Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why Don't You Just Go... Croak?

So if I was really super awesomely on top of things, I would have read this book in time to post last week. Cause then it would have been even newer. But, I'm not; I read things as they catch my fancy. Still 9 days after the release date isn't bad, right? (Someday, I'll be super-awesome-blogger girl and get Galleys for this. *nods head*).  Tonight's post spotlights the very fun, fresh, and epically awesome new Young Adult book, Croak.

The Basics
Damico, Gina. Croak. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. eBook.

Damico does not yet have a wikipedia page or any other info out in the easily searchable interwebs, so this bio is solely based on the much better one found on her website (See Extras below).  Damico is from New York state and holds a degree in theater and sociology. She currently resides in Boston with her two cats and a husband (Sebastian informs me via claw that cats take precedence). Croak is her first novel of epic awesomeness; I'm sure there will be more to come.

Croak's heroine is a girl named Lex, who's "troubled." She kicks, spits, punches, and terrorizes the school hockey team (and generally everyone else).  So, her parents, at their wits' end, ship her off to her Uncle Mort in upstate New York to spend the summer working on his farm. Except he's not a farmer, he's a Grim Reaper, and so is Lex. Sarcasm, antics, and drama ensue.

The Book
Is awesome.

Okay, so I've got more to say than that.  Let's start with Lex.  She starts out as a surly, angry teenager, who's pretty thoroughly unlikeable.  She picks the hair of a kid she bit out of her teeth with a "quick snap" like a proper little psycho.  However, Lex grows on you pretty quickly (in a decidedly un-fungus-like manner, too).  Since the entire third person narrative follows Lex, you get inside her head pretty quickly.  You learn that she doesn't really understand her own behavior any better than her baffled family, and I think that's something that normal (non Grim Reaper) teens can easily identify with  (I mean really, it's a miracle any of us survive that age without being strangled), even if the excuse of being hormone addled is far less cool. You also get to watch Lex grow a bit and start to come into her own as she finds a place where she can be herself in Croak.  She's also a sarcastic little smartie-pants, which makes for fun reading.

And speaking of sarcastically delightful reading, Damico infuses Croak with a delicious sense of humor that produces laughs with almost every page.  I actually had to share the laughs and read a passage out loud when she encounters a frat boy with a popped collar who "resembled a preppy Count Chocula" and "put on his best 'I'm a douchebag' face'," right before calling her cutie.  Hi-larious! Best of all, it's a kind of humor that I think really resonates with the audience that Damico is targeting. And it's highly quotable, too; I will long hold fond memories of the phrase "it's a bedroom, not a Victoria's Secret".  At times it borders on the farcical and the ridiculous (almost cartoonish), such as when Teddy Roosevelt roars at Edgar Allan Poe who in turn screams like a little girl.  But this will 1) help it appeal to a broader age range, dipping into slightly younger groups and 2) provoke thought about the nature of death and the afterlife via humor. (Right? Totally).

And let's not ignore the fact that in addition to being hysterically funny, Damico's writing is just plain good.  She delves into some fairly interesting subject material: life, death, the nature of the afterlife, justice, family, belonging, loss, grief, responsibility.  And that's just what I can think of in the matter of a few seconds; I'm sure I could go on.  There's a lot for the mind to chew on in between all the wise-cracks; I know it was pretty thought-provoking for me.  I think that especially for the young adult audience, this particular take on death could prove interesting. I know that nothing mystified me more as a teen than the idea that someone could be there one second and gone the next. It still does.

Best of all, Damico is carving out new and interesting territory for herself in the realm of Young Adult fiction. There's not a dystopia, vampire, angel, werewolf, or wizard in sight.  Grim Reapers aren't exactly a new idea (there was the show Dead Like Me a few years back and probably other stuff), but Damico takes this to a new and exciting place.  And she does it very well, I can't wait for more.

P.S. Don't listen to reviews that whine about the pace of the ending. It was not sudden. It flowed well and made perfect sense within the happenings of the book. Nyah, so there.

  • So, go check out Gina Damico's webpage for plenty of snarky goodness! There's a cute video trailer for the novel if you scroll down to the very bottom. And don't forget to check out the bio!
  • While you're there, check out her blog, especially her latest post that could lead to a deleted scene from Croak if you play your cards right.
  • The sequel (Squeeeeeee!)? Yeah, it comes out in Fall and stuff. (Spoiler Alert: Do NOT read the summary for this book or you'll ruin the ending of Croak for yourself. You have been warned).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

They're Devilish!

