An Absolutely Remarkable Thing: A Book Review

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green is the first book written by popular YA author John Green’s brother. His writing style is totally different. A highly believable sci-fi book with characters that are sometimes hard to love and themes that really make you question yourself and society, I think that this book was an excellent debut for Hank Green.

The story is narrated (mostly) by the main character April May. A bisexual, artsy millennial who stumbles upon a giant robotic-looking statue outside in New York City one night. She calls one of her best friends, Andy, to come and see it, names it Carl, and they record a video for his YouTube channel, becoming instantly famous. It turns out that the Carl in New York isn’t the only one. They have popped up in cities all over the world and no one knows how they got there or who put them there. April May and her friends discover that the Carls are not just an art piece but possibly an alien species. Two schools of thought break out in society: one is that the Carls are there to bring humanity together, and the other is that they are out to destroy us. Between telephone conferences with the President, TV interviews, and writing a book about her experience with Carl, April May struggles with how to keep ahead of the crowd so she can keep her fame and her own self-importance with regards to the Carls (being the first to make contact with an alien species and all). Her and her friends work together to solve the many puzzles the Carls have left for the human race in order to discover what their purpose  and reason for coming to Earth is.

The book deals with some pretty big themes and makes some serious social commentaries about today’s youth and even government. Some of the themes include love in a modern society and friendship. One of the themes is the use of social media and fame in modern society. Another theme is the effects and perils of fanaticism. It also deals with the mores of sexuality in society and how and why Millennials deal with personal relationships. The book also makes commentaries on how fame can change people and on having a personal identity, while also having a strong message about cooperation among people in order to unite humanity.

While the story is utterly ridiculous, it is almost believable because of all of the thematic references which are so personal to so many young people in society right now. April May’s story is either familiar to you, or you know of someone that may be going through something similar, or thinks similarly to her. Her character is not always easy to love. In fact, through many parts of the book, I found myself really disliking her. However, I think she is an excellent character. She has many depths and is very believable.

It is definitely an intelligent book, however, it was not a difficult read. The story flows and the voice keeps it from being stuffy. I have not read a lot of sci-fi, but this book was pretty fantastic. I truly enjoyed reading it and it also made me think. It does end a bit unexpectedly, but luckily it is the first book in a series and will be continued (although Goodreads has not listed a title yet or a release date, so it seems we might be waiting a while to see how the story continues).

 

A Visit to Biltmore Estate in the Fall

After our wedding we decided to take out parents to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. It is about 40 minutes from our house and is definitely worth the trip. The estate is basically an American castle built by the Vanderbilt family and maintained as a historical landmark. We took a tour of the house and were blown away by the art and opulence of the rooms. The house was decorated for Christmas with gigantic Christmas trees in many rooms and a beautiful nativity on display.  After seeing the Biltmore, Jason decided our next house is going to be castle because what girl doesn’t need her own castle!

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While it was the wrong time of the year to visit most of the gardens, the Conservatory is something that can be seen year round and is definitely great for getting out of the Fall and Winter chill. We are looking forward to going back to see the gardens in the spring. I have also heard that the place is absolutely magnificent at Christmas time if it has snowed. Like something out of a movie.

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There are many more things to do at the Estate besides tour the house and gardens. They also have horseback riding, fine dining and lodging, Segway tours, a winery, an ice creamery, hiking trails, electric bike tours, fishing, river float trips, falconry, biking trails, carriage rides, and so much more. They also have special musical events and historical events that take place on special occasions.

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Admission to the house and gardens is $70 for adults and $35 for children. It also includes a complimentary wine tasting at the winery. If you live near the area and plan on visiting more than once, it is much more cost effective to purchase an annual pass and then get your guests discounted tickets. Annual passes are $119 a person.

While this is definitely one of the more costly things to do in our area, it is definitely a must see at some point if you live in the area. Maybe save it for special occasions and events, or only go once a year till you have seen it at all seasons.

