A couple of resources for writers

course_badges_Starting_yesOnline courses are A Big Thing right now, which you’ve probably noticed, and I’m not sure how I feel about them. As with anything, there are great examples and also lackluster offerings. In general I don’t think they match my learning style as well as reading a book. But in some cases, for certain topics, I think courses really, really work. One case in point: Upstream Field Guide, and a new favorite, Christine Gilbert’s Starting Your Book.

I got the course as part of an incentive package Christine offered for pre-ordering her book, which made the price a great deal. I’m not sure I would have pulled the trigger at full price then, although having completed the course, I am convinced of the value.

As you might guess from the title, Starting Your Book takes you from your idea to a fully outlined book.  Although I think it’s structured more for a non-fiction book concept, it also works well for fiction projects. You learn about tools to help you collect your thoughts, organize your premise, and develop a well plotted, complete outline you can actually write from. I was skeptical of the idea, because I’ve tried to outline novels before, but this time? I actually accomplished it! It did take a lot of work, but I felt challenged, encouraged, and best of all, equipped to get the thing done.

If you need the course, Starting Your Book is an excellent choice. It worked well for me because it’s entirely online and it’s written down, which meant I could consume the content as I had time and mental space, but also at my own pace, versus the slooooow pace of a video or audio. Each day packs in a lot of material, with several assignments each day. At first I was thinking, “There is no way I am going to get this done in 30 days, there is no way.” But then, lo and behold, I actually did.

pressfield-book-coverAbout three weeks into the course, when I had a pretty well fleshed out outline of 30 chapters, I read Nobody Wants to Read Your S***. OK, I know, crass title, and people who can’t think of better titles than those involving words requiring asterisks are usually annoying, but the book turned out to be helpful. I got it as a free download so there was little risk involved. I think the book was helpful for me because I was neck deep in plotting a story, so I had very concrete ways to envision the advice. For the most part, it’s good advice. And it’s better than Pressfield’s other non-fiction books (The War of Art, Do the Work) although it covers lots of similar ground. Pressfield has a formula, and clearly it works (he’s a best-selling author) but you can take or leave what you like of that. I did think he had some interesting ideas about themes, particularly one about how American authors tend to (maybe subconsciously) write the American Dream–defined by Pressfield as the belief that if you do the right thing and play by the rules, you succeed–into their books.

I looked at my outline. OK, apparently I am not an American because I wrote the exact opposite. I guess you could say I sub-themed that the American Dream isn’t true?


But that’s honest, because I don’t believe it, if you go by Pressfield’s definition. I guess those four years I lived abroad while growing up had a bigger impact than I thought. Anyway, onward.

During the last week of the course, I started to have major panic. The daily content and assignments tapped into some insecurities I have about the outline and I started thinking I had wasted all of that time because the whole thing was a hopeless mess and irrevocably broken. So I almost missed out on THE MOST VALUABLE PART of the entire course.

Christine reviews your outline.

I very nearly didn’t send it in, but at the last minute I said what the heck and pressed send. And Christine reviewed the entire outline (it’s a 17 page single-spaced Word document, so this is not paltry) and sent back the most thoughtful, helpful, lovely response letter. I did not expect anything so encouraging.

I think the final review is an incredible value, because having another person–a person who doesn’t know you or your story and has no vested interest in your being a writer at all–look at your ideas and evaluate them is incredibly helpful.

So, how do you know if you need a course like Starting Your Book?

I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. I’m a fairly Type A person who gets things done. Couldn’t I just outline my book on my own without a 30-day course? Well, yes. Except I’ve been working on this idea for, oh, seven years or so, and still didn’t have a good outline. I’ve read all the books and listened to all the podcasts and written reams of scenes and partial ideas. I’ve even written an entire 80,000+ word draft! It was terrible. I wasn’t keeping at it in anything resembling a consistent fashion because I wasn’t sure if it was a good use of my time–in short, I have a serious case of Imposter Syndrome about writing, even though it’s what I do for a living. The course gave me a needed push to buckle down and really apply myself to combine ideas and sort everything out and get it done.

If you’re in a similar position–you write but drafts don’t shape up well, or you can’t seem to get over the mental hurdles to be diligent on the project, or you have an idea but aren’t sure where to go with it–I’d recommend Starting Your Book. It’s a bit of an investment, but might be just what you need.


Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are to my previous book reviews, but one is an Amazon affiliate link and I am also an affiliate for the We Create courses. Thanks for clicking through from A Spirited Mind!

