A Visit to An Irish Graveyard

Ireland church
       
         When I traveled to Ireland in the early 80’s, in the days of cheap Euro-rail passes, I went by myself, which looking back was a gutsy thing to do and certainly out of character for me, a reserved introvert (and I might add the one and only time I traveled by myself).   None of my family or friends were interested in Ireland, but it was one of two places I wanted to see when I graduated, the other being New York city.  Ireland was not then the popular tourist destination it is today.    I remember it as a dismal country, full of small dreary towns, but I had Irish ancestors and even at a young age I was the family historian.   It was the stories that interested me.   In addition to researching the family history, I had booked a week at an English-riding academy, as a promise to my younger horse-crazy self.  This was in the days when Glamour magazine (my fashion bible) had the travel section, which profiled said establishment and promised a glorious week in the Irish countryside (I remember the exact wording) with lovely walks by the sea.   I must have envisioned riding to the hounds or galloping along the cliffs like  Poldark, something which appealed to the poetic me.  After spending a few days at the Dublin Library going through old microfilms of land records (computers and the internet had not been invented), I located a section of Leitrim County where there seemed to be a large concentration of Patricks and Marys and Johns with my last name, spelled with an a and not the more common o.   My dad said it was always with an a, but you have to be careful with genealogy records as variations in spelling can sometimes be the recorder’s honest mistake.    
       My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary had immigrated to Canada  in 1846 at the start of the potato famine and their 14 year old son John came a year later through New York.   For more on their story check out last years St. Patrick’s Day blog – Irish Roots.   
Patrick and Mary

Patrick and Mary – (tintype)

Their son John below, sitting in the chair, aged 80 yr in 1912. 

Family Portrait

John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912

Patrick was proud of his Leitrim County heritage and had it inscribed on his  tombstone when he died in 1880, where it is barely legible today.    
Gravestone
After sight-seeing in Dublin, I took the train around Ireland, staying in B&B’s and doing some side tours, the usual ones, The Lakes of Killarney,
The Lakes of Killarney - AMc - 2018

The Lakes of Killarney

the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula (the only sunny day), and the Cliffs of Moher.   Readers of my long-winded posts might find it hard to believe but I bailed out of kissing the Blarney stone. Blarney castle (4)

 The medical me was horrified at the unhygienic aspect, especially considering my general lack of immunity to foreign germs, plus the thought of reclining backwards over the parapets at that height was not exactly appealing.  (see picture under Wikipedia link) 

          It was September and the weather was gloomy – it rained every day.  If it wasn’t raining, it was overcast.  (I forgot to put film in the camera, thus missing a whole role of dull gray skies).   Central heating was mostly non-existent.    I was cold all the time, and wore both of the Irish sweaters I had bought in Dublin the first week.  Cliffs of Moher (2)

It poured rain on the Cliffs of Moher and I got thoroughly soaked, then the bus broke down and we sat for hours waiting for a mechanic to arrive.   It was a scary drive back to Cork in the dark with no headlights.   Fortunately, my very kind B&B owner met me at the station, as she wondered why I hadn’t returned at 6 pm as planned.    She turned on the bedwarmer/electric blanket and after I had a hot bath, brought me tea and cookies, while I sat in bed writing in my journal about my dreadful day.  I guess you could say Ireland is where I first started to write, as I kept a travel journal  and wrote in it at night if there was nothing else to do.   Although it was easy to meet people in the B&B’s, I wasn’t much of a party person and there are only so many pub/Celtic music nights you can handle over a three week period.    Looking back over my journal entries, they’re not half bad.      

       The glorious week at the equestrian centre turned out to be one lesson in a drafty old riding ring, listening to a rude female instructor yell at a group of tweens, horses and myself, in that order.   I wasn’t sitting up straight enough, and even though I have a bit of scoliosis, she showed no mercy.  Towards the end of the lesson, when the horse sat down on me, I got off and went back to the B&B just down the road.   So much for that expensive pair of riding boots I had bought in Dublin.    The next morning I woke up with a terrible cold, but luckily I had a nice B&B to convalesce in.  The proprietress kept insisting there were some lovely walks to the sea (perhaps it was she who had supplied the Glamour advertisement), but I barely left the room, sleeping and reading, and being entertained by their talkative twelve-year old daughter (a carbon copy of Anne of Green Gables complete with red pigtails), who kept me amused with her drawings and music collection.   I would surface for supper with the only other guest, an older lady from Dublin in search of a holiday and some company.   She talked non-stop.   I listened, nodded, and after a spell by the turf fire, went back to bed.      
       When I was sufficiently recovered, I took the train to Carrick-on-Shannon.    Leitrim County (see Wikepedia) is located in central Ireland near the northern border.   It’s definitely off the beaten tourist path, but I wasn’t brave enough to rent a car as there were white crosses on the roads marking the spots where tourists had died from forgetting to drive on the left side of the road.  I  found the local parish and the priest said there was a church in Fenagh and they might have records.  He said he didn’t have any records, that I’d come at the wrong time of year and that the area was ‘polluted’ with people with my surname.  I didn’t have time to reply that it was spelled with an a, before he slammed the door in my face.   (Sigh….they must get tired of tourists).
      While I had been blessed so far with lovely B&B’s, the one I booked into  must have been the worst in all of Ireland.    It was undergoing renovations, there was doggy do-do on the stairs, no hot water or heat, and the not very nice landlady told me I had to have breakfast by 8 or I wouldn’t be getting any at all.    She did however make arrangements for a driver to take me out to the parish church.   There was only one Catholic church in the outlying area  and only one cab driver in the town.    The next morning when the driver (your typical small Irishmen), showed up he was dressed in a tweed suit and tie and not a day under 85.   He looked frail, but the B&B lady had assured me he was in good health, just a bit senile, and unlike most Irish people not much for conversation.   The only word I remember him saying was ‘aye’.    

       It was a very foggy morning as we drove out into the countryside and all I could see were hawthorn trees and piles and piles of rocks, swirled in an eerie mist.    It was the most desolate place ever, and I kept thinking no wonder they left.     The west parts of Ireland around Connemara by the sea are rocky but picturesque – but this was just plain bleak.    When we got to the church, it looked like a new modern church, right in the middle of nowhere.

     An old priest answered the door.   His eyes were red and rheumy and he looked hungover, but he opened the church so I could take some pictures.  He told me the church had been built in 1840, (so perhaps my ancestors had worshiped there), but the records only went back to 1855 because of ‘the fire’.  There were a few Patricks and one John listed in his old book but the dates weren’t right.  The church had been renovated in 1970 and there were about 700 people in the parish.  We certainly hadn’t passed any houses so the parish must have taken up a large area of the countryside.   (We hadn’t passed any cars either, so perhaps I could have driven on the right side of the road).  

       When I went back to the car the driver had fallen asleep, so I woke him up and we drove down to the church cemetery which was about a mile down the road, just outside a small village which consisted of a pub, a store, a few houses and a school.    The church graveyard was at the site of an old monastery (Fenagh Abbey) which originated around 500 AD and held the ruins of two churches which dated from the 15th century.   

Ireland church

     There were some newer tombstones, most with the o spelling, a few Patricks and Johns, and lots of crumbled old stones which were impossible to read.   I wandered around for awhile taking pictures – it was a strange  experience being in the place where your ancestors might have stood and could be buried.     The atmosphere was certainly mystical. 

Ireland church

      Patrick and Mary’s parents, being too old to travel, had stayed behind, and I assume John must have stayed with them when all the others left.   Maybe they died in the famine and so he had no choice but to leave a year or two later.  They  probably wouldn’t have had a proper burial place as in 1847, the worse year of the famine, corpses littered the fields and roads and there was no one left to bury them, nor any coffins to be had.  Tombstones were only for the rich. 

Ireland church

I recently read a book by John Kelly, The Graves are Walking, which details the horror of that era of Ireland’s history.

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People by John KellyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars  A scholarly well researched history of the Irish Potato Famine, this book is an important but disturbing read, especially for those of Irish descent.

 

 

Having read it, I’m having difficulty with the decision of John being left behind, but then they left in Sept 1846 when the potato crop had failed but before the worst of the famine hit, and if it was John’s decision to stay behind and go to school, then perhaps 14 then wasn’t the child it seems today.  Someone must have paid for his passage and put him on a ship to New York, the poor survival rate on the coffin ships to Canada being well known by then.   (NB: there is also a Famine Museum in Roscommon Ireland, a tribute to the national disaster). 

      When I went back to the car the driver had dozed off again and I didn’t have the heart to wake him so I wandered around some more, snapping pictures.  Finally I had to rouse him as I had to catch the train to Dublin.  The fog had burned off by then, so I could see more of the countryside on the way back, poor rocky land, the odd house, a few cows and sheep here and there.   It was September which would have been harvest season if they had been able to grow anything at all, even potatoes.    We passed a small lake, perhaps they fished?  

Ireland church
        The Irish tourism site says that Leitrim County, at 32,000, is one of the most sparsely populated counties in Ireland.   It was certainly a godforsaken place.   At the time of the famine it had a large population of over 150,000, many of whom emigrated.   When we arrived  back at the B&B I gave the driver 15 pounds instead of the 10 he requested.   I was just glad he got me back in one piece – that we hadn’t driven into a bog someplace where I might have been preserved for centuries like the famous bog man in the Dublin museum.  

         Certainly, it was a surreal experience to visit the land of your long lost ancestors.  Now that we have Ancestry.com and numerous online resources, and personal genealogists who will do all the searching for you, I might go back some day, with a more specific plan in mind.   For it has certainly occurred to me, that I possibly wasn’t even in the right place.  A few years ago, a distant relative tried to do further research and came up empty-handed.   There are so few records, that I may have to remain content with my “lost in the mists of time” experience.   

      A friend brought me back some souvenirs from her Irish trip last year, a Leitrim County flag and a miniature bottle of whiskey, which my leprechaun is enjoying here. 

        In the thirty five years since I was there, Ireland has prospered, every small town now a picture of tidy charm.   Her photographs were gorgeous, but then cameras have improved too.   Sensibly, she went in May and had two weeks of solid sunshine and balmy weather.   The clerk in the tourist shop inquired why would you want a souvenir from that place –  nobody lives in Leitrim County.   Well my ancestors once did.   I placed the flag on Patrick and Mary’s tombstone in our church cemetery, as I thought they might enjoy the fact that a great great granddaughter was thinking of them and their old homeplace.    I hope their Irish eyes were smiling down on me. 

Gravestone

A few weeks later, the flag was gone, blown away by the wind, or removed by an unappreciative grass-cutter or priest, someone trying to obliterate the past.   

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Postscript:    When I got back to Dublin, I booked a hotel on Grafton Street which had central heating, plenty of hot water and lots of shopping nearby, then switched to a B&B the night before my flight.   My suitcase was so full of souvenirs that I had to leave the riding boots behind in the B&B.  I simply could not cram them in, so I left them there beside the bed.    I hope someone else found them useful – but I have regretted that decision to this day, as there are many times when I’m mucking around in the garden in the spring when they would have come in handy!  
Irish Cottage - AMc

Irish Cottage

Spring Cleaning – The Marie Kondo Way

Years ago, everyone did spring cleaning.   They washed windows, shook carpets outside and cleaned every room from top to bottom until the house sparkled.   I remember Martha Stewart writing about the annual rituals her mother would undertake and like everything Martha Stewart, it was complicated, time-consuming and probably unnecessary.   It’s not like a bit of dust will kill you, unless you have really bad allergies and have to keep the dust mites at a minimum.    The theory now is that living in a spotless germ-free house is not  good for building children’s immune systems.   It seems a little dirt is good for you, a germ-laden pet, preferably a dog, even better.    So, while I put all the winter plaid stuff away and bring out lighter brighter decor, when spring arrives I don’t want to be stuck indoors when there is such delightful weather to be enjoyed outside…..spring is not here yet, but coming soon.   

Tulips - AMc

I tend to tackle any major cleaning projects in January when it’s cold and snowy, but I do like my house to be tidy and the clutter under control.   The new Netflix show by Marie Kondo, the diminutive author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up fame, has been getting a lot of attention lately. 

If you’re a fan of the show, you might enjoy my post from last January – Decluttering 101 – Out With The Old, where I profile her book and my efforts to apply it. 

One caveat, at the time I wrote the blog, I did not understand the role of Japanese spirituality in her method.   While this belief that inanimate objects have feelings and need to be thanked, may seem bizarre to us western folk, reading a recent op-ed piece on the subject helped put parts of the book into context.   Which just goes to show, how judgments can be skewed by ignorance, as the book was initially intended for Japanese readers who would of course be familiar with those ideas.  As for all those people who made fun of her methods (and I read some truly cruel reviews on Goodreads last year), well she’s now sold 11 million copies, has a new hit show, and is probably laughing all the way to the bank.   

Link to January  2018 Blog:  Decluttering 101 – Out With the Old

My mother is painting spring…..

Spring Flowers - AMc

Spring Flowers

The Golden Age of Travel

Tropical Vacation - AMc         This is the time of year I used to be winging my way south to escape  winter for a week.    Travel-wise people routinely book flights months in advance to get the best prices for the prime travel season over the February/March break, but years ago travel was still an unknown venture for the vast majority of people.   Only 15% of North Americans had even been on a plane in the 1970’s.   It took the hippie generation of young baby boomers, staying in hostels and Euro-railing their way across Europe on $10 a day, to jump start the travel industry so that flying became a commonplace  experience.  In the Pan-Am years of the 50’s and 60’s with the first charter  trips to the Caribbean and Mexico (Acapulco anyone), travel was only for the fortunate few and the very rich.   The jet-setting life of airline stewardesses was advertised in books like Coffee, Tea or Me……a line that would surely be considered sexist now.    My SIL was an airline stewardess in the mid-80’s and said it wasn’t really all that glamorous….more like being a hard-working waitress in the air and trying to sleep in stuffy hotel rooms. 

