Book review: George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade

George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American RevolutionGeorge Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting book in several ways. First, it’s a fascinating look at a little known part of Revolutionary War history. The Culper Spy Ring was instrumental in helping General George Washington by providing him with vital intelligence about British military movements in New York, including information about Benedict Arnold’s attempted and nearly successful treachery. Second, while most of the ring’s identities have been uncovered, the identity of one member–the only woman in the ring–is still unknown and her fate undetermined. The book makes a somewhat convincing case of her probable fate, but it is all conjecture. Third, the book is written in the fashion of a thriller or mystery rather than a non-fiction history. Chapters end with teasers to encourage you to read the next chapter. I’m convinced that more people would read history if more history books were written this way. (Note: the idiosyncrasies of this book does make it come across as a bit amateurish, but if those idiosyncrasies make it an easy read, I have no issues with it.)
This is a very quick and interesting read on an obscure part of the history of the Revolutionary War and the importance of intelligence-gathering during armed conflict. I would give it 3.5 stars if I could, as I think the book could have used more depth. That being said, I definitely recommend it!

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Movie Reviews: Big Hero 6 and The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

Two very different movies, and both equally good in their own ways. “Big Hero 6” is a Disney movie and contains the classic Disney elements: a traumatic event in the first 10 minutes of the movie, a hero in conflict, and a guardian angel (of sorts) to help him. There are strong secondary characters as well with lots of superhero action sequences and comedic scenes to lighten the tension. And, in the end, the hero has to find his own solution and to discover what is truly important to him. It’s a well-done, entertaining, and thoughtful movie in the best Disney tradition.

As with the best Disney movies, this one appeals well to the under 6 crowd, our action film-oriented 13 year old son, and our too-worldly-to-be-believed 16 year old daughter. We (the adults) liked it very much, too. The entire family gives this one two thumbs up.


The final installment of “The Hobbit” trilogy brought about some mixed feelings. I absolutely loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy and thought Peter Jackson did a fabulous job of getting the spirit of the trilogy right. (I’m not one who expects complete faithfulness to the books—these are movies, after all, and adaptation is necessary for such a different medium. Also, while I am a huge Tolkien fan, I don’t believe heresy was committed in adapting the books to film.) I am more ambivalent about his adaptation of “The Hobbit,” however. The book is a much more light-hearted romp into Middle-earth than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the movies take a more epic and serious tone. The first movie of the trilogy (“The Unexpected Journey”) definitely dragged in parts, but the second (“The Desolation of Smaug”) was much better, and the barrel scene down the river has become one of my all-time favorite action sequences.

This final installment focuses much more on the action sequences than any narrative (which is hardly surprising, given that the book is only 300 pages and is being stretched into three movies).   Richard Armitage does an excellent job as Thorin Oakenshield and his transformation from being noble and kingly to being cursed with dragon-sickness and back again is convincing and heart-breaking. Martin Freeman is a highly underrated actor who is fabulous as Bilbo, a hobbit who keeps his humanity and moral compass when all around him have lost theirs.

And for the Benedict Cumberbatch fans (o daughter mine!), let’s just say that [spoiler alert here!] Smaug gets killed in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

Our 13 year old son absolutely loved the movie and can’t wait to see it again. I enjoyed it very much and will probably take him for a repeat viewing. That being said, I suspect that ten years from now, when we are looking back at these movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films will have held up much better and be more highly regarded than The Hobbit trilogy.

The Perfect Travel Tea Mug

I love to drink hot tea at work when the weather gets cold. I am also lazy and can’t be bothered to make tea at work (it’s a small office and making tea is too messy). Nor do I want to make the tea before I leave the house because I’m always in a hurry in the morning. (Have I mentioned that I’m a bit high-maintenance?) I have been hunting for years for the perfect travel tea container that allows me to prepare the tea at home before I leave in the morning but have hot tea throughout the day without having to make it.

After several trials (and failures) of different travel mugs, I finally stumbled on a travel mug made by a company called David’s Tea. This mug (or, more accurately, a thermos) contains a cleverly designed tea strainer and a tea leaf storage area that is built into the cap of the thermos. All you have to do is put your tea leaves of choice into the strainer, fill the thermos with boiling water, screw the cap on and go about your merry way. The tea is made by the time you get to work (unless you have a really short commute), and the tea stays hot the entire day. I take it home, I clean out the strainer and thermos, and I’m all set for the next day.

My only (minor) complaint is that the thermos isn’t as large as I would like. (I like tea.) The thermos come in 12 and 17 ounce sizes. That being said, the thermos fits easily into a car’s drink holder, and it comes in several festive colors.

David’s Tea has stores throughout the U.S., and you can also shop from their website at under travel accessories.

travel tea mug

travel tea mug

Thanksgiving 2014

It was a festive Thanksgiving holiday for us. To begin with, it was the first Thanksgiving experience for Yinan, our exchange student. I don’t know if she was amused or appalled by the amount of food served, but she discovered that she loves mashed potatoes (or, as she calls them, “smashed potatoes”).

We had 25 people in total for dinner. We could not have pulled out the dinner without Yinan’s help and the help of Jim’s nephew, Robert.

This was our Thanksgiving menu:

Thai pumpkin soup

Smoked organic free range turkey

smoked turkey

smoked turkey

Roasted organic heritage turkey

roasted turkey

roasted turkey

Fried organic free range turkey

deep fried turkey

deep fried turkey

Honey-baked ham

Roast duck (from Mark’s Duck House)

Roasted shrimp with rosemary


Sweet potatoes

Dinner rolls


Kimchi (no Thanksgiving dinner is complete without it!)


Orange cranberry sauce

Roasted carrots

Mashed potatoes

Brussel sprouts with bacon

Chocolate pumpkin cheesecake

chocolate pumpkin cheesecake

chocolate pumpkin cheesecake

Blackberry pie

blackberry pie

blackberry pie

Apple pie

apple pie

apple pie

I haven’t yet figured out whether we have this many people over for Thanksgiving so that Jim can cook 3 turkeys or whether Jim cooks 3 turkeys so that we can have this many people over.

Hope everyone had as fun a Thanksgiving holiday as we did!

Book review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Stories, #1)The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having only recently launched into Bernard Cornwell books (see my review of “Agincourt”), I decided to tackle the author’s Alfred the Great series. This book was not at all what I expected, and despite this (or maybe because of it), I enjoyed it immensely.
The main character is Uhtred, an “English” boy who is captured by the Danes and then ultimately pulled into Alfred’s orbit. Uhtred is sarcastic, irreverent, and has an outsider’s perspective of Alfred. He is disdainful of Alfred’s piousness but respects his intelligence.
The tone of the book is gritty and realistic–no romantic notions of battle will be found here. There is none of the lyrical work found in the books of my favorite historical fiction author (Sharon Kay Penman), but the author is equally effective with his sharp, terse prose and his unsparing portrayal of Danish society and the tension between the old gods and Christianity. The author’s understated style creates a surprising amount of drama, and the pacing is well done.
I look forward to reading #2 in the series soon!

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