Friday, January 30, 2015

Recipe Find Friday - Chicken Roll-Ups

Okay, so my last installment of this feature was a Recipe Fiasco Friday. This time around, I found a recipe (once again via Facebook) easy enough that I nailed it. Yes! (fist pump) It was a huge hit!

There are lots of recipes for Chicken Roll-ups on the Internet (some with cream cheese, some with just milk instead of milk and broth and flour, etc). The one I found was from a link to a Facebook page called Foodgasm. I like the way this turned out. The only thing I might tweak is possibly cutting out the broth to reduce the salt content.

Chicken Roll-Ups

2 large chicken breasts (I simplified this recipe by using fully cooked grilled chicken strips)
1 can crescent rolls
1 - 10.5 oz. can cream of chicken soup
1/2 soup can chicken broth (I used a bouillon cube in boiling water)
1/2 soup can milk
1 Tbsp flour
6 oz. shredded cheddar cheese
salt & pepper to taste

Place chicken in pot and cover with water. Bring to boil, reduce heat to medium and cook till chicken is cooked through. Remove chicken (save broth). When cooled enough, remove the chicken from bone and shred, set aside [this is the step I skipped by using the fully cooked shredded packaged chicken]. Whisk together soup, broth, milk, flour, salt & pepper. Unroll crescent dough and separate into triangles. Place a little cheese over dough and at larger end, place a good heaping of the chicken. Roll up and place in 9x13 casserole dish. Repeat with remaining triangles. Pour soup mix around each one and drizzle a little over the tops (not too much). Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 minutes. Remove and top with more cheese and return to oven for 5 minutes. (soup mixture will thicken up like a gravy).

Talk about easy! Talk about yummy! I served it with steamed broccoli and strawberries. The only problem I encountered? It didn't make enough for the four of us. John and Trevor both wanted more than two crescent rolls apiece. Next time, I'll make a double batch and we'll see how well it warms up the next day. This recipe gets two thumbs up! Easy enough for a kitchen klutz like me. Next, I'll teach Trevor how to make it (he loves learning new things in the kitchen - his father's child).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: The Night Circus

This book, The Night Circus, came well recommended by Catherine at A Spirited Mind and Sheila at The Deliberate Reader. It looked like their book club had a magnificent spread the evening they discussed this book. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall.

I will say that I probably enjoyed this novel more than usual because I listened to it in audio form. It was narrated by Jim Dale (winner of ten Audie Awards, two Grammy Awards, and seven Grammy nominations as a narrator). He did a magnificent job of sweeping the listener into the story and presenting each character with separate flair. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its classic Victorian setting, its richly articulated characters, and its hauntingly magical air.

The reader is introduced to Le Cirque des Reves, a travelling night circus only open from dusk to dawn. Inside the circus there are many characters who play parts, but two individuals hold special roles as they compete against one another in a competition of sorts. Neither one volunteered to be sucked into the competition and neither one has a full understanding of the terms and goal of the game. The story of this competition is teased out over another story of a young boy's fascination with the circus. I enjoyed both aspects of the tale (both the bits about Celia and Marco in the competition and the bits about Bailey and his friends within the circus, Poppet and Widget). I think Poppet and Widget were perhaps my favorite characters of all, but I did enjoy watching romance bloom between Celia and Marco. How can two opponents continue to compete when they have fallen head over heels in love with each other?

Toward the end of the book, after the life of the circus is threatened, Widget visits one of the men who set the competition in motion. The man in the grey suit asks Widget what he does with his talent and what purpose it serves. Then came this passage I couldn't help but stop to write down (even though it was tedious going, writing it down from the audio playback) because it captures the importance of authors and their words:

"I tell stories," he says. It is the most truthful answer he has.

"You tell stories?" the man asks, the peaking of his interest almost palpable.

"Stories, tales, bardic chronicles," Widget says. "Whatever you care to call them. The things we were discussing earlier that were more complicated than they used to be. I take pieces of the past that I see and I combine them into narratives. It's not that important, and this isn't why I'm here."

