31 December 2009

Review: Death of a Charming Man by M. C. Beaton

Death of a Charming Man is the 10th mystery in M. C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series. This review contains very minor spoilers for the series and no spoilers for the book.

Hamish Macbeth, easygoing police sergeant from Lochdubh in northern Scotland, is content with his life. He spends his days fishing and gossiping with neighbors; flirting with his unofficial fiance, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe; and handling the occasional crime.

As much as Hamish is in love with Priscilla, she is also the source of his biggest problems: She is determined to modernize his house and help him get promoted, neither of which interests him. Hamish is looking for excuses to avoid Priscilla's improvement projects, so when he hears that a British incomer has moved to the neighboring town of Drim, he decides to check things out.

To the middle-aged women of Drim, the arrival of the handsome Peter Hynd is just the spark they needed to join exercise classes, dye their hair, and buy new clothes. Never mind that they are married and no amount of hair dye is going to return them to their 20s. Best friends begin to compete for Peter's attention and marriages are hanging on by a thread.

Hamish's doubts about Peter are strengthened when the newcomer is seen having dinner with Priscilla. But when the charming man is reported missing just after a Drim woman is found dead on the beach, Hamish begins to investigate Peter in earnest.

M. C. Beaton is a master at the cozy mystery. Even in the 10th novel, we are still interested in the life and crimes of the northern Highlands. As always, the townsfolk and Hamish's seemingly lazy personality are at the core of the book. The mystery was well constructed and not easy to figure out, but it's the people who keep me coming back to Lochdubh.

I highly recommend this series to cozy mystery lovers, people who like to read about Scotland, and those who like books about small towns and unique characters.

I listened to the audio production read by the wonderful Davina Porter. If you are an audio fan, you won't be disappointed listening to Porter's lovely Scottish accent and expressive narration.


Published by Grand Central Publishing, 1995
ISBN-13: 9780446403382
Challenges: 100+
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
YTD: 100
Rating: B+

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30 December 2009

Review: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

It's summertime and only three months until Tally turns sixteen—a significant birthday. For Tally, however, sixteen doesn't mean getting a drivers license or having an expensive party; it means undergoing an operation. But everyone has the operation on his or her birthday; it's a rite of passage.

In Tally's world, everyone is happy and everyone gets along. That's because everyone over the age of sixteen is drop-dead gorgeous. And best of all, the new pretties don't have any responsibilities. They live in New Pretty Town, where they are given everything they could want, and there is music and dancing and fireworks every day.

Across the river in Uglyville, Tally is unhappy and lonely because her friends have already been changed. One night when Tally sneaks into New Pretty Town and inadvertently causes a ruckus, she meets a fellow ugly. Shay is a hoverboarding daredevil radical who shares Tally's birthday. Tally is counting the days until she can become pretty and join her old friends. Shay, however, dwells on the rumors about kids who have gone into the wilderness and stayed ugly.

What's wrong with making everyone beautiful? What's wrong with being happy and young and having fun? Tally and Shay have a lot to learn from each other and about the world they live in.

In Uglies, the first a in trilogy, Scott Westerfeld has created a very believable world. The technology and politics don't seem that far-fetched for three hundred years from now. And few of us could argue that our society will remain unchanged for centuries to come.

Although Westerfeld covers a lot of territory in this dystopian novel—politics, technology, education, parenthood, friendship, and personal ethics—he doesn't get preachy. Furthermore, the book can be read on a number of levels, which gives it broad appeal.

It's impossible to discuss the greater issues in Uglies without spoiling the book. Instead, let me simply say that my niece has been wanting me to read the series for three or four years, and now I'm wondering what I waited for.

Tally, Shay, and the other characters will quickly become your friends. You'll be with them on wild hoverboard rides along the riverbed and when they play tricks on the new uglies. Like them, you'll be curious about the demise of the rusties (us!), all those hundreds of years ago. And it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and worry as they approach their birthday.

There are also those deeper issues to think about: Where are we, as humans, headed? Where will our technology take us? How far should we go to find happiness and world peace?

My only complaint is that Uglies ends on a cliff-hanger, and I'm going to have to read Pretties in the next week or so.

Scott Westerfeld has a website, including a blog, where you can learn more about his books and research.

Uglies at Powell's
Uglies at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2006
ISBN-13: 9781416934509
Challenges: 100+, A-Z Titles
Source: Bought (see review policy)
YTD: 99
Rating: B+


Reading at the Beach is the host for this meme: Each week she invites us to spotlight a book whose title begins with the featured letter. This week it's U.

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Wordless Wednesday 59

Measuring Time


To all my readers and blogging friends: Have a happy and healthy 2010.

For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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29 December 2009

Review: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian


January 1945. Prussia. Anna Emmerich, her mother, and her young brother are heading west toward the Americans and British and away from the Russians. Hidden in their horse-drawn wagon is Scots prisoner of war Callum Finella.

Cecile, Jeanne, and the other women in their concentration camp are being forced to walk west. Their guards will put them to work in a factory or at manual labor, wherever the Reich needs them.

Uri Singer has gone by many names and has worn many uniforms since he jumped from the train taking him to Auschwitz. At present he is Manfred and wears a German uniform.

In three separate and converging stories, we learn the personal and individual effects of the war, as truth is revealed to the blind, as hope hovers just out of reach for the desperate, and as good fortune leads to self- accountability.

