Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday Snapshots: Purim!

Posted by Simcha 9:52 PM, under | 8 comments

Saturday Snapshots
Hosted by Alyce at At Home With Books

Tomorrow is the Jewish holiday of Purim* and I've been in a baking frenzy the past of couple of days, preparing food for the gift baskets that we will be giving to our friends and neighbors, throughout the day.

While looking for some creative ideas of what to make, I came across an interesting looking cookbook on Net Galley called Cutie Pies, and which I download for review, in the hope that I would find some useful recipes there. I ended up making these adorable mini-apple pies that I found in the cookbook, and they came out wonderfully.

I also just finished making several batches of hamantachen, a traditional Purim treat named after the villian from the Purim story, Haman.

Blueberry and cherry filled hamantachen

Getting dressed up in costumes is also a big part of the Purim celebration, especially for children, and on Friday my kids all donned their costumes for the carnival at school.

My toddler admiring himself in the mirror.

(In case you are wondering about the long hair, it's our tradition to grow our sons' hair until the age of three. It's a chassidish custom we somehow adopted, even though we aren't chaddisim)

My 9 year old as a policeman

My 6 year old as a ninja

My daughter, the princess

And now I'm off to try to get some sleep since I'll need all my wits about me to survive tomorrow (Purim gets pretty crazy around here).


*A little bit about Purim, From Judaism 101:

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which is usually in March. The 13th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews, and the day that the Jews battled their enemies for their lives. On the day afterwards, the 14th, they celebrated their survival. In cities that were walled in the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month, because the book of Esther says that in Shushan (a walled city), deliverance from the massacre was not complete until the next day. The 15th is referred to as Shushan Purim.

One of the commandments of Purim is to eat, drink and be merry. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai," though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is.

In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as shalach manos (lit. sending out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews, a common treat at this time of year is hamentaschen (lit. Haman's pockets). These triangular fruit-filled cookies are supposed to represent Haman's three-cornered hat.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Unsatisfying Sequels

Posted by Simcha 5:46 PM, under | 9 comments

For my birthday last month I decided to treat myself to a few books that have been high on my wishlist for a while. Each of these books were sequels to novels that had really blown me away last year and I was excited to finally have an excuse to splurge a little on the sequels.

As soon as the books arrived in my mailbox I dived into the first one, eager to continue the story that I had so fully captivated me last year. But the magic of the previous book was somewhat dimmed in this second one, and I read it in a much less frenzied manner than I had read the previous book. Unfortunately, I encountered a similar experience with my second book purchase as well. The characters weren't as engaging nor the story as gripping as I recalled the previous book to be. While I had rushed through the first book in just two days, despite its hefty size, it's now been two weeks and I still haven't finished the sequel. And considering how disappointing my reading of these books has been going so far, I'm a bit wary about approaching the third book that I had purchased, in case that one will disappoint me as well.

I'm now wondering it this is always the case with sequels. I've been wracking my brain, trying to think of any sequels that actually met my expectations, when following on the heels of a really fantastic book, I just can't think of any. Actually, that's not quite true. I did enjoy Peter Brett's The Desert Spear as much as I had enjoyed his previous book, The Warded Man, if not more, but this is the only example I can come up with. Even Brandon Sanderson let me down with his equal to Mistborn, which I didn't even finish. And while I love Jasper Ffodes' Thursday Next series, I found the squeal to The Eyre Affair to be a bit of a bore (I am glad that I didn't give up on the series though, because it redeemed itself fully in the following books)

Does anyone else have this experience with book sequels? Do you ever not read the sequel to a favorite book for fear of it falling short of your high expectations?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Steam & Sorcery by Cindy Spencer Pape

Posted by Simcha 7:18 PM, under | 6 comments

Meljean Brook and Gail Carriger have proven that mixing together alternate history, technology, fantasy and romance can bring about the most delightful results. I loved Carriger’s Soulless and Brook’s Iron Duke, and so when I came across Steam & Sorcery, which sounded like it had some similar themes, I was eager to give it a try.

