the serpent's shadow

Alyce at At Home with Books is doing a weekly feature where she highlights one of her favorite reads from the past and encourages others to do so as well.

Some of my favorite fantasy books are from Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series. The Fire Rose, The Gates of Sleep, The Serpent’s Shadow, Phoenix and Ashes, The Wizard of London, and Reserved for the Cat are the titles so far. I like all of them. I LOVE some of them. They combine alternate history, classic fairy tales, magic, and the setting of early 1900s England (except The Fire Rose, which is set in America). They stand alone quite well, but are set in the same world, and some of the same themes and characters make appearances in each book.

And while Phoenix and Ashes is my personal favorite in the series, I think The Serpent’s Shadow is very nearly as good, and actually a much better recommendation for anyone who’s a bit wary of ‘fantasy’ and ‘magic.’ Why? Because the heroine Maya’s story isn’t just a re-told fairy tale, with magic added in. It’s also a story about women’s rights, race and ethnicity, about cultural traditions and religion, and how one navigates those channels while also finding out if they will survive to find happily ever after.

Have I confused you? The plot’s not as noisy or as crazy as I might have made it sound. Or maybe it is, but Ms. Lackey just tells the story much better than I can.

Mercedes Lackey’s The Serpent’s Shadow takes place in the London of 1909, and is loosely based on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Echoes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers pepper the plot, and the author turns the dwarves of fairy tale lore into seven animal avatars who masquerade as pets.

Some of Maya's challenges come from the fact that she is not "snow white," she is a female physician, and that she has fled India for her father's English homeland after the suspicious deaths of her parents. But the implacable enemy who killed her parents has come to London to search for her, and there is mysterious death stalking the streets…

Kiplingesque descriptions, a vivid Victorian context and a layered story are enhanced by a surface that is as glossy and brightly colored as an action comic.

That gives you an idea of what the book is about, at least. It’s got a bit of mystery, solid doses of suspense and action, magic and magical description, and a plucky Eurasian heroine who is quite able enough to fight her own battles, thank you very much. She meets many interesting and eccentric characters on the way, and each of them inspire love or disgust as well, and leave one hoping they find their just desserts.

I couldn’t help but admire Maya. She’s the character who won’t give up, won’t let any sort of prejudice stop her, and who bends the traditional lines of race, religion and class just enough to make a space for herself and her loved ones. Add into that a really GREAT plot, and enough magic and alternate history to ground the story, and you have a recipe for a favorite.

Recommended for: fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-type mystery, historical fantasy, really interesting plots and sub-plots, fairy tale re-tellings, and action-filled adventures. Onward!

caramel ginger crunchies

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 | | 16 comments
My lovely sister gave me a very appropriate and wonderful present at Christmas: a cookies-only cookbook. It’s called Cookies (of course!), and it’s by Australian chef Pamela Clark. If you’ve been tracking my cooking posts, you know by now that I like to bake, but cookies are far and away my favorite project. So this was really perfect. My sister tends to do that a lot: perfect, I mean. It’s mostly nice, but sometimes it’s a little crazy. In a good way.

In any case, she reminded me that I hadn’t tried a recipe from the book yet, and it felt like the perfect time to experiment. So here we go: specialty cookies and something of a recipe review all at once. With photos. Yay!

Caramel Ginger Crunchies


2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 cup sugar

1 stick cold butter, chopped

1 egg

1 teaspoon honey

3 tablespoons finely chopped candied ginger

45 wrapped hard caramels


1. Preheat oven to 325˚F. Grease baking sheets; line with parchment paper (I used aluminum foil).

2. Process sifted dry ingredients with butter until mixture is crumbly; add egg, honey and ginger, process until ingredients come together. Knead on floured surface until smooth (I just kneaded in the bowl…).

3. Roll rounded teaspoons of mixture into balls, flatten [very] slightly. Place about 1 1/4 inches apart on baking sheets.

4. Bake 13 minutes. Place one caramel on top of each hot cookie. Bake about 7 minutes or until caramel begins to melt. Cool on baking sheets. Makes 45.

This recipe was pretty simple – aside from the fact that I didn’t have any candied ginger on hand, and had no idea where to get any. Luckily the local Whole Foods imports Australian candied ginger… But that was only the first ‘hiccup’ in this cookie adventure.

Second, after I’d mixed up all the dough, the batch looked incredibly small. So did the teaspoon-sized cookie batter balls. But then I put them in my new apartment’s oven, and they flattened right out. Too much, in fact. And then the caramels didn’t melt right away, and I started worrying. Turns out that our oven is always about 25˚F off – and everything cooks a bit slower and a bit flatter than it should. Who knew?

But in the end, these are seriously delicious, even if they don’t look quite as ‘cute’ as the cookbook photos. I heartily recommend some ginger and caramel bites to chase away a bad day. Enjoy!

UPDATE: In the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that while these cookies are indeed delicious and just the tiniest bit gooey when fresh, they get ROCK HARD after a couple of days. *considers which hockey rink to donate leftovers to*

teaser tuesday (28)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 | | 11 comments
It's Teaser Tuesday, a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works:

Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

“'This is a hard day.'

Sarcastic snaps fill my head. They stomp around like elephants, wanting out. But I keep them down and all I say is, 'I know.'”

-p. 44 of Nova Ren Suma’s Dani Noir

like a rabbit with a pocket watch

Monday, January 25, 2010 | | 7 comments

I’m late, I’m late! For a very important date!…err…announcement. I have two winners picked for my 200 followers contest. You know the one? Where each winner gets to choose one book off The Book Depository website, up to a $25 value. The oracle (aka random-number-picker) over at has chosen! The lucky winners are:

Book pusher of The Genteel Arsenal


Leah the Orange of The Chronicles of Orange

Congratulations, winners! And I want to express to all of you again how much I love you – like, A LOT. I had 140 entries for this giveaway – that’s just solid, folks. So thank you, and look for a new contest soon!

mara, daughter of the nile

Alyce at At Home with Books is doing a weekly feature where she highlights one of her favorite reads from the past and encourages others to do so as well.

True confession: I was homeschooled. Not for all of my primary and secondary school years, but for a substantial chunk of time. Third grade through eighth grade, to be exact. In non-US parlance, that’s from age 8 to 14. Reason? At age 7, the local public school system tested children to see who they would place in the ‘gifted’ program, which was an advanced track of study and which prepared you for all sorts of ‘honors’ courses.

The test was an IQ test, I think. It was hard. There were questions about how many different ways you could use a fork. I didn’t make the cut. Cue: horror! My mom, who’d been helping in the classroom, was a tiny bit bewildered. Why didn’t I qualify? (it’s obvious to me now that she thought I was a little child genius…luckily I know better. ha!) That led to her think about education and what sort of things she wanted her kids to have access to. In the end, she took all of us out of school and started our home education.

That’s a brave step, no matter who you are. Thankfully, my mom has a Master’s degree and knew or got advice on how to take advantage of curriculum fairs, cultural exhibits, science programs and anything that might help. The result was memorable. It was fun. And it was definitely the start of my love affair with books and reading. I remember one school year when my mom was particularly frazzled by trying to teach my brothers to read – she just gave me a stack of books, and told me if I finished those, to come back for more.

But let’s get this back to one of my favorite reads. I was 11 when mom/teacher decided we were going to do an Ancient World unit. We started with Egypt and worked our way through Greece and Rome. All of us kids remember those lessons vividly: salt-dough relief maps, sugar cube pyramids, writing plays about Greek myths and acting out the Punic Wars. I mean, super fun, right? And we had some awesome fiction and non-fiction books to go with the themes.

One of those books was Mara, Daughter of the Nile. It’s an adventure featuring a feisty slave-girl in Ancient Egypt. It has action, intrigue, mummies, tombs and scarabs. In other words, it’s perfect for a fanciful eleven year-old steeped in the world of the Pharoahs.

