Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blistering Pace

So far in 2009, I've been reading at a blistering pace, for me anyway. I think I increased my pace in December to ensure I'd reach my 2008 goal and I guess I haven't slowed down. This reading, combined with my new addiction to Lost has sure cut into my blogging! I'm currently in the middle of Season 3 of Lost and am still loving it, still intrigued. To tell you the truth though, I'm really glad I'm watching it like this. I cannot imagine having waited 2 1/2 years to get to the point where I am now! It's also much easier, I think, to keep track of all the little details.

On to the reviews.

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill

This is the third of the Simon Serrailler books and if you are interested in my thoughts on the first books see here and here. I liked this one better than the second. As usual, this is a completely atypical mystery. The mystery of the kidnapped children that was begun in the second book is finally resolved in a sense and much of the book is questioning the why of it all. There are a couple other story lines going on, as always, plenty about Simon's sister and her family, and much about Simon's inner struggles with women and his career. I have to say, Simon is not the most likable character and I wanted to scream at him at one point, okay, two. He has major issues with women. This was a good book to take with me on my trip and I'm sure I'll be reading the fourth soon.

The Piano Teacher by Janice Lee

How gorgeous is that cover?? The Piano Teacher is the story of Claire Pendleton, a young British woman, recently married, who arrives in Hong Kong in 1952. Claire seems young and immature, somewhat unsure of herself, and her marriage seems like it was a bit of an escape for her. Claire enjoys herself in Hong Kong and begins teaching piano to the daughter of a well-to-do family, the Chens. There she meets Will Truesdale, also British, but who has never lived in Britain. He is, somewhat unusually, the Chen's driver. Claire and Will begin a relationship that quickly turns into an affair, one that gives Claire something she does not have in her marriage -passion, but Will keeps his emotional distance.

The story is interspersed with chapters about Will's life in Hong Kong in 1942. Young and handsome, he is the boyfriend of beautiful society girl Trudy Liang. When the Japanese arrive in Hong Kong, everything changes and along with all the other British citizens, Will is placed in a camp while Trudy remains on the outside. I thought this section was the best part of the book. The last section of the novel deals with Claire's realization of how the war affected Will's life, and how she deals with her relationships with Will and her husband.

I enjoyed the setting of this book, Hong Kong, and learning what life might have been like there during the war. The Piano Teacher didn't have that little something extra that makes me love a book or find it to be a great read. However, it is well written and I found it to be an enjoyable read. Many thanks to Libraything's Early Reviewer Program for sending it to me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Single Motherhood, Two Ways

Before I get to the subject of this post, can I just tell you what is so great about Chicago in January? This city is ready for winter. It's totally acceptable to walk around completely bundled up and there are coat racks at every restaurant you go to. One thing that Chicago has and I miss here are coat checks. I love coat checks! Who wants to walk around a museum for 3 hours carrying your huge down coat? Not me, and I'm happy to pay a dollar or two so I don't have to. Also, you can take your kids to Ed Debevic's for the first time and stun them with loud music, rude waiters, and dancing.

So, single motherhood. When the two books I'm about to talk about were sitting in my pile of ARCs to be read, I never thought I'd review them in the same post. I read Asha Bandele's memoir Something Like Beautiful first. This book, not quite 200 pages long, took me ages to read. A little bit about Bandlele - she married a convicted murderer who was incarcerated at the time after meeting him through a college program. Bandele wrote about this part of her life in her memoir The Prisoner's Wife which I have not read. Something Like Beautiful deals primarily with her journey as a single mother but she muses on a variety of topics. I enjoyed the middle section of this book the most. This part was more about how she dealt with everyday life and frustrations, her struggle with depression, and her struggle with an abusive relationship. This part is bookended with sections that I would describe as lyrical and poetic, yet also melodramatic and repetitive. I think books can create an atmosphere as you read them, one of terror or suspense, one of laughter or sadness. Every time I picked up this book I felt as though I were sinking into the depths of melancholy. I think a big problem I had and this is, I'm sure, prejudice on my part, is that I couldn't get past the fact that this woman married a convicted murderer serving time. My feeling is that if you're considering doing this, you have issues. Along with that, I couldn't help but wonder why prisoners should get conjugal visits, and get to spend nearly 2 days in a trailer with someone and the opportunity to create children. But that's just me.

