Thursday, July 28, 2016

Walkie Talkies: Freedom for him, peace of mind for me

Walkie Talkie - my new favorite hand held electronic device!

When Christopher and I read the last chapter of Henry Huggins the other night, the gang of neighborhood kids all playing together reminded me of Christopher and his friends. Sometimes I come home and when I pull into the cul de sac, it’s full of kids riding bikes or roller skating/scootering, and it warms my heart. I love that Christopher has a gaggle of kids in the neighborhood to play with.

He has 3 friends in the neighborhood, besides the girls next door, that we allow him to go visit alone. For 2 of these friends, he can run through the neighbors’ yards to get to, so it’s a little bit safer. But for the third, he has to ride his bike across the street at the end of the court, down the street, and around the corner. We made his ride around with us for about a month before we felt comfortable letting him ride on his own. And we always make him take his walkie talkie with him.

This isn't our neighborhood, but I couldn't find a picture of 
Christopher riding near our house. We don't have sidewalks in our neighborhood.

Seriously, that thing is so wonderful! We stole the idea from the parents of that 3rd friend. He’s two years older, and he’s been coming over to our house for the last two years (since he was also 6) with his bike and his walkie talkie. He (and now Christopher) checks in when he arrives somewhere or reports that the friend isn’t come and comes back home – or asks to go visit someone else. It’s also great for us because we can check in or call him home. It’s only failed one time when we forgot to charge it up, and I was calling Christopher home for swim lessons, and the battery had died. Then I had to drive over and pick him up instead.

That black blob on the front of his bike is a strap-on water bottle holder 
with a cup in it. It's our make shift walkie talkie carrier.

The best part? I get some peace and quiet at home while he’s off playing with his friends. I just keep the walkie talkie close at hand, and I can read without interrupt and without wondering where he’s gone.

Reading with the walkie talkie close by.

How far do you let your kids go without you? How do you call them home?

On the blog last year...

We have another reader in the house!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: Before the Fall

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Goodreads Summary:
On a foggy summer night, eleven people—ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter—depart Martha's Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs—the painter—and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul's family. 

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members—including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot—the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage. 

Amid pulse-quickening suspense, the fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this stunning novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.

My Review:
This book is everywhere right now, and while I didn't love it, I can understand why it's so popular. It's about a plane crash - it's very sensationalized, just like as if it were on the actual news. The main plot is interwoven with the backstory on every character involved in the crash. That's exactly what the media would (and does) do for a real life tragedies. It's a little ironic considering that Hawley seems to be making a point in the book about the modern media.

I enjoyed the main plot of the investigation and aftermath of the crash of a private plane carrying only 8 passengers and 3 crew members. But I didn't enjoy all the backstory. It was just too much irrelevant detail. I wanted more action and plot. I should have known by the description that this would be a character driven novel.

Despite all of the backstory (is there a synonym for that word?), the only characters I really cared for were Scott, JJ, and Eleanor. Everyone else died at the start of the book, and even knowing more about their lives leading up to the crash didn't help me develop any sympathy for them. The story would make an excellent movie I think, but it didn't work as well as I was hoping it would as a book.

My Rating: 3 Stars

This book is a She Reads Book Club – Books of Summer selection. Read reviews from other members of their blogger network on their website.

On the blog last year...

Book Review: The Boys in the Boat

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Recent recipes inspired by my new job

I started a new job on July 6th. The magazine publication company that I now work for publishes Taste of Home out of our Milwaukee office. This means that during my first couple of weeks on the job, flipping through magazines and searching the website and internal recipe database were part of my job training. As such, I was inspired to cook some new recipes!

For July, I wanted to use up all of the meat in our freezer. We have a Costco membership, so we buy meat in bulk, but we ended up with a surplus. And rather than buy more meat, I decided we needed to use up the frozen chicken, ground turkey, ground beef, beef roasts, salmon filets, and beef stew meat that we already had.

We've gotten a little sick of our 10-15 go-to recipes, so it was time to try some new recipes! Who's with me? You've been there, right? Eating out just because you're sick of cooking the same old recipes. Wanting flavor and variety in your life? I can't be the only one. Enter Taste of Home! Seriously, this job was timed perfectly. I can use the recipe database to search by ingredient (you can do the same thing on the website). It was so great.

So here are the recipes I tried and some comments on how they were received. I already have more planned, so expect some more recipe posts from me in the future.

Night 1: Chicken Pot Pie

I found this chicken pot pie recipe in a compilation of Slow Cooker recipes. The biscuit-topping drew me in (go look at the site, seriously), but I was a little lazy and didn't want to make homemade biscuits. Instead I used Pillsbury Grand Biscuits. Both Jim and I loved this recipe. We used to make chicken pot pie a lot, but we hadn't had it since before we went all "Low Carb" (that's no longer happening).

