Author Highlight: Karen Cushman

Sorry to all my followers, it’s been quite a while since I’ve written anything. So I decided to highlight an author instead of choosing just one book to review.

If you don’t already know and love her, I’d like to introduce you to one of my all time favorite authors: Karen Cushman. She writes children’s historical fiction, but almost all of her books feature medical history in some way. Bone setters, alchemists and midwives all feature pretty prominently in her writing. Those of you are already familiar with her have probably read her Newberry Award winning novel, The Midwife’s Apprentice. Though I enjoyed that one, and it’s the book that introduced me to her, it wasn’t my favorite. I personally would suggest Matilda Bone(a bonesetters unwilling apprentice), Will Sparrow’s Road (the only male protagonist in her books who runs away and travels with a group of misfits)  or Alchemy and Meggy Swann (an unloved crippled girl with an alchemist father), these three top my list of Karen Cushman favorites.

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But the reason I chose to write this now is because I am so looking forward to her very first fantasy novel, Greyling’s Song, due to release in June. I can’t imagine that she’ll disappoint us. It is the tale of a young girl and her mother, a wise woman who is slowly turning into a tree. Her mother sends her on a quest in which she must find and return her mothers grimoire (book of spells). To do so she must get help from “the others”, a mixed group of magic makers including a enchantress, a shape shifting mouse and a cheese wizard. Sounds fun huh?

It’s already getting some good reviews on goodreads, and as soon as I get my hands on a copy I’ll be sure to update you all with my opinions. I am so excited that I think I’m going read the few remaining books of hers that I haven’t read just to get psyched up for it! Wanna join me?

Do you have a favorite author? Maybe one who always knows exactly what you want to read? I’d love to hear your recommendations!

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Cool weather, Cozy-ish Mystery: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Mary Lawrence

I have a pot of mulled apple cider simmering on the stove, and we turned the heater on for the first time yesterday. Fall is finally here. All I want to do is curl up with a good book and sip on something warm under a blanket. If only I had all the time in the world….

Here’s one if you’re looking for some fall reading to keep you warm. Now, The Alchemist’s Daughter isn’t your typical cozy mystery though it has elements of the cozy genre. It’s set in the 16th century, across the bridge from London in a slum town known as Southwark. Bianca Goddard is a not your typical amateur sleuth either. She is a smart independent young woman trying to take care of herself at a time and place when that was pretty unheard of. Her passion is herbal medicine, and she’s good at it. She’s curious and constantly experimenting and researching, a trait she inherited from her father, a well known and mistrusted alchemist. But she has no desire to be associated with her father or alchemy. She want’s to do something important, and help people.

When her friend, Jolyn, suddenly falls ill and dies, Bianca blames herself for not being able to save her, and the local constable blames her too, accusing her of murder. It appears to be a poisoning and she had just given Jolyn an herbal remedy. She has to outwit the constable, and prove her innocence by using her knowledge of herbs and healing . A cast of colorful characters turn up to help, and sometimes hinder her along the way. I can’t wait until the next installment in the Bianca Goddard Mysteries. I hope to see further development of Bianca’s character, more about her past and how she breaks away from her Alchemist father to become an independent herbalist.

I personally love this current trend of exploring the darker side of London. It makes for a familiar yet intriguing setting. It seems a little more realistic to me than reading about the lives of the rich and privileged. But I warn you, if you like cozy mysteries for their sweet settings and lack of graphic descriptions, this one may not be for you. Tudor London was not the most pleasant place to live for most, and Lawrence’s descriptions of sights and smells are not for the weak. If you’re feeling the cold that’s slowing getting colder…this book is sure to make you feel warmer, or maybe just grateful to live in the time of hot running water and electric heat.

Interested in Tudor England? There is more than a lot out there concerning the politics and Henry VIII and his wives. Some very good stuff too. I’m sure you’ll find something to pique your curiosity. I don’t think you need my help. However, there is a lot less about the lives of the poor throughout England’s History. I thought I’d recommend a few.

For something similar to The Alchemist’s Daughter (but a bit darker) check out The Thief Taker by C.S. Quinn.

Another alchemist’s daughter appears in Alchemy and Meggy Swan by Karen Cushman, set in Elizabethan England. Though it is a rather short children’s novel it takes a similar approach to The Alchemist’s Daughter in describing the conditions of daily life.

I also recently reviewed A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor which is turn of the century, and I’ve added some good links to non-fiction about London’s poor in the review.

I also am a fan of the children’s Victorian era books in the Montmorency series by Elinor Updale. There are no children in in the books, and it can be a bit dark, so I’d recommend them for older children, teens or adults.

