Cover Reveal for The Christmas Trip!

I am very excited to share the cover of my next book with One More Chapter, The Christmas Trip.

This is the follow-up to The Christmas Swap (2020) and I SO loved reconnecting with your favourites from Book 1.

About the book

It’s a year on and our three May Ladies are all loved up but still living worlds apart.

Chloe has had a whirlwind year amongst the glitz, glamour (and demanding work) of Hollywood. She’s taken on the role of Assistant Producer on the film, ‘An Extraordinary Woman: The Eloise Capel Story’, Archer’s passion project and as Archer’s girlfriend, she’s now schmoozing with A-listers.

Jules is immersed in her Melbourne life, working for a non-profit and sharing an increasingly crowded flat on the waterfront with flatmate, Ash ― and their frequent visitors: Ash’s boyfriend, Davo, and Jules’ love, Matt, and his dog, Dexter. She’s considering moving out on her own, only Matt keeps hinting at Jules moving to his vineyard down south.

Lucy, meanwhile, is stuck in long-distance-relationship hell. While her career is flying high ― a promotion and frequent trips to the US for work ― her relationship with Will has stalled. She doesn’t want to be a part-time girlfriend, finding their time apart agonising, but Will seems perfectly content.

When Archer’s planned Parisian proposal at Christmastime is derailed by an ash cloud over Europe, he hatches a plan to bring all six of them together for a Christmas ― and a marriage proposal ― to remember. In Hawaii!

I invite you to join the May Ladies and their loves in the most beautiful destination yet for a Christmas filled with mayhem and misunderstandings, and rocking romance around the Christmas tree!

And check out this stunning cover! I am in love with it! Huge thanks to cover designer, Lucy Bennett.

Cover of The Christmas Trip: Couple sitting on a Hawaiian beach on the lower half, a cove covered with palm trees in the distance. At the top, a snowy scene of an English village; a cottage and a fir tree decorated with Christmas lights and a couple standing admiring the cottage.

Where you can preorder

It’s out in ebook on November 10th and print on December 8.

Amazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon CA | Amazon US

iBooks | Nook | Kobo | Google Play | Waterstones

(Coming soon) Foyles | Dymocks | Angus & Robertson | Booktopia

I hope you love it as much as I do!

Catching up (again) with Author Karen King

Today marks publication day for the The Best Christmas Ever, by the lovely Karen King and to mark this special occasion, we are welcoming her back to Off the Beaten Track! Congratulations, Karen – I am loving this cover!

Cover of The Best Christmas Ever by Karen King. Four stalls at a Christmas market across the background under a starry sky and a Christmas tree and white dog in the foreground.

Tell us what inspired you to write The Best Christmas Ever?

I think with Covid restrictions Christmas last year was difficult for most of us and we’re all looking forward to getting together for Christmas this year, to spending time with family and friends. I know I am. And this gave me the idea of writing a story about a young woman, Lexi Forde, going down to Devon to spend Christmas with her family. Her brother and his family are coming over from Canada too and it’s the first time the whole family has been together for a few years. The Fordes do Christmas in a big way and are all looking forward to being able to take part in their family traditions again. Despite discovering that her boyfriend is cheating on her just before Christmas, Lexi is determined to have ‘the best Christmas ever’ – as I think a lot of people will be this year. That’s why it’s so important for Lexi – and Granny Mabe – that the traditional Christmas Eve carol service around the tree on the green goes ahead. Christmas can be a lonely time for older folk, or people who live alone though, and a difficult time for people who work in the emergency services so I wanted to incorporate that into the story too. Lexi and her family love Christmas and her fight to save the tree draws the whole village in. I hope it draws readers in too, and that they enjoy the story.

What’s your most recent read that you’d like to recommend?

I’ve just finished reading an ARC copy of My Daughter’s Mistake by Kate Hewitt. An incredible story told from both mothers’ POV when the teenage daughter of one of them is involved in a car accident where the six year old daughter of the other mother is seriously injured. It’s a thought-provoking authentic read.

What has been your author highlight over the past year?

I write psychological thrillers as well as romances and have recently signed a contract with Bookouture, my other publishers, for two more thrillers. I’m over the moon as my debut psychological thriller, The Stranger in my Bed, was published less than a year ago, and my second one, The Perfect Stepmother, was out in June. I can’t wait to start writing my third and fourth.

What are you working on now?

