Sunday, February 28, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - In their absence...

If you follow the Bumbles, you are probably aware that Molly's grandmother passed away last week. Molly and Andy have been on my mind and in my prayers all weekend. Because of their focus on their family at the moment, I incorrectly assumed that we may not have received our assigned Monday Movie Meme topic this evening. (As it turns out, the Bumbles did come through, but after I had written this post!) So I made the executive decision to just chat about the most recent movies I've seen, both at the theater and through Netflix, starting with the most recent.

1. Drag Me to Hell (Netflix) - yes it is intentionally schlocky, but oh what fun. If you enjoy horror movies, this one will meet your needs. You have got all your bases covered...curses, demons, spewing bodily liquids...all of it used in a way that flies in the face of a traditional horror formula.

2. Paranormal Activity (Netflix) - I guess I got a little horror-crazy one evening on Netflix. Two in a row! This movie was made in some dude's house for something around a few hundred bucks, but was a sensation at the box office. The premise is that a demon has been haunting a young women on and off throughout her life, and recently has picked up where he left off. So said woman and boyfriend decide to video tape their bedroom at night to detect what is going on while they are sleeping. Don't watch this by yourself at night, I would say. I've seen scarier stuff, but it was entertaining.

3. The Hurt Locker (Netflix) - I'm impressed that this gritty, testosterone-packed account of a bomb squad in Iraq was directed by a woman. I was also impressed that the major film stars in this movie were thrown under a bus, playing only bit parts. I'm not sure it deserves to win the Oscar (does anything this year???) but was an excellent and intense film.

4. The Lightning Thief (Theater) - the kids had a day off from school and it was rainy. I had not read the book, and my daughter tried but couldn't get through it. It was mildly entertaining. I'll just leave it at that.

5. Food Inc. (Netflix) - OK, so now I don't want to eat anything ever. This was a great documentary about the truth behind the food we eat, the politics of farming and the ag business, and probably is responsible for a good number of people becoming vegetarians. Is nothing sacred any more? I can't just eat my food in peace? I have one more thing to worry about, on top of being chemicaled and caloried to death?

6. Avatar 3D (Theater) - I was a little put-off by the 3 hour run time, but I had to see what all the ruckus was about. Bottom line? Great effects, great premise, disappointing/mundane/predictable/Hollywood plot. It could have lost a good 30 minutes and nobody would have cared. It certainly does not deserve to win Best Picture. If it does, I will lose my faith.

7. The Lovely Bones (Theater) - My mom and I read the book, and for some strange reason the kids wanted to see it. I'd read it had been watered down to a PG-13 rating, so off we went. Some significant things were changed from the book, which irritated me, but it was a beautifully-shot movie. My poor dad didn't know what he was in for, and I think the movie still bothers him. I'm not sure he will get over it!

8. Inglourious Basterds (Netflix) - violence and wackiness to spare, with all the genius and flair you expect from Tarantino. He is one deranged fellow, but that is what makes his movies so much fun. Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz give stellar performances. I'm betting Waltz is going to take home an Oscar.

Of all the movies I've listed above, I probably liked The Hurt Locker the most, The Lightning Thief the least. What have you seen lately? Any good recommendations?

Sunday Salon: Slogging through molasses

Happy Sunday, Saloners! Well, as you can tell by my title, I don't feel I've had a productive week. This may be partly my imagination, fueled by my dismal reading time. Why is it that I only feel productive if I have finished a handful of books? Anyway, my time is not my own these days, and is a serious buzz-kill.

On a bright note, my bathroom is basically finished. As with any project, there are one or two minor tweaks that still need to be finished, but we are operational. As the guys started wrapping up back there, it was my turn to come in and clean (more cleaning than I have done in a year), put all of our belongings back in the cabinets, shop for towels and rugs, and stay in touch with the general contractor to make sure all problems were resolved. We still have to get the cable company out here to hook up our TV in the workout room, replace the blinds in the workout room (which OF COURSE have to be custom ordered), replace our weights and weight bench, find mirrors for my husband's vanity, and decorate. But it is getting there. Slowly. At least I don't have worker boys underfoot.

Entrance into our double shower

One side of the double shower (my back is to the second shower head)

My tub!

My vanity (no picture of my husband's as it has no mirrors)

My daughter started volleyball, so we are back in the groove of dropping off, picking up and waiting. (Maybe this will help me get in some reading!)

I participated in a golf tournament on Wednesday, which at first annoyed me because I felt I needed to be home supervising bathroom wrap-up. But it turned out to be worth my time! Our team won fifth place, and I got "Closest to the Pin", both earning some wine-themed gifts. But the big kahuna was a raffle prize that I won...a weekend stay at the Portofino Bay Resort at Universal valued at close to $700. So I guess another weekend at Universal is in our future! Our plan is to wait until the Harry Potter portion of the park is open, which should be in the next couple of months.

The excitement is building in the Nawrot house, as we are leaving for Hawaii this Tuesday and will be gone for a week. Is it twisted that I am just as excited about the 12+ hours of flying time as I am about the destination? You're with me, aren't you? But with any trip, you have to prepare. I had to get all promotional communications written and distributed, and loose ends tied up for the book fair, which will be happening the third week of March. The kids have to make up the schoolwork. Resort wear must be purchased. Reservations must be made for dinners and tours. Housesitter and petsitter must be arranged. And so it goes. (I've got posts planned for while I am gone, but I may be scarce around the blogs this week!)

We wrapped up the week with an annual Crawfish Boil last night at some friends' house. This is a highlight on the Nawrot social calendar. Our hosts are from Louisiana, so they know what they are doing. Hurricanes by the gallon mixed with a liberal amount of liquor, fifty pounds of imported crawfish, steamed with corn, sausage and stuff, music and happy people. I probably won't eat today, but it was worth it!

