The Alloy of Law

The Alloy of Law, by Brandon Sanderson

This is not the usual lengthy fantasy novel readers have come to expect from Brandon Sanderson. It’s much shorter, faster-paced, and has more humor. The Alloy of Law is as much a western as a fantasy novel. While part of his Mistborn series, it’s set 300 years later, with all new characters. Waxillium and Wayne fight crime in the Roughs, aided by their magical allomantic and feruchemical powers. Wayne can create a slow time bubble and heals well, while Wax can push on steel and make himself lighter or heavier, moving like a superhero. After a tragedy, Wax must move to the family mansion in the city of Elendel, become Lord Waxillium Ladrian, and take over the family business. He also needs to start a family, and meets with Lady Steris and her father, Lord Harms, to discuss a proposal for courtship and possible marriage. Their first date, where they are joined by Steris’ cousin Marasi, a student of criminal justice, is at a wedding banquet. Their waiter turns out to be Wayne, a master of disguise. When thieves break into the banquet hall, open fire, and kidnap a lady, Wax and Wayne are back in the crime-fighting business, aided by Marasi. Recent mysterious railcar thefts and kidnapping of ladies with allomantic or feruchemical powers are probably connected, and they suspect their former colleague Miles, who is practically impossible to kill, of turning villain.

A fun read, and a nice change of pace. I read the book, but the audio version is also getting great reviews.


Made by Hand

Made by Hand, by Mark Frauenfelder

“This is the real secret of life–to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan Watts

These days a lot of people are interested in DIY/Do It Yourself. Sometimes that interest turns into action and sometimes it’s a dream. Making something yourself or doing a job you’d normally pay someone else to do can be scary. Mark Frauenfelder was intrigued and fascinated by all the amazing creators he met as the editor of Make Magazine but he was afraid to tackle projects because he thought he didn’t have the right skills. But all the makers he talked to told him to just jump in. They hadn’t been experts in the areas they started tinkering in–they just learned as they went. So Mark spoke with what he calls Alpha Makers–the people forging their own paths, doing incredible things, and serving as inspiration to others–and started taking the leap himself. Eventually he had chickens, a chicken coop, bees, homemade food and drinks, and new confidence in his handy work. Along the way he learns about overcoming the fear of failure and embracing failing as an important learning experience. Mark’s job keeps him tied to a desk for most of the day and the time he spends building and making gives him much-needed time to think and a sense of accomplishment he’d been missing. He gets to spend more time with his young daughters in a more fulfilling way than just watching TV or everyone playing iPhone games. It’s not all joy and enrichment, though. Chickens get hurt, bees take over, and Mark’s wife complains that he spends too much time with projects and not enough with his family. He learns balance and compromise as much as any other skill.

Anyone interested in DIY would learn from Made By Hand. It’s all the inspiration you need to try something new–be it building a cabinet, learning to draw, or making your own kimchi. Mark makes the case for DIY being more important now than ever and his failures and victories should give any wannabe maker the courage they need to get started.

If you’ve been bitten by the DIY bug, check out Make Magazine or any of their collected editions (you can order a few through SWAN). You can read more about Made by Hand, find an excerpt, and watch an interview with Mark on the Made by Hand site. Ready to get started? Mark’s cigar box guitar tutorial is free on the Make website.


Moonflower Vine

The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton

This morning a group gathered at the library to discuss this fifty-year-old novel, which was recently reprinted. It is the family saga of Callie and Matthew Soames and their daughters, moving back and forth in time from 1896 to the 1950s in rural Missouri. The group agreed that the book starts out very pleasantly, with three grown sisters and one grandson gathering with their retired parents at their Missouri farm for a few weeks in the summer, playing in the creek, making ice cream, and watching the moonflowers bloom in the evening.

Through the different sections of the book, each told from the viewpoint of a different character, we learn about the cracks in Matthew’s and Callie’s marriage. Matthew is a teacher and school superintendent, while Callie can hardly read. Eldest daughter Jessica once broke her parents’ hearts, while dutiful middle daughter Leonie wonders why her parents are content to spend summers on their farm, with no plumbing and old furniture, while their town house is up-to-date. Their wild younger sister comes to life, but we never really learn what she is thinking. Various young men, including a daring pilot, come in and out of the family circle, none entirely satisfactory, at least not to stern Matthew and loving Callie. Tragedy occurs, but life goes on, and we circle back to the girls’ annual summer trek back to the farm, from their unique lives as a farmer’s wife, teacher, and television producer in New York City. Everyone has secrets and occasionally feels the need to escape from the proper behavior a school superintendent expects from his family. So the sweet beginning of the book is a bit deceptive, just skimming the surface of the family’s real life. As the book moves back and forth in time, I was occasionally confused as when certain events took place.

None of the group had come across this novel before, long thought to be the only book by New York advertising writer and former dancer Carleton, who grew up in rural Missouri, but a manuscript has been found for another novel, and Clair de Lune will be published next month.


