Is wizard-noir a genre?

I was looking for some brain candy to read and my husband summed up Storm Front as “he’s a private detective in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard.” I said “SOLD.”

The writing style is very noir; it wants to be Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The mystery is fairly typical – there are two different threads that get pulled together at the end of the book, someone wants our hero dead, the crime gets pinned on him at some point during the story. And, naturally, there’s some past thing our hero has done and he can’t use magic to fight his way out without getting in trouble with the larger wizard community.

But a mystery is about taking a crazy world and ordering it. It gets rid of some of the chaos and at the end the world makes a little more sense. And that, it turns out, was what I needed.

I didn’t need to be put on edge

I enjoyed A Study in Charlotte, but The Last of August has a paranoid tone through the whole book that I just couldn’t get past. It was not pleasant, I was not entertained, and the entire time I was reading it, I was on edge.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, the resolution of an unsettling or paranoid set of circumstances can be a relief and the paranoia contrasts enough with the relief to make you focus on that. Not this time. Watson suspects that he is being used by the entire Holmes clan in this particular mystery that revolves around stolen art and stolen identities. The resolution is not particularly satisfying and it feels so personal that it was unpleasant.

I suppose that was the point – reading, to a degree, is about putting yourself in the  hands of the author, asking to have your emotions manipulated. It doesn’t always have to be pleasant, and sometimes not enjoying the experience is the point. But it was not what I needed.

Sherlock Holmes would be exhausting

A Study in Charlotte is a modern Sherlock Holmes story that takes place in a posh New England boarding school with a gender swapped Sherlock, and it owes a lot to the latest Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock BBC/PBS series. Charlotte Holmes’ flaws are played up: the obsessiveness, the drug addiction, the deliberate isolation. It’s not often you see a teenaged girl portrayed with quite such off-putting characteristics.

She is still the hero though because she wants to do the right thing. She wants to help society, while realizing that she’ll never fit in – in part because of how she was brought up and in part because she doesn’t want to. And that’s all ok.

It was good brain candy for a busy/stressful time of year for me; it was what I needed.

Tell my story

The Red Tent makes me long for all the history told from women’s points of view. What were the women doing while the men were busy showing off and starting wars? What did Cleopatra think of the world she lived in? What about Elizabeth I? Or Eleanor of Aquitaine? We don’t know much, but I wish I did.

Honestly, I don’t know enough about the Bible to be able to comment intelligently on how faithful the story is, and, in fact, I’m pretty sure I was supposed to know more about Jacob and Esau and Joseph (and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) for these stories to mean more to me. But I don’t. I’m a heathen, I know.

But as a story of women living together, it was a little too sweeping to get into intimate character details – the story traces Dinah’s entire life from birth to death.   You don’t really get the intricacies of, say, her mother and aunt’s relationship, even though it must have been quite the thing for two sisters to be married to the same man. The outlines of feelings are there; there’s just too much story to get to.

Overall, recommended.

Superheroes are about power, you know

Power, having it and keeping it, is about tradeoffs. You are ultimately serving other people, and you need to remember that. That means, though, that you give up something of yourself, something of who you are. You are no longer wholly in control of what you do. You have to compromise; furthermore, if you want people to actually follow you, you cannot betray the trust that you will do what is the best for the them.

That’s what A Nation Under Our Feet is about. T’Challa is back from a stint with the Avengers, and his absence has lost his people. Of course there are people who want to take advantage of that.

This is the third book in the series, and it was totally worth my time. It made me think – because what are superheroes if not a meditation on power? This series realizes that and isn’t shying away from it. Recommended, especially reading all three volumes (18 issues, I think) in one sitting.

Corn muffins: better than you remember

Corn muffins, in my world, are a breakfast food. Hot from the oven, broken into pieces, butter and some maple syrup on them? They’re a pretty good breakfast food. Bacon is a fine accompaniment, if you want a little protein. They’re also good with chili, if you want them for a non-breakfast meal. Between my husband, my daughter, and myself, a dozen lasts less than 24 hours in our house.

