Monthly Archives: August 2013

Even More Books Worth Reading

One of my absolute favorite parts of being a grown-up remains the ability to take the time to explore new authors and read as much as I want to for pleasure. I have certainly been taking advantage of this opportunity, and have been reading even more this year than I did as a Comparative Literature major back in school (ok – maybe not that much – but it’s certainly close!).

As you will discover in the reviews below, the thread running through my most recent round of literary discovery is fantasy and the surreal with, as usual, a touch of mystery thrown in for good measure. This time around, I also took a brief detour into the world of (surprise!) non-fiction for several fascinating books about the history of the English language.

Here are my quick reviews. I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations as well!

Haruki Murakami: 1Q84, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark, & Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Unknownbks-afterdarkthe_windup_bird_chronicle1q84As you can tell from this and the last Books Worth Reading post, I’ve been on quite the Murakami kick lately. With good reason too – if you have not read anything written by this man, drop everything and head to the library (or Kindle store) right now!

All of his books share a haunting sense of semi-surreality and incredibly evocative imagery, and all include at least one awesomely mundane scene where the protagonist whips up a simple (yet delicious!) meal. Murakami, you certainly know how to make me hungry!

Of the four listed above, the one that really stood out for me was 1Q84 (pronounced one-cue-eighty-four in English – in Japanese, the pronunciation for the number 9 and the letter Q are the same). The novel takes place in – surprise, surprise –1984, and begins with the protagonist, Aomame, slipping unknowingly into a dystopian alternate version of reality (the “Q” in the title stands for “question,” as Aomame must figure out where she has ended up and how – and if – she can return). As it progresses, Aomame’s story intertwines with that of Tengo, a ghostwriter who takes on an unusual project – which quickly turns out to be much more than it seems.

The novel is composed of 3 books and runs to nearly 1,000 pages, so any attempt to distill the complex plot to a few sentences is doomed to fail. Suffice it to say that 1Q84 is the most deeply satisfying of Murakami’s novels, and the world it creates is as convincing as the reality we live in.

As for the others, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle explores the increasingly surreal happenings that befall the unemployed protagonist, Toru Okada, after his wife’s cat runs away and she subsequently abandons him. The novel is part detective story, part love story, and part historical fiction as Toru’s investigation unburies secrets from Japan’s forgotten Manchurian campaign during WWII. After Dark was the quickest read and the most forgettable of the four listed above. It takes entirely between the hours of midnight and dawn as an ensemble of odd characters collide in a seedy section of Tokyo. Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World was another one of my favorites. It is split between two narratives – that of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and that of the End of the World. The two distinctly dystopian narratives gradually converge, and in the process the novel explores the concepts of identity and the unconscious mind.

George R. R. Martin: Song of Ice and Fire series


After weeks of being the only one at work who couldn’t join in the (many, many) conversations about the HBO series Game of Thrones, I decided to finally break down and actually read the books. Various people have been recommending the Song of Ice and Fire series to me since 2008, and I have been lent the first book in the series, Game of Thrones, on several occasions. As much as I love fantasy novels in general, I had resisted beginning the series for so long because it reminded me too much of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I had a rather embarrassing level of obsession with in middle school.

Eventually, uncomfortable flashbacks to 7th grade aside, Song of Ice and Fire (or, more accurately, the TV version Game of Thrones) became such a cultural force that I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

And I’m glad.

Flawed as the books may be (excessive rape scenes, female characters who are consistently defined by their appearance, stomach-churning amounts of often superfluous violence), the stories are incredibly well-crafted in their complexity and the characters are horribly and relatably human. Even when I was utterly disgusted, I couldn’t put these books down.

So, if you haven’t already, it’s worth giving these a read. It’s also worth taking some time to consider the role of women in fantasy literature and why “historical accuracy” isn’t much of an excuse for making all your female characters either mothers or sex objects (and why one token “warrior woman” isn’t enough). The articles listed below go a long way towards explaining why even though George R. R. Martin (admirably) said this:


…his depictions of women and the world that he created can still be considered problematic.

