Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Year in the Life of a Book (Writer Wednesday)

So I thought for New Year's I'd give a recap of what happened in my writing life this year, as well as what happens to one book. Since I started this book last January, it makes perfect sense to focus on this one. It's a contemporary YA which I will release under a pen-name, and since I don't know if it will be self published, I'm not going to give a name (since if picked up by a traditional publisher, they'll probably change the name.

Without further ado, this is how Untitled Manuscript fared last year.

January 2014--First draft written & titled
February 2014--My usual 3 rounds of edits
March 2014--Beta Reader search begins. Found 10 willing readers.
April 2014--Edits made based on beta feedback, back cover text written.
May 2014--Had planned to self-publish, but was encouraged by beta reader/authors to query agents. Never had any luck before, but wrote up a query & sent it to 10 agents whose names I remembered from querying about 5 years ago. Got a request right away. Wha??? Queried 10 more agents.
June 2014--Got a "revise & resubmit" request from my #1 choice agent, who had requested the full manuscript. Edits made based on agent suggestions, resubmit to agent & submissions to other interested agents.
July 2014--Query 20 more agents, retitle manuscript, failed spin-off novel attempt.
August 2014--Further revisions made based interested agents' suggestions.
September 2014--Rejection from my #1 agent. Round 3 of queries. Nudges to unresponsive agents.
October 2014--Research agents. Retitle book yet again. Submissions to interested agents.
November 2014--Last round of queries. Had set my limit at 100 agents, and got 10% request rate. Which is actually really good, believe it or not.
December 2014--Set aside, waiting to hear back from 4 agents who have the full manuscript. Then it's back to my original plan....

All this time, I was not sitting around waiting, though. I moved, started up a little garden, and even found time to write. For a more complete picture of a writer's life, see next week's post.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars
This book was a very strange read for me. It was written in a way that sounded so true that I had to look up "The Escapist" to see if it was a real comic book (since I've never read a comic book in my life and know nothing about them). It was a good, engrossing story, though a bit slow in parts. It wasn't one of those books that I just HAD to read, or that I felt compelled to keep reading, or that I couldn't put down. But it was enjoyable enough that I never considered abandoning it in favor or something flashier.

I enjoyed all the adventures of both Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, but I did find the book wasn't exactly an equal portrayal of both men. Joe was without a doubt the main character, with only small glimpses of Sammy now and then. That's a shame, too, because I found Sam the more compelling character, despite the scarce page time and lack of adventures. Joe got to have all the excitement and adventure, and yet, it was Sammy, who had never left New York in his life, that I wanted to read about. At times, I grew frustrated with Joe and wished the author would give us a glimpse into what Sammy was doing while Joe was getting into all kinds of trouble for hours of page time at a stretch.

The novel was well-written, with a straight-forward narrative sprinkled with little word-gems that made me stop to savor them for a few seconds before going on. The author has a masterful grasp on the language and twisted it in delightful, unexpected ways.

A recommended read for adults age 16+. Language, sex, and violence peppers the novel, but not in a disturbing way.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

YA Wednesday: Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (Joey Pigza, #1)Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a strange combination of hilarious, serious, and deeply disturbing. I've had a few people recommend it to me, and I knew it was about a kid with ADHD, but that's about all I knew about it. It started out really funny, and my son loved it.

As it went on, I started to wonder if it was a bit much for a third grader. My son didn't really 'get' some of the disturbing scenes--he didn't understand why I said it was a sad book. But then, he said he thought the grandma was a good grandma and that having a timeout in a refrigerator would be 'cool.' Everything was presented in such a light, matter-of-fact way that it made the abuses this kid suffered even more horrifying. And I think it makes them sort of easy for a kid to overlook or not take seriously.

The characters in this book were loveable and hateable and very relate-able. I loved Joey, although I'm not going to lie and say I'd want Joey for a son or a student. But he's completely loveable, and nuts, and so freaking sad. He'd been through so much, and it was so believable that it broke my heart. I absolutely adored his teacher and his mom, too. She'd made mistakes, and in a way, the abuses he suffered were partially her fault for leaving him, although she didn't know what he was living with while she was gone. But his mom was also doing the right thing, and she was so good with Joey, exactly what he needed. It was hard not to love her, despite her shortcomings in the past, because she was so real and she'd tried so hard to turn her life around and be there for her son. And not just that, but she was doing a pretty amazing job at it. Better than I'd do with that kid, no matter how loveable, that's for sure.

Content: 10+ for some physical and emotional abuse and themes.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

YA Wednesday: Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell

RooftoppersRooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Usually, when I read a book I really love, I find myself wishing I'd written it. I don't wish I'd written this book. It is too perfect, and if I'd written it, I might have changed one word, and one word different would make it less than perfect. I would not want a single word of this book different.

Usually, when I read a book I love, I want to eat it. I didn't want to eat this book. I wanted to hold it to my chest and squeeze it so hard it became a part of me, absorbed into my heart.

This book made me want to use adjectives like whimsical, magical, musical, and lovely. But those words do not do it justice. This book made me clutch my steering wheel as I listened, heart thumping, for the book to race to its conclusion. It made me ache with wanting what Sophie wanted. It made me burst into tears at the last line.

