Winter In Books:
Yes, this title is appropriate – spring just arrived this week!
Surprisingly, I’ve spent a lot of time reading (on and off) over the past few months. Amid frantic knitting to finish a baby blanket for my BFF, I’ve managed to get multiple books going at a time – one audio for the car, one on my iPad, and one hardcover (for when I can’t bring my iPad along). I read and reviewed a light romance novel for you and a few mystery-suspense novels that I don’t plan on reviewing on here. If you’re interested, you can check out the list of books I’ve read on Goodreads or check out my profile for what I’m currently reading.
In addition, Paperback Book Swap changed their policy, from providing a free service enabling members to swap books at will (you pay the shipping), to charging 50¢ per transaction. I haven’t used the site much in the past few years, since I have been doing most of my reading on an e-reader, so I decided it wasn’t worth keeping my account active. I quickly cashed in my remaining 5 credits for old copies of a few J.D. Robb mysteries before the policy change kicked in and retired my account.
J.D. Robb’s In Death Series
Cashing in at PBS, along with the audio books that have been sitting in my car this summer, inspired the rest of this – a review of J.D. Robb’s In Death series. There are almost 40 books in the series (published 1995-present), of which I’ve read or listened to about half of them.
The Story: In Short The series begins in the year 2058. The 50+ years into the future setting is well established and apparently through the made-up vocabulary and technology used consistently throughout the series. Characters drink “tubes” of Pepsi and encounter droids as servants and security personnel. There are a number of references to the existence of human settlements “off planet,” including both prisons and vacation destinations. Both legal (i.e. Sober Up, blockers) and illegal (i.e. Zoner) drugs are foreign to the present-day reader.
This is the world of Eve Dallas, a leading homicide detective in New York City. Throughout the series, the reader watches as Dallas solves case after case and rises in the ranks of the New York City Police Department. The further into the series one reads, the more that the reader learns about what makes Eve, well, Eve – from an abusive father to living in the foster care system to her eventual relationship with a sketchy Irishman turned legitimate businessman.
Review: Over the past several years, I have enjoyed several of these books. I find them easy to pick up and although the stories are loosely linked, I’ve found it them easy to read out of order. I don’t find any of the story-lines particularly complicated, but they’re entertaining, which is the reason I regularly return to the series (and most of books in the mystery and suspense genre) anyway.
One of the strongest features to the series are the characters. Each of the major characters, and there’s several that appear in each book, all have their own distinct personality. Eve is the hard ass; sidekick Delia Peabody is a little wonky, electronics division Ian McNab reminds me of a surfer, and husband Roarke is highly intelligence and slick. As I read (or listen to) one of the books, I’ve grown to imagine the characters based on Robb’s description of the characters but also their very unique voice, which shines through best in the audio version of the books.
This series is actually one of my favorites to listen to on audio book. The content is light and fast-paced so that I don’t get distracted. However, I think the best part is that the narrator, Susan Ericksen, is excellent. She has narrated every book that I’ve listened to (as far as I can tell, she may have actually narrated the whole series to date). For me, this continuity makes a huge difference in which series I will continue to listen to on audio book and which ones I’ll switch back to the old-school books.
If you’re a fan of mysteries/suspense novels and haven’t given J.D. Robb a try, I’d recommend it. The futuristic setting is a fun twist. Bonus points if you give the audio books a shot.
Carved in Bone
By Jefferson Bass
Dr. Bill Brockton runs the Body Farm, a nickname for the Anthropology Research Facility, a “postmortem-decay research lab” at the University of Tennessee. Brockton is a forensic anthropologist who studies rates of decomposition and effects of nature, among other things, upon victim’s bodies at the Body Farm. He regularly assists local law enforcement on cases and testifies in court.
In Carved in Bone, Dr. Brockton is asked to assist in a case in Cooke County, Tennessee. The body of a young woman is discovered, oddly well preserved, deep in a cave. But the case is more than what Dr. Brockton bargained for. Before he knows it, he’s knee-deep in Cook Country’s illicit activities, surrounded by people he doesn’t trust, and a target for who knows who.
Review/Recommendation: The first book in the Body Farm Series, published in 2006, Carved in Bone starts off pretty slow. I felt like I was reading an episode of FOX’s Bones, but much slower-paced and without the wit and fun banter of the tv show’s characters. The story starts to pick up about a third of the way through the book, when the characters are all introduced, although there are still parts that seemed to drag a little bit.
That being said, I did like the story, once it got going. Actually, the story line was the best part, for me. I read a lot of mystery and suspense novels, and I definitely didn’t feel like this was a story that I had already read elsewhere.
However, I do feel there was significant room for improvement. I could have used a bit more wit and humor in the dialog. In addition, the investment in the characters was also lacking. There was a good mix of characters – some more likable than others and a few that evoked feelings of pity – but I didn’t have strong (positive or negative) feelings towards any of them.
I am not sold on whether or not I’ll be hooked on the series like I am books by some of my favorite mystery authors, but I thought the book was entertaining enough to reserve the second book in the series from the library. I’m hoping that the slow start and lack of attachment to the characters was due to setting the scene for the series and won’t be repeated with each book.
The Rosie Project
By Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is a brilliant but socially awkward genetics professor who, at the age of 40, decides it’s time to find a wife. Rosie Jarman meets none of his qualifications – she smokes, drinks, can’t cook, and is chronically late. However, once Don learns about her quest to identify her biological father, he can’t get her out of his mind. He becomes invested in what he dubs The Father Project. But what starts as a sort of social project morphs into much more. It’s incomprehensible to him, but despite the number of reasons Don can cite for why Rosie is not the perfect partner (see aforementioned list of qualifications), he falls in love with her.
Review/Recommendation: My review is going to be short and sweet, just like the book. I really enjoyed it. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that Tillman’s speech and social awkwardness reminded me a lot of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, although Tillman appears capable of learning those social queues that Sheldon is not. The story is light and quick, although peppered with facts about genetics and Asperger’s . The characters are all likable and quirky. I’d describe it as cutely romantic – not over the top, not super sappy dialog. There were a few lines of dialog in the latter half of the book that had me chuckling out loud.
This month’s theme for What’s Baking? – baking bread – was chosen by Heather at Hezzi-D’s Books and Cooks. I definitely debated about whether to use this as an excuse to make a warm, crusty baguette. I contemplated a dinner of fresh bread and cheese, maybe a little fresh fruit and olives… but I bet my hubby would tell me that’s not an acceptable dinner. After all, he scoffed at a box of Girl Scout cookies for lunch. Apparently 6+ months pregnant isn’t an excuse to indulge. Anyway, in the end, I decided that with the cold weather we’ve been having, I’d make a hearty dinner of chili and made-from-scratch traditional cornbread.
This recipe is super easy – it took only a few minutes to put together and surprisingly little time to bake. My oven runs a tad hot, so I ended up with a slightly crispy edge that I couldn’t help but eat first.
Skillet Buttermilk Cornbread
Adapted from Fine Cooking No. 107 (p. 37)
- 1 3/4 c. stone-ground yellow cornmeal
- 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
- 2 Tbs. sugar
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp. baking soda
- 3/4 tsp. table salt
- 1 c. buttermilk
- 1/2 c. sour cream
- 2 large eggs
- 3 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into a couple of pieces
Ensure that a rack is placed in the center of the oven. Place a 9-10 inch cast-iron skillet in an oven and heat to 425°F. Allow skillet to sit in the oven until the oven is completely preheated, if not longer.
In a large bowl, whisk together remaining cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
In a small pot, bring 1/2 c. water to a boil. Whisk in 1/2 c. of the cornmeal until a thick mush has formed. Whisk in buttermilk, sour cream, and eggs until smooth.
When oven has been properly preheated, about 20 minutes, add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Stir together with a wooden spoon until smooth and no clumps remain. Switch to a whisk if a few stubborn clumps remain.
Remove hot skillet from oven and add butter pieces, swirling pan to spread the butter and coat the bottom. Immediately pour cornmeal mixture into pan. Return to oven and bake for 18-20 minutes, until top is golden and bread begins to pull away from the sides.
Remove from oven and turn out onto a wire rack. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.
By Brooker T Mattison
One night while driving his normal bus route, Andre Bolden, aka Dre, witnesses a murder. In a town where nobody talks to the cops, Andre calls in an anonymous tip and tries to move on with his life.
However, that night changed his life. His tip to the cops results in him losing his job. While Andre only saw the killer’s eyes, his presence that night marks him as a target. Andre’s life is a mess – he has no job, is locked out of his apartment for failure to pay rent, and is unable to make amends with the woman he loves. He’s anxious, severely depressed and struggling to find the good in the world when he feels like he’s been dealt such a bad hand.
Review/Recommendation: I read a good bit of mystery and suspense novels. You might say that I’m a mystery junkie. I love a good quick read, with very little thinking, to take my mind off the long day. I’d say that Snitch, filmmaker Mattison’s second novel published in 2011, falls into this genre.
However, Snitch stands out from its peers in the mystery-suspense category in several ways. First is the writing style. The prose is slightly poetic – something that could be attributed to the main character’s passion for poetry and creative writing or to the author’s own writing style (I’ll have to read his first and only other novel to find out). Secondly, unlike many other novels I’ve read in this genre, almost every character in this book truly had his or her own voice. There was no rereading a page of dialog because I lost track of who was speaking. Each character’s upbringing and lifestyle was reflected in their voice. Finally, the depth and development of the characters, Andre in particular, was unparalleled to many other books in this genre. Their spiritual and emotional conflict and angst was truly apparent and genuine-feeling, although the story still read like a quick mystery novel.
Snitch was a breath of fresh air compared to so many of the suspense novels I read. Great, quick story but with so much more depth that it’s hard not to appreciate it.
Have I ever told you that I’m a terrible breakfast eater? I didn’t start eating breakfast regularly until a few years ago. Before that, throughout all of my years of school, it was maybe a granola bar mid-morning, to tide me over until lunch. When I did eat breakfast, it wouldn’t be the healthiest or most filling – bagels and bacon were my favorites. Just about everything else, I could ignore and hold out until lunch.
Over the past few years, I’ve taught myself to eat relatively nutritious breakfasts so that I’d have more energy in the mornings and in general, lead a healthier lifestyle. I still prefer bagels and bacon but those days are few and far between. Today, I still need an hour to wake up in the morning before eating, but I pack my bag with something healthier. The breakfasts most frequently found in my lunch bag (because I eat it at work as I read email in the morning) are fruit with either a whole wheat English muffin, toasted, with turkey bacon and avocado or yogurt (Greek or traditional) with granola. The combination of carbs + protein keep me full throughout the morning.
While life with a toddler keeps me out of the kitchen more than I’d like, homemade granola is one item that I try to make on a fairly routine basis. If you’ve been reading Books n’ Cooks for a while, you’ve heard me say how much better it tastes than the store-bought stuff. It’s softer and so much more flavorful. And the combinations are endless. If you haven’t given homemade granola a shot, I strongly recommend it. You won’t regret it.
Adapted from Fine Cooking No. 75 (p. 34)
Yields 5 Cups
- vegetable oil spray
- 3 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
- 1 1/2-2 c. pecan halves, roughly chopped
- 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/2 c. light brown sugar, packed
- 2 Tbs. canola oil
- 1 Tbs. vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 300F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and spray with cooking spray. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine oats, pecans, cinnamon, and salt.
In a small sauce pan set over medium heat, combine 1/4 c. water with brown sugar. Stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and stir in canola oil and vanilla extract.
Pour brown sugar mixture over dry ingredients. Stir well to combine. The oats should be completely coated.
Spread over prepared baking sheets. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, stir, and return to oven, alternating the trays on the oven racks. Bake for another 10-15 minutes, until oats are golden and nuts look like they’re beginning to brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool on the baking sheets (oats will crisp up as they cool).
Store in an airtight container for up to a month.
Like this recipe or looking for something more to your liking? Try one of these great alternatives:
I was really bummed to have to cancel our annual party last month due to heating issues and sickness. More than half of the food was prepped or prepared. We’ve gradually been eating through the cookies and appetizers that I stashed in the freezer, but these almonds got forgotten about in the pantry. It’s a good thing they have a long shelf life.
I love to have some sort of roasted nut as a munchie for the holiday party, and these would have really stood out from other recipes I’ve tried. Sweet, savory, and slightly spicy, I have a hard time staying away from them… which is why the container got put in a corner of the pantry and forgotten about. They’re a little messy to eat, but try them. You won’t regret it.
Spicy Espresso Dark Chocolate Almonds
Adapted from Bell’alimento
- 1 egg white
- 1/4 c. granulated sugar
- 2 Tbs. ground espresso (I like Starbucks Via)
- 1/2 tsp. cayenne
- 1 lb. whole raw almonds
- 1/4 c. cocoa powder
Preheat oven to 250F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
Whisk together egg white and sugar until combined. Whisk in espresso and cayenne. Stir in almonds until evenly coated. Arrange in a single layer on prepared baking sheet.
Bake for 1 hour. Flip almonds and return to the oven for another 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and allow to cool. Toss in cocoa powder.
Store in an airtight container. (Mine kept for a month.)
By Kate Mosse
Labyrinth features two story lines of women both destined to play critical roles in a secret society created to protect the Grail.
As the Crusaders threaten Carcassonne, in the Pyrenees mountains, southern France, a Guardian of the Grail worries that he won’t be able to protect the secret of the Grail. To ensure that that these obligations are met in event of his death, he shares the secret – along with a small book and ring – with his daughter, Alias. The Guardian’s fears come true and he dies during the Crusaders’ siege on Carcassone. Alias loyally takes up her father’s duties to protect the Grail.
Eight hundred years later, Alice, a British archaeological volunteer at a dig in southern France, stumbles onto the secret society when she discovers a cave with two skeletons and labyrinth on the wall. From that point forward, she starts having strange dreams, believes like she’s being followed, and feels threatened due to a series of events that take place around her or against her. Alice begins researching, putting together the pieces of the mystery that she fell into. Finally finding a few people to trust, Alice unfolds the mystery of the Grail…
Review: This book sat on my shelf for more than a few years (it was published in 2005 and I have a hardcover copy – that should give you an idea of just how long it’s sat) before I picked it up just before Christmas. I was in desperate need of a book to read and I couldn’t chose an e-book, as the little one steals my iPad every chance she gets. I’m glad I finally picked this one up. A little history, a little mystery and action, Labyrinth kept my attention from start to finish.
I think that the only thing that kept me from really loving this book was the discontinuity as Mosse flipped between Alias’s story and Alice’s. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed both story lines. However, because I became engrossed in each woman’s tale, I was always a little disappointed when it was time to flip to the other story. In the beginning, this was much less noticeable. That was in part because the tales were just beginning, but also because the flip-flopping was less frequent.