My Top Five Destinations Abroad

Provided I can save up enough cash and vacation days for a trip out of the country, there are a number of places around the world that I would like to visit:

China. Under Heaven is partly to blame for this one, most likely. China is a huge country and home to a significant portion of the world’s population, and it seems a little weird that I know so little about it. I’d love to spend a week or two there and visit as many of the tourist traps World Heritage Sites as I could.

France. I went to France on a choir trip my senior year of high school, but I’d like to go back now that I’m older and can have some input on my itinerary. (Just a day and a half in Paris, guys? When we were desperately jet-lagged teenagers? I fell asleep on the bus!) Honestly, I have no idea where we ended up after Paris aside from it being a pretty rural area with a castle and a bunch of bungalows and nearby-ish towns where we could sing. I’d also appreciate not getting sick this time around.

India. Home to yet another significant chunk of humanity. It’s terribly cheesy of me, but I think it’d be a ton of fun to go on one of those new-age yoga retreat thingies I see advertised all the time. Or a culinary-focused trip. This is another country where I’d love to hit as many of the World Heritage Sites as I could.

Japan. I’ve wanted to travel to Japan for ages. The shrines and the temples fascinate me, and while it’d be crazy to try to visit during Golden Week, I’d dearly love to. (The saner part of me insists that the weeks afterwards—or even early fall—would be a much better decision.) The food is as much of a draw as the metropolis of Tokyo or mountain hot springs.

United Kingdom. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland—I want to see them all. As a bonus, this is a trip I could take without being on a tour/going with a friend that speaks another language. And as much as I could spend the entire time in the bigger cities, I think it would be awesome to strike out for the smaller towns and go bed and breakfast hopping.

Honorable Mentions: Canada, Morocco, Greece, Italy, New Zealand, South Korea, and Spain.

Experienced travelers, what are your favorite places to go abroad? Travel novices, where do you want to go?

Action and Opportunity

Somehow I wrote 1,701 words for The Dying Shrine even though I only wrote three days last week. I’d be more impressed with this number if I were consistently writing 567ish words every day. Someday I will be that awesome; until then, I will muddle on.

This chapter has been difficult mostly because I didn’t bother to figure out how the magic/supernatural elements in this world worked before I dove straight into it. (For given values of straight—it has taken twelve thousand words for the first ghost to show up. I’ve already started thinking about what scenes need to get cut for the second draft.) Action scenes are also not a strength of mine, which means every time I sit down to write I want to slam my head against the wall instead. Nevertheless, my goal is to finish chapter four by Friday at the latest.

Thursday night I got home in time to participate in the #diverselit chat (hosted by Lee & Low Books/Tu Books), and it was a ton of fun. I actually interacted with some folks, got a few new Twitter followers, and spent a lot of time afterwards (and on Friday) talking to Crystal Brunelle of the Reading Through Life blog.

We now have a not-so-secret secret project in the works. I’m thrilled about this. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing but uncertain that I could handle it all by myself. With one partner—and the goal to acquire two more—this odd little ambition of mine seems like it could actually go somewhere. Once I have more post-worthy news, I’ll be sure to tell you.

My Top Five U.S. Travel Destinations

Spring should be showing up soon, and that has me thinking of all the places in the United States that I’d love to travel to—the sooner, the better. Traveling was always a tricky affair when I was younger, as it is wont to be when you’re in a family as large as mine. Now, however, I am single and (relatively) carefree, and I’ve started dreaming. In alphabetical order, here are my top five U.S. travel destinations (as of this moment, because I am a fickle):

Honolulu, HI. It’s a tropical paradise, folks—and I’ve never been to one of those. I’ve talked to several people that have gone to the Hawaiian Islands on vacation, and they’ve all raved about it. Plus, I now have some family living on Oahu, so I could theoretically get some pointers about things to do/see that weren’t geared toward taking all of my tourist money.

New York City, NY. Another expensive destination, but I can’t help it—I want to do ALL of the touristy things. I want to see several Broadway plays, go to pretty much every museum that ever existed, visit Central Park, eat pizza and bagels and food from street vendors, etc.

