Bend the Round

…where the madness is recorded.

Book 26: Iron Kissed June 2, 2008

Filed under: books — bendtheround @ 2:56 pm
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The Mercedes Thompson series just keep getting better. And the better they get, the more I dislike the book covers. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, they just don’t fit the books at all. The woman on the cover doesn’t even look like Mercy to me. For one thing, the books make a point that she’s got ONE tattoo – a coyote paw print on her belly – and that’s it. Besides the tattoos, her skin tone and facial features don’t match the books description either. And then there’s the undeniable fact that the covers scream TRASHY GENRE FICTION!!! when the series really isn’t trashy at all. Why can’t the covers have a nice picture of one of the werewolves since the books make a big deal about how they’re different from regular wolves while still being at least as beautiful? Or a picture of a coyote? Or a non-trashy picture of one of the fae? We don’t need a scantily clad version of Mercy that doesn’t even match her physical description…and we get it… she’s a mechanic. We can move on now.

Predictably, Iron Kissed focuses on the fae culture in Mercy’s universe (the first one focused on the werewolves and the second on the vampires). Maybe because the fae are so numerous and varied, the exploration was more interesting than that of the vampires. We got a bit of a peak into what the Grey Lords are up to, and I believe some foreshadowing of trouble to come.

There is a resolution to the problem of the two werewolves interested in Mercy. Again, Briggs could absolutely have gone off the deep end into romance smuttiness, but kept everything nice and balanced. So as not to ruin that resolution, I’ll say no more.

I have to say that this book takes what I consider a pretty dark turn. There were several chapters that I had to slow down and read more carefully because I couldn’t believe what was happening – not because it didn’t make sense in Mercy’s universe… all the rules were carefully followed… but because it was so much darker in tone than anything that’s happened in the series before. Consider yourself warned.

One of the weak points of the first two books was that Mercy had to go off by herself and make a couple somewhat wild surmises to figure things out. It only happened once (MAYBE twice) in each book, but it was reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day coming up with the idea to bring down the aliens. It works if you can suspend some belief, but it’s definitely a weak point. Fortunately, Briggs has gotten past that in Iron Kissed.

All in all – this was a great addition to the Mercedes Thompson series. I’ve checked her website and found that the next book in the series isn’t due out until February 2009. My calendar is marked.🙂

 

Book 25: Blood Bound May 30, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — bendtheround @ 2:38 pm

Blood Bound is the second book in the Mercedes Thompson series. Where the first book focused largely on the werewolf culture in which Mercy grew up, the second outing for Mercy is essentially an exploration of the vampire culture in the series’ universe. It doesn’t disappoint.

Again, despite the provocatively clad female on the cover, the book is pretty darn far from trashy. As seems to be inevitable in series identified by the name of the lead female character, the reader does get tangled up a bit in Mercy’s love life. That element of the story is essentially a side-line, though, and again, nobody gets laid. Briggs handles it pretty well, in my opinion – she has her character acknowledge that there’s an issue to be dealt with in that area of her life, but correctly prioritizes and focuses her attention and energy on the main conflict. In this case, a “big nasty” that’s killing innocents left and right… I don’t see how the issue can be side-lined for much longer, though. The next book will likely have to deal with it one way or another. (In a nutshell, Mercy has to decide if she wants to be with guy A, guy B, or none of the above…and because guy A and B are both werewolves, there is a danger of them killing and eating someone if she doesn’t field the question well.)

I hesitate to say much more about the plot. If you liked Moon Called, Blood Bound is a great follow up. The universe is fleshed out without being overwhelming, and we learn some pretty interesting things about our heroine. I’ve already started the third (and most recent) in the series and will report as soon as I’ve finished it!

 

Book 24: Moon Called May 22, 2008

Filed under: books — bendtheround @ 7:01 pm
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Moon Called is Book One in Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson series. It came HIGHLY recommended by two fellow bibliophiles. Still, one look at the cover, and I was dubious. It looks pretty damn trashy. But, hey, I like the occasional trashy novel when I’m in the mood to not tax my brain cells with reading material. After reading a fair number of non-fictions lately, I was in the mood for a nice, easy, probably trashy read (especially after having my appetite whetted for supernatural fiction by Charlaine Harris’ latest Sookie Stackhouse book). (NOTE: Sookie’s not trashy.)

