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Friday, May 29, 2009

Crewel World by Monica Ferris


This is book one in the Needlecraft Mystery Series and this series came recommended by one of my fellow scifi book group members.

Betsy left her life in San Diego behind and came to spend some time with her only sister, Margot, in Excelsior, MN. Margot ran a Needlepoint, Yarn and Floss store with a handful of part-time employees and volunteers. Margot, thrilled to see her sister after so many years apart, put her up in the spare bedroom and even gave her a part-time position at the store.

However, when it was Betsy who discovered a break-in at the store after a late night trip to the Cities, it was the police who discovered Margot had been murdered. Now Betsy is left with a cat, a needlepoint store and wondering who could have done her well-liked sister in.

This was another brain-candy, light mystery. I was particularly partial to the Twin Cities setting being from there myself and could follow the streets and highways and places. However, I was a little disappointed in that I figured out "who done it" almost immediately, but since I liked the characters, it wasn't hard to keep turning the pages. Another good beach or vacation book.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexsander McCall Smith



Welcome to Botswana, Africa, home to Precious Ramotswe, private detective. Her Daddy's dying request was that she buy her own business with the money he was leaving her, and she decided Africa needed a lady private detective. Botswana is a place of cattle, fat women dealing with roving husbands, dusty children and very big hearts.

This is not a traditional mystery in which person A dies at the beginning and we follow the main character through till the "Ah HA! It was the professor in the library with a candlestick!". Instead, we follow Precious as she moves through life on the edge of the Kalahari as she figures out the case of the missing husband, the boy lost to witchcraft, the doctor who isn't quite what he seems and her various friendships with people in the town. All the little stories are woven beautifully into one larger one that seem to just pull you along.

I stumbled across this series after catching some episodes on HBO when the Husband and I were out of town. The HBO series was a lot of fun and the book is really a delightful, refreshing read.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Grand Marais, MN, 2009



For the last four years, I have joined the Parents on a Memorial Day trip up to Grand Marais, MN. It's just a short drive for me - maybe 2 1/2 hours max from my driveway to the Municipal Campground. I usually come up on Friday, but this year I was able to get away Thursday night. I just love the drive up there, as Hwy 61 winds along Lake Superior and you get to catch glimpses of it through the budding aspen trees or along the rocky stretches where the road follows the lake shore a bit more closely.



We've actually been doing these trips for about five or six years, and they've all involved hiking stretches of the Superior Hiking Trail. A lot of the trail is day-tripable from Duluth, but once you get north of say, Lutsen, MN, those stretches require an overnight stay.

This year we hiked the second segment down from the Canadian Border - a 5.2 mile stretch that followed a beautiful ridge line that went in and out of a mature aspen/birch forest with fantastic overviews of Lake Superior. In a couple spots you could even see Isle Royale! We knew from experience that that interesting island was at least 30 miles away. Very cool.



That was my only big hike for the weekend. I had hopes of doing the very first (or last depending on which way you are hiking) segment, but our travels and plans didn't get me back up there. Otherwise we lounged around the campground, reading or in my case, knitting; I did a lot of 2 mile walks with the hounds; and we did a 2 mile loop trail up the Gunflint Trail in anticipation of Afternoon Tea at the Naniboujou Lodge.



Now that was just lovely and I highly recommend it to anyone needing a calming respite from their travels up the North Shore. Tea is served in the lodge's solarium, which over looks the lake and the Devil Track River. A pot of hot tea is brought to your "table" accompanied by full plates of tea sandwiches, scones, jam, chocolate dipped shortbread cookies, chocolate orange bundt cake and some red grapes. Yum yum! We took a stroll down the beach afterwards and skipped rocks.



The weather this year was a bit on the cool side...no, I tell a lie...it was darn cold! It think it got up to about 50* when we were hiking (which honestly, it the perfect temperature for hiking), but otherwise the evenings stayed right around 35-40*. The leaves were just starting to leaf out.

Oh, heavens, I could go on! But I'll leave you with these pictures instead:



Friday, May 22, 2009

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow


This is one of 5 nominees for a Hugo Award this year. My friend Gail and I will be heading to Montreal this fall for the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) and part of our membership is we get to vote on the Hugo Awards.

The nominees in the Novel Category are (there are categories for just about everything):
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
The Graveyard Game by Neil Gaiman
Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
Saturn's Children by Charles Stross


Marcus Yallow is a seventeen year old living in San Fransisco who loves anything to do with computers, hanging out with his friends - Van, Darryl and Jolu - and is a typical teenager. He has already outsmarted his schools surveillance systems, was booted out of a science fair when he demonstrated how to find the hidden cameras with a toilet paper tube and he is well known on-line as w1n5st0n.

Marcus, Van, Jolu and Darryl skip school one afternoon in pursuit of an on-line style game of geocashing, when they find their world turned upside down when explosions rock the city. The four are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security because they were "seen" in the vicinity of the explosions, tortured and set free with dire warnings not to say where they were kept. Except for Darryl - nobody knows what happened to Darryl.

Now Marcus's city is under the thumb of Homeland Security, with video cameras on every corner, passes that monitor your travel routes, cameras in the schools all in the name of "safety". Marcus, appalled by what he's seeing to his freedom of rights under the constitution, fights back in the only way he knows how - on-line.


I found this book...tedious. I read about 1/2 of it then started skimming. It struck me as a cross between a computer "how-to" manual and a dry history book with a human element thrown in. I liked the human element, I got tired of reading how to infiltrate the internet with various subversive programs. I got very tired of the history lessons. It was like they were just stuck in there as filler. Now maybe the intended audience - it is published for young adult - might find this more fascinating, but I thought it really dragged along.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

State of the Art by Iain M. Banks



I forgot to review April's SciFi book selection which I suppose demonstrates how underwhelmed I was with this book. I think it was mostly because I just wasn't in the mood for short stories. I'm a novel person and often find shorts dissatisfying.

As described from Goodreads.com:

The State of the Art is the first collection from the author of The Algebraist and Use of Weapons. It features two stories set in his "Culture" universe plus six other stories and an essay.

Contents:
Road of Skulls
A Gift From the Culture
Odd Attachment
Descendant
Cleaning Up
Piece
The State of the Art
Scratch
A Few Notes on the Culture

Monday, May 18, 2009

Recipe Review from 5/11/09

I know, I know, there's been a bit of a dirth of recipe reviews this past week or so. There was a post on the Ckng Lght Bulletin Board about freezing food which put me in a frame of mind to engage in another "Freezer Reduction Project" and "Cupboard Reduction Project".

This was also partially inspired by the mystery tubs of "I'll-remember-what-this-is-Oh-my-gosh-what-the-hell-is-this-freezer-burned-tub-of-stuff??"

So far I haven't done very well. I threw away two tubs of mystery stuff; I think one was some buffalo ragu but I couldn't tell under the ice crystals that had decorated the top. I did use up a box of puff pastry to make my own pasties (review below), but I forgot to add the partial bag of peas, darn it. And next week I'm baking the last of the apple pies from last fall for a Picnic Potluck at work. This way I don't have to eat a whole pie by myself.

But this also translates into very few new recipes, of which I have three from the last two weeks.

Picture from CookingLight.com

Baked Shrimp and Goat Cheese (Ckng Lght, Apr 09; modified) 3.0
I really modified this dish because it didn't make much sense to me the way it was. However, when I was doing a search for the recipe, there is a version that tosses it with linquine. This is the modified recipe that I used below.



Yield
4 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

Ingredients
1 cup uncooked Israeli couscous

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Cooking spray
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 cup prechopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tablespoon white wine
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled goat cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Preparation


1. Preheat oven to 450°.

2. Cook Israeli couscous according to directions, set aside to keep warm.

3. Combine lemon juice and shrimp in a large bowl; toss well. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add oil to pan, swirling to coat. Add onion to pan; sauté 1 minute. Add garlic; sauté 1 minute. Add wine, oregano, pepper, and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Stir in shrimp mixture. Place mixture in an 8x8–inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

4. Top with couscous.

5. Sprinkle cheese evenly over mixture. Bake at 450° for 12-15 minutes or until shrimp are done and cheese melts. Sprinkle with parsley; serve immediately.

This was also a recommendation:
Orzo with fresh herbs: Cook 1 cup orzo pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain; toss orzo with 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.





Vegetable and Chicken Pasties
Pasties are quite the regional thing up here, and I'm convinced nearly every culture has their version of this - calzones, empanadas, samosas, just to name a few. I had one puff pastry sheet left in the freezer and some carrots, celery, parsnips and leftover chicken crying to be used up in the fridge. I roasted all the veggies, added the chicken last just to warm it up, then wrapped in the pastry and baked it till golden brown. Turned out darn tasty if I do say so, though I still prefer a regular pie crust type crust. I has some leftover veggies that I just tossed in a bowl and had it for lunch.




Mark Bittman's Noodles with Soy Broth (Ckng Lght Bulletin Board)
A regular poster on the Ckng Lght BB shared this recipe with the group a while back and I mentally filed it away as a good possibility. Well, come a very chilly, windy Friday night, not having anything thawed out and passing up pizza on the way home from work, this jiggled my memory. You can read the whole article from the link in the title - it is a very versitile recipe. I subbed raman noodles for the rice noodles; and I had EVERYTHING I needed on hand.

