Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I just want to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas!

Penny says, "Santa better bring me extra presents for this!"

I hope you have a wonderful time celebrating with your loved ones! :)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Card 2011

This year, I decided to illustrate my own Christmas card to send to my family and friends.  Everyone should have received their cards by now, so I can finally share my picture with you!

"Do You See What I See?"

I made this design for three reasons:

1) I adore sheep.  If you've known me for the past decade, then you may recognize this little guy from a short computer graphics movie I made back in 2004.  I recently re-discovered the movie on my old computer and felt compelled to draw some sheep again.  :) 

2) I looooove the Christmas song, "Do You Hear What I Hear?"  The personification and repetition used in the lyrics is just delightful!  Obviously, the first stanza of the song was the direct inspiration for this piece.  (Secretly, I would love to illustrate a picture book of the entire song...)

3) Over the past year, I lost both of my remaining grandparents and hubby lost his grandma.  Although I had many Christmas card ideas, each time I thought of this one, I just knew it was the picture they would have wanted to see.  Grandmom Sophie, Grandpop Walter and Grandma Ruth--this card is for you.

The inside of the card read simply: "May your season be filled with wonder and joy!"

I hope your season has been one of wonder and joy, too!  Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Recipe: Chocolate S'mores Pretzels!

One of my favorite things about the holidays is the abundance of delicious food!  For several years now, I swore every Christmas that I was going to make chocolate covered pretzels, then ran out of time to do so.  This year, though, I bought all the ingredients and started dipping before the season could fly by once again.  After some trial and error (and burned batches of chocolate), I made three sets of pretzels to give away as gifts: White Chocolate Peppermint, Milk Chocolate Toffee and Dark Chocolate S'mores.  All three varieties have so far been a hit, so I thought I'd share one of the recipes with you!
Mmmmm....S'mores Pretzels....
Chocolate S'mores Pretzels
I loooooooove s'mores, so when I was buying ingredients, I purchased some graham crackers and marshmallows to experiment with.  I think they actually turned out to be the tastiest--and easiest--of the pretzel varieties I made.  To make them, you'll need:
-2 12-ounce bags of dark or milk chocolate chips  (I used Hershey's Dark)
-1 large bag of twisty pretzels (I bought the Family Size bag)
-1 package of mini marshmallows
-1 sleeve of graham crackers
-wax paper
-hook, fork, etc. for dipping (your preference)
-empty spice bottle with shaker top (if you have one)
-lots of counter space
-a friend OR grow some extra arms (Note: a friendly octopus is ideal)
~Fill bottom part of the doubler boiler with an inch or two of water.  Melt both packages of dark chocolate together in top part of double boiler over low heat, stirring occasionally.  My melt time took about 10-15 minutes.  (Note: Slowly melted chocolate is much nicer than quickly burned chocolate.) 
~While the chocolate is melting, cover your counter tops with wax paper.  Empty the sleeve of graham crackers into a large, zip-locked plastic bag.  Smash crackers with a mallet or meat tenderizer until they are a crumbly, powder-like consistency.  (No big chunks!)
~If you have one available, pour the smashed graham cracker into an empty spice bottle.  Conveniently, I still haven't put together my spice rack from my wedding three years ago, so I have plenty of those laying around.  (See?  Procrastination pays off.)  You can sprinkle the graham cracker onto the pretzels by hand, but I think the bottle made it easier and less-messy.  Open the bag of marshmallows and put both toppings where you will have easy access to them. 
~Once the chocolate is melted and the toppings are prepped, start dipping the pretzels into the chocolate.  My pot held about 8 pretzels at a time for dipping.  Flip pretzels in chocolate to cover both sides.  Carefully lift them out of the chocolate and place them on the wax paper.  (Note: If you are messy like me, wear an apron or you will be sorry.  I do not own an apron and was very sorry.)
~If you have a friendly octopus, instruct him to place one mini marshmallow in each hole of the pretzel (total of 3 per pretzel) and sprinkle the top of it with a generous helping of graham cracker crumbs.  (Note: Make sure he has cleaned his tentacles first.)  If you do not have a friendly octopus, you will have to do this yourself and pretzel making will take twice as long
~Continue dipping and topping the pretzels until all of the chocolate is gone.  (I got about 100-125 pretzels for every 2 12-ounce bags of chocolate.)  If the chocolate gets too thick, you can add a teensy bit of vegetable shortening.  (Note: Do NOT add milk, butter, water, or ANYTHING ELSE to thin the chocolate.  Trust me.)
~If your friendly octopus is particularly talented, he can dip, decorate and clean up the chocolate you've dripped on your shirt all at the same time.  (You might as well just go sit in the other room and watch "Rudolph" while he takes care of things in the kitchen.  You'll only slow him down.)
~Once all the pretzels are chocolate-covered and have been given the s'mores treatment, either leave them on the counter to cool and harden (takes about 3-4 hours) OR put them in the refrigerator.  (Note: If you want to go the refrigerator route, place pretzels on cookie sheets immediately after dipping, otherwise your already messy shirt will probably get messier.)
~Put cooled pretzels in pretty tins and give to your loved ones accordingly.  (Note: Remember to reward your friendly octopus with a bowl of marshmallows and tuna fish.  He deserves it.)
So pretty!
And that is how you make Chocolate S'mores Pretzels!  If you don't have a friendly kitchen octopus, I recommend asking for one for Christmas.  They are well-worth the money and aquarium upkeep.  
Some other notes to help you out:
-If you want to make white chocolate covered pretzels, don't use a bag of white chocolate chips.  The white candy melting blocks work MUCH better.
-The white chocolate/candy coating hardens much quicker than the milk and dark chocolates, so apply toppings swiftly.
-*Clean* ornament hooks work great as pretzel dippers!  (Thanks, Dad, for that idea!)
-Wear an apron.  Wear an apron.  WEAR AN APRON.
-Octopi have a tendency to sneak treats when you aren't looking.  Prepare to make extra pretzels in case one or two dozen end up in your octopus helper's tummy.
-Ferrets do not make good kitchen assistants; they will just steal all of your ingredients and shiny tins.

What are your all-time favorite holiday treats?  (Cornflake-Marshmallow Wreaths, Panda Bear Brownies, and my family's yum-tastic Chocolate Chip Cookies are some of the other sweets at the top of my list!)  
Happy baking--errr--dipping!  :)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review #7: The Mousehunter

Boy, it seems like forever since I've done a book review!  But after reading several non-Animal Fantasy books in a row, I recently returned to my favorite genre and picked up a great middle grade novel called, The Mousekeeper by Alex Milway.  I'm a sucker for literature about mice, from Brian Jacques' Redwall series to an awesome little book I had as kid called, The Pop Up Mice of Mr. Brice.  Mice are key players in my own novel, too, and I'm always eager to read about other authors' interpretations of the critters.  Milway does not disappoint, and his mice are both creative and adorable.  Here's the flap copy to whet your appetite:
Across the Seventeen Seas, there is no mousehunting pirate half as feared as the legendary Captain Mousebeard.  He seeks out the rarest and most precious breeds of mice to collect and trade, his fearsome reputation preceding him wherever he goes.

Emiline, mousekeeper to one of Old Town's wealthiest citizens, is anything but feared.  So when her master puts a bounty on Mousebeard's head, she sees it as the chance of a lifetime.  Her journey takes her on a high-seas adventure, filled with swords and sea monsters, betrayal, lies, and the chance to capture the most dangerous man in mousing history.
It's important to note that there aren't actually any talking animals in this book.  However, the story is completely mouse-centric, so it definitely falls under the Animal Fantasy category.  This book is a really fun read with a mix of humor, swashbuckling adventure, and delightful mice.  Milway executes many great writing techniques throughout the book, but I think the two most impressive aspects are his use of world building and animal representation.  
The Mousehunter is set in a slightly-steampunk Fantasy world where countless species of mice populate society alongside humans.  The culture is shaped by mice, with Mousekeeping Academies present in the towns, a variety of mousing careers available to humans, and everyday tasks being performed by mice themselves.  Milway's keen attention to detail and mouse-use brings this world to life, from the Powder Mice that assist in loading cannons on ships to the Dung Mouse excrement that is used as fuel.  The human characters even drink mouse-inspired beverages like ''Pipsqueak Beer" and "Rodent Rum."  If not for these elements, it's likely the world would have seemed rather similar to any other pirate story set in the days of pillaging and plundering.  But this prominent sense of mouse-ness makes the world unique and one I'd wish to return to.  On top of an already vivid world, Milway also inserts "excerpts" from The Mousehunter's Almanac in between chapters with a picture of a mouse species, information blurb, and tips for anyone who aims to catch or keep each particular mouse.  This tactic makes the reader feel like a Mousehunter themselves, ready to set off into the wild to discover new species or catch a glimpse of the rarest critters.  It really adds that extra-oomph of fun and authenticity to an already great story.