Well, two outta three ain’t bad. Despite the cover (and I have to admit, I did feel the need to try to hide the cover), this isn’t a trashy novel at all. It’s definitely a nice easy read, but trashy isn’t in the picture. Not one character got laid. Plenty died, though.

Here’s a quick capture of the universe of Moon Called…

The book is set in some area in the US called the Tri-Cities (with a short stint in Montana). There are supernatural creatures of several different varieties, including the fae (this is a pretty broad group, including trolls and gremlins and a LOT of others), werewolves, witches, vampires, and one skinwalker (our heroine, Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson). A skinwalker is a person who can change herself into a coyote at will. (This is part of some Native American folklore, which I had vaguely heard of before.) The “Grey Lords” (the leaders of the fae) had recently allowed human beings to know that some of the weaker, cuter and cuddlier fae existed. The bigger, badder things are still in hiding however. Werewolves and vampires are also still in hiding.

That’s basically the beginning background for Mercy’s story. She’s a great, sympathetic character. She was brought up with the werewolves because that group was as close to what she is as her mother was able to find (her mother has no interesting abilities that the reader is aware of – Mercy’s talents apparently come from her father, who died in a car accident shortly after she was conceived). She’s independent by nature, but growing up with such a close-knit group seems to have kept her from being obnoxiously independent. She’s college-educated (majored in History), and runs her own garage where fixes foreign cars (she majored in History, after all).

It’d be tempting for the author to really beat the reader over the head with the high-strangeness going on in the book – essentially screaming “Hey!! Werewolf over there!!” and “Because he’s a VAMPIRE/GREMLIN/500 FOOT STAY PUFT MARSHMELLOW MAN!!” at every turn, but Briggs’ resists. Where she does bring supernatural elements into the story, the elements make sense (for the most part – I’m guessing that the one that I felt wasn’t fully explained was left for fodder for future novels).

Overall, I’d say that this is a pretty good start for a series. The universe has been nicely mapped out with a lot of potential for action in the near future. The main character is compelling. The mystery in the book was less interesting that the titular character, to be honest, but I’m not willing to let that ruin the fun. Because the book was pretty fun.

I’ll be picking up the second and third novels from the library this evening. Reports to follow!

 

Book 23: From Dead to Worse & Charlaine Harris Book Signing! May 19, 2008

Filed under: books — bendtheround @ 7:27 pm
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Charlaine Harris, you magnificent author!

From Dead to Worse is the latest in the marvelous Sookie Stackhouse series of books. I’m going to resist the temptation to rhapsodize once again about this series – if you’re interested in said rhapsodizing, check out earlier Charlaine Harris related posts.

Harris really pulled this one off. I was pretty concerned after the last book (All Together Dead) – it wasn’t the same tone as the rest of the series and it was headed in a direction I wasn’t crazy about. Instead of continuing on that track, Harris turned it around and made Sookie the character she had been again. Thank goodness.

I’m not going to say anything else about the book, actually. I’d hate to ruin anything. Besides, if you’ve gotten this far in the series, you’re most likely going to read this one whether I liked it or not. But I did. A lot.🙂

Harris goes on a book tour with each new Sookie book, and I was fortunate enough to attend a book-signing and Q&A session she gave last week. It was great. Charlaine is a wonderful speaker and very personable. She just seemed pleased as punch to be there talking with us, it made everybody smile.

Harris should be tickled, too. Her Sookie Stackhouse series has been picked up by HBO to be made into a new show called True Blood. Anna Paquin is playing Sookie and the early reviews are very promising! Charlaine let us in on the premiere date for True Blood – Sunday, September 7th, 2008 at 9pm… HBO is giving the show the Sopranos’ old spot! WOW.

She told a great story about going to the set to see a scene being filmed. As it happened, she was there on the day one of the actors was shooting a scene in which he was running naked through the woods and she wasn’t allowed in because the actor was shy. (Not blaming him at all – if I were an actor that had to do a nude scene, I’d like to minimize the number of people there to see my naughty bits in person, too.) Instead of being put out that she was barred from the set, Harris said something to the effect of “All right! I came on the right day!” implying that she was psyched about the possibility of seeing the actor naked. Turns out the actor was standing right behind her, lol. She said that if she had known he was right there, she would have said something more tactful like “I hope you let him wear shoes!” (They did let him wear shoes. And you can’t see anything really naughty in the scene – she got to see it on screen later.)

