Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Arrivederci, Europa Challenge

For the past five years now I've run the Europa Challenge, a blogging challenge for bloggers who incorporate books published by Europa Editions into their reading and reviewing. At the end of this year I'm wrapping it up.

The URL is I'm ending the Challenge due to diminishing participation. At our height we had posts going up almost every week; now we're down to maybe one or two a month, just me and one other person, and mostly just me. So it's time to go.

But we've had a lot of fun in five years. Here are some fun facts and statistics about the challenge.

In five years we had
  • 38 reviewers/bloggers posting about 
  • 250 reviews of 111 books 
  • by 77 authors,  
  • as well as 3 giveaways and
  • a holiday book exchange.
Random Statistics:
  • Most reviewed book: Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson (8 reviews)
  • Most reviewed author: Elena Ferrante (13 reviews)
  • Most viewed review: Barbara B.’s review of Audrey Schulman’s Three Weeks in December with over 1000 page views
  • Most popular search term: Europa Challenge
  • Most-searched-for author: Alexander Maksik
  • Most viewers come from the United States and Russia
  • Average monthly page views: 1000
  • Most Active Reviewers: Me with 51 reviews, and Josh with 33 reviews
A few selected quotes from Europa Challenge reviewers:

Trish R. says of My Brilliant Friend “Ferrante captures the uncertainty and confusion of youth.”
Josh says Caryl Ferey’s Mapuche “keeps the reader locked.”
Helen G. says Jean-Claude Izzo’s A Sun for the Dying “gave me a double dose of insight into the plight of the homeless.”
Nancy says Valery Panyushkin’s 12 Who Don’t Agree is “a definite must-read that gets well beyond news stories we listen to with only half an ear.”
Suzanne says Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s The Most Beautiful Book in the World is “an apt description for the entire book.”

Readers enjoy the plots, characters, writing and social messages in the books, and the books are like potato chips- you can't read just one. Once you get hooked on the brand, you're hooked.

A few years ago Europa launched their World Noir initiative which rebranded their international crime line and moved them to the mystery section of the bookstore. That helped bring a whole new set of readers to the brand and expand their reach even further. Their crime novels have always been favorites of mine and it was great to see this change.
For most people the "gateway book" was Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but I'll bet the recent success of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet will change that and more readers will come to the brand through those very successful books.

Personal highlights for me include the friendships I've made through the blog, and my two visits to the Europa Editions office in NYC and one to their headquarters in Rome, where I got to meet company founders Sandro and Sandra Ferri.

So thanks to all the readers and bloggers who contributed, and thanks to Michael Reynolds and everyone at Europa Editions who's been so supportive of the blog for the past five years!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 Statistical Roundup

2015 was a slow year for reading for me, and a slowish year for book events.  But I still read a lot of great books and had some adventures in my new home. After a full calendar year in New York I can tell you there are lots of opportunities here, and lots of things to keep me busy. We'll see how many more years we log here, but for now I'm having some great days.

How many books read in 2015?
53. This is a sad number for me, down 23 from last year. I don't have a good explanation for this. I didn't read as much crime, and I read several chunkster books that took a lot of time to get through. I haven't listened to a single audio book and have read little day to day. I have gone whole days without reading, which is not like me.

How many fiction and non fiction?
51 fiction and 2 nonfiction. Last year most of my nonfiction was audio; this year I didn't listen to a single audio book but read my nonfiction in print, at the gym. All well and good and I was flying through them last year but I got hurt in February and haven't been going to the gym much since, so it took me until last month to finish a book I started in January.

Male/Female author ratio? 
30 books written by men to 23 written by women.

Favorite book of 2015?
What Ends, by Andrew Ladd. A luminous, beautiful family story set on a fictional Scottish island.

Least favorite?
The Lost Estate, by Henri-Alain Fournier. The French title for this is Le Grand Meaulnes, or The Great Meaulnes, Meaulnes being the name of a character. I didn't see what was so great about him. The book is a reminiscence of a great friendship between two boys, or rather the story of one boy who idolized Meaulnes, who seemed to be kind of a jerk in my opinion. It's an important book in French literature and I wanted to read it and see how it ended, but now I'm done.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?
Several. The Night of the Hunter and Hollow Land by Jane Gardam come to mind. In the case of the former, I couldn't do the high pitch of suspense and anxiety. With the latter, it just didn't connect for me.

