Friday, 30 April 2010

The Chick and the Dead

Author: Casey Daniels
Genre: Supernatural/Mystery
Pages: 323
Series: 2nd book in the Pepper Martin series
Series Order:
1) Don of the Dead (2006)
2) The Chick and the Dead (2007)
3) Tombs of Endearment (2007)
4) Night of the Loving Dead (2009)
5) Dead Man Talking (2009)
6) Tomb with a View (2010)
First Line: "It all started with Gus Scarpetti."

Synopsis: Pepper Martin is a tour guide for one of Cleveland's biggest cemeteries. Since hitting her head on a tomb stone this former rich girl has been able to talk to dead people. The first ghost she spoke to was a Mafia Don. Once she helped him figure out who 'had him whacked' she thought she was done dealing with the dearly departed.
Unfortunately the Don was singing her praises on the other side and now Didi, a poodle skirt-wearing ghost who died in the 1950's needs Pepper's help. Didi claims that she wrote the best selling book "So Far the Dawn" that her sister Merilee took credit for and has been reaping the acclaim and not to mention the royalties. Merilee is in Cleveland celebrating the opening of a museum dedicated to the best selling book. Pepper isn't sure whether she should believe or even help Didi (who has a history of lying) but since she's in desperate need of some cash, she decides to help by taking on the job as assistant to the 'author from hell' Merilee to hopefully uncover the truth.

My Thoughts: This was a good, quick read. I actually liked it better than the first book in the series, "Don of the Dead".
This is a light-hearted mystery that is fairly predictable but still an enjoyable read. I'm looking forward to seeing how the author continues the character development of Pepper. She's a good main character (strong, quirky, mind of her own, big mouth ...) but the author needs to fill her out more. I do wish there were better secondary characters. Pepper's co-workers could be quirkier and have a bigger role. It feels like Pepper carries a little too much of the storyline on her shoulders.
The impending relationships between Pepper and either Detective Quinn Harrison or Dan are dealt with more in this book. Dan makes a few appearances in the book which are quite mysterious. I have my own thoughts on who Dan really is and I'm interested to see in future books if my suspicions are correct. In the meantime, Pepper and Quinn have quite the sexual tension between them which makes for some amusing verbal sparing.
My Rating: 3/5

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Messy Beef Enchiladas

One of "Cub's" favourite part of eating my Chicken Enchiladas is the cheesy tortillas so I came up with this dish to encorporate his favourite part ... and add some veggies and beef to the mix too. I was shocked when "Cub" finished his plate quickly then asked for seconds. Practically unheard of!

You can easily add extra taco toppings to suit your family's tastes (diced tomato, black olives, jalapeno peppers, corn kernels ...) or spice it up more by using spicy salsa.

1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1/2 green pepper, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 can black beans (optional)
1 (10 1/2oz) can condensed tomato soup
1 (10 1/2 oz) can condensed cheddar cheese soup
1 cup salsa
1/2 cup milk
6 large flour tortillas, cut into 1-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook beef, onions and green pepper until beef is brown and cooked through. Spoon off excess grease.

Add black beans (if using), soups, salsa, milk and tortillas. Spoon into a 2-quart casserole dish and cover. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until heated through.

Killer Heat

Author: Linda Fairstein
Genre: Suspense
Series: 10th book in the Alex Cooper series

Synopsis: Alexandra Cooper is in the middle of a case which will put away a murderer who has been on the loose for 20 years. Outside the court room another predator is on the loose. When female bodies start piling up Alex and Detectives Mercer and Chapman try to figure out who is behind the grisly murders. When the murders seem too random it looks like this will be a hard case to crack.

My Thoughts: I randomly picked up this book at my local library based on reading the back cover. I was in the mood for a new suspense author (a la the Lisa Scottoline, James Patterson kind). Well, this one didn't deliver. Maybe it was because it was the 10th book in a series (of which I hadn't read the previous 9 books). Missing out on previous smaller storylines and relationships made it difficult to understand the banter between Alex and Detective Mike Chapman - which came off, to me, like it was silly and juvenile.
The storyline seemed too muddled for me as well. I was getting the three victims mixed up and felt that the author didn't always make it clear as to which victim she was referring (a little hint here or there to remind the reader about which victim really helps especially when they're so similar).

I'm not giving up on this author. I think I'll start at the beginning of the series and give her another shot.

My Rating: 0/5

Monday, 26 April 2010

The Help

Author: Kathryn Stockett
Pages: 444
Genre: Historical Fiction
One Word Review: Incredible!
First Line: "Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August 1960."

Synopsis: Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 "The Help" tells the stories of three Southern women and how they deal with the racism and segregation that plagues their town. Aibileen is a black maid who has raised 17 white children and who recently buried her only son. Although she is treated poorly by her employer, Aibileen is devoted to the little girl she is raising and hopes to be able to teach the young girl that colour doesn't matter.

Minny is an outspoken black maid who has lost more jobs than she cares to count due to her quick and sassy mouth. She finally finds a job with a couple who is new to town and Minny hopes that her new employers won't find out about her troubled past. Little does she know the secret that her new boss is keeping.

