Sunday, 31 March 2013

Bacon Chicken Ranch Pasta

I'm hoping everyone had a wonderful long weekend with friends and family!  I'll be sharing an appetizer recipe later this week that I made for our family's Easter egg-stravaganza.  All eighteen of my extended family were under one roof so we had lots of food and noise goin' on!  The recipe that I'll share soon is one that I cannot stop thinking about.  Oh ya. It was pretty yummy and can be used in two different ways.  A recipe that can be used as an appetizer AND a delish garnish?  Yuppers! 

But, before I share that recipe I thought I'd share one I made last week.  We'll call last week "The Week Our Family Schedule Attempted to Crush Me and Take My Sanity", shall we?

Last week our family was busy - with a capital B.  With Tae Kwon Do, Karate and Scouts plus two dentist appointments, work, blogging and nursing a sick child for two days I was hanging onto my sanity --- by a thread.

In order to feed my family something home cooked but not add more stress to my life I came up with this casserole.  I was able to make it in the early afternoon on Tuesday (after nursing the sick small human) and throw it in the fridge.  This way Boy 1 could pop it into the oven while I was at the dentist with Boy 2 and before Brad came home to inhale his supper before heading out to Scouts with both boys.  See?  Chaotic.  And that was just Tuesday.

Well, I knew that Boy 1 and Brad (our resident carnivores) would be on board with this dish due to combined yumminess of the added Oink and Cluck.  Even Boy 2 and Missy Moo ate this dish without complaining too much.  Apparently if it weren't for the chicken, the curly noodles and white sauce they would have gobbled it up. *sigh*

Well, I was right with the carnivorous faction.  Since this dish had a healthy dose of beast, freshly minced garlic, a creamy sauce with a hint of Ranch both of my carnivores loved it!  Boy 1 even made a point to tell me that this casserole was really good {Mom Points awarded and accepted!}.  I have to admit that I also loved this casserole (which I wolfed down after the dentist appointment and before the menfolk left for Scouts). 

With a few more of this kind of easy-yet-yummy casseroles under my culinary sleeve (and hopefully in my freezer) I'll be able to keep a hold of my sanity on these ca-razy busy weeks which hopefully will be few and far between.


10oz rotini or penne noodles, uncooked (approximately 2 1/2 cups)
1 tbsp olive or grapeseed oil
8 slices of bacon, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups cooked chicken, diced
3 tbsp butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup half and half creamer
1 cup milk (I used 1%)
1 tsp onion powder
3/4 cup Ranch salad dressing (I used President's Choice '3 Cheese Ranch')
1 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
to taste -- salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large pot, cook rotini according to instructions on the package.  Drain and return to the pot.  Sprinkle olive oil over the noodles and toss to prevent them from sticking to each other.  Set aside.

In a large skillet,sauté bacon until almost crispy.  With a slotted spoon, remove bacon from skillet and set on a paper towel-lined dish. Set aside. 

Remove all but 1 tbsp of bacon drippings from the skillet.  Add garlic and chicken and cook for 2 minutes. 

Add butter to the skillet you just used for the bacon and let the butter melt.  Once the butter begins to bubble, add the flour and stir well (it'll look paste-like).  Cook for 1 minute.  Add the creamer, milk and onion powder to the flour mixture and stir well with a whisk over medium heat until it begins to thicken.  Add Ranch dressing, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper.  Stir until blended together.  Add the noodles and bacon; toss to coat.  Pour casserole into a baking dish.

You can make this casserole ahead of time.  At this point in the recipe you could put the casserole into the fridge to use later.  Otherwise, bake casserole for approximately 30 minutes (covered) or until it is heated through.

Side Dish Ideas:
Lemony Caesar Salad
Garlic and Herb Topped Rosemary Bread

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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Bread Machine Pizza Dough

It's Easter weekend!  We, The Bookworm Family, get to look forward to a big family get-together to celebrate Easter as well as the return of my 'Snowbird' parents who have been trying this 'retirement' thang down in Florida for the past 10 weeks. 

We have an obscenely HUGE prime rib roast and all the fixin's planned for Saturday and all 10 grandkids are eagerly awaiting to see their grandparents and play with their cousins.  My sisters, brothers-in-law, Brad and I are looking forward to relaxing while the kids play and listening as our parents regale us about their adventures with their elderly brethern on the Gulf coast.  Our parents, with their tanned skin, will, no doubt, make our skin tones look like we're sickly creatures devoid of any melanin.

With a big family meal on the horizon I'm not normally in the mood to make a big supper too close to the Big Eats.  My fat pants can stretch but not THAT much and I'm just plain tuckered out in prep work for the big feast. This is where homemade pizza comes in handy. 

