10 (Mostly YA) Books That Changed My Life.

If you’ve been following my blog for even a little while, then you know at least two things about me: I studied English at university and I am the kind of person who will happily lose sleep over characters and plot twists. You see, I’m a lit lover through and through. As such, I owe a lot of what I know and love to the lessens that I’ve learned from printed lines on bound pages, the stories that changed my life.

On that note, here’s to literary game-changers and the marvelous people who create them.

Thank you!

——

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

By the time I graduated from kindergarten in 2000, I was a voracious reader and everybody knew it. But, somehow, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I didn’t read until 2001, feels like the book that started it all for me. It was the book that made me delve into fantasy and science fiction, the book that gave me a fan community to become immersed in, and the book that taught me how to do life. But, more than anything else, this was the book that led to a series of books that transformed my generation and made us all believe in magic.

Each of Rowling’s characters taught me something about people and the lives we all must lead. In Hermione, I learned that intelligence, loyalty, bravery, feminism, and drive can take you far. In Severus, I learned that everyone can change, some causes are worth living and dying for, and a good person is not necessarily a nice person. In Dumbledore, I learned that pursuing the “greater good” sounds lovely in theory but, people will get hurt along the way (i.e. Ariana and Harry). And, in Harry, I learned that love can change everything.

The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn

I haven’t been able to shut up about The Bar Code Tattoo since I ordered it through a Scholastic sale in 2004 when I was 10 years old. I even read a bit from it in a YouTube video because it was “the first book I could get my hands on.” (I totally didn’t edit out the time it took me to find that book in particular…) I have quite literally been blabbing about this book for years—I even got a tweet back from the author after I mentioned the renewed relevance of the “big brother is watching you” plot line in modern-day America.

Ultimately, in the primary character, Kayla (hey, that’s 71% of my first name), I learned to seek the truth with determination and work to create the life I wish to lead. However, as my introduction to dystopian fiction, Weyn is also responsible for teaching me to be aware of the world I live in, to question how today’s decisions will affect tomorrow’s conditions, and to discover my own identity instead of letting my community define me.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies_book

Uglies is a story with many layers. Mostly obviously, there is snazzy technology à la science fiction and a dystopian world with Big Brother government, which is fascinating and terrifying all at once. Underneath all of that though, there is an ongoing discussion of the big problems that plague humans regardless of time and space: personal identity, individual freedom, and conceptions of beauty. You know how English teachers and professors always tell students to “unpack” or “bleed” the text? I could write a 20+ page paper “unpacking” this story. This tale never comes up empty.

Westerfeld said (through the character of David) that “what you do, the way you think, makes you beautiful,” and that statement resonates with me more every day of my life, particularly as I begin to bridge the gap between being a student and a professional. Whenever I question who I am or what I’m doing, I remember that I’m no different from Uglies and the characters within it—there is a whole world inside of me just waiting to be unpacked.

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

I grew up with a mother who studied psychology. What this means is that I’ve spent my entire life listening to impromptu psych lectures, as well as having all of my choices and ideas psychoanalyzed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly been interesting—as a child it was awe-inspiring because, well, my mother is undeniably a brilliant woman—but, I didn’t truly understand the concept of psychology until I read I Am the Cheese (and The Chocolate War immediately thereafter) around the beginning of middle school.

The psychological journey of Adam (aka Paul) led me to consider the core differences between people and how our experiences can define the past, present, and the future equally. In Cormier’s story (stories, really) I found perspective. As a result, in Adam’s pursuit of his father, I also became closer to my own mother, gaining a better understanding not just of why she would study psychology, but also why she considered her psychology-related knowledge and experiences to be eternally relevant.

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

In only 383 pages of print, Dessen tackled familial relationships, eating disorders, sexual assault, anger management, high school dynamics, friendship, and so much more. Then, to make the story all the more important, Dessen showcased the metaphorical power of silence and the human inability to quiet the heart. The story doesn’t rely on a grand setting, a large character collection, or even sublime escapades; instead, the author just conveyed what it means to not think or judge, and instead “just listen” to what your heart is saying.

Music wasn’t precisely the point of this book yet, somehow, this book intrinsically altered my relationship with music. Music was just the tipping point of the lessons this book taught though. Through Annabel, I learned that secrets are heavy to hold, truths can be hard to share, and people are not necessarily the “characters” they portray to the rest of the world. Through Owen, I learned that music can be an escape or a channel, depending on which you need, and the truth should be shared, even if you have to “rephrase and redirect” to get your meaning across.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

For most of my sophomore year of high school, I spent every spare second I had in the library or reading a novel in an empty classroom. I carried a veritable library of ARCs in my backpack and I talked publishing with my journalism teacher (who became my yearbook supervisor). In the midst of that odd situation, I discovered the then-newly-published novel Paper Towns by John Green. I loved that book like it bled and breathed, but mostly I loved the world it opened me up to in its fleeting references: Walt Whitman’s poetic skill and the utterly intoxicating “Song of Myself.”

Whitman spent 400 poems trying to define and describe life before ultimately coming to the conclusion that people are large and “contain multitudes.”  In the sage conclusions of a long-dead man and in that time of intense personal growth, Whitman’s words enabled me to be comfortable with being a bit “odd,” living life like a “dance” when the “fit” of change was “whirling me fast.” Not to mention, it was Whitman’s poetic encouragement to explore one’s self that led me to create a blog called “mylifeinverse” or “my life in verse,” despite the fact that I don’t generally write poetry.

The Confessions of St. Augustine by St. Augustine

In this single book, often touted as a building block of the Christian faith, St. Augustine managed to make absolutely everything in life—every experience, every thought, every desire—seem like a mortal sin. More than any other book I’ve ever read, Confessions pissed me off and made me wish for a time machine so that I could go back to ancient times and deliver a punch in the face to the author. It was simply infuriating to see an author turn life overall into something so thoroughly ugly in the name of defending religion and ethics.

Despite all of that, St. Augustine’s Confessions taught me about the manipulative power of religions (not that all religions are manipulative), the diversity of moral and ethical systems, the tedium of entirely introspective and self-deprecatory works, and the ability of authors to make readers feel like they’re being castigated. That being said, this is the only book I have ever thrown away—quite literally, it went into the trash bin—and I don’t even feel guilty about it.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Susan Cain rose to fame as a self-proclaimed “public introvert” who utilized her incredibly astute observations about her own nature to tell the world (in a TED talk) about the superpowers of introverts and bring about positive vibes regarding the more “quiet” portion of the population. Where the majority of self-help and introspective self-analytical literature characterize introversion as something one must compensate for by adopting the seemingly superior characteristics of extroverts, Cain successfully presented introverts and extroverts as separate but equal.

As a young woman just finishing up my undergraduate degree and an undeniable introvert, Quiet spoke to my experiences with and worries about existing in a predominantly extrovert-positive world. I wouldn’t be nearly as confident about the very real and very necessary role I can fill in a work environment—particularly in the extrovert-oriented career field I’m aiming for—if I had not read this book at precisely the time that I did.

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Just like The Bar Code Tattoo trilogy and Uglies trilogy, Divergent is the first novel in a dystopian trilogy with a badass female main character and slightly less important, but amusing and often game-changing, minor male characters. There are certainly strong feelings of girl power in Tris’ gradual and hard-fought transformation from the meek and compliant person others want her to be to the curious and brave person she truly is “on the inside.” And, well, what 21-year-old young woman doesn’t need a bit more girl power in her life?

Throughout my life I’ve always been told to “be myself” and “live for me” but, it wasn’t until I read Divergent that I began to understand that who you are can change, whether through sheer force of will or evolutionary circumstances, and you’re no less you for changing. Tris made me excited to transform from what I was as a child and a teenager, by upbringing or some sort of default, and become who I want to be. In that character I found the courage to make myself new while always remembering the past.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

If someone wrote a story about my first year of university, it would read much like Cath’s tale of college confusion, without the lovely (yet delightfully and realistically flawed) boy, twin sister, and supportive roommate. In essence, my first year of university, during which I lived on campus for a semester, was a roller coaster of success and failure, topped with discomfort regarding my degree choice and a complete inability to engage with people my age. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience until I reevaluated the situation, charted a new course, and started (sort of) fresh…just like Cath.

Rainbow Rowell provided me with someone who was comfortingly familiar, who struggled and learned to carry on in the same ways that I did as a new university student. This darling author and her characters validated my love of fan culture and fanfiction, reassuring me that fanfiction is real fiction and there is a beautiful community filled with wonderful people who enjoy being fans just as much as I do. Even more importantly, Cath taught me that, in being my awkward and untraditional self, I’m not losing out on anything but instead finding my own, different adventures.

——

If you’re feeling talkative, comment below with the books (YA or otherwise) that have changed your life!

Celebrating the 20-Somethings.

In the movie 13 Going On 30 (2004), a young girl named Jenna laments the woes of being a teenager and longs for the day when she’ll be “thirty, flirty, and thriving.” Of course, in typical movie magic style, Jenna is zapped to the future via glittery wishing dust and a birthday party gone bad, skipping right past her late teens and 20s, and Jenna wakes up as a fabulous and well-established 30-year-old with a career in fashion journalism.

Apparently even 13-year-old movie characters aren’t brave enough to wish for early entry into the maze/minefield that is your 20s…

From what I’ve experienced so far, your 20s are an age of mystery, adventure, and confusion. You’re caught between not knowing what you’re doing and needing to keep doing something. You have a drinking license, freshly printed diploma, and possibility, and sometimes that’s all. In the end, being in your 20s means constantly being on the verge of everything, but with a blindfold on–you have no clue where your life is headed but you cannot stop heading there.

In our 20s, we’re in perpetual motion.

It’s no surprise then that we spend (or waste) a lot of time thinking on, worrying about, getting sick over our life journey. We 20-somethings cannot seem to comprehend the idea of just letting life happen or going with the flow until something clicks and the light bulb pops on. As a result, when we finished our degrees and were thrust out of complete academia, we were filled with questions and completely terrified of making choices:

What do we want to do?

Who do we want to be?

Where do we want to go?

Why is the future so hard to see?

Ugh…

If the Doctor can be confused, I reserve the right to be confused too.

We also spend (or waste) a lot of time mourning, bemoaning, raging about the fact that we cannot answer every question and make every choice. We see missed opportunities and feel like life itself now has fewer opportunities. We see others taking different paths and we assume that means we’ve somehow gotten lost in the woods. We see years laid out before us like paving stones and we don’t know where those years will lead us. In short, we fret.

Yet, at the same time that we’re walking about in darkened rooms and worrying about what comes next, being 20-something means experiencing dozens of wonderful people, places, and events.

We’re at the point where we’re entering relationships that just might last beyond coffee and movie dates. We’re learning that our knowledge and skills are valuable to someone somewhere. We’re taking the time to prove to ourselves that the world isn’t flat by leaving our hometowns and zipping around the globe. We’re meeting new people because we want to, not just because they’re in our neighborhood, class, or club.

We’re branching out and carving our own niches in the world, which is pretty freaking amazing.

And, you know what? We’re pretty freaking amazing.

It’s mystery, adventure, and confusion.

We’re mysterious, adventurous, and confused.

We may not know what we’re doing quite yet, but we’re doing something. The path may be untrodden, but we have the chance to forge it ourselves. Life may be a giant jumble of excitement and uncertainty, but we’re trying to figure it out. We may wish for the TARDIS and a smooth jump forward or back, but our 20s are quite fantastic if we just take the time to recognize them for what they are–a decade of freedom and discovery, growth and change (the good kind).

It’s perfectly acceptable not to have our lives completely put together in our 20s. Rome wasn’t built in a day, Harry Potter didn’t defeat Voldemort with one spell, and Frodo couldn’t have made it to Mordor alone–we’ll get there eventually and there is no need to feel down about our youth along the way.

Clichés exist because some ideas are true and common, which is why I don’t feel silly for saying that we would be crazy to waste our 20s worrying and obsessing about what comes next. Life happens regardless of what you decide or do, and we might as well have some fun along the way. In 13 Going On 30 (2004) Jenna skipped over being a 20-something but, in the end, it was that skip, that lost time, those neglected experiences that made Jenna wish she could go back to being a 13-year-old and give growing up another go.

The Doctor isn’t going to schlep us back to 20 when we turn 30, Hermione Granger doesn’t have a time-turner to volunteer, and Doc Brown and Marty McFly aren’t on their way with a tricked out DeLorean time machine.

It’s up to all of us 20-somethings to make the most of our 20s and not turn our back on the experience out of fear for the future. Your 20s are a crazy era but, someday we will look back and say that “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” we were awesome, we did amazing things, and we don’t regret even a single minute of that adventure. Of course, then we’ll brag about our current and future awesome-ness like the millennials we are and get down with our bad selves to infinity and beyond, though that’s another post entirely…

Be your age, live your life, and know that, even if better days are ahead, these days are pretty great too.

 

17 Random Questions Tag.

YouTube is such a lovely way to fill time; but, I also really enjoy making silly videos myself. (Maybe that’s a holdover from my high school yearbook staff days…) So, I’m trying to get back into making videos and not just being part of the audience. You can check out my most recent video below and I would love to hear from those of you that are YouTubers! If you’d like to do the same tag that I did, you can find the tag questions just below the video.

Cheers, dearies!

Questions:

  1. How did you get your youtube user name?
  2. If you could change your name to anything, what would it be and why?
  3. If you could go back in time and give your younger self advice, what would it be and why?
  4. How old were you when you first learned to blow a bubblegum bubble?
  5. What did you want to be when you were little?
  6. What do you order at Starbucks?
  7. What’s the hardest you ever laughed?
  8. If you could play any musical instrument, which would it be and why?
  9. What’s your favorite thing to do when your upset?
  10. What’s your favorite movie?
  11. What’s one food you can not live without?
  12. What’s your favorite dessert?
  13. Favorite pizza topping?
  14. Would you rather have the superpower to read minds, or the superpower to be invisible?
  15. What did you do for your last birthday?
  16. If you had one personal “selfish” wish, what would it be and why?
  17. What does OMGHHKP mean to you?

 

Goodbye, Year of Exploration. Hello, Year of Ambition.

For the last three years, I’ve rejected the idea of explicit resolutions and instead made a habit of declaring a single word to embody each new year. There was the year of discovery (2012), the year of dedication (2013), and even the year of exploration (2014). Each year lived up to its name, albeit sometimes in surprising ways that pushed me to my limits and then a bit beyond.

In 2012, I discovered who I was away from my friends, outside of my hometown, and apart from everything that I’d always thought was certain, as well as who I was when I came back. In 2013, I dedicated myself to whatever felt important, including finishing my bachelors degree in English and refining my art. And, in 2014, I explored whatever struck my fancy, even as that led me to travel from coast to coast for months on end and begin a master’s degree in criminal justice. No two years were the same, yet no year was more or less enthralling than any other.

All of that being said, 2014 was pretty intriguing. I spent three months in California, Oregon, and Washington. Then I spent three months in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. That’s not to mention all the states and shores I visited on the way to and from those places. I turned 21 and wasted my newest privilege by drinking a pitifully small volume of alcohol (say “no” to big kablue-nas). I began graduate school and discovered that sometimes the student teaches the professor. I baked foods and treats I couldn’t even pronounce and used ingredients I’d never heard of before.

In short, I explored.

Now it’s time to put all of that behind me, to close the door on 2014’s wild exploration, and step into the year 2015, which already seems daunting and intoxicating.

