Book Review: Lock In, John Scalzi

Book Review: Lock InJohn Scalzi

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Science Fiction: Lock InJohn Scalzi

In Scalzi’s Near Future universe, Haden’s Syndrome, named after former first lady Margaret Haden, who was one of its first victims, has claimed millions of lives worldwide. Over 400 million have succumbed to the disease, which usually presents with meningitis symptoms. Most die. A lucky few survive without apparent long-term effects. But for a small percentage of survivors, there is a permanent change. They suffer from “lock in.” Their minds are alert, but they have no control at all of their bodies. With care, they can live a normal lifespan, but they will never be able to so much as blink their own eyelids.

 

To help these lock-in survivors, three major technologies have been developed. One is called the “Agora.” More than just an online meeting place, the Agora allows lock-ins to inhabit an avatar, create their own private and public spaces, and interact with each other in a virtual reality. A second is called “threeps.” Androids that can be completely controlled by the minds of lock-ins, threeps (short for C-3PO) can interact in the real world and allow lock-ins to hold jobs that healthy persons can do. A final technology allows lock-ins to control neural networks implanted in the minds of people who are both willing and able to get them. These people recovered from Haden’s, but the neural mapping of their brains was changed allowing them to become “integrators,” able to host the neural network that allows those fully locked in to share their bodies temporarily. This allows lock-ins to actually experience life in a working physical human body, though the technology does not completely remove the body’s owner from the equation. It is a shared experience, giving lock-ins sensory experiences like taste that would otherwise be impossible.

 

This is the setting for John Scalzi’s masterful work, Lock In. Chris Shane is a Haden, locked in since infancy but now an adult and just hired by the FBI. He is partnered with Agent Leslie Vann, a former integrator. They are part of the Washington, DC, field office in charge of Haden related crimes. Since location is not a factor in Haden involved crimes (a person’s physical body can control a threep or be in an integrator from anywhere else in the world), the FBI is automatically in charge of any crime involving a Haden. And on his second day on the job, Chris falls into a doozy. One man is dead, his throat slit, and an interrogator is sitting in the room with the body, refusing to talk.

 

Shane’s investigation takes him via threep to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, to Los Angeles, and all over Washington. In the process, we the readers get to know him. A former “poster child” for Haden’s, his father was a Hall of Fame basketball player who later became a billionaire real estate investor and a very politically active resident of Virginia. Seemingly everyone knows who Chris Shane is. This opens doors, but also makes people think they know him without having met him. There is a tension between the public “boy with Haden’s” and the private man trying to become a good agent that Scalzi does an excellent job probing. I’ve had the pleasure of reading many of John Scalzi’s books, and although this book did not win the big awards that some of his others have, in my mind it is one of his best. Every character, even the fairly minor ones, is written with compassion and understanding. They are complete, whole people. Some are likable, some are appalling, but all are whole. You feel the pain of being locked in, the freedom and constraints of living life in the body of an android, the challenge of sharing your own body with someone else, the pain one character has being mentally challenged and how that leaves him open for manipulation and abuse by others, and the tension between those who are “able” and those who are “different.” Scalzi does not avoid the live electric wires of race, gender, sexuality, and ability. Rather, he grabs those wires to give power and life to the wonderful characters in Lock In.

 

A more timid author would shy away from some of the topics in Lock In. A lesser author might try for a simple or easy answer. Scalzi is a master. He is able to introduce subjects that make you think, yet avoid being heavy handed or dogmatic. Part of the backdrop of the novel is the political battle over rights and funding for Hadens. The fault lines look familiar to anyone who reads today’s news. But Scalzi avoids stereotyping or judging. Some are for, some are against, but all have their reasons and no one is completely with the angels.

 

Read Lock In. Read everything by Scalzi. You’ll be glad you did.

Book Review: Lock InJohn Scalzi

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Also read Head On: A Novel of the Near Future (Lock in) — the next book in the series.

