Camp NaNoWriMo: Is it worth it?

Last week I mentioned that I’d been a little busy lately. Working, interning, apartment-searching, class-scheduling, and job-applying aside, here’s one reason why.


Yeah. Seventy thousand words in 31 days. It happened. Of course, I grew bored with my historical novel after about 50,000 words and had to throw in an interdimensional portal and a talking three-legged yak to reach 70K, but I made it. Judge away. I’ll be here.

Camp NaNoWriMo isn’t as well known as its parent event, National Novel Writing Month, but it’s still pretty popular. Unlike NaNoWriMo, which mandates that participants must write 50,000 original words of a novel, Camp NaNoWriMo lets people choose their own word-count goals and genres. They can even spend the month revising an existing work, if that’s what they feel would be most helpful.

But the events have one thing in common: critics.



Every time a writing marathon event comes along, you’ll always find people saying that writing that many words in so short a time will only result in terrible writing. That participating in NaNoWriMo doesn’t make someone a writer, any more than swimming a lap at the YMCA will make someone a Navy SEAL. That the people behind these events would have a great effect teaching how to write, instead of just focusing on the act of writing. That there is enough terrible writing in the world already, and it’s a crime against humanity to encourage the creation of more.

Speaking as someone who enjoys NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo and finds them helpful challenges, I can definitely see where these critics are coming from. Every year, my camp cabin will inevitably contain at least two people who pepper the chat thread with discussions of writing habits and snacks and schedules … and finish the month at 4% of their word-count goal. Every year, there will be much wailing and moaning over the travails of writers’ block, but not a lot of attention paid to my favourite method of overcoming it, ABC (Apply Bum to Chair). Every year, the last week of writing will be dominated by conversations about agents and editors and how self-publishing is really the only way to go because big publishers are just in it for the money and don’t appreciate real literature.

Fitzgerald was a fraud. Pass it on.

If only Fitzgerald had self-published. He could have known real success.

To be fair to these people, snacks are important. So is the egalitarian exchange of ideas in a judgment-free space.

And granted, conversations like those ones do make me wonder if, for those people, NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo are more about the community than actually about writing.

But is that so bad? The guy who invented Post-It Notes, according to something I read somewhere on the Internet, didn’t mean to invent them. He was trying to create a new kind of glue. The result was something that’s saved many an office worker’s life.

So if the masterminds behind NaNoWriMo meant to spur the creation of the Next Great American Novel and got a vibrant community instead, shouldn’t that still be considered a valuable success?

What are your thoughts on NaNoWriMo and related events? Have you found them valuable to your writing? Or do they drive you nuts?


Photo credits: Winner’s badge from Camp NaNoWriMo site; fist from PublicDomainPictures and books from IDKDIY on Pixabay.


Counter Action: Tomato–corn pie

tomato corn pie

For some people, summer means bikinis, which means diets and special workouts.

If you are one of those people, this pie is not for you.

Mayonnaise + cheese + butter = embrace the inevitable curves, my friends.

Don't let the media get you down, sandstone. Real geological phenomena have striations.

Don’t let the media get you down, sandstone. Real geological phenomena have striations.

For the rest of us, summer means tomatoes, corn, basil, zucchini, cherries, and a host of other edibles, which we embrace both in their raw, uncomplicated forms and in forms involving as much dairy as we can get our hands on.

This is our pie.

Tomato–corn pie

(From Smitten Kitchen’s indomitable recipe)


  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 T. baking powder
  • 1¾ tsp. salt, divided
  • ¾ stick (6 T.) cold diced butter + 2 tsp. melted butter
  • ¾ c. whole milk
  • 1/3 c. mayonnaise
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 1¾ lb. tomatoes
  • 1½ c. corn (equivalent to about 3 ears), divided
  • 2 T. chopped fresh basil, divided
  • 1 T. chopped fresh chives, divided
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper, divided
  • 1¾ c. grated sharp Cheddar cheese, divided


