Top o' the Pops: The Best of 2013

Best Acquisition of 2013: Our darling Moneypenny--This was back in May; now she's a grown-up girl.

Long-time readers of this blog know that in years past, I've always posted a retrospective on or around January 1st. Well, my report on 2013 is late in coming, due to a series of unfortunate events we have dubbed "Janupocalypse" at our house, but it's finally here. 

2013 was our first full year as a family in the Golden State, and we've had quite a grand time exploring our new home town and its environs. Here's what I liked best:

Favorite Books Read: 

10. Joyland, by Stephen King

9. Callender Square, by Anne Perry

8. Mastering the Art of French Eating, by Ann Mah

7. The God Who Weeps, by Terryl and Fiona Givens

6. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente

5. I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

4. Dancing on Broken Glass, by Ka Hancock

3. Forever Chic, by Tish Jett

2. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

(Once again, I did not rank books by close friends, many of which were superb.)

Most Disappointing (not the worst) Book:

Harrowgate, by Kate Haruyama

Favorite Movies Seen:

10. 42

9. Up on Poppy Hill

8. Man of Steel

7. Monsters University

6. World War Z

5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

4. Austenland

3. The Way, Way Back

2. Gravity

1. Blue Jasmine

I'm super way behind on filmgoing. One of my goals in 2014 is to see a lot more movies. I live in Movie Central, after all. Sheesh.

Favorite TV Watched:

5. Game of Thrones

4. Modern Family

3. Downton Abbey

2. Breaking Bad

1. Call the Midwife

And I have to mention Almost Human, which we are recording on DVR, and which I'm thoroughly enjoying. It features interesting science fiction-based plots and about the most attractive cop duo of all time. Give it a try.

Music: It's been a year of treasuring the old stuff: The Beatles, Great Big Sea, Niamh Parsons, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Bach, Brahms. I just haven't had a need or a desire for anything new, really. We'll see if and when that changes this year. 

Food, on the other hand: It's all about the new and fabulous. LA County is a motherlode of inexpensive, world-class Asian food, so we've hit that hard: Din Tai Fung, Vietnam House, Luscious Dumplings, Gin Sushi, Sweethome Grill, and many more.

We also found Da Pasquale, an absolute gem of an authentic Neopolitan restaurant in Beverly Hills, a stone's throw from the temple in Santa Monica, and it has been our go-to spot for pizza and the like. I keep heading back to Eagle Rock's The Oinkster for top-notch pastrami sandwiches and luscious fries with homeade aioli. For artisanal ice cream of the freshest and most delicious sort, we alternate between Carmela's in Pasadena and Mother Moo's right here in Sierra Madre. Awesome tacos abound; we love Taco Fiesta, conveniently an easy walk from our house. And burgers? The Counter, Hook Burger, and Pie n' Burger have all been on hand to satisfy the craving. 

Top Local Tourist Sites Visited:

10. Descanso Gardens

9. Chinatown/Olvera Street

8. Santa Barbara Zoo

7. Lake Hollywood

6. Bolsa Chica Beach

5. La Brea Tar Pits

4. The Norton-Simon Museum

3. Huntington Dog Beach

2. Huntington Library & Gardens

1. The Getty Center

We plan to do a lot more exploring in 2014. I don't know if we'll ever discover all there is to experience around here, but we'll give it our best shot.

Best to you in the coming year! Let's make it the greatest year ever, shall we?


12 Gorgeous Lesser-Known Christmas Carols

Right about now, you may have gotten tired of hearing "Silent Night" and "Sleigh Ride" ad nauseam -- at concerts, on the radio, in the stores. Fortunately, I can help you keep the Christmas spirit with some lovely music that may be new to you.

My husband likes to claim that I have a Ph.D. in Christmas. I roll my eyes at this, but when I look at my collection of over 60 Christmas CDs, I can't really argue with him. 

First of all, check out the post I wrote years ago about my top ten Christmas CDs; there's enough goodness there to keep you going for days. But if you want more (and really: unless you're some kind of Grinch, why wouldn't you?), check out the carols below. 

1) Adam Lay Ybounden -- The text dates from the early fifteenth century, and English choirmaster Boris Ord set it in perfect, ethereal polyphony in the early 1900s. I love the reminder that "as in Adam, all men die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22.)

2) Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day -- Oh, you think you know this one? Maybe you've heard the text, but this is a newer musical setting that I adore. I treasure the memory of rehearsing this with the Manhattan Third Ward choir--forty amazing singers packed into our tiny apartment, making the walls shake with joy and music. 

3) The Huron Carol -- In 1643, a Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brébeuf composed this carol in the Algonquin language and set it to an old French folk tune, making it Canada's oldest Christmas carol. Jesse Middleton translated it in 1926, and I love the localized imagery--"a ragged robe of rabbit skin," etc.--that Brébeuf and Middleton use to bring immediacy and relevance to the story. 

4) Born on a New Day -- Welsh singer John David composed a secular version of this song in the late 1970s, and The King's Singers have made it famous in recent years. It's pretty in the original, but with Christmas words? Let's put it this way: I have never once made it through singing along to this piece without breaking down. "Fold around me where I fall...." Bliss.

5) Sing We the Virgin Mary -- American folk musicologist John Jacob Niles (who is famous for having collected "I Wonder as I Wander") claims to have collected this carol in Kentucky in 1933. If it's true, and he didn't actually write it himself, than this piece would be a near-miraculous preservation of the fifteenth-century carol "I Sing of a Maiden That is Makeless." Whatever its provenance, this carol's Appalachian lilt is a refreshing lullaby. The Taverner Consort sings it on its album "The Promise of Ages." That's the version you want. Or sing it yourself, using the music in the New Shorter Oxford Book of Carols. Brilliant.

6) "Come, and I Will Sing You" -- Also known as "Green Grow the Rushes-O," this ancient folk song is a cumulative carol (like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with something new added every verse). It figures prominently in my novel Enthralled, and Great Big Sea does it best. 

7) "The Seven Joys of Mary" -- This carol wasn't originally associated with Christmas, but has come to be so over the last hundred years or so. It's meant as devotional literature, allowing the hearer to contemplate the fulfillment Mary found in witnessing her Son's divine mission. Great Big Sea rocks it, as does The Choir of King's College

8) "The Birds" -- My bosom friend and fellow Christmas music fanatic, Tina Fairweather, introduced me to this piece just this year. I swoon over composer Benjamin Britten (and lyricist Hilaire Belloc) in any case, and this is exquisite in its simplicity. 

9) "The Wildwood Carol" -- As far as I'm concerned, composer John Rutter IS Christmas music. He co-edited the Oxford Book of Carols with David Willcocks, and I need me a heavy dose of Rutter's considerable and fabulous output every Christmas. This is an excellent collection, which features the plaintive "Wildwood Carol," written as part of Rutter's musical adaptation of the childhood classic The Wind in the Willows.

10) Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains -- I was shocked when I found out that Wendy Hegseth, my best friend in third grade, had never heard this carol. It turns out that there's a good reason for that; it's the only LDS-written carol in the LDS hymnal. It's simple, but excellent for part-singing--and it makes an excellent accompaniment to skipping through puddles in the rain. Just ask Wendy Hegseth. 

11) A Ceremony of Carols -- Here, I cheat a bit, but it's Britten, so I can't help myself. This is a choral piece in eleven movements, any one of which makes a lovely carol. My favorites are "Balulalow" (<--- that kid'll make you cry, guaranteed) and "This Little Babe," but the piece as a whole gives the listener the best kind of goosebumps. 

12) Fantasia on Christmas Carols -- Yes, more cheating, but there's only one composer I love more than Britten, and that's Ralph Vaughan Williams. RVW collected carols all over Great Britain for decades, and here, he sets several of them in a glorious pastiche of Christmas joy. Patrick and I sang this in Manhattan years ago, with the marvelous Murray Boren conducting, the glorious Glen Nelson singing the baritone solo, and with genius D. Fletcher at the organ. I relive that memory every Christmas. Such. A. Delight. 

BONUS! You need a New Year's Carol, don't you? For when you re-read Dickens's novella "The Chimes," while eating leftover Christmas pudding, and are thus indulging in the best kind of Anglo-melancholy? I've got just the ticket: "Ring Out, Wild Bells," with words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and music by the prodigiously gifted Crawford Gates. (Click on the link above, then select the proper song--and you'll unfortunately only get a slice of it, but here are the sheet music and midi files.) You're welcome.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one! 


Knowing Where to Start Your Story

My Mommy Authors post this month is a guide to where and how to start your story. Give it a look! 


Free at Last

Moneypenny has been in a Cone of Shame for a couple of weeks--but as of today, she's free! 


Mormon Artist Interview

Eric W. Jepson, aka Theric, interviewed me for Mormon Artist, an online magazine. Pretty cool! Let me know what you think.