Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas



Author: John Boyne
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 216
Published: 2006
First Line: "One afternoon, when Bruno came home from school, he was surprised to find Maria, the family's maid -- who always kept her head bowed and never looked up from the carpet -- standing in his bedroom, pulling all of his belongings out of the wardrobe and packing them in four large wooden crates, even the things he'd hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else's business."


Synopsis: This is a compelling novel that looks at the Holocaust and it's effects as seen through the eyes of Bruno, a 9-year old German boy whose father is a Commandant in Hitler's army. When Bruno's father is sent to be in charge of Auschwitz the family moves with him. Bruno realizes his father has an important position in the army but doesn't understand exactly what his father does for a living.

Bruno's life at Auschwitz is dull for him until he goes exploring one day along the fence. That day he meets a boy who is the same age as Bruno but is very thin, has a shaved head ... and is wearing striped pajamas. Day after day the two boys secretly meet and talk about their lives. They share a naivety about their world and what is happening around them. Quickly the boys become best friends and learn to depend on their daily talks.


My Thoughts: This was a very quick read for me even though it dealt with such a very serious topic and a horrendous period of time. It felt like this book only skimmed the surface of the atrocities that happened in the Holocaust but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that it's a look into the life of a 9 year old boy. It's what he saw and how he understood what he saw and lived through. I found it sadly endearing how this naive boy consistently mispronounces two words throughout the book. Instead of Fuhrer (ie Hitler) he calls him The Fury and instead of Auschwitz concentration camp he calls it "Out With". Bruno at times comes off as a spoiled brat ... but I think it shows how innocent he is to the horrible acts that were happening to the Jews under his father's 'care'. He has no idea the kind of life that Schmuel has behind the fence. Just shows how innocent this boy was to the atrocities that occured literally in his backyard.

I also found it really interesting how innocent children, namely 9 year old Bruno and his 13 year old sister try to wrap their heads around some of the changes in their lives as they live in "Out With". Namely what their father actually does for a living as well as the reasons for the huge fence and the emaciated look of the Jews.

This is a very sensitive book that deals with a topic that should not and cannot be forgotten. It's filled with innocence, despair, hope and friendship and ends with such a dramatic ending that it I literally could not believe it and had to re-read it again and again. Touching ... a must read that can be used to envoke great discussions with older children and adults alike.


My Rating: 4/5 stars

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Battle of the Labyrinth

Author: Rick Riordan
Genre: Supernatural / Young Adult
Pages: 361
Published: 2008
Series: 4th book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series
Series Order:
  1. The Lightning Thief (2005)
  2. Sea of Monsters (2006)
  3. The Titan's Curse (2007)
  4. Battle of the Labyrinth (2008)
  5. The Last Olympian (2009)
First Line: "The last thing I wanted to do on my summer break was blow up another school."

Synopsis: Percy Jackson is starting yet another new school in NYC and unexpectedly meets up with a mysterious mortal acquaintance ... as well as some demonic cheerleaders. Due to the destruction that typically follows Percy at a new school, he has to hightail it out of the school and back to the safety of Camp Halfblood.

When he arrives he learns that the evil Titan lord Kronos is getting stronger. Kronos' army is trying to find a way into Camp Halfblood so that they can destroy the demi-gods and ultimately destroy the Olympic gods. The army has found a way ... through an ancient underground labyrinth. The Camp sends a group of demi-gods on a quest through the dangerous labyrinth to see if they can stop Kronos before he destroys the only safe place the demigods know on earth.


My Thoughts:
Hold on to your seats. This is another fast-paced read that's filled with action, great humour and even a wee bit of teenage romance (which for a big ol' romantic sap like moi is great). I read this book in just over one day and Riordan never ceases to amaze me at how he can keep the story going and make it virtually impossible to put the book down.

Like the previous books the storyline revolves around Percy and his friends Annabeth and Grover and Percy's half-brother, Tyson with a few new characters thrown in for good measure and interest. Lots of new villians in this book too.

There was a nice lesson in this book that was learned by Grover about how humans need to start taking care of the earth. I also love that Riordan seems to have a really good take on what it's like to be a teenage boy. A fair bit of angst, cluelessness (when it comes to girls anyway) and camaraderie. There's a great cliffhanger at the end which makes the reader want to jump into the final installment of the series. Once again, I highly recommend this series to people 8 years and up. Don't let the 'young adult' label fool you. These are a great read.


My Rating: 4/5 stars


Sunday, 27 June 2010

Her Royal Spyness

Author: Rhys Bowen
Genre: Mystery/Suspense, Historical Fiction
Pages: 324
Published: 2007
Series: 1st book in the Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie series
Series Order:
  1. Her Royal Spyness (2007)
  2. A Royal Pain (2008)
  3. Royal Flush (2009)
  4. Royal Blood (2010)

First Line: "There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal."

Synopsis: Lady Georgiana is 34th in line to the British throne. As a royal, she's has been educated to host lavish parties, to do a proper curtsie and marry well. Unfortunately, it's the year 1932 and England is in the middle of the Depression which effects both poor and rich. When Georgiana's brother cuts off her pitiful allowance and she learns that her sister-in-law and brother plan to try to marry her off to Prince Siegfried of Romania (aka 'Fish Face') Georgie quickly leaves her family castle in Scotland and heads to London. She stays in the family home but cannot even afford to hire any servants so she learns the hard way how to live on her own. In desperate need of money, she starts up her own house cleaning business unbeknownst to her family and friends who would shudder at the thought of a royal working for a living!!

While living in London, Georgie learns that her recently deceased father may have gambled away the family castle to a horrible Frenchman, Gaston de Mauxville. After finding the dead body of de Mauxville in her bathtub, Georgie's brother Binky is the main suspect. She tries to prove Binky's innocence in the crime. After several near-death experiences which include falling over the side of a boat, having a statue almost fall on her and falling down some stairs Georgie realizes that someone is out to kill her too.

