Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dive Into Atlantis!

I've been really excited about a new series that arrived this week on the middle grade shelf: The Gates of Atlantis! Each book in the series is written by a different author, much like the Spirit Animals series, or 39 Clues. It's interesting for me to see the different spin each author gives this very imaginative world.

I had the opportunity to receive an advanced reader copy of the final book in the series, Battle for Acropolis by Mikey Brooks, and I've been waiting anxiously for the book to be released so I can share my excitement about it with the rest of the world! 

From the very first page, this book reeled me in: hook, line, and sinker! It starts out with a bang when Talon accidentally sets fire to the library, using magic power he doesn't understand and can’t always control. His emotions do more than run away with him whenever he’s upset: they cause terrible things to happen. Orphaned since birth, Talon knows he doesn't belong in a “normal” life with his foster parents, and agrees to run away with his foster sister, Hattie, in search of Hattie’s grandmother. What they find is a magical city under the sea that desperately needs their help to win a civil war.

For me, the best aspect of this novel was the growth of the main character. At the start of the story, Talon is a lonely kid with a surly attitude. I had to laugh every time he got annoyed with Hattie’s nonstop chatter. But through her easy acceptance of his strange magical power, and her resolve to be his friend, no matter what, Talon slowly comes around and turns into a strong leader that the other Atlantian kids can look up to.

I thought the characters were very strong and easy for kids to relate to. My personal favorite was Willy, the friendly truck driver who helps out Talon and Hattie. I also admired Hattie for her optimism in the face of incredible odds. It gave the book a positive undertone, driving home a message of perseverance and commitment.

The food scene I picked from this book takes place early on, while Talon and Hattie are on the run. They spend the last of their money on breakfast at a truck stop. Nearby, a friendly truck driver is eating the Grand Slam breakfast: pancakes, sausage, eggs, hash browns "you name the breakfast item, and this man had it." With their meager funds, Talon and Hattie can only afford a couple of eggs with toast. Talon asks for his to be scrambled. Lucky for Talon, Willy the truck driver has a big heart and later shares his leftover sausage.

My kids can be picky eaters (highly unusual, I know), and one of my girls refuses to eat scrambled eggs...unless they're cooked "Grandma style." Her grandma has a special way of blending together the eggs with cheese and milk to create the perfect combination!

Grandma Style Eggs
serves 6

12 eggs
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper

1. Crack eggs and empty into a large saucepan, making sure you don't drop any shells in. 
2. Add milk and sprinkle with cheddar cheese, salt, and pepper. 
3. With a spatula (pancake turner), stir everything together until yolks are broken and ingredients are well combined. 
4. Cook on medium high heat, stirring frequently, until eggs are set.
5. Serve with toast and sausage. Add pancakes and hashbrowns for the real Grand Slam!

Add grated cheese directly to the pan with the other ingredients.

Use the flat end of the spatula to stir the eggs as they cook.

Eggs are set when they are no longer runny, but aren't completely dry.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Dreamkeeper Tour

I am so pleased today to be part of The Dreamkeeper audiobook tour! I have long admired the author, Mikey Brooks, for his skills at producing and promoting some fantastic books. I look up to him and hope I can be like him one day.

First of all, don't forget to check out the GIVEAWAY
at the end of this post for a chance to 
WIN some fantastic prizes!

I was privileged to review the second book in the series, The Dreamstone. My daughter is an auditory learner, and she prefers audio books to the printed variety. For kids like her (who may struggle with reading the traditional way), this series is an excellent choice for hooking them on books! It has action, magic, strong characters, and life lessons all rolled into a neat little package that is sure to please any middle grader. Beyond that, the audiobook is a quality piece of work. The narrator was expressive and highly skilled. He gave a distinct voice to each of the characters that fit them perfectly. It was a pleasure to listen to!

The Dreamstone picks up right where The Dreamkeeper left off. Parker and his friend Kaelyn must go back to the world of dreams to rescue Parker’s mother, who has been kidnapped by the wicked Queen Mab. They find the dream world in disarray, with dragons attacking willy nilly. Their friend Gladamyr loses his power to shift, and they have no idea where Mab’s wandering realm is located. It seems the only way to unravel all their problems is to visit the Crystal Table once again, but what price will the table exact this time?

With each book the author releases, his writing quality gets better and better! I've read all of his middle grade books, and I thought Mikey Brooks really hit his stride with this one! All the characters are solid, with real problems they’re struggling to overcome, like Parker’s anger at his estranged dad. Through the course of events, he learns how to begin the forgiveness process. I love it when a character grows and becomes a better person by the end of a book, and I found myself cheering for Parker and Kaelyn as they made the difficult choice to stand up for what’s right, pitting themselves against the more popular crowd at school. Moreover, their friendship continued to grow and develop in this novel, and I can’t wait to see where they’ll go from here.

The plot was well-paced and flowed naturally from one hurdle to the next. The only problem I have with this series is that the author likes to end on cliff-hangers, leaving us poor readers begging for the next installment! (Do I hear an evil laugh?) 

Kids aren’t the only ones who will gobble up this series faster than a plateful of pastries. In my mind, it’s right up there with Fablehaven, Far World, and the host of other National bestsellers that have graced the middle grade shelves in recent years.

As I pondered how I could bring this book to life in my kitchen, I remembered the taste testing scene with Mab, about halfway through the book. To prepare for her Majesty’s banquet, servants offer her various trays of pastry for inspection. She brings each to her lips and tastes it briefly. If she pronounces them “adequate,” the servant can breathe a sigh of relief. But woe betide the servant who offers an unacceptable pastry, as does one poor soul with a tray of fruit covered tarts.

I wouldn’t like to be the chef in Mab’s kitchen, with my life on the line depending on my skill in pleasing her. But I have a delectable recipe for banana cream pie that I think even Mab would have to pronounce “excellent!”

Banana Cream Pie Fit For a Queen

Delicate Pie Crust
1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter-flavored shortening
5-6 Tbsp ice water

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. 
2. In a medium sized bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut in shortening, using a pastry cutter or two forks, until mixture resembles fine crumbs.
3. Gently stir in ice water (being careful not to add chunks of ice), just until flour is moistened and becomes dough. Add more water if needed, 1 Tbsp at a time. Do not work the dough too much.
4. Turn out onto a floured surface and use a rolling pin to gently "push" the dough into a circle big enough to fit over a pie plate.
5. Fold the dough carefully in half, then in half again. Lift onto the pie pan, placing the center of the dough in the center of the plate. Unfold the dough and press gently into the pie pan. Trim the edges, fold under, and crimp into desired design. Prick the dough on the bottom and sides of the pan several times with a fork.
6. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before filling.

Banana Cream Filling
1 5oz package instant vanilla pudding
1 3/4 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream, divided
2-3 ripe bananas
1 Tbsp powdered sugar

1. Add vanilla pudding to milk and beat well for about 2 minutes. (Follow directions for Pie on the package.)
2. Whip 1 cup of heavy cream until stiff. Fold gently in with pudding mixture until thoroughly combined.
3. Slice bananas into bottom of cooled pie shell until banana slices cover the entire bottom of the pie.
4. Pour pudding mixture over the top of bananas and spread evenly.
5. Place pie in the refrigerator and allow to set up.
6. Meanwhile, beat additional 1 cup of cream until stiff. Add powdered sugar. When pie is set up, cover with whipped cream. Garnish with additional banana slices and serve.

A pastry cutter is a quick and easy way to "cut" shortening into the flour. When your mixture resembles coarse crumbs, you're ready to add the ice water.
The less you work a pie crust dough, the more delicate it will be. When rolling, think of pushing the dough outward in the direction you want it to expand, rather than rolling back and forth as you would with other kinds of dough.

To make a fancy edge, trim the dough so that it hangs over the edge of the pan about half an inch. Then fold the dough under to make a nice smooth edge. Press your thumb down on the dough with the thumb and index finger of your other hand pulling up on either side of your thumb to create a fluted edge.
Prick the dough before baking to prevent it from puffing up in the oven.
Will this pass the Mab Test?!

