Getting into the meat of the mystery

Waistcoats and Weaponry

What’s it about?
Waistcoats & Weaponry follows up on Etiquette & Espionage and Curtsies & Conspiracies by furthering the plot of what exactly the macguffin is for. The macguffin in the series allows machines to transmit signals to other machines – something that could be used for either good or evil in a steampunk society. The mystery is which group is driving its production and what it will use it for. Waistcoats & Weaponry is diving into these questions as well as providing its usual fare of strong girls having adventures.

Why should you read it?
You should read it because the series continues to be a fun piece of work. Some of the class issues in Victorian England are brought to the forefront. Our heroine is flirting with both a viscount and a “sootie” – someone who feeds coal into the steam engines that everything needs to run in a steampunk world. She clearly prefers the sootie, but he knows that they cannot be together precisely because of his station in life. It’s handled very practically, I thought, for something that could be terribly dramatic. Overall, another good read.

Chicken Soup for Lunch

Chicken Soup with Kale & Carrots

This recipe – Chicken Soup with Kale and Carrots – is all right. It’s certainly easy, if a little time consuming, just because you’re making the stock from scratch. However, it’s a little bland. I made it a week ago and have been heating up the leftovers for lunch. I should have added more salt & pepper when I made it, I think. Overall, though, it’s a filling, healthy lunch.

Chicken Soup with Kale & Carrots (from It’s All Good)

1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 large leek (I used 2) roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, roughly chopped
1 large carrot, roughly chopped + 2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 yellow onion, quartered
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs thyme
0.5t black peppercorns
2t salt
1 bunch kale, leaves stripped off stems in bite-sized pieces
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the chicken, leek, celery, roughly chopped carrot, onion, bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns and salt in a large soup pot and cover with water (~10c). Bring the soup to boil over high heat, then reduce to simmer for about 2 hours. Strain the stock and pull out the white meat (I used both the white and dark meat, you can use just the white and reserve the dark for another use. However, pulling just the meat out wasn’t the easiest thing in the world and further separating light from dark just wasn’t going to happen.) Dice the chicken meat. Add to soup along with remaining carrots and the kale (I also threw in a handful of brown rice.) Simmer for an additional 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt & pepper.

Breakfast quinoa, now with kale

breakfast quinoa


I’ve dubbed this Breakfast Quinoa. The recipe is from It’s All Good, and it’s a filling, simple, delicious start to my day. I actually don’t mind eating Kale!

1T olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
2 leaves kale, sliced thinly, stem removed
0.5c cooked quinoa (I often cook up a batch of quinoa on Sunday and leave it in the fridge through the week for this and for salads)
salt & pepper

Heat olive oil and garlic in a small skillet over medium heat until oil is shimmering. Add kale and cook until just slightly wilted – it should look to be a really bright green. Add quinoa and cook until just warmed through. Add salt & pepper to taste.

Serve with an egg in some form: hard-boiled, scrambled, poached, whatever. I prefer hard-boiled because it’s easy when I’m bleary-eyed in the morning. This recipe makes just enough for one.

It’s not about the running

What I Talk about When I Talk About Running

What’s it about?
Haruki Murakami is a novelist who also runs marathons. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running are his thoughts about amateur long-distance running as they relate to fitness, writing, and life. His prose is careful and elegant and is a delight to read.

Why should you read it?
You should read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running because of its elegance. I would be a runner if my left foot would just heal from plantar fasciitis already; his thoughts about getting older and continuing to run are inspiring. He writes a lot about focus and acceptance that you don’t have the energy that you used to – there’s a whole meditation about talent vs focus and concentration. It applies to more than just running. That said, I think you’ll like the book more if you’re also a runner. It’s definitely worth your time.

Sometimes a strong heroine having an adventure is enough

curtsies & conspiracies

What’s it about?
Curtsies and Conspiracies is about nothing, but that’s ok. I mean, there was a plot – the macguffin from Etiquette & Espionage is elaborated on and there are some interesting embellishments on  vampire culture in alternate steampunk Victorian Britain. But otherwise? It’s still about the setting: a young girl at a finishing school, having adventures.

Why should you read it?
Because it’s the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage and you didn’t want that one to end. That’s why you should read it. You do also learn the identity of the handsome rake the main character danced with at her sister’s coming out ball. That said, this book is definitely a sequel – it doesn’t stand on its own. But it’s a good continuation.

It’s never as black and white as you think it is

beautiful creatures

What’s it about?
Beautiful Creatures is about a very weird girl, Lena Duchannes, in a very conformist small town. It’s told from the perspective of Ethan Wate, a local boy who is instantly taken with her. Lena is magical and will be chosen to be either Light/Good or Dark/Evil on her sixteenth birthday. It’s all or nothing in this particular world. Lena and Ethan use their cunning and her powers to attempt to ensure that she will not go Dark.

