28 February 2015

Weekend Cooking: The Kitchen Journal 17

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.

The Kitchen Journal from www.BethFishReads.comI had all the best intentions to post a cookbook review for today, but life seemed to get in the way. Actually, this week was particularly busy with work, and that's where all my focus and energy have been.

Update on meal planning. No one is more surprised than I am at how much I've taken to the idea of making up dinner menus every week. It took some time to find my own style, but I'm in the groove now. Here are some things I've learned:

Don't plan seven dinners. Some meals will stretch to two nights, and some nights you're just too frazzled to cook. For me, the magic number seems to be five. We usually have at least one night of leftovers, leaving me with one night to be creative in the kitchen.

Don't pre-assign meals to a day. Locking myself into recipe A on Monday, recipe B on Tuesday, etc. brought out the rebel in me. I just never seemed to want to eat that night's assigned dinner. Now I just have five meals that can be made on whatever night I wish (except fish, which I cook the day I buy it). This simple bit of freedom changed my whole attitude to the idea of planning.

Mix it up. Avoid getting in a rut. Don't plan the same types of food week after week. Have meatless Thursday or a roast on Saturday. Switch up the flavors and cooking styles. The only rule I stick with is to plan for one fish, two meat, and two vegetarian meals. What those dinners are and when we eat them are absolutely flexible.

Pinterest & recipe sources. I've been on a big magazine kick this winter, and they've been the source of almost all my recipes. If we really liked a dish and I can find the recipe online, I've pinned it to my Pinterest "Recipes: Tried and Like" board. I've made an effort to include notes on what I did differently (I'm hopelessly unable to follow a recipe exactly). If you're interested in what I've made, click on the link. These are not necessarily knock-your-socks off meals, but are dishes we'd be happy to have again.

Cool new gadget. You probably already know all about these, but I just discovered pouring lids for canning jars. I bought a wide-mouth lid because I could get in blue. I'm not yet sure what I'm going to put in my jar, but I like the lid. You can get all kinds of mason jar lids, such as strainer lids, metal lids with pour spouts, travel mug lids, and lids with holes for straws. Most come in both wide-mouth and regular sizes. Search your favorite online store.

Annnnnnnnd that's about it for me this week. Back to our regularly scheduled Weekend Cooking next week.

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26 February 2015

Review: The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

The Mime Order by Samantha ShannonThe day the much-anticipated second book in Samantha Shannon's Bone Season series came out, I bought two copies. I own a pretty hardback of The Mime Order as well as a digital copy of the audio edition. I wanted a book for my shelves, but I knew I'd be listening to the novel instead of reading it.

This review assumes you've read the first installment of the series or at least know the premise (see my review of The Bone Season); there are no spoilers for book two. The Mime Order opens pretty much exactly where we last saw nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney: she and a group of fellow fugitives have managed to escape from bondage in the old city of Oxford and are now heading home to London.

Of course, this isn't the England of today. For Paige, it's 2059 and history has pushed the world in a different direction from ours. London is ruled by two factions: the Scion, who hunts down and kills any citizen who shows clairvoyant (psychic) ability, and the not-so-secret gangs of voyants, who have divided the city into territories, each with its own leader and enforcer.

Although Paige is now back in the bosom of her gang, she cannot relax. She is wanted by both the Scion and the Rephaim (the creatures who enslaved her in Oxford), neither of whom would mourn her death. In addition, she can't even trust her fellow voyants: there has been a rash of unexplained murders and disappearances, resulting in a major power struggle among London's voyant gangs. The focus of The Mime Order is on how Paige finds herself caught up in the city's sociopolitical upheaval.

Alana Kerr returns to narrate the second book in the Bone Season series. As with the first novel, Kerr is particularly good at helping listeners tap in to the pacing and emotions of the story. Her whispery soft tones are perfect for the more intimate moments of the book, and she is equally adept at the sharp, quick notes needed for the action scenes.

Samantha Shannon has created a complex world with a host of characters, which can be difficult for an audiobook performer. Kerr rises to the challenge by using distinct characterizations for the dialogue and a clear and expressive voice for the narrative. Paige's vocabulary includes quite a few unfamiliar words (chol-bird, mollisher, glossolalia), but Kerr proceeds stumble-free.

I was impressed with Kerr's handling of the range of needed accents, such as an Irish brogue and several specific London dialects. However, as I mentioned in my review of The Bone Season, Kerr is a little breathy, but I wasn't overly distracted by it and hope she returns for the rest of the series.

Recommendation: Whether you listen to or read The Mime Order, you're in for a treat. I liked the action (not for the squeamish), the overall political and social issues, and the general plot line. On top of this, Shannon adds excellent interpersonal relationships among her characters, who are allowed grow and change and make mistakes. There are enough plot twists and very real emotions to keep us invested in Paige's life.

If I have any complaint, it's the same one as I had for the first installment: Shannon spends a good deal of time on the world building. It's fascinating stuff but can slow down the pacing. On the other hand, thanks to Alana Kerr's expressive performance, listeners will breeze through the lulls in the action.

I bought a digital download of the audiobook and was pleased to discover that it came with a PDF of three maps of London and a genealogy-like chart of the seven orders of clairvoyance. These visuals are very helpful to the listener, and I encourage audiobook publishers to include such extras whenever possible. I was sorry that the glossary was not available as a PDF, but Shannon is such a good writer, I got by fine without it.

