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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.

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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

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!

Best Books for Budding Plant Lovers…3 in one review!

Now that school is almost out, we want our kids to get outside, but we don’t want them to get lazy and quit reading either. That’s the best thing about plant fiction for kids. They make you want to do both! Now, I think we all want to instill a love of the things we love into our own children. So if you love plants or books or both, and your kids don’t yet, help them learn through stories! Read aloud, read together or start a book club to talk about the books you read and make up some stories of your own. Doing activities that match the new ideas from books is always fun too. Here’s what I think you ought to be reading and doing with your children this summer!

I considered doing a full review for each of these books individually, because they’re all so great, but then I thought you might like to have them all in one easy to read place. They’re also bit shorter than the books I usually review (but just as good), so the reviews get to be shorter too. So read all three of them!  It was so hard to choose, but I narrowed it down; here are a few of me and my kids’ favorites.

  Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver: Mary takes on the heavy task of supporting her family after her father dies. By living off the land and selling local wild-crafted herbs, she thinks she has a pretty good chance of getting by. But as winter comes on, the responsibilities wear on her young shoulders, and she must find another way if they are all to survive. A serious but easy book that would be a great conversation starter for some difficult issues.- Best for 4th grade and up.

Activitiy Idea- Go wild-crafting together. Spring is the perfect time of year to gather dandelions, elder flowers or wild mustard! Then make something tasty out of them to share.

 The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell: This one is a wonderful retelling of the classic fairy-tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, with a smattering of Greek mythology thrown in for good measure. It’s told from the perspective of a young herbalist’s apprentice Reveka. One of the things I really appreciated about this book was the historical accuracy with which the herbs and herbalist are portrayed. It has so many of the elements I enjoy in my books, a great respect for plants, adventure, and a new spin on old stories. – Best for 4th grade and up.

Activity Idea- One of Reveka’s duties is to make up the bath herbs for the princesses, unlike her nasty smelling cabbage bath, create a nice smelling bath tea with soothing herbs like chamomile or calendula, and take a bath.

 This list wouldn’t be complete without The Secret Garden by Mary Hodgson Burnett. If you haven’t read this classic yet, you are in for a treat! It is a beautiful story about a hidden garden, an orphaned girl, her sickly cousin, and how the three of them save each other in equal measure. -The language can be a bit difficult in this one for younger children, but is great as a read-a-loud for 1st through 4th graders. If reading independently I would recommend it for 5th grade and up.

Activity Idea- Start your own secret garden. Hidden spaces beside the house, in a back alley way or a neglected corner of the back yard work well. Be sure to use plants that like the environment you’ve chosen. Violets are great for shady hidden areas.

What passions do you love to share with your kids, and how do you do it?

Need more tips on getting your child to love reading? Check out this post I wrote for the public library.

The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian- Book Review

 The cover of this one caught my attention immediately; quirky and fun. Kinda like the book it’s self. Is that a Gargoyle holding a whisk you ask? In fact it is.

Zoe, is a 300 year old herbalist, antiques dealer and retired alchemist.  In an attempt at a new start, she buys a fixer-upper in Portland, Oregon. While unpacking her things she is surprised by a French stowaway, Dorian a living, breathing, and gourmet cooking gargoyle. When 14 year old Brixton, the neighborhood trouble maker, who just knows the house is haunted, spies the gargoyle through window while snooping around, Zoe tricks him into helping her clean up the house, in exchange for not pressing charges. After all she can’t let him tell the world about their secrets.

Dorian is convinced that Zoe is the only one who can help him decode his ancient book and save him from returning to his stone state forever. Zoe is not so sure she can help, she has, after all given up on alchemy. Then one day she comes home from a  walk to see the handy-man she hired dead on her door step surrounded by an odd smell. She may have to reopen her alchemical lab, and painful past memories, to figure out what is really going on.

The unlikely murder mystery solving trio team up to investigate. They delve into the city and it’s resident tea shop patrons secrets. Soon there is another attempted murder, this time on someone they know and care about. Dorian is dying, and there’s a murder on the loose. Things start to get more serious, and they all could be in danger. The police investigator assigned to the case suspects the new girl in town, and in return Zoe thinks she might be falling for him…

It’s a mystery, so I’ll leave it at that. No spoilers here. It was a fun read, and as an herbalist it was refreshing to see the few herbal references were researched and not unrealistic, as were the historical alchemy references. Though I thought Zoe was bit too much of the stereotypical herbalist type (we’re not all like that!) What really brought it all together for me was reading the afterword. The author shares her story of the writing of this book as a tool to help her through her cancer. She also thoughtfully shares a few of the recipes from the book (and a link to her website with more!) I haven’t made any of them yet, but plan on it. They sound pretty good! I am certainly looking forward to the continuation of this series.

Did this book encourage you to explore more? Wanna read more about plant alchemy or maybe you’d like to try a few more vegan recipes? Here’s a few recommendations you might enjoy.

The Alchemists Daughter by Katharine McMahon

The Chemical Choir: A History of Alchemy by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart

A Druids Handbook to the Spiritual Power of Plants by Jon G.Hughes

Chloe’s Kitchen: 125 Easy, Delicious Recipes for Making the Food You Love the Vegan Way  by Chloe Coscarelli

Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz