Monday, January 30, 2012

A new home

Reading 101 books in a year was a great challenge, and I will always keep this blog to reflect it.  But changes have come to my life, and it's time to move on.  I'll be keeping this blog set up in order to go back and read the reviews that I've posted.

My new blog has become more of a lifestyle blog than just strictly reading and knitting, and I'm hoping that the change reflects that.  And that those of you who read me will follow me over to WP and keep reading!

Honestly, Megan -- my new home.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: Madame Michelle Moran

Being "back" in graduate school has driven home one key reality for me: I will not be reading as many "fun" books as I did last year.  I'm glad that I shortened my reading goal to fifty new (to me) books in 2012, rather than the 100 I did in 2011.  There is no way I'd be able to complete an average of two books a week right now, especially when I'm doing so much reading for my classes.  Don't worry; I promise not to review a book I read for class unless it's really stellar.  That being said, here's (probably) my last "fun" read until further notice: Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran.

Madame Tussaud, the sculpture of an elderly woman who greets customers at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London, takes on the form of practical, ambitious Marie Grosholtz, a woman in her mid-twenties in pre-Revolutionary France, making a living off her uncanny ability to create exact wax portraits of people.  After an introduction to the royal family, Marie is invited to work as a tutor to the king's sister, Princesse Elisabeth, in Versailles, where she makes friends and finds herself sympathetic to the royals.  But when the Revolution breaks over France, Marie is forced to choose between loyalty and life, ambition and love.

I feel like I would have gotten through this book a lot faster if I hadn't had four days' worth of homework to do.  It is a relatively quick read, and I did enjoy it as a work of fiction.  I'm glad that Moran added the tagline "a novel of the French Revolution", because there are major historical inaccuracies present, especially around the relationship between Marie and her supposed beau, Henri Charles.  

My other bone to pick with this book is the "tell, not show" policy that Moran utilizes in this story, and that is, I've found, a major problem with writing historical fiction from the POV of a female character who was largely relegated to the outskirts of the political arena.  Most of the book is Marie's reaction to political events that she finds out about through newspapers, friends, or relatives -- she was not an eyewitness to most of it.  While I applaud Moran's decision to not take liberties with history, it doesn't make for particularly exciting literature.  One GR's critic said she wished that she had read more eyewitness descriptions, rather than breathless retellings from people who happened in on Marie in her workshop.  This was a problem I had with The Tudor Rose by Margaret Campbell Barnes.  Barnes set out to write the story of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII of England, and while she did a great job of "telling" the history of what happened, she was hampered by the simple fact that Elizabeth was little more than a spectator at most of the great events that happened in her lifetime.  That is the problem that Moran also runs into with Madame Tussaud.

Overall, I enjoyed it for what it is: a re-telling of the events of the French Revolution through the eyes of one of its spectators, but not one of its main contributors.

Rating: ****

Saturday, January 21, 2012

(Mildly) Productive Saturday (including firespinning pictures)

Today was one of those "barely" productive days. I did manage to tidy my yarn stash, do the dishes, straighten the den, etc.  I managed to do some homework before my sister arrived.  Apparently the roads weren't plowed well (she was en route from a friend's house to our parents'), and she's now staying here for the night.  I don't mind; David's working until midnight and having someone here is a nice change from the way I normally spend my evenings alone.

We spent the evening last night at Matt and Marcy's, at a spin jam.  In the winter, those are referred to as "freezer burns".  We didn't last long outside.  It was about 20 degrees out and you can't really spin in heavy gear or with gloves on, so most of us were pretty frozen.

I think this one looks very "Abbey Road."  It's Matt with his poi.

Jim breathing fire.

Dave doing isolations on his hands with fire staff.  This was a second attempt to catch this picture.  The first time, he dropped the staff.  Matt and Joe yelled out simultaneously "Do it again, only less shit!"  (Note: with the exception of "Are you going to Wildfire?" I've never heard anyone say the things in that video, or have those pretentious voices.  Spinners, at least the ones I know, are way cooler and nicer than those people.)

Joe, being awesome.  This was after I figured out how to photograph moving flames.  I'm an idiot.

No pictures of me this time.  David only took two, and neither of them came out clearly.  Oh well.  It was way too cold to be sitting outside for more than half an hour, so we ended up going in the house, drinking coffee, eating brownies, telling bad jokes, and chatting about weddings (Lyndsey and Joe got engaged on New Year's and they're planning their wedding for summer '13).

