Book chat: ‘New Money’ and ‘Independently Wealthy’

New MoneySavannah Morgan arrives in New York on the dime of a father she never met with a plan to take the city by storm.

Now a part of the illustrious Stone News empire, Savannah is the secret daughter who grew up modestly in Charleston away from the prying eyes of the media — and her wealthy, successful siblings. After her biological father suddenly dies, Savannah is left a fortune on the condition that she move to the city and join her brother and sister in the Stone family business.

Simple enough? Perhaps . . . until everything turns out differently than she imagined.

Lorraine Zago Rosenthal’s New Money is a light, entertaining story of a 24-year-old debutante set loose in Manhattan after a lifetime among Southern society. To say she is lost amidst a sea of dark-clothed, serious New Yorkers is an understatement — but once she flees the comfort of her mother’s home in South Carolina, she is determined to create a new path for herself as a writer . . . or maybe something else entirely.

Though I enjoyed Savannah’s story, success seemed to find our heroine a little too easily. After learning the identity of her biological father, a billionaire, Savannah hops a plane and steps straight into a sleek apartment overlooking Central Park with barely a thought of the mother she is supposedly devoted to — or the life she is leaving behind. Her whacky best friend temporarily turns Savannah’s new life into a sorority romp, and the tenuous relationship she is trying to build with her half-siblings is constantly under fire.

The set-up of New Money felt to be entirely tell with no show — a fact that surprised me. I didn’t feel I actually got to know Savannah until the end of the novel, when she was in love with a bartender and fighting to keep her new family’s name out of the press. We were told she is this strong, passionate, intelligent woman . . . but her scatter-brained actions didn’t always reflect that.

But even having said that, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this story . . . I did! It was fun escapism that demanded little of me, which was perfect. It’s actually been a while since I read a story set in Manhattan, and Rosenthal’s descriptions of the city through an outsider’s eyes were fun. Her budding romance with Alex, a reformed fighter, was sweet and sweetly believable; her attempts to get to know her brother and sister were realistic and a little heartbreaking.

All in all, New Money was the first novel I’ve read in the burgeoning “new adult” category — and with a little romance, plenty of family dynamics and lots of rich-people-peeping to keep me company, it was a fun story with interesting characters that I enjoyed getting to know.

Which brought me to . . .

Independently WealthyIndependently Wealthy. Now that Savannah is rooted in Manhattan society and earning her keep at Femme, the magazine which recently published her first work, she is focused on building a place within the Stone family — and discovering the truth about what happened to their father. When her search takes her to Washington, D.C., and into the complicated world of American politics, Savannah must decide whether to push harder than she ever has or turn back.

Filled with more mystery and depth than its predecessor, Independently Wealthy finds us acquainted with a much stronger, more empowered heroine with a clear goal: finding out the truth about the fatal accident that claimed her father’s life and a potential cover-up that could make headlines around the world. When investigators hit dead ends, Savannah snoops in Edward’s files to find connections others may have missed and leaves for Washington in the hope of learning the truth.

Given I’m from the D.C. area, I loved seeing glimpses of my hometown as Savannah races among the political elite to confront the man she believes was instrumental in Edward’s death. We also see romantic development in several areas and a pretty dashing new male lead — one I found vastly superior to Alex, quite honestly. Like, completely.

What made Independently Wealthy really work for me were the growing family dynamics. Ned and Caroline, Savannah’s half-siblings, really became human in this second installment. In fact, where I once found Ned to be particularly insufferable, I actually started to like the guy. He is charismatic and snobby and cocky, but he’s a little lost, too. Each character seemed more vulnerable this time around — and I liked that we got to know them beyond the superficial.

Lorraine Zago Rosenthal has written two books with a sassy narrator who takes chances and goes big, and I enjoyed the time spent with the Stone family. As Savannah has grown so much between books one and two, who knows what could be in store for her down the line . . . I hope we’ll get a chance to find out.

New Money: 3 out of 5!

Independently Wealthy: 4 out of 5!

Goodreads • Amazon (New Money, Independently Wealthy) • Author Website

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Hold-it-in-your-frosty-paws holiday greetings


Some folks dream of fame and riches, others of sexy cars or roomy mansions.

Me? I’ve long daydreamed about . . . family Christmas cards.

I grew up with a caring mom who paid attention to details — especially at the holidays. Come mid-November, we were always preparing for our big, old-fashioned family photo for the holiday greetings she would send in early December. Mom usually wrote a letter to accompany the card — a precursor to Facebook updates, you know — and still does.

Though I am an unabashed mail geek, I always found something so sweet and cozy about getting a photo card with loved ones’ faces: smiling at Disney World, celebrating the first day of school, posed with Santa. Kids feature prominently but the adults are there, too, holding a hand or lifting into an embrace.

As soon as Spencer and I began dating, I started imagining our Christmas card. I’m obsessed with stationery and postage, so coming up with mock greetings was . . . well, sort of a pastime. I have a sample card I made in 2010 — the year we met — and saved somewhere in a dusty computer file. It was never ordered or sent, of course; it was too soon for that. But I liked creating it. It was fun knowing it was there.

When we married, I knew Christmas cards would be my first order of business. Since our wedding took place in November, I worried about having to send thank-you cards at the same time as holiday notes . . . and even contemplated combining the two into one piece of mail.

And then I realized that is crazy. Who can get too much mail?!

Last year’s card — our first — was especially fun, given we were fresh newlyweds. I spent forever debating various photos and designs, let me tell you. This year’s was awesome, too, because it included that special announcement from us! And Spencer in a Santa hat, which is a rare sight indeed.

Us at Christmas

Most folks might have already heard about the baby through phone calls, email or social media — but, you know. Everyone knows it’s not official until it’s on cardstock.

I love everything about the card-sending process. Gathering addresses, choosing stamps, sitting down with a Sharpie, finding elegant seals and stickers . . . it’s a whole thing for me, and I can’t imagine giving it up. When I was sick as all heck two weeks ago, I stayed in on a Friday to watch a cheesy Hallmark movie and get all my cards prepped. Minus all the nose-blowing, it’s a pretty sweet memory.

Though I love the Internet (hi!), nothing can replace the warmth of getting a real, tangible, hold-it-in-your-frosty-paws Christmas card in your mailbox. This is the one time of year I fight Spence to the end of the long driveway, wanting to be the first to uncover whatever arrived that afternoon. We haven’t received too many greetings just yet, but the season is still (relatively) young.

And I’ll never stop checking.

That’s what mail lovers do: we send. And we hope.

Do you send out cards at the holidays, either with or without personal snapshots? Is it a family tradition for you, too?

Poppy seed understands

In the small Pennsylvania town where my grandparents grew up is a bakery — one wonderfully frozen in time. When we would venture north to visit my great-grandmother, cousins and great-aunts, we couldn’t pass by without dashing in to admire their treats.

And fill our mouths, of course.

Easter was the best. We often left Maryland for spring break, visiting the Poconos Mountains and swinging back through Wilkes-Barre and Nanticoke on our way home. My great-grandmother lived in the bottom apartment of a duplex, and I can close my eyes and see her waving to us from her shaded side porch.

When we drove through town seeking Sanitary Bakery, my sister and I would stare agog at all the colorful cookies, cakes and chocolates. If we were lucky, a kind baker behind the counter would offer us samples — and my parents would nod as we shoved candy into our delighted mouths. I grew up on nut roll and poppy seed bread, a Polish treat.

I’ve always been an adventurous eater who loves everything others seem to find quirky — but I fit in well with my mom’s parents, who embrace their Polish roots through classic foods like cabbage rolls and kielbasa. Kate and I spent most afternoons at my grandparents’ home after school, and the aroma of ham and cabbage simmering away is intricately woven through many of my memories.

Christmas 93

Katie and me, Christmas 1993

Isn’t it funny how that happens? Our sense of smell is so powerful that, with one whiff, we’re transported back to a county fair, cafeteria, old library. My mom, sister and I actually returned to our elementary school for a craft fair in October. Though I hadn’t walked through those doors in nearly 20 years, we took one step inside and laughed. It was different . . . but it wasn’t.

“It smells the same,” I said, shocked and ecstatic and hit with a wave of nostalgia so powerful, I almost couldn’t breathe.

