So, Wiscon is over for another year (boo), but after hearing such wonderful feedback about this series, I decided to continue doing it throughout the year – that way by the time next year rolls around there’ll be a good backlog of recipes and book reviews to get you going!

Bites

Toffee-Coconut Rocky Road Bars

One thing a bakesale can always use is more brownies.  Chocolate.  Sugar.  Etc.  So when I saw this recipe over at Taste and Tell (an excellent site for recipe reviews, btw), I had to share it with you!

This one involves a little more prep time – you have to bake it in layers (and be sure to see Deborah’s notes about baking the first layer a little longer to make sure it’s not soggy) – but the results sure look worth it!
Toffee-Coconut Rocky Road Bars
from The Deen Family Cookbook

Makes sixteen 2-inch brownies

(Recipe and Directions Here)

Books

klages

Portable Childhoods, by Ellen Klages

Ellen was one of the Guests of Honor this year at Wiscon, and as part of my long-standing tradition, I only read her books after the convention was over (although I’d heard her read the short version of the Green Glass Sea at a previous Wiscon).  I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors this way  – Charles DeLint, after the Minicon where he was Guest of Honor (GoH), and Jo Walton (also Minicon); Peter S. Beagle and Tim Powers, after Capricons at which they were guests, and the list goes on.  I can definitely say that Ellen’s joined the company (and even that I have a serious case of Authorial Crush, but thankfully that won’t make me unable to speak to her ever again.  She’s just too friendly and welcoming for that to ever happen.).

As a genre author, she’s a bit of an odd duck.  She writes fiction about science (sometimes).  The main character of Green Glass Sea is a girl whose father is working on the secret project at Los Alamos during WWII.  Stories in the collection I’m writing about have characters who are scientists, who even do science – but the science isn’t the main part of the story – the people are.  Is it science fiction?  I think so, but I’ve had conversations with others who disagree.

Regardless of the label you’re willing to assign to it, the stories are just damned good writing.  The theme of childhood, and childhood dreams, is reflected and refracted throughout.  These aren’t the childhoods of rosy adult imaginings, though.  Ellen has the gift of writing about characters of all ages in a way that rings true for each character.  Reading the eponymous story, in which a mother writes about her relationship with her daughter at various points in time, I could simultaneously sympathize with both the narrator (close to my own age) and with her daughter, based on my memories of being a child at those ages.  Heck of a trick, and she pulls it off every time – there’s not a false note in the bunch.

Oh, and did I mention that she’s funny as all get-out?  The scene where the mom is trying to teach her daughter to gargle had me laughing so hard it was difficult to breathe.

I feel like this review is all over the place – which kind of fits, actually.  It’s like visiting the house of someone you’ve just met recently (and like a whole lot), who takes you around and shows you one really cool thing after another.  It’s too much to take in all at once – this is one of those collections I’m looking forward to re-reading.  A  lot.

There’s a really great review of this book (with quotes, even!) over at Amazon, if you’d like another point of view as to why this collection rocks.

True characters, laughter, love, heartbreak..  what are you waiting for?  Go read it!  Shoo.

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Only 10 more days until the first scheduled activity of Wiscon!  Yay!  I’ve seen the programming lineup, and let me tell you, it’s amazing.

Today, let’s talk about cookies.  Types of cookies that work well for bakesales:

Thumbprints Stuff with jam in the center (or lemon curd; don’t these look fantastic?) You have to be a little careful packing them, but the jam always keeps the cookies from being too dry.

Tassies – basically, little pastry cups with some kind of sugared nut filling.  I’m fond of cashew tassies; you can also make walnut or pecan tassies.  It’s all good.  They’re a little more fussy to make, but the taste is fantastic.

Jumbles – aka kitchen sink cookies.  Could be just chocolate chips, could add nuts, M&Ms, cacoa nibs, dried fruit… whatever you want.  Lots of flexibility.

Meltaways – traditionally mint or lemon, but I’ve also made key lime meltaways (the tartness works wonderfully with the sugar coating).  Addictive.

World Peace Cookies. So named, because if everyone had these available in the morning, we’d have world peace.  Sinfully delicious.

Next up… Brownies!

