Some Things I've Read Lately, Volume 2

The Last Plea Bargain, by Randy Singer
I love a good legal/crime thriller, and The Last Plea Bargain is one of the best I have read in a long time.  At more than 350 pages, it is quite long, but I never once felt like the story was dragging.  I hate when I see a "twist" coming a mile away or when I can guess the ending too early on in a book, but that was not a problem here.  In fact, I was fooled right up to the end, along with the main character.  If you like John Grisham-type legal fiction, you need to grab this book up now.  The female protagonist was a fun change for this genre, and I realize now how few and far between the female main characters are in Grisham's books.  I will definitely be reading more by Randy Singer!

Laugh with the Moon, by Shana Burg

This book, written for middle grades, was easily one of my favorites of the spring.  Thirteen-year-old Clare is still dealing with the aftermath of her mother's death when her father (a doctor) whisks her away to a remote African village for a year.  Laugh with the Moon is a simple, yet heartfelt and emotional chronicle of Clare's time in Malawi.  With genuine characters and poignant plot lines, this book is great for younger teens or anyone else looking for a beautiful story.

The Lifeguard, by Deborah BlumenthalThe beach, budding teenage romance, a slightly crazy family member, and a touch of the supernatural....what more can you ask for from a summer read?  Though the secrets and supernatural elements could have been fleshed out quite a bit more, The Lifeguard is perfect light summer afternoon reading.  

Exclusively Yours, by Shannon Stacey
Every once in awhile, a girl just needs a good old-fashioned romance novel.   Exclusively Yours is just that, with bearable (and even likable) characters, chemistry, and an entertaining storyline.  This is another book that would be perfect for a long summer afternoon on the beach or by the pool.  (Sensing a theme here?)

Anything, by Michael Baron
Very odd.  It felt like there should be so much more to this story.  There were paranormal elements, but then it was almost like the author backed off in that regard, so nothing was ever explained.  When it was over, it felt more like I had read a detailed outline than the whole book.

Shooting Stars, by Allison Rushby
A super cute YA book about a teenager who takes paparazzi photos as a side job.  As one of the few people in "the business" young enough to pull it off, Jo is assigned an undercover job to get photos of a hot young celebrity at a vague-sounding retreat center.  Predictably, Jo finds herself attracted to the superstar, but the rest of the story was actually pretty surprising.  This one was not nearly as fluffy as it seemed from the start, and despite the characters' terrible names and the maddening use of the term "papping" to describe the action of working as paparazzi (is that a real term?  I have no idea.), I liked it quite a bit. 

First Date, by Krista McGee
Despite a little bit of cheesiness, I really liked this book as well.  The main character, Addy, is selected by her principal to go on a reality show to compete to win a date to prom with the U.S. President's teenage son.  There are hints of backroom deals and scandalous behind-the-scenes behavior, calling to mind any recent season of The Bachelor and other reality shows.  But the real story centers more around Addy, her faith, and how she chooses to use it during her time on the show she never wanted to be on in the first place.  One of my favorite quotes related to faith and witnessing is "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are", and it perfectly fits Addy's experience in First Date.  It's a really fun story, with a wholesome, feel-good plot.

What are YOU reading this month???

(And by the way, the winner of the giveaway for a copy of Brand New Human Being is Amy!  Congrats, Amy, and I'll be emailing you for your address.) 


Summer is Here

Despite the already crazy-hot temperatures, our summer is off to a great start.

Although the girls have inherited my tendency to "hide out" during the heat, we have been out and about quite a bit lately.
  • We have been to our town's public pool a couple of times now, and the girls seem to really enjoy it.  They are still pretty timid in the water, but I think we just need to keep going to get them a little more comfortable.  I mentioned a little bit about how nostalgic that pool makes me feel in this post, and it's fun to note the things that have changed and the things that haven't in the (many) years since I last spent time there.  (Still damp, dark bathrooms!)  The cost has definitely risen since I was a kid, and we are actually considering buying a pass for the rest of the summer.
  • After an afternoon at the pool, we are all usually worn out.  This week, it was a little late for nap when we got home, so I thought the girls would skip it and go to bed early.  Instead, I came in from the grocery store at 5:30 to find this scene (and J asleep on the other couch):
  • Last Thursday, my mom, my aunt, and I loaded up the girls and ventured over to a weekly farmer's market-type setup.   Although I only bought a (delicious) strawberry lemonade and a half-loaf of bread, it was fun to wander around and look at all the goods and produce.  A & M had a great time in the free children's area and enjoyed about 1/4 of their organic, all-natural fruit popsicles (that were $3 each, of course).  Kids!  : )  There was also a monthly art festival going on in the downtown square, with a variety of local artists and vendors.  Bands and musical instruments are pretty much the girls' favorite things right now, so they loved seeing a few different groups playing music.  There was even a full band set up on the courthouse steps.  Addison & Mackenzie would have gladly stayed until bedtime, if not for the band taking a break.  We will definitely be making a return trip soon!


