Stuff and Nonsense: February 2014


Wordless Wednesday: Snowy Cat

Little Disapproves of the Snow
Little Dude does not approve of the snow. I don't speak Cat, but I suspect he is saying very rude things in this photo.


Top 10 Tuesday: Bookish Memories (Rewind)

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is a REWIND where we can pick a previous topic we want to revisit or may have missed. Today, I'm doing "Top Ten Bookish Memories" from February 5, 2013 which I seem to have missed the first time 'round ... probably too busy reading books?

  1. Sitting in my jammies with my dad while he read Little House in the Big Woods aloud to me. My dad worked a lot when I was little, but we always had that time together.
  2. Standing in line with my dad to get his copy of The Battle of Stonington: Torpedoes, Submarines, and Rockets in the War of 1812 signed by the author. My first author signing! I was ten?
  3. Going with my mom to the library two towns over (because our town's was terrible) and her patiently reading magazines for two hours while I tried to get my books-I-want-to-read down to the five the library allowed me ... and (of course) I always told myself I'd make those five last as long as possible because my mom couldn't take me to the library every week (that was my dream of adulthood -- going to the library whenever I wanted) and (of course) I'd then gobble them all up.
  4. Purchasing Bunnicula at my elementary school's Scholastic Book Fair. I remember rushing to the payment table to fork over my hard-won allowance as quickly as possible. Not for me the sparkly sticker packs and scented multi-hued ink pens that so enamored the popular second-grade girls!
  5. Tucked up my aunt's couch, devouring my first adult romance, during some family gathering. It was a Signet Regency Christmas anthology and some of the stories were pretty racy for a fifth grader. What my aunt was thinking, telling me to help myself to her collection, I don't know, but I thank her.
  6. The librarian and I going book-by-book through the "older reader" children's section of my town's (very) tiny library, trying to find a book I had borrowed months before and was suddenly desperate to re-read. We did find it, eventually. It was about a slave girl in ancient Egypt who spied for a court noble on other court nobles (?). It was fraught with romantic tension, I tell you. Fraught.
  7. Developing a huge crush on my chemistry lab partner after she loaned me all the books in Melanie Rawn's The Dragon Prince trilogy, because she was too cool to care that reading chunkster fantasy fiction was seriously uncool. We spent many a lab session happily discussing what rings we would have if we were faradhi.
  8. When Best Friend and I crept down to the cavernous laundry room in the basement of our residence hall and took turns reading bits of Lovecraft to each other. The claustrophobic hallway (with the many padlocked doors and the Brown Jenkin-sized holes in the walls) that led into the laundry room was just so much icing on the cake.
  9. Summer mornings spent lolling around my English boyfriend's Essex house share, reading my way through his enormous stack of Recluse novels whilst eating all sorts of delicious English junk food. (Is it any wonder I married him?)
  10. My dad struggling valiantly with Terry Pratchett's sometimes unpronounceable character and place names while he read Jingo aloud to me when I was in the hospital at nineteen.


Around Connecticut: Finding Romance @ The Big Book Getaway

This past Saturday, I had the good luck to attend The Big Book Getaway at the Mohegan Sun Casino. The event had popped up on a few feeds I follow, but the event seemed rather expensive. And then CLC sent out an email with a discounted rate and I was sorely tempted, but still ... the monies. And then it showed up on Groupon, practically free, and I said "Hey, honey, we're going to the casino this weekend! You can amuse yourself at the poker tables while I crush on all the romance writers."

Big Book Getaway
Free stuff, just for turning up. 

And that's pretty much what happened!

I had an incredible sense of déjà vu through the entire event, as if I had already met these writers and knew them. Some of that feeling, no doubt, was due to having read their works and some was due to the weird sense of familiarization with which social media imbues even the most tangential relationships ... a kind-of "I saw that tweet about your dog! I know you!" feeling.

I spent a lot of time staring at Cathy Maxwell during the "Steamy Stories" panel (sorry if I looked demented!), but I (déjà vu again) kept feeling like we'd met before ... and then I realized she looked familiar because she looks like Julia Child. And this is exactly why I didn't go up to any of my crushes to tell them how awesome they are, because if my mind is capable of thinking such silly thoughts, my mouth is perfectly capable of blurting out even sillier things. (As it is, I hope I did not frighten Giulia Melucci by suggesting we start a secret Wives of British Men Club when she signed my copy of I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti).

Big Book Getaway
Signed! *Swoons*

Melucci's book was the only one I bought at The Big Book Getaway. I wanted to purchase a copy of Suzan Colón's Cherries in Winter: My Family's Recipe for Hope in Hard Times, but it was sold out by the time I got to that end of the table. I will just have to get it from my library ... with all the other books I now want to read!

I know I said I was giving up romance as a genre so, no doubt, it seems counter intuitive that I would then spend an entire Saturday basking in its warm, sensual glow of romance. There were plenty of unromantic panels on offer, after all. But when I saw the schedule, all the romance panels leapt out at me and shouted "Pick me!" and I did and I have no regrets and my library hold list is chock full of promising contemporary romance novels.

Panels I attended:

"Steamy Stories -- Bestselling Romance and Erotica Authors"
Cathy Maxwell, Laura Kaye, and Eloisa James.

Big Book Getaway
It's a wonder I did not explode into squees in the presence of such awesomeness.

"Ellora's Cave -- Erotica"
Diana Hunter, Karen Stivali, and Avril Ashton.

Big Book Getaway
This panel was the most fun and my Kindle is now full of erotic romance. Woo-hoo.

"Kiss & Tell -- Harlequin Romance Authors"
Kristine Rolofson, Natalie Charles, Kristan Higgins, and Shannon Stacey.

Big Book Getaway
Thanks to this panel, I have three new authors to read.

"Delicious Writing -- Books With Food"
Giulia Melucci and Suzan Colón.

Big Book Getaway
I'm a fool for stories about food, love, and family.

"Magical Fiction -- Spirits, Mystery, & Wonderment"
Suzanne Palmieri, Karen White, and Sarah Addison Allen.

Big Book Getaway
Completely irreverent and totally awesome. 

Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Debbie Macomber also spoke and were a lot of fun, although I didn't find myself running to put their books on hold. Maybe later, when I don't have twenty holds pending?


Owly: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer

Owly is an adorable, but lonely little owl. He desperately wants friends, but everyone he approaches rejects him because he's bigger then them and a touch awkward. Sad little friendless owl. Then a chance encounter with an earthworm turns things around. Owly makes a friend! And then another friend! And another! And soon he is neither lonely nor sad.

Oh, The Cute! It's impossible not to go "Awww" while reading Owly and want to dole out hugs after finishing it. There's a strong moral message about friendship and not judging people until you get to know them, but it's all wrapped up in beautifully expressive line drawings and the tone is never preachy. I say tone, but there's no written dialogue. The story's told through illustration and interpretation. It's really cleverly done. This may make me sound singularly unobservant, but I was so taken with the story that I was thirty pages in before I realized no-one was "talking."

And kudos to The Husband for giving me this for Christmas. He thought it might be a good companion to Chi's Sweet Home and he was right! There are many more Owly adventures available and I look forward to getting them through my library system. Meanwhile, there are a bunch of awesome free mini comics downloadable from Andy Runton's site.

Owly: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer by Andy Runton (Top Shelf, 2004)


Improv Challenge: Bread & Butter

I first made this one Monday night when I realized that, while I was the only one home for supper, a bottle of moscato and movie did not supper make. But throw in some bread and cheese and it's an elegant evening at home? Why, yes. So, when I saw February's Improv Challenge ingredients were bread and butter, I knew I had to write this dish up and share it with the world.

Honey & Herb Crostini

The buttery, crunchy bread. The creamy, slightly tart cheese. The sweetness of the honey. The heat of the pepper. The subtle, earthy thyme. Just fabulous. I've made this for myself three times since and, each time I make it, I am amused by just how tasty buttery toast and cheese can be!

I suspect fresh lavender, tarragon, and dill would work well in place of the thyme and I look forward to making many versions of this dish in the spring ... when my garden is not covered in a mound of ice and snow. Blech.

