Saturday, May 2, 2009

caramama's Romance Novel Recommendations

In my post about tips to help get in the "mood," I wrote about how much I love romance novels and how I look for ones that I consider well written. Now, I'm not an expert on great writing, and I certainly have my own preferences that are different from other people's preferences. But I did get my Bachelor's degree and Master's degree in writing fields and began my career in a writing aspect of my current field. I have read many classics, literature from the canon, classic and contempory poetry, and non-fiction research science novels. I've also read trash, light-hearted beach reads, and books I couldn't even finish because they were so awful in every genre.

I particularly love romance novels. I started reading them in high school and continued in college. By grad school, I was so busy reading research and studying that I had very little time for leisure reading. But when Londo and I moved back to the DC area and my SAD hit me hard, I realized I needed to read lighter novels with happy endings to get through the tough-on-me winters. Thus, I went back to the romance novels. But still, I couldn't just read trashy, poorly written books. There were even some books I'd read in high school that I re-read as an adult and discovered that they really weren't good.

My criteria is:
- Good plots. They don't have to be original ideas, although original plots or twists on old ideas are preferred. They don't have to be completely believable (I can willingly suspend disbelief for books, movies and TV). But they have to be interesting and have something going on in addition to the romance plot.
- Good characters. Nothing will make me drop a book faster than bland, flat characters. Well-rounded characters who are realistic and deeper than just the surface appearance can make an otherwise dull book worth reading, to me.
- Romantic connection on both sides. There is a certain way that good authors can get across the spark of love between characters that makes your heart leap when you read about them looking at each other. I love that.
- Facing adversity together. I know that plenty of people like those books where the two main characters are pitted against each other and their love develops from that. I am not into those. I MUCH prefer the books where the characters work together to overcome adversity. They don't always have to be in perfect accord, but overall aren't constantly fighting with each other.
- Some good sex scenes. They don't have to be super graphic or dirty (although sometimes those are great), but too many euphemisms and you've lost me. I don't want to hear about swords and sheaths or whatever. I'm an adult and I deserve to be talked to/written to as an adult. And I like them steamy, even if it's only really steamy kissing.
- Good writing! This is one of those "you know it when you see/read it." But it includes good word choices, good grammar, writing that flows, good editing so there aren't obvious mistakes in the sequence of events and such, and an interesting writing style/voice.

So now I scour the romance rows in book stores for books by good authors. Some authors I discovered years ago and wait impatiently for their new books to come. Some authors are recommended to me by friends who are romance-novel lovers. Some authors I pick up because the book looks interesting and like it would fit my criteria.

Once I read the books, I rate the authors into the following categories:
- Re-Reader - will re-read the book I've already read and will definitely buy other books by the author
- Keeper - will keep the book for possible re-reading or lending to others and will buy other books if they look interesting
- Worth Buying - may not keep the books but will buy others by the author that look interesting
- Would Read - won't buy other books by the author, but will read if it's given to me for free
- Won't Read - won't bother to read other books by the author
- Won't Finish - won't even finish the book I started because it's crap or pissed me off in some way or another

Well, that was a long introduction to my even longer book recommendations. I'm going to try to categorize the books I recommend in a way that makes sense to me. They will include only Re-Readers, Keepers, Worth Buyings and maybe a couple Would Reads. At the end of my recommendations, I've included another woman's recommendations which are definitely worth checking out.

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Historical
Jo Beverly - Jo Bev is one of my favorite authors, as I've mentioned before when she commented on one of my posts. She writes good plots, has very interesting characters, great dialogue (which can be very tough to do), keeps things in perspective of the time periods in which she writes, is historically accurate and even gives more details in her Author's Notes at the end of the books, and has some great romance scenes. I especially love her Malloren series (my favorite book of hers is Tempting Fortune, the second in this series, I think because the hero reminds me so much of Londo), but her Company of Rogues series is a close second. cm Rating = Re-Reader.

Sabrina Jeffries - I discovered her by reading The Royal Brotherhood series, and I thought they were fun, good reads. I like her characters, plots and romance scenes. I don't think I've read any of her older books, as the newer ones seem more interesting to (by their back covers, at least). Also, her newer ones tend to at least tangentially have characters from other books, and I love that. cm Rating = Keeper.

