Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Best of 2015 - Characters

Now that the year is coming to a close, I've decided to do a series of posts highlighting the many wonderful books I've read this year. It's my own personal Best of 2015. While I've read many recent books, my list isn't based on books published in 2015, but books I've read in 2015.

A few days ago I did a Best Overall, but there are so many great things about so many different books that I've decided to get a little more specific. In a sense, I'm making Oscar-esque categories. Today, I'm highlighting characters.

Note:  I will occasionally highlight a series rather than a single book.

Best Female Protagonist

Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah

Shirah, Aziza, and Yael from the BBC Miniseries.
Unfortunately, Revka was cut from it.
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

There is no single protagonist in The Dovekeepers (the runner-up for Best Overall - Adult); rather, the story follows four incredible women during the siege of Masada. There's Yael, an assassin's daughter, who has lived her life as an outcast; Revka, an elderly baker's wife who witnesses the brutal murder of her family; Aziza, a girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the warriors fighting the Romans; and Shirah, a witch whose magic infiltrates everyone's lives. Unique and courageous, these women rely on their friendship with each other as they confront one of the darkest moments in Jewish history.

Best Male Protagonist

Kaz Brekker

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

One of the greatest things about Kaz is that he earns the reader's trust. Just as he proves himself to his Crows (who give Team Raven a run for their money as far as best group dynamic goes), he convinces the reader that he'll lead them safely through this story. He's brilliant, brutal, and easy to root for.

Best Supporting Male

Prince Nikolai
Did I mention that his ship(s) can fly?
Image from
The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Nikolai is perfect, hence his nickname "Prince Perfect." When he isn't busy in his role as the dashing prince of Ravka, he's designing brilliant inventions or playing at being the Dread Pirate Roberts -- er, I mean, Captain Sturmhond. Sharp-tongued and witty, he knows how to make light of any situation.

Best Supporting Female


Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Nina is my favorite of the Crows. She's fun, loyal, and she kicks ass. She is a great female character involved in a strong romantic relationship, but she isn't defined by it at all. With her willingness to crush hearts (literally) pair with her appreciation for nice clothes, she proves that girls can be strong without having to sacrifice their femininity.

Best Ensemble

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

I love huge casts of characters, which is one of the many reasons I'm drawn to Stiefvater's delightful series. The number of main characters alone is large -- Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah -- especially considering that four-fifths of them get their own PoV. Then there's everyone else, but in this case, everyone else is like frosting on a cupcake. The psychics, for instance, are a pure delight, especially when trying to outwit the Grey Man -- who, for the record, is my favorite character in the series. A badass hit man with a soft spot for medieval poetry? Yes, please. Then there's Joseph Kavinsky, Greenmantle and Piper, the Lynch brothers, and a whole host of others who bring the story to life.

Best Friend Group

Blue & the Raven Boys
Adam, Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Noah
Image from
The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue meeting Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah is the best thing since Harry met Ron and Hermione. Seriously, they have a fantastic group dynamic -- one of the best I've seen in any book. They all have really strong personalities, but they balance each other out perfectly. In short, I want to hang out with them.

Best Villain

The Darkling

The quote at which point you realize that all hope is lost.
Image from
The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

Swoon. Seriously, the Darkling is all kinds of sexy, especially when you imagine him cutting a nice figure in his flowing black kaftan. But that's not why he's a great villain. The embodiment of darkness, he is cunning and ruthless, but he shows enough weaknesses -- for Alina, for his mother -- that he remains human. The fact that he doubles as a love interest makes him especially wonderful. Even though the Darkling and Alina spend most of the series plotting to kill each other, they tend to end up doubting that aim -- usually while making out.

Best Comic Relief

Noah Czerny

The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Even though he's the least important, Noah is my favorite of the Raven Boys. He doesn't crack jokes, but his very presence amuses me. SPOILER ALERT. He's a ghost, and he is incredibly sensitive about being a ghost, especially when the other boys pick on him (i.e. when Ronan pushes him out a window just because he can). He also enjoys bad Irish music.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Best of 2015 - The Basics

Now that the year is coming to a close, I've decided to do a series of posts highlighting the many wonderful books I've read this year. It's my own personal Best of 2015. While I've read many recent books, my list isn't based on books published in 2015, but books I've read in 2015.

Note:  I will occasionally highlight a series rather than a single book.



I picked up this fantasy on a whim. I never expected to fall in love with it, but the lush prose, mystical setting, and delightful dialogue drew me in immediately. The complex characters leap off the page, inviting you into their dreams and heartaches as they face an enemy that is both unique and terrifying. In three words:  beautiful, dark, romantic.

