Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: Plus by Veronica Chambers

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "The perfect romantic makeover story about an every-girl whose dream comes true . . .

Beatrice Wilson is our lovable Cinderella, who just got dumped by her very first boyfriend and put on twenty-five pounds. But then she's discovered as a plus model. In the eyes of pop culture, Bee is Jessica Alba and then some! Now she must vanquish skinny rivals, fend off sleazy photogs, and banish jealous frenemies in her rise to superstardom. All the while, she's torn between her first love and the surprisingly sincere up-and-coming rapper she tutors in calculus. But what's better than finding your prince charming? Finally learning to love yourself!"

Review:  Can we just say--book that satisfied my teen angst plus reality-tv-in-a-book desire?  Yep, I really enjoyed this quick read.  In fact, I kind of smiled at the end, even though it had a characteristic cheesy and predictable ending.  Yes, Beatrice is a "thick" girl--*cough, cough* not really.  Honestly, Beatrice is a girl who had a messy break up and eats like a normal girl.  However, we all know that "plus size" models probably have a different standard than other plus-size gals, right?

Anyway, I digress.  Beatrice is a nice enough character who is riddled with weaknesses that come out clearly in her story.  She makes stupid mistakes with men, and has insecurities that far outweigh her plus-size physique.  In short, she has issues that can be annoying, but it's not as if she doesn't have a forgivable air to her that allows us to suspend judgement and just enjoy the book.

I enjoyed Beatrice's Top Model-esque story and found it to be a fun, quick read.  There are some pretty fun, catty moments in the book (yes, they're fun), and also that hint of seriousness to keep us cheering on Beatrice's future.  This was a surprisingly enjoyable read that I could 100% see myself indulgently liking as a teen--as I do now.  It all feels familiar, but is still a fun little book.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the book.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Admittedly, I've gone through a huge I-want-to-read-everything-I-can-get-my-hands-on-about-Paris phase.  This was just one of the many I found that dig into France's history and give me that fix that I'm looking for.  Before I started Becoming Marie Antoinette, I didn't know this was just the first in what would be a series, so I wondered why it didn't cover more time, but I still really enjoyed it and can't wait for the next to come out in May.

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother’s political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.

Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphin of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen."

Review:  Marie Antoinette and Versailles are two things that people continue to be intrigued about.  How would it be to be that wealthy and to have that much recognition?  What was she really like and what must Versailles have been like in its day?  In Juliet Grey's novel, we get a bit of an idea in this piece of historical fiction. 

Much of the novel surrounds Marie Antoinette's childhood and teen years, wherein she was groomed and prepared for an eventual marriage to Louis XVI of France.  Although Austrian, Marie was forced to change things about herself to become more of what her French husband might like.  There is an especially traumatic scene with a doctor/dentist, where she is given a pretty barbaric set of braces to change her teeth.  Having had braces as a teenager, I couldn't even fathom the pain she went through--without numbing medication--to get those braces.  Excruciating is all I have to say about that scene!

Throughout the novel we are privy to Marie's preparations and emotional upheaval about her own future.  It had to be frightening to need to model yourself so much after the desires of someone you didn't even know, not to mention the fear that must have come from knowing you would be giving up your entire world for another.  However, Marie does just that and moves into her marriage with Louis XVI, which becomes an even newer and different trial of loneliness and confusion.  

The book paints a blossoming friendship between Marie and Louis, as they had little by way of passion or desire in their marriage.  It does seem pretty weird that the two didn't have a physical relationship for so long.  Historians have come up with a few medical reasons why Louis XVI might not have been able to consummate the marriage, but no one knows for sure, because it obviously did eventually happen. Much of the final section of the book surrounds Marie's frustration and confusion over her lack of a sexual relationship with her husband.  Had it not really been based in history, I would have also found it all a bit exhausting to keep dwelling on it, but I think I would be pretty confused if I had to wait years to finally have a real marriage. 
As mentioned above, there are some really interesting scenes that jumped out at me and had me look at Marie Antoinette's story in a different way.  I've always thought it must be lonely and somehow difficult to be a monarch--as strange as that sounds--but never in quite the way I did after reading Grey's novel.  There is a lot of detail to the novel, and a lot of back story of her childhood that are pretty interesting to consider.  In a sense, the novel helped to humanize Marie Antoinette for me as she maybe had not been before.  Overall, I enjoyed the novel, and with the open ending of this first book, I'm eager to see Marie grow into a woman and to see her story find some resolution.  I'll definitely be reaching for the next book when it comes out in May!   

