Book Review: Beta (The Apex Cycle Book 1) by M.T. Zimny

Beta (The Apex Cycle Book 1) by M.T. Zimny

A YA Sci-Fi Novel published by M.T. Zimny  (09/27/20)

Summary:

Samantha and her family are moving to the island that’s the Apex epicenter of the world, but not everyone is happy about the Apex. Even on the ferry ride over, there are people protesting against the superpower-enhanced individuals known as the Apex. Samantha doesn’t have to worry about that though, because she’s completely normal, except for her fainting spells. After being dropped off at boarding school, Sam quickly discovers there’s more going on with the Apex, the Island, and some mysterious man called Adrestus. Swept up in the mystery by her old friend and current new roommate, Sam will quickly find out there’s so much more going on with the Apex. She will even discover more about herself along the way.

Keywords:

Superhero Science Fiction, Fantasy Adventure Fiction, Romantic Action & Adventure, Super Human, Enhanced, Powers, Friends, Boarding School, Island, Secrets, Classmates

My Review:

The very first chapter sucked me right in. It was well executed. Immediately the story and the main character Sam piqued my interest. When I first grabbed this book, I was dismayed at its 600+ pages, but I quickly got into the story and finished in one weekend, ready to continue with the next book in the series. It is a big book. There is a lot going on and still, the pacing is excellent throughout the beginning, the middle, and the end.

I loved all the twists and turns the story took. I loved the training montage. I loved the buildup and mystery leading to the climax. I loved the ending.
There was just enough complication and depth to the plot to keep me guessing but not too much to confuse me. There were enough unique characters that I cared about all of them (though of course disliked Sam’s rival) but not too many that I lost track of who was who. I really loved how the author created such uniquely different characters.
I really enjoyed the worldbuilding on this remote man-made island and I can’t wait to learn more about the powers. The book was lighter on the science fiction superpower elements and I’m sure the next book in the series will delve even deeper into the powers, along with the friendships, romance, family, and Apex secrets. I know there’s more politics in there and I’m glad this first book was a solid action-adventure YA coming-of-age type book. I can’t wait for the next one!

This novel was published by M.T. Zimny on 09/27/2020 and is available on Amazon here.

TL;DR Star Rating: 5.00

Links for more information:

Goodreads

M.T. Zimny’s Website

Book Review: Ugly by Kelly Vincent

Ugly by Kelly Vincent

A YA Novel published by KV BOOKS LLC  (06/07/22)

Summary:

Nic has never been self-confident and only has one friend, Sam. People often mistake Nic for a boy. It’s not just the kids at school who call Nic names because Nic also refers to herself negatively. Sam keeps trying to coax Nic out of her introverted shell and has cooked up a plan. The plan is Operation Social Interaction for Nic and they’re running out of time before Sam leaves the country. Meanwhile, Nic is prepping for the school’s art contest and has begun questioning more than just her sexuality. Is there even a label for how she feels and would people accept her as a gender nonconforming individual?

Keywords:

YA, Contemporary, Bullying, Gender Nonconforming, Identity, Art, Introvert, Questioning, Labels

My Review:

Nic’s perspective is so true and raw and heartbreaking at times. She has repetitive and increasingly negative thoughts about how she’s a loser and ugly. There are multiple and repetitive scenes where she’s mistaken for a boy. Her mind tends to gravitate to the negative and the worst-case scenarios because she’s been burned so many times before and has a healthy distrust of others. Nic is also relatively shy and a bit socially awkward. As an introvert-extrovert, I’ve totally been there!

In some ways, I identify so much with Nic’s experiences and her introverted head talk. “Eye contact was dangerous. It triggered interactions.” (10%, Kindle Edition). Yes, Nic, this is so true! In other ways, I think she’s too black and white about her thoughts. On the one hand, she’s so harsh about gender and its binary-ness, “… but it would be so awesome to be a person without all the stupid trappings of girl-ness.” (60%, Kindle Edition). On the other hand, she’s just voicing her own experience and frustration, “… even if I tried to wear feminity, it would come off all wrong on me.” (74%, Kindle edition).

At times the book was hard to read because of all the self-doubting and self-hate thoughts. There is a lot of repetition of Nic’s thoughts. At times, it seems like she’s being whiny while other times it is wholly justified. At all times she is a teenager questioning her own identity. Towards the end, we learn that there is a reason for her repetitive thoughts and it makes her much more endearing as a character. Her most redeeming characteristic was her unwavering love of art.

This book was slow-paced, very much a contemporary coming-of-age book.

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this story in exchange for my honest review.

This novel was published by KV BOOKS LLC  on 06/07/2022 and is available on Amazon here.

TL;DR Star Rating: 3.75

Links for more information:

Goodreads

Kelly Vincent’s Website

Book Review: Always the New Girl by Kelly Vincent

Always the New Girl by Kelly Vincent

A YA Novel published by KV BOOKS LLC  (05/10/22)

Summary:

“Never expect a guy to change, like mom said. Fortunately I didn’t need anybody to change for me. I was in charge of my own life.” (Kindle edition 46%).

Sarah is at a new school yet again. Her single-parent mother keeps dragging her around the country, from one guy’s house to another. This time, as the new girl, she gets punked by the popular kids. And this time, she decides to fight back. The only way she knows how to fight back is through her knitting. Also through knitting, Sarah makes some real friends, and not just her thousands of followers from her knitting channel online. Things are looking up for Sarah until her mom gets bored and starts looking for a new life and a new guy on her dating apps.