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian belongs at the top of any list of World War II novels. This is not a story of politics, of war strategy, or of Hitler. This is a story of human beings, of terror, of unspeakable horrors, of naïveté, of survival, and even of love.

Only when war is shrunk to the individual level, to what happens to civilians, can those of us who have been spared firsthand experience begin to get the mere glimpse of such a world. We wonder about our own strength, our own skills, and our own survival instincts.

Anna, Callum, Cecile, Uri, and the other inhabitants of Bohjalian's novel are not characters, they are people. Each with a history that has informed the choices he or she makes during the last months of the war in Europe. We get to know these men and women, their dreams, their memories, their scars. We cannot forget them.

It is impossible to read the epilogue without sobbing—not so much because of what does or does not happen to the characters in a book but because of the sheer emotional impact of the story. Because we think of our fathers who were there as soldiers, our relatives who escaped or not, and our friends who live in phoenix cities throughout the Continent.

I listened to the audiobook edition read by Mark Bramhall. The production and narration were excellent.

Skeletons at the Feast at Powell's
Skeletons at the Feast at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Crown, 2008
ISBN-13: 9780307394958
Challenges: 100+
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
YTD: 98
Rating: A+

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28 December 2009

Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

There is no hiding the fact that Katsa is a Graceling. She has the mismatched eyes of all of her kind. Because Katsa is the niece of the king of Muddlins, there is also no hiding the nature of her Grace—she kills people. And like many other Gracelings, she is under the control of her lord and must bend to his will.

Since she was just a little girl, Katsa has been used as a thug to extract payments from underlings and to keep King Randa's subjects in line. She, however, does not have a killer's heart and hates the fear she invokes when she walks into a room.

Now, at eighteen, Katsa is part of a secret Council that tries to capitalize on her reputation and Grace in order to do good . . . without the killing. After rescuing Tealiff, a Lienid elder, from kidnap and torture, Katsa meets his grandson Po, another Graceling.

The Council soon discovers that they have begun to unearth a larger, and lethal, plot that will affect all seven kingdoms of their world. Katsa now must balance her obligations to her uncle, her desire to use her Grace for good, her need for independence, and her growing affection for Po.

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, introduces us to a strong-willed young woman who has had to struggle to stay true to her own nature, despite social pressures. Until Katsa meets Po, her only forms of rebellion have been to live alone with her housemaid, to refuse to get married, and to form the Council to use her Grace to help others.

When Katsa decides to join Po in the investigation of his grandfather's kidnapping, she learns much more than political intrigue. She begins to see the truth of her Grace and her own strength and character.

Warning: Very minor spoiler in this paragraph. Part of Katsa's appeal is that she does not abandon her fundamental tenants when she meets Po and learns more about being a Graceling. In fact, this is one of the primary strengths of the novel. All too often, the female lead is tamed by the leading male.

Unfortunately, the key to the kidnapping and the secret of the bad guy are fairly easy to figure out, although the particulars of the plan of action our heroes will take are not transparent. There is also some obvious foreshadowing of other events.

Although Katsa, Po, and the other principal characters are likable and the world that Cashore has created is intriguing, the story seemed to be lacking the historical depth that allows for suspension of belief. The writing is not always smooth, and the entire novel could have used a stronger edit to avoid repetition and build more suspense.

On the other hand, Katsa's story will appeal to readers looking for an intelligent heroine who wishes to find a way to be self-reliant while letting herself experience the joys of friendship and love.

I listened to the audio edition of the novel read by David Baker, Chelsea Mixon, and Zachary Exton and produced by Full Cast Audio. All three narrators were new to me, and they did an adequate job. However, the production was marred by the addition of music and sound effects. I believe the music was meant to increase the mood, but it was silly at worst and annoying at best. The echo effect used for some of Katsa's thoughts was probably unneeded. If I decide to read Fire, the next in the series, I'll read the novel in print.

Here is the trailer for Graceling. Stick with it, the creepy eyes go away after 25 seconds.




Graceling at Powell's
Graceling at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008
ISBN 13: 9780547258300
Challenges: 100+
Source: Bought (see review policy)
YTD: 97
Rating: C+

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27 December 2009

Review: The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The immigration story is universal and eternal. Shaun Tan's The Arrival tells that story in sepia-toned drawings and completely without words. The worlds Tan creates are at once utterly fanciful and utterly familiar.

A man leaves his wife and child, boards a steamer ship, and arrives at immigration in a new country. Lost, alone, and confused, the man slowly learns to cope and find a job. He makes friends and listens to their stories. Time passes, and he is finally able to send for his family.



That is the simple narration. The drawings fill in all rest.

This is a book I will look at time and time again. Whether you are living in the same house your ancestors built 500 years ago or you are the first person in your family to have been born in a new country, you will absolutely be amazed by this novel.

All images are from Shaun Tan's website.


The Arrival at Powell's
The Arrival at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by HarperCollins, 2007
ISBN 13: 9780439895293
Challenges: 100+
Source: Bought (see review policy)
YTD: 96
Rating: A

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26 December 2009

The Really, Really Last Challenge for 2010


Meghan from Medieval Bookworm is hosting the Tournament of Reading Challenge. The idea is to read medieval history, medieval literature, and/or historical fiction (that takes place in medieval times). I'm in on the peasant level, which means I've committed to 3 books. For the sake of the challenge, the medieval period is from 500 to 1500. I'm sure I can squeeze this last little challenge in.


For more information and to sign up, click on through to the challenge post.

