27 February 2014

Review & Author Guest Post: Fallen Beauty by Erika Robuck

Fallen Beauty by Erika RobuckFallen Beauty is Erika Robuck's third novel about a writer from the 1920s. This time she takes us to upstate New York, where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay meets Laura Kelley, a small-town seamstress.

Laura is living with the results of one night of recklessness with an unavailable man. She has bravely decided to raise their daughter alone, despite being the subject of her neighbors' gossip. Meanwhile, the scandalous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who has a house nearby, has her own reputation to flaunt or repair, as the situation warrants. Do the two women have more in common than it seems?

The novel switches seamlessly and quickly between the voices of Laura and Vincent (as the poet is called), so we are made aware of their thoughts as well as their actions. Robuck infuses the novel with great Jazz Age details and explores what happens to two very different women when they dare to defy social expectations.

Because Fallen Beauty gives us so much to think about, I think it'd be terrific book club pick. Themes and discussion topics include love, independence, social norms, marriage, morals, small-town life, being true to oneself, sisters, and facing the realities of the choices we make. I didn't know much about Edna St. Vincent Millay, but now that I have a better idea of the kind of person she was, I want to reread her poetry.

Guest Post. Way back when Erika Robuck's first book, Hemingway's Girl, was just coming out, I met her in the green room at BEA. We were both waiting to be called to the stage for different panels. We had only a couple of minutes to introduce ourselves and exchange a few words, but I haven't forgotten how friendly and approachable Erika is. Please help me welcome her to Beth Fish Reads; I'm sure you'll enjoy her fun and informative guest post. What do you know about one of the most popular drinks of the Roaring Twenties?

Absinthe by Erika Robuck

After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.
—Oscar Wilde

Absinthe. Wormwood. The Green Fairy.

Rumors of hallucination and poisoning have surrounded this emerald drink since Oscar Wilde said it made him see flowers growing in cafés, but in truth, it is simply very strong alcohol—over one hundred proof—and has been legal in the United States since 2007.

While many debate whether or not the absinthe one may now procure is authentic, I can tell you from experience that it is quite potent and delightful.

As a writer writing about writers from the 1920s, I made it my business to find out what all the fuss was about. One evening, I met a fellow writer for dinner at a café on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, which we did not know before our arrival had a Hemingway theme, but felt certain afterward that he had led us there. (That is how we think.)

Imagine my delight when the menu boasted an extensive collection of absinthe drinks. I had written a detailed scene in Hemingway’s Girl about absinthe consumption, but had not yet partaken myself. I knew Hemingway would want me to authenticate my scene.

I ordered the Green Fairy—the type of absinthe in my book. I watched the waiter light the sugar cube on fire and dissolve it into the alcohol with a shot of water; then I proceeded to sip my cocktail with a salad at dinner.

Absinthe has a distinct flavor, that of anise and herbs. It is not unpleasant, though I cannot imagine drinking it often, and after only a few sips, one can feel the effects in a pronounced way. It didn’t take long for me to look like this [click image to see it full size]:
Needless to say, I switched to water after only one glass, and had someone drive me home.

It is good I experienced absinthe, because now I understand my characters better, and the drink has shown up in my subsequent novels, Call Me Zelda and Fallen Beauty. The creatives of the Lost Generation drank it plentifully, and while it may not have led them to madness, alcoholism, or suicide directly, what it represented at the time—a break from convention, pushing the limits, a gateway drug—certainly set them on a path.

Absinthe is called the Green Fairy for good reason, and a little goes a long way. If you want to dip a toe in the waters, I encourage the experience in isolation. Just make sure you have a ride home.
Thanks so much, Erika. I love this story. I'm sure I would be quite fallen after that Green Fairy. And I can see how it became a symbol of the Lost Generation. Now I need to find a designated driver and go out and sample my own absinthe cocktail.

ISBN-13: 9780451418906
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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25 February 2014

Wordless Wednesday 278

Snowy Tracks, 2014

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Scholastic Mother-Daughter Book Club Picks for February

Remember when I introduced you to the Scholastic Mother-Daughter Book Club for middle readers? I'm committed to featuring or reviewing all the books selected for this club because I think Scholastic has picked winning titles that have broad appeal.

Don't forget that the Scholastic book club site includes more information about the books, recipes, reading guides, and contests. The resources are perfect for book clubs, teachers, homeschoolers, and any one who wants to get more out of reading books with middle grade readers.

One way to nurture a love of reading in children is to introduce them to great characters whom they can meet again and again throughout a series. This month's Scholastic book club selections are both first installments in new series. Although they will likely appeal to very different kinds of readers, both books hold the promise of engrossing reading ahead.

The Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. KirbyMatthew J. Kirby's The Quantum League: Spell Robbers combines elements of science fiction and fantasy and ends up with an exciting action-packed modern-day thriller. Twelve-year-old Ben is used to moving because his mother changes jobs or schools with an alarming frequency. She's just started a new graduate school program in a new town and has enrolled Ben into an elite after-school science club.

The club as it turns out is really a way to hone the talents of kids who have the ability to control the elements through a process called actuation, which is just the scientific term for what most of us regular folks would call magic.

Spell Robbers follows Ben as he learns about his hidden talents and is swept up in a conflict among at least three groups (government, rouge, and bad) who want to control the powers for their own purposes. Ben, a smart and observant kid who has been recruited by the government, quickly begins to wonder whom he should trust. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep young readers invested in the story.

