Nov 03 2019

Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School #1) by Jen Calonita

Ngl, I totally picked up this book based on its cover, after my library website algorithms decided it was a good recommendation. I mean, honestly, just look at that cover! So charming! So irresistible!

Flunked (Fairy Tale Reform School #1) by Jen CalonitaThe novel itself is slight and targeted towards middle-grade readers. It’s alright. The world-building is mild: essentially, a bunch of fairy tale villains decide not only to reform themselves but also offer their services in reforming young delinquents in Enchantasia, a realm now ruled by a coalition of four princesses: Snow White, [Cinder]Ella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. But not all the villains have abandoned their evil ways, and are rumored to be lurking in the shadows, waiting for the right time to strike.

Gilly is the 12 year-old daughter of a cobbler, whose family are so poor they live in a shoe. She steals from the rich in order to feed her family, to the chagrin of her parents. When she’s busted after her latest heist, she’s carted off to Fairy Tale Reform School, where she soon discovers that things may be even more sinister than they seem.

It’s a cute tale of what happens after Happily Ever After, incorporating a sassy and relatable teenaged heroine, and shedding a new light on familiar characters. I’m not sure if I’ll continue reading this series however, based on this first book. It’s not a long read at all, which would be a point in its favor, but while I enjoy the concept of a female protagonist in a magical school, it lacks the depth that can make books like these appeal to more than its narrow target demographic. Still, if someone recommends the rest of the series, I wouldn’t mind giving it another shot.

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Nov 02 2019

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater by Akwaeke EmeziI’m pretty sure I would have liked this more if it had been more speculative fiction and less MFA.

Thing is, it’s an entirely worthy book. If it wasn’t for Freshwater, I would have no idea what a non-binary trans person is, and I’m richer for having found out. But I didn’t find out from the book itself. Gosh, so this is a bit of a rabbit hole: starting from the information that Saachi, our protagonist’s mom, is from Malaysia, I felt compelled to dig more into Akwaeke Emezi’s life, and found a wealth of illuminating essays they’d written on-line as to their upbringing and journey to becoming who they are. And that made the narrative click into place for me, of a person named Ada, born a young girl but really possessed of separate (divine) selves that would, as she got older, come to the forefront as needed, couched in Nigerian Igbo mythology. It’s based on Emezi’s life, and I hesitate to say this but honestly feel that it’s a culturally Nigerian explanation for dissociative identity disorder and body/gender dysmorphia. This doesn’t make it any less valid, of course, but it also didn’t make it terribly interesting. I’m glad that Emezi is telling their story, and their Own Voices perspective is necessary, and introduces some really intriguing cultural aspects to their narrative, but augh, Freshwater is just so fucking MFA.

It’s hard for a coming of age book, especially one born from great pain, to not take itself incredibly seriously but when it’s both “serious” and “arty,” I just lose all patience. Towards the end, especially, the speculative fiction facade falls away and the narrative lies formless, liminal almost, a word the book never tires of invoking. I mean, if an even more navel-gazing Waiting For Godot in novel form is your jam, then you will probably thrill to this novel. Personally, I wanted more mythology, especially in relation to the ending, which would have been lovely had it had a stronger underpinning from the preceding text. I was also annoyed at the sentimentality of the conversations with Jesus, or Yshwa as he’s referred to in these pages. He’s considered a god like the ones inhabiting Ada’s body, only different, which only works for a little while before collapsing from a lack of intellectual rigor. Which, I get it, faith is personal and fungible, but the way it was presented in this book forced me through theological contortions that I found especially annoying because I’m neither Christian nor Igbo and so shouldn’t have to care this much about none of it making sense. I found myself incredibly exasperated and can only imagine how someone who is actually Christian and/or Nigerian would feel.

Anyway, Emezi is a terrific essayist and you should read those works before coming to Freshwater, which is alright if you can stomach the MFA-style writing that predominates towards the end.