As I mentioned above, the mice "characters" in the story are well-executed, even though they don't actually speak.  (There is really only one main mouse character, Emiline's pet Grey Mouse, Portly, but there are plenty of other mostly nameless mice who participate in the plot, too.)  Despite the fact they don't speak, it is obvious the rodents are intelligent beings with an array of personalities.  One of the first mice readers meet is a wayward Sharpclaw Mouse who obviously takes great pleasure in wreaking havoc and avoiding re-capture by his Mousekeeper, Emiline.  Emiline's own pet, Portly, comforts her, defends her, and assists her throughout the book.  The mice execute schemes together, come to the rescue, and blush at their inappropriate flatulence.  They don't need words for the reader to tell they are happy, scared, worried, or proud, which is a difficult feat for any writer to accomplish.  There are a million ways Milway could have taken his mice, and they way he presents his critters is both satisfying and imaginative.  If you are thinking about populating your own Fantasy world with non-talking yet intelligent creatures, then you will definitely want to check out how Milway pulls it off.
If you like Animal Fantasies or have a soft-spot for mice, I definitely recommend picking up The Mousekeeper.  It's also a winner for anyone who likes pirate stories, tales of exploration, and mysteries (did I mention there's a cool curse?)  And it's certainly a great book to use for studying world-building and species-crafting techniques, too!  Book two in the trilogy, The Curse of Mousebeard, is already out in the US, with the third installment, Mousebeard's Revenge, still to be released.  (All three books in The Mousehunter trilogy have already been published in the UK--those lucky ducks!)  I know I'd love to read about more Moose Mice and Mousehunting adventures, so I'll be picking up those other books as soon as I can!
You can check out Milway's website here:   And if you read the book, do let me know!  I'd love to hear what you think.  :)
Happy reading!  
Note: Flap copy is borrowed from the actual book--I had problems finding an authentic book-blurb online.  Cover art is from      

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Best Simpsons Ever!

My friend, Ruth, recently brought an episode of The Simpsons called "The Book Job" to my attention.  I am a big fan of the older Simpson's episodes (I haven't watched many of the newer seasons), so this one slipped past my radar.  (In fact, if I turned my Influence Trifecta into an Influence Rectangle, The Simpsons would be added as the fourth leg for giving me my wacky sense of humor!)  This episode is a MUST SEE for any writer.  In short, the episode is about Homer and Bart scamming the publishing industry by writing the next best-selling tween fantasy series.  Lisa struggles to write a "real" book; Homer and Bart head an intricate heist team ala The Italian Job; and hilarity ensues.  The script writers for this episode are spot-on with their jokes about writers, the writing process, and the publishing industry.  (Must come from personal experience!)  I literally could not stop laughing the entire episode.
Homer's partners-in-crime.
If you have an extra 25 minutes and feel like a good laugh, you can check out the episode on Hulu here: "The Book Job".  I'm not sure how long the show will be available for viewing, though, so if it disappears, I apologize for getting your hopes up.
(Disclaimer: After viewing the episode myself, I can attest it is generally full of "clean humor," but there may be a mild curse word or two.  Don't say I didn't warn you.) 
If you are a writer, know a writer, or just like to laugh, I highly recommend watching "The Book Job."  It will make you forget (momentarily) about all those revisions you really should be working on...  ;)
Lisa says, "Aaah! I just wasted another 25 minutes slacking off!"

 Note: The Simpsons and all characters are owned my 20th Century Fox.  Pics are from google images.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Christmas Pact

Today is December 1st, which means it's officially the beginning of the best time of the year!

