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.

Living not quite in the middle of nowhere

The Stranger in the Woods is the book-length tale started in the GQ article titled “The Strange & Curious Case of the Last True Hermit“, which I would recommend you read if you haven’t already. It’s about a man who makes the choice to live in a secluded clump of woods in a tent in Central Maine. For over twenty years.

I find this story fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, the practical side of me is honestly curious about how you survive Maine winters in a tent. It’s explained in the book but I still keep thinking “but could that really work? Really?” Two, there is an appeal to leaving the world behind, to get rid of sources of stress, to have the time to meditate and the ability to read so much of the time. Three, what you must have to go through to re-enter the world is incredible to think about. It’s probably like traveling to a whole new place and having to learn how to fit in again. Things are the same as before you left, but also completely different.

The Stranger in the Woods is an easy read and entertaining. Which seems like an odd and callous thing to say about a real, live person who is clearly going through some real, live stuff. Even if he did just decide to go, he was discovered and arrested and pulled back into the world not by his choice. While the book is easy and entertaining, I’m not sure it should be? Like, shouldn’t I feel his pain and suffering along with him as he slowly reacclimatizes to being around people?

I don’t know. Would I recommend it? Yes, as a starting place and a story. But no if you’re looking for a psychological profile that wants you to ask difficult questions.

Continuing Spooky Season

Truly Devious is the first book in a YA mystery series. Be forewarned that only two of the planned three books are out (the last one is scheduled for release in January 2020).

Stevie (short for Stephanie) Bell is a new student to the Ellingham Academy, a boarding school in Vermont that was founded in the 1930s. Shortly after the founding, Albert Ellingham’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and possibly killed. A culprit was found, but no one believes that he did it. Stevie wants to be the real Sherlock Holmes, and her mission at Ellingham Academy (in the present time) is to solve the mystery.

The past mystery is nicely mysterious, the setting of a secluded school without parents is handled in the best hothouse-for-bizarreness way, there’s a romance story that is very much not the point, and while there is also a current murder, it does get solved. So even though the past mystery is going to take three books to solve (probably), there is a sense of resolution and completeness to this book.

I enjoyed Truly Devious and have put the second book in the series on my hold list at the library.

A short review of a mystery that was… fine

The Chatelet Apprentice is a fine first mystery novel, doing a good job of introducing the characters, setting the scene of mid-1700s Paris (Paris is important because it puts our detective into glancing contact with King Louis XV), and generally easing you into a new mystery series.

That said, I had a terribly hard time getting into this book. It was a slow read the whole way through, and while it wasn’t bad, it was maybe more laid back than I wanted? I don’t know. It is translated from the French, and so, since it was written for the French market, maybe moves at a different pace? Or maybe I’m just not used to reading cozy mysteries and as a result am not used to them anymore.

Regardless, if you’re looking for a new mystery series or fiction books about historical France, try out The Chatelet Apprentice.

Carnitas

Carnitas has always been a bit mysterious to this white woman from the midwest. It’s delicious, yes, but could I tell you what’s in it? Nope. But! We found a recipe, and it turned out to be one of those recipes that was basically: put a bunch of ingredients in a pot and then walk away for a couple of hours. I can do that. Then we had some yummy tacos for dinner – plus leftovers.

3.5lb-4.b boneless pork butt, fat cap trimmed to 0.125″ thick, cut into 2″ chunks
2c water (we ended up using more)
1 small onion, peeled and halved
2T juice from one lime
1t ground cumin
1t dried oregano
2 bay leaves
salt & pepper
1 orange, halved

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300F. Combine all ingredients (1t salt, 0.5t pepper) except the orange in a large dutch over (the liquid should just cover the meat). Juice the orange into a bowl and remove any seeds. Put the juice and the spent orange halves into a pot. Bring to a simmer on the stovetop, then cover and put into the oven until the meat is soft and falls apart when prodded with a fork, about two hours.

Remove the pot from the oven and turn the oven to broil. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a bowl; remove the orange halves, onion, and bay leaves from the cooking liquid and discard. Place the pot over high heat and simmer the liquid until thick and syrupy, 8-12 minutes. You should have about 1c of liquid.

Using two forks, pull each piece of pork in half. Fold in the reduced liquid, season with salt & pepper to taste. Spread the pork in an even layer on a wire rack set inside a baking sheet or broiler pan. Place the sheet on the lower-middle rack and broil until the top of the meat is well browned but not charred and the edges are slightly crisp, 5-8 minutes. Flip the meat over and continue to broil until the other side is the same, another 5-8 minutes.

Serve immediately with tortillas & garnishes. (Potential garnishes: corn tortillas, lime wedges, minced onion, fresh cilantro, sliced radishes, sour cream)

An oldie but a goodie

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump, despite the 60-some-odd books on my to-read pile. (Hell, maybe because of the 60-ish books on that to read pile.) So naturally, I pulled Brideshead Revisited off the shelf. I mean, what better way to deal with a slump than reading Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece?

Because it is a masterpiece. It manages to be both silly and serious – the relationships between people are both lighthearted and the most important parts of our lives. This relationship – or rather these relationships that Charles Ryder has with both Sebastian and Julia Flyte, of the family that owns Brideshead, form who he is. I’d call it a coming-of-age story, except that it extends well into Charles’ 20s. Tonally, The Secret History owes it a debt.

If you’ve let this one pass you by, consider Brideshead Revisited. It’s worth your time.

Chicken Cacciatore

This chicken cacciatore recipe is an old one from the October 2000 Cook’s Illustrated. It’s one of the first things I learned how to cook, and has become comfort food for me. Pair it with some good bread, and this is a hearty meal that makes me feel at home.

8 bone-in chicken thighs (about three pounds, the thighs I got this time were HUGE and four were about 2.5lbs, so I just went with that)
salt & pepper
1t olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
6oz portobello mushroom caps, cut into 0.75″ cubes
4 medium garlic cloves, minced
1.5T flour (Yes, I used flour. Feel free to sub in cornstarch)
1.5c dry red wine (not merlot, nothing oaked)
0.5c chicken stock
1-14.5oz can diced tomatoes, drained
2t minced fresh thyme
1 piece parmesan cheese rind
2t minced fresh sage

Season chicken with salt & pepper. Heat oil in dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add four thighs, skin-side down, and cook until skin in crisp & brown, about 5 minutes. Flip and brown on other side, another 5 minutes. Transfer to plate, and brown remaining thighs, transferring to plate when they’re done.

Drain off all but 1T fat from the pot. Add onion, mushrooms, and 0.5t salt. Sauté over medium-high heat until moisture evaporates and vegetables begin to brown, 6-8 minutes. Meanwhile, remove and discard skin from thighs. Add garlic to pot, and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Add mine, scraping pot bottom to loosen brown bits. Stir in stock, tomatoes, thyme, cheese rind, and pepper to taste. Submerge chicken pieces in liquid and bring to boil; cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until chicken is tender and cooked through, about 45 minutes, turning chicken pieces halfway through cooking.

Discard cheese rind, stir in sage, adjust seasonings with salt & pepper, and serve.