Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Angel's Game" - a review

"Why is it that the less one has to say the more one says it in the most pompous and pedantic way possible?" Corelli asked. "Is it to fool the world or just to fool themselves?"

It's time for another Book Club review!  This month the genre we selected was mystery.  I took this opportunity to read a book that has been on my "for later" list for quite a while: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  This book is a prequel to Zafon's runaway hit, The Shadow of the Wind.

Now I'm typically pretty suspicious of prequels.  They have always rubbed me the wrong way and I'm not totally sure why.  In my experience they just seem to be sub-par compared to the original work, like a failed attempt to relive the glory of the first book.  And in the case of Zafon, his first work of adult fiction was very glorious indeed.  I absolutely LOVED The Shadow of the Wind, despite the gore and violence that sometimes puts me off.  It was an excellent work.  Angel's Game has a mighty large shadow to stand in, and it just doesn't quite fill the shoes of Zafon's previous work.

Really a truly excellent book.
The difficulty with reviewing a book that is part of a series is that it is nearly impossible to consider the book on it's own individual merits and consider it as a separate entity.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and a book designated to be part of a series is always cast in the shadow of it's predecessors.  With this in mind, I am trying not to be dismissive of The Angel's Game but it's just not as good as Shadow.  This is purely a fact.  So I'm getting the comparisons out of the way now.  Firstly, while both are epic page turners, Shadow is more enticing and demanding that the reader find out what happens RIGHT NOW.  It took me about three weeks to read Angel's Game and I seem to recall I flew through Shadow in only a few days.  A second point of comparison is the level of realism between the two.  While each flirts with the occult and various heavenly hosts, Shadow lands with it's feet firmly in reality, whereas Angel's Game simply leaves the reader baffled in regards to the involvement of the supernatural as they turn the last page.

This second point is where I'd like to undertake a discussion of this book apart from its predecessor.  Now I am usually a fan of weird endings.  I like them.  Endings don't have to make sense and they certainly do not have to be happy.  But the ending of Angel's Game is completely bizarre.  The reader is left to sort out a great many things for themselves.  Is the struggling writer David actually insane, or is he being compelled by other forces?  The boundaries between reality and what David imagines are indecipherable.  And perhaps this is what the author intended, but it makes for a frustrated feeling after so much of the story is explained to leave this critical question unanswered.  With so much time spent inside David's head (the novel is from his perspective), the other characters flounder a bit in terms of development.  I was very much hoping there would be a bit more about the Sempere clan (who are key players in Shadow), as well as more insight into the relationships between the various characters.  So much of this is left unsaid that the reader is forced to extrapolate and make their own opinions.  And again, I'm not sure if that was what the author intended or if the book is floundering at these points.

Despite this, Angel's Game is still a real page turner.  It is a highly suspenseful read that demands the reader's attention and is quite exciting overall. Zafon creates a highly believable setting, his pre-World War I Barcelona is described in fascinating and consistent detail, from buildings to clothes.   The next part in this series is The Prisoner of Heaven, which is a sequel to Shadow of the Wind.  Because of Zafon's fascinating writing style, I have no doubt I'll be reading it as well.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Tutti Fruitti Frozen Yogurt - Review

There are lots of questions that people will randomly ask you when they find out you are a vegan.  There are really good questions, such as "how has your environmental impact changed as a result of your consumption habits?" or, "how do you avoid over-doing carbs on a vegan diet?".  And while your teacher/mom told you there are no stupid questions, there are actually a crapload of them which people feel they need to ask in this particular scenario.  Actually, not so much stupid questions as godforsakencompletelyretarded questions.  Just a sample include such jems as "where do you get your protein" (if I had a nickel...) and "don't plants have feelings too?" (no, they don't, and don't try to deflect from the calf that died in terror and is now your steak sandwich).

Yet another question that often gets asked is, "oh, don't you miss eating ____".  Usually the blank is cheese (like 90% of cases).  And my answer is typically no, with a few slim exceptions.  What absolutely delights me is that the list of so-called "things I miss" is progressively fewer and fewer items all the time.  Cheese?  No, don't miss it at all, I have delicious meltable Daiya.  Fried shrimp?  One of my favorite vegan restaurants makes a wicked facsimile.

And now, (choir of angels sing) I can happily say that Edmonton has a delicious replacement for frozen yogurt for vegans and the otherwise dairy-free.  Tutti Fruitti has been in Edmonton for over a year and has several locations around town.  While frozen yogurt is really nothing new, there are a few reasons why Tutti Fruitti stands apart and why it is clearly such a successful business model.

Firstly, the soy yogurt (which I call soygurt).

Yes, it's real, and it's delicious.

Tutti Fruitti is the only Edmonton frozen yogurt franchise that offers soy yogurt (as far as I'm aware, and that barfy one on Jasper Ave doesn't count).  This alone elevates them completely for me as a vegan, but I'm going to focus on other reasons why they rock for the rest of you too.  At any rate, the soygurt is beautiful.  The flavors are rich and never too sweet, and are so deliciously creamy.  I absolutely CRAVE this stuff!  My only complaint is that the various locations don't always have a soy flavor on offer.  Which is a real piss-off, because honestly, sorbet doesn't cut it.  I can get sorbet at the grocery store, I can't get soygurt there.  My favorite flavors are the above soy peanut butter and soy latte.  The only one I can't stand is black sesame, it's absolutely barf-worthy.  And while I'm grateful that there is soybean yogurt at all, it would be really nice if there was a greater variety of flavors available.  Best case scenario in my mind, if I could actually have the CHOICE between two flavors that would be mindblowingly-awesome (and the dairy people get at least six choices, so I don't really think that's so much to ask!)

Another great thing about Tutti Fruitti are the topping choices.  Because you get to choose your yogurt, as well as how much you want (which I LOOOOVE), you also get to do the same with your toppings!  It is so great to be able to choose from a range of fresh fruits, candy, nuts and syrups.  My favorite toppings are strawberries, oreos (a surprising vegan treat!), mango and peanuts.  There are usually a good two dozen options to choose from, so Tutti Fruitti never lacks in this department.

Here's a shot of my concoction from today, peanut butter soygurt with strawberry, mango and chocolate chips:

A real piece of vegan paradise.
So, to conclude!  Tutti Fruitti is a great option for not only vegan folks, but pretty much everyone who enjoys a frozen treat topped with even more deliciousness.  And with their continued expansion across the city, there is probably a location near you.  Go get some.  You know you wanna.  :)

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Ally Condie's "Reached"... or, the end is the beginning is the end

Here's the thing about trilogies (or any series of books, for that matter): there are only two ways you can feel about them once you start reading.  Reaction A is that you read the book, or the first couple of books, but you don't have any serious inclination to read the whole series.  This happens when either the series is not particularly good (would it be cruel to name names here?....), or something off-putting happens to turn you away from the series.  The later of these distasteful episodes happened to me with Game of Thrones (didn't like the uber-violence after book 2), and also happens to most people when they read Wheel of Time (book 7 wardrobe descriptions, anyone?).

Then there is Reaction B.  As opposed to the disinterest or turn-offs that happen in Reaction A, Reaction B is when you feel like YOU JUST MIGHT DIE if you don't find out what happens in the next book RIGHT THIS BLOODY MINUTE.  I refer to Reaction B as the "addict reaction"; you are so invested in the book and it's characters and then the author has the audacity to end the damn thing on a cliffhanger and make you wait four years until they write the next book.  (Or like twelve years... George R.R. Martin, I'm looking at you.)  Reaction B is tantamount to literary torture.  It leaves you sleepless at night and makes you constantly check the "books on order" list at the library on a daily basis until it finally arrives.  And when the book stork finally comes you crack open the first page with glee and feel the rush that comes with satisfying the addiction that the author has created. 

But then you get to the end.  And when you arrive at that end you have to face the fact that there will never be anymore of this series, ever.  And that's when (worst case scenario) you have to start talk therapy to deal with your loss (I'm sure Harry Potter made more than a few people feel this way).  Or for those less prone to dramatizing their literary experiences, maybe you just write a review.

And thus here we are.  I finally finished reading Ally Condie's Matched triology.  And while waiting for Reached to be released was a bit torturous, I can assure you that the final book is completely worth the wait. 

And I like the covers, too.

(PS - clickez-ici on the links to read my reviews of the first two books: Matched and Crossed.)

Reached brings the series to a dramatic (if somewhat a little predictable) conclusion.  After introducing multiple character perspectives in Crossed, Condie continues to add to the character voices, importantly adding Xander to the first-person rotation.  I was delighted to see this addition, as it finally makes Xander a main character in the work.  Despite his important roles in the other two books, he was very much a background character; the story advances greatly when his perspective is added.  When a devastating new strain of the plague breaks loose in the middle of the rebellion, Cassia, Ky and Xander all rise to fight it, each in their own way.  I found the three perspectives to be very complimentary and provided a wonderful, full picture of the events in the novel.  Cassia's perspective as trader and poet provides insight into both the Society and Rising, while Xander's overwhelming task of finding a cure lends realism to the story as he becomes increasingly burdened.  Even Ky's perspective, in a fugue state for a large portion of the book, is surprisingly revealing.  All of the perspectives allow for much greater character development (especially evident with Xander) and really aid in the storytelling and progression of the book. The only characters I struggled with were the Pilot and Hunter.  Their motivations were among the few mysteries that were not clearly resolved at the end of the story.  Considering his overall importance to the plot, the Pilot's appearance and actions were surprisingly emotionless and his character is never really revealed.  But this could be intentional, to pair with the idea that everyone has their own pilot therefore the Pilot never gains a specific identity of his own.  As for Hunter, his actions are both infuriating and thought-provoking. And while his motivations are not made directly obvious, I think this was used to demonstrate how broken a man he really was.

One trait of a "good book" (in my humble opinion) is knowing when to reveal.  Condie has great timing in this regard.  The reader is enticed through the work with cliffhanger chapter endings, and the big reveals are given out in a piecemeal fashion.  This not only keeps the reader going by rewarding them with the secrets of the work as they read, but it also prevents a massive blow-out of an ending.  Too many books I've read lack sufficient denouement, and end while the reader is still reeling from the climax and/or big reveal.  Condie's pacing and gradual reveals don't ruin the book's climax, but in fact make the book all the more suspenseful.   Just when the reader believes they understand what's going on, perspectives change and events jump and there is another surprise waiting.

And speaking of the ending.  While Reached may not end on a decisive note, it does effectively end by introducing a new beginning.  I'm a total sucker for this kind of ending (I'm sure it drives other people crazy), I love that the author can recognize that even though their telling of the story is over, the story itself goes on, just like life.  While I was a bit irked by how everyone coupled-off at the end, (no I'm not going to tell you whom with whom, read the damn book)  overall I was satisfied with the ending, and can leave the work in peace instead of needing an intensive book club session to mourn my loss.

So in conclusion, after reading all three books in the YA triology Matched, I feel like I can say that anyone who enjoys an exciting teen read should definitely commit the time and invest their hearts in this series.  All three are worthwhile reads, and I look forward to Ally Condie's next work.

Friday, 8 February 2013

H&W Produce: a vegan's fresh food paradise

I don't usually wax poetic about grocery stores.  Or any stores, for that matter.  But sometimes I visit a store that has the perfect mixture of great prices, friendly staff and organizational heart, that I feel like I have to stop and give them a bit of limelight (heeeheeee "lime"light is a pun, you will see why...)

H&W Produce is one of the best kept secrets in Edmonton... or at least the secret that was best kept from me!  I just found out about this fabulous chain of stores a few weeks ago, and have visited them twice in the interval. 

I am completely in love with this store. 

You have to understand first of all that as a vegan, I'm a perimeter shopper at most traditional grocery stores.  I stick to the outside walls to get the things I eat: the fresh foods.  I don't usually venture into the middle aisles unless it's to get some grains or legumes (and even those are usually coming out of bulk bins).  H&W Produce, being a store which is focused almost solely on fresh fruit and veg, is a total haven to me.  No obnoxious big-box to navigate (along with obnoxious big-box clientele), no meat counter to make my stomach turn, just a veritable vegetable paradise.  And that's not all!  Even better than getting to bypass all the items that are completely unnecessary to my diet are the surprisingly low prices.  While other specialty grocers in Edmonton tend to have higher prices than their mainstream grocery competitors, H&W Produce offers produce that is in almost all cases MUCH less costly and also in better condition (unlike Superstore, who apparently throw the produce off the truck...)

Case in point, MY SWAG:

I shall nom you all, in time.

This was my haul when I visited H&W on the westend this evening (via ETS, wanted to buy more but had to think of the bus).  I bought four pounds of navel oranges, a cantaloupe, three kiwis, four bananas, a pound of strawberries, a pint of cherry tomatoes, a field tomato, an avocado (rock hard, but all things in their time), a bundle of carrots and a lovely eggplant.  All completely mouthwatering in their appearance.  The total bill?  FIFTEEN DOLLARS.  This shocked me, as regular price at Safeway would only let you get the cherry tomatoes, strawberries and cantaloupe for about the same amount. 

On top of the quality and price, H&W has amazing variety.  They have several vegetables that you will not find at your Save-On-Foods (actually, ESPECIALLY at Save-On, they clearly have no imagination when it comes to their selection).  They had several items I had never heard of, as well as others that can be occasionally difficult to find, like jicama.

So, in conclusion, while I don't usually endorse stores I would like to do so with this one.  H&W Produce has several locations, which are well-placed on the different sides of the city.  There is probably one near you!  And if there is, I encourage you to visit.  If you love good veggies, you won't be disappointed.