Homemade pizza is one of those meals that I keep in my back pocket for times when
  • I want to make a meal the entire family will eat without complaining (what a novel idea!)
  • sneak in some veggies to my unsuspecting spawn (you can easily throw in some diced fresh spinach as pass it off as 'spices' or really finely chop a red pepper and throw it in the sauce)
  • I want to have an easy meal that doesn't require a lot of time or effort from me. 
Using a bread machine makes it even easier to make pizza dough.  If you can measure ingredients and push a button you've got this bread machine thing covered, my friends!  Plus, why buy pizza dough when you can make it at home and add the spices you'd like for a fraction of the cost?  And why would I mix and knead by hand when I can get my machine to do it for me?  Yes, I'm frugal and lazy!

Pizza can either be fairly healthy or ghastly on your bod.  There's really no middle ground.  Which type of pizza you make all depends on what you put on it and how thick you make the crust.  And, let's face it, it's an excellent way to use up those veggies whose days are numbered in your fridge.

At the end of the day, pizza is one of the most versatile meals you can make.  While my kids prefer a rather simple (read 'boring') pizza I like to fancify the pizza for Brad and I from time to time.   I'm not a fan of pepperoni but I do adore caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes, slices of BBQ'd chicken, mushrooms, peppers, feta and/or goat cheese. Oh, delish!  Limiting the pepperoni , sausage and bacon, increasing the veg-factor and rolling your dough nice and thin can make it a very healthy and delicious meal option.

This is a recipe that I've used for over 15 years now.  With a couple of spice additions and some flavouring on the outer crust it brings to 'zza to a whole new level!

Happy Easter!!

Bread Machine Pizza Dough
Inspired by: Black and Decker 'All-in-One Automatic Breadmaker' Operating Instructions and Cookbook' (pg 27)

1 cup beer or water
1 tbsp shortening
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tsp salt
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp dried oregano (optional)
1/2 tsp dried basil (optional)
1 1/4 tsp yeast

Crust Edge:
olive or grapeseed oil
garlic powder
salt and pepper
fresh Parmesan cheese, finely grated

{Note: The crust edge in the picture above does not have these delicious crust additions on it}

Measure ingredients and place them into your bread machine's baking pan in order (ensuring that the yeast doesn't come into contact with the beer/water).  Insert baking pan into your bread machine and select the Dough setting (mine usually takes 2 hours for its Dough setting).

Once the cycle is almost complete, preheat oven to 425F.  Remove dough from the machine onto a lightly floured surface.  If necessary, knead a little flour into the dough to make the dough easier to handle.

Roll out dough and place it onto your baking pan/stone.  {Note: I always just roll out my dough directly on my cold baking stones to make it easier}

Lightly brush the outer edge of the crust with olive or grapeseed oil.  Sprinkle garlic powder, salt, pepper and fresh Parmesan cheese onto the outer edge of the crust. (Optional but highly recommended)

Top each pizza with sauce, toppings and cheese.  If using good quality baking stones (which, in my world, is Pampered Chef brand), set your oven racks to the second lowest setting.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Pizza will be done when the crust is golden and the cheese is bubbly.

My favourite pizza toppings: onions, green pepper, sliced sun-dried tomatoes (oil-packed), feta cheese, black/green olives, bacon, mushrooms, Marble cheese and fresh Parmesan

Yield: 2 large thin crust pizzas

Note from The BBW: I was in no way paid for my endorsement for Pampered Chef baking stones.  My love of their products stems from my personal experience with their products for over 10 years.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Eternity Cure

Author: Julie Kagawa
Type: e-book ARC
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Young Adult/Supernatural
Series: Blood of Eden (#2)
Series Order: The Immortal Rules (2012), Eternity Cure (2013)
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
First Line: "I smelled blood as soon as I walked into the room."

Book Description: Allison Sekemoto has vowed to rescue her creator, Kanin, who is being held hostage and tortured by the psychotic vampire Sarren. The call of blood leads her back to the beginning—New Covington and the Fringe, and a vampire prince who wants her dead yet may become her wary ally.

Even as Allie faces shocking revelations and heartbreak like she’s never known, a new strain of the Red Lung virus that decimated humanity is rising to threaten human and vampire alike.

My ThoughtsSo, you've heard of the 'Sophomore Blues', right? Where the first book, CD or movie was amazing but the follow up was not nearly as good?  Well, Julie Kagawa has no need to worry about having Sophomore Blues. The Eternity Cure is the second book in her Blood of Eden series and it is just as wonderful, if not better, that the first book in the series, The Immortal Rules {for my review of The Immortal Rules please click HERE}.