Naturally I'm talking about Deviled Eggs, a staple hors d'oeuvres at Southern parties (and who knows, maybe elsewhere, too). The great thing about Deviled Eggs is that you can make them in advance and have them ready to pop onto a table, no heating required. Oh, and they're delicious and look pretty, too.  I'd been planning to make these to serve at my birthday for a while, and while out one day with Lovely Assistant Jen, I promised her mom that I'd get the recipe up on my blog. So here it is!

What You'll Need
Large pot                                                                    Cutting board
Slotted spoon                                                              Fork or whisk
Large bowl                                                                 Egg plates (enough to hold 36 halves)
Knife                                                                           Decorator's bag *
18 large eggs                                                              1/2 tsp hot sauce
White vinegar                                                             Worcestershire sauce
4 tsp spicy brown mustard                                         Salt
2/3 cup mayonnaise                                                   Pepper 
1 Tbsp onion powder                                                  Paprika

Now Let's Make Deviled Eggs!
Start by placing your eggs gently in your large pot. Fill the pot with enough water to cover the eggs and then some. I usually put enough water to be an inch over the eggs.  Place the pot on the stove and turn the heat on high. Add a generous dollop of white vinegar to the water; this will help prevent the whites from seeping should the eggs crack while cooking.  Bring the water to a boil.  As soon as the water boils, turn the heat down to maintain a rolling boil (about medium-high) and cook for 15 minutes.  

As soon as the timer goes off, remove the pot from the heat. Quickly, but gently, remove the eggs using your slotted spoon and transfer them to your large bowl.  Fill the bowl with cold water and set aside to allow the eggs to cool.  It will be much easier to peel the eggs when they're no longer hot.

When you're ready remove the eggs and begin cracking their shells. If they're still warm, run them under cold water for a second first. Begin by tapping the egg against a hard surface, rotating so that you get multiple spots on the surface of the egg. Then, sandwich the egg between the surface and your palm and gently roll the egg around applying very light pressure to crack the entire surface of the shell.  Repeat for all the eggs.  One at a time, begin peeling the shell away from the egg.  I recommend doing this under running cold water. This helps with the shell removal. Set the eggs aside as you finish.

Using a sharp knife with a clean edge (not serrated! We're slicing not sawing here), slice each egg in half along the length of the egg.  Over your large bowl, separate the egg yolk from the egg white.  To do this, gently run your fingers around the part of the white surrounding the yolk, barely pulling it away from the center. The yolk should fall out easily.  Let the yolk fall into the large bowl, and place the white curved side down in a slot on your egg plate. Repeat this process for all the eggs.

Set your egg plates full of whites aside for now.  Measure out 4 tsp spicy brown mustard, 2/3 cup mayonnaise, 1 Tbsp onion powder, and 1/2 tsp hot sauce and add them to your egg yolks.  Now the rest of the ingredients are added to taste, so the following amounts are approximations.  Add about 6 shakes of Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp of salt and lots of pepper. Whisk everything together with either a whisk or a fork. Try to get as smooth a texture as possible without any lumps of egg.  (That second photo is just plain appetizing, yes? Click to enlarge!).

Yes, I had an explosion.
Yes, it got everywhere. 
Now, a word of caution, if you're going to get fancy (and I tried, I really did), go ahead and run the mixture through a blender or food processor. You will not be able to get all the lumps of egg broken up by hand.  This is fine if you're simply going to spoon the stuff into your eggs and be done with it, but if you're going to pipe the mixture into your eggs you don't want any clumps to clog the tip and cause problems.  Why is that you ask? Because then you have to stop every five seconds to unclog or, well, see the photo.

Anyway, my kitchen adventures aside (I assure you much hilarity ensued, especially since I managed to splatter myself as well as the table cloth), I did manage to pipe out all of my eggs (like the kitchen ninja I truly am).  Insert your piping tip into the decorator's bag and spoon in the egg mixture. Seal the end of the bag and pipe the egg mixture into the hollows of the egg whites by lightly squeezing the large end of the decorator's bag. You'll want to heap it in so that you have little mounds; there'll be plenty of filling, trust me.  Once you're done piping, sprinkle paprika onto each of the deviled eggs. Try to concentrate the paprika over the filling if possible.  

Om nom nom!
If not serving right away, chill in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve. Make sure to proudly display your deviled eggs in a proper egg plate. And most of all, enjoy!


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Romantic Reads: His Conquest

I've been on a bit of a Romance kick lately. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that romances tend to run toward the cheap on Nook books (Did I tell y'all I got a Nook for my birthday, cause I got a Nook for my birthday).  So, I've decided I'll do a new routine type of posting, similar to my Classy Classics post (and by routine I mean when I feel like reading one).  Sadly, my latest read is . . . well, only so-so.

The Basics
Cosby, Diana. His Conquest. Kensington Publishing Co, 2010. eBook.