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Oct 29 2019

Open Borders: The Science And Ethics Of Immigration by Bryan Caplan & Zach Weinersmith

Open Borders: The Science And Ethics Of Immigration by Bryan Caplan & Zach Weinersmith

(with colors by the amazing Mary Cagle)

As an open borders absolutist, I’ve been wanting a book like this to come along for years. Living in the USA, it’s almost mind-boggling that people aren’t more inclined towards immigration, given that the contiguous 48 states are one of the world’s best modern examples of the free movement of labor. Could you imagine Indiana making it illegal to hire someone simply because they’re from Ohio? Or saying they have to get a special permit if they do want to work there? It’s stupid, as are most current immigration laws (and not just in America! Other countries are just as punitive and terrible!)

Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith do a much more comprehensive job than I do here in not only addressing the current state of affairs — primarily in America tho they do touch on global issues — but also advocating for open borders on both economic and humanitarian bases. Their intended audience is American and, presumably, either mildly hostile to their argument or, like me, desirous of backup in the face of the mildly hostile or worse. And they provide A LOT of well-researched backup. They debunk some of the most egregious myths around the subject and advance persuasive cases for not only the overall benefits of immigration but also for keyhole strategies to soften any short-term negative effects, none of which I found particularly onerous to the immigrant once I realized they meant those who were non-citizens. Charging non-citizen immigrants more for the use of certain social services is akin to charging a non-members fee, and is hardly a violation of their human rights, IMO, especially when held up against their freedom of movement altogether (ofc, charging immigrant citizens more than native-born is an entirely different discriminatory kettle of fish.)

This excellently illustrated volume (clean lines, no clutter, lots of sight gags and a really luminous last few pages,) breaks down the heady philosophical arguments cleanly, making it very clear without ever saying so outright that xenophobia and racism are the primary drivers behind restrictive immigration laws. The economic arguments do get a bit convoluted, and the bit where Mr Caplan is arguing with his colleagues seems a wee bit personal, tho I suppose philosophers have been griping about each other in their texts for centuries now (it has been a long time since I’ve waded through the subject, so forgive me if I’m misremembering.) For the most part, this is a strong, easily accessible brief for an important and unfortunately all too contentious subject.

First Second Press has always been one of my favorite publishers and I’m so, so glad they decided to print this. Open Borders is smart, practical and full of heart, and fully fits with their philosophy of quality reading material for all.

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Oct 28 2019

The Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence Of The Girls by Pat BarkerGosh, I still can’t get over how clunky that title is.

That said, I was disappointed with this novel. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is one of the all-time best examinations of the horrors of war, and her skill at writing about armed conflict and the toll it takes on the men who fight in it and the women who pick up the pieces at home is readily apparent here in this retelling of the Trojan War. Achilles is the glorious hero with mother issues; Patroclus is his sensitive best friend and sometime lover; Agamemnon is the prideful and selfish commander-in-chief, and Ajax has acute PTSD, even as he keeps fighting day by day. On the Trojan side, there are a lot of broken dads begging for the return of their children. And then I guess there are women.

Briseis is our main viewpoint character, tho we get A LOT of Achilles. And that’s the main problem here. Despite this book being ostensibly about Briseis and the overlooked Trojan women who are treated as mere belongings by their Greek captors, Achilles sucks the air out of every scene he’s in just by showing up. I get it, he’s an interesting, complex personality but if I wanted to read a book about Achilles, I’d go read one of the hundreds of titles already out there. Ms Barker’s penchant for war heroes overwhelms Briseis’ tale. She even admits as much towards the end, where Briseis says that her story can only begin now that Achilles is dead. Then why not start our story there?!

I greatly enjoyed reading about Briseis’ background and her experiences, as the one-time princess of Lyrnessus becomes a slave to Achilles and struggles to survive the final days of the Trojan War, claimed by Agamemnon (who was 100% wrong, btw. Clytemnestra was a fucking heroine) in a snit over who gets the best prizes. And yes, it’s nice to read a version of Greek legend which deals realistically with what happened to the average woman involved. But this never really felt like Briseis’ story, only like Achilles’ story told occasionally from her point of view. Which I wouldn’t be so disappointed by if The Silence Of The Girls hadn’t been described as more overtly feminist. I understand that Briseis was constrained by her situation such that agency was difficult to achieve, but to then juxtapose that with all the cool shit Achilles does is a huge disservice to the character.