I can't begin to do this book justice with a review. I fell in love with every character, with every twist, with the language the author uses. I never wanted it to end, but I couldn't wait to see what happened next, to see how it would turn out. When it ended, I felt like I'd been clubbed in the heart. I just wanted to sit there, stunned, saying "Oh my god, oh my god," over and over, because I couldn't think of a single other thing to say.

I don't know who I would recommend this book to. It's too special to me to say that I'd want everyone to read it. Some people might not 'get it,' might not fall in love with its loveliness. But it is now on my list of favorite books of all time, with the likes of Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird. It's that good. It transcends the 5 star rating. There should be a special category for books this good, an exemption that lets readers give a 6-star review. Even that would not be enough.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

YA Wednesday: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-BanksThe Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

I saw this book in a classroom library about 5 years ago, and I've wanted to read it ever since. I should have gotten to it sooner--this book rocks.

Some people have complained that this book wasn't feminist enough, but since I didn't go into it with any inklings of it being a feminist novel, that didn't bother me. It's about a 15-year-old girl who is just now beginning to realize that life isn't fair--because she's a girl. She's not a feminist. She's only beginning to be bothered by life's double standards, by the guy's-only exclusivity of her school. She has barely begun to think of these things, so how can she be a feminist?

Frankie is in love with a guy, although their relationship never feels very deep to me. Maybe it's because of all the secrecy that keeps them apart, as he's a member of the secret (male-only, of course) society on their elite boarding school campus. Frankie hates the secrecy, and the doors that are closed to her in all areas of her life, but most of all, that she can't become a member of this society and become even closer to her boyfriend, to share everything with him. Does this sound feminist?

I thought Frankie was clever and a fun protagonist to go along with. Sure, she's a bit nuts, and a bit of a stalker, but still, she was fun. I don't think this book should be some kind of guide for feminist thinking or anything, but I do think the author did a good job in showing the double standards of society, of pointing out that kind of exclusive thinking and how unfair it is. I think she does a good job of showing how it feels to be in this minority party, to show how it can drive a person nuts that they can't do anything about it.

I loved Frankie's antics, but I think if this was a feminist novel, she would have wanted to start her own club for girls, which I kept waiting for, but it never happened. Also, I think our protagonist would have had to have a better reason for wanting to join the boys than wanting to impress her boyfriend's friends and get closer to him. She would have had to be a better friend to her roommate, and the other female characters would have been better developed. Thinking of this book as some kind of intro to feminism is probably not a good idea. Thinking of it as an excellent read with a fun, engaging protagonist and a fast-paced plot, along with a bit of an examination of the unfairness women face every day in things as inconsequential as high-school bonding rituals makes for one of the most unputdownable books I've read this year. For a while, I've been running across big disappointments in the contemporary YA section. I've been waiting for a book that would suck me in and not let go, and this was the one.

Rating: 10+ No cursing, very mild sexual situations (think kissing), and no violence.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: Leverage, by Joshua Cohen

LeverageLeverage by Joshua C. Cohen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is as hard-hitting as the steroid-infused, foul-mouthed, warp-minded football players at its center. A very, very intense read that is not for the faint of heart. Although it is marketed as YA, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone under 16 due to the extremely graphic language and violence.

This is one of those books I think all parents should read, though. I was told it was a male version of Speak, but it's much more than that. It is an incredible, intense, heart-stopping book that will make your jaw hit the floor on more than one occasion.

There were a few times when I found a character's actions unbelievable, such as when Ronnie tries to get the boys to talk about his assault. I can't see a boy wanting to talk about such an extreme occurance of bullying, especially with the stigma and shame attached to victims of that sort of attack. However, most of the book was perfect, and although at times it was a bit predictible, it was the sort that made you HAVE to keep reading to see if you are right. You will think you know what's going to happen, but you won't be 100% sure and you won't be able to stop yourself from finding out for sure. Once you start this book, you won't be able to not finish it. And you'll be glad you did--the ending is so, so, so completely perfect that it leaves you smiling despite all the horrible things that happen to the characters throughout the book.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review Wednesday: The Beckoners by Carrie Mac (Contemporary YA)

The BeckonersThe Beckoners by Carrie Mac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I've picked up several times at the library, but never opened it because I'd never heard of it. So even though it sounded good, I'd end up reading something else I got at the same time. Silly me.

Here is this undiscovered gem of a book. All I kept thinking as I listened to it was, HOW THE HELL IS THIS BOOK NOT A PRINTZ AWARD WINNER!!!???? It is so good, and exactly like what they always pick. Except way better. I know it doesn't have the best reviews, but THIS BOOK ROCKS!

It was so grungy and grimy and sad and brutal and depressing and just all around...amazing. One of those books that, as I read, I kept thinking, "Man, I wish I'd written this book." Not in the way of, "I could have done it better," but in the way of, "I wish I was Carrie Mac."

I will never understand why this book isn't rated higher. I loved it. I loved the characters, I loved the evilness of children portrayed here. It's like a modern Lord of the Flies, about bullying and bad parenting and reality. And girls. And cruelty. And conformity. People have complained that it's written strangely, but I had the audio and couldn't tell (and sometimes, you can...ahem *sarahdessen*). It sounded great to me. I liked the reader, and the prose flows well. People have also complained that it dealt with too many issues, but I didn't even notice. I was too busy going squee squee squee all the way home.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Veteran's Day Review: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It took me a while to read this book, and I'm not sure why. It's not very long, but it seemed really dense. I'm not sure I could have told you if I liked the book as I was hearing it, but somewhere towards the end, I just fell in love. I think it was when he told about the girl who went to Vietnam and became addicted to it. That part rang so true that the whole thing, all the talk about war stories and how they didn't have to be true, it all fell into place. I understood what he meant. Just as there is truth in fiction, truth to the stories, truth to the characters, so could a war story be true even if it wasn't, in the strictest sense, factual in all parts.
After the story of Maryanne (pardon if I'm a little off on names, I listened to this one so my spelling might not be correct), I wanted to hear all about the rest of the characters. And it was the characters who really made this story. It's not so much a story, in the linear-progression, plot-arc kind of way. But all the stories together made something beautiful. I wanted to hear all about Jimmy and Henry, about the suicides and the 'accidents,' about the medics and Tim and the shit-fields and, yes, the things they carried. It didn't matter a bit which parts actually happened.
Really the book wasn't so much about what happened or didn't happen, it was about the characters and about humanity, about maintaining humanity in the face of the most horrid circumstances, about finding joy in the sickest places imaginable, about the horror and pettiness and cowardice and beauty not of war, but of the human spirit and of life.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review Wednesday: Torn by Stephanie Guerra (contemporary YA)

TornTorn by Stephanie Guerra

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This year I've been reading contemporary YA like it's the only thing ever published. Which is different for me, because that's what I write, and when I was writing fantasy, I avoided reading it at all cost. However, I cannot get enough of this genre.

This book made me happy that I went on a library binge and grabbed pretty much every book in this genre that I could carry (about 10 at once, no exaggeration). This book made me want to wallow in it. It made me want to go into it and never come out. For a book that is so focused on character, and really not a lot happens, it was compulsively readable. So much so that I actually wanted to do stretches so I could listen to it. So much so that I found excused to do laundry so I could listen to it while folding clothes. In short, I found every excuse I could to hang around the CD player.

If there was anything bad about this book, it's that some parts of it were a little cheesy. I liked the character, but she could be pretty saccharine at times. Still, it was nice to read a strong female lead who isn't 'hard'. Stella was sweet and caring, but she also didn't let people walk all over her--and when she did, she recognized it. She admits at times that Ruby was using her, but she was letting it happen. Sometimes that did bother me, esp. when she was doing something really stupid for Ruby, who was kind of evil to her for most of the book.

Audio note: Great reader on the audio--just a trace of an Hispanic accent, perfect for the character (half Mexican but raised by her white mother since early childhood). Highly recommend the audio.

Overall, this was a great read, if you're into reading about friendship (I'm taking a romance break), and if you don't need a ton of action in your books. It was one of those that sneaked up on me and suddenly I'd well up (esp. the parts with her sister, who I adored beyond words--I wish I'd written that character).

Content: mature language (including F-bombs), adult situations (including statutory rape and hard drugs), included but not explicit.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Coffin Hopping: How to Scare the Neighborhood Children

It's that time of year again...Yeah, baby! Zombies are coming, as well as vampires and werewolves, witches, ghosts, ghouls, demons and devils (and some pretty things, too, but those aren't nearly so much fun, are they?) In honor of the upcoming holiday, I've joined the Coffin Hop Web Tour again this year. In case you hadn't noticed by all the badges and to atrtink for those, obvs I couldn't do something that cool...this is a huge event with artists and authors giving away hundreds of prizes on their sights. So hop on over to the list of horror authors and join us for some scartitivites.
As my family debated Halloween costumes this year, I got to thinking about the trendiness that Halloween has taken on. And more generally, the fall season. As soon as October begins, everyone is clamoring to post the first colored leaf photo, Tweeting about their pumpkin spice lattes (#PSL, of course) and instagramming pics of their newly dusted off Ugg boots and flannels. (Don't be offended, I'm poking fun at myself here, too). Fall is the hot new season, and it has been for several years now. Poor summer. So neglected.

When I was a kid, I don't remember adults dressing for Halloween. Perhaps my mom would find an old black skirt and a turtleneck, top it off with a straw hat, and call herself a witch, but the adult costumes were always kept to a minimum, made up of things they already had in the closet. Nowadays, Halloween is an all-ages event, with adult participation and enthusiasm (at least) as high as the kids'.

If you're not going to a party but stuck handing out candy, and you still want to dress up, consider scaring the neighborhood children. Oh yes. It might take a little more work than grabbing something off the shelf, but with the right makeup, face paint, and even items out of your closet, you can piece together a grim and gruesome costume.

