Friday, 21 April 2017

The Goldfish Boy

Author: Lisa Thompson
Genre: Children (Middle School), Mystery
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 313
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Scholastic Press
First Published: February 28, 2017
First Line: "Mr. Charles had sunburn right on the top of his head."

Book Description from GoodReadsMatthew Corbin suffers from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He hasn't been to school in weeks. His hands are cracked and bleeding from cleaning. He refuses to leave his bedroom. To pass the time, he observes his neighbors from his bedroom window, making mundane notes about their habits as they bustle about the cul-de-sac. 

When a toddler staying next door goes missing, it becomes apparent that Matthew was the last person to see him alive. Suddenly, Matthew finds himself at the center of a high-stakes mystery, and every one of his neighbors is a suspect. Matthew is the key to figuring out what happened and potentially saving a child's life... but is he able to do so if it means exposing his own secrets, and stepping out from the safety of his home?

My Rating: 5/5 stars

My ReviewLike a goldfish in a bowl 12-year-old Matthew Corbin sits in the second story windows of his house and witnesses life going on around him. He is unable to wander far or often from his home-bound world due to the paralyzing effects of his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 

At the heart of the book is a mystery involving a missing toddler, with Matthew being the last person to see the child. Matthew lives on a small cul-de-sac which is also home to a group of interesting and diverse characters. Readers become privy to many of the characters' stories and secrets as the mystery of the missing toddler unfolds and everyone begins to look like a suspect.

Thompson has written engaging and well-rounded characters and Matthew is an easy kid to like. He's a regular kid with extraordinary burdens to bare. Thompson provides her readers with enough of a description of OCD for them to understand without inundating them with too many facts. She describes Matthew's daily struggles to live within the confines of his OCD, his triggers and how these compulsions influence his life and the lives of his loved ones. His struggle to balance his compulsions with the need to find the missing toddler was handled well and felt believable. He has a couple of quirky sidekicks, who are also in the outer fringes of the tween social spectrum, but it was heartening to see how these three 'misfits' gain confidence and support from one another.

While this book is a mystery, it also has a lot of heart as it deals with several issues. Readers will feel for Matthew as people misinterpret his OCD behaviours as well as his parents who struggle to understand and deal with their child's perplexing behaviours. Other issues, such as bullying, social effects of food allergies and loss, are handled with sympathy, knowledge and heart.

I simply loved this book. Whether you're looking for a mystery, a peek into a young life with OCD or a group of characters that will stay with you, this book has something for everyone. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Mediterranean Zoodles with Portobello Mushrooms

I'm trying to eat better.  Emphasis on the word 'trying'. 

I love food. I love carbs. I love fatty and deep-fried foods. I reeeally love carbs (did I mention that?).  I adore crunchy kettle chips, burgers topped with blue cheese and bacon, Poutine and all the foods that should be enjoyed 'in moderation'. *sigh* 'Moderation.'  I hate that word because I don't enjoy watching what I eat.

As a child, teen and woman in her twenties and even thirties I enjoyed an exceptionally high metabolism.  I could eat whatever I wanted until the cows came home, eat the cows and still not gain an ounce.

But, as a woman in her 40's, my high metabolism has up and left me. It's GONE! Poof! Now when I eat something 'bad for me' that may not be deemed healthy, I notice it when I step on the scale. This is not cool.  High metabolism, why hast thou forsaken me?

In order to still enjoy eating and not gain weight, expand my thighs or Grinch Belly (fellow Moms, you know what belly I'm talking about) I need to choose better options. This is where my new Spiralizer comes in and how I met my new BFF 'zoodles'. I'm not talking about those tiny animal shaped pasta in tomato sauce.  I mean the noodles made out of zucchini which have become all the rage.

Now, before veggie haters start 'poo pooing' the mighty zucc noodles I have to say that I quite enjoy them. They're easy to whip up and you can top them with whatever you want. Personally, I love topping zoodles with some of my favourite Greek flavours: Kalamata olives, garlic, Feta cheese, red wine vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes.  

Total gastronirvana.

This is an easy recipe you can whip up for a quick lunch or supper.  It's simple to double or even triple and can be made vegan if you omit the Feta or use a vegan option for the cheese.  It's a tasty carb-free meal option that is filling yet very satisfying.  Is it a big serving of Buffalo Chicken Poutine?  No.  No, it is not.  But it is a good alternative so that I can occasionally enjoy some of those naughtier treats once in awhile.  All in *sigh* moderation.