About the incredible narrator, Anthony Bianco:

Anthony Bianco is a professional actor living and working in Denver, Colorado. He is a native Oregonian and has been acting and storytelling for the past eighteen years. He received a BFA in Acting with a minor in Shakespeare Studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. Anthony then went on to receive his MFA in Acting from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Anthony moved to Denver five years ago and has worked for three seasons with the Denver Center Theatre Company, one season at Colorado Shakespeare Festival and most recently appeared as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities.

What have you enjoyed most about narrating The Dream Keeper Chronicles?

Bringing the mythology that Mikey has created to life. There is a sense of innocence, wonder, and possibility on the world of Awake and Dreams. Our dreams are one of the nearest things we still have to magic. And discovering the story has helped remind me to continue to look for the magic in the world around me.

How did you go about finding a distinct voice for each character?

Many times Mikey provided some kind of description of the character that would inform the choices I would make. Age, gender, body size/ shape. I imagine how the voices sound when I am reading and do my best to apply those changes when I get in the booth. I would like to think that all of the choices that I made were informed by the text. I did my best to fully imagine what Mikey created and trust that when he is satisfied with the result I have done my job. 

You work as a professional actor; do you find your profession helps you in narrating books?

I find it incredibly helpful. The fact that I am not in front of an audience doesn't make a lot of a difference to me. The act of storytelling is the same no matter what the medium. Many of the skills needed: articulation, breath support, vocal flexibility, emotion (to highlight a few) all come into play when recording. When you are in the booth you have to be hyper aware of every movement and sound. Even though nobody can see what you look like, any extraneous movements can cause sounds which can be picked up by the mic. It is essential to have the physical and vocal awareness to keep those sounds to a minimum. At the same time you can't allow that to keep you from bing expressive and energized when telling the story. It can be a tricky balance sometimes. But the years of training help to balance those factors.

Is there a character in the book you related to the most and why?

I think Gladamyr was the easiest to relate to, even though he is a Dream keeper. I love the tortured heroes. Plus, Gladamyr's powers are the coolest! Many of my favorite fantasy characters have been Shape-shifters or have had an ability similar to Gladamyr. It probably appeals to the actor in me, being able to shift and morph would be like the ultimate costume change.

If you were to dream up a nightmare what would it be?

Absolutely terrifying. Probably something similar to Minion, a monster made from a swarm of spiders. When I have nightmares they are the worst. I am usually being chased by a dark formless, shifting shadow (not unlike Gladamyr now that I think about it). There are always lots of teeth and it is fast; constantly changing throughout the dream. The worst nightmares know when to change and get worse when you think it can't get any worse. 

How do you manage to smoothly accentuate the “voice” of the different characters? 

Breath, breath, breath. You can't transition from voice to voice without the proper breath support to fuel the instrument. If it sounds smooth it is a combination of quality editing and quality vocal control by the narrator.

How did you become a book narrator? Did anything specific prompt you to undertake this career?

A friend encouraged me to pursue it. He made the transition from actor to narrator full time and thought I would also be good at it. So, he gave me the initial push. I haven't been able to make that transition fully, though. I am still working and auditioning for gigs in both careers. As well as working at a coffee shop and doing odd work as a ranch hand and landscaper to make ends meet. I am still at the beginning of my narrating career, but what has prompted me to continue to pursue it is the flexibility to create my own hours, work from home, and the complete artistic control of the storytelling.

About the amazing author, Mikey Brooks:

Mikey Brooks is a small child masquerading as an adult. On occasion you’ll catch him dancing the funky chicken, singing like a banshee, and pretending to have never grown up. He is the author/illustrator of the best-selling middle-grade series The Dream Keeper Chronicles, The Stone of Valhalla, and The Gates of Atlantis: Battle for Acropolis. His picture books include the best-selling ABC Adventures: Magical Creatures and Bean’s Dragons. His art can be seen in many forms from picture books to full room murals. He loves to daydream with his three daughters and explore the worlds that only the imagination of children can create. Mikey has a BS degree in English from Utah State University and works full-time as a freelance illustrator, cover designer, and author. As a member of the Emblazoners, he is one of many authors devoted to ‘writing stories on the hearts of children’ (www.emblazoners.com). You can find more about him and his books at: www.insidemikeysworld.com
Check out the books for yourself!