After reading The Immortal Rules last spring I knew that Kagawa had a big task ahead of her if she wanted to impress me with her sophomoric book ... and she did. Wow!  Ms Kagawa continues on with her Blood of Eden series with a fast paced read full of interesting characters, a lot of tension building, emotional scenes and a plot that kept me on the edge of my seat.

This is a dystopian vampire series. I know, right? Those are two extremely overdone genres in today's literary world.  But, Kagawa breathes new life into both of these genres giving her readers a new take on both genres.  She writes a believable yet interesting setting with amazing characters who develop throughout her two books.  She also throws in a bit of romance, amazing fight scenes, a truly sinister 'bad guy' {*shiver*} and a fast-paced story that keeps the reader riveted.  While I realize that this description sounds more like a read that is not of this earth I'm telling you ... Kagawa is where it's at when it comes to vampire/dystopian reads.  Period.  The end.

While I could wax poetic about the pace of the plot, the twists and the amazing fight scenes I think the thing that sets Kagawa's books apart from others in the same genres is her cast of characters.  They are not only believable and flawed in their own right but we see her characters develop before our eyes as the story progresses.

One major example of this is Jackal, Allie's 'blood brother' (meaning that she and Jackal were 'turned' into vampires by the same Sire).  In the first book he plays a fairly minor role.  He's a big, bad dude but that's about it.  In The Eternity Cure he plays a much bigger role and we get to know him better . 

Jackal is a wonderfully complicated character.  At first glance he's just a sarcastic SOB who loves to toy with people and enjoys giving in to his violent side whenever possible.  He brings a wonderfully sarcastic, dark humour to the book and while he does show that he still has a very sadistic side I enjoyed seeing an inkling of the humanity that (I believe) still resides somewhere deep, deep, DEEP down inside him. I think that he needs Allie more than he lets on but he hides his feelings quite well with his snide comments and his dark, animalistic side.  But I still couldn't help but adore him and he quickly became one of my favourite characters of this series so far. 

By taking a fairly tertiary character from the first book (actually there are two such characters) and bringing him into the forefront of the next book, it keeps the storyline fresh. I love how my initial feelings towards Jackal changed from one book to the next.   My point?  There are no clichéd, cookie cutter characters here.

Allie is still the focus of the main storyline and is a very strong main female character.  She's still battling her inner demon, so as her blood lust rears its ugly head we get to see how she fights it on a daily basis ... especially around Zeke.

Then there's Sarren.  Um, wow.  This guy makes Jackal's hijinks in the first book look like child's play.  Sarren is not only one of the most powerful vampires but he's sadistic and ... oh ya, totally and utterly bat crap crazy. Those qualities make for a terrifically terrifying and truly amazing 'bad guy'.  I could imagine his creepy voice as I read his lines.  He has a very disquieting calm about him that gave me the creeps especially as he referred to Allie as "little bird" as he toyed with her. *shiver*

Throughout this book the action and suspense are kept at a high level.  Allie and her group are put through hell (and then some) but Kagawa's writing and how she's developed her world and characters makes the flow believable and, quite honestly, a book that is almost impossible to put down.

Julie Kagawa has quickly become one of my favourite authors.  I eagerly look forward to reading the next book in the series. I'm also looking forward to picking up her Iron Fey series. 

Highly recommended (but make sure that you start with The Immortal Rules).

Note: My deepest thanks to Harlequin Teen and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of The Eternity Cure in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Best Bean Salad

This is a recipe that my mother-in-law shared with me years ago and it always gets rave reviews at family functions.  Not only does it taste good but it looks wonderful because of the colours.  It's also right up there on the healthy scale and the kicker?  It's very easy to make. 

Let's just say that if you have a can opener, opposable thumbs and a big bowl you can make this salad.  Ya, it's that easy.

Whip up this salad the day before a party and put it in the fridge to let the flavours blend together and voila!  Bob's your uncle, you've got your dish for the pot luck or big family gathering. 

The musical fruit never tasted so good!

Best Bean Salad

Source: my Mother-in-Law

14oz can of green beans
14oz can of yellow beans
14oz can of corn kernels
19oz can of mixed beans (see Note below)
19oz can of black beans
19oz can of chick peas
1 red pepper, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 yellow pepper, diced
1 red onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced

2 tbsp dried dill
2/3 cup white sugar (or Splenda)
2/3 cup red wine vinegar
2/3 cup olive oil (I used grapeseed oil)

Note: for the can of mixed beans I used President's Choice Blue Menu "Six Bean Medley" which includes: chickpeas, dark red kidney beans, black-eyed peas, white kidney beans, romano beans and baby lima beans.

