Monday, October 31, 2011

Its Halloween and All Is Paranormal

It is a dark and stormy night…well, not really.  At the moment the sky is blue and it is a beautiful sunny day.  Though, this being the Northwest, that’s not for long as we quickly move into our gloomy season.  Perhaps that’s the reason so many paranormal novels are set here; lots of darkness this time of year.  But it does make one wonder what all those vampires do once we hit the late spring/early summer with our very abundant daylight? Just saying. 

However, it is the perfect time of year to talk about the Greywalker series by Kat Richardson.  Apparently there is a lot of shadowy paranormal stuff going on in the Emerald City.  The first book, Greywalker, is where we meet Harper Blaine, a private investigator who is brutally attacked in the opening pages.  While in the ER, she dies for a couple of minutes before being brought back to life.  As Harper recovers, she realizes that she’s seeing things that nobody else is seeing, like ghosts and other supernaturals walking around an old section of Seattle; unfortunately, they're seeing her as well.  What she comes to know is that she is seeing the Grey, the world between our world and the next and that she is now a Greywalker, one who can move between this world and the Grey. 

Once the supernatural world realizes she is aware of them, they look to her for help.  Harper has to quickly learn not only how to deal with this unasked for ability, she has to learn how to deal with clients who aren’t necessarily alive, like perhaps an angry ghost or a newly minted vampire, who was until recently, a student at the U.  Assisting are some pretty interesting characters which include, among others, a scary necromancer, a powerful witch and a few ambitious vampires.  Oh, and this being Seattle, there is also one very talented computer geek; he has a few secrets of his own.  

This series has a little more depth than some of the others in the same genre.  The author has done some extensive research.  Though Seattle is new compared to the East Coast, it still does have quite a bit of history with lots of fodder for a good storyteller.  Some of the details are a bit massaged or stretched to fit the story, but there’s enough that is true to make for an interesting history lesson.   

After reading the third book, Underground, I even felt inclined to learn a little more about the history of the Seattle underground as well as some other tidbits she mentions, like a particular unsavory character during Prohibition.  Plus, since this book was actually set locally in a recent year, it almost made the story feel a little more real because I remembered the extreme cold of that particular winter referenced.

Harper Blaine is a reluctant and sometimes flawed heroine, but she is a heroine all the same.  Her magic and that of her helpers is all that is between us and the monsters that go bump in the night.  So far she’s been successful in her battles.  Yet you wonder if she will continue to be, and if so, at what cost?

Tonight being Halloween makes for the perfect setting to start the sixth book in the series, Downpour.  Who knows who or what will show up at my door tonight…Then again, will my front door keep them out?


Monday, October 24, 2011

One For The Boys

Last spring, I visited an old friend and when I asked what to bring, he said he’d love a few good books.  We always had that in common so I thought it would be easy.  As I looked through what I had been reading recently, I realized that many of those books were geared towards women.  That’s not too surprising since I happen to be female.  Plus, many of my female friends tend to be the ones who recommend books.  So I had to search a bit to find a few that might appeal.  

I stumbled on an epic adventure series I had read.  The first book in this young adult series, Eragon, by Christopher Paolini, seemed a good candidate.  My friend, like a lot of men, is not a man of many words.  But given that this was the first book he picked up and was then so thoroughly engrossed in, I suspect I hit the mark.  Perhaps, even, a little too well.  Though I do have to admit that this is certainly a fun read.   

The story is about a young man, Eragon, who stumbles across a beautiful stone, which he soon realizes is no ordinary stone.  It is in fact, an egg, from which a dragon, named Saphira, is born.  Trying to hide a dragon is not an easy feat and it isn’t long before the evil empire notices the disturbance in the force…I wonder, can I use a Star Wars reference here or is that just like mixing metaphors?  In any case, the evil ones, the King and his attendants, the Ra’zac, are after the pair.  Eragon and Saphira must flee their home and take with them a mysterious old man from the village; which turns out to be a good thing.  Brom, who is much more than he seems, teaches Eragon the basics of being a dragon rider and about the others who may be able to help him in his quest to take down the evil King.  

