Samuel Fromartz, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey

Cover of Samuel Fromartz IN Search of the Perfect Loaf

I was intrigued by the basic premise of Samuel Fromartz’ book In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey. An experienced journalist with a weighty list of credits, Fromartz got That Call in late 2008. The economy was in a downward spiral and he lost two major long term gigs on the same day. When a travel publication appeared on his horizon, he pitched a story about going to Paris to learn how to make the perfect baguette, that iconic symbol of the Parisian boulangerie. The editor accepted, and that initial article was the starter for this book.

Fromartz, an experienced home baker, had tried to make the classic baguette (his “perfect loaf”) at home and been less than satisfied. The book begins with his trip to France, and his experience working in a French bakery (Boulangerie Delmontel). From there, successive chapters discuss trips to other bakers, covering a variety of bread and baking styles, ranging from sour dough and flat bread to archaic and heritage wheats and grains, to a trip to Germany to learn the secrets of working with rye.

As much as I value Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, I think Fromartz’ book is a better place to start as a serious home bread baker (honestly, you’ll want both books). There are some important concepts explained exceedingly well in In Search of The Perfect Loaf, most notably, the idea that a long rise is ultimately beneficial for good bread. This is not unique to Fromartz, of course; in fact he notes that it’s part of the reason that “no knead” breads popularized by Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman work so well. But Fromartz explains the whys and the wherefores very clearly, both in terms of the science of bread making, and perhaps more memorably, by anecdote. The other concept that underlies his introduction and the narratives that frame his recipes is the idea that a lot of the difficulty of bread making is removed by practice. By being open to less than successful loaves, and willing to try again, bread makers will learn. As Fromartz notes, “it takes time to learn.”

The chapters each feature a recipe, its difficulty graded as Easy, Moderate or Difficult. The measurements are given in gram weights (you really do need a kitchen scale and a thermometer, at least at first), but one of the most helpful aspects of the recipes are the detailed instructions about the process, including the schedule, divided into sections as “Morning, First Day,” “Evening, First Day,” “Second Day,” and “Baking.” Having said that, his explanation and tips for a baker’s first time creating a sour dough starter are the clearest and least fussy I’ve seen.

There’s a glossary at the end of the book, though Fromartz does a great job of explaining words in context, and end notes for those interested in the particulars of, for instance, the history of grain cultivation, the nature of yeast, or celiac disease, an extremely useful and clear “Bibliographic Note,” and an index. There aren’t a lot of pictures, but they’re well chosen, and do more than offer eye candy.

In Search of the Perfect Loaf was short-listed for the Art of Eating prize and won the Literary Food Writing award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for the first edition (Viking, 2014). I read the paperback edition for this review, and I would encourage Penguin to list the difficulties for the various recipes in the table of contents, where they list the included recipe as part of the chapter detail. This book is a perfect book to publish as a video annotated multimedia ebook; I hope that that happens some day.

Samuel Fromartz has a website. He blogs and is on Twitter as @fromartz. For a typically clear and practical example of his writing, see this post on his blog about dough temperature and successful bread making; the book is full of such information.

(Penguin Books, 2014)

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Kate Elliott, Court of Fives

Cover of Kate Elliott's Court of FIves showing an elaborate labyrinthKate Elliott has created a richly detailed world in Court of Fives, her first YA novel, though not her first excursion into heroic fantasy. Jessamy, or Jess, is a twin, one of four sisters, the daughter of a Patron (or Saroese) army officer, and his Efesa (and hence a Commoner) concubine spouse Kiya. Her father Esladas has done the unthinkable; he has kept his Commoner concubine by him, instead of a Patron wife, and he has kept and acknowledged his four daughters, including a pair of twins and one with a club foot, much to the scandal of those of higher social status than he.

When the novel opens, Jessamy is scheming to sneak away to compete in the Fives, an elaborate and dangerous race that takes place on an obstacle course. Her father is being fêted as the triumphant hero of a military success, even invited to bring his socially suspect concubine and daughters to witness his triumph as his sponsor and superior, General Ottonor rewards him for his military service.

