21 October 2014

Reading on Topic: These Old Houses

In the department of random publishing trends for 2014, I've found a number of novels that incorporate the theme of fixing up an old house. It can be scary thing to renovate a home--and I'm not talking about costs and sawdust. Sometimes, however, if you enter such a project with your family, you may discover some peace and happiness at the end.

Today's Reading On Topic looks at old houses. Warning: You might think twice about accepting that inheritance from your grandmother.

Family Drama behind Closed Doors

  • Three Story House by Courtney Miller Santo (William Morrow; ISBN: 9780062130549; August 2014): Lizzy, Elyse, and Isobel--cousins and best friends--are reunited to save their late-grandmother's Memphis house from the wrecking ball. As the cousins learn the perils of renovation, they also learn some family secrets. In the end, will they find a future not only for the house but also for themselves? An engrossing contemporary novel told from three viewpoints.
  • Rooms by Lauren Oliver (Ecco; ISBN: 9780062223197; September 2014): Caroline and her children inherit their house not from Grandma but from Caroline's ex-husband. Although they can handle cleaning out decades of junk from the old place, they don't know what to do about the ghosts who use the house itself to communicate their feelings (hissing radiators, for example). Plenty of family drama on both planes of existence as all beings hope to be freed from their pasts.
  • The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai (Viking; ISBN: 9780525426684; July 2014): Although not really a renovation story, this novel is centered on an old house and includes family secrets. As the younger members of the Devohrs family uncover their home's deep history, they begin to gain perspective on their own privileged life. The novel starts in the 1990s and moves back in time, so the mysteries of the present are eventually revealed in the past. A quirky family drama with elements of suspense and hauntings.
Mysteries under the Rafters

  • The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar (Atria; ISBN: 9781476760094; August 2014): Breaking the mold, Hannah and Will Riley actually buy their rundown country house and set about getting it into shape so they'll be ready to adopt a child and start the family they've always dreamed of. All goes fairly smoothly until a major Suffolk snowstorm isolates Hannah in the house while Will is in London. With no electricity and spotty cell reception, Hannah is already a bit freaked out. But when she suspects that she's no longer alone in the house, she begins to fear for her life. This is a creepy psychological thriller.
  • The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White (Authonomy; ISBN: 9780007523580; June 2014): When Nowell and Vivian Gardiner moved into his late-grandmother's country house, hoping to renovate it for sale, the couple was looking forward to a quiet life in a small town. What they found instead was the body of a 17-year-old girl and a whole lot of secrets. This character-driven mystery reveals its clues slowly, building the tension.
  • A High-End Finish by Kate Carlisle (Signet; ISBN: 9780451469199; November 2014): Jane Hennessey inherited her California Victorian from her grandmother and hired her best friend and contractor Shannon Hammer to help transform the house into a hotel. Ruining her manicure became the least of her worries when the body of a real estate agent is found on another job site and Shannon is accused of murder. This is a fun cozy mystery with interesting characters, strong women, and maybe even a little romance.

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20 October 2014

Review: Convesation 1 by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson

I was intrigued by the concept of James Kochalka's Conversation series: For these books, Kochalka taps a fellow cartoonist with whom he has a conversation via cartoon panels. As the book summary says, the authors, "draw together, trading the pages back and forth, adding to each others drawings as the conversation turns in unexpected directions."

In Conversation 1 Kochalka (American Elf, Marvel) teams up with colleague Craig Thompson (Blankets). The pair talk about art, the universe, their profession, imagination, and more.

The conversation opens with Kochalka asking about the meaning of the universe, which takes them on a trip to the depths of the sea and into the woods. They talk about the power of art to help explain life's mysteries, the difficulty of being a cartoonist, the purpose of comics, and even a little bit about God. The world the two travel through is fantastical, and the authors interject a little humor whenever the text seems to be getting too heavy.

Although I liked the art and the premise, I didn't really love the result of Kochalka and Thompson's joint work. I think the principal issue is that I'm not really the target audience. I bet a book like this would have much more appeal to die-hard fans who are intimately familiar with each comic artist's work. I have a feeling that there were inside jokes and references to the authors' other comics and novels that were lost on me.

