Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fragile Brilliance by Tammy Blackwell

In a previous life, I was an indie book blogger. You probably wouldn't have recognized me, because I was mean and merciless and never gushed. But! There were some books I liked a lot, and my very favorite of all was the Timber Wolves trilogy by Tammy Blackwell. You can read my previously-written thoughts on Destiny Binds, Time Mends, and Fate Succumbs on my old blog. And after you do that, I'm sure you'll want to buy them, so I have some good news!

Tammy Blackwell's books are on sale through January 1 for $0.99 each. Or you can get the whole Timber Wolves trilogy for only $2.49. And if you're me and already own everything she's ever written, there's a giveaway going on too!

"Okay, Elizabeth," you say. "You've convinced us on this Timber Wolves thing. And we've checked out your old blog and are going to buy everything on your Quick Pick list, because we know they're awesome. But what about this Fragile Brilliance?"

Fragile Brilliance is the first book in Tammy Blackwell's new Shifters and Seers series, which is basically a continuation of the Timber Wolves trilogy, with a few differences. For one, the Timber Wolves trilogy is all about Scout, and now these new books are about other people close to Scout. Fortunately, Scout is still there and around, and I was only a liiiiiiiittle bit "I want to read about Scout and Scout's boy (who I am totally not giving away in case you haven't read Timber Wolves yet)!" Also, I believe I read somewhere (probably Tammy Blackwell's blog) that the Shifters and Seers series is more paranormal romance than urban fantasy, meaning that the point of the story is for two people to end up together. 

Fragile Brilliance is about Scout's sort-of, never-really ex-boyfriend/good friend Charlie  (Okay, maybe that's a bit of a spoiler for Timber Wolves, but I feel it is necessary) and a totally new character named Maggie. And I would say that the book is mostly about the relationship between Charlie and Maggie, but that's okay because a.) their relationship is interesting and to do with lots of deep-seated emotional problems on both sides and b.) there is also a serious everyone-is-going-to-die plot crisis. Charlie is pretty traumatized because, as a character, he took repeated beatings in the Timber Wolves trilogy. But that's okay because now he has Maggie, a good addition to the team as an ambitious artist/thaumaturgic from humble beginnings. After Timber Wolves, I was pretty curious about what a thaumaturgic actually was, and though I must confess I wanted to see more about this race, I now feel more satisfied on this domain.

I don't know how much more I can say without major spoilers for all the books. But rest content that if you are a Timber Wolves fan, you want to read Fragile Brilliance. And if you have not read any of the books, you want to read them ALL. I, for one, am super excited about the next book, Infinite Harmony, coming in November 2014, because it's about Joshua the immortal, who falls into the category of "character I most want to know more about."

And for those of you who tune in for tales of my baking, not of my reading, today I tried to bake peanut butter cup cookie dough crumble bars. Unfortunately, though I remembered to buy condensed milk, I didn't realize that one required a can opener to open it, and I own no can opener. Yes, I realize this gives me lots of idiot points. So I tried making them without the condensed milk layer, figuring they would at least be bar cookies, and no one would have a problem with that. They seem to have come out okay, but they require lots of cooling before eating. Probably because of the condensed milk I didn't use. Sigh. Baking is hard.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Cookie Pie!

This meandering blog post will tell you about two important creations of mine: cookie pie with cake frosting and chocolate cookie pie. Let it never be said that I am not creative.

The week of Thanksgiving, I was chatting on line with a friend of mine, and he mentioned that one of his coworkers brought in a cookie pie. I, of course, was instantly jealous, because I wanted a cookie pie of my own, which struck me as a little odd, since I don't usually like pie. But cookie pie was something I could totally get behind. Concurrent with this, I was planning my Thanksgiving meal. (I spend Thanksgiving alone and cook for myself. Don't feel bad. This is actually how I prefer it.) And I realized that finally, here was a traditional Thanksgiving dessert that I wanted to eat. So I googled the recipe and realized that a cookie pie would be very easy to make. As the recipe on Our Best Bites said, "This is about ten times easier than making chocolate chip cookies. And chocolate chip cookies aren't even hard!"

