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An excerpt from the recently released book,Astonish Me

February 1973—Paris

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Joan kneels in a dark box in the third loge of the Palais Garnier,the Opéra,peeping over the red velvet railing. Six rickety chairs stand close around her,but she knows they creak and is careful not to disturb them. The houselights are down,but the glow from the stage picks out a profusion of gilded plasterwork:serene deities,trumpeting angels,lyres,garlands,flowers,oak leaves,masks,Corinthian columns,all deeply shadowed,piling up around the proscenium and among the boxes like the walls of a craggy gold cave,climbing to Chagall’s painted round ceiling of naked angels and voluptuous ballerinas and goats and chickens and lovers and blue Eiffel Tower and red-splotched rendering of the Palais itself. From the center of this hangs the great sleeping chandelier:an enormous gold and glass thistle hung upside down to dry,darkly gleaming.

The Kirov’s orchestra noodles around in the pit,waiting. At stage left,just in from the wings,the young star who has been the subject of so much hubbub stands in a heavy grey sweater,white tights,and thick army-green leg warmers pulled up to his thighs. Joan’s angle is not ideal—she is looking steeply down on him—but he seems too delicate and too boyish to be impressive. Most of the corps girls milling around in black leotards and white practice tutus are taller than he is. The ballerina who is his partner,however,is tiny,like a fairy,and she stands facing away from him,smoking a cigarette in a long white holder and absently blowing rings of smoke. Her head is wrapped in a printed scarf. Rusakov makes one smooth turn around her and plucks the holder from her fingers. He skips backward,puffing and making faces at her. Not taking the bait,she watches impassively,then pivots and disappears into the wings. He tires of his own game at once and presses the cigarette in its holder into the hand of one of the corps girls. She appears terrified by the gift and passes it off to her neighbor,who rushes into the wings after its owner.

Joan is not supposed to be watching the rehearsal,but she can always claim she did not understand the remonstrations of the ballet master. Still,to be safe,she had crept in a back door and made her way higher and higher through the gloomy backstage passages and stairways until she emerged into the third loge,which was quiet and a little musty without crowds of gossiping,mingling Parisians. Its balconies overlook the bronze and marble excess of the grand escalier. There is a curved wall of closed doors,each with a round porthole and leading to a box. She had used an usher’s key,purloined in advance,to open the door of box 11.

Some invisible cue makes the dancers flee the stage and the orchestra collect itself. The conductor lifts his baton,slices down- ward. After a few bars,Rusakov launches out from the wings. He has shed the leg warmers and sweater,and his body,in tights and T-shirt,is perfectly proportioned,muscled but not bulky. His legs appear longer than they are;his ass is round and high. Rumor has it that the Kirov won’t cast him as a romantic lead because he is small,preferring to use him as Ali the slave boy or the Bluebird or the Golden Idol,but his stage presence is aggressive and masculine,arrogant. He has arched,almost pointed eyebrows and very dark eyes that bounce imperiously off the empty theater. At first the raked French stages had given Joan trouble. She would migrate toward the pit on her turns,earning a few kicks from the next girl in line. But the stages in Russia are raked,too,and Rusakov shows no discomfort as he flutters downstage,hooking his body from side to side in a series of brisés volés. Another rumor is that he bleaches his hair to look more Russian,less Tatar,and the contrast of his feathered blond mop against his olive skin and black,restless eyes is striking.

The choreography is old-fashioned,but as Rusakov circles the stage doing high,perfect coupés jetés en tournant,his technique is not fusty but pure. His movements are quick but unhurried,impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere,without any apparent effort or preparation. But the beauty of Arslan’s dancing is not what moves Joan to cry in her red velvet aerie:it is a dream of perfection blowing through the theater. She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday,and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along,what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body. Forgetting herself,she leans out over the railing,wanting to get closer. Étonnez-moi,Diaghilev had said to his dancers in the Ballets Russes. Astonish me.

