Rating: 4.5

Summary: Working in a mindless office job in small-town Indiana with a stagnant love life, Maggie is blown into a new job in a shop called Enchantments.  While Maggie isn’t sure what to make of her new boss Felicity’s profession she’s a witch, Maggie is quickly pulled into a world she did not know existed – the world of magic.

Reaction: Magic meets mystery – I liked it. Actually, I liked it lots. The mysteries were somewhat predictable – the author plays fair and you can tell “who done it” before the end.  Maggie is a lovable and realistically written, and I sympathize with the family quirks that Maggie faces every day.  (My family is wonderful, but there are definitely quirks.) I also enjoyed the small town setting, where everyone knows everyone’s business. So – read it. Won’t take you long, and it’s short, light and fun.

Luxe, by Anna Godbersen

Rating: 3.5

Summary: “Pretty girls in pretty dresses, partying until dawn. Irresistible boys with sly smiles and dangerous intentions. White lies, dark secrets, and scandalous hookups. This is Manhattan,1899…” A story of high society, revolving around the proper Elizabeth Holland and her little sister, Diana, manipulative Penelope Hayes, and handsome Henry Schoonmaker.

Reaction: Fun, light read. Written rather dramatically (which I didn’t quite take seriously). I wasn’t a fan of many of the characters as people, if you will.  I enjoyed seeing what would happen, but it didn’t compel me to finish. My favorite part? The clothes. Oh-my-gosh could I rock out those dresses. Enjoyable and girlie – I’ll read the rest of the series.

Theme Cupcakes

An easy, pretty idea that doesn’t even really require a recipe.  It’s also easy to use for themed parties or showers – just cut out a heart for bridal showers, a duck for baby showers or a turkey for Thanksgiving.

(1) Make cupcakes in cupcake papers – whatever kind you like, though I’ve found chocolate works better.

(2) Make or open some icing – a bright or contrasting color is most effective.

(3) Cut the tops off the cupcakes, so that the top of the cupcake is level with the paper. Using a tiny cookie cutter, punch out your favorite shape in the top that you cut off.

(4) Ice the cupcake, then put the top part that you cut off back on.  Save the cut-out shapes – they make cute garnishes!

These were for a bridal shower, hence the pink hearts.

Chocolate Wedding Cake

One of my friends just got married, and we threw her a bridal shower. Instead of ordering a cake, I decided that I could handle designing, baking and decorating a pseudo wedding cake. What I came up with was a four-layer chocolate pound cake, with both white butter cream icing and chocolate glaze.  I also did some icing flowers (which I will not attempt to describe on a blog, unless there’s great demand). I doubled the cake recipe and tripled the white icing recipe. It fed 20 ladies with more than half to spare.

Chocolate Pound Cake

  • 1 c. butter (no substitutes)
  • 5 eggs
  • 3 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 t. vanilla
  • 1 1/4 c. milk
  • 1 oz. semisweet chocolate, grated

Allow butter and eggs to stand at room temperate for 3o minutes.  Grease (I use the flour spray) halfway up the sides of two 8- or 9-inch round cake pans, or a 10-inch tube pan.  In a medium bowl, stir flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.  Set pans and flour aside.

In a very large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electic mixer on medium to high speed for about 30 seconds or until softened. Gradually add sugar, beating on medium to high speed about 10 minutes or until well combined. Add vanilla – I always add more than the recipe calls for. Add eggs, one at a time, beating on low to medium speed for 1 minute after each addition, scraping bowl often. Then, alternately add flour and milk, beating on low to medium speed just until combined. Fold in grated chocolate – which I believe I tripled.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake in a 325 degree oven about 1 1/2 hours for the tube pan or 30 – 35 minutes for the cake pans, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cook in pan on a wire rack for 10 – 15 minutes, then loosen sides of the cakes from the pan. Remove the cake from the pan and completely cool it/them.

– Adapted from a copied recipe my sister-in-law gave me from a magazine, whose title isn’t on the copy.

Cake decorating tip: Wrap your cake in plastic wrap after it’s fully cooled, and freeze it. Let it partially defrost and trim off any uneven edges or smooth the top while it’s still partially frozen. It cuts more cleanly and there are less crumbs to get into your icing.

Stack your cakes with whatever icing you like in between the layers.

Butter Cream Icing

  • 1/2 c. shortening (Normally I used butter and more butter, but this time I did half Crisco to make the icing whiter.)
  • 1/2 c. butter
  • 1 lb. (approx. 4 cups) powdered sugar, sifted
  • 2 Tbl. milk or water
  • 1 t. clear vanilla

Cream the butter and shortening. Add sugar, water and vanilla.  Using an electric mixer, blend until creamy. Yield: 3 cups. Smooth onto the sides and top of your cake.  I ended up having to do a double layer of icing because you could still see the brown of the chocolate through one layer.

Cake decorating tip: Using the right tools makes all the difference. Get an icing spreader that’s as tall as your cake, so you can do the sides in one swipe.