  • A couple of weeks ago, we took the girls to their first baseball game.  They were much more interested in the food and the surroundings than the game, of course, but it was a pretty successful evening.  We now know not to waste the money taking them to a Braves game for a couple more years...the local ballpark will do just fine!  A & M entertained the (mostly older) people sitting around us.  They scammed a few peanuts off a nice man behind us, and the lady sitting in front of us bought them a bag of cotton candy.  Strangely, they don't really care for cotton candy much (what kind of kids don't like pure spun sugar?!), but it was awfully sweet of her. 
  • Finally, a question for you... With all the swimming and water activities we've had going on so far, I am thinking I need at least one more decent swimsuit. Anyone have recommendations for well-made, figure-flattering suits?  The one I have is Speedo, and it fits pretty well, but I'm willing to branch out and try something new.
(I'm playing with a new collage app, and apparently this will be the summer of the blurry phone picture!)


iPhone Photography (by Addison & Mackenzie)

Ever since we got our iPhones last year, Jeremy and I occasionally let the girls use them to play games.  We each have a couple of apps that are targeted to small children, and the girls know how to find and play their favorite games.

In the last few months, Addison & Mackenzie have also figured out a bit about how to work the camera feature.  Thus, I often pick up my phone to find my photostream full of picture after blurry picture of the floor, a face, an eye, or the ceiling.

A few recent examples...

Addison's photo montage:




Someone got a little artsy with the chip basket, maybe?


The many faces of Mackenzie:




Her first sun flare photograph:


There are probably at least a hundred pictures from my dad's house on Sunday afternoon.  Most are some combination of feet, the blurry floor, and the front door.  Here is one fairly decent shot of my dad and Jeremy:


And a partial family photograph:


These silly little photographers are always leaving new surprises for me to find!


Crock Pot Black Beans

On this post earlier in the week, Marcia asked about my recipe for black beans.  I admit I have always used canned black beans in the past.  But after making them in the crock pot this time, I don't plan to ever go back to the canned variety.  They were so easy and so good!

From a variety of different recipes, this is what I came up with:

1 lb. dry black beans
2 cups chicken stock (or chicken base and water, which is what I like to use)*
2 +/- cups water
1 bunch chopped cilantro
1/2 small red onion, diced
1 T minced garlic

Throw everything in the crock pot and cook on high for 4-6 hours or on low for 8 hours, and you have an entire pot of beans for $2 or $3.  Can't beat that!

*I read a couple of recipes that mentioned the chicken stock to give the beans extra flavor.  I had a jar of base in the fridge, so I used 2 tablespoons of it with about 4-5 cups of water (enough to cover the beans well).  The beans turned out exactly as I wanted them to, so I will repeat the chicken stock or base in the future.


Though I could easily have eaten black beans and rice all week, I used a large portion of the pot to make Hearty Black Bean Quesadillas.

You guys, these quesadillas were SO good.  They are very filling; just one and a side of fruit is enough to satisfy me for lunch.  We have several in the freezer and I have already been going through the stash for easy lunches or weeknight meals.

Budget Bytes is probably my favorite food blog right now.  I want to make nearly every recipe on there!

What is your favorite food blog/recipe site?  Any recommendations?

 Don't forget to enter my giveaway for a copy of the book Brand New Human Being!  The contest runs through 10 p.m. CST Sunday night.


Saving Ruth, by Zoe Fishman

I admit one of the first things that drew me to this book, besides that pretty awesome cover, is the fact that it's set in Alabama.  There are not a whole lot of novels set here in my state, so when I see one that is, I immediately want to check it out. 

Sometimes the stereotypes and very overdone southern drawl imply that an author may not actually have much familiarity with Alabama--or worse, with the South in general.  Thankfully, that is not the case with Saving Ruth.  According to Zoe Fishman's website, she grew up in Mobile, Alabama and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  Fishman's familiarity with this region allows her to give a spot-on portrayal of life in a small Alabama town.

In the book, Ruth returns home to Alabama after her freshman year of college in Michigan.  She finds some things to be very different than they were when she left, although still more things are exactly the same.  During her summer at home, Ruth discovers new things about her family, her friends, and her hometown, and finally confronts a few things she has refused to acknowledge about herself.  Saving Ruth touches on several hot-button topics:  eating disorders, depression, and racial tensions.  Amazingly, though, the book never feels preachy or too serious. 

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a summer read that is much more than fluff, without being too heavy on the dramatics. 

