Lisa McKay's Blog

May 15, 2016

The six weeks since my last post have been 100% year-of-awesome material.

Well, unless you count the nasty case of shingles Mike came down with a week after my birthday. Or the nasty case of cellulitis I came down with ten days later. This was my third case of cellulitis in less than six months. I’m now on antibiotics every day for the next 12 months. I don’t want to spend time right now talking about what a very serious, very unpleasant problem this all is, because I’d much rather talk things that actually are awesome. Like 40th birthday parties and baby turtles.

So, we barely scraped in under the wire with a year-of-awesome activity in April. We had a little 40th birthday soiree at the house with champagne and cheese and crackers on the 30th of April. I was just (sort of) back on my feet. Mike was still having significant shingles-related nerve pain. But we decided to celebrate anyway because you only turn 40 once (and let’s face it, at this rate we won’t make 80).

Lisa and Mike 40th party

See those smiles? Those smiles say, “We survived April, now someone give us a medal. Or champagne.”

I’m happy to say that things have been on the upswing in May, and this month we’re totally rocking the year-of-awesome.

We took Mum and Dad on a day-trip to Pele Island.

Alex starfish

We spent a perfect evening on Hideaway Island.

Hideaway empty chairs

We had a glittering mothers-day brunch at Aquana.


Lisa and Alex aquana

And this weekend we went camping with the baby turtles out at Le Life.

Le life

le life 2

It was our first whole-family overnight in a tent and we couldn’t have chosen a better location. The tent was right on the beach, and right now the family that owns the place are caring for some baby green turtles that hatched in the middle of the campground—helping them grow stronger and releasing them five at a time when they can duck dive and (hopefully) fend for themselves.

turtles le life

At low tide we all helped carry the baby turtles down to the ocean for their daily waddle and paddle in a large rock pool.

dom turtles

turtles le life 2

dom releasing turtle

turtle le life

4 turtles le life

The kids built sand castles and scrounged for firewood for the promised post-dinner campfire.

dom fire 1

Dominic got a jump on us by managing to re-kindle a fire we thought was out, and then built it up into a merry little blaze.

dom fire

We went to sleep to the sound of waves, and I woke up before sunrise. So did Dominic. When he wriggled off the bed and unzipped the tent in the dark I asked him where he thought he was going, he said, “to check on my fire.”

sunset le life

ocean sunrise

We ate breakfast on the beach, then gave the kids two rakes and told them that the sand needed to be cleaned while we drank our coffee.

Total. Weekend. Win.

fam thumbs up

fam back on

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Published on May 15, 2016 01:23 • 21 views

March 27, 2016

We’ve rocked the awesome scale over the four-day Easter weekend—a four-day weekend that kicked off with my 40th birthday.

This post is so not my deep and meaningful thoughts about turning 40. It’s a: “Quick!! Upload the photos from the weekend while the kids are watching Winnie The Pooh and throw something together for the blog before real life hits again tomorrow at 5:30am.”

So here is the quick, dirty, and photo-heavy Easter scrapbook post.

We kicked off the weekend by leaving the boys here at the house with Cynthia while Mike and I checked into Eratap Beach Resort for the night (thank you, local rates). It was mostly cloudy and raining on and off, but it cleared enough for us to enjoy wine-o-clock and a splashy sunset in our private beach hut in front of the bungalow.

Room Eratap

Beach hut Eratap

Beach Eratap

Wine O Clock Eratap

Sunset Eratap

It was still misty and rainy the next morning, but it sort of doesn’t matter when you have a view like this as you drink your morning coffee…

Lisa Eratap

And you eat breakfast here…

Mike breakfast Eratap

Hibiscus and table Eratap

After breakfast Mike and I went snorkeling and checked out the coral and fish. Then Mike kayaked around the beaches while I enjoyed an hour-long relaxation massage (thank you, Eratap, for the complimentary birthday add-in).

We were so excited to see the kids when we got home. Then, everything went pear-shaped. Within an hour we decided to take them out of the house before total chaos set in, so we packed them into the car and spent my birthday night out at Hideaway (that lovely little island of grilled prawns and papaya salad, white wine, pizza, swimming at dusk, and a night-time boat-ride back to the dock.

Hideaway island

It was all SUCH A BIRTHDAY WIN!! (Especially given that last year I was flying alone to arrive in cyclone-ravaged Vanuatu for the first time, the year before that Mike had just finished chemo, and the year before that I was pregnant and packing up our house in Luang Prabang). I’ll take turning this again next year thanks, just minus the mosquitoes and the two hours of grumpy kids.

So, what else rates as “awesome” over the weekend?

I made pancakes for these guys that got two thumbs up.

Lisa cooking pancakes boys

On Saturday we drove out Devil Point’s Road and spent the night with several other families out at Benjor Beach resort. Cue more swimming, a gourmet pot-luck dinner, a heroic effort by Mike to light the promised campfire with wet wood, and some fun game-playing after the kids had gone to bed.

And today, we drove over to Havannah Harbor and met some other friends with a boat, who ferried us out to Lelepa Island. The day was sparkling clear and more than warm. That aquamarine water felt every bit as good as it looks.

Mike and boys Lelapa

Alex holding stafish, Lelapa

Lisa and boys swimming Lelapa

OK, Winnie’s about to finish, and we’ve got a mountain of wet and sandy gear to clear away, sun-baked kids to bathe, some dinner to make, etc. So more from me next time.

I hope your Easter was full of glory, too—inside and outside.

Love from Vanuatu,


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Published on March 27, 2016 22:29 • 6 views

March 23, 2016

Today is the last day of my thirties.

For the last month I’ve had an item on my to-do list that I’ve just never gotten around to doing. That item is: write something about turning 40.

I was talking about this with a friend the other day while we were bobbing around in the pool, playing with the kids.

“When I turned 30,” I told her, “I was in Mexico for the weekend, eating lobster and drinking margaritas. I hadn’t met Mike yet. I was living in LA, jetting around the world, and writing an essay a month. I think my essay about turning 30 talked about how I wasn’t sure I wanted to have kids. Now I’m turning 40, and I have kids, and I write an essay a year.”

“What would you say about turning 40?” Sarah asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Because I’ve been busy redesigning websites and mastering SEO and taking on new work contracts and trying to teach Alex to poo in the toilet. I haven’t had time…”

Here, I paused, before correcting myself.

