Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Reflections On An Elementary School Winter Program

  It's "Winter Program" time for the first grader. Back when I was in school, it was the "Christmas Program," but that was back when being "inclusive" meant including songs from every religious tradition, not excluding all mention of any religious tradition. But, whatever. Six grades of kids singing songs about snow. I can only think of three songs about snow, (four if you count "Baby, It's Cold Outside" but that's not appropriate for grade-schoolers) which probably means we're in for a whole bunch of made-up winter-themed songs. Which the boy probably won't sing anyway, since the teacher has been telling me for the past two weeks he hasn't been participating well in rehearsals. I think my combination of threats/bribes will at least get him to do the motions.

  Three hours to go: the grandparents aren't going to be able to make it, icy roads make the 2-hour drive too dangerous. Bummer. The boy will be disappointed, plus the extra distraction for the three-year-old would have been welcome. But there will still be two adults there to handle her, which should be fine, even if the program start time is a half hour after her usual nap start time.

 We leave the house a half-hour early. Should be plenty of time to get to a school five blocks away. Except high parental turn out and no parking lot means we end up parking about two and a half blocks away. We would have been better off walking if it wasn't 10 degrees outside. But we still make it in the door with ten minutes to spare.

 The gym is standing room only. That puts a new perspective on keeping the girl corralled. We head for the way far back corner where there's a bit more room for her to wiggle, dump our coats in a pile against the wall and look at the program. Oh look. It's not just every class K-6 performing, there's also a head-start class, the fifth and sixth grade band, and the fourth through sixth grade strings orchestra. 

 Hey, there's one chair free in the back row. I sneak in and sit with the girl on my lap. That keeps her happy for about a minute and a half. Then she wants her own chair. Once the kicking and struggling starts, I give up the seat to a grandma and go back to standing against the wall.

 I'm holding the girl on my hip when the orchestra starts. They're playing "Old MacDonald." The girl starts singing along, which is pretty audible since the orchestra isn't that loud. Now they're playing Mozart, why is she still singing? Oh, she's singing "Let It Go" from "Frozen." Sorry fellow late-comers, I'm already as far back in the corner as I can get, and to take her out I'd have to cross the entire length of the gym to the doors, squeezing in front of people all the way. Time to hand her off to Daddy.

 We've made it through the instrumentals, the sixth grade, the fifth grade, here comes the fourth grade...are they carrying recorders? Yep. Straight out of a South Park episode, they're singing "Sleigh Ride" while playing recorders. Maybe I can take the girl to the potty. No? Are you sure you don't have to go? Damn.

 A short break before the third graders come out, we're halfway through. Hey look, two people at the end of the back row are leaving. They must have a fourth grader. Either that or the recorders pushed them over the edge. Daddy and the little girl take the seats. I tried sitting with her once already, I'm happy to continue standing behind them. Now that she's sitting, she can play with the Christmas stickers and blank paper I brought for a quiet activity. Maybe that will keep her happy through the end. 

 The second grade is about to start. I look over and see the girl is now putting stickers on the grandma next to her instead of the paper. (Bet that seat we gave up to her at the beginning isn't looking so great now.) Hopefully she's an understanding grandma. 

 First grade is up next, I switch off with Daddy so he can stand behind and prepare to take pictures. Luckily, the girl's out of stickers. "Guess what, your brother is up next!" "I hafta go potty." (Mental facepalm)

 The first-graders are singing, all except the boy. He is doing some of the hand motions, though, that's progress. And on the second song he waves his colored scarf pretty enthusiastically with the rest. Now they're filing out - wow, that went fast.

 The Kindergartners are done and now all the grades are coming out to sing the big finale, "Winter Wonderland." The plan was apparently to have all the kids encircle the audience, but that didn't take into account the standing-room-only crowd. We smoosh back against the wall so the kids can line up in front of us and behind the lucky people in the chairs. The sixth-graders directly in front of me aren't singing: one is on her phone, two are giggling and whispering about one of the boys down the row, who keeps looking over at them. 

 All the kids have filed out back to their classrooms and the parents are starting to leave. A fellow PTA member is next to me. We decide that if the PTA had been selling drinks, we'd have made a ton of money. (Can the PTA apply for a liquor license?)

 We go to the boy's classroom to sign him out. "Were you there? Did you see me? I didn't see you. Did you see my scarf? It was purple. We did a song about ice is nice, and there's ice outside. Do I get to leave now? Is the Winter Program over? I can't wait until we do it again next year."

 Me too, kiddo. It was worth every minute.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

 It's late and I'm tired, so today's blog is a movie review catch-up.

 The "Monsters University" outing went so well, we decided to take both kids to "Despicable Me 2." This one didn't hold the two-year-old's attention quite as well, but I sure enjoyed it!

 Gru is out of the supervillain life, and trying to adjust to family life with his three adopted girls, when he's recruited by the Anti-Villain League to track down the culprit responsible for the theft of a secret Arctic lab. In the process, he starts to fall for his recruiter and partner, Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig). Oh, and while he's busy investigating, his minions are being kidnapped and turned into vicious purple monsters.

 This one might not be quite as good as the original, but it's still worth the money. Gru's character continues to grow and change as he shepherds his oldest daughter through her first crush, while dealing with his own unexpected romantic interest. And of course, there's a lot more Minions. Everything about the Minions is great, they could probably carry a movie all by themselves. Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig are priceless as Gru and Lucy, this is one kids movie that is just as entertaining for adults.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Baby Is Three Today

 It seems like just yesterday I was turning 40, big as a whale and wondering if I was going to be sharing my birthday. Four days later, along comes the baby girl. 

One Day Old

Two Years
One Year

And now it's been three years already. 

  As she tells me constantly, she's a "big girl" now. Speaking in complete sentences, singing along with the car radio (she totally rocks the chorus to Fall Out Boy's "My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark,") and before you know it she'll be in preschool...but at least for now, she still likes to squeeze into a chair with me for bedtime stories, and insists that I dance with her to the Sesame Street theme song. So I'm going to enjoy this last year of toddler-hood while I can.

3 Today - ready for my birthday cupcake!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Review: Nerd Block

 I've been interested in the subscription box trend for a while now. That's where you sign up with a company and they send you a random box of their products each month. There are subscription boxes for dog treats, snack foods, beauty products, and probably a bunch more I haven't heard of. Whoever came up with this idea first is a marketing genius: there's just something super fun about getting a box of mystery goodies in the mail, like having a birthday every month. But I hadn't found one that really appealed to me, until I heard about Nerd Block, a subscription box service for geeks.