The Dream Keeper

The Dreamstone

Thursday, July 17, 2014

All For One...

One of my favorite classic adventure novels is The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas. I love the bond of brotherhood between the 3 Musketeers and D'Artagnan! I love the sword fights and the action! I love the devious plots and the twists and turns! It's just my kind of book.

When my daughter decided to host a murder mystery party for her birthday this month, I couldn't resist the lure of writing the script for it myself. Because her birthday falls on Bastille Day, she is obsessed with all things French. Using a Dumas novel seemed a natural for the backbone of the mystery game. I chose one of the later novels in the Musketeer series, The Man in the Iron Mask.

It took me about a week to pull it together. I tried to design the game so that it can be played over and over again, with a different culprit each time. I wrote character dossiers, made playing cards, and figured out the rules. I was working on finishing it and printing everything right up until the party started!

The guests all arrived in fantastic costumes, and I had a blast taking their pictures. I think they all had a good time, interrogating each other, and "dueling" (using dice) to discover everyone's secrets and solve the four mysteries woven into the game.

I originally intended to serve "French" foods for the meal (French fries, French bread, etc), but because I spent so long writing the game, I didn't have time to cook, so my fabulous husband came to the rescue with several boxes of pizza (teenagers like that best anyway, right?). To integrate it properly into the game, we explained that France had recently conquered Italy and stolen their food.

Most of the guests were surprised to find the game was based on a classic novel. I don't think they realized that musty old "classics" could be such fun! Turning a novel into a mystery game was a great way to introduce a new book to young readers and bring it vibrantly to life. I may dabble in more of these adventures in the future!

Vive la France!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Chocolate Cake Indulgence

I wrote a post awhile back about taking a vacation into books. Since then, my little brain has been churning away, and it occurred to me that there are a lot of references to food in books. Since I love cooking, and I love reading, it seemed like a union made in heaven! What better way to bring the fantastic world of books into my real world than through a doorway in my kitchen? Sound like fun? Come along, and let's step inside a book.

I recently read Matched by Ally Condie and loved it! Throughout the course of the book, Cassia learns how to become independent from a government that controls everything: down to the type and amount of food you eat! If I lived there, I'm sure I would finally achieve that optimum thinness I've been striving for my whole life.

At the beginning of the book, Cassia goes to her Matching banquet, where she will find out the identity of the person the government has decided she will marry. Since this is a special occasion, Cassia and her parents are served a delicious meal described as "...a dance, as though this is a ball as well as a banquet." (What an awesome description!) The crowning jewel of the meal is the chocolate cake with fresh cream.

Since we don't live in that strait-jacket society, we can eat chocolate cake whenever we want! (As evidenced by the size of my waistline.) But you might want to serve it at a fancy dinner to get a real feeling for the book. (After you've read it, of course--which I highly recommend!)

Whenever I need chocolate cake for a birthday, special occasion, or that midnight chocolate craving :) I pull out this old family recipe. It makes a cake that is moist and spongy without being too light or too heavy. Add a dollop of whipped cream, and it's heaven on a fork!

Matchmaker Chocolate Cake

1 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp baking soda
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1 tsp salt
1 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease and flour a 9"x13" baking pan.

Mix together buttermilk and baking soda. Set aside. In a large, separate bowl, combine flour with sugar, cocoa, and salt. Beat in oil, eggs, and buttermilk with a mixer on low speed. Add boiling water and mix well.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven for 50 or 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool, then serve with freshly whipped and sweetened cream.

To grease and flour a pan, use a paper towel to spread shortening all over the inside of a pan. Then add about 1/4 cup of flour. Tilt and tap the pan until the flour glides over every surface with shortening. It will stick to the shortening and keep the cake from sticking to the pan! Discard any extra flour.

Add baking soda to buttermilk. If you don't have buttermilk, just stir 1 Tablespoon of lemon juice into 1 cup of milk.

Test the cake to see if it's done by poking the center with a toothpick. If cake batter clings to it when you pull it out, the cake needs to be baked longer. If the toothpick comes out clean, you know the cake is done!