Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

Today I'm reviewing The Girl on the Train by British author Paula Hawkins. The novel is a psychological thriller revolving around a murder case, and many have dubbed it "the next Gone Girl." What's more, it spent 13 weeks as the number one book on The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2015 list.

I actually listened to the audiobook version of this novel, but it still counts, right?

Rachel is an unemployed, divorced alcoholic in her 30's who pretends to take the London train to work during the week. One day, she sees something suspicious out of the train window. This occurrence lands her smack in the middle of a murder mystery case full of love, jealousy, and mystery.

The Girl on the Train  has three separate narrators: Rachel; her ex-husband's new wife, Anna; and the victim of the murder, Megan.

For the most part, The Girl on the Train was exciting, suspenseful, and mysterious. I was completely drawn into the story and kept trying, unsuccessfully, to predict the results of the murder investigation. Since I listened to the book while driving, I actually found myself sitting in my car at rest stop parking lots because the plot was too good to turn off. That said, some pieces of the story were also dry and uninteresting. The first couple of chapters were especially hard to get through because they seemed to drag on.

In addition, all three narrators (Rachel, Anna, and Megan) are completely unreliable. I've never read a novel with so many unreliable characters, and it's a refreshing new angle that kept me on my toes. However, the unreliability made me dislike all of the characters in one way or another. I didn't feel emotionally connected with anyone, which made it hard for me to care what happened to them.

Another drawback is that the author jumped between characters and dates in order to advance the plot. In other words, the novel constantly went back-and-forth in time. This scattered timeline didn't bother me too much, but I read other reviews that said the skipping around confused them.

Finally, I never actually read Gone Girl (it's on my list!) so it to The Girl on the Train.

The Audiobook experience: 
I wanted to download an audiobook from Audible for a long car ride and decided on The Girl on the Train – partly because the plot seemed interesting, and partly because the 11-hour runtime would keep me occupied throughout the drive. Since the novel has three narrators, the audiobook has three separate speakers. Each one had a British accent because the novel takes place in England.

This was actually my first time listening to an audiobook, and I was quite impressed. My car ride flew by because the story managed to entertain me for hours. All in all, I had a nice audiobook experience.

Rating: 3.5/5
I enjoyed the idea behind The Girl on the Train, and the storyline completely engrossed me. However, I had problems with certain aspects of the book mentioned earlier: the unlikeable characters, the dull moments in the plot, and the skipping around between time and characters. I feel like the author could've told the same story in half of the amount of pages. Therefore, I give The Girl on the Train 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Have any of you read the book? What's your opinion?

Photo from Amazon 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: Eat Nakd by Natural Balance Foods

Natural Balance Foods, a UK-based company that embraces the wholefood movement, recently reached out to see if I'd like to try their Eat Nakd granola bars. Given my love for quick snacks, and the promising ingredients in the Nakd bars, I thought I'd take up the opportunity.

(Note: Natural Balance Foods sent me these bars for review, but all opinions are honest and completely my own.)

Eat Nakd bars are marketed as raw, natural, and unprocessed snacks. They have no added sugars or syrups (dates serve as a sweetener), and they're completely free of GMOs, gluten, wheat, and dairy. What's more, they're 100% vegan. The bars are simply made of cold-pressed fruits and nuts "smooshed" together. Also worth noting, the dried fruit and nuts are very iron-rich foods.

I'm really trying to improve my health and fitness this semester, so the nutritious benefits of the bar really excited me. 

Natural Balance Foods sent me an sampler kit with tons of yummy flavors, including...

  • Cocoa Mint
  • Cocoa Orange
  • Pecan Pie
  • Ginger Bread
  • Cocoa Delight
  • Cashew Cookie
  • Caffe Mocha
  • Berry Delight
  • Rhubarb and Custard
  • Strawberry Protein Crunch
  • Banana Protein Crunch
  • Apple Protein Crunch
  • Cocoa Protein Crunch 
  • Bakewell Tart
I tried most of the flavors, and I couldn't believe how great they all tasted! The texture of the Eat Nakd bars is soft and chewy, and I would describe it as cake-y and dense.

Since all of the bars contain similar dried fruits and nuts (mainly cashews), each flavor has only minor differentiations in taste. My favorite flavor so far is Cocoa Delight. The ingredient list is simple: dates (48%), cashews (29%), raisins (17%), cocoa (6%), and natural flavor. That's it! I could taste the chocolate undertones, but it didn't overpower the flavor of the dried fruit and nuts.

Some other especially tasty flavors were Rhubarb & Custard, Cocoa Mint, and Strawberry Crunch. 

