30 November 2015

Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. Martin

Review of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R. R. MartinI'm one of those people who is trying to wait patiently for the next big installment in George R. R. Martin's Ice and Fire series. Yes, I know, the TV show will take us past the last printed page, but I really want to read the story as Martin intended it to be told.

In the meantime, I read (and listened to) Martin's newest collection set in the Game of Thrones universe, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which takes place a hundred years or so before the events in the main books. Although the three novellas included in the volume have been published before, they were all new to me.

I don't want to say too much about what happens in these stories about Ser Duncan the Tall (a hedge knight) and his young squire, Egg, because I don't want to ruin your fun of meeting these characters and learning about their adventures. Note that A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a lighter take on the world of Westeros than that of the Ice and Fire books. There is a distinct medieval feel, and the stories are more action/adventure than they are fantasy.

I loved the developing relationship of Dunk and Egg, which is part mentor/student and part loyal friendship. Egg is great character, and the nine-year-old boy is full of secrets and useful knowledge. Duncan often calls himself "Dunk the Lunk," but the young knight knows how to get himself out of tricky situations. For those of us who know the Game of Thrones books, there are many familiar family names (such as Lannister, Targaryen) and places (for example, King's Landing) as well as references to events that will later have a significant impact on the kingdom and its rulers.

Although the stories in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms won't further the major plot lines of the Ice and Fire saga, they will give Game of Thrones fans a welcome fix while they wait for the next big novel from George R. R. Martin. Don't miss these charming tales, which give us a gentler perspective of Westeros (despite a few bloody deaths).

Notes on the print edition versus the audiobook: If you want only one copy of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, you might be in a bit of dilemma. The unabridged audiobook (Random House Audio; 10 hr, 1 min) is read by Harry Lloyd. His expressive performance kept my attention while leaving me room to form my own reactions to the stories. He skillfully built up the tension and pace of the action without foreshadowing the outcome. In addition, Lloyd did a good job keeping the characters distinct and differentiating between dialogue and Dunk's inner thoughts.

On the other hand, if you listen to the audiobook, you'll miss out on the many illustrations by the talented Gary Gianni. The black-and-white drawings add much to the story and are not to be missed. If you don't recognize Gianni's name, perhaps you'll recognize some of his work: he drew the "Prince Valiant" comic strip (2004-12) as well as a number of graphic novels, comics, and magazines.

I decided not to choose between the media: I listened to the audiobook and took the time to look at and study Gianni's illustrations in the hardcover edition. However you read A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, you'll be glad you revisited George R. R. Martin's rich and complex world.

Published by Penguin Random House / Bantam, 2015
ISBN-13: 9780345533487
Source: Review: audiobook; bought: hardcover (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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28 November 2015

Weekend Cooking: Using Up That Leftover Turkey

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

Culinary Classics & Improvisations by Michael FieldA few Thanksgivings ago, I wrote about my love of the cookbook Culinary Classics & Improvisations by Michael Field. It's one of my go-to books for company meals and for using up leftovers (the "improvisations" of the title). As I said in my earlier post, I'm not sure this cookbook is still in print, so look for it at a used-book store.

In 2010, I shared one of Field's ways to transform your turkey leftovers into a yummy dinner. Today, I'm going to post another favorite poultry recipe from the cookbook. It's a great way to perk up your holiday weekend meals.

The following recipe was originally written for chicken, but it works beautifully with turkey. I have substituted milk for the cream with no problems, so don't worry if you don't have cream. I've added a few notes in brackets and have pared down the directions a little (Field is pretty chatty).

Gratin of Roast Turkey in the Style of the Savoie
 Serves 4
  • 4 tablespoons softened butter (3 for roux, 1 for topping)
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup white wine [use extra stock if you don't have this]
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup heavy cream [or milk]
  • 1 teaspoon fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons grated Swiss cheese
  • 1/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 4 to 6 substantial pieces of cold roast turkey
Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan [over medium-high heat], and when it is completely melted but not brown, mix in, off the heat, the flour. Stir this roux until it is smooth, then pour in the stock and wine. Whisk until the roux has somewhat dissolved, return the pan to the heat, and cook, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Turn the heat down and let the sauce simmer as slowly as possible for about 5 minutes, stirring with a spoon every now and then. The sauce should be quite thick. Then thin it with a 1/2 cup of cream; if it is still too thick, add more cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the sauce runs sluggishly off the spoon when it is lifted from the pan. Add the tarragon, salt, cayenne, mustard, and cheese and stir until well combined. Simmer a moment or two to melt the cheese and taste for seasoning, adjusting as necessary.

Choose a shallow baking dish that is just large enough to hold the turkey in one layer and attractive enough to serve from at the table. Spread a thin layer of the sauce on the bottom of the pan and arrange the turkey pieces, skin side up. Sprinkle each piece very lightly with salt, then with a large spoon coat the pieces thoroughly, one by one, with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top and dot with the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Bake in the center of a 375F oven for about 20 minutes or until the sauce begins to bubble and the turkey is heated through. Slide it under the broiler to brown the surface lightly, then serve at once.

Happy holiday weekend to all my US readers!

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26 November 2015

Thanksgiving Thoughts and Reading Plans

To all my friends in the United States, I wish you a happy, healthy, and relaxing holiday weekend. Hope you find time to read a book or two between tending the turkey and visiting with friends and family.

To everyone else, pardon our many photos of food over the next twenty-four hours and may your upcoming weekend be filled with all things good.

