Pretty Little Distractions

The world is too much with me these days, my friends, and thus I find myself searching for solace in story. When my aging eyes are strained from work, I’m less enthused about escaping into a book; luckily, there have been plenty of satisfying/distracting stories to be found on the small screen lately.

Once upon a time I received eye rolls and sneers when I mentioned Hallmark movies (and perhaps there was a time when I sneered), but these days more and more of my friends are watching right along with me. I’ve found this year’s “Winterfest” offerings to be pretty strong. Of course there’s a formula, and we all know who is getting together by the end of the movie, but there’s some comfort to be derived from that, right? The above two films were particular favorites of mine — the dialogue was snappy and the chemistry between the leads fun to watch. (Note: Hallmark finally is introducing more diversity into their productions, which is great, but I think we’re all MORE than ready for diverse romantic leads, okay? Can we get on that soon?)

DVR ALERT: All four of the Winterfest movies will run this Saturday (1/27) starting at 1 EST. And coming very soon from Hallmark — the Valentine’s Day movies!

Too sappy for you? Well, let’s do a 180 with these options:

Lately I’ve become obsessed with the horror films of Mike Flanagan. (And yes, HE is the writer/director for the forthcoming Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House!) My obsession began when one of my favorite YouTube film reviewers, Chris Stuckmann, included Gerald’s Game in his list of favorite films of 2017. His recommendation, along with the fact that it’s a Stephen King story, prompted me to track it down immediately. You guys, the TENSION! It’s excruciating at times. But that tension, along with the performances from Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood, make this such a remarkable viewing experience. For me the film’s coda somewhat undercuts the overall effect, but your mileage may vary. Here’s what I love about Flanagan’s films — they are character-driven (always featuring strong women), thoughtfully cast, and do not rely overmuch on special effects or jump scares. Oculus, in my opinion, drags out a little long, but Karen Gillan gives an inspired performance as a young woman trying to prove, through a carefully conceived paranormal investigation (Eee, one of my favorite things in a horror movie!), that a cursed mirror killed her parents. Ouija: Origin of Evil started out so brilliantly with a widowed mother and her daughters adding a Ouija board to their seance scams. I was in horror HEAVEN. Things fell apart at the end, sadly, but perhaps this was due to the constraints of it being a prequel? I have quibbles with all three of the films, but I still enthusiastically recommend them to horror buffs. (Something to consider–Ouija: Origin of Evil is PG-13, but the other two are definitely more adult.)

ETA: Gerald’s Game and Oculus are available on Netflix, but I could only watch Ouija-Origin of Evil through a trial subscription to Cinemax (available through Amazon Prime).

Okay, so maybe you’re not quite up to a horror film at this moment. Don’t worry, I’ll mention the above films again in early October when I offer my annual horror recommendations. For now you might prefer something “in between” — not too sappy, not too dark and creepy.

How about this?

After mainlining the series Shetland, with angsty cutie-pie DI Jimmy Perez (played by perennial favorite Douglas Henshall), I thoroughly expected Vera, also based on novels by Ann Cleeves, to be “meh” by comparison. Well, I’m in the sixth season now and I think I love it MORE than Shetland. It all comes down to the performance by Brenda Blethyn. Honestly, I feel nearly the same about her as I do about Helen Mirren–I simply long to meet her and bask in her glory. Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is very real to me, and I adore her, and I love to watch the team come together under her somewhat cranky and impatient direction. There is darkness in the show, to be sure, and occasional moments of heartbreak, but Vera fights on and always solves the case. Bonus: we are treated to lovely shots of the Northumbrian moors and coastline.

ETA: Vera is available to watch through Acorn TV.

How about you? What have been your favorite TV distractions of late?

Favorite novels read in 2017

I only read 48 novels in 2017. Not a terrible total, but I can do better. I may never again equal the years when I read 100+ books, but I aim to improve in 2018.

Here are my favorites. (I purposefully didn’t include books from my Miss Marple re-read since I already discussed them at length here.)

Listed in the order that I read them:


Keturah and Lord Death (2006), by Martine Leavitt–a thoughtful and deeply romantic YA fairy tale.
Cluny Brown (1944), by Margery Sharp–a quirky romance with an endearing heroine. (I discussed it in more detail here.)
The Poet’s Dog (2016), by Patricia MacLachlan–a delightful and very affecting MG tale of love and grief.


A Woman of Independent Means (1978), by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey–an absorbing epistolary novel covering 60 years in the life of a very plucky lady.
Mariana (1940), by Monica Dickens–a captivating bildungsroman set during the 30s that might appeal to fans of I Capture the Castle. (And yes, the author was the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens.)
The Rector’s Daughter (1924), by F.M. Mayor–a quiet and somewhat melancholy character study, but oh how I loved it!


Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009), by Lissa Evans–a funny and poignant treat for those who love stories about WWII London and/or creative folk. (The film adaptation is pretty good, too.)
The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), by John Fowles–a glorious re-read.
The War I Finally Won (2017), by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley–A captivating sequel to the bestselling and award-winning MG novel, The War that Saved My Life.

Some other “Favorite Reads of 2017” lists that I found intriguing:
Cosy Books
Beyond Eden Rock
The Captive Reader

Do you have a favorite read of 2017 to recommend? Or a list I can link to? Do share!

Friday Favorites: Reading Nooks

Recently I was asked my opinion on what makes for an ideal reading nook. The first thing to come to mind was an image from my childhood copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women:

“Jo! Jo! Where are you?” cried Meg at the foot of the garret stairs.

“Here!” answered a husky voice from above and running up, Meg found her sister eating apples and crying over The Heir of Radclyffe, wrapped up in a comforter on an old three-legged sofa by the sunny window. This was Jo’s favorite refuge, and here she loved to retire with half a dozen russets and a nice book, to enjoy the quiet and the society of a pet rat who lived near by, and didn’t mind her a particle. As Meg appeared, Scrabble whisked into his hole. Jo shook the tears off her cheeks, and waited to hear the news.
(pg 20 of my 1950 Nelson Doubleday abridged edition)

I used to study this illustration so intently that I eventually broke the spine of the book. It still appeals to me today. I love the cluttered Gothic/Romantic surroundings, the cushiony divan with sufficient back support, the fact that there’s plenty of light from the window and the overhead fixture (though is the latter strictly period?), and that Jo enjoys the company of a rat, who sadly is not pictured. This image features her writing rather than reading; nevertheless it is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of reading nooks.

I did a little image search on reading nooks, and found these particularly inviting:


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I see lots of window nooks like this, but I like this one particularly because the pillows actually look large enough for comfortable reclining, and the window offers light but isn’t so large as to make the area too hot in summer or chilly in winter. Having grown more claustrophobic with age, I could do without the curtain. As a kid, however, I would have loved to close myself up in that little space! (And now I’m having visions of a scary scene involving a curtained reading nook. Ooooh!)


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Oh, I do love this one! One could recline with back supported and legs extended. Plenty of light, and loads of books nearby. One could pull that table near and set a cup of tea on it. (One must be careful not to spill one’s tea on the upholstery, however.)


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This more modern option offers ultimate comfort and style, with a lovely view to boot (but not so close to the window as to feel a chill).


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I do love this child’s nook option, but the ladder makes me nervous!

Where do I read, you ask? (Or pretend that you did, anyway.) Actually, I have two favorite spots to share with you:


This chair, which long ago belonged to my in-laws, sits in a corner of my office. It is old and saggy, but it reclines and there’s a lovely footrest that pops out. So comfy. All I’m lacking is a table for my tea cup.


This is the Arhaus Landsbury sectional, which I chose specifically for the chaise. Here I can stretch out, my back supported and legs extended, and there’s a table nearby for my tea cup. (Take a peek at the other sectional sofa options at Arhaus.) Best of all, in cold weather I can contemplate the fireplace when I glance up from my book. And always, whether I’m on the saggy blue office chair or on the living room chaise, Cedric the cat is right there with me.

Where do you read? Do you have a nook? Or the perfect vision of a nook? If so, please share!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Friday Favorites: Cozy Christmas Reads 2017

It’s that time of year when I crave cozy holiday stories! Here are three I enjoyed recently:

For young (and young-at-heart) readers:


Eleven-year-old Nikolas—nicknamed “Christmas”—has received only one toy in his life: a doll carved out of a turnip. But he’s happy with his turnip doll, because it came from his parents, who love him. Then one day his father goes missing, and Nikolas must travel to the North Pole to save him.
Learn more here

This quirky Christmas tale would make for a great bedtime read-aloud, but it’s also perfectly appropriate for independent readers 8 and up. One might even pair it with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas.

Note–there are sequels!

For fans of romance novels (particularly of the Regency variety):


The very wealthy Edgar Downes has promised his aging father to finally take a bride—specifically, to wed a titled lady by Christmas. London is full of pretty, proper, and eligible misses, but it’s the widow Helena, Lady Stapleton, in a shocking red dress, who captures Edgar’s attention. Helena is intrigued by the seductive stranger—but he’s simply not in her class. Marriage, of course, would never do. But in a season of miracles, something wondrous is about to happen.
Learn more here

I stumbled across this title in a 2012 Publisher’s Weekly article recommending holiday romance and was drawn in from the first paragraph. I rather assumed it would be a gentle romance, but it turned out to be quite spicy! (Not in an overwhelming or distasteful way, in my opinion.) The love story still manages to be sweet and cozy, particularly when the cast of characters moves to a snowy country house setting for (Regency appropriate) Christmas festivities.

Note–if you order this edition, you get a bonus Christmas novel!

ETA: I am reading Christmas Beau right now and it is even cozier! Wish I could sit down with a cup of tea and read the day away…

For readers of contemporary fiction:


It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.
Learn more here

This novel received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal and was touted by one reviewer as “perfect for fans of Love Actually and The Family Stone.” I ardently disagree with the comparison to Love Actually — this is not a rom com, nor does the story go as dark, weird, or hopeless as one finds in LA. The comparison to The Family Stone, however, is spot on. This is a humorous family drama, with likable and unlikable characters, but everyone grows in satisfying ways by the end. There is heartache, to be sure, but you won’t fall into despair. I wasn’t surprised to see that the novel has already been optioned for TV in the UK, and I think they should try for Bill Nighy in the role of family patriarch Andrew Birch. 😀

Note–I listened to the audio, but I recommend reading the actual book, especially if you’re American. Jilly Bond gives a solid performance for her English characters, but her American accents are pretty terrible.

See Also:

My own Woefully Incomplete List of Holiday Reads (a work in progress)
Modern Mrs. Darcy’s 9 excellent books for gifting this season
Waterstones’ Christmas Gift Guide
Caroline Starr Rose’s Books to Give the Writer in your Life
Novel Novice’s Five New Holiday Picture Books to Gift and Enjoy and Best Books for Holiday Gifts 2017.
Bustle’s 11 Festive Book Club Books to read this Holiday Season
The Christmas Mystery Book List

[If you know of other helpful holiday reading lists/gift guides, please do share in the comments!]

Also, if you click the “Christmas” tag below or in the sidebar you’ll find book reviews, recipes, and tea recommendations going back several years on this blog.

HAPPY HOLIDAY READING!

Tea with Miss Marple

Over the last several months I re-read (or in some cases read for the first time) Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories featuring Miss Jane Marple. What a delight! In addition I introduced myself to the Joan Hickson TV adaptations (most excellent) and revisited nearly all of the Geraldine McEwan and Julia Mckenzie versions that were canon Miss Marple. Might you indulge me as I share a few favorites?

Favorite book: I keep changing my mind on this one, but at the moment I think it might be A Pocket Full of Rye. Miss Marple has a very personal stake in this one as her former maid Gladys is involved. The pacing is good and the misdirection effective, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Marple and Inspector Peele. That said, I’d also put The Moving Finger, 4:50 from Paddington, and Sleeping Murder close to the top. The beginning of At Bertram’s Hotel is so charming (and I will revisit it even though the mystery itself is rather “meh”), and I quite enjoyed Nemesis for its window into Marple’s sleuthing process.

Favorite short story: The Thirteen Problems was an entertaining story collection and I was pleasantly surprised to find so much Gothic goodness running throughout. The most Gothic of all was “The Idol House of Astarte,” a country house mystery involving a fancy dress party that ends with a deadly accident. Or was it murder? I wish this one could somehow be adapted to television!

Favorite TV adaptation: While the Joan Hickson versions are excellent and much truer to the original texts, I have to admit that my favorite of all the individual adaptations was the Geraldine McEwan version of The Moving Finger. One might say it takes liberties with its blatantly Noir setup and the hero’s PTSD angst, but it also gives more agency to the love interest and effectively reimagines that troubling “makeover” scene. It’s a delightfully cheeky adaptation, and James D’Arcy and Emilia Fox have great chemistry as the Burton siblings.

Favorite Miss Marple quote: “I like living myself — not just being happy and enjoying myself and having a good time. I mean living — waking up and feeling all over me, that I’m there — ticking over.” (from A Murder is Announced).

[My favorite non-Marple quote might be Gina’s description of Stonygates in They Do It With Mirrors: “It’s pretty ghastly, really. A sort of Gothic monstrosity. What Steve calls Best Victorian Lavatory period.”]

And now for tea!

After all the time I spent with Miss Marple, I felt she deserved a celebratory afternoon tea out on the town. Las Vegas actually has several options for proper tea, and for this occasion my husband and I tried the offerings at Rí Rá Irish Pub in Mandalay Bay.

[Did Miss Marple ever take tea at an Irish pub? Probably not. But I certainly can imagine her nephew Raymond coaxing her into a local pub for tea just so he could study the “local color” for one of his novels.]


We found Rí Rá very charming. The server placed us in a comfy little nook near the entrance of the pub — does one call this a “snug”? — and we were fortunate to have it all to ourselves.


Here is a closer look at the cozy china pattern. We both chose the Organic Assam tea, which was perfectly steeped and delicious.


And here you see the tea tray, featuring sandwiches (ham & tomato, egg mayo, cheddar with Ballymaloe relish, cucumber & creme fraiche), raisin scones with cream and black current jam, and a selection of “decadent desserts.” It was the perfect amount for two — we ate almost all of it and didn’t feel too stuffed. (It helped that we took a long walk through the Luxor to Excalibur and back before returning to our car.) I do think Miss Marple would have approved!

Do you have a favorite Marple novel, story, or TV adaptation? If so please share in the comments!