best of 2014 (+ giveaway)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 | | 4 comments
How long does it take one procrastinating book blogger to put together her list of best books of the year?  Almost a month, as predicted.  In past years I’ve lamented my lateness, but I think at this point it’s just the status quo.  Let’s make it canon: Cecelia posts her best of the year lists in January, late January.  The 2015 list will only be late if I post it in February.  I love re-framing goals like that (something about turning a negative into a positive? or perhaps because it feels like cheating, in a society-approved sort of way).

But yes, BOOKS!  The ones I liked best from 2014.  These titles weren’t necessarily published in 2014, but that’s when I read them (or reviewed them, rather).  They’re ordered alphabetically, because it was convenient.  And when I say ‘convenient,’ I mean that I have the hardest time making value judgments like this, and there’s no way I could tell you which ones I liked better than the others.  Oh, and because I’m an overachiever (read: I copy-pasted from last year’s list), feel free to peruse my previous ‘Best of’ posts from 200920102011, 2012 and 2013.

Best Books of 2014

Black Dog by Rachel Neumeier – Diverse teenage main character(s) and a dark and magical take on werewolf lore?  I’m longing for a reread!

Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis – The girl everyone thinks is dead returns to her small seaside town, and there’s a mysterious circus in the woods… basically, this is enjoyable, atmospheric, and quirky in the best way.

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell – Historical-ish fantasy for readers of all ages, with lovely bits of religious mysticism, magic and science mixed together to form one heck of a fairy tale retelling.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black – Twists, turns, and a fantastical world/society marching right alongside the ordinary human one.  Add complex and diverse characters, plus really excellent writing?  It must be a Holly Black book.  Darn, I loved it!

Gilded Ashes by Rosamund Hodge – This one’s a novella-length retelling of Cinderella.  An extremely dark retelling, at that.  Totally enchanting.

Hallelujah! The Welcome Table by Maya Angelou – On its face, this is a cookbook.  I’m here to tell you that the food may be good, but Angelou’s anecdotes and stories before each recipe matter most.  What a life, and what a vibrant soul.  Just… go read it!

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter – This is the sort of story I could get addicted to.  It just has me written all over it.  There’s a Regency-esque society, a scholarly environment, shapeshifting and magic, a nefarious plot that must be stopped, and a journey.  All of the fun things, and the story still works.  Glorious!

Pills and Starships by Lydia Millet – An engaging (and literary) take on pharma- and enviro-apocalypse, and what the final breakdown of society might look like for one family and one girl.

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker – This book is smashingly awesome fantasy, and it is at the same time a feminist critique of traditional literary tropes.  I don’t know how Barker does it, but I want more.

Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci – It isn’t every day you come across smart young adult sci-fi that doesn’t rely on a central romance for its main conflict and movement.  And when you do, you’re not going to see anyone do it better than Castellucci.  What a book!

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt – Southern Americana, environmental responsibility and the importance of family are the themes of this engaging animal fantasy.  I can’t wait to read it aloud to a certain new honorary niece…

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke – Do you like graphic novels?  Comics?  Superheros?  Space?  After the money America shelled out to see Marvel’s film Guardians of the Galaxy, I think we can all say ‘YES.’  This is the book to give to young fans of those things.  Or readers of any age, really. 

Were any of these on your list (official or not) for the best of the year?

There were 12 titles on my list this year – last year there were 13.  I think the (slight) drop is due in part to the fact that I had a very slow fall and winter, reading-wise.  Well, reading published books, anyway (I went on an extended fan fiction reading binge, if you really want to know).  Here's the breakdown of my 'best' books: I had 2 middle grade, 6 young adult, and 3 adult books on my list, along with 1 graphic novel meant for younger readers.  Eleven books were fiction, one was nonfiction.  There were eleven female authors and one male author.  I also tipped the scales heavily toward American writers this year, with 10 from the USA, 1 from Canada, and 1 from England (Wales!).  I'll have to diversify a bit this year!


And now the fun part: a giveaway!  Two winners will receive their choice of any book from my Best of 2014 list (audiobook and/or ebook editions included, as available).  To enter, simply fill out the FORM. Giveaway is open internationally, will end on February 7th at 11:59pm EST.  Books will be shipped from Amazon or The Book Depository.  Winners will be selected randomly and notified via email.  Good luck!

the four and twenty blackbirds pie book

For years, pie was one of those things I was intimidated by.  Why?  It’s a marquee holiday dessert, easy to get wrong (the crust!), and the whole process is fairly long and labor-intensive.  I got over that fear thanks to my best friend’s aunt – she took a day and demystified pie for us two aspiring bakers in her large, sunny kitchen.  These days, Thanksgiving isn’t complete if I haven’t made three pies. 