Besides the thoughtful questions you can find on the Scholastic mother-daughter book club site, groups will likely want to talk about friendship, the conflict of helping your country versus helping your family, and the nature of power and talent and how they can be used for good or evil. The suggested recipe is for some fun-shaped sugar cookies that will remind young readers of Ben's special talents.

Horses the Dawn: The Escape by Kathryn LaskyHorses of the Dawn: The Escape, by Kathryn Lasky, takes readers back to the sixteenth-century when Spanish conquistadors reintroduced the horse to the Western Hemisphere. The story is told from the viewpoint of the horses, who have unique and consistent personalities and will win the hearts of most young girls.

Although the story involves talking horses, this in no lighthearted fantasy. Middle grade readers will be exposed to some difficult themes, including the death of one of the horse's mothers. Nevertheless, the bravery, faith, and leadership of Estrella, the young filly who guides the herd to freedom is inspiring.

Book clubs will have a lot to talk about after reading The Escape, such as the meaning of freedom, animal rights, family, bravery, and following one's dream. Ambitious clubs might be interested in following up on the author's note at the end of the book, which talks about the history behind the story.

More discussion questions can be found on the Scholastic mother-daughter book club site. The suggested recipe is for strawberries and sweetgrass (lemon grass), which has particular meaning to Estrella and her fellow horses.

This post will be linked to Kid Konnection, hosted by Julie at Booking Mama.

The Quantum League: Spell Robbers: Scholastic Press, 2014; ISBN-13: 9780545502269
Horses of the Dawn: The Escape: Scholastic Press, 2014; ISBN-13: 9780545397162
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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24 February 2014

Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica NogorodoffI love finding graphic novels that step outside readers' expectations for the medium. As I've written here before, not all GNs are geared toward teens or involve fantasy. Although I'm huge fan of the Fables series, I like to see what else is happening in the graphic novel world.

The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff shows us just how moving a graphic novel can be. From the beauty of the art to the depth of the story, this book dispels the belief that comics are for kids. In fact, I was so taken with Novgorodoff's newest that I chose it for my March selection for the Bloggers Recommend newsletter, which will be sent to your inbox in just a few days.

  • So what's it all about? Deshi Li is obligated to find his late-brother a ghost bride with whom to share the afterlife. Meanwhile Lily Chen decides to escape home before she's forced to marry an elderly businessman, which will turn her family's fortunes. After the two meet, their paths no longer seem clear-cut.
  • copyright Danica Novgorodoff
  • Setting and major theme: Set in modern northern China, The Undertaking of Lily Chen explores what happens when ancient traditions are carried into the twenty-first century. Both Deshi and Lily are bound by filial duty yet cannot shake their strong sense of self or their personal dreams.
  • The art: The theme of blending old with new is carried through to Novgorodoff's beautiful ink and watercolor paintings. The influence of Chinese art styles is seen especially in her landscapes, while the characters have a distinctly modern feel.
  • What I liked: Deshi and Lily grow and change from their experiences. Novgorodoff successfully injected humor into a book that deals with serious themes. The story made me think and transported me to a different place. Although The Undertaking of Lily Chen has firm foundations in China, Deshi's and Lily's struggles have a global appeal. And, finally, I love Novgorodoff's artwork.
  • Overall thoughts: The soft colors, expressive paintings, and sparse text create an otherworldly feel to Deshi and Lily's haunting journey, which leaves us questioning the inevitability of destiny. A don't-miss graphic novel.
  • Note on the scan: The scan is from page 285 and was picked to give you an example of Danica Novgorodoff's work without spoiling the story. All rights remain with the author.
Published by Roaring Brook Press /First Second, 2014 (March 25)
ISBN-13: 9781596435865
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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22 February 2014

Weekend Cooking: Sunday Dinners by Diane Cowen

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.

Sunday Dinners by Diane CowenOne my fondest childhood memories was having brunch at my grandparents' house. On Sundays, my grandmother would make a big feast for whoever showed up. We didn't go every weekend, but some group of cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends would gather in my grandparents' dining room to share a meal and have a good gossip.

Diane Cowen's Sunday Dinners is a celebration of just such family traditions. She contacted thirteen pastors and asked them to share a family story, a prayer, and the recipes that grace their tables. Although the cookbook has a Texas and southern focus, a few of the families live in the North.

One of the things I love about collections like Sunday Dinners is that the recipes are all tried and true and have been made by ordinary home cooks. And, in fact, every dish in this book is within the reach anyone with moderate kitchen skills. I also appreciate that the ingredients are easy to find and require almost no special equipment. The dishes are perfect for family gatherings and should have a wide appeal.

As I mentioned, the cookbook has a southern feel, which is evident by the recipes for country-fried pork chops, biscuits, corn bread, pimiento cheese, grits, and gumbo. But you'll also find spring rolls, rack of lamb, pot roast, and salads. Because these are Sunday dinners, there is a good selection of desserts, including Texas sheet cake, strawberry cake, puddings, cookies, and flans.

copyright Michael PaulsenIt's common for family recipes to rely on processed foods, and the Sunday Dinner collection is no exception. I'm not judging; I'm just pointing out that quite a few of the dishes include ingredients such as a cream-of soup, a cake mix, canned pie filling, or bottled sauces. In addition to vegetable and salads, all the meals include a meat or fish.

Although I'm more of a from-scratch kind of cook, there were still plenty of recipes that caught my attention. For example, I thought the pecan sweet potatoes (recipe follows) would be great at Thanksgiving. I've marked the pulled-pork tacos to make this spring, and the herb-roasted salmon looks both healthful and easy. Many of the desserts called to me too, especially the carrot cake and chewy chocolate cookies.

