Saturday, April 30, 2016

Recommended Reads, April 2016

(Insert standard cliche here about the year flying by, can't believe it's May tomorrow, etc.)

I finished 11 books in April, three of which I'm recommending today. And unlike last month, none of these are deep into a series where you'd need to read at least three other books just to know what's going on!

Let it Shine by Alyssa Cole

This is one of the finalists for this year's Rita Awards in the novella category, and IMHO it's extremely worthy of the honor. It's an interracial romance set in the 1960's South with a black heroine and a Jewish hero, both of them active in the Civil Rights Movement, and it's so romantic and moving, and feels so complete despite its short length. And, in a way, it made the history from ~10 years before my own birth feel more real to me than all the serious nonfiction I've read, or that college class on 1960's protest movements, just by reminding me that most of the men and women involved were very young, with all the personal dreams and passions that entails, none of which stop just because you're fighting for justice and earning a place in history.

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey

I wasn't expecting much when I picked up this book--I was mainly looking at it to see if it was accurate and interesting enough to be worth giving to my 12-year-old daughter as part of my ongoing plan to trick her into becoming a history geek like Mama and generally get a little more American history into her than the Seattle Public Schools seem to be bothering with. (I have a whole rant on that. Seattle schools are actually quite good as big city public schools go, but thus far my 6th grader has learned almost no history in school. And how do you expect kids who don't have history geek parents to even learn the basics, much less develop the nuanced understanding of how our past informs our present they need to be wise citizens and voters?)

Anyway, I ended up enjoying this book a whole lot myself for being the kind of nuanced lens on history I think we need more of--it uses Lincoln's address to look at slavery and racism, states' rights, and the ongoing tension between those rights and the need for a strong federal government, both before and after 1863.

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz

Half 21st-century travelogue, half 18th century history, and a wholly compelling read.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Recommended Reads, March 2016

I know I've been neglecting my planned weekly recipe and making-me-happy posts--currently the issue is I've caught yet another Doom Cold, one that's had me laid up since last Saturday night.

I am, however, starting to improve, at least enough to sit up at the computer for a few minutes to pass along my recommended reads from March, in the order I read them:

Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

The final entry in Hines's Magic Ex Libris series. If you haven't read any of it yet, you'll want to go back to the beginning and start with Libriomancer. And if you're a fan of the series but hadn't realized this book was out, now you know.

It's hard to say much about a book deep in a series without giving too much away, but the general concept is our contemporary world, but with magic fueled by the shared belief of readers in fictional worlds--i.e. a magic wielder could pull Lucy's healing cordial from the Chronicles of Narnia, the invisibility cloak from the Harry Potter series, and so on. If that sounds intriguing to you, you'll most likely love these books.

The Horse by Wendy Williams

If, like me, you were the kind of kid who read all the Black Stallion books and all your hometown library's Marguerite Henry (my favorites were King of the Wind and Black Gold because RACEHORSES), you'll love this book. Especially if, also like me, you have a lifelong interest in evolutionary biology and like to keep up with its latest developments. Maybe a narrow target market after all? But if you're in it, read this book.

Chaos Choreography by Seanan McGuire

Like Revisionary, I only recommend this book if you've read what's gone before--it's Book 5 in a series about a family from a society of monster hunters gone rogue after they realized that not all, nor even most, of said "monsters" were actually deserving of slaughter. Instead, they're cryptozoologists, who study and protect the cryptids of the world, but with plenty of action fighting their old monster-hunting colleagues and such cryptids as really do pose a threat. The books are funny, playful, fast-paced and exuberantly inventive. If you're a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Sleepy Hollow (especially in its crazy-good Season 1 incarnation), you need to read these books. Start with Discount Armageddon.

This latest entry returns to Verity, protagonist of the first two books, after spending Books 3 & 4 with her brother Alex, and IMHO it's the strongest story yet. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wednesday Recipe - Chili-Cheese Mac

I've missed a couple weeks of poking recipes, mostly because I've been feeling a bit guilty about the fact I ended up bailing on my Lenten vegetarianism back in the second half of February when I got sick and never summoning the willpower and the momentum to get back to it. Maybe next Lent? Maybe later this spring or in the summer when there's a greater variety of fresh fruit and vegetables to make meatless eating more fun?

So this week I'm linking to one of my go-to recipes from Cooking Light, Chili-Cheese Mac. It's quick, easy, soothing comfort food with just enough extra spice to keep it from being too bland.

