Tuesday, March 10, 2015

If you can't make it to San Francisco . . . .

If you can't make it to San Francisco for a wonderful meal, Charles Phan’s The Slanted Door is the next best thing, a beautiful book, both in appearance and content, that is much more than just a cookbook. In addition to a wonderful collection of recipes from Phan’s renowned eponymous San Francisco restaurant, every one of them represented in gorgeous, elegantly simple, full-page photographs, this book is a memoir that makes you wish Charles Phan was your neighbor, not only for the amazing food he would serve if he invited you to dinner, but because success has not spoiled him. He remembers where he came from and all the people who were part of his journey, and his honesty, humility, and gratitude are refreshing and, I believe, sincere.
The current Slanted Door, a large, elegant restaurant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, is actually the third to bear that name. Phan’s first Slanted Door opened in much humbler quarters at 584 Valencia Street in 1995, where, in addition to fresh and innovative cuisine created entirely from scratch, he used his background in architecture and ceramics to create a dining experience unlike that in any other Vietnamese restaurant. Even in those early days, he was committed to seasonal and locally sourced foods, and he made wine and fine teas part of the whole at the Slanted Door. Word spread quickly, and after a couple of years at an interim location, Phan moved the Slanted Door to its current location, but his commitment to quality, innovation, and elegant simplicity remains unchanged.
The history of the restaurant is intimately intertwined with Phan’s personal history, beginning in 1975 when South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese forces and Phan’s family fled their country with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. By 1977, Phan was fifteen and he and his family were living in San Francisco, where he attended high school and worked at various menial jobs. He learned from every experience and brought all he had learned, together with a commitment to honest, ethnic food made with the best and freshest ingredients, into play when he opened his first restaurant. Consequently, it is only right that history, culture, and food are intertwined throughout The Slanted Door. You may begin by leafing through it in search of recipes, or to salivate over the pictures, but most readers will find themselves drawn into Phan’s narrative, seasoned as it is with anecdotes, appreciation, and his own warm persona.
One of the many nice things about the book is that it’s not all in Phan’s voice, enjoyable as that voice is. The Slanted Door is famous for its cocktails, and the “Cocktails” section of the book is written by Erik Adkins, the restaurant’s bar director, while Chaylee Priete, its wine director, authors the section on “Wine.” The Slanted Door’s innovative design and its history are related by Olle Lundberg, the architect Phan worked with to create it. Phan obviously believes in giving people credit for what they do well, and in sharing responsibility and encouraging creativity among his staff. I think he would be a wonderful boss.
But The Slanted Door is, in fact, a cookbook, and what a cookbook it is, with recipes divided into sections on starters, cocktails, raw bar, salads, soups, mains, and desserts, as well as an end section devoted to “Basics” such as a simple but distinctly Asian chicken stock, flavored soy sauce, peanut sauce, the pickled radishes and pickled carrots found in Vietnamese banh mi, and a caramel sauce composed simply of palm sugar and fish sauce that is essential to Phan’s recipe for Caramelized Chicken Claypot, one of many recipes I plan to try.

This may be elegant restaurant food, but it’s also simple home cooking, and most of the recipes and their ingredients will be accessible to readers who have a well-stocked supermarket or ethnic market reasonably close by. The shrimp and long beans are easy and delicious, though I used regular green beans (Phan says that’s okay), and at this time of year – strawberry season – his strawberry sorbet is the perfect simple, fresh dessert. From the vegetarian crepes to the spicy squid salad with Chinese (or regular) celery to steamed halibut with ginger lime broth to the Slanted Door’s signature shaking beef, I can hardly wait to cook my way through this big, beautiful, warm-hearted, wonderful book.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lovely to Look At . . . A Cookbook Review

In Her Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Grandmas Around the World by Gabriele Galimberti is a visually beautiful book.  Galimberti's premise/project is simple: over a period of eighteen months he traveled to sixty different countries around the world and interviewed, cooked (with only a couple of exceptions), and ate with at least one grandmother in each country (unaccountably, though some regions of the world are omitted entirely, he includes four grandmothers from Brazil, two from Argentina, and three from the United States, though one of those is from Alaska, which might seem rather foreign to those in the lower 48).
The entries are ordered by each woman's last name, and each one is allotted four pages: two of photographs, one of the grandmother in her kitchen and another of the dish she prepared for Galimberti; two of text, one that tells us something about the individual grandmother and sometimes a little about her culture, country, and what she cooked while the other provides the recipe. It's a good, logical organizing strategy and the photographs are wonderful, which is not surprising, since Galimberti is primarily a photographer, whose work has appeared in many publications, including Newsweek, Le Monde, and Vanity Fair. Each woman is shown in her cooking area or dining room, with the ingredients of the dish she made spread out in front of her. They are incredibly diverse and all beautiful, both the women - whose pride and pleasure shine from their faces - and the food, though some of the dishes are more interesting than others. 