Over the next 365 days, I’ll be traveling back to South Carolina, the state I know only through my family tree.  I’ll be completing my Masters of Criminal Justice degree, complete with nerve-wracking comprehensive exams. I’ll be leaving my friends and the only place I have ever truly regarded as “home.” I’ll be taking control of my health and defying my genetics. I’ll be taking important steps in my personal and professional lives, striving to achieve success through desire and determination.

All in all, 2015 can and will be nothing less than wild and engrossing, fast-paced and sublime. Thus, in the same vein of thought, I’ve decided to call 2015 the year of ambition. I chose the word ambition to embody or headline this year mostly because I have a strong desire to achieve multiple things this year. I have an end-game in mind and nothing will stop me from reaching it. In addition, I’ve come to realize that being ambitious is just in my nature and that is something to use to my advantage, to accept as a benefit. So, this year will be a journey in accepting ambition as a facet of my nature.

Keeping with tradition, as I jumpstart the New Year, I won’t write down any particular resolutions because, well, it just feels awful when a perfectly composed resolution isn’t fulfilled precisely as it was written. I prefer to stick with matters of certainty, like the inevitable graduation and move, and variety, like the generality of being ambitious in all my endeavors. Along the way, I simply hope that at least 15 marvelous things will happen.

Here’s to a year of purpose and cheers to everyone reading this. I hope that you find precisely what you are looking for in the exciting days ahead. Happy New Year!

Butterbeer & Other Decadent Desserts.

I’ll just cut to the chase because, if my stats hold any truth, you’re here for either the butterbeer recipe or another major sugar rush. Have fun in fandom-land and bon appetit!

Potterhead Butterbeer

butterbeer

Whipped Topping:

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 + 1/2 teaspoons imitation butter extract
  • 3 teaspoons granulated white sugar

Butterbeer:

  • 1-2 cups cream soda
  • 1 tablespoon butterscotch topping or syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon imitation butter extract

Directions:

  1. Place all whipped topping ingredients in a medium sized mixing bowl.
  2. Beat with electric mixer for approximately 3 minutes or until soft peaks form.
  3. Set aside.
  4. Pour, squirt, or spoon butterscotch into tall glass or mug.
  5. Pour cream soda into glass or mug, leaving 1 inch of space at top.
  6. Add imitation butter extract (according to ingredients list or to taste).
  7. Stir well.
  8. Spoon whipped topping onto the surface of the soda mixture.
  9. Sport a frothy/creamy mustache and pretend you’re Hermione Granger!

Classic Pound Cake

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  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 sticks butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 3 cups granulated white sugar
  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • vanilla extract
  • imitation butter extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Directions:

  1. Place cake flour, baking powder, and salt in medium mixing bowl.
  2. Sift two to three times. Set aside.
  3. Place butter (sometimes cutting it up helps) and coconut oil in bowl of stand mixer. Beat until fluffy.
  4. Add sugar. Beat until thoroughly blended.
  5. Beat on low while adding eggs one at a time. Beat until thoroughly blended.
  6. Alternately stir in parts of flour mixture and milk until all mixtures are semi-combined.
    1. Be sure that the mixtures are semi-combined. Using a hand or stand mixer with exposed dry ingredients may result in flour mushroom clouds!
  7. Beat on low as you add vanilla extract, imitation butter extract, and lemon juice.
  8. Allow cake batter to rest for a couple of minutes.
  9. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  10. Grease a bundt pan well.
    1. I’ve found the greatest success with coconut oil or olive oil.
  11. Pour batter into bundt pan and bake for 1 hour and 25 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  12. Remove from pan immediately after removal from oven.
  13. Let them eat cake!