So the day before Thanksgiving, I went to the store to get all the ingredients. Sadly, I had to get a Safeway brand pie crust, because that was all they had left. But the next day I put together all my ingredients and made the above pie. I ate it with Coldstone Creamery cake batter ice cream with cookie dough mixed in. It was delicious and amazing, and I felt such a sense of accomplishment. This actually kicked off a whole excitement for baking that has lasted a couple of weeks and may continue longer. I've made a Pinterest page of things I plan to make, and I'll add more as I find more recipes. The internet is full of them!

A few weeks later, I was talking to a friend of mine about my baking, and I offered to bake him something for his birthday, since we were gaming that day. I suggested a few things, but since he was curious about cookie pie, we decided to go with that. But because I'm me, I couldn't just make it the way it was. I had to make it more exciting and challenging! (Actually, as I write this, I realize that this does not describe me at all in many aspects of my life. So I really have no idea where this motivation came from.) Regardless, I decided to see if I could make my own pie crust. I got discouraged at first, because all the recipes required a food processor. But then a friend of mine told me I could just use a pastry cutter, and I found this recipe for which that worked. I followed it to the best of my ability, but I needed more water than they said and got frustrated and put in a bit too much water. And the dough ended up with some huge butter clumps. But it looked and tasted like pie crust, so it worked.

I had another thought one day between my cookie pie makings: that the recipe would taste even better with cake frosting on top. I mean, as it stood, it was a combination of a cookie and a pie, which was amazing. But add frosting, and it's cookie and pie and cake. And not only that, but the different flavors would remain distinct. (Not to put down the awesomeness of slutty brownies in any way, but I always found that the different layers kind of merged together.) So the same friend who told me to use a pastry cutter for my pie crust linked me to this frosting, which is basically what all frosting dreams of being. 

Since the pie crust recipe made two crusts, I decided to do a test run at work. Unfortunately, the same day, someone else brought in birthday cupcakes, and a third person sent chocolate from Germany. But! A few people did eat my pie, and they confirmed that it was sufficiently good to give someone for his birthday. So I made the second pie. Unfortunately, I was unable to put the super good frosting on it, because I had put it in the refrigerator overnight, and it had gotten too hard to use. I didn't have time to let it melt, but I fortunately had some store-bought frosting that would do in a pinch. The pie went over very well, though it was gooier than it had come out before. Which, you know, wasn't really a problem at all.

I needed a dessert for myself for Christmas Eve dinner, and I didn't want to go into something complicated, because I was already making a roast (which came out quite well. I'm hoping it's just delicious pink-y roast and not tapeworm-y roast, but I'm pretty sure it's okay), and I had some store-bought pie crusts I needed to use  This combined with another idea of mine. A coworker had said she preferred oatmeal raisin cookies to chocolate chip cookies, so I wondered whether I could make oatmeal raisin pie. It turns out I can, but I didn't want to do that, because I don't love raisins in cookies. But I got the idea I could make any kind of cookie pie.... like CHOCOLATE cookie pie. 

I couldn't find a recipe for this, so I looked at some recipes for chocolate cookies. They seemed to be pretty similar to chocolate chip cookies, just with cocoa powder added, so I decided to add 1/4 cup of cocoa to the filling batter and see what happened. The result was kind of amazing, even with an inferior store-bought pie crust. I added the rest of my homemade frosting to the top, and even I was in sugar heaven. I strongly recommend.

Okay, by next week I plan to move onto baking something new. But for now, Merry Christmas and/or Happy Holidays to all!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Angelbound by Christina Bauer

I picked up Angelbound because the premise sounded interesting. A part demon slave girl who fights to the death in the Arena but also attends high school? A love interest who was part angel? Sign me up! Everyone knows angels are my favorite supernatural race! But I was unprepared for how much I was going to love Angelbound. I read what is not a short book in 3 days, partly because I stayed up way too late on two of those days reading it. 