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Also see — Book Review: Redshirts, John Scalzi

Book Review: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, Edited by John Brockman

Book Review: This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, Edited by John Brockman

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Nonfiction Essay Collection: This Explains Everything, John Brockman, Editor

John Brockman is the founder of the Reality Club, a gathering of thinkers and intellectuals that met in restaurants and other locations from 1981-1996. In 1997, the Reality Club went online and became Edge.org. Each year, a question is posed to the contributors, a question intended to provoke discussion, debate, and most of all, thought. The Edge question for 2012 was, “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” The responses to that question were culled, edited, and became the book, “This Explains Everything.”

 

The list of contributors to this book is amazing. Several are Nobel Prize winners. Others are famous intellectuals, including Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and Richard Dawkins. Many are professors in top universities around the world. Musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, psychologists, artists, scientists, writers…it is a truly astounding collection of brilliant persons who spent time on this question. And the approaches they took to the question are as varied as the disciplines they represent. Most of the essays are two-three pages long. A few are longer (I didn’t specifically count, but I don’t think any reached eight pages). Many are shorter. The very shortest is “Occam’s Razor,” by Katinka Matson: “Keep it simple.” (The strikethrough is in the original.) She succeeded.

 

Some theories had several fans among the authors. Perspectives on evolution, natural selection, and other Darwinian themes were addressed by a number of authors. The double helix (DNA) takes its place, as do some odes to quantum theory, Einstein, and “the big bang.” Others are perhaps less well known, but the authors are enthusiastic in their advocacy. The “Law of Unintended Consequences” explores how almost any action in a complex system will have unintended results: some positive, some negative, but always unintended. “The Importance of Individuals” posits that every change in human history is the result of single individuals making decisions which influence others. Sometimes those individuals stir up a grass-roots movement and sometimes those individuals are in positions of great power but it is still one person making one decision and taking one action that leads to change. That person may be unknown to history, but the power to change the world is housed within every individual.

 

Most of the essays looked for theories that tied other things together. Natural selection, for example, explains so much of how the world works. Before Darwin, we had no coherent scientific explanation for why some animals and plants thrive while others go extinct. It seems obvious to us today, but it is hard to look back and realize how our understanding of the world transformed with the publication of Origin of the Species. The depth, elegance, and beauty of the theory is how it draws together so many disparate facts and gives them context and meaning. No other theory had as many essayists in the book, but most of the theories explored shared that “Aha!” factor, that feeling of, “Now this helps other things make sense.”

 

Some of the essays I enjoyed the most addressed the question itself rather than trying to answer it. “Kepler et al. and the Nonexistent Problem” celebrates Kepler’s theory about the orbits of planets around the sun. The author delights in this theory that was deep, elegant, beautiful–and totally wrong. Some question the question, asking “what is deep, elegant, or beautiful”? Is it deep because it is correct? Is it elegant because it is simple…or is it elegant because it is complex? What makes a theory beautiful? Many of the essays which probe the question are, in my opinion, just as deep, elegant, and beautiful as the essays which actually try to answer the question.

 

This Explains Everything can look intimidating, from its list of powerhouse contributors to its imposing 400+ page length to its intellectual subject matter. However, this book should not scare you away! First, most of the essays are short, many of them less than a page long. It is a great book to snack on. Read a few pages, put it down and let them digest, then pick it up again and read a few more. If one essay is not to your liking, move on! Second, the editor and writers have worked incredibly hard to make this accessible to people with curiosity and interest. I won’t pretend that it is meant for children. Adults with an interest in science, both physical sciences and social sciences, will find the book speaks to them. It may not actually explain everything. But it does open a window to the minds of those who are trying to find and grapple with the explanations for the world we live in.

 

The “question of the year” has been turned into a book for several years now. I plan to check out others in the series at a later date. Also, visit www.edge.org to sneak a peak on the conversation for this year! Provocatively, it is titled, “The Last Question.”