Whether you want to start a new tradition in your family or hope to add some new flavors to your standard Sunday fare, pick up a copy of Diane Cowen's Sunday Dinners. If you have dietary concerns or are a vegetarian, you might want to check this one out of the library before you buy. Note on the photos: Both photos were scanned from the cookbook; all rights and copyright remain with the photographer, Michael Paulsen.

Senator Russell's Sweet Potatoes
Serves 12

copyright Michael PaulsenPotatoes
  • 10 medium-size sweet potatoes
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 2 cups chopped pecans (though photo shows halves)
Preheat the oven to 350F.

Make the potatoes: Bake the sweet potatoes until soft, 35 to 40 minutes. Allow them to cool enough to be handled, then peel and mash them. Push the potatoes through a ricer or sieve and place in a large bowl.

In a small bowl, mix together the eggs, sugar, vanilla, milk, and butter. Add to the sweet potatoes and mix. Pour the potato mixture into a 9 by 13-inch baking pan.

Make the topping: Whisk together the brown sugar and flour. Stir in the melted butter until crumbly. Then add the pecans. (If the mixture isn't crumbly, add more sugar.) Sprinkle over the potato mixture and bake for 50 minutes, or until the topping is bubbly.

Andrews McMeel, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781449427108
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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20 February 2014

Review: This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley CashConfession time: I tried to read Wiley Cash's debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, three times--twice in print and once in audio. I don't know. Maybe it was my mood that year, but despite rave reviews from pretty much everyone on earth, it just didn't click with me.

Thank goodness I didn't give up on Cash altogether because once I started listening to his second book, This Dark Road to Mercy, I was totally hooked. From the authentic voice of Easter Quilby to the questionable motives of her father and the excitement of the 1998 home-run battle between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire (pre-steroid scandal), Wiley Cash nicely overlays a moment in history with the defining weeks of a young girl's life.

  • Here's the gist: Twelve-year-old Easter Quilby and her little sister, Ruby, are adjusting to life in foster care after the death of their young mother. When their estranged father (Wade) suddenly decides he wants to be a parent, Easter is distrustful. Nevertheless, she slips out of bed in the middle of the night, leaving with Ruby for a new life. Meanwhile, two men are on their trail: one is a bad, bad man who has it in for Wade and the other is a broken man who is the girls' court-appointed guardian.
  • Easter: The bulk of the story is told by Easter, who is full up with mixed emotions, especially when it comes to Wade. It's amazing how perfectly Cash tapped into the heart and soul of the troubled, yet resourceful young girl. As is typical for preteens, Easter sees much, but doesn't fully understand all.
  • The men; the other voices: Brady Weller is a kind man who had some bad luck that ended his police career and his marriage. Maybe as compensation for having lost his relationship with his daughter, he takes a genuine interest in the girls' safety. Pruitt, on the other hand, has found a way to get paid to hurt the man who ruined his life. He's a creepy, thoroughly evil sociopath.
  • Other thoughts: From the moment Easter makes the decision to talk to Wade the first time, the tension slowly, exquisitely begins to build. You know that no good can come of this, yet you understand why Easter begins to fall under his spell. Although the core of This Dark Road to Mercy takes place over a handful of days, for Easter it must have seemed like a lifetime.
  • Recommendations: Don't miss This Dark Road to Mercy if you love Southern fiction, coming-of-age stories, and literary fiction. Although baseball is a running theme throughout the story, this is not a sports novel. It's about fathers and daughters, finding safety, and learning to cope (or not) with adversity.
  • Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook edition (Harper Audio; 7 hr, 53 min) is read by Jenna Lamia, Erik Bergmann, and Scott Sowers. Although my full audio review will be published by AudioFile magazine, let me give you a hint: this is a don't-miss listen. Lamia, especially, is superb.
HarperCollins / William Morrow, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780062088253
Source: Review--print and audio (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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19 February 2014

Wordless Wednesday 277

Snowy Outbuilding, 2014

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18 February 2014

Today's Read: The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

The Book of Jonah by Joshual Max FeldmanImagine you were an ordinary, modern, ambitious guy working to get ahead at your New York City law firm. Now suppose that you had a vision from God, right in the middle of a Scotch-filled office event. That's what happened to thirty-two-year-old Jonah Jacobstein. What will he do if he suddenly develops a conscience?

Jonah knew the 59th Street subway station well enough that he did not have to look up from his iPhone as he made his way among its corridors and commuters to the track. He felt lucky as he came down the stairs to the platform to see a train just pulling in—he boarded without breaking his stride, took a seat by the door of the nearly empty car, went on typing. A crowd of people flooded in at the next station, but Jonah felt he'd had a long enough day that he need not give up seat. But then an older woman—frumpy, blue-haired, with a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose—ended up standing directly before him, and Jonah decided to do the right thing and he stood.
The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman (Macmillan / Henry Holt & Co., 2014, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: current times, New York City, Amsterdam, Las Vegas
  • Circumstances: Jonah, a not particularly religious young man, must decide if he is having visions from God or whether he's going mad. If the former, then what is expected of him?
  • Genre: contemporary fiction; biblical retelling; roots in midrash
  • Characters: Jonah, city lawyer on the rise; Judith, Boston art expert, feeling lost; their loves, family, and colleagues
  • Themes: how would you know if you were called by God; good vs. evil; one man against a city; lessons from the biblical Jonah as they apply to the modern world; can we save others from themselves
  • What I know so far: interesting premise; not religious in a traditional sense; writing is detailed; am reserving judgment at the moment because I've really just started it
  • Extras: Joshua Feldman wrote a piece for the Jewish Book Council explaining why he based his novel on the Book of Jonah; the Macmillan site includes an interview with Feldman and a short audio in which the author discusses his background and goals for the novel
ISBN-13: 9780805097764
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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17 February 2014

Uncovered: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Uncovered Of course you've read the Percy Jackson books. You, have, haven't you? On the off chance that you've missed them, this exciting middle grade series is full of adventure, friendship, and ancient Greek gods reinvented for the modern world.