Bonus Factor:  Nostalgia
Ruth and her brother David lifeguard at the community pool, just as they have done for several past summers.  And oh my word, the description of the pool brought back a ton of memories of my own small town community pool.  Ruth talks about the kids' favorite foods from the pool snack bar and I could practically taste the hot fries, corn chips, and Grapico that were so popular among my friends 20 years ago.  Just as Ruth describes, I remember the kids that came as soon as the pool opened in the morning and left at closing each night.  One mention of the bathrooms/changing rooms, and I was right back in the old, perpetually damp, dark locker rooms at our pool.  I could almost smell the mildew. 

The little walk down the community pool memory lane was fun, and an appropriate start to a summer during which I plan to take my girls to that very same pool for the first time!

**I received a copy of this book from the publisher and TLC Book Tours.  All opinions expressed are my own.



With only a few minor exceptions (mostly J's work stuff that's far beyond our control), things have been good lately.  Really good, in fact.

The girls are at a point where they can skip nap when we find something better to do, usually without earth-shattering consequences come bedtime.  It's nice to be able to do a few things differently every once in awhile.  With summer here in full force, I imagine we will take advantage of the option to choose adventures like the splash park or ice cream dates over naps when the mood strikes.

Addison & Mackenzie are interested in things they have never noticed before.  We spent nearly an hour out in the yard the other night, chasing and catching lightning bugs.  Their pretend games are longer and more involved than ever, and they can entertain themselves for the longest time with random objects.  Yesterday it was a roll of duct tape; today, a spool of thread. 

Jeremy and I are making a concentrated effort to change some of our eating habits, focusing on more real and natural (and low-carb) foods.  We are working hard to find new meals we both enjoy.

Personally, I have found myself eating a lot less meat.  I don't know if y'all know this or not, but the South is kind of a "meat & potatoes" kind of place.  Growing up, I didn't think you could have a real meal without meat.  Slowly, I'm learning that there are several meatless meals I really like.  Black beans, rice, and other vegetables and whole grains have become staples in my diet over the last few months, and I just realized today that I am now eating at least 5-6 meatless meals during the week.  I made and froze black bean quesadillas last week, and they make an excellent lunch.

The girls and I are taking lots of afternoon/evening walks.  They sit in the stroller, eating a snack and chatting their nonsense to one another while I jam to a Pandora station and focus on pushing 60+ pounds of kids and stroller up the hill in our neighborhood.  We saw the resident neighborhood peacock (yes, peacock!  No idea where he came from....) the other day, which was way more exciting for me than for A & M.  They did think it was really cool when I let them go out dressed like this, though:

Ready for a pre-bedtime stroll...complete with pajamas, rainboots, and cowboy hat
Evening stroll attire should always include pajamas and rain boots.  Cowboy hat and Nerf gun are optional.

Yes, things are going well around here lately. 

How about you?


Brand New Human Being--Review & Giveaway

In her debut novel, Emily Jeanne Miller weaves an authentic tale of a modern family dealing with realistic issues.

Logan Pyle is a 30-something grad student-turned-stay-at-home-dad.  His wife is buried in her work as an attorney, his father recently died after a long illness, and his son is exhibiting some irritating regressive behavior.  To say Logan is having a rough time is an understatement.

Despite his pitiable circumstances, I didn't care for Logan throughout much of this book.  I wanted to see him stand up for himself, make a decision..."man up", if you will.  When he catches his wife in a delicate situation with another man, Logan finally takes a stand.  Unfortunately, he does it by loading up his son and heading out of town, at which point, I actively disliked him for awhile.  

It says a lot about the quality of writing in a book when I never particularly liked any of the characters, but I still liked the book overall.  I think maybe it's okay not to like them, because Miller portrays these characters as genuine people.  They are dealing with real-world issues, many with no clear-cut right or wrong, and react to them as real people might.  Things don't always wind up neat and tidy in life, and the same holds true for Logan and his family.

I have to say, though, I really liked the Logan I saw emerging at the end of the book.  He seemed to be taking control over his own life and actions, which was obviously missing in the first half of the book, when he just reacted to the things that happened to him.  I ended with hope that Logan was back on the right track (though I'm less sure about his wife...I still didn't see her taking responsibility for anything that was wrong in their family).
**I received a copy of this book from the publisher through TLC Book Tours.  All opinions expressed are my own.

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is offering a copy of Brand New Human Being to one of my readers!  

To enter, just leave a comment on this postBe sure to leave an email address if it is not linked with your profile so I can contact you for shipping information.

I will select a winner at random at 10:00 p.m. CST on Sunday, June 17, 2012. 

Because the book will be shipped directly from the publisher, this giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada only.  (Sorry, international friends!!)

Good luck!