“I haven’t made time to untangle that.”

So last night, after the kids were asleep, I sat down to unearth that essay I wrote about turning 30.

I don’t often re-read my own writing once I move past a piece, and revisiting this essay was like sitting down for coffee with someone I used to know well and haven’t seen for years. It highlighted how dramatically this decade has changed me. It also gave me a springboard for considering the milestone I’ll hit tomorrow, and the ten years that have brought me here.

So, in the weeks ahead I will make the time to write something about turning 40. Today, however, I’ll start the thinking. And in the meantime, I’ll let my 30-year-old self take over the blog, just for today,

Here is that essay, Where’s The Fun In Normal?

lisa book 2 compressed 2 and cropped


Where’s the fun in normal?

Right up until I was 29 years 8 months and 14 days old I thought turning 30 was no big deal.

Then I noticed that I was preempting the question. You know. That question.

“How are you feeling about the big three O?”

I’d starting answering this before the other person had even finished asking. I’d pull a bland adjective out of thin air – fine, good, great – and deliver it with breezy unconcern.

Then I’d let it sit there.

The other person would usually pause, waiting for me to fill the silence with bright protestations about how I really am fine about the fact that I’m turning thirty and still single, with no prospects of popping out babies any time soon, and how it’s all been worth it because I love my job and I wouldn’t trade all the experiences I’ve had in the last ten years for anything.

All of this might be true, but I don’t like being expected to say it. And when I don’t oblige with the culturally correct dialogue, the conversation usually moves on.

The day I turned 29 years 8 months and 14 days old, however, the conversation didn’t move on. I looked up to notice that the person who had just asked me the question was staring at me with rather more puzzlement than I thought the answer warranted.

“What?” I said.

“Fine?” she repeated.

“Uh huh.”

“I ask you how you’re feeling about the situation in Somalia and all you have to say is fine?” she said.


That was when I began to get annoyed. I didn’t want to be one of those people who have a crisis about turning 30. It’s just so… normal.

Over the last couple of months I’ve tried hard to understand what’s freaking me out about this milestone. Of course, it is possible that I am subconsciously worried about the ticking of my biological clock. But I really don’t think this is the major problem. When I look at other people’s children, no matter how cute, I usually just feel relieved that they’re not mine. The fact that I’m not in kiddie-headspace right now was only underscored by a conversation I had last week with my boss’ wife.

“Oh, little Will’s getting over his first bad cold,” she said, exhausted, when I asked her how the kids were. “He’s not really sick anymore, just miserable. He’s been hanging off my leg, whining, wanting to be held all the time, and I just can’t get anything done.”

“Gee,” I said, “That must make you want to bend down and tell him, ‘Get used to it buddy, that’s life, deal with it. You’re going to feel bad sometimes and people just can’t put their lives on hold to pay attention to you every time you’re grumpy.’”

“Ummm, no,” she said, clearly making a mental note never to ask me to babysit. “It makes me want to pick him up and comfort him.”

OK, I thought, so if the root of my present angst isn’t children, perhaps I’m starting to fret about the fact that I might die alone in my sleep at the age of 92 with no one by my side?

I admit this vision does cross my mind occasionally, but so does a vision of being killed at 32 during a carjacking in Nairobi. Dying alone at 92 doesn’t even come close to making my list of “top ten worst things that could happen to me in life.”

Maybe it is just the mathematics of it all. Math has never been my strong point, but even I’m smart enough to figure out that using conventional reasoning and the most favorable of equations I’m approaching the “33% of life” mark.

However, I would venture that time doesn’t count unless you can remember it, and this changes the numbers in the equation significantly. For starters, I can’t remember much from years 1-10, so I’m really only 20. Of those 20 years I’ve spent roughly 7 asleep. In “real time” I’m only just turning 13.

But even as I calculated it out, I knew this wasn’t it either. I’m not really the type to stare at an hourglass, fascinated by the trickling sand. Well, not for long, anyway.

I didn’t put my finger on it until yesterday. Someone asked me what I’d been doing in Kenya the previous month, and I talked about leading a workshop series on trauma and humanitarian work for counselors and pastors from Kenya, South Africa, and Rwanda.

They did a double take.

“How old are you?”

As I said 29, it hit me.

I won’t get asked that for much longer. I will soon lose the double-take factor because, as I turn 30, I’m losing my child prodigy status.

OK, before you write me off as a complete narcissist, let me explain.

I was never much of a child prodigy as a child. In fact, I probably didn’t even rate as normal. I did get my photo in the paper once when I was five, but only because I was reading a Babar the Elephant book wearing a set of headphones almost as big as my thick-lens glasses. I was sitting on the floor of the library with one leg twisted awkwardly underneath me, the perfect illustration for the article they were writing on special needs children. This was somewhat of a recurring theme in my early years–my school had me tested for learning disabilities when I was 11, and I was 13 before we moved for the 5th time in my life and I managed to make my first real friend.

Perhaps simply by virtue of contrast, I sort of feel that I’ve earned some late-bloomer child-prodigy-status during my twenties. I’ve made friends, and kept them, across seven moves in four different countries. I’ve picked up three university degrees. I’ve driven a police boat underneath the Sydney Harbor Bridge, slept in a tent in the Masai Mara, and volunteered in a slum in Manila. I’ve written a novel. I’ve traveled the world teaching about trauma and stress management. I’ve been, largely, happy.

We define who we are at least partly through comparing ourselves to others, and wherever I’ve lived over the years I’ve always been somewhat “different” – in accent, in color, in language, in career. By my late teens I’d learned to turn being different to my advantage in most situations. But, I’ve recently realized that being different, and being seen to be different, has become an important part of my identity in its own right. Now that I’m turning 30, I’m finding that I’m less worried about not having achieved the milestones of marriage and children than I am about the fact that people are going to start expecting me to be capable, knowledgeable, and accomplished as I travel the world. The fact that I am (sometimes) all of this, will no longer be surprising and noteworthy. It will be normal. And where’s the fun in normal?

I’m a firm believer in fun being more something you make than something you have, so finding some good answers to that question is one of the challenges I will carry with me into the decade ahead.

Along the way, I’d also like to shake my fear that normal equals boring, and that boring is a fate worse than death. I aim to check my instinct to take a different path long enough to ask myself whether there are good reasons to take it, apart from the fact that it’s different. And I will continue to struggle to outgrow my habitual tendency to judge my life through the prism of other people’s perceptions. It’s not that I think other people’s perceptions shouldn’t matter. It’s more that they shouldn’t matter quite so much.

