Friday, February 27, 2015

The Latest From One of My Favorite Authors (Book Review)

If you had the chance to change the past, and in so doing, alter your entire life, would you? 

Those of you that have read my other reviews on novels by Rainbow Rowell know that I truly enjoy her work.  She has a distinct writing style that makes the reader feel personally connected to the story and the characters.  So much so, it is as if you're sitting there physically and emotionally immersed in the scene and in the conversations.

Landline is Rowell's latest novel and proves once more how well Rowell develops characters and situations that are relatable and ones readers will be drawn to. However, this one has a twist to it that, even before I started reading it, I wasn't sure was going to work.  

It's 2013 and our protagonist, Georgie, a successful sitcom writer, is at a crossroads in her life when she must choose between her career and her family. Faced with an unexpected deadline on a chance that she's worked her entire life for, Georgie needs to cancel the family trip to Omaha for Christmas.  Her stay-at-home husband, Neal, however, packs up the kids and leaves for grandma's without her.  But did he also leave their marriage?

Georgie inadvertently discovers that through the use of an old rotary phone found in her childhood bedroom, she is able to telephone back in time to 1998 Neal. The conversations between 2013 Georgie and 1998 Neal will determine whether or not the two were really meant for each other and if it's too late for Georgie to save her marriage. 

"In fact, maybe that's what she was supposed to be doing here - saying everything she could never say to the real Neal." ~ Georgie

At first I was a bit put-off by the plot of Landline.  Is it a hallucination that Georgie is able to travel in time via a telephone? Is it magic? Is she having a nervous breakdown?  Honestly, we never really figure that out, so in a way, I felt the ending left me hanging.  But, probably because Rowell develops such wonderful characters, most of it just works!  But my frustration with Neal practically ruined the entire book for me.  I couldn't grasp the concept of him turning his back on his wife during the most critical point in her career.

Overall, I enjoyed Landline, but it was not my favorite Rowell novel.  The characters definitely draw you in, for the bulk of the novel anyway, but the ending was unbelievable and disappointing. Honestly, I grew tired of it.   At some point, Georgie's actions just become uncharacteristic of her true self (but, then again, maybe that was the point) and I was frustrated that she was willing to walk away from her career ambitions to chase after her husband who was acting like a spoiled brat.   

My other reviews for Rainbow Rowell include AttachmentsEleanor and Park, and Fangirl

Read more of my Book Reviews.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Universal Orlando Resort and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Family Travel Review and Tips)

Thinking of taking a family trip to Universal Orlando Resort? There are a few things you need to know before your arrival.

Welcome to Hollywood! 

First, Universal Orlando is comprised of four separate theme parks.  The main three are attached and people can walk from one to the other: Universal Studios Florida (the original and oldest), Universal CityWalk for shopping, dining, and entertainment (no admission fee, except parking), and Islands of Adventure (MY FAVORITE).  The fourth is the Wet n' Wild water park off the main site and will not be discussed here.


You can generally find discount tickets or Florida resident passes (proof of residency required) if you look hard enough. Know the restrictions and know what is included in each ticket! Package deals are usually the way to go!  Keep in mind those 10 and up will pay adult prices (currently $96 plus tax). However, that is the base price for one ticket to ONE park. 

You need to buy a "Park-to-Park" pass to enter both parks on the same ticket (see below for more information on these.) 

**If you are a member of AAA, you will find they have very competitive rates on tickets.**

Be sure to read the fine print carefully so you know the restrictions before you buy! For example, FL resident multi-day passes must be completely used within 60 days of the first use and all the deals right now for an "extra day free" (not free actually, but for a minimal extra cost) must be used within 14 days of first use.

A View of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle in Islands of Adventure

Doing both parks in one day is NOT advisable. 

If you truly want to experience the entire complex, I would suggest a minimum of two days in the parks - more if you want to take in the nightlife or specialty shows (like Blue Man Group) located at CityWalk.  IF you want to go to both parks your best option is to buy a 2-Day Park-to-Park ticket. To do BOTH parks in ONE day (again, not an easy feat especially during peak times) the base ticket is currently $136 plus tax. 

A one-park ticket will NOT get you on the Hogwarts Express which takes you from Kings Cross Station in London at Universal Studios to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. For die-hard Harry Potter fans, this is a must.  AND, keep in mind that the train ride is slightly different in each direction.  So ride it both ways if possible.

Knight Bus in Universal Studios Florida

Which brings me to the Express Pass option available for an additional charge. These passes allow you to skip the main queues for each attraction and take advantage of a shorter line. BUT BEWARE - even the Express Pass isn't valid on ALL the rides (ie: the main Harry Potter rides).  During peak times, however, this option can be very appealing. 

(Note: when boarding Hogwarts Express from Kings Cross Station, stop in the last row of the queue and look toward the signs straight ahead reading Platforms 9 and 10.  You will notice the illusion of people magically walking into the brick wall leading to Platform 9 3/4.  It's the little touches like this that make the entire experience so magical.)

TIP: Using the "Single-Rider" lane will save you tons of time.  However, your party will be split up so if you have a child who must sit next to you, this option will NOT be ideal. Parents with small children who cannot ride may take advantage of the "Parent-Swap" area where each parent will ride separately while the other waits with the child.

Main Attractions:

To be honest, if not for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this theme park would not be the draw it is.  AND THEY KNOW IT! So, with the success of Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure, came the new Diagon Alley in Universal Studios.  If you're having trouble finding Diagon Alley, just ask the Knight Bus driver - he'll direct you to the secret passageway.  Both are must-sees for Harry Potter fans. BUT, if you can only do one experience, I feel Hogsmeade located in Islands of Adventure is better. (That is, of course, if I absolutely HAD to choose.)

Gringotts Bank is home to the new AMAZING Harry Potter ride! 

This goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway.  The crowds and the lines in both of these sections can be staggering.  If you have the luxury of going during an off-peak time, do it. Otherwise, expect wait times of 60 minutes OR MORE for each main attraction. In general, the lines will be lighter the closer to closing time you get or during special events like parades and concerts.  However, the Despicable Me Minion ride was swamped all day with wait times nearly two hours.  We never did get to ride that one.

Click Here for more information on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Hulk
Each of the two main theme parks has an area for younger children, but in general, these parks are for families with older kids and adults.  Most of the rides are intense and filled with fantastic 3D or 4D special effects - think free-falling to your death! On The Simpson's ride I had to keep telling myself "this isn't real, this isn't real!"  If you don't handle motion sickness well, you won't enjoy these rides. Even most theater shows are filled with loud noises, intense strobe lighting, and special effects enough to scare young children.  I heard multiple children cry or say they were scared in the Shrek 4D attraction. For those of you that love a thrill, these parks are also home to some of the biggest roller coasters you'll see anywhere

Of course, part of the charm of these parks, particularly Universal Studios, is the Hollywood feel you have when walking around the "sets" of San Francisco, NYC, and Hollywood.  There are also several experiences that take you inside the movie magic! 

San Francisco Waterfront

Things to Consider:

I've visited these parks a couple of different ways.  My suggestion is, if at all possible, stay at one of the on-site hotels.  Depending on when you go, the benefits may far outweigh the price. For example, you can walk to and from the parks or take the transportation available not only avoiding the $17 per day parking fee but the insane traffic.  (This time, when staying off property, it took us a full hour to drive the approximate five miles from exiting the interstate to getting into the park. AND, when leaving, another 45 minutes or more to get from our parking spot to the hotel we were staying at THREE miles away.) 

The biggest benefit of staying at one of the Universal Orlando hotels is you have access to the parks one hour earlier. That may not sound like a big deal, but when you consider the lines at the main attractions, you will understand how crucial this can be. The first time we did this, we entered an hour earlier and went right to Hogsmeade and enjoyed shorter lines and less crowds.  In fact, we were able to experience most of the main rides and attractions before the park opened to the general public.  These hotels generally offer package deals including tickets that come with the Express Pass.  

Click here for current offers.

However, if you stay off property, I still suggest you find a hotel that offers complimentary transportation to the parks. This will still save you the aggravation of traffic and give you more time to enjoy yourself.

Overall, I would recommend these parks for families with older kids.  Shop around to make sure you are getting a decent deal on tickets. Unless you live locally, staying at one of the resorts on-site or with free transportation is most convenient.  Check the park's website for special events, such as the immensely popular Mardi Gras celebration, as they will definitely increase traffic and crowds.

Similar Post: 

Legoland Florida


Friday, February 20, 2015

A Delightful Children's Book (Book Review)

NOTE: I received this book free from the author requesting an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's rules and guidelines.

I know I don't typically review children's books, but I was at a local "Meet the Author" last night and this one caught my eye.  I strongly believe that fostering a love of reading in our youth is critical and what better way than through charming stories that teach valuable lessons.

Benny Buzzes...Please by Karen Smith is the story of one little caterpillar who learns that the simple act of being polite can go a long way with making friends. 

Hungry and grumpy Katie blames everyone but herself for not having any food to eat.  But would you share with someone who doesn't say please?  She decides to help herself to Sally's strawberry but is denied.  Benny the bumblebee quickly flies in to give some valuable advice. Why don't you simply try to say please?  Stubborn Katie continues on her quest for food in her rude manner and is once again shut down by Tommy and Arty, two other plants in the garden.  

Will Katie ever take Benny's advice and gain friends and food!? 

Filled with colorful,expressive illustrations, (courtesy of the very talented 14-year old, Hailey Ammons) Benny Buzzes is a delightful book suitable for all young children.

Tip for parents: As a former educator, one thing that caught my attention in this story is the rich, yet fun, vocabulary chosen by Smith. I hope parents will take advantage of this and have fun discussing the definitions of these words with their children in ways that make learning and reading enjoyable and interactive! For example,

"So without opening his eyes, he began to shimmy in the wind." ~ from Benny Buzzes

Ask your children: What do you think Tommy looked like when he shimmied? Have your child act out the word shimmy.  

Overall, Benny Buzzes is a fun read for children two years old to second grade. Your children will enjoy the illustrations as they take in the lesson to be polite. This is the first book in a series by Karen Smith.  Benny Buzzes is available in paperback on Amazon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Close-Call for Epic Mom Failure

This past Monday night kicked off the start of the new soccer season.  My son was thrilled to have been drafted by the same coach he had last fall. You may recall I had a rough start with him last season with the whole orange slices vs. bananas debacle designating me a Soccer Mom Failure.  So much that in his introduction email to parents this time around he came right out and said "orange slices only!" Okay, dude, let it go!

All fruit debates aside, I actually have an amazing amount of respect for him and all (well, most) youth sports coaches. He does a great job of motivating and encouraging the kids sans veins popping out of his forehead. Plus, it helped when last season he sent me an email saying how thrilled he was to have my son on his team and praising him for being a role-model and leader to the other teammates.  He even went so far as to say he wished he had eleven of him on the team.  Fine, after comments like that, the banana halves are water under the bridge.

I'll admit, though, there was definitely an adjustment period on my part where I had to learn to be a team sport mom after five years as a karate mom, a very individual activity. My goal was and still is to be the kind of soccer mom that doesn't stress over rushed dinners, the kids finishing homework in the car on the way to the fields, and one who does not complain about long, hot afternoons in the Florida sun.   

I ended up having an amazing season watching my son be part of what is sure to be the best recreational youth soccer team ever assembled - and one that will never be duplicated.  It's not that they were the most skilled, they just all clicked with each other. An absolutely fabulous group of boys.

Monday night, armed with a new folding spectator chair, I headed off to get my first glimpse of our new team. The obstacle was I had to get last season's "dream team" out of my head. The chances of having such an EPIC team again who suffers only one regular season loss is unimaginable. With such a victorious season, it was easy for me to keep my composure. 

The playoffs were a different story and definitely tested my sportsmanship conduct.  I passed the test.....but barely!

Down 3-0 to the last seeded team, I turned to my dad seated next to me and said, "I think I have to leave."  Like seriously, I was nearly in tears, heart-broken over the score, the team's performance, and my son's crushed spirits. That's right, folks - I ALMOST  got up and left my son's soccer match. Okay, I didn't - I managed to stay glued to my seat realizing how absolutely wrong it would be to leave.

For someone who was an extremely patient teacher, you get me in a sports situation and the competitive nature in me takes over.  And while it is cute to watch five and six-year-olds completely ruin the sport of soccer, 12-year-olds with equally poor skills aren't quite as cute. Before you send me hate mail, let me clarify by saying that I never publicly criticized players, coaches, or referees. (Does in my head count?) Only once did I forget where I was and yelled "OH, COME ON!" to which even my 83-year old father laughed and pretended not to know me.  

As we get ready to head off to our second practice, I remind myself of a few personal "rules" for this season. First, to err is human. Second, acceptance of the first rule will help me stay off blood pressure medication. And, third, who cares how messy they are, just bring the orange slices. 


Similar article: Soccer Mom Failure

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Another Pick From One of My Favorite Authors (Book Review)

After falling in love with Rainbow Rowell's writing style and characters in both Fangirl and Eleanor and Park, I was thrilled to go back and read her debut novel, Attachments. Perhaps because Rowell writes about times and themes I remember, I always develop a personal connection with her stories. 

 Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Attachments begins in 1999 around the time the Internet was taking off and the whole Y2K "threat" was all everyone talked about. But now that the world wide web was available to employees, companies needed to create ways of policing what was being accessed and said on company equipment. 

In comes Lincoln, a heartbroken, 28-year-old, who is hired by a newspaper to work in their IT department.  His job?  To monitor employee emails in search of those who are being inappropriate on company time. What he didn't expect was to fall for one of his co-workers by simply reading the personal emails between her and her best friend. 

Afraid he'll never find love again, Lincoln learns that "love BEFORE love at first sight" really does exist.  But how will he ever be brave enough to do something about his feelings? 

Without spoiling anything, I'll only say there will be a point in this novel that will leave you literally grinning from ear to ear - actually, there are a few moments this will happen! 

Attachments is an easy, light read that will warm your heart.  Rowell is a master at writing witty and playful dialogues, and creating characters that are relatable and engaging. And, like I've said in previous reviews of her work, she has a knack for writing the most lovable, endearing male protagonists that you can't help but cheer for! 

Fans of young adult fiction and romantic comedies will enjoy this novel.  Next up on my to-read list is Rowell's latest release, Landline.  I'm really looking forward to it since none of her novels have ever disappointed me!  

Read more of my Book Reviews

Monday, February 9, 2015

Simple But Critical Advice For Parents

When your son asks you to sit and cuddle with him on the couch, I don't care what you are in the middle of - go over and cuddle! 

I recall an evening back in December.  I had spent the entire day sorting through digital photos in an effort to create photo collages - you know the ones popular for Christmas cards. (Oh, and by the way, whoever started this craze never considered the implications on a mother's time this task would have!) My ten-year-old popped into my office and said, "Mom, come cuddle with me." I told him I was just about done with this project and I'd be right in. But something made me stop and glance at the clock on my computer monitor - only three minutes until his bedtime.  To hell with these stupid photos! I rushed into the other room to savor those three minutes.

It's the little things, the "incidentals," that make a life whole.  The stolen moments in an ordinary day give true meaning to our lives.

As a parent it is easy to become wrapped up in taking care of everything and everyone, we forget to stop, breathe, and enjoy the tiny moments.  So stop focusing on all the advice that tells you how to get your newborn to sleep through the night, when to start feeding your baby solid foods, and which toys will stimulate their brains the most.  None of these things will matter in the end. 

Probably the biggest cliche expectant parents hear from other parents, is "Enjoy them, they grow up fast!"  My advice is not only enjoy them, but to truly cherish them.  Seize any opportunity possible to cuddle, to listen to your child describe his latest Lego creation, or to watch a goal your son scored on his FIFA 15 game. 

In the end, what matters are these sweet, non-elaborate minutes with your children. These seemingly "insignificant" moments are the ones that count. They're the ones your children will remember and you will crave when they're grown.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sure to Be One of My Favorite Novels of 2015: The Last Breath (Book Review)

NOTE: I received this book free from the publisher requesting an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's rules and guidelines.

"Now I see there is nothing beautiful about death.  Death is not precious or priceless.  For the person close to the dying soul - a parent, a lover, a child - death is not a gift but a thief." - The Last Breath

I love books that leave you thinking about them even after you've closed the cover for the night.  The Last Breath by Kimberly Belle is one of those novels! 

I cannot explain all the emotions The Last Breath conjured up in me without spoiling the novel for you.  But - WOW! I had to stop and catch my own breath at the end of this one! This book starts off with a bang and wastes no time putting the thrill in thriller.  In fact, upon finishing it, I immediately declared on social media that I just read what is sure to be one of my favorite books of 2015!

The Last Breath is a realistic view of human nature and society. The novel brilliantly shows just how complicated human relationships are.  Belle did a marvelous job of delving into the minds of her characters as they all try to make peace with the past - and each other - as they search their hearts for forgiveness. 

Our protagonist, Gia, is a modern-day woman who embraces her sexuality and independence. As a humanitarian aid worker, Gia has been so busy saving the world, she's neglected to save herself from the constraints of her past.  

"...I'm too busy running to notice that no one was behind me.  The only person chasing me was myself." - Gia, The Last Breath

When Gia returns home to small-town Rogersville, Tennessee to care for her dying father who was convicted of murdering her step-mother sixteen years earlier, she will have to face more than the town's gossip mill.  Gia will have to confront her own personal demons and everything she ran away from in the first place. She will learn a thing or two about herself along the way.  She's great at handling international crises, can she handle her own?

Through her writing, Belle easily transports the reader to small-town Tennessee and into the minds of all the characters, ones that evoke an array of emotions from readers.  You will feel as if you are right in the middle of the story.   There are a few social and political statements that could easily stir controversy, but I loved it!   The Last Breath is honest and raw and makes no apologies for pointing out social hypocrisy.  Belle did a marvelous job of bringing the entire novel to life.

A real page-turner, The Last Breath will leave you with your own reasonable doubt up until the end.  My heart was racing in the final moments.  I had to literally cover the words with my hands so I wouldn't peak ahead.  The anticipation nearly killed me and my heart was in my throat.

The Last Breath can't be placed into one genre  It is a thriller, crime novel, contemporary romance, and family drama all rolled into one explosive story.  It is as suspenseful as it is sexy.  I would recommend it to readers who liked such novels as Gone Girl and Defending Jacob.  I've already recommended this book to several book clubs.  Personally, I would love to see it made into a movie!

Read more of my Book Reviews


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

An Intriguing Tale of Despair and the Search for Redemption (Book Review)

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is a tense story of desire and despair as our three main characters try to make peace with their destructive pasts while searching for redemption. I borrowed the book from a friend having no prior knowledge of it or the author because the premise for the story sounded intriguing.  And, on that level, it didn't disappoint.  

Set in early 20th century rural America, A Reliable Wife shows us the disturbed and seedy lifestyles of three lost souls whose lives become intertwined in a complex story of deceit, revenge, and manipulation. The characters are complicated, multi-dimensional individuals who I quickly became engrossed with. And, after a bit of a slow start, I was sucked into their twisted existence.  

After years of self-imposed loneliness, wealthy businessman, Ralph Truitt, places an advertisement in the paper for a reliable wife.  From the moment they first meet, Truitt and Catherine, his mail-order-bride, seem doomed. The reader discovers soon enough just how ill-fated this relationship will be. Complicating the matter further is Truitt's relentless desire to find his estranged son, Antonio. The three lives become entangled in a bizarre web of sex, lies, and violence. 

Goolrick proves in this 2010 debut novel he is capable of writing elaborate and rich prose. However, some readers may find Goolrick's writing style pretentious, and at times I, too, found it a bit tedious. Yet, I feel it fit well with the time period.  My biggest problem with the novel is that the ending was somewhat predictable.  

Overall, A Reliable Wife is sexy and suspenseful. I enjoyed this novel and became attached to the pathetic characters despite becoming frustrated with them at times.  The writing style is sophisticated, the plot enticing and thrilling, and the characters are filled with complex, psychological struggles. I couldn't help but want to know how they all turned out in the end. 

I recommend this novel to fans of adult fiction, particularly if you like classic period novels, and readers who can appreciate delving into the minds of damaged individuals. There is a lot of sexual undertones and activity, albeit not explicit, which some readers may tire of. However, if you can get past the fact that our main characters are flawed, and focus on their journey to redemption, if that is even possible for them, I believe you will like this book. 

For more of my book reviews click here.