Saturday, 30 June 2012

Everybody Has Everything

Author: Katrina Onstad
Genre: Modern Fiction / Canadian author
Type: Kindle ebook (Advanced Reading Copy - ARC)
Publication Date: May 29, 2012
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart
ISBN: 9780771068980
First Line: "In the end it took Ana and James only an hour to become parents."

Synopsis: Professional couple Ana and James have successful careers but unfortunately have struggled for years with infertility.  Years of watching their friends become parents and slowly alienate childless Ana and James have taken their toll on the couple.  After numerous unsuccessful rounds of fertility treatments they have started the adoption process in China hoping for a child of their own.

One night Ana and James receive a phone call telling them that their friend Marcus has been killed in a car crash and that Marcus' wife is in a coma.  Though friends with this other couple Ana and James are still shocked to learn that they have been named as guardian for the couple's two and a half year old son, Finn. 

The sudden addition of Finn into their busy lives isn't the way that either Ana or James had envisioned becoming parents.  The stress of sudden parenthood to a toddler begins to show the strengths and weaknesses in Ana and James' marriage as well as Ana's internal struggle about becoming a mother.

My Thoughts:  This book doesn't hold back and jumps right into the highly sensitive topic of parenthood.  Specifically the emotions, stress and fear that some people have regarding parenthood.  Is every woman hardwired to be a mother?  Is it socially acceptable for a woman to be ambivalent towards motherhood or will society judge her harshly and openly?  These are only some of the questions that are raised in this second book by Canadian author Katrina Onstad.

I have to admit that it was the premise of this childless couple being suddenly handed this toddler that enticed me to request this book from the publisher.  I was interested to see how this couple's life would change with the 'disruption' of a small human into their orderly lives. A 'sink or swim' situation involving Pampers and sippy cups, if you will. 

Once Finn is plunked down into their lives Ana and James figure they'll be able to handle this 2 year old.   Parenting is what they've always wanted, right?  While James seems to bond quickly with Finn, Ana just doesn't feel the same attachment and begins to pull away emotionally.   She begins to reevaluate what she really wants in her life and is surprised to learn that motherhood may- not be what she truly desires. Does that make her a oddity when all of her friends are thinking about babies all the time?   Ana and James' very organized life suddenly becomes chaotic and unstable and begins to influence their marriage.

One of my favourite things about this book was seeing the honest portrayal of Ana's struggle to figure out what she truly wants in life.  How she comes to term with the fact that perhaps motherhood isn't necessarily the perfect life for her.  Not an easy thing to admit after years of infertility treatments and a society that places motherhood on a high pedestal. 

One of the strengths of this book are the characters. Onstad's main characters are very relatable and believable, each with their own issues, flaws and strengths.  I could relate to Ana on the whole 'Type A' personality (being one myself) but I have to admit that she came off a bit colder and harsher than I was expecting.  That said my heart did go out to her as she obviously struggled with what she wanted.  This poor woman wasn't given any time to adjust to motherhood yet was expected to just pick up the reigns of motherhood with no notice whatsoever.

James, while he took to parenting easily and was so great with Finn, wasn't without his own faults.  Let's just say that I had a hard time getting past some of the choices he made in this book.  He was a true dichotomy of good dad and crappy husband.  I would have loved to get into James' head on a deeper level if only to understand his obsession with street parking (which I admit baffled me a bit since it took over more of the book than I was expecting).

This was an enjoyable read with a character driven storyline that is perfect if you're in the mood to spark some great discussions.  

Note: Can I also add that I adore it when a Canadian author isn't afraid to show that her book is set in Canada?! I loved seeing references around the Toronto area that even I knew. A refreshing and patriotic shoutout to Canada. Gotta love it (especially on Canada Day weekend, eh?).

My Rating: 3 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to Net Galley and McClelland and Stewart Publishing for providing this book to me in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Author: Simone St James
Genre: Historical Mystery, Canadian author
Type: Paperback
Pages: 318
ISBN-10: 0451235681
ISBN-13: 978-0451235688
First Published: March 2012
First Line: "The day I met Mr. Gellis, I had been walking in the rain."

Synopsis:  Set in 1922 England, friends Alistair and Matthew have returned as war veterans and have set up a paranormal investigator business.  They have been requested to look into the haunting of an establishment by a 19 year old maid named Maddy Clare.  The only problem?  Maddy is not only a very angry spirit but she hates men and will not communicate with them.  This leads Alistair to hire Sarah Piper, a young woman from a local temporary agency.

Sarah is a lonely young woman who hasn't had a very adventurous life thus far.  With no family and a few odd temp jobs she's eager for something to happen in her life.  Things are about to change for poor Sarah for when she meets and accepts the job from Alistair.  Initially Sarah is skeptical about this ghost hunting expedition but a very irate Maddy soon helps Sarah see that her previous views of ghosts may not be well-founded.  Unfortunately Maddy's tortured existence in life has caused her afterlife to be more than a little destructive to the living beings around her.  
My Thoughts: This was a hard book to review.  There were things that I really liked about it and others that I didn't care for.  While I was reading it I enjoyed it -- I didn't love it but thought it was a decent read.  But the more I thought about the book after I put it down the more I kept finding things that I didn't love about it.  This wasn't a bad read but it wasn't the best.  I'm going to try to explain my feelings ...

First off, I'm not a horror reader by a long shot.  I've never picked up a Stephen King and, in fact, I don't think I've ever read a horror read in my life.  I just don't think it's fun to scare myself.  I do like to read a really good suspense read but I don't want to be checking to see if someone is lurking in my closet after I put a book down.  I am a wuss.  That said this book had a wonderfully eerie, even sinister, feel to it ... in the first half of the book anyway.  Maddy was the star of the show and was used well to create a feeling of suspense.

Sarah's initial interactions with Maddy were chilling and filled with suspense. The author's descriptions of what Sarah felt and saw were so wonderfully vivid that I was literally on the edge of my seat. Unfortunately that's pretty much where the eerie feel to the book ended for me. After that, the book had less creepiness and became more about romantic relationships and a very predictable mystery. The thing is, I love to work out a mystery on my own. I truly dislike it when I can see the result coming a mile away.  I enjoyed learning some of Maddy's back story and understanding why she was so angry but as for the 'whodunnit'?  Very easy to predict.

What I did love about this book was the era in which it occurred.  I've never read (that I can remember anyway) a book set in between the two World Wars.  A time of the Roaring 20's was a very refreshing era to read about.  The setting, while interesting in its own right wasn't a focal part of the story which I was a little sad to see.  Hopefully in future books (?) we'll see more of the style and culture of the time.

As for the characters?  Let's start with the men folk -- Alastair and Matthew.  I pictured them as the yin and yang of manhood.  We have the Nyles Crane-like Alastair (a dapper gent with scads of money) and his best friend Matthew (the brawny manly man with a tortured soul and a hot bod).  Are these men clich├ęd?  Perhaps but they were enjoyable to read nonetheless.  I only wish Alastair was in the story more.  He seemed to disappear from the main storyline more than I would have liked.

Something I did love was learning about was Alastair and Matthew's friendship as well as how the author incorporated the after effects of WWI on these two war vets later on in the storyline.  I think it gave their characters a lot more depth (than they were initially given)and helped me to understand just how deep their bond goes.

Sarah Piper was a harder character to figure out.  She starts off as a timid, lonely single girl who doesn't have much going for her.  She seems very innocent and scared of the world in general.  She's a modern girl who is concerned with her reputation and we're given the feeling that she's fairly inexperienced in the romance department.  That's at the beginning of the book.  Towards the middle of the book a different Sarah emerges.  One that isn't quite as innocent as she was originally portrayed making Sarah a little incongruous to me.  Don't get me wrong, I liked her.  I was just a little shocked by some of her later behaviour that didn't jive with what I had previously read about her.  She went from school marm to boisterous flapper girl and I didn't see it coming.

My favourite character in the book has to be Maddy.  Poor, tragic, pissed off Maddy.  She's not your typical ghost who just wants to have some fun scaring some humans or sliming them.  She wants to scare people who come near her and she's out for revenge and blood!  She's a ghost with a definite mean streak.  Learning about why Maddy is so angry was a great part of the book for me.  I always love getting to know the 'why' behind a character's actions.

Now, about the romance.  Nothing says 'hey there good lookin'' like a ghost who wants to rip you to shreds, am I right?  Yes, there is a romantic element to the book, a rather large one actually.  The whole romance was OK but not necessary for me.  The first sexual scene was pretty offputting actually and not romantic in any way to me.  I  don't think it wasn't needed for the overall storyline and was only added for some added zing.  If it was supposed to increase the bond between the characters it didn't work for me.  If I'm being honest I would have preferred if their relationship was dragged out a bit so the mystery could be in the forefront of the story.

All in all, I liked the characters and the sinister feel but felt the actual mystery and romance just didn't cut it for me.  A good first book from a new (Canadian) author and I'm interested to see what other books she puts out in the future.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Monday, 25 June 2012

Asian-Inspired Quinoa Salad

Last week I was on my own with the kids which doesn't happen very often.  Brad had to go to Romania on business for a week leaving me and my young humans to fend for ourselves.  With the kids in school I have to admit that it was a fairly easy week for yours truly.  I thought I'd use this time to paint a piece of furniture for my family room that I've been itching to DIY since last fall.  This paint job was no ordinary task for me because A) I'm not patient and do not like to wait the allotted time for the paint to dry/cure.  B) I tend to start projects and then let Brad finish them off (which was not happening with him at work in Romania) C) I have the attention span of a gnat so I feared that I'd get half way through and see something sparkly and forget my goal.

I'm happy to report that none of those things happened!  I stayed on course and painted my piece while boppin' to music or laughing to comedian Bill Engvall on my iPhone and I got 'er done!  Yay me!  Now all I have to do is let the paint cure a bit more, put on some polyurethane and take some pictures to show you all. 

Showcasing my mad talent with a paint roller got me thinking that while Brad and Boy 1 are canoeing this summer I may paint our bedside tables to surprise Brad and put a smile on his face.  By surprise I mean do it behind his back so he can't say 'Let's not!" and by smile on his face I mean a sigh of resignation (although inwardly happy that he didn't have to do it himself).  Fifteen years of marriage, you get to know a person.  This was a win-win covert operation!

Anyhoo, the point to this post?  My man was gone for a week.  When Brad is gone I don't have the urge to cook big meals because, let's face it, the kids just don't appreciate a nice salmon dinner or roasted chicken.  Given the choice they'd rather have breakfast every night for supper.  I get high fives if I let them just have cereal, fruit and yogurt for supper.  Who are these kids anyway?!?

After a few days of eggs, bacon and the occasional grilled cheese and homemade macaroni I had a hankering for something healthier in m'belly.  Something that I could eat for lunch that would fill me up and prevent me from having a scorching case of scurvy.  I've been wanting to increase my quinoa repertoire so I jumped online and found a recipe on Weight Watchers.  Check out the beautiful colours of these veggies!!

Normally I'm not a big 'low fat' diet kind of girl but I have to say that I was really, really impressed with this salad.  This salad was fantastic!!  At first I was skeptical that this wee bit of dressing would be enough for a fairly big bowl of quinoa and veggies but Weight Watchers surprised me.  A little goes a long way and I loved how I'd get a hit of orange from the marmalade every so often.  This salad is definitely a keeper and will be made again soon in this house.

1 1/2 cups chicken broth or water (or a combo of the two)
3/4 cup uncooked quinoa (see Note below)
1 tbsp rice wine vinegar
2 tbsp orange marmelade
2 tsp dark sesame oil
1 tbsp fresh ginger root, minced
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup uncooked sugar snap peas - trimmed and cut in half
1 cup shredded carrot
1 cup shredded purple cabbage
1 small sweet red pepper, sliced thinly
3 tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped (optional - I left this out)
2 tbsp green onion (or scallions), thinly sliced
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted

In a small saucepan, combine broth and quinoa; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile make dressing -- in a small bowl, whisk together vinegar, marmalade, oil, ginger and salt; set aside.

After quinoa has cooked for 10 minutes, toss in snap peas to partially steam them; cover and simmer until most of liquid has been absorbed, about 5 to 6 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and stir in carrots, cabbage, peppers and dressing; mix to thoroughly combine. Garnish with cilantro (if using), green onions/scallions and sesame seeds. Serve warm, room temperature or chilled.

Note: Before cooking your quinoa look on its box and see if it's been "prerinsed".  If not, rinse your quinoa under cold water before cooking it to remove the bitter outer coating.

Tip: To save time a prepackaged coleslaw mix (or even a broccoli slaw mix) can be used in place of the vegetables.

Recipe from:

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Game of Thrones

Author: George R.R. Martin
Genre: Fantasy
Type: epub ebook
Pages/Size: 720/5MB
First Published: 1996
Series: 1st book in the "Song of Ice and Fire" series
Next Book in the Series: "A Clash of Kings"
First Line: "We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. "

Synopsis:  This fantastical story is set in a world where the seasons have been out of balance for almost as long as anyone can remember.  For a lot of the world summer has lasted decades and people are starting to get nervous of the threat of the impending winter which may last indefinitely.  With an possible eternal winter comes the threat of mysterious beings that threaten the lives of the seven kingdoms.

"Game of Thrones" is told via three distinct storylines that Martin weaves together into an epic story.  The main storyline follows the Stark family of Winterfell.  When Eddard Stark, the head of the Stark family, is asked by his friend King Robert to take a prestigious position at court (previously held by Eddard's brother-in-law) Eddard is reluctant to say no to his childhood friend.  He, along with his two daughters, head south to court where Eddard learns that this new position is wrought with danger.  As Eddard begins to investigate something that his predecessor began he learns that there are plots that he never knew existed within the monarchy and unfortunately his family gets entangled in the mess.

The second storyline focuses on the band of men known as the "Night Watch". These men have the sole reponsibility of keeping watch on the icy northern wall safe from raiders and sinister things that are becoming an increasing threat to the kingdoms.  It is here that Eddard's bastard son, Jon has been sent.

The third storyline centres around the life of a young woman named Daenerys and her brother who are the children of the previous king who was violently overthrown.  "Dani", along with her abhorrent brother, see King Robert as a usurper who must be overthrown at all costs.  They are determined to raise an army and make the long trek to reclaim their father's rightful throne.

My Thoughts:  This is a large book to a large series so you can expect to get a rather lengthy review from me.  Go on and get a coffee, sit in a comfy seat and put your feet up.  Go on, I'll wait. ....... Ok, here we go.  Here's my review of this much talked about series ....

After hearing about the epic miniseries on HBO that was based on the George R.R. Martin book series I knew that it was only a matter of time before I had to pick up the first book to see if all the hype is warranted.  Was I impressed by this massive book?  Oh yes.  Martin has created a massive story that is both engaging and complex due to the characters as well as the amazing fantasy world that he has vividly created.  It's a sprawling story of treachery, murder, romance, fights for power and political intrigue. 
Going into this book I admit that I had preconceived expectations of this much hyped book.  I was picturing a medieval feel with a very strong magical element.  Game of Thrones definitely has a medieval feel with it's castles, knights and swords clashing but magic, spells and old crones forecasting the future over a bubbling cauldron?  Not so much.  And{surprisingly} I'm ok with that.  

Also, while this story plays like an age-old tale that centres on the royal families and their elite in the struggle for power its not what I expected. I thought there was going to be some grand quest (like Frodo and his 'precious' ring or Harry Potter trying to kill Voldemort) but it's not. At least not yet. There's also no clear protagonist or even one nasty 'bad guy' to speak of but a melange of characters who add their own bit to the story. I look forward to seeing where this series of books goes so that I can get a better handle on where Martin is taking this series.  You know what they say about making assumptions, well I think the same goes for expectations.  While mine were out of whack perhaps they didn't detract from me jumping into Martin's world.

One of the few negatives that I have to say about this book is that it is hard at times to keep track of all of the characters. There are a LOT of characters involved.  I'm talking more people than a Duggar family reunion.  Some of them even with very similar names which made it, at times, very hard to keep who was who straight in my head.   With the help of the character listing provided in the book I was able to remind myself who was who so I could focus on the story. 

That said, one of the things that most stood out for me in this saga are the characters.  They come off as very real and well thought out. You root for the underdog, want to smack others up the side of the head for making bad choices, strangle the brute and revel in the accomplishments of others. These characters are flawed and the 'good guy' may not be as good as you think and the 'bad guy' may show a sliver of humanity that might surprise you.  I love me some complicated characters!

Martin also isn't afraid of stirring things up by killing off his characters. There's no mass murder or anything like that but the fact that no character appears to be 'safe' makes the story that much more real for me. You never know what's going to happen! Love that!

With all of those characters you'd think that it would be hard for the reader to have favourites but I did.  I had three favourites.  The top of my list?  The dwarf (the term that the characters used for this 'little person') named Tyrion Lannister. He brought a humourous element to the often brutal and serious read. While he's admittedly a total jerk and out for only himself I can't help but like him.

Other characters who stood out for me were the direwolves, Jon Snow (Eddard Stark's bastard son) and Arya, Stark's 8 year old daughter. The direwolves are massive wolves that each of the Stark children were given and (I predict) that they'll continue to have a role in the upcoming books.  These characters, human and canine, seemed to go a bit under the radar in the overall story yet still stood out for me as being strong characters.  They're 'good guys' with hearts of gold ... so far, at least. 

One of the things that Martin uses deftly is to tell his story using the rotating perspectives of his main characters by having each of them tell their view of what's going on in each chapter. This method helped me two-fold.  It helped me get to know the characters better and view the events in a different way depending on who was telling the story. There were a couple of times when we were shown the same event through two different perspectives which I loved.

Now, it's not all rainbows and unicorns and a huge Game of Thrones love-in here.  I did have another issue and that is that it took me a bit to get into the story.  I'd say the first quarter of the book I had to push myself to keep going.  I was interested but not hooked.  I had to keep in mind that Martin is setting up his massive story and to keep slugging away. After that the characters, for the most part, were firmly set in my mind and I could delve into the storylines.

Now, if you're the kind of person who likes their books to end nicely with all loose ends tied up you'll have to change your tune with this book/series.  I felt that Game of Thrones seemed like a prologue for the future books.  It does have its own storyline but I feel that this book was used to set up the future storylines.  So many things were hinted at (the strange beings beyond the northern wall), the direwolves, Dani's story wasn't in the forefront in this book but I suspect she'll play a more pivotal role in future books.  This only helps me to want to pick up the other books in the series.  Well played, Mr Martin.  Well played.

Another warning is to those who have a more delicate constitutions.  This book has its fair share of gore (we are talking about warring parties) but also has its fair share of rape, incest and, at times, an overly misogynistic feel especially during Dani's storyline.  Was it gratuitous?  I don't think so but I do think that some readers may be turned off by it.  I will admit that my 'ick'o'meter' ratcheted up a notch while reading parts of this book.

This is an epic story that is not for the faint of heart. It is filled with war, incest, murder and intrigue with a very medieval feel to it. That said it doesn't get bogged down in pages upon pages of battle descriptions.  It has characters that have stayed with me and I can't wait to pick up the second book in the series to see what happens to them.  The sign of a truly good book!  Highly recommended.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Rhubarb Cheesecake

Zoweee!  It's hotter than a mouthful of habanero chilis here in my part of Ontario.   I'm all for a warm summer but this is too hot for me.  I'm a northern girl at heart with lily-white skin t'boot so I've been hunkering down in my air-conditioned house whipping up some new recipes, getting my house in order and doing a pretty major DIY project (I'll be posting that in a week or two).  Have I mentioned how much I LOVE being back at home full-time?!?

With all this stuff going on I need to keep up my energy.  How do I increase up my get-up-and-go?  With cheesecake, of course!  Is there any other way?!?  This is a pretty thin cheesecake which, in my book, decreases the guilt factor.  Thin desserts = practically good for you.  Right?!?

While this dessert has a few layers and may look time consuming it's really easy to put together.  I found this recipe on Pinterest (also known as porn for Moms).  While admittedly it is a truly addictive site it's also an amazing way to get inspired whether it's with food, Mod Podge, DIY ideas or home decor!  {If you haven't followed me on Pinterest you can find me HERE}. 

Thankfully Pinterest has helped me find a whole slew of new, amazing recipe blogs.  I found this recipe on a wonderful blog called A Farm Girl Dabbles.  Brenda has a beautiful blog with some amazing recipes which I can't wait to check out.  Stop on by and check out her blog HERE.   

So if you're on the lookout for an easy, tasty and cool dessert with a hit of my beloved rhubarb you've gotta give this recipe a try.  It was so good that when my Mother-in-law popped by for a visit we each ate a piece of this for lunch.  That's it.  Just the cheesecake. Don't judge us.

I'm always on the lookout for new rhubarb recipes.  What are your tried-and-true favourite rhubarb recipes??

Yield: 12 servings (6 if you're in my family)

1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature

Rhubarb Layer:
2 cups fresh rhubarb, chopped
1/3 cup white sugar
1 tbsp all-purpose flour

Cream Cheese Layer:
12 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Sour Cream Layer:
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp white sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 325F.

Prepare the crust: combine flour, sugar and salt in a medium bowl.  Cut in butter with a pastry blender until mixture ressembles coarse crumbs.  Press dough into the bottom of a 9-inch spring form pan with your hands ensuring that the crust has an even thickness.  If you'd prefer to use a 9-inch pie plate bring the crust up the sides of the pie plate the same thickness as the base.

Prepare rhubarb filling: in a medium bowl, combine rhubarb, sugar and flour.  Pour over the prepared crust.  Oh deliciousness thy name is rhubarb!!

Bake for 15 minutes then cool on a wire rack. 

*** Increase oven temperature to 350F. ***

Prepare cream cheese layer: in a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese and sugar until the mixture is creamy.  Beat in the eggs, one at a time.  Add vanilla extract and mix well.  Pour cream cheese mixture over the rhubarb layer.   You may have a bit of excess moisture from the rhubarb -- don't worry about it.  Spread cream cheese mixture evenly.  Bake for 25 minutes.

Prepare the sour cream layer: in a small bowl, combine sour cream, sugar and vanilla.   Once the cheesecake has finished baking immediately spread the sour cream layer over the centre of the pie, leaving about 1/2-inch of the outside edge of the cheesecake showing.  Bake for 15 minutes.

Place pie on a wire rack to cool then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.  Keep leftovers refrigerated.

Recipe from: A Farm Girl Dabbles

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Immortal Rules

Author: Julie Kagawa
Genre: Young Adult / Supernatural
Type: Kindle E-book (Advanced Reading Copy)
Series: 1st book in the Blood of Eden series
First Published: April 2012
First Line: "They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see."

Synopsis:  After a virus practically eradicates the human species, life is less than bleak for the human race.  Humans are now the bottom feeders of the world and at the mercy of the vampire race.  In order to maintain their supremacy vampires keep a large group of humans who donate their blood in exchange for an easier life.  Those who do not allow the vampires to feed from them or know their whereabouts 24/7 are considered "Unregistereds".  This group of humans are left to fend for themselves spending all of their time stealing food and not getting caught by the vampire authorities. 

Allie Sekemoto is one of the Unregistereds who lives in New Covington, a city run by vampires. Allie's life has been extremely hard. Losing her parents at a young age and now living in The Fringe, New Covington's outer limits, life is a daily struggle for Allie who spends most of her time scavenging for food.

During one of her more dangerous scavenging hunts for food Allie goes beyond The Fringe and past the protective wall that keeps all of New Covington safe from what lies beyond. Unfortunately Allie and her friends are met by a pack of Rabids (feral zombie-like vampires) whose only goal is to satisfy their bloodlust. After witnessing her friends being violently attacked Allie tries to escape but is met by another Rabid who attacks her. Left clinging to life Allie is found by a vampire named Kanin.  Kanin gives Allie a choice - become a vampire or die and become a Rabid herself. Given the choice between 'life' and something worse than death Allie decides to become what she has always hated. 

Luckily for Allie, Kanin agrees to teach Allie The Immortal Rules and how to live as a vampire.  As Allie trains she learns secrets about Kanin that changes how she views her Sire.  When things come to a head Allie is forced to leave Kanin and New Covington and fend for herself.  Will she turn into a vampire who is only focused on satisfying her bloodlust or will she be able to hang on to her humanity even though she's become the monster she once despised?

My Thoughts:  Unless you live under a rock you know that vampire reads are all the rage.  Some may say that they're run their course.  I was almost at that point until I read this book.  Typically vampire stories have the vampires in hiding from the humans.  Kagawa takes a totally different view in that vampires hold all of the power and humans are at their mercy.  It's not sparkle-in-the-sun, romantic bloodsuckers here.  Kagawa has built a very interesting premise to surround her story and I loved this new, refreshing take on such a popular topic.  The story is set in a very dark, dystopian world where the environment is dangerous and very gritty. 

One of the things that set this book apart for me was that Allie was such a strong and likeable main character.  She was well-rounded and flawed which made her believable and easy to root for.  She doesn't get things handed to her and learns a tough life lesson: that life is filled with grey areas.  Few things in life are black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.

I enjoyed seeing how Allie struggled with becoming the 'monster' that she hates and how hard she tries to hold on to her humanity.  I found it ironic that Allie doesn't really begin to 'live' until she dies and becomes a vampire and that her humanity and compassion grow as she comes to accept her fate as a vampire. I found her much less 'human' and more heartless in the beginning of the book before she was turned.  Allie's inner struggle between her humanity and bloodlust continues throughout the book which I think made it more realistic and authentic.  If she would have jumped on the bloodsucker bandwagon right off the bat it would have come off as lame and trite for me. 

This book had three sections to it with slightly different feels to each and I think these distinct sections as well as new characters who were introduced really helped propel the storyline and keep me interested.  The first part of the book deals with Allie's life as an Unregistered as well as Kanin teaching her how to live as a vampire.  The second part of the book follows Allie as she makes her way in the bigger world without Kanin and struggles to control her bloodlust.  By the third part of the book the pace ratcheted up big time and is non-stop action finishing off with a wicked cliffhanger that has me anxiously awaiting the second book in this series.   Not a bad way to end a book I must say!

As for the writing in general?  Kagawa has a great writing style that sucked me right in.  She also has a wonderful ability to give the reader a peek at a storyline (ie. Kanin's story) then goes on a different tangent yet, as the reader, I get the feeling that we haven't seen the last of Kanin (who was a great, mysterious character).  I love me some anticipation in a book/series!  Now Kagawa does admittedly have a few balls in the air with this book but she writes it in a way that's easy for the reader to keep track of what's going on, who's who and still helps keep the momentum and anticipation up for the reader.

This book is filled with action (albeit towards the end), some gore (we're are talking about vampires) and a wee bit of PG-rated romance.  If there was one thing that I didn't float my boat it's the romance.  I just wasn't totally on board with Allie's love interest.  He was nice but seemed too blaw.  I saw them as more friends than anything romantic.  Perhaps that was because I had someone totally different in mind for her love interest.

One of my favourite characters was Kanin, Allie's vampire sire.  Unfortunately he's not in this book as much as I would have hoped.  He and Allie had a great chemistry together and could banter back and forth quite well.  He is a strong and engaging main male character so I'm hoping (and predicting) that Kanin reappears in future books to spice things up. 

If you haven't guessed yet I really enjoyed this book.  It's got a wonderful pace with a refreshing take on an 'old' tale that stars a great main character who is not only realistic but you end up rooting for her.  Nothing is sugar coated and yet its not over-the-top either.  If you're looking for a new vamp read I recommend giving this book a try.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Note:  My sincere thanks to Net Galley and Harlequin Teen for providing me with this Advanced Reading Copy in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Mushroom Risotto

A risotto is one of those dishes that I've always wanted to try making but just put off for a few reasons.  First of all, I'm not a huge rice lover and my kids pretty much hate the stuff.  Secondly, I have to admit that I've screwed up more than my fair share of rice dishes -- but we won't get into that. 

Finally, I've always associated making a risotto with being called a 'stupid fat cow'.  Say what?  Yes, you read that right.  A dumb, large bovine.  See, I love to watch 'Hell's Kitchen'.  You know that reality show where a handful of unknown chefs are put into a competition to see who Chef Extraordinaire Gordon Ramsay will pick to run their own restaurant?  There's something about Gordon Ramsay and the way he can scream and curse at a bunch of chefs while they're whipping up meals that just bakes my cupcakes.  BUT, one of the dishes that regularly gets screwed up is the mighty risotto.  If a bunch of culinary school trained chefs can't make a decent risotto what hope do I have?  Not a gelato's chance in hell ... or so I thought.

Well, last week I finally gave it a go.  Armed with Brad at my side to give me the time to do the risotto (it's a time consuming dish) I did it!  And boy was it good!  Risotto, in my 'vast' experience, isn't hard.  You just have to get all your ingredients ready beforehand and then babysit it the entire cooking time.  I'm talking 30+ minutes of stirring.  Don't think that you can be mixing up a salad or grilling up some meat as you're doing a risotto.  Risotto is a diva and needs your utmost attention.

We were very impressed with this dish.  Not only did it look perty but it had loads of flavour and was full of my beloved mushrooms.  Topped with fresh chives from my garden, it was a wonderful meal.  We paired it with some grilled chicken breasts but I think next time we'll just have the risotto with a small salad or toss some asparagus on the grill instead.  It is definitely a filling meal!

Do any of you have food prep phobias?  What are some of the dishes that you're put off trying?  I cannot be the only one!

Yield: 6-8 servings (side dish)

6 cups chicken broth, divided
3 tbsp grapeseed or olive oil, divided
3/4 lb portobello mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 lb white button mushrooms, sliced thinly
2 shallots, finely diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp finely chopped fresh chives
1/4 cup butter, cut into small cubes
2/3 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated

Warm chicken broth in a large saucepan over low heat.  {Keeping the broth warm will help to maintain the temperature of your risotto ensuring that it continues to cook as you add in the broth.  Don't skip this step!}

In a large, deep skillet heat 2 tbsp of oil over medium-high heat.  Stir in the mushrooms and cook until soft -- about 3 minutes.  Remove mushrooms and their liquid from the skillet and set aside.

Add the remaining 1 tbsp of oil to the skillet that you just used for the mushrooms.  Add shallots and cook for 1 minute.  Add rice, stirring to coat the rice with the oil, and cook for 2 minutes.  When the rice appears pale and golden in colour pour in the white wine, stirring constantly until the wine is absorbed by the rice. 

Add 1/2 cup of the warmed broth to the rice and stir until the broth is absorbed.  Continue adding 1/2 cup of the chicken broth at a time, stirring continuously, until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente -- approximately 20-25 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in mushrooms and their liquid, butter, chives and Parmesan.  Season with salt and pepper according to your tastes.  Serve immediately.               

Inspired by: "Gourmet Mushroom Risotto" from

Linked to: A Little Nosh 

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Veil of Pearls

Author: MaryLu M.L Tyndall
Genre: Historical Fiction (Slavery), Christian, Romance
Type: E-book (Advanced Reading Copy)
To Be Published: July 1, 2012
ISBN-10: 1616265779
ISBN-13: 978-1616265779
First Line: "If Althea got caught, Sir Walter would whip her to death."

Synopsis:  It's the year 1811, and a young woman named Althea has just arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. Unbeknownst to those around her Adalia is a runaway slave who, after seven long years of abuse from her master escapes her life in Barbados for a new life in Charleston.  Upon arriving in Charleston Althea changes her name to Adalia in order to begin a new life with anonymity.  Alone in a new country with no one to help her Adalia turns to the one thing that she's always leaned on -- her faith. 

Adalia is a very light-skinned black woman - so fair that she can easily pass for white.  She uses this to her advantage as she begins her new life using her knowledge of herbal remedies to gain employment as a doctor's assistant. 

It's through her job that Adalia first meets a young man named Morgan Rutledge.  Initially when Morgan, the son of an afluent plantation owner, takes an interest in Adalia she takes an instant dislike to the spoiled young man whose family thrives at the expense of the slaves that they own. 

Over time Morgan wins her over and brings Adalia into his world where she is swept up in the thrill of upper society.  Now that her life has taken a turn for the better Adalia is even more concerned that those around her will find out about her secret past and threaten her future happiness.

My Thoughts:  This was an enjoyable read that balances the brutality of slavery with a Christian romance.  When I received this book via Net Galley I didn't realize that it was a Christian-based historical romance.  While I am a Christian I have rarely read Christian-based books and I tend to steer away from romances because I often find them very saccharine for my tastes.

