Monday, February 29, 2016

Life Right Now: February 2016

I know that February is the shortest month, but even with the additional day this year it seemed to completely fly by. So, since I wanted to make general life update posts once a month this year, I knew I had to get this one up today!

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Right Now in Entertainment:

- I've been slacking on my reading a bit this month, mostly because I've been either really busy, really tired, or really sick. I realized yesterday that I hadn't even picked up the book I was reading in two days because I just didn't have the time. (Well, not until it was so late that I was too tired to hold my eyes open.)

- Although it's been taking me a little longer to get through each book, I've read some really great ones this month. My next Show Us Your Books! post won't be as long as the last one, but at least it won't be full of books I didn't enjoy.

- As some of you may have seen on my Instagram, I went to one of those painting/drinking wine classes with a couple of friends from work on Saturday morning. It was a lot of fun, and it's something I'd definitely do again. And, while my painting wasn't amazing or perfect, I thought it was decent. (Especially considering I'd never done anything like that before!) Plus there were mimosas, and the first one was included in the price of the class!

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Right Now in General Life Updates:

- I was sick for the first two weeks of February, so I basically did a whole lot of nothing during that time. Except maybe for this:

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- Unfortunately, that means I completely sucked with my goals this month. Whomp whomp. I'm planning to share a goals and results post a little later this week, so you'll see what I mean. 

- Eric and I tried a local Mediterranean place, El Basha, for the first time a couple of weeks ago and it was amazing. The place was really tiny, so it was a little difficult to find a table on a busy Saturday night, but the food more than made up for that. We ordered the mezza plate for our appetizer (which contained hummus, falafel, taboule, and baba ghanuje and came with fresh, warm pita bread). I had a falafel wrap with fries, and Eric got the lamb shish kabob platter with grilled vegetables, rice, and a salad on the side. The fries weren't great (not bad, just not great), but everything else I tried was delicious. I actually think this may have been the best falafel I've ever had!

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It's clearly not a fancy place, but we got all of that food (plus two sodas) for a little over $30 ... So we didn't really go in expecting a fancy meal. I have a feeling this will become one of our regular places!

- I had a 9 hour long Skype date with my two friends that I usually Skype and travel with the same evening that Eric and I went out to El Basha. 9 hours. When I finally crawled into bed a little after 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, I accidentally woke Eric up. He said, "Did you fall asleep on the couch after you guys finished talking or something?" and I was like, "No ... We just finished." He looked at his phone to check the time, and his response was, "What the hell did you guys have to talk about for that long???" Haha.

Right Now in Things I'm Looking Forward To:

- Eric and I are going to see The Witch tomorrow night at the Alamo Drafthouse. That place opened a few months ago, and we keep saying we want to go ... So we decided to have a random Tuesday night date night so that we could see this movie before it stops showing there. I hope the movie is as scary as I think it's going to be!

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- We also got tickets to see The Spill Canvas in April. We haven't been to a concert in almost a year (which is seriously crazy for me!), and I think this will be a really fun show. They're doing a "Requestour," which basically means you get to vote for the songs you'd most want to hear and they'll play the songs that get the most votes. Hopefully a lot of people going to the show in Omaha will want to hear the same songs I voted for!  

The beginning of February was pretty awful because getting sick guaranteed that I had zero energy and zero motivation to do anything besides sleep as much as possible. By the end of the month, though, the better things like trying a great new restaurant, catching up with friends that live far away, and painting for the first time with friends definitely outweighed the bad.

Now if I can get myself back on track with goals, blogging stuff, and working out in March, I'll be very happy!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tasty Tuesday: Crockpot Chicken Fajita Soup

I know I just posted a Southwestern Chicken Noodle Soup recipe about a month ago and today's recipe is pretty similar, but you know what? Sometimes you try a couple of spicy chicken soups within a short period of time and they're both so good that you just have to share the recipes.

I decided to make a chicken fajita soup after Eric said he was in the mood for fajitas. Soup is obviously not the same as a traditional fajita, but honestly ... I'm not a huge fajita fan. I love all of the components, but for some reason I always feel like they're missing something.

That being said, I loved this soup. It's a little thicker/heartier than the Southwestern Chicken Noodle Soup, and it's perfectly spicy without being "too much." (I usually gauge this on Eric's comments. I like my food much spicier than he does, so if it's the right amount of spice for him, I assume it's probably the right amount for most people.) It's also made in the crockpot, which means it requires minimal effort. (My favorite kind of recipe!)

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I couldn't get a great picture of this soup (believe me, I tried), but trust me when I say it's worth trying. (Especially if you're a fan of Mexican/Tex-Mex flavors!)

Crockpot Chicken Fajita Soup

Adapted from a recipe on The Recipe Critic.

Ingredient List:
  • 2-3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 15 oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 10 oz. can mild Rotel tomatoes and chilies with their juices
  • 2 10.75 oz. cans condensed cream of chicken soup (I used low sodium.)
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 green bell pepper, sliced into strips
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips
  • 1 poblano pepper, diced
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (I used a cheddar jack blend.)
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp chipotle chili powder
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • Toppings for serving (if desired): avocado, fresh cilantro, additional cheese, sour cream, etc. (I just used some sliced avocado this time, but next time I'll probably add some fresh cilantro as well.)


1.  Spray the inside of the crockpot with cooking spray.

2.  Place the chicken breasts in the bottom, then add the black beans, Rotel, cream of chicken soup, water, cumin, garlic powder, chipotle chili powder, black pepper, and onion powder. Stir the mixture several times to blend everything together.

3.  Cook on low for 6-8 hours. 

4.  When about 35-40 minutes of cook time remain, remove the chicken to a plate and shred with two forks. Stir the shredded chicken back into the soup mixture.

5.  After the chicken has been shredded and placed back into the crockpot (about 30 minutes prior to the end of the cook time), add the sliced green bell pepper, sliced red bell pepper, and diced poblano pepper. Mix well to combine the peppers with the soup. (I chose to add the peppers later because I wanted them to retain some crunch. They softened a little, but they still had a slightly crisp texture. I'm sure they would be fine if you added them at the beginning, but I prefer slightly crisp to soft when it comes to peppers.)

6.  Stir in the cheese, and allow it to melt completely into the soup. (This should take about 10-15 minutes.) Serve with your favorite toppings.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tasty Tuesday: Vegetarian Spinach, Artichoke, and Feta Breakfast Casserole

Eric and I don't really do anything special for Valentine's Day. Neither of us hate it or anything ... We just prefer to spend our time and money celebrating birthdays and our wedding anniversary. We also always go out for a nice dinner on New Year's Eve, but that's kind of a random tradition we started a few years ago because it seemed like a good excuse to try a new restaurant. (And because we like food, obviously.)

That being said, this year we decided to make a couple of really good meals at home. If you follow me on Instagram, you've probably already seen our Valentine's Day dinner:

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Eric made the coffee crusted steaks and grilled asparagus, and I made the red garlic mashed potatoes. They're so unhealthy (hello, entire stick of butter and heavy cream!), but they're my absolute favorite type of mashed potatoes. We don't make them often, but when we do, you better believe I eat the shit out them!

But I'm getting sidetracked ... Those potatoes aren't the focus today.

Today I'm sharing the meal we made for our Valentine's Day breakfast.