And, yes, I'm hopeless.

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Weekend Cooking: Cranberry Hot Toddies

Weekend 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, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

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I'm still in the holiday spirit and want to share with you a great hot drink that my guests always like. This works for a Christmas brunch, apres ski, or for New Year's Eve. Keep it warm in a slow cooker. Refrigerate leftovers and rewarm it by the mug-full in the microwave.

I don't remember where this recipe comes from, but I've been making it for years.

Cranberry Hot Toddies

Makes 16 cups
  • 2 oranges
  • whole cloves
  • 3 quarts 100% juice cranberry juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 bottle (750 ml) dark rum
Cut the oranges in half crosswise and then cut the slices in half. Stud the rind of each slice with 3 or 4 whole cloves.

In a large saucepan, bring the juice, oranges, and sugar to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cover and let simmer for 5 minutes. Pour in the rum and transfer to a slow cooker.

To serve, ladle into mugs, topping each mug with a studded orange slice, if desired.

Beth Fish's Notes: if you use cranberry juice cocktail you may want to omit the sugar; if you use pure unsweetened cranberry juice you might want to double the sugar.

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25 December 2009

Fnished Challenges: YA Dystopian and 999

I finished two more challenges for 2009. I hope to complete at least another one by the end of the year. We'll see how that goes.


I finished the YA Dystopian Reading Challenge hosted by Bart's Bookshelf. I read books four and five of John Marsden's Tomorrow series: Darkness Be My Friend and Burning for Revenge. I loved both books and so can't pick a favorite. Thanks so much for hosting this, Bart. I hope you run this again next year.



I also finished Library Thing's 999 challenge (read 9 books in each of 9 categories for 2009). My categories were YA, historical fiction, mystery, newly acquired, audio, borrowed from the library, new to me authors, TBR stack, graphic novels. What were my favorites? You'll have to wait for my monthly/yearly wrap on January 1.



Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it.

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24 December 2009

Thursday Tea: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I'm about halfway through listening to Graceling by Kristin Cashore. It's a YA fantasy about Katsa, a young girl who is blessed or cursed with a talent for killing. She is used by her uncle King Randa to punish people who have disobeyed him. Never having been bested or even hurt in a fight, Katsa has developed a reputation for being ruthless. In reality, she hates killing and has started to use her grace (her special talent) for good. While on a secret rescue mission, she meets Prince Po, a graceling in his own right, who will change her life forever.

The Tea. I'm drinking Adagio's candy cane tea. This is one of the best teas I've had for warming up on a cold winter's night. The pieces of candy cane provide just the right amount of sweetness, minty flavor, and aroma. Even Mr. BFR loves it. Here's the description: "Premium black tea from Sri Lanka flavored with minty candy canes." Apparently Adagio will stop selling it after the holiday. Lucky for Mr. BFR, I already bought a second small tin to get us through to spring.

The Assessment. I'm pretty sure that Katsa and Po do not drink tea, at least I don't remember tea being mentioned at all. On the other hand, if they had the chance to taste candy cane tea, I bet they'd love it!

What's on your reading list this week? And what's in that mug or glass?

Graceling at Powell's
Graceling at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.


Thursday Tea is hosted by Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog. Here's how it works: Tell us what tea you are drinking (and if you like it). And then tell us what book are you reading (and if you like it). Finally, tell us if they go together.

Source: Bought (see review policy).
FTC: I buy all teas myself, I am not a tea reviewer.

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23 December 2009

Short Review: The Tavern on Maple Street

I read The Tavern on Maple Street by Sharon Owens early in 2007.

Lilly and Jack, the owners of the Tavern on Maple Street, are very much in love but they don't have anything else in their life except their work. Unfortunately, big business wants to tear down the entire Belfast city block that is home to their pub and build a mall with offices. Lilly doesn't want to lose the tavern, so she decides to hire some young people to help her make the place more upscale and modern. All four of the women who come to work at the tavern need some kind of help and love, and Lilly and Jack need to open themselves up to new possibilities.

The Tavern on Maple Street is somewhat predictable, but the quirky characters are well developed, making this a fun vacation read. I gave the novel a C+. I listened to the unabridged audio edition and noted that narrator Caroline Winterson had a pleasant and believable Irish lilt.

The cover is from the 2006 Penguin Group edition. I listened to the audio, which was read by Caroline Winterson, but I don't have any notes on the narration. (Source: Bought; see review policy.)



Reading at the Beach is the host for this meme: Each week she invites us to spotlight a book whose title begins with the featured letter. This week it's T.

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Wordless Wednesday 58

Full Moon in Winter (2009)


For more Wordless Wednesday click here.

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22 December 2009

Today's Read: Viola in Reel Life by Adriana Trigiani

Save me. Really. How could my parents have thought that I would actually like sharing a dorm room (oops, sorry, "a quad") with three other freshmen? My new built-in friends consist of a preppy, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, and the sweet girl from Chicago. Oh, yeah, did I mention that I no longer live in Brooklyn? I'm stuck in Indiana. Why? Cause my mom went here for a year. At least I have my camera, and I can continue filming my life and sending clips to my family and friends back home. Right at this moment, being fourteen and starting high boarding school isn't my idea of fun.

For more Where Are You? answers, visit Raidergirl3 at An Adventure in Reading.

MizB at Should Be Reading hosts Teaser Tuesdays. Here's how it works: Grab your current read; let the book fall open to a random page; and share 2 “teaser” sentences from that page. For more teasers, click on through to MizB's blog.

