Birthday Books (Plus Snake Pictures)!

A few weeks ago my mom came to town to celebrate my 28th birthday. We ate and chatted a lot, got our nails done, and of course made a stop at Barnes and Noble. I got some great presents, most of which — surprise! — are of the paper-and-ink variety.

Before I get to the book haul, I wanted to share some photos from our visit — namely, snakes.

Visiting the Snake Farm

My mom has wanted to visit Animal World and Snake Farm since she first drove past it on a family vacation in 1969. She’s talked for years about going, and this year the timing was finally perfect.

Animal World and Snake Farm

The place was featured in a 2007 episode of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs, and in the intervening years has grown, recently becoming an accredited zoo. They’ve got dozens of snakes — most of them very poisonous indeed — but they’ve also added all kinds of birds and mammals, including Capybara and Ankole-Watusi. And of course there’s Princess Pickles.

Princess Pickles

It’s a four-month-old porcupine! Wearing a purple harness! Eating a grape! What’s not to love?

And let’s not forget the creepy-crawlies. We’ve got your Big Ass Snakes:

Big snakes

And there’s always that one that seems to be sizing you up (I could see this one breathing):

Tree boa

While this kind of adventure is not typically my thing, it was fun to be with my mom as she crossed something off her bucket list. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of animals, and they all seemed healthy and happy.

Animal World and Snake Farm has made and is continuing to make improvements, and it’s obvious the staff cares about the animals. It was a fun time, and I think you should consider visiting next time you’re near New Braunfels, Texas.

Books, books, books!

They really are the gift that keeps on giving. Here’s what I got for my birthday.

Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge is a biography about the man who revolutionized shopping. I saw a short documentary about Selfridge’s earlier this year, and my marketer’s mind loved hearing about his strategies and life. Who says work reading has to be boring? Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead
The Girl on Legare Street is the sequel to The House on Tradd Street, one of my so-far favorite reads of 2015. The Girl on Legare Street, Karen White
I asked for The Legend of Eli Monpress based on a friend’s recommendation. Magic and mayhem! The Legend of Eli Monpress, Rachel Aaron
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books series has always been one of my favorites, and I’m so excited to get my hands on Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography. Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Life has gotten really real in the last few months, and it was so great to spend some time with my mom. I’m a lucky girl.

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State of the Blog: June 2015

State of the blogWe’re halfway through 2015, and it’s been rough. My reading took a hit, but overall I’m feeling good about what I’ve read so far this year. Let’s dig in!

The basics

  • Books read since January 1: 27
  • Pages read: 9,073
  • Books reviewed: 27
  • Books not enjoyed: 6
  • Books not finished: 0
  • Library books: 16
  • Graphic novel: 2

Genre breakdown

  • Fiction: 18
  • Non-fiction: 9
  • Fantasy: 2
  • History: 9
  • Memoir: 3
  • Mystery/Thriller: 11
  • Paranormal/Supernatural: 7
  • Young adult literature: 3
  • Children’s literature: 1

Reading challenges

  • The Mount TBR Challenge: 4/12
  • Monthly Motif Challenge: 4/12

I’m enjoying both these challenges, but I think Monthly Motif is doing me the most good. Here’s what I’ve read.

Some thoughts

  • I’m not as far behind as a thought! By this time last year I’d read 30 books, this year I’m at 27.
  • I’m back to my normal fiction-heavy reading, mainly because real life has gotten crazy and I’m desperate for some escapism.
  • Favorite read so far – Toss-up between The House on Tradd Street and Unspoken.
  • Least favorite – Hild

Looking ahead

  • Hoping to keep up with my reading challenges and finally scratch some books off my TBR!
  • I’m somewhere in year two of a book-buying ban! I’m so excited that my local library is well stocked enough to keep my bank account nice and plump.

How’s your reading going this year?

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Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Poisoner's Handbook, Deborah BlumPoisons like arsenic, carbon monoxide, and chloroform have existed since the beginning of time, but it was only during America’s Jazz Age that scientists could begin to understand how these poisons affect the human body.

Two men in particular — New York’s first chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler — were instrumental in developing the techniques for detecting poisons in human tissue. Between 1915 and 1936, these men and their staff at New York’s Bellevue Hospital made it a lot harder to get away with murder.

Awesome!

If you like history, read this book. If you like true crime, read this book. If you like science, read this book. Author Deborah Blum has packed an astonishing amount of stuff into less than 300 pages, and it’s all fantastic.

Each chapter focuses on a specific poison (chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium), its effects on the body, famous cases where it was used to maim or kill, and the steps Norris and Gettler took to develop tests to detect it in human tissue.

