Wednesday, November 30, 2016

ABC Reads: November Review


Today is the day to link up your ABC Reads!!   

Here's a refresher on the terms of the challenge in case you missed it previously:

What does the challenge entail?  Well, I'm glad you asked.  There are 26 letters of the alphabet and Mia and I challenge you, during the course of 2016, to read a book that starts with each letter.  For example, Atonement (A), The Bell Jar (B), Catching Fire (C), and so on.  Makes sense, right? You don't need to go in order - if you want to start with S, go for it.  On the last day of each month, we'll host a link-up for you to share your ABC Reads.  We will award one point for each letter you review AND a bonus point for linking up with us!  At the end of the year (or when the first participant reviews a book beginning with each of the 26 letters), the winner will be awarded a $30 Amazon gift card. Congrats to challenge winner, Jessica from Frikken Duckie!

My goal was to finish two of the four letters I have remaining for the challenge. With the holiday season upon us, time seems to be speeding up exponentially. I barely made it, but I'm happy to report I finished both of them. At this point, I am confident I will finish the challenge. I'll certainly have to push myself with all the holiday distractions though! This month, I completed the following letters: T and C.  Here are my thoughts...


13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

This one took me on a whirlwind adventure all over Europe as Ginny followed instructions and completed tasks Aunt Peg assigned via letters in 13 little blue envelopes. I really liked the premise of the story, but the main character needed to be a bit older. Parts of the story were simply unrealistic for a high school kid who had never been anywhere or done anything in her life - especially with SO many sketchy male characters along for the ride. That criticism aside, I love the concept of growth through travel and the mysteriousness surrounding her aunt's instructions. I enjoyed the writing style and short chapters. I definitely plan to read the sequel, but I'm pretty sure whatever the second novel holds could have easily been wrapped up in an epilogue. I'll keep you posted...

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth

My parents love this PBS series, but I've only seen an episode here or there with them. After reading this memoir, I plan to start the series from the beginning. I absolutely loved the stories in this book! Toward the end of the book, I was pleasantly surprised to find out Jennifer Worth actually created this as a trilogy. The next two books are already being requested from the library! This particular book focused on a number of unique birth stories, but also provided great insight and detail into the hard times of the people in those days. I found it truly fascinating. I am hopeful the PBS series depicts these stories exactly as described because I was completely engrossed in the lives of not only those in the community, but also the nuns serving as midwives.

What have you been reading this month?


Andrea :)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hail to Pitt!!

Our annual trip to Pittsburgh was a snowy one this year, but we love getting the chance to spend time with some of our most treasured friends each fall. And, if it includes a Pitt victory that is even better!


The main event of the weekend was the Pitt-Duke football game. Say it with me everyone, "Boo Duke!" :)  We had fun at the game despite the freezing weather and snow shower to end the game. Thank goodness for hot chocolate!


It was even more special this year because the husband of one of my college roomies is a Pitt special team assistant coach and we got a chance to visit with both of them after the game. It was nice and cozy in the friends and family waiting area, too!


Nothing beats a weekend with friends, especially when it doubles as a chance to play with one of our favorite little guys! Chris' godson is growing up SO fast. We brought him a couple of books and enjoyed the time we were able to spend hanging out with him.


Do you have any annual traditions with your friends?

Andrea :)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Fall Film Challenge: Bonus Round Reviews

I'm happy to report some fun news - I was first to complete Jenn's Fall Film Challenge again this year! The bonus round was 100% in my sweet spot so I quickly moved through the 25 movies listed below. Each film either had to be based on actual events or a book. I enjoyed most of these movies, but did find a few that didn't resonate as much. My favorite from each category was Antwone Fisher (actual events) and The Book Thief (book). I highly recommend watching both of these movies...and a number of others listed below. Here are my brief reviews...


1 - Lean on Me (1989 - actual event) - 3 stars
Interesting look at the state of inner-city public schools in the late 80s. Several cheesy scenes and not enough full character development for me, but great message.

2 - The Good Lie (2014 - actual event) - 4 stars
Fantastic depiction of the refugee crisis and the flawed system in place to help these individuals. Highly recommend everyone watch this film.