Coffee vs. Tea: Dual book review! The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery vs. The Various Flavors of Coffee by Anthony Capella

image from teawitty.com

Coffee and Tea

Oh how I love thee

Ok, maybe I’m not a very good poet. I’ll stick to reading. And what better with a good book than a cup of something delicious and warm? One might proclaim themselves a “coffee person” or a “tea person”. I say: can’t we all just get along? I love you both. Both have long storied histories. Both are powerful plants, medicinally, historically, and often personally. Both have their merits and their dangers, both so bitter and alluring.

                        

Camellia sinensis vs. Coffea spp.

I couldn’t decide which book to review, so I decided to do both. Both very different, but maintaining the highest respect for these two similarly loved plants in a way I have rarely seen in fiction.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery is the captivating story of an American girl trapped and alone in Japan. It explores the nature of the Japanese tea ceremony from the perspective of both the american girl a family that has been practicing and teaching tea for centuries. It’s exotic in all the right ways, but the heroines struggles are very real and relateable; trying to find where you fit in,  learning to love and to trust.

The Various Flavors of Coffee by Anthony Capella is the story of a young passionate poet in London. Struggling to find paid work, he is hired by a coffee magnate to help write a guide describing the various attributes of different coffee beans. His new line of work takes him in and out of love, and into the heart of Africa. A journey in which he finds himself along the way.

So both are stories of self discovery, and of learning to love. One about a young man, one about a young woman. One takes place in London and Africa, and one in America and Japan. They are about as different, and as alike as coffee and tea themselves. Exotic, enticing, passionate and beautiful.

If you are a tea lover I think you’ll really enjoy The Teahouse Fire. It is the more gentle and subtly sweet of the two.

If you love coffee, try The Various Flavors of Coffee. It is bold, rich and intriguing.

Or if you’re like me, you like books and beverages of all flavors and you’ll enjoy both. Different but equally as satisfying.

 vs.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery vs. The Various Flavors of Coffee by Anthony Capella

Want to know more about the stories and histories of our two favorite hot drinks? Follow up with a few of these…

Tea:

Coffee:

Know any other wonderful coffee or tea fiction? I’d love to read more!

Hunger by Jeremiah Knight: Book Review

Plant people, have I got a new kind of book for you! I’ll bet you’re like me, tired of reading cozy mysteries and dramas set in beautiful English gardens to get your fix. No, me neither, really, but maybe a break would be refreshing. I needed a little action, a little adventure and dare I say it….a little horror. And this fit the bill!

I actually stumbled upon this book when a fellow librarian recommended it to my husband for a little something different to read. Hmm, genetically modified food gone wrong? Isn’t this what everybody is talking about? Oh, the horror of loose government regulations, we could get sick, we could ruin the biodiversity of edible crops we could mutate into carnivorous monsters with corn tassel tails. Yup, you read that right, that’s what I said.

In Jeremiah Knight’s new series that’s just the beginning of the GMO apocalypse. It all starts with a corn crop modified to adapt to any growing condition. They then modify other food crops and eventually the adaptability traits spread to anything that eats them. Human’s are not the only ones mutating from eating the new super crops, everything is evolving into something else. All living things are becoming bigger, more powerful and blood-thirsty; adapting with uncanny speed to the new surroundings.

Sound cheesy, but slightly terrifying? Knight somehow manages to to tell this tale in an oddly realistic way, making it come off as not too corny (pun intended). I have struggled when telling friends about this book. How ever I say it it comes off as slightly ridiculous. Knight is obviously a much more skilled storyteller than I, because he seems to make it exciting and believable with ease. The story follows a former military/special ops turned farmer and his son. When the geneticist who started this whole mess comes knocking at his door, he can’t turn her away, they’ve known each other since childhood, and she may hold the key to the fixing the monstrous problem she created as well of as a few other secrets.

If you’re looking for an intellectual novel concerning the potential dangers of GMO’s, you might want to keep looking. If you want an enjoyable, exciting page-turner to kill some time with, give it a try. I personally can’t wait to read the next book in the series. The prepper in me has so many more far fetched apocalyptic scenarios to prepare for now! How exciting. And though they were something I tried to avoid before, I’ll be a little more careful about eating GMO food from now on too.

I’m not going to tell you to read more about the GMO controversy, the internet is flooded with that kind of stuff. Instead I thought you might be interested in more fiction addressing GMO foods. Or how about some other fun apocalyptic fiction? Try these:

Nocturne, Opus 1: Sea Foam By  Norene Moskalski

Into the Forest by Jean Hegland

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

GMO24 by James Hunt

Once in a lifetime opportunity: The Corpse Flower in Bloom

20150819_191204The Denver Botanic Gardens was lucky enough to have one of their Corpse Flowers (Amorphophallus titanum) bloom this week. You may have heard. Not only was it all over the local news, a quick search turns up articles in the New York TimesUSA Today, The Washington Post, and one in Mental Floss highlighting “Stinky”, DBG’s name for the thing.

