The first time I had a look at the cover of Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s The House of the Four Winds, I thought it wasn’t my sort of book. I me...moreThe first time I had a look at the cover of Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s The House of the Four Winds, I thought it wasn’t my sort of book. I mean, I read seafaring and swashbuckling tales with relish in my younger years, but it’s not my usual cup of tea these days. Then the kind folks at Tor sent over a note about its release, and I always try to give my email an honest read before answering it, so I did more than skim the description. Lo and behold, this was a fantasy (I should have known – Lackey and all!), with a cross-dressing princess of a heroine, and the blurb promised ROMANCE. Well, who was I to say no to that?! It sounded like good fun.
Clarice is the oldest of an enormous brood of daughters (and one son) born to the ruler of a tiny principality in the mountains. Her parents can’t afford dowries for their daughters without beggaring their kingdom, so each daughter is expected to go off and seek her fortune. Clarice is determined to ply her trade as a swordsmaster, but she must earn a reputation first, and that requires travel. Disguising herself as “Clarence Swann,” she takes passage on a merchant vessel bound for the New World, and quickly becomes fast friends with the ship’s navigator, Dominick. When sinister events and adventures threaten her life, Clarice/Clarence must use all of her resources (and rely on her heart) to come through the storm.
The first thing you should know about The House of the Four Winds is that my first judgment after a 5-second perusal of the cover art did not fail me. It’s 90% about life on a boat filled with men, plus some violence. The other 10% of the book is split between Clarice’s (somewhat boring) backstory and a magical mystery at the very end of the book. The second thing you should know is that this book didn’t do anything for me. I generally like Mercedes Lackey’s books (see: Elemental Masters series), but I didn’t like another co-written book of hers, so perhaps that is to blame. The third thing? The official summary contains ALL OF THE SPOILERS. *le sigh*
Shall I catalog my disappointments? The sooner I do, the sooner I can dwell on this book’s good points (and ideal readers). Number one: lack of female characters. Clarice’s female-heavy family not-withstanding (and they really are off-stage, as she leaves them immediately), the female characters present in the story are: Clarice, a virtuous white woman who is determined to look, think and act like a man at all times, and Shamal, a non-white seductive evil sorceress. Commentary: depressingly obvious. Number two: believability. Clarice’s sex is NEVER discovered on a ship, over weeks worth of time. She is also an incredibly wise (but naïve in all the ways that count!) eighteen year old with no faults to speak of. Excuse me while I laugh my head off over here in the corner.
Number three (and this may well be my biggest disappointment): what love story?! I was promised a magical romp heavy on romance! It’s all very much ship life, and officer/crew heierarchy, what-are-we-going-to-do-about-the-pirates?! until the last second. And then the "romance" is lightly sprinkled on at the very end. UNSATISFACTORY. Also, only one swordfight worth mentioning. Travesty, I tell you!
Finally, the worldbuilding was spotty. The magical system isn’t given any depth or character, the main characters (except the villain) don’t do any magic themselves, and the whole thing feels like a big cliché. It would be one thing if there was a bit of humor to lighten the tone of the story and turn it into a romp (I suppose I wouldn’t mind weak worldbuilding so much then), but there’s not. Instead, there’s death, tragedy, uncertainty, and a lot of loose ends.
So, who WOULD enjoy this book, and/or what were its good points? I’d say anyone who picked it up for the cover won’t be disappointed. There’s a lot of sailing and pirating involved. Clarice’s introduction to the nuances of shipboard life brought Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Jean Lee Latham’s Carry On, Mr. Bowditch to mind. I also think fans of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise will find much of the familiar in this tale. What I mean is, it’s clichéd, and it wasn’t for me, but I can see how it would be fun reading if you want a sea adventure and don’t mind a fantasy without much magic. It is also a good candidate for a YA crossover title, as the romance is quite clean and the heroine has just turned eighteen.
All in all? The book’s cross-dressing heroine and promise of romance did not fulfill my expectations, but the story will likely please others.
