Thursday, February 25, 2010

Summer of Joy - Ann H. Gabhart (Christian)

Released February 2008

At heart, I did enjoy Summer of Joy. Big snowstorm that I didn't want to hit arrived in full force yesterday and knocked out power periodically, so I was the mood for some summer and figured, given the title, that it might make me thing of warm sunny days. 

This is the third book in the Hollyhill series. This time Reverend David Brooke is trying to muster the courage to ask his younger girlfriend to marry him. While he struggles with their age difference, Leigh dreams that he'll finally ask but isn't sure she's ready to tackle her parents who disapprove of his age.

There are also a few sub-plots. A new stranger in town is about to change the lives of a number of townspeople. A long lost resident returns at the wrong time. And, finally, a new teacher proves to be more than David's daughter and Leigh can bear.

All in all, this wasn't a bad book. My issue with it was that the arrival of the stranger fit well into the story. The return of a former town resident felt rushed. Then the conflict with the new teacher, I'm not sure that really was necessary to the story line. While it did create some tension, I think the book would have been perfectly fine without even introducing him.

Maybe I felt out of place because I hadn't read both of the previous stories causing me to lose out on some background. Others have said Summer of Joy works well as a stand-alone, but I guess I found myself wondering about things that appear to have happened in the other two books making me question if the series would be better read in order.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Girl in the Cellar - Allan Hall and Michael Leidig (True Crime)

Released March 2010

It's every parent's nightmare. Your child heads off to school and vanishes. In 1998, this exact scenario played out. Natascha Kampusch left for school following a great weekend with her father and an argument with her mother. Still upset over getting slapped, Natascha ignored her instincts when she saw a man in a white van parked near her school. That decision changed her life.

The man in the van, Wolfgang Priklopil, pulled Natascha into his van and took her to his very secure home. There he put her in a tiny hidden basement room and locked the door. For eight years, Natascha remained his captive. After her 18th birthday, Priklopil began to give her a little more freedom and started taking her to stores when he'd go out. When she felt the chance was best, she escaped. Girl in the Cellar examines Natascha's kidnapping, life behind locked doors and eventual escape.

I'm saddened that so much of the Austrian public opted to take the line that Natascha could have escaped sooner. Without being in that room, without being in her exact situation, it's impossible to state how  you would have acted. Whether it's a touch of Stockholm Syndrome or her fear of the numerous security systems Priklopil had set up inside and outside the home, I can see being 10 years old and being terrified. As years pass, locked in a cramped space, often without lights, I'm surprised she was able to retain her sanity. This is an incredibly courageous girl!

Natascha's story is going to intrigue true crime fans. I won't say the book kept me hooked. Some repetition in the book made it drag a bit. Otherwise, I found it shocking that I'd missed this case in the papers and amazed that she did survive.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Le Cordon Bleu: Professional Baking - Wayne Gisslen (Cookbook/Textbook)

Released October 2000

I picked up Professional Baking at this past year's Harvest Market, a huge rummage/bake/festival that occurs in my childhood hometown every fall. Book sales lead to incredible bargains and I spotted this gem on the $1 table at a library book sale.

With my 40th birthday quickly approaching, I've been somewhat moody as of late. Seems just yesterday that I was young, hanging out with friends and not a care, or responsibility, in the world. Now I'm a few days from 40, happy, yet wondering what else there is to do with life.

My daughter and I watched Julie and Julia a few weeks ago. She commented that I should do that some day, pick a cook book and work my way through it. My immediate response was that it's been done before. However, after desperation caused me to pull out Professional Baking, I started thinking. I love baking and always thought NECI would be a great school to attend, but I lack the money and at this point the time. With a little more thought I realized I could go through the entire Professional Baking textbook from start to finish and see what I could learn.

The truth is that I was desperate for a recipe for puff pastry. My son found a recipe he wanted to make from the newer Alton Brown/Good Eats cookbook and after hunting for puff pastry in stores and finding the cheapest price to be $5, I decided it was time to make my own. I've been told it is hard to make, I now disagree, and time consuming. Realistically, it took some muscle and time to roll it out, fold it and roll it out again, but it wasn't really that difficult and the end product was amazing as not only the curry chicken pot pie proved, but I used the remainder of the dough making cream cheese and marzipan turnovers that were incredible.

Wayne Gisslen's cookbook teaches you everything there is to know about baking. Start with the ingredients you need, including a guide to help you discern the differences between the different flours. Then tackle recipes like yeast breads, quick breads, cakes, cookies, pastries, candy making and working with sugar. Everything you need to know is in here, including text, Q&A sessions and tips on what went wrong if your final product doesn't turn out as planned.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bundle of Trouble - Diana Orgain (Cozy Mystery)

Released August 2009

Diana Orgain's first mystery novel holds plenty of appeal with the Mommy crowd. The heroine, Kate Connolly, is a brand new mom and learning things about infants and parenting as she goes. Any woman with kids understands that feeling and it helps draw you to Kate's character.

Things start off on the wrong foot before Kate's daughter makes her appearance. Kate and her husband are snuggled in for a 49ers game when they get a call stating a body found in the bay might be that of Kate's brother-in-law. Kate's husband hasn't seen his troubled younger brother, George, in quite a while and last they knew he was living on the streets. When her water breaks right after receiving the call, they do all they can to push news of the call to the back of their minds.

After Laurie's birth, they learn that the body turned out to be that of a local restaurant owner, but no one knows why George's bag were found at the scene of the crime. After picking up the bag at the police station, Kate's car is vandalized and then her husband's is as well. When a P.I. comes knocking and then has a heart attack in front of her house, Kate finds herself hired as the P.I.'s replacement by the victim's mother to help solve the case.  pulled into the mystery surrounding her brother-in-law's disappearance and the murder of the restaurant owner.

She hates the thought of going back to work and leaving her daughter in daycare, so Kate starts to wonder if she has what it takes to be a private investigator. But before she can put that plan in action, she has a crime to solve and a daughter to dote on.

It's been 16 and 13 years since my babies was in their infant stages, yet I haven't forgotten any of it. I easily related to Kate, both with her struggles with sleep deprivation, parenting and emotions. Because she's so likable, it's hard not to enjoy every moment of Bundle of Trouble.

This is only the beginning. I'll be thrilled to see how Kate matures once her daughter starts sleeping a full night and her potential new career takes off. I loved Bundle of Trouble, so I'm eagerly awaiting Motherhood is Murder, coming in March.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Good Eats: The Early Years - Alton Brown (Cookbook)

Released October 2009

My entire family has been a fan of Good Eats since the very beginning. My son's interest in cooking comes from Alton's scientific approach. We own every Alton Brown cookbook, but what's been lacking is the information being pulled from each show into a book. With Good Eats: The Early Years, that information is finally available. Don't get me wrong, his other cookbooks are great, but there are times we want access to tips he's given on his shows and that's what I've been waiting for.

In Good Eats: The Early Years, Alton Brown shares tips shown in the first 80 episodes of Good Eats. In addition, he shares photos and behind the scenes info about these shows. For example, who knew that in an episode about chocolate that he was bleeding from a head wound while filming a portion of the show. It's snippets like that that create a new understanding of just how much effort (sweat, certainly blood and I'm certain some tears) is put into each show.

The Early Years discusses how he refers to "recipes" as applications, so it's kind of weird that the front of the book would boast "with more than 140 recipes." It should say "more than 140 applications." The recipes are some of his best and I'm making a special run to the store later to get chocolate so that I can make his chocolate lava cakes. Think I'll start things off with the garlic clove chicken that's been a favorite for years.

The biggest downfall to this book is that it's heavy. My son suggested we also use it to built arm muscle. There is a job about the ink being part-uranium and given the weight I wouldn't be surprised given how much it does weigh. But the paper's much thicker and that's going to go a long way to keeping this book in great shape for years and years.

When you read, and you will read every page, Good Eats: The Early Years, don't be surprised if you end up reading the cook book more than once. I went through the first time reading the interview, tips and behind-the-scenes info and looking at the pictures. I went through a second time to actually read the "applications" and the footnotes that are included with each recipe.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cook the Books - Jessica Conant-Park & Susan Conant (Culinary Mystery)

Released March 2010

Hooked from the debut Gourmet Girl Mystery series novel a few years ago, I was eager to read the latest entry into Jessica Park-Conant and Susan Conant's culinary mysteries. Getting one of their collaborative culinary mysteries is always a treat and how well timed that they come out right around my birthday every year! The big 4-0 is looming, on top of winter blues, and a pick-me-up was definitely due.