But that's not Georgie's only problem. She's summoned by HRH (her Royal Highness) and asked to do some spying for the Queen. HRH is suspicious about the Prince of Wales involvement with the infamous divorcee Wallace Simpson. She asks Georgiana to spy for her to get the real facts about this woman who seems to have a lot of control over the Prince.

Will Georgie be able to find the real killer before she becomes the next target? How can she get out of spying on Wallace Simpson without insulting Her Royal Highness?

My Thoughts: This was the first book that I've ever read by British author Rhys Bowen. I was told by a local librarian that Georgiana is kind of like a 1930's Stephanie Plum. Weeeellll, .... not really. There is a bit of humour (mainly from Fig and Georgie's oft wed mother) but definitely not on the level of Evanovich's writing. I did find it amusing how Georgiana's friends applauded her for being able to live without servants -- the fact that she was able to boil water on her own and *gasp* dress herself without help was funny and showed how utterly helpless some royals on their own and how useless their 'education' actually was.

I also enjoyed reading about a time in history that I know very little about. Learning about the times and expectations of people in that period of time as well as the manners that were expected was quite interesting.

I liked the quirky nature of Georgie's family members especially her sister-in-law, Fig, and Georgie's mother. I'm hoping that both these characters pop up more in future books. As for the other secondary characters, they were .... ok but more on the blaw side of ok.

The mystery was good and the author kept me guessing until 3/4 of the way through when I guessed 'who dunnit'. I wish the mystery part of the storyline would have happened earlier in the book. The murder didn't take place until after page 100 which I found odd. The author seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time setting up the story of Georgiana's lack of marriage than she did the mystery. I was hoping that Bowen would use more real history in the storyline like focusing more on Wallace Simpson. I was expecting the mystery to be more about who the Queen asked Georgie to spy on ... not a separate storyline involving Georgie's family.

Overall, a good but light-weight murder mystery. I'm hoping for more oomph in future books. Fans of easy-going mysteries will like this book. If you prefer 'edge of your seat' mysteries this might not be for you.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Rhubarb Crumb Muffins




I've always been a fan of rhubarb. I love it's tangy flavour ... but surprisingly I have never baked or cooked with it.

This year I made a new vegetable garden in my backyard and included a fairly big plant o' rhubarb. As many people know by now, I am lacking (or even devoid of) the patience gene. I was not able to wait until next year for a big enough yield from said rhubarb plant so I bought 2 large stalks of rhubarb this afternoon and went on the prowl for a new recipe to use. I found a recipe on allrecipes.com and added some tweaks to it to make it lower in fat yet still have it be a light muffin with tonnes of rhubarb in it.

This is a great muffin that is light, has the tang from the rhubarb and the sweetness from the crumb topping. Next time I'll probably add some oats to the crumb topping for a more stubstantial topping. These are great served slightly warmed.


2 1/2 cups white flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups rhubarb cut into 1/4-inch thick chunks
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)



Topping
1 tbsp melted butter
1/3 cup white sugar
1 tsp cinnamon



Preheat oven to 350F. Grease or line two 12-cup muffin tins and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat brown sugar, applesauce, oil, egg, vanilla and buttermilk until smooth. Add in dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Fold in rhubarb and walnuts (if using).

Spoon batter into the prepared muffin pans, filling almost to the top.



In a small bowl, stir together the melted butter, white sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle approximately 1 tsp of the mixture on top of each muffin.

Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until muffin tops spring back when lightly pressed. Cool in pans for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Yield: 24 muffins

Tip: If you don't have any buttermilk on hand (like me), use 1 cup of milk then add 2 tbsp of white vinegar to the milk. Let it sit for 5 minutes until it looks curdled. Voila! Buttermilk substitute.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Need


Author: Carrie Jones
Genre: Young Adult / Supernatural
Pages: 306
Series: 1st book in the 'Need Pixies' series
Series Order:
  1. Need (2008)
  2. Captivate (Playaway Children) (2010)
  3. Entice (2010)

First Line: "Everyone has fears, right?"

Synopsis: Zara has a lot on her plate. Not only does she have the usual teen angst but she's just lived through the sudden and devastating death of her stepfather, has become obsessed with phobias and now her mother has shipped her off to live with her stepfather's mother ... in frigid Maine! Add to all of that the fact that she thinks she has some kind of freaky stalker and it's a bit too much for Zara. Zara has seen him back in Charleston and now he's followed her to Maine leaving an odd golden dust wherever he goes. Suddenly teen boys start to go missing and Zara learns that her stalker isn't human. But how can a pixie be harmful? These pixies are not like Tinkerbell ... they're creatures who feed on humans and have no regard for human life ... and they're after Zara.

My Thoughts: If you enjoyed reading Twilight by Stephenie Meyer I think you'll enjoy this book. It has a similar 'feel' to it as Twilight but isn't quite as intense and has more of a teen feel to it. I literally read this whole book in just over one day. I read most of it in one sitting then kept thinking about it all day and had to find some time to finish it so I could find out what happened.

I enjoyed the main characters and liked the budding romance between Zara and Nick. Zara doesn't come off as weak as Bella did in Twilight which I liked. She's a much stronger character who isn't as needy as Bella was. The banter back and forth between Zara and her grandmother, Betty as well as with Nick is amusing.

At first I was a little leary about the use of pixies as the 'bad guy' but I think the author pulled it off. I think Jones could have explained in more detail about why the pixies need to kidnap boys ... it was a little sketchy for me. There were also some inconsistencies with the storyline that didn't sit well with me. If there's a huge snowstorm outside that's closed down roads and even Betty's huge truck can't get through ... how can Nick's MINI Cooper just have a dusting of snow on it and manage to drive down the same roads? Hmmm.

