March 23, 2011

Every Last One

Remember this? I reviewed it here, almost a year ago.

I loved this book. And now it's available in paperback. Isn't that a lovely cover?

Click on the title for more information.

March 20, 2011

The Weird Sisters

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
2011 Amy Einhorn Books
Finished on 3/14/11
Rating: 4.5 (Terrific!)

Product Description (from the author’s website):

A major new talent tackles the complicated terrain of sisters. A winsome novel that explores sibling rivalry, the power of books, and the places we decide to call home.

“See, we love each other. We just don’t like each other very much.”

The Andreas sisters were raised on books – their family motto might as well be, ‘There’s no problem a library card can’t solve.’ Their father, a renowned, eccentric professor of Shakespearean studies, named them after three of the Bard’s most famous characters: Rose (Rosalind – As You Like It), Bean (Bianca – The Taming of the Shrew), and Cordy (Cordelia – King Lear), but they have inherited those characters’ failures along with their strengths.

Now the sisters have returned home to the small college town where they grew up – partly because their mother is ill, but mostly because their lives are falling apart and they don’t know where to go next. Rose, a staid mathematics professor, has the chance to break away from her quiet life and join her devoted fiancĂ© in England, if she could only summon up the courage to do more than she’s thought she could. Bean left home as soon as she could, running to the glamour of New York City, only to come back ashamed of the person she has become. And Cordy, who has been wandering the country for years, has been brought back to earth with a resounding thud, realizing it’s finally time for her to grow up.

The sisters never thought they would find the answers to their problems in each other, but over the course of one long summer, they find that everything they’ve been running from – each other, their histories, and their small hometown – might offer more than they ever expected.

When The Weird Sisters first arrived on the shelves at work, I admired the lovely cover art, but only briefly glanced at the synopsis. Within a few days, I had read a couple of enticing reviews, but then I saw the following Facebook post (on a favorite author’s wall). Marisa de los Santos wrote:

[She] …is head over heels for The Weird Sisters by the marvelous Eleanor Brown!

Read it! Read it!

So fresh, so smart, so dead-on when it comes to family relationships. Every sentence--ever SINGLE sentence--is perfect. (Can you tell I wish I'd written it?).

So what is a good fan to do, but read it! And what an utterly delightful read it turned out to be. Once I got used to the narrative voice (first person plural), I was quickly drawn into the sisters’ story and the pages flew. Growing up in a household with three brothers, I couldn’t relate to the rivalry among the sisters, having never experienced the petty arguments, competition or jealousies that are so often shared between sisters. And yet, I could still understand and appreciate the shift in the family dynamics as the girls returned home, redefining themselves as adults amidst their shared family history.

Me with my three brothers
Mark, David & Chris

Chris, me and Mark

David, me and Mark

This smart and witty debut novel is both engaging and insightful, and I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those books I’ll find myself thrusting into the hands of customers and friends alike (much like The Help, Still Alice, Room, Belong to Me, Stiltsville, and The School of Essential Ingredients).

On reading:

Cordy and Bean pulled out their books and opened them, disappearing behind the pages. Rose sat for a long time, staring at nothing in particular, and then opened her book as well. That was it, apparently. We weren’t going to talk about it, we weren’t going to share any feelings or discuss any arrangements, not going to bond in any kind of movie montage moment where emotional music swelled as we hugged and wept for our mother’s loss and our own fear. Instead, we were going to wrap ourselves in cloaks woven from self-pity and victimhood, refusing to admit that we might be able to help each other if we’d only open up. Instead, we’d do what we always did, the only thing we’d ever been dependably stellar at: we’d read.

On marriage:

There is much made in the psychological literature of the effects of divorce on children, particularly as it comes to their own marriages, lo those many years later. We have always wondered why there is not more research done on the children of happy marriages. Our parents’ love is not some grand passion, there are no swoons of lust, no ball gowns and tuxedos, but here is the truth: they have not spent a night apart since the day they married.

How can we ever hope to find a love to live up to that?

On fathers:

“The city, that burning desire you had for freedom, what has it brought you? Sound and fury, signifying nothing. You may think I’m a foolish old man, gone to seed already, but we chose this life, your mother and I, and we have never regretted it. I earn what I eat, get what I wear, owe no man hate, envy no man’s happiness, glad of other men’s good. We won’t hold you back, Bianca, but we want you to find happiness.”

The knowledge hit her then, hard: someday he would be gone. His inscrutable quoting, his missives by mail, his old-fashioned fashions, the protective web he and our mother had spun around themselves, would evaporate, and leaving us only with the memories of his thoughtful smile, his distance, and a lifetime of work that would have mattered most to a man dead four centuries ago. She let the door shut, placed her head against the cool glass, and prayed.

On fatherly advice:

“We all have stories we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves we are too fat, or too ugly, or too old, or too foolish. We tell ourselves these stories because they allow us to excuse our actions, and they allow us to pass off the responsibility for things we have done—maybe to something within our control, but anything other than the decisions we have made.

He leaned forward, and Bean, who had turned away, felt pulled back into his eyes. “Your story, Bean, is the story of your sisters. And it is past time, I think, for you to stop telling that particular story, and tell the story of yourself. Stop defining yourself in terms of them. You don’t just have to exist in the empty spaces they leave. There are times in our lives when we have to realize our past is precisely what it is, and we cannot change it. But we can change the story we tell ourselves about it, and by doing that, we can change the future.”

So, will The Weird Sisters be the darling of the 2011? It certainly has promise!

Read what other bloggers have to say:

Do not be surprised if you see The Weird Sisters next year on my top ten of 2011 – it really is that good. Highly recommended. (Wendy, from Caribousmom)


Even though it's only January, it's hard for me to imagine that The Weird Sisters will be bumped off my top reads list for 2011. (Beth from Beth Fish Reads)

Be sure to click on the links to read their full reviews of Eleanor Brown’s lovely novel.

Go here to visit the author’s website & blog.

March 8, 2011

The Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

(translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander)
2011 Minotaur Books
Finished 2/26/11
Rating: 2.5/5 (Average)
FTC Disclosure: Received ARC via B&N

Publisher’s Blurb:

One of today’s most sophisticated and brilliantly crafted literary thrillers.

She’s a single mother with blood on her hands. It was a murder that should have never happened. Without hesitation her enigmatic neighbor, a brilliant math teacher whose devotion towards her runs deep, calculates the perfect alibi. When evidence doesn’t add up for the authorities, the lead detective seeks the advice of his friend, a brilliant physicist, who knows the math genius from his past. What ensues is a fierce battle of wits.

How far will one mastermind go for love and the other for truth?

And how long must one woman feel indebted to her protector when her heart lies with another?

Discover Keigo Higashino as he delivers his first major English publication.
Higashino is Japan’s biggest bestselling novelist.

The Devotion of Suspect X won the prestigious Naoki Prize for Best Novel—the equivalent of the National Book Award. More than 2 million copies have sold in Japan. The blockbuster motion picture spent 4 weeks at the top of the box office in Asia.

In Japan, Higashino has assumed an almost iconic status. He and Haruki Murakami are often cited in tandem as the two major writers that a general reader would be expected to know immediately, like Stephen King or James Patterson. (Marilyn Dahl, Shelf Awareness)

And my reaction? Meh. I really didn’t care for the writing, characters or plot, but once I hit the halfway mark, I decided to keep going. I cared enough to see how the book was going to end, but overall I felt like I wasted my time.

Wendy, of Musings of a Bookish Kitty, enjoyed this thriller quite a bit more than I did; so much so that it made her top ten crime fiction list for 2010. You can find her review here.