In this latest offering, Cook the Books, heroine Chloe Carter is partially down in the dumps. The love of her life packed up and moved to Hawaii. On the bright side, her friend's new son is enough to make any woman happy and Chloe's been lavishing her new godson with gifts every chance she gets. Her credit card bills aren't so great though, so Chloe starts looking for a part-time job that she can balance with her college work.

She lands a great position as a writer's assistant. The son of a famous chef is working on a cookbook and he needs help. He hires Chloe, offering her more money than she was expecting, to help research and write a cookbook focusing on chefs from the Boston area. One of the chefs he wants highlighted happens to be a close friend of her ex-beau's, a character steadfast readers will already know--Digger.

When Digger is killed in a fire while cooking some of his favorite recipes for Chloe, she's saddened and not sure how to inform Josh, her ex. Instead, she puts it off. What she doesn't know is that someone else breaks the news and Josh rushes back to Boston. He's certain there's no way Digger would have created a fatal fire just by cooking a meal and he's determined to prove this was not an accidental death.

With Josh back in the picture, Chloe's torn. She misses him like crazy, but she's also certain she can start a new relationship with her new boss. While she works on the cookbook, she tries not to let Digger's murder and Josh's reappearance sideline her. However, in Chloe's life, nothing's ever quite that easy.

I loved every minute of Cook the Books. While saddened that Digger is now gone, I was happy to see Chloe start to mature that little bit more and her best friend, Adrianna, settling into motherhood while still holding onto that adventurous spark that made me like her from the very start.

Devoted readers will probably figure out the whodunnit aspect early on, I know I did, but the story still remains intriguing. And don't forget the scrumptious recipes at the end! I'm eager to make the Seared Scallops on Polenta with Red Pepper and Chive Jam and the Tiramisu, one of my most favorite desserts.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ghost Radio - Leopoldo Gout (Horror/Suspense)

Released February 24, 2010

It's a fascinating idea. A late-night radio show where callers share their stores of the unnatural including ghosts, disappearing towns and other surreal circumstances. The basic premise in the book is that Ghost Radio is about to go syndicated and host Joaquin isn't prepared for the change that's about to ensue.

Joaquin knows a bit about the supernatural. He's survived two accidents that almost took his life. His best friend also survived one but died in the other. His show is big and going bigger, so when unusual calls start coming in to both the radio and to Joaquin at home, he can't help but drop everything to find out who this caller is and why he's so persistent, leading Joaquin to things even he'll have a hard time explaining.

Great premise isn't enough for me. I loved the opening and loved the radio callers' stories. I loved reading Joaquin's backstory involving the first and second accidents that nearly took his life. I enjoyed the relationships between Joaquin, his now deceased best friend and Joaquin's girlfriend. Once Joaquin's story turned to Toltec Christianity, I started to lose interest. The plot jumps confused me and I had to reread sections to figure out what I'd missed.

My advice with Ghost Radio is to definitely give it a shot. Even if you only read it for the stories of the unexplained, it's entertaining.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Angel's Den - Jamie Carie (Christian Fiction)

Released February 2010

Marrying the most attractive bachelor in town, Eric Montclaire, is a dream come true for Emma Daring. However, she soon learns that her husband is not a kind, loving man after his abusive nature appears on their wedding night. Ashamed to tell her family, Emma hides her bruises with face powder and does all she can to keep Eric's temper assuaged.

It isn't long before Emma learns Eric's ordered a man killed in order to gain possession of a journal tied to Lewis and Clark's expeditions. Eric hires a cartographer to follow the clues in the journal to find an area to set up shop out west. At the last minute, Eric decides that Emma must accompany them to keep her from revealing information about the murder. The cartographer, Luke Bowen, recognizes Eric's cruel side and vows to keep Emma safe.

As their voyage gets underway, Luke and Emma face the biggest challenge of their lives. Not only must they keep their growing attraction for one another secret, but also conquer Eric's determination to keep them from revealing the truth to a new judge who is following their every move.

I'd love to say that Angel's Den was a fascinating read, but while it had it's moments, I found myself eager to skipping sections to bypass anything not focusing on Luke and Emma. The writing is fluid and well paced, but at times the narrative was a little too preachy for my tastes. As this is a Christian novel, that won't bother many, but I prefer a subtle message, not one that is repeatedly thrown out there.