Jessamy manages to sneak away just long enough to run the Fives, but must deliberately lose the Fives competition or risk discovery. Her competitor, who is well aware that she let him win, is a highly placed Patron, Kalliarkos. Kaliarkos recognizes her after the competition, but promises to keep her secret. Jess’s life starts to go pear shaped when Ottonor unexpectedly dies. His extensive debts provide a remarkably convenient opportunity for Lord Gargaron to attach Jess’s father Esladas to his household, and wed him to Lord Gargaron’s niece. Gargaron takes great delight in revealing that Jessamy has been secretly, even scandalously competing in the Fives. He forces Jessamy to join his Fives “stable” to train, separating her from his sisters and mother, and dissolving her family and the home she has known her entire life.

What’s more, it turns out that Kalliarkos is Gargaron’s nephew, and that Jessamy will be expected to train along side Kalliarkos. It turns out that nothing is exactly as Jessamy has thought, life is much more complicated, as is her own situation. Yet in the end, Kalliarkos, like Jessamy, proves both his loyalty and his courage, as both work to save Jessamy’s mother and siblings from a horrible fate.

Elliot notes on her website that

I call this Little Women meet American Ninja Warrior in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt while the publisher has pitched it as “Little Women meets Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games.”

I think that’s a fair comparison, though Jessamy is both a compelling and a believable narrator. Court of Fives like Fran Wilde’s Updraft is a female bildungsroman, with a well-thought out and richly drawn world. Elliott’s subtle use of magic is especially well-done here, with a world that has both animated corpses and magically powered robotic spider warriors driven by soldiers. Elliott proves especially adept at navigating the troubled waters of a colonized culture, with complicated cross-cultural social, linguistic and class issues, and a much more complicated history than her protagonist Jess is initially aware of. I hope to read more about Jess and her world, and will definitely look for more of Elliott’s fiction.

Elliott is both a Nebula and World Fantasy award finalist, and her latest book Black Wolves has just been released by Orbit. In addition to Kate Elliot’s website and blog, you can find her on Twitter as @KateElliottSFF. You can read an excerpt of Court of Fives at

(Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015)

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David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Sometimes I’m very late to the party. There’s little to do in those cases, but make my apologies as I make my entrance. That’s the situation I find myself in, now, endeavoring to review David Mitchell’s excellent and award-winning novel, Cloud Atlas, more than ten years after its release.

I’m not entirely sure how I missed reading this acclaimed novel a decade ago, while it was still making headlines and the literary world was abuzz with a mixture of adulation and disgust regarding the novels difficult structure and sometimes brilliant prose. In my case, however, that may have worked out for the best. Sometimes all the hype surrounding a famous book gets in the way of simply engaging the text for what it is, and what it is not. Experimental structure is hardly new in ambitious novels, and make no mistake, this is an ambitious novel.

Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories whose relationship with one another isn’t immediately clear until after the sixth and final narrative. Each of the first five sections is abruptly truncated during pivotal scenes, an authorial decision I’ll admit I found both frustrating and disorienting. None of the various parts share a common voice, narrative thread, or even prose style. The first story is set in 1850, and the final story takes place in an unspecified, vaguely post-apocalyptic future. Only after the sixth section are the unresolved threads of the first five sections finally taken back up and knitted together into a whole, so if the individual stories were numerically ordered, the overall skeleton of the whole would look like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Now, generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of authors showing off just for the sake of proving how clever and facile they can be. I’m especially skeptical of technique-as-showmanship, because all too often, that showmanship seems to be covering a multitude of failings with regard to plot, characterization, or storytelling skill. I’ll freely confess that I approached Cloud Atlas expecting just that sort of stylistic showmanship, ultimately lacking in substance. I was wrong.

There was no one character in the book I especially cared about or identified with, but the book ultimately works because of its sure handling of the overall sense of how relationships and cultures work, and our very mortal interconnection. While the actual characters of the novel aren’t particularly richly-developed or sympathetic, ultimately the whole book succeeds brilliantly as a stitched-together panoramic snapshot of history and potential future; a somewhat-distorted lens capturing the landscape of our humanity, our triumphs and failings.

