Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bone Dancing, Blood Dancing

Last year we ran a series of posts on Jonathan Gash's Bonn/Burtonall series, but neglected to post the reviews of the final two books. Today, we correct that oversight. To catch you up, here's where we left off:

Book 1: Different Women Dancing
Nik's Review: Different Women Dancing
Jay's Review:  Different Women, Different Reader, Different Review
Book 2: Prey Dancing
Nik's Review: Prey Dancing
Jay's Review: Book Musing: When Characters Seem Too Old
Book 3: Die Dancing
Nik's Review: Outta My Head
Now on to the final two!

Bone Dancing

Available on Amazon: Bone Dancing
So here's a thing. I was quite happily working my way through Bone Dancing, the fourth book in Jonathan Gash's Clare Burtonall series (though I still maintain that it's misnamed, as she is more bystander than protagonist), when I suddenly had a bit of a shock. 

You see, there's one particular sequence I remember from the books (they are indeed unusually memorable). Rack, the main fixer of the seedy world of crime, is refused protection money by the new manager of a car showroom, so he has the entire stock stolen. It's almost peripheral to the story, just a lovely vignette of life in the shadows. 

So, there I am, lapping up the book, when I suddenly realize that I'm virtually at the end and it hasn't happened yet. After a bout of confusion and concerns of incipient senility, I come to a joyful conclusion. 

I'd misremembered. There aren't four books in the series, there are five.

Yes! A whole other book to enjoy! So I suppose that this post should have a subtitle:

Blood Dancing

Available from Amazon: Blood Dancing
The final book (so far, I live in hope) is a real cracker. Not only does it have that sequence that has stuck with me, but Clare Burtonall finally seems more integrated than she has since the first novel, even though the previous book appeared to leave her cast out by her underworld associates. The plot centres around a vigilante wreaking lethal justice on paedophiles. And why not. Well, the why not and its resolution is the core of the story, and it's great. I expect the book is now hard to come by, but it is well, well worth the effort. 

I still have a minor grumble over continuity. There's a definite disconnect between the end of Bone Dancing and the start of Blood Dancing. At the end of Bone Dancing Clare has been cut-off from the underworld syndicate, and given the track record of everyone else who's suffered that fate over the course of books, she's lucky to do so alive. But there's the suggestion that Bonn, her hired lover, will take her as his live-in woman. 

By the start of Blood Dancing, though, there's almost been a reset back to business as usual. Maybe Gash found that the change was too restrictive on the storytelling, I don't know. It certainly didn't lessen my enjoyment of the book, but it's a small niggle nonetheless. 

This is one of my all-time favourite series of books. Please, please, Mr Gash, write another one?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Orphan Stories

When I was a kid, my dad often sent me and my sisters off to sleep with tales of The Meanest Man in the World. Although I can't recall the exact words, it always started something like this:
"There once was a man," he'd begin. "Was he a green man?"
"NO!" we'd shriek.
"Was he a lean man?"
"Was he a keen man, a bean man, a metal machine man?"
"No," he'd continue, his voice so quietly sinister I used to get goosebumps. "No. He was a mean man, The Meanest Man in the World."
Then the night's story would start. Oh, he was mean alright (the Man, not my dad!), with a particular penchant for torturing orphans. Not Hannibal-Lecter-style torturing, but psychological mind games. 

Like the time he delivered a beautifully-wrapped package to the orphanage, bedazzled with ribbons and bows and sparkle and glitter. It was the first present the orphan had ever received, and was so incredibly stunning that the orphan just stared wide-eyed for hours. When he finally set about to unwrapping, he painstakingly removed the trimmings one-by-one, each more glorious than the next, and put them aside carefully (no doubt to relive this wondrous event over and over). 

As he peeled back the layers he wondered with anticipation, what riches lay inside? A toy, perhaps? He'd never had a toy. Or maybe sweets? He'd heard of something called chocolate, where a single bite could fill one with joy. Or maybe a small puppy to love and to hold and to be his friend forever? He'd never had a friend. He almost dared not think it. 

The last layer was off and all that stood between him and his heart's desire was the cardboard lid. His heart was pounding and he could scarcely breathe. He closed his eyes and slowly lifted the lid. Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and looked inside.

Any guesses on what he saw?

Anyway, decades later, I'm still drawn to orphan stories. Thanks to a recent discovery by Nik (I Judged a Book by Its Cover) I've had the pleasure of reading two absolutely fantastic orphan-themed books by Baltimore author Laura Amy Schlitz.

The first is Splendors and Glooms (titled Fire Spell in the UK). My local library had it filed away in juvenile fiction, but it definitely transcends this age group. The other, released a few years prior, is A Drowned Maiden's Hair (filed under Young Adult, presumably for content as the writing style is less complex than Splendors.) Both feature orphans pressed into service by not-particularly-nice adults. And both feature the deliciously creepy specter of long dead children who shape and influence events.