So anyway. This would be why I only finished one audio book this week, Hold Tight by Harlan Coban. It was an entertaining listen, a bit tense, a bit convoluted, not entirely satisfying. I just started The Swan Thieves on audio, which was pretty exciting for me. I continue to read and enjoy Stone's Fall in print, but have only read 240 pages in two weeks. And ARCs are piling up in the meantime. This is distressing to me. I am counting on getting back my time and mojo with that long flight next week. Despite our best intentions, the kids and I did not finish the fifth Harry Potter on audio. We only have about five discs left, but we won't get through them until we return from Hawaii.

So what is on your agenda today? I promised my daughter that for her birthday (which is next week), I would take her to see that damned "Dear John" at the theater. I think I would rather have a root canal, but she really wants to go, so I may try to knock out that dreaded task today. It probably won't come as a surprise that she also wants to see "The Last Song" when that comes out at the end of March. I may have to bring a flask to get through all of that Nicholas Sparks hell.

On that happy note, I hope everyone has a great Sunday!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Weekend Cooking: Cook Yourself Thin Faster - Lauren Deen

Weekend cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. Book reviews (novel, non-fiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If you post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up any time over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page.


One of my Game On buddies, Julie @ Booking Mama, recently reviewed a cookbook that caught my attention. I am still dieting, so how could I not be intrigued by a book whose subtitles include "A delicious way to drop a dress size", and "Have your cake and eat it too", and "Over 75 new recipes you can make in a flash". I can't say I really believed that I would drop a dress size by cooking these recipes, but what I did believe was this was a collection of yummy, healthy meals.

So I ordered it from the library to give it a test run. (Which, by the way, I would say good luck with that. I make messes when I cook!) The book gives some good, general, practical advice about losing weight. Calculating the number of calories you need to eat per day to maintain your weight. Keeping a food diary. Five changes you can make in your lifestyle to help you lose weight. Nothing revolutionary here, but reminders are always good.

The book is then divided up by chapters based on the meal (breakfast, starters, mains, sides/soups/salads, and dessert) with a dozen or more recipes in each section. All recipes are simple, with few ingredients and few steps, with caloric content and pictures for each. You are not required to use anything fake (fake butter, fake sugar...processed stuff). They just help you find healthier choices with your ingredients. And it pays off. The recipes I made were tasty, and every dish was between 250 and 350 calories per serving, the same as a Lean Cuisine dish.

I made Chicken Cordon Bleu, Orange Beef, Pork with Apples, Shrimp and Grits, and Fish and Chips. All the dishes were met with happy little faces and tummies in our family, which is the ultimate goal. This has been my biggest challenge throughout my dieting adventure since the beginning of the year. I normally cook a full meal every night, and many of the dishes are rich and savory. How to wean my family from the delicious, often fattening dinners to something that won't cause sounds of retching from the dinner table? This cookbook was one answer.

I probably got the most groans of appreciation from the pork with apples:

1 1/2 pounds loin pork chops
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
cooking spray
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 apple, peeled, cored and cut into eighths
3/4 cup apple cider
2 TBL heavy cream
Pound the pork chops to flatten. Season with S&P. Spray saute pan with cooking spray and set over medium-high heat. Add the pork and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Turn and cook for another 4 minutes until cooked through. Remove the pork to a plate and keep covered. Saute shallot and apple until slightly golden. Add the apple cider and cook until the liquid begins to boil. Add the heavy cream and stir. Return the pork to the pan, toss with the sauce, and serve immediately.

Calories: 270

I don't think I will actually go out and buy this cookbook, but will just occasionally check it out when I am in need of new meals. Do you have any go-to cookbooks that are healthy and simple? I am always looking for new material!

P.S. I am down 17 pounds since the beginning of the year!

Friday, February 26, 2010

If You Come Softly - Jacqueline Woodson

I think I've established that through my reading of three Jacqueline Woodson novels over the past six months, I am officially a fan. All of the books I've read have been of the YA genre, and address various forms of black and white issues, with other hot topics thrown in for flavor. Woodson's books tend to be relatively short...150 pages give or take...but overflow with emotion and gravitas. It is a true talent to be able to say so much in so few words.

So when I read a review of this book (sorry, I cannot recall who wrote the review) it was an impulsive library request. This is why I can't remember whose review inspired me...I read it, then immediately log into the library website to order. I needed another Woodson fix.

Ellie and Miah both go to a high-end private school in NYC. They each have their own problems at home. Ellie's mother has walked out on their family twice over the years, which has created some distrust and abandonment issues. She is virtually an only child because her siblings are much older. Miah's father, a famous Hollywood director, had an affair with a family friend and now lives with the fling across the street from Miah's mother. Both are lonely, and find a kindred spirit in each other. Theirs is an intense, first love. The only problem is that Ellie is white and Jewish, and Miah is black. People stare. Ellie's lesbian sister refuses to speak to her. Will they ever be able to have a "normal" relationship without being judged?

This book is precious. It not only captures the magic and depth of first love, but addresses some pretty heavy topics...the public's nonacceptance of bi-racial couples, infidelity, same-sex unions, to name a few. But not with a preachy or overblown attitude. There are no stereotypes - that is not Woodson's style. Instead, the tone is gentle, delicate, unassuming and beautiful.

Woodson continues to impress. Just one word of warning...have your tissues ready. She will make your heart ache.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 25, 2010

When You Are Engulfed in Flames - David Sedaris (audio)

David Sedaris, where have you been all my life? How many bloggers have to tell me he is God's gift to pee-in-your-pants laughter before I actually check him out? I guess it all started with a review I read recently of a 4-disc Sedaris audio (sorry, can't remember the blogger or the book), but ended up with "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" because that is what was available at the library.