The biscuits we a little under-cooked on the bottom, and at first I thought I should have used 4 and split them in half because I wanted more filling to biscuit, but it ended up being perfect. And Jim really loved the mussy bottoms of the biscuits. The left overs heated up well.

A couple of other changes that I made:
- I skipped the pimientos. I don't like them, and they seems unnecessary.
- And I used a 9x13 inch pan. Everything fit fine.
- Also, you don't need to cube the butter since you're melting it.

Night 2: Turkey Tacos

We make tacos a lot. It's the one meal where Christopher eats the same food we do. But I am trying to force him to branch out a little and try new things. Inspired by this chicken taco recipe, I decided to just make our traditional tacos (using Ortega taco seasoning) with ground turkey instead of ground beef.

Jim complained a little - who would have thought? But Christopher didn't even notice! He ate 2 tacos that night and never said a word. So I didn't either! The flavor was a little blander since turkey isn't as flavorful as beef, but he ate something different. Who cares if he didn't realize it? I certainly don't.

Night 3: Salmon, Zucchini, and Sweet Potatoes

I found this grilled salmon recipe on page 235 of the Taste of Home Ultimate Guide to Grilling cookbook, but since I don't grill (Jim does), I decided to adapt it for cooking in the oven. I made twice as much of what was supposed to be basted onto the salmon as it was grilling, and made it a marinade. I marinaded the salmon filets for 20 minutes, and then cooked them in the oven for 20 minutes.

The Taste of Home test kitchen team had done a live video feed for their Facebook page featuring zucchini recipes, and they had a bunch of extra zucchinis, so I ended up taking one home. It worked out perfectly because I had been wanting to try this zucchini fries recipe. Because I hadn't planned on cooking it, we didn't have all of the ingredients on hand. I had to substitute plain bread crumbs for the corn meal, and to make it easier for myself, I just used the whole egg.

I cooked the sweet potatoes in the microwave. Very unoriginal. I know, but they're so easy that way. Jim had his with butter, but I like mine plain. Christopher wouldn't try any of this, of course, so he had fish sticks and apple slices.

Jim took about 3 bites of the fish and then decided he didn't like it. The marinade wasn't flavorful enough, so it didn't mask the fishy taste (according to him). I agreed that it was kind of bland, but I didn't mind it. I also ate both Jim's piece and the third extra piece leftover with some of the zucchini and half a sweet potato each time.

The zucchini fries were not what I was expecting. They weren't dry enough or crisp enough. Perhaps I didn't cook them longer? Or perhaps I was just hoping they'd taste deep-fried, like french fries.

Night 4: Thai Beef in the Slow Cooker

For dinner last night, I tried making a modified version of this slow-cooker Thai-style beef stew to use up the two packs of stew beef we had in the freezer. I am kind of sick of beef stroganoff, and the last time I put cubed beef in my chili, it was a little too grizzly.

I made the sauce according to the directions except that I used regular soy sauce, I skipped the cilantro (because I don't like it), and I had to use garlic powder (1.5 tsp) instead of fresh because Jim had used it all last week when he made my Grandma Puleo's spaghetti sauce and meatballs and didn't tell me, so I didn't know to buy more at the store this past weekend. But, I digress.

Instead of sliced red pepper (because I hate peppers of all colors), I decided to add other veggies - inspired by this other slow-cooker beef recipe. I didn't use frozen vegetables though. I used about 1.5 cups of chopped carrots, 1.5 cups of chopped celery,1 cup of chopped onion, 1 small package of sliced mushrooms, and I used a can of sliced water chestnuts. My favorite stir-fry veggie.

I also followed the cooking instructions of the second recipe and cooked it all on low for 6.5 hours. I stirred the sauce into the beef and then just layered the veggies on top, so they wouldn't get over cooked. I had Jim just stir the veggies into the beef and sauce about an hour before I got home and turn off the slow cooker. I love that he works from home!

I served it over brown rice. It made 8 portions, which was just fine, because Jim and I both really enjoyed this recipe as well.

A couple of things I would change for next time:
- use fresh garlic
- use 1 cup of peanut butter
- use only 2 Tbsp of soy sauce (it was kind of salty)
- add 1/2 cup of water

What have you been cooking lately?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Gemini (YA)

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee

To be published on July 26, 2016.

Goodreads Summary:
In a powerful and daring debut novel, Sonya Mukherjee shares the story of sisters Clara and Hailey, conjoined twins who are learning what it means to be truly extraordinary.

Seventeen-year-old conjoined twins Clara and Hailey have lived in the same small town their entire lives—no one stares at them anymore. But there are cracks in their quiet existence, and they’re slowly becoming more apparent. Clara and Hailey are at a crossroads. Clara wants to stay close to home, avoid all attention, and study the night sky. Hailey wants to travel the world, learn from great artists, and dance with mysterious boys. As high school graduation approaches, each twin must untangle her dreams from her sister’s, and figure out what it means to be her own person.

Told in alternating perspectives, this unconventional coming-of-age tale shows how dreams can break your heart—but the love between sisters can mend it.

My Review:
Sonya Mukherjee's Gemini is a book about conjoined twins that portrays them as two teenage girls wrestling with their identities, the end of high school, and their future - just like every other high school senior. The issue of them being conjoined just exacerbates the struggle.

Hailey and Clara have different interests and different dreams. Hailey is an artist, and she longs to leave their small mountain town and go out and see the world (first stop: art school). Clara is more reserved. She's obsessed with astronomy, and she doesn't like to be stared at, so she'd like to stay in Bear Pass forever. Everyone in their small town has know them their whole lives, so the novelty has worn off. Their mother has done an excellent job preventing photos or videos of them leaking out to the public and educating everyone on their condition.

They have some great friends who see them as individuals, but the majority of people do not. It's like being a twin to the extreme because they cannot get away from each other. They have to wake up in the middle of the night to even have a private thought. I cannot even image, and I am an identical twin.

This book was very well written. I loved the alternating voices of the two girls. The issues are fairly typical for a contemporary YA book, but the conjoined twin angle was SO interesting. The parents are present and realistic even while being a little annoying at times. This was a great read.

My Rating: 4 Stars

On the blog last year...

I want to go on a real vacation

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Juvenile Pile: Reading our own books for a change

Christopher has read for 5 hours in July, which makes for a total of 11 hours so far this summer. And he's marked off 24 of 35 squares in his summer reading bingo. He's doing pretty well even if I haven't been the one listening to all of the reading. Jim and babysitters are also making sure he's reading (almost) every night.

Here are some of the books we've read recently:

Boo on the Loose is a strange adaptation of Monsters Inc. I almost wonder if it was written based off of an older version of the script. It starts off the same as the movie, but then instead of trying to leave Boo at work disguised as a monster child, they try to ditch her at the park. So weird.

We own this book, and it's a level 2 easy reader. It was a super easy read, but we read it on a night when Christopher was over tired and didn't have the patience for a harder book. It fulfilled the "Book about a Monster" square for bingo.

3 stars

We have one of the Dr. Seuss compilation books: My BIG Book of Beginner Books about ME. It has 6 Dr. Seuss or wannabe Dr. Seuss books in it. Jim and Christopher read the first three books together (The Foot Book, The Eye Book, and The Ear Book), but then Christopher read the last 3 to me over the course of 2 nights. He wanted to use this as the "Book with a Yellow Cover." The books are not the best sadly.

The Nose Book by Al Perkins isn't too bad. It talks about how everyone has a nose and showcases some animal noses - short, long, etc. Then it points out all the difficulties of not having a nose - with some kind of creepy pictures of a noseless dog. It's a little nonsensical, but not too strange.

3 stars

The Tooth Book by Dr. Seuss (writing as Theo. LeSieg) is so, so weird. And the drawings are quite terrifying to me. Christopher doesn't seem to mind them. It discuss the uses for teeth, but in very strange ways. Like opening bottle caps with your teeth! I do like the part about loosing teeth and growing grown up teeth, but otherwise, I'm not a fan of this book

2 stars

All of these books were super easy reads, but sometimes I think that's OK. You have to boost their confidence and let them whiz through a couple of books every once and a while, right?

The Knee Book by Graham Tether is similar and also a little out there. It discusses the uses if knees and what would happen without them, but it's really talking more about legs than knees. That kind of annoys me. It's not very scientific. At least the illustrations in this book are cute.

2 stars

Let's just say I was happy when we made it through that book and got to move on to the read aloud book. We've been reading Henry Huggins and James and the Giant Peach over the past week and a half. I'll include them in these posts once we've finished, so I can rate them. I've never read either.

I love Bears in the Night. It's a very easy read, but it has a fun way of building on itself, so that the string of phrases gets longer with each page. Sort of like the song "The Green Grass Grows All Around". It also helps young kids with understanding prepositions - over, under, around, etc.

