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So Totally Emily Ebers So Totally Emily Ebers by Lisa Yee

You can’t help but like Emily Ebers – even when she makes some questionable decisions or fails to pick up on sarcasm. Her story nicely rounds out the series that began with Millicent Min, Girl Genius and continued with Stanford Wong Flunks Big-time – each book tells the story of the same summer from a different character’s point of view, and each viewpoint makes the story fresh and funny in different ways.

While I still think Millicent is my favorite (I love sarcastic characters), I enjoyed Emily’s point of view. Getting a first person narrative gives insight into each characters family and home life and really illustrates the point that things are always different on the inside. Emily wishes she had Millicent’s “normal” parents, while Millicent wishes she had Emily’s journalist mother. Emily idolizes Stanford while being blind to how much he likes her in return. It’s hard enough as an adult to recognize how a different viewpoint changes things, so I love any books that point that out to children – while still managing to be hilarious and true to the middle school experience.

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Source: my public library

Alvin Ho Collection: Books 1 and 2: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things and Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters Alvin Ho Collection: Books 1 and 2: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things and Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters by Lenore Look

Alvin Ho has quickly become one of my favorite series to give to kids who are branching out into chapter books and looking for something funny (if people out there don’t think these books are funny, I don’t want to meet them). I read the second installment shortly after it came out, but never got around to reading the first book until I had the audio version in my hands. I’ll admit, the wacky narrator photo sold me on it. I wanted to hear that kid’s interpretation of Alvin (“that kid” being Everette Plen).

I wasn’t disappointed. The narration hits a nice balance between good pacing and an enthusiasm that’s unlike any I’ve heard from an adult narrator. This complements Alvin’s personality nicely – his sense of humor as well as his many, many fears. As I commented after reading Allergic to Camping, Look does a fantastic job of presenting all kinds of diversity in a way that feels realistic and never preachy – just a part of life.

While I wait for the next Alvin Ho book, I’ll continue recommending them to kids (and add this audio version to my recommendation). And I’m happy to see the first book on two children’s choice award lists this year – the new Oregon Reader’s Choice Award and the Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice Award.

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Source: my public library

I can’t decide if I’m more behind on my book reviews or the Long Distance Kitchen recipes, but let’s go for a recipe today.  A long time ago, Bronwen assigned us two salad-ish recipes from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian – Avocado Salad with Ginger and Peanuts, and Beets with Pistachio Butter.  I needed something vegan and wheat free to bring to a girls’ brunch, so this was perfect.  Both recipes were fairly easy to make, too, which was an added bonus on a Saturday morning.

As it turned out, both recipes were delicious and got devoured at the brunch, and our plates were clean before I thought about taking pictures.  So you’ll have to imagine.

For the avocado salad, all the work is in the ginger dressing. You cook rice vinegar, sugar, salt and water in a saucepan, then add fresh ginger.  I minced it, but that was a hassle and I’d probably go the grating route next time.  Let it cook until thickened, then cool and refrigerate until cold.  It got super, super thick, so I might cook it a bit less next time, until barely syrupy.

I used spring mix greens, in a big bowl rather than artfully arranged on a platter as suggested, and sliced avocado over the top, then let everyone dress their own salad.  I had chopped cilantro and roasted peanuts handy for garnish, and they both complimented the flavors nicely.  The dressing had a sharp tang from all the ginger, but was sweet at the same time, and the avocado and peanuts made a nice contrast.

For the beets, you wrap them individually in foil and roast them until tender.  Once they’re cooked, slide off those skins, slice them up, and add a little salt and pepper.  While they’re cooking, make the pistachio butter.

Two points about pistachio butter –  1) it is AMAZING.  Do not skip it.  2) For the love of all that is sacred, scour the earth to find SHELLED pistachios.  If it is late at night and the grocery store you are at only has unshelled pistachios, do not think “oh, it only calls for a cup and I can handle shelling these.”  Drive across town to find pistachios that are ready for you, because shelling a cup of pistachios is not like casually snacking on them.  They are salty and sharp and your hands will not forgive you.

Once you have located your SHELLED pistachios, or have wept and lamented over your unshelled pistachios, heat up some oil in a skillet (I used high-heat canola), then add a generous amount of smashed garlic.  Cook for a minute, then add the pistachios and cook a few minutes more.  Let the whole thing cool off a little, then give it a spin in the food processor.  The recipe says it should be just pourable, a little thinner than peanut butter, and mine looked a little like chunky almond butter.  Add more oil if you need to.

I set out the beets at room temperature, with a dish of pistachio butter to spoon over the top.  We couldn’t keep our hands off of it.  The combination of flavors between the beets and the pistachios was amazing.  It makes for a really satisfying, flavorful vegetable dish, especially during Lent when you’re craving richer, more complex flavors.  Pistachio butter and beets will cure what ails you, I’m sure of it.

I’ll be keeping both of these dishes in mind for future meals, but I’ve really got my eye on that pistachio butter.

Silver Phoenix: Beyond The Kingdom of Xia Silver Phoenix: Beyond The Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here’s the thing about kick-ass girl characters in historic settings (or historic-inspired settings) – I have to be convinced that they are a product of their culture, and I have to be convinced that they grow into their kick-ass-ness through whatever circumstances. If you simply plop one of these girls into a world of women who follow the rules, I might enjoy it but there will be some serious eye-rolling.

There was no eye-rolling with Ai Ling, I’m happy to say. She is on many levels a product of her culture – she’s aware that girls are “supposed” to do various things, and feels that sense of honor for her family and so on, but she also had access to an unusual education due to her mildly unconventional family. And when she sets out on her journey, she doesn’t set off to save the kingdom – she just wants to find out what happened to her father. Of course she stumbles into various adventures, meets a whole host of demons and dragons and mythological creatures, and she comes to accept that yes, she is pretty kick-ass. But she’s still of her world.

On an unrelated note, I loved the realistic things that Pon works into the adventure/quest story: the characters are always exhausted after a day of travel, and Ai Ling in particular is always ravenous. We get descriptions of all the meals. Another detail that I appreciated was how Chen Yong, whose father was a foreigner, is often described as having “exotic” features. A good reminder that looking “exotic” and “foreign” completely depends on your context.

Overall, a great pace with a combination of lots of action but also plenty of thoughtfulness to the story. The characters are compelling and endearing – but watch out. The main plot line is resolved, but apparently a sequel is in the works, so don’t expect resolution on all the issues between various characters. I definitely want to see what happens to them next.

Note: there’s an attempted rape and a forced marriage, neither of which are graphic, but they’re disturbing, as are several of the fight scenes and demons.  Appropriate to the story, but probably not for younger readers.  I’d say high school.

Copy from my library system.

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It’s getting out of control.  Not my to-read list (that’s always out of control).  Not the number of holds waiting for me to check them out (ditto).  No, I’m reading too many books at the same time.  Book indecision.  I’m having one of those weeks where I pick up a new book at a moment’s notice.

I started in on The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick, the last of this year’s Newbery Honors that I’d yet to read.  I’m reading along and enjoying it, but it’s not quite matching my mood.  So I go for something a little weightier – Jim Murphy’s Truce, another one I’d been meaning to read ever since I heard about it.  I actually manage to finish this one, probably because it’s short.  And has lots of pictures.  And is about WWI, which I don’t think shows up often enough in books.

The next day I faithfully bring Homer to work with me, but I leave it upstairs and am too lazy to run up and grab it on my lunch break.  So I pull Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Death-Defying Pepper Roux off the emergency back-up pile on my desk (let’s not even talk about the fact that I keep “emergency back-up” books at a LIBRARY).  Pepper does the trick through lunch, but when I get home that night I want something with characters that are a little more adult.  I’m just not in the mood for a fourteen year old who thinks he’s cheated death (entertaining as that is).