Honey & Herb Crostini
Serves 1 with wine

1 small baguette (baton)
2 Tbsp good quality cultured butter, melted [Vermont Creamery]
4 oz tub spreadable goats' cheese [Vermont Creamery]
Fresh thyme, for garnish
1 Tbsp honey, for drizzling [Cracovia Linden Honey]
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cut 8 thin slices from the baguette and set the rest of the baguette aside for another day.
Step 1

Brush both sides of the sliced baguette with butter and place on a baking tray.

Step 2

Broil for 2 minutes or until lightly browned, flip, and broil the other side.

Step 3

Spread each piece of bread with goats' cheese and sprinkle with pepper.
Step 4

Garnish each pieces with thyme and drizzle with honey.

Step 5

Arrange on a pretty plate and serve immediately with a bottle of moscato and episodes of The Great British Bake-Off.

Honey & Herb Crostini



Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston

I never thought a novel about a suicide bomber would make me cry ... for the bomber.

For such a slim book, Black Helicopters packs quite a punch. It's short and the ending, while unavoidable, is both shocking and utterly heartbreaking. It's impossible not to like and empathize with Valley/Valkyrie, to not be swept up in her story, while still being completely horrified by what she intends to do.

The thing, really, for me is that Valkyrie's a child. An abused child, deliberately miseducated about the world by wicked people with axes to grind. Her fictionalized America will never know that about her -- she'll go down in history as a domestic terrorist -- and that's what made the ending all the more terrible for me. I wanted at least one of Those People to really know her. To understand her actions not as a terrorist, but as a broken child.

I'm a little confused by some of the publicity I've seen for Black Helicopters, that suggests it's set in day-after-tomorrow Montana which makes it sound like it's set in the future, because there's nothing about Black Helicopters to suggest it isn't happening or couldn't right now.

Also, the cover art? With the bomb explosion as the pupil of an eye on the front and the closed eye on the back? Brilliant. So much more subtle and creepy than an illustration of an actual black helicopter. But, maybe, that's the point? The danger from without is within?

Black Helicopters by Blythe Woolston (Candlewick Press, 2013)


The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves

Netflix kept recommending the series Vera to me and I was all "Blarg, Netflix, I don't want to watch more UK detective dramas. Weren't the umpty-million I already watched enough?" and then I saw it was based on a series of novels by Ann Cleeves and immediately went out and borrowed the first novel, The Crow Trap, because that is what I do. Complain about something in one format and then happily ingest it in another.

The Crow Trap was phenomenal. And I say that as someone who doesn't usually read mystery/detective novels, so make of that what you will. I loved the way much of the novel was told through the eyes of the three women at Baikie's Cottage. I loved that the detective, Vera Stanhope, doesn't turn up until the last third of the novel. I loved that the resolution of the case had as much to do with background sleuthing of the women as it did with Stanhope's police work. In short, I am now a fan of Ann Cleeves and Vera Stanhope.

The Crow Trap is quite a chunkster and I thought for sure the story would be larded with details not necessary to the story. But it wasn't. While Cleeves provides lots of detail, she doesn't tell you anything that isn't eventually relevant to the story and I really enjoyed the cyclical nature of her storytelling -- the way something might be briefly mentioned, then seemingly dropped, only to pop up again later. I thought it was most obvious with Grace and the striped pillow case, but that's probably because that's where I first noticed it.

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves (Pan Books, 1999)


Wordless Wednesday: A Cat & Her Curtain

Hedwig & the Curtain
This is how my Hedwig spends her days. All of them.

Hedwig & the Curtain
A little grumpy from being uncovered.


Loud Awake & Lost by Adele Griffin

Fragile. Freezing. Lonely. I felt crudely refashioned, like a Frankenstein monster. Barely on this earth, like a ghost.

Ember has recently returned home from a rehab facility after a long hospitalization following a terrible car accident. She has no memories of the accident or the weeks leading up to it. She doesn't even remember the boy who died, although she is plagued by guilt over his death and desperately wants to remember.