Skeeter is a twenty-two year old white woman who has recently graduated from university. This isn't seen as much of an accomplishment in the eyes of Skeeter's mother since Skeeter has come home without any prospects of a future husband. Upon arriving home Skeeter is shocked to learn that her beloved maid Constantine has suddenly disappeared and no one will tell her why.

These three women are very different from each other but when a clandestine project comes along that allows them to work together they dive into it with gusto. The project could put their lives in danger if anyone found out. If they forget about this new project will their lives continue on the way they were with each of these women suffocating under the roles that they and others put them in?

My Thoughts: I ... LOVED ... THIS ... BOOK! Wow! I dare you to read it and not have trouble tearing yourselves away to do silly things like ... eating, sleeping etc. I was up until 3am on Saturday night reading this book! There is never a dull moment in this book. The author keeps you riveted to the story the entire way through with amazingly detailed characters who you learn to love ... and hate.

This is a story about breaking through boundaries that others put upon us ... and that we put on ourselves. It's about learning about oneself, how to define yourself and not cave to the pressure to be someone you're not. It's about learning that the facade that people show others isn't necessarily who they are inside. You think you know someone ... until they let you inside and show you the real person behind all the smoke and mirrors that they put out.

This book allowed me to get a better understanding of the issue of segregation. I, of course, knew something about the segregation of the races in the southern US but this book allowed me to see how it personally effected those involved. How a young black man was beaten to death because he accidentally used the wrong bathroom. How the culture of segregation would slowly turn the beliefs of innocent colour-blind children into the ignorant beliefs of their parents. How people of different races could be arrested for just talking to each other in private.
Key people in the Civil Rights movement (Rosa Parks, the shooting death of Medger Evers ...) are mentioned in the book as well as the assassination of President Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech ( it gives me chills every time I hear it) as well as his march in Washington, DC.

It's filled with a wonderful sense of humour from the main characters. The characters are so well written that it's easy to picture them in your head. I can totally envision Skeeter's mother berating her for wearing inappropriate clothing to go out to dinner or Minny mouthing off to her new employer for being ignorant about the rules of segregation.

I'm amazed that a mere decade before I was born that segregation was still so prevalent in the southern States. It seems like that kind of behaviour is from so long ago ... when sadly, it's from the not so distant past.
I highly recommend this book. It will shock you, it will make you laugh, cry and everything in between. Not many books have been able to make me squeeze out a tear or get choked up ... this one did.

My Rating: 5/5

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Weekly Book Poll (April 25th) - Whatcha reading??

This past week I finally finished off the two books I've been reading. "Border Lass" by Amanda Scot was ok but definitely not great. It was my first foray into the world of e-books. While I loved reading on my iTouch whenever I had a spare moment I still love having my paper books. The overall storyline was OK but not a favourite historical fiction read for me.

I also finished up "The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton. It was a really interesting read. A mix of historical fiction from 3 different eras and 2 different people, fairy tales and mystery. It had it all!

Currently I have about 50 pages left of "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. You'll have to wait for my book review to see what I thought of this book. :)

Next up? "Killer Heat" by Linda Fairstein. I thought I'd give the historical fiction genre a break and go for more of a suspense read.

What did you read this past week? What are you reading this coming week?

Cranberry Orange Muffins

This is a great moist muffin with delicious bits of tart cranberries throughout. I'm a big fan of the cranberry and when it's paired with orange zest it's pure heaven!

I found this recipe on another baking blog and the only changes I made was to add more orange zest. Originally the recipe called for only 1 tsp but I love a stronger orange flavour so I zested the whole orange. The original blogger said these muffins freeze well. I'll have to take her word for it until I can bake them again because my family ate them all in 1 day.

You could also try substituting frozen raspberries for the cranberries if you're not a cran fan like me.

2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup white sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup chopped, fresh cranberries (see Tip below)
2/3 cup milk
1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted
zest of one small orange
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 400F.
Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Stir in cranberries. Make a well in the centre of the dry mixture.

In a medium bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and slowly mix until just combined. Spoon batter into 12 muffin cups, either greased or lined with papers.

Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a muffin comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.

These muffins freeze well. I freeze them in three's so I can easily grab a bag out of the freezer the night before for my kids' snacks.

Tip: I always keep fresh cranberries in my freezer. Chopping frozen cranberries is very simple so make sure they don't thaw! I just use a large chef's knife or my Pampered Chef Chopper.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Border Lass

Author: Amanda Scott
Genre: Historical Fiction/Romance
Type: e-book
First Line: "He had been watching her most of the day."
Series: 2nd book in the Border series

Synopsis: Amalie Murray has blatently told her family that she has no desire to wed. Even so, her family, especially her oldest brother Simon, push her towards marrying Harald Boyd, a man who can advance the Murray's political status. Unfortunately Amalie cannot stand Boyd and continues to try to convince her family of her wishes.
During the 1389 coronation of the future king of Scotland, Amalie Murray unexpectedly overhears a seditious conversation between two men who mean to harm the monarch, one of which she's sure is Fife, govenor of the realm. When Sir Garth Napier sees Amalie overhearing the conversation he asks her to divulge what she heard. Garth has been very suspicious of Fife especially in regards to the deaths of two of his friends. Garth becomes worried that Amalie might have gotten herself into trouble by overhearing the conversation.
When Garth is asked to join Princess Isabel's household where Amalie lives they begin to form a friendship. But when more deaths occur and brings the danger closer to home, it forces Garth and Amalie to take drastic measures to ensure Amalie's safety.