3 - McFarland, USA (2015 - actual event) - 4 stars
Exciting and inspiring look at racism and class struggle in the rural, farming areas of America. The movie is long and drags a bit in places, but certainly worth watching.

4 - Water for Elephants (2011 - book) - 3 stars (didn't read book)
The story is interesting, but quite predictable from the start. I am curious if the book is more suspenseful. I also really didn't like the main female character.

5 - Ali (2001 - actual event) - 1 star
Not at all what I was expecting from this film. The first half focused more on other key historical figures than Ali so that set things off on a bad note. I was simply expecting more.

6 - Last King of Scotland (2006 - actual event) - 2 stars
Definitely an interesting story, but a bit too "off with their head" for me. What a terrible, scary character...especially since I don't particularly enjoy Forest Whitaker as an actor.

7 - The Jungle Book (2016 - book) - 4 stars (didn't read book)
This brought back fun childhood memories. I have always loved the animated version, but this one was equally as good. Made my day to hear the Bare Necessities song.

8 - Antwone Fisher (2002 - actual event) - 5 stars
Denzel (and company) does it again. Wow! I really loved this story. What a powerful account of the impact and value of proper mental health treatment particularly for our military personnel. Watch it!

9 - The Manchurian Candidate (2004 - book) - 1 star (didn't read book)
I can't even waste time on describing this one. Please just skip it. Mind blown by the ridiculousness.

10 - The Hours (2002 - book) - 3 stars (read book)
I truly enjoyed seeing each character come to life. I don't feel like the movie strayed much from the book. Touches on some heavy issues, particularly for women, - worth watching.

11 - United 93 (2006 - actual event) - 3 stars
Unique look at both the air traffic control world and the happenings inside the plane on that fateful flight. I am curious how much is precise to the facts of that day (particularly the scenes involving the military), but overall it was an insightful film. Sad though.

12 - The Hurt Locker (2008 - actual event) - 4 stars
Incredible story depicting a part of the military that I hadn't really ever thought to consider - the explosives disposal team. It veered off course a little toward the end, but overall I found the content and characters to be fascinating. Check it out.

13 - Atonement (2007 - book) - 3 stars (didn't read book)
I've had this book on my shelf for ages. I tried to read it once and didn't get very far. After watching the somewhat disturbing first half of the movie, I desperately wished I had read the book. While I didn't love the movie, I did think the story line was rather interesting. Hopefully, I can find time to read the book soon.

14 - The Book Thief (2013 - book) - 5 stars (read book)
Absolutely loved both the book and the movie. There was very little difference between the two. Solid story, great characters, based on historical events - please watch this one.

15 - The Road (2009 - book) - 3 stars (read book)
I read nearly half the book before I began to have interest in the main characters and their predicament. The movie got right to it and held my interest throughout. It is grim and gets a bit tiresome at points, but well made given the story at hand.

16 - The Best of Me (2014 - book) - 3 stars (didn't read book)
Nicholas Sparks has a way of creating beautifully predictable tales. This was no different. I enjoyed the back and forth flip between present and past time though. Interesting story, but undoubtedly you already know how it will end.

17 - Amanda Knox (2016 - actual event) - 4 stars
Fantastic documentary. I had not seen or heard anything about this case until I watched the movie. I recommend that everyone watch it - particularly if you plan to spend any significant time abroad!

18 - 13th (2016 - actual event) - 4 stars
Wonderful documentary about the mass incarceration of black men and how we have gotten to this point in America. Seemed unbiased politically as fault was placed on both parties for the current situation at hand. Particularly stirring as race is a primary factor. Highly suggest watching this one.

19 - The Witness (2015 - actual event) - 2 stars
I had heard of Kitty Genovese in my college psychology classes when we studied bystander effect. This deeper dive into the happenings of that night was interesting, but seemed to lead to several dead ends and no real answers of any sort. I was a bit bored by the end.

20 - Audrie & Daisy (2016 - actual event) - 4 stars
Fascinating look at the effect of social media shaming and bashing on sexual assault victims. Highly recommend this to anyone that knows or works with middle/high school students. Life is precious.