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 + 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 cup granulated brown sugar (dark or light)
  • 1 + 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 3/4 cup vanilla greek yogurt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 can pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • semi-sweet chocolate chips (to taste)

Directions:

  1. Place all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Stir well (carefully) and set aside.
  3. Place brown sugar, white sugar, and yogurt in a medium mixing bowl. Stir well.
  4. Add eggs to mixture. Beat eggs in mixture with fork.
  5. Add pumpkin, coconut oil, and vanilla extract to mixture. Stir well.
  6. Combine dry and wet mixtures in the large mixing bowl. Stir well.
  7. Add chocolate chips to taste. Stir well.
  8. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
  9. Grease two 9×5 loaf pans.
    1. Again, I prefer coconut oil or olive oil.
  10. Pour batter into pans and bake for 55 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  11. Remove from pans immediately after removal from oven.
  12. Give a toast to pumpkin spice season!

Chai Tea Sugar Cookies 

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Cookies:

  • 1 stick butter (I prefer butter made from the milk of grass-fed cows, like Kerrygold unsalted butter, for cookies; however, any butter will do in a pinch.)
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 granulated white sugar
  • 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 + 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1-3 tablespoons whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 dash cinnamon
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 chai tea sachet/bag

Glaze:

  • 3/4 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ginger
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk

Directions:

  1. Place butter and coconut oil in large mixing bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until fluffy.
  2. Add white sugar and powdered sugar. Beat until fluffy.
    1. Beware powdered sugar mushroom clouds!
  3. Add eggs, vanilla extract, and milk. Beat only until blended.
  4. Stir in baking soda, table salt, cinnamon, and flour.
  5. Add chai tea. Knead dough with clean hands.
  6. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  8. Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Place on parchment paper-covered cookie sheet and flatten to 1/4 inch thickness.
  9. Bake for 10 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  10. Mix powdered sugar, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and milk in a small bowl.
  11. Spoon glaze mixture onto hot cookies.
  12. Be a cookie monster!

Soft & Puffy Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Ingredients:

  • 1 + 1/2 stick butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 1 cup granulated brown sugar (dark or light)
  • 1 cup granulated white sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • semi-sweet chocolate chips (to taste)

Directions:

  1. Place butter and coconut oil in large mixing bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until fluffy.
  2. Add brown sugar and white sugar to mixture. Beat until fluffy.
  3. Add eggs and vanilla extract. Beat only until blended.
  4. Stir in baking soda, baking powder, table salt, and flour.
  5. Knead dough with clean hands.
  6. Stir in desired amount of semi-sweet chocolate chips.
  7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  8. Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Place on parchment paper-covered cookie sheet.
  9. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Adjust time based on oven.
  10. Quick, hide the cookie jar!

Vanilla Bean Custard

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Ingredients:

  • 1 Madagascar vanilla bean, split
  • 1 + 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 + 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon coconut almond milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar

Directions:

  1. Cut vanilla bean pod in half length-wise.
  2. Moving a knife perpendicular to the vanilla bean pod, scrape out the vanilla beans and place in medium sauce pan.
  3. Add cream, milk, and coconut almond milk to sauce pan.
  4. Set aside.
  5. Place sugar and egg yolks in medium mixing bowl.
  6. Whisk together until combined.
  7. Set aside.
  8. Bring milk mixture to a boil.
  9. Combine milk mixture and sugar/egg mixture in medium mixing bowl.
  10. Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
  11. Pour mixture into four 6 oz. ramekins or custard cups.
  12. Place filled ramekins or custard cups into a small roasting pan.
  13. Fill roasting pan with warm water to hot until water is halfway up the sides of the ramekins or custard cups.
    1. Alternatively, place ramekins or custard cups into roasting pan, place the roasting pan in the oven, then use a kettle to pour water into the pan while it is in the oven.
  14. Bake for 35 minutes. The tops of the custards should look crisp with small bubbles.
  15. Remove roasting pan from the oven, remove ramekins or custard cups from the roasting pan, and drain water.
  16. Allow custard to cool, then refrigerate or serve warm.
  17. Oh you fancy, huh?

1 Month to Slay 50K: NaNoWriMo 2014.

If you have a moment, I would like to tell you my favorite fairy tale.

It’s short and sweet, so I hope you’ll lend me your ear.

Once upon a time, in the mighty land of the Internet, knights gathered to face their greatest challenge yet: conquering their own novels.