  1. Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt.
  2. Cut in cold butter until well blended. Mix in milk to form a firm dough.
  3. Divide dough in half. Roll out to form two 12-inch circles. Refrigerate until needed.
  4. Cut an X in the bottom of each tomato. Immerse in boiling water bath for 30 seconds. Remove and plunge into ice bath to facilitate peeling.
  5. Remove skins and seeds from tomatoes, and slice into quarter-inch rounds. (This process might seem tedious, but trust me, you want to remove all the moisture from the tomatoes that you can. Removing the skins makes the tomato chunks more tender.)
  6. Remove pie crust from fridge. Place one crust in 9-inch pie pan, trimming edges as necessary.
  7. Arrange half of tomatoes in pie crust. Top with half of corn, basil, chives, pepper, and cheese.
  8. Layer other half of tomatoes, corn, basil, chives, pepper, and cheese in pie crust.
  9. Mix mayonnaise and lemon juice together. Spread evenly over pie filling.
  10. Place other pie crust on top and pinch edges to seal. Cut several steam vents and brush with melted butter.
  11. Bake at 400°F for 30–35 minutes, until golden brown.
  12. Remove, cool, and serve with a green salad.


Photo credits: Sandstone from tpsdave on Pixabay.

The Golden Toga Flap: The Harry Potter Alliance

It’s hard to believe, but D.A. Days 2014 is already over, folks. Here’s a lineup of the week’s events if you want to revisit them:

Sunday: Butterbeer cake

Monday: The Secret of Platform 13

Tuesday: How I met the Harry Potter books

Wednesday: Some gorgeous HP wall art

Thursday: The Magicians

Friday: Some gorgeous HP jewelry

And today: A special edition of the Golden Toga Flap, the semiregular award that affirms lovely people and organizations making a positive difference in the world.

You go, cheese man. Sell that Gouda.

For some time I’ve been considering the nomination of Cheese Man, who slices down evil. Many people say he’s worthy for all of his Gouda deeds, so who am I to disaBrie?

Today’s focus is on the Harry Potter Alliance, a fan-driven group on a mission:

Just as Dumbledore’s Army wakes the world up to Voldemort’s return, works for equal rights of house elves and werewolves, and empowers its members, we: Work with partner NGOs in alerting the world to the dangers of global warming, poverty, and genocide. Work with our partners for equal rights regardless of race, gender, and sexuality. Encourage our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place. Join our army to make the world a safer, more magical place, and let your voice be heard!

At the moment, the HPA has three projects on display on its main carousel: the Odds in Our Favor campaign against economic inequality; a petition to Warner Bros. to address alleged human rights violations in its production of official Harry Potter chocolates; and Esther Day, a holiday created to celebrate all types of love, not just the ooey-gooey Valentine’s Day kind.

"Aww, Jerry, come and look at --- hey, did they move?"

“Aww, Jerry, come and look at — hey, they weren’t like that before. … Jerry?”

If that’s not an impressive snapshat of the scope of their work, take a look at a few of their past successes:

  • They raised $123,000 for Partners in Health’s efforts in Haiti.
  • They’ve donated over 120,000 books to various causes, including 4,000 books to a youth center in Rwanda and over 9,000 books to a charter school in New York City.
  • In 2009, they contacted nearly 3,600 people in one day in an effort to stop marriage inequality in Maine.

With stories like these in my mind, I can’t help but laugh every time someone says dismissive things about Harry Potter fans — like they’re still eleven years old, dressed in too-big robes and spangled hats, jumping up and down in line at the bookstore. Some of us still are those kids at heart, and we will always hold those memories dear. But in our relationship with these books, we’ve picked up more along the way than a little Latin and mythology. We’ve also picked up lessons in loyalty, equality, friendship, love, courage, hard work, and forgiveness — and as the Harry Potter Alliance proves, those lessons are powerful indeed when put into practice.

So here’s to you, Harry Potter Alliance, for all of the wonderful projects you’ve done already and for those you still have ahead of you. You’re the embodiment of fan power at its best, and we can’t wait to see what you do next.


Photo credits: Cheese man from romy52 and angels from UBodnar on Pixabay.

Highlights in HP jewelry

All Internet safety concerns aside, here are seven hints about my age:

  1. I once had a Lisa-Frank diary (and stickers, and stationery, and folders …) that I loved dearly.
  2. In my youth, Gushers were the preferred form of classroom currency.
  3. I was once blindingly jealous of my friends’ Sky Dancers and Polly Pockets.
  4. Not so long ago, twisting the waxy top off a Squeezit would instantly transform any day from good to great.
  5. As a child, I would have worn my stirrup pants every day if my mother had let me. When they were in the wash, I wore overalls.
  6. In middle school, I was psyched to replace my 5.25″ floppy disks with those sleek new 3.5″ ones.
  7. The Internet still finds new ways to amaze me every single day.