For a sample of the audiobook, hit the play button below.

Print: Bloomsbury USA, 2015
ISBN-13: 9781620408933
Audio: Audible Studios for Bloomsbury USA; 16 hr, 28 min
Source: Bought (audio & print) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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24 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday 330

Winter Tracks, 2015

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Today's Read: Who Buries the Dead by C. S. Harris

Who Buries the Dead by C. S. HarrisWould you be able to handle the double stress of trying to solve a series of grisly murders just when your mortal enemy reemerges to threaten you? Sebastian St. Cyr—soldier turned detective—must sort out the twisted threads of both the case and his life before the danger becomes personal.

They called it Bloody Bridge.

It lay at the end of a dark, winding lane, far beyond the comforting flicker of the oil lamps of Sloane Square, beyond the last of the tumbledown cottages at the edge of a vast stretch of fields that showed only black in the moonless night. Narrow and hemmed in on both sides by high walls, the bridge was built of brick, worn and crumbling with age and slippery with moss where the elms edging the rivulet cast a deep, cold shade.
Who Buries the Dead by C. S. Harris (Penguin USA / NAL, 2015, p. 1 [eGalley])

Quick Facts
  • Setting: London, 1813
  • Circumstances: Gruesome serial murders, with links ranging from the beheaded Stuart King Charles to the current British government, take Sebastian St. Cyr through the streets of London as he tries to expose the killer before the murders hit too close to home.
  • Characters: Sebastian and his wife and son; Stanley Preston, a Jamaican plantation owner; Lord Oliphant, a soldier from Sebastian's past; Lord Jarvis, Sebastian's father-in-law; various people in the British government and upper classes as well as the poorest of London's citizens
  • Genre: historical mystery; 10th installment in a series
  • Fun thing that attracted me to the book: Apparently Sebastian's investigation gives him an opportunity to meet Jane Austen and her brother
  • What I learned from reviews: I haven't even started reading, but the Austen connection calls to me. Reviews of this book and Harris's series in general are strong and positive, citing complex action and plot, well-developed characters, a little humor, and good period details.
  • Extra bonus: I noticed that the wonderful Davina Porter is the narrator of the audiobook! Oh my, I think I'll have to listen.

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23 February 2015

Review: Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso

Ongoingness by Sarah MangusoIn just less than a hundred pages Sarah Manguso talks about her intimate relationship with her twenty-five-year-old daily habit of writing about her life. At the beginning of Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, she admits:

I couldn't face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened (p. 3)
She kept a diary both so she wouldn't forget and so she could "stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it."

In more than eight hundred thousand words (she destroyed some of her journals over the years), she wrote to preserve memories, stop time, and maybe find some immortality. But with the birth of her son, Manguso gained a different perspective on those very things: memory, time, and the future.

The beautiful, succinct passages that make up Ongoingness ultimately come around to the realization that the true repository of memories and ultimate marker of time are not in meticulously kept diaries but are in the flash and sparks of new generations, in a "world of light unending."

I've read this slim volume twice now and will likely read it again. Sarah Manguso's thoughts have a sharp, crisp focus, yet her prose is poetic and flowing. I've marked many passages that need my fuller attention, that call to me to sift through the layers. Ongoingness will be with me for a while.

A few quotes:
Today was very full, but the problem isn't today. It's tomorrow. I'd be able to recover from today if it weren't for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days. (p. 11)

Marriage isn't a fixed experience. It's a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river. (p. 25)

In my experience nursing is waiting. The mother becomes the background against which the baby lives, becomes time. (p. 53)
Published by Graywolf Press, March 3, 2015
ISBN-13: 9781555977030
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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21 February 2015

Weekend Cooking: How to Roast by Michael Ruhlman

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 to Roast by Michael RuhlmanThere are a handful of cookbook authors whose books I just have to own: sometimes because I know the recipes will be foolproof and sometimes because I know I'll learn something. Michael Ruhlman succeeds on both these accounts while providing that magic third element of timelessness.

I am thrilled that this journalist turned cook and food writer is currently working on a new series of technique books. How to Roast came out in the fall, and How to Braise came out this month. I don't yet have the braising book, but I hope to acquire it pronto.

Anyway, can there be any easier way to cook than roasting? It goes like this: season the food, stick it in the oven, wait awhile, then eat. So if it's that simple, how come more people don't roast stuff more often and how did Ruhlman manage to write 150 pages about it? Ahhhh, well, you see, there are some tips and tricks and basic knowledge that will help your success in the kitchen, and Ruhlman shares that knowledge generously.

One of the things I love about How to Roast is that Ruhlman stresses the importance of getting to know your own oven, paying attention to temperatures and times and smells and sounds whenever you roast or bake. No matter how confident you are in the kitchen, be sure to sit down and read the chapter "The Basics." Here's where you'll learn why you shouldn't be a slave to a recipe's time/temperature recommendation and how you can determine what's going on in your own oven, so you can make adjustments. As Rulhman notes:
[W]hen you're cooking, you're using all your senses, the most important of which is common sense. And that just means paying attention. (p. 4)
He goes on to tell us how to do just that, by providing practical advice mixed with entertaining stories.

copyright Rulhman EnterprisesGraduates of culinary school, like Ruhlman, stress that one of the keys to good cooking is perfecting a few basic techniques. I think learning to roast (essentially baking things in the oven) is a great place to start. As Ruhlman implies throughout the book, roasting works wonderfully both for an everyday family meal and for a holiday celebration.