Recommended for: anyone who has been searching for The Pirates of the Caribbean in book form.(less)
The other night my friend Leigh (displaced Texan and a total sweetheart) texted to see what I was up to. She had just flown back to DC from visiting h...moreThe other night my friend Leigh (displaced Texan and a total sweetheart) texted to see what I was up to. She had just flown back to DC from visiting her sister and nephews in Alabama, and she wanted to hang out. I told her I wasn’t doing anything but reading a cookbook. When she arrived at my house, she wanted to know all about this cookbook. She’d never ‘read’ one as a book herself. I handed over Alexe van Beuren and Dixie Grimes' The B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from a Southern Revival, and Leigh just about crowed with delight. She gasped over the Tex-Mex Pimento Cheese, and she laughed over the recipe introductions, just as I had. I promised to lend it to her as soon as I was finished with it myself. I’m glad we’re friends, and now I’m glad we’ve bonded over Southern cooking, too.
Alexe van Beuren is one of a group of women who are making over the town of Water Valley, Mississippi. Alexe started a gourmet grocery store there in 2010, and in 2011 celebrated chef Dixie Grimes joined the B.T.C. family, whipping up breakfast, lunch and deli fare for the local crowd. Though the first years were tough, and Alexe admits that it’s much harder work than she ever imagined, the grocery has brought her community new life. The story is chronicled in this cookbook, and it’s obvious it’s not just wishful thinking – the grocery and the people running it have become part of the heart of the town.
This cookbook is full of Southern basics (from spreads to the broccoli salad I recognize from potlucks), and that’s kind of great since I did NOT grow up with them. Now I know how to make Southern staples I’ve heard of (and even some I haven’t). Soups seem to be the B.T.C.’s ‘specialty,’ though recipes cover all types of food served in a deli (breakfast, spreads, sides, salads, casseroles and mains get top billing). Overall, it’s simple, unfussy fare presented with a story and a history.
Aside from the food itself, the introductions prior to each recipe add personality and a sense of what the B.T.C. Old-Fashioned Grocery (and the town of Water Valley) is really like. I found this cookbook to be an entertaining, useful, and well-written story of food, family, and community rejuvenation. And what food! Dixie Grimes’ recipes have appeared in famous magazines and newspapers. It’s evident why: they all sound amazing. Personally, I can’t wait to try the Roasted Pear and Zucchini Soup (page 48), Green Apple Casserole (page 137), and Peach Ice Box Pie (page 210).
Of course, no cookbook has been properly ‘reviewed’ until you try a recipe or two for yourself. I picked this recipe from the Salads section on page 103…because strawberries and asparagus are both on sale at the moment (aka in season):
Asparagus and Strawberry Salad
2 pounds fresh asparagus, cut on the bias (4 cups) 4 cups fresh strawberries, sliced 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar 1/4 cup honey 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 1 cup of water to boil. Set a steaming basket on top and add the asparagus. Steam the asparagus until it is bright green and al dente, 4 to 6 minutes. Immediately transfer it to a bowl of ice water and let cool. Remove the asparagus from the bowl and pat dry with paper towels.
Put the asparagus in a bowl and add the strawberries. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the asparagus strawberry mixture. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill 1 hour before serving. Yields 4-6 servings.
Note: This salad is at its best (and brightest) if you eat it the day you make it. Also, I’m not going to lie, I watched a YouTube video on how to cut asparagus on the bias. Yep, that basic. p.s. The salad? Turned out beautiful & DELICIOUS. Spot on flavor and easy-as-pie. Making it again soon.
All in all, this cookbook is mouth-watering, funny, sweet, quirky as only small-town life can be, and a treat for both the belly and the soul. If you don’t believe me yet, by all means check out a selection of pages here (including the recipes for Pimento Cheese and Chicken, Asparagus, and Mushroom Casserole, along with that scrumptious-looking Peach Ice Box Pie).
Recommended for: anyone interested in small-town revivals, Southern cooking and incorporating fresh local produce into scrumptious recipes (healthiness not guaranteed).(less)