Happy New Year!

                                    

Here it is a new year, a clean slate, an opportunity to release the old and embrace the new. Not that we need an invitation for that kind of thing; we can do it anytime we choose. But January, in our culture at least, is traditionally the month for new beginnings. Maybe putting away the holiday decorations for another year leads to letting go of past memories. Certainly, the house feels new and fresh and more open to possibilities when the coziness of the Christmas clutter is gone.

2022 is a six-year. Those who know numerology say this is a year to devote to home and family, creativity, and nurturing yourself and others. Mathematically, six is considered a perfect number because the factors of 6 (1,2 and 3) make 6 whether you add them together or multiply them. Perhaps that’s why many people think of six as a lucky number.  

In nature, the honeycombs made by bees are six-sided or hexagonal in shape. Many flowers have six petals. Bell peppers and tomatoes often have six seed chambers. When water freezes, it often forms six-pointed crystals and snowflakes.

Being at sixes and sevens means being in a state of disorder or confusion. Having a six-pack used to mean having six cans or bottles, but now it’s a reference to a set of well-defined abdominal muscles.  

In literature, book titles featuring the letter six are popular: The Sixth Man by David Baldacci; Six Years by Harlan Coben; Six of One by Rita Mae Brown; and The 6th Target by James Patterson. Speaking of books, here’s a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” exclaimed the White Queen.

As we start another year with significant Covid restrictions, it seems an almost impossible dream that we’ll ever be finished with this virus. But, as the Queen encouraged Alice, it’s vital to have grit, courage and believe in a positive future. So, since six is considered a lucky number, I’m counting on the coming year to be a good one. And with that in mind, let’s deep-six 2021 and look forward with optimism to 2022!

Merry Christmas

Yesterday was Winter Solstice, and in a few days, it will be Christmas. However and wherever you celebrate, I hope your holiday is filled with joy and light. Perhaps this year, friends and family will be joining you. For the first time, we’ll be celebrating Christmas with our two-year-old grandson, Henry. We’re excited! We’re also feeling deep gratitude. Henry was in the hospital just a few weeks ago (not Covid-related, and he’s home and better now), and he received exemplary care from medical staff who are overburdened yet continue to work very hard caring for people during these difficult times.  

On a happier note, and with Henry still in mind, this year, we’ll be baking gingerbread cookies. You’ll find the recipe below. As a child, I never liked gingerbread. It was too bold a flavour for me. In fact, I was even lukewarm about gingerbread as an adult until I tasted my friend Vivien’s cookies. They’re more like Dutch speculaas than true gingerbread, and they are delicious. Enjoy!

Vivien’s Gingerbread

1 cup/225 grams butter

1 cup/210 grams brown sugar, lightly packed

1 egg

1 teaspoon/5 ml vanilla

2 ½ cups/375 grams all-purpose white flour

1 teaspoon/5 grams baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons/4 grams cinnamon

½ teaspoon/1.5 g allspice

½ teaspoon/1.5 g nutmeg

½ teaspoon/1.5 g ground cloves

Cream butter, sugar, egg and vanilla. Stir dry ingredients together and add to wet. Form into a ball of dough. Refrigerate for an hour or until firm (or until you’re ready to bake; I sometimes mix the dough up the day before). Lightly flour your counter or board. Roll dough to about ¼ inch/3.5 cm thick and cut into shapes using cookie cutters. Bake at 350 7 – 9 minutes. Cool and decorate. They’re also delicious unadorned! Makes about two dozen cookies.

Fiction For the Holidays

I have some fiction suggestions for you this week.  Below you’ll find novel recommendations for young children, teens and adults. Happy reading!

Our Little Kitchen written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. Picture book, ages 4 – 8. A story about a lively gathering when neighbours come together to prepare a meal for their community. With a garden full of produce, a joyfully chaotic kitchen, and a friendly meal shared at the table, this sweet story celebrates diversity, camaraderie and community. 

Sour Cakes written by Karen Krossing and illustrated by Anna Kwan. Picture book, ages 3 – 7. Two sisters wake up in very different moods: the older one cheerful, the younger one grumpy. The older sister proposes they bake a cake, but the younger sibling only wants to bake a sour one. When the younger girl’s mood reaches the boiling point, the older sister agrees to bake the gloomy sour cake. With that, the two sisters navigate the younger one’s messy feelings and get back to playing.

Firefly by Phillipa Dowding. Middle-grade novel, ages 9 – 12. Thirteen-year-old Firefly has had a difficult childhood. When her mother is taken into custody, Firefly goes to live with her aunt Gayle, who owns The Corseted Lady costume shop. Between her aunt’s secure and steadfast support and the millions of costumes in the shop, Firefly is able to try on different identities, find herself in the process and heal.

Facing the Sun by Janice Lynn Mather, teen novel, ages 14 and up. Set in the Caribbean, this story focuses on four friends who experience unexpected changes in their lives when a hotel developer purchases their community’s beloved beach. Facing the Sun, which is told from four points of view, is a coming-of-age story about navigating family, friendship, self-worth and growing up.

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry. Contemporary Romance/Women’s Fiction. Travel writer Poppy decides to take one last shot at reconnecting with Alex, her former best friend, who quite possibly might be her dream man. Best friends since college and complete opposites, Poppy and Alex have taken an annual summer vacation together for years. Or they did up until two years ago when they had a serious falling out. Hoping to mend the rift between them and win back the heart of her best friend, Poppy invites Alex on one last trip. An unabashedly feel-good read with the prerequisite happy ending.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. Historical fiction. At 650+ pages, The Rose Code is a time commitment but a worthwhile one. This novel focuses on three very different women, once friends and then estranged, who come back together to help the British solve codes that the Germans have been sending back and forth.  Though it’s a little slow to start, this is a character-driven and suspenseful story of friendship, betrayal, hope and redemption.

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult. Set in the early months of the Covid pandemic, this recently released Picoult title is garnering solid reviews.  In March 2020, Diana O’Toole takes a planned romantic holiday to the Galapagos alone as her boyfriend Finn, who expected to join her on their nonrefundable vacation (and where Diana is almost certain he is going to propose), is needed at the hospital in New York. Unfortunately, the island is soon under quarantine and Diana is stranded there until the borders reopen. Completely isolated, Diana must venture out of her comfort zone and, in fact, eventually comes to question everything she knows about her relationships, her choices and herself.

Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapina. This domestic suspense read from Canadian novelist Lapina will appeal to the thriller lover on your list. The story takes place in the days following the brutal murders of Fred and Sheila Merton in their mansion on Easter Sunday. Their three adult children, who stand to inherit a fortune, are all deemed suspects. And as the story unfolds, Catherine, Dan and Jenna begin to suspect each other as well.

And one I’m anticipating:

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain. Published in the UK this year and being re-released in North America in early 2022, this novel tells the story of 64-year-old postman Albert Entwistle who has been living alone in a quiet North England town since his mother died eighteen years ago. But Albert has just learned he’ll be forced to retire on his next birthday. Friendless and with little to look forward to, Albert realizes it’s time to be honest about who he is and to ask for what he wants. So, Albert sets out to find George, the man that many years ago he loved and lost. As Albert embraces a new future, extraordinary things begin to happen.

Merry Christmas

Wishing you a joyful holiday season, even if things are quieter than you’d like and different than you’d hoped for. It’s a good time to celebrate those simple but incredibly important things: health, peace, and the family and friends who make our lives worth living. They may not be able to join us at the table this year, but they can be with us in spirit or perhaps virtually. It’s also a good time to indulge just a little. For those whose indulgence is chocolate, here’s my easy and go-to recipe for chocolate truffles. See you in January!

Chocolate Truffles

8 ounces/227 grams bittersweet chocolate (Bakers or a high quality bar)

3/4 cup/180 mL whipping cream

2 tablespoons/30 mL butter

2 – 3 tablespoons/30 – 45 mL orange or almond liqueur (or substitute your favorite)

Combine cream and butter, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat; add liqueur and chocolate. Stir until chocolate is entirely melted. Chill the mixture until it’s firm enough to handle, but not rock-solid, about 3 hours. Using a teaspoon, form and roll mixture into small balls. Roll each truffle in cocoa powder or ground nuts. Store in the fridge for several weeks or freeze for up to three months.

Holiday Reading, Take Two

I have some fiction recommendations for you this week. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, there’s still time to choose a book, and many local bookstores are happy to arrange curbside pick-up. On this list, you’ll find a picture book, an intermediate novel and a young adult pick, as well as some adult titles to appeal to a variety of tastes.

I Am Scary by Elise Gravel. Picture book, ages 1 – 5. A monster tries to scare a child who refuses to be frightened. The monster wonders, “What will happen to me if I’m not scary?” The child offers him a hug and the monster melts . . . softening into an adorable creature. A sweet and humorous tale from Montrealer Elise Gravel.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel. Intermediate Fiction, ages 8 – 14. It was just rain. But after the downpour, odd black plants begin to shoot up. They take over fields and twine around houses. They bloom and throw off toxic pollen – and feed. Strangely, three Saltspring Island teens – Anaya, Petra and Seth – seem immune. Are they the key to fighting back the invasion? They’d better figure it out fast, because it’s starting to rain again.

Kid Sterling by Christine Welldon. Young adult fiction, ages 12 – 18. Set in New Orleans in 1906. Sterling shines shoes, helping support his laundress mother. Sterling also plays the trumpet, and what he really wants is to learn from his idol, Buddy Bolden, who is playing music that’s turning New Orleans upside down. A richly textured story of a culture and character surviving against all odds.

What You Wish For by Katherine Center. Women’s fiction, contemporary. Voted a library reads pick for July 2020, Center’s characters come alive in this charming story that also touches on serious issues. School librarian Samantha Casey loves her life and job. But when a man from her past, Duncan Carpenter, shows up at the school to become the new principal, things quickly go downhill. Center writes about resilience and struggle and ultimately finding joy and savoring life’s moments of grace.  

The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal. Women’s fiction, contemporary. A story of four generations of women grappling with family betrayals, long-buried secrets and a mysterious tragedy that brings them together. Set in Devon, and rich in imagery, characterization and language, this story addresses some difficult issues from multiple points of view. A strong family drama with a touch of romance and mystery woven in.

The Paris Hours by Alex George. Literary, historical. Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers and musicians. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost. Told over the course of a single day in 1927, The Paris Hours tells the story of Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust; Souren, an Armenian refugee; artist Guillaume; and journalist Jean-Paul. When the quartet’s paths finally cross, each will learn if they’ll find what they were looking for.

And finally, here are two uplifting and light holiday-themed novels:

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. Sweet and laugh-out-loud funny in spots, this holiday romance features terrific characters, one of whom must relive her day multiple times, a la Groundhog Day. When Maelyn Jones asks the universe what happiness looks like for her, the answer she gets is more than she ever dreamed. A quick, easy read that will make you smile.

Christmas at the Island Hotel by Jenny Colgan. Set on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, a family in turmoil prepares to open a hotel in time for Christmas. Though the novel primarily focusses on the love story between a shy island girl and a fellow kitchen worker (a disgraced Norwegian prince exiled by his father) it also delves into other relationships and capers on the island. Quirky characters, tender and moving.

Holiday Reading

It’s a different kind of holiday for many this year as Covid prevents us from traveling or celebrating with other households. For us, it means our first Christmas as a twosome in over thirty years! Rather than being upset, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to focus on the things that bring us joy, rather than focusing on the needs of family and friends. For instance, I’ll have a lot more time to read, and that always makes me happy. But because this year has been a challenging one, I’m looking for books that offer an escape, or ones that are ultimately uplifting, and if there’s food or travel involved, so much the better. Here are some non-fiction titles to consider. Stop back next week for some fiction recommendations. 

Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters by Dominique Crenn and Emma Brockes.  By the time twenty-one-year-old Dominique Crenn decided to become a chef, she knew it would be tough in France where almost all restaurant kitchens were run by men. So, she moved to San Francisco to train under Jeremiah Tower. Almost thirty years later, Crenn was awarded three Michelin Stars in 2018 for her restaurant Atelier Crenn, and became the first female chef in the United States to receive this honor. Part biography starting with her childhood in Versailles and part food memoir as she details out her cooking journey, this is a lovely read about a chef’s personal discoveries.

