End of Year Book Reviews

I am, of course, still reading but wrapping up reading for the year as I head into a busy holiday season with my family. It will be my first holiday celebrated entirely in Florida (or without snow!) so I’m both excited to be avoiding the airport and bummed to be missing what is a guaranteed white Christmas up north.

I finished my GoodReads Reading Challenge for the year a few weeks back actually. I am now five books over on the year for an even 80. I will probably add another 2 to that before we hit January 1. I kind of did abysmally on my reading goals for the year so I’m re-thinking how I want to structure next year! I know the first goal out of the gate is to read all the books in both my to-read drawer AND on my Kindle. I am not allowed to get a book from the library until those are read. That will probably take me a few months, to be honest, so maybe by March, I can trust myself in the public library again!

I’m also woefully behind in sharing out reviews of the books I have read so I’m just going to hit the highlights of my fall reading:

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: I had forgotten how much I love E. Lockhart and her ability to make me care so much about such flawed, and sometimes really unlikable, characters. This book plays with a great unreliable narrator. Definitely a lot sadder than Frankie’s story, I still enjoyed the gray space this story occupied in who was right and wrong in what happens.

The Girl in the Clockwork Collar by Kady Cross: I started out my year with the first book in the series and really enjoyed it. This one was less memorable to me. I did enjoy reading it but I don’t really feel compelled to read the next book in the series and since I have enough other things to read, it’s not getting added to the reading list anytime soon.

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts: This was recommended as a great fall read to me and it did not disappoint. The atmosphere of this book was key to me pretending it was fall in sweltering Tallahassee. The main character was a tad annoying at times but I liked her enough to enjoy the story and also to want to know what happens to the other characters introduced in the book so this series got added to the reading list.

starsaboveStars Above by Marissa Meyer: I really miss this series. I mean, I am glad she brought it to a satisfying conclusion but I really love these characters. This book is a series of short stories discussing the characters either before or after the action in the main three books. It was fun to get some of the backstories of my favorites and I adored the final story where we get a “where are they now?” type story with everyone. I am a sucker for that type of story with characters I love.

Books for Living by Will Schwalbe: I picked up a signed copy of this at his book reading here in Tallahassee a long time back so I was happy to finally take the time to read the book. Books about books are the best. Particularly this type where it’s just like a long conversation with a good friend over tea about books. This was also surprising tear-jerking in parts. The chapter where Schwalbe discusses his experience as a gay man in NYC during the height of the AIDS epidemic required multiple tissues.

Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de la Cruz: This was sadly disappointing at the end of the day. I got annoyed with Darcy. She swung from one extreme to the next too quickly. I also found it hard to believe the character we’re presented with is as successful as she is supposed to when she goes to pieces immediately the second something makes her uncomfortable. The swings were just too much to buy, to the point where she was just really unlikable and annoying. Bingley, however, is delightful as Darcy’s best friend and I liked his romance with Jim Bennet.

The Bookshop on the Corner and The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan: A friend who knows me very well gave me these books for our early Christmas gift exchange. Colgan’s heroines take me awhile to warm up too but they always develop so wonderfully into women I want to be best friends with, I know I need to just stick through the tough bits. Bookshop was such a cozy read! Delightful characters too and gave me the urge to sell everything and buy a book truck (oh, and move to Scotland). In Chocolate,  Anna Trent very much fits into that category of Colgan heroine but is also so determined, you’re rooting for her to succeed before you know it. This book also makes me want to suddenly become brilliant at making chocolate. And move to France to live in a garret to do so. Clearly, Colgan mostly just makes me want to quit my job, move to Europe and do some job I’m not really qualified to do…

52 Cups of Coffee by Megan Gebhart: I enjoyed this read. The audience is supposed to be recent or so-to-be-recent college graduates but I think there is something for everyone whether you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up yet or if you’ve always known and are hitting some bumps on the road.

newsworldNews of the World by Paulette Jiles: A very subtle read. It’s a classic western in many ways but the language really elevates this book. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity and evokes a world that is long gone and we only think we know from the movies. Captain Kidd and Johanna are incredible characters to watch grow to trust each other over their treacherous drive from North Texas to San Antonio.