 A Nerd Block subscription is $19.99, plus about $10 shipping. (They're based in Canada.) Each month's box contains a geeky T-shirt and five or six toys/collectibles. I've received two boxes so far, and here's the rundown:

Box No. 1
Outer mailing box
Fun nerd box

The stuff in box no. 1

My first box contained a "Gremlins"-themed T-shirt, a Funko TMNT Splinter figure, a HeroClix Superman game figure (Kryptonian Warrior), a "Big Bang Theory" mystery figure (Sheldon-yay!), a package of Topps Wacky Packages stickers (never heard of these, they remind me of the old Garbage Pail Kids stickers), and a GelaSkin smart phone wrapper in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles design.

Grade: D. A disappointing first box. The T-shirt is good quality, but I'm not a huge "Gremlins" fan. I also don't play HeroClix, I'm not into Ninja Turtles, and I don't have a smart phone. The goofy stickers went to my seven-year-old. The only thing I'm keeping is the Sheldon figure (he looks great on my computer.)

Box No. 2:
Box No. 2

The goodies unpacked
This month's shirt

 This month's box contained an awesome spooky Star Wars T-shirt, A DC Universe vinyl mini figure (The Penguin), a Spawn mini trading figure (Wings of Redemption), a Portal Sentry Turret, a mini Wolverine eraser, an Adventure Time puzzle game, and a bizarre blue plastic splotch, that is apparently a TNMT coaster.

Grade: B. Star Wars is my main geek niche, and the shirt is seriously cool. I've only seen Adventure Time a few times, but the puzzle looks like fun, the Penguin figure is cute (he's now sitting next to Sheldon), the Wolverine eraser will probably go to my seven-year-old, and the Spawn figure has amazing detail for a miniature, it may be an uncommon variant worth eBay-ing. However, the plastic coaster looks like a cheap county fair freebie, and the Portal Sentry Turret was so poorly made, the legs broke off when I took it out of the box. Which is too bad, because the box it came in was actually way cooler than the toy itself.

 I plan to give Nerd Block one more month before I decide if the value of each box is worth continuing my subscription. I think the company needs to add a survey to the sign up process, where besides shirt size, you can input your geeky preferences. There are so many ways to express geekiness - comic books, Anime, movies and TV, computer games, role-playing games, math & science, Steam Punk, etc. - the likelihood of everything in a box appealing to one person is pretty slim. If you could pick your categories of geek preferences when you sign up, there would probably be a higher satisfaction rate. ("Yes, I'd like to order a Star Wars/Doctor Who/Joss Whedon box please. With a side of comic books, and throw in some Star Trek. Thanks!")

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Book Review: The Spirit Medium Trilogy by C. J. Archer

"The Medium"
by C. J. Archer 

So, one good thing about being sick, I had lots of time to read (and re-watch series one of "Sherlock," but mostly, read.) I heard about the first book in this trilogy, "The Medium," through the BookBub website, which I heartily recommend if you have an e-reader. You sign up, and they send you an email everyday with a list of bargain ebooks, many of them free. 

 "The Medium" is a Victorian supernatural mystery-romance starring Emily Chambers, a young woman who can see ghosts. When she and her sister accidentally release a demon at a seance, she sets out to track it down and banish it, with the help of Jacob, a handsome ghost with no idea how he died or where his body is. This book also introduces the mystery surrounding Emily's parentage and mediumistic heritage.

 In the second book, "Possession," Emily and Jacob try to stop the ghost of a murderer who's possessing high society gentlemen. To do this, they must discover who summoned the ghost in the first place, and why. And how is it connected to the mystery of Jacob's death?

 The final book, "Evermore," wraps everything up as neatly as a Victorian romance reader would want. When Emily is suddenly unable to summon ghosts to her seances, she and Jacob must discover why ghosts are disappearing from the Otherworld, and how they can stop the curse before Jacob disappears as well. This book ties all the mysteries together, and finally solves the questions surrounding Jacob's ghost. 

 All three books are quite well written. The characters are interesting, and the action flows well. Sometimes, the author gives a few too many clues, making the mystery a bit easy to figure out, but the story is still entertaining. The first book may have been free, but it was compelling enough to make me immediately buy the second and third ones as soon as I finished the first. 

 I'd recommend these books to fans of Gail Carriger's Steampunk novels - they've got the same blend of Victorian romance and supernatural action, minus the Steampunk gadgetry. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Climbing Back on the Blogging Wagon

   I started off NaBloWriMo with good intentions. Much like the January first resolution to go to the gym everyday, I was full of enthusiasm for blogging. But things happen. Like that gym resolution, where you go everyday for about a week, then you get injured or sick, or have to work overtime, and you miss a day. And then you miss the next day. And the longer you stay away, the harder it is to go back, because you told everyone you were going every day, and then suddenly, it's March and you've gained five pounds...

  That was how the last 10 days or so have been for me. But instead of saying, "Well, this month is ruined, guess I'll just have to wait for next year," I'm going to jump back on the blogging treadmill and pick up where I left off, starting with what I've been doing since my lapse 10 days ago.

 A week ago Friday, we went to a fundraising dinner for the Legal Aid Society, celebrating the group's 50 years in Omaha. Interesting speakers and really great food, plus a fairly early end to the evening which gave us time to see "We're the Millers," before the babysitter had to leave. (Good movie, I'll review it later.)

 Saturday, relatives we hadn't seen for quite awhile were in town for the Nebraska-Illinois homecoming football game. We got together for pizza, and it turned into a late night. (9:30 is late when you have little kids to put to bed. Much too tired to blog after getting the hyper, over-stimulated rugrats to bed.)

 Sunday was supposed to be a trip to the Children's Museum, but I was feeling a bit off and decided to stay home and rest. Didn't work. Monday through Wednesday were spent mostly in bed with the first stomach virus of the year, (thank you, elementary-school-aged child), and the rest of the week was spent catching up with everything left undone while I was sick.
  But now I'm back on track. I was healthy again to celebrate my birthday in style yesterday. We had tickets to "The Book of Mormon," which was indescribably hilarious! Literally, indescribable, at least in a family-themed blog, this is a hard R-rated musical from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park. Blasphemous and irreverent, but also sweet, with a nice message about faith hidden in this sharp comedy about two Mormon missionaries on their first mission trip to Africa. I've never laughed so hard at a musical, even though it was laughter of the "oh my God, I'm going to Hell for laughing at this," variety. Oh, and dinner at a new all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant (Tokyo Omaha) was a perfect cap to the day.

 So, that was my last week or so. I'll have more to write about tomorrow, and all the rest of October. And this time, I mean it!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Movie Review: The World's End

  I try to keep track of how many movies I see in the theater each year by reviewing them here, but I got really behind over the summer. That's OK though, whenever I'm short of time or drawing a blank trying to come up with a blog post, I can play movie review catch-up.

 The last date-night movie we saw was "The World's End," another sci-fi/horror/comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the guys from "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz.") Since we're both geeks, we don't go for the usual rom-coms, and this movie was right up our alley.