Drain green beans, yellow beans and corn kernels and add them to a large bowl.

Drain and rinse the remaining cans of beans (making sure that the cans with kidney and/or black beans get rinsed really well due to their thick residue).  Add these beans to the bowl along with the sweet peppers, onions and celery.

Sprinkle the dried dill over the beans and vegetables and mix well.

In a small bowl, combine the sugar, red wine vinegar and olive oil.  Pour over the bean/vegetable mixture and toss to coat.  Refrigerate for several hours or preferably overnight to allow flavours to blend.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Last Telegram

Author: Liz Trenow
Type: e-book ARC
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Historical Fiction (WWII)
Publisher: SourceBooks Landmark
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
First Line: "

Note: My sincere thanks to SourceBooks and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Publisher's Description: The war changed everything for Lily Verner.

As the Nazis storm Europe, Lily becomes an apprentice at her family’s silk weaving factory. When they start to weave parachute silk there is no margin for error: one tiny fault could result in certain death for Allied soldiers.

The war also brings Stefan to Lily: a German Jewish refugee who works on the looms. As their love grows, there are suspicions someone is tampering with the silk.

Can their love survive the hardships of war? And will the Verner’s silk stand the ultimate test?

My Thoughts: I've mentioned before that I love reading historical fiction books that occur during WWII.  It was such a tumultuous, emotional and savage time that was also accented by acts of extreme humanity and our innate desire to survive at all costs.  While certain books give a very raw, and at times hard to read, view of what occurred when the Nazis tried to take over (like 'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas', 'In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer' or "Stones From The River") others tend to use WWII as more of a back drop for their story.

'The Last Telegram', like 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society", used WWII as a backdrop but didn't have that raw, emotional feel that I usually associate with a story set during WWII (and during The Blitz, no less). I think that there isn't as much drama about the war in The Last Telegram because it is written in the first person.  The reader only has Lily's account of what she saw of the war.  Since she didn't personally witness much of the war the book felt very detached from the devastation (except in one instance).  It doesn't make the war less devastating but there isn't that imminent danger, edge of your seat quality to the book.  This is not necessarily a negative but just a different kind of WWII read for me.

Something that was unique about this book were the factoids  about silk production at the beginning of each chapter as well as quite a lot of detail within the chapters.  While it was very informative, at times, I feel that the information given within the chapter negatively affected the pace of the book.  A little bogged down in the details of silk production.

I always enjoy learning something when I read a book, especially a historical read, and this book taught me a few things.  First, I was unaware of the Kinder Transport of Jewish children and found Stephan's story very interesting and heart-felt as he was forced to leave his family behind as he made his way to the safety of England.  I also liked seeing how the role of women changed due to their involvement in the war. 

This admittedly wasn't, for me anyway, an 'edge of your seat' type WWII read.  It has a very quiet demeanor, a slower pace and focuses more on the romance aspect rather than the combat.  There are interesting characters and a few twists thrown in to make it an interesting read.  One of the characters that stuck out for me was Lily, especially as she recounted her life and regrets, during WWII to her granddaughter.

Note: Fans of 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society' will enjoy this read.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Rotisserie-Style Roasted Chicken

This past week was March Break here in our neck of the woods.  This means an entire week devoted to spending time with the small humans that dwell with me.  We went to a movie, tobogganed our hearts out and even had a couple of sleepovers and a family function for good measure.

One of the best things about extra time at home is that I have more time at home to cook.  Call me old-fashioned but I do so love having a big, homemade meal ready for my family at the end of the day.  What's even better is when the meal tastes fantastic but is still easy to prep. 

This recipe knocked our proverbial socks off! 

I prepped this meal the day before. And by 'prepped' I mean that I didn't read the recipe correctly and didn't notice the 'refrigerate overnight' part.  Ya, kind of important.  So instead of feasting on this roast beast on Sunday night, we had to wait to feast on Monday.  Well, it was worth the wait.

Monday afternoon, after a full day of my chicken marinating in the fridge, I popped it in the oven and took the kids to see the new "Oz" movie (which we thought was merely 'meh').  When we arrived home our house smelled heavenly!  Heavenly, I say!  It's all the spices that you rub on and in the chicken that truly make this recipe stand out.  Plus, it's cooked low and slow so you know the meat will be tender and moist! 

If there is one thing I must insist is that you simply HAVE TO make gravy with this bird.  With the spiced drippings from the bird you will be in a gravy coma -- it is that fantastic! Picture it if you will, there I was making the gravy and as I dipped a spoon in and tasted it I found myself muttering 'Oh ya.  That's sooo good.  Is that not wicked awesome? Yes. Yes, it is.' over and over.  When I start talking to myself and even answering back you it's gonna be a good meal.