Friends and I all waited with bated breath while watching the 24 hour live web cam days in advance, for the first signs of blooming. I was checking the live stream at all hours of the day, and night, at work, at home and anywhere I had an internet connection, when about 7:30 pm on Tuesday night we saw the first of the petals begin to unfurl. DBG planned to be open until midnight the night of the bloom, however there was a concert scheduled at the gardens that evening, so very few people got to see it. They say the stink of the bloom only lasts about 10 hours, so, of course, we wanted to go see it right away.

Wednesday morning I had to teach a class, and couldn’t line up at 6am with the flock of people all excited for this momentous occasion, but picked up my son (my junior botany enthusiast) from home at around 12:30 after class to drive the hour and a half down to Denver. I figured it might take us an hour or two to wait in line, see the flower, and we’d still have a little time to look around the rest of the gardens before heading back home for back-to-school night.The line behind us at about 3 hours

Boy was I ever wrong! When we walked into the DBG the atmosphere was excited and people were happily buzzing around like bees everywhere. So I bought our tickets and went to stand in the line to see Stinky. The friendly volunteer manning the entrance to the line informed us that it would be about a 3-4 hour wait to see the flower. Woah! OK, so we won’t get to see the rest of the gardens today, and we’re going to have to hurry back to get to the school on time; surely 4 hours is a bit of an over estimation. We happily chatted with the nice lady in line behind us, and munched on a sandwich as the line seemed to be snaking along rather steadily. We passed the time identifying the flowers and plants we passed, watched some unusual bugs pollinating some unidentified asteraceaes and taking in the the gardens around us, which are fantastic this time of year with almost everything in bloom……for 3 hours or so this kept us somewhat occupied and content. Contentment quickly began to wane. At about the 3 1/2 hour mark I realized we weren’t going to make it back home in time for back-to-school night, but we couldn’t give up now…we were so close! Almost 5 hours after we arrived the enormous flower came into view and a bit of enthusiasm returned. We were up next! As we approached everyone in line began to sniff the air and speculate if that subtle smell or this one might belong to the corpse flower. I caught a whiff of something like rotting fruit; that might be it.

They had taken down the glass of the greenhouse in front of the flower so you could get good pictures and maybe get a smell of the notorious odor. Pictures taken quickly and air sniffed thoroughly we were herded along, around the corner where the air in the greenhouse was vented for a better aromatic experience. I saw the thing, now I wanted to smell it! On the back side of the greenhouse you could feel the air blowing out into a small room which clearly isn’t usually open to the public. It smelled a bit like mildewy air filter and dirty laundry, I don’t think that’s what the flower is supposed to smell like. So I did see it, I’m not sure if any of the scents that reached my nose belonged to Stinky or not.

Finally!

Finally!

In conclusion: That was the longest line I’ve ever waited in in my entire life, I got to see something pretty cool, briefly, but I still don’t know what a blooming Corpse Flower actually smells like.

Afterword, we stopped at one of our favorite Vietnamese restaurants on the way home and found a much simpler but more satisfying experience in drinking from fresh coconuts and and eating exceptional food too late at night the day before school started.

The coconut was worth the wait!

The coconut was worth the wait!

I hope when my son’s new teacher asks “how did you spend your summer vacation”, he doesn’t say, “I waited in line for most of it” , and instead he says, “I had a once in a lifetime experience, and saw a blooming Corpse Flower.” I just don’t know which part he’ll remember more.

Want to know more about the Corpse Flower? Look here:

http://www.botanicgardens.org/our-gardens/whats-blooming/corpse-flower

http://www.livescience.com/51947-corpse-flower-facts-about-the-smelly-plant.html

How about a little Corpse Flower fiction or poetry?

The Corpse Flower By Bruce Beasley

Corpse Flower By Rosemary Harris

Corpse Flower By Gloria Harris

Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Weeds

Wednesday evening I was invited to speak at a local community garden. I was so excited to share with the community some of my herbal knowledge, and thought the people might like to learn more about about the plants they are growing… unintentionally. The weeds! To a botanophile, there are no bad plants, just misunderstood plants.  In this post my goal is to help you all understand those poor unloved weeds. I’ll briefly profile just a few of the most common and disliked.