The recipes cover poultry, fish, meat, and desserts. (Roasted pineapple? Yes, please.) And each one is introduced with a bit of commentary, accompanied by multiple photographs, and finished with tips called "The Finer Points." Ruhlman isn't about being a dictator or director, he wants us to know why something is done or why he uses a particular kind of oil or pan. And he doesn't leave us stranded when we pull that roast out of the oven, he explains the resting, the saucing, the carving, and the serving.

How to Roast, is a book that deserves a place of pride on your cookbook shelves. Michael Ruhlman has something to teach all of us--from the most seasoned cook to the rank beginner. I feel confident in saying that you'll turn to this book time and again through the years. The recipes here are simple and classic, and they'll carry you through a lifetime of dinners, giving you the confidence to adapt them to your own style.

For some of Rulhman's recipes, check out his Food! board on Pinterest. You'll find his recipe for roasted root vegetables (from the book) over at his website. You can also follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook. NOTE: the photograph was scanned from How to Roast; the copyright remains with Ruhlman Enterprises.

Published by Little, Brown, 2014
ISBN-13: 9780316254106
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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19 February 2015

Reading in under an Hour 1

Reading in under an Hour @ www.BethFishReads.comLunchtime is reading time for many of us. I used to spend my midday break with my current print/eBook or my audiobook, but lately I've gotten more pleasure out of shorter pieces.

Each day I pick a story or an article that I can start and finish before I turn back to my computer for an afternoon of editing. I've been sampling many kinds of short pieces, such as short stories, essays, magazine articles, and poems.

Here's a look at some of the shorts I've read lately.

Man V. Nature by Diane CookFrom Diane Cook's Man v. Nature (Harper, 2014, 9780062333100): "Moving On" is about a very young woman whose husband died from a unnamed disease. In this future world, widows and widowers are not allowed to live alone; instead, they are taken to shelters, where they are taught to forget the dead while they wait for someone to choose to marry them (kind of like adoption). It's a strange reality, and the story makes you think about freedom, love, loneliness, and grief. My understanding is that most of the stories in Man v. Nature are equally dark, but I'm intrigued enough to read more.

In bed I imagine my husband lying beside me. . . . I have to picture him dissolving into the air like in a science-fiction movie, vaporized to another planet, grainy muted, then gone. The sheet holds his shape for a moment before deflating to the bed. I practice not feeling a thing.
The February 23, 2015 issue of The New Yorker had a great personal history piece by Mary Norris, comma queen and copyeditor extraordinaire. In "Holy Writ" Norris talks about how she came to work for the magazine, ending up in the editing department. I love her description of the job that has also been my own career (though I've never edited for a magazine). Perhaps it's an essay only an editor can love, but I can relate to Norris's zigzagging path that led her to become the wielder of a red pencil. She also talks about her interactions with some well-known authors. Read it for yourself by following the link.
One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience.
Small Plates by Katherine Hall PageAlthough Katherine Hall Page has written a popular and award-winning mystery series (more than twenty books long), I have never read any of her Faith Fairchild novels. Her 2014 collection Small Plates (William Morrow, 9780062310798) contains short mystery stories, and the one I read featured Faith helping a woman who was a member of her husband's congregation. "The Ghost of Winthrop" was a light read that was as much about the characters as it was about the mystery. Despite the word ghost in the title, this is not a scary story, though it does involve a death and an inheritance. I'm looking forward to more lunchtime Faith Fairchild stories.
There was another reason for [Prudence Winthrop's] ashen color and the way the woman's hands were gripping the edge of the pew--so hard her knuckles were deathly white. It wasn't grief. It was fear. . . . And Faith intended to find out why.
Finally, I am on a never-ending quest to declutter my house and found an article at Becoming Minimalist with some good advice. There were several methods outlined in "10 Creative Ways to Declutter Your Home" that I might be able to adopt. While I don't think I'll use any of these ideas exactly as they are described, I can see how some of them could be adapted to my needs. For example, I like the Four-Box Method, which entails categorizing each item as trash, give away, keep, or relocate. There are a couple of suggestions for clearing out your closet, if that's one of your goals. Click on the link to see if any of the decluttering tricks speak to you.

I'm considering making Reading in under an Hour a sporadic feature. Let me know what you think.

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18 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday 329

Winter Farm, 2015

Click image to enlarge. For more Wordless Wednesday, click here. [For my Instagram friends: this is a little different edit from the photo I posted over the weekend.]

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17 February 2015

Today's Read: Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan

Imagine it's the 1930s and you've foolishly entangled yourself with a married man. What would happen if you found yourself pregnant? On the insistence of her mother, 20-year-old Alice Eveleigh pretends to be a widow, fleeing London to wait the birth of her child under the care of an old family friend.