Anyway.  This is what I'm dealing with in trying to do my homework.

Sorry, Ollie.  That type of distraction is why I haven't graduated yet.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back to life

After our whirlwind vacation, David and I have been settling back into "real life", and everything seems to be starting up again this week.  So much is going on in the next couple of months, but when you live life with two people balancing between three jobs, graduate school, one car, and two active social lives, it gets a little crazy!

I re-start graduate school tonight.  I have two semesters and one major thesis left until I complete my Master of Arts degree in History, and that starts tonight.  I'm nervous as hell (I haven't been in school since 2008), and things are going to get very busy for a while.  My husband works between 61 and 64 hours a week between two jobs, I work 35 hours a week at my job and classes will take up another five hours a week (classroom time; I have no idea what homework/writing time will take up).  We won't be seeing much of each other Wednesdays and Thursdays from now until May, but I keep telling myself that it will be worth it in the end.

I am wondering what this is going to do for my reading and knitting productivity.  :(  I'm taking three books out of the library today, and I was hoping to get through them quick enough, but considering the amount of books I had to purchase for my two classes (it was something like 12  books), I have a feeling that I'm going to be doing a lot more "work-reading" than "pleasure-reading." :(

Speaking of books...I realized after Christmas that I desperately need a new bookshelf.  My current bookshelf is full to overflowing.  My very generous family gifted me many books for Christmas -- some fiction, some history, some knitting technique books -- and I have no room for them.

Right now, I have two bookshelves.  A big one for my fiction and nonfiction, and another little one for my knitting technique books.  I have a $50 gift card that I got for my birthday in September from my parents, and right now I'm thinking the best use for it would be a new, big bookshelf, devoted either entirely to my fiction or my non-fiction history (I'm thinking the latter).

I often joke with my family and friends that the reason I have so many hardcopies of books (even though I have a Kindle) is that I'm "building a library" of my history books -- and it's true!  I have a pretty good start to a vast collection.  Every college teacher I've ever been fortunate to have has had a vast library of their own in their office -- I aspire to this one day.  So far, my "history library" includes the following (and I might have missed one or two):

British History:
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir
Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley by Alison Weir
The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England by Alison Weir (title used in England, where I purchased it)
Henry VIII: The King and His Court by Alison Weir
The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir
Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Mistress by Alison Weir
Britain's Royal Families: A Complete Geneology by Alison Weir
Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser

Russian History:
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
King, Kaiser, Tsar by Catrine Clay

U.S. History:
The Devil In Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials by Marion L. Starkey
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

Do you consider your book collection "your library" or "your legacy"?  

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Cruise: Last days and wrap-up

We didn't do too much on our cruise the last two days we were there.  Thursday was the "fun day at sea", which to us translated into a late breakfast and lying on the "Serenity Deck" (re: adults-only deck with plush lounge chairs and two hot tubs) all day.  David and I spent about three hours just lounging about, him taking intermittent naps and me reading my Kindle (I got through re-reading the entire Hunger Games trilogy on this vacation).

On our way back to Miami, we skirted along the coast of Cuba.  I tried to take some pictures but we were just too far away, so Cuba looks like some sort of weird, pale blue cloud formation on the horizon.

We had our last meal in the formal dining room that night.  From this picture you can see we all got quite a bit of sun on this vacation.  Fortunately, nobody really got sunburned.  This time.

The last evening, after the final show and when everyone had gone to bed, David told me he wanted to have some time alone.  It was late -- around 10:30 or so -- and we went up to the very top deck and overlooked the bow (I told him that if he started any "Titanic" jokes I was tossing him overboard), and we stood out there looking out on the water.  We could see a cruise ship off in the distance -- just its lights -- and except for that, we were all alone out on the water.  The wind was really intense and it was so beautiful.

For my first cruise, it was something else.  I can understand how people get hooked on these.  The best part of it is being able to not worry about money.  Sure, you have your drinks billed to your account and you have to settle that in the end.  But David and I had a credit card with zero balance on it, and we had put a little money aside just for this trip, so we'll be paying that off ASAP.  And a whole week's worth of drinks for two people, plus the mandatory $48 gratuity (per person, so it was $96 for both of us) cost us under $200.  We're not huge drinkers; I imagine if you really like your booze it would be more expensive.