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Book Review: Type and Cross, J.L. Delozier

Book Review: Type and CrossJ.L. Delozier

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Fiction: Type and Cross, J.L. Delozier

Persephone “Seph” Smith is a profiler. Her acute empathy allows her to get into the minds of criminals, understanding the way they see the world and sometimes anticipating their next moves. When a killer executes a plot to release a deadly virus into the world, one with the potential to kill well over half the population, Seph is called to join the team pursuing him. What follows is a globe-trotting chase matching Seph’s wits against those of a killer who seems just as capable of seeing through her as she is of seeing through him.

 

J.L. Delozier is a doctor with years experience in both community medicine and in treating people during the worst of emergencies. Her clinical expertise shows in the details of the book, but does not overwhelm the story. This may say something about me, given that the book is about a mass murderer using biological weapons to cull the population, but I found the book to be a very enjoyable read. Seph is a thoughtful protagonist, capable of using her intelligence to track and capture the criminal, but also one who considers seriously the ramifications of life and death when confronted with the reality of plague in a modern era.

 

Type and Cross raises some interesting questions. What would people do when they knew they had a month to live? Delozier poses some intriguing possibilities. Some would turn to religion. Some would see an opportunity to strip off the veneer of civilization and give in to much baser instincts: rape and pedophilia, for example. Some would withdraw their savings and take that “bucket list” trip. Others would huddle close to loved ones. These possibilities are not dwelt upon. They are listed as observations Seph makes as the world confronts mass mortality, but they show the depth of the author and the character. We are mortal creatures who never fully accept our mortality. Each of us tends to live as though we have all the time in the world. Curiously, though, that refusal to bow to the inevitable might make us powerful enough to live beyond our years.

 

Seph realizes she will die. (Spoiler, though, she doesn’t.) The disease will kill almost everyone. This gives her an element of freedom to pursue a hurried relationship that, if they had more than a month to live, might not have developed. It pushes her to appreciate and welcome her family roles as a sister and an aunt. But it also focuses and motivates her to complete her task and find the killer. If she dies, when she dies, she will die doing what she is supposed to do. Ultimately, that may be all any of us can live for.

 

I am looking forward to finishing the prequel book, Storm Shelter. Although Type and Cross was published first, it should be regarded as the second book in the series according to the author. Regardless of the order you read them, J.L. Delozier has given us a delightful protagonist who may have to save the world again someday. I am glad she is up to the task.

 

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Book Review: Type and CrossJ.L. Delozier

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

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Book Series Review: Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Mitford, NC is an idyllic town in the Blue Ridge Mountains that bursts with all the drama of big city lights in the package of small town interpersonal relationships. In Mitford, cake competitions are as fierce as Superbowl Sunday and potlucks can vibrate with the tensions of a boardroom during a hostile corporate takeover. In Mitford, folks celebrate the first harvest of sweet corn and the turning of the fall leaves. In Mitford, they bake from scratch and start making Christmas presents in the fall. In Mitford, people share joys and hide pain. In Mitford, they laugh and cry, and some die, but mostly they live. The characters of the town are all people who live and they don’t feel like characters but like real people.

The heart of the Mitford Books belongs to the main character, Father Tim Kavanagh. Father Tim, an Episcopalian priest, shepherds, cares, and prays for his eccentric parishioners and the entire town of Mitford. The majority of the series is seen through his eyes. As clergy, or retired clergy, or just good friend, Father Tim is the man that the town goes to share all of life’s secrets, sorrows, challenges, milestones, and triumphs. Father Tim is just the fellow to share a story or two over a glass of cold southern sweet tea.

The Mitford Books should be savored on a Sunday afternoon or evening as a gentle way to prompt reflections during the transition between weeks — preferably, in a cozy and cheerful room with some southern sweet tea and a light treat since Father Tim always needs to look after his blood sugar levels.

Southern Sweet Tea

  • 12 regular sized black tea bags
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda (to keep liquid clear and not cloudy)
  • 1 cup sugar or Splenda/stevia (if serving to Father Tim)
  • 1 quart filtered water
  • 1 quart ice cubes

In a large glass measuring cup, place the tea bags and add the baking soda.