(Random House, 2004)

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Neil L. Rudenstine, Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Cover of Neil Rudenstine's Ideas of Order

Neil L. Rudenstine is a retired English literature professor specializing in Renaissance literature, a former President of Harvard University, and a Rhodes Scholar. Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is exactly what the title says it is—a close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Rudenstine is neither the first nor the last to engage in a detailed examination and reading of the Sonnets; he is preceded most notably by Stephen Booth, in An Essay On Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale, 1969), Booth’s facing page edition with a modern spelling and a Quarto version side by side, Shakespeare’s Sonnets Edited with an Analytic Commentary (Yale UP, second edition 1977) and Rudenstine’s Harvard colleague Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 1997), as well as numerous scholarly editions like Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones (Arden, 1997).

What differentiates Rudentstine on the Sonnets from other editors and scholars is, first, his emphasis on reading Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series, a cycle, in a particular order. Secondly, that he takes his initial thesis from an essay published in 1961 by Richard Blackmur (“A Poetics of Infatuation” collected in in Outsider in the Heart of Things. University of Illinois Press, 1989) on the innate order of the Sonnets as printed, or as Blakmur puts it: “the sequence we have seems sensible with respect to [the poems’] sentiments, and almost a “desirable” sequence with respect to the notion of development (6). Rudenstine in Ideas of Order embarks on an effort to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a sequence, in context.

He is successful, I think, in providing a sensitive and coherent reading of the Sonnets “in order.” That order, for Rudentstine, is the numbered sequence of the sonnets as presented in their first complete printing, the probably-unapproved-by-Shakespeare “pirate” printing in 1609. Unfortunately, Rudenstine, who states he is writing for the ordinary reader rather than the academic, never specifically states that the order is derived from the numbered sequence in the 1609 edition, the order most editions follow, a point that must be confusing to some readers, but must have seemed patently obvious to a scholar and academic.

In Ideas of Order Rudenstine begins with an introduction that offers an overview of the Sonnets in terms of a thematic, even a narrative, progression. Successive chapters discuss individual sonnets and as parts of smaller sequences. Rudenstine presents his reading of the Sonnets in the first 157 pages, then follows that with a lightly edited edition of the sonnets using conventional Modern English spelling and punctuation, absent any further glosses or annotations. He includes a short bibliography as a guide to those interested in reading more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Rudenstine’s reading focuses on the argument of the Sonnets, the constant waning and waxing and fluctuations of relationships between the poetic speaker and his young male friend in the first 126 sonnets, and later, with the poet’s mistress. The first 126 sonnets from the poet to his friend are followed by 25 more in which the poet addresses his mistress (sonnets 127–54), also discussed and closely commented on by Rudenstine.

Rudenstine observes that the relationship between the poet narrator and his friend, is a matter of love, and that “This love is utterly transformative for the poet, and he remains firmly devoted to it, regardless of the friend’s (as well as his own) unfaithulness” (8). Rundenstine perceptively also draws attention to a different relationship between the poet narrator and the friend; that of the friend’s “chosen or favored writer,” a phrase Rudenstine prefers to the more conventional “patron” because while “Important elements of patronage exist, but the poet’s frequent critiques of his friend, and the intimate nature of the love, take us well beyond anything conventional” (10).

Rudenstine’s reading and thematic tracing of the relationship’s recursive and digressive patterns through the Sonnets is followed by a short conclusion, in which Rudenstine discusses the changing rhetorical selves, or “roles” that the poet presents in the Sonnets. Rudenstine also uses his conclusion to examine larger thematic concerns of the Sonnets, in terms of thematic patterns, of opposition and balance, and finally, of transformation.

This is neither the best nor the worst introduction to the Sonnets, but it is very much worth the time to read it, then progress to reading the unadorned Sonnets themselves; I expect that you will find yourself, as I did, returning to the earlier sections to re-read Rudenstine’s commentary.

