A further step in anxiety and mystery

The Vanishing Stair is the second book in the Truly Devious series; they are not stand-alone books with three separate mysteries. The puzzle is spread across all three books in the series, and while there are smaller mysteries solved in the first two books, all the big answers are presumably going to be answered in the third and final book, due to be released in January 2020.

Stevie is a junior in high school attending Ellingham Academy, a prestigious private school in the Vermont Mountains. Ellingham was a prosperous industrialist whose wife and daughter were kidnapped in the 1930s. Stevie starts out working to solve that mystery: who did it, what happened to his daughter Alice who was never found. But that investigation triggers events in her own, current time period. The story is told both in the present time and as a string of events in the 1930s. The chapters are well marked so you know where you are in the two threads of the larger mystery.

Personally, Stevie’s anxiety speaks to me. It is part of her character, but that’s it: it’s just part of her character. It absolutely affects who she is and how she does things, but it’s not fetishized or presented as a problem to be solved. Writing anxious characters like that, who take their meds regularly and have therapists, normalizes them and makes it ok.

I’m still all in on this series and look forward to the next book coming out in January.

Posole Rojo with Chicken

Posole is a delicious Mexican soup that uses hominy. Trying to understand what hominy is took up a long discussion at dinner with my husband. What’s the difference between corn and maize? What’s hominy? (Corn and maize are the same thing, hominy is a type of field maize that’s been treated with an alkaline solution to make it more edible.)

Regardless, this is a yummy soup with chicken and hominy and veggies. We served it with tortilla chips, but I’ve heated up leftovers with rice and both are good.

1T oil
1 medium white onion, chopped, plus thin slices to serve
6 medium minced garlic cloves
3T ancho chili powder
2t ground cumin
14.5oz can fire-roasted tomatoes
2qt chicken broth
1.5lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
29oz can hominy, drained and rinsed
0.5c chopped cilantro
3T lime juice, plus wedges to serve
salt
tortilla chips
thinly sliced radishes to serve

In large dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add chopped onions and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, ancho powder, and cumin, then cook, stirring constantly until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has evaporated, 3-5 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a simmer. Stir in hominy and chicken, then bring to a simmer. Reduce to medium, cover, and cook for 20 minutes.

Transfer the chicken to a plate. Cover the pot and reduce to low to keep hot. Dice chicken into bite sized pieces. Stir the chicken back into the pot and cook until heated through, 2-3 minutes. Off heat, stir in cilantro and lime juice. Taste and season with salt. Serve with onions, radishes, lime juice, and tortilla chips.

Recipe from Tuesday Nights by Milk Street.

Book-length poetry

In Paris with You was a unique book for me, despite its somewhat formulaic romance plot (which isn’t a bad thing!). Why?

  • It’s translated from the original French, which means that the takes on the characters are different than you might get in a book originally in English. Specifically, Eugene is allowed to be slightly depressed, and that’s totally normal.
  • The hero is named Eugene.
  • It’s a book-length poem. I read poetry infrequently enough that the language that the authors uses is different enough, more emotional and less action-oriented, that it was refreshing.
  • It’s got a lovely happy-for-now ending that leaves open a proper happy ending.

In Paris with You was a great Sunday afternoon read. Would recommend.

Maque Choux

I love a big bowl of veggies and meat. It’s the best. Filling and good for you – provided there’s not too much meat, that is. Maque Choux is a traditionally creole dish that fit the bill for a filling weeknight meal. We served this with rice to add a grain.

1T veg oil
12oz andouille sausage, halved lengthwise and cut into 0.5″ pieces
2T butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
1 Anaheim chili, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
salt & pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
0.5t dried thyme
2c fresh corn kernels (or 1lb frozen)
1t cider vinegar
4 scallions, thinly sliced

Heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the sausage and cook, stirring, until well browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer to paper-towel lined plate and discard any fat in the skillet.

Set skillet over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the onion, bell pepper, chili, and 0.5t salt. Con, scraping up browned bits and stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, 5-7 minutes. Stir in garlic & thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Increase heat to medium-high and add corn, 0.75t salt and 0.25t pepper. Cook, stirring until corn is crisp-tender, 3-5 minutes.

Return sausage to skillet, stir and cook until heated through, about 1 minute. Stir in the vinegar, then taste and season with salt & pepper. Stir in the scallions.

From Tuesday Nights cookbook by Milk Street Magazine.

A fizzy and happy romance

Royal Holiday was a fizzy delight of a romance novel, inspired by a combination of Meghan Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland, and the author’s own grandmother. In the book, Vivian, the mother of the main character in Guillory’s prior book, The Wedding Party, tags along on her daughter’s work trip over the Christmas holidays in London for the British royal family. There, she meets a retainer for the family, and they proceed to have a whirlwind romance. But alas, Vivian must go back to Oakland and her job. What does the future hold? (Spoiler: it’s a romance novel, so it’s required to have a happy ending.)