I also honestly don’t feel like I learned anything new from TSotG about the time or place or events. Maybe if you’re not familiar with how awful the Ancient Greeks actually were, you should read this. Otherwise, I’d recommend Madeline Miller’s Circe (she also writes about Achilles! I haven’t gotten round to it because I don’t care about pretty, violent young men with mommy issues, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good) if you want feminist retellings of Greek legend, or Jo Walton’s The Just City for more on how the Ancient Greeks weren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or even Ms Barker’s afore-mentioned Regeneration trilogy for compelling, realistic depictions of war. TSotG, on the other hand, is probably something you can skip.

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Oct 26 2019

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series takes place mostly in an England that’s a republic a Wales that’s a socialist republic; of Scotland there is practically no mention, though I cannot say whether that is a comment or happenstance. The Crimean War was still being fought in 1985, and there are various other bits of history that have been jumbled around. Far more important, though, is the difference in the role of culture. Croquet is a major competitive sport, and books are taken very seriously indeed. Riots have been known to break out over differing interpretations, librarians are top-ranking civil servants, and some groups aim for political power by changing the canonically accepted versions of certain texts.

The Woman Who Died a Lot

Thursday begins the series as a literary detective, and over the course of several books she levels up, revealing an ability to read herself into books, so that she is interacting with the characters and possibly changing the original text. She discovers more and more about the BookWorld, including its own special guardians, called Jurisfiction. In the outside world, there are more and more interactions with the ChronoGuard, a time travelling police force where her father is a long-serving agent. The books are wildly inventive, and often hilarious.

The Woman Who Died a Lot begins with Thursday unable to enter the BookWorld and the ChronoGuard disbanded. Structurally, this was a good move on Fforde’s part: toning back Thursday’s abilities so that she could not just pull out a trick from a previous book and solve the problems. What problems? Well, a week from the novel’s opening a cleansing pillar of divine fire is due to destroy a major part of Swindon, Thursday’s adopted home town, and messages from the future indicate that mere hours after the cleansing fire her son Friday will cold-bloodedly murder a local teenager.

As the story proceeds, it also becomes clear that the characters are contending with a villain returning from previous volumes, Aornis Hades. She is capable of manipulating people’s memories so subtly that they have no notion that they have interacted with her at all. The first few times that the characters’ lives are retroactively changed are some of the best passages in the book. Fforde does not signpost the changes at all — the characters have no idea — but attentive readers will not differences and pick up that something is going on. Moments like that are Thursday Next at the series’ best, inventive strangeness that feels perfectly natural within the setting. It’s not that strong all the way through — the contortions teeter a bit between wonderfully surprising and trying too hard, plus I never thought that any of the major characters were in serious danger — but it is an enjoyable jaunt, a good continuation of the tales of Thursday Next.

The Woman Who Died a Lot is the seventh Thursday Next novel and seriously not a good place to start. Begin at the beginning, with The Eyre Affair

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Oct 23 2019

Edge of Empires by Donald Rayfield

Edge of Empires is a one-volume history of Georgia from the earliest discernible traces through June 2018, a remarkable feat of synthesis and scholarship. In fact, the main text runs just four hundred pages, so in some sense Rayfield positively gallops through four millennia of events in the Transcaucasus and eastern Anatolia. He’s very up front about the kind of history he is writing: primarily a tale of who ruled what bits of land when, and who contested that rule.