Over the course of 30 days the lionhearted knights battled taxing word counts, carnivorous characters, daunting plot-holes, riotous plot bunnies, and frustrating time constraints. There were many days that the knights lost hope of ever completing their task. But, the battles were hard fought and the challenges hard won and, in the end, the knights were exalted for word counts beyond measure and puns extraordinaire. Even with the numerous challenges of editing and publishing still ahead of them, the knights dispersed with hearts lightened by the thrill of achievement and minds enthused by the discovery of story.

The end.

Did you like that? Did it make you want to be a knight too? Are you wishing the challenge was real?

If so, you’re in luck! In truth, the fairy tale is not a fairy tale at all. Starting tomorrow, November 1, 2014, more than 300,000 writer-knights will take up the challenge of writing 50,000 words during the 30 days of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It feels absolutely impossible at first, but it’s possible if you truly throw yourself into the challenge like a knight vying to uphold the chivalric code. In other words, get hella invested in your novel.

However, to add to the nerve-wracking, but totally worth it, nature of the challenge, writers are challenged to only write. Let me repeat: writers are only allowed to write. No editing is allowed! That means no touch-ups or gear-shifting, no re-reading or losing faith in the plot, and no scrapping “bad” scenes. The key is to just focus on the word count and to deal with what comes out during the novel cooling off period, otherwise known as winter and December.

This is my seventh year attempting NaNoWriMo and (hopefully) my first year to reach (then exceed) 50K. We’re in the final hours before NaNoWriMo starts in the United States and I cannot possibly explain how excited I am. I feel like it’s Christmas night and I can’t sleep for the delight of tomorrow, yet I also have those lovely-and-terrible first-day-of-school type nerves. This month will surely be an adventure in wonderland.

If my nonfiction fairy tale interested you at all, please consider heading over to the NaNoWriMo website to make the commitment and give the challenge a try. Your fellow knights will welcome you with open arms and we’ll all take one month to slay 50K together. It might seem daunting at first but, there are millions, billions, trillions of words instead each person, and NaNoWriMo is only asking you to spill 50K of them.

I am personally challenging all of my writer friends to take on the task of NaNoWriMo. I can assure each and every one of you that you won’t regret making the attempt. Even if you get lost in writing wonderland and don’t make it to 50K, you will have created something from nothing and you can be immensely proud.

Come on, dearies and darlings, knights from all around: I dare you to write.

P.S. My username on the NaNoWriMo site is mylifeinverse and I would love some new writing buddies. :)

 

Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts: A Book Review.

I’ve read a lot of books about sick people–fiction, nonfiction, the grey space in between–but, I’ve also witnessed sickness. I’ve heard lungs catch and breathes stop. I’ve felt the weakness of atrophying muscles. I’ve seen the red of a central line being removed. You see, sickness is a monster and, for all the knowledge you can have about it, it is facing it first-hand or alongside another that makes the ultimate impact.

When I was selected through Netgalley to read and review Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts, I was prepared for a watered-down version of sickness. Authors often seem too wary of the “delicate and impressionable” minds of young adults to do stories of sickness any justice, and the stories and their readers suffer because of it. In short, I was expecting a pretty inaccurate and mildly insulting portrayal; however, I’m happy to admit that that was not what I found during my reading.

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Within the pages of Zac & Mia, I found something painful and broken, yet altogether believable. It would seem that, despite its packaging as a young adult novel and my own fears of encountering the usual “sick-lit” cliches, this book presents something that someone who knows sickness can read without scoffing. It is undeniably the work of someone who has been touched by sickness, so perhaps it is fitting then that I read all 306 pages of this book while visiting my own mother at UF Health Shands Hospital.

To set the scene, imagine the methodical clicking of a morphine pump, the white-noise hum of a television with the volume turned down low, the low hissing of air blowing through an old grate. Imagine the sharp scent of alcohol and sanitizers, the deceptive flickering of shadows gliding by the bottom of the door, the feel of worn leather sticking to your legs. Imagine bruised skin, shallow breathes, weary eyes, weak limbs, rough speech, painful movements, nurses’ interruptions, doctors’ sighs, and my mothers’ chronic inability to remain conscious.