San Francisco, CA. Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and unforgiving hills—what’s not to love? Plus, there seems to be a lot of cool places to go/things to do in the surrounding area. This could be a fun starting point for a multi-city tour of California, too.

Seattle, WA. I lived in Oregon for the bulk of my life, but I have very rarely ventured into Washington. I’ve heard that Seattle is just a cool city, and it would be awesome for a low-key adventure, like a writer’s retreat. Sure, there are things to do and see—but it also seems like a place you could just wander about and relax. And I am all about relaxing.

Washington, D.C. The closest I’ve come to the U.S. capital is the Dulles International Airport, and that was…uninspiring. There are a ton of monuments and museums that I’d love to see—it’s a good place to brush up on history. (I am very fond of history, provided I’m not being tested on it.) If I’m feeling adventurous, I could even explore the surrounding area and visit some friends.

Do you have any suggestions for me? What are your favorite U.S. travel destinations? Where have you always wanted to go?

Chocolate Almond Biscotti

IMG_0040

I found this almond chocolate biscotti recipe, but I didn’t want the biscotti to be as hard and crunchy as the recipe indicated they would be. So I sat down with the salted caramel biscotti recipe from last week and combined the two. These biscotti are denser and not as sweet as my previous biscotti attempt, but they would be excellent for dunking in hot chocolate. I’m eating them plain—they are still delicious that way! The almonds are wonderful, but I’m certain these biscotti would be just as delightful if you substituted the almonds/almond flavoring for hazelnuts/hazelnut flavoring or pecans/pecan flavoring.

Ingredients
½ cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
2 eggs
1 tsp almond extract
2 ¼ cup flour
¼ cup Dutch-process cocoa
½ cup toasted slivered (or sliced) almonds
Sparkling sugar (optional)
½ cup milk chocolate chips
1 tsp shortening

Directions

  1. To toast almonds, cook at 300° F for 7 to 10 minutes in a single layer on a baking sheet.
  2. Set oven to 375° F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. In a mixer, cream butter and sugar. Add baking powder.
  4. Beat in eggs and almond extract.
  5. Add cocoa. Gradually add flour while mixing.
  6. Stir in toasted almonds. Divide dough in half.
  7. On a lightly floured surface, shape dough into logs that are approximately 10″ x 3″ x ½”. Sprinkle logs with sparkling sugar if desired. Place both logs onto baking sheet about a hand’s width apart. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
  8. Remove baking sheet from oven and set on cooling rack. Let cool for 20+ minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300° F for second round of baking.
  9. Once logs are cool, cut diagonally into ½” slices using a serrated knife. Place slices upright onto baking sheet about a finger’s width apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes (or longer for a crispier cookie).
  10. Cover cooling rack with parchment paper. Place biscotti on cooling rack and let sit until they are no longer hot.
  11. Combine chocolate chips and shortening. Microwave in 30 second increments, stirring after every round until chocolate is smooth. Drizzle milk chocolate over biscotti. Once chocolate has set, devour as much of the biscotti as you wish.

February’s Mini Book Reviews

Here’s a quick look at some of the books I read last month:

The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson (adult historical? fantasy) was fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. I loved the world and the magic, and all the little details about the Heian Era were astounding. Unfortunately, I hated a good portion of the cast (Yoshifuji and Kitsune deserved some serious shin-kicking). I’ve never enjoyed the “man with mid-life crisis” narratives, which means Yoshifuji drove me up the wall. Shikujo and Brother stole my heart and the bulk of my sympathy, and I hope they can end up happy at least. Recommendation: Borrow it someday if you want a beautiful glimpse into the Heian Era. The details are better than half the cast. Otherwise, just skip it.

Fudoki by Kij Johnson (adult historical? fantasy) was far more entertaining than The Fox Woman. While I don’t think it was as pretty as the previous book, the characters were infinitely more likeable. I enjoyed the structure of the book, where elderly and dying Harueme looks back on her life while writing about Kagaya-hime, a lonely cat who turned into a woman warrior. Johnson does a great job of writing Kagaya-hime as a cat in a woman’s body, and Kagaya-hime and Harueme’s commentary on warfare/court/life in general is oftentimes as painful as it is insightful. Recommendation: Get it soon, as its fairytale quality, world building, and female-centric story make for a fascinating read.

City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster (young adult fantasy) was a fun read, once I got over the telepathic cats. (The dust jacket copy only mentions that the cats are Nisha’s closest companions, not that the cats can talk. I actually stopped reading and grabbed the jacket to read it again in case I had missed something.) Nisha was a smart, competent heroine who used the resources at her disposal—limited, thanks to the world/society she inhabits—to figure out who is murdering girls in the City. I was wrong about the murderer and the murderer’s motives, but I easily guessed several other important plot twists. (Pro tip: You ruin the mystery of whether or not the City trains assassins when they’re listed in the cast of characters.) Despite some missteps, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and the world building hints that there’s plenty of room for additional stories. Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re interested in an India-inspired fantasy. Who doesn’t love magically isolated empires, one-child policies, and restrictive caste systems?

The Serpent Sea and The Siren Depths (adult fantasy sans humans or Tolkien-ish races) by Martha Wells are the second and third book in the Raksura books. I didn’t think it was possible to fall in love with Moon, Jade, Chime, and the others in Indigo Cloud, but I did. Wells continued to delight me with the utterly alien world and creatures. (I am so glad I don’t live in a world where I’m constantly concerned about whether or not something is going to eat me.) Moon gets to face internal as well as external threats, which is a treat considering male characters in other series have a limited repertoire of acceptable emotions. (He even spends a lot of the third book worrying about whether or not he is infertile!) These two books open up the world more, and I was excited for Moon to start figuring out Raksuran society and how he was supposed to fit into it. I spent long sections of these books wanting to wrap Moon up in a fuzzy blanket and assure him everything would be okay and that he would totally get the chance to disembowel his enemies. Recommendation: Buy it now because this series is awesome and, sadly, seems to be headed out of print. It’s such a shame, too, because it’s been a while since a fictional world won me over so completely. The first book is The Cloud Roads, and if shape-shifting gargoyle/dragon-ish people sound like your thing, you should check it out.

A Working Title and Adjusting My Focus

After days of frustration, I finally settled on a working title for my Mythological-Heian-Era-Meets-Supernatural story. I’m now calling it The Dying Shrine, and yes, the ambiguity is intentional. Despite only writing three out of the last seven days, I managed to write 998 words. That puts February’s total at 6,417 words.

The only thing that’s possibly more exciting than having a working title is having a working tagline/elevator pitch: Noriko must fight her way through vengeful ghosts and youkai to purify the shrine in the land of the dead before the supernatural upheaval topples the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Does it need work? Absolutely. In the meantime, I’m just going to keep writing and figuring out what exactly I want to have happen.

I’ve done some other under-the-radar work, most notably creating a creative projects page. I also decided this week that I wanted to do more actual blogging on my site. Last year I was consumed with the ATLA rewatch and weekly reports, and I originally thought this year that I would substitute book reviews for the ATLA rewatch.

But you know what? I do more in my life than just write and read. Like make tasty food, go on adventures, watch kdramas, or find cool things on the internet–things I think are work talking about. So from here on out you can expect a more multifaceted Audrey and less of the one note Audrey.

Chocolate-Drizzled Salted Caramel Biscotti

Mary Beth and I were at Costco last weekend, and we spotted a display of salted caramel chocolate biscotti as we wandered up and down the aisles. While we were tempted—grocery shopping on an empty stomach is a universally terrible decision—the high price point and the quantity (two people do not need four dozen biscotti, even if they desired them greatly) ultimately meant we opted out of the purchase.

But it was salted caramel chocolate biscotti, so the desire lingered in the back of my mind. I even went so far as to look up a simple recipe that evening. We had everything we needed—except for the caramel. As that is an integral part of making salted caramel chocolate biscotti, I shelved the recipe and read books instead.

Mary Beth and I have been carpooling separately lately since her work has been evil and she’s needed to pull a lot of overtime. Since we needed celery for the wraps for today’s lunch (tuna fish, celery, red onions, pickles, pecans—when I can remember them—and lettuce in a multigrain wrap), I swung by the store after work last night and picked up a bunch of celery and a bag of caramels.

