Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

When I went to see Neil Gaiman during his tour stop here in Toronto back in August, one of the things I enjoyed the most was his reading of an excerpt from his new book, Fortunately, the Milk.

Fortunately the milk

I could hardly wait to read the book when it was released last month, and most of all, I wanted to read it with my ten-year-old, Dylan.

About six months ago, we changed Dylan’s bedtime routine from me reading a story aloud, to the two of us listening to an audiobook together. I bought a little gadget that plugs into my iPod which lets me plug in two sets of headphones, and every night we snuggle together and listen, while following along with the print copy of the book at the same time.

(I think following along with the print – or ebook – copy of the book is important, because the experience of associating the written word with the spoken word helps Dylan’s reading-on-his-own skills.)

Fortunately, the Milk is a wonderful book for this kind of audio experience. The print copy is so nicely illustrated with very whimsical and fun drawings by Skottie Young, and the audio version is narrated by Neil himself – and if you’ve never listened to an audiobook narrated by Neil Gaiman, you really, truly should do so as soon as possible. He is an excellent narrator. I seriously cannot imagine listening to an audio of any of his books that wasn’t narrated by him.

The book, which is 128 pages long in the hardcover version, is basically one long tale without any chapter breaks. Let me tell you, it was hard for us not to go through the whole thing in one sitting – but that would have taken an hour and we normally limit our bedtime audiobook to around fifteen minutes (otherwise we’d have one very sleepy-eyed boy in the mornings). So I had to do the very difficult job of pointing to the end of a page ahead of time and whispering, “we’ll stop here, okay?”

You know how, when you’re reading a book and come across something that’s slyly funny, you really want to share it with someone? Well, listening and reading Fortunately, the Milk together had Dylan and I exchanging smiley glances with each other over and over again. Especially as we neared the end of the book.

It’s a very special feeling, getting one of those smiley looks from your son as you’re experiencing a book together.

And then there were the times when we laughed out loud. There were several funny, laugh out loud moments in the book.

Fortunately, the Milk tells the story of the tall tale weaved by a father of two children to explain to them why he was gone rather a long time when he went to get the milk for their breakfast cereal. One of our favourite scenes occurs when the father first meets Professor Steg, a time-travelling stegosaurus:

“I am an inventor,” he said. “I have invented the thing we are traveling in, which I call Professor Steg’s Floaty-Ball-Person Carrier.”

“I call it a balloon,” I said.

“Professor Steg’s Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier is the original name,” he said. “And right now, we are one hundred and fifty million years in the future.”

“Actually,” I said, “we are about three hundred years in the past.”

“Do you like hard-hairy-wet-white-crunchers?” he asked.

“Coconuts?” I guessed.

“I named them first,” said Professor Steg.

We love how Professor Steg names things! Now I’ll say to Dylan, “So, what do you call a hot-air balloon?” and he’ll say, “A Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier!”. And then we’ll both crack up.

This is a funny story that’s really worth sharing with your favourite, special small person. If you can, share it the way we did, with both the excellent audio version and the print copy in your hands at the same time. That way you get to listen to Neil Gaiman’s wonderful narration and enjoy Scottie Young’s fun drawings at the same time. Really, it’s the way the book’s meant to be read!

Summer Reads: The Diabolist, by Layton Green

Where has the summer gone? One thing’s for sure, I certainly didn’t spend much of it reading. I’m sad to report, I’ve only read (well, “am reading”, in the one case) three books.

That’s THREE books. All summer!

I’m not sure what happened. It was a strange summer, weather-wise. Hot hot days, but interspersed with lots of rainy gloomy days. My ten year old was in a variety of camps, so there was all the running around associated with getting him there and picking him up. Earlier in August, I finally launched my freelance writing business, and a lot of time has been taken up with working on a “web presence” (ie a company website) and landing clients (so far I have one and an interview on Tuesday for a potentially large client  – hurray!).

The good news is, all the books (all three of them – ahem) that I picked up this summer have been great reads. My first book of the summer?

The Diabolist, by Layton Green.

the diabolist

I mentioned earlier this year that Dan Brown’s Inferno was a DNF for me, despite the very exciting storyline and the fast-paced narrative. There was just something missing from the book, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but so important that its absence made it easy for me to close the novel halfway to the finish mark, and not feel any inclination to open it up again.  Now that I’ve read Layton Green’s The Diabolist, I think I know what that missing ingredient was: characters that I could care about. That’s definitely something Green gives the reader in The Diabolist.