Belle’s Library by Belle (aka the Walt Disney Company): This was a divine little read that was basically like have a long conversation with Belle about books. So, pretty much perfect!

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A lighter stew

I adore my mother’s beef stew. I will make it at least once a winter if not twice. However, it’s not the healthiest version of stew you’ll find so when you’re trying to be good in light of the upcoming holiday season, it’s not the best fit. But I really wanted a good hearty stew for the Crock Pot last weekend. So, I went to my go-to spot and Hungry Girl didn’t disappoint.

 

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It is so tasty; I’ve been eating it with a few slices of french baguette.

 

This is a broth-based stew so it’s not thick but it’s chockfull of veggies and super tender meat. It also makes a ton of food. The original recipe said it made 6 servings but I’ve been eating it since Sunday and am pretty sure I’ll have enough to go to this coming Sunday so yeah, LOTS of leftovers. I also have been adding just a splash of new broth when I’ve been reheating to avoid having the meat dry out at all. Overall, this is a big winner for me and is going on my winter rotation for sure!

Slow Cooker Pot Roast Stew [original recipe here]

Ingredients:

2 lbs. raw boneless beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat, cut into large pieces
1 tbsp. chopped garlic
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
3 cups chopped carrots (1 lb. bag)
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms (1/2 8 oz. package)
1 1/2 cups chopped sweet onions (3/4 of 1 large onion)
8 oz. russet potato, peeled and cubed (1 medium-sized potato)
1 cup chopped celery (8 oz. or half of a celery hearts bags)
2 fresh thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 cups beef broth

Directions

  1. Place beef in the slow cooker. Sprinkle with garlic, salt, and pepper.
  2. Add all remaining ingredients except broth.
  3. Top with broth. Cover and cook on high for 3 – 4 hours or on low for 7 – 8 hours, until beef is cooked through.
  4. Remove and discard thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Transfer beef to a bowl, and shred with two forks.
  5. Return shredded beef to the slow cooker, and mix well.

A story within a story set of films

Every once in a while, I remember I own DVDs. Between Sling and Netflix, I rarely actually watch the movies I own anymore. I am trying to work on that. So, Saturday nights if I have nothing else going on (most of the time) or a book I want to dive into (more likely to be my conflict), I try to re-watch some of my own movies and always ask myself, “do you still want to keep this?”

This weekend I re-visited one old movie that inspired the new movie. Paris When It Sizzles is not the best Audrey Hepburn movie but it’s so ridiculous, I pretty much forgive it for being not the best. It also has a randomly appearing Tony Curtis which makes it that much better in my mind. It’s the story of a playboy screenwriter who needs to deliver his next script in the next three days. His patron sends him a typist to type up the final draft of the script. However, she arrives to discover said screenwriter has not actually written the script yet at all. So, the two of them work together over three days to write a script. The movie is both the screenwriter and typist working on the script as well as the script itself being played out with them in the lead roles. It’s rather overacted, suffering from its time period, and doesn’t actually make much sense in the end but it’s so ridiculous and funny to me that I don’t mind. It’s also like a perfect time capsule of Paris in the 1950s on film; the cinematography is lovely. I can get over the dodginess of the main character and how he treats his typist enough to enjoy the film though it’s definitely tough at times.

So, we’ll move along to the modern version of the same story, Alex & Emma. A down on his luck writer Alex, who gambled away his advance and is suffering from a major case of writer’s block, must deliver his new manuscript to his publisher in three days to get the rest of his money and pay off the loan sharks on his case. However, his computer gets destroyed so his answer is to hire a stenographer, Emma, in order to dictate his novel. During dictating the novel, the writer and stenographer also act out the parts of the 1920s love story in predictably ridiculous fashion. In comparison with its inspiration, Alex & Emma fix a lot of the plot holes and actually come up with an interesting story for the novel. It also depicts healthier, more normal romantic relationships so I appreciated that a lot after watching the shudder-inducing swarminess of Paris When It Sizzles. Also, Kate Hudson is really delightful as Emma and all the other characters she gets to play in the book scenes (Ylva, Ilsa, Eldora and Anna) as Alex falls in love with her, both on and off the page. Luke Wilson as Alex is sort of lukewarm in general but that’s sort of his schtick so I didn’t mind it too much. This is a fun romantic comedy that is a little different than the usual formula.