Diana Cosby is a retired Navy Chief Meteorologist and Oceanographer, which is pretty spiffy, you know. And, other than the fact that she's a Braveheart fan, that's about all I could find on her. So far, she has authored 4 novels all part of her MacGruder series of Historical Highland Romances.

His Conquest is the third in the aforementioned series.  Running from her fiendish brother, Linet escapes his clutches accompanied by the Highland lord, Seathan MacGruder, the Earl of Grey (snicker snicker, tea, snicker), whom she released from the dungeons.  Although he's supposed to escort her to the Highlands in exchange for her freeing him, they make a small pit stop at his castle, fall in love, run into trouble, and live happily ever after. The end.

The Book
As I've already hinted I was a bit disappointed with this book.  I like my romance novels with plenty of plot, and while this book had one it was fairly flawed.  It had an interesting enough premise, set during one of the Wars for Scottish Independence during the time of William Wallace.  Being a bit of a history buff, I thought that showed plenty of promise. While it kept my attention, the plot was minimal and had some serious flow issues.  Most of the book focused on their traveling to the castle, Linet getting shouted at, and then breaking back into her home. Rather than an interesting historical plot, the entire book centers around whether or not Linet can be trusted. Since readers already know that she can, this gets pretty old rather quickly. Maybe I'm out of the norm on this, but courting is just not enough to keep me interested.

Then there's the sudden about face that happens toward the end of the book. Seathan is all brooding suspicion for the entire beginning of the novel.  He's wary that Linet might be part of a ploy to gain valuable rebel information.  There's a brief interlude when they arrive at his castle, where she meets his family and stays in his grandmother's old chamber (and we'll get to that little tidbit in a minute).  Then, he discovers that she's his enemy's sister and immediately assumes the worst. Rather than locking her up, he decides to take her with him to confront a man he thinks is a traitor and later her brother.  On the way, their party is attacked by her brother's men; during the battle she shouts a warning to Seathan about an approaching warrior and gets a gash on the head.  Seathan suddenly decides that she can be trusted, out of the blue, because she got a cut on the head. And then they have lots of s- I mean, romance (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).  I could have bought the circumstances leading up to the change, but it happens too abruptly and without any explanation, making it rather unbelievable.  I followed the logic behind the move, but to do so I had to do the story telling for myself. Not cool.

For my last gripe, I direct your attention to Cosby's introduction of magic to the story. As you all know by now, I like a touch magic in my fiction; in fact, it's hard for me to pick books that don't have a little fairy dust floating around.  But this time, it was just completely unnecessary.  Maybe if I'd read the proceeding two novels, to which this portion obviously tied in, I would appreciate it more. But I haven't and I didn't. Even if I had, it should have been worked in better.  The room Linet stays in her first night has a whiff of magic in it, and every woman who stays in it winds up married to the man who brought her to the keep.  Oh, and there are magic necklaces that come in pairs. Seathan already wears his, and Linet is highly attracted to its match. In fact she steals it and it glows and feels warm.  Sadly, my explanation about covers the extent of this subplot's involvement in the book. Had it been removed, the book would not have been any different really, so why's it there?

All that being said, it was still an okay book.  The romance parts were well done, and Cosby does the witty couple well. I even giggled a couple of times.  It's not stellar, but if you like romance more than you do plot, you may find this novel enjoyable.  She hooked me enough that I still had to know what happened. You'll never see a truly awful book on this blog, because I tend not to get through those. I'd recommend the book to big fans of the romance genre and/or Highland romances, since it satisfied those needs fairly well. She's a pretty new author by Romance genre terms, so I'm kind of interested to see where she goes and what else she produces.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

Easy as Cherry Pie

And yes, Cherry Pie is actually quite easy to make.  Admittedly, this recipe is for the down and dirty version, rather than the made from scratch with fresh ingredients version.  What can I say? It's easier and tastes just as good.  So, need a quicky dessert that still tastes delicious and will impress?  Cherry Pie has got your back.

What You'll Need
               Supplies                                                                Ingredients
1 pie plate                                                             1 box pie crust               
Pizza slicer                                                            2 21 oz cans cherry pie filling

Now Let's Make Cherry Pie!
First, let's go over a note on the ingredients.  It's important that you buy cherry pie filling, not cherries in syrup or water.  Cherry pie filling can typically be found down the baking aisle (of any reasonably laid out grocery that is)

Anyway, preheat your oven to 375F.  Line your pie dish with one of the boxed crusts (1 box = two crusts). Press the crust to the bottom of the pie plate and into curve of the dish. You don't have to squish it, but you want to make sure there isn't space for air pockets to form. Lightly fold the excess crust over the side of the plate; this will make the basket weave top a little easier later on.