Keywords:

YA, Contemporary, Bullying, Friendship, Romance, Sex, College Application, High School, Drama, Knitting, 3D Printing, Relationships, Mother-Daughter, Single Parent

My Review:

I love realistic contemporary YA novels, especially ones that focus on relationships and not just teen romances. Always the New Girl has a mother-daughter relationship, a daughter-absent father relationship, a new girl-new school relationship, a new girl-new friends relationship, and of course a young girl-young love relationship. I loved how true and honest all these relationships felt. They were deep, meaty, and developed. Throughout the relationships, Sarah voices her feelings and opinions in such a way that I was drawn to her voice and her stories.

The book is divided into parts, not chapters, and each part is like a small episode as if the book was written and released as parts of a whole or a limited series. Each part has a beginning, middle, and end with Sarah’s growing coming-of-age narrative woven throughout. If you read books in chunks, this writing style will help reorient you. At the beginning of each subsequent part, the author uses Sarah’s voice to summarize the previous part’s main drama.

The author does not hold back with the use of profanity, bullying, domestic violence, and a well-written sex scene.

I more than enjoyed Sarah’s perspective, I was rooting for her to find her voice, figure out her identity, and make her choices. And Sarah did not disappoint me. The book is satisfying. The way it is written is satisfying, easy to read, and insightful.

Given that this is a contemporary YA novel and that it is written in episodic parts, it does not have a strong finite and conclusive ending. The author left open a considerable plot point that I really hope I get to read more about in the next book in the series.

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this story in exchange for my honest review.

This novel was published by KV BOOKS LLC  on 05/10/2022 and is available on Amazon here.

TL;DR Star Rating: 4.50

Links for more information:

Goodreads

Kelly Vincent’s Website

Galactic Starcruiser and Disney World 2022

Galactic Starcruiser! 

What we wish we knew prior to getting to the Halcyon Starcruiser

No reviews. No videos. No information. My partner and I wanted to have the full effect of the experience aboard the Halcon. However, we did miss a few elements by going in blind. The crew and cast don’t go into much detail about the ship itself, how the experience works, or how to interact with the storyline. You’re given access to the datapad app (Play Disney) and free reign of any of the limited unlocked and open spaces on the ship, including the gift shop, the bridge (unless it’s in use for a group experience), the Sublight Lounge, the Atrium (gathering area), the brig, the Crown of Corellia Dining Room, your cabin, several extra bathrooms outside of your cabin, and the climate simulator.

During lightsaber training, you will have access to the Lightsaber Training Pod and during the course of the storyline, you should be able to gain access to the engineer room and the cargo hold. With 100 cabins, during muster and any major plot points in the storyline when all passengers gather in the Atrium, it is crowded. There isn’t enough seating for everyone and when people are standing, those who are not as tall (like myself) cannot even see what’s going on at ‘eye level.’ After waiting so long just to check in (we had to watch their orienting video just like we were waiting in the queue for a ride in the parks) and get to our room, seeing that overcrowded Disneyfied room full of other passengers was even more disheartening than waiting in a line outside the building just to go through security.

I wish we had more information or explanations about how certain aspects of our room worked, such as how to put on the “do not disturb” sign as we didn’t feel the need for a room refresher halfway through a 2-night stay. We bumped into the cleaning crew the second day when we were stowing our lightsaber and droid purchases from the Batuu (Galaxy’s Edge) excursion and it broke the immersion and was an awkward encounter. Out of 100 rooms, they happened to be cleaning ours at the exact time we came back for a 10-minute break. Go figure!

We also couldn’t hear shipwide comms inside the cabin and wish we could have perhaps enabled this feature in our room through the D3-09 panel. There was no explanation for how to use D3-O9 either, other than the crew member telling us to “say hello” when we were first dropped off in our room. There was no ability to replay any of the interactions with D3-O9, including the important ones that a cabin member may miss because they’re not present. We missed fun interactive opportunities because we didn’t know they were available with D3-09 and sometimes one person in the cabin was interacting and the other person missed it and we couldn’t get D3-09 to replay that interaction.

It would have been handy to know what cast/characters looked like before boarding as several of the passengers were in full face makeup and awesome-looking outfits. Since passengers have no influence on the overarching storyline, and there are so few characters mingling with the passengers, I would have liked to know who was who. We weren’t sure if we were “from Seattle” when talking to other passengers from around the world or “from Hynestia” from my immersion cover story. We were also always referenced by our reservation name and not any name we might have been using during the voyage for any activities check-in.

The very first person I happened to talk to was a cast member (Sandro – a shy musician) as we waited for muster. I thought Sandro was just a well-immersed passenger and when he asked where I was from my response was, “I don’t know.” I couldn’t remember my planet’s name and I wasn’t sure if I was talking to another passenger. Granted, we had just waited an hour to enter the Starcruiser (boo lines) and get to our room. We’d been up since before 7AM to walk around Hollywood Studios that morning after spending all of the previous day at Epcot and traveling three time zones just two days prior.

Starcruiser Experience in detail

As I told D3-09 (the cabin droid), I was on the Starcruiser “for the food.” I absolutely loved the experience of the food. The presentation, the details, and the quality blew me away. Coming from the Greater Seattle area, I had lower expectations of the food but was altogether pleasantly surprised by almost everything we ate in all the parks, including at the Starcruiser. We did pay to try out a number of their exclusive and alcoholic beverages (not included in the all-inclusive price of the cruise). We tried out the espresso martini, Dagobah Vimlet, Mark of the Huntress, Hoth Icebreaker, and Poison Spitter).

As excited as we were for the unlimited blue and green milk, we were disappointed with the consistency. The ship’s green and blue milk dispensers were not up to the same standards as in Galaxy’s Edge. At one point the green milk came out warm. The Tip Yip (mac and cheese with chicken) was cold, but otherwise, I thought the food was amazing. We left early on our last day and missed out on breakfast. I wondered why it wasn’t offered during the entire checkout/departure time.

The attention to detail on the ship as well as the Halcyon to Batuu transport shuttle on day two were just as magical as the food. I absolutely loved the look of our cabin. It felt very immersive and though smaller than a regular hotel room, it didn’t feel claustrophobic or small for the two of us. We left our view screen on at all times and it was fairly bright. I do wish we could turn off the lights around the viewscreen while leaving it ‘open’ as the only options were on and open or closed and off. It was fantastic to wake up and see space outside our window each morning.

The only cramped feeling in our cabin was trying to pass in the hallway from the front door or bathroom area to the sleeping area. It was fun to try out the bunk beds and I loved the offset plugs next to the bed so I could plug in both bulky block chargers at the same time. I loved the look and feel of the Starcruiser. The one room that felt superfluous was the climate simulator. Out of very little square footage available for passengers to hang out, this rock cairn garden with plants was usually empty during our stay when we popped in for a respite. It would have been neat to have a hot tub in that room or to use it for the storyline at some point during our stay.

One of our favorite details in the Starcruiser was the Sabacc Holotable in the Sublight Lounge. Also, as guests of the Starcruiser, we were able to use the exclusive Galaxy’s Edge entryway and that did make me feel very special. The crew manning this access point was very friendly and accommodating. Where much of Galaxy’s Edge is in full sunlight, we were able to pop back over to this space whenever we wanted shade and complimentary water.

And how about that immersive element of the story and our experience? We liked what there was of them… But most of the story that you interact with is through your datapad. Of the few activities, I enjoyed the bridge ops training, lightsaber training, and the Sabacc tournament. Each of these activities still had some room for improvement. Bridge ops training was essentially an arcade-style multi-team 50-ish person exercise. You are on one of four teams where you defend the Halcyon and then rotate between the four teams to experience each of the activities for a few minutes in training and then in a simulated exercise. It was ultimately fun but some of the passengers had trouble understanding how to use the consoles or understanding how the console connected to the larger view screen during the simulation. There was a lot of noise and visual chaos as all four teams worked at the same time to complete the mission, which created a sense of community and built up the excitement.

Though we missed the initial Sabacc training due to overlapping scheduling of activities (one of the negatives), we spent time at the Sabacc Holotable and read through the list of rules included with the card set we bought. The Sabacc tournament was held twice and we participated in the second set of games (we didn’t win).

A top highlight of our experience was the actor who played Lt. Croy: Adam Reilly. Every time we saw him we were blown away by his performance. Fortunately, he was one of the characters who appeared more frequently. Lt. Croy carried the story and raised the experience rating at least one point – his dialogue felt much more believable and realistic and he had a lot more back-and-forth and on-the-fly dialogue.

The constant question in my head before, during, and after our Starcruise would be, “is it worth the $5000 price tag?” Is lightning lane bypass to Smuggler’s Run and Rise of the Resistance worth staying at the Galactic Starcruiser? Is staying in this exclusive and amazing ship worth the money? Is the all-inclusive resort-style food worth it?

The better question is can you afford that price tag and do you mind sharing the experience with 400 other people who can make the experience itself feel cramped, crowded, and not immersive? The Starcruiser is immersive up to a point, and not just through your mindset that you’re living in a science fiction reality for two days. Your reservation is under your real-world name and you check-in as that person for every dinner and activity. If you want to arrive at the ship in costume, you might spend 30 minutes standing outside in your outfit before you hit that sweet air conditioning. Roughly 50% of the passengers are dressed as people from a Star Wars-like reality while 50% of the passengers look like Earth tourists. On your Galaxy’s Edge excursion day you’re not supposed to dress in full garb and full-face makeup (per Disney World’s resort costume guidelines) though it seems this policy was relaxed for Starcruiser guests as we saw robes touching the ground by other passengers in Galaxy’s Edge.

As someone who wanted a vacation from my phone, I was most disappointed with the heavy reliance on the Datapad moving along the storyline rather than actual human or other interactions. I can play a game on my phone anytime, I don’t need to pay $5000 and play on my phone in a special hotel. A lot of this felt like an infodump. I wanted more showing and less telling! The app worked fine technically but it was a letdown to be reduced to interacting with the storyline using just the datapad app.

And if we wanted to pick sides then the app would stop the thread of the storyline instead of opening up different paths. It was frustrating to not be able to influence the story at all. What is being an active participant in the story, if not changing the outcome? The experience is not a choose your own adventure.

My second major disappointment with the Galactic Starcruiser was the number of people in the hotel. There was a substantial line to check into the cruiser. There was a long and slow-moving line to watch the orientation ‘loading’ video and ride the elevator/transport to first enter the hotel There were lines at consoles. There were lines to get into the engineering room. There were lines to talk with characters. We didn’t get to have any interactions with the main characters. We actually missed an interaction opportunity with Chewie due to overlapping activities. Every ‘personalized’ story thread was overcrowded every time so it was apparent that they weren’t personalized. We sometimes had to wait in lines 10+ to continue the storyline through these special events.

There was nearly a mob during muster and the finale to where I couldn’t see anything on the ground floor. I was surprised that there wasn’t a line to sit in the Sublight Lounge or to get to and from Galaxy’s Edge the second day.

The group activities were well spaced for the number of people in each activity (~50 in the bridge ops but everyone had their own station. 20-25 people in the lightsaber training but the instructor kept it lively and moving. Another related disappointment was the overlapping of activities because they needed to be able to get 400 people through each of the exclusive activities. Also, some of the optional activities to pass what little time you had open were capped at a small number of participants, which was frustrating. we were able to play Starcruiser bingo (called Sector Set) but were initially denied participation in a Get-To-Know-Your-Partner game as they only had game sets for four couples!

I didn’t think too much of the lightsaber training. It felt like it was designed for children since the technology wasn’t as responsive as I would have thought. You were supposed to activate the lightsaber and then ‘block’ the beam of light with the saber. You were in lines of 4-5 people and the person at the front was wielding the lightsaber. Once every person had participated for a few minutes we were then able to grab shields and help block escaping beams of light from the person with the lightsaber. The beams of light sped up at the end of training. And that’s it. Not much to it. A bit anticlimactic. No blindfolds were involved. My favorite part was the haptic feedback on the shields.

The cost for a family of four starts at $6000 and it felt like the activities on board were designed with kids in mind. There were about 20 kids on our cruise. Most of the passengers were adults, so why were so many activities geared towards children? Most of the special treatment, personalization, and character interactions also seemed to prioritize these few kids. Why would you bring a toddler on a $6000 experience? Even the consoles on each deck seemed oriented toward children’s interactions. The engineering room was for children (pull levers and push buttons when they light up). As an adult, it felt a bit weird to play this game with the crew member minding this room even with the go-with-it mindset I was employing.

We decided to pay for the add-on activities (and for $5000+ shouldn’t they be included?) to build a lightsaber, build a droid, and go to Oga’s Cantina. After the Sublight Lounge, it didn’t feel as necessary to visit the highly exclusive Oga’s Cantina in Galaxy’s Edge but part of the storyline continues at that location and we didn’t want to miss out. Plus, Fuzzy Tauntaun. It’s a must-try and we missed out on our first excursion to Galaxy’s Edge in California a few years ago because they didn’t have it at that time. The bartenders at Oga’s are also very entertaining and some of the best cast members in the parks. If you can snag a reservation (even when they open at 8AM  because it’s always 5 o’clock at Disney), it’s worth it to go. Building a droid, eh. Building a lightsaber is probably also worth the cost if you already want to buy one. It’s a fun 20-minute immersive activity (even with the infant screaming in the background at our build).

We sandwiched our Galactic Starcruiser voyage in-between visits to four of the Disney World parks: Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Magic Kingdom. Unlike the sparse prior knowledge and purposeful lack of research for Starcruiser, we went all out in preparation for our Disney World parks visit. We watched Disney World tips and planning videos from the Youtube channels All Ears with Molly and Disney Food Blog with AJ

  • I used the Disneyworld website to plan our park day hours and double-check late night/early entry hours Here.
  • I checked the wait times using this info website Here.
  • I pulled the map and planning info Here.
  • I looked at showtime info from this website Here.
  • We made a plan of which lightning lane to book first and our first 3-5 rides and the restaurants/snacks we might be getting in the morning
  • I created a spreadsheet for each park with early entry, late attractions, and rides with lightning lanes indicated. I also showed duration, location, average wait time, and any other notes if I needed to reference them later (like what type of ride or to stay away). You can download my spreadsheet and make your own edits Here.

We watched Disney movies associated with the park rides/entertainment starting with our favorites below:

  • Frozen
  • Finding Nemo
  • Ratatouille
  • It’s a Bug’s Life
  • Avatar
  • Haunted Mansion
  • Jungle Cruise
  • Monster’s Inc.

We bought specialized gear just for FL and the trip

  • Collapsible backpack – only used once for overflow of purchases – if you plan your shopping towards the end of your night or right before going back to your hotel to rest midday you don’t need an extra bag ($17)
  • Star Wars-themed park bag – This one had one strap for crossbody and that irritated my shoulders. Would not recommend a crossbody bag unless you keep it very light ($68)
  • Simple ponchos – It didn’t rain so we didn’t open them but they are almost always recommended for a WDW trip so you don’t have to buy an overpriced one in the park ($13)
  • Little expandable towel – Used once after Splash Mountain. Wasn’t necessary. I found two at the dollar store and they remained wrapped up and tight until we used them. ($2.50)
  • Individually wrapped painkillers – Didn’t use them at all but nice to know we had them available if needed ($9)
  • Travel bidet – One of the best travel bag items you can get! I highly recommend this one and to get a fixtured one for your house when not traveling ($33)
  • Newer, lighter power bank – We brought two and would swap between them every day since we only had so many charging cords ($40)
  • Foldable travel blanket – Didn’t even open this once. We contemplated opening it when we were sitting waiting for Harmonious in Epcot but the ground is unusually clean (thanks Disney!) ($36)
  • Hand sanitizer with Grogu on the cover – Highly recommend bringing your own little bottle even though there are stations everywhere. They dispensed a LOT of sanitizers and with our own, you can grab some before eating and in the correct quantity ($13)
  • Neck fan – Would recommend something that probably looks sillier but has better power and blows directly in your face. Ultimately this provided some relief but only directs the air to your neck ($30)
  • Water bottle with spray function – This is the greatest hot travel companion. I absolutely loved this misting feature. If you’re bringing a water bottle into the parks – bring this one! ($13)
  • Sun protecting hat – When you can’t avoid being in the sun – protect your head! I loved my orange bucket hat from Urban Outfitters but if you forget to bring one they sell lots of wider brimmed hats (and bucket hats) in the parks. ($25)
  • Shorts with lots of pockets and moisture-wicking features – I had almost given up on finding shorts/capris that were not too restrictive, didn’t push on my belly, and had functional pockets until I stumbled upon a lovely pair with zippered pockets all over and a built-in belt that came in handy. They were slightly loose but overall amazing and I wore them every day.
  • Travel steamer – Used once. It works really well and was handy for crisping out my Starcruiser outfit but probably not necessary to bring unless you really need to iron and you won’t have access to one (we didn’t own an iron before). ($40)
  • Phone battery charger case – I didn’t love this design since the ‘on’ button was incredibly easy to press accidentally but ultimately I only used the external battery charger once when I hadn’t charged up the battery case the night before. It helped out my iPhone 12 mini’s 88% battery health to last all day with the juice from the case. Highly recommend investing in one if you need to use your phone for 14-16 hours in a day ($35)
  • Smaller pocket-fitting wallet – I usually have a wallet phone case and since I had swapped for the battery charger case I needed a wallet to put my cards into even though I only needed my license since the Magic Bands we got were able to pay for almost anything in the parks. ($13)
  • An airtag to pack into our checked bag ($29)
  • A colorful strap to put around our generic black suitcase to visually recognize it on the baggage carousel

 

What I wish I brought/bought beforehand:

  • More sunscreen – we ran out on the last day! Make sure you have enough for reapplying throughout the day ($28)
  • The right charging cables – we had more of some and not enough of others for all our various devices ($22)
  • Magic Band – we bought some the first day in the parks. They really do make everything cooler and easier and worth the $20 – $30 investment now that they are not a complementary feature of Disney resorts.

20 Tips To Take to Heart:

  1. Ride your must rides earlier in the day if they are prone to breaking down (looking at you Test Track)
  2. Late-night hours have long lines and there are no lightning lanes so be prepared to wait 40-60 minutes for bigger rides during late night hours
  3. Use mobile ordering whenever possible
  4. Use your faster mobile device to book your first lightning lane of the day at 7AM (consistently my partner was able to snag LL for rides within 15 minutes of park opening while I was getting 60 minutes and we were both refreshing right at 7AM and hitting book immediately)
  5. If you want to ride an IAS (lightning lane not part of Genie+ like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Avatar Flight of Passage, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, or Rise of the Resistance) make sure to rope drop them or suck it up and pay the extra money. We were able to rope drop Remy’s and I would suggest it for that one if you can enter at the closer gate. I would recommend hopping into the Seven Dwarf’s line during the fireworks (15-20 minute line and we got to see the fireworks from the coaster). I would highly recommend just paying for Rise and Avatar as those are highly rope-dropped rides and you may be waiting 40 minutes as soon as the park opens due to the volume of people going that direction first.
  6. Have a plan but don’t stick to it if better opportunities present themselves
  7. Know where some seating and air-conditioning spots are throughout the parks (here’s to you Hall of the Presidents)
  8. Fiddle faddling will only get you so far (refreshing the Genie+ screen to see if earlier return times appear)
  9. Check the weather the night before and know if you’re going on a splash ride and add or take out supplies in your park bag accordingly to save on weight (ponchos, towels, extra clothes, etc)
  10. Check the night before your park reservation to see if one of those pesky hard to get reservations magically appears (we were able to move from a 3PM Skipper Canteen reservation to an 11:30 restaurant opening reservation the night before when the restaurant had been booked solid)
  11. You can either have a relaxing time and just do a few things or go early, hard, and fast and do almost everything. It’s tough to get everything done in one park without getting there early or paying extra (Genie+)
  12. If you don’t see your photo after the ride you can ask to find it from a cashier in the gift shop (for rides like Splash Mountain)
  13. Magic bands are magical but not necessary
  14. People will stop in front of you, walk like zombies, walk in groups that block the walkway, and let kids run around so be cautious
  15. Know where the photo spots are on rides before you get there so you are looking in the right direction and can get a seat in the picture view (Pirate’s of the Caribbean has one photo of the large boat and if you’re in the back you will barely be visible).
  16. If you’re park hopping with a large gap in between parks you can stack up your Lightning Lanes using the 2-hour rule (we did this when we hopped from Animal Kingdom to Magic Kingdom and by the time we got to Magic Kingdom that evening I had lightning lanes for Peter Pan’s Flight 7:45-8:45PM, Haunted Mansion 8:05PM – 9:05PM, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad 8:35 – 9:35PM).
  17. Take screenshots of reservations and lightning lane bookings! If they disappear or the app glitches you’ll have proof to show a cast member
  18. Know average wait times before you go so you can decide on the spot whether the line is unusually long or not
  19. Drop a pin where you park your car so you can easily find it again on your way out
  20. You can tap into your lightning lane a few minutes early (but not 5!)

