Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: Belly of the Whale

Summary: Hudson Catalina has given up. Having lost both breasts to cancer, she is emotionally and physically exhausted, no longer willing to endure the nausea and crushing weakness that chemotherapy causes. Until the wrecked-by-life young Buddy Baker arrives, bent on murder. Linda Merlino's harrowing, touching story of despair, abuse, murder and survival takes you on a journey through the darkest places of the human mind and spirit, and in the end leads you back out of "the belly of the whale" enriched by the experience. -- Kunati Books

I can't exactly say why I was drawn to BELLY OF THE WHALE by Linda Merlino after I read the publisher's summary; but for some reason, I thought it sounded like an interesting book. I can basically sum up the book in one word -- INTENSE!

From the first few pages of this book, I was drawn into Hudson Catalina's story. She is a mother of four who is battling breast cancer -- she has pretty much lost hope and has decided to quit her chemotherapy treatments. In addition, she has a ton of baggage from losing her mother to this same disease when she was a child. This is going to sound awful, but I had a difficult time relating to this character. I definitely felt a tremendous amount of compassion for Hudson, but she was so incredibly pessimistic and bitter that I had a hard time accepting her. I can't say that I wouldn't have had the same feelings that Hudson did if I were in her shoes, yet the story was just do dark and depressing to me. I just wanted her to fight for her life for her family's sake.

Fortunately for the reader, she eventually realizes how valuable her life is and she decides to not give up on living. Unfortunately for Hudson, she has to be part of a hostage situation with a crazy murderer before she comprehends this. While trapped in the store with two very likable characters, Hudson's character changes from feeling sorry to herself to deciding that she wants to survive this horrendous situation. I think that she saw the inherent goodness in these two people and realizes that life is worth living!

The author is extremely good at making the reader uncomfortable while reading this story. The first part of the book dealt with Hudson's cancer and her inability to deal with it. I definitely think the author did a good job of developing Hudson's character in this section as well as explaining the horrors of cancer and chemo. She was so vivid in her descriptions of the illness that it was almost as if the cancer was another character in the story. In addition, she does a terrific job of creating a sense of unease with the hostage scenes in grocery store.

BELLY OF THE WHALES does have a lot of intense (here's that word again) and suspenseful moments. I don't want to give the ending away, but I will say that there is a major twist at the end of the book. If you are looking for a quick read (the book is less than 200 pages) that will take you on a roller coaster of emotions, you might want to give BELLY OF THE WHALE a try.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review: Songs for the Missing

Summary: An enthralling portrait of one family in the aftermath of a daughter’s disappearance

“It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P. and letting her hair grow.” It was also the summer when, without warning, popular high school student Kim Larsen disappeared from her small Midwestern town. Her loving parents, her introverted sister, her friends and boyfriend, must now do everything they can to find her. As desperate search parties give way to pleading television appearances, and private investigations yield to personal revelations, we see one town’s intimate struggle to maintain hope, and finally, to live with the unknown.

Stewart O’Nan’s new novel begins with the suspense and pacing of a thriller and soon deepens into an affecting family drama of loss. On the heels of his critically acclaimed and nationally bestselling Last Night at the Lobster, Songs for the Missing is an honest, heartfelt account of one family’s attempt to find their child. With a soulful empathy for these ordinary heroes, O’Nan draws us into the world of this small Midwestern town and allows us to feel a part of this family. -- Book Jacket

I received an ARC of SONGS FOR THE MISSING through the Barnes and Noble First Look Book Club. It was my first experience reading a book by Stewart O'Nan, but it definitely won't be my last. I throughly enjoyed this book, so much that I couldn't put it down. While my intention was to read only those chapters that were being discussed each week, I found myself reading the last two-thirds of the book in (almost) one sitting.

While the subject matter of this book -- a young woman who goes missing and how this affects those who love her -- was very uncomfortable for me to read, I still was drawn into the story from the first few pages. I think one of the reasons that I loved this book so much was that SONGS OF THE MISSING was heavily character driven. In my opinion, Stewart O'Nan did an amazing job of creating very believable characters. The story was told through a third person narrator so the reader can really understand each of the characters and how they were affected by Kim's disappearance.

I can't begin to express how much this book touched me. The reactions of Kim's parents seemed very real to me. Her mother became absorbed in her efforts to draw attention to Kim's disappearance, while her father felt almost helpless as he tried to coordinate his own search efforts -- each reacting differently to a situation that they had no control over. In addition, they both end up placing some blame on Kim's friends for not sharing information that might have helped the search efforts. As a parent, I could see how they felt the need to blame someone for this trajedy.

While my heart went out to all of Kim's family and friends, I especially felt compassion for her younger sister Lindsay. Lindsay, already at an awkward age where teenagers have little if any self-confidence, felt she was living in the shadow of a pretty, popular older sister. When Kim goes missing, Lindsay becomes even more self-conscious choosing to spend most of her time in her room by herself. I kept rooting for Lindsay to see the beauty in herself and find her own voice rather than having to live in the shadows of a missing sister.

There were a few chapters that especially affected me. A particular poignant chapter dealt with the family's preparation for their first Christmas without Kim. In a touching scene, Kim's mother goes shopping to buy Christmas gifts for the family, including Kim. I felt tears coming to my eyes as she was deciding what was an appropriate gift for her.

Another scene that brought tears to my eyes was towards the end of the book when the town was having a ceremony for Kim during the half-time of a football game. Kim's family was still deeply affected by her disappearance over a year later; however, the town's people seemed to have moved on. While the stands were full for the football game, they emptied out during the ceremony.

I can't believe what I've been missing by not reading Mr. O'Nan's books. I am really just in awe of his beautiful writing. I'm not usually one to love books with a lot of description, but I found myself truly appreciating the way he described every scene in this book. His characters are also so vivid that I know they will remain in my mind for a long time. There is no question that I will be adding his other novels to my list of must-read books.

SONGS OF THE MISSING will be available on November 3, 2008.

Also reviewed at:
Books on the Brain

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Another HUGE Giveaway

Trish at Hey Lady, Whatcha Readin'? is having an amazing giveaway courtesy of Hatchette Book Group USA -- you can win 14 books; and she may have up to five winners! This is just incredible to me. Visit her post to read how to get an entry (or lots of entries.) Good luck!

Free Books for a Year Sweepstakes

Book Club Girl asked me to share with you that Harper Collins has the most amazing contest going on right now. They are offering the chance for one lucky reader to win 12 copies of 12 specially selected books -- that's a total of 144 books. The estimated retail value of the prize is $2177.40! I don't know about you, but I would love to win this contest! Here's the list of books that you could win:

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Run by Ann Patchett
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates

I've read a few of these and thought they were excellent book club books. So, head on over and sign up to win. When you enter the contest, you will also be signing up to receive a terrific book club newsletter called Book Chatter that gives great reading recommendations.

Don't forget to share this with everyone in your book club. Think of it this way -- even if they win, you'll still be getting 12 free books!

Hello...You Won Driving Sideways

And the winner of the signed copy of DRIVING SIDEWAYS is...Jessica. Congratulations! I loved this book and I'm sure you will too! Please e-mail me with your mailing address so Ms. Riley can send the book right out to you.

I want to thank everyone who entered this contest and those who blogged about it -- I really appreciate it. If you didn't win this contest, you still have time to enter my giveaway for a copy of THE MEMORY OF WATER.