It’s true. I thought I had a handle on this whole emailing thing, and then whoop, MySpace. I thought I understood blogs; hello, Twitter. It’s like there are people out there devising new ways to confuse me! I just know it!

Like how I found this picture while looking for an image of an escort for this post. I mean, I guess this is an escort too. But still.

Etsy, though … Etsy I can wrap my head around. People find or make gorgeous things. They put them up for sale on the Internet. Other people can browse those things and buy them. It’s simple. It’s great.

In honour of D.A. Days 2014, I’ve scoured the depths of Etsy and found some gorgeous pieces of homemade Harry Potter–themed jewelry. It was a tough call. There’s a lot of lovely stuff out there. But in the end, I narrowed it down to seven pieces — because as we all know, seven is the most magically powerful number.

(Please note: I am not affiliated with Etsy or these Etsy Shop owners in any way. The only contact I had with them was to ask for permission to use their shop photos, and occasionally to have a fangirl moment over the loveliness that is Harry Potter.)

owl pendant

Item #1 is this lovely copper owl pendant from MostlySweetJewelry — not overtly Potterish, but a great subtle communication to other Potterheads with whom you come in contact.

lightning bolt necklace

Next is this subtle lightning bolt necklace from Alicia at LakunaBoutique. I like how it’s definitely a recognizable design, but it’s also abstract enough to fit in at a non-Potter event. If you like layering your necklaces, something tells me it would work well in that setting too.

lovegood ring

So much of the jewelry on Etsy looks like it’s been put together with the same beads and charms you’d find at any craft store. Not so with this Luna Lovegood ring, available from thinkupjewel — you can definitely tell that it’s been custom-made to resemble a pair of Spectrespecs. This piece will do double duty for you, identifying your fandom and allowing you to see Wrackspurts.*

*(This claim has not been tested. If your career depends on your ability to see Wrackspurts, please use Quibbler-approved Spectrespecs.)

draco pendant

Here’s a real conversation piece: a pendant engraved with the constellation Draco, found on MadamePoindextra. So if you’re at a coffee shop hoping to find a cute Harry Potter enthusiast, you’ve just widened your field to include cute astronomy enthusiasts as well. Congratulations!

grumpy green owl

I love this little guy so much — he reminds me of a certain coffee owls cartoon. Stephanie at PhoenixDesign made him from ceramic, and then hand-painted him. Her shop also carries several similar owl designs and other Harry Potter–themed creations.

antler pendant

Continuing with the animal theme, we next have this exquisite deer antler pendant from Lisa at underhercharm. I especially like the texturing of the antler’s surface and the coronet. It’s a truly admirable level of detail.

snitch ring

Finally, we have this Snitch ring. I’ll admit it: when I spotted this, I squealed. Made from copper and rose quartz (or sterling silver, if that’s your fancy), this piece is available from JustPeelTheOranges. Can we just take a moment to appreciate how the wings wrap back like that? So pretty. Guys, if your girlfriend loves Harry Potter and you’re looking for a special piece of finger-bling for her, this will get you major points.

In conclusion, I should note that attempting to turn any of these pieces into a Horcrux is strongly discouraged. If nothing else, think of how terrible it would be for anyone to have to destroy any of this jewelry past magical repair. It’d be a travesty.


If you own any HP jewelry, what’s the story behind it? Is there a piece on Etsy that you have your eye on?


Photo credits: Escort from WikiImages on Pixabay; all jewelry photos used by permission of their shop owners.

Book Chatter: The Magicians


One of the greatest things about the Harry Potter books is that the protagonist grows up.

We can see it happening right in front of us. One minute he’s just glad to see a feast; the next minute, he’s blushing every time he sees Cho Chang.

But by the end of the books … was I the only one who felt the last chapter was a little too easy?

