Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My Mexican Christmas Vacation

Ola, y'all!!  I'm back from a week in Mexico (plus a few days to recuperate).  I went down to the Hard Rock Hotel - Riviera Maya (about an hour south of Cancun) for a week of relaxation, food, fun and frivolity with my parents, sisters, spouses and our ten kids, ages 6-16.  As usual, we were a force to be reckoned with!

This was our third trip with our entire family.  The first two times - 6 and 8 years ago - we went to the Orlando area, rented a house(s) and hit the amusement parks.  With the kids being older, this time we opted for an all-inclusive beach vacay and I'm so glad we did.  This was the first all-inclusive for Brad and I and the Hard Rock has set the bar very high.

There was still no snow here in south-western Ontario but my clan was itching to bring our pasty white bodies into the sun for a week.  Unfortunately things started out rather rough when, as we arrived at the airport in Toronto at 7am, we were told that our flight would be delayed from 10:15am to 2:45pm with no reason given.  Not cool Sunwing, not cool.  We were given $15 food vouchers for our 'trouble' and asked to be patient.  No worries, our clan makes fun wherever we go. Until we were told hours later that we'd be delayed yet again and oh ya, you have to go to another gate to wait so we hauled our brood to the other end of the terminal.

At that point it was a lot less fun because we had ten tired kids who had been awake since 4:30am.  Needless to say we were less than happy with Sunwing (who were still giving no info to their customers) because our 10:15am flight didn't actually take off until 4:30pm making us miss 6 hours of sun and fun (which we had paid for dearly) in Mexico.  We arrived at our hotel, the glorious Hard Rock Hotel, at about 10pm.

After that, things were great because, come on, we were in Mexico at an all-inclusive resort!!  The Hard Rock is where it's at!!  It's a beautiful, huge resort - one side for families and the other named Heaven for adults-only - with beautiful views, gorgeous rooms, SUN and +30C weather!!  While the coast itself is very rocky in that area Hard Rock has built a rock wall to keep the huge waves out which gives their guests a large swimming area to snorkel among the wee fishes who can come and go through three openings.  There was always lots of chaises to relax in too (which I hear is an issue at some big resorts) and very helpful staff.

One of the beach areas
There are pools everywhere, beautiful views and staff that went out of their way to ensure that we were having a great time.  Everyone from the cleaning staff, to the waiters (who brought us our Bahama Mamas, Pink Flamingo, cervezas and Mango Tangos for the kids) to the entertainment staff always greeted us with a smile and a friendly 'Ola!'.

Did I mention the food?  Oh m'gravy.  We ate and ate and ate, y'all!  So much so that I gained 6lbs on this trip.  Gah!  But, in my defense, there is no way you can pass up the opportunity to eat a delicious French meal of delicate beef tenderloin or goat cheese stuffed salmon at Le Petit Cochon (the Little Pig) or a huge Brazilian feast at Ipanema complete with 8 different meats and wonderful rotisseried spiced pineapple (I could eat that bliss all day long!).  There's just no saying 'no, gracias por favor' when you're offered such divine culinary treats.  My boys, they of perpetual hunger yet abs of steel, loved the room service that was all included so there were many times that the kids ordered up some burgers or other treats in the evenings when they were hungry, yet again.  S'all good.  They're on vacation and have the gastronomical fortitude to eat and eat and eat!

For those who have food allergies Hard Rock did a good job by giving us cards that explained peanut allergies in Spanish so the staff could know the severity of the two peanut allergies among us.  There were still instances of language barriers but overall we felt they handled it well.

Sun and fun was the name of the game and Hard Rock came through big time on that front.  From water aerobics, to a visit from Santa on Christmas Day, to karaoke in the main lobby to evening shows with circus performs, fire and drums and even foam pool parties we had a great time.  What's a foam party, you ask?  It's where staff use a foam cannon to spray guests who are dancing in the pool shaking long balloons.  The kids - big and little - loved this!

Foam party!!!!  What a blast!
We also went on two day trips and they were pretty good.  We did a half day in the ancient ruins of Tulum which gave us a good overview of some Mexican culture and history. We also visited two cenotes (sen-o-tays) aka underground rivers that run throughout the area.  We swam/floated through them looking at various rock formations, stalactites/stalagmites while fruit bats flew overhead.  For someone like me who doesn't like tight spaces, having tonnes of rock above her head that 'could' fall down and crush her or BATS I thought it was amazing and I'm so glad that I put on my big girl panties and did it. 

Hard hats and head lights. Check!
Now venture into the dark, bat filled cave. Gah!
The second cenote was pretty as we snorkeled through it but it wasn't nearly as big as we were expecting.  

