12 Favorite Books from 2016

Don’t mind me while I brush away some cobwebs and dust from my little corner of the Internet. This blog has been rather neglected. The new year stretches out ahead of me, though, and I’m determined to be here more often.

But before I charge into 2017, I want to look back at some of the books I read in 2016. Over the course of the year, I finished 66 books. Some I read for pleasure and some for my three book clubs. (Yes, that’s right, I’m in three book clubs. Totally normal, right?) Below are the 12 books I enjoyed the most, in the order in which I read them. Have you read any of these? What books should I put on my 2017 To Be Read list? Let me know in the comments.

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

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I read this as part of a reading challenge I took on last year. This one filled the “already at least once” slot. I read this book five years ago and remembered loving it. So much so that for days, weeks, months after reading it, when someone asked me for a book suggestion, I would answer with this book.

A spirit narrates the story of a flat in Dublin and how the occupants’ lives intersect. Eventually the identity of the spirit is revealed, but I’m not spoiling it here! This book has everything I love – quirky characters, interesting situations, hints being dropped and funny resolutions.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like it the second time around, but I think I love it even more. Putting this one in my top five books ever.

The Murder of Roger Akroyd by Agatha Christie

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Also part of the reading challenge. This one filled the “recommended by local librarian or bookseller” slot when my library director picked it for me. I love Agatha Christie, but hadn’t read this one. Told in first person by Dr. Sheppard, the story revolves around the murder of Mr. Roger Akroyd. Ooh, but there also secrets and blackmail afoot! And a twist I didn’t see coming. No spoilers here. Pure and simple: Agatha was a master.

The Rosie Project

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This was a library discussion group read and one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages. Like laugh-out-loud-even-though-you’re-in-the-work-breakroom funny.

Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan

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Read this one for my more social book club. (Because, let’s be honest, the books are just an excuse to get together, go out to eat and catch up on everyone’s lives!) Another funny read. And, I must say, I totally agree with his take on vegetables.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

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Another one for my social book club. This was from when I presented several books that were turned into Oscar nominated or award-winning films. Creepy and haunting.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

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Another library discussion group read and one that illustrates why I love book clubs. It’s very unlikely I ever would have chosen this on my own, but I really enjoyed it. The Wrights were amazing. Who would have thought two bicycle builders from Ohio would be the first to fly? (Bonus: We were planning a trip to the Outer Banks that summer when I read this. It was fun to actually see the places mentioned in the books while on our trip.)

Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben

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One of my favorite mystery writers. Devoured this in one night.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

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Paige read this book and recommended it to me. Love the message that kids learn differently and labels don’t define their value.To all the teachers like Mr. Daniels in the book, thank you!

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

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Read this one for my library discussion group. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to move to Whistle Stop. What a wonderful collection of interesting, quirky characters who really came alive to me. (Also, enough cannot be said about the beauty of a book with short chapters.)

Resolutions by Jenn Faulk

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Sometimes free downloads on the Kindle are “meh.” This Christian fiction novel was not to me. I thoroughly enjoyed it. (So much so, I downloaded another of hers.)

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

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Wow. There are some books that stay with you after you read them. For me, this is one of them. Rashad, a black teenager, is beaten up by a white policeman who thinks he was trying to steal from the local convenience store. (Spoiler: he wasn’t. ) Quinn, a white teenager, witnesses the brutality inflicted by the cop, who happens to be a big brother/father figure to him. He struggles to cope with the situation. A fascinating, and a bit anxiety-inducing, read that provides perspective from both sides of the racial divide.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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This one wrapped up my reading challenge (a book “you should have read in school’). It took more focus/brain power to read than modern fiction. In fact, I switched to reading it on the Kindle so I could quickly look up words to verify meanings. I so wasn’t ready to leave Pemberley when the book ended.

 

Off to see the Wizard…

I love the movie The Wizard of Oz. It’s my favorite movie of all time. Hands down. No competition. No other movie even comes close.

2011_ruby slippers_DCFor a high school graduation present, my parents let me pick anywhere in the continental United States to visit. I chose Washington D.C. so I could see the ruby slippers. THE RUBY SLIPPERS! When my husband and I visited D.C. with our kids in 2011…yup, saw them again. (See photo proof.)

It should come as no surprise that when I heard about an exhibit of Wizard of Oz memorabilia coming to the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, I made plans to go. The exhibit, officially titled The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Selections from the Willard Carroll/Tom Wilhite Collection, opened June 12 and runs through September 25, 2016.

