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

35-for-35 Places: Mendocino, CA

On Martin Luther King Jr Day, I decided to actually start on my “places” challenge (which is likely NOT going to be completed, but is still fun!). While looking through my waterfall hikes book, I noticed a couple near Mendocino, CA. I wasn’t in the mood for a hike, but thought Mendocino might be a nice day trip. I have friends who frequent it every chance they get, so I wanted to see what all the hype was about.


Welcome to Mendocino, CA

It’s a nice 3 hour drive up US-101 and over Highway 128. I got a late start, which wasn’t ideal, but I thought I’d still have a good afternoon and then stay for dinner before heading back to the City. However, I had no idea just how twisty and dark Highway 128 is. You have to cross three different mountains with the resulting switch back turns and two-lane roads. The last bit is through a MAGNIFICENT redwood forest that looks like it’s out of a postcard. If there had been any safe places to stop, I would have some photos of it. However, those tall trees block any light from above, make it quite dark even though it was still afternoon. I knew that I wouldn’t want to drive back on this road in the dark (though I ended up doing so for the most part), so I didn’t end up staying long.Mendocino Village

I visited a couple of shops on Main Street, including the Gallery Bookshop. I picked up a couple of postcards and met the bookshop cat. But my favorite part was walking along the cliffs and watching the waves come in as the sunset. There’s something about the ocean that just soothes me, which was exactly what I needed after that bare-knuckle drive in. I even took some videos, looking at the waves crashing through the rocks (thought I don’t know why there’s no sound).

Pacific Ocean in the CoveAll too soon, the setting sun meant it was time for me to get back on the road. I realized that I didn’t know how to operate my brights (turns out you have to push the lever away to have it hold), so I spent much of the first hour and a half, holding the lights on. I’d definitely loved to go back and explore more another time when I actually have time to play.

Sunset in Mendocino, CA

35-for-35 Recipes: Crock Pot Chicken Teriyaki

While my parents were visiting last month, my mom had the idea that we could make a few recipes over the weekend. That way, if they didn’t turn out, I had more people to eat it and wouldn’t have to suffer through a week of not great dinners.

The first one I tried was this crock pot chicken teriyaki. I love teriyaki ANYTHING and the photo looked delicious. My mom took the task of cubing the chicken, which is probably the most pain in the ass part of a lot of these recipes.

It smelled great when we served it, but it was WAY runnier than the photo on Pinterest. The taste of teriyaki wasn’t quite as strong as I would have liked, but the “optional” ingredients definitely weren’t necessary, so it was nice to have a simple ingredient list. I’m not a rice person, so I served it over mashed potatoes, which worked well to soak up the sauce.

It was a nice dinner, but I’ll keep looking for a teriyaki recipe that I enjoy more.

Teriyaki Chicken

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

This is the next installment in the Rachel Benjamin mystery series and this one ramps up the action by having Rachel be suspected of the murder this time.

Rachel’s new boss is a jackass with a capital ASS and she spends most of the first few chapters wishing him dead out loud. I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t jokingly wished someone dead, but Rachel (and her co-workers, dreamy Jake and plain Mark) just go WAY WAY over the top with the references. Even if the back cover didn’t explicitly mention that Rachel’s going to be prime suspect #1, it’s just SO anvil-y that I actually said “oh COME ON!” out loud while reading.

Rachel on the lam is mildly amusing, though her complete ignorance that a) State College, PA is a place that exists and b) it’s the home to Penn State University is a little ridiculous. I mean, I know New Yorkers are notoriously self-centered about geography, but I was pretty sure that Rachel wasn’t even a born and bred New Yorker, so there’s really no excuse.

There’s also some annoying relationship drama (Rachel has one fight with Dreamy Fiance Peter and decides that she should just let him find someone else. Eye roll.), but of course, it all works out fine in the end. I do hope Rachel starts to appreciate all Dream Fiance Peter did for her in this book when I get to the next book, but I’m not holding my breath.

35-for-35 Books: Roulette by Megan Mulry

I’m still playing catch on the blog, so I’m going to post all the books I haven’t recorded this week and hopefully, I’ll catch up on the rest soon. Luckily (or not), I haven’t really made any challenge progress in the last few weeks, so I’m not terribly behind.

This is Megan Mulry’s latest novel, which stands alone from her “unruly royals” series. It’s sexier and more mature as well as being a page-turner. I was sneaking in chapters any time I could.

Our heroine, Miki, is the love/hate child of a French starlet and a Russian business magnate. She goes to visit her father in St. Petersburg, when he dies suddenly. She’s thrust into a leadership role in his business, which brings her into contact Jerôme de Villers, a French business magnate. They have a fling after he flies in on his private jet to bring her coffee, but with Miki not planning to stay in Russia and having a boyfriend back in California, she plans for it to stay that way. Life has other plans and even though she tries to stay away, Rome keeps showing up in her life, all sexy and French. Sometimes you just have to give into it.

I was a little annoyed how the situation with Miki’s “tenure” at USC was handled, but I guess I don’t really know how tenure works at USC. Miki’s boyfriend, Landon, really is a piece of work and I think he gets off way too easy. But it’s fun to read about jetset women who take over companies, go on Paris shopping sprees and find amazing French men with their own chateaus, so these are easy flaws to overlook.