Before I turn 40 I also want to, ummm…. swim with dolphins, raft down the Amazon, and fulfill one of my most cherished ambitions–to eat ice cream on every continent in the world.

Right then, I’m clearly fresh out of deep and meaningful commentary for now. Since it’s Friday night here in Los Angeles I might just have to take myself off and find some fun.

Now doesn’t that just sound… normal? It seems I’m already making prodigious progress! As a reward, perhaps now’s a good time to book a trip to Antarctica later this year for me, Ben, and Jerry.

Let me know if you want in on the action.

It’s bound to be fun.

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Published on March 23, 2016 15:34 • 9 views

March 20, 2016

We did tick a box on the “year of awesome” list in February. Just scrapping in under the wire, we hit the beaches on a sparkling February 27th and headed out to do the glass-bottom boat tour on Hideaway Island.

[And in case you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to update the blog… In the last three weeks: I’ve launched the completely redesigned long distance relationship website with a new and hip look. Mike’s been away in New Zealand for most of the time and he took a nasty case of viral conjunctivitis with him. I’ve had cellulitis again–although thankfully a mild case this time. Alex got so sick last week we rang the ambulance service at 10:30 on Friday night about his fever and vomiting. And we’ve done a 5-day in-family staph-decolonization process which definitely does not make the list of awesome and fun things to do as a family.]

So, back to more awesome things in life… here’s a look at our Hideaway Adventure Day.

We stopped short of diving down to the underwater post office (yes, there is one). But after we bobbed around watching the fish for a while we went swimming, drank fresh lime juice, ate prawn and green papaya salad (oh, just writing that makes me ravenous!!), and watched the boys climb trees.

Pictures probably say more than text this time, so here’s a glimpse of Hideaway Island. We’ve got some more island fun planned over Easter weekend, so I’ll come back to report in soon.

Hideaway island

Hideaway Island, Vanuatu

Lisa and boys on boat Hideaway

On the boat out to the island

Hideaway up close

Almost there…

Mike smiling Hideaway

Let’s go, Daddy!

Beach baby Alex

“What are we looking for, again?”

Boys looking down glassbottom boat

The fish are coming…

Fish glass bottom boat

The world below…

Lisa and boys feeding fish

Just as much fun as feeding the fish at Nana and Papa’s

Snapper in water

Maybe even more fun–after all, Nana and Papa don’t have giant snapper in their fishpond

D watching fish

Did you SEE that?

Hideaway from the water

Cruising back to land

Leaving Hideaway Island

And leaving Hideaway after a full day of beach fun




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Published on March 20, 2016 18:04 • 8 views

February 23, 2016

On our wedding anniversary last month, I declared this year The Year Of Awesome. Since then, our grand plans of a week away in New Zealand in March have been cancelled. Instead, Mike’s going to tack four days onto the end of his work trip and do something he’s always wanted to do—hike the Routburn Track. Alone. While I stay with the kids.

And last weekend I was in Australia, hanging out with college friends I haven’t seen in years. Alone. While Mike stayed with the kids. We seven girlfriends stayed in a big old creaky house on the North Shore of Sydney, walked down to the beach, ate lots of seriously amazing food, drank unusual wines from Sardinia, and talked ourselves hoarse. It was epically awesome.

High tea gunners Sydney viewGirls 2016

Maybe Mike and I should re-dub this year The Year Of Awesome Things We Do Apart.

No, it doesn’t quite have the same pithy ring, so I’m going to keep scheming to get some awesome togetherness on the schedule (although not this week, because Mike is in the Solomon Islands). Maybe in the six days before he leaves for New Zealand

So what have we done in the awesome vein since the kids and I got back to Vanuatu?

The awesome adventures are supposed to be fun, adventurous, delicious, extraordinary, or magical. Well, we’ve gone to Eton Beach and hosted a couple of very fun pool pot-luck parties at our place. Alex has embarked upon the adventure of two mornings a week at a preschool/playgroup. I’ve made some yummy bliss balls and truly delicious coconut-crab-green-curry using my new food processor. And it’s been incredibly, extraordinarily hot here.

Alex starting preschool Dom first day pikininis

This is all well and good (mind-melting heat aside), but nothing we’ve done all together quite ranks as truly awesome in my books. Not to mention we’ve also had to farewell Harry for seven months to go fruit-picking in New Zealand, which was decidedly un-awesome!! This weekend is still February, though, so I’ll keep you posted.

Alex and Harry

In lieu of awesome we’ve been doing something, well, disciplined.

Over Christmas, Mike and I instituted a star chart system for our beloved eldest tyrant child. Around the same time, we decided that we could both possibly benefit from drinking less alcohol and doing more exercise. So we made ourselves a grown-up star chart, and dubbed February the month of “exercise for alcohol”. 1 drink = 20 minutes of exercise. I would venture to say that the star chart for the elders is so far working better than the star chart for the littlie. Maybe we should put alcohol on Dominic’s rewards schedule.

Isn’t that just the best idea I’ve had all day? Amazing I can even come up with something like that after being up half the night with a two-year-old with a raging fever, only to be woken up at 5:30 to wipe someone else’s bottom. And the previous night both kids were up at 4:30 because the winds from the outer edge of Cyclone Winston were so strong the noise was freaking them out (Winston turned south yesterday, so we are all clear on that front for now).

Ah, solo parenting. I love it so. Come to think of it, maybe I should get 1 drink for every 20 minutes of solo parenting I do in the next four weeks.

And on that classy note, I’m off to do some work and figure out what to do with all the ripe avocados that are on our tree (best problem ever!!). Catch you again soon from the land of tweedle dee and tweedle dum, who regularly manage to melt my heart and melt my brain within the same five minutes.

Boys holding hands

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Published on February 23, 2016 14:11 • 25 views

January 24, 2016

Dear Mike,

It’s our anniversary! Our seventh!!


We’re not in the same country today, but I’d still take this anniversary over the one two years ago when we went to chemo together, or four years ago when our wee baby broke his leg in Northern Laos. So this anniversary isn’t exactly a win, but in the grand scheme of our anniversaries to date, I’d still call it a draw.

