Building a new deck!

Well, as I’m sure you all found out, due to the pandemic, getting renovations done this year was expensive, and there were often delays. I bought a house a year ago that had a balcony at the back but no egress, so we cut a hole through and put in temporary stairs.

I took the winter to work out a design plan with Julia Duncan, an interior designer (Thomas Duncan Construction) and she came up with a really interesting plan: one that had an upper tier extending out from the existing balcony, and a lower tier that would run at an angle to the tree line. I loved it! Thomas (with Julia’s help) got to work in the spring, once we had engineer’s sign off and permit approval from the Township of Beckwith. Of course, along with higher lumber prices (insane!) we had rain. I loved how Thomas and Julia set up this tent so they could continue to work during inclement weather.

We did, however, run into some other problems than the rain. We found out the well line ran right where we had planned to put posts, so the design had to be tweaked to avoid it. Then the drilling company that came to install the helical posts hit bedrock. The engineer initially told them that they could set the posts on the bedrock, which they did, after which Thomas and Julia went back to work, installing the upper deck. Then the engineer called to say he’d changed his mind and now wanted a four foot piece of styrofoam under the posts, so the company had to come back, remove the posts and start over.

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We kept the metal railings and used them on the extended upper tier as well as along the new stairs. You can see how much wider the new deck (the upper tier is) now. And that brown lumber will fade over time to match the pressure treated wood from the original balcony.

The steps on the stairs are wider and deeper than usual, by design. I had found the temporary steps felt a little steep, and I want to age into this home gracefully. Thomas said he liked the wider/higher steps so much he plans to use them in all his deck builds.

One last minute change I made was to extend those wide steps on the lower tier. Originally, there was a very long expanse of railing to the left and the steps were narrower. We decided to break that up by expanding the wrap-around steps on that side.

I think the whole thing looks beautiful! It looks as if it was part of the original design, and not an add-on, which is what we strive for, right?

The deck is not quite finished. There will also be a sliding panel at the top of the stairs that matches the railings so that I can keep the dog contained, and a sliding barn door at the side of the deck to create and close off a storage area under the upper deck. I ordered a set of custom metal screens from artist Carol Nasvytis from Soul Metal that have a dandelion pattern on them (we collaborated closely on the design and I think it’s awesome!). There are three of these metal panels and Thomas will frame them in to cover the gap between the upper and lower deck when he has time next spring.

The upper deck has really expanded my living space — it’s a lovely spot to curl up with a book and enjoy a glass of wine. And the lower deck is perfect for entertaining!

Kevin Segreto, who’s done my landscaping from years (Segreto Maintenance), created a couple of small flower beds for me, and I planted perennials there. There’s a new addition under construction now (more on that later) and the plan is to link the beds at the side of the deck to the beds around the new addition when it’s all done (also next spring).

So – almost done and looking forward to completing this project next year, but I certainly enjoyed it this summer.

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Christmas Party Desserts! #TriedAndTrueRecipes

So, every year I have a Christmas tree decorating party for a small group of clients, colleagues and friends. My last post (on my other blog about real estate, Kiss and Sell) was about some of the easy to make but tasty appetizers and entrees I’ll be serving at this year’s event — you can find that link here. But after those are done, what about dessert?

I’ll have about 20 people coming, so I like to make quite a lot of cookies and squares. First of all, I think the Christmas buffet table should look like a dinner scene at Hogwarts in a Harry Potter movie, almost groaning with delicious things to eat.  Secondly, if there’s anything left over, which does happen, I can box it up in pretty Christmas boxes and tissue the next day and drop it off at the homes of those who couldn’t make it, or as client pop-by gifts.

The key, I’ve found, is variety — I always make decorated gingerbread and sugar cookies, but also classic squares. And because I’m busy, I’m happy to take shortcuts!

One of those shortcuts is that I buy oatmeal cookie mixes (the type where you only add water), then add nuts, chocolate chips and raisins or dried cranberries and bake them according to the directions on the package. You can see these mid-left in the platter below;they are failproof and fast. I can have these in the oven while I’m working on something else.

This year, I made sugar cookies and gingerbread, and decorated them, but since I have no patience when it comes to making Royal icing, I buy the pre-made icing in tubes from SuperStore. This is the type where you can screw on the tip you want to use, which makes things a lot easier!

