Thursday, July 31, 2008

New "Find" & Contest

I was recently discovered a terrific new reading resource called BookFinds. Not only is there a lot of information on author, books and the publishing industry, but there is also a great contest going on right now! BookFinds is giving away three signed copies of SISTERS OF MISERY by Megan Kelley Hall. This book is getting a lot of positive attention, and I'm anxiously awaiting for my copy to arrive in the mail! Make sure you take a look at this blog and sign up for their contest while you are there!

Guest Review: So Long at the Fair

It's always a pleasure to read one of Melissa's reviews, and her review of SO LONG AT THE FAIR by Christina Schwarz is no exception. I read Ms. Schwarz's DROWNING RUTH and ALL IS VANITY awhile back and thoroughly enjoyed the books as well as her writing style. I look forward to reading SO LONG AT THE FAIR in the very near future.

Summary: The bestselling author of Drowning Ruth returns to the small-town Wisconsin she so brilliantly evoked with this gripping novel about love, marriage, and adultery.

In the summer of 1963 a plot for revenge destroys a career, a friendship, and a family. The consequences of the scandalous event continue to reverberate, touching the next generation. Thirty years later, over the course of one day, Jon struggles to decide whether to end his affair or his marriage. His wife, Ginny, moving closer to discovering his adultery, begins working for an older man who is mysteriously connected to their families’ pasts. And Jon’s mistress is being courted by a suitor who may be more menacing than he initially seems. As relationships among the characters ebb and flow on that July day, Christina Schwarz illuminates the ties that bind people together—and the surprising risks they take in the name of love.

As in Drowning Ruth, Schwarz weaves past and present into a richly textured portrait of the secrets and deceptions that simmer beneath everyday life in a small midwestern town. With page-turning intensity and in prose at once lush and precise, she beautifully conjures the emotional labyrinth of a marriage on the brink of collapse and proves that no matter how hard we work to stifle them, the secrets of the past refuse to be ignored.

Betrayal versus loyalty . . . lust versus love . . . infidelity versus honor. Welcome to the complex web of Christina Schwarz’s dazzling new novel, So Long at the Fair. -- Random House

As the summary indicates, the author has an awful lot of plot twists to pack into a 244 page book, but she manages to pull it off beautifully. Schwarz details one tumultuous and life-altering day of a seemingly ordinary married couple, Jon and Ginny, while seamlessly weaving in flashbacks to events that occurred more than 30 years in the past. I thought that this book was extremely well written. The characters literally jumped out of the pages at me, coming to life and enveloping me in their riveting story.

Whenever I read a book that includes a cheating husband or wife, I tend to feel little or no sympathy for that character. Strangely enough, I found myself empathizing with Jon’s emotional struggle as he faced the realization that he must decide between his wife and mistress. Schwarz’ vivid character portrayals added a complexity to an issue which is usually pretty straightforward to me, making it more than a simple choice between love versus lust and wrong versus right.

As the layers of Jon and Ginny’s relationship are peeled back to expose hidden and repressed feelings of guilt for past mistakes and thoughts left unsaid, it was both easy and painful to identify with the misunderstandings, pressures and burdens that can affect even the healthiest of marriages. I really felt my tension building as the events of the day played out bringing Ginny and Jon closer to an inevitable confrontation. And as the story illustrates, even long-held and deeply buried secrets have a way of surfacing when least expected.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone. And because I liked Schwarz’ style so much, I definitely look forward to picking up a copy of her first novel, DROWNING RUTH to add to my summer reading list.

A huge thanks goes out to Melissa for helping with my huge TBR pile! (The only "problem" is that I still desperately want to read the books that she has reviewed, especially this one.) I think SO LONG AT THE FAIR sounds like a terrific book for your next book club discussion -- the reading guide can be found here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Review: The Beach House

Summary: She’s known as the crazy woman who lives in the big old rambling house on the top of a bluff in Nantucket, but at sixty-five-years old, Nan doesn’t care what people think. If her neighbours are away, why shouldn’t she skinny dip in their swimming pools? Her husband died twenty years ago, her beauty has faded, her family flown, and when she discovers that the money she thought would last forever is running out and she may lose her beloved house, she knows she has to make drastic changes. Slowly people start moving in to the house, filling it with noise again, with laughter, and with tears. There is Daniel, recently divorced and a father of two girls, who is struggling to find out who he really is, and Daff, the single mother of a truculent teenager who blames her unreservedly for the divorce. As the house comes alive again, Nan finds her family extending. Her son comes home for the summer, and then an unexpected visitor throws all their lives upside down. -- Viking

I rarely review a book that I checked out of the library, but I enjoyed THE BEACH HOUSE by Jane Green so much that I wanted to share my thoughts on this book. I have to start by saying that I have read everything by Jane Green that I can get my hands on; and I almost always like her books. I think I've read all of them (or at least the ones published in the U.S.) and I think she's a terrific storyteller. I consider her earlier books to be "chick lit," but her latest ones have been kind of a "mature chick lit" -- meaning that they are about adults rather than young, single women who live in a major city! I guess the "proper" term is woman's fiction.

THE BEACH HOUSE is a perfect summertime read -- it has a little bit of everything. The readers is introducted to many characters in the first few chapters; in fact, I admit that it take take me a little while to keep them all straight. All of the characters seem to be at a major crossroad in their lives and they are all struggling to find what will make them happy. As I got to know each of the characters, I liked each of them for a different reason. I enjoyed following their stories and seeing them learn about themselves.

As the book progresses, each of the characters end up as boarders in Nan's Nantucket house. Once they arrive here, their lives (and the storylines) intersect and the characters evenutally become one big family in "the beach house." Despite all the heartache and troubles that they have faced in their lives, they all end up finding some sort of comfort during their stay -- it's almost as if the house has some healing properties (or at the very least something that causes people to form bonds with each other.)

I loved Ms. Green's descriptions of Nantucket, and especially her details about Nan's house. I could picture the beach house so well that it was almost another character in the story. I enjoyed that the book ended with not only happy endings for each of the characters, but also a happy ending for the beach house. I thought Ms. Green did a wonderful job with this book, and I liked how she even kept a few surprises for the end!

If there was one thing in this book that I didn't get, it was situation with Daniel -- a husband with two children who admits that he is gay. I liked the character of Daniel very much, but I just didn't feel that the description of his life once he was out of the closet was very realistic. Keep in mind that I do not know anyone who has experienced a situation like this in real life, so maybe I'm way off base when I say this. It seemed like his major issue was in admitting that he was gay. The transition he made from his straight life to his new lifestyle seemed to be almost too easy.

As I mentioned earlier, this book is an ideal summer read. It is relatively light and easy to read but it also has some parts that are of a more serious nature. I love that the characters all find some sort of peace by the end of the book and that the reader is left with happy thoughts! I think many book clubs would enjoy reading this novel and talking about it. Some people might even find themselves relating to certain characters in the story, especially those that are dealing with family drama, divorce, infidelity, aging parents, and unruly teenagers. There are discussion questions available here if you want to get a better idea about the story.

If you aren't familiar with any of Jane Green's books, you really should read a few. They are light reads and very entertaining!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Review: Falling Under

Summary: After growing up as the only child of bitterly divorced parents, Mara Foster has finally gained independence and is embarking on a promising career as an artist. But despite her success, she is fragile. Burdened by a host of fears and anxieties, Mara finds it difficult even to leave her house on most days. When Mara meets Hugo, the walls she has built around herself begin to crumble, and as she struggles to find a breakthrough both in her art and in life, she must come to terms with her own dark secrets in order to get a second chance at happiness.

Written in spare, crisp prose and marked by wry humor, Falling Under is a gripping contemporary urban tale of human weakness, friendship and hard-earned redemption. This emotionally resonant story of unexpected love marks the debut of a striking new voice in fiction. -- Plume Books

FALLING UNDER by Danielle Younge-Ullman is definitely a unique book (and by unique, I mean very special!) I can't say that I've read anything quite like it recently, but I can say that it was a novel that deeply affected me. The book was pretty dark and often times depressing because of its subject matter; however, the magic of the story was that the author still managed to infuse many moments of humor into this book.