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In an effort to combat our calorie rich dinner (complete with a bottle of wine and brownies and gelato for dessert), we decided to stick with a healthier breakfast.

This breakfast casserole is beyond easy to throw together, and, if spinach and artichokes aren't your thing, it's pretty versatile. I think I'll probably play around with this basic recipe in the future, but this time I mostly stuck with the original recipe (with a couple of small changes).

Vegetarian Spinach, Artichoke, and Feta Breakfast Casserole

Adapted ever so slightly from a recipe on Skinnytaste.

Ingredient List:
  • 1 10 oz. package of frozen chopped spinach (thawed and with all excess liquid squeezed out)
  • 1 13.75 oz. can quartered artichoke hearts, drained and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup green onions, diced
  • 8 large eggs
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1/4 cup milk (I used 1%.)
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 2 cloves garlic (or, if you're lazy like me, the equivalent of jarred, pre-minced garlic)
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp Mrs. Dash Italian Medley


1.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2.  Spray a 9x13 inch pan with cooking spray.

3.  Combine the spinach, artichokes, red bell pepper, green onion, and garlic in the baking pan, stirring several times to combine and spread the ingredients evenly throughout the dish.

4.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg whites, milk, Parmesan cheese, black pepper, sea salt, and Mrs. Dash Italian Medley.

5.  Stir the crumbled feta into the egg mixture, then pour evenly over the vegetables in the pan.

6.  Bake for 32-35 minutes (I baked mine for 33 minutes, and it was perfect), or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean.

7.  Allow the casserole to stand at room temperature for 8-10 minutes before cutting. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Recently Read: In-Depth Reviews - February 2016 Edition

As promised in this Tuesday's Show Us Your Books! post, I'm sharing my more in-depth reviews of each of the books I discussed in that post.

I usually write my in-depth reviews first and then summarize them for the link-up, so you'll probably notice some similarities if you've already read that post. If you're interested in hearing a little more about why I did/didn't like a particular book, though, these reviews will give you that additional information. (I also just really enjoy writing out all of my thoughts on a book once I've finished it, so it's as much for me as it is for others who enjoy reading/talking about books!)
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Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History by Paul Begg - 302 pages

Completed on 01/17/2016
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I don't read a lot of nonfiction. It's not that I can't appreciate a well researched piece of work, it's just that I typically read to escape. I like losing myself in the world of fictional characters, experiencing the world through their eyes. It's not that I don't like any type of nonfiction ... I do. It's just that if I'm given the choice between a fiction or nonfiction book, I'll choose fiction at least 98% of the time.

When I read that I'd have to choose a nonfiction book for one of the categories in the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge, I knew I'd go with either true crime or a memoir. Memoirs can be very hit or miss for me, though, so I opted for true crime. It's the one nonfiction genre I'm most drawn to.

I went into this book thinking it would be like some of the other true crime I've read in the past. I mean, obviously there wouldn't be sections devoted to the discovery, arrest, and trial, but I still thought it might have some of the same qualities.

I was wrong.

I'm not going to say that Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History was a terrible book because it really wasn't. Although there were a few discrepancies (at least once within the same page!), I thought Begg did an overall amazing job of researching not only the murders and theories of Jack's identity, but also the political and social climate in London at that time and exactly why the story of Jack the Ripper is so famous to this day.

Unfortunately, while the material was interesting and well researched, the writing was often extremely dry.

It's not that I expected it to be written like a story ... I didn't. Although some true crime writers choose to share their material in this way, I expected this particular book to be written a little more like an extensive magazine or newspaper article. Instead, there were chapters that made me feel like I was reading a history textbook: it was just a barrage of dates and times and locations and names. It felt like it took forever to get through it.

On the upside, I learned a lot from this book. I had always assumed that Jack the Ripper was so famous because the mystery behind his identity was never solved. I didn't realize that there was much more to the story ... That these murders sort of became a representation of the changes in London at the time and the turmoil that existed between the upper and lower classes.

I also appreciated that Begg simply presented the facts and then lets the reader decide which suspect seemed most likely to have committed the crimes. Obviously no one currently alive truly knows who Jack the Ripper was, but it was fun to sort through the information and attempt to figure it out.

My personal opinion is that it was most likely George Chapman (real name Severin Klosowski), a surgeon from Poland. (According to this book, he was also Chief Inspector Abberline's favored suspect.) Although many people seem to discount Chapman and claim that many things that could make him appear guilty were mere coincidence, I find that a little hard to believe. There were more than a few things that made me think, "This guy has to be the killer. There's no way there can possibly be this many coincidences!" I could obviously be wrong (and, really, Begg's list of possible suspects may not even include the actual killer), but, based on what I read, Chapman seemed like the most logical choice.

But anyway ... Back to the review.

Although I felt like I learned a lot from this book, I only gave it 2 stars on Goodreads. It's not that it was bad ... I'd actually recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Jack the Ripper and the political and social environment during the time of his murders. It's just that so much of it was a bunch of dry facts. Some parts were so boring that they'd put me to sleep within minutes of opening the book. (And that's probably why it took me almost a week to get through it!) Because of this, I couldn't really say I liked it ... But I definitely didn't completely dislike it either.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott - 170 pages

Completed on 01/18/2016
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This little book has been on my "To Read" list for years. Way back in the day when I was still an avid user of LiveJournal (awww, remember LiveJournal?), I was part of one of their communities that focused on "disturbing" books. (And, if you've been reading my blog for any amount of time, this probably doesn't surprise you at all.)

Anyway, someone in that community once posted about Living Dead Girl. I remember adding it to my list after reading their review, but, for whatever reason, I never picked it up. When I saw that it fit perfectly into the "read a book that's between 100 and 200 pages" category in the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge, I knew I'd finally get around to reading it.

And, let me just say, they weren't kidding when they recommended it to fans of "disturbing" books because it's incredibly fucked up. I couldn't believe what I was reading most of the time!

Living Dead Girl is told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl who was kidnapped 5 years earlier and is still living with her captor, Ray, in an apartment complex just a few hours from where her family lives. He calls her "Alice," but that's not her real name. Ray wants to remake her into exactly who and what he wants her to be: a little girl who can never grow up and whose only purpose is to serve him in the most terrible, shocking ways.

As she gets older, Alice finds herself wishing for death more and more often. But Ray has something even more horrifying in mind for her.

This book actually reminded me a bit of an Austrian movie I watched a few years ago called Michael. There were quite a few differences, of course, but the idea of a man who seems fairly "normal" keeping a young child captive (along with one additional element that I think I'm remembering correctly from the movie but can't really share because it would definitely spoil the book) was essentially the same. (Also, please note: do not watch Michael unless you can handle horribly fucked up movies. To be quite honest, it was difficult for me to watch. I don't remember it being overly graphic, but there was no doubt about what was happening in that basement. I still think about it sometimes because it got so far under my skin.)

But back to the book.

I enjoyed the overall story, and it definitely evoked some strong reactions (primarily disgust and disbelief), but I didn't like the fact that it was written as though it was for very young readers. I mean, it is a YA novel, but the subject matter clearly isn't for those on the younger side of the intended YA audience. It's not necessarily super explicit, but Scott leaves no doubt about the many forms of abuse that are taking place in that apartment.

I don't necessarily hate novels that are written using very basic, simple language, but in this case, I thought the book could have benefited from something more. I can't put my finger on what it was exactly, but there just seemed to be something lacking in those pages.

The ending, however, was great. I can honestly say that I didn't know exactly where Scott intended to take her story, and I was pleasantly surprised with the way things played out. (Those who have read this may be thinking, "Are you serious?" but I thought the ending really fit the overall mood of the book.)

This was definitely a quick read (I could have easily finished it in a few hours had I not started it at almost midnight on a weeknight!), but, due to the subject matter, it was by no means an "easy" read. And while I enjoyed it (as much as you can enjoy a book like this), I was disappointed enough in the simplistic writing to only give it 3 stars on Goodreads.

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson - 371 pages

Completed on 01/23/2016
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For the first few weeks of January I wondered if 2016 was destined to be a year filled with "meh" (or worse, awful) books. I know you can't judge the way your entire year will go by just a few short weeks, but it seemed like every book I picked up was either pretty good (but not mindblowingly so), mostly okay (but kind of boring), or really shitty. Obviously not a great start to the year.

And then I started reading I'll Give You the Sun and suddenly I wasn't in a bad book funk anymore.

Jude and her twin brother, Noah, used to be incredibly close. Now the two couldn't be further apart. I'll Give You the Sun chronicles two separate times in their lives, visiting them at 13 and then again at 16, when everything has changed.

The earlier years are told from Noah's point of view, and we're introduced to an awkward young teen desperately trying to figure himself out. He finds escape in his artwork as well as in Brian, the intriguing boy next door who sparks feelings inside Noah that he didn't know existed.

The later years are seen through Jude's eyes, and we learn that the once beautiful and confident girl we met at 13 is now completely closed off and awkward. She's traded in her previous popular friends for conversations with her dead relatives, and is filled with so much misery and regret that she's become a shell of her former self.

As the story unfolds, secrets are revealed that could change everything ... If only Noah and Jude can bring themselves back together to share the parts of the story that only they know.

I'll admit that it took me a little while to get into this book. The writing style is a little funky (Jandy Nelson apparently really loves metaphors!), and the whole "talking to ghosts" thing kind of turned me off at first.

But then, suddenly, I got sucked into this story. I literally stayed up all night to finish this (though, to be fair, I did sleep earlier in the evening when I took a 5 hour "nap" that was obviously not a nap at all).

As I read, I began to feel the way I felt when I read The Sea of Tranquility last year (a book that made it onto my best books of 2015 list). The story is filled with broken characters and sadness, but it's also filled with hope for second chances. (And tears for me, apparently. I cried a lot over the ending.)

There were a lot of things I loved about this book. I loved the eccentric characters. I loved Noah's passion for art. I loved Grandma Sweetwine's crazy "Bible" (which was just a bunch of random bits of wisdom and superstitions she'd collected into a book and then passed on to Jude after her death). I loved the descriptions of falling in love for the first time and falling in love after you've experienced heartbreak. I loved that it wasn't a book filled with a bunch of fluffy, feel good stuff, yet still managed to warm my heart and make me feel a ton of very intense emotions.

I have a feeling this book might be featured on my future Best Books of 2016 list. I don't think I'll be forgetting this story anytime soon.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill - 376 pages

Completed on 01/24/2016
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After spending what felt like forever on the waiting list for this book at the library (the single copy they have was due in early November and it still hasn't been returned!), I decided to try an audiobook. Since I've been trying to avoid buying any additional books right now (at least until I read all of the books already on my shelves), it was my only choice ... The library only had a paper book and audiobook available. And, since I really wanted to try to finish the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge using my original list, I knew I couldn't wait around until the book was finally returned (if it's ever returned at all).

That being said, I've learned that audiobooks are not for me. Maybe some are particularly good, but this one?  Meh.

In Heart-Shaped Box, an aging rock star named Judas (Jude) Coyne decides, on a whim, to add yet another oddity to his collection of macabre items: a ghost. The ghost has been placed for sale on an online auction site, and, deciding he must have it, Jude pays $1000 to ensure he'll be the winner.

When a black heart-shaped box arrives in the mail, it contains a dead man's suit ... And his vengeful spirit.

Jude quickly learns that the ghost belongs to the stepfather of an old girlfriend who committed suicide following their breakup. Determined to make Jude pay for her death, the ghost will stop at nothing to kill Jude and anyone who tries to help him.

I've mentioned before that I'm not really a fan of supernatural stories unless they're really well done. I felt like this one seemed promising. The plot intrigued me, and Joe Hill is Stephen King's son ... So I thought maybe he'd learned some tips and tricks from his father.

I'll admit that it's not really fair to compare Joe Hill to his father, and I really tried to avoid doing this ... But I failed. I think when you go into the same field as a parent (or any family member, for that matter), there are bound to be comparisons. And, in this case, Hill not only dove into the world of writing, but into the world of horror/suspense writing with a supernatural twist: King's world.

Unfortunately, Joe Hill wasn't able to live up to my expectations with Heart-Shaped Box. It's entirely possible that I would have felt differently if I'd actually read it (versus listening to it), but I'm not sure. The audiobook was read by Stephen Lang, and, while he had a pleasant voice, I hated his attempts at the character voices.

I also found it incredibly difficult to stay focused on the story while I was listening to it. I honestly don't know how you guys who love audiobooks can do it! I kept feeling like I was missing things, and I felt like I couldn't picture what was happening as well as I can when I'm actually reading words on a page. Maybe I'm weird, but, like I said before, I don't think audiobooks are for me.

That being said, I don't know if my review of Heart-Shaped Box is entirely fair. I worry that my impression of the story is tainted by my dislike of listening to someone reading to me, but I don't know. It's entirely possible that I just didn't enjoy it that much.

The story itself was just okay. I was hoping it would be scary, but honestly? It wasn't. I didn't think the story was even remotely creepy, despite the ghost stories/ghostly encounters sprinkled throughout in an effort to set the mood.

I think I may have even been okay with a less than terrifying book if I'd actually cared about what happened with the characters, but I really didn't. Again, it may have been because I was listening rather than reading, but the characters seemed underdeveloped. Although Hill attempted to share some background information about the characters to build their stories, they still felt very flat.

I'll admit that I appreciated the numerous references to musicians I like, particularly Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana. However, I did think it was a little weird that Hill chose to mostly reference more obscure Nirvana tracks (like "Verse Chorus Verse"). Maybe it was in an effort to seem "cool," though ... After all, a rock musician would probably have an appreciation for a band's entire catalogue, right? (I have no idea, but I'm assuming this is what Hill may have thought.)

And, this is probably ridiculous, but I was also a little annoyed by the fact that he kept referencing "a Trent Reznor show" as opposed to "a Nine Inch Nails show." I doubt that's something that would bother most people, but it kind of grated on me after a while. Yes, Nine Inch Nails is essentially Trent Reznor ... But no one says "a Trent Reznor show." (At least no one I've ever known.) #musicnerd

I rated Heart-Shaped Box 2 stars on Goodreads because it really was "just okay." I think it had the potential to be really good, but, for me, it just fell flat.

Overall, I felt like there were way too many cliches present in this story. I didn't connect with the characters, and the way the plot unfolded wasn't enough to keep me entertained. (And, like I said, it probably didn't help that I listened to the audiobook.) I have at least one or two of Joe Hill's novels on my "To Read" list, and I'll probably give him another chance. I mean, this book wasn't so bad that I wouldn't consider reading any of his other work. But those books won't be rising to the top of the list anytime soon.

