Monday, June 29, 2015

The Branches of Time (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.

The Branches of Time by Luca Rossi takes the reader on a sci-fi, fantasy adventure.  I am not a huge fan of this genre, but the theme of time travel in the novel sparked my interest.

The Branches of Time by Luca Rossi

When nearly the entire population of an isolated island is demolished by black magic, the three lone survivors are forced to uncover the mystery that led to their island's protective barrier failing them. The people fled Isk  two thousand years earlier and have been living peacefully ever since. That is, however, until the dreaded day when a stone shower rains upon them. The three survivors, the priestess, Miril, along with a married couple, Bashinior and Lil, must fight the destructive mission of Beanor, the King of Isk, and his wizards if they are to survive and rebuild.  The relationships between these three characters was interesting to follow.

Taking us back to events some two thousand years earlier, The Branches of Time reminds us just how fragile life's path is and  how one simple alteration can change the entire course of existence. The theory of "branches of time" is very intriguing and will grab the interest of the readers as will the several twists and unexpected turns. 

"Life gives us gifts and brings us pain when we least expect it." ~ The Branches of Time

The only facet of the novel I strongly disliked was the so-called "erotic" scenes involving King Beanor and his many wives and prostitutes. Rossi makes it clear early on that Beanor is a foul-mouthed and ruthless leader with an insatiable appetite for sex and the degradation of women, which will be his downfall.  The sex scenes are degrading and violent and could easily be described as offensive and gratuitous, but not erotic. Even though the author attempts to give readers an excuse for such behaviors by giving us a glimpse of Beanor's loveless childhood, the overall theme spills over into other male characters. 

It took me several chapters to really become engrossed in the story, but once I did, I was curious to see how it ended.  Unfortunately, the novel ended suddenly and, only then, did I realize this was Volume One and the story will be continued in a subsequent book or series. Due to the violent sexual content, I will only suggest The Branches of Time for mature fans of sci-fi fantasy.

Read more of my Book Reviews.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Inside Out: Family Movie Review

Inside Out is the third family summer movie I've seen this season with several others already lined up! Personally, the trailers didn't spark my interest, but my sons (yes BOTH of them!) wanted to see it.  And, it IS Pixar which never lets me down- so off we went. 

Inside Out

See my reviews for two other popular summer family films, Tomorrowland and Jurassic World.  

Inside Out takes the audience on a journey through the human mind concentrating on feelings and how  memories help shape our emotional state.  While Joy (played by Amy Poehler) tries to stay in control, we quickly learn that our other emotions, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader), seep into all of our lives.  

The story concentrates on Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven year old girl whose family just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. No longer able to control her Sadness over the move, things go terribly wrong and throw all of Riley's feelings into a tizzy.  

During the emotional havoc, the audience sees the inner-workings of the brain; how core memories and long-term memories make up "Islands of Personality" that shape who we are. We take a ride on the Train of Thought, visit Dream Production, and get lost in the subconscious, where our deepest fears are stored.  (On a side note: if you don't have a fear of clowns before seeing this film, you may afterwards.)

Joy tries to remain optimistic as she and Sadness try to return to headquarters (cute pun), but, until Joy realizes that ALL emotions have a place in our lives, Riley's mood cannot be fixed.  In other words, we need Sadness to feel Joy.  Heavy stuff? You bet!

The film is highly creative (far be it for Pixar to come up with a typical story) and has great concepts. The cast is superb and there are definitely some giggles.  However, overall the film's theme is depressing (expect some tears) and I'm not sure who Pixar's target audience was.  Younger children will likely be bored. In fact, my 13-year old liked it much more than my 11-year old. 

Inside Out is rated PG for mild thematic elements and some action/peril.  My recommendation (sorry, Pixar) is to wait for it to come out on DVD. 

Read my other Family Movie Reviews.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award

I am honored and flattered to be recognized by Rachel Rennie, author and fellow blogger, with the Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award.  To those who do not know what this award is, it is similar to the Liebster Award and is given to bloggers by other bloggers. 

Thank you, my friend, for all the support you have given me. I am grateful for the many blogger friends I have made since starting this journey less than one year ago.  It is the most supportive community in the world!

To accept the award, I need to do the following: 

Rule #1 – Thank the person who nominated you. 
Rule #2 – Add the award logo to your blog (there are many to choose from online)
Rule #3 – Answer the questions asked by your nominator. 
Rule #4 – Nominate three other bloggers. 
Rule #5 – Ask 10 different questions of your own.