Corn Muffins

7.5oz GF flour (I use ATK’s GF flour)
6.67oz corn meal
1.5t baking powder
1t baking soda
0.5t salt
0.25t xanthan gum
1.33c sour cream (we were short of sour cream, so I substituted plain whole fat greek yogurt – worked like a charm)
5.25oz sugar
0.67c milk
2 large eggs
10T unsalted butter, melted and cooled

  1. Mix dry ingredients (not the sugar, which is a wet ingredient) together in a medium bowl. Mix wet ingredients (but only 8T of melted unsalted butter) in another. Add wet ingredients to dry, mix until no lumps remain. Let rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 500F. Spray muffin tin with vegetable oil spray. Portion batter evenly into muffin tin, brush tops with last 2T of butter. Bake for 7 minutes.
  3. Reduce oven temp to 400F, and bake for 7 more minutes.
  4. Let cool for 10 minutes in pan, and on wire rack for 10 more minutes. Serve warm.

A Coffee Table Book

Women in Science was fine and fun with its profiles of women scientists throughout the millennia. I appreciate its inclusion of women of color along with white women – inclusivity is important!

But it’s a coffee table book, full of beautiful illustrations and short profiles. Which  is fine – we all need a good book to display, to look through. But it wasn’t a book to read straight through. Maybe one essay a night with your second grader? That might be perfect.

Madeleines are wonderful and delicious

I cannot begin to tell you how thrilled I was to find a madeleine recipe in the second volume of America’s Test Kitchen’s Gluten Free cookbook. I bought a madeleine pan shortly before discovering that not eating gluten made me feel better, so it only got used a few times, mostly for bake sales. It’s hard to cook something you love but can’t eat. It was the first recipe I made out of the book.

Lemon Madelines

2.5oz GF flour (I usually use the ATK GF blend)
0.25t baking powder
0.125t salt
1 large egg + 2 large yolks
2.67oz sugar
4T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1T grated lemon zest
1.5t vanilla

  1. Mix dry ingredients (sugar is a wet ingredient, remember) in a bowl. Mix all other ingredients in a large bowl until well combined and very smooth. Stir in flour mixture with rubber spatula and mix until dough is homogeneous and smooth. Let batter rest for 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 375. Spray pan with vegetable oil spray (I forgot to do this with one of my two batches and getting the cookies out was doable, but it was easier with the spray). Portion batter into molds of madeleine pan, about 2t per cookie. (Seriously, BUY ONE. Madeleines are SO EASY to make and everyone is so impressed when you can do it, but the hardest part is talking yourself into buying a specialized pan.) Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until edges begin to brown and they spring back when pressed lightly.
  3. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then let them cool completely on a clean dishtowel.

I suspect you can make them without the lemon and they’ll be fine. I also made an orange-cardamom batch (I love cardamom) – you omit the vanilla, swap the lemon zest for orange, and add 0.5t ground cardamom to sugar mixture in step 1. So good.

It’s a quest!

Let’s review the required components of a quest, shall we? (Courtesy How to Read Literature Like a Professor)

  1. A questor
  2. A place to go
  3. A stated reason to go there
  4. Challenges and trials along the way
  5. The real reason to get there (hint: it’s almost always self-knowledge)

In The Wangs vs the World, (1) the Wang family is traveling to (2) their oldest child’s house in upstate New York from their family house in LA because (3) their house has just been repossessed by the bank and their family business and fortune has just gone up in smoke during the 2008 crash. They face (4) challenges and trials along the way, including their middle child deciding he’s marrying the first woman he has sex with about halfway into the trip, a car crash, and the last of their business product, which they had hoped to deliver to a client, dissolving. But they do eventually learn (5) their family is and has always been the most important thing.

I enjoyed The Wangs vs the World. It’s funny, it’s told from a point of view you don’t often see: an Asian-American family who had succeeded through hard work, sure, but isn’t doing very well right now. At all. Those two things alone make it worth reading.

Wednesday Shorts

I’ve saved up a lot of reading for today. Here’s the best of what I read: