Friday, December 31, 2010

Review: At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream

Summary: Finally fed up with the frenzy of city life and a job he hates, Wade Rouse decided to make either the bravest decision of his life or the worst mistake since his botched Ogilvie home perm: to uproot his life and try, as Thoreau did some 160 years earlier, to "live a plain, simple life in radically reduced conditions."

In this rollicking and hilarious memoir, Wade and his partner, Gary, leave culture, cable, and consumerism behind and strike out for rural Michigan–a place with fewer people than in their former spinning class. There, Wade discovers the simple life isn’t so simple. Battling blizzards, bloodthirsty critters, and nosy neighbors equipped with night-vision goggles, Wade and his spirit, sanity, relationship, and Kenneth Cole pointy-toed boots are sorely tested with humorous and humiliating frequency. And though he never does learn where his well water actually comes from or how to survive without Kashi cereal, he does discover some things in the woods outside his knotty-pine cottage in Saugatuck, Michigan, that he always dreamed of but never imagined he’d find–happiness and a home.

At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream is a sidesplitting and heartwarming look at taking a risk, fulfilling a dream, and finding a home–with very thick and very dark curtains. -- Three Rivers Press

I think I might have mentioned that my reading time has really fallen by the wayside these past few weeks. I've been swamped with holiday preparations, plus both kids have been home... do I really need to say more? So I decided that it was the perfect time to pick up AT LEAST IN THE CITY SOMEONE WOULD HEAR ME SCREAM: MISADVENTURES IN SEARCH OF THE SIMPLE LIFE by Wade Rouse. This memoir is a collection of adventures (or misadventures as the title states) that the author and his partner experience when they decide to leave the big city and move to rural Michigan. I found this book to be laugh-out-loud funny and highly entertaining -- and exactly what I needed to read right now.

I admit that the premise of Mr. Rouse's story was appealing to me. He decided to quit his job, move to a very small and very rural town, and lead a "simpler" life... kind of like Thoreau. My husband and I kind of did the same thing when we left Washington, DC and moved to Central PA, but I'm the first to say that it was no where near what Mr. Rouse and his partner Gary did when they upped and moved to the country. I could no sooner imagine living without my Starbucks and shopping, then well....they could have. I thought I might be able to relate a little bit, but nope! Not even close! Mr. Rouse's experiences were absolutely, positively side-splitting. There were even a few times that I think I might have the raccoon story.

I do think Mr. Rouse and his partner's experiences were funny; however, Mr. Rouse's writing actually brought this book to the next level for me. His voice is smart, witty, and occasionally a bit snarky. In addition, he has a unique ability to make fun of himself. But what I really appreciated about this book was how these adventures (or misadventures) actually changed Mr. Rouse's life. It's pretty obvious that living in the country would drastically affect a man; however, I loved how it improved his writing, his relationship with Gary, and even his perspective on life. While the overall tone of the book was very funny, there were also some poignant and heartwarming parts that definitely touched my heart.

AT LEAST IN THE CITY SOMEONE WOULD HEAR ME SCREAM is a hilarious book but also one that just might make you a little bit about your own life and your priorities. This book should so be made into a movie! Highly recommended!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Club Exchange: Ann Wertz Garvin

Here's another great Book Club Exchange post! This time it's written by Ann Wertz Garvin, author of the new book ON MAGGIE'S WATCH. I haven't had a chance to read ON MAGGIE'S WATCH yet, but it's definitely on my short-list of must-reads in 2011. 

I just adored this guest post! I think women of all ages will relate to Ms. Garvin's essay. I, for one, couldn't agree with her more!

Book Clubs, The Masons and Other Reasons to Love Being a Woman

 I had a very enlightening conversation with a lovely man recently. 

He said, “As a heterosexual male-if you are single and want to do something other than watch sports, talk politics, or hang around in a bar (watching sports) your kind of screwed.” He went on to say, “If you’re interested in the theater or a concert at the arts center and you ask a male friend he’s likely to squint and say, ‘No and don’t ask me again.” 

I realized after he said it, He’s right. It may be different with the metro-sexual male in New York or Seattle but in Wisconsin, the Midwest, or I wager most other centrally located states—it’s all sports all the time. And as Sting might add, “Don’t stand so close to me.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation. Not only because of his blue eyes and my internal dialogue that included a very distracting: What do you need a man for, for god’s sake ask me! But because of how my book club began. In Pilates class I was lamenting that, while a life-long lover of books and an author myself, I wasn’t in a book club. Before I had the words out, I was invited to join one. No resume. No question of sexual orientation. No discussion of the Rose bowl. Not a single comment made about health care reform. 

Let me say here that I am aware that men have book clubs. I Googled it. I don’t know any personally, maybe they’re held in a basement somewhere with black-out blinds. Or, it’s possible, that is what those secret societies are about—The Mason’s. You think they’re talking concrete but really it’s all Anna Karenina and wasn’t Tolstoy a kick in the pants. 

I didn’t have to Google women’s book clubs; they’re everywhere complete with names; Ladies Who Read, The Circus Peanuts, Wine, Women, and Books. And, I already know what they’re talking about. They’re talking about their lives. Lost children, divorces, parenting. Sometimes there are tears and always there is laughter even a little snorting and wine through the nose.

Say what you want about the advantages of being a male. Better pay. Lives that don’t require making sure the Holiday cards go out and everyone has clean underwear (don’t get mad, men, I know some do this but you still get higher pay—I’m just say’n). I know I don’t really know what it’s like to be a man, and it’s not like I had a choice, but I really like the being a woman. I like hugging women I just met, inviting them to read a book with me without wondering about my motives. I like knowing I can call a woman acquaintance and go to the theater, no questions asked. I like that I don’t have start conversations with “How ‘bout those Packers.” Best of all, if I need “help” I really like that I don’t have to call it “concrete”.

Ann Wertz Garvin has a bachelor's degree in nursing and a doctorate in exercise psychology from the University of Wisconsin- Madison. She is a full professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she teaches courses on nutrition, stress management, and other health topics. ON MAGGIE'S WATCH is her first novel. She has lived all over the county but currently lives in a small town in Wisconsin that provided the inspiration for this novel.

I am so grateful to Ms. Garvin for writing this wonderful guest post. If you are interested in participating in a future Book Club Exchange, please contact me at bookingmama(at)gmail(dot)com.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Guest Review: Beneath the Sands of Egypt

Summary:  From the known to the unknown . . .

With its spectacular temples, tombs, monuments, and mummies, as well as esoteric metaphysics, legendary historical characters, and connections to the Bible, ancient Egypt has enticed the human imagination for centuries. This search for understanding and drive to uncover a lost civilization has also been the life work of archaeologist Donald P. Ryan, Ph.D. In Beneath the Sands of Egypt, he offers an intriguing personal account of a career spent researching the remains of Egypt's past—including his headline-making rediscovery of a lost tomb in the Valley of the Kings containing the mummy of the famous female pharaoh Hatshepsut.

Since his early childhood, Ryan dreamed of exploration and adventure. Inspired by his plastic dinosaurs, his books—including Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki—and his father's National Geographic collection, Ryan was determined to become an archaeologist. It is a quest that has taken him from harsh desert digs to the modern comforts of Europe's finest museums to treacherous Alpine peaks—and into the lives of his archaeological predecessors, gathering insight from obscure documents and, literally, digging in their wake. 

Beneath the Sands of Egypt interweaves Ryan's captivating tales from the field with reflections into the arcane world of Egyptology, from the writings of Herodotus to the tools of the trade, the intricacies of obtaining a digging permit to the thrall of popular myths. In addition, Ryan introduces a diverse cast of eccentric colleagues, helpful locals, wily entrepreneurs, and enlightened benefactors who have touched his life, including the legendary Thor Heyerdahl, Ryan's childhood hero who eventually became his friend, mentor, and boss. Throughout, Ryan adds his unique touch, reminding us how an artifact as seemingly insignificant as a piece of rope can unlock invaluable insights and offer its own wonderful tale. 

Infused with the irrepressible curiosity that has fueled Ryan's journey, Beneath the Sands of Egypt is the extraordinary story of a man who has spent a lifetime embracing adventure whenever—and wherever—he finds it. -- William Morrow

When I heard about the new book BENEATH THE SANDS OF EGYPT: ADVENTURES OF AN UNCONVENTIONAL ARCHAEOLOGIST by Donald P. Ryan, PhD, I immediately thought of my dad. He and my mom visited Egypt last year and one of their favorite stops was The Valley of the Kings. I thought my dad might be interested in learning some more about the pharaoh Hatshepsut, so I passed this book along to him. Here are his thoughts:

BENEATH THE SANDS OF EGYPT chronicles a personal account of the life, adventures and discoveries of author Dr. Donald Ryan, a noted Egyptologist and archaeologist. When I had the opportunity to review this book, I was enthused because of a recent trip my wife and I took that included a tour of the Valley of Kings. His detailed description of his archaeological undertakings in the Valley of Kings gave me an opportunity to relive one of our greatest travel experiences.

The novel provides an outline of Dr. Ryan’s career including his schooling, mountain climbing experiences and his significant archaeological projects. A puzzling aspect of the novel was Ryan’s decision to hide the names of the universities he attended by using references such as Big University and the Union. I’m sure this information is available in his biographies so it makes no sense to me that he hides it.

Dr. Ryan shares with the reader some very detailed insights into archeology. His descriptions of the working conditions including the complicated permit process, the extreme heat, the physical dangers, the boring and laborious tasks of moving stones and earth and the tedious process of collecting and analyzing specimens make it clear that the job of the archaeologist is not always the romantic and glamorous task often depicted in motion picture characters such as Indiana Jones. Ryan comes across in the book as an enthusiastic individual who loves his work and as one who is driven to succeed.

The book gives the reader a good feel for the time-line in archaeological discoveries. For example, the highlight of Ryan’s career was the rediscovery of the tomb that contained the mummy of Hatshepsut, the famous female Egyptian pharaoh. It was nearly 20 years after Ryan’s discovery that evidence surfaced to prove the mummy was Hatshepsut.

One issue that comes to light in BENEATH THE SANDS OF EGYPT is how difficult it is to eke out a living as an archaeologist. Many archaeologists, including Ryan, supplement their income by teaching at universities and even high school. Finding funding for a significant project like an excavation at the Valley of Kings is extremely difficult.

Dr. Ryan takes time in his novel to praise some of the famous archaeologists who preceded him including Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of King Tut and Thor Heyerdahl, famous for his Kon-Tiki adventure. Ryan spent several years working as Heyerdahl’s assistance. According to Ryan not everyone agrees with his assessment of these individuals.

BENEATH THE SANDS OF EGYPT is a very readable book and would be of interest to anyone who has an interest in archeology or Egyptology.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for his review.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2011 Challenges

I have no idea what I'm thinking! I am probably one of the worst people ever at completing challenges. But it's that time of year when I'm incredibly optimistic about next year's reading! So here's my list (for now) of the challenges that I'm going to do during 2011!

The Reagan Arthur Books Challenge is an ongoing challenge that Kathy/Bermudaonion and I are hosting. I'm really embarrassed about how little of the books I've read for this challenge, especially since 1) I'm co-hosting it, and 2) the books are amazing! I just want to extend the invitation for everyone to join this stress-free challenge. We have lots of giveaways and fun ideas for the new year!

The Amy Einhorn Books Perpetual Challenge is another ongoing challenge that I've been participating in. I'm not doing so well with this one either, but I do have a lot of the books in my TBR pile. I am certain that I will do better this year!
The Okra Picks Challenge is being hosted by Kathy/Bermudaonion, and it goes through March, 2011. I'm actually not doing awful on this one -- I've already read four of the books!

The Middle Grade Book Challenge is now hosted by Cindy's Love of Books and runs through August 2011. Between reading with my daughter and our Mother/Daughter Book Club, this one shouldn't be too difficult for me to complete.

The What's in a Name 4 Challenge is so much fun. I completed the What's in a Name 3 Challenge last year, so I'm ready to go on this one! Here's how it works:

Between January 1 and December 31, 2011, read one book in each of the following categories:

1. A book with a number in the title: First to Die, Seven Up, Thirteen Reasons Why

2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the title: Diamond Ruby, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Opal Deception

3. A book with a size in the title: Wide Sargasso Sea, Small Wars, Little Bee

4. A book with travel or movement in the title: Dead Witch Walking, Crawling with Zombies, Time Traveler's Wife

5. A book with evil in the title: Bad Marie, Fallen, Wicked Lovely

6. A book with a life stage in the title: No Country for Old Men, Brideshead Revisited, Bog Child

I'm Mad for Maisie isn't exactly a challenge, rather it's a read along. I'm not certain if I can keep up with all of the books that Book Club Girl has scheduled, but I'm going to do my best. I read the first Maisie book for my book club many years ago and I loved it!

The South Asian Challenge 2011 is hosted by my friend S. Krishna. I signed up for this one last year and thought I'd have no problems completing it; however, I failed miserably! It's so ironic because I love books that take place in other cultures. I firmly intend to do better this time around, and I'm signing up for 3 books.

This is my first year to participate in the War Through The Generations Reading Challenge 2011 hosted by Anna and Serena. I've wanted to do this challenge for the past few years, but the Civil War theme finally pushed me over the edge. I love books that take place during this time period, and I'm extremely excited about this challenge! I'm signing up for 3 books.

This one is just too tempting...a food challenge! Joyfully Retired is hosting the Foodie's Reading Challenge! I'm going to sign up for the Glutton Level -- more than 12 books. What more can I really say?

Oh yeah! And I'm toying with the idea of running The Shelf Discovery Challenge II during 2011. I absolutely loved this challenge, and so many of the books I read brought back such amazing memories. I'm curious if anyone else is interested? I worry about challenge overload! Or are you like me, and just join them for the fun and not worry about whether or not I complete all of them?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: The Christmas Bowl

Summary: Marianne Wallace is focused on two things this holiday season: planning the greatest family Christmas ever and cheering on her youngest son’s team in their bid for the state championship. Disaster strikes when the team loses their mascot—the Trout. Is it going too far to ask her to don the costume? So what if her husband has also volunteered her to organize the church Christmas tea. When football playoffs start ramping up, the Christmas tea starts falling apart. Then, one by one her children tell her they can’t come home for Christmas. As life starts to unravel, will Marianne remember the true meaning of the holidays? -- Tyndale

I was able to squeeze in one more Christmas book before the holiday season was over, and I'm so happy to say that it was a fun one. I took a break from the cleaning and cooking a few days ago to read THE GREAT CHRISTMAS BOWL by Susan May Warren. It was the first book that I read by Ms. Warren, but I'm sure it won't be my last. I thought THE GREAT CHRISTMAS BOWL was just a delightful holiday read.

THE CHRISTMAS BOWL tells the story of a Marianne, a mother of five adult children, who desperately wants to celebrate Christmas with her entire family. After Thanksgiving kind of falls by the wayside with everyone doing their own thing, she is even more determined to have all of her kids home for Christmas; However, she quickly learns that she has little, if any, control over many things in her life. When Marianne takes on a few new positions (including one as the high school mascot), she learns some wonderful lessons about sacrifice, love, family, hospitality and friendship.

I thoroughly enjoyed THE CHRISTMAS BOWL. It was a super quick read, but it definitely touched my heart. I loved the powerful messages in the story, and when I finished this novel, I just had happy feelings about the holiday season. In fact, THE CHRISTMAS BOWL is one of those books that helped me keep in mind the true meaning of Christmas.

Furthermore, THE CHRISTMAS BOWL was also one very funny story. I loved how Ms. Warren managed to incorporate some very funny scenes into the book... namely the ones where Marianne is dressed as a trout. The humor was so well done that I was able to picture the scenes perfectly and even found myself laughing out loud! THE CHRISTMAS BOWL was a great book, but I think it would be a perfect holiday movie as well!

I highly recommend THE CHRISTMAS BOWL if you are looking for a feel-good story this holiday season. I had a wonderful time taking a break from all the hustle and bustle and just thinking about what's important!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Guest Blogger: George Rabasa

I am so excited to welcome George Rabasa to my blog. Mr. Rabasa is the author of THE WONDER SINGER which I thoroughly enjoyed (my review), and he has a new book coming out in Spring 2011 called MISS ENTROPIA AND THE ADAM BOMB. I can't wait to read it.

Mr. Rabasa was asked, "Which author dead or alive would you invite to your holiday dinner? AND share with us one of your favorite holiday recipes." He wrote a special holiday-themed guest post remembering his friend and mentor, Leonard Wallace Robinson; and he offered a delicious recipe for flan! I hope you enjoy!!

From Chiles to Flan with Leonard

A Holiday Dinner with Leonard Wallace Robinson (1912-1999)

I met Leonard Robinson in San Miguel de Allende. I was 37 and in the throes of my first mid-life crisis: Quit ad agency job, leave Mexico City, join Robinson’s novel workshop! On the first meeting, a plump, impish figure in a ragged green cardigan, rumpled chinos and sandals, happily greeted the participants as if we were to be his entertainment for the quarter.

I had never worked with such a respected author before. Leonard had been an editor and fiction contributor to the New Yorker, as well as the author of several novels (most notably “The Man who Loved Beauty”) and poetry collections (“In the Whale”).

He took me on as a friend as well as a disciple. We shared meals. We exchanged deep thoughts on art and life. On one particular occasion, over a feast of chiles rellenos, cactus salad, black bean soup and a spectacular flan (see recipe below), I learned almost everything I know about the novel. If Leonard could join me for Christmas Dinner this year, I would want to relive that moment.

“A fine novel,” he began, “is like a cathedral.” Leonard took a breath. I waited, knowing from previous experience that it did not serve to hurry the oracle. “You have the main nave, thusting the narrative to its culmination at the altar, the site of its sacramental goal. Along the way, the story opens out to the side chapels for ancillary plots and secondary characters. Stained glass windows give the action its sheen and sparkle. And throughout your visit to the cathedral, as the light changes, you find that the whole building moves and floats on a bed of passing time.”

I let the sweet flan disolve in my mouth and waited. Finally he added, “You are not an architect yet. But in time you may build a cathedral or two.”

Miss Entropia’s Classic Flan
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
2 cups whole milk – Don’t mess with condensed and evaporated milk, thinking they provide shortcuts. There are no shortcuts to perfection.
4 large eggs –No shells, okay? Not a even a little crunch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract – Real vanilla from Papantla, Mexico, not the artificial crap. Read the fine print on the bottle.
Pinch of salt
Optional but desirable: A pinch of nutmeg, a splash of mellow dark rum, or a sprinkling of cannabis.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Stir 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in heavy small saucepan over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat; boil without stirring until syrup is deep amber color, brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan occasionally, about 10 minutes. Divide caramel among six 3/4-cup custard cups. Working quickly, tilt cups, coating bottoms and part of sides.Stir milk and 1/2 cup sugar in medium saucepan over low heat just until sugar dissolves (milk will be lukewarm). Whisk eggs in medium bowl until blended. Slowly whisk in milk mixture. Whisk in vanilla and salt. Strain custard into prepared cups. Arrange cups in 13x9x2-inch metal baking pan. Pour enough hot water into baking pan to come halfway up sides of cups. Bake flans until just set in center, about 50 minutes. Remove cups from water and let stand 30 minutes. Chill until cold, at least 4 hours and up to 1 day. Cut around sides of each cup to loosen flan; turn out onto plate.

George Rabasa is the author of THE WONDER SINGER. His new novel, MISS ENTROPIA AND THE ADAM BOMB, will be published by Unbridled Books this Spring.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Kid Konnection: The Prince of Mist

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. Today, I'm going to share with you a book that I thought was just okay....

Summary: A mysterious house harbors an unimaginable secret...

It's wartime, and the Carver family decides to leave the capital where they live and move to a small coastal village. But from the minute they cross the threshold of their new home, strange things begin to happen. In that mysterious house still lurks the spirit of Jacob, the previous owners' son, who died by drowning.

With the help of their new friend Roland, Max and Alicia Carver begin to explore the strange circumstances of that death and discover the existence of a mysterious being called the Prince of Mist--a diabolical character who has returned from the shadows to collect on a debt from the past. Soon the three friends find themselves caught up in an adventure of sunken ships and an enchanted stone garden--an adventure that will change their lives forever. -- Little, Brown

I have to be honest when I tell you that I have been procrastinating writing my review THE PRINCE OF MIST by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Since it's the last Kid Konnection of the year, I think it's the time for me to try to get my thoughts down about this book in writing! Basically, I didn't love this book and thought it was just okay. Overall, I guess I could say that I was disappointed.

Once again, maybe my expectations were just a little too high. I was a big fan of the author's and I thought THE SHADOW OF THE WIND was an amazing book -- I'm talking incredible! So when I discovered that Mr. Zafon had a young adult novel coming out that was written prior to THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, I was definitely anxious to read it. I thought if his writing was anywhere as good as it was in THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, then I'd be a happy reader. Ultimately, it wasn't the writing that let me down. I just had too many issues with the story and the believability of the characters.

I'm the first to admit that I wouldn't consider a ghost story to be my favorite type of story, but I did read this book on Halloween. I thought if there were ever a time to appreciate a ghost story, that would be the day. I don't want to make it sound like THE PRINCE OF MIST was an awful book because it wasn't. It just didn't appeal to me. Yes, I know I'm not the target audience for quite a few reasons, namely my age and my reading taste; but I believe that I'm probably not entirely off base with my issues.

Probably my biggest issue with THE PRINCE OF MIST was with a few of the characters. In fact, I actually  hard a hard time buying some of the actions of the characters. For example, while I definitely liked Max's character, I didn't think his actions were consistent with those of a child his age. Many times I thought he acted way older than his years, and other times I thought he was rather immature. Of course, readers could argue that that behavior is exactly how kids act!

I did appreciate Mr. Zafon's writing as well as certain aspects of the ghost story, but I wasn't blown away by THE PRINCE OF MIST like I had hoped. I do think fans of ghost stories as well as younger readers might enjoy this novel a bit more than I did.

Thanks to the publisher for providing an ARC at this year's BEA.

If you'd like to participate in Kid Konnection and share a post about anything related to children's books (picture, middle grade, or young adult) from the past week, please leave a comment as well as a link below with your name/blog name and the title of the book! Feel free to grab the little button too!

Friday, December 24, 2010

December 2010 Book Club Meeting

Summary: In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.

Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.” A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal. -- Random House

I almost forgot to write a recap of our December meeting. I'm telling you things are just crazy right now! For December, we read LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann. I thought it was a great choice because I had been wanting to read it -- and it had won some pretty major awards. And ultimately, I still think it was a great pick; however, not everyone loved it. In fact, some of our group didn't like it at all.

I still plan on writing a review in the very near future so I don't want to give away too much of what I thought. Suffice it to say that I probably enjoyed the book more than anyone, but it wasn't an easy read for me. I haven't confirmed this, but  my impressions from our meeting were that everyone thought it warranted further discussion and touched on some great topics, but that it wasn't their favorite book to actually read. All of us did agree that there were some sections of the book that were pretty amazing and then there were a few others that we didn't totally get! My hope is that everyone at least appreciated the book a little more after our discussion.

Since it was our December meeting, it was also our annual Holiday Book Swap. Each of us brought a wrapped book (it could be new or used) and we did a traditional Yankee Swap -- with stealing. Obviously I'm the "mean" one of the group because I was the first to steal a book. I ended up taking home Emma' Donoghue's LIFE MASK -- I loved ROOM and want to read more of her books. One of our members also brought a big freebie bag and I immediately snatched up Randy Susan Meyers THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS. I thought it was a pretty good haul!

Next month, we will be reading THE KITCHEN HOUSE by Kathleen Grissom. I absolutely loved this book (my review), and it was probably one of my favorite reads for 2010. (Of course, I've yet to figure out how to come up with a final list!) I can't wait to hear what all of my friends think about this book because I have been recommending it to everyone I know this year!

Summary: When a white servant girl violates the order of plantation society, she unleashes a tragedy that exposes the worst and best in the people she has come to call her family.

Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master's illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin.

Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.

The Kitchen House is a tragic story of page-turning suspense, exploring the meaning of family, where love and loyalty prevail. -- Touchstone

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review: My Reading Life

Summary: Pat Conroy, the beloved American storyteller, is also a vora­cious reader. He has for years kept a notebook in which he notes words or phrases, just from a love of language. But read­ing for him is not simply a pleasure to be enjoyed in off-hours or a source of inspiration for his own writing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that reading has saved his life, and if not his life then surely his sanity.

My Reading Life, Conroy revisits a life of passionate reading. He includes wonderful anecdotes from his school days, mov­ing accounts of how reading pulled him through dark times, and even lists of books that particularly influenced him at vari­ous stages of his life, including grammar school, high school, and college. Readers will be enchanted with his ruminations on reading and books, and want to own and share this perfect gift book for the holidays. And, come graduation time, My Reading Life will establish itself as a perennial favorite, as did Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! -- Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

I was so excited when I found out that one of my favorite authors Pat Conroy was writing a book about his love of reading titled MY READING LIFE. I had a feeling that I'd appreciate discovering what books he holds close to his heart, and I always enjoy reading his prose. I figured this was the book for me!

And in some ways, MY READING LIFE was exactly what I had hoped for; however, I have to admit that for the most part, this book didn't live up to my expectations. (Of course, my expectations were so high that it probably wasn't fair to begin with!) I felt that it was an okay read and I'm definitely glad that I read it because I did get some insight into Mr. Conroy. I just didn't love it like I had hoped.

MY READING LIFE is basically Pat Conroy's life in books. He talks about many of the special people in his life and how they influenced him. There are also some parts about his tempestuous relationship with his father which I found interesting yet tragic. He also shared some stories about his mother, librarian, teacher, and friends and how their love of reading affected his life. I think I most enjoyed those specific chapters, but the one about his high school teacher was my favorite by far -- it actually brought tears to my eyes. It was apparent just how much this man meant to Mr. Conroy and I loved how he paid tribute to him in such a beautiful way.

MY READING LIFE would make a very interesting (and very unique) book club experience. I can't say that I actually thought about it as a book club selection while I was reading it, but once I saw the reading guide, I realized that it would be a great book to discuss. Some of the topics you  might want to further explore include how (and what) books influenced Mr. Conroy's life as well as his writing and how books influence your own life. In addition, you could discuss the value of rereading books and discussing them with friends!

Overall, I feel that MY READING LIFE is a worthwhile read for fans of Pat Conroy as well as book lovers. It just wasn't my favorite book of the year.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: The Snow Globe

Summary: Discover an unforgettable holiday treasure in Sheila Roberts’ heartwarming tale of love and laughter, magic and miracles, friendship and coming home…

On a blustery afternoon, Kylie Gray wanders into an antique shop and buys an enchanting snow globe. “There’s a story behind that snow globe,” the antique dealer tells her. The original owner, he explains, was a German toymaker who lost his wife and son right before Christmas. When the grieving widower received the handcrafted snow globe as a Christmas gift, he saw the image of a beautiful woman beneath the glass—a woman who would come into his life, mend his broken heart and bring him back to the world of the living. For years, the snow globe has passed from generation to generation, somehow always landing in the hands of a person in special need of a Christmas miracle.

Kiley could use a miracle herself. This year, all she wants for Christmas is someone to love. A hopeful shake leads her on an adventure that makes a believer out of her. When Kylie shares the story of the snow globe with her best friends—two women with problems of their own—they don’t believe it. But they’re about to discover that at Christmastime, sometimes the impossible becomes possible and miracles really do come true. -- St. Martin's Press

I am so swamped right now with holiday things -- cleaning, wrapping, shopping, baking, partying, etc. -- that I barely have had a chance to pick up a book the past few days. In fact, I'm becoming quite frustrated that I can't even fit in a few pages! So when THE SNOW GLOBE by Sheila Roberts, arrived in the mail, I thought to myself, "This might be a book that I can fit into my busy schedule."

I'm embarrassed to say that this little book still took me a few days to complete, and it's only 166 pages. However, it is a perfectly fun read for the Christmas season! THE SNOW GLOBE tells the story of three friends whose lives are forever changed once they take possession of a snow globe. This very special snow globe actually has magical qualities. It has been passed down through the generations and has brought miracles to those in need. The possessor of the snow globe is guaranteed a miracle (or at least something that will make their life better), and they are fortunate enough to see what the future will bring every time they shake the globe.

And that's where Kiley, Suzanne and Allison come in. Each woman finds themselves facing the holidays with something missing in their lives until they they end up possessing the special snow globe. The story begins with Kiley, a young woman whose fiance left her for her sister. She desperately wants to find happiness but is afraid of rejection after such an awful (and embarrassing) breakup. Kiley questions her sanity when the inside of the snow globe changes and she sees herself with a man and a toy shop, and she is even more startled to actually find the real store and man one day when she was out with friends. Needless to say, Kiley's visions in the snow globe are coming true and she is well on her way to finding happiness!

Kiley wants everyone she loves to have the same experience with the snow globe that she has had, so she gives it to her good friend Suzanne. Suzanne doesn't buy the magical powers of the snow globe, but she takes it home places it on her mantle. Suzanne is a woman who seems to have it all, a great husband, a beautiful daughter, a success career, etc.; however, she is so caught up in achieving that she misses out on all of her blessings. It appears that the snow globe is doing more damage than good until Suzanne faces a life-changing accident and realizes the important things in life.

Once Suzanne's life is changes for the better, she gives the snow globe to Allison, a sweet woman who is missing her grandmother and dreading spending the holidays with her dysfunctional family. It's pretty obvious by now that the snow globe is going to change Allison's life too -- but it's not clear as to how because Allison sees herself having tea with her dead grandmother.

Suffice it to say, that everything works out well for all three women and the book leaves the reader with a feeling of hope -- and even some question as to whose life the snow globe will touch next. There are some valuable life lessons in THE SNOW GLOBE that are especially meaningful during the holiday season such as the importance of family, friendship, and love. It's just an ideal read for this time of year and it will definitely warm your heart!

Thanks to Newman Communications for providing a copy of this novel.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review: The Christmas Glass

Summary: In the early days of World War II in Italy, Anna, a young widow who runs a small orphanage, carefully wraps her most cherished possessions -- a dozen hand-blown, German-made, Christmas ornaments, handed down by her mother -- and sends them to a cousin she hasn't seen in years. 

Anna is distressed to part with her only tangible reminder of her mother, but she worries that the ornaments will be lost or destroyed in the war, especially now that her orphanage has begun to secretly shelter Jewish children. Anna's young cousin Filomena is married with two-year-old twins when she receives the box of precious Christmas glass. 

After the war, Filomena emigrates to America, where the precious ornaments are passed down through the generations. After more than forty years, twelve people come to possess a piece of Christmas glass, some intimately connected by family bonds, some connected only through the history of the ornaments. As Christmas Day approaches, readers join each character in a journey of laughter and tears, fractures and healings, as Filomena, now an eighty-four-year-old great-grandmother, brings them all to what will be either a wondrous reunion or a disaster that may shatter them all like the precious glass they cherish.-- Guideposts

You might remember that I participated as a judge in this year's INSPY Awards in the General & Literary Fiction category. I had to read five nominated books -- all of which were good in their own right, but I wanted to share my thoughts about a particular one. It's called THE CHRISTMAS GLASS by Marci Alborghetti and while it wasn't my favorite, I do think it's a wonderful read during the holiday season.

THE CHRISTMAS GLASS follows the story of twelve hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments as they change hands throughout the years. The book begins back in the 1940s (during World War II) when a young widow who runs an orphanage is afraid that the Nazis will destroy her possessions because she is protecting some Jewish children. She sends her beloved Christmas ornaments to her cousin Filomena and her twin daughters for protection. These ornaments are handed down through the generations to family and friends, and twelve very different individuals (with very different life stories) ultimately end up with these precious ornaments.

THE CHRISTMAS GLASS is a heartwarming story about the twelve owners of the ornaments. Each chapter gives the background story about the various owners and how they came to be in possession of an ornament. These characters are complex and often times troubled; however, they are all brought together in some way by these ornaments. The relationships of the characters to the ornaments are obvious in many cases (i.e. Filomena's daughters and grandchildren) while the reasons some of the other characters have an ornament are a little less clear. As the reader follows the paths of the ornaments, he/she begins to see how all of the characters' stories are intertwined.

I don't read a lot of Christian fiction, but I didn't feel that THE CHRISTMAS GLASS was overtly "religious." I didn't find the book preachy in the slightest, and I honestly think it will appeal to many readers. In fact, if I had to summarize the main theme of this book (or at least the one that struck a chord with me), I'd have to say it was story about family. THE CHRISTMAS GLASS is a touching story that covers many years and many different characters, but it also delves into the complexities of relationships and family life.

At its heart, THE CHRISTMAS GLASS is entertaining read about family, love, faith, and Christmas. I have to admit that it's not a book that will remain in my thoughts for a long time; however, it is one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It's a heartwarming story that is also a quick read, and that makes it ideal for this busy time of year.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Winter Bloom

Summary: There would be tunnels of roses, beds of strawberries, fountains of overflowing herbs. And there might even be love. . . .

In the heart of bustling modern Dublin is a littered, overgrown garden of tangled weeds and a stagnant, hidden pond. Belonging to an iron-willed elderly lady named Mrs. Prendergast, who is rumored to have murdered and buried her husband there, the garden draws Eva Madigan, a young mother struggling to move on from the pain of her past. Eva is joined by Emily, a beautiful but withdrawn college dropout; Uri, an old-world immigrant; Seth, his all-too-handsome son; and occasionally even Mrs. Prendergast herself. But what drives Eva to transform the neglected urban wilderness? What makes the others want to help her? Even as Mrs. Prendergast puts the land up for sale, the thorny lives of all the gardeners are revealed and slowly start to untangle. Overgrown secrets are dug up and shared. Choices are made; a little pruning is in order. Now Eva is about to discover that every garden is a story of growth toward a final harvest. . . . - Gallery Books

When I was younger, I enjoyed reading Maeve Binchy's books. I can pretty much blame her for my interest in Ireland as well as my huge desire to visit the country. She's also the reason that I'm drawn to other novels that take place in Ireland. So I was very happy when I discovered WINTER BLOOM by Tara Heavey. WINTER BLOOM is the story of five troubled souls who find themselves beginning to heal when they combine forces to create a beautiful (and bountiful) garden.

There were many things that I enjoyed about WINTER BLOOM. I'm not quite sure that I'd go so far as to say that I loved it, but I did like it a great deal...and I became caught up in the characters' lives. It was definitely a worthwhile read to me, and I found it to be a heartwarming story. As is the case with most books like this one, I found some parts to be rather predictable; however, there were some other side stories that had a few surprises.

One thing that I really appreciated about WINTER BLOOM was that I thought the author did a good job of going back and forth between the various characters' stories. There were quite a few separate stories to juggle, as well as moving between the present and the past, but Ms. Heavey managed to do all of this almost effortlessly. And she certainly kept this reader's attention the entire way. I did have one slight issue with the character's various background stories -- I found myself wanting a bit more information about one or two of them. And one story in particular just seemed as if it were wrapped up a little too neatly. I'm not sure it affected my enjoyment of the novel, but I'm just saying...

Another thing I enjoyed about WINTER BLOOM was how this novel made me feel. This might sound corny (and maybe I should chalk it up to reading it during this time of year), but WINTER BLOOM actually left me with a feeling of hope. Of course, the revitalization of the garden was highly symbolic to the re-birth of the characters; however, I appreciated how each character grew as a result of their connection to each other. Some of the characters were almost pitiful at the beginning of the story, but by the end, they had realized valuable things about love, loss, and friendship. It was just one of those feel-good stories that touched my heart.