Julia Quinn - I recently started reading Julia Quinn, and I've become a fan. Some of the plots are a bit cliche (the Cinderella plot, the Robin Hood character who is really a society man, etc.), but overall I like her character development and her writing. I've really started to get into her Bridgerton series. I think she's definitely worth trying out. cm Rating = Keeper.

Cathy Maxwell - Her books are fun, light reads. Not really original or deep, but a good beach read with good writing. Although, I must admit that I've read only a few of her books, so maybe I just haven't found her best. cm Rating = Worth Buying.

Mary Balogh - I just read my first novel of hers, which is in the Bedwyn series, and I really enjoyed it. She has interesting characters that might be a little unusual for the time period, but she makes it clear that they know they are unusual. A friend gave me this book, and I'm now going to buy the others in the series and hope they are as good! cm tentative Rating = Worth Buying.

Celeste Bradley - I've read a couple of her books in The Royal Four series, and I enjoyed them. I like a good spy-mixed-with-romance novel, and hers have been interesting. I do plan to buy more of her books. cm Rating = Worth Buying.

Johanna Lindsey - She's long been a favorite of many readers. I personally loved her books in high school, but now think they are only okay. I will still buy books in her Malory series, but I have to really be in the mood for a stubborn, alpha male hero to read them. I do like to read alpha male characters (especially in the bedroom), but add the complete stubborn/obstinate trait, and he will get on my nerves. She has at least one book that I would never recommend to others, and even threw away my copy so that no one else would read it, because it was pretty much hero captured pretty girl, she said she hated him, he raped her, she said she hated him again, he raped her again, repeat a few times, she fell in love with him, and then he with her. That to me isn't a love story, it's Stockholm syndrome and not romantic AT ALL. So with her, it all depends on the book, and then on my mood. But others like her more than I do. cm Rating = Worth Reading (but depends on book).

Liz Carlyle - I've only read one of her books, The Devil You Know, and it was a pretty good book. But she just didn't hit me as an author that I would search the shelves for. I've heard other say good things, though, so she obviously goes over well with others. cm Rating = Worth Reading.

I'll also mention Lisa Kleypas, but I'm not sure how to rate her. I liked her at first, when I was in the mood for alpha male characters. Then I read one that included a miscarriage, and I didn't like the way it was dealt with at all. I think I was literally yelling out loud at the characters in the book and the author. But that's a senstive topic for me. And so I stopped buying her books. But again, others might like her and can either get past what I can't or not read that book.

Paranormal
Sherrilyn Kenyon - She was (and maybe still is) my second favorite romance author. When she first came out with Dark-Hunter series, I gobbled up those books and tracked when the next ones would come out. The early books in that series were so great! It was like hot romance with Buffy the Vampire Slayer dialogue. Fun and sexy. But after enjoying the new books in the series less and less, I've finally decided that I probably will stop reading the rest of series. I will still go back and re-read (again) the earlier books. For me, it's really that she seems to feel she has to go bigger, badder and more apocolyptic with every book. I was happy when there were brooding Dark-Hunters going after the evil vampire-characters, and they needed their true love to save their souls--and hot romantic connections. I enjoyed her mythos that she created, but now it's gone from humans turned Dark-Hunters to the gods' gods and even more powerful demons. It's just too much, overdone. But having said all that, I'm still loving her BAD series, which is really contemporary, not paranormal. cm Rating = Re-Reader to Would Read, depending on book.

Christine Feehan - So, I can't just say I like this author, but need another whole explanation. I have been reading her Drake Sisters series, and I've been enjoying them. The plots are really interesting, and I like the characters (even though some border on flat). But I don't think her writing is that fantastic. She repeats a lot of the same thoughts, without any variation in some cases, and the dialogue sometimes seems sophmoric. I do like the story lines of this series, but I don't think I'll buy her other books. cm Rating = Worth Reading.

Contemporary
Sherrilyn Kenyon - See above. I love the BAD series because (like her earlier Dark-Hunter novels) they are fun and sexy. cm Rating (for her contemporary romances) = Worth Buying.

