Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Kitchen House

Author: Kathleen Grissom
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: Paperback
Pages: 365
First Published: February 2010
First Line: "1810 - Lavinia "There was a strong smell of smoke, and new fear fueled me."

Synopsis:  On the journey from Ireland to America a young Irish couple dies leaving their young son and daughter orphaned and unable to pay for their passage.  When the ship arrives in America, the captain of the ship, James Pyke, easily sells off the boy but is left with the very sickly 7 year old Lavinia.  With no other options, Captain Pyke decides to bring her to his plantation as an indentured servant where he places her in the care of his slave Belle so she can be used as a servant in the kitchen house.

Lavinia is nursed back to health by Belle, Mama Mae and the other slaves.  Even with the differences in her skin colour, it doesn't take long before Lavinia, who fondly becomes referred to as Abinia by the slaves, is accepted into her new 'family'.  While Lavinia creates relationships and bonds with her slave family she also becomes more and more accepted into the 'Big House'.   As the years pass she finds herself dangerously straddling both worlds.  She feels a loyalty and appreciation for her master's family yet has a deep love for her adoptive slave family.  She soon learns that the decisions she makes can have dire consequences for the people she loves.
My Thoughts:  I have always been drawn to books about slavery and the Holocaust.  I suppose that reading about times where people endured, suffered and yet (some) still managed to survive is such a raw look at the human condition and what we can survive.  As well as, sadly, what we can do to each other.

The books that I've read that focused on slavery in the USA were always told from the viewpoint of the black slave.  What intrigued me about this book is the fact that the story is told from the point of view of a female black slave but also through the eyes of a white indentured servant.  I had heard of indentured slaves but honestly didn't equate it with the slave trade in the USA. 

After reading this book, I now know that this book is much more than a book about slavery.  Yes, it's sometimes eye opening and brutal in its descriptions of slavery.  But Grissom also delves into  the different kinds of oppression -- like the powerlessness of women of all colours.  She also shows the differences between a family who appears to have everything (money, freedom, power)  except tight bonds with each other and a slave family with nothing except each other.
One of the things that stands out for me in this book is the author's voice.  Her writing style is very easy to read and is done so well it feels effortless.  Her descriptions of life back in the 18th century feel so authentic and vivid (yet not verbose) that you know that Ms Grissom did her research on that era.
I think it's because of Grissom's skill at creating such vivid and honestly portrayed characters that she evoked so many different emotions from me.  From characters I hated because they were truly sinister and horrid, to the unconditional love from Mama Mae, to the suffering Belle endures,  to the sweetness of little Sukey.   These characters were complex and multidimensional and leaped off the page.  It's due to these clearly defined characters that I was able to feel so much for them.  I went through the emotional spectrum -- shocked, saddened, unconditional love, angered, joyful etc. That's a lot of emotions for one book.

I think that one of the things that helped me get to know the characters better was how the author used the point of view of two characters, Belle and Lavinia, in alternating chapters to tell the story.  This technique was executed extremely well and flowed seamlessly.  Not all authors, in my vast reading, are able to pull off a book with two point of views.  Often it takes a bit for me to switch gears when the character changes.  That wasn't an issue here.  Also, seeing a situation from two very different viewpoints gave me a better understanding of just how different life was back for the two groups of people.

While the book does alternate between Belle and Lavinia I'd have to say that the book does focus more on Lavinia and how she adapts to both worlds.  Lavinia's story shows her innocence, naivety and ignorance about how the world around her really works.  It's her decisions which cause a lot of the turmoil as well as some of the happier times in the book. 
I felt Lavinia's confusion and uncertainty as she attempted to straddle both worlds.  The fact that she thought that she could pull it off shows just how naive she truly was.   She was so realistically written -- flaws and all-- that I wanted to just shake some sense into her!   It was her slave family that were much more knowledgeable and pragmatic when it came to understanding the social norms and mores of the time.  Mama Mae tried to teach Lavinia the 'ways' and what her place was among the white owners and black slaves.    Due to her skin colour Lavinia was stuck in between two vastly different worlds and soon finds out that she doesn't necessarily have a choice as to which 'world' she lives in.

While I loved all 365 pages of this book my favourite parts are the beginning and the end.  Normally that doesn't bode well for a book but in this case I disagree.  The book begins with a shocking scene that piqued my curiosity and set the book off with a very anxious and ominous tone.  That opening situation is made clear by the end of the book when the author throws in a twist that literally had me suck in my breath (I believe I even muttered out loud "No!!" when I read it).  I then proceeded to re-read the prologue and the end again just to verify what I had read.  You've gotta love a book that grabs you from the start and doesn't let go!
Note: Once you're done reading The Kitchen House make sure you read the author's note at the back of the book.  It  gave me goosebumps as I read how the concept of the book came to the author.  I love to read about how an idea for a book made it onto the pages of a book. 

If you haven't guessed by now I adored this book.  It's a book filled with love, human endurance, violence, betrayal, family loyalty, courage, strength, trust and the power of unconditional love and hope.  That's a whole lot of feelings for one book but the author pulls it off and leaves the reader thinking of the characters long after the last page is turned.  This is truly an inspiring read and I highly recommend it.
Other books fans of "The Kitchen House" may enjoy:

The Book of Negroes (by Canadian author Lawrence Hill)
Roots (Alex Haley)

My Rating: 5/5 stars

P.S.  I'm hoping that there will be a sequel to The Kitchen House so I can know what happened to the characters!!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Mandarin Sesame Quinoa Salad

I don't know about you but I love a good salad.  I like a salad even more when someone else makes it for me but we can't always get what we want, now can we?  Since I don't have an in-home salad maker named Sven to make me said salads I like to keep my salads pretty simple, yet filling and oh so yummy. 