I also found myself questioning why Emma didn't try to escape early on. She's a smart, tough woman, yet when she had the opportunity to get away during Eric's regular afternoon trips to the local saloon, she never even tried. For that reason, I found it hard to truly admire her character once she was on the trail.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

200 Fast & Easy Artisan Breads - Judith Fertig (Cookbook)

Released August 2009

Bread making is a soothing activity that I've always enjoyed. Judith Fertig's 200 Fast & Easy Artisan Breads: No-Knead, One Bowl appealed to me because using only one bowl obviously cuts down on dishes.  The question became just how effective are these recipes.

I invested in a KitchenAid years ago because kneading is not something I always enjoy. If I have stress I want to burn off, kneading is a wonderful action. If I simply want to fill the house with the scent of freshly baked bread, kneading is a time consuming pain. All recipes in 200 Fast & Easy Artisan Breads require no kneading. Simply beat the dough with a wooden spoon and you're done.

I'm going to work my way through the book one recipe at a time. Using the very first recipe, I measured and mixed the flour, yeast, salt and water and got started. The entire process took less than ten minutes and that's including the time it took to open a new bag of flour and add it to my flour jar. The other issue was that the recipe requires a 16 cup bowl and that's not something I have on hand. I ended up tapping into our beer brewing supplies for something large enough. I'm not fond of allowing bread dough to rise in a metal bowl, but it was the best I could do.

One batch of the standard dough makes a Baby Boule, a Batard and a Baguette. Therefore, there was enough bread to eat and some loaves went into the freezer for another day. The bread is exceptional. Light and airy, with a nice crust. Best of all, we prefer the flavor of breads that have a good amount of salt, and this was just right.

If bread making is challenging to you, give 200 Fast & Easy Artisan Breads a try. There are dozens of color pictures and exceptional recipes. I can't wait to reach the New York Bagels because I know they'll be a huge hit!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cajun-Creole Cooking - Terry Thompson (Cookbook)

Released January 1987

It's Superbowl Sunday and given that the Saints are in it, I'm bypassing all chili and wings recipes and cooking up a Cajun storm. Around here, we love Cajun food, though some ingredients are difficult to find. Given that, I hit up the stores last night to try to find Andouille sausage, having to settle for Chorizo instead. Stocked with smoked ham, shrimp, mushrooms,fresh bread, plenty of tomatoes, rice and some pie crust, I'm ready to whip up some cornmeal pie, jambalaya, creamy mushroom bites and Creole shrimp.

The problem soon became finding my favored cookbook by Terry Thompson. While I'm not sure exactly how authentic the recipes are, I know they've never failed me. The problem was the cookbook was no where to be found.

Over the years, Cajun-Creole Cooking has become extremely tattered. The binding is long gone and the cookbook ended up getting into a mess of papers, but I did find it eventually. With the stove warming up, the cooking is about to start, which for me is the better part of the game. I have nothing against football, but sitting around for hours watching one game just isn't my thing. I'll be happier glancing in from time to time while I prep food and get cooking.

If you can find a used copy of Terry Thompson's book, enjoy it! Recipes are easy to follow, and I definitely have my favorites. The homemade bread that doesn't require kneading and uses a dash of vinegar to add acidity is fabulous. We also love the mushroom cream tart-like appetizers that have just the right kick of spice. The Jambalaya recipe is simple to make and even better to eat. I've never made the Creole Shrimp, but as it was a request from my son, I have everything ready to go and know the recipe should be a tremendous success as nothing from this book has failed me.

Enjoy the game!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Horror Movies Galore

For as long as I can remember, I've been a horror movie buff. I love creepy scenes and music setting the stage to be frightened. However, the list of decent horror movies seems to be diminishing as I get older. Every now and then a movie comes out that makes me jump, but overall, I seem to spend more time laughing at the writing, acting or dialogue.

Last week, my son asked me if I'd ever watched Mystery Science Theater 3000. I'd never heard of it but after hearing it involved a man and his two space pals watching cheesy horror flicks and making commentary about them, I had to give it a try. And soon, I was completely hooked.

If you have an XBox 360, PS3, Blue-Ray player or a Roku box and a Netflix account, you have access to hundreds, if not thousands, of downloadable movies that you watch on your TV. With the gloomy days of winter and freezing temperatures, we spend more time inside than out for now, so movies are a great way to spend family time. Our attention as of late has involved these MST 3000 movies.

After watching a number of them, my faith in myself as a writer is restored. I doubt I'll ever be the next John Steinbeck, but the writers for some of these B movies are so utterly horrible that they can't even keep their plot points straight. I loved the movie that featured Martin Sheen's brother called Werewolf. The acting was horrible, but even better was the fact that the full moon appeared four nights in a row!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Apple Turnover Murder - Joanne Fluke (Culinary Mystery)

Released February 23, 2010

If you've yet to read Plum Pudding Murder, I suggest you might want to refrain from reading the entirety of this review. There is a spoiler involved that relates to that previous book. In Plum Pudding Murder, Hannah is with her mother when a man from her past reappears in her life. The plot of Apple Turnover Murder continues that storyline.


If you've already read the previous book, or simply don't care to have part of the secret revealed. Here you go:

In Apple Turnover Murder, Norman has to go out of town, so Hannah's cat-sitting his cat much to her cat's delight. As she loses valuable bed space, she's also got a huge order in the works. The mayor's wife has asked her to create a thousand apple turnovers for a fundraising event. Not only has Hannah never made turnovers, she's not certain it's possible to create that many turnovers in a matter of days. With help from a few friends, Hannah and her bakery partner roll up their sleeps and get baking.

During the talent show part of the fundraiser, the mystery man from Hannah's past is killed. Once again, Hannah finds the body. This means revealing the truth about her past to some of those closest to her. With Mike's permission to do a little sleuthing, Hannah looks into her ex-lover's past and present hoping to reveal a killer.

Like always, I love the recipes provided in Apple Turnover Murder. Joanne Fluke's recipes are not low-cal, but they always come out tasting and looking fantastic. For the Crazy Cake, I didn't spray the pan with Pam first, as mentioned in a you-can-if-you-want tip, and am paying for it. The cake does not come easily out of my glass pan. I'd highly recommend using the spray and avoiding the hassle.

For long-time fans of the Hannah Swenson series, the romantic triangle is ongoing. I'm hoping that at some point Hannah will finally make up her mind - one or the other or start anew. Either way, I'm one of many readers who feels the triangle has run its course. Given the twist at the ending, maybe in the next novel we'll start to see that happening.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

E Squared - Matt Beaumont (Satire)

Released February 2010

When you read as much as I do and also spend hours a day coming up with articles, the need for a change of pace often arises. Don't get me wrong, I love most genres, but sometimes I get sick of the written word. Words lead to sentences, sentences to paragraphs and paragraphs to pages. If it's not intriguing, it becomes far too easy to let the mind wander.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reading a novel that didn't include the atypical paragraphs and pages, instead the entire story was told through emails. I was fascinated by this change of pace. Matt Beaumont's latest novel continues a story I missed.

E Squared returns readers to the innermost dealings of an ad agency. At the helm is David Crutton, a family man whose absence from his family is quickly apparent, who struggles to get control of the rather untraditional Meerkat360 agency. With staff members who come and go as they please, never come in at all or come up with unique ways to create an unusual work environment by adding roving minstrels and ball pits, David's work is cut out for him.

On the home front, David's wife, Janice is trying to keep her family together. While she balances her job as a lawyer with her children's increasingly troublesome behavior, she also struggles to remain sane. Surprise news doesn't help at all!

Through emails, blog posts and instant messages, readers follow the various members of Meerkat360 as they try to get the job done without losing it completely.

For the most part, I loved E Squared. In fact, I stayed up late to finish it. However, there were some sub-plots that didn't appeal to me so I did find it easy to skip over those. One of them involves a man, Harvey Harvey, who appears to be almost too ignorant to believe. Unfamiliar with spam, he happily emails big-chested honeys and Nigerian women looking to drain his bank accounts. I still cannot believe people really are that naive, though for these scams to keep going, someone must be falling for them.

The Road to Christmas: A Sweet Holiday Romance Novel by Sheila Roberts

Release Date - September 20, 2022  Sit down and explore the holiday season through four sets of eyes in Sheila Roberts' latest holiday...