Now, open your cans of cherry pie filling.  Spoon the contents of each can into the pie crust, making sure to scrape all the filling from the can (sad filling is sad). Smooth the filling into the crust so that there are no empty spots and the top of the filling is fairly even.

Spread your other crust out on a flat, clean surface. Using your pizza slicer, cut the crust into evenly sized strips. The size can range depending on how much weaving you want to do.  Mine are usually about 3/4 of an inch wide (unless my hands are shaky and I accidentally do 1/2 inch strips, thus compelling my OCD nature to do the rest the same way. *twitch*).

Now, lay strips in one direction across the pie. Space them about 3/4" to 1" apart. Again, this is flexible and depends on the size of your strips; just try to keep the spacing somewhat even and aesthetically pleasing.  On one end of the strips (only one!), press the end into the side of the pie crust in order to seal it to the crust.  Don't worry if you have a little excess crust on the end; we'll deal with that later (*cracks knuckles menacingly*).

Turn the pie so you'll be weaving in a direction you find comfortable.  I like to go up, so I turn my pie so that the first set of strips sit horizontally to me. Peal all the strips back in the opposite direction, and gently drape them over the edge of the plate.  Take another crust strip, seal it to the edge of the pie perpendicular to the others. Begin weaving by folding the strips down over and under the strip you're working with. When you reach the other side of the pie, seal the strip to the pie crust (both ends of this one should be sealed), and peal back the other crust strips again. Repeat the process, spacing the strips evenly, until you've completely covered the pie. Seal the other strips pie crust as you finish the last strip.  Carefully cut or pinch off any excess crust from the ends of the strips. Fold the bottom crust over the sealed ends of the strips, and press to seal. If you want to get really fancy, you can press a fork around the edges (I didn't).

Bake the pie at 375F for about 30 minutes, until the crust turns golden brown. There should be no translucent parts showing; those are unbaked portions and a sign that the pie needs a little longer.  Remove the pie, cool and then serve.  The more you allow the pie to cool the better the filling will set and the prettier your pie slices will be.  Needless to say, when I serve my pie, it rarely retains slice form. This pie goes great with vanilla ice cream, and the recipe can easily be doubled, tripled, etc.
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Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Spy Among Them

Tonight, for your reading pleasure, I present a cozy mystery: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen.  The book is the first in a series that I've been eyeing for some time and will likely continue reading. I say likely, because parts of this novel left me feeling rather "meh," while others had me frantically flipping pages. Overall, it was a bit of a mixed bag for me. That being said, I'd still call this a good book. Given the current obsession with all things British upper class (The King's Speech, Downton Abbey, Kate Middleton), I think that this book should be gobbled up by my fellow Anglophiles.

The Basics
Bowen, Rhys. Her Royal Spyness. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2007. Print.

Hailing from Bath, England, Rhys Bowen is an Agatha and Anthony Award-winning author of several mystery series, including the popular Molly Murphy series.  She began her writing career authoring children's and young adult novels under her married name, Janet Quin-Harkin, but eventually adopted her grandfather's name as a pseudonym to write mysteries.

Her Royal Spyness introduces heroine Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, Georgie for short, a somewhat clumsy and cash strapped member of the royal family (34th in line to the throne, so don't get too excited). Set between wars, in 1930s England, the book has a great historical feel. In her debut, Georgie must negotiate her social life, dust her way into financial success, and dodge the Queen's attempts to set her up with a cod-faced European prince.  Oh, and there's a body in the bathtub and a bumbling incarcerated brother to deal with while she's at it. She's a busy girl.

The Book
As usual, I'll get the parts I didn't like over with first.  I really only have one complaint, but it's a big one: pacing. My God, does this book ever have a slow start. Don't get me wrong. It's cute. You get oodles of character from Lady Georgie and a great glimpse into upper class England. While that's perfectly enjoyable, I also expect a little plot to go along with it.  Cute just isn't enough. The body doesn't show up until page 143, and that's nearly halfway through the book.  It took me two weeks to get through this book, when my average read time is two days (and it's no where near complex enough to merit that sort of attention).  I had to drag myself through the first half of the book.

That being said, I still enjoyed the first part of the book, just not in my normal page devouring sense.  Georgie is a delightful character, full of spunk and wit.  She had me laughing out loud from page one with her sarcastic outlook on her fellow upper class denizens.  There's a light satirization that cozies up to the book's celebration of the British gentry. And I ate it up. Even without her sense of humor, Georgie would be charming.  She's highly intelligent and resourceful, starting a maid service to provide herself with income while simultaneously negotiating the expectations of her place in society.

The historical setting of the novel is also engaging.  Rhys Bowen captures 1930s England vividly and in such a way that readers can't help but be drawn in. Bowen firmly situates the fiction within historical fact, drawing on such popular figures as Queen Mary, Wallis and Edward.  I mean, really, given the current popularity of this period such subjects this series is a shoe in for good entertainment.

