Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book #14: Heist Society

Heist Society by Ally Carter is another YA novel that I found via a publishers' webinar hyping its forthcoming sequel. The premise sounded intriguing: teenager Katarina Bishop used to be a thief--it's what everyone in her family excels at--but after being wrongfully expelled from her boarding school, she returns for one more heist. This heist is different, though: instead of stealing for gain, she's stealing already stolen goods with the hope of returning them to their rightful owner--and hopefully saving her con man father in the process.

At the most basic level, Heist Society is a good heist story. Throughout my reading I was constantly trying to be vigilant about possible clues to all the intrigue, and I was almost always questioning if I (and Kat) knew the whole story and whether certain characters were actually trustworthy. The story goes even deeper, however, as it starts to negotiate what we call ownership when it comes to cultural artifacts in this modern world--especially when it comes to cultural artifacts that were spoils of war. Despite being a generally feel-good, good-vs.-evil story, the novel doesn't underplay or oversimplify its secondary themes. That fact is definitely to the author's credit.

I'd suggest this book to readers who enjoy a good YA heist or spy novel, who enjoy realistic fiction set outside the traditional high school setting, and who enjoy Ocean's Eleven movies.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New meal: Indian Almond Chicken

I had a hankering for Indian food the other day, and despite by recent discovery that at least one of the three Indian places near my house does deliver (!), I opted to pull out my copy of Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni and plan to whip something up myself.

Despite the fact that I've had this cookbook for well over two years, I haven't made that many recipes from it. Deciding to try something new, I selected the first recipe I opened to: Chicken Smothered in Aromatic Herbs and Almonds, otherwise known as Badaami Murgh. Ms. Sahni has yet to lead my astray, even when I tweak her instructions to better suit my pantry, tastes, and amount of free time for tinkering in the kitchen. And tweak I did, until my final version looked like the recipe below. I ate it over brown rice with a wheat flat bread, and the warm spice of the surprisingly creamy sauce and the tenderness of the chicken made for an exquisite meal.

Indian Almond Chicken
based on Julie Sahni's Badaami Murgh
  • chicken breasts, cut into manageable, bite-size pieces
  • 5 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper, or to taste
  • 1 14-oz can petite diced tomatoes
  • 1/2 c hot water
  • 2 tbsp almond butter
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the onions. Over medium-high heat, fry the onions until they start to turn a light brown (15 minutes); make sure to stir them almost constantly so they don't burn. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for an additional 2 minutes, again stirring constantly to prevent burning. Add the garam masala and ground cloves, stirring until everything is well mixed.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the chicken to the pan. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the chicken has lost its pink color and has started to sear. Add the cumin, turmeric, and red pepper and mix, then add the tomatoes, water, and almond butter. Bring everything to a boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer the chicken, covered, for about 50 minutes, at which time the chicken should be thoroughly cooked and tender. Stir frequently during this time to keep the sauce from sticking and/or burning. If you notice too much liquid is evaporating from the sauce, add a few tablespoons of water. Turn off the heat and let the dish rest, covered, for at least 1 hour.

When you're ready to serve the chicken, thoroughly heat it up again and check for salt. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days--in fact, says Sahni, this time to meld actually improves the overall flavor. Yum!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Popular Book Reviews

I've been talking for a while about how I have come to loathe popular book reviews. Everyone seems to review the same books--the NYT, Time and Newsweek magazines, all of the morning shows... Yes, I know that one major reason for the ubiquity of just a handful of the books published each week has at least a bit to do with the advertisement budgets and clout of major publishing houses. But that doesn't mean only the most expensive-to-produce books with the most PR behind them should be the only books the public reads and hears about each week. If I read another review for Jonathan Franzen or a book with the word "tiger" in the title, I may just scream. Or complain some more to whomever will listen.

As a librarian, I know there are all sorts of interesting, quality books that come out every week that suit a huge variety of literary tastes--not just the hardbacks with muted jewel-toned dust jackets or another memoir about someone who thinks he/she did something sometime (probably involving at least a short trip to Asia). I would encourage people interested in finding some of the less over-hyped new books out there to visit the library. Most libraries have pretty impressive "new books" sections, where you can see the latest titles in any and every genre. Most libraries also subscribe to journals like Booklist that will provide you with even more and diverse book reviews that you'll find most other places. Please, don't let the homogenization of book reviews turn into the homogenization of literature. Read any book that sounds interesting, regardless of its potential premature appearance on the major bestsellers' lists.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book #13: The Ghost and the Goth

I picked Stacey Kade's The Ghost and the Goth as my most recent 2011 book after hearing its forthcoming sequel mentioned in a webinar I attended a few weeks ago. The premise of this YA novel appealed to me because it is a paranormal-themed novel without being too paranormal--really it's realistic fiction with a paranormal element central to the plot. Not being a huge paranormal fan, I thought I'd give it a try.

I wasn't disappointed. Kade's writing includes some really funny dialogue, especially between two main characters Alona Dale and Will Killian. Alona, who was at the very tip top of the popularity chain at her high school, finds herself dead after being hit by a school bus. For reasons unbeknownst to her, she doesn't "move on"--rather, she roams the school with other ghosts, and none of the other students who were so recently her minions can see her. None, that is, except Will, who has the gift/curse of being able to hear the dead. Unfortunately for him, this ability has translated into his mother and shrink thinking he's schizophrenic, and he has a hard time relating to people at school amidst all of the dead voices that only he can hear constantly filling his ears. Will is what Alona would have called a social zero when she was alive--but can they help each other? That's the premise of the book, and it will continue into a sequel to be released in May of this year.

The Ghost and the Goth is a quick read thanks in part to Kade's witty characters and quick-paced chapters, and the book deals with several larger themes than the perhaps run-of-the-mill YA paranormal fiction. Sure, there are some romantic elements to the story, but there are also great opportunities for contemplating how no one's life is perfect, the risks and benefits of telling the truth, and the real meaning of friendship in a cut-throat high school world. I'd suggest this book for readers who enjoy YA realistic fiction, for those who are hesitant to try some YA paranormal fiction, and for those who enjoy some clever dialogue.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New meal: Chicken Parmesan

When she and my dad visited a few weeks ago, my mom told me about a chicken parmesan recipe she'd tried out to great success at home. What with spring break and general busy-ness, I didn't have a chance to try it out for myself until last night, when I made it for dinner with the roomie.

I used the recipe from Joy Bauer for Healthy Chicken Parmesan and Broccoli as my template with a few adjustments to better suit tastes and time considerations. Instead of making a pasta sauce as per the recipe, I used Muir Glen Organic Tomato Basil Pasta Sauce--it's a bit chunky, has a great herb flavor, and blended well with the flavors of the chicken. I also opted to make a bit of linguine to serve with the chicken, and I cooked the broccoli florets in the pasta water for the last 3-3 1/2 minutes that the pasta needed to cook.

I suppose this recipe is a bit more labor intensive than some people might like for a weeknight recipe, but everything was actually very simple. I found it relaxing to pound the chicken breasts and then dredge them in the flour-egg-breading mixtures, and the actual cooking time for the entirety of dinner (chicken, pasta, veg) was barely 12 minutes. Now that I've made the recipe once, I'm sure I could do it more quickly during future preparations. Regardless of the time, though, this was one tasty dinner.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to heat up some leftovers for my lunch.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Some fun library links

  • Looking for an interesting bookshelf to spruce up your living space? These babies do the trick!
  • Interesting art showing in a particularly literal way how books support us in life? Yup.
  • Do you wish you were in a classics book club, complete with thought-provoking questions, optional activities, and background resources? PBS's Masterpiece has come to your rescue.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book #12: One of Our Thursdays is Missing

Book six in Jasper Fforde's brilliant Thursday Next series is everything I and other Fforde fans could have hoped it to be--punny, well-plotted, metafictional to the nth degree, clever, &tc. &tc. Mixed in with both the characters I've grown to love and plenty of new, attention-worthy folks and robots are all the madcap, intellectually mind-bending constant goings-on that one would expect of Fforde. Plus the best line I've read in a book in quite some time:

"Well, pretend to be a soldier and elope with my ward."

How awesome is that?

As the title One of Our Thursdays is Missing would indicate, Thursday Next has gone missing. Somehow the written Thursday, generally content with her role in the BookWorld, becomes involved in trying to unravel the intricate plot that could potentially mean war between genres Racy Novel, Women's Fiction, and Dogma. With elements of conspiracy and psychological thriller both literally and figuratively part of the action, I was just as bewildered as Thursday most of the time (how did she cross that bridge?). Yet every moment of Thursday living up to her namesake and kicking but is pure enjoyment, and I loved the additional details about the BookWorld that Fforde works in throughout, as well. I suggest bookjumping into this new Fforde at the earliest possibility.

I'd suggest this title to fans of Fforde, fans of Terry Pratchett, literature students who need to have more fun with their studies, and any readers with a desire to get even further into the stories of their favorite books.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Some interesting library-related links

Well, I've been applying to jobs like crazy, which means I haven't had quite as much free time for reading as I'd like. I'm in the middle of the newest book from one of my favorite authors right now; it's hilarious as expected, and you should expect a synopsis and review in a few days tops.

Until then, check out these interesting library-related links from this week's ALA e-newsletter:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book #11: The Imperfectionists

Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists is billed as a novel, but it reads more like a collections of interconnected short stories. The setting for the whole book is an English-language international newspaper based in Rome; all of the characters are somehow associated with that paper. Each chapter focuses on one character and delves into some seemingly-mundane and ordinary aspect of everyday life--reading the paper, going on a business trip, the spillover from work to home life. Separating the chapters are short vignettes of various moments from the newspaper's inception to its demise, documenting the ambitions of the paper and the less lofty reality of its accomplishments.

This book is incredibly well written; I even got occasional whiffs of Hemingway in the tone and in the descriptions of things that remain unwritten. What struck me most about The Imperfectionists, however, is just how imperfect all of the characters are. Perhaps "imperfect" isn't even the most precise word--these people are sad or angry, and they largely keep themselves from ever being really happy. For me only one of the chapters seemed to be uplifting; the rest left their characters with a sense of doom, a sense that they had just created for themselves a really unpleasant reality.

It almost seems that Rachman's theme is that while humans are capable of being happy, we tend to ruin all prospects for achieving our own happiness through some means or another. Maybe it's just that I don't see life that way, but I found that overall theme rather depressing. The book was very enjoyable in terms of its strong and elegant style, but overall it was quite a downer. I'd suggest this title for readers who are looking for a more forlorn cast of characters, for readers of short stories, and for anyone looking to read very well-written fiction regardless of content.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book #10: The Lost City of Z

I first heard mention of David Grann's The Lost City of Z this summer while I was in London; on a visit to the Royal Geographical Society, one of the librarians mentioned that Grann did quite a bit of his research for the book using their collections. I've been trying to read more nonfiction as of late, and I figured an exploration adventure would likely please.

And please it did! Grann's book delves into some of the history of Amazon exploration as he gets to his central figure, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett. Grann recounts Fawcett's upbringing and early military career in Ceylon, establishing a basis for the reader to understand the adult, seemingly-fanatical explorer as Fawcett is remembered. See, Fawcett believed wholeheartedly in that Victorian idea of plotting all of geography on a map. His interests were in the Amazon jungle, a place where state borders weren't even firmly established prior to Fawcett and his travels. Fawcett was most definitely a sturdy man of tough constitution: he survived numerous expeditions into the harsh Amazon jungle where many of his travelmates met with horrible (and vividly-described) diseases--and worse.

Perhaps to his detriment, however, Fawcett also believed wholeheartedly in there being a lost city somewhere in that jungle. Not El Dorado of legend, per se, but a separate bastion of complex South American civilization that Fawcett dubbed, cryptically, Z. All of Fawcett's later expeditions were in pursuit of this city, and he eventually vanished while purportedly seeking it out.

Grann explores all aspects of Fawcett's life nearly as thoroughly as Fawcett explored the Amazon, peppering in details about that grand Age of Exploration, the development of the discipline of anthropology, and some of Fawcett's more idiosyncratic beliefs. He also continues the Fawcett story after Fawcett disappeared, ultimately making the trip into the Amazon himself.

I was captivated by the rich descriptions of the Amazon that Fawcett and Grann both experienced, and I found the biographical details of Fawcett very fluidly weaved into the story of his explorations. Some of the actual content was perhaps more graphic than I had expected (think maggots, venom, and cannibalism), but every detail helped to portray the Amazon as the alluring yet formidable opponent it has been for so many explorers. I'd suggest this book for readers who enjoy nonfiction about the 20th century, about exploration, or about unsolved mysteries; readers who like a good adventure story; and readers who have some crazy notion to explore the Amazon on their own.

New meal: Herbed Balsamic Chicken with Blue Cheese

I recovered from a rather bad case of strep throat in just enough time to fulfill my roomie dinner duties this week, thank goodness. I had found a tasty-sounding chicken recipe that used all ingredients I had on hand (which usually does not happen for me!), so I decided to give this Herbed Balsamic Chicken with Blue Cheese recipe from Bon Appetit a go.

I didn't make quite as much chicken as the recipe calls for (because it's just me, the roommate, and a meal or two of leftovers), and I adapted the recipe to cook the chicken in the oven instead of on a grill. I set the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and after about 22 minutes my average-sized chicken breasts were cooked all the way through. I stuck them back under the broiler once I'd put the blue cheese on top to get that melted, and the whole thing came out moist, tender, and delicious.

I served up some lemon butter potatoes and green beans on the side; for that dish, I modified a Deen Bros. recipe (replace oil with butter and garlic with lemon zest). The whole well-balanced meal tasted (and looked!) fantastic and colorful.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My Mutant Gerbera Daisy

I had only stopped at the store to get chicken to make tonight's dinner, but I couldn't pass up on something as strange and wonderful as this potted gerbera daisy plant!