I wasn’t exactly in the most fully-present or romantic mood during our skype call today. That might have had something to do with the fact that I was sitting on the floor of the bedroom with my back wedged against the door while our four-year-old hammered on the wood behind me, hollering to be let in so he could wreak further prohibited havoc upon his slowly-waking-up two-year-old brother. Sorry about that, but them’s the breaks.

I do remember, however, that during that call you said that we completely forgot to write each other letters in the anniversary book last year. You suggested we insert a picture of the dynamic duo in that blank space.

Good idea. The caption of that picture can be: “This sixth year of our marriage was brought to you by two toddlers. The end.”

Although, to be fair, last year’s anniversary fell exactly one week before we moved countries. So maybe you should also put a picture of a moving van in there.

Oh, and perhaps we should put something in there about the five months of that year that was dominated by cancer stuff.

Or maybe not.

Sometimes the blank spaces in our memory are a subtle kindness.

Anyway, since I don’t have our book with me this year either, I thought I’d write to you on the blog. Not exactly the same thing on the intimacy or the privacy scale, but, well, you work with what you’ve got. And right now I’ve got my laptop with me while I’m sitting beside an aforementioned toddler who’s needy and very slow to go to sleep tonight.

So, today I’ve been thinking about some of the drama that has flavoured the last four years or our marriage –accidents, broken bones, herniated discs, time apart, three moves, cancer, category five cyclones, etc, and I’ve made a decision.

We need a year of awesome.

I therefore officially designate this year as our year of awesome. And I set us the challenge of finding something extraordinary to do each month for the entire year. Something fun. Something adventurous. Something delicious or out of the ordinary. Something magical.

0324Mike & Lisa_J4Z7158

Or, at least, something that has the potential to be magical. Full points awarded for trying.

I’ve already started making a list of possibilities. And getting excited.

Speaking of excited, we’re all excited about seeing you on Saturday in Port Vila (you know, assuming the airlines are running after this latest kerfuffle involving the runway).

My travel plan, by the way, is to make it to the declaration counter with the four enormous suitcases, two pieces of carry-on, and two children, and send the kids out through those doors to you while the customs officers pore over my rosemary seeds, vacuum-packed lamb, jars of peanut butter, and packets of walnuts. So if you see two tiny red-heads streaking out the arrivals door alone, move fast. And If I don’t see you waiting for me when I finally emerge, I’ll meet you at the ice cream store down the other end of the airport.

Until then, enjoy the peace and quiet. We’ll be back soon enough.

Love you more now than I did seven years ago (although possibly not as much, or as well, as I will when I finally start consistently getting good sleep again–bring that day on).



Mike & Lisa 0080_J4Z6892

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Published on January 24, 2016 02:03 • 8 views

January 13, 2016

10 Parenting Hacks 800

When we had our first child, Mike and I were living in Luang Prabang, in Northern Laos. There was no such thing as a mother’s group. In fact, there were very few other mothers who spoke English, and at that stage my Lao was—and I’m being gentle in this assessment—terrible.

I’ve been a mother for just over four years now, and we have a two year old, as well. After being so isolated during the first two years of my journey as a parent, I’m continually surprised and delighted by just how many good ideas I can glean from hearing or reading about other parent’s practices.

In the spirit of sharing things that have helped us over the years, I’ve been meaning to write a detailed post about “things we do around here” with our two little boys for a while now. I called these things “parenting hacks” when I first started working on this post, but something about that didn’t sit right. The things I’m talking about here aren’t clever tricks or quick fixes–they’re just our normal life.

So instead of “hacks”, I’ve decided to call them “tacks” instead. When you tack a boat you change course to steer into the wind, and what is parenting a lot of time but paying close attention to the weather and steering into the wind? (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about here, you must have been graced with a brood full of sunny, easy-going babies. Enjoy.)

So without further ado, here are ten things we do that help us sail into the wind more gracefully, and stay sane along the way…


1. Try to embrace the 80/20 rule

We all have things we want our kids to do and learn, right? Even the most relaxed parents among us probably want their kids to say please and thank you, handle their frustration appropriately, be kind to others, and refrain from peeing down the playground slide in the school-yard. Among other things.

These are worthwhile targets to be working on with our kids. However, in focusing on these goals, it’s easy to make too big a deal out of it (or feel like a parenting failure) every time your kid wakes up oppositional and grumpy, or doesn’t measure up to scratch.

Especially on days when no one is within spitting distance of “scratch”, Mike and I try to remind ourselves of the 80/20 rule. In other words, we’re doing great if 80% of the time things go pretty well in relation eating, teeth brushing, talking nicely, bedtimes, etc. And the rest of the time? Well [shrug] 20% of the time things are just going to go pear shaped. We’re going to have hours (or, um, days) where survival is the name of the game. And right in the middle of a playground photo shoot for his book-week costume, someone is going to decide that peeing down the slide at school is an acceptable thing to do.

Take a deep breath, throw a bucket of water on the slide, and put it in the 20% pile.

Untitled design


2. Make summer oatmeal

Our first child, Dominic, was practically an anorexic toddler. Our second, Alex, is built like a baby panda bear but he’d strongly prefer to only eat cereal, toast, noodles, and iceblocks. Ever. So I’m always on the lookout for easy, nutritious, and tempting things to feed the kids. Summer Oatmeal has been a total winner in our household. I mix up some oats, chia seeds, dried fruit, yogurt, milk and a splash of juice in a mason jar every night, let it sit, and then dish it out in the morning. Both children usually eat it willingly and often ask for more. (Check out this Yummy Life post for good summer oatmeal recipes)

Other food staples that have served us well include French toast, porridge with cinnamon and raisins, fruit shakes, bananas, yogurt, sticky rice, and home-made ice-blocks. We mostly make ice-blocks out of some combination of bananas, yogurt, and milk and lace them with chia Seeds and organic green vegetable powder. I’ve only seen Alex reject two ice-block combinations. One was made out of frozen pumpkin soup, and the other was laced with too much kale juice.

Summer Oatmeal


3. Read books

I aim to read the children at least four books a day. Sometimes we don’t hit that number (or any number). Some days we read more. Because we’ve spent all of our parenting years living in countries without English-language libraries, I’ve become an avid children’s book collector. Here are a look at some of our favorites (click covers for more details):



4. Make home-made playdough

I’m not one of those mothers who loves a crafty mess. To be honest, I’d prefer the kids not play with paint, glue, or glitter at home. But playdough is another story. I found this short YouTube video about making your own playdough and was so pleasantly surprised by how easy it was. Also, it keeps forever if you store it in a plastic bag in the fridge. (Don’t make the no-bake stuff. It never turns out nearly as well, and the cooking method is actually faster, anyway.)



