Monday, May 21, 2012

To Read Shelf Challenge: Croak by Gina Damico

Croak by Gina Damico 
#132 of 158 on To Read Shelf 

What You Need to Know:  This title is a refreshing break from paranormal romances, but suffers from an overabundance of quirkiness and strange tonal shifts.

Summary:  Lexington (aka Lex) is pissed off.  All the time.  At everybody.  Her incessant brawling has led to numerous near suspensions and her parents have had enough.  She is being sent to her Uncle Mort's farm in upstate New York for the summer.  Far from being the dozy farmer Lex is expecting, Mort is a motorcycle riding mad scientist, with a very strange profession.  You see, Uncle Mort is a Grim, as in reaper, and says that Lex has the potential to be one too.  Lex takes to Killing quickly, but the town of Croak, with it's cobblestone streets, bad death puns and eccentric inhabitants takes more adjustment.  Adding to the stress are the slew of unexplained deaths the Grims are seeing.  Her partner Driggs wants to investigate, but Lex isn't so sure, as the dead are not the best of humanity.

What Worked:  Teenage Grim Reapers is a hell of a concept. and Damico comes very close to pulling it off.   Lex and the other teen Grims are very believable: awkward, annoying and completely stoked to be part of the world of Croak.   It's nice to see a paranormal title that is not focused on a love triangle and where the main characters are reasonably angst free.  

The inevitable romance worked well here too, not being of the love at first sight/destined forever variety.The relationship grew organically, and came across as simultaneously awkward and amazing, as teen relationships are wont to do.     I do have a caveat. (See below)

What Didn't:  The puns.  Good Lord, the puns.  The main drag in Croak is Slain Lane.  The local drink is a Yorrick.  The diner is run by Pandora, the bar by her husband, Corpp.  The butcher's is Dead Meat.  The overabundance of cutesy death references went from clever to twee in no time.

Remember my caveat about the romance?  Well, here it is.  I detest "The I've loved you from afar" trope almost as much as the "I found my soulmate before I graduated high school trope" and it pops up here.

Also, it felt like the author couldn't figure out what book she wanted to write.  Is it a lighthearted look at a death-focused society?  Is it a coming of age novel?  Is it a serious suspense/mystery?  It tries to be all three, and the disparate parts never form a cohesive narrative, leading to some weird tonal shifts, and changes in mood.

Who Would I Give this Book To:  Oddly enough, I think this book as some appeal to both girls and guys.  The cover is killer, and would attract readers.  Fans of quirky humor or someone looking for a break from fallen angels and handsome fairies might enjoy this.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The To Read Shelf Challenge: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Title:  Why We Broke Up 
#150 of 158 on the Too Read Shelf
By Daniel Handler and Maria Kalman

I feel really bad about this, but I couldn't finish this book.  It's a Printz Honor!  It's illustrated!  It's an award winner teens would actually want to read!  I should be supporting it.

This is a total, "It's not you, it's me" situation.   I am not a Daniel Handler fan.  I found the Series of Unfortunate Events too precious and repetitive.  And, I found this book to be more of the same.

The book is one long letter, written by Min, a drama girl, to Ed a brainy jock, after their big split.  It tells the story of their relationship and of course, why it ended.   Problem was, I didn't like either of these people very much, so spending time with them was a chore.

When a book becomes a chore, I put it down.

This book has many passionate fans.  I can see the appeal.  Handler gives this temporary relationship all the drama and gravitas a real-live teen would.  Kalman's illustrations are charming.   But, Min is a manic pixie dream girl of the highest degree, and I didn't care about her enough to see her story to the end.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Kinda Watched Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

So, here is a new, randomly occurring feature on the MeridethSays blog, the "Sort of Watched" Review.

Often, my husband and/or child will choose a movie or show that doesn't really appeal to me, but they want me to "stay!" and watch it with them. Typically, I work on something else crochet or read while they partake of their chosen entertainment, and only watch with half an eye.

The latest movie I sort of watched was Midnight in Paris.

A short summary: Gil, a dissatisfied American writer travels back to 1920's Paris, meets his literary idols, and falls in love.

I was ambivalent about this movie from the start. Why? Well, first off, Woody Allen. I don't get his appeal. I don't think his stammering, nebbishy heroes are appealing. I sort of want to slap him (or his movie stand in) every time they start with the rambling. Also, Hemingway. Hemingway is a sexist jerk. And, Owen Wilson. He just bugs me.

However -- this movie might have well as been subtitled "American Literature Crack". My husband, who has a degree in American Lit, has been wanting to see it forever. The DVD was in at the library, so, I was a good wife.

My opinion from kind of watching it?  It was O.K. If I had been giving it my full attention, I probably would have lost it at the characterization of Zelda Fitzgerald (jealous of her husband's talent). Also, the manic pixie dream girl played by Marion Cotilliard would have rankled. But with half an eye, these things didn't bug me too much. Paris is a beautiful city, the jazz soundtrack is nice, the costumes were pretty and Kathy Bates is awesome as Gertrude Stein.

What did bother me was the relationship between Wilson and his American fiance, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams). These are two people who obviously can't stand each other, so why are they engaged? I get that Gil is a doormat, and people have a hard time ending things, but seriously? They got to engaged without noticing they have nothing in common and really don't like each other?

I could go on, noting that every character but Gil is a caricature or a stereotype. But, I'm not that invested.

Overall, I would say the movie is sentimental and does exactly what you expect it to do. If you like Woody Allen, you'll like this.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Yes, I am going to talk about the Hunger Games Movie.

Like every other teen literature professional on earth, I have be anxiously awaiting The Hunger Games film release. 

Actually, to be honest, I was looking forward to it not just because I wanted to see it, but because I planned 3 programs, helped a little with a scavenger hunt, oversaw a bulletin board, designed and created a chalkboard display, created a book list all based around the The Hunger Games series, and I was re-reading it with my 10 year old and husband.  So, I wanted the movie to come out so that I could quit thinking about The Hunger Games for a little while.  I am Panem-ed out.  I started to hate both Gale and Peeta, just a little bit.  

Overall, I did enjoy the film.  Seeing the world that Suzanne Collins created made real was really thrilling. That being said, I do have some comments.  

Now, please be aware, there are spoilers ahead.  Proceed at your own risk. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Excuse Me While I Freak Out Quietly Over Here.... And a New Challenge

So, It's been more than 6 weeks since my last post.  That's bad.

However, I have a good excuse!  Namely, I've been quietly freaking out over the fact that I might not have a day job anymore.   My city is facing "draconian" budget cuts.  The library looks to be taking a huge hit, following the other huge hit we took 2 years ago.

I would love to tell you more, give you specifics, but I must be discreet.   My city is very sensitive, and I live in a hire-at-will state.  How much would it suck to not get laid off, but then get terminated for shooting my mouth off?

And I am really good at shooting my mouth off.  So, as much as it galls me,  I can't really say much.  So as much as I want to have a big old-fashioned-breath holding hissyfit, I can't.

So, to distract myself, I am setting a new challenge.

My GoodReads "To Read" Shelf just spiked at over 150 books.  That is a lot of books.

I will clear off this shelf by the end of 2012.  

Here are the rules:

  • I will attempt to read every book marked To Read on my GoodReads shelf by December 31, 2012.  
  • The 50 page rule still applies.  If any book I pick up does not work for me in the first 50 pages, I reserve the right to abandon it. 
  • Audio books count. 
  • To choose what I read, I will set the sort to random, and read the first thing I can get a hold of.  
  • I will blog about each book.  
  • Only books added before March 17, 2012 are eligible for the challenge.  I'm sure my "To Read" List will continue to grow, but I'm human, damn it. 
To start, I will read The Girl of Fire and Thorns and Why We Broke Up. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

Over at the blog for my "day job" I wrote a love letter to John Green's latest The Fault In Our Stars.   A snippet:

  I don't love you, love you, because you're 17 and fictional and that would be creepy.

Hit the link to read the whole thing. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Literary Dinner: Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Inspired by the awesome Christian and Julia of That Hapa Chick, my daughter and I have decided to start having "Literary Dinners" featuring food inspired by our favorite books.

To give you all a little background, my daughter Mari is 10, and has a good amount of cooking knowledge.  Her father managed to make it all the way to his 30's without learning any cooking skills, and feeding himself something he still struggles with.  To save her this pain, we started teaching Mari cooking early.   On average, she cooks dinner for us twice a month, with some grown up help with sharp things and hot things. 

We picked Percy Jackson to start with for a few reasons.  First off, my daughter got the box set of paperbacks for the holidays, and had just re-read the entire series, so it was fresh in her head.  Second, most of the food mentioned in the books is pretty familiar, so Mari wouldn't get too freaked out by something weird.  (Case in point: We originally considered starting with His Dark Materials, which Mari was reading, but she got scared off by a mention of eating eels.)

After combing through the books for food references, we decided on a Camp Half Blood dinner featuring homemade bread, cheese, grapes and "extra lean, nymph-cut barbecue".  To drink we made "nectar" and for desert, we made blue cupcakes. 

(Note:  All of the photos here are pretty bad quality.  Sorry.  I had to use my tablet, and I'm not used to the camera in it)

Our biggest question was to ambrosia, or not to ambrosia.  For me, having grown up in a family with southern roots, ambrosia is a fruit salad with marshmallows and coconut.  Like this one.  I've always found it a little bit off putting (sorry, numerous great aunts.)   It didn't look any more appetizing to Mari.  So we skipped it.  Several of my teen volunteers told me that ambrosia could be any food yummy enough to make you go up in flames if you eat too much of it.  Mari herself thought it was "like a pop tart.  But, you know, god-esque."    Not knowing how to make divine toaster pastry, we stuck to cupcakes. 

For the bread, we used this recipe from Make and Takes for Rosemary Peasant Bread.  I had made this a few times before myself with good results, and it is definitely easy enough for a 10 year old to handle.  Bonus is that it is a no-knead recipe!  It makes a delicious rustic bread, that's better to pull apart than to slice.  We got a little carried away with the seasoning on the outside, but it was still good. 

The barbecue was really tricky for us.  We figured that the barbecue at Camp Half blood was most likely a spit roasted animal.  After convincing the kid that the owner of our rental townhouse would frown on us installing a spit and getting medieval on a goat in front of the fireplace, we thought that slow-smoked pork would be a good substitute. 

My mother makes a killer smoked pork loin on her gas grill, using a procedure similar to this one for brining and smoking the pork.   However, she has the nice big gas grill to do it.  Our little table-top jobby probably wasn't up to the job.  This recipe from Tyler Florence for Oven Roasted Pulled Pork looked like it would get us to a similar place, so we decided to try it.  However, Dad forgot to tell us we were out of tin foil until after we had applied the salt rub to the pork, so we tried to cut our losses by using a crock pot.  The resulting pork came out very tender and juicy, but a little too salty.  It wasn't nymph cut, but it was 10 year old pulled, which is just as good.

Mari and I got into an argument about the sauce.  I said we should make a vinegar based sauce for our pork, as it is more authentically southern.  Mari, who dislikes barbecue sauce, or anything that's too sour,  said that Camp Half-Blood is in Long Island, and they probably don't eat vinegar sauce there.  It was her dinner, so I let her win.  I had some K.C. Masterpiece on deck, just in case.  Turns out, the pork was plenty flavorful without any sauce, so point to the kid, I guess.

The cheese we had for this meal included Edam, Havarti, Buffalo Mozzarella and Brie.  Why so much cheese?  And why no Greek cheese? Because we sent Dad to the cheese counter to get us some haloumi, and instead, he got all the cheese he liked.  We learned a valuable lesson though: never send Dad to the cheese shop alone. The presence of all that dairy based goodness overrides his brain, and he will come home with $30 worth of the wrong kind of cheese. 

Looking around online for nectar recipes, most of what we found were for thick, smoothie drinks such as this one which uses sour cream and marshmallows.   Mari thought that nectar would be more refreshing and less sweet, so we decided to make something like a spritzer, using half 7-Up and half-fruit juice.  While I lobbied for orange juice or pineapple juice, Mari decided to use Sunny Delight, which to the best of my knowledge, doesn't actually contain any fruit juice. To make it more special we added a tablespoon or so of grenadine syrup. The resulting drink was good,but I thought it was still too sweet.  Mari disagreed, and thought it was the best thing we made.  I decided to switch to Mr. D's favorite non-alcoholic drink: Diet Coke.

To round things out, we had grapes.  Unfortunately we had no satyrs on hand to peel them.  We also added apples to the mix.  Why?  Mari really likes apples.  Very little prep here, but I did cave and bought an apple slicer/corer thing-a-bob.  Mari loves it, and is no longer asking me to cut up her apples, which is all win. 

I am not a great baker (see my love of the no-knead bread above) so we totally cheated and made the mini-cupcakes from a mix.  The twist is that Mari got a mini-cupcake maker as a holiday gift, and we used it to bake the cupcakes.  If you've never seen one of these machines before, it's sort of like a mix between a George Foreman grill and a waffle iron.  You put the batter in and 7 minutes later, you get 7 mini-cupcakes.   I am not in love with this appliance.  First off, it gets oven hot, and if the lid is open, there is no way to tell if it is on, as my burnt finger will attest.  Secondly even the small Jiffy yellow cake mix we made makes 20+ cupcakes and you can only bake them 7 at a time.  Finally, the mini-cupcake maker doesn't have a timer or an automatic off switch, so you have to time your cupcakes separately.  However, Mari thinks it is the greatest thing ever, and is one of the innovations that separates us from the animals.

 We also cheated with the frosting, using store bought that we dyed blue (the photo is making it look washed out, but it was very blue).  We tried the Alton Brown trick of using a plastic bag as a piping bag, which failed miserably and got blue frosting all over us and the kitchen.  (Note to self:  disposable piping bags are not that expensive!) We topped it off with some blue sanding sugar.   The cupcakes were good but messy, thanks to our liberal frosting application.

Over all, I would call our dinner a success, and it definitely gave Mari confidence to tackle more complex meals in the future.