Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Universal Yums: Holidays Around the World (December 2020)


This box was extra fun for a couple reasons! One, it encompassed a variety of countries, and two, I got to share it with my family! It was way more fun to snack family-style that it is for me on my own, so I decided to cancel my box subscription after this. I may re-subscribe for random months when I know I will have other people to share with, but until then I decided its not worth the money. 

If you are interested in trying Universal Yums however, click here for $5 off your first box!


Roasted Garlic Potato Chips - MEH

These chips were from the Czech Republic, and the tradition is to put them under the table. Apparently garlic under the holiday table will bring you strength and protection. I thought they were very garlicy, but they weren't as bad as I thought they would be. I wouldn't grab a bag and eat them as a snack, but they weren't terrible to try! Overall the fam wasn't a fan, but we didn't think they were gross, just not delicious!

Roast Turkey & Stuffing Potato Crisps - MEH

This savory treat was from the UK, and wasn't as bad as I expected it to be. I am not a fan of oddly flavored chips, so I went into this one knowing I probably wouldn't like it, but I didn't spit it out, so I considered that a win!


Kruidnoten Cookies - YUM!

The Netherlands supplied this tiny treat. Spiced cookies are a big part of the holidays for Dutch folk. They were tiny and tasty! 

Salted Egg Yolk Popcorn - MEH

This is the treat I was most apprehensive to try.  Coming from Taiwan, eggs are a big part of local cuisine. I was a little apprehensive about trying these, because I don't like eggs, but it wasn't too bad. It tasted similar to a buttery caramel corn, and not like egg at all. We didn't love it, but didn't hate it either.


Chocolate Cream Pandoro - YUM!

A holiday treat straight from Italy, this sweet bread was tasty! It wasn't as sweet as I would have preferred, but it still tasted good - especially with the chocolate inside!

Sea Salt & Caramel Fudge - YUM!

Can't beat English Christmas fudge! I'd never had salted caramel fudge before, but I would definitely eat it again! The hardest part was trying to get your head around that it was fudge and NOT caramel, so the texture wasn't what you expected.


Assorted Baklava - MEH

Though Ramadan is not a winter holiday this year, I'm glad this treat from Jordan was sent in my box! It wasn't as flakey as baklava that I have had before, and didn't have a whole lot of flavor.

Mocktail Bonbons - YUM!

I had gotten some yummy UK bonbons in my UK box earlier this year, but these were even better! These were a hit all around - ALL of the flavors are good.


Cocoa Dusted Chocolate Truffles - YUM!

A French treat, this chocolate truffle was very rich. I would only be able to eat one or two at a time, but they had an overall positive reaction from the fam.

Apple & Dark Chocolate Dominosteins - MEH

Four layers of German goodness - gingerbread, apple jelly, and persipan, all coated in dark chocolate. MOst of the fam didnt like the jelly, but I thought they were deliious. They did taste similar to the "fancy" chocolate that you get in boxes at Valentine's Day, but like an actual fancy version of it. 


Sugar & Anise Polvoron - YUM!

This Christmas cookie was from Spain, and was not as sweet as I expected it to be. I know that America does things way sweeter than other counties (which I love!), but somehow its still a let down when I try sweet treats from elsewhere. I would definitely eat this again, but wouldn't be my first choice in shortbread cookies.

Alpine Nut Cake - YUM!

This pie was filled with carmelized walnuts and hazelnuts, and was delicious! I would love more of these!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

#gretchensbooks2021 - January



My goal for the year is 120 books (I hit 121 last year). I have so many that I want to read, but despite my increasing rate of reading, I can't seem to be making a dent in my list! Everytime I pick a book up and mark it "Currently Reading" on Goodreads, I get excited that I'm going to take one off my "To Read" list, only to realize the one I am starting wasn't on my "To Read" list in the first place!

I like to start my year off strong, and even with completing nearly three grad school classes this month, I still managed to squeeze in 15 books! (I should count textbooks in this....)


1. Fortune and Glory: Tantalizing Twenty-Seven by Janet Evanovich (3.5/5 ⭐️)

When Stephanie’s beloved Grandma Mazur's new husband died on their wedding night, the only thing he left her was a beat-up old easy chair…and the keys to a life-changing fortune. 

But as Stephanie and Grandma Mazur search for Jimmy Rosolli’s treasure, they discover that they’re not the only ones on the hunt. Two dangerous enemies from the past stand in their way—along with a new adversary who’s even more formidable: Gabriela Rose, a dark-eyed beauty from Little Havana with a taste for designer clothes. She’s also a soldier of fortune, a gourmet cook, an expert in firearms and mixed martial arts—and someone who’s about to give Stephanie a real run for her money. 
Stephanie may be in over her head, but she’s got two things that Gabriela doesn’t: an unbreakable bond with her family and a stubborn streak that will never let her quit. 

She’ll need both to survive because this search for “fortune and glory” will turn into a desperate race against time with more on the line than ever before. Because even as she searches for the treasure and fights to protect her Grandma Mazur, her own deepest feelings will be tested—as Stephanie could finally be forced to choose between Joe Morelli and Ranger.

Reading outside on New Year’s Day has become tradition, according to my Facebook memories. Cant say I’m complaining! I knew I couldn’t go wrong starting my year of reading off with the newest Stephanie Plum book. There is nothing super great about these, but the storyline is always so fun and light that it makes a great palette cleanser.

I love the dialogue in Evanovich’s work. The characters crack me up. It’s not even the main character that I like (in fact she makes me kind of annoyed sometimes), but rather the supporting ones! When you need an escape into a frivolous story, this is it.


2. The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult (3/5⭐️)

Everything changes in a single moment for Dawn Edelstein. She’s on a plane when the flight attendant makes an announcement: Prepare for a crash landing. She braces herself as thoughts flash through her mind. The shocking thing is, the thoughts are not of her husband but of a man she last saw fifteen years ago: Wyatt Armstrong. 

Dawn, miraculously, survives the crash, but so do all the doubts that have suddenly been raised. She has led a good life. Back in Boston, there is her husband, Brian, their beloved daughter, and her work as a death doula, in which she helps ease the transition between life and death for her clients. 

But somewhere in Egypt is Wyatt Armstrong, who works as an archaeologist unearthing ancient burial sites, a career Dawn once studied for but was forced to abandon when life suddenly intervened. And now, when it seems that fate is offering her second chances, she is not as sure of the choice she once made. 

After the crash landing, the airline ensures that the survivors are seen by a doctor, then offers transportation to wherever they want to go. The obvious destination is to fly home, but she could take another path: return to the archaeological site she left years before, reconnect with Wyatt and their unresolved history, and maybe even complete her research on The Book of Two Ways—the first known map of the afterlife. 

As the story unfolds, Dawn’s two possible futures unspool side by side, as do the secrets and doubts long buried with them. Dawn must confront the questions she’s never truly asked: What does a life well lived look like? When we leave this earth, what do we leave behind? Do we make choices . . . or do our choices make us? And who would you be if you hadn’t turned out to be the person you are right now?

I first read Jodi Picoult back in high school and wasn’t a big fan. Her books seemed to drag out and I never felt satisfied when I finish. However, I’ve found I really enjoy her most recent books, so though this topic seemed similar to her older ones, I thought I’d give it a shot.

In true Picoult fashion, the story did feel like it dragged on at times, though I appreciated the knowledge on Ancient Egyptian culture.  I thought that there was too much detail about things that weren’t super relevant to the plot. In theory, the storyline was good, and I liked how it ended, but the overall book would have been better if some of the extra fluff had been edited out.


3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (5/5⭐️)

Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. 
All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley -- a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry's room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn't had a birthday party in eleven years. 
But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry -- and anyone who reads about him -- will find unforgettable.

I’ve read this book so many times, but never listened to the audios. I heard the audiobooks were really good, so one of my goals for the year was to listen to the whole series on audiobook. (My illustrated books are much more visually appealing however, hence the photo).

It was hard to get past the voices AT FIRST. Like I had the movie actors’ voices in my head, and it threw me off that it was different. That being said, I really appreciated the variety of voices that the performer could consistently do. Very impressive! 

Full disclaimer: this whole series will get a five star from me. I grew up reading it and love re-reading it, so I’m completely biased when it comes to rating. Also I’m linking the illustrated version because it’s wonderful!


4. The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Flannie Flagg (4/5⭐️)

Bud Threadgoode grew up in the bustling little railroad town of Whistle Stop with his mother, Ruth, church-going and proper, and his Aunt Idgie, the fun-loving hell-raiser. Together they ran the town’s popular Whistle Stop Cafe, known far and wide for its fun and famous fried green tomatoes. And as Bud often said of his childhood to his daughter Ruthie, “How lucky can you get?” 

But sadly, as the railroad yards shut down and Whistle Stop became a ghost town, nothing was left but boarded-up buildings and memories of a happier time. 

Then one day, Bud decides to take one last trip, just to see what has become of his beloved Whistle Stop. In so doing, he discovers new friends, as well as surprises about Idgie’s life, about Ninny Threadgoode and other beloved Fannie Flagg characters, and about the town itself. He also sets off a series of events, both touching and inspiring, which change his life and the lives of his daughter and many others. Could these events all be just coincidences? Or something else? And can you really go home again?

I was very excited to see a “Fried Green Tomatoes” sequel come out in November! The story skipped around between time periods and characters, so I think it would be a difficult read if you didn’t already have the background knowledge of the characters (though she does provide a lot of background info in the story).

The book wasn’t what I expected, but it was still enjoyable. I loved finding out what happened to the characters after the last story ended. I was reading it in a particular voice in my head, and I couldn’t figure out what voice it was. Finally I figured out that it was the voice of Ninny Threadgoode from the movie! 

There wasn’t really an extensive story-line, it was more like a really long epilogue letting you know what the characters did with the rest of their lives. If you’re a FGT fan, then this is a very sweet, heart-warming read. 💚


5. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by JK Rowling (5/5⭐️)

Fizzing with magic and brimming with humour, this inspired reimagining will captivate wizards and Muggles alike, as Harry and his friends, now in their second year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, seek out a legendary chamber and the deadly secret that lies at its heart .

I flipped back and forth between two performers for this audiobook, and I think I’m going to stick with Jim Dale for the rest! I’m just still in awe at all the characters he can voice, and so consistently. He is so entertaining! 


6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling (5/5⭐️)

For twelve long years, the dread fortress of Azkaban held an infamous prisoner named Sirius Black. Convicted of killing thirteen people with a single curse, he was said to be the heir apparent to the Dark Lord, Voldemort. 

Now he has escaped, leaving only two clues as to where he might be headed: Harry Potter's defeat of You-Know-Who was Black's downfall as well. And the Azkaban guards heard Black muttering in his sleep, "He's at Hogwarts . . . he's at Hogwarts." 

Harry Potter isn't safe, not even within the walls of his magical school, surrounded by his friends. Because on top of it all, there may well be a traitor in their midst.

Book three is my third favorite in the series, and I really enjoyed it on audio. I started the book with Stephen Fry performing it, because my copy on Libby wasn’t available yet. Eventually it came in and I switched back to Jim Dale as the performer. I’m really loving these audios!!


7. Pigeon-Blood Red by Ed Duncan (4/5⭐️)

For underworld enforcer Richard "Rico" Sanders, it seemed like an ordinary job: retrieve his gangster boss's stolen goods, and teach the person responsible a lesson.

But the chase quickly goes sideways and takes Rico from the mean streets of Chicago to sunny Honolulu. There, the hardened hit man finds himself in uncharted territory, when innocent bystanders are accidentally embroiled in a crime.

As Rico pursues his new targets, hunter and prey develop an unlikely respect for one another.

Soon, he is faced with a momentous decision: follow his orders to kill the very people who have won his admiration, or refuse and endanger the life of the woman he loves?

**I was provided a copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review

Though I’m a big fan of thrillers, this one sounded a little out of my wheelhouse, but when the author’s publicist reached out to me about sending me a copy in exchange for a review, I figured I would give it a go. I’m very glad I did!

Pigeon-Blood Red was an enjoyable crime thriller, and a pretty quick read. I really liked that the action began right in the beginning, and then backtracked a little bit to give a better overview of the characters. Duncan definitely knows how to hook his readers. Overall, the novel was pretty to the point. It didn’t have an over-abundance of fluff that made the story drag on like so many do, which I really appreciated. The anticipation built throughout the whole novel, right until it wrapped up at the end.

This was the first in a trilogy, and I looked forward to reading the next!


8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (4/5⭐️)

Harry Potter wants to get away from the pernicious Dursleys and go to the International Quidditch Cup with Hermione, Ron, and the Weasleys. He wants to dream about Cho Chang, his crush (and maybe do more than dream). He wants to find out about the mysterious event involving two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn't happened for a hundred years. He wants to be a normal, fourteen-year-old wizard. Unfortunately for Harry Potter, he's not normal - even by wizarding standards. And in this case, different can be deadly. 

With over 150 dazzling illustrations from Jim Kay, this new fully illustrated edition of the complete and unabridged text of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is sure to delight fans and first-time readers alike.

Do you ever re-read books that you read as a kid, and realize you pronounced the names wrong? I was thinking about that as I listened to this book. I started reading HP in elementary school when there were only three books out, so my reading skills weren’t probably at the level they needed to be for the text. Anyway, I remember pronouncing Hermione as ‘HER-ME-OWN,’ and I thought Little Whinging was ‘Little Wingding.” Watching the first movie taught me the correct pronunciations 😬🤷🏼‍♀️

Anyway, this one is my least favorite in the series, though I can’t quite pinpoint why. I feel like it just kind of drags out. That being said, I’m always anxious when Harry is completing the Tri-wizard tasks, like somehow this time he’s NOT going to succeed.. 🤦🏼‍♀️


9. His & Hers by Alice Feeney (5/5🌟)

When a woman is murdered in Blackdown, a quintessentially British village, newsreader Anna Andrews is reluctant to cover the case. Detective Jack Harper is suspicious of her involvement, until he becomes a suspect in his own murder investigation.

Someone isn’t telling the truth, and some secrets are worth killing to keep.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump this week. I have a book I need to finish by Feb 2, but I just can’t get into it, so I’d been avoiding books altogether. (Which is probably a good thing, because I managed to complete half of my geometry class). Then I remember that I make the rules and I can read a different book even if that one isn’t finished, hence my binge-reading of His & Hers this morning.

One of the bookstagram accounts I follow described this book as the “adult Mean Girls,” so of course I had to read it. 

I was constantly caught off guard with the relationships between the characters. I’d think that I had correctly predicted them, then find out I was way off. The whole book was great, but the last half was so captivating, I couldn’t have put it down if I wanted to. Up until the very last word, I was in complete suspense. I have a feeling this is going to be one of my top thrillers this year!!


10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling (5/5⭐️)

As his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry approaches, 15-year-old Harry Potter is in full-blown adolescence, complete with regular outbursts of rage, a nearly debilitating crush, and the blooming of a powerful sense of rebellion. It's been yet another infuriating and boring summer with the despicable Dursleys, this time with minimal contact from our hero's non-Muggle friends from school. Harry is feeling especially edgy at the lack of news from the magic world, wondering when the freshly revived evil Lord Voldemort will strike. Returning to Hogwarts will be a relief... or will it?

The fifth book in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series follows the darkest year yet for our young wizard, who finds himself knocked down a peg or three after the events of last year. Somehow, over the summer, gossip (usually traced back to the magic world's newspaper, the Daily Prophet) has turned Harry's tragic and heroic encounter with Voldemort at the Triwizard Tournament into an excuse to ridicule and discount the teen. Even Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of the school, has come under scrutiny by the Ministry of Magic, which refuses to officially acknowledge the terrifying truth that Voldemort is back. Enter a particularly loathsome new character: the toadlike and simpering ("hem, hem") Dolores Umbridge, senior undersecretary to the Minister of Magic, who takes over the vacant position of Defense Against Dark Arts teacher--and in no time manages to become the High Inquisitor of Hogwarts, as well. Life isn't getting any easier for Harry Potter. With an overwhelming course load as the fifth years prepare for their Ordinary Wizarding Levels examinations (O.W.Ls), devastating changes in the Gryffindor Quidditch team lineup, vivid dreams about long hallways and closed doors, and increasing pain in his lightning-shaped scar, Harry's resilience is sorely tested.

Book five is my favorite HP book, though I still hold out hope every time I read/watch it that Sirius’s outcome with be different. I think I like this story best because it is really the turning point of “these things just keep happening to Harry” and “Harry begins to save the wizarding world on purpose.” I’m looking forward to the illustrated version to come out this year so I can add it to my collection!


11. Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough (5/5🌟)

Marriage can be murder… 


Marcie’s affair with Jason Maddox catapulted her into the world of the elite. 

Old money, old ties, old secrets. Marcie may have married into this world— 

but she’ll never be part of it.


Then Jason’s boss brings back a new wife from his trip to London. 

Young, attractive, reckless—nobody can take their eyes off Keisha. 

Including Marcie’s husband.


Some people would kill for the life Marcie has—what will she do to keep it?

“Behind Her Eyes” by the same author is one of my all-time favorite thrillers (and the Netflix series is set to come out sometime this year!) so I was super excited to win a copy of this book from Goodreads.

Despite loving BHE, after reading the description for this one, I wasn’t so sure I would like it. I read the first few pages, and was worried I wouldn’t even be able to get into it, but holy cow did that change. 

Set in present day Savannah, this story was a mix of African & Creole voodoo, twisted up with taboo relationships within the Southern high society. Omg y’all, I LOVED this. It is definitely not for everyone, but I could not put it down!!! It was such a fun and bizarre storyline, and though I wouldn’t classify it as a thriller exactly, it held a lot of suspense in the last half!! The description on the back cover sounded kind of bleh, but the book man, what a ride!


12. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling (5/5⭐️)

The war against Voldemort is not going well; even the Muggles have been affected. Dumbledore is absent from Hogwarts for long stretches of time, and the Order of the Phoenix has already suffered losses. 

And yet . . . as with all wars, life goes on. Sixth-year students learn to Apparate. Teenagers flirt and fight and fall in love. Harry receives some extraordinary help in Potions from the mysterious Half-Blood Prince. And with Dumbledore's guidance, he seeks out the full, complex story of the boy who became Lord Voldemort -- and thus finds what may be his only vulnerability.

When I said I was going to listen to all the HP audiobooks this year, I hadn’t intended to do it all in one month. Good thing I’ve got a couple weeks before book seven is available, so I can make a dent in all the audiobooks in my queue that I’ve been neglecting. 

Book 6 is my second favorite book. Or maybe it’s my second favorite movie so that is why it is my second favorite book- who knows! 


13. I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones (4.5/5⭐️)

An NAACP Image Award Nominee, I'm Not Dying with You Tonight follows two teen girls―one black, one white―who have to confront their own assumptions about racial inequality as they rely on each other to get through the violent race riot that has set their city on fire with civil unrest.

Lena has her killer style, her awesome boyfriend, and a plan. She knows she's going to make it big. Campbell, on the other hand, is just trying to keep her head down and get through the year at her new school.

When both girls attend the Friday-night football game, what neither expects is for everything to descend into sudden mass chaos. Chaos born from violence and hate. Chaos that unexpectedly throws them together.

They aren't friends. They hardly understand the other's point of view. But none of that matters when the city is up in flames, and they only have each other to rely on if they're going to survive the night.

I didn’t realize this was a YA read until I started it, but I really enjoyed it. The dual-POV was done wonderfully, and the story gave a lot of perspective into a sticky situation in a way that would give teens a lot to think about. The reading level of the text is pretty low, but the content is definitely more YA oriented. 


14. The Girl Who Was Taken by Charlie Donlea (3.5/5⭐️)

The night they go missing, high school seniors Nicole Cutty and Megan McDonald are at a beach party in their small town of Emerson Bay, North Carolina. Police launch a massive search, but hope is almost lost—until Megan escapes from a bunker deep in the woods. . . . A year later, the bestselling account of her ordeal has made Megan a celebrity. It’s a triumphant story, except for one inconvenient detail: Nicole is still missing. 
Nicole’s older sister, Livia, a fellow in forensic pathology, expects that one day soon Nicole’s body will be found and her sister’s fate determined. Instead, the first clue comes from another body—that of a young man connected to Nicole’s past. Livia reaches out to Megan to learn more about that fateful night. Other girls have disappeared, and she’s increasingly sure the cases are connected. 
Megan knows more than she revealed in her book. Flashes of memory are pointing to something more monstrous than she described. And the deeper she and Livia dig, the more they realize that sometimes true terror lies in finding exactly what you’ve been looking for . . . 

I have no idea how or why this book ended up on my TBR list, but I really liked it!! There were times that I thought the storyline was kinda meh- not bad, just plain. I thought for sure the conclusion was obvious, and that I had it all figured out, but I was totally wrong! I wouldn’t quite classify it as a thriller or suspense novel, more so just as a mystery, but either way I thought it was enjoyable.


15. The Girl From the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat (3/5⭐️)

Inspired by true events, the riveting story of a young Jewish woman trapped on the occupied island of Jersey during World War II. 

Summer 1940: Hedy Bercu fled Vienna two years ago. Now she watches the skies over Jersey for German planes, convinced that an invasion is imminent. When it finally comes, there is no counterattack from Allied forces—the Channel Islands are simply not worth defending. Most islanders and occupying forces settle into an uneasy coexistence, but for Hedy, the situation is perilously different. For Hedy is Jewish—a fact that could mean deportation, or worse. 

With no means of escape, Hedy hides in plain sight, working as a translator for the Germans while silently working against them. She forges a tentative friendship with a sympathetic German officer who is likewise trapped by circumstance. But as the war intensifies, Hedy knows she is in greater danger each day. Soon, her survival will depend not just on her own courage but on the community she has come to cherish and a man who should be her enemy. 

Vividly recreating little-known events, this is an unforgettable tale of resilience and bravery, and of the extraordinary power found in quiet acts of heroism and love.

I’m somewhat torn on how I felt about this. If I hadn’t made a resolution to read my ARC before their publishing dates, it is likely I would have continued to push off reading this. It was written very well, I’m just not loving historical fiction, even when based on a true story, as much as I use to. I think that because I’m so busy with work and grad school, I much prefer light-hearted fiction, or fun thrillers, to the deeper topics of historical fiction.

That all being said, I like that this was a bit different than your typical book from this era. I think this was the first I have read from a Jewish perspective outside of Germany and it’s immediate surroundings. It was interesting to see how things looked from the French Channel Islands.

I know it says this is based on a true story, and in her acknowledgements at the end Lecoat mention one of the supporting characters, but I have no idea how accurate it compares to the “true story.” I wish there had been a little more description at the end to what was true and what had liberties taken for entertainment’s sake.

*This post contains affiliate links, which means when you purchase something through that link, you're helping support this blog at no additional cost to you!*

(Summaries are from Amazon, but all reviews are my own!)

Reading Challenge: 15/100 books read in 2021

You can find previous book reviews here!