The Martian by Andy Weir - 369 pages

Completed on 01/26/2016
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I took a break from the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge to kick off Book Challenge by Erin 4.0 with The Martian. I'd been on the waiting list at the library for what felt like forever, and then suddenly it was available ... And I had no time to read it. #libraryproblems

I wound up cutting it close, and finished it the day it was due. Luckily I was so engrossed in the story that I didn't mind spending nearly every waking moment glued to the book!

I'm sure everyone knows what this book is about, but just in case you've been living under a rock, here's a quick summary:

After a freak accident during a major dust storm on Mars, astronaut Mark Watney's crew, thinking him dead, pack up and leave. Left without any way to contact his crew (or anyone else, for that matter) and a limited supply of food and water, Mark is forced to get creative in order to survive.

The Martian mostly lived up to the hype for me and earned a solid 4 star rating on Goodreads.

Mark Watney is a great character, and I think one of the reasons a lot of people like the book so much is because he's a character you want to see succeed. (Though I'll admit that one of the shitty things about reading a book after the movie has already been released is that you picture those actors/actresses in your mind while you're reading. I could not get Matt Damon's face out of my head!)

My biggest issue with The Martian was the fact that almost every chapter seemed just like the chapter before it with a few slight differences. While I didn't really mind the fact that Mark was almost constantly in "Oh shit, what do I do now?" mode, it got a little old after a while. About halfway through the book I'd think, "Oh, look. Something bad has happened and now Mark must figure out some amazing, genius method for getting out of trouble. Can he do it? Something tells me he probably can."

This made the book pretty predictable. And, although I found the story compelling, I guessed that it would end the way it did long before I reached the end of the book.

There were a few other things I didn't love about the book (like the fact that he felt the need to tell readers that CO2 is carbon dioxide, for example ... Isn't Mark making this log for other scientists? I mean, I understand that a lot of people reading the novel aren't scientists, but I would think most people would at least know what CO2 refers to. Right?), but I thought it was enjoyable overall. Weir kept me entertained, and that's really all I wanted from this book.

Heart-Shaped Box by April Henry - 261 pages

Completed on 01/31/2016
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This was the last book I finished for the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge (and with only a few hours to spare, since I finished it late on the last day of the challenge!). If I hadn't chosen it for one of the categories, I never would have picked it up. I probably wouldn't have even known it existed!

I was surprised that I liked this book as much as I did since I wasn't really expecting much from it. It was definitely not the best mystery novel I've ever read (not even close!), but it was more interesting than I thought it would be.

Claire Montrose has just received an invitation to her 20th high school reunion. She was never a complete outsider, but she also wasn't one of the popular kids ... So initially she doesn't really want to go. After giving it a little more thought, though, she decides it might not be so bad to see her old classmates again.

When she checks into her hotel for the weekend, she receives a mysterious package containing a small wooden heart-shaped box. Inside the box is a picture of Claire from her high school yearbook. She has no idea who could have sent it, and doesn't give it too much thought ... Until an identical box is found in the hand of Cindy Sanchez, the former head cheerleader who was found strangled to death in the parking lot.

Before the evening ends, several other women from Claire's class admit that they also received a heart-shaped box. Is a killer marking his victims? Or is it just a coincidence? Claire is determined to find out ... Before it's too late.

I'm not going to lie: I knew very early on who the killer would be. April Henry did a pretty good job attempting to make things less obvious (and there were a few times that I did question my initial guess), but she wound up going in the direction I thought she would.

That's not to say it was incredibly obvious, though, because it wasn't. (Not really, anyway.) But there was just something about the way the main character described this person that made me stop and think, "This person is probably going to be the killer." (I wish I could explain this a little more, but I can't without spoilers.)

So, while I wasn't thrilled with a lot of genius plot twists, Heart-Shaped Box was still a decent read. I might categorize it as "chick-lit mystery." (It's not nearly as good as Liane Moriarty's books, though!) There was quite a bit of fluff (though, to be fair, it was slightly edgier than I initially thought it would be) and humor, and it was one of those books that was an okay way to pass the time ... But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it because it's not great.

I liked it enough to give it a 3 star rating on Goodreads, but maybe I was being generous since I originally didn't think I would like it at all.

Oh, and a final note: this is the third book in a series, but I haven't read any of the others (nor do I plan to). I was a little worried that I'd be lost since I didn't have any background on the characters or their lives, but I think this worked fine as a stand alone.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards - 401 pages

Completed on 02/08/2016
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I didn't know much about this book before choosing it for Erin's book challenge, and I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter is a complex story told over the course of 25 years. On the night of a blizzard in 1964, Norah Henry goes into labor. When his colleague is unable to make it out to help them, her husband, Dr. David Henry, and his nurse, Caroline Gill, are forced to deliver Norah's twins on their own.

The first baby, a boy, is perfectly healthy. However, when his daughter arrives moments later, David immediately recognizes that she has Down syndrome.

Believing that his daughter will suffer from severe health issues and potentially lead a very short life, David makes a decision that will change all of their lives forever. He asks Caroline to take the baby to an institution. After seeing what a terrible place this would be for a child, she decides to leave town, keep the baby, and raise it as her own.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter reminded me in some ways of Everything I Never Told You (which was one of the best books I read in 2015). In both novels, a family is suffering due to an extreme lack of communication. There are times when you want to reach into the pages, grab these characters by the shoulders, shake them, and say, "Just talk to each other!  Just say something!"

This book gets a lot of mixed reviews on Goodreads, but I gave it a solid 4 star rating. While there were times that I felt the author got a little too caught up in mundane details and there was a strange subplot a little over halfway into the book that seemed out of place and unnecessary, I thought it was a very good book overall.

One of the things I appreciated most about The Memory Keeper's Daughter was the fact that it was loosely based on a true story. The author discusses her inspiration for the book in the notes at the end, and I was surprised to learn that this wasn't something she completely made up on her own. Some of the best fiction stems from other, true stories ... And this was no exception.

Kim Edwards did an excellent job creating complex, deeply flawed main characters. They didn't always say and do the right things. (In fact, most of the time they didn't.) And, although their actions were at times very odd or confusing, I felt like this just made them seem more real. I mean, I know I've done things during my lifetime that didn't make much sense when I looked back on them ... But, for whatever reason, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

That's the feeling I got when I was reading this book. It seemed like the characters couldn't see past their own pain or frustration or anger and so they acted out in ways that suited them at the time.

I will say, though, that even though the characters seemed complex, there were definitely times when I was annoyed at how things always just seemed to work out. (Hopefully that statement is vague enough. You guys know I hate spoilers!) I know it's necessary to suspend your disbelief while reading fiction, but I can never suspend my disbelief enough to overlook pieces falling neatly into place for pretty much every person in the story.

I'm not saying that no one ever deserves (or gets) a "happy ending" in real life ... I'm just saying that typically things don't just effortlessly work themselves out. And, while there was plenty of conflict in this novel, I felt like some things were never resolved but rather overlooked in favor of a "better" outcome for that character. This just really bothered me for some reason as I was reading the book.