Best of all, despite what I found to be a slow start, once the body shows up, the novel becomes quick paced.  I couldn't put it down until I'd solved the mystery along with Georgie.  Nor is it too easy to discover the murderer; I did solve it before the Georgie but only just.  Bowen kept me guessing right up until the climax, which added to the suspense and my enjoyment.  I was so thrilled with the conclusion that it more than made up for my difficulty in getting into the book in the beginning.  And, I think that if I was a little more in to the period than I am at the moment (as I hear plenty of people are), even the beginning wouldn't have been a problem. So, overall, it's a great read, well worth the time.

  • So, check out the author's webpage, and while you're there read a more substantial (and interesting) biography.
  • Also check out the Royal Spyness series page to learn more about this amazing set of historical mysteries. This includes an excerpt from the first novel.
  • Rhys Bowen has a blog, delightfully named Rhys's Pieces.
  • Lastly, there's a movie in talks; not much to be seen on Imdb as of yet, but I'll be keeping my eyes peeled.
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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Shrimpy Grits, So Much Better Than Gritty Shrimp

So I figured it was about time for another straight-up Southern recipe.  My mother has been after me to make Shrimp and Grits for a while, so I finally did.  I'd never made this particular dish before, so it gave me an opportunity to experiment, which is always fun. To create this recipe, I took what I knew about the basic ingredients for Shrimp and Grits and adjusted until I had something I was pleased with. I'd like to play with it a bit more, perhaps get some tomato flavor going, but I'm super-pleased with how this turned out. If you don't know what grits are (Bless your heart, you poor deprived thing), check out this Wikipedia page on the topic.

What You'll Need
Cutting board                                                             2 qt. pot
Knife for chopping                                                      Small bowl
Cheese grater                                                             Large cast iron skillet
Medium mixing bowl                                                  Large serving bowl
4 cups water                                                              Olive oil
1 cup stone-ground grits                                            3 tsp garlic, minced
3/4 cup white cheddar                                               3 green onions
3/4 cup sharp cheddar                                               1/2 Tbsp parsley
1/2 cup parmesan                                                      1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/2 stick butter                                                          2 dashes chili powder
1 lb. shrimp                                                                Lemon juice
4 slices bacon

Now Let's Make Shrimp and Grits!
Lovely Assistant Jen
To begin, measure out 4 cups of water into your 2 qt pot and set it on the stove over high heat so that you can bring the water to boil.  While the you're waiting on your water, measure out 1 cup of grits (for you non-Southerners that's grits plural, please don't ever call them grit) and set them aside. Now, begin shredding the two cheddar cheeses. You want to shred enough to have 3/4 cup of each, which is about 2.5 -3 oz (if you have a lovely assistant, now is a great time to put her to use). Chop your green onions, discarding the white parts, and mince your garlic (or use jarred minced garlic like me). If you're using fresh parsley, chop that, too.  Set aside.

Once the water comes to a boil, add the dry grits.  Reduce to a low heat and cover. You'll want to stir occasionally to ensure that your grits don't get lumpy or start to stick. While you're waiting, combine the sharp cheddar, white cheddar, and parmesan in your medium bowl.  You don't have to mix it, but you want it all together before you add it to the grits later. Cut the 1/2 stick of butter into pieces over the bowl of cheeses. Set aside. (Sorry if the photos are a bit off tonight guys, my camera batteries were both dead, so I had to steal Lovely Assistant Jen's iphone).

Cameo! That's my Mom.
Stir your grits (Stir, I say! *cracks whip*).  Take your shrimp and the small bowl to the sink.  Begin removing the tails from your shrimp, placing the shrimp in the bowl and the discarding the tails.  Try to remove as much meat from the tails as you can. If you're not careful, the shrimp will rip and you'll leave behind a small portion in the tail. I find a couple wiggles at the the base of the shrimp before you pull it out helps this process along.  For this recipe I used precooked shrimp (because it's quicker and was on sale; mostly because it was on sale). It's fine, however, to use uncooked shrimp (they'll likely better absorb flavor, anyway), just know that you'll need to cook them a bit longer later in this recipe.

Stir your grits.  Now, lay out 4 slices of bacon in your large cast iron skillet and fry the bacon over medium heat until crispy (you'll know it's done when you find it really hard to resist eating it). Remove the bacon to some paper towels, and pat to remove grease. Try to get as much grease off the bacon as possible. Set aside.

