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One move to America, one surprise pregnancy and a lot of fun later.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)

Against all odds, Katniss has won the Hunger Games. She and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark are miraculously still alive. Katniss should be relieved, happy even. After all, she has returned to her family and longtime friend, Gale. Yet nothing is the way Katniss wishes it to be. Gale holds her at an icy distance. Peeta has turned his back on her completely. And there are whispers of a rebellion against the Capitol - a rebellion that Katniss and Peeta may have helped create.

Much to her shock, Katniss has fueled an unrest she's afraid she cannot stop. And what scares her even more is that she's not entirely convinced she should try. As time draws near for Katniss and Peeta to visit the districts on the Capitol's cruel Victory Tour, the stakes are higher than ever. If they can't prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are lost in their love for each other, the consequences will be horrifying.

In Catching Fire, the second novel of the Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins continues the story of Katniss Everdeen, testing her more than ever before...and surprising readers at every turn

After reading The Hunger Games I just had to read the rest of the trilogy.  This, the second book in the trilogy, did fall into the classic second book trap.  It did spend a lot of time going over old facts from the first book - as if anyone would read this book without having just read the first one! - and the story seemed a lot slower at first but it did end well, quite nicely setting up the story for the third book finale.

Again it was well written and flowed really well.  Set out in her, what is now, classic three parts it contained quite a lot of detail to take in.  I may well re-read part three as I felt like I missed something.  It either moved very quickly and implied a lot of information I was looking for or I just missed something (which is highly possible).  Still a must read if you have read The Hunger Games.

Although, she still has not covered how Panem and The Capitol came about yet. I just hope that is all covered in the final book.
I am very excited about the movie version of this as there is so much they could do with it.

3 out of 5 as I gave The Hunger Games 4 and this rated just slightly below it, more like a 3.5 but that is not possible to give here.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper

Tears of a Tiger (Hazelwood High, #1)

 After a car accident kills Robert, Andy's best friend and teammate on the Hazelwood High Tigers, Andy doesn't know if he can go on. He's consumed with guilt for driving the night of the accident after a long evening of drinking and partying. With perceptiveness and compassion, Sharon M. Draper portrays an African-American teenager who feels driven to consider suicide in the wake of a devastating tragedy.

Quite a unique book.  It is basically a mixture of newspaper articles, direct dialogue, letters and such to make up the story.  It was a short, snappy read despite covering a serious subject.  I felt the subject matter was handled very well for the books target audience.  In my opinion, the target audience is 17 year old black youths and it is written in a way that would resonate well with them but it just didn't work well for me.

So 3 out of 5 for the story but not one that most people over the age of 17 should bother reading.


Teaching a child English

I always knew that English was a complex language and that I was never particularly good at it at school, being better suited to numbers and science.  It is only as I am trying to teach my two year old to speak and to speak properly that I am realising just quite how complicated a language it is.  I wanted to write a blog about it but could not quite put it into words and then I say this picture on Facebook and it just about sums up what I wanted to say anyway.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice

This may be one of the most frightening novels you'll ever read. It's certainly one of the most unforgettable. Genova's debut revolves around Alice Howland - Harvard professor, gifted researcher and lecturer, wife,
and mother of three grown children. One day, Alice sets out for a run and soon realizes she has no idea how to find her way home. It's a route she has taken for years, but nothing looks familiar. She is utterly lost. Is her forgetfulness the result of menopausal symptoms? A ministroke? A neurological cancer? After a few doctors' appointments and medical tests, Alice has her diagnosis, and it's a shocker -- she has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. 
What follows is the story of Alice's slow but inevitable loss of memory and connection with reality, told from her perspective. She gradually loses the ability to follow a conversational thread, the story line of a book,
or to recall information she heard just moments before. To Genova's great credit, readers learn of the progression of Alice's disease through the reactions of others, as Alice does, so they feel what she feels -- a slowly building terror.
In Still Alice, Genova, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard, uniquely reveals the experience of living with Alzheimer's. Hers is an unusual book -- both a moving novel and an important read.

This is one very talented author.  I was introduced to her when I stumbled across the book "Left Neglected" which just blew me away so when I saw this book in my library bookshop for $2 I just had to snap it up and read it right away.