When I took my first trip in 1975, March break to Florida with four high school friends, we went on a bus.    While a two day drive, the bus at $380, was considerably cheaper than flying, and that included the hotel room.   I still have the set of baby-blue Samsonite luggage my parents bought me, not just for the trip but also for going away to university (currently in the basement  as I never throw anything even remotely vintage out).  luggageToday the majority of people hop on a plane at least once a year and think nothing of it.   It’s hard to remember when flying was a new and exciting experience, whether someplace tropical or abroad.   (The whole concept of Abroad used to be considered exotic, bringing to mind an era of elegance, with ocean liners like the Queen Elizabeth and sleeping cars on the Orient Express).   Now flying is just routine, often fraught with headaches, and certainly not part of the fun of going away.   Unmanned check-ins and luggage kiosks, long pre-boarding wait times, luggage fees, cramped seats, no meals or drinks and a general lack of amenities have taken the fun from the friendly skies.    And consider yourself lucky if no one is ejected from your flight for rude comments or behavior, as many online videos can attest.    A friend of mine was so traumatized by a bad airline experience that when her husband found a great price on a mid-winter trip she turned it down because she didn’t want to have to deal with the airport.   (I am imagining a future where we might be instantaneously whisked away to our destination in our own magic bubbles like the Jetsons).    

airplane            I was 24yrs old when I took my first plane trip, a two-week vacation to Hawaii, a popular destination in the 80’s but expensive even back then.    I flew on on a Wardair Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, a 9½ hour flight straight from Toronto to Oahu – an experience I will remember forever.   Wardair was a Canadian airline company started by Max Ward in 1946 as a bush pilot operation carrying cargo from the Yukon and Northwest Territories to Edmonton, which eventually expanded into a luxury domestic and international travel fleet of aircraft.   Mr. Ward believed that PART OF THE FUN OF TRAVEL SHOULD BE GETTING THERE.    Wardair’s  motto was luxury “Steak and Champagne” flights at reasonable prices.   Here’s a Wikipedia link for more on the Wardair history.

        During our long non-stop flight all 500 plus seats were treated to first class service.    My sister had warned me about the initial rush of takeoff, (which I found a bit scary), but the jet was so big once we were up on the air it felt like nothing at all.    The stewardesses (all female in those days) had passed out trays of candies in preparation for any ear popping.   About an hour into the flight we were treated to a champagne breakfast on real china, then they passed out hot towels.  The seats were spacious.   All drinks were free.   An in-flight movie followed, nothing I remember.   One of the stewardesses, a classmate of mine from high school, sat down with me on her break and regaled me with stories of her four day lay overs in Hawaii.     What impressed me most was the spiral staircase to the upper deck where there was a bar where you could mix and mingle, or just stretch your legs.     Imagine a bar in the sky – very James Bond.airplane   

Later we were served a wonderful filet mignon dinner on the special Wardair Royal Doulton china with snowy white draped tablecloths and napkins, your choice of wine, then coffee and a fancy dessert.    We read and rested, then more hot towels to wipe your face and hands before we arrived – at 3pm with the time change.   I remember descending into balmy weather where we were greeted with the traditional lei necklace welcoming us to Hawaii.   Yes, this flying was a wonderful thing – I was spoiled for life.    

Fast forward a few years, and after a few cramped experiences with Air Canada (famous for frozen green peas and rubber chicken), and other airlines, I was less than impressed .  Flash forward to the 80’s and another set of luggage (wheels had been invented), with a vintage-style carry so chic it once got me upgraded to First Class and salmon.   

As a carry on it was pretty useless, but so Audrey Hepburnish, with all those little spaces for cosmetics and toiletries.    In regular class you still got fed, (I remember a particularly stale sandwich on a flight out west), but all the frills were gone.   A few more years, and Wardair was gone too…..bankrupt.   Mr. Ward had expanded too quickly and people were now being swayed by discount airlines, cheap flights and frequent flyer miles.    

I haven’t been on a plane in years, for a variety of reasons – work, family, medical.   If there is one airborne germ circulating on the plane it will have no difficulty finding my seat.   My last trip was spent in a Mexican five star all inclusive resort with a sore throat and sinus cold so miserable I barely left the room, except to gaze upon the bougainvillea on the balcony.   The food was tasteless, and deficient in chicken noodle soup.   (At least in Hawaii the dreaded sore throat did not arrive until the second last day although it took three days for my ears to unplug from the flight home).    I do hope to travel again someday, but not in a run down but let’s cram everything into one week and arrive home sick and exhausted kind of way, but at a more leisurely pace.   When you are young, cheap and basic will do, when you are older, you require a bit more luxury and space.   High rise hotel rooms where you can’t open a window make me feel claustrophobic, so perhaps an Airbnb or renting a villa for a month would be more appealing.   In the meantime, while everyone is talking about their trips down south, I am thinking of this quote from a delightful book by Vivian Swift, who finally put down roots in a small Long Island town after twenty years of roaming the world  When Wanderers Cease to Roam – A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put. 

Quote:     ‘Travel is not what it used to be.  And that’s a good reason to Stay  Put.’          

In the meantime I am living vicariously through travel books – let someone else deal with the crowded airports and the lost luggage. 

(See the upcoming Literary Salon – Travel Books – in March).     

What was your worst airplane/travel experience?         

 

Tea and Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sticky Toffee PuddingSnow, then ice pellets, then freezing rain, then back to snow again – this has been our weather pattern for the past six weeks.   Today is definitely another stay at home day, and for those weary of winter what better thing to do than to bake.  Your kitchen will smell lovely and your family is sure to be appreciative.  The third Monday in February is Family Day in Canada, as the government felt we needed a long holiday weekend to ward off the winter blues.   The idea is to spend the day outdoors with your family enjoying some winter activities, which inspired my mother to paint this picture.

Snow Day - AMc - 2015

Winter Fun

The weather cooperated last night with an unexpected six inch snowfall which made everything clean and white for tobogganing, skiing or skating.    It’s pretty, but I would much prefer to see some greenery in my backyard and if there are any snowdrops beneath the neighbour’s tree they must be smothered by now.   

There’s finally some warmth to the sun and the air has that mild feeling that tells you winter is winding down, but it’s still cold enough to make a nice warm dessert appealing.    I stole this recipe for sticky toffee pudding from a local coffee shop which specializes in homemade deserts –  well they graciously emailed it to me after I told them theirs was the best ever.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t a big seller for them, but sticky toffee pudding is not that well known in Canada, although becoming more popular.   Often thought of as a classic British dessert, it’s origins are actually Canadian, as (Wikipedia) legend has it that two Canadian WW2 officers gave the recipe to a British restaurant owner who put it in a cookbook.   So I guess you could say it’s circled back across the pond.   It’s really more of a cake, but as pudding is an interchangeable term for dessert in Britain, it’s best served with tea (and you can pretend you’re at Downton Abbey).  

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sticky toffee pudding

I used a big muffin pan instead of an eight inch square dish, as it makes perfect portions, and that’s how the coffee shop served it.   Sticky Toffee Pudding

But I scooped the rest of the leftover batter into a small red loaf pan from Christmas because it looked more festive.  Sticky Toffee PuddingWatch the baking time closely, as I took them out a bit before thirty minutes and they were still well done, (and my oven normally cooks slow). 