In November 2015, next month, Farrar Strauss and Giroux will be bringing out a paperback edition of Neil L. Rudentstine’s Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for those interested in perusing the book for themselves.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

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Laura Anne Gilman, Silver on The Road

One of the things I most love about Laura Anne Gilman’s fantasy/paranormal books is the way she takes folklore and myth and makes it her own, rendering the familiar into something new and strange, but at the same time, coherent and consistent. She excels at world building.

I think Silver On The Road, the first of Gilman’s Devil’s West series, has surpassed her own previous efforts Cover of Laura Anne Gilman's Silver on the Roadfor world building, and that is no small task. Like Emma Bull’s Territory, Laura Ann Gilman’s Silver on the Road is an example of what many are calling “weird West,” that is, it’s a Western with fantasy elements (the publisher is calling it “heroic fantasy”; whatever).

In Gilman’s universe, the Territory is that middle stretch of North America West of the Mississippi. They’ve got the United States on one border, and Nueva España on the other. (there’s a nifty map in the book). The Devil runs the Territory from a saloon in a town called Flood, smack dab in the middle of the Territory. He’s not the Devil you’re thinking of; more Daniel Webster and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” than Paradise Lost. A neat dresser, he runs a poker parlor, and the Territory. And he makes bargains.

Sixteen year old Isobel (Isobel Lacoyo Távora, usually known as Izzy), has just reached the end of her term of indentured service with the Devil, part of a bargain her parents made when she was two and they were in a fix. She’s learned to read people, as she busses tables and helps with table service and folds linens at the saloon. And she’s just made her own bargain with the devil. She wants . . . well, she’s not sure what she wants, exactly, but she makes a bargain with the Devil, to serve as his left hand, offering herself in exchange. As he tells her:

The right hand gathers and gives, visible to all. But the left hand, Isobel, the manu sinistra? It moves in shadows, unseen, unheard. . .  . Until I deem it time for it to be seen and heard. And when it moves, its work cannot be undone. It is the strength of the Territory, the quick knife in the darkness, the cold eye and the final word.

Thereupon the Devil sends Izzy on the road, as an apprentice rider with one Gabriel, to ride circuit in the Territory, to learn on the job, to solve problems, and fix wrongs and to do justice. And to fight the occasional monster. We see Izzy grow into Isobel as she becomes the Devil’s Left Hand, and it’s a intriguing transformation.

As much as I love Celtic and Northern European inspired fantasy, it’s increasingly being done badly. It’s a refreshing change to see American folk motifs and tropes, and especially to see them executed well.

Silver On the Road is Book 1 in Gilman’s Devil’s West Series. I can’t wait for Book 2, currently titled The Cold Eye.

(Saga, 2015)

Laura Ann Gilman has a website, and is active on Twitter as @LAGilman.

ETA: I forgot the mention the stunning cover by John Jude Palencar.

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Amy Pennington, Apples: From Harvest to Table

Cover of Amy Pennington's Apples from Harvest to Table

Cover of Amy Pennington's Apples from Harvest to TableAmy Pennington’s Apples: From Harvest to Table is an apple cookbook, beautifully illustrated with photos by Olivia Brent. These are made-from-scratch recipes, and were written with an eye to using local and fresh, and an awareness of issues like low sugar needs and gluten tolerances, or cooking with (and for) children. What’s especially lovely is that the recipes are written with specific suggestions about what kind of apples to use, and why. Sidebars about the general availability of specific apple varieties in various U.S. regions, on varieties of apples used for specific purposes, like cider apples, or apple suited for cellaring, or even about growing your own dwarf apple tree in a pot, make the book particularly useful.

The recipes (there are fifty in total) are organized in terms of courses; Breakfast and Brunch, Salads, Starters, Sides, Mains, Pies, Crumbles, Cakes, Jams, Relishes and Chutneys. These are recipes for home cooks, rather than chefs, and ingredients are listed using volume measures like teaspoons and cups. There are some lovely variations on the familiar, like making fresh apple sauce on the fly (in about 45 minutes) to serve with latkes, or apple-stuffed French toast, or the surprisingly practical recipe for small apple cider doughnuts. Other recipes are have innovative touches, like an apple-fennel gratin made with fresh cream, or sautéed brussels sprouts with apples, or rose hip apple butter, or baked apples with cinnamon and cardamom. The traditional recipes are here too: apple stuffed roast loin of pork, a Thanksgiving apple pie, apple strudel. Pennington also includes particularly useful instructions for making your own apple juice or cider vinegar.