But the absolute best part of our cruise (IMO) was spending some time with my husband, just relaxing.  I loved getting to hang out with David all the time, with nothing to do and no worries (sandal escapade aside).  It was a great vacation, and I look forward to having another one with him.  He went back to work yesterday, and I start school again tomorrow *shiver*, and having a little time off to ourselves before that was...just perfect.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cruise: Day Three (Cozumel, Mexico)

The morning of our third day at sea, David woke me up at 6:30 AM (5:30 AM, Central Time) because he couldn't sleep.  It was just starting to get light outside, so we decided to get up on deck in our pjs and watch the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico.

It was beautiful, and one of my favorite memories of vacation.  I think Dave enjoyed it too.

We took the morning slow, since the boat didn't dock in Cozumel until 1 PM.  The morning was spent sunning, reading (I told you I did a lot of reading), etc.  It was very exciting when we started to see signs of land.

We docked in Cozumel and spent the first twenty minutes figuring out how to get to a beach.  I got called "senorita" several times...didn't bother to correct them and say I was a "senora"!

We ended up taking a 10-minute taxi ride to Mr. Sancho's Beach and Bar, where we were able to get on the beach for free so long as we bought a drink at the bar.  Fine with us.  We bought our drinks and spread out on the lawn chairs to relax.  And I got to swim in the Gulf.

We went back to the ship for dinner, then my MIL went to her stateroom to relax while Amy, Bryan, Christine, David and I went to try to get to Senor Frogs and back in two hours.

Well, that didn't happen.  Turns out that Senor Frog's was an HOUR walk away from where our cruise had docked, and we were too nervous about missing the boat to try to make it.  So we went to Fat Tuesdays, a Mexican dive bar, and had some drinks.

And some debauchery...

Bryan was way more comfortable in the dive bar than Dave was.

"Single Ladies" came over the loudspeakers, and Bryan showed off that he "liked it" so he "put a ring on it."

Amy had a brain freeze from drinking too fast.

Amy and Christine did their traditional "double fisting alcohol" shot (we have one of these from every wedding or fancy event of the past few years).

...And Bryan and Christine got up on the ledge to dance to "Cupid Shuffle."

It was a good night, but by the time we were all pretty inebriated it was time to say goodbye to Mexico and get back on the ship, to set sail for Miami again.

Ciao, Mexico.

Final entry: sailing back to Miami and wrap up of vacation.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cruise: Day Two (Key West, Florida)

The first night sleeping on the boat was relatively uneventful.  David and I had a king-sized bed (two twins pushed together), which was quite a bit more firm than our mattress at home, but bigger, so that was nice.  I barely felt the rocking of the ship, except if I tried to concentrate on it.  I did a LOT of reading on our vacation (but more about that later).  

When we woke up on Tuesday morning, we had already docked in Key West.  The ship was docked there from 7:30 AM - 2:30 PM, so we had decided in advance to get up early and explore the area.  We decided to skip having breakfast in the formal dining room and instead got it at the continental grill on the top deck of the ship.  Bryan and Christine had booked a parasailing excursion for themselves, so they split with us, and my MIL, David, Amy and I all went into Key West via the tram that went through the naval base.

The tram brought us to Duval Street, the famous "main drag" of Key West, and left us there to eat, go shopping, etc. until the last tram left at 1:30 PM.  My MIL wanted to get a sweatshirt, and David needed to buy a pair of sandals, so we went into a little boutique souvenir shop (the name of which eludes me, unfortunately, because I'd love to tell people to never go there again).
David picked up a pair of sandals and brought them to the main counter.  They were not clearly marked with the price.  He handed over his debit card.  The saleslady, without telling him the price of the sandals, tax, etc, swiped the card as credit and handed him a receipt to sign without a price on it.  I can't stress it enough, folks: always ask the price.  David got his receipt and discovered that he was now the owner of $118 sandals.

I told him to return them.  I didn't actually need to tell him that; my husband is nothing if not frugal.  When he turned around to ask for a refund, the saleslady immediately got up on her haunches and started yelling that there were "no refunds".  She also pointed to a sign taped to the front of the cash desk that said just that -- except that it was hidden behind a rotating kiosk covered in postcards.  When David and my MIL both demanded to speak to a manager, she informed them that the manager wouldn't be coming in until 11 (an hour from now, NBD), and that my MIL "shouldn't be so ignorant".  


