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The Last Letter from Your Lover: A Novel by JoJo Moyes. Story: Jennifer Stirling wakes up in hospital, having had a traumatic car accident. She’s introduced to her husband, of whom she has no recollection, and is sent home with him eventually, to a life she neither remembers or embraces readily. But this is the life she was raised to have, so surely it must be worth living, underneath the strange, muted tones of her daily existence. Jennifer goes through the motions, accepts what she is told is her life and all seems to bob along well enough, except when she finds a letter that isn’t her husband’s handwriting, and is clearly a link to someone she has been involved with, but whom? London, France, Africa and America all come into play in this story of a woman piecing back together her life in effort to understand what she has lost, and what she threw away. There is a bit of a time-hop from 1964 to 2003. . . from a reviewer on amazon.  I loved this book from page one to the end. There’s some bit of mystery and you so get into the head of Jennifer Stirling. I could hardly put it down. I read this while I was in England just a week or two ago (as I write this) so could so identify with the characters, the homes, the life. Great read.

Francine Rivers, an author relatively new to me, but much admired, is most known for this: Mark of the Lion : A Voice in the Wind, An Echo in the Darkness, As Sure As the Dawn (Vol 1-3) It’s a trilogy. The first 2 books are about Hadassah, a young woman in the time of the Roman Empire. When Jerusalem was overrun and destroyed, the Christians still alive were sent off and away, separated and derided and abused. Hadassah was one of them. She’s a slave to a wealthy family and it takes 2 of the books to read before the son of the family finally realizes that he’s in love with Hadassah. If  you’re a Christian, you’ll learn a whole lot more about the time following Christ’s crucifixion, about the lot of the struggling Christian community. The 3rd book in the trilogy is about a gladiator who is part of book 1 and 2, but not a main character. You’ll learn about his life too, after he regains his freedom from the fighting ring and the battle of his soul. These books are a fabulous read. Can’t say enough good things about them all. I’ve never been a huge fan of old-world Roman Empire reading, but this one was altogether different. Very worth reading.

Amy Belding Brown wrote this book: Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America, a true accounting in 1676, of Mary Rowlandson, a woman who was captured by Native Americans.  Even before she was captured on a winter day of violence and terror, she sometimes found herself in conflict with her rigid Puritan community. Now, her home destroyed, her children lost to her, she has been sold into the service of a powerful woman tribal leader, made a pawn in the ongoing bloody struggle between English settlers and native people. Battling cold, hunger, and exhaustion, Mary witnesses harrowing brutality but also unexpected kindness. To her confused surprise, she is drawn to her captors’ open and straightforward way of life, a feeling further complicated by her attraction to a generous, protective English-speaking native known as James Printer. The story is riveting, and perplexing once she is traded back to her home. You’ll see a different side to the Indian problem back then and find yourself conflicted. An excellent read.

Taylor Caldwell was a prolific writer, and one I read when I was younger. She died in 1980, and this book, her last, Answer As a Man certainly delivers as her others did. All his life, Jason Garrity has had to battle intolerance and injustice in his quest for power, money, and love. His new hotel will give him financial security, the means to support a loving family and become an upstanding citizen. When family secrets and financial greed combine to destroy his dreams, his rigid moral convictions are suddenly brought into question. . . from Goodreads. Caldwell believed the banking industry was way too powerful, and often took aim at it, as she did in this book. It chronicles the life of a very poor, impoverished Irish immigrant to the U.S. He was an upstanding citizen, God-fearing, but maybe naive in some respects. Good book if you enjoy very deep character study.

Another book by Diney Costeloe, Miss Mary’s Daughter. When a young women is suddenly left with no family and no job or income, she’s astounded to learn that she’s actually a granddaughter of a “grand” family in Ye Olde England. She’s very independent (at least I thought so, for the time period), but is willing to investigate this new family of hers. There are many twists and turns – is she going to inherit the family home – or is the man who has been caring for the home and his daughter the logical inheritors. There’s a villain who nearly sweeps her off her feet, much intrigue from many characters. Well developed plot with a happy ending. A good read.

