Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest Blogger: Kristy Kiernan

I am so excited about this very special guest post from Kristy Kiernan, one of my favorite author "friends." She has a wonderful new book coming out next week called BETWEEN FRIENDS that I had the pleasure of reading a few days ago. I thought the book was fantastic, and you can read more about my thoughts here.

I just love her guest post since it deals with a side of authors and writing that I don't often think about -- reader feedback. I hope you'll enjoy reading Ms. Kiernan's take on the importance of feedback. And if you happen to read BETWEEN FRIENDS and love it (like I did), then please let her know!

Well, I feel like I'm seeing an old friend after too long apart! Hello, Booking Mama--er, Julie!

(Confidential aside to Booking Mama readers: I'm slightly less nervous about Julie reading BETWEEN FRIENDS than I was when she read MATTERS OF FAITH, a book that dealt heavily with a child with food allergies…but only slightly!)

One of the unforeseen benefits of being a writer of contemporary fiction has been learning about my readers.

With Catching Genius I heard from parents and grandparents of gifted children, violinists, and sisters, so many sisters! One memorable e-mail was from a woman in her fifties who was estranged from her sister. They lived five miles apart and hadn't spoken in over a decade. Their first contact would be the copy of Catching Genius she was preparing to mail. (No pressure!)

For Matters of Faith I heard, loud and clear, from parents of children with food allergies. I heard from mothers whose children were searching for faith, and even from a Florida fisherman who wanted to know exactly where Grandmother Tobias lived, but it was the food allergy families that touched me and made me realize how books can bring people together. My favorite was the woman who ordered fifteen at once to give out to the people involved in caring for her children, both of whom had severe food allergies. I also heard from a grandmother who told me that she was one of those people who believed that too much was being made of the allergies her granddaughter suffered from, but that Matters of Faith made her understand.

And now Between Friends is coming out.

A provocative new novel about birth, death, and the stuff in between, from the award-winning author of Catching Genius.

Thanks to modern reproductive technology-and the gift of her friend Cora's eggs-Ali Gutierrez is the mother of a fourteen-year-old daughter. Now, yearning for a second child, Ali asks Cora's permission to use another of the frozen embryos that have been stored away in anticipation of this decision. But Cora has a secret that could not only change Ali's plans for the future, but tear apart her life right now.

And, where once I was nervous about sales and industry reviews, these days I think more about the real people who are reading my books, the people who are living with the issues I write about every day.

Between Friends covers a lot of ground: in-vitro fertilization, teen sexuality, women's friendships, marriage, polycystic kidney disease, genetic testing, dialysis, organ donation.

And I admit that I am nervous about the e-mails I know I'll start to get after April 6th. I know they're not all going to praise the book. Some will likely even chastise me for the random swear word, or for writing a character they didn't like, or for not writing four hundred more pages. But some, oh, some will make me call my friends to read them out loud in wonder, some will make me laugh, and some, I know, some will make me cry.

I think I'm prepared for the e-mails and letters this time, but I know I'll still be affected by them, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I hope everyone enjoys Between Friends, and I hope that if you do, you consider letting me know.

Thanks, Julie, for letting me hang out with your readers today. It's always a pleasure.

A huge thanks to Kristy Kiernan for writing this guest post! I know she is extremely busy with her new book BETWEEN FRIENDS coming out next week.

Review: Between Friends

Summary: Thanks to modern reproductive technology-and the gift of her friend Cora's eggs-Ali Gutierrez is the mother of a fourteen-year-old daughter. Now, yearning for a second child, Ali asks Cora's permission to use another of the frozen embryos that have been stored away in anticipation of this decision. But Cora has a secret that could not only change Ali's plans for the future, but tear apart her life right now. -- Berkley

I have been a big fan of Kristy Kiernan's ever since I read her book about a child with life threatening food allergies called MATTERS OF FAITH (you can read my review here.) So you can imagine how excited I was to open a package a few weeks ago and find that it was her new novel BETWEEN FRIENDS. BETWEEN FRIENDS sounded like a book that I knew I'd adore because it deals with female relationships as well as a very controversial subject matter -- in this case, surrogate motherhood. I couldn't wait to dig in!

I should probably start out by saying that I read this book while sitting outside on the most beautiful day we've had so far this year. It was sunny and in the mid 70s with a slight breeze -- I even got a slight suntan. Better yet, the kids entertained themselves (for the most part), and I could just sit back and read. As wonderful as this day was, I don't think it influenced my opinion of this book one bit. I could have read it inside on a rainy day and felt the exact same way. BETWEEN FRIENDS was just a terrific read! It had all the elements that an entertaining women's fiction book needs to qualify as one that I'd recommend. The storyline was intriguing, the characters were well-developed and interesting, and best of all, there were lots of surprises towards the end of the story that kept me guessing!

The concept of surrogate motherhood has always been fascinating to me ever since I wrote a speech about it back in college. Putting all of the amazing medical technology aside (it really is incredible how far science has advanced in recent years), I have always wondered what it would be like to carry another couple's child. I've also wondered what it would be like for a woman who couldn't bear her own child to have another woman do that for her. So I thought when Ms. Kiernan decided to tackle surrogacy in this book that it was a perfect topic. Needless to say, I was very interested in the emotional implications that surrogate motherhood would have on the two women in BETWEEN FRIENDS. Ali and Cora weren't strangers when Cora carried Ali's baby, but rather they had been best friends for years. How would they manage being forever tied to "their" child Letty?

I actually was expecting for the two mothers issue to be the primary focus of this book, so I was a little surprised that there were additional ethical issues in BETWEEN FRIENDS. Without giving away too much and spoiling the book for the rest of you, there were other medical as well as moral issues that were explored between Ali, Cora and Letty. I absolutely loved how Ms. Kiernan tackled these issues and really caused me to think. And if a book can cause me to question my values and beliefs, that's really saying something!

One thing that I really liked about BETWEEN FRIENDS is how Ms. Kiernan chose to tell this story. I especially liked that she used alternating points of view from each of the main female characters. I liked that I was able to see inside of each of the women's minds and truly understand their feelings. Even when I disagreed with a character's actions, I was at least able to see the motivation behind them! Had the entire story been told by just Ali, Cora or Letty, I think I would have wanted something more.

I admit that there were numerous times throughout this book where I was pretty sure where the storyline was heading. In fact, I was almost worried that Ms. Kiernan was going to let me down with the ending of the book because it seemed so predictable. Boy, was I wrong! There were at least two times (but more like four) where I was caught off guard with the characters' actions and the turn of events. I enjoyed the story for a wide variety of reasons, like the plot and the character development; however, the twists and turns were an added benefit which really made this book memorable to me.

Trust me when I say that BETWEEN FRIENDS is a perfect book for book clubs! There is a reading guide in the back of the book which explores all those ethical and moral issues that I hinted at earlier. I haven't been able to find the guide on-line yet, but when I do, I will be sure to link to it here. In addition to the thirteen thought-provoking questions, you might also want to talk about what is the definition of family. Some other topics to explore include female friendships, honesty, loyalty, marriage, dating, teenage sex, mother/daughter relationships, and my absolute favorite -- the central theme of "control." So many good things to think and talk about!

If you are looking for a terrific read that will keep you thinking and will also deeply touch your heart, then I highly recommend BETWEEN FRIENDS. Make sure you also check out Ms. Kiernan's guest post!

