Review: Partners in Crime

Partners in Crime
Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #5 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book that takes place on an island – A book set in Europe
– A classic from the 20th century
Personal Challenge Categories:
– A book set in a capital city
– A book set on an island
– A book featuring Scotland Yard

Like The Big Four, this is a collection of short stories that were previously published in magazines and share a larger story arc about espionage. This book, however, is far more coherently organized and features Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who are more naturally suited to the spy-thriller genre. They also play off of each other in a manner that is more rewarding than the Poirot/Hastings relationship. Tommy and Tuppence have always been my favorite Christie sleuths, so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed this immensely.

Another interesting feature of this collection is that Christie used Tommy, Tuppence, and their young assistant Albert to explore the methods of other classic detectives, including Poirot. Of course, I have read plenty of Poirot and Holmes as well as some Thorndyke, and I think I’ve even read a Father Brown. Though I suppose it couldn’t hurt to re-visit Father Brown, since it was apparently very long ago and did not make a lasting impression on me. I must admit I am a little disappointed in myself that I’d never even heard of some of the other sleuths mimicked in this collection. So you will probably see me adding the following to my reading list in the near future: Desmond Okewood, Tommy McCarty, Thornley Colton, Edgar Wallace, The Old Man in the Corner, Inspector Hanaud, Inspector French, Roger Sheringham, and Dr Fortune. It should make for an interesting study.

I also like that this book gives an interesting look at the culture of 1920s London through the eyes of an adventurous and witty young couple. If you enjoy the London-based storylines in Downton Abbey, you are sure to find this book a real treat.

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Review: The Big Four

The Big Four
The Big Four by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book #4 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book set in Europe
– A book from the library
Personal Challenge Category:
– A book borrowed from the library

I am working my way through the Agatha Christie Perpetual Challenge to read all of her mystery fiction (and some of her other works) in publication order, so this book presented me with a bit of a dilemma. It wasn’t published in its novel format until 1927, but the individual stories of which it is composed were originally published several years before that. However, only one of those stories (“The Chess Problem”) was ever reprinted on its own later, and even it would be a bit of a task to track down in its short-story format. At this time, it just made more sense for me to read the stories in their ultimate novel format but in their original publication order.

Dame Agatha herself was not pleased with The Big Four, but I am inclined to cut the woman some slack. Her mother had just died and her husband was being a total asshat, and she had to produce something for publication. These stories were handy for smushing, so she smushed them. And it shows. But they were still a fun departure for M. Poirot and his faithful Captain Hastings, and I am not going to begrudge her (or them) that. Are they far-fetched and over-the-top? You betcha. But I’m okay with that. I had more of a problem with the villains being cardboard stereotypes. But even then, that’s part of the old spy-thriller formula. Christie was just doing her job.

I also wonder where she was in her developing contempt for her little Belgian when she wrote these stories. I know at some point she desperately wanted to kill him off and focus on other characters, but as Doyle discovered with Sherlock Holmes, that is not such an easy thing to accomplish. There are clear, self-aware parallels in these stories between The Big Four villains and Moriarty; the final showdowns on the Continent; Countess Vera Rossakoff and Irene Adler; and Achille and Mycroft. I know she was tired of Poirot by the time she introduced Ariadne Oliver, but I suspect she was already headed that direction when she wrote these stories. (view spoiler)

I had a good time reading this book again, and I would recommend it to any Christie fan who can keep it in its proper perspective. It is not a book I would recommend to anybody trying Christie for the first time, as it really is not typical of her larger body of work.

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Review: The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain

The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain
The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #3 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book that is under 150 pages
– A book written by a comedian
Personal Challenge Category:
– A book whose author has died

I’m a Missouri girl, so I was raised on Twain. Still, I have not read as much of his work as I would have liked, so this collection was good for helping me identify which works I am most anxious to read. I think Following the Equator is probably the next one I will search for.

Though very small, this is a nice edition, ideal for keeping in a waiting room. This is also a great sampler for somebody who hasn’t read much of his work. I do think, however, that some of the quotes used are a little puzzling with the minimal context provided, and I was a little disappointed to see nothing from Is He Dead? or “The War Prayer.”

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This Week’s Culinary Adventures

This morning I finally got around to making that 4-ingredient frittata recipe that keeps popping up in my Facebook feed. Of course, I made changes. For one thing, I needed to use up some sweet peppers, so I chopped them up and tossed them in with the onions. And I’m not particularly fond of feta, but I had some chèvre handy, so I used that instead — but just on my half, since Brian is lactose-intolerant. I’m notoriously bad about measuring seasonings, so I probably didn’t use enough salt and used too much pepper. IMG_20160212_095727Overall, I think this thing needed more seasoning, not just salt. So maybe I will try some herbes de Provence next time. And I’ll be sure to have tomatoes on hand next time. I think that would have been a nice touch.

Other than the ingredient adjustments, though, I actually followed the instructions, and it worked quite well. I’d definitely recommend this recipe for a quick brunch item that looks deceptively impressive. (Well, okay, maybe not so deceptively, seeing as how the entire world has seen this on Facebook already.)

The other recipe I tried was from the amazing Liz Huff-Kennon of the amazing Catalpa restaurant in Arrow Rock, Missouri. (Yes, I have eaten there. If you ever have the opportunity to do so, jump on it!) The recipe is for elk meatballs with chutney, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have any photos because I was in a big rush before and during the Superb Owl party.


No owls were harmed in the making of this recipe.


Besides, I need to work on this one quite a bit, so I am sure I will have better photo ops another day.

Let me be clear that the work I need to do on this recipe is due to our dietary issues and poor planning on my part. You can count on Liz to provide an excellent recipe, so if you’re good with the ingredients as listed, just go with that. I’m providing commentary on my challenges in case there are others with similar issues.

Brian is allergic to olives, including olive oil, so that was the first item to address. I followed the garlic roasting instructions with argan oil, and it worked beautifully. By the way, I do not use any special tools for peeling garlic cloves. I have found that simply placing the clove on a hard, flat surface, oriented with the convex curve on top, and then pressing firmly until it makes a snapping noise nearly always works. Every now and then, you have to snip an end off with a paring knife first, but there is no reason to have a tool dedicated solely to peeling garlic.

The biggest change in the citrus-herb chutney was due to a brain cramp. I thought I already had a bag of dried cherries. Nope. They were goji berries. Oops! But they actually worked out very well in the recipe. I think it’s a change I will keep. I think I will also chop the apples a little more finely next time, but that’s just a personal preference.

The next problem I encountered was that I still haven’t found my good zester, which I suppose is still in a box in the garage. The last time I needed a zester, it was late at night and I had to make do with one from the grocery store. It sucks. And I guess I suck, too, because I’m still trying to make do with it. So zesting was a fail. I ended up just adding some orange juice to the recipe.

The other changes I made to the chutney recipe were that I used a sweet onion instead of a yellow onion, just because I almost always make that substitution, and I probably didn’t use as much thyme as I was supposed to. Because y’know what? I just frickin’ hate working with fresh thyme. If anybody knows of a quick and easy way to get fresh thyme off of its twig and into a pan, please share. Anyway, my apple-goji-orange chutney was a hit, and I suspect I will make it more frequently than I make meatballs.

Speaking of meatballs….first order of business was to substitute hazelnut milk for the whipping cream. I am certain this affected the consistency of the meat mixture, so this is probably the main reason that browning the meatballs in the pan of oil (I used rice bran oil for that part) didn’t work so well for me. I also had to use fake butter, but I used this stuff called Melt, and I’ve had good results with it in the past, so I don’t think that was much of a problem here.

I again wimped out on the orange zest and thyme. Next time I’ll try to do better. If I had expended a bit more effort, I probably could have also gotten just ground elk instead of a blend of elk and beef. Last time I made Swedish meatballs, I used a beef-and-bison blend for the Brian-friendly batch, and everybody loved them, so maybe next time I will try an elk/bison blend.

The recipe didn’t say to do this, but I had Brian Ninja the vegetable matter into submission before I mixed it in with the meat-and-panko mixture. I suspect it was a good idea. Oh, and the recipe’s instructions to freeze the mixture before browning? Excellent idea. Don’t skip that.

For my final ingredient substitution, I used Loose Leaf Session Ale from Odell Brewing, one of the local breweries. (I was pretty sure the Missouri beer would not be available here.) I’m generally not a fan of pale ales, but I had to dispose of the extra bottles of brew somehow, and I found this one to be quite drinkable.

So, yeah, the browning kinda worked. I got the things cooked through fine, but they crumbled a lot. And neither of us likes cooking with a lot of oil, so for the second round, I popped them into the oven at 350 F for about 20 minutes and then fried them up for a few minutes in a much smaller amount of oil before adding the beer. I think that worked a lot better.

At first I was a little underwhelmed with the finished meatball product. I was inclined to add more seasoning, but others disagreed, and the subtle flavors grew on me. The real difference, though, is serving them with the chutney. Though not highly seasoned itself, the chutney magically brings out the flavors of the meatballs. I would even recommend making two batches of chutney from the get-go. We ran out of chutney before we ran out of meatballs, and the store-bought stuff was a very sorry substitute.

Review: Bird Box: A Novel

Bird Box: A Novel
Bird Box: A Novel by Josh Malerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #2 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Category:
– A dystopian novel
Personal Challenge Categories:
– A book in which a character dies
– A book club selection
– A book published in the 21st century
– A book about the end of life as we know it

This is one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. Not that I’ve read a lot of horror novels, but that’s still high praise. The suspense never let up, and Malerman had some seriously effective creep factor going on the entire time. He also wrote a really impressive female lead character in Malorie. She was strong and smart and driven without being a Mary Sue.

I liked that the story works on a number of levels. In some ways, it is reminiscent of The Road, but (unlike The Road) it doesn’t suck. It draws from Hitchcockesque motifs and the Cthulhu mythos, and it obsesses over the concept and manifestation of fear and how we deal with it. Or don’t, as the case may be. It also examines what happens when fear and madness overlap. I’m not sure yet if I agree with Tom’s theory of allegory, but it bears thinking on. (My guess is that Malerman would flat-out deny it.)

I really should read Flatland one of these days. I wonder if its themes are similar to the symbolism of the bird box and later the entire world as bird box, especially as Malerman introduces the idea of another dimension as the source of the horror.

I was perhaps a little disappointed with the ending of the book, but the more I think about it, the more inclined I am to agree with how Malerman ended the story. I can’t really imagine how else to end it without copping out in one way or another.

I would recommend this to fans of psychological suspense, or to anybody who likes a thought-provoking “end of the world as we know it” tale. It does get a little gory in places, but really, most of the violence takes place off the page. It’s the unrelenting creepiness that terrified me.

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Review: 1984

1984 by George Orwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #58 for 2015
PopSugar Challenge Criteria Met:
– A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t
– A book with a number in the title
– A book your mom loves
– A banned book

This was assigned for freshman orientation at Drury, but I just couldn’t get into it. That was at least in part due to that being a super-busy summer for me, but in retrospect, I think it would have been wasted on 16/17-year-old me, who was still pretty naive. I’m surprised, though, that it took me this long to pick back up. I guess it’s just been on my “I’ve been meaning to read that” list for so long that I’d forgotten about it. Until I saw how many boxes it ticked on the PopSugar challenge, that is.

Still, I probably didn’t give this the attention it deserves. I can’t find the copy I’ve had since 1987 (I imagine it’s in the same box as The Big Four), so last summer I borrowed the audio version from the library. I was really getting into it this time, but I had to return it well before I was finished. It was several months before I ran across a used paperback and decided I might as well buy another copy in order to get it finished for the 2015 challenge. Then I had to really zip through the last parts. So I’m thinking I should do a complete re-read of this one.

It’s certainly worth reading again. I gave it 4 stars here mainly due to pacing. Even with my bizarre reading schedule for this book, I felt like parts of the book really dragged, and then I’d suddenly be flipping back and forth, trying to figure out how the scenes were supposed to go together because they’d gotten choppy. But the dystopian world Orwell created was brilliantly chilling and depressingly similar to today’s world in too many ways. Even when he got things “wrong,” I could see exactly why he wrote them as he did. I can’t help but wonder if they’re not so much “wrong” as “just wait.”

This is one of those books that definitely belongs on a required reading list. Some would say high school, but in my experience I would say Animal Farm is a better high-school read. Leave this one for a year or two out of high school, when students are starting to feel more of the pressures that come with adulthood. When the shiny has worn off their college lives a little bit and they are starting to get a little jaded.

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