Oldest book read?
The Lost Estate originally published in 1913.

The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya, released in November.

Longest and shortest book titles? 
Shortest title: 3-way tie between Ghosts, Elders and Billie.
Longest title: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter 

Longest and shortest books?
Longest: Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh
Shortest: Probably The Conversations, by Cesar Aira

How many books from the library?
None! I barely stepped foot in libraries this year except for job interviews. I did borrow a movie, though, Disney's "Aladdin."

One of several books I read in 2015 set in Argentina
Any translated books?
I read books translated from Danish, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese, French, German, Russian, Spanish and Afrikaans.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
Through books I traveled to China, India, England, France, Argentina, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, Belize, Mexico, Ireland, South Africa, Israel, Brazil, Scotland, Cuba, Greenland, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Spain, Algeria and Zimbabwe.  I also visited the fantasy worlds of The Last Unicorn and Howl's Moving Castle.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author? 
Cesar Aira, four books. I also read two books each by Lydia Millet and Ludmila Ulitskaya.

Any re-reads?
I tried to re-read The Night of the Hunter, by Davis Grubb, which I read as a teen.

Favorite character of the year? 
Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
None. None of the books I read this year were recommended to me by someone else. What can I say, I'm a very self-directed reader.

Which author was new to you in 2015 that you now want to read the entire works of?
Boualem Sansal, the Algerian author of The German Mujahid.

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?
I'm annoyed I never got to The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, and All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Guess it wasn't a great year for Anthonys. I wish I had gotten to A Little Life, by Hanya Yanigahara, but I'm waiting for the paperback.

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne-Jones.

2015 Book Events in Marie's Book Life:
  • Seeing Margaret Atwood at a signing in Boston,
  • Meeting Amitav Ghosh at a signing in Brooklyn,
  • Exploring bookstores in New York, San Francisco and the Berkshires,
  • Joining and leaving a book club,
  • Visiting the Center for Fiction in NYC.
Some day I'll do a post on my favorite NYC bookstores but so far they are
Greenlight Books, Crawford and Doyle, Albertine, Housing Works Bookstore and the Strand. I'm also a fan of the new Rizzoli bookstore and the only independent in Queens, Astoria Bookshop, as well as Idlewild Books, the big Barnes & Nobles in Manhattan and McNally Jackson. Whoever says there are no bookstores in NYC hasn't been here lately! There are also a bunch more used bookstores that I've visited and enjoyed. I've yet to visit the Melville House bookstore, Book Court and WORD Brooklyn, and there are probably others, too. There's always something new going on!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: FLOOD OF FIRE, by Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh. Published 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Literary Fiction.

I finally did it folks- I ate the whole thing. It took weeks and weeks. Months. I started this book in late July and finished it just under the wire in December. Granted I didn't read it every day but still. Flood of Fire is a tome in its own right and the end to a series of tomes- the Ibis Trilogy is composed of three chunksters that get ever more chunkier. Sea of Poppies, volume one, was an action-packed book of respectable length and depth; River of Smoke was longer and more about setting and character, and finally Flood of Fire just blows them all away with the combination of plot, meticulous research and mesmerizing characters. And now it's over, though Ghosh does leave the door open in the final lines for more.

I don't know if I could take any more. The first thing people ask me about books in series is, "could I read it as a stand-alone?" I think the answer is yes in this instance. After getting hooked on Sea of Poppies I devoured River of Smoke as soon as it came out but that was a couple of years ago and I haven't touched the series since, so while I have read the whole series it's been long enough that I've  forgotten a lot. And there is enough set-up in Flood of Fire to get you settled.

That said, I do think the best way to experience Flood of Fire is as part of the series, so I would recommend reading the whole thing, which is a magnificent series. It might take you a solid year but it would be worth it to get lost in this world. If you've started the Ibis Trilogy and are wondering if you should finish the answer is yes. If you're curious and wonder if you should start, that would also be a yes.

So on to the review. I really enjoyed the book, even if it took me six months to finish it. It's so immersive, so detailed and packed with so much activity and such great characters; it's really bound to be a classic end to a classic series. Ghosh has accomplished something amazing with this series, illuminating one of the corners of history that was so important in the creation of the modern world- the opium trade. He tackles his subject from the point of view of a soldier, an officer, an American finding his way, a bored married woman, a clueless functionary, a young woman alone, a mixed-race drug addict, a widow. The narrative is full of coincidence and happenstance and reversals; the guy you like at the beginning turns into a villain and the woman you don't dies tragically when she loses her last chance at love.

It's a lot to take in. I can't recommend the series highly enough but you definitely have to be in it to win it. Parts of the book were a slog and I will admit to some skimming. Military history is sort of not my thing; I was in it for the characters and while I admire Ghosh's research it was a lot. My favorite characters, like Kesri the soldier and Shireen the widow, give us historical and social context alongside moving personal stories and growth. Even Freddie, marginal opium-smoker, lends a certain insight into the functioning of this world that helped make ours.

I will say that however long it took me to finish I was never bored with Flood of Fire and never considered not finishing it. It was just that settling in to reading it was a commitment because I knew I'd be glued to my chair for at least an hour at a time. But the book, and the series, is so worth your time and the effort it takes.

My reviews of Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke.

Rating: BUY!

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Review: WIDOW BASQUIAT: A LOVE STORY, by Jennifer Clement

Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, by Jennifer Clement. Published 2014 by Broadway Books. Biography/Memoir.

Reading Widow Basquiat reminded me of my cool college girlfriend Kate who wore her expensive asymmetrical haircut above chic black outfits and seemed to know everything about movies, art, food and travel. We bonded over the Robert Mapplethorpe poster in my dorm room. She would have known all about people like artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his lower-Manhattan milieu of the 80s, the setting for this combination of memoir and biography. It's the story of Suzanne Malouk, a young Canadian woman who came to New York in 1980 with red-lips-and-cigarettes dreams and met and falls in love with Basquiat and remained his friend and lover through all the ups and downs until his death in 1988.

Jennifer Clement, a novelist and friend of Mallouk's, writes in a chatty, nonchalant style and interleaves her narration with extensive quotes from Mallouk herself. The effect is like two friends reminiscing, and that's exactly what the book is. It's also a colorful and lively portrait of New York City in the 80s- the art world, the AIDS crisis, drug use and more.

As much fun as the book is, there's a dark side too, something to do with the consequences of fast living and the price of addiction, but what shines through is Mallouk's passion for life and her love for Basquiat and his art.  I blew through the book pretty quickly and enjoyed the quick pace, the flurry of detail and the rich evocation of a time and a place that has ceased to exist through the passage of time and gradual gentrification of Manhattan. I highly recommend it to readers interested in art and New York. And if you're like Kate, you should read it for sure.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from Random House for review.

Monday, December 21, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I did it, I finally finished Flood of Fire last week- just a day after I predicted it would take me another week and change. My secret? The New York subway and my weekly trip to Brooklyn. Hooray!

So now I'm on to two new books, both of which I'm loving.

I started Kim Leine's The Prophets of Eternal Fjord last week but I've made great progress into this stunner of a novel. It started out slow but for a book that's pretty heavy on exposition it is very absorbing and immersive. I love rich historical fiction I can just get lost in. The novel jumps around in time and is about a missionary who comes to Greenland in the 1700s and finds a strange cult has taken hold.
On the shorter side I'm reading Patrick Modiano's So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood, a brief suspenser about a man revisiting childhood memories after losing his address book. It's intriguing and fascinating, with beautiful writing and an intense mood.

And I finally started a new nonfiction book for my reading at the gym, Jonny Steinberg's A Man of Good Hope. This book is the biography of Asad, an African man who lives in South Africa as the book opens but whose story has been shaped by the wars and chaos of his continent since before he was born. Steinberg is a journalist and has written a fascinating, page-turning account of Asad's life-until-now. I'm actually going to the gym more so I have more time to read it!