Sexism in Historical Fantasy

Authentic Sexism in Fantasy: Let’s Unpack That

By the way – the books left with absolutely NO desire to see the show. Less complexity and more graphic violence? No thanks.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón: The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, & The Prisoner of Heaven

The-Prisoner-of-Heavenangelthe-shadow-of-the-wind-by-carlos-ruiz-zafonI first discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafón in high school, when I was working retail in Portland, Maine’s scenic Old Port. Summers in Maine are gorgeous, and so I liked to take my half-hour lunch breaks outside, across the street. One day, as I settled down to eat my sandwich on a sculptural bench, I noticed a book seemingly abandoned beside me. The Shadow of the Wind. Picking it up to look, I found a sticker inside the front cover saying that the book was meant to be passed along from person to person – read, and then placed strategically for someone else to find. Intrigued, I began to read.

I was entranced. The first in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series (the three titles above are the only three so far), The Shadow of the Wind take place in post-Civil War Barcelona. In the novel, the young Daniel Sempere comes across a mysterious book by an even more mysterious author. Captivated, he probes into its murky past and uncovers much more than he bargained for.

The other two books likewise center around the Sempere & Sons book store and involve a visit to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books. In The Angel’s Game, a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, struggling author of pulp fiction David Martín takes on a suspicious commission from a sinister publisher in hopes that it will allow him to reclaim some part of his shattered life. Although not as strong and satisfying as The Shadow of the Wind – the plot is perhaps overly melodramatic and a shade difficult to follow – The Angel’s Game is still a fascinating read, especially in the context of the series. The Prisoner of Heaven, which again takes up Daniel Sempere’s storyline, is a much stronger effort. Zafón returns from the metaphysical mysteries of The Angel’s Game to the more personal and political drama of The Shadow of the Wind.

All three are thrilling examples of modern Gothic fiction, and the richness of Zafón’s language and characterization ensure that his tales of blood and darkness will captivate even when the plot stretches thin.

Maureen Johnson: The Name of the Star & The Madness Underneath

the-madness-underneath-pic1the-name-of-the-star-by-maureen-johnsonFull disclosure: I LOVE young adult fantasy novels, and in particular young adult fantasy novels featuring strong and spunky female leads.

The first two (and unfortunately as yet only) books in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series certainly fit the bill. I discovered the series (and the author) during a visit to sunny southern California to visit my friend and fellow fantasy-lover Kate. She entrusted to me a copy of The Madness Underneath to bring back to St. Louis as a birthday present for our mutual friend Catie. Intrigued by Kate’s effusive recommendation and the synopsis on the back cover, I ended up downloading the first book – The Name of the Star – on my phone and reading the entire novel on the plane ride back to St. Louis. I followed up with The Madness Underneath and polished off both books before bedtime.

In some ways reminiscent of Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit series (another of my perennial favorites), the books follow American transplant Rory Deveaux’s involvement with the secret ghost police of London.

In The Name of the Star, Rory’s new London boarding school finds itself at the center of a series of brutal murders mimicking the Jack the Ripper killings of more than a century before. The only one to see the prime suspect, Rory races to solve the mystery of the murderer’s identity before it’s too late. Closely following The Name of the Star chronologically, The Madness Underneath tracks Rory’s return to London and the sinister events that follow. Rather than being a self-contained mystery like the first novel, The Madness Underneath is clearly a set-up for the rest of the series.

I can’t wait to see what the next novel – the as yet unpublished Shadow Cabinet – will bring!

Bill Bryson: Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language

Unknown-1Further disclosure: I am an English nerd, and never tire of reading books of pop etymology and linguistics.

This is where my reading takes a sharp turn from the fantastic into the linguistic.

Bill Bryson has been a favorite of mine since I first read A Walk in the Woods back in high school, and I have read practically every work in his oeuvre since (with the notable exception of A Brief History of Nearly Everything – sorry, Joe). Some of my absolute favorites include his forays into the history of English and those who write it. I especially love Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as a Stage and The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.