Check your grits; they'll be done as soon as all the water is absorbed. If they're not done, stir and keep cooking. You'll have to wait until they're done to move farther in this recipe, since the shrimp cooks quickly. Hopefully, though, the grits have had plenty of time to cook. Pour the grits into your large serving dish.  Add the bowl of cheeses and mix thoroughly until all the cheese has melted. Make sure to blend everything together well; you don't want any pockets of cheese or of plain grits. Place the serving dish in the oven on warm until the shrimp are done. This will help the grits set, while also keeping them from cooling (cold grits are foul, by the way).

Take your large skillet and drain off any excess grease from the bacon.  Add a dab of olive oil and heat the skillet to medium high heat.  Add 3 tsp garlic, 1/2 Tbsp parsley, 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, a couple dashes of chili powder, and the green onions. Cook until the garlic begins to brown (This will help release flavor). Add the shrimp and saute until the spices are evenly distributed and the shrimp have heated. Do NOT overcook (no one likes rubbery shrimp). If you're using uncooked shrimp, cook the shrimp until they turn pink and begin to curl, about 3 minutes.

Spoon the shrimp on top of the center of the grits. Make sure to get all the seasonings, too; pour the contents of the skillet over the top of the shrimp if necessary.  Squirt the shrimp with a little bit of lemon juice to taste. Garnish by crumbling the strips of bacon over the grits and around the shrimp in the center. Serve.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

What Is It about Kilts, Anyway?

So the other day, I decided I needed to add a little more variety and spice here at The Book Pantry.  Mostly, this means avoiding urban fantasy for a little. Currently, I'm reading a cute cozy mystery to satisfy  this demand, but last week, I decided to pick up a (looks around furtively) Romance novel.  (Le gasp!) I find myself developing an increasing respect for the genre; there has to be something behind their popularity. It's kind of like a grown up version of a Disney princess movie: good triumphs and everyone is happily in love by the end.  I doubt I'll ever be able to enjoy the novels that are out and out smutty erotica, but throw in a decent amount of plot and I can get with it.

The Basics
Banks, Maya. In Bed with a Highlander. New York: Ballantine Books, 2011. Print.

Maya Banks is a best-selling author of lots of romances, many of will hopefully be set in Scotland. She lives in Texas with her husband, three children, several cats (that's totally the important part of this bio), and a dog.

In Bed with a Highlander tells the story of Mairin Stuart and Ewan McCabe. Mairin is the illegitimate daughter of the former king of Scotland and is hounded by an unfortunately substantial and strategically valuable dowry.  This might be fine if she had any protection, but instead she's on her own.  To her good fortune, she encounters Ewan McCabe, who is out for more than her dowry.  Ewan is a warrior determined to provide security for his clan and seek revenge on his enemies, while Mairin is a spirited young woman raised by nuns. Predictably, antics ensue.

The Book
First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it. Nevertheless, I have a few gripes.  I'll start with the title and cover.  I see a lot of romance titles come through the library, and I've noticed a trend.  A good number of romances go for titles that are quite literal. I find most romance novel titles giggle-worthy, but I'll take one called Big Bad Beast over a more literal title any day.  In Bed with a Highlander? Come on! Leave something to the imagination here! As for the cover of this particular novel: I like it when the cover matches a character's description. Also, that lingerie doesn't really seem period to me . . . (this bugged me way more than is reasonable).

Okay, so those are pretty minor gripes that made me giggle more than actually irritated me.  (And I'm sure you can tell by now that I secretly like anything that makes me laugh). But I have a major one that actually intertwines with one of my favorite parts of the novel: Mairin's characterization.  Having been raised by nuns in a, well, cloistered environment, Mairin is understandably naive. At times, this leads to some absolutely hilarious situations (like her puzzlement over why tongues are involved in kissing). However, there are times in the novel when this naiveté crosses over into the realm of stereotypical stupidity, and this really irritates me. For the most part, Mairin strikes me as a strong-willed, intelligent woman, so these moments of stupidity are not just annoying, but out of character.  When the other characters seem a step away from saying "silly Mairin" and patting her on the head, I want to maim someone. Fortunately these moments are few and far between. Overall Mairin is a great character, who stands up both for herself and for what she believes to be right.  For me, this makes her easier to identify with, which is essential for this sort of novel. No shrinking violets here!

When reading a romance novel, it's very important that the romance be interspersed with plenty of plot. I just cannot stay interested in a book that is all fluff and smooching.  So, when I decided to do a romance novel for the blog, I went in search of one that looked like it had an interesting and involved story line.  Banks more than lives up to that expectation.  Much of the novel focuses on the everyday parts of Mairin's life as she adjusts to being married and the mistress of a clan.  This makes for an engaging and delightfully light bit of reading. Alongside this is a heavier and more serious plot of political intrigue.  This plot line provides a feasible explanation for Mairin's situation in life and a reason for where she winds up. It also adds an element of suspense to the novel and an overarching problem to be solved as Mairin seeks safety and stability.  I also enjoyed the amount of potential the plot of this novel leaves for the sequels (which I will be reading; a sure sign of a good plot is one that leaves you wanting to know more).