So I grab Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix off the shelf at home, which I think I picked up when I saw it nominated for OYAN’s Book Rave.  And so far I’ve managed to make it about halfway through this.  I’ve only put it down to quickly skim through the end of Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday to refresh my memory on how they defeated the Gorg before my bookgroup met and discussed it (it doesn’t do to not remember what happened when you’re the one leading the discussion).  More on Smekday‘s smashing success later.

It’s a good thing I didn’t bring home the new Elizabeth Kostova when my hold came in, or I’d really be in trouble…

The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain, #2) The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

While the plot stands on its own, the characters and world of the books are best appreciated if you start with The Book of Three. (Remember when fantasy series didn’t leave you hanging off an enormous cliff at the end of each installment? Okay, I exaggerate.) The plot concerns part of the ongoing effort to defeat Arawn, but as with the first book, this is really just a backdrop for exploring what it means to be a hero and how you interact with the people around you. That makes it sound thoughtful and dull, but the story is lively and funny, with a few bittersweet moments and some excellent characters. There’s plenty of action, but the characters aren’t thoughtless. The old gang from The Book of Three reunites, and my favorite scene might be their encounter with the three witches, Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch.

As with the first book, this one is narrated by James Langton, who does an excellent job at differentiating between characters’ voices (you always know who’s talking) and giving the story both a sense of thoughtfulness and momentum at the same time. I’ll definitely be listening to the rest of the series.

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I’m not sure why I never listened to audiobooks as a kid, but I’m sure a fan now.  Nothing makes the drive to work better than a little time spent in the company of an excellent narrator.   Last year I wrote about how I listen to audiobooks, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about again, now that I’m the audiobook selector for the children’s library.  It’s hard to decide what to order, for a few reasons.  The budget doesn’t stretch as far – audiobooks cost way more than the print versions, so I have to choose more carefully.  And the shelf space is very limited, even if the budget were limitless.

Thinking about what to order, and looking at what I’ve been listening to recently, I’ve realized that the combination of audio and a series is pretty perfect.   Maybe it’s a little bit like when you’re becoming a confident reader and you latch onto series fiction – you’ve already gotten to know the world of the books, there’s an element of predictability that makes for a comfortable read, and you are pretty sure you’ll enjoy the next installment (it’s also like what a lot of adults read – just look at the bestseller lists).

Since audiobooks require more of a time investment (for quick readers, that it – audio is also good for struggling readers who want the story without getting bogged down) a lot of the same appeal factors come into play.  You want to know you’ll like it.  There are lots of distractions on the road, so that element of predictability can be handy.  A story that requires too much processing of new information sometimes doesn’t work as well under those circumstances.

So what have I been listening to?  Series.  Adult series, kids’ series.  Mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, humor.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, L.A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack adventures, Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho books.  Throw in a few rereads and that’s most of my listening so far this year.

Now I’ve just got to catch up on writing reviews of what I’ve listened to – to look at my Goodreads list, you’d think I was listening to four books at once.

In my seemingly endless effort to catch up on posting Long Distance Kitchen recipes, here’s what came next: Acorn Squash with Chili-Lime Vinaigrette, courtesy (again) of Smitten Kitchen.  Bronwen’s version can be found here.

This is a tasty, simple way to prepare squash.  Basically, you cut it into wedges, toss with salt, pepper and oil, and roast until done.  The wedges get all lovely and browned, and you can go about making something to eat with it.  I was super lazy and just made some rice.

While it’s roasting, you prepare a vinaigrette.  Don’t skip this, because it’s delicious.  Don’t think, I’ll just eat some plain roasted squash.  Don’t.

Mash some garlic (I was spacing out and had my handsome assistant do this, so I’m not really sure how it happened – like Bronwen, no mortar and pestle at my house).  Add salt, lime juice, chili and cilantro, plus some oil.  I just used some chili pepper flakes, lacking a fresh hot red chili.  Chilies intimidate me.

