Sunday, October 31, 2010

Review: 5 Ingredient Fix

Summary: Claire Robinson, the hot new Food Network star of 5 Ingredient Fix and Food Network Challenge, helps people get dinner on the table with little fuss and a few great ingredients. The quest for simple, affordable, and fresh, mouthwatering food is over. 5 INGREDIENT FIX helps put delicious and sophisticated meals on the table in a snap. With people struggling to simplify, streamline, and budget, the Food Network's Claire Robinson is here to help. Cooking doesn't have to be complicated to be impressive; simplifying the process with fewer ingredients saves time, frustration, and ultimately, money.-- Grand Central Life & Style

Anytime there is a cookbook that calls for 5 ingredients or less, I'm immediately interested. And when it also has the word "easy" in the title, I'm pretty much sold. So it's natural that I was drawn to the new cookbook 5 INGREDIENT FIX: EASY, ELEGANT, AND IRRESISTIBLE RECIPES by Claire Robinson. A cookbook containing quick and easy recipes with few ingredients sounded ideal for my family's busy lifestyle!

I found 5 INGREDIENT FIX to be a wonderful cookbook. Of course there are the typical cookbook chapters you'd expect like appetizers, soups and salads, main dishes, sides, and desserts, but there are also some unique chapters with breakfast foods as well as cocktails and "nibbles." Ms. Robinson also has a section in the back of the book which gives readers menu ideas for memorable meals. I especially liked that for each recipe, the five ingredients were printed across the top of the page for a quick and easy reference. I also appreciated that the author gave the reader some options for every recipe like: "What makes this recipe really sing" and "What to toss in if you have it."

One thing that I absolutely loved about this cookbook were all of the beautiful color photographs. I can appreciate a cookbook without photos, but I will admit that pictures of the food just make it all the more special. Almost every recipe has a color pictures associated with it, and I found myself skimming through this cookbook quite a few times. It's really a gorgeous book.

Claire Robinson is the host of 5 Ingredient Fix on the Food Network. I used to be a huge fan of the Food Network, but I've found that I don't have as much time to watch cooking shows as my kids get more involved in activities. Now that I've had a chance to see Ms. Robinson's recipes, I think I'm going to give her show a try. I can always use more ideas for quick and easy meals!

There were quite a few main dish recipes that I wanted to try; however, I decided to make the Buttermilk Pecan Chicken. The recipe was super easy and the only alteration I made was to bake it instead of frying it on the stove. Ms. Robinson did give this option at the end of the recipe, but it wasn't the recommended way. I really enjoyed the chicken and would definitely make it again, but my husband thought it was just okay. When I mentioned that the recipe called for frying and I chose to bake it, he shook his head as if that explained everything. I guess when I make it again, I'll try frying it. (Ironically, Kathy aka BermudaOnion made the exact same recipe a few days before me and also chose to bake it instead of fry it. I swear we didn't even discuss it beforehand, but her husband had the exact same reaction as mine!)

I also made the Maple Whipped Sweet Potatoes with Caramelized Onions. Since I am the only one in my family who eats sweet potatoes, I got to eat this entire dish -- not all at once I swear. I really liked it as a side dish, especially during this time of the year. I can easily see serving it as a side for Thanksgiving or Christmas. I'm not sure it's my all-time favorite sweet potato recipe, but I do think it's a good option to have in my recipe stash!

Maple Whipped Sweet Potatoes with Caramelized Onions

4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into rough chunks
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons pure grade B maple syrup
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons kosher salt plus more as needed
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper plus more as needed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large Vidalia onion or other sweet onion, thinly sliced

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put the sweet potatoes, 1/4 cup maple syrup, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper in a large mixing bowl. Toss to evenly coat and transfer to a baking sheet; roast in the oven until the sweet potatoes are soft, 35 to 40 minutes. Check on them after 15 and stir, if needed.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil together in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced onion and 2 tablespoons maple syrup and season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is deep golden brown, about 10 minutes, adding water, a tablespoon at a time, if the skillet gets too dry. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Transfer the sweet potatoes to a food processor and add a tablespoon of hot water. Pulse until just blended and then add half the caramelized onion. Pulse a few more seconds to incorporate the onion; for a very smooth puree, add another tablespoon of water and run the machine for 1 minutes. Fold in the remaining caramelized onions, reserving some for garnish.

Serve in a warm dish and garnish with the reserved caramelized onion.

If you are like me and enjoy cookbooks with quick and easy recipes, then I suggest checking out 5 INGREDIENT FIX.

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, October 30, 2010

Kid Konnection: Middle Grade Fiction

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 terrific middle grade books that I have read in the past few weeks.

Summary: When her father begins a long-distance romance with a zookeeper from Washington, D.C., twelve-year-old Frankie attempts to sabotage the relationship.-- Holiday House

Our mother-daughter book club decided to read THE NAKED MOLE-RAT LETTERS by Mary Amato for the month of October. Unfortunately, Booking Daughter and I probably won't make it to the meeting because she has a dance commitment, but I wanted to make sure that I had the chance to read the book just in case.

Booking Daughter was extremely excited about this pick and she even re-read the book despite knowing that we  most likely won't be there. I think she enjoyed it just as much the second time around as the first, and I can see why. I thought THE NAKED MOLE-RAT LETTERS was a wonderful read, and I think there are so many wonderful things to discuss.

One thing I appreciated about this book is that I think it will appeal to all types of tweens -- boys and girls as well as avid and reluctant readers. The novel was a fairly quick read and it had a lot going on, plus I think the story was an interesting one. I know I personally loved how the author tied some of Frankie's feelings to the behavior of naked mole-rats. In addition, there was a great deal of humor woven into the story. Booking Daughter absolutely loved the parts of the story where the woman were trying to set up Frankie's father with her guidance counselor.

I also really liked how the format changed throughout the story -- parts of the story were written in the form of emails and diary entries as well as "normal" text. Personally, I think it helped to keep the book interesting and it was an effective way to present some of the events. I loved getting Frankie's insights into events (even though she wasn't always the most reliable of narrators) and seeing her creative ways of dealing with her dad's new friend through the hi-jacked email messages. I think some of her emails were a riot and very smart (although I probably won't admit that to my children.)

Before I read this novel, Booking Daughter warned me that I might not like it. She was concerned that I wouldn't like Frankie because she did some "bad" things. I can she why she thought this because Frankie does kind of get caught up in some lies and other questionable behavior; however, I found that I did really like Frankie -- just not some of the things that Frankie did. As a mom, I could tell that Frankie was a nice and smart girl but that she was hurting over the thought of her father finding someone to replace her mother. While I didn't always agree with how Frankie handled the situation, my heart went out to her because she had experienced so much loss at such a young age. As I read Frankie's story, I just knew that she'd turn out okay and do the "right" thing.

THE NAKED MOLE-RAT LETTERS is perfect for book clubs and especially mother daughter groups. There are so many things to discuss including Frankie's feelings and behavior -- both the good and the bad, as well as grief, loss, family dynamics, honesty, open communication, and friendship. I think it would be incredibly interesting to see how tweens react to Frankie's story.

I highly recommend THE NAKED MOLE-RAT LETTERS! It's a very entertaining novel with some wonderful messages!

Summary: Whether she’s telling the truth or stretching it, Zora Neale Hurston is a riveting storyteller. Her latest creation is a shape-shifting gator man who lurks in the marshes, waiting to steal human souls. But when boastful Sonny Wrapped loses a wrestling match with an elusive alligator named Ghost -- and a man is found murdered by the railroad tracks soon after -- young Zora’s tales of a mythical evil creature take on an ominous and far more complicated complexion, jeopardizing the peace and security of an entire town and forcing three children to come to terms with the dual-edged power of pretending. Zora’s best friend, Carrie, narrates this coming-of-age story set in the Eden-like town of Eatonville, Florida, where justice isn’t merely an exercise in retribution, but a testimony to the power of community, love, and pride. A fictionalization of the early years of a literary giant, this astonishing novel is the first project ever to be endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust that was not authored by Hurston herself.

Also includes:

*an annotated bibliography of the works of Zora Neale Hurston
*a short biography of Zora Neale Hurston
*a timeline of Zora Neale Hurston’s life -- Candlewick Press

There has been some great buzz about ZORA AND ME by Victoria Bond & T.R. Simon. It has already been chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance as a Fall 2010 OKRA Pick (so it counts for Bermudaonion's challenge.) Plus it just sounds like a great read!

ZORA AND ME is a fictionalized account of a summer in young Zora Neale Hurston's life in the early 1900s. The story takes place when Zora and her friend Carrie are about eight years old -- the summer between third and fourth grade. Their behavior and activities seem pretty typical -- they go swimming, watch animals, and share stories; however, Zora also loves to make up fantastic stories. In fact, she has such an incredible imagination that she creates a story about a half-man/half-alligator who lives near the marshes.When a man traveling through her hometown is found murdered, Zora immediately concludes that it was her gator-man creation. When Zora and her friends start conducting their own investigation into the murder, they threaten to turn the community upside-down with what they discover.

I thoroughly enjoyed ZORA AND ME! It was a fantastic story and one that captured my attention from the very first pages. There are so many wonderful things about this coming-of age story that I hardly know where to start. The writing was excellent and there is no doubt that I was intrigued by the murder mystery. However, what I appreciated even more was that this book brought to light some very interesting concepts about race, community, pride, and secrets. It's one of those books that readers will find highly entertaining because of how the story unfolds, but it is also a book that will teach children lessons about events that occurred in our country's past.

One thing I appreciated about ZORA AND ME is that it included some excellent reference materials at the end of the book. I didn't know much about Zora Neale Hurston's life, so I liked having the bibliography of her works as well as a brief biography and timeline of her life. I thought it was interesting to learn that she didn't have much commerical success for her writing until after she died.

ZORA AND ME is just perfect for discussion. In fact, I think it's ideal for book clubs or even the classroom where teachers can incorporate some of the history of Zora Neale Hurston's life. I was extremely happy to see that there is already a discussion guide available which has some 29 questions. As you can see by the sheer number of questions, there is plenty to discuss about what occurs between the pages of ZORA AND ME. Some of the themes which you might want to explore include racial relations, white lies, friendships, parent/child relationships, the significance of songs and books, pride, and reality vs. truth.

I also love that there is a website devoted entirely to ZORA AND ME. Make sure you check it out because you can see some photos of Zora's hometown Eatonville as well as directions for making a corn husk doll, corn bread, and planting a herb garden. In addition, you can learn more about Zora Neale Hurston and the authors of this book. It's a great resource for readers as well as teachers!

ZORA AND ME really does have so much to offer young readers (and adults too!) It is a wonderful story about a young Zora Neale Hurston, but it also has elements of mystery and intrigue. I highly recommend it.

I received a copy of ZORA AND ME at the 2010 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, October 29, 2010

Review: Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life

Summary: In one month Jeremy Fink will turn thirteen. But does he have what it takes to be a teenager? He collects mutant candy, he won't venture more than four blocks from his apartment if he can help it, and he definitely doesn't like surprises. On the other hand, his best friend, Lizzy, isn't afraid of anything, even if that might get her into trouble now and then.