A Drowned Maiden's Hair tells the story of Maud Flynn, orphan and troublemaker, who's adopted solely to help her benefactors, the sisters Hawthorne, conduct fake seances for grieving parents. At first just happy to be out of the orphanage, Maud soon is torn between her desire for affection from her adopters, and her growing uncomfortableness with the deceit. 

There's a great supernatural element that I love, woven in with very real human emotions, both good and bad. I enjoyed Splendors just a tiny bit more, but both are excellent choices for a shivery read.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

To Serve Man

My oldest son was almost eight and we were at the small, local airport to see my mom off for her trip back to New York. The queue at the security line was long, way longer than usual, but people were laughing and smiling and didn’t seem at all grumpy.* My well-traveled child studied the situation for awhile, experienced enough to know that happy, waiting passengers were something of an oxymoron, then (never one to hold back), turned to me as he pointed to them and shouted (way too loudly for an airport), “Mom! Mom! It’s a …COOKBOOK!!”

Funny kid.

cookbook, mark bitumen
Great book at a great price! Less than $20 on Amazon. Buy here!
The same line went through my mind when I received my latest Amazon purchase in the mail this week. If ever there were a time to yell, “It’s a cookbook!” this would be it. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is a massive tome:  over 2 inches thick, 1000+ pages, and nearly 5 pounds.  I’d been stalking the price for some time and when it dropped a few bucks I decided to spring.

But does it truly tell one how to cook everything? My oldest, now almost 11, put it to the test:
“Chicken pot pie?” Check. 
“Hazelnut brownies?” Check.
“Crème brulee?” Check. 
“Hmmm, I guess it really does have everything. Good job, Mom.”
I’m only a couple of chapters in so far – Kitchen Basics  & Sauces – but what I’m really loving about Bittman’s approach is that it’s more of a cooking tutorial than simply a collection of recipes. He includes of course the basic ingredients and preparation instructions, but also explains, where relevant, how to choose ingredients, why they work together, and how to create almost endless numbers of variations.

He also includes recipes I would’ve never thought of making from scratch – like ketchup and coconut milk.

Each chapter starts with instructions for what he terms Essential Recipes: basic recipes that every home cook should know. For example, in the section on grains, the essential recipes cover simple cooked grains, basic pilafs, fried rice, and couscous – the types of cooking that, with a little practice, won’t require a recipe at all.

There are tons of tables in the book, too – lexicons with descriptions and uses for basic ingredients and also mix-and-match charts for recipe variations. The idea is that once one’s mastered the basic recipes, a few simple guidelines can help to create a huge variety of dishes.

I’m looking forward to donning an apron and delving in this summer. My sons and I put in a small vegetable garden in the back yard, and have allied with our neighbors to form a barter-based co-operative (basically a table where we can all trade our excess veggies).  Bittman’s section on vegetables is mouth-watering: layered tortes and Asian stirfrys; outdoor grilling and curried everything. So many options it’s almost overwhelming, but I’ll start from the basics and go from there. Wish me luck!

* The date was 02 May 2011. News had just been released that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. 

Spoiler Alert! To Serve Man is a 1962 Twilight Zone episode in which suspiciously nice aliens – the Kanamits – come to Earth to assist mankind. Aided by their trusty book, “To Serve Man,” they do all sorts of nice things to make us safer, happier, and healthier….and tastier…

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why One Should Never Teach a Child to Read….

Kindle edition only $1.99!
A former work colleague of mine once said that there was nothing more terrible and terrifying than that moment in life when one’s child has become a proficient driver and one is relegated to the passenger seat. I think that there is something on a par: and that’s when one’s children begin to recommend books…
“Have you read this, Daddy?”
 “Well, yes, but not since I was three”.
“Why don’t you read it now?”
“Well, I have other things to read now”.
“Did you like it when you were three?” 
“Well, yes I think I did”.
“Why don’t you read it now if you liked it?” 
etc etc
Now that my children are a bit older, it’s becoming harder to completely dismiss their recommendations, particularly as I spend so much time recommending things for them to read, and in some instances we’re now reading the same books (Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games…). 

I grew up reading Doctor Who books from the original TV series. Loved them at the time, they were a staple of my childhood. When the series stopped the books kept going, and became geared towards an older readership as the readers themselves grew up. Now the TV series is back, the books are again for a younger age group, and they’re a bit simplistic for me these days. However, they have started publishing the occasional book by fairly prominent sci-fi authors that are a bit more demanding and challenging. So when my elder daughter recommended The Silent Stars Go By, by Dan Abnett, I thought it was worth a go.

Turns out she was right! I went through this book in a couple of days, and really enjoyed it. OK, it’s a fairly straightforward tale, but it’s well written and certainly not dumbed down. One notable thing is that Abnett absolutely nails the style of the dialogue from the TV series, to an extent that one wonders if this were in fact a near-miss script. It’s also a neat touch that the Chapter titles are lines from Christmas carols.

