Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book 4: Death of a Snob by M.C. Beaton

Through being an English major, working in publishing and going to library school I have discovered an interesting thing about most serious book lovers: they have some sort of semi-secret trashy tendency. For some its romance novels, for others it is crime thrillers, or sci-fi. But almost every person I have met seems drawn to one genre of "pop" fiction or another. These are the kinds of people who will happily discuss Goethe or Delillo for hours, however, when they think no one is looking, they pick up a mass-market paperback. I do not exclude myself from their ranks. I love detective novels. This is a subject I briefly touched on before. When I am sick, stressed, or traveling I will always pick up a few.

This being the end of the semester with all the projects and presentations that always entails, I skittered over to the library and selected a few mysteries for my (scant) downtime. One of the titles that caught my eye was M.C. Beaton's Death of a Snob. It had a title reminiscent of an Agatha Christie book, and a quick review of the book jacket showed that it looked like a pretty classic type of detective tale. Contemporary detective stories seem to rely too much on science or technology for my tastes, I like a detective who is happy to use his or her brain. Death of a Snob seemed right up my alley.

Death of a Snob
centers around Detective Hamish Macbeth, who lives in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. It is almost Christmas, Hamish thinks he is dying from the flu (when all he really has is a mild cold), and his family has asked him not to come for the holidays as an American aunt who can't stand him has made a surprise visit. He is miserable. But a solution for his desolation arrives in the form of Jane Weatherby, a glamorous divorcee who thinks someone is trying to kill her. She is the proprietor of a health spa on a remote Scottish island, where the locals are anything but friendly. As a solution for both of their problems, it is agreed that Hamish will come to the spa for the holidays to investigate. The spa is closed for the winter, but is not empty as Jane has invited some friends and acquaintances to join her for Christmas. Among this unusual lot are a couple of farmers with a shocking secret, Jane's bitter and wealthy ex-husband, a social climbing couple who have fallen on hard times, and a well-meaning cookbook author. Hamish slips into their presence under an assumed name and occupation, and proceeds to look into Jane's concerns. The group does not gel well, and after a particularly nasty afternoon, one of the party disappears and is later found dead, have hit (or been hit with) a large rock, and tumbling off a small precipice. The circumstances make it seem as though the death was an accident, and as it is Christmas, the local police are willing to write of as such, but Hamish is not willing to let the issue be settled so easily. With the assistance of Harriet, the cookbook author, he dives right in.

I liked Death of a Snob, very much, up to a certain point. The period up to the murder was excellent. The mounting frustration of the entire group at the spa was palpable. The characters were perfect for this sort of novel. Interesting, light, and all slightly off. No one could escape suspicion completely. However, after the murder, the plot takes a bizarre and unsatisfying turn. It as almost as though the first half of the novel was pointless. Hamish is a charming main character, both warm and quirky, and I would be happy to give M.C. Beaton another shot sometime in the future. But as for this particular novel? It was ruined by an overworked second half and too much effort in trying to keep the identity of the murderer a huge surprise.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Apple-Cranberry Scones

Following along the cranberry theme, here is a recipe for apple-cranberry scones I adapted it for fall from the delicious basic scone recipe of Sara Foster of North Carolina's Foster Market:

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound (3 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 1/2 cups chopped and peeled Granny Smith apples
1 cup dried cranberries
1 heaping tablespoon ground cinnamon
Egg wash: 1 large egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk or water

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Lightly grease 2 baking sheets and set aside.

3. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.

4. Add the butter and cut it into the flour mixture using a pastry blender or 2 knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. (Or use a food processor fitted with the metal blade to cut the butter into the flour mixture by pulsing 10 to 12 times. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl to continue making the dough.) Do not overwork the dough.

5. Add the apples, cranberries, and cinnamon and mix lightly.

6. Add 1¼ cups of the buttermilk and mix until just combined and the dough begins to stick together. Add the remaining buttermilk one tablespoon at a time if the dough is too dry.

7. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll or pat into two 6-inch rounds, about 1½ inches thick. Cut each round in half, then cut each half into 3 triangles (pie-shaped wedges) and place on the baking sheets. Brush the tops with the egg wash.