If nothing else, the stage was set.

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Zac is the quintessential good guy from a farm town who had the bad luck of getting stuck with myeloid leukemia. He knows his odds–55% chance of living five years without relapse–and he knows the odds of his fellow cancer ward residents. What Zac doesn’t know if how to truly communicate with the only other person in the ward who is his age–a moody teenage girl named Mia.

Mia is the ultimate city girl, used to parties, formals, and hundreds of facebook friends; however, she doesn’t know how to deal with osteosarcoma, and she is not so keen to try when ignoring her condition and treatment seems to be going so well. If she’d just listen, she would realize that she has the best odds of them all–90% even on her worst day. But, how can numbers matter when you feel otherwise?

The collision course that Zac and Mia set out upon after their initial meeting is essentially a “slice of life” portrayal of living with and after sickness. There is chemistry and romance, but this is not a love story. There is sickness and poor health, but this is not a scientific depiction. There is hope and, at its heart, this is a brilliant story of survival, desire, and courage. However, the beauty and uniqueness of this story is truly in the details.

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It’s in the uncomfortable and awkward questions that nurses must ask and family will overhear. It’s in the tests that must be done and redone in fear of and preparation for recurrence. It’s in the fragile hope of a mother who does word puzzles by her son’s bedside and brings new patients’ family members’ a cup of tea. It’s in the complicated request of a mother to a doctor to save her girl in spite of everything. It’s in the comfort of an answering knock on the other side of a beige wall. It’s in the fear of impending doom and the struggle to find the will to fight.

It’s in the honesty with which Betts describes sickness. As someone who has watched over their mother from childhood, someone who has acted as a nurse and a doctor and a friend and a daughter, this book resonated in a way that many “sick-lit” novels do not and perhaps cannot. Despite the fact that I am not sick and my mother’s sickness seemingly involves everything except cancer, I found my kindred in Zac, Mia, and their creator. There was a familiarity in the story that was simultaneously upsetting and comforting.

On a scale of one to five, I award this book four stars because it was realistic, honest, and it approached sickness with a level of understanding that I can only compare to the works of Lurlene McDaniel. I could not, in good faith, award this book five stars because (*spoiler alert*) the number of time jumps quickly became annoying and mildly detracted from the movement of the plot, rather than speeding or propelling it along (*spoiler over*). Overall, I felt that it was a well-executed story that delved into sensitive subjects with care and compassion.

I do not agree with the comparisons to John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars or Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park because I feel like that is comparing apples to oranges. Green’s and Rowell’s works are amazing and I enjoyed reading them, truly; however, neither had the sheer authenticity and realism of this book. Perhaps that is something only someone who has been repeatedly touched by sickness can understand and appreciate though, and I do not know that the untouched will recognize or feel its resonance quite so clearly.

I would recommend Zac & Mia to anyone over the age of 14 who is interested in a truthful (yet still fictional) story that does not sugarcoat or glaze over the realities of sickness, mortality, and navigating life’s many plot twists. There are some mentions of topics of a sexual nature and the blunt discussion of death is nothing to dismiss, so I would be wary of allowing younger readers to delve into this novel unless their maturity level is particularly high for their age.

Anyone interested in learning more about A. J. Betts, her experience as a long-term hospital English teacher, her other literary works, and her guiding principles in life, should check out her facebook page, twitterwebsite, TEDx talk (“Why I Collect Shopping Lists”), this radio interview, and this article about “sick-lit.” Although I don’t know her personally, Betts seems like a wonderful person and I cannot wait to see what else she may write in the future. Cheers, readers!

(Disclaimer: I received this book through NetGalley’s Feed Your Readers program for Professional Readers in exchange for an honest review. The review I submitted to Netgalley has been posted here, verbatim.)