You can go above and beyond and spend lots of money, but if you're like me, finances are tight this time of year with the holidays coming up. Zombies are still hot this year, as they have been for the past five or so years, and talk about a cheap and easy costume. Got an old t-shirt, a pair of ripped jeans and some dirt outside your house? All you need is some fake blood and maybe a makeup kit if you want to smear some white and black on your face. Smear the blood around your mouth, grime up your clothes a bit, dribble fake blood down the front of your shirt. Smudge some makeup (Halloween makeup or just regular old eyeliner) around your eyes, then go wait on your lawn. It's even better if you have a whole family or some friends willing to join you in this endeavor. When the kiddos start coming along your walk, begin lurching towards them (someone should also fall and army crawl, that's always a good one) growling and expressing your general desire for brains. If you want to go above and beyond, you could even make a few quick "coffins" out of scrap wood or pallets and have a couple people pop up out of those for effect. Then, watch the neighborhood kids scream in terror...just don't expect to be popular with the neighborhood parents!

 In case you were wondering, I still haven't decided on a costume, but I will definitely be in costume come Halloween night. Until then, I'll be hopping around reading scary stories on some of the author blogs over at the Coffin Hop, as well as giving away free copies of my own books. For the five days before Halloween, The Superiors will be free on Amazon, so pick it up if you like dark vampire stories (no explicit sex). And if you want to read the second book or third, I'll be giving away copies to Coffin Hoppers exclusively. The first person to comment each day this week will receive a free ecopy of any of my books. Just leave your name and contact info (email, twitter handle, fb, etc) and I'll get you a free copy.

Thanks for hopping in my coffin with me.

Edit: for length and relevance to topic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

YA Wednesday: Graphic Novel Review: Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Last week I posted about the Printz Award Nominatee Boxers. This week, I'm posting about the second book in the series, Saints. I believe they were nominated together as one volume. To see last week's review, click here.

Saints (Boxers & Saints, #2)Saints by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been on a graphic novel kick lately, so I grabbed this in an armload of them from the library. I saw it was nominated for a Printz award, which made me take it out of the stack and read it first.

It was pretty good, but nothing exceptional. For one, the graphics aren't as lovely as many of the graphics I've read. If I'm going to read a graphic novel, I want to be as captivated by the illustrations as the story. Otherwise, why not just read a novel? I didn't feel this was enhanced in any way by being a graphic novel. In fact, I'd rather read a novella about this supposedly based-in-history girl.

I did like the story quite well. Four-Girl was such a sad, confused child. I felt for her and was glad she finally got a name and found a place where she was welcome. It was so sad and amusing when she thinks she's a devil and goes around making ugly faces so everyone will know. It was at once tragic and ridiculous. I'm going to read the companion novel, but I can't say I'm holding my breath waiting for it.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

YA Wednesday: Graphic Novel Review: Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints, #1)Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up both Boxers and Saints at the same time, and I couldn't tell which came first, so I guess I read them in the wrong order. But, they are each stand-alone books, and I don't think one necessarily needs to be read first. However, this book did clarify a lot that I didn't know in the second, so I would try to read this one first. While reading Saints, I didn't know exactly who The Righteous and Harmonious Fist was, etc (my knowledge of Chinese history being pretty much nonexistent).
I really enjoyed learning about the Boxers rebellion, although the book was more fantasy than history. I found myself wondering if people had given accounts of the fighters turning into gods, or where the idea came from. However, the graphics in this one were more enjoyable for me. I've read 3 of Yang's books now, and although they have good stories, I feel that a graphic novel should be equally strong in both story and graphics, or else why not just write a novel? I guess I feel that if a writer uses this format, the illustrations should add to the story, and in the case of this author, this is the first book I thought his story lent itself well to the format.

I enjoyed this book more than the other 2 I've read by this author, and I think the reason is the illustrations. The gods were all vivid and colorful, and those places in particular were enhanced by the artwork (if you told me 'then he turned into a god' I would not have imagined the colorful, striking images of their gods but a more austere, western version of god).

Overall, this was a very good graphic novel and an excellent story.

Content: lots of war violence.
Recommended for: Age 10+ for violent scenes.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

YA Wednesday: 2 for 1 Graphic Novel Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Persepolis, #1-2)Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This had the thing. You know, the THING. The thing that makes you all swoony while you're reading. That makes you sigh just remembering it, like an amazing first kiss that still makes you shiver when you think of it years later. The thing that makes you fall in love.

I had seen the movie version of this book a few years ago and it was excellent (if you haven't seen it, go get it immediately), and I'd wanted to read the books ever since. Well, I'm so glad I did. I was not disappointed. It's only rarely that I can love a book and a movie both so much, equally. This book is worthy of attention and not to be missed. Absolutely powerful, brilliant, and stunning.

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Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (Persepolis, #3-4)Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know if it's possible, but I may have loved this book even more than the first one. Such a wonderful, heartbreaking example of what it means to be an outsider.

Displaced from her homeland, our heroine never feels at home in Austria. But after spending years there, when she goes home, she no longer fits into their conservative culture, either. I ached for her as I read this half of her story, maybe even more so than when I read the first part.

Amazing story that everyone should read. Recommended for anyone who's ever felt like an outsider.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

YA Wednesday Graphic Novel Review: Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet, Vol. 1: The Stonekeeper (Amulet, #1)Amulet, Vol. 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If for some reason you think graphic novels are shallow and devoid of emotional impact, think again. Amulet had me in tears within a few pages of sparse dialogue. Don't underestimate the power or emotional impact images can have on us, moreso even than words, and in such a small space.
Once I dried my tears and began chapter one, the book flew by. The plot picks up, the characters are realistic (yes, I require this even in fantasy, perhaps especially in fantasy), and the author's imagination is a wonderful mix of the odd, the fantastical, the touching, and sometimes the absurd. It has the whimsy of something like The Never Ending Story. If adorable pink robotic bunnies are your kind of thing, grab this book and don't let go til you've drunk in every last magical image and read every last thought bubble. I know I did. And I can't wait to grab the next.

