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.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Mitzi Bytes

Author: Kerry Clare
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Paperback
Pages: 304
Publisher: HarperAvenue
First Published: March 14, 2017
First Line: "Still byting after all these years."

Book Description from GoodReadsSarah Lundy has a secret online life, and it might all come crashing down.

Back at the beginning of the new millennium, when the Internet was still unknown territory, Sarah Lundy started an anonymous blog documenting her return to the dating scene after a devastating divorce. The blog was funny, brutally honest and sometimes outrageous. Readers loved it. Through her blog persona, “Mitzi Bytes,” Sarah not only found her feet again, but she found her voice.

Fifteen years later, Sarah is happily remarried with children and she’s still blogging, but nobody IRL—not even her husband or best friends—knows about Mitzi. They don't know that Sarah’s been documenting all her own exploits, as well as mining the experiences of those around her and sharing these stories with the world. Which means that Sarah is in serious trouble when threatening emails arrive from the mysterious Jane Q. Time’s up, the first one says. You’re officially found out.

As she tries to find out Jane Q’s identity before her secret online self is revealed to everyone, Sarah starts to discover that her loved ones have secrets of their own, and that stronger forces than she imagined are conspiring to turn her world upside down.

A grown-up Harriet the Spy for the digital age, Mitzi Bytes examines the bonds of family and friendship, and the truths we dare tell about ourselves—and others.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review: Mitzi Bytes is about secrets, boundaries and betrayal. It's about an anonymous blogger who goes from writing about her own life experiences to including secrets and (not always kind) observations about family, friends and acquaintances. When she receives an email threatening to divulge her identity, Sarah's life comes tumbling down around her. 

Okay, so obviously, I loved that Mitzi Bytes is about a blogger.  Blogging is a big part of my life and I liked how Clare addresses the issue of the anonymity of blogging. How what you type doesn't stay on your blog but is thrown out into the world where those words can hurt others. You don't blog in a bubble and Sarah learns that the hard way when her dual lives as Sarah and Mitzi are forced to converge.  

Sarah was a complex gal. She's definitely flawed, not overly likable and yet I think readers will be able to relate to her on some level. We've all had mean thoughts but never voiced them. Sarah used her blog to share those thoughts but never expected them to hit their targets. Was she naive to think she'd remain anonymous with major book deals under her belt? Yes. I think the big thing that kept me from jumping on the Sarah bandwagon was the fact that she repeatedly justified her often mean spirited words. Just admit that, while the posts were what you thought at the time, they were still mean! And yet, her struggle (and it was a struggle) to realize that not everything was about her felt genuine. She's a complicated gal.

What stood out for me is Sarah's strength which, I believe, she draws from her blog. She used it as a cathartic release as she figured out who she is as a woman, mother, wife, sister-in-law and friend. I think many readers will connect with Sarah and her struggle to maintain her own identity, her strained relationships with her in-laws and her commitment to be a good Mom while the highly competitive/high-maintenance PTA super moms are ready to pounce at any weakness. But, as she soon finds out, her blog is also a weakness when her words are revealed to those around her.

One of the weaknesses in the book for me were the secondary characters.  They were a diverse bunch but very much in the background with the men folk being too thinly drawn. Sarah's husband's lack of backbone and easy acceptance of the fallout was hard to believe and her brother-in-law was a one-sided jerk with no redeeming qualities to be seen.  Not a good day for Team Testosterone.

What readers will enjoy is Clare's humour which is sprinkled throughout.  I also enjoyed the addition of the blog archives as a great way to give the reader more background on Sarah/Mitzi and read the words that got people so upset. Honestly, I liked Mitzi and her posts about women and their balancing act between being a mother, wife, sister-in-law etc. I found the posts relatable as were the sometimes complicated relationships women have with each other. 

As the blurb suggests I was expecting a 'Harriet the Spy all grown up' kind of read ... and it was.  And then it kind of wasn't. The first part of the book builds this tension about Jane Q's identity but then the identity is revealed rather quickly and the focus becomes Sarah's lack of sympathy and justifying her online words repeatedly.

Overall, my feelings for this book are all over the place.  I really liked some topics that were addressed but felt other aspects were lacking. This book raises several issues, specifically relationships women have with each other, the anonymity of the internet and the struggles modern women face making to good fodder for book clubs.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Roanoke Girls

Author: Amy Engel
Genre: Suspense
Type: ebook
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Crown Publishing
First Published: March 7, 2017
First Line: "The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream."