My third romance novel for Headline, The Spanish Wedding Disaster. When their best friend Kate’s partner Steve tells Sophie and Maddie that he’s planning a secret wedding to Kate when they are both on holiday in Spain in three months’ time, Sophie thinks it’s the most romantic thing ever but Maddie is horrified. So is Steve’s brother Josh, pointing out that Steve hasn’t even proposed to Kate yet. Steve refuses to listen to their objections and persuades them to help him with the wedding plans. But things don’t go according to plan and Sophie wonders if Maddie and Josh are right and it will end up a total disaster. Will Kate say ‘Yes’ or turn Steve down?

What do you hope readers will take away from The Best Christmas Ever?

I hope they find it a heart-warming, feel-good read that takes them away from the ups and downs of life for a while. We all need a bit of cheering up right now. And I hope that all my readers have ‘the best Christmas ever’ this year.

About the book

A heart-warming Christmas romance, perfect for fans of Sarah Morgan, Mandy Baggot and Milly Johnson.

Lexi Forde adores Christmas. She’s especially looking forward to it this year as it’s the first Christmas with her boyfriend Ben and her older brother is visiting from Canada with his family. So they’re having a family Christmas at her parents’ house in Devon.

But then Lexi sees Ben kissing someone else and discovers he’s been having an affair. Devastated, she travels to Devon alone. She’s determined not to let her break up with Ben spoil her family Christmas. But when she arrives, Lexi discovers the council won’t allow the Christmas tree on The Green to be decorated this year; it’s too dangerous and has to come down. Lexi is desperate to save their favourite family tradition and make this Christmas extra special.

Can she save the tree and mend her broken heart in time for Christmas?

Where you can get it

Print and ebook: Amazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon US

ebook: Kobo | Google Play | Nook | Apple Books

About Karen

Smiling woman with shoulder length red hair, blue eyes and wearing a floral top

Karen King is a multi-published author of both adult and children’s books. She has had ten romantic novels published, two psychological thrillers, 120 children’s books, two young adult novels, and several short stories for women’s magazines. Her romantic novel The Cornish Hotel by the Sea became an international bestseller, reaching the top one hundred in the Kindle charts in both the UK and Australia. Karen is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, the Society of Authors and the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Karen now lives in Spain where she loves to spend her non-writing time exploring the quaint local towns with her husband, Dave, when she isn’t sunbathing or swimming in the pool, that is.

Follow Karen

Twitter | Facebook | Website | Instagram | BookBub | Amazon

Thank you for joining us today Karen and congrats again on The Best Christmas Ever!

It’s Publication Day for The Christmas Swap

Cover of the book The Christmas Swap. A snowy scene at the top of the cover, with a ski lodge and a man and a woman. On the bottom of the cover is a beach image with bathing boxes and surfboards and a man and a woman sitting together.

So excited that this day is (finally) here! I started writing this book in July 2019 for Camp NaNoWriMo with the goal of writing 30K words in 31 days. I wrote 35K words, then tweaked the manuscript with help from my agent, and we pitched it (with a synopsis) to my publisher, One More Chapter.

They loved it, then it was slotted into my publication schedule and today’s the day when it is out in the world!

To mark the occasion I am sharing my acknowledgements.

Acknowledgements and a note from the author

It’s hard to believe I am writing the acknowledgements for my fourth book, but here I am. I have dedicated this book to my parents―my mum, Lee, my dad, Ray, and my step-mum, Gail. I am extremely fortunate to have parents who not only love me, but champion me and inspire me. They have also instilled in me the importance of family―including the family members we choose―as well as having a sense of adventure and following your dreams.

Family is a prominent theme in this book and as I write these acknowledgements amid the second round of COVID-19 lockdowns here in Melbourne, ‘family’ has become more important to me now than ever. And for me, a person who has lived on three continents, that word encompasses all the people I love, all the people who inspire me, lift me up, confide in me, and ease my path. Thank you, family―wherever you are. Stay safe and we will meet again someday soon.

As always, I am grateful to my two partners-in-writing, my editor, Hannah Todd, and my agent, Lina Langlee. It is wonderful having you in my corner and you are both gifted collaborators. Hannah, thank you for being my champion at One More Chapter and HarperCollins, and for your excellent feedback, which always elevates my writing. I continue to grow as an author under your guidance. Lina, I greatly appreciate your advocacy, your astute guidance, and your ongoing support of my writing career. Ever onwards and upwards―together.