Amulet, Vol. 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse (Amulet, #2)Amulet, Vol. 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautiful illustrations, another wonderful story. My son and I can't get enough of these books. There is so much to see that he'll look at them for hours.

Amulet, Vol. 3: The Cloud Searchers (Amulet, #3)Amulet, Vol. 3: The Cloud Searchers by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These book are fantastic! The artwork is so amazing--haunting and eerie, comical, tender. I absolutely love it. It makes the story multitudes better. The story is pretty good, too. But the illustrations are what really keep me coming back for more. Plus, I love Miskit!

Amulet, Vol. 4: The Last Council (Amulet, #4)Amulet, Vol. 4: The Last Council by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more, beautiful artwork, as in every book in the series. I enjoyed the storyline in this one a bit more than in the last. And was overjoyed to see the return of Miskit, the pink robot bunny.

Amulet, Vol. 5: Prince of the Elves (Amulet, #5)Amulet, Vol. 5: Prince of the Elves by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought this was the last book in the series, but a lot was left up in the air, so I really hope Kibuishi will wrap things up with another book. I haven't read a lot of graphic novels before, but this series was so beautiful and breathtaking. I wish there were many, many more of them. 

I saw that Book 6 was out and I can't wait to read it! Exciiiited...

Friday, August 29, 2014

Disaster Chef: Cinnamon Roll Pancakes

When I found this recipe on Recipe Girl a few months ago, I knew I wanted to make it even though it is soooo not healthy. But sometimes, you just gotta indulge. In this instance, my son asked me to make them, and I told him I'd make them for his birthday. Of course I then forgot all about it. But he didn't. On his birthday morning, he reminded me, so I put them together. They do take a loooong time, since they have 3 different components. I wouldn't just whip these up any day, since they took hours to make. But for special occasions, yes. My son already asked me to make them again for his next birthday. Knowing him, he'll remember, too.
Without the frosting.
For these, you have to make the cinnamon swirl, the pancakes, and the frosting.

First, I made the cinnamon swirl.
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter,  melted
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Mix ingredients and pour into a ziplock sandwich bag. Set aside.
Next, I made the frosting. I'm not sure why mine turned out so dark, maybe the vanilla I used was too dark? I used pretty much exactly what the recipe specified, but mine was sort of caramel colored instead of a nice pearly white like the original recipe:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
2-ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Melt the butter, then stir other ingredients into pan, mixing well after each addition.
On with the pancakes. Mix together
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Mix together flour and baking powder, then other ingredients, mixing until moistened but still a bit lumpy.

Pour about 1/4 c. batter for each pancake into a skillet and let cook a couple minutes before cutting corner out of sandwich bag and drawing the circle on the pancake.You might have to squish the baggie a bit if the cinnamon mixture has separated. It should be toothpaste consistency as it squeezes out of bag.
Once turned, the cinnamon swirl melts into the pan, leaving a crispy, sugary, hollowed out swirl pattern in the pancake.
Turn it out onto a plate with the swirl side up. Drizzle with frosting to finish. They don't need anything extra--no butter or syrup.

As I said, these were sinfully delicious. I never use white flour exclusively, but I really wanted these to taste like cinnamon rolls, so I did this time. They were very decadent and delicious, very sweet and rich. I would make them again for special occasions, but not for an ordinary day. They are an indulgence for sure.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review Wednesday: Alt Ed (Contemporary YA)

Alt EdAlt Ed by Catherine Atkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

Reviewing this book is a bit challenging, because while it was going on, there was really nothing wrong with it, except for what didn't happen during it. Let me explain.

As I began this book, I was instantly drawn in. I loved Susan, our protagonist, for her sweetness and because she wasn't typecast as the fat funny girl. Call this a modern take on The Breakfast Club, where, instead of detention, these kids have an entire semester of after-school meetings with the counselor because of some bad behavior they each engaged in. Each participant is developed over the course of the book, morphing into wonderful, well-developed characters. As the book unfolds, we learn why most of them are there, although most of it is saved for what turns out to be the climax, since what should have been the climax is not actually included in the book.

I feel a bit guilty for withholding praise for what is NOT in the book, but with this one, I have to. There's an agent who posts on her blog the importance of knowing where to start your story. This author seemed not to know where to end her story. Normally, if that was the case, you'd think it was because an author dragged on and on after the climax, or left you with a cliffhanger. But this one just sort of...ended. Abruptly. In the middle of nowhere, right before what had been building towards what I thought would be the climax. It wasn't the kind of ending that lets you imagine what happens next, but the kind that makes you wonder if some pages were missing from your book, or if an incomplete draft got sent to the publisher and no one noticed. So while I enjoyed the book, I didn't enjoy the not-book that was missing.

