• books

    What I read: November 2013

    Hey long-suffering readers, I’m finally sitting down to write some fresh posts! I’ve been a bit AWOL lately between long hours at work and getting ready for Christmas, and then a pet emergency last week left me really out of whack. My older cat, Max, was feeling poorly last week and when he stopped eating on Wednesday, I took him in to the vet and made an appointment for the following morning to find out what was going on. (Any time he won’t eat it’s cause for alarm, since he’s an elderly insulin-dependent diabetic.)

    We thought it was a dental issue, as he had a broken off tooth, and that a bit of dental surgery would fix him right up. However the next morning (Thursday AM) he was so weak from the combo of not eating and his wacky diabetes (not helped by the whole not eating issue) that he could barely walk or meow, so when he got to the vet they did a series of blood tests and discovered that his kidneys were shutting down. He’s been in the kitty hospital since then with an IV and lots of medical attention, and the good news is that he’s making a speedy turnaround–when I saw him yesterday he was purring and gave me head boops, though he’s not moving around a lot. Hopefully tomorrow the vet will call and say that he can come home–I miss my baby boy!!

    Anyway, obviously being in Fur-Mom Crisis Mode makes it hard to think about blogging. But now that I’m not fretting I wanted to get some posts up for my November books, November empties, etc. I also have a couple of videos to film, a few reviews to post, more giveaway link-ups with Hello Frances that will continue throughout the month of December, and some holiday nail polish posts to throw together! So without further ado, here’s a look at the (many, many) books that I read last month, starting with my two all-star books of the month…

    The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (hardcover, 387 pages). Five out of five stars. Magical is the only word that describes this book, a fantasy about two young magicians trained since childhood to compete in a massive challenge to see who has the more powerful magic. Their competition is interrupted when they meet and fall in love. The storytelling sucks you in from the first page and the atmosphere Morgenstern has created in these pages is so lush you can almost see the candles on the Wishing Tree and smell the popcorn in the circus. This book reminded me a little bit of the movie The Prestige, probably mostly because of the dueling magicians, but also because it had that certain hard to explain quality of seeming perfectly possible, even though everything that happens seems like something from a fairy tale. It’s honestly hard to believe that this is a debut, and not a work by a more seasoned author. It’s hard to explain, so I won’t waste time trying; I’ll just tell you that you need to go read this book, stat. Recommended for purchase and future re-reading.

    Vegan With a Vengeance, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (paperback, 280 pages). Five out of five stars. Cookbook time! Everything here is easy to make and pretty affordable, and there are recipes for everything from brunch items to burgers and soups to yummy desserts. I went ahead and bought this when I found it on sale, and have a feeling it will become heavily stained and dog-eared, as do all excellent cookbooks.

    City of Bones (The Mortal Instruments #1) (hardcover, 485 pages) and City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments #2) (paperback, 453 pages), by Cassandra Clare. Two out of five stars. A lot of people, myself included, have issues with Clare for her clunky writing, alleged plagiarism, YA cliches, etc.; but I won’t rehash all that here, because everyone else has already done so at great length on Goodreads and elsewhere. I liked Clare’s The Infernal Devices but these books were tiresome; they were full of poor plot points, totally predictable, and peppered with so many unlikeable characters it was ridiculous. Also: what’s with all of the (very weird) love triangles? It’s almost like Clare isn’t sure how to write about a relationship, so she just throws everyone into overlapping love triangles, each with some weird twist in it, so none of the relationships ever reach a resolution. Overall: not the worst YA I’ve ever read, just not enough to make me finish the other four books in the series.

    Allegiant (Divergent #3), by Veronica Roth (hardcover, 526 pages). One out of five stars. I loved the first book in this series and was pretty “meh” about the second. I hated this one. For starters, the author makes a late-game switch to multiple POV that is not only kind of clunky, but also left me totally confused: since the narrative voices are identical, I found myself frequently rechecking the chapter headings to see whose POV I was supposed to be reading. I also got really annoyed with both Tris and Tobias; what happened to the strong, fearless characters from book one? Who are these whiny people in book three?

    Finally: the much-debated “twist” ending. It wasn’t so much that Roth chose to end the book in that fashion, I just think there were better ways to do it; as is, the last chapters are so clunky and events happen in such a way that there’s no emotional payoff, and it just feels like a poorly tacked-on gimmick. The way the last chapter wrapped up seemed to have so little to do with the original story arc of the trilogy that I wasn’t even sure how to feel about it. I don’t know, for a series I was so interested in at the start, this one turned out to be a real waste of time.