Not shown are the polar bears and moose because my idiot dog managed to get at the platter and ate a whole dozen of them! They were so finicky to make (because of legs and ears that so often break off) that I decided to heck with it – I don’t have the patience to make them again this year. Next year! But here are the cutters I use – they’re pretty cute. I ordered them online from a company in the U.S. and they are great.

The shortbread cookies (shown below) are based on two recipes that were shared with me by a couple of Twitter pals, Jill Skinner and Bill Oates. The two recipes are very similar. Bill’s is as follows:

1 C butter

3/4 C icing sugar

1/2 tsp. Vanilla

1-1/2 C Flour

1/2 C Corn Starch

Roll out onto plastic wrap to 1/4″ thick and refrigerate for 30 mins. Bake at 300 for 20 mins.

And Jill’s receipe is as follow:

I went for a little more flour, as per Bill’s recipe, so that the dough was a bit stiffer, because I wanted to use a press to make the design. but I used a little less icing sugar (as per Jill’s).

Before baking, I used a press to put a snowflake design on each one. These are sold at HomeSense, Southgate Mall, for about $6 and make a great stocking stuffer! I bought a bunch of them and am giving them to clients as gifts. Now I wish I’d bought them all!

Just make sure the dough has been refrigerated before you use the press as if the dough is too soft,  the press will stick and tear the cookie.

I also made mini butter tarts from a fabulous recipe given to me by another Twitter pal, Mike Vlasic, who says it was his grandmother’s. This may be my favourite new dessert recipe. Foolproof and delicious!

I used Tenderflake mini-tart shells (they come in packages of 18) and because I didn’t have corn syrup on hand, I used maple syrup instead. You can put raisins or currants in; these ones have currants. These are delicious little bites — absolutely lovely!

Another super simple recipe is for white chocolate pistachio cranberry bark. You melt two bags of white chocolate chips over low heat, then add dried cranberries and shelled pistachios and spread it on wax paper, then pop it in the fridge. When it’s solid again, break it up into pieces. (Photo courtesy of the Brown Eyed Baker, who gives actual measurements in their recipe!)

The two squares I made both have Kraft mini-marshmallows in them: classic Rice Krispie squares, with the white mini-marshmallows, and butterscotch confetti squares, with the coloured ones. And yes, I dyed the classic Rice Krispie squares green, to be festive! Those are the Butterscotch Confetti squares below – these are a real sugar hit, so make sure to cut them into small squares.

The Butterscotch Confetti square recipe (pictured above) comes from my friend and fellow boxer,  Heather,  who posted it on Facebook. (As you can see, I rely on social media  a lot for ideas when I’m baking!)

1 cup butterscotch chips
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup hard butter
8 ounces coloured mini marshmallows

Directions:
1 Heat the butterscotch chips, peanut butter, and butter.
2 Stir until smooth. Watch it; peanut butter burns quickly!
3 Cool a wee bit.
4 Stir in marshmallows.
5 Pat into a greased 8×8-inch pan and chill.
6 Cut into squares.

Yum

The Rice Krispie squares recipe is the same one on the box:  3 tbsp of butter, melted together with 4 cups of mini-marshmallows in a sauce pan on low heat; then stir in 6 cups of Rice Krispies.

The only difference is that I add one tsp of vanilla and a few drops of green food dye for colour. (I have tried using red dye but it just ends up pink). I also use an 8 x 8″ pan instead of a 9 x 13″ pan, so the squares are nice and dense and I press them down using a layer of wax paper and a meat tenderizer to push them down flat. (Useful tip: To clean the saucepan, just heat some water in it and all the sticky parts will release without scrubbing.) I’ll cut these into squares just before the party.

I’m making only *one* cake – the easiest and tastiest one I know of — a Fruit Cocktail cake. You mix, in one bowl, 2 c flour, 1 c sugar, 2 tsps baking soda, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 lightly beaten eggs and one 14 oz can of fruit cocktail plus liquid. You can bake this in a Bundt pan or a 9 x 13″ baking pan, greased. Bake for at least 45  minutes at 350C — I find it usually takes closer to an hour. It should be dark brown, and pull away from the edges.

bundt

I let this one cool before flipping it out of the pan. (Use a butter knife to loosen it around the edges first, but it should come out smoothly.)

bundt 2

Just before serving I will pour a caramel sauce over the top: also super easy. It’s brown sugar, butter, and cream, heated to just bubbling in a saucepan. Might add a little brandy or rum. Either way, it’s simple and delicious!