Fiercombe is a place of secrets. They fret among the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear what's gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it's as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me.
Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan (HarperCollins / Harper, 2015, p. 1 [ARC])

Quick Facts
  • Setting: 1930s and 1890s England (the Cotswolds)
  • Circumstances: In the 1930s, Alice is sent to a country manor to give birth to her illegitimate child and then leave him or her at an orphanage. In the 1890s Lady Elizabeth Stanton is pregnant for the second time, praying that she'll give her husband the son he desires. As Alice wanders the empty manor (the owners live abroad), she uncovers secrets about Elizabeth and begins to fear for her own safety.
  • Characters: Alice Eveleigh, pregnant and unmarried; Elizabeth Stanton, lady of the manor, no longer living on the estate; Edith Jelphs, housekeeper of the manor; Tom Stanton, heir to the estate; various family members and people in London and in the Cotswolds
  • Genre: historical mystery with strong Gothic elements
  • Plot device: Told in alternating chapters: Alice as she explores her temporary home and Elizabeth as she worries about what her husband will do if her pregnancy doesn't turn out as planned.
  • Some themes: treatment of women, pregnancy, mental health, women under the control of men, secrets, marriage, love
  • Early thoughts: Riordan's descriptions of the setting are vivid and the characters are believably flawed. The premise intrigues me: uncovering secrets, hearing unexplained sounds, and wondering what happened to Elizabeth and why she is scared. Reviews, however, have been mixed, citing disappointment with the ending, a weak creep factor, and an unoriginal plot. I'm going to reserve judgment until I finish reading.

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16 February 2015

Review: A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne TylerAnne Tyler is the queen of making something extraordinary out of the ordinary. In her most recent novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, she introduces us to four generations of the Whitshank family and the Baltimore, Maryland, house that has been at their center throughout the years.

At the core of the novel stand Abby and Red Whitshank, and through their story, we meet the rest of the family and learn how they came to live in the house on Bouton Road. As Abby gets increasing forgetful and Red begins to feel his age, their adult children offer different levels of support, sometimes increasing the stress instead of alleviating it.

Abby, in her seventies, is the heart of A Spool of Blue Thread. Like many women of her generation, she holds the family together, keeping the traditions going, giving unconditional love, and buffering discord. At the same time, she is strong and independent, not afraid to speak her mind or to pursue her own interests. She is also the link between the public and private sides not only of her family but also of others, who tend to open up to her, sharing their secrets.

As is often the case when people guard their truths from others, when Abby dies, so will pieces of the Whitshank history. But new generations and new traditions will fill in the gaps, repairing the bonds and creating new threads.

What makes Tyler such a pleasure to read is her focus on everyday concerns. The familiarity of the Whitshanks' issues help sharpen our perspectives because we see ourselves in the characters. The Whitshanks' stories are our own, and Anne Tyler's magic is to turn the ultimate human myth--that "like most families, they imagined they were special"--into truth.

Whether A Spool of Blue Thread is your first or your twentieth Anne Tyler novel, you'll be dazzled by her storytelling.

Note on the audiobook: I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Random House Audio; 13 hr 23 min) read by Kimberly Farr, whose expressive narration and excellent pacing were perfect for Tyler's characters. My full review of the audiobook production is available from AudioFile magazine.

Published by Random House / Knopf, February 10, 2015
ISBN-13: 9781101874271
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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14 February 2015

Weekend Cooking: Real Food for Everyone by Ann Gentry

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.

Real Food for Everyone by Ann GentryHere at casa Beth Fish Reads, about 50 percent of our dinners are vegetarian, but I rarely make a meal that's officially vegan. In fact, I don't have much of vegan repertoire at all. So when I spotted the subtitle to Ann Gentry's Real Food for Everyone--"Vegan-Friendly Meals for Meat-Lovers, Vegetarians, and Vegans"--I thought I'd give this cookbook a chance.

Right off the bat, I liked the design of Real Food for Everyone: the photographs are beautiful; the teal and red color scheme is attractive; and the boxes, tips, and recipes are nicely laid out. All this makes the cookbook a pleasure to use.

According to the publisher, this book is an "updated and paperback edition of [Gentry's] Vegan Family Meals." I'm not familiar with the original book, but Real Food for Everyone is full of terrific information about vegan ingredients, cooking techniques and tips, and equipment. In addition, Gentry talks about the reasons for eating a plant-based diet, taking into account environmental, ethical, and health issues.

On the surface, the recipes in Real Food for Everyone are very familiar, such as salads and soups, smoothies and granolas, lasagna, wraps, and chilies. When you look closer at the recipes, you'll see the vegan adaptations, which sometimes call for ingredients that are not readily available in basic grocery stores or small towns. You may need to plan a trip to the health-food store or larger supermarket. All the dairy products are, of course, vegan equivalents; and non-dairy cheese, milk, and butter are used throughout the cookbook.

One alert: Gentry relies heavily on soy products, especially tofu, tamari, and tempeh. If you have a soy allergy or are avoiding soy for other reasons, you'll definitely want to look through this book before you buy it.

I always think that vegan baking is particularly challenging, but the desserts chapter (see the scan) is full of delicious-looking and -sounding treats. There are even recipes for homemade vegan whipped topping and frosting for vegan cupcakes.

Unfortunately, there are a number of small problems with the recipe directions. For example, one recipe called for 2 tablespoons of oil but used only 4 teaspoons in the dish. Gentry doesn't tell us what to do with the remaining 2 teaspoons. In another recipe, she has us mince garlic, but then it's put into a food processor with other ingredients and processed until smooth. The mincing first, seems like a lot of unnecessary work (a quick chop is all that's needed). Finally, I noticed a few odd flavor combinations, particularly adding tamari and umeboshi to Mexican enchiladas.