 Five guys who were buddies in high school but drifted apart, head to their hometown 20 years later to recreate, and attempt to finish, an epic pub crawl. (The final pub in the crawl, one they never made it to in high school, is named 'The Worlds End.') In the process, they find things have changed since they left; the hard-drinking party guy is on the wagon, their ultra-cool-in-high-school leader is now a loser stuck in the past, and oh yeah, everyone in the town has been taken over by alien robots. The guys have to figure out what's going on, stay alive, and try to finish the pub crawl in one night.

 Fans of "Shaun of the Dead" and British humor will definitely enjoy this one. The movie does a great job of building the guys' characters and personalities -  you get to understand who they are and where they're coming from, before the crazy alien-robot stuff starts. A lot of sci-fi movies don't seem to get that awesome CGI isn't enough by itself, a good movie also needs a fun story and people to care about.   I did at times have trouble deciphering the accent when the actors talked too fast - this will be a good one to watch on DVD, where I can back up and replay scenes where I missed some of the dialogue the first time.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's October 1st, Which Means...

...it's NaBloWriMo, or National Blog Writers Month. This will be the third year I've taken part in the challenge of writing a blog post a day for an entire month - and maybe I'll even reach the goal this year! The first year, I posted 22 days in October, and last year I managed 27 posts, so third time's the charm.

 October is a good month for this type of challenge; this is the point in the year where I start to get discouraged over my inability to stick to a regular blog posting schedule. I get busy over the summer, routines fall by the wayside, and suddenly I realize I'm full of blogs that I've written in my head, but that never made it out to the keyboard. So October is the month of renewed purpose, where all those sidelined blogs can have their own day.

 Maybe I'll get busy, or someone will get sick. There will probably be a few "Wordless Wednesdays" where a few photos will have take the load because I'm just too swamped to write more than a paragraph. But I'm starting fresh and optimistic, knowing that if I could get a blog post in on day one, even though I began "cold turkey" potty training the little girl today (that will be its own blog post in the near future), and oh yeah, the boy was sent home sick from school with a tummy ache, (he napped for three hours and bounced back by dinner time, although he was still awake at 10:30 pm, which doesn't bode well for tomorrow) then the rest of the month should be a piece of cake!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review: "Hidden In Dreams" by Davis Bunn

"Hidden In Dreams"
Davis Bunn, 2012
Image from Amazon.com

 I picked this up off the new fiction display at the library a few weeks ago. An interesting mix of mystery, science fiction and religion, "Hidden In Dreams" follows professor of psychology and dream researcher Elena Burroughs as she's asked to investigate why multiple people are having the exact same dreams, terrifying dreams about a global financial disaster. After learning about the dreams, Dr. Burroughs becomes one of the Dreamers herself. She relies on her professional expertise and her religious faith as she tries to determine if the dreams are a hoax, a side effect of a new experimental medication, or a warning from a higher power. While doing so, she also gets caught in a love triangle between the president of her university and a professional rival, both of whom are helping her investigate the Dreamers.

 I had a slow start getting into this one, but once I did, I couldn't put it down. The action is well paced to keep you turning pages, and the mystery keeps you guessing about who, or what, is really behind the dreams. The protagonist's religious faith added an interesting component to the story; I primarily read sci-fi, where religions, especially Christianity, are mostly non-existent or irrelevant.

  I didn't realize when I picked this up that it's a sequel to the novel "The Book of Dreams." I wish I had read that first, since there are several references to people and events from that book - I found it distracting, but it didn't impede my ability to follow the storyline. At 238 pages, it's a quick read, and a fun one. I can't wait to pick up the first book when I return this one to the library, and find out what I've missed.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

It's Back to School Time - Should I Feel Guilty For Being Happy? Nah.

 School started this week; the boy's first day of first grade was Wednesday. We had gone to back to school night the previous week, where we got to see the classroom, meet the teacher, find his locker, etc. (He discovered his best friends from Kindergarten were not only in his class, but sitting nearby. We gave the teacher a heads-up on that.) Tuesday night we packed his new backpack with supplies, made his lunch, picked out a first-day outfit, and capped off summer by reading the last few pages of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" at bedtime.

 I thought there might be some whining and feet-dragging on the big day, but he was up before the alarm, dressed and eating breakfast in a reasonable amount of time. Since I had allowed for an unreasonable amount of time, he got plenty of playtime with his sister after breakfast. Surprisingly, when it was time to go instead of the expected stalling and bargaining for more time, all I got was "Well, I guess I got all the play out of me," as he picked up his backpack and headed for the car.

 At school, we walked him to the door where they line up, (same as last year, Kindergartners to the right, first graders to the left) and when his best friend from last year came right behind us, listened in on a typical seven-year-old conversation. ("Look, I lost my teeth!" "I got a different haircut!" "My sister still doesn't talk much." "Mine either.") And then the bell rang, the lines of kids filed through the door, and as the Kindergarten parents cried sentimental tears, the first-grader parents high-fived each other and skipped merrily off down the street, free for another nine months.

 Well, not really - though there were a few covert smiles exchanged. The little girl and I had such a wonderfully relaxing morning. I got to drink coffee and watch "Rachel Ray" while getting an oil change as she played happily on the iPad - no arguing over who got to play first. We wandered through the grocery store with no fighting over whose turn it was to put something in the cart, no pushing, poking or kicking. At home, we played blocks uninterrupted by a seven-year-old Godzilla crashing through the construction project. And at nap time, she went down without a fuss since there was no chattering voice to remind her she was missing out on playtime.

 Not that she didn't miss him. Every once in a while she'd ask "Where potty?" or call up or down the stairs "Potty, where are you?" (She calls her brother Potty. Has since she started to talk, we have no idea why. He laughed the first time and it stuck. We told him it wouldn't be as funny when he was in high school, but some things you just have to learn the hard way...)

 Not that I didn't miss him, too. It seemed unusually quiet in the afternoon. That's when I started to feel a little guilty about how much I enjoyed my  first boy-free morning of the school year. Maybe while I was relaxing with coffee and the newspaper, he was struggling with his locker, or afraid to use the big-kid bathroom down the hall. Maybe he forgot how to spell his name over the summer (we could probably have practiced writing more).

 Nothing to worry about, though; when I picked him up, his teacher gave a thumbs-up, and he immediately announced, "I had so much fun, I almost forgot I was at school!" He then went on to tell me "The frog stopped jumping right after the day started." This required some elaboration. I at first thought he was talking about a classroom pet, (possibly one that had died!) but after extensive questioning he explained that, no, the frog was in his tummy, because he was nervous. (Explained with eye-rolling exasperation at my inability to figure this out. Have you noticed that talking to a seven-year-old is like trying to piece together a series of non-sequitors into some sort of coherent order? Or maybe that's just my seven-year-old.)

