Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I am loving this Whimseybox monthly craft box subscription.  (UPDATE:  It appears as if WhimseyBox has gone out of business.  Do NOT subscribe) I feel like every time I open the box, it's like my birthday.  I love the surprise of the project and the sophistication of the crafting kits. This month was all about learning calligraphy!  This is a very handy skill, I think.

The kit came with plenty of paper on which you can practice.  I think I went through half of the pot of ink before I got tired of playing around with it.  Following the instructions, you first attempt to get control over how much pressure to place on downstrokes versus very little pressure on the upstrokes.  In fact, when you exert too much pressure on the upstrokes, the tip will easily get stuck and end up flicking ink all over the paper.  Just look at my samples as proof of how common that is for a beginner!

In the end, I opted to try for my own quote - a favorite from Mumford & Sons.  Oh, and a funny quote from Lionel Ritchie before that one.  As you can see, I still have some spacing issues, but I have to say it's not that bad for only about an hour of practice!  Also, on a side note, I was laughing when I was doing the practice pages because I felt like I was back in first grade learning how to do cursive all over again.  Seriously, when was the last time you used cursive besides signing your name??  They even gave you paper to help you perfect your slants!!

Posted on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 by Julie

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

This weekend was the 2nd Annual Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival, and I'm so lucky to have stumbled upon the event this year.  Unfortunately, due to conflicts, I could only stay for three of the acts, but they were the acts I wanted to see the most.  This year, the festival was held at Druid Hill park in Baltimore by the Maryland Zoo.  Even arriving late, there were no issues with parking and the crowd was a comfortable size for the grassy concert setting.

The first act I caught was Sierra Hull, a 22 year old mandolin phenom who also has a very lovely voice. Her set was quite short, but was enough to make her talent obvious.  It's like the mandolin just bends to her every desire, and you can't keep up with her fingers.

Next up was Chris Eldridge, or what I think of as 20% of one of my favorite groups, Punch Brothers, and his performance partner Julian Lage.  Their set was a mix of folk, jazz, blues, and bluegrass.  Their guitar skills were complementary, and it was nice to hear Chris on vocal lead.

The third, and final, act I was able to catch was Noam Pikelny and Friends.  It was obvious that Chris would be joining his fellow banjo-playing Punch Brother on stage, but I was surprised to see Gabe Witcher come on stage, as well, as the fiddle player.  I had expected Luke Bella, who often tours with Noam.  So, I was happy as a clam to now have 60% of Punch Brothers!  Joining those three were Aoife O'Donovan on vocals (and in very cute yellow suede booties, I might add), Barry Bales (from Allison Krauss and Union Station) on bass, and Jesse Cobb on mandolin.

Joining them on stage for some of the final songs in the set was the festival's headliner, Jerry Douglas with his dobro.  I was happy he came on stage because I thought I was going to miss him all together.  Even with just a short time there, it was a very entertaining afternoon and evening, and there's no doubt I would go back next year!  I'm also very thankful that it didn't end up raining, like the forecast predicted.  Unfortunately, hours later, I am not thankful for the bad decision I made for dinner - corn dog and funnel cake.  Blech!

* All photos were taken with my go-to concert point and shoot camera - a Panasonic Lumix - which I regularly use for its great video. It's normally not as good for still shots, but apparently it performs better than expected in outdoor venues!

Posted on Sunday, April 27, 2014 by Julie


Saturday, April 26, 2014

This month's Escape "vacation in a box" highlighted the treasures of Mexico!  As a fan of Mexican food and Mexican getaways, this was a box I was looking forward to opening.  Inside the box, the first thing I saw was the one item that I felt was missing in last month's Ireland box: a travel book!  Specifically, the Mexico box came with a book on Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.  Whenever I see Zihuatanejo, I always think of Tim Robbin's character in "The Shawshank Redeption" because that was the place he escaped to from prison.  In addition to the book I wanted, the box also contained:

  • Mundet Green Apple Soda
  • Mundet Sangria Senorial Soda
  • Ayate Fiber Exfoliation Cloth for skincare
  • Mexican Cocoa Candle
  • Gourmet Habanero Salt
  • Kopali Organic Dried Mango
  • Mexican Candy: de la Rosa peanut marzapan, Pulparindo hot and salted tamarind pulp candy, and Lucas sweet and sour mango flavored powder

Total retail value of the box is supposedly $60, but if you really think whether or not you would go out and buy this stuff, the value just wasn't there.  Next month is California, so I'm going to give the box one more try, but it better be good for the subscription price - discounted or not!