I'll just start out by saying I can't do this man justice. If you have read him, heard him on audio or in real life, you already know this. If you haven't, you will just have to trust me. No excerpt will capture the essence of the dry, sardonic yet brutally honest wit of the man, or of Sedaris' own high, whiny voice that delivers it. (On a side note, Sedaris reminded me alot of Sarah Vowell, author and narrator of "The Wordy Shipmates". I say this with love in my heart.) I cannot even conceive that reading his books would be half the experience of hearing him in all his glory.

Since this was my first Sedaris adventure, I'm certainly not an expert. But assuming that his modus operandi is consistent from book to book, here is what you can expect: A series of essays about nothing, sort of like the TV show Seinfeld. Sedaris ruminates on various events in his with a full-sized skeleton in his apartment and imagining that it is continually telling him he is going to die, sitting in a doctor's waiting room in his underwear, sneezing a cough drop into the lap of the lady sitting next to him on a flight, and a nasty boil on his rear end, just for some examples. He even spends two discs talking about his efforts to quit smoking. But on this path of enlightenment, he also takes short detours of the mind. Digressions, if you will, that are just as much fun as the primary train of thought.

For those easily offended, Sedaris may push your buttons. Bad language, the occasional gay reference, the slaughtering of a few sacred's in there. But in Sedaris' little-boy voice, it all seems OK. I was snickering or laughing out loud about every 5 or 10 minutes, languishing in his style of humor. Now when I find myself in a depression from too much literary family dysfunction or WWII dramas, I know where to turn.

Are you one of the millions of worshipers of Sedaris? What is his best novel?

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Lake Eola #4

A walk in the park at Lake Eola, Orlando

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reading Between the Wines: Literacy, Wine and Authors...what more can you ask for?

Some of you may or may not have caught one of my earlier posts about this fabulous event that I have become involved with this year. But it is exciting enough to mention it again. After all, we are book bloggers, are we not? And what do we care about more than literacy?

The Adult Literacy League of Orlando hosts an annual fund-raising event in April called "Reading Between the Wines", where there's ample food and vino, of course. Also featured is a silent auction that includes author-signed books, trips, wine baskets, restaurant certificates, etc.

There are two guest authors as well. This year, our guest authors include Gerald Posner, an award-winning author of investigative non-fiction, and Connie May Fowler, whom you MAY have heard about once or twice here on my blog. Did you know that Connie's newest novel "How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly", released in early April, was chosen by SIBA as an Okra Pick this year? This means that it was one of twelve new southern books that bookstores want to handsell (Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt was chosen as well). I've read Clarissa, and it blew me away. Words cannot even express how excited I will be to meet Connie in person.

Where do I come in? I was asked to collect as many author-signed books as possible for the silent auction. When I first put out the word, I was stunned by the outpouring of help from book bloggers, giving up their personal copies, and authors alike. I am still collecting books for the auction, and will continue to do so until mid-March. If there is anyone out there that can get their hands on anything signed, please let me know!

The event will be held on Friday, April 9th at 6pm at the Downtown Marriott. Tickets are $100 per person. Sponsorships are available as well. For more information, click here. I realize most of you don't live anywhere close to Orlando, but if you are passing through, or want to escape the snow, come on down!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - What's Wrong With Me???

Today's Monday Movie Meme from the Bumbles is all about those movies that EVERYONE loved but you did not. Was I in a mood that day? Am I smarter than the masses? Am I an idiot? I am generally a forgiving person with movies. I try to find good in everything. There are plenty of really bad movies out there, but here are a few that were generally liked by Joe Moviegoer that will probably never be viewed again in the Nawrot household:

Rashomon - yes I know this one is not exactly big, box office material here. But it is widely renowned as a classic, an example of artistic masterpiece of director Kurosawa. My husband and I both fell asleep in the middle of it, and woke up at the end, pretending to "get" it but really didn't. I was ashamed, as my sister is the most intelligent Asian film critic I know, and is a must-see for her. Maybe I should try watching it sober.

Happy Go Lucky - EW loved it. My sister loved it. It was a British indie film that was nominated for and won a mess of awards. ( starred Sally Hawkins, who also played Sue Trinder in Fingersmith). We turned the damned thing off halfway through. I couldn't understand the British accent, and I thought the character acted like she had a few cards missing from her deck.

Nacho Libre - I would not be a popular momma if my family knew I had included this movie on my list. They love it. Many love it, almost to a cult status. I do not. I have to seriously be in my cups to laugh even once at this inane comedy. I knocked this movie once awhile ago, and got a comment from someone claiming to be a movie highbrow, telling me I didn't know good film if it hit me in the face. Sorry but it is just DUMB. If you are in the mood for dumb then you will probably be satisfied.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - I don't know many critics that liked this one, but the box office obviously did (at least they like Megan Fox's pouty lips and rear end). I can't tell you how annoyed I was when I walked out of the theater after watching this with my kids. So who did Spielberg pay off to get a PG-13 rating on this one? The plot was horrible. And I was so pleased to see that there was ample T&A, f-bombs, and various humping dogs/robots for our target audience of 8 to 12 year old boys. I couldn't sit through this movie again if I had to.

The DaVinci Code - I recently used the phrase in a book review that "it was a little too Scooby-Doo for me". I would use this same phrase for this movie. This movie was Scooby Doo for adults. You know, looking for clues that are a little too easy to find, being chased by bad guys that are almost stereotypically evil. Yet the movie (and the book for that matter) made millions. Go figure.

The Squid and the Whale - directed by the always-loved Noah Baumbach, and nominated for umpteen Oscars and various other awards, I thought this was the most depressing, nauseating movie I'd seen in ages. A raw viewpoint of a family torn asunder by divorce, with the children as innocent victims, I was in a fugue state when I finished it.

I'm off to sleep now, after a weekend of way too much fun. I will think of more movies that qualify for this list while I sleep. Can you think of any that you just didn't get? Fill me in...I will probably agree with you!