Why should you read it?
Honestly, I wouldn’t. It wasn’t a do-not-finish for me, but it’s heavy-handed. Making your main character an instant outsider (like Lena) or an insider-who’s-hiding-his-outsiderness (like Ethan) is a great way to make your literary reader identify with them. It feels like a cliche. And then there’s the whole dark-light magical thing. The world only feels like it’s black and white; it’s really full of gray. The grayness is not as revolutionary as Beautiful Creatures wants it to be. It’s the first in a series I won’t be continuing.

Rethink what winter symbolizes

The Snow Child

What’s it about?
The Snow Child is an expanded retelling of a Russian fairytale about a childless older couple who builds a snow girl one wintery night. The snow girl comes to life, but then gets too warm in the spring and  she melts. In this version, the older couple is homesteading in Alaska in the 1920s; they are estranged because they’re both bottling up their feelings about the fact that the only child they were ever able to conceive was stillborn. But once their snow girl, Faina, comes to life, they open up as well, with each other and their neighbors. Faina stays several years, disappearing in the summers. She grows up, and you start to think that maybe she’s not magical, maybe she’s just a girl (and then a young woman). Maybe.

Why should you read it?
Look, I almost put The Snow Child down in the first thirty or so pages, the language and symbolism was all about winter == old == death and depression. It was effective and I almost couldn’t take it. But get through that, and you’ll be rewarded with a tale about a family who learns to share their emotions and how to be friendly. They become fuller people through love, which sounds schlocky and sentimental but it’s done delicately and gracefully. The balance with winter white and sparseness and elegance is done well. Overall, a very good book.

Proper manners and adventure, thank you very much

Etiquette Espionage cropped

What’s it about?
Etiquette and Espionage is about a fourteen-year-old girl in an alternate steampunk Victorian universe. She is, of course, uncouth and adventuresome. She also, of course, gets sent to a finishing school to become a proper young lady. Said finishing school will also teach her to be a spy and assassin. There’s a macguffin being chased to provide a plot, but this one’s mostly about the setting.

Why should you read it?
It’s charming! It doesn’t take itself seriously (there are werewolves in top hats for crying out loud) and it has a sense of humor. Plus, I am always a fan of young women taking control of their lives. The only major theme that should be called out is: appearances matter. What you look like makes a difference. It’s presented, though, as a tool: if you want people to think you are from the country (as opposed to the city) you shouldn’t be wearing the latest fashions. If you dress like a slob, people will make assumptions about your competence. Form is function, to a degree. This doesn’t detract from the book’s appeal though – there’s no objectification going on, and it fits nicely. Overall, a winner.

Telling tales

cruel beauty

What’s it about?
Cruel Beauty is a retelling of beauty and the beast, though the beauty isn’t very ladylike or proper. But that’s ok because I don’t think many people will identify or enjoy a main character who is ladylike or proper. The setting is a magical island that has been cut off from the rest of the world. Literally – there’s a barrier that even blocks out the sun. A girl has been promised to the beast. The book begins with her marrying him in abstentia – she’s there, he’s not – and then heading to his castle. They don’t spend that much time together, but there is a mystery to be solved and an adventure to be had.

Why should you read it?
It’s a fun quest story, that’s why. Fairy tales retold are the fashion these days (wow, there’s a sentence that makes me sound like my grandmother). Cruel Beauty turns Beauty and the Beast into a more overt quest than it is – the beauty leaves/chooses to go to the beast’s castle, he takes her captive, they become friends, then they figure out what made the beast turn ugly, fix the problem/fall in love, watch as he becomes not a beast, and they live happily ever after. This story emphasizes the fix the problem part of the story. It’s fun. Definitely recommended for when you want something light.

More mystery than murder

big little lies

What’s it about?
Big Little Lies is a murder mystery in that someone dies and the story is ultimately about putting the world back together. But it’s not structured like a typical mystery: the death isn’t until almost the end, and the world keeps getting messier and messier until suddenly it’s not messy at all. It’s about a group of parents who all know each other because their children all go to kindergarten together, and how they all relate. It’s not a heavy book, but I was expecting something even lighter going in. (I blame the cover.)

Why should you read it?
It’s a good story, that’s why. It’s well told, it’s gripping (I stayed up late to finish it), and it made fun of school politics from the parents’ point of view. School politics always deserve to be made fun of. I like this trend of writing more books aimed at working parents that treat the parents as people who both love their children and want to have lives of their own. I’m avoiding writing about the murder mystery part of the book because I don’t want to spoil it, because I suspect many people will read it. It’s very well done.