About Carol

Carol likes to read for fun. Her reading material tends to be fluffy, funny, and/or frivolous. If she were stranded on an island with only one author's books she would take Dave Barry. Lately she's doing that thing she said she'd never do: reading teen fiction! Authors like Libba Bray, Lauren Morrill, and Gail Carriger keep her coming back for more. She obsessively records what she reads and what she wants to read on GoodReads.

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 2: Planning Perfection

Welcome to the menu portion of my three-part series intended to help you master your holiday host or hostess responsibilities in style. Part I introduced you to the basic cooking skills you need as a foundation for cooking confidence. Today I’ll share delicious and simple recipes guaranteed to bring applause and tears (the good kind, at last!) to your gathering. Or, more realistically, you’ll be sure to stress less and have more fun this holiday season, even if you’re not a pro in the kitchen…yet.

1After Toast: Recipes for Aspiring Cooks by Kate Gibbs appears to be designed for the post-college crowd—but any budding chef can benefit from the recipes inside. I found two great snacks you can scatter in small dishes around your living areas. Guests can nosh on spiced crispy chickpeas (page 175) made with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and ground cumin. Sugar-and-spice nuts (page 176) feature walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. The beauty of both recipes? You can make them ahead of time, they’ll make your house smell amazing, and they are as simple as tossing the ingredients together and baking in the oven.

2High Flavor Low Labor by J.M. Hirsch proclaims to “reinvent weeknight cooking.” You just need to know it has decadent appetizers that are perfect for your holiday gathering—or any time. Grilled bacon-wrapped figs with blue cheese (page 9) are simple and make a dramatic presentation. Polenta cakes topped with prosciutto and peppadew slivers (page 11) are so pretty, yet so easy. Half the work is already done for you with ready-made polenta. Fig and manchego puff pastries (page 21) pair the dream team of flavors: sweet and salty. Once you master this recipe it’s easy to switch it up later to make mini pizzas, perfect for movie night. Pesto-drenched tomato wedges (page 35) show off the red and green color combination perfect for the holiday season. Blend ingredients in the food processor and pour over sliced tomatoes. How easy is that?

3Aida Mollenkamp’s Keys to the Kitchen is “the essential reference for becoming a more accomplished, adventurous cook.” While this is indeed a fantastic cooking reference (are you paying attention, Santa?) what it’s bringing to our party is the salad. Butter lettuce salad with tahini-honey dressing (page 200) is a great basic salad to get your palette revved up. I’m not sure why I haven’t made my own dressings before—it’s super easy. Step 1: put stuff in food processor. Step 2: blend. Step 3: let’s eat! Or if you’d like to be more adventurous, try the raw kale salad with heirloom tomatoes and roasted cashews (pages 202-203). Aida swears that making this salad ahead and letting it sit helps wilt and soften the kale. It makes for a fabulous presentation on a serving platter. And your health-fad cousin will love that you used kale, that trendy ingredient.

4Come Home to Supper by Christy Jordan has the dough—meaning there are some terrific bread and roll recipes in here. Cheesy garlic biscuits (page 219) are super-simple to make. And they happen to be my favorite type of biscuit: drop. That means you just mix the ingredients and drop them onto a baking sheet. Ten minutes later you have biscuit nirvana. Need an even quicker recipe? Ten-minute rolls (page 224) utilizes muffin tins and has a secret ingredient: mayonnaise: “The mayonnaise gives them a subtle flavor as a sour cream would, acts as shortening, and produces a tender crumb.” Sometimes the shortcut recipes turn out to be the most rewarding, both in time saved and flavor savored.

5Choosing Sides by Tara Mataraza Desmond contains nothing but recipes for side dishes. I implore you to look beyond the mashed potatoes (pages 201-204) and focus instead on switching up the holiday menu a bit. There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll just be listing the recipe names and pages. Please try not to drool as you read them. Charred asparagus with shaved parmesan (page 84), chimichurri green beans (page 85), crisply roasted garlic potatoes (page 90), sugar snap peas with grana padano crust (page 95), ginger honey carrots (page 101), golden cauliflower with herbed breadcrumbs (page 133), red quinoa with cherries and smoked almonds (page 142), legacy cornbread dressing (page 199), and sugar-glazed sweet potatoes (page 205). Now wipe your chin. Drool is very unbecoming in a host or hostess.

6Christmas Slow Cooking by Dominique DeVito is like the holy grail of holiday cooking. It really does cover every course of the meal and then some, but I like it best for the hassle-free main courses. I don’t know why I’d never considered using my slow-cooker for a holiday roast. Short ribs of beef with rosemary and fennel (page 113) become so tender after ten hours in the slow cooker. Prime rib (page 117) has exactly four ingredients: rib roast, olive oil, salt and pepper but it looks incredible. Turkey, bacon, cranberry bliss (page 125) blends some of my favorite ingredients: just use one turkey breast, bacon, apples, cranberries and spices. Holiday ham (page 131) requires a spiral-cut precooked ham and not a lot of effort. Remember, all of these recipes are made in the slow cooker. Your stress level will automatically lower when making one of these easy recipes.