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

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: Love in Mid Air

Summary: A chance encounter with a stranger on an airplane sends Elyse Bearden into an emotional tailspin. Suddenly Elyse is willing to risk everything: her safe but stale marriage, her seemingly perfect life in an affluent Southern suburb, and her position in the community. She finds herself cutting through all the instincts that say "no" and instead lets "yes" happen. As Elyse embarks on a risky affair, her longtime friend Kelly and the other women in their book club begin to question their own decisions about love, sex, marriage, and freedom. -- Grand Central Publishing

When I found out that Hachette was hosting a blog tour for LOVE IN MID AIR by Kim Wright, I was extremely interested. I read the book's description and thought it sounded like a great premise (albeit not entirely original); and I was curious to see if this author could bring anything new to the table. In case you're wondering, I think she did!

I have such mixed emotions about LOVE IN MID AIR. I read the book in a few hours and I admit that I was drawn into the story, but I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that I "enjoyed" it. I think a better way to describe my feelings would be to say that I "appreciated" the novel. I had a very hard time relating to Elyse even though she is a wife and mother and about the same age as I am. In fact, I'm going to put this right out there -- I didn't like Elyse one bit and I didn't feel any sympathy towards her at all (not even at the end of the story when I think I was supposed to!) You see...that's my issue with this book. I really had to work hard to let go of my feelings towards the main character especially as it related to her marriage and her child. Having said that, I couldn't put this book down and I think the classic troubled marriage story was very well done.

Now, I admit to being very naive and perhaps some would say that I live in a bubble; but I had no idea that women were like Elyse and her friends. I attend book club (like the women in the book) and other events with women, and I hear the common enough complaints about marriage, husbands and even children; however, I have never met anyone as miserable in her life as Elyse (well...maybe one friend.) I found myself almost hating her for her selfishness and self-pity, and I kept holding out hope that she would just do something to improve her life (although I'm not sure that a long-distance love affair was what I had in mind.)

Once I accepted that I didn't have to love Elyse to read this novel, I was much better off; and I actually started appreciating the author's writing style. Even though Elyse and her friends were kind of annoying, I liked how the author portrayed them. I'm not sure that I'd agree that they were all realistic, but I will say that I thought they all represented the stereotypes of women who are in their 30s and 40s (and stereotypes exist because they are somewhat true.) I loved that the book was written in Elyse's voice because it allowed me to see inside of Elyse's unstable mind. While I didn't agree with most of what Elyse said or did, I did Elyse's voice was very believable and often times very funny. Maybe this book really was an honest look at a woman who wants out of her marriage.

I did really, really like how Ms. Wright told this story. Her writing was very smart, and I thought her choice of words was wonderful. I definitely would be interested in reading more by this author in the future. I liked her use of symbolism, and I especially appreciated how she used the phrase "in mid air" throughout the novel -- it appeared quite a few times and in many different contexts. Not only did Elyse meet her lover while they were flying "in mid air," but I think Elyse was actually living her entire life "in mid air" even when she was on the ground. She was kind of just floating along without anything to ground her if you know what I mean...

I think I'm still processing LOVE IN MID AIR which really says a lot to me about the power of this novel. In fact, I wanted to discuss it with someone right away because I had so much to say about Elyse, her husband, her friends, and her lover. There is no doubt that this book will spark something in you -- good or bad! I am very curious to hear if I am the only one out there who didn't like Elyse (or even feel any compassion towards her.) Needless to say, I think LOVE IN MID AIR would provide a wonderful book club discussion! Truly, there is so much to talk about from the characters, to their actions, to their emotions, etc. I was happy to see that there is a reading guide available that touches on many of the same things that I wanted to discuss! Some of the topics for discussion include love, marriage, commitment, motherhood, friendship, adultery, divorce, and self-discovery.

I do want to warn some future readers that this book was very sexual in nature. I wasn't really surprised by the graphic descriptions of sex between Elyse and her lover or Elyse and her husband. But I was a little shocked by how often phone sex took place and how freely Elyse and her best friend talked about their escapades. Like I said earlier, I guess I am a little naive!

If you are interested in different opinions, make sure you check out the other blogs who are participating in this tour. There is also a very interesting Q&A with the author which will give you even more insight into the inspiration for this novel. Thanks to Hachette for sending me a review copy of this book.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: The Year of Goodbyes

Summary: This book tells the true story of what happened to a 12-year-old girl named Jutta (Debbie Levy’s mother) in 1938. Actual entries in a posiealbum (autograph book) serve as stepping stones in a crucial year in history, when people of Jewish ancestry in Germany and Austria were systematically stripped of their rights, subjected to violence, and arrested without cause. Jutta was one of the lucky ones who escaped to America before the rising tide of violence erupted into World War II and the tragedy of the Holocaust. Remembrances from Jutta’s friends and relatives introduce chapters, written in verse form, that describe her experiences — many of them typical of any teenager anywhere — and report some of the history of the era. Debbie wrote these verses in consultation with her mother to reflect her voice, feelings, and thoughts as she was living through this memorable year. The book also includes excerpts from Jutta’s diary. Together the poesie writings, verses and diary entries reflect a year of change and chance, confusion and cruelty. Most of all, they describe a year of goodbyes. -- Disney/Hyperion

I think one of the best parts of having a book blog is that authors occasionally send me emails asking me to read their books. About a month ago, Debbie Levy told me about her new middle grade, non-fiction book called THE YEAR OF GOODBYES: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, FAMILY AND FAREWELLS. When I read the book's description, I instantly knew that I wanted to read this book. I have always been interested in books about the tragedy of the Holocaust, and this particular book sounded as if it approached the story in a very unique way.

THE YEAR OF GOODBYES is the true story of the author's mother Jutta, who was a twelve-year old girl living in Germany in 1938 just years before the Holocaust took place. This book includes actual snippets from Jutta's poesiealbum (basically an autograph book with verses, inscription, and drawings) as the chapter headings, and then the story continues in Jutta's own words. Ms. Levy wrote the book while working closely with her mother who lives nearby.

I can't even begin to tell you how powerful this book is and how much it affected me. Jutta is a normal young girl who attends school and has wonderful friends -- and she just happens to be Jewish. Her life seems pretty ideal until Hitler rises to power and the persecution of Jews begins. While no one really has any idea at this point that Hitler would attempt to eliminate all Jews, Jutta's father senses that his family will face danger and he does everything in his power to escape Germany. THE YEAR OF GOODBYES tells the story of Jutta's last year in Germany. It is a touching story about a young girl who has to come to terms with what is happening in her country, and at the same time she has to say goodbye to all of her friends and make a new start.

Of course, you can't help but be touched by any book surrounding the Holocaust; but I think THE YEAR OF GOODBYES affected me more than most because Jutta was such a normal young girl (in some ways she even reminded me of my daughter.) As I read the quotes from her poesiealbum, my heart just broke as these young girls tried to make sense of what was happening in Germany, as well as the persecution that their families were facing. Just imagine the fear and uncertainty that these children were living with day in and day out.

As I read this book, I found myself crying again over this tragedy. So many lives were destroyed for no reason -- I still can't believe it ever happened. Jutta
was fortunate in that her father was determined to have his family escape Germany. Her family missed out on most of the horrors that occurred, but many of her friends weren't so lucky. I was holding my breath as I read what happened to each of Jutta's classmates.

I thought Ms. Levy did a marvelous job of presenting with this book, and I'm so glad that she geared it towards middle graders. I loved how she used the poesiealbum as a starting point for Jutta's story, and the free form verse in Jutta's words was absolutely beautiful. I also liked how this book had actual photographs of Jutta and her family, as well as a timeline outlining Jutta's life and what was occuring in Nazi Germany. The author also included a very helpful Afterword which explained how she went about writing this book as well as what happened to Jutta, her family and her friends after the book ended. I realize that the story is true, but all of these "things" contributed to the book being even more real to me!

