black widow: forever red

I was a very lucky duck and picked up an advanced review copy of Margaret Stohl’s Black Widow: Forever Red at BEA this year.  I promptly read it and mailed it along to an internet friend.  While I jotted down notes immediately, I didn’t pull together the review until just now.  If you’re keeping score at home, that puts me several months from the reading experience, and with a slightly different view of the book and its merits.  Here’s what I know (now): Black Widow: Forever Red is a thrill.  It’s fast-paced, satisfying action from start to finish, and I loved the heck out of it.  Just don’t ask me to quote back any of the dialogue or narrate the fight scenes!

black widow: forever red by margaret stohl cover
Natasha Romanov was once the world's most lethal assassin. Trained from a young age in the arts of death and deception, Natasha was given the name "Black Widow" by her brutal teacher, Ivan Somodorov. Now, Natasha wants nothing more than to leave that life behind her.

Ava Orlova is trying to live the life of an average American teenager.  But Ava’s life has been anything but average.  As a girl, she was experimented on by Ivan, until she was rescued by Black Widow and placed in the care of the US government. Ava spent years trying to contact her mysterious savior, but Black Widow has always stayed silent.

Until now.

When children all over the globe begin to go missing, Natasha suspects her old teacher has returned.  And Ava may be the key to stopping him once and for all.  But first Natasha and Ava will have to unravel their pasts to defeat the madman who threatens their futures.This novel features all the thrilling adventure readers will expect from the Marvel brand, backed up by the young-adult cred of #1 New York Times bestselling author Margaret Stohl. Uncover a new side of the Marvel Universe, accessible to old fans and new readers alike, as Stohl weaves an unforgettable story through the world of the Black Widow.

Ana is a teenage orphan who once was a pawn in a sinister experiment that involved the infamous Black Widow.  Alex is an impulsive, likeable high school fencer who sometimes feels like he doesn’t fit in his own life.  Natasha Romanov is a spy, a manipulator, and an Avenger.  She has avoided contact with Ana, even though she claimed kinship with her once, years ago.  That all changes when Ana’s and Alex’s lives intersect, world-changing secrets are revealed, and the Black Widow’s old nemesis rises from the ashes. 

TENSION! excitement! YEAH! (let’s talk about what’s going on in this book)

The writing encourages you to expect a certain outcome, but the story itself tricks you into forgetting that – so the reader should be surprised, even if they’re the type to half expect that a twist is coming.  Basically, Stohl is clever, and it comes out in the book in the best of ways.  There’s also a dual narrative voice structure to consider, with interrogation transcripts, flashbacks, and bits of memories (some of them unreliable).  As for pacing: after an action- and explosion-filled first few scenes, the story slows while new characters and mysteries are introduced.  It soon picks up again though, and familiar (beloved?)(people love Tony Stark and Coulson, right?!) Marvel characters make appearances as well.  It’s a fast-paced book with all of the scene changes an action flick fan could want.

Pros: The story is an easy read, the plot is high stakes, new characters fit into Natasha’s back story seamlessly (and you end up caring about them!).  There are satisfying action sequences, and the secrets, spy games and possible world-ending doom all meet and/or exceed expectations.  Add to that a tiny splash of romance, and the result is pure entertainment.

Cons: There might be a bit of reader drop-off in that one “slow” bit between the opening hook and the first action (where a lot of the exposition/set-up happens).  I’m also not sure how broad the appeal of a Black Widow book is. I think she’s a great character and anyone/everyone should check out this book, but if a reader hasn’t seen most of the big Marvel films to date, there may be some confusion as far as story context. 

That said, this book will delight Natasha Romanov/Black Widow fans of all ages, and likely convert a few interested bystanders into full-fledged Marvel geeks (like me). 

Recommended for: devotees of Marvel universe, fans of political intrigue and spies going rogue, those who enjoy plot- and action- heavy YA fiction, and anyone who likes the Mission Impossible, Bond, or superhero movies.  Requisite (sinister) Russian villain included at no extra cost.

