Friday, March 30, 2012

Easy Chocolate Cheesecake

I've been making a simple cheesecake recipe on and off for the past few months, and last week I decided to try a new twist on it. It turned out amazing! Though my husband loves the plain-old cheesecake recipe, I could probably take it or leave it, but I absolutely loved this!

Here's roughly what I did:
3-8oz packages of cream cheese
1/2-1 cup sugar (depending on how sweet you like it)
3/4-1 cup milk
2 tsp vanilla
3 eggs (beaten)
dark chocolate cocoa powder

cinnamon graham crackers
1 stick of butter (melted)

For the crust, crush 6-8 graham crackers (depending on how thick you want your crust) and mix it with the butter. Press into the bottom of a 9 inch spring-form cake pan and set it aside.

For the filling, blend the cream cheese, sugar, milk, and vanilla until smooth. Add 4 (more or less) heaping tablespoons of cocoa powder and mix in. Then gently mix in the eggs, trying not to beat them too vigorously or too long.

Pour the filling into the pan, then place the cheesecake on top of a cookie sheet (preferably with sides, to catch drippings) and bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes. When it's done it will stop jiggling in the middle and you can insert a knife halfway between the middle and outside and have it come out clean.When it's finished baking, let it cool on the stovetop for a while, and then chill it in the refrigerator for an hour or two until it's nice and cold and solidified. And really--I know you're anxious to try it, but be sure to be patient until it's chilled. Lukewarm cheesecake is disappointing me.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Beyonders book 2: Seeds of Rebellion - by Brandon Mull

Ever since I read Beyonders: A World Without Heroes last year, I've been looking forward to the sequel! And truly, Seeds of Rebellion did not disappoint me.

The first thing I noticed was that Brandon Mull was able to effectively review the characters of the first book without doing the annoying "this is what happened in the first book" recap. I appreciated this more than I expected because I wanted to dive right into the story....but I also knew that it has been about a year since I read the first book, so my memory on the characters was pretty rusty. So for those of you that have memories like mine, I'll include at the bottom a small list of the main characters and names from the first installment.

Over the last year, I've wondered what Brandon Mull would do with Rachel stuck in Lyrian and Jason back home in the "Beyond". But no fear, Mull transports Jason back to Lyrian in the very first chapter, though he does it in such a way that makes me question whether Jason will ever make it back to the Beyond...not just the feasibility of it, but whether Jason will even want to go back. He immediately meets up with Tark, encounters a curious race of giants (that are midgets during the day and giants during the night), and starts being followed by a lurker, also known as a torivor. For a while, Jason is on his own, but gradually he makes his way through the countryside, toward a point where he hopes to meet up with Galloran, Tark, and some others. Along the way he picks up Aram, a half-giant bodyguard.

Like the first book, Seeds of Rebellion is largely a traveling adventure story. The Rebel group grows as it travels from place to place, gaining momentum and purpose. First they seek to rescue the guardians of the syllables, because their job is worthless (the word being proven a fake) and Maldor is moving against them. Jason and his group meet up with Rachel and Drake who find him with a special spell the Charm Woman gave them. Once they rescue Corinne, who turns out to be Galloran's daughter, they turn their attention toward a drowned city, where Galloran knows they can obtain and kingdom's worth of orantium (the grenade-like explosives we see in the first book.) Rachel shows exceptional promise speaking Edomic (the language the world was made in, the language of power and magic that the wizard of old used) and becomes more and more powerful as she practices controlling matter and animals. It seems like there is nothing she cannot do, she is such an "adept" (as they call her.)

They reach the land of the Amar Kabal, where the large party rests and Galloran makes a case for the seed people to join them in their cause. Many of the Amar Kabal are extremely reluctant to go to open warfare with the emperor, but eventually agree to send a delegation to the last known oracle in order to determine whether or not the Rebel cause stands a chance against Maldor. This quest comprises the rest of the book, and takes the traveling group through some harrowing adventures among which are a dangerous wind tunnel, encounters with worm-ridden zombies, help from a fast growing race that can eat anything and never needs to sleep (the drinlings), and blow-dart wounds from which grow a deep rooted moss.

