Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Dissonance by Barbara Burt

 Dissonance: A Novel of Music and Murder by Barbara Burt
ISBN 9798987238301

Allegra Brewster has returned to her childhood home to take her first 'real' job post-graduate school. She has just earned a Master's degree in arts management and is employed as an assistant to the director of the local summer arts (music) festival in her small town in coastal Maine. She is also a cellist. She has been involved with the festival since she was a kid and her father is on the board. When the story opens, there is trouble brewing. The director, Dr Sylvia Abbott (a geologist) has decided that the financial situation requires the musicians to take a 35% pay cut, add free performances to the schedule, and reapply for their positions by writing an essay about what the festival means to them. What she is really trying to do is break the musicians union. Her thinking is that they will be outraged, strike, and turn the townspeople against them. She manages to get most of the other board members to go along with this plan, but Allegra's father, David, holds out. 

Time passes and events unfold. The festival rolls around once again, but this time someone will not be around to see the end of it. With so many people around, any number of people could have committed the murder and suspicion falls on various people in turn, including on David. Allegra and her ex-boyfriend, Luke, start snooping around since the police detective has some bigotry issues that cloud his judgement.

Music is a huge part of this book--almost a character in and of itself. This was one reason why the book was appealing to me when I read the description and I was not disappointed. Allegra turns to music to help her through tough times and to suit her mood. Many songs are mentioned in the book and there is a Spotify playlist that goes with the book. I have looked up some of the music mentioned and found it on YouTube. I am more interested in cello music now than I was before reading this book, which I am thrilled about. I feel like that's one of the gifts of the book for me--more music to discover. Also, I am fascinated by the ways in which people find and cultivate their passions in life, no matter what they are, but particularly in creative endeavors. I've done life story work with artists and craftswomen where they talked about this, so this was a very appealing part of the book for me.

The story was well-written and interesting. I enjoyed the backstories of the characters, although in one case the way this was presented seemed a bit like it was just plunked down out of nowhere in a short chapter in order to justify what came next. Really, that was my only quibble with the book and it didn't detract from my reading experience. I found myself immersed in the story from the beginning and when I had to set the book aside I was eager to get back to it. The ending was plausible and unexpected. It's a really good read, which I heartily recommend.

I received a copy of the e-book from NetGalley in exchange for a review. I thank them, the publisher, and the author.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Chai Fruit Muffins

 Yesterday I was going to use the oven so I decided to make some muffins to bake while it was on already. A friend gave me a couple boxes of chai tea bags the other day and it's really good. I wanted to use that in the muffins, so I came up with yet another variation of the basic muffin recipe I've riffed on for about a quarter of a century, which is Lynne's Muffins in the New Laurel's Kitchen Cookbook. The original recipe is really good and I'm not sure why I don't make them more often, but for some reason, I always end up changing it. The mocha muffins I make are here , banana muffins are here, lemon poppyseed can be found here, orange banana walnut is located here, and the cranberry orange, here. These are so easy to make in many different ways simply by changing the soaking liquid and the mix-ins. They can be different every time and they're delicious, substantial, and healthy, too. They're great for breakfast or lunch with some fruit. I used to bring the plain ones that I made from the original recipe to work with me for lunch with some fruit and yogurt. I would split the muffin in half, top with berries, and dollop the yogurt on top. They're all great as an accompaniment to a cup of tea or coffee, whether as a snack or even dessert. In the past, I have made these various muffins without the egg and with plant based milk, so they can be vegan. Seeds could be added. Anyway, here is my latest variation, which we love--it will be going intro the repertoire.

Chai Fruit Muffins
Place two cups of jumbo porridge oats/old fashioned rolled oats into a container and cover with 1 1/2 cups of milk. Place in fridge for a few hours or they can sit overnight. 

In a separate bowl or glass measuring cup, place a chai teabag, then add 1/2 to 3/4 cup dried fruit, according to taste (I used raisins and finely chopped dried apricots, but other dried fruits would be good too). Pour enough boiling water to cover the fruit and leave it until you're ready to assemble the muffins.

Preheat oven to 180 C (fan oven)/400 F. Place soaked oats in a bowl and add 1 tablespoon of sugar and one egg. Mix in.

Add 1 cup of wholemeal/whole wheat flour and 1 teaspoon each bread/baking soda and salt. Stir in until incorporated.

The fruit should have absorbed the soaking liquid, but if there is a lot left, pour it off. Remove the teabag and stir in the soaked fruit, some walnuts, and a sprinkle of cinnamon if you like it.

Spoon into greased or lined muffin tins and bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown--timing depends a lot on the oven, so I just keep an eye on them.

I ended up with 15 muffins.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Happy Nollaig na mBan (Women's Christmas)!

 Today is Nollaig na mBan--Women's Christmas--here. Traditionally, it was a day for women to have a day off, socialize, and let the men do all the work around the house, after the women had worked so hard to create Christmas for their families. Today women might still go to pubs and restaurants where there may or may not be special programming for the day. This is also considered the last day of the festive season and it's considered bad luck to take down the Christmas decorations down before today. I have read that Women's Christmas is more widely celebrated in some southern counties, but I've seen at least one ad for a Women's Christmas event at a venue in Co Donegal and indeed a young woman commented to me this evening that today is Nollaig na mBan and that her colleague should not have started taking down the Christmas decorations yet, so obviously it's still a thing here to some degree.

Today's spine poem celebrates Nollaig na mBan.

Wise Women,
Weird Women.
An Irish Christmas Feast

Wise Women is a book of photographs of elder women with a bit of life story included by Joyce Tenneson. Weird Women is a collection of short stories written and published between 1852 and 1923, and An Irish Christmas Feast is a collection of short stories by John B. Keane.

I hope you have something to celebrate today, too, wherever you are and no matter how small.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Cup of Cocoa

I just finished my version of a mocha with a piece of the banana bread I made yesterday. Yum! In order to have a no-fuss mocha, I use cocoa mix that I make myself.

2 cups dry milk
3/4 cup sugar, or to taste
3/8 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Put in a bowl and mix well. 

To make cocoa, place a couple of teaspoonfuls into a mug, add water that's just gone off the boil, and stir well. To make a mocha, add a spoonful of instant coffee or espresso powder to the mug with the cocoa mix before adding the water. Quick and easy.

Here is the spine poem I came up with today:

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, (by Robert Tresell)
The Olive Readers, (by Christine Aziz)
A Literature of Their Own (by Elaine Showalter)

Monday, January 2, 2023

A Bit of Baking and Spine-ku, Too/Two

My spine-ku for today:
The Madwoman in the Attic/ Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell/Partners in Crime

I am loving the new slow cooker I got a couple of months ago! It gets hotter and heats more evenly than my old one did, so it's far more efficient. It's also bigger, which is nice. It works really well for baking bread, among other things. Today I made a loaf of wholemeal banana walnut bread and it is yummy! It's a yeast bread, not the sweeter cake-like banana quick bread. 
I didn't use a specific recipe--I just make variations on the basic wholemeal loaf I've been making for years. Until it conked out, I was making bread in the bread maker I picked up for 5 euro in a charity shop. I had that for almost 4 years and used it once or twice a week before it got tired and stopped working. I decided not to replace it, but to start making the dough by hand and baking in the slow cooker. It took a long time to bake in the old slow cooker, but not in this one, so it's actually faster than the bread machine. Anyway, here's the 'recipe' such as it is. As always, I tweak the amount of flour depending on the weather conditions, the flour itself, and other factors.

3 cups strong wholemeal flour
3/4-1 cup plain flour--reserve a little for flouring the kneading surface 
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 sachet quick yeast

Place the above ingredients in a mixing bowl. Put the salt and the yeast on opposite sides.

2 large ripe bananas mashed with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or almond extract, if you prefer)
200 ml milk, heated just until it's warm

Stir dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, and mix. Turn onto lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes or so, adding more flour a little bit at a time if the dough is too sticky. Add a handful or two of chopped walnuts as you knead (or some flaked almonds, if you prefer). You could also knead in some raisins or other dried fruit, seeds, and/or chocolate chips. When it's smooth and not sticky, shape into an oval. Line the crock of a low cooker with parchment paper, leaving enough so that you will be able to lift the loaf out using the paper. Place the dough in the slow cooker, turn it on high, and leave it for a couple of hours. If you tap on it and it sounds hollow, it's done. I find that I have to turn the loaf over and let it cook for another 30-45 minutes to make sure the centre top is baked through. Cool on rack.

Of course, if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, you could make the dough in that and bake in the slow cooker.

This bread is delicious with butter, jam, peanut butter, or as French toast.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Spine-ku (ish)

 Hello and welcome to 2023! I hope everyone has had a wonderful start to the year and that things only get better as we get deeper into it!

I had a nice hibernation, which is what I like in December. 

As ever, I was and am surrounded by books and I woke up this morning thinking about spine poems for some reason. One of the books I've been spending some time with each day is the collected haiku of Basho that Bill got me a month or so ago. Maybe that's why they started coming to me in short bursts--spine-ku (ish), if you will. 😀😉 Here are the first two I came up with:

In thinking about this, I realize how few books I have with verbs in the title. 

So there it is--that's how I roll into a new year--thinking about words and books. Whatever you're thinking about today, I hope it's all good. Happy 2023!