I really enjoyed the secondary characters (Issy, Devyn and Betty) and would have liked to have more input and storylines for them. I also think that Megan could have had a bigger role as the 'bad girl'. She felt like a last minute add on to the storyline.

This book has a bit of everything: romance, humour, mystery and action. Do I think it's as good as Twilight? Not quite ... but it's still a good read. I found this book hard to put down and I've already reserved the second book in the series "Captivate" at the library to see where this storyline/romance goes.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Ice Run


Author: Steve Hamilton
Genre: Suspense/Mystery
Pages: 336
Series: 6th book in the Alex McKnight series
Series Order:
  1. A Cold Day in Paradise (1998)
  2. Winter of the Wolf Moon (2000)
  3. The Hunting Wind (2001)
  4. North of Nowhere (2002)
  5. Blood is the Sky (2003)
  6. Ice Run (2004)
  7. A Stolen Season (2004)

First Line: "In the land of hard winters, the hardest of all is the winter that fills you with false hope."

Synopsis: It's a typically cold winter in Paradise, Michigan for Alex McKnight, a former cop and private investigator. He decides to spend the weekend in Sault Ste Marie, Canada with his girlfriend, Natalie Reynaud who is an officer with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).

When the couple has a chance encounter with an old man, Simon Grant, they think nothing of it. But when the old man leaves an old hat and a mysterious note: "I know who you are!" outside their hotel room and is later found dead Alex decides to investigate what happened. This leads Alex into an old family feud involving Natalie's family. Will the people involved in the feud stop at nothing to end the investigation?

My Thoughts: When I initially picked up this book I was intrigued by the synopsis on the back cover of the book. I liked the fact that it was partly based in Canada. I had never heard of the author before but picked it up anyway.

Typically I like to read books of a series in order. Even if the individual stories make sense to new readers, if the reader hasn't read the series in order s/he misses out on the relationship development of the characters. That's my take on it anyway. I found that to be true with this book.

The relationship between Alex and Natalie confused me. I just didn't get it. Why would this seemingly smart man totally go out of his way for this woman? He was portrayed as this tough guy but he got all wussy when it came to this woman. There's romantic ... then there's push-over. Sadly, Alex came off to me as the latter. I didn't buy the romance between them at all. This tough guy dyes his hair, drops everything to drive 2 1/2 hours several times per week to help this woman and even endures a severe beating because of her. Ahhh, l'amour!

Also, as a Canadian I admit that I do say 'eh' sometimes. But this book had too many Canadian cliches for my tastes. Yes, we have amazingly good beer. Yes, we do occasionally (at least I do) say 'eh' but at times this book made Canadians seem like hokey small towners. Don't paint all of us Canadian's with the Hoser Brush, Mr Hamilton! ;)

As for the mystery/suspense part of the book? I did enjoy it. Hamilton threw enough curve balls and actually shocked me with one scene that I wasn't expecting. Overall, this was a good mystery but I didn't love the main characters so I don't think I'll be reading more from this series.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Traditional Potato Salad






When I think of summer I think of a few things: sun, swimming, BBQ's and .... potato salad. Mmmmm. The mighty spud mixed with a creamy sauce and crunchy celery and onion. Perfection!

And there is no better potato salad than my mother-in-law's! I'm not just kissin' up to my MIL ... it's true!! It's a great traditional potato salad that is perfect for BBQ's or picnics. For Brad's 40th birthday extravaganza this past weekend I tripled this recipe and hardly had any left! Make it the night before a big do to blend the flavours as well as save you some time.

2 eggs
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
to taste - salt and pepper

Add eggs to a small saucepan of water. Ensure that the eggs are covered by the water. Turn heat to high. Once water starts boiling remove saucepan from heat and cover for 15 minutes. Drain water and add cold water to the eggs; let eggs sit in the cold water for 10 minutes. Remove shells and chop eggs.

In a large saucepan, boil potatoes until they are soft but not mushy. In a large bowl, combine sour cream, mayonnaise, white vinegar, celery and onion. Add cooked potatoes and egg to the sour cream mixture while the eggs and potatoes are still warm which will help blend the flavours together. Refrigerate potato salad for several hours before serving or make the night before.

Note: Make sure the salad is moist before you refrigerate it. If not, add more sour cream or a bit more mayonnaise.

Yield: 6 servings

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Titan's Curse

Author: Rick Riordan
Genre: Young Adult / Supernatural
Pages: 312
First Published: 2007
Series: 3rd book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series (Read series in order!)
Series Order:
  1. The Lightning Thief
  2. The Sea of Monsters
  3. The Titan's Curse
  4. The Battle of the Labyrinth
  5. The Last Olympian

First Line: "The Friday before winter break, my mom packed me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school."

Synopsis: When Percy is summoned by his best friend and favourite satyr Grover to a private boarding school he, Thalia and Annabeth rush to Grover's side. They soon find out that it was a trap and in the melee Annabeth is kidnapped. When the teens return to Camp Halfblood they learn that the goddess Artemis has been kidnapped as well. If Artemis is not back to Mount Olympus by the winter solstice for the Olympian Council meeting her missing vote could greatly influence whether or not the gods begin a war with the Titans.

Before Percy can begin his quest to save Annabeth and Artemis he first has to figure out what creature Artemis was hunting before she was captured ... a creature so powerful that it could doom the gods forever. Percy and his friends set off on a journey with some unlikely allies in order to save Artemis and Annabeth. Along the way they meet various monsters from mythology whose goal is to stop them at all costs.


My Thoughts: Once again Riordan gives his readers an action-packed read full of great mythical creatures and infamous gods. This book is great for it's intended 9-12 year old audience ... and/or for people slightly older (say in their 30's) who want to relive some of the Greek mythology they learned 'way back when'. I cannot believe how much I'm remembering from a Greek Mythology course I took back in university!