The books have been so popular that two of them (The Lightning Thief and Sea of Monsters) have been made into major motion pictures, complete with fantastic special effects.

To tide us over until the fall release of the next book in the series, Disney Publishing is offering us a little treat. Here's what's the publisher has to say:

All self-respecting Percy Jackson fans know that the next book in the Heroes of Olympus series, The Blood of Olympus, will arrive in their hands on October 7, 2014. What they don’t yet know, but are about to find out, is that starting early this summer, a new fleet of the original Percy Jackson & the Olympians series will pop up in stores, sporting brand-new, reimagined covers. Even better, when these new paperback books are lined up side by side by side, they will reveal one amazing panoramic mural, the handiwork of artist John Rocco, who’s illustrated all the Percy covers since the first rejacketing of The Lightning Thief in 2006.

Even though the books won’t be available until early summer 2014, we won’t make the fans wait that long to feast their eyes. Starting Monday, February 17 (Presidents' Day), the Percy Jackson Facebook page will be revealing the new look, one book per day. Five days. Five brand-new covers.
Don't forget to check out the Percy Jackson Facebook page every day this week to see the new covers--and the mural. For more Percy Jackson news, follow the #PercyUnCovered hashtag on Twitter.

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15 February 2014

Weekend Cooking: How Beer Saved the World (Film)

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.

How Beer Saved the World: Discovery ChannelIn the name of doing research for an up-coming book review for Weekend Cooking, I took the time to see an interesting, yet light documentary film, How Beer Saved the World, produced by Beyond Productions (an Australian company) for the Discovery Channel.

The premise and argument of the film is that beer was the driving force for the development of agriculture at around 9000 B.C.E. From there beer was responsible for the development of cities, writing, math, business, medicine, Church attendance, trade, and modern industrialization.

The filmmakers interviewed a number of well-known experts in history, anthropology, science, and fermentation. But don't think this is some boring study or lecture into the history of modern humankind. How Beer Saved the World puts a whole lot of beer-drinking fun into learning about the rise of civilization in just 44 minutes.

Stills; How Beer Saved the WorldAnimated sequences are mixed with discussions and demonstrations from the experts and a few reenactments. The film takes us from the first accidental fermentation of barely to Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, and the New World. The documentary ends with a discussion of the problems involved with sending beer into space.

I couldn't find a clip to share, but I recommend How Beer Saved the World for anyone interested in how a single industry can have far-reaching effects. The documentary is available from a number of streaming sites; just do a web search and I'm sure you'll find a source.

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14 February 2014

Imprint Friday: The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

The Secret of Magic by Deborah JohnsonWelcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Amy Einhorn Books. Stop by most weeks to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.

Deborah Johnson addresses a number of sensitive issues in her new novel, The Secret of Magic, the most obvious being race relations in the Deep South during the postwar years, just before the civil rights movement took on a powerful life of its own. I was initially attracted to Johnson's novel because it is loosely based on real events.

Here's the publisher's summary:

In 1946, a young female attorney from New York City attempts the impossible: attaining justice for a black man in the Deep South.

Regina Robichard works for Thurgood Marshall, who receives an unusual letter asking the NAACP to investigate the murder of a returning black war hero. It is signed by M. P. Calhoun, the most reclusive author in the country.

As a child, Regina was captivated by Calhoun’s The Secret of Magic, a novel in which white and black children played together in a magical forest.

Once down in Mississippi, Regina finds that nothing in the South is as it seems. She must navigate the muddy waters of racism, relationships, and her own tragic past. The Secret of Magic brilliantly explores the power of stories and those who tell them.
Although Regina's initial interest in the murdered veteran is based on her fond memories of Calhoun's children's book, she soon becomes determined to learn the truth of Joe Wilson's death. Thus, against Marshall's advice, she travels to Mississippi to begin an investigation. Once there, she discovers the darker side of the South and the seemingly unbridgeable gap between black and white.

Johnson's strength is in creating an interwoven, multilayered story that connects complex characters and deals with difficult truths. She perfectly captures an era, a season, a people, and a town, telling it as it was, for better or worse. It is clear that The Secret of Magic is personal story for Deborah Johnson, whose grandfather fought in World War II and held Thurgood Marshall in high esteem. That passion shines in her writing.

I love books that evoke strong emotions, and The Secret of Magic fills the bill. Because of this, it would make a fantastic book club pick. The major discussion topics are prejudice, social change, cultural norms, the power of stories, and the courage it takes to stand up for one's beliefs. The Penguin website includes eleven questions, in case you need more ideas.

To learn more about Deborah Johnson, visit her website, where you can learn about her writing and where she'll be touring this spring. You can also find Johnson on Facebook. For more on the background of The Secret of Magic, see Johnson's interview with Chatelaine.

Amy Einhorn Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Amy Einhorn's open letter posted here on January 25, 2010, or click the Amy Einhorn tab below my banner photo. To join the Amy Einhorn Books Reading Challenge, click the link.

