23 April 2018

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: Sound Recommendations

Sound Recommendations: 4 audiobook reviewsThis past week was a little busier than I was expecting but by Friday afternoon, I felt I was caught up and took the entire weekend off! I did some gardening and took a couple of walks, and generally relaxed.

I gave my eyes a break and turned to only audiobooks last week. I now feel ready to tackle print reading for fun instead of for work. I can't wait to attack my spring books . . . I have a lot of catching up to do.

On TV, I started the new Lost in Space, which I like so far. The new season of Westworld is here. It took me a while to remember what was going on, but by the end I was reinvested in the story.

Here's what I listened to last week.

Review: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha RaoGirls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (Flatiron; March 6). I’m sure I’m in the minority here, especially because I think the themes of this book are important, but this much-praised novel wasn't for me, and I stopped reading fairly early on. I'll begin with the little I know about the plot: two young women of marriageable age in India face a future shaped by men who have all the power. I’m guessing they find a way out. Why did I stop reading? First, I was listening to the audiobook (Macmillan Audio; 11 hr, 38 min) and reached a breaking point with narrator Soneela Nankani. Let me be quick to say that I’ve listened to other books she’s read and, while she is a not favorite narrator, neither did I dislike her performances. For this book, though, I thought her voice was too young, too earnest, and too often on the verge of tears. I just had to turn the audiobook off. So why didn’t I read the novel in print instead? The primary reason was the author’s fondness for metaphors and similes, which were used in abundance and in groups. The other big reason occurred when one of the main characters had a sort of break down; while I understood the woman’s distress, I didn’t buy her symptoms. Then she behaved very shallowly, and I simply gave up at that point. You may have a better experience. Other people and reviewers have loved the book. Give it a try if you’re curious. (for a freelance assignment)

Review: Death of a Village by M. C. BeatonI cleansed my brain by turning to M. C. Beaton and a Hamish Macbeth mystery. Death of a Village (Blackstone Audio; 5 hr, 21 min) is the 19th book in the series and had all the elements I love about these cozies set in the Scottish Highlands. Village gossip, a couple of different scam artists, and a murder are at the heart of the story. Hamish, of course, solves all the crimes but has to downplay his role so he doesn’t get promoted out of his rural beat, where he has friends and plenty of time for himself and his dog. To get the most out of the books, it’s always good to start at the beginning of a series, but you might do okay to jump in anywhere. This is one of my favorite escape series: the audiobooks, read by Graeme Malcolm are short and entertaining, and I often turn to them in between heavier books. (personal copy)

Review: A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin PowersA Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown, May 15) won’t be out until next month, but I couldn’t wait to read it. It’s a dual-time-period story that reveals the long-reaching effects of slavery and the post–Civil War years. In the 1950s, ninety-year-old George returns to his North Carolina roots to see if he can discover anything about his past or the woman who took him in when he was orphaned as a toddler. In the 1860s we follow the love story of two slaves, their owners, and how they fared during and after the war. Powers gives us a lot to think about and a lot to account for in our country’s history and builds characters that are easy to love or hate. There are disturbing episodes of casual cruelty, which are barely balanced by acts of kindness. The unabridged audiobook (Hachette Audio; 7 hr, 13 min) was read by Robert Petkoff, whose performance was strong and affecting. He created a deep emotional atmosphere but avoided melodrama and portrayed the characters in a way that lets listeners come to their own conclusions about events and behaviors. (audiobook provided by the publisher)

Review: The Girl I Used to Be by Mary TorjussenI finished The Girl I Used to Be by Mary Torjussen (Berkley; April 24) yesterday. First off, don’t read the Publishers Weekly review; it spoils the story in the first sentence. Torjussen’s newest psychological thriller involves Gemma, a real estate agent / business owner in Chester, England, who becomes the victim of a cyber-blackmailing scheme. She’s sure she knows who is trying to ruin her life, the question is why. The more she tries to keep things secret, the more it affects her business and her marriage, but Gemma is afraid to confide in anyone. When she finally turns to the police, she realizes that she doesn’t have solid proof of the villain’s identity and doesn’t want her name in the newspaper, which could destroy her reputation, her family, and her work. Although some of what Gemma’s hiding is easy to figure out, I was still surprised and wasn’t sure who her allies were, right up to the end. I don’t think this is the most intense thriller I’ve ever read, but I was invested enough to really want to know how she was going to protect herself, stop the blackmail, and save her marriage. The unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 9 hr, 54 min) was read primarily by Katharine McEwan, who narrated the sections told from Gemma’s point of view. Fiona Hardingham took on the sections told by another woman (being vague so as not to spoil the book). Both infused their performances with tension and good pacing, and each picked up her character’s personality. (ARC and audiobook provided by the publisher)

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21 April 2018

Weekend Cooking: What's Gaby Cooking by Gaby Dalkin

Review: What's Gaby Cooking by Gaby DalkinUntil I received a copy of What's Gaby Cooking (Abrams, April 17) from the publishers (as part of the Abrams Dinner Party), I had never heard of Gaby Dalkin or her blog (also called What's Gaby Cooking).

Boy have I been missing out. I'm now stalking following Gaby Dalkin everywhere social media allows. I love her recipes and her approach to food and cooking. Here's how I would describe what Dalkin means by "everyday California food": fresh, nutritious, easy, pretty, casual, and wonderfully seasoned.

And better yet, Dalkin is not so "clean" that she shuns the occasional indulgence. So besides new takes on beautiful main dish salads, fruit smoothies, and grilled fish and chicken, she also provides recipes for cinnamon roll-chocolate chip monkey bread, macadamia nut cookie scones, and cheesecake cookies bars.

We loved some of her cobb salad variations, balsamic beets with goat cheese, roasted asparagus with salsa verde, and taco skillet bake (shown in my photo above). I have a ton more recipes marked to try, including a green bean salad one of the other Dinner Party members really loved.

The recipe I'm sharing today is so, so good. We grilled the flank steak, as the recipe suggests, though my mother usually broils hers. So if you're not a grill kind of cook, you can still make this by slipping it under the broiler for about 6 minutes a side.

Don't be thrown by the parts (marinade, tomatoes, basil dressing): this is a super-easy, fast meal that I made on a busy weeknight. All you need is a green veggie (I went with roasted asparagus) and a salad. The leftover flank steak is perfect for sandwiches the next day. Or layer the meat and tomatoes over some fresh young greens and top with the basil dressing for a delicious spring lunch.

Balsamic Grilled Flank Steak with Charred Tomatoes
Serves 6 to 8
Review: What's Gaby Cooking by Gaby DalkinFor the steak

  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 5 to 6 sprigs thyme
  • 1 (3-pound) flank steak
For the tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 pint heirloom cherry tomatoes
  • salt and pepper to taste
Make the steak: In a large nonreactive bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, garlic, and seasonings. Add the thyme. Add the meat and turn to coat all sides. Cover and refrigerate 8 to 24 hours.

Make the tomatoes: Heat the oil in a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shallot and garlic and cook 1 minute until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and cook without stirring for 2 minutes, or until they start to blister. Give them a quick stir, turn off the heat, and let them sit another 2 minutes or so. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Grill the meat: Preheat your grill to medium high and oil the grates. Remove the steak from the marinade, letting the excess drip off. Season with salt and pepper. Grill the steak, turning occasionally until lightly charred all over, 10 to 12 minutes for medium. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes.

Review: What's Gaby Cooking by Gaby DalkinFor the basil vinaigrette
  • 1 shallot roughly chopped
  • 2 cups tightly packed fresh basil
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
Make the vinaigrette: In a high-powered blender (I used a food processor), combine the shallot, basil, garlic, red pepper, oil, and vinegar. Blend for 1 to 2 minutes or until very smooth. Season with salt and pepper. (Refrigerate up to 3 days)

To serve: Thinly slice (on an angle) against the grain and serve with the tomatoes and vinaigrette on top. (the photo of the finished dish is mine)

NOTE: Mr. Linky appears to be down today: please add your link to the comments.
Weekend Cooking hosted by www.BethFishReads.comWeekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. 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.

NOTE: Mr. Linky sometimes is mean and will give you an error message. He's usually wrong and your link went through just fine the first time. Grrrr.

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20 April 2018

15 True Stories to Read This Spring

Good news for nonfiction fans: This spring is chock-full of new books that tell true stories in a full range of topics, including medicine, sports, politics, self-help, and history. I've concentrated on just four broad areas for today's round-up, and I'm highlighting books that are on my personal reading list.

Science and Nature

  • 15 Books for Nonfiction FansChasing New Horizons by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon (Picador; May 1): The subtitle of this fascinating story of NASA's New Horizons program says it all: "Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto." Written by the mission's principal investigator (Stern) and an astrobiologist (Grinspoon), this very readable account includes two glossy photo inserts.
  • The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte (William Morrow; April 24): Who doesn't love dinosaurs? Paleontologist Brusatte tells us all about their 200-million-year reign as the kings of planet Earth. His review of current dinosaur research, new fossil discoveries, and theories about their extinction is accessible, easy to follow, and well illustrated.
  • The Man Who Climbs Trees by James Aldred (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; May 22): When you watch BBC nature documentaries and read your National Geographic, do you ever wonder who was behind the camera, bringing you up close and personal to nature? In this book, Aldred shares what it's like to be a nature photographer who specializes in working in the forest canopy and the tops of the world's tallest trees.
  • The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester (Harper; May 8): Winchester's latest book examines how the notion of precision and the development of machines that ensured standard measures drove the Industrial Revolution and led to twenty-first-century technological wonders. Along the way, he talks about human nature, craftsmanship, and art.

  • 15 Books for Nonfiction FansJane and Dorothy: A True Tale of Sense and Sensibility by Marian Veevers (Pegasus; April 3): Veevers's double biography of Jane Austen and Dorothy Wordsworth compares the two women's parallel and divergent lives. They were born just four years apart and endured similar social restrictions on their creative talents but chose different solutions.
  • The Duchess: Camilla Parker Bowles and the Love Affair That Rocked the Crown by Penny Junor (Harper; April 10): Admit it, you're curious about the woman who changed the nature of the British royal family forever. Junor's balanced biography of Camilla presents a side of the duchess little known outside the UK.
  • Francis I: The Maker of Modern France by Leonie Frieda (Harper; April 10): Frieda outlines the life of the Renaissance king who made France a mighty nation and set the foundations for its strong, enduring future. This new account of Francis I is based on archival material and is written by an experienced historical biographer.
  • Visionary Women by Andrea Barnet (Ecco; March 13): Barnet outlines how four cutting-edge women changed the world by following their passions or telling their truths. The women profiled are Jane Jacobs (journalist), Rachel Carson (marine biologist), Jane Goodall (primatologist), and Alice Waters (chef/restaurateur), who continue to both inspire us and make us fully see the world around us.

Contemporary Culture
  • 15 Books for Nonfiction FansFigures in a Landscape: People and Places by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; May 8): Besides Theroux's signature travel pieces, this collection of previously published essays includes a look at his reading life as well as surprising experiences with well-known individuals (such as surfing with Oliver Sacks!). He is always entertaining and thought-provoking.
  • The Last Cowboys: A Pioneer Family in the New West by John Branch (Norton; May 15): For 150 years the Wrights have herded cattle on their Utah spread and made a name for themselves as bronco-riding rodeo champions. Branch followed the multigeneration family for three years, recording the twilight of the American West.
  • The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior (Flatiron; April 17): Kendzior's essays add insight to why America's heartland helped place Donald Trump in the White House. The pieces look at politics, economics, racism, sexism, and the future of the country's working and middle classes.
  • Unwifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller (Gallery; April 3): The essays in Stadtmiller's collection present the frank, funny, and universal story of her life as a single thirty-something woman in New York City, juggling a professional career with the messiness of dating. Stadtmiller has been called "a real-life Carrie Bradshaw."