Banks clearly has a great sense of humor, which she shares with readers throughout the novel.  I often pick of romance novels only to hysterically laugh when that was clearly not the intended reaction. I loved that this novel only illicits that response deliberately.  Mairin is slightly clumsy (and can't we all identify) when it comes to learning how to manage her household.  The humor involved in these situations serves to make readers like Mairin even more and ultimately root for her and be pleased when she finally succeeds.  Mairin and Ewan both attempt to "manage" one another over the course of the novel, often to spectacularly failed results. Banks's use of humor makes this trope fun and enjoyable when it might otherwise have been tedious and hackneyed.

Lastly, I loved the setting of the novel.  Admittedly, my own heritage might have biased me a bit, but come on. Beautiful scenery, ruggedly handsome men, accents, tartans, and a delightfully historical setting, what's not to love! I also enjoyed the lack of kilts and overdone colloquial speech patterns. Instead, Banks imbues the novel with just the right amount of Scottish Highland flavor. She takes readers to the Highlands, without also taking them to the set of a really bad made-for-tv movie. So, we get all the enjoyment with out any gag-worthy bits.

  • Maya Banks has a lovely personal website, filled with additional information and easily navigable (I'm a sucker for a well-made website).
  • She has a specific section dedicated to the McCabe trilogy, of which In Bed with a Highlander is the first, that includes a delightfully dramatic series trailer.
  • Lastly, Banks keeps a well-maintained and frequently updated blog, named Southern Sin.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Don't Let Your Flapjacks Flop!

Although, who doesn't like a good pancake? Unless, of course, you've burned them (I've never done that. Nope!). Pancakes are practically a world-wide dish, too, which is pretty cool; seriously, check out the Wikipedia page, which is . . . impressive. This is one of the first things I learned to cook, so this particular recipe is the result of plenty of practice and, well, flops. So, this is the recipe for my super-fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes; it makes about 6-8 flapjacks, depending on how good you are at stretching the batter (I'm not, and I always wind up with an awkward 7).

What You'll Need
Medium mixing bowl                                                   Large mixing bowl
Measuring cups (Liquid and Dry)                                 Ladle
Measuring spoons                                                       Cast iron skillet or griddle
Whisk                                                                          Topping(s) of choice
2 cups all-purpose flour                                               1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar                                                               2 large eggs
2 tsp baking powder                                                    3 Tbsp butter
1 tsp baking soda                                                         1 3/4 cup buttermilk

Now Let's Make Buttermilk Pancakes!
Take your medium mixing bowl and measure out 2 cups all-purpose flour, 2 Tbsp sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, and 1 tsp salt. (Do NOT confuse the powder and the soda! Again, I've never done this).  Whisk the dry ingredients together until there are no lumps and the texture is quite fine.  Set aside.

Now, melt 3 Tbsp butter.  While butter is melting, crack the 2 large eggs into your large mixing bowl. Remove shell if necessary and beat the eggs with the whisk until yolks and whites are blended.  Add the melted butter.  Shake the buttermilk and measure out 1 3/4 cup, pouring it into the bowl. Whisk all the wet ingredients together vigorously until they are thoroughly mixed.

Add the bowl of dry ingredients to the bowl of wet.  Whisk until all of the dry ingredients are mixed in and there are no lumps.  Try not to beat overly long, as this could result in a tough pancakes (and no one likes a pancake that gives you lip). The batter should be thick but pourable; if the batter is too thick, add buttermilk in very small amounts, mixing after each addition, until you reach the proper consistency. Be careful, it's really easy to overdo and get runny batter. (And, like snotty eggs, runny batter is just wrong).

Try not to burn the paper. Heh heh.
Set the batter aside and heat your skillet/griddle (cooking instrument of choice) to medium-low heat.  On my stove, anything above 3 results in burnt crisps (which couldn't flop if they wanted to, but suck nonetheless). Ultimately, you'll just have to know your stove. While your griddle heats, allow the batter to rest; this will help encourage overall fluffiness. Your griddle is ready when butter sizzles on it. Speaking of butter . . . take the rest of the stick that you cut the 3 Tbsp from and peel back the paper. Apply butter to the pan between each pancake as you cook using this stick (see photo).

Ladle pancake batter onto the buttered skillet.  Allow the flapjack to cook on one side until bubbles begin to surface on the uncooked side of the pancake.  This will be most pronounced around the edges. Pancake is ready to flip when the edge can be easily lifted without batter sticking to the spatula.  The color of the cooked side should be a deep golden brown.  Cook the other side of the pancake until it matches the top in color. Repeat until all batter is used.

