Saturday, January 31, 2015

Disappointing Downton


Oh, Downton Abbey, how you make me sad.  Never has a show I loved so much disappointed me so greatly.

After an amazing start and some wonderful ups and downs throughout big moments in history, Downton seems to have lost momentum.  This is in no small part due to the loss of some of the key characters on the show, mainly Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley.  Fans are still lamenting his loss, and it seems that anyone they throw under Mary (Michelle Dockery)'s nose just can't stack up.  We love having a good cry over our favorite characters, and seeing them face insurmountable odds - but yank a beloved character out from under us, and we seethe.

Fans.  We're funny like that.

Season Five sees Downton going through the motions, faced with maintaining its dignity and sense of propriety in a changing world.  The sad fact is, there's a goldmine of story possibilities here that is not being accessed.  I wondered what my trouble with the show was for a long time, and then I discovered it: there is no arc.  Writer Julian Fellowes sets a character up with a subplot that might affect his or her outlook, and then he snaps them back into their personal routine like a rubber band.  Just when I think Mary might stop being bitchy to her only remaining sister, she does something so terribly nasty that I hate her again.  Just when I think Edith might actually get a break, she's screwed again by some horrible misfortune.  (No one has luck that bad without ending up in a mental institution.)  And really, wouldn't someone just tell Mary to shut the hell up when they hear her talking to Edith like that?  Why is everyone on the show so complacent about sheer meanness?

The unfortunate result is a show that seems to go on and on without actually getting anywhere.  If we were even given a glimmer of character progression, I would be far more attached to the show than I currently am.  By the end of an episode, none of the characters seems to have moved forward on his or her personal storyline.  Because of that, they lack depth - a mere caricature of themselves.

Even my remaining favorites can't rescue the writing for me.  I love Carson and Mrs. Hughes.  I love Bates and Anna.  I love the way Isobel and Lady Grantham lock horns.  I even enjoy seeing Thomas show his human side, when he actually shows it.  I still watch, but now, it's out of habit.  That's got to be the saddest reason to keep watching a show ever. I hope, for the many, many fans of this show, that the writing improves and the characters' circumstances deepen.  For now, Fellowes is merely scratching the surface of his cast of amazing talent, and it leaves me sadly lukewarm.

Season Five Rating: 3 of 5 Stars

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Gluten-Free Homemade Pasta (Test #1)

Gluten-Free Pasta? Yes!

Many of you know that my husband has a gluten intolerance, and as a result my family tries to limit our gluten intake.  The Holy Grail of gluten-free foods (at least for me, with a big Italian family) is pasta.  It's one thing on which I hate to compromise.  Since beginning to actively limit the gluten in foods my family eats, I've been searching for a pasta without gluten which comes as close as possible to the homemade pasta on which I grew up.  My mother makes her homemade pasta with all-purpose flour and semolina.  The flour has gluten already.  Durum semolina has lots of gluten.

What Is Gluten?

Google defines gluten as "a substance present in cereal grains, especially wheat, that is responsible for the elastic texture of dough. A mixture of two proteins, it causes illness in people with celiac disease."

The Problem With Gluten-Free

Gluten is the binder that keeps pasta from falling apart when it's boiled.  We've tried all kinds of prepackaged pastas, and so far, the only one we like is Wegmans Gluten-Free Pasta.  It's corn-based, and if you don't care for corn, you may not like it, but it's the most flavorful one we've found.  Trouble is, this pasta cannot be boiled too long, or (you guessed it) it falls apart in the water.  Anything gluten-free just isn't going to have that same binding capability of gluten-containing pastas.  This makes it difficult to use in casseroles or slow-cooked dishes which have lots of liquid present.  As a shortcut, it works fine and fills that need for pasta.  But it's definitely not the same as fresh, homemade pasta!

Testing a Theory

Recently, I discovered Red Mill Gluten-Free 1 to 1 Baking Flour.  On a whim, I picked up a bag, wondering if this might replicate Mom's recipe in a gluten-free form.  It's pricey - make no mistake.  I paid $12 for a five-pound bag ... but think about how many sorghum flour, rice flour, xanthan gum, etc. ingredients you'd need to make your own gluten-free flour.  I was looking for ease of use, and this multi-purpose flour can be used in baking.  I figured, "Baking, okay.  Let's try it for pasta!"

I based this test run on my mom's recipe and some information I'd found in more complicated recipes around the Internet.  Egg yolks, I learned, are key.  There's just not enough protein in a store-bought egg to give the dough its necessary elasticity.  So, based on that, we added yolks to the dough until it felt right.  Here's our test recipe for fresh lasagna sheets!



Gluten-Free Pasta Dough (Test #1)

5 cups Red Mill Gluten-Free 1 to 1 Baking Flour
5 whole extra large eggs
2 extra large egg yolks
5 teaspoons oil
water

Whisk five whole eggs and two yolks together. Add oil and about 1/4 cup water.  In large electric mixer bowl, add flour, and pour in wet ingredients.  Mix with dough hook until ingredients begin to ball together and lift the dry ingredients from the bottom of the bowl.  Add a little water at a time if necessary until dough is a little tacky but not wet.  Use a spatula to push the ingredients down from the sides of the bowl so they mix evenly.

On parchment paper, knead the dough into a ball.  Cut a small chunk and roll out one sheet at a time, as thin as possible.  This dough rolled out to about 1-1/2 millimeters thin before it began to break.  We learned the dough would not take well to working it through a pasta maker, so we rolled it out by hand and cut it by hand.  Flouring the surface of the table made the dough too dry, so we used parchment paper and only floured the rolling pin as needed.  The dough does begin to dry out after working it for a while, so you may want to keep a little water onhand to sprinkle on it if needed.  Keeping the dough a bit tacky helped us work it better.  I would hand-cut noodles rather than trusting them to a pasta machine, where they seem more temperamental.



Cooking Results (Test #1)

We test-boiled a few hand-cut noodles, and boiling them for three minutes seemed to be the magic number.  The noodles were a bit al dente, and salting the water provided some flavor to the dough's blandness.  The dough itself was not at all unpleasant in taste, although I expect flavoring the dough with herbs or some salt would improve the base flavor.

For lasagna, we used uncooked sheets and baked it as normal.  The sheets came out a little chewy, similar to a thin pie crust.  Next time, we'll try boiling them first or drying them a bit before use.  The basic flavor of this dough was excellent in lasagna, where the noodles picked up the flavors of the other ingredients.

We also froze the leftover fresh dough, both in sheet form and in ball form, to see if it can be worked as well after being frozen.  I'll keep you posted on how that works out.  If you alter the recipe and have success, I'd love to hear from you in the comments.  Until then, happy cooking!


Friday, January 23, 2015

Guest Author: J. Arlene Culiner!



Today, I welcome author J. Arlene Culiner, who's here today to talk about her latest contemporary romance, A SWAN'S SWEET SONG, which goes on sale today! Born in New York, raised in Toronto, J. Arlene Culiner has spent most of her life in England, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Hungary and the Sahara. She now resides in a 400-year-old former inn in a French village. Much to everyone's dismay, she protects all living creatures - especially spiders and snakes - and her wild (or wildlife) garden is a classified butterfly and bird reserve. (Way to go, J. Arlene - a woman after my own heart!)

About A SWAN'S SWEET SONG:

The instant Sherry Valentine and Carston Hewlett meet, there's desire and fascination in the air…but they're complete opposites.

Smart-talking Sherry fought her way up from poverty to stardom as a country music singer. Now, she's ever in the limelight, ever surrounded by clamoring fans, male admirers and paparazzi, and her spangled cowboy boots carry her all across the country, from one brightly lit stage to the next.

A renowned but reclusive playwright, Carston cherishes his freedom, the silence of his home in the woods and his solitary country walks. Any long-term commitment is obviously out of the question: how about a quick and passionate fling?

But when their names are linked in the scandal press, Sherry's plans to become an actress are revealed. Is their budding relationship doomed?

An Interview With J. Arlene

1) How did you get started writing?

Like most authors, I've always written. At age twelve, I completed an autobiography: my experiences during the Second World War. Needless to say, as sincere as I was in writing the thing, it was pure fantasy. The war was well over by the time I was born. My mother threw the manuscript away when I was away for the summer.

2) What interests or excites you most about your genre(s)?

When I write Contemporary Romance, I love the feeling of falling in love. When (under another name) I write historical narrative non fiction, the research and travel is thrilling. Don't ask me to choose!

3) Who or what is your favorite inspiration when writing?

Life

4) Tell me about your latest book or work in progress.

In, A Swan's Sweet Song, my hero and heroine are older – in their 50s. I prefer writing about second (or third or forth) chance romances. I find older characters more interesting — they've had more time to acquire experience and wisdom, but they're just as vulnerable when it comes to love. I also like to write about sincere, honest people who are definitely not attracted to designer clothing, money, flashy cars, Botox or all the other trappings of the consumer society.

5) Please share with us the first paragraph of your latest work.

He was going on the air with a singer of country music?

How could these people expect Carston Hewlett, mature, well-known urban playwright, to sit with some prepubescent pop star and chitchat about broken hearts or lonesome cowboys? And why the hell had Nick Spring, his New York agent, sent him all the way out here to Midville, to participate in this so-called Culture Festival? Carston decided he'd strangle Nick as soon as he got within pouncing distance of the guy.


Thanks for visiting with us today! To learn more, you can visit J. Arlene at her website at http://www.j-arleneculiner.com!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Blog-ety, Blog-ety, Blog


Writers are almost universally introverted.  You have to be, to shut yourself in a room with a computer and spin stories for hours at a time and like it.  I can count on one hand the number of authors who've told me, "Yeah, I love getting out and talking in front of people and marketing my books!"  There are some who do.  I am not one of them.

I do, however, love guest blogging.  This year, I am doing a series of guest blogs for various authors who have graciously invited me to come and talk about my books or my personal take on writing, among other things.  (If you want to see where I will be next, check out my Upcoming Events on my website's main page.)  The authors have asked some crazy-cool and insightful questions, and I hope you'll enjoy reading my answers.

I've also opened my blog to guest authors.  If you're a writer (not necessarily of romance only) and you would like to be featured, e-mail me for a guest spot!  I would love to meet you and share your work with my readers.

Carry on, everyone!  Hope you're staying warm.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Goal!


I've had a little lesson in the importance of goals this week.  As you probably know, I'm working on FIRE, Book Four in The Elemental Series, this year.  Each day I write one page, minimum, regardless of what day it is.

Apparently, that goes for allergy days, too.

I get some pretty hardcore seasonal allergy issues, which can, most of the time, be managed with medication.  A couple weeks most every spring and fall, I'm in misery (they've hit rather early this year, which I hope means I can get them over with).  I consider it a godsend when they don't hit.  This week, however, they're beating me to a pulp.  I know it's allergies and not a full-blown infection of some sort, so all I can do is pop the allergy meds and decongestants and play the waiting game.

On the bright side, I'm getting my writing done.  While it's not Shakespeare, the words are there on the page, and it feels good to have accomplished something, even in this state.  I'll stay on target, and with any luck, I will have this book to my editor by the fall.

So, a little rest, a little writing, and a lot of green tea later, I'm still kicking.  Yay to that.  Not so much to the allergies...but I'm not gonna let them beat me.  Keep writing, fellow authors!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

New Year, Fresh Start

Cleaning the Clutter

I spent last weekend cleaning out my office.  I didn't think I had a lot of clutter, but it seems I was sorely mistaken.  I removed over two boxes of papers for shredding, five bags of books for library donation, and a bag of Renaissance Faire garb I never use, which will go to a friend in the SCA.  Even my desk had loads of clutter.  My bookshelf was the worst offender, full of papers that didn't need to be there because I have digital copies, or they were simply not being used.


I even have several writing books to donate to my author friends at this Saturday's CNY Romance Writers meeting.  My office closet now has a floor, too.  Shocking!

What To Toss

My rule of thumb for de-junking is to get rid of anything that has not been used or looked at in a year.  If it's been that long, chances are you're never going to use it again.  A reference book is nice to have, but only if you use it.  Even sentimental items are of no value if they're stuck in a closet.  Everything should have a place.  If there's no place for it, and you can't make one, perhaps someone else can get use out of the item.  The Salvation Army and Rescue Mission are great places to donate those unused items, and you get a tax writeoff for donating.  Win-win!



Clutter in the Digital Age

Clutter can take over your computer, too.  After cleaning the physical funk out of my office, I tackled all those Document and Picture files on my computer.  The same rule of thumb applies: if you haven't made use of the file in over a year (and don't need to archive it for record-keeping reasons), press that Delete key!  You won't miss it, I promise.  After you clear out that computer clutter, do a system disk cleanup and defragment your computer.  It should run faster after your efforts!

What To Keep

If you use it and have a place to store it neatly, keep it...but only if you have a place for it!  Labeled boxes are terrific for this.  Then you know where to look if you're in need of something, rather than buying more of it because you can't find where you stashed it.  I use anything from old shoeboxes to crates for this purpose.

A Job Well Done

Winter is a perfect time for indoor de-junking.  Clearing out clutter is beneficial to you - satisfying, as well as improving your productivity - and to others, who'll benefit from your unwanted items.  You might find yourself wanting to tackle the rest of the house, but I suggest doing one room at a time to make it less of a chore.  Put on some good music and freshen the air with candles or incense while you work.  You'll be surprised at how much weight is lifted off of you when you free up that space.  Happy cleaning!



Thursday, January 01, 2015

Happy 2015!



Happy New Year to friends and family near and far! I hope your 2014 was wonderful, and that your 2015 is even better.

Last year was incredibly busy and fulfilling for me on the writing front, with two books out (HEAVY NETTING and FLASHPOINT) and more calendar appearances than I think I have ever done!

What can you expect from me this year? More busy-ness! I will be releasing AIR, Book Three in the Elemental Series, and I'm working hard on FIRE, Book Four in that series, which is aimed for a tentative 2016 release.

In the meantime, I'll pause for a deep breath to reflect on one of my favorite years and all that happened. It's been a thrilling ride, and I have loved every minute of it. I look forward to what 2015 may bring, and I'll be glad to have you join me. Cheers!