As Rusakov executes a final leap offstage and the music abruptly ends,the silence that follows is an injustice. Someone starts shouting in Russian. It is the artistic director. He leaps from his seat and charges up the aisle,bellowing. Rusakov reappears,his face blank. He listens to the harangue but does not nod,only stares at his slip- pers. Without waiting for the other man to finish,he stalks to the back of the stage,and with no music except the lone,rising,furious voice,comes whirling forward in the fastest chain of steps Joan has ever seen. Each step leads inexorably and precisely into the next. Nearly in the pit,he stops and holds an arabesque,all his momentum falling away,leaving a flawless statue. Then he spits and walks offstage. A deeper silence than before follows. Joan looks up at Chagall’s angels. Their fleshy wings are like those of penguins,more like fins than tools of flight. As she gets to her feet,she bumps into the chairs,making a clatter,but she doesn’t look back to see if anyone has heard.

Behind a curtain,the box has a small antechamber with crimson damask walls,coat hooks,a mirror with a wooden shelf beneath it,and a small velvet fainting couch,also red. She sits on this couch in the dark and snuffles,wiping her face with her hands. After two years in San Francisco,she had come to Europe to dance in a new competition in Switzerland and was spotted there by the director of the Paris Opéra Ballet,who offered to take her on as a quadrille,the lowest rank in the company. There was something about her he liked,he told her. Not everything,but something. He can make her better,if she will work. And so she had come to Paris and rented a room in Montmartre from a sullen girl in the company who does not speak to her. She had a short affair with a violinist who liked to hold her feet,tracing his fingers over the bloody patches and rough calluses. Then she had a slightly longer fling with a dancer,a sujet,as they call soloists,and she has learned enough French to get by. Every morning she goes to the opera house for class in the huge,round studio that hangs like an unpopped bubble between the auditorium and the Opéra’s green dome. Instructions come to her mostly as the names of steps,which she only knows in French anyway,and as eight counts and clapping and singing—bum BA BA,bum BA BA—and rapid bursts of elaborate description she can’t follow and,sometimes,to her,comme ça,comme ça with a demonstration she imitates as best she can. If she succeeds,she earns a voilà,simple,voilà,c’est tout. If she fails,there is a small grimace,a twitch of the head,a resigned smile,a retreat.

For Joan,Paris has the feeling of waiting. All the elegance,the light and water and stone and refined bits of greenery,must be for something,something more than simple habitation and aggressive driving of Renaults and exuberant besmearing with dog shit. The city seems like an offering that has not been claimed. Its beauty is suspenseful. Joan has walked the boulevards and bridges and embankments,sat in the uncomfortable green metal chairs in the Tuileries,puttered down the Seine on a tourist barge,been to the top of the Eiffel Tower,stared politely at countless paintings,been leered at and kissed at by so many men,stood in patches of harlequin light in a dozen chilly naves,bought a scarf she couldn’t afford,surreptitiously stroked the neatly stacked skulls in the catacombs,listened to jazz,gotten drunk on wine,ridden on the back of scooters,done everything she thinks she should in Paris,and still there has always been the feeling of something still to come,a purpose as yet unmet,an expectation.

But,now,in the dark,on the red velvet couch where fashionable Parisian ladies used to retire from the scrutiny of the opera house,Joan finds herself unexpectedly atop a moment that feels significant. Her life,unbeknownst to her,was narrowing around this point,funneling her toward it. The city was never waiting. She was waiting. For Arslan. Already she has started to think of him by his first name. If the beauty of Paris is suspenseful,the beauty of his dancing is almost terrible. It harrows her. Her throat is tight with fear. She is afraid of how this man,this stranger,has already changed the sensation of being alive. She is afraid he will slip away. All the things she has felt for months—the mundane loneliness,the frustration with language,the nagging anxiety,the gratitude for the opportunity to dance—all that is gone,replaced with brutal need. She should leave. She should go home and then to class tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. But her need is too powerful to ignore. She must see it through.

Carefully,she eases the door of the box shut behind her. The loge and escalier are deserted. The orchestra kicks up again,muted and distant. She has left the door to the back staircase propped open,and she passes into the convoluted innards of the Palais,making a few navigational flourishes to avoid spots where she might encounter Opéra stage crew or where the Kirov would be likely to have stationed security guards. She goes up through a stairwell and along a catwalk through the fly tower,where the painted backdrops fall silently through space like huge blades,and then she descends and descends. He will not be in the best dressing room;she guesses he will be in one of the second best,and she must cross the width of the theater to get there,something most covertly done through one of the basements. Her loneliness within the company has made her an expert in the geography of the opera house. Between rehearsals,when the others go out together for espresso or climb to the roof to gaze across the city and smoke with patina-green Apollo and his upraised lyre,she wanders the corridors and staircases,seeks out corners where she can sit invisibly and read a book. Some doors are locked but not as many as should be. The concierge is lazy.