The caramel sauce is sweet but not too sweet.   I find those cans of 2% evaporated milk (NOT sweetened condensed), always have a peculiar smell and taste, but you don’t notice it when it’s boiled together with the sugar and butter.   Some recipes say you can use cream if you wish, and I may try that sometime but I didn’t have any and the grocery store was closed because of the holiday.   Of course cream will up the saturated fat content.   Our (President’s Choice) grocery store sold an excellent microwavable freezer brand of this desert, and I was horrified to see they clocked in at 550 calories and over 60% of the days saturated fat quota.  We have extensive food labeling here, which probably discouraged people from buying them as the product was discontinued.   (Note the calories can be cancelled out by volunteering to shovel the driveway).   While many restaurant versions of this desert (and I’ve sampled a few), have a moister darker cake, sometimes with spices, this one is lighter in color and more like a muffin texture.    Store the sauce in the refrigerator if not using right away and reheat.    If you like lots of warm sauce (and who doesn’t as it makes the cake), there was enough evaporated milk in the 300ml can to double the batch.  It’s a rich decadent desert, so you might even want to split one with someone, and of course don’t forget the tea! 

Sticky toffee pudding

Song of the Day:   Tea for Two – Ella Fitzgerald

Teapot

 

 

 

The Literary Salon: The Perfect Couple

Beach Book

We all know them – the perfect couple.  Or are they?   The Perfect Couple is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day, because who doesn’t like to read about relationships, perfect and otherwise.    At the very least, you can escape winter for a few hours  – just keep an eye out for any dead bodies washing up on shore!

The Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s Nantucket wedding season, also known as summer – the sight of a bride racing down Main Street is as common as the sun setting at Madaket Beach. The Otis-Winbury wedding promises to be an event to remember: the groom’s wealthy parents have spared no expense to host a lavish ceremony at their oceanfront estate.

But it’s going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons after tragedy strikes: a body is discovered in Nantucket Harbor just hours before the ceremony-and everyone in the wedding party is suddenly a suspect. As Chief of Police Ed Kapenash interviews the bride, the groom, the groom’s famous mystery-novelist mother, and even a member of his own family, he discovers that every wedding is a minefield-and no couple is perfect. Featuring beloved characters from The Castaways, Beautiful Day, and A Summer Affair, The Perfect Couple proves once again that Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read.

A bit about the Author:

Elin Hilderbrand is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has lived on Nantucket for 25 years and is the mother of three teenagers.   The Perfect Couple is her twenty-first novel.

My Goodreads Review:

My Goodreads Review:The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Discussion:

The first book in my Literary Salon series – An Unwanted Guest – was a study in plot development, just how does one plot a murder mystery?   One of the reasons I chose this second book was for it’s characterizations.  If you have written 21 novels, how do you keep coming up with new characters?  Or are they just cookie-cutter people – change the job, name, appearance?   Her characters are usually flawed beings who make bad choices.  They drink a lot….like fish since we’re going with the water theme.   Sometimes they are so annoying and make such stupid decisions that you feel like abandoning them altogether.   You want the reader to like your characters or at least sympathize with them, not think they are fools.  (Note to self –  make my characters smarter and sober…..no vino for them).    

Elin Hilderbrand is the Queen of Beach Fluff, a genre that is often romance but usually just something lighthearted enough to take to the beach.    She comes out with a big fat beach novel every July, and often a short novella before Christmas.    While I have always enjoyed her books, I had grown a bit weary of the format.   The same old bed-hopping, drinking, even worse drinking while driving, piss-poor parents (her words) whose uncontrollable teenagers are doing the same thing – tale grows stale after awhile, and I admit the books wouldn’t be half as appealing if they weren’t set on the island of Nantucket.   (In much the same way I had tired of Joanna Trollope but her last novel, An Unsuitable Match, about a late in life marriage, was actually quite good – but that’s a whole other topic).    These books are fast food fiction, you already know what you are going to get.   There’s usually plenty of family dynamics and complicated romances all destined to work out (or not) in the end, because hey – it’s beach fluff.   But in this her latest book, you have all of the above, plus she has added a murder mystery and the book seems to have taken on a more serious tone.   She is older now and survived breast cancer in 2014.    I enjoyed the mystery aspect of it, and hope she does more in that vein.    I am currently reading the first of her new winter series, Winter in Paradise – see link, in which a wife loses her husband of 25 years in a helicopter crash in the US Virgin Islands, and finds out he had a whole other life on the island.   (not good – back to trashy again….five drinks on a boat cruise before 10am????)   In the jacket blurb the author says she vacations on St. John’s for five weeks every spring, so she can get big chunks of her writing done in privacy.  (maybe that’s my problem – I need to rent a Caribbean villa with turquoise views).   She does seem to like writing about islands, and the island lifestyle.   She’s certainly been a very successful author financially, and if the format works keep at it, but I can’t help but wish she would tone it down a bit.   But then I probably fall into this category, wherein, Tag the father in law, (who was having an affair with the maid of honor), describes the average reader of his wife’s books.         

‘Her fan base is nearly down to no one but the devoted cat ladies.  Tag is thinking about the devoted cat lady – tucked away in her Cotswold cottage fixing a cup of tea and preparing to spend a rainy afternoon in an armchair with a tabby spread across her lap as she cracks open the latest exotically located Greer Garson mystery.’

In his view, this is a dull life, but it sounds appealing to me and I don’t even own a cat.   But then I am older and her books are pretty much the only romance genre I read.   Although she is a good storyteller, I sometimes find her books are just too trashy.   I would love to see what she does with a theme and characters a little less shallow….and a little less preoccupied with booze and infidelity.   That may seem like an odd thing to criticize as we read escapist fiction to escape, but she is such a good writer that I wish she would tackle some more important stuff, like Jodi Picoult does.   Despite that, The Perfect Couple does have something to say about relationships, both old (how many long term couples stay together for financial reasons despite the affairs) and new, plus a riveting story-line.    If you grew up in the eighties with the Not-Married- Before-Thirty-Terrorist Theory of Love and rom.coms like When Harry Met Sally (doomed IMO, totally incompatible all that arguing) and Sleepless in Seattle (flying all the way across the country to meet someone whose voice you liked on the radio?) then love at first sight may seem perfectly plausible – but do the couple at the end of the book stand a chance?  What do they know about each other?  Yes, there are red flags, but isn’t it all unpredictable anyway – fate is fickle.    Success in love and marriage happens for some people and not others, but hopefully you don’t drown in the process.

Quote of the Day:    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want, is a wonderful stroke of luck.”   (Dali Lama)  

Song of the Day:  Makin’ Whoopee – because the lyrics are fun

 

Downton Abbey Revisited

Downton Abbey

‘Village for sale in Yorkshire – property includes a great house with 43 low rent cottages,’ said the ad on the internet.   For only 28 million pounds you could have your very own Downton Abbey, complete with a butler saying, “Welcome to Downton” or whatever you wished to call your estate.  Downtown Abbey

I was late to the British Television drama Downton Abbey, having binge-watched five seasons over the winter of 2015, when it’s ending was already rumoured.   Forty some episodes later, I was addicted, and could see why it was watched by over 100 million people in 200 countries and considered the best drama series ever.   I had heard people talking about the show and had even tried watching a bit here and there but there were so many characters and relationships to keep straight.   The librarian suggested the only solution was to go back to the beginning, so I did.   It helped make a long snowy winter pass pleasantly, as I spend it in balmy Britain in the early part of the twentieth century.   Recently our local Public Television station has been airing the re-runs, which inspired me to revisit the world of Downton and make some observations, focusing on the fun, food, and fashions.

As a history lover, I found the era of the show fascinating, as it was a time of much change and innovation in the world, which is one of the reasons that producer Julian Fellowes chose it for his period drama.    He starts his saga in 1912 with the fateful sinking of the Titanic (and the death of the Downton heir apparent), and subsequently covers WW1 and the 1920’s, all the while working many of the decades most famous innovations into the script – cars, electricity, telephones, early airplane travel, listening to the king’s speech on the wireless/radio plus household appliances like refrigerators, toasters, mixers, sewing machines, typewriters, curling tongs and hair dryers as well as covering changes in women’s fashions, hairstyles and roles.   Looking back, Downton is a strange world in many ways, one many of us may find hard to relate to, especially if you are not British and your only exposure to the aristocracy is a picture of the Queen on your Canadian money.   The show is interesting because it depicts the rigid class structure of the time, the wide gulf  between the social classes and the upstairs downstairs aspect of running a great house, as well as the developing increase in the middle class and the importance of education.  Of course, we would all like to have lived such a life of leisure, and never have to worry about cleaning the house, making supper or childcare – there were nannies for that.   It was an envious lifestyle in many ways, even if they did tend to spend very little time with their children – an hour after tea time, but as the Countess Dowager exclaimed, it was an hour every day!

The Food

While some things would have been lovely, such as having a breakfast tray brought to you in bed, (only for married women, spinsters like Edith were expected to show up at the table) and having an elegant five course meal prepared for you every night, other things like being a slave to the 7 pm gong (dinner at eight seems way too late), and eating in the formal dining room in your best clothes in the presence of the butler and footmen, would have seemed very rigid on a regular basis.   (No sneaking leftover pizza in the kitchen of that household.)   Could you eat when someone was standing there like a statue, pretending not to watch you  or listen to the conversation whilst being ready should you require any attention.  It might be a tad uncomfortable, but maybe preferable to trying to flag down a waitress to bring you a coffee refill.    There was always conversation over dinner, and after they “went through” to the living room, more conversation.   So different from today when so many people dine with their cell phones instead of their companions.  

Downton Abbey

One would think they were a family of anorexic alcoholics from the dining room scenes.   While they served themselves from the platters proffered by the footmen, there never seemed to be much food on their plates, (especially the deserts, and I watched!) which might explain why they were so thin.    They tended to savour small exquisite portions – certainly no supersized meals there. 

Strawberry Trifle

Strawberry English Trifle

And the wine, so many different ones for each courses, but as Carson said, they usually only take a sip.   What a waste of good wine, why not just open one bottle for the meal, and be done with it.    The china and crystal were lovely however – why don’t we use the good china anymore.   It’s so much more elegant – as long as you don’t have to wash the dishes, and why did they never ever show anyone washing all those dishes night after night?Teacups

And the tea – so many cups poured, so few sips taken…but such pretty teacups.  But no scones or treats?   It’s a long way until supper  – ah yes, the crumbs and calories.  Teacups are elegant, but they hold 4 oz at most, and when I want a cup of tea, I want a bracing hot mugful.   Recently I saw a lovely silver tea service at a thrift shop, but it would need polishing and I already own too many teapots I seldom use – no one entertains like that anymore, which is why it was in the thrift shop.     

Downton Abbey The Fashions

Oh, the clothes – that long elegant silhouette, nothing too clingy, or skin tight like today’s fashions with everything emphasized and/or overexposed.    I especially liked the flapper style when they entered the 1920’s, and all the jewelry and hair ornaments….and the hats, so many stylish hats, week after week.    Even their nightgowns and robes were feminine and elegant.Hat

 For a fashionista it was worth tuning in just for the clothes.  The show must have been a wardrobe persons dream job.   The colours and fabrics were exquisite too.   But did they really need a lady’s maid to help remove their jewelry and undress themselves before bed, like a bunch of toddlers?   I found this 1912 book The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes (Julian Fellowes niece) most interesting in explaining the jobs of the various household servants. Downton Abbey

There were chapters on each of the characters, as well as general historical information about the running of such an estate and depictions of common household items.   Downtown Abbey Part of the lady’s maid’s job was to maintain, mend and care for the clothing.   Sign me up – I hate doing laundry and despise that half hour of ironing every week.   Imagine having someone to pack and unpack for you when traveling – it would be pure bliss.   Downton Abbey

While women’s clothing can be delicate and in need of more care, the valet’s role was even more puzzling and seemed to consist of nothing more than brushing the dandruff off the shoulders of the men’s evening jackets and polishing their shoes.  But again, there was the packing and maintenance and plenty of rules for black tie,  white tie and tweeds.   In one of the early episodes, Lady Mary inadvertently insults one of the staff by commenting that he was only a footman, but a staff position in such a great house was a steady and respected job, guaranteed employment and a step-up for many in the village.

Jessica Fellows has published a number of these lavish hardcover coffee-table type books, including this earlier one, The World of Downton Abbey, 2011, with lots of behind the scenes photos.  Downton Abbey      Highclere Castle, where the filming takes place, is a real working estate, and the present day countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon has published At Home at Highclere:  Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey, which chronicles the food, menus and entertainment of four historic weekend house parties held at the estate from 1866 to 1936.   There seems to be no shortage of books about Downton as recently I ran across this book, Downton Abbey and Philosophy, edited by Adam Barkman and Robert Arp, with contributions by 22 writers, about such diverse topics as the War Years, Master and Servant and Lady Edith and the Trials of the Modern Woman, as well philosophical ventures into morality, manners and socialism. Downton Abbey

The Fun

What did they do for fun?  They seemed to read a lot of books – at least they are always opening and closing them, and wouldn’t it be splendid to have that red carpeted library, although many of the books look like dusty tombs.    The dinners and parties and dances look splendid, especially the waltzes and the jazz tunes on the phonograph.   The fox hunting and horse race scenes were gorgeously filmed as was the grouse hunting in the heather filled moors and the visit to the Scottish castle.   A life of privilege would certainly have its pluses, but would it be enough?   (see the philosophy book – finding the meaning of life in Downton Abbey).    I suppose you wouldn’t question it if that was all you knew, but I am reminded of Sybil’s remark after the war was over, when they had grown accustomed to having a purpose in life (in her case nursing).   Instead of going to dress fittings and endless teas and charity events she said she wanted to be tired at the end of the day, tired from doing useful work.  Well Darling Sybil, I’m sorry they killed you off in Season Three, but work is tiring, very tiring – try it for twenty years or so and let’s check back or let’s change places.   I think I could adapt to being a lady of leisure –  are there any British castles where they will let you sample the life of a lord and lady for a month?     Highclere Castle does host some daytime events and there are cottages you can rent overnight, which brings me back to that ad?    Anyone have an extra 28 million pounds they can spare?    Or if not, then anyone care for tea?   We can always pretend…..