I’d never made biscotti before, but they were surprisingly easy after I cleaned up the kitchen. The store didn’t have the neatly packaged caramel bites the recipe recommends, so I was forced to chop the caramel cubes up with a knife. (It was as annoying and tedious as it sounds.) My one panic moment came after the first baking. The caramel on the outside of the logs melted all over the pan and turned a nasty dark brownish color. I scraped the burned bits off of the logs before it could cool and set, and everything turned out unburned and pretty despite initial assessments.

Otherwise the process was quite simple, especially since I decided to forgo dipping the biscotti in chocolate. Instead, I melted half a cup of chocolate chips and combined the gooey mess with 1 tsp canola oil to thin it out so it was easier to drizzle over the biscotti. Then I sprinkled the biscotti with several pinches of kosher salt.

Mmm, salty-sweet caramel and chocolate. I had biscotti today for an afternoon snack, and I’m certain I’ll be devouring several more tonight. These biscotti are soft enough they can be eaten without having to dunk them into coffee or hot chocolate, but they’re probably sturdy enough to be consumed that way.

Extended Vacation

The holiday weekend did a number on me, and by that I mean I read three and a half books over the course of four days. That might not seem like a huge number, but book #2 was A Memory of Light, so that ate up half of Saturday and almost the entirety of Sunday. I also went to the dentist and waited far too long at the DMV to get my driver’s license renewed.

Between the book reading, errands, and socializing (a service activity and people over for dinner and games), I did far less writing than I anticipated. MHEMS only got another 934 words over the course of two days. Those words took me through the end of chapter three. Right now I’m not sure how chapter four is going to work out, but I shall forge ahead regardless.

I am happy to report that The Fox Woman did not drive me to despair, though it and Fudoki (also by the same author) have provided me with lots of fun little details/inspiration/research topics for the Heian Era. I’m planning on finishing the latter book tonight so I can return it to the library tomorrow.

My goals for this week are to—gasp!—write more consistently and to post a review for City of a Thousand Dolls. (Hint: I liked it!) Also, Mary Beth has informed me that I need a working title for MHEMS as 1) the acronym is ugly and 2) she can’t ever remember what it stands for.

A Long Weekend Ahead

I’m slowly getting more and more words during my daily writing sessions. Part of this is because I have grown more comfortable with my characters; the other part is that I’m not researching this particular setting anymore, so that’s not slowing me down. I wrote 2,300 words in four days this week.

I would have had even more words than that, but tonight is the start of a long weekend, and I want to read books instead. First up on my plate is City of a Thousand Dolls, which I plan to review, and The Fox Woman, which I don’t plan to review. Mary Beth said the latter was an excellent depiction of a fantasy set in the Heian Era, so you can probably expect a despair-laden post from me next Friday about how I’m a terrible writer, historically inaccurate, and doomed to failure with MHEMS (just so you’re prepared).

I haven’t worked at all on Civil Blood, which I won’t apologize for. However, I reviewed the Curse Workers trilogy and, thanks to a tweet from Pam van Hylckama, discovered that my new anti-spam plug-in was destroying all comments. I’ve fixed that, and I have received comments on the new review, much to my delight.

Work is closed Monday for the holiday, and I took Tuesday off so I could deal with mundane things like going for my semi-annual dentist visit and trying to find the DMV so I can renew my driver’s license before it expires. If all goes well, I’ll also read a lot of books and/or hunker down and see if I can finish writing chapter three.

Review: The Curse Workers Trilogy by Holly Black

White Cat
Cassel comes from a family of curse workers—people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, all by the slightest touch of their hands. Since curse work is illegal, they’re all criminals. But not Cassel. He hasn’t got the magic touch, so he’s an outsider—the straight kid in a crooked family—as long as you ignore one small detail: He killed his best friend, Lila. Now he is sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat. He also notices that his brothers are keeping secrets from him. As Cassel begins to suspect he’s part of one huge con game, he must unravel his past and his memories. To find out the truth, Cassel will have to outcon the conmen. —summary and image from Amazon.com

I wished I liked this series more than I did. Not that Holly Black has done anything grievous to merit my displeasure. Quite the contrary—this series has so many strengths that I’m bitterly disappointed that I can’t bring myself to like it more.