Wedded Bliss: How I Planned a Wedding in Two Weeks and for Less than $1000

This month we did a thing. We got married! We have lived together for over three years now and have been talking about getting married for about 1 1/2 years , but something always comes up or makes it too complicated to set a date. We finally decided that for financial reasons it would be best for us to get married before the end of the year with a very simple ceremony where only parents were invited and later on plan a big party with all of our friends and family, kind of like a belated reception.

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So, when Jason’s parents told us they were coming down for a weekend this fall, I called my mom and told her that we wanted to plan to have a wedding in two weeks. She was able to find flights for her and my grandmother so that they could be there and I got started planning.

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We ordered rings. On Amazon, of course, since we buy everything on Amazon including our household furniture and beds! Diamonds are not my favorite stone (I actually prefer my birthstone, rubies), so we were able to find me an engagement ring for under $150 and I managed to find a wedding band that matched the engagement ring perfectly for less than $150 as well. My husband decided to order a silicone wedding band for around $40, since he uses his hands so much at work and at home. I told him that I will get him a nicer ring for when we go out and for special occasions for one of our anniversaries. Boom! Rings done, and on the cheap too!

Next we went to go get our marriage license. It only cost about $45 for our county. Once I had that I was found a notary who would come do there ceremony at our house for about $125. We had Ms. Sonita Leaks perform our wedding. If you live in the Greenville area of South Carolina, I highly recommend her. She was very professional, submitted our paperwork in a timely fashion, and was very accommodating with our pup being so exuberant during the ceremony. She even stayed after the ceremony to take a few photos of us all. She was very sweet and made our special day perfect.

All that was left was the food. We ordered from our favorite barbeque place, Henry’s Smokehouse. I spent about $90 on pulled pork, baked beans, mac and cheese, cole slaw, and iced tea for 10 people. And everybody enjoyed the food.

As far as my dress, I had an off-white dress that had not been worn yet that looked fantastic with my cowboy boots. Jason wore his favorite button down shirt, nice jeans and his going out boots. We didn’t have to spend any money at all on special clothes since it was just our parents and us in our backyard. My aunt and grandmother took care of a boutonniere and bouquet for me. They also arranged a few vases for our dinner table. Other than those few flowers, we didn’t have any other décor since it was a beautiful fall day and the changing leaves were more than enough color. We also decided against hiring a photographer since everyone who was there had a camera and could take pictures and share them with us.

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Our wedding was exactly like us: simple, intimate, and fun. I am so glad we went this route instead of a big, stressful wedding. I will make sure to post once we have the “reception” with family and friends and how that goes.

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Jones Gap State Park: Jones Gap Falls

This past June, I took my cousin who was visiting for the weekend to one of our state parks for a hike. Jones Gap State Park is about 20 minutes from my house and the drive there is beautiful. The park has an entrance fee of $5 for adults and $3 for children aged 6-15 unless you have a wonderful Park Passport like I purchased at the beginning of the year, in which case you just drive right on in. Jones Gap connects to another state park, Caesar’s Head, and you can actually hike between the two of them (but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart). The Middle Saluda River runs through it and there is lots of fishing to be had there. In fact there was actually a fish hatchery exhibit and trout pound when we first entered the park.

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There are 60+ miles of trails at the park, but we decided to do the Jones Gap Falls trail which is 5.3 miles one way (10.6 miles total). I decided not to wear hiking boots and just wore some sneakers I run in instead, but by the end of this long hike I was wishing I had worn some boots just for the extra ankle support. I ended up twisting my ankle pretty bad on the way down since I was so exhausted. Note to self: wear boots on hikes longer than 5 miles. We got to see two waterfalls on this trail and were also walking along the river for a good portion of it which really helped to keep the trail feeling cool. There was, however, quite a bit of mud since it had rained the day before and some felled trees that we had to climb through and over.

