6.24.2017

Book Review: Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth


Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: In a galaxy powered by the current, everyone has a gift.
Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power — something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.
Akos is the son of a farmer and an oracle from the frozen nation-planet of Thuvhe. Protected by his unusual currentgift, Akos is generous in spirit, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get this brother out alive — no matter what the cost.
Then Akos is thrust into Cyra's world, and the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. Will they help each other to survive, or will they destroy one another?*


I know I have been a bit MIA for almost a year, and I only have two words for you: grad school. That's a story for another time though. I have had the past few days off and finally got to read this beauty of a book, Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth. Roth is best known (thus far) for her Divergent trilogy (Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant), now all major motion picture movies. 



Carve the Mark was so much more than I thought it was going to be. Darker, smarter, fiery, and gritty. The adventure, heartache, and brutally honest and violent characters literally had me glued to the pages until 4 in the morning. Though some of the passion between the stubbornly fierce Cyra and alluring yet dangerous Akos was a bit predictable (a clear reminder of a Montague-Capulet predicament), there were quite a few mesmerizing and surprising plot twists. Roth's description of life, pain, and love spoke boldly about struggles people constantly face. I also absolutely loved that the characters weren't simply good or bad. There is no such thing as a person who is all good or all bad, and Roth did an incredible job writing multifaceted characters, people that live in that murky-grey area of life that we all know too well. Relatable characters like these are powerful because they show us that it's okay to not be perfect, as long as we are doing what we can. As Cyra, the leading, bad-ass lady in the book, says, "It's hard to know what's right in this life . . . We do what we can, but what we really need is mercy." 

Here's to hoping you don't lose as much sleep as I did reading this! (Or, maybe, I hope you do. It is that good, after all)

JR

*Synopsis by Goodreads.com

6.10.2016

Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes


Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.
What Lou doesn't know is she's about to lose her job or that knowing what's coming is what keeps her sane. 
Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he's going to put a stop to that.
What Will doesn't know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of color. And neither of them knows they're going to change the other for all time.*


Jojo Moyes, a British novelist, has previously won Romantic Novelists' Association Romantic Novel of the Year and was a Nominee for Goodreads Choice Award in Fiction. Contemporary romance is not typically my cup of tea, everyone had been raving about this book though, and I finally gave in. Me Before You is the first novel of Jojo Moyes' that I have read, and I was pleasantly surprised. The novel was well written, and though the plot was somewhat predictable, I did enjoy that Moyes finished with a heart-wrenching, morally-questionable decision. I almost didn't think she would have the guts to go through with it, but she did, and it was fantastic (I apologize for the vagueness, I don't want to spoil anything). I think more authors need to write about 'questionable' topics, things people don't typically like to discuss in open conversation (e.g. disabilities, depression, rape, addiction, etc.). It's important to acknowledge these do, in fact, exist, try to understand them, and teach others about them. But I digress.

Original Photo from Sawtooth Adventure Company
Solo guitarist/river guiding extraordinaire is my little sis (aw, proud big sis moment!) 

The characters throughout Me Before You, were extremely intriguing to me, and, if I'm being honest, aggravating at times. I enjoyed the contrast between the Clark family and the Traynor family. While the middle class Clark family struggled financially, they seemed to love and support one another, even if it was in a unique way. Whereas the Traynor's, a wealthy, upper class family, seemed to be held together by the thin thread of Will's condition alone. The stubborn, exhausted, envious, and witty Will Traynor was startling and brutal to read about. I did not like that Will's character was so focused on being envious of everyone else's capabilities, or telling others how to live their lives, that he did not focus on what his capabilities were and how much he could do. I do have very mixed feelings about Lou Clark though, Will's co-star in Me Before You. Lou is awkward, witty, immature, and self-absorbed for almost the entire novel. I am perfectly fine with awkward characters, however, when they are immature, self-absorbed, and play the victim for almost the entire novel, I get a bit aggravated. Thankfully, we witness an emotional and mental growth within her character, as she beautifully learned how to let go of the past and put others before herself. The dynamics between the two co-stars, Will and Lou, really worked for me. Their banter back and forth was highly entertaining, and witnessing their relationship grow realistically (i.e. gradually, two steps forward and one step back) was a nice change from the all-too-common quick-paced relationships. I'm a firm believer in the idea that one of the best ways to help yourself out, is by helping others. Lou and Will's characters come to understand this idea near the end, and I have to admit, the wait was worth the phenomenal ending. Me Before You is a quick, entertaining, and daring reminder to help others, to love deeply, and to live well. 