Escape Monthly is a travel-themed subscription box.  Each month, the idea is that you will receive a destination-specific box with goodies from that country or city.  In addition, each month, one subscriber will be selected to win a vacation to the current month’s theme destination. Escape Monthly will pay for the winner’s airfare from a major U.S. hub and two nights of accommodations, up to $1000. Winners are selected randomly.

Cost: $49.95, but with a coupon code (code: YOURESCAPE) they are currently offering a perpetual $10 off each month, bringing it down to $39.95.

Posted on Saturday, April 26, 2014 by Julie

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Friday, April 25, 2014

The POPSUGAR Must Have box is a monthly subscription box that sends you a fun selection of new and interesting items - food, accessories, paper goods, home goods, etc.  You also tend to get sent a box where the total suggested retail price is often more than double the cost of the subscription (which is $39.95, but use REFER5 to get $5 off your first order.  Additional savings from longer termed subscriptions as well).  This is my 2nd box I've received, and though nothing really jumped out at me and made me say "ohhh I love that!", I know I will use what I got.  Speaking of which, take a look at my goodies!

Caldrea Rosewater Driftwood Hand Soap (Suggested Retail: $10.50): Earth-friendly soap that happens to be delivered to my home right around Earth Day.  Convenient!

Naturebox POPSUGAR Must Have Mix (Suggested Retail: $5):  This healthy snack combination includes almonds, soybeans, corn, and cranberries.  It looks like it was made specifically for this box, though, and I can't get any more, but the other snack mixes on the website look good.

Graphic Image Pocket Notes (Suggested Retail: $20): This notebook reminds me of the cheesy calendars companies used to hand out as marketing/advertising prior to the smartphone or palm pilot, complete with the silver edges.  But, I am a girl who likes to keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas or to-do lists, so it's definitely going to get used.  Glad I didn't pay the $20 for it though...or did I??

Too Faced Natural Eyes (Suggested Retail: $36):  A perfect neutral eye shadow palette and a glamour guide for look ideas.

BlueAvocado (Eco) Shopper (Suggested Retail: $25): This reusable bag was designed by MTV "The Hills" star, Lauren Conrad.  This collapsable tote is made from upcycled plastic bottles, and is perfect for a trip to the local farmers market.

Fresh Pastry Stand Totally Awesome Tea Towel Set (Suggested Retail: $18): These towels will come in handy for me in the kitchen, especially when I need to cover a tray of rising bread rolls.

Total retail value of this month's POPSUGAR Must Have Box....$114.50.  Why is eye shadow so expensive??

Posted on Friday, April 25, 2014 by Julie

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This round of Reducing the Reading pile is a first for me because I'm going to be solely focusing on the upcoming release of Elected, the first book in a trilogy sure to be a hit in the young adult (YA) dystopian genre.  This is the first publication for the author, Rori Shay, and I was fortunate to get an early preview because Rori also happens to be a good friend of mine.  Prior to her book launch today, Earth Day, she was very generous and allowed me to interview her on her exciting new novel, the road to becoming a published author, and what's in store for the remaining two books in the series.  Of course, the serious talk could only start after we were done playing in the kitchen, making anise-flavored caramel treats for her book launch party. (The book references hemlock, which has an anise-like taste, hence the flavored candy.)

Synopsis: It’s the year 2185, and in two weeks, Aloy will turn eighteen and take her father’s place as president of the country. But to do so, she must masquerade as a boy to avoid violating the Eco-Accords, four treaties designed to bring the world back from the brink of environmental extinction. Aloy hopes to govern like her father, but she is inheriting a different country. The long concealed Technology Faction is stepping out of the shadows, and as turmoil grows within her country, cryptic threats also arrive from beyond their borders.

As she struggles to lead, Aloy maintains her cover by marrying a woman, meanwhile battling feelings for the boy who knows her secret – the boy who is somehow connected to her country’s recent upheaval. When assassination attempts add to the turmoil, Aloy doesn’t know whom to trust. She understood leadership required sacrifice. She just didn’t realize the sacrifice might be her life.

Elected was released nationwide on April 22, 2014, with the second book following soon thereafter in November.  Get your copy at the Amazon Kindle store!

Learn, Live, and Explore (LLE): Hi Rori!

Rori Shay (RS): Hi!

LLE: OK, I'm going to jump right in! When did you first discover your passion for writing?

RS:  Oh that's easy!  I was in first grade, and on a car ride I wrote a short story about a rainbow.  My teacher had me read it out loud in front of the class, and I've been writing short stories ever since. When my husband went to school for his MBA, I needed something to do quietly, next to him and by myself, if I ever wanted to spend time with him while he was studying all the time.  So, I started writing my first two novels, which didn't end up getting published.  (Note: Elected is Rori's third novel) 

LLE: How have you managed a full-time career, a family, and the demands of a writing schedule?

RS: My husband would say, "Me!"  I actually wrote the first two books of the Elected series while I was on maternity leave with my two kids.  So that was a big chunk of time.  Then I was part-time for a little while, so I would spend one day a week writing.  Now, I devote a lot of time after the kids got to bed.  We don't watch as much TV as we used to, or if I'm watching TV I'm doing something for the book at the same time.  I just try to capture any spare minute I can, even if it's waiting for a meeting to start and having my notebook nearby to jot down notes on the outline or using time on the metro ride to and from work.

LLE: As you said before, this is not your first book you've written.  What was the road to becoming a published novelist like?

RS: That is such a complicated story.  First, I wrote a couple books that never got picked up, and I know a lot of published authors say that they have a drawer full of books before their actual book got picked up.  When Elected was written, I started querying agents, but I was really unprofessional.  I didn't know what I was doing, and I sent out query letters that weren't very good.  And I had only read through the first draft, which had mistakes all through it.  Then, I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, got more "professionalized" and learned how to query better.  After I queried 82 agents, the 82nd finally said "yes."  She found me a publisher, but one month ago that publisher went under.  It was only through networking and social media that I found a new publisher, who also is connected to one of the authors quoted on my cover.  

LLE: Your first novels - the Girl Classified series - were more in the "chick lit/funny" category.  What was your inspiration to move into the popular young adult/dystopian genre?

RS: It was what I was liking to read at that time, and I felt like it carried more of a message.  I was tired of the funny stuff, where she found the boy in the end.  I wanted to have the romance, but I wanted it to have a message too.  I wanted to talk about tolerance, global warming, and environmental preservation. The idea for Elected, I just woke up one day with it and wrote it all down.

LLE: Did you find it to be more enjoyable writing a novel that takes place in the future because it opens up the opportunities for your imagination to create a whole new world rather than staying in the confines of modern day?

RS: Yes, I wanted to show exactly what happens when global warming occurs and how people react to it.  I didn't want to just have an apocalypse without understanding how it happened, like with Hunger Games and Divergent.  I wanted to tell you exactly what transpired, and how politicians would behave.

LLE: Did you know that Elected was going to be the first book in a trilogy?  

RS: Yep! 

LLE: How is the approach to a trilogy different than writing a stand alone novel?  

RS: I think it has to have hooks on the end of each book that make you want to keep reading further. With every novel, your character has to be somebody that people care about; but if they are going to follow you for an entire trilogy, they've got to be really invested in that main character.

LLE: Did you find it more difficult or easier to write in this longer format?

RS: It's so funny because I only used to write short stories, and I never thought I had the longevity to write a novel.  Now, I find it's easier to write longer trilogies.

LLE: Talking about Elected specifically, I really enjoyed how you developed your characters and their environment in the first part of the book.  It was sophisticated writing, set the stage well, and you gifted yourself with the flexibility to delve into the complexities of the plot.  Of course, I'm also predisposed to loving any setting that includes familiar places from our mutual home of the Washington D.C. Metro region.  

RS: Did you watch the video on my kickstarter campaign?  All five of the pre-apocalypse D.C. attractions featured in the book are in that video - the horse statue, the White House, the Old Executive Office Building, the Ellipse, and the Washington Monument. 