We're planning a quiet weekend at home. Besides cooking and eating, I'm looking forward to reading, walking, and doing some book culling. I may even get around to watching Jessica Jones.

Here are some the books I have at the top of my reading list. I may read these or pick up something else entirely. I'm going to see where my mood takes me.

LIke Family by Paolo GiordanoA couple of years ago I read and liked Paolo Giordano's The Solitude of Prime Numbers, so when I was offered a copy of his newest novel, Like Family, I didn't hesitate to say yes. According to the publisher's description, this is a story of a young family and their housekeeper. The themes seem to be marriage, parenthood, family, facing personal setbacks, and negotiating adulthood. I have high hopes. First sentence:

On my thirty-fifth birthday, Mrs. A. abruptly gave up the determination that in my eyes characterized her more than any other quality and, already laid out in a bed that by then seemed too big for her body, finally abandoned the world we all know.
I'm giving away a copy of this next week.

The Outlandish Companion Volume 2 by Diana GabaldonEven though the second volume of The Outlandish Companion by Diana Gabaldon entered my house in October, I haven't had time to sit down and read it. I don't plan to read this book front to back all in one go. Instead, I'll flip through, reading the essays (on language, on writing, on the television show, etc.), browsing the maps, and skimming the synopses of the more recent Outlander books. Good fun ahead. Here's the first sentence of the first chapter:
The Outlander series includes three kinds of stories: The Big, Enormous Books, which have no discernible genre (or all of them).
It's true: It's damn near impossible to describe the Outlander books by genre.

The Bone Hunters by Robert J. MrazekAlso high on my list is the novel by Robert J. Mrazek. I can't resist a mystery / thriller that stars an archaeologist. The first book in the series, Valhalla, involved a discovery of Viking ruins in Greenland. The Bone Hunters concerns hominid fossil remains found in China. The premise promises politics, the military, religious beliefs, and science combined with a twisty and action-packed plot. Good escape reading. Here's the first sentence of the prologue:
It was one of the two darkest nights Corporal Sean Patrick Morrissey could ever remember.
The opening scene is set in China in 1941, but chapter one takes us to Boston in modern times. I'll be giving away copies of both Mrazek books in a couple of weeks.

I have a gazillion other books on my plate, so we'll see what I really get around to reading over the next few days. Enjoy the weekend, and see you Saturday for Weekend Cooking!

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25 November 2015

Wordless Wednesday 369

Looking Out, 2015

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23 November 2015

Review and Giveaway: If You're Lucky by Yvonne Prinz

Review of If You're Lucky by Yvonne PrinzAs you know, I love pretty much everything Algonquin Books publishes for adults. But you might not be aware that my love extends to books published under the Algonquin Young Readers imprint as well.

Yvonne Prinz's If You're Lucky, published last month, is no exception. Here's what I wrote for Readerly magazine:

This is an emotionally complex psychological thriller that weaves a mystery into a story that also examines grief, families, and mental health. After seventeen-year-old Georgia's older brother died in a surfing accident, she begins to question the behavior of one his friends, who decides to stick around town after flying in to attend the funeral. Unfortunately, Georgia has been battling schizophrenia all her life, and her friends and family dismiss her fears as emanating from her condition. As well as building tension and crafting an absorbing mystery, Prinz sensitively portrays the teen's mixed feelings about the side effects of her meds and her struggle to be seen as something more than her diagnosis. This young adult thriller would make an excellent book club choice, initiating discussions of several fruitful issues, including preconceived notions of mental illness.
Many of you read over a broad range of audiences and already know that not all young adult novels involve a dystopian world or an angst-filled love triangle. But if you tend to shy away from young adult novels, I urge you to put your misgivings aside and give this thriller, set in contemporary times, a try. If You're Lucky is multilayered and examines mature topics, making this a terrific crossover book.

For more on Yvonne Prinz and her newest novel, be sure to check out If You're Lucky page on the Algonquin Young Readers website. I enjoyed reading Prinz's essay about the writing of the novel and the surprising source of her inspiration. Book club members, both adults and teens, will appreciate the insightful questions included in the reader's guide, also available on the publisher's website.

Thanks to Algonquin Young Readers, I can offer two of my readers with a US or Canadian mailing address a copy of Yvonne Prinz's If You're Lucky. All you have to do to be entered for a chance to win is to fill out the following form. I'll pick a winner using a random number generator on December 4. Once the winner has been confirmed, I'll erase all personal information from my computer. Good luck!

Published by Algonquin Young Readers, 2015
ISBN-13: 9781616204631
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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21 November 2015

Weekend Cooking: As Always, Julia edited by Joan Reardon

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

Review: As Always, Julia edited by Joan ReardonI belong to a group of Julia Child fans who simply can't get enough of her. Although her story has been told time and again, I couldn't resist reading just one more book.

As Always, Julia, edited by Joan Reardon, is a collection of letters written by Julia Child and her friend and pen pal Avis DeVoto from 1952 to 1961. This was the decade during which Child was writing her Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Avis DeVoto, a book and manuscript reviewer (among other things), was the wife of an award-winning author. The two women met on paper when Child wrote DeVoto's husband a fan letter. When Avis replied, little did she know that she had found her soul mate. The letters between the women start off somewhat formal, but once the friendship formed, they shared their opinions on many aspects of their lives, from the kitchen to the living room and even the bedroom.

