Review: “Summer Knight,” Jim Butcher

Pros: dark, fascinating
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Wizard Harry Dresden is in bad shape after the events of Grave Peril. He’s poured every ounce of energy he has into the search for a cure for his girlfriend, Susan. He’s about to be evicted from his home, so he’s forced to take on a case. Unfortunately it’s the faerie Winter Queen, Mab, who shows up on his doorstep. The Summer Knight was killed, and Mab needs to prove it wasn’t her doing. That’s where Dresden comes in. She bought his contract from his godmother and now Harry has little choice but to serve as Mab’s emissary.

Summer Knight: The Dresden Files sees Harry venture farther into the world and politics of faeries than he’s ever gone before. The balance of power between the two Queens is about to be skewed, something that would have terrible repercussions for everyone. One of the members of the wizards’ Council is nearly rabid in his desire to get rid of Harry, permanently.

I love the faeries of Butcher’s milieu. They range from tiny things that can be baited with pizza to the powerful and inhuman Sidhe. Their bargains color all that they do, and it’s easy to end up on the wrong end of a deal with a faerie.

There’s plenty of danger and adventure in this installment. Murphy is shown taking a larger and more explicit role in helping Harry through a couple of close calls. I do love the scene where she picks up a chainsaw and goes to town on a plant monster. Huge amounts of power are being tossed around, and Harry’s having the worst time of trying to figure out whodunit as a key to stopping the upcoming fae war. It’s fascinating to see what happens when Harry’s at the end of his rope, and how the friends he’s been picking up come to his rescue, or vice versa. I’m wholly enjoying catching up with the Dresden Files!

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It’s been a weird couple of weeks, with a bunch of things to do. So, not as many reviews have gone up. No worries–I just finished one library book (Summer Knight by Jim Butcher) to hopefully put up a review tomorrow. Then I have several more lined up. I’ll be spending Thursday through Saturday cooking, so, no reviews then. Mmmm, cooking a feast and possibly having a friend or two over. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Posted in Cooking, News & Musings

Review: “The Hangman,” Louise Penny

Pros: Simple mystery
Cons: Not much tension
Rating: 4 out of 5


One of the difficulties of getting a book from the library or getting an e-book copy is that I don’t necessarily know as much about a book going in. For instance, only after I read The Hangman (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Novella) did I find out that it’s meant as a simpler book for people who might have trouble reading. This is the sort of information that I wish was more prominent when buying a book. Both so that someone doesn’t go into the book with a wrong impression, and more importantly because if I had a reading disability or my English wasn’t that great I’d want to know about that aspect of the book!

Now that I do know about that, I need to judge the book a little differently. Since I don’t have difficulty reading it’s tough for me to say whether this novella succeeds in that part of its purpose. I can say, however, that the read felt very quick and simple to me, which means they probably did succeed at what they set out to accomplish.

The mystery itself involves a body found hanged from a tree, and an isolated pool of suspects to grill. The depth of characterization is lacking, but again that makes sense for a deliberately simple story. The mystery was quickly solved, but again, the context makes that okay. The whole thing really comes down to whether you are interested in a short, simple mystery or desire more depth. (And of course, whether you need the lower reading level if you have some difficulty reading English.)

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Review: “Taste of Home Christmas”

Pros: Yum!
Cons: Some recipes could use more seasoning
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: Review book provided by Reader’s Digest


Taste of Home Christmas: 465 Recipes For a Merry Holiday is a delightful collection of holiday recipes. Contents include Festive Appetizers, Holiday Parties, Joyful Brunches, Christmas Dinner Menus, Merry Entrees, Jolly Sides, Glorious Breads, Yuletide Cookies and Bars, Heavenly Desserts, Candy Sampler, Gifts from the Kitchen, and Thanksgiving Gathering. I absolutely love holiday cookbooks when they’re done well, and this one is.

We made quite a few recipes from this Christmas cookbook; we were contemplating using it for Thanksgiving this year. After trying out so many lovely recipes, we went ahead and chose a bunch of recipes for next week. I can’t wait to try more dishes out of this cookbook!

Chicken with cranberry sauce, zesty broccoli

Chicken with cranberry sauce, zesty broccoli

The zesty broccoli in the picture above could have used a little more seasoning, but was quite good. The chicken breast with cranberry-balsamic sauce was absolutely delightful; I’d happily make it again. The sauce has so much flavor that it made a great accompaniment to skinless chicken breast. A corn-and-berry couscous also made a delicious side dish, as well as a great boxed lunch (it’s good hot or cold). I wasn’t thrilled by the squash rings, however. They had an odd coating that included cornmeal, and the result didn’t work for me.

Pesto Pepper Tortellini

Pesto Pepper Tortellini

The recipes in this book are clearly not selected for health, as many recipes call for heavy cream. If you’re big on ‘it’s a holiday–no worries about diet’ then this will be fine. If you’re trying to find low-fat versions of holiday recipes then you’ll need to look elsewhere. The Pesto Pepper Tortellini above is made with a package of frozen cheese tortellini. Since these are reader-submitted recipes, some make use of convenience items while others start from scratch. The tortellini dish also calls for a lot of heavy cream and butter. (We substituted half-and-half for the cream and 3T butter for the 1/2c and it was still very rich and delightfully delicious.) Other ingredients that made this such a good meal include sweet red pepper, garlic, ground walnuts, and a couple tablespoons of fresh basil.

There is one problem I’ve noticed in this cookbook: a lack of salt in many of the recipes. However, I have a theory about that. Given that these are reader-submitted recipes, it’s possible many of the people who submitted them assumed that salted butter would be used rather than unsalted. (In most cookbooks you always use unsalted butter because you want to have better control over the level of seasoning.) So be sure to taste your recipe for seasoning! This was certainly true of a batch of cheddar muffins we made–sooo delicious, but we had to add salt. Salt is a flavor enhancer, after all.

Bacon-wrapped shrimp before baking

Bacon-wrapped shrimp before baking

The first recipe we made from this cookbook was a bacon-wrapped barbecue sauce-slathered shrimp recipe. Delightful! I should note that many of the recipes include photos. Also, the layout is clean and easy to read, except that the instructions are a little bunched up.

Then there’s the fluffy hot chocolate (there are several hot chocolate recipes included in this cookbook). In this recipe you heat milk and stir in cocoa powder, sugar, and mini marshmallows until the marshmallows have melted. The amount of cocoa powder is very small (essentially 1t per serving). In other words, it’s more a marshmallow drink with a touch of chocolate. If what you want is a more chocolatey hot chocolate, then convert the teaspoons of cocoa to tablespoons and you’ll be fine. It’s quite delicious and I look forward to making more of the other varieties included.


While there are a few adjustments we’d make (adding salt to many recipes, adding extra cocoa to that one recipe), the basic recipes are wonderful. Just to give you an idea of some of the other recipes, here are the ones we plan to make for Thanksgiving this year:

  • Ham with orange glaze
  • Sausage raisin dressing
  • Pear and mushroom strudel
  • Cranberry chutney
  • Crunchy sweet potato bake
  • Cheddar garlic biscuits
  • Maple-oat dinner rolls
  • Coffee punch
  • Truffle hot chocolate
  • Eggnog cream pie
  • White chocolate strawberry tiramisu
  • Pumpkin mousse

I highly recommend picking up your own copy in time for Christmas feasting!

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Review: “Kill the Dead,” Richard Kadrey

Pros: More of Stark’s rough style
Cons: I guess I’m not as moved by zombies now
Rating: 4 out of 5


“You might be crazy, but you’re just not that evil, bro.”

Kill the Dead (book two in the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey) sees Stark dealing with an undead menace–zombies are popping up in ever-greater numbers, and he’s sure it’s part of a larger plan. Stark’s also busy acting as Lucifer’s bodyguard while Lucifer acts as a consultant on a movie based on his life. Everyone seems to think that Lucifer might be Stark’s father–even Stark isn’t really sure, but the interest Lucifer takes in him gives the idea some credence. Now Stark is trying to protect Lucifer, destroy the zombies that keep getting in his way, and in his own half-assed way, protect the people who are close to him.


“Sandman Slim” is the name Stark hates to be called by. He’s still something of a celebrity among the Sub Rosa, which annoys him more than anything else. Everybody seems to have plans for him: helping him, using him, putting him in a position of power. Everyone has their own preconceptions of him, most of which only pin down parts of him. He’s an abomination according to some, still working out what he can and can’t do. He doesn’t have many friends, so he does what he can to help the ones he has. Stark really seems to enjoy shocking people, as much as he enjoys anything. He’s a surprisingly engaging antihero in a dark world where even angels can’t be trusted.

The zombie invasion wasn’t as interesting to me as the events of book one, but I think I’ve just seen too many zombie movies, books, and TV shows lately. I’ve hit a bit of burnout on the topic. Kadrey does some interesting things with the zombies–there are several types, all of them with different levels of awareness and motivation. Killing them is also interesting, seeing as the usual means don’t always work–there’s a fun character who’s a zombie-slayer who teaches Stark how to take them down.

Kadrey provides some truly entertaining dialogues. Then there’s the vampire who uses a flamethrower as a weapon, so that’s fun. The plot went in some interesting directions, particularly the thread about the identity of Stark’s father. There are some events in there that genuinely surprised me, which is great. I’ll have to put a hold on book three from the library; I hope they have the rest of the series!

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Non-Review: “A Death in Eden,” Paul J. Heald

NOTE: Review book provided by author


I do a “non-review” when I couldn’t finish a book. I won’t review it on Amazon or GoodReads, but I don’t mind telling you here why I chose not to finish. If there’s one thing I’ve found over the years, it’s that there are too many good books to spend my time finishing a book that I can’t get into. Death in Eden: A Mystery was recommended to me based on the fact that I enjoy J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts’s “in death” series. That may have set my expectations too high.

Death in Eden introduces us to Stanley, a sociology professor without tenure (naturally) who’s decided to spend part of his upcoming book’s space on women in the adult film industry. Eventually there’s a murder, and somehow it falls to Stanley to prove his old school friend’s innocence–by finding the real killer (of course). I read more than half of the book before giving up.

It is possible to turn such a simple list of events into the entire first half of a book, but the characters, events, and window-dressing have to be damn fine to pull it off. In my opinion, that didn’t happen here. The characters are fairly universally unlikable. There’s little tension involved; the proper pacing for a thrilling mystery just isn’t there. It feels as though the author is excited about all this adult film industry detail and is therefore pouring out those details willy-nilly, without much thought for rhythm, dialogue, and so forth. He also handles conversations in a manner that undercuts any interesting pacing: he bounces back and forth between using actual dialogue, and simply summing up conversations or parts of conversations with narrative. Chunks of the narrative are devoted to info-dump monologues. It robs those conversations of any momentum they might have. (Sure, it’s possible to sum up conversations and have it work, but it needs to be an occasional thing and carefully used.)

As much as I hate having to NR a book that an author asked me to read, there are just too many books on my plate to spend more time working my way through material that doesn’t interest me.

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Review: “Super Foods Cookbook,” Reader’s Digest

Pros: One of the recipes we tried came out well…
Cons: …the other ones didn’t.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

NOTE: Review book provided by Reader’s Digest


Super Foods Cookbook: 184 Super Easy Recipes to Boost Your Health (N/A) sounds fantastic. I find most ingredients that get labeled as ‘super foods’ are delicious (fresh, vibrant vegetables and fruits), so it should be hard to go wrong.

The operative phrase here is, “should be”.

Now, one of the recipes we made came out fairly well–a lamb dish with green beans and a creamy caper sauce. We solidly enjoyed that. There was a raspberry, banana, and oat smoothie; we cut the amount of water by 1 full cup and it was still thin and watery. Then, there’s the “lightly spiced” vegetable medley. The first night it was… okay. It’s flavored largely with ground coriander and cardamom seeds. Coriander without a complementary flavor tastes… not great. Add to that little bursts of intense cardamom and it was just… yuck. The leftovers tasted even worse, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it.

What’s good about this cookbook? Well it has a thorough index, a clean and easy-to-read layout, and some nice photos. Nutrition info is included, and there are educational sidebars here and there. Alternative ingredient suggestions are included.

Contents include a chapter on the benefits of super foods. It has a chart in it with conditions across the top (aging, cancer, depression, menopause, heart health, fatigue…) and super foods down the side. It gets pretty ridiculous, with nearly every food being named as benefiting nearly every condition. At that point you’re better off pointing out that a nutritious diet is good for overall health no matter what’s wrong with you and skip the huge charts. Otherwise it has a whiff of snake-oil salesmanship.

There’s a chapter of soups, starters, and snacks; vegetables and salads; fish and seafood; poultry and game; meat; pasta, legumes, and grains; as well as desserts. After the first few recipes that we tried, we didn’t have the heart to make anything else from this book.

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Review: “Seductive Supernaturals,” various authors

Pros: Some interesting ideas
Cons: Stories that don’t stand on their own
Rating: 3 out of 5

Review copy provided free by Full Moon Books, LLC via NetGalley.


SEDUCTIVE SUPERNATURALS: 12 Tales of Shapeshifters, Vampires & Sexy Spirits is a collection of novellas all set in romantic paranormal worlds. It’s certainly a good way to find new authors you might like, and since these pieces are much longer than short stories it’ll keep you busy for a while! There are also plenty of sample chapters included so you can start in on the authors’ other works. As the title perhaps indicates, there’s explicit sex in here.

Diablo Springs by Erin Quinn: This one is a ghost story that see-saws back and forth between the 1800s and the modern day. At first they seem to be very disparate parallel stories, but gradually they come together. The main characters have depth and interest, but there were just enough side characters–especially given the time-period back-and-forth–that I had trouble keeping up with some of the modern-day secondary characters. There’s some lovely romance/sex, but I must give you a trigger warning for rape.

Vampire Reborn by Caridad Pineiro: I never really got a handle on this story. There are some fairly standard vampire/slayer dynamics and abilities. The story felt a bit complex to stand alone, and again I had some trouble keeping up with the large cast of characters as well as the politics. I also felt some confusion as to whose thoughts/words I was reading at various times.

Shadow Fall by Erin Kellison: I really enjoyed this one. There’s nice developing chemistry between Annabella and Custo, and the milieu had its own feel rather than mimicking every other paranormal in existence. There’s plenty of tension and excitement, and the story was quite engaging.

Night Angel by Lisa Kessler: Prophetic dreams. Blood drinkers called Night Walkers. Mind-to-mind speech as a way of reaching a deaf woman. Banshees. Whirlwind courtship. I enjoyed the romantic relationship in this one, as well as the use of the supernatural. It differed from many other supernatural romances in the details.

Shadows Till Sunrise by Chris Marie Green: This is a novella in a series, and oh boy did I have trouble catching up on context. Usually novellas or short stories by different authors that are collected together are meant to introduce readers to the authors’ worlds. This requires that each story be able to stand reasonably well on its own–and Shadows Till Sunrise did not. I still can’t wrap my head around the Meratoliages, Lilly’s weird magic boots, and so on. Also way too much space was taken up with Lilly’s obsessive ruminating over what Philippe thinks of her. The fact that Lilly’s memory is wiped when she sleeps could be really interesting, but it mostly confused me as to what she could and couldn’t remember.

A Shadow at Twilight by Mary Leo: An oblivious, stubborn mule of an executive plans to marry someone he doesn’t love, all because of what his father wants. His assistant, Hilly, meticulously sets up all the details of Dillon’s upcoming vacation–the one to which he doesn’t invite his fiancee or his father; it’s entirely for him and his grandmother. Things go topsy-turvy when Dillon ends up in a coma, his grandmother dies, and Hilly’s left trying to pick up all the pieces. She also has some unlikely ghostly help. I had a bit of trouble with the idea of Dillon being so oblivious in his day-to-day life when he seems to be so empathetic in his once-a-year vacation, and one or two other tidbits. Also, I’m not sure why authors who portray ghosts seem to have a fixation on including celebrities in the mix when they don’t really seem to add to anything.

More than Fiends by Maureen Child: Cassidy, who runs a home cleaning service, discovers that she’s inherited speed, strength, and more to enable her to hunt and kill demons. She has a stern teacher, a stubborn teenage daughter, and one new/one old love interest. The snark entirely sets the tone; this is humor with a helping of paranormal rather than the other way around. Overall I enjoyed this tale; the pacing was great, the sex was delightful, and there’s some funny stuff here. However, there were a handful of places where I felt like characters were too oblivious for no better reason than to set up either plot points or jokes.

Immortal Possession by Cassi Carver: This is one of my favorites of the book. The world-building is unusual–spirits of the dead, people with mutation-based abilities, and other odd tidbits. Evelyn has desperately wanted to join Immortal Bounty as an investigator–both because she really wants to work there and because she needs to make money to support her father. They’ve turned her away at every application, until now. Normally her weakness to possession would be too much of a flaw, until IB finds a way to make use of that weakness. The problem is, the folks in charge intend to use her once and then fire her. Her partner has other plans. There’s some lovely chemistry between Evelyn and her partner.

Forever Rose by Janet Wellington: A plot that includes time travel, Wyatt Earp, a house of ill-repute (accompanied by the madame with a heart of gold, of course), psychic readings and seances, dead people talking in people’s heads, murder plots, and true love. It’s rather fantastical and relies on heavy suspension of disbelief as it hand-waves certain questions away. The ghostly nudges and hints are stereotypically vague for no apparent reason. The tale was nicely atmospheric, conveying the setting well, but it fell apart a bit for me around the edges of the plot itself.

Welcome Home, Vampire by Theresa Meyers: Cole has been turned into a ‘living vampire’ by a military experiment. But when he goes home to see his dead friend’s widow, Kayla, he and she realize they still have a thing for each other. Only problem is, Cole is so strong he’s afraid he’d hurt her if he slept with her. An unsent ‘last words’ letter gets delivered to Kayla; her husband basically said ‘good-bye and by the way, I think it would be great if you got it on with Cole’. It’s really weird that he sends her a final love-you letter in which he spends more time talking about how amazing Cole is than anything else. Too convenient in the context of the story. Anyway, weird stuff about vampires and how they work keeps coming up, along with stuff about other not-quite-vampires. It all gets sort of dumped haphazardly into what is otherwise a brief love story. It has a matter-of-fact feel to it. The ‘living vampires’ are supermen with no discernible limits. (They need sunglasses to avoid migraines during daylight, and they need to drink blood now and then. There’s no atmosphere to this, no creepiness.) It’s just another ‘enhanced soldiers’ story with excess vampire window-dressing.


One of the tricks with anthologies is that there’s going to be a wide enough array of stories that you can almost guarantee that you’ll like something–and dislike something else. Not helping the case is the fact that some of these stories really don’t stand alone. Forever Rose was good, and Immortal Possession presented a fresh milieu and interesting characters. Night Angel and Shadow Fall were enjoyable and interesting. Most of the rest felt a bit hurried to me. They sacrificed atmosphere to the need to rush through plot points, or they sacrificed believability in order to give you a peek into too-much-stuff for the space the authors had. If you’re a total paranormal/romance junkie, then it might be worth picking this up just to discover a few new authors. Certainly at the current price ($0.99 as of November 2014) it’s a steal.

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Review: “Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” Hertzberg and Francois

Pros: Delicious and easy
Cons: Hard crust, shaggy look, doesn’t brown well
Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: Review book provided by authors


I’m a huge fan of Hertzberg and Francois’s original Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day cookbook. We got it years ago and we still make bread from it. It’s a great way to fit fresh bread into a busy schedule.

One of the authors asked if I’d like to use and review the new Gluten-Free Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Baking Revolution Continues with 90 New, Delicious and Easy Recipes Made with Gluten-Free Flours. I warned him that I don’t cook gluten-free and thus couldn’t judge it from that direction, but that I’d be happy to judge it against non-GF breads and provide that perspective.

The process is like this: you mix together a bunch of gluten-free dry ingredients following one or another set of instructions. (One of those possible mixtures is whole-grain.) You’ll need to have something like a Whole Foods near you–or a good online source–to find all of the unusual flours you’ll need. When you want to make bread you use a certain amount of one of those mixtures, add things like yeast and water, mix, rise, and fridge. Any time you want bread you shape a loaf from the dough, let it rise, and then bake (on either a preheated oven stone or a sheet pan). Let cool, and eat. That’s it.

We made three particular recipes out of this book in order to test it out. We made the basic recipe. We used the whole-grain mixture to make a half-whole grain, half-not batch. And finally we made the Portugese broa–bread with cornmeal in it–because it’s our favorite recipe from the original book. This selection made it easy for us to draw comparisons with the original book.

The plain basic recipe is my favorite in the gluten-free edition of the cookbook. It smells just like any other wonderful bread while baking. You have to wait to serve it until it’s fully cooled or the insides can get a little squooshy (that’s a technical term). The bread tasted delicious. It was dense (and thus very filling–you won’t need much), had a crust that was more crunchy than crisp. The shape was a little ‘shaggy’–it was hard to shape the dough smoothly and it didn’t have enough oven spring to correct that. I particularly recommend slices of this bread with a bit of butter and honey. Absolutely divine.

The half-whole grain bread wasn’t as good, although we still enjoyed it. The hard crust, dense texture, and shaggy shape were a little more pronounced here. The broa had similar problems. It’s my least favorite so far of the GF breads, even though it’s my most favorite in the original book. In the dense, mildly gummy GF bread, the bits of cornmeal seem really out of place. We tried both baking stones and sheet pans, steam and no steam, with little enough difference between the results.

Now, I was reading some of the helpful material that comes before the recipes–equipment, etc. The book suggested that a pale crust, undercooked crumb, and thick crust could mean that the oven’s temperature is off. Given how perfectly that meshed with our experiences, we believed that meant our oven was running cool. We got a new oven thermometer, because I didn’t want to blame imperfect loaves on the book if there was a problem on our end. However, it turned out that our old oven, which has really seen better days, is spot-on in its heating–I was really surprised.

So, to sum up: A person who has no need to eat gluten-free isn’t going to mistake these loaves for ‘normal’ bread any time soon. If you can’t have regular bread, however, it smells and tastes like the real thing; I expect it would be worth the mild textural issues. And of course, given that it can be a pain to put together all the myriad of ingredients for GF bread, using a cookbook that makes dough for a handful of loaves at a time is ideal. I imagine someday we’ll find the miracle mix of flours that can better fake a gluten-free bread, but we aren’t yet there.

Posted in Cooking, Reviews Tagged with: , , , , , ,

On Reviewing Cookbooks

I had thought I’d be posting a review of the gluten-free artisan bread in 5 minutes a day book on Friday. However, some of our bread hadn’t really been coming out right. I looked through some of their trouble-shooting tips and suspect our oven is not at the temperature it tells us it is. So we’re getting an oven thermometer. I always make recipes from a cookbook before reviewing, and I don’t want to ding the cookbook for an error on our end. So, it’ll probably be another week or thereabouts.

Posted in Cooking, Reviews

Stuff for Gamers

Take a look at the shirts-n-things in our stuff for gamers store.