My Thoughts: I had bought this e-book via to use on my iTouch. I had never actually read an e-book before and thought that this would be a nice, easy read to see if I liked not having paper in my hands as I read.

Well, this book was not a favourite. I had some good ideas but it felt like they weren't followed through with enough energy or detail. The first 3/4 of the book was pretty blaw. The characters were fairly muted and not nearly as believable as I would have liked. There was some political intriugue .... but it didn't go far enough. It also got a little convoluted because of all of the names and titles the men had back then. The author would use The Douglas in one sentence then Archie the Grim in the next when referring to the same man. Confusing.

It didn't help that this is the second book in the Border series and I had not read the first book. I assume that might have given me more background information on the characters.

As for reading more e-books on my iTouch? I wouldn't mind reading more. I did love the fact that I can easily have a book with me all the time (my iTouch goes everywhere with me) but I did miss having a paper book ... I actually missed not having page numbers to see how much I read (I know there is a bar at the bottom to tell me how far in the overall book I've read but it just wasn't the same).

My Rating: 2/5

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Forgotten Garden

Author: Kate Morton
Pages: 449
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
First Line: "In was dark where she was crouched but the little girl did as she'd been told."
Published: 2008

Synopsis: In 1913, a 4 year old English girl is abandoned on a ship headed to Australia. She only has some clothing and a book of children's fairy tales in the small suitcase she carries. When she arrives in Maryborough, Australia the dockmaster figures that the only thing to do is bring her home with him. When no one even inquires about the girl the dockmaster and his wife raise her as their own and name her Nell.

On Nell's 21st birthday, she finally learns about being abandoned on the ship years ago and suddenly feels utterly lost and doesn't know who she really is. Years later she embarks on a journey to the Cornish coast in England to Blackhurst Manor to finally figure out where she came from. But it is not until years later, after Nell's death, that her granddaughter Cassandra journies to Blackhurst Manor to find out the real story behind her grandmother's past. Cassandra finds a forgotten walled garden on the grounds of Blackhurst Manor and with the help of the book of fairy tales, Nell's journals and some new friends begins to put the pieces together to figure out why her grandmother was abandoned on the ship so many years ago.

My Thoughts: This book seems to have it all. Mystery, suspense, story of finding one self and feeling connection with others .... If you're looking for a good book on a rainy day to get lost in, this one fits the bill!
One of my favourite books as a child was "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett so when I heard about this book it sounded like it was right down my alley. In fact Hodgson Burnett makes an appearance in the book when she asks to see Blackhurst Manor's famed walled garden. I thought that was a nice addition to this book ... unless you're a fan of "The Secret Garden" author you'd probably not even notice.
I thought it was interesting how the fairy tales almost played a character in the book. How the authoress character used the lives of the people around her to create the storylines for her fairy tales. Morton did keep me guessing about Nell's past and threw a few curve balls my way but about half way through I started to get an inkling about what actually happened to the characters.
There are not many authors, in my experience, who can write a book based in 3 different eras as well as Ms Morton. Telling the story through the eyes of three women: Eliza in 1913, Nell in the 1975 and finally Nell's granddaughter Cassandra in 2005. One would think the reader would get confused about who was telling her story but Morton did a great job keeping the reader up to speed and engaged.

There were a few issues that I had with this book though. It did begin to lag a bit in the middle and then there was the "issue" between Linus and Eliza. I don't want to give too much away but it seemed like there should have been more mention of it in the storyline. The issue was shown to the reader ... then dropped leaving me to wonder "what was I missing?" or "why did the author add that bit in at all?". Like I said I don't want to give too much away but I'd be interested in other people's views on this topic who have already read the book.

My Rating: 4/5

Monday, 19 April 2010

Cheesy Mashed Potatoes with a Secret

My kids are not fans of cauliflower. I've tried pouring homemade cheese sauce over it ... they won't touch it (and I'm talking GREAT homemade cheese sauce!). I've tried giving it to them in one of my favourite side dish casseroles (Broccoli and Cauliflower Casserole - recipe is on this blog) ... they still won't touch it.

So I had to take matters into my own sneaky hands. Last year I made this dish and I quite liked it. It got cauliflower into my unsuspecting kids so it was all good. I think the garlic hid the mild flavour from the cauliflower.

Something different happened tonight when I made this dish. I asked my 6 year old "Missy Moo" if she liked the cheesy mashed potatoes and she said "yes but I think there's mushed up broccoli trunks in it too". Close, m'dear but not exactly. Apparently her taste buds are more in tuned than I thought. Gordon Ramsay, look out!

My kids apparently aren't big on cheesy potatoes in general so this recipe didn't receive any thumbs up from the little people at my table. Perhaps you can win yours over with this dish!?!

