Monday, February 29, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016: Black Beauty

Week 9: A novel set in a country not your own

Black Beauty 
by Anna Sewell 

Just as Good as I Remembered

Do you ever get nervous that if you go back and read a book you adored as a child that you would be disappointed? Maybe I'm the only one with that fear, but I hadn't read Black Beauty for such a long time I was really, really nervous about re-reading it, afraid I would only find it a disappointment. Well, good job little me, you had good tastes way back in the day.

Black Beauty was just as good as I remembered. Easy to understand language, but nothing is dumbed down. You don't even notice the easy of reading, but the pace is just right. It's no wonder this book is usually classified as a children's classic - the problem is relegating it there. This is a book for everyone, not just children (in fact, this book was published for adults.)

You know, I feel bad for all these "children's classics" authors. They wrote in an understandable, readable fashion - which is the mark of a good author and good literature, and they get stuck in a section of the book store that ensures a limited audience.

Black Beauty is an engaging read from the start, though not action paced. It reads like a comfortable friend. As you journey through Black Beauty's life you meet an assortment of characters and learn a little about cruelty and treatment of animals along the way in a reasonable manner. I don't know whether my love of horses stemmed from reading this book as a child, or if that love was simply flamed by reading this novel. I have no doubt, though, that this book played a key role in developing the love for these amazing creatures which I still have today.

The illustrations in this particular volume are gorgeous. While I don't believe an abridged version of this book is necessary for children, if you insist on getting your child one, I recommend this one.

5 stars.

This book review appears as a part of the Reading Challenge 2016, to see other books in the challenge, click here.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016: Beneath the Forsaken City

Week 8: A Christian novel

Beneath the Forsaken City (Song of Seare #2)
by C.E. Laureano

Doesn't suffer from "middle-child" syndrome

Full disclosure: I accidentally read book 3 first. I tried to keep on top of when book 2 in this series released because I loved book 1, but I somehow completely missed it. Book 3 comes out and I think its book 2. Oops. 

Knowing how the story ends, I was temped to skip reading this book, but I couldn't bring myself to do that. I had to not just go on what I pieced together in book 3. I had to know what these people (because they really feel like friends, not just characters) went through that made them into who they are in book 3. That said, having read the books out of order, my perspective is a little different than it would have been if I read them sequentially. 

This book nicely picks up where book 1 left off, and ends right before book 3. This makes sense. It also fills in the gaps I was so confused about in book 3 when I thought it was book 2 (as it should)! 

As a reader you feel the tension, pain, and uncertainty of Conor and Aine (they are the focus of this book). And that's one of the big differences in this book (and series) over others. These characters feel human. They aren't sure of their path. They hesitate too long. They're rash. They're penitent. They love. They grieve. They have flesh and bones. It's not to read and empathize with them. This is a mark of a book writer.

Another mark of a good writer? Being able to craft a world of this kind and have it feel real. Many authors try and few succeed. Laureano falls in the same boat as Stephen Lawhead in her ability to craft a believable world that feels like ours, but is different. Even when she is having Conor explain and defend his faith it's believable ... most books that attempt that feel hokey. Because it's believable and not preachy or hokey this is a work that anyone can enjoy regardless of their personal faith and convictions.

All praise aside, I have a little quibble with this book - while maritally appropriate - I would prefer Laureano leave out some of the descriptions in the book, given its intended YA audience. There is nothing wrong in what she says - compared to many, many YA novels out there this is absolutely appropriate. But even if its appropriate for a married couple (and details are spared) I'm not sure it's what our young people need to thinking about. That's a personal preference.

Still, this book (and series) deals with some hard topics well that I haven't seen addressed in other YA books. The writing is far superior to others in this grouping (seriously, what's with all these sub-genre things these days?) and I believe this book, while appropriate for young adults, has a much broader range of applicability. I'd love to see it in the regular ole' appropriate adult section of a book store.

Highly recommend.

4.5 stars

This book appears as part of the Reading Challenge 2016 series. To see other books in the challenge, click here.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

How We Get Our Sam's Club Membership FREE!

Disclaimer: This will not save everyone money! If it will not save you money PLEASE DON'T DO IT.

I'm all about being frugal and saving money and making it stretch. I love Dave Ramsey & think he has a lot of good advice. One area we differ on is that of credit cards. I think that most people should heed his advice and cut them up and not use them. But, there are people who don't miss payments. Ever. People like my husband. Being so on top of payment means we can actually see a benefit from using credit cards with rewards attached that would otherwise be negated by late fees or interest accruing.