Thank you to my fellow authors for supporting, championing, and inspiring me, particularly my fellow Renegades, Nina, Andie, and Fiona. Our daily catchups sustain me; they are chocolate for my soul. Thank you to Lucy Coleman (Linn B. Halton) whose quote appears on the cover of this book. I hope that one day I will be as prolific and as accomplished as you. Your books are the stuff of dreams. Thank you to all my fellow romance authors who forge and shape this genre, and to the book lovers, bloggers, and reviewers whose passion for romantic fiction lifts us all, especially my friends at UKRomChat, The Reading Corner Book Lounge, and Chick Lit and Prosecco. Thank you to the volunteers at the Romance Novelists Association and Romance Writers of Australia for your tireless efforts to sustain and elevate romantic fiction. And thank you to my fellow Aussie authors at the Australian Writer’s Centre and #AusWrites.

Lastly, dear reader, thank you. Thank you for traveling across three continents with me and enjoying some Christmassy goodness. Christmas is my favourite holiday, and over my lifetime, I’ve spent it in the US, the UK, and Australia―each Christmas special for its distinct traditions and the loved ones I’ve shared it with.

Happy Christmas, happy holidays, and stay safe.

~ Sandy Barker

Read about my inspiration for writing The Christmas Swap

Read more about the book, including where to find it

My inspiration for The Christmas Swap

Out now!

Cover of The Christmas Swap
A beach in the lower half with a couple sitting next to two bathing boxes
A snowy mountainside view in the top half, a couple walking into a ski lodge

I am super excited about this book, as it celebrates one of my favourite times of the year, Christmas. I decided in June last year that I wanted to write a Christmas book, and as I do for all my books, I turned to my own travel experiences for inspiration.

You see, I am an ‘Aus-Meri-Pom’ as my grandma Joan used to call me. I have an English father, and American mother and I was born in Australia. I have lived in all three countries and consider the UK and the US my second homes, especially as I have so many loved ones in both countries.

With so many Christmases to choose from – some snowy, some wintry and cosy (but no snow), many hot, I considered how to pack more than one Christmas into one book.

That’s when I got the idea to have three childhood friends swap Christmases. This way, I could dive into what makes each one special, seeing each Christmas through fresh eyes.

The UK

My sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and great aunt all live in the UK, and we’ve had a couple of (lovely) Christmases with them in recent years (in 2014 and 2108). I LOVE how beautifully and traditionally Christmas is celebrated in the UK. Yes, we had chocolate oranges in our stockings; yes, we had plum pudding and brandy sauce; yes, we went to Christmas Fairs and Winter Wonderland, and sipped mulled wine and hot chocolate; yes, we watched the Queen’s speech; and yes, we even had a(n early) traditional Christmas lunch in a 500 year year old pub! All the yeses to this kind of Christmas.

The US

I’ve also had many Christmases in the US, but one that has stuck with me all these years is the Christmas I visited a dear friend and his (lovely extended family at their mountain cabin in Colorado, then met up with my partner, Ben, for a ski trip to Breckenridge and New Year’s in Denver.

It is a stunning part of the world, and Breckenridge is one of those towns that looks like a filmset of a Christmas movie. These pics are from our drive into town.

And this was the “cabin” we stayed in for Christmas:

Large log cabin nestled in the snow surrounded by fir trees

There were 13 of us for Christmas – and we all had beds, with some to spare! Me in Colorado, all rugged up. Look at those mountains and that sky!


Most of my 51 Christmases, however, have been in Australia. It’s hot, sometimes swelteringly so, and we celebrate traditions that are as much about the family gathering together in summertime as they are about the holiday.

I always make a pav(lova).

We have a fake, but festive, tree (thanks to Ben for the gorgeous pic on the left).

There are salads, fruit platters, champagne (lots of bubbly), Christmas carols (even the snowy ones), some sort of roast, cheese platters, maybe a baked salmon, or some prawns or crayfish on the barbie, and I’ll always bake my fave Chrissie bikkies, Russian Tea Cakes (recipe for you).

We go to the beach, play boules after lunch, call our loved ones far and wide, play games out on the veranda, like Trivial Pursuit and Cards Against Humanity, while we sip crisp, white Aussie wine – you, know, Christmassy, family stuff – Aussie style.

With my dad and step-mum at Light’s Beach, Denmark, Western Australia

I absolutely LOVE Christmas, and if you do too, I hope you will love The Christmas Swap (buy links included). It’s out now!

Catching up with Author Daisy Tate

Today I welcome the lovely Daisy Tate for an author catch-up, whose latest book is A Bicycle Built for Sue.

We’ll find out more about Sue later. First let’s catch up with Daisy

Tell us what inspired you to write A Bicycle Built for Sue?

In all honesty, I came up with the title first. I’ve been on a couple of cycling tours myself and found them incredibly difficult, not just because of the physical challenges, but because of the thinking time. I’d also been on a charity run recently (I promise you, I’m not a gifted athlete, just too up for a challenge!) and everyone had on shirts saying why or who they were running the race for and I was in floods of tears for most of the race because I was making up stories for absolutely everyone. I don’t want to give anything away, but I narrowed it down to Sue (fictional, of course), and her story is about a woman reeling in the wake of a personal tragedy. She finds help and support from a trio of women she least expects, who crowd round and keep her head above water. It’s something I have found to be true on numerous occasions when you’re blindsided by loss or heartache of some variety. And yes, sometimes the people you expect to help do, but sometimes they don’t and it’s always interesting to see who steps in to lend a hand when you need it most.

When did you start writing seriously?

I started writing seriously about six years ago. I’d had lots of stop/starts along the way, but my husband and I had moved out of London to a farm and I found, particularly in the winter, I needed some intellectual stimulus. So, I thought, ‘Get yourself to a keyboard!’

What do you love most about being an author?

The surprises that blossom along the way. I love writing dialogue and sometimes something will come out of someone’s mouth and I’m all … whaaaaaaat? You’re saying that now? To them? I write almost every day but those moments definitely stand out as extra special ones. I also LOVE hearing from readers. I read a review recently where the reader thought she wasn’t going to like the book because it was ‘too relatable’ (the dark parts) but she persisted and said by the end she’d actually felt more hopeful about her own situation. Those kind of moments are amazing.

What are you working on now?

I have an alter ego – Annie O’Neil – who writes Christmas books, and I’ve just put the finishing touches on this year’s book, A Miracle on Christmas Street. It’ll be out later this month. I also have, and I’m not kidding, about ten pitches I’m polishing up for my agent and editor to see if any of them appeal. I love them all and can’t pick, so I’m definitely going to need an outside eye to help me home in on just the one.

What do you hope readers will take away from A Bicycle Built for Sue?

I hope, most of all, that they know they’re not alone, that no matter how sad or lonely or desperate or isolated someone can feel, there is ALWAYS someone there. They may not come in the package you expected, but they will be there. It’s not a mandate to join a charity cycle ride, but I have taken part in a few charitable events (even wiggling a tin in front of a grocery store) and it’s always rewarding. Most of all, I would like readers to take away a belief that everyone is stronger than they think they are and deeply, deeply lovable.

That is lovely, Daisy, and such a good reminder to us all.

Here’s the blurb for A Bicycle Built for Sue

Sue Young has never asked for much apart from a quiet life. She’s always been happy with her call centre job and dinner on the table at six o clock; that was until a tragedy tore her tranquillity into little shreds.

With her life in tatters, Sue is persuaded to join a charity cycle ride led by Morning TV’s Kath Fuller, who is having a crisis of her own, and Sue’s self-appointed support crew are struggling with their own issues. Pensioner Flo Wilson is refusing to grow old, gracefully or otherwise, and a teen goth Raven Chakrabarti, is determined to dodge the path her family have mapped out for her.

Can the foursome cycle through saddle sores and chaffed thighs to a brighter future, or will pushing themselves to the limit prove harder than they thought?

Get is here: Amazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon US

Follow Daisy: Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | Website

Thanks for the catch-up, Daisy! Looking forward to your (Annie’s) Christmas book too!

Cover Reveal: The Christmas Swap

So, the cat has been out of the proverbial bag for a while, but today is the official cover reveal for The Christmas Swap my next novel with One More Chapter.

And here it is!

The Christmas Swap

Yes, I love it too. 😉

I had so much fun writing this book. Here’s the blurb:

Chloe, Jules, and Lucy meet at a Maui resort kids’ club, aged 11, forging a lifelong friendship spanning two decades and three continents.

Twenty-two years later, they decide to swap Christmases, none of them expecting the hilarity and romantic escapades that will ensue.

Chloe from Melbourne spends her Christmas with Lucy’s mum and dad in a sleepy village in Oxfordshire, England, stunned to the core when she discovers who grew up across the road from Lucy.

Lucy, who has jetted off to snowy Colorado for her dream-come-true white Christmas, is taken into the fold of Jules’s loud and brash family, discovering more about herself in a few short days than she has in years.