Published by Putnam / Amy Einhorn Books, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780399157721
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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13 February 2014

Review: The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene

The Headmaster's Wife by Thomas Christopher GreeneAlthough Thomas Christopher Greene has written three award-winning novels, he is a new-to-me author. I accepted a pitch for his newest book The Headmaster's Wife (out February 25) after watching a video in which Greene described the inspiration for this novel.

I told the marketing person at St. Martin's that she used emotional blackmail because, seriously, Greene's story of personal loss was incredibly moving. I wish the video were still available, but the link no longer works.

In any case, I took a chance on The Headmaster's Wife and ended up reading it in a single sitting. I was totally taken in by the beauty of Greene's prose and by my curiosity about the main character.

  • The opening: Arthur Winthrop, third-generation headmaster at the prestigious Lancaster prep school in Vermont, is found wandering naked through a snowy Central Park. The Manhattan authorities take him into custody, and Arthur begins to tell his story of love, loss, and questionable decisions.
  • What we ask ourselves as Arthur talks: Is this a tale of the headmaster's downfall? Or is it the story of a marriage, a family, and the terrible things we are sometimes forced to endure? Is Arthur a despicable man or just someone looking for love and understanding? Can Arthur ever justify his behavior? Can there be redemption?
  • What we end up thinking: We eventually learn things that change our perspective, twist our sympathies, alter our understanding, and make us ask new questions. As the novel switches direction, our opinions change, and we start to imagine a different outcome for Arthur.
  • Why am I vague and what did I like? I don't want to tell you much because The Headmaster's Wife is a book that should be read blind; the fewer hints, the bigger the impact. I loved Greene's descriptions of a private school and its internal culture and New England campus. I was fascinated with Arthur's role as headmaster, his unique childhood, and his place at Lancaster. Although the novel touches on issues of privilege and class differences, I thought it was more about a family and marriage, love and loss, and the choices we make when we're young.
  • Snapshot blurb: A beautifully written look into a man's soul and how he copes with an increasingly cold marriage, a life-changing event, and the almost inevitable loss of the small, safe world he's hidden in. A strong contender for my favorite 2014 novel (even this early in the year).
  • Extra: For a thoughtful reading group guide (don't look at it until you've finished the book!), visit St. Martin's Press's website. If I ever find a link to the video I mentioned in my introduction, I'll add the link here.
  • EDIT: Thanks to the generosity of author Thomas Christopher Greene, I now have the link to the moving video I mentioned earlier. Please do take the time to watch it.
St. Martin's Press / Thomas Dunne Books, 2014
ISBN-13: 9781250038944
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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12 February 2014

Wordless Wednesday 276

Winter Sunset, 2014

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10 February 2014

Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

I don't do spooky, but something about Jennifer McMahon's new novel, The Winter People, made me take a chance. Perhaps it was the cover, with the promise of things hidden in the mist, or maybe it was the dual time periods (1908 and the present) that caught my attention. In any case, I flew through the audiobook in record time, even though I had to double-check to make sure my doors were locked and my closets were closed.

The Winter People was one of the featured audiobooks in this month's Bloggers Recommend newsletter. For more February recommendations in both print and audio, be sure to read (and subscribe) to the newsletter.

  •  What's it about? In 1908 West Hall, Vermont, Sara, grieving the accidental death of her young daughter, Gertie, is willing to do almost anything to see her girl just one more time. In modern times, nineteen-year-old Ruthie and her little sister wake up one January morning to discover their mother has gone missing. As the sisters search the house, which once belonged to Sara, for clues of their mother's disappearance, they find disturbing evidence that she may have been keeping dark secrets.
  • The creep factor: The Winter People is spooky on a number of levels. First, for more than a hundred years, the woods around Sara's old house have been a place of mysterious deaths. Young girls are told to stay away because "bad things happen" on Sara's land. Local legend claims that Sara knew how to bring back the dead, and people have been searching for her long-lost journal pages that detail the ritual for waking the sleepers, the winter people . . . the dead. Shadows lurk in the edges of characters' vision, unexplained noises are heard within closets, hidey holes are found under the floors, and strange smells emanate from the forest.
  • The good: The novel is a lot about mothers and daughters and the strength of love. It's also about marriages and hard times and struggling to make a go of it. McMahon asks us to consider the consequences of reversing fate and the long-term costs of having our wishes come true. I loved how McMahon twisted the dual time periods together and expanded Sara's and Ruthie's stories to encompass other characters. Although I had my suspicions about the truths of what happened/happens in the woods, I was still surprised by some of the details. I also really liked the ending.
  • The bad: Some parts of the big action scenes near the end of the novel took on a slightly hokey feel. You know the scene in the late-night horror flicks when the person opens the door or goes into the basement or walks outside even though he knows the bad guy is nearby? The Winter People is not that bad, but still, I wondered why some characters did what they did. Fortunately, it didn't ruin the book for me.
  • Recommendation: Although I wonder if Stephen King fans would find The Winter People spooky enough for them, it was plenty creepy for me. The writing is solid, the plot holds up, and the characters are easy to root for. Just remember to lock the doors and windows, turn on the lights, and stay out of the woods!
  • Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook edition (Random House Audio; 10 hr, 46 min) was read by Cassandra Campbell and Kathe Mazur. As I mentioned in the Bloggers Recommend newsletter, the audio production is excellent. Campbell and Mazur build on the novel's spooky atmosphere, amping up the tension and keeping us on the edge of our seats.
Random House / Doubleday, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385538497
Source: Audio: review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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08 February 2014

Weekend Cooking: From Slow to Fast: A Warming Split Pea Curry

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.