My husband has had a Discover card for quite some time, and was lamenting that there wasn't a card that we could 5% back on gas all the time (instead of some random quarter of the year). We walk into our Sam's Club shortly thereafter and notice they have a credit card. That offers 5% back on gas all the time. (Plus 3% on travel/dining & 1% everything else)

Is the interest rate high? Yep (though I've seen other cards, like some from Capitol One, with higher interest rates). But since my husband has never missed a payment, we won't have to feel that sting. What we do feel, however, is the benefit. We are coming up on one year of having this card and we are about to receive our first pay out.

We earned enough cash back on gas in the first couple months of owning this card to pay for our membership.

We are actually making money by being members at Sam's Club.

If this is something you are interested in (aka, that you will be prompt in your payments!) I suggest you wait till they are running a special for signing up. I have seen two that regularly appear in our club.

1. Get $20 off your purchase of $50+ when you open & use your card that day.
2. Get $40 off your purchase of $100+ when you open & use your card that day.

I recommend waiting for the second since you save more money (that's what we did!). Just don't buy a bunch of stuff you don't need for the deal - that negates the whole saving money aspect!

Not a member at Sam's? Here's why we love it. Plus, you can use my referral link to become a member online & we'll both get a $10 gift card to use on regular purchases!

original image source

Monday, February 15, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016: The Fall of Arthur

Week 7: A book by Lewis or Tolkien

The Fall of Arthur
by: J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Love it (with some mixed feelings)

First, this book is not for casual readers of Tolkien (when I say "Tolkien" in this review, I mean the father, J.R.R.). This is one of his unfinished works. That means it's rough, it's not polished, and Tolkien would probably roll over in his grave if he knew it was published (he was kindof a perfectionist).

This was my first experience reading a work of Tolkien's that Christopher edited. I mean, I'd read the Simarillion, and some of the Lost Tales, and the Unfinished Tales, which he did edit, but they lacked his commentary.

I have mixed feelings about Christopher's publishing of his father's unfinished works. I mean, it showcases his father's genius, but given how meticulous J.R.R. was I can't see him being too happy about it. It has a tendency to come off as a money grab to me.

That said, I was so thrilled to see that Tolkien had started working on an Arthurian piece! I'm a big fan of Arthur and I love Tolkien so this just seemed too good to be true.

There are several parts to this book. I'll be honest, I really expected something longer from Tolkien given the size of the book. The poem is a decent length, in the alliterative style, and deals solely with Arthur's downfall (as indicated by the title). Alliterative poetry takes getting used to, but is a style more people should try and use. Revival of this type of poetry was one of Tolkien's goals in writing this piece.

My biggest disappointment in the poem (obviously other than it being unfinished! which was no surprise) was that Tolkien included the affair between Geneviere and Lancelot. As this aspect to the story - while quite famous - is a later addition to the Arthur legend, I was hoping that Tolkien would opt to not include it in his retelling of the legends. (The absence of that particular tale from the Pendragon Cycle by Lawhead was very pleasing.)

After the Tolkien's telling of Arthur's downfall, Christopher dedicates a section to go through and compare his father's work to two main sources. This is a scholarly read, definitely closer to a term paper in feel than a conversational piece. I love Arthur and the legends, but even for me it bordered on a little much at times.

The next section I was totally on board with, though. This third section of the book is on how this unfinished work of Tolkien connects to the Simarillion. I suspected there was a connection early in reading the poem, and Christopher fleshes that out a bit, though there are a lot of questions still left unanswered like: Why, Tolkien, why?!?! Why did you have to leave this work unfinished?! It could've been brilliant! Arthur tying in to Middle Earth is just what I would expect from you, now I just have a tantalizing foretaste with nothing to satisfy! I can take guesswork connections, but we will never know what you had planned because it wasn't written down. ::sob:: < /lament >

The fourth section of the book, on the evolution of this poem, is also interesting, and, not being in poem form, easier to understand upon initial reading. Since it's just Christopher largely interacting with his father's notes the tone is different and easier to follow than some of the more technical bits of section 2 and even parts of 3.

The book ends with a brief appendix about Old English verse, which I found informative and interesting. This is the kind of thing that got Tolkien excited, and it's nice to understand a little more about that along with seeing his attempt at reviving it in modern times.

Anyone who is a Tolkien completest should definitely read this book. Anyone who is a lover of Arthurian legend should read this book. Tolkien's poem is most assuredly incomplete, and the majority of the book is spent analyzing this incomplete poem. This is definitely not a book to appeal to the masses. While mass appeal is not an indication of worth or talent, only a small dedicated group of people will actually find it worth their while to read the entire book.

Unfinished Poem: 4 stars
Comparison of Arthurian texts: 3 stars
How it connects to the Simarillion: 5 stars
Evolution of the poem: 4 stars
Appendix: 5 stars
Average: 4 stars

This review appears as a part of the Reading Challenge 2016. To see other books in the challenge, click here.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Ways to Save: Shop at Sam's Club

I mentioned previously that we do most of grocery shopping at Aldi. This is certainly true, but another way we help our grocery budget out is by shopping at Sam's Club.

This will not help everyone.

I'm just going to get that out of the way. Membership is $45/year. That is factored in when I say we save money at Sam's Club. I bake a lot and we make our own bread. We find our saving at Sam's Club from buying All Purpose Flour, Bread Flour, Sugar (& Rice) there. We drove to Sam's for those savings, but there are additional, smaller savings as well. Things you might not drive out of your way for, but are worth picking up if you are there. Milk and block cheese are our two regular little savers from Sam's. Now that there is a Sam's one minute off my husband's commute home, it makes sense for us to always get those items there, but we don't calculate those savings in when we're trying to see if it's worth it to us to renew our membership.

Know your prices, though. Sam's has great deals on some things, but other things are actually cheaper elsewhere. Another thing I love about Sam's is their "discount" section. Every Sam's has one, though in some you have to search for it. Basically, this is a place where damaged or discontinued return items or floor models are put at a discounted rate. We have scored some awesome deals by checking this section every time we go. The selection is always changing, so it's definitely worth the couple seconds to run by and see what's new.

Another Sam's money saving tip? Sam's has seasonal items. Keep your eye on the price and you'll usually see it drop. Your signal that the price is (probably) not going to drop further? The price will be $xx.x1 See the 1 at the end? That's your signal. 

I don't often buy women's or kids clothes at Sams, as I can find good used clothes cheaper. But for men? It's really hard to find good used clothes. We've been able to get several pairs of name brand slacks and shorts for my husband at a good price at Sams. Not a reason we keep our membership there, but a nice side benefit.

Another nice side benefit? Being able to affordably eat out! Sams has a place where you can order hot dogs, pizza, hot pretzels, and a couple other things in store. Nothing cost more than $2, so our little family eating out for around $6 is a treat. We can't afford to eat out often, and at most (even fast food places) we'd spend that much on one person. Hooray for Sam's Club's eatery!

Caveat: I have not been to other membership clubs and don't know how price & selection vary. My parent's have a BJ's membership. Sam's has bread flour, BJ's doesn't. Right now, that's the reason we are at Sams and not elsewhere. Do your research. 

Sam's has a non-members-get-in-free day every year, other membership clubs may as well. It may be that what you need you can get what you need on that day and not have to buy a membership! Or if you literally only need a thing or two, ask a friend with a membership if you can go with her one day. Every member is allowed to get one non-member in for free each visit.

Plus, if you sign up for membership online through my referral link, we'll both get a $10 gift card! This cannot be used for membership, but can be used in store or online. Sweet! 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016: A Cote of Many Colors

Week 6: A book whose title comes from a Bible verse

by Janette Oke

Cute Story for Children

This is a very short story appropriate for children. It is the story of two brothers and how their compassion and hard work earned them trust and a couple of friends - told from the perspective of a carrier pigeon who lived next door.

While Janette Oke is mostly known for her Christian Romance novels, she also wrote quite a few books for children. The story is easy to read and includes illustrations. Perfect for young readers.

4 stars

This review appears as a part of the Reading Challenge 2016. To see other books in the challenge, click here.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Ways to Save: Shop at Aldi

One of my favorite ways we save money is by doing (most) of our grocery shopping at Aldi. Honestly, if I could put an Aldi within driving distance of everyone, I would. It's that awesome.

We have a ridiculous grocery budget. In the sense that it is very tight. When I saw the USDA average food plan cost sheet I noticed that we spend under what's listed as "thrifty". And let me tell you, sometimes, it's hard. And the ONLY way we are able to do this is because of Aldi. And Sam's Club (but that's another post).

When we first got married, it was a literal struggle with the food budget every two weeks, and we pretty much ALWAYS went over. We were trying to coupon and price match and, well, do all those "normal" things you're told to do if you want to save money. We were trying to pay off my husband's student debt, so we REALLY had no room for going over our grocery budget.

After being married a few months, I realized that I drove by an Aldi almost every day. It had been FOREVER since I had been to an Aldi, or really even thought about one, but I remembered that I'd heard they had good prices. I convinced my husband to go with me one time, and if we didn't like it we never had to go again.

That was a red-letter day.

We went from scraping by and basically living off rice and beans to being able to eat well under our grocery budget. When we walked out of the store when our cart of groceries, my husband said three words: I'm a fan!