The Diabolist is a fast-paced occult thriller, well-written and well-researched, with the research presented perfectly within the confines of the story, never making you feel like you were reading pieces of non-fiction stuck here and there throughout the tale.

Viktor Radek is a religious phenomenologist specializing in cults, and his investigative partner Dominic Grey is skilled in killing, a Jujitsu expert with an uncompromising personal ethos. Someone is murdering the leaders of Satanic cults around the world – killing them in bizarre, magical-seeming ways – and it appears that the charismatic leader of an increasingly popular New Age religion might be involved. As Viktor and Dominic pursue the tangle of leads – separately, because there are so many avenues to follow – I was drawn into a number of exotic locales around the world.

If you’re a squeamish kind of reader, which I am, you should know there are some particularly gruesome scenes concerning certain Satanic rituals, as well as the rather violent fights Dominic gets into; I just skimmed through those scenes and the skimming didn’t have an impact on my enjoyment of the story.

The most spine-tingling scene in the book for me was the one in which Viktor, busily tracking down the Tutori, a group commissioned by the Vatican back in the Middle Ages to extinguish heresies, finds himself and his guide pursued through the streets of York in the dead of night. No violence or gore, other than the continuing threat of violence, this scene really had my heart racing.

The only quibble I have with the book – well, with the actual series, I guess, since The Diabolist is the third in the series (and you can definitely read it as a standalone without any negative effects, as I did) – is that the series is labelled “The Dominic Grey series” but when it comes down to it, it was Viktor who stole the story for me. Not that there’s anything wrong with Dominic, but I’ve read many thrillers with protagonists who could be Dominic’s brother or father. Viktor, though – such a complex, complicated character. Which he should be. After all, he does explore the many shades of good and evil as part of his routine everyday.

“What is evil? How does the term evil apply not just to one particular act but to the larger ethos of the worshipper? From where does the idea of evil derive in that belief system? Is it merely illusory? How does the adherent reconcile the existence of evil, if applicable, to the belief in an omnipotent God?” Viktor folded his arms. “Perhaps the hardest lesson of all is to realize that you, as the dutiful scholar, might have learned nothing about the true nature of good and evil. And that for each investigation you must clear your mind and start anew.”

So in my mind, the series should really be “The Viktor Radek series”. Or perhaps, “The Viktor Radek and Dominic Grey series”.

The Diabolist is a well-written thriller about Satanic cults that’s a definite page-turner. Not necessarily for the faint of heart (I certainly couldn’t have listened to this one in audio, given the limited skimming capabilities of the spoken word), but as I said, those scenes are easy enough to skim through without disrupting your read. Recommended if you’re looking for a page-turning thriller with engaging characters.

Coming up here later this week (hopefully)? My other summer reads: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon (which I’m still in the middle of reading). See what I mean about having read some good books this summer (slight though my reading pile was)?

A Page Turner Week

It’s been quite a good reading week for me – I got through several books, including three “page turners”!

I categorize a book as a page turner if it’s one I just couldn’t put down. Sometimes I do have to put a page turner down, but it’s usually because I realize if I keep reading, I’ll be finishing right around the time I normally get up in the morning. This, as you all probably know so well, is very hard to pull off when you’ve got work and kids calling for your attention in the mornings. (I imagine you’ve all, like me, given the all-nighter the old college try a few times and realized those college times are long gone, right?)

I used to think page turners were, by their very nature, usually thrillers – it’s almost implicit in the name (but really only applies to well-written thrillers) – but for me they can actually be any genre, as my page turner week proves. And for me, a page turner doesn’t mean a book that flies along at a frenzied pace, with the author throwing one plot point after another at you without any time in between to rest (or, ahem, for character development). I find such books utterly exhausting and rarely finish them.

So how did my page turner week go?

First up: Divergent!

Divergent

Yes, I finally read a YA dystopian! And I have now given up my bias against dystopian novels. It occurred to me as I was reading Divergent that a dystopian novel is really just a fantasy set on a devastated Earth. I love both fantasies and urban fantasies, and now I can add dystopian novels to the list.

This opens up a whole new world to me, so to speak.

Divergent was a definite page turner. I figured out early on that the place was heading towards war, but reading about Tris’ journey as her world progressed to that war was just so much fun. So many exciting things happened, but all very well-paced. And some nice twists at the end. I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

So after I finished up Divergent, I had to decide what to read next. I’d recently been contacted by a publicist who sent me an ebook copy of D.J. Donaldson’s Louisiana Fever. The book, which features medical examiner Andy Broussard and psychologist Kit Franklyn, is the fifth in the series, but I had no trouble getting up to speed with things despite never having read the first four novels.