Her writing style is, again, very smooth and just sucks you into the story.  The subject matter was a very difficult one but she handled in a very undramatic way.  That is what draws me to this author.   She writes about the unimaginable but makes them seem like everyday life and I guess they are to a lot of people in the world! 

Her knowledge and experience of the subject matter of Alzheimer's shows through in this book, in fact, a little too much so.  I dropped a star from my review because some of the technical detail and drug terms almost detracted from the emotion of the story for me.

What made this a must read was how she got the reader inside Alice's mind as it was splintering apart and makes you feel like you can understand what Alice is going through - and God forbid that any of us actually go through it in real life.  She kept the emotions just from Alice's point of view and didn't try to go into what any of the other characters were thinking or feeling in any depth and this really worked.  If she had tried to write this with a different chapter from each different characters perspective then the rawness of the subject would have been lost.

Not an easy read because of the subject matter but easy because of the flowing style of the author.  4 out of 5.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath

The Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression, a book that galvanized-and sometimes outraged-millions of readers

The Grapes of Wrath summed up its era in the way that Uncle Tom's Cabin had summed up the years of slavery before the Civil War. At once naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck's fictional chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s is perhaps the most American of American classics.

Although it follows the movement of thousands of men and women and the transformation of an entire nation, The Grapes of Wrath is also the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, who are driven off their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots, Steinbeck created a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its insistence on human dignity.

Another book group choice that I openly groaned about at first.  I have only read one other of this authors books, "Of Mice and Men", and while I loved that book (and the film) I thought that this book would be a painful struggle to get through.

I was right about it being a struggle to read and almost gave up at page 105.  However, I am glad that I kept on reading to the end.  It is a book that has many different facets to it and will make a thoroughly interesting discussion for a book group.   

The story is a hard one to read because it is just still too real in today's society, where there is enough for everyone but the rich would rather destroy it than distribute it to the needy.  Now I am not a Socialist by any description but this book certainly did make me think strong and hard about it.  I am looking forward to discussing this aspect of the book with my Russian friend who was brought up in the most extreme end of the socialist scale in Russia.

The writing style was varied throughout the book.  Some parts of it were very descriptive and emotional and really drew me into the feelings of the characters while there were whole chapters that I thought were just too wordy and did not add significantly to the book as a whole.  I, initially, struggled with the vernacular of the migrants on the road but eventually got used to their way of speaking and, in fact, it made it feel more real to me and put me beside them in their lives.

The ending was intense and somewhat shocking to me but it did give me back some hope in the goodness of humans that had been stripped from me by the rest of the book.

4 out of 5 with one star deducted because it was a struggle and could not be described as an enjoyable read and would not be for everyone.  I would suggest starting with "Of Mice and Men" if you have not read any of this authors works before as I think this book would put you off reading any of his other books.  However, put it on your list of books to read before you die.

Why is it usually those that have nothing that will give everything to help a fellow person!  And that is my closing thought.

ps.  I couldn't resist this picture from Facebook!
Photo: http://humortrain.com/

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Foodie Penpal - Recipe 5 - Chicken Cajun wth chile cream sauce

This recipe came from the website, Campbell's Kitchen.  It is a great resource for easy and quick recipes when you want to cook a home-cooked dinner but just don't have a lot of time.  It helps you cut a few corners while staying fairly healthy (a lot better than prepackaged meals anyway).

I used the cajun spice from my package for this but you could also use creole spice if you have that in your larder already.

Chicken Cajun with Chile cream sauce


1.25 lbs chicken breasts, diced
2 tsps Cajun spice
1 tbsp olive oil
1 can (10 3/4 oz) Cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup water
1 can (4 1/2 oz) chopped green chiles
1 tsp lime juice
1/4 cup sour cream

Season the chicken with the cajun spice.

Heat oil in skillet and brown chicken.

Stir in the soup, water, chiles and lime juice and heat to boil.  Reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

Stir in the sour cream and cook until hot and bubbling.

I serve with some cooked rice.

And now I will stop boring you with my Foodie penpal recipes and move onto planning next months.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Foodie Penpal - Recipe 4 - Beef Casserole with Sage cobbler

This was the perfect recipe to use the sage and oregano from my package and to warm the cockles of our hearts as the temperature has dropped dramatically this weekend.  One problem though was finding Flageolet beans, so I just substituted some dried Haricot (navy) beans from my larder, presoaking them overnight.

