35-for-35 Books: Recipe for Disaster by Stacey Ballis

There really is nothing like a good Stacey Ballis book.

Anneke’s life implodes on her in one day and she’s left to figure out how to move forward without a steady job, her cheating boyfriend or any family to speak of. Anneke and I have very little in common considering she’s a master contractor who loves to rebuild homes for fun (turned full time work), but her struggles with money, trust, food and men were very familiar. There’s a little part about a third of the way through the book where her friend Marie says “You are running the risk of becoming a complete asshole” and it just hit me a little bit. There’s always something in one of Ballis’s books that grabs me and worms its way into my brain for later.

It was a nice change of pace that the main character isn’t a food professional, but there’s definitely some good recipes happening anyway. The romance was a little unexpected and I don’t know that it’s quite earned at the end (massive time jumps do that to me), but this time I’m happy with the nice little bow on everything. It’s been a long month and this was just what I needed.

35-for-35 Books: Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns by Lauren Weisberger

I remember reading “The Devil Wears Prada” in 2004 on a whirlwind trip to San Francisco. I had to come up here for some orientation/advising things before starting college and I picked up the paperback at the airport. I finished the book while sitting in a hallway, waiting to talk to an advisor. Then it was turned into a movie, which I saw and was disappointed by. But that movie is on cable every weekend, so I’ve come to enjoy it as its own thing.

I don’t know how I missed that Lauren Weisberger wrote a sequel to the book, but I finally picked it up a couple weeks ago. The first thing I noticed was how different the book must be from the movie in ways I didn’t remember (like the boyfriend’s name or the Christian guy’s last name) because it was VERY hard to jump back in.

Most of it doesn’t matter because we pick up with Andy ten years later and she’s in a different place in her life, sorta. She’s about to marry the perfect guy, even though his mother doesn’t like her. And she’s back working with Emily, who is now her BFF and they’ve created the perfect wedding magazine. It gets more unbelievable from there. There’s also a ton of time skips (from one chapter to another), so things that happen have been building, but you get a bit of whiplash.

The “devil returns” when Elias-Clark wants to buy Andy and Emily’s magazine, and Miranda Priestley is now the managing editor of everything at Elias-Clark. Except Miranda’s barely in the book and it’s Andy’s own people who end up screwing her over. Maybe Meryl Streep has ruined the “devil” for me, but everyone was being unreasonable and avoiding things, which was really annoying to read about it. They are all my age now, so the immaturity and ridiculousness was a bit much.

It was a quick read, but I didn’t really need to dip back into the “Devil” book universe the way I thought.

35-for-35 Books: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

Turns out, when I don’t spend so much of my life on planes, I don’t read as much – oops! One of my co-workers lent me this book back in February before my first jaunt across the country, but I didn’t get it read until now – double oops!

Kristin Newman’s travel memoir hits a lot of my buttons, but I still ended up feeling a little empty at the end. Maybe it was the movie-perfect ending, whether after all her travels and friends and men, she’s no longer single and everything turned out great. My intense wanderlust jealousy was also activated as she described some truly amazing activities that I’d love to have the opportunity to try. Or perhaps it was the fact that she’s a successful television writer (my secret dream) with tons of disposable income (see all her travels) and time off during hiatus months. It also didn’t help that she and I are totally different kinds of travelers and she’d probably hate traveling with me because I “do it wrong.”

I did enjoy her advice to “do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it.” You really can’t do wrong with that.

A Night with Matthew Morrison: “Finding Neverland” preview (March 18, 2015)

It’s been six weeks since I experienced Neverland, so I guess it’s time I finally tell you all about it!

A couple months ago, I realized that the first week of previews for Finding Neverland coincided with Spring Break at work, so I made a decision to fly out to New York for a few days to see the show and finally hear Matthew Morrison sing live. I was a little disappointed that no one was able to come with me, but it did enable me to buy a 3rd row ticket, so I couldn’t be too mad!

Finding Neverland marqueeOn the day of the show, I got my hair did and got all dressed up for a great night out at the theatre. It was still very cold in New York, but the wind had died down. I wanted to eat at Bareburger, mistakenly thinking it was like Roam, but it was a little fancier than I was expecting and had too long a wait. I grabbed a mediocre slice of pizza before getting my place in line for entry into the show. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long in the cold. I was surprised to see a number of children in line, since it was an evening performance. (There is a moment in the second act when they specifically refer to children in the audience, but it still felt odd to me.)

View From My SeatI haven’t been to a show on Broadway since 1999, so it was definitely a thrill to walk back into a theatre and have a Playbill in my hand. I let the usher walk me down to my seat, which was SO close. When I was debating which seat to get a month before, I wasn’t sure if front row would be like front row at a movie theatre (i.e. not great) or if there would be space between us and the stage. I ended up in the middle of the third row of the third preview, which was perfect. I joked on Twitter that I was close enough to see Matthew Morrison sweat (spoiler alert – I WAS RIGHT!).

I’d never seen the 2004 movie this musical is based on (I can’t stand Johnny Depp), so I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t even seen Peter Pan since I was a kid, so even though I know the basic details, I’m not sure I could give you the whole plot, point for point. But as a Matthew Morrison fangirl, I just wanted see him perform live, however it may turn out.

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35-for-35 Books: Shadows Over Paradise by Isabel Wolff

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I was shocked. This one does not follow the pattern of Isabel Wolff novels, of slightly sophisticated British chick lit. There is a female protagonist and she is going through relationship problems, but they are very much on the back burner for most of this novel.

After a traumatic incident in her childhood, Jenni Clark makes her living being invisible, as a ghostwriter. She started out doing books for celebrities, but has branched out into working with “ordinary” people whose lives never are. She meets Klara, who has finally agreed to do a privately published memoir for her 80th birthday. Klara lives in the same town where Jenni’s trauma occurred, but she finds herself agreeing to the job anyway. Both women are haunted by their pasts, but find common ground to share through the telling of Klara’s story.

Klara’s story is harrowing. As the daughter of a Dutch plantation farmer on Java, she was interned in Japanese prison camps for the majority of WWII. Reading the details of this imprisonment was hard and emotional. I read most of this book on the flight back from New York, and I couldn’t stop crying. While this character is clearly fictional, the events contained in her story clearly happened to thousands of men, women and children, which is chilling. I had family friends at my church growing up that had similar experiences during the War, and while it’s one thing to know intellectually about the conditions, indignities, torture and death, it’s quite another to read about them, in detail, in black and white.

And on a personal note, it made me miss my grandmother who passed away in January. While she never experienced anything like the events in the book (thank goodness!), I wished I had a book filled with her stories, told in her voice to read these days. My grandfather is an avid genealogist, so he has put together books filled with our family history, but it’s not quite the same as hearing her tell stories. I remember always giving her those books (that you can get at Hallmark or the like, “All about Me”) to fill out, but there was never enough time. She developed Alzheimer’s in her later years, so then it was too late. Klara’s best friend, Jane, has dementia in the book, which was also a bit hard to read about.

All in all, it’s a wonderfully written book, but it is not the light fare I had come to expect from this author.

35-for-35 Books: Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer

My love for Liza Palmer is clearly documented on this blog, but I think this is my favorite book since Seeing Me Naked. At first I wasn’t on board with the concept — an ad exec trying to get an account ends up at “RomanceCon,” a convention for romance novel enthusiasts — dismissing the genre much like our protagonist, Anna Wyatt. But on page 30, Liza Palmer writes a paragraph that just hit me straight in the chest and made me tear up a bit:

What do I want?

I want to be happy and not feel guilty about it. I want to be curious without being called indulgent. I want to be accepted regardless of what I look like, what I do for a living, my marital status, whether I have kids, or whether you think I’m nice enough, hospitable enough, or humble enough to measure up to your impossible standards. I want purpose. I want contentment. I want to be loved and give love unreservedly in return. I want to be seen. I want to matter. I want freedom.

From then on, I was IN. I loved Anna and Sasha’s relationship, from colleagues to friends to business partners, working toward a common goal and something they themselves want to believe in. It seems hard to believe that their “Just Be.” campaign would be as wildly successful as it appears to be – we’re just too cynical these days – but maybe it hit women the way this book hit me. Anna comes to a revelation toward the end of the book that just had me wanting to high five her and got me right where I live. And when things start to just turn around and happen for her, I was nearly crying in the laundromat.

There’s family stuff in this book that I can’t relate to since my parents love me to within an inch of my life (which is not a criticism – hi Mom & Dad!), but it also felt so visceral and real that it was hard not to get sucked in. Anna also comes to a realization about this relationship that felt fresh and new. I also admired her ability to just cry once she left Phoenix. There’s bravery there.

And of course, there’s a man, but it’s not even about him. He’s handsome and British and maybe an earl, but mostly just Anna’s person, a little bit broken and little too real, found in a Phoenix hotel bar. I’ve never been one for the hotel bar, but Anna Wyatt makes me think that it’s the place to be.

The best part about the romance and the whole book is that Anna Wyatt turns 40 at the start of the book and there’s no desperation. She wants to fall in love, do well at work, find better friends, pull her family together, but there’s none of the “OMG I’M 40 AND ALONE” crap that I see in books about 30 year olds, much less 40 year olds. Maybe it’s my milestone birthday approaching, but it’s so great to see a female protagonist, who gets that birthdays are just another trip around the sun and a way to mark time. There’s so much better drama than the search for a man before we shrivel up and die.

But my favorite bit comes toward the end of the book because it fits me to a T in an uncomfortable way:

Just…why can’t I just sit here and drink this tea and bask? Smile. Let the joy wash over me.

I always love watching that part of the Olympics when the athletes are on the podium, medals around their necks, and the first notes of their national anthem are played as their flag ascends into the heavens. Everything they’ve done has led up to this moment. And to watch them run through the gamut of emotions, tears, a smile, taking in the crowd, trying to sing along with the song, disbelief, and then this panic that the moment – the moment – is almost over and have I felt it enough, have I properly chronicled every second of it so that I can relive it…and the song ends and the athletes come out of the haze and just wave their hands over their heads in thanks.

The power of a moment. To just allow it to happen. Experience it firsthand. I guess with all my theories on fishhooks and the wisdom of age, that one still eludes me.

35-for-35 Recipes: Salsa Chicken and Black Bean Soup

I have a chicken tortilla soup recipe that I’m totally in love with, so I was excited to try another similar soup. However, this one just fell flat. The beans are a nice addition, but there just isn’t enough taste to make it worthwhile. I’ve spiced up the tortilla soup by using taco seasoning instead of the multitude of spices listed, so that might be an option for this one. Also adding some Papalote salsa to my bowl made it more palatable. I’m not a spicy food lover, but it need a little SOMETHING to make it more than just beans and chicken in broth.

35-for-35 Books: The Hunt by Jennifer Sturman

This is the last in the series of Rachel Benjamin mysteries and I think it ends in a good place. Also, as a completist, I’m happy that I’m done with the series because I’ve had it with Rachel and her “man problems.” The actual mysteries are fine, but her relationship drama is ridiculous.

This last novel takes place in San Francisco, but except for dropping some tourist attractions (and the horrible misuse of “the” in front of freeway names – I see you Southern California editors!), it feels like it could be set anywhere. Of course, it’s set in San Francisco because our mystery involves a Silicon Valley nerd on the verge of becoming a billionaire with his privacy software. He’s a totally weirdo and Rachel’s friend Hillary is totally going to write an article about him. But then Hillary disappears! Did Iggie kill her? Maybe her hot FBI boyfriend that she broke up with the night before she went missing? Is she even dead? Rachel takes the usual twists and turns to get to the answers and save the day.

But during the middle of this, she’s meeting Peter’s parents and realizing how “not normal,” she is. Though I appreciate their Pac Heights address, I have a hard time buying their “Upper East Side” shtick. I mean, I guess there are still old money snobs who live in Pac Heights, who register at Tiffany’s, go for half-marathon runs every Saturday morning and find it totally normal to belong to a tennis club in Palo Alto, but it just doesn’t feel authentic to me. Additionally, Peter is a weirdo, “daring” Rachel to do without Diet Coke (why?), forgetting to tell her that he used to date one of their party guests for FIFTEEN YEARS, and pulling off the side of the road to yell at Rachel and Luisa when they are sniping at each other. It’s hard to tell if Peter’s parents actually don’t like Rachel and want Peter with Caro or are just more reserved. And Rachel doesn’t stick up for herself at all and by the end, has of course, decided that she and Peter shouldn’t be engaged at all. What Peter does next shouldn’t surprise you, but I was just glad the book was over.

35-for-35 Recipes: Crockpot Cocoa

A couple weekends ago, we had some stormy weather, so I thought I’d break out this new cocoa recipe. It was fairly quick, though it’s not a set-it-and-forget kind of recipe. You need to be stirring this fairly frequently to keep a skin from forming and to make sure that all the chips melt into the mixture.

It also makes a LOT of cocoa. I had two mugs full fresh out of the pot and was able to fill one of my large Pyrex bowls AND a Glad storage container. I popped the plastic storage in the freezer to enjoy later, which was also delicious. This is way richer than my normal Swiss Miss packet, but I’m sure the calories reflect that as well!

Crock Pot Hot Chocolate

35-for-35 Recipes: Crock Pot Cream Cheese Chicken

The results of this recipe are not attractive. The recipe calls for the chicken to be shredded, which takes a long time. I also missed that this should be served over pasta, so it looks even worse, just sitting on the plate. I think it could totally work without shredding the chicken, which would make it visually more appealing. The flavors are on point, however, and I will definitely be adding this to my rotation.

Cream Cheese Chicken