On the days that I work I have to admit that bringing a sandwich just doesn't entice me anymore.  I've never been a sandwich kind of person, or a wrap person either.  And don't get me started on bringing cold pizza (ew - nasty!!).  My perfect lunch at work would be a cold salad of some kind, be it pasta or otherwise (I also wouldn't say no to a nice lunch out either!).

This cold quinoa salad meets all of my cold salad requirements.  It's got sweetness from the mandarin oranges, a crunch from the sunflower seeds, a tang from the feta and the delicious combo of sesame oil and balsamic!!  Oh yum!

The main difference between this salad and my typical pasta or green salad is that the base for this salad is quinoa.  If you haven't yet heard of quinoa (pronounced 'keen-wa') you've gotta give it a try.  For some unknown reason, for the past few weeks I've been totally crushing on quinoa.  By that I mean that I've used 2 boxes of the stuff in 2 weeks.  Ya, I'm totally infatuated with this little odd little grain/seed.   Not only is it tasty but it's also hailed as one of those Super Foods (minus the cape and tights) that everyone is going on and on about.  Here's a rundown of all its positive attributes:

- light texture
- slightly nutty flavour
- very easy to cook
- gluten free
- source of protein
- high in fibre
- contains the vitamins: riboflavin, iron, phosphorus, calcium, vitamin E, folic acid, beta carotene
- contains essential amino acids, like lycine, that has been proven to increase immune system response
- it will give you a body like Sophia Vergara's

Ummm, that last one may not be totally accurate but one can hope, right?  Quinoa is a veritable gastronomical rock star!!  With all those benefits, no wonder quinoa is the cool kid on the culinary block these days! 

When I got my first glimpse of quinoa back in the summer I have to admit that it wasn't love at first sight.   I don't want to be cruel but quinoa ain't pretty.  It's kind of odd looking with it's bumps and squiggles but I adore the texture (it has an al dente bite to it) and the flavour (a very light nutty flavour).  Plus, it's uber easy to make!  Even I can't screw it up!!  Literally a few minutes and you've got a base for a salad, meatless patty or a side dish!

Today I'm sharing a recipe for a cold salad that I made for my week of work lunches.  I've eaten this salad for 3 days and couldn't be happier with it.  I've added sunflower seeds to it because I love a little crunch in my salad and their flavour really adds to this salad.  I also increased the sesame oil just a tad from the original recipe because I found it a little too subtle for me. 

So, if you're tired of the old 'ham and cheese' sandwich and are in the mood for trying something a little different give this salad a try. 
Sesame Mandarin Quinoa Salad

1 Cup uncooked quinoa

1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar

1 tbsp sugar

2 1/2 tbsp sesame oil

Pinch of kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper

1/2 Cup red or orange peppers, diced

1/4 Cup chopped green onions, the green part

1/4 Cup crumbled feta cheese

1/3 cup shelled sunflower seeds

284mL can of mandarin orange segments, drained (approximately 1 cup)

Prepare quinoa according to package directions. Transfer to a large bowl to cool.

In a small bowl whisk the oil, balsamic vinegar, sugar, sesame oil, salt and pepper until well combined.  Pour over cooled quinoa and mix to combine. Add the sweet peppers, green onions, feta, sunflower seeds and mandarin oranges.

Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Inspired by: Picky Palate's 'Sesame Quinoa Salad Delight'

Yield: 4 servings

I've linked this recipe to the following parties:

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


Author: Suzanne Collins
Series: 3rd book in The Hunger Games series
Series Order: "The Hunger Games", "Catching Fire", "Mockingjay"
Type: Kindle e-book
Genre: Young Adult/Dystopian
First Published: August 2010
First Line: "I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather."

Synopsis: At the end of her second Hunger Games, Katniss is immediately whisked away to a rebel base.  While there, she struggles to meet the requirements put on her by the rebel leaders all the while trying to recover both mentally and physically from participating in two back-to-back Hunger Games.
Soon after arriving at the rebel base Katniss finds herself being touted as the Mockingjay, the figurehead of the rebel forces.  At first Katniss doesn't want the title of Mockingjay but she quickly changes her mind when she sees a broadcast of Peeta who has obviously been abused both mentally and physically by President Snow.  It's at that point that Katniss is determined to help the rebel forces if only to get a chance to personally kill Snow. 

My Thoughts:   I have to admit that after reading The Hunger Games (and loving it) back in the summer followed closely by Catching Fire (meh) I wasn't all that excited to jump into the third and final book in the series.  The second book didn't thrill me nearly as much as the first book and with the very mixed reviews of Mockingjay I thought I'd hold off. 
I have to admit that I probably shouldn't have left so much time in between the books.  I found it a little hard to dive back into the series and remember all of the minor characters.  Luckily, my two boys had read the trilogy before me (they've read the series twice already) so I could ask them any questions I had about the prior books. :)

What I'm finding is that Mockingjay is like Justin Beiber -- they're both very polarizing.  People either love them or hate them.  With Mockingjay, I'm somewhere between 'it was ok' and unfortunately apathetic.  In a word, this book was 'unfulfilling'.   I was expecting a big 'ta-da' kind of ending with some of the action, character development and energy from the first book as well as a good conclusion to the series.   Unfortunately that just didn't happen.
What's odd is that it felt like Mockingjay was split into two separate books.  The first two-thirds of the book were good.  The storyline kept me intrigued and I was eager to see how Katniss would handle being out of the Games.  It's the last third of the book that felt totally different and, quite frankly, lags.  If I'm being honest I felt like the ending was a let-down.  It was much too abrupt and confusing since it was told through the eyes of Katniss who has had more than her fair share of concussions making her observations a little clouded.    