Just look at the picture of this chicken!!  The meat is so moist and combined with the crispy skin and the spiced gravy this dish is going to be a regular in my culinary repertoire. 

I made mashed potatoes just so I could have an excuse to eat more gravy.  Mmmm, gravy. 'Nuf said.

Rotisserie-Style Roasted Chicken 

Inspired by: ("Roast Sticky Chicken Rotisserie-Style")

1 - 4lb chicken

2 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved

Drippings from chicken
1 3/4 to 2 cups good quality chicken stock (I used Campbell's Stock First)
2 tbsp cornstarch

In a small bowl, combine all of the spices. 

Remove and discard giblets from the chicken. Rinse inside and outside of chicken with cool water.  Pat dry with paper towel.

Rub chicken, inside and out, with the spice mixture.  Place onion and garlic into the chicken cavity.  Double wrap the chicken in plastic wrap and refrigerate OVERNIGHT (or up to 24 hours, like I did).

Here's my little birdy all ready for a good night's sleep in
my fridge after being rubbed down with spices.

Preheat oven to 250F.  Remove plastic wrap and place chicken in a roasting pan (I ended up using a 9x13" Pyrex dish).

Bake, uncovered, for 4 1/2 to 5 hours or until internal temperature is 180F.  Let the chicken rest for 10 minutes while you make the gravy.

Scrape pan drippings into a medium saucepan. Add approximately 1 3/4 cup of chicken stock.  In a small bowl, mix cornstarch with a few tablespoons of the broth until it is combined.  Add this mixture to your drippings and heat, over medium-high heat, until gravy has thickened.

Carve chicken and serve with mashed potatoes slathered in this outstanding gravy.

Note: Next time I plan to make two of these chickens at the same time so that I can make a chicken noodle soup with the extra chicken.  Our family of five inhaled this chicken so that there was not a scrap of meat left on its poor bones.

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Totally Tasty Tuesdays

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Invisible Girls

Author: Sarah Thebarge
Type: ARC e-book
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Memoire
Publisher: FaithWords
Publication Date: April 16, 2013
First Line: "One year ago, I was riding the train from the Portland suburbs toward downtown on a sunny fall afternoon when a pair of sparkling brown eyes peeked around the corner of my book, and then quickly disappeared."

Publisher's Description: Twenty-seven-year-old Sarah Thebarge had it all - a loving boyfriend, an Ivy League degree, and a successful career - when her life was derailed by an unthinkable diagnosis: aggressive breast cancer. After surviving the grueling treatments - though just barely - Sarah moved to Portland, Oregon, to start over. There, a chance encounter with an exhausted African mother and her daughters transformed her life again.

A Somali refugee whose husband had left her, Hadhi was struggling to raise five young daughters, half a world a way from her war-torn homeland. Alone in a strange country, Hadhi and the girls were on the brink of starvation in their own home, "invisible" to their neighbors and to the world. As Sarah helped Hadhi and the girls navigate American life, her outreach to the family became a source of courage and a lifeline for herself.

Poignant, at times shattering, Sarah Thebarge's riveting memoir invites readers to engage in her story of finding connection, love, and redemption in the most unexpected places

My Thoughts: This book was a hard one for me to critique because I was engrossed in some aspects of it but didn't feel connected to the other major part of the book. 

On the one hand I found it to be a very heart-felt and honest portrayal of a woman's struggle with cancer.  Sarah's no-holds-barred take on describing her emotional as well as physical (and spiritual) impact that the cancer had on her daily life was one of my favourite parts of the book.  It felt like a very touching, honest and real account. 

I will admit that I was not under any impression that this was a Christian read when I read the book's description on NetGalley.  And while I do feel like the faith aspect gave this book another dimension other readers may not appreciate the fairly heavy dose of faith in this book.

Unfortunately, I felt the opposite when the story would flip to Sarah's relationship with the Somalian refugee, Hadhi, and her five little girls.  I realize that Sarah was grasping at a chance to connect with someone since she was so lost after her battle with cancer.  I understand that, but I honestly didn't feel the connection with that part of the story as much as her description of her cancer diagnosis and treatments.

It wasn't until I was finished reading the book and preparing to review it that I realized that it was actually not a fictitious story but a memoire of the author's personal struggles.  Maybe it's the cynic in me but I still had a hard time believing that this recent cancer survivor goes up to a complete stranger and her kids on the transit and quickly becomes so immersed in their lives.