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the book.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Blatherings: Goals

Yes, it's been about a week since I last posted.  I was going to post a "Here's-Why-I'm-Gone" post, but realized that I might as well just take care of business and then come back when I could.  Needless to say, it was a pretty tough week and I'm just glad it's over.  Honestly, it was one of the hardest--emotionally speaking--of my career.  Now I'm just overjoyed to see a new term coming up at school, even though it freaks me out a bit that it came around so quickly.

In my blog title, I mentioned goals.  Well, I always have a goal to be more well rounded and balanced.  That's a given, and it's a pretty tough thing to pull off.  There always seems to be a million things that are pulling me in a million different directions, just as they do for everyone else.  When I'm grading, I think to myself, "You really ought to be spending a lot more time grading."  When I'm reading, I think to myself, "You really ought to be spending a lot more time reading."  When I'm cooking or cleaning, I think to myself, "You really ought to be spending a lot more time cooking or cleaning."  You get the point.  Thankfully, I'm aware that this is not a unique way of thinking.

Having said that, I really did have to think good and hard about my blog.  For me, book blogging really is 100% a hobby.  Sure, there are wonderful benefits to blogging, such as meeting amazing authors, getting advanced review copies, and working with great publishers.  It seems to me, though, that one of the greatest benefits of blogging has been the interaction with other readers and the opportunity I have to write my thoughts down about some of the great things I'm reading.  In essence, it's like a giant book club where you bring your own treats, yet discuss away!  I really do love and enjoy it all so much.  Because of that, I have to take the "silent moments" for what they're worth and return to my blog when I'm not such a frantic mess.  (Although, have I mentioned that I messed up my blog & had to rebuild it?  Yea.  That I didn't like so much.)

Now, moving on with life...

Over the next several weeks I'll be working to review a nice back-log of reviews for books that I've read.  Most of them have been non-fiction, because that is what I wanted to read.  It does seem a little odd that I've started this new love though.  I wonder why that is?  Anyway, here's what I'm reading right now:


Here's to a nice Sunday and week ahead.  What are you up to today?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Hasselback Potatoes

This was a very good week.  I finished grading that huge stack of essays, another huge stack of annotated bibliographies, and a stack of quizzes.  What does that mean?  It means that the light is at the end of the tunnel BEFORE I hit "end of term" next Friday.  To be honest, I put in some long evenings to get it all done, so I'm a much happier teacher about now.

As you can imagine, I didn't get a lot of reading done, nor any exercising.  I swear that "dieting" or doing anything fun like reading goes out the window when you're on a deadline, so to say.  I've had a major Mexican food craving lately, so I broke my own eating out rule and picked up burritos twice last week.  I don't care.  It was all for the cause!  I'm still kind of battling that craving though, so what in the world am I lacking in my diet that I would crave HOT Mexican food so much?  I'll load up on vitamins and see if I can figure it out.

As I mentioned, this was not a good week for reading.  I had too many papers to read to actually escape into some good fiction.  I did, however, pick up and finish Les Belles Souers, a play that a book blogging Santa sent me for Christmas year before last.  I'm glad I finally had a chance to read it, because it got me warmed back up to do some more reading today.

Since I haven't really cooked in a bit, what with grading and all, I decided to try out a potato recipe.  I have this huge box of potatoes that my mom brought down from Idaho for Christmas, and although I gave a bunch of them away, I still have way too many to eat.  As an Idaho girl, I acknowledge that I'm a bit of a potato snob.  I can't stomach the dry/dehydrated versions, and I will push aside a bad mashed potato if I'm ever served one.  To be honest, I don't know that we ever had to buy potatoes, as we got them for free from people in our community. We could go to my Uncle Ralph's potato pit and pick up a huge burlap sack of potatoes  that would feed the family for most of the winter.  I just grew up on giant potatoes, cooked in every conceivable way, with almost every meal (thus my diet woes of today).  Having shared that preamble, I did find a potato recipe that we haven't ever tried--the Hasselback Potato. 

I can't even remember where I first saw these potatoes, but they have stuck in my memory and I had to try it out this weekend.  They are very simple to make, but do take a little preparation.

Potato--Russet is my choice.
Butter--1/2 Tbsp per potato
Olive Oil--1 Tbsp per potato
Sea Salt

Now, this is tough!  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Take your potato and wash it well.  Slice it in small slices about 3/4 of the way through the potato, without cutting it through completely.  Slice up several heads of garlic and place a slice between each layer in the potato.  Season the slices with salt, and then coat in melted butter mixed with olive oil and thyme.  I simply used a pastry brush and dabbed the butter and olive oil in between the slices and covered it on top with the butter & oil mixture.

Place the potatoes in the oven for 1 hour, basting near the end of cooking (at about 10 minutes left).  Take out and serve right away.  I topped mine with a touch of butter to shine it back up.  Then eat and enjoy!

These potatoes were GLORIOUS.  I love the addition of the garlic.  I've seen some recipes that put cheese on top, but I really liked the simplicity of the olive oil, butter, thyme, and garlic.  It was so tasty, and the crunchy ends and bottom were delightful.  I actually made three potatoes, so I'm going to wrap the other two (that I didn't eat) in tinfoil and reheat them over the next couple of days for dinner.  Yum!

Try these out.  They take a little time to prep, but are well worth it.  This will definitely be in my arsenal of potato dishes from now on! 

*For more weekend cooking, go to Beth Fish Reads.  You'll find all sorts of great food-related posts and recipes!  

Well, I do have a bit of grading to do today--blog posts for my Popular Fiction class, but once I'm finished I'm logging off to do a bit of reading and to watch the Kansas vs. Purdue game later tonight.  What are you doing today and how has your weekend been?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review: Black Butler by Yana Toboso

Here is my effort to continue reading manga.  I still struggle to catch all of what's going on, or what certain things mean, but it's kind of fun mixing it up from time to time.  These books came my way by recommendation from a student at school, which is always fun.  I love showing them that I'm game to read what they read, or at least to give it a try.  Who knows what I'll find and what I'll love.

Synopsis:  In the opening two volumes we are introduced to Sebastian Michaelis, the Butler.  He works for a seemingly young child, Ciel Phantomhive, who spends his day drinking tea and being oblivious to the chaos going on in his home between out of control servants and daily mishaps.  To this, we add an abduction and Jack the Ripper, which our superhuman Sebastian must step in and save the day.  He might have the utmost decorum around those he works for and with, but underneath his stick-straight posture and coat tails is a man who has skills that would shock the baddest bad guy!

Review:  Admittedly, I struggle with manga.  These were cute, interesting, and fast-paced, so I could get through them easily.  I quickly learned that I could actually skip over the small inserted conversations in the mini pictures to keep with the main story.  This made it easier for me to keep trying to figure out who Sebastian was and why it mattered.  He is a sneaky character, and one that I'm guessing we learn more about through additional volumes.  He is not human (at least I think he's not), so it's fun to watch that moment when he breaks out of his butler stance to kick some serious bad-guy butt. 

Altogether, I would say that this might be more geared toward a younger audience, with its quirky staff and superhero-esque characters.  I really was hoping that we would get some sort of Victorian flair here, what with the butler and all.  Maybe I'm still too entrenched in Downton Abbey and was hoping for a graphic extension of that experience?  Although I did enjoy learning a bit more about manga, I think other graphic novels grab my attention a bit more.  I will, however, be sharing these with my students--who will be shocked that I read them!

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on library copies of the books.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Phantom of the Opera: A Revisited Fangirl Moment

Like many of you, I distinctly remember listening, and listening, and listening to the original soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera.  As an Idaho girl, far from the London or New York stages, I didn't stand a chance of ever going to see them back then, so I gloried in those soundtracks.  I swear that I listened to that original CD until it was worn out and I had to replace it.  My parents thought I was possessed.