Louisiana Fever

I think the main reason I enjoyed this one so much was because it involves a virus. Plots revolving around viruses – either biological or computer – are among my favourites. Throw in a medical examiner and it was more or less the perfect concoction for me.

Louisiana Fever was originally published in 1997 and I gather it’s just been released in ebook format this year, but I didn’t find the book to be dated at all.

Part mystery, part thriller, Louisiana Fever was a fun read and well-paced – the events were not so fast-paced you were left too exhausted to turn the page.  The happy endings – especially in Kit’s case – did stretch credibility somewhat, but still, it was all very nicely done.

And finally, my last page turner of the week:

Where'd You Go Bernadette

What a wonderful, funny, quirky read!  Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, takes the epistolary narrative to new heights. Made up of emails, official documents,  even a hospital bill, interwoven with a bit of narrative by Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, this is a lovely novel with many twists that had me guessing right to the very end.

And did I mention it’s such a funny read? I actually laughed out loud at various points in the book.

I’m so glad I picked up this novel. I’d borrowed the ebook version from the library – I’d put a hold on it a while back (which means I must have read someone’s lovely review of it somewhere, but I can’t find any mention of it in my Evernote account so I obviously forgot to make a note of the review the way I normally – well, okay, sometimes – do). I had three days left before it would disappear off my iPad forever, and when I refreshed my memory as to what it was about – an epistolary narrative! a woman who outsources her life to a virtual assistant in India! (oh, and I checked the library’s site and saw there were 81 people on hold for it – I admit, that was a big motivator, knowing I would have to wait in line behind 81 people before I’d get the chance to read it again) I decided to read the first few pages just to see how I’d like it.

Well, since it’s listed here as one of the page turners this week, you already know how those first few pages went. Let’s just say they flew by, and before I knew it, I was halfway through the book. I finished it with a smile, and all I can say right now is – if you haven’t read it yet, you really should give it a try. A very enjoyable, fun, quirky read.

So that’s been my week of page turners. Have you read any page turners recently? And what do you think of books that clip along at a frenetic pace? (I just want to see if I’m the odd one out, in my feeling of exhaustion when I read such books.)

Review: Jinx, by Sage Blackwood

JinxI first came across Jinx, by Sage Blackwood, when Melissa at Book Nut posted about the state of her TBR pile. The title looked interesting, and when I read the description, I thought, “I’d like to read this!”

In the Urwald, you don’t step off the path. Trolls, werewolves, and butter churn–riding witches lurk amid the clawing branches, eager to swoop up the unwary. Jinx has always feared leaving the path—then he meets the wizard Simon Magnus.

Jinx knows that wizards are evil. But Simon’s kitchen is cozy, and he seems cranky rather than wicked. Staying with him appears to be Jinx’s safest, and perhaps only, option. As Jinx’s curiosity about magic grows, he learns to listen to the trees as closely as he does to Simon’s unusual visitors. The more Jinx discovers, the more determined he becomes to explore beyond the security of well-trodden paths.

But in the Urwald, a little healthy fear is never out of place, for magic—and magicians—can be as dangerous as the forest. And soon Jinx must decide which is the greater threat.

I’ve always read a lot of middle grade fiction, especially fantasies and mysteries, and for me, the best middle grade reads are the ones that create a rich, complex world with equally rich and complex characters. It’s actually not such an easy thing to achieve with middle grade fiction – authors always have to stay aware of the age group for whom they’re writing but sometimes when they’re too focused on this, it can be to the detriment of the story they’re trying to tell.  Books like Jinx prove that you can stay true to your audience without oversimplifying your narrative and characterizations.

I really enjoyed Jinx. The characters were delightfully real – as conflicted as anyone I know in real life. Jinx, the protagonist, is smart without really knowing how smart he is, smart in a survival-savvy way that was just such a joy to read. I also enjoyed how he stayed uncertain about the adults with whom he engages, waiting until they prove themselves before he makes a decision. Given his background, you really can’t blame him for holding back from really trusting anyone.

And the adults themselves, especially the wizard Simon Magnus, have their own inner conflicts and deal with their own uncertainties. They are perhaps not quite “all good”, in the way that none of us ever can be “all good”, and certainly not infallible.

The story moves along at an engaging pace, and the world of magic that’s revealed is a credible one, firm, solid, despite all the things about it that we – and the characters – don’t know. It’s a beautiful, finely detailed world, but at the same time, there’s so much that’s shrouded in mystery; part of the fun in reading was finding out more about this strange world of Urwald and beyond.