I admit I wasn't expecting to like Loud Awake & Lost as much as I did. I really appreciated its slow pacing with the plot moving along in fits and starts as Ember collects moments from her missing past. There aren't any really big flashes of memory as you'd expect in, maybe, a Hollywood film. Just Ember slowly chipping away at the missing six weeks.

When Kai came into Loud Awake & Lost, I worried it would turn into a big angsty love story, but it didn't. Indeed, if Loud Awake & Lost is anything, it's a detective story. How did Ember turn into the girl in the car accident? Why was she on the road that night? What was the dead boy to her?

I admit I didn't guess the big plot-twist until I was right on top of it and I was quite surprised. It seemed obvious in hindsight, but that's usually true of, imho, the best twists. After I stop going "What? What? How did that happen?" I should be able to trace it back through the book.

Loud Awake & Lost by Adele Griffin (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)


Batgirl, Volume One: The Darkest Reflection by Gail Simone

I tend not to read a lot of Marvel or DC comics, because they seem to be targeted at readers already heavily invested in those continuities/universes. I don't feel I can just pick up a random collected edition of say, Batman, and really get more than the surface of the story. Also, the super-heroines tend to be drawn in ways that offend me.

I know DC's The New 52 is supposed to reboot the entire franchise (and introduce more diversity), but ... meh. The world is full of enchanting manga and thrilling short-run graphic novel series, so why would I want to read this new iteration of Batgirl?

Because The Husband gave it to me. Because Gail Simone wrote it. Because the woman on the cover isn't sporting a boob window.

This Batgirl, while recovering from a terrible ordeal, still manages to be a strong and independent young woman who fights crime with her fists and her brains. She's no mere bit of toothsome eye-candy. She's actually quite extraordinary. And quite credible as a superhero. I liked her. I felt for her. I was perfectly content to accept this Barbara Gordon. This Batgirl. But, ugh, the villains she went up against!

Didn't particularly like the character of The Mirror -- he felt like mere device to get Barbara to face her own survivor's guilt and never like an actual person obsessed with dastardly plans of destruction -- and the resolution to his crime spree was a bit rushed. Why not flesh him out and run him through all six issues? Instead of bringing in the regrettable Gretel -- another device to get Barbara thinking about herself -- and giving us a Batman Moment, why not use the Mirror to give us more on Bab's miracle? Because then we wouldn't need to buy more volumes?

Batgirl, Volume One: The Darkest Reflection by Gail Simone et al (DC Comics, 2012)



Top 10 Tuesday: Books That Made Me Cry

For this week's Top Ten Tuesday we're talking about the books that made us cry. I'm an emotional reader and, lately, lots of stories move me to tears. I used to feel embarrassed by how emotionally involved I could become in a work of fiction and would actively fight my tears, but now I don't care and weep away.


A Bag of Marbles by Joseph Joffo

Maurice and Joseph's father fled Russia as a boy, ultimately ending up Paris were he was quickly assimilated and became a true Frenchman. He married a girl from similar circumstances and, in time, their family grew and prospered ... but now it's 1941 and the Nazis occupy Paris. There are yellow stars on school jackets and placards in Jewish shopfronts and, yes, it's time to run. The family splits up -- Maurice and Jo will go ahead to join their brothers in Vichy France, the southern free zone, while their parents follow along behind.

Armed with 5,000₣ and their wits, the boys are sent on the dangerous journey. They occasionally make bad choices, but find help in unexpected places from all sorts of people. The kindness of strangers adds a little sweetness to this book, making it much less depressing than it could have been. However, each encounter seems too brief and it's sometimes hard to feel the emotional intensity which much surely have charged much of their travels. Indeed, it frequently feels in some places as if I am reading the summation of an event rather than actually in it at that moment in time. I never feel I am with the boys.

I don't know if this is a fault in translation or simply due to the slimness of the work as the original text is 200-ish pages long. I don't think Bailly's watercolor illustrations are at fault. They're very detailed and expressive, clearly imparting the emotions experienced in any given scene. I just didn't feel them.

A Bag of Marbles: The Graphic Novel by Joseph Joffo & Vincent Bailly (Graphic Universe, 2013)