Fine print: I picked up an ARC of this title at BEA for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

soft rye pretzels

Sunday, October 11, 2015 | | 4 comments
It’s fall! I love fall.  So many good things happen during this season: Foliage changes color, back-to-school items go on clearance (I am ADDICTED to school/office supplies), it gets cool enough to break out my ridiculous scarf collection, and hockey season starts up again.  While I’m enjoying all of the above, I got a seasonal cold last week and have spent the weekend resting (and coughing) rather than going to the pumpkin patch.

soft rye pretzels

BUT! Yesterday I mustered just enough energy to try out a new recipe (for the first time in forever!), and so this lovely autumn weekend doesn’t seem like a total loss.  I’m going to be honest with you: This baking experiment happened because back when I was recipe-testing the Fika cookbook, I bought a LARGE bag of rye flour.  And I didn’t know what to do with the generous amount left over. Cue: Me (for the past 2-3 months), doing random internet searches for rye + recipe + [fill in the blank]. 

When I saw an Instagram photo of pretzels yesterday, a light went off.  I could picture rye preztels.  Lo and behold… the New York Times had a recipe!  I’m not going to copy it out here because I didn’t change anything substantial, but here’s the link.  My only advice is to follow all of the instructions, especially when they include words like “gently.”  Also, add the baking soda to the boiling water SLOWLY. 

For my first attempt at pretzels, I think it went really well.  Let me tell you how well: When these came out of the oven I immediately ate 3, and my roommates devoured a couple apiece. Short story: They’re definitely crowd pleasers, and perfect for these cooler days when heartier snacks are the key to happiness.  I’m pretty sure I’ll be making them again.

soft rye pretzels

Recommended for: fans of pretzels, and any occasion that calls for hearty finger food.

Interested in other food-related recipes? Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking.

lady of magick blog tour: author interview & giveaway

Today at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia I’m interviewing Sylvia Izzo Hunter, author of (the absolutely fantastic debut) The Midnight Queen and its follow-up Lady of Magick. These books are my version of bookish catnip - completely irresistible, lovely, and smart all in one go. Check out the end of the post for your chance to win a copy of Lady of Magick!

Sylvia Izzo Hunter was born in Calgary, Alberta, back in the days before Star Wars, and started making up stories at approximately the time she learned to talk. A couple of decades ago she moved to Toronto, Ontario, where she now lives with her husband and daughter and their slightly out-of-control collections of books, comics, and DVDs. She studied English and French literature (with a particular focus on medieval and Renaissance poetry and drama) at York University; she has since discovered that her mom was right: in order to be a functioning grown-up, you really do need to know how to do math.

Over the course of her working life Sylvia has been a slinger of tacos, a filer of patient charts and answerer of phones, a freelance looker-up of unconsidered trifles, an Orff-singing stage monk, and an exam tutor, but has mostly worked in not-for-profit scholarly publishing, where she started out making lots of photocopies and now gets to make XML and EPUB files (which is more fun). She also sings in two choirs (including the Orpheus Choir of Toronto), reads as much as possible, knits (mostly hats), and engages in experimental baking.

Sylvia’s favourite Doctor is Tom Baker, her favourite pasta shape is rotini, and her favourite Beethoven symphony is the Seventh.

What was the most surprising/strange thing you learned while doing research for The Midnight Queen?

OK, given the cover of the book, hopefully it's not spoilery to say there's an owl in it? Anyway there's an owl, so I did some research on owls generally, and on this particular type of owl -- it's a Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa lapponica; the owl on the cover I'm pretty sure is a barn owl, but isn't it beautiful? -- so I would have a clue about things like its wingspan, what its various calls sound like, how big it is, and so on. And wow, SO MUCH of an owl is just feathers! Inside the feathers, an owl's body is kind of a stereotypical vulture shape, with the switchbacked neck. It's a bit disconcerting actually.

Who do you think is the perfect/ideal/likely reader for your books?

Hmm. Good question! Well, I think you're likely to enjoy them if you like your fantasy to have some romance in it, and your romance to have some fantasy in it; if you enjoy the occasional explosion, but also enjoy watching a story unfold at a more leisurely pace; and if you like your historical novels to take a quite creative approach to history...

Also, this book isn't categorized as YA, but I think any YA reader who can enjoy Jane Austen might also like The Midnight Queen [and Lady of Magick]. The youngest reader of TMQ that I know of so far is twelve. She had some Serious Questions for me about my use of Greek and Roman mythology.

What is one fantasy novel I absolutely must read?

Well, I could make a lot of recommendations, but if I had to pick just one: you absolutely must read Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. The setting is based on mediaeval Spain, the protagonist is a 40-year-old widow whose family keeps trying to protect her from herself, and it's got fighting, sorcery, explosions, cunning plans, romance, trickery, and a god with a naughty sense of humour. And it's Bujold, so you know every sentence, every word in fact, is right where it should be.

I see that you read a lot of SFF YA. What's one recent YA book that you wish had been around when you were a teenager?

Wow, so many! (I do wish I'd known about Tamora Pierce's early books when I was a teenager: way better role models than Piers Anthony!) But I'm going to pick Holly Black's Faerie books, and particularly the middle one, Valiant, which is about seeing past the surfaces of people, including yourself.

If you could host a dinner for fictional literary characters, who would you invite, and what would you serve?

So first I'm going to pretend that I'm not really, really shy IRL, and could actually do this thing. OK … Go!

I would definitely invite some people from Jane Austen's Persuasion: Anne, Frederick, and Admiral and Mrs. Croft. (And I would beg, borrow, or steal a piano so that Anne could play it and we could all sing.) Also, I would have Miles and Ekaterin and Aral and Cordelia and Ivan from Bujold's Vorkosigan books, and of course Ista dy Chalion from Paladin of Souls. I would very much like to have Will Laurence and Temeraire from Naomi Novik's Temeraire books, but I'm already not sure where I'm going to put all these people, never mind a fully grown Celestial dragon!  Possibly we could have the dinner party on the roof of the building, but even so. I'd invite Door, from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and she could finally finish reading Mansfield Park. Carmichael and Jack from Jo Walton's Small Change series, and Patricia from My Real Children. Hermione Granger, because Hermione is awesome and my daughter would enjoy hanging out with her. Ned and Verity from Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, and the long-suffering Badri.  And some detectives: Roderick Alleyn and his wife, Troy; Albert Campion; George and Bunty Felse, and their son, Dominic, and his girlfriend, Tossa;  and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. And Angela Carter's Dora and Nora Chance, to liven things right up.

I have no idea what all these people might like to eat, so I expect I'd make an enormous pot of marinara sauce, cook an unbelievable amount of spaghetti, do several French loaves of garlic bread, and throw a few thingies of spring mix in a big bowl, which is what I usually feed people when they come over (you know, unless it's Thanksgiving or Passover or something). But I would make something fancy for dessert, because that's how I roll :)

What books are on your nightstand (or your to-be-read list) right now?

Oooohhh I really need to make some reading time!

Currently reading The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley and Lex Talionis by R.S.A. Garcia.

In the official TBR pile:
Kari Sperring, The Grass King's Concubine
People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish SF & Fantasy, ed. Rachel Swirsky & Sean Wallace
Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs Aliens, ed. Patricia Bray & Joshua Palmatier
Anton Strout, Deader Still
Caitlin Sweet, The Door in the Mountain
Christopher Moore, Sacré Bleu
Plants vs Zombies: The Official Guide to PROTECTING YOUR BRAINS (It was a present, okay?)
Cassandra Clare, City of Bones
The Walking Dead, Compendium Two (Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn)


Thanks so much for sharing your answers, Sylvia!  Now a bit more about Lady of Magick (plus that giveaway!)...

lady of magick by sylvia izzo hunter book cover
Sylvia Izzo Hunter brought “both rural Brittany and an alternative Regency England to vivid life” in The Midnight Queen, her debut novel of history, magic, and myth. Now, in her new Noctis Magicae novel, Sophie and Gray Marshall are ensnared in an arcane plot that threatens to undo them both.

In her second year of studies at Merlin College, Oxford, Sophie Marshall is feeling alienated among fellow students who fail to welcome a woman to their ranks. So when her husband, Gray, is invited north as a visiting lecturer at the University in Din Edin, they leap at the chance. There, Sophie’s hunger for magical knowledge can finally be nourished. But soon, Sophie must put her newly learned skills to the test.

Sophie returns home one day to find a note from Gray—he’s been summoned urgently to London. But when he doesn’t return, and none of her spells can find a trace of him, she realizes something sinister has befallen him. With the help of her sister, Joanna, she delves into Gray’s disappearance, and soon finds herself in a web of magick and intrigue that threatens not just Gray, but the entire kingdom.

Would you like a copy of the book for yourself?  You're in luck!  The publisher will send a finished copy to one lucky winner.  To enter, simply fill out the FORM.  Giveaway open internationally, will end on Friday, September 25 at 11:59pm EST.  Winner will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Good luck!