Layout 1One Bowl Baking by Yvonne Ruperti takes the guesswork out of baking. I’m an okay cook but I’m not a great baker. That’s probably mostly due to the fact that I am impatient and imprecise in the kitchen. But this book makes me wonder why I freak out over baking so much. Pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust (page 186) uses crushed gingersnap cookies in the crust and a can of pumpkin puree in the filling. With those serious flavors taken care of, the rest just seems like child’s play. Deep dish plum pie tart (page 198) is a decadent—and simple—alternative to either making a pie from scratch or buying one of the pre-made frozen variety.

You have just read an incredibly simple road map to Party Successville. Population: you. If you make some things a day ahead (snacks, salad) and use the slow cooker to do your main dish’s heavy lifting, you’ll be free to whip up multiple appetizers and side dishes your whole family will love.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will share the little details that transform a good holiday party into a great one.

Carol

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 1: Cooking with Confidence

Uh oh. You really did it this time. You have achieved the goal you’ve dreamed of since childhood. You’ve secured the designation of host or hostess for your family’s holiday gathering. Why the long face? You don’t know how to cook, do you? Well never fear—I’ve got your back! The library has tons of great resources to help you pull off the party of the decade. And it all starts with learning the ropes. Get some practice with basic cooking techniques now and you won’t sweat it on opening night.

SeinfeldThe Can’t Cook Book by Jessica Seinfeld is a great place to start choosing some simple recipes that will become your kitchen staples. Seinfeld knows that the number one thing holding most ‘Can’t Cooks’ back is fear of failure—either real or imagined. She takes the guesswork out of buying the right equipment and using it correctly. She also has a fantastic how-to section that literally illustrates important skills step-by-step, from chopping herbs to pitting an avocado and even the best ways to wash different ingredients. The recipes are amazingly simple and have a “don’t panic” tip right off the bat that addresses a part of each recipe that might make a ‘Can’t Cook’ hesitate. There’s also a photo for each recipe. If you’re like me this is one of the most important pieces of a recipe–it illustrates exactly what your finished product should look like. This is usually where I notice that I forgot the carrots because there is orange in the photo. You get the idea. Now get this book!

200 skills200 Skills Every Cook Must Have by Clara Paul and Eric Treuillé is not a cookbook. Let me get that out of the way right now. It is, however, exactly what the title proclaims. There are two hundred skills that the authors illustrate step-by-step. While there are a few recipes, it’s mostly what I would call a great companion book to any cookbook you may be using. I find it an especially handy reference when using an old family recipe that may not be very descriptive in its instructions. Right now I’m working on skill 174: soaking and cooking dried beans. I’m on a mission this winter to discover the best chili recipe and I have a feeling that recipe won’t start with canned beans.

everyoneEveryone’s Time to Cook by Robert L. Blakeslee promises to be “the best starter cookbook you’ll ever need.” It also aims to teach you “how to start a love affair with cooking.” From the ideal kitchen layout to choosing the best bean roast and grind for the perfect coffee, this book is a must-read for anyone hoping to create delicious meals that aren’t too complicated to make. Cooking with dried beans is covered in detail starting on page 214 with recipes following. Did you know you could make refried beans at home without a can? It sounds like a no-brainer but it’s not something I’d ever considered before. After seeing the mouth-watering image of the finished product of “OMG! Refried Beans” I am raring to go!

ATKThe America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook is going on my list for Santa. I’ve always sworn by the ATK to provide well-researched recipes and this book is no different. Like the other books I’ve already mentioned, this one goes in-depth with the techniques required to make each recipe. Also included, in true ATK style, are the reasons why one particular ingredient should be used over another. ATK tests consistency of flavor and texture, so you know you’re getting a crowd-pleasing recipe from them. As an example of how far this book goes, let’s look at the BBQ section. It shows you how to set up both charcoal and gas grills, using wood in a grill for added smoke flavor—and then follows that up with incredible recipes. ATK is not afraid to warn you in advance as to what may go wrong with each recipe. So, like Jessica Seinfeld, ATK is setting you up for success.

BurrellOwn Your Kitchen by Food Network star Anne Burrell was written with the beginner in mind, with “recipes to inspire and empower.” Let me share with you Anne’s ten ways to own your kitchen:

Read a recipe all the way through before you start cooking
Do your mise en place (prep work)
Taste and season as you go
Embrace salt
Salt and pepper are not married, they’re only dating (they don’t always have to be used together)
Fresh herbs rock, dried herbs don’t
Spices are sexy!
Toast your nuts
The right equipment makes cooking fun
Keep your pantry stocked

I have a very difficult time with the first few items, as I am always well-intentioned but not necessarily well-prepared. This can lead to a total meltdown on my part before the oven is even preheated. The recipes in this book aren’t exactly basic, but once you’ve gained some confidence mastering the skills above, you can attempt more. This is the cookbook meant to bridge that gap between beginner and intermediate chef. Wouldn’t you like to try your hand at homemade ricotta cheese? I would! Fried rice made right in your own kitchen? Sign me up! How do I know Anne will steer me in the right direction? She doesn’t use a lot of fancy cooking terms (aside from mise en place) but instead uses wordage more apropos of girl talk. My favorite term? Crud: the delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan that help develop deep, rich, meaty flavors. Oh, yum!