Celeste Ng is a hot new author. I read another of her books (see below) but this time I read Little Fires Everywhere. There are so many various characters and plots in this book, as in her others. This book focuses on a Chinese baby abandoned at a fire station and the subsequent court battle when the single mother surfaces six months later to try to reclaim her daughter from the family in the process of adopting her. Emotions well up, waxing and waning on both sides of the issue. You may even find yourself changing your own mind about the right or wrong of a child raised with a natural-born mother (albeit late to the raising) or the mother the child has known since near birth. Ng likes to write books with lots of grit and thorny issues. Although a good read, I liked Everything I Never Told You better than this one.

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright. Oh my. This book has so many layers: (1) the young, impoverished couple and their infant son who live, literally, in a dump in Cambodia and about the precarious structure, if you can even call it that, that comprises their “house” in the midst and perched on top of trash; (2) the woman who collects the rent (hence the title and yes, people have to PAY to live there); (3) the young son’s chronic illness; (4) how they make a living out of collecting and selling trash; and (4) the life saving grace and wisdom imparted by characters in the book as the young mother begins to learn to read. If you decide to read this book, please don’t stop at about page 15-20, thinking you just don’t know if you want to read about this. Please continue. It’s so worth it. Have a highlighter pen in your hand because you’ll find so many quotes you will want to remember. Believe it or not, there is also quite a bit in this about literature.

Recently finished C.J. Box’s book The Disappeared (A Joe Pickett Novel). I just love Box’s novels. They take place in present day semi-wild west, and chronicle the fish and game warden, Joe Pickett, as he unravels another crime in his territory. A woman has disappeared, and the governor has asked him to figure it out. He does, but the tale meanders through multiple layers of intriguing story. His books are riveting. Men and women enjoy his books – so if you have a fellow in your life or family that would enjoy an intriguing book (this is not espionage) then gift him one of Box’s books.

Also finished Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. About a dysfunctional family, through and through. I picked this up from amazon from someone who read the book, named “McReader,” and she says: “Set in the 70s, the story follows a Chinese American blended family in Ohio. When Lydia [the daughter] is found floating in the lake, her family is forced to analyze what put her there. Was it pressure from her family to succeed? Was it pressure to fit in? Was it a crime of passion or convenience? I was spellbound reading the last half of this book. I loved each flawed family member, especially Hannah,. While the story went where I hoped it would go, I was not disappointed at all with the progression. It was also quite insightful on the prejudices that society had about Chinese Americans still during that timeframe and how careful parents have to be to put their dreams onto their children.” Such a good book and definitely worth reading. Would be a good book club read. You’ll be hearing more from this author. Am currently reading her next novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

The Boston Girl: A Novel by Anita Diamant. A very, very intriguing book. The book is written from the voice of a Jewish grandmother as she tells her granddaughter the saga of her life starting about 1910, who struggles with her own individuality, with her domineering mother who never says a kind word to her. It’s certainly a coming-of-age story as she grows up, finds a job, makes friends, joins a literary girls club, moves out, but still suffers under her mother’s thumb and tongue. She becomes a reporter on a local newspaper, which opens her eyes to more of the world than she ever knew. She finally meets the right man (of course!) and she shares the stories about her life, and her friends and family members as she grows up, giving some sage advice along the way. Part of the time she’s talking to herself – to her young self  (really wanting to tell young Addie to keep on, forgive herself for her perceived transgressions, to live life, and experience the world).

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time – Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. Rivers is a prodigious writer of Christian fiction, and I’d never read anything by her until now. As I write this, I’ve already read this, another one (below) and just purchased the Kindle trilogy called Mark of the Lion (Vol 1-3) that I haven’t yet started. (Two of my friends have said the trilogy is her best.) Redeeming Love details the fictional story of a godly man, Michael Hosea, forging his way in the era of the Gold Rush. He’s “driven” to rescue a beautiful prostitute who lives and works her trade in a nearby town. The entire book is about the story, the rescue, and it parallels a bit of scripture about Hosea who rescues a prostitute names Gomer. You get into the heads of both Hosea and the prostitute, named Angel. We read this for one of my book groups. A great read.