Young Adult

I could not choose just one. The two series are so different, but they both took my breath away. With Bardugo, I was caught up in the romance of it all. Never before have I seen a protagonist fall in love with an antagonist who is really an antagonist. Not an anti-hero. Not a Beast-like figure who changes for the sake of Beauty. No, a real villain who's evil and stays evil. Gorgeous and heart-wrenching, the relationship between Alina and the Darkling will keep you guessing -- and rooting for them -- until the very end.

The Raven Cycle is just as delightful. The story of five friends who get tangled up in magic during their hunt for a long-dead Welsh king, it's exciting and touching -- and most of all, hilarious. While the very realistic characters offer plenty of touching moments, the series stands out for its ability to get a laugh. And it has everything:  psychics, street racing, hit men, teenage ghosts, forgotten kings, aerial yoga, enchanted forests, secret tunnels, and bees. Seriously, what more could you want?

Middle Grade

Set in Oaxaca, Mexico during the 1950s, this book explores the forbidden friendship between a poor Mexican boy, Teo, and a Roma girl, Esma. Their zest for life impacts everyone around them. The writing is beautiful; the story is moving. And Teo is never without his orphaned duck, blind goat, and three-legged skunk, which is tons of fun.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

History Time! Eastern State Penitentiary

Cellblock 7. (I think?)
I have been to Eastern State Penitentiary plenty of times. For years, I have made a point to do their Terror Behind The Walls haunted house every Halloween. If you haven't done it, you should. It's considered one of the best haunted houses in the country -- and the location makes it extra cool.

A few days ago, I visited Eastern State for the not-haunted tour. And it's awesome. As a big history nerd, I have seen plenty of old sites, but the penitentiary is one of the most interesting.

Construction began in 1822 and the first inmate arrived in 1829. Until it closed in 1970, it housed thousands of men and women, among them some of the nation's most notorious criminals, the most famous being Al Capone.

Despite being abandoned for twenty years, the penitentiary is relatively intact. A few places have been reconstructed (i.e., the synagogue, Al Capone's cell), but the majority of the site is considered a "stabilized ruin."

If you're in Philly, check it out!

The kitchens!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

This Week in Google Searches (8/8)

As usual, I was at a loss for what to write on my blog, so I decided to "write what's on my mind." The best way to sum up what's on my mind, I've realized, is by looking at my Google searches.

How do you address a sultan?

Your Majesty

No, I'm not going to meet any sultans anytime soon. However, if you know me, you know I'm fascinated with Turkey. I research the Ottoman Empire for funsies. And until this week, I didn't know how to address a sultan. Now I do. And so do you.

You're welcome.

How do you find your previous Google searches?

I realized that "Things I've Googled" might make for an interesting blog post. Unfortunately, I can't remember the things I've Googled, but it turns out, Google does! Just go to your Google History! If you don't know how to get to that, I suggest you Google it.

For Such a Time

I found out about this book through Elana Roth Parker, a literary agent who was discussing the problems with For Such a Time on Twitter. Turns out, For Such a Time by Kate Breslin is a romance novel about a death camp inmate and a Nazi -- and that's a big problem. Nazis are not romantic heroes. Genocide is not sexy. You can read more about the issues with this book here.

Hungarian Surnames

"Farkas" is Hungarian. And for writing purposes, I needed more Hungarian surnames.

Cherry Hill Public Library Summer Reading

AWW YEAH BRING ON THE READING CHALLENGE. Turns out, for every book I read, I can get a raffle ticket to win a Kindle! Considering I read like crazy, that's a lot of raffle tickets.

Of course, I had to enter the "adult" category. I hope I don't have to read "adult" books, considering the vast majority of books I read are MG and YA.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review - A PIRATE'S COMMAND by Meg Hennessy

The jacket copy:

His secrets could destroy her... 

New Orleans, 1817

Colette Kincaid once knew such love and delicious passion in the arms of her pirate husband, Donato de la Roche. Yet Colette could not continue to live as the wife of a pirate, when reunited with her family. So she fled, taking their son with her and reconciling herself to never seeing her husband again...

Until their son is taken.

Donato is convinced his wife is behind his son's disappearance-just as she is convinced he is the villain. Now they're unable to leave each other's side as they seek their child, forced to confront the desire that still smolders between them. But Donato knows that soon he must face the secret about Colette he's been hiding for so long. And it's a secret for which there is no forgiveness...

Thank you to Entangled and NetGalley for a free ARC.

Overall: 3/5 stars.