The cryptlike basement is dark,but she finds a switch. Harsh fluorescence lights its stone vaults and the piles of miscellaneous stage junk underneath them. There are plain black cases for delicate things—lights,perhaps—in neat,anonymous stacks,but then there are loose assemblages of props:foam boulders,tables and chairs,floppy velvet stags,crates of fake fruit,canopy beds in pieces,an elaborate tomb,thrones,swords,scepters,a guillotine,carriages,muskets,angels’ wings,donkeys’ heads,trees,a magnificent rubber boa constrictor,Corinthian columns,and heaps of other jumbled objects under plastic sheeting or canvas tarps from the gas-lamp days. Joan hurries through,pausing only to lift the drape from an oval mirror and look at herself. She sees a flushed face,lank hair,eyes dilated in the gloom,a floral dress too thin for the season,tight in the waist like Parisian women wear. She draws herself up. She tells herself she is ethereal,mysterious. She will simply appear,like the fairy in the window in La Sylphide. She reaches under her skirt and pulls off her ratty underwear,dropping the scrap of cloth into an enormous urn,three feet tall,dusty and black,that stands beside a pile of wooden gravestones.

His name is written on a piece of tape stuck on a door. She is waiting when he comes in,his sodden T-shirt already stripped off and balled up in his hand. He pauses and glances back out into the hallway,looking both ways before he shuts the door. For a moment,he studies her. Then he touches her cheek and says,“Très belle.” He shows her the tears that come away on his fingers. “Mais pourquoi triste?”

“Je ne suis pas triste. Je suis très heureuse parce que je suis avec le meilleur danseur du monde.”

He does not seem especially flattered or surprised to find a strange girl speaking schoolgirl French in his dressing room,calling him the best dancer in the world. Nor does he appear impressed by how she managed to evade the Kirov security men or confused about what to do with her. Ordinarily,her love affairs are entered into skittishly,sometimes reluctantly. She doesn’t dive into bed but flutters in like a wayward moth. But now she strips off Arslan’s damp tights almost violently,as though she were skinning an animal. On the floor,his black eyes flick to her—amused,not especially surprised— when he discovers she is naked under her dress. The glance reminds her of how he had looked spotting his turns,arrogant,tapping his gaze briefly,indifferently against the empty theater,needing nothing from it.

Clutching this Russian stranger,smelling his sweat,feeling the oddly remote pressure of him inside her,she wants some piece of the fearsome beauty he has onstage. She wants to take some of his perfection for herself. He buries his face in her neck,as though flattening himself against a bomb blast. Even as his body presses on her,chest to chest,the outsides of his legs against the insides of hers,he seems hidden.

She pries his face up with both hands,makes him look at her. Still,she isn’t satisfied. She cranes her neck so their faces are as close as they can be without touching. “Regarde-moi,” she whispers. “Tu m’étonnes.” He tries to twist his head away,but she holds on. “Regarde-moi,” she says again.

Something travels through the dark eyes,some obscure disturbance. And then he looks at her the way she wants. He sees her;she knows he does. She releases his face,but he doesn’t look away,not until he is done and closes his eyes.

Before she leaves,she writes her name and her mother’s address in Virginia on a slip of paper with a kohl pencil. She does not expect to hear from him.

Excerpted from Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. Copyright © 2014 by Maggie Shipstead. Excerpted by permission of Knopf,a division of Random House LLC.

It’s Valentine’s Day….

and we thought that a one-post-fits-all was just not going to work.  We know girlfriends in all sorts of different stages of love. So we decided to bring you book suggestions for those of you who might be forgotten today.  Enjoy!

For our girlfriends who will be going to bed with their teddy bear tonight:

Much Loved

 

 

 

 

 

 

For our girlfriends who are speechless:

What I Love About You

 

 

 

 

 

 

For our ambivalent girlfriends:

I Love You Even Though…

 

 

 

 

 

 

For our hopeless-romantic-regardless girlfriends:

I Always Loved You

 

 

 

 

 

 

For our procrastinating girlfriends:

The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Breaking Up

 

 

 

 

 

 

For our girlfriends who are about to do something really dumb:

Monogamy

 

 

 

 

 

For our older,and,um,bored girlfriends:

Thursdays in the Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

For our girlfriends who would love to know how their ex is feeling:

Things I’ve Learned From the Women Who Dumped Me

 

 

 

 

 

And,finally,for all of us,no matter what:

I Love Me! Journal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dream a little dream

Since my father passed away my dreams have been more vivid and wild than ever.  But,it is what I am not dreaming about that puzzles me the most.  Not once have I dreamed about the one thing I was so sure I would:my dad.

A few weeks after he passed away,I planned a solo visit to my mom’s house.  She had for years sacrificed any life for herself to care for my sick father. Now that he was gone,she was alone. My mom didn’t drive or have a career – nor did she have a large circle of social connections. My brother and sister lived close by,but they had full time jobs and families to raise. I worried about how well she would adjust to life without my father.

I arrived on a Friday night and although she had told me over the phone she was suffering from a nasty cold,by 3am,after listening to her coughing and having difficulty breathing in the next room for hours,I got out of bed and told her I was taking her to the emergency room. It was a bone-chilling cold and windy December night and my mom looked frighteningly frail as I put her in my car.  She was very ill,but I didn’t realize how much so until we got to the emergency room and it became apparent she was much sicker than I thought.

That night I stayed with her in the hospital and I dreamt that I was my current age,but single,and still living with my mother. I had a similar dream the following night when I slept by her hospital bed as well.  Shortly thereafter,she was released from the hospital and I went back home to my family.

But the dream never stopped.  Every night they consisted of the same scenario – living at my mom’s home,single,but they all had different themes. One night my sister was also living there. One night I took her as my date to a wedding. One night The Boy Who Broke My Heart showed up at our doorstep with his wife and family –then drove away in a horse driven carriage,with a speed boat attached. (???)

As the months went on and the dream kept recurring,I couldn’t help but wonder why I kept dreaming of my mom – and never once had the luxury of seeing my father again,even if it was only in my dreams. Honestly,I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Why in the world wasn’t I dreaming about my late father?

Lauri Quinn Loewenberg is a Certified Dream Analyst,author,syndicated columnist and a popular guest on such television shows as The View and Good Morning America.  In her most recent book,Dream on It:Unlock Your Dreams,Change Your Life,Loewenberg gives readers the tools to interpret their own dreams.

I was lucky enough to get the chance to ask Loewenberg about my dreams (or lack thereof). Although I was very excited to talk to her,there is something a little unnerving about spilling the contents of your dreams to an analyst. What the heck could all of my dreams mean?

Nothing even close to what I imagined.

“What we dream at night is determined by what happened that very day.” Loewenberg told me. “For example,whatever happens in your life today,whatever thoughts run through your mind,whatever accomplishments you make,whatever conversations you have,whatever frustrates you today is likely to show up in your dreams tonight in some form or fashion. Dreaming is a thought process. It is the way the inner mind examines and works through the issues of the day and comes up with solutions for tomorrow. That’s why we tend to say ‘let me sleep on it’ when we have a dilemma. What we’re really saying is ‘let me dream on it’.”

Huh. I tried to process what that meant about my dreams.  Obviously,my mom’s lonely life after the passing of my father and my fear of losing her was something I dwelled upon every day,which was why I kept dreaming I was still living at home with her,right?

Wrong.

“When we dream of our mother she is usually standing in for our own role as mom. To have a recurring dream that you are living with her again may mean that your inner mind wants you to spend more of your time as a mom.” Loewenberg told me. “Do you get that working mom guilt that you aren’t getting enough time with your kids?” she asked.

That posed a very interesting question. I had to confront this head-on,and after examining it I realized that I was spending quite a bit of time working on my new career,and maybe not as much time as I should have been enjoying my children.

So,I quickly vowed to change that. I took long walks with my son (albeit incentivizing him with a treat from our destination – a grocery store). I spent hours with my daughter catching up on the television series Glee so we could watch it together when the new season started. I generally spent more quality time with them than usual – playing games,cooking and baking together.

Sure enough,after just a few days of being the mom I always try to be,the dreams stopped. I was happier and my children were happier. Thank you,recurring dream!

But there was still the larger question of why I was not dreaming about my father. That one was weighing much more heavily on my mind.

“It is quite normal to not dream of a loved one for some time after they have passed. In fact,in my research I’ve found that it can be about a year before we dream of our deceased loved ones.” Loewenberg assured me. “However,it is possible you are dreaming about him but you may simply not be remembering those dreams. We all dream every 90 minutes throughout the night so there’s a good chance some of those dreams involved your father but you may be suppressing them out of grief.”

Loewenberg suggested trying to “incubate” a dream about my father,by putting a picture of him in my bedroom,and to make sure he was the last thing I thought about before I fell asleep.

“Our dreams are telling us things we need to know about ourselves and our lives. They are our built-in life coach,advising and guiding us through every issue life throws at us. When you are dreaming,you are thinking,but on a much deeper and focused level than when you’re awake.” Loewenberg explained. “Once you enter the REM phase of sleep,which is when dreaming takes place,a structure located on the brain stem called the pons,sends signals to the cerebral cortex (the region of the brain responsible for most of our thought processes) that dreaming has begun,which means some very serious and deep thinking is now happening.”

For those of you who have had some pretty crazy dreams this might have you wondering how in the world your thinking is leading you to such bizarre places at night. “The best way that I can explain it is that when you are dreaming you are thinking with metaphors,such as ‘he’s as healthy as a horse’.” explained Loewenberg.

I was also curious to ask –are there certain things you dream about that should definitely grab your attention? “Most definitely.” according to Loewenberg.  For example,dreaming about an injured,dying or vicious dog could be a sign of a relationship that is in danger of ending or a relationship that is not good for you. Did you dream about a run down or dilapidated house? It could be a sign of bad health.

And those nightmares?  What is up with those? “Nightmares in general are connected to ignored,mishandled or difficult issues.” says Loewenberg. “A nightmare is the way the dreaming mind slaps us in the face to get our attention and alert us to an issue in our life that needs correcting immediately.”

Dreams are an important way to take care of ourselves both mentally and physically. We just have to seek out their meaning,adjust our lives accordingly,but most importantly,do our best to remember them. “It is important that when you wake up –whether it is in the morning for good or in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom –you remain in bed and in the exact position you woke up in for a few minutes so you can be sure to capture that dream before it fades.” Loewenberg advises. So,don’t feel guilty hitting that snooze button.

As for me,I still have not had one dream about my dad. But I know it will come,and it will be wonderful to see him again.

You can learn more about Lauri Quinn Loewenberg at her website,http://www.lauriloewenberg.com/.

What lengths would you go to prove your child’s innocence?

If you haven’t had the chance to read Defending Jacob:A Novel,it is a fascinating page-turner. You need to read it before the movie comes out! This week’s guest post,an interview with the author,William Landay,is from our friends at A Bullseye View.

As a parent,you would do anything for your children. But what if your 14-year-old son was accused of murder,to what lengths would you go to prove his innocence?

Laurie and Andy Barber,the central characters in William Landay’s third novel,“Defending Jacob,” are forced to consider this question when their son is denounced as a suspect in the slaying of a classmate. Andy,an assistant district attorney,must see through the cloud of his emotions and straight to the facts of a case that has rocked his quiet suburb. His devotion to Jacob’s innocence is tested under the extreme pressure of a floundering marriage,convincing evidence and sheer uncertainty. As if that isn’t jarring enough,a family secret reveals that the accusations might not be so outlandish.

In his thrilling and unpredictable novel,William uses his expert eye to steer the reader through the ups and downs of parenthood and the court system. Below,the author offers insight into how his experience in the courtroom informed the compelling narrative.

How did your experience as an Assistant District Attorney influence this book?
There is no doubt my years as an Assistant DA informed the writing of “Defending Jacob,” but only in a general way. I never write about real cases,at least not directly. What I drew on from those years is a familiarity and comfort in describing the criminal justice system,a fluency in the language of cops and lawyers. When people respond to the book’s sense of authenticity,it’s that deep experience they’re sensing.

What goes into the art of crafting a crime novel?
The same things that go into crafting any novel,I suppose. All novels need to entertain the reader – not just crime,suspense or mystery novels. The basic bargain between writer and reader is this:You give me eight or ten hours of your time,and I will give you a reason to keep turning the pages. If a writer ignores that obligation,the reader is within their rights to put down the book. I think the emphasis on storytelling that is associated with crime novels—on telling a story that is taut,suspenseful,complex,surprising,entertaining—is something every book ought to offer. As a reader,it’s something I always look for.

Why does this story hit home for readers?
I hope none of my readers will ever be in the position that Laurie and Andy Barber find themselves in,with a child accused of murder. But most parents know the helpless feeling of being shut out of a teenager’s life and thoughts. And of course the readers who are not parents have been children,they understand what it’s like to feel misunderstood. The truth is,what the Barbers go through is not entirely different from what every family goes through;the Barbers’ troubles are just much,much bigger.

In this book,you dive into the science of criminology,what type of research did you conduct?
As little as possible,honestly. The science is fascinating,and there’s a good deal of it in “Defending Jacob,” but I did not want the science to take over the book. It is very interesting to write about human behavior—about why we humans do what we do—because we are finally beginning to unravel the science of it. As interesting as that is,in the end it is not what “Defending Jacob” is about. The novel is about people,about families. The science,like the legal aspects of the book,is there only to support the drama.

What do you want readers to take away from this novel?
I would never tell a reader what they ought to think,about my book or any book. A novel is like sheet music:The story is coded there in 300 pages of squiggly black lines,and it is up to the reader to pick those words up off the page and “play” them—to tell the story and imagine it in their own head. The result is that every reader’s experience of a book will be different. I’ll leave it up to A Bullseye View readers to decide for themselves!

What is your favorite genre to read?
Not suspenseful crime novels,oddly enough. I tend to read mainstream fiction,both old and new. I don’t usually read within any genre;I get bored too quickly. You read differently when you are a writer. You’re also aware that what you read will inevitably influence what you write. So you choose your books carefully,just as an athlete chooses his dinner carefully — no junk food allowed. Not while you’re working,anyway.

“Defending Jacob” was optioned for a movie. Any developments you can share with us?
I will not be writing the screenplay—that is being done by wonderful screenwriter Steve Kloves,whose credentials and talent far exceed my own. He scripted some of the “Harry Potter” films,and was nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel “The Wonder Boys.” I know he will do an amazing job on this. As for news,all I can say is that the work is ongoing,and everything looks good at this point. I am very optimistic.

This is your third novel. Are there plans for a fourth?
Of course! I’m working on it right now. In fact,there are plans for a fifth and a sixth and a twentieth. I’m just getting started!

An epic confrontation

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker is a real tome. At 563 pages,it’s a brick of a fantasy
novel that takes a bit of warming up to,but draws a world full of tried and true magical tropes as well as some interestingly original world concepts.

Nora is a PhD grad student of literature in the world as we know it,having trouble finishing her thesis and keeping a boyfriend. Ah,the typical beginning from which to jump into a life-changing alternate reality. At least Nora is somewhat older and more mature than your typical female protagonist –a “thinking woman”,as the title suggests,unfortunately plagued at the start by more mundane and air-headed concerns. Out for a walk at a weekend wedding in the countryside,Nora discovers a small graveyard that is the unobtrusive entrance to a parallel world where she meets Ilissa –a wealthy,eccentric woman who,with little effort,envelopes Nora in her sphere of decadence and non-stop parties and indulgence,and introduces her to her handsome,charming son,Raclin. Or so it seems to Nora,who finds herself married to Raclin and expecting his child before discovering that she has been bewitched by Ilissa,who is,in fact,queen of the Faitoren (faeries,exhibiting their standard literary traits),and everything she had been exposed to since her ill-fated walk in the woods has been an illusion covering a dark and brutal truth,meant to trick her into providing a royal heir.

This first section of the novel reflects the mirage Nora is experiencing in its airiness,confusion and lack of substance. There is not much to sink your teeth into until Nora is reluctantly rescued from the Faitoren by the bitter and depressed,but very powerful,magician Aruendiel,and begins a second life in her new universe living at his deserted castle estate,helping his housekeeper and learning all she can about this world,how it works and how she can be safe from Ilissa and Raclin and maybe find her way home. This is where Real Magic really takes off. Barker shines in her portrayal of the rural and mundane aspects of life at Aruendiel’s and of Nora’s de-fogged attempts to survive and thrive. Nora and (especially) Aruendiel,are much more fully realized characters than the Faitoren,and their conversations as they get to know each other,to (begrudgingly on Aruendiel’s part) respect each other,and as Nora becomes Aruendiel’s pupil and begins to learn magic herself,are page turners,charged with energy that flash between these two unlikely personalities.

An epic confrontation and semi-resolution rounds out the conclusion,while practically begging for a sequel. The odd combination of medieval fiction,magical fantasy,and modern chick-lit/romance is at times ineffectual,but fans of the genres who stick with it past the first 100 pages will be glad they did. Once Nora begins to really see it,Barker knows her world and fleshes it out with interesting characters and plot points. Though she lingers on some sections too long,and breezes too minimally past others,the overall effect is a worthy,if wordy,distraction for fantasy fans.

About the Author: Emily Croy Barker A graduate of Harvard University,Emily Croy Barker has been a magazine journalist for more than 20 years. She is currently executive editor at The American Lawyer magazine. This is her first novel.

This review was written by girlfriend Alexandra Hopwood.

How many have you read?

Amazon has released their 2013 Best Books of the Year. For the first year in several years,I have not read their number one selection.  Well,I’m just ashamed of myself!  I think I know what one of my New Year’s resolutions is going to be. As busy as I get,I need to make more time for the things I love doing.

The past few days have been difficult ones in my upstate New York hometown of Watervliet.  I haven’t lived there in over twenty years. but I still visit and with the help of Facebook,I get to stay connected to many of the people with whom I shared twelve years of school. It has reminded me of something that we should all keep in mind,especially around the holiday season:

be kind to people,because you never know what battle they are fighting  

If you know someone who has been going through a tough time –even if they seem fine –take time to ask them how they are doing. You could make a huge difference in someone’s life.

 

Stress and the holidays

We all know that the holidays can be stressful for all sorts of reasons.  My number one is managing to get all of my shopping done. I like to have everything purchased and wrapped by at least December 1st,but Thanksgiving threw me off this year. It’s already the 6th,and my shopping is not done,my cards are not out,my tree is not up,and work is busy. AAAHHH!

But my friends at meQuilibrium have some great stress-busting tips for the season that they have given me to share with you,Girlfriends! I hope they help!

Putting the ‘happy’ back into the holidays – change your approach to stress the meQuilibrium way 

We should all look forward to the holidays as a time to celebrate with family and friends. But all too often,the stress of the season prevents us from enjoying ourselves.

The way you think of the holidays will determine how you experience them. So if you think,“Oh no,here come the holidays with their stress and exhaustion and pseudo-nostalgic crap,” that’s exactly what you’ll experience.

But carefully choosing different words and thoughts can transform your holiday this year.

Here are some top tips from our experts at meQuilibrium,to help you make the holidays truly happy.

1) Change your words. Notice the words you use to describe your holiday,even to yourself,and start replacing them with something a little less fraught.

2) Speak kindly. A direct and simple way to change someone’s day,not to mention your own! Speak gently and mindfully,look them in the eye,touch their arm,ask if you can help – these go a long way for both of you.

3) Let your listening speak for you. There is no kinder act than to really listen to another person. When you listen,breathe slowly and evenly,settle into a comfortable position and turn towards the speaker. Don’t worry about offering solutions or softening painful emotions;just hold the attention.

4) Say those three little words (plus two more). Saying “I love you”—whether to your spouse,a friend,your kids—is a bona fide mood lifter and stress reducer. And,when you find a way to say “thank you,” you increase your optimism,immunity,and ability to stay calm.

5) Shift your self-talk. The holidays are a lot tougher when you scald yourself with critical self-talk. Extending kind thoughts to yourself can help you let go of anger and resentment,and allow you to speak kindly and compassionately to others.

To learn more about meQuilibrium go to their website.

CyberMonday is here!

Let the shopping begin with our 2013 Holiday Gift Guide!

Black (and blue?) Friday

On Friday morning,earlier than I care to admit,I will embark on an adventure with my teenage daughter that only she could talk me into –Black Friday shopping.  The truth is,one major retailer has a sale on a large ticket item that,damn them,even I can’t resist.

Since my husband rarely (probably never) reads this blog,I can safely share with you why I’m willing to face a large carbohydrate-fueled crowd. I often joke that if a burglar ever broke into our home they’d be severely disappointed. Unless they wanted to carry out large pieces of furniture or hand hooked rugs,or managed to take my engagement ring off my finger,they would leave here pretty unhappy.  Our only television is one of those large,bulky,definitely-not-flat-screen versions and we have dug in our heels over getting a new one.

But since my husband has been a good boy this year,I decided it was time to take the plunge. I started researching flat screens a few months ago and based on my research,the sale on a flat screen at (insert large retail store name here) is just,wow.  I’m not sure how they can sell it that low,but who am I to ask questions?

So early on Friday morning I will wake up my daughter (the most dangerous part of the day),go to the Starbucks drive through,and head out to buy my husband his Christmas gift. Although I have no idea how I’m going to hide it when I get it home!

Considering all of this,I received a very timely email about Black Friday safety tips from Jarrett Arthur.  Jarrett is one of the highest ranking female Krav Maga black belt instructors in the country.  Now I’m not suggesting anyone needs to know Krav Maga to go shopping these days.  (Although it does remind me of one of my favorite How I Met Your Mother episodes.) But it doesn’t hurt to take a few tips from an expert.

She suggests first and foremost to pay attention to your surroundings. If you are like me,you can get lost in thought and before you know it,your wallet is gone. Pay attention to who is around you and what they are doing.  (If it looks like they are doing nothing that’s a bad sign!)

Parking lots are prime territory for bad guys.  If you are shopping after dark (or before dawn) be sure to park in a brightly lit area,and avoid parking near,say,windowless vans.

Also,keep in mind that Black Friday crowds can be dangerous. I have seen this first hand when I was growing up. My older brother had his first job at K-Mart,and it happened to be one of the years that the Cabbage Patch Kids were THE toy to get the little monsters.  He was working on Black Friday and was asked to bring out a new box of the disturbing looking dolls (seriously,no?) to the sales floor.  Instantly he was mauled,tackled,scratched,and if memory serves me,even bit by the Cabbage Patch Crazies.

But,sometimes we must be courageous when we have the opportunity to save hundreds of dollars. So wish me luck.

Oh,if you want to learn more about Jarrett,you can visit her website.

We have a guest blogger today.

We are thrilled to have Cynthia Ellingson,author of Marriage Matters, as our guest blogger!

Marriage Matters:Are You Sharing a Wedding with Your Mother and Grandmother?

Weddings:Champagne toasts,bouquet tosses and questionable bridesmaid dresses. If you have such an extravaganza on the horizon,I’d like to share some words of wisdom from Chloe,one of the lead characters in my new novel “Marriage Matters”.

Wedding Advice from Chloe 

DO NOT:

1. Catch a Bouquet with your Mother and Grandmother

If you catch a bouquet with your mother and grandmother,there is a good chance that the three of you will share a wedding. Or a cell in the loony bin.

2. Get Married on Someone Else’s Timeline

Some things in life should not be rushed. A first kiss… a good issue of Star Magazine… a wedding. Take the time to really think about whether you to marry the man who proposed after three months or the best friend you have loved since you were six.

3. Turn a Cake Tasting Into a Cake-Eating Contest

Do not compete with your grandmother to see who can eat the most tiramisu,red velvet cake and dulce de leche. She might fake a diabetic coma just to win.

4. Allow your Grandmother to Plan the Bachelorette Party

Here’s a fact:Your grandmother lived through the 70’s. Trust me,a boa and a flute of champagne is not a good combination.

5. Plan a Wedding with your Mother and Grandmother

Family and marriage go together like the New Kids and Boyz II Men. It’s a combination that will never quit. But planning a wedding with your mother and grandmother is like throwing the Macarena into the mix. It confuses everything.

Don’t believe me? Read “Marriage Matters”. Romantic Times Magazine chose it as a humor contemporary must-read. I hope you enjoy it and share it with every bride – past,present and future – that you know.

Get to know author Cynthia Ellingsen at www.cynthiaellingsen.com or facebook.com/cynthiaellingsen