that I skipped all the recipes that include fish or seafood (creatures from water = blechy) Here are some of the recipes I’m eager to make:

  • Meatballs in panaeng curry sauce (panaeng look chin neua sahp)
  • Rice soup with chicken, cilantro and crispy garlic (kao tome gai)
  • Beef and zucchini in red curry sauce (neua paht peht)
  • Pork with spicy green beans (moo paht prik king)
  • Rice noodles with lettuce and ground beef gravy (kwaytiow neua sahp)
  • Roasted eggplant salad with cilantro and lime (yum makeua yao)
  • Nun bananas in coconut milk (gluay buat chee)

I only spotted one odd thing – a beef salad recipe that called for chicken stock. It caught my eye because Pollan gripped about excess use of chicken stock in Cooked. I agree with him. Novice that I am, I think there must be better ways to get flavour than through tossing chicken stock in everything. At the very least, why add chicken stock to dishes that don’t contain chicken? When I make this recipe, I will probably just use water.

Can I review a cookbook without having made any of the recipes? I’ve done it anyhow. It’s hard enough for me to find familiar ingredients in Japanese store, let alone Thai ones. You know I’ll hit the ground running in September, when I’m back in familiar territory! 

The Bottom Line: If you love Thai food and want to learn how to enjoy it your own home, this is a good place to start.

Further Reading: