Friday, April 29, 2011

If You're the Praying Type...

I think pretty much everyone knows that North Alabama was devastated by tornadoes Wednesday, April 27, 2011.  This sort of super storms, very much like those in the midwest, does not normally hit us here in the South.  My home town (Phil Campbell) was basically decimated (there wasn't much of it to begin with!).  So many have lost loved ones, homes, EVERYTHING!!  Thankfully, all of our family is safe, and so far only my brother's house was severely damaged.  Some of the extended family and many friends were not so lucky.  An F4 tornado traveled within a mile of my home, but the only damage we have is a tree limb down next door.  We are so, so, so blessed, and I am so, so, so thankful!!!  

If you are the praying type, I would really appreciate that you keep everyone in the affected areas in your thoughts and prayers during this time.  If you are able, please support organizations that are offering aid to the victims.  I encourage you to support Samaritan's Purse and The Salvation Army.  If you are closer to the area, I encourage you to make donations of water, nonperishable food items, and basic essentials such as toothbrushes and even baby wipes.  

I have never in my life witnessed such destruction first hand, and I truly hope this is the last time I have to!!  I have never loved my little old dirty house so much in my life :-)!  And, I just want to squeeze my bratty kids to pieces.

Thank you all!  I expect to start getting back in the swing of things within the next several days now that our internet is up and running again and things are slowly coming back together in our area.

"Love will hold us together

Make us a shelter to weather the storm

And I'll be my brother's keeper

So the whole world will know we're not alone..."

("Hold Us Together"--Matt Maher)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Free ebook: "27 Simple Mexican Recipes"

If you know me well, you know I LOVE me some Mexican food!!  My family typically eats out at our local favorite Mexican restaurant at least once a week.  (Mmmm...  My tummy is rumbling just thinking about it...)  Our servers there are like an extended family!  Ha!

I couldn't pass up the opportunity to share this free eCookbook (pdf):  27 Simple Mexican Recipes

I'm looking forward to trying some of the recipes out for myself!!

So, if you have a hankering for some chips and salsa or fried ice cream, without the bill of course, head over HERE to snag this little treat!


Directed by Gore Verbinski 

My Rating:  ★★★★☆

Rated PG for crude humor, language, action, and smoking.

Okay, I am aware this movie has been in theaters for almost two months, but when you’re a mom of three you just have to get to things when you can J! 

In Rango (March 2011), Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski teams up once again with the ever-engaging Johnny Depp to create another theatrical masterpiece.  Paying tribute to classic favorites such as Don Quixote and Chinatown with a bit of Blazing Saddles tossed in, this film has a little something for everyone to love.  The stunning animation (finally something that is NOT in 3-D!) is courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic and is their first full-length animation venture. 

A pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) who fancies himself as quite the thespian is accidentally tossed from his owner’s car in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  After narrowly escaping becoming a hawk’s afternoon snack, he meets a desert iguana, Beans (Isla Fischer), who takes him to the Old West town of Dirt where the water reserves are running dangerously and suspiciously low.  The once make-believe hero suddenly finds the opportunity to reinvent himself as a true hero by becoming Rango, a tough wanderer and the newest sheriff of Dirt.  Along the way he faces foes such as the gang of moles and Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy). 

Rango is not just a charming, entertaining animated flick.  It carries the viewer along Rango’s existential journey to self-discovery and enlightenment.  There is also a strong overtone of the timeless issue of Socialism—the fine line between individual and society.  As usual, the desired balance is corrupted largely by the pursuit of personal wealth and power.  Romance also plays a part in the story, although it is kept refreshingly subtle throughout. 

This film is certainly a clever, satirical, and beautifully animated venture designed for adults and children alike.  I truly believe this is simply a movie-lover’s film, regardless of age.  The quirky dialogue holds the majority of the humor, and honestly that part is better suited for a more mature (and knowledgeable) audience.  Still, my almost-six-year-old was completely engrossed, and when I wasn’t wrangling the two-year-old, I was too!  The only reason I could not give it five stars was because some of the humor and language was not exactly suitable for young children.

I definitely recommend getting out and catching Rango while it is still in theaters, or at the very least, be sure to purchase or rent it when it is available on Blu-ray and DVD (date unknown).

Free ebook: Powering the Future: A Scientist's Guide to Energy Independence [Kindle Edition]

Go HERE to grab this freebie while it lasts!!

The future of civilization depends upon the continuous availability of sufficient energy. But we’re approaching the practical limits of some of the energy sources we depend upon most. What should be done? Few issues are as controversial. In Powering the Future, a leading scientist cuts through the controversy, presenting the facts about our energy needs, desires, and supplies and the environmental and human effects of obtaining and using energy.

Dr. Daniel B. Botkin objectively assesses the true prospects, limitations, costs, risks, dangers, and tradeoffs associated with every leading and emerging source of energy, including oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, solar, ocean power, and biofuels. Next, Botkin addresses the energy distribution system, outlining how it currently works, identifying its inefficiencies, and reviewing options for improving it.

Finally, Botkin turns to solutions, offering a realistic, scientifically and economically viable path to a sustainable, energy-independent future: one that can improve the quality of life for Americans and for people around the world.

The Future of Fossil Fuels
What can we realistically expect from oil, gas, and coal?

Will Alternative Energy Sources Really Matter?
Running the numbers on solar, wind, biofuels, and other renewables

Must We All Wear Sweaters and Live in Caves?
The right role for efficiency—and why energy minimalism isn’t the solution

Where We Can Start—and What Will Happen if We Don’t
No magic bullet, but there are sensible, realistic solutions

Free ebook: Thicker than Blood by CJ Darlington

Thicker than Blood
By:  CJ Darlington

Go HERE to snag this free read while it lasts!!!

From Publishers Weekly:

Darlington, a debut author and winner of the 2008 Christian Writers Guild Operation First Novel contest, enters the evangelical Christian publishing arena with a story that deals in antique bookselling and unresolved interpersonal relationships. Orphaned sisters Christy and May Williams have chosen very different paths after the sudden death of their parents 15 years earlier. Christy retreats into alcohol and abusive relationships, while younger sister May tries her hand at running a ranch. When the death of a close relative brings the two estranged sisters together, internal pain resurfaces that cannot be ignored by either one. Slowly, amid violence and false accusations, Christy moves toward May, emotionally and spiritually, as both young women discover the possibility of second chances. Darlington's setting in the fascinating world of antiquarian bookselling is clever; unfortunately much of the story is too formulaic to provide what could have been a compelling reading excursion. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From Booklist:
Two sisters are on totally different paths. Christy left home at an early age, and now works at a bookstore specializing in rare and first editions. She has fallen for a man who shares her bibliopassion. However, Christy soon finds out that the love of her life is cheating her boss—and friend—out of valuable volumes. And then he blackmails her into helping him. Sister May, on the other hand, stays on the ranch, following the religious tenets of her beloved aunt Edna. Life is bleak for Christy as an unwilling accomplice. But things aren’t going well for May either. Aunt Edna has died, and May can’t afford to keep the ranch. Fans of faith-based novels will enjoy Darlington’s modern twist on the parable of the Prodigal Son. --Shelley Mosley

FREE ebooks!!!

Occasionally, I find some really great books for free on Amazon or other sites.  A lot of couponing and freebie pages on Facebook regularly share about these finds.  I decided that I would start passing along these great deals to my followers so you all can add any titles you are interested in to your personal library!!  My to-read list has grown considerably since I started downloading free titles, and I have come across some really great reads in the process as well!

The markdowns are not always permanent, so be sure to check them out quickly before the price is bumped up again!!

Happy Reading!!!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants
By:  Sara Gruen
ISBN:  9781565125605
Available Format:  Hardcover, Paperback, ebook, Audiobook

My Rating: ★★★★★


Let me begin by saying that I added this to my "to-read" list because I like to read books before I watch the movie versions, and I have definitely been anticipating the release of this movie. I do wish that I had heard of it before the film. I feel like the picture of the characters in the film interfered with my imagination. I really like to picture the characters in my own way, especially when they don't match the description in the book.

Aside from that, I was concerned beginning this book. It got a lot of mixed reviews--it seemed most people either loved it or hated it, and I did not want to be one who wasted their time digging through it (because I am just not one to quit in the middle!). Thankfully, I was not disappointed. 

Gruen did a wonderful job transitioning between Jacob's present and past. The descriptions were vivid and believable. I fell in love with old Jacob. His life in the nursing home brought a lot of depressing thoughts and memories to mind, but I appreciated the dimension Gruen added by including his daily life there. I also fell in love with Jacob from the past. My heart broke when he was taken from that Cornell classroom, and I fidgeted anxiously when he jumped that train. I hated August right along with him. I was horrified when Walter and Camel were red lighted over the trestle. And I was so relieved to find out the outcome of his and Marlena's relationship. 

Had I written the story, would I have been kind enough to send them off happily ever after? Probably. But it would have been even more interesting if they had ended up with different people...or succumbed to some other tragedy. It was, however, a story book ending. The little twist at the end with Jacob and the small circus was wonderful. 

Definitely worth my time...

After the Leaves Fall

After the Leaves Fall
By Nicole Baart
ISBN:  978-1414316222
Available Format:  Paperback, ebook, Audiobook

My Rating:  ★★★★★


Another great read by a Christian author. I was captivated in the first chapter when she writes:

"He was buried on a rainy day in October, and I remember the sound of the raindrops on the lid of the sleek black casket and how it seemed like music to me. The pastor was doing his best to make sorrowful and occasion that seemed anything but--the leaves on the trees above us were burnt amber, the consoling sky around us was velvety gray, and the rain was singing softly. I didn't feel sad. I felt expectant."

"I'm dying too, I thought when I heard the keen that could only be coming from my own mouth. What but death could possibly feel like this?"

"But I wasn't even close to dying. Fresh air was new life that filled my veins. Grief was so quickly and yet so incompletely replaced by something that felt like relief that I careened from guilt to repose and never became fully settled with anything I felt."

"Thank you, God, for taking him. I would breathe the half prayer over and over, and for those minutes in the newly quiet house, I would feel something close to peace. Then the very next morning the lack of his presence across the table would choke me until my tongue was thick and threatening in my mouth, and I promised God my soul if only I could have one more day with Dad."

"I began to exist in a tension between wanting and not wanting--waiting for something I couldn't even pin down in my most naked and honest moments. Waiting for a balance where I neither ached nor forgot, regretted nor accepted. Waiting for my heart to be light again yet fearing the implications of that same lightness. I suppose I waited for peace--an end to my own personal warfare."

I was so profoundly reminded of everything that I went through when I lost my own father. Although my experience wasn't quite the same, so many of the emotions she felt were--and Baart did such a lovely job of conveying those emotions through her words.

It was a rather sad story. I felt that Julia just could not catch a break, but I think we all feel that way sometimes. We don't quite know the full outcome when the book comes to a close, but we are left with a new hope...a promise that her future is finally going to be okay. She has found the answer she was searching for. What is her constant? And she has also found a new, although frightening, purpose. Motherhood.

I think this would be a wonderful read for teenage and college age girls. There are several lessons to be learned in this story.

The fact that she ends up with an unplanned pregnancy (and her boyfriend pressures her to abort) also relates closely to my work with the young ladies I counsel at Choose Life--a little extra bonus of some good recreational reading!

Baart weaves this beautiful story seamlessly and with such poetic grace. I was absolutely not disappointed.

Fate (My Blood Approves 2)

Fate (My Blood Approves 2)
By:  Amanda Hocking
ISBN:  978-1453816868
Available Format:  Paperback and ebook

My rating:  ★★★

In Fate, the second book of Amanda Hocking’s My Blood Approves series, Alice Bonham is finally settling into a balance between the supernatural and natural of her life.  She manages to keep her brother, Milo, involved in her life while building a stronger relationship with her new vampire friends.  Jack, her maybe-boyfriend, is definitely struggling with his feelings for Alice.  Peter has disappeared, and Alice doesn’t have a clue what is going on between them.  She’s not really sure whether she wants to be with him at all.  Overshadowing everything else, tragedy suddenly strikes, and Alice is faced with a decision that will change every single life around her forever—certainly her own.

This book is much more Hocking’s story than the first of the series.  I also found myself far more interested in the plot this time.  The conflict between Jack and Peter is steadily rising since Peter almost killed Alice at the end of My Blood Approves, and Jack is realizing just how strongly he feels for her.  Peter, however, is conveniently missing, so that gives Alice and Jack plenty of room to explore their evolving feelings for each other.  The reader is able to have a better understanding of the attraction between the two while the threat of her blood bond with Peter is not completely consuming their attention.  It is there, lurking in the background, but less important as the story progresses.

Although Peter is absent for most of this book, I cannot help but be drawn to him rather than Jack.  I think it might be a complex I have—I always seem to prefer the guy that the girl just isn’t going to choose!  Perhaps in this case, it is just that Jack seems so juvenile and superficial at times, while Peter is darker, deeper, and more mature.  Still, I think I will never understand how these vampires who are hundreds of years old and have seen things in their lifetimes that most others cannot imagine can even be remotely interested in a silly teenage girl.  Maybe that is just a guy thing?!?

We find Alice much more alienated in this book as well.  Certain events seem to take not only all the attention off of her, but also pretty much everyone in her life is utterly separated from her.  I feel like the emotional content in this read is stronger than the first book.  I was also pleased that Milo became a more important character in Fate, since I think he is probably my most favorite character in the series. 

The only complaint I really had about this book is the editing.   The grammar and mechanical mistakes were a huge distraction at times.  I am more forgiving of Hocking, however, because I knew she is self-published.  She is a wonderful writer, and I know from reading some of her other work that she continues to improve after this series.  This was another great escape for me and definitely kept me interested in the series.  I recommend it for anyone who has a true love for YA paranormal romance!

My Blood Approves

My Blood Approves
By:  Amanda Hocking
ISBN-13: 978-1453816721
Available in ebook format and paperback

My Rating:  ★★★☆☆

In the first of Amanda Hocking’s My Blood Approves series, we are introduced to seventeen-year-old Alice Bonham.  When things take a turn for the worse while out with a friend, she is rescued by a mysterious young man named Jack.  Suddenly, her life turns into a crazy roller coaster ride.  As things seem to spin far beyond her control, she recognizes a strange connection is growing with Jack.  Things get even more complicated when she meets his brother, Peter.  It is as if her body itself is both drawn to and repelled by his presence.  But it appears that Peter cannot even stand the sight of her.  To make matters worse, Peter and Jack are both vampires, and Alice is caught in a truly bloody love triangle.

It is pretty obvious in the beginning (even from the title) what the story is going to be about, so there was no shock when it is revealed that Jack and his family are vampires.  The addition of the gorgeous, but mysterious, brother, Peter, was a nice twist.  Hocking did a great job building the tension between Alice and Peter and the brothers, Jack and Peter.  She even managed to leave some questions unanswered at the end, giving the reader time to anticipate what might arise in the rest of the series. 

I enjoyed the diversity of the characters.  The fact that Alice’s mother is basically absent bothered me somewhat, but otherwise how would these teenagers have been able to stay out at all hours of the night every night?   Milo, Alice’s brother, is probably one of Hocking’s best characters in this story.  He has such charm about him, although he is not as important a character in this book as he is in the following books of the series.  He is something that I felt kept Alice grounded when things could have really been hard to follow.  He was also the perfect way for Hocking to interject a bit of wit that had nothing to do with vampires or supernatural events.

This was one of those “I-guess-I’ll-try-it-out” reads for me.  I had not heard much about these books, but I had read Hocking’s Trylle series, which I really enjoyed.  The first chapter immediately reminded me of another extremely popular young adult vampire series, so I was a bit put off.  Pretty soon, although there are countless similarities, it was apparent that for all intents and purposes Hocking was creating her own story.  I am certain that these books are endlessly compared to Twilight; actually I know they are because I have read lots of reviews about it!

Aside from the writing being a little rough at times and the story being a bit less fresh and unique, I still was unable to put the book down and finished it in two short reading sessions.  I have already recommended this and Hocking’s other books to friends who share my reading interests, and overall I truly wasn’t disappointed with this book or the series.  This was unquestionably a great escape from my tiresome mommy life—who doesn’t want to be a carefree seventeen-year-old loved desperately by two gorgeous guys at least for a little while?!?! 

The Conspirator

The Conspirator

My Rating:  ★★★☆☆

The recently released historical drama, The Conspirator, deals with the events immediately following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State.  The woman, Mary Suratt (Robin Wright), is a southerner and the owner of a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his colleagues meet and plan these attacks.   A 27-year-old Union war hero and unproven lawyer, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), reluctantly agrees to take up Suratt’s case and defend her against the highly prejudiced and revenge-hungry United States government.  Aiken is almost as certain of Suratt’s guilt as the rest of the nation until he starts to uncover evidence that suggests otherwise.  The only apparent incrimination against Suratt is that her son, John, was actually a part of Booth’s group.  Despite Aiken spirited defense and courageous attempts to literally save her life, Surratt is found guilty and the first woman to be executed by the United States government. 

Right off the bat, I felt that there were some slight casting issues with this film.  I truly am an Alexis Bledel fan, but she did not belong in this picture at all.  Her acting was painfully stiff, and there was absolutely no chemistry between her and James McAvoy.  I was relieved that her scenes were few and her final exit came long before the end.  It could be that I am just used to seeing Justin Long in less serious films, but I think his role might have been cast with someone else as well.  There was much less to complain about with his performance, but it still just didn’t feel quite right.  Robin Wright and James McAvoy were amazing, however, and that was the movie’s redemption!

The pace of the film was also quite slow.  I have the greatest admiration and respect for all things history.  This story was wonderfully researched and stunningly filmed, but I quickly realized it was not something I wanted to endure at 11:30PM!  It is a perfect piece to take in while in the comfort of your own home—where you are free to take a couple quick, refreshing breaks (or naps)!!  All the action is packed into the beginning while the rest is basically dusty courtroom drama. 

From an entertainment standpoint, The Conspirator left me wanting that little something extra.  It would unquestionably make for a wonderful history lesson in the classroom and an enlightening lazy afternoon at home.  I just wish I hadn’t dropped $20 and our coveted date night on it, but it is something I would consider adding to my personal movie collection.  

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)
By:  George RR Martin
ISBN:  9780553588484
Available formats:  Hardcover, Paperback, ebook, and Audiobook

My rating:  ★★★★★

In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

A Game of Thrones is a mature epic fantasy that carries a strong European historical undercurrent.  Martin focuses each chapter on a particular character from the third person point of view, so the reader is easily carried from one region of the land to another, giving the story a rich diversity and dimension.  The central character of this book is Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, and the majority of the plot involves his life and his family.  When Ned’s close friend, King Robert Baratheon, visits his home and asks him to come south with him to take the post of the Hand, the king’s most trusted and powerful advisor, the Stark family soon realizes that their lives will never be the same again.  Their family motto—“Winter is Coming”—takes a deeper meaning for each of them.  Before they even depart, they are warned that the previous Hand was murdered, possibly at the hand of the queen and her brother, and their young son, Bran, suffers a strange tragic accident leaving him crippled and comatose.  Stark has no other choice; however, than to accept the post and travel south with only his two daughters.   

Stark’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow, travels north to the great ice wall.  North of the wall lies the Haunted Forest where Wildlings and Others roam and peculiar things are beginning to happen.  It is unclear if it is something inhuman, dark, and demonic or the work of worldly sorcery.  The ever thinning guard of the wall is losing rangers left and right with no explanation, and soon the danger enters their own camps.  Jon is torn between his duties as a sworn brother of the Night’s Watch and the plights of his family to the south. 

To complicate matters further, the son and daughter of the previous king, usurped by Baratheon, are exiled across the sea.  Viserys agrees to sell his sister, Daenerys, to the leader of the Dothraki horse warriors in exchange for his aid in reclaiming the Iron Throne.  As a wedding gift, Dany receives three dragon eggs that are believed to be petrified—but are they???  Dragons are believed to have been extinct for hundreds of years, but Dany cannot help but feel a strange connection to the eggs which are always warm to her touch.  Dany manages to find love with her new husband, and they conceive a son that is prophesied to be the greatest ruler of the world.  Perhaps it is Daenerys, the blood of the dragon, which is actually the focus of that prophesy.

In my opinion, A Game of Thrones is in a league with greats such as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.  Martin brings a whole new world to life as he weaves the mystical so subtly into the realistic.  I was completely drawn into the story just as much as I have ever been drawn into any of my favorite fantasy or historical fiction novels.  I found myself anxious with the fear of the events in the Haunted Forest, warm with the love that grew so quickly between Daenerys and her Kahl Drogo, and heartbroken with the sad losses disappointments the Stark family faced along the way.  Thanks to Martin’s immense descriptive story-telling abilities, I became truly personally invested in each and every character in this read.  The most notable aspect of the story, I believe, is that there never really is an obvious protagonist or antagonist.  It makes the story so much more relatable, because real life is rarely ever clear cut good vs. evil. 

I am certain not everyone will be able to appreciate this book.  It is long (over 800 pages), and the pace can sometimes be a bit slow.  Anyone who can commit themselves, however, should not be disappointed.  I began by listening to the audiobook, and the narrator did a perfect job of bringing the characters and the story to life.  It became apparent to me, though, that I am far too impatient for audiobooks, especially those that are over thirty-three hours!  I am really looking forward to reading the remainder of the series, and I have high expectations for where Martin will take me from here.  I think I might have found another favorite author!!

I first became interested in the Song of Ice and Fire series when I saw a preview for the television adaptation, Game of Thrones, which will debut on HBO this weekend, April 17, 2011.  I am truly excited to see how they will translate this tale onto the screen, and I hope it does not disappoint.  Some of my favorite actors and actresses are portraying the characters, and I am sure that it will soon be high on the list of my preferred television shows and movies.