I don't even know where to begin with the character of Mara. I've had a very normal, uneventful life (I mean that in a good way), so I found her to be more than a little messed up. However, even though I took issue with many of her actions, I found myself really liking her (and definitely rooting for her to find love.) In so many ways, Mara was just a victim of her environment -- it began when she was just a small child with her parents' divorce and it just went downhill from there. She became involved in many dysfunctional relationships, and it was just pitiful how much she wanted to be loved and accepted. I felt so much compassion for her and I so wanted her to find her way. I guess you could say that FALLING UNDER is kind of a "coming of age" story (although Mara might be a little older than your typical "coming of age" protagonists.)

I thought the supporting characters in Mara' life were very interesting. I really liked the side story of Mara's best friend Bernadette and her relationship woes! In addition, I thought Mara's love interests, Erik and Hugo, and her interactions with each of them were fascinating (although for different reasons.) The character of Sal, Mara's art dealer and financial supporter, and her parents also provided me with some entertainment and quite a few laughs. The mixed-up, diverse cast of characters in this novel are sure to stick with me for quite awhile!

One little warning: Ms. Younge-Ullman's prose is very bold. I think it's an extremely effective way to tell this story, and it certainly worked for me; however, some readers might find parts of the story to be quite graphic (especially the sex scenes.) In each chapter, the book goes back and forth between present day and Mara's past. This method of telling Mara's story allows the reader to gather additional pieces of the puzzle of Mara's life -- I thought it was brilliant! Ms. Younge-Ullman's writing style just seemed to fit so well with Mara's personality.

I am extremely impressed that this is Ms. Younge-Ullman's first novel. I read that she has had a love of books since her childhood, and it's evident that she has a great talent for writing. I thought she did an amazing job with the characters, and the book definitely held my interest throughout. Despite having a difficult subject matter, the book really flowed and was very easy to read. I loved how she incorporated some twists and turns in the last few chapters of the book -- they made the entire story come together. And the was just perfect!

Ms. Younge-Ullman is a current member of The Debutante Ball, a group blog of debut women writers. I'm a huge fan of this grog and I follow it everyday -- everyone should check it out. So far, the books that I've read by this year's Debs (this is my 4th) have been incredible -- they are very diverse, yet one is better than the next. In addition to her essays on The Debutante Ball, Ms. Younge-Ullman also writes on her own blog.

Book clubs everywhere should read FALLING UNDER. There are so many topics for discussion including: depression, alcoholism, the effects of divorce on children, relationships, friendships, parent/child relationships, etc. There is a terrific reading guide to help keep your conversation on track (which you might find really helpful since this book is likely to cause a lot of strong opinions.) Ms. Younge-Ullman is also willing to "meet" with your book club either in person or by telephone depending on her schedule. Click here to contact her and request a date or just to sign up for her newsletter.

FALLING UNDER is available today (July 29th) everywhere!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Review: The Septembers of Shiraz

Summary: In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested, wrongly accused of being a spy. Terrified by his disappearance, his family must reconcile a new world of cruelty and chaos with the collapse of everything they have known. As Isaac navigates the terrors of prison, and his wife feverishly searches for him, his children struggle with the realization that their family may soon be forced to embark on a journey of incalculable danger. -- Harper Perennial

I received THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ by Dalia Sofer from Gayle as part of the Everyday I Write the Book Blog Online Book Club. I was aware that this book was getting a lot of positive attention, and I actually had it on my TBR list. I thought the premise of how a Jewish-Iranian family is affected by a change of regime in 1980s Iran sounded promising. For some reason, I am drawn to books about the Middle East -- it's probably because I'm fascinated about their culture and history (and I really don't have much of an understanding of it.) After finishing this book, I have to say that I absolutely loved it; but I was also extremely affected by it. While I couldn't wait to find out what happened to the Amin family, I also didn't want the book to end -- I had some mixed emotions going on. I think it might be the most memorable book that I have read to date this year!

THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ is an extremely difficult book to read. I don't mean that in a negative way -- the writing and descriptions are amazing, the characters are well-developed and very memorable, and the storyline is fascinating. I guess I thought it was difficult to read because of the horrendous things that the Amin family (and other Iranians) experienced. I felt an affinity to so many of the characters, and I was deeply touched by what each one had to go through. The author chose to tell the story through the eyes of each member of the Amin family, and I think it was extremely effective. I think I really got to understand and know each of them better because of this writing technique. I also found it very interesting that the author even portrayed the "bad guys" as somewhat decent people -- it really made me question my original thoughts about these characters. I definitely understood the message in this book that things aren't all black and white when it comes to situations like this -- the lines are definitely blurred.

I loved how the author not only told the story of the Amin family in Iran, but she also described what it was like for Parviz (the Amin's college age son) to live in New York City. I thought she did a tremendous job of making Parviz "real," and I felt so much compassion towards him because he didn't really fit in with the Americans or the Jews that he associated with. My heart also went out to him because he was so far away from his family and had no idea how his jailed father or his mom and sister were doing.

Another character that I adored was Shirin (the young daughter in the Amin family.) At such a young age (around 9 years old), her entire life was turned upside-down. Her brother went to the U.S., her father went to prison and her mother became less attentive to her -- she was basically on her own physically and emotionally. I just felt so sad for her, especially when she tried to "help" some men who were being persecuted. The fear of getting caught and the guilt that she had to deal with were gut-wrenching. I think I could almost feel her pain and confusion. There's one scene later in the book when she was walking by herself in the streets, and a lady came up to her and said "you poor girl" -- that just summed up my feelings for her.

Ms. Sofer is an amazing writer -- her prose is just so beautiful -- and her background is just about as incredible as her book. In the "About the Book" section in the P.S. part of the book, she tells the reader about her life and the inspiration for THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ. She was born in Iran and her family fled to the United States when she was only 10 years old -- just like the Amin family in the book. In addition, her father had been imprisoned and accused of being a Zionist spy (also just like the character of Isaac.) As touched as I was by this book, I was even more affected by the story after I realized how much of it is based on reality. It's one thing to read a book, but to know that the atrocities mentioned in the story actually happened to real people just takes my breath away.

If you have read the book and have something to say about it or you are even curious to see what people are saying about the book, you should really check out the on-line discussion here. I can't wait to read everyone's thoughts and opinions about this amazing book. There is just so much to talk about and so many things to share. I could talk for hours about the resentment of the lower classes, the importance of material wealth, the dissolution of friendships, the effects of the political change on everyone (even children), the ethical dilemnas, the culture of Iranians, Jews and Americans, etc. -- I could go on and on! I am even thinking about suggesting it for a future book club selection (of course, my book club is sick of me always picking/suggesting the book!) There is a reader's guide available here if you want to get an idea about the types of issues to discuss.

I hope I was able to convey how much I enjoyed this book -- I think everyone should go out and read it right now! If you enjoyed THE KITE RUNNER or A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, you will love THE SEPTEMBERS OF SHIRAZ! After I finished the book, I turned to my husband and said that I think I liked it even better than those two novels (and that's saying a lot because I loved them!)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review: Fire Fish

Summary: In this golden fable, three little fish, Sarai, RaaOn and Sesom, embark on a daring quest to find their missing parents.

Never more than a fin-flip away from deadly danger, they tumble from one breathtaking exploit to another. Along their journey they encounter helpful friends and deceitful enemies. All the while, the legend of the Fire Fish inspires them to explore a world bigger than they ever imagined.

Leaving the comfort of their home, they find a wise turtle who teaches them how to call upon the great Finmaker.
As they journey through dark tunnels, an evil eel attempts to lure them into his hungry jaws. After a narrow escape, they find their way to the big ocean, teeming with fish of every kind.

