Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Greetings


This has been an extremely busy pre-holiday season for me, thus, no writing!  But I've decorated my house to a fare thee well, entertained on several occasions, cooked some holiday foods, prepared for a federal review at work, and I'm now recuperating from bronchitis and getting ready to drive to Virginia for the holidays. 

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday surrounded by family and friends. 

I'll see you in 2013!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Thoughts of Food on a Cold Winter's Night


 
I spent much of a Christmas holiday a few years ago in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia where I was born and reared, and where my mother, my two sisters and our families gather every year.   An ice storm's aftermath, plus a dusting of snow, had provided us with an icy, cold, white Christmas.
My childhood home

One frosty night I decided I wanted a pot of spiced tea that, in our family, we have always called "Russian tea."  I had only made the instant mix in the past, so my mother had to show me how she mixed up the pitchers of Russian tea that were often in the refrigerators at our house, or at our grandmother's house, during the winters of my childhood.  Soon, a saucepan containing water, cinnamon sticks and whole cloves was simmering on the stove, filling the house with its fragrance.  We next made a pot of tea, then added orange juice, lemon juice, sugar and the liquid strained from our spices.  I kept inquiring about a recipe but my mother worked intuitively and with frequent taste tests.

Once the tea was made and I was sitting with my steaming cup, my mother retrieved her recipe box from the kitchen shelf.  Inside the box were 3 x 5 note cards, newspaper clippings or handwritten scraps of paper representing my childhood in the form of recipes for casseroles, salads, cakes, cookies--even my grandmother's Russian tea recipe!

My mother began to look at each recipe, culling out duplicates, or dishes she said she would never make again.  As she discarded recipes, I would often protest, "But these have historical value, you can't just throw them away."

 
I started my own stack of cards, and that is how I came to own my grandmother's Russian tea recipe written in her own cursive handwriting, my Aunt Dean's recipe for Christmas fruit drop tea cakes and a version of Snicker Doodle cookies made by Mrs. Brown, an older woman in our neighborhood.  All of these women have passed away, but each was alive again as we read their recipes.  I copied my mother's recipe for lemon squares that I had needed several years ago for a party, and didn't have, and recipes from my sisters for blueberry cake and moist 'n creamy coconut cake.  My mother and I spoke of recipes we wished we had--my maternal grandmother's roll recipe that called for potato water and my paternal grandmother's recipe for carrot cookies. 

Reading recipes on a cold winter night in Virginia helped me remember many magical times from my childhood and evoked memories of family and friends.  I know how fortunate I am to have grown up in a household where we had plenty to eat, surrounded by a loving, extended family.

M.F.K. Fisher, the essayist who writes about food in many of her books, stated it this way: "When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and the warmth and the love of it."    She went on to add that, "...with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Cold Christmas mystery

Hampstead, Kansas is caught in a deep freeze which is affecting not only the weather but apparently the characters in Charlene Weir’s fifth Susan Wren mystery.   Weir immediately sets a tone of desperation touching the lives of many Hamstead residents at Christmas.  There is an immediate feeling of foreboding, followed by some graphic descriptions of the deaths that occur--it doesn't seem like a "cozy" mystery.  

Initially Weir introduces a lot of characters quickly and it seems like a creepy furnace repairman is the only connection among them, but eventually the small town relationships emerge.  To me, as an introduction to Weir's Susan Wren series, this mystery does not work well as a stand-alone book.  Since I haven’t read any of the earlier books I had no idea who some of the characters were or their relationships with Police Chief Wren, e.g., other police officers who were at home sick with the flu. 

 
Worldwide Mystery, 2002
Original publication, 2001, St. Martin's Press

There seemed to be a lack of character development but the plot kept me turning the pages as the book drew to an end.  The family around whom the main murder mystery evolves both evoked my sympathy and extreme irritation.  I was hoping someone would intervene before child protection got involved.  One Good Samaritan did step in to help but it seemed to be a one and done attempt.  Again the book's focus seemed to be people in town who were socially isolated for one reason or another—illness, abusive husband, sanctimonious busybody, a character too proud to ask for help, people under stress who were basically unhinged.  Important details about the characters seemed to  emerge willy nilly in the book.  To me it read like a draft rather than a finished product.  Weir dedicated A COLD CHRISTMAS to mystery writer Susan Dunlap who had advised Weir that a book could be created from a manuscript of complete confusion. Maybe so, but the initial problems of the manuscript show.

Even noting all these issues with this book, I would read another of Weir’s Susan Wren novels to see if they make more sense when I start at the beginning of the series.  Weir’s first Susan Wren mystery THE WINTER WIDOW was winner of St. Martin's award for best traditional mystery. 

 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ivy Beasley and company


Ivy Beasley is a cantankerous, older woman who has relocated to a retirement home to be near her only relative, her younger cousin Deirdre.  Ivy Beasley might be recognized by some readers as previously inhabiting the village of Round Ringford as a character in author Ann Purser’s non-mystery Round Ringford series.  I’ve not read the Round Ringford books so this mystery series is my introduction to her.  I love this line drawing of Ivy but don’t know who to attribute it to.
Ivy is unhappy and bored living with a bunch of old people in the retirement home, but she isn’t the type of person who makes friends easily because of her prickly and sometimes sanctimonious demeanor.  Soon another newcomer to town befriends her after church one day.  Augustus Halfhide is a tall, thin secretive man who seems to be keeping a very low profile in town.  When Gus and Ivy get together after church one day, they decide to establish an inquiry agency.  (After all, in my experience the gray-haired network is one of the most efficient research groups in a community!)
 