Ramin Karimloo
This past week PBS has been airing the 25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera from the Royal Albert Hall in London, England.  What an amazing experience!  Hello.  Ramin Karimloo.  Enough said.  He played Enjolras in the 25th Anniversary celebration for Les Miserables and I developed a bit of a crush.  Talk about a pure delight to see him performing as the Phantom.  *sigh*  Pure awesomeness.  (You can check him out singing "One Day More" in Les Miserables here at about 1:35.)

The broadcast was really well done, with great casting and singing.  Of course we'll all think back to Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman's original performance and recording, but I think this group did an amazing job.  I'm going to include a clip of the five Phantoms singing with Sarah Brightman as an encore for the 25th Anniversary special.  It was a little crazy having five singing out "Sing to Me!" as Brightman crooned away, but it was powerful and I loved every second.  Thank goodness for these broadcasts, so I can indulge a bit of that love I have for a good musical!

Here is a clip from the broadcast, with Sarah Brightman and the five Phantoms.  Enjoy!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sunday Blatherings

Here's what I'm really fantasizing about--a sunny beach & a good book!
Here I sit on a beautiful Sunday with a stack of papers that desperately need my attention.  It's that wonderful time in the term when I have to put the peddle to the metal and get everything graded.  Granted, the end of this third term doesn't end for another two weeks, but it's coming up pretty quickly.  I'd love to be sitting back, trying to nap away the lethargy of the time change, but I'm desperately trying to finish up 35 essays before school tomorrow.  I think I can get it all done though, so I'm looking forward to having these essays all finished and in the gradebook!

Yes, I have a number of book reviews I need to hop onto, but I think I'm going to have to do the best I can--like usual.  Dare I admit that burn out has happened a lot earlier than usual this school year?  The burn out is not for my blog, specifically, but for just about everything!  Honestly, I need a good shot of B12, a visit to a tropical location, and a complete time out.  Usually I'm all excited about March Madness coming up, but I've been so burned out this year that I haven't even watched one basketball game.  Yes, the apocalypse must be around the corner!  I'm hoping that I can etch out some time during spring break to soak up some sun and escape into a stack of good books--and boy, I have a nice bunch waiting for me!

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I joined Weight Watchers with a friend of mine.  That first week was glorious, what with a six pound loss and all, but I screeched to a halt this week with a whopping zero lost.  I'm thinking my body is reflecting my current feeling about everything in my life at the moment; the mind and body need a big time out.  Yes, I started my day off today with a big slice of cake.  All right, so throwing a proverbial tantrum won't help the matter, but dang that cake tasted good! The temper tantrum is over now and I'm ready to refocus.

Well, I'm off to get these essays all finished up and hope to keep reading some of the books I still have in my stacks.  Here's what's up:

Okay.  Back to the grading so I can get in some time to read!  How is your weekend?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: Everneath by Brodi Ashton

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath, where immortals Feed on the emotions of despairing humans. Now she's returned- to her old life, her family, her friends- before being banished back to the underworld... this time forever.

She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can't find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these months reconnecting with her boyfriend, Jack, the one person she loves more than anything. But there's a problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who first enticed her to the Everneath, has followed Nikki to the mortal world. And he'll do whatever it takes to bring her back- this time as his queen.

As Nikki's time grows short and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she's forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole's."

Review:  With an interesting concept--life after death--and a setting in Park City, Utah that I was familiar with, I have to say that I was pretty easily sucked into Brodi Ashton's first novel.  There seems to be a lot of information that comes at the reader, in a somewhat vague way, but it is just that vagueness that makes you want to keep reading to find out what is going on.  What do we know from the get go?  We know that Nikki is a strong-minded girl who has had some traumatic things happen to her, which included her mother's death and some emotional pain that she couldn't shake.  We quickly find out that she was also dating Jack, who was the love of her life, at the time that she checked out of life to the Everneath. 

What don't we know?  A lot.  How did she disappear?  What really happened to make her decide to "check out" of life (so to say) to enter the Everneath?  How did she get there?  Why does she only have six months back in her old life before she has to return?  Is there a way out?  As you can see, there are a lot of questions that have to be answered over the course of the book that keep you reading and wanting more.  Some of our questions get answered, and some are sure to come!