Posting will be light between now and the end of the year but I'll have my statistical roundup soon and one or two new reviews. Have a great week and tell me what you're reading in the comments.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sunday Salon-Christmas fun in NYC

Decorated home in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
There's so much to do in New York during the Christmas season. In Boston we had certain holiday traditions- "It's A Wonderful Life"at the movies, Christmas lights, Irish Christmas concert. We can do just about all these things in New York and more, and we got started last week with a screening of IAWL at the IFC Center in the Village, and a Christmas lights bus tour in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights last night. We have an Irish Christmas concert tonight, then later this week we'll visit a Christmas village in midtown and the Feast of the Seven Fishes later in the week. We'll find some time to visit Rockefeller Center and see the display windows at Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's too. Basically every spare moment this week will be spent getting as much Christmas out of New York City as we can.

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Alongside that life continues. I'm working on my annual round-up post showing some statistics and fun facts about this year. And I'll be doing a wrap-up post for the Europa Challenge, a blogging community challenge that I've run for five years now.

But life seems quiet even with all the activity and running around. We've got the tree up, the apartment decorated and we're just enjoying the season. The one thing I haven't done which I used to do in Boston is the holiday baking. Last year at this time we were 3 months into the move and I was too stressed out to even think about it; we got cards and gifts out late, and barely got the tree up at all, so doing the holiday spread was just a bridge too far. Now I feel more settled here and better able to take on the holiday merriment but I still don't think there are any home-baked cookies in my Christmas this year. Which is kind of sad, because I miss doing that, but maybe by next year I'll be ready again.

In the meantime I hope everyone who celebrates it has a wonderful Christmas and New Year's celebration. And everyone at least have a great week!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Favorite Reads of 2015

It's been a great year of reading, with old favorites and some new-to-me writers making the list. Ludmila Ulitskaya is virtually guaranteed a place on any of my best lists, and the big deal for me this year was the end of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy with the magnificent Flood of Fire. But I fit in a lot of books in 2015 and there might even be time for one or two more before the end.

But for now in no particular order, here are my favorite reads of the year.
    Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh. I'll admit parts of this chunkster were a slog, but overall it was a fantastic end to a fantastic series, the capstone to a significant literary achievement. The Ibis Trilogy, of which this is the final volume, is incredible, immersive historical fiction and a must-read for literary readers. Start with Sea of Poppies and finish here. Ghosh tells the story of the First Opium War and the founding of the modern world via the opium trade through the adventures of a large and varied cast of characters. Read it, get lost in it, love it. (2015)

    The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Ulitskaya's latest is also immersive historical fiction, written in the style of interlocked short stories, about a group of friends whose lives she charts through 20th century Russia. So much to enjoy here. She's a top-shelf writer whom more people should be reading. (2015)

    How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet. Millet is like Margaret Atwood before she went all science-fictiony- solid, insightful and beautifully-crafted stories about people and the way they interact with the world, especially the natural world. This book is the first in a series and tells the story of an entrepreneur turned environmentalist, his family and his attempts to find connection and meaning. She's just great, that Lydia Millet. (2009)

    A Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev. Shalev has written a truly beautiful and moving story set in the
    present and past of Israel, about lovers and families and the search for meaning. Its use of animals as a metaphor for connection has something in common with Millet's work. Anyway I loved this book, which survived five years of weeding and a move to stay in my TBR pile long enough for me to finally get to it. You should too. (2009)

    Alfa Romeo 1300 and Other Miracles, by Fabio Bartolomei. Just a good time, this silly book about a group of middle-aged losers who open a B&B in the Mafia-infested Italian countryside would make a hilarious arthouse movie. It's great for a mental getaway anytime. (2012)

    Elders, by Ryan McIlvain. Insightful and unexpected, I loved this novel about two Mormon missionaries trying to find themselves in the streets of Brazil. (2013)

    What Ends, by Andrew Ladd. Probably my hands-down favorite this year, this beautifully written and absorbing novel is perfect for literary readers who love character-driven novels. Ladd tells the story of a Scottish famly on a fictional Hebrides island and their diminishing way of life in luminous prose. It's the book I'd recommend most to other booksellers and writer friends. (2014)

    The House on Moon Lake, by Francesca Duranti. At first suspenseful and then just kind of weird, this is my off-beat pick of the year. A translator finds an unknown manuscript that becomes a runaway hit; what happens next would also make a great movie. (2000)

    The Conversations, by Cesar Aira. Unless you've read Aira before, you haven't read anything like

    him. This book documents a debate between two friends about a movie neither of them really paid attention to and it's hilarious. (2014)

    The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal. Probably the most emotionally challenging book I read this year, Sansal's book is required reading. Covering the Holocaust and Islamic fundamentalism and their impact on an Algerian-German-French family, it's unforgettable. (2009)

    Blood Drenched Beard, by Daniel Galera. A slow-moving suspenser from Brazil, this is a great book to read in wintertime when you need to feel warmer. A man searches for his lost grandfather amid a quietly hostile landscape and finds something and nothing at the same time. (2015)

    The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, by Zac Bissonnette. My one and only nonfiction pick, this is a great book about business, society and Beanie Babies of course. I loved its breezy style and the fascinating, sad and crazy story he tells.  (2015)

    Monday, December 14, 2015

    It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

    I'm thisclose to being finished with Flood of Fire- just like, one and a half chapters. So I'm really hoping by next Monday I should be done. It's good, and it's coming to a head. I can't wait to see how it all ends.

    Then I started another chunkster this week, Kim Leine's The Prophets of Eternal Fjord. It's a Danish bestseller about a young minister who's sent to be a missionary to Inuits in Greenland in the 1700s and encounters some weird things. The book starts with a grim execution, then cycles back in time to the end of the minister's school days, then jumps five years to a point that I think is just after the execution of the opening pages. That's where I am, about 100 pages into this nearly 600-page book. But I'm telling you, this thing flies. I'm reading it for a book club so I have a deadline and I know I'll meet it.

    And I'm still working on Cities of Salt, which I hope to finish by the end of the year. I've given up on my re-read of Night of the Hunter for now, and I started a crime novel I am probably not going to finish as well. What can you do?

    What are you reading this week?

    Sunday, December 13, 2015

    Sunday Salon: Holiday Shopping and Family Time

    Well Christmas is officially under way in our family with the coming of Red Lion Weekend, that annual time when members of my husband's family gather in the Berkshires of Massachusetts for a few days of food, shopping and conviviality.

    Simon the Cat, Chief Greeter at the Red Lion Inn
    Every year is both the same and different; meals together, days on our own going around shopping and sightseeing but let's face it, mostly shopping. I visited several bookstores, including The Bookloft and Yellow House Books in Great Barrington, Shaker Mills Books in West Stockbridge, Rodgers Book Barn of Hillsdale, New York, just over the border,  and The Bookstore in Lenox. The Bookloft and the The Bookstore sell new books; Shaker Mills, Rodgers Book Barn and Yellow House sell used and collectible/antiquarian books. All of them are fun in different ways. You can spend hours at the Book Barn, browsing everything from used recent releases to travel ephemera to things you never knew existed. It's probably my favorite of the used stores. The new-book stores are similar in having wonderfully broad selections and friendly, helpful booksellers. The big thing in the Berkshires this year was the mild weather; barely a drop of snow on the ground and we were all walking around without our coats.

    As for other kinds of shopping, my favorite places are T.P. Saddlebank for clothes and Inspired Planet for gifts of all kinds. T.P. Saddlebank in Great Barrington is the flagship store of designer Tasha Polizzi, who designs gorgeous Western-inspired designs in colorful and whimsical wools and leathers. Think Ralph Lauren on the wild side. I love her stuff. Inspired Planet of Lenox is a store stocking sacred objects, jewelry, art and all kinds of global crafts and cultural items. Dudley, the owner and salesman, has a story for everything in his store and creates a warm and welcoming atmosphere that will keep you coming back again and again. Items range from $1.00 on up and there will be some wonderful things for you and for the people in your life.

    A bald eagle just outside Lee, MA. They're making a comeback!
    But the heart of the weekend is mealtimes spent with family and friends. My husband's family has been doing this trip every December for over 30 years now and this year they welcomed some new friends, as they do from time to time. It was a truly memorable weekend and the best way to kick off the holiday season in earnest.