It also has a bit of suspense. One of the bears sneaks out of the window and night and travels through the countryside until something frightens him and he has to retrace his steps back home. This book is a natural easy reader with a fun story, unlike some many of the easy reader/step type books made today.

4 stars

Hop on Pop is classic Dr. Seuss. It's got great rhyming for true beginner readers, and at least the first half of the book could be considered Level One. It doesn't really have a plot, but the pictures tie well with the words, so that's helpful for early readers as well.

This time we only made it through half of the book before Christopher was bored and wanted to move on to something else. I think he's getting a little old for the plotless word books, but that's OK too.

4 stars

We read some more challenging books in the last couple of weeks too, but I'm going to save them for next Sunday's post, so I can get ahead on my writing a little bit. It's been hard to find the time with my new job.

What have you been reading with your kids this book? Anything good? I'm always looking for recommendations! 

On the blog last year...

Friday 56: Week 235

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Kid Lit: Plants Can't Sit Still

I received this book for free from Lerner Publishing Group at BEA 2016. That fact in no influenced my opinion of the book or the content of this review.

Plants Can't Sit Still by Rebecca E. Hirsch

To be published on August 1, 2016.

Goodreads Summary:
Have you ever seen a plant move on its own? Plants might not walk, but they definitely don't sit still! Discover the many ways plants (and their seeds) move in this fascinating picture book.

My Thoughts:
I really enjoy children's books that help explain the natural world. This book is just that type! Rebecca E. Hirsch weaves together an almost lyrical story of all the ways that plants move. When I read the title of this book, it seemed like a mistake. Plants can't walk around like people and animals can, but this book proves that that does not mean they sit still. Plants wiggle as they grow, they turn to face the sun, they spread their seeds in many creative ways, and they can even snap closed to catch a fly.

This book discussed so many types of plants and thankfully includes a section at the back with additional information for parents and teachers. Several of the plant actions mentioned were things I was not familiar with - did you know that tumbleweed tumbles intentionally to spread seeds? I certainly did not. I really enjoy learning something myself when reading with my son (even if he doesn't always want me to read the facts out loud to him when we finish the story).

A wide range of ages would enjoy this book. Younger children (ages 2-4) will enjoy the simplistic story and the beautiful illustrations, older children (ages 4-6) will enjoy asking questions about the plants and perhaps attending to dispute the movements made by some plants, and even older kids or adults will learn something from the information at the end of the book. This is a great read.

My Rating: 4 stars

I'm linking up with Booking Mama today for Kid Konnection. Every Saturday Julie hosts this link up for all things relating to children's books.

On the blog last year...

Book Review: Sense & Sensibility (The Austen Project)

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: The Night We Said Yes (YA)

The Night We Said Yes (The Night We Said Yes #1) by Lauren Gibaldi

Goodreads Summary:
Before Matt, Ella had a plan. Get over a no-good ex-boyfriend. Graduate from high school without any more distractions. Move away from Orlando, Florida, where she’s lived her entire life. 

But Matt—the cute, shy, bespectacled bass player who just moved to town—was never part of that plan.

And neither was attending a party that was crashed by the cops just minutes after they arrived. Or spending an entire night saying “yes” to every crazy, fun thing they could think of.

Then Matt abruptly left town, and he broke not only Ella’s heart but those of their best friends, too. So when he shows up a year later with a plan of his own—to relive the night that brought them together—Ella isn’t sure whether Matt’s worth a second chance. Or if re-creating the past can help them create a different future. 

In alternating then and now chapters, debut author Lauren Gibaldi crafts a charming, romantic story of first loves, lifelong friendships, uncovered secrets, and, ultimately, finding out how to be brave.

My Review:
This book is just really cute. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It's written in NOW and THEN format. THEN is a year ago - the night that Matt and Ella met. It was a long and wild night of saying "yes" to everything. NOW, a year later, Matt is back in town after moving away abruptly 6 months ago and breaking ties with Ella and his best friend, Jake. Ella doesn't want to let Matt know how much he hurt her, but she isn't ready to let go either. Matt and Ella have another night of saying "yes".

The friendships in this story were so great - Ella, Meg, and Jake have been friends for a long time. When Matt joins Jake's band, they form an instant connect, as do Matt and Ella. I found myself routing for Matt and Ella in the past and in the present. This story was almost a double love story. The time periods were woven together so well with the two nights really following a parallel structure as Matt is trying to re-enact that first night with Ella.

There were a lot of great moments. The characters seemed real, and I connected with them all right away. And although Matt and Jake are in a band, this story isn't too music-y.

My Rating: 4 Stars

On the blog last year...

One great thing about having a boy

Book Review: Sweet Forgiveness