That being said, if you're in the mood for a good, action-packed read with a hint of teen angst this is a great book to pick up. It's got a good, quirky sense of humour and I love the fact that Riordan puts in strong female characters. No weepy 'come save me' kind of women here. Artemis is a tough girl with her band of merry .... girls. ;) Annabeth, even though she was kidnapped, still holds her own in this book.

Lots of new characters, including the manticore, Artemis and her hunters and the infamous Atlas. Add on the silly humour, some mystery and a bit of a budding romance and you've got an interesting and entertaining read.

I highly recommend reading this series and I especially recommend getting this series to kick start your kids into their summer reading. A wonderful series full of imagination.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Make Ahead Shredded Beef Sandwiches


This past weekend was a busy one in our house. I hosted a 'not so surprise' 40th birthday party for my husband, Brad. Thankfully and accidentally, he found out about the party a week before so I didn't have to continue sneaking around buying food, cleaning the house (without making it 'too clean' that he'd suspect something was up), secretly making food, convincing him to cut the grass on Friday instead of the weekend etc etc. It was MUCH easier with him knowing. I still got the kudos for planning the party so it was a win-win. With the help of my mother-in-law and friend Allison making some salads to ease my stress I was much more relaxed than I was planning on being. The food was a success and the party was a lot of fun ... even the weather even cooperated in the end.

You know how I've mentioned in the past that making beef roasts was my Achilles Heel? Well, no more! I have now successfully made a beef roast which was served at the party. The curse of the rock hard beef roast has been lifted from me!

Was I nervous making a meal based on a type of food that I've only ever been able to cook with the consistency of a hockey puck or shoe leather? Oh ya. But my sister Jen came over and gave me her expertise. I don't think I was using the right type of beef roast in the past and was cooking it much too fast. Apparently long and slow cookin' is the way to go.

I loved the fact that I could make the meat the day before, store it in the fridge (along with the pan juices) then pop the meat in a couple of crockpots with the juices on the day of the party and voila! Tasty beef sandwiches!

Well, my roast was AWESOME! Served on ciabatta buns with fried onions and green peppers as well as horseradish mayo it was delicious! I hope that after several days of eating said beef sandwiches I'll still like them .... now all I need to do is work on downsizing the amount of food that I make for parties.

20lbs boneless blade beef roast (I had 3 small roasts that weighed 20lbs together)
water
salt and pepper
garlic powder

Preheat oven to 300F. Place roasts in roasting pans and fill with water so that the bottom inch of each roast is under water. Sprinkle roasts with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Cover and put in oven. Check on roasts every 90 minutes or so and baste with juices. Also make sure that the liquid around the roasts isn't too high that it will overflow. Cook for 9-10 hours.

Remove roasts and, with 2 forks, shred beef. Store in large plastic containers in the fridge.

Skim off fat from pan juices. Run pan juices through a strainer and store in a large juice container in the fridge. (I clearly labelled our juice jug because I didn't want my kids thinking they were pouring some apple cider when in fact it was beef juice. It would have been funny to witness .... but I'm not that mean).

The day you're serving the sandwiches, put meat into 2 large crockpots and pour half of the pan juices into each crockpot. Heat meat on low for 4-6 hours, mixing every once in awhile to help get the pan juices over the meat.

To serve: Using tongs place meat on a ciabatta bun and top with fried onions and green peppers as well as your choice of mayonnaise (my favourite is horseradish mayo). Enjoy!

Tip: I cooked the onions and green peppers a couple of hours before the party and put them in a small crockpot.

Yield: 40-50+ servings

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Inside Out Girl

Author: Tish Cohen
Genre: Modern Fiction
Pages: 317
Published: 2008
First Line: "The stench of his daughter's darkened room nearly brought Len to his knees."


Synopsis:
Olivia Bean is a 10 year old girl living with her widowed father, Len. Due to her behaviours, Olivia is quickly seen as an odd child to those around her. Although she is quite smart she wears her clothes inside out on a regular basis, doesn't brush her hair and can quote random facts about rats. These characteristics of Olivia don't help her fit in to her private school where she is bullied and made fun of on a regular basis. What her peers don't realize is that Olivia has Nonverbal Learning Disorder which means that she cannot process facial and voice cues which results in some of her inappropriate behaviours.

Rachel is a single mother who runs "Perfect Parent" magazine and sees each issue with her 12 and 14 year old children, Dustin and Janie, as a new source for her articles on parenting. Janie and Dustin go to the same private school as Olivia and are horrified when Rachel starts dating Len. They think it's the end of their social lives now that they'll have to acknowledge 'Inside Out Girl' at school.

Throughout the book the reader gets a glimpse into the feelings and thoughts of Len, Rachel and Janie as they struggle with their own lives and living with Olivia. In the end, this book is a heart-felt read that makes you cheer for the underdog.

My Thoughts:
This book was brought to my attention by Jen S and I'm glad I read it. It's a quick read with a lot of heart. Not the kind of 'heart' that makes you all mushy and pull out the Kleenex but it did evoke a tenderness in me -- in the 'awww' kind of way.

This is a little book that is packed full of issues that happen in modern society. From divorce, to learning disorders to bullying to teen sexual exploration to adoption. You'd think that that would be too many issues for such a small book but Cohen handles it well. The storylines seem to mesh well together and I liked being able to get a glimpse into how some of the characters were feeling . The author showed the inner dialogue that Len, Janie and Rachel had with themselves -- but I wasn't sure why Dustin or the grandmother were left out. It would have been interesting to get their take too.

I did appreciate getting a look into what it would be like to be the parent of a child with NLD and the fear these parents have for their children's futures. I felt Len's character was realistically portrayed and I felt like rallying around him to help him figure out how to plan for his daughter's uncertain future.

This would be a great book for young adults/teens to learn to empathize what it feels like for others to be labelled 'weird' by their peers and the damage and hurt that bullying can do. Before this book I had never heard of NLD before but it opened my eyes to this kind of learning disorder and Cohen introduces this disorder in a very compassionate way.

