Book Review – The Boy on the Bridge

I’ve been contemplating a few things to write about today in an effort to get into something of a regular blogging habit again and I finally settled on a book review. Given it’s been quite a long time between book-related entries I had a lot to choose from. In the end I went for the one I just finished which was a book club pick.

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It was M.R. Carey’s The Boy on the Bridge – a companion novel to his previous The Girl with all the Gifts which I wrote about here. The most confusing thing about this, otherwise quite spectacular novel, is where the time fits in with the previous novel. It was touted as a prequel set twenty years before the first, but I – and the rest of my highly intelligent book club members – didn’t think this worked. We agreed it was more like a concurrent novel which perhaps starts a bit before the first, and then ends with the epilogue after the end of the first.

All of that will mean nothing if you’ve not read the first book, but it certainly made for some clever detective work for me when reading it and a good discussion at book club trying to piece it all together.

But I should go back and tell you a bit more about the actual story. In short this is a zombie story (as in Walking Dead type zombies rather than the dead coming back to life), but it’s also so much more. The novel follows the lives of a group of soldiers and scientists as they set out across the UK in a tank-come-lab-come-camper-van looking to discover a treatment for the infection that is turning ordinary people into human-munching undead. The characters and they way the interact with one another is what makes the story so incredibly compelling. Samrima, the compassionate scientist hiding her unfortunately timed pregnancy from the rest of the team (until, of course, she can’t), Stephen, the possibly austistic but brilliantly clever teenager ill-at-ease being in such close quarters and misunderstood by all but Samrina, McQueen, the ill-discplined soldier consistently taking matters into his own hand usually to the detriment of the team and the two always-at-loggerheads co-leaders, Fournier a second-rate biologist who spends as much time as possible hiding from the rest of the crew and the level-headed but with a dangerous past Colonel Carlisle. Along with a cast of other, lesser explored characters, they stumble through their weeks and months together, with rising tensions and fading hopes.

As with Carey’s first novel in the series, he saves the best for last – this man sure can write an ending. Everything you assume is wrong, and the conclusion leaves you breathless and in a quiet reverie over what you just read.

M.R Carey’s writing is straight-forward, precise and gripping. His ability to draw in the reader and embed a consistent sense of impending doom and inevitability to the whole story and then turn that on its head at the last minute makes for a novel that is a joy to read, one that should be devoured not savored. This is binge reading at its best. Don’t let the zombie-trope put you off, this is no gore-fest and one that I enjoyed just as much as the first (even if some aspects of the time-line didn’t quite work).

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Slow Cooked Thursdays – Chicken, Leek and Mushroom Casserole

I thought as a way of re-invigorating my blog and looking back on the many things I’ve written about in the last 7 years I would re-post some of my old, but still popular posts.  This post from August 2012 has consistently been my most popular post. I think that’s with good reason, who doesn’t love the chicken, leek, mushroom combination! Plus its super easy and whip up in the slow cooker. Actually maybe ‘whip’ is the wrong adjective when it comes to slow cooking… what I meant is it’s super easy. Having said all that, I so often great dishes I try a couple of times, for whatever reason fall off the regular rotation of dinners. It’s not really the right time of year to be cooking this, but I am going to resurrect this one before the hot weather really starts and hopefully many times more in the future. As an aside, I hardly ever go to the farmer’s market anymore either, something else I should try to remedy.

So with that, I give you my version of a Slow Cooker Chicken, Leek and Mushroom Casserole.

A recent trip to the farmer’s market brought home a supply of leeks and parsnips among other things.  These are two of my favourite vegetables and I thought hard about what I wanted to do with them.  It had been a while since I’d done chicken in the slow cooker and Miss Three had a fancy for mushrooms – her favourite vegetables – so putting all that together I came up with this meal.

The original recipe came from here, but I made several adjustments to make it more slow cooker friendly.

Ingredients

10 bone-in chicken thighs (chicken chops – equally you could use drumsticks, casserole pieces or regular thigh fillets)
1 tbs olive oil
250g rindless bacon rashers, coarsely chopped (this was another pick up from the market and was free range)
2 leeks, pale section only, washed, ends trimmed, cut into 2cm-thick slices
400g button mushrooms, halved
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbs plain flour
250ml (1 cup) chicken stock – this could have been reduced a bit more, perhaps 125g ml would be better.  I used home made stock which is low in salt, if you use bought stock use a salt reduced one as the bacon adds enough salt content as it is.
125ml (1/2 cup) white wine
6 sprigs fresh thyme
125ml (1/2 cup) thickened cream

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and brown the chicken pieces on all sides.  You may need to do this in batches.  Add to the slow cooker once browned.

Add the leek, mushroom, garlic and bacon to the pan and fry until soft and golden brown.  Stir in the flour and cook for a further minute or two.  Finally add the stock and wine to deglaze the pan.  Stir to combine, scraping any bits off the bottom of the pan, than turn off the heat.  Add this mixture to the slow cooker along with the thyme, give it a good stir and then cook on low for 8 hours.

Stir in the cream, season with pepper (I didn’t think it needed any salt) and serve with mashed potatoes (or a combination of mashed potato, pumpkin and parsnip as I did) and steamed vegetables – broccoli and carrots from the garden.

If you had time you could follow the final instructions from the original recipe which involves removing the chicken (set aside and keep warm) and pouring the remaining leek sauce into a saucepan on the stove top.  Add the cream then bring to the boil and cook for five minutes or until the sauce thickens.  Server the chicken pieces on top of the mash and then pour over the sauce.

A delicious and well received meal which was even better the next day for lunch – yum!

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One Step Closer

Yet again it’s been a quiet six months on the blog – though with a few odd days where my stats went through the roof (relatively speaking consider this little blog is no high traffic site) for no apparent reason. I’ve neglected this blog and a lot of other things I enjoy while concentrating on the first semester of a Master of Information Management course. Yet another piece of paper to add to the growing collection – I’ll have enough to wallpaper a room pretty soon. I’m desperately hoping this one pays off and I’ll find a job that gives me the same satisfaction I used to get from teaching, but without the aspects that saw me turn my back on that particular career.

I have loved the course, my brain has been expanded in ways I didn’t expect. I can now code, catalogue according to RDA, Dewey and Library of Congress, search the deep web, explain the term web 2.0, create a LibGuide, write a rapid evidence review and speak conversational MARC – most of which will make no sense but makes me feel pretty proud of myself. I started the course with the goal of kick-starting a library career, but info management is so much more than that and I feel like there are lots of directions this course could take me in. I just hope starting a new career at nearly forty is less frightening than it feels right now. Ironically, this time twenty years ago I was in a very similar position – preparing for my final high school exams and figuring out what direction my life would then take.

This morning I finished the last assignment for this semester – which technically gives me a Graduate Certificate in Information Management – and now I am one step closer to the next stage in my life. That’s certainly a better feeling than 12 months ago when my life as I knew it felt like it had imploded in part and I had no idea what to do next. While I may not have that crystal ball telling me things will be fine in the end, I am actually excited about what I’m doing and where it might lead. That feels really good.

In the meantime, I have about four months until the next semester starts and lots of free time on my hands. Perhaps this could be the Summer of Barbara! Here’s the agenda so far:

  1. Get back to the garden! – I have made a start, cleared out two and a bit garden beds. I’ve planted lettuces, strawberry runners, parsley, and (inspired by Glen) I ordered and planted three types of potatoes which have all come up and look good so far. Sadly, I can’t for the life of me find where I put the details on the types I planted – I know one was King Edward) – but I’m sure they’ll all taste delicious. There’s plenty more weeding to do and I’ll be planting as I go. I’ll keep you updated on my progress.
  2. Read, read, read! – so many good books have been piling up on my bedside table. The stack is precariously high right now and may just take me out in my sleep if I can’t get through some of them soon.
  3. Cook – it’s been pretty boring in the kitchen for the last six months. But I’m starting to feel the cooking bug scratching its way to the surface again.
  4. Painting – no, not the artistic type, I have absolutely no talent for that. But I am hoping I can spruce up my very dark lounge room with a new coat of white paint. This will include finally painting the 1970s style dark wood paneling on the back wall. I’ll post before and after photos for your approval.
  5. Start another blog – seems silly considering I haven’t had great success in recent years in keeping up with this one but I would like to track my journey out of teaching and into a library (or related) job. This will record the things I’ve learned and other interesting library-related topics. I’ll share it here too if I think it’s interesting. The first thing I need to do though is to come up with a catchy name. I need some help with this, so hit me up with some suggestions in the comments… please!

I’m sure there will be other things that come up that will spark my interest and keep me busy. Ah, it’s nice to sit here, looking at the glorious stretch of time ahead of me and feel motivated and inspired again. That’s a pretty special at any stage in life and I intend to make the most of it.

See you again soon (I promise!)

Barbara.

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The Charming Books of 2017 (so far)

When I came back to blogging this year I was sure I’d be able to do weekly or even twice weekly book reviews to catch up on all the fantastic and few not so great books I’ve been reading.  Clearly that hasn’t happened.  So today, in a break from my cataloguing class (it’s so much greater than it sounds, though that just might be me?) I thought I’d do a combo review.

Given that so far 2017 has been something of a rubbish year for me, in some regards, I’ve been drawn to reading happy, light-hearted, humorous and just plain old charming books.  I have been pretty selective so they’ve all been beautifully written, engaging novels that welcome you into a fictional world like a comforting arm around your shoulder.  It’s kind of like cheap therapy, pulling me out of some darker patches of my mind.  I’ve listed them below, given them a rating and a quick run down.

  1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman – I read this in January and have already reviewed it here.  I gave it 5/5 – its sublime.
  2. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald – This is the story of a young(ish) Swedish women, Sara, who ventures to the town of Broken Wheel, Iowa to meet up with her long time pen pal.  It’s only when she arrives and no is there to collect her from the bus that she finds out the pen pal has died.  Despite this Sara decides to stay in Broken Wheel, a dying little town, and set up a book shop.  The small town characters are unique and charming, and the adventures Sara takes change the course of many people’s lives, not least her own.  For some reason this reminds me of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (without the cannibalism), I thinks it’s the location and the quirky characters.  4/5 for this one (added bonus, it has lots of literary references)
  3. Blue Shoes and Happiness (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series) by Alexander McCall Smith – If you know this series you’ll know what to expect with this one.  Set, as always, in Botswana, with Mma Ramotswe solving cases big and small in her beloved town.  This one involves a pair of blue shoes, a game reserve, and the sinister goings-on in a health clinic.  With her usual penchant for bush tea and straight talking, Blue Shoes and Happiness is a lovely Sunday afternoon on the couch kind of book.  3.5/5
  4. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin – this book came at just the right time for me and made an enormous impact.  The story circles around A. J. Fikry, a grumpy bookstore owner and recent widow living on the difficult to access Alice Island.  He dislikes all but the classics, despises children’s books and detests most of his customers.  All that changes when he discovers a small girl has been abandoned in his bookstore and he sets about raising her in the most literary of ways.  That sounds preposterous, but it works, trust me.  Along the way he connects with the local policeman, reconnects with his wife’s sister and brother-in-law and is introduced to his knew agent from a particular publisher (hint this turns romantic).  Again there are lots of wonderful, intriguing and unique literary references and the character development is superb.  Highly, HIGHLY recommended – 5/5.
  5. Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach (who also write the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) – Buffy, a much recognised but retired actor unexpectedly inherits a B&B in rural Wales and makes the sudden and surprising decision to pack up his London life and give country living a crack – mostly because he couldn’t get a carpark in his street!  He’s a hopeless businessman, doesn’t really like the idea of sharing his space with strangers and has no idea how to even start.  What could go wrong?  The first half of this novel introduces you to a vast array of side characters.  My advice is to let this wash over you to some degree, I promise it will all come together in the end.  The connections made in the second half are amusing, delightful and surprising, as Buffy’s guests come to learn basic car maintenance and instead get a lesson in love.  Not everything gets tied up which is a little frustrating and some characters that were introduced in the first half, seem to get dropped for inexplicable reasons in the second and the character development is a bit hit and miss, but overall it’s a fun and funny read. 3/5

And that’s a wrap, all the “charming” novels on my 2017 list.  Please, please hit me with some more recommendations.