Book Description from GoodReadsRoanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die.

After her mother's suicide, fifteen year-old Lane Roanoke came to live with her grandparents and fireball cousin, Allegra, on their vast estate in rural Kansas. Lane knew little of her mother's mysterious family, but she quickly embraced life as one of the rich and beautiful Roanoke girls. But when she discovered the dark truth at the heart of the family, she ran fast and far away.

Eleven years later, Lane is adrift in Los Angeles when her grandfather calls to tell her Allegra has gone missing. Did she run too? Or something worse? Unable to resist his pleas, Lane returns to help search, and to ease her guilt at having left Allegra behind. Her homecoming may mean a second chance with the boyfriend whose heart she broke that long ago summer. But it also means facing the devastating secret that made her flee, one she may not be strong enough to run from again.

As it weaves between Lane's first Roanoke summer and her return, The Roanoke Girls shocks and tantalizes, twisting its way through revelation after mesmerizing revelation, exploring the secrets families keep and the fierce and terrible love that both binds them together and rips them apart.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: I wasn't sure that I would finish this book.  I wasn't sure if I could. 

This is a story about family secrets that were much more disturbing than I had initially expected. It focuses on a Dysfunctional (yes, that's a capital D) family which is steeped in horrific secrets that keep them tethered to one another.

The initial reveal of the big secret shocked me so much that I had to read the sentence a few times hoping that I was mistaken. I took time to digest this info, even putting the book down while I decided if I wanted to proceed. But by that time, Engel had drawn me into the mystery surrounding Allegra's disappearance and the back story of Lane and Allegra's summer at the Roanoke house as teens.  

I was hooked ... yet apprehensive.

This book is a mystery but also a dissection of the dynamics of a highly dysfunctional, toxic family and the cult-like influence of its patriarch on its members. Readers, like myself, may feel like a rubbernecker at a tragic accident --- you're curious to see what's going on, but it's distressing to look and yet you can't seem to turn away.  Welcome to the Roanoke family.

The topic addressed will be hard for many readers and like I said, I wasn't sure I could finish it myself. The subject matter made me uncomfortable, angry, sad, sickened ... that's a whole lot of emotions. It's a hard read and not a subject matter that I'd normally want to read. But Engel sensitively incorporates the dysfunction and secret into her plot without making it sensational but more of a explanation for why and how the Roanoke family developed.  

Is it for everyone?  No.  

Is it well-written and a gutsy look into a toxic family?  Definitely.

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

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Frosted Lemon Cookies

Here in Ontario it's March Break. Unlike many of our friends we are not going to tropical locales or heading to the slopes to swoosh down the hill eagerly awaiting a hot bevvie at the bottom. Instead we're doing a 'hang out at home for a week' kind of vacation.  And by 'vacation' I mean that while my kids don't have school, four of the five of us are working throughout the week.  Yaaaaay-no. Vacation it is not.

But we do get more family time in between the working. To spend time with my 13-year-old daughter (and to make something yummy) she and I made some cookies.  I don't have a sweet tooth but my daughter more than makes up for it.  She is usually eager to create a treat in the kitchen but with two teenager brothers who are constantly ravenous for anything edible (think of bears after hibernation 24/7) my daughter becomes rather, shall we say, overprotective and quite vigilant that her culinary creations be enjoyed and not inhaled. I try to explain that her brothers are just showing her how good her baking is but she is not swayed by this argument and doles out her precious treats in a more reasonable fashion (ie. without the feeding frenzy feel).

I get it, I do. You spend time making these treats only to have your siblings come, not unlike a swarm of locusts, leaving mere crumbs in their wake. That's not cool. The boys give her praise for her baking but their constant 'just one more' mentality ensures that she becomes like Gollum with his ring, ready to protect her 'preciouses' at all cost.

And she has reason to be protective because she has the Baking Gene!! The other day we made Frosted Lemon Cookies and they were delicious. Made with fresh lemon zest these cookies are reminiscent of short bread cookies with a hint of lemon.  The flavour oomph comes from the lemony frosting on top.  Deeelish!  Needless to say, these cookies lasted just over a day in our house. 36 cookies, gone in a flash.  That's the sign of a good baker ... and teenage boys.

