Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fiction Review: Gap Creek

Last year, after seeing book recommendations fly back and forth between my far-flung cousins and aunts on Facebook, I started an online family book group. It’s been such fun to share great books with my family whom I don’t get to see very often, and there have been some excellent selections (we take turns choosing). My cousin’s latest pick, Gap Creek by Robert Morgan, was no exception – we all enjoyed it.

This historical novel is set at the turn of the century in the rural Appalachian Mountains. The Harmons are a loving, close family who eke out a living with their small farm; the story is narrated by Julie who is 17 and has 3 sisters and a younger brother. Life is hard, but they are happy. Then tragedy hits. The young boy, Masenier, dies of some sort of untreated infection with high fever. Julie and the rest of her family are devastated by his death. Meanwhile, her father’s “coughing sickness”(probably TB) gets worse and worse, and things look grim for the Harmons.

Julie is hard-working, and with her brother gone and her father sick, she has to take on much of the work normally done by males on their farm. Soon, though, a young man named Hank comes to the area and “courts” Julie in a whirlwind romance. Within a week of meeting for the first time, they are married, and Julie heads across the border to South Carolina with Hank to a small cabin in an isolated valley. They live with a cranky old man who owns the cabin, in exchange for cooking and taking care of the house. This farm is even smaller than the one Julie grew up on, with poor soil and a short growing season. Their life is incredibly difficult, and tragedies occur often in this time before there was any real medical care.  Much of the novel focuses on Julie and Hank’s new relationship and whether or not it can withstand the hardships and tragedies they encounter.

If you are thinking that this all sounds a bit depressing, that’s what my cousins and I all thought at first, too! The novel is well-written, though, and Julie is an engaging and likable narrator whose story pulled me right in. She works so hard for so little, with few comforts in her life. Julie’s spirit is what keeps this story from getting too depressing. Although she is na├»ve and young, she is determined to work hard, be a good person, and make her new marriage work. Here are her thoughts as she works hard to celebrate Christmas when things are looking grim for she and Hank, and they are almost out of food:
“If you waited till everything was perfect to celebrate, you might never celebrate anything. I would try to act like things was going to turn out all right, and it just might happen.”

We were all fascinated by the details of life in the late 1800’s and especially by how difficult it was to do the simplest things. We will never take a pork roast or a trip to the grocery store for granted again! Most of all, we were all inspired by Julie’s strength and her optimism. Although there is a lot of misfortune and heartbreak in this novel, ultimately, it is an uplifting story of overcoming adversity and not giving up when life gets hard.

326 pages, Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill

NOTE: The Road From Gap Creek is a sequel novel, narrated by Julie's child, extending through the Depression and World War II.


Monday, April 14, 2014

It's Monday 4/14! What Are You Reading?

Wow, 80 degrees here yesterday and today - we seemed to have gone from snow and winter right to summer and skipped the nice part where it's in the 50's and 60's entirely!

I had another very busy week (are there any other kinds?) but managed to do quite a bit of writing...but not book reviews. So, I hope to catch up on those this week.

We enjoyed our books last week:
  • I finished Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick and loved it! The movie was great, but the book is even better, with more emotional depth. It is filled with both joy and heartbreak. Not everyone in my library's book discussion agreed - some didn't like the book. Unfortunately, I used up all of my limited energy going to book groups on Wednesday (that one and my neighborhood one in the evening), so I didn't feel well enough to go and hear Quick speak Thursday evening. I was sorry to miss that, but I watched a few videos of him on Youtube - it's hard to find interviews and videos specifically about the book - most are about the movie!
  • After plowing through three book group books in a row, I was ready to enjoy a teen/YA novel, so I picked up Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, a Christmas gift from my husband. I was blown away by her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, and this one is set in New Orleans, where we used to live, so I am loving it so far.
  • I also started a new teen/YA novel on audio, Loud Awake and Lost by Adele Griffin. It's excellent so far, about a teen girl recovering from an accident and slowly regaining her memory of what happened in the six weeks before. I'm hooked!
  • I am still reading a nonfiction book, Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule - and Your Life by Julie Morganstern. I had to return the library's copy, but I ordered my own (updated version) with an amazon gift card from Christmas. I am currently following its advice, trying to get better at estimating how long tasks will take me (something I am finding I'm not very good at!).
  • My husband, Ken, has been reading Brilliance, a suspense novel, by Marcus Sakey on his Kindle.
  • My son, Jamie, 19, returned to school from spring break, so his reading slowed down a little bit, but now that he has the reading bug again,  he's trying to keep it up! He read book 2, The Lost Heiress, of Catherine Fisher's The Relic Master series.
  • Now he is reading The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemison, a book I gave him as a gift last year, recommended by a fellow book blogger!
  • Craig, 15, is still reading MacBeth for Brit Lit.
No blog posts at all last week, other than the Monday posts - I really wasn't exaggerating about having no time for book reviews! Look for some reviews this week, plus other goodies.

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.   

Monday, April 07, 2014

It's Monday 4/7! What Are You Reading?

Ah, Monday morning...quiet house and no one to take care of but myself for a few hours. I started the day off kind of oddly...I cleaned out my sock drawer! Maybe an unusual way to start the day, but it gave me a big motivational boost. I have been feeling pretty overwhelmed lately, and I know that the clutter in the house is part of the problem. My college son went back to school yesterday after a week at home for spring break, and the sudden disappearance of all his stuff all over the first floor (he never really unpacked - just sort of dumped everything on the floor!) inspired me to take a tiny step in the huge job of decluttering. So, I am feeling pretty proud of myself, with a big bag of stuff to throw away, a smaller bag to donate, and a sock drawer that now closes without excess effort. My life is better already!