Keep checking back because I will be having more great giveaways coming in the very near future!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Review: More Than It Hurts You

Summary: Josh Goldin was savoring a Friday afternoon break in the coffee room, harmlessly flirting with coworkers while anticipating the weekend at home where his wife, Dori, waited with their eight-month-old son, Zack. And then Josh’s secretary rushed in, using words like intensive care, lost consciousness, blood. . . .

That morning, Dori had walked into the emergency room with her son in severe distress. Enter Dr. Darlene Stokes: an African-American physician and single mother whose life is dedicated both to her own son and navigating the tricky maze of modern-day medicine. But something about Dori stirred the doctor’s suspicions. Darlene had heard of the sensational diagnosis of Munchausen by Proxy, where a mother intentionally harms her baby, but had never come upon a case of it before. It was rarely diagnosed and extraordinarily controversial. Could it possibly have happened here?

As their four lives intersect with dramatic consequences, Darlene, Dori, and Josh are pushed to their breaking points as they confront the nightmare that has become their new reality. Darin Strauss’s extraordinary novel is set in a world turned upside down—where doctors try to save babies from their parents, police use the law to tear families apart, and the people you know the best end up surprising you the most. -- Dutton

I was just thrilled when I chosen to be part of a MotherTalk blog tour for the new novel MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU by Darin Strauss. When I read the book's description, I pretty much knew that I just had to read it; so I was very excited to receive the book a few weeks before it was published and have the opportunity to get a head start on it. It only took a few chapters for me to get completely drawn into the story, and I ended up reading the entire book in two days -- not an entirely easy feat with two kids and a book that is over 400 pages.

Probably the major reason that I enjoyed this book so much was that I found the author's writing style to be superb. I wasn't familiar with Mr. Strauss as an author; but after reading MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU, I now look forward to reading his other two books. Not only does he have to ability to tell a great story, but he also has tremendous insight into the attitudes and actions of today's society. He incorporated a great deal of social commentary into this novel concerning such issues as race, prejudice, and parents' rights -- at times, the writing was almost satirical in nature.

There were parts of this story where the writing just blew me away! I have read few books in the past year where the characters are as well-developed as the ones in this novel. I feel that I really got to know and understand the motivations of the characters -- that's not to say that I always agreed with them, just that I understood where they were coming from. These three main characters were extremely complex and I felt that Mr. Strauss did a wonderful job of making them real.

One of my favorite parts of this book was when Joshua was attending a larger-than-life conference for his job while Dori was at home with their baby Zach. The author built so much suspense switching back and forth between these two scenes (I can almost see this in a movie someday.) I just knew something awful was going to happen with Dori and the baby, but I couldn't put the book down.

Being a mother, I have to admit that I did find the subject matter of this book to be disturbing to say the least. Many years ago I read a non-fiction book about Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome so I was a little familiar with the concept that a mother could actually hurt her child just so she could get attention. Thank goodness the abuse of the child in this book wasn't as severe as some of the other documented cases, but I still found it difficult to read about a mother doing something this sick to her child.

The ending of this book was intense to say the least. Mr. Strauss did an amazing job of building suspense with the tone of the last few chapters. I couldn't read them fast enough to find out what was going to happen. I don't want to give anything away, but after I finished the book I had to re-read the last few paragraphs. I had a similar reaction to Josh when he heard his wife's comments. I can certainly say that I was left wanting more when I was done reading, and I know that these characters will remain in my thoughts for a long time. It was just one of those books that really makes you think.

As I mentioned earlier, I am so impressed with Darin Strauss and his ability to tell a story. After finishing this book, I immediately started looking for more information about him and his other books -- THE REAL MCCOY and CHANG AND ENG. If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Strauss, there are some very insightful interviews on his website, in January magazine, and on Identity In addition, I'm also very excited that I can follow the book tour for MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU -- Mr. Strauss will be blogging about it on

I highly recommend reading MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU by Darin Strauss. Not only is it a great read, but it would also make a wonderful discussion book for your next book club. There are lots of interesting issues to talk about, and I think it would be very interesting to hear other viewpoints on some of the more controversial ones.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Review: The Memory of Water and Book Giveaway

Summary: On the night their mother drowns, sisters Marnie and Diana Maitland discover there is more than one kind of death. There is the death of innocence, of love, and of hope. Each sister harbors a secret about that night-secrets that will erode their lives as they grow into adulthood.

After ten years of silence between the sisters, Marnie is called back to the South Carolina Lowcountry by Diana's ex-husband, Quinn. His young son has returned from a sailing trip with his emotionally unstable mother, and he is refusing to speak. In order to help the traumatized boy, Marnie must reopen old wounds and bring the darkest memories of their past to the surface. And she must confront Diana, before they all go under. -- Penguin Group USA

When I read the book synopsis for THE MEMORY OF WATER by Karen White, I thought it looked like a book that I would enjoy. I tend to like stories about sisters, and this book seemed to have lots of hidden secrets and complex issues between them. While this book wasn't my favorite book that I've read this year, it still was a good read and I enjoyed the story.

All of the main characters in this book were heavily flawed. Each one of them was tramatized by a horrific accident that occurred when they were children. As a result, I found this book to be very dark and depressing; and I kept hoping that the characters could find some sort of peace by the end of the book. I liked that the story was told through first person viewpoints by each of the four main characters, especially since Gil -- the 9 year old child -- wasn't able to speak throughout most of the book. I felt like I got to understand the characters this way, since I couldn't really relate to them or any of their life experiences.

I have to say that I found the first three-quarters of the book to be written at one pace, and the final quarter of the book seemed to be another. I understand that as the story moved forward and the events were building up to the conclusion that the pace should move faster, but I felt like the ending was maybe a little too rushed (or the beginning was a little too slow.) There were some interesting plot twists towards the end of the novel, but I saw some of the surprises coming from about half-way through the book. Having said this, I still liked the book and was definitely caught up in the story.

Ms. White has written many other books; however, THE MEMORY OF WATER is the first book by her that I've read. I thought the book was easy to read, and there were lots of beautiful descriptions of the South Carolina Lowcountry. I liked how she incorporated some mystery aspects into this family saga -- it definitely kept my interest in the story. I wouldn't hesitate to give another one of her books a try after reading this one.

I think THE MEMORY OF WATER would make an interesting book club discussion book, especially if your group is interested in family dynamics and mental illness. There are quite a few topics to discuss and lots of symbolism throughout the book. The book even contains a "conversation guide" (love that term!) which includes an interesting interview with the author as well as some discussion questions. If you are considering selecting this book for your book club or just interested in reading it, there is an excerpt here.

I have a spare copy of THE MEMORY OF WATER to share with one lucky reader. Please leave a comment on this post (with your e-mail address) if you are interested. Want to double your chances -- blog about this giveway with a link back to this post. I will keep this contest open until 11:59 p.m. on June 30th, and I will announce the winner on July 1st. This contest is open to US and Canada citizens only -- sorry!

Also reviewed at:
Bloggin 'bout Books

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review: Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

Summary: After nursing a broken engagement with Jane Austen novels and Absolut, Courtney Stone wakes up and finds herself not in her Los Angeles bedroom or even in her own body, but inside the bedchamber of a woman in Regency England. Who but an Austen addict like herself could concoct such a fantasy?

Not only is Courtney stuck in another woman’s life, she is forced to pretend she actually is that woman; and despite knowing nothing about her, she manages to fool even the most astute observer. But not even her level of Austen mania has prepared Courtney for the chamber pots and filthy coaching inns of nineteenth-century England, let alone the realities of being a single woman who must fend off suffocating chaperones, condom-less seducers, and marriages of convenience.