The last third of the book also had a very bleak feeling to it.  It didn't help that Katniss is in a funk most of the book and seems very indifferent, like she has no fight left in her.  She spends an inordinate amount of time in the first part of the book hiding in closets and trying not to be the rebel leader.  That's not exactly the kind of heroine I was hoping for at the end of the series.  I was hoping for her to come out guns blazing!!  That being said, the poor girl was just in two back-to-back Games so she's bound to be a little wiped out physically and psychologically. 
I kind of wish Katniss could have caught a break in this book.  It was negative all the time and, while that may be a little more realistic, it makes for a downer of a book. Throw the girl a bone and give the reader some hope.
I will say that Collins didn't sugar coat the fighting and war.  It was brutally realistic and a lot more violent than the previous books.  Not all of the 'good guys' survive, people are left with life altering and permanent scars (emotionally and physically).  Unfortunately some of the deaths (specifically some of the rebels) are dealt with so quickly that I felt like I didn't have time to process them before the story moved on.  It would have been great to see some of the emotional aftermath of those deaths but they really weren't referred to again.

The war is the focus of this book (naturally so) but it was so in the forefront that the character development wasn't given the attention I would have liked.  I didn't feel like I had any emotional attachment to the characters this time around.  I didn't like Katniss -- she hasn't been my favourite character in the previous books -- but this time around she seemed downright cold (especially not helping Peeta and shutting out Gale). 
Normally I like a romantic triangle but I found that towards the middle of this book I just didn't care who Katniss loved or wanted to be with in the end.  Poor Gale was, yet again, not brought to the forefront so the reader could get to know him better.  He always seems to be in the fringes.  Also, her reason for not picking the one boy seems lame and trite.  Why can't she forgive one boy for numerous things but not the other??

There were no major surprises in the book (except for one of the deaths in the book).  I would have loved for the trilogy to go out with a bang.  Unfortunately it went out quietly and predictably.  While this wasn't my favourite book in the series I still highly recommend reading the first book which was extremely hard to put down.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Monogram Button Art

For a couple of months now I've been wanting to do some DIY wall art for Missy Moo's room.  I know I could have gone out and bought some art/pictures but she and I wanted to get our craft on and spend some time together (and I'm cheap frugal).

So last weekend, whilst our men folk were out we took over the kitchen table armed with only our imaginations, buttons, scrapbooking supplies, my laptop/printer and an IKEA frame.  In just over an hour (positioning the buttons with two Type-A people tends to take more time) we had a cute picture for her room!

While this is an easy craft it took me awhile to actually do it.  I started thinking about this craft back in the summer.  See how motivated I am!?!  I'm just a go-getter!  I had seen a monogram button art picture on Pinterest (it's like crack for moms) and I was intrigued.  Missy Moo was on board for helping me with this craft so off we went to our local thrift store and perused their used buttons.  See we're crafty and environmentally conscious and cheapA bag of buttons for $2??  We're in!!  We also wanted to have some of the colours in Missy Moo's room represented in the craft so we decided to buy a bag of buttons from a scrapbooking store ($8 for pretty pink, brown blue and teal buttons!!). 

I was all good for the other 'craft ingredients'.  I found a box of forgotten IKEA white picture frames in our basement (it's amazing what you'll find when you scour your own house for loot!!).  I also have a plethora of scrapbooking papers, adhesives etc that I purchased in several moments of insanity years ago when I jumped wholeheartedly on the scrapbooking bandwagon only to find that I have the attention span of a drunken gnat.  If anyone wants to see pictures from 80% of my trip to Italy five years ago let me know. 
So we had craft supplies.  Check.  Now, by using my mad math skills I figure this craft will cost me less than $10 since I won't use all the buttons and all the other supplies are considered 'free' since I bought them a long time ago.  Don't try to understand my 'free money' math logic.  I've made intelligent men (women seem to grasp this concept with no issues) bang their heads against walls trying to understand me.  "But it's not free if you bought it - even if it was a long time ago!"  Brad has tried numerous times in the past to grasp my 'free money' logic only to leave the conversation shaking his head.  It's one of the reasons he loves me ... I think.

Anyway, here's how you make a loverly button monogram!  There are the items you'll need:
  • paper (for your letter stencil)
  • scissors
  • pencil
  • Scotch tape
  • heavy cardstock (for your background)
  • buttons in all shapes and sizes
  • glue dots/squares
  • brads
  • picture frame (with removable glass)
First, go into Word and open a document.  Choose a font (I used Georgia).  Type in the letter you'd like to print in your new document and change the font size to 700 (you'll have to type it in because the pull down won't have a number that big).   You'll want to make sure that the size of your letter will fit into the frame you use.  I used an IKEA 8x10 frame but if your frame is a different size you'll have to see what font size will fit.  I tried to stay away from some of the fancier, frillier fonts because I wanted something simple and I thought too many curves may make it harder to define the outline of the letter using buttons.

If you're rolling in the dough and have money to burn on ink cartridges or printer toner then you can skip this next part.  If you're frugal like moi and want to save your printer toner/ink you'll want to print out only the outline of your letter.  Highlight the letter and right click.  Select 'Font'.  Under "Effects" choose "Outline".  Print out the outline of your letter.   If it fits your frame properly cut it out. 

On a piece of thick cardstock that has been cut to fit your frame, centre your paper letter and lightly trace it out with a pencil. 

I used a small piece of Scotch tape to secure the top of my "R" onto the cardstock to stop it from moving while I traced it.  Note: desticky the tape a bit by sticking it to your pants or shirt a few times so the tape doesn't stick to your cardstock too well and damage it.  Now you're ready to add the buttons!

Missy Moo and I placed the larger buttons on our "R" first then filled in the rest of the space with the smaller buttons and finally some little brads and some cute diamonds with adhesive on the back.  We also made sure to balance the colours of the buttons we used as well -- you don't want all the blue on one side and pink on the other.  That kind of thing not only looks wonky but it stresses me out!!

Once you have a general idea of what you'd like to do with your buttons it's time to 'glue' them on.  When I say 'glue' what I mean is we need to adhere them.  Honestly, I wouldn't suggest using a liquid glue.  It'll be messy and, with a lot of buttons, might make your cardstock a bit soggy.  You also don't want glue squishing out, right?
Instead, I suggest using Glue Dots and glue squares scrapbooking adhesives.  These worked like a charm and were small enough that we could use them even on the smallest buttons.  Also, using these adhesives makes layering the buttons a breeze!!  You could do a single layer of buttons but we liked the look of two or three layers to give the initial more interest, definition and texture.
Once you're done, remove the glass from your frame, fit your cardstock into it and replace the frame backing.  Voila!  Instant art and a fun afternoon with your eight year old!!

What cool DIY art projects have you tried your hand at?

Inspired by: Pinterest

I've linked up to the following link parties:

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

True of Blood

Author: Bonnie Lamar
Genre: Supernatural/YA
Type: e-book (Kindle)
Series: 1st book in the 'Witch Fairy' series
Series Order: 1) True of Blood, 2) Blood Prophecy
First Published: April 17, 2011
First Line: "I have a television so I know what a family is supposed to look like but mine is nothing like that."

Synopsis: For the past three years Xandra's life has been anything but normal.  Her parents, who died suddenly in a car accident, still hover around Xandra and her younger brother in the form of ghosts.  Xandra's life gets even stranger when, on her 17th birthday, she is told that her mother is a powerful witch who had to go into hiding to protect Xandra from her birth father who is King of the Fae.

Xandra soon learns that she is the first witch fairy to be born in thousands of years and there are many who wish to harm her.  No one being possesses as much power as Xandra unknowingly has.  Her mother's family wants her dead for only Xandra's blood can open the doorway between the fairy and human worlds.  It's for this reason that the fae want to capture her so they can once again return to the human world and exact their revenge on both humans and witches who banished them thousands of years ago. 
Since Xandra's power was magically bound until her 17th birthday she has had no training on how to control or use her powers.  When two Fairies manage to sneak into the human world and are bent on forcing Xandra to open the gates between the world Xandra's mother knows that her daughter needs a magical tutor.  Eager to protect her child and her world in any way she can Xandra's mother agrees to send her daughter off to be trained by a powerful fairy.  Does he really have Xandra's and the human world's best interests at heart?  Or is Xandra being put into the hands of someone who means to open the gate once and for all? 

My Thoughts:  When I was perusing through the Kindle Store I noticed that this ebook got some really positive reviews.  For 99 cents I thought it was a safe bet that this was going to be a good read and it was ... almost.
The storyline was interesting but there were a few things that bogged it down.   It started off fairly strong but half way through the book became more about their burgeoning romance and less about the fairy versus human realms.  Xandra and her 'tutor' Kallen spent more time bickering than teaching her how to use her power.  You also never really get the feeling that she's in danger.  There aren't even any 'close calls' with the evil fairies to spice things up.  There's no big chase scene and we spend most of the book reading about Kallen and Xandra snuggling in a sleeping bag in various caves.  The story needed more twists.

One thing that I found odd was why her parents, brother and aunt were introduced into the story and then they just *poof* disappear.  If I'm being honest I don't know why her parents had to be ghosts.  Was it so her mother couldn't help her learn about her powers?  Why give Xandra a brother if he was only mentioned briefly?  The only reason I can come up with is that the author has plans for them in future books.

Finally, I found it odd that Xandra's mother, who knew about the prophecy involving her daughter, never tried to prepare Xandra for her 17th birthday and the sudden appearance of Xandra's powers.  Why run off and protect your daughter for all these years then when the deadline comes and she knows that people will be after her daughter she's not prepared at all?  Just odd.

While I didn't love this book I did find the overall premise interesting.  I like that the author is combining fairy and witch lore and hopefully in future books, there will be more intensity and more magic involved in the storyline. 

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Jalapeno Popper Dip

This appetizer has quickly become one of Brad and my favourite dips.  Brad and I are jalapeno popper lovers from way back and are kind of finicky about what makes a great popper. We don't like the cheddar cheese poppers, ours must have cream cheese.  The cream cheese balances out the heat from the jalapenos and the Panko/Parm topping is divine and gives it that popper coating that we all love so much. 

We love this dip so much that I've made it twice over the holidays then again last night.  Why three times?  Do we have a raging popper habit?  Perhaps.  The real reason is that the first two times that I made this dip (New Years and a family Christmas last weekend) I was so eager to dig into this dip that I forgot to take a picture of the finished product.  {bad food blogger}.

So last night, on the pretence of making it solely for a good food pic, I made this dip again.  Unfortunately I had inadvertently made a few changes.  Let's just say that I'd now like to promise that from now on I will not just assume that I memorized a recipe.  The dip I made last night was 'I think I incinerated my tongue' H-O-T!!!  Apparently I thought the original recipe called for twice as many jalapenos.  Oh my gravy!  I think it I burned through the side of my mouth ... and yet I managed to eat another couple of bites. Perhaps I accidentally burned off a few brain cells from the jalapeno heat?  I also apparently have an issue with saying no to homemade goodies.  Look at me learning about myself.  Self enlightenment is a good thing, no?

Brad and I are not the only ones who wanted to sample my dip last night.  Someone else thought they'd get into the Jalapeno Popper action too.  After I had surrendered to the jalapeno heat and went upstairs, Brad went downstairs to grab a Coke (probably to put out the jalapeno fire that was in his mouth).  Our mini Schnoodle, Scout, thought he'd partake of the dip too.  When Brad came back up he knew that the dog had sampled our snack too (Scout is not known for being stealth).  When Brad looked over at the culprit Scout was sitting in his bed, licking his lips and repeatedly twitching his head.  Apparently he too thought the dip was too hot.  Everyone's a critic!!!  Do you think he'll no longer want to sample my dips?  Perhaps there is a silver lining to all this heat.

If you follow the recipe I'm sure that you'll enjoy this very easy to make, yet impressive dip.  :)

Jalapeno Popper Dip
Inspired by:

16oz cream cheese, softened
1 cup mayonnaise
1 can (4oz) green chilis
2 oz Jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a medium bowl, combine the softened cream cheese and mayonnaise until it is smooth.  Add the green chilis and Jalapeno peppers.  Mix well.

Scoop the dip into a medium baking dish.

In a medium bowl, combine the Panko crumbs and the fresh Parmesan cheese.  Sprinkle over the dip.  

Bake for 20 minutes or until heated through.  Serve with nacho chips.

I've linked this recipe to the following parties ...

Mom on TimeOut - Taking a Time Out Thursdays
A Little Nosh - Tastetastic Thursdays

Somewhat Simple

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Natural Reaction

Author: Terri Reid
Type: Kindle e-book

Genre: Supernatural / Mystery
Series: 6th book in the Mary O'Reilly paranormal mystery series
Series Order:  1) Loose Ends, 2) Good Tidings, 3) Never Forgotten, 4) Final Call, 5) Darkness Exposed

First Published: December 2011
First Line: "The bell pealed its final warning and two dozen high school students quickly rushed in from the grey locker-walled hallway into the Chemistry lab."

Synopsis:  This book follows closely on the heels of Mary and her group solving the mystery of Jeannine's murder.  After being put through a harrowing experience to solve the 8 year old murder Mary comes out of it emotionally and physically drained.  Even after returning safely home Mary continues to suffer the after effects of being held captive.  Besides the support of her family and friends Mary also gets back into her normal groove by solving a new mystery about the death of a local high school science teacher.
My Thoughts:  This is one of my favourite e-book series to date.  It's a mystery series mixed with supernatural and has a really great price too ($2.99/e-book).  Unfortunately, this 6th book focused more on the relationships between the characters than the mystery.  I can only imagine how hard it is to balance the momentum of relationships while keeping up the suspense in the current mystery. Sometimes I don't have an issue with relationships taking the front seat for a bit of the book but since I just don't feel the chemistry between Mary and her man this time it was distracting.  I think a lot of it stems from the cutsie banter between them.  It happened quite a lot in this book was too saccharine for my tastes - even bordering on corny.

Thankfully, some of my favourite characters (Fireman Mike and Ian) make appearances again.  Who doesn't like a wise cracking ghost and a guy with a Scottish brogue??  These two are, hands down, my favourite characters.   I'm hoping they come to the forefront in future books.
Unfortunately, Bradley is another story.  I find Bradley to be kind of a boring character.  Yes, he loves Mary and he's a good guy.  He's likeable but not exciting (especially for a cop!).  I was hoping for a love triangle between Mary, Bradley and Ian to spice things up but that hasn't happened so far.  Bradley just seems too boring.  I'd much rather see Mary start to have feelings for Ian and show the drama that would happen between them as well as Ian and his fiery fiancĂ© back in Scotland.
Finally, there's something that I found odd over the last couple of books.  Mary's special talent is her ability to see ghosts.  Over the past few books, more and more characters are able to see ghosts as well.  It kind of makes Mary's talent a little less special and less believable.

While I did easily predicted the cliff hanger at the end of the book I will admit that it was satisfying to be right. :)  Without giving anything away I am interested to see how Ms Reid uses this new information in future books.
Overall this is a decent read but not my favourite in the series.  I'd prefer more mystery and a little less cutsie banter.  Perhaps more of a time lag in between books would be good too.  It's hard to imagine so much drama happening to one group of people within only a few months time.