Stack the flapjacks and serve with your choice of toppings.  I prefer powdered sugar, but my boyfriend likes maple syrup.  Other tasty options: fresh fruit, fruit sauce, whipped cream, jams and preserves, marshmallow cream, chocolate, nutella, caramel and nuts.  Also, because this pancake is not particularly sweet in and of itself, you can also it with savory toppings and/or dishes (I totally want to try this soon!).

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sate Your Wicked Appetite

So, I was looking for a book that would be a nice quick read this week.  I wanted to post on something other than the October Daye series, lest you guys get bored. I figured, "I'll go with a nice mystery, something by Janet Evanovich," who I've been meaning to read for a while now.  I darted over to the shelf while there were no patrons around and snatched up a copy of Wicked Appetite, because I'd heard its a) good and b) the start of a new series (you know I like my series).  While I succeeded in locating a quick read (we're talking under 24 hours here), I'm afraid I did not completely avoid the supernatural (sorry! *dodges tomatoes*).

The Basics
Evanovich, Janet. Wicked Appetite. New York: St. Martin's, 2010. Print.

Janet Evanovich began her authorial life writing romance novels under the pseudonym Steffie Hall.  However, she quickly realized the full force of her awesomeness and began writing under her own name. After a (pretty decent) number of romances, Evanovich transitioned into mystery writing, and aren't we all glad she did?  This move resulted in the creation of the light-hearted and ever-popular Stephanie Plum (keep her away from your car. No, really) a good 18 novels, and movie deal.

Wicked Appetite is one of Evanovich's more recent novels and is the first installment in her new Wicked series.  The book introduces a new heroine, Lizzy Tucker, and features an old friend, Diesel (who appeared in the Stephanie Plum between the numbers novellas).  The book continues Evanovich's trademark style mix of light-hearted chick-lit, mystery, kooky sidekicks, and outrageous humor as Lizzy and Diesel work together to track down the 7 SALAGIA stones that correspond with the seven deadly sins (and that's every bit as delightfully ridiculous as it sounds).

The Book
I loved this book and I have no difficulty in pinning down why: it was hilarious.  This novel was literally laugh-out-loud funny, something I rarely come across in my reading life.  I liked that it took me outside of my normal range of amusement, too; rather than the witty sarcasm I typically gravitate towards, Evanovich leans more toward straightforward and blatantly hilarious.  I can't begin to count the number of times she had me practically cackling aloud with glee (and incidentally, my boyfriend looking at me like I was a crazy person). I think a few examples are in order, yesh? To start, the opening of the novel and Lizzy's comparison of life to lumpy gravy (cause, you know, it's not all smooth) had me at hello. How can I resist a good food metaphor? (I can't, just fyi). Another favorite part: when Lizzy's Dad drops in for a visit and tells the monkey to "be a man... eat your potatoes!" Hilarious! (and I swear, it makes total sense when your reading the book).  This novel was a farcical bit of fun that had me grinning throughout and laughing through much.

And then, of course, there's Lizzy.  I love her.  She makes cupcakes. The end. Just kidding (about the end part, anyway; you're not getting rid of me that easy).  In addition to being a superb cook with a fabulous cookbook idea, Lizzy manages to be funny without being ditzy, which I love. I'd hate her if I thought she was stupid.  Instead she comes off as intelligent and relatable, and carries off the weirder moments with a grace and humor most ladies I know would kill to have.  And really, what's not to love about a girl who can laugh about falling off a toilet and breaking her nose by pointing out the bright side of getting a perfect schnoz out of the resulting corrective procedures? Another, favorite character: Lizzy's sidekick with witchy aspirations, Glo. She's a hoot.

I also enjoyed how speedy this read was. This is not because the book is overly simple, but rather due to Evanovich's snappy writing style.  She grabs readers' attention and doesn't let go; the book is so action packed and fast paced that you can't fail to be caught up in the whirlwind. I also think a lot of my absorption was due to the farcical style of the mystery; even the serious bits poke fun at themselves. There's an entire group of people that call themselves "Unmentionables" for crying out loud. I think if readers aren't expecting that or (worse) if that style of humor doesn't appeal, then they won't like the book at all, but I sure loved it.  There's so much to prasie, a blog post just can't contain it; I can't wait for the sequel.

  • As always, I must point you to the author's website (gotta show the authors plenty of love. It's a rule. I know these things), including her nice bio.
  • Don't forget her page for Wicked Appetite, which includes a link to read the first chapter if you want a taste ahead of time.
  • For a glimpse at the sequel (see it's awesome cover!?), try the Wicked Business page. There's not much there yet, but there will be. Out June 19, 2012! (what? Excited? Me?).

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