Jinx ends on a cliffhanger-ish type of ending, but this is a cliffhanger done right: we learn the ending to the particular story that we’ve been following, and at the same time, Blackwood entices us with details about what’s to come.

Which is to say, I’m very eager to read the next book in the series, and find out where Jinx’s adventures will take him next!

Review: The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

The DemonologistThe Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper, ended up on my to-read list a few months back because of the book ads. Every time I logged onto Goodreads, there would be that red ad. And that extremely interesting title.

So I guess book ads do work. At least, they work on me!

Although it does help if you have an eye-catching title.

I’ve seen The Demonologist compared to The Da Vinci Code, but I wouldn’t make that comparison. And no, not because I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code, because I did – I think Dan Brown’s a great storyteller, and The Da Vinci Code was a book that kept me turning the pages.

But I wouldn’t put Brown down as having a particularly good writing style; his gift lies in his storytelling, and not in the prose he uses.

Pyper’s prose is fuller, more capable; he’s very good at building up an eerie, melancholy atmosphere. And while the book ultimately does becoming more of a page turner, Pyper does it without sacrificing that atmosphere. I’ve seen other people compare The Demonologist to The Historian, which I haven’t read, but that does sound like a more likely comparison.

The Demonologist starts slowly, taking about three or four chapters before it really gets going. I usually decide whether to keep reading a book by the first few chapters at the most, but it took me a lot longer to know exactly how I felt about this one.

By the middle of the book, though, I was hooked.

So, what’s The Demonologist about?

David Ullman is an English professor, and a leading authority on demonic literature, with a specialty in Milton’s Paradise Lost. A mysterious woman shows up at his office and offers him an all-expenses paid trip to Venice in order to witness a “phenomenon”. The trip is funded by her client; she refuses to disclose anything more.

With his marriage falling apart, Ullman ends up accepting the tickets; he decides to take Tess, his twelve-year-old daughter, with him. He and Tess are very close, and the trip seems like just the thing to help them both cope with the dissolution of Ullman’s marriage.

In Venice, he follows the instructions he’s been given and ends up witnessing the rantings of a man who appears to be possessed. Disturbed by the episode, he arrives back at his hotel, only to find his daughter missing. A frantic search leads him to the hotel’s rooftop; Tess stands along the edge, poised to jump to her death. She too, appears to be possessed, but she manages to say to him, “Find me” as she jumps.

And from the last paragraph of the jacket copy:

What follows is an unimaginable journey for David Ullman from skeptic to true believer. In a terrifying quest guided by symbols and riddles from the pages of Paradise Lost, David must track the demon that has captured his daughter and discover its name. If he fails, he will lose Tess forever

Did I find The Demonologist scary? It was creepy up until about three-quarters of the book; I know at one point I was very glad I was reading it while everyone was home, doing their own thing all around me. But for some reason as I neared the ending, I wasn’t finding it nearly as creepy anymore. I’m not too certain why; it might have been because the demon started seeming more human. Still incredibly evil, but with quite human motivations, and for me it was the supernatural feel that fueled the creepiness.

If I had to pick the creepiest section, I’d have to say the scene with the Reyes sisters. I definitely wouldn’t want to read that scene late at night with no-one else around.

There were a lot of things I liked about The Demonologist. I liked O’Brien, Ullman’s friend, and Ullman’s relationship with her. There was also Ullman’s relationship with his daughter Tess – a very sweet relationship that was also believable. The Paradise Lost bits were interesting – and I’ve never read Paradise Lost, so if you haven’t, don’t let that put you off the book. You definitely don’t have to have read Paradise Lost to enjoy it.

Where the book failed to work for me was in the ending. All through the book, Ullman demonstrates that he’s definitely changed from being a skeptic to being a true believer – but the belief he demonstrates is a belief in the demonic. Who wouldn’t, with all those horrific things happening to him? But the ending is supposed to show us he’s become a believer in God, too, a believer in the goodness that opposes evil, and this transition just didn’t feel credible to me. The whole ending felt rushed, and there were so many unanswered questions. I would have liked to have seen the ending stretched out, encompass at least another chapter, if not more.

Overall, though, I did enjoy The Demonologist, and would recommend it if you’re looking for a more literary kind of horror story.

Review: The Demi-Monde Series (The Demi-Monde & Shadow Wars) by Rod Rees

The Demi-MondeMy copy of The Demi-Monde, by Rod Rees, lay enticingly on the coffee table. Sean, my older son, plopped down on the sofa as was his habit, and immediately picked it up. He read the blurb on the back, and said, “Hey, this sounds pretty good. Can I read it?”

