Tis the season

What I lived

Stage Coach Barn Holiday Open House

My season’s holly and jolly has been of my own making so far, and if the festivities ended here, I would declare myself satisfied. (I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the holidays, once even cancelling the whole shebang. But that’s grist for another post!)

This year I jump-started December with a trip to Stage Coach Barn Sale’s Christmas open house, and it was a barn full of shabby chic holiday. (I purchased two “doo-dad” mason jars for writing prompts and a birch log candle holder, but I could have done so much more damage. So much!) The next weekend it was off to the Christmas Lite Show’s holiday walk. Instead of driving this year, I walked with friends Mary and Elizabeth. And, yes, it was toe-numbing cold, but you can’t say no to a two-mile walk through this holiday extravaganza! I laughed and chit-chatted and had coffee and goodies … holiday cheer.

Lowell Historical Museum Victorian dollhouse

This week I met friend Denice for brunch at Sweet Seasons, a cafe and bakery in downtown Lowell, followed by a visit to the Victorian dollhouse recently donated to the Lowell Historical Museum. The nine-room dollhouse is an Eye-Spy wonder. No detail is spared, right down to the portraits on the walls which are actual family photos. The couple who created the house collected pieces from their travels over decades, and, as they say, viewing this exhibit is worth the price of admission. After the museum we got our steps in at the Grand River Riverfront park which features one of the longest timber-framed bridges in the country–it’s majestic to walk along, to say the least. (You can read about the afternoon from Denice’s point-of-view over at her blog Denice’s Day.)

Can you even?

Friends, you don’t know homemade candy until you’ve tasted one of Denice’s homemade peppermint patties. She only makes them at Christmas and I am the proud recipient of a gift bag of these goodies which I am hoarding for my own pleasure in a very Grinch-like manner.

And, really? What more do we need this Christmas season than a bracing walk in the cold, the conversation of sweet friends, and the hope of twinkle lights?

What I’ve read

It’s been a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I’m afraid. I find myself a bit impatient with any title that doesn’t catch me within the first few pages–I’ve even added a folder to my Kindle labeled “Slush”. Maybe it has something to do with getting older, but I keep thinking of all the luscious books I could be reading and think, “Ain’t nobody got time for this!”

I did read a provoking novel titled Southernmost by Silas House. It wasn’t a light read, but it spoke to me in a new way about the power that doubt has to transform our lives. Asher Sharp is a Pentecostal preacher with a wife and young son. His life has been lived on the solid rock of his beliefs–until a flood devastates the Tennesee countryside he calls home and at the same time shakes the foundation of his well-ordered life. A gay couple ask for shelter in the flood’s aftermath and Asher turns them away, just as his beliefs would have him do. But he is floundering to justify his actions–and the doubts emerge. Although it sounds bleak, and although Asher ends up losing nearly everything, Southernmost is a story of hope.

But now it’s a week until Christmas and my reading will be jingle all the way. I’ve got two winter titles–The Mistletoe Promise (“a love story for Christmas” states the blurb!) and A Week in Winter (Can you say, “Maeve Binchy”?) that are as fluffy as whipped cream on cocoa–and just what I want to wrap up the holidays.

Escape: one book at a time

What I read

Lately I’ve been going through books like a pregnant woman munching pickles, driven by some insatiable hunger to read, read, read. I’ve been mad for books that carry me off, but don’t require too much thinking–stories that are sheer escape.

I wrote about my fling with Stephen King last week and with Kate Morton a couple weeks before that. Here’s what I’ve added since:

Pardonable Lies: A Maisy Dobbs novel (Jacqueline Winspear)
Maisy Dobbs, girl detective. I love her. A gumshoe who meditates and relies on intuition to solve crime– in 1930 waaay before all this New Age stuff. I warmed slowly to Maisy Dobbs, but I’m hooked now. It’s the woman and her life that have me captivated, not the crimes. In this book, Maisie refuses to believe that a young girl has savagely murdered the step-father who prostituted her. In exchange for top-notch legal representation for the girl, Maisie agrees to take on the case of Sir Cecil Lawton. Sir Cecil needs Maisie to confirm his son’s death in the Great War (his body was never found) to honor a deathbed pledge made to his wife. And, of course, there’s a mystery in that soldier’s disappearance just waiting for Maisie to solve.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Kate Morton)
In true Morton fashion, we’ve got multiple narrators–strong women all–telling this story. Elodie, an archivist, becomes enchanted by the contents of a satchel as she catalogs a collection: a photo of a mysterious woman and an artist’s journal capture her imagination. And lead her to question her own impending marriage and her talented mother’s tragic death–both wrapped up somehow with an old gabled country house on the Thames. A charming ghost tells the story of that house, how the death of a fiance and a lover on the same tragic night drove one man to despair. It’s Kate Morton. What else need I say?

The Cruelest Month (Louise Penny)
This was my second Inspector Gamache novel, but I read the series out of order. I started with A Fatal Grace ( #2), went on to The Cruelest Month (#3), and just bought the first Gamache novel on a Kindle deal. Not the deepest or darkest of crime novels, it wasn’t difficult to fill in the gaps. The setting, Three Pines, a little village in Canada, is really the main attraction, as are its residents: Ruth Zardo, cantankerous poet; Clara Morrow, the self-doubting artist; Gabri and Olivier, hoteliers extraordinaire; Myrna, bookstore owner and sage. And, of course, Chief Inspector Gamache and his crew who come down from Montreal, always at the ready to solve a murder–and battle internal conflict within the Surete. There’s nothing like settling in with old friends.

The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain)
The Red Notebook is chick lit at its sweetest. Laure is mugged while returning home late one night and can’t get into her apartment without her keys. She is dazed from a blow to the head, so she secures a room at the hotel across the street until the doorman can let her in the next morning. She collapses on the bed … and slips into a coma. Laurent, book store owner, finds her purse the next day and is intrigued by its contents: a red Moleskine notebook, a gilt cartouche, a lovely bottle of perfume, a hair clip, red plastic dice, and a dry cleaning ticket. He spends hours pouring over the items, trying to analyze the woman, but her identity is a mystery. And one that Laurent sets out to solve. Both Laure and Laurent’s personal lives were at loose ends before the accident–could the purse be the thing that brings them together? (But, really, what woman wouldn’t fall for a hero who runs a bookstore?!)

So. much. goodness.

The reading binge isn’t much of a mystery because old habits die hard. After nearly three decades of cramming my reading into summer vacations, August still brings about the same tendency: I used to read fast and furiously during the waning weeks of summer, trying to keep lesson plans, essay grading, and staff meetings at bay until the very last minute. And I guess that rhythm is still part of my nature.

But there’s something else. All the books center on women who doubted themselves, but overcame those doubts when life insisted. Face-to-face with the worst imaginable, they rose and slayed their dragons.

And I like that.

What I lived

Hospital waiting rooms suck

A family member’s recent hospitalization brought with it all the normal worries and uncertainties that come with an illness. But quite unexpectedly, it also triggered memories from some years back of a time in my life characterized by terror, confusion, and uncertainty. A situation I tried to vanquish at the time, not yet realizing the chaos wasn’t mine to quell.

But we forget–women, especially, I think–that our power isn’t found in improving circumstances, but in transforming our inner landscape. That’s where real peace can be found. Where doubts are overcome. And demons conquered.

So today I’ll raise a glass and give a nod to the women who carried me away the past few weeks–Maisie. Clara. Elodie. Birdie. Laure–reminding me that the only way out is through.

Mr. & Mrs. American Pie: review

Mr. & Mrs. American Pie
Juliet McDaniel
Inkshares (August 2018)

mr. & mrs. american pieJuliet McDaniel’s Mr. & Mrs. American Pie is chick lit turned on its head. Call it wacky. Call it madcap. But however you describe it, the novel is 172 pages of fun, largely because the characters and situations are larger-than-life. Here’s a run-down.

Mrs. Maxine Hortence Simmons: Palm Springs junior league social climber, she of the Cartier watch, catered Thanksgiving dinner, and imported gold-foiled wallpaper. A bombshell. Married to airline executive Douglas Simmons–for the first few pages, at least … until she’s exiled to the Kachina Palms Condominiums in Scottsdale, Arizona. Drinks too much.

Robert Hogath: Thirty-something proprietor of the tavern La Dulcinea. A recent transplant from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he is, by his own admission, a “lifelong bachelor”. It’s 1969. And Robert has a secret.

Charles “Chuck” Bronksi: Age twelve, he has big plans that involve the FBI or CIA. Wakes at 5 AM to do calisthenics. Learning to read lips by watching Bugs Bunny with the sound turned off. Keeps spy notes in a little book. Pretty much the sole caretaker of his nearly two-year-old sister Dawn. He’s got an absentee mom and a dad “fighting the commies in Viet Nam”.

There’s a crazy Thanksgiving dinner scene that ends with the turkey in the pool. There’s a nasty divorce. Exile. More drinking.  Chuck and Dawn become Maxine’s ‘wards’ (her word).  There’s an arrest–for something they used to call lewd and lascivious behavior. A rushed marriage at city hall. A honeymoon with the kids in Old Tucson amusement park.

Now that right there? That would be a fine story in itself. But there’s more …

Maxine decides in an attempt to earn prize money and win back her dignity to enter the Mrs. American Pie beauty pageant. She’s got the family now, after all. And so begins the preparations to become June and Ward, Ozzie and Harriet and take home the prize. But first this.

A doctored photo to dethrone one of the current Mrs. Arizona Pie contestants. And some rumors about the others spread thick. As the now-reigning Mrs. Arizona Pie, there’s a cabin decorating contest, a cooking competition involving a dish called Spam ‘n Limas, and a chorus line of Mrs. wannabees singing and dancing to “It’s a Grand Old Flag”. Maxine’s talent? Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. And a revelation–which comes via Chuck’s sleuthing skills–that just might bring the Director of Pageant Operations down.

