Saturday, August 30, 2014

Consumer Critique: Braha - Tale of Innocence and Intrigue

Disclosure: I received complimentary products to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own.

Braha: Tale of Innocence and Intrigue by Julie Mangano takes readers on a journey following Linden St. Clair and her great-great grandmother, Leena Weiss. After Linden's grandfather dies, she explores old journals, discovering hidden secrets that pull the modern generation into a century-old mystery. It was a well-written, captivating book, and I had a chance to interview the author to learn more.

The inspiration for this story came from your own family's background. Can you share a little more about that?
My mother's parents were Germans from Russia who immigrated to the United States around 1910. Growing up, I was constantly aware of this fact. Later in his life, my grandfather made tapes for his children where he spoke about the Germans from Russia, how they came to be there, their origins in Germany, and more. When I was still in elementary school, I became interested in genealogy research. Finding out about the Germans from Russia was very difficult back then. My grandparents both died in the 1970s, so there was not much written evidence about their families anywhere. There were no official birth certificates, immigration papers were tossed in the trash once they became naturalized and soon after American citizens. 

I joined the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) group in the 1980s, hoping to find out more information about my family. I purchased a copy of The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763 – 1862 by Dr. Karl Stumpp, the Bible for family history researchers looking into their Germans from Russia heritage. 

The anecdotal information that came down through my grandfather was enough to keep my interest piqued. We had a photograph of the Village of Grimm that was sent to my grandparents from one of their relatives who remained in Russia. My grandmother saved numerous letters from her aunt, written in German, that were handed down to me. I had the letters translated and looked for clues about my family. I learned many interesting facts during my search. One, for example, is that my mother's grandfather was conscripted and served as a security guard for the Tsar. I took that tidbit and incorporated it into my book.

Although the kernel of the idea for the Braha story focused on modern day Linden St. Clair, I soon began to think about incorporating family history into the story line. Leena was the name of a childhood friend of mine who was Finnish. Ever since, I was captivated with Finland, in part because it also happened to be close to Russia which I had a connection to because of my mother's family. Crafting a story line that included Russia and Finland was the only option I ever considered.

Why the tagline "a tale of innocence and intrigue?"
I love a good mystery. When I was first looking at cover ideas, I liked the idea of using the sheep or lamb as a symbolic cover. In the story, the colonel calls Leena his little lamb. Lambs suggest innocence, just like Leena was an innocent, caught up in a situation beyond her control. Linden's innocence can also be symbolized by the lamb. I loved the cover art because it was like the lamb is staring at the reader, its innocence splayed out there for all to see. Because I chose to use symbolism on the cover, I decided it needed a tagline that would let people know this book was a mystery, filled with suspense, innocence and intrigue.

Do you have other books in the works?
I am working on a follow up novel to Braha. If you've read the book, you know that a sequel is inevitable. Probably more than one, in fact. I have so many ideas swirling around, and I can already tell that the rest of Linden and Leena's story will need more than pages than a single sequel affords. Certainly one of the books must take place in South America. And then there is the European connection. I'm traveling to Ireland this fall to do some investigating and research for future story lines. A trip to Finland and Germany can't be far behind.

What surprised you most in the process of writing this book?
Braha took a long time to write, far longer than I would have preferred. There were periods of upheaval in my life that brought my writing to a stop, some times for months, as I dealt with family problems. My family went through two moves, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my father was diagnosed and soon died from esophageal cancer. Soon after my father's death, my mother suffered two serious falls, and the second resulting in her loss of vision in one eye. I was so overwhelmed for a while that it was difficult to focus on writing and editing. Soon after things started to calm down, I found that writing was like a salve to my life-wounds. Words bubbled out of me and it was hard for me to take a break. I thought that so much time had passed that it would be difficult for me to get back in the swing of writing and finish the book, and I was completely wrong. 

In addition, after losing one parent, it became more important to me than ever to write about my mother's people (the Germans from Russia) while she was still alive and capable of reading the book. She became my biggest supporter and I couldn't have finished the book without her. At first I was worried about what she would think about the story line, since it includes a number of issues that the very pious Germans from Russia would not condone.

All my worrying was for naught, because she loved it. She especially liked how the historical section seemed to bring to life the reality of how her grandparents and children lived while in Grimm. She didn't know about the earthen houses and using cow patties to store fires. She had long forgotten about her grandfather's job in the Russian Army. Little details like that made the story more real to her, and that made me feel like my writing was a success.         

Area Attractions: Hub On Wheels (Boston)

The 10th annual Hub On Wheels citywide ride, presented by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and TD Bank, takes to the streets on Sunday, September 21, giving cycling enthusiasts and families of all ages unprecedented access to explore historic Boston. Riders can chose from three different courses, each offering cyclists the opportunity to coast through some of Boston’s most eclectic neighborhoods – including a car-free Storrow Drive – with breaks at Arnold Arboretum, Codman Square and Carson Beach.

The ride starts and finishes at City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston, with 10-, 30- and 50-mile route option. Fruit, water and light snacks will be provided for riders at various stops throughout each course. Cyclists must be 10+ years to ride the 10-mile loop, and 12+ years to ride the longer loops. Children under 10 ride for free and may participate only if riding with an adult on a tandem, trail-a-bike, bike seat or trailer.

The Hub On Wheels ride is part of the city’s annual weekend cycling celebration, which also includes the 6th annual TD Bank Mayor's Cup pro cycling races, held on Saturday, September 20 at City Hall Plaza. The TD Bank Mayor’s Cup – also free to the public – will feature more than 200 of the cycling world’s top professional racers, including former Olympians and national champions.

To sign up, visit Hub On Wheels registration or go to the on-site registration tent when you arrive at City Hall Plaza. The registration fee is $50 prior to the event and $55 on-site.

Don’t have a bike but still want to ride? Reserve a bike by contacting the official Hub On Wheels bike rental partner, Urban Adventours, at (617) 670-0637 or by visiting:

For news and information on this year’s milestone Hub On Wheels city ride, follow Boston Bikes on Twitter and Facebook.

Contest: Zevia Style

Disclosure: I received this product for free from the sponsor of the Moms MeetSM program, May Media Group LLC, who received it directly from the manufacturer. As a Moms MeetsSM blogger, I agree to use this product and post my opinion on my blog. My opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of May Media Group LLC or the manufacturer of this product

Drinking carbonated beverages often adds a lot of empty calories - and the diet ones often have artificial sweeteners that aren't exactly natural and may not be healthy (especially if you're consuming a lot of them). Zevia is a naturally sweetened (stevia and monk fruit) zero calorie carbonated beverage in fifteen flavors, so you're sure to find an alternative to your favorite soda! Zevia is also Kosher, vegan, and gluten-free.

My husband is a cola drinker, and although Zevia tastes a little different than his favorite brand, it still satisfies his craving. My friend drinks a certain "Dr." soda, and found the Zevia alternative to be just as tasty. I prefer fruity when I drink pop, and I'm not at all disappointed. If you're expecting the taste to be exactly the same as something else, it won't be - but I think it's even better.

Right now, Zevia wants to celebrate your unique voice! Zevia will be rewarding their community for winning style with $100 Target gift cards, oodles of soda, t-shirts, swag and so much more, every day for 22 days! The contest runs from Aug 14 - Sept 5. It’s easy to enter! Simply post your original style pics to Instagram (@zevialife) or twitter (Zevia), tag Zevia and #ZeviaStyle and you’re done! For complete details, head over to Need inspiration? Check out their #ZeviaStyle boards on Pinterest! 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Consumer Critique: Dust Tea, Dingoes, & Dragons

Disclosure: I received complimentary products to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own.

I recently read Dust Tea, Dingoes, & Dragons, a book which follows the author around the world as he builds a billion-dollar international business. Although I'm not necessarily interested in the business aspect, I really loved the anecdotes about different cultures. As someone who has also traveled internationally, I could easily put myself in his shoes, if not necessarily with the specifics of the location, at least with the sensations that come with being in a place where what seems strange to us is very common place.

The nice thing with this book is you don't have to read it all at once, since the stories can stand alone or be read in succession. It's written with humor and wit, but also with sensitivity when it comes to cultural differences. We may not all be major business gurus, but many people will still find enjoyment in this book.

Consumer Critique: Green Virgin Soap Nuts

Disclosure: I received complimentary products to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own.

Many consumer branded laundry detergents contain harmful ingredients, whether shown on the label or not. Dioxane is one in particular that appears in many detergent brands. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it a probable carcinogen. This is a by-product contaminant of the manufacturing process and is not required to be listed on product labels. There have been some successful movements to have this toxic by-product removed from consumer brands.  Most recently, the Women’s Voices for the Earth has been successful in influencing the makers of Tide to reduce the amount of 1,4 Dioxane in their laundry detergent, although not completely eliminated.

There are safer alternatives in the market place that work just as well as major consumer brands.  One new product to consider is Green Virgin’s Soap Nuts Liquid, which contains only natural, non-toxic ingredients, without a trace of 1,4 Dioxane! The small 8 oz. bottle can do up to 120 loads of laundry, and has a comparable cost per load when compared to mainstream brands. It's effective, too. It worked as well as any detergent I've ever used. The detergent is hypoallergenic, contains organic soap nuts, and comes with a 90-day money back guarantee.

You can get a free sample with any $15 purchase when you sign up for the newsletter. Become a fan on Facebook to learn more.

Consumer Critique: Real-World Analytics

Disclosure: I received complimentary products to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own.

Michael Koukounas has built a career out of leveraging data, analytics, and systems to drive billions of dollars of business impacts across the globe. His responsibilities have included modeling, analytics, strategic systems development and management, credit and fraud policy, and data management. In building and managing analytical teams across the globe, he has found innovative ways to deliver new data tools and leverage new sources of data to meet specific business goals. He has developed and implemented analytical solutions across a number of business sectors, including government, airlines, insurance, and telecom, as well as Financial Services.

I recently had a chance to read his book Real-World Analytics. While I'm not a business person, I am a statistics teacher, and found the book quite interesting from that perspective. There are a lot of industries that rely on data - communications, economics, education, and more. The book was written to help business leaders develop and manage analytics teams in a data-driven world. The book focuses on the dos and don'ts of staffing and managing analytical teams, with information that will benefit those in lower level analyst positions seeking higher management roles, or those in management roles to be more effective. 

World Wisdom: 3 Simple Ways to Save Energy with Your Refrigerator

If you're a mom, chances are you're constantly fighting to keep the kids away from the fridge (and out of the kitchen, in general). Once kids get to a certain age, they tend to develop the terrible habit of opening the refrigerator and staring at the contents at least a dozen times a day. Not only is this annoying, but it puts a strain on your energy bill. Fortunately, there a few simple ways to reduce your energy usage that don't involve forking out the dough for a new Energy Star® rated refrigerator.

Stock It Up
One easy way to reduce strain on your refrigerator is to keep it fully stocked. It makes sense; the more cold items you have in your fridge, the less work it has to do to keep the temperature down. Thawing frozen foods in the fridge also helps to keep the temperature down automatically. The added bonus here is that slowly thawed foods taste better.

Time to Cool Off
Another smart way to reduce your refrigerator's energy usage is allowing hot foods to approach room temperature before placing them inside. This naturally reduces the work your fridge has to do to cool the food. There is one very important thing to note here, however: According to the Partnership for Food Safety Education, you should always follow the "two hour rule," which means never letting foods sit unrefrigerated for longer than two hours. If the room's temperature is 90 degrees or higher, reduce this rule to one hour.