There’s an appendix listing various resources, for locating apple orchards, and apple growers, and an index that very helpfully includes not only the recipes, but the apple varieties used.

(St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013)

Amy Pennington has a website. She’s active on Twitter at @gogogreengarden.

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Jo Walton, What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF

Jo Walton, aside from being the author of Among Others, and the Small Change books Farthing, Ha’ Penny and Half a Crown, has been engaging in online conversations about really good books since UseNet, at least. When Tor decided to create as a place to talk about books, founding editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden prevailed upon Jo Walton to contribute essays about books she was re-reading.

walton_what_makes_this_bookIn 2014 Tor published a set of 130 selected essays from Jo Walton’s first three years of meditations about books and reading were published as What Makes this Book So Great. The original columns are still available at, but this selection of 130 of the pieces from Walton’s first three years (or more exactly July 2008 — February 2011) makes for a wonderful survey. The essays are each independent in the sense that you can read one in isolation, or out of publication order, but really, they form a long meta conversation and mediation on books and reading and SF/F as Walton ranges over a wide swathe of SF and F (and other books), re-reading and examining why these books are so very amenable to re-reading, and why, sometimes, they aren’t.

I should perhaps confess at the onset that I’m one of those people who re-reads, and not just because I’m planning to teach a particular text, but because I like to re-read. As Walton herself explains in “2. Why I Re-Read”:

When I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment. A re-read is a known quantity. . . . Because I know what’s coming, because I’m familiar with the characters and the world of the story, I have more time to pay attention to them. I can immerse myself in details and connections I rushed past the first time and delight in how they are put together. I can relax into the book. I can trust it completely. I really like that.

And because Jo Walton’s had time to immerse herself, we benefit from reading these wonderful meditations on some super books, ranging from Adams and Bujold and Brust and Cherryh to Sayers, Tiptree, Vernor Vinge and Zelazny, with numerous authors in between. Having said that, Walton has some particularly astute things to say about both C. J. Cherryh and Steven Brust’s books.

Re-readers have re-reading habits, as Walton notes, in “8. Re-reading long series,” about re-reading a series “like Cherryh’s Alliance/Universe or Atevi books, or Brust’s Vlad books, or Bujold’s Vorkosigan books,” and especially, re-reading the preceding volumes in a series of books when a new one is about to come out. I’ve re-read Cherryh’s entire Atevi/Foreigner series each March for several years now, as the new volumes tend to come out in April (# 17, Vistor is coming out from DAW in April, 2015). As Walton notes:

re-reading a series like that is like embarking on a voyage, because you have many volumes in front of you. When you set off, you know you’re committing yourself to a long time in the world, you’re launching yourself into something you know is good and absorbing and is really going to last.

There are also new books and authors to be discovered via What Makes this Book So Great; for instance, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was (St. Martin’s 1983/Del Rey, 1985), a book that has been recommend now by two very astute readers, or Daniel Abraham’s Long Price books, equally unknown and intriguing. Or Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which Walton describes as “a story about a colonised people getting their spirit back, and getting it back in a way that is itself uniquely theirs but does not exclude.”

There’s the delight of the familiar and loved book that someone else loves here, too, for instance, in a lovely piece on Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin: “17. College as magic garden: Why Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a book you’ll either love or hate.” Walton has, I think, put her metaphorical finger precisely on why people are so very binary about Dean’s Tam Lin>. “It isn’t just a book you like better when you re-read it, it’s a book that you haven’t had the complete experience of reading unless you’ve read it twice.” There are smart essays here about other genres, and lit fic authors, too, among them George Eliot, Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Sayer’s Gaudy Night, and authors I haven’t thought about in years and need to re-read (S.P. Somtow).