All right. Well, I picked this one up because of the Spanish pirate. Of course I'd want to read that. Good premise, but the plot moves along slowly. That's this book's biggest fault. It's SLOW. I wanted more tension. More mystery.

I did, however, enjoy the characters. Colette is a little bland, and Donato isn't as pirate-y as I would have liked, but the side characters are fascinating. I liked Colette's brothers, Jordan and Loul, and I would have liked to see more of them. And then Rayna. I'm guessing the author is going to write a third novel with Rayna as the star, and if that's the case, I might give it a shot. We don't see her all that much, but the few times we do, she's COOL. Smart. Dangerous. Ruthless. I liked her.

What else can I say? Good job with nautical terms. Not such a good job with the Spanish. I often found myself quoting Inigo Montoya: "I don't think that word means what you think it means…"

I appreciate the historical time period. Yay Peninsular Wars! However, I wanted more more MORE.

Not bad. I'm certainly interested in this book's predecessor, which tells Jordan's story, and if there is a Rayna tale on the way, I'll probably check it out. If you're interested, you can find A Pirate's Command on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Wow.  Just…wow.

This book left me breathless.  If you know me at all, then you know that I'm a huge middle grade fan. I read a lot of it. And The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau is one of the best. Someone give this book a Newbery.

Seriously. The Lightning Queen is a heartfelt story that will stick with you long after you read the last page. And it will make you cry. It's that good.

The book alternates between the 1950s and present day as Teo tells his grandson, Mateo, the story of his friendship with Esma, the Gypsy Queen of Lightning. Thus, the vast majority of the book takes place in 1950s Oaxaca.

Resau does a phenomenal job of bringing rural Mexico to life. As I read, I felt as though I were standing on the Hill of Dust, the close-knit village in which Teo lives. I smelled the animals. I heard the river. I tasted the atole.

When a caravan of Gypsies spends a few days on the Hill of Dust, Teo meets Esma, a spirited young girl left crippled by polio. Her grandmother, the Mistress of Destiny, makes a prediction that Teo and Esma will be friends for life -- despite the fact that Mixtecos and Rom don't mix. Teo and Esma set out to make their fortune come true, and in doing so, they change the lives of everyone around them.

This book is a lot of fun -- how can you not love Teo's animal companions? -- but it deals with a lot of heavy themes. Prejudice, of course, is the obvious one, but then there's death and grief and depression, all of which Resau handles beautifully. Not everyone gets a happy ending. And it works.

So pick up this book. Read it. Love it.

Now onto the "pairing," if you will. After reading this book, I was craving Mexican food like crazy, so I went to a restaurant called Oaxaca Taqueria in the Upper West Side. It's a total dive, but it's delicious -- and pretty cheap. Their papas y rajas enchiladas are on point.

I'm still hunting for atole. Any suggestions?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

RUIN & RISING - A Perfect Ending

It's rare that I read an entire series.  However, Leigh Bardugo's The Grisha Trilogy grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let go.  Even more unusual is the fact that I can't pick a favorite among the three books:  Shadow & Bone, Siege & Storm, and  Ruin & Rising.  Each is incredible in its own way, which is why I'm going to discuss the entire series as I talk about Ruin & Rising, the brilliant finale.

A quick review.  The series follows Alina Starkov, a young cartographer whose life takes a drastic turn when she discovers that she is the one-and-only Sun Summoner, meaning that she can control light.  Due to this unique ability, she's courted by the Darkling, who--you guessed it--can control darkness.  He's also the leader of the Second Army, the army of Grisha (people with magic powers).  He needs Alina in order to destroy the Fold, a dangerous shadowland that splits the country in two.  We quickly learn that the Darkling may have less-than-admirable plans -- and it's up to Alina to stop them.  Essentially, this conflict carries all three books.

Okay, so let's focus on RUIN & RISING.  I admit this one gets off to a slow start.  Alina & Co. are the prisoners of the Apparat, the crazed priest, and it takes a few chapters for them to break away.  It's then that the story picks up -- specifically when Sturmhond arrives on the scene.  Let's look at that, shall we?

"I saw the prince when I was in Os Alta," said Ekaterina. "He's not bad looking."

"Not bad looking?" said another voice. "He's damnably handsome."

Luchenko scowled. "Since when--"

"Brave in battle, smart as a whip." Now the voice seemed to be coming from above us. Luchenko craned his neck, peering into the trees. "An excellent dancer," said the voice. "Oh, and an even better shot."

"Who--" Luchenko never got to finish. A blast rang out, and a tiny black hole appeared between his eyes.

