Stuff and Nonsense: September 2014


Sun Storm by Åsa Larsson

The Paradise Boy, leader of a growing and locally powerful fundamentalist Christian church in Kiruna, is discovered murdered and brutally disfigured. Under suspicion by the police, his thoroughly unreliable sister calls her former friend, Rebecka, for help. Rebecka, a junior lawyer whose work seems to focus more on tax law than criminal cases, reluctantly promises to come north for a few days to see what she can do for her not-really-a-friend-anymore. She ends up neck deep in secrets and lies.

I don't generally read thrillers or crime novels, because I feel there are real brutal crimes and terrible acts in the world without us needing to create fictional ones. But I read an article, "On Dead Women In Crime Fiction," Larsson wrote for the Huffington Post that really made me want to pick up one of her books.

I rather liked Larsson's handling of Viktor's murder. We know he's not alive before the disfigurement takes place and Larsson doesn't pad out the story with gory-yet-titillating descriptions of the mutilation. In some ways that was worse -- my imagination was free to run amok with visuals -- but the characters' individual reactions to the corpse served as a good shortcut introduction to their different personalities. I really enjoyed how enormously pregnant Anna-Maria and ridiculously mustached Sven-Erik Stålnacke worked together and watching Rebecka come to grips with her past while, possibly, ruining her professional future was strangely exhilarating. (On the other hand, I had a difficult time with Larsson's treatment of little Virku and was not sure I wanted to keep reading ... but, clearly, I did keep reading because here I am writing about Sun Storm).

The story, in general, was problematic for me. It was quite obvious early on that the murder was likely to be one of two people (or, possibly, the two working together) and so all the other suspects were just ... in the way. Yes, they were all hiding secrets of their own, but few had anything directly to do with the murder. And then making the murderer a mentally ill person off their meds! Nopenopenope. And did we ever actually determine whether Viktor was sexually abusing anyone? Or was that suspicion just there to muddy the waters? And the "neat," no-need-for-trial ending! And Sanna! Please tell me she later turns out to be a psychopath.

All that said, I already have the next book in the Rebecka Martinsson series, Blood Spilt, checked out from the library!

Sun Storm written by Åsa Larsson & trans by Marlaine Delargy (Delacorte Press, 2006)


Week Day Comfort Food: Slow Cooker Pot Roast

Terrible hankering for pot roast when I was planning out this week's menu -- blame the turning leaves and cooler breezes -- but I couldn't quite figure out which pot roast recipe to use. And then I decided "To heck with it! I can't go wrong chucking random roastie ingredients in the slow cooker!" So that's what I did. And it was turned out pretty darn fabulous.

Slow Cooker Pot Roast
Serve 2, with lots of leftovers for soup or whathaveyou

3 lb boneless chuck roast
1 small red onion, halved and sliced
6 cloves garlic, crushed
4 oz sliced white button mushrooms
2 Tbsp tomato paste
[Amore Tomato Paste Double Concentrated Tube]
1 envelope onion soup mix [Lipton]
1 bottle stout [Guinness 250 Anniversary Stout]
As many chopped carrots and baby potatoes as will line the bottom of your slow cooker insert

Arrange carrots and potatoes at bottom of slow cooker insert.

Add with roast. Top with mushrooms, onions, and garlic.

Whisk stout, onion soup mix, and tomato paste together and pour over everything.

Cover and cook on LOW for 8-10 hrs.

Remove meat and vegetables to a warm oven. Whisk cornstarch and water together to make a slurry and whisk into the juices at the bottom of the slow cooker. Cook on High for 10 minutes or until thickened. Serve.

This roast made more than enough for two for supper so I shredded the remaining meat (we ate all the veg) and made a really tasty beef barley soup with frozen mixed vegetable blend, frozen pearl onions, more mushrooms, quick-cooking barley, leftover gravy, broth, bay, thyme, salt, and pepper.



