Saturday, May 31, 2008

Guest Blogger: Xujun Eberlein

I recently read and reviewed APOLOGIES FORTHCOMING by Xujun Eberlein. I enjoyed the book so much that I asked Ms. Eberlein if she would be a guest blogger. She sent me the following essay that first appeared in MotherVerse in spring 2006.

The New American Mom

In pain, you know only your native language.

The fetal monitor beside me showed a running curve, no pause between contractions. I was screaming in Chinese, my American husband told me later, but the language of pain did not need translation: the midwife hurried over to offer a painkiller. I refused; I did not want to risk my baby to any drug, no matter how safe they said it was.

When the baby finally emerged, wet and squalling, the midwife encouraged my husband to cut her umbilical cord. He did it with shaking hands while, with one glance at the new life I had created, I fell into the deep sleep of exhaustion. Hours later I opened my eyes to find myself still on the delivery bed; Bob sat to the side watching me, and our tiny new baby cradled in his big arms. I wanted to see whom the baby looked like, her American father or Chinese mother, but her closed eyes and the little reddened face gave no clue. Only her rhythmic hiccups expounded the commonness among humans.

Early the next morning, a nurse came to my hospital bed asking if I had urinated. "I did a lot," I told her, trying to be complete, but my Southern Chinese tongue, which did not distinguish "l" from "n," twisted the sound of "lot" to "not." "You did, or you did not?" The nurse asked again, her face twisted in confusion. I repeated the answer. She repeated the question. Several repetitions later, the frustrated nurse left without a sure answer. I only hoped that information was not important.

Giving birth was not the only hard thing for me in the new land.

Bob and I were married in China, and I had come to America with him for only a few months. Shortly after my arrival, one afternoon a delivery truck brought to our door a new refrigerator Bob had just purchased. The driver, a big muscular man in a white T-shirt, demanded a $30 delivery fee. I wanted to tell him my husband had paid the fee at the store, besides I did not have the cash at hand. However I could not form a proper English sentence. I made repeated "Ah, ah" sounds, like a mute person trying to talk, and they infuriated the man. He shouted, flailing his arms, "You don't wanna pay? Heh? Heh?" I understood his Boston-accented English, but I could not make him understand me. I feared he was not trusting of my Chinese face. Our landlord, an American man at his fifties, ran downstairs and said, "Easy, easy. She's new here, she doesn't speak English. It’s only 30 bucks." He took out money from his own pocket and handed to the driver, who climbed up the truck with our landlord's money, and uttered some incomprehensible apologetic words.

Before our baby's birth, Bob persuaded me to attend an exercise class for expectant mothers. The first time the exercise instructor said "hold," I did not know what to do. I looked around to see what others did, but found no apparent movements. The instructor smiled at my puzzlement, "Like you were going to pee, but not," she explained. A slight laughter ensued from my classmates, all American women.

When I returned to the class for postpartum exercise, the secretary asked for my baby's picture and my comments on the experience of giving birth for the first time. The wall facing her desk was full of pictures of cute infants, all looked the same with closed-eyes, and their mothers' exhilarating notes. I told her, "It was painful." The smile disappeared from the middle-aged woman's face. After a moment she said, "Well, I'm not going to write that down."
A fellow mother beside me said, "You'll forget the pain, believe me. Then you'll want another baby!"

I went to Boston University's summer English school when my baby was three months old. I couldn't wait. I pumped my own milk (a very difficult and painful affair) each evening, and stored it in the new fridge. I nursed my baby in the morning, pushed her stroller with my pumped milk to the babysitter, and rode an hour on my bicycle from Belmont to BU. The bike ride was an idea of one arrow for two eagles: to save the subway fair and to lose the weight from my pregnancy. I bought the bike from a yard sale, and it cost only $15.

My class contained mostly young Japanese women, a decade younger than me perhaps. On the first day's introduction, I thought it funny that we had two Miki's. The second time I heard the name Miki, I chuckled, "Ah, Miki too!"

"My name is Miki! No Miki one, no Miki two!" the young woman yelled at me in an unexpected anger. "I said 'too,'" I tried to explain, "t-o-o," but it only made her angrier. What created me an unintended enemy the first day, my bad pronunciation, or the universality of lack-of-understanding, I was not sure.

Not a good start.

Katherine, the thirty-something teacher, chewed gum and gave us an assignment to make sentences from our new vocabulary. I was stuck at the word "ample." My baby did not take the pumped milk yesterday, the babysitter had told me. Should I quit the English school and stay home with her? Was she sick? I should check the color of her poop more carefully tonight.

I wrote: "A baby has ample poop."

Katherine read my sentence to the class and said it was wrong, but I did not understand why.
After class, the other Miki, the friendly one, asked me what "poop" meant. "The thing you do in bathroom," I told her. Her cheeks flushed, but she was persistent: "Which one? Big one or little one?"

The evening I asked my American husband what was wrong with my sentence. He laughed and laughed. "It's so cute! It's so cute!" He cooed to the baby, "Let's check your ample poop." He made me laugh too, but I suspected his love had handicapped his ability to teach me proper English. He enjoyed my Chinglish too much.

My baby cried the whole night and I did not finish my English homework. In the morning, during my hour-long bike ride to BU, it showered. I looked like a drenched chicken when I showed up at the classroom door and I was late. "Don't come in yet," Katherine frowned at me, then she turned to ask the other women students, "Who has extra clothes?"

The friendly Miki took me to her dorm in BU and made me change to her dry clothes. The shirt and the pants were a bit too short for me, but her generosity was not. We returned to the classroom twenty minutes later, and Katherine's expression softened.

Katherine paired off the students to check each other's homework, and she assigned the unfriendly Miki to me. I hesitated before saying, "I'm sorry, I did not get the time to do my homework." Miki wasted no time looking for more explanation. She shouted, in a victorious voice, to the teacher across the classroom, "She did not do the homework! She did not do the homework!" Katherine's face dropped. The entire class went quiet, and 12 pairs of eyes stared at me. I had not known this was such a big crime.

I told Katherine, and the class, about my crying baby, and my words sounded like a bad excuse. The quiet stares continued. None of the young students were married. I wasn't sure about Katherine's marital status, but I knew she was not a mother. The other day, during the lunch break, when I was looking for a store to buy a more effective milk pump, she had directed me to a bicycle shop.

Now she said, "Perhaps you should just stay home and be a good mother." Then she ordered me to leave.

I rode my bike home, crying all the way. I had always been a top student in China, from elementary to graduate school, and now I was kicked out of a class for a stupid piece of English homework.

The afternoon, Bob took off from work and drove to BU's administration office. The administrator responded to his protest by telling him that Katherine was an ambitious teacher, one of their best, and her aggressive approach was quite understandable.

I told Bob I was quitting the English school.

That weekend, in a Chinese friend's party, my baby sat on the floor playing with her rosy bear. She was four months old. Suddenly I heard a sound, a sound so clear, so melodious, like a pearl falling into a silver plate. It took me a moment to realize it was laughter, my baby's first laughter. I held her up, laughing too, turning around to meet Bob's equally amused eyes. The room was full of noises from the host and the guests, and no one else had noticed the most amazing, most rewarding sound in the world.

I rode my bike to BU again on Monday, my baby's first laughter following me all the way like sunshine. It made me realize that my English vocabulary would grow with her. One day—I promised myself—I would get revenge on Katherine with my first published story written in English.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Review: Apologies Forthcoming

Summary: A totally illuminating collection of stories centered around China's Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, which, as we learn, continues even today -- with both sides still holding out, with "apologies forthcoming." Xujun Eberlein lived in China during that tumultous period and now makes her home in America. This, her first short story collection, is both disturbing and enthralling. -- Livingston Press

I can't express how flattered I was when Xujun Eberlein asked me to read and review her new collection of short stories called APOLOGIES FORTHCOMING. I was brand-spanking new to blogging, and she was one of the first authors who contacted me asking that I review a book -- I was just thrilled. Ms. Eberlein and I agreed that I would post my review when her book was available in stores, and I'm happy to say that you can now buy it here.