Mara, Daughter of the Nile is one of Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s (author of Newbery Award-winning The Golden Goblet, Moccasin Trail and The Moorchild) most beloved stories. It chronicles the adventures of an ingenious Egyptian slave girl who undertakes a dangerous assignment as a spy in the royal palace of Thebes, in the days when Queen Hatshepsut ruled. Pulled in different directions by her head and her heart, Mara must decide what her role will be, who to believe and who to trust. The fate of Egypt depends on it!

I think Mara, for me, was one of the first characters whose experiences I wanted to crawl into and live for myself. I didn’t know what she would do next, but she was brave and she was different and she lived in a time I could imagine with my eyes open or shut. I dreamt of being Mara. I also appreciated the richly-drawn historical background. There’s nothing like an Eloise Jarvis McGraw novel to plant you deeply in the past (unless it’s an Elizabeth George Speare novel). The details, the scenery, the cultural differences are all there – and yet it’s not clumsy. It’s believable.

On top of that, I still remember the flow of the prose. Action and adventure written in such a way that you find yourself savoring each word. What fun this book was! I haven’t reread Mara in a while, and I think it may be time. After all, you can definitely measure the absolute popularity of a book when the 1985 version remains in print and available to this day! I bought myself a new copy only this summer.

Recommended for: fans of historical fiction, Newbery books, classic children’s fiction, Ancient Egypt, mystery, and spunky, out-of-the-ordinary heroines.

who's a lucky duck?

via {modfauna}’s etsy shop

I’ve had a pretty significant start of the year: moved across the country, started a new job, and found a new home (and hometown!). So far it’s going wonderfully well. I even have a new library card! But…on to the important announcement for today: who won that contest I had to celebrate? Who will get $25 to The Book Depository? Well, it’s time to announce the lucky duck:

Carol of carolsnotebook!

Who answered the question, “What’s your drink of choice while working or reading?” with “My favorite drink this time of year is coffee, black please.” Congrats, Carol!

Many thanks to all who entered – you are fabulous, you really are. And if you’re a follower of this blog, there’s still a chance to win lovely things in my 200 follower contest. Go!

teaser tuesday (27)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | | 6 comments
It's Teaser Tuesday, a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works:

Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

“It turns out to be true that an Object in Motion Remains in Motion. Well thank you, Miss Valerie Greene, science teacher back at dear old Nightingale-Bamford School for Girls. Whoever imagined that anything you said would ever come in handy?”

-p. 47 of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now

brown sugar and almond love

Monday, January 18, 2010 | | 7 comments
If you are brand new to this blog, you probably don’t know about my baking and cooking posts. Mostly I talk about an awesome recipe and post proud photos. These are interspersed with the occasional cooking disaster, or course. I’m not anywhere near gourmet – I just like to bake. It’s therapy, and my own personal cure for insomnia.

I’m not suffering from insomnia right now (hello? New job?), but with all the craziness of moving across the country and holidays, I haven’t baked in a while. Yesterday it felt like time. So: enjoy. Drool a little. Make some for yourself!

Brown Sugar Almond Cookies


1 cup butter (room temperature)

1 cup granulated (white) sugar

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons vinegar

4 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 cup slivered almonds

1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

72 whole almonds


Preheat oven to 400˚F.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, blending well. In separate bowl, dissolve baking soda in vinegar. Add to butter, egg and sugar mixture. Gradually stir in flour and baking powder. Lastly, blend in slivered almonds and vanilla or almond extract.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls and place on non-stick or greased cookie sheet. Place one whole almond in the center of each cookie. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Makes approximately 72 cookies.

Recommended for: buttering up your boss, afternoon tea parties, classy occasions and impressing that certain someone. YUM.

the war of the flowers

Friday, January 15, 2010 | | 8 comments
Alyce at At Home with Books is doing a weekly feature where she highlights one of her favorite reads from the past and encourages others to do so as well.