This book is about learning about ourselves and finding strength in family (blood family as well as the families we choose for ourselves). Many of the characters go through personal maturing. From Janie who learns to accept and love Olivia and her quirks to Rachel who learns that there is no such thing as the 'perfect parent'. A good read.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Weekly Reading Poll

Sooooo, what is everyone reading? What are you planning on reading next?

Here's what I've been up to ...

I finished up "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant and enjoyed it. If you're into historical fiction check it out. It follows the life of Dinah (briefly mentioned in the Old Testament) who is the daughter of Jacob and Leah. Review has already been posted.

Now I'm reading "Inside Out Girl" by Tish Cohen. This book was brought to my attention and later given to me by Jen S one of the most vocal supporters of my blog. Thanks Jen! I'm about two-thirds through and it's a great read about a 10-year old girl named Olivia Bean. She's a girl who sometimes wears her clothes inside out, doesn't brush her hair and is obsessed with rats. To people who don't know her she is definitely regarded as odd and is teased a lot in school because of her differences. But unbeknownst to outsiders, Olivia suffers from Nonverbal Learning Disorder which prevents her from getting meaning from people's body language.

When her father, Len starts dating Rachel, the very uptight parent of Janie and Dustin who also go to the same school as Olivia, Rachel's kids see it as the end of their social lives. But the two families learn a lot about themselves and find empathy towards each other as they find out that they have more in common than they thought.

What's up next? Probably the 3rd book in the Percy Jackson series called "Titan's Curse" by Rick Riordan. "Cub" is itching for me to continue on with the series. :)

What are you all reading? Would you recommend it to others?

Ham and Mango Quesadillas

I was never a fan of the mighty mango ... until last year when my friend Ang came to visit and had brought a few mangos to cut up for the kids. If you've never had a mango before it's the texture and sweetness of a peach with a twist.

I really enjoy mango now and can easily eat a whole one (or two)by myself. Learning to cut up a mango takes a bit of practice (manoeuvring around the pitt) but after cutting up a few you'll turn into a pro. Check out this site to learn how to cut up a mango properly.

I found this quesadilla recipe on http://www.tasteofhome.com/. If you don't get one of their many recipe magazines, I highly encourage you to do so now. I have received "Simple and Delicious" (used to be called Quick Cooking) for many years now as part of my Christmas present from my parents. I .... love .... it. Tried and true recipes from readers and lots of pics. My only beef (and it's but a small moo) is that some of the recipes use ingredients and mixes that you cannot find outside of the USA.

Anyway, when I saw this recipe in the current issue I knew I had to make it. This is a great, quick lunch idea and I loved how the sweetness of the mango complimented the saltiness of the ham. You could also use, instead of traditional tomato salsa, the Mango Lime Salsa from President's Choice. That's a fav of mine! I would have posted a picture from my own creation but I had piled on the ham and mango on mine and, although it tasted great, didn't look as appealing as the picture on the Taste of Home's site (from which I borrowed the picture above).

Note from the Bookworm: I made only a couple of changes to the original recipe. I prefer using vegetable oil to brown my tortillas not butter as the original recipe stated and I omitted the cilantro because I don't like it.

1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 flour tortillas (8-inch)
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack or marble cheese
1 medium mango, peeled and cubed
1/4lb thickly sliced deli ham, cut into 1/2-inch strips
6 tsp fresh cilantro, divided (optional - I didn't add this to mine)
3/4 cup salsa
garnish - sour cream

Pour oil into a large skillet or on a griddle. Place 2 tortillas on griddle. Sprinkle each with 1/2 cup cheese, 3 tbsp mango, 1/4 cup ham and 1 tsp cilantro (if using). Add top tortillas and cook for several minutes or until cheese has melted. Flip and brown the other side. Cut into wedges.

Meanwhile, combine salsa with the remaining mango and cilantro. Serve with quesadillas. Garnish with sour cream. Enjoy!

Monday, 14 June 2010

The Red Tent

Author: Anita Diamant
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 321
Published: August 2007
First Line: "We have been lost to each other for so long."

Synopsis: "The Red Tent" follows the life of Dinah, only daughter of Jacob and Leah of the Old Testament. Told through the eyes of Dinah, who is only briefly mentioned in the Book of Genesis, we learn what life was like for a young woman at that time. The story begins with Dinah telling about her family which includes her 4 mothers: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah as well as her numerous brothers.

Dinah learns about what it means to be a Jewish woman while spending time within the Red Tent, where the women go during their menstrual cycle and during illness. She sees the strength of the women around her as they show her how they celebrate their womanhood. Dinah narrates her own life from her humble childhood in Mesopotamia, to falling in love as well as her personal tragedy while in Caanan and finally to her death in Egypt.

My Thoughts: I picked up this book never really knowing anything about the main character, Dinah (pronounced Dee-nah) from the Bible. I'm in no way an expert on the Bible. Shamefully, I have never read it cover to cover. As I read this book much of what I knew (which admittedly wasn't much) came back to me in the form of several "oh ya! I remember that person" kind of revelations.

Since I never knew of Dinah I didn't have any expectations on how accurate Diamant would be in her retelling. I think I may have enjoyed the book more if I had known more about the lives of the main characters (Jacob, Leah etc). I had vague recollections but that's about it. Diamant took the famous Bible story of Jacob and filled it in with fictional details to make it a very entertaining read. Some people may be bothered with the fictionalization of Dinah's life.

I really liked two major things about this book. First of all, I loved that this book was from the viewpoint of women in the Bible. Nothing like some Girl Power in Biblical proportions! I cannot imagine how different the Bible would have been written if it had included the stories and lives of women more. Imagine how many wonderful stories and lessons could have been learned from the women of the time if they were only included in the writing of the Bible? Imagine how many stories have now been lost forever? Sad.