Both are still keepers for the collection though Paris When It Sizzles is one that really shouldn’t be re-watched very often. I’ll stick with Hepburn’s better Paris comedy, Charade. Oh, there’s the next paired re-watch with Charade and the lackluster remake, The Truth About Charlie (though Mark Walberg is adorable per usual)! I own both of those too which surprised me LOL

Oceans…the final frontier

 

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A side by side image of a reef taken just months apart from Chasing Coral [Image Source]

I am not a good swimmer. I am still thankful I somehow managed to pass the swimming unit in gym class. I have never much progressed beyond the doggie paddle to be quite frank. But water has always been a love of mine. I adored being near it, watching it. I brave my hatred of sand and sun for it. I loved, even more, being out on it. I don’t come from much of a boating family but we often took boats during our travels and I was lucky enough to have a friend’s family adopt me a few summers for their family boat trips on Lake Ontario and into the St. Lawrence. It is perhaps another thing that bothers me about where I live in Florida. On a peninsula,  covered in lakes, I managed to find a town that doesn’t have much water to it. Water is close by in most directions. But I don’t see it on a daily basis unless I go looking for it.

In 5th grade, all my friends and I went through the “I’m going to be a marine biologist” phase. Seriously, I was looking through the pages of my 5th grade “yearbook” the other day and at least a quarter of the girls in my class wrote that down for their answer to that question. I know all of us, at least the ones I’m still in contact with, are not in any kind of science field. That’s a different discussion. I’m not sure why we were all in that stage. We had a very science-friendly classroom that year; we raised baby snapping turtles and visited the swamp for our class field trip. It was awesome. I just know a part of me never really grew out of it even as I started to realize that science involved a lot of math and I wasn’t very good at that.

So, fast forward to 8th grade and our first research paper. We were given a list of prompts to pick and I chose the one that leaped out at me, “Discuss why ocean pollution needs to be addressed on a national and international level.” I proceeded to fill 10 pages, single-spaced, of facts and figures and reasons why we needed to worry about that. Keep in mind this was supposed to be about a 6-page double-spaced paper. I still have this paper – one of many research papers I’ve written over the years and I think it’s one of my favorites because I was still so full of hope when I wrote it. I truly believed all those facts and figures meant we could do something to help. That, of course, we would because well, the facts said we should. Science didn’t lie.

I watched Chasing Coral recently. It’s much along the same lines as Chasing Ice, just coral reefs instead of glaciers. It made me cry. I remember tearing up with Chasing Ice but there were some major tears during Chasing Coral because the 8th grader in me is so disappointed. She is even more disappointed and frustrated and just plain angry than I think the 32-year-old me is. Even as I read yet another article on how climate change is being ignored, willfully denied and/or actively encouraged by those who should be doing something about it. Our oceans are the balance of our planet. As they go, so do all of us. How we cannot act when they are sending up major distress signals be it by coral bleaching or unheard of hurricane seasons? I guess in the end we’ll get what we deserve. Is it petty to hope the climate change deniers get it first?

But, I will not end on a petty note. I’ll end on a passionate note. On the note of an 8th grader who believed her words and research could make someone sit up and take notice and do something about it.

The damages and impacts on the environment, the marine life, and humans that marine pollution is causing still isn’t enough for governments to realize that by polluting the ocean, they’re polluting us. The ocean’s delicate balance and relationship with us is being pusher further past its limit each day…The science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s often depicted space as the growing frontier. Why not stay closer to home? The ocean’s depths hold just as much possibility as space, but not for much longer…Do you really want your grandchildren asking you what a blue ocean looks like? I doubt it, but to pass a clean and blue ocean onto our children and their children, we must take steps to protect the ocean and save it from ourselves. And we must take them now. For as Arthur C. Clarke said, “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when clearly it is Ocean.”

In which I pretend it’s Fall outside

This is the time of year I really, really hate living in Florida. Not just hate, I am angry that I live in this state by this time of year. I want to be frolicking in leaves, wearing cute scarves and pea coats while cuddling up with a book and hot mug of tea as a deliciously crisp breeze rattles the window. Instead, I’m still sweating like a pig when I set foot outside and groaning as I turn the A/C down another degree because it’s still that gross outside. As someone who lived for fall and winter (I’ve actually always kind of loathed summer weather and find it suspicious when it’s that sunny all. the. time), Florida and I don’t actually get on well most of the time. Except for January and February when, at least in northern Florida, we get nice, cold nights with a delightful frost over everything. I live for those days.

