January 30, 2017

Book Review: The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley

The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley

A lifelong passion. An endless search.

Spanning four generations, The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley sweeps from the glittering palaces of the great maharajas of India to the majestic stately homes of England, following the extraordinary life of a girl, Anahita Chavan, from 1911 to the present day . . .
In the heyday of the British Raj, eleven-year-old Anahita, from a noble but impoverished family, forms a lifelong friendship with the headstrong Princess Indira, the privileged daughter of rich Indian royalty. Becoming the princess's official companion, Anahita accompanies her friend to England just before the outbreak of the Great War. There, she meets the young Donald Astbury - reluctant heir to the magnificent, remote Astbury Estate - and his scheming mother.

Eighty years later, Rebecca Bradley, a young American film star, has the world at her feet. But when her turbulent relationship with her equally famous boyfriend takes an unexpected turn, she's relieved that her latest role, playing a 1920s debutante, will take her away from the glare of publicity to the wilds of Dartmoor in England. Shortly after filming begins at the now-crumbling Astbury Hall, Ari Malik, Anahita's great-grandson, arrives unexpectedly, on a quest for his family's past. What he and Rebecca discover begins to unravel the dark secrets that haunt the Astbury dynasty . . .

On the cover of the paperback of this book is a comparison that pushes all the right buttons: A sure bet for fans of Lauren Willig Kate Morton, or Maeve Binchy.” Since Kate Morton is one of my favorite authors, I had to read this novel for myself. It had all the right elements: dual narratives of past and present, a mystery, and a passionate and forbidden love affair.

Anahita’s story, told through a 300-page letter to her son is what captivated me, particularly the parts set in India.  As a young child, Anahita befriends the mercurial daughter of the maharaja and thus changes her life forever, leading her far from home to England. Many years later, she dies soon after her hundredth birthday, convinced with her last breath that her first born son did not die but was taken from her. She extracts a promise from her great-grandson to find out what really happened and so after some soul-searching, he flies to Astbury Hall, the great English manor at the heart of Anahita’s great tragedy. 

There he finds a movie being made starring Rebecca Bradley, an American movie star, as well as the current owner of the hall, Donald Astbury – a strange man with secrets.  All the discoveries leading up to this point is fairly intriguing but then the narrative unexpectedly plunged into Hitchockian territory that did not fit the rest of the book. While it was a surprise, the twist would have been more effective had there been a steady and consistent buildup over the course of the story. Despite the “happy” ending, The Midnight Rose was ultimately uneven and unsatisfying. Not the level of Kate Morton, more a faint taste.

January 25, 2017

Chocolate Chip Sandwich Bars

When you want to take your chocolate chip cookie game to the next level...

Just take your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, add a few more steps and the result is a warm, melty bar of epic deliciousness.  Set out on a plate and watch it disappear immediately.

Chocolate Chip Sandwich Bars


1 dark bittersweet chocolate Vahlrona bar (100 mg)
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
favorite chocolate chip cookie dough

1. Break up the chocolate bar into small pieces and place in a bowl with the sugar.
2. Heat the cream until boiling then pour over the chocolate pieces. Mix with a wooden spoon until all the chocolate and sugar have melted and it is well blended with the cream and smooth.
3. Let rest until cool for at least 2 hours before using.
4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Line the dish with parchment paper, leaving 1 inch of overhang on the long sides.

5. Press half of the cookie dough into the prepared baking dish. Pour the cooled chocolate mixture over the dough and spread evenly. Top with small dollops of the remaining cookie dough; don't worry if the dollops don't completely cover the chocolate mixture. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. Let cool completely before cutting into bars. 

January 23, 2017

Book Review: The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney

Source: Vine

Publication Date: January 24, 2017

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.

The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

I was intrigued by the premise but wary of the seemingly hyperbolic and now ubiquitous comparison to Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. But having been immediately hooked by the first few pages and feeling compelled to hide from life to finish this book - I would have to say that indeed if you enjoyed the above-mentioned books, you will certainly enjoy this one. What do they have in common besides "girl" in the title? The Girl Before is a domestic thriller with two alternating viewpoints, one, or both, of which might be unreliable.

Both Emma and Jane come to live, at different times, at One Folgate Street, a unique, technologically advanced residence with a very demanding and eccentric architect/owner. Applicants have to answer a battery of personal and provocative questions and have to be subject to hundreds of conditions if they are chosen. Conditions as draconian as not having any books, plants or pictures. The mysterious architect demands a minimalist life in exchange for living in his minimalist flat.

Both women are coming out of traumatic events in their recent past when they are accepted to live at One Folgate and as the weeks and months pass, the reader comes to recognize other eerie and haunting similarities between them. Both are headed towards a dangerous fate connected with the increasingly sinister architect who intimately enters both of their lives. Sprinkled throughout the books are questions from the rental application which seems to delve into the personality of the applicant, such as: "You are involved in a traffic accident that you know is your fault. The other driver is confused and seems to think she caused the crash. Do you tell the police it was her fault or yours?" The house, which uses the answers to these questions, as well as data collected from its monitoring of the residents, creates a tailored experience for each. Thus One Folgate itself becomes an omnipresent character and leaves the reader pondering the Faustian bargain of technological advances at the expense of privacy.