 So the first week went great, before long we'll be back in our routine, and I'm not going to feel guilty about enjoying how easy it is to do errands with just one rugrat in tow. Especially since Christmas break will be here before you know it.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Movie Review: "Monsters University"

  Last Sunday we decided to live dangerously and take our 2 1/2-year-old to her first movie in the theater. (Mostly because we wanted to take the seven-year-old and see it ourselves, but not pay for a babysitter.) "Monsters University" seemed like a good choice for her first experience; she's seen "Monsters Inc." several times, and it holds her attention pretty well. So, armed with a sippy cup of apple juice and a giant tub of popcorn, the four of us headed out.

  Surprisingly, aside from a few loud demands for "popcorn, please!" she caught on really well to the idea of being quiet and staying in her seat. It helps that she was completely riveted to the story, plus the Sunday matinee was full of other kids her age, thus camouflaging her occasional lapses.

 Honestly, I don't know why this movie is getting such disappointing reviews - I thought it was wonderful! Obviously, the first one set the bar pretty high, but I think the idea of a prequel showing how Sully and Mike met at college worked out wonderfully. On the surface, there's absolutely gorgeous animation, the expected monster-based humor that plays so well with little kids, and typical college-movie humor about meeting new people and fitting in. 

 But there are also some great lessons buried in the plot if you pay attention, lessons kids don't get every day.  Like how the guy who seems to have everything easy might still be struggling with problems you don't see. Or how you can work hard, try your best, but still fail - and how you carry on from that failure. (You never see that in a Disney movie - when was the last time you saw a Disney hero/heroine not get rewarded with their dream in the end?)

 It's great to tell kids they can be anything if they try hard enough, but sometimes, reality steps in - the awkward, chubby girl might love ballet, but won't be a professional ballerina. A kid can love baseball, but never develop the skills needed for a college scholarship, no matter how hard he practices. Learning to deal with failure with grace, using that failure to build towards a new dream -  these are great lessons to sneak in on a kid. Maybe too deep for a two-year-old, or even the seven-year-old, but if they watch it as many times as they've seen the original, something will sink in.

 Overall, the experience went so well, we might try for "Despicable Me 2" this Sunday!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Movie Review: "This Is the End"

 We had date night last Saturday, and being in the mood for comedy, picked "This Is the End." But I'm not sure how to review it.

  The movie stars Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill and James Franco, along with a bunch of other familiar faces, all playing themselves, or actually, typical Hollywood stereotype-versions of themselves. (At least I hope so, I'd hate to think they're really selfish, self-centered, oblivious, violent drug-addicts.) Seth and Jay are at a party at James Franco's house, leave to get snacks, and while they're at the store, the Rapture hits, complete with earthquake, explosions, and the godly sucked up to Heaven in blue beams of light. They rush back to the party to find everyone completely oblivious - no one there has been Raptured. After convincing everyone they're not drug-addled, the apocalypse is really happening, the guests turn on each other in a panicked free-for-all, resulting in most of them dying in horrible (and horribly funny) ways.

 The movie then follows the small group of ill-equipped survivors as they hole up at Franco's house, and attempt to make sense of what's going on. In the process, the display all the petty, selfish traits that kept them from getting Raptured. Actually, although much of the humor appears sacrilegious, it's actually a pretty religious movie, with an underlying message of hope. Even these damaged people have the possibility of salvation, if they can mend their ways in time.

 It was a good choice for us, we laughed constantly (I laughed so hard I was crying). However, as much as I enjoyed it, I'm leery of actually recommending it. You see, as funny as it is, it's the kind of humor than convinces you you're going to Hell for laughing. This is most definitely a hard R-rated movie. These are the same actors who've made comedies like "Knocked Up," "Pineapple Express," "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," "Fanboys" and "Superbad," so if you've seen any of them, you know what to expect. And if you thought these movies were funny, you'll probably like this one.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book Review: The Grave Series by Charlaine Harris

Grave Sight
Grave Surprise
Grave Secret
An Ice Cold Grave
by Charlaine Harris

image from Amazon
 Since the new season of "Tru Blood" just started up again, I thought now would be a good time to review some non-Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris. I haven't watched "Tru Blood" (no HBO) but I have read some of the books the show is based on - I thought they were good, but not riveting. The Grave series, however, hooked me from the beginning. I ran through all four books in less than a week. (That's when it's good to have an e-reader. Find a book you like, and immediately download the entire series without having to run to the bookstore.)

 This is a paranormal mystery series, following Harper Connelly and her stepbrother and business partner, Tolliver. Harper, product of drug-addicted parents and a messed-up childhood, got hit by lightning as a teenager, and now she can find dead people. She uses her talents to find missing people for a fee - and when she finds them, she also knows how they died. Naturally, law enforcement is skeptical of her claims.

 These books are full of the southern style of Harris' other series. The characters are very real, flawed people, people you could meet in any small town. Although I'm not an avid mystery reader, I found the murder mystery in each book intriguing. I was sometimes able to figure out the killer and motive before the end, but that didn't make the journey there any less interesting. We learn more about Harper and Tolliver's  past through each book, and their backstory, and their changing and maturing relationship, become just as interesting as the mystery they're investigating. Harris knows how to create compelling characters we want to spend time with. I hope there are going to be more books in this series soon.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

PinTried: Nutella Stuffed Browned Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies With Sea Salt

The original pin came from The Bite Sized Baker
Follow me on Pinterest

Rating: Nailed It!

 There are a lot of chocolate chip cookie recipes floating around that claim to be the best ever, but I think these really are. When I first saw the recipe, I thought "Wow, that looks really complicated," and I already have a good chocolate chip cookie recipe, (Wookiee Cookies from the Star Wars cookbook) so why go to all that trouble? But these are stuffed with Nutella, the amazingly rich and gooey chocolate-hazelnut spread. So I decided it was worth a go.

 What makes these different (besides the Nutella) is plain greek yogurt, browned butter, and sea salt. The browned butter threw me, I'd never done it before. But I Googled it, it wasn't that hard, and it definitely adds a layer of nutty richness that isn't there with regular softened butter. Adding sea salt to sweet things seems to be a real trend lately, and one I heartily approve of. That touch of salt really brings out the sweet of the chocolate.

  I've now made these three times, twice sticking to the recipe, once with some tweaks to fit our personal taste. (I also made them once without the Nutella, since DH is allergic to hazelnuts.) Both ways these cookies got almost unanimous raves - the one holdout was my 10-yr-old godson. He asked what the white stuff on top was, and when I said sea salt, he looked at me like I'd lost my mind. ("Sea salt? On a cookie? Ewww.") I made them most recently for a gathering, and forgot to take pictures until they were almost all gone, so excuse the hasty cell phone pics (thanks Jeff!)

The last of the batch

An action shot for scale. As you can see, it's a two-handed cookie!

Here's the recipe, with my personal tweaks in parentheses:

2¼ cup all-purpose flour
1¼ teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon of salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter (I used salted once when I was out of unsalted, and liked it better)
1¼ cup packed dark brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon plain greek yogurt
½ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use one cup of dark & leave out the milk choc.)
½  cup milk chocolate chips
1 jar of Nutella, chilled in refrigerator (Nutella jar says don't refrigerate, but it has to be cold, or it's too gooey to work with.)
Coarse sea salt for sprinkling
  1. In a large bowl mix flour, baking soda, and salt until combined. In a saucepan over medium heat, brown butter and set aside to cool.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat together butter and sugars until light and fluffy. (I don't have a stand mixer or paddle attachment. Regular hand mixer worked just fine.) Mix in egg, yolk, vanilla, and yogurt until incorporated. Gradually add the dry ingredients until combined. Fold in chocolate chips.
  3. Place cookie dough in the refrigerator for 2 hours to let the flavors meld together. (I have never been able to wait the whole two hours, as long as the dough is cold enough to work with, it's fine.)
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Roll 1½ tablespoons of dough and flatten the dough to make a flat circle. Place 1 teaspoon of chilled Nutella in the middle then place another flat circle of cookie dough on top. Crimp edges to seal. (If you make them this big, they spread to the size of saucers. You can make them smaller, just adjust the cooking time.)
  5. Place dough balls on cookie sheet, 2 inches apart and bake 9-11 minutes or until the edges turn golden brown.
  6. Sprinkle with sea salt and let cool on wire racks. (I've put the sea salt on before baking - still tastes good, but the sea salt almost disappears. Good for picky people who don't like the look of salt on top. Personally, I prefer to add it after baking, though.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Movie Review: The Croods

 The boy turned seven last Thursday, so I thought he and I could go to a movie, just the two of us, as a birthday treat. Unfortunately, there was very little playing appropriate for a seven-year-old.  (We need to keep it G-rated - not that he wouldn't love "Iron Man 3," but he's a little too prone to re-enacting the explosions and such.) The only first-run cartoon playing was "Epic," which, frankly, looked boring as hell. Luckily, "The Croods" was at the second-run theater.

  "The Croods," starring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds and Emma Stone, is the story of a caveman family trying to survive their hostile environment. They meet Guy, a traveller who tells them the world is ending. After their cave is destroyed, they follow Guy on a quest for a new home, free of earthquakes, volcanoes and such.

 This is a beautifully animated movie. Their colorful world is full of surreal animals (land whales, carnivorous birds and plants, sabre tooth tigers, etc.) and visually stunning landscapes. The plot is familiar: teenage cave girl chafes at Dad's restrictive rules, falls for new guy, Dad dislikes new guy. Nick Cage as the Dad, Grug, is pretty funny in his attempts to keep his family safe by avoiding anything new. His mantra: Never not be afraid.

 The story is pretty much just Grug, teenage daughter Eep, and boyfriend Guy. The rest of the family have very little to do here. They reminded me of a caveman version of Family Guy: Not-too-bright Dad, Mom who tries to keep him in line, teenage girl, not-too-bright teenage brother, slightly vicious baby. And Cloris Leachman as Grug's mother-in-law, who was pretty funny and should have had more to do.

 This was a mildly entertaining movie, we both enjoyed it, but I'm glad we didn't have to pay full price. It's not a classic that's going to be watched over and over. But with little else kid-friendly until "Monsters U" opens in a couple of weeks, it was a decent way to spend an afternoon.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness

   It's kind of hard to review this movie without giving anything away to those who haven't seen it, (I'm sure there are a still a few) but I'll do my best to stay spoiler-free.

  This may be the movie I was looking forward to most this summer (which is kind of depressing, since now I've seen it and there's still a lot of summer left.) I loved J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot, I thought he did a great job of renewing and modernizing the concept, while still keeping true to the original characters. Though I've been a fan of all the Star Trek incarnations, I don't really consider myself a "Trekkie" (or, if you prefer, "Trekker"), so I didn't have a problem with the changes made for the new version. I'm just fine with the time-travelling Romulans creating an alternate timeline for the new Star Trek - the new movies can make whatever changes they want without harming the continuity, since the original Star Trek exists within the original universe's non-destroyed Vulcan timeline.

 In this sequel, the main villain is played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch - you may know him from the BBC's "Sherlock." (And if you haven't seen "Sherlock," Netflix it or something, it's amazingly good.) Nothing adds weight to a character, especially a villain, like a British accent, and Cumberbatch does a great job without completely stealing focus from Kirk and Spock. Without giving away plot points, all I can say is there's cool spaceships, explosions, an all-too-brief glimpse of Klingons, and lots of witty banter between Kirk, Spock, Bones and Scotty.

 Though I loved this movie, I think I loved the first one more. This one seems a bit long, some slow spots could have been edited a bit. The lens-flare effect was cool-looking in the original, but is now starting to get overdone. Don't get me started on the completely unnecessary cameo by Leonard Nimoy. (Does he have a contract with Paramount requiring him to be in anything having to do with Star Trek?) And not to give anything away, but hard-core fans of Gene Roddenberry's idealized vision of the future may have a problem with the less-than-ideal portrayal of some Starfleet officers.

 But minor quibbles aside, still an awesome movie, definitely the best ride so far this year. I'm sure I'll see it many more times on cable and Blu-Ray.

 But seriously, J.J., enough with the lens flare. You're giving me a headache.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

 I love big blockbuster movie season (a.k.a.: summer) but it's hard to get to the theater every weekend, especially when you have little kids. That's why, last Saturday, we did a double-feature of "Iron Man 3" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness." First up: "Iron Man 3."

 I didn't expect to like the Iron Man movies. I never read the comic books, didn't know much about the character, and didn't particularly care for Robert Downey Jr. Surprisingly, I've really enjoyed the Iron Man movies, and this latest one is no exception. "Iron Man 3" picks up after "The Avengers," with Tony suffering from insomnia and anxiety after the alien attack in New York. When his former bodyguard is injured in a bombing, Tony issues a personal challenge to The Mandarin, the mastermind behind several terrorist attacks.

 As always, the special effects are great. Explosions, flying suits of armor (or pieces of armor) - it all looks real - and we didn't even see the 3D version! Iron Man is all about the flying suits of armor, so it's crucial that the audience believes this technology is real. Part of what makes it seem real is that it doesn't always work perfectly. We get to see the breakdowns, buggy software and dead batteries.

 Robert Downey Jr. seems to have found the perfect role in irreverent genius millionaire inventor Tony Stark. As good as he was playing off the other hero personalities in "The Avengers," he can also carry a movie pretty much on his own. Not that his supporting cast isn't good: Don Cheadle is back as Rhodey and War Machine (rebranded as Iron Patriot), and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. I still don't see much romantic chemistry between Pepper and Tony, but their relationship is such a small part of the movie, it doesn't really matter. And Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley as attention-seeking terrorist The Mandarin is just wonderful.

 I don't know if I liked 3 quite as much as I liked "Iron Man 2," but it's well worth the money to see in the theater.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Kids Say the Creepiest Things!

  So, I came across a pin on Pinterest the other day that linked to postings of some of the strangest and/or creepiest things kids have said. (I think the original source was Tumbler, or maybe Reddit. I don't really know what either of those are.) There were hundreds of posts, and boy, there were some doozies.

  Leaving aside the stuff hinting at ghosts and reincarnation, (which is in a different category altogether) there were some great examples of the random, weird stuff that comes out of kids' mouths. Like the mother who woke up to see her four-year-old's face inches from hers, saying "I want to peel all your skin off." (Context: Mother had been sunburned and was starting to flake.) Or the three-year-old who, upon holding her newborn sibling for the first time said, "It's a monster, Daddy. I think we should bury it."

 Reading these posts (I scrolled through for days, I literally couldn't put it down) made me feel a little better about some of the things my kids have said. Really, in a way, it's comforting to know all kids have a streak of sociopathic freak in them, not just mine. So in the spirit of making other moms feel better about their kids, here are some of the bizarre things mine have said.

 Now, the little girl is only two and a half, and a bit slow to talk besides, so she's only got one on the list. She only says a few phrases, and her diction (or lack thereof) makes her difficult to understand, but last week she came out with a good one. I was waking her up in the morning, when she stood up in her crib, looked me up and down, and said clear as a bell, "Nice shirt, red!" Now, though I have red hair, as far as I know, no one has ever called me "red" in her hearing. (My husband pointed out the lettering on my shirt was red, she could have been referring to that.) What kicks this over from unusual to slightly creepy, is the shirt I was wearing:

At least she has good taste - this is the shirt Ray Park (Darth Maul) said he liked when I wore it to KC Planet Comicon!

 I could probably come up with a dozen things the almost-seven-year-old boy has said, but I'll keep it to just the last six months:

  •  To a kindergarten classmate in the school library: "Are you going to kill yourself now?" Said from inches away, with a wide grin.

   He has no real understanding of death or suicide at this age, he has no clue why the adults were so freaked out. (The kid he said it to, by the way, was unfazed.) No, he doesn't watch violent television, or play video games of any kind. Yes, he was pulled out for small group instruction on social skills and peer interaction. We're just lucky to live in a district that allows teachers to use common sense, elsewhere kids have been expelled for less, even kindergartners.

  •   From completely out of the blue, at the dinner table: "I can't wait until I die, so I can be a ghost and haunt this house." Me: "I don't think I want to live in a haunted house." "That's OK Mommy, you and Daddy will be dead a long time by then." 
 Context: He loves ghosts, witches, vampires, etcetera. Halloween is his favorite holiday, he keeps the decorations up in his room all year long. That day he had seen a "Backyardigans" episode where three of them pretend to be ghosts in a haunted house and try to scare their friend. Seriously, if you can't trust the "Backyardigans"...

  •   And finally, my favorite. A rainy day, all the lights off in the living room. It's quiet, so I go out to check on him. He's set up his play tent in the middle of the room. Me: "Corran, are you out here?" From inside the tent, in a raspy whisper: "I'm not here anymore." Me: "So where are you?" The tent flap slowly lifts, all I can see is a white face and the light from the hall reflecting off his eyes, like a cat: "I live in the Everfree Forest, near a tree with the face of danger." And the flap verrrrrry slowly drops again. Me: "Oooh-kaaay, I'm going back to washing dishes."

 So, I guess if you have creative, intelligent, imaginative kids, they're going to express themselves in, uh, imaginative ways. Better than having dull, boring kids, right? And if anyone wants to, please comment here with the weird stuff your own kids have said.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Necessity's Child

"Necessity's Child"
by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

 This is the newest novel in the authors' popular Liaden Universe series. "Necessity's Child" is a standalone novel, not in the Val Con/Miri or Theo Waitley story arcs, but complementary to them. The story follows Syl Vor, one of the younger generation of Clan Korval, as he adapts to the clan's new life on Surebleak, and Kezzi, a child of the Kompani, a secretive family group living underground on Surebleak. But this story also revolves around Rys, an agent for the Department of the Interior, injured and left for dead on the doorstep of the Kompani. Left with amnesia from his head injury, Rys finds a place with the Kompani while trying to discover who he is. But if he remembers his past, will his agent training reassert itself, making him a danger to Clan Korval? Or will he become the man he was before the Department of the Interior brainwashed him?

 There are a LOT of Liaden Universe stories, and I've never been disappointed in any of them. This one is no exception. Lee and Miller know how to write characters you care about, and they've created a universe for them that's so real, you feel as if you've been there. Reading one of their novels is a time-consuming activity - not because they're overlong, but because as soon as I finish, I feel the need to re-read everything else in the series, revisiting all my old friends.

 While this is a great novel, it's probably not the place to start if you've never read any of the other Liaden novels. It assumes the reader is already familiar with the characters and setting, and would probably be too confusing for a beginner. Start with "Agent of Change" and work your way up from there. And leave yourself plenty of time: These are books that will have you reading "just one more chapter," until you look up and realize it's hours past your bedtime.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pin-Tried: A New Blog Series

 Thanks to my iPad, Pinterest has now passed Facebook as my number one time-waster. It's just so easy to pull up and troll through during those odd five minutes waiting for water to boil, or the boy to put his shoes on, or during commercials (in the rare instance that we actually watch TV live instead of through the DVR.)

 While going through my boards, I realized I had tons of fun recipes, crafts and kid projects pinned, but I'd never actually TRIED any of them. (Not an uncommon problem, judging from some of the humorous pins I've put on my "Funny & Geeky" board.)

 So, in the interest of holding myself accountable for actually doing some of these, I've decided to make it a blog series - every Tuesday, I will try to blog about something I got the original idea for on Pinterest. (Which, since most of these pins originally came from someone else's blog, is a fascinating example of the Internet cannibalizing itself. But I digress.) I'll rate my attempts using the completely unscientific scale of  "Epic Fail," "Close Enough" and "Nailed It!" I know this isn't a completely original idea, I already follow Pintester, who documents her hilarious Pin fails. It's mostly just to motivate myself into trying something new, instead of just accumulating digital idea collections.

First up: Cinnamon Roll Cookie Bars
Verdict: Nailed It!