Yield: 3 dozen

2 cups + 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup white sugar
2 1/2 tbsp lemon zest
1 cup salted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup icing sugar, sifted
4-5 tsp lemon juice

Lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper.  Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In another small bowl, combine white sugar and lemon zest.  Using your fingers, mix it together.  The fragrant oils from the lemon zest will be quickly absorbed into the sugar until it resembles more the clumpy consistency of brown sugar.

In your stand mixer (or by hand), combine room temperature butter with the lemon/sugar mixture.  Beat until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla extract.  Mix well.

Slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture on low speed (or by hand) until blended.  Using a melon baller or tablespoon, drop dough onto the prepared pans, leaving about 2-inches between the cookies. We rounded our balls of dough and then pressed them with the palms of our hands to slightly flatten them.  

Tip: As you get towards the end of your dough it may become quite crumbly.  Just hold it in your enclosed hand and allow the heat from your hands to soften the butter in the dough.

Bake for 12-14 minutes or until cookies get slightly golden brown on the bottom.  Remove from oven and let cookies sit on the baking pan for 2 minutes.  Transfer cookies from baking pan to a cooling rack and allow them to cool completely.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine sifted icing sugar and lemon juice.  You want it to be runny enough to spread onto each cookie but not so runny that it'll run right off the cookie.  I ended up using 5 tsp of lemon juice for our cookies.

Either dip your cookies or, like us, use the back of a small spoon and put a bit on the cookie and spread it towards the edges.  It will smooth itself out quickly and the frosting will become more hard. Garnish with wee bits of lemon zest, if desired.

Inspired by:

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

A Piece of the World

Author: Christina Baker Kline
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320
Publisher: William Morrow
First Published: February 21, 2017
First Line: "Later he told me he'd been afraid to show me the painting."

Book Description from GoodReadsFrom the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the smash bestseller Orphan Train, a stunning and atmospheric novel of friendship, passion, and art, inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s mysterious and iconic painting Christina’s World.

"Later he told me that he’d been afraid to show me the painting. He thought I wouldn’t like the way he portrayed me: dragging myself across the field, fingers clutching dirt, my legs twisted behind. The arid moonscape of wheatgrass and timothy. That dilapidated house in the distance, looming up like a secret that won’t stay hidden." 

To Christina Olson, the entire world was her family’s remote farm in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine. Born in the home her family had lived in for generations, and increasingly incapacitated by illness, Christina seemed destined for a small life. Instead, for more than twenty years, she was host and inspiration for the artist Andrew Wyeth, and became the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the twentieth century.

As she did in her beloved smash bestseller Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline interweaves fact and fiction in a powerful novel that illuminates a little-known part of America’s history. Bringing into focus the flesh-and-blood woman behind the portrait, she vividly imagines the life of a woman with a complicated relationship to her family and her past, and a special bond with one of our greatest modern artists.

Told in evocative and lucid prose, A Piece of the World is a story about the burdens and blessings of family history, and how artist and muse can come together to forge a new and timeless legacy.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Review: After reading and absolutely loving Baker Kline's book, The Orphan Train, three years ago, I was more than a little excited to read her next book. As with Orphan Train, Baker Kline has done a tremendous amount of research - this time featuring New England, Andrew Wyeth and two eras, 1917-1918 and post WWII. She pulls her readers into the small world inhabited by Christina Olson, the woman who inspired the iconic Wyeth painting "Christina's World", as she writes a fictional account of the painting's real-life muse.

Each summer, for over thirty years, Andrew Wyeth went to Christina's farm house and painted. Over time, he and Christina bonded over shared experiences of their overbearing fathers and their physical limitations. It was through this connection that Christina became such an integral part of one of Wyeth's most famous paintings.

This is an intense and melancholic read. Christina is a woman with a deep attachment to her family, their house and land as well as her brother, Al who is always by her side. Christina's affliction, which initially keeps her mainly home bound, becomes less about her physical limitations and more and more about her stubbornness and her emotional and mental afflictions that bear down on her over time. Her bitterness is understandable with all that she lost and what she has had to endure but while she was a unique main character, her demeanor, apathy and choices made it hard to sympathize with her.

I'm grateful that the author provided a picture of the painting at the back of the book because I often turned to it as the story progressed. It is a quietly intense painting which features a stark landscape and a woman lying in a field looking towards a farmhouse.  The more you look at the painting, the more it evokes emotion and additional questions. 

This is a character driven story which was well researched and based on a unique premise. It is a quiet kind of read with no huge twists or jarring moments. Instead, it is a fictional story of the life and struggles of the mysterious woman in the iconic painting. I appreciate the work that went into sharing her story with the world and while I didn't connect with this book as much as I would have hoped, it was well written and an interesting read.