I found it fascinating learning how women lived at the time and how they were treated by the men in their lives. This book celebrates the transformation from girlhood to womanhood as well as the miracle (and danger) of giving birth. It shows us the deep connection that women had with each other as they celebrated their common experiences that men can never truly understand. Diamant portrays the women as strong, connected with each other and their ways and very resilient and resourceful. Fascinating to take a look so far back in time.

My Rating: 4/5 stars


Sunday, 13 June 2010

Egg-Free Oatmeal Coconut Cookies


Wow. I think this is the longest I've gone without blogging (6 days!). Things are crazy around here with end of the year school stuff, finishing up extracurricular activities with the kids and planning (what was supposed to be a surprise) party for my husband, Brad. Add onto the fact that Brad and I are celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary tomorrow and I've been busy!


I haven't been too busy to stop baking though. Today, since the weather was wet, I stayed inside and tried a recipe given to my by me youngest sister. Her one-year-old son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy as well as an egg allergy recently so she's always on the lookout for tasty and safe baking recipes. I was really impressed with the flavour of these cookies when she brought them a couple of weeks ago. My only issue is that the dough is a little crumbly for my liking but if you roll the dough firmly into balls (I used a melon baller to measure out the right amount then used my hands to form the balls). Make sure you flatten the cookies and they'll come out nice and crispy. Even if you don't have an egg allergy to worry about these are a quick cookie option that taste great!

1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup coconut
1 cup oatmeal
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp honey
Preheat oven to 350F.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, coconut and oatmeal. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, sugar and honey over medium-low heat. Remove from heat and let cool for 2 minutes (don't leave out this step).

Pour butter mixture over dry ingredients and combine. With a teaspoon or small melonballer, form dough into balls and slightly with the back of a fork.
Bake for 15 minutes or until edges are nicely browned. Cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Weekly Reading Poll

I finished up "Cleopatra's Daughter" by Michelle Moran. Moran is a wonderful writer and easily brings her characters and the era they live in to life. One of my favourite authors.

I just finished "Oprah: A Biography" by Kitty Kelley. Like I said in my review, not too many shocking reveals (that I didn't already know ... me with my inordinate amount of entertainment trivia) but it still was an OK read. If you're in an Oprah bashing mood, give this book a go. It's like a bunch of angry girlfriends gossiping about someone. It is definitely not an Oprah Love Fest.

Now I'm reading the much anticipated and highly recommended "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant. Yup. I've finally started it. I'm only on page 30 but so far so good.

After that ... who knows. I have a mystery as well as a chick lit to read.

What have you all been reading? Did ya love it? Hate it? Lose hours of your life you'll never get back? What are you reading next?

Oprah: A Biography


Author: Kitty Kelley
Genre: Biography
Pages: 445
First Line: "I met Oprah Winfrey when I was on a book promotion tour in Baltimore in 1981, and she was cohosting WJZ's morning show, People Are Talking, with Richard Sher."
Published: 2010

Synopsis: An unauthorized look into the life of the talk show diva who grew up in very humble surroundings and eventually became one of the richest and most recognized people in the world. From growing up in Mississippi, being molested as a child, to living on welfare with her mother, to working in Baltimore to getting her big break in Chicago --- this book probes into Oprah's life by using interviews and quotes from people around her including some family members as well as court papers, financial papers etc.

My Thoughts: Kitty Kelley has a lot of unauthorized celebrity biographies under her belt. The woman knows how to get the dirt on people ... especially when they don't want that information known. While I did learn a few new things about Oprah there wasn't a whole lot of "a-ha" moments in this book. The book lagged in several parts but overall was just an OK read.

Going into this book I figured that since it's unauthorized by Oprah that the book would have a very negative feel to it and not paint Oprah in the nicest of lights. I was right. Reading this book felt like dishing the dirt with a ticked off girlfriend out for revenge. While I like the fact that Kelley holds no punches and has the information to back up some of her claims about Oprah after a few hundred pages of reading ... I had had enough. I finished the book but admit that I skimmed through several parts that got really dry and repetitive. How many times can we comment on Oprah's weight fluctuation or her mountain of money? Apparently, MANY!

I did find it interesting how Kelley brings to light many instances where Oprah has contradicted herself regarding her upbringing and other experiences in her life in order to make herself appear to be more approachable to her audience. She wasn't as poor or neglected as she has made herself appear. Huh.

In the beginning of the book I found it hard to reconcile the Oprah I've seen on TV and the philanthropist with the image that Kelley portrayed. But after thinking on it, I can see Kelley's points. Oprah can often come off as 'high and mighty' and patronizing towards her guests and audience. I stopped watching Oprah for several years because I was tired of listening to how amazing she finds herself as she name drops the famous people (ie John Travolta, Celine, Julia Roberts, Nelson Mandela, Quincy Jones ...) she's friends with. It was also hard to connect with a person who spends hundreds of dollars on a pair of slippers or who has her sheets washed every day because she likes the fresh smell of laundered linen.

Oprah has been known to think that the world revolves around her. After the alleged sexual and physical abuse at her girls' school in South Africa came to light it seemed that Oprah was personalizing the experience in regards to how it effected her own image. Oprah was quoted as saying it was "one of the most devastating, if not the most devastating experience of my life' -- seeming to make it all about her instead of the victims. Many reporters have had a hard time dealing with Oprah. Ray Richmond wished that Oprah could have "a conversation that isn't all about her and her uncompromising, sublime wonderfulness". Ouch.