Enjoy,

JR

*Synopsis provided by Goodreads.com

Dutch Crumb Apple Pie


I am not a fan of long spiels before getting to the actual recipe on blogs. In my experience, people look at recipes for the recipe, not for a narration. So, without further ado, here is my recipe for Dutch Crumb Apple Pie!

Yields: Two Pies
Total Time: About 2 hours

Ingredients:

Flaky Pie Crust:
  • 2 heaping cups of flour
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 3/4 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • About 1 cup cold water
  • 2 pie tins 
Apple Filling:
  • 18 Gold Delicious apples
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 cup heavy cream
Streusel Topping:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 12 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
Directions:

1. Flaky Pie Crust:
  • Preheat oven at 375 degrees F.
  • Mix together flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.
  • After softening the butter (do not melt it all the way), cut in butter until there are pea-sized pieces of dough. I prefer to hand mix the dough to make it the perfect consistency.
  • Slowly add cold water (you may not need the full cup, depending on how "heaping" your cups of flour were). Mix until the dough clumps together in one big ball. It may be slightly sticky, but you don't want the pie dough to be as wet and sticky as, say, roll or scone dough. 
  • Sprinkle flour over the kitchen counter and roll out the dough (half of it per pie).
  • Place rolled out dough in a pie tin. Cut extra dough that hangs off the edges of the pie tin (leave about a 1/4 inch hanging over the edge, it will shrink a little when cooked). Shape pie crust edges how you wish (I pinch the edge and give it a little twist for my design). 
  • Using a fork, gently poke a few holes at the bottom of the crust. 
  • Cover pie crust dough with tin foil, place beans (or some other type of weight) on top of the foil to stop the crust from bubbling up.
  • Bake pie crust for about 20 minutes. Remove the weights and tin foil from the crusts. Bake the crusts again for another 5-10 minutes until it is fully cooked and lightly golden on the edges.
  • Place pie tins on cooling rack.
  • Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees F. 

2. Apple Filling:
  • Peel, core, and slice apples into pieces about 1/4 inch thick. 
  • Toss the apples in a (very) large bowl with sugar, cinnamon, and salt. 
  • Heat butter in a large pot, over high heat, until foaming subsides. 
  • Add the apple mixture to the heated butter; toss to coat. 
  • Reduce heat to medium-high. Cover pot, stir occasionally. Cook apple mix until apple slices are softened, about 10 minutes. 
  • Set a large colander over a (very) large bowl; transfer the cooked apple mix to the colander. Drain off as much of the juice as possible. 
  • Set cooked apples in a large bowl and set aside. Pour juice back into the heated pot. Add heavy cream to the juice mixture and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes, until thickened and spoon leaves a trail in the mixture.  
  • Transfer the cooked apples into the pre-baked pie shells.
  • Pour the juice and cream mixture over the apples and smooth.

3. Streusel Topping:
  • Combine flour, brown sugar, and sugar in a medium bowl.
  • Drizzle melted butter over the flour/sugar mixture. Mix with a fork (or by hand) until evenly combined and mixture forms small chunks. 
  • Sprinkle the streusel mix evenly over the pie filling. 
  • Bake pies (at 425 degrees F.) until the streusel topping is golden brown, about 10-15 minutes. 
  • Cool on wire rack. 
  • Serve and enjoy! 

In my most humblest of opinions, this apple pie is best served with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Although, my husband would argue and say that it is actually best served in a bowl, smothered in milk. 

Enjoy,

JR



5.29.2016

Book Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt


Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: Jack, 12, tells the gripping story of Joseph, 14, who joins his family as a foster child. Damaged in prison, Joseph wants nothing more than to find his baby daughter, Jupiter, whom he has never seen. When Joseph has begun to believe he'll have a future, he is confronted by demons from his past that force a tragic sacrifice.*


The first book I read of Gary D. Schmidt's was The Wednesday Wars, and I absolutely loved his writing style. I was thrilled when I found out about Orbiting Jupiter. This book is written from the simple, young perspective of Jack, a sixth-grade boy who lives on an organic farm with his parents. His family welcomes fourteen-year-old Joseph into their home as a foster child. Coming from prison, Joseph, who rarely talks or smiles and doesn't let anyone stand behind him, starts adjusting to life with Jack and his family, a life of attending to farm animals and going to middle school. Through Jack's eyes, we learn what haunts Joseph, how differently people within his new community judge and treat him, and witness how trust and love can change someone for the better. 