“Sure,” I said.

This was some time in the afternoon. Later that evening, he appeared quite distracted all through dinner, and then disappeared back into his room for the rest of the night.

From the bleary-eyed look on his face the next day, I assumed, correctly, that he’d stayed up late into the night, finishing the book.

“Good?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I really liked it.”

Sean generally divides his time between university, friends, and video games; over the past few years I’ve managed to get him to read quite a lot simply by leaving enticing-looking books lying around. We share somewhat similar reading tastes (although he’s much more of a history buff than I am), which makes these random acts of reading enticement on my part easier.

I knew the premise behind The Demi-Monde would catch his eye:

The U.S. military crated the Demi-Monde to train its soldiers in urban warfare. A virtual world of 30 million inhabitants ruled by cyber-duplicatse of some of history’s most dangerous psychopaths – from Grand-Inquisitor Torquemada to fanatical Nazi butcher Rudolph Heydrich – it is a twisted nightmare and anything but a game. Because if you die inside the Demi-Monde, you die in the Real World.

Now, in the year 2018, something has gone horribly wrong …

The U.S. President’s daughter has been lured into this terrifying shadow world and her only hope of rescue is Ella Thomas, an eighteen-year-old student and jazz singer who’s never received a day of military training. Somehow she must infiltrate the Demi-Monde and bring the First Daughter out. But Ella is about to discover something the U.S. government does not yet know – the walls containing the evils of this simulated world are rapidly dissolving … and the Real World is in far more danger than anyone could ever imagine.

Rather synchronistically, that very same day after he’d finished reading The Demi-Monde, I received the ARC of The Shadow Wars in the mail. “Look,” I said, waving the book at him. “It’s the sequel to The Demi-Monde.” He took it out of my hands and we didn’t see him again for the rest of the day.

Shadow WarsThe Shadow Wars continues the story of The Demi-Monde, starting from the point where The Demi-Monde ended:

Norma Williams knows she was a fool to be lured into the virtual nightmare that is the Demi-Monde. When the agent sent in the game to save her goes rogue and a long forgotten evil is awoken, it falls to Norma to lead the resistance.

Lost, without a plan, and with the army of the ForthRight marching ever closer, she must come to terms with terrible new responsibilities and with the knowledge that those she thought were her friends are now her enemies. To triumph in this surreal cyber-world she must be more than she ever believed she could be . . . or perish.

He was bleary-eyed again the next morning, having pulled another all-nighter to finish the second book (oh, how I wish for the days when I had the energy to do that!).

I asked him a few days later if he’d like to write the reviews for the books. He looked at me, wide-eyed and in partial shock, shaking his head frantically. My kid’s a reader, but not big on writing; while he’s doing well at university, he still has a tendency to check the word count as he approaches the end of an essay writing session, to make sure he’s made the minimum required.

So we settled on a compromise: an interview. Here it is, not quite verbatim because I didn’t pull out a pen and paper to take notes:

Me: So what did you think of The Demi-Monde?

S: I liked it a lot.

Me: What did you enjoy the most about it?

S: I liked the whole idea of this world created by the government as a training ground for its soldiers. It’s a pretty complex world, and the fact that sections of it were ruled by famous historical figures was really interesting.

Me: The Demi-Monde definitely is an interesting world. So you liked that part of it?

S: I liked how detailed the world was, the different factions and geographical regions, and how each one was a reflection of the historical character who ruled it. I think if you like history, you’d like this book.

Me: If you liked fantasy/science fiction, too, you mean.

S: Yeah.

Me: What did you think about The Shadow Wars?

S: That was interesting too, but it didn’t grab me the way The Demi-Monde did.

Me: How come?

S: (thinks about it a little bit more) It didn’t focus as much on the history-related aspects of the Demi-Monde, I guess. And one of the main characters becomes this god-like character with no emotions. I didn’t really like that. I also didn’t like that the Real World was really more of an alternate history type of world. In The Demi-Monde it doesn’t go much into the Real World, but you just assume it’s like our world, only a few years into the future. But then in The Shadow Wars you find out it’s more of an alternate history version.

Me: So you didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book?

S: No, not really. But I really liked the first book. I probably wouldn’t want to read the third in the series, though.

Then we moved on to a discussion of The Demi-Monde, which I was in the middle of reading. It was a very fun discussion, and I know I’d like to do more of these mother-son kinds of reviews/interviews!

With thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing review copies of The Demi-Monde and The Shadow Wars, by Rod Rees.

Cookbook Review: Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals

About a month ago Ward happened to be on the stationary bicycle at the gym watching Food Network Canada when Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals came on. Ward’s a big fan of Jamie Oliver, so he was quite delighted and ended up adjusting his schedule so he could continue catching the show while working out.

He’d make notes in his head, then jot things down as soon as he got back so he could make a dish for dinner that night that he’d watched Jamie making earlier in the day.

The meal that was the biggest hit? Blackened Chicken San Fran Quinoa Salad. It comes to the table all greens and reds, very veggie looking – and the first time Ward made this, Sean, my older son, sheepishly took seconds and then thirds. Sean doesn’t really like vegetables much (so much for all the homemade broccoli, sweet potato and other mashed veg I made for him when he was a baby!), hence the sheepishness. But he had to admit he really enjoyed the dish, despite what to him looked like an overabundance of greens and reds.

After quite a few delicious hits just from watching the show, we decided it was high time we got a copy of the book – only to discover it’s not sold here in North America. Fortunately, Book Depository came to our rescue. We bought Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals from the Book Depository and received it within a week.

Jamie's 15 Minute Meals

It’s a lovely cookbook, with the recipes organized in the following categories: Chicken, Beef, Pork, Lamb, Fish, Pasta, Soups & Sarnies (I had to look up “sarnies”, so if you didn’t know either, it’s a British term for “sandwich”), Veggie and Breakfast. There’s also a great nutrition section at the back that tells you all the nutritional information for each dish.

Each recipe in Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals gives you a full meal: an entree and side dishes (except in cases where the main dish is an all-in-one kind of dish). The recipe is on the left hand side and a gorgeous (as in very yummy looking) photo is on the right hand side.

Just because the meals are supposed to be quick and easy to make, they’re not all the same old plain and boring fare, either. The recipes range from all over the world, and while you can pick something more basic, like Rosemary Chicken or Chicken Cacciatore, you can also go a little more exotic, like Moroccan Mussels, Tapenade Toasties & Cucumber Salad or Beef Kofta Curry, Fluffy Rice & Beans and Peas.

The recipes, unfortunately, aren’t accompanied by any descriptive or conversational paragraph telling us things about the meal. I know it’s not really necessary to the recipe itself, but I’m more of a cookbook reader than I am a cook (I guess it’s safe to say, I’m a cookbook reader, period, actually), and I found myself missing the little preambles to the entrees. How did this recipe come about? I’d wonder. From where did it originate?

We’ve tried a few more recipes from the book, but the Blackened Chicken San Fran Quinoa Salad remains our favourite dish so far. We kept forgetting to take pictures, but the next time Ward makes it, I’ll be sure to get some pictures so I can post the recipe.

There’s one thing I can’t answer, though – the key question, perhaps. Can you really make these meals in 15 minutes?

I, of course, can’t answer this question personally, as I don’t do the cooking around here. So I asked Ward, byt he couldn’t tell me either, because he hasn’t tried to make any of the meals in 15 minutes. He likes to take his time when he’s cooking.  First of all, he likes all the chopping up of things – he finds it quite meditative. In Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals, Jamie includes lots of time-saving tips like using your food processor to chop up all the things that require chopping, and your blender to quickly mix things.

Ward is also a clean-as-he-cooks kind of guy, and he’s not certain he’d be able to make the meals in 15 minutes and still clean things as he’s cooking. But overall he’s quite happy with the efficiency of the meals, and has turned to Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals on nights when he feels a little more pressed for time.

As for me, well, everything Ward’s prepared from Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals has been quite delicious, so I’m quite happy with the book!

I’m participating in Candace’s Weekend Cooking with this post.  If you enjoy reading food-related posts, make sure to check out the links there!

MORE

Lots of people are posting their One Word for 2013, so no, despite the title of this post, let me assure you, More is NOT my one word for 2013. I don’t know what my word for 2013 is yet. It may take me until February or March to figure that one out.

But yes, this post is about more.

MORE.

It does looks pretty materialistic, doesn’t it?

But I’ve been thinking a lot about more lately. Thinking about all the things I’d like to have more of in my life in 2013. Like:

MORE Reading

I started 2012 with four very broad, general intentions. And as we approached 2013, I was happy to see that I’d managed quite well with two of them: writing and meditation. And not too badly with the third one, exercise.

But I didn’t do as well with my fourth intention, reading. I had maybe TWO stellar reading months out of 12, which isn’t the greatest track record around. I’d like to change that this year.