Addison & Mackenzie's Recommended Reading

Over the last year or so, Addison and Mackenzie have started to really enjoy their books.  I have always made it a point to have lots of books around the house, and we started making regular library trips as soon as they learned not to eat/slobber on/tear the books.  It took awhile to get past the picture book stage, but they are finally beginning to appreciate books with a little "story" to them.

Here are some of their our favorites:

The Minerva Louise books are pretty simplistic, but humorous.  These can be read in a few short minutes, and the girls get tickled at Minerva's misunderstandings.  I think it teaches them logic in a roundabout way too.  For instance, in one book, Minerva turns a discarded pair of mittens into a hat for her head and tail.  After the first reading, the girls understood why that was funny and will say something like "That's not a hat, silly!"  (We don't own any of these, but check them out from the library regularly.)

Llama Llama books are very near the top of my own list and have endured for quite awhile as one of the girls' favorites as well.  We own two of these and read them quite often.  The Llama Llama books have a nice rhyming flow and they are long enough to feel like a substantial bedtime story.

Though we have read it many, many times, The Little Red Hen  has become a recent favorite.  It's probably mostly because I do the voices for each character and the girls like to help me toward the end.  I rather like the hen's slightly smug, can-do attitude, so I enjoy reading this one.

It has fallen in popularity in recent months, but Love You Forever was one of Addison & Mackenzie's favorites for a long time.  I got SO tired of reading it over and over, but it was the first book I heard Addison recite nearly word for word to her baby dolls, so it was totally worth it.

I picked up this book of fairy tales for the girls' birthday, and it is by and large the favorite right now.  The collection includes several classic tales, such as Snow White, The Gingerbread Man, The Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, etc.  Other fairy tale books I have picked up are much too long to hold the girls' attention, with almost no pictures and far too many words.  Plus, we all know the classic fairy tales can get a little "dark" at times, and I want to avoid too many death scenes in their stories (at least while I still have some control!).  This collection is exactly what I wanted.  The pictures are bright and colorful.  The stories are long enough, but not too long for A & M's three-year-old attention span.  These tales skim right over most of the darker details and none of the stories end badly (except for the Gingerbread Man--he still gets eaten, but my girls think it's hilarious).  Mackenzie and Addison love just about every story in here, and I don't mind reading them.  We both win!

What are your favorite kids' books?  Any recommendations for us?


Oh, to be a kid again...

My family didn't always do a big summer vacation when I was younger, but my mom was awesome at the weekend day trips.  She was always making note of nearby activities for us to check out or fun places to visit (and she still does the same for my girls!).

Nearly every summer of my childhood included at least one visit to Lake Winnepesaukah, a small amusement park affectionately known around here as "Lake Winnie".  So many Saturdays I remember piling in the car, barely containing my excitement during the hour and a half ride.  We would spend the day in the hot sun, riding our favorite rides over and over and feeding popcorn to the gigantic fish in the lake.  Sometime around dark our moms would herd us, sweaty and exhausted, to the car, usually promising a return trip soon.

Those summer days at our beloved Lake Winnie are some of my favorite memories.


On Friday, I returned to Lake Winnie for the first time in at least 15 years.  It was every bit as amazing to see it through my girls' eyes as it was to visit when I was a kid.

We set out for the zoo around lunch on Friday to take advantage of a beautiful day and extremely mild temperature.  Thanks to a minor mishap involving Jeremy and a cup of Coke, those plans were soon abandoned and we returned home so he could change out of his (very) wet and sticky clothes.  We dithered about what to do before deciding to venture in the opposite direction and make our first family visit to Lake Winnie.  I am trying to encourage Jeremy to be a little more spontaneous, so it was a good opportunity for a lesson!

When we pulled up to the gates of the park, it felt vaguely familiar, but the moment we stepped through the entrance, all the old memories came rushing back.  I quickly began pointing out favorite spots and landmarks to Jeremy and the girls...it was pretty fun to realize I still knew that place so well.

Addison & Mackenzie were so excited they could hardly stand it.  They immediately started asking to ride everything, even the decidedly non-kiddie rides.  To my great surprise, they happily rode every ride we suggested, including the full-size Scrambler (my longtime favorite-- which we rode with them, of course) and a child-sized roller coaster.  As a matter of fact, I think we rode that caterpillar roller coaster at least 20 times!



We sat by the lake and fed popcorn to the fish, rode the train around the property, played on the gigantic new playground area, and enjoyed some totally unhealthy amusement-park food.  It was a bit surreal to see my very own little girls doing the same things I enjoyed so much all those years ago.  Circle of life and all that jazz...

When we left the park, just before closing, we all agreed it had been a perfect day.  Jeremy and I had just as much fun as the girls did, if not more.  Actually, after asking them several times if they had a good day, Mackenzie finally responded, "I already TOLD you I did!"  Point taken, Mack, but you're going to have to humor your mama and her sappy nostalgia.  I'm sure it won't be the last time!