2lb potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces.
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups cauliflower florets (I used about 1/4 of a large cauliflower)
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp butter
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup fresh chives or green onion, chopped
to taste salt and pepper

In a large saucepan of boiling water, cook potatoes and garlic for 15 minutes. Add cauliflower florets and cook for an additional 10 minutes or until both potatoes and cauliflower are soft. Drain well.

Add milk and butter to potatoes. Using an electric mixer (or a hand-held potato masher), mash potato mixture. Add cheddar cheese, chives, salt and pepper.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Sunday, 18 April 2010

FYI: NEW Book Rating Categories

If you'd like to search books on my blog based on how I rated them I've set up (along the left-side of the blog) a listing. Now you can see all of my 5 star rated books down to the 0 star books that I never even took the time to finish.

Weekly Book Poll (April 18th)

This week I've been reading the same books as last week. They're both good books but I just haven't been able to have as much reading time as I would have liked.

Border Lass has a slower plot than I was expecting but it's still a good read. It's on my iTouch and I like the fact that I always have a book with me for when I have a few minutes of down time.

"The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton is the other book I'm currently reading. I'm about 140 pages into it and it's an interesting mix of contemporary fiction, mystery, fable .... Really cool so far.

Next up: "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. I've heard many great things about this book but just reading the book cover got me really excited about reading it. I have it out from the library on a 2 week loan so I've got to hussle and finish reading the other two books before I can start this one. I can manage reading 2 books at once but 3 would be pushing it.

What's everyone else reading?

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Chewy Oatmeal Jam Squares

I was in baking mood this afternoon and wanted to make a treat for my kids for an after school snack. I had visions of my kids walking in the door and smelling the glory that is a freshly baked treat. So I hopped on the internet and went in search of a nice, chewy oatmeal square. Well, slap an apron on me and call me June (Cleaver, that is) I found one!

I adapted the recipe (found originally on a bit to suit my family's tastes. I didn't want a super sweet square but I still wanted it to have that nice brown sugar/oats flavour (kind of like a toned down apple crisp topping). This recipe was perfect.
I had taken them out of the oven right before I headed out to pick up my kids from school. With the 26C heat here today they were still nice and warm when the kids and I tried them out. They're very similar to a cereal bar and it's an easy recipe to customize to your families tastes by just changing the jam. I could also see serving them as a casual dessert topped with some vanilla ice cream.

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup quick oats
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2-3/4 cup fruit preserves or jam, any flavour (I used President's Choice Strawberry Rhubarb jam)

Preheat oven to 400F. Grease an 8x8-inch baking pan. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and brown sugar until smooth.

In another bowl, combine the flour, oats, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg; add to butter mixture, mixing well. Add in the walnuts, if using.

Set aside 1/3 of the mixture (to use for the topping). Press the remaining mixture evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Spread jam over the base and crumble the reserved oat mixture over the top.

Bake for 25 minutes or until golden. Cool before cutting into squares.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Hunter's Moon

Authors: C.T Adams & Cathy Clamp
Genre: Supernatural/Romance (?)
Pages: 336

Synopsis: Tony Giodone is a former mafia hitman who is now a hired assassin ..... he's also a werewolf. Sue Quentin, winner of a huge state lottery, comes to him asking him to kill her. She sees death as the only option to get away from her obnoxious and controlling family.

Unfortunately, at the same time as meeting Sue, Tony miscalculates his full moon cycle and goes through the change in her presence. After his transformation, and a couple of raucous bouts of lovemaking, he knows that Sue is his life mate and he will do anything for her. But will that include killing her?

My Thoughts: Weeeellll, I didn't like this book. I read over 100 pages of this supernatural romance and just couldn't get into it. It's a far cry from a Kelley Armstrong supernatural or even a Twilight. The story didn't pick up momentum at all. If a book can't grip me within the first 100 pages I give up. Too many other books on my nightstand waiting for my attention.

Why did I give up on this book? Maybe it was due to the fact that it's from the point of view of the man in the relationship? I'm used to hearing from the woman's viewpoint, I guess.

Maybe it's because having a lottery winner that sees the only way to get away from her crazy family is to kill herself?!? Huh? Personally, I'd disown them and take my millions, buy an island of my very own and send them postcards. But that's just me. It just didn't seem believable. Ya, I know. It's supernatural but there still has to be some 'truth' in it to make it believable (or at least for me it does).

Perhaps it's because one or two nights of hitting the sheets and Tony, this tough ex-mafia hitman/werewolf, is ready to do anything for Sue. Perhaps I'm just cranky ... who knows. I just didn't like this book so back to the library it goes.

My Rating: 0/5 (aka didn't finish it)

Monday, 12 April 2010

Gluten-Free Flour Mix

This is the gluten-free flour mix that my mother-in-law's friend, "J" passed on to me. This mix doesn't have a grainy or gritty texture making it great for use in gravies and sauces or cookies and breads.

1 part bean or chick pea flour
1 part corn starch
1 part tapioca flour
1/2 part rice flour

Mix together and store in the refrigerator. This mix can be used for gravies and sauces or breads and cookies. This mixture does not have a grainy or gritty texture.

Tip: Add one tbsp of SALBA for extra vitamins or a tsp of ground flax seed. Remember to keep these (as well as brown rice flour) in the freezer or they'll go rancid.

Gluten-Free Banana Muffins

This recipe goes out to Kelly. It's a gluten-free muffin that my mother-in-law's friend "J" passed on to me. I haven't actually baked these but "J" is a very experienced gluten-free baker so I'm sure these are amazing. These muffins freeze well.

3 large bananas, mashed
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup melted margarine or canola oil
1/4 cup any fruit juice or milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups Gluten-Free Flour Mix (see recipe on this blog)
1 tsp xanthan gum
1/2 cup sunflower seeds or nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Combine bananas, sugar, egg, juice and vanilla in a medium bowl.

In another bowl, combine dry ingredients. Add wet ingredients to dry and carefully mix together. Do not overbeat. Pour into greased muffin tin and bake for 25 minutes.

Note: Gluten-free flours need to be baked slower and do not brown like other mixes making it really easy to undercook them.

The Lightning Thief

Author: Rick Riordan
Genre: Supernatural/ Young Adult
Pages: 375
First Line: "Look, I didn't want to be a half-blood."
Recommended by: my 10 year old son, "Cub"

Synopsis: Percy Jackson has some of the typical troubles of an 11 year old boy including dealing with ADHD and dyslexia. When Percy finds out that he's about to be kicked out of yet another boarding school he's not sure how he's going to break it to his mom and his horrible stepfather. When Percy starts seeing mythological creatures that's just icing on his crazy cake and he thinks he's losing his mind.

Things become slightly clearer, but more dangerous, when Percy finds out that he's the son of a famous Titan who abandoned him as a baby. Percy is sent to Camp Half-Blood, a boarding and training school for children of the gods. While there he's kept safe from the many monsters who want to hunt him down and he learns to train with his new powers.

When Zeus' main lightning bolt is stolen and Percy becomes the main suspect he's forced to go on a quest with 2 of his new friends to prove his innocence and to stop an all-out war of the gods which would destroy the human world.

My Thoughts:
My 10 year old son, "Cub", inhaled these books and kept asking me to read and review the book(s) on my blog. A few months ago "Cub" and I had a 'date' night and went out to see the movie based on this book and I loved it! Unfortunately, I usually like to read a book before seeing the movie because 9 times out of 10 the book is better. Welllll, I actually liked the movie a little more and I think that's because I already had the movie in my head and when the book didn't match the movie I was a little let down. I'm surprised that the movie people changed so many small things about the plot of the book actually. They were little changes for the most part (except for the great hydra scene in the movie that NEVER happened in the book) but I just didn't see why they'd change things up when it didn't effect the storyline.

Don't get me wrong. The book is still a great read. It's full of action, great mythological creatures (which was a great review for me from my university mythology course) and has a good 'who dunnit'. The ending is a big cliffhanger so I know I'll be reading the second (and most likely subsequent books).

I found it funny how Riordan explains away some of the things we humans take for granted. For example, the gateway to hell is, of course, through Los Angeles. The reason for all of the earthquakes there? When Hades gets ticked off and blows a gasket. Percy also finds out that he's actually not dyslexic. Because he's half-god, his brain has been hardwired to read ancient Greek making reading english a trial for him.

One of my first thoughts when "Cub" told me the storyline was that it's fairly similar to the Harry Potter series (one of my favourite series). An eleven year old boy sent to boarding school for 'special' kids, put on a quest to save the world, our world is full of supernatural stuff that us simple humans just don't realize .... Yup, you could make that assumption. But Harry Potter was written for adults (though many people assumed they were written for kids) and the Percy Jackson series is definitely written for the 9-12 year old crowd. While it has a good plot it's not as complicated as Harry Potter. If you're looking for a light read with lots of action (for yourself or your kids) this is a great beginning to a very popular series.

My Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Weekly Reading Poll - April 11th

This is my first Weekly Book Poll here on my blog! I'm thinking that each Sunday night I'll start a post and we can all share what we've been reading so we can let others know about authors we might not have heard of before. Word of mouth is a great way to find great reads. The more comments the better!!!

I think if we all post some of the books we've been reading this past week as well as what we're planning on reading this coming week it will be a wonderful way to get some opinions from other readers. You can also find other people here that might have similar book tastes making it even easier to find new reads!

So ....

What did you read last week?
What did you think about it?
Would you recommend it to others?

What are you reading now?
What do you think of it so far?

What are you planning on reading next?

Personally, you all know what I've read this past week so I think I'll just tell you what I'm planning on reading once I finish "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief" by Rick Riordan. I only have about 50 pages left with the Lightening Thief so by tomorrow I'll start reading either "The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton (contemporary fiction) or "Hunter's Moon" by C.J. Adams and Cathy Clamp (supernatural).

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Apple, Cranberry and Pear Crisp

This is a variation of one of our family's favourite desserts ... apple crisp. Mmmm, perfect with vanilla ice cream. It's a nice, easy dessert to whip up on nights when you don't have a lot of time but still want to make a good impression.