Step count in the parks: 110,599 steps total at 49.7 miles of walking equivalency
Disney Springs – 13,396 (5.9 miles walking equivalency)
Epcot – 25,364 (11.4 miles walking equivalency) – we also stayed at the Boardwalk Inn – walkable to the Epcot
Hollywood Studios and Starcruiser – 16,087 (7.3 miles walking equivalency)
Starcruiser and Galaxy’s Edge – 12,700 (6.0 miles walking equivalency)
Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom – 24,450 (10.9 miles walking equivalency)
Magic Kingdom and Disney Springs – 18,602 (8.2 miles walking equivalency)

Favorite drinks:
Blue/Green milk from Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios
3 Daughters Brewing Pink Lemonade Hard Cider from Cider House in Epcot

Favorite eats:
Cheeseburger pods with the veggie chips from Satu’li Canteen in Pandora of Animal Kingdom
Pepperjack Pretzel from Cheshire Café in Fantasyland of Magic Kingdom
Canadian Poutine from the Poutine stand in Disney Springs

Favorite desserts:
Ube Donut from Everglazed in Disney Springs
Anything from Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie in France at Epcot
Cookies and Cream cookie from Gideon’s Cookies in Disney Springs

Disney + Starcruiser full experience cost breakdown of monies spent (click to make bigger)

Book Review: Boneyard (Silvanus Saga: Book Two) by D.M. Darroch

Boneyard (Silvanus Saga: Book Two) by D.M. Darroch

A Dystopic YA Novel published by Sleepy Cat Press (05/09/22)

Summary:

On the brink of turning eighteen, Lazlo almost has enough money stowed away from slinging dust to leave a life of crime, but he gets caught in a raid. Not yet an adult, he’s *luckily* just sentenced to 10 years in prison and spends the first in juvenile detention. Looking at a quarter of his life in prison, Lazlo whiles away the long prison hours using his lab-rat-induced abilities to cause mayhem amongst the other juvenile inmates. When the warden offers Lazlo a chance for a reduced sentence, he’ll jump at it, no matter the cost. Working with adult prisoners, Lazlo agreed to help clear the line, the wall that stands between civilization and the oxygen forest with its larger-than-life creatures that threaten to break through weak points. The labor is tough, the bugs are human-sized, and most of the other inmates aren’t that great either. Will there be a chance to escape or will he end up being an orb weaver’s next meal?

Keywords:

Dystopian, Coming of Age, Trees, Friendship, Juvenile Delinquent, Drugs, Fighting, Sentenced, Choices

My Review:

Pandora may be a utopia while the world Darroch creates in the Sylvanus Saga is a dystopia but both are richly vivid and alive. After recently rewatching Pandora, I felt a similar sense of wonder and sensory detail come alive in Boneyard. The world is beautifully and carefully crafted. Darroch is a master of the senses and this unique dystopian world she has created in this saga. I’m blown away by how real both the world and the characters feel to me as I read. I’m amazed, that yet again, the author has created another world. This new world is both at the line and on the ground. It is completely separated from The Canopy above the forest but still connected to it by more than just a shared history.

Boneyard feels like an entirely separate book from Canopy, at least at first. I was amazed at how well constructed this second book is. As a middle book in a series, I was pleasantly surprised that it was just as good as book one, just as entertaining, just as well written, and still slowly tying together pieces from the first book into the next book of this series.

Lazlo, the main character, feels darker than the main character of book one. He has more of a sympathetic backstory but he also seems to make more questionable choices and presents himself in a less than positive light in the beginning. The way the author writes him still makes me empathize and sympathize with his plight and his choices. I’m still rooting for him, wanting him to make good choices, but also understanding to an extent why he chooses to do some of the things that he does to other people. Lazlo uses his power for both good and bad and that makes him more complex, more fascinating, and more human. I was drawn into his story immediately.

I love how imaginative the world is and how the plot fits together. The pacing felt right. Similar to book one, I had a hard time putting this book down. I can’t wait to read the next book in this series or anything else Darroch chooses to write.

I received a free ARC for an honest review.

This novel was published by Sleepy Cat Press on 05/09/2022 and is available on Amazon here.

TL;DR Star Rating: 5.0

Links for more information:

D.M. Darroch’s Website

Goodreads

Apple Link

Barnes and Noble Link

Kobo Link

Book Review: Hollywood Games (Kinloch Series, #2) by Evie Alexander

Hollywood Games (Kinloch Series, #2) by Evie Alexander

A Comedic Romance Novel published by Emlin Press (04/04/22)

Summary:

Kinloch Castle is in desperate need of money and every day there seems to be something new to fix. On top of those worries, Rory isn’t sure Zoe feels the same about him and of course, Rory’s mother still doesn’t like her. Zoe wants to help Kinloch and the perfect luck of an opportunity presents itself when Hollywood star Brad wants to film his next movie at the castle. The only problem is that Zoe’s had a crush on Brad since she was a teen and the man is an insufferable Hollywood star. Can Rory put up with the man and his entourage long enough to save the castle or will his temper get the best of him?

Keywords:

British Humor, Comedy, Romance, Scotland, Castle, Earl, Sex Scenes, Steamy, Cabin, Family, happy Ending, Dual POV, Hollywood, Star, Movie, Braveheart

My Review:

I read this book as fast as the first one in the series. Even though the two main characters had fallen from enemies to lovers in the previous book, the author does an excellent job of keeping up tension between the two romantic leads. Much like the first book, the author has the romance beat structure down solid and the pacing is still excellent. Every scene was satisfying from beginning to end. The climax felt real and well integrated into the plot of the story and the ending was very satisfying.

Hollywood Games is even more absurd and laugh-out-loud than the first book. The idea and main plot are well-executed, simple, and clean yet there’s always something going on. It’s a fast-paced book where the slowest parts are the steamy scenes!

I loved all the characters from the first book and enjoyed reading about the new characters that Brad brings with him to Kinloch. The Hollywood people seem ridiculous but very realistically Hollywood!

This novel was published by Emlin Press on 04/04/2022 and is available on Amazon here.

TL;DR Star Rating: 5.00

Author Bio:

Evie Alexander is the author of sexy romantic comedies with a very British sense of humor. She takes a method-approach to her work, believing her capacity to repeatedly fail at life and love is what has given her such a rich supply of material for her writing.

Her interests include reading, eating, saving the world, and fantasizing about people who only exist between the pages of her books. She lives in the West Country with her family.

Links for more information:

Book Review: Sting of the Scorpion: A YA Epic Fantasy (The Outlawed Myth Book 3) by Evelyn Puerto

Sting of the Scorpion: A YA Epic Fantasy (The Outlawed Myth Book 3) by Evelyn Puerto

A YA fantasy novel published by Open Water Books (1/7/2022)

Summary:

“No sense imagining trouble. We’ve got enough already.” (Kindle Edition, 37%).

Damira and her clan members struggle every day to survive. One day almost everyone is slaughtered. Damira, her brother, and best friend only have two choices – cross the desert and hope there is peace on the other side, or join the local warlord and forever be his pawns. But a new power is rising and nothing can stand in this new warlord’s way. She uses a magical amulet and the only way to stop her is to wield one of these magical amulets. Are they evil? Damira doesn’t care, as long as she will never again have to worry about her safety and that of her loved ones.

Keywords:

Fantasy, Travel, Journey, Risk, Attack, Flee, Hide, Town, Secrets, Power, Rulers, Magic, Amulets, Love, Friendship, Romance, Training

My Review:

Much like the second book of this series, Sting of the Scorpion starts out with a new protagonist, and this time the setting and the world also appear to be different. The author once again builds the fantasy world setting, showing us a new previously uncharted portion of the map. The books, since they feature different characters and almost different settings, could be read as standalone fantasy books in the same world, with similar themes and character arcs. I’m immediately invested in this world and I’m immediately on the side of and rooting for the new main character, Damira.

There is so much at stake for Damira. She has everything and nothing to lose. Mush like Tereka in the previous novel, Damira grows into her role over the course of the book. The author knows how to write strong female main characters who don’t stick to the status quo.

This book, like the others, was well-paced and picked up momentum more and more as the plot unfurled. Throughout the novel, as things change, there are always high stakes and you won’t be able to put the book down.

I loved the changing POV from the three main characters and I love the distinct cultures of this fantasy setting. I thought there was a nice balance between politics and war as well as personal stories, struggles, and present actions.

If you like grounded fantasy with high stakes and strong, interesting characters, you will enjoy this series.

This novel was published by Open Water Books 1/7/2022 and is available on Amazon here.

TLDR Star Rating: 5.0

Links for more information:

Goodreads

Twitter

Evelyn Puerto’s Website

Book Review: Through the Cracks: A Reality with a Twist Book by Sheri J. Kennedy

Through the Cracks: A Reality with a Twist Book by Sheri J. Kennedy

A Magical Realism Novel published by FreeValley Publishing (12/25/21)

Summary:

“Money equaled power, or at least an opportunity. Especially outside the market. But you couldn’t find much trouble with five bucks.” (19% Kindle Edition).

“Sometimes reality – no matter how you spun it – wasn’t enough.” (38% Kindle Edition).

Lydia has been doing better but she still gets stuck in dark places sometimes. Therapy and structure have been helping but there are still times when she feels alone. After falling through a locked door when she wanted to help someone else, Lydia will discover how great it feels to ease another’s burden. Is it magic or something else? And how can she keep helping others when her mother’s imposed such tight rules on her life?

Keywords:

Identity, Suicide, Helping, Love, Making Friends, Market, Mother-Daughter, Magical Realism, Small Business Owner, Loneliness, Therapy

My Review:

This was a quick read that gets heavy at times. The subject matter can be intense. It was like reading heartwarming self-help fiction with elements of new age nonfiction. Lydia, the main character, is complex and written well. The author sprinkles in hints of her backstory cleverly throughout the story, tying them into the main storyline in the most intriguing way. I relished Lydia’s voice and the way she thinks everything that she’s feeling and thinking. Her voice was sarcastic, truthful, and wholesome all at the same time. The story itself was quite wholesome.