Deirdre joins the group, too, since they need her for transportation and as a financial backer for this new enterprise.  Deirdre is bored, too, if she would admit it.  Soon another member of the retirement home joins the agency and Enquire Within is born.  They soon have their first case when Gus’ elderly neighbor is found murdered in her cottage next to Gus’.  I think you either enjoy this cozy series and appreciate the unlikely group of protagonists, with their over the top quirkiness and grouchy moods, or you hate the series.

The characterization drives the novels because the mystery unfolds slowly and some readers find the pace to be too slow and indeed boring.  A few Kindle reviewers were especially vituperous in  their comments as I noted when I read the second and third book in the series as Kindle downloads.  I went ahead and read all three of the books in the series because I enjoyed the idea of elders being successful investigators.  Ann Purser is not Agatha Christie and Ivy is no Miss Marple but the village life and unusual characters kept me interested.

The books in this series are as follows:
The Hangman's Row Enquiry
Berkley Prime Crime, 2010
 
The Measby Murder Enquiry
Berkley Prime Crime, 2011
Read in Kindle download
 
The Wild Wood Enquiry
Berkley Prime Crime, 2012
Read in Kindle download
 
About the Author, Ann Purser:
(Author biography taken from Goodreads)
 
Ann Purser lives in the East Midlands, in a small and attractive village which still has a village shop, a garage, pub and church. Here she finds her inspiration for her novels about country life. She has only to do her daily shopping down the High Street to listen to the real life of the village going on around her.  Purser brings a wide range of experiences to her writing.  She was a magazine columnist for 6 years and an art gallery proprietor for 10 years. Working in a village school added more grist to the mill, as does singing in the church choir and membership of the Women’s Guild.   She is mother of a daughter with cerebral palsy and wrote a non-fiction book for parents of children with disabilities.
She obtained an Oxford Degree as an adult and eventually decided to try her hand at writing novels.  Round Ringford became Ann’s village in a series of six novels, each with a separate story, but featuring the same cast of characters with a few newcomers each time. The list of books gives details of each story, and each features an issue common to all villages in our rural countryside.
Because Purser is a big fan of detective fiction, her next series became the Lois Meade Mysteries, each title reflecting a day of the week--Murder on Monday was born, Terror on Tuesday, and Weeping on Wednesday. The rest of the week follows!  The Ivy Beasley series is the most recent one.

Purser sets aside mornings for her writing, and the rest of the day finds her walking the dog, retrieving bantams’ eggs from around the garden, gossiping and taking part in the life of the village.
 
 
 




Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Reason to Give Thanks


Living life or writing about it?  Reading for pleasure or working on my paying job?  Volunteering in my historic neighborhood or chilling in my library?  Taking care of the hundreds of details for upcoming Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas holidays or trying to enjoy all the fun activities that happen in my part of the world in the fall? 

 

These are some of the quandries of my life right now, and probably many of yours as well.  It's not that I don't want to write in my blog because I love writing my posts--it's just that I am pulled in so many different directions. 

 

I'm thankful to have a rich, full life!  In a minute I'm going to walk over to the park where our annual Highland Jazz and Blues Festival will be taking place--five and a half hours of music on two stages, food and craft vendors--a fun time as only Louisiana can do it.  I'll hear some great music, visit with friends, supervise the festival information and t-shirt booth  volunteers I lined up--and basically have a great day, hopefully forgetting about my "To Do" lists.

 

I'll get it all done--and what doesn't get done, probably won't have dire consequences.  Soon I'll return to my blogging.  Until then, have a wonderful Thanksgiving week. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Russell Means and the Yellow Thunder Camp

Another man that I associate with South Dakota has died--Russell Means, the controversial Indian activist, succumbed to esophageal cancer.  Where to start talking about Russell Means?  Russell was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation that adjoins the Rosebud Reservation where I lived and taught from 1980-1982.  Russell was a legend on the Rosebud Reservation, and I don't mean to imply that his legendary status was necessarily positive.   On the other hand, in my limited experience, there was always in-fighting among Indians so everything you heard about someone else had to be taken with a grain of salt.  (I use the term, Indians, instead of Native Americans because that's what my Indian friends used.  The preference is the tribal name, and most of the folks described here are Sioux.)

Russell's family moved to California when he was a child, and he became another disenfranchised urban Indian, falling victim to every stereotypical vice--drugs, drinking, brawling, arrests, jail time, failed marriages, domestic violence--a pattern that continued off and on throughout his life.  On the other hand, Russell had the ability to identify legitimate Indian issues and bring them to the forefront of the national consciousness, working in conjunction with other Indian activists.  At the same time, he was never adverse to getting publicity for himself in the process.  Russel Means, like many Indians, was a survivor.

Russell Means as young man with AIM
(kansascity.com)
When he and Dennis Banks and other American Indian Movement (AIM) activists occupied Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, the purpose was to bring to the forefront the injustices of government policy against the Indians while it also showed the complicated relationships and in-fighting on the reservations themselves. You can read more about the seige of Wounded Knee here.

I did meet Russell Means once at the Yellow Thunder encampment in the Black Hills.  The Sioux lay claim to the Paha Sapa, sacred lands and hunting grounds of the Black Hills taken from them.  They have a legitimate complaint.  The encampment was a protest and a demand for a return of the sacred lands of their ancestors.  Click here to read about this on-going land dispute, the trail of broken treaties and the positions of both sides.

I remember there were armed guards on the dirt road entering the camp, but we were expected.  One of our friends had made arrangements for us to visit.  I don't remember if we were searched, but the security looked like they took their jobs seriously.  Most of our group of friends and I were content to explore the camp, peeking into tipis and watching life in the camp. 

My ex-husband, the politico, who at this time was ghost writing speeches for a friend of ours who was tribal chairman of one of the Sioux tribes, sat at a picnic table and talked with Russell Means.  My ex and I were researching a paper on Indian education and the American Indian Movement at the time, but it appeared that the role of the Sioux women at the encampment was to "wait on" the men, so I was not impressed with that scenario.