The world is complex and unique. Five races live in five different realms---angels in Heaven, demons in Hell, undead ghouls in the Dark Land, quasi-demons in Purgatory, and demon-hunting, half-angel Thrax in Antrum. Angelbound takes place in Purgatory, the land where human souls go to be judged, where the quasi-demons live under the rule of the ghouls. While quasi-demon slavery is a problem, it does lead to much hilarity when main character Myla mocks her overlords or goes to a high school where all lessons ridiculously revolve around serving ghouls. Myla serves in the Arena, where she faces souls who choose to be judged by combat, usually because if they were judged by their deeds, they would go straight to Hell, so she gets to encounter all the other races as well.

The plot was suitably epic, dealing with the balance of power between all the races, which Myla ended up right in the middle of because of her role, her family, and super-special-secret stuff about her. Honestly, the plot was so huge and life-changing, I'm wondering a little bit what's left to cover in the next books, but there was suitable prophesy that even greater things will be happening, so I'm excited.

And as for the romance... It was compelling. It was believable. It was completely secondary to the plot. In short, it was awesome. I mean, we didn't even meet Lincoln until quite a ways into the book, and I was already hooked for completely second reasons. But I was still excited that Myla got a boy. I mean, we could have been upset that Thrax prince Lincoln was extremely rude to Myla when he first meets her and think that this is not how a relationship should begin, but we secretly want all books to be Pride and Prejudice, so we decided to let that go. 

As an author, I feel compelled to comment upon the book's publishing company, Ink Monster, mainly because their publishing model is not one I've seen before. You can get a more detailed idea of who they are by reading the Manifesto on their web page, but basically their idea is to be a company who creates books for readers. Instead of putting out an author's work, they have a  team people who work on a fictional world, with a guarantee of new content out every six months. 

Now, I confess that part of me looks at this and says, "Nu! Books are an author's art! How can they go against that?" But another part of me thinks the idea is kind of cool. I mean, as a fantasy author, I make up tons of world, and I don't necessarily have the time or ideas to turn them into full-fledged plots on my own. And I think it would be awesome to have a full time job where I worked with other authors to create something. And as a reader, I of course love the idea of new content every six months, when as a writer I know that, for me, at least, such a timeline is not feasible. And Ink Monster must be doing something right, because they had two books out this past week, and I, crazy forthcoming book stalker that I am, had heard of both books before their release. So best of luck to them, from my vantage point of waiting excitedly for the Angelbound sequel out in May!

I received a free ARC of Angelbound in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan

I spent Friday home sick but thankfully felt better by afternoon yesterday. Which meant I still got to do all the exciting things I wanted to do this weekend. Which was mainly finish going through the Amazon top 10,000 reviewers to see if any of them wanted to review my book. I've been doing that for the last few weeks, and it turns out that some of them did want copies, so hopefully this will yield to a plethora of reviews. I also played around on Pinterest and made an Earthbound Angels fantasy cast page, which includes a spoiler character from Raising Chaos. I still need a Lucifer and an Azrael, so if anyone has any ideas, let me know.

I've been motivated to bake of late, for no real reason other than that I like sugary baked goods and I can. This may last for a week or it may last for the next several years. It's really hard to tell with me. But as long as I am interested, I shall blog about baking and books! 

The other day I decided I wanted to make sopapillas (cinnamon sugar doughy tortilla things), and the closest recipe I could find was sopapilla cheesecake bars, and I decided I was on board with that. So I gathered up all the ingredients and decided to bake them. As you can see, they came out a little lopsided. I think this is partly due to my baking ineptitude---I should have dabbed the cinnamon sugar mix more evenly, for example---and partly due to the fact that the recipe called for Pillsbury crescent rolls as the crust. The problem with this is that the crescent rolls want to come apart, and I had a hard time smooshing them up properly. There seem to be many websites on line that encourage this recipe in this manner, but I'm not sure it will work for me. I'm going to have to work on my rolling pin etiquette. Regardless, I have now eaten that bottom left hand corner, and it was delicious. So I'm calling it a win.

My book club is sadly not meeting this week because people are busy with holidays and whatnot. So we decided to do buddy reads instead, where we read a little bit of a book each day and talk about it. Mostly this consists of us complaining about which boys currently get points or no points, but since it's a young adult book club (for adult readers), this makes perfect sense. I've taken to recommending books to my book club that I want to read but have been uninspired to read on my own, and this month the club picked one of my choices: Unspoken, Book 1 of the Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan. And then after we read the first one, we immediately had to read the second, Untold.