The sun sets, taking the last bit of September heat with it. The Indiana sky turns deep blue with streaks of lavender and orange over our picnic tent. Some stray clouds move toward the flat line of the horizon. It's almost night and a chill goes up my spine. (p. 31)
—From Viola in Reel Life by Adriana Trigiani (Source: Review, see review policy)

Viola in Reel Life at Powell's
Viola in Reel Life at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

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21 December 2009

Review: Sweeping up Glass by Carolyn Wall

Life in Pope County, Kentucky, isn't for the faint hearted, a fact that Olivia Harker Cross knows well. The Depression has hit the town hard, but she is trying the best way she can to keep her mentally ill mother and young grandson fed and clothed.

Everywhere Olivia turns, plans are shattered and love goes away. The one constant in her life has been the Alaska silver wolves her grandfather released on the family's land in the last century. It isn't until the winter Olivia discovers someone is killing her wolves that she learns just how deep-rooted her troubles really are.

Part character study and part mystery, Sweeping up Glass by Carolyn Wall explores the contradictions of small-town life, the insidiousness of the Jim Crow South, and the consequences of love lost or never gained. Olivia Harker Cross has been shaped by the intertwined effects of all three.

The novel is best experienced with little foreknowledge, and it is almost impossible to discuss the principal themes without revealing at least part of the conclusion. Olivia's story is not charming and is not easy to read. Her story is one of survival, of hunkering down and doing what needs to be done, and of finding bits of joy when and where she can. Her small town does not leave you with feelings of nostalgia for times gone by. Instead you will find yourself questioning just how well you know the members of your own community and how far you would go to protect what you love.

I listened to the audiobook edition of the novel read by Lorna Raver. She was a new to me narrator, and I can't imagine anyone doing a better job. Without being overly dramatic, Raver made the perfect emotional connection to Olivia.

Carolyn Wall has a website and Book Browse has a reading guide. This would make an excellent book club selection.

Sweeping up Glass at Powell's
Sweeping up Glass at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Random House, 2009
ISBN 13: 9780385343039
Challenges: 100+, 999
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
Rating: A

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20 December 2009

What's a Challenge or Two among Friends?

Really and truly, this is the last of my 2010 challenges. I'm in a ton, but they overlap so much, I'm confident I'll manage to finish most, if not all of the ones I've signed up for. If I fail, I think I'll be able to hold my own against the Challenge Police. I hear they're pretty forgiving.


Elizabeth from As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves hosts the great 451 Friday feature that asks bloggers what book they would become. She has created a challenge based on those books. I'm in at the Spark level (1 or 2 books). The master list of books is awesome, and every week there is something new. To sign up visit the 451 Challenge blog.


Ever since I won a Sony eReader from NetGalley and Sony at Book Expo of America last May, I've been hooked on the device. It's such a great space saver, easy on the eyes, good for the environment. Anyway, I digress. This is the first time I've been able to join this challenge, hosted this year by Royal Reviews. I'm in at the Fascinated level (6 books). To learn more and to sign up visit the E-Book Reading Challenge post.



Here's a total no-brainer. When J. Kaye decided not to host her audiobook challenge, I was bummed, but yay to Royal Reviews for taking charge. You know I have to join this. I mean, I love audiobooks! I'm in this one at the Obsessed level (20 books). I bet I'm done by mid-year. For more information and to sign up, head on over to Audio Book Reading Challenge post.


When Alea and Laza forced encouraged me to sign up for the graphic novel challenge for 2009, I was worried. I had never read a GN before and suddenly I was committing to reading 12! I read 18 graphic books last year and can't wait to read more. For more on the Graphic Novels Challenge, visit the blog (note: you can also read GN nonfiction). I'm in for the Expert level.


Once again Amy of My Friend Amy, is challenging us to buy books. Oh what a hardship this challenge is. I'm in for 12 books. This year I finished the challenge by March. I wonder how quickly I'll finish in 2010. Think about signing up for the Buy One Book and Read It challenge for 2010. Seriously, you can sign up at the 1 book level.



Here is the challenge I may be most excited about. Thanks to Amy of My Friend Amy, I've become a huge Beth Kephart fan. Her Nothing but Ghosts will be in my best of 2009 list, and I can't wait to read her other books. I would have read Beth's work with or without the challenge, but I'm in the Beth Kephart Reading Challenge 2010 at the Mix'n'Match level, which is to read 4 books. I hope to read more. Please, please, please think about joining this one.

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19 December 2009

Weekend Cooking: Caribbean Black Bean Dinner

Weekend 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, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

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Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home by the Moosewood Collective is one of my favorite cookbooks for fast, healthy meals. Most of the recipes can be made in under 30 minutes and each is accompanied by nutritional information and menu ideas. The recipes are generally geared to vegetarians, although there is a short fish chapter.

The book was the winner of the 1995 James Beard Award for Best Vegetarian Cookbook.

Here's a meal from the cookbook that I love to make on cold nights. Perfect for a snowy weekend. All measurements are U.S. standard measures.