If you're an experienced cook, you'll find some great ideas in Real Food for Everyone, despite needing to double-check the recipe instructions. If you're still learning your way around the kitchen, you might run into some difficulties. On the other hand Ann Gentry's book is full of useful information about becoming vegan, adding more plant-based meals to your diet, and buying and using vegan ingredients. My recommendation is to purchase or borrow Real Food for Everyone with the intention of reading it rather than cooking from it.

Above is a scan of one of the recipes to give you an idea of what you'll find within the pages of Real Food for Everyone (click to enlarge it). I'm a little surprised that Gentry doesn't have us soak the beans before cooking them, and I think 30 minutes is a really long time to cook frozen corn. However, the soup looks and sounds tasty and should have universal appeal.

Published by Andrews McMeel, February 10, 2015
ISBN-13: 9781449466534
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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12 February 2015

Review: A Walk among the Tombstones (Movie)

A Walk among the Tombstomes (movie)The movie A Walk among Tombstones (directed by Scott Frank) has many elements that promise good entertainment. Not only does it star Liam Neeson but it's based on author Lawrence Block's award-winning Matt Scudder mysteries.

Before I get into my thoughts, here's the studio's summary:

Based on Lawrence Block’s bestselling series of mystery novels, A Walk among the Tombstones stars Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder, an ex-NYPD cop who now works as an unlicensed private investigator operating just outside the law. When Scudder reluctantly agrees to help a heroin trafficker (Dan Stevens) hunt down the men who kidnapped and then brutally murdered his wife, the PI learns that this is not the first time these men have committed this sort of twisted crime . . . nor will it be the last. Blurring the lines between right and wrong, Scudder races to track the deviants through the backstreets of New York City before they kill again.
The good: Neeson does a great job capturing the character of Scudder, who has given up alcohol and his NYPD badge to take up freelancing. He is brooding and still battling the demons that prompted him to leave the police force. In addition the period details (for example, everyone is worried about Y2K) and muted lighting both fit the story well. The action scenes pulled me in, and I was appropriately startled by a couple of the plot points.

The well, OK, I'll buy it: The time period is 1999, and Scudder is still not up to par with modern technology. But fortunately for him, he meets and befriends the teenaged TJ (played by Brian "Astro" Bradley), who helps him navigate the library's computer. TJ is homeless but seems plenty clean and very familiar with technology (maybe because he sleeps in the library when he can get away with it). His jive talk also seems a little bit off to me, but I'm not sure.

A Walk among Tombstones (movie)The not so good: Unfortunately, this movie wasn't a total hit for me. First, I felt the plot dragged at times, and for some reason, I wasn't worried enough about the fate of the potential next murder victim. Maybe I just assumed that Scudder would figure it all out in time to save her, so I wasn't really on the edge of my seat. In addition, there were no strong female characters. In fact, I'm not sure if any of the women or girls had more than a line or two, if that. Finally, I thought the overall tough-guy atmosphere need more of a buffer or contrast.

The recommendation: Although A Walk among Tombstones was only so-so for me, it might work better for you. The Roger Ebert website had a lot of good things to say about the filming and adaptation of Block's character. Other sites seem to agree with me: Neeson's performance is worth watching, but keep your expectations in check.

Blu-ray + Digital HD: A Walk among Tombstones is now out in Blu-ray and digital editions (so you can "watch it anywhere"). The bonus features include a look behind the scenes and an exclusive titles "Matt Scudder: Private Eye." Thanks to Way to Blue and Universal Studios for providing me with a review copy.

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11 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday 328

Flower, 2015

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10 February 2015

Today's Read & Giveaway: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The NIghtingale by Kristin HannahAre there limits to what you would do to help others during times of war? On a beautiful summer day in 1939 in the Loire Valley, Viann Mauriac hadn't yet realized she would soon discover the answer.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today's young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin's Press, 2015, p. 1 [ARC])

Quick Facts
  • Setting: occupied France; World War II
  • Circumstances: The story of civilian French women who protected allied forces and Jewish families from the Nazis, despite the brutal tactics of the German invaders.
  • Characters: Viann Mauriac; her adolescent daughter, Sophie; her sister, Isabelle (also known as The Nightingale); family, neighbors, friends; refugees; Germans
  • Genre: historical fiction; inspired by the true stories of women in war
  • Plot device: Starts in 1995 in the United States, moves to France during WWII, and returns to the novel's present.
  • Some thoughts: The novel does not whitewash what women did to survive or the way the German soldiers took advantage of women's vulnerability. Sisters Viann and Isabelle have different personalities and life experiences and thus take different risks: neither walked an easy path.
  • Recommendation: Hannah shows us another side of the horrors of WWII but also reminds us that ordinary people truly can (and did) make a difference; they just need to hold fast to what they know is right, no matter what. An important, and often forgotten, story of wartime.
  • Extras: visit Kristin Hannah's website for a reading guide and photos; The Nightingale is an Indie Next pick for February; in the following short video, Hannah talks about her research and inspiration for this novel.

The Giveaway

Thanks to St. Martin's Press, I'm able to give one of my readers a copy of Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale. All you have to do to enter for a chance to win is to have a U.S. mailing address and fill out the form. I'll pick a winner using a random number generator on February 18. Once the winner has been confirmed and I've passed his or her address on to the publicist, I'll erase all personal information from my computer. Good luck.

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09 February 2015

Review: Recommended Duo for Your Middle Grade Reader

Looking for a couple of good books for your middle grade readers? Here are two from Jabberwocky I can wholeheartedly recommend for your young reader or even for yourself.

How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel by Jess KeatingHow to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel by Jess Keating: Thirteen-year-old Ana Wright's family owns a zoo, complete with a new aquarium. Although she should be worried about becoming shark bait, Ana's instead learning how to swim the dangerous waters of middle school friendships. When she is asked to help maintain the shark tank over the summer, Ana is dismayed to learn that she'll have to work with her classmate Ashley, who has a reputation for being a mean girl. Will the two girls find a way to get along? Jess Keating uses humor and zoological facts to explore important middle grade themes, such as popularity, friendships, first crushes, making judgments about others, family, and responsibility. Besides realistic dialogue and easy-to-relate-to characters, the novel includes fun graphics that mimic diary entries, animal facts files, and handwritten notes. I love the way these features break up the chapters and help pull us into Ana's world. Although this is the second installment in the My Life Is a Zoo series, How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel stands solidly on its own, so don't hesitate to jump right in. (Sourcebooks / Jabberwocky; ISBN: 9781402297588)

Dinosaur Boy by Cory Putman OakesDinosaur Boy by Cory Putman Oakes: Over the summer before fifth grade, eleven-year-old Sawyer Bronson might have expected to start to see signs of his impending maturity, but he wasn't quite prepared for his new spikes and tail! Sawyer's family, you see, carries dinosaur genes, the result of a long-ago scientific mishap. When school starts, Sawyer has a lot to contend with: Besides learning to deal with a dangerous tail, he also has to cope with being teased by some of his classmates. Fortunately, the principal doesn't allow bullying, but when the mean kids begin to mysteriously disappear, Sawyer has to decide if should try to find out what happened to them. Cory Putman Oakes weaves a number of good lessons--especially giving others a second chance, rising to the occasion, and learning tolerance--in this zany look at an alternative world. Strong characters, including one of Sawyer's female friends; a good plot twist; and some humor make this a terrific start to a new middle grade Sci-Fi series that celebrates diversity, self-acceptance, and heroism. Middle grade readers of both sexes will love getting to know Sawyer. (Sourcebooks / Jabberwocky; ISBN: 9781492605379)

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07 February 2015

Weekend Cooking: Far Flung and Well Fed by R. W. Apple Jr.

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.

Far Flung and Well Fed by R. W. Apple Jr.R. W. Apple Jr, called Johnny by those who knew him, had the dream job of getting paid to travel and dine all over the world in his career as a newspaper reporter. Far Flung and Well Fed is a collection of some his food-related New York Times articles, dated from the late 1990s into the early twenty-first century.

Apple's stories introduce us to street-vendor pretzels, artisan cheeses, Scotch whiskey, Andean wines, German rye bread, and Venetian seafood. Although the focus of the articles is on food, we also get to see the people and places through Apple's eyes, letting us indulge in some armchair travels.

The short pieces in this large collection are best read one or two at a time, and not necessarily in order. Instead, visit California and learn about an Indonesian vegetable dish:
And then there is rojak, a midsummer California night's dream, cooling and palate-stirring: pineapple, cucumber, mango, jicama, crispy tofu, peanuts and hot pepper. It makes a world-class salad, colorful, enlivened by vivid contrasts in texture, sweet and salty, mild and peppery. (p. 132)
Then pop over to Europe and rediscover a familiar spice:
Paprika is paprika, you might think. But no. It is almost as complex as the Hungarian language, which is related only to Finnish and Basque, as far as anyone knows, and sounds like something falling down stairs. (p. 307)
Continue west, stopping in southern India, where coconuts are king:
The coconut palm, I quickly came to realize, is the mainstay of Malayalee life. Its leaves are used for thatch, its fiber for robe, its roots for firewood, its trunk for furniture. And in the Keralite kitchen, coconut flesh, oil, milk and vinegar are indispensable sources of both flavor and texture. (p. 376)
You'll find that Apple has strong opinions and is sometimes slightly snobby, but he is nonetheless always delightful. What an amazing life he had in both food and travel. Pick up a copy of Far Flung and Well Fed to keep on your nightstand and take a trip around the world, one delicious story at a time.

Published by St. Martin's Press, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780312325770
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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06 February 2015

Guest Post: Sweet Tooth by Marion Grace Woolley (Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran)

Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran by Marion Grace WoolleyOpening sentences: "Those days are buried beneath the mists of time. A lake of memory, distorted by ripples of remembrance and youthful uncertainty."

From this strong beginning, Marion Grace Woolley's Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran takes us into a world very far removed from the one most of us know. In an interview, Woolley noted that her novel, set in Iran along the Caspian Sea, can be thought of as a kind of prequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Using hints from the original story, she imagines the Phantom's youth, when he was a member of a traveling circus that performed for the Shah of Iran.

Here's the publisher's summary:

It begins with a rumour, an exciting whisper. Anything to break the tedium of the harem for the Shah’s eldest daughter. People speak of a man with a face so vile it would make a hangman faint, but a voice as sweet as an angel’s kiss. A master of illusion and stealth. A masked performer, known only as Vachon. For once, the truth will outshine the tales.