I haven't read lot of short story collections in the past, but recently I have read a few and found that I really enjoyed them. I have always shied away from short story collections because I thought they were for more intellectual readers, but I now realize that I have been missing out on some wonderful reading. The stories in APOLOGIES FORTHCOMING are centered around the Chinese Cultural Revolution -- some stories take place during this time period and others take place after. What all these stories have in common is the life-altering effect that it had on the people who were involved in this turmoil.

I read a non-fiction book a few months ago about a girl who lived through the Chinese Revolution, FEATHER IN THE STORM; and it was the first time that I really understood what took place during this tumultous time period. I was absolutely shocked over some of the abuse that I read about! After reading APOLOGIES FORTHCOMING, I started to think more about the long-lasting effects of this cultural change on the Chinese people. Each story in this book will touch you deeply -- so many lives were changed forever.

One of my favorite stories was called "Feathers." This is a story about a young girl whose sister died while serving in the Red Guards. Like the character in the story, Ms. Eberlein also lost her sixteen year old sister who was in the Red Guards. I felt so much compassion for the young girl who was forced to grow up so much faster because of the death of her sister. In addition, I was distraught that a sixteen year old girl was fighting in the Revolution and lost her life for that cause. It was a deeply moving and troubling story, yet it was beautifully written.

While this book was disturbing and at times a little difficult to read because of the subject matter, there is no doubt that Ms. Eberlein is a very gifted writer. Through her vivid descriptions of the characters as well as Chinese life, she evokes a great deal of emotion from her readers. Ms. Eberlein has been awarded the 2007 Tart Fiction Award for APOLOGIES FORTHCOMING. In addition, she has won numerous other awards for her writings.

If you are interested in reading more about Ms. Eberlein, you can check out an excerpt of her book here or read an interview with her here. In addition to her website, she also maintains a blog called Inside-Out China, a Literary and Cultural Blog, which I found very interesting too.

Make sure you come back tomorrow because Ms. Eberlein will be guest blogging about being a new mom!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: Henry and the Hidden Veggie Garden

Summary: Meet Henry. He's a typical kid who likes television and video games, pizza, and burgers. One thing he doesn't like is vegetables. When Henry's mother sees him hiding his veggies one night, she decides it's time for him to visit his older cousin Huck. Huck lives on a farm in the middle of the country.

Henry is skeptical at first about life on the farm, but soon he makes friends with dogs, pigs, and a shy horse. Huck introduces him to crispy fresh foods he's never seen before. But Henry's not sure what you make of the baskets of vegetables that everyone else seems to love. Then Huck lets Henry in on a secret, and everything changes... -- book jacket

I was so excited when I was asked to read HENRY AND THE HIDDEN VEGGIE GARDEN by Kimberly Williams-Paisley for a number of reasons. Although I do buy a lot of children's books, I don't receive many requests to feature them on my blog. I love reading to my kids and sharing my love of books with them; and I thought this book would be perfect for my 3 1/2 year old son who doesn't eat any vegetables. In addition, I've always considered myself a fan of Kimberly Williams-Paisley ever since her "Father of the Bride" days.

My kids probably fall right between the target ages for HENRY AND THE HIDDEN VEGGIE GARDEN. The book is actually a little young for my 8 1/2 year old daughter (who already loves veggies anyway); and I was a little worried that it might be a too long for my son, but it did manage to hold his attention. I definitely think the book is appropriate for preschool through early elementary school age children. The pictures are very colorful and my son enjoyed looking at them while I read the story. I wasn't sure how much of the story he would retain; but when I asked him some questions afterwards, he totally "got it" -- he said that Henry likes to eat vegetables now.

Like many of us moms, Ms. Williams-Paisley is concerned about the health of children in today's world. She joined Hidden Valley Ranch Salad Dressings, along with their School Nutrition Foundation and Produce for Better Health Foundation, to support their "Love Your Veggies" program. This program gives grants to schools that want their students to have better access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Click here if you would like to see Kimberly Williams-Paisley's public service announcement.

I strongly recommend this book if you're like me and want your children to eat healthier. It's a total bargain at $5.00, and you can order it here. It's a good thing that I liked the story since I'm pretty sure that I'll be reading this book many more times -- my son is now calling it "his favorite." Hopefully, the lesson in the story will wear off on him and he'll learn to love his veggies. I'll just have to see the what happens the next time I try to serve him green beans or broccoli!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review: The Venetian Mask

Summary: At the Ospedale della pieta, a music school for orphaned girls in Venice, Marietta Fontana and Elena Baccini meet and become like sisters to each other. As they leave their impoverished childhoods behind, their bond grows more complicated -- Elena marries a scion of the powerful Celano family, while Marietta weds a wealthy widower who is the sworn enemy of the Celanos. When Elena secretly bears a child, then quickly gives it up to be raised by Marietta, a chain of events is set off that will test the true strength of their friendship and threaten every bit of security each woman has worked so hard to gain.

Rich and evocative, The Venetian Mask beautifully re-creates eighteenth-century Venice: the complex webs of politics, class, and religion; the rituals, intrigue, superstitions, and betrayals in a city of ever-shifting fortunes. The Venetian Mask is a page-turning tale that will capture the hearts and imaginations of its readers. -- book jacket

I'm embarrassed to say that I received an ARC of THE VENETIAN MASK by Rosalind Laker a few months ago. I have had wonderful intentions to read it for quite awhile, and I even included it in my list for the Spring Reading Thing 2008; but for some reason, I just got around to reading it this week. I was so in the mood for a good historical fiction book, and this book hit the spot. Plus, it counts towards the Chunkster Challenge (another thing I've kind of let drop these past few months.

I definitely enjoyed THE VENETIAN MASK, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to lovers of historical fiction books; however, it didn't quite hold my attention the way THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL did. I'm not sure that he Marietta and Elena characters were developed fully enough -- they were kind of flat to me. This book was more about their actions, rather than what went on inside their heads that motivated them to those actions.

Having said that about my little issue with the characters, I did think the storyline was very intriguing. Because this book is very heavily plot driven, I guess it's a good thing that I enjoyed the story. I liked reading about the on-going conflict between the Celano and Torrisi families -- kind of like a modern day mafia war. In addition, I enjoyed getting caught up in the lies and deceptions of the characters. There were a few plot twists that kept things interesting too.

What I really loved about this book was Ms. Laker's ability to bring Venice to life! Venice was probably the most developed character in the entire novel. I am absolutely dying to visit Italy; however, we're not going anytime soon, so I'll just have to "visit" the country through the words of authors. Ms. Laker's descriptions were so precise that I could picture eighteenth-century Venice in clear detail. I could even imagine all of the scents of Venice too (some good, and some not so good.) Being kind of a girly girl, I especially appreciated her explanations of the exquisite clothes, costumes, and masks. It is quite apparent to me that she conducted a lot of research before writing this novel.

THE VENETIAN MASK was originally released in the early 1990s, but it has recently been re-issued by Three Rivers Press. If you are looking for a good summer read, I suggest reading this novel -- I think it would make a terrific beach read! Ms. Laker has written numerous other historical fiction books, and I wouldn't hesitate to read another one.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Review: A Good Indian Wife

Summary: A clash of hearts and cultures set against the divergent backdrops of rural India and downtown San Francisco.