The Cast

I know some people who stopped watching after Season 3 as they could not handle the deaths of two of the main characters, but apparently those two actors had specified they only wanted 3-year contracts.    Maybe they were afraid of being typecast, but having watched Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas, well seriously – Mathew was all I could see.  The story-line of Downton Abbey really draws you in, it is multilayered with many characters.   The scenes are short for the most part, and the pace quick.   Having such an excellent cast of strong actors helps, they really inhabit their roles.    My least favourite characters were Mr. Bates (bad temper, shady past and way too old for Anna), Cora with her breathy baby-like voice and snobby ways, Shirley McClain as her American mother (horribly typecast), as was Miss Bunting (rude and much too short).   I’m glad they ended the show on a high note after six seasons, as I really couldn’t take Bates facing jail time yet again…..and Mary’s multiple suitors were no replacement for Mathew.   Although she did eventually chose one, none of them could ever measure up.Downtown Abbey

In some cases, (the pigs anyone?) they seemed to have run out of story-lines.  But I was very glad poor Edith was happy at last, and ranked higher socially than Lady Mary, (but then I was a middle child too).      Downton Abbey Epilogue:     There are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie swirling, with a tentative release date of Sept 2019, but I wish they had left them frozen in time at New Years 1926.    It ended perfectly, with all the story lines wrapped up nicely, so why run the risk of spoiling it – but then I may be convinced otherwise.   I’ll be watching…..I wonder if the movie theatres will be serving tea and scones?

The official movie trailer: 

 

 

The Skating Rink

             One of the best things to enjoy about winter is skating.   In fact, years ago you wouldn’t have been considered Canadian if you didn’t like skating, my generation having been raised on hockey and a daily dose of outdoor exercise.   If you were a true Canadian, you never missed watching Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights.   I admit I haven’t skated in years and thought to take it up again in retirement, but my last Bone Density test was not good, so I fear my skating days are over.   Watching the neighbors kids  through my kitchen window is the closest I have come to the sport lately, and although I might have been moaning about having to do the dishes by hand at least I had a pleasant scene to gaze upon, especially after school when the spotlights were glowing, and the flurries flying.    Still, I was wondering, what if I built my own skating rink?   I have such a big square rectangle of a back yard, that it seems a shame to waste it.    

Skating rink

       Now that the neighbors have moved, I seldom see any children playing outside in the winter or in the summer either.   When I first moved to this subdivision there were always games of street hockey after school, now everyone is inside on their video games.   I grew up skating on the farm.    There was a low spot behind the barn which made for an excellent skating rink when it was flooded.   Here is a picture my mother painted of it, complete with the family dogs.   My brothers and cousins would sometimes go to the pond at the back of the farm to play hockey, but it was a long way to walk, there and back, in the cold.  Hockey on the Pond - AMc

Although skating was one of my favorite winter activities, I was not thrilled about having to wear black skates.   They were hand-me-downs from my brother, but my mother probably figured it didn’t matter as who would see us, way out in the country,skating (me)

But even at age six I knew that black skates were for boys – girls wore white skates, for figure skating.    By the time the arena was built in town and free skating hours were held on Sundays, I had a pair of white skates as I simply refused to go otherwise.    The best thing about skating in the arena was the music blaring from the loudspeakers, but it was the sixties and we had the Beatles and other groovy tunes.    While cleaning out the basement a few years ago I found the diary I got for Christmas the year I was eleven.   We had a skating rink at school that January, courtesy of some long forgotten but dedicated teacher, and practically every day the entry is the same – “went skating at lunch hour”.   Re-reading the diary, I seem to have been obsessed with skating, but maybe I had nothing else to write about – our lives were simpler and more uneventful back then.   By the time the February thaw came I had given up on both the skating and the writing and the rest of the diary is just a series of blank pages.

The winters were colder too and longer, at least it seems so in retrospect.   I remember my cousin and I once skating over the fields when we were teenagers – there was such a hard crust of freezing rain and ice on top of the snow that the whole farm was our skating rink that weekend.      

My dad remembers a few years where the winter was so cold and the ice build up so thick that it was possible to skate on the river.   That would be  dangerous now, and probably was then too.   My mother lost a childhood friend, a teenage boy who fell through the ice.   She was to go with him and another friend that day, but she didn’t have any skates.   My dad saved up $5 in the Depression to buy his first pair of skates.      

Skating must be in my genes, as my maternal grandmother hailed from Holland, where she remembered skating on the canals in the winter.    Dutch Inheritance - AMcWhile every small town in Canada has an indoor skating arena, there are very seldom any outdoor rinks anymore, and by outdoor rinks I mean big community rinks, not just a small square of ice in someone’s backyard.    Occasionally someone’s attempt to build a backyard rink gets shut down because of zoning bylaws or neighbors complaining about the noise, but kudos to the brave dads who attempt it, as they are the ones standing out at midnight in the freezing cold flooding the thing every night.   

Being outside in the fresh air was always part of the fun, layering up with double socks and mittens and thick scarfs around our necks and faces…..and then coming in hours later with red cheeks and frozen fingers to warm up over hot chocolate.    Some winters are just not suitable, it’s too mild or rainy, or just not cold enough – you must have a consistent spell of below freezing weather….the old six weeks of winter thing.   We did not even get our first major snowstorm this year until January 19, so this has not been the best year for making ice, but we are now in for a prolonged spell of below freezing windchill weather, so why don’t we have more outdoor rinks?   I see parcels of empty land here and there around town and think now that would make an ideal skating rink.   It seems to me that it wouldn’t be that expensive to build a temporary ice rink, and think of the fun the kids could have.   We have splashpads now that cost $150,000 instead of swimming pools.   You can skate in an arena where ice time is rare and always scheduled, but there’s nowhere to play a pick-up game of shimmy.    Many larger cities have skating centres, like Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto.   You can skate on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, but the weather is much colder in our nation’s capital.   If I’m ever in New York in the wintertime I would risk falling and breaking a hip just to be able to skate at the Rockefeller Centre – but first I would make sure I have travel insurance!       

skating rink

Having a backyard rink would be fun for the adults too.    I’ve often thought a skating party would be nice idea for a New Years Eve party, for all ages – the music – the outdoor lights – a bonfire – hot drinks – good food.    Chili and potato soup, or lobster Newburg and champagne if you want something fancier.    I used to talk sports with one of my work colleagues, who was a real hockey fiend.    Every year I would joke, “Bob, do you think this is the year I will have a skating rink?“ and he would reply, “If you build it, we will come.”     

I still have my skates – they are in the basement somewhere.   Am I brave enough to take a spin?  I wish I had a rink outside my back door….  

Song of the Day:   Joni Mitchell – I Wish I Had a River

Beverage of the Day:  Hot Chocolate made with imported Valrhona French cocoa….at $20 a box it’s expensive but worth it and not at all bitter as dark chocolate can sometimes be. 

hot chocolate

Gourmet Hot Chocolate

Snow Day

          There’s nothing nicer than a snowstorm in January, especially when the early morning news is telling everyone to stay home and take a snow day, and the local radio station is listing the bus cancellations, and school and business closings.   There’s no second guessing, should I go out or not, when they start telling everyone to stay off the roads.   When I was working, I dreaded winter as I had a long commute – it might be bright and sunny when I left home but by the time I got to work in the snowbelt region it would be a raging blizzard.    If you didn’t go in, you were home safe but sorry as you would inevitably feel guilty about leaving your colleagues with a skeleton staff and/or a 24 hour shift.   When I worked in a small rural hospital if it was an exceptionally bad storm, the staff who lived in town would be collected by snowmobile – no need to stay home, we will come and get you!    Many a snowy night I drove home in whiteouts over unplowed country roads where I was the only fool on the road.   A friend of mine once ran into a pack of wild dogs/coyotes on her drive home – they must have been disoriented in the blizzard to have come so far out of the bush and refused to get off the road.  After I changed jobs, it was even worse, as there was no backup staff or plan.   I only remember my workplace being closed once due to snow and only then because my boss had wisely but reluctantly made the decision…..but that was the year we had a snowmageddon and the national guard was called in to deal with all the stranded cars on the highway, many of whom had been there for over 24 hours.   I did not even get a snow day as I was called in to cover a shift near where I lived for someone who couldn’t get in.   It always amazed me how busy we would be on those days, and how many people would be out and about during snowstorms, even when they were telling people to stay home.   Of course, there would be the expected increase in emergencies – car accidents, heart attacks, pneumonia and such, but then there would be the others.    I reached the conclusion that there are people who just do not like being stuck at home during a snowstorm, they must be out and about…to the grocery store for milk, the library to return books….any excuse will do.    Personally, now that I am retired, I am grateful for the opportunity to stay home when the weather out there is frightful. 

snow

Who doesn’t recall the excitement of an unexpected day off school when you were a child.   I think we remember them because they were so few and far between.    Last year there were about ten days when the buses didn’t run here and another five or so when the school was closed altogether.   Snow, fog, freezing rain, some of which never even materialized but the school board must make the decision at 5:30 in the morning and there are liability issues.   I remember one year our rural bus was cancelled for several days.  We made snow angels, built snow forts and snowmen, played fox and the goose in the pristine whiteness and had hot chocolate (the real stuff with cocoa and milk) when we came in from playing, and usually grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch.       

My dad would plow out the lane-way with the front-end loader on the tractor but basically we were snowed in until the county roads were cleared, which was never a priority for the township.   My ancestors went to church in this old cutter when the roads were impassable.   

sleigh ride 3 (2) I guess you could say the one horse open sleigh was their backup plan!   (This picture is from the 1940’s when my dad still had the big Clydesdale horses).     

Wreath with snow

The month of January can be quite pleasant, once all the stress and merry-making of Christmas is over.   The days are quiet – it’s a good time for personal reflection, journal writing, and soup on the stove.    You don’t have to socialize if you don’t feel like it, you can read and watch movies and putter around the house with no agenda in mind.    You can bake and eat with no thought of exercising off those calories.   It’s much too cold and icy to go out, although you might be brave enough to shovel the driveway if no one volunteers to do it for you.  It’s a time of year to be savored.    All is white without, all is warm within.   You can go to bed at night and listen to the wind howl and be grateful for hearth and home. 

gingerbread house

While a snow storm can be a blessing in disguise, a forced stop to our constant whirlwind of activity, if the storm goes on too long cabin fever can set in.    I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic if the driveway and street aren’t plowed out after 24 hours.   I want to stay home but I like the idea that I can get out if I need to.    Of course, if the hydro or heat goes out or the pipes freeze that is a whole other story…..not fun at all.   And if the winter drags on too long into March that can be depressing indeed.  

So, what are the ingredients for a perfect snow day – comfortable clothes, but you don’t have to get dressed at all if you don’t want to, stay in your PJ’s.   A nice pair of thick socks is a requirement and you must have a stack of books or magazines.   I always have some books on reserve for just such days.

Snow pictures - AMc

A cozy chair in front of the fireplace or in front of a window where you can watch the snow softly falling is ideal.   Add some soft pillows and a comfy throw, plaid is perfect. 

A cup of spiced tea is lovely to sip while you read…and if you get sleepy while reading, simply move over to the couch for a long winter’s nap.   But first throw something in the crock-pot so you can awaken to the delightful aroma of homemade stew.    If you feel like baking, chocolate chip cookies or brownies are always a good choice and much appreciated by the neighborhood snow shovelers.    I always enjoy watching the kids on the neighbor’s skating rink from my kitchen window while I do the dishes, twirling around in their colorful Nordic coats and scarfs like a real-life Gap ad.    Somehow the weather is seldom too bad for a game of ice hockey.  Sometimes there is even night skating under the spotlights, the flurries falling, the slam of the puck against the boards, he shoots, he scores.  After supper, it’s movie time – and popcorn and hot chocolate.  Later you can watch the storm highlights on the evening news and be glad you are not out in it – and so, to bed.   Tomorrow all will be sunny and bright like a winter wonderland…..and regular life will resume, refreshed by this quiet moment of winterlude.  

Quote of the Day:                           

Brew me a cup for a winter’s night.
For the wind howls loud and the furies fight;
Spice it with love and stir it with care,
And I’ll toast our bright eyes,
my sweetheart fair.     (Minna Antrim)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Song of the Day:  Snow – from White Christmas – Bing Crosby & Co.                                                                                                                                                                   

 

2019 Bucket List

 

Red Bucket        It is a universal truth that New Years resolutions tend to get broken, sooner or later, so most years I don’t even bother making them, thus saving myself some grief.   How much more pleasant to make a Bucket list of things you want to do, versus things you think you should do.    It’s all in the attitude….plus Oprah says if you write it down, it will happen….that fairy godmother vision board thing.

Add to My Library

     This was my sole New Years resolution last year, and I kept it…but as I love to read, it was no great hardship.     I had de-cluttered my house the year before and given away a lot of books I was no longer interested in, only keeping what I truly loved and found inspiring.    After discovering the bookoutlet website last spring I ordered from them four times over the course of the year, including 15 books at their Boxing Day sale, 13 of which I gave away as Christmas gifts.     Their sales are 30% off already bargain prices.    About half of these were books I had already read but wanted copies of because I wanted to re-read them someday, the other half were new.     Nothing makes me happier than a big box of books arriving in the mail.     And of course, the big Rotary book sale with 30,000 volumes is coming up next week so I can add to my stash.    Now I am in need of a new bookcase ….

book outlet

Start Writing Murder Mystery

This is a tough one, because Santa did not bring me a plot for Christmas as I requested….or even anything remotely resembling a plot outline, only a very vague idea and two rather sketchy characters, but I hope to have a first draft done by next December.    I know that is overly ambitious, but I am looking forward to it and hope it will be fun.   If it isn’t I’ll quit.  Maybe I won’t be able to write fiction, but I won’t know if I don’t try.    Of course, I will probably have to neglect my blog, but I don’t have many followers anyway and I had already said in my one-year blogging anniversary post that I was going to cut down to two posts per month and/or try to do shorter posts.    If I’m still blogging regularly, you will know it’s not going well.   On second thought, maybe it would be easier to start with something smaller….a short story….or maybe a Haiku poem?  