They meet new friends and play games until a friendly dolphin warns them of danger. An army of great white sharks is approaching, gnashing everything in its path. In the thrilling climax, the glorious Fire Fish appear, and this story of mythic power ends in a surprising twist that teaches timeless truth. --

When I opened up FIRE FISH by Davy Liu in the mail, my family actually could hear me "Ooooooohing and Aaaaaahing!" The cover of this book is just so incredibly beautiful -- the fish on the cover is shiny and jumps out at you. I immediately started flipping through the pages just to look at the illustrations! Each page is more spectacular than the next. I especially loved his use of light and how it appeared under the water.

Davy Liu has created a series of Christain faith-based childrens' books called Invisible Tails. He has worked for Disney, Warner Bros. Animation and Lucas Films before becoming an author and illustrator. His creativity and talent are apparent throughout FIRE FISH. Liu said, “I hope to inspire young souls to experience life through faith. There is more to life than meets the eye. Every kid has different gifts. Though we live in very distracting times, I want kids to know their life is valuable not because of status or material things.”

The illustrations are absolutly amazing (and definitely my favorite part of the book), but the story is extremely meaningful too. The book tells the story of Exodus through the eyes of three little fish. It was inspired by Moses' visit by God through the burning bush. These fish face many dangers in the ocean and survive them all because of their unending faith in the "Finmaker." At the end of the story, after the fish realize how many miracles they had been granted, they even take the time to thank the Finmaker for keeping them safe. It's a beautiful book with a beautiful Christian message!

If you would like to get an idea about the beauty of Liu's illustrations, you can check out FIRE FISH website. Make sure you take a look at the descriptions of the characters and the downloads. The book is aimed at children ages 9 to 12; however, this adult will love reading this book over and over again with my children. I most certainly intend to check out the other books in this series (THE GIANT LEAF was published in April 2007.) FIRE FISH is certainly a book that will be valued in our house, both for its beauty and its message!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Review: This Year's Model

Summary: Supermodel Carol Alt takes us on a wild ride through the glamorous, cutthroat world of fashion and fame—in a biting, witty, and absolutely authentic novel that rocks the world of high-end modeling!

Tall, beautiful, practical Melody Ann Croft of Morristown, New Jersey, is busting her behind as a waitress and wishing there was an easier way to earn money for college. When a customer claiming to be a fashion photographer insists she could become a model, Melody is skeptical—and totally shocked when dropping his name actually opens agency doors. Signed up before her head has even stopped spinning, she's got a new name—Mac—and is off to her first shoot. Could this be that "easier way" at last?

But in modeling, nothing's easy. Mac faces demanding diva photographers with their body-torturing, day-long sessions, and jealous rivals whose flawless beauty hides sharp claws. There are rumors and lies, lecherous model-collecting playboys, rock stars and drugs, and the most perilous pitfall of them all . . .straight male models! Temptation is everywhere, and even a level-headed Jersey girl may have trouble keeping her footing on the long, hard climb up. -- Avon A

Last month, Harper Collins had some interesting books that were being offered by their First Look program. I signed up for a few (as I usually do), and I was fortunately picked to read and review THIS YEAR'S MODEL by Carol Alt. For some reason, I was very curious to read this book about a about an up-and-coming model. I was also very curious to read a book written by Carol Alt. Yes, that Carol Alt -- the supermodel who has graced over 700 magazine covers!

This is probably going to sound a little stereotypical, but I wasn't expecting a whole lot from this novel. I figured it would probably be a light read with lots of fluff. I'm glad to say that I was pleasantly surprised with this novel! The book was a light read (perfect for the beach or pool), but there was actually some substance to the characters and the story. I really liked Mac, the main character in this novel; and I enjoyed seeing her learn the ropes (both in the modeling industry and with her new model "friends.")

The story was told through the eyes of Mac, an 18 year old girl who is "discovered" right before she's supposed to begin studying pre-med at Penn. She heads to New York to try out modeling (and make a few bucks to help pay for college) and finds that she's one of the new, hot models of the year -- she ends up being in demand by some of the biggest fashion designers as well as major magazines. Mac is then faced with lots of tough decisions. Since the story was told in first person narrative by Mac, the reader was privy to all of Mac's thoughts as well as her insecurities. I felt as if I were learning about the modeling industry right along with Mac.

My favorite part of the story was the friendship between Mac and Jade. Jade was the only person who extended herself to Mac when Mac first started modeling. She acted as Mac's mentor and helped her learn about what it takes to be a success. The reader senses that there is a little more to Jade than meets the eye, but Mac, being the naive newbie, takes a little longer to figure things out. It takes a major betrayal before Mac realizes that their friendship isn't as strong as she had hoped. Friendships between girls can always prove to be interesting (and a little catty); but when they are competing for jobs (and men), it reaches a whole new level. It isn't until a tragic event occurs that the girls realize the importance of their friendship.

While parts of this book definitely showed the glamorous side of modeling and fashion, I was probably more interested in the cut-throat aspect. I loved reading about the beautiful clothes that the models wore, and I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the cities and the fashion shows. However, the parts of the novel about the drugs, parties and the bitterness between the models made the book much more juicy! I have a feeling that these stories were very real (and terribly unfortunate.)

I'm guessing that a little of this novel was based on Ms. Alt's life. Similar to the main character of THIS YEAR'S MODEL, Ms. Alt was also discovered while working as a waitress in a restaurant. Beyond that, I'm not sure how much is autobiographical; however, this book definitely read as if it were written by an industry insider. I realize that I only had a very brief glimpse into the modeling world, but I have to admit that I found it very interesting!

Since this book is published by Avon A, an imprint of Harper Collins, there is an A+ Author Insights, Extra, & More section at the back of this book. The first part is advice from Carol Alt for young girls who are interested in becoming models -- hint: "go straight to the top." The second part is "The Ten Best Ways to Prepare for Your Meeting with a Modeling Agent;" and the last part is a Q&A with Carol Alt. I always enjoy the A+ sections and find that they provde additional insight into the novels.

I suggest taking a look at THIS YEAR'S MODEL, especially if you are interested in the modeling/fashion industry or if you are looking for a good vacation book. I'm not going to go so far as to say that it would be a good read for your book club or that it would generate a lot of discussion; but it is a fun, light book that will provide a few hours of entertainment. THIS YEAR'S MODEL will be available on August 26th.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Guest Review: Black and White

Last month, so many of you enjoyed my friend Melissa's review of STEALING ATHENA that I asked her if she would mind contributing a few more reviews for my blog. Fortunately, she agreed - -this time it's BLACK AND WHITE by Dani Shapiro! I recently received a paperback copy of this book; and since I had already read the book when it was first released in hardcover, I passed it along to Melissa.

Summay: Clara Brodeur has spent her entire adult life pulling herself away from her famous mother, the renowned and controversial photographer Ruth Dunne, whose towering reputation rests on the unsettling nude portraits she took of her young daughter. At age eighteen, sick of her notoriety as “the girl in the pictures,” Clara fled New York City, settling and making her own family in small-town Maine. But years later, when Ruth reaches out from her deathbed, Clara suddenly finds herself drawn back to the past she thought she had escaped. A spellbinding novel that asks: how do we forgive those who failed to protect us? – Book Jacket

Ruth Dunne’s famous series of nude photographs of her daughter begins with a picture of three-year-old Clara in the bathtub, and continues with other nude portraits until Clara is fourteen. As a mother of an eight-year-old daughter, I found myself engrossed by this story. Given the fact that most of my friends would probably describe me as an “over-protective” mother, I really could not grasp what would drive a parent to exploit her young daughter in such a public way for the sake of her career.

Ruth’s controversial series is touted as genius by the art world and pornographic by other critics. I suppose some of the earlier photos could be viewed as innocent artistic portrayals of youth, but all I could see was a mother’s negligence and betrayal. Of course, this is coming from someone who feels squeamish signing school and extracurricular release forms that would allow my child’s photo to be used for related publications.