Caribbean Black Beans

4 servings
  • 1½ cups chopped onions
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger root
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • 4½ cups drained cooked black beans (three 16-ounce cans)
  • ¾ cup orange juice
  • salt and black pepper to taste
Sauté the onions and garlic in the oil for about 5 minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Add the ginger, thyme, and allspice and sauté, stirring often to prevent sticking, until the onions are very soft, for about 5 more minutes. Stir in the beans and orange juice and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens slightly. Watch that the beans don't stick. If desired, mash a few beans with the back of a spoon to thicken the dish. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Spanish Rice

4 servings
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 4 cups cooked rice (preferably brown)
  • ½ cup fresh or frozen corn (optional)
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 2–3 scallions, finally chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped Spanish olives
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • salt and black pepper to taste
In a medium skillet, heat the oil and add the rice and corn, stirring well. Cover and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and cook for about 10 minutes, until hot. Stir occasionally, and add a bit of water as needed to prevent sticking. Serve hot.

Beth Fish's notes: the original recipe is called Golden Spanish Rice and uses annatto seeds. Because they are not readily available in my area, I leave them out. Sometimes I add turmeric for color.

Mango Salsa

Makes 2½ cups
  • 2 medium ripe mangoes
  • 1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 ripe tomato, chopped
  • juice of 1 lime
  • pinch of salt
  • ½–1 small fresh chile pepper, minced (or hot pepper sauce to taste)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Peel and chop the mangoes. In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients. Let stand for 10 minutes to let the flavors blend. Keeps 2 or 3 days in the refrigerator.

To Plate: Put some rice in a soup bowl, top with black beans and then with the salsa. Enjoy.


Source: Bought (see review policy)

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18 December 2009

Review: Burning for Revenge by John Marsden

Burning for Revenge is the fifth in John Marsden's Tomorrow series. (I reviewed the second, third, and fourth books here.) Although my review does not contain spoilers for this novel, it does assume you've read the others in the series. For just my opinion, skip to below the asterisks.

Ellie, Homer, Kevin, Lee, and Fi are back in Hell. They are once again on their own, despite the fact that they have a radio for contacting Colonel Finley. Lee especially is feeling restless and is determined to reengage in guerrilla warfare. The group knows they have to stick together, so they all make the trek out of camp.

We are quickly thrown into can't-stop-reading, what-will-happen-next action as Ellie almost gets captured, the group unexpectedly ends up behind enemy lines, and they execute a plan of attack. The novel then takes a darker and more disturbing turn when the teens travel to Ellie's grandmother's house in the city of Stratton. There is no sugar-coating the effects of war on civilians.

* * * * * *
Burning for Revenge, is one of the stronger novels in a series of strong books. There is so much more here than the group's achievements and failures in undercover combat. Each teen is affected by the war in a way that fits his or her personality and personal experiences.

The kids are not always brave, smart, and self-assured. These are real teens coping with stark realities, and they are sometimes scared and powerless to make decisions. This novel examines depression, betrayal, friendships, the need to make a home, and the importance of being resourceful. When Ellie and her friends meet some other children, they begin to see a broader picture: Not all war horrors involve death and killing.

As Fi says:
Oh . . . I know this stuff was happening in other countries when we were growing up: East Timor, Irian Jaya, Tibet. And I cared about it. I really did. But it's so different when it's right in front of you; when you see it. Or when it's your family and friends who get hurt and killed. Those kids, Homer's right, we should do something about them. Like he said, they could be our brothers and sisters. (p. 220)
The series is available on audio read by Suzi Doughtery, who embodies the teenage Ellie perfectly.

John Marsden is a master at creating believable characters and a world so authentic we know we don't want to see it firsthand. Marsden has a website and blog.

Burning for Revenge at Powell's
Burning for Revenge at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs

Published by Scholastic, 2006 [originally published 1997]
ISBN-13: 9780439858038
Challenges: YA Dystopian, 100+, 999
YTD: 94
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
Rating: B+

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17 December 2009

Virtual Advent Tour: 2009

For my entry in the 2009 Virtual Advent Tour, I'm going to tell you about my family's Christmas Eve tradition. This is a short story, but I bet it's a bit different from what you're used to hearing.

Both sets of my grandparents owned retail stores and both worked long hours during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The stores would stay open on Christmas Eve until 6:00 P.M., and my grandparents would be exhausted from working the season.

So our tradition was to go out to dinner. As you can imagine, there would not be many choices that night. Thus we always went to a Chinese restaurant; they were open because Christmas, of course, wasn't their holiday. It wasn't our holiday either.

Once at our favorite restaurant, I remember that both my grandmothers would order a drink—usually something mixed like a whiskey sour. This has stayed in my memory because my grandmothers never drank anything but a little wine on a festive occasion. But on Christmas Eve, they'd drink a cocktail!

On Christmas Day, we would meet at my maternal grandparents' house and have a huge family brunch.

So there you have my family's Christmas tradition.

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Thursday Tea: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

I have just started listening to Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian. Although I'm not even hour in, I am already totally absorbed. The book begins in January 1945, with Anna Emmerich's wealthy family escaping Prussia as the Russians are bombing the countryside.

With the family is prisoner of war Callum Finella, a Scotsman, who had been assigned to do forced labor on the Emmerichs' farm. On their way to the safety of the Allied lines, they befriend the German solider Manfred, who is secretly an escaped Jew named Uri Singer.

The Tea. I'm drinking Adagio's Yunnan gold tea. This is a wonderfully scented black tea that Adagio describes as "easily identified by its luscious soft leaves and . . . unique peppery taste." This has been the perfect drink for the recent chilly afternoons. I've been brewing it strong and drinking it black and unsweetened.