Yield: 1 large serving or 2 side dishes

1 tsp grapeseed oil (or oil of your choice)
3 cloves, minced --- divided
1 medium-sized portobello mushroom, sliced
2 small zucchini
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, sliced
2 tbsp Kalamata olives, sliced
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Spiralize your zucchini into noodles.

(Note: I'm using the World Cuisine Tri-Blade Spiral Vegetable Slicer)

I tend to break up the very long noodles into more reasonable pieces (6" long). You can also cook up that odd zucchini tail (see above) that's left over from spiralizing.

In a medium-sized skillet, heat oil to medium heat.  Add 2 garlic cloves and mushroom slices; cook for 2 minutes, turning half way through, until slightly browned.  Add zoodles and remaining garlic clove. Toss to coat zoodles and mushrooms.  Cook for 2 minutes.

Add sun-dried tomato slices, Kalamata olive slices, dried oregano, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to the skillet. Toss well. 

When zoodles are al dente (don't let them get mushy!), remove from heat and serve immediately topped with feta cheese.

Source: The Baking Bookworm

Disclaimer: I was in no way compensated by World Cuisine for mentioning their product in my post.  My comments are based on my own experience with their product.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

I Found You

Author: Lisa Jewell
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Suspense
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Atria Books
First Published: April 25, 2017
First Line: "Alice Lake lives in a house by the sea."

Book Description from GoodReadsA young bride, a lonely single mother, and an amnesiac man of dubious origin lie at the heart of New York Times bestselling author Lisa Jewell’s next suspenseful drama that will appeal to fans of Liane Moriarty and Paula Hawkins.

In a windswept British seaside town, single mom Alice Lake finds a man sitting on the beach outside her house. He has no name, no jacket, and no idea how he got there. Against her better judgment, she invites him inside.

Meanwhile, in a suburb of London, twenty-one-year-old Lily Monrose has only been married for three weeks. When her new husband fails to come home from work one night she is left stranded in a new country where she knows no one. Then the police tell her that her husband never existed.

Twenty-three years earlier, Gray and Kirsty are teenagers on a summer holiday with their parents. Their annual trip to the quaint seaside town is passing by uneventfully, until an enigmatic young man starts paying extra attention to Kirsty. Something about him makes Gray uncomfortable—and it’s not just that he’s playing the role of protective older brother.

Two decades of secrets, a missing husband, and a man with no memory are at the heart of this brilliant new novel, filled with the “beautiful writing, believable characters, pacey narrative, and dark secrets” (London Daily Mail) that make Lisa Jewell so beloved by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Review: I Found You is a psychological thriller that often had me on the edge of my seat. In her latest book, Jewell weaves together an intricate story with multiple points of view which captivated me and had me questioning the identity of some of the players. 

And yet I'm finding this book hard to review. There are some great tension building scenes, a diverse cast of characters, a few time frames and a lot going on. But it worked ... until it didn't. Noooo! After the wonderful thrilling set up I was waiting for a gripping, twisty "I didn't see that coming!!" reveal but was left with an ending which felt too neat and tidy.

There are a variety of characters in the book and unhealthy, sometimes creepy and desperate, relationships abound. I know what Jewell is capable of with her characters (read her book The House We Grew Up In for stellar characterizations) but this time around they fell a flat for me. I wanted more depth to them and the fact that readers must suspend belief to believe that so many of the characters would refuse to involve the police (or medical help) when it's blatantly clear that many of the issues could be handled better by the authorities seemed an odd (and unbelievable) choice.

Alice, the single mom main character, came off as desperate, naive and not very likable. I couldn't get behind the idea of Alice bringing home a man she found on the beach like he was one of her dogs. Who does that with a house full of kids, especially after her past (which is eluded to but the details of which aren't given to the reader)?  Lily, the young newlywed, felt excessively wooden and unemotional for a young woman whose life has just been turned upside down. The characters just didn't work for me.

What stood out for me is the tension-building and the fact that the author constantly had me questioning Frank's identity. It was awesome and I spent a couple very late nights unable to put the book down. The tension-building was a solid 4 - 4.5 stars for me but the depth of the characters and the ending lowered that stellar rating for me.

While this book wasn't a home run for me it is still quite a good read and Lisa Jewell will continue to be an author I seek out. We may not always see eye-to-eye on all of her books but she can spin a good, unique tale and when I can connect with her story and characters it's a truly awesome reading experience.  My favourite book by Jewell continues to be The House We Grew Up In followed closely by The Girls in the Garden.