Although learning Joseph's background is crucial, my favorite part of this book was reading about the new relationships, good or bad, that Joseph made within his new home and school life. It was fascinating and emotional to see how various people treated him. Jack, being a true example of a kind heart, accepted Joseph almost immediately. . . just as soon as his cows approved. "You can tell all you need to know about someone from the way cows are around him," (Orbiting Jupiter, pg 11). That is one of the most true statements I've ever read, though I would apply it to almost any animal--dogs, cows, horses, etc. 


We also view the relationships Joseph developed with various teachers at his new school. While some pre-judged him and immediately shrugged him off as a no-good, dirty-rotten criminal, others, bless their loving and caring souls, gave Joseph a chance and were shocked at what he was capable of. "It's not the solution. . . It's the path to the solution that's fascinating," (Orbiting Jupiter, pg 29). It was beautiful to witness the miracle of a young man who has been through so much at such a young age, start to open up and have hope, to smile and laugh like a fourteen-year-old should. "Christmas is the season for miracles, you know. Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess--but I've never seen one of those. I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them. I didn't miss this one." (Orbiting Jupiter, pg 114-115). It can be difficult to successfully write such an honest, painful story--to put such astounding life lessons into a middle-grade/young adult novel. This is where Schmidt has shown what a profound author he is. Through the voice of the tender youth, he effectively transforms difficult and painful topics into quiet and simple stories that demand our attention. It is impossible to read this book and not think about how you treat others, judge others, or how to be a better person. Orbiting Jupiter is simple and bold; a powerful, difficult, and beautiful story about hope, true friendship, and being a good person.

Enjoy,

JR

*Synopsis provided by Goodreads.com

5.26.2016

Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein


The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: "In Mongolia, when a dog dies, he is buried high in the hills so people cannot walk on his grave. The dog's master whispers into the dog's ear his wishes that the dog will return as a man in his next life. Then his tail is cut off and put beneath his head, and a piece of meat or fat is place in his mouth to sustain his soul on its journey; before he is reincarnated, the dog's soul is freed to travel the land, to run across the high desert plains for as long as it would like. I learned that from a program on the National Geographic channel, so I believe it is true. Not all dogs return as men, they say; only those who are ready. I am ready."
Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver. 
Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn't simply about going fast. On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through.*

Because this review is largely about dogs and their goodness...
 here are all of the dogs in my life. 
Featuring: Rufio, Tiger, Jack, Buck, Jack Sparrow, Rudy, and Indiana Jones.

Garth Stein is a New York Times and international bestselling author, as well as a PNBA Book Award winner. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. Through the perspective of a dog, Enzo, Stein brilliantly reveals the beauty and cruelty of human life, the love within true friendship, the trials of an ever-changing family, and the wisdom that lies within car racing. From the first page, we are introduced to Enzo's loving, humorous, clever, and loyal-to-a-fault personality. His enthusiastic spirit, as well as his undying love for life, racing, education through means of cable TV, and envy of those with opposable thumbs are captivating. 

Enzo, that handsome son-of-a-furry-gun, is also a wise soul, one we could all learn something from. Which is why I now present you with (drum roll please!) . . . 

The Amazing Enzo and His Words of Wisdom:
  • Enzo is a perfect example of companionship and hope. He tells us that he believes ". . . the center of our family could not be fractured by a chance occurrence, an accidental washing, an unexpected illness. . . However things might change around us, we would always be together," (The Art of Racing in the Rain, pg 106). 
  • Enzo shows us humility and the art of being a champion. "Racers are often called selfish and egotistical. I myself have called race car drivers selfish; I was wrong. To be a champion, you must have no ego at all. You must not exist as a separate entity. You must give yourself over to the race. You are nothing if not for your team, your car, your shoes, your tires. Do not mistake confidence and self-awareness for egotism," (The Art of Racing in the Rain, pg 314). 
  • Enzo, a brilliant dog, but dog nonetheless, is better at being a good human being than most of us human beings. "Here's why I will be a good person. Because I listen. I cannot speak, so I listen very well. I never interrupt, I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own. People, if you pay attention to them, change the direction of one another's conversations constantly. . . Learn to listen! I beg of you. Pretend you are a dog like me and listen to other people rather than steal their stories," (The Art of Racing in the Rain, pg 102). 
  • Through his story, Enzo tell us that it's okay to lose, but we that have to try, even if we are scared of what could happen. "There is no dishonor in losing the race. There is only dishonor in not racing because you are afraid to lose," (The Art of Racing in the Rain, pg 277). 
  • Finally, Enzo shows us the joy in living--in taking charge of, and being the champion in, your own life. "That which you manifest is before you; we are the creators of our own destiny," (The Art of Racing in the Rain, pg 43). It ". . . makes one realize that the physicality of our world is a boundary to us only if our will is weak; a true champion can accomplish things that a normal person would think impossible," (The Art of Racing in the Rain, pg 65).