Underlying these personal letters is Child's ongoing project of writing her Mastering the Art of French Cooking. DeVoto was more than supportive; she was instrumental in getting the book accepted and published by Knopf. In addition, DeVoto helped copyedit the manuscript and tweak it for an American audience.

The letters themselves make for delightful reading, giving us insight into Julia Child the person, not the famous cook or television personality. The women, of course, wrote often of meals, recipes, ingredients, kitchen equipment, and cooking techniques. But they also shared their thoughts on books, politics, and aging (the women met when they were in their forties). I loved Child's descriptions of the cities she visited or lived in, the women's discussions of McCarthyism, and their thoughts on the other people in their lives. I was also interested in Child's frank reactions to the problems and pains of moving whenever Paul, her husband, was reassigned to another city or another country.

Whether you read each letter carefully or you pick and choose, Joan Reardon's As Always, Julia is perfect for Julia Child fans and for anyone interested in food and travel during the 1950s. The letters also offer interesting insight into the writing and editing of Child's masterpiece cookbook. Check this out of the library or ask for it for Christmas. Then pour yourself a proper cup of tea and settle in for a good read. (Note: the image is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.)

Published by Houghton Mifflin, 2010
ISBN-13: 9780547417714
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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19 November 2015

Review: Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Review of Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz WilliamsBullet summary: Along the Infinite Sea is Beatriz William's latest book about the Schuyler sisters. In 1966, Pepper Schuyler, a twenty-something senator's aide, is facing up to her new reality: Her growing belly confirms that she's in a situation that will seriously dampen her partying, flirty ways. Meanwhile fifty-something Annabelle Dommerich, recently widowed, is coming to terms with her convoluted past. When the two women meet, they find they have a lot in common.

More about Annabelle: Although she is actually a French princess, Annabelle lived in American for much of her young life. When her mother died young, Annabelle returned to France, under the care of her father and brother. When just nineteen, she fell in love with Stefan, a handsome German Jew, but she was heartbroken when she discovered he was not only married but also a father; thus she was grateful when Johann, a German officer as well as baron, agreed to marry her and raise her unborn child as his own; she, in return, was to be a faithful and good wife to him and a devoted stepmother to his children. Annabelle is not stupid, but she's young, naive, and trusting. So the more the new baroness learned about her husband and about Stefan, the more she began to question her decisions. It all came to head two years later on Kristallnacht, when Annabelle and her cobbled-together family escaped across the German border, eventually settling in America. But which family and which man flees with her?

More about Pepper: Pepper, the middle Schuyler sister, is pregnant by a U.S. Senator from a powerful family. She is tough and resourceful, but not entirely prepared to survive all on her own. When Annabelle offers her a place of refuge, Pepper is hardly in a position to refuse. The chance meeting has the potential to change the direction of Pepper's future.

Thoughts on the construction: The novel's setting alternates between the U.S. South in 1966 and Europe in the late 1930s. Of the two stories, Annabelle's is the more engaging and emotionally strong. I particularly liked the way Williams presented the issues surrounding the rising Nazi regime from the perspective of a young girl who thought more about love and life than she did about politics. The novel shows how intelligent and caring people could be oblivious to the harsh realities until it was too late. I also liked the slight mystery of who Annabelle ended up with and why. The intrigue was nicely done. I was somewhat disappointed in Pepper's story, though the lightness and fun provided relief from the darker days of prewar Europe.

Themes: love, survival, duty, marriage, doing the right thing, politics, women's issues, parenting, sacrifices. In both time periods, the women each reject any notion of abortion, despite their unmarried status and risk of social and family rejection. Along the Infinite Sea would make a great book club choice; all the themes would provide fodder for conversation.

Things to know: Although Williams's has written about the Schuyler family before, Along the Infinite Sea works solidly as a standalone novel. The book is a November Indie Next Pick and a LibraryReads pick. It has also received a few starred reviews.

Recommendations: Beatriz William's Along the Infinite Sea would appeal to fans of historical fiction and fans of women's fiction. The romance aspects of the novel are strong, but not sappy or overwhelming. There is plenty here for those more interested in historical details than in a love story. If you're looking for fiction to read for Jewish book month, Along the Infinite Sea could work.

Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook edition (Penguin Audio; 15 hr, 43 min) was nicely read by Kathleen McInerney. I'm hardly an expert on accents, but I thought her German and French accents were believable without being cartoony or stereotypical. Her characterizations were consistent, and she gave the dialogue the proper male, female, old, and young intonations. I liked the way McInerney captured Pepper's spunk and sass and Annabelle's calm self-confidence. The good pacing and expressive performance make this a recommended audiobook.

Published by Penguin USA/ Putnam, 2015
ISBN-13: 9780399171314
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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18 November 2015

Wordless Wednesday #368

Historic Graveyard in November, 2015

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17 November 2015

Today's Read & Giveaway: Dishing the Dirt by M. C. Beaton

review of Dishing the Dirt by MC BeatonWhat if someone moved to your close-knit town and seemed determined to reveal your secrets? Agatha Raisin, a brash ex-public relations executive, is afraid that the nosy new therapist, Jill, could tumble her carefully built house of cards. When Jill is found strangled to death, all eyes turn to Agatha as the prime suspect. Will Agatha, now a private detective, be able to solve the case and clear her name, even as new murders are discovered?

After a dismal grey winter, spring came to the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, bringing blossoms, blue skies and warm breezes.

But somewhere in the heart of one private detective, Agatha Raisin, storms were brewing.
Dishing the Dirt by M. C. Beaton (Minotaur Books, 2015, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: the Cotswolds, modern times
  • Circumstances: Therapist Jill Davent, new to the village of Carsely, seems to have way too much interest in Agatha. Not only does Jill dig into Agatha's past but she's even dating Agatha's ex-husband. Soon after Agatha angrily confronts Jill, the therapist is found murdered. Agatha and her team of investigators must prove her innocence before she either is arrested or becomes a victim.
  • Characters: Agatha Raisin, our hero; James Lacey, her ex-husband; Charles Fraith, her friend and sometimes lover; Jill Davent, therapist and Agatha's new rival; members of Agatha's newish PI firm; various villagers
  • Genre: British mystery; light reading
  • A little about Agatha Raisin: When Agatha Raisin retired early from a career in public relations, she moved from London to the Cotswolds. After becoming entangled in a number of murder investigations, she became a private investigator. Agatha is one of those women you love to hate: she's brash, outspoken (not always in a good way), and thinks the world revolves around her. She's also a man chaser, who has questionable judgment when it comes to potential mates. Much of her behavior is a mask to hide her insecurities.
  • Thoughts: Dishing the Dirt has all the trademark Agatha Raisin features. You'll find plenty of red herrings and quirky characters, not to mention murder victims. Agatha lets her jealousies get the better of her, and of course, she has her eye on some men (including her ex-husband). As always, it's fun to see her try to solve cases because she relies so much on her hunches instead of hard, cold facts. This is a satisfying addition to the Agatha Raisin series.
  • Recommendation: If you like British mysteries, quirky characters, and small-town settings, you're sure to like the Agatha Raisin books. Don't worry if you haven't read any of the other books in the series, M. C. Beaton provides enough background so you won't feel lost. Dishing the Dirt is fun, quick read, making it a perfect choice for a cold winter's evening.
The Giveaway

Thanks to the publisher, I am able to offer two of my readers with a U.S. or Canadian mailing address a copy of Dishing the Dirt by M. C. Beaton. All you have to do to be entered for a chance to win is to fill out the following form. I'll pick two winners, via a random number generator, on November 27. Once the winners have been confirmed and I've passed the names and addresses along to the publisher, I'll erase all personal information from my computer. Good luck!

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14 November 2015

Weekend Cooking: Chef (Movie Review)

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

Chef (movie)I can't believe I waited so long to see Jon Favreau's movie Chef. I know, I know, all my foodie friends loved it, so what was my problem? I have no clue.

I'm happy to report that you all were right: I did love it. What's more, I was pleasantly surprised that there's more to the movie than just food. But oh the food!

In case you don't know, here's the premise: Carl Casper (Favreau), once a celebrated, experimental chef, now cooks the same food night after night for his conservative backer (Dustin Hoffman). After a bad review, Carl walks out of the restaurant and eventually decides to cook simple, traditional dishes, with a twist, out of a food truck. His friend and fellow cook Martin (John Leguizamo) joins him in the venture.

The movie is filled with scene after scene of wonderful food, from garlic-infused pasta and shrimp dishes to down-home barbecue and cubanos. OMG, if you weren't hungry before the film begins, you absolutely will be by the time it ends.

As I said, Chef does have some deeper themes in addition to showing us amazing food and cooking. It addresses the power of social media, parenting, taking pride in one's work, and following one's dream.

When you need an uplifting movie with some good messages, cook yourself up a comfort-food dinner (or take out from a food truck!) and download Chef. You won't be sorry.

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12 November 2015

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: The Late-Fall Edition

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: The Post-Daylight Savings Time EditionI know I'm not alone when I complain about how early night falls now that we're off Daylight Savings Time. I hate that's too dark to walk outside after work. I really need to get myself used to lunchtime exercise.

Fortunately, all is not sad around here because I'm getting ready for a long weekend in the Poconos with a group of great women. We make lace, we drink wine, we watch movies, we gab, we walk, we eat (a lot). It's one of my favorite weekends of the year, and this is the 12th November we've gotten together. So much fun!

Other news on the personal level is that I've joined the ListApp (as BethFishReads, of course). I've loved my first couple of weeks in that community -- it's a diverse group and I like the creativity, humor, honesty, support, and friendliness of the listers. (I think this is an iPhone only app.)

Audiobooks. I'm fairly caught up with audiobook reviews for my blog, but here are three audios I reviewed for AudioFile magazine (my full reviews are on their website) and one I DNF'd (did not finish).

  • I was really looking forward to listening to Fear of Dying because I was interested in Erica Jong's perspective on the sandwich years. Narrator Suzanne Toren's performance was expressive and engaging, but I found the book itself to be only okay.
  • I first heard about David Spade's memoir, Almost Interesting, at BEA this year, and I decided to take a chance because I don't really know much about his personal life. Unfortunately, I stopped listening after a couple hours. Mostly it had to do with Spade's delivery, which reminded me why I've never been a fan of his stand-up act.
  • Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott is a character-driven story about a diverse group of tenants who rent rooms in a Brooklyn brownstone. Christa Lewis's excellent narration kept my attention throughout this story of friendship, love, and family.
  •  Sophie Hannah's Woman with a Secret is a multilayered mystery involving the murder of a local celebrity and the public/private life of a suburban housewife. The audiobook is read by David Thorpe and Julia Barrie, each of whom nicely build the tension and perfectly capture the personalities of the characters.
Print Books / Ebooks. I've been working hard at editing and writing, but have nevertheless found time to keep up with my reading. Here's what I've read or am still reading; reviews will eventually appear on the blog.

  • I loved, loved, loved Susan Cheever's Drinking in America. My country has such a weird relationship with drink, and I can't wait to tell you all about it. Look for a review in a Weekend Cooking post before too long.
  • I'm about a third of the way through Kate Morton's The Lake House and haven't yet figured out how it will end. Great characters, family and personal secrets, a mystery--it's all here.
  • As you know, I love fairy tale retellings, and Sarah Prineas's Ash & Bramble is off to an interesting start. She offers a unique take on the classic godmother character and provides a behind-the-scenes perspective of the Cinderella story.
  • I haven't started M. C. Beaton's Dishing the Dirt yet, but I'm taking it with me on my weekend getaway. The Agatha Raisin books are light and fun; perfect escape reading. Look for a giveaway next week.
On the Screen. Pretty much everything we're watching this fall airs on Sunday nights. We've become masters at using the DVR and OnDemand. Here are four shows on our current list.

  • When I learned The Last Kingdom (based on a Bernard Cornwell book; see my review) was now a BBC television series, I knew I had to watch it. I've seen only the first two episodes, but I love the filming of this epic saga, and I'm looking forward to catching up with the series. In case you're wondering, The Last Kingdom is not quite as good as the History Channel's Vikings, but the two shows are telling slightly different stories.
  • Every week I ask myself this: Why is it I watch this show? The acting is fantastic, but I loathe every single character on Showtime's The Affair. I'm also often confused by the time line, because the show jumps to both the future and the past. I get so mad at these people, who are all selfish or manipulative or creepy or something bad. Yet, for some reason I can't stop watching.
  • Indian Summers takes place at the dawn of Indian independence. The mix of characters presents a variety of viewpoints and attitudes to politics, social class, entitlements, ambitions, and more as British control over the subcontinent begins to crumble. Lots of secrets and drama and scheming going on among the principal characters.
  • A few weeks ago, I wrote about the book on which the PBS series Home Fires is based. I found the book to be fascinating and had high hopes for the television show. I have to admit the first couple of episodes were a little slow, but now that the war is having a direct effect on the woman of the village, my interest in the series is picking up. If you decide to watch, my advice is to stick with it until the characters have all been introduced (two or three episodes).
Phew! Now I feel somewhat caught up and can turn my full attention to my fun weekend getaway. Note that I will have a Weekend Cooking post up, but I'm not sure that I'll have a Monday post; that's okay, right?

What have you been reading or watching?

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11 November 2015

Wordless Wednesday 367

November Sky, 2015

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10 November 2015

Today's Read: Soundless by Richelle Mead

Soundless by Richelle MeadWhat if everyone in your village was deaf? Imagine that it has been that way for generations, and your people communicate only through sign language. Now suppose that the villagers are also losing their sight. How will they survive? But what if you woke up one day and your senses were assaulted by something you did not immediately understand? That's what happened to Fei the day she began to hear.

My sister is in trouble, and I have only minutes to help her.

She doesn't see it. She's having difficulty seeing lots of things lately, and that's the problem.
Soundless by Richelle Mead (Penguin Random House / Razorbill, 2015, p. 1)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: in the past, China
  • Circumstances: Fei and her younger sister, Zhang-Jing, are orphaned, working as artists for their village. Their village is on the top of a mountain, isolated from the rest of the district because decades of avalanches have made descent virtually impossible. The village survives through mining, sending the ore down a zipline in return for food. The amount of food they receive depends on the productivity of the miners. The people are poor and close to starving, and now many of the congenitally deaf are also going blind. When Fei's hearing returns, she tells no one but her childhood friend, Li Wei, a young man who works in the mines. Together they decide to risk climbing down the mountain to ask for help from the city below.
  • Characters: Fei, about 19, an artist; Zhang-Jing, her younger sister; Li Wei, her older childhood friend and love interest; various townsfolk and people from the city
  • Genre and audience: folklore retelling, young adult, adventure, some fantasy elements
  • Themes: sisters, class differences, politics, love, justice
  • What I think so far: This short novel got off to a slow start, and I almost put it aside. But I was too lazy to load another audiobook on my phone, so I kept listening. Once the adventure began, I became curious about what Fei and Zhang-Jing would find in the city. The story is mildly entertaining, and I'm hoping for a good ending.
  • Some more thoughts: I haven't read Mead's Vampire Diary series, but I liked her Age of X series, which meant I had high hopes for this standalone novel. I like folklore / fairy tale retellings, which is another plus. Unfortunately, despite the names of the characters and some references to silk and porcelain, I haven't gotten much of a sense of China or of the tale on which the story is based.
  • Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook (Listening Library; 8 hr, 18 min) is read by Kim Mai Guest, who does an okay job. Her pronunciations of the Chinese words sound authentic to me, but I have no real way of judging. Although I am not bowled over by her performance, Guest is expressive and has a good sense of pacing.
  • Recommendation: I haven't finished the book yet, but I can't recommend this one wholeheartedly. Soundless would have benefited from deeper world building and more complex characters. It also might have helped if I knew the Chinese tale that inspired the book.

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09 November 2015

Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Review of The Last Kingdom by Bernard CornwellWhat can I say? I'm kind of a sucker for all things Vikings. When I learned (last week) that BBC America started airing The Last Kingdom, a TV series based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales book series, I had three immediate reactions

• Yikes! I'm already a few episodes behind.
• Yikes! I need to read the books.
• Phew, something to get me through the wait for Vikings season 4.
After two episodes of the TV show, I'm officially on board with Cornwell's interpretation of the Viking invasion and occupation of England in the 800s. I may talk about the TV show in another post, but today I want to talk about Bernard Cornwell's book The Last Kingdom, which I listened to in record time.

• What's the basic premise? The Last Kingdom is told from the perspective of Uhtred, the rightful ealderman of Bebbanbury in northern England, who tells his story in retrospect. When Uhtred was about nine years old, he was both orphaned by and taken prisoner by the Danes (aka Vikings), when they attacked his home. Admiring his warrior heart, the Danes treat him well, and the boy is eventually unofficially adopted by Ragnar, who raises him as a son. Meanwhile, Uhtred has not forgotten that his uncle stole his birthright, moving into Bebbanbury and calling himself ealderman.

• OK, tell me a little more. This is epic historical fiction as only Cornwell can write it. The story is infused with fascinating cultural, technological, and political details. Young Uhtred feels an immediate kinship with the Danes and their gods, but when he's forced to serve the Wessaxian king Alfred, he is smart enough to pretend to fit in, though he doesn't pray to the Christian god. Uhtred's eye is always on winning back his birth lands, and he takes advantage of whatever wealth, power, and experience he can accumulate.

• Details. Cornwell is truly a master at describing battles, and the shield wars of the 800s were fearsome, gruesome affairs. These scenes are intense: We feel the fear, the confusion, and the bloodlust. The Last Kingdom, however is not all bloodshed. There are many scenes of everyday life as well as some romance. Hey, those Vikings were not restricted by Christian guilt.

• Other themes and plot lines. Woven into the general story of the Vikings vs. the English are several layers of revenge. It was not a good idea to make enemies, as there was always a price to pay. Cornwell also writes about the different religions of the time, primarily contrasting Christianity with the Viking pantheon. There was little respect for differing spiritual beliefs from either side. Finally, there are other political issues besides the Viking invasion. In the early 800s, England was not united, and several kings and ealdermen vied for power.

• Characters. Uhtred and the other principal characters are  complex and well defined. Although they generally stay true to their personalities, individuals are allowed to grow and change. There are few "types" in The Last Kingdom, and it isn't always easy to determine friend from foe. When circumstances change, even long friendships may not be enough to guarantee peace. My advice to Uhtred? Trust no one but yourself.

• Final thoughts and recommendation. Although The Last Kingdom is the first in a long series (book 9 came out this year), it doesn't end on a cliff-hanger and reads as a story unto itself. On the other hand, once you finish this first installment, you'll want to know what happens: Does Uhtred ever get his lands back? Which side, Dane or English, does he ultimately take? Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom is excellent historical fiction. It has a great story, is based on history, includes awesome period details, has plenty of action, and has sympathetic characters. Plus it features Vikings! I cannot wait to read book 2.

• The audiobook. I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Harper Audio; 13 h, 28 min), read by Jonathan Keeble. Keeble's performance held me in its grip from the first minute to the last. He really knows how to up the tension in an action scene. His expressive narration and consistent characterizations make this a recommended listen. My understanding is that the print book contains an author's note that explains what parts of the story are true and what parts were embellished or fictionalized for the sake of the story. That note was not included in the audiobook I downloaded from Audible.

Published by HarperCollins, 2006 (paperback)
ISBN-13: 9780060887186
Source: Bought (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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07 November 2015

Weekend Cooking: Gale Gand's Short + Sweet

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

Review of Gale Gand's Short + SweetA while back one of you (I can't remember who) wrote a Weekend Cooking post that mentioned or was about Gale Gand, an award-winning pastry chef, cookbook author, and television star. After reading that post, I made a mental note to check out Gand's cookbooks

Well, I finally managed to get to the library and decided to give Gand's Short + Sweet a try because the subtitle is "Quick Desserts with Eight Ingredients or Less." Plus I liked the table of contents, which indicates that the recipes are grouped by times: 15-minute, 30-minute, and 45-minute desserts (plus another chapter about baking with kids), promising easy, fast week-night baking.

First Impressions: In the introductory chapters of Short + Sweet, Gand tells us that we need no special skills or fancy equipment to make the desserts in this book. She mentions that they can all be made in under an hour (and some more quickly), and so are perfect for those of us who like to bake, despite crazy busy lives. Gand also spends some time explaining techniques and providing tips on buying ingredients and stocking the pantry.

Delving Deeper: I was all set to get baking and began flipping through the cookbook to find something to try. Well, the first thing I noticed is that the times are working times. So the cornmeal walnut cookies I wanted to make from the 15-minute chapter actually required an hour of refrigeration, then some slicing, and then baking and cooling. So I moved on.

I next noticed that some of the recipes called for expensive ingredients that I probably wouldn't use for a quick, everyday family dessert. For example, when Mr. BFR and I feel like a little something sweet, I know I'm not going to be baking with saffron, lavender, or special extra-dark cocoa that has to mail-ordered. Instead, I'll turn to more common ingredients, like fruit, oats, chocolate chips, cinnamon, and vanilla.

Finally, I think I should have paid more attention to the cover photo. While the recipes are, indeed, easy to make, I think they're are too fussy to be considered short and sweet. I would never make chocolate tarts for a family dessert. Call me lazy, call me not a real cook, but after working all day, I'm more of a brownie or fruit crisp kind of woman. Even the cooking with kids chapter was a little over-the-top. For example, see the scan of the pinwheel cookies. These are so pretty and fun, but the skills are way beyond most children (the cookies require tricky cutting, decorating, and assembly).

Final Thoughts: Unfortunately, I ended up returning Short + Sweet without making a single recipe. The tarts, cookies, cakes, ice cream, scones, and more look delicious, and the recipe directions are straightforward and clear. But truly I thought these desserts were more for special occasions or company than they were for an ordinary after-school or week-night treat.

I may borrow Gale Gand's Short + Sweet from the library another time, when I'm looking for something easy but impressive for a holiday, birthday, or other celebration. I think my expectations and the actual contents were a mismatch, and I was disappointed. On the other hand, I think it's only fair to give the cookbook another chance; next time we have company, I may borrow it again.

Note: The scan comes from Gale Gand's Short + Sweet and is used here in the context of a review. All rights remain with the original copyright holder, Tim Turner.

Published by Crown / Clarkson Potter, 2003
ISBN-13: 9780307985026
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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05 November 2015

Review: All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani

Review: All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana TrigianiAh, the romance and glamour of the golden years of Hollywood, when the movies we now consider classics were filmed in sound stages and on location. But what was it really like for the actors and actresses, who were essentially owned by a studio and who had little say about the course of their careers?

In All the Stars in the Heavens, Adriana Trigiani gives us a glimpse of that bygone era. Her newest novel transports us to Hollywood and into the private lives of Loretta Young and her (fictional) personal secretary, Alda Ducci.

The two principal story lines are Young's love life, especially her relationship with Clark Gable, and Alda's induction into the movie business and her marriage to a set painter. Along the way, we meet stars like Spencer Tracy and David Niven and get to know the cast and crew of Call of the Wild, filmed on a snowy mountaintop in 1935.

The characters: I should say right here that I was nervous to read All the Stars in the Heavens because I've met Adiana Trigiani and just love her exuberant personality. She's warm, friendly, and approachable. What if I didn't like her newest book? But I should have known to put my fears aside because she's a pro at making her characters seem alive. Despite all her money and fame, Loretta Young didn't have the easiest life, especially when it came to love, and Trigiani brings out all the mixed emotions of the actress, who struggled with her heart, her Catholicism, and her ethics. I sympathized with how Young tried to resist falling for a married man and how determined she was to see through Gable's weak promises to leave his wife.

In addition, I couldn't help but root for Alda, who found herself on a surprising path--from Italy to a San Fransisco convent to living in the mansion of a famous Hollywood star. Everything was new for Alda, but she found a haven with the Young family and with the Italian American man who fell in love with her at first sight. Still, despite the good fortune that came to her, Alda's faced several sorrows.

Young had a reputation of falling in love with her leading men. First there was Spencer Tracy; then there was Clark Gable. Apparently there were others, but Trigiani focuses on Gable, writing about how the actors met during Call of the Wild and then keying in on the connection they had for the rest of their lives. Tracy is portrayed as a good friend and a good Catholic, who was bound to his wife and had a love of drink. Gable is depicted as a little selfish, a bit of a scoundrel, and a whole lot of ladies' man. In All the Stars in the Heavens, Gable and Young are star-crossed lovers who never got over the possibilities of their affair.

• Women in early Hollywood: Although women still have a long way to go to achieve full equality with men, I'm glad I wasn't starting adulthood in the 1930s. Young faced restrictions from society, the church, and even the studio. She was to be morally pure and any public slip-up could destroy her reputation, which would end her career and put her family's welfare at risk. The pressures on women in Hollywood must have been enormous. The men could get away with much more, but their contracts also contained morality clauses, restricting their behavior and making it difficult for them to follow their own instincts.

• General thoughts: Although Trigiani romanticized the Young-Gable relationship (Google for a variety of opinions) and even painted Tracy's marriage in a positive light, All the Stars in the Heavens was delightful. With its vivid settings, characters, drama, and emotions, the novel kept my attention throughout. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to get lost in another world for a little while and/or who has an interest in the golden years of Hollywood. I also recommend the book for book clubs because there are a number of issues to discuss, particularly some of the choices that Young and Alda made.

• Note on the audiobook: The unabridged audiobook (Harper Audio; 14 hr 35 min) is read by Blair Brown, who does an amazing job. You won't go wrong by listening to the book instead of reading it. My full (positive) review will be available through AudioFile magazine.

Published by HarperCollins / Harper, 2015
ISBN-13: 9780062319197
Source: Review (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)

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04 November 2015

Wordless Wednesday 366

My Favorite Instagram Photo from October 2015

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

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03 November 2015

Today's Read: We'll Never Be Apart by Emiko Jean

We'll Never Be Apart by Emiko JeanWhat if you were committed to an institution for the criminally insane, but you were actually innocent? What if the only one who could save you is lying? Alice Monroe needs the answers to these questions because this has happened to her.

The novel opens with the thoughts of Alice's twin sister, Cellie:

Later on, when they question me, I'll say it was an accident. An unfortunate tragedy. But it was neither. When they ask me what happened that night, I'll say, It was a mistake. But it wasn't. I don't remember, I'll say. But I do.
We'll Never Be Apart by Emiko Jean (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2015, p. 1, ARC)

Quick Facts
  • Setting: modern times, Pacific Northwest
  • Circumstances: Seventeen-year-old Alice has been committed to a mental hospital after her boyfriend was killed in a tragic fire. She remembers little except her own innocence and the guilt of her twin sister, Cellie. When a fellow patient offers to help her, Alice begins to plot revenge against her sister.
  • Characters: Alice, wrongly accused of murder and arson; Cellie, her twin; Jason, her late boyfriend; Chase, a fellow patient who offers to help Alice put her plan to action; various nurses, doctors, and patients in Alice's present; various people from Alice's past
  • Genre and audience: psychological thriller; young adult
  • Themes: sisters, revenge, love, foster care system, mental health
  • Things to know: The prologue is from Cellie's perspective, but the rest of the book is from Alice's. We see and experience Alice's present; we learn of her past through entries in her journal. This is a debut novel, written by a high school teacher who has worked with children in foster care.
  • What others have said: I haven't started this book yet, but I took some time to read a handful of reviews (on blogs and in industry venues). The reactions are mixed, ranging from meh to wow. No one disliked the novel. Most people commented on the realistic and relatable characters. Other things I picked up in reviews were a Gothic feel and a creepy plot. Some people figured out where the book was going early on; others did not.
  • What I think: Regardless of the mixed reactions, I'm drawn to the book because it stars twins and is a psychological thriller. It's short, so I'll likely give it a try.

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02 November 2015

Guest Post: Hilary Grossman on Letting Characters Take the Lead

Plan Bea by Hilary GrossmanOne thing I really love about the Internet and social media is the people you meet, virtually or in real life. And it always strikes me funny how we can cross paths with a person in a single sector only to learn that you and she have multiple connections.

So it was with author Hilary Grossman, whom I met through the weekly photography meme Wordless Wednesday. For the longest time, I thought of Hilary as one of photography buddies. But a couple of years ago, I discovered that she's also an author. So naturally, we bonded over books and reading too.

This fall Hilary published her second novel, Plan Bea, and to help her celebrate the book's release, I've asked her to stop by to give us a little insight into what it's like to write a novel. I was curious about which scene in Plan Bea, was her favorite one to write, and I'm happy Hilary agreed to tell us. Before I get to that, though, here's the book summary from GoodReads:

Annabel O’Conner has the perfect husband, two adorable children, an amazing job, and the mother from hell! Annabel doesn’t like it but has come to terms with the fact that her relationship with her mother, Bea, deteriorated to the point of forced and strained communications. However, an unscheduled call from Bea turns her world around and makes Annabel question everything she believed about her life.

Despite the fact secrets, lies, and misplaced blame have destroyed the women’s relationship; Annabel reluctantly agrees to help Bea plan her wedding. Little does Annabel know the impact of her decision.

In this Women’s Contemporary Fiction novel, Hilary Grossman explores the complex relationship that exists between mothers and daughters in a light-hearted and relatable manner.
I like books that explore the mother-daughter relationship, and I bet you do too.

Now let's hear from Hilary herself:

When Your Character Writes Her Own Story
By Hilary Grossman

How many times have you heard an author say their characters surprised them?

Over the years, I have heard the line so often. I hate to admit it, but each time I did I couldn't help but roll my eyes. After all, how could characters surprise their creator?

And then it happened to me . . .

When I started writing Plan Bea, a women's fiction novel about a mother and daughter whose relationship has been destroyed by secrets, lies, and misplaced blame, I felt like I had a very good handle on the story. I was aware of all the conflict points. I had the twist ending nailed. And I felt like I knew my main character, Annabel, and her mother, Bea, intimately.

Bea is a very stubborn, cold, and headstrong woman. Annabel has spent years trying to gain her mother's love and affection. However, now that Bea seems to be coming around (ever so slightly), Annabel isn't letting her off the hook easily. More times than not, the ladies end up in a heated discussion.

One such argument took place in a diner. As their omelets turned cold, the women hashed it out but good. Annabel suddenly had so much to say. Her "voice" was screaming in my ear. My fingers struggled to keep up with her. I have never typed so fast in my life. And when Annabel finally said her piece and got out a secret that she kept to herself for years, I gasped. I pushed my laptop to the side and sighed. I cried a little too.

After I dried my tears, I muttered to myself, or to Annabel, "I didn't know that happened." Then I asked, "Why didn't you tell me about this before?" But my question wasn't answered. Annabel was once again silent. She was once again a figment of my imagination. Unfortunately, just quickly and unexpectedly as she "came to life" she was gone . . .

By far, that scene is one of my favorites in the entire book. It was the easiest and the most fun one for me to write because I didn't have to do anything but type. The words that were spoken weren't mine. My characters took over, they took the lead. And even though I was writing the book, I managed to get lost in the story. And isn't that the whole purpose of a book—to offer us an escape and transport us from our lives into someone else's?
Thanks, Hilary. I always wondered if a character could indeed take control from the author. Now I know it happens, and when it does, it's an amazing and fun phenomenon. Thanks too for dropping by today and giving me a hint of what it's like when the creativity is running high.

Learn More: If you want to know more about author Hilary Grossman, be sure to visit her website, Feeling Beachie (and don't forget to look at the photos; her cat Lucy is adorable). If you're on GoodReads (and even if you're not), you can enter a giveaway for a signed copy of Plan Bea.

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All content and photos (except where noted) copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads 2008-2018. All rights reserved.



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