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

Monday, 17 April 2017

Beyond the Wild River

Author: Sarah Maine
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Atria Books (Simon and Schuster Canada)
First Published: April 18, 2017
First Line: "The gunshot lifted the rooks from the branches."

Book Description from GoodReadsFor fans of Kate Morton and Beatriz Williams, a highly atmospheric and suspenseful historical novel, set in the 1890s about a Scottish heiress who unexpectedly encounters her childhood friend in North America, five years after he disappeared from her family’s estate the night of a double murder.

Nineteen-year-old Evelyn Ballantyre has rarely strayed from her family’s estate in the Scottish Borderlands, save for the occasional trip to Edinburgh, where her father, a respected magistrate, conducts his business—and affairs of another kind. Evelyn has always done her duty as a daughter, hiding her boredom and resentment behind good manners—so when an innocent friendship with a servant is misinterpreted by her father as an illicit union, Evelyn is appalled.

Yet the consequence is a welcome one: she is to accompany her father on a trip to North America, where they’ll visit New York City, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and conclude with a fishing expedition on the Nipigon River in Canada. Now is her chance to escape her cloistered life, see the world, and reconnect with her father.

Once they’re on the Nipigon, however, Evelyn is shocked to discover that their guide is James Douglas, the former stable hand and her one-time friend who disappeared from the estate after the shootings of a poacher and a gamekeeper. Many had assumed that James had been responsible, but Evelyn never could believe it. Now, in the wilds of a new world, far from the constraints of polite society, the truth about that day, James, and her father will be revealed…to stunning consequences.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: Beyond the Wild River is an atmospheric read set in the borderlands of Scotland and the wilds of northern Ontario, my home province. The descriptions of both settings are vividly drawn for the reader, and with so much focus on Northern Ontario, it almost becomes a character in its own right. 

The plot had an intriguing premise but the execution was at a much slower pace and was less compelling than I had expected. While I enjoyed some of the descriptions of the flora and fauna, I would have preferred additional page time dedicated to plot twists and more depth to the characters, specifically Evelyn. The tension doesn't build until the last quarter of the book where things finally come to a head. Until then, there was often too much description at the expense of the plot. Readers should also expect a rather large dose of happenstance as the characters' lives merge in a very remote part of the globe.

Overall, this book was just okay. I struggled to stay invested in the story for much of the book but the ending brings many of the loose ends together for an expected yet decent conclusion. 

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Atria Books for providing me with a complimentary paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  All opinions are my own.

Thursday, 13 April 2017


Author: Kelley Armstrong
Genre: Teen, Suspense
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
First Published: April 18, 2017
First Line: "Reeve's End is the kind of town every kid can't wait to escape."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe only thing Winter Crane likes about Reeve’s End is that soon she’ll leave it. Like her best friend did. Like her sister did. Like most of the teens born in town have done. There’s nothing for them there but abandoned mines and empty futures. They’re better off taking a chance elsewhere.

The only thing Winter will miss is the woods. Her only refuge. At least it was. Until the day she found Lennon left for dead, bleeding in a tree.

But now Lennon is gone too. And he has Winter questioning what she once thought was true. What if nobody left at all? What if they’re all missing?

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Missing is an intense and sinister read that will keep you on your toes. Edge-of-your-seat, ominous and even a few gruesome scenes help create a steady build-up of tension. Add in the evil taunts by the 'bad guy' and the first half of this book has a wonderfully creepy, dark feel. 

The tone lightens a bit in the last half with less of that creepy feel and more focus on the mystery aspect as Winter tries to figure out what's happened to the missing teens from her small town of Reeves End, Kentucky. There is a smidgen of romance but, thankfully, it's kept to a minimum.  The dialogue between Winter and her love interest elicited a couple of eye rolls from this 40-something reader so I was thankful the suspense was the focus.

This was more plot-driven than character based. The characters were a bit of a mishmash - from Winter and Jude whom we get to know fairly well to a smattering of locals (including the sheriff who was a one-dimensional corrupt, lazy man who was easy to hate) and some high powered, rich people. 

The book focuses on Winter who was an okay main character but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. Some of Winter's decisions were questionable and some issues had too much of a serendipitous 'right place, right time' feel but Winter she held her own.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. The cover is eye-catching and it's a good, chilling read with twists and a sinister overtone.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Random House Children's Books and NetGalley for providing me with a complimentary e-book copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Cutaway

Author: Christina Kovac
Genre: Suspense
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Atria
First Published: March 21, 2017
First Line: "It began with someone else's story."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe Cutaway draws you into the tangled world of corruption and cover-up as a young television producer investigates the disappearance of a beautiful Georgetown lawyer in this stunning psychological thriller, perfect for fans of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn.

