Vampire Academy – Book Review

Over Easter weekend, I finished reading the Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead.  I decided to wait until I finished the series before reviewing it, as it consists of six books, all surrounding the same story, and I believe that there are no plans for further books, meaning that the telling of this story is complete.

The six books in this series, in reading order are: Vampire Academy, Frostbite, Shadow Kiss, Blood Promise, Spirit Bound and Last Sacrifice.  The links are to the Goodreads pages, where there is a good synopsis for each one.

As I am reviewing the whole series, it is inevitable that this review will contain some spoilers.  I will however, try to keep them to a minimum and not give away any of the major plot twists in the story.

I will start off by saying that overall, I really enjoyed this series.  I have read the House of Night series (or what’s out of it so far) and I think that the writing in this series was much, much better.  It flowed better, the characters were more believable, and I felt that Mead didn’t try as hard as Cast to appeal to younger people by inserting references to pop culture.  Because of this, these books were much easier to read and held me much better.

The story mostly revolves around our heroine, Rose Hathaway.  She exists in a world where vampires exist.  There are two types of vampires though.  Moroi Vampires and Strigoi Vampires.  Moroi Vampires are living, breathing Vampires, who possess magic.  They are on a whole, good vampires.  They require blood drinking, but only take what they need to survive, using humans that volunteer as “feeders.”

Strigoi Vampires are the bad guys.  They are not born, but made, willingly if a Moroi drinks blood from a human to the point where they kill the human, they become Strigoi.  Humans can also be made into Strigoi by being bitten by one, then fed blood back.  The Strigoi are undead, and apparently without any conscience, ability to feel emotion (aside from anger it seems) and are but shadows of what they were before they were made.

Rose is a Dhampir – half Moroi, half human.  The Dhampirs attend St. Vladimir’s Accademy along with the Moroi.  The Dhampir’s main goal in life really is to protect the Moroi.  The code of conduct that they live by is “they come first.”  The Damphir people are trained to be guardians – basically bodyguards for the Moroi against the Strigoi.  A large reason for this is that Damphirs are unable due to a genetic quirk to conceive children between each other.  They must either mate with Moroi, or a Moroi must mate with a human (which doesn’t happen that often).  So much of the need to protect them is borne of self preservation.

Rose’s best friend is a Moroi named Lissa.  She is the last of the Dragomir family.  The vampire world has several royal families, and upon the death of her parents and brother in a car accident that she and Rose walked away from, she is the last one left.  Rose and Lissa are bonded by a one way bond that basically lets Rose into Lissa’s head, knowing what emotions she is feeling, and eventually being able to see through her eyes.  Rose is training to be a guardian and is actually quite badass.  It is pretty much decided, especially due to their bonding, that upon graduation, Rose will be guarding Lissa.  The bond is quite useful to the reader, as it becomes a way to see what is going on in Lissa’s story when Rose is not physically able to be there, explaining how she’s feeling, as Rose is able to tell that, as well as Rose’s outlook on the situations as she has an ability to see things from outside while being on the inside.  Did that make sense?

So I don’t want to get into the whole story, because I don’t want to give too much away, but this has pretty much everything – action, a very touching and deep rooted love story, deception, magic, devotion, yadda yadda yadda.   There are many twists and turns, Rose is thrown into many situations and always manages to put others before her, dealing with things that are much bigger than her, as well as the usual teenage problems, like parent issues (though hers are a bit more extreme than usual).  She is often her own worst enemy, at times showing great maturity, while still showing how young she really is.  She tends to jump in without thinking at times, though over the course of the books (which last about a year) she grows and matures and becomes an adult.

These books were well written, they kept me interested and wanting more, yet the conclusion was satisfying.  This being said, there is definitely room for another series of books based on these characters in the future, or based around other secondary characters there is room to develop on.

If you’re into YA – or not – and looking for some fairly fast paced reading with characters that you can grow close to and care about, check out these books.  I’m pretty sure they’re all available in paperback now, though I downloaded them all to my Kindle and read them there.

Overall for the series – 4/5 stars.  Worth the time.

Have you read these books?  Loved them? Hated them?  In between? Please let me know in the comments.

Save the Planet

The older I get, and I’m not that old yet, the more I realize how important it is to do what we can to preserve this planet we live on.  I watch my 3 year old son play, and I wonder what Earth will be like when he is my age.  When he is middle aged.  When he’s ready to retire.  And I realize that every little thing I can do to make the world a better place for him is important.  Every can or bottle I recycle is like putting money away into a bank account for him to use later.

Friday is Earth Day, so I thought I should definitely dedicate a post this week to the environment, and what we can do to help make the future bright for our children and grandchildren.