    Bridget Jones’s Diary (paperback, 271 pages) and The Edge of Reason (paperback, 338 pages), by Helen Fielding. Four out of five stars. These were light, funny, and perfectly escapist. I’m sure somewhere out there is a Very Good Feminist who would never be amused by books about a thirty-something singleton who journals her thigh circumference and failed relationships with men, but I don’t care; they were a hoot. Eventually I will get around to reading Mad About The Boy, as well.

    Bossypants, by Tina Fey (hardcover, 277 pages). Three out of five stars. This book was not as funny as I thought it would be, but that isn’t to say that it was unfunny; it just wasn’t burst-out-laughing funny. I felt like Tina spent a lot of time talking about topics like her Sarah Palin impersonation not because she had something genuinely hilarious to say, but rather because she felt (or the publisher felt) that readers would expect her to include a chapter on those skits or incidents. On the plus side, and strangely enough, Tina spends a lot of time talking about being a boss and working your way up in your chosen industry, and she actually has some pretty savvy advice to share. I will not, however, be telling my boss that I learned a lot about how to succeed in my new management role by reading a book penned by a former Saturday Night Live writer/cast member.

    The Thirteen Problems (paperback, 315 pages), The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (paperback, 224 pages), A Caribbean Mystery (paperback, 224 pages), They Do It With Mirrors (paperback, 224 pages), and Nemesis (paperback, 224 pages), by Agatha Christie. Ah, Miss Marple. I would give all of these three stars with the exception of They Do It With Mirrors, which gets an extra star just because I love the layered illusions and sleight-of-hand tricks involved.

    Coraline, by Neil Gaiman (paperback, 162 pages). Three out of five stars. This kicked off a spate of really, really weird books. I know this book is supposed to be for kids or teens, but my goodness, it’s creepy. I think the movie didn’t seem as bad because, you know, cartoon animation. Whereas the book, with the straightforward descriptions of things and simple black-and-white drawings, forces you to conjure up some unpleasantness with your imagination, and that’s much scarier. As an adult, I liked the story, but I could see more sensitive kids/pre-teens finding this book kind of unsettling.

    The Returned, by Jason Mott (hardcover, 352 pages). Three out of five stars. The premise of this book is simple: around the world, the dead begin to reappear, frozen in time as it were from the time of their death. Young children come back to parents who are now elderly and adults who had lost someone years earlier now find that person walking the earth once more. Mott spends less time dealing with how people have returned and more time exploring the impact of the return, which is fine; he has a gift for painting pictures with his words and the story moves along pretty quickly.

    Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (paperback, 288 pages). Three out of five stars. This book requires patience, because it’s told in the first person, through flashbacks, largely in a non-linear fashion, and often in a layered way that gets partway through a flashback within a flashback and then goes, oh, by the way, to explain this thing let’s flash back a ways…  It’s like Flashback-ception. So with that said: the rambling narrative works really well, with the story starting out so-so and slowly building to a sinister climax as you start to read between the lines and figure out what’s really going on with the youngsters at the supposedly idyllic English boarding school.

    The Coma, by Alex Garland (hardcover, 208 pages). Three out of five stars. To be honest, I only picked this up because of Garland’s screenwriting credits (including 28 Days Later), and I wanted to see what he could do in a novel. While this is well-paced and Garland does a great job capturing that uncertain feeling of being in a dream state, I felt like I missed something along the way. The book just sort of trails off and I’m not sure what, if anything I was supposed to conclude about the story. Still interesting, though.

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls, by Steve Hockensmith (paperback, 287 pages). Two out of five stars. A sort of prequel to the original Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this one was just not as good. It wasn’t nearly as funny or witty, the action scenes weren’t that great, and perhaps most importantly: there’s no Mr. Darcy! I repeat, people, no Mr. Darcy. Sad face.

    No Country For Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (paperback, 309 pages). Three out of five stars. I think I liked the movie better, but this was pretty good. McCarthy’s grammar and overall writing style is frustrating to follow at times, but the story is worth it, and it was hard to put this down until I’d finished it, even though I remembered enough of the movie to know how it ended.

    The Bat, by Jo Nesbo (paperback, 425 pages). Three out of five stars. The first Harry Hole detective mystery. I didn’t like this as much as Headhunters but I do think I’ll grab some more Harry Hole mysteries in the future. Nesbo is one of the Nordic/Scandinavian writers filling the void left by Stieg Larsson.

    Jar City (hardcover, 275 pages), Voices (hardcover, 320 pages), The Draining Lake (paperback, 320 pages), Arctic Chill (paperback, 344 pages), Hypothermia (hardcover, 314 pages), and Outrage (hardcover, 288 pages), by Arnaldur Indridason. Four out of five stars for all. My friend Katrin introduced me to this Icelandic series about Detective Erlendur, and I’m hopelessly hooked. They’re such speedy reads and not only are the mysteries really good, they contain a lot of unexpected humor and the characters are very well-written, so you actually develop a connection to them over the course of the series. That said, they’re also very enjoyable as stand-alone novels, and you don’t necessarily have to read them all in order to follow the story. Apparently there are more coming out soon, and they cannot be translated into English quickly enough for my taste.

    Emma and the Werewolves, by Adam Rann and Jane Austen (paperback, 346 pages). Not finished; one out of five stars. I picked this up and put it down about fifty pages in; it’s basically a poor copy of the original text of Emma, with hardly anything thrown in to explain the titular werewolves. I wanted bloody werewolf action and supernatural suspense; I got none of that. Scratching my head as to what the point is supposed to be. I think a lot of people saw how much success Seth Grahame-Smith had with his zombie spin on Pride and Prejudice, and now everyone is trying to “rewrite” the classics with vampires, zombies, werewolves, and other creatures. And the result is not always worth reading.

    Round Ireland With a Fridge, by Tony Hawks (paperback, 248 pages). Not finished; two out of five stars. This started out okay and had some real flashes of humor, such as when the British comedian describes a deceptively large-looking rucksack as an “inverse Tardis”. However, the book quickly starts to feel repetitive and the humor becomes forced, and all of the laying-about in pubs got kind of old. About halfway through I frankly got kind of bored and quit. I don’t think it’s that bad of a book, I’m just really spoiled by Bill Bryson’s razor-sharp wit and lyrical prose, and all other humor/travel hybrids must now rise to his standard to be acceptable to me. Unfair maybe, but there you have it. 

    It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy, by Laurie Notaro (paperback, 240 pages). Not finished; one out of five stars. This is the sort of collection of humorous essays that is mildly amusing at best, but not really hilarious. I suppose it would appeal to a certain group of people, but I found nothing “epic” here and to be honest some of the stories were kind of dull. I will go ahead and shrug and admit that I also found the chapter dissing the hippie and vegan populations of Notaro’s hometown to be really, really dumb and a little offensive. It’s the sort of chapter that just comes across as narrow-minded and makes me picture the author as Janice from Wanted. You can live a different lifestyle and not be snotty and condescending to other people who aren’t like you, yunno?

    Wow…that was a pretty long list this month! If you want to hook up with me on Goodreads and send me your book recommendations, you can do so here! I always love getting ideas for new books to read.

  • health,  product review,  vegetarian

    Product review: Immortal Energy

    I received one or more of the products mentioned below for free using Tomoson.com. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

    Happy Friday everyone! Today I have a review of an herbal energy supplement from Immortal Herbs. You might remember that I reviewed their Total Nutrition smoothie supplement mix this summer; they were kind enough to send me a sample of their Immortal Energy supplement and I thought the crazy week of Thanksgiving and Black Friday would be the perfect time to test it out!

    Immortal Energy ($39.95/90 capsules) is an all-natural vegetarian formula that uses Chinese herbs to give you sustained energy and a boost to your muscles and immune system, without the addition of caffeine or other fillers that can leave you crashing later in the day. The directions say to take 3-4 capsules as needed, so I opted to take three capsules with breakfast so I could kick my day off with an energy boost.

    The surprising thing about this product is that it doesn’t give you an energy rush like a traditional energy drink or shot (like Redbull, 5 Hour Energy, etc.). Instead it’s more of an overall boost to your alertness and stamina, helping you to get through your day without feeling so sluggish and drained, both mentally and physically.

    I really appreciated that this didn’t leave me jittery, nor did it make it hard for me to sleep later in the day. Some energy supplements really seem to “sit” in your system and can make it hard to relax and unwind at the end of the day, but I didn’t experience any of those negative side effects with Immortal Energy.

    I really like this product and feel like it would be great for anyone who works long hours, is in school, or otherwise has a demanding schedule and needs a boost without resorting to tons of sugar and caffeine. If you want to learn more about this product or to purchase it, you can visit the company website here. For Black Friday savings, enter the code “HOLIDAY” at checkout to get 25% off your order plus free shipping!

    I received one or more of the products mentioned above for free using Tomoson.com. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.
  • Beauty,  cruelty-free,  food,  product review,  skin care,  vegan,  vegetarian

    Unboxing/review: Conscious Box November 2013

    Today I’m unboxing the November 2013 Vegan Conscious Box. Conscious Box is a monthly subscription box that costs $19.95 (includes shipping); there are no preview or skip windows in this subscription. Subscribers choose from a classic, gluten-free or vegan subscription and receive a box each month filled with ten to fifteen samples of natural beauty products, food, health items, and lifestyle extras. If you want to learn more about the box you can visit their website. I also recommend checking out the company’s Facebook page, as they often post offers for free or discounted first boxes (which was what prompted me to finally order one for myself!).

