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Book Review! Sparrow59

*Update* Sorry for the changing post/delays, I had this post saved and scheduled for 10am this morning, but WordPress apparently decided to not publish at 10am and to delete the whole review section…

Participate in a blog tour – with giveaway – for a book I already knew I wanted to review? Yes, please! In addition to writing a book, Sparrow59’s author, Devon Ashley, coordinated this whole blog-tour and giveaway herself. She’s clearly awesome. Sparrow59 just released on December 16th, and is only $1.99 until December 19th, so go pick up your copy now!

This is my first-ever blog tour, so let me know your thoughts on the format, the book, or anything else that strikes your fancy ;-)

My thoughts on the book:

That ending – whyyyyyyy?!

Ok, let me back up a bit. This book is a standard spy-thriller-mystery in the vein of the Bourne Identity, but told from the perspective of a female spy. At the end of a successful op, Sam, Drew, and their teammate Lance are waiting for extraction when the unthinkable happens – someone gets the drop on them. Now Lance and the rest of Team Sparrow are dead, Drew is missing-presumed-defector, and the CIA thinks that Sam is somehow involved in keeping Drew hidden. That would be bad enough, but Sam and Drew haven’t just been spies playing a married couple, they are actually husband and wife, and Sam has every intention of tracking Drew down and figuring out what happened.

Sam is a balanced, well-written character. She can’t magically do everything and doesn’t come out of every fight unscathed. I like how the author chose to stage her relationship with Drew (i.e. I’m glad that it started before they were partnered together, rather than the typical, “we were thrown together and now we’re in love” ridiculousness that I read so often). It’s fun to read a spy novel that has a female protagonist who is a competent professional, not just the bait for a honey-trap.

The plot of the book pretty much proceeds as you’d expect, right up until the last 10 pages or so. Prepare yourself for a rough ending, my friends. I do think it is a good ending for the story, and I’m definitely intrigued to see where the author takes things in the next two books that I see entries for on Goodreads (although there’s no release date for those yet.)

A bit of a sidenote: I enjoyed the bio-research aspect of the plot – it gives the whole story an original twist. That said, I’d like to see more of that included in the next two books (what chemicals are they using/making and how/why?) Details like that, which can educate a reader without them really being aware of how much they’re learning, are one of my favorite literary devices, and are a hallmark of good writing!

And now, for a GIVEAWAY!

There will be three giveaway winners, (1) signed hardback, (1) signed paperback and (1) $10 gift card to Amazon or B&N. The link below will take you to the Rafflecopter widget for the giveaway, just follow the instructions there to submit your entry.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Check out the other bloggers participating in the blog tour!

Blog Tour Line-Up

Monday, December 15th

Fire & Ice Book Reviews (review)

Rachel Reads Ravenously (review, excerpt #1)

All In One Place (review, excerpt #2)

Tuesday, December 16th (Release Day)

Besties & Books (excerpt #3)

MegPie93’s Book Review (review)

Bookworm Coalition (review, excerpt #4)

Wednesday, December 17th

A Soul Unsung (excerpt #5)

Books & Graphics (excerpt #1)

This Redhead Loves Book (excerpt #2)

Thursday, December 18th

A Literary Perusal (review, excerpt #3)

Barks & Baking (review)

Friday, December 19th

All My Book Finds (excerpt #4)

Books Need TLC (excerpt #5)

Get a copy of Sparrow59 for yourself here:

eBooks: Amazon US, UK, DE, IN, FR, ES, IT, JP, NL, BR, CA, MX, AU, Nook, Kobo. and Lulu.

(Paperbacks at Amazon US, UK, DE, ES, FR, ITHardbacks pending at Lulu)

* I did not receive any compensation for participating in this blog tour/giveaway, but I did receive a free ebook of Sparrow59through NetGalley. All opinions are my own!*

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The Struggle is Real – Sometimes I Have a Hard Time Finishing Books…

Confession time – I can count on my fingers and toes the number of books I have started, but not finished. Some because they were too heavy at a time when I just wanted to read something light and magical, some that I just couldn’t get into, and some that were just plain awful. As I receive access to more titles through sites like NetGalley and Goodreads, which are often advance copies of new/unknown authors, I find that I’m struggling to finish books more frequently. I absolutely try to finish each book that I receive gratis becuase a) that’s why I got the book, so I can at least give it a rating or brief review, and b) usually I’m a super fast reader and I can just push through. Books that I’ve purchased for myself are harder to pick back up.

So, I thought I would entertain you with a list of titles that I’m having trouble with!

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume 1

1) Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I love digging into books about Ancient Rome and Egypt, so I’m really interested in the information contained in this series, and it’s so hard to find books that will give you the straight up history without too much editorializing, but the writing in this is just so dry! I’m only about 1/3 of the way through the first volume. I have the edition pictured above, and if nothing else, it looks nice on my bookshelves :-)

One Hundred Years of Solitude

2) A Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Marcia Marquez.

This is a modern classic, but the writing, while it paints an enchanting picture, just meanders along. I like a fast-paced plot, personally (one reason I don’t read much non-fiction) so this one is hard for me. I’m sure I’ll finish it at some point, because it’s a good story, but I think I’ll have to be in the right mood for it (much like how I didn’t care for Austen in high school, which I first read Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, but once I got to law school I re-read P&P and liked it so much I bought Austen’s complete works and devoured them all.) I have the edition pictured above, and I love the cover!

House of Leaves

3) House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski.

I was so deeply creeped out by this book that I put it down about halfway through and tried to forget about it. If you’re into horror, thrillers, creepy things or books like The Shining, give this one a go. But I’d advise keeping the lights on! The writing is phenomenal, and I love how things are deliberately set in weird places (you’d have to see the book to understand what I’m getting at here.)

Book of Air and Shadows

4) The Book of Air and Shadows, by Michel Gruber.

I think this is a good book, it reminds me a lot of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (modern day scenes mixed in with historical ones, dangerous encounters, a search for historical artifacts, etc.) but the writing just doesn’t grab me the way Kostova’s did. I don’t feel as connected to the characters, and once I put it down I got distracted by a number of other books. I’m sure I’ll finish this one and post a review, but again, I think I’ll have to be in a certain “get things done and wrapped up” kind of mood.

The Supernatural Enhancements

5) The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero.

I got a copy of this book through NetGalley, but the photo above links to Barnes and Noble for anyone who’s interested (no affiliate links here, folks, I just like buy my books from B&N!) This isn’t a bad book, but I just can’t get into it. I stopped about 2/3 of the way through because I just don’t care about any of the characters, and the suspense I was expecting to feel based on the publisher’s blurb is non-existent. I think a large part of it is that the author switches up narration constantly and it really ruins the flow for me. Since this is a book I received through NetGalley, I’m going to push to finish it and post a review, but I’ll probably have to bribe myself with a trip to Starbucks… (because as we all know, I’m addicted to hazelnut lattes. Or hazelnut anything, really.)

Do you finish all the books you pick up, do you finish most of them, or do you immediately put down a book that’s not grabbing your interest? Are there any books that you think you might give a second chance?
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Book Review! Chasing Power

I’ve received several advance/publicity copies of YA books through NetGalley since I joined earlier this year, but this is the first YA title that I’ve liked enough to share here on Barks & Baking!

Chasing Power

Chasing Power, by Sarah Beth Durst

Available to purchase on October 14, 2014.

The publisher’s blurb: 

Lies, secrets, and magic — three things that define Kayla’s life.

Sixteen-year-old Kayla plans to spend her summer hanging out on the beach in Santa Barbara and stealing whatever she wants, whenever she wants it. Born with the ability to move things with her mind — things like credit cards, diamond rings, and buttons on cash registers — she has become a master shoplifter. She steals to build up a safety net, enough money for her and her mom to be able to flee if her dad finds them again. Well, that, and the thrill of using her secret talents.

But her summer plans change when she’s caught stealing by a boy named Daniel — a boy who needs her help and is willing to blackmail her to get it. Daniel has a talent of his own. He can teleport, appearing anywhere in the world in an instant, but he lies as easily as he travels. Together, they embark on a quest to find and steal an ancient incantation, written on three indestructible stones and hidden millennia ago, all to rescue Daniel’s kidnapped mother. But Kayla has no idea that this rescue mission will lead back to her own family — and to betrayals that she may not be able to forgive… or survive.

My thoughts:

There were a few stumbling moments early on in the book, but I was fully on-board by the time Kayla and Daniel team up and start looking for the stones. The search takes them various places around the world, and while the different locations were interesting, I would have liked to see a bit more real history added into the story (it’s a great way to add to the reader’s knowledge without forcing it or being a great big info-dump.) Kayla is pretty decisive for a YA character, and not naive, which is refreshing. She also is very good at putting major issues in context and acting accordingly –  as evidenced by her reactions to the events toward the end of the book.

Kayla’s best friend, Selena, is a strong secondary character, and I love the dichotomy of how she acts with the rest of the world versus how she is around her family. It’s easy to write supporting characters that are one-dimensional/stereotypes who are only there to interact with the main characters, but I think it’s particularly important in YA books to support the idea that people are multi-faceted and may have a mix of more and less desirable characteristics, and that even the most put-together appearances may go hand-in-hand with personal struggles. That being said, I think that Daniel could have been written better – he felt a bit flat to me, and the scenes that I surmise were supposed to add “depth” to his character really didn’t. The “cocky-to-hide-his-vulnerability” thing was overplayed, he was very single-minded throughout the book (“must. find. mother.”) He basically gets a pass whenever he acts like a jerk, whereas Kayla and Selena dealt with things more maturely.

I’d say this falls at a 3.5/5 stars on my scale. I probably won’t re-read it, but it’s one I’ll probably recommend to other YA readers looking for new reading material.

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Copycat Panera Strawberry-Rhubarb Mini Cakes a.k.a. Strawberry-Streusel Muffins

You guys – there’s actually some baking going on over here today! Get excited.

I was running errands a couple weeks ago after a long day at work and decided that I needed an iced coffee and a bit of a snack to hold me over until dinner. Panera was the closest place to grab something, so I went in to survey their pastries and walked away from the counter with one of their summer specials: the Strawberry-Rhubarb Mini Cake. It’s no longer on their online menu, but it was absolutely delicious and I knew I had to re-create it at home. Moist vanilla cake batter, thick to point that it was almost like a pound cake, topped with a mix of strawberry-rhubarb sauce and chunks of strawberries, and finished off with a lovely crumbly streusel. Yum. Here’s how my version ended up – spoiler alert, they’re delicious! :-)

I paged through all my cookbooks, browsed for a copycat recipe online, and couldn’t find anything that sounded right, so initially I decided to cobble a few recipes together – a vanilla coffee-cake recipe from one place, with a crumble topping recipe from somewhere else, and some strawberry-rhubarb sauce I found at a local grocery store. Friends, it was a total fail. The recipes/sauce didn’t mesh well together, and I don’t even have a photo for you because one muffin-tinned batch burned and was immediately tossed in the trash, and the other tin stuck to the pan so hard (even after I had greased it with butter) that I couldn’t get a whole muffin out. They were a crumbly, sticky mess.

So, back to the drawing board. Getting the batter right was the hardest part, because most recipes I found were just a little off – too fluffy and boxed-cake like, not rich-enough looking, too thick, etc. Then, I found this recipe via Foodgawker, which is a take on a recipe by Alton Brown. Since AB is the one who came up with the base recipe, I knew this would work. I’ve modified it a bit and made the directions clearer and I think it’s perfect! It’s late enough in the season that I couldn’t find any rhubarb that wasn’t outrageously expensive, so this is a strawberry-only version, but I’ve adjusted for that below in case you have some rhubarb on hand (I think the tangy rhubarb would make this even better!) I used a standard sized muffin/cupcake tin and got 18 muffins from this recipe, but you could also use a jumbo muffin tin and get 12 larger muffins (if you do go the jumbo muffin route, just note that you’ll need to add a few minutes on to the baking time – keep an eye on them until they’re nice and golden brown and firm when you press on the tops!)

Strawberry-Streusel Muffins

Yield: Makes 12-18 muffins

For the muffins:

  • 12 1/2 ounces cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Heavy pinch coarse salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh strawberry pieces or 1 cup chopped strawberries with 1/2 cup chopped rhubarb (you could also use blueberries or blackberries – or raspberries if you’re not allergic to them like I am.)

For the streusel (I lifted this out of my handy-dandy Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, which is the greatest for basics and old-school recipes):

  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons flour
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 3-4 Tablespoons chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease the muffin pan with non-stick spray or use paper muffin/cupcake liners.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and set aside.
  3. In another large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, egg, yogurt, and vanilla.
  4. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the dry ingredients and toss with the berries.
  5. Combine the wet and dry ingredients. Stir mixture until just combined. Add berries to mixture and stir until they are distributed through the batter (try not to over-stir, as it may make the batter tough!)
  6. Using an ice cream scoop or a large spoon, portion the dough into individual muffin tins.
  7. To make streusel topping, combine brown sugar and flour in a small bowl and cut in the butter with a pastry blender or large fork. Once combined, add the pecans or walnuts (if desired.)
  8. Bake muffins for 8 to 10 minutes, then add the streusel topping and rotate pan when placing it back in the oven. Bake an additional 8 to 12 minutes until muffins are firm to the touch and the streusel has browned a bit. Remove from oven and cool completely on a rack. Serve immediately or store in airtight container for 2 to 3 days.

 

I’m sure everyone else is moving on to Fall-themed foods, but I’m still squeezing the last bit of summer out while I can! Are you on to Pumpkin-spice everything, apple cider, and Halloween decorations, or are you holding on to the last of the warm weather like I am? Any requests for a baked good you’d like to see here at Barks & Baking?

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Book Review! Throne of Glass Series

Holy blog traffic, Batman! I’m sure most of you are here because of the lovely shout-out from Franish – with whom I’ve been bonding over the perfect maroon-y purple skirt from JCrew Factory. If so, you might be interested to take a peek at my favorite pieces for work casual wear, or the gym, and my makeup basics, and then please stick around for one of my favorite topics, book reviews!

 

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass Series #1)

I’ve read the first two books of the Throne of Glass series, by Sarah J. Maas, in just two days, and I’m already halfway through the third book. Yup. Hooked. This is hands-down one of the best YA fantasy series I’ve read in years. Since the series isn’t done yet, I’m not sure if it will top The Abhorsen series, by Garth Nix, or the Tortall books, by Tamora Pierce, on my list of all-time best YA books, but it’s pretty high up the list.

The publisher’s blurb on these gives you a good idea of what to expect from the books, and it’ll be hard to do a review of all three books without any spoilers, but I’ll try! Celaena Sardothien is an assassin, trained from a young age to be the best at her brutal trade. When she’s summoned from her hovel mining salt in Endovier and sent to the capitol city of the ruthless Adarlan king to compete for her freedom, she’s not sure what to expect. Almost immediately, Celaena is drawn into a scheme much larger than herself, and with no one giving her the information she seeks – or any of the truth – she has to figure things out for herself, before she winds up on the executioner’s block.

Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass Series #2)

One of the things I’ve truly enjoyed about this series is that Celaena is very decisive and not afraid to take action, even when she has doubts and may need to adjust her path once things heat up. Although she’s painted as a cold-blooded assassin, there are plenty of internal struggles and emotions for her to face, and ultimately she ends up being better and more mature for it. I’ve enjoyed seeing her character evolve so far over the first three books, and according to Goodreads, there are three books yet to go. (Which makes me deliriously happy. I love a good, long series!) There are also several interesting (read: not shallow) male characters and other important female characters that pop up over the course of the first three books, which gives the plot more depth and keeps things racing along quickly. No dragging, endless descriptions and boring filler scenes here!

Heir of Fire (Throne of Glass Series #3)

One of the reviews published in the paperback version of Throne of Glass (book one of the series, followed by Crown of Midnight, and then Heir of Fire) that caught my eye stated that they viewed Maas’ series as a combination of Tamora Pierce and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, which I think paints a pretty good picture of where this sits in terms of fantasy works. The writing is much more direct and (overall) is less  gruesomely realistic than the Game of Thrones books (see my Goodreads reviews on those if you dare, I didn’t care for them) but also involves more politics, plotting, and death than Pierce’s books. The Throne of Glass books are broader in scope, but they remind me a bit of The Castings Trilogy, by Pamela Freeman (if you like the Throne of Glass books and fantasy in general, those might be worth a read.)

If you’ve read any of the Throne of Glass books, please let me know your thoughts! Did you devour them like I have, or were they not your cup of tea?

If you’re just popping by to check things out, I’d love it if you said Hi in the comments or maybe took a second to fill out the quick blog poll I posted recently!

(*Disclaimer: None of the links in this post are affiliate links and I am not getting anything at all from the respective companies or blogs they link to. But if JCrew, Goodreads, or Barnes & Noble ever start giving me goodies or cash, I’ll let you guys know! :-) )

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Reader Survey

Hi, friends! Now that I’ve told you a little bit more about myself and my reading/reviewing style and have done my first – awesome! – blog giveaway, I want to hear from you on what you’re looking for from Barks & Baking. More photos of the Horrible Hound?

Oh, OK. I get that, after all, he puts the “Barks” in B&B :-)

More about our daily adventures? More baking posts? (I know – I’ve totally been slacking on those, but I’ve basically been making my awesome Hazelnut Scones on repeat :-) ) Pretty please, take a second to answer the 4 questions below, and help me improve B&B. I’m open to comments/suggestions as well if there’s something that you think would be a particularly awesome addition to this space!

Thank you!

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Tag: The Book Blogger Test

I had a lot of fun with the A to Z Survey that I posted last week, so I’m excited to bring you something similar today. I first saw this tag on @Girl in the Pages and @Blogs of a Bookaholic – go check them out! – and it looked like tons of fun. I went down a bit of a WordPress rabbit-hole looking for the blog where this test originated, but I’m glad to say that I think I found it, so thanks to @Laura’s Book Reviews for dreaming this up!

Confession: No one tagged me to do this, and this isn’t strictly just a book blog, but since I do so many book reviews I thought it might be nice to give you all a little more info. about my reading habits :-)

The Book Blogger Test:

Top three book pet hates?

1. Authors who jump on a bandwagon. When there is one really successful book that stands out and get a lot of press, there tend to be a lot of copycats, particularly in the YA genre. I’ve read so many books and seen so many variations on standard plots, and I can understand drawing inspiration from other authors, but you need to add something of your own to the mix!

2. People who don’t return books. Unlike a lot of people I know, I’m happy to lend my books out (and I even buy some books in paperback just so I can do that) but it’s really disappointing when I go to re-read something or suggest it to someone else and I can’t find it because it was never returned!

3. Unpronounceable character names. We all got over it with Hermoine because eventually the books explained it to us (in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for those keeping score at home) but I find that it can really ruin the flow of a book when I constantly stumble over the characters’ names, especially if they’re a main character. This also goes for main characters with names that are just odd.

* Honorable mention in this category goes to people who interrupt me while I’m reading, especially if they’re looking to start a conversation (if they’re asking about the book, they get a pass.) My friends and family know I have a strict 3-strikes policy: if you interrupt me once or twice, I’ll be polite and pretend it didn’t happen, but if you interrupt me a third time or more, don’t expect a civil response ;-)

Describe your perfect reading spot.

A big cozy chair in front of a wood-burning fireplace, with an ottoman and a soft blanket. And the Horrible Hound. And a hazelnut latte.

Tell us three book confessions.

1. I dislike the Game of Thrones series. (Yup, I know. Bad book blogger right here.) I read the first three books, which are like 600 pages each, so I certainly gave it a fair try, but I don’t like Martin’s writing style, and I get enough “realism” from having to take coursework in criminal law and my job as a lawyer, so I don’t like a lot of that in my reading.

2. I re-read books all the time. I can’t tell you how many time’s I’ve re-read the Harry Potter series, Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom books, and Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books. Whenever I want to read something to unwind, those are my go-tos, even if I have new books waiting to be read.

3. I’ve never read Ender’s Game or the Dune Chronicles, even though I love sci-fi and people have suggested/lent them to me several times…

When was the last time you cried at a book?

Probably the last time I re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The scene toward the end with Dumbledore always gets me, no matter how many times I read it.

How many books are on your bedside table?

Just one, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. I love it in general, and I think it’s a great relaxing read if I want to wind down before bed – unlike the mysteries or adventurous fantasy/sci-fi books I tend to go for :-)

What is your favorite snack whilst you’re reading?

A hazelnut latte and/or whatever meal it’s time for. I eat way too fast if it’s just me and the food, so I read while I eat or try to eat with other people and have some conversation.

Name three books you’d recommend to everyone.

1. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone

2. The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

3. The Hobbit / Lord of the Rings

Show us a picture of your favorite bookshelf in your bookcase.

This may be a bit of a cheat, but my books are in 2 2×4 Ikea Expedits and each shelf doesn’t hold very many books, so this is my favorite “cube” of books :-)

 
Write how much books mean to you in just three words.

Everything, at once.

* Wow, that was hard. Even 4 words would have been way easier!

What is your biggest reading secret?

I usually walk past anything that might be called a “romance,” and YA books that contort the plot to include a love-interest or – even worse – a love-triangle irritate me to no end, but I love Sherrilyn Kenyon’s League series and her Dark-Hunter series. Both of which are definitely in the romance section of the bookstore…

 

I “tag” anyone who hasn’t already done this test – I’m a huge snoop and I’d love to see your answers :-)

Was there anything on this list that surprised you? What are your reading related pet-peeves?