My big memory of that trip was disappointment.  We were supposed to return to the camp the next day to meet Willie Nelson!  I was so excited.  Willie, of course, is a big supporter of Indian rights (as well as farmers), and we were also in Rapid City to attend a Willie Nelson concert--he did a benefit for the Yellow Thunder Camp that we attended.  The next day Willie was to visit the Yellow Thunder Camp, and we were going back, too.

aerial view of Yellow Thunder encampment in the Black Hills
(ritonews.blogspot.com)
Now Willie Nelson is someone whom I've always wanted to meet.  Then it snowed and we didn't have vehicles that could make it to the camp in the snow.  Opportunity thwarted!

Postscript: Russell Means' ashes were spread over the Yellow Thunder Camp after his death.  May the struggle to address the injustices perpetrated against Native Americans of all tribes soon be over and let justice prevail for our country's native peoples.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Those were the days, my friend...


We were young, idealistic--my ex-husband ran the campaign headquarters for McGovern in Abingdon, VA near where we attended college.  I was working for the county and was forbidden from campaigning for any political candidate, but I worked in the next county over from the headquarters, so I figured what my bosses didn't know wouldn't hurt them.  I wanted to be part of the excitement, part of the process.  I loved politics back then.  We worked county fairs and other events.  I can remember trying to convince those good old boy farmers to at least consider McGovern.  We had some success.  Back then there were a lot of Democrats in southwestern Virginia.  It was just over the mountain from the coal fields, and the miners traditionally voted Democratic. 

The southwestern portion Virginia is part of the 9th Congressional District and extends from Roanoke, Virginia, all the way to the Tennessee line.  The 9th Congressional District used to be known as the 'Fighting Ninth,' "because of its taste for raucous politics, which by and large were culturally conservative and economically populist." (To read the National Journal Almanac article referenced in this post, click here.)

"As early as 1765 settlements were being carved into the great Valley of Virginia, which bends westward and south toward Tennessee and the Cumberland Gap, " reports the National Journal Almanac.  I know because my ancestors were part of that group of largely Scots-Irish settlers, establishing their homestead in 1782 in what is now Smyth County, Virginia.  The settlers were fiercely independent.  Most were farmers, but many in the more mountainous western portion of the region eventually became coal miners.  This area developed separately from eastern and northern Virginia.

"Politically, this virtually all-white area opposed slavery and was skeptical, if not hostile, to the Confederacy. Out of the crucible of struggle between secessionists and unionists, Southwest Virginia developed a robust two-party politics after the Civil War, with both parties resembling their national counterparts more closely than in the rest of Virginia."  (National Journal Almanac)

This independent thinking at least allowed for dialogue between idealistic recent college graduates and other southwest Virginia voters in 1972.  George McGovern was a World War II hero who now opposed the war in Vietnam--he had earned the right to be anti-war, having experienced war first hand.  WWII was a "just war," and the good people in southwestern Virginia realized that Vietnam didn't make much sense to them, yet too many of their sons had gone off to southeast Asia. Rich men's sons don't fight the wars.

George McGovern was the son of a Methodist minister, and the mountains of Virginia had been the home to circuit riding Methodist preachers who had won many converts. Methodist churches dot the landscape there.  The local college my ex and I attended was a Methodist school.  It's hard to demonize a patriotic war hero who was the son of a Methodist minister, so the people would at least talk to us. 

I can't remember how the district went in 1972.  As I recall, McGovern did better than expected.  In subsequent years, the district has become more Republican in national elections although the long-time Congressman from the 9th District was a Democrat until ousted in 2010 by a Republican who didn't even live in the District!  The 9th district voted narrowly for Democrat Bill Clinton twice, but voted by much wider margins for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, the district went 59%-40% for Republican nominee John McCain. (National Journal Almanac)

But during that long ago summer and fall of 1972, we were hopeful that a thoughtful man from South Dakota might become President of the United States.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Scones and Bones, by Laura Childs

I drank my first cup of hot chocolate of the season and have attended at least one night of the Red River Revel--the large fall arts, music, and food festival on the Shreveport river front--so I guess autumn has officially arrived.  As usual, our cool weather has been rather elusive and has retreated a bit, leaving Indian Summer behind.  I'm all for displaying the oranges, yellows and browns of the season as a good faith sign that fall is here, however, and neighbors are following suit as jack-o-lanterns and other Halloween decorations appear on porches and lawns.

Berkley Prime Crime, 2011
295 pages
It seemed like an appropriate time to hunker down with a cozy mystery featuring hot tea and pirates, crossbones and jeering skulls.  Laura Childs' 2011 Scones & Bones, the 12th in her Tea Shop Mystery, focuses on events surrounding a mug allegedly made from the famous pirate Blackbeard's skull and accented with a 10 karat diamond.

While attending the grand opening of the Pirates and Plunder Show at the Charleston Heritage Society where the skull mug and other pirate treasures are displayed, Theodosia and her master tea blender, Drayton, are on the scene when a Heritage Society intern is stabbed to death as a pirate-crazed thief steals the grotesque mug.  The police seem stymied in the search for the murderer so the Director of the Heritage Society, Timothy Neville, begs his friends, Theodosia and Drayton, to poke around to see if they can learn anything about the murder that might help the police. 

There seems to be no lack of people in Charleston who collect pirate artifacts, so Theodosia baits a trap for the killer and almost loses two of her friends in the process.  Truthfully, the action associated with identifying and capturing the murderer isn't that captivating.  Even at the end of the book, mystery continues to shroud the skull mug  as it disappears into the Charleston Heritage Society vaults to be kept hidden for another few decades. 

