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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review - Skipping A Beat

Today's book review is part of a blogger sweepstakes.  I received an Advanced Reader Copy (Free Book!) in order to provide this review, but no other compensation.  What follows is my honest opinion.

Skipping A Beat, by Sarah Pekkanen
Washington Square Press (Simon and Schuster). February 2010. 327 pages (also includes Readers Club Guide.) ISBN: 978-1-4516-0982-0 Fiction.


Julia Dunhill is an exclusive party planner in Washington DC, married to her high school sweetheart, Michael.  If asked, she would tell anyone she was happy.  Why wouldn't she be?  She has a business she loves, her husband is the most successful entrepreneur in a decade, and she lives in a mansion that takes her breath away.  Julia would tell anyone she was happy.  Happy is the same as satisfied, as content, right?

But don't make assumptions, yet.  This is not your typical, "it is hard to be rich" novel.  Skipping A Beat is a novel of love and loneliness, fidelity and fear, life and death.

The story begins with Julie setting up a lavish fundraiser, and Michael in sudden cardiac arrest.  I am not giving anything away to say that he lives.  But it is Michael's experience during his four minutes and eight seconds of death that shapes the entire story that follows.

Back when they were just Mike and Julie, the two were secure in their love and their ability to fight their way out of their small West Virginia town and their unhappy households. They dreamed of a glamorous life, and when Michael suddenly hit the jackpot with his start-up company, life seemed to be on the fast-track to fabulous!

So what is Julia to do when her fabulous, if not satisfying life is irrevocably changed by her husband's near death experience?  What can she do when her husband decides to change everything?  As Julia so clearly states,
Four minutes and eight seconds.  That's how long my husband, Michael Dunhill, was dead.
Four minutes and eight seconds.  That's how long it took for my husband to become a complete stranger to me. (p. 8)
Isn't that the best hook ever?

Verdict:  I liked it

Sarah Pekkanen starts with an unusual premise for an exploration of marriage.  And it works.  I might not have been caught up in a novel just about the complicated, twisted turns of a regular marriage.  But add in a near death epiphany, unimaginable wealth and a crisis of conscience, and I couldn't look away.

This was a very emotionally honest book.  As in The Opposite of Me, Pekkanen expertly explores a dynamic relationship to the point where the reader is just as conflicted and invested as the protagonists.  I really felt Julia's struggle as she weighed her love for her husband against her pain and mistrust.  Julia and Michael's marriage is bruised, and as a reader, I ached with them.  I recommend this novel to anyone who loves character-driven stories and has made an investment in Kleenex Corporation.  You are going to need the tissues.

However, one word of warning, I have a feeling that readers who have a rocky relationship in their lives might find this story hits close to home.  It is that real.

As an aside, I liked Pekkanen's first novel The Opposite of Me, as well  It is an interesting exploration of how different twin sisters can be, and the turns life can take that bring them closer.  I admit that there were moments in the book when I was unable to completely buy in to the plot.  And there were choices the protagonists made that I didn't feel were adequately supported by their characters or actions.  But I loved the honesty in the sisterly relationship; these twins are two very different people who both love and envy each other.  All in all, I thought The Opposite of Me was satisfying, and a strong first novel.

(I actually received three copies of Skipping A Beat.  Two from Pekkanen's publisher, after a loooong wait and much confusion, and one from another blog where I won a random drawing. I am going to share copies with family, and donate one to my local library.)

Week Eight - Bag Dispenser

I gave up on the planned project for this week when I realized that I didn't read the instructions well and bought the wrong amount of fabric.  Typical.  I will keep the idea in reserve, for now.

Anyway, I took that fabric from the non-project turned it into something useful.

A Bag Dispenser!

I love it.  I always save my plastic bags and reuse them as much as possible, but I get really tired of the plastic bag tumbleweeds rolling across my kitchen.  Now I have this simple solution.  And it is huge, so it should take a while to fill up.  (I didn't mean for it to be so huge, but it is.)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Week Seven - Knit Hairband

Is it only the 7th week of the year?  That is not that far in, and yet I am already chafing a bit with this resolution.  This may explain why I still haven't done my planned project for which I have materials and a pattern.  Instead, I knit a quicky project because it reminded me of spring.  And finished it with 2 hours left in Week 7.  Phew.

A hairband!

The yarn is sport-weight, hand-died wool from my stash.  My husband bought it for me a few years ago and I have skeins of the stuff.  I like the striping!

I am not totally pleased with the results, but I have some ideas to make the headband pattern better.  I don't like how it rolls in on itself, but that is easily fixed.  And it is actually the right length for my head (I measured), so that is good.  I did learn a new technique.  I can now make rows larger (M1), not just smaller.  It is such a basic skill, and yet I never formally learned how.

I also learned not to have my husband take my picture at 10:30 at night.  Hello, no make-up.  Yuck.

Farewell, week 7.  In Week 8, I am definitely tackling the project I have been avoiding.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Signs of Spring

It is 75 degrees outside and the homestead seems to be waking up.

The bulbs are poking through.  (The faded UNC gnome is not amused.)

The strawberries are starting to show signs of green.

And, what is this?  Could it be?

It is!  Garlic is poking through too. 

Already the garden is more productive than last year.  Fingers crossed that this is a sign of good things to come.


I am feeling socially awkward today.  Or, as you who know me would call it, "normal."

I had a meeting this morning at a private residence on campus, about a garden.  Since I wasn't positive how to get there, I was early.  However, there was not a car in sight, so I waited in mine to see when people arrived.  No one came.  I called the office and was told that people were at the meeting.  I drove around and saw a car, but no people, and no one had gone in the front door.  So, I parked nearby and lurked some more.  Finally, 10 minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, I saw another car and just said, to hell with it, I am going in.  I saw someone disappearing over a hill and followed her, all the while worried about being accused of trespassing.

Turns out the meeting was in the back yard, behind a 6 foot fence, and around some 30 foot tall bushes.  And I was 10 minutes late.  I was angry and embarrassed.  Awkward.

Or normal.

See, this is why I wanted to move to the country - so I could be a hermit and avoid all these strange, peopley gatherings.

But then I get lonely and decide I need to make friends.  Which leads to more awkward.  Although, in my defense (to myself, since I think I am most critical of myself), I have been making inroads meeting people.  I am trying.  And when it gets awkward, I can always run back to my slice of heaven and hide in the woods.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Week Six - Fondant

This blog post is late, but the project for week 6 was on time.  I promise.

Okay, so you know how the 52 Weeks of Projects resolution officially says "knit or sew" one project a week? Well I changed the parameters for this week only.  For week six, the parameters are Any New-To-Me Creative Project.  Given that caveat, this week's project was created for my youngest son's fifth birthday.  I had too much going on to get ready for his birthday to do both a cake and a project, so here we are.

Every year, I make special cakes for my boys for their birthdays.  The cakes never look professional, but I am fairly happy with the results, as a general rule.  But I always, always, use icing.  This year I wanted to make a minion from Despicable Me, and it just needed to be smooth.  So I tried my hand at fondant.

And I must have done it right because while it looked okay, it tasted like sweet chalk.

Which is how every bite of fondant I have ever tried has tasted.

This cake was a challenge, for while it seemed a simple design, the cake batter was very, very delicate.  As soon as I trimmed a section of cake, it became very crumbly.  So crumbly that the icing I covered it with (to go under the fondant), peeled right off if I tried to smooth it.   It got very frustrating, very fast.  However, once I gave up and just covered it with fondant, the bulk of the cake came together quickly.  I did have to improvise the eye, but my sister and husband saved the day on that.  Apparently they had so much fun that they also took over design of the mouth.  I think they did a great job!

I will probably never make fondant again.  Even though this did have a nice flavor (lemon marshmallow), it still had an unpleasant consistency.  Everyone just peeled it off the cake or ate around it.

What I liked about this project:

  • I like that I learned a new technique, but I think that goes without saying. 
  • I like that I got to share the experience with my family.  My mother and sister, and even, at times, my husband, watched with bemused expressions while I turned a pile of confectioners sugar and molten marshmallows into a thick putty.  My mother was especially worried about the food coloring staining her counter tops. (It didn't, thank goodness!)  
  • I liked that fondant became an achievable product with this recipe.  I always see the cake decorators use it on TV and it looks lovely, and so difficult.  Mine was nowhere near perfect, but I can see how I could get better with practice.  If only fondant tasted good.  Cake should taste good!
  • And I liked the look on my son's face when he saw the cake.  "It's a Minion!"  That shout told me I did something right.

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    Homestead Planning

    I have been thinking about what the homestead should look like this year.  How it will evolve.  And what we can realistically afford to do.  (That last one is a killer.)

    I spent an entire night gleefully looking through the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog.  You have to order in sets of 25 so that the chicks have enough warmth, so my chicken planning grew exponentially.  So many chickens!  I got so involved in fantasy ordering that I dreamed about chickens that night.  Happy, clucking, fluffy chickens were in every scene of my dreams.  I woke up happy.

    I still need to place our garden order.  I am making that a priority this weekend.  We need to narrow down our seed list - right now it is just too large to be realistic.  (And yes, dear, I know when I say "our", I mean "my."  Sheesh.)  I have to make sure to stick to our budget. (Update: 2/12 seeds are ordered.  Shipping almost sent me over budget, but I am so excited about what we have on order!)

    This planning is fun, but I have to try to tone myself down.  I have a tendency towards immediate gratification.  I want to do it all now, now now, and then I get stressed out when it all falls apart.  I know this about myself and yet yesterday, I entered a contest to win a free Jersey heifer calf.  How could I resist?   Free Cow!  All I had to do was write an essay.

    It is unlikely they will pick me (Jen does not have that type of luck), but I am having Contestant's Remorse.  I am freaked out about all that we would have to do, and what we would have to postpone should we suddenly have a calf enter our lives.  Hello fencing, hay, grain, barn.  Goodbye chickens.  Would that be a tragedy?  No.  Definitely not.  Cows are expensive to purchase and it would just mean adjusting the master plan.  But it would also require a major adjustment to the way we live, as well as the pace we seem to have set to get the homestead up and running.

    That kind of change is hard.  I guess winning a cow would really test if we are going to truly jump into this new lifestyle.  Or are we all talk?

    Saturday, February 5, 2011

    Week Five - TARDIS

    This week's project clearly shows two things about me.  One, that my awesomeness cannot be matched.  And two, that I am clearly a geek.

    For week five of this Year of Projects, I decided to knit a TARDIS.  Yes, folks, I knit a time machine!  How awesome is that?  (I am not listening to your answers.  I am just wallowing in my own awesomeness.  Google it, if you don't know what I am talking about.  Or just follow the link.  Your choice.)

    I found a pattern for a TARDIS online, but decided that I really can't do knitting patterns.  Maybe that will be a project for later in the year.  In this case, the pattern called for me to knit 4 panels, a bottom and a top, which makes sense for a cube rectangular prism.  But I wanted to try to knit a cube rectangular prism in the round.  Yup, it made my brain hurt, too.

    Now I know that my TARDIS does have some inaccuracies (wrong color blue, to start).  But since I am not a purist, and I knit the gosh-darned thing in the round, I am forgiving myself.

    But I did it!  And it rocks!  And I rock.  And now I have a time machine; one that is not bigger on the inside, unfortunately.  And it definitely doesn't contain David Tennant. Sigh.

    Hey, but at least I knit a cube rectangular prism.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Spring Cleaning

    It's Groundhog Day and apparently we will have an early Spring.  Virginia seems to have taken Punxutawney Phil to heart, because the weather today is b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l!  65 degrees, sunny, and mildly breezy.  So in honor of that, and in horror of the mud, I kicked off my shoes and mopped the kitchen floor.  (And you are blogging about that??)

    See, the mud had apparently gotten completely out of hand.  Yesterday I looked at my kitchen floor in disgust; the dogs had tracked muddy paw prints all over.  I was disgusted with my dogs.   But as I wiped those prints up, I discovered that what I thought was the color of the linoleum, was actually a nasty, red-brown skim-coat of dried mud.  And I walk barefoot on that floor!  I was now disgusted with myself.

    So, yes, I mopped the floor.  Three times, actually.  What was once nasty, is now lovely.  And I am keeping the Swiffer Wet Jet next to the door so that I can immediately clean up the mud prints from now on.  I have been doing well on other self-made-promises this year; I am fairly confident I can keep this one, too.

    Spring is coming, folks.  I have a clean floor to prove it.