My modifications:

  1. I rarely use 3/4 lbs. of ground beef. It's just an awkward amount for an ingredient that usually comes in 1-pound packages. I either use the whole pound or just half, if I happen to be making something else that week that calls for a half pound of it.
  2. I don't use reduced-fat cheddar cheese because IMHO it's disgusting. So my version is a bit higher-calorie. (I do, however, use the reduced fat cream cheese.)
Don't get me wrong, this isn't anything fancy. Unlike the last 2 or 3 recipes I've posted, I wouldn't serve this one for company. But if you're looking for something simple and reasonably nutritious for a weeknight dinner, I recommend it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Making Me Happy 3/11/16

This week I'm going to do it--I'm NOT going to use this post to rave about Sleepy Hollow or Hamilton.

Instead, I'll start by saying the thing that is making me happiest of all this week is that I just heard that a Facebook friend of mine--not a super close friend, but a former coworker--just got her first pathology results following chemo and a mastectomy for breast cancer that was caught at stage 3. They came back NED - No Evidence of Disease. Take that, cancer, you evil beast! You can't kill us all! Not today!

Other happy-making things:

I've started writing original fiction again for the first time in over a year--specifically, the interracial, Alabama-Auburn, just-how-much-can-I-starcross-these-lovers contemporary romance I occasionally bring up on Twitter. I'm just tiptoeing back in, but the characters and voices are starting to come alive for me.

I'm signed up for my first of three planned 5K's this year, on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend, and I'm planning to start training for it next week, now that it's going to be Daylight Savings Time and I'll be able to run after work.

And since I want to share at least one thing that's something my readers can go out and experience for themselves, I'll talk about one of my favorite board games. My husband, you see, has become absolutely obsessed with board and/or card games. Mental challenges! Family togetherness! Entertainment for friends! While I tend to be happier with games like Taboo, Trivial Pursuit, or Cards Against Humanity that focus more on knowledge or wordplay, I'm learning to enjoy--and occasionally even win--some of Mr. Fraser's favorites. And one I'd like to recommend as a perfect combination of easy to learn but varied enough to offer continued challenges is Splendor.

You're a Renaissance gem merchant. Your goal is to out-compete the other merchants by stockpiling gems to earn prestige points, with bonuses in the form of "visits from nobles" that vary from game to game.

So if you and your family or friends enjoy board games, by all means give this one a try. It's also available as an iPad app, one that I find useful for unwinding at the end of an evening.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Making Me Happy, 3/4/16

Happiness Friday!

If I'm not careful, these posts could turn into a broken record of "Susanna loves Hamilton and Sleepy Hollow." But Sleepy Hollow has really hit its stride, not quite to Season 1 levels of awesomeness but solidly entertaining, ever since it came back from its midseason hiatus. If you've ever been a fan or are thinking of trying it, you should watch to improve its chances of getting renewed for Season 4.

And this song from Hamilton, wherein Hamilton helps Washington prepare his farewell address, has been much on my mind as we move through the election process. (Something which is NOT making me happy. I don't think I've ever been as scared by my own country before. People! Please. Vote courage. Vote compassion. Vote civil liberties. Vote for a generous, open-hearted, open-minded America. History has its eyes on us.)

This particular performance is at the 2015 George Washington Prize Dinner at the Gilder Lehrman Institute, hence the modern suits instead of colonial costumes:

"One Last Time" from the musical Hamilton from The Gilder Lehrman Institute on Vimeo.

And, fanfic being fanfic, because both of these obsessions of mine are rooted in the American Revolution, someone wrote a crossover. (Actually, several someones.) As an added bonus, it's quite well-done: Don't Be Shocked When Your Hist'ry Book Mentions Me. Basically, Crane and Abbie follow a lead that takes them to a crypt under Trinity Church in Manhattan, where they find Hamilton--the real historical one--in a state of suspended animation similar to what allowed Crane himself to come back to life in the 21st century. The newly revived Hamilton steps into modern Manhattan a couple months into the musical's run, leading to this gem of an exchange toward the end of the first installment:
“I scarcely recognize it,” said Hamilton, looking up and down the street at the changed face of the city. Grief settled over his features, once again. “What sort of place could I have, in such a world?”
A bus came to a stop just past them, pulling up to the corner. It had Hamilton’s face plastered over its side, near ten feet tall, with his name in letters half as big.
“What on earth,” Hamilton said, staring.
“Apparently there’s a play? A new one. On Broadway,” said Abbie.
“I want to see it,” Hamilton said immediately.
Abbie pulled out her phone, and after a minute’s tapping her eyebrows went up. “It’s sold out,” she said.
“The next performance, then,” said Hamilton.
“It’s sold out until May,” said Abbie.
“Ha!” said Hamilton. For the first time he looked a little less distressed. “I don’t suppose Madison could sell out a play for so long.”

