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So the last couple of days I’ve brought you some fun and goofy fare, but today we’re getting a little more serene, a little more toward the heart of the holiday — which has its roots in religious celebration. (And I’ll leave you to argue, if you must, over which religion or religions I’m talking about.)

Although I was raised a devout Catholic, that didn’t end up being my true path. But spirituality is very important to me as a feature of the Human Condition and as something which matters deeply in my own life. And so while I don’t necessarily share the same beliefs or faith of some Christmas carols, I can certainly appreciate them, either in a function of nostalgia or simply because they are beautiful. One of my favorite religious songs is “O Come, Emmanuel.” Some might accuse me of loving any song in a minor key, and that might be true. This particular song is one I used to sing regularly when I was a child, and it always made me feel peaceful, calm, centered. This version of it by ThePianoGuys is lovely, and the setting of the video is quite pretty, even if some could suggest the video feels mildly bombastic in tone.

 

When today’s song came out in the 1980s, I was nonplussed. I was a fan of the band who sang it, but I didn’t love them as much as I loved Duran Duran. And this song was…okay. But it has persisted. And in very recent years, several covers of it have been recorded which just are not very good. They’re faithful enough to the original not to be clever or interesting in themselves, and they don’t have the unabashed panache and chutzpah of the original, either. But these milquetoast covers have accomplished one surprising thing: they’ve made the original better by comparison.

So today I bring you “Last Christmas” by Wham! Even though I grew up watching MTV in the 80’s, somehow I’d missed this little cinematic gem, and I just saw it for the first time last week. It celebrates everything you’d expect from an 80’s-era pop music video: ambiguous storyline, big hair and bigger shoulder pads, extravagant socializing, late-night ennui, melodrama. Good times, good times. Enjoy.

 

 

 

Yes, it’s that time of year again. “Houston’s Official Christmas Music Station” — which has been broadcasting Christmas and winter-themed songs since the Friday night before Thanksgiving — has once more conformed to the belief that they must play the same dozen tired crap songs over and over again, with only an occasional good one thrown into the mix.

Thank goodness for my iPod.

Since this series on my blog was such a hit last year (click here to see the first post and then follow the “next post” links to see the rest), I’m doing it again! And while I’ll be sharing a lot of different stuff with you this time around, I’m going to kick things off with what is still one of my all-time favorites, “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses. Perhaps there will come a time when my life isn’t insanely busy, and then I won’t be able to relate to this song as well or enjoy it as much, but honestly, I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen.

Happy Holidays!

This week’s review comes to us from Terri Nixon, who has chosen to respond to Saskia Sarginson’s novel The Twins.

Terri’s bio and more information about the Women Writers Wednesday series can be found at the end of this post.

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I won a copy of this book in a Twitter contest. I had no knowledge of the writer or her work, so went into the story with no expectations whatsoever, and emerged some considerable time later blinking and, it’s fair to say, a little bit not-of-this-world, for a while.

The Twins cover

Click on the image to be taken to the book’s listing on Amazon UK.

It’s hard to describe, or to pare down, what it was about The Twins that had such an impact on me, especially without giving away any spoilers. The writing itself is first-class, so we can dispense with that question, and I was reading it, as I tend to do these days, as a writer rather than as a reader, so I was being annoyingly picky – still couldn’t fault it.

We know these girls share a terrible secret from their childhood, and all the way through it seems to point one way … until it suddenly doesn’t. It’s either a master-class in misdirection, or I just went right up to the wrong tree and started barking. Either way, it’s not in any way predictable; it’s pacy, complex, dark and satisfying.

I think what really struck me in the beginning was the depth of detail. I’ve recently read some reviews for this book on Amazon, and I was astonished by the number of people who not only didn’t enjoy it, but also found the level of detail an irritant rather than an anchor to the story and the characters. For me it was these touches that brought my own childhood so vividly back to life; these girls, brought up in almost feral conditions by their flighty but well-meaning mother, running wild in the countryside during the 1970s and ’80s, taking their enjoyment where they found it. I grew up at the same time, in the same era, and spent an awful lot of time running around the moors in Cornwall, doing exactly the same kind of things (to a point!). I usually have little patience and tend to skip paragraphs that are description-heavy, but there was something about the way it was done in this book that kept me there. It was probably the senses that Sarginson uses to describe: some of it visual, but more to do with smell and touch. It awakens the memories of youth and connects you to the girls in a way nothing else could do.

The characters themselves are introduced in the present day; problems and conflicts are hinted at, their two vastly different lives highlighted, and then we are taken back to find the sources of those conflicts. We meet their mother; we quickly come to understand that she is not a bad person, she just lives her life in a kind of haze, still happily locked into the Hippie era, where she herself had flourished, and wanting the same for her daughters. It would have been easy to paint the mother as the villain, and the twins as victims, but that is not the case here; none of the characters can be labelled as wholly good or wholly wicked.

The girls are not unloved or mis-treated, but as they’re left to their own devices we see them begin to take on the personalities we’ve seen hinted at from the present-day segments. The storyline starts to smooth out, and we learn the secret that they have kept and begin to understand why they dealt with it in different ways.

As far as the ending goes, it seems to be quite a divisive topic, but I come down firmly on the ‘perfect’ side. I don’t want to give anything away, but having raced, breathless, through the final pages, I was left thinking, “Well, that was the only way it could have ended.” Many readers were left unsatisfied, but I closed the book with a real sense of inevitability realised.

This is a book I would recommend without hesitation, and I would recommend the paperback version as there do seem (from the reviews) to be some formatting errors in the Kindle edition. Not the author’s fault, and not in her control to correct, but it does seem that some of the lower-starred reviews have taken these errors into consideration, which is a shame.

***

Terri Nixon was born in Plymouth in 1965. At the age of nine she moved with her family to Cornwall, to a small village on the edge of Bodmin Moor, where she discovered a love of writing that has stayed with her ever since. She also discovered apple-scrumping, and how to jump out of a hayloft without breaking any bones, but no-one’s ever offered to pay her for doing those.

Terri lives in Plymouth with her youngest son and works at Plymouth University, where she is constantly baffled by the number of students who don’t possess pens. You can visit her UK Amazon page by clicking here.

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The Women Writers Wednesday series is a (near) weekly collection of book reviews and responses by female authors about the works of other female authors. Click on the Books tab at the top of this page to see more reviews and other posts about books. If you’d like to contribute to this series, please send me an email or leave a comment below.

Yes, I know it’s not Wednesday anymore, but some wretched flu has been trying all week to lay waste to my household, so I’m a bit behind schedule.

This week’s review by a female author of a book written by a different female author is Marie Marshall’s response to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

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cover of the 1st edition of REBECCA

cover of the 1st edition of REBECCA

I was first turned on to Rebecca by my agent, Paul at Bookseeker Agency, who enthused about it, discussed it with me, and gave me some of the insights into it that I’m about to describe. Rebecca is one of those remarkable books that has always been a modest seller but has never been out of print. Probably more of the potential contemporary Continue Reading »

I just had to get in on the Cyber Monday thing. Finis. is on sale for the holiday season! Only $2.99! And what a great virtual stocking stuffer it makes.  ;)

 

cover design by Lauren Volness

cover design by Lauren Volness

 

Where all can you find it? (And note that several new distribution channels have come online, listed below.)

 

Amazon — If you want the links for countries outside the USA, leave a comment below indicating which one, and I’ll happily provide it.

Apple’s iBooks Store — If you want the links for countries other than the USA, leave a comment below indicating which ones, and I’ll happily provide it.

Barnes and Noble

Baker & Taylor’s Blio

Kobo

Oyster Books

Scribd

Smashwords

 

While you’re browsing around, feel free (if you’ve already read Finis.) to leave a review. I love hearing from my readers!

And just to whet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from the story, the first chapter:

1

ELSA’S PARENTS and sister have become meaner than usual, and her cat, Jonas, resents her. She has a nagging concern he wants to eat her.

“He bit me again this morning — I woke up to find half the toes on my left foot in his mouth! I kicked him away but he just came back, all fangs and hissing, till I locked him in the coat closet.”

But that’s only the beginning, Elsa tries to explain to her cousin Gerard. She has to speak in short bursts: he’s conducting his water exercises, his head bobbing in and out of the water in orderly arcs. She knew she’d be interrupting his routine, but this morning’s episode has brought things to a head. On her way to work, anxiety commandeered her every thought and movement. Before she could catch her breath, she found herself tearing through Gerard’s garden gate and rushing to his salt-water pool.

“Oh, Elsa,” he says, his feet spiraling around a large stalk of kelp just below the water’s surface. He runs a watery hand across his spiky brown hair, and brine curls down his back. “What are you going to do?”

“What’s even worse, my landlord left another threat-of-eviction notice today.” She sets her briefcase down near a baby potted corpse flower and ventures closer to the pool. “I’ve done nothing wrong. My rent is always on time. I’m a quiet, orderly tenant. I thought getting a cat would mollify the building association, but unless I become a cat, I don’t think it’ll help.”

Gerard dunks, flips neatly into a ball, and spins back up; he swims to where she stands at the edge of the pool and rises. “Have you had any hints of your self?” He looks at her carefully, scrutinizing, and she wants to shrink into the empty void of mediocrity. Still, his voice is tender. “Anything at all?”

“No,” she murmurs, mesmerized by the ripples his body makes, the way the water slaps against the side of the pool and then laps backward over itself, folding the brine under to dissolve in a never-ending cycle of thrash and renewal.

“I’m not sure I approve of where you’re living, anyway. Those nasty gangs — I read about them in the newspaper. Packs attacking Plain Ones right and left, even children.”

“I saw that, too. They usually go for adults, though — people who ought to have blossomed by now.” Her shame for the disgrace she’s caused her family burns on her face.

Gerard smiles. “Come in for a swim. You’ll feel better.” He shoots backward through the water, darkened spiny ridges flashing on his skin.

She almost wants to but imagines how painful it would be. “I can’t,” she says, then makes an excuse. “Work.”

“Of course. The monster.”

“I’ve never been a swimmer, anyway.” Even standing for too long in the shower makes her skin feel prickly and sore; she usually just soaps up before turning the water on and then washes her hair in the sink. “I think I’m allergic to water.”

He laughs. “Off you go, then. See you later –” His words bubble as he dives backward.

Elsa trudges out the gate, hardly even waving back at the friendly centaur trimming his hedges next door.

I know it’s been a long time since I put up a Fashion Friday post, and this is one I’d thought I would publish earlier this year. But I didn’t have all the pictures yet — and I’m actually still waiting on the professional shots — so it all had to wait.

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Fashion Friday: Costumed Freaks Edition

I love dressing up in costume. The school where I teach has a lot of dress-up days during the school year to celebrate various things and events and to give the community a chance to show off their school spirit, and I frequently take advantage of these days to express myself through my clothing. I may not go to football games, but I do care about the students who play on the team and who are our cheer athletes, and I care about the school, so I show my school spirit in this way.

But these themed days and Halloween and dressing as a literary character for Book Fair and things like this, while fun and wonderful, are just not enough for me.

In our twenties, my friends and I used to have costume parties at the drop of a hat. It’s New Year’s Eve? Let’s make it a costume party! Someone’s birthday falls in the same week as Bastille Day? Get a powdered wig and make a giant dress out of upholstery fabric––the birthday party will be French Revolution themed! July 4th? Let’s see who can show up in the most creative interpretation of red, white, and blue!

Then lots of us had kids and were too worn out to sew elaborate costumes for three or four occasions a year. But just because we ran out of disposable time, income, and energy doesn’t mean we completely gave up on the things we liked.

Every summer, my sister and I attend a large costume ball out in Los Angeles. It lasts two nights over the course of a weekend, and one of the requirements for attendance is a costume. And not just any plastic and polyester sack cloth you can buy at the grocery store for Halloween, either––the costumes at this event go over the top. At the very minimum, to get into the party, you need formal wear and a mask, but the vast majority of people do much, much better than that.

Sometimes I like to wear extravagant outfits that I can’t wear anywhere else. Clothes that make me feel beautiful, that put me into the spirit of the fantasy theme of the masquerade ball. As costumes go, I admit they aren’t super creative, but I like wearing them. This year I developed one that was unfortunately more difficult to dance in than I expected, but it was really lovely.

I started with a plain red, strapless, taffeta gown that I ordered on sale from Victorian Trading Co. To see what it looked like before I got ahold of it, click here to be taken to their online catalog.

Some of the attractive features of the dress included a layer of red lace in the skirts and ruching all the way across the bodice. The reviews of the gown said that it ran a little small, so I ordered a size up. Unfortunately, when it arrived, it was still about three sizes too small! So since the shipping was going to be crazy expensive anyway, I took it to a tailor and had the back zipper removed and corset lacing installed, which made the dress prettier and adjustable, as well as solving the fit problem completely.

I was trying to figure out how to bustle the very long train so that I could dance in it, but then a domestic mishap involving my husband’s cat solved that problem for me. Without getting into the grisly details, I’ll just say I had to cut off nearly all of the long train (several feet of fabric). I took several yards of black lace­­––it had a bas-relief rose pattern on it to echo the red taffeta rose at one hip of the gown––and made a new train for the gown and two shorter lace falls for the hips. I added a black lace top underneath.

waiting outside the hotel for the shuttle to pick us up to take us to the party

waiting outside the hotel for the shuttle to pick us up to take us to the party

LOJ 2014 gown from the right

I considered adding wings or an Elizabethan stand-up collar or something to the top half of the dress to balance the volume of the skirt/train situation, but those can be unwieldy, especially in a crowded ballroom or on a dance floor, so I opted for an elaborate headpiece instead. Enter this cage fascinator, made by Enchanted Dream Wear.

headcage fascinator view 2

Not too tall and extremely lightweight, it’s comfortable and easy to wear all night. The cage has several decorative bands which wrap around my head and attach to each other with elastic under my hair. On top sit various embellishments, including some brass gears and butterflies, some feathers and flowers, and a tiny animal skull.

headcage fascinator view 1

This piece incorporates both the Gothic and Steampunk flavors I wanted.

I also went for an unusual manicure treatment to go with the outfit. It’s all in the details, right? This look was created by first brushing on two coats of black, then adding white stripes and silver glitter accent stripes, and then painting a garnet-red French tip across the top.

LOJ 2014 manicure

If I were going to do this again, however, I would make the base coat white and the stripes black, so that the red would show up better.

I wore only slightly more dramatic make-up than I would for going out to dinner (though I could have done much more and been well within bounds for this outfit and event). My hairstylist (the awesome Kevin Roberts) updid my hair with pin curls and added some dark red extensions to simulate roses.

Here's my hair with most of the curls in it, before the headcage fascinator goes on and the tendril in front gets curled.

Here’s my hair with most of the curls in it, before the headcage fascinator goes on and the tendril in front gets curled.

Finish off the look with a sparkly lace fan––because dancing all night is a warm activity, yo––and we’re done.

Here's a picture of me with my sister. We did not plan to wear the same colors beforehand. We didn't even notice we were doing it until hours later when someone else who was taking our picture pointed it out.

Here’s a picture of me with my sister. We did not plan to wear the same colors beforehand. We didn’t even notice we were doing so until hours later when someone else who was taking our picture pointed it out.

Here are my friends Sarah and Adriene, waiting to get in with us outside the venue.

Here are my friends Sarah and Adriene, waiting to get in with us outside the venue.

Hey, look! Another picture of the Wonder Twins!

Hey, look! Another picture of the Wonder Twins!

The kinds of costumes that show up for this event range from extravagant…

This was so incredible I don't even know where to begin describing it.

This was so incredible I don’t even have the vocabulary to do it justice. Her skirt has a 3D light-up village embedded in it! Terraced and everything!

…to maybe a little scary…

LOJ 2014 demon

This dude had a tail.

…to hilarious.

This is one of the goblins.

This is one of the goblins.

One guy out there this year spent a couple of hours the afternoon of the event and about six dollars at Walgreen’s and made a strapless ball gown and beehive wig — think Marie Antoinette as a funny arts and crafts project — out of colored duct tape and wrapping paper.

This guy's costume made me so happy! It's the same idea but with a totally different execution from my friend Adrienne's, which she spent way more time and money on than he did for his! Yet both are FABULOUS.

This guy’s costume made me so happy! It’s the same idea but with a totally different execution from my friend Adriene’s, which she spent way more time and money on than he did for his! Yet both are FABULOUS.

Another guy had dressed as Jon Snow in an enormous fake fur greatcoat; he looked miserable on the dance floor, as if he might spontaneously combust at any moment. And then there are those who spend months and hundreds of dollars on their elaborately detailed and drool-worthy outfits, and all of us who are costume geeks take pictures of them all night. One woman out there this summer came as a fiery dragon, resplendent in a multi-layered and complicated chiffon gown and real metal-scale armor.

And here she is with another interpretation of a dragon.

And here she is with another amazing interpretation of a dragon.

To offer a comparison for how extraordinary and creative a lot of the costumes out there are, I’ll just say that my own costume was of the type to render me nearly invisible at an event like this––perfect for when you just want to blend into the ballroom’s shadows and people watch.

Talisk photobomb

I got photobombed by a Talisk. Don’t ask.

Because the people watching at an event like this? Wow.

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If you’d like to be a guest contributor to our Fashion Friday series, click on the Fashion page and follow the guidelines to contact me with your idea.

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