Now, Aldi does not have everything you might find at a normal grocery store, but I find the times I need to go somewhere else for groceries that Aldi doesn't have are rare. Most of what they sell is their own brand - you won't see many name brands around the store. Here's the thing, though, I don't care! With few exceptions, Aldi brand is just as good or better than the name brands. True story. (& it's basically what you'd buy at Trader Joe's but repackaged for Aldi. They're owned by the same parent company)

EVEN BETTER is that most of their food has a double guarantee on it. This means that if you try it and don't like it, you not only get your money back, but you get your choice of a comparably priced replacement item from that department at no cost. This really makes me feel free to try new things. And, quite honestly, I've only used that double guarantee a couple times, and I've been shopping there for years. Full disclosure: I make most of what we eat from scratch (aka I rarely use prefrozen or meals from boxes) so I have less experience there. But with the double guarantee you can't really go wrong!

If you have an Aldi, I really highly recommend you give it a try because here's the thing: with almost no exception, everything at Aldi is cheaper than if you used coupons. And if you're price matching, you're doing it to Aldi's prices. There are a few things that are priced on par with your regular grocery store, but most things are noticeably cheaper.

A few things you should know before you go:
1) Bring a quarter. You'll need this for your shopping cart - don't worry, you'll get it back - but it's one way they help you save money. You insert your quarter and you return your cart when you're done. Mean they don't have to hire extra people to bring in the carts
2) Bring your own reuseable bags (or be prepared to buy some from them for a small fee). Again, one way they are able to save you money is buy not including the price of disposable bags in every item.
3) Bring cash or your debit card (EBT also accepted). They do not accept credit cards or checks. Credit cards charge a fee to the vendors everytime its used, so they pass that savings on to you by having you pay with money, and checks take longer to process. The line may be long at checkout, but they are very, very fast about it.
4) They do not accept coupons. This doesn't bother me, because I'm saving more by shopping there than if I used coupons elsewhere. Plus, it saves me time in not having to clip them!

There you have it! Happy shopping and bon appetit!

original image of Aldi store

Monday, February 1, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016: The Annotated Alice (works by Lewis Carroll)

Week 5:  A classic novel

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition 
by: Lewis Carroll, notes by Martin Gardner

The Annotated Alice contains three works by Carroll: Alice's Adventures in WonderlandThrough the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and The Wasp in a Wig. I will look at each of these in turn.

Tales, Not My Favorite; Scholarship, Top Notch

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

As I just saw Disney's movie based off the book for the first time a couple weeks ago, it was very fresh in my memory. I must say, I was rather impressed by the movie's accurate portrayal of the book, for the most part (there was no Tweedle-Dee and Tweele-Dum, no flower garden, no going through the forest in the book, and the movie lacked the scene with the Duchess and with the Mock Turtle). Quite a few lines were direct quotations from the book, which is always appreciated.

The book really is a nonsense book, though. I'm not sure what I expected, but I didn't expect it to be so close to the movie rendition!

3 stars

Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found

If possible, this work is even stranger and more nonsense filled than the last! In the first things were bizarre, but there was still a sense of normal-ness. Here, characters change into creatures and she's suddenly where she wasn't in the blink of an eye. This story is much more dream-like than the first. Through the Looking Glass does contain the scenes with the flower garden & with Tweedle-Dee and Tweele-Dum found in Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Still considered a classic work, but not my favorite cup of tea.

2.5 stars, rounded to 3 because of its cultural impact (it is here that famous poem Jabberwocky makes it's public appearance)

The Wasp in a Wig

This short episode was undiscovered for around 100 years after Lewis' death. Scholars knew it had, at one point, existed, but they knew nothing of it. It originally was a part of Through the Looking Glass, near the end of the book. These few pages were left out, it is believed, in part because it made a particular chapter too long.

This is honestly probably my favorite scene from the book - and it didn't make the cut! I love the humanity of it and the lack of other weirdness most of the chapter exhibit.

5 stars

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition

A good half of this book is sidebar notes on the texts of these works by Carroll. I readily admit I did not read all the notes - as this was my first time reading these works it was cumbersome to the story to forever be directing my attention away from the story itself. I did read some notes, though, and found them very interesting. It is no wonder that this is a bestseller on Amazon! These books are not ones that have made it to my re-read shelf, and I don't feel the need to have them in my personal library. That said, if I were to own them, it would be in this edition. What I read of the scholarly work is fantastic and interesting! I definitely think anyone who is familiar with these tales, interested in literature, or a fan of Carroll would love this definitive edition of his works.

5 stars

Overall, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition averages 4 stars.

This review appears as a part of the Reading Challenge 2016. To see other books in the challenge, click here.