So, one for your kids, and maybe for you too on a cold night.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Download Chapters 1-3 FREE
from Amazon!
I have always adored the work of Ray Bradbury. I first came across him through the TV version of The Martian Chronicles, something completely different in terms of TV sci-fi.  The book was even better, and from that I moved on to his other novels and short stories. Bradbury was so prolific that even now and I can into a bookshop and stumble across something of his that I'd never read before. 

Ray Bradbury is no longer with us, and is a real loss to literature. This week, though, I came across the closest thing to a successor. 

I've also enjoyed the work of Neil Gaiman. My first encounter was his collaboration with Terry Pratchett in Good Omens, the wonderful spoof on The Omen where the Antichrist gets accidentally swapped for another baby in the maternity ward. Tee hee. I particularly like Stardust, and the film is great, too. 

But this time I'd just worked through the Christmas pile (yes, I know, but it was a big pile this year) to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Starting it was like reading Bradbury all over again. A fantasy novel that could almost be true, with things we don't understand living just a few doors away. 

Gaiman can cut deeper with his prose than Bradbury did, and can make the reader uncomfortable in a way that's not my favourite feeling. But on the whole he restrains that here, and the result is a lovely, rich and rewarding read. 

Don't wait for next Christmas to get hold of a copy. 

Download Chapters 1-3 FREE from Amazon!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reaching a peek of despair

Here's the latest instalment in my "just because the spell check is OK doesn't mean it's the right word" series.

"sneak peak"

Which one can only assume is a particularly untrustworthy Alp.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Writing, My Ass

I’m not a good dieter. I don’t like tracking calories or eating from restrictive food lists or ingesting lab-created zero-calorie chemicals. But nor do I care for the way mindlessly inhaling chips (brain food, you know) while writing has dramatically increased the size of my ass. Dilemma.

That’s why I’m drawn to the 5:2 Diet. Unlike conventional weight loss plans, the 5:2 requires dieting commitment only 2 days per week. Yep, just 2 days. And on those 2 days one can eat absolutely anything one wants – chips, chocolate, champagne* – as long as the total calories for the day is less than 500 (600 for men). So there is some measure of calorie counting, but it’s minimal compared to most diets. Plus, following this sort of intermittent fasting can potentially forestall all sorts of age-related diseases.

Calorie counting twice weekly I can cope with, but “diet foods,” I cannot. Partly because they’re gross, but also because I’m trying desperately to shed my role as a short order cook in which I prepare a different meal for each member of the family. Having at least some of us all enjoying the same foods for at least some of our meals clears up a tremendous amount of time. (All of you who regularly partake of the same meal, well, bully for you.)

Buy from Amazon: Only $.99
So with these thoughts swirling in mind – the size of my ass, writing, brain food, cooking – Nik and I took a short break from our novels and put together a cookbook of 5:2 Diet friendly recipes. The focus is on real ingredients and tasty meals, the type of recipes that don’t feel like diet foods. Muffins, waffles, breakfast casseroles, and my absolute favorites, eggs benedict and huevos rancheros. Stuff that at least one of my sons will eat (both of them if it’s muffins).

We’ve got plans for another handful of cookbooks, too. Writing up the recipes is a nice mental diversion for when my characters start wandering about aimlessly, waiting for me to give them direction (they’re as bad as children, I swear) when I’m mired down with other things. And although I have some ways to go, developing healthy, low calorie recipes has really helped to focus on better nutrition during the writing process.

So stay tuned for book two, we’re hoping to release it by the end of May.

In the meantime, here’s a bonus recipe that I’m betting will bring even my youngest to the family breakfast table:

Chocolate Chip Pancakes

Makes: 8 pancakes
Calories: 140 calories in 2 pancakes (about 88 g per serving**)

The key to keeping these pancakes light and airy is the beaten egg white. Use an electric mixer and whip until stiff peaks form.

2/3 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
½ Tbsp. sugar
2 egg whites
2/3 cup milk, fat-free
1/8 cup mini chocolate chips
Spray oil

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar, then add the milk and whisk until very smooth. In a separate bowl, sprinkle the egg whites with a pinch of salt and whip into peaks. Fold the egg whites gently into the batter, stirring until just blended. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Spray a griddle with cooking spray and heat to medium. Pour a scant ¼ cup of batter per pancake and cook.

* If you want to blow your calorie allotment on chips, chocolate, and champagne, here's what you get for 500 calories:
  - Chocolate: About 3-1/3 ounces
  - Chips: About 3-1/3 ounces
  - Champagne: About 23 ounces (5.5 flutes)

** How much is 88 grams? Well, one serving of frozen waffles (2 waffles) is about 70 grams and 180 calories. So two of these pancakes are about 25% more food, but with about 20% less calories. And way tastier!