Review: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #12 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book set in Europe
– A classic from the 20th century
– A book that takes place on an island
Personal Challenge Category:
– A book with footnotes

I first read this novel when I was about 12, and I figured out whodunit pretty easily. So a big 😛 to everybody who accuses Christie of not “playing fair.” It’s actually pretty obvious, but maybe only if you’re a kid who doesn’t know the “rules” of the mystery game. Every time I read this book I’m even more impressed with how clever she was in her misdirection. To me, that’s the real game — playing completely fair but using such deft legerdemain that nobody notices just how fair you’re being. And Christie is so gifted at this that even though this was my third reading, there were still things I didn’t remember and didn’t figure out quickly if at all.

I also wonder if the character of Caroline was what got Christie going down the path that eventually led to Miss Marple.

This is one book I would recommend to somebody wanting to give Christie a try. True, it is unusual for Christie in some aspects, but in others it is quite similar to her other novels, so it’s a good way to tell if you’d like to read more. I also like that it presents Poirot from a non-Hastings perspective and provides him a new “Watson” — and one who is already familiar with the Hastings narratives, at that. It’s a fun kind of meta.

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Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book #11 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book translated to English
– A New York Times bestseller
– A self-improvement book
– A book with a blue cover
– A book from the library
– A book that takes place on an island
Personal Challenge Category:
– A book written in the second person

Okay, okay, you’re right: Marie Kondo is batshit crazy. But you say that like it’s a bad thing.
Yes, she talks to inanimate objects and anthropomorphizes her belongings in a way unique to Japanese culture. But anybody who knows me and my beloved Ténèbre (she’s a Chrysler and she turned 11 last December) can attest that I’m not quite sane in this regard. So Kondo turned out to be a decent guide for me.

The book did have its drawbacks. Kondo’s tone was condescendingly repetitive at times, and her persona feels manufactured. Much of her advice is not the least bit groundbreaking, and I do think the book is way over-hyped, but she makes some points worth considering. Among my takeaways:
– Some things have served their purpose in your life simply by having been part of your life.
– Sorting by category instead of location is worth a shot.
– Joy is a personal thing, and there is no accounting for taste.

Kondo and I will never agree on certain things. For instance, spare buttons are cool in and of themselves. And the very idea of a house full of books I haven’t read yet sparks in me unimaginable joy. Also, having lots of toilet paper is a virtue. Seriously, I would love to take this woman to a Costco, just to watch her head explode. But first, I need to KonMari the daylights out of my sock drawer.

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Review: We Were Liars

We Were Liars
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #10 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book that takes place on an island
– A book that takes place during Summer
– A book you can finish in a day
– A YA bestseller
Personal Challenge Category:
– A book featuring a country house setting

This book really packed a wallop. Even though I picked up on the Robert Cormier vibe right away and figured out some key elements pretty quickly, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the sharpness of the reveal. Well, maybe if I had a better understanding of King Lear, but no, probably not even then.

I was a little surprised that I connected so well with Cadence. I mean, she’s a trust-fund kid who summers on the family’s private island and is totally off her nut, ffs. But the haunting tone of her narrative put me in mind of As Simple As Snow, and I kept getting flashes of Pretty Little Liars creepiness. Then there was the whole Labor Day weekend at the Lake angle that let me so totally identify with Cady and her Liars. Sure, we had state park cabins with an absurd granddaddy-longlegs population instead of fully staffed oceanfront mansions with ivory gewgaws, but the camaraderie with holiday friends I knew only from and in such a limited setting, that’s strangely powerful nostalgia.

My only real gripe with the book is that I never did understand why the Liars were dubbed the Liars in the first place. It was apparently something that predated Summer 15 by a number of years, but it was never explained, just stated as a given. Did I miss something important?

I would highly recommend this, but you can see from the other reviews, this is one of those polarizing books. So ymmv. I thought it was extremely well crafted, though, and would encourage you to give it a shot.