LLS: Oh neat, I'm going to have to go watch it!  So without giving away too much, you made some very bold choices for your lead character, Aloy.  First, why did you make the decision that the Elected position could only be held by a male?  

RS: I wanted to create the controversy.  While there were a lot of female leaders by the year 2100, I wanted them to realize that after an apocalypse, what's the most important thing to do when you have a "zero" population.  It is growing the population, so they made rules that repopulating was going to take priority and everything revolves around that, even who the Elected should be. While that may seem prejudiced, you watch over time in the book how some of those rules need to be broken, how they get broken, and which ones stay.

LLE: What are your expectations for reader reactions to the complex relationships between Aloy, Vienne, and Griffin?

RS: I wanted to do a love triangle, but I didn't want it to be traditional with a girl and two guys, like many of the YA books.  I wanted it to be a girl and a guy both going after a girl, and to talk about gender roles.

LLE:  Do you think Vienne really loves Aloy, or has she been trained to think she loves her?

RS: Oh absolutely loves her!

LLE: Are you prepared to field comparisons with other hit series: Divergent and The Hunger Games?

RS: I would love to field those comparisons!  I would be honored and humbled!

LLE:  Last, but not least, is the fun question.  Who is going to play the young trio in the movie? 

RS:  I want Nicholas Hoult for Griffin, but with dark, dark hair and longer than he normally has it in movies.  For Aloy, I like the woman who plays Daenerys on "Game of Thrones" - Emilia Clarke.  Then for Vienne, I've changed my mind a lot of times.  She has to be really beautiful with long, almost whitish hair.

Here are my thoughts on actors: Maisie Williams or Sophie Turner from "Game of Thrones" for Aloy; Elle Fanning or Ariana Grande for Vienne; and, Torrance Coombs from the CW Network's "Reign" for Griffin.  I showed Rori the photo of Torrance Coombs, and may have sold her on the idea.

Find out more about the Elected series and Rori Shay on her website - www.rorishay.com - or by following her on Twitter @RoriShayWrites

Also check out the Elected Kickstarter campaign for a great way to support Rori and her desire to get the book published in the traditional hardback format, in addition to paperback and e-book. There are several ways to donate, and maybe get a little book related souvenir in return!

Posted on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 by Julie

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Monday, April 21, 2014


Tonight I was lucky enough to be able to treat my ears to the music of The Milk Carton Kids out at The Barns at Wolf Trap in Virginia.  I heard them for the first time last September when I attended the benefit concert Another Day/Another Time - Celebrating the Music of "Inside Llewyn Davis."  I remember being just mesmerized watching the flatpicking talent of Kenneth Pattengale and being delighted by their harmonies.

Their stage banter, mostly led by Joey Ryan, is unmatched.  Sometimes I didn't know if I was at a comedy show or a concert!  If I had to describe their sound, they are a kind of modern folk version of Simon and Garfunkel.  Watch this clip of "Snake Eyes" from the ADAT concert's associated Showtime documentary to get a taste:

If you can make Punch Brothers' Chris Thile grin from ear to ear and Marcus Mumford get a little emotional, you must be absolutely great.  Here's another clip that really captures Joey's witty, deadpan humor...and more flatpicking from Kenneth.

Tonight was such an enjoyable event, and I can't wait to see them again this summer when they head back to the area.

Posted on Monday, April 21, 2014 by Julie


Last weekend was yet another successful Broadway break!  When I heard the announced cast of the 2014 production of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men included James Franco and Chris O'Dowd, I bought tickets the day they went on sale without hesitation because I knew it was going to be a good show, and there was no way I was going to miss it!  And while most of the fans in the audience were looking forward to seeing Franco, I actually was excited to see Chris O'Dowd portray Lennie - a much more challenging role, especially for someone more known for his comedic characters.

As a bonus, several other fantastic actors were added to the supporting cast, including Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl) and Jim Parrak (True Blood), and they didn't disappoint.

At the end of the show, it happened to be James Franco's birthday, so Chris O'Dowd led the whole theater in the singing of "Happy Birthday" and gave him a stuffed rabbit as a joke.

