Utopirama: Hygge – Living the Danish Way

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If ever there was a time that needed a bit of added cosiness and sheltering from the winds of doubt and division, I think we can all probably agree that that time is now.  We see ourselves as contributors to the peace and unity of the world here on the Shelf and to that end, allow me to introduce you to Charlotte Abrahams new offering, Hygge: A Celebration of Simple Pleasures, Living the Danish Way.  Don’t be alarmed though, for this is not another quick-fix, self-help, de-clutter-and-you-will-be-happy sort of book – quite the opposite in fact – but an exploration of the Danish concept of hygge and how it may contribute to the fact that Danes often top polls about the happiest nations on Earth.  We received a copy from Hachette Australia for review, and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Candlelight is hygge; the smell of freshly brewed coffee is hygge; the feel of crisp, clean bed linen is hygge; dinner with friends is hygge. ‘Hygge’, pronounced ‘hoo-ga’, is a Danish philosophy that roughly translates to ‘cosiness’. But it is so much more than that. It’s a way of life that encourages us to be kinder to ourselves, to take pleasure in the modest, the mundane and the familiar. It is a celebration of the everyday, of sensual experiences rather then things. It’s an entire attitude to life that results in Denmark regularly being voted one of the happiest countries in the world.

So, with two divorces behind her and her 50th birthday rapidly approaching, journalist Charlotte Abrahams ponders whether it’s hygge that’s been missing from her life. Is it a philosophy we can all embrace? In a society where lifestyle trends tend to centre on deprivation – be it no sugar, no gluten, no possessions – what does cherishing yourself actually mean? And will it make her happy?

In Hygge, Charlotte Abrahams weaves the history of hygge and its role in Danish culture with her own attempts, as an English woman, to embrace a more hygge life. In this beautifully written and stylishly designed book, she examines the impact this has on her home, her health, her relationships and, of course, her happiness.

Light a candle, pour yourself a glass of wine, and get ready to enjoy your more hygge life.

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Quick Overview:

Hygge is simple, hygge is person-centred, hygge is conscious enjoyment of things we find life-giving.  Hygge dispenses with guilt and deprivation in favour of full enjoyment of an experience while it is happening.  Given that this is a book exploring the Danish concept of comfort, cocooning and design that contributes to a happier life, I can only think that the author and publisher must consider it a success that I found the reading experience to be remarkably hyggelige indeed!  Even the cover of the book, which features some delightfully tactile felt trees reflects the mindset that happiness involves enjoying the moment – and if the moment you are in currently involves reading a book, why not make that book inviting to hold, to physically demonstrate how a simple, everyday thing can be turned into something special and pleasurable?

Abrahams is an Englishwoman researching the concept and lifestyle of hygge and therefore is an outsider, looking in on a practice and mindset that is intrinsic to being Danish (it appears), yet foreign to the rest of us.  In that respect, she has done a wonderful and accessible job in laying out the ideas behind hygge and its physical manifestations, given that we don’t even have a word for the conceptual whole she is describing in the English language.

The book is divided into a series of sections relating to the different aspects of hygge, beginning with the people-centred design behind many Danish objects – from furniture to lampshades to public spaces – and moving on to ways in which hygge manifests in peoples’ social connections and guilt-free indulgences.  In between examples of the ways in which Danes create hygge in various situations are interludes in which Abrahams examines her own life and describes her attempts to make small changes here and there to bring about a cumulative and conscious experience of heightened happiness.

Given that the Danes experience weather that is practically polar opposite (literally, I suppose) from that found in Queensland, some parts of the book relating to cosiness and retreat from raging frost and snow seemed a bit unattainable for Australian climates (which is probably why Australians didn’t come up with the concept of hygge), however Abrahams has done a great job of laying out the concept in a way that allows the reader to apply it to their own situation.

As I mentioned, reading the book – slowly, chapter by chapter – felt really hyggelig to me.  Even though reading multiple books is something I do every day, I don’t necessarily take the time to consciously note and enhance my reading experience if I happen to enjoy a book.  Inspired by Abraham’s small efforts, I ended up finishing this book while swinging in a hammock on the deck of a Queenslander, while jacarandas bloomed in front of me and a light breeze ruffled my stony ears.  Hygge! Australian style!

Utopian Themes:

Guilt-free experience

Mindfulness

Shelter from the storms of life

Companionship

Equal Participation

Protective Bubble-o-meter:

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Five out of five protective bubbles for the liberating experience of telling deprivation-freaks to sod off; that you’re ditching the ascetic, paleo, fun-free dinner out for a glass of whatever you fancy and time spent with people you actually like

Until next time,

Bruce

Gabbing about Graphic Novels: Lunch Witch #2 (Knee-Deep in Niceness)

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It’s long past time that I created a new feature for graphic novels, given that I enjoy them so much and there are so many brilliant ones out there, so welcome to the inaugural, coincidentally-Halloween, edition of Gabbing About Graphic Novels.  Today’s book is the second in a series that I hadn’t heard of before, but will now make a point of pursuing.  We received a copy of Lunch Witch #2: Knee Deep in Niceness by Deb Lucke from the publisher, Papercutz, via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Grunhilda the Witch has a weakness…a tiny soft spot on her black and crusty heart. She continues to hide the nice feelings she has when she gets a letter from former Salem Elementary student Madison. But she can’t keep up the ruse for long because her familiars are onto her…and so are her ancestors! The familiars search her hovel and find her collection of letters from Madison. Mr. Williams has a solution, but it involves making a meanness potion from the book that IS-NOT-TO-BE-USED-BY-ANYONE-OTHER-THAN WITCHES (ESPECIALLY-NOT-WITCHES’-PETS). But anything that can go wrong does when he accidentally mixes up a positivity potion instead…and it starts to affect everyone in town. Birds are singing. Flowers are growing. The principal cancels school! Grunhilda hurries to mix up a potion to fix the town, her familiars, and her own black crusty heart before the positivity succeeds in making everything bright and cheerful.

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Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Comedy, fantasy

Art Style:

Line drawings, scratchy hand-lettering and some atmospheric cardboardy highlights

Reading time:

I read this in about three short sittings.  At 164 pages, it is more substantial than many graphic novels I had read and by the end I felt like I had finished a well-developed story.

Let’s get gabbing:

Even though I hadn’t read the first book in this series (which is called The Lunch Witch, in case you are interested), I had absolutely no problem following the story, as this feels a bit like a standalone.  Essentially, Grunhilda’s animal familiars think that she is hiding a kind-old-lady characteristic somewhere about her personality and they make the decision to alter this by (inadvisedly) using the old lady’s spell-book.  Disaster ensues and with the prospect of everlasting positive vibes overtaking the town, and its up to Grunhilda and one very determined Scout to make things right and miserable again.

Grunhilda is perfectly lovable as the cranky old witch with just a grain of love in her heart, while her collection of familiars – the irrepressible mutt, Mr Williams, straight-talking spider Louise and a collection of bats – provide alternating bouts of support, chaos and general ill-feeling.  Scout, the badge-obsessed boy scout, is an unexpected and standout character, as much for his determination to legitimately achieve a badge to sew on his sash (be it a “helping old ladies” badge or a “causing everlasting negativity for a whole town badge” – he isn’t fussy) as for his commitment to assisting the community (whether or not he is wanted, and however loosely the term “assisted” may be applied).

Best bits:

Apart from Scout, I have to say I found the ancestors pretty amusing, with their mish-mash of old-timey costumes and incessant banging on the underfloor of Grunhilda’s house with broom handles.

Recommended for:

This series would best suit subversive middle graders who like a story that flips stereotypes on their heads and isn’t afraid to delve into the wicked and vexatious sides of human (and witch) behaviour.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge 2016: Voyage to Magical North

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After a brief period during which I forgot all about the reading challenges in which I am participating, I am pushing ahead to finish off the last few letters that I need to complete the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge for 2016 hosted by Escape with Dollycas into a Good Book.  Even though the challenge allows you to bend a bit for the trickier letters, choosing books that have that letter anywhere in the title (rather than heading up the first word of the title), I’ve done my best so far to stick to the letter of the law, as it were.  Today’s book completes the “V” requirement of the challenge, with middle grade fantasy adventure, Voyage to Magical North (The Accidental Pirates #1) by Claire Fayers.  I bought this one after hearing some trusted blogs raving about it and noticing that shining golden V in the title.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Twelve-year-old Brine Seaborne is a girl with a past–if only she could remember what it is. Found alone in a rowboat as a child, clutching a shard of the rare starshell needed for spell-casting, she’s spent the past years keeping house for an irritable magician and his obnoxious apprentice, Peter.

When Brine and Peter get themselves into a load of trouble and flee, they blunder into the path of the legendary pirate ship the Onion. Before you can say “pieces of eight,” they’re up to their necks in the pirates’ quest to find Magical North, a place so shrouded in secrets and myth that most people don’t even think it exists. If Brine is lucky, she may find out who her parents are. And if she’s unlucky, everyone on the ship will be eaten by sea monsters. It could really go either way.

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I picked this one up on the promise of humour, quirky characters and an adventurous story and I am happy to say that the book delivered on all three.  As far as the plot goes, it’s a fairly typical quest to find the hidden “treasure” while defeating an apparently unkillable villain, but where this book stands out is in the telling.  The characters all have strong traits and obvious flaws and for most of them, a bit of growth is the order of the day by the end of the adventure.  Brine, the protagonist, is brave and able to make the most of certain unpleasant situations; Peter, Brine’s fellow servant (although really an apprentice magician), is by turns unsure and cocky, and liable to be easily led.  Cassie O’Pia, the pirate queen of the Onion (the boat which should have been called the Orion, but for an unfortunate spelling error) flies by the seat of her pants while maintaining the facade of absolute pre-planning.

There’s also an epic and mysterious library staffed entirely by women, a back-from-the-dead magical villain to rival Lord Mouldy Shorts himself, a colony of telepathic (and unusually ravenous) ice birds and a collection of other slightly-left-of-centre characters to add flavour to this piratical soup.  The humour is wry and dry and exactly the sort that will appeal to adult readers, as well as the age of reader at which the story is targeted and all in all, this is an impressive series opener, with the promise of completely new directions for the team’s next adventure.

I did find that the pace of this one was a tad slower than the average middle grade fantasy adventure I’ve read, mostly due to the fact that the characters tend to do a lot of reflecting on who they are, where life is taking them, and what on earth they’re doing stuck on a pirate ship with a deadly magician.  The point of view alternates between Brine and Peter, so there is a bit of variety in both the focus of the action as well as the mood of the book, with Brine seeming to throw caution to the wind (or at least make the best of a possibly bad lot), and Peter exploring how deeply his own vein of potential villainy may flow.

Overall I found this to be a fun and absorbing read with some original aspects and plenty of side giggles.  I particularly enjoyed the snippets from “The Ballad of Cassie O’Pia” which headed up a number of chapters and wouldn’t mind composing a little tune so I can sing them now and again when I’m feeling particularly piratical.   I recommend this one for middle graders who like an adventure into which they can sink their teeth and adult readers who like middle grade reads that are anything but run-of-the-mill.

If you are interested,  you can check out my progress in the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge for 2016 here.

Until next time,

Bruce

When the Lyrebird Calls: An Aussie GSQ Review…

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I’ve unleashed the psyche triplets today to examine the Good, the Sad and the Quirky of Kim Kane’s new release, middle grade homage to classic Aussie time-slip literature, When the Lyrebird Calls.  Time-slip novels seem to be non-indigenous Australia’s way of “doing” fantasy, considering that we don’t really have any native fairy-type folk outside of indigenous Dreaming stories, and as many non-indigenous Australians know very little about indigenous Dreaming stories (myself included), time-slipping back to the early days of colonisation (or invasion, depending on your perspective) provides a serviceable substitute.  Anyway, we received a copy of this one from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Madeleine is shipped off to stay with her eccentric grandmother for the holidays, she expects the usual: politics, early-morning yoga, extreme health food, and lots of hard work. Instead, Madeleine tumbles back in time to 1900, where the wealthy Williamson family takes her into their home, Lyrebird Muse.

At a time when young girls have no power and no voice, set against a backdrop of the struggles for emancipation, federation and Aboriginal rights, Madeleine must find a way to fit in with the Williamson family’s four sisters – beautiful, cold Bea; clever, awkward Gert; adventurous, rebellious Charlie; and darling baby Imo – as she searches desperately for a way home.

Meanwhile, the Williamson girls’ enchanting German cousin, Elfriede, arrives on the scene on a heavenly wave of smoke and cinnamon, and threatens to shatter everything…

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When the Lyrebird Calls by Kim Kane. Published by Allen & Unwin, Octber 26th 2016. RRP: $16.99

The Good:image

When the Lyrebird Calls is essentially a story about women and girls; the ways in which their lives have been shaped and directed by the expectations of society and the ways in which they have rebelled, quietly and personally or loudly and publicly, as the case may be.    Madeleine is a sporty girl, her grandmother a hippy, yoga-loving, clean-eating independent sort, and the girls from the historical period of the story are variously tomboyish, ladylike and completely ignored.  Much of the plot arc involves Madeleine coming to an understanding of how the lives of these historical women differ from her own, and how much she owes to the personal sacrifice of the women that have come before her.  Kane has done a great job of highlighting the pertinent issues of the time – and in particular, the suffragist movement – without labouring the point in an overtly teachy sort of way.  Many of the finer points around women’s social power are revealed through family dynamics and the quiet upheaval that takes place when the German cousin Elfriede comes into the picture.  Overall, the story hangs together quite well, with loose ends from the beginning of the story (set in the current time period) tied up by the end of Madeleine’s historic adventure.

The Sad:

Only two things brought this book down for me.  One was the pacing: the historical period of the story moves along quite imagesedately and with much decorum, punctuated with a few moments of pinafore-ruffling action, but I was hoping for a few more near-misses or instances where Madeleine felt in danger, or at least in danger of being discovered as an interloper from the future.  This is just a personal preference though, and others might find the pace perfectly suits the setting.

The other thing that annoyed me slightly was the fact that the author obviously wanted to highlight issues of racism in the historical period, but kept signposting the fact by having Madeleine take particular note every time somebody did or said something racist (albeit typical of the historical period).  These instances did feel a bit overtly didactic, and somewhat out of keeping with the authenticity of the story.  Obviously, in order to authentically recreate the historical period, societal attitudes, however unsavoury, have to be recreated also, but most of the instances of racism seemed to be included simply to say, “Look! People in the past were overtly racist all of the time!”  Ezra, the indigenous servant/groundsman/horseman of the family seemed to serve little purpose other than as a reference point for Madeleine to note that (a) people are racist toward him and (b) she hasn’t actually ever spoken to an indigenous person before.  This second point could probably have been the basis for a meaningful bit of learning for Madeleine once she returns home from the past, but is never mentioned again, with greater emphasis being placed on the issue of women’s rights.

The Quirky:

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The most interesting thing about this book is the fact that it is being marketed as being “in the tradition of Playing Beatie Bow“, the Australian classic time-slip tale by Ruth Park.  You can see by comparing the covers of the two books that there has been a conscious attempt to connect the two in the minds of readers:

playing-beatie-bow

Good old Beatie was a set text for many primary school kids of the era, so perhaps the marketing gurus are counting on adult readers (and particularly teachers!) making the link and picking up Kane’s tome, but apart from the few obvious similarities, the two books could be read as companion novels, rather than one being a straight re-telling or re-imagining of the other.  While Park’s story took place in the slummy environment of The Rocks, with a Scottish immigrant family and constant threats of being beaten yeller and green, Kane’s story is set in the grand house of an upper-class family of ladies.  The romance theme of Park’s work is missing from Kane’s story (thank the Lord!) and When the Lyrebird Calls is lacking the dark, gritty atmosphere and almost ghost-story quality of Playing Beatie Bow.  This is probably a good thing if, like me, the front cover of Park’s book and the eerie skipping-rhyme poem gave you the heebie jeebies as a kid.  Canny teachers will no doubt be pleased to have a newer time-slip story of the same historical period to introduce to their students, either alongside or as a substitute for the original classic.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly in a book targeted at upper primary, lower secondary readers, I would definitely recommend giving When the Lyrebird Calls a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

Some Spooky Shorts for your Halloween: The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories…

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The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill. Published by Allen & Unwin, October 26, 2016. RRP: $24.99

Any self-respecting fan of contemporary ghost story writing will immediately notice the vintage creepy charm of a cover design style that is synonymous with Susan Hill.  Having read and enjoyed The Small Hand a number of years ago, I decided to put Hill’s work on my radar and so was happy to receive a copy of The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories from Allen & Unwin for review, just in time for Halloween.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

From the foggy streets of Victorian London to the eerie perfection of 1950s suburbia, the everyday is invaded by the evil otherworldly in this unforgettable collection of new ghost stories from the author of The Woman in Black.

In the title story, on a murky evening in a warmly lit club off St James, a bishop listens closely as a paranormal detective recounts his most memorable case, one whose horrifying denouement took place in that very building.

In ‘The Front Room’, a devoutly Christian mother tries to protect her children from the evil influence of their grandmother, both when she is alive and when she is dead.

A lonely boy finds a friend in ‘Boy Number 21’, but years later he is forced to question the nature of that friendship, and to ask whether ghosts can perish in fires.

This is Susan Hill at her best, telling characteristically flesh-creeping and startling tales of thwarted ambition, terrifying revenge and supernatural stirrings that will leave readers wide-awake long into the night.

If this was the first Susan Hill book I had encountered and I read this collection in the traditional fashion (that is, from front to back), I might be forgiven for discarding this book halfway through as sub-par in quality.  As this is not my first Susan Hill book, I persevered and am very glad I did so because oddly enough, the final two stories of the four far outshine the first two in psychological creepiness and general paranormal entertainment.  But let us address each of the stories in turn, in the traditional fashion; that is to say, from front to back.

The collection opens with The Travelling Bag, a  story of professional betrayal and revenge told from a third person’s perspective and set in Victorian times.  This one certainly felt like it was going to be a spine-tingling paranormal winner, with a mystery immediately set up and the listener (as well as the reader) left in suspense for a spell.  The actual reveal felt a bit light for me though and I didn’t contract any of the sense of fear that the main character was supposedly feeling.  Overall, this story had a strong build-up, but petered off at the end.

Next up is Boy Twenty-One, which I thought I might enjoy the most, but ended up completely forgetting about as soon as I’d read it.  The story is set in a boarding school and centres around the friendship of two lonely boys.  This one felt as if it was either unplanned or unfinished – as if the author had a number of options with how to link the threads of the story together, but couldn’t decide which would be best and so ended up finishing the story abruptly with no real answers and no particular sense of mystery.  I literally did find this story so forgettable that I couldn’t remember anything about it before writing this review even though I’d only just finished the book a day or two ago and I had to go back and flick through it again.

Happily, the third story, Alice Baker, finally employs some good old-fashioned creep-factor with a ghostly, mind-twisty traditional sort of tale about the workers in a women’s typing pool (or similar).  This story has more of what you would expect from the term “ghost story” with obvious clues left about for clever readers, a slow build and the inevitable abrupt shock and reveal.  The ending probably won’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has ever read (or heard) a ghost story before, but there is something deliciously delightful about being drawn along with a character on a path toward certain fright.

The final story, The Front Room, was far and away the best of the lot in my opinion, employing psychological twists, and playing on familial and religious themes in all the right places to evoke the shiver-down-the-spine effect.  In this story, an ordinary family are inspired, after hearing their pastor’s weekly sermon about charity, to invite the husband’s elderly step-mother to live with them.  The tale takes the stereotypical “evil stepmother” trope to a whole new level, ending with a surprise and a lingering feeling of ickiness that will have you reconsidering inviting anyone to your place ever again.

On the whole, the final two stories of the collection really saved this one for me and with the first being passable, I’d have to say that this is another enjoyably scary offering from Susan Hill.  Others may have different opinions about Boy Twenty-One (and I’d love to hear your take on it if you’ve read it!), but if that story had been left out or replaced, this is definitely a book I would rave about.  As it stands, if you are looking for a suitably quick and frightening story to get you in the mood for Halloween, you should find what you are looking for in The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: The Patchwork Bike

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Today’s picture book is an homage to all the creatives out there who can’t see a bit of household flotsam without imagining how it could be better used in the pursuit of fun.  We received The Patchwork Bike by Aussie Afro-Carribean author Maxine Beneba Clarke and street artist Van T Rudd from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb:

What’s the best fun in the whole village? Riding the patchwork bike we made! A joyous picture book for children by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke.

When you live in a village at the edge of the No-Go Desert, you need to make your own fun. That’s when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack. You can even make a numberplate from bark, if you want. The end result is a spectacular bike, perfect for going bumpity-bump over sandhills, past your fed-up mum and right through your mud-for-walls home.

Now doesn’t that bike look like every bored kid’s dream machine?!

This is a wonderfully fast-moving picture book that celebrates the rebellious, the inventive and the just plain entertaining spirit of kids who are left to, rather than on their own devices.  There is not a screen in sight here, yet the girl and her brothers seem to have plenty of ways to make their surroundings a fun place to be.  There’s the sandhill for sliding, the tree for climbing and jumping and, of course, the epic bike they have patched together from bits and pieces that have been left unattended.  The bike may not be the prettiest creation ever (although the tree-branch handles certainly have an earthy design charm all their own), but it does the job and deftly delivers the three adventurers from one end of the village to the other in style.

The text features plenty of rhythm perfect for reading aloud, as well as some fantastic examples of onomatopoeia that bring the bike and the riding experience to life.  The illustrations are so unusual; a cardboard-looking background with bits of printed text glinting through thick smears of coloured paint and old bits of sticky tape suitably reflect the patchwork nature of the bike (and perhaps even the village?), while our proud protagonist is so super-cool in her reflective shades that it would be impossible to be unmoved by stirrings of envy on seeing her fly past on her fantastic creation.  The other characters are also beautifully fleshed out in the illustrations, with the “crazy” brothers first seen dancing on what appears to be a police car, while the mum really does look fed-up, although perhaps not necessarily at the antics of her children.

One can’t fail to notice that this story is not set in an urban environment and this will no doubt arouse some curiosity in young readers.  The exact location of the village (in terms of country) is never mentioned and this might open up conversations about how others live and what non-urban living might be like.  This would also be a great pick for early years classes looking for inspiration around creating functional objects out of unexpected materials.  I can picture the classroom creation station or cardboard box and bits tub suddenly becoming hugely popular after a class reading of The Patchwork Bike.

All in all this is a fun and engaging story that will speak to the adventurer in all of us and have younger readers planning, designing and rummaging through your recycling bin before the back cover is closed.

Until next time,

Bruce

Fiction in 50 October Challenge: A Democratic Prompt

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Welcome to Fiction in 50 for October, where stalwart writers battle with words to wrangle a coherent story in fewer than 51 words – or just slap something together at the last minute!  For more information on how to play and for future prompts, just click on the attractive button at the top of this post.

Our prompt for this month is democratic in the extreme:

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You fill in the blank!

True to my word last month, I have penned a story that is entirely free from heavenly hosts.  I have chosen…

With Great Reputation Comes Great Responsibility

…as my prompt-filler and have titled my contribution:

The Art of Adaptation

Mavis Jones, winner of nine years’ worth of championship sashes for baking, was struggling with the new competition guidelines.  She had wrestled with the nut-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, carbohydrate-reduced requirements, but the result was unworthy of her reputation.

This year, her cakes would take on all comers in the modern art competition.


I’m two words over the limit this time around.  Editing suggestions welcome!

I can’t wait to see what other players have come up with for their prompts.  For those who like to plan ahead, our prompt for November is…

an-offer-you-cant-refuse

Until next time,

Bruce