"It is important," the man in the grey suit interrupts. "Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures, and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener and for each and every ear it will be different and it will affect them in ways they can never predict, from the mundane to the profound. You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. Your sister may be able to see the future, but you yourself can shape it, boy. Do not forget that."

Powerful words! Words I want to remind myself of often! For those words alone, this book was well worth the listen. It affected me in ways I could never have predicted.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Review: Raising Boys

In 2013, Steve Biddulph released the third edition of his book, Raising Boys: Why Boys are Different - and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men. He is hailed as "one of the world's best-known parenting authors." A family psychologist for more than thirty years, he draws from personal experience dealing with families struggling with their sons for one reason or another. Yet, I didn't find anything new or exceptionally helpful in this book. It basically offers up things I have read in other boy-centric parenting books.

Biddulph outlines the three stages of boyhood, how testosterone changes behavior, and how boys' brain development differs from girls'. He also deals with questions about preparing sons' attitudes toward sex, questions of involvement in sports, and issues with finding the best school environment for your sons. His book addresses moms and dads and provides encouragement for their separate and vitally important roles.

I think, of the books on raising boys which I have read, I would lean more toward recommending Boys Should Be Boys by Dr. Meg Meeker (a Christian book) or The Purpose of Boys by Michael Gurian. I got far more out of both of those titles than I did from this book. Indeed, I found myself skimming the pages, rather than devouring the information presented.

If you are looking for more books on raising boys, you couldn't go wrong with the suggestions offered up by Mia Wenjen of The Pragmatic Mom blog. Even though this post is over four years old, I believe the suggestions (of the top ten books for parents of boys) are more along the lines of books I might find appealing and informative. I'm also thrilled that she included Rachel Balducci's book on raising boys, How Do You Tuck in a Superhero (even though I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, I do visit her blog and appreciate her Christian insights into the process of building men from boys).

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Book Review: A Northern Light

The inside cover of this novel, A Northern Light, highlights nine different awards this book received, including an ALA "Top Ten" Best Book for Young Adults. I'm so glad this was the selection for our January meeting of my young adult book club. I really enjoyed this book. Kudos to this author for creating such an enduring character who intersects with a historical moment, yet manages to come alive all on her own.

Back cover teaser: "Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey has big dreams but little hope of seeing them come true. Desperate for money, she takes a job at the Glenmore, where hotel guest Grace Brown asks her to burn a bundle of secret letters. But when Grace's drowned body is fished from the lake, Mattie discovers the letters reveal the grim truth behind a murder.

"Set in 1906 against the backdrop of the murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, this astonishing novel weaves romance, history, and a murder mystery into something moving, real, and wholly original."

I came to love Mattie so much. I loved her love of books and words. I loved her adventurous spirit. She had big shoes to fill when her mother died of cancer and left her basically in charge of all her younger siblings. She just held so much promise and I ached for her to realize her dreams. The murder is really secondary to Mattie's story. It is woven through the tale, but really stands as a foil to prompt Mattie to take hold of her dreams instead of letting them slip away.

This book was full of the raw details of life (death, illness, racial prejudice, loneliness, desire, infidelity, gossip, etc), yet came off as so redemptive and hopeful, despite these bad things. It resonated with truth. I will be thinking about this one for some time to come and may even wish to take a stab at Dreiser's An American Tragedy (I read Sister Carrie in college).


Looked up Dreiser's An American Tragedy and found that it is 896 pages long. Schwew! That's a hefty reading investment. Granted, it IS a classic, but perhaps if you are looking for this tale in short-form, you'd be better off reading Donnelly's version. Then again, Dreiser seems to paint the characters involved with a broader brush stroke and turns out an epic adventure (although one reviewer on Amazon wrote "Evil... I hate this book. I wrote my 10th grade term paper on this book in 1992. It still gives me nightmares. It's boring, dull, and drawn out." - Ha!)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Book Review: The Mark of the Dragonfly

The Amazon listing for this book recommends it for fans of Frozen and The City of Ember. I would have to agree. I know my middle son really enjoyed reading The City of Ember for school and this is a book I would happily recommend to him if he needs further reading selections. It contains a hint of a magical world, apart from our own, with its own set of problems and challenges.

Piper is a scrapper, an orphan girl who survives by scavenging for refuse dropped in the meteor showers her world encounters regularly. One day, when she is caught out in the midst of a storm, she comes across an amnesiac girl who bears the mark of the dragonfly, a mark given by King Aron to those who fall under the protection of the king himself. Before Piper can even do much to help the girl, a menacing man appears who claims the girl, Anna, is his daughter. Yet, Anna recoils and calls him "a wolf." Piper and Anna run from the man and board the 401, a train bound for the capital city. Because of Anna's tattoo, the two of them are given a place on board the train, despite the suspicions of the head guard, Gee. Piper is doing all she can to help Anna reclaim her lost memories. The chase is on and Piper and Anna must face unexpected obstacles on the journey before they can discover who they truly are.

What I liked: The author, Jaleigh Johnson, has created a complete new world and peopled it with interesting and colorful characters. Those characters grow throughout the story. I appreciated the message that we all have personal strengths and abilities within us and we must allow those to shine in order to be fully ourselves. I appreciated the compassion displayed. I thought the pacing was well-done and I enjoyed the unexpected twist of identity at the end.

What I didn't care for: The introduction of a new belief system framed upon the distant supervision of a goddess (as opposed to the Judeo-Christian God). This goddess never actually intervenes and yet is invoked numerous times in the speech of the characters. I found it mildly annoying to read over and over again the characters' comments like "for goddess's sake," and "the goddess willed," etc.

Overall, I felt it was a good book and certainly would be entertaining to a 10-14 year old reader. I read one reviewer who told of using this as a read-aloud in her fifth grade classroom and it received a standing ovation at the end of the novel. Now, I count that a clear success!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: Love Walked In

Sometime, somehow, I logged into a page revealing Jen Hatmaker's favorite books. Jen Hatmaker is a fairly famous Christian blogger. Several of my friends link to her posts from time to time on Facebook. Perhaps this is how I came upon her list. This book, Love Walked In, was listed in her favorite fiction reads.

I wanted to like it a lot. I really did. I mean, Jen Hatmaker liked it, so why wouldn't I, right? Well, I didn't like it. Sorry. Just my opinion.

Why didn't I like it? I think the primary reason was an irritation with the central main character, Cornelia. I didn't like her name. I didn't like her perspectives. I didn't like her constant references to classic movies, ad nauseum. But, most of all, I didn't care for her "voice." It was downright annoying. The story is told from two perspectives, alternating between first-person narration from Cornelia and third-person narration about Clare, the young girl she encounters in the story. The chapters from Cornelia's perspective are meant to be a stream-of-consciousness style of narration. But, frankly, her brain processes hurt my brain.

Here's the story in a nut-shell: Cornelia Brown is an underachiever, working at a coffee shop in Philadelphia. In walks a stunning man, comparable to Cary Grant, and Cornelia is swept away by his beauty and swept into his life. Then, one day, he shows up with an eleven year old daughter, Clare, in tow. As Cornelia realizes that she doesn't, in fact, love the father, she also realizes that she desperately loves the daughter and wants, more than anything, to help her out of her horrid situation with an ill mother who has basically disappeared off the face of the earth.

The story just grated on my nerves from the very beginning. The shallow sense of being drawn to people who are physically beautiful (which happens twice for Cornelia - once with Martin Grace and then with her sister's husband, Teo). The absurdity of acceptance of Cornelia ending up with her sister's husband. The brash things Clare encounters with her mother (both advice on sex and the image of her mother having sex). The blithe, casual discussion about how the earth didn't really move for Cornelia when she had sex with Martin. The neat tidy ending with Clare returned to the care of her mother, Viviana, and Cornelia paired with her heart's desire, Teo. I just was annoyed.