Kiwis Might Fly

Kiwis Might Fly, by Polly Evans

This is the second book I’ve read by Polly Evans, and her books are the ultimate in armchair travel entertainment. Follow Brit Polly as she takes a solo motorcycle tour of New Zealand, just weeks after getting licensed to drive a motorcycle. The bike she rents is so heavy she can’t pick it up when it falls over, as happens more than once. With Polly, we see all the amazing sights, cities, and wildlife of North and South Islands, while seeking to discover if the original Kiwi bloke still exists. Speaking of Kiwis, her description of a guided nighttime hike looking for the flightless kiwi birds is hilarious. She finds the people friendly, and visits with many friends of friends or relatives, and finds many of the men quite manly, but with a softer side that makes her wonder if they’ve all gone modern. Even the tough sheep shearers are affectionate parents. Kiwi ingenuity is widespread, but many immigrants are equally creative. There is quite a bit of history in the beginning chapters, but then the reader gets caught up in Polly’s adventures as she travels around the country. Polly claims to be a bit cowardly, but goes on marvelous adventures, and doesn’t even get seasick. Hiking, climbing, tethered flying, fishing, kayaking, and sheep shearing are all described. Only two things really seem to scare her: falling off her motorcycle, and bungee jumping. Driving through a hailstorm isn’t fun, either. Previously she rode a bicycle all over Spain, and in later books she takes public transportation around China, rides a horse and tangos in Argentina, and learns to drive sled dogs in the Yukon. We don’t own her books, but they are available in nearby libraries, and can be requested through interlibrary loan. For more about Polly’s travels and photos from her travel’s, visit her website. Also recommended is Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, about travels in Australia.


The Marriage Artist

The Marriage Artist, by Andrew Winer

This is an intricately woven novel which incorporates grand themes such as love, marriage, death, history, religion, and art. Most of the characters are Jewish, and there are two main plots.

The first plotline involves a love triangle between Josef, a famous gifted artist, his friend Max, who is doubly doomed, being Jewish and gay, and Hannah, who is depressed. The story begins in Vienna in 1928, when  8-year-old Josef meets his grandfather, a rabbi, and discovers a talent for drawing Ketubah, an ornate Jewish marriage certificate. “After all,” his grandfather states, “Marriage demands of us the impossible. It is a job for which there is no apprenticeship – a riddle no one has ever solved. And the husband and wife, naively jumping into this great mystery, are left to shape it according to a vision they don’t have. This is where the Ketubah comes in. A Good Ketubah, in words both practical and poetic, in beauty that is symbolic and personal to the bride and groom, illuminates the mystery of the union of man and woman. A Good Ketubah helps give them a vision, a start.”

Joseph draws many Ketubah but becomes disillusioned when the reality is the Ketubah does not guarantee happiness. He meets Max and they both swear to never get married. Many years later Josef meets Hannah when they are both trying to flee from Hitler’s regime. They are married in line at an emigration station, both intending to go to Palestine. But they never leave and Hannah becomes pregnant with baby Herman. Max secretly loves Josef and is not pleased to share him with Hannah. All three of them end up in the concentration camps.

Baby Herman escapes the fate of the concentration camps and grows up to be a Buddhist. Herman’s son Benjamin becomes a troubled, gifted artist like his grandfather.

The second plotline (taking place in present-day New York) involves an art critic named Daniel Lichtmann, whose wife Alexandra has a suicidal affair with Benjamin. The deaths occur at the book’s beginning, and Daniel tries to discover why this happened, and unravels the stories of Josef, Max, and Hannah.

All of these characters are caught up in or haunted by the Holocaust. This is beautiful and powerful writing and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice.


Affairs of Steak

Affairs of Steak, by Julie Hyzy

This is the newest entry in the White House Chef Mystery series by Hyzy. Olivia (Ollie) Paras is the White House executive chef, the first woman to hold that position. She is dedicated, hard-working, and has the strong ethics required of any White House employee.

The problem is that she is frequently in the wrong place at the wrong time and stumbles across things she shouldn’t, such as dead bodies.  And her curiosity sometimes gets the better of her.

These stories involve lots of insights into the doings at the White House and interesting tidbits about how the rather small kitchen staff prepares the meals for the First Family, as well as the details involved in planning the large events—state dinners and luncheons.

The White House sensitivity director, Peter Everett Sargeant, and Ollie, who have had clashes in the past, need to work together to prepare a lavish birthday party for the Secretary of State. Things go awry immediately, and the complications compound. The Secret Service is involved, as well as numerous other White House employees.

This book does not focus as closely on the First Family as the earlier ones do, but it is a fun read, clever, and Ollie is a fine, well-developed character. The rest of the kitchen staff is also well-drawn.

Hyzy includes some recipes in the back of the books also. Anyone for Pastry-Wrapped Asparagus Spears with Prosciutto?

The other books in the series are:

State of the Onion

Hail to the Chef

Eggsecutive Orders

Buffalo West Wing


I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley

Meet Flavia de Luce, an 11-year-old chemist and amateur sleuth. She lives at Buckshaw, a stately old house in England with her father, a stamp collector, spiteful older sisters Daphne and Ophelia, and Dogger, Buckshaw’s butler/handyman/gardener. Motherly Mrs. Mullet comes in daily to cook and clean. The year is 1950, and Colonel de Luce, struggling to make ends meet, rents out Buckshaw to a film company over the Christmas holidays. The famous Phyllis Wyvern and crew move in. Lead actors Phyllis and Desmond agree to put on a show for charity, and act out the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet for the residents of nearby Bishop’s Lacey. A blizzard strands the villagers, who camp out in Buckshaw’s vast foyer.

In the meantime, Flavia is busy concocting a sticky trap for Father Christmas, whose existence is denied by her sisters. When she finds a strangled body, Dogger and Flavia assist Inspector Hewitt in solving the murder. Sometimes Flavia seems too smart for her age, although emotionally she is just right, but she is always good company. This is the fourth book in an award-winning mystery series beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but is my favorite to date. Happily, the author is contracted for five more titles. I have listened to the whole series on compact disc, and really enjoy Jayne Entistle’s narration. For more about Flavia, visit the author’s website, or view the book trailer.


Ten Miles Past Normal

Ten Miles Past Normal, by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Janie Gorman wants to be a normal, ordinary high school freshman, not the crafty farm girl who occasionally smells of goat. Her junior high friends have a different lunch period, so Janie hangs out in the library with the other misfits, where she finds one potential friend. Art class has possibilities, not yet realized. Best friend Sarah, an over achiever, writes Janie notes to get her through the school day until last period Women’s History, where the girls are inspired to learn about a local civil rights leader. Sarah and Janie share a crush on Jeremy Fitch, who plays in Jam Band every Friday.  Monster Monroe gives Sarah and Janie a lesson on playing the bass so they can join the band, with unexpected results.

Back on her family’s small organic farm, Janie confides in the goats as she milks them, suddenly has nothing in common with her cheerful mother, and wishes she never came up with the idea to move to a farm. Her mother now bakes awesome bread, but also blogs about life on the farm, and about Janie. Janie is doomed. For more about Janie, visit the author’s web site.

I listened to this book, and thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I’m many years past high school. I’m not sure if I identified with Janie more, or her mother.


The Flight of Gemma Hardy

The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a new work by famed author Margot Livesey, her first work in 4 years. This is a fascinating fast-paced novel, filled with romantic drama, suspense, and emotional duress. The novel closely resembles the beloved classic Jane Eyre, with only a few marked differences. The narrative begins with a young girl’s flight from her native Iceland to Scotland in the late 1950s, following the death of her widowed father. She is sent to live with her cruel aunt and hostile cousins, where she develops a stiff backbone and makes few friends. She finds refuge in intellect, and is initially delighted to be sent to a boarding school, but is soon sorely disappointed by the stark and unforgiving environment.

As in Jane Eyre, the reader follows Gemma to her late school years, where she looks for work as an au pair, or nanny, to a family on an isolated island in the Orkneys. The author seems to have done much research into the flora and fauna of these remote islands, effortlessly taking the reader into the landscape. She meets her charge’s father, Mr. Sinclair, who’s character remains simultaneously mysterious and inviting to Gemma throughout the novel. Her relationship to Mr. Sinclair helps her truly understand who she is, and yet becomes fraught with peril and distress as choices are made, and secrets discovered.

Unlike many novels who shamelessly use classic novels to ‘modernize’ them into poor prose, The Flight of Gemma Hardy does not seem to fall into that category. Livesey has an absolute reverence for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and her modernized interpretations are soft representations of the former novel, nothing done to jar the reader who loves the classic.

Even if one has never read Jane Eyre, this will be an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Library Journal calls it “[An] original slant on a classic story…. Within the classic framework, Livesey molds a thoroughly modern character who learns to expect the best of herself and to forgive the missteps of others. The author has a gift for creating atmosphere.”


The Third Reich

The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolano

The main character in this novel is an arrogantly brilliant German war games player named Udo Berger. His board game of choice is called Third Reich, a reenactment of World War II. Udo and his girlfriend Ingeborg are on vacation in Costa Brava, Spain. She comes to enjoy the beach and he is there to study for a championship tournament to be held later in the year. They run into various interesting characters at the resort where they are staying and much debauchery ensues. However, one of the characters stands out from the rest, a mysterious European named El Quemado, who is not what he seems. Udo is drawn to him, and soon they are engaged in a Third Reich match. Udo is used to the virtual world of war games and when he meets reality in the form of El Quemado and his shadowy mentor, it will upend his life and make him question everything he holds dear.

 Robert Bolano was a Chilean novelist and poet. He was posthumously awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for his novel 2666. Susan Sontag referred to him as “the most influential and admired novelist of his generation.” Third Reich was written in 1989 and found among Bolano’s papers after his death.