Books

Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog, by Ysabeau S. Wilce (2007 Honor book)

Flora is eleven.  Her mother, the Warlord’s Commanding General, is rarely at home; her father, a crackpot since the last war, only comes downstairs to wreak havoc – he spends most of his time locked in his rooms, noisily mad.  Flora spends her days either at school or trying to keep the parts of their decrepit castle that they live in habitable (the spirit who should be doing so has been banished by her mother for reasons unknown).  Flora has definite ideas about what she wants to do in life – and they do not involve going to the military academy, even if she would be the first in her family in untold generations not to.  She hasn’t quite gotten around to telling this to her intimidating mother, though.

One day, Flora is running late and decides to use the forbidden magical elevator (forbidden because it’s erratic; it goes where it wants, not where you want, and the last person it lost took a week to reappear).  She meets up with the castle’s banished magical butler, who offers her a deal…  he’ll help her with the housework if she gives him just a little of her breath…

Thus begins a chain of events that lead Flora into dangerous situations (at home and in the city and beyond), test her knowledge of herself and her family, and try her friendships to their breaking point.  Not to mention putting her own life in danger…

Flora is a charming heroine – she’s strong and charismatic, but she’s not smarter than her age (you’re yelling at her half the time to stop being so stupid, but of course she’s mostly ignorant).  She acts from the heart, and from a desire to live up to her role models the Rangers (long-since disbanded by the Warlord to appease the enemy with whom they have a tenous peace).

It’s an engaging book, with a ripping good plot – it swings you right along with it, and the world-building is fun (if not terribly logical at times).  There are definitely themes about the nature of friendship (when does being strong cross the line into bullying?), and growning up, that should resonate with readers of all ages.

I did find myself wondering, at the end of the book, how much it was saying about gender.  In my opinion, the story doesn’t so much question gender as it takes characters that would normally be male and make them female, without changing much else.  This isn’t entirely true, of course – there’s the sub-plot of Flora’s debutante ball/presentation/party, and how she’s going to ever be ready for it in time – but really, if you changed your pronouns and names around, you’d have to change little else.  Flora’s fashion-obsessed best friend (who’s often responsible for looking after younger siblings) could, in the same light, have easily been a girl.

I’ll admit that I thought it was a bit light and hadn’t made much of an impression, but when I saw that there was a sequel, my first reaction was, “ooh! I want to read that!” – so obviously there was more to it than I gave it credit for.  So I can definitely say it’s a fun read, and may give younger readers a strong female protagonist with which to identify – but I definitely felt it could have done more in that regard.  Perhaps the sequel will…

Another entry in my series of posts dedicated to the Tiptree Award, which is given to works of speculative fiction that explore themes of gender.  Funds for the Tiptree are raised through a variety of ways, one of which is the Bake Sale.

Bites

Alright, it’s the last minute and you need to throw something together for a bake sale or a picnic or a potluck.  Some possibilities that require no baking or chilling:

Bites ready to go out the door in 30 minutes or less:

Bourbon Balls. This depends on whether or not your gathering is alcohol-friendly, but made as described these are heavenly.  They’re also all the better for sitting out for a few days (or in the fridge), so feel free to make them days ahead of time (or weeks, and freeze them) and pull out as needed.

Turtles. Super-basic – make a base of a few pecans, squash a slightly warmed caramel on top (you can make your own or buy a bag of them), and cover with melted chocolate.  Pop in the fridge for a few minutes, and you’re good to go!

No-cook cookies*. This was a genre of item I had never heard about until I was asking my mother-in-law for ideas.  There is, in fact, some cooking involved, but it’s all stovetop. You can change around the add-ins to suit yourself and what you have in your pantry.  Jeff loves these.

*No Cook Cookies

– 2 cups sugar
– 4TB cocoa
– 1/2 cup milk
– 1/2 stick butter

Boil one minute.

Stir in:

– 1 c peanut butter
– 1tsp vanilla
– 3 cups oats.  Can make up amount with coconut.

Drop by spoonful on waxed paper, cool for a few minutes.

Any other recipes you love to throw together at the last minute?

Books

Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall (Tiptree winner, 2007)

This falls in the camp of the ‘bleak future dystopian’ novels, which of course means I was excited to read it.  🙂  It’s been compared to Children of Men, and The Handmaid’s Tale, because of its portrayal of a future England that has been slowly (or rapidly) losing environmental integrity of some kind or another, and because it deals with the way that women’s choices and fertility are affected in a society under stress.

In Daughters (originally published as The Carhullan Army), environmental disaster has resulted in most of Britain’s people living in very close quarters (to conserve resources).  Fertility is strictly limited; women are forced to be fitted with contraceptive coils, and police do random ‘spot checks’ of women in the population to make sure they’re compliant.  Women are also forced to prove compliance (ie, strip naked and display the trailing strings) when starting new jobs, applying for housing, etc.  The government is engaged in a ten-year reconstruction project which of course gets nothing done.

The frame for the story is that the narrative is a transcript from a prisoner in a penal colony, known only as Sister, which gives the entire story an air of hopelessness – you know it isn’t going to end well even before it begins.

Sister (whose real name we never learn) has been living in one of the crowded towns, with a husband who has increasingly become more and more distant and accepting of the indignities forced upon the populace by the authorities.  Sister plans her escape from the town to a place she’s only known through early news reports – an all-female homestead colony up in the hills north of her city.  The book is her story of life at this homestead, among the women.

Some of the questions the book addresses are: in what ways are the differences between men and women a result of biology, or of society?  What would a woman’s society look like (especially in a dystopian future)?  What might it take, personally and societally, to create individuals willing to consider using violence to achieve their goals?

Did I enjoy it?  Well, I’m always one for a good post-apocalyptic dystopia. This was a bit light on the actual apocalyptic events (widespread flooding due to environmental change, basically), being more concerned with the story and experiences of Sister.  It’s well-written, definitely, but I felt a distance from the narrator.  She undergoes some really awful experiences, but although her state during them is described, it lacks.. .empathy, perhaps?  Some of that can be due to the frame – one hardly expects her interrogators/interviewers to be empathetic to her story.  Or it could be that telling it as history blunts the emotional force.  Or it could be that I, as an American reader, am missing the subtleties of emotion that would be easily picked up on by a British reader.

There isn’t a single strong male in the entire book – one presumes that there are still decent men somewhere, not just bullies and lackeys, but they’re not seen here.  The women are more richly characterized; although almost all are strong (one presumes that the weak wouldn’t make it to Carhullan to begin with), there are a wide variety of temperaments and attitudes portrayed.

It didn’t quite scratch my dystopian itch; the frame limited the story to a very brief period of time, and a specific focus of attention.  I generally prefer more thorough world-building, and of course want to know what happened afterwards…  but that’s like life, I suppose.  It was definitely a thought-provoking read, and one that I think stands strongly among its other ‘family members’.

I bought Artisinal Bread in Five Minutes a Day the other day on the recommendation of my Mom. Where cooking’s concerned, if she recommends it, I know it’ll be pretty good. So far, I’ve had pizza dough from it, and I’ve made a big batch of the buttermilk bread dough on page 207. When I saw it say “mix the [active dry] yeast and the salt and the sugar together in the water” for proofing, I was dubious, but I didn’t divert from the recipe. I’ve made two loaves of bread and Tracey made a batch of naan in our cast iron skillet. This is fabulous bread dough.

I’m not sure what the secret of their method really is, but it works. I’m using Fleischmann’s Yeast, White Lilly flour, and some Celtic sea salt I found at Southern Season the other day, and it rose, fell, and rose again perfectly. The crumb was light and airy, with a strong hint of that ripe sourness of well-risen bread, even on the first day. The second loaf I made after going on a weekend trip, with leftover dough that I kept in the fridge (the recipe advises that it can be kept for up to 12 days without a refresher). That bread was absolutely magnificent.

I’ve done a lot of things to make better bread over the years. I’ve made sourdough starters that lasted for a couple of years, and I had a batch of champagne yeast I grew from organic grapes that turned out beautiful, consistent bread. I have to say that my best bread with those was better than the bread I made from this recipe, at least from the batch I made on the same day as I made the dough. But for the amount of work i had to put in, it was excellent bread.

I can’t speak yet for the other recipes in the book, but if they’re anything like the pizza dough and the buttermilk dough, this is going to be my go-to book for bread when I’m short on time from now on.