I have easily doubled this recipe for a bigger crowd. To save time, I make the topping (minus the butter) ahead of time and set it aside. I peel and chop the apples and pears just before my main dish is finished. I finish getting this crisp together and throw it in the oven as my main dish is coming out. The crisp is at a nice warm temperature when we're ready for dessert to be served!

2 large apples (I like using MacIntosh)
2 pears (Comice pears work well)
1/2 cup fresh cranberries, chopped (see Note below)
1 tbsp flour
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp + 1 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup quick cooking oats
1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 cup butter or margarine

Preheat oven to 375F. Peel apples and pears. Cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Combine apples and pears with cranberries, 1 tbsp flour, honey and lemon juice. Mix well. Place mixture in a greased 8-inch baking dish.

Blend together until crumbly: 1/2 cup flour, brown sugar, oats, walnuts (if using) and butter. Do not over mix. Sprinkle over fruit. Bake for 45 minutes or until topping is brown and crisp.

Note: the original recipe called for dried cranberries but I prefer fresh. I usually stock up on fresh cranberries in the fall and store them in the freezer for use all year round. Chopping them up while they're still frozen is really easy. Use either a sharp knife or for even easier chopping use a Pampered Chef Food Chopper.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Cane River

Author: Lalita Tademy
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
First Line: "On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madame Francoise Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes."
Recommended by: an anonymous poster on my blog (April "What Should I Read Next?" winner)

Synopsis: Author Lalita Tademy painstakingly researched her family roots all the way back to the mid 1800's when her family were slaves to a white family in Louisiana and filled in the gaps with a fictionalized story. Focusing on the women in the family the story follows the lives of 4 generations of women: Elizabeth, Suzette, Philomene and Tademy's great grandmother, Emily. It follows how these strong women dealt with the huge injustices that they had to deal with daily in order to create a better legacy for their future generations.

Elizabeth was born a slave to a rich Creole family in Louisiana. Her youngest daughter Suzette would endure heartbreak but see the promise of freedom. Suzette's fiery daughter, Philomene sets her sights on the future freedom for herself and her children as well as economic independence. Then there's Emily, Philomene's daughter, who fought to ensure that her children received their due to make their futures more promising that her own.

My Thoughts: I was a little surprised that I enjoyed this book so much ... after all, it's an Oprah pick and she and I haven't seen eye to eye for awhile when it comes to book choices. I typically love reading about this era in time. It's still very shocking to me that a mere 150 years ago there was slavery permitted in the southern States.
This book runs in the same vein as "Roots" and "Book of Negroes" (two of my favourite books of all time) ... but didn't quite affect me as much as those books and I didn't seem to lose myself in her story as much as I have with other books. I wanted to, I truly did ... it just didn't connect with me as much as I had hoped it would.
"Cane River" follows the lives of 4 generations of black southern women spanning from the mid 1800's to the 1930's. That's a lot of years and a lot of different characters. So many characters that she just couldn't give the time to let us into the individual characters' motivations and inner thoughts. That would have made a HUGE book and become much too convoluted. I found it hard enough keeping track of which children belonged to which mother (thankfully Tademy has a family tree at the beginning of the book to help the reader).
I do give Tademy huge credit for painstakingly researching her family history. Who wouldn't want to do that?!? I enjoyed the fact that she was able to include bills of sale and photos to add to her story and help the reader get a better mental picture of the characters.
I also found it fascinating how the book dealt with racism and inter-racial relationships, including the racisim within the black community (light-skinned vs dark skinned) and how 'bleaching the line' by choice or by force these women bore children to the rich, white plantation owners. Emily and Philomene believed that the less African their children appeared, the more options they'd have in their future.
Overall this was a good read and I would recommend it based on the fact that it does have a good storyline, strong female characters and deals with an era in time that still effects us today.
My Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday, 8 April 2010

How to Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years

Author: Julie A Ross, M.A.
Genre: Parenting
Pages: 201
Published: 2008

Synopsis: Author Julie Ross gives parents help in dealing with children in their tween years (ages 8-12 years). Some of the topics she gives advice on are:

- Disorganized and Defiant Tweens
- How to Break the Nagging Cycle
- Peer Pressure
- Dealing with Defiance
- Computer Addiction
- Encouraging Self-Esteem
- Independence
- Sex, Drugs and Alcohol Talks
- Sibling Rivalry

My Thoughts: Overall, this was a good parenting book. There was no big WOW moment for me but I did come away from reading this book with some new informational tools to help me wade through the tween years ahead of me.

As a parent of three kids (ages 6, 8 and 10 years) I'm right in the middle of Tweentopia so I'm open to all the advice I can get in order to survive these years relatively unscathed with happy teens! For the past 10 years I've cultivated a great relationship with my kids. I knew their habits, likes/dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Then all of a sudden the tween years were upon us and things changed. The tools I used to use when dealing with issues with my kids don't seem to work with these tweens that I live with. Just when I thought I had a handle on it! Apparently all this change is par for the course (phew, it's not just me!).