I still recommend this series (but read them in order).  I just hope there's an infusion of oomph in upcoming books to keep the momentum going.
My Rating: 3/5 stars

Monday, 9 January 2012

Garlic & Herb Topped Rosemary Bread

How many foods can you think of that are chewy, crunchy and light??  Ok, popcorn fits the bill but I have something better than boring old popcorn ... and you eat it slathered with butter too!  Bread!!  I realize that me showing some love for a loaf is as shocking as seeing a Kardashian on a magazine cover but this bread honestly knocked my proverbial socks off.  So much so that I've made it twice in the last couple of weeks.  It's one of those loaves that you could easily (and happily) sit down with a chunk of butter and sow down on it for lunch (note: I have not done this yet but it's on my 2012 bucket list. Seriously.). 

How do I love this bread?  Let me count the ways.  A) my bread machine does most of the work, B) it has a crusty yet chewy crust, C) it has an awesome herby-garlicy topper and D) the bread itself is light and airy.  That's a little slice of heaven in my book!
I'm not the only one who loves this bread.  Brad and my mini humans love it too but they're biased because they're total carb addicts (takes one to marry one/make one, right?). 

Since our little family liked this loaf so much I figured I'd make it for our final Christmas extravaganza with Brad's family this past weekend.  I wanted to get some more feedback before I posted it here on the blog (and, if I'm being honest, because I wanted to eat it again).  Well, it went over so well that I got some great yummy noises from my SIL (sister-in-law), BIL and MIL!!  Needless to say, I have married into a carb lovin' family!

Garlic and Herb Topped Rosemary Bread


1 cup water

3 tbsp grapeseed or olive oil
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp salt

1 1/2 tsp white sugar

1/4 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp dried oregano

2 1/2 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely chopped

1 tbsp yeast

Topping: additional grapeseed oil, additional fresh rosemary (finely chopped), salt, pepper and garlic powder (all to taste)

Place the ingredients in the order stated by the manufacturer of your bread maker (mine states to put the liquid on the bottom and the yeast on the top so that the moisture doesn't activate the yeast until the dough is ready).

Set the bread maker to its 'Dough' setting (mine takes 2 hours).

Place a piece of parchment paper onto a baking stone or baking sheet.  Lightly flour or grease the parchment paper.  Remove dough from machine and place onto the parchment paper.

Shape dough by hand so that it's approximately 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick and the surface is as smooth as you can get it (a smooth surface will make a prettier loaf).  I shaped mine into more of a rectangle.  Note: This is not going to be a tall loaf.

Cover dough with a tea towel and let it rise in a warm spot (mine was just sitting on my stove in the sun) for approximately 1/2-3/4 of an hour.  Have a cuppa tea and play some 'Words with Friends'. 

Brush oil lightly onto the top of the dough.  Sprinkle with additional finely chopped rosemary (you don't want pine needles sticking out of the top, right?), garlic powder, salt and pepper (all toppings are to taste).  The addition of these 'toppings' gives this loaf that little extra oomph which will have people willing to do anything for just one more slice.  It's that good.  This is what it should look like ....

Place loaf into the COLD oven.  Turn oven temperature setting to 375F and set timer for 45 minutes.  As the oven heats up it will give the loaf that extra time to rise.  Trust me, this technique works!

Remove loaf to a cooling rack (it should sound hollow when tapped).  Serve warm or cooled and attempt not to eat the entire loaf in one sitting (I'm still working on that one).
Recipe Inspired by: Anissa's Kitchen

Linked to: A Little Nosh's 'Tastetastic Thursday' Link Party

Friday, 6 January 2012

Four Cheese Vegetable Manicotti

I cannot believe that the Christmas /New Year holiday is almost over!!  The first week of the holidays was very busy with Christmas, heading to Great Wolf Lodge and hosting a New Years bash.  So for the second week off I wanted to take it easy and do a few things that I have trouble doing while I'm working.  Like hanging with my offspring and doing things like going to the movies, baking loads of treats, going tobogganing (except we didn't have enough snow!!), embarrass myself at Mario Kart etc.  I also looked forward to staying up late reading book after book while eating those baked goodies that I made with the kids.  Lastly, to make my holiday complete I wanted to make suppers that are too labour intensive to make during a regular work week.  This is where this recipe comes in.

Manicotti aren't hard to make ... they're just persnickety.  Lots of things to grate and filling the shells isn't on the top of my 'fun things to do' either.  But Brad has been hinting (aka outright saying) he'd love to have some manicotti for supper soon so I made them.  I had made this recipe many years ago when the "Crazy Plates" cookbook first came out.  If you haven't heard of this trio of cookbooks (which also include "Looney Spoons" and "Eat, Drink and Be Merry") check them out.  They're written by two Canadian sisters, Janet and Greta Podleski, who have a great sense of humour and know how to pull off lower fat dishes while keeping the flavour!! 

When I first made this dish I made it according to Janet and Greta's directions and loved it.  But this time around I did a few things differently.  The main thing I changed was to leave out the chicken.  When I was in the food store looking at chicken breasts I just could not bring myself to spend $10 on two pathetic little breasts (sadly I'm an expert on small breasts *sigh*).  So I just omitted them.  My goal is to try to eat less meat and this was a dish where I could easily omit it without losing a major part of the meal.  Honestly, I didn't miss it and neither did the carnivore that I married. 

Another thing that I did differently with this dish is that I undercook the noodles.  As I mentioned, I hate stuffing manicotti.  It's like trying to put a wet pig in a pair of Spanx -- the filling is messy, the noodles are slippery ... just not my idea of fun.   By undercooking the noodles they're less floppy and a bit easier to handle.  Because the noodles are undercooked I also add 1 cup of water to my sauce mixture to give the noodles that little extra bit of moisture to continue cooking while they're baking in the oven.  Worked like a charm!