I found several dishes I may try, although probably not the caterpillars in tomato sauce prepared by Regina Lifumbo of Malawi, who has a fantastic smile and looks much younger than her 53 years; the caterpillars are dried and are a regional dietary staple. But I will probably make Ayten Okgu's Turkish stuffed eggplant and Gnep Tan's Lok Lak, a Cambodian dish of marinated beef seasoned with onion and chili sauce. Carmina Fernandez of Madrid's Asadura de Cordero Lecca con Arroz, which sounds far less appealing when translated as "Milk-Fed Lamb Offal with Rice" is probably delicious, though it would have to be adapted to use more readily available organ meats. Maria Luz Fedric of the Cayman Islands contributed a recipe for Honduran Iguana with Rice and Beans that Galimberti suggests could be made with rabbit, but I imagine one could also use chicken; however, if one does run across a stray iguana of the proper size, the directions tell how to clean it and prepare it for cooking. Other dishes, like the Alaskan one for fried moose steak, are interesting only because the meats are exotic; otherwise it's just a piece of meat seasoned with salt and pepper and fried in olive oil with some Worcestershire sauce poured over it on the plate.

The biggest problem I find with this book is that it's like the teaser trailer to a movie, giving just enough information about each of the grandmothers, her life, her culture, and her food, to pique the reader's interest, and then it stops. It's true that Galimberti's visits were brief - in Cambodia he asked his taxi driver if he knew any grandmothers, the driver took him home for dinner, and that was that. And that in itself is a great story, one I'd like to know more about, but it would take more than the space allotted. In fact, the visit with Gnep Tan is one of the more satisfactory episodes, since in it Galimberti paints a somewhat fuller picture of her  and her home than in some of the others. Good food writing, like good travel writing, gives cultural and personal background; it opens a window into another world and gives us the feeling we're there, even if only very briefly. It tells us more than the name of the person, where she lived, what she cooked. It's not as if there wasn't room in the book. The text introducing each recipe occupies roughly just one-quarter of a page, leaving an awful lot of white space. Aesthetically, it looks attractive and artistic, which is not surprising, since the author is primarily a visual artist, but in terms of providing information, it's less than satisfying.

The other problem is that the book isn't terribly well edited. An experienced cook may be able to fill in the gaps and errors in some of the recipes, but a novice might run into trouble. For example, In one recipe he tells the reader to put sweet potatoes and corn on the cob in the pot, but if the reader doesn't turn back to the photograph on a preceding page (since the photographs are not on the pages facing the recipes) she may not remember or realize the sweet potato should be peeled and both it and the corn cobs cut into chunks. In the Kenyan recipe for Mboga and Ugali (White Corn Polenta with Vegetables and Goat), a relatively inexperienced but adventurous cook, one who might decide to try making it with more readily-available lamb (that's what I'm considering), might wonder about soaking the meat in salt water, since the purpose of brining it (though Galimberti does not use that term) is not explained. The greater problem would be that although in his introduction to the recipe Galimberti defines ugali as "a sort of white polenta," i.e., grits, in t
he recipe itself he calls it "corn flour," an entirely different product that would not produce the desired results. This may be due to the fact that Galimberti is not, apparently, a cook himself, nor does he seem to be familiar with American culinary terminology, in which case he (or his American publisher) should have recognized the need for an editor who knew about such things. 