The Jones Gap Falls were fantastic. There was a nice little pool that had me wishing I had worn a swimsuit especially with the heat in late June. The rest of the hike was just as beautiful and we really enjoyed it. There were even some little bridges to cross and even some hopping across rocks to get to the rest of the trail. We came across a few hikers, but managed to get there at a time when it wasn’t too busy, so it was pretty quiet overall. There are several other trails that were shorter that looked like they were pretty busy that day, especially for people with families and pets.

Overall, I think our hike was a success. We got to see some beautiful falls and some interesting bugs and foliage. We got some really good cardio in for the weekend. And we even managed to get some pretty good pictures, although next time I would really like to take out my DSLR and get some better shots of the scenery there. I am definitely looking forward to trying some of the shorter trails.

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Book Review: Shades of Grey

The first book of Jasper Fforde’s that I read was The Eyre Affair the first novel in his Thursday Next series which I have loved. I found the book very witty and full of adventure that really tugged at the heart strings of a bibliophile. I read the description for his novel Shades of Grey and thought that I absolutely NEEDED to read it.

Shades of Grey is a dystopian novel taking place in taking place in a world called Chromatacia where the people’s place in social hierarchy has to do with the amount of color they can see and specifically which colors they can see. It follows the main character Edward Russett who is a Red and is expected to be able to see an exceptional amount of red. He is trying to move up the social hierarchy by marrying the right girl with the right color and gets sent to another city as punishment where he meets a girl named Jane who changes his life and perception of his society.

I really wanted to love this book and forced myself to read it all the way through. The concept was great, and parts of it were very witty, but I found myself struggling to actually finish it. I couldn’t get into the plot development and perhaps it was just a little too British for an American girl because there was a lot of parts that just went right over my head. As dystopian novels go, it is not the most action packed until the very end, although the world building is very interesting. Till the very end of the book I was not sure if this is a completely make believe world (due to references to Oz – which actually would make sense since it was one of the first movies with color and there is that whole play on black and white and color viewing) or if it was our world after some terrible catastrophe that caused this separation of people based on color blindness.

While it is probably very well-written, there is a possibility I am not intelligent enough to pick up on the details in the plot and this left me very confused through most of the book. Perhaps if I had read it the way I would read a textbook, and maybe researched some of the references I may have been able to understand it better, but since I was just reading it for fun, it really missed the mark for me.

The novel ends on a note where the story could be continued, but this came out in 2012 and there have been no sequels yet. It received high praise on Amazon and Goodreads but I have to give this book a low rating because it just didn’t click with me.

All in all, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

Almost anything can be improved with the addition of bacon.

I didn’t set out to discover a truth. I was actually sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census and learn some humility. But the truth inevitably found me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind.

“Love isn’t sensible, Red. I think that’s the point.”

2.5.03.02.005: Generally speaking, if you fiddle with something, it will break. Don’t.

The best plans are always the simplest.

“The best lies to tell,” said Jane, “are the ones people want to believe.”

Never underestimate the capacity for romance, no matter what the circumstance.

6.6.19.61.247: Vulgar mispronunciations of everyday words will not be tolerated.

Why I decided to join the Y

Since moving to South Carolina and starting a relationship three years ago, I have steadily been gaining weight. Now, I am not overweight by any means, but I have had to buy new clothes every year and that can get expensive. Plus, I am worried that if I continue this trend, eventually I will become overweight and that is just not an option for me. I am not vain, but my body image does have a direct correlation with my self-esteem and confidence.

After purging my closet and drawers of all the clothes that did not fit me anymore, I got a little depressed and pissed off at myself. I have always been one of those people who could eat whatever they wanted and exercise sporadically if I wanted and be just fine weight-wise, but it seems that the older you get, the less that is possible, especially when you have a desk job that leaves you pretty inactive all day. So, my current health goals include maintaining my current weight by exercising more often and making better choices when it comes to eating.