© cbl for www. BethFishReads.comWhen this week's cold, snowy days had me craving something bright, yet warming, curry was one of the first things that came to mind. I've been crazy busy with work, so my second thought was to use the slow cooker.

I looked through some cookbooks and realized that with a few minor changes I could make a recipe for lentil stew (found in American Test Kitchen's Slow Cooker Revolution cookbook) work for us. I had baked bread the night before and was looking forward to my nice dinner.

That is until I realized at about 5:00 pm that I had forgotten to start the curry at lunchtime. What's a resourceful cook to do? I turned that curry from a slow-cooked stew into a quick-cooked soup in the blink of an eye and a switch in equipment. Have I told you lately how much I love my pressure cooker? Within about an hour, we were sitting down to a delicious, aromatic, healthful dinner.

Curried Yellow Split Pea Soup
(adapted from Slow Cooker Revolution)
Serves 4–6
    © cbl for www. BethFishReads.com
  • 5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk
  • 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes with the juice
  • 2 onions, roughly chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2¼ cups yellow split peas (about 1 pound), picked over and rinsed
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup frozen green peas
  • ⅓ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • Hot sauce (optional)
Put the broth, coconut milk, and tomatoes into your pressure cooker over high heat. Add the onions, garlic, spices, split peas, and carrots. Stir in the the oil (needed to prevent foaming in the cooker). Lock on the lid and let come to high pressure. Cook 10 minutes at high pressure, remove from the heat and let the pressure release naturally.

Open the lid carefully (tilt it away from you so you don't get burned) and return the cooker to medium heat. Taste the soup for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Add the frozen green peas and cilantro and cook until the peas are just heated through. Serve with hot sauce (we like Sriracha) and homemade bread.

Cooking tips: Try this in your slow cooker or on the stovetop in a regular soup pot.

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07 February 2014

Review: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel LawhornThe Roaring Twenties and the Prohibition era have been all the rage lately. At the movies we've seen, for example, a remake of The Great Gatsby and on television we can watch the wonderful HBO show Boardwalk Empire.

In books, the focus has been on celebrated figures such as Zela and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Call Me Zelda, Z), Hemingway (The Paris Wife), and Louise Brooks (The Chaperone) as well as on the little-known, but all-to-true practice described in The Orphan Train. We met an unreliable narrator (The Other Typist) and a Midwest teen sent to New York to live with her uncle (The Diviners).

One of the newest additions to this group is Ariel Lawhon's The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress.

  • What's the basis? Lawhorn started with one of the most sensational unsolved crimes of mid-twentieth-century New York. On August 6, 1930, Judge Joseph Crater stepped into a taxi and was never seen again. The story was big news, and the case was kept open for years after Crater's disappearance. It's possible that his body was found about ten years ago, but evidence is inconclusive, and his story remains a mystery. Every August 6, without fail, for thirty-eight years until her death, Crater's wife was seen in a bar having a shot of whiskey and toasting her missing husband with the words, "Good luck, Joe, wherever you are."
  • What happens in the book? Focusing on Stella Crater (the wife), Maria Simon (the maid), and Sally Lou "Ritzi" Ritz (the mistress), Lawhorn imagines a possible scenario for the events leading up to that fateful night. The story is not told chronologically, and each woman has her say. The trick for the reader is to figure out who and what to believe. Some of the reveals are startling and some are more subtle, and the interweaving of the fictional characters, the real people, the facts, and the surmising makes for a great read.
  • What I loved: I was unaware of the case that The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is based on, but once I started to get a feel for the judge and the people in his life, I couldn't stop reading. Lawhon includes great details about Tammany Hall, musical theater, the mob, and the way things were in a corrupt city. I liked the women and the way they worked a social system that offered few opportunities.
  • The writing & plotting: I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll simply say that Lawhon's pacing, teasing, and construction were perfect. Although this is historical fiction, her sense for writing mystery is spot-on.
  • Recommendation: Great for everyone. The novel defies easy classification, giving it a wide appeal. It's a fascinating and engaging story, and I encourage you to give it a go. Book clubs will find a ton to talk about, from the basic plot to women's issues.
  • Audiobook: My full review of the audiobook will be published by AudioFile magazine, but I'll say here that you shouldn't miss Ann Marie Lee's performance (Random House Audio; 12 hr, 1 min). Really, you won't want to turn off your player until the story has been told.
Random House / Doubleday, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780385537629
Source: Print & audio: review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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06 February 2014

Review: Admission (Movie)

Admission (film)Sometimes a romantic comedy is just the right kind of movie to take your mind off of everyday life. I don't expect too much from a rom-com: good acting, a few laughs, and a decent (though usually predictable) plot.

Last month, I gave Admission (directed by Paul Weitz; Focus Features) a try based on the great cast and the fact that movie is loosely based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz. I figured any movie starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, and Wallace Shawn would provide a good evening's entertainment.

The basic premise, which you get from the trailer (embedded below), goes like this: Portia (Fey) is an admissions officer for Princeton University who is vying for the position of director. She is tough as nails and only reluctantly responds to a call from an old college friend, John (Rudd), to interview an exceptional student, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff). When she begins to suspect that the boy may be her own child (given up for adoption seventeen years earlier), Portia starts questioning the entire college admission process. Oh, and she wonders if there's room for John in her life.