The Sunday Salon: Coasters, Blondie and beads, oh my!

Happy Sunday! Well, I thought this post may be late today, as we are spending the weekend at the Hard Rock Hotel and have been cavorting at Universal Studios. I woke up at an obscene hour though (brains scrambled from too much roller coaster?) so here I am.

I will likely publish a separate post on all the activities of the weekend, but let me just say that paying for a couple of nights at a Universal resort, even for us locals, is the way to go. It allows you "fast pass" for nearly every ride in the park, which means no standing in lines - you can experience both the Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios in less than two days. They are also in the middle of the Mardi Gras days (a little manipulation of the religious season I realize) which awarded us a parade with lots of beads last night, and Blondie in concert. Call me! The Tide is High! Heart of Glass! The cherry on top of the whole thing was that the weather was perfect. After two solid months of the nastiest, coldest weather in Florida history, our weekend was blessed with 70 degree cloudless skies. Almost more than MY little heart of glass could take.

I'm sure you will all be shocked to learn that our bathroom renovation was not completed this past Friday, per original schedule. It is looking more like the middle of next week, which I guess isn't bad. Serenity now.

Our book club met this past week to discuss Sarah's Key. Overall, everyone enjoyed the book. There were a few of us (me included) that felt it had its weaknesses, but compared to some of the other selections, it was a winner. For next month, we will be reading Shutter Island, which I just finished, then will see the movie together in a few weeks. I campaigned hard for this, for as I said in the last Sunday Salon, I thought the book was fabulous. My sister saw the movie Friday night and she gave it her stamp of approval. I can't wait to see it! This is the most excited I've been since I joined our book club.

I feel I am repeating myself when I say I wasn't too productive with my printed books this week. I finished A Black Tie Affair, a light romance written by my mom's old high school chum, Sherrill Bodine, and started Stone's Fall by Iain Pears, which was highly recommended by Jackie at Farm Lane Books, and a gift from my secret santa Trisha @ Eclectic/Eccentric. It is a sizable book...nearly 600 it may take me awhile to get through it, but I am REALLY enjoying it so far. What's not to love with mystery and intrigue in turn-of-the-century London? I did listen to "Olive Kitteredge" on audio, and am about halfway through a Harlan Coban thriller called "Hold Tight". I fear the audio version of Olive may not have showcased the book to its highest potential, because while I enjoyed it, I didn't love it. More on that in a couple of weeks, when I post my review. The kids and I continue to plod our way through the fifth Harry Potter audio, which is beginning to feel like a career. We love it of course, but 25 discs is a long trek when you only listen in the car, and only when both kids are present, and only when there is no drama or emotion that needs to be resolved. I am hoping we can wrap it up before we take off for Hawaii in early March. I must say I'm pretty excited to witness the toad-like Umbridge's defeat! Oh, how we loathe that woman!
Apologies in advance that I may not be able to get around and socialize with you all today. I shall be averting death from earthquakes, tornado, and shark attacks. Shooting aliens. Riding my bicycle across the sky with E.T. Stuff like that. Hope everyone has a great day!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

One Challenge Complete!

The Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge was an impulsive, last-minute addition to my 2010 challenge list, but it was the first to be completed! Here are the books I read that qualified for this challenge:

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami

The Liar's Club - Mary Karr

Open - Andre Agassi

Home is Where the Wine Is - Laurie Perry

I found all of these memoirs to be enjoyable, even though I never really thought this was my genre. In fact, I'm sure I will continue to pick up memoirs throughout the year, wherever I can squeeze them in. I particularly would like to read Mary Karr's other two novels, Cherry and Lit. Do you have any other recommendations?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Open - Andre Agassi (audio)

I first learned about Agassi's tell-all memoir when I saw him promoting it through the interview circuit. I was strangely moved by the man's obvious desire to purge all of his demons, and his brutal honesty. I mean, look at the face on the cover of the book! This is the face of a man who's been through it, and taken a big swallow of humility. While memoir-writing is the latest form of therapy for the rich and famous, this one seemed it could be a little different. After all, this was the cocksure bad-boy who was happy to flip the bird to the media, dated Barbara Streisand, and is one of the most decorated tennis stars in history. I wanted to hear his side of the story.

I also have always loved tennis. I played it in high school (with a bit of an attitude, but then again, McEnroe was our role model), and was even the activity of my second date with my husband. Before Robert and I had kids, we watched ALOT of tennis. (OK, I still watch it now when that hot little number Nadal plays!) We were among the masses that scoffed at Agassi's antics, jeered at the parade of women sitting in his spectator box, gaped at the loss of his poofy hair, and begrudgingly gave him credit for being the last man standing in his generation.

What we see in this memoir is a completely different side of the public Agassi. He was raised by a hot-headed, controlling father who forced his dreams onto his son, creating Agassi's fear and loathing of the sport. Predictably, Agassi rebelled, quit school in 9th grade, and forever defied rules. Despite his brash persona however, he was an introvert, preferring to stay in with friends and detesting the social demands of his job. In fact, I found him to be very emotionally needy (albeit bratty), and would cling to a core group of friends for support...a reverend-turned-songwriter, his trainer, his coach, a childhood friend. In return for their support, he was loyal to a fault, and would give his last penny to help them if they needed it. After all was said and done, Agassi outgrew the brattiness and came to realize that giving to those in need brought more peace to his life than winning any Grand Slam Tournament.

We also get a peek at the juicy stuff...his brief dabble with drugs (and getting caught by the ATP), his struggle with losing his famous mane of hair, that Jimmy Connors is a total ass, and the progression of his relationships, particularly with ex-wife Brooke Shields and his current wife Steffi Graff.