Anyway.  Long story short -- we ended up getting a refund when the manager came in, no harm was really done, but seriously, ask the price before you buy.  I'm still shaking my head about it now.

We had an hour between then unfortunate sale and when the manager came in, so we went to Margaritaville to chill out and cool off.  It was only 10:30 AM and I needed a mojito.  Don't judge.

Margaritaville interior
Unfortunately, we didn't eat at Margaritaville, partially because we were meeting Bryan and Christine for an early lunch, and they weren't back yet, and partially because the menu (while extensive) was a bit pricey.  But I can say with first-hand experience that the drinks are top-notch -- and strong.

We waited for Christine and Bryan, and we did a little more walking and shopping.  Dave and Amy discovered that Key West (unlike Massachusetts and Connecticut) doesn't have an open bottle law.  You can buy single beers at kiosks and drink them while walking down the street.  They took full advantage of this little opportunity.

We went to Sloppy Joe's Bar for lunch, apparently a hangout of Ernest Hemingway during his lifetime.  The food was good -- I had a chicken quesadilla made with chedderjack cheese and black beans, David got a pulled pork sandwich.  And my BIL got his much-anticipated conch fritters.

And for dessert, we went to the Key West Key Lime Pie Co. on Duval Street.  I had Key Lime pie the night before on the ship so I had some Dreamsicle ice cream.  My MIL had been hoping to find frozen key lime pie on a stick.  She went one better and got it chocolate dipped.  Delicious.

After that, it was time to head back to the tram, so we went back to the ship, got into bathing suits and spent the rest of the afternoon sunning ourselves on deck and reading.  I finished The Summer Garden that afternoon (my review here).

Every Carnival cruise has an "elegant night" where the dining room has a semi-formal dinner and everyone dresses up.  Our "elegant night" was Tuesday evening, so we got all gussied up and went out to dinner on the ship.

(Left to right: Me, David, Christine, Bryan, MIL, Amy)
One interesting note: Carnival's formal dining room offered a "different" appetizer every night, something that you might not always find on every menu.  Bryan and Amy tried them almost every night.  On "elegant night", the appetizer was fried alligator fritters, which were apparently delicious (I was not brave enough to try them).

Unfortunately, David got a little seasick that night, so we went to bed early (right after dinner, pretty much).  I read until very late, and he slept all that night.  

Tomorrow: Mexico, and the most beautiful sunrise I've ever seen.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cruise: Day One (Miami)

I'm going to break this down into entries because otherwise I'll never get through anything.  I'm definitely not a travel blog like some of the greats out there, but I did get a lot of pictures and David and I had an amazing time on our first cruise.

We sailed on the Carnival Imagination, out of Miami, to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico, and then back to Miami after one whole day at sea.

This is what greeted us when we first got on board.

The Atrium.  And yes, I did think Harry Potter.  I also thought "Foxwoods Casino" because that's what this picture still calls to mind when I see it.  We went down four floors to "R" deck and got to our stateroom.

Not a bad sized room for two people.  The bed was king-sized, bigger than our bed at home.  Not as comfortable, but what do you expect, really?  Every stateroom has its own bathroom with tiny shower, which isn't good for doing hair or makeup, but there's a really big vanity table and mirror in each room for exactly that purpose.  There are also three closets and a safe in each room.

We sprung for a room with a view, which I was so thankful for.

After settling in for a bit, we explored the main deck:

...and had the first of many tropical drinks:
My FSIL, Christine, and my BIL, Bryan

My husband
My cousin-in-law Amy
We had a late lunch then lounged about the deck waiting to set sail.

Bryan, my MIL, and David

And then we were off!

Next entry: Key West!  And why you should always check for prices at hole-in-the-wall stores.

Review: The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons

We're home!  David and I went on a cruise this past week with my MIL (Donna), BIL (Bryan), FSIL (Christine), and cousin-in-law (Amy).  It was awesome!  I have tons of pictures but they will be for the next few entries.  Today I'm going to do a wrap-up of the trilogy that I was reading when last I posted, with book three of the trilogy and my second new book of the year -- The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons.

Note: This review contains spoilers of The Bronze Horseman and Tatiana and Alexander.  If you haven't read them, get yourself to a bookstore and skip this review.

World War II has finally ground to a close, and Tatiana and Alexander have been miraculously reunited with each other and sent "home" to the United States of America, to begin their lives together as Alexander and Tatiana Barrington, with their four-year-old son, Anthony.  Still only in their twenties, they have decades of life left.  Except that war has aged them prematurely, they have spent only one month together since their marriage five years ago, they hardly know each other, and both are still haunted by the terrors inflicted on them by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  When their original belief was that they had only a month of marriage to enjoy, what happens when they try to make a lifetime together, to live the American dream, having no idea how to relinquish the past?

Several people said that they were disappointed in this book -- that the passionate love story of Tatiana and Alexander was tainted with the cold hard facts that age, war, conflict, pain, can whittle away at true love until it is brittle and breaking.  I was not crushed.  While I was sad to find that their "true love" of TBH and T&A was changing, that was real.  It was unrealistic to expect Alexander to remain the same person after years shackled and beaten at one prison or the next, or to think that Tania would never carry any lasting pain and misery from losing her entire family during the seige of Leningrad.  To watch them struggle and learn to live with each other was maybe not as "romantic" as the previous two novels, but it was real.

I do wish the book had been about 20% shorter.  I didn't really care that much about their son, Anthony, nor about his military career or Vietnam or any of that.  I felt that once their children started growing up, the story sort of went all sorts of haywire.  But that's a personal preference.

I'd give TSG 3.5 stars, and the whole trilogy an overall rating of 4.

Rating: *** and 1/2

Friday, January 6, 2012

Review: Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

Having finished The Bronze Horseman as my last book of 2011, I eagerly jumped into the sequel, Tatiana and Alexander (formerly called The Bridge to Holy Cross).  I didn't really know what to expect, considering that the first book was so action-packed (and left on quite the cliffhanger).  I didn't think T&A (ha, I'm five) could top it.  Well, call me a liar, because I loved it even more, and it is my first finished book of 2012.

NOTE: There are spoilers from The Bronze Horseman in this review.

From Goodreads: Tatiana is eighteen years old and pregnant when she miraculously escapes war-torn Leningrad to the West, believing herself to be a widow. Her husband, Major Alexander Belov, a decorated hero of the Soviet Union, has been arrested by Stalin's infamous secret police and is awaiting imminent death as a traitor and a spy. Tatiana begins her new life in America. In wartime New York City she finds work, friends and a life beyond her dreams. However, her grief is inescapable and she keeps hearing Alexander calling out to her. Meanwhile, Alexander faces the greatest danger he's ever known. An American trapped in Russia since adolescence, he has been serving in the Red Army and posing as a Soviet citizen to protect himself. For him, Russia's war is not over, and both victory and defeat will mean certain death. As the Second World War moves into its spectacular close, Tatiana and Alexander are surrounded by the ghosts of their past and each other. They must struggle against destiny and despair as they find themselves in the fight of their lives.

This book had everything, everything I could have asked for.  Told from both Tatiana's and Alexander's points of view, each thinking of the other as they slowly struggle through separate lives -- Tatiana as a nurse on Ellis Island in NYC, and Alexander in one terrible prison after another -- this book is chock-full of emotion, pain, and redemption.  Most of Part I of the book is backstory about Alexander's life and how his idealistic Communist parents defected from the United States to the Soviet Union, only to have their dreams crash around them.  So much of Alexander's story is glossed over in TBH, and I was so satisfied with the complete explanation in T&A.  Tatiana's story, in America, is just as interesting, as she struggles to put together a life for Alexander's baby son, trying to get over the death of her husband while not totally believing that he really is gone.  

I admit that I cried near the end of this book, too.  The last fifty pages or so are extremely fast-paced, and I tore through them all this morning just to find out what happened to Tatiana and Alexander.  The ending was brilliant, I loved it.  And I can't believe that Simons has more in her for a third book.  

...Which I will hopefully be reading on vacation.  My darling husband, who never reads EVER, decided after seeing a preview that he HAD to read The Hunger Games (which I read and loved last year), and so he has stolen my Kindle.  He's pretty far into it right now (he started Mockingjay yesterday), but I think I'm going to have to snag my sister's paper copy so that I can have my Kindle back and download The Summer Garden before we go on vacation on Sunday.  

As to vacation, this is my LAST day of work until January 17th!  I could not be more psyched.  Although I got a massive guilt-trip last night, as I was sorting through things to bring in my carry-on.  Ollie decided that he wanted to jump in and come with us on vacation.

Nothing makes you feel guilty like an adorable fat kitty.

Rating (for the book AND the cat): *****