Agatha Christie books

Spend Money on Fun Stuff vs Things

I haven’t worked for two years and have no plans to go back to work, but I have continued to pay my insurance and license fees in case I decide I want to go back to work.   Does that make sense – no!   So last November in a fit of courage, I faxed in my resignation letter to the college, thus saving myself $2000 annually, which I decided I would spend on fun things I might not otherwise do or buy, like the Christmas musical theater tickets I passed up because they were too expensive.  It will be my fun bucket fund – kind of like an incentive/reward plan to make a big decision a bit more palpable.  After all it was my livelihood for 40 years, so it was not an easy decision to make.    Although every time I talk to my former work colleagues it gets easier.   I don’t want to spend the money on one big thing or trip which is over in a week, so I intend to sprinkle the year with smaller delights – mostly  experiences, not things….unless they are books of course.    I shall become a millennial….in spirit only (no plastic surgery planned).    

Walk Every Day for Thirty Minutes

Inspired by Linda, my blogging sister at Walking Writing Wit and Whimsy, I started walking again a few weeks before Christmas, after an incredibly long break.   Our winter hasn’t been too bad, so I’ve only missed a few days so far.   I have noticed I have more energy and sleep better.    Of course, Linda has a lovely park with fat friendly squirrels, Harry the Blue Heron, seven swans a swimming, ducks unlimited and cardinals and birds to look at while she is walking……and I just have my neighborhood.   Currently I have a lovely curbside view of discarded Christmas trees.    But as I walk with my IPod, it will give me thirty minutes of music as well, (I miss listening to music during my daily commute).   I don’t have any specific mileage goal in mind, just to walk when able, aiming for maybe 5 days a week…when it’s not too cold or too hot or raining.    Linda’s nature pictures are so lovely that I am reminded I need to buy a new camera too, as my current zoom lens is broken.       

Renovate Kitchen

This has been on my list for awhile.   I even emptied out the bottom cupboards a few years ago down to only the bare essentials, (which was still a lot of stuff), in preparation.    I know what I want in my head but hate the thought of tackling another project.    I have PTSD from some of the past renos…but it must be done…certainly it will be worth it…….if only to get the dishwasher fixed.    I went to Lowe’s in October and looked at cupboards, just plain beige cupboards with glass windows, and maybe a bead-board pattern for the bottom, which would suit my older style home, and there were rows and rows of them…..so much choice.   The guy told me to come back when I had some measurements…time to get the tape measure out.    I hope it turns out the way I envisioned it (I’m counting on you, vision board).  

Kitchen

I also need to stop wasting money on kitchen stuff.   I went into the dollar store last week for Yardley’s English Lavender Soap ($1.25/bar) and came out with a set of red Rachel Ray plates.     At $3 a plate who could resist and they would be useful for a Christmas buffet….once that dishwasher is fixed.    I do not need any more plates.  I have 4 sets of blue dishes now.   I could open a B&B or a tea shop with the amount of china I own.   

Paris salon

Host a Virtual Literary Salon

I already started this last week, (see intro The Literary Salon link), and the first book up for discussion is An Unwanted Guest (see blog link).   I read so many good books, it’s a shame not to share them.    

What’s on your Bucket List for this year?

 

 

 

 

 

The Literary Salon – An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest

This is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire, when the first big January snowstorm descends, perhaps with some mulled wine in hand to calm your nerves, for it is so well done you may feel like you have checked into the country inn yourself.     

The publishers  blurb:  When the storm hits, no one is getting away….

A remote lodge in upstate New York is the perfect getaway. . . until the bodies start piling up.  It’s winter in the Catskills and the weather outside is frightful. But Mitchell’s Inn is so delightful! The cozy lodge nestled deep in the woods is perfect for a relaxing–maybe even romantic–weekend away. The Inn boasts spacious old rooms with huge wood-burning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a book and someone you love. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity–and all contact with the outside world–the guests settle in for the long haul. The power’s down but they’ve got candles, blankets, and wood–a genuine rustic experience! Soon, though, a body turns up–surely an accident. When a second body appears, they start to panic. Then they find a third body. Within the snowed-in paradise, something–or someone–is picking off the guests one by one. They can’t leave, and with no cell service, there’s no prospect of getting the police in until the weather loosens its icy grip. The weekend getaway has turned deadly. For some couples, it’s their first time away. For others, it will be their last. And there’s nothing they can do about it but huddle down and hope they can survive the storm.

A bit about the Author:

SHARI LAPENA  is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto.

 

 

My Goodreads review:

An Unwanted GuestAn Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best to save this book for a dark and stormy night in January when a sudden snowstorm has descended and you are safe by the fire with a hot toddy. Absolutely loved it, so creepy and suspenseful I went around and checked all the locks before bed. It’s a simple premise, probably done before, a group of strangers snowed in at a country inn with no outside communication, and one by one they get picked off – by an unwanted guest. Vivid descriptions of the inn and the weather, a twist turning plot, and solid characterizations all make for a great read. A well developed story, from a psychological point of view – how well does anyone really know anyone else……psychopaths dwell among us.

Some thoughts:

It’s a deceptively simple premise for a murder mystery, take a group of people, in this case eleven, nine guests and two staff, and confine them to a space, a la Murder on the Orient Express, so you know the murderer must be among them.    Although this book generally received good reviews there was some criticism that it was too similar to Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None, which I have not read, having only ever read her Orient Express book.   But as a famous author recently proclaimed in one of his podcasts, all possible ideas have been done before anyway, what makes a book different is the authors unique spin on it.    At 290 pages it is a slim book, with the author giving us just enough information about the guests in the first few chapters to enable us to differentiate between them…..and then slowly revealing more background. 

‘The large diamond glittered when she picked up her champagne glass, her eyes sparkled when she looked at her fiance.  Everything about her was shiny and bright.  She has a bright shiny life, Lauren thinks.  Then she directs her attention to the man to whom she is engaged.  What does she think of him?  She thinks he is someone who collects bright, shiny things.’

By the end of the book five of them are dead and I still had no idea who did it until the last couple of pages, although I was a bit let down as there was no dramatic climax, just a slow unraveling, and one clue which I found rather cliche.    Perhaps all the clues have been done before too.     

I always like to check out the authors background, and an English major with a law degree is a lethal combination –  grammar and details.   I hope she sells the movie rights because I’m already casting it in my head.    Her first novel was published in 2007, and her second, Happiness Economics, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humor in 2011.    Just how does one switch from writing humor to murder, but I suspect there is more money in murder mysteries.   This is her third mystery and best so far.   Her two previous books had simple plot ideas as well.    In the Couple Next Door, a couple is invited to dinner at the townhouse next door, but when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to go anyway and rig up the baby monitor and one of them goes home hourly to check, except when the evening is over, the baby is gone.   In A Stranger in the House, a newly married couple find they don’t know much about each other’s background at all.    As a Canadian writer she has a Canadian agent, and while not as well known as Claire MacIntosh or Ruth Ware, I think she is well on her way, and certainly an inspiration for those of us still struggling to find a plot.   How hard can it be to write such a simple thing…..it turns out very hard indeed.   

(See introduction to The Literary Salon link). 

Song of the Day: