Birthday Surprise BACKFIRE.

You wanna talk about blue balls?

I planned this super awesome surprise birthday trip for my husband.

And get this.


For three whole months I snuck around planning. Scheming. Taking time off. Arranging for my mom to take the kids. Asking the Facebook public awesome road trip ideas so he had LOTS to choose from at the big reveal

. . . which was meant to go something like this:

Morning, handsome birthday man! Here’s a cuppa tea. What would you like to do today?

Well, I’d like to-

Too bad! Surprise! We’re going on a roadtrip!

And he was going to blink at me all surprised, in awe of my awesomeness.

And no matter what his concern –cats, dog, chickens, deadline– I was gonna say:

“Already taken care of!” Then we were gonna bask some more in my awesomeness whilst packing.

I even had books on CD waiting in the car.  James Lee Burke in the likely event he chose Louisiana and Alexander McCall Smith in case he didn’t.

“I don’t want to go on a road trip,” he said matter-of-factly. Sipping his tea.

My stomach did this funny flip floppy thing.

“. . . I have too much to do, honey bunny.”



No kids.

For a WEEK.

Corn Nuts and the open road.

“I wanna get the bathroom done.”

Housework? He wanted to do HOUSEWORK?


“On your birthday?”

–it came out a whisper.

You know when you blow up a balloon all big, let it fly around the room making awkward noises, then it plops to the floor all deflated and moist where your lips were?


My insides sludged down in slow motion. Pulling my ability to fake smile with it.

His face fell, too.

“You ok, Jenny?”

Don’t do it, Jennifer. Don’t get upset. He has no clue what you planned. Don’t you dare make him feel bad on his birthday. My eyeballs burned.

“Darling, what’s wrong?”

“I’m good,” I lied thru my damn teeth. “It was just an idea. We can do whatever you want.”

“I’d love for you to help me do the bathroom.”

He wanted to — I’m sorry– the bathroom?!

4 months ago Christopher took a sledgehammer to our crusty old downstairs loo to remodel, insulate, make it bigger, etc; the final plan of which maybe included a big ole Beatles mural for me.

beatles_group_posterminimal_posteritty_by_posteritty-d60n7gv.jpgThis was the image I had in mind. ( I’d taken it to a tattoo studio in Liverpool but they told me it wouldn’t make good body art.)

“But it will make a great mural,” Christopher said when I came home, tattooless.

(I saved the image on my phone just in case.)

Back to the bathroom:

Unfortunately, remodels take money and time. And it’s still not done. So here we are, months later, with a gaping hole downstairs. A big, fat, dusty, showerless pain in everyone’s ass.

Did I want it done?

(Is the Pope Catholic?)

But I also wanted greasy fried chicken fingers from the swampy back roads of Louisiana. And hot sauce. And Corn Nuts.

That stupid gaping hole would be here when we got back.

Next thing I know we’re at freaking Lowe’s picking out paint samples. And boy was I in a funky mood.

I watched Christopher from the carpet section, creating a safe distance between him and my attitude problem. He bustled around the paint aisle, talking shop with the employees, examining brushes, and I noticed something obvious.

How very happy he was.

Holding samples to the light. Chatting with customers, offering advice on their projects because (inevitably) he knows more than the employees.

He looked over to me and smiled.

“Why don’t you start picking out colors for your mural?” he called.

Me and my attitude slinked over to the wall o’ samples –which I’ll admit– was totally satisfying. I held little color cards against the image on my phone– which ended up being quite hard to match. I forgot about being a brat for a little while.

At home he rolled out butcher paper then taped big long pieces on the wall.

“Let’s get these templates cut out so we can trace them and you can start painting.”

Wait. What?

“How big do you want your Beatles?” he asked all charming, handing me scissors and a pencil. He knew what he was doing.

Me? Paint?

Oh, but his sweet birthday face! Happy and bright. Expectant.

He had vision. Time. A quiet house. A wife to help. No kids to tell 46 times: go brush your teeth!

This was his happy.

“I don’t want to  can’t paint a mural!”

“Sure you can,” he coaxed. “Take it one color at a time. I’ll supervise.”


I didn’t argue. This is what he wanted, thinly disguised as what I wanted. For the next three days I was either up a ladder or bent down all weird on the floor.


Painting. Mixing colors. Holding my breath trying to stay within my penciled lines.


Hours passed.

We listened to music.

The old bathroom was narrow and weird. This new one’s spacious and clean. He sanded. I painted. Someone farted and we marveled at the acoustics. Stanley, our chiweiner, watched from the corner.

We took tea breaks.

Out to dinner breaks.


Let’s watch a movie breaks.

Do whatever the hell we want cos we ain’t got no kids breaks.

Every time Christopher climbed down from his scaffold, he kissed the top of my head. Or cheek. Or shoulder.


And everyday I woke up anxious to get back to it.

He slathered and smoothed Venetian Plaster with expert precision while I painted Ringo’s mustache. George’s vest. Paul’s pants *tee hee*. John’s glasses.

And I felt profound gratitude.

Sorry I’m such an ungrateful wretch, I told God. Thank you for this week. Thank you for Christopher, who’s supremely happy with a paintbrush and cup of tea. Who dumbed down this mural process so I could help him.

And you know what? I’m GLAD we didn’t go.

Like, really glad.

We spent three days in that little room. Not spending money. Creating. Listening to music. Beach Boys. Beatles. John Denver. Glen Campbell. Talking. Making rustic French decor plans for the kitchen.

And I noticed something profound.

My mind was quiet each day. Peaceful.

I know Christopher would’ve gotten this mural done in one day. But he wanted me to experience his world. The way anyone does when they’re passionate about something.

So the surprise was all mine.

From an amazing man who inadvertantly gave me a present for his birthday.













What is Book Lab?


We conduct literary experiments.

One night (because I lie awake pondering stupid crap) I wondered how many great stories languish behind ugly covers. Covers so fugly no one touches them. Left on shelves so long that the librarian eventually yanks them to the Withdrawal Cart o’ Death.


Poor, neglected characters. Dialogue silenced, plots stifled. Unable to fufill their literary duty.

All because we’re a bunch of judgmental turds.

. . . it’s true. We learned that in our first experiment.

So this book could totally be awesome:


(Probably not.)

But we KNOW this one is:


And don’t lie.

You wouldn’t pick this copy up if you didn’t know better.


We’re several experiments in. The latest conceived when I discovered this fascinating contraption at the library called THE MAGIC BOOK MACHINE.

(Okay, fine. It’s a program called Novelist. But Magic Book Machine —MBM for short—sounds way better.)

Anyway, Novelist is this awesome program where you type in bullet words (or a book or author you love)



z  !

How did I not know about this before? You mean, I can walk up and type England Time Travel Psychological Paul McCartney Teapot Wonderland Champagne and it’ll spit out a list? Just for me?






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. . . but wait.

I glanced at the reference desk.

Our librarian bent over a document with a patron. Helping. Simplifying. Smiling. Doing their public service thang.

My anxious little fingers trembled over the MBM.

What about the librarian?

Our trusty, knowledgeable, live-to-serve librarian?

The patron stood, thanked her, then walked away smiling.

Ooohhhhhhh I felt an experiment bubbling.

What if– just what if— I fed words to the MBM. Then gave the same words to a librarian.

Human vs. Machine?


“The machine will probably win,” warned Deb, herself a librarian.

Only one way to find out.

I asked Book Labbers to write down 20 words. 10 describing books they love, 10 no thank yous, and the title of the last badass book they read.


I fed our lists to the MBM.

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. . . then gave the same lists to Ashley, the children’s librarian at the San Marcos Public Library.


Not only is she personable, well read, quirktastic, and a Book Lab enthusiast: I knew she could handle it if we thought her books sucked.

But first up: MACHINE!

I plugged in words to Novelist. It churned and sputtered.

(Not really.)

It listed titles and I headed to our boozefest meeting with an armful of books, then made everyone guess which book belonged to whom.


(Nedra won.)

We read our MBM picks, then gathered again. This time with Ashley’s selections:


Had we pigeon-holed ourselves in this exercise? Sorta.

Murdered chick in the woods? Nedra’s

Depressed Italian housewife? Emily’s.

Eiffel Tower on the cover? Probably mine.

We played ‘guess whose book’ and Nedra won again –but it wasn’t so obvious this time.

Ashley threw some curve balls.

So who did better. Person or program. Mind or matrix.


MBM pick:


The Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable: A marriage-in-trouble American travels to Paris to appraise an apartment full of antiques. There she finds the owner’s diary and a French colleague who wants more than her expertise.

Librarian pick:


Blackout by Connie Willis: In 2060, Oxford University students observe history by time-travel. All swell until three students get stuck in London during the Blitz.


I would’ve never ever picked Blackout for myself (pesky sci-fi label), but . . . I loved it. I’m a British, World War II, AND time-travel enthusiast so this book woulda had to been a steaming corn-filled turd not to please me. Con: It was a bit long. And if war-time Britain isn’t your thing,  I’m not sure this would be your cuppa tea. But I thought it was fanbloodytastic. 5 stars.

A Paris Apartment, however, disappointed. I didn’t feel for the protagonist.The dialogue and sexual tension felt contrived, and the author WAY overused the word ‘provenance.’ Beautiful cover, though. 3 stars.




MBM pick:


The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman: Rome-based writers share personal stories surrounding their ill-fated, English-language newspaper.

Librarian pick:


Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt: Amid clashing politics and shifting sexual roles in the 1960s, this complicated, multi-faceted novel reveals what books mean to us, and the impact of literature over time.


“I loved The Imperfectionists until the very last chapter. Then it nose dived. But overall, I enjoyed it. And would’ve never picked this for myself. So well done, Magic Book Machine! 3.5 stars.”

“As for Babel Tower, I can see why Ashley picked this for me. It’s full of Italian art and biblical connotation. But I’d only recommend it to a high-brow reader. It was SUPER dense. 4 stars.”




MBM pick:


The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: War brings out the best and worst of a doctor, working in a POW camp where Allied soldiers are forced to build a railway under appalling conditions. ( Winner of the Man Booker Prize.)

Librarian pick:


White Heat by M.J. McGrath: An icy whodunnit about 3 murders in Greenland.


“The first 40 pages of Narrow Road to the Deep North were torture. But then I really got into it. It had human struggle, different cultures and historical adventure, and I love all that! I’d definitely recommend this one. 4 stars.”

White Heat was so much like Forty Days Without a Shadow by Olivier Trucit was weird! This murder mystery was Inuits vs. Eskimos, and I’d recommend it to anyone who can appreciate details about seal’s blood soup. 3 stars.”




MBM pick:


Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight: Struggling arts columnist uncovers dark town secrets while investigating local murdered newborn.

Librarian Pick:


Finding Claire Fletcher by Lisa Regan: Troubled detective attempts to find kidnapped Claire Fletcher, abducted ten years ago by sadist.

(Note: We all thought this was a bad cover.)


“I love suspenseful murder mysteries and both these books had those elements. But Where They Found Her was slightly ‘lighter’ somehow. Very enjoyable but not quite as ‘dark’ as the other! I’d still recommend it. 4.5 stars.”

“I liked this story . . . a lot, actually. It was super dark and psychological, which I love. Claire Fletcher is a fighter, and needed to be because her captor was a freak sicko! 4.8 stars!”




MBM Pick:


School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister: Eight students share personal stories and recipes at weekly cooking class hosted by local restaurateur.

Librarian Pick:


Nation by Terry Pratchett: Young Mau is the sole survivor when a tsunami destroys his island home. But then he finds shipwrecked Daphne, who survived her own tragedy. From different worlds, they attempt to forge . . .


Interesting the Magic Book Machine picked School of Essential Ingredients for me. I was going to read this, anyway.  It’s not what I’d call ‘high literature,’ but it was enjoyable, comforting somehow,  and I read it fast. The chapters tell stories from different characters perspective, which I like, but their back stories I found a little weak. 3 stars.”

“I hate Nation’s cover and I would’ve never picked this for myself. But this book surprised me. It’s different from anything Pratchett has ever written. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book, but I can tell you the story will stay with me a long time. 3 stars.”




MBM pick:


The Daughters by Adrienne Celt: World-class soprano seeks to reclaim her voice from the curse winding through her family tree.

Librarian Pick:


In the Forests of Serre by Patricia McKillip: Man coping with death of his wife and infant child is cursed by witch in a magical forest.


“I feel there was some magic to the MBM’s pick: The Daughters. Mostly because of the Polish aspect (I’m Polish). I also love the Operatic themes and female lineage weaving throughout this story. Thumbs up! 4.3 stars!”

In the Forests of Serre was a pleasant surprise. The cover was a bit cheesy and the story –full of wizards and magical creatures– reminded me of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. 3.5 stars.”



In case you weren’t tallying, the human won.



The Magic Book Machine is super fun to play with. But it doesn’t know us. It also pulls from a pre-vetted list of newish books that aren’t likely to suck.

Is it a valuable tool? Totally.

Will we use it again? Definitely.

But . . . I dunno.

For me it goes back to that ugly book. The one that hasn’t been checked out since 1992.

Novelist isn’t programmed to know or recommend that title. Only a select few have that book’s back.



Librarians dedicate their lives to books. ALL books. Dusty and unloved to shiny, bestseller new.

“And getting them into the right hands is like Zen archery,” says Ashley, for whom we are grateful.

(Well done, human. We hoped you’d win.)


Next Book Lab:



Is the book always better than the movie?

Always always?


We’ll see.