Pour the boiling water over the tea bags.

Cover and steep for 15 minutes.

Take out the tea bags and do not squeeze them.

Pour the tea mixture into a pitcher; add the sugar.

Stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Add in the ice cubes.

Let cool; chill in the refrigerator and serve over additional ice.

Garnish with lemon slices or mint sprigs

 

Cornbread Cookies

Father Tim is very fond of cornbread, however, cornbread is not very fond of Father Tim as it sends his blood sugar to bad levels. Hopefully, the lower sugar, ground chickpeas, and whole wheat flour in these cookies will prevent a sharp sugar spike, yet satisfy that cornbread craving.

  • 1/2 cup or 1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup Splenda/stevia
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla or lemon extract
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1/4 cup canned chickpeas drained and minced in food processor
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven 325

In stand mixer, cream the butter, brown sugar, and Splenda/stevia. Add extract, honey, and egg.

In separate bowl mix together remaining dry ingredients (corn meal, flour, baking soda, and salt). Then slowly add to wet ingredients with the mixer on slow.

Use a cookie scoop to form dough balls on baking sheet.

Bake 10-12 minutes till edges barely start to brown.

 

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

If you like this post see —

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Quote: If you take a book on a journey…Inkheart, Cornelia Funke

Quote: If you take a book on a journey…Inkheart, Cornelia Funke

“If you take a book with you on a journey," Mo had said when he put the first one in her box, "an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it... yes, books are like flypaper—memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.” ― Cornelia Funke, Inkheart
Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

“If you take a book with you on a journey,” Mo had said when he put the first one in her box, “an odd thing happens: The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it… yes, books are like flypaper—memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.”

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

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Quote: If you take a book on a journey…Inkheart, Cornelia Funke

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

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Book Series Review: China Bayles Herbal Mysteries

China Bayles is the main character of the 28 and counting China Bayles Herbal Mysteries, a cozy mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert. After an intense career as a lawyer, China Bayles moves to the small college town of Pecan Springs, Texas to restart her life as the owner of an herbal shop. China uses her logic and  critical thinking skills gained as a lawyer and her knowledge of herbs and human nature gathered as a business woman to solve the mysteries and crimes that she and her best friend Ruby seem to fall into in their not quite quiet little town.

Each book features an herb that figures predominately as the title, theme, and key to the mystery. In addition, Albert sprinkles herbal facts, recipes, and even the occasional craft to support the herbal theme. The generous number of books in the series allows readers to follow the milestones of China’s life in Pecan Springs as her relationships, business, and role in the community grows. China is the kind of character you want to get to know in a small town like Pecan Springs. She’s funny, friendly, and has all the typical concerns and baggage that readers can relate to in a heartbeat like her stress in pulling together a meal after a long day or her musings over wardrobe and weight.

China Bayles Herbal Mysteries are the perfect books to savor on a summer weekend while sipping iced tea with something sweet.

Fresh Mint Iced Tea

Albert generously shares through out the series different recipes that China and best friend and business partner, Ruby would serve in their tea shop venture Thyme for Tea or at home. However, this fresh mint tea outlines a simple process that can be done as a quick gather in the garden after work that will be ready in time for a week night supper.

  • 8 sprigs of mint per cup of water
  • Optional: mix and match mint sprigs with basil, lemon verbena, lemon balm, or chamomile
  • Honey or sweetener of choice to taste or one sprig of fresh stevia per cup of water
  • Boiling water half the amount of water needed based on number of fresh herb sprigs gathered
  • Ice to equal to half the amount of water needed based on number of fresh herb sprigs gathered
  • Garnish: a slice of fresh citrus – lemon, lime, orange and/or a small slice of melon – watermelon

Let the fresh herbs, sweetener, and steep in the hot water for 10 minutes in a heat proof pitcher to create a concentrated liquid. Add the ice and let cool in the refrigerator until serving. Remove the pitcher herbs with tongs and serve with a fresh sprig of mint and ice in individual glasses. Add a garnish of citrus and/or melon for extra flavor.