I decided that, in order for me to meet my health goals, we needed to get active this year. We have been trying, but being active on just the weekends isn’t enough. Especially when the weather makes it impossible for us to get out of the house and actually do active things like hiking or biking.

I tried working out with workout videos at home, but I just have a hard time staying motivated when nobody is doing it with me. And I mean like right next to me. I crave a social situation in order to work out. So, I finally took a look at the gyms in my area.

I have never been good at going to the gym. I am not good at independently working out, and I haven’t been able to find a gym buddy. Also, I usually feel really out of place in the gym. I always feel like people are watching me and judging me.

One of my friends recommended that I get Jason to work out with me, but that just wouldn’t work for me. He work out completely different than I do because his needs are different than mine. I need people with like-minded health goals and interests to work out with. Some of the gyms closest to where I live didn’t offer any kind of group exercise classes. Others were just so far outside of my price range (I am on a budget here after all)!

After a lot of searching I finally decided on the YMCA close to my job. I had been there before when I first moved here. I went with my aunt to a Zumba class and had a lot of fun. I like the atmosphere there; it doesn’t feel as much like a meat market like some of the other gyms I have been to. Also, the locker rooms are nothing fancy, in fact they remind me of the P.E. locker rooms in my high school! I figured it is the most comfortable I am going to feel. It’s in the mid-range for prices I was willing to pay for a gym, they offer classes, and have a pool to exercise in. Plus they waived my joining fee!

In my usual planning fashion, I grabbed the group exercise schedules and color coded classes I was interested in in three categories: completely available, available for lunch break, and not available unless it is a holiday. I figure that this way I will know what my options are each week and I can pick at least three classes to go to each week. I love that there are so many options and I can switch up the type of exercise I’m doing so that I can stay excited about it.

I went to my first class this morning. A Sunrise Yoga that started at 6:00 a.m. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it, because I have a hard time getting up to an alarm clock in the mornings, but I made sure I went to bed extra early. I also think my excitement helped urge me to wake up to.

For an early morning yoga class, it was a lot more intense than I expected it to be, which is probably a good thing. If it had been more relaxing, I might have fallen right back asleep, which I almost did when we got to the Savasana portion of the session. I am almost positive my arms and butt will be sore tomorrow with all the planking and chairs we were doing!

I felt such a sense of accomplishment actually showing up to a class so early in the morning and making it through without falling asleep!

Now I have no excuses to not work out because my gym is right on my way to and from work every weekday. Also, when the weather is crappy I have no excuse to not stay active because I can hop in my car and go take a weekend class instead. I am 100% determined to make regular exercise a routine in my life.

Do you have any tips to help me get the most out of my YMCA membership?

Book Review: The Passage

I recently finished reading the book The Passage by Justin Cronin. It is the first book in a a three book dystopian/post-apocalyptic series about a virus developed by the military that turns people into vampiric creatures that are incredibly strong, live forever, and don’t even resemble humans anymore. After explaining how the virus is developed and why the world is where it is, the story takes you 95 years into the future where a colony of survivors is living in California. With the help of Amy, a girl who the government infected with the virus but somehow does not have the same side effects as the others but has managed to stay a young girl, and a few of the colonists they set off to Colorado, where the outbreak first manifested, to see if there is a way to save humankind and beat the “virals” (that’s what they call the vampires, but let’s be honest, they are vampires).

Interestingly enough, Justin Cronin’s previous books were romance and contemporary fiction. Completely different from this horror/sci-fi genre he seems to have done pretty well in. This book has fantastic reviews on both Goodreads and Amazon and was personally recommended to me by a family member, so I had some pretty high hopes.

There were several things I liked about this book and very few things I didn’t. Mainly, this book reminded me a lot of the show The Walking Dead. So, if you were also a fan of this show, this might be the book for you. It’s a post-apocalyptic story-line, with humans trying to survive human-turned-monster creatures that are difficult to kill and have taken over the whole world. There are the heroes who are determined to win the war against them. There are love interests that change and evolve between the characters. And finally, there is plenty of action and suspense. The book really did read like a really great binge watching show. In fact, if it had not been so long, I probably would have binge read it.

That brings me to another thing I really liked about it. It was really, pretty long. The print length is listed on Amazon as 897 pages. Quite the epic. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. If the story is good, it means there is more to read, which is what any book lover wants, but if the story is bad, you just want to kill yourself because you feel like you will never reach the end. In this case, it was really great. Because it was so long, I got to savor the story for longer, which is really hard for me to do. I have a hard time pacing myself with books and usually overindulge and end up starting and finishing a book within a day or two. That just was not possible with this book, and also made it feel like it was a TV show, rather than just a book.

Finally, I really liked the writing style the author used. There are several literary mechanisms he used such as diary entries, log books, as well as general narrative, which really allowed you to see the story from different viewpoints.

While, there were many things I did like about the book, there were a couple of things that I thought could have been done better. In several parts of the book, my inner Grammar Nazi kicked in. There were several spoken phrases missing quotation marks right next to spoken words that were in quotations. It did not seem like a stylistic choice, but rather an error that the editor did not catch. However it was not something that ruined the story in any way.

Another stylistic change I would make is the use of some vernacular. The author chose to replace a certain four letter swear word with the word “Flyers” (I guess after the virals, who can jump so high and such great distances that they seem to fly), however in other parts of the book, reverts back to the regular four letter F-word we all love to use today. I just feel like you should keep some consistency with that kind of thing.

Finally – this isn’t something I really disliked, just something that I know many people might not – there are a lot of characters to keep up with. With a book this long and spanning so large a time period it is bound to happen. It can be difficult sometimes to keep track of all the different characters that are mentioned that might pop up again for something else. I did not feel like any of the characters were really extraneous though; they all served their purpose and helped to build the story-line and character development for the more main characters. Most of the best selling fantasy and sci-fi novels do have a large character list: Game of Thrones, Outlanderthe Lord of the Rings, etc.

There was one part of the book that I just never really understood and don’t know why the author went this route in the story.

*SPOILER ALERT!!!*
There is one character who I feel was made into an important character, and really shouldn’t have been. The nun, Lacey. She takes in Amy when her mother abandons her and goes after her when the FBI abduct her, but you could already tell he wanted her to be something special because her story-line included her being able to hear the actual voice of God, and then it never comes up again. In fact, you think she dies until you get to the end of the book and find out that she was saved by the scientist who infected all the original twelve virals to begin with by using the same virus he used on Amy. So, she has been alive this whole time, but she broke her vows and married the asshole scientist who created these monsters, and outlived him just so she could tell Amy that she is the savior, which everyone had already figured anyway because she can kind of control the damn things.
I feel like the author could have easily found a different character or way to explain Amy’s role in the whole story-line and left this weird nun out of it. Her character was great until she came back to life. I would have preferred if she had died sacrificing herself for the child and Agent Wolgast to make it out.  The scientist could have left some kind of computer message that the engineer kid, Michael, could have deciphered. Or Amy could have just turned a viral back to normal and figured it out herself in some dramatic suspenseful scene where her friends almost die until she saves them. Or Wolgast could have survived and been changed into whatever she is too, so he can explain it to her, since he was more of a parental figure in her life than the nun was.

OK rant over, and that was really the only part of the book that I didn’t like or agree with.

Other than that, I really liked the book and am excited to read the second. I managed to get it while the e-book was on sale on Amazon, so I am hoping I can wait for the second one to go on sale also. It seems that they are also trying to develop this book series into a TV show, which would make a lot of sense with the style of the book and the success that shows like The Walking Dead have had.

I would definitely recommend this book to other post-apocalyptic/dystopian book lovers and those into sci-fi/horror as well. I really enjoyed it and can’t wait to see what they do with the TV show.