March 6, 2011

Beef Bourguignon (Tyler Florence)

I'm not sure if I've ever participated in Beth Fish's "Weekend Cooking," but I've gotten so far behind on my food blog and I thought this weekly event might give me the incentive to finally post some new recipes.

My daughter gave me the Tyler Florence Family Meal cookbook for my birthday and I've already tried four recipes. That may not sound like a lot, since I've had the book since mid-December, but trust me, it is. I love cookbooks, especially those with beautiful photographs and helpful hints, but typically they wind up on a shelf or table, neglected for far too long. I really didn't want that to happen with this lovely gift, so I decided to "cook-the-book" one week and wound up discovering some great recipes! Tyler Florence's Beef Bourguignon is quite tasty. He writes:

I haven't done much to this earthy classic—why tamper with perfection? Serve it in deep bowls over buttered noodles with parsley for a soul-satisfying winter meal.

I agree! I did make a few changes (as noted at the bottom of the recipe), but overall, this is one great recipe. I made it once for my husband and myself and then later for a dinner party for eight. It's very tasty and really not that complicated. The most time-consuming aspect of the entire recipe is cutting up and browning the beef. I suppose you could have your butcher cut the meat for you, but be sure to remove any large chunks of fat or gristle he may have missed.

Extra-virgin olive oil
4 bacon slices
4 lbs. beef chuck or round, cut into 2-inch cubes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup Cognac
1 bottle dry red wine, such as Burgundy
2 cups low-sodium beef broth
2 T. tomato paste
Bouquet garni (1 fresh rosemary sprig, 8 fresh thyme sprigs, and 2 bay leaves, tied together with kitchen twine or wrapped in cheesecloth)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups pearl onions, fresh or frozen, blanched and peeled
1 pound white mushrooms, stems trimmed
Pinch of sugar
2 T. unsalted butter
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Serve with buttered egg noodles

Serves 8 to 10

Place a large, heavy pot over medium heat and drizzle in a 1-count of olive oil. Fry the bacon until crisp, about 5 minutes, then remove it to paper towels to drain, leaving the rendered fat in the pan. When cool, crumble the bacon and set aside.

Working in batches, add the beef to the pot and brown well on all sides over high heat, about 10 minutes per batch. Season each batch with a generous amount of salt and pepper and transfer to a plate while you brown the remaining beef cubes.

Return all the beef cubes to the pot and sprinkle with the flour, stirring to make sure the pieces are well coated. Pour in the Cognac and stir to scrape up the flavorful bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook over high heat until the Cognac has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Pour in the red wine and beef broth; then add the tomato paste and bouquet garni. Stir everything together and bring the liquid to a simmer. Cook uncovered until the liquid has thicken a bit, about 15 minutes, then cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 1 hour.

Add the garlic, pearl onions (blanched & peeled), and mushrooms to the pot along with the sugar (to balance out the acid from the red wine). Season with salt and pepper. Turn the heat up slightly and simmer 30 to 45 minutes longer, until the vegetables and meat are tender. Discard the bouquet garni, then stir in the butter to give the sauce a rich flavor and beautiful shine. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and the reserved bacon before serving.

My Notes:

I didn't have any Cognac, so I added an extra 1/4 cup of beef broth.

I used a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I didn't bother tying the bouquet garni with twine--just dropped the herbs in the pot. (Julia Child agrees with me on this one!)

I substituted a regular onion (rough chop) for the pearl onions.

The first time I made this dish, I served it with buttered noodles. Not bad, but I didn't love it. The second time I decided to skip the noodles and add potatoes to the pot. However, I didn't want them to overcook and fall apart, so I par-boiled them separately (peeled and cut-up) and added them to the pot a few minutes before serving.

Now here's my biggest adjustment to Tyler's recipe: The meat needs to cook much longer than the 2-2 1/2 hours he's suggested. I recommend at least 3-4 hours. And, if possible, cook it a day in advance. The flavors are amazing on the second day!

I have another recipe for Beef Bourguignon here. They're almost identical!