While 'Veil of Pearls' is very Christian-based, the faith aspect of the storyline wasn't forced or 'in your face' but was included as a meaningful part of the storyline.  I really enjoyed reading about how Adalia received strength from her faith in God and held on to her convictions throughout her turbulent life.  What made her a more multi-dimensional character for me is that she wasn't perfect.  I liked seeing how Adalia struggled with her new-found life and popularity in high society and how she strays from her beliefs for awhile and begins to put the opinions of others above her previous convictions.  Oh how quickly things can change!  Even when Adalia loses her way a bit in the book it made her a more realistic character for me and helped me better understand her.

The romance in the book was also believable and sweet.  It wasn't too 'cutsey' but a fairly believable progression for the two main characters.   Adalia is a wonderfully endearing, strong (albeit somewhat naive) main character who you cannot help but root for. She's a woman who has nothing but her convictions and faith to keep her going when she breaks away from her horrible existence in Barbados to try for a better life. 

If I had one issue with Adalia its that she seemed to flow from her life in slavery with her horrible owner into her new life in Charleston fairly easily.  A little too easily for my liking.  She seems to fall into her new profession as well as meeting Morgan too quickly.  I would have liked to have seen her struggle more and see her rely on her faith at that time to show the differences when she later forgets to lean on God.  I like to see a main character go through a transformation as well as see the struggle that goes along with it.

While this was an interesting (although fairly predictable) plot I would have loved for the book to be longer so that we could have delved more into the backgrounds and issues of the main characters including Morgan and the doctor that Adalia works for.  A longer book would have also allowed the secondary characters (ie. the doctor, his slave Joy and Miss Emerald) to be brought into the storyline more.  I think that would have made for a more layered plotline.

All in all, I enjoyed this read.  With its vivid descriptions of 19th century Charleston, endearing characters and interesting premise I'd describe it as a historical fiction read with a healthy dose of Christian romance added in for good measure.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to Net Galley and Barbour Publishing for providing me with this Advanced Reading Copy for my honest review.  All opinions expressed are purely my own.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fudgy Cherry Brownies

For those of you who didn't get the memo Black Forest Cake is my cake of choice.   I'm not a huge cake person but given the choice I'd pick Black Forest Cake hands down every time.  I adore it and cannot resist a piece {or three} if it's put in front of me.  What can I say ... I'm a slave to cherries, chocolate and whipped cream.

This love of Black Forest Cake (and the lonely little can of cherry pie filling sitting on my counter) propelled me to jump on the net to find a new recipe that could feed the Black Forest Cake beast that dwells within me.  I found inspiration from Sara at The Cheerful Madhouse.  Her post not only made me giggle but the recipe looked delicious and was so simple!  I love simple!  I am simple!!  Uh ... anyway.  I did make a few tweaks (complications) to Sara's original recipe and let me tell you it got rave reviews from my boys.  My mom and I even opted to eat this cake in lieu of lunch yesterday (don't judge).  Oh ya.  It was that good.

So if you're looking for a quick dessert idea with minimal prep time yet still impressive you've gotta give this a try.  Chocolate brownies with cherries built right in.  Bliss!

1 (425g) brownie mix (8x8-inch pan size)
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp oil
1 1/2 cups cherry pie filling

Garnish: remaining cherry pie filling, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

Preheat oven to 350F.  Lightly grease an 8x8-inch baking pan and set aside.

Get your ingredients ready.  As you can see in the picture below I have a sea of yellow 'no-name' ingredients.  While I can't be certain that the chicken who layed the egg had a name we'll just assume that she had one and move on.  You don't need to use no-name products (obviously) but I've found that many of their products (not all, but many) are just as good as the more expensive name brands. 

Using your stand mixer (or by hand) mix all of the ingredients just until combined.  Pour into the prepared pan.  See the cherries poking through the top of the batter?!?!  Awesomesauce!

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean.  Cool or serve warm.  Serve with remaining cherry pie filling and whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 

These brownies will be very moist and dotted with bites of cherries.  Di-vine!

Yield: 9 servings

I've Linked this Recipe to :

Reasons To Skip The Housework

A Little Nosh

Monday, 4 June 2012

Our Lady of Immaculate Deception

Author: Nancy Martin
Genre: Light Mystery
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 320
First Published: March 2010
First Line: "The only witness to the arson was a one-armed marble statue of a naked man with ivy growing where his fig leaf should have been."

Synopsis:  Rozy Abruzzo is an architectural salvager whose hard-as-nails personality has helped her during her tumultuous life.  A single mother of a teenage daughter and living with her aunt Roxy is just trying to get by and stay under the radar of her Mafia family connections as much as possible.

When millionaire Julius Hyde's mansion is burned down Roxy heads over to the wreckage to see if she can scavenge any good deals.  Among some of the typical salvage items she also finds a marble statue of a naked man which she takes off the property hoping that it's a diamond in the rough.  When Julius is later found murdered Roxy is questioned by the police since she was one of the last people to see the man alive.  With her head on the proverbial chopping block, Roxy is determined to prove her innocence.

My Thoughts:  While I do enjoy light mysteries interspersed among some of my heavier reads this book just didn't cut it for me.  This surprised me because I really enjoyed Nancy Martin's 'Blackbird Sisters' mysteries.  They're a fun read with good humour, quirky characters and a dash of suspense thrown in for good measure.  Unfortunately there was just something lacking with 'Immaculate Deception'. 

I had three main issues with this book.  First, it had an exceptionally weak and fairly boring plot.  There was no suspense to keep me wanting more.  Secondly, this book had none of Martin's well-known humour.  Her Blackbird Sisters' series is filled with quirky characters and their humourous escapades.