So, instead, I just start pretending it’s fall outside my doors. I buy all the apply, harvest spicy candles I can find, wear my scarves indoors at all times, switch my kitchen towels over to leaves and Halloween and generally just take one to the chin with the A/C because I start cooking up a storm again with crock pot and stove. So, I share one of my new-found delightfully autumn recipes with you today. I was so keen to dive in, I have no photos but the original site link (included below), has great ones! I did make the recipe smaller for me – mine came out with 4 servings instead of the 6 servings of the original but I recommend this whole-heartedly! And it was fairly easy to put together once I got past the peeling of apples. I really am not good at peeling anything. It’s a kitchen skill I need to improve! This also has the sheet pan aspect going for it – throw everything on a cookie sheet and let bake!

Pork Chops and Apples Sheet Pan dinner [original recipe for 6]

I served this with frozen green beans and it’s been a great combo. The apples serve as your “potatoes” and as someone who has a sweet tooth, I love the change up from the usual sides. I bet you could switch them out for sweet potatoes though with just a few adjustments if you prefer.

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb. boneless pork chops, thin cut
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 apples, peeled and sliced (I used Honeycrisp apples – the slight tartness mellowed well in cooking. I am betting Empire apples would be delicious but those are hard to find in the South in my experience)
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • dash nutmeg

Directions:

  1. Brush sheet pan with olive oil. [Note: I put parchment paper down first to help with clean-up)
  2. Place pork chops on the pan and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  3. Stir apples together with honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
  4. Pour apples onto the sheet pan with pork chops.
  5. Bake at 425 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until pork chops are cooked through and apples are tender.

 

 

Jackaby

It is always sad to say goodbye to a good book series. Not that it’s ever really goodbye. The books are always waiting there for you on the shelf or on the Kindle for you to re-visit. Books are comforting that way; they are always just patiently waiting for the next reading.

Things got a little crazy for me to write about this series when I finished the last book (the same day I started reading it; it’s one of those up until 2am because you have to know how it finishes kind of books). This is also the first series since Harry Potter that I pre-ordered the book. Of course, a little differently these days. I ordered the Kindle version so I wake up on release day and there it was, just waiting for me! A bit easier on your day that the agonizing wait for the mailman to show up. So, that should give you some idea of how excited, and devastated, I was for this last book. Last books are nerve-wracking. Will the author answer all the questions? Will they kill off a beloved character? Will they kill off more than one? What new characters will they throw into the mix at the eleventh hour? And as those questions race through your mind, there is one ever-present chant: please don’t screw it up. As a reader, it’s stressful. I can’t imagine being a writer and having to deal with it.

So, to the series at hand. Jackaby. From the start, I adored the idea of this book long before I read it. R.F. Jackaby, a supernatural detective in an alternative Boston-like town takes on an intrepid young woman who’s escaped conformity in Britain for the New World as his assistant.  Jackaby was, as I believe I described in him a previous blog post, a cross between the brothers from Supernatural and the Doctor with a dash of Sherlock. He was delightful. But, and I think this is the coolest part of this series, he was misleading. In fact, the series being called Jackaby is misleading because this is very much a series of books more about his assistant, Abigail Rook, the aforementioned intrepid young woman. Rook is who writes down the stories so they are told from her perspective, Jackaby’s Watson if you like. Unlike Watson though, Rook is very much a leading lady of her own story. She’s the one who likes the detecting work; Jackaby just happens to be the Seer, the person who can see and knows about the supernatural world. Over four books, their partnership is lovely to watch grow but from the start, it is an equal partnership and that is rare even in fiction.