Handsome anesthesiologist Neel prides himself on his decisiveness, both in and out of the operating room. So when he agrees to return to India to visit his ailing grand­father, he is sure he’ll be able to resist his family’s pleas that he marry a “good” Indian girl. With a girlfriend and a promising career back in San Francisco, the last thing Neel needs is an arranged marriage.

Leila is a thirty-year-old teacher in Neel’s family’s village who has watched too many prospective husbands come and go to think her newest suitor will be any different. She is well past prime marrying age; her family has no money for a dowry; and then there’s the matter of an old friendship with a Muslim boy named Janni.

Neel and Leila struggle to reconcile their own desires with the expectations of others in this riveting story of two people, two countries, and two ways of life that may be more compatible than they seem. -- WW Norton

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have received an ARC of A GOOD INDIAN WIFE by Anne Cherian. I love getting sneak previews of books; however, I have such a backlog of books that I actually ended up reading this book a few weeks after its hardcover release. I probably should have bumped it up in my TBR pile because I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.

It seems like novels about the Indian culture are extremely popular right now, and I find myself fascinated by them. In fact, my book club has read two Indian themed novels, THE NAMESAKE and THE HINDI-BINDI CLUB just within the past few years. I'm not exactly sure why my friends and I are all drawn to stories about Indians living in the United States, but I'm guessing that it has something to do with learning about other cultures. When I read a book (even a fictional book) about people from other countries, I am always extremely interested in finding out more about their customs and beliefs.

I certainly enjoyed reading A GOOD INDIAN WIFE; however, I have to say that it did take me a few chapters to really "get into" the story. I had a little difficulty getting past the thoughts and actions of Neel and Caroline. However once I got past my hang-ups, I couldn't put the book down! I had to keep reading to find out the fates of Leila and Neel. Both characters were thrown into a very difficult situation by agreeing to an arranged marriage, and I don't think either fully understood the consequences. I felt so much compassion towards Leila (and even a little towards Neel) -- I can't imagine marrying a stranger and then moving to a brand new country. As if that's not enough, her husband doesn't love her or even pay any attention to her.

This book really made me think about how difficult it would be to move to a new country and start a new life, especially when the culture is so dramatically different -- as in the case of moving from India to the United States. I moved around a lot as a child (all within the U.S.) and I remember how hard it was to make new friends and be accepted. I can't even begin to imagine the shock of moving to a new country with a different language, a new husband, different values and different customs. I also liked that this book made a point of how an Indian might not feel like they truly belong in the United States; but when they go back to visit India, they no longer fit in there either. It has to be such an awkward position to be in.

A GOOD INDIAN WIFE would make a terrific book club pick -- I'm pretty sure that my book club would enjoy discussing it. I would love to hear everyone's opinions on arranged marriages, family obligations, American vs. Indian customs and culture, etc. My only issue with picking this book right now is that I couldn't find any discussion questions. I would be willing to bet that the publisher is working on them and will have them available in the very near future! As soon as I find them, I will add a link on this post.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Novella Challenge - Complete

I am very happy to say that I completed my first challenge -- The Novella Challenge hosted by Trish. The goal of the challenge was to read six novellas between April 2008 and September 2008. Here's my complete list!

The Ginseng Hunter
The Uncommon Reader
Embittered Justice
The Postman
Boone's Creek: Almost Home

Prior to this reading challenge, I rarely picked up novellas. I guess that's the beauty of participating in these challenges -- I read some books out of my "comfort zone" and found that I really enjoyed them. While I've already read the six books necessary to complete this challenge, there are still a few more novellas that I plan on reading in the future.

Thanks to Trish for hosting this event and bringing a new type of book into my life!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Review: Boone's Creek: Almost Home

Summary: Jenna Lewis is a search and rescue handler. She and her beloved dog Nikko are summoned to Sebring, Florida, to aid in the rescue of a family who has gone missing. Jenna feels she is out of her league until the night her own grandmother goes missing too. The horrible accident which takes Jenna’s family motivates her to rescue other people. Jenna becomes the target of a web of deceit and corruption. Even though she is afraid to let herself fall in love, she realizes she needs Joe’s help to find her grandmother. -- Publish America

I haven't read been reading many mysteries these past few months; so when I got the opportunity to read BOONE'S CREEK: ALMOST HOME by Kathryn Neff Perry, I thought I'd give it a try. This book was a quick read -- I read it in one sitting; and since it is only 170 pages, it counted for The Novella Challenge. While the mystery aspect of the story held my attention, I have to admit that I didn't really love the book.

I would say that my major gripe with the book was in the writing style, especially the dialogue between the characters. The conversations didn't really seem to be natural or flow, but rather they were extremely awkward sounding and even forced at times. I also kept noticing the use of the characters' first names in the dialogue. Maybe this wouldn't be something that bothers most readers, but I don't know many people who talk this way -- it just didn't seem natural to me.

I also had a minor issue with part of the storyline. At one point, Jenna realizes that she has a folder in her possession that a "bad guy" gave her by mistake. For some reason, she kept forgetting to look at the folder. I know she was busy trying to solve a mystery, but I have to think that most sleuths (even an amateur one) would open the folder to see what was inside.

On a positive note, I did like the main characters in this book (especially Nikko, the search and rescue dog!) Jenna was an extremely sensitive and caring woman who had faced a lot of heartache in her life and survived; and Joe, her friend and love interest, also seemed to be a stand-up guy who had faced a lot of sadness. The character of EK, Jenna's grandmother, also provided some light/humorous moments with her quirkiness. It was refreshing to see that the characters turned to God when they were having problems or even when they just wanted to thank Him for the blessings in their lives.

I have to wonder if we'll be seeing more of these characters in a future book. I think the author has set herself up for a series of Boone Creek mysteries with how she left the ending of this book. While this book wasn't one of my favorites, I wouldn't rule out reading another one by this author especially if the dialogue is a little more natural.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hello.....You Won The Blood of Flowers

The winner of THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS giveaway is Cheryl at Cheryl's Book Nook. Congratulations! I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I'd like to thank everyone who entered the contest, and a big thank you goes out to Hachette Book Group USA for sponsoring this contest.

Friday, May 23, 2008

One More Day to Enter My Giveaway

You still have until 11:59 EST tonight (Friday) to enter my giveaway for THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS by Anita Amirrezvani. If you are a lover of historical fiction books, you really should read this one! Click here for more information on the book and details on how to enter the contest. I will announce the winner tomorrow.

Review: Rutka's Notebook

Summary: In 2006, an 82-year-old woman in Bedzin, Poland, revealed a secret she had kept from the world for 61 years: she possessed a notebook written by her friend Rutka Laskier, a 14-year-old Jewish girl, in the months before she perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Written over a period of four months early in 1943, the diary provides a striking new perspective on the daily life of Jews trapped in the nightmare of the Holocaust. Like the diary of Anne Frank, to which it has often been compared, Rutka's story offers a moving portrait of everyday adolescent joys and sorrows, mixed with unimaginable horrors. With Rutka, we watch as a German soldier murders an infant before its mother's eyes, and as Jews are herded into a sports stadium and "selected" for destinies of life, labor -- or Auschwitz.

The diary became national news in Poland and Israel when first published in 2006. Now Time Magazine and Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocast Remembrance Authority, present the first U.S. edition of this historic document, with new annotations and photographs that bring Rutka's vanished world to memorable life. Read it -- and remember. -- book jacket

I'm not even sure where to begin talking about this book. When it arrived at my door this morning, I had every intention of placing it in my TBR pile. However, I started to read the first few pages and I couldn't put it down. I was just so deeply touched by Rutka's story. It seems like no matter how many books I read on the Holocaust, I am still blown away that this horrific incident took place.