On her eleventh birthday, Afsar’s uncle tries to molest her, and her father, the Shah, gifts her a circus. With the circus comes a man who will change everything. . . . Marion Grace Woolley takes us on forbidden adventures through a time that has been written out of history books.
Sounds like a fascinating read, and it's made all the better because Woolley pays attention to the details, including the food and drink that would have been found at the shah's palace.

I'm pleased to host Marion Grace Woolley today at Beth Fish Reads. I'm extra happy because Marion tells us about some wonderful Middle East desserts. Her characters loved these treats, and so will you.

Sweet Tooth

Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is laden with references to sweet, seductive treats. At one point, Afsar, the main character, receives a visit from her father's chief of spies, the Darougheh of Mazandaran:
At first we had little to say to one another: a girl of almost thirteen and a man more than thrice her age. The aromatic spices in the dish slowly began to loosen our tongues, and the cardamom toffee ┼×elale produced for dessert sweetened his words.
There is such a sensual link between food and thought. Hot, spicy dishes to rouse our temper, wine to loosen our tongues, and sugar to sweeten our hearts.

I'd like to share three of the main desserts mentioned in the book. They are not the easiest to prepare, but if you don't have the time or the ingredients you can usually find them at your local Asian or Middle Eastern store.

Halva is found throughout much of the world, and its name simply means "sweet." When I have bought it in the UK, it has usually been made with tahini, a paste formed from crushed sesame seeds. It comes as a solid block, often with pistachios or almonds on top, and has the strange consistency of sand with none of the grit. This is also how it most commonly appears in Iran, the setting for the book. In Mazandaran they are known for a particular type of Halva called Khoshk halva, sweetened with honey. There is a simple recipe here, but it's also worth watching this video on YouTube as they say that the temperature needs to be higher (260°F rather than 240°F).

Baklava (or baghlava) is a sweet made from fine filo pastry and dripping with honey. Although widely eaten throughout the Middle East, the desert is commonly thought to be of Turkish origin, a favourite treat for the Sultan dining at the Topkap─▒ Palace in Istanbul. There is a traditional Iranian recipe online here, and a helpful YouTube video here.

When my friend got married a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, I bought a large plate of baghlava from the Turkish cafe on London Road. If it's still there, they do make exceedingly fine sweets.

Honeyed dates: Dried fruits were a common treat for the people of 1850s Iran. Dried dates are easy to find in many shops, sticky with sweet syrup. However, I found this unusual recipe online for Honey-Fried Salted Stuffed Dates said to date (ho ho) back to the 5th-century Roman Empire! If you're truly looking for a taste of history, this would be a great place to start.

To wash it down, you might try a cup of warm milk, heated in a saucepan with a teaspoon or two of honey and a dash of ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg.
Thanks so much, Marion, for this informative (and mouth-watering) post. It takes me back to my childhood because I grew up eating all three of these treats. My home town has a large Lebanese population, and we were lucky enough to have specialty stores that sold homemade versions of these fabulous desserts.

Now I can't wait to read Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran.

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05 February 2015

Review: Fables 15: Rose Red by Bill Willingham

Fables 15: Rose Red by Bill WillinghamIt's my understanding that the long-running Fables series, by Bill Willingham and his team of artists, is coming to an end this spring with two final books: number 21 in April and number 22 in June. I've loved most of the main story arcs, and I'll be sad to say good-bye to my friends in Fabletown.

Of course, there are several spin-off books and series. I've already read the Jack of Fables books, but I still have the Cinderella books, a Bigby book, and the Fairest series to look forward to.

The title of volume 15 is Red Rose, and the collected issues focus on two main story lines plus a number of extras. As always, I'll avoid spoilers for this volume, but I can't help but reveal what's happened earlier in the series.

Rose Red and Snow White: The first part of the book includes tales of Rose and Snow's childhood and how they ended up on separate paths. We also learn the true story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (hint: those dwarves weren't really all that nice) and how she met her prince. I really enjoyed this story arc and especially loved the panels that showed the two as little girls (see scan).

Frau Totenkinder / Bellfower: The second part of the book focuses on Totenkinder, now transformed and calling herself Bellflower. This section moves at a swift pace, as the powerful witch tries her hand at both defeating Mister Dark and finding a new life. Lots of action and unexpected twists; you'll have to read the book to see if she succeeded in either quest.

(c) Bill WillinghamExtras: The final part of volume 15 consists of some short pieces featuring Thumbelina, the Three Blind Mice, and Pinocchio. Although the Pinocchio story ended on an intriguing note, I didn't love this part of the book.

The Art: The Rose Red chapters were penciled by Mark Buckingham and Inked by Steve Leialoha and others. The colors are vibrant and the facial expressions and body postures are lifelike and convey so much more than just the words do. Buckingham and Leialoha were responsible for much of the Totenkinder chapters, and the details and darkness of those panels enhance the story perfectly.

I was less taken by the art in the short stories: the color range in the Thumbelina panels is primarily limited to greens and browns, and I found the lack of detail in the drawings to be disconcerting after the richness of the earlier stories. The art for the Mice adventure has a smudgey appearance, which felt like a good fit.

