Thursday, February 26, 2015

So Much Storage!

We love our house and have ever since we walked through the designer model in January of last year. The problem, though, was that we had no easily accessible storage space. Yes, we have closets, but beyond that, not much else. The model had a bunch of built-ins to add additional storage, but with the outrageous prices they were charging, my husband and I decided to just make do without them.

Fast forward to now and we have two beautiful built-in units and they provide us with a TON of extra storage!  A friend of mine from high school is a contractor, who has a side business as a custom woodcraftsman. I contacted him to just get a quote, thinking it would be something we could do somewhere down the line. Well, down the line turned into now!

The first unit he did for us was in our loft. In our floor plan, we could have chosen to close off the loft space and use it as a bedroom, but we knew we did not need a five bedroom house and, instead, wanted to keep it open and use it as a second family room. Since it could be a bedroom though, we had an awkward opening where you would put a closet. That is where we had the built-in installed. 

It has eight adjustable shelves that we are using to house all our DVDs and Blu-rays and an enclosed cabinet space on the bottom. Currently, the cabinet is mostly empty minus a few games (Cards Against Humanity, anyone?), but we figured that in the future when we have kids, their toys can live in there. Previously, we had a bookcase in this space and it worked fine for what we needed, but it just looked messy and out of sorts. Now...beautiful organization.

It did not take long to have this piece made/installed either. My friend came out and did some measurements and then built everything in his shop. When he brought it out to install, he only had to do a few cuts and adjustments, but nothing major and had it installed in an hour. We (and by we, I mean mainly my husband) primed and painted it and then it was all done!

The second unit my friend made for us was actually a Christmas gift from my parents and is in our mudroom. The designer model had a nice bench/hook area in the space and we knew we wanted something similar. What we got was even better than we could have hoped for.

Shoe cubbies, storage cubbies, hooks, and a bench! I am completely obsessed. My husband likes to leave his shoes and jackets around the house, but now, they have a designated place to go, as do all the winter wear we currently need because of the freezing temperatures outside. 

I LOVE the beadboard backing and the crown molding at the top. Those two touches just make it seem more elegant. I added the upholstered seat, which was pretty easy and adds a fun pop of color to an otherwise white space. And, again, my husband did most of the painting.

If you live in the Richmond area and are interested in having any custom pieces made for your home/office, I highly recommend Chad Howard Custom Woodworking. He is fantastic!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: The Nightingale

Kristin Hannah is one of those writers who consistently writes incredible and emotionally gut-wrenching stories. Everything I have read by her up until this point has been more contemporary, almost family drama-like...think Parenthood, but in novel form. Her newest novel, The Nightingale, deviates from this, but is, in my opinion, her best novel to date.

image courtesy of

The Nightingale is historical fiction set during World War II in German-occupied France. When most people think about wars, their first thoughts are of the soldiers and the fighting and while that may be more of the focus in high school history class, the more important stories come from those who were left behind, specifically the women and the children. Hannah's novel focuses on two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, in occupied France and how far they are willing to go in order to survive the hardships of the war.

While the novel is fiction, Vianne and Isabelle's stories are ones that incredibly realistic and are based on things that actually happened during World War II. Rather than stay at home and wait for their male family members to return from the war, the sisters choose, instead, to take action, both in very different ways. Vianne and Isabelle each endured incredible, unimaginable circumstances. They were faced with danger and difficult decisions. They had to be brave and strong and continue to move forward despite their hardships.

Hannah has an incredible way with words, capturing the reader with vivid descriptions and detail. The reader is able to see what the characters are seeing and feel what they are feeling. I felt like I was there with Vianne and Isabelle, experiencing what were were: hunger, desperation, cold, separation from a loved one, pain, fear, etc. The emotional impact of The Nightingale is significant, especially the last quarter of the novel. It was incredibly hard to put down and I found myself reading well into the night in order to find out what would happen next.

The Nightingale is a beautiful, powerful, and moving book. It makes you feel, but more importantly, it makes you think. I give this book a 10 out of 10 and highly recommend that everyone reads it immediately.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: The House Girl

Well, it looks like my snow week has come to an end (so disappointing), but I did get a TON of reading, as well as lesson planning and house things, completed during the week off. I recently finished The House Girl by Tara Conklin and once I started it, I found it completely engrossing.

image courtesy of

I have always considered the phrase "page turner" to be a wonderful way to describe a truly well-written novel, one where, as the reader, I actually care about the story and the characters. "Page turner" is really the only way I can think to describe The House Girl. I finished the novel in less than a day, staying up late into the night because I just had to know what happened next.

The novel is comprised of two interwoven narratives: Josephine Bell, a house slave in Virginia in 1852, and Lina Sparrow, a novice lawyer in New York in 2004. Josephine completely stole my heart. She is different, and, in a way, more privileged than most other plantation slaves one learns about in history class; her mistress has taught her to read and allows her comforts that many other slaves would never dream of, including painting and drawing. Regardless, she is still enslaved and dreams of her freedom. 

Lina is a corporate lawyer attempting to climb the ladder in her field. She is chosen by one of the partners in her firm to work on finding a plaintiff for a slave reparations lawsuit that a client wants to bring against corporations that benefited from slave labor in the 1700 and 1800s. In doing research for her case, Lina learns about Josephine while at a gallery exhibit for LuAnn Bell, Josephine's mistress who is also a celebrated artist. Some critics believe that Josephine is the actual artist of LuAnn's art and this controversy has made headlines, leading Lina to believe Josephine's descendants would make the perfect plaintiffs for her case.

The story alternates between Lina and Josephine's points of view and is supplemented with letters written by Dorothea Rounds, an abolitionist who helped her undertaker father as a stop on the Underground Railroad, to her sister Kate, and a twenty page letter written by Caleb Harper, a disgraced medical student and brother-in-law of Dorothea. I really liked Conklin's use of the letters. It was a creative way to incorporate important background details without slowing down the action.

Josephine's chapters were nothing short of amazing. Her character comes alive with vivid detail. The reader can actually feel the tension, pain, frustration, longing, and the fleeting happiness she experiences during her life. While I wanted her to run away from the plantation and become free, I worried for her safety at the same time; I liked her so much as a character that I could not bear anything happening to her.

In contrast, Lina's chapters seemed rushed. Her story moves at a quicker pace and is full of coincidences that seem too good to be true in her efforts to find out more about Josephine. I wish Lina was more likable and developed, more like Josephine, but these differences helped to highlight their contrasts.

Overall, I give The House Girl an 8 out of 10. It pulls the reader in and will cause you to reflect on the reasons that lead us to make our choices and the reason we turned out to be the person we are.

P.S. A very happy birthday to my wonderful mother. You are the best mom ever and I hope that I can one day be as amazing as you are. Love you!!!

Mommy and I on my wedding day

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Orphan Train

Snow days are absolutely lovely. Here we are on our third this week, and since we were coming off of a three day weekend when the snow hit, that means I have had almost an entire week to just relax....and read. When given free time, and especially if I do not have anything else important to do, I can devour books. It is a little sickening with the speed I read, but I kind of love it since it allows me to read more books, though my bank account (and possibly my husband) hates it since Amazon, Books-A-Million, and used bookstores around Richmond get that much more of my money. Oh well.

When I am in need of a good book recommendation, the first place I look is Erika Robuck's blog. Robuck, author of Hemingway's Girl and Call Me Zelda among others, writes about and reviews historical fiction. Her writing is amazing and her reviews are always spot on. When I see a book that is particularly interesting, I almost always buy it and keep it in the "too read" pile in our home office/library in order to have it within easy reach for free days when I want to lose myself in a book. Such was the case with Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

image courtesy of
Told in beautifully evocative prose, Orphan Train juxtaposes the perspectives of two very different women, revealing what has happened to each of them and how the parallel lines of their lives converge to showcase the similarities between them. 

