Book Review: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

The Basics: 

Clocking in at a whopping 587 pages, Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan is a multi-layered book that is hard to categorize, but will easily win your heart. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, the book centers around a harmonica and a prophesy that three sisters lend to a boy lost in the woods. This frame narrative holds together the three successive stories, which culminate in a literary crescendo. The harmonica finds its way to those who need it, starting with a birthmarked boy in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, two orphaned boys in Philadelphia during the Great Depression, and a Mexican-American girl in California during the era of American’s Japanese internment camps. Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy all share a special connection to music that helps them through their various hardships…. Which sounds vague, but I can’t give too much away. The wonder is in the mystery, and no synopsis will do it justice!

What I Liked About It: 

There is an element of mystery in the book from the start. Three sisters trapped by a witch in the woods? Music as the uniting factor? All of these different storylines? That all end in cliffhangers?! My main concern throughout the book was “how does this all come together?!” and it kept me reading feverishly. I love books that have that effect on me. I have to admit, though, I once flipped to the back pages and read the ending before I was even halfway done with the book. Luckily, it didn’t make sense to me at that moment, so I just sped up my reading until I could fully enjoy the natural journey of the book.

And enjoy it I did. The three major story sections are so well written that you really fall for the characters -Friedrich and Ivy’s stories were my favorites – and when each section ends in a cliffhanger, it’s maddening beyond belief (in the best way possible)! But each time a story ended, I knew the next tale would be just as riveting. As you continue to become emotionally invested in the next character, and the next, and after entering three different worlds spanning three contentious, important historical moments, the book rewards you with the MOST AMAZING ENDING EVER. What I mean is, the ending is worth the wait, if you can stick out 500 pages to get to a good ending.

The Downside: It’s long. It’s meant for middle grades readers (and up, of course), but I don’t know a ton of 9-12 year olds (or… me) who have the patience to wait for the ending to come together without peeking.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Why I’d Recommend This Book: 

Even if you’re not the type of reader to tackle a book this large, you HAVE to read Friedrich’s story. This section of the book goes on my required reading list! It’s so good because, though I’ve read pretty much every book about WWII that has ever existed (I had an obsession for a while, okay?), the context here was so different and new. Friedrich and his family are not Jewish. Friedrich has a birthmark that makes him the object of teasing, but he has a very loving family in his father and older sister, who have always taken care of him. His love for music shines throughout the story. Then, while his sister is away at nursing school, she becomes a member of the Hitler Youth, throwing Friedrich and his father into turmoil – especially when it is no longer accepted to be neutral in Hitler’s Germany, or have a birthmark. This take on family dynamics in Germany was so fresh, and so compelling. A must-read!

REVIEW: Bayou Bakery

Bayou Bakery is one of those lovely places that serves both hearty eats and good coffee – with a southern twist. In fact, they call themselves a Louisiana-style “coffee bar & eatery”, thought they’re located in the Courthouse neighborhood (/metro stop) of Arlington, VA. I’d been reading about this place since I first moved to the area, and, with a lazy Sunday ahead of me, decided to finally check it out.

The only downside to places that serve both good food and good coffee is that they automatically qualify as “brunch” places. If you’ve been in DC on a weekend, you know the sometimes-nightmare I’m referring to. Brunch dominates DC from about 10am to 2pm (no really – Uber even goes into rush pricing), and if you think you’re going to just “pop in and out” of a place that serves coffee and food, you should rethink your scheduling.

Bayou Bakery was packed, yes (which is a sign that people enjoy their wares, right?), but I was impressed by how quickly the winding line was served – and the speed with which I received my food. Don’t let “brunch hour” dissuade you from visiting this place.

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I ordered a macchiato (my drink of choice), some beignets, and a bbq-pork-topped biscuit. I shared some grits with my partner, who had biscuits and gravy (Can you tell that they really do serve southern food?).

So…

The food was good. I liked my bbq pork biscuit a lot – it was sweet with just the right amount of zing… but my partner likes a decidedly different type of bbq than I do and wasn’t a big fan. I also tried my first beignets, and my sweet tooth adored the mountain of powdered sugar they’re topped with. The grits were perfectly flavored by the Crystal hot sauce on the table.

The espresso was brewed from Counter Culture’s Forty-Six beans, which the company recommends for espresso. I’ve had Counter Culture before, at Emissary. Back when I had it last, I wondered if the acidity I was tasting up front was due to the citrus-heavy lunch I’d had, or the brew itself. After tasting Counter Culture beans again at Bayou, I realized it’s decidedly the beans that give off that slight acidity at first sip. In fact, this brew seemed slightly more acidic than the last one I’d tried, and a bit less silky. It was still a good macchiato, but Emissary might have my return business.