And finally, we’ll have a fruitcake (store bought) plus a cheese plate and crackers. My friend, Viola, who goes back over 40 years with me (we lived in the same residence at Mount A in the early 70s) is going to bring some assorted cheeses with her, and fresh grapes.

This should be great! I’ve asked my guests to bring an ornament for the tree and some socks to donate to the Sock it to Christmas! sock drive, plus whatever they want to drink. I’ll do the rest!

 

 

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More on Ottawa Book Awards Shortlist! #UmbrellaMan

Very kind of Marlène Barré, the Cultural Funding Officer at the City of Ottawa, to send me the jury’s notes on Umbrella Man as well as the official photos from the celebrations.  Here they are!

Umbrella Man

In Umbrella Man, Peggy Blair shows us Havana’s people and politics with compassion and humour, through the eyes of the shrewd Inspector Ramirez. This is storytelling at its most deft and confident, illuminating the human condition in its smallest details, and the state of the world in its big picture.

City Hall, October 2017, Ottawa Book AwardsCity Hall, October 2017, Ottawa Book AwardsCity Hall, October 2017, Ottawa Book Awards

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Ottawa Book Awards

Class act last night at the Ottawa Book Awards. It’s a bilingual event, free to the public, and held in the Jean-Pigott room at City Hall. Umbrella Man had been shortlisted for the Best English Fiction Award, which came as a complete surprise since it’s a genre novel and set outside Canada.

I didn’t win, but I had a chance to catch up with Mayor Watson, who has always been a huge supporter (and who often attends my book launches), and sat with fellow author Patricia Filtreau who snapped this picture of finalists and semi-finalists.

Ottawa Book Awards

Congrats to John Metcalf, who won in this category; to Charlotte Gray, who won for best English non-fiction and to the other winners, and congrats to the organizers for pulling off a successful event. Here’s a complete list of winners compiled by Peter Robb for the Ottawa Citizen.

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City of Ottawa Book Award #Shortlist!

Very nice to learn that Umbrella Man has been shortlisted for an Ottawa Book Award! Here’s the link to the complete list of Ottawa authors — with thanks to Peter Robb). Really great company to be in! Thanks, Ottawa and good luck to all my fellow authors!

*****************

The 2017 finalists for the prize in English fiction are: 

Peggy Blair for Umbrella Man (Simon & Schuster Canada)

Nadia Bozak for Thirteen Shells (House of Anansi Press)

Faizal Deen for The Greatest Films (Mawenzi House Publishers)

Katherine Leyton for All the Gold Hurts My Mouth (Goose Lane Editions)

John Metcalf for The Museum at the End of the World (Biblioasis)

The finalists for English non-fiction are:

Kevin Burns, for Henri Nouwen: His Life and Spirit (Franciscan Media)

Deborah Gorham for Marion Dewar: A Life of Action (Second Story Press)

Charlotte Gray for The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped our Country (Simon & Schuster Canada)

Nathan M. Greenfield for The Reckoning: Canadian Prisoners of War in the Great War (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd)

D. Peter MacLeod for Backs to the Wall: The Battle of Sainte-Foy and the Conquest of Canada (Douglas & McIntyre)

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Nice …..

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Agent Rejections – Here are some samples. Read ’em and weep.

For a variety of reasons, I am no longer writing the Inspector Ramirez series. I had one publisher that owns world English rights to the first two books and another that owns Canadian rights to the second two books and all of that meant it was impossible to sell the series in the US or elsewhere. Lessons learned.

I had great hopes, nonetheless, for finding an agent for my historical fiction manuscript. After all, I’m a bestselling author, right? Well, wrong.

Here is a sample of the most recent rejections I’ve received. It’s a little known facet of the publishing industry, but the constant damning by faint praise can leave you without any confidence in your ability to write, much less get published. It’s certainly left me not wishing to query any further, particularly when so many of these rejections came from agents my fellow authors  referred me to.

(And for those of you who say don’t give up, it’s part of the process –  I went through 156 rejections before The Beggar’s Opera was published. I really didn’t expect to have to go through that number again.)

The one that stung the most came from an agent a good author pal had referred me to, the one who said it was like reading homework. Not going to lie. That one hurt.

Read ’em and weep.

“I have now had a chance to look at PEACE WOMAN’S DAUGHTER and the material on the psychic thriller series idea. While I admire your sure hand with plot, I didn’t respond to the writing in the way I’d hoped, and felt it difficult to really connect with the characters. This is such a subjective process, as you know, and I regret that I don’t feel that I’d be the best representative for your work.
* * *
“There’s so much to admire in The Peace Woman’s Daughter, but I found that I didn’t have the passion for it that I had hoped to. Responses to fiction are very selective, and I’m sure another agent will feel differently.
* * *
“Thanks so much for sending along THE PEACE WOMAN’S DAUGHTER back in October. Although the history here is fascinating, I’m afraid we weren’t connecting wholeheartedly, so despite our admiration we ought to step aside. We’re very grateful that you gave us another shot, though, and we wish you the best of luck!
* * *
“Thank you for the opportunity to read a sample of THE PEACE WOMAN’S DAUGHTER. I was struck immediately by the haunting voice of Jigonsaseh in that first chapter, but I didn’t have the same emotional response to the next scenes from Father Lamberville’s POV, which seemed just a touch stiffer, a bit dry. So, after a lot of thought, I’ve decided to pass on the project.
***
“I eagerly read the sample pages but unfortunately, your project doesn’t seem right for me. Since it’s crucial that you find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to step aside rather than ask to represent your manuscript.
***
“There’s some great prose in these pages, but I’m afraid I have reservations. I’ve been finding it really difficult to place historical novels of this sort, and I just don’t have confidence in my ability to find it a good home. I’m so sorry! I really appreciate the opportunity, though, and wish you the best of luck.
* * *
“Fiction, as I’m sure you know, is just about the toughest thing to sell in the current marketplace. I need to really fall in love with something before I can even think of taking it on. Though there is much to appreciate here, I’m afraid that I ultimately didn’t believe I would be its best advocate.
* * *
“As to your material, I’m afraid I will be passing. While your credits are certainly notable, I’m just not drawn strongly enough to the concept of your story to feel that I’d be the right agent for this project.
* * *
“Thanks so much for being in touch. I’m flattered that you thought of me for this, but it just didn’t strike a chord. I do admire the quality of the writing and the execution and I’m sorry it wasn’t a fit for me.
* * *
“Well, I just took another look and my reaction is that it feels like homework reading it – lots of information; and it feels like it’s trying so hard to be correct in all its details that it’s forgetting to tell a story that will hook the reader. The characters aren’t thinking or speaking like real people.
* * *
“Thank you so much for sending this along! So I love the writing here a lot. And the voice is fantastic. I can tell immediately I’m dealing with a real storyteller; ultimately, though I worry that the historical element of this isn’t compelling enough to stand out. Historical is extremely difficult in its own right, and I felt like the meat of this story took a little too long to get going, there’s a slowness to it that I think will prevent readers from really sinking their teeth in and hanging on.
* * *
“Afraid that I’m going to step aside. The writing was solid, but it felt like there was too much backstory and the characters weren’t quite driving the novel the way they could. Things definitely improved when we got to the native americans, but it didn’t feel like it was quite as strong as it could be. So sorry, but best of luck with it!
* * *
“I really admire your work, and I’m on the fence, but ultimately the deciding factor for me is that you need an agent who is completely passionate and committed and can sell your work with lots of determination and conviction. It’s not enough to be admiring. You need a strong advocate!”

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Fan Mail! #SpoilerAlert

Nothing makes an author happier than a happy reader, so a big shout out to Frank who took the time to drop me a note in the mail. I love getting fan mail! So happy he enjoyed the books. (But I’m sorry to say that Umbrella Man is the last we’ll hear of Inspector Ramirez; it’s the last book in the series.)

fan-mail

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