And Jules leaves the cold climes of Colorado to spend a balmy ‘Orphan’s Christmas’ with Chloe’s friends in Melbourne, finding that time away from her mundane life is just what she needed.

Join these three lovable women as they each get a Christmas to surpass their wildest dreams.

And here’s an excerpt from my acknowledgements:

It’s hard to believe I am writing the acknowledgements for my fourth book, but here I am. I have dedicated this book to my parents―my mum, Lee, my dad, Ray, and my step-mum, Gail. I am extremely fortunate to have parents who not only love me, but champion me and inspire me. They have also instilled in me the importance of family―including the family members we choose―as well as having a sense of adventure and following your dreams.

Family is a prominent theme in this book and as I write these acknowledgements amid the second round of COVID-19 lockdowns here in Melbourne, ‘family’ has become more important to me now than ever. And for me, a person who has lived on three continents, that word encompasses all the people I love, all the people who inspire me, lift me up, confide in me, and ease my path. Thank you, family―wherever you are. Stay safe and we will meet again someday soon.

Preorder now! Out October 16 (ebook) and November 26 (print)

Amazon AU | Amazon UK| Amazon US | Kobo | Dymocks(AU) | Booktopia(AU) | A&R(AU) | Waterstones(UK) | Foyles(UK)

Fa La La La Laaah La La La La

Early-morning beach walk (Denmark, Western Australia Christmas 2013)
Early-morning beach walk (Denmark, Western Australia Christmas Day 2013)

It’s that time of year – time to deck the halls and all that stuff. It’s my favourite time. It’s Christmas time.

I am not what you would call a religious person – I know this, because I was once very religious and I am now the antithesis of that – but I LOVE Christmas. Love it, love it, love it.


The only reason that I don’t listen to holiday music all year around, is to retain its specialness. I love Christmas music – and I mean everything from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir signing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ to Mariah Carey singing ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, to Nat King Cole’s ‘The Christmas Song’. ‘Carol of the Bells’ gives me chills, and my all-time fave is ‘Silent Night’.

The only Christmas song I don’t like is ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, a.k.a ‘The Date Rape Song’. Listen carefully to the lyrics if you don’t believe me. As an side, I have also just discovered Eartha Kitt’s ‘Nothin’ for Christmas’, which is essentially the Christmas sexual harassment song. So, I guess that’s two Christmas songs I don’t like, but, as I often do, I digress.


My family is a wonderful mix of Australian, American and English, so the Christmas food that hits our plates is also an incredible mix.

American-style Christmas cookies are a must. Once, my sister and I embarked on an all-day baking intensive. We baked hundreds of cookies – 5 different kinds – including the ones that have to be individually iced. By the end of the day we were in a foul mood, but it soon lifted – we just ate Christmas cookies and all was well!

We ALWAYS have Russian Tea Cakes, which are, quite simply, the best food ever. In the history of the universe. And just so you can enjoy them too, here is the recipe:

  • 1 c butter
  • ½ c icing (powdered) sugar
  • 2 ¼ c sifted plain flour
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • ¾ c chopped nuts – pecans/walnuts

Mix, form into balls, bake at 180C / 375F for 8 minutes, dust with icing sugar while still warm. Then roll in icing sugar when they’re cool.

They looks like this:


The Pommie influence is in the traditional Christmas dinner, which we often persevered with even in the 40C heat of Perth. Christmas pudding is absolutely essential. I love it. And I can recommend buying it, not making it. The ones you can buy are so damned good, why would you spend all that time and effort to make one? Heston Blumenthal’s are apparently the best you can buy. We’ll be having one of those this Christmas. With custard. Warm, runny custard. Oh my.

My partner’s family traditionally make steamed cranberry pudding, which I have yet to master after two tries. It is tart and bitter, but is served with a super sweet caramel sauce. It’s not my fave, but I will give it another try – for him.

And, because I grew up in Australia, we have a Christmas tradition of breakfasting on prawns, smoked salmon, a summer fruit platter and champagne – lots of bubbles!



Every year, my mom (she’s the American parent), gives my sister and me a new Christmas decoration. The collection is now vast, and each year, I trot out the old and add the new. I’ve taken to collecting them too, and giving them – it’s such a lovely way to mark a Christmas spent with special people. Mom has also extended this tradition to our S.O.s and my nephew. This year I will be delivering all five 2014 decorations to London, but more on that later.

hristmas fireplace 2013

I love to decorate for Christmas. Sometimes we’ve had a real tree – especially when we lived in the Evergreen state, Washington – and sometimes we’ve travelled for Christmas, so we decorated our hotel room with our Christmas stockings.