However, I have one minor complaint about the Eat Nakd snacks; I encountered something hard about halfway through my Rhubarb and Custard one. The package warns that some bars may contain the odd shell or pit piece, and I immediately knew the object was part of a pit. I simply tossed the piece aside, which was a minor inconvenience but also testifies to the freshness and purity of the ingredients in the Nakd bars.

Overall, I would recommend the bar to anyone looking for a healthy snack. Natural Balance Foods As of now, they are available to American customers at and

Monday, September 21, 2015

Healthy Almond Butter and Banana Smoothie

I've never been a breakfast person. Throughout high school and college, I'd simply grab a granola bar as I headed out the door and eat it en route to class. Not surprisingly, the hunger pains would hit well before lunchtime. I knew I needed more sustenance in the morning, but couldn't bring myself to wake up earlier and whip up some scrambled eggs or a yogurt parfait.

The solution came when I got my NutriBullet and discovered breakfast smoothies. I bought a bunch of ingredients and came up with a smoothie recipe I love. Not only is the drink deliciously addictive, it also couldn't be simpler to make – all you do is throw the five ingredients into a blender and mix them together.

  • One tub (about 5-6 oz.) of yogurt. I prefer Greek, but feel free to use any type of yogurt you want
  • One medium-sized ripe banana
  • 2 tbsp. almond butter or peanut butter
  • 1 cup of milk (or milk alternative, like almond milk) 
  • Ground cinnamon 

You also need a blender or NutriBullet. Once you mix the ingredients together, the final result is a sweet, tasty, and somewhat thick drink. 

This smoothie keeps my hunger pains away until lunch, which is one reason I rely on it every morning. The almond butter and Greek yogurt pack on the protein, and the yogurt also provides calcium and probiotic cultures. The tasty cinnamon is loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, the banana adds sweetness, and the almond milk makes the mixture more liquid-like.

Perhaps the best part of the smoothie, though, is that it takes less than five minutes to prepare! 

Tell me: What is your go-to healthy breakfast?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Day Trip: Finger Lakes Wine Country

Breaking news: wine slushies are incredible.

Last weekend, my mom and I ventured to the Finger Lakes, an area of Central New York that boasts several long and skinny lakes, to test out some of the region's famous wine. More than 100 wineries are scattered along three of the picturesque lakes – Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga – so the region naturally attracts a lot of tourists.

I go to school an hour away from the Finger Lakes but had yet to visit. The timing was never right, and I wasn't old enough to drink. However, when my mom came to Syracuse for the weekend, we thought the wineries would make a perfect day trip. What could be better than drinking wine all day? 

The Location:

My mom and I only had time to explore one of the Finger Lakes, so we chose Seneca – the largest and most popular. The Seneca Lake Wine Trail has 35 wineries, as well as a distillery and some breweries. Most of the wineries are located just off the highway and have great views of the water and green landscape. Not even the gray skies and continuous rain could hide the beauty of our surroundings. 

Seneca Lake is 40 miles long, and the vineyards are located on both sides of the water. Some closely neighbor each other, while others are spaced 5 - 10 miles apart. 

Three Brothers
The Wineries:

No two wineries on Seneca Lake are the same. While some feel more old-fashioned and proper, others remind you of a cabin in the woods. However, every single vineyard had a great view and friendly staff. 

Here are the ones we visited (in the order we visited):

Fox Run
The Wine:

Each winery has a similar wine tasting deal: you pay $5 to sample five wines off of the menu. The bartender serves your choices from white to red, and driest to sweetest. That way, your tastebuds can better adjust to the differentiations between the wines. 

The samples are actually a decent size. Added together, the amount of wine you get at each place is about equivalent to a full glass. A full glass of wine for $5? I'll take it!  

Although each vineyard had a unique menu, a few wines made appearances everywhere. The most reoccurring options were whites like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, which are the speciality wines of the Finger Lakes. Actually, the Riesling and Gewurztraminer were my favorite wines of the day. I prefer my wine smooth, semi-sweet, and white. 

Wine Slushie:

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the wine slushie at Three Brothers Wineries and Estates. My mom and I visited this location last, and it ended up being my favorite place of the day. The wine tastings were divided up by type – you could either taste dry, semi-sweet, or sweet. Unlike the other wineries, you couldn't chose the specific wines you wanted to try, but rather chose one of the pre-chosen groupings of wine. 