This book states that how we guide, teach, discipline and prepare our kids in the tween years will greatly influence how well they do in their teen years. Do we want a child that has to be micromanaged to the smallest task? Or do we want a child who isn't afraid to take a bit of a risk? Do we want to engage our kids and get their thoughts on issues while still maintaining a good parent/child relationship? Will they listen to our views on drugs/sex/alcohol or will they do a huge eye roll, turn up their music and try to ignore us?

One of the things that I did take away from this book was a better understanding of why my two tweens do what they do. For example, my usually very organized 10 year old currently has a very poor memory and is so disorganized lately. With a Type A mom it has come as a very big shock to have him so absent-minded. Apparently this change towards disorganization is just another after effect of hormonal changes. Huh.

I also got a better insight into learning how to talk to my tweens so that I don't overparent or micromanage and let them earn more independence. One of the major developmental goals of tweendom and the teen years is to gain independence which is why tweens like to show in so many ways (music, clothes, attitude etc) how different they are from dear old Mom and Dad.

I also liked how she advises parents to "listen with heart" (ie not being so critical). Kids live up to our expectations (good and bad). We want to ensure that they know we believe in them and have good expectations for them. We also need to listen more and talk less with tweens to engage them more in discussions. As parents we have to shift our thinking from a control approach to more of a relationship approach as our kids get into their teen years. Ross says having great teens requires that parents put in the time during the tween years to cultivate their relationship with their tweens. Makes sense to me!

I was hoping for more details on how to deal with one of my tween's increasing dependence on all things that have screens. The book talks a bit about computer use and how to keep kids safe on-line. Good info but I wanted more of a 'how to stop your kids from nagging you for more screen time'. Or something like that.

Overall, a good and useful read.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Beef Pie

Some of my fondest childhood memories are spending a LOT of time with my mom's sister's family. My sisters and I along with Cousin D and K would tear around for the weekend and have a great time.
When we were at my Aunt and Uncle's place one of my Aunt N's signature dishes was her meat pie which has become one of my comfort foods.
I do enjoy eating homemade pastry (who doesn't?) -- while my pastry probably won't win awards for prettiness, I am getting better at making it look as great as it tastes (tootin' my own horn). The frozen store-bought kind is great for quick meals but if you've got the time, make it from scratch. The taste and flakiness are MUCH better.
For my pastry I usually use the recipe found on the side of the container of Crisco. Unfortunately sometime recently Crisco decided to change their recipe. Earlier today I posted the original 'no fail' pie crust recipe (which uses egg and vinegar for some zip) so that I wouldn't misplace the recipe again. The new recipe just wasn't as good as the 'tried and true' old one.

Here's my version of meat pie. I love mine to have a bit of a gravy so that the meat isn't too dry and the pastry has to be flaky!! You can add diced bits of onion, carrot or frozen peas if you'd like. Serve with a side of mashed potatoes and a salad. Leftovers are great the next day too!

1 - double pie crust (see "No Fail Pie Crust" recipe here on my blog)
1 to 1 1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 onion, chopped (optional)
1/2 cup carrots, finely chopped (optional)
1/4 cup flour
1 (10oz) can beef broth
2 tsp Worchestershire sauce
1 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 cup frozen peas (optional)

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a large skillet, cook beef, onion and carrot (if using) until beef is no longer pink. Drain off fat. Add flour and mix well. Cook for 1 minute. Add beef broth, Worchestershire sauce, dry mustard and pepper. Cook until mixture starts to bubble and thicken slightly. Add peas to meat mixture, if using. Pour into bottom crust. Top with upper crust. Using a fork, press upper and lower edges of pie crusts together. Poke top of pie several times to let steam escape.

Bake for 10 minutes. Lower temperature to 350F and bake for another 25 minutes. If crust becomes brown too quickly, lightly cover crust with tin foil.

Tip for rolling out pastry for a pie:

I love using my Pampered Chef rolling pin to roll out pastry. For the bottom crust, I use the smaller roller to roll the pastry right into the sides of the pan. For the upper crust I put the remaining dough in between two sheets of plastic wrap the roll it with the larger rolling end into a circle large enough to fit my pie. I remove the upper sheet of plastic wrap the gently place the upper crust on top. Remove the bottom plastic wrap, seal with a fork along the edges, polk some holes in the top and voila! Done! :) It took me years to figure this out ... then my 88 year old Grandma told me "Of course that's how I've always done it!". Apparently I should have asked my Grandma for help years ago!!

No-Fail Pie Crust

I'm planning on making a homemade meat pie for dinner tonight. One of the things that my kids love is a good pie crust. They may not always care for what I stuff into the pie but they're always a fan of crust. Who isn't?!?

There used to be a wonderful pie crust recipe on the can of Crisco but for some unknown reason they've changed the recipe. It used to have an egg and white vinegar which gave the crust a little zing. This makes a nice, flaky crust that goes well with dessert pies or main dish pies. I've been on the hunt for the original recipe and have found it!

Makes: double pie crust

2 cups white flour
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup Crisco
1 egg
2 tbsp cold water
1 tsp white vinegar

Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Add Crisco; using a pastry blender combine Crisco with flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add egg, water and vinegar. Combine well. Wrap in plastic wrap and put in fridge for about an hour.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

What's Everyone Reading?!?!?