Like I said, though, I enjoyed the book overall. It's not really my typical kind of book, and I appreciated that it got me out of my comfort zone a bit. I think it's worth reading unless you absolutely hate authors who focus on every tiny detail and description. (There's a lot of that!) The plot is interesting, though, and I appreciated the complex ways in which a single decision affected the lives of several people, forever linked by a secret.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Songs for the Brokenhearted Playlist: Vol. 2

Last February, I shared a "Songs for the Brokenhearted" playlist (along with the reasons why I chose each song). And, since Valentine's Day is coming up quickly, this year I'm being super creative and doing the same thing.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for sad love songs.

I haven't bothered posting a monthly playlist for the last couple of months, and I wanted to get back into it. I may not post a Spotify playlist every month, but I'll try to do it a little more often. It's something I enjoy doing, and I love sharing my favorite music with other people.

I also realized that lately the majority of my entertainment related posts have been about books. And, while there's nothing wrong with that, I miss writing posts about music. 

Don't get me wrong ... I absolutely love books and reading and the group of amazing bloggers I've met through book related link-ups. But I also love music. A lot

So today I'm going to get a little more personal and share why each of these songs holds a lot of meaning for me. I'm happy to say that I'm in a much better place these days, but I'll never stop loving these songs. They got me through some of my worst moments, and sometimes I think I survived the crushing pain of a broken heart only because I found comfort in these words.

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1. Oh Well: Fiona Apple is the queen of sad and angry love songs, and I've turned to her music each and every time I've dealt with a breakup. Extraordinary Machine was released in the spring of 2006, and it was the perfect time for her to release a new album. I was completely devastated over the end of a relationship (and dealing with severe depression on top of that), and, once again, she really got it. It was as if she'd reached inside my head, taken out all of my thoughts and feelings, and somehow twisted them into beautiful songs. I listened to this album on repeat for months after it was released, and it's still one of my all-time favorites. I chose "Oh Well" specifically because every line described the rollercoaster of emotions I experienced with that breakup (which became an on-again-off-again thing for far too long). This part in particular "What you did to me made me see myself somethin' awful/A voice once stentorian is now again meek and muffled/It took me such a long time to get back up the first time you did it/I spent all I had to get it back and now it seems I've been outbidded" really summed up the situation for me. 

2. Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh: This is one of the more obvious "love gone wrong" type of songs from Bright Eyes, but that doesn't make it any less effective. I know that some people are quick to write them off as way too "emo," but I stand by my belief that Conor Oberst writes some of the best lyrics in music today. This song is no exception. "Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh" tells the story of the end of a relationship, complete with bitterness and that lost feeling that often goes along with severing ties with someone when you don't really want to let go. The lines that have always resonated with me the most are: "But now we speak with ruined tongues/And the words we say aren't meant for anyone/It's just a mumbled sentence to a passing acquaintance/But there was once you."

3. Passive: Is this a love song? No. But this has been one of my favorite "fuck you" songs for years, and sometimes when you're dealing with a really shitty breakup you just need to let off some steam. I remember years ago playing this on repeat in my car and singing it at the top of my lungs when I was feeling particularly angry and bitter about the things that were going on in my love life. (And, let's be honest, I still love singing "Passive" at the top of my lungs in the car. It's a really great song!) For me, the best part is at the end of the song when the final chorus sort of swells into this impassioned repeated cry, "Why can't you turn and face me?" and then ends by saying "You fucking disappoint me" and fades into a soft refrain of "Passive aggressive bullshit."

4. Cloud on My Tongue: This song holds very personal meaning for me, and I honestly can't listen to it without crying. Like many of Tori Amos's songs, the lyrics are pretty abstract, yet they manage to cut right to the core. For me, this song is about trying to shut someone out who is causing you pain only to realize they're already so deep inside you that you can never just completely walk away. They've left their mark, and, for better or worse, it will change how you view things forever. "You're already in there/I'll be wearing your tattoo/You're already in there/Thought I was over the bridge now."

5. Nothingman: This has been one of my favorite sad love songs since late middle school/early high school, when "heartache" felt enormous (but could never compare to what I felt in my early 20s when I was stuck in an endless loop of love and hate and happiness and pain with a certain guy). Even at 13, I really felt these words ... And at 21/22? I understood them in ways I wished I didn't. From the opening lines: "Once divided, nothing left to subtract/Some words when spoken can't be taken back" to the second verse (which contains one of my absolute favorite lyrics): "And he who forgets will be destined to remember," this song beautifully describes the pain of realizing a relationship just isn't going to work and doing and saying things you may grow to regret as it unravels.

6. Someday You Will Be Loved: This is kind of a weird song because it always makes me think, "Wow, he's really kind of an asshole." At the same time, it always makes me really sad. Yes, it's a little harsh in some ways, but the overall message rings very true for me. Sometimes when an important relationship ends, it's hard to see much beyond that. It's hard to believe you'll ever move on with your life and see your time with that person as simply a stop along the way. This song kind of plays on that idea, and it's almost written as an anti-love letter: "You'll be loved, you'll be loved/Like you never have known/And the memories of me will seem more like bad dreams/Just a series of blurs like I never occurred/Someday you will be loved."

7. I and Love and You: This is such a beautiful song, and it captures the desperate need to move on from a relationship that just isn't working anymore. I didn't start listening to The Avett Brothers until I'd already met Eric, so this wasn't a song that helped me get through a tough time. Even so, "I and Love and You" describes certain emotions I've experienced over the years, and is one of those songs that really cuts to my core. "Dumbed down and numbed by time and age/Your dreams that catch the world, the cage/The highway sets the traveler's stage/All exits look the same/Three words that became hard to say/I and love and you."

8. Hear Me Out: I love that this song perfectly describes what it means to be in that "limbo" sort of place when a relationship has just ended. You're convinced that a simple conversation might change the course of things, and frustrated when the other person refuses to listen (or possibly even pick up the phone when you call). This is probably one of the worst stages of a breakup because you're willing to hold on to a shred of hope that things might change ... Even if you know deep down that it's probably really over. "I don't want to feel anything, but I do/And it all comes back to you/So listen up, this sun hasn't set/I refuse to believe that it's only me feeling/Just hear me out/I'm not over you yet."

9. Accidental Babies: Despite the odd title, this song really broke me apart the first time I heard it (and every time after). It's strangely sensual, with a lot of descriptions of his experiences with a former lover and questions about her current relationship. But, at the heart of it, "Accidental Babies" is a sad song about wanting to be with someone who has moved on and that sick desire that occasionally swells up, forcing us to ask questions we don't really want the answers to. "But do you really feel alive without me?/If so, be free/If not, leave him for me."

10. That Particular Time: I love that this song tells the story of the way a relationship has changed over time, ending with an eventual parting of ways. "That Particular Time" still shatters my heart into a million tiny pieces every time I hear it because it just feels so personal for me. I think the lyrics say it all, but this entire section is what I most related to when I was trying to deal with a severely broken heart: "I've always wanted for you what you've wanted for yourself/And yet I wanted to save us high water or hell/And I kept on ignoring the ambivalence you felt/And in the meantime I lost myself."

11. Happiness by the Kilowatt: I chose to use the live City and Colour cover of this song (as opposed to the Alexisonfire original that I also love) because I felt like this version tied in a little better with the rest of the playlist. (And, really, either way you're getting Dallas Green singing a lovely sad song.) The lyrics are very simple, but they do a great job describing what it's like to have high hopes for a relationship only to be let down when you realize it's not what you wanted at all: "So this is continuous happiness/And you know, I always imagined it something more."

12. I Didn't Understand: I could have filled this playlist with Elliott Smith songs, but I wanted to only choose one song by each artist I included. While it was a little difficult to narrow it down, I started thinking about how much I identified with "I Didn't Understand" when I was struggling to deal with the breakup I've now referenced multiple times throughout this post. I remember listening to this song and thinking, "This is everything I'm feeling." It's hard to even choose just a few lines to share here because the entire song is just perfect. "Thought you'd be looking for the next in line to love then ignore/Put out and put away/And so you'd soon be leaving me alone like I'm supposed to be/Tonight, tomorrow, and every day/There's nothing here that you'll miss/I can guarantee you this."

So now that I've depressed everyone (just kidding ... Hopefully I didn't do that!), here's the Spotify playlist so you can actually listen to (and hopefully enjoy) the songs:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

From the Bookshelf: Recently Read - February 2016 Edition

The best time of the month is when the Show Us Your Books! link-up with Steph and Jana rolls around and I can share my thoughts about the books I've read recently (and add a bunch of books to my neverending "To Read" list, of course!).

I have a lot of books to talk about today, so I'll just get right to it.

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Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History by Paul Begg - 302 pages - 2 stars

Last month I talked about an awful book I read for the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge called Mayhem. After I finished it, I immediately began the nonfiction accompaniment because I wanted to make sure I actually completed this category and got my 30 points. If I had to suffer through Mayhem, I was going to make sure it was worth it!

Nonfiction isn't my favorite thing to read, but I do occasionally pick up a true crime book or a memoir. Since I've read a fair amount of true crime, I expected Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History to be at least somewhat similar to the other books I've read. I mean, obviously there wouldn't be sections devoted to the discovery, arrest, and trial, but I still thought it might have some of the same qualities.

I was wrong.

It's not that I expected it to be written like a story ... I didn't. Although some true crime writers choose to share their material in this way, I expected this book to be written a little more like an extensive magazine or newspaper article. Instead, there were chapters that made me feel like I was reading a history textbook: it was just a barrage of dates and times and locations and names. It felt like it took forever to get through it.

That being said, it wasn't an awful book. It was pretty well researched and I felt like I learned a lot. Begg not only discussed the murders and possible suspects, but also the political and social climate in London at that time and exactly why the story of Jack the Ripper is so famous to this day. And, while it wasn't the best thing I've read lately, it was (thankfully!) much better than the fiction I chose for this challenge category.

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott - 170 pages - 3 stars

When she was 10 years old, "Alice" (as she is now called) was kidnapped. Now, five years later, Alice still lives with her captor, Ray, in an apartment complex just a few hours from her childhood home. Forced to endure unimaginable abuse, she finds herself wishing for death more and more often. But Ray has something even more horrifying in mind for her.

Living Dead Girl is a dark, fucked up book. If that's not your thing, you won't like this at all. If, however, you're like me and enjoy disturbing books, it may be worth checking out. (And at only 170 pages, it's a quick read!)

My biggest issue with this book was that it was written as though it was for very young readers. Yes, it is a YA novel, but the subject matter clearly isn't for those on the younger side of the intended YA audience ... So I thought it was kind of strange that it was written in such basic, simple language. And, while the book wasn't bad, it felt like it was lacking in some ways.

This book had been on my "To Read" list for years, so I was happy I was able to use it for the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge. The simplistic writing didn't really work for me, but I thought the story was good overall and I really appreciated the ending.

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson - 371 pages - 5 stars

I'll Give You the Sun follows Jude and her twin brother, Noah, at two very different points in their lives.

At 13, the twins are nearly inseparable. This part of the story is told from Noah's point of view, and we're introduced to an awkward young teen desperately trying to figure himself out. He finds escape in both his artwork and in Brian, the intriguing boy next door who sparks feelings inside Noah that he didn't know existed.

By the time they're 16, everything has changed. This part of the story is seen through Jude's eyes, and we learn that the once beautiful and confident girl we met at 13 is now completely closed off and awkward. She and Noah are barely speaking, and she's filled with so much misery and regret that she's become a shell of her former self.

This book made me feel the way The Sea of Tranquility (a book that made it onto my Best Books of 2015 list) made me feel. Although the stories were different in so many ways, they both have some similar themes (most notably broken characters attempting to find a way back to themselves). They also both made me cry, though that may not be saying much since I'm super sensitive/emotional and tend to cry over a lot of books, music, movies, etc.

I loved so many things about this book, and I was so happy that I finally read a book worthy of 5 stars this year! One of my favorite things about it was the fact that it wasn't a book filled with a bunch of fluffy, feel good stuff ... Yet still managed to warm my heart and make me feel a ton of very intense emotions.

This should definitely be added to your "To Read" list (if it's not there already)! I have a feeling I won't be forgetting this story anytime soon.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill - 376 pages - 2 stars

Judas (Jude) Coyne is an aging rock star known not only for his heavy metal hits but also for his extensive collection of macabre oddities. When he finds a ghost for sale in an online auction, he decides he has to have it.

When a black heart-shaped box arrives in the mail, it contains a dead man's suit ... And his vengeful spirit. Convinced that Jude is responsible for his stepdaughter's suicide, the ghost will stop at nothing to kill Jude and anyone who tries to help him.

I had high hopes for this book, and it had been on my "To Read" list for years. Unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations.

The good: numerous references to musicians I like (Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails and Nirvana in particular). The bad: pretty much everything else.

I'll admit that I listened to the audiobook, and this may have influenced my review. This was my first audiobook, and it's likely going to be my last. I just don't think they're for me. The only good thing about it was that I was able to get through the book very quickly. (I started it on a Saturday and finished it the next day ... Ah, the perks of having a weekend free of any plans!)

That being said, I don't think listening (as opposed to reading) was the only reason I didn't enjoy this book. I'll discuss my reasons further in my more in-depth review (that post will go up on Sunday), but here's a general summary:

I didn't care about the characters or what happened to them. I didn't think the book was scary at all, and the way the plot unfolded wasn't enough to keep me entertained. I also felt like the story was littered with too many cliches, and I found myself rolling my eyes a lot (like when they used a Ouija board to contact the dead, for example).

It wasn't the worst book I've ever read, but I was really hoping for something better.

The Martian by Andy Weir - 369 pages - 4 stars

I'm pretty sure everyone knows what The Martian is about, but just in case here's a quick summary:

Mark Watney's crew was forced to evacuate Mars after a major dust storm. The only problem? They left him behind. Injured and unconscious, Mark eventually wakes to the reality that he's literally the only person on the planet. Left without any way to contact his crew (or anyone else, for that matter) and a limited supply of food and water, Mark is forced to get creative in order to survive.

Before I even started this book, I assumed I'd probably enjoy it. While I'm not a huge science fiction fan, a ton of my favorite bloggers also raved about it (including many others who wouldn't classify science fiction as one of their favorite genres). And, since I've enjoyed a lot of their recommendations in the past, I knew I'd probably like this one as well.

The Martian mostly lived up to the hype for me, but I did have a couple of issues with it.