I gasped. "Imposs--"

"Don't say it," muttered Mal.

Then chaos erupted." 

Of course, the best part about that scene is the shout-out to Sturmhond's catchphrase, "When people say impossible, they usually mean improbable."  As usual, he breathes life and joy into the story, which takes off as Team Avatar goes in search of the final amplifier.

The way Bardugo treats the final amplifier is BRILLIANT.  I won't spoil it, but I'll say that I did not see it coming.  I was unprepared.  And it shows just how much it will cost Alina to defeat the Darkling.

Oooh, the Darkling.  Wonderful, as usual, and definitely one of the best villains I've ever read.  I was rooting for him.  Not to win, but to find redemption.  Throughout the series, he becomes increasingly awful, yet he retains so much of his humanity in his respect for Baghra, his relationship with Alina, and his conviction that he's doing the best thing for his country.

Now I am going to spoil things.  So SPOILER ALERT.

His death was one of the best scenes in the entire series.  It encompasses his bizarre relationship with Alina perfectly:  in their weird way, they do care about each other deeply.  I sobbed all over the place.

"Alina," he breathed.

I knelt beside him. The nichevo'ya had left off their attacks. They circled and clattered above us, unsure of what to do. I thought I glimpsed Nikolai above them, arcing toward that patch of blue.

"Alina," the Darkling repeated, his fingers seeking mine. I was surprised to find fresh tears filling my eyes.

He reached up and brushed his knuckles over the wetness on my cheek. The smallest smile touched his bloodstained lips. "Someone to mourn me." He dropped his hand, as if the weight were too much. "No grave," he gasped, his hand tightening on mine, "for them to desecrate."

"All right," I said. The tears came harder. There will be nothing left.

He shuddered. His eyelids drooped.

"Once more," he said. "Speak my name."

He was ancient, I knew that. But in this moment, was just a boy--brilliant, blessed with too much power, burdened by eternity.


His eyes fluttered shut. "Don't let me be alone," he murmured. And then he was gone. 

Ugh, it's perfect.  SO PERFECT.  And, I mean, super depressing because I was Team Darkling the entire time, but really, it couldn't have ended any other way.

All in all, this is perhaps the best YA series I've encountered in recent years.  Pick it up.  You won't regret it.  And make sure to check out Leigh Bardugo's next book, Six of Crows, coming this Fall!

Find Ruin & Rising on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

THE WRATH & THE DAWN by Renee Ahdieh

THE WRATH & THE DAWN was everything I wanted in a YA novel -- until it wasn't.

It's a retelling of The Arabian Nights, an underrepresented collection as far as retellings go.  Shahrzad, our heroine, pulls a Katniss Everdeen in that she volunteers to marry the caliph, Khalid, who murders his wife each dawn.  Shahrzad intends to kill him.  Of course, he's way too hunky and mysterious for that to work out.

This book has so much potential.  Gorgeous setting.  Offbeat fantasy.  Romance and intrigue.  But it just isn't there.  The writing falls flat.  Even though I was imagining Disney's Agrabah, the descriptions don't support that image -- nor do they refute it.  I wanted lush scenery to pull me into the story.

I also wanted complex characters.  Instead, I got cardboard cutouts:  a snarky heroine, even snarkier best friend, a dark and surly hero, and an obsessive knight-in-shining-armor.

The plot gets repetitive.  Shahrzad wants to kill Khalid.  Khalid does something to make her change her mind.  Then she convinces herself that his kindness doesn't matter.  She wants to kill him.  Then he does something and she falters.  Again.  So on and so forth.

And the magic is…weird.  It's barely present in the story, so when it does appear it feels out of place.

Some people love this book.  I didn't.  I wanted so much more (than this provincial life).

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The High Line

Until I came to New York City a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the High Line.  It gets masked by Central Park, and while Central Park is certainly a wonder, the delightful innovation surrounding the High Line makes it stand out.

So what is the High Line?  In short, it's an elevated railroad track that has been repurposed into a park that snakes its way from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street.  Unlike most of New York City's parks, it isn't a grassy space that appeals to picnickers and yoga troupes.  It feels more like a boardwalk peppered with modern art that hinges on being interactive.  Like the water fountain the begs you to pucker up.  Or the Lego cityscape that invites passersby to change it around.

Before we ascended, we stopped at the Gansevoort Market, which offers everything from crepes to quinoa.  I found happiness in a bowl of couscous topped with lamb kebab and baba ganoush, which I took with me into the park.  If you want to picnic, go elsewhere, but there are plenty of benches that afford an excellent view of the Hudson.