Book Description: Sir Merrick Hadrian hunts monsters, both human and supernatural. A Knight of the Order of the Round Table, his use of magick and the technologies of steam power have made him both respected and feared. But his considerable skills are useless in the face of his greatest challenge, guardianship of five unusual children. At a loss, Merrick enlists the aid of a governess.

Miss Caroline Bristol is reluctant to work for a bachelor but she needs a position, and these former street children touch her heart. While she tends to break any mechanical device she touches, it never occurs to her that she might be something more than human. All she knows is that Merrick is the most dangerously attractive man she's ever met—and out of reach for a mere governess.

When conspiracy threatens to blur the distinction between humans and monsters, Caroline and Merrick must join forces, and the fate of humanity hinges upon their combined skills of steam and sorcery...

Steam & Sorcery starts off strong and seems to be heading on the path to some interesting destinations, but unfortunately it never quite makes it. The story opens as Sir Merrick is working on cracking a case involving the kidnapping of several women in London. Suddenly, two vampires materialize from the darkness, and attack. Just as Merrick is certain that he is about to die, a group of street urchins intervene and skillfully put an end to the vampires. Merrick is startled to discover how young his saviors are, and that they each appear to possess some magical abilities. Disinclined to leave them to the streets, Merrick invites the children to his home, to become his wards.

This was a great beginning to the story, and I couldn’t wait to find out more about these children and their magic, as well as how they came to be such skilled vampire hunters.

Strangely though, after their initial fight with the vampires, the children become rather unremarkable. Yes, they do each have some kind of magical talent; one sees ghosts, one has prophetic dreams and one can create any kind of mechanical device, but these abilities don’t actually play any substantial part in the story. The story also doesn't explore how the kids were able to defeat the vampires, and- to my disappointment- they don't do anything similarly interesting again.

When a governess is hired to take the unruly children in-hand, the plot begins to follow a familiar pattern. Caroline and Merrick are inexplicably drawn to each other, though they do their best to maintain a professional relationship, for a while, at least. Their relationship follows the predictable path, as does the rest of the story. And when Merrick realizes that there may be a traitor among the Knights, working with the vampires, a couple of none-too-subtle clues make it pretty obvious who the culprit is.

The only real surprise for me about the book was that Pape did not make use of all the interesting elements that she had introduced into the story. I really thought she was going to dress up the traditional Jane Eyre plot with the magical children, supernatural creatures and steampunk technology, and I was really looking forward to see how it would all play out. But neither the magical or paranormal aspects were developed and while there was some steampunk technology, these items were just mentioned but not explained in any way.

While Steam & Sorcery did not turn out to be another Soulless or Iron Duke, it was entertaining enough that I easily read through it in just a few hours. The writing wasn't bad and both Caroline and Merrick are likable characters whom I enjoyed reading about. Readers of romance would probably enjoy this story, though anyone looking for a paranormal or steampunk novel will likely be disappointed.

Steam & Sorcery was provided for review by Net Galley

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New Scifi & Fantasy Releases: Week of March 13

Posted by Simcha 6:06 PM, under | 5 comments

There are a few interesting looking scifi books this week, including The Gravity Pilot by M.M. Buckner, Hellhole by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson and Up Against it by M. J. Locke.

In the fantasy department, Steel by
Carrie Vaughn looks like it could be a fun read. I've always been a bit of a sucker for pirate books.

Hope you have a great reading week!


Franny Billingsley
Genre: YA Contemporary Fantasy
Publisher: Dial
Release Date: March 17

Before Briony's stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family's hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it's become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment.

Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He's as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she's extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn't know.


