the real boy

Friday, November 29, 2013 | | 2 comments
I broke my ankle this past weekend playing touch football.  Yes, you read that right. TOUCH.  Football.  (also, complete fracture of the fibula!) I’ve always been a bit of a walking time bomb, but this is special, even for me.  The silver lining to being injured and having to ice and elevate my injured limb all day long?  Reading time opened up on my calendar like magic.  And since it was (over)due at the library, I picked up Anne Ursu's The Real Boy first.  It turned out to be a charming fable about magic, choices and human character.

the real boy by anne ursu book cover
On an island on the edge of an immense sea there is a city, a forest, and a boy. The city is called Asteri, a perfect city that was saved by the magic woven into its walls from a devastating plague that swept through the world over a hundred years before. The forest is called the Barrow, a vast wood of ancient trees that encircles the city and feeds the earth with magic. And the boy is called Oscar, a shop boy for the most powerful magician in the Barrow. Oscar spends his days in a small room in the dark cellar of his master's shop, grinding herbs and dreaming of the wizards who once lived on the island generations ago. Oscar's world is small, but he likes it that way. The real world is vast, strange, and unpredictable. And Oscar does not quite fit in it.

But it's been a long time since anyone who could call himself a wizard walked the world, and now that world is changing. Children in the city are falling ill, and something sinister lurks in the forest. Oscar has long been content to stay in his small room in the cellar, comforted in the knowledge that the magic that flows from the trees will keep his island safe. Now, even magic may not be enough to save it.

Oscar is the hand of the last magician in the world.  A hand in Barrow terms is the person who does the menial tasks that an apprentice can’t be bothered to complete.  And Oscar is content with his place and his fate – he’s an orphan, after all, and feels most comfortable working with plants and talking to the cats that live in the cellar of Master Caleb’s shop.  He’s safe, useful, and can sneak away to read in the library in the middle of the night.  However, events conspire to thrust Oscar out into the world outside of his cellar, and he must deal with customers, with a strange sickness that affects only children, and with the most surprising thing of all – a friend.  In doing so, Oscar will learn about the magic and history of his land, and what his future holds.

Oscar lives in a very limited world - mostly in the cellar of a shop.  When he's not in the cellar, he sometimes ventures to the forest to gather plants, and rarely out into the marketplace.  The narrative was pretty clear in suggesting that Oscar had agoraphobic or OCD tendencies, or possibly that he registered somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum.  What did that mean for Oscar as a character?  It meant that decoding gray areas and human interaction were hard for him.  And since the reader experienced the story from his perspective, much of it was hazy, vague, or simply unexplained.  This added atmosphere and sincerity to Oscar's story, but it did not forward the world-building - and that is a hard bargain to make in the world of fantasy fiction.

Speaking of the world-building, what there was of it was well-done.  When Ursu meandered out of fable-land and into reality, she described a world that was interesting and flawed, peopled with conflicted citizens and magic users.  Ursu's plot played with a well-known fairy tale, but I was most intrigued by the details of the Wizard Trees, the plaguelands, Asteri (the city walled by magic), and the 'shining people' who resided in that city.  In addition, the prose was quiet without being boring, and encompassed Oscar's narrow world and its truths while also describing the confusing complexity of humanity.  And let's not forget Erin McGuire's illustrations!  She made Oscar's experiences come to life.

As I mentioned above, my chief reservation was related to the vague, slightly unfinished feel of the story.  It had the distance of a parable or allegory, no matter how vivid Oscar and Callie's interactions and arguments were.  I wondered at points if I was missing the grand metaphor.  Was Asteri meant to symbolize religion?  Capitalism?  I worried that I didn't get it.  Now I wonder if I was overthinking it all?  Perhaps younger readers would understand and accept the small gaps I noticed.  I couldn't, but The Real Boy was still a beautiful, albeit perplexing, read.

Recommended for: fans of fairy tale retellings and fables, and those who like quiet fantasies that focus on character and a quest for truth.

waiting on wednesday (68)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Sometimes new authors impress me so much with their debut that I become a fan for life.  I called Merrie Haskell's The Princess Curse "a must-read for anyone with a bent towards fairy tale or historical fiction," and I've anxiously awaited news of her forthcoming books ever since.  I'm reading 2013 release Handbook for Dragon Slayers for the CYBILS, but Haskell has another book on the horizon already, and it got a blurb from Robin McKinley.  WHO IS ONLY ONE OF MY FAVORITE LIVING AUTHORS EVER.  Needless to say, I'm excited and happy and extremely impatient to get my hands on it.  Merrie Haskell's The Castle Behind Thorns will be released by Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins) on May 27, 2014.

the castle behind thorns by merrie haskell book cover
When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside-from dishes to candles to apples-torn in half or slashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that prevents Sand from leaving. Why wasn't this in the stories?

To survive, Sand does what he knows best-he fires up the castle's forge to mend what he needs to live. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending, granted by the saints who once guarded this place?

Unexpectedly, Sand finds the lost heir, Perrotte, a girl who shares the castle's astonishing secrets and dark history. Putting together the pieces-of stone and iron, and of a broken life-is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it's the only way to gain their freedom, even with the help of the guardian saints.

With gorgeous language and breathtaking magic, Merrie Haskell's The Castle Behind Thorns tells of the power of memory and story, forgiveness and strength, and the true gifts of craft and imagination.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten things i'm thankful for

Tuesday, November 26, 2013 | | 8 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten things i'm thankful for

This week’s assigned topic is a familiar one on social media – things we’re thankful for, right around Thanksgiving time.  Most of the items on my list are book- or blog-related, but from there it goes on to general living (well, reading IS a part of my real world…).  I know how blessed I am, but this is a great opportunity to put it into words and realize the wonderful reality all over again.

Top Ten Things I’m Thankful For

1. Generosity of friends and blogging buddies – My sister Virginia (Ginny) teaches 9th grade English in Washington State.  When her classroom library was decimated by flooding, I wrote a post about it.  Several people responded with recommendations, and a few sent their own books to fill the gap.  It made all the difference!  Ginny’s students again have a great selection of YA fiction to choose from for self-directed reading.

2. Resources so that I could contribute to Ginny’s classroom library, too – I’m so thankful that I was able to buy a selection of the suggested titles for Ginny’s collection!  Thankful for a steady job and the chance to help out.  Thankful for used books for sale online, too! It is great to know that I could help, even from afar.

3. CYBILS award reading list – I needed a reading challenge that would get me excited about great books and give me deadlines to meet.  Participating in a CYBILS first round panel is introducing me to new and wonderful books!

4. CYBILS co-panelists – My lovely co-panelists in Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction share great insights about the books they’re reading, In addition, their dedication and drive inspire me to read more, faster, and better.

5. Well-stocked local library – Speaking of the CYBILS, there’s no way I could make all of the reading work if I didn’t have access to a wonderful library system.  Arlington County Library, I’m looking at you!

6. Weekend Cooking memeBeth Fish Reads hosts a weekly feature on Saturdays and Sundays that celebrates recipes, cookbooks, and anything vaguely food-related.  Semi-regular participation helps me keep things fresh, and ensures that my mother sometimes visits my blog (she’s not a reader!).

7. Holidays that revolve around food – Thanksgiving is the first thought, of course, but in my family Christmas runs a close second.  I love holidays that involve the family cooking and coming together around a table.  You can talk, bond and nourish the body at the same time – perfection!

8. Friends (who step in to help when you sprain your ankle) – I had a mishap this weekend and sprained my ankle.  My friends are setting the ibuprofen by my water glass, buying groceries, taking me to the library, and generally being helpful, wonderful people.  I’m lucky!

9. Family – I can’t stress enough how much the support and love of my family means to me.  They talk me through difficult times, provide a place to just be, and inspire me with their energy and ability.  Are we even related?!

10. The freaking internet – I love it.  Where else can I access cat content, sarcastic twitter feeds, parody music videos, and online shop for all of my holiday gifts?  Oh, and blog and connect with wonderful, nerdy people like you.  That’s right.  I’m thankful for you.

What are you thankful for this holiday season?

middle grade sci-fi & fantasy mini reviews

The past couple of years have reawakened my interest in middle grade books, and especially middle grade sci-fi and fantasy.  Still, I didn’t have a real grasp on just how many books were being published in the niche each year.  Spoiler alert: there are a LOT.  Middle grade (for readers ages 8-12) is flourishing.  As a CYBILS judge for middle grade speculative fiction, I am reading some great books, and the mini-reviews below feature three that I found entertaining. 

flora and ulysses by kate dicamillo book cover
Holy unanticipated occurrences! A cynic meets an unlikely superhero in a genre-breaking new novel by master storyteller Kate DiCamillo. It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry—and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart. From #1 New York Times best-selling author Kate DiCamillo comes a laugh-out-loud story filled with eccentric, endearing characters and featuring an exciting new format—a novel interspersed with comic-style graphic sequences and full-page illustrations, all rendered in black-and-white by up-and-coming artist K.G. Campbell.

Flora & Ulysses is the story of an extraordinary squirrel (Ulysses), a youthful cynic (Flora), and their comic book-inspired adventures.  A rather extraordinary chain of events transformed an average squirrel into a flying, poetry-typing, super-strong wonder.  Even Flora, who looks for cracks in logic and is always prepared for the worst, believes that Ulysses is special.  But every superhero has an arch-nemesis, and Flora and Ulysses must navigate obstacles, relationships, and anti-squirrel elements to eventually save the day.  K.G. Campbell’s illustrations make this hilarious and clever story come to life, and its sly humor will make readers of all ages smile.

Recommended for: young (and old!) fans of comics and superheros, those who have loved Kate DiCamillo’s previous books, and readers interested in magnificent squirrels, delicious words and wonderful surprises.

the adventures of a south pole pig by chris kurtz book cover
Flora the pig was born for adventure: “If it’s unexplored and needs to get dug up, call me. I’m your pig,” she says. The day Flora spots a team of sled dogs is the day she sets her heart on becoming a sled pig. Before she knows it, she’s on board a ship to Antarctica for the most exhilarating—and dangerous—adventure of her life. This poignant novel of a purposeful pig is sure to become a favorite with any young readers who have ever dreamed of exploring the great beyond.

Chris Kurtz's The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A novel of snow and courage is the story of Flora, an unusual piglet with an even more unlikely goal - to pull a sled, alongside dogs.  When Flora boards a trip to Antarctica, she believes she's finally on her way.  Unfortunately, not everyone is on the same page.  Flora's story is one of bravery, friendship, and unlikely partnerships that will end up inspiring and changing each person (and animal!) they touch.  It's a cute, idealistic, and sweet 'talking animal' story that will appeal to young readers and their parents.

Recommended for: fans of Charlotte's Web and the The Tale of Despereuax, and anyone who needs a reminder that courage and kindness are skills you can practice and perfect.

fortunately the milk by neil gaiman book cover
"I bought the milk," said my father. "I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: T h u m m t h u m m. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road."

"Hullo," I said to myself. "That's not something you see every day. And then something odd happened."

Find out just how odd things get in this hilarious story of time travel and breakfast cereal, expertly told by Newbery Medalist and bestselling author Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Skottie Young.

Neil Gaiman’s middle grade novel Fortunately, the Milk is a brief yarn of the rip-roaring variety, with mad-cap adventure, strange encounters and space-time jumps.  It’s a sweet meditation on fathers and children and the stories that make up a family history.  It’s also beautifully illustrated by Skottie Young, far-fetched-but-charming in content and composition, and a great length (short!) for reluctant readers. 

Recommended for: kids who haven’t outgrown illustrated stories, the adult who hasn’t outgrown his/her childhood imagination, and Neil Gaiman superfans.

golden raisin and walnut cookies

I think there are two types of cookie-lovers in the world: those who like raisins, and those who don’t.  My sister does NOT like raisins, so I spent most of my childhood learning to bake things without raisins (my grandfather’s famous Oatmeal Molasses Cookie recipe excepted!) to accommodate her.  Once something becomes a habit, it’s hard to break.  But back to raisins!  I bought a box of the golden variety a while ago for barmbrack, and I’ve been wondering what to do with the rest.  When I found this recipe, I knew it had a good chance of success… and indeed, the cookies are delicious, buttery wonders.


Golden Raisin and Walnut Cookies (from a Bon Appétit recipe)

INGREDIENTS

1 1/3 cups golden raisins
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (1 3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup (packed) brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups walnuts, chopped


DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray two baking sheets with baking spray. Soak raisins in enough hot water to cover until soft, about 15 minutes. Drain; set aside. Roast the walnuts in a cake pan for 5-8 minutes in the oven, then cool in separate dish (if desired).

Mix flour, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Beat butter and both sugars in another large bowl until light and fluffy (to do this without a stand mixer, make sure butter is room temperature – malleable – and beat with hand mixer. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla. Add dry ingredients; mix just until blended. Fold in nuts and raisins.


Using palms of hands, roll dough into 3/4-inch balls. Arrange on baking sheets, spacing evenly. Bake until cookies are golden brown, about 12 minutes. Transfer cookies to racks; cool completely.

Note: The recipe says to roll the dough into balls, but I found that this only worked after I'd chilled the dough in the fridge overnight.  When I first made it, the cookie batter was a little too sticky, and the cookies were more of the 'drop from spoon onto pan' variety.  They turn out the same regardless.  Expect thin cookies with crispy edges.  Oh!  And I found I got a more uniform result when I switched racks halfway through.



Recommended for: fans of raisins and nuts, and anyone who likes a buttery cookie to go with their morning (or afternoon, or evening!) coffee.

Interested in other food-related post?  Check out Beth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking!

waiting on wednesday (67)

Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones (author of The House of Many Ways, Eight Days of Luke, Enchanted Glass and more) passed away in 2011, but she apparently had one manuscript almost finished.  Her sister Ursula Jones has completed it, so all of DWJ's fans will get to experience one more fantastic and whimsical adventure from one of the best.  The Islands of Chaldea will be released by Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins) on April 22, 2014.

the islands of chaldea by diana wynne jones and ursula jones book cover
Aileen comes from a long line of magic makers, and her Aunt Beck is the most powerful magician on Skarr. But Aileen's magic has yet to reveal itself, even though she is old enough and it should have, by now. When Aileen is sent over the sea on a mission for the King, she worries that she'll be useless and in the way. A powerful (but mostly invisible) cat changes all of that-and with every obstacle Aileen faces, she becomes stronger and more confident, until her magic blooms. This stand-alone novel, by the beloved and acclaimed author of such classic fantasy novels as Howl's Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci books, will be welcomed by fans old and new.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten books i’d recommend to fans of divergent and the hunger games

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 | | 15 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

Friends and coworkers who blazed through The Hunger Games and Divergent series (even if they don’t usually read young adult fiction!) sometimes ask me what they should next.  I haven’t had a standard answer…until today.   This list was inspired by my coworker Liz, who has picked up each book I’ve suggested so far.  Thanks Liz!  You’re great for my ego.  Enjoy these books and series (series are all complete – I wouldn’t torture you like that!).

Top Ten Books I’d Recommend to Fans of Divergent and The Hunger Games


1. The Goblin Wars series by Kersten Hamilton – This dark fantasy trilogy based on Irish myth starts with Tyger Tyger (which I kind of adored).  I told Liz about when it was available for free, and she’s already finished book #3.  Proven winner!

2. Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness – Oh dear goodness, The Knife of Letting Go!  It tore emotion right out of me, but it was so, so good.  And scary.  Yep, as long as readers push past Todd’s vernacular a bit, they’ll get used to it and catch the amazing rhythm of the story.

3. Benny Imura series by Jonathan MaberryRot & Ruin is a different kind of zombie novel – in that it’s not ALL scares.  There’s lots of growing up, angst, and beautiful writing mixed in there, too.  It’s survival and brothers and a crazy, messed up town.  Oh yes, and zombies.

4. Curse Workers series by Holly Black – Black is genius.  And she wrote a series of perfect con books… for young adults.  With magic, the mob, and everything in between.  White Cat rocked it, and Red Glove was pretty amazing too.  Just thinking about Cassel and Black’s slick writing makes me want to go back and fall for it all over again.

5. Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore – This series might be too much ‘epic fantasy’ for fans of the dystopian rank and file, except for one thing: Katsa.  She’s just as unflinching and unstoppable as Katniss, and Graceling is her story.  The following books in the series are companion novels, not direct sequels.


6. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – What if there’s a very dangerous path just on the other side of a door you've never noticed before?  What if every step along that path takes you deeper into nothingness?  What if you met legends?  Gaiman immortalizes London and writes a gripping adventure story all in one go with Neverwhere.

7. Book of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau – Dystopian adventure, mystery and escape abound in The City of Ember.  It's the perfect read for Hunger Games fans all ages (but especially those on the younger side of things).

8. Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld – Steampunk reimagining of WWI?  Doesn’t sound much like the plot of The Hunger Games or Divergent, I know.  However, Westerfeld writes non-stop action with convincing characters and plenty of dangerous missions – and he makes you believe in the unbelievable settings.  Leviathan is just the first in a fantastic trilogy – every book is better than the one before!

9. Abhorsen series by Garth NixSabriel was the start of a harrowing journey through the Old Country and Death to put things back to rights.  The series continued from there with Lirael’s generation.  Nix has written a fate-of-the-world-on-her-shoulders story believably.  All of the books kind of melt my brain with their awesomesauce.

10. Unwind by Neal Shusterman – Okay, I lied about all of the series I mentioned being completed.  But really, if you’re brave enough to keep reading after this one, props to you and your heart could probably use an adrenaline break before you try to find the second, third and fourth title (it’s up to 4 books now?!).  Shusterman wrote a truly terrifying future that creeped me out more than The Hunger Games.

Do you have any suggestions for the list?  Let me know!

shadows

Monday, November 18, 2013 | | 1 comments
There have been few constants in reading life.  I spent my high school years reading almost exclusively classics, college was a mash-up of fantasy and Spanish literature, and grad school was a haze of academic history.  Now I’m in the land of middle grade, young adult, and science fiction and fantasy.  One anchor amidst all the change?  Robin McKinley.  She writes books that speak to the reader, the adventurer, the girl-who-wishes-she-was-brave in me.  Her latest release is standalone fantasy Shadows.

shadows by robin mckinley book cover
Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. Val is from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and he won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But—more importantly—what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows following him around? Magic is illegal in Newworld, which is all about science. The magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago, back when Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago. 

Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know…until earth-shattering events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage. 

In this dangerously unstable world, neither science nor magic has the necessary answers, but a truce between them is impossible. And although the two are supposed to be incompatible, Maggie’s discovering the world will need both to survive.

Maggie is going through a rough patch.  Her senior year is about to begin, and she’s looking forward to the school year (despite the dreaded Algebra class), because it means she won’t have to pretend to like (or attempt to avoid) her new stepfather, Val, for several hours of the day.  Val creeps Maggie out.  Perhaps because he’s from Oldworld, where they still have magic.  Or perhaps it’s the shadows – ones that shouldn’t be there at all.  When beautiful new guy Casimir shows up and knows Val by name and as a magician, it seems like the first of many coincidences that are just waiting to turn a flammable situation truly dangerous.  Maggie will have to learn her strengths, identify her allies, and brace for chaos, lest it carry her and those she cares about into the void.

When I mentioned Shadows in a Waiting on Wednesday post back at the beginning of the summer, I mistakenly called it urban fantasy.  It’s more like suburban fantasy (ha! i crack myself up).  What I mean is, yes, it’s contemporary-ish, but no, the story isn’t dependent on the character and characteristics of big city life.  This book could be set in any town in America (or Newworld, as McKinley calls it).  If I had to label it, I’d call it an alternate world contemporary fantasy.

One of the ‘alternate world’ things about the book is obviously the magic, and in Newworld’s case, the intentional absence of magic.  Others are the different history, the that’s-not-a-real-place names, and the vernacular. That last element is really where I felt the writing was weakest.  McKinley keeps actual swearing at a minimum, but the euphemisms are at max limits.  Even though the pacing is great and the internal dialogue was fine, the invented slang lowered quality of the reading experience.  If I’m trying to puzzle out what ‘dreeping’ means in context (i assume bad, but how bad? boring? or majorly terrible? you see how it goes), I’m not paying as much attention to subtle character dynamics and action.  And lest anyone think me unfair to the wholly different LANGUAGE usage – I liked the inclusion of Japanese!  I really did.  It was just the off-ness of the regular, English-language slang that killed my enthusiasm.

My other minor quibble with the story was the wide character focus.  For a young adult first-person narrative, there was a lot of time spent on the adults of the story and their problems.  Which: valid.  Adults should be allowed to have real lives and worries too, even in teen books.  But perhaps because there were so many adults (as opposed to a primarily teenage cast), it felt like the book could have easily fit in the adult SFF category.

Now that the complaint section is out of the way, I’ll get on with how much I like McKinley and her writing, okay?  She does a spectacular job getting inside the heads of unconventional heroines with unusual interests.  Maggie has a small, close-knit group of friends, but her main interests are animals (she works at a shelter) and origami.  She’s not sure yet what she wants to do with her life.  Magical chaos seems to want very hard to break out all around her, and Maggie’s responses are perhaps a little… odd.  But you know, she makes sense.  McKinley has created a rounded character with all of the little flaws that make us human, and has placed her in a real family, in a real world.  It’s the sort of story that feels immediate and possible, despite a fantasy setting. 

Beyond characterization, there are the complicated family dynamics, swoony boys (because, well, YES), and an interesting magic and physics system that while not completely spelled-out-with-diagrams, makes an odd and beautiful sort of sense.  I think the ease with which a reader can accept the settings and the emotion of a book lies somewhat with the reader, and somewhat with the author.  In this case, the author has done her part with skill.  In all, it’s a good book – and I can only blame myself for expecting fireworks.

Recommended for: fans of Robin McKinley (especially the ones who like Sunshine best), those who loved Michelle Sagara’s necromancer novel Silence, and anyone interested in rounding out their young adult contemporary fantasy reading.

apple cranberry bundt cake

Saturday, November 9, 2013 | | 13 comments
I love pie.  I love apple pie.  I love eating it for every meal (thank goodness this only happens over Thanksgiving, or I would have to kiss a balanced diet goodbye!).  What I do not love?  The TIME it takes to make a pie.  I was feeling lazy (as usual), and wondering how I was going to use up the apples I picked when I went out to an orchard 2 weeks ago… and I turned to the internet.  This recipe was originally a loaf.  I turned it into a Bundt loaf?  But that sounds weird, so I’m calling it cake.  It has icing, after all!


Apple Cranberry Bundt Cake (modified from a Taste of Home recipe)

INGREDIENTS

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cups chopped, peeled tart apples (in 1/2 inch chunks)
1 1/2 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
3/4 cup chopped walnuts


DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Coat a Bundt pan thoroughly with cooking spray and set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda and salt.  In a small bowl, whisk eggs and oil together until combined. Stir eggs and oil into the dry ingredients just until moistened (batter will be very thick & heavy). Fold in apples, cranberries and walnuts.

Transfer batter to the prepared Bundt pan and press down into the mold. Bake for 60-65 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack to cool completely.  


Top with a glaze if desired (I used the same one from the Nutmeg Buttermilk Coookies last week, but with cinnamon instead of nutmeg). 

Note: The dough is very sticky and heavy, and it required 2 utensils to maneuver into the baking pan.  That said, it baked up very nicely and meshes well with the cranberry and apple.  So don’t be discouraged by how heavy it is.  It’ll turn out!


Recommended for: a great way to use up your leftover apples and cranberries, as a delicious and colorful addition to afternoon tea, and as a not-too-sweet fruity dessert for your fall feast.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!

the creature department author interview + giveaway

Today’s post features an interview with Robert Paul Weston, author of The Creature Department, and a giveaway.  The Creature Department is a middle grade novel/collaboration between Weston, the folks at Razorbill (Penguin) and Framestore, creators of Dobby from Harry Potter and the Geico gecko.  The Creature Department was released by Razorbill on November 5, 2013.

robert paul weston author photo
Robert Paul Weston is the British-born Canadian author of Zorgamazoo, Dust City, and Prince Puggly of Spud and the Kingdom of Spiff, along with recent release (just this past Tuesday!) The Creature Department.  He currently lives in London, England, and you can follow him on twitter or find him on Goodreads.

Have any experiences in your everyday life prepared you for the job of making up marvelous monsters?  Which ones?
I live in London, England, on the east side of the city, where there is a large amount of street art. In my neighbourhood, a simple walk to the library takes you past capering creatures of all shapes and sizes. They are painted on the walls of tall buildings as well as hidden in the shadowy crags of back alleyways. I discover new ones nearly everyday and, if you are in the right frame of mind, they are always inspiring. I often take photographs of them and post them on my website. You can see some of them here: http://robertpaulweston.com/blog/london-street-art/ 

Did you have to do any specific research on monsters/creatures?  What was your most interesting and/or disgusting discovery?
Of course I research! It's a writer's lifeblood, no matter what you're writing. Perhaps my favourite find is a rare creature called the Gillygalloo. Details about its appearance are sketchy and vary somewhat, but I've come to understand it's a part-fish, part-bird creature that lays valuable square-shaped eggs. Also interesting is the fact that it originates in North Eastern American and Quebecois lumberjack mythology.

What are your favorite young adult or middle grade speculative fiction titles (aside from your own)?
Skellig by David Almond
Momo by Michael Ende
Young Adult Novel by Daniel Pinkwater
What I Was by Meg Rosoff
House of Stairs by William Sleator

Do you have any hidden (or not so hidden) superpowers?
I can speak to inanimate objects. They are excellent listeners.

What are you reading right now?
On Familiar Terms by Donald Keene

Thanks so much for answering those questions, Robert!  Skellig has been on my to-read list for ages, but now I know I’ve got to get to it sooner rather than later. 

Think you might like to read The Creature Department?  Enter the giveaway!  Two (2) entrants will win finished copies of the book.  To enter, simply fill out the FORM.  Earn up to two (2) extra entries by commenting on this interview post and/or my review post.  Giveaway open internationally, will end at 11:59pm EST on November 22, 2013.  Winners will be selected at random and notified via email.  Good luck!

the creature department by robert paul weston book cover
It’s a tentacled, inventive, gooey, world in there...

Elliot Von Doppler and his friend Leslie think nothing ever happens in Bickleburgh, except inside the gleaming headquarters of DENKi-3000—the world’s eighth-largest electronics factory.

Beneath the glass towers and glittering skywalks, there's a rambling old mansion from which all the company’s amazing inventions spring forth. And no one except Uncle Archie knows what’s behind the second-to-last door at the end of the hall.

Until Elliot and Leslie are invited to take a glimpse inside.

They find stooped, troll-like creatures with jutting jaws and broken teeth. Tiny winged things that sparkle as they fly. And huge, hulking, hairy nonhumans (with horns). It is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

But when Chuck Brickweather threatens to shut down the DENKi-3000 factory if a new product isn’t presented soon, the creatures know they are in danger. And when Uncle Archie vanishes, it’s up to Elliot, Leslie, and every one of the unusual, er, “employees” to create an invention so astonishing it will save the Creature Department.

Fine print: I am providing/mailing the giveaway prizes (or ordering them from The Book Depository), and did not receive any compensation for this post.

the creature department

Thursday, November 7, 2013 | | 2 comments
One of the in-person events in my almost-entirely-virtual book blogging life is Book Expo America.  It’s a conference/book fair hosted in New York City each year, and the attendees and exhibitors are booksellers, librarians, publishers, educators, authors and others with a professional interest in the business of books.  When I went this past June, I met a virtual Creature from the imagination of Robert Paul Weston.  And when I say ‘met,’ I mean a digital creation named Gügor was on a large screen, greeting visitors to the Penguin booth and having short conversations with them.  But what IS Gügor anyway?  He’s a Creature, from The Creature Department, an adventurous and monster-filled middle grade book!

the creature department by robert paul weston book cover
It’s a tentacled, inventive, gooey, world in there...

Elliot Von Doppler and his friend Leslie think nothing ever happens in Bickleburgh, except inside the gleaming headquarters of DENKi-3000—the world’s eighth-largest electronics factory.

Beneath the glass towers and glittering skywalks, there's a rambling old mansion from which all the company’s amazing inventions spring forth. And no one except Uncle Archie knows what’s behind the second-to-last door at the end of the hall.

Until Elliot and Leslie are invited to take a glimpse inside.

They find stooped, troll-like creatures with jutting jaws and broken teeth. Tiny winged things that sparkle as they fly. And huge, hulking, hairy nonhumans (with horns). It is unlike anything they’ve ever seen.

But when Chuck Brickweather threatens to shut down the DENKi-3000 factory if a new product isn’t presented soon, the creatures know they are in danger. And when Uncle Archie vanishes, it’s up to Elliot, Leslie, and every one of the unusual, er, “employees” to create an invention so astonishing it will save the Creature Department.

Elliot von Doppler is a science-obsessed twelve year-old.  Leslie Fang could be described the same way.  But while Elliot grew up in Bickleburgh, Leslie just moved to town with her mother, and the two children only know each other because they tied for 3rd place in a science competition.  When Elliot finally gets the chance to tour the famous DENKi-3000 electronics factory (and really the only exciting thing about the entire city of Bickleburgh!), Leslie is invited too.  There they discover that Elliot’s uncle Archimedes has been in charge of a most interesting research and development department – one run by and devoted to Creatures!  Elliot and Leslie will need to race against time to help the Creatures invent one more new product and prevent the shutdown of DENKi-3000.

In The Creature Department, Robert Paul Weston introduces a laboratory full of inventive monsters who work with Creature physics (entirely different from human science!) to create new, exciting and original inventions.  They invent things like TransMints, which combine elements of technology, freshness, and the best memories of winter to produce some of the finest candies ever.  The trouble is that the Creatures (all uniquely terrifying/interesting/wondrous in their own ways) haven’t invented anything in a long while, and the company’s shareholders are getting restless.  They are even considering selling to Quazicom Holdings, run by the mysterious Chief, a shadowy figure with less-than-honorable intentions.  Into this world of deadlines and science wander Elliot and Leslie, two curious kids who might possess the Knack needed to come up with something truly special to save the day.

The Creature Department is an appealing tale of non-humans of all shapes, sizes, and strengths, and the power of friendship to bring any group together.  Weston writes convincingly of Creature attributes that may make the reader grimace, squirm, or crow with delight, and possibly all at the same time.  It’s full of middle grade appeal, with a glow-in-the-dark cover, gorgeous illustrations throughout by Framestore artists, gobs of snot and goo, and enough journeys above and below ground to please most readers’ expectations for adventure.

That said, the characters were simply that – characters.  With one or two exceptions, they remained static.  In addition, there were a few scenes that tried to make something of the fact that Elliot is a boy and Leslie is a girl and they’re working together *wink, wink*, which seemed out of place in the narrative.  Creature science also bears no relation to human science (duh).  If you let your imagination run wild it’s a lot of FUN, and a quick, simple, fantastical trip into a weird and astonishing secret world.

Recommended for: fans of the Disney/Pixar Monsters, Inc. films, young readers who enjoy off-the-wall adventure and stories about kids saving the day, and people of all ages who daydream about impossible inventions.

Fine print: I received a finished copy of The Creature Department from the publisher for honest review.  I did not receive any compensation for this post.

waiting on wednesday (66)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013 | | 5 comments
Today I’m participating in "Waiting On" Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. Its purpose is to spotlight upcoming book releases that we’re eagerly anticipating.

Twitter is my social media network (network? that sounds so... 1999) of choice.  When I go through my feed each day I discover new books, read the news I should know about, and see pretty pictures of food.  Yes, I mostly follow book people and food bloggers.  What of it?!  Let me give you a concrete example of how this works.  I was on twitter and saw a link to Epic Reads' Spring 2014 cover reveals.  I scrolled down and saw a beautiful cover and interesting tag line.  It happened to be for  Joshua McCune's debut novel.  Then I went over to his website and read a little more, and now Talker 25 is at the top of my wishlist for 2014.  Added all officially to my Goodreads account and everything!  It will be released by Greenwillow (HarperCollins) on April 22, 2014.  The power of twitter, everyone!

talker 25 by joshua mccune book cover
It’s a high school prank gone horribly wrong—sneaking onto the rez to pose next to a sleeping dragon—and now senior Melissa Callahan has become an unsuspecting pawn in a war between Man and Monster, between family and friends and the dragons she has despised her whole life. Chilling, epic, and wholly original, this debut novel imagines a North America where dragons are kept on reservations, where strict blackout rules are obeyed no matter the cost, where the highly weaponized military operates in chilling secret, and where a gruesome television show called  Kissing Dragons unites the population. Joshua McCune’s debut novel offers action, adventure, fantasy, and a reimagining of popular dragon lore.

What books are you waiting on?

top ten sequels i can't wait to get my hands on

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 | | 7 comments
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, where we all get to exercise our OCD tendencies and come up with bookish lists.  If you’d like to play along, check out this post.

top ten tuesday

I eschew books with sequels these days – I’m all about the glory of the standalone novel.  That said, sometimes you read a book and find out after the fact that it’s the first in a two- or several-part series, or that it has a companion novel.  Most of these picks aren’t necessarily sequels, just the next book in a series or world that I’ve already visited once or twice (and liked, obvi).  In a few cases cover art wasn't available, so you'll see the previous book's cover. I know, I know.  I want to see beautiful new book covers too...

Top Ten Sequels I Can't Wait to Get My Hands On


1. Wayfarer by Lili St. Crow – I quite liked the slow build of menace in Nameless, the first in the Tales of Beauty and Madness series, and an inventive retelling of the Snow White fairy tale.  Wayfarer is supposed to be based on Cinderella.  Fab!

2. Ebon by Robin McKinley – Robin McKinley’s Pegasus was supposed to be the first of a two-part series, with book #2 published soon after the first came out in 2010.  Well, it’s 2013 and we still don’t have a definite release date for the 2nd in a TRILOGY now, but I’m sure it’ll come… soon?  It has to!

