Review of “The Taking” by Kimberly Derting

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Sixteen-year-old Kyra Agnew has a fight with her dad on the way home from a softball game, and insists he let her out of the car so she can walk the rest of the way. The next thing she knows, she wakes up behind a dumpster and it is five years later. She hasn’t aged a bit, but everyone around her has, and clearly time has passed for them even if it has not for her. Her boyfriend and best friend are off at college (and they are together now), her parents are divorced, her mom is remarried, and her dad seems to have gone off his rocker. Her only ally is her former boyfriend’s adorable younger brother, Tyler, who now looks a year older than Kyra, and who of course always had a crush on her. But Kyra’s “new” life is fraught with danger and mystery, nothing is what it seems to be, and except for Tyler, she doesn’t know who can be trusted.

Discussion: I like Kimberly Derting, although this first book of a new series displays some of the same flaws as her “Body Finder” series, such as an unrealistically perfect boyfriend. In addition, the science fiction/paranormal aspects are dangerously close to being over the top. Yet, in spite of these recurrent shortcomings, Derting has a talent for building suspense into the action that keeps you turning the pages. She also does a good job here of exploring Kyra’s emotions as she finds her whole life and even her identity turned upside down.

Evaluation: This book has an interesting premise, and the author a challenging job to make her plot conceit believable enough to be scary rather than something that only causes eye-rolling. I am intrigued to see how she continues this story in future books.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Harper Teen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

October is National Pizza Month (Or Not)

If you google “National Pizza Month” you will find a gazillion hits alleging that Congress designated this holiday in 1987. However, if you check through the bills passed by Congress that year, you will not find such a declaration. [You will, however, find all kinds of other designations, such as for a National Dairy Goat Awareness Week and a National Tap Dance Day and even a National Day of Excellence (wait: just one DAY?)].

But no matter: Congress should have done it, so we’ll celebrate anyway! Because approximately three BILLION pizzas are sold in the U.S. every year, two billion of them going to MY house.

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On average, every person in the U.S. consumes around 23 pounds of pizza each year. (Again, that average is skewed by the number of pounds eaten by my husband and me, and for that matter, by the number of pounds acquired by my husband and me after consuming all that pizza.)

The top 5 pizza sales days are Super Bowl Sunday, New Year’s Eve, Halloween, the night before Thanksgiving, & New Year’s Day. In our house, the top pizza consumption days are Saturday and Sunday (“treat days”) and then other days for leftovers.

In spite of the fact that this pizza consumption kills off some 252 million pounds of pepperonis a year, we don’t do pepperoni. Neither do we go for the pizza toppings popular in Japan, which include squid and Mayo Jaga (mayonaise, potato and bacon).

According to the Guinness World Records site, the most expensive pizza commercially available is a thin-crust, wood fire-baked pizza topped with onion puree, white truffle paste, fontina cheese, baby mozzarella, pancetta, cep mushrooms, freshly picked wild mizuna lettuce and garnished with fresh shavings of a rare Italian white truffle. Depending upon the amount of truffles available each season, the pizza is regularly sold at £100 each to customers of Gordon Ramsey’s Maze restaurant, London, UK.

We don’t do that kind of pizza either. We like lots of cheese. I like mushrooms and onions. Jim occasionally insists on an add-on of sausage because he, after all, was born in Chicago. But I insist on strict lines of demarcation between his half and mine. Here is a recipe I have used for a wonderful pizza. It is adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks: The Vegetarian Epicure: Book Two by Anna Thomas:

Basic Short-Crust Pastry

1 ½ cups flour
½ to ¾ tsp. salt
½ cup butter, well chilled
scant 1/3 cup ice water

Sift together the flour and the salt. Slice the cold butter rapidly and drop the slices into the flour. With a pastry cutter or two sharp knives, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse corn meal.

Sprinkle the ice water over the flour-butter mixture and stir it in very quickly with a fork, until the dough gathers together. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in wax paper or foil, and chill it for about 2 hours.

Makes enough dough for 1 large (11 or 12 inch) quiche shell.

Preparing the shell

On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough out in a circle about 2 ½ inches larer than your quiche pan. Roll the circle of dough loosely around your rolling in and unroll it over the quiche pan, centering it as well as possible. Press the sides in against the rim of the pan, pushing the extra dough down a bit to make an edge that is slightly thicker than the bottom. Trim the dough off with a sharp knife, about ¼ inch above the rim of the pan.

Crimp the ridge of dough neatly just about the rim of the pan. Prick the bottom of the shell all over with a fork, and chill the shell for ½ hr.

Prebake the shell in a preheated 450 oven for about 8 minutes, prick again with a fork, and return to the hot oven for another 4-5 minutes, or until the bottom of the shell begins to color. Allow the shell to cool slightly on a rack, then fill and finish baking according to recipe.

Cheese and Tomato Deep Dish Pizza

1 recipe Basic Short-Crust Pastry (or what the heck, buy it pre-made)
3 lbs. ripe tomatoes
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed or minced
¾ tsp. salt
½ tsp. dried basil, crushed
fresh-ground black pepper to taste
1 lbs. yellow onions
2 Tbs. butter
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
½ lb. mozzarella cheese

Prepare the short crust, line an 11-inch quiche pan with it, and prebake according to instructions above.

Chop the tomatoes coarsely, reserving their juice. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the garlic in it for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice, ½ tsp of the salt, the basil, and a little fresh-ground black pepper. Simmer this sauce, stirring occasionally, until it is reduced by about half. It should be quite thick.

Peel, halve, and thickly slice the onions. Saute them in the butter until they are golden and sprinkle them with the ¼ tsp salt.

Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the bottom of the quiche shell. Arrange the sautéed onion slices over it in an even layer. Cover the onions with the tomato sauce.

Cut the mozzarella in thin strips and arrange them evenly on top of the tomato sauce. Slice the olives off their pits and sprinkle the olive bits over the mozzarella cheese.

Bake the pie for 35 minutes in a preheated oven at 375 and serve hot.

Serves 6 to 8.

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Happy Quasi-Legal Pizza Month!!

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

Review of “The Stranger You Know” by Jane Casey

This book is the fourth in an excellent police detective series featuring 28-year-old London Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan, an attractive Irish woman trying to survive in a British, male-dominated police department.

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In this installment, a brutal serial killer of young women is stepping up his pace, and Maeve is invited to be on the task force. Superintendent Godley deliberately excludes Maeve’s partner, however – the difficult Josh Derwent, and at first Godley refuses to explain why. Maeve persists, especially because Derwent is badgering her, and she finds out that 20 years previously, Derwent’s girlfriend was killed in a way very similar to the current murders. Derwent had an alibi, but some on the team still suspect he was involved, and at the very least, the whole team feels Derwent will not be able to be objective.

Maeve finds Derwent obnoxious and exasperating, but still considers him to be “a brilliant copper” and furthermore, cannot believe he is a killer. She agrees to keep him apprised of the investigation on the q.t., and Maeve comes to learn there is more to Josh than she thought. Together, but mostly because of Maeve, they finally figure out the killer’s identity, after a number of very well-done red herrings.

Discussion: Maeve is a wonderful character, and in this book, Casey does an excellent job with filling in the contours of Josh Derwent’s personality. Not only do Maeve’s feelings toward Josh go through a big change, but she reaches a new level of understanding with her boss, and a new level of honesty in her relationship with her boyfriend Rob.

Evaluation: Casey has created a very likable series, with characters who seem like the real deal: multi-dimensional, emotional but capable of impressive feats of reasoning, insecure and overconfident by turns, and in short, every bit like people you might actually know.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Minotaur Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press, a member of MacMillan Publishers, 2014

Review of “The Marco Effect” by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Marco Effect is the fifth in a crime series centered around “Department Q,” a Copenhagen police homicide division handling cold cases.

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Carl Mørck is head of Department Q in name, but the cases actually get selected and moved along by Carl’s two assistants, the mysterious and very funny Assad, and Carl’s so-much-more than a secretary Rose. Interactions among the three of them are usually the highlight of the books, but this one excels in the crime portions as well.

Fifteen-year-old Marco Jameson lives with a cult/clan for which he is expected to fulfill a quota of pickpocketing every day. Marco wants a “normal” life; he wants to study, excel, and earn a legitimate wage. However, none of the kids have the freedom to leave, much less register any complaints. But when Marco discovers the body of a man presumably killed by his “family,” he knows it is time to escape – if he can.

Marco’s situation becomes an important thread of this surprising and clever story that begins in Africa and focuses on the very topical subject of the bank failures that rocked the economic world in 2008.