Jeremy's summer takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious wooden box arrives in the mail. According to the writing on the box, it holds the meaning of life! Jeremy is supposed to open it on his thirteenth birthday. The problem is, the keys are missing, and the box is made so that only the keys will open it without destroying what's inside. Jeremy and Lizzy set off to find the keys, but when one of their efforts goes very wrong, Jeremy starts to lose hope that he'll ever be able to open the box. But he soon discovers that when you're meeting people named Oswald Oswald and using a private limo to deliver unusual objects to strangers all over the city, there might be other ways of finding out the meaning of life.

Lively characters, surprising twists, and thought-provoking ideas make Wendy Mass's latest novel an unforgettable read. -- Little Brown Kids

I know I usually post my reviews for children's books on Saturdays as part of my Kid Konnection posts; however, I had to make an exception for JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE by Wendy Mass. I absolutely loved this book and couldn't wait to share it with all of you. It truly encompasses everything I love about middle grade fiction, and it is just a wonderful book for children and adults alike!

JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE tells the story of a best friends Jeremy and his friend Lizzy. When Jeremy discovers a locked box that holds the meaning of life, both kids set out to find the keys which will open the box. Along the way, the meet lots of interesting people and experience some very life-altering events. JEREMY FINK is filled with wonderful themes about friendship and the different ways we cope with loss that appealed to me; however, there are also elements of mystery and lots of twists and turns which will appeal to all sorts of middle-graders.

There are so many wonderful things about this story, but I think I'll focus on the characters, and especially Jeremy. I just loved Jeremy although my heart most definitely went out to him. Jeremy's father died when he was pretty young; and as a result, Jeremy suffered from some anxiety issues. He didn't like change, was afraid to try new things, and he wasn't entirely comfortable venturing out on his own to unfamiliar places. Thank goodness he had such a wonderful friend in Lizzie who accepted him -- quirks and all. Throughout the course of this story, Jeremy embarks on a quest to find the keys which will open the box and he is often times forced out of his comfort zone. In many ways, JEREMY FINK was a coming-of-age story for Jeremy. By the end of the story, Jeremy had matured so much and learned some important things about his father and the meaning of life.

There were some other very interesting characters in this story besides Jeremy. I also loved Lizzie and found her friendship with Jeremy to be extremely interesting. In addition, I thought Mr. Oswald was a fantastic character as were the people he "introduced" to Jeremy and Lizzie. And what can I say about Jeremy's father? There is no doubt that he was a very special parent who loved his child deeply and wanted to leave him with some valuable messages about life.

What I most definitely appreciated about this novel is that each reader will take something different away from the story. As an adult (and a mom), I was pleasantly surprised by how much this book made me think. I felt as if the book took me on an emotional roller coaster at times, and I loved remembering all of the feelings I experienced as a tween. However, I also enjoyed that I began thinking about "my meaning of life." In addition, I began asking myself about what valuable messages/ lessons I would want to leave for my children. I guess what I'm trying to say is that reading JEREMY FINK kind of put life in perspective for me (or at least caused me to start thinking about my life!) And I'm pretty sure that readers of all ages will have a similar response.

Booking Daughter has always held a special place in her heart for Wendy Mass. She has read quite a few of her books and counts her as one of her all-time favorite writers. In fact, 11 BIRTHDAYS is one of her favorite books -- I think she's read it like five times or something! After reading JEREMY FINK, I can now totally understand Booking Daughter's feelings. I love Wendy Mass too. She has a wonderful knack for writing stories that appeal to tweens (and adults) while at the same time giving them lots to think about. I will most definitely be reading all of her books!

After the holidays, I will be running an after-school book club with fourth and fifth graders, and I honestly can't think of a more perfect book for the kids to discuss. I am pretty sure that they will all be drawn to the storyline and the characters, but I am also relatively certain that they will want to discuss Jeremy and Lizzy's actions as well as "the meaning of life." I was actually blown away by how much there is to talk about in this novel, and I was thrilled to find that there were discussion questions in the back of my book. Some of the topics for discussion include friendship, puberty, anxiety, loss, grief, insecurities, parent/child relationships, fate, luck, and of course, the meaning of life.

I also found that Wendy Mass has a link to some resources for JEREMY FINK on her website. In fact, she has educator's guides for quite a few of her novels. Not only does she have some discussion questions for JEREMY FINK (which are different from the ones in the back of the book), but she also lists some activities related to the story. I would love to see this novel covered in the classroom because it appeals to both boys and girls, and I can't give Ms. Mass enough credit for providing so much useful information for teachers.

Needless to say, I absolutely loved JEREMY FINK AND THE MEANING OF LIFE as did Booking Daughter. She has been recommending this book to all of her friends, and she even did a "book report" project on it for her Reading Class. (She wrote a fictional letter to Ms. Mass which I thought was outstanding.) I could go on and on about the merits of this book, but I'll stop and just say, "READ IT!"

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

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review: The Mischief of the Mistletoe & Giveaway

Summary: 'Tis the season to get Pink! Lauren Willig's beloved Pink Carnation series gets into the holiday spirit with this irresistible Regency Christmas caper.

Arabella Dempsey's dear friend Jane Austen warned her against teaching. But Miss Climpson's Select Seminary for Young Ladies seems the perfect place for Arabella to claim her independence while keeping an eye on her younger sisters nearby. Just before Christmas, she accepts a position at the quiet girls' school in Bath, expecting to face nothing more exciting than conducting the annual Christmas recital. She hardly imagines coming face to face with French aristocrats and international spies...