There! Next week I have to think of something to be happy about other than Sleepy Hollow and Hamilton. Maybe. I hope.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Wednesday Recipe - Pasta with Red Wine Sauce

Another vegetarian recipe for a Lenten Wednesday, this one from Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks at Home: (Slightly adapted because I think the timing works better if you get the sauce mix going while waiting for the pasta water to boil.)

Pasta with Red Wine Sauce
(4-6 servings)

- Salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 T minced garlic
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1 pound spaghetti
- 1 bottle red wine
- 1 T butter

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Place the oil, garlic, and red pepper in a large, deep skillet and turn the heat to medium-high.

2. As soon as the garlic begins to brown, sprinkle it with salt and pepper to taste and add 3/4 of the bottle of wine. Bring to a boil and maintain there.

3. When the pasta water begins to boil, add the pasta. When it begins to bend (after less than 5 minutes of cooking), drain and add to the wine mixture. Cook, stirring occasionally, adding wine a little at a time if it threatens to dry out completely.

4. Taste frequently. When the pasta is done, stir in the butter and turn off the heat. When the butter melts, serve immediately, topped with Italian parsley and parmesan cheese if you'd like.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Recommended Reads, February 2016

I missed last week's recipe and happiness posts because my daughter and I have been fighting the Lingering Cold of Doom 2016, and I spent from Tuesday night through midday Sunday doing as little as possible. This illness, however, led to me getting more reading done than I expected in February, a total of 15 books.

Here are my favorites from those books, in the order I read them. As far as I know, none were actually February releases--I'm rarely quite that up-to-date in my reading--but if your curiosity is piqued, they're all available as ebooks and/or at your local library.

Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

A memoir of faith by an unconventional Lutheran pastor (her congregation is the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver) that was the perfect read for me at the beginning of Lent. It follows the rhythm of the liturgical church year--which is a big part of what drew me from my very non-liturgical Baptist roots all the way to the Episcopal Church, that whole sense of following an ancient rhythm and set of traditions to mark the patterns of the year--and also features the life-affirming grace and humor that have been a source of joy to me as a newbie Episcopalian. (Episcopalians and Lutherans have wildly different Protestant origin stories, but at least in America have grown quite a bit alike, so there's a certain similarity in style and approach, and our congregations often work together.)

The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher

I'd never read anything by Butcher before, though I knew him for a popular and prolific author. So I didn't quite know what to expect from this book.

What I found was purely delightful. Steampunk fantasy with airships engaging in duels a la Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin in the clouds! Swashbuckling! Talking cats! (The talking cats were my favorite part of all.)

This book is first in a new series which I expect to follow all the way through, and I plan to check out Butcher's backlist as well. There are few things more delightful as a reader than discovering a new-to-you author whose "also by..." list takes up an entire page.

In Her Wildest Dreams by Farrah Rochon

A contemporary romance novella that packed a lot of romance and character develop into a story you can read in an afternoon. It features one of my all-time favorite tropes--friends to lovers--in a pair of New Orleans entrepreneurs (he's a computer programmer turned chocolatier, and she's a high-end event planner) who support and advise each other as they struggle to balance their longing for independence and self-sufficiency with their needs for community, to care for and accept care from friends and family.

I love that this is a city story, and one where love goes hand in hand with work, ambition, and finding a sense of vocation and fulfillment in their careers for both the hero and heroine.

Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day's Black Heroes, at Home and at War by Linda Hervieux

This account of black American soldiers during WWII, focusing on the experience of a barrage balloon battalion who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, was fascinating, and it left me gibbering with rage at the culture I was born into--that of the rural white South--for the way those soldiers, American citizens fighting to defend our country and to liberate Europe from tyranny and genocide, were treated. Yes, much has changed (though much still needs to change). But the fact that German POWs were regularly given privileges, kindness, and leisure opportunities that black AMERICAN SOLDIERS were denied? It's sickening. Not surprising, sadly, but sickening. (Not that I'm saying the POWs should've been treated badly, please understand.) And it also made me realize that we're almost as far removed from WWII now as WWII was removed from the Civil War. It seems weird that we're so many decades past WWII that it's starting to feel both distant from our world and close enough to the Civil War that you can clearly see the through-lines connecting them in American race relations and military history.

Listen to the Moon by Rose Lerner

While In Her Wildest Dreams was a delicious example of one of my favorite tropes, Listen to the Moon took a trope I usually struggle with--a large age gap between the hero and heroine--and made it work for me. (He's 40 and she's 22.) It helped that they met as adults, and she was never in any sense his ward or otherwise a daughter figure to him, so while there was a gap in their maturity and life experience, they still felt like equals in their relationship.

It's also an unusual historical romance in that the hero and heroine are both servants and stay that way throughout the story. In addition to being a sexy love story is something of a meditation on work, community, and finding your true vocation--so in that way it has a lot in common with my other romance recommendation. More romances like these, please!