My mom and I chose the sweet tasting, and we loved all five of the options! The wines were smooth, flavorful, and fruity. The tasting ending with a sixth sample –a wine slushie! The bartender mixed their "Scandalicious" wine with ice and a slushie mix, and the result was chilled, sweet, and delicious. Honestly, it tasted like a gourmet raspberry icee. The drink was so refreshing and great that we bought a full-sized one at the Slushie Stand outside! 

Three Brothers


Are you visiting the Finger Lakes wineries? Here are a few tips.
  • Go early! Most wineries close at 5 or 6 p.m., so make sure you give yourself enough time to explore the region.
  • Most wineries don't offer meals, and only a few have meat/cheese platters. I recommend eating before going to the wineries.
  • You can make the Finger Lakes a weekend vacation by booking a room in one of the hotels in the area. However, the hotels book up fast, so make sure you reserve a room early. 
  • Most importantly, don't drink and drive! I noticed that many large groups rented a party bus or limo to hop between wineries, but you could also have a designated driver or someone who only drinks a little. You have to drive between wineries, so make sure you do it safely!
Have you ever been to a winery? What is your favorite wine?

Monday, September 14, 2015

NYC Dining: OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria

When I was in New York City for my internship this summer, three different people told me that I had to eat at  OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria in Greenwich Village. They said the bustling Italian restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Mario Batali, had amazing thin-crust pizza in slightly strange combinations. I was eager to test it out – if three people recommend the same place, it has to be good, right?

I finally went to Otto with my dad, on my very last night in the Big Apple. We made reservations for 6:30 p.m. and were seated right away. Otto has a very calm, relaxed atmosphere. All of the signage and paper items feature the restaurant's signature red color. Even the lighting in the dining area has a slightly orangey tone. Compared with most other restaurants in New York City, Otto had a large and spacious interior. 

As we sat down, the waiter brought out bread and honey, and we also ordered red wine. Since my dad and I are completely obsessed with cheese, we naturally began our meal with a cheese platter. My dad simply told the waiter to bring out any five cheeses he wanted. I'm honestly not sure what we ended up with, but every cheese on the plate was delicious. Based off an educated guess, though, I think my favorite kinds were Tuada (sheep) cheese and Coach Tripe Cream (goat) cheese. Unfortunately all of my cheese plate photos turned out blurry... but here is a picture of the honey.

Moving on to the pizzas. The pies were medium-sized but very thin, so I think they are meant to be personal sized. We chose the Romana (tomato, anchovy, capers, chilies, mozzarella) and the Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese. I know the average person wouldn't find these appealing, but my dad and I are extremely adventurous eaters.

Both pizzas were incredible – savory, flavorful, and perfectly sized. I couldn't even tell you which I liked better. After having a slice of the Romana, I'd say, "This is definitely my favorite!" Then I'd take a bite out of the  Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese pizza and change my mind.  

I guess the two flavors are so different that you can't compare them. The Romana tasted like a traditional pizza with the added saltiness of anchovies. I'd stay away from this one if you aren't an anchovy fan! The Swiss Chard & Goat Cheese tasted unique, bold, and strong. If you love the taste of goat cheese, you'd absolutely love this.

Besides the awesome flavor combinations, the thing that really sticks out about Otto's pizzas is the crust. The thin layer was cooked to perfection – it was not too hard, not to dough-y, and had the perfect amount of char on the bottom. 

For dessert, we ordered the famed Olive Oil Gelato (well, technically, we ordered half olive oil and half vanilla). The combination of olive oil and gelato sounds gross, I know. But actually, the pairing worked amazingly well. The smooth, rich texture almost melted in my mouth, and the flavor reminded me vaguely of salted caramel... I guess it was the combination between salt and sugar. If you ever got to Otto, you must get this gelato!

The location of Otto can't be better, either. The great night life of Greenwich Village lies only a few streets away, and you'll find Washington Square Park right around the corner. 

Verdict: Believe all of the hype surrounding OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria! I've had loads of New York-style pizza in NYC, and the pies at Otto are my absolute favorite. In a world where pepperoni dominates, the unique toppings and flavors feel fresh and welcoming. I'd recommend the cheese plate and olive oil gelato as well. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Photo Diary: The National Mall in Washington, D.C.

I've visited Washington, D.C., a few times in my life, but my boyfriend and I decided to pop over during our Labor Day weekend together in Baltimore. We only had one afternoon to spend in the nation's capital, so we chose to pass on the Smithsonian museums (which we'd already seen in the past) and walk around the National Mall instead.

The sprawling green fields and iconic monuments inspired me to whip out my camera and take a few snapshots – despite the crazy 95-degree heat!