I should probably say that although I appreciate the arts, I am certainly not an artist myself. I don’t really understand that artistic drive to create that can overwhelm and override every other aspect of an artist’s life. With that being said, I found it very hard to sympathize with Ruth’s cavalier attitude and argument that the pictures were simply art and were not really about her daughter. Taking the pictures may have been an innocent expression of her artistic talent, but in my opinion, publishing the photos for the entire world to see was a reprehensible and blatant disregard for her own child’s privacy. What bothered me the most about Ruth was her lack of sympathy for the obvious pain she was causing Clara, especially as she neared the tender age of puberty.

Although I was disturbed about the mother’s actions in this story, I really did enjoy the book. I found myself thinking about it long after I finished it. It made me contemplate the responsibility that parents have for their children’s emotional and physical well-being. Most importantly, it reiterated for me the importance of providing our children with a nurturing, safe and healthy environment in which they can grow and thrive.

Putting aside Clara’s and Ruth’s history together, BLACK AND WHITE is fundamentally a poignant narrative about forgiveness and acceptance. When Clara is notified that her mother is dying, she grapples with her instinct for self preservation that has been built upon forgetting and ignoring the past with her need to understand and forgive the actions of her mother so that she can finally live her life without looking back. And, as the book’s title suggests, life’s most difficult choices rarely present themselves in black and white. BLACK AND WHITE would make an excellent choice for any book club.

A huge thanks goes out to Melissa for her wonderful insight into this novel. I remember enjoying BLACK AND WHITE (as well as Ms. Shapiro's FAMILY HISTORY), and Melissa's thoughts about the story definitely resonated with me. I, too, had an extremely difficult time understanding the mother's actions in this book! I second Melissa's opinion that BLACK AND WHITE would make a wonderful book club pick especially if your club has any mothers in it -- there is a lot to discuss about parental love and mother/child relationships. If you think you might be interested in BLACK AND WHITE for a future book club meeting, there is a reading guide available to help direct your discusson.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Honored Again!

Thanks to Nicole from Book Escape for awarding me this blog award -- that's twice this week that I've been honored! It's a tremendous complement since I love her blog too!

Review: Stone Creek and Giveaway

Summary: In the small town of Stone Creek, a random encounter offers two lonely people a chance at happiness.

Danny, a young widower, still grieves for his late wife, but for the sake of his five-year-old son, Caleb, he knows he must move on. Alone in her summer house, Lily has left her workaholic husband, Paul, to his long hours and late nights back in the city. In Stone Creek, she can yearn in solitude for the treasure she's been denied: a child.

What occurs when Lily and Danny meet is immediate and undeniable—despite Lily being ten years older and married. But ultimately it is little Caleb's sadness and need that will tip the scales, upsetting a precarious balance between joy and despair, between what cannot happen...and what must.

An unforgettable novel of tremendous emotional heft, Stone Creek brilliantly illuminates how the powers of love and loss transform the human heart. -- Harper Collins

A few months ago, Book Club Girl gave some of her readers a copy of STONE CREEK by Victoria Lustbader to read over the Memorial Day Weekend -- I was fortunate enough to snag a copy. Of course I wanted to read it back then, but I just never got around to it. I placed it in my TBR pile with the intention of reading it over the summer, so I was very excited when Book Club Girl announced that her July BlogTalk Radio Show was going to be STONE CREEK. Because I love these author interviews, I now had a goal to finish it before the show. It really wasn't a problem because I thoroughly enjoyed this novel!

I did enjoy the romance aspect of this story (which I can't always say about these types of books) and I found a few of the scenes to be very hot! However, I found the loss and healing parts of this novel to be my favorite parts. I have no experience with losing someone that I love like Danny did, but his feelings and actions seemed very real to me. I could, however, definitely relate to Lily's infertility problems; and I found these descriptions to be quite accurate. Lily's response when she saw young children reminded me so much of how I felt everytime I saw a baby or found out that a friend was expecting -- it wasn't that I wished bad on them or wasn't truly happy for them, but it was still difficult to accept. My heart went out to both Danny and Lily; and even though I don't condone infidelity, I felt some satisfaction that both of these characters found comfort in each other.

This is the first book that I've read by Ms. Lustbader, but it won't be the last. I really enjoyed her writing style, and I thought the book flowed very nicely. I was especially impressed with her development of the characters in this book -- they all seemed very real (and very human) to me. Each of their stories touched my heart, and they have remained in my thoughts for days after finishing the novel. I find myself thinking about them and what happens to them after the pages of this book. I loved, loved, loved Danny (and I really want to know if he ever finds true happiness!) In fact, I ended up finding redeeming qualities in all of the characters in this story, even those that I thought I wouldn't like! Lily's husband, Paul, should have been someone that I couldn't stand; however, I found myself sympathizing with his character and even understanding some of his actions because of his complex situation.

This book isn't like anything my book club has read in recent years; however, I do think it would make a good book club pick. My book club doesn't usually read and talk about books dealing with romantic love, but I definitely think we would enjoy discussing the characters' relationships, the different types of adultery, and especially the loss aspect of this novel. I really liked that the paperback edition includes the reading guide in the back. I always think it's nice when the entire book club can go over the questions before the meeting and begin to think about their answers. In addition, there is a very interesting Q&A with Ms. Lustbader included in the paperback edition of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Ms. Lustbader discuss her book on BlogTalk Radio last night -- she was very interesting and entertaining too. If you would like to hear the discussion, you can listen to it here. I always find that hearing an author discuss her book gives me further insight into the novel, and this was no exception. While I did like the book before this "author chat," I ended up liking the book even more after hearing Ms. Lustbader talk about the characters. I was very interested in why Ms. Lustbader chose to write this story in 3rd person narrative (it seemed like 1st person narrative by Danny and/or Lily might have been another way to approach this story.) She gave a terrific answer saying that the book wasn't about just one character -- she had to tell everyone's story. She also wanted to be able express things about each character that they maybe wouldn't be able to express about themselves.

I just want to take this opportunity to thank Book Club Girl for hosting these radio shows. I look forward to participating in these "author interviews" each month, and I anxiously await the announcements of her future shows. If you haven't participated in (or even listened to) one of these yet, you really should -- they are great!

I received two copies of this book, and I'd love to share one with you! To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post with your e-mail address. If you'd like to double your chances, just mention it on your blog with a link back here. The contest will be open until July 31st at 11:59 p.m. (it's a little longer this time because I'll be at the shore for a few days next week.) Unfortunately, this giveaway is only open to those of you who live in the U.S. and Canada. Good Luck!

Also reviewed at:
Age 30 - A Year in Books

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

What an Honor!

I'm so excited because I've been nominated for a blog award by S. Krishna. She said, "Booking Mama -- I am amazed at how many new books I am introduced to on Julie P.'s site - great reviews!" What a huge honor to know that someone out there feels that way about my blog!

Now it's my turn! This is really difficult because there are so many terrific book blogs out there that I am addicted to! Here's my list (not in any order):

1. -- I love Kristen's other site Book Club Classics, and I was thrilled to learn that she created a new book site especially for parents and teachers. Plus, she interviewed me about my Mother Daughter book club!

2. Everyday I Write the Book Blog - I love that she organizes a monthly on-line book club discussion! I really appreciate the community that she creates by doing this!

3. My Friend Amy - This girl is just amazing! She maintains multiple blogs and always seems to upbeat about life. I think she'd make a wonderful friend.

4. Age 30 - A Year in Books - I love Heather's reviews! I think she's spot on with her thoughts about books. Besides books, we also have something in common -- a young so with severe food allergies.

5. Bookroomreviews's Weblog - LOVE THIS BLOG! So many terrific reviews! If you're not already a fan, you have to check it out!

6. Cheryl's Book Nook - I visit this blog everyday and appreciate all of her wonderful comments on my blog!

7. West of Mars -- WOW! It's amazing how much work goes into tracking all of the contests out there. Anytime I notify her about a contest, it's posted in a matter of minutes. Talk about service!

Once an award is received, the rules are:

1. Put the logo on your blog.

2. Add a link to the person who awarded you.

3. Nominate at least seven other blogs.

4. Add links to those blogs on your blog.

5. Leave a message for your nominee on their blog.

Thanks again S. Krishna-- I really appreciate this!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Driving Sideways News

Great news! I just received an e-mail from Jess Riley, author of DRIVING SIDEWAYS, saying that she put together a reader's guide for her book. I absolutely loved this book (see my review here), and I thought it would make a terrific book club pick. I mentioned in my review that I would love to have a set of discussion questions! A huge thanks goes out to Ms. Riley for sending me these:

1) Cellular memory: real or not? What other ‘real-life’ instances or reports of cellular memory have you heard of? Do you believe it’s real?

2) How does faith come into play in the story? (Not just faith in the religious sense of the word.)

3) Leigh’s kidney transplant served as a catalyst for her to take risks and rethink her future; have you had any similar experiences that motivated you to change things in your own life?

4) Leigh can sometimes be a fan of crude humor. Why do you think that is?

5) One of Leigh’s goals is to convince her best friend Jillian to end her engagement with “Geoffrey with a G,” a man who is all wrong for her. Or so Leigh thinks. How far would you go (or have you gone) to convince a friend to end a bad relationship?

6) The great American road trip: a soon-to-be lost summer ritual? How does the act of driving for hours on end every day affect Leigh’s attitude?

7) Would you have picked up Denise?

8) Another theme in the story is that things are not always as they seem; that the things we want sometimes aren’t the things we need. Leigh initially wants to find her long-lost mother…but once she nearly does, she realizes she’s had all the family she needs all along. Do you think Leigh is once again talking herself into believing something she’s not quite sure of? Is she truly finished trying to find her mother?

9) Leigh uses humor as a coping mechanism to deflect her fears about her own mortality; does this approach help her find peace with her situation, or does it hinder her in that respect?

10) How does Leigh’s newly asserted independence affect her relationship with her brother James?

11) Some readers feel the ending was very ambiguous—what do you see for Leigh in one year, five years, or ten years?

Ms. Riley also mentioned in her e-mail that she's available for author chats when clubs meet to discuss her book, and she will send signed adhesive bookplates to anyone in the club. You should really take her up on this offer -- I have a feeling that it would make for a memorable book club meeting. You can contact her through her website.

Review: This Charming Man

Summary: With This Charming Man, Marian Keyes hits her stride as a novelist with her best novel yet, telling the stories of four women who are shaped by one man.

Paddy de Courcy is Ireland's debonair politician, the "John F. Kennedy Jr. of Dublin." His charm and charisma have taken hold of the country and the tabloids, not to mention our four heroines: Lola, Grace, Marnie, and Alicia. But though Paddy's winning smile is fooling Irish minds, the broken hearts he's left in his past offer a far more truthful look into his character.

Narrated in turn by each woman, This Charming Man explores how their love for this one man has shaped their lives. But in true Marian Keyes fashion, this is more than a story of four love affairs. It's a testament to the strength women find in themselves through work, friendship, and family, no matter what demons may be haunting their lives. Depression, self-doubt, domestic abuse—each of these women has seen tough times in life, and it's through Keyes's wonderful storytelling ability that these subjects are approached with the appropriate tone and candor. Her deft touch provides a gripping story and, ultimately, a redemptive ending. - Harper Collins

A huge thanks goes out to Tracy from Bookroomreviews' Weblog for sending me her copy of THIS CHARMING MAN by Marian Keyes. I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes (I think I've read everything she's ever written); and I heard that THIS CHARMING MAN might be her best book yet. I could barely wait to read this book when it came in the mail; but being the monogamist book reader that I am, I had to finish up what I was already reading!

I was certainly not disappointed by this book, and I think I might like it better than Ms. Keye's other novels (or at the very least better than her last few novels!) It was a big book (over 560 pages), but I read it in a little over a day because I just couldn't put it down. The book tells the story of four women and how their lives were affected by "the charming man", Paddy de Courcy.

I especially enjoyed how the story was told from the point of view of all four women -- they took turns narrating each section. I felt as if I were able to truly understand each woman and the control that Paddy had over them. All four women were dealing with issues as a result of their relationship with Paddy, yet they were each had their own distinct voice. I had absolutely no issues with keeping the characters straight as I sometimes do when there are numerous characters telling their stories. In addition, Ms. Keyes did a terrific job of making each woman real, and I couldn't help but feel some sympathy towards each of them (although, I did get frustrated with them at times, too.) One thing's for sure: I can't stop thinking about each one of these characters (and isn't that a sign of a great book?)

One of my favorite things about Ms. Keye's novels are that they deal with tragic situations, yet she is still able to provide some light moments. This book was no exception since it dealt with quite a few depressing issues such as alcoholism, depression, and mental and physical abuse. Somehow, she can still infuse humor into these stories!

I thoroughly appreciated Ms. Keye's handling of Marnie's alcholism. I found her descriptions of Marnie's alcoholism to be gut-wrenching and also very real. I can't remember the last time I read a book about an addiction where it was described with so much brutal honesty. My heart was just broken over Marnie's addiction and how it affected her family as well as herself. I definitely think these sections were some of Ms. Keye's best writing (ever.)

I think what I loved the most about the book was how it ended -- it was a bit of a surprise for me! I really enjoyed how each of these woman (who thought they were basically nothing because of their love affairs gone bad) ended up finding their inner strength and resilience. I found this book to really be a testament to the power of women, especially when women are able to join forces together. For a novel that did deal with so much trajedy, I really felt uplifted after reading it.

I highly recommend THIS CHARMING MAN for your next book club! It is highly readable and entertaining, plus there is a great deal to talk about. There are discussion questions already available here -- I thought they covered a lot of issues and would be very interesting to further examine.

I do admit that I am a sucker for any and all Marian Keyes books, but I did really enjoy this one. If you're not familiar with any of her books or short stories, I recommend giving her a chance! She's a great writer who's deals with tough times in her books, but always provides lot of humor and honesty! And, her characters are just so memorable!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Review: Beneath My Mother's Feet

Summary: "Our lives will always be in the hands of our mothers, whether we like it or not."

Nazia doesn't mind when her friends tease and call her a good beti, a dutiful daughter. Growing up in a working-class family in Karachi, Pakistan, Nazia knows that obedience is the least she can give to her mother, who has spent years saving and preparing for her dowry. But every daughter must grow up, and for fourteen-year-old Nazia that day arrives suddenly when her father gets into an accident at work, and her family finds themselves without money for rent or food.

Being the beti that she is, Nazia drops out of school to help her mother clean houses, all the while wondering when she managed to lose control of her life that had been full of friends and school. Working as a maid is a shameful obligation that could be detrimental to her future -- after all, no one wants a housekeeper for a daughter-in-law. As Nazia finds herself growing up much too quickly, the lessons of hardship that seem unbearable turn out to be a lot more liberating than she ever imagined. -- Atheneum

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Amjed Qamar, author of BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET, asking if I would be interested in reading her new young adult novel. She thought it might be appropriate for our mother-daughter book club. While my daughter and her friends are a few years too young for this book, I thought the book sounded interesting. I was thrilled when Ms. Qamar agreed to send me an ARC to read and review.

I will most definitely be saving this book for my daughter when she is a little older. I loved this book, and I loved Nazia -- the 14 year old girl who is forced to grow up way too early! I realize that this book is geared for twelve year olds and up; however, I think it a great read for grownups too (especially mothers.) BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET deals with issues that each and every mother must face -- wanting what you think is best for your child while also giving them the opportunity to make their own choices.

I am just so impressed with Ms. Qamar as a writer. I can't believe this is her first book. BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET was so easy to read (I actually couldn't put it down and read it in one afternoon) and so well written. I was captivated by Nazia's story from the first few pages, and I was sad to see her story end. I would love to know what happens to her past the pages of the book. Not only was the story very intriguing, but the descriptions of Pakistan were incredible -- I could picture each and every scene.