I'm not opposed to book without happily-ever-after endings. I'm not opposed to a few loose ends--I like feeling like the characters live on after the last page. But this book leaves A LOT of loose ends. In fact, pretty much every end is left hanging.

(view spoiler)

Still, while I was reading it, I was completely captivated. It was one of those books that made me wish I'd written it. For someone who thinks the characters make the novel, this was perfect. Susan was sweet, but not too much of a pushover, and not a cliche. Amber was tough and wounded, but not a cliche either. Tracy, the perfect cheerleader who wasn't perfect, clashes with Brendon, the ostracized gay guy. Though some of the characters aren't exactly original, they all come alive enough that it doesn't matter that they are types, because here, they are real people who just happen to fall into a category. Each character is handled with compassion, realism, and care. Overall, Randy was the character who elicited the most emotion. He was the sweet jock, idolized by our protagonist but not quite as perfect as she'd like to imagine. He went along with the bullying, even when he didn't agree with it, which made him as culpable as anyone. I would have liked Susan to accept this a bit more than she did, but it didn't affect the story much. It was a nice change in today's YA landscape to read about a girl falling for the nice-guy hero. Honestly, I kept waiting for her to fall for Cal, because, well, that's how most YA girls are portrayed now--always irresistibly attracted to the asshole. Randy's character was so wonderfully drawn, someone we have all known, who goes along with his friends even when he shouldn't, easy-going and kind to everyone.

This is a wonderful book about bullying, conformity, friendship, family, stereotypes, and judging people, among other things. There are lots of books with the same message, but not many as good as this one. Would have been a 5-star if it had felt complete, or had a real ending. </["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]>

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Disaster Chef: Cheesy Beer Bread

I found this recipe quite a while ago, but like most pins on pinterest, I pinned it and forgot it. But then I saw the stray can of beer that's been hanging out in my refrigerator for a couple months, and I went to pinterest to see if I could find something to do with it.

This bread is based on a recipe I found at Gotta Get Baked blog. It's definitely worth checking out her blog, if only for the gorgeous pictures. My bread was gorgeous, but my pictures don't do it justice. Her pictures are awesome. Plus, she's kind of hilarious.

Anyhow, this is how I adapted her recipe.

You will need:
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 12 oz. can or bottle of beer
1 tbsp honey

If you will notice, there is no butter or oil in this bread. I thought that was weird, because every time I've made quick bread, it has a lot. And eggs--this one has no eggs, either. I was confused until I mixed up the batter and realized that the yeast activates and makes bread dough (duh--but I really hadn't thought of that until I mixed it up and it was all sticky like yeasted bread dough).

Now, let's put it all together. 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Grease a loaf pan.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder. Add 3/4 c. of the shredded cheese and onion; toss together so that everything is well combined. At this point, everything will be so coated with flour it will be white.
Add the beer and honey. Mix until all dry bits of flour are absorbed/moistened. Your dough will be lumpy and sort of sticky, but it shouldn't be as moist as cake batter. This should be more like dough.
Dump the dough into the loaf pans and smooth the top of the dough.
It will look about so at this junction.
Bake for about 25 minutes, then add the last 1/4 c. cheese to the top of the loaf.
Half baked and covered in cheese.
 Return to oven and bake for 15-25 more minutes.
Hot and fresh out the oven.
 I had to bake for all 50 minutes before a knife in the center came out clean. It looked done at 40 minutes, but the knife came out all gooey. At 50 minutes, it was completely clean. I let the bread sit about 10-15 minutes, then turned it out and set it on a rack for a few minutes.

Textured, yeasty goodness within.
My son absolutely LOVED this bread. He kept picking at it while it cooled. We ate it warm with pork chops and braised red cabbage with apples. It was delicious warm. He ate 2 pieces, and my husband had 3. It was a big hit, and delicious the next day, too.
Cheesy, crispy goodness without.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

YA Wednesday: Blankets by Craig Thompson (Graphic Novel #Review)

BlanketsBlankets by Craig Thompson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I fell in love with this book from page one. The illustrations and the story were equally gripping. From the start, I couldn't wait to hear about the relationship between the brothers, and later on, when the book begins to focus on the romance, I kept reading for the glimpses of memory of Craig and his brother.

While this is ultimately a romance, and the relationship between the characters is sweet and realistic, the romance did not hold the same interest for me as the brotherly relationship. I did enjoy the romance, though, or I could not have liked this book, which is, at heart, a romance about first love and coming-of-age, written in memoir form. Most of the graphic novels I've read have focused more on historical/cultural issues, but this one was wonderful despite its narrow scope.

It is thick for a graphic novel, but a quick read. I breezed through a hundred pages in a sitting easily. I did get a bit distracted once it got deep into the romance, because that never holds my interest, no matter how beautifully drawn and realistic Raina may be. That said, I did find her to be a wonderfully real, well-rounded character. I felt like she was someone I could have known in real life, and I loved the sweet, realistic course of their doomed first-love relationship.

Even though the book sort of wrapped up some of the issues from throughout the story, it felt somehow incomplete to me. I was happy that Craig and his brother were able to become, at least a bit, a part of each other's lives, as I waited for glimpses of the brother throughout the story.

Overall, a wonderful story with lovely illustrations that I would recommend to those 16+.