When brilliant TV news producer Virginia Knightly receives a disturbing “MISSING” notice on her desk related to the disappearance of a beautiful young attorney, she can’t seem to shake the image from her head. Despite skepticism from her colleagues, Knightly suspects this ambitious young lawyer may be at the heart of something far more sinister, especially since she was last seen leaving an upscale restaurant after a domestic dispute. Yet, as the only woman of power at her station, Knightly quickly finds herself investigating on her own.

Risking her career, her life, and perhaps even her own sanity, Knightly dives deep into the dark underbelly of Washington, DC business and politics in an investigation that will drag her mercilessly through the inextricable webs of corruption that bind the press, the police, and politics in our nation’s capital.

Harkening to dark thrillers such as Gone GirlLuckiest Girl Alive, and Big Little LiesThe Cutaway is a striking debut that will haunt you long after you reach the last page.

My Rating: 2 stars

My Review: I went into this debut novel eager for a gritty, suspenseful, psychological thriller set within the hustle and bustle of a network news team. But I wouldn't call it a psychological thriller, nor would I equate it with Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn's works.  Instead, it's a detailed look at the dissension within the ranks of a TV news station, a mystery surrounding a missing person and a lot of page time devoted to Virginia's love life. 

The characters needed more development in order for the reader to become invested. Virginia is tough, has a cool job but I struggled to connect with her and understand her intense, oddly obsessive, interest in this one specific missing person case. A reason is given for her obsession towards the end of the book but it was a case of 'too little, too late' for me with the reasoning not being overly unbelievable. 

The first three-quarters of the book was a slow-go for me and I waited to feel pulled into the story. The pacing and character development were weak throughout and I struggled to finish this book. I picked up this book because its blurb said it was a 'dark thriller' but Evie's disappearance felt convoluted and played second fiddle to Virginia's romantic angst. The last quarter of the book picks up the pace but by that time I wasn't invested in the plot or Virginia and was just eager for an ending.

In the end, this debut novel had an interesting premise but I wouldn't recommend it to fans looking for a psychological thriller. While the behind-the-scenes look at a TV network news station was interesting, too much time was spent on Virginia's love life while the plot surrounding the missing woman was left in the shadows for too long.

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

Friday, 7 April 2017

Baby Doll

Author: Hollie Overton
Genre: Suspense
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Redhook Books
First Published: July 12, 2016
First Line: "A deadbolt has a very specific sound."

Book Description from GoodReadsFor fans of Gone Girl and Girl on the TrainBaby Doll is the most tense thriller you will read this year.

Held captive for eight years, Lily has grown from a teenager to an adult in a small basement prison. Her daughter Sky has been a captive her whole life. But one day their captor leaves the deadbolt unlocked.

This is what happens next... her twin sister, to her mother, to her daughter...and to her captor.

My Rating: 2 stars

My Review: This book had a great premise and an enticing blurb which describes it as a good book for fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Those are big shoes to fill and unfortunately unfair and inaccurate comparisons. Whoever decides what goes into a book's blurb does a disservice to the author and loses credibility with the reader when the description doesn't accurately portray the literary product. 

This book is not a suspenseful thriller but instead documents the aftermath of what Lily and her family go through after she escapes. There are strong similarities between this book's plot and Room (the popular book by Emma Donoghue) but Baby Doll is a much lighter version. The only tension and suspenseful energy happened right at the beginning when Lily escapes.  After that it's a family drama, tangled romantic relationships and weak dialogue.

The story is narrated by four people: Lily, her twin sister Abby, their mother Eve and Rick, the man who abducted Lily. That's a lot of different perspectives but they weren't insightful or intriguing. The one perspective that was missing was little Sky's - a huge missed opportunity to see the effects of the confinement and subsequent freedom through the eyes of a child who has never experienced it.

A big issue for me was a lack of connection to the characters. I couldn't sympathize with Lily or her twin sister Abby (whose ability to add F-bombs into most of her sentences and make most situations about herself is astounding). I questioned many of their choices (especially how both were able to get away with disregarding police procedure) as well as how easily and quickly Lily and Sky recovered from their years of terror. They seemed to spring back with a new haircut and a trip to the mall. Um, wha??  It wasn't realistic and felt too superficial. Add in the abundant 'telling instead of showing' aspect with uninspired, one-dimensional characters and unconvincing dialogue and you can see why I gave this book a low rating.