I was impressed by Harris. She sure seems like a neat lady – very fun to be around! She also let slip that she’s buddies with Jim Butcher, the author of the kick-ass Harry Dresden series. I was pleased to hear it – it seems that Harry & Sookie have a lot in common sometimes. I mentioned this to Charlaine while she was signing my book and she said that she and Jim had talked about that before. They ARE a lot alike she said…but Jim needs to let Harry get laid more often. LOL

In a nutshell – great book, great author, and I enjoyed every minute of the reading and the signing.

 

Book 22: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Filed under: books — bendtheround @ 6:56 pm
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It’s a wonderful thing to find a book that really strikes a chord. The Omnivore’s Dilemma sure did for me – so much so that it’s a little difficult to find a place to start. There’s a lot to say about it.

First off, I have to admire Michael Pollan’s writing. He does a remarkable job exploring and explaining inter-related topics ranging from bio-chemistry to the politics of agriculture to the experience of hunting to the rudiments of environmental toxicology and endocrine disruption. I say remarkable because I was so engaged by what he was saying, and the connections were so natural. The subject matter could have easily felt fractured and confusing. Instead, the overall feeling of the book was almost like a finished jigsaw puzzle – each piece fit together neatly and the sum total was orderly, entirely comprehensible, and beautiful.

OK, onto the content of the book.

The book is broken into three main parts. Each part examines a different food chain and ended with a meal made entirely of foods from the system examined. The three food chains examined were the industrial agriculture, organic industrial & whole food (these turn out to be vastly different, but because of the nature of the organic industry and the hopefully emerging trend of what I would consider “whole” farming, it felt natural to group these two together), and hunting/gathering. The parts were presented in that order, but I’d like to address them out of order based on the personal impact of each section on me. Each part had distinct value, but I definitely feel more strongly about certain sections and it’s just too much to tackle them en masse.

Hunting/Gathering

Pollan openly admits that this particular food chain is no longer viable for the vast majority of people living in the US – if it’s a viable option to anyone at all if it’s chosen as the sole means of feeding oneself. (Freegans don’t count in this one – by hunting & gathering, he means hunting animals and gathering plant material straight from nature…not from Dumpsters.)

At first, I couldn’t imagine how Pollan was going to pull off creating a meal from found food, which just goes to show you how long I’ve been away from rural culture. Pollan opted to hunt for wild pig and go mushroom hunting. He also gathered some “wild” fruit (from a neighbor’s cherry tree) and made bread using wild yeast. (Side note: I had never heard of “wild yeast.” The very phrase brought up images of herd animals galloping across the savanna. So wrong. Apparently, if you put out flour, etc, the yeast will come. I always wondered how the heck you got the stuff.) He did have to make some exceptions to the rules he set up for the meal, but under the circumstances he did a great job of getting what he needed straight from nature.

Pollan starts out this section by acknowledging that he needed help to do this safely. He wasn’t terribly familiar with firearms, and he was nervous about his ability to avoid poisoning himself with the mushrooms he found – so he needed a mentor. The man he found and befriended sure sounds like a remarkable person. With his guidance, Pollan was eventually able to hunt for two types of mushrooms and kill a wild Californian pig and butcher it.

There’s a significant section of this part that discusses the morality of eating meat, too. My personal feelings on the subject has always been that nature made me an omnivore, an animal designed to eat a variety of things – including meat – so dammit, I’m going to eat meat. The book supplies the arguments of the leaders of both schools of thoughts – vegetarians/animal rights activists vs non-vegetarians – which was VERY interesting and thought-provoking. What I took away from the discussion is that it’s a personal decision, and one that should be made mindfully instead of by default.