Re-reading isn’t all ways pleasurable. There’s that special pain from a series that starts out well, but doesn’t continue; see Walton’s “33. Better to have loved and lost? Series that go downhill.” And perhaps one of the best things I’ve ever read about re-reading anything, Walton’s “124. The Suck Fairy” in which Walton explains:

The Suck Fairy is an artefact of re-reading. If you read a book for the first time and it sucks, that’s nothing to do with her. It just sucks. Some books do. The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading — well, it sucks.

This is a wonderful, marvelous book, and I say that having read most of it on before publication, and having just read the entire thing again from cover-to-cover. One of the things that makes this book such a joy is one of the things I most love about Walton’s Among Others, the idea that books (texts) endure, that we can enjoy repeatedly and share with others and be excited and engaged entranced by the act of reading all over again. In the very last essay, “130. Literary criticism vs talking about books” Walton write:

You may also have noticed a lack of critical detachment. I am talking about books because I love books. I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them. I’m reading them in the bath and shouting with excitement because I have noticed something that is really really cool.

That to me is the essence of writing about books and talking about them with others. It’s certainly the way I feel about What Makes This Book So Great, and I very much hope that there’s another collection soon.
d(Tor, 2014)

Jo Walton has a website. She’s also on livejournal and Twitter as @BluejoWalton. You can find her posts on, and there’s even a searchable index of all Jo Walton’s posts.

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Rowan Jacobsen, Apples of Uncommon Character

Cover of Rowan Jacobsen's Apples of Uncommon Character

Cover of Rowan Jacobsen's Apples of Uncommon CharacterThe complete title is important: Apples of Uncommon Character: Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders. Rowan Jacobsen is a journalist, one who has received James Beard Awards for a book (A Geography of Oysters and for his essays. He’s also the author of American Terroir. I first read his work in a Southern Living piece about the lost apples of the south, and that led me to Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character: Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders.

Jacobsen’s story begins when he and his spouse purchased an old house on four acres in rural Calais, Vermont. He soon discovered that old houses, and old roads and pastures in New England are usually close associates with old apple trees, many of them of almost lost heirloom varieties, and some, local cultured varieties carefully cultivated by Yankee apple fans.

Jacobsen’s book is a chronicle of those almost lost heirloom varieties as well as more recent cultivars. These are apple varieties were often best eaten as near to the tree as possible, unlike the ubiquitous Red Delicious, bred mostly for its color and ability to be shipped across the country (and the world). American apple growing in the 18th and 19th centuries meant a plethora of different varieties for different growing areas, seasons, and purposes, from eating on the spot, to cooking in pies, canning as fruit or apple sauce or apple butter, and, of course, the very specific needs of cider production.

Many of these older varieties have flavors we don’t today usually associate with apples, ranging from cinnamon or clove notes, to the wine-like qualities of the Winesap, to those that were sour when picked, but when properly aged in a dry cellar for a few months made incredible cider (and later, cider vinegar).

Some of this variety is directly due to human crosses (or more likely, grafts). Apples left alone or grown from seeds are a lottery; the maternal genetics of the tree that bears the fruit may be known, but the pollen that fertilized that particular blossom could be from any number of apple trees. Generally speaking, the apples we grow on purpose are grafts, a shoot from a particular tree grafted on to root stock. Apple trees grown from seed really are a lottery, so from the early popularization of apples in Europe by the Romans, until the modern Honeycrisp and Fuji, apples are usually propagated by grafting.

After some introductory sections on the history of apple cultivation and culinary evolution, most of Jacobsen’s book is a series of apple portraits; a photograph (these are stunning images), a description of the apple’s flavor and virtues and a short history of the apple’s cultivation. These portraits are divided into sections based on the best uses of the apples; summer growing, baking and apple sauce, keepers (apples that store well over a winter), cider apples, and, finally, those he terms “oddballs,” with oddities of shape and appearance.

The portraits are followed by apple recipes. These are clearly written recipes that use apples in just about every imaginable course; I can endorse the pork carnitas with green apple salsa. The recipes often suggest a specific kind of apple to use, but these are suggestions only. There’s a dedicated section on the perfect apple pie, which I have to say, is one of the most useful how-tos for making an apple pie I’ve ever read.

