Tuesday, August 9, 2011

One Summer

     I've recently rediscovered our local library, thanks to all the papers I had to write for my English class last semester. I was particularly delighted to find out that part of the fiction section features newly released books. Most of the popular titles are included, and I was ecstatic to find a couple of my favorite authors among them. Thus I was able to read "One Summer", a heartwarming must read from David Baldacci.

     David Baldacci first came to my attention as a spy thriller author, dealing with black ops and intrigues mostly in the world of espionage and counter intelligence. Think James Bond, Jason Bourne and the like. Being a great fan already of his books in this genre, I was surprised to see this book that was definitely different. Out of curiosity, I decided to give it a try.

     The novel revolves around the Armstrong family as they try to pick up the pieces after the devastating loss of Lizzie Armstrong, mother of three and wife to Jack Armstrong. Jack, who is diagnosed with a terminal illness, is thought to be the one to die first. But in a twist of fate, Lizzie dies in a car accident. The children are split up to live with various relatives, while Jack is put in hospice care to wait for his final hours. Miraculously though, he recovers with no trace of the illness that supposedly leaves no survivors until now. This starts the family's journey of finding peace and togetherness again after getting past all the anger and grieving they go through at first.

     I managed to finish the book in one afternoon, and I have to admit I had a box of tissues next to me the whole time. I confess to being one of those people who cry at sad and sappy tv shows, movies and books. This book definitely belongs in this category, along the lines of book adaptations I would expect to see on the Hallmark Movie channel. It was a good novel to read on a lazy afternoon, a nice break from my usual murder mysteries and spy thrillers. In comparison to Baldacci's other books though, I have to say that I prefer his thrillers to this one. It was a good effort, the writing was solid and hooked you right in. I just found it a little hard to believe some parts of the story, some of the actions of some of the characters. They help heighten the drama that takes place for sure, but a closer look makes the reader feel puzzled at how it makes sense. An example is Jack's mother in law Bonnie, who I guess is the main villain.  Her actions for most of the story show her to be angry and spiteful towards Jack. Then at the end she says that she really does love her son in law and harbors no ill feelings. I'm like, what? I guess grief can really make people act in an illogical manner. Another thing I noticed was Baldacci's use of a particular story devise that reminded me of another novel which, coincidentally, also had a character's death as the jumping off point of the plot. The "dying man's letters to his beloved wife" concept is given a different spin in "One Summer", but I didn't really think they added much storywise.  Their value perhaps lie more in their dramatic effect.

     Overall I do recommend including "One Summer" in your reading list. A nice family drama to while away a hot summer day. Don't forget the tissues.

© Margj Castillo, In Review, 2010 - Present.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

P. F. Chang's

     For my birthday this year, I was treated to lunch by hubby at P. F. Chang's.  I'd heard about this restaurant before and knew there was one in the city.  Good thing though there also happens to be one on Long Island, in Westbury. It's located at The Source, a mall that used to house Fortunoff department store.

     The P. F. Chang's in Westbury, NY is a good sized restaurant that gives off a cozy vibe that feels intimate in a spacious environment.  There are two entrances, the main one in front facing the street and a kind of back entrance coming in from the mall.   Coming in from the main entrance we were greeted with the usual hostess podium in front of a glass divider.  As we walked past this area we come upon the bar followed by a wood divider that separated it from the main dining area.  The entire restaurant is done in dark paneling, with soft overhead and wall lighting.  There are booths lining the walls on two sides, separate tables in the center between the bar and the kitchen.  The kitchen is partly visible from the dining area, but not enough to be able to see your food being actually prepared.  In keeping with the Chinese theme, decor is mostly of the faux terracotta soldiers and horses type.  The most noticeable of these are the two gigantic (no other word can describe them) horses that flank the divider between the bar and the main dining area.  They were so huge they looked more like elephants.  I found myself imagining bringing one home and putting it on the front lawn, hehehe.
     The menu offered a good sized selection of appetizers, entrees, desserts and drinks.  For starters Jojo ordered the Steamed Pork Dumplings.  These are six pieces per order with an accompanying dipping sauce of soy sauce and chili oil.  Reminiscent of siu mai, these were very tasty and we could've each eaten a dozen of them easily.  But we restrained ourselves enough to order entrees.  Jojo, as per usual, ordered Chicken Lo Mein and Chang's Spicy Chicken, which is their version of General Cho's Chicken.  I was torn between getting the Cantonese Scallops and the VIP Duck.  I was remembering the Pecking duck I'd tasted back in Hong Kong that was utterly delicious.  But I was watching my cholesterol and decided to be a good girl.  So Cantonese Scallops it was.  I also ordered a side of Spinach Stir-fried with Garlic.  The serving sizes were not humongous as per the usual in most restaurants but were good enough for the two of us.  Jojo was actually thinking the noodles might not be enough for the two of us but we really got our fill from everything we ordered and even had to doggy bag some of the food.  I loved everything we ordered, except for the scallops.  I guess they were aiming for subtle seasoning, maybe in the hope of letting the natural flavor of the scallops come through.  Unfortunately, for me, that didn't happen.  Instead I got a rather bland dish that left me deeply regretting passing on the duck.  The only good thing about that dish were the snow peas which were perfectly done.  Happily, that was the only disappointment.  The Lo Mein was very flavorful without the usual greasiness of this noodle dish.  I loved their version of General Cho's chicken, which was tender and not overly breaded, unlike the usual take out version.  The side dish of spinach really was garlicky as advertised, just the way I like garlic dishes to be.  To round out our meal we ordered The Great Wall of Chocolate for dessert.  This is a huge slice of six layers of rich chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache, served with sliced strawberries, blueberries and peaches in raspberry sauce.  Being chocoholics, it was a natural choice for hubby and me.  And boy was it heavenly!  The combination of the rich chocolatiness of the cake and the fruits and raspberry sauce were perfection.  The only thing missing was coffee but I decided to pass on it since I was already near to bursting by this time.

     With regards to service, I was quite satisfied.  I don't know if it was due to the restaurant not being busy when we were there, but our server was attentive and quite prompt.  I liked that we didn't have to call attention to our drinks when we needed refills. When we asked to have some of the extra food doggy bagged, I was pleasantly surprised when our server did it for us.  Usually these days, they just bring you the containers and bag and you have to pack the food yourself.  Our server even folded the paper bag in such a way that made sure it wasn't going to spill open.  Just a little thing but it was nice to have that kind of service.

     Overall I definitely enjoyed our first time at P. F. Chang's.  And I'm glad to know that the next time I'm craving Chinese food I won't have to go to the city.  So, any one up for some Chinese?

© Margj Castillo, In Review, 2010 - Present.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Boulder Creek Steakhouse

     When craving a steak with all the usual trimmings, one of the places we like to go to is Boulder Creek Steakhouse. A pretty straight forward looking establishment along Hempstead Turnpike in Franklin Square, NY, it's like an Outback Steakhouse that's a little rougher around the edges (in a good way of course).

     When you walk in, you're immediately greeted by this glass enclosed square fire place in the middle of the reception area. I've never seen this fireplace actually going, but then again we haven't been there during the winter season. Off to the side of this fireplace, towards the right is a small alcove serving as the seating area. It has simple cushioned benches lining the walls that are adorned with some rustic decor pieces. Opposite the waiting area is the bar with the usual accoutrements, including large flat screen tvs strategically arranged for the various patrons to watch whatever channel(s) they may be tuned to. For some reason, I find that these tvs are almost always tuned in to sports channels, regardless what restaurant it is. The rest of the restaurant is divided into various sized booths with a few tables scattered here and there. I have to say I like that they have more booths than tables since I prefer to be enclosed in one rather than be in the more open table set up. All along the walls you'll see old signages that appear to be from old ranches or mines, or advertising various items dating from gold rush days. There are also various implements used in mining like pick axes and the like. Nothing fancy, and interesting enough to keep you entertained for a bit while you wait for your food.

     The menu itself is typical steakhouse fare with prices in the mid range level. Their prices have actually gone up a bit in the past year but are still reasonable enough for the quality and quantity. There are the usual selections for entrees (steaks, chicken, seafood), sides, soups, sandwiches, beverages and desserts. They also have a kiddie menu featuring the usual mac n' cheese, chicken fingers and fries among other things. My husband, typical of the male species, likes meat. So he always orders, without fail, the biggest steak available. This would be the 20 oz porterhouse. He likes it medium well, with a side of garlic mashed potatoes. This steak is huge, and comes to your table sizzling on a hot plate. For its size, it comes done as you ordered it which I like because no one wants their steak under or overdone. It's also very flavorful, having just the right amount of seasoning with just enough fat still on it to give it that extra oomph. Eating this steak might make your cardiologist have palpitations but it just tastes good so what the heck! Their garlic mashed potatoes aren't that creamy or smooth, you'd still feel some teeny tiny lumps in there. But I don't mind, for me the texture is just fine and the flavor is spot on.

     Aside from the steaks other items on the menu that we've tried are the buffalo wings (my favorite), french onion soup, and crispy fried calamari. The buffalo wings can be ordered either mild or hot and comes with the usual blue cheese dip and celery sticks. Although it's an appetizer I've ordered this as my main course and the amount of wings was just right. The french onion soup comes in either a cup or bowl, quite tasty and is my husband's favorite. And we both love having calamari, which used to come in these really big rings of fried squid goodness and marinara dip on the side. For some reason though, when we last ate there, the squid seem to have shrunk in size along with the amount you get in one serving. Guess this particular appetizer is a victim of the recession? Thankfully, despite the 'shrinkage', it remains as yummy as ever.

     So if any of you happen to be in this area and you're in the mood for some hearty food and good drinks, head on in to Boulder Creek Steakhouse for a flavorful meal with good value for your money.

© Margj Castillo, In Review, 2010 - Present.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Step Up 3

     The third in the Step Up franchise, this promised to be the biggest and baddest of all. Slicker moves, more foot stomping beats, and the added innovation of being shown in 3D. After having seen it (admittedly, only on DVD), I must say in some ways it delivered, in some ways it didn't.

     For those of you not familiar with the preceding Step Up movies, it's basically all about a young guy passionate about dancing who gets drawn into the world of dance battles. Not having actually witnessed one myself, I'm not so sure if such dance battles do exist in real life. Said young man pursues his passion for dancing while trying to balance the other things going on in his life such as school, a job, disapproving parents. Of course there is the romance angle that no movie seems to ever be without. And there is also the baddie, a rival dancer with his own crew who wants to out dance our hero and keep him from realizing his dreams and getting the girl. Of course, this being a dance movie, a whole lot of dancing goes on in between scenes where there are dramatic moments or romantic highlights. In the end, all's well that ends well and our hero gets to dance into the sunset with the girl.

     This latest incarnation of Step Up is no exception to the formula, and there are no surprises as you watch the progression of the story. If you were hoping for a great story line that would really hook you in and keep you glued to your seats, forget about it. But if you watch this expecting to be wowed by some of the sickest dance moves ever, then sit back and relax. This movie delivers on its promise when it comes to that.
Granted that stunt doubles were used in some of the routines (like the parkour and capoeira sequences), most of the dancing here was done by the actual actors/dancers themselves. That in itself just amazes me. I don't know much about dancing and I usually have two left feet. But I do love to watch others bust a move and boy did these people do it and how. The choreographers for this sequel put together routines that incorporated a lot of different elements, a lot of different styles. So you don't get to see just the usual hiphop and breakdancing moves. Some of the things they did here makes you wonder, how on earth did they do that? It kinda made me understand why they would show this movie in 3D.

     There were some characters and sequences in the movie that I particularly loved. One of these is Vladd (Chadd Smith), the robot master. What he does is not your usual run of the mill robot moves like they did in the 60s. To say that he moves like he's a real robot would be a gross understatement. You just have to see him to understand. I also found it so very cute that they had a few kids in this movie who also showed the grown ups a thing or two about dancing. Talk about future talent, we got a preview right there. And lastly, although it was kinda cheesy, I found the Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and Camille (Alyson Stoner) dance sequence cute. I can't say that it fit really well in the movie, but that particular sequence reminded me so much of all those old musicals starring the likes of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Not that the Moose and Camille sequence can hold a candle to anything by these legends. But it captured the spirit of those classic musicals, for which I give a kudos to the writers or directors or whoever it was responsible for including it in the movie.

     All in all I would say this movie lives up to its genre and makes for an entertaining movie. Whether you love to dance, can actually dance or just love seeing other people get their groove on, this is one movie you might want to see.

© Margj Castillo, In Review, 2010 - Present.

Side Comment

     I know I started this blog out as a "review " of books. But then again, with all the different things out there that I'm interested in, I thought why limit myself to just books? So as a way to include everything that catches my attention, I've decided to reinvent this blog into a kind of smorgasbord commentary, if you will. A kind of eclectic review of whatever gets caught in my radar that inspires me to write. This can turn into a very mixed bag of odds and ends, but I think that kinda makes it a little more exciting. Don't you think?

© Margj Castillo, In Review, 2010 - Present.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Crepes of Wrath

     Murder mysteries and food are two things that have evolved into a tasty combination in this particular genre of fiction. Not that it's the first of its kind I think, but I have to say that among the authors out there, Tamar Myers is one of the best of the bunch.

     The main character, Magdalena Portulaca Yoder, is a Mennonite woman with Amish ancestry. How's that for a potent mix in one's heritage. In this, the ninth of Ms. Myers' Pennsylvania Dutch mysteries, Ms. Yoder yet again manages to get involved in solving the murder of one of the members of their very close knit community. And when I say close knit I mean they're bound by blood and not just by social ties. Though not a member of law enforcement or trained in any way to do detective work, Magdalena does manage to solve the case. There is the usual getting into danger right before the murderer either confesses or tries to get away. This kind of scenario can tend to get rather dull and hohum after reading so many novels of this kind, but the way Tamar Myers goes about telling the whole tale makes it so entertaining.

     What initially drew me to this series is the way the titles were made. I love any play on words like puns or parodies. Each title of the Penn Dutch series is a pun or parody of a well known title of a movie, book or play. The other thing was that each title also relates to cooking, to food. Now I know there are other series out there with the same combination, but somehow this one really appealed to me. The way the characters are drawn, the interactions between them, show (for me) such silly wit and humor that I can't help but laugh while I'm reading. Magdalena's quips that her fellow Amish and Mennonite find so bewildering make for some hilarious dialogue. Myers pokes fun at the community and culture, but not to the point of being irreverent or insulting. In a way, she invites you to take a peek at what it's like to live in such a society from an insider's point of view.

     Though admittedly not in the league of Doyle or Christie, Myers' Penn Dutch series makes for an enjoyable (and tasty, if you are ever inspired to try the included recipes) way to pass an afternoon.

© Margj Castillo, In Review, 2010 - Present.