Tuesday, 7 January 2020

The Cranky Book Reviewer read Esme's Gift by Elizabeth Foster

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in return for providing a review. There was no payment involved. 

Image from Amazon.com

Esme's Gift is the second book in the Esme Trilogy by Elizabeth Foster.

Summary (these are only spoilers if you haven't read Esme's Wish first)

I read Esme's Gift with interest, eager to follow the 15-year-old protagonist on her continued quest to save her mother, who is now lying unresponsive, in a healer's room in the magical land of Aeolia. In this installment of the story, Esme continues to explore and discover the new world around her as she learns to control her magical gift, which she thinks might be key to waking up her mother.

If you liked Harry Potter and The Hunger Games...

I noticed several shared themes with other popular YA series, but Ms. Foster approached the similarities in very different, more nuanced ways. 

If you look beyond a school full of magical classes, conflict between purebred families and otherworlders (kaff -- muggles) and corrupt politicians campaigning for control, there is a solid story about how Esme handles herself and the work she needs to do to master her magical abilities. There are themes of inner conflict between loyalty to her father and staying in the new world to help her mother. There are also undercurrents of empathy vs. cynicism as well as trust and overcoming prejudice from peers, teachers and authority figures. It's a lot to pick apart, but they are ably and naturally woven into the story.

What's good about this book?

Like the first book, there's lots of adventure and travel to absolutely beautifully-described places. The characters are intriguing and more dimensional, and some of the unanswered questions from the first book are resolved, while other mysteries are introduced (this is a trilogy, after all). And of course, there are dragons.

The author's use of language has matured, and descriptive metaphors take the place of similes. And -- it's happening -- there are awkwardly sweet attempts at setting up a romance (come on, book 3!). 

Overall, this book is a wonderful sequel to Esme's Wish, with increased character development and maturing themes (still very sweet), as well as even better writing than in the first.

The Cranky Book Reviewer also doesn't see the point of office dogs. What do they even do?
(Image credit: author's own)

Age recommendation

I'd recommend Esme's Gift to 12-15-year-olds. The themes of trust vs. distrust and the cynicism towards authority are a little darker than in the first book, as well as creating empathy via the various villains backstories, but there is nothing really inappropriate in it for younger teens.

My rating:

4 1/2 stars out of 5

I'm happy to have read it, and yes, I'd love to read the third book in the trilogy when it's finished!

Do you have a book you'd like reviewed? Contact me.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Simply Having a Wonderful Houghmastime

The moon is right, the spirits up

As Christmas 2019 starts to fade into the rearview mirror, we want to capture some of the more memorable moments.

Vaughn's submission to the Marylebone Christmas card competition.
He didn't win, but we liked it the best.
As always, December was mild, if rainy, and a busy, busy time, full of receptions (Chris and I), so many birthday parties (kids), and far too much merrymaking (Wine. So much wine). These are some of the fun-and-weird highlights of the holidays this year:

The choir of children sing their song

We're pretty sure Vaughn was on the stage, too. We think.
The season kicked off with the older two singing at the Marylebone Christmas Lights concert, where fake snow and street food made everyone merry. All three sang in their school concert as well, and even Tamsin's Grade 2 class' version of Ding Dong Merrily on High was not only recognizable, but rather good: a Christmas miracle, as it were.

Ailsa's first violin concert. She rocked.

And Ailsa performed at her first violin concert! She's only been playing since September, but is already getting a lovely sound out of a potentially horrifying instrument.

The party's on

This is the real DeLorean from Back to the Future. The kids were sort of impressed.
Amidst the flurry of parties and outings (and too much wine almost every night!), our good friends invited us to an amazing night out at a luxury car showroom, surrounded by food, wine and entertainment, where we and the kids mingled with London's elite. They also sat in the actual, real live car from Back to the Future, which we told them all about, and they thought was cool...until the next day when we let them watch the movie and their fuzzy little minds were blown. 

(No Beatles were injured) 

Christmas Eve in London. It's a hardship.
Speaking of the elite, a highlight, for sure, was on Christmas Eve, when we took advantage of a beautiful day to rollerskate and scooter to the park. The kids rolled on ahead down the sidewalk, out of reach/possibly out of control, while Chris and I followed behind with Ziggy. Half a block away, we saw a couple leaving their gate, with our kids bearing down on them like three, "Christmas hoodlums".

Or, at least, that's what Paul McCartney called them when Tamsin narrowly missed running him over. I apologized profusely, wished him and his wife a merry Christmas, and then skipped away. That's right. My takeaway is twofold: 1) I finally talked to Sir Paul, 2) without any inappropriate touching. Woot woot!

(Next time, I'll try to get a photo of him surviving a run-in with my children.)

A visit from St. Nick.

There will be a follow-up post in a few days for Christmas itself, but let me assure you that all were spoiled. Here's hoping that your holidays were as special and magical as ours were, and that you, too, had a simply wonderful Christmastime.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

The Cranky Book Reviewer read Esme's Wish by Elizabeth Foster

A book review for Esme's Wish by Elizabeth Foster. Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book in return for providing a review. There was no payment involved. 