Maybe this is just my jaded adult self talking … but (SPOILERS) Harry ends up with Ginny, Hermione ends up with Ron, they all have beautiful kids and good jobs, they’re all hale and hearty. They’ve definitely earned their rest after everything they went through as teenagers, but if we read the books as war narratives, then it’s tough to read about a war in excruciating detail and then the narrative ends on the last day of the war. Real wars don’t end that neatly. There are repairs to make, criminals to deal with, counseling to go through, bureaucracies to restructure. When a narrative ignores that process, it can cheapen the whole conflict by making it seem like not such a big deal after all.

"War? No, no --- they're the latest in fuel-efficient transport."

“Sure, the armour is a nice bonus, but our real reason for driving these guys is their innovations in fuel efficiency.”

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is a story for people who want a bit more of that gritty realism. In addition, Grossman dances on the genre of wizard-school fiction without seeming at all like a Rowling copycat — on the contrary, he seems to take great glee in creating a world that’s almost the precise opposite of the golden aura seen in the early Harry Potter books. The main wizard in The Magicians is Quentin Coldwater, a brilliant high school student from New York City, who is on his way to a Princeton interview when he is stalled by a sudden death and an unexpected note — and then derailed entirely by an impossible trip to a bizarre place called Brakebills, which is, as the professors explain it to him during the day-long entrance exam, a college for magic.

So there’s a clear break between the Harry Potter series and The Magicians: since Grossman has set his story in a university, his characters can be grittier — and they are, complete with plenty of alcohol and trysts. At the beginning of Quentin’s term, there’s precious little of the warmth and camaraderie we see in Hogwarts; Brakebills draws its students from the smartest kids in America, and what do you get when you cram a hundred geniuses together and give them a new skill to master? Competition — fierce, cutthroat competition, of a variety we don’t really glimpse at Hogwarts, not even during a Gryffindor–Slytherin Quidditch match. And if you want to know the difference between Harry and Quentin in a few sentences, here it is, in a quote from Quentin’s introduction to Brakebills:

“Suppose it really was a school for magic. Was it any good? What if he’d stumbled into some third-tier magic college by accident? He had to think practically. He didn’t want to be committing himself to some community college of sorcery when he could have Magic Harvard or whatever.”

The rest of us: "Oh my gosh, Quentin, it's magic. Just GO."

The rest of us: “Oh my gosh, Quentin, it’s magic. Just GO.”

So Quentin matriculates at Brakebills and begins his studies, eventually gathering a small band of friends around himself. They all study for five years, graduate, … and then what? At this point, my appreciation for Grossman reached a new height: he understood exactly what it was like to feel caught in suspended animation after graduating, and he portrayed it to a T. Then Quentin and his friends finally decide on a course of action: they’re going to try to find a mythical land they’ve all longed to visit, and getting there and back is going to take the most daring, strength, and skill they can conjure up.

The Magicians is the first book in (I believe) a trilogy, but even just as a standalone book, it works pretty well. There’s imagination, detail, believable emotions, lyricism, and continually compelling reasons to keep reading. I recommend it for all sorts — HP fans, non-HP fans, literary fiction enthusiasts, hard-core fantasy readers, and casual readers. Much like Hogwarts or Brakebills, there really is something in The Magicians for everyone.


Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; tank from WikiImages and megaphone from mickeyroo on Pixabay.


Today’s post, unlike owl post, is going to be super quick. You know how Wednesdays can be. You start the week eating enough fiber and going to bed on time, and by Wednesday you’re eating a handful of dry Cheerios for dinner and hitting the snooze button until two minutes before your bus leaves.

But in the middle of such a week, it can be nice to stop and look at something lovely.

And this artwork, my friends, fits the bill.

travel posters

Isn’t it gorgeous? It’s the wizarding world portrayed with a classic 1930s feel, created by Nic and Ariel at 716designs. I find it an especially appropriate design choice given that the wizarding world seems to be only a bit more technologically developed than 1930s Britain. All in all, I’m a big fan of these posters and their classic approach to fan art.

(Please note that I’m not affiliated with this Etsy shop in any way. I just thought their work was lovely.)

May the middle of your week be as enjoyable and productive as the beginning!


What’s your HP story?

I was eleven years old, dressed in a black skirt my mother had made, and waiting to go and perform in a Christmas concert.

Not this kind of concert.