On the other hand, I liked the drawings, and it was fun to see how the two artists drew together, sometimes even in the same panel, as shown in the two scans here (pp. 20 & 24; click to enlarge).

copyright James Kochalka and Craig Thompson

Conversation 1 would appeal to readers who are familiar with James Kochalka's and Craig Thompson's styles and work and to those who are curious about how two graphic novelists carry on a conversation in the cartoon medium.

If you want to read more in this series, see Conversation 2, in which Kochalka gets in an argument with Jeffrey Brown about the interplay among art, comics, and real life. I plan to read it, despite my disappointment with Conversation 1.

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18 October 2014

Weekend Cooking: Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach

Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny RosenstrachWhat's in the air these days? So many of my blogging friends have gotten the urge to jump on the food-planning bandwagon, and I'm no exception. In fact, I'll be starting my fourth week of meal planning tomorrow, and although I'm seeing results, I can still use all the advice I can get.

I started my new approach to dinner and shopping with a stack of recipes, my own ideas, and what I had learned from Jenny Rosenstrach's first book, Dinner: A Love Story, particularly scheduling dinners and picking recipes that fit my time constraints. After reading her new Dinner: The Playbook, I think I'm ready to take my planning to the next level.

Although Rosenstrach's strategies are specifically geared to busy families with kids, everyone can benefit from her tried-and-true method of cooking dinner almost every single night. Her tips and recipes will work for you, even if you think you can't cook or think you have the world's pickiest eaters for children. Her own daughters, for example, have exasperating deal-breakers: no eggs for either of them and no pasta for one. Yikes! But still, she and her husband manage a nutritious dinner each evening, despite working full-time and juggling their girls' after-school activities.

So how the heck does she do it? In Dinner: The Playbook, Rosenstrach shares every trick in her arsenal: how to plan meals, how to get the family on board, how get organized, how to save time, and even what to cook. All of this information is presented in a conversational, friendly style that makes it easy to absorb and will make everything seem possible.

copyright Jenny RosenstrachHere are some things I love about the book:
  • The weekly plans, complete with notes about how to save time and how to repurpose ingredients to cut down on waste.
  • The tips on how to shop and how to stow your food when you get home.
  • Advice on how to be more efficient with your time, so dinner gets on the table more quickly.
  • The broad range of easy, flavorful, and nutritious recipes (each with a photo).
Even though I don't have the same issues as Rosenstrach does--I have no kids and my husband is happy to eat whatever I put on the table--I wish I were more organized when it comes to dinner. And although I know it's not the case for many of you, I never really feel stressed at dinnertime; I like to cook and I'm good at it. But I would love to save time, money, and energy, and Dinner: The Playbook has helped me with all my goals.

More important, thanks to Rosenstrach, I've relabeled myself from being a lazy cook to being a smart cook. All those quick (yet fresh and healthful) recipes I'm drawn to? That's probably the key to my being able to make dinner about 320 nights every year. All this time, I thought I was just unambitious . . . who knew I was actually being sane?

copyright Jenny RosenstrachThe recipe section of Dinner: The Playbook is chock-full of easy, family-friendly, and flavorful dishes. There are Asian-inspired soups, Southwestern tacos, Italian pastas, and all-American sandwiches. The ingredients are generally fresh and most of the recipes can be made in about a half hour. Throughout the book, Rosenstrach offers tips on how to adapt foods to picky eaters and how to save time in the kitchen.

If you're an experienced cook with file folders (or Pinterest boards) full of recipes, you won't feel locked in by Rosenstrach's sample dinners and meal plans. It's easy to take her principles and use your own recipes for your weekly schedules. On the other hand, if you're at a loss, are unsure in the kitchen, or are simply tired of being a short-order cook, then the recipes in this book will form the backbone of your new life.