Vicki Lewis Thompson - I picked up a book in her Nerds series at an airport once, and I just thought it was so cute. They are light, beach reads that you can't take too seriously, but they are fun and even interesting. And for those of us who have a thing for the nerdy/geeky types, especially those who have a bit of nerdy/geeky on the inside but hot on the outside (*ahem*Londo*ahem*), it's fun to read these books. I believe that the heroines also range from the geeky-on-the-inside-gorgeous-on-the-outside to the nerd-who-cleans-up-to-be-a-hottie. And let's face it people, brains are sexy! cm Rating = Keeper.

Sandra Brown - She is another author I discovered in high school, but one I still really enjoy. I love her contemporary mystery romances. Actually, I'm not sure she is considered a romance writer any more, but her mysteries sure have some steamy love scenes. The books she puts out now are pretty hot and have good plots. The first book of hers I read was French Silk. I kept the copy from when I read it in high school and re-read as an adult, and it was still really good. I listened to Envy as a book-on-CD recently, and thought it was so well done. I did read her older romance novels in high schoool, and though they might be good, I have not bothered to re-read any (and I didn't save any of those). cm Rating = Keeper.

Nora Roberts - It seems that everyone who reads Nora Roberts loves her. I think I've not yet gotten into her because of two reasons: 1) She writes drama, not light read romances; and 2) I first read some trilogy of novellas (picked up at a flea market and I don't think is even in print anymore) she wrote about some fake country and the princes' and princess's love stories which wasn't that good. The sex scenes were so bad, I honestly couldn't figure out if/when they were having sex! But my understanding is that those books do not represent her, as apparently she is a really good writer. So I am currently reading a book in her Chesapeake series, and even though I'm only a couple chapters in, I am really enjoying it. cm Rating = Undecided, but leaning toward Keeper.

Linda Francis Lee - I picked up Sinfully Sexy at an airport, and it was a cute story. I didn't buy any others by her, but I would if I saw one. It reminded me of chick lit just this side of romance. cm Rating = Worth Buying.

Smut
Look, sometimes I'm just in the mood for dirty, trashy smut. My normal criteria pretty much goes out the window, which is why these deserve their own category. I think the only criteria here is that I've read them and they are graphic, dirty and full of sex.

Laurell K. Hamilton - She writes paranormal romance/horror. Lots of people seem to like her Anita Baker vampire series. I read the first one and wasn't impressed. But I like my vampire novels to have brooding characters who go through a redemption story plus a love story (ideally redemption through love). However, I did start reading her Merry Gentry series simply because the reviews on Amazon went about how they were full of raunchy sex and had less and less plot as the books went on. They are, and I keep buying them. Hehe. But you have to be okay with the weird (really weird) and horrific, which I am as long as the horrific isn't really mixed in with the sex. I do not read about violent sex. Not a turn on for me, and it isn't for the heroine of this series either. cm Rating = Worth Buying for me, maybe not for you.

Pat Booth - Here I fess up that I haven't read her since high school, and I'm pretty sure she's out of print and I didn't keep any of my books. But this was some trashy smut! The books were contemporary with a poor-girl-trying-to-make-it-in-big-fake-city feel to them. They had some really hot sex scenes, one on a boat that I still remember as a "wow, some day I want to do THAT!" I wonder if I can find them at the library. cm Rating = Would Read.

Jackie Collins - Haven't read her since high school, either, but if you like smut, she's one of the best. cm Rating = Would Read
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I guess that's all I've got. I have a couple of bags of books that people have recently given me and lent me, mostly with authors I haven't read yet so I can't wait to try. I might have to do an update in a year or so when I've read some more authors.

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In the mean time, here are recommendations from eccentric libertarian, a regular commenter on Ask Moxie who exchanged emails with me about romance novels that we liked:

"My criteria: intelligent writing, a reasonable level historical accuracy, an effort to create characters who are not just contemporary people with contemporary thoughts who happen to be wearing corsets, etc., no silly, contrived plots, and some hot sex scenes, although not super graphic or on every other page. I'm not including any authors who are no longer in print." "I forgot to mention one other criteria that I look for in what I consider to be the very best historical romance - absorbing emotional relations between characters that are fully realized, with psychological depth."

"Laura Kinsale is the best, IMO. Anything by her is really good, but some are great - my particular favorites are For My Lady's Heart (set in the late 1300s), The Shadow and the Star (Victorian era, includes an adult character who was sexually abused as a child, which some may not want to read about), The Dream Hunter (1840s), Flowers from the Storm (1850s), and The Prince of Midnight (circa 1780s).