 The original pinner said these tasted just like cinnamon rolls, and they were right! Soft and chewy, super-cinnamon-y, and with the perfect powdered sugar frosting that comes on the best bakery cinnamon rolls. I made these strictly according to the recipe the first time, and they came out just a hair overcooked. Also, the frosting tasted like eating spoonfuls of straight sugar. The second time, I cut a couple of minutes off the baking time. I also doubled the frosting (frosting is my favorite part, I thought it needed more) and added a teaspoon of almond extract - I think it gave the frosting a little more depth of flavor.

 If you love cinnamon, make these. They're so good, I was rationalizing eating them for breakfast. (Hey, if it tastes like a cinnamon roll, it counts as breakfast.)

Here's the recipe:

Cinnamon Roll Cookie Bars

1 box yellow cake mix (I used white, it worked fine)
1/2 cup melted butter
2 eggs
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon

2 tablespoons milk
2 cups powdered sugar

Mix all ingredients and pour into a greased 9"x 13" baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes.
When done remove from the oven, cool, and pour icing over the top. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Product Review: Squeeze 'n Blow Pop-Up Bubbles

 When preparing the kids' Easter baskets, I was looking for small, fun (and cheap) outdoor toys. Since we go through a ton of bubble juice every year, bubbles are a no-brainer. While looking for something else entirely, I ran across a display of these:

At the sale price of 2/$5, this was a little more than I planned to spend - you can get a bottle of bubbles for $1 or less pretty much anywhere. But I was swayed by SpongeBob, which the boy loves, and the idea of no-spill bubbles. (They also had a pink Dora one for the little girl.)

The bubble wand pops up when the bottle is squeezed
 So, the idea here is a pretty good one: instead of having to stick your fingers in the bottle to try to pull out the bubble wand, the bubble wand is pushed up through a hole when you gently squeeze the bottle, already ready to blow. Stop squeezing, and the wand drops back down to reload. Repeat for more bubbles. Should be easy.

 Like I said, the idea is good; the execution, however...well, there were some problems.

  • When I first opened it, no matter how gently I squeezed, when the wand popped up bubble juice spurted out with it, to run over the sides and down my hand and arm. This happened until the bottle was about half empty.
  • The squeezing process churned the bubble juice into foam, making it very difficult to blow any bubbles. I probably only got bubbles once out of every four or five squeezes.
  • You have to squeeze pretty hard to get the bubble wand up, and you have to maintain the pressure to keep it up while you blow - as soon as you let up, it slides back down. The age says three and up, but my six-year-old was not able to do this consistently. Granted, he doesn't have a lot of patience and he'd rather have me blowing the bubbles anyway, but after about five minutes, my hand and wrist were sore from the force required to keep squeezing this thing.
On the plus side, when we were able to blow bubbles, it blew a lot at once, and they were very pretty, iridescent bubbles. But overall, there is no way this was worth the money.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Movie Review: "Oblivion"

 "Oblivion," starring Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman

 I didn't know a lot about this one going in, just what I'd seen in the previews. Tom Cruise plays Jack, a tech left behind as a caretaker for giant hydro machines, along with his comm officer/partner Victoria.  The rest of Earth's population has moved to Titan after an alien invasion - at least that's what he believes. Inconsistencies start popping up, flashbacks to a life he doesn't remember.  I didn't think there was room for yet another post-apocalyptic movie, but this one has a pretty original slant. The visual effects are just wonderful, as far as I could tell, flawless. Like most disaster movies, we get to see the remains of New York (I think there's a law requiring it), though we don't get to see the actual destruction.

 Though I'm not a big Tom Cruise fan, I really enjoyed him in this. The action/adventure hero is pretty much the only kind of role he does, but hey, he's good at it. My only problem: he doesn't have much chemistry with either of his female leads. But the action scenes are good, and the story moves along at a pretty good clip, not a lot of slow parts. There are some really creepy exchanges between Victoria and Sally, their boss up on a space station in orbit - they start off sounding normal, but as time goes on, and you start to realize something is off here, they just get creepier and creepier.

  I found the ending both predictable, and a bit unbelievable (though I can't say why without spoilers), but overall, this one is worth paying to see on the big screen. It's a good opener for the summer blockbuster season.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Geek Road Trip 2: KC Planet Comicon

 So, this past weekend the whole family road-tripped down to Kansas City for Planet Comicon. We made this trip last year, and within the parameters of travelling with a five-year-old and an 18-month old, it was pretty successful. Since this year's convention promised to be bigger and better, with even more must-see sci-fi guests, we decided to make the journey again.

  KC is about three hours from home, which is a long time to be trapped in a car with a cranky two-year-old and a bored almost-seven-year-old, so this year DH found a deal on an in-car DVD player. I'd been against this in the past, since a.) it's expensive and b.) we didn't have this stuff growing up and managed to survive just fine. (And we only had four TV channels. And we had to walk to the set and turn a knob to change channels. And if you missed a show, too bad, there was no finding it online or On Demand. But I digress.)

 I must say, though, it worked quite well; there was no poking, teasing or whining from the backseat, they were both engrossed in "Monsters Inc." and "The Backyardigans." Unfortunate side-effect: they didn't fall asleep in the car like usual, which means they were still awake when we got to the hotel at 10 p.m. - and so keyed up, they didn't fall asleep until 11:30, pretty much negating our attempt at going down the night before the con so we could be well-rested in the morning.

 Planet Comicon has grown by leaps and bounds. Even though they moved this year to a much bigger facility, it was still wall-to-wall people - not a surprise with the number of excellent guests they booked. Parking was atrocious, there was nowhere near enough nearby parking lots or garages. (Can't blame Comicon for that, that would be KC's planning department, who decided to build a massive convention center in an area of inadequate parking.) The lines to buy tickets were unbelievably long, but Comicon staff were there with signs and directions, keeping things semi-organized and pathways open. The lines moved faster than I expected, but next year, we're buying advance tickets - the will-call line was waaaay shorter!

 Once again, concessions available were inadequate and overpriced. There were only two concession stands, plus a couple of snack vendors and some vending machines. The line for the Quiznos stand was about an hour long all day - it never seemed to get shorter! I would expect concession workers to be better prepared for the expected crowds - I'm guessing attendance at about 2000 - and I hope they're able to streamline their operation for next year.

The staff, both convention center employees and Comicon volunteers, were polite and helpful, giving directions to the lost, organizing autograph lines, etc. The celebrity guests we encountered seemed to be having a great time, which means staff must have been taking good care of them!

