Once Upon a River on my nook.Of all the great books I’ve read this year, this one was my favorite. It is a story of hope that resonated deep within me as I struggled to cope with some painful, personal issues. Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield lets the patrons of The Swan do the story telling as they resolve to explain and analyze exactly just what happened one Winter solstice night.

At the center of the story are two main characters: the first is a mysterious child of four who was pronounced dead, but now lives and no one can decide who she belongs to, and the second is the River Thames, which is set as the background for this incredible story set in Victorian times. At first glance, this may seem like a fairy or folk tale, but the fantasy is just a way to ease the reader in the deeper truths and hopes we all feel as humans on this earth, whether it’s in 1800s Britain or any other time and place. The occurrences of the solstice and equinox influence the series of events that follow.

The lingering mystery throughout the book is, is the little girl Alice, Amelia, or Ann? Three families will each make a claim that the little girls belongs to them, although no one can be certain. There is Mr. an Mrs. Vaughan, the grieving couple, whose daughter was kidnapped two years earlier, Mrs. White, a widow with a mysterious past, and Mr. Armstrong, half-convinced that the child may be a relation of his.

Once Upon A River draws you in with characters that are likable, others that are not, and all with complex and incredible back stories. On the surface, these characters seem straightforward and stationary, but as the story progress, the heartache and experiences revealed provides a deeper understanding to how each characters acts and reacts to the changing and mysterious situation surrounding the girl who was dead, but now lives again. There is Rita, the nurse; Henry Daunt, the photographer;  Mr. Armstrong and his amazing gift of knowing how to talk to people, several pigs that just know how to figuratively “speak to you” and cast of patrons and employees of the Swan, including the owners, Margot and Joe.

The ending will delight, and possibly, surprise you. I highly recommend this book and cannot express enough the strength of storytelling.

Cost: $0.00 on Overdrive

Drink of Choice: Lemon and Ginger tea

Walking around the disc golf course gets me to my step goal rather quickly.

Walking around the disc golf course gets me to my step goal rather quickly.

I was standing at the top of the stairs, excited that after two weeks of physical therapy for my knee, I was finally walking without pain. It wouldn’t last long. My new kitten was sitting on the stairs, his first day out of the safe zone we created when we brought him home from the shelter five days earlier. I tried to step around him, but stepped on a worn spot on the stairs and slipped down the whole flight. The pain following that fall would continue for months. And just like that, my Zumba days were over.

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Everyone I know who owns a French press raves about the intense, delicious flavor of the coffee, unlike the burnt taste of a coffeemaker. When I worked from home for three months earlier this year, I imagined waking up early, doing a yoga routine, and making coffee in my first French Press, a gift I received for Christmas and really wanted. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any of those things.

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Our House by Louise Candlish is definitely not a summer read. There’s nothing relaxing about this story, so save yourself some unwanted agony, and don’t put this one in your beach tote. Our House isn’t your typical suspenseful, unreliable narrator type of thriller. It’s a tale of domestic anguish that was infuriating to read, and yet, this book was well worth hanging on until the end.

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The Witch's Daughter by Paula BrackstonThe Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston recounts the many lives of Bess Hawksmith, from her childhood, living in small town in the 1600s England before she possessed magic, to the Victorian age as a pioneer female surgeon, Eliza, her extraordinary healing powers as a nurse during WW1 and finally – the Bess that has adapted to today’s world as Elizabeth, a loner. Her final identity of Elizabeth is decisive. No longer will she continue to hide, she’s finally ready to face off with Gideon after more than 300 years.

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Don’t be fooled by the umbrella, the cover art doesn’t have much to do with the actual story.

The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll takes a cheesy reality show that you’re barely interested in and fills it with secrets that twist and distort what you think you know and suddenly, you find yourself drawn into the drama.

The reality show is Goal Diggers, a production focused on young entrepreneurial women that are now millionaires without the help of a man. There is the stunningly beautiful author, Stephanie, the vegan hippie juice bar CEO, Jen, dating app founder, Lauren Bunn (aka Lauren Fun!), and the lesbian founder of a spin studio with a charitable mission, Brett.

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Now 2018 has come and gone. I ended the year one book short of my Goodreads goal, reading just 24 books in 2018 instead of 25. I blame that on picking up East of Eden with only two weeks left in the year. John Steinbeck’s epic novel spans over 500 pages in paperback and it would take some time to get through it. Toss in the holidays and there just wasn’t enough time to finish it. Of all the books I read last year, there were two amazing books that absolutely stood out and I highly recommend reading.

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Carol cover

I was surprised to see this in the bargain bin so soon after the theatrical release, but now I understand.

In a span of 36 pages, the story makes a sudden change from a mundane road trip to “We’re lesbians” to “OMG, someone is following us, let’s kill him.” Carol by Patricia Highsmith is a slow-paced novel that has a surprising, but deeply satisfying ending.

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Sitting by myself, anticipating Afternoon Tea to start, a familiar tune flows in from the Piazza. The Romantic Strings Trio opens with Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” and my worries start melting away. My shoulders relax, the tension releasing. The live trio of two violins and a cello are lovely on the ears and the perfect accompaniment to Royal Afternoon Tea on the Regal Princess cruise ship.

Tea on the Regal Princess

I felt like a queen sitting by myself and getting the royal treatment just for one.

I adore High Tea: the fun finger sandwiches, cream puffs, scones, and delicious tea. If you checked my pantry, you’d think I was running my own tea shop. After trying different treats in what I like to refer to as “The Hall of Desserts,” I was curious to taste the samplings offered in this exclusive event — well, as exclusive as you can get on a cruise ship.

I missed the first sign up day and had to go on a waiting list until a spot opened up on the final sea day of the cruise. For an additional $10, fellow passengers like myself could sit down to enjoy three rounds of tea matched perfectly to a coordinating tier of featured treats. 

Table setting

The table set up was just delightful! The single, live rose on the table smelled amazing.

The first tea was a black Darjeeling designed to pair with the sandwiches on the bottom tier of the serving tray. Of course, sitting by myself meant double the delights. I tried a chicken salad sandwich and then a cucumber sandwich. I was surprised that the cucumber sandwich, the one I had been looking forward to the most, and have made several times over the years, was the least appetizing. Everything about it was wrong. The cucumber was more of peelings, rather than slices, and the peeling consisted mostly of it’s hard outer layer.

Definitely the worst item on the tray, I didn’t even finish it.

The good news was, if you really liked a sandwich, you could ask for another one. I had plenty to spare. The passenger to my left asked for another tuna sandwich, but I think she meant chicken.

The second tea featured was a tropical green tea that was meant to compliment the sweets on the middle tier. Whoops!  I already got a head start on that one. The cream puff was exactly what I hoped it would be and it was luscious. With no hesitation, I then went straight for the chocolate roll with the strawberry swirl.

I skipped ahead to the cream puff after that cucumber sandwich disaster.

I was only half-listening to the history lesson on the background of afternoon tea when my eyes focused in on the fruit tart, which actually looked like a little fruit canoe. It was so good that I started dribbling drool as I took a tiny bite and I thought, “I’ll definitely be eating another one of these!”

I could eat these fruit canoes all day.

There was a break in the music as the lead musician announced that they would be playing two pieces by Strauss next. I took a minute to examine the other offerings on the table. I wasn’t sure what to do with the glass of mixed berries next to me, but the couple at the next table poured some cream into theirs, so I decided to try the same, just to see what it tasted like.

When the waiter walked around and placed new cups for the third round of tea, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in Alice in Wonderland with the Mad Hatter shouting, “Clean cup, clean cup. Move down, move down!” The Strings began playing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory.” I noticed the 20 people accompanying me all happily chatting among themselves in the roped off area. It was definitely the most relaxing common area on the ship.

I had a second helping of each of the teas, in addition to double snacks.

The third tea was a white orchard tea with hints of melon and peach. The peach scent was strong from the moment it was poured into my cup, very aromatic. The scone — like heaven. From the first bite, I experienced soft, sweet, buttery baked goodness. Too much?  

I tried one side with just butter and the other with just jam. Both were winners!

And then it was time for dessert. Oh yes, there was a dessert on top of all this great food. It was a traditional English pudding. I couldn’t help myself from bringing the cup close to my face and inhaling its sweet scent. The taste, however, was not as amazing. The fruity layer under the marshmallow clashed with the cold cream under it. 

The English pudding was maybe my least favorite thing, next to the cucumber sandwich.

I was stuffed. Impressively, the meal concluded on time at 4:45 p.m. as a pianist sat down in the Piazza, ready to start his set.

Cost: $10

Drink of Choice: Tropical Green Tea

Time for the L.A. County Fair again, one of my favorite times of the year. For the 3rd time in a row, I purchased a season pass. Debuting this year is Mi Poco L.A., a section of the fair dedicated to celebrating Latin-inspired food and drink, vendors, music (including a DJ), every Thursday – Sunday of the fair. I had been following the L.A. County Fair on Instagram when I learned of Mi Cafecito, a local coffee shop with a Latin flair. My tongue tingled in anticipation of the flavors of cinnamon and spices. I knew I had to sample their tasty offerings right away!

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