While this book did feel very disjointed at times and was a little hit and miss for me in terms of the storyline I will take away with me a better understanding of the plight of refugees in North America.  But even more so, I will take away a great appreciation of the honest and heart-felt portrayal of the pain and heartache that is cancer and its treatment.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to FaithWords and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Heart Like Mine

Author: Amy Hatvany
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: ARC ebook
Source: NetGalley
Publication Date: March 19, 2013
Publisher: Washington Square Press
First Line: Grace - "Later I would look back and wonder what I was doing the exact moment Kelli died."

Publisher's Description: When a young mother dies under mysterious circumstances, those she leaves behind begin looking for answers in the past—and find a long-buried secret they could have never imagined.Thirty-six-year-old Grace McAllister never longed for children. But when she meets Victor Hansen, a handsome, charismatic divorced restaurateur who is father to Max and Ava, Grace decides that, for the right man, she could learn to be an excellent part-time stepmom. After all, the kids live with their mother, Kelli. How hard could it be?

At thirteen, Ava Hansen is mature beyond her years. Since her parents’ divorce, she has been the one taking care of her emotionally unstable mother and her little brother—she pays the bills, does the laundry, and never complains because she loves her mama more than anyone. And while her father’s new girlfriend is nice enough, Ava still holds out hope that her parents will get back together and that they’ll be a family again.

But only days after Victor and Grace get engaged, Kelli dies suddenly under mysterious circumstances—and soon, Grace and Ava discover there was much more to Kelli’s life than either ever knew.

Narrated by Grace and Ava in the present with flashbacks into Kelli’s troubled past, Heart Like Mine is a poignant and hopeful portrait about womanhood, love, and the challenges of family life

My Thoughts: I thought that this was a very heart-felt and honest portrayal of the blending of a stepfamily as well as facing the sudden loss of a parent.  This is a very character driven storyline and could have easily become a cheesy, sappy and melodramatic read.  Luckily, Hatvany gives her characters very authentic and believable voices as they each tell their side of the story.  True, Hatvany does have a lot of 'balls in the air' as she pieces together the relationships between the main women in the story but she does it well.  

The story is told via two main points of view (Ava and Grace) as well as a look back into Kelli's past.  I appreciated and enjoyed seeing how and why Kelli became the woman and mother she was.  By incorporating her background I felt like it made Kelli much more of an important character than just the deceased mother of Ava and Max.  We get to see how her world was shaped by her upbringing, her early choices as well as how it affected her self-image and future choices.

This is a book about relationships and I appreciated the skill at which Hatvany gives the reader a realistic view into family life.  With Grace we have a successful woman who struggles to come to terms with her changing world.  She not only has a new marriage and the unexpected role as full-time stepmom, but she also has to deal with a future that isn't what she had planned.  

We also get to see the dynamics between Ava and Grace as they both try to figure out what their relationship will be. We see Ava deal with the devastating loss of her mom as well as struggle with her new feelings towards Grace, a woman whom her mother practically vilified.  It's these familial dynamics which made the book for me.

My only issue with this book was the very abrupt and unsatisfying ending. It honestly shocked me that it just ... ended.  I wanted to hear Kelli's parents' point of view and I desperately wanted to know what happened to Rebecca but the reader was left with a very lackluster ending. 

In the end "Heart Like Mine" is a story about wanting to belong and be loved and finding that family can take many different forms.  It shows the struggles some people face in finding their place in their family and the world.  Overall the book had a nice flow, the writing was interesting and the voices of the characters were believable making this an enjoyable read.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to Washington Square Press and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Teriyaki Grilled Salmon

As the weather begins to warm up and spring is teasing us with a few sunny days here and there Brad and I go through our yearly ritual of fear. Fear?  Of what, you may ask.  Bathing suit weather.  Plain and simple.  Summer is a time where we will have to showcase our bodies in small pieces of material after hibernating (in Canadian-speak that means hunkering down indoors and munching on all things bad for you -- chips, beer, nachos, pop ....)". 

This slightly hysterical thinking is quickly followed by us looking at each other and solemnly promising each other that we're going to eat better and exercise regularly because we want to look the best we can while lounging poolside.  *Cue the inspirational music* 

Unfortunately, this promise to avoid all things yummy and lethargic tends to peter out fairly quickly because, let's be honest, yummy and lethargic is oh so easy and kinda nice.  But looking good in a swimsuit is kinda nice too.  More than nice actually.  And herein lies our yearly conundrum.

It was during one of these periods of trying to eat better that I came across this recipe for salmon fillets. Brad and I adore fresh salmon fillets.  There is nothing better than a nicely BBQ'd piece of fresh salmon.  And if I can be honest here -- Brad is wicked awesome on the 'Q.  Wicked ... awesome.  His ability with a BBQ, his dashing good looks and his unsqueemish and manly-man ability to kill all sorts of bugs and arachnids is what ensures him a permanent place by my side.  I know, right.  I'm a total romantic.

Anyhoo, after digging out my fresh ginger from my freezer and whipping up this marinade we were almost giddy with the thought of melt-in-our-mouths teriyaki salmon that night.  While you can easily buy a bottle of teriyaki sauce at the food store it's almost just as easy to whip up your own version (plus it doesn't have yucky preservatives).  Just keep your knobs of fresh ginger in a Ziploc freezer bag and grate it (frozen) when needed.  Fresh ginger truly makes this recipe shine.

So, if you're looking for a recipe to help you stay on a healthier track then give this a shot.  Goodness knows, bathing suit weather will be upon us before you know it!

Inspired by: Simply Recipe's Easy Grilled Salmon

3 salmon fillets, skins on

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine) or seasoned rice vinegar **
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tbsp fresh garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh garlic, minced
1/4 cup green onions, minced
2 tbsp vegetable oil
Pinch of red pepper flakes

** Mirin can be found alongside the vinegars or soy sauce in your local food store

Combine marinade ingredients in a small bowl.  Stir mixture until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Pour marinade into a casserole dish (or a plate with sides so the marinade doesn't run). Coat the salmon fillets in the marinade and then place them skinless-side down in the marinade. Marinate for at least 1-2 hours in the refrigerator. Before grilling, remove fillets from marinade and discard marinade.

Heat your BBQ to medium-high (approximately 450F).

Lightly grease a piece of aluminum foil large enough to hold all three pieces of fish.  Place foil on a tray and put fish, skin side down, onto the foil.  Slide the foil onto your heated BBQ.  Cook, with the BBQ lid down and without turning, for 15-17 minutes or until the salmon is cooked but slightly coral in the centre.

To serve, use a thin metal spatula to lift each portion off of the foil, leaving the skin behind.

Shared on:
Totally Tasty Tuesdays

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Reluctant Assassin (#1 in W.A.R.P series)

Author: Eoin Colfer
Type: e-book Advanced Reading Copy (ARC)
Genre: Young Adult/Supernatural
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Disney Book Group
Publication Date: May 7, 2013
First Line: "There were two smudges in the shadows between the grandfather clock and the velvet drapes."

Note: My sincere thanks to Disney Book Group and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Publisher's Description: Riley, a teen orphan boy living in Victorian London, has had the misfortune of being apprenticed to Albert Garrick, an illusionist who has fallen on difficult times and now uses his unique conjuring skills to gain access to victims' dwellings. On one such escapade, Garrick brings his reluctant apprentice along and urges him to commit his first killing. Riley is saved from having to commit the grisly act when the intended victim turns out to be a scientist from the future, part of the FBI's Witness Anonymous Relocation Program (WARP) Riley is unwittingly transported via wormhole to modern day London, followed closely by Garrick.

In modern London, Riley is helped by Chevron Savano, a seventeen-year-old FBI agent sent to London as punishment after a disastrous undercover, anti-terrorist operation in Los Angeles. Together Riley and Chevie must evade Garrick, who has been fundamentally altered by his trip through the wormhole. Garrick is now not only evil, but he also possesses all of the scientist's knowledge. He is determined to track Riley down and use the timekey in Chevie's possession to make his way back to Victorian London where he can literally change the world.

My Thoughts:  I have to admit that I requested this book from NetGalley based on only two things.  First, the book was from the highly successful Eoin Colfer - author of the extremely popular Artemis Fowl series.  And even though I had never read any of his books {yet} I was quite excited to give this new series a try since my oldest son was so hooked on the Artemis series.  Secondly, the premise was really, really cool.  A witness protection programme that uses a time travel worm hole to hide its witnesses?  Oh yes, sign me up, please!

I'm happy to report that Colfer has created a book that is strong start to his new series.  It's full of time travel, lots of action and interesting characters.  One of my favourite characters has got to be the evil, creepy and deliciously sinister Garrick.  He's an illusionist who isn't satisfied with his lot in life and has higher goals of domination which makes for a great 'bad guy'.  While he does have a slightly clichéd feel (he gives off a little of the 'moustache twisting, bwah-ha-ha' kind of creepiness) he still has enough realism to create a nice amount of suspense and a real threat to Riley and Chevie.  You never knew when he'd catch up to Riley and Chevie and I loved that. 