Edge of Empires

Here’s Rayfield on his geographic scope:

“… [Georgia] as a country in its modern (de jure) boundaries; secondly geographically, as the region of Transcaucasia between the Black Sea to the junction of the Iori and Mtkvari (or Kura) rivers, and between the high Caucasus to the little Caucasus around the lower reaches of the Çoruh and the upper reaches of the Mtkvari (or Kura) rivers; finally, historically, with boundaries which at periods reached far into today’s Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia.” (p. 7)

And here he is on the people who form the subject of this study:

“To Georgians, a Georgian has always been both someone whose native language is Georgian, as well as any native of Georgia, regardless of ethnicity. The Georgian language belongs to the Kartvelian group of languages (a group never proven to be cognate with any other language group): to this group also belongs Mingrelian (Georgian megruli) and Laz. … Both Mingrelian and Laz are as close to Georgian as, say, Portuguese is to Spanish, so that there is a degree of mutual intelligibility. Two thousand years ago, the differences may have been merely dialectical. The fourth member of the Kartvelian group is Svan, now spoken by 50,000 people in the high mountains of the central Caucasus. Svan is an archaic member of the Kartvelian group, further from Georgian than, say, Romanian from French. Most Mingrelians and Svans are (and have long been) bilingual in Georgian.” (p. 7)

I’m very glad Edge of Empires exists. The next most recent one-volume, general history of Georgia that I know of is The Making of the Georgian Nation by Ronald Grigor Suny and first published in 1988, with a revised edition appearing in 1994 that added a chapter about the end of the USSR. Quite a bit has happened in the intervening quarter century, both in Georgia and in Georgian history. When Suny’s second edition appeared, Georgia hadn’t finished its 1990s slide toward anarchy, nor had it yet suffered the Russian invasion of 2008. In Georgian history, study of the Soviet period has been greatly assisted by the rescue of both Communist Party and secret police archives by people I know who carried them out of a building that was due to be developed as a hotel. The documents were moved to a location where electromechanical telephone exchanges had only recently been replaced by electronics, a huge empty space with the reinforced floors necessary to support vast amounts of paper. It all worked because a historian had a day job with the phone company. True story. To my knowledge, they are the most openly accessible archives of any former Soviet republic Communist Party and secret police; I have held the first volume of Cheka reports from newly Bolshevized Georgia. Rayfield has been able to incorporate new scholarship, new sources, and new perspectives in his work of synthesis.

Continue reading

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Oct 22 2019

Sherlock Holmes And The Christmas Demon by James Lovegrove

I’m conceding defeat and I’m not even sure whom to. See, despite being an ardent mystery fan since a wee girl, I’ve been lukewarm at most to the Sherlock Holmes canon, and have had very little interest in reading the Sherlockiana that has spawned since. Not even Neil Gaiman’s brilliant A Study In Emerald could draw me in, and I waved off my delight in G. S. Denning’s Warlock Holmes series as being of a similar exception, given the overtly supernatural element common to both. Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse’s Mycroft & Sherlock books were also, I rationalized, exceptions since they focused on the deeds of Sherlock’s siblings, and not on the tiresome detective and his sentimental companion themselves. Not even my appreciation for the most recent adaptations of Sherlock on the screen — whether they be Guy Richie’s movies, the Beeb’s episodes or the excellent Elementary — could sway me.

So I’m not sure why I said yes when the magnificent Polly Grice over at Titan Books offered me a copy of James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes And The Christmas Demon. Perhaps it was because of all the other Titan-published Sherlock-adjacent books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Perhaps it was because I absolutely adored what James Lovegrove did with his recent Firefly novels. Regardless, reader, I trusted the sources enough to finally say yes.

There was always the chance, of course, that I’d find this novel tiresome in the same ways I find Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works tedious. All the hallmarks of the original Sherlock stories are still present here in this gorgeously bound volume but Mr Lovegrove’s deftness of touch makes it so that I don’t find the relationship between the main characters irritating, and that I’m not wildly annoyed by the “exotic” touches to the story (just thinking of The Speckled Band still makes me incredibly grouchy.) While this wasn’t a difficult mystery to solve — tho some of the clues were quite ingenious — it held together better for me than a lot of the original canon, and was so entertaining as to completely batter down my resistance to new material. Plus, I do love a Victorian Christmas! Perhaps I would have been grumpier if this book had come out after Halloween, as I’m always aggrieved at retailers ignoring Thanksgiving due to profit margins being better on the bracketing holidays, but with the weather turning and the supernatural bent to this Christmas tale, it felt like perfect timing. I can’t imagine a cozier new book for fans of classic mysteries to curl up with as winter looms, and sincerely hope this book finds its way into many a mystery-lover’s stocking as Yuletide approaches. It has certainly given me the gift of appreciation for new Sherlockiana, and for that I am thankful.