The story surrounding this diary is almost as interesting as what occurs in its pages. Knowing that she would have to evacuate soon because of the Germans, Rutka told a non-Jewish friend that she would hide the notebook in her apartment. After the war ended, the friend found Rutka's notebook and kept it to herself for over 60 years. She was finally persuaded to share the notebook with the world, and it has since been published in numerous countries.

It's difficult to say that I enjoyed a book about this subject matter, but I did find it incredibly moving -- I can't stress how important I think it is that we never forget that the Holocaust occurred. I recently read ANNE FRANK: A LIFE IN HIDING with my 8 year old daughter for our Mother Daughter book club, but this book affected me much more (of course, A LIFE IN HIDING was written for younger children.) I think part of the reason that I am so haunted by RUTKA'S NOTEBOOK is that this book had so many pictures and notes to supplement her words. Seeing the pictures and documentation on every other page of the book just makes the entire story so much more real.

What I found incredibly difficult about reading this book was how much Rutka seemed to know about the atrocities of the war. She was only 14 years old, and yet she understood that her chances for survival were slim. At times her entries into her diary seemed so normal for a young girl -- stories about her parents, her friends and boys. Other times, however, she described horrific things that no 14 year old girl should ever have had to experience. I am truly amazed by how resilient she was even when faced with such a nightmare situation.

One thing I liked about this book was that it includes two essays by Rutka's half-sister Zahava Laskier Scherz. She described how she found a photograph album of her father's "first" family at the age of 14 (the same age as Rutka when she wrote her diary.) After finding these pictures, she and her father were able to talk about what happened to his family during the Holocaust -- a family that Zahava never knew even existed. The book also contained a few other essays by Jewish authors and historians that helped to supplement Rutka's diary as well.

I keep re-reading her words and I am continually amazed by her ability to express her thoughts so well. Here is an example of an especially poignant entry, "The town is breathlessly waiting in anticipation, and this anticipation is the worst of all." I wish it would end already! This is torment; this is hell. I try to escape from these thoughts of the next day, but they keep haunting me like nagging flies. If only I could say, it's over, you die only one...But I can't, because despite all these atrocities I want to live and wait for the following day. That means waiting for Auschwitz or a labor camp."

I think RUTKA'S NOTEBOOK is an amazing book. I was deeply affected by it, and I know that Rutka's words will stay with me for a very long time.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Want to Win a Free Book?

You still have two more days to enter my contest to win a free copy of THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS by Anita Amirrezvani! Click here to read more about the book and to enter the contest.

Review: The Rope Walk

Summary: In The Rope Walk, Carrie Brown crafts a luminous story of a young girl's coming of age during a crucial summer in New England. On her tenth birthday Alice meets two visitors to her quiet town: Theo, the African American grandson of her father's best friend, and Kenneth, an artist who has come home to convalesce. Theo forms an instant bond with Alice that will indelibly change them both. The pair in turn befriend Kenneth, and decide to build a “rope walk” through the woods for him, allowing to make his way through the outdoor world he has always loved. But their good intentions lead to surprising consequences, and Alice soon learns how different the world of children and adults really are. -- Anchor Books

When I was given the opportunity to pick a couple of newly-released books from Anchor Books and Vintage Books, I felt kind of like a kid in a candy store. There were many books on the list that looked interesting, but I just knew I wanted to read THE ROPE WALK by Carrie Brown. I am usually drawn to coming of age stories, especially ones about pre-teen girls. I certainly wasn't disappointed with this novel.

Alice was such a wonderful character and within the first few chapters of this book, I fell in love with this young girl. Ms. Brown really captured the essence of a 10 year old girl; and I felt she did a very good job of making Alice very real to the reader. My heart went out to Alice -- she was just a little girl who had lost her mother when she was very young and she was living in a house full of men. With her older brothers heading off to college, she was very lonely and in need of a friend. Theo, a young African American boy, and Kenneth, an artist who returns home because of an illness, enter her life and they all form an immediate friendship.

To me, this book is really about growing up and losing some of the innocence that we all had as children. The author makes many mentions of 9/11, terrorism, suicide bombings and other tragic events that we face on the evening news each night. She also has Alice facing many situations that are hard for us to deal with and accept even as grown-ups including illness, depression, and death. In addition, Alice learns that the adults that she knows and loves aren't always what they seem to be.

While the book does take a sad and rather unfortunate turn, I still didn't feel depressed after I finished the book. Although the kids had been through so much, they still kept enough of their innocence and hope to show the reader that "all is not lost." I loved that this book was told through the eyes of a young child because it was so refreshing to see a character who was honest, sincere and hopeful. Alice will remain in my mind for some time.

I think this book is beautifully written; and Ms. Brown has created a story with richly developed characters. Her descriptions throughout the book of the Vermont countryside, the houses, and even the furniture are so clear that the reader can picture each of these perfectly. I wouldn't hesitate after reading THE ROPE WALK to read another book by Ms. Brown.

THE ROPE WALK is the perfect book club book! This book covers a lot of issues about growing up and learning about yourself as well as learning about the world. I think the questions in the reading guide are very good and will help generate a great deal of discussion.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Review: Entropy

Summary: When it all seems to be falling apart...

Gradually but irresistibly, events in Nick's life have spun out of control and Nick can only hold on and survive. He finds himself trying to understand the ending of past relationships while becoming involved in new ones, and he finds himself falling in love. As everything seems to be falling apart, Nick tries to piece together the pieces, tries to restore order. Halt the entropy. -- book cover

Last month Tony Gordon, author of ENTROPY, asked if I was interested in reading and reviewing his new novel. Of course, I said yes -- I love reading new books and finding new authors. I thought the book about a man whose life is falling apart sounded like an interesting read (plus the book is only 133 pages, so it qualifies for the Novella Challenge.)

The title of the book is just perfect. Merriam-Webster defines "entropy" as: a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder; chaos, disorganization. The story is told in first person narrative by Nick, a tragic figure whose life has just taken a turn for the worse. His wife just left him after having a miscarriage; and he is the only person living in his abandoned neighborhood. Add to that losing his mother to suicide when he was a young boy; and the reader quickly finds out that Nick is pretty much all alone in the world.

I couldn't put the book down because I had to find out what happens to Nick. While the book is rather dark and depressing, there are moments of humor. I found myself actually chuckling at a few of Nick's comments and reactions to the other characters in the story. I couldn't help but like Nick, even though some of his actions disappointed me. I felt so much compassion for Nick, and I kept hoping that he could turn himself and his life around.

What I really enjoyed about this book, though, was the struggle that Nick kept facing between what he thought was right versus what he wanted to do. There is a wonderful quote in this book by Nick's stripper friend that sums up this theme really well, "Part of me doesn't like it, you know? But part of me does and doesn't want to admit it." Nick responds to this with, "I feel like telling her that I know, I know all about those parts of ourselves that do things we don't want to like doing." This theme permeates throughout the entire novel. While I certainly can't say that I understand all of Nick's actions, I think his feelings are a universal theme for everyone.

ENTROPY is Mr. Gordon's first novel; however, he has had some short stories published in various literary magazines. He is also a past winner of the North Carolina Writers' Network Fiction Competition. If you are interested in reading one of short stories, The Shape of You, the Shape of Me is posted on his Writing in General blog. He will have a collection of his short stories published in the near future. After reading ENTROPY, I will certainly be interested in reading this book too.

