This Alice in Wonderland spin-off is set in the peaceful, magical land of Hearts which is ruled by a buffoon-of-a-king who has his eyes on the regal Lady Catherine Pinkerton. “Cath” is the daughter of wealthy land owners who fall over themselves in an attempt to put their daughter on the throne. Cath isn’t interested in becoming a queen, however; instead, she wants to start her own bakery with her best friend and maid, Mary Anne. When Cath meets the king’s newest court jester, appropriately named Jest, their attraction is magnetic, and she is immediately swept up by his charm and mystique. Unbeknownst to Cath, Jest is on a mission from Chess, sent to steal the heart of a queen to save his homeland from the grips of war. To further complicate matters, a murderous jabberwock is terrorizing Hearts, its origins a mystery. Cath learns that once her fate is written in ink, she is powerless to stop it.
This book kept me guessing until the end. In fact, its conclusion was so unexpected to me that I checked to see if it was part of a series! It’s not, by the way. . . I loved Meyer’s cast of characters, many borrowed from Lewis Caroll’s book including the Cheshire Cat, the smoking caterpillar and the Mad “Hatta.” This is memorable, high fantasy fun, and I look forward to the release of Meyer’s new novel, Renegades on November 7 and her upcoming visit to the Spencer Road branch of the St. Charles City-County Public Library to promote it. Click here for event details. It’s free to attend!
A Fascinating Afternoon
Like Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, Marissa Meyer’s Heartless includes a quirky and memorable tea party. In Heartless, the party is hosted by the Mad Hatta who is known for his unusual and magical hats. These hats play a crucial role in the action of the story. As soon as I read the tea party scene, I knew that it would be the inspiration for this week’s #plotdrivenlife experience. One of my favorite special things to do with several of my girlfriends is to get dressed up and enjoy high tea together. My friend Katie met Jane Muscroft, also known as “The Scone Lady” at a cooking class once upon a time, and learned that Jane, a Brit, also served high tea once a month in a rented space in St. Louis. So, my friends made it a tradition to get together for tea a few times a year, and we once drove to St. Louis in an ice storm, determined to keep our reservation! Recently, Jane opened her own cafe in Edwardsville, Illinois, called Queen’s Cuisine, and she continues to serve high tea on one Sunday each month. Checking our calendars, Katie, our friend Kris and I made plans to drive an hour to enjoy Jane’s delicious sandwiches, scones desserts and tea.
This was to be no typical tea party, however. We had to have hats! I have always loved the elegant and sometimes ridiculous nature of a fascinator hat, often worn by English royalty at fancy events, and I’ve wanted to make my own for years. I dug around on Pinterest for an evening and found two separate DIY tutorials for fascinators and decided I’d combine them. Click here and here for the tutorials.
With a vision of the final product, I took a field trip to Hobby Lobby to purchase supplies. An hour later, I was heating up my new glue gun, feeling like a giddy contestant on Project Runway.
The hats are pretty tame, but I’m proud of how they turned out, and I think Kris and Katie looked beautiful in them.
At Queen’s Cuisine, we filled our bellies with divine treats and just enjoyed each other’s company. High tea is a rare splurge for us which is why we packed Tupperware so we could take home the leftovers!
What special traditions do you have with your own friends? Post in the comments.
One of the best parts about leading a #plotdrivenlife is that it has provided the ideal kick-in-the-pants to get out me of my house to enjoy some of the amazing attractions and experiences Missouri has to offer with some lovely people. This past week, I took an octogenarian to a musical, inspired by a book written by a Missouri native and fellow librarian!
Deacon Locke Went to Prom by Brian Katcher
What do you do when you’re too terrified to ask a girl to prom? You take your spunky grandmother instead!
Deacon Locke has lived with his grandmother, Jean, since his dad ran away to Amsterdam to escape some bookies. Deacon and Jean make a pretty great team, and they have plenty of laughs together, so after several promposals derail Deacon’s plans to take his crush to prom, Deacon decides to ask Jean to prom instead. After all, Jean didn’t get a chance to attend her own prom because her husband was fighting in the Vietnam War, so Deacon thinks his plan is perfect. And his life only improves when he meets the girl of his dreams, Soraya, while taking dancing lessons with Jean.
Deacon’s life takes a drastic turn, however, when he is reluctantly thrust into the limelight after a video of him and Jean dancing together at prom goes viral. The story of a teenager taking his grandma to prom is social media magic, it turns out. As Deacon’s fame grows, he realizes Jean is having more frequent episodes of memory loss, and he’s increasingly alarmed by her behavior. He’s only eighteen, after all. Can he handle all of this pressure by himself?