One of the main reasons for making this dish (besides accruing Devoted Wife points) is that I wanted to use my new Kitchen Aid food processor that I got for Christmas.  This baby rocks my kitchen!!!  I luuurve it!  It cuts, shreds and may even be able to do my taxes.  It's that awesome.  This manicotti filling was the perfect dish for my new kitchen machinery (not to mention the Apple Crisp and Apple Bavarian Torte I made this week with it!).  Let's just say that we're all a little in awe of my new machine ... at one point this week we had three preteens standing around my food processor seeing how thin Brad could slice a cucumber.  The male species apparently don't care what kind of engine they're behind as long as it's got power!  Non-stop party around here, I tell ya!
But I digress, this meal was very tasty, filling (even without the meat) and easy to prepare.  I think I may even make an extra one to put in the freezer for one of my 'oh no!  What am I going to make for supper? kind of nights.  Enjoy!! 
Four Cheese Vegetable Manicotti

2 tbsp grapeseed or vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 cup carrot, grated
1 cup zucchini, grated
1 cup mushrooms, grated
1 1/2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp black pepper
4 oz cream cheese, softened and cut into cubes (I always use lower fat cream cheese)

1 cup ricotta cheese

1/4 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated

12 manicotti shells, uncooked

2 cups tomato sauce
1 cup water

1 1/2 cup Mozzarella cheese, grated

Prepare fillingIn a large skillet, add oil and sautĂ© garlic and onion over medium heat until onion is softened but not browned.   Add carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, basil, oregano and black pepper.  Cook for 5 minutes. 
Add cubes of cream cheese and stir until melted.  Remove from heat.  Stir in ricotta and fresh Parmesan cheeses.  Transfer filling to a large bowl and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Cook noodlesMeanwhile, cook manicotti according to package directions except decrease cooking time by a minute or so.  You want the noodles to still be very al dente which makes them less floppy and therefore easier to fill.  Prepare a large bowl with ice water.  Drain noodles and place them into the ice water to stop them from cooking further. 
Put it all together: Preheat oven to 350F.  Pour a thin layer of tomato sauce into the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish.  Set aside.
Using a small teaspoon (I used an infant spoon), fill manicotti noodles with the filling.  Arrange noodles on the bottom of the dish (if some of the noodles split while filling place them with the split-side down).  Pour remaining sauce into a medium bowl and add 1 cup of water.  This extra water will give the noodles an extra bit of moisture so they can continue cooking but not take the moisture from the sauce or filling.   Mix well then pour over the prepared noodles.  Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.
Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes.  Remove foil and bake another 5 minutes.  Serve with a green salad and garlic bread.
Inspired by: 'The Six-Million-Dollar Manicotti' ("Crazy Plates" - page 83)

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

"Afterlight" review & "Whatcha Reading?" Wednesday!

I hope that everyone has had loads of time to read, read, read over the holidays!  Luckily I have had a fair bit of time, especially in the evenings, to dive into several new books.  Sadly, my last couple of books of 2011 weren't stellar in my opinion but I have high hopes for 2012!

Here's what I've been up to:
Over the Christmas break I read "Heart of Ice" by Gregg Olsen.  Olsen is a new author for me but I wasn't captivated by this book. 

Next, I read "Afterlight" (review to follow this blathering) and again, not my favourite read.  Not even close.  Book Mojo, have thou forsaken me?!? 

Early this morning, OK after my coffee at 8am that Brad made for me {Hello, I'm spoiled!} I finished the sixth book in the Mary O'Reilly series by Terri Reid.  This set of ebooks are available on the Kindle site and I've quite enjoyed reading them.  They're a supernatural mystery series that has strong personal storylines between the characters.  I'll post this review as soon as possible.

As of this afternoon, I started another ebook on my Kindle called "True of Blood" (1st book in the Witch Fairy series) by Bonnie Lamer.  So far I'm 14% into the book and I'm really enjoying it. 

What's next on my bookshelf? I have no idea which way my literary tastes will take me.  Perhaps a mystery or suspense read to balance out the supernatural I've been reading. 

What are you all reading??  Did you get any awesome books for Christmas??  Share, share!!  Here's hoping 2012 is a year of amazing reads for all of us!

Author: Elle Jasper
Genre: Supernatural
Type: Paperback
Pages: 316
Series: Dark Ink Chronicles
Series Order: "Afterlight" (2010), "Everdark" (2011), "Eventide" (2012)
First Line: "Afterlight."

Synopsis:  Riley Poe is a tattoo artist in Savannah, Georgia who has a dark past.  She has turned her back on the wild and reckless ways of her youth in order to raise her teenage brother, Seth.  After a wild night out with his friends in a grave yard Seth returns home and almost instantly Riley notices changes in his behaviour and attitude.  When Seth is abducted by a group working for centuries-old vampires Riley discovers a whole new world that she never knew existed. 

Even with her tough exterior Riley knows that she cannot save her brother by herself.  She is allied with Eli Dupre, a vampire from an old, yet trusted vampire family from Savannah.  At first Eli is not eager to help Riley because he doesn't trust himself due to his attraction to her beauty ... and her very unique and intoxicating blood type.  Riley is willing to do anything to save the only family member she has left in the world.  But will that be enough?