Some time ago, I wanted to know if I could still eat meat if I faced the reality of the death that is made necessary by my choice. I went with my sister to a cousin’s place and took part in the slaughter, cleaning, and cooking of a chicken. (Read To Henry… if you’re interested in the experience.) While I was not the one who actually swung the hatchet, I was instrumental in that rooster’s demise. In the end, I was alright with it, which came as a bit of surprise considering I have never in my life seen anything as horrible as the severed head frantically writhing on the ground. I feel like I’ve made a conscious decision on the subject of eating meat instead of eating it by default.

Industrial Agriculture

I grew up in a pretty rural area. There was (and still is) a cornfield directly across the street from my parent’s mailbox. The area elementary, middle, and high school was about a mile or more away and the only things between the schools and my house were cornfields and cows. One of the largest and most active extracurricular group in the high school was the Future Farmers of America – they grew flowers in the green house for sale, sold citrus fruit, and ran the pig farm located behind the school. You read that right – pig farm. There were regular sales of pork from the farm, too. In short, I grew up at least passingly familiar with agriculture in the US.

There’s a HELL of a lot to say about the most common form of farming in the US – industrial farming. First, it’s heavily based on oil and petrochemicals. The fields are worked using huge (incredibly expensive) machines, and the soil is doused in petrochemicals to fertilize it and kill everything that isn’t the crop. Runoff is a serious concern. It’s hard work and it’s thankless work – at least monetarily. Most farming is done by HUGE mega-farms instead of smaller family farms – smaller farmers are constantly staving off bankruptcy for a whole slew of reasons. I was mostly aware of this when I started reading the book.

What I DIDN’T realize was just how corn-based nearly all our food is, and I sure didn’t realize why. I wasn’t far into this part before I was seeing processed corn eeeevvvverrrywheeeereeee. Sweet jeebus, once you realize how much stuff is made from corn, from corn flakes to soda (high fructose corn syrup [HFCS] is in EVERYTHING), it’s almost a little scary. If you start counting the food animals that we feed corn diets, it gets even worse.

Which brings me to the phrase “corn-fed” – as in corn-fed beef, pork, chicken… I always had the vague idea that “corn-fed” equals “tastier” or maybe even “better.” Well, no, not really. It just means “corn-fed.” Apparently, cows and chickens in particular aren’t cut out to eat corn. They CAN eat it, but if it’s all they’re eating, they get sick. People only feed it to them because it’s cheap and, because it’s a high-energy food, it gets them ready for slaughter faster. Because the food makes them sick, the animals are jammed full of antibiotics in hopes of keeping them on their feet long enough to grow big enough for slaughter. It’s kinda like force-feeding cheese and pepto-bismal to a lactose-intolerant person. Ick.

That’d be bad enough, but the living conditions these animals must endure are legendarily terrible. Animals jammed in cages and pens shoulder to shoulder. So many chickens to one cage that they often have to stand on top of each other. Chickens have their beaks cut off so they can’t peck each other. Pigs have their tails cut, not to prevent them from being bitten – they’re cut so that it’ll hurt more when their bitten so that the pig will kick the biter to prevent him from biting again. The concentrated animal population produces waste so thickly that it’s toxic.

In short, the only positive of these operations seems to be that they produce meats that are affordable enough for the masses. I personally find it hard to say that it’s really worth the level of suffering and pollution caused by concentrated animal farming for cheaper meats. I can’t get all self-righteous, though, because I still do buy chicken and sometimes beef that certainly comes from these operations. The fact that I don’t feel too good about it when I stop to think about it doesn’t count for a whole lot.

Interestingly, it seems that research is starting to show that eating corn-fed meats might be bad for us anyway. Granted, nutritional science still has a long way to go in understanding ALL the ins and outs just what’s good and bad for human beings, but it’s getting there. The book discusses the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, for example. We’ve known for a while that both are needed to keep us healthy, but it seems that more specifically, we need a balance of the two. And it’s looking like eating corn-fed animals throw that balance off quite a bit (which *could* account for the spike in cardiovascular disease in countries that adopt the Western diet).

Industrial Organic & “Whole” Farming

Had I ever taken the time to really sit down and think about it, I might have figured out that “organic” is a different animal from “sustainable.” I think a lot of us have wound up with the idea that these words are inter-changeable. This part was really all about how they’re really not inter-changeable at all.

The industrial organic industry has really taken off in recent years. People WANT to do better, after all. There’s quite a bit written about it in the book, and while it’s interesting, I think I’ll boil it down to this: it’s better than regular industrial agriculture, but it’s not the full answer. Industrial organic agriculture still depends on monocultures, for one thing. For another, the exact definition of “organic” is much more flexible that you might imagine.

I’m going to skip over the rest of the bits about industrial organic farms in favor of talking about “whole” farming – the Polyface farm in particular. The Polyface Farm is run by a man named Joel Salatin, who comes out of this book looking like a combination of a genius and a prophet. He calls himself a grass-farmer because the entire farm system he and his family (he’s the third generation to work the land) have built is based on the grasses growing on the farm’s property. Every facet of the farm is intimately inter-connected with other facets. So much so that that farm seems darn close to a closed system. His wife joked that if they could figure out how to make toilet paper, she’d never have to go to the grocery store at all.

Here’s an example of the inter-connectedness that makes the farm so remarkable. Salatin’s cows are put out to pasture in a fenced off area for a couple of days – just long enough for the cows to eat from the grass ONCE. (If you let them, cows will eat the grass down to the dirt, apparently.) Then they are moved to the next pasture. The moves are timed to the growth of the grass – after the grass has been grazed once, it needs time to grow back a bit…but not too much time or it’ll get “woody” which isn’t optimal for the cows. The pasture is left alone for two or three days to let the manure left behind rest. In that time, bugs infest the manure and hatch into larva. When two or three days are up, chickens are let loose into the pasture. The chickens scratch through the manure to eat the bugs, at the same time spreading the stuff around to fertilize the grass. They’ll eat the bugs out of the grass while they’re at it. This diet makes for eggs that are legendary in the area – incredibly rich. They’re so rich that the chefs that prize them have said that they have to modify their recipes because they need fewer of them. So, by cleverly timing the movement of his animals around the farm, Salatin never has to fertilize anything, his pastures are incredibly healthy, his animals are both incredibly healthy and being treated humanely, and he winds up with superior products. All by moving his livestock around in a particular way.

The book described one inter-connected system after another on the farm until I wound up wondering A) how the hell Salatin figured all this out to start with and B) why there aren’t more farms like this…why is this the exception rather than the norm?? The system on Polyface Farm is FAR more productive than a monoculture farm. It’s not only non-polluting, but it actually improves the land – it’s more fertile the longer this system of farming is in place. And, the animals that are raised are raised humanely.

A few notes about the slaughter of animals on the Polyface farm… Salatin says that if the government would allow it, he’d do all the slaughtering and butchering on site. As it is, he can only get away with slaughtering and cleaning chickens there, and that’s only because of a loop-hole in the laws that lets him sell live chickens. Pollan is on the farm to help with the slaughter and cleaning of the chickens. The whole operation is done in the open air where customers can see that everything is being done cleanly and as humanely as possible.

He must send his pigs and cows to a government inspected slaughterhouse, which adds at least a dollar a pound to the final cost of his pork and beef. He’s tried to get an inspector to come out to him, but the government doesn’t consider it cost-effective (it’s probably not from their perspective), and has so far met with a great deal of resistance.

This part of the book is filled with quotable quotes from Salatin. The one that struck me hardest was this:

“It’s a foolish culture that entrusts its food supply to simpletons.” ~ Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm

Salatin was commenting on the brain drain happening in rural America for the past generations. This is something that I’ve not only witnessed, but been an active (if unaware) part of. My high school was (and still is) set up to foster generations of little brilliant Salatin-like farming geniuses. Instead, anybody with a glimmer of promise is strongly pushed away from the ag program and toward traditional college. The kids with behavioral problems, the ones with no interest in education of any variety, the ones with more enthusiasm than talent or intelligence were dumped in the ag building. In retrospect, the best I can say about my thinking of the program is that I seem to recall thinking that if I wanted to be an intellectually big fish in a small pond, the ag program was the way to go. I didn’t go that way. I was (and still am) fascinated by the biological sciences and knew for a fact that I had to go get a degree in Biology or Pre-Med to work with that interest. I was wrong. Agriculture is an incredibly practical place to go if you’re interested in biology. Still, if I had it to do over again, I’m not sure that I would have accepted the Ag program at the high school. I suspect that I would have done just as well to study AP Bio and entered an Ag school with that background instead of soaking up the culture of failure that was (and still is) fostered in the high school program. It’s a goddamn shame.