5. Watch television

Those of you who have multiple young kids and manage to make dinner without turning on the television, I’d like to know your secret. TV can be a sanity saver in controlled doses, but our four-year-old is very sensitive and I’m very careful with what we let the boys watch. We’ve never had cable or even been able to access the kids channel in the places we live. Because everything they see on the TV comes from DVDs, I’ve had an unusual degree of control over their viewing. Here are the shows and movies that the boys watch.


PlaySchool: A truly excellent Australian ABC program involving live presenters, storytelling, crafts, cooking, singing, and dancing. If the kids could only watch one program between two and five, this would be my pick.

Go Diego Go and Dora The Explorer: I would be delighted if I never again had to hear the theme songs from these shows, but the boys love them. Their tripartite quest-driven structure is engaging, and they are gentle and positive. Diego, in particular, incorporates animal-friendly and conservation messages and both shows teach some basic Spanish vocabulary. 

Blues Clues: This show is the product of some excellent psych research on how to teach things to children via television. It is a single premise show (it makes no effort to include wordplay or jokes that will appeal to adults) so it seems slow and boring for adult viewers, but is very well paced for kids. When they run the series on TV, they run the same episode every day all week. Young children dote on repetition and it is essential for learning. So don’t hesitate to put this show, in particular, on repeat. 

Charlie and Lola: A fabulous and quirky British series about a sibling pair. Love the gentle and positive messaging about sibling interactions in this one.

Lady And The Tramp: This is such a well-paced movie for sensitive and young kids. Both kids will watch and enjoy at the same time. The only other movies they watch are Aristocats (also a very old film), Winnie the Poo, and Curious George.

Mighty Machines: An excellent documentary-style Canadian series filmed in the 1990’s about trucks, trains, boats, etc. Perfect for any child who really loves diggers or machines. Dominic adores this one, and it’s very educational.

Curious George: A sweet, lively, TV show that both kids enjoy. I mean, who doesn’t love curious little monkeys?

Tom & Jerry Cartoons: This one is a recent favorite for the kids, and I have mixed feelings about this show. On the one hand I admire the physical comedy and the sheer zaniness of these cartoons. Both kids will howl with laughter at them. However, I’ve noticed a sudden and sharp increase in aggressive language from Dominic since he started watching Tom & Jerry. When he gets angry with me now, he’s started telling me he’s going to get the bush knife and chop me in half. Or put me in the rubbish dump. Or tie me to a tree, and get the green lawn mower, and run me over. Or (my personal favorite) put me in the house, lock all the doors, light a match all by himself, and burn the house down.

When Dominic says these sorts of things I’m torn between being slightly horrified, being pleased that he’s trying to “use his words” to express frustration, and wanting to laugh. It’s a bizarre combination of emotions. Dominic has no idea of the seriousness of these sorts of statements–he’s simply trying to articulate the worst thing he can come up with–and I’m pretty convinced that they are being directly inspired by the high-energy and comedic physical assaults he’s seen on Tom & Jerry. I’ve started strictly limiting their exposure to this show.


6. Play with trains

We’ve picked up our fair share of toys in our globetrotting—mostly from other expatriate families who have staged a large garage sale before leaving. The funny thing is, our kids spend most of their time not playing with their toys. They’d much rather be digging in the garden, cutting the grass with kitchen scissors (an all-time favorite activity in our household) or squirting the toilet duck and then scrubbing out the toilet.

However, there have been a couple of toys that have recently become worth their weight in gold (or excess baggage—same same, really). One of those has been Dominic’s balance bike. Another has been our Tomica plarail train set . Over time, we’ve collected a huge set of track and other pieces, and Mike and the boys have spent hours constructing tracks together and running trains on them.

Also, while we’re on high-value toys… our 12 foot trampoline has been worth every dollar we spent on it.


7. Hire help in the house

I hesitated to include this, but it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that this has been one of the biggest benefits of our lives as expatriates in the developing world. Our staff in Laos and our staff here in Vanuatu have all become way more than hired help who do the dishes and the laundry—they are an integral and valuable part of our children’s lives. There is real wisdom in that classic saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” When you’re an expatriate parent and a lot of your village lives on the other side of the world, it can be really tough.

So we have—in part—hired our village. Having two full-time staff around here (a house-lady and a gardener) does more than allow me to work in the mornings. It also provides two additional loving parent-figures (one of them another man) for our children to love and learn from. It also allows Mike and I to go out together once a week without the kids, knowing that they are completely comfortable at home. This sort of uninterrupted time together—time we would probably not be granted during this season unless we lived within driving distance of parents or siblings—has really helped us stay more connected during the unusual challenges and massive upheavals we’ve faced during the last four years.

Harry and Dominic planting banana trees

Dominic and Harry planting banana trees

Alex and Cynthia

Alex and Cynthia


8. Play with the iPad

I’m just a little bit behind the curve ball when it comes to iPads and Apps. It was my mother who taught our kids how to use an iPad and searched out some of their first iExperiences. It was my parents who gave us our first iPad. I only saw my first app in action and figured out what all the fuss was about this time last year. Since then, though, the iPad has come in handy on numerous occasions.

Here are a couple of the best Apps we’ve installed: Amazing Alex (this is a seriously awesome mechanical problem-solving app, Mike and Dominic do this together), Endless Alphabet, Monkey Preschool Lunchbox and Monkey Preschool Fixit, Nighty Night! (so sweet, soothing, and good wind-down. Alex loves this one), Playtime by ABC (the playschool companion App), and The Human Body by Tinybop.



9. Go to Preschool

I never thought I’d put our kids into a half-day school program the minute they turned three, but that’s what we did with Dominic. Two days before his third birthday he started attending a Montessori program in Laos five mornings a week. It wasn’t the easiest transition, but it was absolutely a good experience for him. Here in Vanuatu we’ve put him right back in a five morning a week program. We chose an English-speaking program over the French one, primarily because I am more concerned with nurturing his social skills at this point than cementing a second language.

As for Alex? Well, I’m hoping we can get him in to start a pre-school program before he’s three. He’s ready for it, and so am I.


10. Sleep in separate bedrooms

This post is all about things that Mike and I actually do that help us as parents, not things we’d like to be doing. So, yeah. We have two kids who are “more restless than normal” when it comes to their sleeping. They usually wake up throughout the night. Alex often comes into our bedroom and climbs into our bed. And they get up early. Mike and I have spent way more than 50% of our nights during the last two years sleeping in separate bedrooms. When Alex was younger and we were in a bigger house, we would try to divide and conquer. Now that the boys are both sleeping in the same room, one of us will often sleep in the guest room while the other one is on kid patrol.

Selfie hike

That’s way enough from me. What about you?

What are some of your parenting “tacks”? Do share what’s worked well for you. (Also, any iPad app recommendations?)

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Published on January 13, 2016 02:07 • 6 views

December 5, 2015

Falling Coconuts

It is a painful irony that we’ve lived in some of the most beautiful tropical locations you can search out in this world during the last five years, yet my lymphedema makes it more difficult for me to fully enjoy them.

My feet are on my mind right now because on Tuesday this week I came down with cellulitis.

When that happens, it happens fast. I was fine on Tuesday morning. At 11am, when I got up from my desk I was limping, badly. It felt like I’d strained a muscle, or wrenched a ligament (yes, while sitting down, typing. Don’t laugh. That’s really what I thought had happened). At least, that’s what I thought had happened until I discovered that the lymph nodes further up my leg were painful to the touch, and then I guessed what I was in for.

By 2pm I was on antibiotics and the countdown had begun.

It takes 36-48 hours for the antibiotics to stop the spread of infection and to start to reverse things (a process which takes weeks to complete). Except, this time, things were not looking any better 48 hours later, and the doctors in the emergency clinic here switched drugs and put me on IV antibiotics.

They’re working, I’m happy to report. My fever is gone. The pain is drastically reduced. But I’m five days into almost complete bed rest, with six more to go, and it’s frustrating. Plus, I have caught the cold the boys have been sharing around, which seems particularly unfair. I mean, you’d think that all the extra white blood cells that have been marshaled to deal with the massive infection could at least squash a cold virus on the side. Right?

Anyway, that is the state of affairs here. I am on the bed. An under-the-weather Mike has dragged himself out this morning with two little boys who are themselves getting over colds. It’s sunny and sparkling outside. I am oh-so-grateful for things like money for drugs and doctors, air conditioners, and beds with soft, clean sheets. And I am also alone and restless and thinking about life limitations that I would wish away… if I could.

A couple of months ago when we were settling in here, we finally started to unpack some of the boxes we stowed away during the early months of our time in Laos. Five years ago, before I was pregnant with Dominic, I boxed up a lot of the things I knew I would not need in Luang Prabang—my work clothes from LA, some leather jackets and handbags, shoes. In the final stages of sifting and sorting in Vanuatu, we opened some of those boxes for the first time.

I expected it to be fun. I could hardly remember what was in those boxes, so I thought it would be sort of like shopping without having to pay anything.

It wasn’t quite like that.

For starters, about a third of the stuff was ruined. Leather jackets had molded. Some of the shoes fell apart in my hands—the soles crumbling into rubbery chunks when I picked them up. Anything white had turned yellow. Special things, packed carefully away, were now worthless.

The interesting thing was, I hardly cared. I’d been living without this stuff for more than five years. I don’t need most of it. I don’t even really know where to put it. Much more confronting than the ruin of some of my stuff was just how much stuff was in these boxes—way more than I needed, even back then. Some of the clothes still had tags on them, for crying out loud.

No, the primary sadness I felt as I sorted through those boxes didn’t come from the decay of my things, but the stark reminder they presented of the slowly unfolding decay of my body.

None of the shoes in these boxes (the ones that didn’t fall apart in my hands, that is) fit anymore. I couldn’t even get most of them on my right foot.

I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about my lymphedema. It does take some attention, of course. After all, I have to put on a compression stocking first thing in the morning. I need to go to therapy every week. I can never walk out the door in bare feet. As the heat and humidity rise, I must count the cost of being outdoors. I should elevate my legs at night, rub them down, and treat every scratch as a potential medical emergency. Within the immovable boundaries of this reality, though, I try hard not to give my feet too much attention.

Occasionally, however, something comes along that drives home the things that I miss. Walking barefoot on the beach, for example, and feeling the sand shift and scrunch beneath my toes. Wearing skirts. Shoes that fit well. Seeing my ankle bones. Being able to consider a four hour hike.

Most of all, though, I miss not thinking about my right leg. A growing proportion of the time, now, it’s uncomfortable. It’s there. Hot. Stuffed-tight-swollen. Stiff. Sometimes it aches, way down deep inside. Sometimes, particularly when I’m driving, I’ll shift my foot and pain will play across the surface of my skin like a brief, bright, flicker of sheet lightening.

Much of the time I can accept that this just is. I can focus elsewhere. I can turn easily toward gratitude. But, sometimes, boxes are unpacked that force me to recognize what has changed in five years—that remind me that things will only ever get worse in this regard. Or I’ll get up feeling fine and by nightfall I’ll be on the bed with streaks of red climbing my leg, running a fever, and consumed by joint pain.

I’m sure I don’t need to say that it’s much harder to ignore immovable limitations and turn towards gratitude in those precise moments.

But that’s the way with these things, isn’t it? When you’re burdened with an unpleasant constant in your life, you’re also tasked with a constant discipline—keeping things in perspective and not ceding too much mental space to dark thoughts and feelings. And whether you can feel grateful and chirpy during the lowest of the lows within your particular boundary conditions is not an appropriate yardstick to use when judging how well you’re doing at thriving overall.

No. The lowest of the lows is the time you get to acknowledge that things feel really sucky, and you wish they were different. It’s when you get to binge watch DVDs on the laptop, and read fluffy novels, and eat the chocolate ice cream in the freezer (assuming you can get up and get to it). It’s when you tell yourself that it’s OK, that you’ll start reaching for perspective again tomorrow, or the day after, or when the fever comes down and the needles come out.

Then, of course, when that day comes, that’s what you need to do. Start reaching for perspective, all over again.

Do you have an unpleasant constant in your life?

What helps you keep things in perspective?

What helps you get through the lowest of the lows?

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Published on December 05, 2015 15:23 • 8 views

November 3, 2015

Copy of Good will come(1)


Almost four years ago, when my firstborn, Dominic, was five months old, my mother in law was carrying him down the stairs of our house in Northern Laos. She slipped and fell. Dominic’s knee hit the wood. His femur broke.

Luckily, the one X-ray machine in town was working that day. Luckily, the one X-ray technician was also working. Unluckily, by the time we held the film up against the sunlight and saw the sharp angles of that small bone in all the wrong places, the one flight to Bangkok that day had already left.

Even with good emergency medical insurance—which we had—the soonest we could get Dominic to the nearest decent hospital was more than thirty hours after the accident.

Even now, I find it very difficult to think about all of this. I can write down some of the details—how we splinted Dominic’s leg with cardboard and ace bandages, how we put him to sleep on the change-table mat to help keep him still, how I lay beside him on the floor, kneeling to breastfeed every time he cried out. I can write this down now, but I still shy away from thinking too deeply about how I felt during the long dark hours of that night, or while I sat alone in the hospital waiting room the next afternoon as the leg was being set and casted. My husband had to hold Dominic still through that particular anguish, because I couldn’t face it.

I tried to talk about all of this a couple of months ago during a speech I was giving to forty young mothers on post-natal anxiety. In retrospect, it was perhaps just a little unwise to wade publically into this territory for the first time on a stage. In retrospect, it should not have surprised me that I could only get out a few sentences before I found myself faltering. Stopping. Stuck. Teetering on the brink of an incoherent, tear-soaked, free-fall.

But it did surprise me. I’m a psychologist. I’ve worked as a trainer for more than a decade. I’ve traveled around the world to speak with groups about stress, trauma, and resilience. My words had never deserted me before, not mid-presentation.

And Dominic’s accident was four years ago. After all, all’s well that ends well, time heals all wounds, and everything happens for a reason, right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.


Years ago now—back when I was still the imagined star of this universal play called life—I believed these things. I believed that my trials were personally addressed and divinely hand-delivered. I believed the adversity I faced was specifically designed to refine me, purify me, and equip me. I basically believed that life was a nobler version of the Hunger Games. I was Katniss and God was the head gamemaker.

Then I started to train as a forensic psychologist and a crisis counselor. I began working in a maximum-security men’s prison. I served on a child death review team and worked on child sex-offender cases. I landed a job with a humanitarian organization and moved to the Balkans.

In the face of all this violence and suffering—feeling simultaneously helpless and responsible for having some answers—my neat little formula about adversity being a set of holy hurdles designed to strengthen us to run the good race in all triumph fell completely apart. And the superstructure of my faith sort of fell apart with it.

I was drowning in questions I couldn’t answer. Why was there so much suffering in this world? Why did humans have such a talent for violence? How could I reconcile the divine omnipotence I was taught to trust in as a child with lives torn apart by an earthquake, a famine, or other people? If God existed, if he were paying attention, why did he often seem so slow to act and so silent? How could he possibly choose to hold back and watch the bad unfurl alongside the good in the wilderness of freedom and choice? And why had I been given so much while others had so little?

Some changes in our lives and minds happen suddenly, born of formative moments. Others are long, slow pivots. With these, the gradual change in direction only becomes clear when you check your rearview mirror or raise your eyes to see a different vista stretching out in front of you. This is the sort of incremental existential shift that has unfolded in my life during the last dozen years.

I look back at my younger, anguished self now with the same odd hybrid of recognition and puzzled wonder that ambushes me whenever I see photographs of myself as a teenager. In those photos my face is unlined and softly rounded. I want to reach into those images hanging on the walls of my parent’s house and pinch my own cheeks.

I have to work to remember ever being that young.

I have to work to remember how unmoored I felt during that long season of relentless questioning.

And now? Now I find myself in a different place.

My very definition of faith has changed. My younger self counted faith as some combination of believing the right things, knowing the right answers, and keeping the right rules. Now, my ideas about faith inhabit far messier territory at the intersection of awareness, attitude, action, and intention.

My tolerance for sitting with mystery and living with paradox has increased, too. I still don’t have any answers to those questions about suffering that really satisfy me, but that somehow matters less. I no longer fear that my confusion completely undermines my belief in a God who loves us.

Finally, I’ve mostly stopped wrestling with these questions about suffering on that deepest of levels—not just because I’ve given up on nailing down satisfactory answers—but because continuing to churn over those questions didn’t help me. And during the last six years I haven’t had a lot of energy available for things that weren’t helping me.

In this first six years of our marriage, Mike and I have moved four times. During our five years in Laos we had two little boys and an unfortunate number of serious medical dramas. Dominic broke his leg. I broke an ankle and contracted two cases of cellulitis. Mike picked up a nasty case of staph and needed two different spinal surgeries for a herniated disc. We were beset by post-natal anxiety, depression, and chronic sleep deprivation (our wondrous boys, whatever else they might be, are not overly skilled sleepers). And, as the coup de grâce, four months after our second son’s birth, Mike was diagnosed with cancer. We had to leave Laos on 48 hours notice and decamp to Australia again for five months of tests, surgery, and three grueling rounds of chemo.

The one-year anniversary of Mike’s cancer diagnosis found us preparing to move from Laos to Vanuatu. Two and a half weeks after Mike took up his job as Country Director for a non-profit here, Vanuatu was devastated by the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Pacific. Cyclone Pam impacted more than two thirds of the country’s population and caused damages estimated at half the country’s GDP. Seven months on, a severe El Nino has triggered a major drought. Most of the crops that were replanted after the decimation of the cyclone have died, the wells are running dry, and this drought is just beginning.

In some soul-deep sense, I haven’t really caught my breath since that terrible day of Dominic’s accident.

When I see these sorts of hands (and far worse) dealt to other people I’m still tempted to wonder why certain things have happened. But as this torrid season has been unfolding for us, those why questions have seemed largely irrelevant. It’s taken too much energy to keep trekking on through the valleys to leave much left over for wondering why we were in the valley in the first place. And hanging onto those questions felt fruitless, anyway. I couldn’t hold those questions close and still reach for many the lifelines we encountered along the way—lifelines that offered respite, levity, and light.

When Mike was diagnosed with cancer, a friend, herself a survivor, sent a card.

“Good,” she wrote, “will come from this.”

That is what I believe today.