A majority of the book, however, is play-by-play details of his training and his matches, including some pretty classic battles with Becker, Courier and Sampras. If you aren't interested in tennis, you might find these portions of the book a little slow. On the contrary, I found it exciting to relive these phenomenal matches, all the while thinking with fascination...did he really go commando in that match? Did he really use a spectator's shoe to replace his own damaged one in that match? Did he really intentionally blow that match because his friend's daughter was clinging to life in a hospital?

The prose in this book is far from what you would call literary. It is straight-forward and blunt, with a number of swear words. It all feels authentic though; it's Agassi. I wouldn't expect him to recount his life with poetic, flowery words. Similarly, the narrator isn't a Jim Dale or a Simon Vance, but did sound an awful lot like Agassi's voice, which worked well.

I didn't so much like Agassi during my years of tennis worship, and I usually rooted against him. I wish I would have known then what I know now. I find it heart-warming to know that he has found a soul mate who understands him, and that his mission and reason for being is to give back to children in need. All has been forgiven.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ghost in the Machine - Patrick Carman

Close to a year ago, the kids and I read "Skeleton Creek", and was pretty entertaining for all of us. If you haven't heard of this book, it is really quite clever. The book is a collection of diary entries written by teenager Ryan McCray. He and his best friend Sarah have uncovered some sinister goings-on in their small town of Skeleton Creek. Because Ryan has recently broke his leg, he does most of the online snooping, and Sarah runs around town with her video camera documenting suspicious characters. At intervals in the book, you are directed to log onto a website and watch Sarah's findings. Cross-media to reel in the non-readers! I love it! There was a cliff-hanger at the end of the book, and the three of us were insane wanting to read the follow-up book "Ghost in the Machine".

So we get our hands on "Ghost in the Machine" this past August - a gift from my Scholastic rep Mary (who is just the best). After reading about half the book with the kids, they lost all interest. I had to employ guilt tactics to get them to sit and listen to my narrating skillz. Finally, five months later, I decided to just finish the darned thing myself, and get it off my kitchen table.

Ryan and Sarah's adventures continue. They discover more clues to the mystery behind Skeleton Creek, and the creepy dredge at the edge of town. Ryan's dad is involved somehow, people keep dying, and Ryan and Sarah begin to suspect that they might be next on the hit list. All is revealed at the end of the story, with an unmasking of the evil-doer. It was all a bit too Scooby-Doo, frankly.

I guess I can't really blame my kids for ditching the story. It was more of the same antics that we saw in the first book, except a bit drier, with a concept that is no longer new. After reading such superb YA novels recently, such as "Life As We Knew It", or "The Adoration of Jenna Fox", or the brilliant works of Jacqueline Woodson, this story fell flat. On the other hand, the use of both the written word and the Internet makes the experience very three dimensional, and may likely entice the techno-savvy tweens and teens to turn off the TV or video game and read a book. You can't argue with that.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Lake Eola #3

Chinese pagoda at Lake Eola, Orlando

For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winners of "Home is Where the Wine Is" by Laurie Perry

Using, I have selected the following five people to receive a copy of the delightful "Home is Where the Wine Is" by Laurie Perry:

Jill @ Rhapsody in Books


Kim Frazier

Jenners @ Find Your Next Book Here

Dar @ Peeking Between the Pages

Congrats everyone! I will be contacting you shortly to get your mailing addresses!

Life As We Knew It - Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life As We Knew It has been an overnight sensation on the blogs lately. It is the first book in a Young Adult trilogy about what could perhaps be the end of the world. Seems like heavy stuff, and it is. But after reading the reviews from Lisa (Books on the Brain), Carrie (Books and Movies), Amy (My Friend Amy) and Nymeth (Things Mean Alot), YA connoisseurs all, could there be no doubt that I was missing out if I did not read it? Yet another impulsive library request...

In fact, my daughter got her hands on it before I did. She was visibly shaken by the book but at the same time couldn't put it down. I happened to be finishing up "Brooklyn" at the time, and she asked me at least once a day whether I'd started this book yet. She was anxious to talk about it.

And for good reasons. This was an incredible, unforgettable book. The setting is in the current day, and our narrator is a 16-year-old girl named Miranda, who is keeping a diary. Her parents are divorced but amiable. Her father has remarried and is expecting a new baby. Her older brother Matt goes to college, and her younger brother Jon is in middle school, and lives with Miranda, their mother and the family cat. Typical family these days.

Nobody thinks twice when the news reports that an asteroid is going to collide with the moon. In fact, it is sort of a media event, like an eclipse. But upon impact, everyone understands, with a sickening fear, that the situation has been underestimated. The moon is pushed closer to the earth, disrupting the gravitational balance. Tsunamis are the first catastrophic result, wiping out everyone living anywhere near the coast (Florida and California are always getting the short end of the stick!). Then there are the earthquakes, volcanoes in unlikely locations, the heavy ash, the deadly communicable diseases...

Because of Miranda's mother's survival instincts, quick reflexes and desire to protect her family, they secure plenty of food, water, gasoline and warm clothing. But how long will the supplies last? When will things be back to normal, or will they ever be normal again? Miranda documents their daily struggles, which include food rationing, communicating with long-distance loved ones, gun-wielding bandits, death, and finding one's own personal space in an ever-shrinking world. Despite conflict, the family works out their problems and stays strong for each other. They begin to take pleasure in the smallest of at a nearby pond, a game of chess, an old forgotten box of baseball cards. In what is an incredibly dark story, there are shards of hope:

"I never knew I could love as deeply as I do. I never knew I could be so willing to sacrifice things for other people. I never knew how wonderful a taste of pineapple juice could be, or the warmth of a woodstove, or the sound of Horton (the cat) purring, or the feel of clean clothes against freshly scrubbed skin. It wouldn't be New Year's without a resolution. I've resolved to take a moment every day for the rest of my life to appreciate what I have."