The Assessment. I am sure that no one in Prussia in 1945 is drinking exotic tea. The Emmerichs may have had this China tea before the Russian invasion, but no one is drinking it now; they are lucky to have water.

What's on your reading list this week? And what's in that mug or glass?



Thursday Tea is hosted by Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog. Here's how it works: Tell us what tea you are drinking (and if you like it). And then tell us what book are you reading (and if you like it). Finally, tell us if they go together.

Source: Borrowed (see review policy).
FTC: I buy all teas myself, I am not a tea reviewer.

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16 December 2009

Short Review: Sideways by Rex Pickett

You may have seen the movie, but have you read the book? Sideways by Rex Pickett is much better in print than it was in film. It is the story of two friends who go on a week-long road trip to the Santa Ynez wine country in California.

The men are in opposite places in their lives. Miles, wine connoisseur and wannabe author is divorced and has a dark outlook on life. Jack, a minor Hollywood actor, is just about to get married and has a anything-goes attitude.

Sideways takes a look at wine, friendship, and relationships between men and women. Here's a look at my notes from 2006: "The characters are more fully developed in the book than in the movie, and I understand Miles and Jack much better. The story is funny and interesting, but also a bit depressing. In the end, however, there is hope."

The cover is from the 2005 Blackstone Audio edition read by Scott Brick, who did terrific job on the narration. (Source: Bought; see review policy)

Sideways at Powell's
Sideways at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.


Reading at the Beach is the host for this meme: Each week she invites us to spotlight a book whose title begins with the featured letter. This week it's S.

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Wordless Wednesday 57

Reflections (Germany)


For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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15 December 2009

My So-Called Life

As most of you know, Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Reading Adventure are again hosting their annual Virtual Advent Tour. I am one of the stops for today, but you won't see my post until Thursday.

I was unexpectedly slammed with work last week and have just one more day to go (today) before I can resume my regular life. You may have noticed that I haven't been commenting on your blog and I haven't been chatting much on Twitter. That's why.

I am hoping that my blogging friends haven't given up on me! Over the next few days and into the weekend, I plan to catch up on my blog reading. Soon I will be visiting your blog, reading your reviews, and catching up on your news. So brace yourself for my commenting marathon!

Coming Soon to This Blog

Here's what's planned for the rest of the month: I have five reviews just about ready to post, one final challenge announcement (yeah, well, I just can't resist), and of course my Weekend Cooking posts. I have three Wednesday mini reviews and three photos scheduled as well.

Naturally, I'll have a year-end summary, challenge status report, and list of favorite reads and listens for 2009.

I have been thinking of my blogging and reviewing goals for 2010, and I'll be sharing them with you near the end of the month.

Thanks to all of you for being understanding. I haven't suddenly deleted you from my reader or stopped caring about you or your posts. By Sunday night, I hope to be caught up with my blogging buddies and back to normal.

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14 December 2009

Review: An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

Because An Echo in the Bone is the seventh entry in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander historical fiction series, it's near impossible to write a summary without giving spoilers to the earlier books. The review contains no spoilers for this novel but assumes you've read all the others. If you haven't read A Breath of Snow and Ashes yet and can't stand even a hint of a spoiler, then skip down to below the asterisks.

The bulk of An Echo in the Bone finds Claire and Jamie dealing with the realities of the U.S. Revolutionary War during 1776–1777. Although they, of course, have the advantage of knowing that the colonists will win, they are not able to use the knowledge to avoid becoming involved.

Once they make the painful decision to leave Fraser's Ridge, they see the revolution up close. And this leads us to some of the best scenes in the novel: when Claire meets, sees, or hears about historical figures. What would it be like to come face to face with one of our Founding Fathers or a war hero or even an infamous enemy?

At the end of the previous novel, Roger and Brianna discovered a trunk in twentieth-century Lollybroch that held letters and trinkets from Jamie and Claire. We thus learn some of the eighteenth-century story through those letters and from a more modern perspective.

The novel also contains continuing story lines concerning Fergus, wee Ian, and Lord John and his son in America and Jenny and Ian in Scotland.

* * * * * * *
At more than 800 pages and 45+ hours of audio, there's a lot of Claire and Jamie to enjoy in this novel. And their story and those of their loved ones do not disappoint. On the other hand, Lord John and his family take up a good bit of the book, and I found those sections to be less interesting than the scenes involving the Frasers.

An Echo seems to be the setup to what is supposedly the final entry in the Outlander series. It reminded me of The Fiery Cross in the sense that, although there is a lot of action, there is not a lot of moving forward. I was left with a little bit of an empty feeling and the dismal thought that I'm going to have to wait a long time to see how it will all work out.

I am a huge fan of this series, and so when I say this isn't the best one of the lot, I am not saying it is bad. It's a must-read novel for those of us who are addicted to the Frasers, and some of the plot lines have taken interesting and intertwined paths. I'm pouting because I want to know what happens next.

I listened to the unabridged audio of the novel. Davina Porter does her usual brilliant job as narrator, and I never tire of listening to her voice. She adds just the right amount of drama and emotion to the audio to make the book come alive.

Diana Gabaldon has a wesbite where you can keep up with all the news, including rumors of the Outlander movie.

An Echo in the Bone at Powell's
An Echo in the Bone at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.


Published by Random House, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780385342452
Challenges: 100+
YTD: 93
Source: Bought (see review policy)Rating: B

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13 December 2009

Award!

Thanks goes to Melody form Melody's Reading Corner for giving me the very cool Over the Top award. I really love the button that goes with this one. If you haven't been to Melody's blog then you're missing out. She's a fellow challenge addict and eclectic reader who posts great reviews and photographs.

The award comes with a meme and one rule: Answer the following questions using single-word answers. Then pass the award to 5 other people and let them know.

Your cell phone? Blackberry
Your hair? thick
Your mother? smart
Your father? wonderful
Your favorite food? risotto
Your dream last night? none
Your favorite drink? espresso
Your dream/goal? acreage
What room are you in? office
Your hobby? lacemaking
Your fear? millipedes
Where do you want to be in 6 years? Europe
Where were you last night? home
Something that you aren’t? musical
Muffins? lemon
Wish list item? computer
Where did you grow up? Ohio
Last thing you did? drank [coffee!]
What are you wearing? turtleneck
Your TV? gift
Your Pets? none :(
Friends? super
Your life? filled
Your mood? happy
Missing someone? likely
Vehicle? Forester
Something you’re not wearing? gloves
Your favorite store? bookstore
Your favorite color? blue
When was the last time you laughed? yesterday
Last time you cried? forget
Your best friend? mom
One place that you go to over and over? grocery
Facebook? somewhat
Favorite place to eat? Denmark

I'm passing this one to my Secret Santa from the Holiday Swap: Melanie from Cyinical Optimism.

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12 December 2009

Weekend Cooking: Double Dose of Crescent Dragonwagon

Weekend 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, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

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Today I'm spotlighting two cookbooks by Crescent Dragonwagon. Both have been well used in my kitchen.

Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread is the perfect cookbook for winter. It consists of a collection of recipes Crescent made for the guests at her inn, Dairy Hollow House, in the Ozarks. The book starts off with a chapter on making stocks, which is followed by a chapter on tips, garnishes, and ideas. Then comes the wonderful soup recipes, divided by main ingredient or style (such as dairy-based soups).

The recipes are clearly laid out with easy-to-follow numbered directions. All the recipes use ingredients you can get at a good grocery store, even the ethnic soups. I admit (sorry Crescent!) that I don't always make homemade stock and that I often use canned (no salt, organic) beans, but either way I've had great success with every soup I've made from the book. When I pulled my copy off the shelf, I found a shopping list marking the page for Harira, a Moroccan vegetarian soup. It's delicious.

Of course there is also a bread chapter, which includes yeasted breads and quick breads, biscuits, and muffins. I noticed that the back of my book falls open to the stained and gritty page that has the recipe for Whole-Wheat Butterhorns, which are made from a wonderful honey-sweetened yeast dough. These always get rave reviews from my dinner guests (and Mr. BFR).

Throughout the text you'll also find the stories behind the recipes, variations, tips, and menu ideas. I also love the literary quotations and black & white sketches that add to the book's charm.

The other Crescent Dragonwagon cookbook I have is called Passionate Vegetarian. Let me tell you that my book is almost falling apart. It's a hefty tome at 1100 pages! But it is filled with just about everything you could possibly want to know about cooking grains, cereals, vegetables, and beans.

The really wonderful thing about this book, is that you do not need to be a vegetarian to find it useful. The basic information and incredible variety of dishes make this an excellent kitchen reference for everyone. And the fabulous index makes finding what you want a breeze.

Each section focuses on a single ingredient and provides basic information, recipes, tips, alternative cooking methods, and many yummy variations. The difficulty of recipes runs the full range: from dead simple to multi-stepped, but they are all well thought out and very flavorful.

I particularly recommend this book for people who have joined a CSA (community sponsored agriculture) or who shop at a local farmers market. You'll never be too intimidated to try something new again.

Crescent Dragonwagon has a website and a blog where you can learn more about her and her books (including the origin of her name). I bet you'll subscribe to her blog after just one look! She has a new cookbook coming out; watch this space for a review and more information.

Crescent Dragonwagon at Powell's
Crescent Dragonwagon at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Both books discussed in this post were bought (see review policy)

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11 December 2009

Review: The Brain Finds a Leg by Martin Chatterton

Sheldon McGlone lived a pretty ordinary life in Farrago Bay, Australia, even if his dad had died after being attacked by humpback whales. Everything was to change the day Sheldon met Theopilus Nero Hercule Sherlock Wimsey Father Brown Marlowe Spade Christie Edgar Allen Brain -- better known as The Brain.

When Sheldon agreed to be the sidekick for the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Detective (even at thirteen years old), he had no idea that The Brain was serious. One headline ("Biff Manly Tragedy! Body Found!") and one arrest later, and the boys are on the case.

In The Brain Finds a Leg, Martin Chatterton introduces us to a new team in the line-up of literary detectives. The case The Brain and Sheldon set out to solve has enough gruesome bits and action to keep the story real and enough humor and far-fetched science to keep us wanting more.

Situation Code Red with cherries on top: check. Butterflies in the stomach: check. About a klick out from the target perimeter. Sheldon didn't know how far a klick was, but he reckoned this looked about right. He didn't even know why he was using words like "perimeter," or "klick," or "check," but it seemed to help. (p. 158)

They say your life flashes in front of you when you know you are going to die. In Sheldon's case, all that flashed in front of him was the single thought: I don't want to die. (p. 189)
In a world of animals gone crazy and bad guys lurking in the shadows, can two young teens figure out who donnit? Both you and your middle reader will want to know.



Published by Peachtree Publishers, 2009
ISBN-13: 9781561455034
Challenges: 100+
YTD: 92
Source: Review copy (see review policy)
Rating: B+

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Holiday Swap: I Was Nice, Not Naughty

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! I must have been very nice to have deserved Melanie from Cyinical Optimism for my Secret Santa from the 2009 Holiday Swap. I couldn't believe my eyes as I unpacked my box.

First, I know Melanie's been on my blog on a Thursday because I got all sorts of fabulous teas and even a packet of hot cocoa. And I know she paid attention to the "favorite flavors" part of the entry form because I got lemon, ginger, and dark chocolate goodies (and some whiskey pralines!).

When I'm done snacking and it's time to get reading, I have some heavenly spicy scented handmade goat's milk soap for washing up. Next, I can pull out my new pen and cool notepad, get my bookmark ready and decide between two (yes, two!) books to read.

I also got a super Nashville magnet and some yummy lip gloss. I am so thrilled -- I could get used to being treated so well!

Thanks soooooo much, Melanie. You're the greatest. And thanks also to Nymeth, who was the coordinator for the holiday swap this year. I know she had a lot of helpers, and I want to thank them, too.

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10 December 2009

Spotlight on . . . Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

Welcome to the Literary Road Trip and my Spotlight on . . . Kristin Bair O'Keeffe. Kristin's debut novel, Thirsty, begins in the 1880s in Croatia with Klara's teenage dreams of getting out of her father's house to find a better life. When the teenager meets Drago, a traveler looking for a night's lodging, she decides to take a chance. Klara, however, is ill-prepared for the reality of married life in Thirsty, Pennsylvania, on the hillsides outside of Pittsburgh.

This historical novel may start off sounding liking like a romance, but Thirsty is a story about self-preservation, family violence, and the hope that's found in friendships and motherhood. I have only just begun the book, but I am already drawn into the story.

You might wonder why Kristin set her immigration story in a small town in western Pennsylvania instead of, say, New York City. Let's find out.

Writing and Creating the Geography of a Novel

As a writer, I’m deeply inspired by place. Certain towns, geographic nooks and crannies, countries . . . places where as soon as I step a single toe for the very first time, I feel something. A kind of magical, mystical roaring in my soul. A roaring so insistent that once it starts, the only way for me to quiet it is to write about the place that triggered it.

Are there other things in the world that inspire me?

Of course, but not in the big, knock-you-silly, bowl-you-over kind of way that a place does.

China—where I’ve been living for the last four years—gets my soul roaring.

New Mexico—especially the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the bears ramble around the woods like great huffing boxes of muscle—gets my soul roaring.

And Pittsburgh—my hometown and the setting of my debut novel Thirsty—well, heck yeah, that city and its steel-making history gets my soul roaring, too. So much so that in 1987 when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, I wrote a poem called “Crumbling Steeples” about the crash of the steel industry, Pittsburgh, and my grandfather. Once the poem got published, I figured I was done telling stories about steel in Pittsburgh.

Well, obviously I was not.

Because when Klara Bozic—the main character in Thirsty—started floating around in my head in the early 1990s, I quickly discovered that she lived in a small steel community in Pittsburgh.

Go figure.

The good thing was that I was already familiar with the geography of Pittsburgh. After all, I’d grown up there. My maternal grandparents lived in Clairton, one of Pittsburgh’s most dynamic steel towns, and my grandfather worked in a steel mill. As a kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, and from their back porch, I could see the smokestacks of the mills puffing away, shooting steam and flames into the polluted, marbled sky. The air was gritty and stunk like rotten eggs, and when my sisters and I walked to the end of the road, we could watch the barges pulling steel up the Monongahela River.

So I set to work, and as I wrote Thirsty, I used the geography of Pittsburgh to mirror the emotional challenges Klara faces in her marriage to Drago: the wending Monongahela River, the rocky outcrops, the sheer hillsides. If you’ve ever visited the Pittsburgh area, you know that it has many very steep, very long hills. (And I mean, very steep, very long.) Klara spends a good bit of time ascending and descending these hills; she spends a good bit of time doing the same in her marriage.

I’m not sure I was conscious of all this while writing the first or second draft of the book, but I sure was by the time I reached the serious rewriting stage. In fact, when I was working on the scene in which Klara goes into town to get her hair cut, I made sure she took the steepest, longest route . . . because this was a significant decision for her. She couldn’t get there easily either emotionally or physically.

By the time I finished writing Thirsty, I was satisfied that the physical geography and the emotional geography were well matched. I was also exhausted . . . all those hills are tiring.
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Because I can be drawn to a book based purely on the setting, I was fascinated to learn some of the ways a particular place can influence and inform the writing process. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Kristin.

I was unable to find a really great (free) photo of just how steep the hills around Pittsburgh can be, but if you're interested, check out this link from Pittsburgh Skyline. Scroll down a bit and you'll start to see just how exhausting it could be to walk the streets of Thirsty, Pennsylvania.

Thirsty at Powell's
Thirsty at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of Thirsty, an American living in China, and a native Pittsburgher. Her debut novel tells the story of a Croatian immigrant woman’s journey through an abusive marriage, set against the backdrop of a Pittsburgh steel community at the turn of the twentieth century. To find out more, visit the novel's website or Kristin’s blog. Be sure to follow her on Twitter (@kbairokeeffe).

For more posts in the Literary Road Trip project, visit the LRT link page. Thanks to Michelle of GalleySmith for hosting this fabulous project.

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