Judith Ivory is another author who meets my criteria. Some of hers are out of print, but the ones you can find on bookstore shelves today are all good...although I did not care for Angel in a Red Dress. Untie My Heart, about a semi con artist, is very enjoyable - and some pretty hot sex scenes. Beast is another good one, and has an unusual place & time setting - an ocean liner and then France in the 1910s.

Loretta Chase - also all good. Her linked series of Miss Wonderful, Mr. Impossible, and Lord Perfect is a good introduction to her writing.

Liz Carlyle - while I think this writer has run out of steam, some of her earlier books are very good. A Woman of Virtue, A Woman Scorned, My False Heart, Beauty Like the Night, and The Devil You Know are the real deal, and share some interconnecting characters.

Eloisa James, Julia Quinn, Jo Beverley, and Mary Balogh are all popular and seem to put out a book every year. Their stuff is fine, but not a lot stands out."

And in response to my email that mentioned I like Jo Bev, Julia Quinn and Mary Balogh:

"I like Jo B also - I feel that her more recent books are kind of flat, but her earlier ones (one favorite is 'Something Wicked' from the Malloren series) are much better. Mary Balogh's Harlequins (those little short ones) are pretty good, but only available on eBay. I enjoy tortured soul type characters, so her 'Silent Melody' is one I like. Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series books are all pretty good. These authors I look upon as producing reliable, intelligent writing, almost always with a real effort made to get into the minds of 18th or 19th century people. Nobody could keep up with the kind of publishing schedule they have to meet (a new book or two every year) and keep it fresh and original.

One more author you might like is Georgette Heyer. These are not sensual at all - most don't even have kissing (they were written in the 1920s-30s). Almost all are set in the Regency time period, and indeed she pretty much invented this genre. All the books(there are a lot - like 50) are meticulously researched, fun and frothy. Kind of like a giddy version of Jane Austen."

This woman is very insightful and has excellent taste! I'm definitely going to look into her recommendations!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Infertility Stories

The fun post with my romance novel recommendations is being pushed back yet another day. But for an even better reason than yesterday's reason.

This week is National Infertility Awareness Week. I wish I had realized it sooner, but it was only yesterday that I read about it on the blog a little pregnant. (I believe I missed it last year too, because I'm bad for remembering dates of things.)

I've talked a bit about our struggles with infertility and I've written a whole post about my miscarriage. So I'm not going to go into my stories any more right now. Especially since we were especially lucky to have needed only ONE medicated IUI cycle to get pregnant with the peanut currently in my belly.

Instead, I want to share some other stories of people I know who have struggled with infertility, because there is so much that people go through that others don't even realize. Happily, the stories I know have good endings, although that is simply not true for everyone.

I have a family member who struggled with maybe 7 or 8 years of infertility with his wife. She had to have surgery for polyps and all sorts of other treatments. Finally, after learning that her eggs just weren't viable, they tried donor eggs with the husband's sperm. After a couple of IVF tries, two transferred eggs implanted and the wife was able to carry the twin! Although born premature, the two boys have done well and are now celebrating being 6 months old. They are very much loved and wanted, and my family is all very happy.

A colleague and friend of mine started fertility treatments around the same time I got pregnant with the Pumpkin. She started the treatments because she had had 2 or 3miscarriages and realized it was time to see a specialist. After more miscarriages (a total of 5) and talk of looking into adoption instead of continuing to go through the heartbreak, she finally was able to carry a baby to term! She and her husband now have an adorable little girl who is almost 1!

A friend of my husband and mine had also suffered from multiple miscarriages due to a unusually shaped uterus. She and her husband kept trying, though. They looked into fertility treatments, but decided after one cycle that it wasn't right for them, since the problem didn't seem to be conceiving but maintaining the pregnancy in her uterus. I believe she looked into alternate medicines, but I don't know too many of the details. What I do know is that she was able to carry a baby girl, and though she was put on hospital bedrest for more weeks than I want to think about (I think like 2 months), she delivered her baby at almost 31 weeks. After a stay in NICU, their daughter came home, is doing well and is incredibly adorable!