Since the whole intention thing worked well last year, I thought I’d throw reading into play again this year. And guess what? I’m off to a good start! Yes, despite slogging my way through several deadlines that have prompted me to delay all my New Year resolution-ish posts until now, I’ve actually managed to read quite a few books already.

And readalongs! I’ve never participated in one, but this year, yes, I’m going to participate in at least one readalong. Jill at Fizzy Thoughts is hosting a readalong of Stephen King’s The Shining in February and Little Women in March. The Shining! Little Women! I mean, really, it’s irresistible.

So yes. More reading, and some fun readalongs.

Which brings me to:

MORE Reviews

Lately, I’ve been writing less and less reviews. I’d sit down to write a blog post, and I’d always have something non-review-ish that I’d rather write about.

But this past year, I realized something. Now that I have access to the Toronto Public Library, which I find to be quite well stocked in terms of my personal reading purposes, my TBR list has grown by leaps and bounds. With such a wealth of enticing books calling my name, I’ve been choosing what books to read based mostly on (1) the reviews and recommendations of other bloggers and (2) the reviews and ratings on Goodreads.

And recently the thought struck me: surely writing reviews is a way of giving back to this wonderful online community of readers, who so generously share their thoughts on the books they loved, the books they thought were so-so and the books that they really didn’t like. If other people’s reviews have helped me, then my reviews might help another reader somewhere, right?

So yes, I will be writing more reviews. I’ll post the longer ones here, and I’ll try my best to write short mini-reviews of as many books as possible on Goodreads.

And speaking of gratitude:

MORE Appreciation

This one is courtesy of the lovely Judy Clement Wall, a truly inspiring woman who’s doing a wonderful gratitude challenge right now. 30 days, 30 acts of (expansive, unabased, downright mushy) gratitude. Doesn’t that sound so lovely? (And if you’re into postcards, like I am, make sure to check out her lovely doodled postcards at Etsy.)

As Judy puts it:

I’m not talking about a gratitude journal here, or a jar, or a meditative ritual. Those are great too, but what I’m talking about is more communal. I’m talking about concrete, outward, unmistakable acts of heartfelt appreciation.

It’s writing something nice with the tip you leave in a restaurant. Telling someone’s manager what a great job they did for you. Writing thank you notes and sending ardent, immediate gratitude texts. Emailing a favorite author, blogger, artist, speaker, teacher, activist to say how much you appreciate their work. Calling someone to say, “the world is better with you in it.” Hand making a card. Treating someone to coffee. Giving, without reservation, your conscious, focused, undivided attention because someone you love deserves it.

I love the sound of this! I will be doing #lettermo next month anyway, writing a letter, note or postcard a day, so I’ve been thinking, why not start earlier? Why not start now? And why not make those letters, notes and postcards full of appreciation?

And maybe, just maybe, a little bit art and doodling too:

MORE Art and Creativity

I admit it. I say this every single year, but somehow 12 months whizz by and during that time I never seem to have the time to sit down and draw or paint or doodle.

That’s going to change this year. No, seriously, it is.

I may do a doodle a day. Start an artist’s journal. Learn to use my new camera properly. Bring gel pens to my world-building notebooks and add a splash of colour to my characters’ lives. Glue things with abandon. Sign up for pottery classes again. Learn to sketch. Draw mandalas again.

I figure, if I say so here, out loud, and boldly, with that MORE for emphasis, surely, surely, it will happen, right?

And there’s MORE. Only I can’t remember what the other things are, although a long list of them has been running through my head the past few days (of course when I sit down to blog about them, they disappear into the ethers). I’m sure they’ll come to me later. You know, when I’m not sitting down to blog about them.

But these four MOREs are the big ones for me right now.

What about you? What things would you like more of this year?

Book Review: Never Tell, by Alafair Burke

I read Alafair Burke’s 212 last year; it was my first Ellie Hatcher novel and I enjoyed it thoroughly. 212 was the third in the series, which means the Ellie Hatcher series is one that can definitely be read out of order. (I wanted to add this right at the start of this review because I have, in the past, raved on and on about specific mysteries in a series, only to discover that a lot of things were lost to readers who read the books out of order; rest assured, that won’t happen with this series.)

Never Tell, the latest book in the Ellie Hatcher series, starts out in a mild way (for a mystery, that is): sixteen-year-old rich girl Julia Whitmire is found dead in her bathtub, suicide note nearby. Ellie Hatcher arrives on the scene and is convinced it’s a suicide, but this pronouncement is not acceptable to the wealthy and powerful Whitmires, who use their influence to assert pressure on the police to continue the investigation into their daughter’s death.

(An aside here: when you see this suicide/possible homicide scenario in mysteries, it’s usually everyone else who’s convinced the case is a suicide, while the protagonist detective feels in his or her gut that it’s murder. I loved that Burke kept the situation realistic, and had Ellie weigh the evidence and decide “suicide”, because that’s what the evidence supported.)

As Ellie is pressured to investigate further, she discovers Julia may have been engaging in some serious cyberbullying. Things take a mysterious turn when the target of the cyberbullying continues receiving death threats. Was Julia the cyberbully? If she was, who’s taken over now? Did she commit suicide, or was she murdered?

I find Ellie Hatcher to be such a refreshing character. Burke has created a strong female protagonist, one who is memorable without being at all gimmicky. Ellie is fully fleshed, and as a reader you find yourself pulled into both her personal and professional lives.

But it’s in the plotting that Burke truly excels. Her plotting in Never Tell is tight and complex; she weaves her plot lines together in a way that will leave you breathless. And just when you think you know exactly where she’s taking you, she throws yet another stunning little twist in, and you’re flipping the pages, reading as quickly as you can, thinking to yourself, “Wow. I didn’t see that one coming!”

After I read 212 last year, I kept meaning to add more of the Ellie Hatcher series to my TBR stack. I was very pleased when Trish Collins from TLC asked if I’d like to join in the blog tour; even though I haven’t participated in a book blog tour in a very long time, I didn’t hesitate to accept.

And when Never Tell arrived, I read it right away, all in one sitting; I stayed up late into the night reading because I absolutely had to know what happened. I loved the very intricate plotting – to me, such complexity combined with an interesting protagonist always proves to be a rewarding read. Never Tell definitely didn’t disappoint.

You can find out more about Alafair Burke at her website, on her Facebook page and on Twitter. She recently hosted the second annual Duffer awards, a zany “competition” that pits series characters in the mystery and thriller genres against each other in crazy categories like “Most Likely to Take Down a TSA Agent” (Barry Eisler’s John Rain won that one, beating out Joseph Finder’s Nick Heller) and “Least Likely to be Fazed by Autopsy of Disemboweled Body” (Tess Gerritsen’s Maura Isles beat Jonathan Hayes’s Edward Jenner by a mile).

Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Joe Dispenza

I’ve been reading Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Joe Dispenza as part of an informal book club with some of my friends. And since I happened to be in a sketchnoting frame of mind while I was reading it, I ended up taking sketchnotes of every chapter.

Here are my notes from chapter one (click on the picture for a bigger version). Please excuse the sparkly nature of the pen; I’d just come across an old set of really nice gel pens and couldn’t resist using them (I used a different colour for each chapter of the book – thankfully, the lighter pens were used for later chapters!).

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As you can see from my notes, the book goes quite a bit into quantum mechanics, and how we can apply what we know of the quantum field to “rewiring” ourselves and breaking out of old habits. It’s a very interesting discussion, although sometimes the application of theory seemed a little bit forced to me. But since I believe there are mysteries of life and consciousness that just aren’t explainable by our current scientific knowledge, that didn’t bother me much.

For me, the power of Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself lies in the four week meditation program outlined in the last half of the book. I actually spent several weeks going through the process – but found myself resisting taking it beyond week two every single time.

But luckily, I’ve been reading this book with some friends of mine, one of whom went all the way through the four week process – and rather inspiringly, she has been experiencing all sorts of lovely and welcome career-related surprises in her life. I am currently standing at one of those proverbial forks in the work/life road, and such surprises would definitely be an asset right around now!

So I ended up going to Joe Dispenza’s site and buying the MP3 download of the guided meditation, which was what my friend was using as a companion to the book. The book refers to this meditation a few times; unfortunately, access to the meditation doesn’t come with the book but both Ward and I have been doing the meditation for a few days now and I’d say it’s well worth the $4.95.

For one thing, each time I’ve finished the meditation (which, at over an hour, is quite long) I find myself just bopping with energy. This morning, right after I finished, it occurred to me to go to the local coffee shop and work on my current novel. I spent a wonderful two hours there, and managed to discover the solution to a plotting problem I was facing.

Pretty powerful stuff. If you’re into the quantum mechanics aspect of changing old habits, you’ll probably find the book interesting. And if you find yourself having problems with the meditation program outlined in the book, you might want to give the guided meditation a try.

At the very least, Ward and I are both enjoying our meditation practice a lot more these days!