Wednesday, September 24, 2014

YA Wednesday: Graphic Novel Review: Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Last week I posted about the Printz Award Nominatee Boxers. This week, I'm posting about the second book in the series, Saints. I believe they were nominated together as one volume. To see last week's review, click here.

Saints (Boxers & Saints, #2)Saints by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've been on a graphic novel kick lately, so I grabbed this in an armload of them from the library. I saw it was nominated for a Printz award, which made me take it out of the stack and read it first.

It was pretty good, but nothing exceptional. For one, the graphics aren't as lovely as many of the graphics I've read. If I'm going to read a graphic novel, I want to be as captivated by the illustrations as the story. Otherwise, why not just read a novel? I didn't feel this was enhanced in any way by being a graphic novel. In fact, I'd rather read a novella about this supposedly based-in-history girl.

I did like the story quite well. Four-Girl was such a sad, confused child. I felt for her and was glad she finally got a name and found a place where she was welcome. It was so sad and amusing when she thinks she's a devil and goes around making ugly faces so everyone will know. It was at once tragic and ridiculous. I'm going to read the companion novel, but I can't say I'm holding my breath waiting for it.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

YA Wednesday: Graphic Novel Review: Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints, #1)Boxers by Gene Luen Yang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up both Boxers and Saints at the same time, and I couldn't tell which came first, so I guess I read them in the wrong order. But, they are each stand-alone books, and I don't think one necessarily needs to be read first. However, this book did clarify a lot that I didn't know in the second, so I would try to read this one first. While reading Saints, I didn't know exactly who The Righteous and Harmonious Fist was, etc (my knowledge of Chinese history being pretty much nonexistent).
I really enjoyed learning about the Boxers rebellion, although the book was more fantasy than history. I found myself wondering if people had given accounts of the fighters turning into gods, or where the idea came from. However, the graphics in this one were more enjoyable for me. I've read 3 of Yang's books now, and although they have good stories, I feel that a graphic novel should be equally strong in both story and graphics, or else why not just write a novel? I guess I feel that if a writer uses this format, the illustrations should add to the story, and in the case of this author, this is the first book I thought his story lent itself well to the format.

I enjoyed this book more than the other 2 I've read by this author, and I think the reason is the illustrations. The gods were all vivid and colorful, and those places in particular were enhanced by the artwork (if you told me 'then he turned into a god' I would not have imagined the colorful, striking images of their gods but a more austere, western version of god).

Overall, this was a very good graphic novel and an excellent story.

Content: lots of war violence.
Recommended for: Age 10+ for violent scenes.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

YA Wednesday: 2 for 1 Graphic Novel Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Persepolis, #1-2)Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This had the thing. You know, the THING. The thing that makes you all swoony while you're reading. That makes you sigh just remembering it, like an amazing first kiss that still makes you shiver when you think of it years later. The thing that makes you fall in love.

I had seen the movie version of this book a few years ago and it was excellent (if you haven't seen it, go get it immediately), and I'd wanted to read the books ever since. Well, I'm so glad I did. I was not disappointed. It's only rarely that I can love a book and a movie both so much, equally. This book is worthy of attention and not to be missed. Absolutely powerful, brilliant, and stunning.

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Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (Persepolis, #3-4)Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know if it's possible, but I may have loved this book even more than the first one. Such a wonderful, heartbreaking example of what it means to be an outsider.

Displaced from her homeland, our heroine never feels at home in Austria. But after spending years there, when she goes home, she no longer fits into their conservative culture, either. I ached for her as I read this half of her story, maybe even more so than when I read the first part.

Amazing story that everyone should read. Recommended for anyone who's ever felt like an outsider.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

YA Wednesday Graphic Novel Review: Amulet Series by Kazu Kibuishi

Amulet, Vol. 1: The Stonekeeper (Amulet, #1)Amulet, Vol. 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If for some reason you think graphic novels are shallow and devoid of emotional impact, think again. Amulet had me in tears within a few pages of sparse dialogue. Don't underestimate the power or emotional impact images can have on us, moreso even than words, and in such a small space.
Once I dried my tears and began chapter one, the book flew by. The plot picks up, the characters are realistic (yes, I require this even in fantasy, perhaps especially in fantasy), and the author's imagination is a wonderful mix of the odd, the fantastical, the touching, and sometimes the absurd. It has the whimsy of something like The Never Ending Story. If adorable pink robotic bunnies are your kind of thing, grab this book and don't let go til you've drunk in every last magical image and read every last thought bubble. I know I did. And I can't wait to grab the next.