This was a quick read but it had an overly dramatic 'movie-of-the-week' feel to it and a lack of tension-filled build-up in its plot. I realize I'm in the minority with my review with many other people rating it five stars. This just wasn't a book for me. 

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing the complimentary ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Mother's Promise

Author: Sally Hepworth
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 368
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: February 21, 2017
First Line: "When the doctor gave Alice Stanhope the news, she was thinking about Zoe."

Book Description from GoodReadsWith every book, Sally Hepworth becomes more and more known for her searing emotional portraits of families—and the things that test their bonds. In The Mother’s Promise, she delivers her most powerful novel yet: the story of a single mother who is dying, the troubled teenaged daughter who is battling her own demons, and the two women who come into their lives at the most critical moment. 

Alice and her daughter Zoe have been a family of two all their lives. Zoe has always struggled with crippling social anxiety and her mother has been her constant and fierce protector. With no family to speak of, and the identity of Zoe’s father shrouded in mystery, their team of two works—until it doesn’t. Until Alice gets sick and is given a grim prognosis. 

Desperate to find stability for Zoe, Alice reaches out to two women who are practically strangers, but who are her only hope: Kate, her oncology nurse, and Sonja, a social worker. As the four of them come together, a chain of events is set into motion and all four of them must confront their sharpest fears and secrets—secrets about abandonment, abuse, estrangement, and the deepest longing for family. Imbued with heart and humor in even the darkest moments, The Mother’s Promise is an unforgettable novel about the power of love and forgiveness.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review:  I have read Sally Hepworth's first two books (The Secrets of Midwives and The Things We Keep) and her writing and characterizations just keep getting better and better! Her latest bookish offering is an emotional, compulsive read that focuses on the bonds between women - especially the bond between mothers and their children.

Hepworth doesn't shy away from big issues and there are a few in this book. One of the main issues discussed is severe social anxiety disorder which, while important to the overall plot, wasn't overplayed. Hepworth's descriptions of living with this debilitating disorder felt authentic and sympathetic as she helps her readers to understand the effects it has on teenage Zoe's perception of the world around her, especially as it pertains to helping her ailing mother. 

The chapters alternate between several of the characters so readers get a varied view of the issues raised. I was most drawn to Alice and Zoe's POVs with Kate's portion of the book still interesting but playing second fiddle. I found Sonja's role in the book quite tertiary and not as strong as it could have been but I understand why her story was included.

As a mother and a daughter myself, this book touched me deeply and is given a coveted "Made Laurie Cry" award (a rare award indeed but aptly given) as Hepworth precisely describes the love and devotion mothers have for their children and the strength women can draw from each other. 

This is a powerful, emotional book that really should have a "Keep Kleenex Handy" warning on the cover.  Hepworth examines several serious issues with sympathy and respect as she focuses on what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman and a friend.  

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Say Nothing

Author: Brad Parks
Genre: Suspense
Type: ebook
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Dutton Books
First Published: March 7, 2017
First Line: "Their first move against us was so small, such an infinitesimal blip against the blaring background noise of life, I didn't register it as anything significant."

Book Description from GoodReadsA powerful and moving breakout thriller about a couple who are plunged into unimaginable terror when their children are kidnapped, and the stop at nothing compulsion to get them back.

Judge Scott Sampson doesn’t brag about having a perfect life, but the evidence is clear: A prestigious job. A beloved family. On an ordinary Wednesday afternoon, he is about to pick up his six-year-old twins to go swimming when his wife, Alison, texts him that she’ll get the kids from school instead.

It’s not until she gets home later that Scott realizes she doesn’t have the children. And she never sent the text. Then the phone rings, and every parent’s most chilling nightmare begins. A man has stolen Sam and Emma. A man who warns the judge to do exactly as he is told in a drug case he is about to rule on. If the judge fails to follow his instructions, the consequences for the children will be dire.

For Scott and Alison, the kidnapper’s call is only the beginning of a twisting, gut-churning ordeal of blackmail, deceit, and terror; a high-profile trial like none the judge or his wife has ever experienced. Their marriage falters. Suspicions and long-buried jealousies rise to the surface. Fractures appear. Lies are told.

Through it all, Scott and Alison will stop at nothing to get their children back, no matter the cost to themselves…or to each other.

My Rating: 2 stars

My Review: Say Nothing is about the abduction a federal court judge's six-year-old twins and the manipulation of the judge's caseload by the kidnappers.  