We did a lot of reading last week, especially my son who celebrated his break with books:
  • I finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I'm still not sure how I feel about this modern classic novel - it was strange. It's a mixture of philosophy, politics, literature, and sex, all rolled into a rambling narrative that often left me saying, "Wait...what??" It will definitely be an interesting book group discussion on Wednesday!
  • Yesterday, I moved onto Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, a novel I have really been looking forward to reading. I doubt I will finish it in time for the discussion at the library Wednesday, but I do hope to go listen to the author on Thursday evening. This is our all-county read book for this spring.
  • I finished listening to The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett, a clever fantasy novel written by the famous, knighted author when he was only 17 years old! It was a lot of fun.
  • I have also been (slowly) making my way through a nonfiction book, Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule - and Your Life by Julie Morganstern. I had to return my copy to the library, but I was getting enough out of it that I ordered my own, updated copy last week. The sock drawer is just the beginning!
  • My husband, Ken, was away last week and reading Brilliance, a suspense novel, by Marcus Sakey on his Kindle.
  • Jamie, 19, went on a reading binge for his spring break! He read five books since last Monday (plus another few last weekend). First, he tackled one of his favorite series, Beyonders by Brandon  Mull. He quickly re-read book 2, Seeds of Rebellion, and then read the latest release (and the last book of the trilogy), Chasing the Prophecy. He reaffirmed that it remains an all-time favorite!
  • Next, he re-read a favorite on his Kindle, The Sorcerer's Ascension by Brock E. Deskin, Book 1 in The Sorcerer's Path series.
  • Mid-week, he hit Barnes & Noble with some friends, armed with several gift cards. One of the books he bought - and immediately read - was Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes. He enjoyed it and is looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
  • Finally, he re-read The Dark City, Book 1 in Catherine Fisher's Relic Master series. Next he plans to re-read Book 2, The Lost Heiress, and then turn in some Amazon or Target gift cards for book 3. I love that he ditched plans to buy a video game with the gift card and now wants to spend it all on books!
  • Craig, 15, is still reading MacBeth for his Brit Lit class. He got 95% on his first quiz, so I think it's going pretty well.
 Despite having a very busy week, I managed a few blog posts:

Review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, a novel about friendship.

Review of Monsters of Men, Book 3 in Patrick Ness' incredible teen/YA Chaos Walking trilogy.

Saturday Snapshot, with photos of last week's trip to St. Michaels, MD

Weekend Cooking post, with some tasty dinner ideas.

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers.  

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Weekend Cooking 4/6

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

As I explained in an earlier post, we recently started eating a Paleo diet for medical reasons. It is going well so far - my son and I are both feeling better, and my husband (who has no health problems!) has more energy. Basically, Paleo means eating lots of fruits & veggies, lean meats and fish, eggs, nuts and seeds...but no grains, dairy, or processed foods and only small amounts of natural sugars.

The transition hasn't been too difficult for us. So far, I have mostly been using regular recipes - both old favorites and new ones - with some minor adjustments. We eat a lot of meals with fish or meat and two veggie sides. My younger son (who doesn't need this diet for medical reasons) occasionally begs for pasta - in fact, we'll have a dish made with whole wheat penne after my older son returns to college today - but otherwise, no one feels too deprived. It's been hardest on my college son, who is the sickest and on the strictest diet. He misses all his old favorites, but is glad to be feeling so much better!

So, here are some of our more successful, popular dishes from the past two weeks, appropriate for those eating Paleo and those eating a normal diet, too:

Since our weather has still been mostly cold and wet, I made a nice soup last week, Sausage Soup with Spinach and Wild Rice. We'd had it once before, many years ago, and I remembered it when I was looking for recipes with wild rice. Wild rice isn't actually rice - it's a grass - so it affects the body differently than grains do. My son's dietician gave it the OK for him, and I thought it might help fill a void for any of us missing our grains. The soup was delicious, just the thing for a cold spring day. I didn't need to make any changes other than to make the Parmesan cheese at the end optional for those of us who can't eat dairy.

My son was home from college this week for spring break, so I tried to make a wide variety of foods with great flavor to counteract the blandness of his special meals in the dining hall. He had a friend over for dinner one night, and (with my husband out of town) I served the three teen boys grilled pork chops, roasted cauliflower, and another wild rice dish, Minnesota Wild Rice Pilaf. The whole meal was a big hit! Our guest told me he normally doesn't like cauliflower then ate three servings of it! His mom sent me a message later asking for the recipe (it was just a simple roasted cauliflower with butter, salt and pepper). The wild rice side dish was delicious. I reduced the amount of mushrooms because my oldest son doesn't like them much but otherwise followed the recipe.

One night, I made Roast Chicken with Balsamic Peppers, a dish we'd had one time before, maybe a year ago. I served it alongside roasted asparagus, and my college son raved about the meal! It is a fairly simple preparation but full of flavor, and we all enjoyed it.

Another night, I made an old favorite of ours, Cornmeal-Crusted Tilapia. Of course, I couldn't use cornmeal or flour, so I substituted almond flour which makes a nice crunchy coating.