A delicious Sunday dinner for everyone.

Beef Casserole with Sage Cobbler (serves 4 to 6)


400g (1.5lbs) Stewing beef, trimmed and cut into bite sized pieces.
1 large onion, finely chopped
600g (1lb 5oz) potatoes, peeled and cut into bite sized pieces.
4 tomatoes, peeled and quartered
1/2 tsp dried oregano
360ml (12 fl oz) beef stock
400g (14oz) can flageolet beans, drained and rinsed (I used Haricot beans)

Sage cobbler topping
175g (6oz) self raising flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp English mustard powder
25g (1oz) butter, diced
80g (3oz) mature cheddar, finely grated
4 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped (I used dried sage)
1 egg
3 tbsp milk

Preheat the oven to 170C (375F).

For the beef casserole, put beef, onion, potatoes, tomatoes and oregano into a casserole.  Season well and pour over the stock.  Cover and cook in the oven for 2 hours until meat is tender.

Near the end of cooking time make the sage cobbler.  Put flour, baking powder, mustard powder and seasoning into a bowl and mix well.  Rub in butter until mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.  Stir in the cheddar and sage.

Beat together egg and mile and add most of it to the flour mixture to form a soft dough.  Roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1 cm (1/2inch) thick and cut out rounds with a 5cm (2 inch cutter).  Cover and set aside.

Increase oven temp to 180C (350F).  Stir in the beans.  Top with the scones, overlapping to form a cobbler.  Brush with the remaining egg and milk.  Return to the oven, uncovered and cook for 20-25 minutes until the cobbler is risen and golden brown.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Foodie Penpal - Recipe 3 - Chicken and Aubergine Biryani

To use more of the cardamom pods.  Sorry no photo as I forgot because we were too busy eating it, nom nom!

Chicken and Aubergine Biryani


6 green cardamom pods, seeds only
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 red chillies, deseeded and diced
4 tsp garam masala
1 lemon, juice only
10 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, each cut into 4
2 medium aubergines (eggplant), cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) dice
3 tbsp vegetable oil
25g (1 oz) butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 large red (bell) pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
400g (14oz) cherry tomatoes
150ml (1/4 pint) white wine
6 tbsp natural yoghurt
fresh coriander, to garnish
lime wedges, to garnish
350 g (12oz) basmati rice, cooked according to packet instructions.

Mix cardamom seeds, garlic, chillies, garam masala and lemon juice in a large bowl.  Add chicken pieces and mix well.  Leave to marinate for at least 1 hour.

Preheat over to 200C (400F).

Toss aubergines in the oil and season well.  Place on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake in the overn for 15 to 20 minutes until just tender and slightly golden.  Remove and set aside.

Heat butter in a large frying pan until it foams.  Add onion and cook gently until softened and golden.

Add chicken and marinade.  Cook for 2 minutes.

Add aubergine, red pepper, cherry tomatoes and white wine.  Bring to the boil and simmer gently, uncovered, for 35 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Reduce oven heat to 190C (375F).

Stir the cooked rice into the curry and spoon into an ovenproof dish.  Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until piping hot.

Serve with a spoonful of the natural yoghurt.

Mine came out  a bit too moist, biryani should be quite dry.  Next time instead of cooking the rice separately and then adding, I will just put it into the curry uncooked and use the excess liquid to cook the rice and then pop it into the oven at the end to dry it off further per the recipe.   This was really delicious and would be a great one to take as a one dish meal to a potluck lunch/dinner.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, the shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before--and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

I ignored the hype that was the Hunger games for quite a while and even turned down an invitation from a friend to go and see the movie but like most things, I eventually got sucked into it one night when my husband and I were looking for a movie to watch.  It was a good movie.  I was worried that it would be a poor version of the classic movie Battle Royale or the love triangle of Twilight but it stood on it's own two feet.

I was then inspired to read the book on the back of the movie as I wanted just a bit more background and details on the characters and overall story.  The book gave me this.  It was well written and flowed very well.

Part I allowed us to meet "The Tributes" giving us a good background of the main characters and the reasoning behind the Hunger games.  This part was not covered in as much detail in the movie so it was interesting for me to get a better feel for Katniss and Peeta, the two main characters.