I mentioned in this post that I discovered a new love for science fiction and fantasy on the shelves of a musty bookshop in Sevilla, Spain right at a time when I was a bit raw with homesickness. Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers was one of those books. It was THICK (think 768 pages!), which was a huge point in its favor. I wanted English language familiar comfort, and I wanted a lot of it. It was also about fairies, which I thought I could deal with. And best yet, it had a genuinely pretty cover.

I read the book over a couple of days and just lived in it. You know there are books that convincingly create a whole world? Maybe you connect with the main character, maybe you hate him/her a little bit, but you can’t doubt the reality and vividness of the setting? That’s this book. It was the same way for me with China Mieville’s The Scar. I wasn’t sure that I liked where I was going, but I was helpless to resist the pull of it.

Theo Vilmos' life is about to take a real turn for the worse.

He is drawn from his home in Northern California into the parallel world of Faerie, for, unknown to him, he is a pivotal figure in a war between certain of Faerie's powerful lords and the rest of the strange creatures who live in this exotic realm.

As Applecore, an irritated and decidedly punk-like sprite, says, "‘If you believe in fairies, clap your hands'? If you believe in fairies, kiss my rosy pink arse is more like it."

So: The War of the Flowers is undeniably dark in parts. It’s got a lot going on. It’s thick. Why should anyone read it? I think I’ve intimated the stuff I love about it: dark fantasy, flashes of humor, impressive world-building, a really involved story that feels familiar and yet surprises and wows you. But another plus? It’s good even for those who aren’t fans of the genre. I re-gifted this novel to my brother Lincoln, who is famous (in our family) for reading almost exclusively non-fiction. He came back to me after finishing it and wanted to DISCUSS. How often does that happen? It inspired both of us. Yeah, there are a lot of other-worldly elements. But at its center, this is a story about a parallel space, with some of the same problems that regular humans face. In other words, it’s universal. And that’s what makes it great.

What are some 'universal' stories that you find yourself reading over and over?

200 followers? contest!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 | | 80 comments

image by k. barteski at [i] love life

OH. MY. WORD. I have 200 followers?! You people are amazing. No, seriously. If I could give each of you a chai tea latte and a hug, I would. Alas, I cannot: some of you do not drink tea. Some of you do not drink dairy. Some of you live out in the wilds where I cannot come and hug you (at least not at the moment…). But I do want to give you something…memorable. How about this…

If you are a follower, I heart you. I am going to give you the best thing ever: BOOKS. Two followers who comment on this post will win a book of their choice. Within reason, of course. Two people, one book each. Order whatever tome you’d like on The Book Depository, but keep it under $25 US. Contest is open internationally. Just leave me an email address or another way to get in touch. This contest ends January 23. Enter now!

**If you were a follower when I hit 200 (today, January 12), leave me a +1 note in your comment. I’ll give you an extra entry. ‘Cause I love you like that.

Good luck!

teaser tuesday (26)

It's Teaser Tuesday, a bookish blog meme hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Here's how it works:

Grab your current read and let it fall open to a random page. Post two (or more) sentences from that page, along with the title and author. Don’t give anything vital away!

“Kat’s wrong; I can’t possibly be doomed to ruin this terrific thing we’ve got going.

So I say it again: ‘I love you.’”

-p. 61 of Lara M. Zeises’ The Sweet Life of Stella Madison (ARC version)

my bookcase...aka to-be-read pile

Sunday, January 10, 2010 | | 17 comments
Someone (if it’s you, raise your virtual hand right now!) is doing a bookcase feature on his/her blog, and I originally responded that I couldn’t take part. The point of said event was to take photos of our bookshelves, since they are really interesting places, and then to post those photos and descriptions or some such. I’ve just moved, and I only brought my TBR pile and some Christmas presents with me. I didn’t feel like I had enough to show off.

But true story? I’m a little camera-happy with my new phone (aka crackberry), and I arranged the books I do have so nicely in my little bookcase…

So there you are: picture of my current book collection. The other fourteen boxes that comprise my personal library/hoard are going to live at my parents’ house until I have the wherewithal to have them sent. What’s in your TBR pile right now?

starting off angelic

Friday, January 8, 2010 | | 8 comments
Her serious geniusness, Aimee of my fluttering heart, is hosting the Horns and Halos Reading Challenge in 2010. I’ve signed up to do seven items, but I’m fairly sure that I’m going to go overboard. Fun!

My first foray for this challenge was Sharon Shinn’s Archangel. Well, actually…I read Angelica first. Because someone, whose name/blog I cannot remember at the moment, but whose taste I trust, said it was a favorite read. That’s the kind of thing I can’t resist. I’ve found that it’s the best method for discovering absolutely wonderful new books, too. New to me, at any rate. So I read Angelica. I liked it. Not world-changing, but worthwhile and a tad addictive. I then got Archangel, which is the first in the Samaria series (Angelica is #4), on the strength of that read. And after the summary, my thoughts…

Set in a society founded as an egalitarian utopia but now tainted with vices and inequity, Sharon Shinn's love story is plotty and calamitous. Rachel and Gabriel have nothing in common beyond wishing that the god Jovah had ordained they wed other people, yet they must cooperate in singing a mass to the god on the occasion of Gabriel's elevation to Archangel. Upright Gabriel has enemies among both mortal and angelic peoples who prefer to risk world destruction over his restoration of the old order.

Impending apocalypse. Unhappy and dissimilar people forced into marriage. Angels in a world that blends sci-fi and fantasy. Treachery. Fate. Love? All of those things I’ve just listed would make me want to pick up the book – but throw them together, and it’s compulsively readable. I stayed up into the small hours of the morning to find out how/if it could ever work for Gabriel and Rachel, and (on a larger scale) if civilization would survive. It was worth it.

But besides being the sort of book you find hard to put down, afterwards I was struck by several interesting thoughts. First off, what this story is, the romance part of it, I mean, is an arranged marriage. And if you haven’t read a Harlequin or Mills & Boon, let me just tell you: it’s been worked to death. So when I picked up the book, got about twenty pages in, and inferred ‘arranged marriage,’ I was VERY skeptical. I remained skeptical.

Even as I connected with Shinn’s characters and worried over them and gnashed my teeth a bit at their stubbornness, I was not sure I liked the set-up. But somewhere in there, the story converted me. That’s where the secondary characters, the world-building, the history and the plot come in. There was so much depth, so much to explain the quirks and draw you in and set you up to BELIEVE in the story – it just worked. And let me just say, Shinn found an amazing formula, because there are several more books in the series…

Second: music. Sadly, I am not any kind of music aficionado. I roomed with a voice major in college, though, and now she’s marrying a barbershop singer, and they live five minutes away, so… Sorry. Got carried away. What I meant to say is that I am acquainted very peripherally with musical theory. I can identify beautiful music. I don’t make it or appreciate it as much as I should. BUT. This book can’t help but make you feel something about vocal harmonies, even though you never hear a single note. It’s as if some of the words sing. While I read the descriptions of singing, I would find myself imagining an amazing and glorious chorus. And really? That’s talent. I felt like music was being made in my heart while I read. What a precious thing!

Third: names and places. Archangel is the first in the Samaria series. The god’s name is Jovah/Yovah. There are place names such as Jordana, Bethel and Mount Sinai and the Galilee River. All of these scream ‘Biblical’ to me. And really? It’s a story about angels. Archangels, even. So what does this mean? It’s symbolism, definitely. I think that the point is to realize that the world is a religious colony. I didn’t get that the first time I read a Samaria novel: I thought it was pure fantasy, an alternate world. But that’s where the ‘sci-fi’ part comes in. All of these names link the world of angels to a possible real past in ‘our’ world. Space and science have changed the histories and memories of mankind, but it could be part of the future. Very interesting to think about, at any rate.

If you couldn’t tell, I liked this book a lot. Just thinking about it and typing up this review, I remembered how engrossing the story was - so I ordered Jovah’s Angel, number two in the series. I can tell there’s another sleepless night in my future!

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