Antique Bakery: Volume 1 by Fumi Yoshinaga

I borrowed the first volume of Antique Bakery through my library system two weeks ago, eagerly opened ... and was so appalled by the end of the eighth page that I immediately stuffed it back in my library tote to return the next day. But, somehow, I couldn't return it. I'd heard so many good things about the series! It had to get better! I should just try it again! And so it shuttled back-and-forth in my tote until I finally broke down and read it at lunch. And am I ever glad I did.

Antique Bakery is as charming as everyone on the Internets says. Yes, the first eight pages are rather brutal ... but the characters grow from that and, frankly, Yusuke's revenge as a "gay demonic charm" is utterly delightful.

Happily, Yoshinaga has clearly put a lot of thought into the bakery -- it's far more than just place the characters happen to spend time together -- and the pastries that comes out of its kitchen sounds phenomenal. Seriously, the book practically begs to be consumed with a moist, fluffy chiffon cake with strawberry cream. Or a tarte chiboust aux pommes. Basically, just go to your favorite bakery and buy one of everything. Then make yourself a nice pot of tea and settle in for a drool-worthy read.

Yes, please!

My only real complaint is that there are gaps in the characters' backstories and a few plot threads that just kind-of meander nowhere. For example, why did Tachibana quit his job to open the bakery? What was his prior profession? Why was his family so unbothered by the change? However, I understand this is just the first volume and there three more volumes (and lots of story) to come.

Antique Bakery: Volume 1 written & illus by Fumi Yoshinaga (DMP, 2005)


The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick

It was one of those sunny, boisterous March days with great white clouds sailing across the blue skies like gull-rigged galleons, and a wind that blew tiles off roofs and hats off heads, and banged doors and slammed windows. The rude, rough day blew Lucy Muir, vainly attempting to grasp her hat, her handbag, her veil, and her skirts, in her black-gloved hands, out of the station at Whitecliff, across the yard, around the corner into the main street, and into Itchen, Boles, and Coombe, house agents, with such strength that she could only sit breathlessly in the red leather chair and lean on the wide desk that separated her from Mr. Coombe, junior partner, and stare helplessly at him, with no breath left for speaking.

Holy Moses! The commas!

Recently widowed, Lucy Muir is determined to get out from under the thumb of her (well-intentioned but horribly overbearing) in-laws. On impulse she quite cheaply rents a little grey cottage by the sea. Why is Gull Cottage so going so cheap? Well, it’s haunted by its previous owner, Captain Daniel Gregg, who is indignant that everyone believes his thoroughly accidental death was a suicide and that his “— little runt” nephew inherited the property rather than it becoming the rest home for old sea captains it was intended it to be. He’s also not keen terribly on having some woman and her children is his cottage, turning his good bedroom “into a scented boudoir full of frippery and falderals.” Alas for him, Mrs Muir no intention of moving out.

It’s been a decade or more since I saw the film adaptation so I can’t tell you how similar they are to each other – although I’m pretty sure Lucy only had a daughter and not a daughter and a priggish little monster of a son. I also don’t remember anything in the film about the daughter desperately wanting to be a professional dancer – so much so that she was willing to change her name to protect the family’s respectability.

Also, while the Internets tell me The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is Totes Romantic, I am not sure what measuring stick is being used. Yes, there are two feisty people who clearly like each other a great deal while still managing to argue all the time … but their arguments lack flirtatiousness and their mutual liking is more companionable than Romantic. Their influence over each other is certainly positive and, over the decades, they help each other become better people. Frankly, it may be an atypical romance, but it is a still charming one! And the end … so sweet, so sad, so loving! Who needs a typical romance?

R.A. Dick is the (unfortunate) pseudonym of Josephine Leslie, an Irish writer who (Goodreads tells me) also wrote The Devil and Mrs. Devine and Light and Shade. I can’t find any other information about her and have no way of vetting even that little bit. Light and Shade, if it really is her work, is impossible to locate but The Devil and Mrs Devine is available within my state library system and I look forward to reading it because it sounds positively gothick – a beautiful but downtrodden and totes naive heiress runs away from home and falls in with a thoroughly disreputable neighbor who astonishes everyone (including himself) by marrying her.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A. Dick (Ziff-Davis, 1945)


Improv Challenge: Milk & Honey

Every time I sat down with my notepad to think up interesting combinations of milk and honey for September's Improv Challenge, I ended up with lists of cakes and puddings. Which would be fine ... if I hadn't recklessly decided to stop eating (as many) cakes and puddings. Every autumn and winter, I gain weight. Every spring and summer, I struggle to lose that gain. It's annoying. It's boring. I'm tired of it.