We also wear antlers during Christmas celebrations. My dad started this tradition, and it’s carried on to the next generation:

Ben opening stocking gifts

Visiting with baby Oliver Christmas 2012

And, there are the Daves…


The first Reindeer Dave was made by my grandmother, Joan, along with Celeste, the angel who appears in this picture. My step-mum took up the tradition after grandma died, and made a Dave for all of us. Last year we travelled to spend Christmas with family in Western Australia, where several Daves congregated. Our Dave is on the right.

And here’s our Dave this year:


We’re travelling again this year, so no tree, but Dave shares a little Christmas tableau with our Aussie Christmas animals, and some of the Christmas bells that were given to Ben by his grandparents every year.


I love giving presents. I do love getting them too, but I have a lot of fun seeking out the perfect gift for my loved ones – right down to the stocking-stuffers. And oh yes, we’re big on stockings in my family, something I have enjoyed carrying on with Ben. This year, the biggest gift we’re giving is our presence, as we’re flying to London to spend Christmas with my sister, brother-in-law and nephew, who is 3-and-a-half.

I am guessing that once we’re packed, we’ll discover that one whole suitcase is dedicated to presents. It’s hard not to spoil your only nephew, especially when he’s such a great, appreciative kid, and he’s now at that age where Christmas is a big deal to him – and so is his aunty and uncle travelling to see him from Australia. He’s also a Brit born to two Aussie parents, and we are loaded up on Aussie children’s books and toys, so he will be an Aussie kid too.


Yes, the music is festive, the decorations make me giddy, presents are awesome, and I adore eating Christmas food, but the best part of Christmas is family. And, that of course means the family I was born with and those who have become family. We dress up, we get together, swap gifts, eat amazing food, have lots of bubbles, and just generally partake in a mutual admiration society. The thing is, I am really fortunate that my family gatherings – and especially Christmas – are fun. We laugh, we play bocce or sing karaoke, we play party games, we watch concerts on DVD and Christmas moves, like ‘Love Actually’ (my fave). We just have a good time, which is maybe the reason I love it all so much.

Oh, and this year we will get to watch the Downton Abbey Christmas special as it airs live on British television. It’s a long way to travel for a favourite TV show, but it’s one of my Christmas presents to myself.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope it’s grand. And make the Russian Tea Cakes – you won’t regret it.

~ Sandy

So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

I have just had another brilliant Christmas.  I truly love Christmas.  I love the cookies,the music, and being with family and friends. Oh, and I LOVE presents.  Having spent the last two Christmases in colder climes, I was thrilled to be able to have a true blue dinky di Aussie Christmas – well, our version of it anyway.

The abridged day is:

Christmas Stockings, big presents, champagne brekkie of prawns, smoked salmon and fruit salad, Christmas ham for a late lunch, and much wine.  We also fit in a game of backyard Boules, Trivial Pursuit and some more wine.

And Linda
Aunty Linda’s first stocking

Stocking stuffers
My stocking stuffers

Dad and Gail opening presents

Christmas Brekkie

Who is the bigger ham?

Christmas Lunch
More food

Backyard Boules
Backyard Boules

That was all a couple of days ago, and we haven’t slowed down – oh no!  How much fun, laughter, food  and drink can one person handle?  It was lovely, and made even moreso by phone calls to loved ones, and the arrival of more loved ones on Boxing Day.  It was a brilliant Christmas, and it also was a wonderful send off.

My aunty

My next grand adventure FINALLY begins in a couple of days.  I said a sad goodbye to my family today, and drove the four and a half hours north to Perth, where I sit and write this.  Tomorrow I fly to Sydney for a last night with my Sydney family, and then on Monday I fly to the U.S.

These past months have been a rollercoaster ride, with every little triumph and setback seeming monumental.  I have cried – with sadness and joy – and laughed often – once so hard I made no sound.  I have used up my quota of swear words for 2009 and probably 2010.  I have packed, unpacked, and re-packed bags, boxes, and more bags.  I have lugged heavy things up and down stairs, and have given away or sold half of my ‘stuff’.  I have traversed the continent and the cities.  I have been on the go for what seems like forever. 