Big Magic

Big-Magic-CoverI will warn you in advance that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is a good book that gets off to a weird start. So when you start reading and find a bunch of flouffy whatnot about how ideas are sentient beings floating around in the ether and getting transferred from person to person or gushing through people’s ears (I know. I know), just skim and bear with it because she IS getting to a good part.

And the good part is worth getting to.

Gilbert talks about what stands in the way of our being creative, and reading all of the excuses I give myself for not taking action on my ideas had a funny way of making them seem ridiculous that, in itself, was pretty motivating. I liked her exhortation to stop being so precious about your creativity and how important it is and how you need to wait until you have more time to put your plans into effect, and just DO SOMETHING.

We don’t need to be big and famous and awesome and save the world with our creativity.  We just need to be creative because it’s who we are and it brings us (and others) joy.

Gilbert comes at this from a different perspective than I do, but I agreed with her assessment. She points out that in modern times, when we divorced the concept of the divine from creativity, we put a lot of undue pressure on the creative person.  Instead of being a person GIVEN a creative gift, he or she now IS creative.  It makes the person responsible, rather than a receiver, and it makes the whole thing into a very fraught enormous deal.

Instead, if we can view our creativity and our ideas as gifts (I would say gifts from God, Gilbert has a vaguer viewpoint) we are released from a lot of that pressure, and we can just create.

Gilbert quotes Rebecca Solnit:

“So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.”

I read an article just this afternoon in which I was exhorted to be working on my creative goal three to four hours per day if I was really serious about it.  I’m signed up for an email series on creativity (and it’s great, don’t get me wrong) that lays down a challenge to be working on my project two hours per day lest I be labeled someone who isn’t really all in.  This sort of thing can be discouraging when I track my time, don’t watch TV, only check Facebook twice a week (New Years resolution for 2016–surprisingly easy and effective so far), and have what amounts to two jobs. So I guess I shouldn’t write fiction or essays at this stage of my life, right?

Well, no, Gilbert would say. I should do my creative writing when I can and that’s ok. It’s not less serious or less enjoyable or less potentially good if I can’t sling 20 hours a week at it.

Somehow, I needed that permission. So last Sunday, on my Screen Free Sabbath (another new resolution, surprisingly restorative) I spent about an hour writing a scene for one of my novel ideas long hand into a notebook.  I loved it.  Who knows if I will finish this novel at some point, or if it will just be a good piece of avocational writing that makes me happy.  Either way, it’s worth it.

If you self-identify as a creative, like to be creative, feel like you’d like to be more creative, or have a secret creative side bubbling up in you somewhere, I think you’d get something out of Big Magic.  Maybe you won’t agree with all of Gilbert’s philosophies (I didn’t), but I think you’d find something to inspire you to create.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.


Exceptional Books About Writing

before we get startedAs someone who writes professionally, I find that different types of writing feed each other–for me at least, the strategic and marketing writing I do for pay both helps and is helped by the creative non-fiction writing of book reviews and essays, and the work of creating short stories and longer fiction. That’s why I was delighted and challenged by Bret Lott’s two exceptional books about writing:
Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, and Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. As a successful author who also teaches in MFA programs, and as a Christian who does not write in the Christian publishing industry, Lott has a perspective on writing that shares similarities with other books on craft and vision, but also brings a refreshingly different twist on familiar topics.

Lott examines long fiction, short stories, and narrative non-fiction to get at the root of what each genre is and why and how we write it.  Further, he explores how our understanding of fundamental principles informs our writing even–and especially–when we are simply writing honest stories.

letters & lifeBoth books are also personal memoirs of Lott’s development as a writer and major events in his family relationships.  I found those sections interesting as memoirs, but also instructive as narrative non-fiction and the roles that writing, words, and thinking about creativity and art play in a writer’s life.

What made the books stand out as exceptional to me was their mix of vision and practical application, as well as Lott’s perspective as a Christian who is a writer ( and not a writer for Christians).  Lott’s insight helped me to to see how my work with words can be seen as a calling, which is sometimes hard for me to see or communicate since some people see corporate writing as a lesser way to write or selling out or something like that, and also how important it is to remove myself from the equation entirely and pursue the work whether or not I make a successful attempt at publication for my other–currently just personal–writing efforts.

If you’re a writer in any form, or if you are another type of creative or artist, and especially if you’re a Christian creative, I’d recommend both of Lott’s books on writing.  You’ll find a lot to think about, and will come away inspired and challenged.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

The Bookmarked Life 2


2The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:


I’m thinking about which artists and composers to choose for our school year.  We’re studying the 1800s, which is a fabulous century for the arts, so I’m trying to narrow it down.  If you had to choose four to six artists and four to six composers to represent the nineteenth century, who would you pick?

…Furnishing my mind

A book I’m reading about how to structure work when you’re a “creative” has me thinking about the things I furnish my mind with and how they influence what I write.  A lot of my work involves branding and marketing, so I try to be mindful about what advertisements I take in so that I’m not subconsciously influenced–I figure if I’m paying close attention, I will be less likely to inadvertently use the same phrasing or idea.  But it’s interesting to consider how everything we see, hear, and read influences our thinking and creating.  It’s sobering really, and a good reminder to be a careful consumer.

…Learning about

One thing I love about history is connecting eras.  I think in school it’s easy to see history as a series of discrete events, but really it flows into itself and each time period or major happening influences the future and is influenced by the past.  Right now I’m learning about World War I, and love how what I’m reading dovetails with what I previously read about the Great Influenza and the Dust Bowl.

…Living the Good Life

My parents took the big kids to stay with them and do fun lake things for a week and a half leaving us with only Eliza.  Y’all.  The last time I only had one 14 month old child around, I was about eight months pregnant with Jack.  Not the same thing.  I love my big noisy crew, but I can’t even tell you how delightful it was to have a week of greater mobility and quiet, with lots of date nights out (taking one baby somewhere seems so much more doable than it did when we had our first baby), time to take long walks, the chance to take care of some house projects, get work done, sweep the floor without it needing to be swept again four minutes later…it was a perfect break–just long enough to help me feel rested but they came back before I started to get bored.


We have one last week of summer term before taking our last summer trip (my cousin is getting married so we’re hauling back east again!) and then the school year will commence in earnest.  I’m solidifying goals, purchasing the last pieces of curriculum, and laying out plans.  The nice thing about this year is that, other than Spanish, I didn’t have to choose anything new.  We are in a great groove with curriculum and it feels good to continue with what’s working rather than scrambling to find alternatives.  Hopefully those do not become my famous last words.


While the big kids were away, I undertook a complete and massive overhaul of their bedrooms.  It’s the sort of thing you just can’t do while kids are actually living in their rooms (at least not on this scale!).  I painted walls and furniture, moved furniture from room to room, switched out mattresses, sorted all the toys and whatnot, and purged edited contents heavily.  I’m hoping that by making the rooms more beautiful and organized, they will be easier to keep clean.  Because I’m not a design blogger, I didn’t think to take before pictures, but here are the afters:

I mentioned last time how I had painted some of Eliza’s furniture.  The dresser and bookshelf on the left were from Josh’s room growing up (although they were a lovely 1980s brown then!) and the changing table dresser on the right was in my nursery when I was a baby (it was yellow then) and still has vintage 1978 wrapping paper lining the drawers!

Here is the rest of the room–including a Peter Rabbit rug that my dad hooked for my nursery before I was born.  If you know my dad, that will probably strike you as funny.  Also, note the reading baby!  That’s my child!

Sarah asked for a “purple princess” room, so I did my best.  The paint color she chose was “Lavender Sparkle” because she liked the idea of glitter paint.  In real life the paint does not glitter (I have to draw the line somewhere).  I painted her dresser and the top of her desk/art table pink from a free sample paint can I picked up a couple of years ago, and made the canopy out of some super cheap Ikea net curtains and a wire hanger.  She has some other art prints on the wall, her castle dollhouse (which happens to the be exact coordinating shades of pink and purple!), and a new bin organizer (Aldi, $15) that are not pictured.  Her existing sheets are pink with pink and purple princess fairies on them, so it all goes together nicely, if you’re into pink and purple princess fairy themes like Sarah.

It was really sunny when I took these pictures; the wall does not really look as reflective as pictured in real life.  Jack’s Star Wars room includes some Pottery Barn pillowcases and shams purchased on super sale last year, cut outs of his Star Wars drawings mounted on poster board, and a cool framed print of R2D2 that my parents gave him for his birthday.  This room is also our guest room, so when visiting us you are, sleeping with Yoda will you be.

Jack’s friend Adam’s dad made this awesome Jedi Jack sign for Jack’s birthday.  I’m hoping that his new organizer shelf thing (also from Aldi) will help Jack keep his room clean.  He has so many Legos and other building toys that it’s often overwhelming for him to keep things picked up.  Maybe having them easily visible and sortable will help.  A mother can dream.

Last, but not least, here is Hannah’s new room.  I painted the desk and chair (also from Josh’s childhood room) and headboard a fun coral color left over from when I painted the backs of the bookcases in my office.  Her “new” bedding was from Pottery Barn when I was in college.  Not pictured is her toychest, which is sort of like a bench and is full of doll clothes and accessories.  I lined the inside of her closet with some bookcases left over from other areas of the house, because Hannah loves to play “worlds,” which is kind of like dollhouse mixed with fairy house mixed with bits and pieces of assorted whatnot repurposed for imagination play.  I used to play like that too as a child so I want to encourage her, but previously it was a huge mess all over her room so now she can keep the worlds contained on the shelves and shut the closet door on the whole thing!  This may also cut down on messy room issues as well as keep the baby out of the tiny bits of tinfoil and acorn cups and whatnot.

It was a lot of work, but I’m so happy with the results!


I’m almost through the first chapter of Colossians and it really is helping me to think more deeply about this piece of scripture.  The kids are starting a new passage next week–Philippians 2: 1-18.  I’ve been working on a new system for organizing and reviewing our memory work, based on this post from Sarah Mackenzie (scroll down to see her memory notebook system).  I’m doing one notebook for our poetry and Shakespeare memory work, and another one that we’ll keep upstairs where we do family worship that will hold the hymns, Psalms, and Bible memory.  Hopefully this will help me stay organized about review.

…Seeking balance

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to cultivating a calm and happy home this fall (and yes, I do realize that “calm” is an elusive goal with four children, but I think I mean calm in the sense of the opposite of frenzied and frazzled, not calm in the sense of pin-drop quiet).  Some of that comes down to order–having a routine, leaving margin–but I think it also has to do with choosing for beauty and relationships rather than more activities or a more packed schedule.  I’m a fairly driven person, and it’s easy for me to take on too much.  That works sometimes, but often it results in having to hurry and play sheepdog snapping at everyone’s heels to move through the day rather than being loving and mindful.  As I mentioned in my review of Essentialism, when things are crazy it is helpful to pause and ask, “What is the most important thing this very minute?”  I guess if I were a person given to being snuggly and whatnot, asking that question might result in more disciplined learning or routine, but in my case I think it probably means loosening the tight ship and refocusing on ultimate goals (that my children would be well educated, love learning, and value beauty) rather than immediate tasks.

…Building the habit

I’ve been thinking about the habit of orderliness.  Keeping things in order helps my mental state, and I think it also helps the kids to feel less stressed when everything is in place.  As part of my huge upstairs overhaul, I spent a lot of time sorting and organizing their things, and coming up with systems that might be easier to keep in place.  I’m hoping that this fall we can all work on order–keeping the kids’ rooms clean, getting through our chores, and even keeping our schedule orderly.  I don’t want to be rigid about it, but I think Gretchen Rubin has it right about how outer order contributes to inner calm.

…Listening to

I listened to three entire audio books while painting bedrooms, and found it a great way to get my mind off of my aching muscles and redeem the time.  My husband figured out how I can play things off of my phone through our in-house speaker system so now I can listen to audio books or Pandora stations  or whatever else whenever I’m on the main floor or in the basement.  Technology can be amazing.

What are you bookmarking this week?



The Bookmarked Life

2Something new!  The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:


Did you see this Slate article about the girl who sent all of her texts in calligraphy for a week?  Something about that really appeals to me–maybe it’s the juxtaposition of fast and slow communication, or the fact that it would force me to think before I mindlessly use my phone.  I probably won’t text in calligraphy (although I could!  I love calligraphy!) but I’m thinking about mindful technology use.

…Furnishing my mind

As we’ve been reading more poetry and going over grammar in a different way this month, I’ve been reminded of how beautiful language can be–it has a structure, but there’s a wildness to it too.  Reading about the Oxford English Dictionary reinforced that feeling!

…Learning about

…Spanish curriculum options.  I decided to go with PowerGlide based on the Rainbow Resource review, and then after a 20 minute perusal of Homeschool Classifieds I found a like-new used set for $25, postage paid.  Since my kids love mysteries and stories, I think this option is going to be a win for us.

…Living the Good Life

The kids wanted to put on a colonial feast at the end of the semester, but we were getting ready for our big trip then so we put the idea off until this month.  Sarah made blancmange, Hannah made Scotch Collops, and Jack made Martha Washington’s Great Cake with meringue on top.  They did a great job, and it turns out that blancmange is really good.


We had a short Summer Term this month–nothing taxing, just reading from Sonlight, Ambleside, and other book lists.  We checked out all of the preschool and kindergarten type books to read aloud and Hannah and Jack read a lot of the older grade selections.  We also found some fun new favorites.  I’m happy that we got a chance to really focus on reading great children’s literature, read more poetry, and brought in math concepts in different ways this summer.  We also started a fantastic language arts enrichment curriculum that I’m super excited about.  More about that later.


After living in our house for over a year, I’m finally doing something about the children’s rooms.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the baby is now over a year as well?  First up, the nursery.  I painted the walls (Baby Bee Yellow, same as the old house) and also painted some furniture and rearranged knick-knacks and pictures.  I think the new color makes the changing table/dresser with the Peter Rabbit knobs look much smarter.


We’re working on 1 Corinthians 13 together, and I’m beginning to memorize Colossians on my own.  I recently read a fabulous book on the topic of using Scripture memory to deeply meditate and study the Bible–look for the review next week.

…Seeking balance

As I look ahead to the fall, I’m trying to think through the best way to handle my work/life balance in terms of windows for our best work.  I do my best focused creative work in the morning, and the kids focus on schoolwork better in the morning too.  I don’t want to wake up at 4am, but sometimes the kids are up before 6:00.  So as I work through plans for fall I’m considering the best times to schedule our babysitting (we have an amazing adult, Christian, educated babysitter who is available part time and who is fabulous with the kids and willing to supervise them doing schoolwork assignments–it is nothing short of a miracle, I know) in order to maximize everyone’s best windows.

…Building the habit

Exercise.  It’s addictive when I can get into a rhythym, but due to my aforementioned desire to sleep past 4am, it’s tough to schedule.  I’m trying to give myself points for showing up, even if some days I only make it through 15 minutes of Jillian Michaels before the baby starts eating crayons or someone starts a small fire in the toaster.

…Listening to

The baby now refers to herself as “Ah-za-za!” and it’s so stinking cute.  I could listen to that all day.  In the car, the kids and I are listening to the audio book of The Swiss Family Robinson (it’s very, very, very long).  And, since the new carseat I bought last week was a Graco TurboBooster, naturally I have had I Got a Man on the brain (“When your man don’t treat ya like he used ta, I kick in like a turbo boostah”).  Late 90’s hip-hop is always relevant, isn’t it?

What are you bookmarking this week?


Disclosure: A couple of links in this post (the ones to Amazon) are affiliate links.  Thanks for clicking through from A Spirited Mind!

Some Books on Art and Drawing

Until recently, if you had asked me whether or not I’m an “artful parent” I’d have said no. I mean, my kids draw stuff and cut stuff up and tape it back together and whatnot, but I don’t break out the paints all the time, nor do I allow glitter. But one thing I really liked about The Artful Parent: Simple Ways to Fill Your Family’s Life with Art and Creativity–Includes over 60 Art Projects for Children Ages 1 to 8 was the author’s emphasis on art being more than just making messes.  It is about making messes somewhat, but art is also studying artists and looking at great art, listening to great music, reading great literature, and enjoying nature.

But you probably wouldn’t pick up a book like this if you didn’t at least sort of want to get more into art projects.  While I enjoyed the philosophical bent of the book, the suggestions for further reading (for kids and adults), and thoughts on generally living an artful life, I really appreciated the project ideas billed in the subtitle.

So far we’ve only tried one of the projects, but the kids went to town with it.  We had Katie’s Sunday Afternoon out from the library, so we read a little about pointillism and saw some examples of it.  Then we talked a little bit about the method, and I set out paints and paper and q-tips as suggested in The Artful Parent.  It was really fun, and, more to the point, the kids REALLY got into pointillism and now they are finding examples everywhere.  I made notes of lots of other projects to try, and look forward to building them into our days in the coming months.

As a final note, The Artful Parent gives great suggestions for art supplies–including helpful tips on what things to buy cheap and what to avoid.  If you’ve looked at art supplies, you will understand why this is helpful!  There really is a gamut out there of varying prices and qualities.  I appreciated the insight.

I read about Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain in A Whole New Mind, and I was interested to learn more about how drawing techniques can help you to think and problem solve better.  I’ve dabbled in painting and have tried a couple of times to teach myself to be a better artist, but nothing ever clicked.  Many art books present exercises of things you should draw, with a little bit of academic prose on topics like perspective, and then when you can’t automatically do it, the implication is “oh well, I’m just not that good at art.”

This book, however, actually walks you through, step by step, how exactly to LOOK at things, where to put your eyes first, what you’re looking for, how to precisely, exactly, absolutely DRAW.  The author teaches a five day course during which adults who begin the class drawing like five year olds end the class less than a week later drawing better than many art school students.

One thing I particularly liked about the book was the way the author explains how to move from your left brain to seeing with your right brain.  If you’re a staunch left-brain person, this could be a major break-through, but even if you tend to move freely between sides like I do, it’s helpful to realize that there are actual concrete things you can do to break out of a creative block or challenge your own thinking.  The ideas in the book, while presented in the context of drawing, have application in all sorts of creative and problem solving realms.

I also felt like the instructions were so clear that the book could be used with kids.  I haven’t decided on this yet, but I think I might try some of the techniques with my children when we get into our fall term of school.

If you’re interested in reading about art and great artists with kids, we have loved:

  • The Katie series by James Mayhew – A little girl named Katie visits museums with her grandmother and has interesting adventures jumping in and out of famous paintings.  This is a fun and memorable way to learn about different artists, time periods, and schools of art.  
  • The Child’s Book of Art and I Spy books – By Lucy Micklethwait, this series is excellent for beginning to really study detail in paintings.   You can use the books for very small children, or add more depth and detail with older kids.
  • The Mini Masters Board Books about Art for Babies – Even tiny tots can enjoy great art!  And their older siblings can begin to recognize famous works by various artists.
  • The Anholt books – These stories are fictionalized tales about famous artists, incorporating the style of the artist’s works as well as many of his or her most famous pieces.
  • Drawing With Children is supposed to be the gold standard of teaching children to draw.  To be honest, it didn’t resonate as clearly with me as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain did, but it does have very good and clear lessons for beginning to learn about how lines and shapes are formed.  We’ve never gotten much beyond those lessons, but perhaps we’ll get to it this year.
  • Discovering Great Artists has projects loosely based on techniques or forms used by great artists.  So if you’re studying a particular artists, you can look up a project to do that would be a tie in.  They vary in quality, but we’ve done some good projects from this book.
If you like to read about art or do artful things with your kids, what are your favorite resources?


London Summer Tea Review and Giveaway

With this summer marking the Queen’s Jubilee and also the Olympics in London, it’s really an ideal time to make some memories with your friends or children with a fun and lovely English Tea.  We recently had a great time with a Jubilee Tea and I wish I had had a copy of this book at the time because our treats fell a bit short in the authenticity and deliciousness departments.

In London Summer: 12 Recipes for Festive Summer Teas, Heather Lefebvre gives recipes for a range of tea foods as well as great tips for how to host a tea and gorgeous pictures to inspire you.  Each recipe includes a gluten-free option, which I really appreciate since our Sarah can’t eat gluten, and there is also a short-cut approach to each recipe if you want to achieve the effect but are short on time.  I love the option to cut corners here and there, and can see how you might want to do the full-out version of some recipes while taking the quick route on others to get your tea together.  Heather also explains the reason for including each recipe and how each fits into the theme of a British tea, and gives alternatives and suggestions when ingredients (such as clotted cream) may be hard to find in America.

The recipes included are:

  • Coronation Chicken Salad
  • Lemon Cucumber Creams
  • Traditional Oatcakes
  • Rustic Salmon Spread
  • Plain and Fruit Scones
  • Gluten-Free Scones
  • Mock Clotted Cream
  • Red, White, and Blue Strawberries
  • Fairy Cakes
  • Chocolate Cake Fit For a Queen
  • Dundee Cake
  • Honeyed Ginger Lemonade
  • Summer Fruit Punch

I’m trying to involve the children more in cooking these days, because they love it and it’s a good learning experience for them (even if it does cause me to need more frequent trips to get the greys dyed out of my hair!), so I think we will have another Jubilee Tea later this summer incorporating Heather’s recipes and suggestions.  Many of the recipes would also be great inclusions to other summer entertaining or just your regular family meals.

Heather is a friend of mine and I have long admired her ability to turn even simple occasions into memorable and lovely events.  She is really gifted with graciousness and hospitality and I think you could not fail to get something out of this booklet, whether it is the well thought out recipes, beautiful pictures, or suggestions for making life more special and memorable.

You can purchase London Summer: 12 Recipes for Festive Summer Teas in printed or e-book form through the links in this post.


If you’d like to enter to win a digital copy of London Summer, please leave a comment and let us know: Do you have plans to celebrate the Olympics or the Queen’s Jubilee this summer?

If you link to the giveaway on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter, leave another comment and let me know and you’ll get a second entry.

The giveaway will close on Wednesday, July 25.  It will be like Christmas in July for the winner!  And for everyone else too, who will still be able to buy the e-book for a very low price.  🙂


Disclosure: This post does not contain affiliate links, but I was given a copy of the book to review.

Cookbook Catch-up

Every year my mother-in-law gives me a big box of interesting cooking and decorating books and it’s always fun to look through them.  The beginning of the year is a time when I’m hurting for new ideas and inspiration in the kitchen anyway, so the timing is perfect!  In case you are looking for new ideas too, here are some short reviews:

I know, I know, you have New Years Resolutions and bathing suit season is just around the corner and whatnot, but I dare you to read this book and not want to eat each and every recipe it contains.  I can’t begin to describe how scrumptious everything sounds.  Desserts to Die For was written by the chef at The Trellis in Williamsburg who invented Death by Chocolate.  I ate Death By Chocolate a few years ago and did not perish, but then again I shared the dessert with three other people.  If you need a new dessert cookbook, or even if you don’t need it per se, I highly recommend this one.  The recipes can be a little involved, but they all look worth it.  Many could be adapted to be gluten-free.

Have you ever made a fruitcake/Christmas pudding?  Not those things with the nasty little cherries, but a real fruitcake that involves leaving baked goods soaked in liquor around in your cabinet for a couple of months?  I’m really fascinated by the concept, and if you are too, Classic Crafts and Recipes for the Holidays might interest you because it has a detailed section on fruitcakes, how they work, and various types to try.  Since it’s such an involved project I wish I could taste them first before giving it a go.  I also liked the section on how to propagate a Christmas cactus since I have one and inexplicably have not yet killed it.  Furthermore, the book contains good ornament ideas including some inventive ways to use pinecones.

Holiday Celebrations is a Williams-Sonoma book with creative twists on traditional holiday dishes.  I’m not one to monkey around too much with traditions when it comes to holiday cookery, but I did find several side dish recipes that I plan to try. The nice thing about a book like this is that if you can forget about the holiday thing, you can easily use the recipes at other times of year in different combinations and not feel as though you’re having an endless round of Thanksgiving or whatnot.

Williams-Sonoma Simple Classics Cookbook: The Best of Simple Italian, French & American Cooking has some great ideas like adding cardamom and orange peel to chocolate mousse and also contains a ton of basic how-to sections with pictures, like for zesting and roasting red peppers, and trussing a chicken and so forth.  If you need the basics, that would be helpful.  However, I felt like some of the recipes I read through sounded a little bland for my tastes.  For example, I would not describe a recipe that seasons two pounds of lamb with a mere 1/2 teaspoon each of coriander and cumin as “strong” like this book does.  But that’s a matter of personal tastes, and you may find that the less spicy route is better for your family.

If you’re interested in the history and trends of cooking, you might really enjoy Celebrating the Pleasures of Cooking: Chuck Williams Commemorates 40 Years of Cooking in America.  The book is a discussion and history of how cooking trends have developed over the past 40 years.  I found it pretty intriguing, especially since the book is from Williams-Sonoma so it also contains information about when different tools began to be imported and how that influenced cooking styles.  The book also contains recipes, primarily of the sort you read in French cooking books.  They are the recipes that apparently defined being a foodie in each decade, which could appeal to you if you are a certain type of person.  I would have been even more interested had the book gone back further, because I love reading really old cookbooks and marveling at what was thought the height of sophistication for dinner parties at different times, like the apparent 1950s craze of gelatinizing everything, like the cookbook I once reviewed that included a recipe for gelatinized tunafish.  The recipes in this book are more palatable, I promise.

Although it’s not a cookbook, Making Crafts from Your Kids’ Art has a lot of great ideas for creative ways to use the artwork that your kids (or your spouse or your coworkers or your dog or whoever) give you.  I think this could be especially helpful for people who need ideas for grandparent gift ideas or are unsure how best to display artwork in a non-refrigerator-front manner.

If you got any great cookbooks or other creative inspiration lately, let us know!  I’m sure I’m not the only one who is in a rut this time of year!


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Do Projects Better

Unless you are in a technology field or know someone who is, I can’t think of a reason why you would pick up a copy of The Rational Unified Process Made Easy, but actually the framework is applicable to projects of all sorts, not just software development, and it can help you be more efficient and effective in lots of areas.  Read on for the details.

Another consultant on my team loaned me the book because of something I’m working on, and I expected to find it a little bit boring, but on the contrary the framework is quite interesting.  Basically, the RUP is  a way to plan and do projects that helps you clarify what you’re trying to do, stay in control of risk factors that could keep you from meeting your goal, do the project and test that your product is effective, and roll it out so it can be effective to others.  Although the book approaches this from the perspective of technology projects, the framework is definitely applicable to other sorts of projects or goals you might pursue.  Here are the main components of RUP, applied more generally:

Inception: take time to define the project. Whether you’re building a huge new system or writing a book or reorganizing your closets, it helps to start with a plan.  What do you want to achieve?  What need will the project address?  What is the scope of the project (that is, when will you stop?  What does finished look like?) Could you work with something you already have or do you need to start from scratch?  What are the risks (thinks that could keep you from meeting your goal or being successful) and what will you do to mitigate them?

Elaboration: flesh out your plan and think it through. Once you have a general definition of your plan, the RUP suggests you think up some scenarios of how your project could play out, how the product might be used, and so forth (these are called “use cases” in the framework) and use those to help you design your product.  So for example, if you’re reorganizing your closet you might think of the ways you use your closet, what sorts of accessories you wear with which clothes in which season, whether or not you are ever trying to get dressed at the same time your spouse is (at our house, we didn’t use RUP when organizing our closet, and that is why I’m always accidentally opening the door right into my husband when he’s trying to access his sock drawer!)  As you elaborate on your plan, you continue to refine your vision and monitor your risks.  Whenever you change your ideas, you might change the factors that could influence whether you will finish on time or within the budget and you’ll need to alter your mitigation plans accordingly.

Construction: do the project in an organized and logical fashion. As you launch into the project or task itself, it helps to be organized.  Refer to the use cases you thought of, and solve for the most critical ones first.  As you go, continuously test your product: ask yourself if it’s meeting your goal, if it’s working, if it’s solving the problem.  If you’re going to need some sort of reference at the end, keep good notes.  In software development, this means working on the manual and tutorials as you go, but in other projects it might mean keeping a log of what paint color you used, the dimensions of the closet, the font you liked, the password you chose for the website, or whatever.

Transition: put it into place and think about what you learned. My tendency is to set up a big project, get all the plates spinning, and then look around for someone to hand it off to.  I really don’t like day to day operations.  But when you’re doing a project or pursuing a goal, it’s important to actually follow through and put the thing into place.  You can design the best blog, but if you never post what was the point?  You can build all sorts of nifty closet organizers into your space, but if you just throw the clothes back in there haphazardly you won’t get the best use of out it.  A good follow-through is key.  Then, after you have the process in motion, take time to think about what you learned.  My mom is a fantastic seamstress, and even had her own smocked clothing boutique when I was little, but she still says she learns something new from every project she tries.  It’s a good practice to identify your lessons learned and use the results for the next thing you move on to do.

And there you have it folks, my attempt at a broadly applicable post about a very very technical book that I can guarantee 99.9% of you would never read.  If you know someone who is a techy person, or involved in IT in some way, you could give them The Rational Unified Process Made Easy for Christmas, but if not, you can rest assured that you now know enough to apply the RUP to your everyday life.  🙂


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

The War of Art

The War of Art is a short and slightly bizarre book about how to fight your inner inertia and actually get to making your art, whatever your own particular art may be.  Steven Pressfield thinks everyone has it in them to do something great, but most people give in to Resistance and never get it done.  Pressfield equates Resistance with evil, but his views on good and evil and angels and whatnot will probably strike you as odd if you base your religious beliefs on some authority other than Steven Pressfield.

That said, I did find a few interesting nuggets I thought I would share with you.  When it comes to books my policy is to take the good and leave the weird.

If you find yourself asking “Am I really a writer?  Am I really an artist?” chances are you are.  The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident.  The real one is scared to death.

Good news!  I’m not wildly self-confident about writing!  Yes!  🙂

Of any activity you do, ask yourself: if I were the last person on earth, would I still do it?

Pressfield makes an interesting distinction between things we do because of territory and things we do because of hierarchy.  If you do something because you love it and you’d do it even if you were the last person on earth, that’s territory.  That’s something you should stick with.  But if you are doing something because of what other people will think of you if you don’t, that’s heirarchy, and maybe you should think twice about it.  Now you can take that too far of course, but I found it thought-provoking, especially because I tend to be a people-pleaser and I certainly have made a lot of choices based on what I thought I was supposed to do, rather than what I really felt called to do (and I’m talking about good things, not choosing bad things – not all good things are the best for everyone).

I didn’t really get much out of this book, but at least it was a quick read.  It could have just been an accident of choosing the wrong book at the wrong time.  If you read it and got tons out of it, please leave a comment and tell me what I missed!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.