THE YEAR OF GOODBYES would make a wonderful mother-daughter book club selection. Our group read a book about Anne Frank's life a few years ago, and I thought it was a great way to introduce a discussion of the Holocaust. However, THE YEAR OF GOODBYES would be an even better book for young girls to read and discuss. The story takes place before many of the true horrors of Nazi Germany, and I think girls will relate to Jutta and her family and friends. There is a wonderful discussion guide available which includes discussion questions, enhanced writing activities, and an interesting author interview. THE YEAR OF GOODBYES would also be an excellent choice for teachers to use in the classrooms.

I really can't recommend THE YEAR OF GOODBYES enough. I read it in one sitting and I was absolutely hooked on the story. I can't wait to pass this one along to my daughter so we can read and talk about it together. I have a feeling that this is one book that we will read over and over again.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of her book.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Author Interview: Jennifer Iserloh

Earlier today, I reviewed a great new cookbook called SECRETS OF A SKINNY CHEF by Jennifer Iserloh. If you read my review, you can tell how much I liked the idea of healthy recipes that are also delicious!

I am so glad that Ms. Iserloh, the mastermind behind SKINNY CHEF agreed to answer a few of my questions about her new cookbook as well as healthy eating! I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did!

Booking Mama: I absolutely love the idea of your cookbook SECRETS OF A SKINNY CHEF -- that you can "focus on celebrating food and enjoying your favorite meals without feeling guilty or facing negative consequences." All of the recipes seem decadent without being unhealthy and full of fat. Why did you decide to write this cookbook and who do you consider the target audience to be?

Jennifer Iserloh: Writing my own cookbook has been my dream even before I applied to culinary school, and this book draws from all my personal experiences: from working under professional restaurant chefs, working as private chef and food styling, and what I learned from my Granny - a seasoned home cook.

Booking Mama: When did you get interested in cooking? What kind of training did you do to become a chef?

Jennifer Iserloh: I started cooking at the age of eight in my Granny’s kitchen where I spent most of my time. She really taught me serious cooking techniques, everything from make pie crusts to tempering eggs and sour cream, how to saute and even how to season meat with salt. When I changed careers at the age of 30 and went to culinary school, I was already familiar with many of the foods and techniques. I worked three months solid in a restaurant as part of an externship program where I really honed my knife skills. After I completed it, I found a part time private chef position but continued to work for a solid three years in New York City restaurant for free - just so I could learn more. I saw some really incredible things and had the chance to work in outstanding kitchens on the line creating food that went straight to diners.

Booking Mama: How did you go about selecting what recipes would appear in your cookbook? Did you find that you left any out that you wish had included?

Jennifer Iserloh: I wanted to give people a wide selection of American classics to choose from for my first book! I would love to write an entertaining book, a kids’ cookbook, there are so many recipes I’d like to share.

Booking Mama: You already do so much -- you are a chef and a yoga instructor; plus you also write for magazines and you appear on the radio and television (including the Today show.) How do you do find the time and energy to do it all?

Jennifer Iserloh: Energy comes from doing what you love and eating right!! I feel so lucky to have my “dream job” and that keeps me going even when it’s tough to get a day off and the weeks trickle by. My husband is also a huge help and support since we don’t have a staff - we are really a “mom and pop” shop. I have my house set-up to save time - our living room is sparsely decorated so that I can have space to do yoga in my living room when I don’t want to take time to commute to a studio. And I’m really lucky that we were able to fit a washer and dryer in my small kitchen so that I can do laundry while I’m testing recipes, a huge time saver and I love the smell of fresh laundry!

Booking Mama: All of the recipes look wonderful (and easy!) But do you have a few favorite or "go-to" recipes that you find yourself making more often?

Jennifer Iserloh: Thank you!! I go through phases- I was really into the carbonara and enchiladas over the past month but now that the weather is getting warmer I’ve been making the poolside soup.

Booking Mama: I've never interviewed an author of a cookbook before! What is the process for writing a cookbook? How long did it take for you to put the entire book together?

Jennifer Iserloh: I’m surprised, your questions are so great! Every recipe developer/ author has a different system but I write the recipes in my head first and then write them all. I’ll test from my written versions and tweak according to taste, texture, appearance and how the nutritional stats come out.

Booking Mama: One of the things that I enjoyed the most about the cookbook was the section at the beginning of the book where you explained your history with food. Why did you decide to include so much of your personal experiences with weight gain/loss?

Jennifer Iserloh: I really believe that eating well can directly impact the quality of your life. In my case, I experienced self transformation by cooking fresh food for myself, sharing it with others and doing yoga. I want to give people tools so that they can do it for themselves and now they have recipes and tips to get them started! So whether they have weight issues or happen to be slender but have poor eating habits, that they can be their OWN skinny chefs by making home cooked, nutritious foods in their own kitchens.

Booking Mama: I also loved all the nutritional advice that you gave through the book (especially the Skinny Secrets.) Were the nutritional sections harder to write than the rest of the cookbook? What was the most challenging thing about writing SKINNY CHEF?

Jennifer Iserloh: I’m not a nutritionist but I’ve worked for years with healthy eating publications as well as registered dietitians, so the nutrition part comes naturally. My other goal with the book was to include foods that have a super charged nutritional profile, so that people are not only eating delicious meals but including things in their diet that the body needs. Look out for the super skinny foods like spinach, broccoli, ground turkey, and ground flax.

Booking Mama: For those who people who want to lose weight but are overwhelmed by the amount of time and effort, what is the first step they can take to get started? What additional advice do you have for them?

Jennifer Iserloh: “Be cool with water!” It’s one of my skinny principles to better eating. Replace all your drinks with plain water for two weeks and see what happens. A lot of people don’t realize how many calories, sugar, preservatives, and fat may be in the drinks they are enjoying every day – things like soda, gourmet coffee drinks, sweetened juice shakes and flavored waters. I look a peak the other day at the nutritional info for a large coffee drink with whipped cream, and it was a whopping 500 calories. That’s a small meal’s worth of calories for me!

A huge thanks to Ms. Iserloh for taking time from her very busy schedule to answer my questions!

Review: Secrets of a Skinny Chef

Summary: Nachos. Fried chicken. Mac and Cheese. Brownies. Everyone gets a craving for their favorite comfort foods but no one thinks that they could actually be good for you. This spring, you can cave into your cravings as Skinny Chef Jennifer Iserloh shares her tips on how to make beloved dishes healthier in her debut cookbook, Secrets of a Skinny Chef. With 100 guilt-free recipes that will satisfy both body and soul, Jennifer teaches you how to make the food you love to eat without the hard struggle of dieting and deprivation. It sounds like it is too good to be true, but with Skinny Chef by your side, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is. By cooking Jennifer’s simple, healthy recipes at home, and making small, manageable changes in your lifestyle (and portions!), you will see results not just in the short term, but for life.

Jennifer believes that the essence of good health springs from your own kitchen. According to Jennifer, “Maintaining a healthy weight, or getting to that healthy weight, is not about dieting. It’s about celebrating food, about eating the foods that you already love but cooking them for yourself so you can make them healthier.” As a professionally-trained chef, Jennifer knows all the chef's tricks to turning up the flavor, but her career-changing moment came as a private chef working for families who wanted their meals to not just taste great, but be nutritious, too.

In her chapter on breakfast foods, Jennifer shows readers how to start the day off right by packing in whole grains, proteins, and vegetables. Who wouldn’t want a morning filled with Maple Apple Waffles, a Southwestern Frittata with Spicy Corn Salsa, Zucchini Pancakes with Walnuts and Spice, or a Chocolate Breakfast Shake? To boost the nutritional value of her pancakes Jennifer employs one of her favorite “Skinny Secrets” – adding grated vegetables to most main dishes. Did you also know that just a dash of flaxseed to your morning smoothie adds the benefits of healthful omega-3 fatty acids, soluble fiber, and protein?

Throughout the main courses and side dishes chapters, Jennifer's arsenal of "Skinny Secrets" transform more family favorites into healthy and delectable creations.