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Review: Decades of Memories from Bob Bland

Decades of Memories from Bob Bland
Decades of Memories from Bob Bland by Bob Bland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Book #9 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book that’s under 150 pages
– An autobiography

For me, personally, this book was more of a 1.5-star read, but I’m bumping it up to two stars because it is just fine for what it is. Bob Bland is a longtime resident of the Fort Collins area, and he makes no pretensions to being a professional writer. More than once in this comb-bound text, he refers to it as a letter to his family, and it helps to read it as such. As a newcomer to the area with no connection to Bob Bland’s family, I had more questions than answers after reading it, simply because I was unfamiliar with many things that are assumed a reader will already know. That said, I did enjoy the spots where he provided some detail about early 20th-century life in rural Colorado: maintaining a flock of sheep, building houses and such from scratch (and while blind!), driving a Model A to Arkansas, and so forth. If Mr Bland ever decides to work with a biographer to write a full-on autobiography, he certainly has plenty of promising material.

Mr Bland also intends this to be an inspirational work, and I’ll admit, I did a great deal of skimming over the many unattributed snippets of religious poetry scattered throughout. I’m sure lots of people would find it inspirational, but I was more annoyed by this, as well as by his patriarchal worldview. However, Mr Bland also consistently struck me as a man who does his level best to live his faith to the benefit of others, and I found him and his story to be inspirational in many other, more mundane ways.

I would recommend this to people who have a particular interest in the history of Larimer County as well as folks who are able to reminisce along with Bland about early 20th-century Americana.

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Some Thoughts on Some Movies

I don’t really have enough for a full review of any of the movies I’ve watched recently, but I feel like sharing about some of them. Zootopia_Flash_and_Priscilla

Sometime in January or February, we finally got around to seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you are at all interested in seeing it, you probably have already done so, and I’m not such a Star Wars geek that I flatter myself that I have anything significant to add to the various conversations surrounding the new film and its place in the canon. So, yeah, I really, really liked it a lot. It wasn’t perfect, but Abrams did a fine job of it, I was pleased with the characters and casting, and it sure as anything beat the hell out of the prequels.

Speaking of the prequels, some of you may be unaware of this thing called the Machete Order. But don’t click that link if you have ::gasp:: never watched any of the Star Wars movies. In that case, I’ll just tell you straight-up that the recommended order for watching the first six episodes of the saga is IV, V, II, III, VI. Yes, completely skipping episode I (the first prequel). If you have watched at least the original trilogy, go ahead and click through for Rod Hilton’s explanation of why he feels this is the best order in which to view the films. I’m inclined to agree with him overall, but I still feel a bit odd about actively recommending any of the prequels.

Not long after that, we went with some friends to the opening night of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I don’t often go to opening nights or weekends anymore, mainly because in my old age I’m becoming less tolerant of crowded venues. But most of our group were part of a book club that read the book, and this was the first real opportunity I’d had to check out the new cinema bistro in town. And it was refreshing to see cosplayers in Georgian garb instead of spandex. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good feel for the new venue, as several of us had a hard time finding the place and the previews were already going by the time we got in. I never did find the button to put my footrest up.

I said our book club read the book, but I suppose it’s more accurate to say it was a book club selection. I have tried twice now to read it but haven’t gotten very far. It’s an amusing concept, but it only goes so far, and the inserted zombie bits don’t feel smoothly integrated into the Jane Austen story. In some ways, I suspect the movie is actually better than the book. I went in with very low expectations, and I was rewarded with an entertaining pseudo-period romp. I did find it odd that about half the cast seemed to be in on the joke and did a great job camping it up, while the other half seemed to be laboring under the impression that they were in a Masterpiece Theatre production. Even odder, though, was that this just made it all the more fun. Anyway, this movie is worth seeing for Matt Smith’s Mr Collins alone.

Oh, and if you’re looking for a fun Bollywood version of P&P, check out Bride and Prejudice. Bonus: Naveen Andrews! Though he has this irritating habit of being fully clad throughout the movie.

I was kind of burned out on superhero movies, so I didn’t really have any desire to see Deadpool, despite all the hype. But then I saw an actual preview and decided it looked like it might be a little different. So we went during opening weekend. And stupid people brought their young kids. Really? Cinemas should have bouncers. Anyway, the movie was a lot of super-violent fun. I don’t really keep up with the Marvel characters and all their reboots and prequels, so I’m sure I missed a lot of the inside jokes, but it was still a great ride. It is quite graphic and raunchy, though, so don’t see it unless you are prepared for that.

Last weekend I watched Silver Linings Playbook on Netflix. Great performances, good story, but wow, really hard to watch. Particularly for me, as Bradley Cooper in this puts me in mind a great deal of an old friend of mine from high school. It’s worth it, though.

Then a few nights ago Flash (If you know Brian and have seen at least the sloth trailer for the movie, then you understand.) took me to see Zootopia.  This is the best kids’ movie I have seen in a very long time. Beautiful animation, a noir-ish mystery, and great messages about prejudice, all bundled up with a sense of humor that has something for everybody.

Review: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Book #8 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Category: A murder mystery

I’m still kind of waffling between one and two stars for this one. I’ve watched the TV show sporadically and liked it a lot, even when it was ridiculously far-fetched. The TV team did a great job of taking this source material — which was not only far-fetched to the point of being nonsensical, but annoyingly repetitive to boot — and turning out a darkly humorous, suspenseful, and intriguing show. I suspect the book was also predictable, but I’ve seen too much of the show to be able to judge that objectively.

I was wanting very much to enjoy this book, but I can’t recommend it to any but the most die-hard fan who wants to experience all things Dexter. Well, uh, not all things. Obviously. For everybody else, just watch the show.

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Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic
A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #7 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book about a culture you’re unfamiliar with
– A book that takes place on an island
Personal Challenge Categories:
– The first book in a series
– A book with feminist themes
– A book about an ancient artifact
– A book about superpowers

I’m so glad that this book lived up to my expectations. Beyond that, it is a little hard to know what to say about it. I feel like it would be spoilery to tell you with any specificity what I enjoyed about it, simply because I want you to have the same thrill of discovery that I had while reading it. So I hope you will forgive me for being hopelessly vague and praising Schwab’s skill at characterization and world-building. Okay, I’ll be specific enough to tell you that I love Lila Bard, Kell’s amazing coat, and the rich linguistic diversity.

But seriously, just get the book and read it.

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Simple But Tasty

This past weekend my friend Marta invited me on a little retreat to the mountains. I suppose I should have taken some photos of the mountains, but really, all we did was hole up in a condo and read and write and cook and eat. I’ll share the reading and writing at some point in the future, but here are the highlights of the cooking and eating part.

For Saturday dinner, we got some veggies and salmon and cooked those up. Marta baked the salmon with salt and pepper and olive oil, and I did a saute of sweet onion, red bell pepper, and zucchini in white truffle olive oil. For seasoning, I think I used powdered ginger, herbes de Provence, salt, and dried chives. Marta did a rice-quinoa pilaf with rosemary (Near East brand, I believe), and we stir-fried that in with the veggies.

The next morning I did a polenta crumble using up the remaining bell pepper and onion. The polenta was the kind you get in a sausage-style tube, so no fuss there, and it was already mixed with sun-dried tomatoes and some Italian-style seasonings, so I didn’t really have to do much at all. I think I added some powdered ginger and salt and fried the whole mess up in olive oil.

Yes, I have been lectured at length by an Italian shopkeeper in Wisconsin on the evils of pre-cooked polenta. But if you don’t have a gas range, it’s really the most reliable option.

Sunday dinner involved shortcuts as well. I did not have the energy required to make my own sauce for the angel hair pasta, so it came out of a jar. And the veggies came out of a bag in the freezer. I nuked them in butter (yes, real butter), salt, and herbes de Provence. And yes, I actually prefer cheap, sawdusty “Parmesan cheese” out of a can. Well, at least when it comes to basic pasta in tomato sauce. Seriously, I tried the nice stuff one time and didn’t enjoy it at all. It just didn’t seem appropriate. Anyway, super-easy meal, and we washed it down with Kon Tiki cabernet sauvignon. IMG_20160306_192254

Yesterday, I couldn’t resist the strawberries at Costco, and there are a lot of them (because Costco), so I had some for breakfast this morning. I also couldn’t resist the call of the Laughing Cow yesterday, so I spread a few wedges on some rice crackers and topped them with strawberry halves. I washed them down with a mug of “Rubiee,” an appropriately reddish tea from Dryad Tea. That’s my idea of a delicious and decadent breakfast that is also ridiculously easy. IMG_20160309_105514



Pineapple Fusilli Chicken

It’s nothing really fancy or challenging, but Brian wanted chicken for dinner last night, and we were pleased with how this turned out. IMG_20160303_184934One of the things I absolutely refuse to do is handle uncooked poultry, so Brian took care of that part, seasoning the chicken breasts with black pepper and garlic salt and baking them. They took rather longer than expected, but that’s okay, because I needed the time to prep the pasta mixture.

Not that it was a really complex task, though. First I chopped up a red bell pepper and set that to cooking on medium-high heat with a little bit of grapeseed oil. Then I chopped up about half of a medium sweet onion and added it in, along with a healthy dose of whatever white wine I had handy. I think it was a sauvignon blanc. I still have the bottle and can look it up if anybody really cares. Then I added in a bunch of powdered ginger, minced garlic, garlic salt, and herbes de Provence. I thought I was quite liberal with the ginger, but next time I’ll be sure to add more. That’s what I get for learning Chinese cooking from a housemate named Xinan. “When in doubt, add more ginger.”

While I was working on that, Brian opened a can of pineapple chunks and drained the liquid off for later use. I then added the chunks to the pepper-and-onion mix and waited for the pasta.

I am including a photo of the fusilli package here mostly for my own future reference. This is the best rice pasta I have come across so far. I always remember what the packaging looks like, but I can never remember the actual brand name, so if they ever change their packaging, I’m screwed. Unless, of course, I post this photo someplace handy, like the Internet. I cooked the pasta in salted, boiling water, but I didn’t cook it for the full time.

I strained out about half of the pasta and put it in the pan with the pepper-onion-pineapple mixture. Then I added the reserved pineapple liquid and increased the seasonings accordingly. This time I also added a bit of dried lemon thyme. IMG_20160303_183537 Then I reduced the heat and let it all simmer until the chicken was ready.



Review: The Vintage Teacup Club

The Vintage Teacup Club
The Vintage Teacup Club by Vanessa Greene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book #6 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Categories:
– A book set in Europe
– A book with a blue cover
– A book that takes place on an island
– A book that takes place during summer
Personal Challenge Category:
– A book with multiple POV characters

This was probably more of a 2.5-star read for me, but it was a nice, pleasant read, so I’ll round up. I’m tempted to say that this is not the sort of thing I’d have picked up if it hadn’t been a book club selection, but that’s not really the case. I would have found the premise — three women who are strangers until a vintage tea set brings them together — intriguing enough. And I would have been expecting something more chick-lit-ish than my usual fare of murder mysteries and sci-fi adventures. Alas, I would have been expecting something more along the lines of Maeve Binchy, which is probably where my disappointment lies.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad book, and I didn’t dislike it. It is a very nice book. I just didn’t feel properly engaged by the characters or their stories, which held very few surprises for me. I found some scenes touching, but nothing really grabbed my emotions and twisted them in knots. (For contrast, I distinctly remember having a meltdown while reading Tara Road.) I also found it mildly irritating that every little thing, every thought going through anybody’s head, was fully explained to me. I suppose some readers like that. I would much rather have to work a little bit and have the thrill of an a-ha moment later on.

One thing that was odd about this book was that there were three POV characters, but only one (Jenny) was presented in the first person. The others were in a close third person. So I suppose the author identifies herself more closely with Jenny, but it still seems an odd stylistic choice. I also thought the whole Ruby-and-Derek subplot seemed kind of shoe-horned in there. But I can’t say any of this really detracted from the book.

If you’re a fan of this kind of story and are in the mood for something light and quick, you might want to give this a try. If you’re looking for a substantial read with some deeper meaning to it, though, you should keep looking.

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