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bindweed (Convovulus arvensis): Also known as wild morning glory. Ahh, the despised nemesis of gardeners everywhere. The young shoots and leaves are actually a popular green often eaten in Vietnam, India and Turkey. Medicinally the flowers have laxative properties, the roots and leaves are a topical haemostatic and have even been used to treat spider bites and poisoning. The latest research on this plant looks promising for cancer treatment by limiting blood flow to tumors. Opening in the morning and closing at night, they can be awfully pretty too. Got a bindweed problem? Why not plant Vinca vine or a decorative species of morning glory with it, and you’ll have a beautiful viney flower garden.

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense): Also known as creeping thistle, lettuce from hell, and even cursed thistle you know this one is unloved! All Cirsium species are edible cooked or raw. You can eat the center stalks, the young leaves (tastes a bit like celery), older leaves stripped of spines, the root, the seeds and the flower. Medicinally it has been used to treat mouth conditions, poison ivy and intestinal parasites. Its pollen is a favorite of honeybees. Save the bees! And the weeds!

It was hard to choose just a few, there are so many wonderful and hated weeds out there. But this next one, I have always particularry disliked… until I discovered it’s virtues.

Siberian Elm (Umlus pumila): Also known as Asiatic elm, dwarf elm and Chinese elm. Medicinally Siberian elm is a promising substitute for the over harvested, and endangered slippery elm (Umlus rubra). It is also resistant to Dutch elm disease which has decimated most native elm populations. The leaves are edible, and quite good as a tea. The bark and leaves are used medicinally like the slippery elm for sore throats, weak digestion, skin lesions, UTI’s, coughs and malnutrition. It starts out as an ugly shrub, but I have seen them grow into rather beautiful shade trees.

Maybe now you see the weeds from my point of view? In the words of  that lovable donkey, Eeyore….

Want to know more about useful weeds? Here are a few books I’d recommend:

Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott

Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat by Ellen Zachos

Wild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging, with Easy Identification of 60 Edible Plants and 67 Recipes by Sergei Boutenko

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu: Book Review

If you were to ask me:

“Sheri, what is your favorite plant?”

I’d probably reply with something like:

“I don’t know, I have a ton of favorites! To an herbalist, picking a favorite herb is like picking your favorite child.”

However, secretly anyone who really knows me, has always known of my deep and somewhat rebellious love of dandelions. A favorite? perhaps. So when I saw on the spine of this book ” BOOK ONE OF THE DANDELION DYNASTY” it certainly piqued my interest. Then I saw the stunning cover…….

Oooh! Pretty! I finally decided to read this one, with nothing more to go on, and I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long.

Once I began to read, the herbalist character, gentle and strong Jia, of course, quickly wins my heart. When asked her favorite plant she replies:

“They’re all dear to me, but I admire the dandelion the most. It is hardy and determined, adaptable and practical…the dandelion’s leaves and flowers can fill your belly, it’s sap cure your warts, its roots calm your fevers. Dandelion tea makes you alert, while chewing a root can steady a nervous hand…it is a versatile root and useful plant that people can rely on. And it’s playful and fun.”

My beloved weed makes an appearance several times, always along side wisdom. I do hope the eloquent pen of Mr. Liu can convince many more to love the humble little plant as I (and Jia) do.

The story is reminiscent of A Game of Thrones, but instead of having that medieval-ish feel, it’s more Asian. It’s a beautiful and tragic, epic play for power. A fight for the right to rule the lands of Dara, a recently united group of city states or small countries. We begin with several major contestants for the crown, and eventually narrow it down to just a few. Each of Dara’s little areas have distinct cultures, worship distinct gods and trade in their own types off goods.

It is difficult to write about the plot without giving too much away, but I think, like in A Game of Thrones, you’ll choose your favorites quickly and root for them, unless they fail, and then before you know it a new favorite character will have won you over. Idealistic warrior, female general, unruly and fun loving rebel? There are just too many great characters to choose from. I expect this pattern to continue into the next book too. Only maybe (and the author does hint) that it just might be a battle of wits and will of the strong (but so far minor) women next…I’m excited!


Already read The Grace of Kings and want to know more?

Many of the concepts presented in the book mirror Qin Dynasty history, for one of the best sources of information about the Qin Dynasty, I’d suggest reading Records of the Grand Historian: Qin Dynasty by Sima Qian.

The game of cupa as played by Mazoti, I believe to be based on the ancient game of Go or Weiqi.  It’s challenging and fun. Try Go for Beginners by Kaoru Iwamoto or for a more cultural perspective of this fascinating game, a moving novel, The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa.

The gods take an important role in the story, curious to know what the ancient Chinese gods roles were or hear more about Chinese mythology? Check out The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient China by Leonard Everett Fisher

Or maybe take a break from reading, enjoy the summer by getting outside, making a few dandelion crowns then snacking on one of my favorite dandelion recipes from LearningHerbs.com and the amazing herbalist, Rosalee de la Foret: Dandelion Fritters. Yum!