The calories are trimmed but the rich carbonara flavor is kept in her recipe, Cut the Fat, Keep the Creamy Pasta Carbonara by using turkey bacon, fat-free yogurt, and a bit of half-and-half.

Fried chicken is made wholesome in Baked "Deep Fried" Chicken with Crunchy Double Whole Grain Breading by using brown rice cereal, whole wheat bread crumbs, and Parmesan cheese.

In her recipes for Warmed Creamed Spinach Minus the Heavy Cream, "Mayonnaise Is Not Your Enemy" Coleslaw, and Broccoli Bacon Salad, Jennifer keeps the creaminess without the added calories of heavy cream and mayonnaise by using one of her preferred substitutes – non-fat Greek-yogurt.

And let’s not forget about desserts. Jennifer’s simple food swaps and nutritious additions make over classic calorie-laden treats so you can indulge your sweet tooth without regret. From Italian Cheesecake to Hot Fudge Sundae with Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt, healthy desserts have never tasted this good before. The traditionally heavy carrot cake is redefined with Carrot Cake with Applesauce and Carrot Juice by replacing the large quantity of the oil called for in the traditional recipe with applesauce. In addition to the "applesauce trick," Jennifer recommends using canned fruit or fresh bananas as an oil substitution in other baked goods.

With Jennifer and her delicious, easy-to-prepare creations, the old adage of “never trust a skinny chef” becomes obsolete. Secrets of a Skinny Chef lets you eat your cake and enjoy it without guilt, too! - Rodale

As most of you guys already know, I absolutely love cookbooks! And I especially love ones that have easy, yet healthy recipes. I just discovered a new one that I really liked -- SECRETS OF A SKINNY CHEF: 100 DECADENT GUILT-FREE RECIPES by Jennifer Iserloh. This cookbook has a little bit of everything -- good recipes, nutritional advice, and other healthy hints (including how to use leftovers.) It really is a wonderful cookbook as well as a resource for healthy living.

I thought there was a wide variety of recipes, and many of them weren't traditional low-fat or healthy food. The recipes were divided into the traditional sections: Breakfast; Soups, Appetizers, and Snacks; Main Courses; Side Dishes; and Desserts. I found recipes from each section that I want to try! My only small complaint is that there weren't pictures of every dish, and I do love my pictures of the finished products!

The first recipe I tried was for Just Like Takeout Sweet-and-Sour Chicken. For some dumb reason, I thought it was a recipe that our entire family could eat (including my son who has food allergies.) However, when I actually started making the dish, I saw that it included eggs. Needless to say, I was a little frustrated with myself because I wanted only make one meal for us, and I ended up have to make another one for my son. You'd think I'd be used to it by now.

I have to say that the recipe was very easy to follow, but it did have quite a few ingredients. Nothing was difficult, but the recipe did take quite awhile to prepare because I had to make a sauce (6 ingredients), fake-fry the chicken (7 ingredients), and prepare the actual stir-fry (6 ingredients.) It was a time-consuming dinner because there was so much chopping. I've found that it does take longer to cook when there are so many fresh ingredients, but I guess it's a good trade-off.

As you can see below, the dish was absolutely gorgeous!

Everything was so fresh and I thought tasty, although I admit that the dish wasn't that sweet as I was expecting. There was a definite citrus flavor, but I thought it was more lemony than anything. I actually like lemon a lot so I enjoyed it, but my husband and daughter weren't huge fans. As I was preparing the dish, I thought to myself that the bamboo shoots weren't going to be a hit; and I was totally right. I should have left them out because they couldn't get past the smell of them!

Then, I decided to make the Frozen Coconut Yogurt. Since I'm the only one in the family who eats coconut, I only made half a batch. The recipe was super easy and only took me about 5 minutes to prepare. I thought it was yummy, and I loved that it used non-fat, plain Greek Yogurt because it has a higher protein content than regular yogurt!

Frozen Coconut Yogurt

Serves 8

1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
4 cups (32 ounces) plain, fat-free Greek yogurt
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 tablespoon coconut extract
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cover a small cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Spread the coconut on the sheet and bake 2 to 3 minutes, stirring once, until the coconut has lightly browned. Place the coconut in a large bowl with the yogurt, sugar, flaxseed, coconut extract, and vanilla. Whisk until smooth and transfer into a freezer-safe container. Freeze 1 hour or more until firm.

I also decided to make the Banana Bread since I had a ton of borderline bananas. The recipe called for whole wheat flour (and only whole wheat flour), and that was part of the appeal; but I also admit that I was a bit skeptical. The topping was another big draw -- nuts, cinnamon and brown sugar sprinkled over the top of the banana bread. (I had to replace the walnuts with pecans because I didn't have any on hand.) The banana bread turned out to be beautiful and it smelled delicious -- I could hardly wait to dig in! It was a little denser than traditional banana bread (but not much), and it was very moist. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it!

I highly recommend SECRETS OF A SKINNY CHEF if you are like me and want cookbooks with easy, healthy recipes plus sound nutritional advice. It has loads of great recipes and I can't wait to try some more.

Thanks to YC Media for sending me a copy of this cookbook!

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, March 27, 2010

Kid Konnection: Spring 2010 Duopress Releases & Giveaway

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a (hopefully) regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. Today, I are going to share with you two new releases from Duopress Books.

Summary: Curious children will count to10 using some of Philadelphia's most cherished symbols and landmarks—the Liberty Bell, the Philadelphia Zoo, City Hall, pretzels, cheese steaks, Reading Terminal Market, and the LOVE sculpture—in this board book featuring amusing illustrations, dazzling colors, and bold, clear design.

The final page includes a complete location list in both English and in Spanish to help parents locate the symbols and landmarks and plan an entertaining trip to Philadelphia. A fantastic guide to practicing essential number skills, kids will enjoy reading it again and again. -- Duopress

A few months ago, I was asking my friend at Duopress Books when they would publish a book for Pennsylvania like 1 2 3 TEXAS (my review.) I was so excited when he told me that 1 2 3 PHILADELPHIA: A COOL COUNTING BOOK by Puck and illustrated by Kevin Somers was in the works. While my son enjoyed 1 2 3 TEXAS, I knew he'd really like one with pictures that he'd recognize.

I received a copy of 1 2 3 PHILADELPHIA and I have to say that it is just precious. Not only does it teach children their numbers from 1 to 10, but it also has adorable Philly images on each pages. For example, there is one Liberty Bell, seven cheese steaks and eight soft pretzels. The book is actually a 6-inch x 6-inch board book, so it's sturdy and perfect for little ones!

This book is really for toddlers (probably up to age 3), but it is still fun for older kids to skim through and identify the Philly images. I think my little guy would love looking at the images in this book and then "finding" them during our next visit to Philadelphia. I especially appreciated the last two pages of the book where there few more details about each of the images. I like that the explanations are in both English and Spanish too!

Make sure you check out the entire collection: 1 2 3 CALIFORNIA, 1 2 3 NEW YORK, 1 2 3 CHICAGO, 1 2 3 SAN FRANCISCO, 1 2 3 TEXAS, and 1 2 3 USA. There's bound to be one that's perfect for the little ones in your life!

Summary: New York City has never been more whimsical than in this visual narrative that uses wire-art sculptures to explore the Big Apple. Everything starts with a paper clip that unfolds to create some of New York's most famous symbols, including the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building. A lively text accompanies the striking visuals, and six pages of information chronicle everything needed to know about the included attractions and landmarks. -- Duopress

Another new Spring 2010 release is WOW! NEW YORK CITY by Puck and art by Rey David Rojas. I so wish I had this book last year before my family visited New York City because I know my son would have loved it!