Baker Kline has given Christina Olson a voice and lets her readers into Christina's seemingly simple, stark yet complicated world. As Wyeth did so many years ago, Baker Kline has helped Christina Olson to finally be seen.  

Favourite Quote"What she wants most - what she truly yearns for - is what any of us want: to be seen."

Monday, 13 March 2017

Never Let You Go

Author: Chevy Stevens
Genre: Suspense, Canadian
Type: e-book
Publisher: St Martin's Press
First Published: March 14, 2017
First Line: "November 2005 - I didn't have long."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe author of Still Missing targets her readership with a novel that hits all the notes they come to expect from her—and ratchets up the stakes even more. Lindsey Nash has left an abusive relationship and her ex-husband was sent to jail. She has started over with a new life, her own business, and a teenage daughter who needs her more than ever. When her husband is finally released, Lindsey believes she has cut all ties. There is no way he can ever find her and her daughter again. But she gets the sense that someone is watching her, tracking her every move. Her new boyfriend is threatened. Her home is invaded. Even her daughter is shadowed. Lindsey is convinced it's her ex-husband, even though he claims he is a different person and doesn't want to do her any harm. But can he really change? Is the one who wants her dead even closer to home than she thought? 

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review:  I'm a big fan of Canadian author, Chevy Stevens, and have read all of her books.  I definitely have my favourites (Still Missing, That Night, I'm looking at you!) and I can now happily add Right Behind You to the top of my favs list.  This latest book is a spine tingling, twisty, dark, fast-paced read in which Stevens introduces multiple culprits, each of which have a very plausible reason for terrorizing Lindsey, a single mom of teenage daughter, Sophie.

Stevens brings her readers into Lindsey's tumultuous and highly toxic marriage.  From their romantic beginning, to bringing their daughter into the world and ultimately to the demise of their marriage which was caused by fear, distrust, abuse, control and one fateful decision.  Lindsey's confusion, mistrust and fear are palpable for the reader and rear up again ten years later when her husband is released from prison.  He says he's a changed man and wants them back.  But has he changed?  Or is he furtively toying with their lives?

The book flows back and forth between Lindsey and Sophie's points of view with ease.  This dual perspective helps readers connect with both women and I felt that Stevens got into the teenage mindset and vernacular well (as a mom of three teens I consider myself fairly savvy when it comes to teens). I was surprised at how emotionally charged a few of the scenes were -- you can feel Lindsey's fear and understand her paranoia as well as Sophie's confusion about what she should feel for her father.  

The characters, in general, are believable and multi-layered with the secondary characters playing active roles within the plot. There are a few different culprits introduced to readers. I jumped back and forth about who I thought was the 'baddie' because each of them had good reason to be terrorizing Lindsey.

Lastly, can I just say that I love how Stevens proudly shows her Canadian pride in her books?  She keeps her characters and settings in Canada. She's a Canuck and not afraid to show it - even including a shout out to Tim Horton's in one scene.

This is an outstanding read that kept my interest the entire time. With its multiple twists, scenes that gave me ALL the feels (good and bad), a couple of characters I could root for (and a few I could enjoyable hate) this is one stellar suspense read. 

As I joked with Chevy Stevens on Twitter the other day, over the course of two days she was responsible for my laundry pile growing, no working out and limited food in my cupboards.  Once I started this book I couldn't put it down.  The sign of a great read.  I highly recommend this book. Just be prepared that it will take over your life for some suspense filled hours of pure enjoyment.  You have been warned.

Disclaimer:  My sincere thanks to St Martin's Press for providing me with a complimentary ebook copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Right Behind You

Author: Lisa Gardner
Genre: Suspense
Type: Hardcover
Source: Local Public Library
Pages: 400
Series: #7 in the Quincy and Rainie series
Publisher: Dutton Books
First Published: January 31, 2017
First Line: "I had a family once."

Book Description from GoodReads

Is he a hero?

Eight years ago, Sharlah May Nash’s older brother beat their drunken father to death with a baseball bat in order to save both of their lives. Now thirteen years old, Sharlah has finally moved on. About to be adopted by retired FBI profiler Pierce Quincy and his partner, Rainie Conner, Sharlah loves one thing best about her new family: They are all experts on monsters.

Is he a killer?

