Sunday, August 24, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 88-90

88) What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

My husband recommended this book to me. It's about both distance running--a new obsession of his--and writing--my own obsession and vocation. As such it's something of a meditation on the focus and perseverance it takes to finish a marathon (or a novel) and then keep doing it again and again, and it's also a book about finding a way to keep pursuing such grueling and challenging passions as one ages--something of increasing interest to me now that I'm having to acknowledge that whether I like it or not, I am getting to be middle-aged, and I have to listen to my body's limits.

89) A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren

So, I read this book. To say what I thought of it would be to get more political than I like to do on my author blog, especially because I wouldn't be able to resist talking about the 2016 let's just not go there.

90) The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is one of Bujold's earliest works, and probably her least-known book. I've had sitting on my TBR shelf for ages but just never quite got around to reading it, because no one was telling me, "OMG you must read this!" the way they did with the Vorkosigan Saga or her more recent fantasy novels.

While it's not her best work--she's definitely an author whose work improved over time--I'm very glad I read it. My favorite kind of fantasy reads like historical fiction, but with a few twists to keep it from being tethered to what actually happened, whether it's something like Naomi Novik where it's our world, but with dragons, or more like Jacqueline Carey or Guy Gavriel Kay where the map is the same but the names are changed. This is the first time--the story is set in a recognizable Renaissance Italy, only one with magic, in its more benign forms sanctioned by the Catholic church and society as a whole. But of course magic isn't always benign...

Definitely an enjoyable read, and one with a nice romantic subplot for its young protagonists.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 85-87

85) Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution by John Paul Stevens

Wherein retired Supreme Court Justice Stevens reviews what's broken in the American political system from his unique judicial perspective and proposes some constitutional remedies--e.g. undoing Citizens United, classing the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment, and finding a way to limit gerrymandering. While I don't disagree with any of his ideas, I found the book dry going at times. And, I sadly doubt there are enough people with the power and will to make a difference who'll listen to him.

86) White Stallion of Lipizza by Marguerite Henry

I started this book a time or two as a child but never got through it. It had nothing to do with racehorses, after all, unlike my favorite Henrys, King of the Wind and Black Gold. Now I want to go back and re-read those books with an adult's eyes, because this isn't just a horse book--it's a book about dedicating yourself to an art and a craft, to creating beauty for its own sake, to perseverance, to keeping alive your culture's best traditions.

87) The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low

A readable introduction to crime and punishment in Regency England, with a heavy focus on London.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Random Cookbook of the Week: Old-Fashioned Bread Omelet from More With Less

After a somewhat crazy summer with writing and editing deadlines, I'm starting to settle into a more normal schedule again...which means I have time again to challenge myself to cook a new recipe from a randomly selected cookbook from the 64 (yes, 64!) currently on my bookshelf.

This week I drew the More With Less Cookbook, one I also cooked from on my previous version of this challenge. That time it was winter, so I made a nice hearty lentil-sausage soup--which wasn't venturing far out of my comfort zone, since this cookbook is my go-to source for lentil dishes.

But this time I tried something I've never attempted before: an omelet. (I know, I know. I developed a taste for eggs relatively late in life, so I'm just now developing my cooking techniques for them.)

Old-Fashioned Bread Omelet

Combine and soak 15 minutes:
 - 1 c. bread cubes (I used fancy-schmancy farmers market organic white sandwich bread)
 - 1/2 c. milk

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Combine in bowl:
 - 4 eggs, beaten
 - 1/4 c grated cheese (I used medium cheddar)
 - 1/2 t. salt
 - bread and milk mixture
 - (I also added a bit of freshly ground pepper because this cookbook runs bland)

Heat in skillet:
 - 1 T margarine (I used butter because it tastes better AND is healthier)

Pour in egg mixture and cook over medium heat without stirring, about five minutes. When browned underneath, place pan in oven for 10 minutes to finish cooking on top. Turn out onto hot platter, folding omelet in half.

Note that this assumes you have an oven-safe frying pan. If all of yours have plastic handles, this recipe will be right out for you. We have a nice set of stainless steel, picked up at a bargain because it had been the store's display set, which I love for having a sort of double robustness--you can cook almost anything in them AND throw them in the dishwasher. Way too many quality pots and pans aren't dishwasher safe, IMHO. Just because I'm something of a foodie doesn't mean I have all the time in the world at my disposal, nor that I enjoy the cleaning up part of the process.

So, anyway, this isn't the prettiest thing I've ever cooked, not by a long shot. It fell apart when I tried to fold it:

But it was quite amazingly tasty in a comfort-food sort of way. The bread gave it sort of a savory French toast effect. I'm sure you could vary the flavor considerably depending on what type of bread and/or cheese you chose. The cheddar didn't impart a very strong flavor, which was fine by me, but if you like your cheeses cheesy, you'll probably want a sharp cheddar or other strong hard cheese.

I think using good white bread was the right choice. Poor-quality white bread wouldn't have soaked up the egg and milk while still maintaining its breadly integrity the way this did, and a whole wheat, sourdough, rye, or whatever would've overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the eggs. (Sheesh. I sound like a judge on Iron Chef or Chopped.)

You can barely see it in the picture, but I accompanied the omelet with quick-cooked chard flavored with garlic, salt, pepper, and white balsamic vinegar. The combo worked, but really I think just about any bright, strong flavor would pair well with the omelet, not least such traditional breakfast goodies as bacon, ham, and fresh fruit.

I'm sure I'll make this again. It's quick, simple, nutritious, and tasty all at once.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 79-84

79) Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Rift Part 2 by Gene Luen Yang

The latest graphic novel showcasing the further adventures of Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and Zuko (though Zuko has so far been absent from this trilogy). Deeply interesting if you're a fan of Avatar and The Legend of Korra, but would undoubtably be baffling if you aren't.

80) Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel

A harrowing, heartbreaking book following several soldiers who served multiple deployments in Iraq as they struggle to reintegrate into society and cope with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and their impacts on their families and futures. I'm glad I read it, though a big part of me hated it.

81) The Improbable Primate by Clive Finlayson

A quick read, though I wouldn't recommend it if you haven't read anything else on the current state of the science with respect to human evolution since it assumes a certain familiarity with major fossil finds and the various theories about humanity's spread across Africa, Eurasia, and Australia. Finlayson's main focus is on our species' preference for environments combining access to fresh water, some trees and/or rocks/caves, and some open space, and how the most successful early humans were those who developed lighter builds and longer limbs for covering longer distances between water sources. I'm not sure I agree with all his theories, but he raises some interesting points. He takes what I believe is the unusual view of seeing every hominid from Homo erectus on as the same species. I'll admit my gut reaction is, "But we can't be the same species as H. erectus. They had TINY LITTLE BRAINS."

82) The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt

A history of Rome from its legendary foundations to the fall of the Republic. I think it would be good for a reader unfamiliar with the history in question (though it would help to have a broad sense of the course of ancient history). I found it a useful refresher on what I learned from listening to the early sections of Mike Duncan's wonderful History of Rome podcast.

83) The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression by John F. Kasson

This one is more interesting than I expected, really. It's a blend of celebrity biography and social history of the Depression and Shirley Temple's impact as the biggest child celebrity of the age by far. To me the most interesting chapter was the one about Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the complex racial issues of his career and his dances with blonde little Shirley.

84) Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon

If I had to describe this book in one word, I'd choose "rambly." If you've been following the series, enjoy Gabaldon's voice, and are interested in the doings of the extended and often interwoven Fraser, Mackenzie, and Grey families, you will happily plow through this book (as I did). If not...give the first book a try and see if you want to keep going from there. This is NOT a series you'd want to start in the middle. In some ways I wish these books had more focus...OTOH, there's something to be said for a good chatty ramble through characters' lives.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cover for A Christmas Reunion

I promised you one more Christmas-related post for this hot July week, and here it is! My 2014 holiday novella, A Christmas Reunion, now has a cover:

Isn't it pretty? I think it perfectly captures the emotion of the story, which is all about star-crossed lovers reuniting at Christmas just a week before she's supposed to marry another man.

(Incidentally, my first thought on receiving a new cover is always, ALWAYS, "But that's not what they look like!" Which I've accepted will inevitably be the case--it's not like I can draw more than stick figures myself, so I can't show you what the characters look like in my head. And in cases where they closely resemble some celebrity, it's not like, say, Cam Newton is going to take time off from his lucrative day job as an NFL quarterback or Tom Hiddleston from his as a major actor to, like, pose for my covers, so unless they have a double out there in the romance novel cover photo modeling industry, still not gonna happen. In this case the characters are pretty close, though in my head the heroine has lighter, redder hair.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Christmas in July

As some of you know, I'm originally from Alabama, though I live in the Pacific Northwest now. My native state has famously hot and muggy summers, and I remember one day in particular when I was home from college for the summer and was driving around running errands.  The DJ on one of the radio stations announced that the AC was down in the studio, and he had to do something to cool he broke out the Christmas music. And for the rest of that 95-degree Deep South summer day, he played carol after carol. The thing is, it did seem to help. My car was a tiny, aging 1980 Dodge Colt whose AC only sorta worked, and I swear I felt cooler for all that joy to the world and those herald angels singing.

Seattle summers aren't anywhere near as brutal as Alabama's, but most of us don't own air conditioners. Mr. Fraser and I are lucky enough to have a window unit in the master bedroom, but the rest of the house starts getting uncomfortable once it gets much above 80. As I type this it's 82 outside and I'm sweating in my writing office despite open windows and a fan. So maybe it's time to think cool winter holiday thoughts again.

And Entangled Publishing is here to help. Today and tomorrow they're hosting a Christmas in July event on Facebook. Do stop by if you need a reminder that winter is coming. And if you'd like to pick up a quick Christmas read to enjoy at the beach or to save on your e-reader for the holidays, my short novella Christmas Past is available year-round wherever ebooks are sold!

Time-traveling PhD student Sydney Dahlquist’s first mission sounded simple enough—spend two weeks in December 1810 collecting blood samples from the sick and wounded of Wellington’s army, then go home to modern-day Seattle and Christmas with her family. But when her time machine breaks, stranding her in the past, she must decide whether to sacrifice herself to protect the timeline or to build a new life—and embrace a new love—two centuries before her time.

Rifle captain Miles Griffin has been fascinated by the tall, beautiful “Mrs. Sydney” from the day he met her caring for wounded soldiers. When he stumbles upon her time travel secret on Christmas Eve, he vows to do whatever it takes to seduce her into making her home in his present—by his side.

And later this week I'll have more Christmas-themed news to share!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 73-78

73) The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber

At first I wasn't sure whether I wanted to read yet another book about sustainable agriculture, getting back to our culinary roots, etc., but I'm glad I did. I found this book both illuminating and moving, and it strengthened my commitment to eating mindfully, being a patron of my local farmer's market, and generally supporting organic and/or sustainable agriculture whenever I can.

74) Enemies at Home by Lindsey Davis

The second book in the Flavia Albia series about Marcus Didius Falco's adopted daughter still doesn't have the wit and energy of the original series...but I still enjoy Albia as a character and visiting Davis's Rome, even this darker version under the Emperor Domitian. (The Falco books are set during Vespasian's reign.)

75) War! What is it Good For? by Ian Morris

An interesting and often thought-provoking "big picture" history whose basic thesis is that there's such a thing as "productive war" that despite its violence and atrocities leads to the formation of large, stable states and empires in which subjects/citizens are less likely to die violent deaths than they were in the tribal or small-state societies that preceded them. I'm not sure I agree with everything he says, but I'm glad to have his ideas added to my own big picture view of the world.

76) Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

A "10 years later" sequel to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants YA series. At 29, the girls are still figuring out how to be adults--and while in some ways this made them feel unrealistically immature, hell, I'm...a fair bit older than 29, even if a really kind waitress at 74th Street Ale House did card me last month, and some days I feel like I'm still sorting it out. Anyway, it was good to drop in on these characters and see how they're doing with their lives, though I can't say much more than that without venturing into spoiler territory. And as for spoilers, I'll just say that while it has what we romance writers call an emotionally optimistic ending, it has enough sadness in it that the best the ending can do is be bittersweet.

77) The Shambling Guide to New York City by Mur Lafferty

There are so many urban fantasy and/or paranormal romance series out there these days wherein a human discovers a varied community of paranormal beings that it takes some doing to make such a series fresh and interesting, but this one about a human travel writer who goes to work for a vampire publisher to produce travel guides for the paranormal community pulls it off.

78) Countess of Scandal by Laurel McKee.

This is one of the best historical romances I've read in quite awhile. Set against the backdrop of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, it's a poignant, gritty and gripping tale of star-crossed lovers.

I just wish the cover and title gave any hint of that. If I hadn't known the author (Laurel also writes as Amanda McCabe, and we both blog at Risky Regencies), I never would've picked up this book because nothing about the branding and packaging says Ireland, poignant, or strongly grounded in real history. Which I feel does the book a disservice, because it's not finding readers like me, while it maybe would draw readers who enjoy the lighter, frothier historical romances, who'd then be disappointed to get something so gritty and angsty.