We didn't get to see all the guests - Comicon doesn't have a lot for young children, which made for an easily-bored boy, and the two-year old can only be confined to a stroller for so long - but we managed to get to our first priorities. I got to see Wil Wheaton's panel - the first half was just him talking about himself and his life. He's an ubergeek, and a very funny and witty guy. During the Q and A he answered questions about everything from Star Trek to Big Bang Theory, and he has a great touch with the littlest fans, taking kids' questions just as seriously as ones from adults.
Wil Wheaton, wearing a fan-made Doctor Who scarf

I also got to see half of George Takei's panel (while the little girl napped in the stroller), and he is by far my favorite original Star Trek cast member to see at a convention. He's had such an interesting life, Star Trek is just a small part of what he has to say. Right now, he has a musical, "Allegiance," which premiered in San Diego and will be moving to Broadway soon. It's (loosely) based on his own past in a Japanese internment camp as a child during WW II. He's a fascinating speaker, with that wonderful, mellow voice, and the crowd loved it when he let loose his signature "Oh, my!"

George Takei

Our must-get autographs this year were George Takei and Lee Meriwether for DH, and Ray Park for me. Lee Meriwether (Catwoman in the Adam West Batman movie) didn't have the longest line, but it was definitely the slowest-moving line. I didn't hear much grumbling though, since the reason it was so slow is because she spent time talking and taking pictures with everyone who came through - a classy lady who seemed to genuinely enjoy meeting her fans.
Me, Lee Meriwether and DH (kids were uncooperative for photos)
DH's photo collage, signed by George Takei & Lee Meriwether

George Takei, on the other hand, had the fastest line, but he's been doing this long enough to have it down to a science. He had four helpers, plus con staff, to keep everyone moving and orderly, and still have a couple of minutes of personal chat while signing.

My best con moment was my Ray Park autograph. While waiting in Lee Meriwether's line a little after 3 p.m., I realized we were right in front of Ray Park's table - he wasn't there (probably getting a bite to eat before his panel at four) but the staffer said he'd be back at five. And there were already seven people waiting in his line!
Not having anything else to do at the moment, and figuring one line was as good as another, I took the little girl in the stroller and got in Ray Park's line, leaving DH and the boy to stand in Lee Meriwether's line. I didn't really expect to be able to wait there from 3:30 until 5, (Fruit Ninja and Star Wars Angry Birds on the iPad can only keep a two-year-old entertained for so long) but I figured it was worth a try. It was my lucky day, because Ray Park came back by about 3:45, saw there were people already waiting for him, and decided to do a little unscheduled signing before his 4 p.m. panel. I got my 12" Darth Maul figure signed just before he had to leave for his panel - and he said he liked my T-shirt! Squeee!  

So overall, an exhausting, but entertaining weekend. Here's some extra pix of some of my favorite cosplayers.


Beast (from X-Men)

Day and night Princess Fionas (the boy was literally struck dumb by these, but too shy to pose for pix with them)

She-Hulk, from the Fantastic 4 era

The best Logan (aka Wolverine) I've ever seen

Hawkwoman - those wings are real feathers, can't imagine how long it took to make

Look close, Batman from Batman Beyond is watching. Kinda creepy, huh?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Recipes From A to Z: C is for Clams

 It's been awhile since I posted in this series, so, a refresher: My goal is to cook a meal with one ingredient I've never used before for each letter of the alphabet. I didn't set a time limit, but I'm hoping to be done by the end of the year. I created this series in an effort to break out of my dinner comfort zone, and find some new go-to recipes that the whole family would enjoy. (Not counting the 2-year-old. She won't eat anything but fresh fruit.)

 I didn't have to look hard to find an entry for C - I found a recipe for shortcut Manhattan Clam Chowder in a magazine, and I was halfway through before I realized, hey, I've never used clams before!

 I'm not a fan of clams, raw or cooked - too chewy. But I do like an occasional clam chowder, especially Manhattan-style, which is broth-y rather than creamy. The recipe in my Cooking Club magazine looked both easy and fast, so I gave it a try. The verdict: pretty good for a first attempt, but I found a few things to tweak for next time. Soup may sound easy, but it is improved by time and attention to detail. It takes a lot of layering of flavors to reach the depth and richness you want in a bowl of winter comfort. When you take shortcuts, you get something that might taste pretty good, but is just a little thin, which is what I ended up with here. Here's the recipe to try for yourself:

Quick and Easy Manhattan Clam Chowder
1 (10 oz.) can baby clams
2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 cups frozen potatoes O'Brien
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes
1 (8 oz.) bottle clam juice
1 tsp. pepper
2 T. chopped fresh parsley

1. Drain clams, reserving liquid. Cook bacon in medium saucepan over medium heat 5 -7 minutes or until browned, stirring occasionally.
2. Add potatoes; reduce heat to medium low. Cook 3 minutes or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds or until fragrant, stirring constantly. Stir in tomatoes, bottled clam juice and reserved liquid; increase heat to medium high. Cover; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low to low; simmer 10 minutes. Stir in clams and pepper; simmer 3 minutes or until hot. Stir in parsley.

My notes: I didn't use the parsley, since I don't much care for it. Next time, I plan to pump up the flavors a bit with about 1 T. of Worcestershire sauce, some white pepper, and a dash of Tony Cachere seasoning (I like a little kick.) Also, I'll probably triple the amount of bacon, because, hey, more bacon = good. Sorry there's no photo, we ate it before I remembered I should take a picture.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Movie Review: "Oz the Great and Powerful"

 So, last Saturday we went to the first big popcorn fantasy pic of the year, "Oz the Great and Powerful." I'd heard a lot of good things about this one, and I'd say it (mostly) lives up to the hype. I'm not too familiar with the Oz books, so I don't know how it stacks up in comparison, but I think this movie fits in nicely with the 1939 "Wizard of Oz." Filming the beginning in black and white, then changing to color when he reaches Oz was a nice homage to the original movie.

 This one is a prequel, telling the story of how a carnival magician made his way to Oz and became the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. James Franco is a great Oz, oozing smarmy charm with just enough heart to make you believe he could come to care about something more than himself. Michelle Williams is a charming Glinda the Good, though she really doesn't have all that much to do until the end. As the wicked witches who control the Emerald City, Rachel Weisz as Evanora is quite entertaining. She pulls off menacing evil without crossing the line into cartoonish melodrama. 

 Mila Kunis as the younger witch, Theodora, isn't quite as successful in my opinion. Fantasy dialogue is hard, and if the actor doesn't buy into it completely, it comes across as just so much gibberish. Mila seems awkward and uncomfortable with the lines at times, and after Theodora's transformation, she's a little too over-the-top to be believable. Nothing against Ms. Kunis as an actor, I've liked her in other roles, I just think she was miscast here. (I'd like to see what Natalie Portman would have done with the role.)

 The computer animation is beautiful - it really looks like another world. At times, it's easy to forget that Oz's companions for most of the movie - flying monkey Finley and the little China Doll - are computer generated. Though there's still a ways to go before interaction between human actors and computer characters is completely flawless, this movie comes pretty close.

 All in all, worth the money to see in the theater.