Food is like that, too. When Gram called me yesterday to say she had some poppy seed bread to share, freshly arrived from Pennsylvania, my little pregnant self couldn’t get over there fast enough. I mean, I may or may not have run a red light. (Okay, I totally didn’t. But I thought about it.) Gram and Grandpa rarely come home without local treats for us from their trips, but this was an unexpected shipment. A true delight.

This morning I sat by my Christmas tree and sliced into the bread that tastes like tradition and growing up rolled into a dense, delicious pastry. I thought about those long-ago drives to Nanticoke; the family reunions and trips with my grandparents, laughing over pie and coffee late into the night at a diner in front of our hotel. Visiting the family cemetery, where many loved ones now rest. Beautiful old churches with stained glass fronts. Curving mountain roads and sleepy storefronts. Running into cousins on the street, our Maryland license plates like sirens in the quiet town.

I miss those days, those trips. Being bundled in a backseat without a worry.

But poppy seed roll? It will always be there for me.

Poppy seed understands.

Holiday-themed pity party


The first Christmas party has been thrown!

Twenty friends and their kiddos arrived on Sunday for a holiday party, hosted for the first time at the Johnson residence. My sister and I co-hosted the event (with, you know, our husbands) and began discussing details back in October. In fact, Kate had me send out a “save the date” in early November. We were on it.

And then I got sick.

Early last week, my throat began to feel itchy. Within two days, I was wallowing in a congested-sneezing-clogged-nose hell that had me Googling every medication under the sun with “safe for pregnancy” afterward.

Spoiler: none were.

If I thought being sick was awful before, being sick while pregnant pretty much sent me into an existential tailspin. Everything is deadly; nothing is safe. I’ve never been a “natural remedies” sort of girl, but by golly was I searching for anything under the sun to get relief by Friday morning.

I’ll freely admit to once rolling my eyes at others’ dramatics when it comes to the common cold because, you know, I was tough. Chug a little DayQuil, grab an extra pack of tissues and keep it movin’, you know what I’m saying?

Yeah. Well.

I got mine, friends. Several times over. After suffering through a few work days and grossing out everyone in my vicinity, I finally called uncle and stayed home on Friday. What followed was a day of crying, cursing and throwing myself a holiday-themed pity party complete with bad daytime television, mugs of half-drunk tea and texting my husband repeatedly to learn when he’d be back to bear witness to my continued freak-out.

I’m so fun.

In my defense, I didn’t realize how much I rely on medication for comfort. Got a headache? Advil. Back hurts? Advil. Congested, hard time breathing? Decongestant. Bad cramps? Advil.

With nearly all of my go-to drugs off the table, I felt helpless. And pregnancy hormones? No joke. I have been a big, steamy mess of nonsense for the last few weeks — even before I became infected with this scourge. After going through three boxes of tissues in two days and calling my doctor repeatedly for something, anything I could take (finally got permission for low-dose Sudafed), the cold began to break on Sunday morning.

Just in time to host the party.

After disinfecting and de-cluttering everything we could, dear Spencer set to work making food while I read recipes from a bubble in the corner. I pumped myself full of water and baby-safe drugs before everyone arrived, then dissolved into a puddle of gratitude as my sister and brother-in-law showed up to help take over responsibilities.

And then I could just have fun!

And so we did. Mostly because I couldn’t believe we’d pulled it off and actually had everything go as planned. In a panicky moment on Friday, I was convinced the whole thing would fall apart because I was too weak to do more than reach for another tissue. Spence and I had looked forward to hosting our friends at our first shindig, and I didn’t want to cancel.

But I rallied, everything went off without a hitch — and I’m only feeling about 30 percent ridiculous today. The cough is sticking around, but I can handle that.

Hug your NyQuil a little closer for me, friends. You never know how much you love something until it’s gone.

Time for the tinsel

Christmas tree

Is there anything lovelier than a home at Christmas?

I love this time of year because, you know, our home has insta-style. And that style is holiday. Decorating is still a somewhat daunting task for me, so our house has many bare walls — but when you truss them up with sparkly garland, evergreens and jolly Santa figurines, you’ve really got something goin’ on.

And oh, it’s going.

I’ll be honest: Christmastime is still a little bittersweet for me. Despite the fact that I am happily married and expecting, part of me longs to be back with my mom, dad and sister doing all our old-timey holiday traditions. Last year? Kind of sad. Not because I wasn’t thrilled to be spending it with Spencer in our own place, our first married Christmas, but because . . . well, because it was different.

Different can be hard.

This December, I’m determined to be perky! and excited! and not stressed!, which has meant getting organized earlier (I have spreadsheets!) and starting to wrap gifts before it becomes an intimidating task that results in lots of gift bags and frustration. Fun fact? I actually love wrapping presents with all the bells and whistles, but I tend to wait too long to complete the task. I don’t want to be freaking out on Christmas Eve, you know?

Not. Doing. It.

You know how, when you’re a kid, the holidays are a theatrical production put on by Santa, elves and your parents — an event in which you’re simply expected to delight in the fruits of others’ labor and absolutely nothing is expected of you?

Adulthood is . . . not like that.

At nearly 30, I should have accepted that responsibility was coming down the pipeline. Speaking of which, I think hosting our first Thanksgiving was a resounding success. Did I panic a little at the thought of arriving at our house for the annual feast? Sure. Yes. Absolutely. But I had tons of help, Spence made the turkey and ham, my mother-in-law was an excellent help in the kitchen — and ultimately, our family chipped in big time . . . just as they always do. It was a grand time.

But now it’s the holidays and Christmas is shaking its sparkly stick at me, demanding attention. The pressure to contribute to the family holiday, come up with amazing gift ideas and somehow manage to spend time with everyone in a meaningful way is . . . difficult. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, friends; this is something we all coordinate, something we must all work out for ourselves.

And I’m getting there.

Our calendar is brimming with fun, festive events in the next three weeks (!!) — and even though I have plenty of shopping and scheming left to complete by December 25, I know that’s not what Christmas is really about.

It’s laughs and meals with family.
Crunchy sugar cookies.
“Charlie Brown” and hearing the angels sing.
Cinnamon rolls in pajamas.
Fat stacks of colorful cards in the mailbox.

And so much more. So, so much more.

As this is our last holiday without a little one, too, I’m determined to make it a happy and memorable one for our family of two. More than anything? I just want to adorn it all with sparkly tinsel, sip hot chocolate and watch cheesy Hallmark movies. You know the ones.

And I’m going to get there.

Extra cinnamon rolls may be necessary . . . but I’ve made my peace with it.

A sticky, delicious, gooey peace.

Book chat: ‘Jane Austen’s First Love’ by Syrie James

Jane Austen's First LoveRomantic, wistful and richly engrossing, fans of the beloved Miss Austen will delight in Syrie James’ well-researched, evocative story of the summer Jane is believed to have first fallen in love.

For a month in 1791, 15-year-old Jane Austen is welcomed with her sister and brother to the vast, beautiful world of Goodnestone to celebrate the engagement of her brother, Edward, to Elizabeth Bridges, one of the young ladies of the estate. On their way to the celebration, their carriage meets with calamity — and Edward Taylor, a handsome and educated young man who lives nearby, comes to their rescue.

As their connection to the Bridges family brings them together, Jane and Edward pass many enjoyable weeks in each other’s company . . . much to the chagrin of the chaperones entrusted with making sure the reputations of both families remain unsullied. Though she knows a match between a wealthy heir and a reverend’s daughter is unlikely, their affection continues to grow — even as Jane meddles in the romances of those around her, causing disturbances and miscommunications.

Based on the scholarly belief that Jane did, in fact, meet one Edward Taylor through her brother — and snippets of letters in which she mentions both Him and Bifrons, Edward’s actual home — James has constructed a lively, entertaining tale of the man who may have stolen young Jane’s heart. With generous and creative nods to future characters (especially Emma Woodhouse, intrepid but misguided matchmaker), Jane Austen’s First Love is a treat for fans of the author and historical fiction alike.

The way Jane falls in love with Edward was sudden but believable — a feat not easily accomplished. As a young woman with little experience away from Steventon (and her mother’s grasp), Jane is enamored to be passing time as she chooses — and in the company of new, exciting, accomplished people. In addition to being handsome and well-traveled, Edward is adventurous and kind. Though a bit of a daredevil with a reputation to match, he has no trouble questioning the status quo: unique in a society that places propriety above all else.

Jane comes from different stock, of course. Visiting Goodnestone for her brother’s engagement celebration, she and Cassandra are under immense pressure to behave well and not present as “country folk.” At 15, Jane is too young to actually be “out” in society . . . but her mother relents for the special occasion, allowing her to participate in the many events and balls held in honor of two sets of soon-to-be newlyweds (the sister of Edward Austen’s intended is also to marry). This new independence delights Jane — but it comes at a cost.

The early feelings of love and affection blossoming between Jane and Edward Taylor — the nerves; the excitement; the desperation to see each other again — are familiar to all of us. Indeed, it’s tough to read Jane Austen’s First Love and not feel transported back to your own first brush with romance. James does a remarkable job of drawing us into the easy banter and camaraderie the two share . . . but of course, we know the ending of the story.

Is it a spoiler to talk of the fate of a famous author who passed nearly 200 years ago? Austen fans know that, for all her exquisite explorations of the human heart, Jane herself never did marry — nor did her sister, Cassandra, after losing a fiance as a young woman. Jane passed at age 41 and left an enormous legacy that still has us talking, speculating and daydreaming centuries later.

Knowing the end of her romance with Edward Taylor even before it began did nothing to harm it; in fact, James beautifully demonstrates how reasonable it was that Jane could have fallen in love . . . but how, in the end, first loves are not always forever loves. What could have been a bittersweet ending was, instead, satisfying and realistic.

I loved my time at Goodnestone — and any time spent in the company of dear Jane is always well spent. Syrie James does a remarkable job of returning us to Regency England in the company of “characters” that actually feel like friends, with a story that felt both familiar and fresh. Jane Austen’s First Love will be a welcome addition to the shelves of Janeites everywhere — and those interested in a good love story will rejoice in it, too.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Paperback copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Holiday prep and baby chatter

Thank you all so much for your kind words and well wishes on our pregnancy announcement! Honestly, for as excited as I am to share the news, I was also pretty nervous. Something about the reveal makes me anxious, and I’m not sure why. Before we told our families, I was literally shaking. Shaking!

And, I mean, it’s a good thing. A great thing. But it’s a huge change, too, and I think that’s what my body recognizes even if my brain is saying, “Just be happy. Don’t worry. Be happy.

I had my end-of-the-first-trimester doctor’s appointment yesterday and all is well. The nurse immediately found the baby’s heartbeat with a Doppler — the first time I’ve actually heard it. Spence and I saw it on ultrasound twice, but actually hearing it — the whoosh, the gallop — was so amazing.

It’s nice and strong, they said, in the 150s, so of course I’ve been Googling old wives’ tales about heart rate and gender prediction. According to all sorts of nonsense I’m reading based on that heart rate, it’s a boy. Of course, Chinese gender predictor charts say we’re having a girl. So. You know. Fifty/fifty and all that.


Anyway! Baby talk. I can get carried away.

Are you ready for Thanksgiving?! I am . . . not. Well, I sort of am. Twelve of my nearest and dearest will arrive at our door tomorrow and I have mustered the strength to, in no particular order:

a) clear off our disastrous coffee table;
b) wipe down kitchen counters;
c) gather together the spoils of our Sunday grocery trip;
d) scrub the bathrooms;
e) procure two additional folding chairs;
f) slice our stuffed ham;
g) get the guest room mostly ready.

And that’s about it.

As I was getting ready for work this morning, I noticed a sizable layer of dust on a side table that has probably not been touched since we moved in June. And lots of dust bunnies in corners. Plenty of debris on the stairs, which I swear I just vacuumed but . . . apparently not?

Anyway. I hope they’ll forgive me. My parents-in-law arrive this afternoon from New York, I’m heading home mid-afternoon and then the cooking, baking and delightful chaos will begin. Regardless of the state of our mostly-clean house, I’m sure we’ll have a good time.

I’m not as nervous as I was last week. This is my family, after all — they’re not going to judge a tiny bit of clutter, especially given I’m just emerging from the haze of the first trimester and am really most concerned with loading my plate with mashed potatoes.

Pregnant Thanksgiving — especially when I’ve just gotten my appetite back — is sure to be the best Thanksgiving, friends. I’m looking forward to hanging with the crew, hosting my in-laws and celebrating with all our favorite eats.

Hoping y’all have a wonderful holiday!