Finally, for my son's last dinner at home this week, I made Beef Bourguignonne, another family favorite. I just subbed coconut flour for the wheat flour which worked fine. We normally serve this over whole wheat egg noodles (which I did make for my younger son and his friend). For the rest of us, we tried pureed celeriac which I'd read made a nice substitute for mashed potatoes. Um...no. None of us liked it! So, we ate the meal more as a stew, and it was delicious, as always!

I've also been experimenting with baking Paleo, but I'll tell you all about that next week. Now it's time to go make coconut flour/almond flour pancakes. I hope you are all enjoying good food and fun cooking this week!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 4/5

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Last weekend, we took a mini 48-hour vacation to St. Michael's on the eastern shore of Maryland. That was the only two days we had with all four of us alone together until late summer, so we tried to squeeze in a little getaway at a lovely inn on the water.  Best laid plains... It ended up dark and rainy the entire weekend, and my youngest son had a sinus infection and bronchitis! We still tried to make the best of things and enjoyed a couple of days in each other's company.

View to the south from our porch when we first arrived - before the rains came!

And the view to the north - we were surrounded by water.

Enjoying crabs (and laughs!) in town at St. Michael's harbor

Playing cards with my sons in our room.

The beautiful views from the breakfast room at the inn - too bad it was still raining!

Now, the sun is shining and the temperature is finally creeping up here in Delaware! Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend wherever you are.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Fiction Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

For years, I have been hearing rave reviews of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a novel for which Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. I’ve only read one other Chabon novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I liked OK but didn’t love, and all I knew about Kavalier & Clay was that it won the Pulitzer, was very long, and had something to do with comic books…so I kept putting off reading it. Finally, one of my book groups chose it last month, and I am so glad I finally found the time to read this epic novel about a lifelong friendship, set against the turbulent 1930’s and 1940’s.

Sammy Clay is a young Jewish man in Brooklyn, living with his mother and grandmother and working for a novelty company. He loves America’s latest invention, comic books, and dreams of being an author or comic book writer someday. From the other side of the world, Sammy’s cousin Joe travels from Prague all the way to Brooklyn; his family used every resource they had to get him out ahead of the Nazis, in a covert escape to rival those of Houdini, whom both Joe and Sammy admire.

The two cousins meet when Joe arrives in the middle of the night and are soon fast friends. Within days, Sammy’s dreams suddenly seem to be within reach, when he sees what an amazing artist his newfound cousin is. Together, the two of them create a their own superhero, The Escapist, in the new tradition of the already-popular Superman, and convince Sammy’s boss and some colleagues to take a chance with them. Their success tracks along in time with Hitler’s rise and leads them into a lifetime of adventure, love, and sometimes painful sorrow.

I said this was an epic novel, and it is in several different ways. It follows the young men’s friendship for 20 years, with flashbacks to their childhoods, as it follows world events from the late 1930’s and Hitler’s rise to the post-war world of the1950’s. The readers go along for the ride as the Sammy and Joe’s characters rise to fame along with their creators. There are plenty of surprises along the way for both young men and for readers.

Chabon is a talented writer, weaving a tale that is part historical fiction and part literary fiction, telling the story of the boys’ friendship as well as the story of comic books themselves. At over 650 pages, this is a hefty novel, and Chabon tends to be a verbose writer, sometimes including lengthy descriptions, as well as employing long sentences and paragraphs. Normally, this would bother me, but in this case, I was pulled in by both the engaging story and characters and his way of sometimes saying something so perfectly that I felt compelled to re-read it and even write it down, like this sentence:

“In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, they decided to lie down for a while and waste time.”

As the mother of two young men, I can attest to the truth of this statement!

Interestingly, of the six people who came to our book group discussion for this book, three of us loved the book, and the other three strongly disliked it. Of those three who did not enjoy it, two were elderly women, one didn’t finish it, and all three said they had no interest in comic books. What surprised me was how much I DID like it, since I also had no interest in comic books (probably part of the reason why I didn’t read the novel earlier). I experienced it more as a book about friendship, love, and life, with a backdrop of history and comic books. All in all, I am glad to have finally read this remarkable novel, and I still find myself thinking about the characters a month after finishing the book – for me, that is always a sign of a good book.

656 pages, Random House

Monday, March 31, 2014

It's Monday 3/31! What Are You Reading?

Wow, how can it possibly be the last day of March already? I am more than ready for April, since we've had such a long and hard winter, but the month just went by very quickly. This past weekend was our only 48 hours alone together as a family until summer, so we drove about two hours away, to a St. Michael's, a lovely town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and stayed at a beautiful inn out on a point surrounded by water. Unfortunately, it was dark, cold, windy, and pouring rain all weekend....AND my youngest son had bronchitis and a sinus infection and felt awful on Saturday! Not quite the getaway we'd pictured, but we still had a nice weekend and spent some time together as a family - we had some delicious meals, watched a movie in our room, and played cards (with lots of laughs!).

And, as always, we read a lot:
  • I finished Gap Creek by Robert Morgan for my online family book group. It's a bit depressing at times, but overall, I enjoyed this novel about a hard life on an isolated farm in the Carolina mountains at the turn of the century.
  • Next, I started another book group selection, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, a modern classic novel that was made into a popular 1988 movie. It's an unusual novel - very philosophical so far, about life and love.
  • I have also been (slowly) making my way through another nonfiction book, Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule -and Your Life by Julie Morganstern. Yes, I am still on a quest to get better at time management!
  • I started a new audio book, The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett. Its history is interesting - the famous author (who has now written over 40 books) wrote this novel when he was only 17 years old! He revised it recently so that it could be re-released.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Unsouled by Neal Schusterman, the book that was supposed to be the final one in the Unwind trilogy, but is now book 3 of 4. Apparently, Schusterman just can't let go of this story - and neither can his fans. My son and I can't wait to read this one.
  • Ken is now traveling for the week and reading Brilliance, a suspense novel, by Marcus Sakey on his Kindle.
  • Jamie, 19, has been on a reading streak lately! He is now on spring break for a week and has been reading like crazy. He told us he downloaded 26 free books to his Kindle last week! He already read two of them last week: The Last King's Amulet by Chris Northern (book one in The Price of Freedom series) and The Choosing by Jeremy Laszlo, book one of The Blood and Brotherhood Saga (Jamie has figured out that publishers often offer the first book in a series free as e-books!). He said both books were good.
  • Now, he's gone back to an old favorite series, Beyonders by Brandon Mull. Book three was just released, so he is re-reading book two, Seeds of Rebellion, before moving onto the new book.
I didn't have much time for blogging last week, so I just posted two reviews:

Review of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

Review of The Last Present, a middle-grade novel by Wendy Mass

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nonfiction Review: 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

At the beginning of January, I picked up two time management books at the library that I had heard good things about. One of those was 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. Ironically, it took me two months to finish reading the book, so apparently, I really needed it! That’s no reflection on the book, only my inability to read two books at once. I enjoyed the book and learned some useful tips on making better use of my time.

Vanderkam’s main premise is that everyone has 168 hours in each week, and that the current belief that everyone is too busy and no one has any free time is a myth. She says that we all have plenty of time…if we use it wisely and according to our own priorities. She advocates starting with an analysis of how you currently spend your time by keeping a detailed time log for a week or two. I really liked this idea and downloaded the time log forms from her website.  She then details how to analyze that data, looking for wasted time or excessive time spent on trivial things. She also suggests identifying your core competencies, those things that only you can do and that support your highest priorities.

She next discusses goals and suggests starting with a brainstorming session to make your own list of 100 Goals/Dreams, just a free association kind of list of everything – big and little – you would like to do with your life. From that long list of goals, she says to take a few and develop smaller steps that need to be taken to move closer to the goals. This is something I started doing several years ago that has worked very well for me. I used to teach and consult with companies on how to reach their goals, and I taught them to break each goal down into specific objectives and then break those into individual steps to take. I realized that the same things I had taught to corporations would work for my own personal goals. I also made sure that all of my smaller objectives were measurable, and I find that that helps me to stay on track.

In 168 Hours, Vanderkam addresses both work and home time, with lots of suggestions for choosing priorities, finding work you love, meeting longer-term career goals, and having plenty of time in your life for the things that are really important to you, whether that’s family, work, exercise, volunteering, or some combination of those. Her tips range from making breakthroughs in your career to streamlining your wardrobe and serving simple meals and everything in between. Her main focus is on using the time you have more effectively, according to what’s important to you.

Overall, I found the book useful. I did the time tracking and didn’t see anything earth-shattering, but it confirmed what I already suspected – mainly that much of my time was being sucked up by e-mail and responses to Facebook groups. Seeing that in black and white and reading Vanderkam’s advice helped me to come up with some strategies. Now I just need to make those into habits! Not everything in the book was applicable to me – I have a chronic illness, so I actually DO have less time than most people because I have to spend so much time sleeping and resting. But, I can apply her concepts within the time that I do have, and I liked her focus on defining what is important to you. Besides its usefulness, 168 Hours was interesting and well written, backed up by fascinating research, interviews, and lots of inspiring examples.

238 pages, Portfolio (Penguin group)


Monday, March 24, 2014

It's Monday 3/24! What Are You Reading?

So glad it is Monday - the weekend really wiped me out! Pretty sad when you need to recover from your weekend, huh? And not because I had a wild fun time - just because I did too much around the house, with cooking, dishes, laundry, etc. I really need to fix that and add a little fun into my Sundays!

I did manage a 2-day "me retreat" last week at the beach, with plenty of reading and some writing catch-up, too. We all enjoyed our books last week:
  • I finally finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and loved every one of its 600+ pages! The characters and the time and place really pulled me in, and I was sad to say good-bye to Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay.
  • Next, while I was away, I squeezed in a quick middle-grade novel, The Last Present by Wendy Mass. It turned out to be the last book in a 4-book series, and I only read the first one. So, I obviously missed some of the references to earlier events, but I knew enough to enjoy the book - Mass is an excellent writer for middle-grade readers, and it's a time travel story (my favorite kind!).
  • I recently started Gap Creek by Robert Morgan, the next selection for my online family book group. It's set in the rural Appalachians around the turn of the century, about a young girl who gets married and struggles to set up her own household in an isolated place.
  • On the way home from the beach, I finished listening to Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the final book in the Divergent trilogy. I reviewed it (and the second book, Insurgent) when I got home. The third book was my favorite - now I have to go see the new movie!
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Unsouled, the third book in the teen/YA Unwind series by Neal Schusterman, which he, our college son, and I all love. He's enjoying it so far - I can't wait to read it next!
  • Jamie, 19, finished the Medieval fantasy series he was reading, The Staff and the Sword, by Patrick W. Carr. He finished reading book two, The Hero's Lot, and book 3, A Draw of Kings.
  • Craig, 15, is reading MacBeth by Shakespeare for his Brit Lit class and said he did really well on last week's quiz!
I wrote a couple of reviews last week, plus other posts:

Review of The Good Sister by Wendy Corsi Staub, a thriller I listened to on audio.

Review of Insurgent and Allegiant by Veronica Roth, also listened to on audio.

Saturday Snapshot, with photos of my (cold) beach visit last week.

Weekend Cooking post, with several very tasty recipes, adaptable for a Paleo diet (or not)

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weekend Cooking 3/23

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

As I explained last month, we recently started eating a Paleo diet for health reasons. It is going well so far - my son and I are both feeling better, and my husband (who has no health problems!) has more energy and drive than he's had in decades. I am still learning and trying to understand more about why this type of diet is good for us.

Most important to me is that we don't sacrifice flavor or feel deprived. I have been mostly using regular recipes so far and making minor adjustments where needed to fit the Paleo diet. I was away on a mini retreat by myself for a couple of days this week, but we enjoyed some tasty dinners when I returned.

As I've mentioned before, many of our meals now fit into a meat or fish plus two veggie sides model - this is really not all that different from a traditional dinner of meat or fish with one veggie and a starch. So, one night, I made Roasted Pacific Cod with Lemons and Olives, a recipe I cut out of Real Simple magazine a while back. We had roasted asparagus and steamed broccoli with it. Very tasty!

We had a busy afternoon on Friday, with an appointment at 4 pm, so I needed a good crockpot recipe. I turned to my favorite crockpot cookbook, Cooking Light Slow Cooker Tonight, and looked for something that could easily be adjusted for Paleo. I settled on a dish we tried last year and loved, Chinese Pork Tenderloin with Garlic Sauced Noodles (sorry this one isn't online - you'll have to buy the cookbook to get it!) Yes, a noodle dish without the noodles might sound a bit strange, but the flavors in this meal are vibrant and full, so I knew it could stand on its own without the pasta. I added extra veggies (as is my habit!) to give it more volume about an hour before it was finished - I doubled the carrots and added a head of napa cabbage, thinly sliced (the recipe calls for raw carrots but my son is allergic to those and can only eat them cooked). I did cook up a small serving of whole wheat spaghetti for my younger son (who has no dietary restrictions) and mixed his with the noodles, as directed, but my husband and I just ate ours as is, and it was delicious. Though the sauce and mix of pork and veggies in this dish is good, the real stars are the fresh ingredients added at the end - cilantro, lime juice, and chopped peanuts (or cashews or sunflower seeds for Paleo). Delicious!

And tonight, with my college son home for his weekly Sunday dinner, we will have his favorite, Americana Pot Roast. The only adjustment I need to make for him is to leave out the potatoes - I am substituting some turnips instead. This is a really flavorful version of pot roast that we all love, a family favorite.

I hope you have also enjoyed some fun cooking and delicious foods this week!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 3/22

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

This week, I took a little break and drove down to the beach for a mini getaway/writing retreat for myself at a friend's condo. It was quiet and peaceful, with no responsibilities or obligations to distract me! I did lots of reading and some much-neglected writing and also took some short walks on the beach, in spite of lingering winter weather!

Cold temps, dark skies, and lingering snow kept the boardwalk pretty empty!

I still love the ocean, even with those dark skies - the smell, the sound, and the sight.

The weather didn't bother the locals!

Hard to believe the next day was the first day of spring!

On my last day, the sun came out!

Hope you are having a wonderful weekend and enjoying the start of spring!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fiction Review: The Good Sister

I rarely read thrillers anymore. I still enjoy them, but I used to read mystery/suspense novels almost exclusively, so I guess I kind of overdosed on them! So, when I recently listened to The Good Sister by Wendy Corsi Staub on audio, it was definitely something different from what I usually read now, but I enjoyed it. I remembered why I used to enjoy suspense novels so much, as I had trouble setting my iPod down!

The first chapters focus on a man who has returned to his childhood home in Buffalo, NY, to sell the house after his mother dies. It is obvious right from the first paragraph that some strange things went on in that house and that there was some sort of abuse present in his family, and by the end of the first chapter, the reader also knows that this man is a killer. The story than switches to the point of view of Carley, a teen girl attending the same Catholic high school, Sacred Sisters, that her mother, Jen, attended in the same Buffalo neighborhood. Carley is being bullied by her classmates, but she keeps that a secret from her mother. Soon, Jen and Carley and the rest of the community are shook up as a series of mysterious deaths occur among the local teen girls.

At first, I wondered where the suspense was in this novel, since you know right from the first chapter who the killer is. It turns out that this is one of those thrillers more concerned with why than with whodunit. It’s a convoluted plot, with many twists and turns. I did guess at some of the why midway through the book, but the author still had plenty of surprises in store for me – all the more surprising because I thought I had things all figured out!

Like most thrillers, there is quite a bit of violence in this novel, as well as some very disturbing incidents. The story focuses heavily on social media’s role among today’s teens, with its ripped-from-the-headlines elements of online bullying and kids seeking online support from strangers whom they trust too quickly (again, no spoilers here that the author herself doesn’t reveal early on). It’s a scary story for parents of modern teens. But it is also a creative and suspenseful story that kept me in earbuds almost constantly for a few weeks!



Monday, March 17, 2014

It's Monday 3/17! What Are You Reading?

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!

When I was in college, St. Patrick's Day was pretty much the biggest holiday of the year (with a big emphasis on green beer, of course), so it is still near and dear to my heart, even though I can no longer drink...or stay up late! I am wearing green, though, plus a lovely green nail polish (Minty Sprint!), and we had our big corned beef dinner last night when my college son was home, with plenty of leftovers for today. If you are looking for a really great corned beef recipe for today (or some other easy and tasty meal ideas), check out my Weekend Cooking post from yesterday.

And now, it is snowing again here today...sigh...yet another day with school cancelled! On the positive side, I have planned a little writing retreat for myself this week and am headed to the beach for a couple of quiet days to myself at a friend's condo. I am very much looking forward to the writing time and plenty of reading time, too!

Meanwhile, we have all enjoyed our books this week:
  • I am still reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, even though we had our book discussion on it last week. I am down to the last 50 pages or so (it's over 600 pages!). I was surprised to find that some people didn't like it because I love it more the more I read. These two characters and their story really pulled me in and grabbed me. I can't wait to find out what happens next but also don't want it to end!
  • I am also still listening to Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the third and final book in the Divergent trilogy. I like this one better than I liked the first two because it is delving into why this post-apocalyptic world is the way it is, so I am finding the story much more interesting and thought-provoking, more along the lines of Hunger Games or the Unwind series.
  • My husband, Ken, read The Drop by Michael Connelly this week and enjoyed it - he and I have always liked Connelly's novels.
  • Now Ken is reading Unsouled, the third book in the teen/YA Unwind trilogy by Neal Schusterman, which he, our college son, and I all love. This dystopian series is absolutely chilling because it is based on elements of our own current society taken to an extreme.
  • Jamie, 19, started a new Medieval fantasy series (his favorite kind of book), The Staff and the Sword by Patrick W. Carr. Last week, he read book one, A Cast of Stones, on his Kindle, and he is now reading book two, The Hero's Lot. He mentioned to me yesterday that getting sick the previous week (bronchitis) reminded him of how much he enjoys reading, so he's trying to read more, even while he's at school. That's my boy.
I tried to catch up a bit last week on my book blogs, so I posted:
Review of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier, a wonderful novel.

 Review of Thin Space by Jody Casella, a teen/YA realistic novel with a supernatural twist.

 Summary of Books Read in February and Challenge Progress.

Weekend Cooking, including easy and tasty weeknight dinners plus my favorite Corned Beef recipe.
What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Weekend Cooking 3/16

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

We are continuing on our new eating adventures with a mostly Paleo diet, due to medical problems. Everyone felt pretty good this week, so I do think it's helping. My son felt very good this week (he's on a diet that even more restrictive than Paleo, until he maintains this level of improvement for a while), I felt good and had plenty of energy, and even my husband (who has no major health problems) has been feeling full of energy and in great spirits on this diet. Also, I lost 5 pounds which makes me very happy because one of the medications I started a few years ago made me gain 5 pounds, so at least I am back where I was before! I've had to start wearing belts again because my jeans keep slipping down! My husband has also lost about 5 pounds.

Whether you are eating Paleo or not, we had some delicious dinners this week that are great for anyone who enjoys flavor! So far, I've just been using regular recipes (mostly from Cooking Light, as usual!) and making slight modifications for us, if necessary.

I try to make traditional favorites when my college-aged son (the one with the worst medical problems and the most restrictive diet) comes home on Sundays - for him, that usually means beef! Last Sunday, I made him a classic roast beef (eye of round roast) and served it with pureed cauliflower and sauteed zucchini. Tonight, of course, we'll have our annual Corned Beef Dinner for St. Patty's Day, just with far fewer potatoes than usual! This is my favorite recipe for New England Boiled Dinner, though I will have to leave out the maple syrup today and go easy on the potatoes. There are plenty of other good veggies in this dish to make up for that.

I've been trying to make sure we have fish at least once a week since it is so healthy and to prevent us from relying too much on red meat (we normally eat a lot of beans and other legumes which are out on this diet). So, one night, I made Pan-Seared Tilapia with Citrus Vinaigrette - it was sooo tasty! With it, we ate roasted asparagus (a household favorite) and delicious Bacon-Maple Brussels Sprouts. I just cooked two pieces of uncured, thick-cut bacon in a skillet, removed them and sauteed the halved Brussels sprouts in the bacon grease until cooked through, then glazed them with a tablespoon or so of real maple syrup, and finished them with a sprinkle of freshly ground salt and pepper and added the crumbled bacon back in. They were delicious and a great accompaniment to the fish. They were both just as good the next day for lunch!

I tried a new crockpot recipe later in the week, Mediterranean Chicken, from the Cooking Light Slow Cooker Tonight! cookbook (sorry this particular recipe isn't available online). This dish was filled with flavor, and the three of us gobbled up all of it! It is basically chick thighs that have been browned on the stovetop, added to the crockpot with onion, tomatoes, seasonings, lemon, capers, and kalamata olives. I added some red bell pepper to up the veggie count. That combination of zesty flavors was fabulous. The only change I had to make was that the recipe recommended serving it over rice. We just ate it without the rice and I added some roasted baby bok choy on the side. Delicious! We will definitely make that one again.

Friday night, my younger son begged for plain old spaghetti! He's been a good sport as the rest of us do this restricted diet (he has medical problems, too, but his are well-controlled with medication and he doesn't need any special diet). Since he was having a friend over, we went with classic spaghetti with meat sauce, with steamed green beans on the side. My husband and I did have a bit of the whole wheat spaghetti - since we don't have gluten issues, we've agreed to stick to Paleo most of the time but indulge in some whole grains or beans or corn once in a while.

So, all in all, it was a very tasty week! I hope you have enjoyed some good food and cooking this week as well!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 3/15

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

After the longest, coldest winter in memory here, I finally saw some signs this week that spring might be emerging soon - the temperatures hit the 60's one day, the snow in our neighborhood is almost melted, and I saw the very first spring flower shoots. Too bad there is another snow storm forecast for Monday! Ah, well, I am going to enjoy these signs of spring while I can...

The snow is almost melted in our yard!

My first afternoon spent on the deck.

As the snow recedes, the first snowdrops are peeking out!

These snowdrops are in bloom....more to come!

Hope you are having a lovely weekend!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Books Read in February

Yet another snow storm...will this winter ever end?
Yes, yes, I am late again with my monthly summary. This year got off to a rough start, so I seem to be constantly playing catch-up. But here it is, finally - my February summary! It was actually an excellent reading month, both in quantity and quality, in spite of being such a short month. Here's all that I finished last month:
  • Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, historical fiction (Hawaii)
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, literary fiction (Rhode Island)
  • Thin Space by Jody Casella, a teen/YA novel (Massachusetts)

  • The Good Sister by Wendy Corsi Staub, a thriller on audio (New York)
  • The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier, fiction (Massachusetts)
  • 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam, nonfiction

  • Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, middle-grade audio
  • Insurgent by Veronica Roth, teen/YA audio (Illinois)
  • Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick, middle-grade fiction (Louisiana)

Can you believe it? I finished 9 books in February! To be fair,  I started a couple of them in January - in fact, ironically, the time management book took me a full two months to finish (I guess I really don't have more time than I think!). I liked every single book on this list, so it's hard to pick a favorite...I guess that would be a tie between Moloka'i and The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D. - both were excellent, engaging novels. I read a nice mix - 4 adult novels, 1 nonfiction book, 2 teen/YA novels, 2 middle-grade novels, and three of the books were audios.

Update on 2014 Reading Challenges:
I added six states to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 (it's easy at the beginning of the year!).  I read just one from my TBR shelves, Insurgent, for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge. At this rate, my TBR bookcase will burst! I need to stop going to the library for a while.  I listened to three audio book for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge, so that one's going well so far. I finally read one nonfiction book!  But no classics yet.

What was your favorite book read in February?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fiction Review: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

I had been suggesting The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier to my neighborhood book group for several months, so I was thrilled when the group finally chose it for our February selection. Everyone in the group enjoyed this insightful book about women, friendships, secrets, relationships, motherhood – there is just so much packed into this engaging novel that we had plenty to talk about!

As the novel opens, Kate, a mother of two young children, is still trying to adjust after the startling death of her closest friend a year before in a plane crash. The September 11th attacks occurred just a few months after her friend Elizabeth’s death, and both events have left Kate feeling rattled. On their way to their annual family beach vacation, Kate and her husband and kids stop at Elizabeth’s house to pick up a small trunk that was left to Kate in the will. Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, is not too pleased that his wife mysteriously chose to leave this trunk, filled with journals that Elizabeth wrote, to Kate. She wanted Kate to be the one to read the journals and decide what to do with them.

On their vacation, Kate begins to make her way through the journals, starting at the beginning when Elizabeth was only a young teen, as her friend had requested. Before long, the journals have become something of an obsession for Kate, much to the irritation of her husband, Chris. It turns out that sweet, placid Elizabeth had a number of secrets – things she’d been through and hadn’t ever shared – as well as secret insecurities and anxieties that Kate never even suspected. Kate begins to wonder whether she really knew her old friend, and as she reads about some problems and secrets in her marriage to Dave, she also begins to question the stability of her own marriage to Chris.

This story is engaging and compelling with a bit of a mystery at its core – everyone in the group said they read it quickly and had trouble putting it down – but it is also thought provoking and insightful. Our group talked about it easily for a couple of hours, jumping from topics of women’s friendships to marriage to motherhood to journal-keeping to post 9/11 anxieties and secrets….and then after I got home, my mind was still spinning, thinking, “Oh, we didn’t talk about that” and “I should have asked what everyone thought of this!” In short, this novel really got under my skin and made me think.

I also loved Bernier’s writing. I turned down many corners of the book to mark quotes I wanted to write down later – just so many times when she perfectly expressed some truth about motherhood or being a woman or friendship or some other topic. One example is this musing from Kate on traveling with kids:

“For years, traveling as a family had been something undertaken with determination, their agility weighed by bulky gear and days defined by naps, meals, moods. It had seemed as if those years would last forever, though a small part of her wished they would. Memories of even the difficult times – children crying themselves to exhaustion in cars, planes, hotels – were beginning to take on the cast of nostalgia. She had watched them fall asleep at last, puffy mouths gone slack, with equal parts relief and heartbreak. They would never, she’d thought, be as fully hers as they were at that moment of surrender. The dawn of traveling freedom shimmered ahead. But Kate suspected this, like other things that surprised her, would come with a wistfulness for what had passed too quickly.”

With the dawn of real traveling freedom just ahead for us, with one son in college now and one in high school, I identified with every tired, yearning, nostalgic word of that passage. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of Bernier’s first novel and can’t wait to read her next one, which she describes in this video.

305 pages, Crown Publishers

NOTE: Nichole Bernier made a series of videos for our book group, answering questions we’d submitted ahead of time. In this video, she explains what was behind her novel and how she came up with the idea (don't worry - no spoilers in this one!)

Monday, March 10, 2014

It's Monday 3/10! What Are You Reading?

Busy Monday! I usually try to post my Monday update first thing in the morning, but here it is 4 pm already. I hope this isn't a harbinger of the coming week!

Here's what we read last week, in the midst of our busy lives:
  • I am still reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - it is over 600 pages! - for my book group this week. There is no way I will finish it in time since I am still not even halfway through it, but I am really enjoying it. I've heard great things about this novel for years, so I'm glad to finally have a chance to read it.
  • I am now listening to the audio book Allegiant by Veronica Roth, having just finished book 2 in the series a week ago. This is good preparation for the Divergent movie that is being released this week! And, I've inspired my husband to re-listen to the entire series (he's heard book 1 and just the beginning of book 2).
  • My husband, Ken, finished John Grisham's latest, Sycamore Row, a follow-up to his famous A Time to Kill and a Christmas gift from our son. He enjoyed it, and I've moved it into my own TBR pile now!
  • Jamie, 19, did some comfort reading this week because he got a bad cold and bronchitis and spent most of the week in his dorm room, resting. For him, comfort reading means re-reading old favorites. He re-read The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, and now he is re-reading Merlin by Stephen R. Lawhead.
I didn't have a lot of writing time last week (again!), but I managed one review and another post:

Review of Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick, an outstanding and emotionally powerful middle-grade novel.

Weekend Cooking 3/9, with several dinner recipes appropriate for either Paleo dieters or anyone else.

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Unleashing Readers

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Weekend Cooking 3/9

Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

As I explained two weeks ago, we've been eating according to the Paleo Diet here for almost a month now (plus some extra restrictions for my son and I due to health issues). It's been challenging at times, but everyone is feeling better, even my husband who has no medical issues - he's got a lot more energy and has been very cheery (our younger son says excessively cheery in the early mornings - lol).

Finding flavorful recipes that meet the Paleo criteria (no grains, no potatoes, no legumes) is challenging. I keep a database of recipes in an Excel spreadsheet - those I want to try, those we like, etc. My "Tried and True" page had almost 300 recipes on it; the new Paleo subset I created this week has only about 90 recipes (and most of those will require extra adjustments, like leaving out rice or potatoes). Our family likes to eat a very wide variety of meals with varied flavors. So, here's what I came up with last week - these recipes are all great for Paleo and regular diets alike and very flavorful.

One night, I made one of our favorite dishes, chicken piccata, with a small Paleo adjustment: swapped out the regular flour for almond flour. It has a coarser texture but it still provided a nice coating, and our son didn't notice any difference. I served it with roasted asparagus, and then had the brilliant idea to make zucchini ribbons to take the place of the whole wheat egg noodles we usually eat with it. I brought out the mandolin I've hardly ever used and sliced the zucchini lengthwise, super-thin. My husband watched me and said, "Why aren't you using the hand guard thingy?" I said it was easier this way...and then promptly sliced a nice, thin slice off the pad of my finger! I ended up in Urgent Care to get it repaired with surgical glue...oh, and by the way, dinner was delicious!

Another night, in need of a quick and simple dinner, I sliced up some chicken Italian sausage (we like Trader Joe's brand) and sauteed it with onions, bell peppers, and zucchini, then added a bit of chopped tomatoes and oregano. I cooked up some whole wheat pasta for my son ("Thank God!" he said), but my husband and I just ate it straight - very tasty!

We had another old favorite Cooking Light recipe later in the week, Maple-Glazed Roasted Salmon, which is my family's favorite way to eat salmon. The recipe's got a bit too much sugar for my own dietary restrictions, but it's maple syrup so it's good for Paleo....and very tasty whether you are eating Paleo or not! Like many of our Paleo dinners, I served it with 2 vegetable sides, broccoli and snow peas this time.

Besides searching through my own recipe database this week, I also went through every page of my Cooking Light Slow Cooker Tonight! book, one of my favorite cookbooks (actually, one of the only cookbooks I use). I found only a half dozen recipes that didn't include potatoes, rice or some other Paleo no-no! I tried one of them Friday - Old-Fashioned Chicken Fricassee (this recipe was adapted for the Slow Cooker book - after pan-frying the chicken for a few minutes, put all ingredients into the slow cooker and cook on Low for 4-5 hours). Actually, this one does use 3 tablespoons of flour, and I didn't think almond flour would be a good swap in this case, so I used a bit of white whole wheat flour. It was delicious - my husband and I ate it as is, like a stew, and I made my son some reduced-fat Pillsbury biscuits for his serving.

If you are interested in some Paleo-approved treats, check out this post from my chronic illness blog which includes some Paleo brownie recipes plus other chocolate treats. I'm ready for another week of experiments!

If anyone knows of a good Paleo cookbook with a focus on flavor, I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 3/8

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

The Never-Ending Winter:

I took these first two photos about two weeks ago, when it had finally warmed up above freezing and some of the snow in our neighborhood was beginning to melt, but even on a sunny day in the 40's, we still had plenty of snow in our yard, as you see here:

Snow still lingers in our yard, as the sunnier areas melt.

Still plenty of snow in the back!

Then, we got another big snowstorm this past Monday and were back to where we started from. It is supposed to go up above 50 today, which sounds like a miracle! Maybe some of this snow will melt again and this never-ending winter will finally come to a close.

As a parting shot, here is a pretty winter sunset, taken about a month ago, in between snowstorms:

Winter Sunset from our back deck

Hopefully, this will be the last of the snow photos for this year!

Hope you are having a wonderful - and warm - weekend!