Part II was the actual games and made up the majority of the movie.  It was suitably graphic without being too much so - I guess it is aimed at Young Adults so was less graphic than it could have been.  I was disappointed at some of the detail that had been left out the movie but glad I read the book to pick it up.

Part III the story of the Victors and, I guess, the lead up to the second book in the trilogy.  A bit predictable but I am hoping that it is just setting a certain scene that will be developed latter on.

I am not sure what the justification behind writing this as three books rather than one large book - was it to split it up or just to make more money.  You can't say that the book would have been too long otherwise or you just have to look at each of the Game of Throne books to know that they work at over 1000 pages each.  I would have preferred to just have one book to keep on reading as I now have to re-motivate myself to read the next two.  Although on the plus side, I can put it down and read something else and then go back to it, something I would not do if it were one whole book.  Slightly torn on that one.

An interesting read and I am really looking forward to finding out more about how Panem came about, I just hope the author covers that.  My fear is that she doesn't and it ends up just another predictable love triangle story similar to Twilight. 4 out of 5.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Foodie Penpal - Recipe 2 - Thai Green Curry with Chickens and Prawns

This recipe was chosen to use the green curry paste and coconut milk in my parcel.  I also used up the last of my kaffir lime leaves and nam pla from my larder, which is good as now I can restock with fresh.  I also grow a lot of fresh basil and I am always looking for ways to use it other than in Italian pasta sauce or bread, so this recipe helped me to expand my fresh basil repertoire as well.
I usually cook Thai Red curry as I just liked the colour better, lol, but this one was delicious and enjoyed by the whole family including my toddler. 

Thai Green Curry with Chicken and Prawns (serves 6)

10 shallots, sliced into thin rings
80g (3oz) fresh coriander, stalks and leaves finely chopped
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
4 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp green curry paste
1.2 litres (2 pints) coconut milk
240ml (8 fl oz) chicken stock
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp caster sugar
12 fresh basil leaves
12 large raw prawns, peeled and deveined

Make a paste with 1/2 of the shallot rings, garlic and coriander.

Heat 2 tbsp oil and cooke remaining shallot rings and garlic until crispy and brown ( 7 to 10 minutes).

In large wok, heat remaining oil and fry curry paste for 1 minute over a high heat.

Add 120 ml (4 fl oz) coconut milk and paste from step one above, stirring well.  Cook for 2 minutes.

Add chicken stock and boil for 5 minutes.

Add chicken thigh and cook for 15 minutes.

Add remaining coconut milk, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, lime leaves and fried shallot mix and cook for a further 5 minutes.

Add basil leaves, remaining coriander and prawns and cook for 3 minutes.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Foodie Penpal - Recipe 1 - Thai Fishcakes

 I chose this recipe to use the ingredient dried galangal sent to me by Adrienne.  Who has heard of galangal (never mind the dried variety), I certainly had not.  It did not even appear in any of my dictionaries.  So, one Google search later I established that it is a stem plant, which is very similar to ginger and originated in Indonesia.  It is used in various Asian cuisines, so off I went to my piles of recipe books and searched through my Thai recipes until I came across this one for Thai Fish cakes which had galangal in the ingredients.  My only problem was that my galangal was dried but a long soak in a hot bath - for it, not me - and it was soft enough to chop and use just like a ginger stem.
The end result (pictured left) was delicious and just full of flavours.  I served it with some brown and wild rice with corn and peas and some spicy Sriracha Sauce.


Thai Fish Cakes  (serves 4)

1 shallot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 coriander roots, roughly chopped plus extra leaves for garnish
1 tbsp finely chopped galangal
6 kaffir lime leaves, sliced
2 red chillies, deseeded and chopped
450g (1lb) cod, skinned and boned
2 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
Vegetable oil for shallow frying

Use a food processer to blend all the ingredients, except the vegetable oil.

Form into 8 to 10 cakes.  I find that making them smaller stops them from breaking up on cooking.

Pour enough vegetable oil into a wide frying pan to cover base generously.

Heat oil and when hot (I use a cube of bread to test if it is ready, the bread sizzles when hot enough) fry the cakes for 3 minutes each side until golden brown.

Drain on kitchen paper and serve with garnish of coriander.