January 16, 2017

Book Review: Spark by John Twelve Hawks

Source: Vine

After a catastrophic motorcycle accident, Jacob Underwood woke up believing he was already dead. This unusual condition has a name—Cotard’s syndrome—and a surprising benefit: Feeling dead makes Jacob frighteningly good at his job. A contract employee of the multinational corporation DBG, he can now carry out his assignments with ruthless precision, untroubled by guilt, fear, dishonor or any moral conflict—the perfect skills for a hired assassin. When a bright young DBG associate vanishes without a trace, likely taking vast sums of money and valuable company information with her, Jacob will pursue her into a labyrinthine network of dark dealings which extend around the globe, and far beyond his understanding.

Spark is a fitting title for this novel in that it explores from various angles what it takes to be human. Jacob Underwood's been brain damaged in such a way that he believes his soul/spirit/life energy or "spark" has been liberated from his body or "shell." He can't bear to be touched. He feels no emotion. He has to look at photos of human faces with distinct expressions in order to decipher what emotions of people around him. He feels no compassion or fear. Which makes him the perfect hired assassin.

"...all my attachments have melted away. Yes, I can breathe and swallow and fire a handgun. In many ways, I resemble a human being. But there is nothing inside me. I'm filled with darkness."

The dystopian world depicted in Spark is as bleak as its antihero. There are cameras everywhere. Everyone is tracked by the government through a "Freedom ID Card" or a chip implant in their head. There is no privacy. Human behaviors are fed into algorithms. Act in such a way that is outside your pattern and you are flagged – as a potential criminal. Good as guilty.

What makes this world really scary is that the seeds of such a society have already been planted in reality. Google glass, NSA, Facebook – privacy is pretty much on its way to extinction.

"Both the government and large corporations were monitoring email and credit card transactions. Surveillance cameras were everywhere, plus people were walking around New York making continuous videos with their G-MIDs because they wanted to remember every moment of their unmemorable lives. A great many facts flowed through the total information database, but the real power of the EYE came from the algorithms that identified individuals, tracked them, and placed them into different categories."

Technology has advanced to the extent that many jobs are now being handled by nubots or robots that appear and act like humans. There is a correlation here between Jacob and the nubots. Is he more robotic than human because he lacks emotion? What makes Jacob human at all?

That question is answered in a rather predictable way. After efficiently executing routine assignments of "neutralizing" problems on orders from his boss, he gets an order to do a hit on Emily Buchanan. This assignment changes everything and "sparks" a change within Jacob, igniting his long-buried humanity to life and perhaps more. The ending is such that it leaves room for a sequel.

January 11, 2017

Flemish Pot Roast

My dad has an ancient newspaper cutting of this recipe. I could never figure out what made it particularly Flemish, only that this is amazing on a wintry, stormy day. Filling, hearty and delicious - I get a hankering for this roast every winter like clockwork. Here I use lamb chops with the bone in but the original recipe calls for chuck roast cooked for 2 1/2 hours instead of the 2 hours here.  I love simmering it with the bones because it enhances the already rich flavor.



4-5 lbs lamb chops with the bone in
1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion sliced
1 lb of crimini mushrooms sliced
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp flour
1 12-oz can of beer
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp vinegar
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
1 large clove of garlic, minced

1. In a Dutch oven, saute onions in 2 tbsp. butter until translucent.  Set aside on a bowl and mix in flour.
2. Saute sliced mushrooms in 1 tbsp butter over medium heat for five minutes.  Also set aside on top of onions.
3. Brown the lamb chops in the olive oil.
4. Pour beer over the meat and bring to a boil. Add onions, mushrooms, brown sugar, vinegar, garlic and salt.  Cover and let simmer for about 2 hours, or until meat is tender.
5. Take meat out of the Dutch oven and onto a large plate or cutting board. Separate the bones from the meat.
6. Let the liquid simmer uncovered for 7-10 minutes or until it has reduced. 
7. Put the meat back and spoon some sauce over it. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

January 9, 2017

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Publication Date: January 10, 2017

Source: Vine

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles nearer, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a stunning literary fantasy. Set in medieval Russia (when exactly I am not sure), Arden’s vivid writing brings to life various Russian fairy tales, including Vasilisa the Beautiful, and old folklore about invisible spirits found in nature.

Our Vasilisa is not exactly beautiful; in fact, she is described as ugly, but full of irrepressible curiosity and fearlessness. She is a bit feral and hard to contain in her proper place as a young woman. Predictably, she frequently gets in trouble. Strong and independent, she is also different from everyone else in one key way – she sees and interacts with the spirits guarding her family’s house, stables, the river and other places – spirits which no one else can see. Except for her stepmother, who is convinced that they are demons. Vasilisa befriends these spirits but gets blamed by the fanatical new priest in the village for all the terrible things that start happening.

Although Arden’s detailed grasp of Russian culture and history enhances the core story, I found that there were chapters that seemed extraneous. There is a lengthy digression to events that seem to only peripherally involve Vasilisa, including one about her brother that I thought was going to gain in significance but did not surface again.  These parts could have been excised for a much tighter narrative that focused on our protagonist’s journey.

Despite these chapters, however, I found The Bear and the Nightingale to be an immersive experience – I could almost feel the chill of a Russian winter as I read.