The Oprah from the late 80's to early 1990's compared to the Oprah in 2008 and onwards is quite different. She somehow got on a huge kick to enlighten and better her audience ... whether they wanted it or not. How thoughtful and ... controlling of you Oprah! :) Personally, I stopped watching when every few shows she had some kind of person who could make me the better me. I just want to be me, Oprah! I agree with Renee A. James (writer for the Allentown Morning Call) when she stated "Somehow Oprah is starting to feel a bit too 'empowered', just a little too 'enlightened' for the rest of us. To me, this feels like the friend who got a little too impressed with herself and became just a little too good for the rest of us. Makes you sort of mad, but you still miss her." That about sums it up for me. While I do PVR Oprah's shows I delete about 95% of them because I don't like the content.

Also, it wasn't a shock to learn how much Oprah loves herself and how controlling she is. She has complete control over all of her endeavors and as a big lack of trust regarding her staff. I could not imagine working for her and having to sign the intense confidentiality agreements she requires! She has her on-air persona but when the cameras are off she becomes cold, distant and is known to ignore the audience (which, by the way, is exactly what happened to me in NYC when watching a Geraldo taping. Must be a talk show diva thing?).

Oprah is shown as a woman who holds HUGE grudges like in the instance with David Letterman as well as many other celebrities who dared to cross her. Many people refused to speak to Kelley because they were afraid of backlash from Oprah.

There is no question ... Oprah is a force and a huge world icon who has spent decades making her mark on the world and building her brand. While her TV show is no longer a favourite of mine I do respect all that Oprah has accomplished and done for others. From donating MILLIONS of dollars to charities, to starting up a Book Club that got so many people to love reading again, to her "O" magazine, her girls' school in South Africa .... The woman has the drive of 20 people!
I'm not surprised that she was ticked that Kelley had the audacity to write her biography. Who would want their diry laundry on display for all to see? I'm placing bets that this won't be an Oprah Book Club pick. ;)

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars




Monday, 7 June 2010

Chicken Salad with Grapes 'n' Craisins



I have had a hankerin' for some homemade chicken salad for awhile now so I tinkered in my kitchen today and came up with this delicious little sam'ich that has a hint of sweetness from the grapes and Craisins.

If you're in the mood to be playful with this recipe you could also try adding in some diced, peeled apple (Granny Smiths would work well) or adding in some chopped water chestnuts for some added crunch. If you love a messier, saucier version just add some more sour cream or mayo.

From the picture I took above you can see that I didn't skimp on filling my croissant. Go big or go home, I always say! While it was a little awkward I can report that I did eat it without actually wearing any of it! If you'd prefer a less messy option either don't fill your croissant so full or try using a tortilla and making a wrap instead.

1 1/2 cups cooked, diced chicken
juice of 1/2 small lemon (approximately 1 tbsp)
2 tbsp onion, finely diced
2 tbsp celery, finely diced
4 tbsp sour cream
3 tbsp mayonnaise
3 tbsp Craisins
8 red seedless grapes, quartered
Pinch of dried thyme

Mix all of the ingredients together. Serve on a croissant with lettuce.

Yield: 2

Friday, 4 June 2010

Cleopatra's Daughter


Author: Michelle Moran
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
First Line: "August 12, 30 BC -- While we waited for the news to arrive, we played dice."
Published: July 2009
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Synopsis: When Romans invade Egypt, Queen Cleopatra and Antony choose to die by their own hands as the triumphant Roman armies of Octavian enter into Egypt. Their children, Princess Cleopatra Selene and her twin brother Alexander are taken to Rome as prizes of war by Octavian. The children don't know what to expect or whom they can trust in this new society that they're thrust into. The twins are taken to Octavian's sister's home where they are treated well but the twins still cling to the hope of returning and ruling their beloved Egypt.
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Told through Selene's perspective, this book chronicles how the two children learn to adapt to their new surroundings as they begin to enter adulthood. When she arrives in Rome she is only 11 years of age and, as a child, doesn't pose a threat to Octavian. With their futures still uncertain Selene learns that in order to keep herself safe she needs to make herself useful to Octavian. As they near the age of adulthood (15 years of age) what will happen to them? Will they be perceived as a threat to the suspicious and all-powerful Octavian?
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My Thoughts:
As usual Moran delivers a wonderfully rich and vivid historical read. I have to give Moran credit. She does her homework and because of that her characters seem to come alive and the descriptions she gives of the architecture and culture of the time are quite vivid.
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This book is filled with the action, romance and intrigue of ancient Rome. I loved reading about Rome and reminisced about visiting the Pantheon and Capri while reading this book. I just wish I would have read up more on Italy before travelling there with my husband almost 3 years ago!
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Selene is shown as a very strong, independent girl (like her mother) but who also has a very considerate and compationate side. I enjoyed seeing the differences between the Roman culture and the Egyptian culture as it related to women and their roles and freedoms. Quite different! I was impressed with how forward thinking Egyptians were to women (allowing them many more liberties compared to other cultures of the time). Also, the addition of the mysterious "Red Eagle" character who opposed slavery added some intrigue and mystery to the plot. I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whom the Red Eagle could be ... in the end, I guessed right but that didn't diminish the excitement of the storyline.
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Reading this book, I now want to read more about Cleopatra's story so I'm probably going to add Margaret George's "Memoirs of Cleopatra" to my summer reading list. Daunting at 976 pages it may take me awhile to get through even though I find this era in time fascinating. I can't wait to learn more about the infamous Queen of Egypt since she had a VERY small role in this book.
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Bread Machine Focaccia


Yesterday I mentioned that I had a new veggie/herb garden. I was lucky enough to be able to buy some fairly large herb plants and it didn't take me long to get the urge to use some of them in a recipe.

I went on-line in search of a recipe to use said herbs and found a focaccia recipe on allrecipes.com. Needless to say, I tweaked it within an inch of it's life based on my personal preferences and it turned out wonderful! I happened to have some bread flour in my fridge but next time I think I'll see how good old all-purpose flour does in this recipe since I always have an abundance of that type of flour in my house.