Also reviewed at:
Cheryl's Book Nook
Michele - Only One 'L'

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review: If I'd Known Then

Summary: If you could send a letter back in time to yourself, what would it say? Following in the tradition of the bestselling What I Know Now™ comes a new collection that will speak directly to young women. Editor Ellyn Spragins asked women under forty to write letters to the girls they once were, filled with the advice and insights they wish they’d had when they were younger. Readers will recognize familiar names as well as meet new voices in these wonderfully candid missives, including: author Hope Edelman; actress Jessica Alba; Olympic soccer gold medalist Julia Foudy; activist Zainab Salbi; actress Danica McKellar; and author Plum Sykes. A perfect gift at graduation or for any important young woman in your life, If I’d Known Then offers rare glimpses into the personal stories of extraordinary young women-and will inspire readers to live their best lives. -- Da Capo Press

IF I'D KNOWN THEN by Ellyn Spragins is a wonderful book for any teenage girl in your life. There are countless words of wisdom from 35 successful women who write letters to their younger selves. The author interviewed each of these women and learned valuable information about them as both children and adults. Each section begins with a few pages of background on the "famous" woman. A letter that the woman wrote to her younger self follows each brief bio. Most of the women chose to write their letters at a time of major change in their lives. I found both the background information and the letters equally interesting.

What I enjoyed the most from this book is that young girls can see that they are not alone with their insecurities -- even the most popular girls have lots of doubt about themselves. In middle school and high school, I didn't always like myself very much. I was very insecure about my looks, my athletic abilities, boys, etc. How I would have loved reading letters like these and seeing that famous, successful women had a lot of the same feelings that I did.

Here are a few snippets from the letters that I found to be insightful:

"Whatever you do, do not spend one second worrying about what kids your own age think." -- Jessica Alba, actress

"Sometimes you are your own worst enemy. Don't be so serious. Don't despise where you're at. Instead, try enjoying it. Realize that you can't make everyone like you -- there's always someone who won't." -- Natasha Bedingfield, singer/songwriter

"As overwhelming as events will be, remember that getting to the other side of them will bring a cascade of new opportunities into your life." -- Bethany Hamilton, professor surfer

"Being treated as a dork will color who you are forever. You'll know that you are a survivor. You'll fear few things. You'll have a great dose of humility, and you'll understand vulnerability -- which will be crucial to the creative person you will become." -- Kimberly Williams Paisley, actress

I could have pulled quotes like these from each of the 35 letters in this book. I know that more than a few of the letters will resonate with each and every reader as they look back on their teenage years. Even at 39 years old, I found this book to be very comforting -- I wasn't the only one with these feelings!

While I was reading this book, I kept thinking about what I would write to my younger self. First and foremost, I would probably say "Grades aren't everything." I'd also tell myself, "Julie, those guys that you think are so awesome are so not right for you. You will meet an amazing guy your sophomore year in college who is your perfect match." What would you tell your younger self?

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Blood of Flowers Giveaway

Summary: Both a sweeping love story and a luminous portrait of a city, THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS is the mesmerizing historical novel of an ill-fated young woman whose gift as a rug designer transforms her life. Illuminated with glorious detail of persian rug-making, and brilliantly bringing to life the sights sounds and life of 17th-century Isfahan, THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS has captured readers' imaginations everywhere as a timeless tale of one woman's struggle to live a life of her choosing. -- hatchette book group usa

Last summer, I read THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS by Anita Amirrezvani; and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I realize that historical fiction books are really big right now; and I guess it's because there are so many readers like me out there who like to read about exotic, far away lands. I liked reading about 17th century Persia and learing how rugs were made; however, the actual story of the girl trying to survive while staying true to herself is what I enjoyed the most.
It's been almost a year since I've read this book (so I don't feel like I can write a decent review;) however, I do remember how beautifully it was written. The descriptions of the characters and places in the novel were very vivid and seemed very real to me. At the time I read this book, I actually thought this book could be a potential book club selection for my group (once it came out in paperback.)

Good news -- THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS is now available in paperback, and it includes a very interesting author's notes section, an author interview as well as a reader's guide. Seeing the new cover, which is beautiful by the way, and reading the author interview have brought back to me how much I liked this book.

Even better news -- I have a copy to give away to one lucky reader! Just leave a comment on this post before May 23rd at 11:59 EST and you will be entered to win. If you would like to double your chances, you can blog about this giveaway and leave the link in the comments section. This contest is open to US and Canadian citizens only.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Review: The Postman

Summary: The unforgettable inspiration for the Academy Award–winning Il Postino, this classic novel established Antonio Sk√°rmeta’s reputation as “one of the most representative authors of the post-boom generation in contemporary Latin American letters”(Christian Science Monitor). Boisterously funny and passionate, The Postman tells of young love ignited by the poetry of Pablo Neruda. Set in the colorful, ebullient years preceding the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the book has been translated into nearly twenty-five languages around the world. -- ww norton

A few months ago, W.W. Norton offered me a couple of books to read and review. I was very excited to see that THE POSTMAN (IL POSTINO) by Antonio Skaarmeta had been re-issued. I remember a lot of Oscar buzz about a movie based on this book a few years back. Plus, the book is only 112 pages so it qualifies for The Novella Challenge. Unfortunately, it took me longer that I would have liked to get around to reading it.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this novel since I wasn't familiar with the movie and I haven't read much South American literature, but I actually enjoyed it very much. The book was very charming, not to mention down-right erotic at times. I also found myself laughing at much of Mario's behavior and words as well as his mother-in-law's insights. I realize that I was reading a translation, but the language was just beautiful. I'm sure the book might be even more lyrical if read in the original language (not a chance of that for me.) While I thought this book was very entertaining, I was slightly surprised by the depressing ending; however, it didn't affect my overall enjoyment at all.

THE POSTMAN would make a wonderful book club selection, especially if you want something a little different that a traditional book club pick. In addition, it is a very quick read; and if you're like my book club, we don't have as much time to read with the kids home over the summer. I can see lots of book clubs reading this book, watching the movie and discussing both at a future book club meeting. Imagine all of the wonderful Latin American foods and Chilean wines that you could serve!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What a Great Surprise!

Amy at My Friend Amy has just made my day -- she has given me a blog award! I can't even begin to tell you how much it means to me that she enjoys my book reviews and recommendations. I have always loved to read, but blogging has given me the chance to share my love of books with so many other people! I am so thankful that, through my blog and all the other great book blogs out there, I have found a community of book lovers who understand me.

As part of being the recipient of this "prestigious" award, I am supposed to pass it on. This is really difficult for me because I read so many terrific blogs every day. First, I'd like to give the award to Lisa at Books on the Brain. Lisa and her blog were partially responsible for inspiring me to start my on blog -- I'd like to take this opportunity to thank her! Her reviews are very well written, and I trust all of her book recommendations. I'd also like to give this award to Kristen at Book Club Classics. I enjoy reading her book reviews and her book recommendations. I love how she compiles lots of "Best of/Worst of" book lists. I always find myself checking what I've read (or not read) against them.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Review: Theft of the Master

Summary: From the first paragraph of the first chapter the reader is drawn into this fast-paced drama, Theft of the Master.

This complex and intricate crime story is based on the chronicled accounts of Hitler's orders to transport to Germany valuable cultural artifacts. History tells us that by 1944, the Nazis had stolen more art works than anyone in history. This is the story of one stolen masterpiece and the consequences for an innocent family and a nation.

The intrepid and harried Private Investigator, Al Hershey travels through three continents to solve a murder, which appears inconspicuous but is actually irredeemably wedded to the stolen masterpiece. The chase that ensues to find the truth takes readers on a wild journey from 1493 Estonia, where events are first set in motion. The trail follows to murder in modern day San Francisco, Europe, and Paraguay via World War II and the mysterious Templars.