Recommendation: Rose Red renewed my interest in the Fables series, which was waning after the Jack books and the Great Crossover volume. The endings of the stories included in volume 15 promise changes--some that will have broad repercussions on all the Fables and some that will affect just a few characters on a more personal level. I rate Rose Red as one of my favorite issues.

Published by DC Comics / Vertigo, 2011
ISBN-13: 9781401230005
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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04 February 2015

Wordless Wednesday 327

Ice, 2015

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

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03 February 2015

Today's Read: Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnisWhat if global warming can't be reversed? In the future world, water will be the prized commodity, and the haves will do whatever is necessary to keep it from the have-nots. For Lynn, daily survival depends on only four things: her, her gun, her mother, and their pond.

Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond, the sweet smell of water luring the man to be picked off like the barn swallows that dared to swoop in for a drink. Mother had killed the people who came too close to their pond before, but over the next seven years they fell by Lynn's gun as well, their existence easily wiped out first by a bullet, then by the coyotes before the sun could rise. Death and gunpowder were scents from her childhood, but today the fall breeze brought something less familiar to her rooftop perch, and her nose wrinkled.
Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins / Katherine Tegen Books, 2013, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: the future; in a rural area
  • Circumstances: Lynn and her mother know that their lives depend on defending the pond and preserving food for the approaching winter. When Lynn's bleak but workable life is shattered, something will have to change. She must weigh everything she knows to be true against her gut instincts; if she makes the wrong choice, she'll be dead.
  • Characters: Lynn and her mother; their neighbor, Stebbs; outsiders
  • Genre & audience: dystopian; YA with adult cross-over
  • The new and different: Unlike other young adult dystopian novels, Not a Drop to Drink has a strong feel of realism. There is no Big Brother government breathing down Lynn's neck, no games or mazes, no one living the life of luxury just around the bend. This world is simply about the hard business of individual survival. The book is more along the lines of adult dystopians—like The Road, for example—than the usual teen fare.
  • The same old: (warning, possible spoiler→) What's a teen dystopian without a little romance; it's not totally insta-love, but almost. Fortunately, this does not take away from the overall mood of the story.
  • Miscellaneous: I'm not sure McGinnis is planning a long series, but the second book, In a Handful of Dust, was published a few months ago. The new installment takes place about decade after Not a Drop to Drink ends, and I hope to read it soon.
  • The author: McGinnis was inspired to write the novel after watching a documentary on what the future could be like if we truly start to run out of fresh water. You can listen to (or read) an NPR story in which McGinnis talks about her book.
  • Recommendations: I'm still reading, but I'm in agreement with almost everyone who has reviewed this book: Not a Drop to Drink is well written, bleak, realistic, and gritty (had to use the word, sorry). Despite the target audience, Mindy McGinnis has given us a mature story about an all-too-possible future. Now excuse me while I start digging a well and look for a shotgun.

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02 February 2015

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: The Midwinter Edition

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts are my random notes about books I've read, movies I've watched, books I'm looking forward to, and events I hope to get to.

Getting Organized

I'm writing this while watching the Super Bowl. I'm sipping some wine and am totally exhausted because I spent the entire weekend going through all my books: I sorted them, reshelved them, and culled them. I now have bags of books ready to go to charity and many fewer books on the floor.

Now, let me quickly say that the books I'm giving away are not all review copies. I've finally gotten to the point at which I accept that I'm never going to look through my old craft books, college textbooks, or yellowing paperback mysteries again. By getting rid of them (and ARCs I'm clearly never going to read), I found that I had room for most of the books I want in my permanent library plus current(ish) review books.

Besides just feeling good about lighting the load, I love that I took the time to group my books into useful categories, such as books I want to read now, books I want to read someday, books I've read and want to keep, and books I want to write about even if I don't get to read them all the way through. It was also fun to rediscover books I had been so excited to get. Can't wait to dig in.

Next up is organizing my collection of eBooks and eGalleys. I'm in fairly good shape with them, thanks to Calibre, but I need to make some realistic decisions about what I'm really going to read or write about.

What We're Watching

Besides a few movies I've gotten for review purposes, we're watching a only a handful of current shows, including Black Sails on STZ, Shameless on SHO, and Downton Abby on PBS. We're also slowly catching up with Blue Bloods and Justified on streaming. We would be watching Longmire but the newer seasons are not streaming for free yet (what's up with that?).

Black Sails is bit complicated, but we like the actors and the story, which is a kind of prequel to Treasure Island. Plus it's pirates! Shameless is a U.S. remake of a British show about a lower-income family trying to stay afloat the best they can, which isn't always by staying on the right side of the law.

Books at the Top of My Stack
I'm currently listening to The Mime Order and reading Ongoingness and Fables: Rose Red (vol. 15). Two books at the top of my February list are The Coach's Wife and Members Only. For the Blogger's Recommend newsletter, my pick of the month was A Matter of Breeding. Look for reviews of all these in the weeks to come.

The Mime Order is the second in an alternate history/fantasy series that has great characters, good action, and a fresh premise. The Coach's Wife promises to be a multilayered novel about sports, love, and teaching. It takes place in Indiana. The three nonfiction picks provide fascinating looks into dog breeding, exclusive clubs and organizations, and journaling. Everything is high on my recommend list.

What are you reading or watching? Are your books organized?

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