Do you recycle?  I think recycling is the first and easiest thing we can do to help save this planet.  If you don’t recycle, why don’t you?  You can pick up a blue box anywhere, and they don’t charge to take away your recyclables.  You can cut down on your garbage, which is money back in your pocket if you pay for garbage collection like I do.  It’s so easy to do.  We keep our blue boxes in the garage, and I have one under the sink in the kitchen.  Just a smaller one that while I’m cooking I can put the rinsed out containers into so when it’s full, I just have to take that container out to the garage to empty into the blue box.  It doesn’t get easier than that.  I totally recommend that you find the website for the municipality that you live in and find out what can be recycled and what can’t.  You will probably be surprised at what can skip the garbage.  By knowing this, you can also reduce waste right at the supermarket by buying things that have little or no waste associated with them, and that are packaged in materials that can be recycled later.

I’ve also tried to help out where I can at work as well.  All the paper that used to get thrown away now gets shredded if necessary and put into clear plastic bags.  I take them home once a week or every other week and put them out to the road at my house.  It doesn’t cost me anything and it makes me feel so much better knowing I’m making a difference in that way.  I also make sure that the paper products that we buy come from recycled material.

I also do not buy bottled water.  I’m quite passionate about this one.  Nothing makes me angrier than the bottled water aisle at the supermarket.  All that waste.  There are so many people around the world who don’t have access to clean drinking water.  People who are dying due to water related diseases.  You can find out more about that here.  We are so fortunate to have safe drinking water, right out of our taps, and yet we purchase it, and the plastic bottles it comes in, all for the sake of convenience.  I have a few stainless steel and glass water bottles that I reuse with (Brita) filtered water from the tap.  I also always try to remember to take a re-usable coffee mug with me when I’m going to be out and know I’ll be buying a coffee.  Most coffee places will take 10 cents off the price of your coffee if you bring your own mug.  I have a ceramic coffee mug at work and have purchased some for the office, encouraging my co-workers to use them instead of Styrofoam or to bring their own from home.

I don’t know a lot about composting, but I’m learning.  I’ve asked for two things for Mothers Day this year.  A composter and a green cone.  I’m sure you know what a composter does, but I didn’t know about the green cone until recently.  You can read about it here, basically you put it in your garden and it takes all cooked and uncooked food waste and breaks it down.  You can even put pet feces in it.  Used diligently, it can reduce your household waste by up to 33%.  And when you think about it, your garbage won’t stink nearly as much either!

I try to do all the other little things to help reduce energy consumption, turning off lights and electronics when I leave a room, I have also decided to put in a clothes line this year to help reduce the use of my dryer.  The nice thing about these things is that you save money by doing them as well.

What do you do to make the world a better place for future generations?  Do you have suggestions? Comments? Please let me know.  I’ve included a list of links that you make for interesting reading and might help you to look at things differently.

Earth Day Canada

Greenpeace

Earth Hour

Earth Care

Environment Canada – Composting

Environment Canada – What you can do to make a difference

On Earth Day this year, Friday, April 22nd, don’t forget to hug a tree.  Also, don’t forget to make it last beyond Earth Day, to make saving this planet a part of our daily lives.

I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Chicken Lasagna

My dear friend J and her family had my family over to dinner one night and she made this delicious dish.  We totally fell in love with this dish and after weeks of serious badgering she finally cracked and gave me the recipe.  (Just kidding Jennifer – just kidding!)

This is a wonderful – if not healthy – alternative to traditional lasagna.  If I’m having a large group, I like to make both and give people the option of having a little of each.

 

 

 

 

 

Ingredients:

3 pkg. Hollandaise Sauce (I use Knorr) – prepared.

1 tbsp olive or vegetable oil

1 lb fresh mushrooms, or 2 cans of canned.

One onion, diced

2-3 cloves minced garlic

1 pkg lasagna noodles

2-3 chicken breasts, cooked and cubed

2 cans asparagus, drained

2 cups mozzarella cheese, grated

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp dried oregano

1 tsp dried basil

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Preheat a skillet and add oil to the hot pan.  Saute mushrooms, onion and garlic until tender.  Set aside.  If you use lasagna noodles that you have to boil, cook them till just shy of al dente in a large pot of salted water.  Some prefer to use ready bake ones, that’s fine too.

In a lasagna dish, put a bit of Hollandaise sauce in the bottom.  Line the bottom of the dish with noodles.  From there, just go about assembling the lasagna as you normally would, layering the sauteed vegetables, chicken, cheeses, asparagus and spices.  Make sure you add layers of the sauce in between as well.  Add all the ingredients evenly so you have a nice balanced lasagna.  You’ll want to finish with the cheeses on top.

Bake uncovered for about 45 minutes, until hot and bubbly and when you insert a sharp knife in the center, the noodles should be cooked throughly.

Allow to sit and cool for a few minutes before serving.  It goes great with a salad and garlic bread.

It’s pretty hard not to like this decadent dish.  It definitely is not something you want to be eating 4 times a week – your arteries won’t thank you for that, but it is delicious and wonderful for that special company or special occasion.  Or simply when you feel like treating yourself.

Enjoy!

New York Cheesecake – Basic Recipe

I truly believe that everyone should have a basic cheesecake recipe in their recipe box.  The dense, rich cheesecake that gets baked in the oven, not that no bake stuff.  Not that the no bake doesn’t taste good, it’s just that I prefer the authentic recipe.

There are several recipes out there, as well as several methods.  Some methods include a water bath, this one does not.  So print this puppy off, and tuck it away for when you need to take dessert somewhere and you want people to be “mmmmmm-ing” all through the dessert course.

Notes:  This needs to sit in the fridge for at least four hours.  It’s best made the morning of, or even better the night before.  Also, when I say “Moist Oven,” I mean to put a cake pan or shallow dish full of water on the lower rack of the oven while preheating and baking the cheesecake.

Ingredients:

Crust:

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

3 tbsp sugar

3 tbsp butter, melted

 

Filling:

4 pkg. cream cheese, softened. (if it’s right out of the fridge, unwrap and place in a microwave safe bowl, nuke for 30-45 seconds on half power.  If needed, add more time)

1 cup sugar

3 tbsp flour

1 tbsp vanilla

4 eggs

1 cup sour cream

 

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325. (Moist oven) – Move top rack to middle position.

Mix crumbs, sugar and butter, press into the bottom of a 9 inch springform pan.  Bake 10 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar, flour and vanilla at medium speed with an electric mixer until well blended.  Add eggs, one at a time, mixing at low speed after each addition, just until blended.  Blend in sour cream, pour over the crust.

Bake for an hour or so, but start checking after 50 minutes.  The edges should look done, but the center should still wobble slightly when shaken.  I like to shut off the oven about 5-10 minutes before it will be ready and crack the oven door slightly to allow to cool gently.  This helps prevent cracking.  If your cheesecake cracks, don’t feel bad.  Almost everyones cracks.  That’s what topping is for – to cover that up.

Run your knife around the outside of the cake, and once it has cooled to room temp, store it in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Allow your cheesecake to come back up to room temp before serving.  The flavours are more prominent this way. Take it out of the fridge a good 1/2 hour to 45 minutes before serving.

As far as topping, that’s totally up to you.  You can go the traditional route, with cherries or blueberries, just using regular old pie filling.  If you choose to go this route, wait until shortly before you serve to add it, so it doesn’t make the top mushy.  You can just cut it into slices and top with a chocolate or caramel sauce, or fruit coulis if that is your preference.  You can cut up fresh fruit on the top and serve with a healthy dollop of whipped cream.  That’s the beauty of a basic cheesecake recipe.  You can change it up to make it your own.

And once you’ve got this under your belt, you can try the literally thousands of variations to suit the occasion, or just to suit your taste.  Chocolate, pumpkin, swirled, different, fruit, different nuts….the possibilities are endless.

I’m excited to hear any ideas you may have to change this up and make it your own.  Please feel free to add them in the comments.


Bowtie Sausage Casserole

I love this dish. It satisfies all kinds of cravings. It’s creamy, and full of flavour. It’s also very quick to prepare, only needing about 15-20 minutes in the oven.

Ingredients:

1 pkg (3-4 links) store made sausage – sweet, Italian or garlic
1 small onion diced finely
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 lg can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 sm can condensed tomato with basil and oregano soup
1 1/2 – 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
1 pkg bowtie (Farfalle) pasta, cooked to al dente

Directions:

Preheat a large deep skillet. Crumble sausage meat and brown over medium heat. Add onion and cook until slightly tender. Add mushrooms and garlic and combine. Cover, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are tender. Add soups and stir. Add about half of the cheese and cooked pasta. Combine completely.
Move to a glass or Corning 17×10 (shallow) or 9×13 (deep) dish and sprinkle with remaining cheese.
Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes until heated through and cheese is melted and bubbly.

Great served with a salad and some fresh bread or garlic toast. Fantastic for leftovers.

You can often find sausage meat not in the casing which is great as it saves a step.

The Hunger Games Trilogy – Book Review

 

I just finished reading The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  This trilogy consists of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay.

I’ve decided to write about the trilogy as a whole, mostly because they all go together (obviously) and because I don’t know if it’s possible to read the first one and not want to find out what happens to this story and its characters.  So if you haven’t read them, or haven’t read all of them, please note that while I will attempt to do a spoiler free review, there may be a detail or two that slip out.  Due to this, proceed with caution if that sort of thing bugs you.

So this story takes place in the ruins of what was once North America.  It is now called Panem.  It consists of a capitol city surrounded by 12 districts.  District 13 was formerly the nuclear district, but it was completely destroyed during the “Dark Days.”  The Capitol is a big, beautiful city, where there is tons of food.  The districts themselves range from fairly prosperous to destitute.  Each district is responsible for producing something, mostly to sustain the Capitol.  The whole thing is presided over by a sneaky, evil President Snow, whose main goal seems to be crushing the poor, hardworking people of the districts to a pulp all the while getting out of them whatever he can.

Our story centers around Katniss Everdeen.  She is a 16 year old from District 12, who upon the loss of her father in a horrible accident, and the subsequent mental condition of her mother is forced to become the head of the family, which now consists of her, her mother, and her beloved 12 year old sister, Prim.

Katniss is a hunter, and sustains herself and her family on what she is able to hunt down in the woods with her best friend Gale, who just happens to be totally hot.  They hunt together, though hunting is illegal, she manages to sneak under the fence and meet him in the woods where they hunt and gather to trade and make enough to keep their families alive.

Every year, the Capitol holds The Hunger Games, where each of the 12 surviving districts must reap one boy and one girl starting at the age of 12 to participate.  It is said to be a reminder of the Dark Days.  Really it is just a reminder of the power that the Capitol holds over everyone.  The tributes that are chosen by a draw are put into an arena, in a variety of different conditions.  Past years have been a complete wilderness, an arctic wasteland, etc.  The tributes are made to basically fend for themselves and kill off everyone else.  The last one standing is the victor, and is given all kinds of money, food and a new house.  Everyone else is…well….dead.

On reaping day, Katniss steps forward to be a tribute in the games when her little sister Prim has her name drawn.  She is joined by Peeta, the bakers son, whom she has a history with even though they have never spoken.

Thrown into this situation, Katniss does what she does best – survives.   She manages to outwit the gamemakers and survive, all the while severely pissing off President Snow.

Due to a series of events, she manages to unwittingly become the face of the rebellion against the Capitol, which has been going on underground for a period of time.  There are rebels everywhere, where we least expect them, and there is extensive planning to overthrow President Snow and the Capitol, and restore freedom to the citizens of Panem.

This is a really great story.  It’s supposed to be geared toward young adults, but I really think anyone would enjoy it.  It’s fast paced enough to keep you interested, with a series of plot twists to keep it exciting.  You get drawn in to the character of Katniss, wanting her to survive.  She is, by the end of this trilogy very emotionally scarred.  What she has been through would make it impossible for her not to be.  She is lucky to have people behind her that are unwavering in their devotion and trust of her.  She would not have made it through the way she did if she didn’t have them.

There is also a love triangle in this book.  It’s not really an intense love triangle, as I get the feeling that she would do just fine without either guy.  But she does have a deep love for both men, and they each suit her and fulfill her needs in different ways.  At the end I perhaps wasn’t entirely pleased with the way this triangle turned out, but I understand that based on her character, things turned out in the way that they were supposed to.  There…is that cryptic enough for you?  Not giving away anything!

Overall, I really enjoyed this series.  I literally couldn’t put it down.  I went from one book to the next without stopping.  The first and second book do tend to leave you hanging just a tiny bit, so you may want to have the next book handy when you finish them.

My score – 5/5 stars.

Have you read this trilogy?  Did you like it? Love it?  Hate it?  Please let me know in the comments, I’d love to discuss.

 

The Best Banana Bread You’ll Ever Eat

This recipe is my favourite for Banana Bread.  I usually make a couple of loaves at a time and they never last long.  It is so incredibly moist and delicious.

I take any bananas that are starting to get too ripe and throw them in the freezer for Banana Bread.  If you take them out ahead of time, you can just cut the end off and squeeze out the banana like a sausage out of its casing.  The riper the bananas, the sweeter, more moist bread you will have.

Ingredients:

2 cups All Purpose Flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

3 ripe bananas

1 cup Miracle Whip salad dressing

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Brown sugar – for topping.

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease loaf pan.  In a large bowl, combine the first three ingredients.  No need to sift.  In a smaller bowl, combine bananas, Miracle Whip and granulated sugar.  Mix well.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients to them.  Mix until incorporated, but don’t overdo it.  It’s okay if there are a few spots of flour that hasn’t been mixed in yet.

Pour into the prepared loaf pan and sprinkle brown sugar on the top to cover.  Bake for 50 minutes to an hour.  The top will be lightly browned and a skewer should come out clean.

Remove from oven and run a knife around the edges of the pan.  Allow to cool slightly and remove from pan.  Will keep well wrapped in plastic wrap or stored in an airtight container.

Enjoy, it’s a good one.