The short chapters kept the pace moving during the kidnapping and readers witness Scott's increasing mistrust of those around him. Unfortunately, I didn't have a connection with the characters, especially Scott. For a man who just lost his kids he didn't show enough emotion and came off as indecisive.  I had a hard time believing that a man who usually holds so much power as a federal judge could be so easily swayed to 'say nothing' and do nothing to save his own young children. It didn't ring true for me and doesn't make for a strong thriller when the protagonist goes along with what the kidnappers want for most of the book. I wanted him to take charge and get his kids back but instead we are at the mercy of the kidnappers who are mere caricatures of villains.

The book is touted as a thriller and while there were a couple of suspenseful scenes ultimately the book lacked tension and solid characters. Instead, the focus is on Scott's court docket and how the kidnappers want to manipulate his upcoming court cases to their benefit.  Legalese and court cases took over much of the book and may interest some readers but not this one.  I wanted more suspenseful scenes with twists, not details about patents and court cases.  At this point my interest waned drastically to where I struggled to finish the book.

The writing itself is okay but never drew me in and lacked the tension and well-rounded characters I had expected. 

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

Friday, 31 March 2017

Black Bean Tacos

One of the few meals that everyone in our family enjoys (ie. none of my kids vehemently hate) is tacos. If I mention that I'm making beef tacos for supper I get to see three smiling teenage faces and practically get a parade in my honour. I totally rock in this moment.

So, the other day I said ...

"Hey guys, we're going to have tacos tonight." 

*the parade band warms up in eager anticipation*

"Yup, we're going to try Black Bean Tacos! Yay!"   

*music promptly dies down; sound of crickets and teenage sighs of displeasure*

Okay, so with two little words I've managed to disrupt the culinary kumbaya 'sesh we were having a moment ago. Now my kids are looking at me as if I'd suggested we BBQ up some porcupine eyeballs and chase it down with a brussel sprout smoothie. They think black beans are disgusting.

But they are mistaken.  

Black beans are amazing!  They are high in fiber, potassium, folate and Vitamin B plus they have no cholesterol! I love their mild taste (similar to kidney beans) and my gall bladder likes them so much more than ground beef.  Plus, they're much easier on your wallet than ground beef which is getting more and more expensive. Sadly, these reasons are not high on the list of things that teenagers find awesome.

To appease the black bean dissenters in our house (everyone except me) I made a batch of taco meat and kept the black beans for myself.

This is great news because the Black Bean Tacos were aw-hawsome!!  I love that I can reheat them for a fast lunch. The first time I made them I only used a can of beans and seasonings.  It was tasty but not much to look at.  This time I went full on and included diced peppers and canned corn niblets (which added a nice hit of sweet).  I also added cilantro - a herb I'm learning to love. We have a complicated love/hate relationship, cilantro and I - but we're working on it. And you know what?  I LOVED the flavour cilantro gave to this dish.  Brad, on the other hand, continues his anti-cilantro stance. Cilantro is such a polarizing herb.

Tacos, in any form, are a great, easy-to-please meal that you can change up with various ingredients and garnishes. Until my family get on the black bean band wagon I'm happy to keep this easy meal idea all to myself.

Yield: 8-10 small soft tacos

1 tsp oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 small onion, diced
1 (19oz) can of black beans, rinsed well (see Note below ingredients list)
1/4 cup red pepper, diced
1/4 cup yellow pepper, diced
1/2 cup canned corn
1-3/4 tsp cumin (or to taste)
1-1/2 tsp chili powder (or to taste)
Dash of cayenne pepper or hot sauce (optional)
Juice of 1/2 large lime
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped (optional)

8-10 small tortillas or hard taco shells

Note: If you prefer, you can mash some of the black beans before adding them to the skillet for a different textured taco filling.

Garnish options
shredded lettuce
sour cream
shredded cheese
jalapeno peppers, diced

Heat oil in a small skillet over medium heat.  Add garlic and onion - cook until onion is tender.  Add black beans, red and yellow peppers, corn, cumin, chili powder, cayenne (if using), lime juice and cilantro. Stir well; reduce heat to low and continue heating mixture until it's heated through and flavours have blended (approximately 5 minutes).

Serve mixture immediately in tortilla shells and top with preferred garnishes.

Note: Tacos are not the most photogenic dishes on the planet but you get the gist. Personally, I love liberal dollops of sour cream, wee bits of jalapenos and lots of cheese.  Garnish them however you like!

Leftover bean mixture will keep in the fridge in a sealed container for a couple of days and reheat easily.  This mixture, topped with copious amounts of shredded cheese, also make great quesadillas the next day.