Or rather, what I used to consider the best time of the year.

Christmas used to make me feel like this:

You'd think that box had a pony in it!

But over the past few years, Christmas has made me feel like this:

Bah humbug!

And I don't enjoy feeling like Scrooge McDuck.  Although kids may get a little greedy around the holidays, they know how to appreciate the season.  They see snow and think, "Snowmen!  Sledding!  Yippee!" not, "Schnox!  Now I have to go clean off my car!"  They hear Jingle Bells and say, "Batman smells; Robin laid an egg!" not, "If I hear this song one more time, I'm gonna scream!"  And they see Christmas cookies and go, "Nom, nom, nom!" not, "I so don't need those calories."  Somewhere between stressing about decorations and cursing Christmas cards, adults have a tendency to lose themselves along the way...

My last few Christmases have not been so fun.  If the Ghost of Christmas Past turned back the last four years, you would witness (in order of occurrence but not gravity): extra jobs adding extra stress every year; a bad reaction to migraine medicine resulting in weeks of vertigo; surgery for our poor baby ferret and a holiday season giving him 8 un-prounouncable medications like Chloramphenicol; frantic manuscript revisions; relatives in the hospital; a death in the family; frenzied ornament painting for extra income; our car getting totaled; and hubby losing his job.  (Thank goodness we still had each other!)

Unfortunately, this seasonal bad-luck has struck many of my loved ones these past few years, too.  And with all this unpleasantness, it's been hard to get in the holiday spirit.  Decking the halls and making merry has just not been a priority--and I even shocked myself last year when I said, "I don't want to put up the Christmas tree." 

While the jury is still out on what this season will bring, I'm ready to try to turn things around.  Each of these past years, I ended up hating the holidays--and I absolutely hated my Scrooge-like hatred.  I want to love Christmas again--and I want others to love it, too.  (The Christmas Grumblings have already started in many of my acquaintances....)

Even Scrooge doesn't like to be a Scrooge...

Hubby and I have made a "Christmas Pact" this year that things will be different--that we're going to actively make an effort to wiggle our ears, and chuckle warmly, and say, "Hee hee," and "Ho ho..." all season long.  (Ah, the wisdom of Christmas specials!)  We've already experienced our fair share of deaths in the family, job insecurity, frantic book revisions, and a sick ferret (yes, the same one again) over the course of 2011, so it's time for fate to leave us alone.  (Same goes for my loved ones--I'm shaking my fist at you, fate!)  Total jobs I am working this year?  One!  Just one!  (That hasn't happened since High School!)  And I'm not even going to let the whirlwind Year-end Financial Planning Season at my office get me down!  :)

So what are we planning on doing?  (You know, instead of wrecking cars and administering ferret meds?)  Things of togetherness: watching Christmas movies; baking cookies; eating said cookies; going to the Columbus Zoolights; spending time with our families; watching more Christmas movies; eating more cookies; snuggling with our healthy pets; and doing all those other things that made us love the season when we were kids.  If I don't put up all the decorations, that's okay.  If our tree doesn't have dozens of presents underneath it, that's okay.  And if I don't get accomplish everything on my "X-mas To Do" list, then that's okay too.  Because as the Grinch learns, "Perhaps Christmas means a little bit more..."

I'm telling you this because everyone I've shared the the "Christmas Pact" with has really liked the idea.  It's so easy to get caught up in the chaos of Christmas and forget what's really important.  Although there are obviously many things beyond our control, we can choose whether we're going to freak out that we didn't buy enough snowflake-shaped Ritz crackers or say, "No biggie," and just be happy we have loved ones around the dinner table.  You've worked hard all year and deserve to enjoy this season of celebration!  So lift your mug of cocoa high, kiss those cares and lists goodbye, and try to love this season--TRY!  (And please, have another slice of pie.  You'll be back in shape before July.)

Um, I promise I'll stop rhyming now. 

Cheers to the start of a Merry Christmas Season!  Let's see if we can keep our spirit levels like this until the 25th: 

Much better!

Note: Mickey's Christmas Carol and Scrooge McDuck are owned by Disney.  First image is from google; second and third images are screenshots I took with my own TV and camera.