The first sort-of-spoilery thing I have to say about Unspoken is that YOU WILL NOT LIKE THE END. That's why I put the book down the first time. I read the end and was like, "No, thank you." But now that's okay, because there's a second book to help you get over the end. Sort of. Honestly, the ending of Untold isn't that much better. We'll all just have to read Unmade when it comes out in the far reaches of 2014. In other notes, I decided to use the old cover for Unspoken, simply because it made me want to read the book, while the one that more matches the Untold cover I am "Eh" on. 

Unspoken is about British girl reporter Kami who has always spoken to a mysterious boy named Jared in her head, causing everyone around her to think she is crazy. Then one day she meets the boy and discovers that not only is he real, but he's the son of the super-important Lynburn family who has just returned to her town. I think the usual expectation in such a set-up is that Kami and Jared will immediately decide they are in love, and one of the interesting things about the book is that it didn't take this route. Instead, Kami and Jared are totally weirded out by each others' presences. To the point that they spend all their time together but can't touch each other and aren't sure they are glad the other exists. So their relationship is unique among YA books, and there are even a couple other cute boys in the mix to liven things up.

I have read Sarah Rees Brennan describe The Lynburn Legacy as Gothic, and in a way it is. The plot is certainly very dark, with ritual animal slaughter and pushing people down wells. But the tone of the novel is anything but dark. The characters have extremely witty banter that keeps up for the entire book. While no one is wittier than Kami, the side characters provide no end to amusement. My favorite is Angie, the people-hating champion napper, perhaps because I can relate to her. One of my fellow book club members liked Angie's lazy-but-there-when-it-counts brother Rusty and is convinced that he should be Kami's true love. She's wrong, of course, but I see where she's coming from.

So Unspoken  was a strange read, but it definitely inspired us to read Untold, and I have the proper amount of shame when I admit that I liked the second book better because it went along more traditional lines. (Yes, I realize this makes me a horrible hypocrite every time I balk at doing the traditional thing in my novels.) There was a lot more plot, for one thing, which is awesome, because I like plot, and Kami's relational dilemma was closer to "Which boy do I like? And which boy really likes me?" Really, many of my feelings about Unspoken were consisted of me thinking I would like the book if it were going to end in a particular way. And I spent a lot of the first book unsure whether Sarah Rees Brennan realized how it was supposed to go. After Untold, I rested content that our brains were on the same track. Of course, I'm not sure that she won't rip the carpet out from under me and kill everyone, but at least if I get a sad ending, I feel  it will be within the story structure I want.

Anyway. Lynburn Legacy. Unspoken. Untold. Good reads. But I'll understand if you decide to wait until the story is all done to pick them up.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Audible Habit

People who know me well know that I occasionally learn about something new and get VERY EXCITED about it. This can be anything from a book idea to a hobby to a television show, but once it gets a grip in my head, it's all I can think or talk about for a finite period of time. If it's a television show, this can last for upwards of a year, but for most other things, it's a few weeks at most. This past summer, I spent a month or two absolutely obsessed with Audible, and I have come to realize this has had a positive influence on my life in the long term.

In June, I had to drive twelve hours over the course of the weekend---probably more than that, given DC traffic. About a quarter of the way in, I realized that if I had to listen to the music on my ipod any longer, my head was going to explode---and that was my favorite music in the world! So what was I to do? I know! I thought. I'll get an audiobook. So I went on iTunes and downloaded my favorite book(s) of all time onto my ipad. (The Secret Circle by L.J. Smith. Shut up. I don't judge your reading tastes. And, yes, that is the ORIGINAL cover, the one from 1992, which also happens to be the one on my bookshelf.) 

After that, my drive flew right by! I actually wanted to go on more long car trips, so I could listen to MOAR audiobooks. I discovered that itunes was probably not the best way to go in terms of buying audiobooks, because I couldn't transfer books from one device to the other. But then I discovered audible, with its plethora of audiobooks and perfectly reasonable plans where, if you gave them a bunch of money, you could get 24 audiobooks for under $10 each. So I figured I could buy my VERY FAVORITEST BOOKS and keep them on hand for future car trips. (It is worth noting at this point that I actually prefer to listen to audiobooks of books I have read before, mostly because it doesn't matter if I zone out.)