To the last installment of the series, The Dire King. For three books we’ve been leading up to the idea that a single intelligence has been causing all the mayhem in the first three books and now the final goal and villain are revealed. The author did not disappoint. He answered pretty much everything, including some last minute questions he threw in there. He certainly killed off a lot of characters; there were tears. However, as there is a supernatural bent to the story, a few came back, in the end, to make sure there was at least a happier ending that might be expected. As I noted in my review right after finishing reading: In many ways, I could often see the twists coming in this book – subtlety isn’t the point of the plot. These books have always shone because of their characters. These are people I want to be friends with, fight alongside with, have daring, unbelievable adventures with. I am only too sorry to find, as usual, some of the best people I know are fictional. I shall miss Jackaby, Abigail, Jenny, and Charlie.

So, I bid adieu (for now) to this series as I move on to others on my list but I recommend you make the acquaintance of Jackaby and Co. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Collecting at WDW

I am behind, so behind, on listening to the three podcasts I haven’t abandoned because…time. So, this is a response to a month old WDWRadio podcast about things to collect at Walt Disney World. I am a collector, less so now than when I was a kid. As a kid, I may have been more a borderline hoarder. I am more selective these days but the collections I still have almost all have a Disney tie. Exhibits A-D:

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A recent snapshot of my WDW pin collection; still have room to grow!

1) Pins. Let’s start with the obvious one when it comes to me. Mom and Dad had no idea what they were starting when they brought me that first lanyard with four tiny little pins from each park back in 2000. I outgrew the lanyards a long time ago and display my collection on a pegboard now. I know, I know. You’re supposed to wear and trade them but I put a lot of thought into my pins. I pick characters or movies to hunt out each trip or buy pins to commemorate certain events I attend in the parks or even certain trips. These are touchstones for me, not something to trade away. I bought a Cinderella pin the year I did WDW with my best friend from high school and that’s her favorite character. I hunted an entire trip to find a Hunchback of Notre Dame pin one year (I finally hunted it up in the Animation store at DHS – I really miss that store). I have pins from all the festivals I’ve gotten to (Flower & Garden, Food & Wine). Each party I’ve gotten to attend has a pin; I have pins for things that don’t exist anymore (Osborne Spectacular of Lights is one of my favorite pins). I expanded my collection to include Disneyland pins for my first trip back to the original parks in 2012 and then for my trip last year in 2016. I love looking on my board and remembering where all the pins came from and which trip they belong to.

2) Maps. In re-organizing my giant memory chest a year or so ago, I found I’d stopped collecting these (I hadn’t really realized I was collecting them). I meant to start back up this year but I rely so much on the app now, I never think to grab a map as a souvenir. I’ll go again at least once this year so I need to get maps! As a kid though, I was religious in keeping a map from each park for each trip and they are a blast to look through now. To watch the parks grow and change over time is a true Disney Nerd moment.

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I am especially proud of that bottom middle one! RIP Discovery Island

3) Postcards. These are something else I often buy but don’t think that I’m collecting them per say. However, I have postcards everywhere – whether it’s a postcard of the parks or a postcard version of a piece of art I couldn’t afford – I have tons of these, some out for display but most stored away. I always had in the back of my mind I would frame and display all these eventually. Maybe someday I will. I really should just go for a “Disney Wall” some place in my apartment and see what I end up with.

 

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Apparently, I really liked that one that I bought it twice LOL

 

4) Books. Disney, hear me out. Give me a bookstore in Disney Springs already. Just take my money! I will give it to you. I have to hunt for books in the parks these days. There used to be some guarantee go-to spots to find them but even most of those are gone now (The Writer’s Stop, The Animation Shop (we lost so much when this went away clearly), the book wall in World of Disney). As a bookworm, I love to pick up books when I travel. As a kid, I collected the Disney history books in the parks including the coveted Since the World Began by Jeff Kurtti which I lugged all over the Magic Kingdom one trip (I just had to buy it early in the day). These days I pick up books wherever I can find them on property. The gift shop tucked back in Fantasyland often has some of the Beauty and the Beast books being published (though not all of them, Belle is disappointed in you Disney). You can also usually hunt out the Figment comics in the gift shop after the ride and, oddly enough, I have good luck finding them at the Contemporary Resort. I may have swooned on my last Disneyland trip when I found an ENTIRE WALL of books in the shop attached to their Animation area. Seriously Disney, take all the books (your publishing arm pushes out enough of them) and put them in a small shop in Disney Springs. I could probably single-handedly keep it open for you.