Then the call comes in. A double murder at a local gas station, followed by reports of an armed suspect shooting his way through the wilds of Oregon. As Quincy and Rainie race to assist, they are forced to confront mounting evidence: The shooter may very well be Sharlah’s older brother, Telly Ray Nash, and it appears his killing spree has only just begun. 

All she knows for sure: He’s back.

As the clock winds down on a massive hunt for Telly, Quincy and Rainie must answer two critical questions: Why after eight years has this young man started killing again? And what does this mean for Sharlah? Once upon a time, Sharlah’s big brother saved her life. Now, she has two questions of her own: Is her brother a hero or a killer? And how much will it cost her new family before they learn the final, shattering truth? Because as Sharlah knows all too well, the biggest danger is the one standing right behind you.

My Rating: 3 stars

My Review:  I'm a fan of Lisa Gardner. She's kept me on the edge of my seat more than a few times with her DD Warren series. Right Behind You is her latest bookish offering and the 7th book in the Quincy and Rainie series. 

The most surprising thing about this book is that I wasn't captivated. Not a good surprise, for sure.  There were some twists but I can't say I was ever captivated by the characters or the plot. It felt predictable, more than a little long-winded and I can't say that I was a drawn to Quincy and Rainie.  They weren't driving the story and felt like secondary characters alongside characters like Cal, who readers will forever remember as the 'tracker/cheese maker' because it's mentioned repeatedly about his mad skills at cheese making.

One of the things I enjoyed about the book is how Gardner addresses the idea of familial bonds (both blood and other) and how much those bonds can influence who we become. She paints a strong picture of the sad childhood that Sharlah and Telly experienced at the hands of their birth parents and shows how vastly different the siblings' experiences were within the foster care system.

This is a decent read but not up to the standard that I had expected from Gardner.  Unfortunately, this book won't stay with me for long. I'm going to stick with her DD Warren series (Find Her was fantastic!).

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Big Mushy Happy Lump

Author: Sarah Andersen
Genre: Comics/Graphic Novel
Series: Sarah Scribbles #2
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
First Published: March 7, 2017
First Line: "I have so much work to do."

Book Description from GoodReadsSwimsuit season is coming up! Better get beach-body ready! Work on those abs! Lift those butts! 

...Um, or how about never mind to all that and just be a lump. Big Mushy Happy Lump! 

Sarah Andersen's hugely popular, world-famous Sarah's Scribbles comics are for those of us who boast bookstore-ready bodies and Netflix-ready hair, who are always down for all-night reading-in-bed parties and extremely exclusive after-hour one-person music festivals. 

In addition to the most recent Sarah's Scribbles fan favorites and dozens of all-new comics, this volume contains illustrated personal essays on Sarah's real-life experiences with anxiety, career, relationships and other adulthood challenges that will remind readers of Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half and Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened. The same uniquely frank, real, yet humorous and uplifting tone that makes Sarah's Scribbles so relatable blooms beautifully in this new longer form.

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Sarah Andersen is back!!  Her comics are a battle cry for awkward, introverted, comfy clothes lovin' people who have a penchant for self-deprecation and bottling up their feelings.  My kind of people!!

Once again, her comics feature expressive big headed, big eyed characters with wee appendages.  The main character is relatable as she struggles with low self-confidence, social anxiety, unexpected period woes, holding in her emotions and even a sudden addiction to all thinks kitty.

But, while Big Mushy Happy Lump is similar to Andersen's previous book, Adulthood is a Myth, it has more of a personal feel to it as she interjects personal narratives about some of the issues addressed.  While I couldn't relate to the character's one-eighty from being a cat hater to lover of all things feline, there were many other of her comics that I could relate to. 

Like today after I get my haircut into a short bob I will invariably walk by someone with long, flowing locks and regret my decision.  It happens ... every ... time.

My favourite comic shows the differences between men and women when it comes to compliments.  This one had me giggling repeatedly because I have reacted exactly that way many times with my sisters.
And don't forget the unfair fresh hell that is puberty for us girls ...

While not all the comic strips were laugh out loud funny (and a few had been featured in her first book) this is still a very enjoyable book. If you're introverted, have suffered through embarrassing social situations, feel pretty snazzy when you're wearing your 'good' undies and would rather snuggle up with a pet in an old ratty sweatshirt and read then this book will give you that "I'm not alone!" feeling.  If you're more of an extrovert then this book will educate you on the finer points in dealing with us lovable, awesome, complicated introverts.

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

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