I love the Curse Workers universe. It’s a brilliant alternate world where the criminalization of magic use forced most magic workers underground and into organized crime. (Any similarities between the banning of magic use and Prohibition are most definitely deliberate.) Black fills her world with all sorts of small world-building details that really make this universe multilayered and feel lived in. For example, people always wear gloves because magic can only be performed if your bare hand touches someone, so it’s a huge deal when someone takes off their gloves around someone else. I also liked how using magic always came with a price, though the price varied depending on the kind of magic you used: memory workers losing their own memories, death workers having bits of themselves fall off, and so on.

It’s clear that Black did her research on grifters, conmen, and organized crime. The books all revolve around multiple schemes and other shady goings-on, from Cassel’s bookie side business at school to everyone trying to figure out how to deal with a crazed senator with an anti-worker agenda. Watching Cassel try to deal with all of these spinning plates is a thrill, and it is only made better when he gets outmaneuvered at his own games. Black is great about ramping up the tension (for the most part), and Cassel has enough setbacks in his plotlines that a reader could be legitimately concerned whether or not he will achieve his goals—and if he does, whether or not the price he pays will be worth his victories.

The whole series definitely fits the gritty and grim noir style—in Black Heart, the third book of the series, Cassel even ends up “taking on the case” (as it were) of a damsel in distress who definitely isn’t telling the whole truth. This trilogy is overflowing with another noir favorite: very few good choices for our heroes. Cassel is generally honest with himself (and therefore the reader) when he makes bad choices for the good reasons or good choices for terrible reasons. It comes as no surprise when Cassel’s decisions come right back to bite him, typically in the least convenient moment possible.

I love the characters in this series—even the ones that are pretty despicable. Cassel is a fun narrator, though I think Black cheats in his point of view almost all of the time when Cassel is setting up his schemes. His friends and family are just as messy, complicated, and selfish as he is, and watching them miscommunicate, get in each other’s way, and manipulate one another is equal parts delightful and train-wreck-y. Black does a great job of putting the reader in Cassel’s head, especially in emotionally powerful moments.

So with all the things I have to say in praise of this trilogy, why am I disappointed in it? Really it boils down to two major items: a promise I felt was broken in book one and an uninspiring book two.

When I first heard about the first book, White Cat, from my roommate, I fell hard and fast in love with a specific part of the premise that I won’t point out because of spoilers. If you’re really curious, just look at the summaries for Red Glove, the second book, and Black Heart—you’ll figure it out. I was unbelievably excited to read a book with this premise—only to watch the thing I fell in love with get completely undermined. Not only was this element undermined, the twist was telegraphed so well early on that I spent the next several chapters hoping that I was wrong and then the rest of the book being slightly bitter that I was right. (Granted, this twist makes a lot of awesome things happen later on the road, but it still makes me sad just thinking about it.) This complaint is definitely a taste issue that I’m probably in the minority on—I’m sure that many readers were delighted by the twist. I just felt a little betrayed by it.

What’s less subjective is how much of a slog Red Glove was. I felt much the same way about Red Glove as I did about the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: “Look! Confused teenagers trying to figure out their feelings and romantic entanglements and all this other magical drama, oh, wait, there was something more important going on? Snape’s the half-blood prince? You’re sure? Okay, whatever, are Ron and Hermione going to get together? What about Harry and Ginny? …why was Snape important in this movie, again?”

Just substitute the appropriate character names and swap out “half-blood prince” for “murderer” and that pretty much sums up my reaction to Red Glove. If the book was going to focus solely on the emotional fall-out of book one—which there was plenty of opportunity for, and I loved those parts—that would’ve been just fine. Instead, Black dangled the sinister plot thread of a murderer and failed to devote adequate time or importance to it. (It also didn’t help that the identity of the murderer was not a surprise.) In that way, Red Glove felt a lot like other second books in trilogies: lots of wrapping up the loose ends from book one while setting up more exciting things for book three all the while only being passably interesting.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, sadly. While there are many things to love about this trilogy, I can’t muster up enough enthusiasm to recommend that anyone else spend their hard-earned money on it without some major caveats. You can read more about what other people thought at Amazon.com or find out more information through an independent bookstore near you.

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