I couldn't help feeling overwhelmed as I stood underneath the Washington Monument at the center of the Mall. Turning my head, I could see countless historical landmarks surrounding me. In one direction, the United States Capitol building looks grand and opulent (despite some distracting construction on the rotunda).

Ninety-degrees to the left is the White House, with its flawless lawn and sturdy gates. Tourists, like me, lined the fence to capture some pictures.

The Lincoln Memorial stands across from the Capitol, behind sprawling fields and the Reflecting Pool. The World War II Memorial is at the base of the pool.

Many historical events, like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  "I Have a Dream" speech, happened on the shallow steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And let's not forget Forrest Gump's experience here!

A marble statue of Abraham Lincoln flanks the back wall inside of the memorial. 

And, finally, the white bricks of the Washington Monument anchor the center of the National Mall. The structure glimmers in the Reflecting Pool.

Besides the memorials and structures, I love the clean landscapes, beautiful buildings, friendly atmosphere, and old-time charm of Washington, D.C. Have you ever been to D.C.? What is your favorite part? 

Monday, September 7, 2015

6 Nonfiction Books I Want to Read

When it comes to choosing books to read, I'm usually drawn to fiction novels involving fantasy, dystopian worlds, and romance. However, I want to expand my reading choices and incorporate more non-fiction works into my book diet. Last week I talked about six fiction novels on my "to read" list. Now I'm back with 6 non-fiction books I want to read. As always, let me know if you have any opinions or recommendations for additional selections!

Thrive by Arianna Huffington
Arianna Huffington, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, talks about the balance of happiness and success in this novel. I think it would be great to read before entering the workforce. 

Bossypants by Tina Fey
Tina Fey is hilarious, and I heard many great things about this autobiography/comedy.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler 
I don't really follow Amy Poehler's work, but I've been seeing this comedic book everywhere lately. I want to give it a try!

On Writing by Stephen King
Stephen King is well known as one of the best and most popular authors today. In this book, he spills about his writing career and gives advice on the trade. As an aspiring writer, I'd call this a "must read" book!

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris 
I fell in love with David Sedaris' hilarious and witty work after reading a few of his essays in a journalism class. I feel like this essay collection would be inspiring, entertaining, and so funny that I'll probably laugh at loud. 

I also admire the descriptive and well-crafted writing of David Foster Wallace, so I've been meaning to check out his collection of essays, too.

All photos from Amazon

Thursday, September 3, 2015

6 Fiction Books I Want to Read

I've been a bookworm for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I spent my bus rides tucked inside of a Junie B. Jones or Boxcar Children book (remember those?!). I chose to read novels instead of my assigned textbooks during middle school study hall. And then, in high school and college, my avid reading came to a standstill as coursework and responsibilities piled up.

One of my goals this year is to read more for pleasure. Reading inspires me, de-stresses me, and helps improve my writing, so I have no reason to let my busy schedule get in the way of my novels this year.

Here are several books that top my "to read" list. Let me know if you any opinions of the selections, or if you recommend any other novel!

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins 
I've been seeing this book – a mystery/thriller that's dubbed the next Gone Girl – everywhere lately. I  recently downloaded the audiobook version  to keep me company in some upcoming car rides. I haven't gotten very far, but I really like the plot and writing style so far. Expect a review when I finish!

The Infernal Devices Trilogy (Clockwork Angel, Clockwork Prince, Clockwork Princess) by Cassandra Clare  
This young adult trilogy goes hand-in-hand with the Mortal Instrument series by the same author. I haven't read any of Clare's novels, but the Victorian-era supernatural plot intrigues me. 

The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams 
This book is a bit more off the radar, but I read the an excerpt in a magazine and immediately became hooked by the romance, mystery, and drama.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
I've been wanting to read this classic for years but haven't gotten around to it. That has to change!

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi 
After reading a few reviews of Shatter Me, a young adult dystopian novel, I skimmed over the preview on Amazon. I was immediately struck by the short and choppy sentences, some of which were completely crossed out. At first I thought this writing style would annoy me, but as I read through the preview,  I realized the structure is supposed to capture the narrator's stream of consciousness. I found myself drawn to the unique writing and the storyline. I'm excited to read this one!

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Like most high school students, I read The Great Gatsby as part of my curriculum. I loved the book but I don't think I properly appreciated the characters, plot, and symbolism – probably because I felt resentful that I had to read it. I want to give this classic another shot (and perhaps pick up some writing cues from the Great Fitzgerald!)

All photos from Amazon