I could get behind the basic story line. I did feel for the young girl as she attempts to deal with a mother spiraling out of control in the throes of bi-polar. I could relate to Cornelia's desire to rescue and save the young girl and make a new life for the two of them, together. I could accept Cornelia's hesitations over the father who fails to be there for his only daughter. Even Clare's valiant efforts at keeping life under control were understandable and to be commended. But, I just couldn't get behind all the rest of the claptrap aspects of this story.

Perhaps it was simply a matter of built-up expectations. I expected it to be a really great book. It just wasn't up my alley. Several others on Hatmaker's list have made my own favorites listings (The Light Between Oceans, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand).  Of course, she also presented Little Bee as a favorite and I disliked that one, as well. I guess it just proves the flip side of that old adage: One man's trash is another man's treasure. So, one person's treasured book is another person's disdained book. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Recipe Fiasco Friday - Mozzarella Tortilla Stack

I'm thinking about starting a new feature on the blog - Recipe Fiasco Friday! One of my goals for 2015 is to spend more time in the kitchen. I've mentioned before that I'm not terribly comfortable in a kitchen. I love to bake, but that is about the extent of it. As for meals, even though I enjoy trying new things, they often seem to fumble in my hands. It is like handing two individuals a violin and asking them to play. One might screech and whine, while the other, more accomplished individual, can make that instrument sing. Well, I'm the screech and whine individual in the kitchen. The same recipe in the hands of someone with natural skills would turn out fine, but for me ... well, it turns out to be a fiasco.

Thus, I offer up the first new recipe I have tried in the new year. When I saw it on Facebook, it looked so amazing, I just had to try it. Since it is demonstrated with a simple three minute video, I mistook that to mean that it is an easy recipe (and for someone else, it probably is). Here is the video for the easy, peasy Mozzarella Tortilla Stack (offered up by

Here is the recipe, for those accomplished individuals who can make it sing:

1 lb. ground beef
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. chili powder
salt & pepper
2 C peeled, shredded sweet potato
1/2 C chopped cilantro
6 large tortillas
2 tomatoes, diced
3 C shredded mozzarella cheese

Brown meat, onion, and spices. Add sweet potatoes; cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add cilantro. Stack tortilla with 1/5 of the meat, tomatoes, cheese five times. Add final tortilla and top with remaining cheese. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 20 minutes. Broil the last 2 minutes, if desired. Serve with sour cream.

I forgot to take a photo before we started eating, but here is one which shows half of my completed product:

First of all, I bought too large a sweet potato (ended up wasting one third of it) and perhaps shredded more than two cups (so hard to judge just by looking at shredded ingredients). The meat and potato mixture never really blended well enough to provide even spreading of the mixture (resulting in bites of just sweet potato or just meat or just big chunks of cilantro, since I never managed to neatly chop them into tiny pieces like on the video).

The biggest mistake was that I simply didn't spread the ingredients evenly enough or flat enough over the top of the tortillas (indeed, I should have made sure I selected the largest tortilla for the bottom of the stack and should have pressed it all out to a thinner layer after placing the second tortilla on). Thus, instead of ending up with a nice layered cake-like appearance, mine had the appearance of a wobbling volcano, with ingredients falling off the sides before I could lay the next tortilla atop it all. Groan. Perhaps if it had been evenly spread and all nice and flat, as in the video, it wouldn't have burned the edges of the tortillas. It would have been easier to eat, as well, since mine turned out to be about 2-1/2 inches tall.