What I was hoping for when I requested In Her Kitchen from Blogging for Books was something like the old Time-Life Foods of the World series, rich (if necessarily compressed) cultural and personal context coupled with enticing recipes. What arrived was something essentially superficial, although it's undeniably lovely to look at - a great coffee table book, certainly. And I will try some of the recipes. But I probably wouldn't pay $30.00 for it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Religion and Violence: Karen Armstrong's Fields of Blood

         I always get excited about a new book by Karen Armstrong, and was delighted to receive a review copy of her latest, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, from Blogging for Books http://www.bloggingforbooks.org. Although it may disappoint those who want further excuses to denigrate some particular religion (like author Sam Harris, who has accused her of being an apologist for Islam), Armstrong’s sweeping and carefully researched historical account does not provide the kind of ammunition such readers seek. Instead, her detailed accounts of various faith traditions show how all of them arose in societies where powerful landowners exercised “systemic violence” to keep the peasants in their places. 
          Religion did not create the inequities and imbalances of such systems—indeed, as Armstrong shows (notably in her explanation of the Indian emperor Ashoka’s dilemma in trying to establish a “benevolent [and nonviolent] model of governance based on the recognition of human dignity”), religion tended, and was intended to serve as a necessary corrective to temper that violence—but in a world where religion was not the private matter it is in the West today, “agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.” 

Ashoka’s dilemma is the dilemma of civilization itself. As society developed and weaponry became more deadly, the empire, founded on and maintained by violence, would paradoxically become the most effective means of keeping the peace. Despite its violence and exploitation, people looked for an absolute imperial monarchy as eagerly as we search for signs of a flourishing democracy today. (71)

One cannot help noticing, of course, that although technologies and the nature of wealth and property may have changed, such systemic violence is still alive and well in our world. 
As an undergraduate history minor, I took several courses from a brilliant professor who was fond of two phrases: “One must not be naïve about these things,” and “and so, just as it happened in . . . it happened again.” Armstrong proves the validity of that second observation, beginning with Gilgamesh in ancient Sumer and moving on to the Aryan conquest of India, the “Warriors and Gentlemen” of early China, ancient Israel, early Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, early Islam, and the Crusades. Eventually she comes to the great shift of the early modern period in the West, when religion became a personal, individual concept, leading to the secular societies that first took root with the American and French revolutions. However, the rise of the secular state did not, as we all know, create a non-sectarian paradise on earth; the title of Chapter 11 is “Religion Fights Back.” 
          As Armstrong explains in greater detail in The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000), religious fundamentalism arises out of fear and a feeling of helplessness against the juggernaut of modernity, and those emotions are easily exploited in ways that can bring out the worst in us. I am writing this the day after the terrorist massacre at the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but the same fundamentalist mentality which apparently inspired that violence also motivated Jim Jones and led to what happened at the People’s Temple in Guyana, as well as other horrors and tragedies. And as Armstrong reminds us, “Religious fundamentalists and extremists have used the language of faith to express fears that also afflict secularists” (p. 400). One of Armstrong’s many admirable qualities is that she does not take sides; she reports on many such examples from many faith traditions, the people behind them, and what led up to them, including much that even the well-informed reader may not know about the current “war on terror.” She is, I believe, as another reviewer described her: “careful, fair, and true."
           Armstrong’s purpose is not overtly political in the usual sense. Implicit throughout the book, however, is the assumption that we cannot overcome what we do not understand, and the goal of this book is to help us to understand how we got to where we are, if we are ever to be able to live together since, in Armstrong's succinct and apt description, "we are flawed creatures with violent hearts that long for peace" (p.76). 
Early on she discusses the “taint of the warrior,” something many cultures address explicitly with cleansing rituals for those returning from war but which we in the West, with our relatively recent recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder, have only just begun to deal with. I thought of that, and of her description of the "transcendence" the warrior experiences in battle (p. 10) while watching the recent World War II movie Fury.
           Although she never excuses violence, here or in her other work, her underlying argument is for understanding and compassion: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world. We are all, religious and secularist alike, responsible for the current predicament of the world” (p. 401). That may be a hard concept to swallow if we are convinced that we, as citizens of nations or members of religions, occupy the moral high ground, that God is necessarily on our side. The book begins and ends with the concept and ritual of the scapegoat, the idea that we can always blame the “other.” In all our long and violent history, scapegoating has never solved anything, as this powerful and important book makes abundantly clear.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Good Herb - Sorrel