Royal Holiday was a fun read, and I was gratified to read a romance novel about a couple in their 50s. Love isn’t unique to those in their 20s! I enjoyed it and would recommend it.

If you care about a dictionary…

The Grammarians is a lovely story about two twin sisters living in the late 20th Century in and around New York City. I don’t actually want to say too much about the plot, but I loved how familial the story was, how close the twins are even when they’re fighting, and how much love was interwoven. Even when everyone is driving each other nuts, they all still love each other – families are like that.

The action is driven by the women growing up – you get their entire life stories from birth to death 258 pages – but also by a dictionary, Webster’s Second Edition. The Third Edition is apparently very controversial, in part because the second was so stodgy. One of the women has a job writing about grammar, and so is the prescriptivist and is more akin to the second edition; the other writes poetry and stories using vernacular language and so is the descriptivist, and could be compared to the third edition. (A short definition of prescriptive vs descriptive lives here, if you’re interested.)

But that is all in-the-weeds, and you certainly don’t need to care about that particular argument in order to enjoy the book. You can (I did) enjoy the characters and their relationships to each other and New York City in the 1980s. I highly recommend The Grammarians.

Not as advertised

Here’s what I thought No Stopping Us Now was going to be: ways in which older American women have been awesome and examples of them being awesome, defying stereotypes of women of a certain age being boring and invisible. What it actually was: a chronological history of how older women in America have been sidelined and excluded, with the few exceptions that have defied the systematic discrimination of both sexism and ageism.

I found that I couldn’t adjust my reading attitude to compensate. I just didn’t want to read the ways society has sidelined older women throughout history. So I started skimming, only reading closely when the examples of older women being taken seriously as whole people were mentioned. And then I was fine. But I couldn’t read the full book as it was written.

A companion novel

Time’s Convert is a companion novel to the All Souls Trilogy. In it, we follow the story of a young woman, Phoebe, as she becomes a vampire so she and her true love, Marcus (who is already a vampire), can be together forever.

It’s easy to look at that melodramatic premise and roll your eyes. Especially if you read the somewhat shaggy All Souls Trilogy it’s related to. (Which I enjoyed, but it’s a melodrama that is full of too many characters doing too much.) This is a tighter story, and is mainly about the combination of Marcus’ human childhood and his early years as a vampire. It’s contrasted with the journey that Phoebe is going through in the modern era. I can’t help but think that the author wrote this book so she had the excuse to revisit her favorite characters and share Marcus’ backstory.

Or maybe that’s just why I read it – I am here for Deborah Harkness’ strong women taking charge of their lives, and Marcus has a different journey as a vampire than the others of his clan. It happens to be one that allows the reader to explore the American and French Revolutions, as well as some early American history. It’s fun.

I would not recommend Time’s Convert if you haven’t read the other books in the series. The author spends little time explaining who is who and how they are related to each other. This one is for fans of the All Souls Trilogy.

It’s a ghost story!

Tunnel of Bones is Victoria Schwab’s second book in the City of Ghosts series. It’s a middle grade set of books (so, slightly younger than young adult books – think for middle schoolers, or ages 11-13) about a girl, Cassidy, who can see ghosts and whose parents are professional ghost hunters. In the first book, she discovers that ghosts are still here because they haven’t been sent on for some reason – they died early and still have something that needs doing or were resistant to death or some other reason. Her power is the ability to bring them peace by sending them on. It’s not really made clear what “sending them on” means.

Here’s where I confess that I’m not much for the horror genre. I’ve read Stephen King, but I tend to skim the scary bits (I can do creepy, but outright scary is bad). This middle grade book, which has a ghost who is leveling-up to poltergeist status and can cause mayhem in the real world, is about my speed. Cassidy needs to learn the ghost’s story in order for him to be able to move on. She gets to spend some time with the ghost’s descendants learning who he was and what the circumstances were around his death – the main action of the book is this mystery: who is this person, why did he die, and how can Cassidy get better at what she does to she can stop the mayhem from happening.

I enjoy Victoria Schwab’s books, including her middle-grade. She does the right amount of creepy for me, even in her adult and YA books. And I am always here for a story about a girl kicking butt and figuring out what she’s good at. Tunnel of Bones is recommended.

Once again, a book not for Kates

I didn’t like How to Eat a Cupcake. I don’t know why – you’d think its lighthearted take on female friendship that takes place in San Francisco would be right in my wheelhouse. I love the kindness of the impulse of Julia reaching out to Annie to help her start her own small business, even if it is also a selfish way to try to become friends again. There’s tension there that should have been interesting.

But this was an unsatisfying first novel that ended up frustrating me more than anything else. There’s a mystery of what exactly caused the rift between Annie and Julia when they were teenagers; its pacing drove me nuts. And the switching of perspectives from chapter to chapter… I just don’t know. It bugged me.

This novel was clearly not for me.