Discussion: We both read this book and had almost identical reactions.

First of all, we both loved it – it is a rip-roaring crime adventure – tense, full of narrow escapes, outstanding characters, and humorous interludes. In fact, of all of the Department Q books published so far, we both consider this to be Adler-Olsen’s best.

We also both agreed that while the author did not do so well in making this book a “standalone,” that didn’t matter to either of us; we are big fans of the Detective Carl Mørck series and have been reading them as soon as they are produced.

Finally, it should be noted that we both read this book during a trip overseas. I read it on the plane and hardly noticed the hours go by; Jim read it next, and by this time, we had reached Lucerne, Switzerland. But Jim wouldn’t even consider leaving the room to see the city until he finished the book and found out what happened. I’d say that’s a pretty good endorsement!

Evaluation: This thriller will not disappoint fans of the series!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Books USA, 2014

Review of “The Ship of Brides” by Jojo Moyes

This is a wonderful, memorable story and a fascinating glimpse into a part of history of which I was not aware.

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In July 1946, the British aircraft carrier HMS Victorious traveled from Sydney to take 655 Australian war brides of British servicemen to Britain where their husbands awaited them. More than 1100 men also were on board. These young women had married British servicemen serving in Australia during the war. When the author discovered that her grandmother had actually been one of these brides on the HMS Victorious, she resolved to create a story from it. She envisioned four young women from very different backgrounds who were thrown together in a small cabin for the journey.

Avice is a wealthy society girl, and “desperately disappointed” that her bunk mates have a lower social standing than her own. Maggie is heavily pregnant, and charming. She worries she won’t be a good mother, because her own mother abandoned her. Frances is a nurse, very quiet, and seems to be carrying a secret. And Jean is only sixteen, and probably married too young: she is wild, indiscreet, and not immune to the flirtations of the sailors.

The girls are guarded in the their bunks at night, and Frances becomes friends with the marine, Henry, who stands nightly in front of their door. Henry has received a devastating letter from his wife back home. But neither Frances nor Henry confide their secrets to one another.

As the story progresses, we become familiar with the tensions between everyone cooped up together on the ship. Some of the tension was among the brides, with Moyes especially picking up upon the class snobbery that prevailed at the time. There was also a sexual tension between the brides and the men. Many of these girls hadn’t seen their husbands since the night they wed them – in some cases several years before. And the men of course had been deprived of the company of women for quite some time. There was also tension coming from the husbands back in Britain: upon receiving word that their wives would be coming, some sent telegrams to the ship succinctly advising: “Not Wanted Don’t Come.” A woman about whom the message was directed was dropped off at the next port, where a representative of the Australian government would make arrangements for her to go back home. All the brides dreaded getting the call to the Captain’s office.

The Captain is close to retirement age, and “at sea” about what he is to do next. He is also plagued by a war wound that he dare not admit bothers him, but it has gotten so bad he fears for his survival. And now he has do deal with all these women, with their lingerie hanging to dry on lines around the ship, having to come up with entertainments for them, and the occasional trysting, and so on. Moyes limns him so well you can almost hear his heavy sighing as you read the book.

Although the voyage only lasts less than six weeks, some of the lives of those on board go through radical changes. Matters come to a head for the protagonists just as the ship nears the port of Plymouth.

Evaluation: The characters are so good – I felt sad at the end not to be able to hear more about them, especially Maggie and Frances. Moyes always makes me care about characters and think about them long after I finish a book by her. In addition, another of the ways in which Moyes is so excellent is that she always manages to throw complete surprises into what you assumed was a predictable plot. And finally, the exceptionally skilled way in which Moyes takes readers into that aircraft carrier so that we feel we too are experiencing every aspect of the trip is so rewarding – as Emily Dickens said, “There is no frigate like a book….” What a happy double entendre for this reading experience.

Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

First published in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton, 2005; published in the U.S. by Penguin Books, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “Me…Jane” by Patrick McDonnell

This Caldecott Honor Book tells the story of a little girl named Jane, who grew up to become the famous primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall. The story and illustrations are absolutely charming.

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McDonnell describes how Jane read books about Tarzan and Jane, and dreamed of a life in Africa, living with, and helping, all animals.

The author explains how at night, Jane would tuck her stuffed toy chimpanzee into bed with her, say her prayers, and fall asleep, to awake one day to her dream come true.