While the High Line is a bit of a hike for me, I intend to visit it often.  It's crowded, certainly, and it feels more so due to its narrow width, but it's more peaceful than Central Park.  And those built-in lounge chairs near the water feature?  Yes, please.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Dark, Stormy, and Delightful - A Review of SIEGE AND STORM

Let's start with the drink.

Really, there's only one cocktail that looks nice next to Leigh Bardugo's Siege and Storm--and that's the dark and stormy.  Or if you're feeling particularly punny, you might call it a "Darkling and Sturmhond."

I'm hilarious.

If you've read the book, then you know that the Darkling and Sturmhond are the key players here.  Alina and Mal?  Who cares?  They're gin and tonic, rum and coke.  Tasty, but tired.

Let's backtrack.

Make yourself that dark and stormy.  Sit back.  Dive into the second installment of the Grisha trilogy, which is Avatar: the Last Airbender meets Graceling meets tsarist Russia.  And there's monsters and shit.

When we left off in Shadow and Bone, our heroine, Alina, and her boy-toy Mal were fleeing the country (called Ravka) in case the evil Darkling wasn't as dunzo as they hoped.  Of course, he wasn't, because that would be boring, and that's where Siege and Storm picks up -- with the Darkling capturing Alina and Mal with the help of the pirate Sturmhond.

Dark and stormy, people.  Dark and stormy.

Anyway, the Darkling hunts Alina because she's the only person who can control light, just as he is the only one who can control darkness.  With her help, he could expand the Fold, a shadowy desert filled with flesh-eating bat creatures called volcra.  Obviously, she's not thrilled about that, which leads to a war between darkness and light.  Literally.

Except what's so great about this book is that the Darkling and Alina -- darkness and light -- are not always fighting.  Sometimes, they make out.

Okay, so Alina makes out with a lot of guys.  The Darkling.  Mal.  The Darkling.  Sturmhond.  The Darkling.  The Darkling.  The Darkling.

My biggest complaint about this book is that there isn't enough Darkling.  Mostly, he comes in weird visions, during which he creeps hardcore, and the rest of the time he's saints-know-where.  He's cunning.  Ruthless.  And yet, there's something about him that's undeniably appealing.

It's rare that a villain is my favorite character.  Rarer still that I ship the protagonist and antagonist.  But the Darkling gets Alina.  And, you know, he has saved her life in the past.  The glassy-eyed schoolgirl in me doesn't think he would actually hurt her.  All her loved ones, yes, but not her:

He was watching me in that cold, assessing way that always made me feel as if he were reading me like words on a page, his fingers moving over the text, gleaning some secret knowledge that I could only guess at.  I tried not to fidget, but the irons at my wrists chafed.

“I’d like to free you,” he said quietly.

“Free me, flay me.  So many options.”  I could still feel the press of his knife at my cheek.

He sighed.  “It was a threat, Alina.  It accomplished what it needed to.”

“So you wouldn’t have cut me?”

“I didn’t say that.”  His voice was pleasant and matter-of-fact, as always.  He might have been threatening to carve me up ordering his dinner.

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Not the nicest guy on the block, but I'm optimistic.

Darkling.  Now let's get to the Sturmhond part.

Sturmhond is a new addition to this series -- and he's wonderful.  He's a pirate, an inventor, and so much more, as we find out in one of the story's early twists.  Like the Darkling, he's intelligent and charming, but in a different way.  Mainly, he has a sense of humor (which, unfortunately, the Darkling lacks).  And, of course, he believes in everything:

"When people say impossible, they usually mean improbable."

That brings us to our last two stars:  Alina and Mal.  Considering they're the main characters, they should probably be first, but they don't shine quite as bright as the Darkling or Sturmhond.  I like them.  I do.  I think Alina's transformation from self-conscious runaway to leader is well done.  She makes mistakes.  She needs help.  And a part of her recognizes that she and the Darkling are the very definition of frenemies.

I like Mal, too, except that he's a bit mopey in this book.  I like the fun Mal, the popular Mal, who thrives in every environment.  In this book, he's jealous and grumpy, so even though he's "the love interest," I'm not shouting "Pick Number 3, my lord."

I'm shouting pick the Darkling.  He may be a raging sociopath, but I have hope that he'll make like Prince Zuko, join Team Avatar, and save the world.

We'll find out in the next book.

In the meantime, drink up me hearties yo ho.

Dark and Stormy

Use one part dark rum.  Fill the glass with ginger beer.  Top with lime juice.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Brazen Fox

*Game of Thrones spoiler alert*

Until Sunday, I had never seen a bar fall into utter silence.  We stared, our breath bated, our knuckles white against our frosted glasses of Ommegang.  Beside me, a girl was crying, her tear-streaked face illuminated by the glow of six TVs.

On screen, Shireen was burning as her father watched on.

This was my first experience at the Brazen Fox, a Manhattan bar on the corner of 3rd and 13th that attracts guests with "nerd culture."  There are the usual sports, but there's also Dungeons & Dragons -- and, of course, Game of Thrones.

When we arrived at 8:00, the bar was crowded for the pregame show.  That is, last week's episode.  Fortunately, we were able to get a table, but soon afterwards the staff set up a waitlist as people flooded the bar.

Then, the opening theme.

I'll be honest:  I expected commentary throughout the episode.  I thought some dirtbag would spoil it, or wolf whistle at Dany, or make homophobic remarks regarding the Tyrells.  That didn't happen.  Not once.  Everyone was quiet, respectful -- and united.  I wouldn't have been surprised if we had held hands during Shireen's death.

Then, then

It's no secret that Jorah is my favorite character.  Not only is he a badass when it comes to fighting, his unrequited love for Daenerys is the best love story in the show.  (Think about it:  Jaime/Cersei, Jon/Ygritte, Tyrion/Shae).  So I was on the edge of my seat when he stepped into the fighting pit.

And so, apparently, was everyone else.
How can anyone NOT ship this?  Ugh, be still my heart.

The cheers erupted as soon as he started to fight.  Every time he took a hit, we gasped.  Every time he struck, we screamed.  The applause was monstrous.  Go Jorah go!  Hit him!  Get up!  Please, get up!  We were in the coliseum.  We were there.

As the episode raced toward its climax, the cheers escalated.  Naturally, my favorite moment happened when Daenerys accepted Jorah's hand, and my delighted scream joined four dozen others.  Seriously, who needs football?  We whooped and hollered for Tyrion, for Missandei, for Daario and Grey Worm and DROGON DROGON DROGON.

For Drogon, people jumped out of their seats, screaming as though the United States had just won the World Cup.

And it continued into the credits.

For me, Game of Thrones has always been a social event:  a way to bond with my brother and mom, a common interest among my coworkers at Barnes & Noble, a part of college culture that involved Martell-esque Mirassou served in plastic wine glasses.

The Brazen Fox takes that to a whole new level.  If you're in Manhattan next week, stop by for the finale.  It's more than a show; it's an experience.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Books and…Bananas?

If you've read my blog at all, you know that there isn't much I like more than books.  I love books.  I love to talk about books.

But you know what makes books even better?  Booze, especially when enjoyed with bread (bread here meaning "bit, piece, morsel [of food].") (Thanks OED).

That leads me to this.  In attempting to revamp my blog, I'm going to call on my certification in Beer, Wine, Mixology, and Bar Management (remember when that happened?), my repertoire of cooking skillz (still working on that), and my obsession with books to bring perfect pairings to your library.  Or kitchen.  Or dorm room.

So let's get started.  Unfortunately, there's no alcohol in today's pairing -- partly because I don't have any banana liqueur lying around and partly because I'm reviewing a kids book.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate won the Newbery Medal in 2013.  I had high expectations, even though I didn't know what to anticipate story-wise.

It's a simple story.  Ivan is a gorilla who lives a mundane existence in a mall.  He loves to paint -- bananas, usually -- but his artistic skills aren't enough to draw a large crowd.  In an attempt to rescue the business, his owner purchases a baby elephant named Ruby to join an older elephant named Stella.  Being wise, Stella knows that she's dying -- and she makes Ivan promise to help Ruby escape the mall.

That's the basic set-up.  It's a cute story with endearing characters that makes its reader consider the exploitation of animals.  Is it memorable?  Hard to say, considering I read it a week ago.  I forget some of the characters' names.  So there's that.  In a way, it's Water for Elephants for ten-year olds.  I, by the way, am not a ten-year old, but I think children's literature is of the utmost importance -- especially when it has the heart of The One and Only Ivan.

But you know what makes this book even better?  Fried bananas.  Ivan loves bananas.  He paints bananas.  I don't paint bananas, but I eat them.  Fried.  With honey, and maybe some other stuff if I'm feeling really creative.

Fried Bananas

It's simple.  A gorilla could probably do it.  Take a banana.  Green is good.  Slice it.  Lay the pieces in a greased skillet.  After a minute or so, flip them so that the other side gets cooked, too.  Then drizzle honey over the pieces.  Remove from skillet.

Top with anything and everything.  Shredded coconut.  Chocolate chips.  Walnuts.  Cinnamon.  Whatever.  I don't care.

Guys, I'm really good at food photography.

P.S.  If you can find a way to work rum into the recipe, tell me.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Book Thoughts - UPROOTED by Naomi Novik

It is rare that I read a book that comes this close to perfection.  Uprooted, by Naomi Novik, is both literary and fun, bold and romantic, as it explores the twin themes of belonging and finding your own way.

The story begins as a typical "Once upon a time…"  The main character, Agniezska, is imprisoned in the tower of a dark wizard known only as the Dragon.  She is quiet, obedient, and fearful of him, a man who is powerful, mysterious, and surly.  However, the tropes quickly unravel, which is what makes this book so phenomenal.

We get our first sense that this isn't your average fairytale with the arrival of Prince Marek, the "white knight," an image that dissolves when he tries to force himself on Agniezska.  In protecting herself, she discovers that she's a witch--that she is not the Dragon's servant, but his apprentice.

Unfortunately, the Dragon is not Dumbledore.  He's more of a Snape.  He instructs her in magic because the law requires it--and grows increasingly irritated with her desire to break the rules.  However, he understands that she has incredible power.  That she might be the key to defeating the horror known as the Wood.

The Wood is the great evil in this book.  It's incredibly unique--a shapeless thing, invisible without magic, that plots and sets traps and seeks revenge.  It gets into people's heads, tortures them, makes them do terrible things they wouldn't do otherwise.  Even though the Dragon has been attempting to hold it at bay, it grows stronger every year.  It's goal:  to devour the entire country.

This sets up the rest of the story.  While the action is wonderful, it's the characters--including the Wood--that really drives this book.  The only one that falls a bit flat is Agniezska's best friend, Kasia.  We see a little bit of depth when we get a glimpse of her jealousy, but it's contained to a single scene.  I would have liked to see more of her internal struggle post-Wood.  Like, she's practically Pinocchio, and it doesn't seem to bother her in the slightest.  While she certainly offers some great battle scenes, she doesn't contribute much to the conversation.

As far as strong female characters go, Alosha is better.  She's a blacksmith.  She's badass.

The Falcon--another wizard--serves as a great foil for the Dragon.  He's slimy, loves court life and attention, thrives in war, and lusts after Agniezska's power.

But he isn't a villain.  In this story, there is no black-and-white:  the Wood has its motives, the Dragon's moral compass doesn't quite point north, and even Marek--the would-be rapist--has redeemable qualities.  He's brave.  He loves his family.

Of course, the star players are Agniezska and the Dragon, who complement each other like pretzels and Nutella.  She is sunshine; he is rainclouds.  She goes off the beaten path; he is a stickler for rules.  She understands the depth of the human experience.  He…doesn't.  At least, not until she gives him a firm scolding.  Here, for instance, she confronts him about his practice of taking village girls as slaves, essentially:

He made an impatient gesture, not looking at me; if he had seen my face, perhaps he would have stopped.  "I don't take puling girls who want only to marry a village lover, or ones who cringe away from me--"

I stood straight up, the chair clattering back over the floor away from me.  Slow and late and bubbling, a ferocious anger had risen in me, like a flood.  "So you take the ones like Kasia," I burst out, "the ones brave enough to bear it, who won't hurt their families worse by weeping, and you suppose that makes it right?  You don't rape them, you only close them up for ten years, and complain that we think you worse than you are?"

He stared up at me, and I stared back, panting.  I hadn't even known those words were in me to be spoken; I hadn't known they were in me to be felt.  I would never have thought of speaking so to my lord, the Dragon:  I had hated him, but I wouldn't have reproached him, any more than I would have reproached a bolt of lightning for striking my house.  He wasn't a person, he was a lord and a wizard, a strange creature on another plane entirely, as far removed as storms and pestilence.

But he had stepped down from that plane; he had given me real kindness.  He'd let his magic mingle with my own again, that strange breathtaking intimacy, all to save Kasia with me.  I suppose it might seem strange that I should thank him by shouting at him, but it meant more than thanks:  I wanted him to be human.

While not my favorite scene in the book, it's one of them because it gets at the central conflict between Agniezska and the Dragon:  his self-imposed detachment from ordinary people.  It's an issue that Agniezska must confront in her own life, too, as she realizes that she will have to face the same curse that caused his isolation:  as a witch, she will live for centuries, forced to watch her loved ones die.

Fortunately, she has the Dragon.