Long story short, I made a salad for September's Improv Challenge. And it is tangy-sweet delicious. And pretty healthy.

Salmon Salad with Creamy Honey Mustard Dressing
Serves 2

For the salmon:
2 6 oz portions skinned boneless salmon fillet
olive oil
sea salt
freshly cracked black pepper

For the dressing:
¼ cup buttermilk
¼ cup sour cream
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard [Maille]
2 Tbsp honey
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp dried parsley flakes

For the salad:
spring mix with herbs [Nature's Promise Organic]
chopped, peeled, seeded cucumber
small slivers of red onion

Preheat the oven to 425˚F. Place the salmon fillets in a baking dish. Brush the tops lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake 12-15 minutes, depending on how well done you like your salmon.

While the salmon bakes, dump all the dressing ingredients into a bowl and whiz with an immersion blender until smooth and uniformly blended. A regular blender or bowl-and-whisk combo will work, too, obviously. Makes about 6 ounces of dressing.

Toss lettuce blend with cucumber and onion. Divide between two plates.

Gently remove the salmon fillets the tray and place atop the salads. Drizzle with the honey mustard dressing. Serve.

You could also omit the olive oil and brush the salmon with some of the dressing before baking it. Of course, this would mean assembling the dressing first! Also, the recipe makes more dressing than you'll need for two salads, but it will keep in the fridge for a few days (can't exactly say how long since I tend to eat it all within 3 days).

The dressing is a bit runny, but I don't know how to fix that without changing how it tastes and it will thicken up a bit if you refrigerate it (well, the first batch thickened up ... but the second didn't).

I used linden honey in this recipe, but any mild-tasting honey would work just fine.


Wordless Wednesday: Kitty in the Window

She loves sitting there, soaking up the sun and watching for birds.


Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delaney

I don’t know where to start talking about Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. A plot summary would both give too much away and explain absolutely nothing. So let me just talk about my FEELS.

The Internet tells me that Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is quite possibly the worst place to start reading Delaney, but I thought the book was fantastically fun, mind-bending, and eye-opening. It makes me crave science fiction as a genre in a way I didn’t think I could anymore. It makes me long for a universe that does not/will never exist. Even now, days after finishing the novel, I feel disoriented and half-drunk on prose.

And yet I freely admit that Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is a problematic novel. The things I love about it -- its lack of explication, its (in places) almost stream of consciousness narrative style, its nonstandard use of pronouns to describe gender and sex -- can make the novel deeply confusing and hard-going. I’m sure there were whole sections in which my reading left me holding the completely wrong end of the stick.

And I don’t care! There is such enjoyment in the manipulation of language (such a reimagining of communication between people!) that reading the novel was simply too much fun for me to care about whether I “got the point.” For example, she and he are used in ways that make it very difficult to ever “correctly” identify the gender, sex, sexual identity, or “humanness” of most characters ... and those identifiers aren’t important, anyway. Basically, it’s Fun With Words for readers who like that sort of thing and I do, very much.

Being unable to sex or gender or orientate by a known system neatly avoids, in my mind, the very real science fiction problem where aliens (and/or far future humans) are so humanish looking and humanish behaving that we end up bringing all our baggage of expectation and assumption to the story. Frankly, I didn’t know/understand what Delaney’s characters were doing half the time and I quickly gave up trying to figure things out and just decided to enjoy the story Delaney was spinning.

And what a story! Even when I found myself thinking “What were you smoking when you wrote that passage, Delaney?” or “Really? Dragon-people with how many tongues?” I couldn’t put the book down. It took me five days to read it, because I frequently had to stop and let its ideas settle in my brain, but it was worth every minute.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delaney (Bantam Books, 1984)


Since You've Been Gone by Anouska Knight

Just want to come straight out and say Since You’ve Been Gone was a Did Not Finish. Maybe my expectations were too high or it was the wrong genre/day when I picked it up, but I couldn’t make myself care about Holly or her bakery or dead husband or her new love interest.