Not only does this book show many of the recognizable spots in NYC like the skyline, the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty, but it uses paperclip art to outline the images. It will especially appeal to little boys because it features a taxi cab, a fire truck, the ferry, and the subway. While there wasn't much text on each page, I thought the artwork was very interesting and the pages were colorful.

Since the book is geared for kids a little younger than mine, I loved that the last few pages of the book had more detailed information on each of the New York attractions that were mentioned in the book. Each description gave a little bit of the history of the landmark, but it also provided some very interesting trivia facts! I think because of these details, this book will actually appeal to some older children as well. I definitely learned a thing or two from this book!

Check out this very cool video which gives you a preview of WOW! NEW YORK CITY:

Giveaway alert: Thanks to the fine folks at Duopress Books, I have a copy of 123 PHILADELPHIA and a copy of WOW! NEW YORK CITY to share with two lucky readers. All you have to do to enter is become a fan of Duopress Books on Facebook. Once you have done that, come back here and make sure you tell me that you completed this step in a comment. Also, let me know which book you prefer to win (can be either one!), and don't forget to leave a way to contact you in case you are randomly selected to win a copy of 123 PHILADELPHIA or WOW! NEW YORK CITY. This contest is open to those of you in the United States and Canada and will run until Friday, April 9th at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will notify the winners the following day. Good luck!

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, March 26, 2010

Author Interview: Jenny Gardiner

I am so excited to welcome Jenny Gardiner, author of WINGING IT: A MEMOIR OF CARING FOR A VENGEFUL PARROT WHO'S DETERMINED TO KILL ME. I read WINGING IT a few days ago and I was pleasantly surprised by this touching and heartfelt memoir (my review.)

Jenny is a fellow Penn Stater as is her husband, and they lived in the Northern VA area after graduation (just like me and my husband!), but I swear that has nothing to do with my adoration for her! She is an incredibly funny woman as well as a terrific writer, and I hope you'll enjoy getting to know her a little better.

Booking Mama: I absolutely think the title of your book is perfect -- WINGING IT. How did you come up with the name? Was there ever any question as to what the title would be?

Jenny Gardiner: Thanks! My original idea was Bite Me ;-) , but that wasn't such a viable book if we wanted it to be something even kids could read. And then, long story made very, very short, we had another fabulous title as well, but a really unpleasant person who had too much time on her hands decided that she owned a word in the title even though a) you can't own a word, b) book titles are protected by the first amendment, and c) we were entirely within the right to use it, but this person was a really aggressive, vociferous type who would have just hounded me to the gates of hell and frankly I had no time/desire in my life to deal with negative people like that, so I agreed when my house just decided the path of least resistance was to change it. Hated on the one hand that this person's egregious ugliness sort of prevailed simply because we didn't want to be bothered with her haranguing, but I figure she's got to live with herself and so be it.

As it was, this title is fabulous, so all good!

Booking Mama: I was expecting WINGING IT to be a funny book about your parrot Graycie, and it was. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much deeper this book ended up being. Ultimately, I thought WINGING IT was really a story about the strength and love of your family. Was it difficult to write about your family's personal experiences? Did any of your family members have any issues with you writing about them?

Jenny Gardiner: I'm glad you liked that about it! It was tricky. I have a column of humorous non-fiction essays in our paper, so I've certainly written about our lives before, but I've always been really mindful about not stepping on toes at all. I guess originally I envisioned this as purely Graycie's story, but as I wrote it I realized that we were all inextricably tied to the story, and it sort of unfolded into much more than I'd anticipated. I try to be very respectful of my family--I don't want to invade their privacy or embarrass them or anything, so it is a really delicate balance, and I hope I came out on the right side of it.

Booking Mama: When you decided to write about Graycie, did you always know that you would end up writing a book about your entire family?

Jenny Gardiner: nope! see above!

Booking Mama: Your last book SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER was a treat to read too, but it was entirely different than WINGING IT. Is it more difficult to write a memoir than a novel? What are some of the challenges in writing a memoir?
Jenny Gardiner: The great thing about fiction is you can just make it all up. It's very freeing to write a novel. I came up as a writer trained in journalism, though, so I'm very used to writing factually, so it wasn't as if I had to learn the discipline. It was tricky though that the spotlight became on us. Also I was so very mindful of timelines and trying to be sure I had accurately re-pieced together what occurred when. The bad news is I save a lot of needless junk. The good news is I was able to rely upon some of that not-so-needless junk to help me document our lives over the past 20 years, so that was a bonus. But outlining all of that took a good bit of time and I hadn't thought it would be such a project.

Booking Mama: I think you are an extremely funny woman. Were you always so funny even as a kid? Or is your humor something you developed through the years because of what life threw at you? Jenny Gardiner: Thanks so much for saying that! I seriously have forgotten so much about my childhood, maybe that was by choice LOL. But I don't remember being particularly funny. However in the past year or so a lot of old high school friends have shown up on Facebook and a number of people have referred to my wit, so maybe I was more entertaining than I realized!

Booking Mama: You were one of the members of the 2008 class of Debs at The Debutante Ball, one of my favorite sites! How did that experience change your life and help you as a writer?

Jenny Gardiner: I was so fortunate that Kristy Kiernan and the whole original Founders group of the Deb Ball chose me to be in it that following year. It was an all-around WONDERFUL experience. That debut year for an author is fraught with anxiety, anticipation, a great deal of unknown, many, many ups and a good handful of downs (plus a few dope-slaps of reality tossed in for good measure). And we had this added bonus of being able to share it with others in the same boat, use each other as sound boards, and also piggybacking readerships a little bit. We consider the Debutante Ball a sort of literary sorority and we all help each other out frequently and provide support as we progress in the business.

Booking Mama: Now that you've published a humorous novel as well as a touching memoir, what's next for you? Are you currently working on anything?

Jenny Gardiner: Ha! Am I working on anything? I've always got several pots I'm stirring on the stove. I have a funny novel my agent's been shopping, I really hope it finds a home soon as I adore this book. In addition, I've got to whip together a proposal for my agent to submit to S&S for my option book. And my agent has an editor patiently awaiting a novel I've been playing around with, it's a bit of a departure subject-wise, but I can assure you it will be funny. So fingers crossed I can sell something soon--the industry has been in a bit of a tailspin, and women's fiction has been particularly hard-hit--so it's become a bit more of a challenge to keeping selling to pub houses these days. I will keep you posted! Thanks so much for your support!

I'd like to thank Jenny Gardiner for taking time from her very busy life to answer a few of my questions! If you'd like to get to know Jenny better, you can check out her website and follow her on twitter (@jennygardiner).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

She Knows Book Club Discussion - Tonight!

This evening, March 25th, we will be discussing Irene Zutell's novel PIECES OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER. I thoroughly enjoyed this book -- you can read my review here. Since I am one of the SheKnows Book Club Bloggers, I'll be there sharing some of my thoughts about this terrific novel. If you'd like to discuss the book (or even just learn more about it), feel free to stop by the message boards tonight from 6 PM to 10 PM ET.

If you missed out on reading PIECES OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER, you still have plenty of time to get the next book club (although I still think you should read PIECES OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER sometime because it's so good.) The SheKnows Book Club has recently announced the April/May pick, and it looks like a good one. Over the next two months, we will be reading HOUSE RULES by Jodi Picoult.

Summary: They tell me I'm lucky to have a son who's so verbal, who is blisteringly intelligent, who can take apart the broken microwave and have it working again an hour later. They think there is no greater hell than having a son who is locked in his own world, unaware that there's a wider one to explore. But try having a son who is locked in his own world, and still wants to make a connection. A son who tries to be like everyone else, but truly doesn't know how.

Jacob Hunt is a teenage boy with Asperger's syndrome. He's hopeless at reading social cues or expressing himself well to others, and like many kids with AS, Jacob has a special focus on one subject -- in his case, forensic analysis. He's always showing up at crime scenes, thanks to the police scanner he keeps in his room, and telling the cops what they need to do...and he's usually right. But then his town is rocked by a terrible murder and, for a change, the police come to Jacob with questions. All of the hallmark behaviors of Asperger's -- not looking someone in the eye, stimulatory tics and twitches, flat affect -- can look a lot like guilt to law enforcement personnel. Suddenly, Jacob and his family, who only want to fit in, feel the spotlight shining directly on them. For his mother, Emma, it's a brutal reminder of the intolerance and misunderstanding that always threaten her family. For his brother, Theo, it's another indication of why nothing is normal because of Jacob. And over this small family the soul-searing question looms: Did Jacob commit murder?

Emotionally powerful from beginning to end, House Rules looks at what it means to be different in our society, how autism affects a family, and how our legal system works well for people who communicate a certain way -- and fails those who don't. -- Atria

Review: Winging It

Summary: A hilarious and poignant cautionary tale about two very different types of creatures, thrown together by fate, who learn to make the best of a challenging situation -- feather by feather.

Like many new bird owners, Jenny and Scott Gardiner hoped for a smart, talkative, friendly companion. Instead, as they took on the unexpected task of raising a curmudgeonly wild African gray parrot and a newborn, they learned an important lesson: parrothood is way harder than parenthood.

A gift from Scott's brother who was living in Zaire, Graycie arrived scrawny, pissed-off, and missing a lot of her feathers -- definitely not the Polly-wants-a-cracker type the Gardiners anticipated. Every day became a constant game of chicken with a bird that would do anything to ruffle their feathers. The old adage about not biting the hand that feeds you -- literally -- never applied to Graycie.

But Jenny and Scott learned to adapt as the family grew to three children, a menagerie of dogs and cats, and, of course, Graycie. In this laugh-out-loud funny and touching memoir, Jenny vividly shares the many hazards of parrot ownership, from the endless avian latrine duty and the joyful day the bird learned to mimic the sound of the smoke detector, to the multiple ways a beak can pierce human flesh. Graycie is a court jester, a karaoke partner, an unusual audio record of their family history, and, at times, a nemesis. But most of all, she has taught the family volumes about tolerance, going with the flow, and realizing that you can no sooner make your child fit into a mold than you can turn a wild parrot into a docile house pet. Winging It is an utterly engrossing reminder of the importance of patience, loyalty, and humor when it comes to dealing with even the most unpleasant members of the family. -- Gallery Books

I have to disclose that I am a really big fan of Jenny Gardiner. I've been following her since she was a contributor to the Debutante Ball, and I love reading her hilarious (and need I say insightful?) tweets. I thought her first novel SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER (my review) was a terrific, and I've been anxiously awaiting her next book for what seems like a long time. So I am happy to say that WINGING IT: A MEMOIR OF CARING FOR A VENGEFUL PARROT WHO'S DETERMINED TO KILL ME is now available, and it was well worth the wait!

For those of you who don't know Jenny Gardiner, she is a very funny woman. Her wit is sharp and quick, and I just knew a memoir about her spunky parrot would be full of laughs. And I have to say that WINGING IT was full of many cute (and some not-so-cute) stories about a wild animal. I did find myself laughing a lot at Graycie the parrot, although I think often times I was laughing more at Jenny and her reactions than the parrot.

I admit when I started this book I thought to myself how is the author going to be able to pull off a 250 page book about the antics of a parrot. Not that Graycie doesn't provide fabulous material for her owner, but I wasn't sure I wanted to read that much about a bird (I'm not a huge bird lover and I think I would be terrified to ever meet Graycie.) Although I admit that every once in awhile, I would just giggle over something Graycie would say or do; and I'd think to myself that she wasn't that bad. As a mom, I could kind of relate to Jenny and her relationship with Graycie. Sometimes, you just want to kill your kids (well, not really kill but you get my drift) and then they say or do the sweetest thing and all is forgotten!

As I read about Graycie and her behavior, I was absolutely amazed that the Gardiner family stuck with her. And it wasn't just Graycie, but the Gardiner family did have some interesting luck when it came to their other animals whether it be bad behavior or unique illnesses. I honestly can't say that my family would have been as dedicated and devoted to our pets, especially a bird who enjoyed taking bites out of people's bodies. And that's one of the things that I loved about this story -- seeing how loyal and committed the entire Gardiner family was to each other and their pets. Talk about a heartwarming story!

I was pleasantly surprised by WINGING IT, not because I didn't think it would be a cute story about a misbehaving parrot, but because it was so much more than that. I knew it would be funny and I was expecting it to be touching, but I was truly impressed with how insightful this book was about family life. Whether you understand the Gardiner family's devotion to Graycie or not, you have to respect that Graycie is an integral part of their family and they are as loyal to her as they would be anyone else.

I also found this book to be somewhat motivational, and I certainly wasn't expecting that when I picked it up. Jenny Gardiner is a successful mother, wife, and writer who totally seems to have it together; and I found that so admirable. Despite what "bad" things happen to her (from finding her house covered in bird poop, to losing a pet, to having a child with a serious illness), she deals with everything with a sense of humor. I am so incredibly envious of her and her ability to keep her entire life in perspective.

Check out the book trailer where Jenny Gardiner dishes on Graycie:

I highly recommend WINGING IT to pet lovers as well as anyone who appreciates a good story about family dynamics. It is a very funny, yet very touching book, about the love and perseverance of a close-knit family. Make sure you come back tomorrow because Jenny will be stopping by to answer a few of my questions!

Thanks to the author and publisher for sending me a copy of WINGING IT!

Since Jenny is a Penn Stater (and so am I), this review counts as part of my Back-to-School Feature. Make sure you check out all of posts I have written about fellow Penn State writers, and feel free to add your links about any posts related to your favorite school. In fact, if you feature a book related to any school that you attended, root for or even live near, it can count -- it's all about school spirit.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Doors Open

Summary: Three friends descend upon an art auction in search of some excitement. Mike Mackenzie-retired software mogul, bachelor and fine art enthusiast-wants something that money can't buy. Fellow art-lover Allan Cruickshank is bored with his banking career and burdened by a painful divorce. And Robert Gissing, an art professor, is frustrated that so many paintings stay hidden in corporate boardrooms, safes and private apartments. After the auction-and a chance encounter with crime boss Chib Calloway-Robert and Allan suggest the "liberation" of several paintings from the National Gallery, hoping Mike will dissuade them. Instead, he hopes they are serious.

As enterprising girlfriends, clever detectives, seductive auctioneers and a Hell's Angel named Hate enter the picture, Ian Rankin creates a highly-charged thriller, a faced-past story of second guesses and double crosses that keep changing the picture, right until the harrowing finish. -- Reagan Arthur

For many years, I have heard wonderful things about the award-winning author Ian Rankin. While I haven't read a lot of the mystery/suspense genre lately, I was pretty sure that his books would appeal to me. So when I discovered that Mr. Rankin's latest novel DOORS OPEN was published by the Reagan Arthur imprint and would count for the Reagan Arthur Book Challenge, I was pretty darn excited.

I will admit that I did read some less than stellar reviews before starting this novel, but I decided that I wouldn't let them sway my opinion. Most of the complaints were from huge fans of Mr. Rankin's Inspector Rebus series, and they just didn't feel that this standalone novel was up to par with his other efforts. Since I was a newbie to Mr. Rankin's writing, I didn't know what to expect; and I found that I did enjoy DOORS OPEN. Would I go so far as to say that I loved it though? Probably not, but I did like.

Overall, I found the story to be suspenseful, and I appreciated the few twists and turns; however, I actually thought the book read kind of like a movie. And I rarely say this, but I actually think DOORS OPEN just might make a better movie than a book. (I'm not sure that all of you will get what I mean by that.)