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Friday, August 15, 2014

Disaster Chef: Blueberry Peach Cheesecake Bars

I'm deep into my Fanny & Me blogging, but sometimes, I just have to make something that's not from Fannie Farmer. She doesn't have a whole lot of newer recipes, since the cookbook is over a hundred years old. So, no cheesecake bars. 

I found this recipe I'd pinned on Pinterest a long time ago, and since I happen to have both blueberries AND peaches right now, I had to try it. Plus, it's got a nut crust, which I really like. So, for anyone doing the gluten free thing, this recipe is worth a shot. In fact, check out this blog where it originates--she has a lot of great recipes like this.
Peaches and blueberries, oh my!

Here's my adapted version.

Putting it in the oven.
All puffed up and ready to eat.
  • 1 c almond butter
  • 2-4 tbsp finely shredded coconut
  • 6 oz cream cheese (at room temperature)
  • ½ c plain yogurt
  • 4 tbsp. xylitol (or sugar)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ c blueberries
  • ½ c diced peaches

  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, combine the almond butter and coconut and mix well. I may use more coconut next time, or use almond flour like the original recipe does, because mine were a bit too almond buttery.
  2. Spread crust mixture into an 8×8 baking pan. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes then remove from the oven to cool.
  3. In a large bowl combine the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and yogurt and mix well with a hand mixer (or stand) for about 2 minutes on medium speed. Add the eggs one at a time, continuing with mixer.
  4. Pour the cheesecake mixture over the crust (crust doesn’t have to be completely cooled). Top the cheesecake mixture with the blueberries and peaches. The blueberries sank into mine, so if you want them on top, I'd wait until the cheesecake has cooked 10-20 mins before adding them.
  5. Bake the bars at 350 for 40-50 minutes (until the cheesecake is set).
  6. Cool completely then cut into bars and serve.
 These turned out pretty well. The 'crust' I used was just almond butter and coconut, and it was just a little too...almond buttery. Next time, I'll probably use almond meal how the original recipe does. Or at least some kind of nut flour. This was just too wet somehow. Also, I don't think I added quite enough sugar in the cheesecake part. I only used 2 tbsp. but next time, I will definitely use 4. And yes, there will be a next time. This recipe is easy, good, and healthy. Can't wait to make it again.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review Wednesday: Dairy Queen

Dairy Queen (Dairy Queen, #1)Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, well, it completely rocked. So did the audiobook reader, so if you like audios, this one will be better on audio, unless you're from Minnesota/Wisconsin or are really good at reading in accents.

Anyhoo, I'm not from that area, but trust me, I've seen my share of cows. As I listened to this, it made me super nostalgic for my Minnesota relatives, too. Such a great voice, all the way through! I kept waiting for DJ to say 'uffda' or 'you betcha' but sadly, she didn't. Probably because she's from Wisconsin.

This book started a little slow, or so you think at first. But really, it's just that DJ is a bit understated. She's not the raging-with-hormones love-at-first-sight kind of girl. She's kind of quiet. So is the beginning of the book. It's hilarious, but that's understated too. So you're reading along about this amusing, practical, big-boned, quiet girl (see how I just described a cow?) and then suddenly it grabs you by the heart and rips it out of your chest.

That's how I felt reading this book. It was pretty amusing, and I was going along as I should, much like a cow, just listening to it and smiling now and then. And suddenly, I burst into tears without warning. Because that's how quietly DJ sneaks into your heart. You don't even realize you're in love until it's way too late to walk away. And though the action in the book isn't Hunger Games-like, as I was driving to work I found myself gripping the steering wheel in excitement and torment and just wanting to scream at my CD player, "KISS HER, YOU IDIOT! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, KISS HER!!!" The suspense will literally kill you slowly, in the best, most hilarious way.

I can't recommend this book enough. It's not graphic, the language is mild, and it's funny enough that my 7 year old was laughing hysterically at the few parts he heard. And so was I.

Heartwarming, heart-wrenching, hilarious, happy dance.

Notice how I didn't even mention football? Or lesbians? Or family drama? Because this book isn't about that so much as about DJ. Can't wait to read the rest.

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Disaster Chef: Kale Soup aka Zuppa Tuscana (Olive Garden copycat recipe)

I've made this dish a handful of times. It's my husband's favorite, and a popular meal I've made for my family. It's an Olive Garden knockoff, though I add a few things and change it up a bit (I'm incapable of following a recipe exactly). It can be eaten as a side, but we always use it for the main course as it is very filling and complete all on its own.

I have used different sites for the recipe every time I've made it, but this time I grabbed this one off Pinterest, from My Kitchen Joys.

I cut the recipe in half, since I was using potatoes and kale from my own garden, and I only had a bit of each. Here's the halved version, which serves 4 as a main course.

2 cups potatoes, sliced 1/4" thick.
In the pot.
3/4 cup onion chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chicken broth (I didn't have this, so I used 1 c. water, then added an extra cup milk at the end)
2 cups water
2 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled (I never add this and never miss it)
1/2 Lb. Italian sausage
1 packed cup kale, chopped
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream (I used whole milk, plus the extra cup to make up for the chicken broth, which made it plenty creamy)

*I also add a can of beans, usually red kidney but this time white kidney, as my husband and son like those better.