Though I don't usually like the "travel here and there on a vague quest and have adventures" kind of books, Brandon Mull is in high creative form in Seeds of Rebellion and kept me interested through every chapter to the very end (and beyond, into the "extra scenes" that are included in the book.) The book is also incredibly funny--besides the creativity, this is probably my favorite thing about it. Ferrin the displacer has a wonderful wit, and it's such fun to see Jason and Rachel's sarcasm playing off each other even as they highlight the fact that Lyrian is not their real home. It seems almost another element of realism in the story that the main characters are punching jokes in moments of gravest danger. It relieves tension and seems even funnier. Probably my favorite specific parts of the book are Galloran fighting. Mull deftly paints images and emotions so that I see the scenes in my mind like a movie, and these parts are extremely exciting and gratifying moments of victory for the Rebel group. Even if some of you think it might have a slow beginning, stick it through to the end--you won't be sorry. This story will stick with you and make you impatient for next spring when the last book in the trilogy will be released.

*My new review of the third book is now up: Chasing the Prophecy

Main characters and places from Beyonders: A World Without Heroes.

Jason and Rachel: the two Beyonders that find themselves in Lyrian, fighting against the evil emperor, Maldor. (Felrook being Maldor's home/castle.)

Ferrin: the displacer who helped Jason escape from Felrook and separated from one of his hands when Jason went back home. It's unclear where his loyalties lie and whether he even has any.

Drake and Jasher: two seed people (Amar Kabal)--a wizard born race that is reborn as long as the seed at the nape of their neck gets planted after they die. They are reborn to the age and strength from when they first died. Drake and Jasher helped Jason escape from Harthenham (which, you'll remember is the place of "The Eternal Feast" where Maldor sends he most competent opponents as a bribe to keep out of his way.)

Galloran: The Blind King, and leader of the rebellion against the emperor until he was captured and tortured (and blinded) in Felrook.

Corinne also plays a role in this book. She was one of the guardians of the syllables--the girl confined inside a tree where mushrooms created a alternate reality. She was one person with all her memories of inside the tree and another person with different memories outside the tree.

Tark: the sousalax player that was among the Giddy 9 (the musical group trying to make a statement by taking a raft over a waterfall). Tark was rescued from the raft, the only to survive. Jason found him wasting away in Harthenham and helped him escape.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Since we moved to a place that has a small, enclosed backyard, I have been dreaming of the day when I can actually start a garden. And last Saturday, after several days of 80+ degree weather, that day came! (rather earlier than expected).

I wish I had taken "before and after" shots so you all would believe me when I say that a few months ago, this area was completely trashed. It was a long and involved process to convert the backyard from a war zone with minefields of broken glass, chips of tile, and a bazaar assortment of garbage into what you see in the pictures. We had to dig up cinder blocks and bricks, shift dirt around, replace tiles, dispose of the dirt riddled with glass and other trash, and... quite honestly, it doesn't even look like the same backyard!

Many of the cinder blocks that came out of the area where the beds are now, we decided to reuse over by the gate. This was also a great way to "dispose" of some of the unwanted dirt because we were able to use it to raise and even out the blocks as we laid them down.

I suppose I actually started this garden back in December when I took a few seeds out of the inside of a bell pepper and planted them in some "seed starter" soil on a tray inside. I certainly didn't expect ALL of them to sprout, but they did! So when we finally got some good topsoil to put in the beds, I was able to transplant them outside. (You can see them in the right-hand bed.) In between, I planted a few flowers (marigolds and nasturtiums, because their supposed to be natural pest control), some lettuce and carrots. In the bed by the fence, I planted tomatoes, peas, and a couple honey-dew melon plants. I'm planning on using the fence to tie them up as they grow, so they'll use less ground space and get more sun.

In the meantime, I still have a few peppers growing in pots that I will transplant soon along with four butternut squash seeds that just sprouted in the last few days. You can see the bigger sprout with the two leaves in one of the large pots. Those I also pulled out from a squash (not seed packets) and just tossed them in the dirt to see if anything would happen. I'm not sure if you can see it, but along with the squash sprouts, I just put in a grapefruit seed that was sprouting (discovered at breakfast a couple days ago). We'll see if anything happens to it!

My dad is a wonderful gardener, and I've been especially inspired to garden from just thinking about the delicious fruits of my labor! Grwoing up, I loved eating fresh tomatos, peas, cucumbers, strawberries, and raspberries (among other things!) What's really fun is that my dad lent me a fascinating book that talks about a "new" way to garden (new at the time at least--this book was written several decades ago.) It saves on space, soil, water, and yields just as much or more crops! It's called Square Foot Gardening, and it has been SO helpful for me in thinking about what to plant, how much to plant, and how to use my space most efficiently. Be sure to check it out if you're thinking about gardening. It's very interesting and easy to read--and covers more topics than I even knew existed for gardening! I'm already well pleased with how our garden is starting out, and I'm sure in another month, it will be even more exciting!

