Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Uprooted book discussion party!

On Sunday, my new book club met for the first time. We wanted to make it special since it was our first gathering, and so we had themed food and drinks. Here are some pictures, and the menu.

First photo: Iced herbal tea (green tea, lemongrass, spearmint), regular iced tea, apple tart (made by Marla!) Falcon pinwheels (the Falcon was another wizard in the book, these sandwiches were actually made of chicken salad, ha!) Haystack cookies (from a scene where the villagers are burning haystacks as signal fires), and white cheddar pimento cheese triangles (I couldn't find the herbed goat cheese I intended to serve). Not pictured are the "Smoky Dragon Bites" that I made. I only got one photo of those, and it was terrible, but they're made of small pieces of Kielbasa sausage, wrapped in bacon, drizzled with a brown sugar/white wine/stone ground mustard glaze, secured with toothpicks, and baked. I got the idea for them from the main character in Uprooted, Agnieszka, saying that the wizard Sarkan's name "tasted like smoke in her mouth". They were delicious, and very pretty, but I only got the one bad picture and then they were gone!

The second photo shows a small platter of fruit that our friend Martina brought--the strawberries on it came from her little backyard garden! She added store-bought blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and apple slices as well as a creamy sweet dip. The punch I called "Agnieszka's Midsummer Punch", it was made with Polish vodka, frozen strawberry daiquiri concentrate, frozen lemonade concentrate, ginger ale, sparkling water, and lots of ice. It was garnished, as you can see, with lemon slices and fresh strawberries. It was absolutely delicious!

Next month we're reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and we've already come up with some ideas for the discussion party--circus/fair food like corn dogs, popcorn, and cotton candy. Of course, I'll review the book and share pictures of the party afterwards!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Book review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik


“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

So begins the story of a peasant girl named Agnieszka and her beloved home in a tiny village that sits unfortunately close to a sinister, corrupted, sentient Wood. The Wood deserves the capital W because it's practically a character in its own right--and a terrifying one. A wizard called the Dragon lives in a tower high above the valley where Agnieszka's village is located, and he helps to keep the evil of the Wood in check. In return for his protection, once every 10 years he chooses a young woman to leave her family and serve him. After 10 years, she is free to return home, but the girls never do. They go off to the capital to live, or to the university, but they never choose to return home for more than a brief visit when their service is over.

"He doesn't devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she's someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she's been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she's ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say? And that's not the worst of it--after all, the Dragon gives them a purse full of silver for their dowry when he lets them go, so anyone would be happy to marry them, ruined or not. But they don't want to marry anyone. They don't want to stay at all."

When Uprooted begins, it's the year of the choosing, and everyone is sure the Dragon will take Agnieszka's dearest friend, Kasia.

"The Dragon didn't always take the prettiest girl, but he always took the most special one, somehow: if there was one girl who was far and away the prettiest, or the most bright, or the best dancer, or especially kind, somehow he always picked her out, even though he scarcely exchanged a word with the girls before he made his choice. And Kasia was all those things."

But of course, it's not Kasia the Dragon chooses, it's Agnieszka.

Agnieszka, who is chronically clumsy and untidy, and has no especial skills beyond an affinity for wandering in the forest and gathering herbs and berries and plants. She's not terribly pretty, she's can't sing or cook, and her clothes and hair are always unkempt no matter how hard she tries to stay neat and clean. The one thing Agnieszka does have is a kind heart and absolutely loyalty to the people she loves. Shortly after the Dragon takes her to his tower and begins to teach her magic, the Wood's corruption spreads into her village. A villager is horribly corrupted and must be dealt with, and Kasia is taken and trapped inside an evil heart-tree deep in the Wood.  Agnieszka's fierce love and determination are Kasia's, and the village's, only hope.