I found this book to be a beautiful coming-of-age story! At the beginning of the story, we see Nazia as a 14 year old girl with her life mapped out for her. She attends school with her friends and is expected to marry her cousin in the near future -- she leads a relatively normal, carefree life for a young Pakistani girl. One day her father is in a devastating accident, and her life is totally turned upside down. Her family is broke and hungry, and Nazia is forced to work as a maid to support her family. To make matters worse, the dowry that her mother has been saving for many years is stolen. Her entire future (and especially her arranged marriage) is now at-stake because her uncle finds this work completely unacceptable for his future daughter-in-law.

At times, this story just broke my heart. I hated how quickly Nazia was forced to grow up and lose her youthful innocence. I also felt so much sympathy for Nazia's mother because she had to do anything and everything to take care of her young children. She too was forced into an awful situation as a maid, while also having to accept that her husband and son were of no help (and actually ending up doing more harm than good.) What I did love about this book was what Nazia ultimately learns about herself -- she finds that she is a strong, honorable girl who really does have some choices. She realizes that she has to be true to herself, no matter how difficult that choice proves to be.

You already can tell that I really enjoyed this book; but if my word isn't enough for you, BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET is getting rave reviews elsewhere! Barnes and Noble chose the book as a Discover Great New Writers Selection (Fall 2008); and it was also picked as a Junior Library Guild Selection (April - September 2008.) In addition, it is a Book Sense nomination and a Kirkus Starred Review. Publishers Weekly said, "this beautifully written depiction of life in modern Pakistan offers readers a painful and stirring view of a girl with limited choices but great inner strength." It truly is a fascinating story that is also beautifully written.

If you have a mother-daughter book club of 12 year olds and up, I can't recommend BENEATH MY MOTHER'S FEET enough. It has so many wonderful issues to discuss, especially the relationship between a mother and her children. There is already a great reading guide available to jump-start your discussion. In addition, there are some ideas for activities and research which will also enhance your child's reading experience. I can't wait until my daughter is old enough to read this book and discuss it with me!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Review: The Peanut Pickle

Summary: Your child has a peanut allergy. Now what? Coping with severe food allergies can be overwhelming, especially for a young child. Find out how Ben learns to take control of his peanut allergy in school, at parties, with friends, at t-ball practice and during holidays. Kids will learn to speak up about their allergy and how to deal with difficult and awkward situations that inevitably arise when a child has a life-threatening food allergy. -- Barnes and Noble

If you read my review of MATTERS OF FAITH by Kristy Kiernan, you know that I have a young son with life-threatening food allergies. He's severly allergic to quite a few foods including peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, and shellfish (that's what we know of right now.) It is a huge challenge as a parent to keep him away from these foods. And, as you can imagine, I am extremely concerned that I won't be able to keep him safe when he's away from me. That's why I thought THE PEANUT PICKLE by Jessica Ureel was such a wonderful book for any child with serious food allergies.

We have been teaching my son about food allergies for as long as I can remember (he was officially diagnosed with some allergies around six months old.) He is incredible in that he knows what he's allowed to eat. Of course, he's three so I'm not totally confident that he'll always be right. Even so he is very, very cautious ever since he accidentally took a sip of milk and ended up in the hospital. He's even told his preschool teachers that he's not allowed to eat the marshmallows that they gave to him -- I okayed them before school that morning, but he wasn't aware of that. Thank goodness he has the intelligence and temperment to handle his unfortunate situation!

While we are always conscious of his food allergies and it's a major issue every day in our house, I finally decided that my son was ready for THE PEANUT PICKLE. If I had to guess, I'd say that this book is aimed for children about 4 to 8 years old who have serious food allergies. (I also think it's wonderful for kids who are in close contact with children with food allergies so they can understand why they have to be careful too.) My son actually loved this book, and I think he could totally relate to Ben the little boy with the peanut allergy. After we were done reading it, we talked about what foods he's allergic to and what he should do when someone eats these foods around him. I think he "gets it."

What I loved about this book is that it gives children with food allergies the necessary skills that they need to stay safe. In THE PEANUT PICKLE, your child will learn: how to say "no" when a person offers him food, to inquire about ingredient labels, how to explain his food allergy to others, and to ask others to help keep him safe. I can't always be with my son, so he needs to know how to speak up about his food allergies with other children as well as grownups.

I almost hate to even mention how good I thought this book was because I bought it a few years ago. When I began researching it to write this review, I found that it's out of print and extremely difficult to find right now (or ridiculously expensive.) If you are interested in reading this book, check your local library to see if they have a copy. This is the only food allergy children's book that I own right now; but during my research, I found many other ones that also look terrific!

I will never be one hundred percent comfortable with my son and his food allergies -- I always feel like there's the chance that he will be in contact with one of his allergens and have a horrendous reaction; but I think, as a parent, that I have no choice but to equip him with the skills he needs to stay alive. This book is definitely a good start!

Hello...You Won Queen of the Road

Get your martini ready, Amanda; because you won a copy of QUEEN OF THE ROAD by Doreen Orion. As I mentioned last week in my review, I absolutely adored this book; and I'm sure Amanda will too. Thanks to all of you who visited the book's website and left a comment. For those of you who haven't visited the QUEEN OF THE ROAD website yet, you really should check it out -- it's terrific.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Review: Matters of Faith

Summary: At age twelve, Marshall Tobias saw his best friend killed by a train. It was then that he began his search for faith—delving into one tradition, then discarding it for another. His parents, however, have little time for spiritual contemplation. Their focus has been on his little sister Megan, who suffers from severe food allergies.

Now Marshall is home from college with his first real girlfriend, but there is more to Ada than meets the eye—including her beliefs about the evils of medical intervention. What follows is a crisis that tests not only faith, but the limits of family, forgiveness, and our need to believe. -- Berkley

When I found out that MATTERS OF FAITH by Kristy Kiernan is a book about a family who has to deal with a child who has life-threatening food allergies, I knew I had to read it. Like the family in the book, we have a young son (almost 4 years old) who has severe food allergies. I am not familiar with another fiction book that discusses the food allergy issue, so I was particularly interested in this story. While I knew I wanted to read MATTERS OF FAITH, I was pretty sure that it would not be easy for me.

That proved to be a major understatement. I had no idea how much this story would affect me. Trust me -- my son's food allergies are a constant concern for me. If I allow myself to think about what could happen if he even gets near certain foods, I would drive myself crazy. I am extremely careful about prevention, but I do not focus on the negative.

MATTERS OF FAITH brought the seriousness of the situation a little too close to home for me. When Ms. Kiernan was describing the scene where the parents arrive to see their young daughter in anaphylactic shock after eating a bite of a peanut butter cookie, I found myself shaking and I had tears in my eyes. This scene is a perfect description of my worst nightmare -- my child eating something he's allergic to when I'm not there to protect him.

Having said that, you might think that I didn't enjoy this book; however, that couldn't be further from the truth -- I loved this book! While I appreciated that the author tackled this condition that affects so many families, it was only part of this wonderful book. There was so much more to this story than a child's food allergies. To me, this book is really about family dynamics and how a family copes with many difficulties.

This the first book that I've read by Kristy Kiernan, but it definitely won't be the last. (CATCHING GENIUS is already in my TBR pile!) The book held my interest throughout, and I thought it flowed very nicely. What I really appreciated was how Ms. Kiernan told this story -- she alternated between 1st person narrative of Chloe, the mother; and 3rd person narrative of Marshall, the son. I thought this narrative style was very unique and very effective for telling this story. I was glad that I could see into Chloe's innermost thoughts, and I felt that I could really understand her and relate to her. I also liked that I could get Marshall's opinion, but from a more distant view.

As a mother and a wife, I really appreciated MATTERS OF FAITH. I was very surprised to learn that Ms. Kiernan is not a mother because I feel that she nailed a mother's feelings towards her children. I was deeply touched by Chloe's reactions to her family and the tragedies surrounding it. On one hand, you want to be angry at your child for hurting your other child; and on the other, you have this overwhelming love for him and a strong need to protect him. I also related to the feelings Chloe had about wanting your child to become his own person, and yet how difficult it is to let him be on his own. Ms. Kiernan made this point in two ways -- the more normal way that a parent has to allow a child to explore his interests (i.e. Marshall and his religion curiosity) while also watching him head off to college; and also in the more unique way that Chloe had to let Meghan out of her sight on a daily basis despite her life-threatening food allergies.

MATTERS OF FAITH will be available on August 5, 2008; and I'm happy to report that it has been selected as an IndieBound Notable Pick for September. IndieBound is a part of the American Booksellers Association, which is the national organization for independent bookstores. Every month they produce a list of the titles they feel deserve special attention from their booksellers, and MATTERS OF FAITH was chosen from all the great books out there! Congratulations go out to Ms. Kiernan for this wonderful honor!

I strongly recommend considering this book for your next book club pick. I know you are probably thinking I'm biased since this book deals with a subject matter that is very near and dear to my heart, but it really does have a lot of terrific issues to discuss. I think you could definitely spend an evening just looking at the parent/child relationships as well as the themes of religion, guilt and ultimately forgiveness. I'd also be very interested in discussing the dynamics of Chloe's and Cal's marriage. There's just so much to talk about!

It seems like more and more children are being diagnosed with severe food allergies. In fact, there is probably at least one kid in your children's' classes whose life is affected by food allergies. If you are interested in learning more about food allergies, there are so many wonderful resources out there. Two websites that I visit are: The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and Kids with Food Allergies. There is so much information on both of these sights, and you can even sign up to receive regular newsletters. Even if you aren't directly affected by food allergies, I am pretty confident that you will be in contact with someone who is -- it really is a life and death situation for so many families. I know that I appreciate how supportive my family and friends have been in learning about with my son's food allergies.

Also reviewed at:
Age 30 - A Year in Books
Redlady's Reading Room

Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: All We Ever Wanted Was Everything

Summary: When Paul Miller’s pharmaceutical company goes public, making his family IPO millionaires, his wife, Janice, is sure this is the windfall she’s been waiting years for — until she learns, via messengered letter, that her husband is divorcing her (for her tennis partner!) and cutting her out of the new fortune. Meanwhile, four hundred miles south in Los Angeles, the Millers’ older daughter, Margaret, has been dumped by her newly famous actor boyfriend and left in the lurch by an investor who promised to revive her fledgling post-feminist magazine, Snatch. Sliding toward bankruptcy and dogged by creditors, she flees for home where her younger sister Lizzie, 14, is struggling with problems of her own. Formerly chubby, Lizzie has been enjoying her newfound popularity until some bathroom graffiti alerts her to the fact that she’s become the school slut.

The three Miller women retreat behind the walls of their Georgian colonial to wage battle with divorce lawyers, debt collectors, drug-dealing pool boys, mean girls, country club ladies, evangelical neighbors, their own demons, and each other, and in the process they become achingly sympathetic characters we can’t help but root for, even as the world they live in epitomizes everything wrong with the American Dream. Exhilarating, addictive, and superbly accomplished, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything crackles with energy and intelligence and marks the debut of a knowing and very funny novelist, wise beyond her years. -- Spiegel & Grau

ALL WE EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING by Janelle Brown was a book that I received directly from the author through Author Buzz. I think the cover alone made me want to read it (I love this cover of a melted ice cream sundae), but the juicy storyline didn't hurt either. I am usually drawn to family dramas and this seemed like one big on the drama. Not to mention that the praise on the book jacket was extremely positive from the likes of Publishers Weekly, Ayelet Waldman and Katherine Taylor.

I did enjoy this book, but it took me a little while to feel anything positive for any of the characters in the book! I realize that I don't have to like the characters or feel anything in common with them to appreciate a book, but this family was definitely hard to like. Between the four of them, they represented seemed to cover almost every moral issue debated in today's society -- drugs, alcohol, teenage sex, divorce, credit card debt, obscene wealth, feminism, etc.

The book was above all highly satirical in nature, and I think that's what I enjoyed the most. I thought Ms. Brown's writing style was very easy to read, while also packing quite a few punches. Portraying these women as stereotypes of a society too caught up in what other people think was very effective. While I couldn't really relate to their specific problems, I was forced to examine myself and my priorities a few times while reading this story.

I loved the quotation by J.M. Barrie that Ms. Brown chose to use at the beginning of the book, and I thought it summed up one of the major messages from the book: "We are all failures; at least, the best of us are." I think all of these women had to hit rock bottom before they were able to see what was truly important in their lives. Although these characters went through a lot within the book's 400+ pages, at least the book ended on an upbeat note for them. I would be very curious "to see" what happens to each of the characters beyond ALL WE EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING.

I'm not sure that this book would be ideal for the women in my book club (we live in Central PA and don't have much in common with this family), but I do think a lot of book clubs would really enjoy reading and discussing this novel. I took a quick look at the reader's guide, and I just loved the questions. A few of them really made me think. While this book is very entertaining (and at times very witty), there are still many important issues to talk about (especially in today's "me-me-me" society.)

I do recommend this book if you are looking for a smart, sharp read. It really is ideal to read over the summer months because this family's life is filled with lots of juicy scandal!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mother Daughter Book Club Meeting #5

Summary: Kit Kittredge is enjoying the carefree life she has always known—until suddenly her world turns upside down. First, mother’s friend and her sickly, pampered son, Stirling, come to live with the Kittredge family. Then Kit’s dad loses his business. Will life ever be the same again? -- American Girl

I'm beginning to think that we need to change the name of our Mother Daughter Book Club to the Daughter's Only Book Club! These girls are just amazing -- they started having their own discussion about MEET KIT while their moms were chatting in the kitchen. I felt a little left out last month, so I kind of invited my way into their conversation. I'm so glad I did because these girls were having a wonderful discussion about the book. All of them loved this story, and they agreed that they want to read the next five books in the series.

I thought they did a really good job of talking about the Depression and the effect it had on Kit and her family. I tried to bring the Depression a little closer to their lives by asking them if they had any relatives that lived through that horrendous time. It was very interesting to watch them as they grasped that their great-grandparents lived during the Depression -- I definitely think it made the book more real to them.

A few of the girls had already seen the Kit Kittredge American Girl Movie and loved it! Our plans to go as a book club kind of fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, my daughter went with a friend so I didn't get to see it. I guess I'll just have to wait for it to come out on DVD!

We also spent some time talking about Kit's family's decision to take in boarders to help pay the mortgage. (A funny little aside -- One of the girls mentioned to her mom that she thought it was really sad that the bank owned their home -- her mother had to break it to her gently that her current house is actually owned by the bank as are all of her friends' houses.) Most of the girls admitted that they wouldn't want to give up their rooms for strangers; however, they would do it if their family needed the money. They appreciated that Kit made the best of her move to the attic and got to decorate the room to her liking. All of the girls really comprehended the message from this book that "even when life get tough, you should always try to make the best of it."

For our next meeting, we will be reading THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Cleary. Once again, the girls got to choose which book they wanted to read -- THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE or KIRSTEN'S SURPRISE (another American Girl book.) By a vote of 6 to 1, THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYLE won. I was a little surprised since they enjoyed the American Girl book so much, but there seems to be a trend that the daughter-nominated book is the one that they pick. I happy either way because you really can't go wrong with a Beverly Cleary book!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

July 2008 Book Club Meeting and August Selection

Summary: A deeply felt first novel of family, choices, and coming to terms with the past.

On a stifling Christmas Eve in 1967 the lives of the McDonald children-Deborah, Robert, James, and Meredith-changed forever. Their mother, Rosemarie, told them she was running out to buy some lights for the tree. She never came back. The children were left with their father, and a gnawing question: why had their mother abandoned them?

Over the years, the four siblings have become practiced in concealing their pain, remaining close into adulthood, and forming their own families. But long-closed wounds are reopened when a chance encounter brings James face-to-face with Rosemarie after nearly forty years. Secrets that each sibling has locked away come to light as they struggle to come to terms with their mother's reappearance, while at the same time their beloved father is progressing into dementia. Veitch's family portrait reveals the joys and sorrows, the complexity and ambiguity of family life, and poignantly probes what it means to love and what it means to leave. -- Plume

The Preschool Moms Book Club met last night to discuss WITHOUT A BACKWARDS GLANCE by Kate Veitch. I thought it was a terrific discussion! There were definitely some different views on whether the book was enjoyable or not; however, I think we all thought that it was a well written and intriguing story. We talked for almost a half hour before we even got to the discussion questions because everyone had something to say about this book (in my opinion, that's a sign of a good discussion book.) One thing we all agreed on (remember that we are all moms with young kids) is that we couldn't forgive (or even understand) the mother for leaving her kids. But putting that aside, we spent a lot of time talking about the effects of the mother's abandonment on her four children.

I think we ended up spending the most time discussing the nature versus nurture part of personalities -- for some reason, our conversation kept coming back to this debate. This topic was part of our discussion even before we got to Question 2 in the reading guide. (Question 2 in the guide asked, "To what extent were the personalities of the children shaped by their mother's departure and absence? Do you think they would have had similar personalities and traits if she hadn't gone?") Most of the children showed signs of their "problems" even before their mother left them. It really made me wonder if they would have had their issues even if their mother had been present in their lives -- maybe their issues were exacerbated because she left, but I'm not really sure. I wonder how different (and maybe worse) their lives would have been if their mother had stayed and ended up possibly resenting her life (or suffering from some sort of depression.) Another popular discussion was the issue of birth order on peoples' behaviors and personalities. Of course, this led to personal stories about each of us with our own siblings as well as stories about our children.

I had a feeling when I read the summary of the book that it would make a good book club pick; and I'm happy to say that it most definitely was a great discussion book! We talked about so many interesting issues, especially the ones about family dynamics. While we did spend a lot of time talking about this book, I honestly think we could have kept on talking all night just analyzing the characters and the story! I highly recommend WITHOUT A BACKWARDS GLANCE for one of your future book club meetings.

Our August selection is SWEET LOVE by Sarah Strohmeyer. I have heard so many wonderful things about this book, and I can't wait to read it. I'm planning on taking it with me to the beach since it looks like a perfect summer read! I am so grateful to Falise from 24/8 Book Club and Dutton for providing us with copies of this book!

Summary: An irresistibly delicious novel about the power of love...and dessert.

Like other well-meaning mothers, Julie Mueller’s believed she did the right thing when she secretly ended her teenage daughter’s crush on Michael Slayton, a wild older neighborhood heartthrob with a penchant for Shakespeare and the pedigree of trailer trash.

Twenty years later, Betty Mueller has come to realize that was a big mistake. Her daughter Julie – divorced and raising a teenage daughter alone – is a workaholic obsessed with her career. And Michael, the one man who could make her happy, is the one man to whom she won’t speak.

Now dying and determined to make amends, Betty stages her last great feat of motherhood by reuniting the couple in a dessert class where she hopes the sweetness of a chocolate almond Torta Caprese will erase the bitterness of a wretched misunderstanding.

“Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said thy edge should blunter be than appetite,” Shakespeare once pleaded—though it will require more than poetry and passion fruit for Julie and Michael to renew their love.

It will, in fact, require the sweetest sacrifice of all. -- Dutton Adult

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review: Without a Backward Glance

Summary: A deeply felt first novel of family, choices, and coming to terms with the past.

On a stifling Christmas Eve in 1967 the lives of the McDonald children-Deborah, Robert, James, and Meredith-changed forever. Their mother, Rosemarie, told them she was running out to buy some lights for the tree. She never came back. The children were left with their father, and a gnawing question: why had their mother abandoned them?

Over the years, the four siblings have become practiced in concealing their pain, remaining close into adulthood, and forming their own families. But long-closed wounds are reopened when a chance encounter brings James face-to-face with Rosemarie after nearly forty years. Secrets that each sibling has locked away come to light as they struggle to come to terms with their mother's reappearance, while at the same time their beloved father is progressing into dementia. Veitch's family portrait reveals the joys and sorrows, the complexity and ambiguity of family life, and poignantly probes what it means to love and what it means to leave. -- Plume

I am so grateful to Falise from the 24/8 Book Club and Plume books for providing my book club with copies of WITHOUT A BACKWARD GLANCE by Kate Veitch. When I read the description of this book, I knew it sounded like an ideal book club selection (especially for a book club made up of mothers.) And, I have to admit that the cover was very intriguing -- it definitely caught my eye and made me want to read the book!

This book deals with a very compelling (and sometimes difficult) storyline -- a mother who abandons her four children and her husband on Christmas Eve. I hesitate to admit this, but at the beginning of the novel when the mother was sharing her feelings, I could almost relate to some of what she was saying. I have to say that I would never leave my husband and children; in fact, I don't even have those thoughts -- but this book definitely made me think about what makes some people act in these extreme ways. Is there something that pushes certain people over the edge; what separates them from "normal" people, are they really that different from the rest of us?

I really enjoyed how the author allowed the reader to see into the thoughts and feelings of all the characters in the book. I felt as if I could understand each of them (notice I did not say like or even relate!) Each of the children were definitely affected in their own way by their mother's abandonment; and I found it fascinating to see how each one handled it -- especially since most of them were not healthy, constructive ways. I appreciated how this book dealt with the ultimate of family crises with a great deal of compassion and also with so much honesty.

I found myself very intrigued with this book. Despite not really liking most of the characters, I still felt sorry for them and wanted them to find some peace in their life (except for the mother, I positively hated her!) I enjoyed watching each of the characters "reconcile" with their mother and ultimately come to terms with her departure. I also liked seeing the dynamics between the children and their father as well as their interaction with each other! What was even more interesting to me was the relationships these children ended up having with their spouses and their children. It's incredible how one event (albeit a huge one) can have such long lasting effects on so many people!

I was thoroughly impressed with Ms. Veitch's writing -- it's hard to believe that she is a first time novelist! I found it very interesting that WITHOUT A BACKWARD GLANCE was published in Australia with a totally different cover (partial shot of a woman) and the title LISTEN. (I think I prefer the U.S. title, so I guess they did a good job with the U.S. marketing of this book.) Not only did I think that Ms. Veitch's told a wonderful story, but I also found that she wrote with so much honesty. I look forward to reading more from Kate Veitch in the future. If you would like to learn more about Ms. Veitch, you can read an article about her writing process as well as an interview.

As I mentioned earlier, this book would make a wonderful book club selection. It deals with so many issues that are unfortunately very common in today's society. This is a wonderful reading guide available with many insightful questions. I'm actually looking forward to hearing what everyone thinks about this book tonight at my book club!

Celestial Seasonings' New Book & Contest

One of my new favorite books, QUEEN OF THE ROAD by Doreen Orion is the latest pick for the Adventure at Every Turn, a Book Club by Celestial Seasonings (which I first mentioned here.) I loved this book -- you can read my review here. The Celestial Seasonings site gives ideas for appropriate tea selections, cocktails and recipes to serve at your QUEEN OF THE ROAD book club meeting as well as decorating ideas and other activities. In addition, there is a contest going on for the best Queen of the Road iced tea drink recipe.

Another opportunity that I intend to take advantage of is the chance to submit a question for an exclusive webcast featuring Ms. Orion. If your question is selected, you will win a signed copy of QUEEN OF THE ROAD and a $50 gift basket featuring Celestial Seasonings teas and other goodies. You must submit your question by July 31, 2008 to be eligible -- so get reading.

If you are interested in having Ms. Orion "appear" at your book club meeting (via speakerphone of course, unless you're nearby), you can invite her through this link on her website. You can also read the discussion questions while you there!

Note: If it's not enough that Celestial Seasonings selected QUEEN OF THE ROAD for their book club, I just found out that Borders also chose it as a Featured Book Club Selection for June!