Boy 1 en snorkel in the second cenote

In this second cenote, it was cool to step off an underwater rock to find a 40 foot drop below you.  It gave you the feeling of flying and I was proud of myself that I didn't let my imagination get away with itself and ponder what was in the deeper, darker depths below me, like some prehistoric Mexican water monster waiting to eat me. Ya, I'm glad I had that imagination in check.  Gulp!

Overall, this was a great trip.  Travelling to and fro was the worst part with the delays both ways but with family, food, a beautiful location and a whole lot of fun in the sun we had a Christmas we'll never forget.  A huge thanks to all of the staff at the Hard Rock Riviera Maya for helping to give us an amazing family vacation.

Me poolside with my mini Bubba Keg.
A necessity to keep your bevvies cold!
I hope you all had a great Christmas and holidays and I wish you all a fantastic 2016!  I'm eager to chat with you about all things book and food in the coming year!

Disclaimer: All thoughts and opinions about Hard Rock Hotel and other places/companies mentioned are completely my own.  I was, in no way, compensated for this review.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Caramel Apple Cheesecake Squares

Last weekend was my Mom's birthday so the whole gang got together and went to the theeeatre (said with a posh accent).  My parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, mother-in-law and an extra ten people because ... why not?  We love live theatre and are lucky to have several rather stellar theatres in the area. 

In order to celebrate my Mom in our true style we had copious amounts of food for supper before the show.  I learned my ability to over provide food for a group from my dear old mother.  It's her super power. 

My job was to bring the dessert.  I still had a hankering for an apple dessert. Maybe it's because here in my neck of the woods (south-western Ontario) we still don't have any snow.  It still feels like Fall so the Apple Force was still strong within me.

This dessert was amazing!  When you're making it, it feels like a lot of little steps as you put together this four layer dessert but it comes together easily and is outstanding for a group of people.  I got lots of ooooos and ahhhs when I served this up for a family gathering and luckily enough the few leftovers came home with us.

3 large Granny Smith apples - peeled, cored and diced
2 tbsp white sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg

Streusel Topping
1 cup light brown sugar - firmly packed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup quick cooking oats
1/2 cup butter, softened

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar - firmly packed
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup butter, softened

Cheesecake Layer
2 (8oz) packages of cream cheese - softened
1/2 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Garnish - caramel ice cream topping

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line a 9x13-inch baking pan with parchment paper.  Spray lightly with oil and set aside.

Prepare Apples - In a medium bowl, stir together: apples, 2 tbsp white sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Set aside.

Prepare Streusel topping - In a medium bowl, combine streusel topping ingredients and mix well until crumbly.  It will appear fairly moist.  Set aside.

Prepare Base: In a medium bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, salt and cinnamon.  Cut in butter using a pasty blender or two knives until mixture is still crumbly but combined. Press evenly into the prepared 9x13-inch baking pan.  Bake for 12 minutes or until lightly golden brown.

Prepare cheesecake layer - While crust is baking, beat cream cheese and 1/2 cup white sugar using your stand mixer (or a large bowl by hand) until smooth.  Add eggs, one at a time mixing well in between.  Add vanilla and mix again.  Pour over the warm crust.

Spoon apple mixture over the cream cheese layer.  Using your hands, sprinkle the streusel layer evenly over the apples.  Bake for 30 - 35 minutes or until the filling is set.

Cool bars to room temperature.  Trim off any excess parchment paper that's around the edge.  Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, drizzle caramel sauce over each individual square and a little on the plate for garnish.  Store any leftovers in the fridge.

Note: For a recipe for homemade caramel sauce please refer to the link from Mel's Kitchen Cafe.  I just used simple caramel ice cream topping ... because I'm lazy.

Inspired by: One of my favourite foodie blogs -- Mel's Kitchen Cafe - Caramel Apple Cheesecake Bars with Streusel Topping

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

What Was Mine

Author: Helen Klein Ross
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Gallery, Threshold, Pocket Books
First Published: January 5, 2016
First Line: "Kidnapped."

Book Description from GoodReadsSimply told but deeply affecting, in the bestselling tradition of Alice McDermott and Tom Perrotta, this urgent novel unravels the heartrending yet unsentimental tale of a woman who kidnaps a baby in a superstore—and gets away with it for twenty-one years.

Lucy Wakefield is a seemingly ordinary woman who does something extraordinary in a desperate moment: she takes a baby girl from a shopping cart and raises her as her own. It’s a secret she manages to keep for over two decades—from her daughter, the babysitter who helped raise her, family, coworkers, and friends.

When Lucy’s now-grown daughter Mia discovers the devastating truth of her origins, she is overwhelmed by confusion and anger and determines not to speak again to the mother who raised her. She reaches out to her birth mother for a tearful reunion, and Lucy is forced to flee to China to avoid prosecution. What follows is a ripple effect that alters the lives of many and challenges our understanding of the very meaning of motherhood.

Author Helen Klein Ross, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, weaves a powerful story of upheaval and resilience told from the alternating perspectives of Lucy, Mia, Mia’s birth mother, and others intimately involved in the kidnapping. What Was Mine is a compelling tale of motherhood and loss, of grief and hope, and the life-shattering effects of a single, irrevocable moment.

My Review: In her new book, What Was Mine, author Helen Klein Ross brings a parental nightmare - having your child stolen from you - to the forefront in this exciting read.  And while this book had no violence to speak of, this blogging mother of three found it to be quite emotional and even creepy as it brings to light one of motherhood's biggest fears.  

At the heart of this book is emotion. Klein Ross brings up so many conflicting feelings in her characters.  Giving the story a more personal feel is the addition of numerous points of view - including Lucy, Marilyn, Mia and even very tertiary characters.  Despite of, or maybe because of, the ever-changing POVs the pace of the book (at least the first half) was quite fast, it flowed remarkably well and the addition of the other opinions gave the story a very well-rounded feel.

I will admit that I enjoyed the first half of the book a lot more.  It focuses on Lucy (the kidnapper) and how she raises Natalie/Mia on her own. The reader gets to see Lucy's rationale for taking the baby, her constant fear of being caught and ultimately her love and devotion for this girl.  Did she intend to inflict years of torment on others when she took the baby or was she filled with such an ache for a child of her own that she rationalized her actions to the point where they became her truth?  Does the fact that Lucy raises Mia in a loving home negate the fact that she stole her?  Lucy builds a new life with 'her' daughter that is built on lies and the reader knows that eventually this house of cards will come crashing down upon them all.

Even though the reader knows how things are going pan out it doesn't make the ride any less interesting.  My only negatives about the book stem from the ending (quite abrupt and not very satisfying) and the second half of the book when Lucy moves on which lacked the tension of the first half of the book.  I suppose I wanted more emotion and conflict between the parties involved.  Instead the second half of the book focuses on Lucy's new life and Marilyn and Mia's budding relationship. 

I enjoyed that emotional and ethical issues were raised and I was surprised when I found myself changing my allegiances as I read.  No one character was without fault.  There was emotion all over the place -- betrayal, loss, grief, devotion, love ... and yet the issues aren't black and white. No one comes out of this incident and its aftermath unscathed. 

The fact that certain characters didn't have the reactions I was expecting and that things aren't always cut and dry made the book have a very realistic tone.  Neither mother was perfect.  Each had her own strengths and faults. I was quite surprised at how much I liked Lucy despite her issues and her egregious mistake. I thought Marilyn would be the character I'd be drawn to but unfortunately I found her to be too over the top and cliched. 

Klein Ross gives an interesting take on a delicate and emotional situation by showing the inner thoughts of both mothers.  This was a very easy read (I read it in a little over one day) and the cover picture is beautifully chilling. There are wonderfully complex relationships that would make for amazing book club discussions (FYI - there are questions in the back of the book to get book club discussions started). 

What Was Mine is a well written book about betrayal, loss and the bond between mother and daughter.  It's about the nature vs nurture issue and the ferocity, complexity and depth of love a mother has for her child. 

My Rating: 4/5 stars

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

Monday, 14 December 2015

Spicy Shrimp Pasta with Lemon & Garlic

A little while ago we had bought a big 'ol bag of frozen cooked shrimp from Costco.  Boy 1 (aka el carnivore) adores seafood so we thought we'd whip up a dish using these little crustaceans for him.  It seemed that Boy 1 had his own recipe in mind so he ended up making himself a big Bang Bang Shrimp wrap for his supper.  No boy was ever happier.

Brad and I wanted to make a shrimp pasta dish so I went online and found out that Emeril - King of the Food Network - had a recipe that would suit us well except that his used raw shrimp.  No biggie.  We made some adjustments (which I have outlined in the recipe below) and this turned out to be a fabulous meal!  If you have raw shrimp on hand, no worries, I've added in the extra step you'll take.

Easy to prep and on the table quickly, this meal had the right amount of heat using Emeril's Essence spice mix and I adored the fresh lemon with the shrimp.  This recipe is definitely a keeper!

20-25 (1 1/4 lbs) large COOKED shrimp - peeled, deveined and tails removed
2 tsp Emeril's Essence (recipe to follow)
1lb spaghettini
2 tsp grapeseed or olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp garlic, minced (about 4 large cloves)
1/2 cup dry white wine (optional - I didn't use any)
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Optional Garnish - 1/4 cup chopped green onions

Emeril's Essence Creole Seasoning (aka 'Bayou Blast')
2 1/2 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp salt
2 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp onion powder
1 tbsp cayenne pepper (I halved this)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp dried thyme

Combine all of the Essence Creole seasonings together and mix well.

In a medium bowl, toss the shrimp with the Essence seasoning and set aside.

Cook pasta according to package directions.  Once cooked, drain well and drizzle a little oil over it to prevent it from sticking and toss.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet, pour oil and 2 tbsp of butter and heat over medium-high heat.  

IF USING UNCOOKED SHRIMP ADD THIS STEP - Add shrimp to the pan, spreading them to form an even layer.  Cook for 2 minutes then flip them.

Add garlic to the pan and cook for 30 seconds.  Add wine (if using), lemon juice, zest and your seasoned shrimp.  Cook for 1 1/2 minutes more.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the cooked pasta, crushed red pepper flakes and green onions.  Toss to coat well.  Serve immediately.

Tip: I use Emeril's Essence Creole Seasoning on all kinds of meat, including a liberal sprinkle before I sear beef for stew.  Soooo delish!

Inspired by: Emeril's Shrimp and Pasta with Chilis, Garlic, Lemon and Green Onions

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The Things We Keep

Author: Sally Hepworth
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Kindle e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: January 19, 2016
First Line: "Fifteen months ago ... No one trust anything I say."

Book Description from GoodReadsAnna Forster, in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease at only thirty-eight years old, knows that her family is doing what they believe to be best when they take her to Rosalind House, an assisted living facility. She also knows there's just one another resident her age, Luke. What she does not expect is the love that blossoms between her and Luke even as she resists her new life at Rosalind House. As her disease steals more and more of her memory, Anna fights to hold on to what she knows, including her relationship with Luke.

When Eve Bennett is suddenly thrust into the role of single mother she finds herself putting her culinary training to use at Rosalind house. When she meets Anna and Luke she is moved by the bond the pair has forged. But when a tragic incident leads Anna's and Luke's families to separate them, Eve finds herself questioning what she is willing to risk to help them.

My Review: Alzheimer's is a disease that has greatly affected my family.  My Nana suffered from it for many years before her death more than ten years ago, at the age of 90, and her loss still greatly affects me today.  I hate Alzheimer's.  It's cruel because it slowly and painfully takes away your loved ones long before their bodies give out.  

In her latest book, The Things We Keep, author Sally Hepworth brings her readers into the world of those suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia.  She includes story lines about people with the disease, their loved ones and those caring for them.  This is also a book about people struggling in their lives.  From Anna and Luke, two young people who are slowly losing themselves to a tragic disease, to seven year old Clementine and her mother Eve who have to pick up the pieces of their lives that were thrown off course by someone else's bad decision.  Also included are the other residents of the residential home.  All of these people have issues that they have to deal with that are out of their control.

This was a compelling read that I read in a little over one day.  Even though it deals with some heavy topics it was an easy read.  The writing was good, there was some romance that fit the story well and the characters felt believable and quite varied.  

I enjoyed the fact that the story was told using multiple voices - Eve, Anna and even wee Clementine, whose innocence and joy were a wonderful balance considering some of the topics in the book.  But, while the story line at times was touching it wasn't quite Kleenex worthy for me. 

I praise Hepworth for giving her readers a realistic and honest look into life with Alzheimer's - from the patient's view as well as the view from caregivers and family.  Getting a look at Anna's life through her own eyes gave me a better understanding of my Nana's life with Alzheimer's and how she could have viewed the world and her failing memory.  Seeing how Anna was aware of, afraid of and sad about her own decline was touching.  And being able to read about how much the caregivers loved and cared for their patients was also a nice addition as well.

Hepworth brings these issues to the table with sensitivity and informs her readers about the effects of the disease without it ever having a 'teachy' feel.  For example, I liked how the book dealt with the rights of those with dementia. Just because someone has Alzheimer's and will forget everyday moments doesn't mean that they can't love and feel love at some level.  But how do we protect them while still maintaining their liberties?  Hepworth shows what Anna and Luke's loved ones go through as they try to protect Anna and Luke and struggle to come to terms with slowly losing them.

The Things We Keep also showcases the type and extent of care Alzheimer patients require.  I especially liked how, in one scene, a nurse dealt with Anna's confusion/upset and essentially went along with what Anna believed.  She didn't try to correct Anna just to prove that she was right.  I remember going along with my Nana's thoughts that we were in the 1940's or that I was my mother.  That was her reality.  She was happy.  Why try to correct her?  I loved that the author brought that out in the story.

My only complaint is how the story is told.  Anna's story is told in reverse order (starting about 14 months back) while Eve's story begins in current day.  Their stories intertwine as the story progresses but it felt a little confusing at times and wasn't handled as smoothly as I would have hoped.

This was a sweet, heart-breaking and yet somehow uplifting book about love and the resilience of a person's spirit despite a devastating disease that chips away at the fabric of a person's identity and self.  It's about leaving the preconceived notions we have of people at the door and getting to know people for who they really are on the inside.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to Sally Hepworth, St Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Yes, My Accent is Real: And Some Other Stuff I Haven't Told You

Author: Kunal Nayyar
Genre: Memoire
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 272
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Atria Books
First Published: September 15, 2015
First Line: "Sometimes people ask me, 'Why are you writing a memoire?  You're only thirty-four."

Book Description from GoodReadsOf all the charming misfits on television, there’s no doubt Raj from The Big Bang Theory — the sincere yet incurably geeky Indian-American astrophysicist — ranks among the misfittingest. Now, we meet the actor who is every bit as loveable as the character he plays on TV. In this revealing collection of essays written in his irreverent, hilarious, and self-deprecating voice, Kunal Nayyar traces his journey from a little boy in New Delhi who mistakes an awkward first kiss for a sacred commitment, gets nosebleeds chugging Coca-Cola to impress other students, and excels in the sport of badminton, to the confident, successful actor on the set of TV’s most-watched sitcom since Friends.

Going behind the scenes of The Big Bang Theory and into his personal experiences, Kunal introduces readers to the people who helped him grow, such as his James Bond-loving, mustachioed father who taught him the most important lessons in life: Treat a beggar as you would a king. There are two sides to every story. A smile goes a long way. And, when in doubt, use a spreadsheet. Kunal also walks us through his college years in Portland, where he takes his first sips of alcohol and learns to let loose with his French, 6’8” gentle-giant roommate, works his first-ever job for the university’s housekeeping department cleaning toilets for minimum wage, and begins a series of romantic exploits that go just about as well as they would for Raj. (That is, until he meets and marries a former Miss India in an elaborate seven-day event that we get to experience in a chapter titled “My Big Fat Indian Wedding.”)

Full of heart, but never taking itself too seriously, this witty and often inspiring collection of underdog tales follows a young man as he traverses two continents in search of a dream, along the way transcending culture and language (and many, many embarrassing incidents) to somehow miraculously land the role of a lifetime.

My Review: I'm a fan of The Big Bang Theory so when I saw 'Raj's' lovable face on the front of the book I knew I'd be picking it up pronto.  Going into the book I was expecting a knee slapping kind of funny memoir about a guy from a super popular TV show.  

And then I read the book description.  

Instead of writing an autobiography Kunal says he has compiled a "collection of stories from my life" - anecdotes as he grew up, if you will.  Some are dorky, some are funny, some rather embarrassing and most are interesting.  But they're all Kunal and the reader gets a sense of who he is from his writing.  It's not a hilarious, sometimes witty read.  It's a good way for readers to get to know Kunal, where he came from, how he went from king of the badminton courts in India to cleaning toilets in Portland to playing the awkward but lovable Raj.  

Kunal is charming, quirky, a little dorky but quite endearing.   He spends some time telling about his childhood growing up in India, his misadventures in the dating world (which are very reminiscent of Raj's women woes), his professional struggles and finally meeting his wife.  He is a tender soul who is deeply grounded in family.  His relationship with is parents, especially his father, as well as his wife were touching.  That said, the fan in me couldn't help but feel anxious to get to when he started on the Big Bang Theory.  But this book isn't about his Big Bang fame.  Like Kunal says, it's a bunch of stories about his life so fans hoping for a glimpse of behind the scenes at the Big Bang Theory may feel a little disappointed.

Overall this was a good read but not quite the page turner I was hoping for.  Admittedly, the stories he told were much more sedate than I was expecting.  Instead of being a laugh a minute, Kunal chats about parts of his life so far and gives readers a look at the guy behind Raj. I think that he's fairly similar to Raj in that he seems like a sweet, normal guy who had some truly awkward stages growing up (didn't we all?).  It was interesting to see his journey - the good, the bad and the awkward - which ended with him being on one of the most popular sitcoms on TV today but I wish that some pictures would have been included in the book.  But it's honesty and his self-deprecating humour (my favourite kind!) that pulls readers in with some rather funny one-liners sprinkled throughout the book that truly shine in this book.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Sam's Story - Book One

Author: Amy D Crusan-Kramer
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Series: 1st book in the Skylar series
Type: e-book
Source: Directly from author
Publisher: BookBaby
First Published: January 15, 2013
First Line: "The FBI report accurately covers the events of the first fourteen years of my life."

Book Description from GoodReadsIn this captivating saga, Samantha Skylar experiences undying passion and endures one horrific act of brutality that sweeps her into the arms of the second most powerful man in the country. Samantha’s journey takes her from the poverty and close-minded attitudes of a tiny, coal-mining town in West Virginia, to the estate of one of Atlanta’s oldest and wealthiest families. This epic trilogy follows Samantha from the age of 14 to 40.

Book One opens in 1978. Sam is fourteen and living in Boone County, West Virginia, a place that isn't accepting of Roe v. Wade or the Equal Rights Amendment. Sam is different; she knows it and her doting grandmother knows it. Neither of them is content with the idea of her ending up the way her sisters did: married to a coal miner and raising another generation of miners and downtrodden women. As the beneficiary of her grandma's love, Sam absorbed her progressive outlook and beliefs, which caused her to question the status quo.

Of course, being different isn't a good thing in a small conservative town, both Sam and her grandmother discover that in the cruelest way possible. Tragedy strikes and we're given a glimpse of the strength that lies within Samantha and how she deals with adversity. The first book follows Sam to Atlanta and chronicles her first four turbulent months in her new city.

My Review: I was eager to pick up this book because I love sweeping sagas and with this book being the beginning of a trilogy I thought it fit the bill.  I do so love a good saga that pulls you in!  This book series begins by following the life of 14 year old Samantha Skylar who lives in a small West Virginia town in the late 1970's and includes all the trials and tribulations that come with living in a tiny, gossip-laden town as well as her move to a much bigger city.

Unfortunately, I really struggled to stay interested in the characters and plot for the first three quarters or so of the book.  It actually took me several weeks to get to that point.  I'd read a chapter and put it down because it just didn't keep my interest.  Sadly, for a book of this size not a lot happened plot-wise and I felt frustrated about a few things.  

First, the writing wasn't strong and felt too detailed in that every thought and feeling that Sam had was put down in writing.  It sometimes felt like the same conversations were happening over and over.  There were also excessive bouts of 'telling instead of showing' which really bogged down the pace of the book and made the book feel overly long.

Secondly, the first third of the book focuses on a teenage relationship but I couldn't shake the feeling that it was more of an After School TV Special about sex.  Too many issues were spelled out for the reader giving the writing a very 'teachy' tone. Steamy sex scenes abound in the first part of the book and I think that was meant to show the connection between Sam and her boyfriend.  I get that they have deep feelings for each other but the book seemed to focus so much more on their connection between the sheets than outside of the bedroom.  I'm no prude but reading about all this sex this 14 year old is having and the fact that much older men are constantly drawn to her gave me more of an icky feeling than the romantic feel that I think the author was going for.

Sam herself was a sweet girl but very naive and I can see how other readers easily got behind her.  You want to root for her because she has so many people and issues against her.  She's nothing if not resilient and even though you question many of her choices you know that in her corner she has a deep support system, especially with her grandmother.  Their relationship was very deep and sweet with their mutual love of the Atlanta Braves and how her grandmother supported her no matter what happened.  A cast of secondary characters, including the generous and loving people who take in Sam, were believable and rounded out the cast.

The book takes an interesting turn around three quarters of the way through (the 70% mark) and it's at that point that I started to get more involved in the story line and Sam's life.  The writing and flow was better and the book from that point on honestly had a different feel to it which I enjoyed.

Overall, I am very much in the minority with my review but this just wasn't the book for me.  It wasn't as captivating of a read as I was expecting for a book that deals with such serious issues. I applaud the author for bringing teen issues to the forefront including teen pregnancy, contraception, small town issues and yet never having a preachy feel to her writing.  Unfortunately, I do not plan to read more from this series.

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to author Amy Crusan-Kramer for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Creamy Portobello Mushroom Bacon Pasta

Last week I found myself wandering the food store wondering what to make for supper.  This is not a new occurrence because I often like to get inspiration as I shop or as I like to call it 'planning dinner on the fly'.  Sometimes I be crazy like that.

As I was perusing the peppers and admiring the avocados I came upon a portobello mushroom as big as my face.  Yup.  He was a big 'un.  The culinary wheels started turning in my old noggin and I came up with a pasta that Brad and I really enjoyed.  My kids were having none of the humongous fungus and that was fine with us. It was creamy, delicious, quite filling and great for lunch the next day too.  For those of you who prefer vegetarian fare you can leave out the bacon.  

All hail the humungoug fungus!  Meaty without the meat.  I do so love 'em!  Enjoy!

1 lb rotini pasta
1 very large portobello mushroom (or the equivalent)
1/2 large tomato - seeded and diced
3 tbsp grapeseed or olive oil
3/4 cup white onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp ground thyme
2 cups half and half creamer (or 1 cup milk + 1 cup cream)
2 tsp cornstarch
1 tbsp water
1 1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
4 bacon cooked bacon slices, crumbled (or 3/4 cup precooked, crumbled real bacon bits)

Garnish - 2 green onions, chopped

Clean mushroom with a dry cloth to remove dirt.  Remove the stem.  Slice the large mushroom in half and then in 1/4-inch thick pieces.  Set aside.

Tidbit: Mushrooms are like delicious sponges so if you wash them they'll soak up some of the water and will release it in your dish as it cooks.  Just wipe them with a dry cloth or a damp paper towel.  Remember, you're eager to eat a fungus which grow in the dirt.  Them's the breaks.

Please excuse the awkward hand posing.  A hand model I am not.
Prepare pasta according to package directions.  Drain and drizzle with some oil to avoid pasta sticking to itself.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes. {Cooking at this higher temperature will get rid of the excess moisture that mushrooms naturally hold.}  Remove mushrooms from skillet, cover and set aside.  Add white onions, garlic and thyme to the skillet.  Cook for 4 more minutes or until onions are soft.

Add half and half to skillet.  Mix cornstarch with the water until smooth.  Add to the skillet.  Add mushrooms back into the skillet and increase heat to medium-high heat to thicken sauce.  Add tomatoes, cooked pasta, Parmesan and bacon.

Garnish with green onions, more fresh Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper.

Source: The Baking Bookworm

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Lost Ocean

Author: Johanna Basford
Genre: Colouring Book
Type: Paperback
Pages: 80
Source: Random House Publishing
Publisher: Penguin Books
First Published: October 27, 2015
First Line: "Lost Ocean is an inky adventure beneath the waves full of enchanting illustrations for you to colour and embellish."

Book Description from GoodReadsFrom the creator of the worldwide bestsellers Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest, a beautiful new coloring book that takes you on a magical journey beneath the waves.

With Lost Ocean, Johanna Basford invites color-inners of all ages to discover an enchanting underwater world hidden in the depths of the sea. Through intricate pen and ink illustrations to complete, color, and embellish, readers will meet shoals of exotic fish, curious octopi, and delicately penned seahorses. Visit coral reefs and barnacle-studded shipwrecks, discover intricate shells and pirate treasure. Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest fans and newcomers alike will welcome this creative journey into an inky new world.

My Review: Colouring was one of my favourite hobbies to do as a child and when my children were old enough to enjoy it I'd happily join them.  There's something creative and yet so relaxing about passing the time with a gaggle of sharpened pencil crayons in seemingly every colour of the rainbow and a big colouring book.

Adult colouring books have been all the rage lately and Johanna Basford has created a wonderfully creative way for adults to enjoy colouring again.  The pages are made from thick, quality stock and are FILLED with detailed graphics of fish, octopi, sea creatures and greenery to fill hours of time or you can choose to colour in fits and spurts as your creativity desires.  Also included are various objects that readers can find within the pages of the book.

I was always the kid who went for the detailed pages of a colouring book.  I didn't want one giant cow on an entire page where I'd hardly have to colour anything at all.  I wanted detailed pictures filled with chances to use many different shades and colours.  Basford has created exactly my kind of colouring book.  And while occasionally some of the graphics are so detailed that it was hard to get even a well sharpened pencil crayon in between the lines overall this is the colouring book of my dreams.

Lost Ocean is a fun way to pass the time doing something that I loved as a child but seemed to have forgotten about as an adult.  It's something that I can spend a hour on or, more likely, sit down for twenty minutes to finish off a detailed fish before jumping back into my hectic life. Colouring can almost put you in a meditative state and I appreciate how I can happily zone out of the chaos around me and just focus on bringing the picture before me to life.

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Johanna Basford and Penguin Books for providing me with a complimentary copy of this colouring book in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, 30 November 2015

Poles Apart

Author: Terry Fallis
Genre: Humour, Contemporary Fiction, Canadian
Type: Paperback
Pages: 432
Source: Random House Publishing
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart
First Published: October 20, 2015

First Line: "Grounding your wedge in a bunker is normally a two-stroke penalty."

Book Description from GoodReadsOvernight, Eve of Equality, a new feminist blog, becomes a sensation when a wildly popular TV talk show host stumbles upon it, Tweets about it, and promotes it on her show. The blog is smart, thoughtful, funny, and bold, brazenly taking on various injustices in the lives of women. But it's the blogger Eve's post about the controversial entrepreneur behind XY, a new chain of high-end strip clubs opening up across the country that sets off a firestorm. In a matter of hours, the Eve of Equality website crashes, its Twitter count jumps from a paltry 19 followers to nearly 250,000, and Eve is suddenly lauded as the new voice of feminism.   

But who is the Eve behind Eve of Equality? Well... not who you might think. Meet Everett Kane, aspiring writer and fervent feminist. He writes his erudite blog in his apartment, at his kitchen table, conveniently but unexpectedly located right above one of the aforementioned XY strip clubs.