The Gravity Pilot
M.M. Buckner
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: March 15

It is the polluted and gritty future, saved, sort of, by technofixes. Young skydiver Orr Sitka wants no more from life in future Alaska than he already has: a woman he loves and the chance to dive. When he makes a reckless, record-breaking jump that catapults him into celebrity, he’s courted by corporations that want to exploit his talent to make him a sports media star.

The dangerous jump that wins Orr infamy turns out to be a breaking point for his loving girlfriend, Dyce, who is wooed away by a promising job in the thriving underground city of Seattle, a world media center in a crumbling civilization. Separately, Orr and Dyce are sucked into nightmare lives that take a terrible toll on each of them. When Orr learns that Dyce has become addicted to virtual reality, controlled by an eccentric media billionaire and his decadent daughter, he does everything in his power to rescue her. But is Orr strong enough to get through to Dyce and break them both out of hell?


Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: March 15

Only the most desperate colonists dare to make a new home on Hellhole. Reeling from a recent asteroid impact, tortured with horrific storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and churning volcanic eruptions, the planet is a dumping ground for undesirables, misfits, and charlatans…but also a haven for dreamers and independent pioneers.

Against all odds, an exiled general named Adolphus has turned Hellhole into a place of real opportunity for the desperate colonists who call the planet their home. While the colonists are hard at work developing the planet, General Adolphus secretly builds alliances with the leaders of the other Deep Zone worlds, forming a clandestine coalition against the tyrannical, fossilized government responsible for their exile.

What no one knows is this: the planet Hellhole, though damaged and volatile, hides an amazing secret. Deep beneath its surface lies the remnants of an obliterated alien civilization and the buried memories of its unrecorded past that, when unearthed, could tear the galaxy apart.

Other Kingdoms casts a magical spell, as conjured by a truly legendary storyteller.


Lady-Protector (Corean Chronicles, Bk 8)
L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: March 15

A new novel of Mykella, the young woman introduced in The Lord-Protector’s Daughter. Though a bloody coup has made Mykella ruler of her land, it has left her and her two sisters bereft of family and uncertain of their friends. Worse, an examination of the nation’s accounts reveals that their country is almost destitute. Plus, there are rumblings of war along the borders. With no money and few allies, Mykella is faced with the difficult prospect of rebuilding her nation while trying to hold off a potentially devastating invasion.

Fortunately for Mykella, an old magic has awakened in her; a power that gives her the ability to read the emotions of others and to spy on the movements of her enemies. But the resurgence of this power might herald the return of an ancient enemy, one that Mykella isn’t sure how to face.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. returns to the world of The Corean Chronicles with a novel filled with politics, adventure, magic, and romance.


Midnight (The Vampire Diaries: The Return #3)
L.J. Smith
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: March 15

The vampire love triangle that spawned hundreds of thousands of fans-and inspired a hit television show-concludes in this powerful final volume of The Vampire Diaries. In Midnight, golden girl Elena Gilbert is back from the Dark Dimension, having successfully freed her vampire boyfriend Stefan Salvatore from imprisonment. Saving Stefan had an unlikely consequence: his vampire brother Damon Salvatore has become a mortal. While the trio reels from this latest twist, they must still deal with the demons that have taken over Elena's hometown, Fell's Church. As in every L.J. Smith novel, no matter how dark the night, there is always a happy ending. MIDNIGHT takes Elena, Stefan, and Damon to their darkest moments yet...Danger, romance, and paranormal mystery will keep readers fascinated with this captivating finale to the New York Times bestselling series.


The Rise of the Iron Moon
Stephen Hunt
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: March 15

Born into captivity as a product of the Royal Breeding House, friendless orphan Purity Drake suddenly finds herself on the run with a foreign vagrant after accidentally killing one of her guards.
Her strange rescuer claims he is on the run himself from terrible forces who mean to enslave the Kingdom of Jackals much as they conquered his own nation. Purity doubts his story until reports of the terrible Army of Shadows, marching across the continent and sweeping all before them.
Purity has felt little love for her country but realizes that the bad acts of a government gone wrong aren't enough to condemn an entire people.
There's more to Purity than meets the eye. As Jackals girds itself for war against an army of near-unkillable beasts serving an ancient evil, it becomes clear that the country's only hope is a strange little royalist girl and the last, desperate plan of an escaped slave.