This looking-glass Austen world is not without its charms, however. There are journeys to Bath and London, balls in the Assembly Rooms, and the enigmatic Mr. Edgeworth, who may not be a familiar species of philanderer after all. But when Courtney’s borrowed brain serves up memories that are not her own, the ultimate identity crisis ensues. Will she ever get her real life back, and does she even want to? -- Plume Books

When Book Club Girl selected CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT by Laurie Viera Rigler as her latest choice for her Blog Talk Radio show, I was very excited. I had heard so many good things about this book, and I was looking for an "excuse" to read it. However, I did have one very big reservation about reading this book -- I haven't read much Jane Austen and I definitely don't consider myself to be very familiar with her works. Having said that, I am so glad that I read this book -- I thoroughly enjoyed it (and I didn't have to be a Jane Austen expert to appreciate it!)

The book was extremely easy to read and the story kept moving right along. I loved the main character of Courtney/Jane (I'm not sure how to refer to her since she "lived" as two different people in two different time periods.) I found her to be very funny, and I thought her perceptions about people were spot on. I also enjoyed how she discovered things about herself (or should I say herselves?) and eventually realized that both of her personas had more in common than she first thought.

I absolutely loved the concept for this book -- a modern day thirty year old woman (Courtney) is transported back into 1813 England where she finds herself a totally different person (Jane.) I thought that Ms. Viera Rigler did a wonderful job of taking her readers back in time with Courtney and allowing us to see what life was like during Jane Austen's time. I especially enjoyed the section of the book where Courtney/Jane becomes completely star-struck when she finds herself in the presence of the great Jane Austen.

You have to check out the website for CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT especially if you are a Jane Austen fan! This site is chock full of not only things about Ms. Viera Rigler's book, but also lots of good stuff about Jane Austen. I especially liked the links she has to various book club resources as well as some of her favorite blogs and websites. Many of you movie fans will love her links to the trailers from many Jane Austen adaptations. I have to say that most enjoyed reading the backstory for CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT -- I thought her explanations about how this novel can to be were fascinating.

I think this book would made a terrific selection for your book club -- I'm pretty sure that my book club would love it. There is a reading guide to help stimulate your conversation, but there are also lots of things to discuss in addition to these questions. In addition, Ms. Viera Rigler is available for an author chats -- click here to make a request. After listening to her on Blog Talk Radio, I'm sure she would be a wonderful addition to your meeting!

The radio show was so much fun -- thanks to Book Club Girl for hosting these chats! Ms. Viera Rigler was very interesting! She gave us a lot of insight into the story; however, she still left the book open for different interpretations by the reader. I was thrilled to hear that she is working on her next novel which is a sequel (kind of) to CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT. The new book will be a similar premise to CONFESSIONS, but Jane will wake up as Courtney in modern-day L.A.

If you are looking for a fun read that's perfect for the summer, I highly recommend CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT. I enjoyed this book so much that I now want to revisit all of Jane Austen's novels -- I'm pretty sure that Ms. Viera Rigler would be happy that her book caused that reaction in a reader!

Fifteen Minutes of Shame Author Chat

My book club had such a great time last night. Not only did we discuss a very funny book and enjoy yummy tiramisu (that I made!), but Lisa Daily, author of FIFTEEN MINUTES OF SHAME joined us via telephone. We knew that if she was anywhere near as fun as her book, we would have a wonderful discussion. We were not disappointed -- she was a blast and so nice too!

It was unanimous among my book club that FIFTEEN MINUTES OF SHAME is a wonderful summer read -- I really enjoyed it (you can read my review here). This book is just so entertaining -- there are moments that will make you laugh and ones that will make you cry! As we've found in the past with author chats, we always learn special things about the book that make us appreciate it even more.

Ms. Daily is fresh off of her two month whirlwind book tour where she promoted FIFTEEN MINUTES OF SHAME in 22 cities. We had lots of questions for her about her tour as well as when her next fiction book will be available (in about a year.) One fun thing we discussed was the future big screen version of FIFTEEN MINUTES OF SHAME -- we went through the main characters in the book and talked about potential actors/actresses that might be a good fit. We also learned that Ms. Daily is an avid reader -- she reads A LOT and even called herself a "book tramp" (I certainly know that feeling.) I was especially interested in hearing her recommendations for good reads.

If you are looking for a hilarious summer read, give FIFTEEN MINUTES OF SHAME a try!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Author Interview: Jess Riley & Book Giveaway

Yesterday I posted a review of DRIVING SIDEWAYS by Jess Riley. I have to say that it was one of my favorite reads so far this year -- I loved this book. You can imagine how excited I was when Ms. Riley agreed to answer a few of my questions.

Booking Mama: The main character Leigh is diagnosed with PKD (Polycystic Kidney Disease) and even has a kidney transplant at a very young age. Why did you choose to write about this specific disease? How much research did you conduct about PKD and transplants before/during the writing of this book?

Jess Riley: I did a TON of research on kidney failure, organ donation and transplants, cellular memory, and PKD itself before I even wrote a word. Working backwards from my premise and character needs, I stumbled across PKD almost immediately. I was shocked to learn that it affected more people than muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia, Down syndrome, and Cystic Fibrosis COMBINED, and there is no cure. I’d heard of every one of these other conditions, but I hadn’t heard of PKD. So I decided to do my small part to help put it on the map for others like me, who hadn’t heard of it.

Since then, I’ve become friends with two amazing PKD patients, and I’ve discovered many more friends and colleagues affected by the disease. It’s now one of the causes I support.

Booking Mama: I loved all the 70s and 80s references in the book -- it was like reliving my childhood. I especially liked all of the sitcom references. You also wrote a very cute post on The Debutante Ball about loving the 70s. I might be a little off on your age, but I think you were actually a child of the 80s. Why do you think you have such an affinity for the 70s?

Jess Riley: Yes, you got me…I was born smack-dab in the middle of the seventies, so I truly came of age in the 80s. We didn’t have much money growing up, so I had lots of 70s hand-me downs, and my mom drove a Ford Pinto ‘til I was eight or nine. So, maybe it just FEELS like I grew up in the seventies. I love the kitsch of it all: the macramé plant hangers, the wild decorating color schemes, the fondue, the handknit outfits, the sitcoms, the music. My husband will be embarrassed that I am about to tell you this (since he was a big metal head in the 80s), but one of our favorite local stations plays all kinds of those smooth hits from the seventies. We sing along in the car and call it ‘our station.’

Booking Mama: I loved the character of Leigh! Is she based on either yourself or someone you knew? Is there any autobiographical aspects to this novel?

Jess Riley: Every friend or family member who has read the book has called to say, “Leigh is SO. YOU.” So I’m happy you like her. J Many of the anecdotes really happened, as well as some of the scenes…my friends were treating it like a scavenger hunt while they read, looking for the ‘true stories.’ I included many of them because not only did I want to remember them, but I also found many of them quite amusing. But the main storyline is not autobiographical at all. (Although my best friend is basically Jillian, with a few twists. She was such a good sport about it, too.)

Booking Mama: How long did it take for you to write DRIVING SIDEWAYS? What is your writing process? Do you write everyday for a few hours?

Jess Riley: I have summers off from grant writing, which is when I do the bulk of my writing: every day, starting around 8, and stopping when the muse loses interest and wanders away to paint her toenails. I’d say it took around four months to write the book, if I wrote eight hours a day every week day. But really, it all happened in fits and starts over the course of a few years, and then there were tons of revisions even after we sold the book.

Booking Mama: I really enjoyed the pictures that were at the beginning of each chapter -- they kind of made me feel like I was along for the ride! Whose idea was it to place those photographs throughout the book?