Clean Those Cooling Coils
This last one requires a little more work, but it's a surefire way to keep your fridge running as efficiently as possible. The basic steps are: Disconnect power, locate the coils, and vacuum the coils and fan with your brush or crevice attachment. Then use a narrow paintbrush to dust away the remainder of stubborn dirt and dust. For in depth instruction, check out this step by step how-to coil-cleaning guide. For maximum results, be sure to complete this process at least once a year.
Finally, make sure your refrigerator has enough breathing room around it. This is especially important for the coils on the back. The air that heats up needs to be replaced with cool air, so the more space around the appliance the better.

How do you save energy in the kitchen? Share your tips with us in the comments!

Sarah Kellner writes about home appliances, including energy-saving tips, for Home Depot. Sarah's advice is geared to help homeowners more efficiently manage their kitchen appliances, including refrigerators. The complete selection of refrigerators available at Home Depot can be found on its website.

Shopping Savings: Sears Auto Center Labor Day Deals

There are some great deals over the Labor Day holiday on Hankook RoadHandler tires at Sears Auto Center, which are designed with weather in mind and offer a best-in-class 100,000-mile warranty.

Now through Sept. 2, consumers can take advantage of these great savings on RoadHandler. When they buy 3 RoadHandler tires, they get the 4th free PLUS, get $80 by mail-in rebate (see below for details/restrictions).
In addition to the exclusive Labor Day deal on RoadHandlers, Sears Auto Center is offering the following deals through Sept. 7 (and we’ve included a great image capturing all deals):
·         Double Rebates on Tires (RoadHandler, Falken 950 A/S, Cooper Response)
o   Get up to a $140 Cooper Tire Visa pre-paid card by mail when you buy or lease 4 eligible Cooper tires & use a qualifying Sears card
o   Get a $100 Falken Tire Visa pre-paid card by mail when you buy or lease Falken Ziex 950 A/S tires & use a qualifying Sears card
o   Get an $80 MIR via American Express Reward Card when you buy 4  Hankook Roadhandler Tires with a qualifying Sears card
·         50% off tire installation with purchase of Continental tires
·         $19.99 oil change or UPGRADE & SAVE $15 on a synthetic or high mileage oil change

·         FREE basic battery installation with purchase of DieHard auto battery

Healthy Habits: Soothie Suckers

Disclosure: I received complimentary products to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own.

With kids going back to school, they might need extra immune support. But many parents are concerned about the ingredients in OTC drugs or supplements, and are turning to herbal remedies.

Over-the-counter drugs can be effective, but can also come with additives and fillers. For parents that are trying to avoid artificial colors or flavors, there are very few options. Plus, OTC drugs may have negative side effects, or can be difficult to dose properly.

Soothie Suckers are the all-natural ice pops infused with herbal remedies. Packaged in pre-portioned, BPA-free pouches, the remedies are blended with a yummy fruit base that tastes great.
Immune Support (Orange) and Nasal Support (Grape) were formulated in partnership with the President of the American Herbalists Guild, are sweetened with organic agave nectar and monk fruit and contain no artificial ingredients whatsoever. My girls had colds this past weekend and enjoyed the taste of these, even though they don't like traditional ice pops.
In addition to online availability at Amazon and, they are in several natural foods chains in the Pacific Northwest including Whole Foods, New Seasons, PCC Natural Markets, Chuck's Produce and more.  

Consumer Critique: Mabel's Labels

Disclosure: I received complimentary products to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own.

For some students, school has already started. For others, school will start next week. A common issue with kids at school is keeping track of their supplies. Mabel's Labels provides resources to keep track of everything - clothing, shoes, supplies, bags, and more. The Ultimate Back to School Combo and Stylish Scholars Combo provide a comprehensive package with everything you might need, including skinny labels, clothing labels, shoe labels, and tags that can be attached to keys or zipper pulls. They come in kid-friendly designs or those more appropriate for an older student. They stick well, so you don't have to worry about them falling off halfway through the school year. The shoe labels can also help preschoolers keep the shoes on the right feet by matching the halves together. We ordered some with just our last name on them, so we can use for both of our girls.

Mabel's Labels also makes products for household organization and allergy or 411 wristbands. If you are part of an organization that does fundraising, you can check out their fundraising information as well!