Of course, after the show there was the giant crowd at the stage door waiting for the actors to come out - sadly many of whom didn't even see the show but were just there for the celebrities.  Somehow, I was lucky and got a spot on the barrier rail.  This was where you wanted to be because then you are pretty much guaranteed a Playbill autograph and a photo.  I've waited at a lot of stage doors, and the ones with big name celebrities tend to get a little crazy, but I think that, fortunately, Broadway has finally figured out stage door crowd control.

While Of Mice and Men occupied my Saturday night, I had to find other shows to fill in the rest of the weekend.  Another obvious choice was the production of The Realistic Joneses, starring Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Tracy Letts (Homeland), and Marissa Tomei.  I thought the play was very entertaining.  There was a goofy similarity and comedic timing between Michael C. Hall's character, John Jones, and his blood splatter expert portion of his character in Dexter.  Having just binge watched that whole series in December/January, it was fresh in my brain.  All of the other actors played their parts perfectly as well.  

The final show for the week was the 2013 Tony award winner for Best Musical Revival: Pippin.  I'm not sure what I was expecting.  Maybe a little Cirque du Soleil type show with singing?  I have to say that I was surprisingly underwhelmed.

Add in some shopping in SoHo, brunch at my favorite place in Gramercy Park - Friend of a Farmer, and drinks around midtown, and that pretty much sums up a whirlwind NYC weekend!

Until the next quick trip up north....

Posted on Monday, April 21, 2014 by Julie

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Must Read

Mercy Snow by Tiffany Baker

I discovered Tiffany Baker's book simply because it was on a list of e-books on sale.  I'm not sure why it needed to be discounted because the story was worth full price.  It's a book of the haves and the have nots, and what happens when the haves misbehave and think they have the power to push blame onto the have nots.  It's also a book about the resilience of a girl who has nothing but her family and her drive to set things right, even if it puts her at risk.

Lazy Weekend

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

The Orphan Train is a story that embraces true events of orphans from New York City being sent against their wishes to the midwest to be placed with families - some good but mostly bad.  The plot oscillates between the past and present day, where a troubled foster kid, Molly, is trying to make it through the last few months of the system by helping Vivian, a local elderly woman who, she discovers, also had a rough childhood as part of the orphan train system.  Digging through her attic mementos, Vivian tells her story and finds the closure she had always sought with Molly's help, while also changing Molly's life forever.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Have you ever written an email to a coworker, who was also a friend, using your company email? What about instant messaging non-work related conversations?  I know I do it all the time!! Imagine that all of those communications were being flagged and a night worker in the IT department had the job of reading all of the emails and IMs to review and report to management. Now imagine this solo worker on the night shift is so engrossed in the exchange between two friends that he hides their infraction just so he can continue hearing their story, to the point where he is so emotionally invested that he develops feelings for one of the friends....

The Rose Gardner Mystery Series by Denise Grover Swank

I read the first book in this series, Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes, because I wanted a little light reading and it was something I had bought randomly off of iBooks a while ago.  I was hooked after the first book, and ended up devouring the entire first 4 books in the series in about 3 days. The 5th book comes out in June 2014, and I already have it pre-ordered.  This series reminds me a lot of the style of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series - a female character with the worst luck who ends up in deep trouble all the time, a strong male in law enforcement that wants to protect her, a crazy sidekick (this time a dog instead of Lula), and a second male to compete for the female's affection.

Skip This

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Sometimes I wonder how books get on the bestseller and recommended lists. I've seen this on Target's bookshelves for months as a top recommendation, so I finally broke down.  The story centers on a young girl who adores her uncle, a famous artist.  When her uncle dies of AIDS, she discovers he had a secret - his long-time domestic partner.  Against her family's wishes, she gets to know her uncle's partner better and they are able to provide each other with support as they cope with their mutual loss.  I just found I wasn't moved by the implied level of intensity of their coping struggles -- perhaps because this story was set in the early period of AIDS research when there was a great deal of ignorance on the disease and that to read about the, then, irrational prejudice towards people with AIDS or who were HIV positive is so far from today's reality to make one less empathetic?  Ultimately, the book got really repetitive and boring once all of the facts were established, and let's not forget the easily predictable of the fate of her uncle's lover...

Posted on Friday, April 18, 2014 by Julie

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