Here's a picture of the book by Mel Bartholomew. My dad lent me the one on the left. But it looks like he's come out with a more recent version that I'm sure is worth looking into!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Winterling by Sarah Prineas

Today, I started (and finished!) this fantastic new novel by Sarah Prineas: Winterling. I found it on the "new books" shelf in the YA section at the library and instantly checked it out. Sarah Prineas wrote a triology called The Magic Thief, which I will be looking up when I next go to the library. Winterling came out in January, and I'm already anticipating the sequel, Summerkin, coming early next year!

The basic storyline is similar to many we've heard before: teenage girl living with her grandmother feels like she doesn't belong; she finds a porthole to another world, rights its wrongs, and finds a place in life. But oh my goodness, the details and characters of this book make this hackneyed storyline seem brand new!

The ball really gets rolling when Fer (short for Jennifer) feels trapped inside her grandmother's house and rebels by going outside late at night. She discovers a boy/dog (that's clearly not quite human) being attacked by wolves by a strange circular pool not far from their house. She saves him and brings him back to their house, where her grandmother reveals that she has hidden knowledge by refusing to help the wounded boy! So of course, Fer keeps asking until she finds out that the boy/dog person comes from the place where her father disappeared to and where her mother was from all along! Fer prepares and transports herself to this land through the Way (the circular pool.) There, she discovers that there is something terribly wrong with the people and the land. Spring refuses to come. People are reverting back to their wild states, turning into the animals with which they find kinship. Fer persists until she is convinced that the Lady of the land is an imposter and did some unspeakable evil to hurt the land so terribly. And Fer is just the person to put things right...

One of my favorite things about this story is Fer's character. She is brave and impetuous, but I love that she is compassionate and always eager to help people or animals when they are injured. She helps anyone. Because of the rules of this new land, oath of loyalty are almost physically binding. And this tricky thing makes it difficult to know whether we should trust any of the people that Fer encounters. But whether or not she trusts them, Fer is always eager to help them. And fortunately, another great thing about her character is that she isn't foolishly trusting. She does trust some people more than she should, but as she learns more about the land and has more and more questions, we see that she has a pretty square head on her shoulders.

I also love how she gradually discovers how to work with magic. She sees clearly that she is a healer. The knowledge that her grandmother drilled into her suddenly takes new life in this strange land and magically heals all that she treats. She also learns something about the difference between seeing the surface and seeing the truth. People in this land have a magical external appearance covering their true self. Fer learns to look for people's "inner" self by glancing at them out of the corner of her eye.

The "supporting cast" is also full of interesting characters! The "pucks" are supposedly roving creatures, not bound to anyone. But Rook, the boy/dog that Fer first encounters is a puck thrice-bound against his will to the imposter Lady. Fer learns to ride on a horse that is Rook's "puck-brother". And I personally think that the grandmother is a fascinating character, and hope that she plays a bigger role in the next book! All in all, this is a wonderful story, full of engaging characters and new places--be sure to go check it out!

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Book Update

Here are some of the things I've been reading over the past few months. I'll try to describe the general genre and let you know what in particular I really enjoyed about them. Maybe you'll find one you'd like to read!

When I picked up Fair Play: What Your Children Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life by Steven Landsburg, I definitely did not mean to read it at all, much less all the way through--in three days! But the truth is, it's not your run-of-the-mill economics book. Not that I'd really know what those are, because I never read them... But it's clearly a book for the lay person. Landsburg argues points from logic and examples pulled from life with his daughter. The personable flavor this lends the book (and the many hilarious stories) make it a very easy read. He talks about all kinds of things from taxes and policies, to personal rights, population growth....just take a peek at the table of contents. My favorite was his delightful chapter that had nothing to do with economics, but was basically contemplating the meaning of life and the beauty of enjoying poetry with his daughter. I know not everyone enjoys the same sort of book, but if you feel like you're stuck in a rut, reading the same thing day in and day out, take a look at the this book--it was a nice variation in my usual reading line-up.

I read In the Hall of the Dragon King and the sequel Warlords of Nin, but skipped the last book in the series which I think is called The Sword and the Flame. These books were quick and enjoyable, set in a medieval kind of time period, but with magic and sorcery thrown in. I found the plots of the two books to be a little too similar for my taste--which I why I didn't delve into the last one. And yet, the plots were very interesting, the characters were deep and admirable, and Lawhead's use of magic and his invention of this fascinating world was truly masterful. Even though these books probably aren't on my read-again list, I'd certainly recommend them to anyone who loves Arthurian-type fantasy tales.

The Dark Lord of Derkholm definitely took me by surprise. I had read many of Diana Wynn Jones's books, and loved all of them, so I grabbed this one and the sequel, Year of the Griffin, off the shelf without even looking at the back cover or the inside flap to see what the story was about. Once again, Jones hit on a fun new concept involving magic and a connection between multiple world. Only this time, one man from a world like ours, discovers a porthole to another, magical world, and with the help of an evil demon, he uses that entire world as an amusement park for rich adventure-seekers. The whole tale is about how the magicians band together to try to get rid of the "Pilgrim Parties" and consequently choose the unlikely wizard, Derk, to be the year's "Dark Lord." It's clever and Jones inserts a very believable political hierarchy/conflict that forces opposing wizards to work together. The oddity of it is that, even though it's all a "game" the magical world is really very damaged by the Pilgrim Parties and their "battles" and adventures.

In contrast, the sequel, Year of the Griffin, has only one level of reality (yay!) It follows Derk's youngest daughter from the first book, (who happens to be a golden griffin) as she starts classes at the wizard's university. Each of her classmates has some reason why they shouldn't be there or some mystery about who they really are. These, along with a crazy University Chairman who is fixated on getting to the moon, and a serious budget problem as the university struggles to shift its focus after 40 years of catering to the Pilgrim Parties, all combine for a hilarious free-for-all of more turns and twists than you'd find in a bag of pretzels! These books are definitely written for kids. This is like slapstick fantasy, and totally worth your while if you just want a book you can laugh at.

Of course, I read Persuasion as well, but I honestly don't have much to say about it, since I already posted some of my thoughts here. I thought it was amazing--maybe my favorite Jane Austen book ever. If you like classics, then go read it!

That's all for now, I think that catches me up through mid-February. I've read a lot more since then, and the recent ones have strayed farther from my usual selections. For the publishers I'm thinking of submitting to, I wanted to check out a few of their more recent books to see what sort they were, and if my own book would fit in with them. So that's what I've been reading recently. I hope to post on them soon!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why Contraceptives Aren't a Woman's Right

While the battle rages over who should provide free contraceptives to women, I think many people forget to think about why such a thing should be done, and whether it should be done at all.

I've heard many of the usual arguments: contraceptives are an important "health" benefit that many women can't afford... the better, more expensive ones aren't just for contraceptive purposes but also hormone imbalance, etc. There are a boatload of arguments that people throw out, all trying to help you swallow one bottom line: Women NEED contraceptives...not only need, but it's our right. 

Both things are wrong. Women don't need contraceptives. And it is not our "right" to have them. A simple argument for the first point: women don't need to have sex. Therefore, women don't need contraceptives. Now, if a woman is going to decide to have sex anyway, that decision is completely on her, and she should think about the consequences that may happen from that action. This is a lesson people start to learn as toddlers: every action has a consequence, and you have to learn to anticipate, expect, and prepare for them...on your own. If someone isn't mature enough to understand this, they probably shouldn't be having sex.

I really hate it when people tell me what to do. And this is how I feel when people start talking about legislation that requires something to be provided to all people of a certain type for "free" because when you really get down to it, any handouts that are going around are coming out of the taxpayers pockets. And as someone with a "private" business of teaching piano students, I get taxed at some ridiculous 30% of my earnings...which gets me pretty huffy by itself, not to mention when I start considering what it gets spent on! I don't have a problem helping people out on my own initiative, but I like to make my own decision about to whom I give.

The other thing that really bothers me about this issue is that people are getting all offended on my behalf (as a woman) when I really don't want them to. I would like to make my own decisions about what I need or don't need and then deal with my own consequences, and everyone (meaning everyone impersonal--read: government) can just get out, thank you very much. But how can someone make an argument based on their own personal preference? If someone says, "I think my boss should give me condoms for free" they just sound like a entitled moron. But apparently, if they say, "All women should be provided contraceptives free of charge," people will actually listen and even applaud. Unbelievable.

Now some will say, "What about women that are raped and didn't actually make her own decision?" Well, that's truly horrible and the man who did it should be tarred and feathered (not literally, but that's my gut reaction.) But such a circumstance still would not make abortion or contraceptives a woman's right. How can someone have a right to something that forces action from someone else? We can't! Because if that someone else doesn't desire to perform said action, and then is compelled to because it's my right, we have a case of forced action--which is also called slavery. The contraceptive issue definitely falls into this category because it is a tangible thing: if I lack it and it is my right to have it, then someone somewhere must provide it for me. My point is that we (and the government) should never try to compel anyone to serve someone else (or ourselves) in a particular way...for free, or for pay.