21 - Who Took Johnny (2014 - actual event) - 1 star
Johnny's mom was just too much for me. At first, I felt like I could understand her frustrations and agreed that something seemed fishy. As more and more was reveled about both the case and her, I realized something was fishy. Very odd and strange circumstances indeed.

22 - Concussion (2015 - actual event) - 2 stars
I had interest in seeing this movie from day one based on my history with football, but I was disappointed with its length and originality by the time I got around to viewing it. The content is extremely interesting, but the movie is very slow.

23 - Everest (2015 - actual event) - 4 stars
Exciting and scary all wrapped up into one. This was a fantastic movie. I loved the character development along the journey to the top of Everest. What an incredible story. Watch this one.

24 - Man on Wire (2008 - actual event) - 1 star
I was bored to tears through most of this documentary. I didn't like the actual man on wire. I agreed with many of those interviewed that he was selfish. It is certainly incredible the feats he accomplished, but I'm not sure they were worth the personal sacrifices in the end. Skip it.

25 - To Kill A Mockingbird (1962 - book) - 3 stars (read book)
It was nice to have at least one older movie thrown in the mix. Since I recently re-read this book, I particularly enjoyed watching the movie. Everything plays out accordingly.

Have you seen any of these movies?

Andrea :)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Wedding + Friend Time = Winning!


Our last wedding of the year took place in the DC area. Fall weddings are the best...and this one was fabulous! We also took an extra couple of days in that area to meet up with some friends we hadn't seen in awhile. Double win!


We enjoyed spending some time with our friends Larri and Ro as well as meeting their lovely little ladies. Twins have always fascinated me and these two were no different. It was a lot of fun playing with them and learning their personalities.


The wedding took place at a church with a bit of a gap between the ceremony and the reception so we spent some time with our friend, Rachel, between the festivities. The bride and groom had a Jenga guest book and some fun mad libs to complete during the cocktail hour. Definitely kept us busy before entering the reception hall.


The meal was served family style at the tables while the bride and groom made their way around the room visiting with guests. I really liked this idea. They also served a number of delicious small desserts along with wedding cake at the end of the meal.


The day after the wedding, we were able to spend some time with one of my college friends, Danielle. She has been in England for the past few years so it had been a long time since we had the chance to see one another. It was fun hanging out with her five year old and meeting her new little guy, too.


What is your favorite part of a wedding?

Andrea :)

Friday, November 18, 2016

Austin Sweets!


It's no secret around these parts that I have a sweet tooth. Austin proved the perfect place to indulge in some tasty treats! There was an unbelievable array of option from ice cream to cupcakes to donuts. We visited as many as we could manage over the course of the week.

Amy's Ice Cream


Ice cream was high on my list of sweet treats to try because it was hot while we were in Austin. Amy's was similar to Cold Stone Creamery in that you were able to add various mix-ins. The selection was unique, but we stuck with basic vanilla and strawberry (with banana topping). Definitely recommend stopping here for a scoop or cone. And there is also an airport location!

Gourdough's


Hands down this was the best eating experience of the trip. We had Gourdough's on our list, but weren't anticipating that we would have time to make it there. As luck would have it, we passed by its food truck location on our way to lunch one day. It was simply meant to be. Please, please, please put this on your list of MUST visit places. The doughnut creations were heavenly!! I had Miss Shortcake (cream cheese icing with fresh cut strawberries). Chris had Funky Monkey (grilled bananas and cream cheese icing with brown sugar). Don't miss this deliciousness!!

Sugar Mama's


Cupcakes are my jam. Sugar Mama's met all my expectations. The options were ample, but not overwhelming and everything we tried tasty fabulous. We tried Champion Carrot Cake, Southern Belle (red velvet), Jack's Lemon, and Strawberry Shortkick. They kept well in our hotel for a couple of days as we worked our way through them bite by bite. Certainly worth a visit!

Voo Doo Doughnuts


We wandered upon Voo Doo Doughnuts' Sixth Street location after our Esther's Follies show. The wait was insanely long, but there was an interesting live band that helped us pass the time. We tried four different types - The Arnold Palmer (plain cake doughnut with vanilla frosting and lemonade/iced tea dust), The Neopolitan (chocolate cake doughnut with vanilla frosting, strawberry dust, and three marshmallows), a regular glazed raised yeast doughnut, and The Grape Ape (raised yeast doughnut with vanilla frosting and grape dust and lavender sprinkles). None of them blew me away. I'd actually suggest skipping this place unless you just really want to try some crazy doughnut combinations.