Source: The Baking Bookworm

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Optimists Die First

Author: Susin Nielsen
Genre: Teen, Contemporary Fiction, Canadian
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
First Published: February 21, 2017
First Line: "The first time I saw The Bionic Man I was covered in sparkles."

Book Description from GoodReadsLife ahead: Proceed with caution.

Sixteen-year-old Petula De Wilde is anything but wild. A family tragedy has made her shut herself off from the world. Once a crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula now sees danger in everything, from airplanes to ground beef.

The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class. She has nothing in common with this small band of teenage misfits, except that they all carry their own burden of guilt.

When Jacob joins their ranks, he seems so normal and confident. Petula wants nothing to do with him, or his prosthetic arm. But when they’re forced to collaborate on a unique school project, she slowly opens up, and he inspires her to face her fears.

Until a hidden truth threatens to derail everything.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Review: Last year I was introduced to Canadian author Susin Nielsen's work when I read We Are All Made of Molecules (a truly fabulous, hilarious, heart-felt book which I highly recommend).  When I heard that she had a new book out it was a no-brainer that I'd do anything to get my hands on a copy.

In Optimists Die First, Nielsen focuses her story on Petula who suffers from such a high level of anxiety that she worries about everything. The reason for her heightened anxieties are slowly revealed to the reader but meanwhile she tries to cope the best ways she can - which include participating in a peer support group and its quirky, diverse group of characters who form a unique bond with each other.

The first half of the book I was taken in by the characters and witnessing Petula's daily struggle with her multiple phobias.  But the second half, where 'teen love conquers all', held my attention less. Petula's severe and multiple anxieties seemed to be lessened not as much by therapy but by the love of a good man and I take issue with that.  Petula also seemed to overcome her deep-seated anxieties a little too easily and with this being a rather short book there wasn't page time to delve deeper into some of the teen anxiety issues that were raised. That's a shame because Nielsen approaches teen issue with such sensitivity.

Overall, this was a good read. It touches on serious topics that affect today's teens - teen mental health, grief, guilt, loss, teen sex (in a very positive way), friendship - all with a cast of quirky, off-beat characters and some good twists for the reader.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Mixing It Up

Author: Tracie Banister
Genre: Chick Lit, Light Read
Type: e-book
Source: Author
First Published: October 15, 2016
First Line: "Mmm, this tastes amazing," I murmur my approval after taking a bite of the coq au vin I just removed from the oven."

Book Description from GoodReadsBorn with a silver spoon in her mouth, Manhattan upper-cruster Cecily Sinclair now uses that pricey utensil to dish up fancy French fare on her cooking show, Serving Romance. When there’s an executive shake-up at the network, she’s not worried. Not much anyway. Her show’s a hit after all. Why would the new CEO want to mess with success?

The driving force behind several buzzed-about networks, Devlin Hayes is considered to be a wunderkind in the television industry. Although his plans to rebrand CuisineTV and make Serving Romance more Millennial-friendly don’t thrill Cecily, her charming, blue-eyed boss is a hard man to say “no” to and she really wants to keep her job—even if that means sharing screen time with a loathsome blast from her past. 

Mercurial Italian chef Dante Marchetti a.k.a. “Il Duce” was once Cecily’s boss, and she has the PTSD to prove it. Now the owner of one of the hottest restaurants in town, Dante’s egomania knows no bounds and his constant attempts to provoke and upstage Cecily make her want to conk him on the head with a sauté pan. She thinks they’re toxic together, but viewers love their chemistry and clamor for more. 

As Cecily battles to maintain the integrity of her show, she finds herself scheming and manipulating right along with Dante and Devlin. Is she fighting a lost cause? Does she really belong on TV, or would her culinary talent be better served elsewhere? And could one of the men who makes Cecily’s blood boil ignite a passion in her for something other than food?

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: Fans of delicious food and light Rom-Com will enjoy this new book from Tracie Banister which features Cecily Sinclair - a Cordon Bleu-trained chef who is from NYC's upper crust and hosts her own TV cooking show.  Add in some romantic tension, a handful of suitors, a dollop of family discord; lightly stir and you have Mixing It Up.

What I enjoyed:
The stars of the show for me were the wonderfully delicious descriptions of food from French and Italian cuisine. Oh m'gravy! As a Foodie myself I can assure you they will have your mouth watering! It was also interesting getting a peek at the behind the scenes of a TV cooking show.