Not this kind of concert. Add a few more violins and some timpani.

My birthday was fairly close, so my grandparents had traveled to celebrate with a special lunch, see the concert, and then head straight home afterwards. We finished lunch, got dressed, and were about to leave the house for the concert when my grandma remembered something.

“Here’s your present,” she said, handing me a gift bag. “You can open it when you get home.”

“Thank you,” I said dutifully. Gift bags being what they are, I was able to see what was inside: a paperback copy of that book everyone was talking about, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Immediately, my heart sank. I’d heard terrible things about the book — that it was turning children into bad people. How could my grandmother have given me something like that? After the concert, I took the book gingerly out of its bag and expressed my reservations to my family.

“I think you’d like it,” said my sister. “There’s a boy who gets a lot of birthday presents and he’s angry that he didn’t get as many as he did the year before.”

“You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t like it,” said my father. “Just try the first chapter and see what you think.”


Dads: enabling happiness and openmindedness since the Middle Pleistocene.

Still full of misgivings, I sat down and opened the book. The cover art was a little scary. There were a ton of good reviews in the front. The list of chapter titles seemed interesting. And then came the first sentence …

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

And just like that, I was a fan. I still can’t say why, exactly. It might have been all of those lovely commas. It might have been the sauciness of that thank you very much. But for whatever reason, from that moment on, I devoured the other three books available at the time and impatiently re-read and re-re-read them as I waited for news of the next book and the new Harry Potter movie. I dearly wanted to play Hermione Granger in the film and was instantly jealous of this Emma Watson person when I read about her in American Girl magazine. When my father gave me the fifth book on a camping trip, I read it in two days, perched on a folding canvas chair by the fire, plagued at every turn by mosquitoes, fading daylight, and emotional turmoil.

Whoever acted as the human model for this photo should have demanded serious compensation.

Let’s have a moment of silence for the human model in this photo.


When I got my hands on the sixth book, I had a plan: I would allow myself to look at the cover art, read the jacket blurbs, and take in all of the preliminary text, all the way through to the end of the first sentence. It was a long first sentence, if you recall. As I read it, I inched my index card down line by line, trying to take in each word slowly, failing in my craving for more details about this story. Still, I kept to my plan and succeeded in putting the book away until I had long, uninterrupted hours in which to read the rest of it properly.

I used the same method to savour the seventh book, reading long through the night until those relief-filled last words, All was well. It had been a long journey, but now it was over (not counting the movies, which were covered in Sunday’s post).

Somewhere in the middle of the epic, perhaps without realizing it, I realized that just as you can never go home again, so too could we never read a book again for the first time. From then on, I would always cringe in anticipation of the deaths, and sigh in anticipation of the resolutions. The story would never again have the old sheen of excitement, the lure of an unknown quantity. Its task now was to fade comfortably into the background, like a well-loved armchair, to be visited again for comfort and nostalgia and reminders of old promises.


How did you first encounter the Harry Potter books? Were you a mega-fan, lining up at midnight readings with a wand and a spangled hat? Or did you read quietly at home?


Photo credits: Concert from stux, father from Stevebidmead and mosquito from nuzree, all on Pixabay.

Book Chatter: The Secret of Platform 13


As with any popular book or series, quite a bit of the conversation about the Harry Potter series centers on whether J.K. Rowling “stole” from other people’s work.

As an amateur writer, I find this a somewhat troubling topic. It seems to me that there are only so many types of plots and characters and resolutions out there — Christopher Booker wrote an entire book on what he identified as the seven plots that humanity has recycled since year 1. If you enjoy a story, you’ll focus on the reasons why it’s different from its thematic relatives: “Yeah, it’s a quest story with two intrepid red-headed protagonists as well, but this antagonist is motivated by nostalgia, not greed.” If you dislike a story, you’ll focus on the ways it’s identical to other stories you’ve read: “Sure, it’s not set in zombified nineteenth-century France, but it’s still the same old story of girl-meets-boy.”

Or girl-meets-bench. We're openminded here.

Or girl-meets-bench. We’re openminded here.

So if there’s nothing new under the literary sun, why do writers bother anymore? Hasn’t everything important already been written?

I don’t think so. The magic of a story is how the writer chooses to combine and highlight already-familiar ingredients. Every writer has a unique voice, and even very similar elements can take on a whole new sheen under the care of a different writer. An extreme example would be the story of Cinderella, told in Europe first by Perrault, then embellished by countless authors, including Donna Jo Napoli’s haunting adaptation of the Chinese version, Bound; Gail Carson Levine’s beloved flight of whimsy, Ella Enchanted; and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s topsy-turvy version, Just Ella. They all have the same combination of elements, but each writer has taken that set story and turned it into something beautiful and new.

Yes, even more beautiful than this guy. It's hard to believe, I know.

Yes, even more beautiful than this guy. It’s hard to believe, I know.

So when people say that J.K. Rowling borrowed this plot development from over here and that character flaw from over there, my somewhat callous reaction is “Well … of course.” Several millennia into our history, we’ve hashed out a good collection of literary elements. There’s no shame in using and reusing them as the story demands. I’m not talking about plagiarism, lifting plots and passages from other works. I’m talking about the rawer elements, the clockwork that makes a story tick.

Many people have identified a lot of Harry Potter–type elements in today’s Book Chatter selection, Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13, which was published a few years before the first Harry Potter book. There’s a magical doorway at King’s Cross, and a skinny, nice boy who’s been pressed into service as a servant, and a fat, spoiled, thoroughly unlikable boy who usurps his place at every turn. The literary resemblance to the Harry Potter books is close enough that a reporter once asked Ibbotson what she thought about it. Ibbotson replied that she’d like to “shake [Rowling] by the hand. I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”

Sometimes more literally than other times.

Sometimes literally.

So while The Secret of Platform 13 is a great read for those looking for something like Harry Potter,  it’s also an excellent story in and of itself.  It’s the story of a delightful island, handily called the Island, that’s connected to modern-day London by a portal called the Gump. The Gump opens only every nine years for nine days at a time, so when the three nurses of the beloved baby prince decide to take him through for a quick visit, it’s a national tragedy when the baby is stolen by a woman desperate for a child of her own.

Nine years later, the king and queen select a committee to go through the Gump and rescue the young prince. There’s Hans, a one-eyed giant inclined to wear lederhosen; Gurkie, a fey with a penchant for large and striking hats; Cor, a very old wizard; and Odge, an eight-year-old hag who would dearly love to be able to strike people bald. It’s a largely ceremonial team, selected for what is supposed to be a very easy mission … but when they show up in London and discover that the prince is now a spoiled brat and heavily guarded to boot, they begin to realize that nine days might not be quite long enough for the task at hand.

Beautiful crafted, witty, and light, The Secret of Platform 13 will delight readers young and old alike. And if you enjoy Ibbotson’s style, consider some of her other works, like A Company of Swans.


What’s your favourite fantasy book or series?


Photo credit: Woman on bench from cocoparisienne, Sarcorampus bird by tpsdave, and pound notes from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Counter Action: Butterbeer cake

butterbeer cake i

Welcome to D.A. Days, a celebration of all things Harry Potter! I’m deviating from my usual schedule to post every day this week, so feel free to check back every morning and join in the merriment.

Today’s installment features a cake I made for a party in my junior year of college. The summer before that year, I had been living in that hot, dusty, snoozy college town, with not a lot to do except work, read, and try not to get heatstroke. Fortunately, there was a classmate I knew slightly — we’ll call her Liz — who was also in town, living in an air-conditioned house. Merlin’s beard.

I feel your pain, kid. Unless you get any closer.

Most kids cool their mouths with popsicles, but Edna Mae is what you’d call an innovative thinker.

As Liz had just come back from nine months in England and I’d recently spent a delightful seven weeks rummaging around the same country, we agreed that we should get together immediately at her house and wax nostalgic about that royal throne of kings, that scepter’d isle, that earth of majesty, that seat of Mars, that other Eden.

(Ten karma points if you can name that play.)

During that kaffeeklatsch, we quickly discovered that we had other things in common, including a serious cooking habit and a love of all things Harry Potter. And where should those two things intersect, we decided, but in periodic movie/dinner parties. This cake made its debut at our very last party, for Deathly Hallows Part II. Or perhaps I should say our last Harry Potter party, because Liz and I have been roommates now for two years and heaven knows we’ve had enough Merlin parties, Firefly parties, Castle parties, and It’s Finals Week And We Seriously Need A Break parties since then to fill a shelf of scrapbooks.

But without further ado, the cake.

butterbeer cake ii

Butterbeer cake

(Based on this recipe at Amy Bites. Just a heads-up: the original recipe is super cool, with a butterscotch filling and a fancy topping. In other words, if Amy’s recipe is a Peter Jackson epic with a budget of $34 million, my version is a video someone shot with their phone in a vacant lot. Use her recipe if you really want to make a splash at a gathering; try my version for something more everyday and budget-friendly.)


  • 2 c. flour
  • 1½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ½ c. unsalted butter
  • ½ c. white sugar
  • ½ c. brown sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ c. buttermilk
  • ½ c. cream soda


  1. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
  2. Cream butter until light and fluffy. Mix in sugars and vanilla. Add eggs and continuing mixing.
  3. Combine flour mixture, butter/egg mixture, buttermilk, and cream soda in stages, beating well after each addition.
  4. Pour into greased 9″ x 13″ cake pan. Bake at 350°F for about 20 minutes.
  5. Garnish with butterscotch icing (recipe below).


Butterscotch icing

(Made from this recipe at Simply Recipes)


  • 4 T. unsalted butter
  • 1 c. packed brown sugar
  • c. heavy whipping cream
  • up to 1 T. vanilla extract
  • up to 1 tsp. salt


  1. Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Add sugar and stir to mix. Continue to heat and stir until sugar is melted.
  3. Add cream and lower heat slightly. Whisk until smooth.
  4. Heat mixture to a boil. Whisk periodically for 10 minutes or until quite thick.
  5. Remove from heat. Add vanilla and salt to taste.
  6. Pour over cake.


Photo credits: Child and fan from Andi_Graf on Pixabay.


Book Chatter: Notes from a Small Island


Summer being what it is (to wit, comparatively warmer and drier), no doubt you’re planning on taking a vacation in the next couple of months. Maybe you’re heading to the beach. Maybe you’re going abroad. Maybe you’re attending a family reunion on a nuclear submarine and staging a singalong version of The Sound of Music at 900 feet.

"Dad! That's your cue!"

“Oh, Dad, I’m so glad we found you! You’re playing the Reverend Mother, remember? Climb Every Mountain is up next — hurry and get your wimple.”

For many people, vacations are a chance to explore a culture or an area they’ve always loved. And for many of those people, actually arriving in that area and experiencing that culture firsthand can be a bit of a shock.

For example, I grew up in a popular tourist town on the beach. Every summer, we locals would have a great time laughing at the tourists who showed up on the beach with their bikinis and sunscreen, not realizing that our beach is not the kind of beach where one basks in the sun, drinking appletinis and exchanging flirtatious glances with lifeguards. Our beach is more of a place where one tests out the wind-buffering capacity of new ski gear. My dad sometimes says that the town’s most lucrative industry is selling sweatshirts to optimistic tourists.

But no matter how rude an awakening those tourists get when they see our fog and drizzle, many of them keep coming back again and again. It’s like they’ve learned that their ideal beach town is fictional, but they’ve found something even better in its place.

Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island is like that discovery. As he narrates in the book, Bryson, an American, stopped in England on his way home from a European jaunt and ended up getting a job in a mental hospital there, where he met his future wife.  Nearly two decades later, he and his family decided to move back to the U.S. — but not before Bryson toured the width and breadth of England one last time, saying farewell everything he loved (and hated) about the country.

If you’d like to visit England, Notes from a Small Island is a good crash course in the quiet nooks and crannies of the nation. If you’ve already spent some time there, Notes will remind you of the endearing (and maddening) details you’ve forgotten. And for all readers, Bryson will inspire and delight as he broaches the questions of belonging and adapting with a level of humor many travel writers lack.

What are your travel plans for this summer? Is it a new destination for you, or an old favourite?


Just a short reminder — the game’s still on for our Harry Potter appreciation week! Post links to your HP-inspired essays, artwork, music, recipes, and crochet patterns, and they’ll be eligible for featuring on this blog!


Photo credits: Book cover from Better World Books; submarine interior from tpsdave at Pixabay.