That might have been the end of it, except that I discovered that a number of audiobooks seemed to be ridiculously cheap---$4 or so. Which, as we know, is practically free. And it is a violation of my principles to turn down things that are practically free. (It is because of this same logic that I own season 3 of Veronica Mars and probably any other number of seasons of television.) Plus, I assumed this was a sale that would soon be over, so I had to get them NAO or miss out forever. So... I bought one or two or a whole ton of audiobooks.

Eventually I figured out that the cheap prices actually had a purpose. They were books I already owned on Kindle and had corresponding cheap Audible prices. This should have curbed my habit, since I knew the sales would last forever, but instead I realized I could update my hardback books to Kindle AND get the Audible books for super cheap. So I got a few more audiobooks. 

Okay, so by this point, I realized I had a problem, and I told myself I could only buy audiobooks once a week. Meanwhile, I added a bunch of things to my wish list and checked every day to see if they had magically changed prices. If it helps, I didn't spend any money I didn't have. I also realized I had the perfect opportunity to listen to these audiobooks---the 1-2 hours I spent in the car commuting every day. I mean, sure, this was my radio time, but sacrifices had to be made. And after a few weeks, the obsession died down, and now I only buy audiobooks when they have specials like, "If you buy x number of audiobooks, we will give you free money." Because I have the credits, and it's free money.

So what have I been listening to? First up was the Night World series by L.J. Smith. I'd go into great detail about this, but I'm sure that at some future point, I will want to write a post about how L.J. Smith is the greatest author of all time and how I believe with an unequalled strength of will that Strange Fate will come out some day, and I don't want to spoil anything for you now. 

I planned to listen to all of L.J. Smith's works, but after 9 Night Worlds, I wanted a change. So next up was Simon R. Green's Nightside series. I had actually forgotten how much I loved the series as I was listening to it. I kept thinking, "Why did I get rid of these books?" (Then I remembered it was because I loaned them to my sister, and she never gave them back. Sometimes my desire to share my books backfires.) Nightside is an urban fantasy series about private detective John Taylor who lives in the secret, magical part of London and has an uncanny ability to find things. At times, some pretty horrible things happen, since the idea is that people can get things in the Nightside that they can't get anywhere else, but the perversity tends to be so over-the-top that it's hard to take seriously. I love all the colorful characters in the Nightside and frequently found myself wishing there were a computer RPG so that I could have them all as companions. At one point, the story even made me cry, and I found that it had influenced the Earthbound Angels series more than I had realized.

I finished the 12th book in the Nightside series last week, and moved onto the Chronicles of Elantra series by Michelle Sagara, another of my very favorite series. It's a straight fantasy series about a human girl named Kaylin Neya who lives in a city with a plethora of other humanoid races, both mortal and immortal. Kaylin herself has inexplicable magical powers and has a tendency to attract the allegiance of high-ranking individuals through sheer force of personality. The entire series is an excellent example of an effective naive narrator. Well, third person-y narrator, but it's close third. Characters are constantly refusing to explain things to Kaylin, but the reader can tell that there is an elaborate world built behind all the unspoken answers. I actually find that Kaylin is a character I greatly admire and would like to be more like, though that will no doubt seem strange to anyone who's read the books. But she strives to be good with every choice she makes, with complete disregard for what she sees as pointless social constructs. 

This listening to audiobooks on the way to work has actually worked out quite well for me. Especially this past week, I've found myself very excited to get into the car to keep listening to the stories. I don't even miss my radio time, because I drive enough short distances that I can more than keep up with the top 40 hits, and, especially now during the onslaught of holiday tunes, I spend a lot less time filtering out commercials and songs I dislike. I'm also making myself finish series I otherwise hadn't read---both Nightside and Chronicles of Elantra fall into that category. I think next up is the Alex Craft series by Kalayna Price, but I have the six months it will take me to finish Elantra to change my mind.