Scorpia Rising: An Alex Rider Misson
Anthony Horowitz
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Philome
Release Date: March 22

Scorpia has dogged Alex Rider for most of his life. They killed his parents, they did their best to con Alex into turning traitor, and they just keep coming back with more power. Now the world's most dangerous terrorist organization is playing with fire in the world's most combustible land: the Middle East. No one knows Scorpia like Alex. And no one knows how best to get to Alex like Scorpia. Until now.

The chases have never been more intense, the fights more treacherous, or the risks so perilous to mankind. And this time, Alex won't get away.


Shimmer (Riley Bloom #2)
Alyson Noel
Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Square Fish
Release Date: March 15

Having solved the matter of the Radiant Boy, Riley, Buttercup, and Bodhi are enjoying a well-deserved vacation. When Riley comes across a vicious black dog, against Bodhi’s advice, she decides to cross him over. While following the dog, she runs into a young ghost named Rebecca. Despite Rebecca’s sweet appearance, Riley soon learns she’s not at all what she seems. As the daughter of a former plantation owner, she is furious about being murdered during a slave revolt in 1733. Mired in her own anger, Rebecca is lashing out by keeping the ghosts who died along with her trapped in their worst memories. Can Riley help Rebecca forgive and forget without losing herself to her own nightmarish memories?


The Sorcerer’s House
Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: March 15

In a contemporary town in the American Midwest where he has no connections, an educated man recently released from prison is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is the heir to a huge old house, long empty, he moves in, though he is too broke to even buy furniture, and is immediately confronted by supernatural and fantastic creatures and events.

His life is utterly transformed and we read on, because we must know more. We revise our opinions of him, and of others, with each letter. We learn things about magic, and another world, and about the sorcerer Mr. Black, who originally inhabited the house. And then perhaps we read it again.


Carrie Vaughn
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: March 15

It was a slender length of rusted steel, tapered to a point at one end and jagged at the other, as if it had broken. A thousand people would step over it and think it trash, but not her.

This was the tip of a rapier.

Sixteen-year-old Jill has fought in dozens of fencing tournaments, but she has never held a sharpened blade. When she finds a corroded sword piece on a Caribbean beach, she is instantly intrigued and pockets it as her own personal treasure.

The broken tip holds secrets, though, and it transports Jill through time to the deck of a pirate ship. Stranded in the past and surrounded by strangers, she is forced to sign on as crew. But a pirate's life is bloody and brief, and as Jill learns about the dark magic that brought her there, she forms a desperate scheme to get home—one that risks everything in a duel to the death with a villainous pirate captain.

Time travel, swordplay, and romance combine in an original high-seas adventure from New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.


Up Against It
M. J. Locke
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: March 15

Geoff and his friends live in Phocaea, a distant asteroid colony on the Solar System's frontier. They're your basic high-spirited young adults, enjoying such pastimes as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of 'Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans' lives.

Life isn’t as good as it seems, though. A mysterious act of sabotage kills Geoff's brother Carl and puts the entire colony at risk. And in short order, we discover that the whole thing may have been cooked up by the Martian mafia, as a means of executing a coup and turning Phocaea into a client-state. As if that wasn't bad enough, there's a rogue AI that was spawned during the industrial emergency and slipped through the distracted safeguards, and a giant x-factor in the form of the Viridians, a transhumanist cult that lives in Phocaea's bowels.

In addition to Geoff, our story revolves around Jane, the colony's resource manager -- a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She's more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of 'Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty contest competitor. Her manoeuverings to keep politics and engineering in harmony are the heart of the book.


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