Reading about the scones and dessert offerings at the Indigo Tea Shop (the tea shop that the main character Theodosia operates with the help of a master tea blender and a chef), as well as the eastern shore treats served at the Charleston parties Theodosia attends, make this a mystery during which I spent as much time resisting the urge to raid the refrigerator as wondering who killed the poor intern.  I want Haley, the Indigo Tea Shop chef, to come live at my house!

One can see the other creative side of Author Laura Childs who is a former CLIO award winning marketing CEO as she includes recipes and ideas for hosting various kinds of tea parties at the end of this book.   See below:

Letter Writing Tea
 
Aren't you tired of texting and e-mail?  Wouldn't it be fun to compose an old-fashioned letter?  Round up some quill pens, ink and fancy stationery, and invite your friends in to letter-writing tea.  Put on some relaxing music and let everyone jot a letter or a few thoughts while enjoying an afternoon of tea.  Oolong is a thoughtful blend that goes nicely with quiche, citrus salad, and lemon scones.  If you want to give your guests favors, think pretty pens and tiny notebooks in net bags.


Haley's Proprietary Lemon Scones
 
 
3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 Tbsp. baking power
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans (optional)
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 Tbsp. water
 
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine the lemon zest and sugar, using a spoon to firmly grind it all together.  Add the sugar to the flour mixture and mix well.  Cut the butter into the mixture until you get an even, cumbly consistency.  Mix in the nuts, if using.  Pour in the buttermilk and stir thoroughly until the mixture forms a dense dough. Take a good-sized lump of dough and gently form it into a triangular scone shape.  Place the scone on a baking sheet lined with parchment, then continue forming scones until the mixture is used up.  Whisk the egg with the water to form an egg wash, then brush the egg wash on top of each scone.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown.
 
 This book counts toward my "Pastry Chef" status in the  Foodies Read 2 Reading Challenge!


Friday, October 5, 2012

The Middle East

The Middle East is a powder keg and the situation gets more complicated and confusing by the day.  NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel’s recent article, "The Arab Spring is dead--and Syria is writing its obituary" at least identifies some of the major players in this ever shifting dynamic. (Click here to read Engel’s article in its entirety.)
NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel

Things have changed since “The Arab Spring” saw Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen undergo relatively peaceful revolutions led primarily by students and intellectuals.  These uprisings successfully ousted repressive, corrupt military strongmen who primarily came to power as a result of the Israeli military victories of 1948 and 1967, according to Engel.  The Middle East spring upheavals didn't start out as religious power struggles but they have morphed into such a scenario, Engel says, citing the Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood that has taken control of the Egyptian revolution and more moderate Sunni Islamists who have risen to power in Tunisia. 

Struggles between the Islamic factions, the Sunni and Shiites, are occurring in country after country in the Middle East.  The Sunni consider Shiite Muslims infidels who veered from the true path of Mohammad over 1,000 years ago.  This is an epic struggle for power, Engel emphasizes, and that has gone on for centuries between the Sunnis and Shiites for control of the Middle East and the Prophet Muhammad's legacy.  The situation is not new.

This renewed conflict, however, can be traced back in recent history to Iraq and the American invasion in 2003, which pitted Sunnis against their rival Shiites.  As a result of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Iraq is now controlled by a corrupt Shiite government.  Until the U.S. invasion, Saddam and the Sunni minority controlled Iraq, which was the continuation of a 14-century history of Sunni controlling Mesopotamia despite Shiite being the majority.  Iraqi Sunnis are still angry and sometimes fighting in their stronghold cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.  To say the war in 2003 destabilized the region would be accurate but it is an area long plagued by religious power struggles (Engel, 2012).

A major player in the region now is Iran, a major Shiite controlled country, where 89% of the populace are Shiite. Now Iran is no longer an isolated Shiite country, and because it has wealth, technology and weaponry, Iran has emerged as a key supporter of Shiite initiatives in the Middle East (Engel, 2012).

Just to the northwest of Iraq is Syria and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose family actually isn't Shiite but Alawite, a Shiite-linked offshoot that makes up just under 13 percent of the population.  In Syria, 70 percent are Sunni, 3 percent are Shiite and another 12.8 percent are Alawite.  Iran and Syria are allies and have been since Assad's father's regime (Engel, 2012). 

And it is in Syria where a major battle rages between the Shiite and Sunni factions--most of the rebel forces fighting against Assad's government are Sunni.  The radical Sunni group Al-Qaida weighed in heavily in the Iraq war but underestimated the US military. Al Qaida lost in Iraq, but they are trying to make up for lost time in Syria. They are moving into Syria to help their Sunni brethren, the rebels. Engel feels the chaos of Syria could make it a safe base of operation for Al-Qaida.  However, Al-Qaida make bad bedfellows because they have a habit of killing their hosts if they don't adhere to their strict interpretation of religious doctrine.

The previously isolated Shiite regime in Iran is now empowered by a Shiite government in Iraq. The Sunni are concerned about the Shiite interlopers from Iran and Iraq, with their weaponry and wealth of oil resources. The Sunnis are determined not to lose Syria, too.  Most of the fighting is currently in Sunni areas, with over 20,000 people dead.  The Sunni number one billion world-wide, whereas the Shiites comprise about 150-200 million, with about 75% living in just four counties--Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India (Engel). But right now the Shiite seem to hold the upper hand.

The Syrian government  has helpful allies in Hezbollah and Iran. Iran is technologically advanced and provides markets for Syrian goods. Hezbollah, a radical Shiite militia, essentially controls Lebanon. Syria maintains ties to Lebanon and claims that Lebanon "belonged to" Syria before the region was divided up by France and Great Britain after WW I.  Iran and Hezbollah are starting to exert more influence in Syria as Assad's position weakens.

Lebanon, located west of Syria, is where many people think the next outbreak of sectarian violence will occur. Lebanon is Sunni in the north, Christian in the middle and Shiite in the south, with each making up about one third of the population. This dynamic mixture has resulted in a lively cultural mix and recurrent cycles of civil war.  Emerging on top in Lebanon are the Shiites, shored up by their powerful and well-financed militia, Hezbollah.  Hezbollah is heavily armed and has thousands of rockets pointed at Israel.  The rockets come from Iran and Syria.  Hezbollah is the tail wagging the dog in Lebanese politics (Engel).

Summing up the players, according to Engel: in Syria, we have government forces loyal to Assad (Shiites and Alawites) fighting mostly Sunni rebels who are trying to oust Assad’s regime.  In Iran we have a well-financed and relatively stable Shiite government that is a major sideline participant in the sectarian violence. In Lebanon we have Hezbollah, a well-financed and vehemently anti-Israeli military force that is weighing in on the side of the Shiite government forces in Syria. The Sunni rebels in Syria are now accepting help from foreign fighters who are part of the militant Al-Qaida. The only thing for sure in this turbulent region is the violence won't end soon.

Against this backdrop, I read the most recent Daniel Silva spy novel, The Fallen Angel, set against the volatile Middle East situation and the precarious position of Israel in the area's politics.

The Fallen Angel, by Daniel Silva
HarperCollins Publishers, 2012
405 pages, suspense spy novel

Gabriel Allon is an art restorer, a former Israeli spy and sometimes assassin who now working on a famous art restoration at the Vatican.  He is there because of his old friend, Monsignor Luigi Donati, private secretary to Pope Paul VII and keeper of Vatican secrets. When a Vatican museum curator is found dead in St. Peter's Basilica, the police believe it is suicide but the Pope and Monsignor Donati suspect otherwise. Allon is brought in by the Pope and Donati to do an independent investigation.

Gabriel learns that the dead woman had discovered a grave secret--one that led her to her grave.  She knew the identity of a kingpin in a professional antiquities theft ring with ties to the Vatican.  Gabriel is supposed to quietly investigate her death but soon discovers the curator's death is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Vatican and the Italian police know much more than they were telling Gabriel, but with the help of his old friends in the Israeli services, he soon uncovers another dead body and plots by Hezbollah to fund their militia operations through illegal operations of many kinds--"Gambino's on speed"--or so Hezbollah has been called.

Gabriel and his current wife, Chiara, must scramble to stay alive and ahead of the various deadly intrigues.  Gabriel's investigation eventually leads back to the Middle East powder keg, literally, as efforts are uncovered that will cause a major religious disaster and start an armed conflict to end all others. Gabriel and his friends in the Israeli service must find a way to avert catastrophe.

In all aspects of this complicated plot, with its many subplots, the actual events in the book are much different than the spin story that is released to the public.  You start to realize anew that this happens everyday in our world.  It goes without saying that Silva is an apologist for the Israeli's, and this doesn't take away from his writing at all.

While in some ways the novel's plot is convoluted, Silva manages to bring the reader right along with him. I didn't find Silva difficult to follow, although I have started with book 12 in this series.  Silva is an excellent writer, writing well-plotted and crafted books.  When I attended the recent used book sale, I made sure to purchase several of Silva's Gabriel Allon spy novels.

I read Daniel Silva's The Fallen Angel against the background of the article I summarized above, which made Daniel Silva's novel much more compelling for me.   Silva also provides some background at the end of his book and give sources and the rationale for his perspective.  As former journalist, Silva is also a researcher with credible sources, which lend his stories the ring of truth.  My reading list currently contains more books about the Middle East.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Life According to Books 2012


Just discovered a meme that seems like fun.  A posting in Pop Culture Nerds' My Life According to Books 2012 lists open-ended sentences, which the aforementioned blog author asks participants to complete using names of books we've read during the year.  Here is my list:

Every Monday I look like: The Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella).

Last time I went to a doctor (chiropractor) was because: (I was) Tender at the Bone (Ruth Reichl).

Last meal I ate was: Gumbo [Tales] (Sara Roahen).

My savings account is: Gone Missing (Linda Castillo).

When a creepy guy asks for my number, I: (turn into) The Cold Dish (Craig Johnson).

Ignorant politicians make me:  (see) The Evil that Men Do (Jeanne M. Dams).

Some people need to spend more time: (in) Another Man's Moccasins (Craig Johnson).

My memoir could be titled: A Curtain Falls (Stephanie Pintoff) .

If I could have, I would've told my teenage self: Books Can Be Deceiving (Jenn McKinlay)

In five years I hope I am: Crystal Clear (Jane Heller).

To participate in this meme, click on the link, My Life According to Books 2012.  Or you can just read about other folks' lives as told by the books they read. 

If you want to read reviews of the books I used to tell my life story, click the titles in the list above. I read two of the books this year before I started this blog so there's no review of these.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Death in Four Courses, by Lucy Burdette


I'm not sure if my recent fascination with Key West is because of an enduring interest in Ernest Hemingway and his six-toed cats, or because my friend told me this summer of a visit she and her husband made there with many of our friends from college days, a small Methodist College, I might add. It seems they accidentally picked the same week as Fantasy Fest and inadvertently wandered into a bar where pretty much the only clothes people were wearing were painted on.  Let me say from the outset that nothing like that happens in Lucy Burdette's latest mystery in her Key West Food Critic series.

Death in Four Courses, by Lucy Burdette
Obsidian Mysteries (an imprint of Penguin Group, Inc.).
2012.  Read in Kindle download


 
Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib
(photo by Ruthanna Terreri)
Click here to read more about the author
Haley Snow is back in Death in Four Courses, and that means I'm able to visit Key West again, albeit vicariously. Haley barely escapes being charged with murder in An Appetite for Murder, the first Key West Food Critic mystery, and in Death in Four Courses, Haley and her mother barely escape the murderer. (Click HERE if you want to read my review of book one in this series by Lucy Burdette, aka mystery writer and psychologist, Roberta Isleib.)


In the latest Key West mystery, Haley has a permanent place to live and it appears a permanent job as food critic for Key Zest magazine.  She shares her elderly neighbor Miss Gloria's houseboat, which allows Haley to stay in Key West and pursue her passion as a food writer. Toward that end Haley's mother is in town for a visit so mother and daughter can attend Key West Loves Literature conference.  Haley is covering the event and trying to buttonhole famous persons in the food writing industry who are in attendance. 

The conference gets off to an interesting start when the premier speaker, Jonah Barrows, throws out the gauntlet in his opening remarks as he pledges total honesty in all his comments during the upcoming conference sessions.  In a room where more than one person has something to hide, this spells serious trouble.  Before the conference is over, two of the famous food writers are dead and Haley's best friend, Eric, is a prime suspect.  Eric won't defend himself against the police suspicions, so Haley feels she must investigate to keep her friend out of jail. 

It is potentially problematic in a series featuring an amateur sleuth to manufacture a believable reason for the main character to get involved in the dangerous pursuit of a murderer, but Burnette's rationale for Haley's involvement worked for me in this mystery.  Haley's potential love interest, Police Detective Bransford, makes another appearance and other secondary characters from book one return, adding a sense of community and continuity to the series for me. 

Because there is much discussion about food in this book--which even includes recipes, such as: MK's Screw of the Roux Stew (like traditional Louisiana gumbo with tomatoes added); Hot Fudge Pie (delicious-sounding chocolate decadence); and Rhubarb Cake with Streusel Topping (another rhubarb recipe to try)--I'm counting this as part of my Foodies Read 2 reading challenge.  In my somewhat casual count, I think this is my seventh book in this reading challenge, placing me currently at Pastry Chef level.....hmmm, in charge of pastries, sounds like a good position to be in.

I like this cozy and easy-reading Key West Food Critic series.  I'm not sure if the concept contains enough depth to maintain my interest over the course of a lengthy series, but I'm enjoying them at the moment.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Scene of the Blog with My Bargain Basket of Books


I'm excited to have Views From My Highland Cottage highlighted on the award winning Kittling: Books blog, feature Scene of the Blog.  For several years Cathy at Kittling:Books has posted photos and descriptions of the spaces where fellow bloggers read and blog.  It has been fun to share with her and her readers some of the spaces where I can be found reading and writing, two of my passions since grade school!

 Click HERE to see the blog post.

  Welcome, visitors, from Kittling: Books!

Thanks for stopping by.


Those readers who read my last post know that I recently visited a huge book sale and came away with a laundry basket of books.  Nan at Letters From a Hill Farm suggested I take a photo of my bargains that temporarily sit on my library floor until I find time and space to shelve them.  Nan may have actually wanted me to take the books out of the basket for the photo op, but ...... 

 
There is presently an ebb and flow to the books.  I bought several with friends in mind so I've passed them on, and my mystery reading friends added four books to the stack when we got together for lunch last weekend.  I guess I'll shelve my books when I need the basket for laundry!

There are several spaces where I read or write that didn't make the Scene of the Blog post, and here are a few of them. 

I read a lot while I ride my exercise bike because I can read with absolutely no guilt, no matter how long my "To Do" list is.  After all, I'm exercising!



 

Right outside the exercise room (which also doubles as potting shed) is the patio where a few plants make it through our scorching summer.  When the weather is cooler and the West Nile mosquitoes don't pose a threat, I love to sit here and read or journal.


When days turn cooler, I like to find a patch of sunshine and curl up on the sun porch and read.

Reading in bed was a favorite pastime when I was growing up, and I still like to snuggle under a quilt and read on a cold evening. (It gets cold and damp in the Louisiana winters--really!)  Here is one more shot of the guest bedroom where I love to hang out.  


  
Featured below is my childhood bedroom in Virginia where my love of reading was nurtured as I lay on my bed and read whenever I could. The furniture may have changed since then, but not the cozy feeling of reading under the eaves hidden away from the world.
My childhood bedroom


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Plum Lucky at the Book Sale

All of my well-intentioned resolutions about not buying more books until I read more of those already on my library shelves went out the window recently when the local college held their big fundraiser, an annual book sale.  Too much temptation, I fear.  My husband and I resisted going for the opening on Friday night, but Saturday found our resistance weaker and our energy levels higher. 

Since the college is just blocks from our house, we decided to see how many of the advertised 75,000 books were left in the college's gymnasium   The books are always arranged on tables according to categories, such as: mysteries under $1.00, hardbacks under $5.00, Literature, Food, Travel, Philosophy, Romance, Children's Books, etc.  Volunteers are constantly restocking books on the tables, so we found the tables were still full. 

I purposefully took bags that I had to carry as opposed to the rolling backpacks and suitcases some folks use, but I soon was toting around a very heavy bag!  Before lunch I ended up spending $30.00 on books, then my husband and I ducked out to a local Tex/Mex restaurant for some Huevos Rancheros for brunch and found ourselves back in the gym for the afternoon half price sale.  We spend an additional $10, so for a total expenditure of $40.00, we came home with about 30 books.  Plum lucky or plum foolish, hard to tell. 


People waiting in check-out lines at Friday opening of a previous year's book sale; Saturday is less crowded.
Some of the books became gifts for friends but most of them are now in a laundry basket in the library waiting for me to free up shelf space somewhere in the house where, hopefully, I have a prayer of finding them again when I get ready to read them.

I read with interest the authors of book blogs who state their books are neatly organized according to whether they have been read, ready to be read, recently read or heaven forbid, the Dewey Decimal System.  My books start out being roughly organized according to size, by necessity, then by topic and then whatever I can fit on a given shelf.  It develops my brain, I believe, trying to visualize which book shelf I last saw a book on.

One of the books I picked up for a friend and ended up reading quickly before I passed it on was one of Janet Evanovich's between-the-numbers Stephanie Plum novels,  Plum Lovin'. 



Plum Lovin', by Janet Evanovich

St. Martin's Press. 2007. 176 pages

 

A between-the-numbers, holiday-themed novel, Plum Lovin' finds Stephanie, the intrepid and inept bounty hunter, entertaining a drop-in and drop-dead gorgeous house guest, her old friend Diesel.  Diesel has an unusual proposition for Stephanie.  He has a fugitive that Stephanie wants, but Diesel swears the woman is innocent.  Annie Hart, a relationship expert, has been framed for her crime, according to Diesel, and Annie's problems don't end there--she is also being threatened by the husband of one of her clients.  The husband blames Annie for the problems in his marriage.  Diesel has Annie in hiding for her safety, but Annie makes Diesel and Stephanie promise her that they will handle her five open cases--they have to insure that these five people have a happy Valentine's Day. 

To say this is light reading is a gross understatement, and to call this book a mystery is stretching it, too.  However, Evanovich always includes humor in her books, so she isn't expecting the reader to be too serious about the plot.  In Plum Lovin', there has to be a reason why a pawn dealer claims Annie shot him and stole a valuable necklace.  This is the mystery Stephanie must solve at the same time she seeks out four strangers and somehow improves their love lives before Valentine's Day.  They fifth open case is the boyfriend of Stephanie's sister who wants to marry sister Valerie, the mother of his daughter, but is phobic about a marriage ceremony. 

Of course Stephanie blunders her way through to a happy ending for the clients and clears Annie Hart in the process.  This isn't Evanovich at her best, but sometimes it's fun to read a totally frivolous book, and this one fits the bill!

 Author Janet Evanovich





Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paris Adventures

I guess you could say I've been too bogged down to blog, but having completed some research for work on the web tonight, I'm taking a vacation--a virtual one at least and heading to Paris with author Eloisa James and her family, but first I'm remembering my first trip to Paris.


I first visited Paris in 1998 on a group tour while traveling with my mother. It was one of those "If This is Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium" kind of experiences, but for my mom and me it was a Grand Adventure. As our bus entered Paris on the way to our hotel, we passed the soccer stadium where throngs of soccer fans were entering the Stade de France, France's national stadium. We were told by our guide that France was playing the highly favored Brazilian team that night in the World Soccer Final.  Flags hung from windows of high rise apartment buildings, the entire city was in a state of anticipation and high spirits.
 Crowds arriving at Stade de France, St.-Denis, Paris
1998 World Cup
Mother and I were tired, so we opted out of the tour group event that evening.  Instead we strolled around the Montmartre neighborhood where we were staying, got something to eat, then settled in to watch the soccer match on TV.  Neither of us understood French or much about soccer for that matter, but the excitement of the French commentators and the frenzy of the crowd was mesmerizing.  When France beat Brazil 3-0, winning their first ever World Soccer Cup, the city erupted.  The deserted streets of an hour before filled with throngs of people spilling out from cafes onto the streets around our hotel.  The sounds of fire crackers and blowing car horns filled the night air. 
I wanted to enjoy the festivities, so I joined the crowds roaming the streets of Montmartre that night.  A stranger grabbed me and hugged me, chattering in French and I felt bad that I didn't understand him and couldn't make even a simple reply.  Indeed everyone seemed to be hugging each other; when cars came to a stop light, occupants jumped out of the cars, ran around hugging people and shouting, then jumped back into their vehicles when the light turned green. 

Paris crowds celebrating 1998 World Cup win in Montmartre

According to news reports the next day, a million people filled the Champs-Elysees that night.  New York Times reporter, Craig Whitney, wrote: Black and white, Muslim and Christian, Arab and Asian, the people of Paris trooped down the avenue as they had during victory parades after World Wars I and II...It was, the French coach, Aime Jacquet said, a moment of ''national communion.''
The next day Mother and I ate at a sidewalk cafe.  We ordered Quiche Lorraine and when our plates came out, the tomato in the side salad had a French flag stuck in it.  The waiter smiled and said, "Quiche Lorraine France" when he brought our dishes to the table. 
Paris in Love, by Eloisa James
Random House, 2012
(Read in Kindle Download)
My goodness, my trip down memory lane took longer than anticipated, and I've left Eloisa James and her Paris memoir hanging.  Eloisa James is the pen name of a successful romance author who in her other life is Mary Bly, a Shakespeare professor at Fordham.  After losing her mother to breast cancer and having a brush with the disease herself, James and her Italian-born, university professor husband decide to apply for sabbaticals and move their family to Paris for a year.  Paris in Love is the story of that year. 
James takes the Facebook entries she posted that year from Paris, expands some into longer essays and organizes her reminiscences into the seasons of the year for this book.  This adds to the "You are there with her" feeling of the journal.  Her two children--fourteen-year-old son, Luca, and irrepressible eleven-year-old daughter, Anna--are often less than enthusiastic participants in this cross cultural experiment and provide frequent fodder for James' musings. 
James also writes a lot about ordinary days:
Parisian life is small and quiet.  I pack the children off to school and then think greedily about how many hours I have before they come home.  I have come to the conclusion that silence and time are the precious commodities.
Paris (and our apartment) is so dark and quiet this morning that I feel as if I'm entirely alone.  This sky is the color of gray flannel, the darkness broken only by the dormer window of another early riser.  The women who lives in that attic painted her walls yellow, and reflected light bounces out like a spring crocus.  If light were sound, her window would be playing a concerto.
The main character of this memoir is Paris, as the City of Light is always a scene stealer.  James describes other scenes outside her apartment window as she sits and writes, the homeless man who has pitched a tent on the heat grate near their apartment, her explorations of the city, her children's experiences in an Italian school, French food, the small, lesser known museums not to miss on one's next trip to Paris, the trials and tribulations of the family's obese chihuahua, Milo.  Her observations are concise, yet evocative.
Description of a winter scene from Paris in Love:
High up, somewhere in the milky sky, the snow clings together before it pinwheels gently down in little clumps.  Thousands of cotton bolls were trying to seed themselves on rue de Conservatoire.
But James is most eloquent when she writes of her family and her motivation for seizing this opportunity to live in Paris:
My grandmother was diagnosed with dementia, and was silent the last decade of her life; my father, my darling father of a thousand poems and more, has taken to watching leaves fall from their trees.  Rather than knit those leaves into words, he simply allows them to fall.  It's a cruel fate: to watch without recounting the fall of the leaf; to grieve without creating anew; to age without describing it.
I know how James feels.  My mother, who gamely tramped all over Europe at age 76, is now losing her words and the names of her great-grandchildren, but she and I will always have Paris.
To take a virtual trip to Paris in the footsteps of Eloisa James, visit the wonderful Paris Breakfast blog.  The blog's creator has posted quotations from Paris in Love and paired them with photos of Paris.
To see more of France, you might also be interested in my past blog posts about our 2011 trip.  To see the French home where my husband and I stayed in the French Alps town of Serres, click here.  Click here for post about our visit with another friend in Veynes in the Alps.  Click here to read and view photos of the village of Cucuron in southeastern France where part of the movie, A Good Year, with Russell Crowe was filmed and where Ricky and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary.  To read and see photos of two other villages in Provence, click here.  And to view Marseilles scenes, plus more of Serres in the French Alps, click here.  


Saturday, September 1, 2012

Cotswolds Cozy Fails to Deliver

The Evil That Men Do, by Jeanne M. Dams

Severn House Publishing, Ltd. 2011
(Kindle Download) 

Dorothy Martin, a retired American school teacher, and her second husband, Alan Nesbitt, a former Chief Constable in the fictional English village of Sherebury, spend a lot of time walking in the countryside, drinking tea and going from village to village pursuing vague leads about missing people in the latest offering in Jeanne Dams' cozy series featuring Dorothy as an amateur sleuth.  The retired couple have settled into a routine since their marriage, but they also enjoy travels around the UK, and though they are probably approaching seventy, The Evil That Men Do finds them on a walking tour of the Cotswolds undertaken as a series of day hikes. Any reader knows that murder doesn't take a holiday, so while Dorothy and Alan hike in the countryside, they become disoriented and stumble upon a body in an old quarry. Meanwhile, Dorothy meets a young man, Paul Jones, a guest at the Bed and Breakfast where they are staying, who seems to be troubled and perhaps in trouble.  When he and a friend of his vanish, Dorothy feels she must take action.

I hate to be overly critical of an author who has brought me pleasure with other books, but this latest Dorothy Martin mystery doesn't work for me on multiple levels.  The motivation behind Dorothy's involvement in the mystery is thin at best.  The secondary characters aren't well developed, so  I actually didn't care that they disappeared.  There isn't a logical connections of events--Dam often seems to be "over-reaching" as the story moves from scene to scene in the narrative.  The plot is slow moving--other reviewers comment it is more a travelogue than a mystery.  Even Dorothy, who has been compared to Miss Marple and can be a very spunky and likable heroine, seems wooden and emotionally wobbly in this book.  While the pace picks up toward the end, the believability factor becomes more far-fetched to me. By the end of the book, I even begin to weary of the scenic Cotswolds setting, certainly a strength of the novel. 

Contrast this to Winter of Discontent, a 2004 Dorothy Martin offering from Jeanne Dams.  I've read it twice, and I rarely read a mystery more than once.  But I'm a sucker for mysteries set at Christmas so Dams hooks me with her first paragraph: "I looked at the calendar and sighed.  Not only a Monday, but December eighth.  Exactly seventeen days till Christmas and I had done almost nothing.  No cookies had been baked, no cards sent, no presents bought, let alone wrapped."

When Dorothy and Alan's next-door-neighbor, the feisty and thoroughly likable Jane Langland, discovers that her former lover is first missing, then found dead, I understand perfectly that Dorothy must set aside her holiday preparations to help Jane get some answers. The town, the climate, the church all create an atmosphere for the book that pulls me in as a reader. The plot is more cohesive, better paced and believable.

Dams' first Dorothy Martin book, The Body in the Transept, published in 1995, won the Agatha Award for Best First Mystery and received critical acclaim, e.g., Publisher's Weekly wrote, "With her penchant for colorful hats, Dorothy establishes herself as a fresh, commanding and always genteel presence among female elder-sleuths of the '90s."


Photo from killerhobbies blog. Click here to see this blog.
 

In this photo of mystery authors, Monica Ferris on the left and Jeanne Dams on the right, we see that Dorothy Martin isn't the only one with a penchant for hats.  Both of these authors of cozy mysteries enjoy modeling the latest additions to their wardrobes.

Dams, a widow, lives in South Bend, Indiana, where she also writes another historical mystery series set in the South Bend of a 100 years ago, featuring Hilda Johansson, a young Swedish housemaid, who works in the Studebaker home there.