Image from Amazon.co.uk

I read Esme's Wish by Elizabeth Foster, a "highly-rated fantasy novel for younger teens," with trepidation. This is my first solicited book review; her PR firm reached out to me to offer me a copy if I'd review it, and my first thought (of course) was, "Hey! Free stuff!" My second was, "But what if I don't like it?"

I resolved to read it critically, and if I needed to remind myself that I wasn't the target audience, then so be it.

The Cranky Book Reviewer doesn't like feeling trepidatious. (Image credit: author's own.)

I needn't have worried. It's a wonderful book.

Summary (no spoilers)

It is Ms. Foster's first novel. The story follows Esme, a 15-year-old whose father has just remarried, her artist mother having disappeared -- presumed drowned -- seven years before. Troubled when her new stepmother's family tries to erase her mother's presence in her home, Esme discovers clues that lead her to Aeolia, a magical world where enchantment is part of every person, place and thing. As she explores this beautiful new setting, her friends help her learn that bravery and trust are essential as they search for the truth not just behind her mother's disappearance but in saving Aeolia itself.

What's good about this book?

Action? Yes. Magic? Yes, by the bucketful. Mystery? So much. There's even a possible romance hinted at (after all, the main characters are teenagers).

The language is beautifully descriptive, though a little high in similes for my taste, but Ms. Foster paints the two dramatically different worlds she has created vividly and ably. With her detailed -- but not heavily overdone -- descriptions, I could picture not only Esme's mom's artwork, but the otherworldly characters and settings as well. For me, however, the main characters could have used more development; the setting is definitely the star.

The story moves along at a good pace, with new magic revealed almost at every page as Esme explores her new surroundings. It's a strangely enchanting mix of magical creatures, teenage angst, adventure and even politics. There is foreshadowing, tension, unresolved issues and vaguely threatening characters that you just know will come back to do something evil... and Ms. Foster has left room for a sequel(s) to make sure they do.

Age recommendation

I tried, here and there, to read it through the lens of a younger reader, and I believe it hits the mark (I've given it to my ten-year-old for his opinion too). I'd recommend it to fantasy readers in the 12-14 year range. Younger readers might have a difficult time getting through the flowery language and some quite threatening, scary scenes, and older ones might want more danger or romance, but I think it hits a nice balance, and again, it's absolutely overflowing with magic.

My Rating

4 out of 5 stars
Overall, I enjoyed it very much, and look forward to reading the next book in the series.

Do you have a book you'd like reviewed? Contact me.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Fitness App Review: My Workout Plan by Sosis Apps

I review My Workout Plan Daily Workout Planner Fitness App by Sosis Apps.
Screenshot of My Workout Plan App, courtesy of Google Play

Since my last foray into home exercise apps, I have branched out again. I'm still consistent to the point of insanity in my workouts (Sane person: "I have a fever. I'm staying on the couch." Me: "It's just 20 minutes of HIIT. The fever means I'm already warmed up."), but I decided that, as a fitness professional-type-person myself, I'd rather create my own balanced and effective workout... and then have an app tell me when and how to do it.

I come from a long past of carrying a workout notebook with me every time I went to the gym. Literally, ten years into lifting weights four to five days per week, I would set my workout for the day before starting, and record it faithfully in my little book as I went, checking it between sets, tracking my weights, and noting how little abs and cardio I did.

My gym buddies used to mock me for this. "Don't you know what you're doing yet?" But it was helpful, reassuring. If I had a drink of water and forgot what I was doing, it was there. If I had written it on the page, I had to do it, even if I no longer felt like it. It kept me focused and honest. It made sure that I lifted the right weight for each exercise, not the weight I wanted to choose. It helped me progress.

I haven't done that in years, though, entirely because I lost my Fat Little Notebook somewhere and am horrified by its replacement value. And, since this is 2019, I thought that I should try something new. Something digital.

There's a fitness app for that

Of course there is. There's a lot of them, in fact. The one I chose to try was My Workout Plan Daily Workout Planner by Sosis Apps. It's free (with ads) and was very well reviewed.

I sat down to play with it and was pleased to find a large variety of exercises, equipment options, and workout styles. You can create supersets, rest periods, timed sets... it's very versatile.

The pros

I set up my own workout

I'm a professional. I know what's good for me and how not to overtrain my shoulders or do a pushups-only workout. I chose exercises and variations that I wanted, arranged them as I saw fit, grouped smaller muscles into supersets and gave myself more rest with larger muscle groups. It's extremely customizable, which is a huge plus.

So many options

You want to do pushups, but different pushups? No problem. The only equipment in your gym is an Olympic bar and a Swiss ball? Great. This app has what seems like hundreds of exercises (with videos!) for each muscle group and piece of equipment; great for inspiration if you're comfortable weight training and want to try something new. 

Not there? No problem!

This app is just so customizable. You can rename an existing exercise to whatever you'd like ("Those lunges that Lisa hated doing") and add exercises that aren't in the (extensive) list. 

Relevant reminders

I sometimes need a bit of a push to get going. This app sends me motivational reminders I can appreciate, like "Sweat is just fat crying," and I can customize them to say something like, "Dammit Karen, get off the couch and do some pushups."

(I didn't, but I can.)

Adding exercises: simple, but time-consuming. (image courtesy of Google play)

The cons


I hate to admit, but I haven't mastered the timing of the rest intervals between sets. Sometimes, I get a full twenty seconds after a superset, sometimes between exercises within the superset, but not after. I've read through several of the app's reviews, but nobody else mentioned it as a problem, so it's probably just me. It's definitely just me. Never mind.

Cumbersome to set up

Compared to writing it down in my trusty old notebook (man, I miss my notebook - it has my entire history of heavy lifting in there, too, like that one time that I deadlifted 185 lbs. Yeah.), it took a while to set up. The exercise options are there, but each time you add a new move, you start fresh: equipment, body part, scroll down, set reps and sets and rest periods.

Planner, not a tracker

Once set up, the app works very well, but when I finished a set, I had nowhere to quickly keep track of how easy or hard it felt, and without manually changing it each time, I couldn't set my progression. You can add "notes" to each exercise, but I'd prefer something more intuitive.

Beginners, beware

If you're not really sure what you're doing, it's probably best to consult a certified (and educated) trainer. That way, you'll be sure that you've got a balanced workout and you have a plan in place for progressions as you get stronger. 

My own upper body workout. (Screenshot of My Workout Plan by Sosis Apps.)

The verdict

My Workout Plan is free and it's fantastic. It works great as a motivator and planner, and it's just so incredibly customizable that I have to recommend it as long as you know what you're doing. And have the time to play with it. But trust me, hire a trainer for a session or two first (and always consult your healthcare practitioner before you start an exercise program).

(Despite its many, many positives, this app fell just short of my precious, precious paper notebook.)

Do you use a workout app?  Which one?

Are you interested in becoming more active? 

You can read my article on Snacking on Exercise, and how Small Changes can lead to Big Results. Then, try this 5-minute workout or this 20-minute workout. (Consult your doctor first!) Don't forget to comment and leave me feedback!

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Winner/Victim: Potato/Potahto

The footnotes are the best part of this post.

I think my husband and kids should get "NaNoWriMo Survivor" badges.
(image courtesy of https://nanowrimo.org/

Much like getting married, having children, or even just being a grownup, the NaNoWriMo challenge is one of those things that seems like a really good idea at the time, but then when you've done it, you're... well, you're a grownup who's married with kids -- I think we can all agree that the idea of that is a lot more attractive than the reality. And yep, that's where I am now.

I did it. I won.*

I wrote a 50,058-word novel ("novella" if we must) in thirty days. In fact, I did it in twenty-seven days, because three of my writing sessions were replaced with "going to the pub". Those were good days.

My daily word count tally. Note the three "days worth living" out of the month.
Also, it took me till November 2nd to figure out the website, so that's why it looked like I wrote double on the 2nd.
Courtesy https://nanowrimo.org/stats

Every night, after the kids went to bed (or, as the month went on, as the kids were getting ready for bed), I sat down to bang out 1667 or more words. At the beginning of the month, I was keen. After the first week and a bit, I was incredulous. It was going too well. Writing a novel in a month is really easy!

And then.

And then the pub. The desktop. A pull in my shoulder from poor ergonomics in the desktop setup. The sniffles. I looked longingly at the couch and fluffy blanket from where people with sniffles should be writing, then put up my fuzzy hood on my camping/I have a cold hoodie, put on an extra pair of fuzzy socks, and typed on. Like an animal.

Last weekend, we had two outings on Friday and Saturday evenings, which meant I had to get my wordcount in during the day ("Don't even think about it," said Ziggy and the children), or try to do it when we got home, after possibly having a glass (or three) of wine.** So I did.

I had pretty much wrapped up the story part of the story on Thursday, or at least come to terms with the fact that I didn't have an "ending" for it per se, but thought that perhaps the journey could be the destination. I was possibly rationalizing.*** I still had ~2500 words to go, so I wrote long character sketches for each character.

That's not cheating. The idea is that, at the end of this challenge/exercise in the destruction of my soul, health, marriage and family, I'd have something you can work with. I'm not supposed to read through it for at least a month (not that I re-read it as I went - that was frowned upon, as was editing as you go), so I'll be interested to see how it actually went.

I don't have very high hopes. After all, it's the story of a woman following her scientist husband on a one-way trip to Mars and realizing that she hasn't lived her own life. This is not in any way any kind of reflection of my own life and experience.**** 

I am left with a permanent pain in my left shoulder and a giant document that I can edit, tear apart, re-order and maybe make into something good, or maybe not, starting January 1st.

For now, I'll take it as an exercise in writing and confidence (and a little bit of catharsis). I have no excuses for not writing now; after all, I just wrote a 50,000-word novel in less than a month.

And no, you may not read it. Don't even ask.

* "winning" this challenge just means completing it. I wrote 50K words, so I won. 
** it was definitely three.
*** I was totally rationalizing.
**** Don't worry: when the "Chris" character dies, it's quick and painless.

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