The biggest problem for me was the fact that almost every chapter seemed just like the chapter before it with a few slight differences. Yes, there were a few sections that showed what was happening back on Earth or what was happening with Watney's crew, but, for the most part, it was Watney finding himself in bad situations and trying to figure a way to get out of trouble. Given the circumstances, I'm sure that's pretty realistic (well, as realistic as a science fiction book can be), but it just got old after a while.

Although it wasn't a perfect book, I liked it overall. The story was compelling, and I really liked the character of Mark Watney. It's not a great work of literature that people will discuss in classrooms for years to come, but it's not trying to be. It's the kind of book you pick up because you simply want to be entertained.

Heart-Shaped Box by April Henry - 261 pages - 3 stars

When she checks into a hotel for her 20th high school reunion, Claire Montrose receives a mysterious package containing a small wooden heart-shaped box. Inside the box she discovers a picture of herself from her high school yearbook.

She doesn't think much of it until an identical box is found in the hand of one of her classmates ... A classmate who has been strangled to death in the parking lot.

The murdered woman had a lot of enemies, but Claire can't shake the thought that the box may be some sort of clue to the killer's identity. When several other women admit they also received heart-shaped boxes, she has to wonder: is the killer marking his victims? And will she be next?

This was the final book I finished for the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge. To be perfectly honest, I would never have picked it up otherwise. I love mysteries/thrillers, but based on the reviews on Goodreads, I didn't get the impression that this book was very good.

Since I initially thought I wouldn't like it much at all, I may have been a little generous with my rating. It didn't have the types of twists and turns I like in a mystery, and I knew who the killer would be very early on. But, while I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, it wasn't so awful that I feel like I completely wasted my time reading it.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards - 401 pages - 4 stars

When his wife goes into labor during a blizzard in 1964, Dr. David Henry has no choice but to deliver the baby. He's surprised to learn that she's pregnant with twins (a boy and a girl), and even more surprised to learn that while his son appears to be perfectly healthy, his daughter has Down syndrome.

Believing she will likely suffer from heart complications and die at an early age, David asks his nurse, Caroline Gill, to take the baby to an institution. After seeing what a terrible place this would be for a child, she decides to leave town, keep the baby, and raise her as her own.

What follows is a story that spans 25 years in the lives of two families, forever linked by a secret.

This isn't the type of book I normally go for (and, in fact, I only read it because I chose it for Erin's book challenge), so I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it so much. Although the author spent a bit too much time on frivolous details and descriptions, she managed to create an intriguing story with very flawed, realistic characters.

I loved the idea of a family haunted by secrets and heartache, and the complex ways in which a single decision can affect the lives of several people (particularly when the lines of communication are practically nonexistent). These types of stories always interest me, and this was no exception.

I didn't love everything about The Memory Keeper's Daughter (there will be more on that in my detailed review, which will be posted this Sunday), but I thought it was a good book overall.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Currently I'm ...

What's New With You
Yes, I realize that I just wrote a "life lately" post last week and a "currently" post is basically the same idea. But I really wanted to link up with Kristen and Gretchen today, and, to be completely honest, I wasn't feeling any of the 20 blog posts I started before this one.

So I'll save those for another time, and talk about some completely random shit today.

Currently I'm:

Reading: The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. This is my second book for Book Challenge by Erin 4.0, and I have several others from my list already checked out from the library. I think I'll probably go for Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson next.

Listening To: A lot of Radiohead.

Especially this:

And this:

Wishing: I had more time to do everything I want (and need) to do. Seriously ... 24 hours just isn't enough most days.

Spending: Less money in general. One of my New Year's resolutions for 2016 is to be more frugal, and I think I've been doing pretty well so far. I'm not on a spending freeze or anything, but I'm trying to be more aware of my spending habits in order to cut back on unnecessary expenses.

Trying: To avoid getting sick. Eric has been feverish and coughing his head off for the last couple of days, and I've basically been like this:

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Thinking: That I should have chosen something less time consuming to make for work tomorrow. I have to bake a couple of pans of pasta tonight, and, while it isn't difficult, it takes time. (And yet I keep putting it off.)

Craving: Mediterranean food. Specifically falafel. And hummus. And kebabs. Yum.

Loving: That this weekend is going to be mostly free and relaxing. I have a Skype date with two of my girlfriends on Saturday, and I'm planning to work out Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. But other than that? Totally free.

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Planning: To spend some time reading, stalking checking out new blogs from this link-up, and working on some blog posts this weekend. (Obviously I give zero fucks about the Superbowl.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Tasty Tuesday: One Pot Spanish Chickpeas and Rice

I've mentioned this a couple of times before, but I've been trying to incorporate more vegetarian meals into our weekly meal plans. We'll never go completely vegetarian (we both enjoy meat and seafood way too much), but I think it's nice to switch things up once in a while.

Budget Bytes is probably my favorite resource for vegetarian recipes.  Stephanie mentioned Budget Bytes in her Three on Thursday post last week, and I completely agree with everything she said. There are a ton of creative, simple, healthy, budget friendly meals on that site (with and without meat!), and, while I usually tweak the recipes, everything I've tried so far has been delicious.

The meal I'm posting today is no exception. I made several changes to the original recipe, and the end result was amazing.

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This is probably one of the best, most flavorful vegetarian dishes I've ever made. I love that it's something a little different as well ... It's not my standard pasta dish or curry. (Though I'm definitely not knocking either of those things. I mean, my other favorite vegetarian dish is Red Curry Lentils with Coconut Jasmine Rice.)

There's just so much to love about this meal. I love that it can easily be adapted to fit your tastes. I love that it's super easy to throw together and requires minimal effort (and minimal cleanup!). I love that it's not only delicious but also pretty healthy. And, perhaps most of all, I love that my meat loving husband thought it was awesome (and didn't even say anything like, "This would be even better with some chicken!").

One Pot Spanish Chickpeas and Rice

Adapted ever so slightly from a recipe on Budget Bytes.

Ingredient List:
  • 2 14 oz. cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes with their juices
  • 1 medium white onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 lemon
  • 4 cloves garlic (or, if you're lazy like me, the equivalent of jarred, pre-minced garlic)
  • 1/3 cup olives + 1 tsp brine (You don't have to add the brine, but I think it adds a little extra flavor. And if you're not a fan of olives, you can skip them altogether.)
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 cup uncooked rice (I used long grain white rice. I've tried a few different types of rice in these one pot meals, and this seems to consistently be the best.)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika (You'll really want to use smoked paprika for this recipe. I felt like it added a certain depth of flavor that I don't think you'd get from regular paprika.)
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (If you're not a fan of spicy food, I'd cut it back to 1/4 tsp. I thought the spiciness was pretty subtle, but Eric said he noticed the heat.)
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 2 bay leaves


1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium low heat. Once the skillet has heated up, add the garlic and cook until just fragrant (between about 30 seconds and 1 minute).

2. Add the smoked paprika, cumin, oregano, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and sea salt to the skillet. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring regularly to combine with the garlic and hot oil. 

3. Add the onion, green bell pepper, and red bell pepper to the skillet. Stir several times to coat with the oil, garlic, and spices, and cook for about 5 minutes (or until the vegetables are just beginning to soften).

4. Add the rice and mix thoroughly. Allow the rice to cook for about 1-2 minutes.

5. Pour in the chickpeas, olives, olive brine (if you're using this), diced tomatoes, and vegetable broth. Stir all of the ingredients together until well combined.