Cheesecake Bites


On our search for food trucks, we found Peace, Love, & Cheesecake Bites. We both tried one of the tasty little bites. Mine was caramel apple - delicious! We pretty quickly headed off to find some trucks with more of a lunch menu, but this neat truck was worth a mention.

Hey Cupcake!


Hey Cupcake! was another random food truck find. Honestly, I wasn't super impressed with the limited menu, but I had heard of the company so I wanted to give them a shot. I got a pumpkin cupcake with cream cheese icing. It was pretty good, but I definitely preferred Sugar Mama's.

What is your favorite dessert option?

Andrea :)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Austin Eats!


Delicious food was the name of the game for us in Austin. Fortunately, there was an endless supply. I was lucky to have a friend that lives in Austin and provided us with a detailed (and categorized!) list of options. As we made our way through the list, Chris and I came to the conclusion that we could spend a full month in Austin and never hit all the top spots. SO. MUCH. GOOD. FOOD.

BBQ


We were tempted by the famous Franklin's BBQ, but ultimately decided we'd rather sleep in than stand in line all morning. Mike from Austin Wine & Cider mentioned Black's BBQ was nearby so we decided to give it a shot. The restaurant was cafeteria style with a number of meat options and sides. I was smitten with the mac and cheese. Chris enjoyed the BBQ more than I did, but that's normal for us. The banana pudding was on point though.

Tex Mex


There were endless options of Tex Mex restaurants at every turn in Austin. We opted for an off the beaten track restaurant - Juan in a Million. It was fun to check out a local spot. I stuck with standard tacos which were delicious, but the portions were massive! We would definitely return to this spot.

Food Trucks


Food trucks are popular in Austin. We went to three different food truck parks searching for a good lunch destination. I wish we had made time for them on the weekend because I think we would have gotten more of the full experience. That being said, we were able to try the popular Torchy's Tacos at South Austin's Trailer Park & Eatery. Chris got The Democrat and Chicken Fajita tacos. He enjoyed the variety of options while I picked my way through a chicken taco. We opted for sweets at the other food truck locations so check back tomorrow for more info on those!

Steak


For our anniversary dinner, we wanted to experience a local steakhouse. After some research online, Chris found ALC Steaks. The restaurant was lovely, and the food was delicious. We had wonderful service throughout dinner, and they even provided us with complimentary dessert for our anniversary. Definitely recommend this local restaurant if you are looking for a high end dinner in Austin.

Brunch


We met my friend, Marissa, and her family for brunch at Kerbey Lane Cafe. We hadn't seen one another in nearly a decade so I was too busy catching up and enjoying conversation to snag any photos of the phenomenal pancakes. I had the short stack - one seasonal pumpkin and one banana. Both were perfect. There are a number of locations for this restaurant around the city so we highly recommend finding one and checking it out. Just be prepared for a bit of a wait to get in - especially on Sunday!

Pizza


We hadn't planned to eat any pizza during our time in Austin, but one afternoon we somehow ended up at Southside Flying Pizza complete with entertaining graffiti art decor. As New Yorkers, we don't often try pizza when we travel, but this was surprisingly good. We stuck with standard pepperoni, but they had a lot of different (and unique) topping combos.

What is your favorite thing about trying new restaurants when you travel?

Andrea :)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Top 10 Ways to Experience Austin, TX


Austin is a unique and exciting place. After spending a week there for our anniversary, we highly recommend a visit to this growing city. We had adventure after adventure with lots of food and sweets in between. (Don't worry - those posts are up next!) We never felt stressed about time and managed to sleep in while still covering a lot of ground. Our time in Austin included five days and four nights - we made them all count!

{ONE}


Our first stop in Austin was a local brewery that Chris wanted to check out. South Austin Brewery turned out to be a double win because they were also having a record sale. Later in the week, we also ventured over to Waterloo Records for additional record perusing. And swung by ABGB for a quick drink with the locals before we left Austin.