This fast paced crime story is filled with deceit, secret societies, and murder in an ambience of spiritual depth and mystery. -- book jacket

I have to admit that THEFT OF THE MASTER by Edwin Alexander is probably not a book that I would have picked up on my own. I was checking out book publicist Lisa Roe's website and thought it looked kind of interesting. I do enjoy suspense/thriller books, but I usually stick to best-selling authors for this genre. This time I took a little chance and I am so glad that I did.

I really enjoyed THEFT OF THE MASTER -- it had all of the elements that I think make up a good suspense book such as mystery, intrigue, likable characters, etc. There was also a bit of history thrown in! I especially liked the various plot twists and turns. I was hooked from the first few pages.

I really liked the character of Al Hershey, the private detective who travel across the world in search of solving a murder mystery. He ultimately finds out way more than he bargained for. His character was extremely grounded and determined, yet he also had a sense of humor. I loved how he kept mentioning his wife (who obviously kept him in line.) I think Al would make a wonderful lead character for future books.

The book covers a lot of time from 1493 to 1992, and the story takes place in many countries. I don't get out of the country much (like ever), so I enjoyed the author's vivid descriptions of Al's travels. It's very clear to me that he did a very good job researching the information in the book. The THEFT OF THE MASTER website has a neat section where the reader can learn more facts about certain things in the story such as chess, Estonia, Forest Brothers, Paraguay and Half Moon Bay, CA.

This is Edwin Alexander's first novel, and I think it is a pretty impressive debut. Mr. Alexander's background is in statistics (UGH!); however, he has been interested in languages and literature for many years. This is very evident throughout the story. I thought the plot of the book was well though out (and well-researched.) I also liked his writing style and thought the book was very easy to read. I hope Mr. Alexander continues to write novels because I certainly wouldn't hesitate to read his future books. If you would like to learn more about Edwin Alexander, there is a very interesting interview here.

Also reviewed at:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Review: Down to a Sunless Sea

Summary: Down to a Sunless Sea plunges the reader into uncomfortable situations and into the minds of troubled characters. Each selection is a different reading experience—poetic, journalistic, nostalgic, wryly humorous, and even macabre. An award-winning essayist and historical novelist, Mathias B. Freese brings the weight of his twenty-five years as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist into play as he demonstrates a vivid understanding of—and compassion toward—the deviant and damaged. -- wheatmark

Anytime an author contacts me about reading and reviewing his or her book, I am extremely flattered. When Mathias B. Freese e-mailed me asking if I was interested in his collection of short stories DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA, I naturally said "Of course!" Although I read a lot of different books, I haven't read very many short stories -- for some reason I'm a little intimidated by them.
As I try to write this review about this book, I'm very worried that I won't be able express my feelings about it -- to actually "do it justice." DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA is a book that deals with many unique characters in very creative ways. All of the characters were a little "off," but I think that readers will recognize characteristics of people we encounter everyday.

I'm sure that a few of the stories and the literary references were over my head, but I did enjoy them nonetheless. One of my favorites was a called "I'll Make It, I Think." This story was about a teenage boy who was crippled due to Cerebral Palsy. I was deeply touched by his feelings about his body, yet I also found myself laughing at his descriptions of himself -- he named his various body parts. I really felt that I was in the mind of this troubled teenage boy who was trying to come to terms with his unfortunate situation.

Another story that I liked was "Alabaster." This is the story of a nine year old boy who meets an elderly woman who is a survivor of the Holocaust. The reader never really knows whether the boy understands what this woman has been though; however, we are allowed to see that this woman's life has been utterly and irreparably broken. I was not only touched by the story of her past, but I was also deeply affected that she was able to see hope in the boy's future.

Mathias B. Freese is a gifted award winning writer, and I'm amazed with his ability to tell a story (or in this case stories.) I found that most of the stories were linked by the recurring theme of the long-lasting effects of childhood. Each story had a different "feel" to it -- some were poignant, some were humorous, and some were plain weird. Mr. Freese has over 25 years as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, and it's very evident that he understands troubled people.

DOWN TO A SUNLESS SEA is a very interesting book that lets the reader see the lasting effects that troubled childhoods can have on individuals. While it's not exactly a collection of upbeat stories, it will definitely entertain you. I felt a great of empathy to so many of the characters, and I know that they will remain in my thoughts for quite awhile.

Also reviewed at:
Melody's Reading Corner
Errant Dreams
J. Kaye's Book Blog
My Own Little Reading Room

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

May 2008 Book Club Meeting with Joshua Henkin and June Selection

Summary: It's 1987, and Julian Wainwright, aspiring writer and Waspy son of New York City old money, meets beautiful, Jewish Mia Mendelsohn in the laundry room at Graymont College. So begins a relationship that spans twenty years, as it takes Julian and Mia across the country and through the depths of family tragedy, love and friendship, money and ambition, desires and tensions of faith. -- Pantheon Reading Group Guide

Last night, my book club met with Joshua Henkin, author of MATRIMONY. That's right, Mr. Henkin was gracious enough to drive two hours each way and spend time away from his family so he could discuss his latest book with us. I can't even begin to express how much fun I had -- I am still floating on "Cloud Nine." As many of you know, I love having the opportunity to talk to authors about their books via telephone author chats. But I have to say that talking in person brought the "author experience" to a whole new level.

My book club met for about an hour before Mr. Henkin arrived so we could talk about MATRIMONY. Everyone had a lot to say about the story as well as the characters; and we did manage to touch on a few of the questions in the discussion guide (I thought these questions were especially good at generating discussion even though we didn't have the chance to address all of them.) Even those members of the book club that didn't love the book still had definite opinions about the characters and the events in the novel.

While I mentioned in my review of MATRIMONY that I really liked the book, I can now say that I love it. I thought that Mr. Henkin's insights into the "whys" of the story definitely enhanced my enjoyment. In addition, I found it extremely interesting that it took him 10 years to write MATRIMONY (and he ended up throwing away around 3000 pages.) I have to admit that I was a little in awe of Mr. Henkin when he described his writing process for this book and how he developed the characters. He didn't set out with a particular story to tell, but rather just started writing - sometimes he didn't know what was going to happen until he wrote the few lines before it.

I highly recommend considering MATRIMONY for your next book club selection. There are just so many themes covered within the pages of this book which you could talk about for hours. There are also a few controverial incidents which will make for some interesting conversation. Mr. Henkin is available to meet with your group if you are within driving distance from New York, New Jersey or Philadelphia. He is available for author chats. You can contact him by filling out this form.

I just want to thank Mr. Henkin for everything -- writing a book that I enjoyed, spending an entire evening with my book group, providing interesting conversation, and graciously answering all our questions. I had such a wonderful time!

Our June selection is THE REINCARNATIONIST by MJ Rose. My book club lucked out again next month -- MJ Rose will be joining us via telephone to discuss her book. THE REINCARNATIONIST looks like a great read, and it was chosen as a Booksense Highlight Pick for 2007.

Summary: A bomb in Rome, a flash of bluish-white light, and photojournalist Josh Ryder's world exploded. From that instant nothing would ever be the same.

As Josh recovers, his mind is increasingly invaded with thoughts that have the emotion, the intensity, the intimacy of memories. But they are not his memories. They are ancient—and violent. A battery of medical and psychological tests can't explain Josh's baffling symptoms. And the memories have an urgency he can't ignore—pulling him to save a woman named Sabina—and the treasures she is protecting.

But who is Sabina?