Amulet, Vol. 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse (Amulet, #2)Amulet, Vol. 2: The Stonekeeper's Curse by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautiful illustrations, another wonderful story. My son and I can't get enough of these books. There is so much to see that he'll look at them for hours.

Amulet, Vol. 3: The Cloud Searchers (Amulet, #3)Amulet, Vol. 3: The Cloud Searchers by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These book are fantastic! The artwork is so amazing--haunting and eerie, comical, tender. I absolutely love it. It makes the story multitudes better. The story is pretty good, too. But the illustrations are what really keep me coming back for more. Plus, I love Miskit!

Amulet, Vol. 4: The Last Council (Amulet, #4)Amulet, Vol. 4: The Last Council by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once more, beautiful artwork, as in every book in the series. I enjoyed the storyline in this one a bit more than in the last. And was overjoyed to see the return of Miskit, the pink robot bunny.

Amulet, Vol. 5: Prince of the Elves (Amulet, #5)Amulet, Vol. 5: Prince of the Elves by Kazu Kibuishi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought this was the last book in the series, but a lot was left up in the air, so I really hope Kibuishi will wrap things up with another book. I haven't read a lot of graphic novels before, but this series was so beautiful and breathtaking. I wish there were many, many more of them. 

I saw that Book 6 was out and I can't wait to read it! Exciiiited...

Friday, August 29, 2014

Disaster Chef: Cinnamon Roll Pancakes

When I found this recipe on Recipe Girl a few months ago, I knew I wanted to make it even though it is soooo not healthy. But sometimes, you just gotta indulge. In this instance, my son asked me to make them, and I told him I'd make them for his birthday. Of course I then forgot all about it. But he didn't. On his birthday morning, he reminded me, so I put them together. They do take a loooong time, since they have 3 different components. I wouldn't just whip these up any day, since they took hours to make. But for special occasions, yes. My son already asked me to make them again for his next birthday. Knowing him, he'll remember, too.
Without the frosting.
For these, you have to make the cinnamon swirl, the pancakes, and the frosting.

First, I made the cinnamon swirl.
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter,  melted
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Mix ingredients and pour into a ziplock sandwich bag. Set aside.
Next, I made the frosting. I'm not sure why mine turned out so dark, maybe the vanilla I used was too dark? I used pretty much exactly what the recipe specified, but mine was sort of caramel colored instead of a nice pearly white like the original recipe:
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
2-ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Melt the butter, then stir other ingredients into pan, mixing well after each addition.
On with the pancakes. Mix together
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup milk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Mix together flour and baking powder, then other ingredients, mixing until moistened but still a bit lumpy.

Pour about 1/4 c. batter for each pancake into a skillet and let cook a couple minutes before cutting corner out of sandwich bag and drawing the circle on the pancake.You might have to squish the baggie a bit if the cinnamon mixture has separated. It should be toothpaste consistency as it squeezes out of bag.
Once turned, the cinnamon swirl melts into the pan, leaving a crispy, sugary, hollowed out swirl pattern in the pancake.
Turn it out onto a plate with the swirl side up. Drizzle with frosting to finish. They don't need anything extra--no butter or syrup.

As I said, these were sinfully delicious. I never use white flour exclusively, but I really wanted these to taste like cinnamon rolls, so I did this time. They were very decadent and delicious, very sweet and rich. I would make them again for special occasions, but not for an ordinary day. They are an indulgence for sure.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review Wednesday: Alt Ed (Contemporary YA)

Alt EdAlt Ed by Catherine Atkins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

Reviewing this book is a bit challenging, because while it was going on, there was really nothing wrong with it, except for what didn't happen during it. Let me explain.

As I began this book, I was instantly drawn in. I loved Susan, our protagonist, for her sweetness and because she wasn't typecast as the fat funny girl. Call this a modern take on The Breakfast Club, where, instead of detention, these kids have an entire semester of after-school meetings with the counselor because of some bad behavior they each engaged in. Each participant is developed over the course of the book, morphing into wonderful, well-developed characters. As the book unfolds, we learn why most of them are there, although most of it is saved for what turns out to be the climax, since what should have been the climax is not actually included in the book.