I loved how well integrated the magical realism element was to the plot and to the setting. I really enjoy when books with elements of magical realism really lean into the fantastical element and don’t make light or try to confuse the reader. The magical element in Through the Cracks is very important to the story and creates a unique plot structure that holds together the themes of the story. The story was very well grounded in a realistic world that was detailed visually and easy to imagine. The setting is so well detailed I can almost see everything that Lydia does when she walks around the market and can almost imagine that I’ve been to that specific art market and walked into the two main shops: Curiosities and Only Yesterday myself.

Sometimes the author would spring some really neat insights or lovely new phrases. One of the favorites that I don’t recall ever hearing before was, “Glossing lightly over important stuff felt more like making dark of things.” (60% Kindle Edition).

For anyone going through tough times, especially teenagers, this book is a must!

This novel was published by FreeValley Publishing on 12/25/2021 and is available on Amazon here.

TL;DR Star Rating: 4.25

Links for more information:

Sheri J. Kennedy’s Website and Blog

Goodreads

Sheri J. Kennedy on Facebook

FreeValley Publishing Featured Author

Book Review: Wicked Souls (The Marionettes #2) by Katie Wismer

Wicked Souls (The Marionettes #2) by Katie Wismer

A Dark Urban Fantasy Novel published by Ahimsa Press (12/07/21)

Summary:

Valerie Darkmore made it. She’s passed her initiation and is now a Marionette, but this is only the beginning of her training and her secrets keep growing and growing. It isn’t just Valerie that’s adjusting to a new normal, there’s something else that is sinister and wreaking havoc on the city – leaving behind a pile of bodies. It’s up to Valerie and the Prince to get to the bottom of it before all hell breaks loose.

Keywords:

Urban Fantasy, Vampires, Witches, Paranormal, Romance, Sacrifice, Blood, Attack, Mystery, Friendship, Family, Love, Gothic Fiction, New Adult

My Review:

It’s been months since I read the first book and I was immediately lost when I picked up this second book. It starts just after the first one ends in time and slams you right back into the narrative without a summary or recap of characters. I quickly fell back into the story, though, as I found Valerie too interesting to ignore. I loved how much more detail and development Valerie (and other characters) get in this sequel. I also loved how much more the romantic sub-plot was developed and deepened.

I continue to be impressed with how much I am enjoying The Marionettes series since it is heavily urban fantasy and features vampires and witches. The author continues to build a world that feels real and visual and complete. It feels like a world that goes way beyond the environments the main characters are in.

This book delves deeper into the new adult and romance sub-genres as it features a fairly sexy scene, just as graphic as the scenes involving blood and feeding.

Much like my disappointment with the first book’s cliffhanger and abrupt ending, I didn’t appreciate the similar cliffhanger and abrupt ending from this second book – though this does feed more logically into the final book in this trilogy. I just hope I don’t have to wait too long to find out what happens!

This novel was published by Ahimsa Press 12/7/21 and is available on Amazon here.

TL;DR Star Rating: 4.25

Links for more information:

Katie Wismer’s Website

Goodreads

2022 Net Worth and Monthly Spending Update

Here are some charts I made to compare my monthly spending over 2021, 2020, 2019, and 2018. I included taxes and my HSA withholdings in my most recent 2021 chart as well as my Roth IRA contributions. The purpose of these charts is to show changes in spending over time (across different categories).

Here are a few more fun numbers:

  1. I increased my spending 12% from 2020 to 2021, while increasing my income 2.5% (I increased my spending 4% from 2019 to 2020 while increasing my income 3%)
  2. I bought a house in May of 2021, which became 13% of my monthly spending as averaged by 12 months of the year, effectively doubling my ‘housing’ spending category to 26% of my earnings
  3. The house I bought increased in value 20% since I bought it according to Zillow/Redfin
  4. My credit score increased by 3.8% (28 points)
  5. My investment portfolio changed because I had to sell some general investment stocks to have enough cash to afford my house purchase
  6. Notable increases in spending from 2020 to 2021 include:
    1. Fitness – 736% because I switched studios and was paying cash for classes instead of using trade money
    2. Eating out – 128% increase (my partner and I decided to switch to me paying for groceries and him paying for eating out midway through the year)
    3. Groceries – 25% increase (see eating out above point)
    4. Bills-housing – 8% increase when we moved
  7. Notable decreases in spending from 2020 to 2021 include:
    1. Health – 37% decrease since I am more crafty with my supplement purchases
    2. Household and clothing – 32% decrease as I’ve been able to use Amazon gift cards for a lot of these items
    3. Bills-Transportation – 19% decrease since our car is between mileage maintenance milestones
  8. I met my LLC goal of earning $5,000 and will be putting everything except taxes and expenses and $1000 for 2022 expenses into my 401k when I get the go-ahead from my accountant
  9. I had to gather almost all of my cash, savings, emergency fund, and stocks that weren’t retirement-allocated in order to come up with the cash necessary to buy my house so my emergency fund is now below $10,000 and I’m building it back up.
  10. My emergency fund is only worth 2 months’ spending since my spending increased with the additional house expenses and I decreased my emergency/savings fund to buy the house

The next two charts show my net worth split categories:

To note: I had a 53% increase in my assets from 2019 to 2020 and a 76% increase in my assets from 2020 to 2021.

To note: My investment portfolio increased 52% from 2019 to 2020 and 10% (without the real estate value) from 2020 to 2021 (or 323% if you add in the value of the real estate but don’t subtract the mortgage)

2021 Asset breakdown