A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin

I jumped on the Game of Thrones bandwagon…and I am so glad I did! True, I’m a little late to the party, but hey, better late than never, right?*

Martin’s A Game of Thrones comes in at just under 800 pages. It’s intricate, weaving together many stories from the perspective of several characters spread across the Seven Kingdoms. It effortlessly becomes a sweeping story about politics, family, and a subtle dance of intrigue that can turn deadly in an instant. It’s such a tightly woven story it almost defies summary.

I give this first novel in the series a ringing endorsement. It’s the kind of book that draws you into another world and brings characters to life – complicated characters with motivations good and bad and somewhere in between. It’s the kind of book you think about when you have to set it down for awhile. It’s the kind of book that makes me look forward to the next one in the series!

Read it.

*I was also late the the Harry Potter party. I distinctly remember 5th grade sharing time when a boy in my class, Kyle, was talking about a book about a boy wizard named Harry Potter. I thought it sounded dumb. Another year or so later, and I was totally hooked and I’m now a huge fan.


The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

I finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magician King over the weekend. As the sequel to The Magicians, it picks up a few years after Quentin returns to Fillory with Eliot, Julia and Janet. He and the other three are the four kings and queens of Fillory, and they have it pretty darn good. But, as Quentin wouldn’t be Quentin without some amount of dissatisfaction, King Quentin is looking for something more than what he’s got. And boy, does he get it. Along the way, we find out much more about Julia, which is interesting and drives the plot from a distance.

I have to say, I liked The Magician King much better than The Magicians. In retrospect, it seems that The Magicians was all lead-up to the events that happen in the sequel. Grossman also lost his tendency to skip big gaps of time and leave out details until they are immediately important (i.e. the fourth years disappearing in The Magicians was never mentioned until it was time for Quentin to disappear himself). Some of the ending is disturbing – I won’t go into detail for fear of spoilers – but I’m still not sure how I feel about some of Julia’s story.

Overall, The Magician King was a great read. I’m glad I picked it up and didn’t let my misgivings with its prequel deter me. I would definitely recommend it!


American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Okay. I’ve been attempting to read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for what feels like forever. I can’t get through it. Maybe if I had more time (it’s already way overdue at the library), I would venture onwards. Maybe not.

It’s a mind-bender, that’s for sure. The characters are realistic (in a sense) and the world is rendered beautifully to make it feel very normal at times. But then there’s the fact that several (most) of the main characters are either ancient gods or, in one case, dead. There are odd trips away from the “real” world to foray into what I can only describe as ‘god-land,’ in which accurate descriptions are apparently difficult. Well, whispers the English major in me, that’s clearly a way to force the reader to identify more closely with the main character, Shadow, who as a human is equally as confused as you are right now. He’s probably freaking out more than you are, despite the fact that he seems amazingly even-keel about the whole thing. Thanks, Major English, for whipping me back into shape.

Anyway, it was too much. I couldn’t feel the thread of the story taking me anywhere. The only thing that pulls all the odd disparate elements together is this idea that “there’s a storm coming,” which is, at best, vague and unhelpful though slightly ominous. Honestly, it makes me feel like there’s an old wizened Southern man in flannel and overalls speaking to me around the piece of wheat in his mouth, or perhaps a hand-rolled cigarette.

Anyway, I gave it up in favor of The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which is the sequel to The Magicians. In a sense, the books are similar in that they bring fantasy into “normal” life. But at least I’m finding The Magician King an interesting read that doesn’t completely gross me out every 15 pages or so.


22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson

22 Britannia Road is a story of a Polish family reunited after the end of World War II. Janusz was a soldier in the army while his wife and son, Silvana and Aurek, were run out of Warsaw and lived in the forest for years. After six years of being apart, the family is reunited and live in England. There, they have a nice house with a proper English garden and kindly neighbors. But it is still a struggle to move on with their lives after the horrors they have each seen. Throughout the book, the underlying questions is this: does living in a house with a garden enough to make a family? Can a new car or an education for Aurek erase the past enough to build a future?

Told in alternating points of view and through flashbacks throughout the war, 22 Britannia Road shows a wide portrait of the effects of WWII – effects both immediate and lasting. An image that stays with me is that of Silvana cutting the pictures of lost and orphaned children from the newspapers, and sleeping with them under her pillow so the grey ink stains her hands and her pillowcase. The imagery throughout is lovely, haunting and often heartbreaking. But through the course of the story, Hodgkinson shows the resilience of the human spirit and love. Wonderfully written, 22 Britannia Road hits home.


Peach Crisp

It’s peach season, people, and peaches are one of my favorite things on the planet. I eat them fresh like crazy, but sometimes you just need to bake something, am I right? So here’s a recipe for peach crisp that is easy and dee-lish. My first bite made me go, “day-yum.” Emphasis on the “yum.” Plus it’s easy. Bonus!

Peach Crisp

4-5 cups peaches, chopped (skin left on)
3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Topping

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 stick cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Instructions

Make the crisp topping: mix together the flour and brown sugar. Add the butter, cutting in using a pastry cutter, two knives, or a food processor. The mixture should be the texture of fine crumbs. Stir in the walnuts.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Toss the peaches, flour, sugar and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Transfer peach mixture to an 8×10 baking pan and spread evenly. Sprinkle the crisp topping over the fruit, covering the entire surface. Bake on the center rack for 30-35 minutes, until the topping is browned and the fruit juices bubble up through the topping.


In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

The year is 1933, and William E. Dodd has been appointed American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany by President Roosevelt. Before setting sail for Berlin, Dodd takes Roosevelt’s instructions to heart: to uphold American values. Thus, in the face of the economic hardships crippling the U.S., Dodd decides he and his family will live on his regular salary of just over 17,000 dollars – much to the chagrin of the State Department and the “Pretty Good Club” of independently wealthy Harvard graduates that made up the bulk of consular service. Dodd makes a fascinating ambassador: he is either completely inept, or totally brilliant. The truth is not always clear; however, he does his very best to carry out the task he believes Roosevelt set him, even in the face of an ever-strengthening Third Reich. Dodd’s daughter, Martha, is the second central figure. She has a brilliant social life, rubbing shoulders with members of the foreign press and important Nazi officials – even the surprisingly moral and upright chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

It is an unsettling read in many ways. First and foremost, In the Garden of Beasts (by Erik Larson) is a work of non-fiction. There are quotes throughout which illuminate some truths from that era: for example, the tide of anti-Semitism throughout the United States – including many prominent members of the federal government. Perhaps the most unsettling thing is reading about how Hitler was able to rise to such extreme power without anyone stepping in from outside to stop him. The signs were there, though carefully concealed behind a thin veneer of “normalcy” experienced by American visitors to Germany during the early 1930s. Even Martha Dodd is originally seduced by the apparent loveliness of Germany and the Nazi party’s efforts to create a “better Germany.” Only after many months living in Berlin does the truth become evident to Martha and the rest of the Dodds: that Germany is gearing up for war. And even then, Dodd’s reports to the State Department – and, indeed, to Roosevelt himself – are ignored or dismissed as overly dramatic, based on the reports of short-term visitors to Germany. Amid the Americans’ strong isolationist bent, the truth about Hitler and Germany was suppressed or ignored in order to keep the country out of “European squabbles.” It seems incredible that the leaders of the 1930s truly believed that appeasement – just giving Hitler what he wanted – could solve the “Jewish problem,” as the growing persecution of Jewish people was known.

Both terrifying and fascinating, In the Garden of Beasts offers a real-life narrative of life in Berlin as Hitler rose to power, peopled not only with the Dodds and their friends and colleagues, but also with those such as Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, and Hitler himself. Fear, uncertainty and paranoia permeate the events of the book, instilling in the reader a faint semblance of what life was like during Hitler’s rise.


The Coffee Trader, by David Liss

I first heard of David Liss while listening to a program on either MPR or NPR – I can’t remember which. In any case, they were discussing his forthcoming new book, The Twelfth Enchantment, and I was intrigued. At the library not long after, I went to see which of Liss’ books were in the collection. They had several, and I chose The Coffee Trader, one of his older works, figuring if I liked it I could work my way up to his more recent novels.

Indeed, I liked The Coffee Trader. It was perhaps a little more simplistic in style than the books I’ve read recently (i.e. the poetic language throughout White Oleander), but overall it was an interesting piece of historical fiction surrounding the introduction of coffee into major European markets in the mid-1600s. The plot itself was interesting and tense, but the characters fell a little flat. The main character, Miguel, was not fully fleshed out, and as a result I felt little connection to him. Hannah, Miguel’s sister-in-law, was an intriguing character, however, as a woman divided in many areas of her life: duties as a wife vs. attraction to Miguel; desire to be a meek wife vs. desire to learn; the Catholic faith of her childhood vs. the abrupt revelation of her true Jewish heritage. Alferonda is another interesting character – he is neither good nor evil; having been wronged by his community, he has made the most of his life and become a puppet-master of sorts. The plot delivers twist after twist until the very end, making it an exciting and compulsive read. I read it in two days; it is by no means a difficult read.*

I’ll be returning to the library for more of Liss’ books in the future.

*Especially if, like me, you skim over the economics parts that explain the Dutch stock exchange in the 1650s.