Friday, June 11, 2010

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

Mary E. Pearson

SUMMARY: A seventeen-year-old girl has just woken up from a yearlong coma, the result of a horrific accident from which she is still recuperating. At least this is what she been told. Jenna Fox woke without remembering her life or her name; there are strange gaps in her vocabulary yet her knowledge of history, literature, and science seems unnaturally detailed. Jenna’s only connection to her mysterious past is the series of home videos recording the first sixteen years of her life that her tense mother and absent father have instructed her to watch. But soon Jenna’s memories begin to resurface and she starts to ask questions no one seems willing to answer. Can she really be the same person as the carefree girl in the videos? What actually happened after the accident? Why will no one speak about the important event itself? What have her parents risked to save their precious child?

ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS: I need to make a confession. You know the whole ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ thing? I totally ignore that rule in many situations. While I will never give up on a book because it has an uninteresting cover, I will consistently at least pick up a book based on my interest in its cover or title. The Adoration of Jenna Fox first caught my eye in this precise fashion. I had seen the title somewhere and then saw the cover and was totally caught by the neat cover art. But it was the addictive mystery that kept me reading once I opened the cover.

I liked The Adoration of Jenna Fox. The suspense and slow revelation of the primary mystery kept me turning the pages. The premise allows Pearson to provoke fascinating and frighteningly current questions about the technological rush to beat death, scientific and medical ethics, and the definitions of humanity. Additionally, I quite like Jenna. Her struggle to understand herself is filled with an earnestness, fear, and uncertainty that would seem familiar to any teenager and anyone who remembers being one; while most seventeen-year-olds’ search for identity takes place in less extreme circumstances, the emotions remain universal.

However, upon completing the novel my final impression was of enjoyment with slight disappointment. The ride had been thrilling but at times, a little hazy. While I found most of the secondary characters interesting, some (such as Dane or even Allys and Ethan) were underdeveloped in comparison with Jenna or her grandmother. Also, there were occasional events or plot points that lacked full explanation or connection to the larger narrative. However, I enjoyed The Adoration of Jenna Fox; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a touch of romance and medical ethics thrown in and the unique combination results in an addictive and thought provoking novel.


Monday, June 7, 2010

The First of Many Cupcake Excursions!

Chocolate-Guinness Cupcakes with
Bailey's Buttercream Frosting

This is the second time I’ve made these scrumptious confections and I’ve fallen even more in love with them each time! The recipe is adapted from the brilliant Smitten Kitchen where they are called ‘Chocolate Whiskey and Beer Cupcakes’ and associated with the somewhat infamous cocktail known as an Irish Car Bomb in which one drops a shot of Bailey’s and Irish Whiskey into a pint of Guinness and then drinks the resulting catastrophe before it curdles. However, I have modified them to leave out the whiskey-chocolate filing for two reasons. First, they are quite rich enough unfilled. Second, I am a poor student and didn’t want to spend the extra money on whiskey :) So here goes my first blog-documented kitchen adventure!

Guinness-Chocolate Cupcakes

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter*
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder**2 cups all purpose flour

2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt*
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream

1 cup dark stout (such as Guinness)

* I have found that if you can use salted butter and simply leave out the ¾ teaspoon salt just as successfully

** Dutch process is suggested but I have found that Hershey’s Extra Dark is an effective substitute

1.) Preheat oven to 350°F and place cupcake liners in cupcake tins. This recipe makes approximately 24 cupcakes.

2.) Soften up the butter and place it in a large saucepan on medium heat. Once the butter becomes mostly melted, add in the stout. Bring the butter and stout to simmer then add cocoa powder and whisk until smooth. Usually it’s easiest to turn the heat off and lift the saucepan away from the heat while adding the cocoa; this helps stop the mixture from bubbling over too much. Also,
I found a whisk to be the most effective mixing instrument. Once mixed together, set this mixt
ure aside to cool slightly.

3.) Mix flour, sugar, baking soda, and 3 / 4 teaspoon salt (unless you used salted butter then leave the salt out) together in a large bowl until blended.

4.) Using an electric mixer beat the eggs and sour cream together in a second bowl until blended.

5.) Mix flour, sugar, baking soda, and 3 / 4 teaspoon salt (unless you used salted butter then leave the salt out) together in a large bowl until blended.

6.) Using an electric mixer beat the eggs and sour cream together in a second bowl until blended.

7.) Next, pour the stout-cocoa mixture into the egg mixture and beat until combined.

8.) Add the flour mixture into this batter and mix until fully combined.

9.) Pour the batter into the cupcake liners. They should each be filled about 3 / 4 of the way; I like to use a 1 / 4 cup measure to measure out the batter.

10.) Bake until a cake tester (or a toothpick) comes out clean—-usually between 15 and 20 minutes. Then let them cool briefly before popping them out of their ‘cups.’

While the cupcakes are cooling, whip up this yummy frosting!