Desperate for answers, Josh turns to the world-renowned Phoenix Foundation—a research facility that scientifically documents cases of past life experiences. His findings there lead him to an archaeological dig and to Professor Gabriella Chase, who has discovered an ancient tomb—a tomb with a powerful secret that threatens to merge the past with the present. Here, the dead call out to the living, and murders of the past become murders of the present. -- Mira Books

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Love the One You're With Giveway

A Book Blogger's Diary has another wonderful giveaway -- this time it's an autographed copy of Emily Griffin's latest book LOVE THE ONE YOU'RE WITH. aBookworm even has four copies to giveaway! I am dying to read this book since I am a big fan of Ms. Griffin's other books.

Just to prove that you really can win a book, I won SEX AND THE CITY -- KISS AND TELL today!

If you aren't familiar with A Book Blogger's Diary -- you should definitely check it out. There are always lots of terrific contests and book giveaways.

Review: The Master Bedroom

Summary: After more than twenty years in London, Kate Flynn has abandoned her career as an academic, rented her apartment in the city, and moved back to live with her mother in the grand old house beside a lake where she grew up. Bored and lonely, Kate meets a childhood friend, David Roberts, at the opera. David is married, but Kate finds herself falling for him against her better judgment.

At the same time, David's seventeen-year-old son is visiting Kate's house in secret, attracted by her eccentricity, her wit, and her shelves full of old books and music. Though she knows the risks, Kate cannot quite resist either man. As both father and son set about their parallel courtships, Tessa Hadley's intricate, graceful novel discovers the anxieties of adulthood, and the hazards of refusing to grow up. -- Picador Books

When I received THE MASTER BEDROOM by Tessa Hadley in the mail last month, I wasn't sure if I would really enjoy the book. The premise of the book didn't really appeal to me -- a middle-aged woman being drawn to both a father and his son. I decided to give it a try anyway because THE MASTER BEDROOM was longlisted for the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction.

After finishing the book, I'm still not sure what to think. I definitely didn't love the book, but I didn't hate it either. What I can say is that I appreciated Ms. Hadley's writing style. The book was very well written, and the prose was beautiful. I could actually visualize the old house with the vivid descriptions. I thought she did a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life.

I'm a little embarrassed to say this, but at times I had a problem following the dialogue in this book. The author didn't use quotation marks to offset the conversations. Rather, she just used dashes. Many times I couldn't figure out who was saying what without re-reading it a few times.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the subject matter -- a 40-something woman becoming interested in a 17 year old boy. I didn't realize that I was such a prude, but I was a little disgusted by some of her behavior with the young man. Ultimately I got over it, and I thought the ending of the book was very good.

I have a feeling that I'm not taking away from this novel as much as I should be. Frankly, I think this novel was just a little deeper than I'm capable of going. However, I did get the message that people can't always control their feelings even though they intellectually know they should. I also saw that individuals (no matter the age) are constantly working to find their true selves.

I do think that THE MASTER BEDROOM would make for an interesting book club discussion. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any discussion questions. Even without a guide, I definitely think this book has enough controversial issues to incite some very exciting dialogue.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Review: The Ex-Debutante

Summary: Carlisle Wainwright Cushing, of the old-moneyed Willow Creek, Texas Wainwrights, is the daughter of larger-than-life Ridgely Wainwright… Cushing-Jameson-Lackley-Harper-Ogden. Given her mother’s predilection for divorce, is anyone surprised that Carlisle became a divorce lawyer, far away in Boston, where no one, including her fianc√©, knows she’s an heiress. But now, three years later, Carlisle is lured back to Texas to deal with her mother’s latest divorce which has the whole town talking, and the family-sponsored 100th annual debutante ball which is on the verge of collapse. Suddenly the determined lawyer is weighing the merits of beads vs. crystals on ball gowns and teaching eighteen year olds to balance books on their heads, all the while trying to figure out how to tell her deeply Southern mother that she is engaged to a Yankee. Things go from bad to worse and she’s afraid she’ll never get back to Boston, at least with her reputation intact, especially when good ol’ Southern boy Jack Blair shows up on the opposite side of the divorce court, making her wonder if the man is going after her mother in the proceedings, or her given the pesky little fact that she left him three years earlier.

Her trip home challenges Carlisle’s sense of who she really is and forces her to face the secrets her family has tried to keep, well, secret. Funny and smart, poignant and true, THE EX-DEBUTANTE is a story about the risks one woman must take if she stands a chance of finding herself, real love, and her place in that crazy thing we call family. -- st. martins press

When I was contacted by Authors on the Web about possible reading the EX-DEBUTANTE by Linda Francis Lee, I thought it looked like a fun, light read. The book was actually perfect for the mood I've been in lately. I wanted to read something that didn't require any heavy thinking, especially after reading a book about the Holocaust and being stuck home with a sick kid. This book hit the spot -- I was thoroughly entertained!

I loved the character of Carlisle; and I thought she was hilarious, especially in her exchanges with Jack. Ms. Francis Lee did a wonderful job of describing the sexual tension between them. I can so see this book as a movie (On a side note: Ms. Francis Lee's first novel THE DEVIL IN THE JUNIOR LEAGUE has been optioned by Universal Studios, and Jennifer Garner has signed on the star in and produce it.) I also enjoyed the disfunctional family interactions between Carlisle and her mother and sister.

Even though I consider this book to be a light read, THE EX-DEBUTANTE actually did have a few good life lessons within its pages. Although there were plenty of examples of awful female behavior, most of the characters redeemed themselves by the end of the novel. I especially enjoyed seeing the growth of Carlise. Even though she was close to 30 and thought she was on the right track with her life, she still was able to figure out a lot about herself (and her relationship with her mother) in this book.

I got a lot of laughs from Linda Francis Lee's website. Included in THE EX-DEBUTANTE section is a Letter from Carlisle to the Reader, Instructions for How to Dance, Helpful Hints for Debutantes and lots of other fun things. I also read about Ms. Francis Lee's other books, and I definitely think I'm going to read THE DEVIL IN THE JUNIOR LEAGUE (which is now out in paperback.)

This book would make a great summer or vacation read. If your book club is looking for something a little lighter for the summer months, I suggest giving THE EX-DEBUTANTE a try. There are actually quite a few things to talk about such as family relations, love and finding one's true self; and there is even a reading guide available. It may not be a "traditional" book club selection, but I'm pretty sure that it will be an entertaining one.

Also reviewed at:
Books and Cooks

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Happy Mother's Day to Me (and All of You)

While I have to say that my wonderful husband and kids are truly the best gift I could ask for, Hachette Book Group USA did a pretty good job of coming close. A few days ago, the UPS man delivered a big box of books to me -- inside were 13 books geared towards moms!

Hatchette's Mother’s Day Book Package included:

1. SUNDAY AT TIFFANY'S by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet
5. JEWELS: 50 PHENOMENAL BLACK WOMEN OVER 50 by Michael Cunningham and Connie Briscoe

I believe that being a mother is one of the most important things a woman can do with her life. Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers out there!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Review: Matrimony

Summary: From the moment he was born, Julian Wainwright has lived a life of Waspy privilege. The son of a Yale-educated investment banker, he grew up in a huge apartment on Sutton Place, high above the East River, and attended a tony Manhattan private school. Yet, more than anything, he wants to get out–out from under his parents’ influence, off to Graymont College, in western Massachusetts, where he hopes to become a writer.

When he arrives, in the fall of 1986, Julian meets Carter Heinz, a scholarship student from California with whom he develops a strong but ambivalent friendship. Carter’s mother, desperate to save money for his college education, used to buy him reversible clothing, figuring she was getting two items for the price of one. Now, spending time with Julian, Carter seethes with resentment. He swears he will grow up to be wealthy–wealthier, even, than Julian himself.