I think my reasons for saying that DOORS OPEN would make a good movie are maybe the same reasons why I didn't love this book. There were just a few things missing from this novel that made it less than stellar in my opinion. The main characters were kind of flat and I didn't think the author developed that well. In fact, they were almost caricatures of a crime team. Maybe they weren't fully developed because there was a group of men committing the crime rather than one individual, but I never felt as if I got to really know any of the characters. And truth be told, I didn't really care about any of them.

I also had some issues with the basic plot -- the entire crime didn't seem very feasible to me. I wanted to understand why these men were willing to risk everything to steal a few paintings. I never really got it, especially when it came to the character of Mike, a relatively young guy who was filthy rich. He was supposed to be bored with his life, but I still had issues with him being so bored that he'd help mastermind a huge crime!

Now please keep in mind that the issues I had with DOORS OPEN were because I expect more plot and character development from a book. Had this been a movie, I would have been fine with the one-dimensional, stereotypical characters; and I never would have given a minute's thought to the feasibility of the crime. I guess that's what I mean by DOORS OPEN read like a movie to me!

What I found myself really enjoying about this novel was Mr. Rankin's writing style. I can see why he has won so many awards for his books because he can certainly tell a story. I thought the dialogue was realistic and the storyline was unique. And I especially loved how he described everything -- from the art galleries, to the paintings, to the characters' actions, to the setting of the novel in Edinburgh, Scotland. I had absolutely no desire to stop reading this novel, and I was curious about how everything would play out. I am definitely interested in reading more of Mr. Rankin's novels, and I desperately want to read some of the Inspector Rebus series.

While I wasn't blown away by DOORS OPEN, I still found it entertaining and worth a try. If you are like me, and have never read anything by Mr. Rankin before, I think you'll find this book is a good read. However, if you are already a fan of the author's (and know just how wonderful his books can be), then you might be somewhat disappointed with his latest effort.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC of this book.

I read this book for the Reagan Arthur Book Challenge which Kathy/Bermuda Onion and I are hosting. It's not too late to sign up so please join us!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Guest Review: Last Snow

Summary: Jack McClure, Special Advisor and closest friend to the new President of the United States, interprets the world very differently from the rest of us. It’s his greatest liability, and his greatest asset.

An American senator, supposedly on a political trip to the Ukraine, turns up dead on the island of Capri. When the President asks him to find out how and why, Jack sets out from Moscow across Eastern Europe, following a perilous trail of diplomats, criminals, and corrupt politicians. Thrust into the midst of a global jigsaw puzzle, Jack’s unique dyslexic mind allows him to put together the pieces that others can’t even see.

Still unreconciled to the recent death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage, Jack takes on a personal mission along with his official one: keeping safe from harm his two unlikely, unexpected, and incompatible companions—Annika Dementieva, a rogue Russian FSB agent, and Alli Carson, the President’s daughter. As he struggles to keep both young women safe and unearth the answers he seeks, hunted by everyone from the Russian mafia to the Ukrainian police to his own NSA, Jack learns just how far up the American and Russian political ladders corruption and treachery has reached.

In the vein of Eric Van Lustbader’s latest bestselling Jason Bourne novels, Lustbader takes us on an international adventure in this powerful page-turner that will keep you reading through the night. -- Forge Books

Last year, Booking Pap Pap read FIRST DAUGHTER by Eric Van Lustbader and really enjoyed it. So when I had the opportunity to receive a copy of Ms. Van Lustbader's new novel LAST SNOW, I knew he'd be interested in reading it. Here are his thoughts:

Author Eric Van Lustbader’s LAST SNOW is his latest action thriller involving agent Jack McClure. Jack is a strategic advisor to and personal friend of the President of the United States who is with him in Russia during the negotiations of a new nuclear treaty intended to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. One of his assignments is to protect the President’s daughter, Alli, who trusts only Jack since he saved her from a traumatic captivity by a madman. Jack gets a second assignment when he is asked by the President to investigate the death of a U. S. Senator who was killed in Capri after a political visit to the Ukraine.

McClure’s mission is complicated by his rescue of a Russian agent, Annika Dementieva, from ambush by a Russian mob. This event forces Jack to make a quick escape from Moscow and take both Annika and Alli with him on his Ukraine mission.

Van Lustbader has developed a realistic setting for the novel as he touches on current political events such as the Iran nuclear threat and a new nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia. The author takes the reader through a fast paced, action packed, tense trip through Russia and the Ukraine where deception is the rule of the day. The reader is continually challenged to tell the good guys from the bad as Van Lustbader constantly introduces new revelations that twist and turn the plot. Nothing is as it seems. Sometimes it appears as if characters are working on their own and sometimes for the Russian or U. S. government. Even the motives for the treaty are suspect and what starts out as one assignment for Jack McClure turns into another.

I found the characters to be well developed and interesting and all seem to have “issues”. For example, Jack McClure is a very complex character who is both tough and sympathetic. He struggles with a failed relationship with his wife, has issues with the death of his only daughter and suffers from dyslexia which actually turns into an attribute in solving complex issues. Annika is a hardened Russian agent who learns that she has much in common with Alli despite their varied backgrounds. Many of the other characters have lives that are inter-twined because of past associations.

The ending is a real surprise. When you think the ending is all tied up something rather bizarre happens that shocks the reader.It’s definitely not a good guys win, bad guys lose kind of conclusion.

Eric Van Lustbader has written a very good, easy to read novel that holds the reader’s interest right up to the end. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys suspense thrillers.

Thanks to The Book Report Network for sending a review copy, and thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his great review.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Review: The Scarlet Stockings: The Enchanted Riddle & Giveaway

Summary: As an infant, Daphne was abandoned on the doorstep of an all-girls school. Now, at thirteen, she longs to discover the truth about her past and to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a prima ballerina. When a book containing a tantalizing riddle and a magical pair of stockings arrive, her dreams of glory and fame are suddenly within her grasp. Daphne is poised to win an audition for the Ballet Splendide in Paris. But will the magic be enough to help her overcome her childhood demons of loneliness and insecurity? This irresistible story is brought to life with black-and-white interior illustrations and a beautiful jacket enhanced with foil. -- Dutton

My middle grade aged daughter loves to dance. In fact, dancing is a huge part of her life since she spends about 5 1/2 hours a week (plus travel time) practicing ballet, tap, jazz, and hip hop. So when I discovered that THE SCARLET STOCKINGS: THE ENCHANTED RIDDLE by Charlotte Kandel was a fantasy book about dancing, I thought it might be a book that she would really enjoy.

Unfortunately, her schedule has been crazy lately and she couldn't read this book in a timely manner (or a timely enough manner for me.) But I did have the opportunity to sit down one beautiful spring day and read THE SCARLET STOCKINGS: THE ENCHANTED RIDDLE. I thoroughly appreciated this book, and I loved how the author incorporated history, dance, mystery and magic in one novel.

One of the best things about this book to me was the character of Daphne. I thought the author did a wonderful job of developing Daphne's character. She was very complex and multi-dimensional for a middle grade book, and I think a lot of girls are going to love her (and even relate to her a bit.) Daphne was an orphan, and as a result, always felt insecure and abandoned. But she did have a big dream -- to one day be a famous ballerina. I loved how she knew what she wanted out of life, and she wasn't afraid to go after her dream.

As Daphne begins to fulfill her dream of dancing with a professional group, I found myself getting frustrated with her; and she begins to lose her way. In fact, at times, I was a little worried about Daphne and her actions. She became very selfish and she even brushed aside her friends for her own benefit. However, something major happens to Daphne and she learns some very important lessons about family and friends (and even herself.)