{TWO}


Everyone knows that Texas loves football. We hadn't originally planned to attend a Longhorns game, but the timing worked out with our schedule. The most impressive part of the game proved to be pre-game when the team rolled out a nearly 50-yard Texas flag and proceeded to sing the state song. WOW! Definitely never seen anything quite like that before. Texans sure are proud to be Texans. We also happened to be there on alumni band day so the halftime show proved an extra special treat as well.

{THREE}


We left the game a tad early in order to make it over to the Esther's Follies venue on 6th Street in time for the late show. Esther's Follies is a combination of comedic musical theater (think SNL skits set to music) and magic. The focus of the evening leaned heavily toward politics given it was an election year, but we really enjoyed the performance. Definitely a must-attend event! Afterward, we walked up and down 6th Street taking in the scene. Austin is known for its music scene and we were able to take in a bit of the eclectic music atmosphere as we wandered this Bourbon Street type environment.

{FOUR}


Chris found a brand new cider tasting room near our South Austin hotel location. We spent a good portion of the afternoon visiting with the owner, Mike, and trying his four different ciders. It was practically a private tasting since no one else arrived until about 15 minutes before we departed. Surprisingly, I liked Hefe Apfel cider best. The tasting was great, but the company even better - there's nothing like chatting with a local. If you live in or visit the Austin area, stop in Austin Wine & Cider for a drink and tell Mike we said hello!

{FIVE}


The number one item on Chris' things to do in Austin list was visit the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum. I left amazed by the volume of communications and information on display. We both could have stayed there all day. The most fascinating part of the museum proved the recorded phone conversations.  There were stations set up throughout the various levels of the museum where you could listen to phone conversations between LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover, MLK, Jr., Lady Bird, incoming President-elect Nixon, various Senators, and so many others. I was completely hooked. Chris and I went to see All The Way on Broadway a couple years ago so a chunk of the info was quite familiar, but we were still engrossed in all the details and artifacts. The museum was easily the most interesting place we encountered on our visit. It is certainly worth a look (and listen)!

{SIX}


I had heard mixed reviews regarding the Austin Bat Tour before we made our plans. As it turns out, the tour is a great way to learn more about the history and growth of Austin. The first hour of the tour was a sunset cruise on the lake with a humorous and engaging commentary on the skyline buildings and area. This portion was far more interesting than the actual bat watching portion. We definitely saw the bats. Perhaps about a million of them. Seriously, it was a tad unnerving how many of them just live in the crevices of the bridge. After about five minutes of seeing these tiny creatures fly back and forth between the bridge and a nearby tree, I was ready to head out. I would say skip this, but the sunset cruise portion was really neat and informative. Also, please note that opting to stand on the bridge and watch the bats for free will NOT give you the proper angle to see anything. If you are willing to make the trek over to the bridge, definitely go ahead and book the boat tour.

{SEVEN}


As a blogger, I have seen Austin murals (particularly the I love you so much one) for years now. I was beyond excited to be able to drive around and find them with Chris. He was decidedly less excited, but since it was our anniversary he played along nicely. It was fun to spot them, but since we were playing tourist on a random Tuesday it was much more difficult to find a photographer. We made the best of it though. We even found a graffiti park along the way.

{EIGHT}


A local recommended Mount Bonnell to us. While it didn't blow us away like we were expecting it might, we did enjoy the opportunity to see the city from a different vantage point.  I can imagine it is beautiful during sunrise and sunset. We didn't spend much time here, but I'd glad we made the trek up to check it out.

{NINE}


After our delicious anniversary dinner, we stopped by a mini-golf location that we had seen open the night before. It was inexpensive to play both courses (18 holes each) and as we discovered halfway through our first game it was also BYOB. The course seemed to be a popular spot for both couples and groups celebrating a birthday. One course was more challenging than the other and we split wins. Definitely a fun way to end the evening.

{TEN}


Finally, let me recommend a free tour of the Capitol Building. They run on the half hour. We enjoyed learning more about the history of Texas and how their state government operates. The building has some beautiful design work throughout as well.

Have you ever experienced Austin?
What did we miss?

Andrea :)