I literally put Something Like Beautiful down and picked up The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson. What a breath of fresh air! I went from melancholy to laughter as I read her self-deprecating account of the failure of her marriage and her journey as a single mother. Dickinson writes the column 'Ask Amy' and appears on radio shows. I hadn't heard of her myself before reading this book which is warm and chatty and real. Dickinson comes from the small town of Freeville, where pretty much all the women in her life have raised families on their own, together. This memoir covers a vast period of the author's life and her story is told in vignettes, each chapter detailing a different period or subject. Dickinson has a conversational and funny writing style that makes for quick reading.

I wondered if I would have liked Dickinson's book as much if I hadn't read Bandele's right before it. It's hard to say as these women are so different.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Would you care for some beans?

I'm getting ready to go on a mini-trip tomorrow, not a terribly well planned trip since I'm headed to The Windy City where it's to be well, windy, and cold. I'll be the woman wrapped in the down coat. Anyhow, I'm having a bit of book stress today since I just finished two books and am in the middle of nothing! Not a good way to start a trip if you ask me. The third Simon Serrailler book of Susan Hill's arrived and I think that'll be a shoo-in since I'm already involved with the characters. But I feel I need something else, and since I'm nervous about traveling with books that are difficult to replace - Viragos, advance copies, books from the UK, I'm in a bit of quandary.

In light of all this packing and book decisions, I thought I'd share my black bean technique with you since we'll be eating the leftovers tonight.

I soak my beans overnight. In my opinion this keeps them more firm than the quick-soak method and reduces the, um, gassy qualities of the beans. I drain them, cover them with liquid (probably too much) and then bring to a boil with a cut up onion, a few cloves of garlic, bay leaves, and cilantro. You don't want to add salt now or the beans will have trouble becoming soft. That's what I hear anyway.

So bring the beans to the boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender! I have to keep them partially covered for this or they stop simmering. I start checking for doneness after 30 minutes or so, but they can take as long as an hour. It just depends on your beans, and mine seem pretty fresh since they never take quite as long as the books say. In the meantime I prepare this:

Sauteed onions, red pepper, jalapenos, garlic, spices - paprika and cumin, and throw in some cilantro towards the end as well as salt and pepper. I let this get pretty soft.

Since I usually cook my beans in too much water I remove the excess along with the other flavorings I added at the beginning. Add the onion mixture. There's a pretty high ratio of onion mixture to beans here; I actually started this thinking I had more beans to cook.

And that's it! Adjust the seasonings and you could serve these with rice, as a taco filling - mashing them a bit helps with this, or as an enchilada filling. They're yummy and my family is actually happy about this dinner.

I wanted to say, please forgive me if it seems I've not been around much lately. I've mentioned this before, but I have some problems with my right hand and they're flaring up pretty badly right now. I'm trying to rest it. I'm still reading posts, just not commenting very much.

See you next week!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients

It wasn't until I received The School of Essential Ingredients that I realized I'd known of its author, Erica Bauermeister for some time. Bauermeister is the co-author of a book I return to again and again - 500 Great Books by Women. I happen to love books that are lists of other books, and I believe this is the one that introduced me to the genre. The thing that makes 500 Great Books so Great, is that each title is represented by a paragraph about it, to help you decide which books you might like. There is another version for girls which is also a lot of fun.

Anyway, I was excited to read The School of Essential Ingredients not only because it sounded interesting but because I knew how much its author loved books. This novel is the story of a cooking school, a cooking class really, and it is about food, and life, and love. We first meet Lillian, the cooking instructor and restaurant owner. She had a difficult childhood and found herself in cooking. Her cooking philosophy and restaurant reminded me of what I know of Alice Waters. Each chapter details one class, one meal prepared and one member of the class. We get to know each of them - the young mother getting out of her house, the mature stable married couple, the young Italian beauty, and several more. What struck me about this book was being reminded that everyone has a story, everywhere you go, that everyone is not just who they appear on the outside, but are complicated and experienced in the joys and sadness of life. Bauermeister writes brilliantly about food, it's textures, smells, and taste. My copy is an unfinished proof or else I would share a passage with you. I still think longingly of the pasta and sauce from one of the chapters and the cake from another. This is a quiet novel, ostensibly about cooking, but really about people. It's very well done, and I recommend it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