 I love sorrel. It has a sharp lemony flavor that might be a bit much if, say, one made a salad of just it, but a few leaves or shreds of leaves mixed with baby greens can add a nice, lively bite. It grows here as a perennial, though whether what I grow is actual French sorrel (Rumex scutatus, as opposed to Rumex acetosa), which is supposedly the more bitter variety, I'm not really sure. I've had this plant in the herb garden for several years, and it's survived being dug up and moved to other parts of the herb garden at least twice. I'm still waiting for blooms, tall stalks of whorled, reddish flowers (up to 30-36" high). My herb book says it likes full sun, but like many other plants it does best in part shade when grown here in the desert, and it does like at least moderate amounts of water.
        Apparently sorrel can be cooked just like spinach, but my favorite way to use it is in soup.There are a number of recipes out there, mostly French, but including at least one Russian one that I haven't tried yet. Below are the very simple ingredients for the easy-to-make version we like. The key thing to remember is that you don't actually "cook" the sorrel leaves. Putting them in at the end keeps both the color and flavor bright and fresh.
 SORREL SOUP - serves 4 to 6
2 cups sorrel leaves
2 T. butter
1/2 large or 1 smallish onion, chopped
1 potato (to yield 1 cup cubed)
4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
1/4 to 1/3 cup cream (fatfree half-and-half is fine)
1 T. sherry
salt and pepper to taste

In at least a 3-quart kettle, sauté the chopped onion in butter until translucent. Add potato and broth and simmer 20 minutes, until the potato cubes are very tender.
 Put the sorrel leaves into the blender container. With a slotted spoon, lift out all the solids from the soup pot and add to the blender, along with about half the liquid - enough to easily liquify everything else. Note that I've taken the center insert out of the lid and covered it with a cloth. Unpleasant things happen when you turn on the blender with a tight lid over hot liquids, so make sure it can get some air.
 Pour the newly liquified contents back into the pan, add the cream, sherry, and salt and pepper to taste, and serve. It tastes good cold, too, but this is winter, so I'm serving it hot.
        According to one book I read, juice from sorrel leaves can be used to bleach rust, mold, grass and ink stains from linen and wicker, and sorrel tea may soothe mouth ulcers and skin wounds. I haven't tried any of those uses yet. The same book also warns that sorrel shouldn't be eaten by those suffering from rheumatism or gout, a warning that's also been applied to spinach, rhubarb, and other foods rich in oxalic acid. Other sources just advise moderation, noting that sorrel is quite rich in Vitamin C, and that the addition of dairy (like the cream in this soup) counters any problems due to the oxalic acid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Breakfast from the Garden

The garden is producing greens of various kinds like mad, including 3 kinds of kale: red, blue, and black (or Nero di Toscana). 
 This morning I picked a nice basketful for a recipe I'd seen on Serious Eats http://seriouseats.com for cheesy mashed beans with kale and an egg http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2013/11/cheesy-mashed-white-beans-with-kale-parmesan-fried-egg-recipe.html. I am a serious fan of putting poached or fried eggs on all sorts of things, so this immediately appealed. But I didn't want beans, and to be honest, I didn't even want to go to the trouble of looking up the recipe, so I decided to wing it. We're big fans of Korean food, and when I described it to Joe, he said it sounded like breakfast bibimbap, and that made him very happy. Anyway, I chopped off the kale stems - it's still so young and tender I didn't worry much about stripping out the midribs - and cut it into about 1/2" to 1" ribbons.
 Then, instead of beans, I cooked up a small pot of Quaker quick grits: 1/2 cup grits to 2 cups water and a pinch of salt. The recipes for grits and polenta always say to stir the grain into boiling water but I don't do that. I just put all the ingredients into the pan and bring it to the boil and, in the case of these quick grits, reduce the heat, cover it, and simmer 5 minutes, then turn it off but leave it on the burner.
 While that was going on I peeled and pressed a couple of big cloves of garlic and sautéed them for less than a minute in my trusty nonstick wok sprayed with pan spray and with a teaspoonful of olive oil for flavor. Don't let the garlic brown or it will turn bitter.
 Then I tossed in the kale, which was still damp from being washed before I cut it up, along with a couple of pinches of red chili flakes. It cooked quickly - 4 or 5 minutes, tops - because it's still so young. When it's older it may take a little longer and need a little added water, plus the lid to keep the steam in. That fairly good-sized pile of kale really reduced in size, so don't skimp on the kale. The original recipe called for 3 ounces of kale to serve 4 people.
 I took the kale out of the pan and kept it warm while I fried a couple of eggs, and then assembled the whole thing in bowls - I should have use colored bowls for the photos, I guess. It was a little bland because I'd forgotten about the Parmesan in the original recipe, but some salt and more pepper flakes and a sprinkle of Tajín, that wonderful combination of chile, salt, and dehydrated lime juice, took care of that. Next time, though, I may stir some grated cheese into the grits and grate some Parmesan over the top. Even without that, it was very tasty, and there will definitely be a next time!
 On an entirely different note, this year I followed the advice guaranteed to make Christmas cactus bloom at the right time, and guess what? It worked! At the beginning of October I moved my Christmas cactus into one of the darker corners of my north-facing study and cut waaaay back on watering it (as in every 3 weeks instead of every week). I brought it back out into the great room around the first of December, when it already had several buds on it. I took this picture today, December 16! There are many, many more buds, so I think it will put on a really good show until New Year's at least.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Of Rain and Radishes