I did cook my raman noodle in the same liquid I would make the broth out of - I cooked them first, removed and set aside, and continue on as noted. And I did add an egg to the simmering broth before adding the noodles back in.

A VERY satisfying dish!

Egg Noodles With Soy Broth
By MARK BITTMAN

Salt

1/3 cup soy sauce, more to taste

1/3 cup ketchup or 3 tablespoons tomato paste and a pinch of sugar

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar, more to taste

A few drops dark sesame oil (optional)

A squirt of sriracha or other sauce, or a dried red chili to taste (optional)

1 pound egg noodles, preferably fresh.

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. In a smaller pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil; once boiling, reduce heat so water bubbles gently.

2. To the smaller pot add soy sauce, ketchup, vinegar, sesame oil if using and sriracha or chili, along with a pinch of salt. Stir and let simmer.

3. Add egg noodles to large pot; fresh noodles will be ready in just a couple of minutes; dried will take longer. When tender but not mushy, drain. Taste broth and add more soy, salt, vinegar or heat as you like. Divide noodles into bowls and pour hot broth over all.

Yield: 4 servings.

Friday, May 15, 2009

No Nest for the Wicket by Donna Andrews


This is book 10 in the Meg Langslow mystery series.

Meg and Michael have take full possession of the old Sprocket farm house, and after having the rummage sale of the century (complete with a dead body) have begun remodeling. But since they can't just do one thing at a time, Meg has agreed to host an eXtreme croquet competition using her neighbors sheep and cow pastures as the playing fields.

However, all bets are off when Meg discovers the body of a Jane Doe in the cow pasture. The only one who recognizes the body is Michael - it was an old girl friend. Still, the sheriff isn't convinced and everyone is held in suspense as Meg helps solve the crime.

While a fun read, this book was almost a duplicate of book #9. I mean really, two back to back murders by the house?

If you want substance from your mysteries, this isn't the series for you. If you want something that you can take to the beach or on vacation, something fluffy and fun that you don't have to think about, then yes, you might find Meg and her crazy cast of characters appealing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oolong Dead by Laura Childs (Tea Shop #10)


Book 10 in the Tea Shop Series. This books are fluff mystery/brain candy to me, something I read between my scifi books. I finished this one in a day - they go that quick.

The premise of Oolong Dead is: Theodosia finds herself tangled in another murder, finding the body of her ex-boy friend’s sister on a steeple chase course. It doesn’t help that she had a rip-roaring fight with the now deceased TV anchor several months ago in front of witnesses. Theo is drawn further in the web of intrigue when Jory – the ex-boy friend – show’s up at her tea shop, asking her to help solve Abby’s murder. Soon after, Detective Burt Tidwell also puts in an appearance to ask the same thing.

Theodosia’s snooping takes her down to Savannah, out into the low country to the Mobley Plantation, and to an Italian Masked Ball. But the big question throughout the book, is how will she afford to buy the Carriage House Cottage of her dreams down by the Battery? (Which, having just been to Charleston, SC, and seen how MUCH it costs to live in the Historic District, is indeed a very good question.)

Like I said, a very quick read. I am finding Childs conclusions a bit to pat and to quick – I think the resolutions could be fleshed out just a bit more. I always feel like there could be just a bit more explanation at the end – one more chapter to wrap things up after the “climatic capture of the criminal”.

I did find myself being jarred out of the story once – Theo is zooming around the salt marsh on a Ski-Doo (which I have issues with for environmental reasons, but that aside), “Overhead, a pileated woodpecker drilled noisily into a tree and…” Ahh…no. Between the sound of the Ski-doo and the wind in one’s ears, a person is NOT going to hear even a pileated woodpecker.

So, anyway, fun read and I look forward to the next.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Anathem by Neal Stephenson



This was an excellent book. I think I enjoyed it even more than Cryptomonicon. However, it did have a tendency to get bogged down in theoretical discourse, it sometimes felt like a coming of age novel, and, I'll be honest, a lot of concepts went right over my head. It's even more noteworthy since it's a Hugo Nominee for 2009!

Amazon.com had one of the best summaries of this book. I honestly could not summarize this book and do it justice. This is one of those books that should just be experienced, like Crytomonicon or Dan Simmon's Hyperion or Olympus series.