Jess Riley: Thanks! That was actually my editor’s idea. I took the Driving Sideways roadtrip for a second time not only to make sure I had the details right, but also so I could take most of those photos. I was making my best friend crazy, stopping constantly so I could get out of the car to take photos of the road and scenery. I have about a thousand photos of prairie dog towns and buffalo, and I can’t bring myself to delete them. And yes, there is a photo of me with my head in the “Getting Corny in the Corn Palace” sandwich board cut-out.

Booking Mama: Is there any possibility that we'll be seeing DRIVING SIDEWAYS on the big screen?

Jess Riley: I’m hoping! The moment I have that kind of news, I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops. And then probably being arrested for violating a local noise ordinance.

Booking Mama: I am a huge fan of THE DEBUTANTE BALL (a grog for debut authors), and I read it everyday. How did you become involved with THE DEBUTANTE BALL? What has it meant to be a part of this group this year?

Jess Riley: Oh, this has been one of the absolute BEST parts of the publishing ride. I was actually asked by Allison Winn Scotch to take her slot on the BALL back in 2006, when we both had books scheduled to be published in 2007. Unfortunately, I’d just learned that my book’s release would be delayed ‘til 2008, since my editor left HarperCollins for Random House (and I moved with her). So I passed the opportunity along to a new writing friend of mine, Eileen Cook. She planned to pass the baton back to me when her book was published…but her book’s release ended up being pushed into 2008 as well. She was gracious enough to share her posting day with me so I could be part of the fun anyway. I am so, so grateful to her and Kristy Kiernan for the opportunity to be a Deb, and for the friendships I now have with the other Debs.

Booking Mama: What are you working on now? When will your next book be available?

Jess Riley: I’m currently working on a story set in a medium security men’s prison, told through the eyes of two people who work there: A social worker in a wheelchair and the teacher he falls for. It’s got plenty of the same warped sense of humor that found its way into Driving Sideways and examines the binge drinking culture of Wisconsin, the class divide found in resort towns, and how you rebuild your life after a horrid heartbreak, all through that lens of pathos mixed with humor.

I worked as a teaching assistant in a prison in college, and my parents actually ‘met’ while both working in the same prison. So, you could say it’s the family business. (Although now my Dad is an English professor.)

I don’t know when the next book will be available, as I haven’t even shown it to my agent yet. If my publisher likes it (fingers crossed), I’m hoping it could be in bookstores as soon as July or August 2009.

Booking Mama: Who are some of your favorite authors? What books are on your nightstand right now?

Jess Riley: Oh, I love this question! I adore fellow Midwesterner Shannon Olson, and for a twisted sense of humor, you can’t beat Jennifer Belle. Jonathan Tropper is on my auto-buy list whenever he has a new book out, as is Haven Kimmel, David Sedaris, Paul Feig, and Jen Lancaster. The books on my nightstand include Emily Giffin’s latest, Julie Buxbaum’s debut, and I still have STACKS of other books-to-be-read in other parts of the house. I just finished Suzanne Finnamore’s Split: A Memoir of Divorce and absolutely loved it.

Booking Mama: What do you want your readers to take away from this book?

Jess Riley: I hope they laugh a bit, I hope they cry a bit (or maybe just get that tight ‘cry-feeling’ deep in their throat once or twice), and I hope they feel like reading it was time well-spent—a little mental road trip vacation without spending a fortune on gas or dealing with traffic. I think each reader will take away very individual feelings and impressions from the book, and I look forward to talking with readers to see what those will be. I love surprises. :)

If you are interested in winning a signed copy of DRIVING SIDEWAYS, please leave a comment on this post (with your e-mail) before Friday, June 27th at 11:59 EST. If you would like to double your chances, mention this contest on your blog with a link back to this post. I will randomly select the winner and post his/her name on Saturday. This contest is open to citizens of the US and Canada only -- sorry!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Girl Talk: Read to Achieve

I was recently contacted by Elizabeth Devlin about a new project which is near and dear to her heart called Girl Talk: Read to Achieve. Her initiative will create "a network of school-based after-school book clubs for adolescent girls to empower them, through the discussion of literature, to become active, self-aware leaders in their communities while increasing their reading achievement and ability to think critically." Based on Ms. Devlin's literary experience both as a child and an adult and the realization that so many children in this country see reading as a chore, she truly believes that Girl Talk can reframe the reading and life experiences of underserved young women.

Girl Talk: Read to Achieve is currently a finalist in a competition on where she is eligible to win $10,000 to implement her idea. I'm asking you to please take a minute and visit the week (June 22nd through the 30th) and read more about this initiative. While you're there, cast a vote for Girl Talk -- you'll be helping Ms. Devlin further this wonderful idea.

Review: Driving Sideways

Summary: Leigh Fielding wants a life. Seriously. Having spent the past five years on dialysis, she has one simple wish: to make it to her thirtieth birthday. Now, thanks to the generosity of the late Larry Resnick and his transplanted kidney, it looks like her wish may come true.

With her newfound vitality (and Larry’s kidney) in tow, Leigh hits the road for an excursion that will carry her from Wisconsin to California, with a few stops in between: Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, the Rockies, Las Vegas–and a memorable visit to thank Larry’s family for the second chance.

Yet Leigh’s itinerary takes a sudden detour when she picks up a seventeen-year-old hitchhiker, Denise, a runaway with a bunch of stories and a couple of secrets. Add a long-lost mother, a loaded gun, an RV full of swingers, and Hall and Oates’s Greatest Hits to the mix, and Driving Sideways becomes a hilarious and original journey of friendship, hope, and discovery. -- Ballantine Books

A few weeks ago, Jess Riley author of DRIVING SIDEWAYS asked me if I was interested in reading her new book. Of course, I jumped at the chance. Ms. Riley is a contributor for The Debutante Ball, a very entertaining grog, or group blog, for debut authors that I follow every day. I thoroughly enjoy reading their essays (often times very funny) and following their success stories as they break through with big-time first novels -- it's kind of like I'll be able to say "I knew you when...." I am gradually working my way through the six debut books; and they have all been terrific so far.

I have two words to say about DRIVING SIDEWAYS -- LOVED IT!!! I definitely think it was one of my favorite books that I've read this year. I am so not alone with this endorsing review -- one of my favorite authors said the following:

"Driving Sideways is a gorgeous novel, hugely entertaining and very touching. Jess Riley's voice is irreverent and wonderful, and her writing is genius." -- Marian Keyes

In my opinion, this book had it all -- a wonderful main character and interesting supporting characters, a storyline that drew me in and kept my interest, and an inspiring message for me to take away from this book. Leigh was such a real character to me, and my heart went out to her. It was so easy to feel compassion for her because of her family situation and the PKD disease that struck her at such a young age. That's not to say that I felt sorry for her throughout the whole book. She was an extremely determined and strong woman who also had a great sense of humor. Her insights about people and life's events were hilarious -- I actually found myself laughing out loud many, many times. Leigh is just one of those characters who will stay in my thoughts for a long time.

While the book does deal with a young woman with a very serious disease and could be a downer, it is actually very funny. Leigh's adventures as she decides to take a road trip across the western part of the United States are entertaining to say the least. She meets up with a teenage runaway at the very beginning of the trip, and the relationship they develop provides some memorable moments. I also enjoyed reading about Leigh's friends and some of the characters she meets along the way. Leigh has a somewhat cynical view on life (given her past, how could she not?), and I found her impressions of life to be hysterically funny (and usually spot on!)