8. Bake 30 to 35 minutes, until golden brown and firm to touch. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.

Serve with Barry's Gold Blend Irish tea, butter, and jam. (I recommend Stonewall Kitchen's Orange-Cranberry Marmalade.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Cranberry Tea

One of the things I most look forward to about this time of year is homemade Cranberry Tea. My mom has made it for years so I have no idea where the recipe came from, but it is awesome!

Cranberry Tea

-1 10 to 12 oz bag of cranberries
-1 heaping Tbsp whole cloves
-1 cinnamon stick
-3 quarts water

Combine cranberries, water, cinnamon and cloves in a dutch oven. Set stove on high, and allow water and ingredients to boil. Wait for all the cranberries the cranberries to pop, then strain out cranberries, cinnamon stick and cloves. Mash in strainer to get out all juice. Then add:

-juice of three lemons
-juice of 2 oranges (or 1 cup orange juice)

Mix and serve. It is pretty tart, so keep some sugar handy so people can add to taste.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Birds and Baking

Thus far, I have only touched on one area of the title of this blog: books. But I (finally!) got a new computer today, so hopefully the other two elements (and maybe even a few more) will be showing up on here really soon.

Book 3: Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman

I don't care about the prizes a book wins, or the reviews it gets. What I want most in a novel is a great story. It is the reason I hate really stark, bare-bones type books. It is the reason I so enjoyed Alice Hoffman's Turtle Moon.

Turtle Moon takes place in Verity, Florida, a town chock-a-block full of divorced women from the northeast who are escaping not only from the cold, but also their sad pasts. The story begins in the month of May, which is considered by all the inhabitants of Verity, to be the most horrible month of the year. It is the month turtles crowd the streets and sidewalks and crunch beneath car tires. It is the month the heat and humidity make everyone's hair frizz and tempers flare. It is the month behaviors change and unusual things begin to happen. It is the month the unhappiest and unluckiest man in Verity was born, and also when an accident happened that changed his already tragic life. It is the month when a young mother, with a mysterious past is murdered, her baby girl kidnapped and their miserable twelve-year-old neighbor runs away from home. All of these circumstances come together to create a fantastic tale of love, loss, pain and redemption.

Hoffman is a masterful storyteller and legend in the field of magical realism. She deftly uses the magical elements, as well as the swampy, foggy setting to lend the story a dreamlike quality. Her characters are strong, well-developed and consistent. Once I started the book, I could not put it down. I rapidly became invested in the characters, their lives, and their futures. My only real criticism is that I feel Hoffman dropped the ball on one of the secondary character's threads. To go into much detail about it would ruin the resolutiuon of the book, but suffice it to say, the answer to a major question is discovered, then the thread is just dropped with no real punishment for the perpetrator. The only follow-up Hoffman offers is one word: "karma". In the end her story does not find all the characters totally happy, but they have all grown and changed, and in that way it feels right.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book 2: Real Murders by Charlaine Harris

This past week I have had the flu, and the week before my laptop died. So I have had a lot of free time on my hands. With this time I pretty much just slept, watched tv (46 episodes of "How I Met Your Mother" in two days!), played Tetris on my cell phone, and read. Since I was feeling pretty rotten, I did not have the attention span or energy to read anything terribly complex or serious. Over the summer, I spent a couple of weeks devouring Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse/ Southern Vampire series, now better known as the "True Blood" series, the HBO show is (loosely) based on.

I love a good mystery. I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie novels. When on vacation, I still gravitate towards this genre. I previously hadn't read any other of Harris's novels outside the Sookie set, so I thought I'd give one of her other series a try. I selected the Aurora Teagarden series for a couple of reasons. 1) The protagonist is a librarian in a small southern town (just like I hope to be!) and 2) The first book in the series was available at my favorite used book store.

Real Murders
begins with the meeting of a group of people who enjoy studying famous murders from throughout history (such as Lizzie Borden or Jack the Ripper) with an academic eye. As the regular monthly meeting is about to begin, Aurora Teagarden notices one member is missing, even though her car is in the parking lot. Upon investigating the rest of the building Aurora finds the missing woman brutally murdered in a manner that replicates the murder the group was meant to discuss that night. A murder spree thus begins, all of the killings mimicking real life murders from the past. Signs point to different group members, leading up to a shocking finale. All the while, Aurora is trying to balance her job, two potential love interests, and her growing fear that she might be the next victim.

I rather enjoyed this book. Harris is a fun and competent writer. I noticed it with the Sookie books, and I breezed through Real Murders in one afternoon. Aurora is a pleasant character. Not perfect, gorgeous or glamarous in anyway, but kind and intelligent. The story itself was nothing revolutionary, but kept me guessing. It was more grisly than I was expecting, though, since I usually tend to read older, less gory mysteries. Also, Aurora is not much of a detective. She happens upon the crime scenes more than she actually investigates. Despite those minor complaints, I would certainly pick up the second book in the series.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Book 1: Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

I first read a Nick Hornby book in high school. As a sixteen-year-old girl living in the suburbs of a midsized southern city in the US, I could hardly be considered the target audience for Hornby's humorous sadsack variety of "dick lit." But I savored every word of High Fidelity. Perhaps it was because I was a sixteen-year-old girl that I identified so readily with such a melodramatic, romantic protagonist. I also really, really like lists.

Since then I have read all of Hornby's works, both fiction and non-fiction. As a whole, I find I enjoy his non-fiction more. The fiction tends to get bogged down in the characters' own sullenness and petty natures. Whereas when Hornby is writing in his own voice, he is generally more humorous, optimistic and warm, even when writing about difficult topics such as his son's autism.

As for his fiction, I loved both High Fidelity and About a Boy, enjoyed Slam!, and pretty much just wanted to shake all the characters in A Long Way Down until they got their heads out of their own asses. How to be Good was so wretched I prefer to forget I even read it. I suppose I continue to read and get excited about his books because I know that when he is on his game, he does realistic comedic novels better than almost anyone else out there. I can't help but hope for another About a Boy.

I picked up his newest work, Juliet, Naked, with some justifiable trepidation. It is a story of three pretty miserable people: Tucker Crowe, a once semi-famous musician who walked out on his career while it was at its peak with no explanation, and now finds himself with no career or ambition and half a dozen failed marriages and half-forgotten children; Duncan, a college professor who has been obsessed with Tucker Crowe and his music for nearly twenty years; and Annie, Duncan's longtime girlfriend who is beginning to wonder if she has wasted her whole life on a man she has little interest in, a career that bores her, and living in a town that is dying a slow death.

After a previously unreleased demo of Tucker's greatest album, "Juliet", finds its way to Duncan and Annie's doorstep, the cracks in their relationship become too clear to ignore any longer. Around this same time, Tucker begins communicating with Annie via e-mail after she posts a scathing (and in Tucker's mind, deservedly so) review of the new album now known as "Juliet, Naked" on the Tucker Crowe fanpage. From this point forward, the lines between the characters begin to shift, diverging and crossing where previously they had not done so.

It took me a couple of days to decide whether I liked this story or these characters. In a lot of ways I'm still not sure. Tucker's only true redeeming quality is his relationship with his six-year-old son, Jackson, the only one of his children he has not, nor will ever, abandon. I finished the book yesterday, and I barely remember Duncan. Annie, though, is the biggest puzzle to me. She yearns for a child, for a family, for something to prove that her life has not been a waste, but she seems to do little to change her situation. Well, I guess thinking back on it, that is not true. She makes some major changes to her life, and takes a few pretty substantial risks. The changes she makes just don't seem to move her all that far in any direction. None of the characters or plot lines are resolved by the end of the novel. This is both comfortingly realistic and totally frustrating. Hornby is one of those authors who likes to end with an ellipsis rather than a period. I like not knowing how it will all end up. There is something too artificial about having everything resolved and perfectly tied up in a little bow, but at the same time, after 400+ pages I want to feel as though I got somewhere, and with Juliet, Naked? I don't think I did.

Monday, November 2, 2009

RIP laptop

Well, after having my lovely little laptop for nearly 5 years, it quietly passed away last Thursday. This has not helped my starting this little project. Neither is it helping me to get my school work finished in a timely manner, nor keep up with my favorites websites. I am sad to see it go, especially since I did not have any of my files backed up.