Q & A

1. Sky diving or Scuba diving?

Thanks, Rachel. You picked my two worst fears. But, I would go with scuba diving since I at least have some experience snorkeling and the sea life would thrill me.......but I am requesting that Robert Downey, Jr. is my buddy!

2. If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

I always hate this question because I can never think of just ONE place. However, for the sake of this Q&A I'll say Bora Bora.

3. What is the strangest thing in your fridge/pantry right now?

Candy from Halloween 2014 - maybe it's time I throw it out.

4. Do you believe in ghosts or aliens?

Yes, both, along with monsters and Big Foot.

5. Most spontaneous thing you have ever done?

Start this blog. While I had briefly thought about the possibility of starting one prior, I simply woke up one day - and did it. Very unlike me.

6. What is the craziest thing you have ever seen?

Spontaneous? Crazy? Yeah, all words that do NOT describe me. But, I'll go with that darn swamp walk!

7. Best advice you ever received? Did you take the advice and use it when it was given? Or did you learn the value of it after the fact?

I can think of several examples of "worst advice" ever received, but not one "best advice." I think people need to figure things out for themselves even if it takes a lifetime.

8. What book are you reading right now?

Two: still trying to get through The Vampire Lestat and The Branches of Time.

9. What are you passionate about?

Animal welfare

10. What is something you would like to do but haven’t yet? And why haven’t you?

Learn to speak another language (preferably Italian) fluently. Why? Because I am a highly visual learner, not auditory. If I can't see it, I can't retain it.

My Nominations:

Now it's my turn to nominate three fantastic women bloggers (because it is the SISTERHOOD):
1. Jennine Gleghorn - My Life In Books

2. Meghan K - Living a Life in Books

3. L Gleason - Globetrotting Mommy

Ladies, here are the ten questions I'd like you to answer. 

1. Why do you blog?
2. Read a book or watch a film?
3. Favorite place you've traveled to and why?
4. Life wouldn't be the same without........? 
5. Favorite outdoor activity (reading / writing not allowed)?
6. A perfect day consists of......................?
7. The one household chore you refuse to do (yes, just one!)?
8. If you could transform into an animal for one day, which would you choose and why?
9. Favorite season and why?
10. A dream you still want to fulfill in life is......................?

Thanks again, Rachel, for the nomination. 

Read more from me at Lavender Inspiration.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jurassic World: Family Movie Review

 "Ladies and Gentlemen, due to a containment anomaly, all guests must find shelter immediately."  ~ Jurassic World

Jurassic World Movie Review

Jurassic Park was one of the best blockbuster films ever made.  Unfortunately, after the success of the first film, the two sequels were flops.  However, that didn't stop my sons and me from seeing all three of them on DVD.  Now twenty-two years after its release, a new generation gets to experience the fourth installment of this movie franchise, Jurassic World, on the big screen.  And the same theme prevails. 

"....your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." 
~ Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

Jurassic World takes us back to Isla Nublar, an island off the coast of Costa Rica originally chosen by wealthy businessman, John Hammond, to be the site for the first amusement park to house cloned dinosaurs. After much initial failure, the park has now been a successful attraction for ten years. However, when attendance and profits are down, park officials decide they need a new exhibit to rekindle interest.  They turn to genetic modification to design a new dinosaur. But at what price?

Yes, here we go again.  It's not enough humans played God by cloning dinosaurs, now we're going to use scientific power to create a new species by mixing DNA from various animals. (Think designer cat and dog breeds!)  Enter the Indominus Rex - the meanest, most bad-ass dinosaur ever!  In a world where animals in captivity are mere assets, I hope viewers pick up on the similarities between Jurassic World and other theme parks with similar philosophies. Seeing these magnificent creatures reduced to trained puppets was difficult to swallow. 

"These people, they never learn." ~ Barry, Jurassic World

The film is action-packed and provides an adrenaline rush. I had to practice some of my meditative breathing during a few of the on the edge of your seat scenes.  The scenery was breathtaking and the special effects are sure to please. BUT, overall, Jurassic World was no match for the original.  The story line seemed rushed with very little character development. The film simply focused on the action scenes. The message of moral principles is an important one, but got a bit lost in the mayhem. However, it is entertaining for the right audience. Seeing it in 3D on IMAX did not disappoint and certainly added to the enjoyment of this film. 

Watch Official Trailer

Jurassic World is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril.  In other words, I strongly caution parents.  No matter how much your five-year-old may love dinosaurs, this is not Barney. There is much bloodshed of both people and animals and some language.  In addition to my own two sons, the responses I received from other young movie-goers afterwards, the youngest being nine, was the same. They all loved it! 

Read more of my Family Movie Reviews.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Going Home

Nothing like a trip back to your childhood hometown to re-spark the magic of your youth and give your soul a face-lift.  

New York City
Little Italy, NYC
I grew up in New York. Born in Brooklyn, my family moved to Long Island when I was just five years old.  But one thing was consistent. I was always surrounded by a large, loving, Italian-American family and my childhood is filled with memories of family gatherings and unique cultural experiences - such as stomping on grapes grown in my backyard to help my grandfather make his own wine. 

This week, while visiting my sister on the Island, we watched some old video footage (which a cousin converted to DVD) of my family - all 30 of us - crammed in the basement of my grandmother's Brooklyn home on Christmas Eve. We estimated that the footage must have been from the mid-80s. 

It was wonderful to "see" my family again, back in the setting that was such a huge part of my childhood. My sons enjoyed seeing their aunts and me, as well as their grandparents, all of us 30 years younger.  They even got to witness MY grandmother doing a brief sample of the chicken dance. Seeing her again brought tears to my eyes. These were good times. 

While here, we were able to spend a few days in the city - which my sons endearingly call Manhattan.  I enjoyed walking through Little Italy with my mom who would point out things she remembered from HER childhood.  We did silly touristy things, like one of those harbor boat tours, and I took my mom down to the 911 Memorial and Museum - her first time back to that area.  It was gut wrenching for her and for me, as it is every time I go down there. Of course, my sons partook in a Mr. Frostee ice-cream cone!  Out on the Island, we even went strawberry picking in Wading River - something I did every season as a child. 

New York City

One of the best parts of coming "home" is seeing old friends. There are those I've stayed in touch with all these decades and see regularly.  Occasionally, I am able to squeeze in a visit with someone I haven't seen since high school (thank you social media) - which happened this time around.  It always amazes me how people from childhood tend to stay a part of you even if you haven't seen them since you were kids. There is a certain connection to a time and place that doesn't diminish. I think the older one gets the more meaning these encounters have. 

Strawberry picking - Lewin's Farm
Tomorrow I plan on taking my sons to my old neighborhood to see the house and neighborhood I grew up in as well as my old schools.  They've seen them before but were much younger and probably don't remember. A couple of years ago, my husband took our oldest son to his hometown and this July will be doing the same with our youngest. I think it is important that parents share their childhood with children whenever possible.

As much as I try to create childhood memories for my children that are as memorable as mine are, I often feel that I am failing in this regard.  Times are different now, it is more difficult.  Family is separated by hundreds of miles and rarely see each other. There seems to be less traditions.  Who knows? Maybe when my sons are older they will look back and recall these days with the same fondness I feel about my past. Just because it is different than my childhood, doesn't mean it isn't as special. 

How do you share your past with your children?

Read more of my blog here.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Despicable Me 2 (Family Movie Review)

When Despicable Me 2 hit theaters in 2013, my sons couldn't wait to see it. It remains one of their favorite films, and, with the much-anticipated series prequel coming out in July, Minions, we picked this one for our weekly family movie night.

Despicable Me 2
Despicable Me was so original and entertaining, it was going to be difficult for a sequel to beat or even live up to it.  In the first film we laughed and smiled along as the very talented Steve Carell, as Gru, goes from criminal mastermind to doting father when his heart is won over by three orphaned sisters. 

In the sequel, Despicable Me 2, Gru continues to live a crime-free life opting for fatherhood instead of his super-villain status. He has become a respectable businessman with his trusty assistant and inventor, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), and his army of adorable Minions by his side.  And, with the exception of his daughters and a nosy neighbor trying to convince Gru to get out into the dating scene, they live a very happy and normal life. 

Until, that is, The Anti-Villain League solicits the help of Gru to find the criminal responsible for destroying an entire lab and stealing the supply of PX-4-1 serum that causes drastic gene mutations when injected into subjects.  Working alongside Agent Lucy Wilde, played by Kristen Wiig, Gru goes undercover at a local mall to find the culprit. Will Gru find the villain behind the plan to unleash  an army of evil minions on the world? And, will he find love in the process?

 Watch Official Trailer

Filled with laughs, action, spy gadgets and an awesome soundtrack (after all, it's the film that gave us "Happy"), Despicable Me 2 is James Bond for kids! Carell once again delivers a hilarious performance making this sequel just as enjoyable as the first.  A fun movie the entire family will love! The film is rated PG for rude humor and mild action. 

Read more of my Family Movie Reviews.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Learning to Let Go of Unrealistic and Unnecessary Expectations

This is one of those blog posts where I open up the deepest, darkest corners of my psyche and share with you the fact that I am......... a complete nut job.  In my defense, however, I have only the best intentions in mind before I allow my quirkiness to drive me over the edge. 

You see, I often put unrealistic and unnecessary expectations on myself that sometimes get in the way of me actually enjoying life.  The one I'm dealing with this week?  (You didn't expect me to address them all at once, did you?)

- My irrational habit of cleaning the entire house, from top-to-bottom, before going on a trip.  

My house is never as tidy and organized as it is just before I leave on vacation.  Do I want to make sure that things are in order in the unfortunate event my house is burglarized? I certainly wouldn't want to be judged poorly by criminals. 

Nah, it's because who wants to come home from vacation to find a ton of housework waiting for them. Am I right?  

I know I am not the only one who has this weird habit.  But hear me now.  This stupid obsession of mine to clean the entire house while also packing for myself and two kids, making necessary arrangements for the pets, and finalizing travel plans has got to stop. Add to that mix having to keep up with this blog, and I become certifiable - fast!

Well, no more. I am putting an end to this craziness - NOW!  

My sons and I leave tomorrow to visit my sister.  While the week started off with all the frenzy that is typical before a vacation, I decided to put an end to the madness before becoming completely frazzled.  Sure, by the time I stopped myself and said, "Enough! What harm is a little dust going to do?" I had already done a significant portion of pre-trip chores.  But the victory is in the fact that I stopped myself before becoming bat-shit crazy. (But, it was a close call!)

Instead I had a very enjoyable afternoon out with my sons and friends without stressing and looking at my watch.  I worked out and even wrote this unplanned post.  While my house isn't as clean as it normally is before I leave on a trip, I am letting go of some of the control (I left my husband only a brief summary of pet instructions instead of two pages - trust me, that's an accomplishment in and of itself!)

The most important thing is all the essentials are taken care of - boarding passes are printed, suitcases are packed, and litter boxes are fresh.  Really, what else NEEDS to be done?  Right, nada!

Oh, and one last thing.......the point of this post was to tell you I will be gone for a week and I may - or may NOT - get to blogging while I'm gone. And you know what? I'm NOT going to stress about it.  (Well, maybe just a little, but we'll deal with that the next time.) 


Read more of my blog here

Monday, June 8, 2015

My Unreview of The Vampire Lestat

I've tried - no, I'm still trying - to get through The Vampire Lestat.  As only my second Anne Rice novel, the first being The Wolf Gift, which I also had mixed feelings on, I went straight to the second book in her Vampire Chronicles series hearing this was her best work. First, I can't tell you the mental strength it took for me to get past my aversion to Tom Cruise, who played Lestat in the Interview with the Vampire film adaptation, to even entertain this one.  And, I didn't even see the film! 

The Vampire Lestat

I am just over halfway through The Vampire Lestat and, while I will admit the story is fascinating, the writing is just too exhausting. The only thing that has kept me going this far is my attraction to the beautiful Lestat himself and my desire to know what happens to his former mortal lover, Nicolas, and his mother, Gabrielle.

The story is Lestat's account of his youth and how he becomes a vampire.  There is some deep examination of the virtues of good vs. evil in society as it debates the timeless spiritual question of the existence of God and Satan. I also loved Rice's description of 18th-century Paris with all its fanfare, a setting I find captivating.

OK, so I'm mesmerized by the characters, I'm addicted to the story, and I have some strange compulsion to finish it because I need to know where this one goes and how it ends. So why - tell me WHY - is it almost painful for me to read?

Let me answer that. It is VERBOSE beyond forgiveness! I want to scream at Rice through the pages to shut up and tell me the story! Skip all the rich, elaborate prose that goes on and on and on and TELL THE STORY!

Don't get me wrong, on some level I recognize that it is beautifully written and is on a level rarely seen in fiction today, but it is undoubtedly excessive. I remember feeling the same way when I read A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick but, truthfully, that wasn't half as bad as this.  At least in that novel, the story moved fast enough to keep my interest.

Your Turn:

So, here I am - over halfway done with The Vampire Lestat, dying to know how it ends, yet frustrated with the novel every time I sit down and try to read it. 

For those that have read it and liked it, tell me: Do I push through and continue to read it? Remember, it took me until Chapter 27 (out of 40) in The Wolf Gift before that one clicked with me. And, while I didn't love that book, I did enjoy it enough that I was glad I finished and would consider reading the sequel.

I hate to NOT finish any novel I have put this much time and energy into, but maybe that is for the best.  If you have any reasons as to why I should (or shouldn't) finish it, I'd love to hear from you. Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Check out my list of Book Reviews.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Lorax (Family Movie Review)

The Lorax made a big splash when it hit theaters in 2012, but I actually didn't sit down and watch it until this week's family movie night.  Based on the children's book by Dr. Seuss, The Lorax is a compelling story of environmental conservation.  The book, which was first published in 1971, focuses on corporate greed and the subsequent consequences on our planet. It amazes me that Dr. Seuss had the foresight decades ago to see where we were headed - yet we've done little to prevent it.

"A tree falls the way it leans. Be careful which way you lean." ~ The Lorax

The setting is Thneedville, a walled, environmentally artificial city that hasn't seen a real tree in years. This, of course, is not a problem for the O'Hare Air Corporation that is making a fortune selling bottled-air.  Ah, yes! You see, without trees the air quality is down and the citizens of Thneedville need to purchase air.  When a young boy's crush on a girl drives him to discover the truth about what happened to all the trees, Mr. O'Hare will stop at nothing to prevent the return of real trees wanting to protect his billion dollar industry.

Watch Official Trailer

The story centers around a young boy, Ted (Zac Efron), who wants nothing more than to impress Audrey (Taylor Swift).  Audrey dreams of someday seeing a REAL tree.  But is that even possible anymore?  Ted's grandmother, played by the marvelous Betty White, is one of the few citizens of Thneedville that remembers when trees actually existed. She instructs Ted to go outside the city walls and find Once-ler (Ed Helms), the man who can tell him the truth behind what happened to all the trees.

Reluctantly, Once-ler tells Ted the story of how he was blinded by greed. Years earlier he created a versatile, albeit gimmicky, contraption called a thneed.  However, to manufacture this innovation, Once-ler needed trees.  As soon as the first tree is cut down, the mystical guardian of the trees, The Lorax, played by the lovable Danny Devito, is summoned to try and put an end to this devastation. 

"Everyone here needs the trees, and you're chopping them down!" ~ The Lorax

Unfortunately, the thneed soon becames a big hit and production picks up.  Before he could be stopped, Once-ler cut down all the trees due to short-sighted corporate greed. (Anyone seeing any real-life parallels?) Now, with the trees all gone, the wildlife displaced, and increased smog, the disheartened Lorax departs leaving only one word behind.... "UNLESS."  Will Ted be the one to turn the world around?

The Lorax

The Lorax is a children's version of a dystopia society. I have to admit, it was painful to watch in an environmentally conscious way. My eyes welled up when the last tree was cut down and my heart broke.  This is the perfect film to inspire even the youngest environmentalists!

The Lorax contains all the adorableness you'd expect from a Dr. Seuss story.  It is colorful and filled with delightful critters.  There are some catchy songs that could potentially drive parents nuts, but deal with them! Your children will love them.  The film is rated PG for brief language (do they even make G-rated films anymore?) and makes the perfect family movie night pick. I couldn't leave without sharing at least one song! 

Let It Grow / Celebrate the World 

Read more of my Family Movie Reviews.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

I Hate Summer Vacation - So Sue Me!

Today is the last day of school for my two sons.  When I was teaching, I lived and breathed for this day. But now, when my sons ask me if I'm excited for summer, I remain speechless.  Why? Because no matter how well thought-out my ideas for their summer vacation ever are, things just never seem to go as planned.  

They aren't big into camps, but I do insist they pick a couple of weeks of SOMETHING just to get the hell out of the house and not sit in front of the television all day.  We participate in free kids bowling, go away for a few days, plan family outings, take day trips - you name it, I try to get my boys to do it.  
summer vacation rules for kids

But the summer always ends up one way - my sons bored out of their minds and me going absolutely nuts trying to keep them happy and occupied. 

I can't tell you how many arguments we have ALREADY had over how much summer reading I'm going to expect them to do.  WHY in the world would their teachers tell them summer reading is OPTIONAL?! NO NO NO! I want required reading, not suggested or recommended reading.  What is that crap!?

Just this morning I showed my sons their school registration paperwork.  Among the forms is a contract that states they will read for 30 minutes each day.  I reminded them that they signed this contract. My youngest said I should have told him what he was agreeing to.  I told him he should never sign anything without first reading it.  TouchĂ©

My oldest, on the other hand, immediately started re-negotiating his contract.  "I'll read 20 minutes every other day - but that's it," he told me.  I told him to take it up with his principal.  

(The contract is for the school year, not summer, but they don't need to know that. I tricked them and will not hesitate to threaten them with a breach-of-contract lawsuit all summer if I have to.)

I recently found the above chart online and figured I might as well give it a try.  I may need to add another condition that they will not be given the daily WiFi password or batteries for the television remotes until the list is completed. That there is power, my friends.  I know what you're thinking. I am the ultimate fun mom! I know, I know - I try.  But, seriously, how do other parents get their kids to do anything?!

Now, excuse me while I go enjoy my last few hours of kid-free peace!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Going Vegan in 2015: Tips for Restaurant Dining

Depending on where you live, dining out while being vegan may or may not be a huge obstacle for you.  Personally, I enjoy eating out regularly - whether for a meal or a quick snack.  Therefore, when I decided to go vegan back in January, I had to learn how I could continue to dine at restaurants while sticking with my vegan goals. Sure I have some vegan restaurants near me, but I also need places that will satisfy my picky children.

I can honestly say I have been pleasantly surprised at how easy eating vegan in restaurants has been. Of course, there have been some snags, but I am learning more and more each day on how to do it successfully.  In this installment of Going Vegan in 2015, I am going to give you some helpful information on how you can successfully stay vegan while eating at your favorite restaurants.

I understand that there are vegans who will not eat out unless the restaurant is 100% vegan OR if the establishment states it has separate preparation areas for vegan and non-vegan foods to avoid cross-contamination.  I have not gotten to that level - it just isn't realistic for me, at this time.  For me it's not about perfection, but about being less-cruel. Here are some helpful tips that will help you achieve this while dining at your favorite restaurants, along with some of my personal experiences at various places.  
Tip #1: Do some research before you arrive.

Roasted Vegetable Salad at Toojay's
Most restaurants, whether local establishments or national chains, have websites that list their menu.  Many of these websites also offer complete lists of ingredients, such as this one from California Pizza Kitchen (CPK)**, which can help you make choices BEFORE you go.  My favorites? Seasons 52, The Yard House, Toojay's Gourmet Deli, PF Chang's, and my son's favorite, Sweet Tomatoes - all have vegan (or vegetarian choices that can easily be converted to vegan) options on their regular menu. 

**After further research, I discovered the CPK list of ingredients does NOT include honey which happens to be in all their non-dairy based dressings. Therefore, NONE of their salad dressings are vegan-friendly. Stick with oil and vinegar when you cannot confirm. 

One restaurant that is worth getting special recognition is Chili's Grill and Bar.  Their online vegetarian menu gives details as to which vegetarian alternatives contain dairy, egg, and honey so you can adjust your order accordingly. The citrus balsamic dressing is the only vegan option at Chili's.

Tip #2: Ask the waiter or manager for your meal to be specially prepared.

I had lunch in January at a local Italian restaurant.  As a new vegan I didn't think to plan ahead.  As an Italian-American I can tell you first hand - Italians love their cheese!  When I sat down and looked at the menu, I noticed tons of vegetarian options, but not vegan. It came down to me having to ask them to tweak the ONE menu item that was even a close possibility for me.  It was a pasta dish with oil and vegetables and I asked them to leave off the cheese.  Unfortunately, I completely forgot to mention NO BUTTER. I didn't confirm one way or the other if the dish was prepared with butter, but I made a mental note to never forget to inquire about  butter again.

Inform your waiter when you sit down that you are vegan.  I have found they are usually very helpful. Once at CPK the waiter put the basket of bread on the table, turned to me and said, "The bread is NOT vegan."  Darn it!!  The staff at Chili's also goes out of their way to accommodate my needs and the chef regularly prepares special salads for me not on the menu.  I don't forget little things like that.

