Alan Bradley – The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches.

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The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches – Alan Bradley (2014, Doubleday Canada)

I fear if I go into much detail about The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the sixth Flavia de Luce novel, I risk a spoiler, so I’ll tread carefully and just say that this is the darkest novel of the series to this point, with Flavia’s ordinary hijinks severely tempered by family matters. Of course, there IS a fresh murder – and a very high profile one at that – but strangely, it isn’t the focus of this mystery.  Bradley instead ties up a bunch of loose ends from the previous books, and takes Flavia into new, extremely interesting and dangerous territory, setting up for the upcoming stories about this irrepressible heroine.

Kristina Stosek – Small Bites the Gluten-Free Way.

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Small Bites The Gluten-Free Way  – Kristina Stosek (2015 Blue Cap Books, Vancouver)

It doesn’t matter if you’re required to adhere to a gluten-free diet or not, this cookbook has your snacks and appies covered with simple and appealing recipes that (for the most part) don’t require anything other than what you already have on hand in your pantry or fridge.  Gorgeous photography and a clean, easy-to-read layout make Small Bites a standout.  I can see many revisits of these recipes in my future!

Small Bites I am going to try very soon:  Authentic Schnitzel Bites, Baked Lemon Chicken Fingers (on the menu this week!), Skinny Crema Catalana, Rustic Bacon and Cheese Scones (is there a better combination than bacon and cheese?)

Laurence and Gilles Laurendon et al. – From Scratch.

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From Scratch:  An Introduction to French Breads, Cheeses, Preserves, Pickles, Charcuterie, Condiments, Yogurts, Sweets, and More – Laurence and Gilles Laurendon, Catherine Quevremont, and Cathy Ytak (2014, Lark, Sterling Publishing, New York)

This is one of those cookbooks that I knew I must have as soon as I cracked it open.  It’s beautiful, for one, but it’s not just the photographs – it’s also in the way the recipes are presented, even right down to the fonts, which are fancy but easy on the eyes.  Of course, it’s all about the recipes, however – and these are right up my alley.  I’ve wanted to try making my own soft cheeses for some time now, and the mascarpone recipe is first up for me.  I can’t believe how easy this looks!  And forget how intimidating making brioche seems – it IS possible with the recipes in From Scratch.  You want to make beef, vegetable, or chicken bouillon?  Can do.  What about grow your own sprouts?  Yep.  Make the perfect lemon curd?  Infused butters, compound oils?  Fresh pasta?  Garlic bread?  It’s all here, and more.   A must-have compilation for the home cook.

Charles Seife – Virtual Unreality.

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Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? – Charles Seife (2014, Viking, New York)

Are you having a hard time easily separating fact from fiction when it comes to the Internet or any form of mass media these days?  Do you feel you’re drowning in a tidal wave of meaningless noise and fake photographs, running up against countless obstacles detracting (and distracting us) from reality?  Do you often wonder how we are supposed to make rational decisions when we have no real facts to go on?  And how do we sift through the mire of stories and sources, and determine what is reality when everyone has their own version of it?

While Charles Seife doesn’t really have any answers for that, he certainly has plenty of fodder to illustrate the ways we’re being completely duped by corporations, governments, the media, and each other  – and how the Internet is the ideal means to achieve that end, far more quickly, cleanly, and efficiently than ever before in history.  This book could be depressing – after all, we’re being lied to, cheated on, and stolen from every single day – but it’s actually the most fascinating and relevant thing I’ve read in years.  The old cliché “food for thought” definitely applies here.

Gretchen Rubin – Better Than Before.

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Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives – Gretchen Rubin (2015 Anchor Canada)

Having already tackled the nature of happiness and how to manifest it in daily living, bestselling author and blogger Gretchen Rubin turns her attention to habit making.  Why do we do the things we do, and how can we replace bad habits with good ones that will make for happier, healthier lives?  Much of it, unsurprisingly, comes down to personality – but although that may be expected, it’s what Rubin has to say about how we look at ourselves and accordingly view the world around us that makes all the difference.  As a bonus, Rubin’s casual writing style once again makes “self-help” interesting and accessible – nothing flaky, stuffy, pretentious, or condescending here.

Katherine Govier – The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel.

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The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel – Katherine Govier (2016, HarperAvenue, Toronto)

I admit the only reason I picked up Katherine Govier’s book The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel was because it is set in the Rocky Mountains, in a town called Canmore (called Gateway in the novel) – I live very close to the area and have always been fascinated with the history of it.  Did I make the right choice? I sure did!

This is a long book, a heavyweight that unspools at just the right pace right up until just before the ending.  The story pivots on the mystery of the disappearance, in 1911, of the Hodgson expedition while hunting for fossils in the mountains. Every event that takes place over the next several decades, over more than one generation, is influenced by this significant loss.  I loved the journeys of the characters involved: Herbie Wishart, the former poacher turned mountain guide, a man with dark secrets and obsessed with the truth; Gwen Hodgson, orphaned by the tragedy and burdened with questions about her family and her place in the world; Helen Wagg, the writer and representative of the newly-formed Parks Canada, tasked with spinning the mystique of the Rocky Mountains for the world; and Iona, the rebellious daughter of her Quaker mother and wandering father, offering up secrets of her own to her family in her old age.

Of course, Govier’s book is a work of fiction, but it was sometimes hard to separate story from fact – a testament to her skill at making the reader believe in her characters, their motivations, and the way time unfolds over the span of many decades. There are so many wonderful details in the book that make it as authentic as possible – there is no doubt Govier spent countless hours doing research (it surely helps that she lives in Canmore part time).

For some reason, however, the ending felt rushed to me – even the sentences reflected this, with many turning into choppy phrases.  I suspect this was an intentional stylistic move – after all, time seems to fly as one advances into old age, as Iona does.  It could also express the way modern living is characterized by fast-paced busyness.  Still, it appears an interesting choice to shutter the entirety of the book’s mysteries in a few brief paragraphs, when the book itself is over 400 pages long. (I’m not sure what the alternative could have been; the story couldn’t go on forever, even if I wanted it to).

Beautifully told and highly recommended.

Eileen Schuh – Shadow Riders.

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Shadow Riders – Eileen Schuh (2016, Castle Harbour Publishing)

When Allison Montgomery is kidnapped by two members of a bike gang and forced to travel to South Korea to help secure illegal business dealings, she just wants to make it home alive. Instead, she is surprised to find herself falling in love with one of her manipulative, cruel captors.  Psychologically, physically, and emotionally traumatized, Allison will do just about anything to guarantee her survival – even though the cost may be greater than she could ever imagine.  Eileen Schuh’s new tie-in to her excellent BackTracker series is a difficult, dark, and gritty look into the life of an abused woman and the violent circumstances that threaten to destroy her.  Thoroughly researched and well-paced, Shadow Riders is not an easy read, but an important one.