As soon as I finished the above book I promptly visited my church library and found a whole shelf of Rivers’ books, and grabbed one called The Atonement Child. This book takes place in the 1980s or 90s, about a young college student who is raped. She was engaged to be married, was a stellar student. The book chronicles what happens to her when she discovers she is pregnant from the rape. Every possible thing goes wrong in her life. I don’t want to spoil the story if you’re interested in reading it, but I couldn’t put it down. I ended up spending a good part of a day plowing through it. You hear her inner voice (I’m guessing this is a common thread in Rivers’ books) from a Christian perspective. Lots of meaty issues to discuss in a book club if your group would be interested and willing to talk about rape, abortion, adoption and the thorny issues surrounding all of those things, but with a Christian bent, for sure.

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen. It’s kind of amazing how many and varied plot lines can be created from events of WWII. This is another one, about a current day woman who finds papers in the attic, after her father’s death, with references to “the child.” She never knew her father could have had another child – could she have a step-sibling somewhere? Her father she knew, had been shot down over Italy, but he never talked much about it. But of course, she must go to Italy to find out about this “child.” The book flips back and forth from this daughter on the search, to her father during the war, all of it taking place in a very small town in Tuscany. It’s about the varied people she meets who want her to go away and not dredge up anything about the war years (are they hiding something, you question), about how much she loves the landscape, and some of the people. And about the intense love affair between the injured pilot and a caring woman of the village. Very charming story. I could almost smell the flowers, taste the olives, hear the bees flitting, and loved the prose about the simple meals that were described. I really enjoyed the book. Perhaps not enough meat for a book club read, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it nonetheless.

Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novel by Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.

 

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Breads, Brunch, on December 20th, 2012.

choc_orange_muffins

Here’s another of those – TRUST ME –  recipes. When I tell you these are worth making, please just do it, right? Do you like vivid orange flavors? And chocolate? This positively is a match made in heaven. And they’re super easy too.

Muffin Tips:

(1) don’t over-mix the batter; and (2) bake to 205° internal temp (use a thermometer for that part)

A group of women was coming to my home to attend a cooking class, and each time we meet, the hostess (me this time) provides beverages (hot and cold) and some breakfast sorts of things (croissants maybe, fresh fruit, occasionally champagne) and a bread – perhaps banana bread or muffins. Even cookies. I had nothing particular in mind, but turned to one of my favorite little tiny cookbooks. What I’ve learned over the years is that every recipe in this book, Muffins: Sixty Sweet and Savory Recipes… From Old Favorites to New is reliable. Written by Elizabeth Alston,

Our daughter Sara, and her 15 & 7/8 year old daughter Sabrina

Our daughter Sara, and her 15 & 7/8 year old daughter Sabrina

it’s out of print, but you can still find it in a used book store. And if you click on the link there, you’ll find some used copies for a penny (plus shipping, of course). I bought it for myself in 2003, when it was new (along with the companion book about Scones – Biscuits and Scones: 62 Recipes from Breakfast Biscuits to Homey Desserts). I also gave these to my daughter Sara, because she and her daughter love to bake. She was telling me a few weeks ago that it’s her go-to cookbook for anything close to a muffin (there are all kinds from savory to sweet, and biscuits too). What’s good about this one is that every single recipe I’ve ever tried (and Sara says the same thing) has been exceptionally good.

choc_orange_muffins_batterLooking online to see what other people thought, I found several versions of this recipe, all with a few little changes. Never did find the exact recipe, so I stuck with Alston’s original, using yogurt as the dairy (you can use buttermilk too).