So there you have it—my five best no-fail cookbooks to bring out the inner Julia Child in you. Julia always reminded me of my maternal grandmother, Helen: she made mistakes but made cooking fun. If I can run my kitchen like Julia or Helen I think I will be doing quite nicely indeed.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll break down the perfect holiday meal that even you can’t mess up.

Carol

History Remembers, History Forgets

Throughout history, there have always been moments that define a generation. For my parents’ generation it was always, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”

Wait. Stop. This woman is writing about a topic she never experienced? Well, yes and no.

History Will Prove us RightIt may seem disingenuous for someone not even alive in 1963 to write about the importance of that tragic day in November, whose 50th anniversary we remember this year. But no crime in American history has been as hotly debated as the Kennedy assassination. The idea that the government, or anyone else, could weave an elaborate web to kill someone and then successfully cover it up has always fascinated me.

Luckily for you, public libraries have always prided themselves on being a free resource for information to their citizens. As such we try to collect differing opinions and viewpoints on as many topics as we can. The John F. Kennedy assassination is no different. And since this year marks the 50th anniversary, publishers are flooding the market with books and other materials to feed the need for information of the crime and of the man himself. Here are just a few that caught my attention.

Letters of John F. Kennedy provides a look inside the man who would lead a nation to the moon. No autopsy photographs here, it’s simply JFK’s personal correspondence throughout the years. Beginning with a plea to his parents for a raise in his allowance, the letters are interspersed with historical context to help the reader better understand. Glossy photographs, as well as some facsimile handwritten and typed letters, provide the backdrop for understanding the man who created the Peace Corps and led a nation through the most critical hours of the Cold War.

Kennedy Half CenturyThe Kennedy Half Century by Larry J. Sabato gives a good overview of everything JFK, including the assassination. Again, no graphic autopsy photos, but there are photographs of the funerals of both John and Robert Kennedy. The book also talks about how his not-quite-1,000 day presidency has influenced future generations.

History Will Prove Us Right by Howard P. Willens breaks down the Warren Report and shows that there aren’t as many flaws in it as a conspiracy theorist might hope. Willens is the only living member of the three-person supervisory staff of the Warren Commission and a lot of the source materials are his own journals and notes from his time on the Commission. Included are a plethora of citations and resources that Willens used in researching. If you don’t include the postscript about the staff with whom Willens worked and the notes/index, the book is only 339 pages long. For anyone doubting the conclusions of the Warren Report this shouldn’t be too cumbersome a read.

The Day Kennedy Was Shot by Jim Bishop was originally published in 1968. It’s an uncensored minute-by-minute account of the entirety of November 22, 1963. Part of the reason it’s been such a successful bestseller is that it not only breaks down the time frame, but also gives voice to so many different people’s perspectives on that fateful day. Also worth checking out is When the News Went Live, which illuminates the experience of the press in Dallas that day and the ways they covered the story as it unfolded.

When the News Went LiveThey Killed Our President by Jesse Ventura intrigues me, even though he’s not exactly my favorite person. Ventura has sixty-three reasons to believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. Told in his signature confrontational style, Ventura does have a significant amount of footnotes backing up his rants, which I love. Remember those missing pieces of evidence and missing witnesses I mentioned? Ventura goes in-depth with each of them, making a pretty strong case for, if not an actual elaborate conspiracy, then a very long trail of coincidences. And who really believes in that many coincidences, anyway?

The Poison Patriarch by Mark Shaw focuses not on why JFK was killed in 1963, but why his brother Robert wasn’t. This book doesn’t hint, but steadily points its accusing finger toward the Mafia, including Jack Ruby’s attorney Melvin Belli and Mafia don Carlos Marcello. Here’s the real reason I selected this book, though:

“Mark Shaw’s book…changed my perspective about the assassination.”
–Bill Alexander, chief prosecutor of Jack Ruby

Still have questions? Stop by the Main Library at 7pm on Wednesday, November 20th where EVCC history professor Jason Ripper will break down the context and significance of the JFK assassination. And the Evergreen Branch Library has a dynamic display at the checkout desk. It features both newly published and perennial favorites on this, one of the most discussed crimes in American history.

JFK Display

There are countless theories of what really happened that day, who was really behind it all, and what might have been done to cover everything up. While I’m not on board with all theories, I am heavily skeptical that so many inconsistencies should be ignored in favor of a preconceived notion that some guy just went crazy and shot the President. But what do I know? I wasn’t even alive then. Thankfully the library can help steer my fevered brain in the right direction.

So, where were you?

Carol

Vampires and Ghosts and Dystopias—Oh, My!

Welcome to Teen Read Week! What is TRW? Here’s a direct quote from the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Administration (ALA’S YALSA):

Teen Read Week™ is a national adolescent literacy initiative created by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). It began in 1998 and is held annually during the third week of October. Its purpose is to encourage teens to be regular readers and library users.

When I was a teen in the 90s, Young Adult (YA) fiction was virtually nonexistent. Judy Blume, Lurlene McDaniel, Joan Lowery Nixon, Christopher Pike, and Cynthia Voigt were pretty much the only options. After trying a few of those I decided to skip YA fiction altogether and progressed immediately to adult paperbacks. Today, options for teens are seemingly infinite. With the popularity of Harry Potter and the Twilight series, it became readily apparent that YA fiction had something to offer adults, too.

For years I resisted the lure of YA fiction, thinking there was no way I could ever identify or even remotely care about these teen protagonists. Turns out I was so very wrong. And series are really where YA fiction shines. Readers get “the feels” for characters, truly caring what happens to them in the story. This is how I got sucked in. To prove it, I’ve prepared a sampling of some of my most favorite YA series. And despite my catchy title, I’m really not into vampires or dystopias, but that doesn’t mean that YA fiction isn’t packed with them.

CroakCroak by Gina Damico
I’ve previously reviewed the first book in this series for the blog, so I suggest you check out that post for a full write-up. Please don’t read the comment, though, as someone posted a spoiler! Basically it’s the story of a teen Grim Reaper named Lex who struggles to not only learn to use her powers but also fit in with her new Reaper community.

So far the series is up to three books (the library is in the process of ordering the third book). I have been patiently–okay, impatiently!–reading each book as it is published. I’ve found that I always remember where the previous book left off and have discovered that I am deeply invested emotionally in everything that happens to our Reapers and their families.

level 2The Memory Chronicles by Lenore Appelhans
Seventeen-year-old Felicia Ward is dead and spending her time in the hive reliving her happy memories. But when Julian, a dark memory from her past, breaks into the hive and demands that she come with him, she discovers that even the afterlife is more complicated and dangerous than she dreamed.

The first book in the series is called Level 2 and I devoured it in a day. Unfortunately the next book, Chasing Before, isn’t set to be published until August 2014. You may want to wait to read Level 2 until you can get your hands on Chasing Before.

ghost and the gothThe Ghost & the Goth by Stacey Kade
It’s the timeless tale of opposites attract. The popular (and snobbish) high school cheerleader/homecoming queen gets hit by a bus and her ghost is stuck in the land of the living. The only person who can see her is a loner Goth kid whom she always thought was a total loser. What happens when the dead and living join forces? Heartwarming humor, of course.

This trilogy has been completed and all books are owned by the library, though I have to admit to feeling a tad unsatisfied at the end of the series. I really want to read more, but alas that’s not meant to be. However, I feel the series is worth reading, especially if you’re as into ghosts and the possibilities of the afterlife as I am.

diviners The Diviners by Libba Bray
Am I obsessed with ghosts and death? Maybe. But The Diviners is a little different. The main character, Evie, is basically shunned from her small Ohio hometown and is sent to live with her uncle in New York City. The year is 1926 and anything is possible for a seventeen year old girl with stars in her eyes and dreams of living the high life in the big city. The author is very faithful to the time period, bringing out elements of the jazz age including the clubs, racism, sexism, muckraking reporting, and most of all, Prohibition that influenced both young and old.

But don’t be confused: this is actually a book that introduces teens with extraordinary supernatural gifts and a great evil that is threatening to take over the world. Remember Voldemort from Harry Potter? It’s like that—only more gruesome, ruthless, and immortal. Unfortunately the next book in the series, Lair of Dreams, won’t be published until—you guessed it—August 2014. That gives us enough time to read and re-read, right?

great and terrible beautyThe Gemma Doyle Trilogy by Libba Bray
Speaking of Harry Potter, have you met Gemma Doyle? Yes, Libba Bray gets two mentions in this post. A Great and Terrible Beauty, book one in the trilogy, was Libba Bray’s first published book and one I only recently discovered. The trilogy is set in Victorian times at Spence Academy, an all-girls boarding school. Here we meet Gemma, her roommate Ann, as well as fellow students Pippa and Felicity. The girls don’t all get along or fit in—especially Gemma, who was raised in India, where she lived until recently when her mother was killed. Haunted with visions she cannot control, Gemma finds the diary of one of Spence’s former students and consequently stumbles upon a secret world filled with great wonders—and horrors beyond belief. Gemma finds a way to bring herself and her quasi-friends into the world and thus begins a tumultuous journey into the realm of the fairy. Yes—fairy! With such forces at work, what could possibly go wrong?

I quickly read the first two books in the series, but have been waiting until “the right time” to consume the third and final book in the series. Hopefully I’m not leading you astray, since I have no idea how the series ends or what becomes of our protagonists. But based on how much I enjoyed the first two books, I feel confident that you will want to meet Gemma, too.

obsidianThe Lux series by Jennifer L. Armentrout
I’ve gone on at length about ghosts, the afterlife, and the great beyond. But what about aliens? Turns out I have a fantastic series for you alien-lovers out there. Beginning with Obsidian, we’re introduced to bookaholic Katy, who reviews books on her on book review blog. Gee, can you tell why I liked her from the start? Katy moved with her mom to rural West Virginia to start over after her dad died. Katy’s not impressed with the thick accents and lack of a decent internet connection. But all that changes when she meets her friendly neighbor Dee and her standoffish but totally hot brother Daemon. At first Daemon is antagonistic towards Katy and keeps her at arm’s length. But soon neither can deny their attraction, which leads to—attacking aliens? Yep, Daemon and Dee are aliens and Daemon has inadvertently marked Katy, who becomes a walking beacon for a rival alien race.

Four Lux books have been written and published so far. Jennifer Armentrout is working on writing the fifth book, which will conclude the series when it’s published—you guessed it!—August 2014. I quickly read the first three books in the series but decided to delay reading the rest until the fifth book is published.

So there you have it.  Six stellar series written for teens that adults can love, too. But trust me–I haven’t even scratched the surface. For more recommended teen reads, check out the other YA reviews on this blog. Celebrate Teen Read Week with me, both here and over at the library’s Facebook page. What will you discover? For me, I’ve discovered the need to take some time off to read in August 2014!

Carol

Self-Help and Humor or If I Told You Where the Self-Help Books Are, It Would Defeat the Purpose

Please prepare yourself. I’m going to blow your mind: we at the library love to read. We read everything from fiction to biographies to cookbooks and history. So it should really come as no surprise that we love to talk about books just as much, if not more, than actually reading them.

Occasionally we’ll have a staff meeting focused solely on discussing one type of book. What did we like? What did we not like so much? What’s popular in our community?

This past week we discussed self-help books. In addition to facilitating our discussion, Marge prepared a list of 50 authors to know in the self-help world. She also shared an article by Daniel Lefferts with an overview of the top self-help books to take into 2013.

           

In preparation for this discussion we were asked to think about what self-help books we’d recommend to others. Turns out I don’t really read many of them now, although according to GoodReads I have rated a lot of them in the past. I wondered why this might be. What do I do, in my 30s, that I didn’t in my 20s when I read all those self-help books? The answer slowly appeared, as if from a magic 8 ball: I’m way into stand-up comedy.

That’s right: I worship at the altar of hilarity, where the main dogma is, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Feeling down? Try a stand-up routine! I guarantee it won’t solve the underlying problem you’re currently moping over, but it will lift your spirits and maybe even give you the confidence to face your problem head-on.

My husband, Chris, and I decided this would be the year we’d go out and see some of our favorite comedians up-close and personal. Would the real-life experience stack up to the edited versions we’d heard on CDs, podcasts, and on TV? Turns out that, like most fascinating things you see on TV, the reality is just bigger and more satisfying in person.

Our favorite show so far this year has been finally getting to see Jim Gaffigan. Jim was at the Paramount back in July and we had front-row seats and got to meet him after the show. In case you weren’t aware, his persona centers on the fact that he is very pale. One of my favorite albums is Beyond the Pale, and he co-starred with Conan O’Brien in an animated short series called Pale Force, where their paleness is over-exaggerated for comedic effect. That paleness is also the source of their superpowers.

Anyway, after the show as Jim reached out his arm to shake my hand, he smiled and said, somewhat gleefully, “Oh, you’re pale, like me!”

Day. Made.

All the way to Seattle, and walking to the theater, I had made sure to impress upon Chris that I was going to ask Jim if we could pose in a photo with all of our arms turned out to show how pale we all are. When the time came for us to take a photo, I mentioned my idea, that I would love it if we could all three stick out our arms, etc. etc. This is exactly what he said:

“Oh now, I think I win. And…I didn’t want to win.”

Well we did a visual recount and I think you’ll agree that I am actually the victor. And to the victor, goes the sunscreen. He then asked to take a photo with our faces so we could remember who the palest was.

Gaffigan ArmsGaffigan GroupI didn’t solve any of my problems that night, but I did have a great experience and an amazing time with my husband. We made some memories and laughed until we cried. That kind of emotional release can, I propose, be even more helpful than reading a detailed book about how to organize your life, or lose weight. And let’s be honest: it takes much less time to watch or listen to stand-up than it would take to read the latest self-help tome.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Try some of the comedy your library has to offer. I suggest the following: take two stand-up routines and call me in the morning.

Carol

Looking for Love (In All the Right Places)

I have exciting news—August is Read a Romance Month! As a confessed romance reader, I am thrilled to discover that there’s a whole month dedicated to the genre that has been my favorite for more than two decades.

Fawkes and Codex from The Guild demonstrate the traditional romance cover technique

Fawkes and Codex from The Guild demonstrate the traditional romance cover technique

Why read romance? As with any genre, each reader has his or her own reasons for choosing to read a romantic novel:

  • It’s fun!
  • Pure escapism at its best.
  • Happy endings abound.
  • Drama: either in love triangles, star-crossed lovers, or fighting the forces of evil side-by-side.
  • Rom-coms: they’re not just for movies, who doesn’t want to laugh?

For me, it’s always the promise of a happy ending that draws me in. I’m especially fond of characters who start out, for whatever reason, disliking each other and eventually make it to a happy life together. It always warms my heart when two unhappy people can find someone who understands them and together they find a way to make life happy once again.

I’m sure I already know what you’re picturing: a total bodice-ripper, maybe even complete with a shirtless Fabio in a torrid—or even sordid—embrace with a scantily-clad woman with long, flowing hair and ecstasy between them. If you’re like me and enjoy romances with the couple rounding third base on the cover but don’t want to announce it to the world, you can always download the eBook and read it in privacy on your e-reading device. While there are still many of these types of book scattered throughout publishing, today’s romance novels aren’t always so obvious.

MaddyFor example, I just finished reading The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James, which won RITA awards this summer for Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements & Best First Book. It doesn’t look like a romance novel, does it? While the core of the book is a creepy ghost story, there are definitely romantic overtones throughout.

Sarah Piper is employed by a temp agency in 1920s London. Times are tough, and her existence is bleak. She can’t say no when the agency assigns her to assist author and ghost hunter Alistair Gellis. Alistair has always searched for evidence of ghosts: not just do they exist, he insists they do, but trying to answer questions like are they sentient or just bursts of energy. When he learns of the ghost of Maddy Clare (who is haunting the barn where she hanged herself one year ago) he can’t pass up the opportunity to gather potential evidence that could prove once and for all the existence of ghosts. His regular assistant is away, so he hires Sarah to accompany him to the English countryside.

Sarah soon learns her real role: Alistair wants her to commune with Maddy’s ghost. Sarah discovers that in life Maddy hated men and will not allow any to come near her inside the barn. Sarah isn’t brave—she’s desperate to make ends meet. So she enters the barn, knowing nothing will ever be the same.

Are you thinking she and Alistair will hook up? That would be a little obvious. And while I’m not opposed to obvious, there’s something to be said for patience. After Sarah makes contact with Maddy, Alistair’s original assistant arrives to reprise his role. Matthew Ryder served with Alistair in the Great War, and they are as close as brothers. Matthew is at first angry that Alistair wouldn’t wait for him to return before setting out to investigate Maddy. But soon they discover just how much influence Maddy has over them all. It’s going to take a lot of fortitude, and some good old-fashioned detective work, to fully understand Maddy’s story.

Author Anne Stuart, who herself writes romances, described this book as, “Compelling…a wonderful blend of romance, mystery, and pure creepiness.” With a description like that, how can you pass it up?

page 45This is just one of millions of tales where romance plays a key part in the story—even if it’s not the entire story. So what if there isn’t an embracing couple on the cover? Have no doubt you may indeed find love—and a happy ending—even in a grim and, yes, creepy book like this one.

Still not convinced? Recently I put it to our Facebook fans to play along with a little game. It’s a quick, easy, and fun way to participate in Read a Romance Month:

Take a chance. Read a romance. You just might fall in love with reading all over again.

Carol

I’d Love for You to Read This

Love is in the air—and on the page. It’s time once again to announce the winners of the summer’s hottest awards: the Romance Writers of America’s RITAs. The RITAs are named after RWA’s very first president, Rita Clay Estrada, and have been awarded every year since 1982. It’s not simply an honorary but an actual award—a golden statuette of a woman, whom I assume to be none other than Rita herself, reading a book. According to RWA’s website, it “has become the symbol for excellence in published romance fiction.”

I’ll say!

Past recipients include Nora Roberts, LaVyrle Spencer, Francine Rivers, Diana Gabaldon, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Robin Lee Hatcher, Tess Gerritsen, Debbie Macomber, Julia Quinn, Jill Shalvis, Tessa Dare, and my new favorite author, Darynda Jones.

I know I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again: as one of the few admitted romance readers on staff, I feel it’s my duty, right, and pleasure to present this list to you, dear reader. And I’m not even vying for a nomination for Librarian of the Year. Mainly because I’m not a librarian, but also because I’m ever-so-humble. Wink wink.

I’m including links to the catalog so you can easily find a copy now, because you know these holds queues are going to blow up as word starts to gets out.

Best Contemporary Single Title Romance:
The Way Back Home by Barbara Freethy

Best Historical Romance:
A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean

Best Romantic Suspense:
Scorched by Laura Griffin

Best Inspirational Romance:
Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden

Best Short Contemporary Series Romance:
A Night of No Return by Sarah Morgan

Best Long Contemporary Series Romance:
A Gift for All Seasons by Karen Templeton

Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements & Best First Book:
The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James

Best Paranormal Romance:
Shadow’s Claim by Kresley Cole

Best Young Adult Romance:
The Farm by Emily McKay

Best Romance Novella:
Seduced by a Pirate by Eloisa James

You’ll notice I didn’t include a link for every title. That’s because the library hasn’t yet purchased all of them. If you’re interested, feel free to talk to a librarian. Let them know it’s now an award winner and that Carol sent ya.

At the same time they announced the RITA winners, RWA also announced the Golden Heart Winners. What’s a Golden Heart? The short version: it’s an award given to outstanding unpublished manuscripts. The final round of the contest is judged by romance editors. Many winners go on to enjoy a career as a published romance novelist. Recipients are awarded an actual golden heart pendant. Gotta love literal literary prizes!

Perhaps you’d like to submit your own manuscript for next year’s Golden Heart competition. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of putting pen to paper (or keys to screen) and want to begin writing, but you don’t know where to start. We’ve got some excellent writing resources sitting in the stacks waiting to help guide you through the process of writing a romantic novel–including how to write those steamy love scenes.

Another valuable resource is Romantic Times. Each issue is packed with well-written reviews for everything from contemporary to paranormal, inspirational to erotica. I used to subscribe at home but I’ve since let my subscription lapse, since I can get each issue for free from the library. It’s also a great way to get a feel for what’s popular in romance publishing right now. You may notice themes or topics not currently trending–maybe this is the direction in which you’re meant to go.

Imagine your future as a literary trendsetter. It’s a good future, yes? Now go grab a RITA winner and get to work “researching.”

Carol

Reading Every Day, In Every Way: a Bibliovore’s Dilemma

I have a problem. No, it’s not one you can help me with. If I went to a psychiatrist, they wouldn’t know what to do with me either. Book club? Maybe that’s the ticket—though I have to admit to an avoidance of assigned reading ever since Animal Farm in high school. Regardless of the solution, my problem is this: at any given time I have too many books I want to read. 

I also have too many varying reasons for wanting to read in the first place. Sites like GoodReads are amazingly great for reading and sharing book reviews, as well as discovering new and emerging authors. But sometimes I think maybe as a reading resource it’s almost too good. I also have a cataloging job in a public library. This means that there are days I am literally pulling myself away from my work in order to get it all done.

Me: THIS BOOK SOUNDS AMAZING!
Book: Um, I’m on hold for someone else right now.
Me: Oh.
Book: Yeah, you need to get it together, girl. You don’t have time for this.

Up until now I’ve never been one to read more than one book at once. I have friends who do this, and I would be completely baffled by their behavior. I’d harass them: Won’t you get confused? What if you get the characters mixed up? Who reads a cookbook cover-to-cover anyway? Does your husband (and father of your children) realize how obsessed you are with true crime, the gorier the better?

These ponderings almost landed me on the doorstep of a closed friendship door. Reading, be it method or content, is an innately private matter. But I’m going to take you book by book into my new-found obsession with reading multiple books at once. Why? I’m hoping you won’t make the same mistakes I’ve made: both in not getting through my TBR stack quicker, and in hounding my friends for answers where there are no good responses outside of, “Mind your own business!”

Bad motherFirst up is Bad Mother: a Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman. This is a particularly difficult book for me to read, mainly because I am not a mother so it can be tricky at times to relate to the material. It covers aspects of parenthood and feminism, and includes autobiographical passages to help tie it all together. However, the over-arching point of the book isn’t something you need to be a mother to appreciate. Mothers have been judged, often unfairly, by strangers since the dawn of time. But it’s like anything else really: a stranger observes part of an interaction and makes a snap judgement about the people involved based solely on what they saw (or think they saw).

This is a book I pick up and put down every month or so, due to the deep intellectual aspect of the content. I own the e-book, so it’s pretty easy to find where I left off. This is good, because I can only take so much heavy reading material in one sitting. I really need to be in the right mood to take it all in, ponder the facts and anecdotes, and feel like I’m actually getting something out of the experience.

InvisibilityI’m also reading Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan. This is a compelling YA novel about Stephen, a boy who was born invisible—and the one person to ever see him, his new neighbor Elizabeth. Love, magic, friendship and adventure await me every time I crack the spine. I thought I would devour this book exclusively when I checked it out. But it turns out I am becoming a slave to many stories at once, so this one I save for bedtime reading. If nothing else, it makes for very bizarre dreams—one more added bonus of reading such impossible stories.

Dad is FatMany months ago, my favorite comedian Jim Gaffigan announced he was releasing his first-ever book, called Dad is Fat. His publisher announced a pre-order special: if you pre-ordered the book by a certain date, not only would you be guaranteed to receive it on release day, but you would also receive many extra perks, including a signed letter from Jim himself. My husband and I have been huge fans of his for almost a decade, so we were thrilled to hook ourselves up with all of these extras.

Later, I realized that the library was purchasing the audiobook on CD, read by the author. What?! Jim Gaffigan reading Jim Gaffigan? It would be like getting to hear an as-yet-unreleased standup show. The book came out in early May, and after a month of waiting for the CD and a stellar review from Alan, we decided to just take turns reading it out loud to each other. The book, a humorous look at parenting his 5 small children in New York City, is proving to keep us busy in the evenings, laughing our way through it. Sharing the experience is part of the fun. Of course, when the CD comes in, we will undoubtedly listen to it. We know the author will do a better job of reading it than we have. And no one does voices quite like Mr. Gaffigan.

Tao of MarthaTwo days before writing this, I received the audiobook CD for The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING; or, Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off of the Dog, read by the author Jen Lancaster. I have read many of her autobiographical—and humorous—books, most fondly Pretty in Plaid, a story of growing up in the 70s and 80s in New Jersey. I’ve even met her in person and had a great time. While her stories always made me laugh, I found myself not really identifying with her experiences in a compelling way: they were just a little off the mark from my own experiences. So I’d laugh, but not have the satisfaction of laughing at myself.

This book changed all of that–I feel like she is describing my disorganized home life! The Tao of Martha is all about Jen making a conscious decision to make her New Year into a great year by actually doing something to bring about the change she wanted. How did she do this? By immersing herself in the words and deeds of one Martha Stewart (you may have heard of her). The hope is that she’ll become organized and crafty, and thereby happier than she had been the previous year. I’m only about halfway through the first disc, but I have high hopes for Jen and her quest for happiness via Martha.

I know that if I sat down and focused on just one book at a time I may be able to finish one book quicker. But my moods are always changing, and I’m discovering that I like keeping my options open. And this way, I’m kind of killing 4 birds with one stone. Take that, TBR stack!

Carol

When Is an Umbrella Not an Umbrella?

Bum-ber-shoot. Noun.
(1)    Another name for an umbrella.
(2)    An incredible music & arts festival held every Labor Day weekend at Seattle Center.

I have lived in Washington for nearly a decade. In that time, I have attended exactly one day of one Bumbershoot. It was back in 2009, but the memories still live in my soul. I had friends visiting from the Midwest. I left the tickets at home and had to ride the Monorail and two buses home & back, cringing the whole way. We saw Katy Perry, All-American Rejects, Iglu & Hartly, and the Old 97’s. We left when Sheryl Crow came on, partly because she’s from where we’re from and we were inundated with her music ever since she hit it big in 1993. But mostly we left because we were utterly exhausted and didn’t want to miss the late bus back to Snohomish County.

BumberGroup

The author and her fellow concertgoers.

The amount of crazy energy that charges everyone at a music festival is different, to me, than that of just a regular concert. It takes your breath away, keeps fatigue at bay, and gets you excited about almost anything. C’mon! We saw Katy Perry for crying out loud. If we could get excited about her, we knew no one that day could disappoint us.

When Bumbershoot recently announced this year’s music lineup, I knew it was time to hang up my Old Fart Cardigan and put on my Young Punk Tee. I know it’s impossible to see all the acts you want to see at a festival. I know that the comedy tickets (lineup will be announced later this summer) are nearly impossible to score. And I know that before the weekend is over I will be worn out and feeling older than my age suggests I should feel. But it’s so worth it to see, sometimes in very intimate venues, bands that I love and/or respect.

All American RejectsOld 97s

If you’d like to try some bands before the big day(s), here’s a set of tunes from Bumbershoot 2013 artists that you can listen to, for FREE, courtesy of your library.

Are you going? Who are you most excited to see? And the most important question: are we there yet?

Carol

Oh UPS Man, My UPS Man

I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a book of poems, a hot mug of deliciousness, and delved into the world of poetry. That would be because I hate poetry with the fiery hot passion of a thousand suns. It’s usually either completely esoteric or so aloof that I just cannot relate to it, no matter how hard I try.

All that changed last year when staff were asked to read their favorite poems and have them recorded and posted to YouTube. Ever the narcissist, I was eager to participate but hadn’t a clue as to what I could read. After countless misdirects and let-downs (no, you can’t read your mom’s cousin’s poems—they have to be in the library) I finally discovered Good Poems: American Places, selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor. Now, GK may be a very polarizing personality (love him or hate him, there is no in between, am I right?) but I was hopeful because he’s humorous. Even if I don’t always get or want his humor, he’s funny and so I thought maybe these poems would be funny, too.

Some are. Some aren’t. But in its pages I found this little gem that spoke to me:

Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man by Alice N. Persons

you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship
you’re like a cute boyfriend with great legs
who always brings the perfect present
(why, it’s just what I’ve always wanted!)
and then is considerate enough to go away
oh, UPS Man, let’s hop in your clean brown truck and elope!
ditch your job, I’ll ditch mine
let’s hit the road for Brownsville
and tempt each other
with all the luscious brown foods—
roast beef, dark chocolate,
brownies, Guinness, homemade pumpernickel, molasses cookies
I’ll make you my mama’s bourbon pecan pie
we’ll give all the packages to kind looking strangers
live in a cozy wood cabin
with a brown dog or two
and a black and brown tabby
I’m serious, UPS Man. Let’s do it.
Where do I sign?

The BEST UPS ManOur UPS Man is a great guy. His name is Monty and he always has a smile on his face and a quip ready to roll. He and his colleagues in the package delivery industry work hard, are highly accurate and stay personable–that’s my definition of good customer service. They are unsung heroes, and as someone who works in an “invisible” public service department (cataloging) I know he probably never hears accolades or has his praises sung. He and his fellow drivers deserve a poem. They deserve this poem.

So I hereby dedicate this poem to Monty and all his counterparts around the world. But don’t read too much into my dedication. It would never work out between Monty and me. I’m happily married and so is he—to different people. We don’t need love to make our relationship work, however. He knows my shopping tastes and I know how adorable his little boy is. We have a working relationship that is professional while at the same time fun. And that’s enough for me.

Carol