I love how the author chose to end this book -- it was just right. I don't want to give too much away because I think you should all read this book, but the ending wasn't tied up in a nice, neat package. If everything had worked out perfectly for Leigh, I probably would have been disappointed -- this ending was much more real to me (and it wasn't the easy way out for Ms. Riley.) This ending also makes me think about Leigh and her situation even after I have finished the book. Although it wasn't a neat and tidy ending, I like that there was still an overall message of hope and optimism.

I strongly recommend this book! Not only did I love it, but now I want to share it with all of my friends. I am even considering it as a book club selection for the Preschool Moms Book Club. It is a highly entertaining book, but it also has a lot of substance and will make you think. I haven't been able to find a reader's guide yet, but I'm sure there will be one in the very near future. As soon as it's available, I will post a link here.

Make sure you come back tomorrow because I will be posting an interview with Jess Riley -- and I will also be running a giveaway for a free, signed copy of DRIVING SIDEWAYS.

Note: Discussion Questions are now available here.

Also reviewed at:
S. Krishna's Books
Books and Cooks

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hello...You Won The Wednesday Sisters

The winner is...rashmi. Congratulations! Please e-mail me with your mailing address so I can send you the book.

I'm just overwhelmed with the response to this contest. It's obvious that a lot of you really want to read this book, and I just wish I had more copies to share with you.

I want to thank everyone who participated in this giveaway, especially those who mentioned it on their blog. Keep checking back because I have a few more book giveaways planned in the next few weeks -- with one coming up in the next day or so!

Not only have I enjoyed being able to give away a copy of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, but I've also "won" quite a few books from some blogger friends this week:

FATAL DEDUCTION from My Friend Amy
KISS ME, KILL ME from All Things Girl

Thanks to all of you! I can't wait to read them!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: Babies are Boring

Summary: Tired of caterpillars that eat too much and of saying endless good-nights to the moon?

The tongue-in-cheek look at babyhood is the perfect relief for moms and dads who want a fresh new book to read with their newborns and young toddlers.

Bright bold illustrations and fun-to-read rhymes will charm both parent and child . -- Purple Possum Publishing

When I was asked if I'd like to take a look at BABIES ARE BORING by Jon Ritchie, I jumped at the chance. I love children's books and I especially love reading them to my children. The book is probably aimed at children a little younger than my 3 year old, but he still enjoyed it. In fact, as soon as we finished reading it; we started back at the beginning and read it again.

The basic premise of the story is that "babies are boring." The 40 page book then proceeds to show all the ways that babies are either boring or require work -- some of which are very funny. I think parents will actually appreciate this a little more than kids. The last few pages of the book end with all the precious things that babies do -- like "the giggles and the gurgles and the funny tummy-blowings (which my son thought was funny). The final message is that babies are boring, "but if I have to be bored...I'm glad that it's by you."

While I thought the story was cute and I enjoyed the rhymes, my favorite part of this book was the illustrations. Alex Ritchie, Jon's brother, partnered with him on this book; and I thought his drawings were adorable. Each page featured a different mommy/daddy animal with their young -- most of the animals had big, googly eyes that made me giggle. My son even thought a few of them were cute, especially the ones where the mommy was changing the baby's dirty diaper. (Of course, any humor that is potty-related is just hilarious with my three year old.)

If you think this adorable book is something you'd be interested in purchasing, you can place an order here -- they even offer free shipping if you order five or more books. I think this book is great for the toddlers in your life, or even as a baby shower gift!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review: The Condition

Summary: The Condition tells the story of the McKotches, a proper New England family that comes apart during one fateful summer. The year is 1976, and the family, Frank McKotch, an eminent scientist; his pedigreed wife, Paulette; and their three beautiful children has embarked on its annual vacation at the Captain's House, the grand old family retreat on Cape Cod. One day on the beach, Frank is struck by an image he cannot forget: his thirteen-year-old daughter, Gwen, strangely infantile in her child-sized bikini, standing a full head shorter than her younger cousin Charlotte. At that moment he knows a truth that he can never again unknown something is terribly wrong with his only daughter. The McKotch family will never be the same.

Twenty years after Gwen's diagnosis with Turner's syndrome, a genetic condition that has prevented her from maturing, trapping her forever in the body of a child, all five family members are still dealing with the fallout. Each believes himself crippled by some secret pathology; each feels responsible for the family's demise. Frank and Paulette are acrimoniously divorced. Billy, the eldest son, is dutiful but distant, a handsome Manhattan cardiologist with a life built on compromise. His brother, Scott, awakens from a pot-addled adolescence to a soul-killing job, a regrettable marriage, and a vinyl-sided tract house in the suburbs. And Gwen is silent and emotionally aloof, a bright, accomplished woman who spurns any interaction with those around her. She makes peace with the hermetic life she's constructed until, well into her thirties, she falls in love for the first time. And suddenly, once again, the family's world is tilted on its axis.

Compassionate yet unflinchingly honest, witty and almost painfully astute, The Condition explores the power of family mythologies, the self-delusions, denials, and inescapable truths that forever bind fathers and mothers and siblings. -- Harper Collins

I have been a big fan of Jennifer Haugh since my book club read MRS. KIMBLE a few years ago. I enjoyed that book and loved BAKER TOWERS, a book based on a Pennsylvania coal-mining town near where my parents grew up. Needless to say, I was anxiously awaiting her newest book THE CONDITION, which is scheduled for release on July 1, 2008. When I received an early copy of this book a few weeks before its release date, I felt the urge to do a little "happy dance."

Just to show how small a world it is: a few years ago, I was mentioning the book BAKER TOWERS to my aunt who lives not too far from Bakerton, PA -- the town Baker Towers was based on; and she mentioned that she was familiar with the book and the author. My aunt actually knew Ms. Haigh's mother -- she was the school nurse at the same school that Ms. Haigh's mother was the librarian! Anyway...

I was not disappointed with THE CONDITION, and I think it might be my favorite novel that she's written (so far.) That's saying a lot because she received a great deal of praise for her other two books -- MRS. KIMBLE won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and was a finalist for the Book Sense Book of the Year and BAKER TOWERS won the 2006 PEN/L. L. Winship Award for outstanding book by a New England author. Ms. Haigh is a truly gifted writer -- she just oozes mega-writing skills!

THE CONDITION is a beautiful story about the downfall of a family after the daughter Gwen is diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome -- a genetic condition that prevents Gwen from ever physically maturing. All five of the McKotch family members eventually lead their own lives with only minimal interaction with each other. None of them seem as if they are happy or even content with their current situation. The author does a wonderful job of creating these characters and bringing them to life. She allows the reader to see inside their minds and really understand their insecurities and feelings. These characters are all flawed, yet I still was able to feel compassion for each of them.

I thought the book was set up very nicely. The beginning chapters are a flashback to 1976 -- the last time the entire family vacationed together. This was the last time things were "normal" for the family since it was right before Gwen was diagnosed with Turner's Syndrome. The next section of the book (the condition) jumps to 1997 and deals with the fallout after Gwen is diagnosed with Turner's -- Gwen becomes a lonely woman with little social interaction, the parents' divorce, the oldest son retreats to New York City and becomes a doctor with a secret life, and the youngest son is stuck in a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. The third section of the book (the cure) takes place in 1998 and deals with Gwen meeting a man and falling in love. As the first part of the story deals with what happens to the family after Gwen is diagnosed with Turner's, the final part of the book deals with the effect that Gwen's relationship has on the entire family.

I loved the title of this book. My first impression was that "the condition" that the title referred to was Gwen's Turner's Syndrome. However after reading the book, I think that the title could be alluding to other "conditions" as well. Basically, each member of the McKotch family is wrestling with their own "condition" -- something that they blame for the demise of their family. In addition, I'm pretty sure that the term is also referring to the condition of the McKotch family in general-- the various states of the family throughout the course of the novel.