Amazon's description summarizes Stephenson's writing as: In this follow-up to his historical Baroque Cycle trilogy, which fictionalized the early-18th century scientific revolution, Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) conjures a far-future Earth-like planet, Arbre, where scientists, philosophers and mathematicians—a religious order unto themselves—have been cloistered behind concent (convent) walls. Their role is to nurture all knowledge while safeguarding it from the vagaries of the irrational saecular outside world. Among the monastic scholars is 19-year-old Raz, collected into the concent at age eight and now a decenarian, or tenner (someone allowed contact with the world beyond the stronghold walls only once a decade). But millennia-old rules are cataclysmically shattered when extraterrestrial catastrophe looms, and Raz and his teenage companions—engaging in intense intellectual debate one moment, wrestling like rambunctious adolescents the next—are summoned to save the world. Stephenson's expansive storytelling echoes Walter Miller's classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, the space operas of Larry Niven and the cultural meditations Douglas Hofstadter—a heady mix of antecedents that makes for long stretches of dazzling entertainment occasionally interrupted by pages of numbing colloquy.


It could be debated that this is a coming of age novel - the main character is 19 years old and knows very little about the world at large beyond his cloisted walls until he is forced to face them when he gets booted out. It could be debated that this is a book about first contact. It could be debated that this is a discussion technology vs theoretics. There's A LOT going on in this book...

My friend Gail read this a while back, and if you don't mind potential spoilers (I personally don't think she gives anything of import away) you can get a feel for a different perspective. Disorganized, As Usual

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Garden Update, May 09

This past weekend was the first time this year I was really able to get out into the yard and garden and get some decent work done. The ground had thawed and was mostly dry, it was nice and sunny, the wind was blowing briskly enough to keep temps on the cool side.

I've puttered a little bit in the yard before this - I got the front and side yard raked, dog poo picked up (when you have two dogs and it's been a long winter, there is A LOT to pick up), and some of the residual garden debris cleaned out of the beds.

On Saturday, I was able to start working the soil in the beds. I have eight 4' wide by 16' long garden beds, and about 6 flower beds of various sizes. I got two garden beds tilled so the soil will warm faster, and one flower bed tilled up.


The hounds are less than impressed with my new statuary.

On Sunday, the folks came out with my cement Japanese pagoda and to help with a bit of yard work. The Dad and I moved rocks and sand while the Mother weeded my most neglected flower bed. This raised bed has my peony's, miniature daylilies, and some iris and was being over taken by crabgrass. Crabgrass is my penultimate enemy - it gets into everything!

Landscaping around the house - last side!



The main garden. Clickity clickity to make it bigger.

Where I live I am in gardening Zone 3 - I shouldn't even THINK about planting seeds until Memorial Day weekend. But I did - my Aunt Connie gave me a packet of seeds last winter and I planted them yesterday. I had instructions to plant them last fall, but with my soil and temps, I know they would have just rotted. We are expecting some rain and warmer temps this week, and the bed is on the south side of the house, so we'll see if this works.


The peony bed. They are just starting to come up!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Recipe Review from 4/27/09

I have two excellent recipes to review this week! Both are super simple and can be made to serve four (or in my case, 4 days worth of meals) or to eat just as a single meal.



Huevos Rancheros Verde (Eating Well, May 09) 5.0!!
This was my favorite! So easy to assemble and I could do just one serving at a time. The first several times I fried the egg, but the last time I poached it. I also found that cooking the corn tortillas a bit before putting the bean mixture on made for crispy tortillas...which meant easier to eat!

That's the downside of the dish, it's a bit awkward. Do you cut it? Pick it up? I found if I crisped the tortillas enough I could pick it up or easily cut it. I think a person could also sub black beans and different cheeses to change up the flavors a bit. Very versitile and delicious.

Huevos Rancheros Verde
Huevos rancheros or “ranch eggs” is a classic Mexican dish that is great for a quick dinner. Traditionally, it’s made with a red tomato-based sauce. Here we use tart and tangy green salsa instead. Serve with: brown rice and slices of avocado.

Makes 4 servings

TOTAL TIME: 30 minutes
EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy

1 1/2 cups very thinly sliced romaine lettuce (I used spinach)
1 scallion, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (I skipped - forgot to buy)
3 teaspoons canola oil, divided (I used olive oil)
2 teaspoons lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
1 15-ounce can pinto beans, rinsed
1/2 cup prepared green salsa (see Tip) (I used regular red salsa)
8 6-inch corn tortillas

Canola oil cooking spray
3/4 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
4 large eggs

1. Preheat oven to 400°F.

2. Combine lettuce, scallion, cilantro, 1 teaspoon oil, lime juice, 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in a bowl; set aside. Combine beans and salsa in another bowl.

3. Coat both sides of each tortilla with cooking spray. Place tortillas on a large baking sheet in 4 sets of overlapping pairs. (Each pair should overlap by about 3 inches.) Spread about 1/3 cup of the bean mixture on top of each pair of tortillas and sprinkle with 3 tablespoons cheese each. Bake until the beans are hot and the cheese is melted, about 10 minutes (TOTAL).

4. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Crack each egg into a small bowl and slip them one at a time into the pan, taking care not to break the yolks. Season the eggs with the remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt and pepper. Cook eggs till desired doneness.

5. To assemble, place an egg on top of each pair of tortillas and top with a generous 1/4 cup of the lettuce mixture.



(Picture from EatingWell.com)

Chinese Chicken & Noodle Salad (Eating Well, May 09) 4.5!
This WAS good, but it could be made even easier to prepare - buy a package of pre-chopped coleslaw mix and either a rotisserie chicken or use leftover shredded chicken that you have stashed in your freezer (which I had...which I forgot about). I ended up grilling a couple of chicken thighs and that added a really nice flavor to the dish.

This is my lunch for part of the week, so I'm keeping the raman noodle/almond mixture separate from the rest until I eat it. I loved the toasted raman noodles! Yum!

Chinese Chicken & Noodle Salad

This delicious Chinese-inspired salad is crisp, crunchy and cool with shredded cabbage, carrots and chicken breast tossed with toasted ramen noodles and slivered almonds. The dressing is an addictive orange, sesame, ginger and soy combination—you may want to double the dressing and save some for a salad the next day.

Makes 4 servings

ACTIVE TIME: 30 minutes
EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy

1 3-ounce package low-fat ramen-noodles (discard seasoning pkg)
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed
3 1/4-inch-thick slices fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
5 teaspoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
5 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 cups shredded green cabbage
1 medium carrot, shredded
3 scallions, chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Crumble ramen noodles onto a large rimmed baking sheet (discard seasoning packet). Add almonds, sesame seeds and canola oil; toss to coat. Bake for 10 minutes. Stir, then bake until the noodles are golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Let cool on the pan on a wire rack.

3. Meanwhile, place chicken in a medium skillet or saucepan with water to cover. Add ginger and salt; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer gently until no longer pink in the center and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 165°F, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a clean cutting board to cool. Using forks, shred into bite-size pieces. (Discard the poaching liquid.)

OR - Rotisserie Chicken, about 1 cup of meat shredded
OR - Grill two chicken thighs or chicken breasts
OR - leftover shredded chicken.

4. Meanwhile, combine orange juice, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil in a small bowl or jar with a tight-fitting lid. Whisk or shake until the sugar has dissolved.

5. Just before serving, combine the shredded chicken, cabbage, carrot and scallions in a large bowl. Add the toasted noodle mixture and the dressing; mix well.


And check this out! Parsnips from the garden! I dug up the last of the parsnips this weekend and had nearly 5lbs worth. Wow. I'm thinking of making a homemade pasty with some of them, roasting others, and, I dunno, figuring out something for the rest. Maybe just saute and have as a side. Yum!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik


Book three of this series has Laurence and his dragon Temeraire flying back from China via Turkey to pick up three promised dragon eggs. The orders don’t make any sense - but seem to be legit - so Laurence hires a dubious guide and away they go. Things begin to go wrong almost immediately: they are attacked by bedouins crossing a desert. The Turks don’t want to hand over the eggs and keep detaining the British envoy while the British embassador, his family, and the money to buy the eggs has disappeared. Laurence and Temeraire hatch a bold plan, steal the eggs and make for Prussia - where they discover Napoleon is about to launch a massive attack. Laurence is forced to chose between helping the British forces in Prussia or to get the eggs back to England as fast as possible.

I found book 3 to be incredibly disappointing on a couple of levels. One, those pesky anachronisms kept popping up - I believe I counted at least 3 by the middle of the book and even I’m not all that familiar with the Napoleonic wars. Two, the plot dragged; you know when you dream and in your dream you are trying to run but your feet just won’t go any faster? It was like that. Luckily, unlike a dream, I could skip ahead. Three, I just stopped caring. I couldn’t sympathize with the main characters any more. And four, yes, there is a four! The battle against Napoleon went. on. forever. Very tedious and tiresome. If I wanted to read about an extended engagement I would pick up a history book.

I’m waffling about reading book 4. Book 1 and 3 were eh. Book 2 was alright - enough that I went and wasted time on 3. Perhaps if I'm in a mood for a light fantasy and if I pick up a used copy, I might try book 4.