Bad, terrible, tragic things happen. Because… life. And these bad things are not usually letter bombs that are specifically addressed to me. They do not happen to teach me a certain lesson, to force me to pray more, or to deliberately place me under the sort of pressure that turns coal into diamonds. They generally just happen. Sometimes these trials won’t kill me, but they will cost me, weaken me, or break me in important ways. Ways that matter. And sometimes they are absolutely more than I can handle, at least for a season.


This I also believe.

What is happening and how we respond to wicked tricky curve balls in life still matters, even if those curve balls aren’t being hurdled specifically at us by holy pitcher.

And good can follow in spite of these things. Even, often, from them.

This good might not come quickly. It might not be anywhere near the “amount” or “type” of good that I would judge justifies the suffering. It may not be good that benefits me. I might never even learn of it.

But good will come.

Some of it will come easily. Sometimes sunshine will catch the clouds above me just so, temporarily cloaking the grey in a celestial riot of color. But sometimes the good feels far harder won and far less glorious. It is true that our deepest struggles can birth deep honesty, empathy, and compassion, but (just like actual birth, I might add) this process is neither easy nor fun. It takes effort and courage to choose gratitude sometimes. To be vulnerable. To take someone’s hand instead of pushing them away. To ask for, and accept, help. To stare down and name pain and loss. To chart a new path for yourself when the road you intended to walk gets washed away. To let go of regret and anger. To hang on when there’s not a single silver lining in sight. To search out and take hold of hope.

At this point, it would be narratively and psychologically convenient if I could point you towards all the good that’s emerged in the aftermath of our physical frailties, Mike’s cancer, the Cyclone, this drought, Dominic’s accident.

But with this last, in particular, I still struggle. The initial break has long healed, and all seems to be progressing well. But because the bone snapped just above the knee–in the growth plate area–we will not know for sure until Dominic is well into puberty whether that bone will continue to grow straight and true.

Some good has come out of that day. That crisis only deepened my respect and affection for my husband, for example. But I would still unplay these grace notes in a heartbeat. I would undo that fall if I could.

That choice, however, has never been mine to make. All I get to choose is where I focus and how I respond.

Four years on, that is still a work in progress. Clearly, there are memories and feelings that I still need to unpack, name, and sit with. There are probably still tears to be cried, words I need to write, and things I need to say.

And the time for that will come.

But it will not be today, not when I am still so sleep deprived. It will not be this week, not when I am mothering our two children alone while Mike is traveling again, trying to help other mamas access enough safe water to drink. It will probably not be this month while the temperatures rise and the drought drags on.

And that is alright.

Because, right now I can celebrate the fact that, finally, I am learning to acknowledge and appreciate the good that can emerge from hardship without feeling that this good needs to outweigh or negate the pain.

So, today I will pause and point to the scattering of wildflowers that that are peeking up from the dry and battered ground. I will draw a deep breath and mark their vibrant defiance.

I will sit awhile with beauty.

Copy of Good will come

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Published on November 03, 2015 17:08 • 9 views

November 1, 2015

I’ve been meaning to do one of these posts for a while now, but Mike has been traveling a fair bit, the kids have been sick (nothing makes you grateful for a washing machine like a two year old vomiting nine times in nine hours), and there are a dozen projects competing for time and attention. Plus, when it comes right down to it, I’d generally rather read books than write about them.

This week, however, a blogger I’ve been reading for years now is launching her second book (go Sarah!!). Several of Sarah Bessey’s posts about her parenting journey still stick with me years after I first read them, and when anyone’s writing has that kind of staying power, you pay attention.

So I paid attention when Sarah announced she was publishing a new book and invited me to be part of her launch team. Her new book is hardly about parenting at all, but it is about another area of life I’ve also grappled with deeply in the last decade—faith and church. Here’s the cover, and below that is my review.


Out Of Sorts is a tonic for anyone who is feeling conflicted about church and religion, or all tangled up about their own faith and what faith even means. By sharing her own experiences and thoughts, Sarah gently invites anyone in this liminal space to take a deep breath. This book is an invitation to peace in the midst of a process that can be so acutely painful, so filled with doubt and fear and regret. The exuberant, graceful prose makes it a pleasure to savor, and the cold-pressed, hard-won, hope-filled wisdom has the power to challenge and change your thinking.

Sarah is hosting a syncroblog this week using the prompt “I used to think ___ and now I think ___” so I’ve been mulling over that prompt for weeks. I’ll be contributing a post titled Good Will Come, so stay tuned for that tomorrow or the next day. I am SO out of practice writing personal essays, but this one was a healing journey to take (even if writing it did feel like sifting icing sugar in the tropics–exhausting, frustrating, and painfully slow).

What else?

Well, there’s this…


I love our children way beyond words and reason. I am profoundly, unfailingly, grateful that we choose to become parents. And… nothing has ever made me feel as helpless, inadequate, and frustrated as parenting our eldest. During the last several months I’ve started to search more seriously for resources that might help us. This is the best of the lot so far. Kazdin writes clearly and compellingly about ways to name and shape the behavior you want to see, rather than just focusing on trying to curtail and control behavior you don’t want to see.

I’m only halfway through this book, but I can already tell it’s one I’ll need to re-read. And that Mike and I have our work cut out for us in putting some of this into practice. Maybe I should email Alan Kazdin and offer him an all expenses paid trip to Vanuatu.

Seriously, maybe I should.

Next up…

Station Eleven

I loved this book. I’ve been a bit of a sucker for end-times literature ever since I was a kid, and if I have enough emotional reserves I’m usually up for a good yarn about a major catastrophe that wipes out most of the population and alters life as we know it. This was more than just a fascinating story, though. It is beautifully, tightly, written. Haunting and elegant, as well as a compelling read.

Finally, there’s this…


This was pure fun from start to finish. For some reason I am oddly interested in the love story and lives of Kate Middleton and Prince William, and this book was a total royal rip-off on that exact front. However, it was also surprisingly well written—funny, and it dug way deeper in terms of character development than I expected it too. It’s always such an unexpected pleasure to find a light read that offers you more than expected without ferrying you anywhere too dark, so two thumbs up to the authors.

That’s nowhere near everything I’ve been reading but mostly spans the gamut of my current fare. Right now I’ve just started Susan Meissner’s Shape Of Mercy—a novel that revolves around the Salem Witch Trials—and I’m loving it.

Your turn.

What have you read lately that you loved?

What are you reading right now?

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Published on November 01, 2015 16:02 • 7 views