An “Afterward” by the author provides more background on Jane Goodall, followed by “A Message from Jane” about how each one of us can make a difference.

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The whimsical illustrations by the author (known primarily as the man behind the MUTTS comic strip), are simple cartoon-like images made with India ink and watercolors that have a charming, child-friendly appeal. I was reminded a bit of the drawings in the original Hugh Lofting edition of The Story of Dr. Doolittle, another book that Jane read over and over as a little girl. Occasional stamped images appear on some pages, and a few of Jane’s own sketches and drawings are included. The effect is very much like a diary or scrapbook. The actual photograph at the end of Jane joining hands with a real chimpanzee appears like a revelation.

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Evaluation: This book will inspire children to see that if they have a passion, it is not impossible for their dreams to come true.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2011

Review of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” by David Shafer

Three main characters in their mid-thirties, seemingly unconnected, become unwitting players in a control for online information. This edgy, dark but also comedic novel describes a potential dystopian state of affairs in which personal data becomes the property of large corporations, who want to use it as they wish, and sell it back to you for a price.

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Leila Majnoun is an attractive American woman trying to make a difference in health care in Myanmar, who inadvertently stumbles upon the U.S. Government involved in something she shouldn’t have seen. Leo Crane, a good-hearted but misguided and substance-abusing neer-do-well, has just lost his job as a preschool teacher in Portland, Oregon. And Mark Deveraux is a drug-addled, alcohol-addicted self-help guru in New York who has come to the attention of wealthy and powerful James Straw, the “squillionaire” of SineCo, a digital search-and-storage conglomerate.

SineCo is supported by a clandestine U.S. intelligence organization called the Central Security Service, or CSS, the mission of which, since 9/11, has been “to build and maintain the world’s supreme electronic intelligence-gathering apparatus and cyberdefense infrastructure.” The CSS uses a few private-sector endeavors for intellectual capital and leading-edge technology. In return, the CSS provides cover for the companies’ R& D “that, in order to be valuable and effective, must take place in zones unattached to a particular jurisdiction.”

With the help of the CSS, SineCo has formed “The Committee,” dedicated to privatizing any and all information found anywhere online, and putting it to their own uses. A secret counter-movement, called “Dear Diary” has also arisen to try and stop The Committee.

What Leila found in Myanmar was an operation run by The Committee. Even though she had no idea what she saw, she was curious about it, and emailed a few reporter friends with questions. This was enough for the CSS to arrange for her eviction from Myanmar.

Before leaving however, she receives a cryptic warning from Ned Swain. Ned is a CSS operative who has been a little shocked and disaffected by the increasingly nefarious direction CSS has been taking. He advises Leila to contact Dear Diary. Dear Diary is afraid that The Committee wants to do more than just influence the thought and language and culture and social order. They have seen documents indicating that The Committee is considering a “targeted genocide” program. In ten years or so, they will have collected enough biological and genetic material to have computers determine which five percent of the population should live so they can begin the world again with “Enhanced Humanity.”

With Dear Diary’s help, soon Leila connects with both Leo and Mark, and the three of them get involved in a scheme to help take down The Committee.

But Leila, Leo and Mark have to grapple with a critically important question: how do they know that Dear Diary won’t also turn into an organization like The Committee? As Mark points out, revolutionaries usually end up eating their children, or as he phrases it, “distributors always become the assholes.”

Dear Diary alleges it has a way to help keep its adherents honest, called “The Test.” All three of them take it, and it gives them a new perspective on reality, and on each other. But is it enough to save the world?

Discussion: This is one of the growing number of books in a genre that looks at the (invariably deleterious) repercussions of the proliferation of online information and diminution of privacy. It is similar in a way to Dave Eggers’ book The Circle, but this one is less allegorical. I like to wonder if it is more or less over the top than Eggers, but that’s because I like to pretend that these cautionary tales are all over the top.

There are some very funny satirical moments in this book, both subtle and overt – I especially loved the insider Proust joke. But I thought there was a bit too much rehashing of the main characters’ inner angst, and not enough development of some of the side characters, like Ned and James Straw, neither of whom I felt I really understood.

Evaluation: While this book just brushes the edges of being a thriller, I would categorize it more as political fiction, with a dark, satirical edge. Recommended for those who like to think about the possibilities for abuses of information collection and privacy.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2014

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