Review and #Giveaway for Charlie N. Holmberg’s The Fifth Doll


The Fifth Doll by [Holmberg, Charlie N.]

I’m a bit late with this one, but here it is: my review of the long-awaited new Charlie Holmberg book, The Fifth Doll, which came out in late July.

The Fifth Doll centers around a not-quite-young woman named Matrona, who is living out the life of a dutiful daughter and soon-to-be wife in a rural village. When she falls into the power of the mysterious Slava, she is forced to train to become the next keeper of his creepy nesting dolls–one doll for every person in the village. In order to fully understand the connection between the dolls and the villagers, Matrona must slowly open her own dolls. But the secrets that emerge with each cracked layer threaten to destroy not only her own carefully built life, but that of the entire village. Complicating Matrona’s terrifying dance with the supernatural are the intricate web of social life in a tiny village, her stirring rebellion against the patriarchal strictures of her life, and her forbidden love for a younger man.

Almost the first thing I noticed about this book was the fantastic pacing. Although I was getting interrupted every few minutes to nurse the baby, put the toddler in her high chair, get the toddler out of her high chair, walk the baby, change everybody’s diaper … I had no trouble staying engaged with the story. Even when forced to put it down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and take it from a mother of two–that’s pretty hard to do

As in all of Holmberg’s books, the worldbuilding here shines. Like her one-time teacher Brandon Sanderson, she creates innovative and fascinating magic systems, but where Sanderson builds his magic into sprawling epics, Holmberg focuses (perhaps even more so in this book) on the intimate details of individual lives–the calluses that build on a milkmaid’s hands, the superstitions that lurk in doorways, the fraught daily interactions between a grown daughter and her parents. I love the fresh feeling this gives the setting, which helped me immerse in the story.

The ending won’t come as a surprise to experienced readers of fantasy, but the journey to get there is strange, wonderful, and heart-rending. Holmberg resists the temptation to tie things up too neatly, and as a reader, I left the book feeling both satisfied and challenged.

Although Followed by Frost remains my favorite Holmberg book, The Fifth Doll is a worthy addition to her canon. I strongly recommend it for all fantasy fans who enjoy intimate settings, innovative magic, and heroines who find that their own rescue lay inside themselves all along.


I preordered this book months ago. Then, probably because my brain was overloaded with pregnancy hormones, I preordered it again. I thus have an extra copy to give away! If you’d like to participate, leave a comment below, telling me about your favorite childhood doll and include some way for me to contact you if you win (twitter handle, link to your blog, whatever). I will select a winner one week from today. This contest is open to US addresses only.



Congratulations to Meigan, our randomly selected winner!


Chicken Bryan! (Carrabba’s style)


Chicken Bryan.jpg

Chicken Bryan with tomato and avocado salad and rice


Back on the blogging horse! I’ve been making plenty of things these last few weeks, but since it’s so much more fun to make than to record, I’ve slacked off on writing about them 😉

Here is my new Carrabba’s style Chicken Bryan recipe. I love Carrabba’s, and their chicken Bryan is my favorite, but it’s not a place that fits into the budget very often, so I thought I’d try my hand at making my own. I was really pleased with the way it came out, in spite of some imperfections, and my husband raved 😉

Project summary:

Does it taste exactly like Carrabba’s? No.
Is it healthier than Carrabba’s? Yes.
Is it delicious? ABSOLUTELY.

I started with this recipe here: then lightened it up and made it easier. (Cheap, healthy(er), easy: the trifecta of food perfection!)



4 chicken breasts
salt and pepper
2 tsp olive oil
a few dashes of liquid smoke

Lemon sauce:

small handful sun dried tomatoes
4 tsp minced or shredded fresh onion (I used my new cheese grater!)
1 Tbsp dried basil
1 tsp garlic powder
6 Tbsp olive oil
4 Tbsp lemon juice


2-4 oz goat cheese (depending on how much you like goat cheese)


Heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray foil with cooking spray.

Place chicken breasts on pan. Mix olive oil with liquid smoke (according to taste). Brush oil over chicken. Season with salt and pepper according to taste.

Cook chicken for about twenty minutes, until an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit is reached.

In a small saucepan, sautee onion in 1 Tbsp olive oil until softened. Add remaining lemon sauce ingredients and simmer until chicken is done cooking.

Plate chicken breasts. Divide goat cheese into four portions and place on of chicken. Spoon sauce over top.

Eat it while it’s hot!!!


I also made this bread herb dip (substituting dried herbs for fresh). Again, not exactly like Carrabba’s, but pretty delicious. So delicious, I made another batch and we’ve been eating it with all our meals from Spanish beef to beans and rice!

Happy eating!

Easy Peasy Easter Feasty


I was so focused on celebrating yesterday that I forgot to take a picture of my loaded table! So instead, you can enjoy a picture of my terra cotta bunny candle holder on my new deep coral placemat 😉

I love holiday feasts, and I’m becoming increasingly ambitious about creating my own. But the downside is, if I spend too much time cooking, I end up too stressed and tired to enjoy the meal and company, which defeats the purpose.

But this Easter was the most successful “feast” meal I’ve ever created, and I owe it to three strategies: 1) I made everything I possibly could (and set the table) the day before. 2) I stuck to simple recipes and took shortcuts where possible. 3) I let go of perfectionism.

So, in case anyone else also finds themselves wanting to produce a feast without driving themselves crazy/turning into a holiday monster, I thought I’d share my menu and strategies.

Easter Dinner Menu

Two Ingredient, Slow Cooker Ham

This recipe can be summed up as: stick your ham in the slow cooker with a bunch of brown sugar. Seriously, the hardest part is taking off the plastic packaging. I had a six(ish) pound precooked ham that I cooked on low for about six hours. DELICIOUS. Took about ten minutes to prep on Easter morning. Do remember to take the protective plastic button off the end of the bone before you cook it and allot some time at the end to carve the thing (or rather, pile the tender, steaming chunks on your serving platter). 10 minutes to prep. EASY PEASY.

Roasted Carrots

These carrots from Southern Living were delicious and healthy. I used bagged baby carrots so there was no peeling or chopping. I prepped them with the oil/spices on Saturday, refrigerated overnight, dumped them in a pan on Sunday and let them roast in the oven while I did other things. 5 minutes to prep. EASY PEASY.

Flavorful Green Beans

I started with this recipe from Taste of Home, but modified it to make it easier/faster. I used canned beans and powdered garlic. Since I was using canned, I left out the salt. I threw all the ingredients together on Saturday, then tossed them in a sautee pan a few minutes before lunch on Sunday. 5 minutes to prep. 5-8 minutes to cook. EASY PEASY.


I bought pre-baked, brown-in-the-oven rolls from the grocery store. Just brush with melted butter and bake at 400 degrees for about 8 minutes. Not as good as homemade, but way less stressful. 5 minutes to prep. EASY PEASY.

Ree Drummond’s Mashed Potatoes

NOT easy peasy and something of a disappointment. I’m a huge fan of the Pioneer Woman, so I was excited when I discovered she had a mashed potato recipe that could be made the day before. I made this on Saturday–probably took me over an hour between peeling, boiling, and mashing. When I tasted them immediately after cooking, they were DELICIOUS. However, they did not reheat on Sunday as well as promised. They were fine, but not amazing. I’m including this recipe because I would make this again, but I’d organize my schedule so as to do it the same day (and only on a high holiday. The amount of fat in these things is … well, better kept secret from health conscious dinner guests).

Tomato and Avocado Salad

This is a house favorite and perennial crowd pleaser that we have all the time. Chop tomatoes and avocados in equal proportions. Douse with lime or lemon juice (lime is our favorite) and mix. Add a little garlic salt if you like. Tomatoes can be chopped day before. Avocados should be chopped close to meal time as they tend to brown even with the citrus. Prep time: depends how fast you chop. EASY PEASY.

Strawberry Shortcake

My original plan was to buy individual-size angel food cakes at the store so that all I had to do was prep strawberries and whipped cream. Alas, things went awry, and I ended up throwing some shortcakes together Saturday night. Due to an ingredient substitution and overbaking, they were decidedly subpar. But this is where my letting go of perfectionism came in. I COULD have made a late night run to the store for proper ingredients and made a second batch. I could have crammed in a quick trip for the premades to the store Easter afternoon and made lunch late. But instead, I decided it was ok. IT WAS OK! And topped with plenty of strawberries and homemade whipped cream (EASY PEASY: whip with 1 tbsp of powdered sugar per cup of heavy cream), my flat, dry shortcakes really were just fine.


I did a general clean up and put up a few Easter decorations, but I kept the table centerpiece minimal–just the bunny candle pictured above. This left plenty of room for food. I also didn’t stress over the fact that our Easter basket stuff from the morning was still all over the living room when our guest arrived (again: letting go of perfectionism). I figured he wouldn’t care–and he didn’t.

Earlier in the week, I wrote out an action plan, both of prep stuff that needed to be done Saturday and a detailed schedule of how Sunday would go down. This helped me be in control of everything that was going on, make sure things went in the oven in the proper order, etc. No need to trust my often faulty memory.

And most essentially, I remembered that I was doing all this because I love celebrating and I love my family. Easter is a joyous time, and by refusing to let stress and overwork take over, I had a truly wonderful day.

Homemade Chocolate Milk #Recipe

Two weekends ago, we made the six hour drive to visit my in-laws. On the way home, at a convenience store stretch break, I decided to indulge in a bottle of chocolate milk, one of my favorite road trip treats. Except … I made the mistake of looking at the nutrition label. I never used to read labels, but it’s a habit that’s been growing ever since I did a stint with Weight Watchers and married a guy who lives in fascinated horror of the vast and every-increasing amounts of salt and sugar put into processed foods.

So I read the label and discovered that a single serving bottle of chocolate milk has the same amount of sugar as a shareable pack of peanut butter M&Ms.

I went with the M&Ms.

But after we got home, I still had that chocolate milk craving, so I turned to my trusty blender and whipped up a batch of homemade.

Does it taste like the corn-syrup-saturated stuff from the store? No.

Is it delicious? Oh yeah.

And the best part? The entire blender full has the same amount of sugar as the single serving bottle I’d been contemplating at the gas station. (It’s also a lot cheaper. Score!)


3 cups of milk (whole is a nice indulgence, but skim works fine. You can probably make this with non-dairy millk, too, although I’ve never tried.)

3 tablespoons powdered sugar

1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder (or to taste. I use dark cocoa, so if you are using regular, you might want a little more)

Dump everything in your blender. Blend for 30+ seconds until ingredients are combined and milk is extra foamy. Drink immediately.

If you don’t use up the entire batch right away, keep it in the blender pitcher. Before pouring it out, pop it back on the blender base to re-foam the milk and mix in any cocoa sediment that might have settled.

Yeah, you’re welcome.

chocolate milk.jpg

The joy of making things

I’ve really been wrestling with what to do with this blog. Part of being an author in the twenty-first century is creating on online platform–that is, making sure people interested in my writing/me have a way to find out more about me. This isn’t actually a new concept–storytellers have always had to go out and find their audience. Medieval bards would travel from village to village, looking for people who liked their stories enough to pay for them. If they were really lucky, they’d find a patron–someone wealthy and interested enough to pay to have a private storyteller on call. (Just imagine that if instead of hoping you’d read my book, I was angling for your spare room!) But I digress.

I’m extremely introverted, which means words don’t come easily for me. Whether in speech or writing, I struggle to produce sentences unless I have a purpose in speaking. I’ve never been able to talk to just make noise. I envy people who have this talent, who seem to be able to effortlessly fill the conversational space with easy chatter that requires no investment from either person–it’s a real social service.