Then, one day, flipping through the college facebook, Julian and Carter see a photo of Mia Mendelsohn. Mia from Montreal, they call her. Beautiful, Jewish, the daughter of a physics professor at McGill, Mia is–Julian and Carter agree–dreamy, urbane, stylish, refined.
But Julian gets to Mia first, meeting her by chance in the college laundry room. Soon they begin a love affair that–spurred on by family tragedy–will carry them to graduation and beyond, taking them through several college towns, over the next ten years. Then Carter reappears, working for an Internet company in California, and he throws everyone’s life into turmoil: Julian’s, Mia’s, his own.

Starting at the height of the Reagan era and ending in the new millennium, Matrimony is about love and friendship, about money and ambition, desire and tensions of faith. It asks what happens to a marriage when it is confronted by betrayal and the specter of mortality. What happens when people marry younger than they’d expected? Can love endure the passing of time?

In its emotional honesty, its luminous prose, its generosity and wry wit, Matrimony is a beautifully detailed portrait of what it means to share a life with someone–to do it when you’re young, and to try to do it afresh on the brink of middle age. -- Pantheon Books

I'll admit that I was a little afraid to read MATRIMONY. The author, Joshua Henkin, offered to drive 2 hours each way to visit my book club. While I am extremely excited to have this incredible opportunity, I am also really worried that I wouldn't "love" the book. For the past few months, I kept telling myself that it was a New York Times Notable Book -- and that has to mean something. Thank goodness that I really did enjoy the book. (Now, I can move on to worrying about the discussion!)

MATRIMONY was a beautifully written book. Joshua Henkin is truly a gifted writer. I am a little in awe of his writing style and the way he develops the characters. The story was heavily character driven (as opposed to plot driven), and some readers might have a little problem with that if they are looking for a lot of action. After reading this book, I felt like the characters were very real. I know that they will remain in my thoughts for quite awhile. I definitely think that's what Mr. Henkin set out to do with this novel. He hints at the importance of character development within the pages of MATRIMONY, "He had nothing against muscular prose; it was the flexing of those muscles that he objected to, and, along with it, a disregard for character, which, for him, was what fiction was about."

I have to wonder how much of the book was autobiographical in nature. Like the character of Julian , Mr. Henkin is also a writer and writing professor. In addition, he also lived in many of the same places as the characters in the book. Julian took quite awhile to write his novel -- Mr. Henkin took 10 years to write MATRIMONY. One quote from the book that might explain all of the similarities is, " should write what you know about what you don't know or what you don't know about what you know. Keep it close enough to home that your heart is in it but far enough away that the imagination can take over." I am dying to ask Mr. Henkin if this is his advice for his students.

MATRIMONY touches upon so many issues that we all face everyday -- there is just so much to talk about after reading this book. For the past few days, I have been seriously thinking about how the book addresses marriage (of course), divorce, friendships, betrayal, competition, parenthood, and parent-child relationships; and that's just a few. I believe that one indication of a great book is whether the reader thinks about it after they finish. If that is the case, MATRIMONY was a pretty terrific read to me.

I think every reader that reads MATRIMONY will take away something different -- something that is meaningful to them. Needless to say, I walked away with quite a bit! Like the characters in the book, I got married relatively young. When I look back, I have to wonder how well you can really know someone in your early 20s. I also enjoyed seeing how some of the characters changed as they got older. I liked seeing how marriage is about ebbs and flows -- there will be times that you grow closer and times that you grow apart -- but a marriage can become stronger throughout difficult times. This is only a few of things that I got from this book, but I don't want to bore you with all of the issues floating through my head right now!

I strongly suggest choosing MATRIMONY for a future book club discussion. Even if all of the members aren't as passionate about the book as I am, there will still be a lot to discuss. If you group is similar to mine and likes to have questions to steer the discussion, there is an excellent reading guide here.

I look forward to writing another post about MATRIMONY and Joshua Henkin after our book club meeting on Tuesday. Keep your fingers crossed that I won't say anything dumb!

Also reviewed at:
Books on the Brain
Care's Online Book Club
Book Addiction
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
The Inside Cover
Book Club Classics
Age 30 - A Year in Books
Blue Archipelago

Friday, May 9, 2008

I'm a Guest Blogger

Lisa from Books on the Brain asked a few fellow bloggers to guest post about what their book clubs mean to them. Here's the link for my comments about the importance of my book club in my life. While you're there, check out her blog -- it's fantastic -- she has contests, reviews, and other fun stuff! Thank you, Lisa, for this wonderful opportunity.

Review: Certain Girls

Summary: Readers fell in love with Cannie Shapiro, the smart, sharp-tongued, bighearted heroine of Good in Bed who found her happy ending after her mother came out of the closet, her father fell out of her life, and her ex-boyfriend started chronicling their ex-sex life in the pages of a national magazine.

Now Cannie's back. After her debut novel -- a fictionalized (and highly sexualized) version of her life -- became an overnight bestseller, she dropped out of the public eye and turned to writing science fiction under a pseudonym. She's happily married to the tall, charming diet doctor Peter Krushelevansky and has settled into a life that she finds wonderfully predictable -- knitting in the front row of her daughter Joy's drama rehearsals, volunteering at the library, and taking over-forty yoga classes with her best friend Samantha.

As preparations for Joy's bat mitzvah begin, everything seems right in Cannie's world. Then Joy discovers the novel Cannie wrote years before and suddenly finds herself faced with what she thinks is the truth about her own conception -- the story her mother hid from her all her life. When Peter surprises his wife by saying he wants to have a baby, the family is forced to reconsider its history, its future, and what it means to be truly happy.

Radiantly funny and disarmingly tender, with Weiner's whip-smart dialogue and sharp observations of modern life, Certain Girls is an unforgettable story about love, loss, and the enduring bonds of family. -- atria books

I know I'm not alone in saying that I have been a huge Jennifer Weiner fan since GOOD IN BED. I remember laughing out loud at certain parts of the book and then crying at the ending. My book club even read it a few years ago, and we all agreed that it was a terrific book. Having loved GOOD IN BED I wasn't quite sure what to expect with the return of Cannie, but I wasn't disappointed. Once again, I found myself laughing and crying through the story of Cannie and her 12 year old daughter Joy. As a mother of an 8 1/2 year old daughter, I think I related to the mother-daughter relationship between Cannie and Joy in CERTAIN GIRLS. Of course being a teenager way back when, I could definitely see some similarities to the relationship between my mother and me too.

While the book is very easy-to-read, it is not necessarily all that light. The surprise ending brought tears to my eyes as did much of what transpired between Cannie and her daughter throughout the book. I think many moms will relate to Cannie's overprotective nature and her concerns with Joy. I know for sure that I'm a little worried about the "teenage years" with my daughter; however, this book made me take a deeper look at how we treat each other now and how I want our relationship to develop within the next few years.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that CERTAIN GIRLS would make a wonderful Mother's Day gift; or even better, it would make a great discussion for book groups. There are actually two guides available for this book -- one for mothers and one for teens. In addition to the guides, there is a wonderful interview with Ms. Weiner here. I found CERTAIN GIRLS to be such an enjoyable read. I found myself laughing and crying again along with Cannie; however, this time I found that I shared a lot more of her feelings because we have the common experience of being mothers.

Also reviewed at:
Girls Just Reading
Book Club Classics

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mother's Day Book Bash

A Book Blogger's Diary has some wonderful book giveaways just for Mother's Day. I was especially interested in the Harper Collins' books that are being given away. These books include BRINGING HOME THE BIRKIN, THINGS I WANT MY DAUGHTER TO KNOW, BELONG TO ME, and LADIES OF LIBERTY. I haven't read any of these books yet, but I 'd love to win any of them. They all look great!