Bailey’s Buttercream Frosting

3-4 cups confectionary sugar

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature

3-4 tablespoons Bailey’s (can be replaced with milk or heavy cream)

1.) Using an electric mixer of some kind, whip the butter for several minutes until very fluffy.

2.) Slowly, just a few tablespoons at a time, add in the powdered sugar.

3.) Add in the Baileys (or substitute) and whip the frosting until all is combined. Use your personal judgment of taste and texture to decide the exact amounts of sugar and Bailey’s you use.

NOTE: I doubled this recipe when I made mine because I like lots of frosting on my cupcakes for both taste-related and aesthetic reasons!

Decorate away! I used a star tip to make fancy swirly tops on mine but there are many other options for creative decorating!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska

John Green

SUMMARY: Miles begins his junior year at Culver Creek hoping that the new school will simultaneously be an escape from his safe life in Florida and his entrance into the mysterious ‘Great Perhaps.’ For the first time, Miles has friends and a real sense of belonging. But it is his intense friendship with the volatile and enigmatic Alaska Young that will change Miles most permanently and catapult him into the frightening world of adulthood.

ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS: I was first introduced to John Green a few years ago through his second book, An Abundance of Katherines, which I absolutely loved. So now I’m finally getting a chance to catch up of the rest of this fabulous author’s small but potent collection before he publishes another work of brilliance! My high expectations of this novel, Green’s debut, were not disappointed in the least.

Miles is an excellent protagonist, hitting all the right notes of wit, vulnerability, quirkiness, and humor. His narration ranges from sarcastic to poignant to classic teenage crassness. For me, it was both fun and nostalgic to follow Miles as he adapted to his new life at Culver Creek, joined the pranking and adventuring world of his new friends, and contemplated the large questions of life in his spare time.

The novel is divided into ‘before’ and ‘after’ an event that remains unidentified until its actual occurrence; the mystery maintains an underlying tension throughout the earlier portion of the story and this tension comes to a shocking conclusion three quarters of the way through the novel. Simultaneously, this book shows the particular quirky sense of humor that I so enjoyed in An Abundance of Katherines. This quality appears in variety of unique details: Miles’s obsession with famous people’s last words, the bizarre nicknames, and the ingeniously complex pranks.

But most potently, Looking for Alaska honestly attempts to express and illustrate the raw pain and confusion of grief. Miles’ individual and shared struggles to make sense of death are incredibly touching and realistic in its combination of guilt, anger, frustration, and numbness. This novel beautifully deals with such a somber topic while producing a satisfying and even uplifting conclusion. When Looking for Alaska was published about 5 years ago, it gained a slew of honors and recognitions, including the 2006 Printz Award, and it deserves all of them.

4 1/2 / 5 STARS

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

The Children’s Book

A.S. Byatt

SUMMARY: Spanning the Victorian era through World War I, this novel follows a large interconnected cast of characters through the tumult of the large-scale cultural, political, and social changes sweeping Britain and the world. The novel begins with Olive Wellwood, a famous children’s book author, and her oldest son’s meeting with an artistically talented runaway in the corridors underneath the South Kensington museum later known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. The reader follows the young man back to the Wellwood home where both become immersed in the passionate world of the unconventional family and its equally unusual network of friends.

ONESMARTCUPCAKE THINKS: I was very excited about this book; I am a big fan of Byatt in general and her earlier novel Possession is one of my favorite novels of all time. My expectations were generally not disappointed; I really enjoyed this book. It is a great but occasionally flawed novel.

As with her other works, Byatt immerses the reader in the time period and culture in which the narrative is set through the use of intricate and beautifully drawn details. Here, the amount of information packed into the narrative can be overpowering or distracting. As a history buff and a person particularly in love with 19th century Britain, I very much enjoyed her historical detail and didn’t mind the occasional interludes of pure socio-political background information too much. However, some readers might find such passage uninteresting; even I prefer the history to be incorporated into the plot and character development.

I continue to admire and enjoy the intimate portrayals of individual characters Byatt achieves, especially in this novel, which contains at least 10 to 20 characters of some significance. She manages to juggle the multiple storylines and characters quite well generally but the sheer numbers can become overwhelming at times. Certain characters disappear and reappear from the narrative and for the first few chapters I had a little difficulty keeping track of them. Certain characters remain underdeveloped in comparison to others—an almost inevitable result of a narrative following so many characters over such a lengthy period of time.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Byatt impeccably crafts a detailed and fascinating world for the reader to become completely engrossed in. For such a long and in-depth novel, The Children’s Book hits some beautiful emotional notes. The final sections dealing with WWI are especially poignant and the portions describing the young women’s, especially Dorothy’s, struggle to find a life that balances intellectual fulfillment and the world’s expectations. I was also completely fascinated by the novel’s exploration of the side roads of history; Byatt delves into puppetry, theatre, the women’s suffrage movement, children’s literature, women in medicine, and women’s education. I found myself reading this novel into wee hours of the morning and for me, that is one of the key signs of a good book.