Another colleague of mine was going through fertility treatments at the same time I was when I got pregnant with the Pumpkin (and at the same place). After 2 IVF cycles, they got pregnant with a beautiful boy who is about a month or less younger than the Pumpkin.

Yet another colleague of mine has PCOS. She is now pregnant with her second, and her first is just a few months younger than the Pumpkin. She fortunately didn't need to go to a specialist, but she and her husband worked with her OB/GYN to get her on the right medication for the cycles when they were trying to conceive.

An acquaintance of mine (and good friend of my good friend) got pregnant right away with her first child. When she and her husband tried for their second, they suffered through 3 miscarriages and a much longer wait than they had "planned." They saw a specialist, and though I didn't pry into what they went through, I do know that they had a healthy boy over a year ago.

These are just some of the many stories I've heard IRL as I am more and more open about my struggles. I have heard other stories, too, and I'm sure there are many people around me who have struggled but don't talk about it.

For all those who are struggling with fertility issues, I wish you a happy ending to your story, and hopefully not too rough a journey in getting there. And if the treatments aren't working, then I hope that you find your peace in another way, be it adoption to have a child or happiness without a child.

For all those who have never thought about fertility issues, I'm so happy that you haven't had to deal with it and hope that you won't have to. I also hope that reading these stories gives you an idea of the struggles some of us go through just to have children.

Children are a blessing to all around them. Please do not take them for granted. Please do not assume that others can easily plan when and how many or easily conceive the first time or any subsequent times. Please remember these things when speaking to others on the topic of children and/or conceiving.

Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine Flu and Kids

I had a whole other post planned for today. A happier post. One about which romance novel writers I recommended (of course, I've been planning that post since a few people asked me for it a few weeks ago, but I really was/am going to do it!). I will do that post tomorrow. This morning, I read an article and I have to talk about. I know I never talk politics or even discuss current events in the news, but today I feel compeled.

The story I read was about the first US death attributed to the swine flu. The death was of a 23-month-old toddler in Texas. As with all strains of the flu, the populations who should be most careful are the elderly, people with chronic conditions that affect their immune systems or heart, the very young and the pregnant women, for various reasons.

I don't believe in panicking over things, and this is included, but I do believe in being careful and prepared. Because I am a pregnant woman and have a toddler, I feel that my family should be extra careful and really prepared for this swine flu outbreak. We all know that kids are like little petri dishes and spread germs at a rapid pace to each other. They do not have as strong immune systems as adults, therefore are more susceptible to illnesses. Kids touch everything and then touch their faces, mouths, eyes, etc. Kids don't cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze (we are currently working on this with the Pumpkin, who has had a bit of a cold, and she's learning but not perfect). They also don't wash their hands as often as they should.

There are good germs as well as bad, and it is healthy to be exposed to all sorts of germs in order to build up a good immune system. But right now, with a strain of flu that includes avian and swine flu for which humans do not have adequate resistence, I think erring on the side of caution is the way to go. This means constantly washing everyone's hands, covering coughs and sneezes with tissues and shirt sleeves (and hands if you wash right after), and not being around people who could be coming down with any form of the flu. This means watching our toddlers and kids (and elderly and even pregnant women) to make sure that they are being careful and to take them to the doctor at the first sign of any flu-like symptoms.

This does not mean panic or stop your day-to-day activities, although it's probably wise to be more careful at the playground and if you in an area with reported cases maybe even avoid the playground or swimming pools. But it means pay attention to yourself and others.

Hopefully, all the pandemic flu planning our governement and other governments have done will pay off and in a few months we will all be thinking "what was everyone so worried about? It wasn't that big a deal!" But in order to get to that point, I believe that we should all be taking it seriously right now. Let's all help to make sure that the death toll in the US stays low, especially for the children.

For more information, see:
-The CDC's information on the swine flu
-The government's pandemic flu website
-The FDA's information on swine flu

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

When Mama's Grumpy and Toddler is Unfocused

After a poor night of sleep for Mama, Daddy and Toddler, the Pumpkin was up at 6:00. The parents were not ready to get up yet, so we let her watch a couple TV shows while we dozed. And that went fine for a while.