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Oct 20 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

I mean, it’s not the worst Man Booker winner I can think of.

If for nothing else, I do appreciate Milkman for being the first Northern Irish fiction I’ve read that I can remember: I’ve read plenty of stuff from Ireland but never from “over-the-border” so this was very illuminating. As someone born on the tail end of the 1970s, on the other side of the world, this was also a much appreciated look into a setting very alien to me. The terror and grief that wracked so many of these places that I would visit years later in times of peace now feel like an exotic relic, when they should really serve as a cautionary tale for anyone with an impulse to political violence.

Anna Burns’ Milkman deals with life in a society doubly repressed, first by the defenders-of-state who violate the rights of their citizens under the pretext of hunting for dissidents and terrorists, and then by the renouncers-of-state whose paranoia further stifles the existence of the average person. Our unnamed narrator is an 18 year-old woman whose quiet resistance to not only her oppressors but also to the narrow lane in which society wants to place her comes mainly in the form of reading pre-20th-century fiction while walking all over town. She also has a maybe-boyfriend whom she doesn’t want to introduce to her overbearing mother, for various reasons Ms Burns describes much more artfully than I could in this review.

Maybe-girlfriend’s sense of equilibrium is shattered when the titular Milkman heaves into view. He approaches her one day as she’s walking, offering her a lift, and next thing she knows, she’s being gossiped about as the doxy to a highly-placed renouncer, who also happens to be middle-aged and married. Milkman’s blandishments seem so mild as he continues to “accidentally” run into her, but the underlying threat of violence is ever present as Maybe-girlfriend struggles to escape his attentions.

This account of one woman being stalked by a violent thug serves as the focus for a larger story about a society in turmoil, and I greatly admired the grace with which Ms Burns builds her message. For the most part I enjoyed being in Maybe-Girlfriend’s head for this stream-of-consciousness narrative, except for a large chunk of the middle, where she goes on at length about her feelings about her feelings. I really hate when authors do this: please trust in your writing and your readers that we can tell what your characters are feeling about their feelings without you explicitly telling us.

Otherwise, it was a pretty good story, if not the easiest read. Maybe-girlfriend’s deepening discomfort with the Milkman situation was compelling and relatable, as was the depiction of life in an insular conservative community. Her relationship with her mother, especially, reminded me very much of my own. I was occasionally frustrated by the narrator’s passivity and unwillingness to communicate, but being eighteen and subject to malicious gossip is more than enough excuse for shutting down. Also, I found wee sisters to be entirely charming creatures. Overall, a worthy read but hardly a page turner. The Booker people could have chosen worse.

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Oct 19 2019

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2) by N.K. Jemisin

I gave myself a few days to properly mull over this book, and you guys. My biggest impression still is “that’s not okay.”

First, stylistically (thematically?), I really, really hated that N. K. Jemisin veered away from the hard sci-fi of the first novel to get all fake(?) magicky. Honestly, when Alabaster (still hate that guy) actually said the word, I literally burst out, “Oh, come on!” I understand that any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic but can we not? You could call it electromagnetic force or leap straight to quantum theory and I would not care enough to suspend disbelief, but magic? Ironically, calling it that drained a lot of the magic out of the book for me. I’m okay with not understanding more than the rudiments of an author’s sci-fi. I’m not okay with having a very cool post-apocalyptic far future world turned into fairyland for no discernible reason whatsoever. No judgment against fairylands, which I also happen to adore, but not as substitutes for science-based approaches. It’s especially galling when this series started out as sci-fi cloaked in dystopian fantasy, only to have the author psyche us out by saying “haha, actually, it’s still fantasy.” Reeks of intellectual laziness.