I feel a bit guilty for withholding praise for what is NOT in the book, but with this one, I have to. There's an agent who posts on her blog the importance of knowing where to start your story. This author seemed not to know where to end her story. Normally, if that was the case, you'd think it was because an author dragged on and on after the climax, or left you with a cliffhanger. But this one just sort of...ended. Abruptly. In the middle of nowhere, right before what had been building towards what I thought would be the climax. It wasn't the kind of ending that lets you imagine what happens next, but the kind that makes you wonder if some pages were missing from your book, or if an incomplete draft got sent to the publisher and no one noticed. So while I enjoyed the book, I didn't enjoy the not-book that was missing.

I'm not opposed to book without happily-ever-after endings. I'm not opposed to a few loose ends--I like feeling like the characters live on after the last page. But this book leaves A LOT of loose ends. In fact, pretty much every end is left hanging.

(view spoiler)

Still, while I was reading it, I was completely captivated. It was one of those books that made me wish I'd written it. For someone who thinks the characters make the novel, this was perfect. Susan was sweet, but not too much of a pushover, and not a cliche. Amber was tough and wounded, but not a cliche either. Tracy, the perfect cheerleader who wasn't perfect, clashes with Brendon, the ostracized gay guy. Though some of the characters aren't exactly original, they all come alive enough that it doesn't matter that they are types, because here, they are real people who just happen to fall into a category. Each character is handled with compassion, realism, and care. Overall, Randy was the character who elicited the most emotion. He was the sweet jock, idolized by our protagonist but not quite as perfect as she'd like to imagine. He went along with the bullying, even when he didn't agree with it, which made him as culpable as anyone. I would have liked Susan to accept this a bit more than she did, but it didn't affect the story much. It was a nice change in today's YA landscape to read about a girl falling for the nice-guy hero. Honestly, I kept waiting for her to fall for Cal, because, well, that's how most YA girls are portrayed now--always irresistibly attracted to the asshole. Randy's character was so wonderfully drawn, someone we have all known, who goes along with his friends even when he shouldn't, easy-going and kind to everyone.

This is a wonderful book about bullying, conformity, friendship, family, stereotypes, and judging people, among other things. There are lots of books with the same message, but not many as good as this one. Would have been a 5-star if it had felt complete, or had a real ending. </["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]></["br"]>

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Disaster Chef: Cheesy Beer Bread

I found this recipe quite a while ago, but like most pins on pinterest, I pinned it and forgot it. But then I saw the stray can of beer that's been hanging out in my refrigerator for a couple months, and I went to pinterest to see if I could find something to do with it.

This bread is based on a recipe I found at Gotta Get Baked blog. It's definitely worth checking out her blog, if only for the gorgeous pictures. My bread was gorgeous, but my pictures don't do it justice. Her pictures are awesome. Plus, she's kind of hilarious.

Anyhow, this is how I adapted her recipe.

You will need:
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 12 oz. can or bottle of beer
1 tbsp honey

If you will notice, there is no butter or oil in this bread. I thought that was weird, because every time I've made quick bread, it has a lot. And eggs--this one has no eggs, either. I was confused until I mixed up the batter and realized that the yeast activates and makes bread dough (duh--but I really hadn't thought of that until I mixed it up and it was all sticky like yeasted bread dough).

Now, let's put it all together. 
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Grease a loaf pan.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour and baking powder. Add 3/4 c. of the shredded cheese and onion; toss together so that everything is well combined. At this point, everything will be so coated with flour it will be white.
Add the beer and honey. Mix until all dry bits of flour are absorbed/moistened. Your dough will be lumpy and sort of sticky, but it shouldn't be as moist as cake batter. This should be more like dough.
Dump the dough into the loaf pans and smooth the top of the dough.
It will look about so at this junction.
Bake for about 25 minutes, then add the last 1/4 c. cheese to the top of the loaf.
Half baked and covered in cheese.
 Return to oven and bake for 15-25 more minutes.
Hot and fresh out the oven.
 I had to bake for all 50 minutes before a knife in the center came out clean. It looked done at 40 minutes, but the knife came out all gooey. At 50 minutes, it was completely clean. I let the bread sit about 10-15 minutes, then turned it out and set it on a rack for a few minutes.

Textured, yeasty goodness within.
My son absolutely LOVED this bread. He kept picking at it while it cooled. We ate it warm with pork chops and braised red cabbage with apples. It was delicious warm. He ate 2 pieces, and my husband had 3. It was a big hit, and delicious the next day, too.
Cheesy, crispy goodness without.