When I was on the south coast of Western Australia for Christmas, I got a glimpse of what ‘at peace’ feels like.  I was able to be still for many consecutive days, and to just ‘be’.  It felt amazing.  I am now looking forward to more of that feeling.  I know that it will come when I unpack my bags and boxes, and when I settle into a lovely apartment with the man I love, and embrace my future.  I feel nothing but awe and excitement when I think of the possibilities.  Now that the visa is approved, the flight is booked, and the boxes are in Seattle…Now that the car is sold, and I have said my good byes, I can look ahead and feel ‘at peace’.

I will miss my family and friends – you all know that.  But I will be back.  Ben promises, and so do I.

Me and Dad

Glitter, gambling, glamour. It can only be Vegas.

Las Vegas. An oasis of guilty pleasures in the middle of the desert. Glitter, gambling and glamour. Right? Well, sort of.

Last year the call went out. My mother wished for nothing more than to return to her homeland, and wanted my sister and I to join her for an American Christmas – in Las Vegas. This is where mum’s sister and her family have lived for the better part of three decades. For Aunt Joanne and Uncle Tom, and their children, and their children’s children, Las Vegas is home; it is where they live, work, go to school, buy groceries, do chores and play.

I hadn’t been there since before I was of legal drinking age (I was 19), so I was looking forward to reconnecting with my family, as well as discovering what all the fuss about Vegas was about. I was not disappointed on either front.

I was delighted to meet (again) my beautiful Aunt Joanne, who has the wisest and kindest eyes I have ever had look upon me, and my Uncle Tom, whose wit is drier than the desert he lives in. I laughed a lot with my cousin, Mary, and loved meeting her daughter, who I had nursed on my lap, now a young woman with a sharp wit of her own. What an ease there was between us, even when time and distance had separated us for 20 years.

My sister flew in from London, Ben flew in from Minnesota, Cousin Cathy flew in from Phoenix, and my mother was overjoyed to have us all there to celebrate Christmas together.

But, I couldn’t shake the question running through my head at a rate of knots: “What is Christmas in Vegas going to be like?” I mean it was LAS VEGAS and I was there to celebrate one of the holiest events on the Christian calendar – not that this is why Christmas is my favourite holiday – but that is beside the point. I was just fascinated by the irony!

I would soon discover that Las Vegas is a city of contrasts, where the beauty of the landscape far outweighs that of the ‘beautiful people’, and much of the fun happens well off The Strip. And Christmas in Vegas? Well, that was all about contrasts too.

We watched White Christmas; we fired handguns. We drove around looking at Christmas lights, and saw a topless review. We spent part of Christmas Day people-watching along The Strip, and the rest hanging out at ‘home’ and consuming an enormous Christmas feast with the family. Oh yes, we squeezed every ounce of goodness out of this particular holiday.

We did fire handguns – Ben, Vic and I. A few days before Christmas we walked through the doors of a gun shop and shooting range on the outskirts of the city. We were greeted exuberantly by a man called John, a gentle bear with no backside to speak of, so his jeans hung dangerously low.

Now, my sister and I had never shot a hand gun before – we were gun virgins – whereas Ben has handled firearms (responsibly) since he was a boy on hunting trips with grandpa and at target practice with dad. The process that day was pretty straightforward. We filled in photocopied forms with basic information, and between the three of us, we produced exactly 0 pieces of identification. Ben opted for the high end stuff; he shot a 50 calibre Desert Eagle and an MP5, which is an automatic. Vic and I were given a .22 and a Glock (.38), respectively.

The shooting range was just a small room with cinderblock walls, partitions and a simple pulley system for flying the targets to the other end of the room. When we walked in, the semi-automatic shotgun one man was firing tore through the sound-proofing of our ear protection. The ‘boom’, ‘boom’, ‘boom’ was felt right through our bodies too. My sister started shaking and spent most of our session in the safety of the gun shop. I stuck it out in the range to watch Ben fire high powered weapons, his back muscles straining against his T-shirt (sigh). Then it was my turn.

I was guided to the end partition, and John helped me load the clip into my gun. It was like it is in the movies. Gun in one hand, clip held in the palm of the other hand, and the two coming together with that ‘ratchet’ sound. Marvelous. I thought back to 15 minutes earlier when I had received my not-so-extensive instruction: right foot back, right arm nearly straight, left arm bent, lean into the gun, left hand cupping right, squeezing palms together to keep the gun steady and gently squeezing the trigger. “Pop”. Not quite the ‘boom’ of the semi-auto shot gun, or the short bursts from the MP5, but a satisfying feeling. I squinted down the room to my target. “Did I hit it?” I wondered. I squeezed the trigger a second time.

Now I voiced my thought aloud, “Did I hit it?” John informed me that I was firing high and just clipping the top of the target. “You need to follow through, just like as in tennis. Although with firing a gun, the ‘follow through’ means that you must keep the gun level and steady, even after you have fired it. This will keep the bullet on target.” Good to know. I tried it again and this time hit somewhere in the midsection of my target. I turned to John with glee on my face. “I did it!” I exclaimed. It was so gratifying.

I continued through the rest of the clip, aiming as best as I could for each shot. This particular gun will fire off round after round quickly, but I was purposefully aiming. At the end of the clip, I felt ‘done’. I still had another clip to go, but I didn’t want to shoot it, so Ben did. Inexplicably, I just didn’t want to shoot anymore. I had achieved what I wanted to achieve: I can now say that I have shot a hand gun. It is a peculiar feeling having that much power in my hands. I came away feeling contented, and with sore biceps.

I had already been out to see Vic and talk her into having a go, but she was teary and adamant that she was not going to. I went back into the range to collect my things, and John said he would talk to her. I thought he had no chance, until a moment later, there was my little sister (all 5’1” of her) geared up and firing a .22 – with a silencer.The silencer was the key. She was good too – a far better aim than me, and she seemed pleased that she had gone through with it.

How odd – and oddly rewarding – an experience. And no I.D. required! Days later I would need photo I.D. to enter Ben’s health club in St Paul as a guest, but I could fire a deadly weapon in the state of Nevada with nothing more than my signature on a photocopied form.

We commemorated the occasion with photographs of us holding automatic weapons, and with our rolled up targets in hand, we bid the boys at the gun shop and shooting range farewell. As we left I noticed the tinsel decorating the shop door. Oh yes, it was Christmas! I was so caught up in the incredibly cool thing I had just done, I had almost forgotten. “Happy Holidays,” I called out as we left.

The contrasts didn’t end there. Ben and I have had really different Christmases throughout our lives. We would be blending our own traditions to have our first together. Now, obviously, Christmas in Australia is hot. My family starts the day with a breakfast of champagne and cold seafood – prawns and crayfish (shrimp and lobster for my North American readers). The champagne was not much of a hard sell, but in our hotel room just off The Strip (The very lovely ‘Renaissance’) we opted for ripe red pears with our champagne, instead of seafood. We sipped the champagne while we opened our presents – mine to Ben a stocking stuffed with lots of smaller gifts (a Barker family thing), and his to me a stunning Sapphire bracelet (I am not sure if this is a family tradition, but it certainly took my breath away). Then we made our way downstairs for a full cooked breakfast, with coffee, which was more Ben’s style.

And the topless review? It was one of my gifts to Ben. Front row, baby! And it was spectacular. Sexy, sassy, a little cheesy, and a lot of fun. The women were every type of gorgeous, from natural fresh-faced beauties to heavily made up bombshells. Did it set feminism back 20 years? No. It celebrated the power of feminine beauty, and was a brilliant night out.
We also saw Cirque du Soleil’s Mystique – tickets were a gift from Joanne and Tom – and as a child of the theatre, it absolutely delighted me. I did not know where to look as the spectacle was all around us and above us. The stage transformed several times, and the journey we were taken on, a gift in the realm of surrealism. It was very easy to get lost in it.

We did gamble a few times, and we wandered The Strip, watching the people – a collection of folks from everywhere you can imagine. We went to M&M World, a merchandise playground for those with an obsession for M&M’s (um, me). My sister and I tried to out ‘cute’ each other with each successive thing we pulled off the shelf. I am such a sucker for that stuff. I found that I absolutely could not live without a Green M&M ruler, and matching keyring. They see us coming for miles, I am sure. They do not give out samples, which is a crime against humanity.

Yes, Las Vegas at Christmas time is a little unusual. The sun is shining and there are no clouds in the sky, yet it is cold, but not cold like it is in Minnesota that time of year. So, perhaps it was the perfect place for Ben and I to spend our first Christmas together – he got his cold weather and I got my blue skies.

And the real reason I love Christmas, is because it is a time when family and loved ones come together. I missed my dad, my step-mum and the rest of my family and loved ones back in Australia, but I am so glad I had my wonderful, bizarre, and love-filled Christmas in Vegas.