And then there was Essun’s use of disproportionate force later on in the book. Unlike Doug, I didn’t have a problem with what Nassun did earlier on — as I’ve stated in other reviews, kids do a lot of dumb and terrible things because they simply have no idea of the consequences — but I’m getting tired of Essun living in her feelings all the time. Yes, it’s a crazy ass time and the world is falling down around her ears in a continuous cycle of misery, but a) she’d already proven that she could literally disarm someone, and b) even if PTSD caused the overreaction, in the immortal words of Jake Peralta, “cool story, still murder.” Nassun does terrible things because she doesn’t know any better but Essun just keeps defaulting to killing and it’s not fun to read. She isn’t growing as a person and by the end of The Obelisk Gate, I found it very hard to empathize with her.

I also feel like certain themes of the book are a really sloppy interpretation of current American affairs, which is a disservice to those actual issues. While in the real world, black kids are maltreated and murdered because assholes weaponize black bodies, orogenes actually are living weapons: I feel like we’re meant to correlate the two but it just doesn’t work. I want to read books about black empowerment but not about using those powers wantonly, and seemingly primarily, to destroy, thereby fulfilling the negative predictions of racists. And Essun’s continuing violence while claiming PTSD feels more like something a cop would say than a civilian.

Idk, maybe the final book in the series and the inevitable mother-daughter showdown will make this second installment less gross to me, much like how season three of Jessica Jones (a.k.a the extended Billie Eilish video) made sense of what they did to *cough*ruin*cough* a beloved character in season two. I have The Stone Sky on hold now with the library so we shall see!

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Oct 16 2019

Firefly – The Big Damn Cookbook by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel (Review Part IV)

Ugh, I’m so sad to be coming to the end of this review series! It’s been such a delight to cook my way through this terrific volume, and I’m sad that our journey together ends here. Of course, I’d love to hear if any of you whip up some of the amazing treats in this cookbook, so do comment here or send me a message if you do! And, if you need a refresher, you can always check out Parts I, II and III once more.

So what else is there to say about this superlative book? Aside from being a whip-smart cookbook that extrapolates beautifully from the show and movie to provide a surprising depth and breadth of recipes, Firefly — The Big Damn Cookbook also perfectly captures the voices and tone of the characters as each “contributes” to the volume. The pictures are gorgeous and evocative, even if some of the larger Firefly stills lack the quality of the rest of the photos, an unfortunate aftereffect of the differences in high-definition technology then and now. Overall, however, this is a terrific gift both for the Firefly fan and for anyone who enjoys a quality cookbook.

For our last review column today, we’re going to make something I very much share Shepherd Book’s philosophy on, embracing its versatility and how every culture makes their own version of this delicious dish (recipe lightly edited for format):


Book’s Street Chicken Skewers

2 boneless chicken thighs, cubed
1 Tbsp five-spice mix
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp paprika or spicy pepper

In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients except the cornstarch and paprika. Cover and let marinate at least 2 hours. At the same time, submerge several bamboo skewers in water to soak.

When you are ready to cook, preheat the oven to 450°F and set out a baking sheet. Thread the pieces of chicken onto the soaked bamboo skewers and set on the baking sheet. Reserve the marinade. Bake for around 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of your chicken.

While the chicken is cooking, pour the marinade liquid into a pan, bring up to a simmer over medium heat, and cook for around 5 minutes. In a separate small bowl, combine the cornstarch with a splash of cold water, stirring until dissolved. Add the cornstarch solution to the saucepan and cook, stirring, for another minute or two, until combined and thick. Remove from heat. When the chicken skewers are finished cooking, either dip them in the sauce or brush the sauce onto the skewers. Sprinkle with paprika and serve hot.


These were so incredibly delicious, with a really nice mix of sweet and savory on the perfectly cooked thigh meat. I grew up eating satay and these skewers give that traditional dish a run for its money. The five-spice mix was really great for adding to the marinade, tho speaking of marinating, I had so much liquid that I decided to toss in a few more cubed chicken thighs, resulting in enough meat for 8 skewers instead of the 4-6 suggested by the cookbook.

This was a really terrific dish to close out on, and I hope you get a chance to try some of the recipes from this amazing cookbook too! Shameless self-promotion time: I also run a weekly cooking column over at, so if you want to see more book-cooking, do join me over there. In the meantime, many thanks to Titan Books for this opportunity!

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