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.

Advertisements

So last weekend was Wiscon, and Saturday of that weekend was the BakeSale.

My morning started at 7:30am with the fabulous Farmer’s Market at the capitol in Madison (no pictures) – which was stunningly empty, as the rain and early hour combined to convince people to stay indoors.  yay for me!  I could actually walk on the sidewalk, not shuffle past the vendors in a mad crush.  It was lovely, even if it was raining.  I scored much cheese and tasty things for the party that evening.

Back to the hotel, we started plating.  And plating.  And plating some more.

My fabulous assistant E did the lion’s share of this work, plating all morning and into the afternoon.

The fabulous E,  number-one minion!

The fabulous E, number-one minion!

The table looked something like this most of the morning:

Table full of goodies

Table full of goodies

We started up at 11:15am, and sold out around 4pm, with a total of something like 400+ plates (earning over $400 for the Tiptree Award – not bad, and similar to last year, but I think I’ll be shooting for more next year!)

A huge THANK YOU to everyone who donated your baking and your time! We literally could not have done this without you.

Someone even brought Cake Pops!  I was so excited.  So were these girls:

Girls eating Cake Pops

Girls eating Cake Pops

We had tons of other tasty treats:

Mmm.  Cake.

Mmm. Cake.

This was a Grand Marnier cake with cranberries and pecans; next to it was one of the vegan offerings, peanut-butter cereal thingies.  Those were popular.

more tasties

more tasties

Here you can see some brownies, an award-winning recipe of Mandelbrot, Nutty Millionnaire’s shortbread, cocoa rice-krispie treats, and a blueberry muffin cake.  Yum!

OMG Pie

OMG Pie

This is a horrible picture of what was some EXTREMELY TASTY Rhubarb-Ginger pie.  The person dropped them off still warm.  Those flew out the door, let me tell you!

cake pops!

cake pops!

One of the cake pops, another mandelbrot, and some of the tasty, tasty chocolate and chocolate-peanut-butter fudge.

even gluten-free!

even gluten-free!

We even had two gluten-free desserts – one (pictured above) was a fruit-nut ball, presumably with dates/figs and walnuts (both vegan and gluten-free), the other were some darned tasty coconut-lime bars.  Both were raved over, and the people who needed gluten-free or vegan desserts were tremendously happy (and often threw extra money at us – win!)

I learned a lot from doing it this year that will definitely help next year’s sale go more smoothly (like arranging for volunteers in advance, oops).

I’ve been asked to continue the series of Books and Bites posts by the Tiptree Board (!!!), so you’ll be seeing more of those come down the pike as I get unpacked and settled back in at home (and start baking again).  I’m really excited about that!

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’.

For the second entry in the Tiptree Bake Sale series (where we explore the age old questions of: What do I make for a bake sale?  And where do I go to find good speculative fiction that’s doing interesting things with gender roles?), I’m presenting a roundup of useful bakesale recipe sites out there on the Web.

Recipe Roundup

First, and possibly most obvious: Bake Sale Recipes. Not only is there a recipe index organized by level of effort as well as type of item (win!), there is advice on running your own bake sale.

Land O’Lakes (the butter people) have organized a page of their Bake Sale Bestsellers, with some really tempting-looking recipes.

Recipezaar (which always gives my popup-blocker a workout, but can be a source for some good recipes) had a discussion on Your Favorite Bake Sale Ideas that has some really tasty-looking things in it.

The Thrifty Fun site had a discussion on Bakeless Bake Sale Recipes that contains links to a number of useful sites, as well as some really creative (and thrifty!) ideas.

The folks over at Eagle Brand (condensed milk) have collected a huge number of recipes (selecting ‘bars and cookies’ and ‘fudge and candies’ will be most applicable), and you can’t go wrong with sweetened condensed milk, yum.

Also, for the Tiptree bake sale, we admire creativity almost as much as tastiness – and combining the both really gets you somewhere!  We’ve had people make cookies in the shape of breast-cancer ribbons (glazed pink, of course); cookies with pictures printed on them; all sorts of interesting things!

I’ll admit that one of my new addictions is Cake Pops (look for a post on that, soon!).  Madison is awfully close to Minnesota, you know..  things on a stick are a food group in those parts.

Any other sites you’ve found that you really love?  Post ’em in comments!

Book Review

Today’s book is The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.  I’d heard Nnedi read at Wiscon last year, so eagerly sought out this book to read recently while at the library.

The protagonist is a fourteen-year old girl named Ejii who lives in a future Saharan Africa (year 2070 or thereabouts).  As a result of a worldwide catastrophe some years before she was born (I’m a sucker for apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic stories, although this one is set far past the ‘surviving the cataclysm’ stage), some people are born with talents.  Ejii’s is that sometimes, shadows speak to her (although she can’t always understand what they say).