6. Turn the heat up to medium high. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally.

7. Once it has reached a boil, squeeze in the juice from the lemon and stir to combine.

8. Add the bay leaves, cover, and reduce heat to low. Simmer for about 20 minutes (or until most of the liquid is gone), stirring occasionally. (I did have to turn my heat back up to medium low after I checked on it the first time because there seemed to be a lot of liquid left. It should be fine if you turn the heat up a bit, but you'll want to stay a little closer to the stove and stir a little more frequently to make sure the rice doesn't start sticking.)

9. After it has finished cooking, turn off the heat and let it sit for about 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, remove the lid, remove and discard the bay leaves, and fluff the rice with a fork.

This makes a lot, so you should have plenty of leftovers (unless you're feeding a lot of people). And don't worry ... It still tastes great after being reheated!

Monday, February 1, 2016

January 2016 Goals and Results

I was planning to post my January goals recap on Sunday (mostly because I know these kinds of goal posts are sometimes boring to other people), but I got busy with laundry and reading and just kept putting it off.

It may not be my most interesting post, but sharing goal related stuff on my blog really helps me stay on track. (For the most part, anyway.) I mean, no one wants to share their monthly goals and then say, "But I didn't actually do any of these things."

So, while I obviously come up with things I'd like to achieve (or at least work on) throughout the month because I want to achieve/work on them, it's always in the back of my mind that I'll be sharing my results on my blog at the end of month. And (thankfully!) that forces me to get a little more motivated.

 photo January2016GoalsandResults_zpsrhsyuab7.jpg
Since January marks the beginning of a new year, several of my goals were centered around creating and maintaining new habits. I figured if I could kick off 2016 with a few new habits, it would be easier to cross off a bunch of my New Year's resolutions by the end of the year.

My other main focus last month was reading. January marked the end of the Semi-Charmed Winter Book Challenge and the beginning of Book Challenge by Erin 4.0. I set some pretty lofty reading goals (for me, anyway), and I wanted to incorporate the challenges in some way as well.

January 2016 Goals and Results

1. Read 9 books.

FAIL. I ended the month with a grand total of 8 books, so I was really close to achieving this one. I don't think I've ever read that many books in a single month before, so I'm still proud of myself.

2. Finish SCWBC15.

FAIL. Again, I was really close ... But I just couldn't manage to finish everything in time. I read all but one of the books on my original list (I didn't get to the "Debut Book By Any Author" category), but, unless someone else read I'll Give You the Sun in the last month, I won't be able to count that one either. Oh well. It was one of the best books I've read in a while, so I don't even mind.

3. Start Book Challenge by Erin 4.0.

PASS. I took a quick break from the other challenge to read The Martian. I think I'll actually be able to finish this challenge (and possibly even the bonus round!). I thought I could finish the other one, but I got too distracted by a bunch of books I'd been waiting for that became available all at once. Now I know I need to start strong. I don't want to try cramming 8 books into a few short weeks again!

4. Make January gym/workout schedule.

PASS. I'm really glad I worked toward forming this habit last month. When I see something specific written down, I feel like I need to do it. And while I occasionally had to modify the schedule, I got into a general workout routine and managed to do some sort of workout 5 days each week! (More on that later in this post.)

5. Make and stick to weekly meal plans.

PASS. This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time, but, for whatever reason, I could never get myself to stick with it. I'm happy to report that this has now become a new habit for me! Again, I may have to modify it from time to time (like if my in-laws invite us over for dinner, for example), but that's okay. It still served its purpose: we planned ahead so we ate out significantly less (which also meant we were eating at least a little better/healthier) and we found ways to use up things we already had on hand (which obviously also helps save money and reduce waste).

6. Try 2 new recipes.

PASS. I actually tried 4 new recipes last month! I've already shared my Southwest Chicken Noodle Soup and Boozy Beefy Beany Crockpot Chili, and I'll be posting a third (vegetarian) recipe tomorrow. The fourth recipe was good, but it needs some additional tweaking before I'll feel comfortable posting it here.

7. Make and stick to weekly (or biweekly) blog schedule.

FAIL. I really wanted this to become a new habit as well, but, for some reason, I seem to find it incredibly difficult to do this. I think I may just have to continue experimenting with what works best for me: how many posts I think I have time to work on each week, which days of the week are best for me to spend responding to comments, etc. It's something I plan to continue working on (even if I don't make it a specific goal for the month).

I think I did a pretty good job overall. The two reading goals I didn't meet were very close, so I really only had one goal that I didn't work on at all.

I realize this post is getting really long, but, since I'm already discussing how well I stuck with my goals in January, I'm also going to share my workout totals.

 photo January2016Workouts_zpskwiig9q7.jpg
This is probably going to be very boring for a lot of people, so I'm sorry. I'm really proud of myself for working out so regularly, though, so I'm going to post about it. (And I lost 2 pounds in January! I'm pretty proud of myself for that too.)

I'm planning to do this each month in an effort to stay motivated and accountable. If you don't care about someone else's workouts (and many of you probably don't), feel free to skip this part of the post.

January 2016 Workouts

Week 01/01 - 01/08:

01/02: Yoga video (30 minutes)
01/04: Yoga class (60 minutes)
01/06: Walking - treadmill (10 minutes; 0.58 miles) & BodyPump class (60 minutes)
01/07: Cardio video (15 minutes) & Yoga video (20 minutes)
01/08: Yoga class (60 minutes)

Total Time: 255 minutes (4 hours, 15 minutes)

Week 01/09 - 01/16:

01/10: Yoga video (30 minutes)
01/11: Yoga class (60 minutes)
01/12: Walking/light jogging - treadmill (55 minutes; 3.30 miles)
01/13: BodyPump class (60 minutes)
01/14: Yoga video (35 minutes)

Total Time: 240 minutes (4 hours)

Week 01/17 - 01/24:

01/17: Yoga video (35 minutes)
01/18: Yoga class (75 minutes)
01/20: Walking - treadmill (10 minutes; 0.60 miles) & BodyPump class (60 minutes)
01/21: Elliptical (10 minutes; 0.58 miles) & Walking/light jogging - treadmill (30 minutes; 1.84 miles)
01/23: Yoga video (45 minutes)

Total Time: 265 minutes (4 hours, 25 minutes)

Week 01/25 - 01/31:

01/25: Yoga video (30 minutes)
01/28: Walking/light jogging - treadmill (60 minutes; 3.75 miles)
01/29: Yoga video (40 minutes)
01/30: Light walking - downtown and car show (~3 hours; 3.08 miles)
01/31: Yoga video (35 minutes)

Total Time: ~345 minutes (~5 hours, 45 minutes)

The time for the last week is obviously much less precise than the first few weeks because I'm basing it off the time we spent out that day (and the mileage was taken from Eric's FitBit).

I'm also a little embarrassed by how slow I am when I use the treadmill. However, it should probably be noted that I walk at an incline for the majority of my workout and only jog for a few minutes. I'm trying to work up to jogging a little longer each time, but I'm definitely not a runner ... So it will be a while before I can finish a mile in 12 minutes or less.

Eric and I have our February goals up on the fridge, but I won't discuss those until the end of the month/beginning of March. This post is already long enough!