Barbara.

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TV Review – The Handmaid’s Tale

Offred-Handmaids-Tale-Season-1

Way back in the summer of 1996/7 I spent a solid two or three afternoons lying on my bed absorbed entirely in the world of Gilead and Offred, swept up in Margaret Atwood’s already-classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale.  The previous year I had had a similar experience with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, another dystopian masterpiece.  These were both school English texts (and given that I also read Day of the Triffids in Year 10 I wonder what on earth the English teachers were trying to prepare us for?) and opened my eyes to a form of fiction that I have continued to enjoy (what does that say about me?).  The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those novels where even the smallest of details have stayed in my mind and with just a slightest of memory jogs I can be drawn back into that world and that bedroom of my teenage years.  It’s one of those formative texts for me, one that I thank those English teachers for have the courage and foresight to pick.  It also started me down a path with Margaret Atwood that continues to this day.

Unless you’ve spent the last few weeks or months living under a rock you will be well aware that Hulu has just released (in Australia anyway, it came out a little earlier in the US) a TV mini-series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Incidentally sales of the novel have rocketed this year, ever since the election of Trump, but especially since the release of the TV series.  In Australia, the series is being shown on SBS and all eight episodes are available through SBS On Demand, so you can choose to binge watch if you like.

I’ve watched all eight episodes although I had to space it out a little as it gets pretty bleak at times.  The adaptation is very true to the original story – I think Atwood was involved in some way, but I could be wrong – but it has been updated to include modern technology in the flashback scenes and to better represent today’s society (ie handmaids from different ethnic backgrounds and characters who are same-sex attracked).  These updates have been seamlessly embedded within the original story and actually make it more poignant in my opinion.  There are one or two changes that have been controversial (I won’t give spoilers) but they didn’t bother me.  The ending of the original book was somewhat controversial in itself, that remains the same, but there is apparently going to be a season two which will flesh out the epilogue (at least that’s what I’ve heard).

What strikes me most about the TV series is how iconic and atmospheric it is, capturing perfectly the feelings of Atwood’s world.  The colouring is muted with dull greens, blues and greys, making the red and white attire of the handmaids all the more striking and memorable.  The constant grey clouds and rain adds another layer to the bleak world of Gilead, as though the very weather itself is being controlled by the theocratic powers with the purpose of further suppressing the masses.  The soundtrack also adds to the overall atmosphere and is the perfect, though sometimes unexpected, matching for the cinematography.

The cast is made up of some familiar faces and some unknown to me.  The protagonist, Offred, is played superbly by Elizabeth Moss (she also played Peggy Olsen in Mad Men and Robin in the magnificent NZ/Australian production Top of the Lake with David Wenham – check that one out if you haven’t already, it’s chilling and yet stunning).  Other notables include Alexis Bledel as Ofglen (this is a long way from Stars Hollow and her Rory Gilmore character), Joseph Fiennes as the Commander and Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) is brilliant in her portrayal of Moira.

This latest (and definitely best) screen adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps an even more frightening depiction of the near future and a very real reminder of why we must be vigilant in the protection of our rights and freedoms so hard won be past generations.  The body autonomy debates that have cropped up recently, particularly in the US, but also here in Australia around things like abortion laws, are played out to a devastating end.  It’s a realisation that perhaps there aren’t so many steps between where we are now and the society of Gilead.  The fact that Canada is the haven many run to and which offers an open-armed welcome is also pretty close to certain current situations.

On a brighter note, it’s also a reminded that we really are experiencing some of the very best television at the moment and I intend to enjoy it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, the novel, other Atwood works, or your most memorable high school English texts – were they duds or delights?

Barbara

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A New Good Life….

I’ve had a kind of tricky six months or so, a bit of a crisis on identity you might say.  I’ve floundered a bit, I’ve changed my mind about what to do next roughly 300 times and I’ve really missed having an idea of what’s coming day to day, the routine of work.

In that time I’ve started taking on emergency teaching work.  This, I have found, to be a soulless occupation and one I truly have not enjoyed.  Walking into a class that isn’t mine, with students that I don’t know and in a school where the staff are busy and generally haven’t got time or head space to welcome in a new CRT (and I was guilty of the same when I was teaching so I get it).  That’s not to say I haven’t met some absolutely lovely students and that when I’m clearly lost there will be another teacher that notices and points me in the right direction, but it’s just not for me.  I do it simply and only for the money and that’s not a way I want to live.

However, I think I may have finally found my new calling and I am really excited about it.  I have decided to dedicate the next six months to becoming a librarian.  It makes so much sense.  I LOVE books and reading and studying (all of which happens in libraries) and I can still stretch my educator muscles every now and again.  I’ve enrolled FULL TIME in an Information Management program at RMIT which started this week.  Clearly it’s very early days, but when I even found the cataloguing class interesting (and dare I say it, exciting) I though I may be onto something here.

I actually remembered, once I settled on this new direction, that I dressed as a librarian for a walk-a-thon we did at primary school.  I think the theme was something like what you want to be when you grow up…. if only that had come back to me a bit sooner.  Mind you I also wanted to be a zoologist, so maybe that could be next?

In the meantime life is going to be busy, but I am hoping to still be able to write a blog post every week or so, reviewing books, sharing thoughts, swapping recipes, and increasing my supply of cardigans (compulsory librarian attire I believe).

Til the next one (a book review I think)

Barbara

 

 

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Recipe – Country Garlic Chicken

Wow, how long has it been since I last posted a recipe or anything really food related?  There are reasons for this – firstly I went AWOL for over a year, secondly my kitchen has been a most uninspired place for such a long time.  As long-time readers will know (maybe?) cooking meals that my two frustrating children will eat has been a definitely theme for years.  Well, that hasn’t changed.  They still refuse seemingly innocuous, unoffensive dinners made specifically because I think they will like them.  They occasionally surprise me…. very occasionally.  I still have one that would willingly eat a devoted carnivore diet and another that has decided vegetarianism is the way to go.  What am I supposed to do with that?

On a recent trip to the library I was browsing the cookbook sections – having already banned myself from borrowing more novels – and picked up a slow cooker book I hadn’t seen before.  It’s called Slow by Allyson Gofton.  I had a good look through the book when I got home and to be honest I wasn’t that thrilled by it.  There were only a couple of recipes that I thought I’d try before returning it.  The first was a Lancashire lamb hotpot.  It was tasty but I’ve got another lamb chop casserole I do in the slow cooker that I prefer.  Then tonight I tried the Country Garlic Chicken recipe.  It smelt delicious from the get go and the taste did not disappoint.  But most impressive is that everyone ate it, devoured it, annihilated it.  Plates were clean before I had time to notice that I wasn’t nagging certain small people to sit properly and eat over their plates.  This is definitely one to add to the list, yay!  It’s been so long since my last kitchen success story.  And, of course, I had to share it (see blow).  Sadly, not realising how good this was going to be there are no photos, but please believe me it looked terrific and tasted even better.

Country Garlic Chicken

8-10 chicken thighs or drumsticks (skin removed if you prefer)
3 tablespoons of flour
1 tablespoon of paprika (I used smoked which worked a treat)
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
12 gloves of garlic (mine were from the garden and were quite big so I used 8)
2 carrots, peeled and sliced thickly
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced thickly
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, stems removed
1-1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water

Place the chicken in a bag with the flour, paprika and pepper and toss to coat.

Heat butter in a heave based pan and brown the chicken in batches (this is optional but highly recommended.

Chop the garlic and place in the bottom of the slow cooker.

Top with the sliced carrot and parsnips.  Place the chicken on top pf the vegetables and then sprinkle over the rosemary leaves.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add the stock, cover with the lid and cook on low for 6-7 hours or on high for 4-5 hours.

Serve with greens and mashed potato (or whatever you like).

This was super easy and completely satisfying.  And better yet it was nice to get back into the kitchen and have a win.

Hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Barbara.

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