3. The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan – One of my surprise favorites this past winter was the first in Marie Brennan's Memoirs of Lady Trent series, A Natural History of Dragons.  The books are written as fictional memoirs of the magnificent Lady Trent, a famous dragon naturalist.  The first installment was a delightful cross between Regency period social commentary and serious fantasy, and I'm sure the second will please as well.

4. Minion by John David Anderson – I loved Anderson's take on mixing middle school and the superhero lifestyle in Sidekicked.  This companion novel looks at the opposite side of the coin, in a town full of villains just trying to make it.  It's bound to be smart and action-filled middle grade fun.

5. The Strange Maid by Tessa Gratton – I ADORED the world-building in the first book of Gratton's United States of Asgard series, The Lost Sun.  I mean, Norse gods in North America = recipe for success.  Add in epic journey and possible impending apocalypse, and I am a goner.  I'm signed up for book two, and I have been ever since I turned the final page of book one.  CAN'T. WAIT.


6. Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop – What is there to say that I haven't already said about Written in Red?!  I loved it to pieces, and I plan to devour Murder of Crows the day it comes out (I'll stay up all night to finish it, as needed...).

7. Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn – Sharon Shinn has a direct line to my heart.  I often end up thinking about her books for days and weeks afterward, even if I don't end up particularly liking them.  Troubled Waters was the first in a new fantasy series, and it was set in a very interesting world where the magic is in part fate-based.  Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the next one.

8. Touch by Michelle Sagara – Michelle Sagara's young adult necromancer novel Silence reminded me that I love her writing and her fantasy worlds.  It also set the stage for a bigger story and conflict in the next few books.  Sequel Touch will arrive in 2014, and I'm going to be all about that.

9. Clariel by Garth Nix – A long time ago, Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy (which started with Sabriel) melted my face off with its awesome.  Like, seriously.  And now Nix has written a 4th book!  To publish in September 2014!  I CAN HARDLY CONTAIN MYSELF!!!

10. Shadowscale by Rachel Hartman – Hartman's debut novel Seraphina was a complex, thoughtful dragon book.  I wasn't the only one who thought so, either - it won awards!  I even plan to follow the series as it releases, despite a dreaded love triangle.  That's how good it is.  Bring on Shadowscale!

What sequels are you looking forward to?

nutmeg buttermilk cookies

I don’t usually keep buttermilk in the fridge, because when I do, it invariably goes bad before I can use the entire container.  And buttermilk that has gone off smells DISGUSTING.  Beyond belief gross.  If you’ve experienced it, you know.  If you haven’t, don’t ever let it happen.  Also, if you have any tried and true ways of using up buttermilk, please list them in the comments!  Anyway, back to the story, cookies, #lalala.  I had a little less than a cup of buttermilk in the fridge after making a loaf of soda bread, and (naturally) I went searching on the interwebs for cookie recipes made with buttermilk.  Then four and a half dozen cookies happened on a weeknight.  I never claimed sanity.

nutmeg buttermilk cookies

Nutmeg Buttermilk Cookies (cookies modified slightly from Jen’s Favorite Cookies’ recipe, glaze from King Arthur Flour)

INGREDIENTS

Cookies
3/4 cup butter, room temperature
11/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups flour


Glaze
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons milk, plus 1 teaspoon milk
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon nutmeg

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream butter and sugar. In my case (without a stand mixer), this meant mixing by hand until most of the sugar was incorporated, and then beating with an electric hand mixer.  Add eggs and vanilla and beat until fully incorporated.

Add buttermilk and mix well, and don’t worry if the mixture curdles – adding the dry ingredients will sort it out. Sift in the dry ingredients and nutmeg and stir gently with a spatula until the batter comes together completely.


Drop heaping teaspoonfuls of cookie dough onto a greased baking sheet (I lined sheets in foil and then sprayed them with baking spray) about 2 inches apart.  Bake for 12-15 minutes, switching racks halfway through baking to ensure even heating.  Take cookies out when edges turn very light golden brown.  Cool cookies on wire racks before icing.

For glaze, combine all ingredients and whisk until smooth. Spread small spoonfuls of glaze over cookies, and let sit at least 20 minutes for icing to harden.  If you have any questions about the glaze consistency, check out the tips and video on the King Arthur page.

Store cookies in an airtight container.  Makes 4-5 dozen.

You may have already gleaned this from the recipe, but it’s the tiniest bit fussy.  The ingredients are simple enough, but what with the glazing and sifting and shifting trays in the oven, they really take your whole attention for the duration of baking.  Be prepared, is all I’m saying.  As for the cookies themselves, they are very cake-y, with just a hint of spice.  The batter tasted like mild eggnog, but when it baked up that went right away.  My roommates and book club friends liked the finished cookies, and though I’m not a cakey cookie sort of person, I think they’re just fine (and I loved the glaze).


Recommended for: those who prefer a mild, unexceptionable cookie with a cake-like texture, and for the perfect thing to go with afternoon tea.

Interested in other food-related posts?  Check out Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking!
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