You might be skeptical at the amount of orange zest in the recipe – 12 muffins require the zest from 2 oranges. My oranges were very large, so I probably had more than usual – about nearly 3 tablespoons that I got using the microplane. And it uses 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate. I rarely use anything but the best chocolate (SharffenBerger in this case), and the bittersweet is worth seeking out. I did NOT use chocolate chips, and I’m glad I didn’t because they’re too sweet and too uniform – it’s nice to have dots of larger pieces of chocolate. You know you’re eating a really good chocolate that way.

choc_orange_muffins_coolingThe muffins are standard as far as mixing – cream the butter and sugar, add eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Add the yogurt,  orange juice and zest, then the dry ingredients are gently stirred in with the chocolate at the last. There are two secrets to making muffins: (1) don’t over mix the batter – just stir until you don’t see any errant streaks of flour; and (2) bake them to EXACTLY 205°. In my oven that took 18 minutes. I used my fantastic Thermapen thermometer to test them and they were 204.9° exactly. Perfection. I cooled them in the muffin tin for about 10 minutes, then carefully used a plastic knife to release them and let them cool to room temp. And I’m absolutely guilty as heck – I ate one while they were still barely warm. Oh – my – gosh.  Was it ever good. Ideally bake them within an hour of serving, when the chocolate is still almost molten, but not quite. As it was, I made them the day before and kept them in a ziploc bag overnight. Reheat them if you’re going to make them ahead – but not for long as they would dry out, I’m sure.

What’s good: oh, the orange flavor and the chocolate. As they say, those are two flavors that are marriage material. Loved the intense orange flavor – much more orange-y than usual in a baked good – but it wasn’t over the top (as in bitter). And the irregular pieces of chocolate were such a sweet surprise as you eat it. Definitely a make-again muffin.

What’s not: absolutely nothing at all.

printer-friendly (Cute PDFWriter) PDF

MasterCook 5+ import file – right click to save file, run MC, then File|Import

* Exported from MasterCook *

Chocolate Orange Muffins

Recipe By: From “Muffins” by Elizabeth Alston (2003)
Serving Size: 12
NOTES: If you use a mini-muffin tin, you’ll get 36.

1 cup sugar — (I used about 7/8 cup)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter — softened
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk — or plain, unsweetened yogurt
1/4 cup orange juice — freshly squeezed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon orange zest — (I used about 2+ T because the oranges were large)
3 ounces semisweet chocolate — chopped in irregular small pieces

1. Preheat oven to 400° (200° C). Lightly grease a 12 cup muffin pan, or line with paper liners. May also use mini-muffin tin (if so, use shorter baking time)
2. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
3. In a separate mixing bowl, with an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time and continue mixing until the mixture is light and ribbony. Add orange zest, orange juice, and buttermilk (or yogurt). Use a spoon to add the flour mixture and stir it in just until mixed and there are no streaks of flour. Add the chocolate pieces and stir just until combined. Divide batter into muffin cups.
4. Bake for 15 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven (to an internal temperature of 205°) or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean. Let muffins cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before removing from the pan. (My batch of these took 18 minutes. Do NOT over bake them or they’ll be dry. If making ahead, reheat them gently and for a short time.)
Per Serving: 244 Calories; 9g Fat (32.3% calories from fat); 4g Protein; 38g Carbohydrate; 1g Dietary Fiber; 51mg Cholesterol; 118mg Sodium.

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  1. hddonna

    said on December 21st, 2012:

    Oh, Carolyn! These look so good! I love muffins, I love chocolate and orange together, and I am definitely going to make these. Not this week–the freezer is stuffed with homemade breads and cinnamon rolls for Christmas–but as soon as I can find an excuse to do so! And I’m going to put that book on my wish list. It sounds like a real winner. Does it have a recipe for butter rum muffins, by any chance? I used to play music at a local coffee shop, which has since closed, and they served wonderful butter rum muffins. I have yet to find a recipe for them.

    I’m sure there isn’t a butter rum muffin in it. Have you searched on the internet for one? My only suggestion about the choc orange muffins is that they really are best just after baking, allowed to cool for 20 minutes or so. I want to try them again with cake flour. A friend made them last week and about 3-4 hours after baking the insides were still fairly light, but the outside edges were already getting hard/stale. Even with cupcake papers. I want to make them again with some kinds of changes. But they’re fabulous as is within minutes out of the oven. Let me know how you like them. My friend used just 1 T. of orange zest it was NOT enough. Use 3 if you can. . . carolyn t

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