WINNERS: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County (and a cold weather experiment)

The winners are in! I used the random number generator and have already contacted the five winners. But before we get to that, let me tell you something fun you can do at home if it is -20 degrees at your house today! Boil water - I boiled about 1 1/2 cups and transferred it to a cup I didn't care about - and then go outside and throw it into the air (the water, not the cup) - away from yourself. Cool, huh? (For those who sadly cannot perform this experiment, most of the water disappears into a puff when it hits the air.)

And now for the Winners!

Congratulations to :






I hope you all enjoy the book!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You think I'm hearty, right??

Because the only positive thing I can think of when spending January in Minnesota, are the bragging rights. You know, where the temperature is given this time of year as degrees above or below zero? Where this morning it was the coldest it has been since January of 2004 - that would be -18. Where we have to keep the water dripping in our upstairs bathroom or it will freeze. Where if I traveled further north, it'd be -40. This is temperature folks, not windchill. I haven't seen a temperature above 30 in weeks. Man, that would be balmy. Ahhh.

Anyway, on a more positive note, I have received not one, but two Butterfly Awards for having a cool blog!

I don't know how cool my blog is, but I sure live in a 'cool' place. Haha, I couldn't resist! Many thanks to Bonnie from Redlady's Reading Room and Rhapsody in Books. I give this right back to both of you, and to everyone else whom I read and correspond with in this great bloggy world. You're all cool!

I finished my first book of 2009 - Susan Hill's The Pure in Heart which is the second novel in the Simon Serrailler crime series. You might remember that I read the first book in this series, The Various Haunts of Men just last month and really liked it, despite it being not a traditional crime novel. The Pure in Heart is a bit more of a traditional crime novel but it many ways is really a novel with a mystery at its heart. There is much more about Simon in this book and while it was good to get to know him, I missed some of the voices from the first novel. What I liked about this book was learning more about the various characters. What I didn't like or should I say, what I found unsatisfying, is that the main storyline is not really wrapped up. I knew this going in from reading the Amazon reviews, but I didn't expect it to bother me so much. I also didn't expect to be bothered so much by the boy that goes missing in this book. His mother's grief and anguish were quite upsetting. I understand from the reviews that this storyline is wrapped up in the third book in the series. Because of this, and because I'm just drawn to this town and its people, I ordered the next two books in the series from Britain, as they don't seem readily available here. I'll be interested to see how I feel about these. I think I must be pretty drawn to Hill's writing to continue with the series after being a little bit let down with this installment.

P.S. Nuts! It seems in trying to change a few things on my blogroll, I've deleted the entire thing!! I'm really bad at keeping this current, so it's going to take me a while to build it again. So please don't take it personally if you're not there for while!!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Some Reviews. Finally.

I'm hosting a special playdate here for two little girls - a trip for hot chocolate and to look at books, soon they'll be watching a movie and eating pizza and popcorn. So cute! I'm going to try to write a little something while they are occupied. In case you are interested how I am doing with Lost, I have begun the second season. It sure is different from the first with so many new characters and an overall different feel of the storylines.

I have a few books that I read in 2008 that I still need to review. Needless to say, I finished them quite some time ago so they are not terribly fresh in my mind.

In 2008 I read and reviewed Bound by Sally Gunning. The Widow's War was written before Bound and includes some of the same characters. The story, set around 1761, revolves around Lyddie Berry whose husband has died in a whaling accident. According to common laws at that time, a window only received 1/3 of what her husband owned, which left Lyddie only 1/3 of a house and the expectation that she would go to live with her daughter and son-in-law. Lyddie isn't happy living in their home, and challenging custom decides to go back to her husband's home to live. She meets adversaries and frustration every step along the way. I liked this book very much, and for many of the same reasons I liked Bound. A vivid historical setting with lots of details of everyday life, and interesting and headstrong characters. I prefer historical fiction to be about women, but not necessarily romance based. The Widow's War fit the bill and I'm hoping Gunning writes more about these characters and time period.

The Minotaur is Barbara Vine's most recent US release (her new book is coming out soon, I believe). It is the story of Kerstin, a young Swedish woman recently graduated from college who comes to live with the Cosways, an eccentric family in the English countryside. Her role in the Cosway's home is to be a nurse to adult son John who is so heavily medicated that it is difficult to tell if his diagnosis of schizophrenia is accurate. Vine creates a wonderfully atmospheric story, full of the everyday, but also the eccentric, unusual, and disturbing. There is a more modern feel to this story as compared to Vine's usual work, in keeping with the times. As is usual there is murder, and as is usual, I enjoyed this book very much. The only niggle I had with it is its ending, which I felt was abrupt and tied up much too quickly. If you're a Vine fan, this one won't disappoint.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


I'm thrilled to be partnering with Hachette Books again to give away FIVE, yes, FIVE, copies of Tiffany Baker's debut novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County which is being released today.

I really enjoyed this book and I think you're going to be seeing it everywhere soon.

The rules are simple. Just leave a comment on this post and tell me if you have a favorite book so far in 2009. There is one entry per person. You do not have to have a blog to enter, but please make sure I have a way to contact you via email if you've won. This giveaway is open to US and Canadian addresses only, sorry to those outside these areas. I will close the comments and draw the 5 winners on January 15. Good luck!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Special Guest

So, I'm still watching Lost and I'm nearly done with the first season. This is seriously cutting into my reading and blogging time.

I told my husband, who's done a fair amount of reading lately, that if he put together a list of his favorite books of the year I'd post them. He read 50 books in 2008, and what is most impressive, and puts me shame, is that all but 2 or 3 them of them are non-fiction. Besides the ones below, he also finished 1776, The Devil in the White City, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Alexander Hamilton, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and a slew of other political, history, economic, and religious books. This guy is a serious intellectual, but don't tell him I said so!

So without further ado, here are the books of the year for Mr. Books and Cooks:

Manhunt by James Swanson:
Probably the best book I read this year, it covers the chase to track down the killer(s), following Lincoln’s assassination. It’s very informative, covering the entire event in detail (including the additional attempted assassinations that occurred that same night, as well). It reads like a novel, covering all of the action as John Wilkes Booth is tracked down (including the infamous Dr. Samuel Mudd).

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely :
The book is among many in the line of behavioral economics books that have been out recently (following the popularity of Freakonomics). In my opinion, this book is better than Freakonomics. It delves into why we do the things we do – often repeatedly – if it’s not the “right” thing to do. Economics often start from the premise that people act rationally – this book points out that the premise may not be all that useful in some circumstances. There are a number of fascinating studies that are always fun to have at the ready to share at the next dinner party.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
This book became very pertinent in light of the current financial situation. This book looks at why we are caught off guard with unexpected outcomes. Our current financial models are not adequate (and we put too much blind faith into them) to explain the likelihood of potential outcomes (and specifically catastrophic losses). The Black Swan represents something that we don’t believe exists – until we see it. We don’t think that a certain outcome is possible, simply because we haven’t seen it yet. But just because we haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs:
This is a lighthearted look at the Bible and its interpretation. Jacobs (with a Jewish background – but not a practicing one) decides to live as close to a literal interpretation of the Bible as possible (including not shaving, eating only as the Bible prescribes, etc.). Given the Jewish slant, it’s focused on the Old Testament and Jacobs is not a professed believer, to begin. But he enters with an open mind and it’s a very entertaining read, regardless of belief.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller:
This is a very thoughtful book about evidence pointing to a belief in God. This book stands somewhat in opposition to the plethora of recent books pointing the other direction (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). It attempts to respond to a number of the most common doubts that this pastor has heard over the years. It’s certainly going to be 100% persuasive (which is certainly impossible regardless of book size, let alone in 200+ pages). But it is a brief, compelling counterpoint, on the side of faith.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Merry Christmas to me!

As promised, here are the books 'my husband' got me for Christmas. (I chose and ordered all of them. Which makes me perfectly happy.)

Here are the Persephone Books. I'm sorry the photo is so terrible, there is no light here, we're expecting a storm. I ordered the short stories by Dorothy Whipple and the Vere Hodgson Diaries. I've had my eye on both of these for some time.

Here are the cookbooks. I'm having a wonderful time reading these! The Riverford Farm book is arranged by vegetable alphabetically, the Abel & Cole is arranged by season. Both are lovely, with lots of photos and inspiration. My only question is, what is swede? My guess is turnip.

Here are the rest from The Book Depository. Emily Barr is my guilty pleasure, another by Mary Stanley, I believe this is the only one I didn't have, and Shopped as recommended by Nutmeg. I figure whatever is going on in British supermarkets is probably going on here.

Finally, I placed an order with a used bookstore recently and ordered these for myself. A couple Viragos, and I chose the Barbara Ewing book since I enjoyed her book The Trespass a few years ago.

The reason I was ordering from a used bookstore was to buy this, A Ride on The Red Mare's Back by Ursula Le Guin. Have you heard of it?

My daughter read it at school and they did a unit about it. She loved it and wanted her own copy but it's out of print. This is the gift she was most excited about, which was pretty thrilling. The copy is very nice with dust jacket intact. It is inscribed 'To my little Susie, Love, Grandma' so I had to explain that. I'm not sure how much Susie liked it since it's in such good condition.

I have a few reviews of 2008 books yet to write, but with all these people in the house and getting interrupted every 83 seconds prevents me from doing them. Also, I'm still watching Lost and have finished up to episode 13 of the first season. What did Kate do? Will the Korean man ever discover his wife's secret? Who was Ethan? Yep, I'm obsessed.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Books Read in 2009

(This post will be routinely updated as an ongoing list.)

1. The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
2. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee
3. A Dangerous Affair by Caro Peacock
4. something like beautiful by asha bandele
5. Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
6. The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson
7. Keeping the House by Ellen Baker
8. The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill
9. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
11. The Laws of Harmony by Judith Ryan Hendricks
12. Red Highways by Rose Aguilar
13. Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
14. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
15. The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
16. No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym
17. Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch
18. The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon
19. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
20. The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez
21. The Local News by Miriam Gershow
22. The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
23. Etta by Gerald Kolpan
24. Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jaffrey
25. A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King
26. A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal
27. Life Sentences by Laura Lippman
28. Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn
29. Windfall by Penny Vincenzi
30. A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell
31. The Walking People by Mary Beth Keane
32. The Vows of Silence by Susan Hill
33. The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips
34. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
35. A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
36. An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear
37. The Amateur Gourmet by Adam D. Roberts
38. Beach Trip by Cathy Holton
39. Shoot the Moon by Bille Letts
40. Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen
41. The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates
42. Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
43. Hester's Story by Adele Geras
44. The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine
45. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
46. The Midwife by Jennifer Worth
47. The Imposter's Daughter by Laurie Sandell
48. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
49. Too Many Cooks by Emily Franklin
50. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
51. Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey
52. Mariana by Monica Dickens
53. Silvertown by Melanie McGrath
54. The Dream by Harry Bernstein
55. The Lacemakers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri
56. Talking With My Mouth Full by Bonny Wolf
57. This Lovely Life by Vicki Forman
58. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
59. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
60. The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
61. Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella
62. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
63. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
64. The Lost Garden by Mary Stanley
65. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
66. Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
67. The Crocodile Bird by Ruth Rendell
68. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
69. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
70. Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
71. East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
72. Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin
73. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
74. Gifts of War by Mackenzie Ford
75. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
76. The Life You Want by Emily Barr
77. Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
78. Innocent Blood by P.D. James
79. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
80. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
81. Confessions of a Closet Master Baker by Gesine Bullock Prado
82. The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing
83. The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny
84. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
85. Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth
86. Still Life by Louise Penny
87. The Day the Falls Stood Still by by Cathy Marie Buchanan
88. Little Monsters by Charles Lambert
89. The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
90. The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton
91. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
92. The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
93. A Proper Education for Girls by Elaine di Rollo
94. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
95. The Ice House by Minette Walters
96. Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson
97. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
98. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
99. Cherries in Winter by Suzan Colon
100*** The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
101. The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart
102. Daphne by Justine Picardie
103. What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin
104. A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny