Posts Tagged ‘genre’

Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

November 6, 2015 3 comments

Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philp K. DickSummary:
Earth is overcrowded and overheated but people still don’t want to become colonists to other planets.  The colonies on the other planets are so boring and depressing that the colonists spend all of their money on Can-D — a drug that lets them imagine themselves living in an idealistic version of Earth.  The only trick is they have to set up dioramas of Earth first.  The drug is illegal on Earth but the diorama parts are still created by a company there.  When the famous Palmer Eldritch returns from the far-flung reaches of space, he brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, that doesn’t require the dioramas.  What the people don’t know, but one of the manager of the Can-D company soon finds out, is that Chew-Z sends those who take it into an alternate illusion controlled by Palmer Eldritch.

I love Philip K. Dick, and I have since first reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So whenever I see his books come up on sale in ebook format, I snatch them up.  I picked this up a while ago for this reason, and then randomly selected it as my airplane read on my honeymoon.  Like many Dick novels the world of this book is insane, difficult to explain, and yet fun to visit and thought-provoking.

The world Dick has imagined is hilarious, although I’m not sure it was intended to be.  Presciently, Dick sets up a future suffering from overpopulation and global warming, given that this was published in 1965, I find it particularly interesting that his mind went to a planet that gets too hot.  Even though the planet is unbearably warm (people can only go outside at night and dusk/dawn), they still don’t want to colonize other planets.  Colonizing the other planets is just that bad.  So there’s a selective service by the UN, only instead of soldiers, those randomly selected are sent to be colonists.  The wealthy can generally get out of it by faking mental illness, as the mentally ill can’t be sent away.  This particular aspect of the book definitely reflects its era, as the 1960s was when the Vietnam War draft was so controversially going on.

I don’t think it’s going out on much a limb to say that drugs had a heavy influence on this book.  Much of the plot centers around two warring drugs, and how altered perceptions of reality impact our real lives.  One of the main characters starts out on Earth hearing about how the poor colonists have such a depressing environment that they have to turn to drugs to keep from committing suicide.  But when he later is sent to Mars himself as a colonists, his impression is that in fact the colony is this downtrodden because no one tries very hard because they’re so much more focused on getting their next hit of Can-D.  The Can-D has caused the lack of success on the planet, not the other way around.  Whether or not he is accurate in this impression is left up to the reader.

Then of course there’s the much more major plot revolving around the new drug, Chew-Z.  Without giving too much away, people think Chew-Z is a much better alternative to Can-D, but it turns out chewing it puts you under the control of Palmer Eldritch for the duration of your high, and if you overdose, you lose the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality.  The main character (and others who help him) thus must try to convince the humans that Chew-Z is bad for them before they ever even chew it.  The main character has another side mission of getting people off of Can-D.

It sounds like a very anti-drugs book when summarized this way, but it felt like much more than that.  People chewing Chew-Z can come to have an experience that sounds religious – seeing the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a stigmata in Christian tradition is when God shows his favor on someone by giving them the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion.  In this book, the three stigmata are three bodily aspects of Palmer that are unique to him).  However, the experience of seeing the stigmata is in fact terrifying, not enlightening.  The drugs thus represent more than drugs. They represent the idea that we could possibly know exactly what a higher power is thinking, and perhaps that it might be better to just go along as best we can, guessing, rather than asserting certainty.

All of this said, a few weaknesses of the 1960s are seen.  I can’t recall a non-white character off the top of my head.  Women characters exist, thank goodness, but they’re all secondary to the male ones, and they are divided pretty clearly into the virgin/whore dichotomy.  They are either self-centered, back-stabbing career women, or a demure missionary, or a stay-at-home wife who makes pots and does whatever her husband asks.  For the 1960s, this isn’t too bad. Women in the future are at least acknowledged and most of them work, but characterizations like this still do interfere with my ability to be able to 100% enjoy the read.  Also, let’s not forget the Nazi-like German scientist conducting experiments he probably shouldn’t.  For a book so forward-thinking on things like colonizing Mars and the weather, these remnants of its own time period were a bit disappointing.

Overall, though, this is a complex book that deals with human perception and ability.  Are we alone in space? Can we ever really be certain that what we are seeing is in fact reality? How do we live a good life? Is escapism ever justified? Is there a higher power and if there is how can we ever really know what they want from us?  A lot of big questions are asked but in the context of a mad-cap, drug-fueled dash around a scifi future full of an overheated planet and downtrodden Mars colonies.  It’s fun and thought-provoking in the best way possible.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant

October 30, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy BryantSummary:
Running from his demons, a man crashes his car and wakes up being assisted by a deceptively primitive people–the kin of Ata. He discovers that he’s been mysteriously brought to an island inhabited only by these people.  As time passes, he comes to learn there is much more to them than first appears.

I can’t recall exactly how this ended up in my tbr but I am certain it had something to do with it being older feminist scifi/fantasy, which I collect and read as much as possible.  What I was expecting, particularly from a book from the 1970s, was a wishful book about an impossible utopia.  What I got instead was a spiritual parable that left me breathless, surprised, and craving more–not out of the book but out of life.

The book starts slowly.  The entire first chapter has the main character driving angrily down a road just after committing a murder during a fit of rage.  He is not a character with which you can particularly empathize at this point, and it is confusing as to just when the titular Kin of Ata will show up.  I admit that the first chapter moved so slowly and was so difficult to relate to that I was expecting the book to be a slog, but I persevered on, and in retrospect I appreciate the first chapter quite a bit.  I’ll discuss why at the end of my review.

The man wakes up to people getting him out of the car and bringing him to a cave.  They then bring him out of the cave to their hut-like homes.  He perceives of them as primitive and judges them harshly.  Gradually over time he comes to better understand them and their ways and to understand that he is not with primitive people hidden in the woods near his home.  He is on an island, and he somehow was spirited there.  I won’t discuss much more of the plot, because it could ruin it, but essentially the man is a stand-in for the reader.  The Kin of Ata have spiritual lessons and teach them to the man, and in turn to the reader.  It comes across much like a parable.

The Kin believe that humans need to remember and respect their dreams (actual dreams we have at night).  They view our sleeping lives as just as important, if not more so, than our waking ones.  They thus design their waking lives to be lived in the right manner so as to elicit the most powerful dreams.  This means things like working but not too hard.  Thus making yourself tired enough to sleep but not so tired that you sleep the sleep of the dead.  It also means discussing your dreams every morning upon awaking.  It means listening to your dreams and choosing daytime activities that suit what they are telling you.  Put another way, the Kin choose daytime activities that fit the callings of their deepest souls.  They essentially live a very mindful life that helps them achieve happiness and a peaceful community.

The main character starts out as a deep blight on the community.  He keeps trying to force his ways upon them. He comes across as an angry cloud.  In addition to being a murderer he also rapes one of the female Kin early on in the book.  I found the depiction of this rape fascinating.  The man sees people having sex with each other in what appears to him to be whenever one person demands it.  In actuality, the people are choosing each other and subtlely letting each other know whether they want to have sex or not.  The man decides he wants to participate and goes after one of the women.  She indicates to him through cultural body language (these people do not speak much) that it is the wrong time.  He does it anyway and she does not resist but she also does not participate.  The whole community judges him as it being a wrong and a rape in spite of the fact that the woman never said no.  The whole community views sex as only consensual if joyous consent is given, not just if the word “no” is not said.  The man is startled and yet also immediately understands their point.  He felt dirty and wrong after the sex and wasn’t sure why but now he understands and doesn’t know why he never thought of it this way before.  He is utterly ashamed of himself.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I struggle with plots that ask us to empathize with a rapist.  It honestly surprised me that this scene didn’t turn me off the book entirely.  Yet this is also a huge turning point for the main character.  He realizes that his way of doing things leads to him feeling bad and wrong and negatively impacts others.  The woman spends several days in a cavelike place, which is basically where the Kin go to meditate.  When she comes out, she forgives the man, because harboring a grudge against him would hurt her own ability to live the right path.  I found the whole event of how the community confronts the man about his wrongdoing, how he responds to this confrontation, and how the woman handles it to be incredibly thought-provoking.  It made me think about how much culture impacts people’s ability to even recognize when they’ve done something wrong.  Also, much as I had heard many times growing up how harboring hate in your own heart poisons yourself and not the one who harmed you, seeing a character fully embrace this after a traumatic experience made it sink in much more for me than just hearing the saying ever did.

This scene also served another purpose.  It reminded me that we’ve all done things we’re ashamed of and showed a path of redemption.  The man starts to pursue living the right way.  He has set-backs and stumbles.  It sometimes takes years for him to see the results of certain actions that he starts doing the right way.  It takes perseverance, unlike living the easy way, like he used to.  It’s a powerful parable for practices such as meditation, for which you often don’t see results right away.

Similarly, again, I don’t want to spoil it, but the book demonstrates how it takes a community living right for a truly peaceful and happy community to exist.  It also demonstrates, though, how one person who is very strong in their commitment to this right path can impact a whole community that is lost.

I promised to touch back on why I came to appreciate the first chapter.  I appreciate it because it shows us the main character living his life following the wrong path within his own original community.  It shows us where he came from before showing us how he develops into a life so much better through his work with the Kin.  It also makes for a powerful bookend with the final chapter, whose surprise I will not reveal.

This is a powerful parable that demonstrates how much impact living mindfully can have, and also how important developing healthy communities is for the happiness and peace of all.  It shows how wrong cultural ideals can lead people astray and hurt even the perpetrators of violence.  Some may struggle with parts of the book, but that is part of the process of learning the lessons in the parable.  I highly recommend this short book to all seeking a thought-provoking read.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)

October 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Luke Daniels)Summary:
Picking up where Unwind left off, UnWholly finds Risa and Connor managing the Graveyard full of unwinds themselves with no adults in site, and Lev struggling to find a purpose now that he’s both free of clapper chemicals and under the watchful eye of the government.  Into the mix comes Cam, the first ever “rewind.”  He’s been assembled completely from the parts of unwinds of every race and religion.  And his creator intends to meddle with the runaway unwinds too.

I picked this up right after finishing the first on audiobook, because finding a fast-paced story with a good narrator can be harder than it sounds.  So once I found that with the first book in the series and I saw the rest of it had the same narrator, I figured I may as well continue along with it.  While I found the first book engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself periodically bored with the plot in this one, and also found it more difficult to suspend my disbelief than before.

The basic premise is that Connor is all torn up over having the arm of his once-rival (who also just so happened to threaten to rape his girlfriend, Risa).  He thus holds Risa at arm’s-length (pun intended) because he’s afraid of what his own arm will do.  While I appreciate the fact that it must be truly atrocious for your boyfriend to now have your attempted rapist’s arm, I think the fact that Connor lends the arm so much agency is a symptom of one particular idea in this world-building that just doesn’t work for me.  The idea that body parts have their own spark of soul or agency or thought.  It’s rife in this entry in the series, and it’s just plain weird to me.  I can understand a character not bonding with a transplant that was forced upon him. I can understand it being weird for loved ones.  I don’t, however, find myself able to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone’s arm has their personality in it so much that the person who it was transplanted onto would be afraid of it.  It’s an arm, not a piece of brain or even a heart. The author does provide links to sources about transplant recipients feeling connected to the person whose body part they received or having memories or what have you.  I appreciate that.  But for me personally this plot point just does not work.  Other readers may be able to suspend their disbelief better than I was able to.  I for once can’t imagine not going near my own girlfriend because I was afraid of my arm.  I also just disliked how much agency Connor removes from himself for his own temper.  If he hits the wall when he’s angry it’s not him hitting the wall, it’s the arm hitting the wall.  The arm got mad. The arm got out of control.  There’s just a ridiculous lack of agency there, and I’m not super comfortable with that level of lack of agency being in a book marketed toward teenagers, who are at the best point in life for learning agency and responsibility.

I similarly have a hard time believing, from a neurological perspective, that the rewind boy, Cam, could exist.  His brain is dozens’ of peoples all wound together.  I could believe replacing a brain piece here or there with transplant technology, I couldn’t believe mish-mashing many together and having them actually function.  Let alone with the only issue being that Cam struggles to learn to speak in words instead of metaphors.  While Cam did strike me as grotesque, he mostly just struck me as an impossibility that I was then supposed to have sympathy for because he’s a person with his own feelings…but are they really?  The whole thing was just a bit too bizarre for me.

On a related note, I found the scenes where Cam wakes up and learns to talk and slowly realizes what he is to be very tedious to read.  They move slowly, and there is an attempt at building of suspense, but it is clear nearly immediately that Cam is a Frankenstein’s creature like experiment, even without Cam himself knowing it right away.

The other big new character is Starkey, a boy who was storked who is brought into the Graveyard.  He’s basically exactly the same as Connor (he’s even still a white boy), the only difference being that was a stork and that he has no Risa to ease down his temper.  I found his characterization to be uncreative, even if the building up of strife between the storks and the rest of the unwinds was a good plot point.  It would have been better if the leader of the storks was more creative.  Similarly, Starkey’s two main assistants are a black girl and an Indian-American boy.  Just as with the first book, non-white people exist, but only as seconds to the white people.  Why couldn’t either of them have been the leader of the storks?

All of these things said, there was still a lot of plot to keep the interest.  I’ve barely touched on a couple of them.  The world is still engaging, even if it’s hard to suspend the disbelief for it.  I doubt I’d keep reading if I was reading this in print, but the audiobook narration makes it feel like listening to a movie, and it’s the perfect match for my commutes and doing dishes and such.  Plus, now I’m curious as to where else the plot will go.  I’m betting it will end up going in a direction I find it even harder to suspend my disbelief for, but it’ll be a fun ride seeing where that is.

Overall, fans of the first book may be disappointed by the slightly more meandering plot in this one.  The addition of two new characters to follow will be distracting to some readers while others will find it adds to the interest and suspense.  Some readers may be turned off by the continued lack of diversity in such a large cast of protagonists.  The plot is engaging and the world is unique, though, so fans of YA dystopian scifi will probably still enjoy it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Unwind, review

Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love by Christine Frost

October 19, 2015 2 comments

Book Review: The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula's Lost Love by Christine FrostSummary:
Vlad the Impaler, a Wallachian prince, inspired the story of Dracula with his bloodthirsty, iron-handed ruling.  This, though, is the story of his long-time consort, Ecaterina Floari, mother one of his sons and a daughter.  She loves him deeply but is haunted by his ruling style, as well as spirits in a helmet he brings into their home from one of his battles.

I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale years ago but it took a while for my mood to be just right to read it.  It is a historic piece set in 1400s with splashes of the fantastic, and I tended to be in the mood for one or the other but not both.  Finally in the heat of the summer, I was ready for a dark historic fantasy that would take me away to heavy gowns and ancient rulers.  I was surprised by the level of historic research and detail in the book, as well as the tie-in to the Dracula story, making it a marriage of two genres.

This is a long book with a lot of rich setting detail.  That doesn’t tend to be my style but it works with the feel the book is going for, and many readers will enjoy the pace at which the book moves.  The dark fantasy elements take time to set up, but when they get into motion they really add to the story.  The story strikes a nice balance of Ecaterina working with the culture of her time-period and being bothered by certain things Vlad does.  For instance, it bothers her that he has mistresses, but she comes to accept it as is expected of her in the time-period.  This trajectory acknowledges the feelings the modern reader may have about the situation but also lets the character be true to her time-period.

The author toes a finely-held line of showing Vlad’s cruelty but also keeping him human and not demonizing him.  He was a cruel ruler but he wasn’t a monster.  Similarly, although Ecaterina loves him she is still disturbed by his actions when ruling.  This lends both characters depth they would not have if Ecaterina’s love was blind or Vlad was monstrous.

In spite of appreciating the historic fiction plot covering many decades, I did sometimes feel that the plot meandered a bit too much.  I also felt that sometimes the book told too much instead of showing.  Similarly, there were a few too many typos and grammatical errors for a book that is in its final version.  It was not enough to make me stop reading but it was enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.

I appreciated how much of the book is from women’s perspectives.  Not just Ecaterina’s but her mother’s, servants, and other consorts and even a spy are featured.  The female cast is strong, and that would be easy for a less thoughtful writer to pass over in favor of showcasing the men history chose to record more thoroughly.

Overall, readers seeking to learn something about the 1400s in Romania will be pleased by how much they will learn reading this book.  Those who come to it due to the Dracula connection will enjoy the fantastical elements toward the end in particular.  Recommended to readers of historic fiction and fantasy who do not mind a long book with a slow burn.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Smashwords

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Book Review: Thieves’ Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)

September 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: Thieves' Quarry by D.B. Jackson (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Jonathan Davis)Summary:
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion.  Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good.  He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring.  The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.

I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much.  (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy.  It is awesome).  This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.

Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first.  Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way.  It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders.  I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew.  I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t.  This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.

Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot.  I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship.  Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other.  Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do.  Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize.  It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.

All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook.  I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect.  The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed.  I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things.  It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.

The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating.  This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series.  I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.

Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series.  Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere.  But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Previous Books in Series:
Thieftaker, review

Book Review: The Mediator Pattern by J.D. Lee

September 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Mediator Pattern by J.D. LeeSummary:
In an alternate history, the personal fax machine, not computers, became the quintessential technology, and one company, BelisCo, is running much of the United States.  San Jose is now run entirely by BelisCo, and it boasts all the best of modern planned living: adult-only zones, smoking and non-smoking zones, clean and reliable transportation, and legal weed.  Marcus Metiline is a PI in San Jose, and his whole world gets turned upside down when he agrees to take a job for BelisCo itself.

This is one of my accepted ARCs for 2015, and I went for it due to its interesting slight twist on the noir genre.  I was intrigued at the idea of a PI in an alternate world where fax machines were the status quo instead of PCs. It felt almost like a steampunk. Techpunk? There should be a world for this when the old tech isn’t steam-power.  In any case, although I found the world very interesting and I enjoyed visiting it, the plot left me dissatisfied.

This book is an enjoyable read even when the plot is doing weird things.  The sentences flow smoothly, and the settings and characters are clearly rendered.  I really enjoyed this alternate world.  I liked it so much that I was disappointed by how little time we spend in it.  Marcus is quickly scooped out and plopped into another world, and I didn’t like that one nearly as much or find it as interesting.  The first world Marcus inhabits is creative and new.  The other worlds are more dull and are things I’ve seen before.

It’s difficult to review this book without giving much away, but suffice to say that there is physics in the book, and while I appreciate the fact that science of it is good and well-explained, it also is a physics I’ve seen in scifi many times before, and I don’t think this particular rendering brought anything fresh to the table.

There are three really important characters in the book: Marcus, the owner of BelisCo, and a doctor.  All three of them are male.  This makes the book read a bit like a boys’ club, and it bugged me.  The book would have instantly been more unique and interesting if, say, Marcus had been a hard-boiled woman PI.  When every main character is basically the same (an intelligent white male), it’s just dull.

So, the non-spoiler reason of why I wasn’t into the plot is that I felt it took things just one twist too far, rendering things a bit ridiculous.  If you want more explanation, see the spoiler-filled paragraph below.

Basically, Marcus finds out that San Jose is some sort of Matrix-like simulation aka not the real world, and he is encouraged to break out of it.  When he does, the buildings of San Jose start falling apart and people are mad at him.  We discover that the reason for this is that the simulation was being done on a bunch of cancer patients.  The science here didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but basically they would live longer if they were in the simulation, giving them more of a chance to beat the cancer.  Everyone entered the simulation through Marcus, and they had to keep him believing it to keep the experiment going.  This whole experiment is highly illegal, and they blow up the building to get rid of the evidence.  There are then hints that there are more worlds and simulations than these.  First, I found the whole we’re in a simulation and this isn’t real life thing to be a very been there done that plot.  It took us out of the much more interesting simulation world and into a computer simulation that I’ve seen before.  The second twist of it actually being cancer treatment and them needing Marcus to stay in the world just sent the whole thing off into left field for me.  Particularly since I found the science of the cancer treatment to be weak compared to the physics earlier.  While I appreciate to others it may read more like a cool idea, to me it just took things on a path from super interesting to I’ve seen this before to wtf was that.  It just really didn’t work for me.
*end spoilers*

Overall, readers who are intrigued by the world in the summary and who don’t mind multiple plot twists and a predominantly male cast will enjoy this read.  It is well-written and interesting, but readers expecting to linger in the fax machine world of the plot summary should know that this world is soon left behind.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy in exchange for my honest review

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Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology Behind the World’s Most Pungent Food — With Over 100 Recipes by Robin Cherry

August 27, 2015 5 comments

Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World's Most Pungent Food--with over 100 Recipes by Robin CherrySummary:
A history of the world and medicine as seen through the eyes of garlic, plus a lesson on the many varieties of garlic, how to grow it, and where to find other garlic lovers.  Topped off with a collection of over 100 recipes from all over the world featuring garlic, both historic and new.