Hilarious and smart, and offering thoughtful commentary on a subject that is flooding our headlines, newsfeeds, Twitter streams, and society, Poles Apart is Terry Fallis at his best, confirming his status as a king of CanLit comedy.

My Review: I'm a little ashamed to say that until recently reading Poles Apart I had never read a Terry Fallis book.  Bad Canadian blogger, I am.  He's even spoken at the library where I work and yet I had never read one of his books -- until now.

What stood out for me the most with my first foray into Fallis was his down to earth humour and obvious Canadian connection.  Fallis is unabashedly Canadian (I LOVE that!).  He used Canadian characters and mentioned Canadian places and doesn't feel the need to make his characters British or American just 'cuz.  But it's Fallis' humour and his characters that really shine through.  

Although this book has a very light, easy feel and is firmly in the humour genre, Fallis brings to light many issues of gender equality/inequality in today's world that have a lot of merit.  Fallis uses his gaggle of interesting characters to showcase different aspects of gender equality - from Everett's high powered exec, ex-stay at home mom and his father who had some cringe-worthy (and funny) anti-feminist dialogue, to the former leader of the feminist movement to the stripper just trying to make ends meet while she gets her degree - all of these characters were a little quirky but had different views of the feminist issue.

The thing that struck me about this book initially was the premise about a male feminist blogger.  Awesome!  And while I enjoyed the book and found it to be a very easy read, I also found the storyline to be quite predictable.  From the get-go you kind of know how things are going to run their course.  It's just Everett who needs to catch up to what's happening and that was mildly frustrating.  For example, when the name of the business moving in on the floor below Everett's apartment is finally revealed (it was glaringly obvious to everyone except poor Everett, it seems) the 'surprise' was a little lackluster.

In the end, I'm happy that I've finally gotten on the Fallis bandwagon.  I can see why this Canuck has won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour many times here in Canada.  This was a quick, fun read that touches on many aspects of gender equality/inequality in today's world and I look forward to reading more from Fallis in the future.

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Random House Publishing for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, 27 November 2015

A Bookworm's Night to Remember - Meeting Kate Morton and Susanna Kearsley

I'm a big ol' book lover and I proudly wave my book geek flag high!  Books are a big part of my life so when have the opportunity to meet authors who consistently provide me with amazing reads I jump at the chance like a twelve year old girl with a chance to meet Taylor Swift.  Ya, I've got it bad.

When fellow book blogger Margaret from Just One More Chapter kindly informed me that a book store in Uxbridge, Ontario would be hosting an event for Australian author Kate Morton I was over the moon.  For those who don't know, Kate Morton is an internationally bestselling Australian author whose books include The Secret Keeper, The Forgotten Garden and her latest, The Lake House to name just a few.

Her books are filled with vivid descriptions, complex, intertwined storylines and characters who you will continue to think about long after you've turned the last page. And she's got a great sense of humour. Yup, she's pretty awesome.

Needless to say I was more than eager to meet her.  I called my oldest friend and fellow book lover supreme Beth to join me and bought our tickets for the event almost two months ago.  But the icing on the cake? When I called the bookstore who was hosting the event for more details they informed me that none other than Canadian author Susanna Kearsley would be interviewing Kate for part of the evening.  Susanna.  Kearsley.  

I simply adore her.  

She has written many books and actually, her book Mariana was my first blog post. But it's Susanna's book The Winter Sea (which I read years ago, well before this blog came into existence) that still haunts me.  It was perfection.  Anyway, after finding out Susanna would be there too I GEEKED OUT and texted Beth who proceeded to geek out in her own fashion during a business meeting. Oops.

Uxbridge isn't in my neck of the woods but I had no qualms about making the 350km round trip to meet these two authors. The evening was wonderful.  Susanna asked some very poignant questions to Kate and the 50 or so fans got to know more about how Kate comes up with her detailed plots, characters and imagery.  It was amazing to learn more about the writing process.  

Susanna interviewing Kate on her writing process and inspiration.
After the interview we got our books signed and while Kate had a rather large line up of fans to meet and greet she never had you feeling rushed and is quite charming and funny. Beth and I were also lucky to get a chance to speak with Susanna for quite awhile.  She was so approachable that she put these two awestruck fans immediately at ease and we had a great (yet slightly surreal) time chatting with her.

Sadly, the PR rep didn't take a clear picture of Kate and I.

Susanna and I

Needless to say Beth and I will be scouring online to find more book events.  There's nothing like talking to an author and getting one of their books that you adored signed.  I really treasure the books that I have autographed (Diana Gabaldon, Julie Lawson Timmer also signed books for me) but this event felt so much more personal and down to earth than other venues.  The entire evening was book geek heaven, y'all!  We left there with big old smiles on our faces and an evening that we'll never forget. 

Big thanks to Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, Ontario for putting on such a wonderfully run evening.

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