After the body of the book proper, there’s a useful glossary of apple terms, resources (including websites) for apples and apple trees and cider by mail, a list of apple fairs and festivals, an index of all the apple varieties in the book, and a recipe index.

This is a fantastic book. It’s a pleasure to read, but it’s packed with useful easy to find information.

Rowan Jacobsen has a website, and he’s active on Twitter.

(Bloomsbury USA, 2014)

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Ilana C. Myer, Last Song Before Night

Ilana C. Myer’s Last Song Before Night is, in the most simplistic reduction, a quest fantasy, set in the rich, complex pseudo-medieval society of Eivar where poets and seers are trained in a special academy. Once, long ago, poets were also enchanters, but their abilities made them dangerous and feared when misuse of their gift caused a dreaded plague. Now the Crown via the office of Court Poet determines what songs the poets may sing—and who may be a poet. Women, we learn, are not poets or musicians, and therefore, unwelcome at the academy.

Kimbralin Amaristoth, daughter of a Northern family so cruel that she has fled, abandoning a life of wealth and ease to pursue her gift for music and poetry. She has come to the city of Tamryllin, hoping to win the poetic competition at the Midsummer festival. A fugitive hiding from her family, she wants nothing more than to compose and perform. Instead, she must unravel the why and how of the lost enchantments of poets in order to curtail the return of the deadly Red Death, the plague that once before brought devastation to all of Eivar.

Last Song Before Night is a debut novel, though it doesn’t read like one. In Last Song Before Night, Myer skillfully subverts the conventional tropes of quest-based heroic fantasy. The aristocratic milieu of the city of Tamryllin, and the multi-generational nature of aristocratic plots and power, calls to mind Kushner’s Riverside tales, or Monette’s city of Mélusine. Yet Myer’s Eivar is neither Riverside or Mélusine. Though the world-building is deft, what makes this book standout are the well-crafted prose, the extraordinary artistry of Myer’s characters, and her narrative skill. She brings together multiple narrative threads successfully, while never losing sight of her character’s individual stories.

This story is complete, but there’s enough world-building here to suggest we may be lucky to see more of Eivar.

(Tor, 2015)

Ilana C. Myer has a website. She also tweets as @IlanaCT

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Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Cover of Daniel Okrent's Last Call

Cover of Daniel Okrent's Last CallDaniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition is ostensibly a history of America’s attempt from 1920 to 1933 when, in response to the 18th amendment, the nation outlawed “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” In actuality, Okrent has written a careful, readable and interesting history that looks closely at the roles of the temperance movement, the women’s emancipation movement, and the burgeoning interest in civil rights for all in the context of the rise and fall and rise again (after December 5, 1933 when the 21st Amendment reversed the 18th) of spirituous liquors and the saloon, the brewery, and the speakeasy.

Okrent’s history begins on January 16, 1920, the eve of Prohibition, when streets were running with booze and customers were doing their best to stash or imbibe all they could. The rise of the Temperance movement had close ties with election politics (and funding) and with growing “nativist” attitudes as the flood of European immigrants brought their love of brewing and beer, creating beer magnates like Adolphus Busch (of Budweiser fame) who, like many other German brewers suffered from World War I anti-German sentiments.

One of the most interesting aspects of Prohibition in terms of where people drank and how is the way co-ed drinking became acceptable via the development of restaurants who also functioned as speakeasys, and the close ties between drinking establishments and jazz (and eventually led to racial integration, of a sort), and even the popularity of the cuisine of Southern Italy, as plates of pasta were accompanied by servings of homemade wine and grappa at Italian boarding houses that doubled as speakeasys. Another fascinating result of Prohibition was the rise of Coca-Cola (“The Drink That Cheers But Does Not Inebriate”).

This is a fascinating, well-written and well-documented history of an era. Along the way, Okrent explores (and explodes) several myths, including the one we’ve all heard about Joseph Kennedy and bootleg, and exposes the more seamy underside of the Temperance movement.

(Scribner, 2011)

Daniel Okrent has a website. There’s an excellent NPR interview of Okrent about Last Call.

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