WINTER BLOOM would make a great book club pick. I'm not sure this book (or its characters) are for everyone -- I think some of my friends might have some issues with a few of their actions; however, I think books like this one would generate some interesting discussion. There is a reading guide available with some thought-provoking questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include grief, parent/child relationships, love, and healing. And of course, there is a great deal of symbolism pertaining to the garden which warrants some analysis. In addition to the typical questions, there are also some ideas for enhancing the meeting. One in particular that I enjoyed was discussing how this book would work as a movie.

Overall, I enjoyed WINTER BLOOM. It wasn't a perfect book for me, but I do think it is a worthwhile read as well as a great discussion book!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review: Cookie Swap!

Summary: Cookie swaps are joyful. Cookie swaps are social. Cookie swaps are hip yet old-school, trendy yet traditional. Cookie swaps are creative, inexpensive, DIY, and a great way to entertain. Cookie swaps are baking meets Stitch ’n Bitch, with newspapers, magazines, and websites—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Better Homes and Gardens, Real Simple, Family Fun, Southern Living,, and Ed Levine’s Serious Eats—all writing about the trend. Cookie Swap! captures all of this and more in an idea-packed, slightly sassy guide.

On the one hand, it’s all about the swap: when to swap (Christmas, of course, and other holidays, but also birthdays, bridal showers, graduation parties, PTA meetings, and fund-raisers—or just at your next book club meeting). And how to swap—with a planner, cookie swap math guide (so everyone gets the same number of cookies), ideas for invitations, decorations, containers, and then, when the crumbs have settled, how to make a keepsake.

On the other hand, it’s all about the cookies. Lauren Chattman is a former professional pastry chef and baking writer who’s put together a knockout collection of more than 60 delectable, easy-to-make, simple-to-sophisticated recipes covering every kind of cookie—from crowd-pleasing favorites like Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies and Pumpkin Cheesecake Brownies to unexpected treats like Flaky Cardamom Palmiers and Green Tea Sandwich Cookies with Almond Cream. Finally, the book ends with a chapter of drink recipes—such as Iced Irish Coffee, Mini Strawberry Milk Shakes and Juicy Sangria—because not every cookie wants milk. -- Workman

Every year, I purchase some sort of book or magazine with cookie recipes. I love looking through cookie cookbooks for ideas (even though I usually make the good old standards!) This year, I found COOKIE SWAP! by Lauren Chattman and I thought it looked adorable. I had to have it!

COOKIE SWAP! is just so cute -- from the bright colors to the fun fonts. But I think the main attraction for me was the color photos. These pictures are adorable and seem to pop out on the pages! Of course, the cookies in this cookbook were way more beautiful than mine ever look, but I like having something to aspire to!

COOKIE SWAP! has a little something-something for everyone! There are instructions for hosting a cookie exchange, a crash course in cookie baking, as well as 71 delicious recipes. The book includes tradition cookies, but also some not-so-traditional savory ones. In addition, there are even drink recipes even alcoholic ones. (And if your cookie swap is anything like the one I attend, that chapter will come in handy!)

The cookbook is divided into the following chapters: Ready, Set Swap!: Cookie Exchange 101; Swapper's Delight: The Cookie Baker's Bag of Tricks; Drop Everything!: Delectable Drop Cookies; Raise the Bar: Superior Brownies, Blondies, and Bars; The Best of Both Worlds: Flaky Pastry Cookies; Refrigerator Madness: Insanely Good Icebox Cookies; Double Happiness: Luscious Sandwich Cookies; Play Dough: Shaped and Cut Cookies; Slam Dunk: Biscotti and Mandelbrot; Something for Everyone: Cookies for Special Diets; Snack Attack: Savory Cookies; Easy Peasy: Shortcut Cookies; and Beyond Milk: Perfect Swap Sips. 

As you can clearly see, there are all types of cookie recipes in this book. I found that there was a great mix of standards as well as new to me flavors. Some of the recipes that I found interesting include the Sugar-Free Monkey Cookies, the Blueberry-Almond Biscotti, the Black Pepper and Parmesan Animal Crackers, and the Green Tea Cookies with Almond Cream. I also really liked that the author included lots of helpful hints for each recipe including freezing directions if applicable.

When I first got COOKIE SWAP!, I immediately looked through it and marked quite a few recipes that I wanted to try. But when I actually sat down a few days ago to decide on a recipe to try for Dawn/She is Too Fond of Books' Virtual Cookie Swap, I decided to try one that sounded kind of strange to me -- Saltine Toffee Bark. It also happened to fall in the Easy Peasy section which didn't hurt either!

I actually thought this recipe was fun to make. And of course, it goes without saying, that it was extremely quick and easy. I found it to be very rich -- how could it not be with chocolate, toffee, nuts and coconut? A little definitely goes a long way! I wasn't too sure how the saltines would work, but I liked that there was a little salty flavor to offset all of the sweetness. I should probably add that I'm not a huge chocolate fan, so I did find that the chocolate was a little too intense for my taste; however, I think chocolate lovers would devour this stuff!

Saltine Toffee Bark  

Nonstick Cooking Spray
48 saltine crackers (1 sleeve)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 bag (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup unsweetened coconut
2/3 cup finely chopped pecans, almonds, or walnuts (I used walnuts)
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed 15x10x1 inch baking sheet (jelly roll pan) with heavy-duty aluminum foil and lightly spray the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange the crackers on top of the foil in a single layer, so they are touching each other at the edges.

2. Combine the butter and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat to low and simmer until the mixture is thick and golden, 3 minutes. Pour the mixture over the crackers and spread it to the edges of the pan with a rubber spatula.

Saltine Toffee Bark will keep, layered between parchment paper, in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kid Konnection: More Christmas Books

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. Today, I'm going to share with you some more fun Christmas books which Booking Son and I have been reading these past few weeks.

Summary: Christmas in the nation's capital is marvelous-and Olivia's getting to see it all, from the gorgeous trees sparkling near the White House to the fabulous Sculpture Garden where she and cousin James ice skate on the frozen fountain surrounded by statues. And of course, there are plenty of monuments, memorials, and museums-like the amazing Smithsonian, with the ruby-red slippers from The Wizard of Oz-and adorable pandas in the zoo, too! -- Sterling

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. written by Candice Ransom and illustrated by Sarah Hollander was probably Booking Son's favorite out of all the Christmas books we read this year. I was a bit surprised since it's definitely longer than the other ones, but he's obsessed with The Twelve Days of Christmas song. So anything that ties in to that is a hit this year!

This book takes the reader along with Olivia as she visits her relatives in Washington, D.C. Each day her aunt and cousin take her to a new tourist attraction where she learns something new about the area. After her daily excursions, she writes her parents a letter explaining what she discovered.

I actually enjoyed this book a great deal too for a number of reasons. First, it was like a trip down memory lane for me. We lived in the D.C. metro area for over ten years and it was nice to reminisce about many of the fun landmarks and tourist spots. In addition, I really liked how educational this book was. Not only did my son learn a few things about Washington, D.C. and its history, but I discovered some new-to-me places to visit. Finally, I admit it was fun to sing along to The Twelve Days of Christmas with my son!

THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. is one in a series of The Twelve Days of Christmas books. There are also ones for many other states including Virginia, California, and New York to name a few. I definitely recommend this series --the books are fun and educational!

Summary: Christmas is coming-and where better to celebrate than in Busytown? Firefighters are stringing lights, stores are crowded, and everyone is in a merry mood. Richard Scarry captures holiday cheer in a series of delightful and brightly illustrated stories featuring his most popular characters, including Huckle Cat and lovable Lowly Worm.

Each small tale sparkles with joy and kindness-and there are also songs, games, a list of Christmas words, and instructions for making a great gift for Grandma!-- Sterling

How can you go wrong with RICHARD SCARRY'S BEST CHRISTMAS BOOK EVER!? I grew up on Richard Scarry books and I still love all his adorable characters. I'm embarrassed to say this, but I think this might be the first Richard Scarry book that Booking Son has read. He must take after his mom because he absolutely loved it.

The book is actually made up of quite a few short stories. I've found that we read a few a night because Booking Son likes to take his time looking at the illustrations. I enjoy reading them and remembering all of the characters (I love Lowly Worm!), and as a mom, I like that there are a few with some heartwarming messages!
Summary: Little Critter stars in this merry retelling of Clement C. Moore’s classic holiday poem, complete with a CD for kids to enjoy with the book. Mercer Mayer’s warm and witty illustrations add a humorous touch to this magical night, when Little Critter gazes in wonder at jolly Santa Claus, his old-fashioned sleigh, eight prancing reindeer, and a bundle of colorful toys.  -- Sterling

LITTLE CRITTER'S THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by Mercer Mayer is another very sweet book. It's a re-telling of the classic story The Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore; however, it has adorable illustrations of Little Critter.

Booking Son liked this book too and he immediately recognized the story. His sister dances in a show which creatively interprets the story and he enjoyed telling me which dances fit in to which parts of the story. I found that I enjoyed this version of the story because the illustrations were so humorous. I just love Little Critter!

Summary: Let the holiday magic begin!

Stockings hung by the chimney with care. Visions of sugarplums dancing. And that jolly old elf, St. Nick, with his eight tiny reindeer.  That can mean only one thing: it's The Night Before Christmas!

From popular children's illustrator Robert Ingpen comes a beautiful new interpretation of the classic holiday poem. Ingpen's stunning pictures capture all the warmth, wonder, and humor of Clement C. Moore's beloved verse. 

It's perfect for the family to share and a magical start to every Christmas eve. -- Sterling

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS illustrated by Robert Ingpen is just gorgeous. We actually read this book the night after LITTLE CRITTER'S THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, so the story was very fresh for Booking Son. He actually noticed that a few of the words were different in each of the books and took pleasure in pointing that out to me.

What really made THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS stand apart from other holiday books was the illustrations. There are only a few verses on each page, so there are plenty of pages filled with pictures from the story. The illustrations are positively beautiful and so detailed; and I found them to be a perfect complement to the story.

Summary: The Toymaker spreads Christmas joy with 11 paper toys to pop out, fold, glue together, and play with! With their beautiful, antique style, these toys are sure to enchant both children and adults. Leave St. Nick his milk and cookies in “Santa's Treat Box.” Decorate the Christmas tree with the four lovely “Little Angels.” Create a magical “Winter Wonderland,” complete with moving parts-like an ice skating penguin. And no Christmas would be complete without a handsome paper “Nutcracker,” with arms and a jaw that move. -- Sterling

And last but not least is THE TOYMAKER'S CHRISTMAS: PAPER TOYS YOU CAN MAKE FOR YOURSELF by Marilyn Scott-Waters. This isn't your traditional holiday book. Rather, it's a book that contains paper cutouts that you can assemble.

Included in THE TOYMAKER'S CHRISTMAS are eleven different paper toys as well as the "Toymaker's" instructions for putting them together. Kids will love assembling all of them, but I especially liked the angel, the snowman, and Santa's sleigh.

THE TOYMAKER'S CHRISTMAS is guaranteed to keep kids (and parents alike) entertained for hours!

Thanks to the publisher for sending me these great Christmas books. Any (or all) of these books would make great holiday gifts!

If you'd like to participate in Kid Konnection and share a post about anything related to children's books (picture, middle grade, or young adult) from the past week, please leave a comment as well as a link below with your name/blog name and the title of the book! Feel free to grab the little button too!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Review: Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor

Summary: New York Timesbestselling author Lisa Kleypas’s new series begins during the most magical time of year

One rain-slicked night, six-year-old Holly lost the only parent she knew, her beloved mother Victoria. And since that night, she has never again spoken a word.

The last thing Mark Nolan needs is a six-year-old girl in his life. But he soon realizes that he will do everything he can to make her life whole again. His sister’s will gives him the instructions: There’s no other choice but you. Just start by loving her. The rest will follow.

Maggie Collins doesn’t dare believe in love again, after losing her husband of one year. But she does believe in the magic of imagination. As the owner of a toy shop, she lives what she loves. And when she meets Holly Nolan, she sees a little girl in desperate need of a little magic.

Three lonely people. Three lives at the crossroads. Three people who are about to discover that Christmas is the time of year when anything is possible, and when wishes have a way of finding the path home… -- St. Martin's Press

I definitely think CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR by Lisa Kleypas counts as one of those books that I probably wouldn't pick up except that it's a Christmas themed novel. I don't read much romance and I'm not sure I even appreciate it all that much. However, I did read Ms. Kleypas' DEVIL IN WINTER for my on-line book club last year, and I thought it was pretty good. I figured I'd try CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR, especially since it's a holiday book and has a pretty cover!

I have to say that I did enjoy CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR. It's probably not one of those books that I will rave about, but it was a sweet story with likable characters. I did find it a tad bit predictable, but that's not a knock on the book because I think that's almost always the case with this genre. As I mentioned earlier, I probably enjoyed it more because it was a quick, escape read during this very hectic time of the year. (I actually read the entire book while waiting for work to be done on my car.)

One thing that did stand out to me was Ms. Kleypas' writing. I am far from an expert on romance books, but I do think she does a fantastic job with the characters and the story. Yes, it is a sweet story and not for every reader; however, I really liked all of the main characters and a few of the supporting ones. CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR was a short book, but Ms. Kleypas managed to do a good job of developing the characters. I appreciated their background stories and I even found myself rooting for them to get together!

I think fans of romance novels and fans of Ms. Kleypas' will definitely appreciate CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR! It's a heart-warming read that's perfect for this time of year.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: Earth (Audio)

Summary: Where do we come from? Who created us? Why are we here? These questions have puzzled us since the dawn of time, but when it became apparent to Jon Stewart and the writers of The Daily Show that the world was about to end, they embarked on a massive mission to write a book that summed up the human race: What we looked like; what we accomplished; our achievements in society, government, religion, science and culture -- all in a lavishly produced audiobook of approximately 200 minutes.

After two weeks of hard work and nights in the recording studio, they had their audiobook. EARTH (The Book) is the definitive guide to our species. With their trademark wit, irreverence, and intelligence, Stewart and his team will posthumously answer all of life's most hard-hitting questions, completely unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity, or even accuracy. -- Hachette Audio

In my quest to listen to more audio books, I picked up THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART PRESENTS EARTH: A VISITOR'S GUIDE TO THE HUMAN RACE. A little while back, I listened to AMERICA: A CITIZEN'S GUIDE TO DEMOCRACY INACTION and absolutely loved it! So I was extremely anxious to give EARTH a try. I found it to be very funny as well as a fun way to get my morning run in!