Overall, if you’re in Courthouse and need a tasty bite to go with your coffee, Bayou Bakery is the perfect fit to comfort your southern hankerings. You can find it at 1515 N. Courthouse Rd, Arlington, VA 22201.

 

 

REVIEW: Emissary

Located right off DuPont Circle, Emissary is a very chill, partly-underground coffeeshop that brews delicious Counter Culture Coffee beans. 

Emissary’s calming baby-blue-and-white color scheme is attractive from the exterior of the building (where there’s plentiful outdoor seating). Once you enter the underground oasis, exposed brick walls and a mix of dark wood and steel furniture make the space at once cozy and sleek. 

I ordered a macchiato and was pleasantly surprised by how quickly my order came out – and with a design atop the drink! 

Over at the sugar station (I’m sure there’s a more elite-accepted word for this, but you know what I mean, right?), I discovered both raw sugar packets and raw sugar simple syrup (yes!) resting under a beautiful basement window scene of tiny succulents and a “Standing with Muslims against Islamophobia and Racism” sign. What a cool place! It’s got its heart in the right place, too. 


Okay, okay, I need to stop gushing about the environment and tell you about the espresso: 

Simply put, it. Was. Amazing. 

I had just finished a citrus-heavy lunch, and so didn’t fully appreciate the drink I’d ordered until I was about halfway through with it. But when I got there – !!!

I don’t think I’ve ever had an espresso taste so silky before. The mouthfeel of the drink was that impeccable. And tasty, to boot. The drink seemed to have very low acidity, which added to the overall smoothness of the drink. Especially when I drink espresso after lunch like this, I don’t usually drink the whole brew unless I’m willing to stay up extra late. But this espresso? I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t even make a conscious decision to finish it all, it just happened

All in all, I’d definitely recommend Emissary as a lovely oasis from DC’s busy day-to-day, and I’d also press you to try their perk! I know I’m looking forward to having Counter Culture Coffee at Emissary again soon!

REVIEW: Cuppa Giddy Up

Cuppa Giddy Up is located in Middleburg, Virginia, which is a popular day-trip destination for DCers. Middleburg is known for its shops – and apparently a rich history of fox hunting – in the middle of equine and wine country.

Cuppa Giddy Up reminds me of the close-to-my-heart shop that I frequented in high school – both have a cozy, below-ground scene that offers a sort of intimacy shared between the people in the shop and its customers. Cuppa serves Lexington Coffee Roasters beans in their tiny underground oasis. (It also has a clever name – it’s in horse country, remember?) The two baristas were personable, and, when I asked about what beans they brewed, I was offered a sniff from a newly-opened bag, told where it was roasted, and – get this! – was told where I could find the same beans in DC (Baked & Wired in Georgetown, FYI). Talk about awesome people! They also took interest in what I’d been up to in town so far, and where I was visiting from. And… my espresso was only $1.60 (!!!). Try finding that kind of price in DC!

If I’m ever back in Middleburg, Cuppa Giddy Up will have my caffeine-based business.

 

 

BREW REVIEW: Creator/Destroyer Espresso Nut Brown Ale

Creator/Destroyer is a 6% beer brewed by Oliver Brewing Company out of Baltimore. But, most importantly, it is a deliriously delicious fusion of espresso and beer. Which is why I’m stepping out of my strict perk/paperback boundaries to tell you about it.

Technically speaking, I’m still reviewing espresso here – Oliver uses Ceremony Coffee Roasters “Destroyer” espresso in their brew. Maybe you’re like me and have sought out coffee beers before. If so, you know that stouts seem to be the only beers that coffee flavors are paired with. So, when I met a friend for dinner at Farmers & Distillers and saw a nut brown ale infused with espresso, I was so, so down to try it. (Although, it did cost me $10. Yes, $10 (!!!). Welcome to drinking in DC. Next time, I’ll just pick up a 12.99 6-pack instead of acting like I do something other than teach for my paycheck. Anyway, back to the brew….)

It totally was worth the ten bucks. I was immediately in love with the taste – Unlike the stouts of the coffee-beer world, this beer was on the light side, and I could have easily had three (or more) without feeling overwhelmed by the flavor or thickness of the beer. The fact that it’s a nut brown ale also created more of a caramel taste than the coffee stouts I’ve tried, which made for a delicious, addictive brew. And, perhaps the perfect caveat to drinking espresso-infused beer is the added bonus of a bit of caffeine sticking around to add to your buzz.

All in all, Creator/Destroyer is beautiful fusion of two of the things I love most – dark beer and espresso. If only it was also named after a book….