A little before 7:00, she was done with TV. Which meant I was done with sleeping. I took her downstairs to let Londo have a little more sleep and get ready for work, while we fed the dog and ate cereal. All too soon, she was ready to get into everything play. I was still really tired and achy. I tried to relax on the couch while she played, but she would not focus on anything. She would start one thing, then move on to another, then try to get into something else.

At one point, I picked her up and sat her on the couch next to me, telling her I wanted to talk to her about something. I explained that Mommy was very grumpy this morning. She responded, "You're not grumpy."

There's nothing quite like a toddler arguing with you when you tell them you are grumpy.

I kept my cool, though, and explained that yes I was grumpy and when Mommy is grumpy, she really needs the Pumpkin to listen to her and do what she asks. I know the Pumpkin is really good at understanding this level of information and is so advanced with communication. I thought it brillant that I would explain this to her rather than just be short tempered and frustrated. I thought perhaps by explain that Mommy doesn't want to be grumpy with her so she needs to listen and follow what I'm saying that she would actually listen and follow what I said.

I was wrong.

She simply had too short an attention span to listen to what I was saying or do what I was asking. She'd maybe do half of what I asked, but then she'd be off trying to play with the stovetop (it was off, but still YIKES!) or climb on the coffee table or do other things she knows she's not supposed to get do.

Still, I didn't lose my cool. I did get frustrated, but I did explain/point out what she was not supposed to do and distracted her to something else. At least for a little while. Londo provided a bit of distraction when he came down and said goodbye before leaving for work. Fortunately, the nanny arrived a little after 8, and I went back upstairs to relax a little before getting ready for work. I thought I would go back to sleep (and I probably should have), but I've got a lot going on today and needed to get going.

Not the most idyllic morning, but I'm proud that I didn't lose it or yell at her. Maybe it was because I was too tired to expend that kind of energy, but still good for me, right? And I'm still in a pretty good mood. I do so love the nice weather and longer days!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Question of the Week - Pricey Isn't Always Better

I had a fabulous weekend, and I hope you all did too. A few weeks ago, my wonderful husband had given me a "pushing" present, that really was more of a "I-know-how-hard-this-has-been-on-you-and-that-you-hate-being-pregnant-but-I-appreciate-what-you-are-doing" present, that was a gift certificate to Red Door Spa. His friend had given his wife (who is now a friend of mine) an early anniversary present that was also a gift certificate to the spa. They had us coordinate the spa day to be on the same day as the football draft so they could sit around all day playing cards and watching the draft. Londo also took care of who would watch the Pumpkin (his mom came up to visit for the weekend).

So Saturday, we had a lovely day at the spa! I got a prenatal massage and a facial, plus a complimentary make-up refresh. I love the way she did my makeup and learned a few tips from her. I'm a makeup girl, and I have been one since preteens. I love makeup and always appreciate new tips, especially as I get older and my makeup needs change. I've spent years and years (let's not count, shall we?) trying new makeup brands and styles.

But as much as I love what she did and the makeup she used, I didn't buy any makeup. It turns out, I've got very sensitive, combination skin. I have tried so many expensive brands of blush or powders only to discover that they all make me break out. But I won't leave the house without loose powder and some blush on my face. People said that those mineral makeups were excellent for people with skin like mine. So I even tried The Brand (Bare Minerals), and though I loved how you put it on and the whole system, it made me break out.

One day, I finally just grabbed something inexpensive from the grocery store. It was some loose powder that was oil-free by Maybelline. Lo and behold, it gave me just the coverage I needed and DIDN'T make me break out!! I was thrilled. A few years later, I had another aha moment when the brand of blush I had been buying was no longer being made, and I bought the Maybelline blush. You guessed it, no break outs from that!

So now I've decided that I'm going to stop spending all that money I spend on the department store and other high-price brands and buy Maybelline from the grocery store. I'm taking the tips and color schemes I liked from my makeup refresher and going to the grocery store to buy some new things in my new favorite brand. Who knew that the inexpensive stuff was sometimes the right way to go?

Which is why the question of the week is:

What do you buy that is a less expensive brand but you like as much or more than the more expensive stuff?

This can be anything from makeup to clothes to foods. Whatever you want to share. I would love to hear some good ideas. But don't bother trying to convince me that the generic cereals at the grocery are as good as the name brand, like Londo used to try to make me believe. I have tasted both, and name brands win out by far for me in that genre!