Anyone of Ms. Haigh's books would make wonderful book club picks -- I highly recommend giving at least one of them a try. THE CONDITION has so much to discuss -- who doesn't enjoy talking about the dynamics of a dysfunctional family? As of right now, I haven't found a discussion guide for THE CONDITION, but I'm sure Harper Collins will have one available in the very near future.

Update: Here are the links to the discussion questions as well as an extremely interesting interview with Jennifer Haigh about THE CONDITION.

Also reviewed at:
Breaking the Spine

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Review: Plant Seed, Pull Weed

Summary: Gardens have often been used as metaphors for spiritual nurturing and growth. Zen rock gardens, monastery rose gardens, even your grandmother's vegetable garden all have been described as places of refuge and reflection. Drawing on her experience working at Seattle's premier gardening center, Zen teacher Geri Larkin shows how the act of gardening can help you uncover your inner creativity, enthusiasm, vigilance, and joy. As your garden grows, so will your spirit.

Larkin takes you through the steps of planning, planting, nurturing, and maintaining a garden while offering funny stories and inspiring lessons on what plants can teach us about our lives. As soothing as a bowl of homemade vegetable soup, Plant Seed, Pull Weed will entertain, charm, and inspire you to get your hands dirty and dig deep to cultivate your inner self. -- Harper Collins

When I was contacted by Emily from HarperOne about reading a self-help book called PLANT SEED, PULL WEED: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life by Geri Larkin, I told her I'd give it a try. I don't tend to gravitate towards self-help books, but I figured it wouldn't hurt me to do a little reading on some Zen concepts. I know that if I implemented some of the concepts into my everyday life, I would probably be a happier person (and easier to live with!)

The book was described it to me as "Eat, Pray, Love-ish but (of course) more under the radar." I am probably one of the few book bloggers out there who hasn't read EAT, PRAY, LOVE, and I can honestly say that I don't think I will. I definitely don't want to sound like I'm bashing a book that I haven't read, but it just doesn't appeal to me. What did appeal to me about this book, though, was one of its main ideas -- that "we need to live with a wide open heart."

The book is divided into chapters based on themes from a famous Mahayana Buddhism text called "The Way of the Bodhisattva." The author then shows the reader how each of these concepts can be applied to our lives through various stories and anecdotes -- many of which are touching, others which are very funny. Also interspersed throughout the book are steps for starting and maintaining a garden while showing us what plants can teach us about our lives.

I'd like to share with you the chapter titles to give you a better idea of how she ties gardening to developing a better life:

1) Casing the Landscape: Developing a Clear Intention
2) Rolling Up Your Sleeves: Transcending Hesitation
3) Preparing the Ground: Clear Seeing
4) The Great Fertilizer: Generosity
5) Planting Like You Mean It: Enthusiasm
6) Weeds and More Weeds: Taming Our Minds
7) Tomatoes Grow at Their Own Speed: Patience
8) Weeding at the Root: Anger
9) The Great Harvest: Joy
10) The Whole World is Our Garden: Vigilance

I will admit that reading this book certainly has made me reflect about my own life. Some of the chapters definitely struck a chord with me. Without going into all of my hang-ups, I found the chapters on Taming Our Minds and Patience to be especially helpful. In addition, I love the entire Joy concept -- that we must appreciate all of the joyful things we experience everyday (even small joys.) What I realized about myself is that I need to do more to help those who have less than I do. All these actions will make a difference in lives of others (as well as improving my life), and they don't have to be huge -- the small things matter too!

I found Geri Larkin's path to Buddhism to be very interesting. She quit her job as a management consultant to enter a Buddhist seminary; and she was ordained in 1995. In 1999, she started a Zen Meditation Center in downtown Detroit. She has since written many books about Buddhism and Zen.

I thoroughly enjoyed PLANT SEED, PULL WEED; and I know I'll be thinking about what I can do to make myself a better person. Since I did like this book so much, I'm wondering if I should maybe give EAT, PRAY, LOVE a try!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Review: Sundays at Tiffany's

Summary: As a little girl, Jane has no one. Her mother, the powerful head of a Broadway theater company, has no time for her. She does have one friend-a handsome, comforting, funny man named Michael-but only she can see him.

Years later, Jane is in her thirties and just as alone as ever. Then she meets Michael again-as handsome, smart and perfect as she remembers him to be. But not even Michael knows the reason they've really been reunited.

SUNDAYS AT TIFFANY'S is a love story with an irresistible twist, a novel about the child inside all of us-and the boundary-crossing power of love. -- Hachette Book Group USA

I was just thrilled when Hatchette Book Group sent me a copy of SUNDAYS AT TIFFANY'S by James Patterson and Gabrielle Charbonnet as part of their Mother's Day Book Package. I have read every James Patterson book ever written (I think), and I knew I wanted to read this one too. I consider myself a pretty big fan of Mr. Patterson's, even though I haven't loved some of his recent books. I sat down to read SUNDAYS AT TIFFANY'S when I was home by myself on a Saturday night (the kids were in bed and my husband was out-of-town on a golf trip), and I didn't get off the couch until I was done reading the book. I didn't want to put the book down; but having said that, it was also a very quick read -- it took me less than two hours.

I don't read a lot of love stories or romance books, but occassionally I will pick one up and enjoy it! That was certainly the case with SUNDAYS AT TIFFANY'S -- I realize that this wasn't a great piece of fiction, but I must have been in the right mood for a love story. I know many people will be turned off by a story about a woman falling in love with her childhood imaginary friend, but I thought was heart-warming. I was touched by this book, and I liked the overall message about the importance of love. I know I sound a little bit mushy, but sometimes it's nice to read a "sweet" book.

If I wanted to be find fault with this book, I certainly could -- the characters were kind of flat, the story was somewhat predictable, etc. In fact, I feel kind of guilty for not going into details about some of the elements that I found lacking in the story. However, I don't think the intent for this book was ever for it to be judged as a literary piece of art. I just enjoyed this book for what I saw it as -- a feel-good book about finding love.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Interview with Meg Waite Clayton and Book Giveaway

Yesterday, I reviewed THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS by Meg Waite Clayton; and I loved it! I was just thrilled when the author agreed to answer some questions about the book for me.

Booking Mama: What prompted you to write THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS?

Meg Waite Clayon: I wish I could say I set out to write a novel about friendship, or about how the women’s movement changed the world, or about the struggles so many women go through today, which aren’t so different from the struggles women have always faced. But the truth is it’s very daunting to start a novel—a bit like getting up one morning and running a whole marathon without any training. So everything I write starts more modestly, with some little nugget of something I find interesting, that I want to explore.

THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS started as a title. I can’t honestly remember where it came from, but when it popped into my mind I loved it. Not a word of the story came with it, though, so it sat as an empty file in my computer for over a year. The story itself started with a single nameless, faceless, character, just a character trait, really: white gloves. I had no idea who wore them or why she might be a “Wednesday Sister.” There were a lot of elements rolling around in the back of my mind, but I did have the idea that it would be a friendship story. As I was writing it, I kept in my journal a photo from when I was in law school: my roommate Darby and me sitting on our balcony after my last second-year final, raising our glasses to our other roommate, Jenn, who’d poured the wine and didn’t hesitate to capture me at my worst on film. (Darby, of course, looks great!)

Booking Mama: The story takes place during the late 1960s and early 1970s -- a fascinating time of history for our country. You are too young to actually remember many of the events mentioned in your book. Why did you choose for the book to take place during this time period? How much research did you have to conduct before writing this book?

Meg Waite Clayton: When I was in law school a friend—I think it was Liza Yntema—took me into a room somewhere in Hutchins Hall to show me some old Michigan Law School class photos she’d found, to show me how few women there were in classes not many years before us. It was definitely an “aha” moment for me. I don’t think I had a clue what a difference the women’s movement had made in my life before that. That was definitely something I wanted to explore here: the shift the movement provoked in the way women—many women or maybe even all women, not just those who would call themselves feminists—think of themselves.

I could go on and on about that.

But part of why I wanted to explore this is that I think how we judge ourselves as women still has some way to go. For example, although we don’t gather around the television to watch the Miss America Pageant in anywhere near the numbers we used to, the media image of how women are supposed to look seems only to have gotten thinner and more airbrushed and unrealistic. We seem to be stuck in this ideal of womanhood as Virgin Mary perfection that no real woman can live up to.

As for research, I have a huge three ring binder overfull of things I’ve collected. I pored through magazines and newspapers from the late 1960s, picking out clothes and hairstyles they would wear and trying to imagine which articles they might read and what they would think of them. I went through bestseller and top-forty lists and watched the lunar landing footage, old Tonight Show clips, and old movies. (All great fun!) I got the kind and patient staff at the library to drag out files on Palo Alto history for me. I looked at a million photos. And for the things I hadn’t personally experienced, I relished opportunities to touch base with someone who had. I love research because it not only illuminates the things I don’t know, but also leads me to new launching pads.

Booking Mama: I related to so many of the characters in this book, and I'm sure women who read the book will feel the same way. I especially felt an affinity with Frankie moving to a new city and having to make new friends. What character do you most relate to (if any) in the book? Are there any autobiographical aspects to this book?

Meg Waite Clayton: I certainly relate to Frankie in the moving-to-a-new-city anxiety. I’ve had a lot more practice with it over the years than she has, but that has never made it easier!

The Wednesday Sisters isn’t autobiographical in a strict sense, but the heart of the book—the Wednesday Sisters’ friendship—definitely draws its emotional roots from my own friends, and in particular my friend Jenn DuChene, my husband, Mac Clayton, and my long-term writing pal, Brenda Rickman Vantrease. Let’s just say I could not have written The Wednesday Sisters without them. The joy the Sisters share is the same kind of joy I have gotten from all the many friends I am blessed to have, joy I hope I return to them. This book is absolutely meant to be a halleluiah to friends.

Each of the Wednesday Sisters does contain some little piece of me. Linda’s fear—for her children and for herself—is my fear. Brett’s tortured relationship with her “unfeminine intellect” draws on my own discomfort as a girl who was talented at math when girls weren’t supposed to be. Kath’s darkest moments draw from a relationship of mine that ended unhappily. Frankie’s self-doubt and her chubby phases are mine, as is her experience with her first novel. Even Ally is me in her middle-of-the-night journey at the end of the book, drawn from my own experience as a mom.
When I first started writing, I think I most related to Linda. But by the time I finished I felt so very close to all of them that picking one over any of the others for anything would be almost like choosing one of my sons over the other—which I couldn’t imagine doing.

Booking Mama: All of the Wednesday Sisters agree to start writing, but they all go about the writing process in different ways. For most of the women, their writing acted as therapy for them and helped them to cope with their insecurities and disappointments in their lives. What are your reasons for deciding to write after practicing law for years?

Meg Waite Clayton: Growing up (isn’t that when most dreams start?), I was a huge reader. I dreamed of writing books like A Wrinkle in Time, but to me writing novels was like leaping tall buildings in single bounds. The adults I knew were businessmen—not even business women; the “ladies” were moms and teachers and nuns. Even a girl going to law school was a stretch. My husband, Mac, was the first adult to whom I admitted my childhood aspirations to write, and he gave me a great big push. He said, basically, “Your dream, Meg. How will you ever know unless you try?”

Booking Mama: I loved the symbolism that you incorporated into the novel, especially the parts about the Miss America pageant and the space flights. Why did you choose to incorporate these events into your story?

Meg Waite Clayton: One of my earliest really vivid memories is of watching Neil Armstrong step out onto the moon. And I am as guilty as the Wednesday Sisters of watching Miss America. It would be hard for me to write about the 1960s without touching on them.

So they were there in the first draft, and the trick for me in revision is to sort out the weeds from the flowers, and to make room for the flowers to grow.

I suppose those two elements were appealing to explore beyond that first draft because they represent different ends of the spectrum. So many girls grew up aspiring to be Miss America, but there were also girls like Brett (and me!) who thought one of the coolest things in the world was an astronaut. The Miss America element allowed me to explore that whole over-emphasis on women’s physical beauty, and to show how the women’s movement raised awareness of that even in women who would not in a million years call themselves feminists. And the space race allowed me to explore the things women couldn’t do. They simply could not become astronauts any more than they could board the male-only “executive” flights that existed at the time.

I think the race for the moon in some ways represents the future, too. The possibilities. As Senator Clinton said in her speech the other day, we’ve now seen fifty women launched into space. One of the things I found most interesting about that is that I didn’t even know it until I heard her say it: women routinely fill so many roles from which they were once excluded that we don’t even keep count anymore.

Booking Mama: I was wondering if you are a big sports fan? You mention the ups and mainly downs of the Chicago Cubs baseball team as well as lots of information about the Olympics and running. I am a huge sports fans and it was so nice to see so many sports references in a "woman's" book.

Meg Waite Clayton: Let’s just say that for my 20th anniversary this summer, my husband and I are going to a Cubs game with our sons, my father and several of my brothers and their families. And I once called to excuse my sons from school for “an important family matter” without mentioning that the matter was a Cubs game.

I loved playing softball and almost any sport when I was younger, and though I don’t participate in team sports beyond the occasional family touch football game these days, I spend plenty of time running. I’m currently training for the Nike Women’s half marathon with Team in Training. (I’m really slow, but I’ve never failed to get to the finish line!)

Booking Mama: I am always asking everyone I meet this question because I am constantly looking for new book ideas. I hope I'm not putting you on the spot, but who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books? What book are you reading right now?

Meg Waite Clayton: Right now I have the great pleasure of reading an advanced reader copy of Michelle Richmond’s novel coming out June 20, No One You Know. It is terrific! I quite expect to see it on the bestseller lists, as her The Year of Fog was.

I have this idea that my taste in literature generally leans heavily toward women writers and strong women characters, but I’m not sure my favorites list supports that. I love Jane Austen and George Eliot and Harper Lee and modern women writers like Alice McDermott and Anne Tyler and Barbara Pym. But I also love Tolstoy and Graham Greene and Ernest Gaines, all of whom are men who write largely about men. I suppose I like well-written books that dig right into my heart, books that make me laugh and cry.

Booking Mama: What are you working on now?

Meg Waite Clayton: I’m finishing up the first draft of a new novel currently called “Untitled Catholic Story.” At the moment, it is definitely drivel, but I’m hopeful there is a story that can be pulled out of the muck.

Booking Mama: What would you like readers to take away from your book?

Meg Waite Clayton: Two reviews posted on Library Thing embody exactly what I would like readers to take away from The Wednesday Sisters. One said after she finished the book, she picked up her own pen for the first time in years. The other said, “…when I finished, I emailed all of my best girlfriends just to tell them I love them”—which caused me to pick up the phone to call my own friends!

I'd like to thank Ms. Waite Clayton for agreeing to be interviewed by me. I appreciate the time and thought she put into each of her answers.

I just happen to have an extra copy of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS to share with one lucky reader. If you are interested in winning a copy of this book, please leave a comment (with youre e-mail) after this post. To double your chances, mention it on your blog with a link back here. The contest will be open until Saturday, June 21st at 11:59 p.m. I will announce the winner on Sunday, June 22nd. Good luck to everyone!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Review: The Wednesday Sisters

Summary: Friendship, loyalty, and love lie at the heart of Meg Waite Clayton’s beautifully written, poignant, and sweeping novel of five women who, over the course of four decades, come to redefine what it means to be family.

For thirty-five years, Frankie, Linda, Kath, Brett, and Ally have met every Wednesday at the park near their homes in Palo Alto, California. Defined when they first meet by what their husbands do, the young homemakers and mothers are far removed from the Summer of Love that has enveloped most of the Bay Area in 1967. These “Wednesday Sisters” seem to have little in common: Frankie is a timid transplant from Chicago, brutally blunt Linda is a remarkable athlete, Kath is a Kentucky debutante, quiet Ally has a secret, and quirky, ultra-intelligent Brett wears little white gloves with her miniskirts. But they are bonded by a shared love of both literature–Fitzgerald, Eliot, Austen, du Maurier, Plath, and Dickens–and the Miss America Pageant, which they watch together every year.

As the years roll on and their children grow, the quintet forms a writers circle to express their hopes and dreams through poems, stories, and, eventually, books. Along the way, they experience history in the making: Vietnam, the race for the moon, and a women’s movement that challenges everything they have ever thought about themselves, while at the same time supporting one another through changes in their personal lives brought on by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success.

Humorous and moving, The Wednesday Sisters is a literary feast for book lovers that earns a place among those popular works that honor the joyful, mysterious, unbreakable bonds between friends. -- Ballantine Books

When Meg Waite Clayton contacted me a few weeks ago about her new book, THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS, I was positively thrilled. She sent me a brief synopsis of the book, and I knew I just had to read it. I am a huge sucker for good books about women and the friendships they develop. I sat down and read this book over the course of a day -- I couldn't put it down.

One of the main reasons that I enjoyed this book so much was that the characters were all so likeable to me. I felt like I could be friends with each of these women, and I recognized traits in them that I see in my current friends. I even saw bits of myself in each of the characters. Usually I'm lucky if I can relate to any character in these types of books; but I have to say that there were small parts of every character that I related to.

I also loved the historical aspects that the author wove into this novel. The book takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s - a huge time of change for our country and women in particular. I am too young to remember this timeframe, but I have heard so much about the events during this period that I felt like I was reliving memories. I especially enjoyed the historical facts about the space program as well as the pop culture references of popular books and movies. It's obvious to me that Ms. Waite Clayton did a lot of research before writing this book!

While some reviewers have said that the issues these women deal with are too "trite" or "familiar" (to use constructive criticism terms from the book), I disagree. I found their stories to be very realistic. Their problems and issues were things that I have experienced either in my own life or have seen happen in my friends' lives. Maybe these issues keep recurring in women's books because they are so true. Either way, I laughed and cried with these characters as they worked through their problems and found themselves through writing.

I think Meg Waite Clayton is a wonderful writer. As I mentioned earlier, I couldn't put the book down. While some of the issues that the women faced were quite serious, the author was still able to infuse a sense of humor into the story. This book definitely wasn't a downer for me -- the book ends very upbeat with a wonderful message of resilience and hope! Ms. Waite Clayton has a fantastic website that I've spent some time on. You can read much of the praise already circulating about this novel -- many authors whose books I have loved are saying terrific things about this book. In addition, there are lots of other interesting features including advice and inspiration for aspiring writers as well as some background on her research.

I highly recommend selecting THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS for your next book club meeting. It's not a very long book (under 300 pages), so everyone should have time to read it within a month's time frame (I know that's a concern for the moms in my book club.) I have a feeling that this is going to be a big book club selection within the next year because there are so many wonderful things to discuss. There is quite a bit of symbolism in this book which would be fun to delve into a little deeper -- the space program, the old mansion, and the Miss America pageant to name a few. Random House has posted a reading guide as well as a wonderful interview with Ms. Waite Clayton.

As of today, June 17th, THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS is available to everyone. Hurry on out and buy it -- I think this book will make a terrific summer read!

Come back tomorrow because I will be posting an interview I recently had with the author. In addition, I will be running a contest for a free copy of THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS -- I have an extra copy that Ballantine Books sent for me to share with one very lucky reader.

Also reviewed at:
The Bookworm

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Review: Begin Smart Books

Dear Parents,

For a child, eating is a major activity, and everything involving food is an event. The process of eating a meal is a crucial part of a child's early years. Each page of ALL GONE! shows a familiar food, and when the page is turned, the food disappears. All gone!

Disappearing and reappearing objects fascinate babies and toddlers, and turning the pages of ALL GONE! during mealtime, or while waiting to be served at a restaurant, is sure to have a positive result. -- Begin Smart All Gone Book

I received the cutest package in the mail filled with lots of goodies from Begin Smart. Begin Smart is a "developmental publishing program designed to encourage the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual growth of babies and toddlers." They have adorable books divided into categories by age: newborn to six months, six to twelve months, twelve to eighteen months, and eighteen months to two years. The very helpful Steve from Book Smart sent me a book from each age level, a promotional DVD, and a cute tote bag!

While my youngest child is almost four years old and too old for these books, I still can appreciate them as a mother. These books are precious and I have no doubt that both of my children would have loved them. (If I'm being honest, my three and a half year old was showing some interest in them especially the one with the button that makes noise!)

NIGHT-NIGHT, BABY is a cloth book geared for newborns to three month old children. The book is filled with different animals partially covered in a blanket. Any baby will love turning the blankets (which are very soft with satiny edges) and finding animals!

The book for six to twelve month olds is called MEOW -- this is the one that my son was interested in. This book is a sturdy board book with a button on top that makes a "meow" sound when you push it. I thought this book was very cute! The book shows different types of cats on each page, except for a little surprise picture near the end. The last page actually shows a furry cat and has a little circle with some fur for the child to feel.

ALL GONE is the book geared for twelve to eighteen month olds, and it's the one featured at the top of this post. This book is very chunky with foam filled pages -- very easy for little ones to turn themselves. The first and last page of the books are written for parents. I especially liked the last page where it gives the parents some further ideas on how to read this book to their child.

The last book I received was ONE-TWO, and it is for eighteen month to two year olds. This book is very similar to shape and size of ALL GONE. The book is filled with lots of colorful pictures which show the difference between the numbers one and two. I think it would be a great way to get your child to start counting!

The initial set of Begin Smart books launches in June. Every book in this series offers these helpful features:

Color Coding – Books are clearly color-coded by age.

Developmental Skills – Every book includes a list of skills which are aided by that book.

Parent Notes – The parent notes expand on the list of developmental skills and suggest several ways to read the book.

Promotional DVD – A 12-minute video shows the books being used by moms, dads, and grandparents and offers tips about how to read to babies of different ages.

Website – On the Begin Smart website, parents can find advice from child development experts, tips for creative ways to read the books, and an overview of the entire program.

I wish these books had been around when my kids were little, because they are perfect for little ones (at least I'm still getting some new nieces and nephews.) These books would make wonderful gifts for the babies or moms-to-be in your lives; and I know they will just love them.

Make sure you check out their website because it's extremely informative. There is a ton of wonderful information not only about their books, but also about reading to your child at various ages.