No matter what your situation, your evenings will dramatically improve after you read Dinner: The Playbook. Jenny Rosenstrach's advice is based on her real-life experiences: she and her husband cook and shop, attend their daughters' functions, and work full-time. They don't have household staff or a live-in housekeeper. If they can do it, you can too.

In the coming weeks, I'll tell you about other resources I'm using as I join the modern world of meal planning. In the meantime, for more on Rosenstrach, check out her blog, which includes many tips and recipes. Note on photos: the photos were scanned from the cookbook; all rights remain with the original copyright holder.

Random House / Ballantine, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780345549808
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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16 October 2014

Sound Recommendations: Eclectic Trio

I've been going through a ton of audiobooks lately and thought this would be a good time to catch up on some titles I listened to and reviewed for AudioFile magazine. For my full audio review of each of these books, click on over to the magazine's website.

The Long Way Home by Louise PennyFirst up is Louise Penny's latest installment in her Armand Gamache series, The Long Way Home, which is set in Qu├ębec. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that this is the first time I've read Penny's multi-award-winning work, and I've started with the tenth book. Fortunately, it wasn't difficult to be pulled right into the world of the former chief inspector of homicide. When the book opens, Gamache has settled in the small town of Three Pines to enjoy his retirement, surrounded by his wife and dear friends. But before he can fully adjust to being an ordinary civilian, his neighbor Clara asks him to help her track down her estranged husband. The story takes us from the village into the wilderness along the St. Lawrence Seaway and deep into the world of art. Despite coming late to the game, I didn't feel lost, and I thoroughly enjoyed the story. The unabridged audiobook (Macmillan Audio; 12 hr, 8 min) was read by Ralph Cosham, who was absolutely fantastic. Among Cosham's many talents was his ability to switch seamlessly from male to female and from English to French. I cannot wait to start listening to this series from the beginning. On a sad note, Cosham died last month, and the audiobook world lost a great star.

Edge of Eternity by Ken FollettA couple of years ago, I reviewed the first two books in Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, which focuses on a handful of families from the Soviet Union, Germany, the UK, and the United States as they face the major political, sociocultural, technological, and economic changes of the twentieth century. Edge of Eternity, stars the third generation of the original families and covers the post-World War II years up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. (The epilogue mentions Obama's election.) Although the novel is complex, it's easy to follow, and we see the significant European and American events take place on a personal scale, through the eyes of the characters. What I particularly liked about this last entry in the trilogy was that there were so many historical events that I remember happening and historical figures whom I saw on TV or in the newspapers. The unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 36 hr, 55 min) was read by the wonderful John Lee, who managed the many needed accents and kept all the characters distinct. True he is no impersonator, but his rendition of the famous men and women who appear in the novel were nonetheless believable. Despite it's length, this sweeping family saga is well worth the listen.

The Spark and the Drive by Wayne HarrisonThe final audiobook is Wayne Harrison's The Spark and the Drive, which grew out of a short story. This coming-of-age novel, set in Connecticut, opens as seventeen-year-old Justin Bailey begins an apprenticeship with one of the best car mechanics in the East. Because it's the dawn of the computer age, Justin is part of the last generation to have learned how to diagnose car problems without the aid of modern technology. As the young teen strives to emulate his mentor, both in and out of the garage, Justin learns much more than just how to repair an engine. Although the story is not really about cars, it was difficult for me to become fully invested in Justin's transition to young manhood, his family's issues, his mentor's marriage, and the relationships among the mechanics. Maybe it's because I didn't relate to much of Justin's behavior or perhaps it was because of the audiobook itself (Recorded Books; 9 hr, 2 min), which was read by Quincy Dunn Baker. Baker's characterizations and his handling of the dialogue were fine, but I thought his voice was too mature for a teenager. What's more, the rhythm of his performance didn't match the flow of the plot, and that began to bother me. If the premise of the novel appeals to you, then I suggest you listen to an audio sample before you commit to reading with your ears.

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14 October 2014

Wordless Wednesday 311

Dahlia, 2014

Click to enlarge. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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All content and photos (except where noted) copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads 2008-2014. All rights reserved.



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