    When you get your box, you can rate the products and share on social media to earn points; those points are then redeemable on the website toward full-size products, with the points working just like coins. A single review earns you ten points and in turn knocks ten cents off a purchase. Keep building up those points (they tally more quickly than you might think), and you can save on products like food, beauty essentials, household products and more. It’s a nice perk and I think the system of using points to knock down the purchase price is a better way to encourage reviews and feedback than a system where you have to have lots and lots of points to cover the full price of an item, since it will take a long time before you can redeem anything worthwhile.

    Okay, on to the contents of the box!

    First up we have two food items: a bag of YogaVive Chocolate Apple Chips ($4.49 per bag) and a three-pack sampler of Mighty Leaf teas ($7-$10 for a 15-bag box). The apple chips were just okay–nice and crispy, but it was hard to detect the chocolate flavor. These were a nice snack, but they aren’t something I’d run out to buy, especially for the price. I’m always happy to see tea samples as I do drink a lot of it, and while these are a little pricey for my usual drinking habits I would definitely consider buying them on sale.

    The Rebootizer packet ($15 and up for a three-packet box) is supposed to be used as part of an allover week-long detox system, drinking one packet per day, so it’s kind of hard to say how well it works based on one packet/one day of use. I will say that the flavor was strange–like bitter apple cider, but “off” somehow–and while the pouch design is ingenious, it’s not very easy to pop open and shake up per the directions. That said it’s literally a shot glass of a drink so if you needed to detox and wanted to do it in the smallest portion possible, I could see this being a good way to do it.

    The MRM Relax-All ($25 for 60 capsules) is a sample of a sleep aid. I’m not big on getting dietary supplements in subscription boxes because I just don’t use that many of them. I’m not big on unnecessary medication and in my long sad pursuit of something to give me a better night’s rest, I’ve found very little that helps. These didn’t necessarily do anything to help me sleep for a longer period of time, but I do feel like these helped me to relax and enjoy a more restful period of sleep, and I didn’t wake up feeling groggy or drugged like I have in the past when taking things like Tylenol PM.

    Two travel-size soap samples: one of African Black Soap from Coastal Scents ($12.95 per 15-oz. bar) and one of Lemongrass Summer bar soap from Harmony Acres ($6.95 per 5.5-oz. bar). I could smell the lemongrass, one of my favorite scents, before I opened the box!

    The natural perfume sample from Pour Le Monde is intriguing, especially since sales from this perfume benefit the charity Guiding Eyes For The Blind. A full size 1.7 ounce perfume costs $95, so this is a pretty high-end sample to include in the box. The Blood Orange & Juniper lip balm from Ivre de Fleurs is full size (retails for $7.50) and contains ingredients like mango butter to nourish dry chapped lips.

    The Sunology Natural Sunscreen sample is a nice idea, but…foil packets! Argh! You just can’t adequately judge a product from a tiny packet, in my not-so-humble opinion. I do like that it has a high SPF (50) and doesn’t contain ingredients that sting my eyes, but it’s just really hard to say how well I like it based on such a tiny application.

    The Better Botanicals Apricot Eye Therapy packet ($18.99 for 15 ml) is a lot better, since eye cream goes so far that a 1.5 ml packet will last a good while provided it’s kept in an airtight baggie. I’ve been using this under makeup and before bed all week and it really does help with tired, puffy eyes, making me look much more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed even on my worst days, so I will definitely consider purchasing this in the future.

    This box also included a few coupons, but I didn’t count them into the box’s value. Overall, my estimate of the box’s value is as follows:

    YogaVive apple chips (full size): $4.49
    Mighty Leaf tea (3 bags): $1.50
    Rebootizer: $5.00
    MRM Rest-All: $0.83
    African Black Soap: $0.79
    Lemongrass soap: $1.84
    Pour le Monde perfume: $6.00
    Blood Orange lip balm (full size): $7.50
    Sunology sunscreen: N/A
    Better Botanicals eye cream: $1.89

    Total value: $29.84

    Overall, I would say that I was pretty happy with this box. There was a decent mix of items, two full size items and two high-value cosmetics samples (the perfume and the eye cream). I wouldn’t say it was the best value overall but it did exceed the purchase price and I liked enough of the items to give it a thumbs-up.

    I’ve seen some really great boxes and some sort of blah boxes come out over the past year, but overall I think I like it enough to stick around and see what the December box will hold. If you’re subscribed to Conscious Box, or to any other vegan-friendly boxes, tell me about it–I’d love to hear your recommendations/rants/general thoughts about these boxes!