I LOVED all of the reponses I received after asking what book I should start reading in April. Wow! I loved that so many of you took the time to post some of your favourite reads for me to try. Getting new book ideas from other readers is a wonderful way to find new authors.

One of my favourite things about regularly reading the Today's Parent book forum is finding out what other posters read the previous week, what they thought about those books as well as what they're planning on reading the next week. It's a wonderful way to get new ideas of books to read. Good 'tried and true' reads instead of reading what the critics (or Oprah) think are good reads.

I have been asked by one of my followers to set up a Weekly Book Poll here on my blog. I thought it was a great idea. I think I'll try to put up a post on Sundays. We can all post what great (or not so great) books we've been reading to give others some new ideas.

If people could try to post with a name (you can make up an anonymous handle if you want) it would make things easier. I know that I look for specific posters on Today's Parent because I know that we have similar reading styles. By posting anonymously it's hard to keep track of who is who on here. Just a thought.

So shall we give it a try??? Our own little Reading Referral Club?? What say you?!?

Monday, 5 April 2010

Hot Artichoke and Spinach Dip

This weekend we celebrated Easter at one of my sister's houses. I was asked to bring a dessert for the adults as well as some homemade bread and an appetizer. Always one to want to bring something new, I tried two new recipes.

I found this recipe online and thought it sounded really good. The original recipe said to sprinkle 1 1/2 cups of bread crumbs over top but I skipped that part because I didn't feel that this dish needed it.

This appetizer is really easy to make and can be made ahead of time. I prefer to make dishes like this ahead of time to give the flavours time to blend together. I love the fact that it's a tasty way to get some spinach into a yummy dish. I also used low-fat cream cheese as well as mayonnaise to make it a bit more healthy.

10oz frozen spinach
1 can (12 oz) artichoke hearts, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup mayonnaise
12 oz cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Thaw and drain spinach (I pushed the spinach against a fine sieve). In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well. Place in an 11x7-inch baking dish. Bake in a 375F oven for 25 minutes. Serve with slices of french bread or crackers.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Chocolate Peanut Butter Krispie Squares

We invited my parents over for dinner tonight since they had just arrived home from a long vacation in Australia. With the weather being absolutely wonderful here in Ontario (25C!!) my family and I didn't want to stay home prepping for the dinner! We took the afternoon and went for a big 4.5km hike.
Once we got home we prepped the steaks, potatoes, homemade bread and the veg but I still had to think about dessert. Hmmm. My dad is a HUGE Rice Krispie Square fan. I wanted to jazz it up a bit so I found a new recipe on the Kellogg' site.

These are a chocolatey variation of the traditional Rice Krispie treats. They have a very light texture (it actually doesn't stay together really well but that didn't bother my kids!) and have chunks of marshmallows every so often which is a nice surprise. The marshmallows aren't totally melted like in the traditional Rice Krispie Square. I typically do not have a big sweet tooth so this dish was a little too sweet for me ... that was not a problem for my kids! After dinner the sugar kicked in and they were running all over the place having a great old time together.
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup peanut butter (or Freenut Butter for those allergic to peanuts)
1/2 tsp vanilla (optional)
3 cups miniature marshmallows
6 cups Rice Krispies cereal

In a large pot (I used a small soup pot) over very low heat, stir chocolate chips and peanut butter until melted and smooth. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla, if using. Add marshmallows and Rice Krispies. Mix until well coated.

Pour into a greased 9x13-inch pan and press firmly. Chill until firm, approximately 45 minutes. Cut into bars.

Variation: Add 1/2 cup chopped peanuts with the Rice Krispies.

Nowhere To Run

Author: Mary Jane Clark
Genre: Mystery/Suspense
Pages: 339
Published: 2003
First Line: "The silver New Jersey Transit commuter train slid to a stop at the red brick station."

Synopsis: Annabelle Murphy is the medical producer for KEY New, a highly popular daily TV news show in NYC. When a KEY news team member dies with symptoms that are very similar to those of anthrax Annabelle knows that all hell is going to break loose in NYC. When other people start to die Annabelle becomes suspicious that perhaps the deaths aren't coincidence and may actually be set up to hide a more serious issue.

My Thoughts: I had never heard of this author before but the cover looked interesting and the description on the book cover seemed promising. Apparently she's the granddaughter of Mary Higgins Clark. Hmmm. Interesting.

This was a good, whodunnit that kept me guessing. There were so many plausible suspects that I was constantly thinking that I had the murderer pegged .... until the author pulled the rug out from under me and gave me a new set of suspects. There were a LOT of characters in the book which, at the beginning, made it a little hard to keep track of who was who. Luckily the author used less common names for her characters which helped (Linus, Yelena, Jerome).

The extremely short chapters (some of them only a paragraph!!) were a little distracting and made the storyline choppy at times. I thought James Patterson was the king of short chapters (2-3 pages long) but Clark is now the reigning champ!

This book was a very easy read, nicely paced with a likeable main character. Clark brings enough of Annabelle's home life into the storyline giving a good background to the main character but not so much that it takes over the storyline. I plan to read more from this author.

My Rating: 3.5/5

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