Drizzle the vinaigrette over your roasted squash.  Enjoy.

My only quibble with this recipe is that one squash + two people = lots of leftovers, and it was pretty blah when reheated.  Some of the zing was gone, as well as the great crispness of the freshly roasted squash.  Or maybe only dress the slices you’re going to eat, and reserve some vinaigrette, and recrisp your squash under the broiler for a minute when you get around to eating the leftovers.

One of the staples to come out of the Long Distance Kitchen project (and I define “staple” as something I made more than once) is mujadara.  Pretty good for something I’d never even heard of before, eh? Basically it’s onions, lentils and rice.  A little oil.  Some salt.  Water.  Cheap, filling, and easy, although it does require a little bit of patience waiting for those onions to cook.  And if you’re like me, you’ll cry bitter, bitter tears while you chop those onions.

The recipe comes from Orangette, but I got the link from Kyrie.  Unfortunately, all the photos from the process of cooking are of me doing goofy things in the kitchen.  Most are blurry.  There is no documentation of the end result (it’s not terribly photogenic, but you can get an idea of what it looks like from Orangette or from Bronwen’s results).

Basically, you caramelize the onions in a large pan.  Molly’s version at Orangette has you add the oil from the get-go, Bronwen used a method of dry cooking and then adding oil. I’ve tried it each way and…they both tasted the same.  In the meantime, cook some lentils.

Once the onions are caramelized, add the cooked lentils, some rice, water and salt.  Cook until the rice is done.  Eat. I treated this as a main dish, with a green salad on the side, but I’m also thinking it would be great with some lamb now that Lent is over.

Lent may be over, but Long Distance Kitchen carries on!  New and improved, with meat and dairy!  However, I am super behind on posting my results, so bear with me.

About a month ago, Bronwen assigned this recipe, courtesy of her friend Anna.  Here is the informal recipe:

Wheatberries (can be soaked overnight if you want)
Kale (chopped)
Garlic (sliced)
Soy Sauce
Vegetable Oil
Sweet Potatoes

1. Cook the wheat berries. (Something like 1 cup to 2 to 3 cups water). Bring them to a boil in a covered saucepan, then turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 45 minutes to an hour until tender.

2. Cut up the sweet potato and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper (you can add cumin or other seasonings if you like). Roast in a 400F oven for about half an hour (depending on the size of the pieces).

3.  Slice a block of tofu into four or five rectangular slices. Fry them in a skillet with vegetable oil until they form a skin on each side. Then take them off the heat and chop each block into slices, return to the skillet and briefly sauté with soy sauce.

4. Do everything fairly simultaneously, but if anything is done before the rest is ready, just keep it warmish.

5. Heat olive oil in a skillet and add sliced garlic. Cook it in the oil until it’s golden and just beginning to crisp a bit (careful not to burn). Scoop it out with a slotted spoon. Cook the kale in the skillet until bright green and tender.

6. Toss together wheat berries, roasted sweet potato chunks, tofu pieces, and kale. Top with crispy garlic and enjoy.

7. You are so healthy.

I’ve never been tofu’s biggest fan, and I must confess to never having cooked kale before (or wheat berries, but that’s slightly less shameful).  And I wasn’t really sure what the end result would taste like.  I was definitely pleasantly surprised.

The sweet potatoes were fantastic, and I loved this savory way of preparing them.  With the wheat berries, I wasn’t sure exactly how firm/soft they should be when done, and I hustled them a little since all the other ingredients were ready.  I think I would cook them a bit longer in the future, but they’re another item that I’ll keep in mind as a starchy base for a meal.  The kale turned out nicely, and I liked the garlic on top of everything for a final kick.  The tofu was probably my least favorite part, but still tasty.

Overall, a filling and nourishing meal.  I don’t know if I’ll make the whole ensemble again, but it definitely gave me practice in cooking the different pieces, which I’m sure I’ll make again.

April 2010

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