Ejii has grown up in a society where the roles of women and girls are strictly curtailed (her father was a stridently dogmatic man who declared himself chief and set about creating a ‘safe’ environment).  After her father’s death, she has a hard time coming to terms with the new possibilities available to her and with her abilities, as well as with her conflicting feelings about her father.

She ends up leaving her village (and her safety net) and becoming involved in a series of events that will drastically affect not only her village, but her entire world, and comes of age along the way.  (Vague, I know, but so many spoilers!)

Ejii is a really sympathetic character – she’s not drawn as some sort of adult in a teenager’s body – as an adult reader, and an adult woman, there were plenty of places where I wanted her to do or say different things, or saw how her choices were going to end up causing trouble. While she’s young and somewhat naive, she’s not stupid. I think she would ring true to teenaged readers – although the world is a fantastical setting, her dilemmas are those that every teenager faces: what is my relationship with my parents?  How do I come to terms with my own desires?  How do I even figure out what those are?  How do I figure out what my place in the world is, and how do I go about making it once I do figure it out?  She also learns about the meaning of friendship, and of responsibility.

The world Okorafor has built is really interesting, especially to this european-descended, US-born person.  Ejii’s culture is rich and fascinating, and the context of speculative fiction allows Okorafor to present aspects of a world that most spec-fic readers would find rather alien (a predominantly Muslim Saharan Africa) using tools of the genre we’re already familiar with (learning new worlds is part of the package, after all).  It’s not just ‘oh, aren’t these people and these cultures Interesting?’, though.  The culture and the land shape Ejii and her behaviors and thoughts, so that when she herself is in an alien land and interacting with an alien culture, we learn as much about where she is from by the way she interacts while there as we do from anything Okorafor directly tells or shows us about it.

A truly wonderful book, by a writer worth watching.

Tiptree Honor Book logo

Tiptree Honor Book logo

That’s the slogan of the fund-raising arm of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, ie., the bakesale.

The Tiptree is a literary prize awarded annually for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. It was created in 1991 by authors Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler, and announced at Wiscon, the world’s premiere feminist science-fiction convention (held in Madison, Wisconsin each Memorial Day weekend). Every year, a panel of judges reads hundreds of books that explore the theme of gender in a speculative context, and compiles an honor list (some really great reads, here) as well as choosing whom to honor with the award itself.

So why am I writing about it?

I’ve recently taken over the administration of the Tiptree Bake Sale at Wiscon, and wanted to do a few things with it.

First, I wanted to increase the visibility of the award among one of my favorite non-fannish communities (ie., foodies).

Second, I wanted to kick off a series of articles that will explore the greater question that we all occasionally face:  What to bake for a Bakesale?

I’ll be doing a series of combination posts – recipes (or links to recipes) for items that would be fantastic at a bake sale, plus short reviews of former Tiptree Award/Honor books.  Hopefully, one or the other (or both!) of these things will appeal to you – and I’d love to hear your suggestions for future features, either food- or book-related!

Today, I’m going to start with a link to one of the bake sale classics:

The Dream Bar, aka Magic Bar.

Usually a layer of shortbread crust, some gooey milk-based confection layer, chocolate, coconut, maybe some nuts…  Nicole over at Baking Bites recently made a batch, and they look yummy!  I’d certainly be happy to see those cross my desk come next month.  (Cut ahead of time into nice bite-sized pieces, please – these are best cut when cold, perhaps even frozen, as they tend to be a bit gooey).

And your book for today?

1996 Tiptree Winner The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell.

Russell grew up in Lombard, Illinois – right next to where I lived for almost ten years.  She is an anthropologist by training, and this expertise really informs her world-building and alien characters.

Our viewpoint character is Emilio, a Jesuit priest who is among the group of responders sent to make first contact with aliens after their signals are detected on Earth.  The book takes place in two alternating timelines simultaneously.  In one, we meet an older, traumatized Emilio who has returned from the expedition as the sole survivor, having obviously experienced something truly horrible.  In the other timeline, we follow the group as they journey to the alien planet and make first contact.  There is tremendous narrative tension, as you the reader know that somewhere along the line it all goes horribly wrong, but don’t know how or why.  Young Emilio and his companions are a really likeable bunch, and their developing friendships and relationships with each other ring really true and lifelike.

The religious elements of the book (Emilio has a crisis of faith as a result of his experiences, and this informs much of the narrative) are done really well.  There aren’t any black or white illustrations here – the characters and their beliefs are drawn realistically, wholly..  with complexity and nuance.  It is not a book you need to be religious to enjoy (I certainly am not, and I consider this one of my favorite books of all time) – but you will walk away from it with a more personal understanding of the intersection of faith and science.

This is an incredible book, and is very well written.  I often recommend it to people who think that they hate science fiction, that it’s all “rayguns and bug-eyed monsters”.  I hope that you enjoy it, as well.