Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review: The Emporer's Tomb by Steve Berry

I really wanted to love this book.  This is the sixth book in the Cotton Malone series by Steve Berry.  I inhaled the other five and I loved all of them.  The basic formula for the series includes a mystery surrounding a historical artifact, a world issue, and a conspiracy.  Other books have included the Library of Alexandria and a plot to tear apart Judaism, Christianity and Islam; an advanced early civilization previously unknown to science and a cover-up by the Department of the Navy; Alexander the Great and biochemical get the idea.  Steve Berry is great at researching the history behind the elements in his books and integrating them into a compelling (to me) storyline.  I like learning about pieces of history, and Berry always includes an Author's Note telling where he got his research and what parts are his imaginings, which I appreciate greatly.  That's probably the librarian in me.  But somehow, this book didn't appeal to me as much as the others in the series.

This book's historical basis is in Imperial China.  The Terracotta Army was built by the First Emperor of Qin as a part of his burial site.  He included a replica of all of his belongings (including living servants) to take with him into the afterlife.  The burial site is important because it contains a sample of the first oil drilled in China, in fact the world.  A Russian expatriate scientist is now trying to prove that the oil coming from the Chinese oil fields is not biotic (decomposed from living organisms) but abiotic (secretions from the rock itself).  If this is true, China can produce its own oil and cease its dependence on foreign supplies.  And take over the world.  The ancient eunuch system in China originally served as civil servants to the Emperors but it was purged for abusing their power and status in the Imperial courts.  It has survived the purge and has secretly integrated into the Chinese political system and is poised to overthrow the government and return to Imperialism.  Cassiopeia Vitt, friend of the Russian scientist, gets involved to try to save him from the Chinese conspiracy and instead gets trapped.  Cotton Malone comes to rescue Cassiopeia, and together they try to end the conspiracy and save the scientist.  And the world.

The story was great, I thought.  The plot was Steve Berry's usual gripping style, and at least two characters continually switched sides and continually provided intrigue.  I love Cotton Malone's character, plus the fact that he shares a nickname with my husband's favorite grandpa.  I just didn't get into the back story as much as in previous books.  I don't know if it was a lack of interest in Chinese history, or that it was too much scope to absorb, or that I just don't like current Chinese politics; I'm not sure.  I do love history in general, but my interests are more reserved for Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and India.  China has such a rich history full of innovation and culture, it's hard to absorb it all. 

This was my first time hearing about the abiotic oil theory, and it's interesting for sure.  I believe, like the author does, that proving this theory correct would increase dependence on oil as a fuel source.  I like seeing other energy sources explored, like the wind turbines I saw in West Texas around Abilene and the ones around Boston.  I think solar panels are also an interesting new energy source. 

I was glad to learn more about the Terracotta Army and the First Emperor who built it.  I liked the story in general.  This book was just not my favorite of the series.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Our Valentine's Day Fun

My husband and I celebrated Valentine's Day on Saturday the 19th due to scheduling conflicts.  We made cupcakes together and watched a movie.

For our cupcakes we used Pillsbury's Super Moist Vanilla cake mix.  (I know, I know.)  We added tiny pieces of strawberries and baked them into the batter.  For the frosting we made Mark Bittman's Butter Cream Frosting, and we added Ghiradelli's mini chocolate chips.  Richard was in charge of the frosting and he did a great job!  Vanilla with Strawberry Cupcakes with Chocolate Chip Butter Cream Frosting!! They were great.  Especially when Richard added bourbon to the frosting for the last 4 cupcakes.  :)

We went to see Unknown starring Liam Neeson.  This was an odd movie.  It was a good movie with excellent cast, but it wasn't original.  It was a cross between Bourne Identity and Neeson's other movie Taken.  Great effects and fight scenes though.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My new lunch bag

I made a new lunch bag to take to my part-time retail job.  I was bringing my lunch to work in a left over grocery bag, and it was hard to distinguish it from the 20 other grocery bag lunches in the fridge with it.  I don't think I can miss this one!

It's made with two different patterned oil cloth (what's the plural of oil cloth?!?) and lined with a shower curtain.  It's insulated with InsulBrite from the Warm Company, and it's used for thermal insulation-keeping cold things cold!  (Hopefully.)  I used this tutorial from The Long Thread.  I altered mine from the pattern by making mine wider, changing the strap, and adding a top flap.  I wanted to used waterproof material so I could wipe it down to clean it if it got messy.  The strap I actually cannibalized off one of those reusable bags you buy at the grocery store. 

This was my first time using oil cloth and shower curtain in sewing.  I found it a lot easier to work with the products than I was expecting.  It's stiffer, which is nice for the structure of the bag, but sewing and cutting it wasn't hard at all.  The problem came when I turned the bag right side out.  My shower curtain liner ripped more and more as I turned the bag right side out to finish it.  There ended up being a rip in the lining about 7 inches long.  So, I just got some red duct tape to cover it up.  It matches, so it's all good...Right?

I originally wanted red apples instead of green apples on the oil cloth, but I was sent the green by mistake.  My husband says it looks fine, and it's grown on me now.  I'm excited to use it at work!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Snack Recipes: Granola and Salsa

Well, I originally wrote this on one of our big snow days.  I just didn't post it like I should have.  So, without further ado, my snow day cooking adventures!

I live in Northern Connecticut, and today we have a wintery mix of precipitation.  My translation: it's raining ice and it's going to be really scary driving anywhere.  So, I'm at home today.  I thought I'd get some cooking done.  I wanted to share my recipes I'm making today.

First up is homemade granola.  *Caution* This makes a lot.  Like 2 gallons, a lot.  It keeps well as long as it has been thoroughly cooked and dried out.  One batch for our 2-person household lasts about 2 months.  The sweeteners in this is sweetened coconut flakes, dried fruit and honey and that's it!  It's really good mixed in greek yogurt (my favorite) or eaten by itself (hubby's favorite) or eaten like cereal.  Here it is:

Beth's Homemade Granola
1 large container quick 1 minute oats
1 large bag sliced almonds
1 large bag sweetened coconut flakes
3 tablespoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon cloves
2-3 cups water
1 cup honey
1 cup canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large box raisins

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.
In a (very) large bowl mix the dry ingredients (oats through cloves).  Mix until all ingredients are equally distributed.  In a large microwave safe bowl, combine wet ingredients (water through vanilla), but reserve 1 cup water.  Heat for about 2 minutes on high in microwave.  Stir wet ingredients together until well combined.  You will still have oil bubbles, but hopefully small ones.  The honey and water and vanilla should be dissolved together.  Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients.  Mix until entire mixture is damp and sticks together a little.  You may have to use reserved water or a little more to accomplish this.
Here's the long part.  Spread into thin layers in baking dishes; I use 4 13x9 casserole pans.  Be sure to use dishes with about 2 inch high sides.  Bake a half at a time for 2 hours, turning after 1 hour.  (So total baking time is 4 hours.)  Let the oats cool and dry out for at least an hour.  Pour raisins evenly over all the pans.  Transfer into 2 1-gallon containers.  Enjoy!

Some substitutions you could use:  different oil, like sunflower oil; other dried fruit like papaya, pineapples, or dried cherries or a combination; different nuts like pecans or walnuts, or both!

My next recipe is my favorite thing to bring to a party:  salsa!  I'll be bringing some of this batch to our friend's Superbowl Party on Sunday.

Beth's Salsa
1/4 onion, coarsely chopped
1/2 jalepeno, seeds removed, coarsely chopped
handful of cilantro leaves
1 can Rotel (diced tomatoes with chilies), liquid drained
1 can whole tomatoes, liquid drained
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cumin

In a food processor pulse together onion and jalepeno, about 5-6 times.  Add remaining ingredients and mix together until combined to your preferences.  For chunkier salsa, pulse instead.  For more liquid salsa, use liquid from cans.  Makes 1-2 pints.

Enjoy!  Happy cooking!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Castle Peeps Quilt Top

I finished my Castle Peeps Quilt Top!  Here it is!

There's one corner not done, but I'll get that later!  Overall, I still love this fabric.  I probably should have chosen fabric with a smaller print scale so that the patchwork blocks would show better, but now I know for the future.

I now have quite a stack of quilt tops.  At least 5.  I'm not quilting them yet because my mom (who lives in Texas) just got a long arm machine.  Instead of paying rental fees or for quilting by others, I'm going to pay for a plane ticket to go quilt at my mom's house and hang out with her!!  So this won't be totally finished until later in the year.  But I'm okay with that.

What do you think?