So here it is, the middle of December, on a lovely rainy Saturday morning, and life is good. The garden's got things in it to harvest now, despite what seemed like a slow start but probably wasn't - I'm just impatient.
Yesterday I picked these radishes, and sliced the radishes themselves for one of my favorite breakfasts, a radish tartine. That's just a half of a toasted English muffin (or any bread you like), spread with goat cheese (my favorite) or cream cheese if you prefer (or don't have goat cheese on hand) and topped with thinly sliced radishes and a light sprinkling of salt - I love the contrast (and taste) of black Hawaiian salt.
I know I posted about tartines a while back, but since then I've made the discovery that it's super-easy to get thin, uniform radish slices by using the single slicing blade that's on one of the narrow sides of a box grater. Yes, that's probably a no-brainer, but I had never used that part of the grater for anything, ever, so it was sort of a revelation! I have those every now and then, and they always make me think, "This is so simple! Why didn't I ever consider doing this before?"

You'll notice that in the first picture the radishes are displayed on a big pile of radish greens. Radish greens are delicious, with the same spicy taste as the radishes themselves, and they're very nice cooked. Just slice them up and add them to all kinds of things: risotto or any kind of grain pilaf, for example, or stir-fries, or soup. A nice bowl of soup makes me very happy on a rainy day.
This is one of my favorite soups, adapted from a recipe from Eating Well magazine. It's got protein and veggies and is pretty much a meal in a bowl, quick and easy for an after-work dinner.

1 14 1/2 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (or 1 1/2 c. if you cook them from dry beans)
1 14 1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
5 to 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth (start with 5 and add more if you want it thinner)
1 T. olive oil
1 or 2 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
Good-sized pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp. salt, or to taste (if your tomatoes and/or broth are salty, you may not need this)
1/2 c. dried small pasta (stellini, ditalini, orzo, etc.)
A big handful (or 2 or 3) of greens of almost any kind, radish, chard, cilantro, parsley,        lettuce that's edible but has lost some of its mojo, some basil, whatever's handy
Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated (optional)

Combine chickpeas, tomatoes, broth, oil, garlic, rosemary, and crushed red pepper in a 4 to 6 quart pot. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Bring back to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and greens, reduce heat a little, and cook, stirring occasionally to keep the pasta from sticking to the bottom, for however long your choice of pasta takes to become tender. Serve with some cheese grated over the top if you like.

And now I'm going to sit back and enjoy the music of the rain.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

And Now for Something Completely Different . . . .

It’s in the nature of mothers and daughters to have conflicts. For decades—long before Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries—my mother and I have argued the relative merits and general appeal of vampires versus werewolves. Mom’s the werewolf fan, even though I’ve pointed out to her many times that vampires are generally better dressed, better looking, and overall possessed of greater social skills, all qualities she values in normal mortals. And she does admit to really liking two cinematic vampires: George Hamilton in Love at First Bite and Frank Langella in Dracula. But then, she also for the most part prefers her men tall, dark, and handsome, so I suspect she might have gladly bared her throat to either of those guys, no matter what part they were playing.

Mom introduced me to the pleasures of the horror and suspense genres at an early age: I remember my brother and me, wearing our pajamas and climbing into the car (which was thoughtfully fitted out with blankets, pillows, and a thermos of hot chocolate) and heading off to the drive-in to watch What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Mike, the baby of the family, was quickly traumatized and went to sleep in self-defense, but I was fascinated. Even at that early age my inner critic kicked in; I found the supposedly sympathetic victim Joan Crawford much creepier than Bette Davis, who I guess was meant to be the villainess. Maybe I should watch it again to see how I react today.

As vampires go, Bela Lugosi didn’t really do it for me when I was a kid, though I’ve come to appreciate him since. It was Christopher Lee in the Hammer Films versions of Dracula who really got me interested in vampires, both cinematic and literary, and I still take a guilty pleasure in those movies when they show up on TV. Strangely, Mom never seemed to particularly like him.