My Thoughts:  This was not a great way to finish off 2011.  I had picked up this book at the library hoping to find a new supernatural author.  The front cover was cool and the write up on the back cover had me envisioning a "Miami Ink meets Vampires" kind of read.   Sadly, the supernatural element wasn't the focus of this book.  I'll get into that more later.  I think this book suffered from poorly developed characters,  a very slow pace and an almost non-existent plot.  Doesn't leave much of a glimmer of hope that I loved this book, does it?

Let's start with the characters, shall we?   The reader is told that Riley is this tough girl with a very nasty past but what we're shown is a rather meek and kind of dull main character.  For a girl who grew up on the streets she really isn't as tough as you'd expect her to be. 

Then there's the leading man, Eli Dupre.  Need a dark, brooding, slightly dangerous leading man who skulks in corners??  Eli's the guy for you!  Being dark, brooding and giving off sexual energy are his thing ... and that's about all he brings to the story.  He's utterly one-dimensional and didn't seem worthy of leading man status to me.  One issue that bothered me with Eli was that he could read minds, even Riley's mind.  How can that benefit the story when he knows exactly what she's thinking at all times?  It's like they became one character.  There's no way Riley can get away with anything around Eli.  If she's kidnapped he'd find her, if she hates the tie he's wearing he'll know etc.  It really bothered me that the author went there.

I just mentioned that Eli brought a sexual energy to the book.  Going into this book I was thinking it was a supernatural/romance type read but I was quickly reminded that this was not so.  Assuming the genre was my mistake.  This book rapidly went from a supernatural read to a raunchy romance novel -- and quite frankly I was more than a little disappointed. I think there is a place for romance and sex scenes in a book but they have to be balanced with the storyline and be relevant.  Both were totally missing from this book.

I think the author used the sex scenes to cement the relationship between Riley and Eli.  These two people were thrown together, there was tension between them then all of a sudden they can't live without each other and are soul mates.  Um, no.  Honestly, I didn't ever get the feeling that they cared about each other.  It was more like they were hot for each other and totally obsessed with each other and the reader was supposed to assume that meant they had a big connection on an emotional level.  Attention everyone - romance has left the building.

There are a few unanswered things in the book that bothered me too.  While I started to like Riley's surrogate grandfather, an older Gullah man named Preacher, he wasn't used a lot in the book.  If you're not sure what a Gullah is you'll have to Google it like I did because Ms Jasper doesn't provide the information in the book.  The reader is given a vague sense of what a Gullah is but that's about it.  Frustrating to say the least.  {Note:  brief Gullah definition -- African Americans who live in the low country regions of South Carolina and Georgia who have maintained a lot of their African linguistic and cultural heritage.  They speak an English-based Creole language that also uses some African words.}  I thought the Gullah aspect was really interesting and I was intrigued to learn more about that culture.  Sadly, that didn't happen.

Another item that isn't delved into is WHY Riley has such a rare and intoxicating blood type that makes vampires go ca-razy.  Why introduce this element of the book if it isn't going to be explained.  Again, frustrating. 

Then there's the question of why Eli and Riley skulked around the city following her brother and his group of creepy men for three weeks (taking up many pages of the book).  Was it to give the author time to build the 'romance' between Eli and Riley? That's my guess.  Otherwise, just save the brother and be done with it. 

And what of the big final fight scene?  Well, there isn't one because the book is told via
Riley's viewpoint and she's hit over the head at the beginning of the scene and wakes up when it's all over.  So I just read 300 pages and don't even get some vampire fighting?  C'mon! {hitting head against wall}

So now in our journey through "Afterlight"  we go from not being given enough information to being given too much verbose language.  "Afterlight" is a book filled with all tell and no action.  The reader is beaten over the head with verbiage about Riley's tough childhood, how she has turned her life around, how much she adores her brother.  It's repetitive. 

The author kept telling me how 'bad ass' Riley is but after awhile either show me that she's a bad ass or stop talking about it already! What's that saying "If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck. It's a duck."?? Well, Riley didn't walk like a tough chick from the streets, she didn't talk like a tough chick so, ergo, she isn't a tough chick.  This excess of words could have been used to progress the plot which was in need of some oomph.
Also, as a reader I don't need overly verbose descriptions of scenery or daily routines that aren't really relevant to the plot.  This book is filled with a lot of flowery long-winded descriptions of the flora of Savannah as well as Riley's daily routine.  After a couple of chapters and descriptions of the moss covered trees that are all around the city and her numerous dog walking trips I had had enough.  I get it - moss on tree, dog pee on tree.  Move on.

Finally, I'm sorry but it cannot be helped.  There are a lot of similarities to the Twilight series.  A little too many for my liking.  First of all,  the titles are similar, there's bad vampires and a nice family of vampires who have a contract not to munch on the locals.  The contract is with the First Nations in Twilight and the Gullah in this book.  The human girl has some intoxicating quality that vamps love about her (readers are not privy to why this is).  The human girl is kind of wimpy and spends her time daydreaming about her cute vamp guy.  The only differences between Afterlight and Twilight is that Twilight's vampires sparkle and it skips the raunchy sex scenes while Afterlight is filled with them.

As you may have guessed, I didn't like this book and wouldn't recommend it.  Perhaps if more time was spent building character relationships,  more descriptions of the Gullah community and its beliefs and a much stronger plot this book would have gotten a better review.  This is the author's first foray into the wonderful world of vampire writing but this reader won't be reading the second and third books of this series.

My Rating: 1.5/5 stars

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