While I admittedly struggled at times to put details with answers, I really liked the countdown that starts the book with her return to her life and moves us toward the day she has to surrender to the Everneath.  This countdown adds to our desire to know what's up and builds the mystery.  We know she has a limited amount of time, so we want her to resolve things at home as much as she does!  For this non-mystery fan, I thought the way the story was built around what happened in the past helped to make it more about what was driving the characters than all the details we were looking for about the Everneath.  Yes, it's all very mysterious and creepy, but Nikki seems so troubled, Cole so ubiquitously shady, and Jack so wounded that you have to know what caused them to all behave as they do.

Overall, I found this to be an engaging read.  The characters have a lot going on, and they seem to learn things at the same time that we do.  The air of mystery and romance to this story really make you want to see the characters find resolution to their problems, and mainly to this whole going back to the Everneath at all!  I fully intend to share Everneath with my students, who I think will really get into the mystery in the story, along with all of the angst going on between the characters.  Honestly, it was a great read, with one doozy of a cliffhanger! 

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a library copy of the novel.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Now Eat This!

This week I started out my first step into an attempt to really change my eating habits.  Like many people, I tend to eat little to nothing during my work day, which then finds me ravenous by the time I get home.  At that point, I'd love to do nothing more than eat a big bowl of pasta and then call it a night.  I've always been health conscious and tried to big up the veg, eat lean protein, and stay away from too much fast food.  It's still hard though, and I think like many people, I want to shed some weight and still feel well-rounded and satisfied in my eating.

I can't say that everything I did took a lot of cooking, but I did make some amazing food.  Monday night I whipped up some mouth-watering chicken curry stir fry over buckwheat udon noodles.  Talk about delicious!  It made for some nice lunch leftovers for work.  I also discovered my new favorite appetite busting, low calorie fix:  Wasa crackers, Laughing Cow cheese wedges, and turkey.  This came in under 200 calories and left me full for hours afterwards.  As you can see from my pictures below, I also added some asparagus to give it color and because I happen to love them!

Now to the trial and error recipe of the weekend.  I tried Rocco Dispirito's Low-Cal Brownies that are made with black beans.  First off, I think he has modified the recipe since he published the book, because everywhere you look online, the recipe has changed to include chocolate syrup and a little sour cream.  He might have been responding to people's review of them, since they are pretty weird.  I'm not really a fan, but I suppose you can't complain when you know off hundreds of calories off of a previously favorite sweet treat.  The texture is very strange.  In some ways this is a pasty fudge (that you have to refrigerate), with nice chocolate flavor, but none of the mouth feel that you're used to with a brownie or fudge.  I think that in the future I'll splurge on the real thing, but just balance out my other calories to compensate. 

If you'd like to give them a try, the recipe is below.  

Rocco's Low-Cal Brownies

  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 1½ cups canned black beans, rinsed and drained
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon espresso powder
  • ¾ cup egg substitute
  • 2 tablespoons low-calorie sugar-free chocolate syrup, such as Walden Farms
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-fat sour cream, such as Breakstone's
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
  • 24 packets (84 g) Truvia or 8 tablespoons granulated Splenda
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

  • Cooking Directions: 
    Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray an 8×8-inch glass baking dish with cooking spray.

    Combine the beans, cocoa powder, espresso powder, and egg substitute in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl halfway through.
    Add the chocolate syrup, sour cream, butter, Truvia, and vanilla. Process until all of the ingredients are combined, about 1 minute.

    Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 28 to 30 minutes, turning the dish halfway through the baking time. A toothpick inserted in the center will come out with soft batter clinging to it.

    Let the brownies cool completely in the baking dish on a wire rack. Then cut into 12 squares and serve. Refrigerate any leftovers.

    ***Let me admit that I actually changed a few things.  In the place of the egg substitute, I used three whole eggs. Also, I used 3/4 cup of Agave (as listed in his cookbook) instead of Splenda or Stevia.

    Like I said, they were pretty odd.  You would never find me in a position where I wouldn't be able to stop eating them, which I suppose is a real benefit of this recipe.  I don't know that I'll be drastically changing the recipes on each of my favorite dishes.  I think I'll stick to eating less of the fattening foods and eating more of the good stuff, like fruits and vegetables. 

    *For more weekend cooking, go to Beth Fish Reads.  You'll find all sorts of great food-related posts and recipes!