Molly Ayer is a seventeen-year-old girl who has bounced around between foster homes and is now in a situation involving petty theft (stealing a copy of Jane Eyre from the library, to be exact) that requires community service of some kind. Enter Vivian Daly, a wealthy ninety-one year old woman who hides the secrets of her turbulent past in the trunks and boxes in her attic, trunks and boxes that her housekeeper believes need to be cleaned out and organized. With Molly's help, Vivian delves into her past and reveals her story--not just to Molly and the reader, but also to herself, as she has kept her past hidden for so many years.

Vivian, born Niamh, is left alone in New York after her family is killed in a fire. She is taken in by Children's Aid and is sent West on an Orphan Train, a train filled with orphaned children who will hopefully all find new homes. What Niamh finds instead is mistreatment, suspicion, and abuse. 

While on the train, she meets other orphans, one of whom will ultimately play an important role in her life. However, most of the other characters disappear into the background as the story focuses on Vivian and Molly and how the two work to reconcile their pasts, which, despite their seventy-four year age difference, are not as different as they originally thought.

Not knowing much about the history of orphan trains, I was immediately enthralled in the story, especially with that of Vivian. Her childhood is heartbreaking, but even with all the horrible things she endures on her journey to find belonging, she is able to overcome them with courage and tenacity. Molly's background, however, is neither as interesting nor fleshed out as Vivian's, but in this case, I guess it works since the book does focus more on Vivian's life than on Molly's.

At 278 pages, Orphan Train is a pretty quick read, but even after you finish it, the characters, especially Vivian, stay with you. Some books leave you wanting more, and in this case, it left me wanting more of Kline's writing.

I give this novel a 9 out of 10 for its beautiful and heart-wrenching writing and character development.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: My Sister's Grave

I love snow days, especially those that occur when I am not inundated with essays and assessments to grade. When it began to snow on Monday, it was pretty wonderful, especially when it began to stick to the roads and accumulate.

I decided to spend the snow day reading, something that most teachers do not really have a ton of time for during the school year. Ever since I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, I have not been able to get enough of psychological thrillers. I read all three of Flynn's novels within a week and then essentially devoured all of Chevy Stevens' novels, which are written very similarly. After reading those seven novels, I was somewhat stuck and managed to get my "fix" with individual novels at sporadic times, some of which have been more memorable that others. Robert Dugoni may have provided me with a twisty outlet though.

image taken from

For the past few months, My Sister's Grave has been appearing on my Amazon account as a novel that is recommended for me. Since I have been so busy with school and adjusting to homeownership, I did not buy the book until this morning and after reading it, I regret not having done so earlier. While more of a mystery than a dark thriller like Flynn and Stevens are known for, it kept me rapt for all 416 pages.

The main character, Tracy Crosswhite, is a strong, likable female lead. A former high school teacher turned homicide detective, Tracy is haunted by the murder of her younger sister twenty years ago. While a local man who was recently paroled for rape was tried and found guilty of her sister's murder, no body was ever found and Tracy believed that the facts of the case did not add up and that the man had been wrongfully convicted. Tracy becomes obsessed with finding the real killer and gaining justice for her sister. 

As the novel opens, Tracy's sister's body is found in a shallow grave. This sets off a chain of events that propel the novel quickly through until it reaches its heart-racing and thrilling conclusion. The first half of the novel is filled with flashbacks that add character development, authenticity, and important background information. The second half is rife with gripping, sharp-witted, and realistic (at least according to what I have seen on Law and Order: SVU) legal proceedings.

What I liked most about this book was the solid and detailed character development for the main character of Tracy. Through the flashbacks, the reader is not only better able to picture the relationship between Tracy and her sister, but also feel Tracy's pain in losing her sister and the guilt she had for leaving her behind on that fateful night. What sets Dugoni apart in this genre is that he takes the time to actually develop his main characters rather than just throwing out information and expecting us as the reader to care about them. 

It also helps that the author's portrayal of the sociopathic villain at the heart of the novel is incredibly creepy. Yes, the bad guy is stereotypically evil, but when it comes to novels such as these, you kind of expect that. While I would love for an author to come up with a non-stereotypical bad guy, I think readers are willing to just take what we can get when it comes to good writing and an entertaining novel. What I did not expect was who the killer ended up being. I was completely convinced I knew who the killer of Tracy's sister was throughout the novel and ended up being super surprised when I reached the ending. That right there is an accomplishment.

I give the book a solid 8.5 out of 10 and am looking forward to possible reading more of Dugoni's novels.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Gallery of Pretty

The husband and I moved into a new house this past July, shortly after we got married and relocated to Richmond. Since then, we have been slooowly making the house into our home. Our to-do list just seems to get longer, regardless of what we complete and check off.

Immediately after moving in, we bought furniture for the family room. Once it was delivered and arranged in the way we wanted it, I realized the empty wall over the sofa was the perfect place for a gallery wall. I love pictures of the wonderful people in my life, but the husband prefers to not have a thousand pictures of us all over the walls of our house. I respect this and while I do have pictures of us strewn about the house, I try to limit them to smaller, framed pictures on side tables and the fireplace mantel. For that reason, I decided to only include meaningful prints in the gallery wall. It took me awhile to collect prints that were important and worthwhile, but, finally, it is finished! 

(sorry for the glare and light reflections--taking pictures at night is not a good idea)

Both my husband and I really love how it turned out, though I may be a little more enthusiastic about it than he is. And now for the breakdown of the included prints, clockwise from the upper left corner:

1. The cat is a photocopy of a sketch one of my former students made last year. While it is not a sketch of our fur-baby, I do not think it really matters, as it shows how important our cat is to us...he (or really his species) made the wall!

2. Since getting married, I have fully embraced my new last name and new monogram. There are Js all over our house, so the gallery wall was not to be overlooked. I stumbled across this amazing woman on Etsy who specializes in original, hand drawn works of art, StephMicheleArtworks. She worked with me to create this lovely, custom piece.

3. It is a little hard to see, but it reads, "The best is yet to come." Everyone kept saying that our wedding day would be the happiest day of our lives, but I feel like that is not entirely the truth. While our wedding day was amazing, I think that everyday we spend together builds on the one before, making tomorrow more amazing than today, which was better than yesterday...if that makes sense... This print is from paperandpalette, an Etsy shop based out of Richmond.

4. My husband went to college in Arizona (ASU...Go Sun Devils!!!) and in June 2013, he took me out to the Tempe/Phoenix area to visit and see the greatness that he loves. On our first full day there, we got up really early to go for a hike up A Mountain in Tempe, near the ASU football stadium. When we reached the top, David got down on one knee and asked me to be his wife. Needless to say, Arizona now holds a special spot in my heart. Steph from StephMicheleArtworks created this print for us.

5. We got married this past summer, 366 days after we got engaged, on June 21, 2014. This is a reminder of our anniversary, and thus, our wedding day. I liked that the Roman numerals made the dates a little more intriguing than your normal numbers.

6. I LOVE fairy tales and while my life is nowhere near perfect, being able to spend it with my husband and kitty is pretty darn close. I get to live my happily ever after every day. This print is also from paperandpalette.

7. I try to stay positive and because of that mentality, I kind of fell in love with this print from Islay's Terrace. It says, "Think Happy Thoughts" and the happy, bright colors work so well with the sentiment (and our family room). I also liked that it brings some color to the blacks and whites of the other prints.

8. Oh, Virginia... This print is a companion to the Arizona state print. David and I met in Northern Virginia and spent the past three years living there. Now, we are living in Richmond and making a life here. Even if we do not stay in Virginia forever, it will always be our home and this print is a lovely reminder of that.

Now that the gallery wall is finished, I cannot help but smile whenever I walk by it. It is just a very "us" wall since every piece holds a special meaning to me and David.

One final picture.....

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mockingbird Sequel...OMG!

One of my favorite quotes from To Kill a Mockingbird, especially since it is so true!

This past Tuesday, HarperCollins announced that they would be publishing the "sequel" to Harper Lee's only novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee originally wrote the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman prior to writing To Kill a Mockingbird, which shows an adult Scout returning to Maycomb, Alabama twenty years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her then-publisher loved the backstory and flashbacks so much that it was requested Lee write the story of what happened to young Scout. The manuscript was shelved...until now.

I, like almost every other English teacher I know, squealed with delight upon hearing the news. I read To Kill a Mockingbird in Mrs. Tucker's ninth grade English class and it was honestly the first school book that I not only read cover to cover without the use of SparkNotes, but also truly enjoyed. I remember thinking Scout was the kind of friend I would have wanted to have when I was little, and even as a teenager, I somewhat idolized her. While it took me until my freshman year of college to pick up To Kill a Mockingbird again, my original thoughts on the book stayed. In fact, even as a teacher, I look back at some of the annotations I made upon my first reading and use some of them in class, as both examples of what an annotation is and how, 12 years later, I still understand why it was that I wrote them.

Was To Kill a Mockingbird the first book to really hook me as a reader? No, that honor belongs to the Harry Potter series. However, it was one of the first books I can remember where I actually thought about what life was like during the 1930s and how things really have not changed that much in 2015. I think that was the case for a lot of people. 

In teaching ninth grade, I have the pleasure of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to a new group of 14-15 year olds ever year. Over the past four years, the connections the students have made with our present-day society have been amazing. Not only do they see how in the past 80 years, many people's negative attitudes towards African Americans have not changed, but they see how prevalent, and hurtful, stereotypes are in general. During my first year of teaching, the ninth grade English teachers held a "De-Stereotype Me Day," in which the students faced their stereotypes head on by making and wearing t-shirts that bore the phrase "Just because I'm _________, does not mean I am __________." So for example, "Just because I'm a woman, does not mean I am helpless." In addition, they wrote personal narratives about their experiences with stereotypes. Both in their essays and in the in-class discussions, the parallels between these students...upper-middle class, entitled, predominately white teenagers...and the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird were astounding. For many of the students, that was really the first time they could connect their lives to a piece of literature, especially one that has been deemed a classic.

All this week, as my students have come into class, most have made comments about Go Set a Watchman and its publication this upcoming summer (July 14th). This is the first time I can remember where teenagers are excited about a book release that is not related to YA lit and it is amazing. My excitement is right there with them.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A simple "hello" could lead to a million things

When I sat down to write this first post, I was at a loss for how I should begin and what I should say, something that rarely happens to me. I even resulted to googling how a person should best write an initial blog post and everything I read said I should "state my intent." Well, that is the problem. I cannot give you the usual introduction and discuss what exactly this blog will be about because, honestly, I have no idea what will come of it except a lot of happy surprises...some serendipity, if you will. :) 
I am busy, but sometimes think I have too much time on my hands. I take on too much because I have trouble saying no for fear of disappointing people. I am impulsive and driven beyond belief. I am committed to living life to the fullest and trying to make those around me love life. I have big ideas, but I am sometimes unsure as to what I should do with them. Admittedly, I am a type-A personality, but with a lot of emotion driving my decisions. I am overly organized, but as a teacher, I think you have to be. Most importantly, though, I am a newlywed who loves her tiny family (my mister and my kitty) more than anything in the world. 
Originally, my plan for this blog was to review the books I read, and I read a ton of books. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while including books reviews would be fine, I really just want to talk about whatever I feel is important and whatever is on my mind. Goals? Definitely. Personal struggles? Yep. Obsessive love of books? You betcha. Married life and my adorable cat, Warren? Of course!
This is me--baring my soul and making the leap.