Book review: ‘Open Road Summer’ by Emery Lord

Open Road Summer 2Though the humid days and sticky nights will soon fade into autumn, there’s still time to enjoy a summer treat — and Emery Lord’s Open Road Summer may well be it.

Life on the road with music superstar Delilah “Dee” Montgomery is always an adventure — especially for Reagan O’Neill, Dee’s childhood best friend. Happy to shimmy away from a troubled year back home in Nashville, Reagan throws herself into keeping Dee happy and energized while trying to block out memories of the last few months.

After a scandal threatens to sully Dee’s deserved “good-girl” image, a scheme to pair her with Matt Finch — a musician who earned fame with his brothers, but is decidedly all grown up — hopes to put a spin on the situation. As Reagan gets to know Matt away from the harsh glare of the spotlight, she realizes there may be more to him — and life — than she’d anticipated.

What I really loved about Open Road Summer was its honest take on first love and friendship. Having a best friend requires nurturing and care just like any other relationship — something Reagan and Dee acknowledge and understand. Though they’re ridiculously tight and always looking out for each other, they fight and fret and have their disagreements, too. They’re like sisters — and as with any dynamic, there are ups and downs.

Still, the bond the teens share is admirable . . . especially as the enter and leave one another’s orbits. As Dee’s honest lyrics and sweet persona catapult her far from their high school, she could have left Reagan behind — but she doesn’t. Though the “scandal” concerning Dee is extremely mild, especially by modern standards, I bought the idea that pairing her with “wholesome” singer Matt Finch would be a positive for them both.

Especially because Matt was pretty swoon-worthy.

I couldn’t read Open Road Summer without picturing Taylor Swift as Dee and Nick Jonas as Matt, which worked for me. Their stories paralleled their famous counterparts enough to create the comparison, but they certainly weren’t copycats. Matt, in particular, is shouldering his own pain alongside Reagan — but being a tough girl and all, she doesn’t want him to know it.

As a narrator, Reagan was the right combination of jaded but hopeful. She puts on a good front, you know, with her rough-and-tumble boyfriends and high heels — but we know she’s secretly striving for connection, just like all of us. Her evolution from damaged to trying was believable and commendable, and I definitely bonded with her and wanted her to succeed.

This is a quick, enjoyable read about hanging on and letting go — and I loved its accurate portrayal of friendship and love. While the ending was hopeful, it wasn’t sappy . . . which I really appreciated given, you know, we are talking about teenagers here. Not to be a cranky Old Married, but honestly — stories about 17-year-olds pledging their undying love sort of provoke epic eye-rolling in me.

But there were no rolled eyes here. Only big grins.

Fans of contemporary young adult novels, tales of first love and stories centered around the rich and famous (but nice!) will find lots to enjoy in Emery Lord’s Open Road Summer. It’s the perfect companion for a late-summer weekend . . . virgin daiquiri not included.

4 out of 5

Pub: April 15, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy provided by publisher via the lovely ladies of Rather Be Reading

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What we talk about in our twenties

Sunset

Over the weekend, I had an interesting chat about chatting.

What we talk about with others.

How we handle social situations.

I’ll admit to getting a little anxious in big groups, and sometimes I feel like I have “nothing to say” — or nothing interesting to say, anyway. Because I write a personal newspaper column, most of my “good” stories become fodder for my work. It may not seem tough to write a measly 450 words twice a week, y’all, but trust me: it gets challenging.

Sometimes I sit around in my pajamas and eat cookie butter out of a jar. Other times Spencer and I watch “Manhattan” and surf eBay and hang around drinking coffee, then do some laundry or pull weeds or whatever. All necessary tasks — but not exactly compelling.

When my sister and I had the chaos of planning two weddings last year, we always had something to talk about. Joint bridal planning is a unique brand of chaos that provided constant conversation with everyone we knew for a solid year, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t milk that for all it was worth.

(I did. I know I did.)

Regarding social occasions, I find that so much we want to share with others — IRL, if you will — has already been “shared” elsewhere. We post photos of vacations on Facebook; share milestones on Twitter; Instagram the heck out of an awesome meal. By the time we actually see someone, they’re well aware of what we’ve been doing and eating and thinking about.

For me, there’s another component: because I blog. And beyond that, friends may read my column and have already “heard” everything cool going on in my world.

I’ve gotten kind of used to this. It is what it is. The fact of the matter is, you know, I’m kind of boring; I only do so many “interesting” things in a day. And when I get together with folks I haven’t seen in a while, there aren’t always that many fascinating anecdotes to relay.

And that’s okay. It doesn’t matter.

Because sometimes? It’s enough to just be together. Without iPhones, without Facebook, without Gchat. It’s enough to sit and drink a cold beer on a friend’s new deck and blow bubbles with a 3-year-old and all watch the sun go down. To brush mosquitoes away from each other’s legs, hold up a beer and mouth “Another?” and laugh about silliness from five years ago — because we can.

Sunset II

I haven’t had a large crew of friends since high school, back when we bonded through theatre in the way that only in-the-trenches teens can. As an adult, I was folded into a large group of friends via my brother-in-law and sister — and my husband was been welcomed, too. I’m so grateful for all of them.

Maybe our conversations are about work, or houses, or children . . . maybe a little travel, if we’re lucky, or movies we’ve seen. Plans we have. Food we’ve made. Or money because, you know, we all only have so much of it; budgeting has become a common talking point.

I’ve learned from them. Been comforted by them. And even if it’s not all groundbreaking stuff, it’s more than enough for a group of twenty-somethings who have ushered in many life phases together. Though I didn’t meet the crew until we were all out of college and making our young way into the world, I’ve known them all longer than I’ve known my own husband.

It’s good, really — to look out at a porch now filled with newborns and toddlers, friends who have moved away and come back, those of us who have coupled up and married and now throw bashes in new spaces. We can’t all get together without mentioning how “things have changed,” often jokingly and innocently . . . because they have. Change is everywhere. It fills the cracks of every conversation.

But that change feels good, too — solid, real, reassuring. As we enter different phases at different times, we lend support and camaraderie. One couple actually bought their house the day before we did, and we’ve bonded over unpacking and adulthood in new ways.

Things change. Things stay the same.

And when we talk, we make the words matter.


The gradual fade to gold

We’ve reached the tipping point, I think.

Though this summer never reached skin-melting level here in Maryland, the air has already taken a cooler turn. The mornings are crisper — weather typically reserved for late September. The small tree outside my office window has red in its highest branches, and fallen leaves skitter across streets and parking lots.

This is premature, I know; it’s still August, and not even late August. But the store shelves have already been ransacked by nervous students. Pumpkins, witches and ghouls adorn seasonal aisles. Halloween candy beckons at the grocery store, and costumes will soon follow. Early-morning marketing emails remind us to “take advantage of summer before it’s gone!” (and buy their coconut-scented lotion, of course).

I can’t say I’m sad, exactly . . . we know autumn is my absolute favorite season, and I can’t wait for boots and scarves and holidays with friends and family. I keep thinking of this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, then feel a twinge of longing for all that’s to come.

But there’s something bittersweet about knowing our flip-flops will retire soon — that our warm days and humid nights will fade to crispy-brown golden afternoons. Though I love autumn intensely, I’m never so aware of the passage of time as when we say goodbye to this season.

Maybe because so many look forward to it for so long: mornings where we dash out without coats, running with bare arms and legs . . . free and unencumbered. Vacations, cook-outs, toes in sand.

Maybe because I fear another awful, never-ending winter — a frosty season that stretched for months and months last year. Buried under snow piles, the world slick with ice and salt.

But time continues, pushing us with it. We carve pumpkins, watch beloved TV specials and march on.

And how could I ever be sad in a world with pumpkin spice lattes?

As proof that I am nothing if not predicable, I discovered I wrote a very similar post almost a year ago to the day . . . on the Monday before local schools start up again. Fall brings this out in me!


Never promised you a (hosta) garden

There are a lot of Things in our yard.

Green things. Purple things. Weed-like things. Bushes, shrubs, flowering things.

I’ve never had a garden. I’ve never had my own yard. I lived at home until I was 28, and the collective idea of yard work was waking up to the hum of my dad’s lawn mower on Saturday mornings and occasionally ridding a small flower bed of its weeds in the spring. I remember planting impatiens with my mom as a kid, but my interest — and help! — was minimal. Very minimal.

We raked leaves in the fall and blew dandelions in summer, sure, but there wasn’t really work to do out there. My sister and I splashed in a kiddie pool, took friends to swing on our wooden bench and played with dogs in the backyard, but it was — to me — a maintenance-free space. One I took entirely for granted.

Now that we’re responsible for a hunk of the outdoors on our “property” (man, that feels fancy!), I’m learning the care and keeping of a yard is time-consuming. And I have no earthly idea what I’m doing. Since I cower from mosquitoes and bees and generally anything categorized as “creepy-crawly,” my preference isn’t to spend much time out there . . . but we have a big front yard facing our street, and people see our house.

We’re still the new kids on the block — and I can’t get lazy this quickly.

Spence and I haven’t officially selected chores yet, but I’ve naturally fallen into the role of flower-bed-keeper because he cuts the grass, chops down poison ivy (and gets poison ivy . . .) and saws through fallen logs while I have trimmed hedges and pushed hair out of my face. So I guess we’re even? (Kidding.)

I’ve unofficially taken over the task of weeding the rock gardens near our front porch because they’re chaotic and ugly, and it seems relatively simple to solve.

I mean, if you don’t mind sweating.

When my mother- and father-in-law were here to help us move in late June, they kindly tackled our grown-over flower beds before returning home. We had straight-up trees (!) growing near the shrubs, and the weed situation was pretty horrific. Basically, it was a strip of weeds in front of the house — weeds that were choking all the “good” plants that had started to appear in spring, and something had to be done about it.

I did a little maintenance a few weeks ago — the first time the yard needed work since that late-June purge. The shrubs were hacked to nubs back when we first went to see the house in March, and we worried they were all dead . . . but they sprang to life as soon as the snow thawed, and they’ve been growing strong ever since.

It looked like this in winter:

Dead yard

And then, left untended, it looked like this:

And then, with some cursing and sweating, it transformed into this:

. . . For now, anyway!

We have hostas, as you see — a plant I couldn’t have picked out to save my life, but visitors have all exclaimed, “Oh, you have hostas!” And now said hostas have really tall, really weird purple flowers sprouting out of them? And hopefully this is normal?

I’m learning.

I’d like to say I’m making progress toward my green thumb, but that would require me actively caring for a plant . . . as it stands, I merely hack out what I don’t want growing here and hope for the best.

Come spring, I have great ambitions of contracting our yard out to a friend’s wise daughter and actually making some executive decisions about what to do with the ample outdoor space we have languishing here.

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For now, I pull weeds from the roots, avoid bugs and wave to Spencer on the lawn mower.

A plan that works for everyone.


Book review: ‘Everybody’s Got Something’ by Robin Roberts

Everybody's Got SomethingTelevision newscaster Robin Roberts has had her share of struggles. Treated for breast cancer in 2007, the “Good Morning America” co-anchor expected to make a full recovery and put her fight behind her . . . until five years later, when she learned she would need a life-saving bone marrow transplant for myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood disorder — a side effect from her initial cancer treatment.

Who could blame someone for balking, for shrinking, for retreating inward . . . for asking a distraught “Why me?” To hear Robin tell it, though she faced uncertainty and doubt and did occasionally rail against her situation, she tried to focus on healing.

And Robin is a fighter.

More inspirational than informational, Roberts’ Everybody’s Got Something is her recollection of where she was before, during and after her 2012 transplant — and reads as a “thank you” to the friends, family, coworkers and viewers who bolstered her during a tremendously difficult time.

As she prepares for her transplant and its required isolation, Robin must also come to grips with another pain: the grief of losing her beloved mother, Lucimarian. The love shared between her close-knit family — including Sally-Ann, her bone marrow donor — is the backbone of Robin’s story, and many chapters feature snippets of childhood and the many lessons her mother and father shared with their children.

Though Everybody’s Got Something lacked some of the candor I’d expect given Robin’s difficult situation, I respect her so much as a person and appreciate that she wanted to focus on the positives: the bond her illness further cemented with her family and girlfriend, Amber; the overwhelming, soul-restoring support she received from colleagues, friends and viewers; the strong faith that got her through the darkest of her days.

Robin’s struggles seem to have been buffed clean, smoothed of their most jagged edges — but this is her story. If it’s varnished, I understand . . . and appreciate that, more than anything, Everybody’s Got Something – a popular saying with her mother — is exactly what it purports to be: a reminder that we all face challenges, but need not be defined by them. Readers facing health crises may find it especially comforting.

If you like Robin? Well, you’ll like her book. She’s sincere and humble — and just a darn likeable person. I finished the memoir grateful for her returning strength and hopeful that the future will be a bright one.


3 out of 5

Pub: April 22, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Audio copy borrowed from local library


Cookie butter mug cake

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It poured yesterday. The rain fell in heavy sheets, flooding the streets and parking lots and mailboxes left accidentally ajar. I watched it all from my office with damp shoes, damp hair, damp slacks . . . and by the time I got home to an empty house, I knew I needed dessert.

Spencer gets home from a business trip tonight — which means my solitude in the new house will finally end! I’ve been alone before, of course, given I’m 29 years old and not physically sewn to loved ones. Solitude is inevitable. But the last few days have been my first time by myself in our new place, and I had to really psych myself to fall asleep alone in a (somewhat) unfamiliar house with its creaks and groans.

But I did. It wasn’t awful. And I didn’t have any panic attacks, unlike the last time my husband went out of town . . . so: progress.

Left on my own for dinner last night, I was somewhat tempted to just gorge myself on sweets or wimp out and make a PB&J . . . but then I got a weird hankering for Brussels sprouts, and I don’t fight the greens. After a quick dinner of Old Bay sausage and vegetables, I geared up for a mug cake.

Rainy Tuesdays definitely call for mug cakes.

These popular desserts have been on my radar for a while — but sort of in a perplexing way. How does mixing and microwaving a few ingredients lead to a tasty dessert? The science was confusing to me. But when I saw Pumpkin ‘n Spice’s Cinnamon Cookie Butter Mug Cake recipe, I knew I had to experiment.

Cookie butter

What is cookie butter, you may ask? Everything you think it might be and more. When I started doing a little research on the goodie, I learned it’s popular at Trader Joe’s — and the closest store to me is nearly an hour away. But just as I was Googling around, a friend happened to mention her sister was going up to the Annapolis store that very weekend.

If that isn’t fate, what is?

After delivering my jar the following week, I offered Sandy a taste as a thanks — and she just described it was “the single most delicious thing [she's] ever put in her mouth.”

She’s not overselling it.

In the last few weeks, Spencer and I have struggled to just not eat it by the spoonful . . . which is my gut instinct, honestly. A mug cake seemed like a good way to enjoy it that would, um, help me keep my addiction manageable.

As if that’s possible.

What’s cool about mug cakes? They work. I couldn’t believe how fast my dessert puffed up; I was actually scared it was going to overflow. Though the texture of this mug cake is far more dense than a traditionally-baked treat, it was tasty — and hit the spot for me, a drenched woman watching tons of coverage on the late Robin Williams.

For one evening, I ate my feelings.

They tasted like cookie butter, and the sad was a little less sad.



Cinnamon Cookie Butter Mug Cake

Recipe from Pumpkin ‘n Spice

Ingredients:
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
Dash of salt
1 egg
4 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon coconut oil, melted (I used vegetable oil instead)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cookie butter

Instructions:

Spray a standard-sized coffee mug with non-stick cooking spray.

Into the mug, pour the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Stir briefly to combine.

Add in the egg, milk, coconut oil, cinnamon, and cookie butter. Mix well so that everything Is combined.

Microwave for approximately 2 minutes 30 seconds (2:30) or until cake is firm but the edges are still wet.

Remove from the microwave and let cook for 2 minutes.

Run a knife along the edges of cake. Top with whipped cream, if desired. (Trust me: you desire it.)


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You may contribute a verse

Clouds

“The question, O me! so sad, recurring — What good amid these, O me, O life?

Answer.

That you are here — that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

“O Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman


I can think of no other statement so profound, so inspirational.

What will your verse be?

Thinking of Robin Williams. I could barely sleep last night. What a talent . . . what a terrible loss.