Miranda is a delightful protagonist. She is like any other teenage girl in how she longs for a boyfriend, needs her personal space, and is defiant of her mother (they have a few fights that are doozies). But she digs deep and finds strength within herself that she never knew she had. She loves her family and would make any sacrifice to help them. You can help but love her.

The overall premise is terrifying. It does not appear there is so much science behind Pfeffer's books as there is intuitive consequences (based on her blog here) but it is believable enough to keep you up at night. With the rains, the unusual cold temperatures, and earthquakes, you'd think it was starting now!

As I speak, I have "The Dead and the Gone", the second book of the trilogy, is on order from the library. It is my understanding that the book centers on another teen in New York City during the same time period. My daughter and I wait anxiously!

My daughter's rating: 5 out of 5 stars

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - Old Man Winter

This week's Monday Movie Meme, hosted by the Bumbles, is all about...winter? No romantic theme? Just when you think you've got Molly and Andy figured out, they pull the rug out from under you. *sigh* And I had my romantic movies all figured out!

However, I did hear on the news yesterday that 49 states had snow. It has been one heck of a winter, worse for some than others. I know down here in Florida, even, we have broken all the records and are officially having the coldest winter in recorded history. So I guess this theme makes sense...sorta.

The Bumbles have listed some great winterish movies, all of them rather bleak. I'm going to ride this one out, and see if I can find a happy, wintery movie...

1. Fargo - I know the Bumbles listed this one, but I actually wrote it down before I saw their list. One of the best Cohen brother movies of all time. Maybe even just plain best movies of all time. Worthy of a viewing at least annually. Amazing how the phrases "this is my deal", "go bears!" or "ya, you betcha" just never get old.

2. Stalingrad - Not yer date movie, that is for sure. But it is a fantastic depiction of the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII, from the viewpoint of German troops. I get the shivers just thinking about it.

3. Dr. Zhivago - Love during the Russian Bolshevik Revolution baby! I adore this epic, not only for the plot, the actors and the backdrop of the severe Russian climate, but the haunting soundtrack composed by Maurice Jarre.

4. Reds - I know, enough of the Russian stuff, already! Russia is cold, what can I say? I think I read somewhere that this was the last movie made with an official intermission. Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson? The passion of the Bolshevik Revolution? This is good stuff, you just need a few nights to get through the darned thing. At least for old farts like us.

5. The Shining - yes, another one that was listed by Molly and Andy, but either way, this is as good as it gets with King cinema and horror. I love this movie, and it would be in bad taste if it didn't end up here on my list.

And for people who prefer not to sink into a fit of depression after watching their movies:

6. While You Were Sleeping - ah yes, Chicago in the winter. Nothing colder than that. This movie warms me black heart though, with cute little Sandra Bullock and dude-ish Bill Pullman.

7. Christmas Vacation - well, you knew it was coming. And why not? You expect it of me, after all.

8. March of the Penguins - I suppose it could be a buzz kill when some of the eggs roll out from under the male penguins floppy bellies and die, but overall these little guys are pretty cute and would fall in the "feel good" category.

So there ya go. Not much love here, I'm sorry. I was ready to blast you with some When Harry Met Sally, or Somewhere in Time, but it is not to be. Not this week!

Sunday Salon: Shuttering with excitement

Good morning and Happy Valentines Day, my friends! I'm waking up slightly fuzzy after an evening of frivolity with my husband and friends, some great champagne, great wine and great food. (Hmmm...a similar recipe in 1999 resulted in my second child! But I am too old for that nonsense now!)

Well, we are week 2 into the bathroom renovation, and are still on pace to be finished at the end of next week. Roman tub, double shower...yeah baby! My only continuing complaint is that I don't have my personal space, and it is squelching my workout routine and my MOJO! It has been so freaking cold this week that most of my workouts have been forced onto the elliptical machine. However, I refuse to work out in front of the worker boys, so I am obligated to early morning and evening. Grrrrr...

I've also been working on outdoor projects, particularly mulching the back yard with the help of my dad (56 bags of mulch in the back of my dad's Suburban!). And cleaning up dust. And preparing for outside staining. As a result, my reading habits are not up to expectations. I've been reading the 236 page romance written by my mom's high school friend ALL WEEK, and I'm still not finished. This is really pathetic. Despite the hovering cloud of love and romance and euphoria from Valentine's Day, I'm not in a romantic mood. Maybe I have a black heart, and I am sorry. I hope to knock this one out within the next few days, pray tell. However, on the audio front, I've been productive. I finished Sarah's Key, my book club read for next week. I enjoyed the book, but it had some faults. It is a WWII novel, which does win a sympathy vote, but I can't overlook a plot that loses its lustre halfway through. Then I completed Shutter Island on audio, and holy crap. It brought me to my knees yesterday, while on the elliptical. I had to disembark and sit for a spell, thinking it through. If I would have had access to a Valium, I would've taken it. That is all I'm going to say for now. But I must see the movie on the silver screen, even if I have to see it by myself. Lehane is a master. I just ordered Mystic River on audio, thank you very much. If that is his best work, which is what some of you have said, then I'd better strap myself in for the ride.

My friend Mary from Scholastic did make my day by telling me that the University of Central Florida is sponsoring a BookFest in April, will have over 40 authors attending, and has free admission! I suppose this is my consolation prize for not being able to attend BEA in May. Heather (Zibilee) from Raging Bibliomania and I are planning on having some fun with this. Orlando is not the literary epicenter by a long shot, so this is real progress!

Today my son plays in his final football game for the championship. They are undefeated, so I am hoping for the best. Praise the Lord, this is the end of football season, which for us, started mid-August!!! I am also planning on cooking a luscious feast for my family for V-Day, black heart and all. The kids had this past Friday off from school (which involved alot of rain and The Lightning Thief at the movies) as well as Monday (Universal perhaps?). American Idol is in Hollywood with Ellen, Survivor has started, and Amazing Race begins tonight. Life is good.