I picked up Since You’ve Been Gone expecting a sweet story about a woman, still recovering from the loss of her husband, learning to love again. And I (kind of) got that, I guess? Certainly, the novel starts off pretty heavy with loss and longing, but then it darts off into the realms of the most tropish romance novels and I just couldn’t make myself care about any of it.

Also, and I know this will sound completely ridiculous, but Since You’ve Been Gone never felt particularly British. Yes, the Sexy Scottish Man’s name was the super Scottishy-sounding Ciaran Argyll. Yes, Holly drove an old Morris. Yes, the novel won ITV's Lorraine’s Racy Reads competition, judged by Jackie Collins and a team from Mills and Boon. It’s clearly a UK product. It just didn’t feel that way to me. Holly could just as easily have owned a struggling bakeshop in Mystic, Connecticut with Ciaran as the playboy son of a wealthy magnate who summered in the area. Or whatever.

It’s just ... I think I was looking for something like Jill Mansell’s sweetly satisfying To the Moon and Back and Since You’ve Been Gone might actually be fine, but it can’t measure up to Mansell’s book. (Also, still not "British" enough).

Since You’ve Been Gone by Anouska Knight (HQN, 2013)


Furry Logic: A Guide to Life’s Little Challenges by Jane Seabrook

Utterly charming volume of beautiful watercolor illustrations paired with some real eye-roll worthy adages. The expressions on the animal’s faces and their body language redeem them adages somewhat and, indeed, I think I’ll go so far as to say that the book would be completely forgettable without the illustrations.

Seabrook, in her “Artist’s notes” at the back of the volume, writes that she used a tiny single-hair sable brush to paint each watercolor, building up layers of color and detail as she went. It’s astonishing to think of the amount of work that must have go into rendering each animal! It makes me wish the illustrations were bigger or that Furry Logic came with a magnifying glass so that I could more closely examine them.

I read this at lunch on a Monday and I freely admit that, not only did I laugh out loud at some of the animals, my afternoon seemed much better than it should have. Note to self: start adding a little cute to Monday lunches.

Furry Logic: A Guide to Life’s Little Challenges by Jane Seabrook (Ten Speed Press, 2004)


Wordless Wednesday: Northern Cardinal

Just strutting around the back garden liked he owns the place!


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

People said Ove saw the world in black and white. But she was color. All the color he had.

Having lost the only thing that mattered to him, a cranky old man tidies up the few loose-ends of his life before preparing to kill himself. But every suicide attempt is thwarted.

I picked up A Man Called Ove because I had seen it linked in reviews with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry -- a novel I had enjoyed very much -- and, while there are strong similarities, there are also strong differences and I want to caution you against beginning this novel with the assumption Ove is just a grumpier version of Harold. Ove is very much his own person and is best approached in as unbiased a way as possible.

I came to the novel with the assumption Ove was a cranky old curmudgeon with a hidden soft center and then spent the first third of the book absolutely appalled by how big of an asshole he was. Even when I could clearly see the direction the novel was taking and that the author intended me to start the novel disliking Ove so I could grow and change with him ... that didn't help me think more highly of Ove.

But that dislike changed, slowly, into a grudging respect and then a strong liking. Indeed, so strong a liking that the end left me in tears. Yes, I cried! And yet, whilst boohoo-ing, was extremely aware of how thoroughly and cleverly my emotions had been manipulated by the author. Backman knows how to hit all the right notes and, even though quite a lot of the novel is predictable and familiar -- like a Pixar movie (at points I was like "Oh, that's a Despicable Me moment!" or "Why do I feel like I'm reading Up?") -- that does not detract from the novel's overall charm. (Also, feel I should give a tip o' the hat to Henning Koch for his fine translation skills, because translators never get enough credit).

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman w/ trans. by Henning Koch (Atria Books, 2014)