Recently, I decided it was finally time to dive into the follow-up to The Mother Tongue, which focuses entirely on American English rather than examining the language as a whole. In typically Bill Bryson fashion, the book was hilarious (I’m pretty sure I actually laughed out loud on several occasions), well-researched, and full of fascinating historical trivia (I’m definitely sure that I repeatedly bothered multiple people with all of my head-popping-up “Did you know!?” moments).

As a further bonus, this book will teach you that barely any of the American history you learned in elementary school is actually true as Bryson deconstructs our national creation myths (from the Pilgrim’s to the Founding Father’s to General Motors).

Even if you haven’t any more than a passing interest in words and where they come from, this book is a rollicking read.

John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of the English Language

9781592404940Did I mention that I’m a nerd who loves reading books about English?

When I was picking up Made in America at the library, I couldn’t resist grabbing this slim little volume off the shelf as well (I mean, with a title like that…).

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a super-quick read (I started the book on the metro as I was heading to a morning doctor’s appointment and finished it up during my lunch break later that day). Not only does the book run to only a brief 200 pages or so, it’s also written in a style that’s incredibly accessible to the non-linguist (McWhorter is no impenetrable Saussure, that’s for sure).

While this read may be most enjoyable for the more serious armchair linguist (its main premise is an argument for Celtic influence on early forms of English), it’s straightforward style and fast pace ensure that it is anything but boring.

Intrigued by anything you read here? Check out Books Worth Reading and More Books Worth Reading, the first two installments in this series of mini-reviews, for even more thoughts and recommendations.

I would also love to hear any of your thoughts and recommendations, so please feel free to leave ‘em in the comments!

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Murder at the Juice Joint


This past Saturday, I hosted a 1920’s speakeasy-themed murder mystery party at my apartment. There were 20 suspects to coordinate, and pulling the party together took a huge amount of time and effort (mostly because I let myself get carried away by researching all the historical details). Planning it was also the most fun I had had in a long, long time.

Fortunately, it was all worth it.

The murder mystery party was a HUGE success. As much time and effort as I put in though, it never would have succeeded without the fantastic cast. In other words: My. Friends. Are. Awesome.

I was expecting some fierce competition for the Best Dressed and Best Performance awards, but I was blown away by the level of dedication to costume detail and staying in character that everyone present displayed.

You can see the whole group above. Click through the gallery to see individual head (mug?) shots.

The verdict?

Another murder mystery party is definitely in order. The only question left is what theme I should choose for the next one!

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To Stage a Murder

A few months ago (on April 13th, to be exact), I happened upon the idea of hosting a murder mystery party in a chance conversation.

I let the idea stew in my mind for awhile, and then realized that I absolutely had to do it. So, I spent several hours scouring the Internet for an appropriate scenario. Eventually, I found one I liked at Night of Mystery. Called Murder at the Juice Joint, the mystery was set in a 1920’s speakeasy, the haunt of rival mobsters.

I’m a huge fan of 1920’s fashion and my apartment – with its bare brick walls and concrete floor – could easily be turned into a plausible imitation of a speakeasy. Once I had chosen the right scenario, everything else began to fall into place.

I did some preliminary research into how to run a murder mystery party and emailed an event invitation to everyone on the 20-suspect guest list so I could begin collecting RSVPs.

Here’s a modified version of the deco-style event invitation I sent out:

Murder Mystery Party Invitation

(The fonts are Park Lane and Party at Gatsby’s – both free on FontSpace)

After that, the real fun began. Always a stickler for detail, I researched all of the details of the party meticulously – everything down to the brand of rum in the punch and gin in the rickeys (not to mention the recipes themselves) were from the 20’s.

Below you can find all of the party details, along with a few photos of the setting from the night of (you can see the characters and costumes here).

Gin was the most popular liquor of the Prohibition era (unlike many other spirits, gin doesn’t require a significant amount of time to age, and the botanicals masked the flavor of home-distilled moonshine), so I knew from the beginning that the party would not be complete without a gin cocktail. Simple to make in large quantities, the incredibly popular gin rickey – a variation of the classic G&T – won the day.