I can't tell you how much I loved this book. The author references Polish mythology to create this stunning piece of dark fantasy fiction. Uprooted reads like an Eastern European fairy tale, but with well developed characters and a totally fresh feel. I adored the dark, brooding Dragon, the plucky and girl-next-door type heroine, and the sinister, evil, frightening Wood.

The other members of my new book club adored Uprooted, too. Martina had read it last year, as had I, and we knew it would be a good choice for our first book club selection. Marla read it in three days, and immediately re-read it because she had devoured it so quickly the first time she was afraid she had probably missed some things! The other three members who read it all agreed that it was fabulous. And guess what? Ellen DeGeneres and Warner Bros. have bought the rights to make a movie next year! We're all really excited to see how it turns out.

Uprooted has been nominated for several awards: a Hugo 2016 for best novel; a Nebula award for best novel 2015; and a Goodreads Choice 2015 for young adult fantasy and science fiction.

Later tonight, or tomorrow, I will share pictures and recipes from our Uprooted book club party yesterday (which was a big success!).

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Finally! A fun weekend!

I've mentioned here before that I rarely get weekends off--sometimes I have a four or five month stretch without one. If I don't request them, I don't get them. Since tomorrow is my new book club's first meeting, and it's taking place at my house, I asked for this whole weekend off to get ready.

When I made the request, I didn't realize it was going to be Memorial Day weekend--what great luck! No one likes working holiday weekends, and I usually do more than my fair share of it. So, yay for me! I get to miss the craziness that be going on at the mall today and tomorrow!

For tomorrow's gathering, I only have a couple of last minute housework things left to do. I can knock those out in an hour or so. After lunch, Marla and I are going shopping for the food and drinks for the party, and I think we're going to scour the dollar stores for fun decorations, too. We're trying to have a themed gathering to fit the book we'll be discussing. * Now that the housework is done, the fun part of the preparation can begin!

Just as a sneak peek for you all, here's the menu we've come up with to fit the book's Polish fairy-tale theme:

Smoky Dragon Bites
Falcon's Pinwheels
Herbed Goat Cheese with crackers
Mixed Woodland Berries and Fruits
Agnieszka's Midsummer Punch
Iced Herbal Tea

I'll try to post pictures, a book review, and recipes at the beginning of next week! Have a good one!

*Naomi Novik's Uprooted

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Randomly on a Wednesday afternoon

Today was spent cleaning the house in preparation for this weekend's book club meeting. I polished the wood furniture in our dining room and living room, dusted, and cleaned and mopped the kitchen and main bathroom. All the while, George and Ginger were quite bored. They spent the afternoon napping.

Here's a piece of good news: I finally got my African Violets to bloom! I bought them a year and a half ago on a discount rack at Walmart. I was beginning to think they would never have flowers again, but after adding fertilizer spikes they're coming around.

They live on a table in our office, in front of the windows. This spot gets really good light and is perfect for plants. I'm sipping a well-deserved glass of wine in here right now, with Marco hanging out on his perch. He likes soaking up the sunshine from this westward facing window, too.

Marco also likes to perch on the back of my blanket-covered computer chair and "help" me blog.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

This is how you know..

Yesterday at work I got a text from the receptionist at my dentist's office confirming an appointment for today that I had completely forgotten about. I was supposed to work today, but after thinking about it I decided that even dental work is more fun than my job.

So I'm taking a personal day to go to the dentist.

My mom laughed at me on the phone when I told her that I chose an extra day off this week rather than reschedule the appointment. I reminded her of what I said to the surgeon who took out my gallbladder a while back (resulting in three weeks off with pay): "Isn't there something else you can take? I'm not using my appendix!" She really laughed then!

Yes, it's sad. And kind of pathetic, too. You know you hate your job when even the torture chamber dentist's chair is a better place to be!

