Thursday, 31 January 2013

Ham & Hashbrown Casserole

I'm not sure where you're all from but here in southwestern Ontario we've run the gamut of weather.  And I'm quite tired of the back and forth of the temperature and pressure.  Pick one season and stick with it, I say.  Yesterday it was a very pleasant (a beautiful spring-like +12C).  Today?  A blustery and very snowy -8C.  Not so pleasant but more apropos weather for these parts in January.

It's days like this when I like to pop an easy casserole in the oven to warm our bellies.  This casserole is a great way to use up leftover ham and topped with a wee bit of bacon it's a double serving of the mighty oinker.  It's creamy, cheesy and totally hits the spot. 

The day I made this dish Brad had to work late and didn't get to eat with us.  I raced Boy 1 to his Taekwondo lesson.  As I watched him punch, kick and roundhouse to his delight I proceeded to get a text from Brad saying "Curses, woman!  That casserole was so good I had to have two helpings!  You can't make it too often if I'm going to watch my weight!".  While he was joking with me I do have to admit that it was quite delish and I took it as the compliment that he meant it to be. 

A double serving of oink paired with potatoes and cheese?  A great way to keep your tummy warm on these blustery days.  Enjoy!
 
 

1 bag frozen hashbrown bits (approximately 4 cups)
2 cups cooked, diced ham
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 (10.75oz) cans Cream of Mushroom soup
2 cups sour cream
2 cups old Cheddar cheese, grated
3 green onions, chopped
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
5-6 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled (OR 1/2 cup Real bacon bits)

Preheat oven to 375F.  Lightly grease a casserole dish and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except Parmesan and bacon.  Pour into the prepared casserole dish.  Sprinkle with Parmesan and bacon.

Bake for 45 minutes or until heated through.

Note: This casserole can be made ahead of time and put in the fridge until needed.  You may have to increase the cooking time to 60 minutes.

Inspired by: Chew Out Loud's 'Cheesy Ham and Hash Brown Casserole'

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Any Known Blood


Author: Lawrence Hill
Type: Trade Paperback
Source: secondhand book
Genre: Historical Fiction (Slavery)
Pages: 505
Publisher: Harper Collins Canada
First Line: "She came to his room after darkness fell, confident that nobody had followed her."

Synopsis:  Langston Cane is recently divorced and has just lost his job.  Coming from a highly successful family, Langston is overcome by these changes and feels the need to search for his own identity and reconnect with his past by writing a novel based on his family.  As a man who comes from both caucasian and black heritages Langston feels compelled to delve into his family's black heritage to discover his family's history.  Over the course of his discoveries the reader is introduced to the four Langston Canes that came before him with their own struggles and successes. 

Langston's research for his family history takes him from his hometown of Oakville, Ontario (the end of the Underground Railroad) to Baltimore, MD where his estranged Aunt Millicent still lives.  With her begrudging help, Langston finds old family letters which only incite his passion to learn more about where his family came from.  The story details the Cane men's struggles with slavery, the Underground Railroad, attaining freedom in Canada as well as the struggle to feel truly equal after finally becoming 'free'.
 
My Thoughts:  I have to preface this review by letting you all know that I'm a big fan of Lawrence Hill after reading (and loving) his "Book of Negroes" (known in the USA as "Someone Knows My Name").  It was a fantastic book so I knew that Mr Hill had some mighty big shoes to fill in order to impress me.  My verdict?  Lawrence Hill continues to amaze me with another outstanding book.  While I still feel that "The Book of Negroes" was a better read this comes in as a very close second. 

As I was reading the book I kept trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Hill's books stand out.  The only thing that I can come up with is that there seems to be such as ease in his storytelling.  His story flows so smoothly, even with the jumping back and forth between generations.  I am able to immerse myself into his stories and get totally and utterly captivated.  That's what makes a great book for me.

His characters aren't perfect but they are believable.  Each of the Langston Canes has his own struggles and strengths but Aunt Mill is, hands down, my favourite character.  While she is a quirky old gal, she has a deep love for her family.  Reading how her personal values and attitude are at odds with the growing feelings she has for her nephew is what made her stand out for me. 

One of Lawrence Hill's strengths as a writer is that he has the ability to teach his readers about serious topics with such ease and compassion.  The reader witnesses the struggles that the Langston Canes had from slavery, to freedom, to struggling with their new freedom (being free but not necessarily treated as equals) and finally to education and success.  We also get a look into how an interracial marriage was perceived by some as well as the issue within the black community in regards to the darkness of a person's skin tone.  That's a lot of different issues within one book but Hill makes it work.

Now, I will admit, and warn, that there is quite a lot of jumping back and forth between the various Langston Canes.  This could make the story muddled and confusing but Hill makes it easy for the reader to keep track of which Langston Cane the story is following by providing a family tree at the beginning of the book which I used often.  One would think that giving five main characters all with the same name it would make for a very confusing read but Hill gives each of these men such a individual personality and voice that soon after meeting the new Langston Cane it quickly became apparent that we were dealing with a new character all his own

Lastly, I love the fact that this book is partially based in southern Ontario (Oakville and Toronto).  It made me proud as a Canadian to learn how Oakville was one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad and how so many Canadians and Americans helped runaway slaves to reach freedom here in the Great White North.

This is a wonderfully descriptive story that sheds light on factual events in American and Canadian history as well as merging those with a truly memorable fictional tale that details the interesting lives of five generations of Langston Canes.  This hard to put down book showcases the enduring spirit of people and the love of family.  Recommended.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Me Before You


Author: Jojo Moyes
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: complimentary E-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Penguin Group/Viking, Pamela Dorman Books, Viking
First Published: December 31, 2012
First Line: "2007 - When he emerges from the bathroom she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed."

Book DescriptionLouisa Clark is a twenty-six year old woman living a highly unextraordinary life.  Still living in the same small town where she grew up, Louisa lives with her parents and has never had the desire to explore beyond her small town.  She has a boyfriend of six years and a job that pays the bills but Louisa's life is anything but eventful.

When she suddenly finds herself without a job and her family's financial situation is in peril, Louisa applies for a job as a personal companion to a thirty-five year old quadriplegic man.  Having no experience in this field at all, Louisa is shocked to have been hired for the position but grateful for a chance to help her family get back on their feet.

Initially, Louisa's learning curve is quite steep especially due to the fact that her charge, Will Traynor, isn't at all helpful and makes it clear that he doesn't want her there.  Will had once lived a very exciting and busy life.  But his life was turned upside down when, a few years earlier, he was hit by a motorcycle and left in a wheelchair with only the ability to move one hand slightly and therefore totally dependent on others on a daily basis.

The shrinking of his world has never sat well with Will.  Gone are the days of Will in his high powered job, high action sports, beautiful ladies on his arm and spur of the moment vacations.  Now his world revolves around frequent trips to the hospital, daily pain and relying on family and caregivers for even the simplest and most personal daily tasks. With his loss of freedom and his ill health he often takes out his frustrations on those around him with his sardonic and, often caustic, comments.  This does not help to make Lou's transition in her new role an easy one. 

Slowly (and a little surprisingly), Lou learns that Will's happiness begins to mean much more to her than she ever thought possible. When Lou discovers the real reason that she was hired by Will's parents, she takes drastic measures to ensure that she can complete her task within the limited time frame that she has been given. 

Me Before You is the story about two unlikely people who find themselves thrown together in a situation they could never have imagined.  It's a touching and heartbreaking love story that asks the question: What do you do if the one thing that would make the person you love happy, is the same thing that will utterly break your own heart?   

My Thoughts:  I can describe this book in two words: awesome and unputdownable.   This is definitely one of those books that will stay with me for a very, very long time.   First of all, I was surprised at how much emotion this book pulled out of me.  Yes, even I (the woman who rarely cries) teared up and got more than a little verklempt.  This book shocked me, touched me, taught me, and had me sympathize with what quadriplegics deal with on a daily basis.

Admittedly, I do not have a lot of experience with quadriplegia so I'm thankful to this book for educating me.  Ms Moyes takes the reader inside the daily life of a 'quad' (a term used in the book) -- especially out in the public eye.  We're shown, through Will's eyes, how a quadriplegic person feels when people stare or make assumptions and treat 'quads' as 'less than'. They see the wheelchair and the physical disability instead of the person. She also shows the dehumanizing effects on a quadriplegic when others take it upon themselves to decide even the simplest decisions for them.

The storyline is wonderful but it's the characters who truly bring this book to life.  They are written so honestly and authentically that I found myself wondering about them when I had to put the book down -- which admittedly was as little as possible. These are no cookie cutter/one dimensional characters.  You really and truly get to know Lou and Will. 

Lou begins as a naive and rather dull young woman who has no goals in life. She has settled for what life's dealt her and doesn't desire to better her situation.  She's not a pathetic doormat but a character who came off as just not knowing that she could have better.  She's a tough girl when pushed and I love how we get to see her come into her own.

Will is the antithesis of Lou.  He's lived a very full and successful life.  He's a very complicated character and although he is brutal with some of his negative comments and could easily be considered an 'arse' (as Louisa describes him) you can't help but find a glimmer of who he really is underneath all the acerbic comments that he uses to protect himself.  Together Lou and Will bring out different aspects in each other and that is what sold this book to me. 

This book deals with a subject matter that isn't often dealt with and does it in an eye-opening, yet truly human way. I found myself putting my Kindle down just to think about what I would do in that situation, whether I was in Will's shoes or Lou's.  I'm still not sure how to answer that question.  This author doesn't go for the easy shock factor or the sappy tear-fest just to get her readers to shed a tear or two. Her writing is so much more subtle and the relationship between Will and Lou is more complicated and deeper than I would have expected. The emotion between these two characters slowly builds at a realistic pace and I had to stop myself from skimming through several pages because I was that eager to know what would happen to them. Their love story was sweet and yet very deep. They 'got' each other.

Another thing that stood out for me with this book is the way the secondary characters weren't so 'secondary'.  They weren't just used as filler and added tremendously to the overall storyline.  Lou's boyfriend, her family and even Will's parents have their own burdens and issues which helped to make them much more than a typical supporting cast of characters.  Even some of the snarky conversations and sibling rivalry between Lou and her sister were so authentic that I swear I had had similar conversations with my own two sisters growing up.

Jojo Moyes has written a brilliant book that is honest, real and so very, very heartfelt. It's a sad read but surprisingly uplifting at the same time. I found myself laughing at Lou and Will's banter but then tearing up and getting the biggest lump in my throat. A roller coaster ride of emotions to be sure!   It's a book about learning to take chances and not letting one day go by without truly living life to its fullest. It's a book about unconditional and unselfish love and never taking anything for granted.

I cannot recommend this book enough.  I'm giving it my very rare 5 stars.  You simply must read this book!

My Rating: 5/5 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to Ms Moyes, Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing me with this complimentary ebook copy in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Summerset Abbey


Author: T.J. Brown
Type: E-book (Advanced Reading Copy)
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Historical Fiction (England)
Series: First book in the Summerset Abbey trilogy
Publisher: Gallery Books
First Published: January 15, 2013
First Line: "Prudence Tate paused before the arched doorway to allow Victoria time to regain her composure."

Synopsis1913: Rowena and Victoria Buxton are sisters who live with their widowed father, Phillip Buxton, as part of the aristocracy.  Phillip Buxton, was a very unconventional man for his time.  Not only did he not have any qualms with raising his two daughters alongside their governess' daughter, Prudence, but against tradition, he encouraged his daughters to be free thinkers and even treated Prudence as one of his own giving the young girl every privilege awarded his own daughters.  When Phillip dies, the girls are sent to live under their uncle's guardianship at his massive home, Summerset Abbey -- a sprawling estate on the outskirts of London.

Unfortunately the girls' uncle and aunt do not think of Prudence as family and are quite open in letting the girls know where they think Prudence ranks in the hierarchy of their household.  In order for Prudence to be allowed to live at the Abbey, she is required to assume the position of lady's maid to her 'sisters' in order to keep up appearances in the extended family and society.  Soon the sisters' close bond begins to shift as Prudence, raised as a lady, struggles with her new role and ultimately feels stuck between upper and lower society.

Rowena and Victoria, after being treated by their father with many unaccustomed freedoms, also struggle within the new confines set on them by their aunt, uncle and society at large.  When Victoria, the physically weak yet overly curious sister, discovers a family secret she's unsure of what to do because disclosing the scandal could change all of their lives forever.

My Thoughts: Before I begin my review of this book I must admit that I'm a big Downton Abbey fan.  I'm talking HUGE!  I do so love me some time with Dame Maggie and her lot. {Note: The fact that this Harry Potter fan doesn't view Dame Maggie as Professor McGonagall is a true testament to her acting chops.  She is wicked awesome. Period.  The end.}  So, when I found this book on NetGalley I honestly couldn't pass up the chance to read a book that is set in the same era and similar setting as my beloved Downton.   

It should come as no surprise that one of the things that I adored about this book is the setting.  Set in the early 1900's, this book deals with a time and a people who lived through great change.  Not only was the usefulness of the aristocracy coming into question and the differences between the classes were becoming blurred but women were starting to speak up for themselves and see themselves as more than an extension of their husbands and parents.  Girl power was only in its infancy at this time therefore don't expect any burning corsets and the like.  But, it was powerful and inspiring nonetheless. 

That isn't to say that just because Victoria and Rowena were treated as gentry that they had an easy time growing up in this era.  Far from it, actually.  This book showed the limitations set on woman (and even some men) in that time due to their status.  A lot was expected of the young gentry and they were really given little choice as to where their lives would lead.  Whether that was about their education, whom they would marry or even whom they could socialize with.  This book pulls off the glamourous blinders of the early 1900's.

While I did enjoy the ambiance of the book, unfortunately I found the mystery lacking and predictable.  With the pure malice that Lady Charlotte (Victoria and Rowena's aunt) had towards poor Prudence I was really hoping for some huge, family destroying secret but unfortunately I quickly guessed the scandal.  It was a little bit of a letdown to know that I had guessed right.  I would have loved some sort of major 'didn't see that coming!' twist at the end.   Also, while the main characters were likeable I wish I would have gotten to know the three girls a little better (although that may happen in the future books in the trilogy).

All in all, I liked this book.  It describes the era so well that I could easily imagine what life was like for the rich living in a place like Summerset.  The clothing, backdrop and even small town life were wonderfully described.  And while the ending could be viewed as a little abrupt, readers can look forward to the other two books in this trilogy being released in 2013.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Note: My sincere thanks to Gallery Books and NetGalley for providing me with this complimentary e-book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Italian Mac'n'Cheese

As a child one of the favourite meals that my Mom or Nana would make my two sisters and I was a homemade macaroni that was not only cheesy but had a hit of tomato in it.  I think back in the day the 'tomato hit' was from a can of tomato soup but I decided to do things a little differently.  Mainly because I didn't have any soup on hand but also because I thought I'd get more tomato-y bang for my buck using tomato paste.
 
I loved this dish because it brought me back to the 'good ol' days' with my dear Nana.  My kids?  They are a hard bunch to impress (such divas) but they did enjoy this dish.  It's cheesy, has a hint of tomato (without the dreaded tomato seeds) and has a delicious Italian crumb topping that isn't to be missed!
 

2 cups macaroni noodles
2 tbsp butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 cup tomato paste

Topping
1 1/2 cups dried bread crumbs
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried basil
salt and pepper - to taste
3 tbsp fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
3 tbsp butter, melted

In a large pot, cook macaroni noodles according to package instructions. 

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt butter.  Add minced garlic and cook for 3 minutes.  Add flour and mix until combined.  Whisk in the milk.  Stir occasionally until mixture has thickened.

Add Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses, dried oregano and tomato paste.  Mix well until cheese has melted.  Pour cooked macaroni noodles into the skillet and combine with the cheese mixture.  Pour macaroni mixture into a casserole dish.

In a small bowl, combine the topping ingredients.  Sprinkle topping over macaroni.  Broil under high heat until crumb mixture is golden brown (keep an eye on it!  It won't take long!).

Serve immediately.

Yield: 6 servings

Inspired by: My Nana and A Pretty Life in the Suburbs' 'Creamy Tomato Macaroni and Cheese'

Thursday, 17 January 2013

One Bad Apple



Author: Sheila Connolly
Genre: Light Mystery
Type: Paperback
Pages: 262
Series: 1st book in the Orchard mystery series
First Published: 2008
First Line: "Orchard? What orchard?" Meg Corey stared in confusion at the man standing on her doorstep."

Publisher's Description Meg Corey has come to the quaint New England town of Granford, Massachusetts, to sell her mother's old colonial home and apple orchard. Instead, she becomes embroiled in development plans that include her land and her former flame from Boston. When he's found dead in the new septic tank on her property, the police immediately suspect Meg, whose only ally in town is the plumber Seth Chapin. Together, they'll have to peel back the layers of secrecy that surround the deal in order to find the real murderer and save the orchard.

My ThoughtsI realize that this is meant to be a light mystery but it was a little too 'light' for me.  Honestly, there was no excitement or build-up; no suspense that you'd expect from a murder mystery.  

I don't mind if the pace of a book is slow if I have a feeling that the story is leading somewhere.  I started to have my reservations when, at about half way through this book, no one had even died in this murder mystery.  

Usually in a light mystery like this the main character finds a body in the first few chapters.  We're introduced to various secondary characters to complicate things.  Then a few things happen to the main character (someone tries to endanger/kill them) and then we finally find out who the murderer is. 

In this book, besides trying to fix up an old mansion (which doesn't really happen either), nothing happens to Meg. She doesn't even do much sleuthing!  More focus was given to local politics involving a new land development than to plot or introducing secondary characters.  In a cozy mystery you need a good mix of interesting characters to place the blame of the murder.  Unfortunately the 'bad guy' stuck out like a sore thumb and I easily guessed 'who dunnit'. 

In the end I didn't feel a connection with the main character and, honestly, had to push myself to finish the book.  I don't plan on reading more books in this series.

My Rating: 1/5 stars

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Lemon Crinkle Cookies

I found the recipe that inspired these cookies on a wonderful blog called,  Six Sisters Stuff. It's a blog filled with posts from six ridiculously beautiful sisters who post everything from recipes to crafts and then some.  The postive power of estrogen!!

I've seen quite a few of these types of cookies floating around blogland so nine year old Missy Moo and I thought we'd give them a try.  Since she's not a fan of too much chocolate (in her world there is a fine balance between too much chocolate and just the right amount) we thought we'd try a lemon crinkle cookie instead.

These were definitely lemony and were quickly gobbled down by the kids and Brad (I did manage to get a couple for myself).  Don't let the lemon fool you!  With the frosting, these cookies are mighty sweet!

I also love that it's such an easy way to whip up a batch of cookies which is perfect for those times when, at 8:30 at night, one of your kids reminds you that they volunteered you to bake a couple dozen cookies for a school function the following morning.  True story.



1 (15.25oz) box of lemon cake mix
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1/2 cup icing sugar (to roll the cookies in)

Frosting
2 cups icing sugar
2 tbsp softened butter or margarine
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the cake mix, oil and eggs.  {Do NOT follow the instructions on the cake mix box.  You're just using the cake mix as the base for this recipe.}.  Mix until a dough begins to form.

Lightly dust your hands with a bit of icing sugar so you won't stick to the dough.  Roll the dough into 1 to 1 1/2-inch balls.  Roll each ball in the icing sugar and place them 2-inches apart on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake for 8-10 minutes or until cookies are just set. Remove from pans and cool on a wire rack.

Note: The original recipe called for the cookies to bake for 7-9 minutes but I found that it took a little longer in my oven so I upped the time in this recipe.

Make frosting: Combine frosting ingredients in a medium bowl until smooth.

Frost cooled cookies.  Store cookies in an air-tight container.

Recipe inspired by: Six Sisters Stuff's 'Fudge Crinkle Cookies'

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Aviator's Wife


Author: Melanie Benjamin
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
To Be Published: January 25, 2013
First Line: "He is flying."

Publisher's Description: For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong.

Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

Drawing on the rich history of the twentieth century—from the late twenties to the mid-sixties—and featuring cameos from such notable characters as Joseph Kennedy and Amelia Earhart, The Aviator’s Wife is a vividly imagined novel of a complicated marriage—revealing both its dizzying highs and its devastating lows. With stunning power and grace, Melanie Benjamin provides new insight into what made this remarkable relationship endure.


My Thoughts: I picked up this Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) on NetGalley based solely on the subject of the book: Charles Lindburgh.  I'm a sucker for historical fiction and I love learning more about historical figures that I know little about.  Charles Lindburgh and his wife Anne fall into this category.

While I loved the era in which this book was written I will admit that the book kept me feeling frustrated throughout due to Anne's character.  Anne came from a very successful and privileged family - her father was a US ambassador, her mother was an independent woman.  Anne was well educated and had the world at her feet.  Then Charles Lindburgh enters the scene, the young pilot who had just made history by flying solo across the Atlantic.  He was a huge star of the time -- I'm talking Jennifer Aniston/Justin Beiber famous -- with the media constantly hounding him.  One would think that this media attention would go to his head ... and it did, big time. 

Charles Lindburgh, aka 'Lucky Lindy' was portrayed in this book as a god.  Everyone, including politicians, famous actors, presidents, average Joe on the street and even Anne, was willing to overlook his major personality flaws just because he was "Lucky Lindy".  This book portrays Charles as nothing more than a emotionally bereft, power hungry, philandering bigot who bullied those around him to get what he wanted.  Not a nice image of the Golden Boy.

This assessment of Charles then caused me to be confused as to why anyone would fall in love with him let alone stay with him for 45 years?   Their relationship, in my opinion was smothering and depressing at best.  Anne was besotted with him in the early days due to his achievement but afterwards why did she stay with him? 

I realize that Anne lived in a much different time than I do. 1929 is no 2013 but at the same time I feel that the author pushed the imbalance between Anne and Charles so much so that it almost became too much for me.  Anne was raised in a privileged family with an independent mother and sister and an ambassador father. Why is she so docile and willing to accept anything out of her husband's mouth without even questioning it?

Still, there is a quote in the book which sums up her relationship with Charles -- "He led, I followed, and that meant I had to keep up with him."  Their relationship was always about him and even though he did encourage her to become a pilot/navigator it was always in order to advance his career or public image. 

He told her what to think and what to say.   He even managed to get her to write a pamphlet supporting the Nazi regime! She was an educated, articulate woman who, with her socio-economic background, could have done anything. And yet as soon as she meets Lindburgh she forgets who she is and follows Charles around like a lost puppy willing to get beaten down just to get a minute of his attention.  His verbal/emotional abuse of Anne got to me quickly.

I guess I was expecting more of a book about how Anne learned to get out of the shadow of her husband's fame and eventually finds her own identity.  The problem here is that Anne never really learns that.  She's stagnant and except for one instance that pops into my mind she never stands up to Charles or learns anything about herself.  She spends a lot of the book bemoaning how she doesn't feel worthy of Charles' love and complaining about how Charles treats her and the children.  But as soon as he shows up on her doorstep all is forgotten and forgiven because the Golden Boy is in her midst.  I just couldn't buy into that kind of a 'love'.

If the author's goal was to create a book that stirred emotions then she hit the nail on the head.  Throughout the book I felt frustrated with Anne and angry at Charles' pompous attitude and how his work always came first, even above his children.  He was a very detached person and that was even more evident with how he handled his son's infamous abduction.

Overall, I found this book a good read but a little slow.  The highlight of this book for me was learning more about the 1920's era and getting a better understanding of the Lindburgh family.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

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

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Cashelmara


Author: Susan Howatch
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: e-book copy from NetGalley
Published: October 2012
First Published: 1974
Publisher: Open Road Media
Source: NetGalley
First Line: "There were two subjects I neer discussed: my dead wife and Cashelmara."

Synopsis: Cashelmara is a large estate in the rugged and untamed Irish wilderness and has been in the de Salis family for generations.  The current owner is Edward de Salis and although he spends most of his time in London, he has always called Cashelmara home.

After his wife and mother of his many children dies, Edward becomes extremely lonely.  He takes a trip to New York to visit distant relatives, the Marriotts, in the hopes of raising his spirits.  While there he meets 17 year old Marguerite Marriott.  He surprises himself by falling in love with Marguerite, who is young enough to be his own daughter, and brings her back to Ireland as his wife. 

Once they arrive at Cashelmara Marguerite discovers that marriage and the family estate are not what she expected.  She quickly finds that she has married into a very dysfunctional family who is bitterly divided.

Cashelmara is a historical saga told using six viewpoints of three generations of the de Salis family -- Edward and Marguerite, Patrick and Sarah, Maxwell and young Ned -- detailing their turbulent lives. 

My Thoughts:  This is an epic saga following the lives and tribulations of the de Salis family.  What made this book stand out for me, in amongst the many historical fiction books that I've read, is that the tale is told from six points of view.  Six points of view are a lot and could easily become muddled and confusing but Ms Howatch deals with this in a very interesting way. 

The storyline, while linear, is started by Edward telling the tale.  He then passes the proverbial torch to Marguerite and she takes over the story and so on.  It's quite a wonderful way for the reader to get a better sense of what various characters are thinking while not rehashing what's already happened in the book.  I actually found my initial attitude towards certain characters change as I saw the story through their eyes.  Each of the characters had many sides to them which I appreciated. That said, I can't say that any one character stood out for me but they all had their own part to play in the saga.

Please note that this is no light and carefree romp through the Irish countryside.  It's more of a gothic soap opera with its romance, retribution, drama, abuse and even murder and has a very dark and rather depressing tone.  One of the characters even goes a little too dark for my tastes and began to come off as more of an evil moustache-twisting caricature towards the end of the book. 

One of my favourite parts of the book were the descriptions of the Irish countryside as well as learning more about the historical backdrop (ie. the after effects of Ireland's Great Famine).  But Ms Howatch didn't allow the tumultuous historical backdrop to overtake the storyline which I appreciated. While this is a historical fiction read, it's much more of a character driven plot.  Keeping the characters and storyline in the forefront is not an easy thing to do when you're tackling a lot of various topics all in one book -- including Ireland's right to rule themselves, emigration, Irish famine/poverty, political unrest, adultery, financial ruin ...  There was a lot going on and while it was entertaining I did feel that the mystery aspect (family secrets and all) as well as the overall energy of the book was a bit lacking.

What Ms Howatch definitely didn't lack was emotion. Unfortunately, for me I tended to have an overall depressed feeling about the book. The setting and the circumstances seemed very drab and depressing ... all the time. There were some characters that I liked (Marguerite) but some, like Sarah, who just aggravated me with her poor choices. I guess feeling something (even anger at a character) is better than feeling nothing, right?

While there were some slow parts in this large book I did find it to be an easy and enjoyable read.  It was a good page turner of a story but it just didn't grab me as much as I would have hoped.  I think that the overall depressing feeling that settled over much of the book put a damper on my overall opinion of this book.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

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

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Maple Balsamic Dressing

As I have mentioned before balsamic vinegar is, hands down, one of my favourite flavours on the face of this earth.   There’s just something so complex about the taste of balsamic.  It’s a vinegar but it’s got this sweetness to it that, paired with certain foods, brings out more flavours in the food than you thought possible.  A veritable nirvana for your taste buds.

When Brad and I travelled to Italy for our 10th anniversary almost 6 years ago one of the highlights for us was visiting a red wine and balsamic vinegar tasting in the stunningly beautiful city of Florence.  I was more than a little excited at the thought of trying various aged balsamic vinegars.  Brad, on the other hand, was more than eager to try the red wine.  He completes me. 

On that wonderful trip you’d think that we’d come home bearing bags and bags of Italian designer clothing from Dolce and Gabbana, Armani, Vesace and Gucci.  But Brad and I are not typical people.  We do not follow the latest fashion trends but listen to the voice within our ... stomachs.  Yes, we are gastronomically driven.  That's how we roll.




The only souvenirs that we brought back from 14 days en Italia were a few bottles of red wine, a bottle of Monk Hooch (ie lemoncello made in a monastary by silent monks) and a bottle of 21 year old aged balsamic vinegar.  Booze and vinegar.  Viva Italia! 
The balsamic was twenty-one years of aged acidic perfection in a little bottle.  In a word, it was my bliss -- bottled.   It was slightly thicker than the balsamic vinegar you get here and absolutely amazing.  I coveted that bottle and only used it sparingly as I drizzled it over strawberries and salads.  Truly divine.
Since then I’m always on the hunt for a new use for balsamic.  One of my favourite store bought salad dressings is President’s Choice ‘Maple Balsamic’ dressing.  It is a fabulous dressing but I wanted to make it from scratch.  Homemade is always better, right?
With a little trial and error I came up with this dressing and it rocked my socks off when I drizzled it over a baby spinach/leafy green salad that included the sweetness of sliced strawberries (if you can find them this time of year), mandarin orange segments, red onion and little dabs of creamy goat cheese.  I loved it so much that I've eaten this salad every day for three days straight.  It's that good! 

It's a truly impressive salad and a delight for your taste buds.  Paired with some simple grilled meat and a crusty baguette and you've got yourself a great, yet simple meal.  Buon appetito!
 



1/4 cup balsamic vinegar (the best you can find, if possible)
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp REAL maple syrup
2 tbsp + 1 tsp Dijon mustard
3/4 cup grapeseed or olive oil
salt and pepper - to taste

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium bowl.  With a whisk, briskly combine.  Serve over a salad containing: baby spinach, leafy greens, strawberry slices, mandarin orange segments, red onion slices, goat cheese and sliced almonds (optional).

Store leftover dressing in a sealed container in the fridge for up to one week.  Stir well before using.

Note: the balsamic vinegar that I typically use is by President's Choice

I've linked this recipe to the following parties:
  Totally Tasty Tuesdays


Thursday, 3 January 2013

Our Resolution to 'Do More Good'

Do any of you make New Year's Resolutions?  You know what I mean, right?  Like promising to swear off coffee.  Or to lose 20lbs by bathing suit season.  Or to stop watching reality TV?  By the way, those three will never make my top 100 of New Year's Resolutions!  Ever!

Personally, I'm just too lazy to try to figure out what I want to put down as my resolution.  Rather than set myself up for an inevitable disappointment by not following through I've decided to make a family resolution.  Our family is going to do only one resolution together and say that in 2013 we are going to try to do one thing a lot more often ...

1. Do good ... just cuz

Why?  Because it just feels good to do good!!

My family got off to a good start last week actually during the Christmas festivities.  As I've stated before my parents have 10 grandchildren.  We are admittedly a family of breeders.  My parents are well aware that their grandkids (ages 3-13) have more than enough toys and techie gadgets so they wanted to get them something more meaningful.  My parents are all about giving 'experience' gifts and giving back to others. 

So, this year each of the grandchildren were given .... a goat.  Yup, they each received a little rubber goat figurine (which they then named).  These goats will soon be taken by my parents' friends to Africa where they'll be traded in for real goats and given to a local village.  So 10 little goats - Steve, Maple, Phil, Gangnam, Carter, Crosby, Lily, Flubber, Milley and Bucky will soon be flying over to Africa to help children in need and our kids will receive a picture of each of their goats in their new home in Africa.  Kinda nice, eh? 

Were the kids a little confused that they got a rubber goat from Nanny and Papa?  A little (but to be fair, they've never received livestock, rubber or otherwise, before) but they took it in stride.  We are not known for being a 'normal' family.  "You gave me a goat?  Sure, why not!?  Thank you and Merry Christmas!  Pass the egg nog, please!"

Knowing that the kids were happy about where their goats were headed (but maybe still hoping to open a little 'somethin' somethin'' from their grandparents) they were then each surprised with airfare to visit Nanny and Papa (along with their respective parents, of course) at their condo in Florida sometime this winter!  The message my parents gave to the kids was that here in Canada we have A LOT.  Others in the world are not so lucky so let's pay it forward before we enjoy even more blessings here.  A good message if ever there was one.

Now, there's another way that we gave back this holiday season and I'm a little embarrassed to say that it took us a long time to do it.  We needed to 'pass it on'.  See, around Easter last year Brad was away so I had taken the kids out for breakfast.   We had gone to a local restaurant and were having a quiet meal.  When I asked for the cheque the waitress said' Oh, don't worry about it. It's been taken care of."  I was ever so confused and thought I was having a blonde moment.  Huh?  I hadn't paid yet, had I?  Me, being ever the sceptic, replied "How?".  The waitress leaned in and said "I'm not supposed to say this but the family that used to be sitting over there paid for your bill before they left.  They said to have a good weekend and to pass it on."

For the life of me I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that a virtual stranger, a family of strangers at that, looked upon my little family and secretly paid for our meal out of the kindness of their hearts.  I was honestly gobsmacked and humbled ... and still a little confused, if I'm being honest.  Then I took it for what it was.  A true gesture of kindness; done without needing or wanting a thank you.

Since then, I've been meaning to 'pass it on'.  Better late than never, right?  So, last Thursday we took the kids out for breakfast at different restaurant.  Brad and I were enjoying our meals and were in awe of how Boy 1 and Boy 2 inhaled their respective Hungryman breakfast platters with gusto while Missy Moo nibbled at her strawberry waffles.  Brad and I were also taking the time to scout out the other patrons.  Very cloak and dagger, 007-like.  We were cool about it.  Who were we going to 'pay it forward' to? 

Eventually we spied a grandfather and his two grandsons ordering their breakfast.  Once their order was given Brad followed their server (who was also our server) and asked for their bill to be put on ours.  Now it was her turn to be confused.  "Why, sir?  Do you know them?", she asked.  "Nope.  Just paying it forward".  I get warm fuzzies still just thinking about what their expressions were like when they were told someone had paid it forward. :)

So will we do it again?  100% yes!  It not only does something nice for other people but it shows our kids that doing something nice gives you warm fuzzies and makes some good family memories too.  A little gesture goes a long, long way.  From Canada to Africa to the local breakfast spot.  And if we can keep the 'pay it forward' going?  All the better for everyone.

So have any of you 'paid it forward' before?  Do you have any other ways in which you can pay it forward as a family?  I'd love some other ideas!

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