When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew I needed a review copy.  I’m a passionate home chef with a love of garlic and a never-ending interest on the history of food.  This book’s title indicated it would hit all three of those interests, and its content did not let me down.

The book is divided into two parts.  Part One focuses on everything but the recipes. Part Two is the recipes.  Part One’s chapters cover the history of using garlic for health and for food, garlic in legends and lore, and how to grow your own.  This is the section that most entertained my friends and fiancé, as they found themselves the recipients of random facts about garlic.  One friend received an email of all of the types of garlic that originated in the country of Georgia; another a tip that growing some near her fruit tree might be beneficial for the tree.  Here are a few of my favorite facts that I learned in Part One:

  • The world’s first-known medical text also mentions medical uses of garlic (loc 129)
  • Garlic is designated as a drug in Japan (loc 222)
  • Spanish immigrants were the most likely to survive during the colonization of the Western hemisphere, thanks to their consumption of garlic.  Carrying the cloves protected them from disease-carrying mosquitoes.  (loc 309-313)
  • Garlic vodka is used as an antiflu remedy in Russia (Bonus: the book has the recipe for making this for yourself). (loc 392)
  • “In addition to preventing colds, garlic is effective in killing viral meningitis, viral pneumonia, influenza, and herpes.” (loc 423)
  • “Garlic also kills bacteria directly, by invading its cells and causing them to explode, thus bacteria has not opportunity to develop a resistance to it.” (loc 427)
  • “Green-colored garlic is stronger than white garlic because it contains more of the aromatic sulfuric compounds.” (loc 922)
  • The earliest bridal bouquets incorporated garlic to ward off the evil spirits. (loc 1067)
  • There are over 200 varieties of garlic. (loc 1203)

Part One ends with tips on how to cultivate garlic and a selection of the various types of garlic, including notes on where they grow best, how they look, and how they taste.  Garlic may be broadly divided into hardnecks and softnecks, but there are subvarieties within these two main ones.  (Softnecks are the ones that you can braid).  My one criticism of Part One is that I wish it had gone more in-depth into the history of garlic all over the world.  It left me wanting more.  Perhaps there isn’t more, but I certainly wish there was.  I would additionally note that, although I personally enjoyed reading about the many varieties of garlic and took copious notes, some readers might find the listing of the types a bit tedious to read and may not be expecting it in a book of this nature.

Part Two is the recipes.  It starts with notes on how to handle and prepare garlic.  The recipes are then divided into: dips, sauces, and condiments; bread, pizza, and pasta; soups; salads and salad dressings; appetizers; poultry; lamb; beef; seafood; vegetarian; side dishes; dessert; and historical recipes.    I marked off a total of 19 recipes that I definitely want to try, which is quite a lot for me.  Often I’ll read a cookbook and only be interested in one or two of the recipes.  The recipes cover a nice variety of cuisines, and the historic recipes are fascinating, although most readers will probably not try them as they require things such as fresh blood.  Besides the historic recipes, the dessert ones are probably the most surprising.  I actually did mark one off as one I’d like to try–Roasted Garlic Creme Brulee.

I have managed to make one of the recipes so far: Garlic Scape Pesto (loc 1649).  For those who don’t know, garlic scapes are the green stalks that grow out of the bulbs.  They must be trimmed (on most varieties).  They taste a bit like a cross between garlic and leeks.  Our local produce box happened to give us a bunch of them right around when I read the book, and I’m a big pesto fan, so I decided to try the recipe.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

The recipe is supposed to make 2 cups.  I halved it, and somehow still wound up with 2 cups of pesto.  The recipe suggests storing the leftovers under a layer of olive oil.  I found that unnecessary.  My extra kept in the fridge in a tupperware container for a week without adding a layer of protective oil.  The pesto was truly delicious though.  I partially chose it since I have made garlic scape pesto before, and I must say I found this one much more delicious than the other recipe that I tried.  I am looking forward to trying the others I am interested in, although I will probably continue to halve the recipes, as I am only cooking for two.

Overall, foodies with a love of garlic will find this book both fascinating and a source of new recipes to try.  Some readers may wish for more information, while others may find themselves a bit more informed on the varieties of garlic than they were really looking for.  All will find themselves chock full of new information and eager to try new ways to use garlic…and perhaps even to start growing some heirloom varieties for themselves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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