That said, I wasn’t in a hurry to branch out from the exact technique Aunt Laura taught us.  UNTIL.  I asked my local library to order a copy of The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop.  I borrowed it, but only peeked inside once before returning it.  When I found out that authors Emily and Melissa Elsen would be at the Baltimore Book Fest this past fall, I made it my mission to go to their presentation.  Which was awesome.  I was an instant convert (the Bourbon Pear Crumble pie slices they passed around didn’t hurt).  Armed with this cookbook and my newly-acquired tools of the trade (thanks to the holidays!), I feel like an adventurous baker.  Long live pie!

the four & twenty blackbirds pie book by emily and melissa else book cover
From the proprietors of the renowned Brooklyn shop and cafe comes the ultimate pie-baking book for a new generation of bakers.

Melissa and Emily Elsen, the twenty-something sisters who are proprietors of the wildly popular Brooklyn pie shop and cafe Four & Twenty Blackbirds, have put together a pie-baking book that's anything but humble. This stunning collection features more than 60 delectable pie recipes organized by season, with unique and mouthwatering creations such as Salted Caramel Apple, Green Chili Chocolate, Black Currant Lemon Chiffon, and Salty Honey. There is also a detailed and informative techniques section. Lavishly designed, The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book contains 90 full-color photographs by Gentl & Hyers, two of the most sought-after food photographers working today.

With its new and creative recipes, this may not be you mother's cookbook, but it's sure to be one that every baker from novice to pro will turn to again and again.

This cookbook is as advertised: it’s a collection of pie recipes from the pie shop that South Dakota-raised sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen own and run in Brooklyn, New York.  If you’re like me, the mention of Brooklyn + _____ [insert some trendy thing here] makes you a little wary.  I always wonder, “Will this be for real?  Or did it just get this far because NYC is the center of the world (at least according to New Yorkers and half of the East Coast).”  Luckily, this pie book has solid roots – decades of baking and food service run along the Elsen girls’ maternal line.  Though they’re self-taught, Emily and Melissa’s recipes and methods are reliable (and delicious).  

The cookbook is arranged seasonally, by what ingredients are available when.  The pie crust recipes are at the back, and notes on sourcing ingredients and techniques (including step-by-step photos) for crust construction are at the front.  I skipped over a lot of those notes at first in favor of staring at the stunning photos of individual pies (really, it’s enough to make you want to lick the pages!).  One of the best bits about seeing Emily and Melissa in person was their reiteration of suggestions in the book – the little things that make the baking process easier.  Most helpful to me were mentions of which tools are hardiest (they’re fans of OXO) and necessary (I HAD to have a pastry scraper!), versus others that they could take or leave.  It’s also confidence boosting to just see someone else make a crust in front of you.  You end up thinking, “If they can do that in front of a crowd, on a time schedule, in warm-to-hot weather under a pavilion, I can definitely do it in my kitchen!”

And I have.  So far I’ve made their Bourbon Pear Crumble (photo above!), Lemon Chess, Salted Caramel Apple, and Browned Butter Pumpkin pies.  All of them ‘turned out’ beautifully, but the most popular were the lemon chess and pumpkin.  The pumpkin survived a flight to Syracuse at Thanksgiving!  I’ve never before felt so many envious eyes on me as when I carried it through the security line at Reagan National Airport. *grin*

Best part of the cookbook: uhhh… everything? I adore it.  I take it off the shelf often, and I think I will continue to do so.  It’s dead useful for anyone interested in pie, and it’s ridiculously pretty.  It also hasn’t steered me wrong yet – the recipes, if you follow them to the letter, are kind of ridiculously reliable.  My OCD-prone baking soul is content.  Worst part: again, I don’t have anything to say here.  You can skip over the intro if you want, but the rest is readable and useful.

In conclusion: if pie matters to you, get this book.  Buy/borrow/whatever-you-have-to-do. It’s worth a perusal for the photos alone, but I’ve found it extremely practical and inspiring, as well. A+.