Place onions, potatoes, chicken broth, water, garlic in pot and cook on medium heat until potatoes are done. Meanwhile, brown sausage and crumble. Add sausage and kale. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for another 10 minutes. Turn to low heat, then add cream. Heat through and serve. 

Every recipe for this soup that I've used calls for putting kale in at the end, with the cream, but I don't like my kale very tough. It's still plenty chewy after cooking 10 minutes. This soup is a big hit with everyone who has tried it.

Recipe: 4 spoons of goodness
Product: 5 spoons

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

YA Wednesday: If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

If I Stay (If I Stay, #1)If I Stay by Gayle Forman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was another book where I didn't read any kind of synopsis before starting it. So, I didn't even know what it was about. When they got in a car wreck, it was so sudden and unexpected I had to back up and go, "WHAT!"

Then I kept going, and I was wondering if this was really contemporary YA, since it's sort of...well, I don't know what genre I would call it. It's like contemporary YA with a ghost, for lack of a better term. But I did get into it, and it was a good, short book to listen to as I painted my living room one day. That said, it just didn't really grab me. I liked that Mia had a life with lots going on besides Adam. But Adam was just annoying and shallow. The romantic parts made my eyes roll, mostly b/c I thought he was such a tool. The best character in the book was Kim, who I loved, and who felt very real. I also liked Mia's father a lot, how I could feel his battle with giving up his old life to become a responsible adult. I loved his character and really connected with him.

The problem was, I never really connected with Mia. She's always wondering "why me?" and I sort of wondered the same thing. Why did Adam pick her? Just because she loved music...that didn't seem enough. But mostly I wondered why the author chose to tell this story from Mia's point of view. She didn't seem like a real, developed, rounded character. Despite her love of Adam, her family, and her cello, I never really felt who she was as a person. I didn't feel like she came alive as much as Kim, or her dad, or even Teddy. So why Mia? Is it just because she's a young girl and that's the audience for this book? I think the real story here was her father, and how he related to his kids and wife. The real story was about the sacrifice between self and others (cello or Adam, in Mia's case), between past self and future self, between real self and who society wants you to be, and what you have to give up to be that person. And those themes would have been served better by a book about Mia's father, not Mia.

Age 12+ for graphic death scene, some sex including casual mentions of teens staying the night together, but nothing graphic.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Disaster Chef: Buckwheat Noodles with Honey Lime Sauce

Finished product.
I was looking for a good recipe to make with buckwheat noodles, which I LOOOOVE, so I grabbed one off pinterest. I like more veggies in my meals so I used a whole carrot. I then discovered I didn't have any green onions, so I used about 1/4 of a regular onion and fried it (along with the grated carrots, since I don't really like raw carrots much).

I followed the dressing recipe from Joylicious blog  closely, though!

  • Handful of buckwheat soba noodles (the ones I get come in handy serving-sized portions)
  • 1/2 lime, squeezed (I didn't have a fresh lime, so I used about 2tbs. lime juice from a bottle)
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1/2 carrot, shredded (I grated one whole carrot and sauteed it...the next time I made it, I also added a couple sliced mushrooms and some shredded cabbage and sauteed was delicious!)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds (I didn't have these so I left them out)
  • small handful of cilantro, cleaned and chopped
  • 1 tip of a green onion, cleaned and chopped (I used 1/4 of regular onion, sauteed)
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • 2 eggs
The sauce mix.
  1. In a medium pot fill with water and bring to boil. Drop noodles in and cook for 4 minutes at medium heat at a gentle boil.
  2. Rinse carrots and herbs and pat dry. Shred carrot and set aside. Finely chop cilantro and green onion and mix with shredded carrots (and if you're me, saute them now).
  3. Test to see if noodles are semi firm, if so turn heat off immediately. Allow pasta to further cook in the hot water for an additional 2 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the dressing.
  4. In a bowl combine lime juice, soy sauce, honey, sesame oil and sesame seeds. Whisk well and set aside.
  5. Test noodles for preferred firmness/softness and strain. Return noodles to pot and mix in carrots, herbs and dressing.
  6. In a medium pan, heat oil over medium high heat. Crack egg(s) carefully into pan and fry until edges are browned and whites are set (sunny side up). Flip over and cook for about 1 minute for over easy, ~ 2 minutes for over medium, ~3 minutes for over hard. (I did all this in the same pan, just pushing the veggies to the sides and frying the eggs in the middle, then tossing it all on top of the noodles and sauce, and mixing it as I ate to get some sauce on the veggies).
  7. To serve: Place noodles in a bowl and top with fried eggs. Feel free to add a dash of chile powder or chile sauce for an extra punch!

This recipe is wonderful, because it is so versatile and easy! I've made it three times, changing it every time. Sometimes I add extra veggies, sometimes I use only one egg, sometimes I add chili powder or cayenne on top. It's one of my favorite Pinterest recipes, and I think it's the only one I've gotten around to more than once. I love buckwheat noodles, and I've made this three times in the last month. I think I'll just add whatever veggies I have on hand, keeping the noodles, dressing and cilantro the same every time.

Recipe:  5 spoons of easiness
Outcome: 5 spoons of deliciousnsess