Lastly, and most importantly to me, I just didn't like Roxy ... at all.  She's a hard character to figure out.  Here's this tough woman who is overprotective of her teenage daughter, extremely loyal to her dim witted side kick Nooch and helps battered women.  Sounds great!  But there's another side to Roxy.  She's also a woman who isn't around enough to raise her daughter, she's very immature and highly oversexed.   Kind of a complicated character for a light mystery. 

In the author's defense, I think Martin was trying to make Roxy out to be a strong, independent woman but unfortunately what I, as a reader, focused on was the immature, oversexed woman who kept on degrading herself.  Roxy is so busy steaming up car windows with random strangers that I never really got a sense of who she really was -- beyond a raging hormone.  I like a tough, no nonsense kind of female lead but Roxie isn't endearing or even likeable.  She has low standards for herself but then is indignant when her daughter gives her some upsetting news.  Come again?  Not to mention that she's hardly around to raise her daughter leaving that job up to her aunt while Roxy babies her hulk of a sidekick Nooch.  Sadly, I found that the sex scenes took the book to a whole other level (subterranean slutty level at that) which overtook the book especially since there wasn't much of a mystery to read about.

There are a slew of unmemorable secondary characters that are introduced as well but so many that I found it a little hard to keep everyone straight.  The story is told mainly from Roxy's point of view but also from the point of view of a rich lawyer and a socialite who's hopped up on prescription drugs the majority of the time leading me to wonder why she was included as a voice for the story.

What I did like about this book is that Martin linked her famous Blackbird Sisters mystery series with this new series by having Roxy be the half-sister of Michael Abruzzo (Nora Blackbird's love interest in the 'Sisters' series).  What would have made it even better is if Michael and Nora made an appearance in this book to help tie in the two series.  Why make Roxy related to Michael at all if he wasn't going to show up in the first book?  It would have been a great way to introduce a new series or to introduce readers to her very popular older series.

I struggled to finish this book hoping that Martin would pull off some kind of big, amazing finish but sadly that never happened.  I can appreciate if Martin was going for something new with this series - something out of her comfort zone and not similar to her Blackbird Sisters series.  Unfortunately her signature humourous voice was totally missing from this book and the overall feel of the book was a little too raunchy for my tastes. 

This book was missing the quality of writing and the suspenseful mystery that I've come to expect from this author.   I'd suggest reading her "Blackbird Sisters" series starting with "How to Murder a Millionaire"  to get an accurate feel for the type of writing this author is capable of.

My Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Friday, 1 June 2012

Blueberry Sour Cream Coffee Cake

Let me start off by saying that this blog post is highly irregular.  Usually when I post a new recipe I include a picture of the finished product but that's not the case this time.  I have a good excuse though.  This tasted so good that I didn't have time to take a picture both times that I made this cake this week.   See?  Good excuse. 

I made this cake this past Monday night for my family to bring to work/school for a snack.  It got thumbs up all around from my peeps so I decided to bake it again on Tuesday night to bring to work to share with my coworkers.  I baked this cake in the 34C heat for my coworkers.  I'm nothing if not insane devoted.  For some reason I had never baked for my coworkers before but since it was my last week at work I thought I'd bring in a treat. 

I didn't get a picture of this second cake because how bad would it look if I brought a cake in to work with a slice out of it?  Pretty bad.  So no pictures exist of my cake ... yet.  I will post a pic the next time I make this cake (which will probably be in a week or two) but decided to put the recipe post up anyway so that all y'all can make it for yourselves.  You'll just have to trust me that this bundt looks great.

Now, you've got to admit that bundts are pretty awesome cakes.  They look cute, are easy to make and slice up nicely for guests.  Who doesn't love a bundt?   No one.  That's who.  The goal for making the perfect bundt is to have a moist and light cake -- not something that could double as a boat anchor.  Sadly, many bundts could easily be used as dead weight at the bottom of Lake Ontario.  The trick is to NOT over mix your batter.  I cannot state this enough.  You don't have to beat the living daylights out of your batter.  It didn't wrong you in another life! You want to gently fold in your flour mixture.  You don't want to whip the blueberries into your batter either or it will turn your batter blue and you'll have a dense cake.  Gentle is the way to go with any cake batter.

My Blathering:  Who among you also has a hard time saying the word 'bundt' without adding a Greek accent like Nia Vardalos' Mom in one of my all-time favourite movies "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"?? 

No one?  Just me?  Duly noted. 

Regardless how you pronouce 'bundt' this cake will impress whomever you choose to feed.  It's easy, it's wonderfully moist and I guarantee that you won't have many (if any) leftovers.

Blueberry Sour Cream Coffee Cake

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
1 cup sour cream (I used 14% fat)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups + 2 tbsp white flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 3/4 cup frozen (or fresh) blueberries
1 tbsp white flour

1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease a 9-inch Bundt pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and white sugar together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well until mixture is light and fluffy. Gently fold in sour cream and vanilla.

In a medium bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups + 2 tbsp of white flour, baking powder and salt. Pour flour mixture into butter mixture and gently mix until just blended. {over-mixing will cause a heavy cake}.

In a small bowl, toss the frozen blueberries with 1 tbsp flour. {this will help stop the blueberries from sinking to the bottom of your cake}. Gently fold the blueberries into your batter.

Spoon half of the batter into the prepared Bundt pan.

In a small bowl, combine the filling ingredients. Sprinkle over the batter in the pan. Top with the remaining batter. Bake for 55-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre comes out clean. Set the pan on a cooling rack and allow the cake to cool in the pan for 40 minutes. Invert cake onto the cooling rack to continue cooling. Keep leftovers in a tightly sealed container.

Yield: 12 servings
Recipe Inspired by: "Blueberry Sour Cream Coffee Cake"

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