The characters were as expected and yet varied for this type of book. My favourite relationship wasn't a romantic one but the bond between Cecily and her cousin/BFF Dina.  Dina was a breath of fresh air and stands out in the book compared to her stuffy, snobby Sinclair clan who are more focused on their standing in New York's social scene than doing what makes one happy. There are also romantic twists in the book with a few men vying for Cecily's attentions which keeps things hopping.

What I didn't enjoy
The banter between Cecily and her nemesis Dante was overdone. We know she hates him and she has her reasons but her constant animosity of him got tiring quickly and took up too much page time.  

I also wasn't a fan of Cecily herself. While she's dedicated to French cuisine, she still had a snobbish side to her (albeit much less than her Grandmother and the rest of her family - except bohemian Dina). Cecily goes through a bit of a metamorphosis throughout the book but I still had a hard time liking her.

My biggest dislike has to be how Dante's strong Italian accent was handled. His lines were written phonetically which quickly became frustrating, awkward and tiring to read.

Final Thoughts:
Overall, this was a good, light read with some romantic twists that will satisfy the inner Foodie within you.  This was my first book by Tracie Banister and while this isn't a genre I have often read in recent years, readers who enjoy a light read with romantic tension and tasty descriptions of wonderful cuisine should enjoy this book.

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

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Author: Lisa See
Genre: Contemporary Fiction (China)
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 358
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Scribner
First Published: March 21, 2107
First Line: "No coincidence, no story," my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night."

Book Description from GoodReadsA thrilling new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: In her latest book, Lisa See has written a story about family - in its many forms, the bonds between mothers and daughters, what happens when fate takes the reigns and the differences between several cultures all with the backdrop of the tea industry. 

In The Tea Girl from Hummingbird Lane, See focuses on the Akha, one of the fifty-five cultural minorities from deep in the heart of the tea growing region of China. Their reclusive, rural way of life is vividly described to the reader as are their beliefs, which combine a focus on nature, superstition and strict, and sometimes harsh, rules. Some of these beliefs were shocking and hard to read but See's description of this culture was told with respect and I became fascinated with their unique culture.

The book has two story lines with the main story focusing on Li-yan, a young woman who was raised in a large Akha family. When she becomes pregnant outside of marriage, a strict taboo in her culture, she makes the heartbreaking decision to keep her pregnancy a secret and give her baby girl up for adoption to give both a better life.  Li-yan's life is peppered with struggle and success as she makes her way from living the rural Akha way of life, to experiencing the changes of China's Cultural Revolution, to having success in the lucrative tea business and living a much more modern life than she could have ever dreamed of growing up. While she is a flawed character, you see a strength in Li-yan (as well as her a-ma (mother) who was one of my favourite characters) and I quickly became invested into her struggle, joy, sorrow and determination.

The secondary story follows the life of Haley, the baby Li-yan had given up, who was adopted by a California couple as a baby. Via letters and emails from Haley and Constance, Haley's adoptive mother, See addresses issues some Chinese adoptees and adoptive parents face, namely their struggle to be seen as a family unit despite their physical differences, rude comments made by strangers etc.  I liked that See focused on these issues and I found the discussion between Chinese adoptive kids' quite interesting and eye-opening as they talk about their conflicting feelings about being given up for adoption --- going from unwanted to highly treasured.

"On the one hand, our birth parents in China couldn't get rid of us fast 
enough. On the other hand, we're the biggest gift to our adoptive 
parents. Sometimes I try to imagine what their lives would 
have been life if they hadn't gotten me. It's so weird, don't you think?  
In China, we were considered worthless.  I mean, really worthless.  
Here we're super precious, like Heidi said.  But you could also say our 
moms and dads got cheated by getting the runts - the 
throwaways, anyway - of the litter."

I found the story about these multi-generational women fascinating and enjoyed learning more about the massive tea industry. But, while I have recently become a lover of loose tea, I found that there were parts of the book had so much detail about the harvesting, aging and selling of tea that it became a bit much for me. I was in it for the strong women, familial bonds and hoping for a mother/daughter reunion. Also, while there were a few highly serendipitous connections throughout the story, the ending was satisfyingly powerful (yet not overly surprising) and a little too short for my liking. Those are but minor criticisms within a rather stellar read.

This book is rich in culture and I thank Lisa See for bringing the Akha to the forefront of this book but the true focus, the life of one woman's strength, desire for redemption and determination to find her daughter, is what made this book for me.  This well-written and absorbing book illustrates the undeniable bond between mothers and daughters, both birth and adoptive, and would make an excellent book club pick.

Recommended for: Readers who enjoyed Shilpi Somaya Gowda's The Secret Daughter

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

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