'I believe I used up all my sick days, so I'm calling in dead.':

Monday, May 16, 2016

Fun stuff

I mentioned in my last post a couple of exciting things I've been planning lately. Here's the first one:

I'm starting a book club! This is something I've been thinking about for months and it's finally happening. I'm in one book club already, as regular readers probably remember. It's a large group of women, most of whom average about 15-20 years older than me. I enjoy it very much, and will continue to be an active member, but I wanted to start a smaller group with some of my younger friends who wouldn't be comfortable as part of the big group. I'd  also like the chance to read and discuss a bigger variety of books, possibly including some science fiction and fantasy that the older, bigger group wouldn't care for. So with the help of my friend Marla, as well as another avid reader friend named Martina, I've gotten the ball rolling!

Our group's first meeting will be Sunday, May 29 at my house. I'm looking forward to hosting it! The book we've chosen to read first is a favorite of mine and Martina's.....Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Martina and I are planning themed food and cocktails to go with the book to celebrate our first meeting! Future get-togethers won't be quite so elaborate, of course, and we might occasionally meet at a restaurant or coffee bar to save anyone having to host. All told, besides myself there are six people in the group. We still have a few things to decide on at our first meeting, such as how we'll choose books going forward and where we'll meet. We've already established that meetings will take place on the fourth Sunday of each month, at 4pm. My other club meets on the third Wednesday of each month, so there won't be any conflict with the two.

I'll post a book review here each month after our meeting, as well as share photos of the food and drinks I serve when I do the hosting. I can't wait to show you the things we have planned for this first one!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Something pretty to start off the weekend

Flower Mandala made from materials found in my backyard.

I'm off this weekend--yay!--but I also have a to-do list as long as my arm. Exciting plans for the next few weeks are taking shape, and I can't wait to tell you all about them! In the meantime, in the midst of being busy and productive, I plan to stop now and then and admire the beautiful month of May unfolding outside my door. We have fledgling birds and their parents at our feeders, the sky is blue, and everything is lush and green and blooming. What a lovely time of year!

Have a wonderful weekend!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Bedtime Snack

A slice of cool, delicious Key Lime pie eaten in bed on a hot, stormy night hits the spot. Perfect!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sunday night supper

A tough day at work calls for comfort food for dinner. Tonight I'm cooking one of my favorite Southern recipes--Chicken Bog.

Yes, I know the name isn't exactly flattering. But Chicken Bog is a classic dish served at plenty of group meetings--fund-raisers, church socials, family reunions, etc. --because it's cheap, filling, and almost universally liked. Served with fresh sliced tomatoes, cornbread or biscuits, and sweet iced tea, it's a wonderful meal. Here's my version of the recipe.

Chop 1 small yellow onion and saute in butter until translucent. Add 2-3 pounds of boneless chicken pieces to the pot. I like a mixture of breasts and thighs for a good white/dark meat balance, but either alone is good too. Cook the chicken until golden and falling apart. And don't forget salt and pepper to taste! I like a couple of teaspoons of Cajun seasoning, like Slap Ya Mama, too. Tear the chicken pieces apart with a fork.

Next, slice 1 pound of smoked sausage (I like Hillshire Brand) into bite sized pieces and throw them in. Measure out 2 cups of rice and sprinkle it evenly over the chicken and sausage.  Add 3 and 1/2 cups of water, about a Tbsp of salt, more pepper, and cover the pot. Bring it to a boil, and then immediately reduce the heat to low and go forget about it for 40 minutes. Don't stir the chicken bog!! This is important! If you stir it while it's cooking, it will turn gooey and gummy and gross. If you leave it alone the rice will be fluffy and perfectly steamed. This is the secret to good Chicken Bog!

So that's what we're eating tonight, along with Florida - grown tomatoes sliced and salted on the side. For me, it's comfort food.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Soaking it in

In an effort to increase my blood levels of vitamin D, I've begun sitting outside in shorts and a tank top for 15 minutes or so whenever possible. Today before work was a good day for soaking in a bit of sunshine.

And I had company!

Yes, I cropped out my legs. The winter white glow could blind you. You're welcome!  

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Just a simple day in the life...

Today has been an average day off for me, and just the kind of day I like.

First, I slept in until 9:30 and then took my time reading blogs with a cup of coffee. Then I showered, dressed, and picked up the house a little bit. I also finished a couple of chapters of the novel I'm reading at lunchtime.

Then I took a trip to the goodwill store to buy cheap blankets for the dogs' bed. George will chew up and destroy nice dog pillows, and we gave up on using them ages ago. He'll eventually chew up blankets, too, but I can always go buy a stack of them for $2 or $3 each and replace them once they're threadbare. Poor Ginger hasn't had a really comfortable place to sleep since George arrived. She had a wonderful doggie mattress along with thick fluffy comforters before he came along. Those are days gone by, George being the chewing machine that he is!

While browsing for the blankets, I found a pretty serving platter and a couple of really nice gardening reference books.  I ended up getting the books, the platter, and 4 large blankets, all for $20. Not bad.

Once I left the goodwill and headed towards the farm stand down the road, the wind started gusting, the temperature dropped 25 degrees, and rain started to pour. I feared hail because of the sudden drop in temperature, but it only rained. I sat in my car for awhile at the market trying to wait it out, but eventually I got out and ran in to make my purchases. I only got a little bit wet!

The small market is so pretty this time of year, with all the flowers for sale.

And I'm glad I went, because I got some nice stuff for our dinner tonight:

I've had steaks marinating all day, and now that the rainstorm is over (and the sun is back out) we can grill them just like we had planned. Gregg will be home from work soon, and we'll light the grill and sit outside and talk. I'll make myself a cocktail to take out with me. Since today is Cinco de Mayo, I thought about stopping by the liquor store to get tequila for margaritas, but it seemed silly when I already have good whiskey and can make whiskey sours with it. I like them just as well, and decided it was probably best to save the money. After all, we're planning a vacation next month to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and so should be saving our pennies where we can! It's going to be an anniversary trip for us (we'll have been married for ten years!) and I'm really looking forward to it. Which reminds me of something else I did today: spent some time searching the internet for the perfect place to stay up there. It's going to be a nice trip. The Outer Banks is one of the most beautiful places on the East Coast.

That's it for my day off. Have a good weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Eight days straight......

Hello blog friends! Sorry for my week long absence from the Sparrow Tree. I had to work eight days in a row and my job has been extra heinous lately. In fact, I've started calling my workplace The Snake Pit. This is because after a terrible few days last week when I was subjected to the hateful gossip and nasty, unfair criticism of a couple of my coworkers, I had a nightmare one night that I was at work and there were two snakes outside (long, thick snakes...shudders...) and my work mates were trying to force me to go outside and get rid of them. It was horrifying. The symbolism couldn't be any more plainly obvious. For a few days there, I felt like I was indeed walking into a nest of vipers every time I arrived at work, hence the new name.

I'm finally off today (and tomorrow! joy!) and besides a trip to the eye doctor this afternoon I don't have any big plans. I need to do several things around the house, like mopping the floors and cleaning pet areas and sending Mother's Day cards to my mom, grandma, and mother-in-law, but all of those things suit me fine....it's just a joy to be at home taking care of personal life stuff.

Except for my job, my life is great. My marriage is happy. I have sweet, smart companion animals that bring me small moments of joy every day. I have a lot of friends, and they're all so varied and interesting that I never lack for good company if I want it. Then there's all of you: my blogging friends that make my life so much more rich than it could possibly be otherwise! It's such a pleasure learning about ordinary lives in places all over the world. I don't know much about politics in other countries so I can't really comment on political posts, but they make interesting reading. I like hearing stories and seeing pictures of your everyday life best. Now that I have some time off, I'll be able to catch up with you all and maybe even write a blog post or two.

I hope you all are having a good week and a good beginning of May!

Sunset at The Snake Pit