    And I did some reading in between it all, too! Now I'm happy to be back home and looking forward to a busy week.

    Thursday, December 10, 2015


    The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, by Pedro Mairal. Published 2013 by New Vessel Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor.

    I picked this book up thinking I would probably love it, and I did.

    It's set in modern day Argentina and tells the story of Juan Salvatierra, an artist, and his son, who is searching for Salvatierra's last painting.

    Well, it's not exactly his last painting that the son is looking for, since Salvatierra only ever made one painting- albeit one gigantic painting that he worked on his entire life, comprised of many scrolls of canvas. Salvatierra's two sons are wrapping up his estate and want to sell the work to a museum in Europe, for its preservation, and also to raise funds for a local museum. But one piece is missing, and since the work is largely autobiographical, they are also missing information about their father's life.

    I will say the secrets the lost panel reveals are not terribly earth-shattering in the literary sense; it's a story we've heard before, but it's told beautifully and I love the conceit of the painting. I also enjoyed the sense of place we get from Mairal's writing and the relationships among the family and the community.  It's a short book, a little longer than a novella, and a wonderful one too.

    This is also the first book I've read from New Vessel Press, "an independent publishing house specializing in the translation of foreign literature into English," and it won't be the last- I noticed two more of their books in my TBR pile already! Check them out.

    Rating: BUY

    FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

    Monday, December 7, 2015

    It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

    I finished The Lost Estate, and thank goodness. That was one of those literary endurance tests for me. It would be great for YA readers especially those who loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It's kind of like that book combined with Dickens or something.

    Anyway upwards and onwards to The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson's retelling of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale, which I am loving. But how can you go wrong with Jeanette Winterson? The book is part of a new series being published by Hogarth with contemporary writers retelling Shakespearean plays. Next up will be Howard Jacobson's take on The Merchant of Venice, then books by Margaret Atwood, Edward St. Aubyn, Gillian Flynn and more. Collect them all- I want to!

    Still working on my chunksters Flood of Fire and Cities of Salt. I have about five chapters left in the former and 12 days of reading 3-4 chapters a day in the latter. So I'll get there eventually. The chapters in Cities of Salt are 3-6 pages each; those in Flood of Fire are 30+ big pages of small type so it takes me longer. Sigh.

    What are you reading today? Have a great week.

    Sunday, December 6, 2015

    Sunday Salon

    Happy Sunday!

    Well we got our Christmas tree up this week, now we only have to decorate it, lol. That's today's job, and the plan is to start this afternoon and then have a friend over later to help put on the finishing touches. That's after we go to our neighborhood's menorah lighting, so we'll get a little Hanukkah in the mix too.

    This past week in NYC news I finally visited the Center for Fiction, a reading and writing space in midtown Manhattan that offers workshops, classes, reading groups and a lending library and bookstore for lovers of fiction- like me. I'm thinking of joining in the New Year and got a little tour and walk around their four floors of bookshop, reading room and library stacks.

    I also donated another bag of books to Housing Works Bookstore, my favorite NYC used bookstore, which is also a charity shop supporting Housing Works which works to end AIDS and homelessness. I went there during the week to drop off some books and finish up my Christmas cards (they have a nice cafe), which are now ready to be mailed. Last call for anyone else who wants a card!

    While I was there I bought a book of course, Prophets of the Eternal Fjord, by Kim Leine, which is next month's selection of the Scandinavia House book club. Scandinavia House is a museum and cultural center in NYC and since I'm in the market for a new book club I thought I would give this one a shot. We'll see how it goes. It's a big book but arresting so far, full of myth and a rich sense of setting.

    In between working on the tree today I'll be reading some more of Flood of Fire, of which I have five chapters left. One of these days I swear I will finish it.

    A lot of folks are posting Best-of-2015 lists right now. I'll have one closer to the end of the year.

    What are you doing today? Have a happy Sunday!

    Saturday, December 5, 2015

    Disney World Part 4: On the Ground At Disney

    Magical Express
    Use it, love it. If you're staying on property you won't have to lift your little finger to get around. They'll pick you up at the airport and take your luggage right to your room. There are buses, boats and a monorail to get you anywhere on Disney property you want to go. My husband didn't get behind the wheel once during our stay- not even on Tomorrowland Speedway.

    It's bad. Plan on it being bad and be pleasantly surprised if it's not.

    You'll be doing it. A lot of it. I thought I was a pretty good walker but I was not prepared for the miles and miles of it, even with a good touring plan. Comfortable shoes are a must. 

    PhotoPass/Memory Maker
    Use it, love it. If your budget allows, buy Memory Maker so you can download and print as many of your PhotoPass pictures as you want. There are dozens of professional photographers all over the parks and they will take great pictures of you and scan them to your Magic Band. Yes they will take photos with your own camera if you want, but theirs are better than yours, most likely, and the pictures will be better too. I was thrilled with my PhotoPass pictures and loved all the opportunities to get great pictures of my husband and me on our big trip.

    Our Park Bag
    We don't have kids, so our park bag was pretty simple. We had one backpack and filled it with
    • Ponchos for rain (we used them!)
    • Ziploc bags for the cameras in case of water rides
    • Autograph book and markers inside a Ziploc bag
    • Travel-size sunscreen bottle
    • Paper copy of each day's touring plan in a plastic sleeve
    • Each day's park map
    Whenever Jeff went on a roller coaster I didn't go on, rather than pack his camera in the Ziploc bag he'd just hand off the whole backpack to me and I'd hang on to it. Keeping the autograph book and pens together in a sealable bag was just good organization. The sunscreen and ponchos were necessities. I don't understand anyone who comes to WDW without ponchos.

    FastPasses and Touring Plans
    If you're going to a Disney park, get FastPasses. Just get them. Get them and do a touring plan because even if you've been there before I think it really helps to have your day organized. That said, there will be times when you depart from it, but it really helps to stay focused and do the things you came there to do.

    With the My Disney Experience app you can cancel and rebook FastPasses pretty easily if your plans change, and we used this feature often once we got the hang of it.

    Our best days in the parks started early, followed a plan and departed from the plan when that made more sense. Get the FastPasses for the super-popular rides after say 10am, start as early as you can and have a touring plan that gets you moving right away.

    We used and highly recommend it. That said, I don't recommend the app unless you are a dedicated app user. Honestly for me, bringing paper copies of the touring plans in our park bag each day was easier than checking the app all the time. And our phone batteries didn't drain as fast!

    One last thing about rides. The newer coasters have something called the single rider line. My husband does coasters and I don't, so rather than burn FastPasses on rides I wasn't going to do, he did Expedition Everest, Chevrolet Test Track and the Aerosmith Rockin' Roller Coaster as a single rider and walked on. He even lapped the Aerosmith coaster a few times as a single rider. And I went shopping in the meantime. It worked out!

    Character Meets
    I love character meets and I wanted to do a lot of them on this trip. So I booked us a lot of character breakfasts and left the rest (except one) to chance. That's right- I didn't plan any character meets in the parks. If I happened to see one going on and I wanted to do it, I'd get in line, or I'd pass if not. If Character Meets are a big priority check with cast members and plan it the way you would plan FastPasses (and you can use FastPasses for a bunch of them). I did a ton of them without planning and that worked for me.

    The only one I planned was Jack and Sally at the Halloween Party. I was a little bummed I didn't get to meet Gaston, but it wasn't worth building my day around and I have no real regrets.

    There are loads of freebies in the parks. Collectible cards, snacks, other stuff- just put "free stuff at Disney" into Google and there are whole pages dedicated to the topic. I didn't go out of my way for anything (okay maybe I did for a free square of Ghirardelli chocolate- I'm not made of stone) but I enjoyed the things I came across during our days.

    Hidden Mickeys
    Again, didn't go out of my way but enjoyed the ones I happened to find. Next time I'd love to spend more time hunting them down.

    Disney Springs
    Disney Springs is a big shopping and dining area outside of the parks and resorts but on Disney property. There's a lot to see and do and eat and buy but it's a freaking zoo. Seriously, we went there on a Tuesday night and it was like Times Square. Go but be prepared.

    And that's it for my series on Disney vacation planning! Ask me any questions in the comments and thanks for reading!