The basic premise of EARTH is pretty original (and entertaining) in itself. The book is a guide to aliens who discover an uninhabited Earth. It basically gives a general overview of well... the Earth and its inhabitants. There are parts in EARTH that discuss the people, places, religion, and even politics to name just a few of the many things covered. Jon Stewart attempts to make sense of our world and the people in it while describing it to an alien who has no understanding of our culture. It's not always an easy task as the alien questions at the end of each chapter point out.

I've read many reviews in the blogosphere that said that EARTH didn't live up to AMERICA. I guess I would have to agree. If I am forced to pick a favorite out of the two books, I would definitely pick AMERICA -- it really was fantastic! However, I have to say that I really, really liked EARTH too. I think I just preferred the subject matter of AMERICA a bit more. There is no doubt that the politics of our country provide ample opportunities for satire!

Having said that, I still found plenty to laugh at in EARTH. The Daily Show cast and Sigourney Weaver are terrific in the audio version of this book, but I most appreciated the parts with Jon Stewart. There is no doubt in my mind that Jon Stewart is one of the funniest men on the planet, and I absolutely love his irreverent tone and insight into people's idiosyncrasies.

Highly recommended! Thanks to the publisher for sending me this audio book.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Photoweavers Photo Blanket

Are you still looking for the perfect gift for that hard-to-buy-for person? Well, look no further -- I think I can help! It's a photo blanket! And it's not too late to receive one by Christmas.

Just a few days ago, I received my very own photo blanket from Photoweavers! When I ordered mine, I thought it sounded like a cute idea. But I had absolutely no idea how beautiful the blanket would turn out to be. All I had to do was select a photo and upload it to Photoweavers site. I had a few choices like backgrounds, border colors, personalization, etc., but I could "create" my blanket entirely on-line and see what it would look like. Photoweavers took care of everything else. 

Since the blanket was for me, I chose a photo of my family with the Penn State Nittany Lion. It's a great picture of my crew and it ended up looking terrific on a blanket. When my husband saw the final product, he was pleasantly surprised (and believe me, he's difficult to impress!) His only issue was that I didn't use a family picture (i.e. one that included me) from our trip, but I told him that it was my special blanket!

I was also extremely impressed with the quality of the blanket. The photo is actually clearer than I was expecting. In addition, it's a pretty heavy blanket -- one that's perfect to curl up in during this cold wave. I was happy to see that the company included washing instructions for the blanket because I want to really use it. If I thought I couldn't wash it, I'm afraid that it would just sit in a closet. And believe me, this is a blanket that should be loved!

Besides afghans that are available in two different sizes, Photoweavers also makes some other great photo gifts including totes, purses, and wall hangings! Click here to Like them on Facebook. And check out their website for some fantastic savings opportunities!

I have to say that I'm extremely happy with my photo blanket. It really is the perfect gift for grandparents, parents, and other loved ones! I also am going to keep Photoweavers in mind for future baby gifts!

Thanks to Photoweavers for providing a blanket for me to review.

Book Ideas for Non-Readers?

I wasn't exactly sure what to title this post, but I came across two entertaining books that I think would make great gifts this holiday season. I definitely consider myself a reader, and I enjoyed both of them. However, as I read both of these books, I realized that they would make great stocking stuffers for people who might not be quite as enthusiastic about books as I am. While the two books are very different -- one is humorous and the other is more literary, they are both relatively quick (and fun) reads.

Summary: A story collection that proves less is more.

The stories in this collection run the gamut from playful to tragic, conservative to experimental, but they all have one thing in common: they are no more than 25 words long. Robert Swartwood was inspired by Ernest Hemingway's possibly apocryphal six-word story—"For Sale: baby shoes, never worn"—to foster the writing of these incredibly short-short stories. He termed them "hint fiction" because the few chosen words suggest a larger, more complex chain of events. Spare and evocative, these stories prove that a brilliantly honed narrative can be as startling and powerful as a story of traditional length. The 125 gemlike stories in this collection come from such best-selling and award-winning authors as Joyce Carol Oates, Ha Jin, Peter Straub, and James Frey, as well as emerging writers. -- W.W. Norton

I first became interested in HINT FICTION: AN ANTHOLOGY OF STORIES IN 25 WORDS OR FEWER edited by Robert Swartwood when my friends at Aaron's Books were hosting an event with the author. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it and I was very bummed. It's not often that I have the opportunity to meet a local writer. So I did the next best thing... I read the book and I really enjoyed it!

For those of you not familiar with the concept of HINT FICTION, it is a collection of stories which are written in 25 words or less. Coming from someone who can't stop talking or typing, I'm in awe that authors can successfully convey story ideas in so few words. I was pleasantly surprised by this book and the depth of so many of the stories. Some actually made me reflect on the characters, some hit me like a punch to the gut, and others left me wanting more. I honestly didn't expect these few words to have such a powerful effect on me.

I was also extremely impressed with some of the authors who contributed to this anthology. I'm sure you will recognize some of them -- Joyce Carol Oates, James Frey, Peter Straub, and Marcus Sakey to name just a few. In addition, there are many lesser known-to-me writers, and I loved that many of them are local to me! In the back of the book, Mr. Swartwood included a brief bio of each author and I appreciated reading through all of them and discovering some of their works. I found it interesting that many of my favorite stories were written by authors that I didn't know.

I definitely recommend HINT FICTION to readers and non-readers alike. I think people who read a lot will appreciate the skills of the authors in this collection, and I think non-readers will enjoy reading a very quick story and feeling satisfied.

Summary: One of America's most original and biting comic satirists, Denis Leary turns his irreverent eye and scathing humor on everything you love and cherish-and now he does it with a hilarious, illustrated collection of Tweets! Like a quiver full of arrows, Suck On This Year's barbs will hit you where it hurts-and you'll love it. -- Viking

I'm not sure when I first became familiar with the comedian Denis Leary, but I do know that I find him to be extremely funny. So when I found out that he had a new book out called SUCK ON THIS: LYFAO @ 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS, I pretty much wanted to read it. Of course, it didn't hurt that the book consisted of many of Mr. Leary's witty and insightful comments that he made on Twitter -- you know how I do love tweeting!

I'm not sure this book is for absolutely everyone, but I liked it and found myself laughing a lot. I have to warn you that this is some language that some might find offensive. Believe me when I say that nothing (and no one is) off limits for Mr. Leary. He pokes fun at celebrities, heiresses, politicians, and even the Pope.

There were quite a few tweets that I thought were especially pertinent in today's world. I particularly appreciated his insight into many of the recent studies about human behavior as well as his scathing comments on politics. I won't go so far as to say that I found all of his tweets to be hilarious, but, for the most part, I did appreciate his wit and insight. Mr. Leary has a definitely talent for bringing to light the most absurb things.

This book would make a great stocking stuffer. It's a very quick read since each page has only 140 characters or less. Plus it's filled with lots of color photographs -- some of which are also very funny. I have a feeling that SUCK ON THIS YEAR is a book that my husband might even take the time to read!

Thanks to the publishers for sending me copies of these books.