Fine print: I did not receive any compensation for this post, and the publisher will provide the giveaway prize.

3 science fiction picture books

Most of the books I buy at full-price are picture books.  That’s not a complaint, by the way.  I’m very happy to supply so many classics (and new favorites) to my friends’ kid lit libraries, and to support my local bookstores in doing so.  This past weekend I discovered a couple of new-to-me space-themed books while perusing the kids’ section of a couple of stores, and I thought I’d post mini-reviews of them here on the blog. I don’t think you can start a love of science fiction (or just plain science!) too young.

interstellar cinderella by deborah underwood, illustrated by meg hunt book coverOnce upon a planetoid,
amid her tools and sprockets,
a girl named Cinderella dreamed
of fixing fancy rockets.

With a little help from her fairy godrobot, Cinderella is going to the ballbut when the prince's ship has mechanical trouble, someone will have to zoom to the rescue! Readers will thank their lucky stars for this irrepressible fairy tale retelling, its independent heroine, and its stellar happy ending.

Deborah Underwood’s Interstellar Cinderella is a futuristic re-telling of the traditional fairy tale in verse, accompanied by Meg Hunt’s colorful illustrations.  In this version of the story, Cinderella has pink hair and a penchant for mechanics.  In fact, she ends up proving her worth by fixing a broken spaceship (instead of fitting into a glass slipper).  The poem is fun and funny throughout, and character diversity is always a plus.  Hunt includes a lot of visual interest on every page, which could be a little confusing to the eye the first time, but fantastic for rereads.  I picked the book up for the hologram/metallic lettering on the cover, but my favorite illustrations ended up being the end papers, which featured Cinderella’s various tools, labeled inventively.  This is a great modern take on a popular princess tale, and one I’d suggest to anyone looking for an alternative or companion to the Disney classic. It’s sure to be a bedtime favorite for little girls (and their parents).  

zathura by chris van allsburg book coverOn the last page of the Caldecott-winning book Jumanji, young Danny Budwing is seen running after his brother, Walter, with a game tucked under his arm. Now after twenty years, Chris Van Allsburg is ready to reveal what happens when Danny and Walter roll the dice. This time the name of the game is Zathura and the battling Budwing boys are in for the ride of their lives.

Zathura unleashes intergalactic challenges that require even the quarreling Budwing brothers to work as a team.

Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura is an older title, but it is definitely a classic (as are almost all of Van Allsburg’s titles – this is the author behind Jumanji and The Polar Express, after all!).  I was familiar with the title because I’ve seen the film based on this book starring a young Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart.  The story is quite a bit like Jumanji, actually – a pair of brothers find an old game about space, begin to play it, and discover that the game alters reality.  Sci-fi elements include space travel, robots, aliens, and time travel.  Van Allsburg’s black and white ink drawings illustrate the adventure in beautiful detail.  My favorite bit is that the brothers go from antagonizing one another to working together and valuing each other, though things get iffy once or twice.  Zathura will please the older end of the picture book crowd as well as the littlies (and it would be a great gift to accompany the film!).

your alien by tammi sauer, illustrated by goro fujita book cover
One day, you'll be looking out your window when something wonderful comes your way...and you will want to keep him.

When a little boy meets a stranded alien child, the two instantly strike up a fabulous friendship. They go to school, explore the neighborhood, and have lots of fun. But at bedtime, the alien suddenly grows very, very sad. Can the boy figure out what his new buddy needs most of all? This funny, heartwarming story proves that friends and family are the most important things in the universe…no matter who or where you are.

Tammi Sauer’s Your Alien is a story written in the second person, featuring the adventures of a boy who finds an alien one night, adopts it and takes it everywhere, even to school.  In the end, the alien gets lonely, and the boy must find a way to make things right.  The story has strong themes of familial love and the comfort of a hug (for all).  It’s very funny in parts, and just short enough that the second person narration didn’t lose its effectiveness.  Goro Fujita’s illustrations are vibrant and both complement and elevate the text.  They have a little bit of a film magic quality to them, so young ones will be reminded of their favorite movies featuring creatures from outer space. Your Alien is perfect bedtime reading, especially for the 3-6 year old set and anyone who enjoyed E.T. as a kid.
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