Tip #3: Walk out of a restaurant that cannot accommodate you AND politely explain why you're leaving.

In a second attempt at Italian food, I went into Brio Tuscan Grill.  While I am sure there were certain items on the menu that could have been tweaked, the waitress was less than accommodating, so I decided to go elsewhere.

Another time my family and I went to Outback Steakhouse (only because we had a gift certificate) and I knew before even sitting down that this would be a challenge.  I ended up ordering a plain baked sweet potato and steamed broccoli.  I wanted the sauteed mushrooms but this time I remembered to ask about butter! Unfortunately, the kitchen did use butter in the recipe and they didn't offer to prepare them separately.  I won't be going back.

Probably my biggest pet peeve is with Dunkin' Donuts who still refuses to offer vegan cream alternatives while Starbucks offers both soy and coconut milk options. Yes, I have met friends for coffee at Dunkin' Donuts bringing with me my own mug of coffee.  Yes, I've explained to the management why.  (P.S. I have yet to uncover any vegan food options at Dunkin' Donuts, even the bagels have honey.) 

Breakfast in general is difficult to enjoy out at traditional restaurants. Unless the oatmeal is prepared without milk and they offer fresh fruit salad, you won't have many choices. Plus there is the whole coffee creamer issue, so I almost always just have my coffee beforehand or bring my own. 

Tip #4: Acknowledge establishments that are vegan-friendly

Every time I have had a positive experience at a restaurant, I have reached out to the manager and/or  to corporate offices via social media.  I think this is very important if we want to continue to see a rise in vegan alternatives.  Then, make a conscious effort to frequent places that do accommodate vegan diets. 

Overall, I have been so pleased with how many restaurants and chefs are on board with veganism. Where ever you live, just Google vegan restaurants and you will get lists of local places. Here is one  helpful website that will assist those in the U.S. and Canada find local vegan eateries. This compilation from PETA is great for casual, quick bites out!

Bon appétit!

Read more of my series Going Vegan in 2015.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul (Book Review)

"That kindness killed me; that heart and courage laid me out.  There was so much potential on this earth, so much greatness in its creatures - how could I ever feel hopeless again?" ~ Sarah, Duchess of York as quoted in novel in regards to Gal, her horse for the International Qatar Horse Marathon, 1996

Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul was given to me just before the passing of my dear cat, Hunter.  After he crossed the Rainbow Bridge, I thought I would find some comfort in these stories of amazing animals and the unique bonds they share with humans.

Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul is a compilation of heart-warming stories submitted by various people.  Unlike the title implies, the stories encompass tales of an array of animals both domesticated and wild.  From dogs and cats, to horses, birds, and a 500-pound gorilla - these stories will speak to your heart and may even evoke a few tears of joy and sorrow.

I enjoyed the heroic tales of war dogs, therapy animals, and the ones that explored the unique bonds between unlikely animal friends.  There is a story by Hillary Clinton regarding Socks, the former First Cat and a very personal story from Sarah, Duchess of York. Of course there are also numerous uplifting stories of admirable humans doing extraordinary things to save animals. There is a touching story that challenges the practice of convenience euthanasia and another that shows the love between a cow and her calf which may have you rethinking how farm animals are treated.

Click here for a touching story on the cat that wouldn't give up her fight to walk again.

However, Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul , while at times endearing, did not live up to my expectations. Most of the stories start out reaching the hearts and curiosity of the reader, only to end too abruptly void of any real emotion. The stories were too short in most cases and there wasn't enough time to develop any real connections to the people or the animals.

Overall, I enjoyed Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul , but didn't love it.  Don't get me wrong, it is worth the read for animal lovers.  However, perhaps it is best suited to be read at leisure like a devotional, one story a day upon waking up.  The stories proved to be helpful therapy for me as I dealt with the grief of losing my own beloved pet. But, they just didn't tug at my heart strings like I envisioned they would and I think this has to do with the mediocre writing.

"We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Yet, we still would live no other way." ~ Irving Townsend from Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul

Whether they're guiding us in a snow storm or teaching us how to love again, one thing is clear. Animals have a unique way of touching our hearts and our lives. They say it is often unclear in the human-animal relationship who rescued who. In the end, all that matters is that we are blessed to have these creatures touch our lives so profoundly.

Read more of my Book Reviews.