Next week I look forward to my book club's discussion of Sarah's Key, and as usual, am excited for next month's choice. It is really a crap-shoot, because 75% of the members don't show up, so you never really know who is doing the picking, and whether they will be prepared to do the picking. What are the odds they pick something on my TBR list? Also, on Friday, my husband and I are taking our children to Universal studios for the weekend for their birthdays, staying on property at the Hard Rock Hotel. What this means is a fast pass onto nearly every ride in both parks. Our brains will be scrambled from two days of roller coasters, but it will be fun. I may be late on next Sunday's Sunday Salon!

Have a great Sunday!

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire - Stieg Larsson (audio)

It has been a few days since I finished this glorious book on audio, and I'm dragging my feet to write a review. Why? I have lots to say about it. I went on small tangents talking about it over the last couple of weeks in various posts and e-mails. I guess I am afraid I won't do it justice. I don't have those kinds of skillz, I don't think.

I loved this book's predecessor, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo". As soon as I finished it, I rushed to the library's website and ordered this audio, and was on the wait list for about three months. When I finally received it, I loaded it on iTunes as fast as a body can, and off I went, giddy and excited as a girl on her wedding day.

We are reunited with our endearing yet horn-dogish Mikael Blomkvist, who is enjoying the fruits of his successes earned in the first book. However, he is dispirited to find that Lisbeth Salander wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, an investigative journalist has approached Mikael and Millennium Publishing with idea for an expose on sex trafficking that will once again put Millennium in the spotlight.

We also catch up with Lisbeth and find her wandering aimlessly around the globe, and trying to decide what to do with her life. Despite being independently wealthy, she feels lost and alone.

Then Lisbeth's past, when "all the evil" happened, catches up with her. Lisbeth and Mikael's worlds converge again, and a tangled web of murder, political corruption and decades-old grievances surface and are unleashed.

I have said this before, and I will say it again. Lisbeth Salander is one of the most enigmatic, sympathetic and charismatic characters developed in modern literature. You can't put your finger on her...she is a social outcast, a brilliant computer hacker and mathematician, violent when cornered, and moralistic to a fault. I'm pretty sure if I met her, I wouldn't like her. But on the page (or in my ear, as it were) I want to revere her and protect her at the same time. We get to spend alot more time learning about Lisbeth in this book, with not one dull moment. We begin to understand what made her into the girl she is today, every bit of it horrifying.

As with the first book, Larsson takes his time setting up the story. He slowly reveals the desolation of Lisbeth's new life, the ways in which she is currently protecting herself from those who want to exploit her or hurt her, the state of Millennium's business, the sex trafficking trade, and even Mikael's sex life. Then the cogs begin to turn, and a multi-dimensional mystery unfurls itself. The characters, even the most insignificant, are interesting and drawn with depth. I was invested in the story right up to my armpits. Invested to the point, when Larsson pulls a fast one on us near the end of the book, I nearly had a coronary. (Seriously, I was in the middle of a walk when I got to this point, and I had to sit down.) In the land of dime-a-dozen crime thrillers, this one stands out like a beacon of light.

Now let me just wax lovingly for a minute about Simon Vance, the narrator. Yes, he is my ear candy (BTW, he also narrated The Little Stranger as well), the embodiment of listening pleasure. His voice, his accents, the lilt in his words just makes me purr. I could walk to California and back if I had him in my ear. If you have a chance to listen to his work, you shouldn't pass it up. He brings his stories to life.

So now, here I sit, waiting for the release of the third and final book in the series, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest". It is released in the US in May, and most likely it will take me another three months to wait my way through the hold list at the library for the audio. I trust that every agonizing day of waiting will be worth it.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A little chit-chat with Laurie Perry, author of "Home is Where the Wine Is"

This past Tuesday, I reviewed Laurie Perry's second novel "Home is Where the Wine Is", including a giveaway. Today, I am so happy to share with you a little chit-chat with this warm, down-to-earth author with a killer sense of humor. So without further ado, here she is!

Sandy: I often find that when I drink a glass or two of wine while writing reviews, I am much more creative. Do you partake in a glass while you write? How do you get the creative juices flowing?

Laurie: When I'm writing at night I'll have a glass of wine, but usually I write in the mornings and so I just have a cup of tea or coffee with cream. I like to get up really early and sit at the keyboard and write whatever comes to mind. Mornings always seem full of bright ideas while in the evenings I tend to be more maudlin and emotional. Plot is definitely a morning thing. Emotion and description is a night event.

Sandy: I’ll admit, my wine tastes have probably been influenced by two
major events. One was a week-long trip to Napa with my husband (average price per bottle went up about $7 after that). The second was the movie Sideways, which really got me honed in on the Pinot Noirs and made me Merlot-adverse. Where and how did you acquire your love for the grape?

Laurie: Oh no, you're anti-Merlot! I think cabernet is my favorite, but I love a good Merlot from time to time. I've never studied grapes and varietals or anything, but my parents taught me to appreciate wine and have a healthy attitude about drinking in general. They have a very European approach about food and drinking and there was always wine at the dinner table or champagne on happy occasions. I'm not a wine snob and I'm pretty adventurous and will try anything but I definitely prefer dry wine over anything sweet. I do love sparkling wines, though, even a cheap cava. Sparkling wine makes any dinner feel festive.

Sandy: Red or white? Any specific grape or brand that you prefer?

Laurie: White. Pinot grigio. I am very pedestrian. I also like champagne, and cava.

Sandy: I’m intrigued with the number of knitters that are also bloggers
and book lovers. I am not one of those people, but I do enjoy hearing about the hobby, and think maybe once the kids head off to college I might try. You are an avid knitter, and were kind enough to even provide a few projects at the end of “Home is Where the Wine Is”. What is the wackiest thing you’ve ever knitted?

Laurie: The weirdest thing I ever knitted was a big knitted cat tunnel. It started out as a cardboard cement-pouring tube and I knitted a cover for it and added huge pom-pom feet. I was obviously over-indulging in the wine when I came up with that idea.

Sandy: I noticed on your blog that you have a set of priorities for
2010. (I love that you are so focused, and you actually see these priorities through to completion!) You have stated that you want to become healthier. This was one of my goals as well this year, and I’m finding it to be incredibly difficult, especially the whole cutting-down-on-wine thing. (Especially in the middle of a bathroom renovation.) Any words of wisdom or helpful hints?

Laurie: Pretend you're French! French people love their wine and chocolate and food and would never dream of cutting anything our entirely. Or you could always go online and find some of those pro-wine studies that show how heart-healthy a good glass of wine is. I prefer my science to dovetail with my own tastes and luckily with the Internet one is able to find a medical study somewhere saying whatever you want to eat is good for you.

Except cheeseburgers -- my favorite food. When you find the scientific study proving the medicinal benefits of the cheeseburger, will you let me know?

Sandy: Haha! Well, if I do find a way to make cheeseburgers an important part of my daily diet, I will be a rich woman! And you will be the first to know! Laurie, thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us today!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesday - Lake Eola #2

Fountain at Lake Eola, Orlando
For more Wordless Wednesday photos, click here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Home is Where the Wine Is - Laurie Perry

As some of you know, I have a good friend who owns a wine store. It's a most excellent wine store, that also carries exotic beer and imported cheeses. He even has a small library of wine-related movies that he loans out to his customers. Somewhere along the line, I had this bright idea that I would get my hands on some wine-related books that he could loan out as well, and started it off with a Christmas gift of Peter Mayle's new book "A Vintage Caper". So when I was offered an opportunity to read "Home is Where the Wine Is" for the TLC Blog Tour, I jumped! Maybe it would be a good candidate for my friend's current one-book wine library.

Turns out, this book really doesn't have much to do with wine, except that the author/main character of the books likes to drink it, especially during stressful moments. Instead, I think this would be the perfect book for my single, friend from high school Kim (through whom I live vicariously). I think she could relate well to the author's trials and tribulations.

This is the diary/memoir of a thirty-something writer, divorced with cats, lover of wine and beer, avid knitter, who is searching for her place in life. She has decided that enough time has passed since her divorce, and it is time to get her act together. She makes a list of New Year's resolutions, eight to be exact, then, with a chapter dedicated to each one, tells us how she fared. She takes a trip to Rome by herself, and grows some monster-sized zucchinis in her backyard. Success! She also crashed and burned at meditation, therapy, riding an elliptical machine, bikini waxing and online dating.

When you first meet Laurie, you automatically know her. She is your hapless but earnest best friend, who tells a great story, makes you laugh, and has a heart of gold. She is cards-on-the-table honest about her foibles, and truly wants to fix them. The journey to fix the foibles is what will make you laugh out loud. You will also appreciate her pearls of wisdom, whether it be about merits of people-watching at the gym or about not always having to please everyone else at the expense of yourself.

Laurie's first book "Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair" was released in 2007, not long after her divorce. Based on an interview of Laurie on YouTube, she wrote this tell-all memoir to comfort other divorced women, and let them know that if they found themselves drunk-dialing friends, wearing the same clothes two days in a row, or running out of a grocery store to avoid talking to someone they knew, they weren't alone.

Laurie also has a blog (where she calls herself Crazy Aunt Purl) which is full of her bubbly, self-deprecating wit.

You don't have to be single or a wine-lover to enjoy this book, but it will hit closer to home if you are. You also don't have to be a knitter to enjoy this book, but Laurie includes a little bonus at the end of the book with some projects. For a fun, quick diversion from the serious stuff, pour yourself a glass of red and give this book a try.

Now here is the exciting part...Laurie's publisher has generously offered five copies of her book for giveaways (US/Canada only). Simply let me know you are interested, with your e-mail address, by Monday 2/15 at midnight, and I will choose five winners.

Stay tuned for a little chit-chat with Laurie this coming Thursday!

3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Monday Movie Meme - Bugged Out

OK, so here is the test of my dedication to Monday Movie Meme. I have been to a Super Bowl party. It is almost 10:30 at night. I have kids going to school tomorrow, and construction boys showing up early but here I am talking about freaking BUGS, my worst nightmare. Inspired by the Bumbles, and the half time show where The Who performed, at one point in their lives, Boris the Spider, I have to talk about bugs in the movies. I live in the land of flying, rope-em-and-ride-em cock roaches. You would think I have had enough torment. So in my semi-inebriated state, here are the movies that cause me nightmares:

King Kong - there are some SERIOUS bugs in this movie (the latest one with Jack Black and company). Ones that look like they will eat you in one bite, ones that look like male private parts...I just closed my eyes in this portion of the movie, which lasted about 45 agonizing minutes.

The Fly - Jeff Goldblum was the THE DUDE when he starred in this movie, where he turned into an insect. Giant hairs on his back, pus-filled stuff on his was enough to wean me off his indie mojo. I wasn't really interested in what he had to sell in this flick.

Joe's Apartment - yes, it is campy and funny, ha ha. Try living in Florida for a year or two, and realize that this hell is your life.

Wall-E - I guess when you boil it all down, cockroaches are going to survive us all, per the Disney-ified movie about the almost end of the Earth. It is really sad to think, after all my struggles, they will win in the end.

Silence of the Lambs - ahhhh, now you know I love this movie. How would you expect me to forget about the Death's Head Moth, which was shoved down the throats of girl victims' throats?

I am sure there are plenty of nasty bug movies, but I haven't the energy to go on. Yes there is a nasty spider creature in LOTR, as well as Harry Potter. I call dibs on those. Any others? Please enlighten...