Although the acting in Admission was fun to watch, especially Tomlin as Fey's mother, the movie didn't really come together for me. Perhaps it was the ridiculousness of the pressure to get in to Princeton, or the idea that any other school would be considered second class, or the notion that there is no such thing as flexibility when it comes to giving a student a chance. I admit that the snooty factor was a big turn-off for me. Maybe the movie would resonate with younger viewers (those born after, say, 1963), but this baby boomer was not impressed with the whole Princeton or bust attitude (even as the subject of satire).

The other problem I had with Admission was Portia's journey. Without giving away spoilers, I didn't buy her behavior in relation to Jeremiah. In addition, her interactions with John didn't have the spark I like to see in a good romantic comedy. On the other hand, I think Fey and Rudd would make a good match in a film with a better script.

In the end, Admission didn't sweep me up and carry me away. If I had to rate the movie, I'd give it 3 out of 5 stars for the acting. So, although Admission isn't the worse choice one could make, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it.

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04 February 2014

Wordless Wednesday 275

Street Sign, Copenhagen

Click image to see full size. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

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Today's Read & Guest Post: A Tale of Two Biddies by Kylie Logan

A Tale of Two Biddies by Kylie LoganWhat if you were court-ordered to be part of a book club? Sounds nice, doesn't it? But what if the other members were the very women you were always bickering with? That's what happened to four very different small-town woman. Fortunately, not only do they manage to bond over books but they band together to solve local murders.

"It was the best of thymes, it was the worst of thymes."

I was mid-munch, a shrimp dripping cocktail sauce on its way to mouth, and I needed one second to grab a napkin to keep the spicy sauce from landing on my new yellow T-shirt. While I was at it, I focused my eyes from the bunch of gloriously green herbs that had just been thrust in front of my nose to the other bunch of dried-out herbs next to it, and beyond to the ear-to-ear grin of Chandra Morrisey.
A Tale of Two Biddies by Kylie Logan (Penguin USA / Berkley Prime Crime, 2014, p. 1)

Normally on a Tuesday, I'd share my "Quick Facts," which give you a snapshot view of my current read or a book I recently finished. I lucked out this week because author Kylie Logan is going to do the honors herself! Before we get to her guest post, I want to give you a short introduction.

A Tale of Two Biddies is Kylie's seventh cozy mystery, although it is only the second one featuring the League of Literary Ladies. If you like characters you can warm up to and you want your cozies mixed with a fun sense of humor, then Kylie Logan's books are for you. If her name sounds familiar, it might be because I've already featured two of her novels Chili con Carnage and Hot Button on my blog.

Now let's find out more about Kylie Logan's love of books and the premise of A Tale of Two Biddies.

Nose in Book Just Naturally Leads to Murder

Back in the day (and I do mean back!) our local grocery store ran a promotion that, these days, sounds pretty odd.

For every purchase you made, you could choose a framed print of an art masterpiece.

I don’t know how many of the pictures my mother ended up with, but I do clearly remember one of them, A Young Girl Reading, painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a French artist, in 1776. Aside from the fact that it’s a pleasant picture, that the colors are warm and easy on the eyes and that the girl looks so content and so downright comfortable, there is a reason this particular picture stays in my mind—my mother always said it reminded her of me.

Nose in book.

When I was a kid, I always had my nose in a book.

At the time, I wasn’t much for contemporary authors. Maybe that’s because back then (there’s that phrase again!) there weren’t many authors who catered to the young adult market. That left me at my favorite place—the library—with a whole host of possibilities, most of them classics of literature.

I read Lorna Doone (I don’t recommend it) and Scaramouche (all because of the movie, of course, and the crush I had on Stewart Granger). I devoured Prisoner of Zenda (see the last comment) and The Scarlet Pimpernel and all of Jane Austen and Conan Doyle and Dumas (pere and fils). When I went to college, I majored in English. How else could I justify my nose constantly being in one of those books?

All that being said, I guess it’s only natural that when I was looking for a hook for a new mystery series, the idea of classical literature popped into my head. Books . . . ah, there was something I was comfortable with, something I knew readers loved to learn more about, something that would surely get my creative juices flowing.

It worked! From that idea grew the concept for the League of Literary Ladies mysteries. The League is based on South Bass Island off the Ohio mainland in Lake Erie and consists of four members: Bea Cartwright is new to the island and owns a B&B. Chandra Morrisey is the island kook, a tarot and crystal reader. Kate Wilder is all business; because she owns the island’s biggest winery, it’s no wonder. Elderly Luella Zak has taken over her late-husband’s fishing charter business. She’s as tough as any Great Lakes skipper ever was.

Four different women, with four different tastes. Brought together by one thing—books.

Well, that and the fact that they’re always feuding and the judge gets so tired of them taking each other to court, he orders them to get to know each other better by sentencing them to become a book discussion group.

The results are anything but predictable, especially when in the first installment of the series, Mayhem at the Orient Express, the ladies discover a body and must use the Christie classic they’re reading as a blueprint for finding the killer.

This month, the League of Literary Ladies is back in action with A Tale of Two Biddies. It’s summer, and the islanders are marking Bastille Day with a week-long celebration. What better choice for reading than Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, with its French Revolution background and its story of secrets, lies, and people who might—or might not—be what they seem.

In the confusion, somebody’s bound to lose their head!

To indulge my inner book geek I also added a Charles Dickens lookalike and trivia contest. It’s only natural; this time, the league must turn to Dickens as a guide to solving the murder of the island nobody, who might not be as much of a nobody as everyone thought.