Shiny Chocolate Glaze

  • 3 squares unsweetened chocolate
  • 3 Tbl. water
  • 1 Tbl. butter
  • 1 c. powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/2 t. vanilla

Melt the chocolate with your preferred method – I’m a microwave-the-chocolate-and-butter-together-for-15-seconds-stir-and-microwave-again girl. Gradually add butter (if you haven’t melted it with the chocolate already) and water to sugar, beating with an electric mixer. Add vanilla, and beat until smooth.  If it’s too thick, I add more vanilla. 

Drizzle artistically over the top.  Add homemade or premade sugar flowers as a kind of minimal accent.


Series rating: 4.5/5

Disclaimer: Yep, I’m cheating. I know posting a review of 4 books all together is probably bad form. However, I don’t want to go into enough detail about a series to give away what happens (on the off chance you don’t guess). Plus, I’m behind in my blogging. 🙂

Summary: In Academ’s Fury, Tavi is a student at the Academy learning to be a spy, despite the fact that he doesn’t have the ability to wield the furies that are the magic of Alera.  He faces many challenges, from fellow students who hate him to (another) threat to the empire.

In Cursor’s Fury, Tavi is now a bona fide cursor – a spy and diplomat of the realm.  He is sent to a post where he is an officer in the army, despite the fact he has yet to serve the mandatory years of service to the realm.  Due to enemy attacks and death in the upper ranks, he’s faced with defending an empire from the Canim with an experimental cohort of mostly untrained, untested soldiers.  Civil war also erupts, and Tavi discovers the Canim attack isn’t a coincidence.

In Captain’s Fury,  Tavi of Calderon, now Captain of the First Aleran Legion, realizes that despite his victory (or at least stalemate) the Canim, there is a greater threat – the Vord, who drove the Canim from their home, the same Vord that attacked the empire before.  Tavi must find a way to overcome the deeply-seated hate between the Alerans and the Cane in order to forge an alliance against this greater evil.  

In Princeps’ Fury, Tavi realizes the increasing obvious secret of his birth and parentage.  In a combined diplomatic and strategic mission, Tavi decides to escort the Canim back to their homeland and to aid them in their fight against the Vord.  What they find when they arrive is beyond their worst fears.  Meanwhile, all is not well back in Alera as nobles deny Tavi’s legitimacy and scheme. Tavi again must find a way to save the empire AND the Canim against all odds.

Reaction: Enjoyable. Yes, I realize that Tavi is constantly saving the day. Yes, enemies attacking the empire is predictable, but that’s part of the fun and that’s kind of the bread-and-butter of fantasy – it’s how we get to know the characters. As I believe I said before, it’s very Romanic. This basis lends it an air of historical fiction (almost), which I enjoy.  Tavi is a great character, as are his family and his lover. I can do without some of the other characters, but they also add to the story. My personal testimony is that I was absolutely sucked in and read the whole series in under a week… take that as you will. 

Definitely a must read for fantasy lovers. For all you others, it wouldn’t be a bad series, but you have to commit through at least Book 2 – I think it gets better after that point.

NOTE: Among other things, this post fulfills my challenge requirement in the Once Upon a Time Challenge IV, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings.

Rating: 4 of 5  

Summary: The empire of Alera is filled with magic – the furies or elementals of water, earth, air, fire and metal.  Everyone has some talent, some ability to control an elemental in one of these areas – everyone except young Tavi. Tavi lives with his watercrafter aunt and earthcrafter uncle at one edge of the empire (that has a distinctly Roman air) – the area where the last great savage invasion entered, but where nothing has happened in the last 15 years.  While trying to find lost sheep, he meets Amara – a female spy sent to determine if treachery is afoot by the old but childless emperor – and gets pulled into a battle with the barbarian horde while evading a traitor. It is a classic tale of an empire threatened by an outside horde and internal treachery.

Reaction: Liked it. It started slowly for me, but then I got sucked in (and was late to work because I lost track of 45 minutes while reading during breakfast).  It borrowed heavily from the Roman Empire, in a good way. I enjoyed the flavor of powers the characters had in this book, since I’m always interested in a different spin on magic. And I liked that the characters didn’t follow the expected romantic paths – falling in love with the first person you meet outside your family is overdone. 🙂

I liked it – but I would also say it’s more of a fantasy book for fantasy readers just because of it’s classic fantasy plot and conflicts. If you’ve never read any fantasy, this may not be the one to start on. 

My Dad lent me the whole series last time I saw him (which I believe is complete!), so I’ll be reading the rest of the books in rapid succession.

Rating: 3

Reaction: “Would you mind being my girlfriend for five minutes?”  Nick is a guy still in love with his ex when he runs into a girl still in love with hers at a punk club. While they initially use each other to fake their way out of awkward social settings, over the course of a single, music-filled night in New York Nick and Norah gradually begin to find something real.

Cute, though I could have done without the extensive language. I enjoyed how the entire book took place in one long and confusing night – that effectively conveyed the essence (and drama) of being a teenager to me. I also liked how the narration alternated between these two characters throughout the novel. And it made me want to go to a concert and mosh.