Author Brian Katcher has written five book for teens, including one of my all-time favorites, Almost Perfect, a very timely book about a teen boy growing up in rural Missouri who falls for a transgender girl. Two of his other books have made the Gateway Nominee shortlist, including The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak which is a Gateway Nominee for the 2017-18 school year. Read more about this year’s Gateways here. I also have to mention that Brian is super about visiting Missouri schools to discuss his books. He’s got a great sense of self-deprecating humor!
An Unusual Friendship
I don’t have living grandparents anymore, but I do have a stand-in named David. David and I had the chance to meet in 2004 when I was doing my student teaching with a saintly lady named Jean Weinstock. Jean immediately and fully embraced me, a barely twenty-one year old from Canada who had no nearby relatives. David was her adoring husband, and I got to know and love him, too. I was completely enthralled by Jean and David’s loving relationship and cultured life. They had season tickets to Rams football and Cardinals baseball games as well as season tickets to the St. Louis Symphony, Stages Theater, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Despite their active lives, they welcomed me into their family and showed me more kindness than I can ever repay.
Jean, me and David at my college graduation party in 2004.
Sadly, Jean passed away after a tragic accident in 2009. At her visitation, I can remember her daughter, Bess, asking if I would attend a symphony concert once in awhile with David. I was happy to do so, and since 2009, David and I have met several times a year to see movies, concerts, operas and ballets. One thing we had never done together before, however, was attend a performance at the outdoor Muny Theatre in St. Louis’ Forest Park.
In the spirit of Deacon Locke, I asked David, fifty years my senior, to accompany me to dinner and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown at The Muny which is celebrating its 99th season this year. David was genuinely delighted to be my date for the evening and over dinner, he shared his memories of attending Muny performances in his youth. His childhood home was so close to Forest Park that he often walked to the theatre which he called “a summer hotspot” for famous entertainers. In the 1950s, he had friends who worked as ushers at the theatre, and he can remember them sneaking him in to sit in the box seats. These friends also made it possible for him to attend cast parties at swanky local hotels.
The entrance to The Muny, short for “Municipal Theatre.”
While David is no longer a sneaky little school boy, he has the same enthusiasm for The Muny today that he did as a teen. We both thoroughly enjoyed The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and David said he hopes this is the first of many performances we’ll see together at The Muny.
Waiting for the show to start!
We’re an unusual pair, David and I, but he and Jean taught me that you don’t have to be related to be family.
David and me on our walk to The Muny.
Readers, take Deacon Locke’s actions to heart and consider making a date with an elder, relative or not. You may not blow up on YouTube, but you’ll likely be a star to your date.
Have you succumbed to the Alexander Hamilton frenzy? Do you belt out the show tunes in the shower, and are you willing to give a left arm for a ticket to the Broadway show?
I’d like to keep my left arm, but this week’s book crush may have me calling in all kinds of favors in an attempt to get tickets to Alexander Hamilton when it comes to The Fox theater in St. Louis next year. The book I’m crushing on is Melissa de la Cruz’s Alex and Eliza, the fictionalized love story of Alexander Hamilton and his sweetheart, Elizabeth Schuyler. The author was inspired to write the novel after seeing the musical with her daughter.
Penniless “Alex” is George Washington’s aide-de-camp when he first meets middle Schuyler daughter “Eliza” at a ball hosted by the Schuyler family in 1777. A prank threatens their romance from the start, but when the two meet up two years later in Morristown, New Jersey, their romance slowly blossoms. Complicating matters, Alex was forced to prosecute Eliza’s father for a war crime, and the Schuyler family is facing financial ruin, meaning poor Alex isn’t a sensible match.
This book is humorous, suspenseful and just plain delightful. Eliza is no delicate flower; she’s opinionated and feisty, and I admired her progressive attitude and desire to support the revolutionary soldiers in any way possible. Because Alex is such a formidable soldier, his love-sick behavior is particularly hilarious. If this isn’t the true love story of Alex and Eliza, I can’t think of a better one.
I have to admit that I struggled to come up with a plot driven experience for this book. Most of the books I’ve read so far have easily impressed upon me an idea for an experience. For this book, I had to do some serious storming of the brain. In fairness, much has changed since 1777, and I didn’t feel like donning petticoats for the day or getting a smallpox vaccination. Instead, I focused on the idea that Alex and Eliza had to rely on horses for long-distance transportation– whether by riding them or using them to draw carriages. Never having ridden a horse outside of a barn, I invited my friend Mernie to join me for a guided horseback trail ride in Bourbon, Missouri.
Mernie and I picked the hottest day of the year so far for this plot driven experience. Temperatures in Bourbon were predicted to hit 101 degrees Fahrenheit by the afternoon, so we were more than happy to make the hour and half drive to Bourbon to start our trail ride at 8:00am. We met our guide and ranch owner, Carol, who introduced us to our trusty steeds for the day: Mernie rode Dove, a Tennessee Walker, and I rode Joy, a Missouri Fox Trotter. Carol rode Strider and wasted no time in getting us on the trail, a path of her choosing through acres of picturesque property her family has owned since 1811. We walked along the banks of the Meramec River, navigated some rocky terrain through brush, and trotted along a shaded gravel road with two of Carol’s dogs following us the entire way. Mernie and I both repeatedly talked about how peaceful and scenic the experience was, and we had a lovely conversation with Carol about the beauty of making your own path and intentionally enjoying nature.
Our guide Carol helping Mernie mount Dove.
Dove was a true character, and boy was she gassy! I rode behind them for most of the trip. BIG mistake.
I learned I am not a natural horseback rider. I’m sure my mom is cringing as she’s reading this because she once owned her own horse and loves to ride. As Carol rightly pointed out, I likely spent more time un-training Joy than training her to my commands. And I was nervous. I had never ridden western style before, and there is a lot to remember when you first get on that horse! And Carol might have scared the pants off of me, too. . . Nevertheless, I’d like to ride again with Carol to overcome my fear and become more comfortable at riding. I hope Joy will forgive me for being so terrible the first time!
Can you see my forced smile? I was thinking, “Joy, please don’t kill me.”
If you’re ever near Bourbon and want to ride, please go see Carol Springer at Meramec Farm.
It took only three hours to get this staged shot!
This was a way-out-of-my-comfort-zone experience. It was scary but fun, too! Mernie is always positive and happy, and I’ll never forget her laughter when Dove interrupted the silence with her musical farts. Maybe she’s an Alexander Hamilton fan, too? It was a memorable day!
I finished seven books on my recent vacation, and several of them were really stellar.
One of the books I ate right up was This Raging Light by Estelle Laure. This book is a 2017-18 Gateway Nominee, and if this doesn’t sound familiar to you, read more about the Gateways by visiting their official website here.
People in their small town call Lucille’s father “crazy,” but what they don’t know is that her mom wouldn’t win any “Mother of the Year” award, either. In fact, it’s been weeks since Lucille’s mother left her and her younger sister Wren in order to “find herself,” leaving no contact information and only enough money to pay the bills through the end of the month. Lucille is panicked at the thought of being discovered by Social Services, so she throws herself into being a parent to Wren and concealing the fact there is no adult at home. If she can maintain the charade until she’s eighteen, she can stop worrying about losing Wren, too.
At first, Lucille’s best friend Eden is an ally, caring for Wren when Lucille works as a waitress, but when Lucille and Eden’s twin Digby become romantically involved, the girls’ friendship dissolves. Things get messy because Digby has a longtime girlfriend already, and Lucille’s future is nothing but chaos and uncertainty. Given her past luck, it’s probably too much to ask for Lucille to find love with Digby and friendship with Eden, too.
Laure is slow and tantalizing in revealing details as to why the girls are parentless, but this technique made me hungry to read more. I think most readers will gobble up this book like I did, curious as to whether the author has written other books (Spoiler Alert: She’s written one other so far!).
Inspired by Kindness
Though This Raging Light is a terribly sad novel, it has an abundance of heart and includes wonderful moments of kindness sprinkled throughout. It’s these moments of kindness that inspired my plot driven experience this week. I reflected on the fact that Lucille is repeatedly surprised by mysterious “angels” who seem to know about her circumstances and anonymously shower her with kindness. On a couple of occasions, these angels fill her kitchen pantry with food, and stock up her supply of toiletries. Another time, they decorate her porch with flowers so she can enjoy something beautiful. Instead of alerting the authorities to the absence of her mother, these angels band together to help her.
In response, I decided to perform random acts of kindness and was the recipient of some pretty great random kindness, too. It’s kismet at work again!
First of all, I referred to a newsletter I receive each month from a local charity called Angels’ Arms, an organization that places sibling groups in foster homes in the St. Louis area. Their monthly newsletter includes a link to their Amazon wishlist, and I purchased a couple of items on this list, supplies that Lucille’s angels provided for her, too. You can find out more about the amazing efforts of Angels’ Arms here.
Next, I consulted the web for some other ideas of random acts of kindness. I stumbled upon this website with a whole host of suggestions! In fact, this site led me down a rabbit hole as I applied to be a “RAKtivist” (a Random Act of Kindness activist), and then joined the RAKtivist Facebook group. As a result, my feed was flooded with stories of people who are spreading love and joy all over the world. Talk about inspiring! If you are an educator or parent, the website also includes free curricula to help teach about kindness to K-12 students.
As suggested by the website, I took time these past couple of weeks to be especially thoughtful and appreciative. I cleaned the gym equipment after I used it, I looked any customer service people in the eye and told them I really appreciated them for helping me, and I purchased small trinkets for some of my favorite people while I was on vacation to let them know I had been thinking of them. I try everyday to be kind, but this plot driven experience proved I can always do more.
Because I was making a concerted effort to be kind this week, I decided it was the perfect opportunity for me to finish a project I’d been working on for my friend, Lauren, too. Six months ago, I started making her a t-shirt quilt from past races we had run together, and I finished the quilt today. It’s the first t-shirt quilt I’ve ever made, and while I hope Lauren loves it, I truly enjoyed the experience of making it for her, my dear friend.
I was the recipient of kindness this week, too. My friend Jaime gifted me a beautiful portrait of Benny and Rudy made by an artist friend:
And as I walked along the historic part of a local town with friends this week, we stumbled upon several beautifully painted rocks, part of a project to bring joy to strangers! I picked up this little cutie which, as directed, I will place in another location for someone else to find and smile about. Thanks, stcharlesrocks.com!
As an act of kindness for reading all the way down to the end of this blog post, I’m going to give you a chance to win a book:
In the comments, tell me about an act of kindness you performed recently. I’ll pick a winner by Sunday, July 16.
One of the ways I’m able to read so many books is because I discovered the awesomeness of the audiobook. Both my school library and our local public library have audiobooks a-plenty via Overdrive that I can download to my phone. When I traded radio listening for audiobooks last year at the suggestion of two fellow school librarians, I realized I could easily finish a ten hour audiobook each week. This switch has allowed me to set a higher reading challenge goal for myself which I track on Goodreads, and I feel better prepared to make book recommendations.
Recently, I took a chance on an audiobook I hadn’t heard much about called Like No Other by Una LaMarche. After reading the book’s summary, I expected it to be a sweet, somewhat predictable love story about two teens who fall for one another despite major cultural differences. This book is anything but simple and predictable!
The story alternates between Devorah and Jaxon. Devorah is an Hasidic Jew who has never ventured outside of her strict Hasidic community. She attends a Jewish school, wears tights even in hot weather to fully cover her legs and doesn’t watch tv or talk on a cell phone. Devorah is bound by the rules of “Yichud” which prevent her from speaking to any male alone until she is married. When she gets stuck in a hospital elevator with Jaxon, however, she reluctantly breaks Yichud in order to politely answer Jaxon’s questions.
Devorah and Jaxon begin a secret and highly illicit love affair. Devorah’s religion dictates that her parents will choose a husband for her–likely before she turns 18– so dating, especially a non-Jew, is forbidden and can bring great shame upon the family. As they continue to spend more time together, Devorah begins to question her faith. Why wouldn’t G-d (her respectful reference to God) want her to have happiness with Jaxon? Jaxon, too, must decide how different his future path will be if he chooses to make a life with Devorah.
Like No Other definitely has a Romeo and Juliet feel, and it would be a great read for anyone who enjoyed The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon or All We Have Left by Wendy Mills– both books about culturally different characters who are attracted to one another. Una LaMarche taught me so much about the Hasidic Jewish culture through this book, and I know I am a better person for it.
Food for Thought
As I reflected on this book after reading it, I realized food plays an important role in the story. For example, Devorah buys a bag of M & M’s, forbidden for her to eat, and ends up giving them to Jaxon during their first meeting. Later, readers learn all about Devorah’s large family during their Shabbos dinners. Also, Jaxon, who works at a fast food chicken wing restaurant, makes it a priority to learn what foods Devorah can eat during Shabbos so he can honor and impress her on a top-secret date.
In keeping with this food theme, I decided to make Jewish bread known as “challah.” I have eaten challah before, and it is delicious, but I had never made it myself. I have to be honest that I don’t enjoy cooking, and I rarely bake. I come from a long line of very talented lady bakers, but this is not a talent I possess, so making challah was definitely outside of my comfort zone. Anytime a recipe involves yeast and required time to rise, I get nervous.
The rising was actually so cool! I just put the little guy to bed for an hour, and he doubled in size!
Happily, I learned challah is relatively simple to make. I followed a recipe you can find here. The hardest part of the whole process was keeping my hands clean to take pictures!
I made two loaves of challah, and unintentionally did so on a Friday night which happens to be the beginning of Shabbos– or Shabbat for us goys! I kept a loaf for me and Mike, and I plan to make some really tasty French toast with it this week. I gave the other loaf to my friends Katie and Seth who are Jewish. As I’ve told my friend Katie, I cook and bake for only my truest friends, so I hope they enjoy the product of this plot driven experience.
So, “challah” at me! Tell me if you’ve read this book or would be interested in giving it a go. Or, have you been inspired to attempt your own plot driven experience lately? Please share!