So blogging is a challenge. What could I possibly have to say that would be meaningful enough for me to write and you to read? The default answer for a writer is to write about writing, but there are lots of people doing that already–and a lot more capably than I can. Besides, I just don’t have enough to say to come up with years (yeah years, I’m hoping for a career here!) of writing topics.

But as I thought about it, I realized that writing is actually only a part of a bigger theme in my life–making things.

I love to make things–whether it’s a fantasy novel, a loaf of bread, or a refurbished mail box. There is a satisfaction that comes from the act of creation–any kind of creating–that I don’t find anywhere else. It’s energizing, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. I have this feeling that even the smallest acts of creating matter in a way that’s bigger than the visible result.

I also love blogs that talk about being creative–crafting, baking, writing … I love them all because they add something real to my life, whether by teaching me how to do something new or simply inspiring me with beauty, wisdom, and a better way to be. I also don’t think there can ever be enough of these blogs because everybody creates differently, in different circumstances, under different constraints, with different needs. You never know when something you’re doing may be just what somebody else needs to help them achieve a goal or conquer a challenge.

So I’m going to blog (probably once a week) about making things–stories, pastries, home improvement on the cheap. I hope you’ll be inspired by what I can offer, just as I have been blessed by the offerings of so many other makers.

BICHOK (bok bok) #amwriting

Weirdly enough, these pictures represent the same thing

By nature, I am a sprinter. Not an actual runner (running is for horses. And cheetahs), but a work sprinter. Consumed by the heat of inspirtation, I like to focus intently and exclusively on a project for a short period of time and walk away with a finished product.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t write a novel that way. At least, not usually. (Yes, yes, I know, Fahrenheit 451). Novels are simply too long to be achieved by sprinting. They’re marathons. So I’ve had to reinvent myself as a writer.

I use the BICHOK method advocated by my gurus and heroes (AKA the cast of the podcast Writing Excuses). I love that acronym. It makes me feel like I’m clucking. BICHOK, source of all marathoning success, stands for Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.

That’s it.

My butt in my chair and my hands on my keyboard. Every day. (Well, six days a week. I take Sundays to recharge.)

And you know what? It works, as I just re-proved to myself in January, when I was getting back into regular writing after a long hiatus.

Oh not the first day. That day I cobbled together an outline for a novella, which took maybe twenty minutes. But I kept my butt in that chair for the rest of my allotted time, even though I couldn’t bring myself to write a single word.

The next day, I think I wrote a thousand words. The day after that it was fifteen hundred. And the day after that, I hit my ideal daily drafting stage goal of two thousand words. I started in the middle of January and by the end of the month I had written about 23,000 words, or a complete novella.

Writing every day is like working out every day. The more and the more regularly I do it, the more I’m able to do it. But it’s very, very important that I remember that I cannot go from marshmallow flab to Olympic athlete in a single day. If I’d re-started my writing thinking I was going to immediately be Steven King with 1500 words a day, or Anthony Trollope with 2000 words a day, or Brandon Sanderson with 4,000 words a day, I’d have quit after that first day when I didn’t draft a single word. (And let me add that working up to 2k/day in four days could happen only because of the years of writing I’d already put in. I was recovering muscle memory and gaining momentum, not starting from scratch.)

It doesn’t really matter if I fail to produce words on a particular day, as long as I sit in my chair with my hands on my keyboard. Because if I sit there again and again and again, the words will come.

#PitchWars Debrief and How I Got My Agent


After nine (9) years of working toward traditional publication, I at long last have secured professional representation. I am absolutely thrilled to announce that I am now a client of Stringer Literary, run by the fabulous Marlene Stringer.

Here’s how it happened:

I entered Pitch Wars and was chosen to be mentored by the wonderful Charlie N. Holmberg. Charlie’s agent is … guess who? Yes, Marlene Stringer. Although Marlene was not participating in the agent round of Pitch Wars, Charlie emailed her the link to my entry. Marlene requested the full. After the contest ended and, as per the rules, I first sent materials to those agents who had requested them during the agent round, I then sent her my MS. She read it in an incredibly fast five days (which felt like an eternity, believe me), and then emailed to set up a phone call to discuss possible representation. My heart leapt and my nervous stomachaches immediately disappeared. Although I was still paranoid that Marlene would decide not to offer after “meeting” me over the phone, it turned out that my fears were groundless. The conversation went great. I was equipped with Jim McCarthy’s helpful list of questions to ask an agent (find it here), but I needed hardly any of them, since Marlene answered almost everything before I could get to it. She was both professional and easy to talk to, and a nervous young (relatively speaking …) writer couldn’t have asked for a better experience. She ended by offering representation and giving me three business days (which, since the Thanksgiving holiday intervened, equaled a calendar week) to respond.* This is a very short time, not industry standard, and earned me a couple of testy emails from other agents who had yet to open the attachments I’d sent them. BUT it was a great indicator that Marlene was the right fit for me. She works hard and fast and expects the people on her team to keep up. Left entirely to myself, I tend to meander, but if there’s one thing grad school taught me, it’s that I produce well under deadlines. So, after receiving a couple of rejections and a couple of “I just couldn’t finish” from other agents, I joyfully sent my acceptance to Marlene on the morning of Monday, November 28. And that’s how I got my agent.

I guess my final word on Pitch Wars is that you just don’t know what the experience will be for you. For some, the most important things become networking and finding critique partners in the online community of mentees. For others, the agent showcase really does make their dreams come true. But for me, the essential thing was my relationship with my mentor—I wrote and behaved as well and as professionally as I knew how, and the result was that Charlie was willing to use her own connections and influence to push me out of the slush pile into the notice of a great agent she thought would connect with my writing.

Do your best, be your best, and when the time is right, your ship will come in.


*Why, you ask, if I got an agent back at the beginning of December, am I only now blogging about it? Let’s just say the holiday season witnessed a homeowner crisis of such epic proportions that I’ll probably write a story about it someday.

So I Got into #PitchWars

This blog post is long overdue, but I offer as my excuse the BIG THINGS that have been happening.

As the title of this post announces, I have been selected for Pitch Wars 2016! Not only that, but my manuscript was chosen by my dream mentor Charlie N. Holmberg. For those of you not familiar with her work, you can check it out on her website: . Short version: a best-selling YA (kind of) fantasy trilogy, now optioned by Disney, and two adult fantasy novels that absolutely blew me away with their fabulousness (review of the newest of these, Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet, coming soon). Getting picked by somebody whose writing I admire so much was obviously a huge confidence booster, and more importantly a chance to learn from a seasoned industry professional. In addition to offering feedback on my work, Charlie has allowed me to pester her with questions major and minor, professional and downright nosy. I am so glad I pulled my last round of MS edits together in time to submit to the contest, and also that I didn’t chicken out on submitting to Charlie. (I honestly didn’t think I’d have a chance—so if you’re a potential PW mentee sometime in the future wondering whether you should submit to a mentor who is so fabulously awesome that EVERYBODY else is sure to submit to them too, the answer is yes. You never know what will happen!) The whole experience really brought home the truth that you’ll never know what it means to succeed until you risk failure and TRY.

I spent the first month doing a round of what I would call “tune-up” edits—places in the MS that weren’t quite connecting in the way that they should, exchanging rattles and squeaks and mysterious clankings for a smooth-running machine. Now Charlie has my MS again to do a set of line edits, which means that for the last couple of weeks I have been FREE TO WRITE WHATEVER I FEEL LIKE! I’d almost forgotten what that feels like, but it has been FABULOUS. I’m just coming out of a long writing dry spell, mostly brought on by the birth of my daughter (I had a somewhat complicated pregnancy followed by the shock of new parenthood). But now that I’m getting the hang of the mom thing and have at least temporarily pushed a big project off my plate, the words are pouring out. It’s amazing and wonderful and I remember why I wanted to write books in the first place.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have a WIP calling my name.