Lots of mystical creatures abound.  There are the scary and brutal Kull, the large fighting creatures who help the bad guys, along with the even scarier Shades, who take evil to a new level.  On the good side, among others, there are elves and dwarves, but the different factions do seem have some trust issues.  There is Murtagh, the new friend who helps Eragon out of a jam, who also appears to have a secret or two.  Even the magicians come in both flavors, evil and not.  Mostly we learn that much is not what it seems. 

Personally, I loved the adventure of it all and cheered with Eragon when he triumphed and felt his pain when he did not.  This is one to share with the boys, even if those boys haven't seen their youth in a while.  It is also for anyone who loves a good epic fantasy, especially those, who like me, were weaned on Tolkien.  

Eragon is the first book in a series of four.  I’ve read the first three, but there are so many characters and story lines that I decided to re-read the books to have a fresh perspective.  So far, I’ve made it through the first two, Eragon and Eldest, and I’m about to begin the third book, Brisingr.  The fourth, Inheritance, will be released this November.  Unfortunately, I am currently number 427 on the 97 copies my library has ordered.  That's okay; given the length of the third book, I’m kind of glad I have a little time to read it before the next one comes in.

In the meantime, I’m off to fly with my dragons, both real and imagined.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Old Friends

Old friends and old times have been on my radar these last few days.  How does that saying go?  Something like it was the best of times; it was the worst of times, etc.  What it was, was college, which was a microcosm of society where random people are thrown together for a few years and for us, that time was the mid to late 70’s.  My class was part of the in-between group; not the rabble rousers a few years before us, or the more conservative crowd that followed us once the pendulum started to swing back.  What was most memorable about us is that we had fun.  Oh yea, and somehow we still managed to get a terrific education.  Now, from this slightly older angle, it has been quite fun to chat about our various least what we actually do remember! 

Speaking of old friends, I was happy to see that the latest book from one of my favorite series was available at the library this weekend; The Pirate King by Laurie R King.  An old friend indeed, given that this is the eleventh book I’ve read in the series.  In this latest book, the stars of the show include pirates, the film industry in its infancy, a few insane actors and directors in addition to what appears to be a Portuguese poet with multiple personalities.  Like reminiscing with my old college buddies, it has been great fun.  How it ends is anyone's guess!

It all began with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, set in 1915 with the character of Mary Russell as the young protagonist and continued through to the current one, set in 1924.  Just who is this beekeeper she is an apprentice to?  None other than Sherlock Holmes himself!  Though she is quite young in the first book, she is a quick study for the elder statesman of mystery.  Together, they get into all sorts of trouble while they solve the great crimes of the time. 

The novels do touch on some of the history of the time, like WWI, as well as some of the social issues, like women’s rights, but essentially they are mostly entertainment; a nice comfortable read.  Like those days when all the things you have to do are done, you’re sitting in your favorite reading chair with a nice cup of tea at hand, something warm and inviting is simmering on the stove and perhaps there’s even a little low key jazz playing in the background.  That’s what these books are to me; a lovely foray into the world of Holmes and Russell. 

There's a little fun, a little intrigue, a crime or two and of course, some Sherlock thrown in for good measure.  And I do love all things Sherlock!  I love the old traditional Sherlock, I love the modern day Sherlock, recently shown on PBS, complete with texting, and I even love the Robert Downey Jr. version that’s been out in the theaters. You know I had to stop by the Sherlock museum in London when I was there.  How could I not?  All this for a fictional character!

In this book series, though his presence is still felt, Sherlock is the secondary character.  Mary Russell is the main character and she's pretty complex and a good match for him.  I went to the author’s website to see what she had to say.  Her take is that Mary is who Holmes would be if he were young, female, and of the twentieth century.  Mary’s character is a resilient woman who doesn’t pay much attention when told what she can’t do.  She just forges ahead in her own way.  

The fact that she knows how to pick locks doesn’t hurt.  