Armed with my kitchen shears, I went out to "harvest" some of my herb crop. ;) Man, did my kitchen smell awesome once I started chopping up some of my fresh herbs. I usually use dried herbs but I think I've been converted!

This was my first time making focaccia (pronouced fo-cat-cha) and I thought it was a wonderful accompaniment to the pasta dish I served last night and tasted especially good when dipped in some good quality balsamic vinegar. Yum!

Bread:
1 cup lukewarm water
2 tbsp olive oil (or grapeseed oil)
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp garlic, minced (approximately 4 cloves)
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
3 cups bread flour
1/2 cup old cheddar, shredded (optional)
1 1/2 tsp bread machine yeast

Toppings:
2 tbsp olive oil (or grapeseed oil)
1 1/2 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
1 1/2 tsp fresh basil, chopped
1 1/2 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)

Place water, 2 tbsp olive oil, salt, garlic, 1 tbsp rosemary, flour, Cheddar (if using) and yeast in the bread machine pan in the order recommended by the manufacturer. Select 'Dough" cycle; press Start.

Remove dough from bread machine when cycle is complete (my machines take 2 hours for the dough cycle). Dough will be very sticky. I highly recommend either lightly greasing your pan or dusting it with some flour (which is what I did). Pat dough into a bar pan OR a 9x13-inch baking pan OR a 12-inch pizza pan. Use your fingers to dimple the dough every inch or so. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with remaining fresh herbs, salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 400F. Cover foccacia with a tea towel while the oven preheats. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and put back in oven until it has melted (it won't take long so watch it closely). Let cool for 5 minutes before serving. Cut into strips or wedges. Dip in balsamic vinegar or spicy olive oils.

Tip: Try adding some sliced Kalamata olives to the top of your foccacia!

Yield: 6-8 servings

Note: use extra focaccia to make sandwiches or garlic bread

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

My New Veggie Garden



"B" and I have been quite busy getting stuff done outside at our new house since we moved in 18 months ago. New front and side gardens, new fence, new patio and driveway. Lots done. One of the things at the top of my list (and at the bottom of my husband's) was a vegetable garden. I have a perfect spot right under my kitchen window that's about 5x12' in full sun. Perfect!


The picture above is only part of my new garden.

I asked my husband B if he'd whip me up a raised garden. You can imagine just how 'excited' he was when I asked him! It was a gloriously beautiful Saturday here and instead of jet skiing at the cottage he stayed and built me a garden. Now that's love for ya!
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Now, there's something you have to know about me. I am totally useless when it comes to guessing how long a certain task will take. For me, making an 18-inch tall raised garden that's 5'x12' long would take about 4 hours. "B" is much more of a hands-on, level-headed kind of guy and he would whole heartedly disagree. I suppose I didn't take into account how long it takes to rip up the grass, cut wood and put the wooden frame together, how long it takes to silicone all of the joints (so dirty water doesn't seep out and make the wood look nasty), drive to get my Dad's trailer to get the soil .... What can I say? I'm a visionary and don't think about how to get the job done. Together, "B" and I make a great team. I'm the visionary and he's the braun!
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When it was all said and done "B" asked me to guess how much the new garden cost. Again, so not good with stuff like the cost of wood, soil and sheep poop. Go figure. Apparently my new little Eden has cost us over $200. With a chuckle and a smirk on his face "B" wondered just how many green peppers and other veggies it would take to break even on the cost of the garden. But I'm sure when he bites into the homemade strawberry rhubarb pie (his fav) he'll see the benefits of home gardening (not to mention making me happy always miraculously makes him happy).
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My new garden is now home to carrots, 6 green pepper plants, sweet basil, 2 different tomato plants and a big rhubarb plant. I'm hoping to also add some green onions. I also have a separate pot of rosemary and oregano.
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I'm so excited about this garden. Is it wrong to be so excited about rhubarb and green peppers? I'm also hoping that my continual staring at said veggie garden will make it grow faster. Or is it like the proverbial 'watched pot'?


Weekly Reading Poll

I hope everyone had a wonderful weekend. My family had a relaxing but full weekend. We went out for dinner, swam at my parents' pool, visited the cottage and went sea-dooing again (racing across the lake at 80km/hour with my hubby was quite fun!). I soooo need to get my boating licence soon! My wonderful husband also finished making my vegetable/herb garden (the first one I've had in about 12 years!) so it's all planted now.

As for the books I've read? I finished "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Sea of Monsters" (by Rick Riordan). What a fun read. I really enjoyed it. I rarely read all of the books in a series at one time so I'm going to read a few books before diving into the 3rd book in the series. 8 year old "Karate Guy" is hot on my heels reading these books so I'll let him read the 3rd book before me. The only thing that worries me is that "Karate Guy" gets excited about the books he reads and wants to 'give clues' about what happens. I'm not the kind of person who likes to skip to the end and know what happens before I read it. We'll see how that goes. You can't get down on a guy for getting excited about a plot, right!?

I also read "Murder Melts in Your Mouth", the 7th book in the Blackbird Sisters mystery series by Nancy Martin. These are a light-hearted mystery with a gaggle of quirky characters. A good read.

Now I'm reading "Cleopatra's Daughter" by one of my favourite historical fiction authors, Michelle Moran. If you haven't read one of her books, pick one up. "Nefertiti" and "The Heretic Queen" are great reads (read "Nefertiti" first). I love the fact that Moran doesn't focus on English or Scottish historical fiction like so many authors. It's great diving into a totally different area and era.

Next up? I have "Oprah" by Kitty Kelly. Ya, I know. I was curious about what all the hype was about. I have an inordinate amount of my cranium filled with useless entertainment trivia so I thought I'd give it a boost and see what everyone's talking about when it comes to Miss O. If only I could use my secret power for the greater good. "I'll take 'Useless Entertainment Trivia that's Rotting my Brain' for $1000, Alex."

What are you all reading? Would you recommend it? What's up next?

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