Recommended for: pie bakers (from aspiring to experienced), those interested in local/seasonal food preparation, and anyone with an eye for attractive cookbook design.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!

my paris kitchen

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get all excited about a book, and then it arrives and I won’t touch it.  Am I intimidated?  Procrastinating?  Saving it for the perfect day and mood?  I haven’t figured out that part of my psyche yet.  The latest victim of this “waiting game” was David Lebovitz’s cookbook My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories.  Visually, it’s a gorgeous volume, and Lebovitz has a way with words.  So why did it sit on the side table untouched for almost 5 months?  That’s a mystery for another day.  I’d better get back to telling you how great it is!

my paris kitchen by david lebovitz book cover
A collection of stories and 100 sweet and savory French-inspired recipes from popular food blogger David Lebovitz, reflecting the way Parisians eat today and featuring lush photography taken around Paris and in David's Parisian kitchen.

It’s been ten years since David Lebovitz packed up his most treasured cookbooks, a well-worn cast-iron skillet, and his laptop and moved to Paris. In that time, the culinary culture of France has shifted as a new generation of chefs and home cooks—most notably in Paris—incorporates ingredients and techniques from around the world into traditional French dishes.

 In My Paris Kitchen, David remasters the classics, introduces lesser-known fare, and presents 100 sweet and savory recipes that reflect the way modern Parisians eat today. You’ll find Soupe à l’oignon, Cassoulet, Coq au vin, and Croque-monsieur, as well as Smoky barbecue-style pork, Lamb shank tagine, Dukkah-roasted cauliflower, Salt cod fritters with tartar sauce, and Wheat berry salad with radicchio, root vegetables, and pomegranate. And of course, there’s dessert: Warm chocolate cake with salted butter caramel sauce, Duck fat cookies, Bay leaf poundcake with orange glaze, French cheesecake...and the list goes on. David also shares stories told with his trademark wit and humor, and lush photography taken on location around Paris and in David’s kitchen reveals the quirks, trials, beauty, and joys of life in the culinary capital of the world.

In My Paris Kitchen, blogger/chef/celebrated food writer David Lebovitz invites the reader into his own kitchen.  As is evident from the cookbook’s title, Lebovitz makes his home in Paris, France, and has adapted his cooking (and baking!) to his surroundings.  He visits local markets and shops and is dedicated to making regional dishes with the best ingredients, and then to telling the world about it.  His particular fusion of American and French food sensibility (and the stories that go with them) is fascinating, mouth-watering, and inspiring by turns.  This book may well spark a desire within the reader to pack up and make an Atlantic crossing.  That French market rotisserie chicken sounds divine.

With most cookbooks I can tell pretty quickly that either the food or the writing is the chef’s sweet spot.  I mean, if they’ve gotten to the point of writing a cookbook, I assume that they’re freakishly talented in both areas, but usually I can tell if they’re a writer who happens to be a great cook/photographer, or a professional cook with a good story or restaurant to rep. David Lebovitz is an equally brilliant writer and chef.  His writing put me right in the midst of the modern Paris cooking scene, and his recipes sent me to foodie heaven.  Color me impressed!

I firmly believe that no cookbook review is complete without a recipe test.  I had the ingredients on hand to make the individual chocolate cakes with salted dulce de leche, so I made those first.  Verdict?  Very rich, and a tad too salty.  The salt was toned down when they were served with vanilla ice cream, as the recipe suggested.  But I had 6 little pots of extremely rich chocolate dessert, and I was NOT going to go into a sugar coma for a cookbook review, so I pawned them off on the roommates and scrapped the rest. 

I decided to host a dinner party for my next taste test, and prepared chicken with mustard (the photo on the cookbook cover!), celery root puree, and winter salad.  HOLY GOODNESS, Batman!  Like, 5 stars across the board.  All of it was amazing, and I impressed both my guests and myself.  Just… so good.  I’m going all gooey and happy just remembering it.  David Lebovitz, you and your Paris kitchen win all the things.

So, I hosted a successful dinner party, loved the food, and was all-around awed by the writing.  BUT… (+10 points if you knew there was a qualifier coming)  I am not a fussy cook.  Baking is more my thing, and while I’m happy to follow arcane instructions for a pastry payoff, I’m less likely to put in hours of prep work (and $$) while cooking.  It comes down to the fact that I can’t see myself pulling this book down off the shelf more than once a year.  And a cookbook should be loved and used more often than that. 

What does that mean in real terms?  I can recommend it whole-heartedly to intermediate cooks, especially those with a yen for international cuisine.  And I can appreciate its brilliance.  That said, My Paris Kitchen won’t live on my shelf.  I’m not ready for it yet.  Maybe in 10 more years.  In the meantime, I can honestly recommend it for really marvelous food, great writing, and an authentic French experience.  I can see why it was on so many best cookbook of the year lists.  It’s excellent.

Recommended for: intermediate-level cooks (and above), anyone interested in the modern Parisian food scene, and those who appreciate superb writing.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for review consideration.
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