On a Saturday in July, my husband and kids wanted to go off-road biking. This is not an activity I participate in, but I suggested they try Sunderbruch Park in Davenport. (See where I’m going here?) After dropping them off, I headed off to see the Wizard at the Figge.

070920160_WoOExhibit_Figge_DavenportA yellow brick road from the lobby leads to the staircase to the second floor exhibit. From the elevator, you can follow the yellow brick road to the doorway of the exhibit. The door looks like one from the Emerald City, complete with emerald-colored, ceiling-to-floor velvet curtains.

Though I wanted to take pictures, I respected the no photography signs hanging on the walls. The exhibit includes lots of posters promoting various Wizard of Oz movies and plays as well as copies of the story in multiple languages. There is also an authentic munchkin costume from one of the Lollipop Guild members and a test costume for Dorothy. For me, the highlight was seeing the hourglass that the Wicked Witch used to count down the time Dorothy had left. THE HOURGLASS! Fun fact: In the movie, the hourglass was filled with red Jell-o instead of sand because of its color.

A video screen shows two clips from the movie: one with the Lollipop Guild singing and one with the Wicked Witch and the hourglass. These just loop over and over and, honestly, I found them mildly annoying/distracting while strolling through the exhibit. (A little Lollipop Guild goes a long way.)

Thanks to a grant, admission to the Figge is FREE though September 25, 2016.

The Figge is located at 225 West Second St in Davenport. Sunderbruch Park is located at 4675 Telegraph Rd in Davenport.

 

 

Summer fun in Marshalltown

My brother and his family live in the Cedar Rapids area. My family lives in the Des Moines area. It’s about a two-hour drive between our houses. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s enough that we have to make a point to see each other.

In 2015, we planned an inaugural Cousins Day to get our four kids (two boys, two girls, ages 8-13, at the time) together for some quality time. We determined Marshalltown was a good midway point (about an hour’s drive for both of us). We met at a park for lunch, played on the playground equipment, headed over to the aquatic center to swim, then ended the day with pizza. To say the least, Cousins Day was a success.

62516_AquaticCenter3_MarshalltownCousins Day 2016 found us back in Marshalltown. Because (a) why mess up a good thing? And, (b) obviously, still roughly halfway between our houses.

The Marshalltown Aquatic Center works well for all the kids (now ages 9-14, if you’re keeping track). It has three waterslides (two body, one tube), a lazy river (more on that later), two diving boards (high and low), a drop slide (which I don’t think has worked either time we’ve been there), a pool (of course) and a zero-depth entry small kids’ play area. It’s also super affordable – $4 per person weekdays and just $2 per person on the weekends. Score!

62516_AquaticCenter5_MarshalltownKids under the age of 18 must pass a swim test (swimming the length of the pool – 25 meters) in order to use the slides or diving boards. The good news is once a child passes the test, their name goes into a database and they never have to take the test again. They do, however, need to check in and get a wristband every time they visit the aquatic center. Children who are unable to pass the test can ride the tube slide and lazy river in a two-person tube with someone over the age of 15.

62516_AquaticCenter4_MarshalltownA couple of notes about the lazy river:

  1. It’s not very lazy. It actually moves pretty quickly.
  2. There are two water features that you must go under. You can avoid getting wet on the first one with some maneuvering. The second one is nearly impossible to avoid. (Unless you employ the “use the tube as a cover” technique that my niece did.)

62516_ZenosRestaurant3_MarshalltownThe aquatic center kept all four kids entertained for about three hours. After drying off and changing clothes, we headed to Zeno’s Pizza. A local favorite since 1952, Zeno’s was also one of the eight pizza places in Travel Iowa‘s Pizza Madness promotion in March 2016. The three pizzas we ordered were devoured in no time. (A clear indication of how good they were.)

62516_EvsIceCream3_MarshalltownWe made one last stop – Ev’s for dessert. I chose chocolate ice cream with Reese’s peanut butter cups mixed in. (For the record, it had a good amount of peanut butter cups scattered throughout. Not one of those mixers where you’re wondering where the candy is.)

My nephew ordered the double-header – a two-headed sugar cone. No one in our group had ever seen one before and I may or may not have convinced my sister-in-law that my nephew needed one so I could take a picture. It was tricky for him to eat, however, as it was melting a bit faster than he could consume it.

All in all a wonderful summer day in Marshalltown.

The Marshalltown Aquatic Center is located at 212 Washington St., Zeno’s Pizza is located at 109 E Main St., and Ev’s is located at 2205 S Center St. All in Marshalltown.

 

Matchstick Marvels

62016_MatchstickMarvels18Iowa does quirky exceptionally well. To which I’m especially thankful because I love quirky. World’s Largest Popcorn Ball? Yup, totally stopping. World’s Crookedest Street? Count me in. Museum filled with matchstick models. Absolutely!

62016_MatchstickMarvels12I recently made my third visit to the Matchstick Marvels museum in Gladbrook, Iowa. It houses several models created by local resident Pat Acton. And, as you can gather from the museum’s name, they’re all made out of matchsticks. Thousands and thousands and thousands, really millions, of matchsticks.

Pat started  building the models as a hobby while he was working at a local community college. Since retiring, though, he’s been under contract with Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Each year, his newest model appears at the Matchstick Marvels museum for a few months (generally April – June) before it heads off to a Ripley’s museum somewhere in the world.

62016_MatchstickMarvels3It seems that every year he goes a little bigger. His last couple of models have incorporated movement and sound effects. The steampunk train that was on display in 2015 had a glowing red tinderbox and a bell you could ring. His 2016 creation (on display until June 25, 2016), is a two-headed “fire-breathing” dragon of his own imagination that roars when you trigger the motion sensor.

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In addition to his latest and greatest, several of the 70 models he’s built over the years are on display. They’re so intricately detailed that it’s easy to forget they’re made out of matchsticks!

Pat’s next project? Building the Millennium Falcon. Guess I’ll be making another trip back next year!

Matchstick Marvels is located 319 2nd Street in Gladbrook, Iowa.

 

Sweetest Things Bakery

iowajlo_SweetestThingsExteriorTo say I have a sweet tooth is an understatement. I love cookies, cake, cupcakes, pie, chocolates, etc. So it should come as no surprise that I also love bakeries. Because, seriously, what’s not to love about a store chock full of baked goods goodness?

If there’s a bakery where I’m visiting and I can fit in to my schedule, I stop. If there’s a bakery on the way to or from where I’m visiting and I can fit it in to my schedule, I stop. And that’s how I came to discover Sweetest Things Bakery in Humboldt, Iowa, for the very first time.

In April 2015, I was traveling to Des Moines from Algona with a friend of mine. We asked “The Google” if there were any bakeries on our route. Turns out there was one in Humboldt. Since it wasn’t far out of our way, we stopped.

The adorable shop is on a corner of the town’s main street (Sumner Ave) in what I think is an old bank building. (A small gift shop area inside is located in a vault. How cute is that?) In addition to the usual line-up of cookies (sugar, chocolate chip, etc.), there were cookies labeled “Stuffed Peanut Butter Cookies.” Which leads to the inevitable question, “Stuffed with what?” So I asked. The answer? Peanut butter. Yes, peanut butter cookies stuffed with peanut butter. Who could resist? Not us. We each purchased one and headed out.

iowajlo_SweetestThingsPBcookieThe cookies were so delicious that we seriously considered turning around less than two blocks later to go back and get some more. We didn’t, but we’ve been talking about those cookies periodically since then. Seriously, that’s how memorable they were.

As it happens, we were in the area in June 2016 and stopped in again. While they didn’t have stuffed peanut butter cookies that day, we found plenty of other delicious cookies and brownies to treat our taste buds. Sugar cookies are my favorites! iowajlo_SweetestThingsSugarCookies

Sweetest Things Bakery is located at 602 Sumner Ave in Humboldt.

And so it begins…

Yes, I know, the world doesn’t need another blog. There are already way more than any one person could ever possibly read. But the idea of having my own blog has been in head for months, if not years. I’ve watched other people do it. I’ve had friends tell me I should do it. And now seems like the right time to give it a go. I mean, who doesn’t love a creative outlet?

What can you expect to find here? Since this is a passion project of mine, it’s no surprise you’ll find me talking about the things I’m passionate about. In no particular order, you can expect me to blog about travel (Iowa and otherwise), running, crafting, my faith and the Iowa State Cyclones. It’s not an exhaustive list so don’t be surprised to find posts about other things here, too. Oh, and I love books and reading, but you can find me and a couple of my friends talking about that on Reading Keeps Me Up on Instagram. (Feel free to give us a follow!)

~iowajlo