I don’t know about where you are, but here in Ohio, it’s gray, gloomy, and cold. I can’t promise summer weather to go along with my summer story, but I can say an adventure with the League of Literary Ladies is bound to be a Dickens of a good time!
Thanks so much, Kylie. The Literary Ladies seem like an interesting quartet and I can't wait to see what kind of trouble they get into over the latest murder. I also absolutely love that these books are set in Put-in-Bay. It's a place I know well. I've sailed there from the western reaches of the lake, and I've taken the ferry over from the southern shores. It's a wonderful spot to spend some time eating, drinking, fishing, shopping, and—of course—reading.

ISBN-13: 9780425257760
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).

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03 February 2014

Review: What We Lost in the Dark by Jacquelyn Mitchard

What We Lost in the Dark by Jacquelyn MitchardI discovered Jacquelyn Mitchard way back in 1996, when I read her debut novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, a powerful book that has stayed with me all these years. Since then, she has continued to write in a range of genres and for a wide audience, from adult fiction to picture books.

Last year, I featured Mitchard's What We Saw at Night, the first in planned duo about teens who suffer from xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), a rare genetic disorder that makes them fatally allergic to the sun. Told from the first-person perspective of Allie Kim, who can leave the house only after sunset, that book introduced us to the extreme sport of parkour and ended with a major cliffhanger.

What We Lost in the Dark picks up right where the previous installment ended. This bullet review assumes you've read the first book.

  • Basic plot: Allie and Rob are still stunned over Juliet's apparent suicide, although Allie is convinced that foul play was involved. With their hearts no longer in parkour because it reminds them of their friend, the two teens take up deep-water free diving (without oxygen tanks) while trying to gather evidence against the man they believe killed their friend.
  • What works: Allie and Rob's relationship, which would seem too intense for most YA books, is made believable when you consider that people with XP die young. The two are determined to get as much out of life as they can, while remaining hopeful that genetic engineering may eventually offer a cure for their condition. In addition, there is plenty of thriller action and some seriously creepy scenes.
  • What doesn't: I found the number of coincidences needed to pull off the plot to be a bit hard to take. For example, while on her initial dive in Lake Superior, Allie just happens to discover a prime piece of evidence against the bad guy. There is also strong foreshadowing, which meant I was able to guess some of the surprises revealed at the novel's conclusion.
  • Recommendation: If you've read the first book, you'll want to read What We Lost in the Dark to see what happens. If you keep your expectations in check, you'll enjoy this novel more than I did.
  • Audiobook: My full review will be published by AudioFile magazine, but in a nutshell, narrator Rebecca Gibel didn't hold my attention. I was not a fan of the tone of her performance, although other listeners thought her voice was perfect for Allie. (Blackstone Audio; 8 hr 12 min)
Soho Press / Soho Teen, 2013
ISBN-13: 9781616951436
Source: Audio: review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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01 February 2014

Weekend Cooking: Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors by Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise

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.

Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors by Susanna Hoffman and Victoria WiseIf you've been following along with my Weekend Cooking posts, then you already know that I tend to love Workman's cookbooks, from the careful editing to the beautiful designs and almost foolproof recipes.

Thus when I got the chance to review Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors by Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise, I eagerly accepted. There is a lot to like about this celebration of American cuisine, but it wasn't a huge hit in my kitchen.

Hoffman and Wise got together to write a tribute to the vast range of flavors found in American cooking. Those of us in the Western Hemisphere are blessed with wonderful native ingredients, such as squash, avocados, tomatoes, peppers, beans, and turkey. And our menus are also influenced by the diverse people who have made North America their home. Thus many of us have no problem serving gyros one night, tacos the next, and sushi on the third.

That's what Bold is all about, and the range of recipes give us everything from Tandoori-Style Beer-Can Chicken to Chickpea Cakes with Tomato and Sesame Seed Topping to California Pork Rolls. In addition the book is brimming with fantastic sidebars, which provide useful and fascinating information about ingredients, techniques, history, and foodie locations. This cookbook will quickly become a favored resource for curious cooks.

Unfortunately, I was less impressed with the actual finished dishes. Let me reassure you, that the recipes work. They are well edited and the directions are clear. You shouldn't hesitate to tackle any dish in Bold. My problem was that I felt the recipes did not deliver on their promise of "big flavors." The recipes I tried were good. We liked them. But we didn't feel that the flavors were . . . well, bold.

I made several dishes, such as a fish chowder, a chicken mole, and a skillet corn bread. I'm usually an excellent judge of a recipe before I've even begun to make the shopping list. These recipes looked really good to me, but the results were only ordinary. Let me reiterate that the recipes worked and were easy to follow. It's just that I expected more of a wow reaction from a cookbook titled Bold.

You should be aware that we at Beth Fish Reads like our food nicely seasoned and probably more bold than the average American. So please be sure to try a recipe or two yourself before taking my word for it. On the other hand, if you love your herbs and spices (and I don't just mean hot, here), you might want to check Bold out of the library before buying. At the same time, I love the information in the book and will likely continue to cook out of it, especially for my friends and family who like their food a little more neutral.

Skillet Corn Bread
  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup water
  • pinch of sea salt or kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil or peanut oil
Preheat oven to 350F.

Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, egg, milk, water, and salt in a large bowl.

Heat the oil in a 9-inch cast-iron or other stovetop to oven skillet over high heat. Pour in the corn bread batter and cook until beginning to brown on the bottom, 5 minutes. Cover the skillet and transfer it to the oven. Cook until a knife inserted in the middle comes out almost clean, with a little moist batter still clinging, about 20 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly before cutting.

Workman, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780761139614
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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