The Poisoner’s Handbook was great, but the section I found most interesting was on radium. I knew that Marie Curie studied it for most of her life, and that it eventually killed her, but I had no idea how horrifically it destroys marrow and bones — it just about disintegrates them.

Throughout Blum’s book was reminded again and again of humanity’s willingness to use new discoveries without researching or considering the possible negative side effects. Radium shrinks cancerous tumors, so let’s put it in water, face creams, and soaps; thallium is used in pesticides, but it’s also great at removing unwanted body hair so let’s make depilatory creams with it. The FDA gets a lot of flack these days for allegedly politicizing which products make it to market, but the days before the organization had any real regulatory power sound pretty terrifying.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is one of those reads that got me spouting facts over dinner (and prompted my husband to ask, “What the hell have you been reading?”), as well as shed some light on the birth of forensic medicine. I muddled through a couple “heavy on the science” parts, but otherwise enjoyed myself. Give it a read!

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Review: Unspoken

Unspoken, Sarah Rees BrennanSchool newspaper editor Kami Glass has never been one to shy away from a story — and her newest is a doozy. The Lynburn family — secretive, odd, powerful — has returned to Sorry-in-the-Vale.

Rumors about the Lynburn family are numerous, and Kami is determined to separate truth from fiction. Trouble is, no one seems to want to talk — especially not to Kami, who has a reputation as being a bit of a weirdo. Shouldn’t she have dropped the “I’m talking to the imaginary friend in my head” thing in elementary school?

Nothing is as it seems in this sleepy English town. The Lynburns’ return throws the entire village into chaos, dredging up ancient secrets and poking at old wounds. And when her “imaginary friend” turns out be even more real than even she believed, Kami is pulled into a war generations in the making.

Just incredible

After a recent spate of marginally good YA novels, I was a little hesitant to pick up Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel; one can only take so much angst and love triangles, after all.

But while many of the YA prerequisites — love triangle, a heaping dose of angst, etc. — are featured, Unspoken has some unique aspects that give it a different feel.

First up is Kami herself. She’s a fantastic character, sharp as a tack, witty, sarcastic, curious. I liked her immediately, as well as her family. Her father is the most fully-realized (and it’s obvious Kami takes after him), but her brothers are funny too. Most of the characters are surprisingly well-rounded, which I love.

Then there’s the world building. Unspoken is the first in a trilogy, so we really only get glimpses of how the magic of Brennan’s world works, but it’s definitely interesting and unique enough to have me search out the rest of the series.

Brennan’s writing is spot-on. The difference between Kami’s high school world and the one into which she has blundered is like night and day, and Brennan writes about each equally well. Her writing is gorgeous, and the end is positively heartbreaking.

Unspoken is poised to be one of my favorite reads of 2015. Check it out soon!

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. June’s challenge was to read a book that takes place in a country different than my own.)

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Review: The Caged Graves

The Caged Graves, Dianne K. SalerniWhen Verity Boone returns to Catawissa, Pennsylvania in 1867, the warm welcome she expected is anything but. She barely remembers her own father, and her fiance isn’t anything like the man with whom she’s exchanged tender letters.

Even worse, when walking through the town graveyard Verity spots her mother’s grave — outside the cemetery wall and surrounded with an iron cage. No one seems willing to tell her why, but rumors of buried treasure and witchcraft fly thick and fast.

Determined to discover the truth of the caged graves — and clear her mother’s name — Verity starts asking questions. Most people in Catawissa want to keep the past in the past, but there are some interested in the local legend of hidden Confederate gold. Were the cages built to keep someone in…or someone else out?

Good stuff

Author Dianne K. Salerni spotted two real caged graves in Catawissa; when she couldn’t find any information about why they exist, she made something up. That “something” became The Caged Graves.

I’m never one to resist a good mystery, especially when it’s got fun stuff like the supernatural, Confederate gold, and a town full of people you’re not quite sure you should trust.

The story is well paced, with some nice twists and tense moments. It’s got a lovely ghost story feel, something you’d tell at a Girl Scout sleepover and scare the stuffing out of your companions.

But not great (spoilers!)

The Caged Graves was fun, but as I mull it over post-read I think it’s got some flaws.

First was the prologue. It didn’t really need to be there. The connection between it and Verity’s story doesn’t happen until several chapters in, so I wasn’t sure if I needed to remember the information.

I was also disappointed in the truth of the caged graves — nothing supernatural or particularly exciting, just that same old sin, greed. Of course this is how things usually go in the real world — think grave robbers, not vampires — but even so it was kind of disappointing.

Throw in the obligatory love triangle (something we’ve come to expect from 17 year-old female protagonists) and you end up with a book that, while good, is also frustrating.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it, or that I didn’t enjoy The Caged Graves. What I do know is that there are better books out there.

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