Variation: use 4 sprigs of herbs and one tea bag per cup of water

 

China Bayles, lives in Pecan Springs, TX so in honor of her town here are two pecan recipes to snack on while reading about her adventures.

Pecan Butter Balls

  • 2 cups pecans
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup melted butter
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Confectioners’ sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Chop the pecans in a blender or food processor until you have two cups. Combine all of the ingredients except confectioners’ sugar. Gather the dough into a ball. With floured hands, shape into one-inch balls and bake on ungreased cookie sheets. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and spray them with Pam. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes. Pull the cookies and papers off the cookie sheet and onto a cooling rack and let them cool slightly; be sure they’re still warm and then gently shake them in a bag with the confectioners’ sugar. Place them back on the paper and add more confectioners’ sugar while they cool. Makes 5 dozen.

 

Ginger Pecan Oatmeal Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 cup quick cooking oatmeal
  • 3/4 cup pecan halves
  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger  or 2 teaspoons grated crystallized ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks, 6 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg

Directions

Grind the oatmeal and pecan pieces in a food processor until they resemble cornmeal–reasonably fine but with some texture. Whisk the whole wheat flour, cornstarch, ginger, salt and baking soda together in a medium bowl. Whisk in the oat/nut mixture.

In another medium bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until smooth and light, about 1 minute. Gradually add the granulated and light brown sugar; continue beating until evenly combined, about 3 minutes more. Add the vanilla and the egg.

Mix in the dry ingredients to make a dough. Line a 1 1/2-quart loaf pan or 3 mini loaf pans with plastic wrap and pack dough into the bottom half of the pan. Press to level off the dough. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on top and refrigerate until completely firm, about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Remove dough from the pan and unwrap. Slice dough in half lengthwise if using a large pan. Slice each log crosswise into 1/4-inch thick cookies. Place the cookies about a 1-inch apart on the prepared pans. Bake until golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool and crisp. Serve.

Store cookies in a tightly sealed container for up to 1 week.

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Recipe & Review: Teatime with China Bayles, Susan Wittig Albert

If you enjoyed this post see:

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mary Russell, Laurie R. King

Recipe & Review: Teatime with Mitford Books, Jan Karon

Book Series Review: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

Book Series Review: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

 

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Fantasy: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

 

Mishell Baker has created a magical world with an extraordinary protagonist. In this world, the world of the magical Fae and the non-magical world we inhabit are inextricably linked. That is the premise of the Arcadia Project books, a series that tells the story of one member of the Arcadia Project.

 

Millie Roper is broken. Damaged goods. She has borderline personality disorder (BPD), a mental condition that expresses itself in sudden, sometimes violent, mood swings. She can be in turns emotionally fragile and emotionally manipulative. She is difficult on her best days and almost impossible on her worst. She is also physically damaged. A suicide attempt left her a double amputee with metal screws holding many of her bones and joints together.

 

These challenges make our world a difficult place for Millie. But they uniquely suit her for dealing with the fae. The metal in her body makes her immune to most spells and enchantments. It even allows her to nullify many of them with a touch. And her emotional challenges help her in unexpected ways when dealing with the fae, who bring their own emotional uniqueness to the party.

 

Borderline and Phantom Pains introduce Millie and the other major characters in the series. They also introduce us to the major conflicts between the fae and the human world, and between those within the Arcadia Project who are willing to enslave spirits (and others) to gain power and those who are unwilling to enslave others. Millie is a freedom fighter. She works with others in the Los Angeles office of Arcadia, and with her fae allies, to oppose the London headquarters of Arcadia. Awkwardly, London is the headquarters of the entire project, ostensibly devoted to keeping the peace and promoting the advancement of both humans and fae, but secretly enslaving fae to take their powers for themselves. In Imposter Syndrome the battle is fought on two fronts, our world and Arcadia (the home of the fae), and Millie is at the center of it all.

 

Imposter Syndrome truly is centered on Millie. Although the book tells the story of the conflict between the chapters of the Arcadia Project and between fae kingdoms in Arcadia, the story is really all about Millie. She is a powerful protagonist, though she seems to be the last to recognize her own power. Her struggles are the arc of the book: coming to terms with her power within the Arcadia project; coming to terms with her sexuality as she wrestles with relationships with men, women, and fae; coming to terms with both her brokenness and her strength. Millie cannot be categorized. She is neither gay nor straight, she is neither whole nor broken, she is neither a leader nor a follower, she is neither mentally ill nor mentally healed. She is weak and powerful, sexual and aloof, intelligent and foolish, and utterly remarkable and unlike any other figure I have encountered in literature or in life. In other words, Millie is individual, special, unique, both like and unlike everyone else. That, in many ways, makes her extraordinary.

 

Mishell Baker has created a special character in Millie Roper. In being unlike anyone else, she is possibly the most human character you will encounter in science fiction–or in fiction in general. Millie Roper’s “differences” give her a strength and power that leaps off the page. She is worth getting to know through the pages of the Arcadia Project.

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Book Series Review: Arcadia Project Series, Mishell Baker

Recipe & Review: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter Series, Susan Wittig Albert

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Book Series Review: The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter series by Susan Wittig Albert is filled with many delightful ingredients — cozy mystery, historical Lake District setting, fantasy elements. Albert uses the beloved children’s book author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter as her main character. As a single female Londoner, Beatrix gets a mixed welcome to her new home in the village of Near Sawrey where she goes to her farm to write and draw her books as well as grieve for the loss of her fiance and escape her domineering parents. Over the course of the series Beatrix solves mysteries large and small while slowly becomes an integral and respected part of the village community.

Each book features a main mystery as well a couple of smaller intriguing issues that are neatly concluded by Beatrix’s keen observation skills, quick wit, and compassionate heart. Albert adds a whimsical fantasy addition by including a parallel problem faced by the animals of the village community who act and talk in the same manner as Beatrix’s literary creations – helpful dogs, generous badgers, marauding rats, even a brave dragon makes an appearance. The language of this series is definitely within the reach of readers as young as upper elementary or middle school and the light fantasy element would be appealing to them.

Albert’s attention to historical detail brings you into the heart of village life of Near Sawrey, as her characters react and reflect on their daily life, enjoy meals, gossip about neighbors, apply manners according to social status, dress for outings, and work the land of the Lake District. The land itself, like the people and animals, becomes a character in how it influences village life. At least once in each book, Beatrix takes time to just appreciate the land with walks or picnics or sketches. The land feeds her need for beauty as well as provides a venue for reflections.

In addition, Albert provides historical commentary in Historical Notes, Resources, recipes, maps, character lists, and glossaries of Lake District dialect words. This series would make a fine bridge into historical novels and period literature for young readers. Readers interested in the life of Beatrix Potter will also enjoy seeking the biographical references listed in the Resources.

Even though, readers know that the series is fiction, Albert makes Beatrix such a plausible and real character that we want to spend time with her. We cheer her steps as she grows from her grief, matches wits with the local matriarch, and discovers the answers to local mysteries. We watch as her makes friends, rebels against her controlling parents, and finds a new romance. We want to become her friend and just sit down and share a cup of tea while she spins another fascinating story. This is the perfect series to read on a picnic blanket in front of a beautiful lake view with some tea and scones.

Tea

In The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Beatrix often gathers clues while sharing a cup of tea visiting different villagers. The tea served was probably a black tea where the leaves go through an oxidation process in order to produce a richer flavor. The heartier flavor of black teas enable it to be served with either milk or lemon. Ceylon or Darjeeling teas would be examples of teas that would be served any time of the day. If Beatrix went on a morning visit, a strong tea, such as Assam or English Breakfast would be served. A lighter tea, such as Earl Grey or Formosa Oolong would be served in the afternoon without the milk or lemon due to its more delicate flavors.

Scones

Scones are a traditional treat to serve with tea. In the Cottage Tales series, Beatrix got her scones from a friend that ran a village bakery. This recipe was originally developed for an office gift-in-a-jar exchange. The basic dry mix was layered in a glass jar topped with the dry ingredients for the cranberry orange variation and decorated with a pretty cloth bow and recipe card with the instructions. Note: the addition of an egg is not a traditional ingredient in scones, however, I found a prize winning recipe using an egg and have discovered that the texture less crumbly making it easier to spread toppings. You can omit the egg for a more traditional recipe with the addition of a TBSP or two of extra liquid in the wet ingredient section.

Basic Dry Scone Mix (can be mixed and stored in a jar)

  • 2 ½  C self-rising flour baking mix or buttermilk biscuit mix
  • 2 Tbs sugar
  • 2 Tbs dried milk powder (optional, unless using juice as a flavor add-in instead of milk/half & half)

Wet Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 1/3 cup milk or half/half
  • 1 large egg, beaten

Flavor Add-in Variations (Note dried ingredients can be stored with dry mix)

  • 3/4 cup cranberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS orange zest or 1 tsp orange extract or 1/3 cup orange juice frozen concentrate (defrosted)  in place of milk
  • 3/4 cup frozen blueberries & (choose 1) 1 TBS lemon zest or 1 tsp lemon extract or 1/3 lemon juice concentrate in place of milk
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries & 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  • decrease butter to 2 TBS, add 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese & 2 tsp herbs de provence
  • replace sugar with 3 TBS maple syrup & 1 tsp cinnamon & 1/2 tsp ground ginger or 1 tsp minced crystallized ginger

Preheat the oven to 400. 

Start with dry mix in a bowl.

Top with wet ingredients.

Add any flavor variations from above.

Mix gently with a spatula until the dough just comes together.   

Using a cookie scoop, drop dough balls on to a sheet pan and lightly pat down to flatten – makes about 12 individual or 24 mini-bite scones.

Optional: sprinkle sugar on the tops for a slightly crunchy, shiny topping that browns faster.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on size, until the edges are just lightly browned on edges – tastes best warm from the oven.

 

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Review & Recipe: Teatime with The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, Susan Wittig Albert

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Book Series Review: Binti, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Series Review: BintiBinti: HomeBinti: The Night MasqueradeNnedi Okorafor

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Science Fiction Series: BintiBinti: HomeBinti: The Night MasqueradeNnedi Okorafor

Binti is one of the most extraordinary students on earth, so special that she has been accepted to Oomza University, the best university in the galaxy. Adding to her uniqueness is her tribe, the Himba, a fairly insular people not known for their scientific prowess or for their desire to interact with any other people, either on Earth or from other planets. Few Himba ever leave their African homeland, and none have ever gone to Oomza Uni. Defying the traditions of her people and the wishes of her family, Binti leaves her home before sunrise one morning, travels to the spaceport, and boards the ship.

 

So begins an extraordinary journey fraught with danger, shocking twists, and a hero’s journey unlike any other. Nnedi Okorafor paints beautiful word pictures, and Binti is a special subject for those word pictures. Himba women paint themselves with clay from their desert home. The color, consistency, and composition of the clay are unique to the Himba homeland and the process of making it and wearing it identifies the wearer as Himba. When that clay is gone, what does that mean for Binti’s self-identity? A lesser writer might overlook or gloss over that transition. Okorafor puts it near the center of Binti’s journey. Does ojitze make Binti Himba? Or can Binti make the ojitze from the soil of another world?

 

Ojitze features prominently through the books, and Binti’s relationship to the earth–and to the Earth–is metaphorically expressed through her use and making of the special clay. In her times of greatest distress, the clay grounds her, reminds her of who she is, connects her to her people and her planet. As long as she has ojitze, she is never fully alone. Even when she is the sole remaining human on a ship full of hostile intruders, the clay keeps her connected to her people. Later, when she has transitioned to a university student and erstwhile citizen of the galaxy, the clay reminds her of her home and her need to reconnect to her family and her tribe. The clay helps some species recognize her as a fellow citizen of the galaxy, yet at the same time separates her from other humans who see the ojitze as strange and other and primitive.

 

Binti is a master harmonizer. Among the Himba people, her work creating astrolabes is respected and valued. Her gifts in mathematics let her make connections in the technology, creating devices that are beautiful and functional, bringing wealth and fame to her family. In space the harmonizing is much more challenging: harmonizing between species long at war. When she returns home, finding harmony is much more difficult than it once was. Binti has changed. Literally. Finding harmony between herself and her family, her people, her land, is more challenging than ever, especially when old enemies find new opportunities to make war.

 

Okorafor was born in America of Igbo (Nigerian) parents. Her voice is unique. Fully African, fully grounded in the rich soil of a continent too often disparaged or ignored by a more Euro- and American-centric genre. Okorafor’s language is beautiful, her metaphors deep, and her characters brilliant. She may (or may not) be done with Binti, but I hope there are many more powerful African women coming from her wonderful imagination.

 

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Book Series Review: BintiBinti: HomeBinti: The Night MasqueradeNnedi Okorafor

Book Review: The Fallen, David Baldacci

Book Review: The FallenDavid Baldacci

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Fiction: The FallenDavid Baldacci

Amos Decker remembers everything. He cannot forget. After a traumatic brain injury on the football field, his mind changed and he developed a literally photographic memory. This is a terrific help when it comes to solving crimes for the FBI, but far from helpful when dealing with his own memories. Decker found his wife and daughter murdered. For most of us, memories dim with time. Most of us don’t have perfect recall. Decker’s memories are as fresh as if they happened yesterday. For him, murder is always personal.

 

David Baldacci has created a special detective in his series of “Memory Man” books. (Memory Man, 2015; The Last Mile, 2016; The Fix, 2017; The Fallen, 2018.) Amos Decker has a perfect memory. He also has synesthesia, which means his mind associates colors and/or smells with certain things, i.e. whenever there is a dead body he sees the color blue. With these changes in the way information is processed came changes in the way he processes emotions. He has trouble with empathy and often does not weigh the emotional impact of his words or actions.

 

When he is on vacation with his FBI partner visiting her sister’s family, Amos spots something strange in a neighboring house. Running over to investigate, he sees a fire. Breaking in to stop the fire, he finds two bodies, one dressed in a police uniform. He soon learns these are the fifth and sixth murders in this small town within a very few weeks. Amos and his partner offer their services to the local police; serial killers are their FBI area of expertise, while murder is not typically common in small-town Pennsylvania. What they don’t realize is that murder is not the only criminal act in this town. One character tells Amos, “Nothing is illegal in Baronville.” That may have been true before, but that is not acceptable to the Memory Man.

 

Baldacci is a bestselling author for good reason. His characters are solid and memorable. His dialog is brisk. His descriptions of small town life in Rust Belt Pennsylvania ring true to my observations of the area. He devotes several pages to the scourge of the opioid epidemic, describing it and its impact in chilling detail. All this while keeping a wide-ranging plot moving forward and never losing sight of the core humanity of his characters. Amos Decker is a complex protagonist who has come to terms with his new normal, a normal that is far different from the “normal” that most people have. But in this book, he is confronted with some limitations to his memory. That forces him to look hard at who he is–is he a walking, breathing memory machine or is he a man with a prodigious memory? He also has to deal with a six-year old girl who reminds him of his murdered daughter, and who is confronting a terrible loss herself. Can he find the compassion and empathy within himself to be more than a detective? Can he remember more than just the facts and remember how to care? Those challenges guide the character’s growth.

 

I loved the Memory Man character going into this fourth book of the series. This book makes me love him even more. Baldacci has a special talent for creating powerful characters that do not remain static. The Fallen may be his best work in a long and distinguished career.

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Book Review: The FallenDavid Baldacci