And because I like lists so much, here are a few crucial items you will need while reading The Art of Racing in the Rain:
  1. A full tissue box.
  2. Pen and paper--to take notes on the pure genius and wisdom that Enzo has given to us, mere humans.
  3. Your own furry friend to cry and cuddle with.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is by far the hardest book I have ever read, and will probably ever read. It is also, undoubtedly, one of the best books I have ever read. It is brilliant in it's unique perspective, through Enzo, of heartbreak, hope, love, and the exhilaration of racing and living. If only more humans were like dogs, were like Enzo. The world would be a far more pleasant place. A dog can teach you everything you need to know. This book may be heartbreaking to get through, but I promise you that every page is well worth it. The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of those books that will change you.

Love,

JR

5.21.2016

Book Review: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan


The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo #1) by Rick Riordan
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Synopsis: How do you punish an immortal?
By making him human.
After angering his father Zeus, the god Apollo is cast down from Olympus. Weak and disoriented, he lands in New York City as a regular teenage boy. Now, without his godly powers, the four-thousand-year-old deity must learn to survive in the modern world until he can somehow find a way to regain Zeus's favour. 
But Apollo has many enemies - gods, monsters, and mortals who would love to see the former Olympian permanently destroyed. Apollo needs help, and he can think of only one place to go . . . an enclave of modern demigods known as Camp Half-Blood.*

"Hoodlums punch my face
I would smite them if I could
Mortality blows."

-The Hidden Oracle, pg 3

Uncle Rick . . . to use your immortal words, "Why?" (The Hidden Oracle, pg 28). I thank you, sincerely, for your books, but still, why?! I wholeheartedly believe that he enjoys torturing us. Rick Riordan is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of many books, including one of my favorite series--Percy Jackson and The Olympians. You can check out my review on Rick and his wondrous books here and here, if you wish.

The Hidden Oracle is another one of Rick's genius blends of Greek mythology and thrilling fiction. Many of Rick's novels are written through the perspective of demigods, children of one mortal parent and one godly parent. One thing I really enjoy about The Hidden Oracle, is that it is written in the voice of one of the gods (or former gods, in this case, sorry Apollo), a completely different perspective from Rick's previous stories. Rick introduces us on page one to the striking, ever-famous Apollo. In Rick's standard fashion, the first paragraph will hook you into the story and you won't want to put it down, "My name is Apollo. I used to be a god. . . But in all my immortal life, I never before crash-landed in a Dumpster," (The Hidden Oracle, pg 3). Apollo is (was?) the Greek god of archery, poetry, prophecy, music, healing, the sun, and plague (and probably a few other things even he can't keep track of). Rick phenomenally captures Apollo's humorous, egotistical personality from start to finish in The Hidden Oracle.


Throughout The Hidden Oracle, Apollo attempts to adjust to a mortal life with the help of new friends, and old acquaintances. The novel is riddled with dangerous and amusing obstacles that Apollo must overcome in order to earn back the favor of his dad, Zeus, the king of the gods. Apollo's comically self-centered personality had me giggling out loud, from his slight obsession with bacon, to his self-motivational speeches, "You are gorgeous and people love you!" (The Hidden Oracle, pg 33). While Apollo's pomposity is entertaining, we also witness a growth and change in his character as he is rocked by betrayal and chooses to battle evil side by side with other demigods (though Apollo may adamantly deny these, dare I say, humbling changes). "Things can turn out differently, Apollo. That's the nice thing about being human. We only have one life, but we can choose what kind of story it's going to be," (The Hidden Oracle, pg 348).