Hidden Places: An Inspired Traveller’s Guide by Sarah Baxter. Here’s some armchair travel for those who feel housebound. Travel journalist Sarah Baxter reveals twenty-five of the world’s most obscure places.  She takes us to little-known spots in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada and the U.S. Some locations are remote, others are near more widely known attractions, but each destination has a story to tell. Evocative text and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations by Amy Grimes. A short, quick read and a lovely escape.

The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Even though it’s not a new release (this book has been out for five years) it was new to me and I enjoyed it enough that I’ll be seeking out more by Helen Russell.  Denmark is officially the happiest nation on earth, so when Russell’s husband is offered his dream job at LEGO in Denmark, Helen goes along and begins her quest to find out what makes Danes so happy. Each month, she shares a primary takeaway contributing to the country’s general happiness level and the related lessons she learned. Though she also touches on the not-so-great parts of living in Denmark, Russell’s narrative is upbeat and even funny at times.

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman.  An honest and sometimes funny book that celebrates friendship and what it takes to stay close for the long haul. Sow and Friedman tell the story of their first decade of friendship, both its joys and its pitfalls. More memoir than intellectual study, and very occasionally veering into the preachy, Big Friendship is nevertheless entertaining and affirming.

Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness by Vivek H. Murthy. Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy delves into scientific research to explain how our brains function from social interaction or the lack of it. A great book to read and help us understand why we may be feeling strange or uneasy during these times of isolation. The good news is that social connection is innate and a cure for loneliness. Filled with interesting anecdotes, this is an inspirational read that reminds us to practice compassion as often as possible.

We are Santa: Portraits and Profiles by Ron Cooper. Not only feel-good but seasonally appropriate! Award-winning photographer Ron Cooper has curated a collection of fifty professional Santas from across the USA. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who slip into the red suit to spread Christmas cheer. Before and after portraits as Santa transforms from his (or her) everyday world to becoming Santa, and behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes to bring home the wonder and joy of the seasonal Santa. Highly recommended.

Happy Canada Day!

July 1st will be different this year without the concerts, large street parties and especially without the fireworks (Team Sheltie is quite happy the latter are cancelled). I hope you get a chance to celebrate somehow. I’ll be away from my desk, aiming to catch the sunrise and hopefully the sunset too. We aren’t a perfect country by any stretch, but I’m proud to call myself a Canadian. Enjoy the holiday everybody!

Merry Christmas!

I’m wishing you peace, love and joy this holiday season. I’ll be taking a few weeks to celebrate with family and friends, and I hope you’ll be relaxing and celebrating too. The blog will resume in January.

Before signing off, I’ll leave you with a quick, homemade goodie recipe. If you love butter tarts but you’re pressed for time, whip up a batch of butter tart squares in the microwave.  These freeze well too. Simply cool, cut into squares and pop them into the freezer until you need them. They’ll thaw while you brew the coffee!

Microwave Butter Tart Squares

Butter a 9 by 9 microwave safe pan and set aside.

For the base:

½ cup butter

2 tablespoons icing sugar

1 cup white all-purpose flour

Combine flour and icing sugar. Melt butter and mix into dry ingredients. Press into your greased pan. Microwave 3 mins at power level 8 for a high wattage microwave; 4 – 6 minutes at power level 8 for lower wattage machines. The base will be firm but not cracked when it’s done. Remove and set aside.

For the top:

¼ cup butter, melted

1 ½ cups brown sugar

2 – 3 large eggs (I use 3)

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup raisins or walnuts (optional)

In a medium-sized bowl, combine butter, sugar, eggs, vinegar and vanilla. Beat with a hand mixer for 2 – 3 minutes, or until well combined. Fold in nuts or raisins if desired. Pour over base. Microwave 3 – 4 minutes at power level eight for a high wattage microwave; 4 – 6 minutes at power level eight for lower wattage machines. The filling should be set but have a slight jiggle when you shake the pan. It will also look a little frothy. You can chill and eat the squares at this point but they look more appealing if you slide the pan under a hot broiler for 1 – 2 minutes in order to brown. Watch closely; they turn brown very quickly!   

The Gift of Reading, Take Two

Today’s blog continues on last week’s theme of asking other writers to recommend gift books for friends and family. If you missed last week’s recommendations, you’ll find them here. https://lauralangston.com/the-gift-of-reading/

This week, the focus is on fiction for young and old. It’s an eclectic mix: two middle grade recommendations, a YA free verse novel, and fiction for adults ranging from romance and crime to historical and humor.  As I mentioned last week, be sure to check out the bios and books of the authors who are offering suggestions. Many of their titles are ideal for gift giving as well.

Sylvia McNicoll: Bright Shining Moment by Deb Lougheed (Second Story Press). Perfect for a family read aloud before or after Christmas, Bright Shining Moment is a heartwarming story about old timey hard times when the people who seemed the poorest in material things turn out to be the richest in love. Francois Tisdale’s beautiful cover illustration evokes warm seasonal feelings. Ages 8 – 12.

Sylvia McNicoll’s latest book is The Diamond Mistake Mystery (Dundurn Press) sylviamcnicoll.com

Lee Edward Fodi: Finding Cooper by Stacey Matson (Scholastic). A mystery inspired by the real-life story of D.B Cooper, a famous skyjacker who escaped with a load of cash in 1971. Fodi loved the story because it’s set in the Pacific Northwest and has a lot of humor and heart. Ages 9 – 12.

Lee Edward Fodi’s latest book is The Secret of Zoone (https://www.leefodi.com/books/secret_of_zoone.html)

Darlene Foster: Baggage by Wendy Phillips (Coteau Books) One of the best YA novels Foster has read in a long time, Baggage is the story of a mysterious young African man who speaks no English and turns up abandoned at the Vancouver airport. Written in free verse, this contemporary and timely novel highlights the efforts over several months of three teens and two adults to overturn the government decision to deport him. Ages 13 and up.

Darlene Foster’s most recent release is Amanda in Holland: Missing in Action. http://www.darlenefoster.ca/

Charis Cotter: One for the Rock by Kevin Major (Breakwater Books). A Newfoundland murder mystery with a flawed but likeable detective, this clever story keeps you guessing until the end.  Cotter is a murder mystery aficionado and says Major hits all the high notes of a whodunnit with charm and humor.

Charis Cotter’s latest book is The Ghost Road, also set in Newfoundland.  http://chariscotter.ca/index.php/books/ghost-road/

Liz Walker: Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry (Broadway Books). A single woman dives headlong from a ferry into Lake Champlain to rescue a child, and then must figure out what to do with him. A blend of mystery, women’s fiction and romance, Walker found the book so gripping she didn’t want to put it down.

Visit Liz Walker’s website here: www.lizwalkerwords.com

Barbara McDonell: Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (Vintage Canada). Offbeat and charming, this novel features an opinionated tortoise named Winnifred and Audrey, a quirky heroine appropriately nicknamed Oddly. Her perspective (and the perspective of her pet tortoise Winnifred) are laugh-out-loud funny, even as the story deals with Audrey’s difficulty to accept the unexpected demise of her beloved father who raised her alone. A light-hearted read where the heroine applies the rules of the board game Clue to deal with many of life’s quandaries.

Barbara McDonell is the author of The Clutter Queen Spills: Insider Secrets Divulged in Three Simple Steps   https://amzn.to/36bfBTO

Rachel Goldsworthy: News of the World by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow) Set in post-Civil War Texas, this is the story of 71-year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd and his unlikely ward, a 10-year-old girl rescued by the U.S. Army after being captured by Kiowa. Kidd reluctantly agrees to transport the child safely back to her family. Goldsworthy called the novel a page turner and said as soon as she finished it, she searched out another novel by the same author.

Rachel Goldworth’s latest read is Green Spirits, a Corsair’s Cove Companion short story. https://rachelgoldsworthy.com

 

Warmest wishes . . . .

The countdown is on to Winter Solstice and Christmas Day. However and wherever you celebrate, may your holiday be filled with joy and light, and may you be warmed by the presence of friends and family.

Happy solstice and Merry Christmas! See you in 2019.