Another thing that made Garrick stand out for me is the fact that when he travelled through the wormhole he was altered and was able to gain not only special abilities but the knowledge of one of the Special Agents of W.A.R.P.  He's now a sinister, evil, morphing genius who can function in both time periods.  The story possibilities are endless!

The other two main characters are just as well-rounded and interesting.  Chevron (aka Chevie) is a strong, funny, realistically flawed and sarcastic main character.  Was she portrayed as more mature than I was expecting for a 17 year old?  A bit but she also has a job and responsibilities that not many 17 years olds can boast of having.  Something else that made her stand out was the fact that she has Native American heritage.   I felt that it made her breath of fresh air and while we're introduced to her heritage, it didn't take over the storyline but merely added to her depth of character.

Young Riley, the reluctant assassin himself, is a street urchin with a heart. While Riley is a good main character and interacts well with Chevie and Garrick I will admit that he seems a lot younger and more immature than the 14 year old he's supposed to be. His reactions and overall demeanor seem to be more of a 9 year old's. Perhaps that's the differences in the period he lived in? Overall, he's an interesting character and I like how he engages with Chevie.

I only have a couple criticisms -- and honestly I can't really even call them criticisms.  First, I have to warn that this book was much gorier and bloody than I was expecting from a YA read that, I assume, is aimed at fans of his Artemis Fowl series (Boy 1 read the series when he was about 10 or 11 years old).  The evil acts start right away with young Riley being taught the correct way to kill someone with a knife and go on from there.  It's the fact that it's a young boy being taught, not some random zombie or other imaginary supernatural creature, that gave me some pause.  That said, the book does have the word "assassin" in its title so I suppose I was fairly warned. 

Also, due to the fact that the author had to set up characters, storylines etc for this new series I felt that, at one point, the pace suffered a bit for it.  Definitely not enough for me to lose interest but the book starts out so strong that when the pace dips a little you notice it.

All in all, this is a strong start to a very promising new series.  I look forward to seeing where Colfer will take this series.  

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Friday, 1 March 2013

Six Years

Author: Harlan Coben
Genre: Suspense
Type: e-book Advanced Reading Copy (ARC)
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Dutton Adult
Expected Publication Date: March 19, 2013
First Line: Prologue -- "I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man." 

Note: My sincere thanks to Dutton Adult and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Description: Six years have passed since Jake Sanders watched Natalie, the love of his life, marry another man. Six years of hiding a broken heart by throwing himself into his career as a college professor. Six years of keeping his promise to leave Natalie alone, and six years of tortured dreams of her life with her new husband, Todd.

But six years haven’t come close to extinguishing his feelings, and when Jake comes across Todd’s obituary, he can’t keep himself away from the funeral. There he gets the glimpse of Todd’s wife he’s hoping for . . . but she is not Natalie. Whoever the mourning widow is, she’s been married to Todd for more than a decade, and with that fact everything Jake thought he knew about the best time of his life—a time he has never gotten over—is turned completely inside out.

As Jake searches for the truth, his picture-perfect memories of Natalie begin to unravel. Mutual friends of the couple either can’t be found or don’t remember Jake. No one has seen Natalie in years. Jake’s search for the woman who broke his heart—and who lied to him—soon puts his very life at risk as it dawns on him that the man he has become may be based on carefully constructed fiction.

Harlan Coben once again delivers a shocking page-turner that deftly explores the power of past love and the secrets and lies that such love can hide.

My Thoughts:  Harlan Coben has always been one of my go-to suspense authors.  The man knows how to write a book filled with twists and turns, great main characters who have wonderfully witty banter between them and some murder and mayhem thrown in for good measure.

Like some of Coben's other main characters, namely the wonderful Myron Bolitar, Jake has a great sense of humour, is quite likeable and an easy character to root for.  In this book, the reader sees everything through Jake's point of view which makes the red herrings and other twists in the book very unexpected.

My only critical thought about this book was the bond between Jake and Natalie.  I guess I just didn't 'get it'.  To me, after only knowing each other a short time, their relationship (or at least Jake's side of it, because that's all the author shows the reader) felt more like an obsession rather than a 'true love' kind of bond.  To go through all this life-threatening craziness for a woman that you knew for a few months (and who then dumped you and married someone else) six years ago seemed just slightly too far fetched for me.  Or perhaps it's just that all the romance has died within my soul.  Take your pick.

Like his other books, Coben provides his readers with a fast-paced read complete with many twists and turns as well as some really great secondary characters.  I adored the banter between Jake and his co-worker, Mrs Dinsmore and I think it is this banter that he injects into his books that truly makes them stand out for me.

Overall, this is a good read.  Suspenseful with great characters.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

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