The only blessing in all of this is that it still tasted delicious. My husband was skeptical about the sweet potato, but ended up saying that he would eat this dish again, if I were willing to put in all the prep work the recipe took (it may have seemed like more than it really was, since we were both in the kitchen at the same time - him making the boys his amazing organic mashed potatoes and fish sticks - and thus my shredding and dicing and chopping took up space and time). Whether or not I am willing to try again is the real question. But, hey, knock yourselves out and try this recipe. Then, send me a photo of your attempt and gloat over your expertise in the kitchen. I can take it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: The Walk

This was a book my mother mentioned to me well over a year ago and encouraged me to read. I must have a thing for reading books about people going on walking journeys. Who knows ... maybe there's a walking journey in my future someday (I'm tired after my two miles a day. I doubt I could log 25 like this main character.)

I still preferred The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but this was also an enjoyable read. I'm pretty sure I will stick with it through the whole series. There are five books in the series and my library has every one. Several reviewers on Amazon felt hoodwinked into paying for five installments for a story which could have been told in one. If my library didn't have these books available, I probably wouldn't be willing to part with money to continue the story ... but since they do, I'll keep going.

Within six brief weeks, Alan Christoffersen loses his job, his home, and his wife (the love of his life). He is shattered. Looking at a map, he selects the farthest point away from where he is (Seattle, WA) and decides to start off on a walking journey to Key West, Florida (having been there before, I can attest that it is a worthy destination). As the blurb on the back cover of the audio version proclaims: "The people he encounters along the way, and the lessons they share with him, will save his life - and inspire yours."

It was, indeed, an inspiring read. I will now seek out the second of the series, a book called Miles to Go. It was interesting to note that the biographical information on the back cover offers up the author's mailing address. I've not seen that often. It might be fun to send him a letter of appreciation and see if I receive a response (another thing I've not experienced often). Thankfully, my library has all five books in audio form, so I can continue to walk while I listen to the story of Alan Christoffersen's walk.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: The Story Hour

You know how it feels when you get to the end of a really good book and you think to yourself, "I can't wait to find another book by this skilled author?" Well, I had that feeling way back in 2009 when I read Thrity Umrigar's The Weight of Heaven. I loved that book and felt that passion for finding another book by Umrigar. However, somehow time intervened and I never got around to another one ... until now. Why, oh why, did I wait so long?

In The Story Hour, Umrigar tells the tale of two women: one an African-American professional and the other a lowly Indian shop girl. Maggie is a psychologist who is called upon to meet with this young Indian woman, Lakshmi, who has just attempted suicide. She was selected to go to this woman because Maggie is married to an Indian man, Sudhir. Hoping this commonality, of both sharing Indian husbands, will form a bond to open up a dialogue, Maggie attempts to break through Lakshmi's silence and discover what would cause her to get to the point of not wanting to live.

At first, it seems like Lakshmi's trouble is just the standard isolation of culture shock and trouble adapting. Maggie begins to allow Lakshmi deeper into her life as she unravels the story of Lakshmi's loveless marriage. She even begins to develop a more intimate friendship with her than she normally would in a client-doctor relationship. As the two come closer, secrets are divulged which tear at the very fabric of their lives and their friendship.

The novel touches on so many worthwhile themes. The question of arranged marriages and the damage such situations can bring. The idea of cultural barriers. The importance of love and forgiveness. The value of friendship. This is a novel I will think about for a long time to come. The two women wormed their way into my heart and it is as if they are real people for me. I felt their deepest desires and dreams. I ached when their hearts ached. I cried as I approached the climax of the plot progression. And now, I cannot wait to find another book by this fabulous author. She has such skill for weaving characters together and causing them to confront their innermost conflicts. I will not let another six years go by.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Review: Little Mercies

The first time I put myself on the hold list for this book, I didn't manage to get around to reading it. There were other books needing to be read and it just kept getting pushed to the back burner, until I had to simply return it without reading it (ever had that happen to you??). After returning it, I placed my name on the hold list again. This time, after a bit of a slow start, I finished the book.

The key inciting incident doesn't occur until fifty or so pages into the book. I think this is why I found it hard to get into. I had read the fly page, which immediately sucked me in, but the book itself took a bit longer to get around to the heart of the problem. Once I reached that point, I didn't want to put the book down.

Social worker Ellen Moore has seen some pretty horrendous things in her job. At the beginning we are introduced to her character and to some of these tragedies. We are also introduced to a fragile little girl, Jenny. As the story progresses, Ellen finds herself in a world of trouble when a moment of distraction leads to her own crucible. Eventually, Ellen's world intersects with Jenny's and the conflict grows in intensity.

The book explores the range of emotions we feel as mothers, the traumas children can and do face sometimes in this fallen world, the overwhelming cry for justice, and the power of love. It was a bit tricky getting used to the dueling viewpoints (Ellen's told in first person present tense and Jenny's told in third person past tense), but effective nonetheless. I was a bit surprised that the ending turned out to be so tidy and clean. I'm glad I didn't give up around page 30 when temptation struck to set it aside. It was a sad, but worthwhile tale, proving that even in the toughest situations we must keep our eyes open for life's little mercies.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Short Story Review: Shopaholic on Honeymoon

Sophie Kinsella decided to offer up something for free for her fans of the Shopaholic book series. She has written a short story to fill in some of the gaps between Shopaholic Ties the Knot and Shopaholic & Sister. The story, called "Shopaholic on Honeymoon," gives the briefest of vignettes from their honeymoon adventure.

I'm with other reviewers who felt that this was just too brief. While it is consistent in flavor with the novels and the character of Becky Bloomwood, it fails to offer a wider scope of story. It presents a typical scene of Becky purchasing more souvenirs than they really need, her flighty tendency to jump at new ideas (like becoming an artist simply because she sees students drawing at easels), and conflict developing between Becky and her new husband, Luke, but leaves the reader a bit dissatisfied. I couldn't believe Luke just caved to Becky's grand scheme, rather than compromise. Becky's self-absorption just overshadowed any satisfying amount of story line. Instead of being an endearing character, the brevity led to casting her in a merely negative light.

I almost wish Kinsella would try again and give us a full telling of the honeymoon, with the introduction of some significant conflict or plot device to drive the story. As it was, this short story was more a character sketch which painted Becky in the worst possible shades. Still, how can one argue with a free dose of Becky Bloomwood Brandon?? I'm on the hold list for Shopaholic to the Stars and wishing I could obtain it from my library in audio form (will have to settle for the physical book).

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: Alice Alone

This was a hastily chosen selection. I had completed my previous audio book and knew I needed something new to start while exercising the next morning. But, when I arrived at the library, it was about twenty minutes to closing time. Thus, I didn't have much time. I merely perused the shelves, starting with the A's and this was the first selection which sounded mildly interesting.

Alice Alone is about a woman who finds herself facing an empty nest. The last of her three children has just departed for Birmingham and Alice recognizes a deep lack within her life. She no longer has the focus of her children to divert her attentions. She no longer loves her husband (cannot even fathom what the attraction was to begin with) and the thought of facing another several decades alone with him scares her. Thus, she embarks upon a journey to discover what she really wants out of life and where she belongs.

The narration was quite well done. Amanda Brookfield has produced an excellent character study. The reader is really able to get inside the mind of Alice and face the obstacles and setbacks she encounters. Moreover, I never found myself bored with the tale. It is absorbing and engaging. Still, I squirmed at the bits of infidelity and had to be careful about allowing my boys to overhear much of it if they entered the room while I walked.

Overall, I did enjoy the tale. Even though I am a full decade away from facing any sort of empty nest, it is a prospect I can imagine is fairly daunting. The road Alice selected was believable and her introspection quite genuine. It only has 2 widely-mixed reviews on Amazon (despite being published in the early 90's). If I were to rank it, I would give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Favorite Reads of 2014

2014 was a stellar year for reading. I've never read this many books before in one year's time. I don't think I'll ever repeat this number again. Since my mother begs for a post where I list all the books from the year's reading, here is my list (with links to reviews) of all the books I consumed in 2014 (Although some of the favorites are listed as HR [Highly Recommended], I have picked two others, as well, to come up with my top ten for the year):