Rating: 3.5/4

Summary:  “The half-human, half-angel Nephilim have thrived for centuries by instilling fear among humans, instigating war, and infiltrating the most powerful and influential families of history. Only a secret group of scholars, the Society of Angelologists, has endeavored to combat the spread of evil generated by Nephilim. Now, a strange affliction is destroying the Nephilim, and the cure is rumored to be an ancient artifact of great power. Sister Evangeline of the St. Rose Convent discovers an archived letter regarding the artifact’s location and is thrust into the race to locate the artifact before the Nephilim do. She uncovers her family’s past … and their secrets assist in her dangerous hunt.” –STARRED Library Journal   

Reaction: I’ve been mulling this one over for quite some time now, trying to decide how I feel about the novel. (Based on that alone, you can tell it was thought provoking.) Was it interesting? Yes. Nice work of quasi-real religious fiction? Yes. Obviously very Da Vinci Code – and, as with that work, I’m sure some religious bodies are strongly objecting to this work somewhere, too. However, since I read it as fiction (just as I read The Da Vinci Code as fiction), I have no problems enjoying the imagination it took to create this work.  

My main objection to the book is that the whole middle section (an entire third of the book) didn’t compel me. I’m kind of surprised it made it past editing. The first and last sections were set in modern time, while the middle section was years past and designed to provide some background on both the quest and the characters. For me, it was just too long. It didn’t have the same flow or urgency as the rest of the work, so I ended up reading through quickly just to make it back to the story I really cared about.  While the information provided in the middle section was helpful, it could have been conveyed more effectively.

Additionally, I found the character of Evangeline somewhat shallowly portrayed. She is smart, pretty, and dutiful – I get that. But I wanted more about how and why her father got her to join a convent in modern times. I wanted to know more about how she felt about it – probably because I didn’t buy that she was okay with it.  And I thought the ending was rather sudden.

That being said, I liked it. The plot and the “religious fantasy,” if you will, are the high points of this work, and made it worth reading for me.

Rating: 5  

Reaction: A member of the minor nobility, female Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola studied under Michelangelo despite the social and artistic limitations imposed upon her because of her gender.  After gaining some minor acclaim, Sofi is invited to join the court of the King to become the art teacher and friend to young Queen Elisabeth of Spain. An unfinished love affair gives Sofi a different perspective on the court of Spanish King Felipe II, a place where cruelty and joy, power and hope comingle; a place where women are little more than bargaining chips.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know historical fiction isn’t my norm. Because of that, I went in with mixed expectations despite several glowing reviews.  But wow – it was fabulous!  There was a definite feeling that the book was painted instead of written, which was perfect for a book about a painter.  The combination of historical fact and reasonable fiction was well imagined and carefully integrated (though there were occasional stretches).  The time period was also well drawn and complete – an excellent period piece. The detail in which the paintings were described was also lovely. While I prefer architecture (I could cheerfully get a PhD in Gothic Architecture) and black-and-white photographs, the discussion of the paintings was very interesting and was effectively used to further both the plot and our understanding of the characters. All in all, a beautiful work! Highly recommended.

In defense of fantasy –

Let me ask you a few simple questions: Do you think fantasy is a fluff genre, not worthy of inclusion with “real” literature? Do you believe that people who read it are either unintelligent or refuse to challenge themselves? Don’t people only read it because they love dragons, or possibly elves? Are you condescending to people who have read fantasy other than The Lord of the Rings (or if they read it BEFORE it was a movie) and Harry Potter?

I was recently directed to a post that made me laugh out loud while nodding (thanks, Michelle!). And if you answered yes to any of the above questions, you should read it.  If you like fantasy, you should also read it. Some of my favorite quotes:

  • “So no, I don’t particularly want to read a book you think of as mediocre merely because it has a dragon on the cover.”
  • “And as fantasy readers aren’t all, to steal a phrase from Terry Pratchett, a fourteen-year-old boy named Kevin, we all value different aspects of our reading and read for very different reasons.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten the once-over look from the librarian when I walk up with my mixed pile of  fiction, YA and fantasy novels when I look like a “normal,” 20-something woman.  The fact I’m often on my way home dressed in a suit seems to add to their confusion. So I think it’s time for a public declaration.

Yes, I LOVE (good) fantasy. Yes, I LOVE (good) YA. Yes, many of the books labeled as classics trigger a gag reflex in me (yes, I’ve read a fair number of classics and no, this is not a universal reaction among fantasy readers). And I’m okay with that. Is there an element of escapism in my reading? Sure – I read medical records, police reports and case law all day, every day. Please forgive me for wanting something with a plot (and good grammar… that doesn’t involve constipation). Is it a literarily worthless genre? The English professors who wrote much of it probably don’t think so. Is it the choice of an uninformed and/or uneducated and/or uncultured reader? Well, I’d like to think I’m informed, at least relatively cultured, and about as educated as anyone – and I love it.

I could keep going, but I won’t. So, if you’ve been holding out, here’s my challenge – give fantasy a chance. I’m happy to give you a recommendation!