Saturday, April 30, 2016

My Liebster Award Nominations

Chronicles of a Cold Texan's Liebster Award Information

Last October, Annette Steinmetz of Reading in the Garden, nominated me for a Liebster Award

Well, it has taken some time, but I'm finally complying!

For those who don't know what a Liebster Award is, you can find out all the details here. The short version of the rules is as follows:
  • Acknowledge the blog who nominated you
  • Answers the questions the blogger asked you to answer
  • Nominate 5-11 other new bloggers for this award (typically ones with less than 200 followers)
  • Ask your nominees your questions own set of questions (again 5-11 is a good number)
  • Share the LOVE (and don't forget to inform your nominees)!

Thank you, Annette!
Here are my answers to your questions:

1. What are some of your hobbies?

You mean, aside from reading and writing book reviews. Let's see… I like to bake cakes and breads, and I've recently begun to make my own ice cream. I used to be on a bowling league. I'm addicted to television and movies (I used to write reviews about them as well, long ago). Most importantly, I am a chocolate gourmet - meaning my hobby is to find the finest chocolates (minimum 70% cocoa solids) I possibly can (but I'm not an addict, I eat very little chocolate, to tell the truth, since I like to save the calories for only the finest).


2. Name a book that made you cry.

I think the very first book that really made me cry - and I mean, deep, heart-wrenching sobs - was "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving, and because of the emotional response I had to that book, I've never been able to write a review of it. Since then, I've read many books that made me cry, but mostly to lesser extents.


3. Name a book that made you laugh out loud.

Probably the funniest book I've ever read was "The Princess Bride" by William Goldman. I don't think I ever laughed harder than I did when I read that book (which, by the way, is better than the movie, but the movie is pretty close).


4. Do you prefer an E-Reader or “manual” Book?

Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I doubt I'll ever go over to only eBooks. There's something about holding a print book, thumbing the pages and seeing it on your shelf that is so satisfying.


5. Where did you go on your honeymoon?

We didn't really have a honeymoon. After getting married in Chicago, we left to be with my husband's family in Israel. While we were here, we got a rented car and visited with all our friends. Not terribly romantic, I know.


6. Where was your favorite vacation?

That's tough to answer since we've been to so many places. We loved visiting Australia, and would love to go back since we only saw Melbourne and Sydney, and we felt we didn't have nearly enough time there. Our longing to revisit is stronger than most other places we've been, possibly because of how far away it is.


7. Name an inspirational book that you’ve read.

I'm going to take a little bit of liberty here and assume "inspirational" doesn't mean anything spiritual or religious. That said - all books inspire something in me. If nothing else, they inspire me to read more and write more reviews. Some books make me want to write a book of my own. One of those is the book Bottomland by Michelle Hoover, because she took a real incident from her family history and turned it into a fictional story. That's exactly what I'm thinking of doing with my book.


8. Are you a cat or dog person?

Sorry, but I am not a pet person at all.


9. What’s your favorite sport?

As I mentioned above, I used to bowl, but I'm not much of a sports person. I usually only watch sports when the Olympics are on. With the winter Olympics, I like the figure skating events the best; with the summer Olympics I like to watch the gymnastics, diving and the water ballet events.


10. Name something daring that you’ve done.

Some people would say my moving to Israel was pretty daring. Otherwise, I'm not much of a chance taker. However, I would like to try sky diving some day (unbelievably)!


11. If you had to choose, would you rather visit Paris or Venice?

I've been to Paris but Venice is somewhere that I've never been, so the obvious answer is Venice.

My nominees:

My Questions for these Nominees:

  1. If you had to pick one author as your #1 favorite, who would it be; and what book of theirs would you recommend others read first?
  2. What genre do you refuse to read, and why?
  3. Do you think you spend too much time blogging or not enough time blogging?
  4. When you're reading a book and you suddenly realize you don't like it, what makes you decide you can't read further, if at all?
  5. Is there a nickname, persona or "handle" that you use online, and if so, what's the story behind it?
  6. What is the one food could you could eat every single day and never tire of eating it?
  7. If you could build your dream home in your dream type of location, where would it be (meaning on the sea, in the middle of a bustling city, high in the mountains, or where ever)?
  8. What makes you angrier than anything else, and what do you do to express or repress your anger?
  9. When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up (did you succeed, and if not, are you happy or unhappy about that)?
  10. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you dislike answering these types of questions?

I hope you enjoy these questions, and congratulations to all my nominees!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Landscapes of Deception

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

In reality, none of Sarah van Baalbergen's works survived, but Dominic Smith decided to turn the few known facts about her into fiction by renaming her as Sara de Vos and resurrecting her work. Starting out in 17th Century Holland, Smith shows us a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband, whose own talent is surprisingly recognized. Smith then brings us to Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s, to introduce us to Ellie, an Australian woman, desperately trying to finish her PhD in art history on the subject of female painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Ellie returned to her studies after finding out how male dominated the art restoration world was. To keep from starving, she restored a few paintings as a freelancer, but her biggest challenge comes when a suspicious art dealer asks her to replicate a rare painting - the last known surviving painting by Sara de Vos. In this way, Smith begins to construct a composition that sweeps across centuries and continents, eventually bringing all the shadows and light into focus.

With all this, Smith grabs your attention from the very first moments, with the scenes of Sara with her husband and daughter on an outing to see a beached whale, which her husband decides to paint. When Sara suggests drawing the scene from an elevated viewpoint (which her husband rejects), we immediately realize that this is no ordinary woman. She has a rare talent that the world refuses to allow her to express because of her gender. Then Smith turns to 1950s Ellie; she too has unique gifts, but once again, her peers ignore her because she is a woman. This lovely parallel flows underneath almost the whole novel, tinting the action with splashes of feminism along the way - in various shades of prematurity.

Okay, I apologize for using too many art-related metaphors here, but I think you can see what I'm getting at here, especially when you realize that a man wrote this book. This isn't to say that men can't write strong, well-rounded, female protagonists, but more often than not, these women end up with one or more stereotypical attributes - usually negative ones. These types of things annoy female readers; they can even cause us to dislike the characters altogether (which makes me want to bitch-slap those authors). Smith came very close to the edge of this trap when he dealt with Ellie's virginity. Don't get me wrong, I'm no prude, and I can take a sex scene thrown into a story, particularly when it advances the plot. Luckily, Smith's little interlude did have a purpose, and Ellie's virginity (as well as her losing it) actually made sense. However, the lovemaking scene itself was on the bland side and the things Ellie and the man do immediately afterwards, seemed a touch far-fetched for me. In the end, Smith needed this for the overall story line, but I'm wondering if he couldn't have come up with a slightly more elegant solution.

Thankfully, this was almost the only thing that I didn't care for in this novel. However, I did find myself a bit surprised that Ellie didn't try harder to stem at least some of her paranoia, by reassuring herself that her connection to the forged painting was probably tenuous, at best. Finally, I also felt a bit of confusion regarding how the ending worked out, but at least the premise behind it was creative and unexpected.

These few niggles aside, one thing I adored was how very different Smith made the 17th century parts feel. The whole atmosphere surrounding Sara de Vos and her life felt almost like it was written by another author altogether. Obviously, Smith's in-depth research imbued him with a need to shade these passages with a very different color pallet, one with more muted and subdued tones
(for wont of better metaphors). This could have felt disjointed, but Smith also let this slip into the passages when Ellie is working on copying Sara's painting. In this way, Smith gracefully smoothed the edges between the 17th century and the mid-20th century passages, and bravo to Smith for that!

I should note that I didn't simply read this book; I devoured it. This novel had me fascinated from the very first pages and held my attention throughout. Although some things didn't work for me, the vast majority did, and because of this, I'll warmly recommend this novel and give it a solid four out of five stars.

"The Last Painting of Sara de Vos" by Dominic Smith, released April 5, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK (available May 8, 2016), Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris  as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Sarah Crichton Books, for sending me an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The lost and what they find

Bottomland by Michelle Hoover

In a story that’s part mystery, part coming of age and part family saga, Michelle Hoover tells the story of Esther and Myrle Hess, two sisters living on their family farm who suddenly disappear. Set America's rural Midwest just after the First World War, the family's German origins not only isolates them, but at times, also works against them.

Hoover tells this story through slightly overlapping, mostly chronological, first person accounts from each of the family members. In this way, Hoover weaves the narratives so that the full story of what really happened eventually comes through as we slowly get to know each of these people and their parts in what happened. This paints an incredibly full picture, allowing us to both empathize with the sympathetic characters and for those that are less likable, are we able to understand our negative feelings for them.

One of the things that I found Hoover did quite nicely was the way in which she evoked a very specific atmosphere. I hate to use the word "gray" since people might take it negatively. The only other way to describe it would be "shades of sepia" - those faded brown colors that tint the black and white. That's the feeling you'll get while you read this book. This mood is very appropriate, considering the difficult historical setting of this novel and that most of the action takes place in less than prosperous, rural settings.

Shuffling through individual stories might seem like the type of storytelling that could easily confuse the reader. Hoover does her best to keep this at a minimum through effective use of language, and giving each of the characters their own unique voice. This is particularly difficult when you're taking on multiple narratives, and even more so when they're told in first-person. While Hoover succeeds in this area, there were still sections of this book that had me wondering what was going on. This occurred when Hoover allowed one of her characters a touch too much to fall into a stream of consciousness, throwing in reminiscences and memories. The problems in these passages came when there was no clear differentiation between the present and the past. Hoover could have fixed this with simple and common segue phrases, which might not have been extremely elegant, but at least would have avoided requiring me to re-read these passages in order to understand what was actually happening and what was a memory.

This was the only problem I had with this book, but unfortunately, it caused me to lose my concentration a bit more than it should have. Aside from this, the characters were fascinating, with a well constructed and interesting story line, and writing that was both evocative and engaging. Therefore, while overall I really did enjoy this book, and will warmly recommend this book I must note that I was disappointed I couldn't give it more than four out of five stars.

"Bottomland" by Michelle Hoover, published by Grove Press/Black Cat, released March 1, 2015 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me this book via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Sound of Reading

Listening to Audio Books

I recently underwent a procedure on my eyelids, which meant I had to have cold or warm compresses over my eyes for hours at a time. In anticipation of this debilitating circumstance, I realized that I needed something to occupy my mind while waiting to heal. The obvious answer was audio books. With them, I could concentrate on something other than my discomfort while prone and under the compresses.

Choosing the books:

My choice of books was somewhat eclectic. First, I decided, why not go for an older book that I'd always wanted to read, but never got around to - something classic that I was ashamed to say I hadn't read. The perfect choice for that was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (filling yet another hole in my literary intellectual intelligence). I also went looking for something funny, which quickly led me to Bossypants by Tina Fey. Finally, I thought that borrowing a book that I wasn't sure about to begin with, but one that still piqued my interest, would be another good choice. This brought me to Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Regardless of my opinions of these books, I thought my readers might be interested in my feelings about the listening experience as opposed to the reading experience.

The Voices:

First, you should understand that I'm a visual person, which is the main reason why I've never been tempted to try audio books until now. Second, because of my mild dyslexia, I tend to read slower than most people do, at about the same pace that you would read aloud. This together with my dabbling in the theater when I was younger means I tend to give my own interpretation of the characters and narrators' voices. This one will sound gruff, that one will sound light and lilting, and so forth. The idea of having one voice read all the characters was therefore something that put me off the entire idea of audio books.

I have to admit, however, that this last problem bothered me less than I thought it would. Of course, Tina Fey reading her own memoir Bossypants was perfect because in any case, I would have imagined her voice while reading it myself. Claire Danes reading The Handmaid's Tale also sounded right to me, since her character on Homeland always sounds paranoid and desperate, with all the intermittent times of happiness or joy with an edge of strain and disbelief behind them. With all due respect, I was the least pleased with Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon's performance as the voice of "Scout" (aka Jean Louise Finch) in Go Set a Watchman. The biggest problem was with her voice for Atticus Finch, which gave me the distinct impression of her trying to imitate Gregory Peck's speech patterns from his iconic film portrayal of the role. I also felt that there were times when Jean Louise lost some of her southern drawl. I'll assume she allowed this to happen since the character has been living in New York for a while, and this might have happened to her naturally. However, when this bled over in a couple of spots to other characters, I had to be less forgiving.

Reverse and Rewind:

Interpretation aside, there were some things about listening to an audio book that weren't completely to my liking. For example, one thing that bothered me was the automatic rewind function. This means that when you stop or pause in your reading, the program rewinds a few seconds so the next time you start reading you hear a few lines of what the reader has already read before you hit pause or stop. I understand the reason for this. However, this rewind tended to confuse me somewhat. Perhaps there are better apps than the two I tried that let you adjust these things. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to do this, and when taking up the book after a pause, going back to something I'd already heard was disorienting. This is certainly something that never happens in print or eBooks, since we see where we were when we put the book down. When taking that book up again, while we might quickly scan previously read text, our brains bring us back to where we had left off.

In addition, when I wanted to re-hear something I'd just listened to, I didn't like how either of the apps I used worked. Rewinding as much as one minute is a whole lot of text. Rewinding 10 seconds works better, but more often than not, you start re-listening from the middle of a sentence. Don't even try to go back to the beginning of a chapter unless you've figured out how to set bookmarks for every one of them (I didn't). True, eBooks also aren't ideal when you want to re-read earlier parts of your stories, but with audio books, this is much worse. This is why print books will always win out when you're the type of person who likes to re-read parts of books, or just go back to reference something (a name, a clue, an incident). However, if you like pulling quotes from books, I'd say eBooks are the best - especially if your app or eReader has a highlighting function. Of course, with print books you can use a marker or pencil or simply stick in a bookmark. With audio books, if you don't write them down (or use your app as a transcriber), you're not going to be able to keep note of your favorite quotes at all.

No reader is an Island:

I also have to say that of all the forms of books, audio books are the most anti-social. What I mean by this is that if you're reading a print or eBook, and the phone rings or someone wants to talk to you, you just lift your head and go on with it. When the conversation ends, you simply go back to your reading. When the same thing happens while listening to an audio book, you have to put your app on pause, and take off your earphones to relate to whoever wants your attention. That, of course, kicks in the rewind and if you're like me, you might get annoyed at the interruption of your flow of listening. In addition, unless you're alone, or people around you are used to your listening to these books and cutting off the rest of the world, they tend to talk at you when you're concentrating on listening (invariably at an important part in the story). In my case, removing (and replacing) my eye compresses exacerbated the unplugging, pausing, and rewinding business. Of course, if you ignore people around you, they'll get annoyed with you. Then again, if you're out in public among strangers, ambient noise might also disturb your listening and concentration.

Holding on:

On the other hand, one thing that surprised me was that I feel I retained most of what I heard, or certainly at a rate that was higher than I had expected. After two weeks, I can still hear Reese, Tina and Claire in my mind, saying things that remind me of lines and scenes in these books, which is certainly a good thing. However, being the visual person I am, I know that if I had read print or eBook versions of these books, I'd remember more of what I read. What's more, I'd have the ability to go back and look over favorite passages or remind myself of details I might not have retained during the first reading.

When all is said and done, while it seems to me that audio books do have their positives (such as something to keep you occupied when you can't open your eyes for hours at a time), overall, I don't think that they're ever going to be my format of choice. Of course, if I ever need to be hours under eye compresses again, I'll certainly not eschew them as a viable way to while away the quiet hours (but you'd better be quite while I'm listening).

What about you? Do you like audio books, and if so, do you like listening to them more or less than you enjoy reading print or eBooks?

(Photos courtesy of Pixabay.)

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Guest Blog Post: Ten Most Delicious Desserts Inspired by Novels

Ten Most Delicious Desserts Inspired by Novels

Guest blog post by author Andrea Lochen

As an avid reader with a major sweet tooth, I love when authors include the recipes for the yummy desserts they’ve made me drool over throughout their book. It’s a marriage of two of my favorite activities—reading and baking! And if you’re a book club member, what better treat to bring to your meeting than a dessert straight out of the novel? Here are ten of my favorite book-inspired desserts!

1) Southern Caramel Cake from The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Who hasn’t wanted to try a bite of the scrumptious-sounding caramel cake that Minny makes in The Help? (Maybe not so much her chocolate pie, however!) Though Stockett didn’t include the recipe in the back of her book, this food blog has the The Junior League of Memphis Cookbook recipe that supposedly inspired her.

Minnie's Caramel Cake from The Help.

2) Coconut Cake from Amy E. Reichert’s The Coincidence of Coconut Cake

The titular coconut cake in Reichert’s The Coincidence of Coconut Cake earned its place on the cover of this heartwarming book. To the main character, Lou, baking her grandmother’s cake is the ultimate expression of love. In the book, those who get to eat it earned their slice, which certainly made me crave a piece all the more!

Grandma Luellas Coconut Cake Recipe

3) Crème Caramel Flan from Anita Hughes’ Island in the Sea: A Majorca Love Story

In Hughes’ newest novel set in Spain, she describes how Majorca's restaurants serve a mouthwatering variety of delicious fresh fish and locally grown vegetables and how many diners like to end the meal with a dessert that satisfies any sweet tooth while not being heavy or cloying. This crème caramel flan recipe certainly does the trick!

Creme Caramel Flan Recipe

4) Lemon Cream Cake from Juliette Fay’s Shelter Me

Fay introduces the concept of “pology cake” in her first novel, Shelter Me, as something you bake for someone you’ve wronged in the hopes of that person forgiving you. Though according to Fay, it doesn’t need to be a particular kind of cake, her recipe for lemon cream cake in the back of the book and on her author website sounds fabulous!

"Pology Cake"

5) Peanut butter bars from Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Though there are several delicious dishes described in Stradal’s debut novel about Midwestern foodie culture, it was the blue-prize winning peanut butter bars recipe from Lutheran church lady, Pat, that caught my eye. I made this for my book club and these chocolate-frosted bars are just as decadent as they sound!

Peanut Butter Bars

6) Thumbprint Cookies with Jam from Kelly Simmons’ One More Day

Baking figures prominently in Kelly Simmons’ book because in One More Day, the main character, Carrie Morgan, bakes with her grandmother, as she did when she was a little girl. However, it's not clear whether her grandmother is dead or alive! These thumbprint jam cookies look like just the thing to bake when you’re in a nostalgic mood (or simply in the mood for something buttery and sweet)!

Thumbprint Jam Cookies

7) Mantecadas from Tina Ann Forkner’s Ruby Among Us

In Ruby Among Us by Tina Ann Forkner, Kitty and her granddaughter Lucy spend a lot of time together talking over cookies and tea. Lucy even has a special tea cup that she drinks out of with her grandmother Kitty who is keeping a lot of secrets about Lucy’s past. Below is a link to Kitty’s secret recipe for Lucy’s favorite cookie, Mantecadas. Yum!


8) Nanaimo Bars from Miracle Beach by Erin Celello

Nanaimo Bars are served in the cafeterias of the ferry boats between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada. In Miracle Beach, when main characters Magda and Jack come to the Island, they fall in love with the sinfully sweet bars. Author Erin Celello testifies that they’re amazing!

Nanaimo Bars

9) Damascus' Pumpkin Spice Pound Cake from The River Witch by Kimberly Brock

In The River Witch, a family feast brings an estranged southern family together. When ten-year-old Damascus Trezevant’s summer ends with a bounty of pumpkins, she sets out to heal deep wounds with a sweet, old recipe for Pumpkin Spice Pound Cake and faith in the magic of a mother’s love. You won’t be sorry you tried this recipe!

Damascus Pumpkin Spice Pound Cake

10) The Best Chocolate Cake Ever from The Repeat Year by Andrea Lochen

What dessert list is complete without a delectable chocolate cake? In The Repeat Year, main character Olive is named after her maternal grandmother who passed away the week before she was born. In addition to her grandma’s name, Olive also inherited her recipe for the “best chocolate cake ever” which her mom bakes as a peace offering for their family in a time of major transition.

The Best Chocolate Cake Recipe EVER

What are your favorite recipes inspired by novels? Comment below!

Andrea Lochen is the author of two novels, Imaginary Things and The Repeat Year. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and her BA in English at the University of Wisconsin. Since 2008, she has taught undergraduate writing at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. When she isn’t teaching, reading, or baking, she is hard at work on her third novel. To learn more about her, visit her website and you can also follow her on Goodreads, Twitter and Facebook.

Andrea Lochen's books, including her latest novel "Imaginary Things," are available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, the Book Depository, iTunes, Kobo, new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you.

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