Drink Menu

Gin Rickey
1 oz. gin
1/2 oz. lime juice
1 oz. club soda

Since there were going to be 20 guests at the party and I didn’t want to spend all night behind a bar, I opted to fill out the rest of the drinks menu with two 20’s-era punches, one featuring champagne and the other rum. The only popular Prohibition-era spirit I left off the menu was whiskey – in large part because I simply can’t stand the taste, but also because whiskey cocktails are more finicky to mix than a simple punch or rickey and modern taste buds tend not to enjoy the whiskey-maraschino-and-orange-juice creations that Prohibition bartenders came up with in order to mask the taste of inferior whiskey.

Champagne Punch
1 cup simple syrup
2 tablespoons triple sec
6 tablespoons lemon juice (2 lemons)
1 quart champagne (or prosecco)
2 cups black tea
4 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 quart club soda

Mix the champagne, brandy, rum, triple sec, lemon juice, and tea. Sweeten to taste with the simple syrup and pour into a punch bowl over a large piece of ice. Add club soda just before serving.

I modified the Planter’s Punch recipe slightly before posting it here. The authentic version – which to me seemed like it would be unbearably sweet – included 2 cups more each of pineapple juice and orange juice, as well as a cup of simple syrup.

Planter’s Punch

4 cups pineapple juice

4 cups orange juice

1 1/2 cups light rum

1 1/2 cups dark rum

1 cup triple sec

1 cup lemon juice

1/2 cup grenadine

Mix the ingredients in a large punch bowl or pitcher. Pour into tall glasses with ice. Garnish with an orange slice, pineapple wedge, or maraschino cherry.

The two punches, along with 2 fifths of gin for the rickeys and a 24-pack of PBR, turned out to be just the right amount for the evening.

To serve the drinks, I rearranged my furniture to create a bar area in my kitchen. My conveniently bar-height table became the serving area, and a backwards bookshelf became a great place to stash the glasses (mostly mason jars, since nothing at a speakeasy can be served in a glass obviously intended for cocktails). A shelf behind the bar held all of the empty bottles I had been saving, which were relabeled for the party with the vintage labels that came with the Night of Mystery party PDF.

The Bar

My friend and co-party planner Kat managed to track down a free PBR banner, which both completed the bar look (even if it was totally inappropriate for a discreet speakeasy) and hid the microwave and cupboards.

However, there was more to the party than just drinks.


Since the mystery was set in a speakeasy, I opted not to run it as a multi-course sit-down meal. Instead, I settled on a spread of era-appropriate appetizers. Fortunately for me, the popular food of the day tended to be newfangled processed things like canned fruit, Rice Krispies, and – of course – Jell-O, so it was very possible to put together an impressive yet relatively inexpensive spread.

The centerpiece(s) were two Jell-O molds. Since many original Jell-O mold recipes from the 20’s sounded frankly disgusting (shrimp and mayonnaise in lemon Jell-O?!), I opted for some slightly later recipes. The fantastically titled “Under the Sea Salad” recipe pictured below is from the 1950’s, and the Peaches & Cream recipe from The Kitchn that I used was more modern yet. Unfortunately, not having the skills of The Jell-O Mold Mistress of Brooklyn, my creations ended up being a little lot less decorative than I had hoped. They still tasted good though!


Also on the menu were:

  • Deviled eggs
  • Rice Krispie treats
  • Pigs in a blanket (for all the non-vegetarians in the room)
  • Potato chips
  • A bowl of mixed nuts

Finishing off the food was the too-weird-to-leave-off-the-list Candle Salad. Originally designed as a way to trick children into eating their fruits and vegetables, this salad is hands-down the most phallic thing I have ever seen.

Despite what you may think when you first behold it, the banana is CLEARLY a candle, and the mayonnaise/whipped cream is CLEARLY the wax being melted by the maraschino cherry flame.

Get your mind our of the gutter.

In addition to shoving the majority of my furniture in the bedroom or rearranging it to create the bar, I set the scene by hanging the walls with era-appropriate Art Deco posters (there are a bazillion options available on Amazon, and the cheapest one I ordered was retailing at just $0.01 – $2.99 including shipping).