The Hidden Oracle is hilarious, daring, and irresistible. "I've found that thinking often interferes with doing," (The Hidden Oracle, pg 333). Don't think about reading this book, just do it.

Enjoy,

JR

*Synopsis provided by Goodreads.com

5.12.2016

Book Review: Untitled Won by Eugene Tan


Untitled Won (The Entitled Series #1) by Eugene Tan
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Expected Publication: September 2016

Synopsis: Terry Everhart is your average teenager who may or may not have failed his mathematics exams. During the summer of 2015, he was thrown into a prison island on a distant planet called Aalvark. Not only that, he was kept on the planet of Aalvark by powerful beings known as Omnescients as they protected him from a terrorist group led by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Attending Jone's Academy of Immortales, Terry and his new Aalvarkian friends trained to survive, honed their abilities, and learn more about the world of Aalvark. However, outside the eccentric academy campus and underwater neighbourhoods, the stakes draw higher as The Apocalypsies spread fear into the world through each their own tactics. 
Untitled Won is the first installment of The Entitled Series. Follow Terry and his new friends on their journey through life, love, and death.*

Before I get into my review, I wanted to say a quick thanks to Eugene Tan for giving me the opportunity to enjoy the thrilling adventure he has created for us. Eugene Tan is a talented new writer, and I am extremely excited too see where his skills take him. I am also very anxious to know what is to come in the remainder of The Entitled Series.


Untitled Won not-so-subtly captured my attention right from the prologue--it was basically a deliciously decorated fish hook waiting to catch it's starving prey. After the cliff hanger prologue, we are introduced to the main character, Terry Everhart, a lonely, curious, and witty teenager. While the novel spends a lot of time with Terry, I still wish we knew him even more, had more insights into his personality than is told. Tan later introduces the well developed supporting characters, each having a detailed, intriguing, and unique personality. The dialog throughout the book is clever and entertaining, making it an easy and fun read. I think one of my favorite characters in Untitled Won was Pestilence. Pestilence is one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, and one of the main antagonists of the novel. Tan did a phenomenal job of portraying Pestilence as a smart, cunning, and malicious character.

Untitled Won introduces us to a new world, Aalvark, and I absolutely loved Tan's detailed and engaging descriptions of it. Our first introduction to this new planet is a place called Somerryl, and reading it's brilliant description makes me giddy, so I must share: "I could not decide what was worse, the smell or the scenery. There was nothing for miles apart from the barren fields underfoot, which housed a plethora of creature carcasses, and the blue skies overhead which was flooded with red clouds. They mashed together over the horizon, creating a bittersweet nightmare," (Chapter Two, Untitled Won). Tan has a brilliant, detailed, and engaging writing style, and while these brilliant descriptions pepper the novel, I do wish there had been more of these detailed descriptions directed towards getting us acquainted with the setting more fully. We are told late in the book that there are various countries and districts on Aalvark, but I would have like to have that background information sooner, to get a more solid feel for where the story takes place and how the geography influences the story. While I enjoyed what Tan gave us of Aalvark, I was thirsty for more of those delicious details! 


What worked really well for me, is the witty voice Tan kept throughout the novel. There are numerous amusing plugs to various books, movies, and comics throughout Untitled Won.  Tan gave Twilight a nice poke, "Who would've known that vampires were the hotties in our world and on earth. Then again, you don't have the sparkle," (Chapter 9, Untitled Won), as well as had references to Star Wars, The Fault in our Stars, and Batman. Not to mention the adorable, clever, and hilarious Eltos's (llama-like creatures) Terry meets along his dance with Fate. Without spoiling the book, I think my favorite part of Untitled Won is the trials of Fate. Here Tan introduces the characters to Fate, and really shows each character's unique personality. It was thrilling and emotionally engaging to get to know the characters more intimately. The ending of Untitled Won is abrupt and left me feeling lost and wanting for more details. As Tan quotes in the book, "The end of one task always gives way to new uncertainties," (Chapter 14) and Tan brutally, but brilliantly, left us with some major uncertainties at the end of this book. When this book is released in September (of 2016), I recommend fans of fantasy and science fiction to check this new adventure out. Untitled Won is clever, suspenseful, and beautifully humorous. 

Check out Eugene Tan's website for The Entitled Series here!

JR

*Synopsis provided by Goodreads.com