29 November 2008

Charming Chairman Charmain

A~Z Reading Challenge “J” author: Diana Wynne Jone's The House of Many Ways (Greenwillow, 2008).

Many year’s ago, I fell upon and devoured Diana Wynne Jones’s The Chronicle’s of Chrestomanci -- omnibuses of extremely funny, well-written, and well-plotted stories about an elegant gentleman who just happened to be the magician in charge of all the magic everywhere.

Ever after that I carried a bit of a torch for Wynne Jones. This was only reinforced by Howl’s Moving Castle (both the novel and the film) -- another extremely funny, well-written and well-plotted romance about cursed girl, a “bad” magician, a fire demon, and a castle that moves.

So I picked up The House of Many Ways with great delight ... and put it down with something resembling discontent. This novel, I felt, was just not good enough. It wanted shoring up and filling out. It was, basically, not the novel I was expecting.

The story was certainly promising:

Charmain Baker wants to work in the King's library, but her family has no interest in what she wants. Her obnoxious aunt railroads Charmain's mother into sending the girl to house-sit for Great Uncle William, the Royal Wizard Norland. Charmain, though, is pretty useless for doing anything in the world except for eating and reading and so, of course, is incapable of keeping Great Uncle William's house without suffering a few disasters.

And then there is the boy. And a dog. And angry kobolds. And magical tea trays.

Sounds charming, doesn't it? And yet I was wholly discontented. Why? Well, Charmain and Peter never developed into “real” sympathetic characters, but just seemed like types. Types I kept losing patience with. Then the storyline involving Howl and Sophie seemed shoehorned in as if, perhaps, Wynne Jones worried the Charmain-Peter-Uncle William story wasn't good enough to hold readers. Oh, and the final plot resolution required far too much exposition! Seriously, all the principle characters sat around in a room talking about whodunwhat and why before skiving off to Happily Ever After.

AND, most frustratingly, I spent the entire novel calling Charmain “Chairman.”

Now, I feel I need to go back and re-read Wynne Jones’s The Chronicle’s of Chrestomanci to determine if my memory has made them better than they are.

Neither Shortribs, nor Sheepshanks. Not even Laceleg.

A~Z Reading Challenge “C” title: Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold (Arthur A. Levine, 2008).

As I love twisted and/or re-told fairy tales, I was very excited to read Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold which is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. The story of the greedy miller, the miller’s beautiful daughter, the king, and that weird spinster guy with the thing for babies? We all know the story. Does it need revisioning? Well, yes.

If only so the miller’s beautiful daughter finally has a name.

Upon their father’s death, Charlotte and Rose Miller take on the responsibility of running their family’s (cursed) woolen mill. Rose manages the millworks while Charlotte handles the business end and it looks as if the mill might just manage to survive ... until a seemingly insurmountable debt appears. At a loss, Charlotte makes a bargain with a mysterious man who can spin straw into gold ...

Overall, A Curse Dark as Gold was an enjoyable retelling of an old story. The secondary characters were, for the most part, well drawn and the plot moved a long at a good pace. My only real complaint lay with Charlotte whom I found largely unsympathetic. Yes, I know she fears the Curse. I am told that over and over, again. But that Curse doesn’t appear to drive Charlotte until the end and even then I didn’t feel her fear enough to accept her alienation of everyone around her. Frequently, I wanted to give her a good shaking!

But, heck, who says heroines have to be likeable?

08 November 2008

Cucumber Sandwiches, I Love You

We held a small open house last weekend for my family so that they might come up and see our new house, peek through our medicine cabinets, deplore our choice of location, etc.

Aside from almost running out of food, the event went rather well. Yes, people came to my house and I almost could not feed them! The horror! Before my family arrived, I was worried I had made too much food. One hour in, and I was panicking because we were out of tea sandwiches and running low on veggies. Happily, when faced with a lack of sandwiches, my guests just switched over to baked goods and I was not disowned.
Cucumber Sandwiches
From Winnie-the-Pooh's Teatime Cookbook (Dutton, 1993). I bought this cookbook and its companion, Winnie-the-Pooh's Picnic Cookbook back in college when I was a die-hard Ernest-Shepard-Pooh-not-Disney-Pooh fan. I've used the Picnic Cookbook quite extensively -- the recipes for pecan chicken fingers, red-potato salad and carrot-salad with cinnamon and raisins are old favorites. Alas, I have not used the Teatime Cookbook so much for fear of Doing It Wrong. One is married to a British Person, you see. One does not wish to muff up Tea Time ...

Well, happily, the cucumber sandwiches were quite the thing. About as similar to the cucumber sandwiches of his childhood as I could get without a time machine or "real British bread."
To make these sandwiches, I ran the tines of a fork down the length of unpeeled English cucumber and then sliced the cucumber thinly. I put the cucumber slices in a colander lined with a tea towels, sprinkled them with salt, and then topped it all off with another towel and the largest, heaviest jar I could find. While I let the cucumber slices sit for about twenty minutes, I squeezed a bunch of lemons to make 1 cup of juice. Then I zested one of the lemon halves and combined the zest with Brummel and Brown. I also minced some cress and prepped the bread. To prep the bread (Pepperidge Farm Very Thin White) I trimmed of the crusts and flattening the bread slices a bit by rolling them with a large, heavy water glass (no rolling pin). After the cucumber slices had soaked, I squeezed them out and put them in the pie pan with some fresh ground pepper and a little lemon juice. I let them sit in the lemon juice for about 3-5 minutes on each side while I buttered the bread slices (all of them). Then I popped the cucumber slices out and gave them a quick blot with a towel. I laid the slices on half the bread, sprinkled them with cress, topped them with the rest of the bread, and cut the sandwiches into triangles. Delicious!

Deviled Ham Finger Sandwiches
I combined American Neufchâtel with Underwood devilled ham spread, light mayonnaise, minced stuffed green olives, and Worcestershire sauce. I spread it multi-grain cocktail bread and then used a biscuit cutter to make them round (and get rid of the crusts). If I made these sandwiches again, I would butter the bread a little bit or use a different bread (bread was very dry) and add some horseradish to the ham spread as it needed a little kick.

King Arthur Flour Vermont Apple Dessert Bread
From last year's KAF "Mix ’n' Magic Baking Club." Came with a jar of caramel sauce, but I thought I'd keep that for ice cream. This tea loaf was very easy to put together and kept quite well. It had a delicious "autumnal" flavor that made the loaf hard to stop nibbling at. I did soak the dried apple bits in cider rather than water to enhance the apple flavor, but think the loaf would have been equally good without that alteration. It served eighteen, but I cut it up using the ridges of my bundt pan as portion guides and ended up with twice that.

King Arthur Flour Pure Bliss Fudge Brownies
Also from last year's KAF "Mix ’n' Magic Baking Club." Don't know quite how to describe these ... Moist, but not gooey. Dark, but not bitter. Thick, but not heavy. Delicious? Oh, yes. Jacques Torres's website is spot on when it says "Every bite is an explosion of luscious chocolate that will leave you wanting more." Pretty sure The Husband would eat these everyday if he could!