On the Water
  • 15 Books for Nonfiction FansDisappointment River: Finding and Losing the Northwest Passage by Brian Castner (Doubleday; March 13): This is the double story of Alexander Mackenzie's 1789 search for the Northwest Passage and author Castner's 2016 canoe journey along the same route. Castner's engrossing account presents a mix of history, travel, anthropology, and nature.
  • Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade (Ecco; May 1) and Into the Storm by Tristram Korten (Ballentine; April 24): Both of these books look into the October 2015 sinking of the ship El Faro during Hurricane Joaquin, killing the entire crew. Slade focuses on the specifics of the disaster onboard ship as well as the event's place in the broader context of the U.S. merchant marine fleet and climate change. Korten focuses on the Coast Guard's heroic rescue of the crew of the Minouche, another ship caught in the storm, as well as its failed, desperate search for the El Faro. The two accounts together offer a well-rounded view of this tragedy.

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18 April 2018

Wordless Wednesday 493

Forsythia, 2018

I braved the snow flurries to get this shot! Click image to enlarge. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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16 April 2018

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: 4 Short Book Reviews

4 mini book reviewsI had my last busy, busy week of work and then ran full-speed into my annual spring lace-making workshop. Yikes! I think I'm going to need a vacation from my vacation!

I didn't think I'd get much reading or listening time last week, but I ended up finishing two books and and listening to two more. Okay, so one of the audiobooks was only two hours long, but still . . .

I was inside lacing during all the beautiful warm weather and emerged from the workshop just in time for the cold and rain. Oh well, plenty of nice days ahead.

Because last week was kind of crazy, my short reviews are going to be even shorter than normal.

  • reviews: Mrs. by Caitlin Macy; Dictionary Stories by Jez BurrowsMrs. by Caitlin Macy (Little, Brown; Feb. 13): The story revolves around three couples who seem to have little in common beyond the fact that they send their children to the same exclusive preschool in New York's Upper East Side. As we get to know the parents better, we discover layered ties among them, deep secrets, and the pressures of keeping up with the 1-percenters. I didn't connect well to the characters and was less impressed than other reviewers who compared Mrs. to Big Little Lies. You might do better. Vanessa Johansson did a good job narrating the unabridged audiobook (Hachette Audio; 10 hr, 8 min), but her rich, expressive performance couldn't really save the story for me. (freelance assignment)
  • Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings by Jez Burrows (Harper Perennial; April 10). Burrows's clever collection of short pieces (including drawings) is composed almost entirely from the sample sentences you find in the dictionary to show how a word is used in context. It's hard to explain, but this book is such a delight for anyone who loves words. My already good relationship with the dictionary has been altered forever. Don't miss this book. Oh I think it'd make a great graduation gift too. (copy provided by the publisher)
  • Reviews: Creature of the Pines by Adam Gidwitz; Loyalty in Death by J. D. RobbThe Creature of the Pines by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton BYR; April 10). This book, the first in the new Unicorn Rescue Society series, is geared for young middle grade readers and offers fun and diverse characters as well as good action-adventure. What if mythical creatures were real and needed humans to save them from trouble? Kids (and their parents) will love timid Elliot and gutsy Uchenna, cheering them on as they save a Jersey Devil from the bad guys. Your big decision will not be whether to read Creature of the Pines but whether to read it in print or on audiobook (Listening Library; 2 hr, 12 min). January LaVoy's absolutely fantastic performance is not to be missed. She created a variety of engaging voices, built the tension, and amped up the action. The print book, though, has some great illustrations: decisions, decisions. (Check out the video for more on the series; auidobook provided by the publisher.)
  • Loyalty in Death by J. D. Robb read by Susan Ericksen (Brilliance Audio; 12 hr, 15 min). This ninth in the In Death series was written in 1999 and was slightly creepy, considering it involves massive terrorist bombings in New York City. Although the bad guys are political terrorists and the story is set in the future, it was still kind of eerie to be listening to this book in a post-9/11 environment. Anyway, I still love the characters and their continuing personal growth as much as I like the mysteries and author Robb's vision of the future (including technology). (personal copy)
And finally, here is the promised video:

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