(None of this is said to bust on anybody who actually IS passionate about agriculture. I thank goodness that there are people out there who are passionate about cows and corn and wheat and chickens. Billions of people are fed because of you!)

Final Thoughts

I’ve obviously got a lot to say about this book. It’s thought provoking, VERY well-written, and timely. It’s a wonderful jumping off point for a great number of conversations that are important to have, even if they’re only with yourself.

Ultimately, to me, this is a keeper. As many books as I read, I buy very few – only the ones that mean something to me and/or the ones that I’ll read periodically. I plan on buying this book at some point, and I’ll be reading Pollan’s follow-up to this book (In Defense of Food) as soon as possible. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a must read for anyone interested in the food system in the US – if asked, I’d recommend this one to anyone who liked Fast Food Nation. It’s probably not for everyone… it *could* come off as being a tiny bit preachy if you’re not comfortable with some of your dietary choices.

Overall, this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year so far. Kudos, Mr. Pollan, kudos.

 

April ’08 Running Report May 1, 2008

Filed under: running,state of BTR — bendtheround @ 1:23 pm
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In a word… Fail.

I ran a grand total of 12.75 miles in April. My total for 2008 is currently 161.85 as of this moment. If I’m going to make my goal of 500 miles in 2008, I have to kick it back into gear.

So what happened?

Two things happened… I got sick for one thing. That head cold floored me for what felt like half the month. My current personal running rules include a clause about breathing – if I can’t breathe, I’m not gonna run. For another thing, some pretty heavy personal stuff came up this month which caused a lot of stress and some insomnia. The personal stuff will be ongoing for a while, but that’s the subject of another post. What’s relevant here is that I SHOULD have dragged my exhausted carcass out of bed to run even if I didn’t get the sleep I needed. The exercise can only help.

So what’s the plan?

It’s past time to get back to it. The morning is already blown (for the gym anyway), and lunchtime is booked up with some goings-on across the street, so I’ll go run after work. A nice run through the neighborhood or, if it’s raining, a treadmill trot will be very good for me.

One bad running month isn’t going to end the 500 mile goal, but those remaining miles aren’t going to run themselves. The only thing for it is to lace up, head out, and get it done.

 

Book 21: Death By Darjeeling April 30, 2008

Filed under: books — bendtheround @ 5:45 pm
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I wish I could remember who originally recommended this series of books to me. I’m seem to think that it was someone I randomly bumped into in a store and started chatting with…

I should have loved this book.

The main character in the book owns a tea shop and much of the book takes place in it. I’m an absolute tea junkie. I love tea and harbor not-so-secret hopes of one day owning and operating a used book store/tea lounge.

The story is set in Charleston, SC, one of the most historic and colorful cities in the US. I love historical places.

The story is a “cozy” – a murder mystery in which the violence is downplayed. I usually like those.

Well, what should have been the perfect novel storm just plain fizzled for me.

Somehow, Childs made the historic district of Charleston seem bland and dull – a non-entity. The characters were incredibly flat and uninteresting. The scenes in the tea shop didn’t give me the peak into the world of tea that I had hoped for. The mystery itself was OK – I didn’t figure it out before the end. The problem was that I really didn’t particularly care who did it. If I wasn’t something of an obsessive completionist, I don’t think I would have finished the book.

I really hate giving a book a bad review. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to write a novel, to get all the elements just right. The amount of creativity and persistence required to get a book finished and published is really something remarkable. If it were my book and some schlub on the internet was dumping on MY work, I’d probably be upset. Still, my book reviews come down to one question – “Would I recommend this book to a friend?” The answer in this case is “No, not really.”

The up-side for Childs is that her books ARE popular. Tea really is a booming business and tea shops like to sell her books. Her books have been mentioned to me several times when people find out that I’m a big fan of tea and that I like to read. I’ve checked out her website and it seems that she has two other series based on two other booming businesses – quilting and scrapbooking. I’d bet that people into those hobbies are also familiar with Childs’ work. Say what you will about her writing, but Childs has hit upon an interesting niche – hobby-oriented mystery series.