When I got to university, my interests in literature, history, and anthropology led to some fascinating research. The academics were ahead of the curve on that one by several years, though as one of my lit professors pointed out, the author of a typical academic journal article or book should feel happy if it’s read by 3,000 people. That’s nothing compared to the readership of Twilight (which I confess I did read, after being bullied into it by a friend, and even kind of enjoyed—the book, that is, not the movie). But academics like historical and social context and complications, and so, I think, do many vampire aficionados and writers of vampire fiction--aside from those who write and read the less complicated and consequently less interesting examples of what's come to be called "urban fantasy," a label that in most cases leads me to put a book back on the shelf without opening it, having opened a few that I wished I hadn't. Without the dramatic background and [probably fictionalized] romantic tragedy of his resistance against the Ottoman Empire, Vlad Dracul is just another monster from Transylvania.
What’s led me to pondering these topics is a novel I’ve just finished, which I received from an interesting operation called “Blogging for Books.” The premise is simple: you request a book, and they send it to you, for which you agree to write a review of said book. You can check it out at http://www.bloggingforbooks.org
But back to vampires, and my book review. Another Transylvanian monster with a well-documented basis in history was Elizabeth/Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous “Blood Countess” who provides the basis for Rebecca Alexander’s first novel, The Secrets of Life and Death.  Báthory, the niece or cousin of the king of Poland, Stephen/István Báthory, was said to have bathed in and drunk the blood of hundreds of young girls (the official count stands at 80), mostly servants from the peasant class, to maintain her own youth and beauty. She finally came to trial in 1610, after a quarter century of these macabre practices, and was found guilty on the basis of physical evidence and the testimony of over 300 witnesses, but she could not be executed because she was a member of the royal family. Instead, she was walled up in a chamber inside Cachtiche Castle, where she died four years later.
Explaining how Báthory became the monster recorded by history (and numerous other fictions) is part of the task Alexander tackles in The Secrets of Life and Death. The novel moves between two engrossing narratives, one set in the present and one in late sixteenth-century Transylvania; the exotic and threatening atmosphere of the earlier Transylvanian courts is especially well realized and compelling. Alexander has clearly done her homework and turned it into a narrative that’s hard to put down.
The narrator of the historical sequences is Edward Kelley, assistant and protégé of Doctor John Dee, the mathematician, alchemist, astrologer, astronomer, alleged necromancer, and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Historians disagree on Kelley’s character; he claimed to be a medium who received messages from angels and Dee believed him, but others have called him a con man and opportunist. Here he is a complicated but sympathetic character caught in an incredibly difficult position: he and his master can either participate in something hideous and morally reprehensible, with what will surely be disastrous consequences, or they can die. (For another, quite different representation of Kelley, see S.J. Parrish’s second Giordano Bruno thriller, Prophecy.)
In present-day England, protagonist Jackdaw Hammond teams up with Professor Felix Guichard, an anthropologist and expert in the occult, to try to save the life of a young girl who should be dead, but who has been saved by a set of symbols inscribed on her skin, the same symbols that are keeping Jackdaw herself alive. Now someone is bent on capturing and destroying both women, unless Jackdaw and Felix can discover what lies behind the symbols and their magic. That knowledge is to be found in Edward Kelley’s four-hundred-year-old diary, that will help them to unravel the mystery of what really lies behind the legend of Erzsébet Báthory.
The journey to that conclusion is an exciting and disturbing one, replete with hard rides through dark forests, car chases, witches both ancient and modern, and glimpses into sinister and threatening worlds where, the writer would have us believe, sinister occult transactions involving “the secrets of life and death” may be taking place at the table next to yours in a café.
The characters are varied, interesting, and for the most part well-drawn, especially Kelley and Jackdaw Hammond (though I had a hard time getting used to a heroine named Jack, for some reason). Some characters remain flatter than I’d have liked (Maggie, Jackdaw’s foster mother and John Dee, for example), but Alexander’s not claiming to be Dickens, after all. This kind of novel can be frustrating to the history buff, when authors don’t provide enough historical context or detail, but as I mentioned earlier, Alexander has done her homework and, although the Kelley chapters are shorter and the focus is ultimately on the present-day story, her handling of (her version of) the history is most satisfactory.The two strands of the narrative come together in an explosive and just about perfect conclusion. If Rebecca Alexander writes another novel featuring Jackdaw Hammond and Felix Guichard, I’ll be happy to sit down by the fire with it, preferably with a nice cup of tea or glass of wine on a winter’s night, and give it my full attention.