Needless to say, I enjoyed Daphne's story; and as a mom, I really liked that the book had some wonderful messages! I think young girls will feel the same way; however, I think they are really going to like the mystery and magic aspects of this novel too. There are some magical "scarlet stockings," and there is also an intriguing riddle that runs throughout the story that Daphne has to solve. Both elements add a certain magical feeling to the story and are bound to keep kids entranced.

THE SCARLET STOCKINGS: THE ENCHANTED RIDDLE is the first book in The Scarlet Stockings Trilogy, and I think young girls who enjoy magical books are going to really like it. If you are interested in reading the first chapter of the novel, you can click here. It's a wonderful book for children and adults, and I'm personally looking forward to the sequel.

Thanks to the author for providing me a copy of this novel.

Giveaway alert: Charlotte Kandel graciously sent me an extra copy of THE SCARLET STOCKINGS: THE ENCHANTED RIDDLE to share with one of you! To enter this giveaway, all you have to do is leave a comment with a way to contact you -- that's it! This giveaway will be open until April 4th at 11:59 p.m. ET, and I will notify the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you in the U.S and Canada only. Good luck!

Giveaway: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Summary: Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver.

Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn't simply about going fast. Using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate all of life's ordeals.

On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through: the sacrifices Denny has made to succeed professionally; the unexpected loss of Eve, Denny's wife; the three-year battle over their daughter, Zoë, whose maternal grandparents pulled every string to gain custody. In the end, despite what he sees as his own limitations, Enzo comes through heroically to preserve the Swift family, holding in his heart the dream that Denny will become a racing champion with Zoë at his side. Having learned what it takes to be a compassionate and successful person, the wise canine can barely wait until his next lifetime, when he is sure he will return as a man.

A heart-wrenching but deeply funny and ultimately uplifting story of family, love, loyalty, and hope, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a beautifully crafted and captivating look at the wonders and absurdities of human life . . . as only a dog could tell it. -- Harper

I recently read and reviewed Garth Stein's RAVEN STOLE THE MOON. I even gave away a copy to one lucky reader. Well, the folks at Terra Communications just happened to send me an extra copy of THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN (you can read my review here.) I noticed in the giveaway for RAVEN STOLE THE MOON that many of you haven't read THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN yet, so I am very excited to share this copy with one of you. To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is leave a comment with a valid email address. This contest will be open until Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 11:59 p.m. ET, and I will announce the winner the following day. This contest is open to those of you in the U.S. and Canada only. Good luck!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: The Food Allergy Mama's Baking Book

Summary: The Food Allergy Mama's Baking Book is a one-stop guide to delicious, everyday baked goods free of dairy, eggs, and nuts--the most common food allergens. It offers timeless, foolproof recipes that are easy to prepare even for kitchen novices. Whether you are new to the world of allergen-free baking, or have been baking this way for years, this book is an invaluable resource for home bakers (and their families) who love sweets and treats.

These recipes are delicious enough to be enjoyed by everyone who craves great baked treats, whether they have food allergies or not. But they fill a particular need for families concerned about ensuring food safety for their children. Kelly Rudnicki is dedicated to bringing busy moms of food-allergic children the best baking recipes that are dairy-, egg-, peanut-, and tree nut-free. For these readers, recipes that really work--every single time, for every cook--are crucial. A failed recipe is enough to shake the confidence of any home baker. Someone who bakes allergen-free cannot afford these setbacks--they can't go out and buy a birthday cake at the grocery store if a recipe doesn't work. Until there are more options for the food-allergic , baking at home is the smartest and safest option. The recipes use high quality ingredients that are affordable and widely available. All the traditional favorites are included, with chapters devoted to the best and tastiest muffins and quick breads, cookies and bars, and all manner of cakes, pies, crisps, name it.

In addition, the book is filled with practical advice and tips about dealing with classroom and birthday parties, as well as easy ingredient substitution ideas. It is THE go to guide for food allergy mamas everywhere. -- Agate Publishing

As many of you know, I have a five year old son who has life-threatening food allergies. He is severely allergic to eggs, dairy, tree nuts, peanuts, and shellfish! While I consider our family to be blessed that we can pretty much "control" this issue (unlike so many other health problems), it still can be challenging. The worst part of this for me is that as he gets older and more aware of his surroundings, he realizes that he is different and can't eat what everyone else does. I'm sure you know that it just breaks my heart!

In the past three years, I have found a few recipes that are just okay -- one for a homemade chocolate cake, one for a doctored vanilla cake, and one for sugar cookies (of course, the icing covers up the cardboard taste.) I have also tried to order some sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies from an on-line vendors of allergy-free cookies, but it is so expensive. And to be honest, they are good but they aren't the same as a homemade treat.

So, when I found out about
THE FOOD ALLERGY MAMA'S BAKING BOOK: GREAT DAIRY, EGG, AND NUT FREE TREATS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY by Kelly Rudnicki, I was thrilled to say the least. This cookbook is a must-have for any family with food allergies! Ms. Rudnicki is the mother of five children -some of whom have food allergies, and she is passionate about creating recipes for delicious tasting desserts. Not only does Ms. Rudnicki offer loads of really easy and really yummy recipes, but she also offers lots of helpful advice for parents of children with food allergies.

I have tried a few of Ms. Rudnicki's recipes so far, and they have been wonderful. And I don't mean they are wonderful for dairy, egg, and nut free recipes. I mean they are delicious recipes! I first made my son the blueberry muffins, but he wasn't too sure about biting into the blueberries. (I know it sounds a little strange, but he's never had a muffin or cooked blueberries before.) I also made the French Puff muffins because Ms. Rudnicki told me (via twitter) that her kids absolutely love these cinnamon muffins! I can't believe how good they are! I do think my muffin tins were slightly smaller than the author's because they did take a little longer than the recipe stated (and they were really big.)

French Puff Muffins

Yield: 12 Muffins

2/3 cup dairy-free margarine
1 tablespoon water
1 cup granulated sugar
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup soy or rice milk

1/2 cup melted dairy-free margarine
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and spray a 12-cup muffin pan with dairy-free baking spray. To make the muffins, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the 2/3 cup margarine, water, and 1 cup sugar. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, salt, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking powder with a wire whisk. Add the flour mixture and soy milk to the margarine-sugar mixture by thirds, alternating between each addition. Using a cookie scooper, place the batter into the prepared muffin pans. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until an inserted cake tester comes out clean.

To make the topping, combine the 1 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons cinnamon in a small bowl, and place the melted 1/2 cup margarine in a small bowl. Remove the muffins from the pan and dip each in margarine and then roll each muffin top in the cinnamon-sugar mixture.

Tip: These muffins are best when eaten the day they're made.

I can't even begin to tell you how many awesome baking recipes are in this cookbook. There are sections for Quick Breads, Muffins and More, Biscuits, Scones, and Yeast Breads, Cookies and Bars, Cakes and Cupcakes, Crisps, Pies, and Other Fruit Desserts, and Other Sweet Treats. She has included many of the traditional favorites that are considered off-limits to people with food allergies like Pumpkin Pie, Cheesecake and Sour Cream Cookies!

Ms. Rudnicki also has a website where she blogs and posts allergy free recipes. I had a ton of leftover bananas a few weeks ago, so I decided to make the Banana Chocolate Chip Cake. It only took about five minutes to whip up, and I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious it was. My son liked it too, and it made me so happy that he could have his own special dessert! I swear I couldn't tell that it didn't have eggs or dairy -- it was terrific.

Needless to say, I am so excited to have discovered Ms. Rudnicki and her amazing recipes. As a mother to a child with life-threatening food allergies, I so appreciate her dedication to helping families like us. THE FOOD ALLERGY MAMA'S BAKING BOOK is truly one of my favorite cookbooks!

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