I supplemented these art prints with a variety of print-outs. I covered the bathroom mirror with a variety of vintage advertisements and magazine covers (and – for good measure – replaced my foaming hand soap dispenser with a simple unscented bar soap).

The finishing touch was the wanted posters for the gangsters who would be attending the party. I took the templates provided by Night of Mystery and then photoshopped in photos of the friends of mine who would be playing those characters at the party. Here are the results:

Wanted Posters

So there you go. Food + drinks + a scene well set = the recipe for a very good night.

The final details were the series of emails, all with a typewriter font and smattering of 20’s slang, sent out with character information, the entry plan for the night of the party (enter through the alley after giving the password – the unfortunately obsolete phrase, Phonus Balonus) to the bouncer and climb up the back staircase to the apartment-turned-Juice Joint, and the prizes.

Best Performance PrizeThe awards for Best Dressed and Best Performance were small bottles of house-infused gin (you can find the utterly delicious recipe here), and the super sleuths who correctly solved the murder received little bags of bite-size 20’s candy. The mix included Mounds, Milky Ways, Butterfingers, and Baby Ruths. Unfortunately no Reese’s, because those didn’t come onto the scene until 1928 and I chose to set my party in 1923 (did I mention I’m a stickler for detail?).

I’ll leave you now with a little preview of what the next post will entail, since I forgot to photograph the little bottles of gin before giving them away. To the left a shot of our Mugsy Malone – a North Side Gang Henchman – enjoying his prize for Best Performance.

Doesn’t the little bottle look like something straight out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?

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How to Make Your Own Gin

Inspired by the research I did for the 1920’s speakeasy murder mystery party I hosted soon (find out more about that here), I decided to try infusing my own gin.

Gin is one of the most flexible categories of spirits. Essentially any neutral spirit infused with botanicals – herbs, spices, citrus, and so forth – counts as gin, as long as the mix of botanicals includes a predominant juniper flavor. That means that it’s surprisingly easy to transform a bottle of plain old vodka into delicious homemade gin.

My spice cupboard – while very well stocked in general – did not as yet include juniper berries. This meant that my efforts to infuse my own gin (I skipped the distilling part due to a strong desire not to go blind or die of methanol poisoning) began with a Metro ride out to Maplewood in search of juniper. After a quick trip to Penzey’s Spices for a bottle of berries (and a prolonged detour to nearby Vom Fass to sample absinthe & floral liqueurs), I hopped over to Shop & Save to pick up my neutral spirit. I chose a bottle of semi-local Pearl vodka.

Armed with my vodka (or, as I liked to think of it, my pre-gin) and my berries, it was time to begin the infusion process.

While there are a wealth of gin recipes available on the Internet, I chose to start with this one from The Hungry Mouse.

I adapted the recipe after tasting my first infusion, so the ingredients you see below are from my ever-so-slightly different blend (I reduced the amounts of the coriander and allspice to mellow the spice and let the other flavors come through more).

I highly recommend trying out the recipe for yourself!


1 (750ml) bottle of vodka (or other neutral spirit)
3 Tablespoons dried juniper berries
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon fennel seed
3 green cardamom pods
3 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 piece fresh lemon peel
1 sprig fresh lavender

Gin & Tonics

  1. Sanitize a glass bottle with hot, soapy water.
  2. Add the botanicals to the bottle.
  3. Pour over the vodka.
  4. Shake the bottle vigourously.
  5. Let sit overnight in a cool, dark place. I infused mine for close to 24 hours total.
  6. Shake the bottle again.
  7. Strain out the solids, and then run the gin through a coffee filter a few times. The result will still have a slight golden color.
  8. Enjoy!

I tested out my infusion with some gin & tonics (don’t look at me like that – I made one for me and one for Joe!). They were DELICIOUS! Well worth the (24 hour) wait. I’m saving the rest of the bottle to divide up and give out as prizes at the murder mystery party for Best Dressed and Best Performance.

Guess I’ll just have to make more soon.

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