Friday, 18 December 2015

The Christmas Bridge - Book Review

I wrote recently that my newest favourite guilty pleasure book genre is romance books. These sweet books are perfect reads when you're curled up with a cozy blanket on a cold, winter night.

The Christmas Bridge is contemporary Christmas romance novel by Elyse Douglas. In this story we meet Olivia who always wondered if she forever lost her first, real love. Or is there a possibility for a second chance at first love? She also meets Brett who is both charming and quite charismatic. A few special moments on Bow Bridge in Central Park, NYC help Olivia forge a new path and find the love that is right for her.

I enjoyed reading The Christmas Bridge. I found Olivia and Brett to be very likeable, and I was cheering them on, even when Olivia had doubts herself.

I was hooked from the beginning and read this fast-paced book in a few nights. There were a few tasteful love scenes and many sweet moments in this book where Olivia learns that she deserves to be loved like crazy, even if that maybe wasn't the path she chose originally in life. This book also had a few very unpredictable moments that made me both extremely angry and very happy.

The events in this book could have really happened anywhere, but using Christmas in New York as a background setting just added to the atmosphere of this story.

The Christmas Bridge is a lovely, quick, holiday read when you're able to steal a few moments away for yourself during this busy season. Given that it is about lost loves and new passions, it pairs particularly well with a glass of wine and an Adele album.


Disclaimer - I was given a copy of The Christmas Bridge by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Staying Calm During the Holidays from A to Z

'Tis the season to feel totally overwhelmed and stretched in all directions. The past few years, I've been taking a stance against holiday stress. If Christmas baking doesn't happen, that's fine by me. I'll pick up something delicious from the bakery. I avoid Costco in December like the plague and do 90% of my holiday shopping online. The holidays are supposed to be about being with family and friends and celebrating wonderful things in our lives. We can't do those things if we're stressed out. Here's a list I brainstormed (with my mom actually!) of ways to keep calm and carry on this Christmas season.

A - Actually nap.

B - Breathe deeply.

C - Count your blessings.

D - Don't over commit. Keep a few days and nights free just for you.

E - Exercise (even just a little).

F - Find a way to give back to others.

G - Get enough sleep.

H - Have a glass of wine.

I - Invite friends for an open house to cut down on individual visits.

J - Joyfully add a treat for yourself when online shopping. I call it "Elf Tax".

K - Kiss someone you love.

L - Listen to music. Christmas-themed or not.

M - Make yourself a cup of tea.

N - Nourish your soul with some yoga.

O - Order out for dinner. You don't need to make a feast every night.

P - Prioritize. What really needs to happen? What could you let go?

Q - Quilt, sew, or do another crafty activity that makes you feel good.

R - Read a romance novel.

S - Schedule a massage.

T - Treat yourself to an adult advent calendar.

U - Use a budget for gift-buying and stick to it.

V - Vent to a friend when you start to feel overwhelmed.

W - Watch something you consider a guilty pleasure. 

X - X out the toxic people in your life. Find ways to cleverly avoid them during the holidays.

Y - Yield to your children. Spend time with them. The number of Christmases in which they are little
are few.

Z - Zone out in the bathtub.


Friday, 11 December 2015

Book Review and Author Interview - The Thread That Binds by Alice Hayes

I just finished reading The Thread that Binds, by Alice Hayes. A book that demands to be read with a hot cup of tea or coffee by your side.

This is Alice's first published novel. Last year it won third place in the World's Best Story contest.

The Thread That Binds is the story of five women who are either new mothers or mothers-to-be. These five women don't know each other at the beginning of the story, but through different circumstances, their paths cross and friendships form. Sherice is a new mom herself, coming to terms with an illness that is changing her own mother. Sylvie is a French woman who fell in love and now lives in the US. She and her husband are stricken by poverty as she tries to find prenatal care. Joanne is single and determined to have a baby, so enlists her gay best friend, Marty to help her. Payton is 17 years old, pregnant, and on the run from a family that has all but disowned her. And Gloria is trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage, in love with another, and pregnant with a baby that could belong to one of two men.

The Thread That Binds is told from the perspective of each of these five women. I loved that we only were introduced to a few characters at a time so I could really get to know two or three of the women before she added the other narrators. The book is fast-paced and really kept me wondering how each of the women's stories would end. I was easily invested in them and their babies and was wishing for things to work out. I loved how the women's lives wove together, and I could really see these women building new friendships with each other. The overall message is that kindness and empathy can triumph over situations that feel hopeless.

Reading this book has the potential to make you laugh, cry, feel distressed, and feel joy. The Thread That Binds is a perfect book for anyone who enjoys contemporary women's fiction.

To learn a bit more about the author, Alice Hayes, I hope you enjoy this interview with her:

Where do you get inspiration for your stories?
A lot of it comes from music and poetry. The Thread That Binds was hugely influenced by country music and my own experiences living in Georgia. Another novel I’ve written, War Wounds, was inspired by the Gillian Clarke poem On The Train. My current project is a novel set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, heavily inspired by the history of the conflict and the Seamus Heaney poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What helps you overcome it?
I think we all do. I’ll take a break and work on another project, whether it be my blog or a different novel or even a short story. Usually it helps things to come unstuck.

You’re a single mom writer. How do you balance your time?
With a type-A personality and a strict schedule… I write when my daughter is in bed. I do homework on my lunch break at work. I cook and clean and run on my downtime, and sleep… Well, virtually never. Honestly, though, it helps that her dad and his family are in the picture. She’ll visit him most weekends, and I get to recharge.

Do you have another profession besides writing?
I work in a law office. The big dream is to finish my Bachelor’s degree by the time my daughter starts school, and then to go to law school.

In today’s tech-savvy world, most writers use a computer or laptop. Have you ever written parts of your book on paper?
I keep a journal by the side of my bed to scribble down any ideas that come to me in the middle of the night, but that’s the extent of my hand-writing. I prefer to edit on paper, though. I print my work and then edit by hand with my trusty red pen. I have a typewriter in excellent working condition, but I definitely prefer the comfort of having my work saved and backed up on a computer.

What advice would you give to budding writers?
Keep at it! It’s hard to get motivated sometimes, especially when writer’s block sets in. But the only way you can make any improvement is if you keep working at it. Cherish your writing time, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s not important.

About the Author:
Originally from Winchester, England, Alice's plans to read law at a British university were disrupted when she fell deeply in love with Georgia, USA while studying abroad. After moving all over Georgia, Alice has finally settled in Athens and has no plans to go anywhere else.

She is a single mother to a three-year-old girl and a 65lb hound dog. She likes coffee, wine, and anything edible with the words "salted caramel" in its description.

At the time of publication, Alice is a 24-year-old history student working full-time in a law office, and writing fiction at every stolen moment. She hasn't slept in approximately two years. You can find her on Twitter or over at her blog.



Giveaway time!

Win one of five copies of the Thread That Binds
Open to residents of the US and Canada.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclaimer - I received a copy of The Thread that Binds from TLC Book Tours. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Mask Maven Subscription Box Review

Mask Maven is a monthly subscription box from Beautique that sends you 9-11 masks each month. They could be any combination of sheet masks, wash off masks, hair masks or even masks for your hands or feet.

The cost is $15/month plus shipping. ($3.95 to US, $6.95 to Canada)

Each month has a particular theme. November's theme was Fresh Produce, so each mask has a different food in it.

Here's what was in my package!

This month I received a combination of 7 sheet masks and 2 wash off masks.

Top Row:
Pureness 100 Collagen Mask Sheet Elasticity by Tony Moly
Vitality I'm Real Broccoli Mask Sheet by Tony Moly
Blueberry Natural Essence Mask for skin smoothing and lustrous skin by Foodaholic
Orange Natural Essence Mask for clear skin and cleaning pores by Foodaholic
Real Nature Mask sheet with Avocado by Natural Republic

Middle Row:
Anti-Pore Healing Mask in apple by NOHJ
Lustre Healing Mask Pack in grapefruit gold by NOHJ

Bottom Row:
2 wash off masks in pumpkin and pear by Green Harmony

At about $2/mask, even after I factored in Canadian shipping, that's a pretty great value for such a wide variety of face masks.

What do you think? Would you try Mask Maven?

Friday, 27 November 2015

Ladies' Weekend at the Inn Boonsoboro (or The Weekend We Lived Inside a Book)

Does it make me officially an 80s housewife if I'm in love with Nora Roberts books? I remember my mother reading them when I was growing up. Earlier this year one of the women in my book club asked us, almost in a hushed tone, if any of us had ever read one. We hadn't, and so she proceeded to tell us about the trilogy she was reading called The Inn Boonsboro Trilogy. Reading a romance novel was on my 2015 Read Harder list, so I picked it up.

From the first page I knew I was totally going to love this book. It's a guilty pleasure at its finest. The first book in the trilogy is about Beckett Montgomery. He owns his own construction company. He's in love with the young, widowed mother who runs the local bookstore. He's rebuilding the inn across the street with his brothers. I think you get the idea.

My co-worker, Dani, and I devoured this trilogy and many other Nora Roberts books over the summer. Move aside 50 Shades of Grey. There's a new romance trend in town, even if we have to bring it back all by ourselves. Lovely, sweet, romance stories with healthy relationships and happy endings. That's what I want to read about before bed. (Plus, Rob really can't complain about my newest favourite book genre. I think he's reaping a few extra benefits from it all.)

In August, I get a text from Dani and the conversation went something like this:
Dani - Did you know the Inn Boonsboro is a real place?
Me - What?! No way! We have to go there.   (...not even knowing where on Earth it is.)
Dani - Yes!

I checked online and yes, it actually was a real inn. Better still, the inn was owned by Nora Roberts herself! And the bookstore from the trilogy was real - Turn the Page. As was the pizzeria from the trilogy, Vesta. As was the gym from the trilogy, Fit in Boonsboro. As was the gift store. These were all real places. It was like seeing a book coming to life.

Dani and I booked a room at the Inn Boonsboro and officially declared a road trip planned. To say we completely loved it would be a massive understatement. It was only 2 nights, but has gone down as one of my all-time favourite vacations. Here's a bit of a photo essay from our trip, and you'll see why. Even if you're not a Nora Roberts fan, this inn is absolutely a worthwhile trip for a weekend away. (Travel tip - book well in advance! We booked in August for a November trip and got one of the last 2 rooms available.)

To Do: Drive 430 miles, spend the weekend reading books and drinking wine

The drive from Toronto to Boonsboro, Maryland was just over 8 hours and really a beautiful drive in the fall. I wouldn't make the drive in the winter though. We saw quite a few "watch out for icy roads" signs.

The drive was so lovely. Most of our drive looked like this. Just keep your eyes above the shoulders of the roads. I've never seen so much roadkill in my entire life than during this drive in Pennsylvania and Maryland. An insane amount. Both ways. Consider yourself warned.

So what do you do when you have an 8 hour drive ahead of you to the inn from a Nora Roberts book? Listen to Nora Roberts audiobooks of course! #soawkward #stillamazing

The Inn Boonsboro

This is the front porch of the inn. The front door is actually the front door used on the cover of the first book in the Inn Boonsboro Trilogy - The Next Always.

The Inn Boonsboro has 8 unique guest rooms, each named after a famous literary couple. We stayed in Nick & Nora (from The Thin Man). Photos do not do these rooms justice. We had seen pictures online and were so blown away by how beautiful everything was throughout the whole inn. As an aside, the inn has a number of themed packages you can add onto your stay. They also do in house massages. We didn't book a package only because our single goal for the weekend was to sit in the library and read books all day.

The bathroom in our bedroom was incredible. It was a bathroom that bathroom dreams are made of. There were heated floors, heated towel racks, a massive bathtub, and an enormous shower that had 7 different shower heads.

Each room has its own signature scent and signature tea. Ours was green tea and ginger. All of the tea and products are available for purchase at the gift store across the street (or online).

Every night from 6-7pm there is wine and cheese in the lounge. We took our wine to sit beside one of the two beautiful gas fireplaces in the common areas (Two of the guest rooms also have guest fireplaces).

The first night of our trip, we got some pizza from Vesta and brought it back to eat in the open kitchen. We had our pizza, some wine, and played a Pride and Prejudice board game that we found in the lounge. Then we went back to our room and watched a Nora Roberts DVD. The inn has a lot of romantic comedies or classic romance DVDs available to watch at anytime.

Across the street from the inn there are a few cute gift shops and Turn the Page bookstore (where Nora Roberts books reign high, but there are also a number of other great books to buy and a small children's section, so you can pick up a gift for your little one to bring back after mama's weekend away).

There are balconies around the inn and a large terrace out back that would be beautiful in the summer, but mostly for the weekend we lived here, the library.

We got up each morning, made some tea and read here until it was time for the gourmet breakfast that is prepared for inn guests each morning. After breakfast, we came back here and basically read all day long.

In the afternoon we switched from tea to wine and enjoyed some of the fresh baked goods that are available each day.

And then continued to read...

If you prefer whiskey, there is a crystal whiskey decanter of Jameson in the library available for guests whenever they'd like to enjoy a glass or two. And make sure you add a pin to the map on the wall of where you've traveled from!

Eventually we did pull ourselves away from the inn later in the afternoon because we had booked a wine tour and tasting at a new winery just outside of Boonsboro called Big Cork Vineyards.

Big Cork Vineyards also has a restaurant and terrace for dinner. Plus, on our tour they also told us we could bring blankets and food and just set up a picnic near the vineyards in the summer if we'd like as well. I'd absolutely go back and either have dinner there or bring a picnic. (One more dinner tip - we had booked reservations at Dan's Restaurant and Taphouse and were a bit disappointed. It's really just a pub, so if you're looking for a pub, Dan's is fine, but if you want a nicer place for dinner, go try the winery.)

One more library shot in the morning before we headed back home....

This weekend was like a mini fantasy. We felt like we were living inside a book the entire time. It was so incredibly relaxing and lovely. I feel like my new bucket list in life is to stay in each room at some point. Even if it takes me the next 30 years. I know my mother would love it here, so I foresee a mother-daughter trip in our future. I also really really want to re-read The Boonsboro Inn Trilogy because now that I've been to the inn, I can read the stories and picture them actually happening in these rooms.

The Inn Boonsboro is highly recommended! Thank you so much to everyone at the inn who made our stay so wonderful. (Seriously, the innkeeper went out at 7 in the morning to get me milk for my tea because they were out).

I really hope you get a chance to visit this beautiful place.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Koala Crate Box Review

You may have heard of Kiwi Crate which is a subscription box of hands-on art and science activities. Koala Crate is the same subscription, and is tailored for children aged 3-4.

I signed us up for a 6 month subscription because I thought this would be a great thing to do throughout the winter. Each month the box is themed and comes with a number of different items designed for a minimum of 3 separate activities or crafts. This month's theme was Numbers. Here's a look at what we got and the activities we did together!
(It was a cloudy day when we opened our Koala Crate, so my apologies for the darker photos. But Koala Crate really is perfect for the days you feel stuck indoors.)

This months kit came with all of the supplies necessary for making play-doh, including Kool-Aid to colour it blue :) There was also play-doh rolling pin and cutting wheel. The remaining items were a plastic mat and 4 reusable play-doh activity sheets, 2 dice, and a set of special Koala Crate cards for a couple of different number games. Finally, and this is one of Seb's favourite parts, each box comes with an Imagine magazine. Each Imagine magazine is connected to the topic of the month and includes little stories, games, and activities. Imagine is published in partnership with Highlights so you know it's awesome.

Activity 1 - Make the play-doh

Activity 2 - Play-doh number and measurement games

Activity 3 - Dice and card games (matching and dominoes)

Overall, I think the value of this subscription is pretty great because everything you need for your craft or activity is included each time, and the supplies are always excellent quality.

If you'd like to sign up and try out Koala Crate (or any of the others for older kids - Kiwi Crate, Doodle Crate or Tinker Crate), using my link will save you $10 off your order. 


Monday, 23 November 2015

Interview with Quinn from Rustic Daisy Designs

Please welcome Quinn Graungaard from Rustic Daisy Designs! She has the most adorable Etsy store with beautiful burlap banners for any occasion. I had a chance to meet her in person this weekend and see all of these beauties in person. Enjoy!

Tell me a bit about yourself.  
I married my best friend, Caley, in May of 2013, am a new mom with a 17 month old baby girl (Annabelle), and we have a gigantic 5 year old golden doodle (Charlie).
I studied Kinesiology and Health Science and dabbled in business courses for my electives (marketing, new business ventures, accounting, etc).  I continued my education with a Bachelor of Education (primary/junior) and graduated in 2012. Worked part time as a bartender to pay for my education. I still work a few nights a week when my husband is home.
Prior to going to university I had a career as an Event Planner for a non-profit organization where I discovered some of my creative passions.
I come from a big family of 9 kids total with all of the step siblings, half siblings and one adopted sibling from China!
I spend much of my spare time with my siblings many of whom are musically talented. There are many jam sessions and now playdates with the kids. Our last family get together included about 15 siblings with their partners, 3 little babies, 6 dogs and 7 puppies. My sister fosters dogs, owns a few of her own and of course we all bring our doggies too! 

Merry Everything Banner

How did you begin your journey in the world of selling handmade goods?
When I got married in 2012, I made all of the banners and decorations for my wedding. I received many compliments on the d├ęcor, many saying it was the best and most beautiful wedding they had attended. When I became pregnant a few months later (and not employed as a teacher), I found myself thinking about what am I going to do?!  When I was about 4 months pregnant a cousin of mine who had attended the wedding asked me to make a banner for a baby shower that she was organizing. I spent $300 on a machine to help me make the $50 banner perfect, and Rustic Daisy Designs was born. I dove in head first! Knowing that my time and focus would be limited once the baby was born, I raced to get the business going; developed marketing materials, set up my Etsy shop, took product photos, created product descriptions, and so on. I worked right up until the morning my baby girl was born! Of course I had to take two weeks off after she was born, but then I quickly jumped back in.  I did not want to lose momentum. One of the joys of owning your own business is that you are never left without something to do!

I will be celebrating my 2 year anniversary on February 26th, 2016! 

Where do you find your inspiration for your products? 
Literally everywhere! Party invitations, bakery packaging, trending party themes, nature, and now my little girl inspires many of the items I create! We recently celebrated Annabelle’s first birthday, and I created a sunshine and lemonade theme. I made all of the decorations for her birthday and my goal for the future is to become a premier custom boutique party supplier for many moms like me who want their celebrations to be sweet and unique. For example in the photos below, I made the cake topper, birthday hat, hand-painted wooden sign, bunting hanging across the table, tissue poms, party hats for guests, wands for the little ones, and custom name confetti. 

Birthday Banners

What is the process of getting one of your banners created from start to finish?
I am a one lady shop. I source and purchase all of my fabrics locally. I cut the flags. I cut the various fabrics that I need for images and lettering. Some banners I paint the lettering and images while others I cut the letters and images out of fabric. I sew the banners together, package them up, and ship them.
So far I have shipped to: Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Germany, Singapore, Ireland, England, Scotland, United States, and of course to my fellow Canadians. 

In your opinion, what is the value and appeal of the handmade/maker movement?
There is so much value in handmade.
You can customize items – usually you can communicate directly with the maker and tweak colours, design, fonts, etc so that your piece is truly one of a kind. The possibilities are endless!
Handmade items aren’t typically made in waste-producing factories. You can reduce your carbon footprint, particularly when you buy locally handcrafted items.
You get to connect directly with the artisan.
You can buy quality goods that have been made to last.
You can support local businesses and have a direct effect on the artisans financial well being without paying all of the various levels within a large corporation. 

I love Santa Banner

What handmade possession do you own that you must cherish?
I have two:   
1)   A wooden shelf that my dad made many years ago that I now have hanging in my living room adorned with Christmas stockings of course!
2)   A small ceramic dish that I purchased while studying to become a teacher. We all made and painted clay bowls that had a social or eco justice theme. After many student teachers made their bowls, we held a fundraising event and the entrance fee included lunch and a handmade clay bowl.
It’s a nice feeling to support a greater cause just by purchasing handmade. \

How do you balance motherhood, working, and finding time just for yourself?
Ha – I don’t!  Honestly this is something that I struggle with all of the time. Some of the moments that I find for myself are just that – moments! Going for a run with my dog in the local park, having a hot shower, heading to the gym for an hour are a few of my favorite moments! 

What’s your favourite thing to do as a family in Toronto? 
Right now it is simply walking down the street with our little girl. (I think that this will change as Annabelle’s interests develop). There is nothing more enjoyable than getting down and playing with rocks, sticks, ladybugs and grass. Taking joy in walking on new materials and taking delight in the sound the leaves make when you walk through them. Taking a seat wherever your heart desires. Walking around a tree 20 times. Stopping to smell the flowers. Dancing in the rain and anywhere our little girls reaches up and says “dance”. 

Be sure to visit Quinn's Etsy shop - Rustic Daisy Designs to order a banner or see more! 
You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.