The real kicker? The pageant is held at the Whitewater Country Club in Palm Springs. And Maxine’s ex-husband is a judge. But never fear. Alls well for this Mr. and Mrs. Chuck has the last word on the night the winner is crowned: “You won and then you lost because you love us!”

And his sister Dawn has the last last word. It’s 1982 …

[NO Spoiler Alert here]

But the end? It’s a keeper.

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness: review

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness
Sophie Jenkins
Avon (July 2018)

Lana Green writes romance novels–or at least one, the best seller Love Crazy. Her second romance, Heartbreak, has just gotten a thumbs Forgotten guide to Happinessdown from her publisher. The reason? It’s bleak and bitter, hardly the stuff of romance. Except Lana was just writing what she knew. And what she knew was that the hero of Love Crazy, photographer Marco, had dumped her the heroine Lauren, just as Lana’s photographer boyfriend Mark had dumped her. See where this is going?

And to be sure, for the first few chapters, Sophie Jenkins’ The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is chick lit, plain and simple. Numbing her broken heart in a pub, Lana meets a scruffy IT guy, Jack Buchanan. Over wine and a beer, she confesses she needs to find a new hero for her second book–and Jack sets out to become that hero. Romance ensues.

But, wait a minute … not so fast.

It turns out that Lana is also looking for a job and a place to live, what with the fact that she didn’t get her book advance and all.  And Jack has just the thing. His step-mother suffers from dementia and has become increasingly difficult to manage; social services is threatening to intervene. Add to the mix that his step-mom is none other than the famed feminist writer Nancy Ellis Hall, and Lana quickly agrees to become her companion and caregiver. At first, Lana is convinced that Nancy, who carries around a black notebook and scribbles in it furiously, is still writing. (In fact, Lana even thinks she might be able to help the ailing Nancy write a new book.) And while Lana’s denial is based on her infatuation of the writer Nancy used to be, she soon comes to love the Nancy who is–and that Nancy draped her head with sheets of toilet paper and insisted she was eight years old; she kept a pastry brush in her purse and set the table with clothes pins, a book, and a ruler; that Nancy quoted the bible as her own work and bit the woman who ran the London Literary Society where Lana tutored–Nancy, the woman she cared for and loved, might seem strangely out of touch, but Lana “knew what [Nancy] meant. Language is just a means of communication, and she could communicate and I could understand her.”

It’s got to be a tricky business to write about a character with dementia, but Sheila Jenkins handles the character of Nancy tenderly, lightly, always with compassion–just as Lana does. And I hope that someday, should my aging self need a minder, I encounter someone with just as much love.

And about that love story Lana is trying to write–Does Jack get a role to play? Does Marco return and win back Lana’s love? Will there be heartbreak or more crazy love? I think its fair to say The Forgotten Guide to Happiness has plenty of love (and happiness!) to go around.

I Liked My Life: review

I Liked My Life (NetGalley)
Abby Fabiaschi
St. Martin’s Press
release date: January 31, 2017

Maddy is dead. Jumped, apparently, from the campus library where she worked. Or I should say, volunteered. Maddy’s full time job is was I liked my lifetaking care of her CEO husband Brady and their teenage daughter Eve. She was one of those Super Moms: dinner at the table set with china each night, PTA workaholic and team mom, cheerleader for a husband preoccupied with work. Maddy not only did it all, she did it well. And as if those accomplishments weren’t enough, she was kind, insightful, patient, and understanding. Then why did she jump?

That’s what Brady and Eve are trying to figure out as they make their way through their grief. They are angry and brittle. Short-tempered and quick to blame. Since Brady was so often at work, he and Eve never had to navigate the waters of their relationship. Maddy was always there to plan their time together, to smooth things over. Brady hasn’t ever managed household tasks, let alone a teenager. They eventually come together over Maddy’s journal where they discover that she often felt unloved and unfulfilled–and both realize they had taken her for granted.

Writer Abby Fabiaschi lets dad and daughter each tell their story in alternating chapters. And Maddy also narrates–you see, Maddy is dead, but stuck somewhere between her life on earth and the afterlife. She watches Eve and Brady and even “talks” to them which they somehow feel, if not hear. And once a Super Mom always a Super Mom: Maddy is also trying to choose her husband’s next wife.

I Liked My Life is the tale of a wealthy suburban family with its entitled kids and alcohol and swingers and more alcohol and corporate climbers. It’s not always pretty world. But even though Brady and Eve lost what held them together, they come to realize that Maddy not only liked her life, she loved her life.

Then why did she jump?

Fabiaschi’s first novel is a quick read that kept me turning the page. A perfect weekend read to escape from the busy workaday world.

I liked it.