There is no insta-love here.  In fact, the word "love" is never used to refer to their relationship.  It's one of mutual respect, admiration, and a recognition that the other is intelligent and courageous in his/her own way.  Neither is possessive.  Neither is jealous.  And while the Dragon often uses choice words when speaking to Agniezska, his actions are kind.  In short, their relationship is beautiful, as seen in this incredible scene in which they combine their power to help Kasia:

He resisted at first, holding for a moment to the clean precision of his own working, but my own magic was offering his an invitation, and little by little he began to read--not any less sharply, but to the beat I gave. He was leaving room for my improvisations, giving them air. We turned the page together and kept on without a pause, and halfway down the page a line flowed out of us that was music, his voice crisply carrying the words while I sang them along, high and low, and abruptly, shockingly, it was easy.

No--not easy; that wasn't even an adequate word. His hand had closed on mine, tightly; our fingers were interlaced, and our magic also. 

All right, so there are certainly some weird elements to this relationship.  Stockholm Syndrome.  A professor/student relationship.  The fact that he's 150 years older than her.  You know, stuff that wouldn't fly in a lesser story.  But it works.  The Dragon isn't creepy or controlling.  Agniezska isn't obsessive.  Both manage to live very independent lives, but every once in a while, they get together and make some magic.  Literally.  And not so literally.

All in all, this book is dark and magical and sexy and incredible.  If you're a fan of Gregory Maguire or Leigh Bardugo, this book is a must-read.

You can find it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The First 24 Hours

I’ve been in New York City over twenty four hours.

For me, that’s a first.  Growing up in New Jersey, the Big Apple was a rare day trip that began and ended with the work day.  It was the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and Broadway.  That’s it.  I was a tourist in every sense of the word.  Of course, I’m still a tourist.  Even if I manage to make this move permanent, it’s going to take a while to shake the tourist bug.

In the past twenty-four hours, however, I’ve made progress.

For instance, I purchased a Metrocard.  That’s a big deal.  It means I’ll be here for some time—and that I intend to explore as much of the city as possible.  So far, I've navigated the subway four or five times.  (Hooray!)  Granted, I had to study the map for ten minutes, but still.  Progress.

I had never taken the New York subway before.  It brought back memories of el metro in Sevilla, albeit significantly dirtier.  In fact, this entire experience--The New York University Summer Publishing Institute (SPI)--reminds me of studying abroad.  New city.  New people.  New food.

Food.  Today I ate gelato.  It was glorious.

Anyway, I'm going to try this blogging thing again as I attempt to make New York City home.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

5 Things I Intend to Do in NYC

Turns out I'm kind of awful at keeping up a blog.

I suppose I think that I don't have anything interesting to write about.  I haven't traveled internationally since June, but even then, I didn't bother to post.

So let's try this blogging thing again, shall we?

I'm home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  I love Williamsburg, but everybody needs to go home once in a while.

Recently, I've been struggling with the whole concept of "home."  For three years, my home was The College of William & Mary.  Now that I've graduated, I can't call it home anymore.  I don't live on campus.  I don't eat in the dining hall.  I still walk the brick pathways, but rarely.

Come May I'm moving to New York to try my luck in the Big Apple.  But I can't think of NYC as my future home, either, for my plan is so hazy.  I don't know how long I'll be there.  Six weeks?  Three months?  Six months?  Ten years?  For the rest of my life?

I'm scared, but I'm excited, too.  Here are five things I'm going to do in New York City:

1.  Eat kebabs.  Döner.  Schwarma.  Whatever you want to call them, they're delicious--and impossible to find in Williamsburg, Virginia.  I'll probably cry as I take my first bite.

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANYTHING MORE BEAUTIFUL?  (Photo courtesy of my homeslice Joshua O.S.H.)
This was taken in a Williamsburg tavern four years ago.  I'm cool, guys.  Really.
2.  Go out.  You see, Williamsburg's bar scene consists of five bars.  Unless you want to hit up ye olde taverns and get drunk on mead.

3.  Find a hipster coffee shop.  Not because I think I'm a hipster (Me, a hipster?  Well, I am coming from the original Williamsburg, est. 1632.  Not this Williamsburg, Brooklyn everyone keeps talking about), but because I love the atmosphere of small cafés.  Great spots to read and write.

4.  Explore Central Park.  I've only been to Central Park once--for, like, five minutes.  Barely counts.

5.  See off-Broadway shows.  Not that I don't love Broadway, but I want to experience lesser known things.  (Wait, I sound like a hipster.  Broadway is too mainstream.  Oh no.)

What else should I do while I'm in New York?  Suggestions?