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Murder, Mayhem and Museums

Last weekend, an old friend's name came up unexpectedly; someone I haven't seen in over twenty years.  I had to laugh when he was then described as a stupid, arrogant asshole.  There was nothing stupid about him, as far as I knew, though I will admit that I thought his ego did get in his way occasionally.  It reminded me how bright arrogant men have always caught my eye.  These days, I find it better to seek them out in fiction…much easier on the psyche.

And I’ve found him in the character of FBI Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast, created by authors Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston.  

Not only is he extremely intelligent, he speaks several languages, has traveled the world, and is extraordinarily knowledgeable in many varied subjects, both high and low brow.  He is also a master of disguises and mental manipulation.  Oh, and did I mention he’s even had some special ops training?

All this comes in a cool, aloof and debonair package.  Does that make him arrogant?  Who knows but I do know I find him fascinating.  Of course, he does have his demons but that just makes him all the more interesting.  

Pendergast needs this supernatural competence to solve the very horrific and frequently atypical murders he encounters.  A number of storylines are centered on museums or artifacts, and many times those precious and unusual objects d’art can have sinister influences with hidden evil components that unleash malevolent forces on the world.

I first got hooked when I read Cabinet of Curiosities, the third book.  It turns out that a cabinet of curiosities is a collection of loosely defined items that could include various odd antiquities such as skeletal remains and religious or historical relics.  Essentially, an early version of a natural history museum.  I haven't been able to view museums quite the same since.  
I then decided to read the series from the beginning, starting with Relic, when Agent Pendergast first appears, followed by Reliquary, a semi-sequel.  The star location is a fictional version of the Museum of Natural History in NY.  I’ve only been an infrequent visitor to the real Museum of Natural History, but enough to know how clearly one can get lost among the maze of interconnecting rooms.  I can easily imagine how the characters feel as they look for a clear quick path out.  Trust me; they do want to get out of there quickly, too! 

I am now close to finishing the eighth book, Wheel of Darkness, and I’m still enthralled.  I’m glad that there are a few more Agent Pendergast books as I know I will be reading them.  This series is quite dark at times so they are not for everyone, more of an acquired taste.  There’s a little more violence than I’d want to actual see or experience but I do enjoy reading them.  I also enjoy seeing how my much regarded investigator makes the world right again. 

After all, don’t we all need a hero sometimes, even a slightly arrogant one?


Monday, October 10, 2011

It’s October and the Crock pots Are Humming

I love the month of October.  It is not confusing like the month of September, where one isn’t sure whether its summer or fall; it’s also not as dark and dreary as the month of November, a month that reminds you that the holiday rush is beginning.  It’s a harvest time so really, the only holidays in October, and I use the word holiday loosely, are centered on good food, beer/wine or candy.  What’s not to love?  

And it is beautiful, even here in the Northwest where our deciduous trees are somewhat limited.  Those we do have offer bright splashes of varying shades of yellow and red and are a visual feast.  It isn’t cold or too rainy yet, just a pleasant in between climate.  If you do catch the dwindling periods of sun, it’s also a great time to be out and about, either taking a hike or just enjoying some of the bounty of the area. 

It is also a time when those of us who enjoy cooking feel a need to start playing again in the kitchen.  Soups and stews are what begin to appeal to me and I start looking through my recipes, old and new, to see what sounds good.  And because I still want to enjoy being outside, I look to recipes that can be made while I’m busy enjoying the day.  Crock pots are perfect for that.    

Last week I made a wonderful creamy Thai-inspired butternut squash soup that I found online at Better Home and Gardens.  I adjusted the recipe a bit to add a little more spice and a little less fat but it was heavenly.  I also made a cream of tomato soup that I found in my new favorite cookbook, Slow Cooker Revolution, by America’s Test Kitchen.  It was good the first day, even better the second.   
What’s wonderful about this book is that it not only has amazing recipes, it also has short lessons and advice on how to make slow cooking better.  Some recipes are easier than others and those are marked as such.  A number of recipes include some kind of meat, but there are some without or those that can be adjusted to a more vegetarian diet.  The recipes, not low in fat, are really a dream to behold.  I know I'll be experimenting with ways to make them using a little less fat.  

Unfortunately, I am still in line at the library for my requested copy.  Apparently I’m not the only one to love this book.  Fortunately, I was able to convince a good friend to lend me her copy for a couple of weeks.  The cassoulet she made this past weekend was from the book and while we agreed it could have used a touch more seasoning, it was warm and satisfying and still very tasty.  That, along with some good bread and salad, made the perfect end to the day with our brewery touring crowd.    

Now that I’ve perused her copy, I’m having trouble deciding which recipe to make next.  Do I go for one of the soups, like curried cauliflower or black bean soup, both considered easy prep?  Or, do I look to the stews instead, like the Moroccan chicken stew or the beef burgundy?  Perhaps I should just jump to the desserts and make the Nutella bread pudding.  Decisions, decisions...


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A more contemplative book

At our book club meeting last night, we discussed our latest book, The Road Home by Rose Tremain.  The facilitator, the person who had suggested the book, was a little late so the gals were pretty open about what they thought.  Some read a little into it and decided that was enough and they weren’t wasting any more time.  Others couldn’t relate to the main character.  Some, like me, hated the first half but were glad they had stuck to it.  What surprised me was how much the facilitator had loved it…the whole book.  Once she said that, I think there was a short pause before we felt we were able to share our thoughts with her.  But we’re not a shy group and soon the conversation was flowing as were our opinions.   

This got me to thinking about why book clubs sometimes have the more challenging reads and whether I would recommend this book.  I guess the less loved books do provide a better discussion.  About whether I'd recommend it, well, I think that depends on your perspective.    

Most of the people I know, including myself, would fit into some part of the middle class sector; some higher, some lower but still in that general range.  While the economy has affected most of us in varying ways, we are all still in the middle.  We live in our relatively safe neighborhoods; we go out to dinner, take a vacation here and there and enjoy what life has to offer.  And we help each other out as needed.  You watch my house when I’m gone, I watch your kids when you need a break.  It is all very normal and comforting because we know we aren’t alone.   

Yet there are fringes of society that are all around us.  I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that not everyone lives this middle class life.  This book focuses on those people, the ones who don’t quite fit in or the ones who relish living outside the bell curve.   

The main character, Lev, is an immigrant from an unnamed eastern bloc country.  His factory has shut down, his wife has died and he travels to London to find a way to provide for his daughter and mother.  His really struggles once he arrives.  It is only because of a gal he met on the bus to London that he finds a job and a place to live.  Many of the people he finds himself around are also somewhat fringe.  They are either immigrants like him, who haven’t quite made it, or they are the more extreme artists/writers who are more about shock than about creating something of beauty.  Add to this that Lev has been drilled all his life to stop dreaming and just do.  He’s not used to learning how to make good decisions and this creates a lot of extra trouble.  If you stopped after the first half of the book, that’s all you’d see.  Yet the road is still there and Lev somehow learns from what’s around him and follows his path to his dream.  

What I think was really good was how the characters were written.  These aren’t comfortable people and the life some of them live is foreign to a lot of us.  Though, how many among us haven’t been new or struggling with life at some point.   

When I briefly lived in a small Ohio city, I felt out of my element.  The companies which would have hired someone with my background had closed or downsized.  I knew I’d eventually get something but in the meantime, I needed to live.  I didn’t have a community like I do now.  So, I did whatever I could to find my way.  I had two low paying jobs and between them, worked 6 days a week, twice on Saturday and had Sundays off.  It didn’t kill me but it wasn’t pleasant.    

I managed to make it through that period and return to the Northwest.  I did, however, meet a number of people who were living a little closer to the fringe than was comfortable for me.  Some had very different ethics but I understood that what they did was what they needed to do to survive.  I wouldn’t have chosen the same path but I accepted that this was their way.  This book reminds me of that time and those people.  That’s probably why the first half was so challenging to me.  It brought me back to a time I’d rather not remember.  Like Lev, hopefully I have learned something and as I continue down my path, I will also find the way to fulfill my dreams.