Reginald "Turnip"Fitzhugh-often mistaken for the elusive spy known as the Pink Carnation- has blundered into danger before. But when he blunders into Miss Arabella Dempsey, it never occurs to him that she might be trouble. When Turnip and Arabella stumble upon a beautifully wrapped Christmas pudding with a cryptic message written in French, "Meet me at Farley Castle," the unlikely vehicle for intrigue launches the pair on a Yuletide adventure that ranges from the Austens'modest drawing room to the awe-inspiring estate of the Dukes of Dovedale, where the Dowager Duchess is hosting the most anticipated event of the year: an elaborate twelve-day Christmas celebration. Will they find poinsettias or peril, dancing or danger? Is it possible that the fate of the British Empire rests in Arabella's and Turnip's hands, in the form of a festive Christmas pudding? -- Dutton

I have always been intrigued with The Pink Carnation books by Lauren Willig, and I've wanted to read them because they sound like books that I might enjoy. The problem is that I like to read series in order and six books in this series have already been released (with more to come in the near future.) I find it daunting to go back and start at the beginning, but on the same account, I would like to give these books a try. Such a dilemma! So in my effort to branch out in my reading (and that means trying new things like reading books out of order), I decided to give THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE: A PINK CARNATION CHRISTMAS a try. I figured it I didn't just jump into the series, I might never get around to reading them. Plus I heard that this novel works as a standalone.

I have to say that I found THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE to be a very entertaining read. It was light and funny and absolutely perfect for holiday reading. I'm not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this novel except to say that it looked like a historical fiction book, but I have to say that I was a little surprised. THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE was part spy novel, part romance book and part mystery; and I found it to be a delightful combination. I was most surprised by just how funny this book was. The characters were definitely "characters" (especially Turnip and his sister) and their actions were hilarious.

I'm not a big fan of romance books, although I think I make an exception for Christmas books (I guess I get all sentimental this time of year.) However, I really enjoyed the romance parts of this story. The romance scenes were very light-hearted and the characters were extremely likable, so I found myself wanting them to fall in love (and realize each other's feelings.) I especially loved the banter back-and-forth between Arabella and Turnip.

I should probably admit that I enjoyed the mystery aspects of the story a little bit more than the love scenes (but that's just me.) However, I thought the author did a great job of playing each of these components off of each other. There was just the right amount of love and suspense to keep the flow of the book moving. THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE was action-packed and suspenseful and kept me guessing right up until the end, although I wasn't really trying very hard to figure out the mystery.

As far as whether THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE works as a standalone novel...I think it does. In fact, I found myself wanting to explore more of Ms. Willig's novels because some of the secondary characters in THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE were so interesting. What I really appreciated was that Ms. Willig included a note about the Pink Carnation Series in the back of the book. It gave some insight into the history of the series which, as a new reader, I found very helpful, but it also gave some information about where the story fits into the series for seasoned readers. I especially appreciated that there was a list of characters which not only explained their roles in THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE but also referenced what other books they appear in.

If you are looking for a cute read during this very busy time of year, then I suggest giving THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE a try. I can almost guarantee that you will fall in love with the characters and get quite a few laughs in the process.

Note to all of you Jane Austen fans out there: Jane actually makes a cameo appearance in this novel!

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

Giveaway alert: Thanks to the publisher, I have two copies of THE MISCHIEF OF THE MISTLETOE to share with two lucky readers! In addition, the winners will receive a lovely Christmas ornament to go along with the book. To enter, just fill out the form below -- that's it. This contest will be open until November 10th at 11:59 p.m. ET, and I will notify the winners the following day. Open to those of you with U.S. and Canada mailing addresses only. Good luck!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: Promise Bridge

Summary: "This is a promise bridge, and it bridges a promise flowing from your heart to mine. It can't never be broken...the promise is part of you now, understand."

Thus begins an unlikely friendship between Hannelore Blessing, a plantation mistress, and a slave girl named Livie. As the young women are launched on a harrowing journey of awakening filled with shared risks and nurtured promises amid whispers of the Underground Railroad and the rising tension preceding the Civil War, they discover their ability to trust, love, and ultimately take action.

Aided by Colt, a devoted suitor hoping to win her heart, Hannah comes to understand that true friendship means letting go, so that Livie can be free to find a life and destiny all her own. However, a vicious slave catcher stalks the two women-and his unseemly motives and relentless pursuit threaten all that Hannah holds dear, as well as put her loved ones in unimaginable danger. -- NAL

If you follow my blog at all, you probably already know that I love historical fiction -- it's one of my favorite genres. But you might not know that one of my favorite time periods for books is the time surrounding the Civil War. So when I learned that the new novel PROMISE BRIDGE by Eileen Clymer Schwab took place in the years leading up to the Civil War, I was thrilled. I'm not sure that I've read many books that take place during these years, and I was definitely looking forward to this story about the friendships that develops between a young plantation mistress and slave girl.

I found PROMISE BRIDGE to be a great book and it really did have a little something for everyone. There was history, suspense, and even a little bit of romance. And, there was the major theme of friendship which ran throughout the novel -- and I'm always a sucker for a book about female relationships. The book had quite a few surprises, some bigger than others, and it definitely kept me on my toes. I have to admit that I didn't see quite a few of the twists coming, and I love that I was surprised by the complexity of the characters. In addition, I found the romance/love elements to be extremely sweet and meaningful -- and not overdone at all.

The story that took place in this novel was extremely interesting; however, I think what I most appreciated was the character development. I absolutely loved Hannah and Lizzie, but I also thought quite a few of the secondary characters were interesting in their own right. And even those characters that I didn't love (or possibly even hated) were still well-developed. I found that almost all of the characters were multi-dimensional and their actions definitely caused my to think about the times they lived in. I enjoyed that many of the characters in this novel exhibited moments of bravery and I even considered their actions to be heroic. It was so refreshing to appreciate so many characters in one story.

Despite the horrific events covered in this story (remember it was a time when slavery was rampant in the South), I still felt that the book ended with a feeling of hope. Many of the events that took place between the pages of PROMISE BRIDGE were disturbing and some even caused my to tear up, but I loved that the novel demonstrated the strength and resilience of humans -- it's truly amazing what humans can do when faced with adversity. The book definitely ended in a good place for me, but my initial reaction when I finished was that there is more to Hannah and Lizzie's stories. We'll just have to wait and see..

It was evident to me that Ms. Schwab thoroughly researched this time period as well as the setting before beginning work on this novel. She seemed to have a grasp on southwestern Virginia in the years leading up to the Civil War, as well as the dynamics between the plantation owners and slaves. She also seemed to have a definitely knack for the dialect. I was quite impressed with her portrayal of southern life.

PROMISE BRIDGE would make a wonderful book club selection, especially if your group enjoys historical fiction and/or stories about female friendship. It would also be a fantastic pick for a mother/daughter book club or one for teens. In fact last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a book club/author event at Aaron's Books with the author Eileen Clymer Schwab. All of the members of the book club (as well as the other attendees) absolutely loved this book, and there was definitely not a lack of things to discuss. There is a reading guide in the back of the book (along with an awesome interview with the author), but I wasn't able to find an on-line version of the questions. The guide has twelve very interesting questions and covers such topics as the meaning of the title, female friendships, secrets, freedom, racism/slavery, romance/love, and many more.

I can't rave enough about how much I enjoyed listening and talking with Ms. Schwab. She is a first-time novelist who is extremely passionate about her story and the characters she created. I loved learning about the research she conducted before writing this novel, and I have to admit that her excitement about her story was infectious. It was so interesting to hear the reasons why her characters acted in a certain way as well as the scoop on her next books -- her second novel will be out next summer and I can't wait!

Bottom line -- PROMISE BRIDGE is definitely a book for fans of historical fiction and well worth checking out!

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

Wondrous Words Wednesday - October 27, 2010

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Kathy aka Bermuda Onion where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading. Feel free to join in the fun.

BURY YOUR DEAD by Louise Penny

coelacanth - "Like what grasses grow on Rum Island, and when the last coelacanth was caught."  (p. 64)

coelacanth: a crossopterygian fish, Latimeria chalumnae,  thought to have been extinct since the Cretaceous Period but found in 1938 off the coast of southern Africa.

What new words did you discover this week?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: Up from the Blue

Summary:  Tillie Harris's life is in disarray—her husband is away on business, the boxes in her new home aren't unpacked, and the telephone isn't even connected yet. Though she's not due for another month, sudden labor pains force Tillie to reach out to her estranged father for help, a choice that means facing the painful memories she's been running from since she was a little girl. 

An extraordinary debut from a talented new voice, Up from the Blue untangles the year in Tillie's life that changed everything: 1975, the year her mother disappeared.-- Harper

I have been wanting to read UP FROM THE BLUE by Susan Henderson for months now, but it wasn't until Book Club Girl scheduled a BlogTalk Radio Show with the author that I moved up this book to the top of my TBR pile. UP FROM THE BLUE sounded exactly like the type of book that I would enjoy and the description just drew me in. Plus, Ms. Henderson is an award winning author so I had a feeling that the writing would be something special. Needless to say, I was excited about the novel, but I will admit that my expectations were set at a pretty high level.

I really enjoyed (and appreciated) UP FROM THE BLUE! I thought the first half of the novel was outstanding and I didn't want to put the book down. From the very first chapter when a pregnant Tillie found herself having contractions with no one to turn to except her estranged father, I was pretty much hooked. I could sense that there was tension and resentment between Tillie and her father, and I couldn't wait to learn why. It was only a few pages (just enough to get my curiosity flowing) until the author took me back to Tillie's childhood and I started to discover all of her family's secrets. I just loved how the novel was set up and went back and forth between Tillie's present day life (even though it was really 1991) and her childhood.

The second half of the book was still very good, but I didn't have quite the same love fest that I had with the first half. I still found the story and the characters to be extremely interesting and I was caught up in their complex and tragic lives; however, I kind of had to suspend some belief in the direction that the story went. I won't give away any spoilers, but there is a rather shocking event that occurs and I think it made for a good story, but I'm not sure I think it was feasible. In addition, I thought that in some ways Tillie was wise beyond her young years. Some of her insights and comments into her family's behavior were very sophisticated and I was almost blown away by her eventual understanding of the events. I'm willing to let both of my issues with this novel slide because I did enjoy the drama of the book. I'm just saying that I had to "let go" my natural inclination for reality checks.
I found Tillie's character to be extremely well developed and I thought she was such a fantastic choice to tell this family's story. Most of the book took place when Tillie was around eight to ten years old, and I really loved learning about Tillie's family through her young eyes. Because Tillie's father and brother weren't receptive to discussion about the disappearance of Tillie's mother, poor little Tillie found herself trying to make sense of a story that just didn't make sense. Tillie was far from perfect and extremely complex (and not always likable), but my heart just broke for her over and over again. I do believe that Ms. Henderson created a memorable character in Tillie that will stick with readers for a long time after they finish the novel.

There is no doubt that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but what really stood out for me was Ms. Henderson's writing. I thought her prose was beautiful and I appreciated how the story (and the family's secrets) eventually unfolded. I also loved how she delved into some very difficult topics such as mental illness and the effects it has one not only the individual involved but also their loved ones. In addition, I thought it was interesting that Ms. Henderson chose to explore Tillie's friendship with an African American girl. By setting the book back in the late 60s, she managed to bring up some issues of racism as well as the integration of the schools. I definitely think Ms. Henderson is an author to watch and I look forward to more of her novels.

UP FROM THE BLUE would make an excellent book club pick. As I read this novel, I kept thinking about all of the issues to discuss, and I knew a few of my members would have a fun time dissecting some of the characters' actions. Of course, there is a reading guide available with some wonderful questions. Some of the topics that you will want to explore include family dynamics, mental illness, sibling relationships, parent child relationships, secrets, racism, communication, sacrifice, friendship, and forgiveness. You might also want to discuss some of the symbolism in the novel like the ruby cup and the woman in the golden gown as well as the meaning of the title. I have to warn you, though, that there are some spoilers in the discussion questions!

Book Club Girl's show with Ms. Henderson is tonight, Tuesday, Oct 26th at 7 pm ET! You can set your reminder for the show here and return to the same link to listen and participate this evening. I'll probably be running between soccer and dance, but I hope to catch the recorded version of the show.

Overall, I thought UP FROM THE BLUE was a terrific read and I highly recommend it to those of you who enjoy books about dysfunctional families. I found both the story and the characters to be riveting, and I thought the writing was exceptional.

I received a copy of UP FROM THE BLUE from the publisher at the 2010 BEA.

Giveaway: Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor

Summary: New York Times bestselling 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 absolutely adore Christmas books! And by that I mean all types -- children's stories, Christian fiction, women's fiction, contemporary fiction, and even romance! In fact, I've already read a few Christmas books even though it's still October. One Christmas-themed book that recently caught my eye is CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR by Lisa Kleypas. I just received my copy in the mail (it was released today!) and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing it.

CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR is already getting rave reviews. Publishers Weekly said, “Kleypas's holiday offering is sweet, romantic, and genuine…A solid romance with strong leads, this is a refreshing holiday treat.” And RT Book Reviews said, “ Kleypas can do no wrong. If you want a fantastic read, pick up this poignant, heartbreaking and deeply satisfying book.” I read a Kleypas book a few months ago for my on-line book club, and even though I'm not a huge fan of romance, I found it quite enjoyable.

To celebrate the publication of CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR, Lisa Kleypas’s popular SUGAR DADDY is now available as a specially-priced $2.99 ebook for a limited time. In addition, Lisa is now on Facebook so make sure you check out her fan page because there are some fun giveaways and sweepstakes going on surrounding the book's release!

And I just happen to have a fun giveaway too! Thanks to the publisher, I have a copy of CHRISTMAS EVE AT FRIDAY HARBOR to share with one lucky reader. To enter, just fill out the form below -- pretty simple, right? This giveaway will be open until Monday, November 8th at 11:59 p.m. ET, and I will notify the winner the following day. U.S. and Canada mailing addresses only. Good luck!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: America (Audio)

Summary: Jon Stewart, host of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning "The Daily Show", and his coterie of patriots deliver a hilarious look at American government . . . Termed a "political king-maker" by Newsweek, and "the Dan Rather of infotainment" by Vanity Fair, Jon Stewart, along with the writers of "The Daily Show", combines his riotous wit and razor-sharp insight in this hilarious book.American-style democracy is the world's most beloved form of government, which explains why so many other nations are eager for us to impose it on them.-- Hachette Audio

As part of my on-going effort to "read" more audio books, I thought I'd try a book a little outside of my comfort zone -- AMERICA: A CITIZEN'S GUIDE TO DEMOCRACY INACTION presented by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I decided to take a little break from the Dexter series (which I've grown quite fond of) because it was getting a little creepy running in the dark while listening to Dexter dismember people. Enter AMERICA! I think Jon Stewart and the entire cast of The Daily Show are a riot and I've been wanting to listen to this book ever since I saw Jon Stewart at this year's BEA.

Let me tell you...I loved this book! In fact, I'm glad it was dark out while I was running and listening to it because my neighbors would all think I was crazy. I laughed and laughed at this book and truly appreciated this irreverent look at our country's history and political structure. So much of what was presented was spot on, and because of that, hilariously funny! Even though I get frustrated with politics much of the time (and sometimes feel like crying), I had to laugh when Jon Stewart gave me his take on the events. In fact, I can't rave enough about how smart and witty this book was.

Even the way AMERICA was presented was funny. The book was set up in the format of a textbook. There were chapters covering our history, the branches of government, recent elections, etc. There were even chapter summaries which outlined what we could expect to learn as well as discussion questions and classroom activities at the end of each chapter. I found the discussion questions to be hysterical and one or two even made some surprisingly good points.

The majority of AMERICA was narrated by Jon Stewart; however, there were special sections throughout the book which were presented by the cast of The Daily Show. There was also an extremely funny foreword written by "Thomas Jefferson." I especially enjoyed the segments read by Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert and Ed Helms (whom I also love from the television series The Office and the movie The Hangover.)

As is often the case with books like this one, there were definitely sections that appealed to me more than others. I think the first few chapters of this book that dealt with our country's history and the creation of our government were my favorites. I couldn't stop laughing at how our forefathers were portrayed. The end of the book which covered the Bush elections didn't resonate with me quite as much. I think because AMERICA was released over five years ago, these sections seemed a little outdated. Of course, it took me so long to "read" the book that it was my own darn fault! I definitely learned my lesson and won't be waiting that long to listen to EARTH.

I thought AMERICA was an absolute hoot and I highly recommend it if you appreciate great satire (and especially great satire about our nation's government!)

I received an audio download of this book at the 2010 BEA from the publisher.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

An Evening with Beth Hoffman

Sam Droke-Dickinson, Beth Hoffman, and me!
On Thursday evening, I had the privilege of attending "An Evening with Beth Hoffman" hosted by my good friends at Aaron's Books and the Council of Friends of Lancaster County Public Libraries. It was an amazing event with about 200 people, and I had such a wonderful time. Thanks to the folks at Aaron's Books for helping to make it happen!

Beth Hoffman is the author of SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT one of my favorite books of 2010 -- you can read my review here. Beth is in the process of gearing up for her book tour to celebrate the release of the trade paperback version of SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT, and we were extremely fortunate to be the kick-off event. The book officially goes on sale October 26th, so if you haven't read this book yet, now's your chance.

I have wanted to meet Beth ever since I first started talking to her on Twitter, and then I just knew I had to meet her after my book club had an author chat with her. She truly is a wonderful and genuine person! She speaks from her heart like few people I've ever met, and she definitely had me in tears more than once during her presentation. Her story is an incredible one and her message about treasuring each day in your life was very inspiring. I especially liked that she left us with the hope that we could all find our passion, just like she was able to do!

Of course, I was there to meet Beth, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the food that was served at the event. There was a a cocktail inspired by the book as well as a huge dessert bar with lots of Southern goodies like Sour Cream Apple Pie, Key Lime Pie, Chocolate Torte, and Oletta's Cinnamon Rolls.

For those of you not familiar with SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT, Oletta was a wonderful character in the story that held a very special place in CeeCee's heart. She also happened to make some delicious-sounding cinnamon rolls. Beth was gracious enough to provide the chef with Olleta's actual recipe, and I thought I'd share it with all of you!

Oletta's Cinnamon Rolls

1 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
4 tablespoons melted butter
4 tablespoons water
1/2 of a 3.5 ounce package instant vanilla pudding mix
4 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 teaspoons bread machine yeast
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup dried berries or raisins (optional)

1 teaspoon milk
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
4 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened 
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a bread machine pan, add the milk, beaten egg, melted butter, water, vanilla pudding, bread flour, sugar, salt and yeast in the order recommended by the manufacturer. Select the dough cycle.

2. When cycle is finished, remove the dough and knead for 3 to 5 minutes. Roll our and lightly pat into an 8x10 inch rectangle.

3. In a microwave safe bowl, mix together the softened butter or margarine, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Soften in the microwave for 10 seconds. Add chopped walnuts and raisins, if desired. Spread over dough. Starting with the widest end, roll the dough into a log. Pinch to seam the ends. Cut into 3/4 inch slices and place on a greased jelly roll sheet. Place in a draft-free space and let rise until doubled.

4. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 15 to 18 minutes.

5. To make frosting, mix the milk, confectioners' sugar, softened butter and vanilla in a small bowl. Spread over warm cinnamon rolls.
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, October 23, 2010

Kid Konnection: Picture Book Fun

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 fun picture books that Booking Son and I have discovered in the past few weeks.

Summary: Gigi is spending a day in the big city—and what a day it is! She travels through town on mass transportation, shops in various stores, goes to lots of museums, meets interesting people and learns about their occupations, and then goes home to dream of her fun-filled and informative day.

Through the use of lift-the-flaps, pull tabs, and changing-picture wheels, readers will learn about birthstones, genres of literature, the history of shoes and makeup, art and its different media, natural history (including the world’s largest tusks, flower, and butterfly!), and mermaids and fairies.

Young girls will have the time of their lives with Gigi—and they’ll learn a lot, too! -- Robin Corey Books

Poor Booking Son! When I first saw GIGI IN THE BIG CITY by Charise Mericle Harper , I couldn't wait to read it. And since I just happen to read Booking Son a book every night before bedtime, I sat down one evening on his bed and pulled out this cute little pink book. He was less than amused and made it clear to me that it was a girly, but he agreed to let me read it to him because I was so excited about it. Isn't he just adorable?

And I have to agree with him that GIGI IN THE BIG CITY was most definitely a book geared towards little girls, but I thought it was absolutely precious. And for just a minute (maybe not even that long), I wished I still had a little girl to read it too. Believe it or not, GIGI IN THE BIG CITY manages to teach almost everything under the sun about girly girl things; and the presentation is interactive with lots of flaps, pull tabs, and changing-picture wheels that make the book so much fun. Booking Son had a great time playing with all of the lift-the-flaps, but he wasn't too sure about the lessons in hair color/styles, makeup, and jewelry. Bless his little heart because he did try!

I just love the idea behind this book. Gigi is heading to the big city where the opportunities are endless! Once she arrives (via mass transportation), she goes to lots of shops and museums; and she proceeds to learn a great deal of useful girly things. For example, when she visits a shoe store, she learns all of the different styles of shoes; and when she goes inside a book store, she learns about the different types of books. Gigi continues to visit all types of museums as well as meet lots of interesting people. The young reader experiences Gigi's trip by opening flaps to see inside the stores and museums, turning wheels to test out different hair colors and styles, pulling tabs to learn about pedicures, etc.

GIGI IN THE BIG CITY is perfect for little girls -- probably ages 4 to 8 (and even a few moms like me!) In fact, I think it makes the perfect gift because it provides so much useful information as well as countless hours of fun.

Summary: Here is an epistolary picture book with a T. rex in a role similar to that of the mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

A little girl is turning six in two weeks, and she's decided to invite a Tyrannosaurus rex to her birthday party! Her invitation entices the huge carnivore with promises of fun games to play, the extra-large cake her mother will bake, the goody bag he will get to take home, and, most important of all, how she will be the happiest girl in the world if he comes. But will he?

Lisa McClatchy's sweet, persuasive text is perfectly complemented by John Manders's endearing Tyrannosaurus rex, who can't quite fit under the birthday-party tent or blow out the candles without making a huge mess but is sure to make this birthday party-and this book-unforgettable! -- Random House

DEAR TYRANNOSAURUS REX by Lisa McClatchy and illustrated by John Manders  is another adorable book -- and one that was more geared toward Booking Son's tastes. The book is written in the form of a letter from a young girl to a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the little girl is trying to convince the dinosaur to attend. (I found her to be quite persuasive!) She includes directions, an itinerary of the party, and some helpful advice. The anticipation builds throughout the story as the little reader wonders if the dinosaur will come to the party or not.

Both Booking Son and I thought this book was extremely cute. We giggled as we read it and we both liked the pictures too. The illustrations were very colorful and funny. I loved how they showed the huge dinosaur trying to interact at the birthday party. I found Booking Son checking out the pictures a little more closely than he does with some books.

DEAR TYRANNOSAURUS REX is a fun read for preschoolers and young elementary age children. It would be perfect for bedtime or a classroom circle time.

Summary: How much is 1+1? Think the answer is 2? Not always, as this playful approach to addition proves! David LaRochelle takes children on a joyful mathematical journey that will engage their minds and teach them to think about numbers in a creative, outside-the-box way.
Brenda Sexton's wild and wacky illustrations add layers of witty fun to LaRochelle's clever game.

These wacky equations don't add up…or DO THEY?
1 goat + 1 unicorn = 3 horns!
1 set of triplets + 1 set of twins = 5 babies!
1 duet + 1 quartet = 6 musicians!
1 ant + 1 spider = 14 legs!
1 century + 1 decade = 110 years! -- Sterling

Booking Son is starting to bring home math homework a couple of days a week, so I was interested to see what he thought about the new book 1+1=5 AND OTHER UNLIKELY ADDITIONS written by David LaRochelle and illustrated by Brenda Sexton. When I read the title of the book to him, I thought he might get confused. Instead, he started giggling like a nut!

The premise behind the book is that some equations seem wrong (like 1+1=5) but are really correct. For example, 1+1 = 3. The following page explains that 1 unicorn + 1 goat = 3 horns! The entire book is set up that the wacky equation appears on the right hand side of the book and the explanation appears on the following page (after you turn the page.) It only took Booking Son a few equations to get the hang of the book. In fact, he started guessing what the wacky equations were before we even turned the page.

I thought this was a cute book and I liked that it caused Booking Son to think a little bit out-of-the-box. Both of us appreciated the illustrations too. The pictures were extremely colorful with lots of cartoon-like animals, and I'd probably define them as whimsical.

1+1 = 5 AND OTHER UNLIKELY ADDITIONS would make a fun book for teachers to read to kids during circle time. I can easily see Booking Son's kindergarten class really enjoying this book.

Summary: When Leo was less than seven weeks old, he became orphaned in the snowy Himalayan mountains in Pakistan. Snow leopards need their mothers during the first two years of their lives, but Leo was all alone. Luckily, the cub was rescued by a kind shepherd and his family, who hand-fed Leo and kept him safe. But Leo quickly grew too large and was given to Pakistani authorities, who also found themselves without the resources to help him.

When the Wildlife Conservation Society learned of Leo's plight, they knew they had to do something. There was a special place that could save Leo: the world famous Bronx Zoo in New York, the leading experts on caring for and breeding the critically endangered snow leopard. After a rescue that involved a treacherous, winding trek in the Himalayas, an extraordinary partnership between Pakistan and the United States, and the help of dozens of dedicated people, Leo is making the Bronx Zoo his new home, where he is thriving and learning how to be a snow leopard again. 

Readers will delight to make a place in their hearts for Leo, one little snow leopard who inspired an international community to help save him. With breaktaking photographs, Leo the Snow Leopard is an extraordinary story about bravery, kindness, and the wonderful things that can happen when people come together to solve a problem. -- Scholastic

LEO THE SNOW LEOPARD: THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMAZING RESCUE by Craig Hatkoff, Juliana Hatkoff, and Isabella Hatkoff is a little different than the other books that I've reviewed because it's non-fiction and definitely educational. Booking Son and I don't read a lot of non-fiction books; however, he did seem to enjoy learning about Leo and his incredible rescue.

To be honest, LEO THE SNOW LEOPARD is probably geared towards children a little older than kindergarten, so Booking Son and I decided not to read the entire book in one sitting. There are quite a few words per page, although there are also quite a few gorgeous color photographs on each page as well. Booking Son loved all of the photographs of Leo, but I could see him zoning out with the text sometimes. He was just a little too young for the subject matter. It definitely wasn't a flaw of the book!

I actually really liked LEO THE SNOW LEOPARD. Of course, the illustrations were beautiful and Leo couldn't be cuter. However, I also found the story of Leo's rescue to be extremely interesting, and I think kids will agree. In this book, children will learn how different agencies and organizations from around the world worked together to save Leo's life. It's a heartwarming story, but also one that teaches children the importance of combining forces for the betterment of others.

If your child is interested in animals or science or even conservation, then I recommend taking a look at LEO THE SNOW LEOPARD.

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

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, October 22, 2010

Halloween Giveaway: A Discovery of Witches & Set of Buttons

Halloween is quickly approaching and I thought it was the perfect time for a fun giveaway! Thanks to the folks at Viking, I have a copy of A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness and a set of buttons to share with two lucky readers. The five button set boasts allegiance to each of the magical species in the novel (I'm a Daemon, I'm a Human, I'm a Vampire, and I'm a Witch) and one that poses that nagging question, “Where is Ashmole 782?" One reader will win the book and another reader will win the set of buttons!

Summary: A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together.

Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.

Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. This smart, sophisticated story harks back to the novels of Anne Rice, but it is as contemporary and sensual as the
Twilight series-with an extra serving of historical realism.-- Viking

Doesn't A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES sound so good? It was one of the most talked about books of the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair and translation rights have already been sold in 32 countries. It’s the smart, sophisticated story of a witch and a vampire who overcome their differences to investigate a lost alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782.

Author Deborah Harkness is a skilled novelist and history professor, and she also writes an award-winning wine blog. In this short book trailer (out just in time for Halloween), Harkness describes some great recommendations for people on a budget (who also might be serving dinner to a vampire.) I thought it was especially appropriate for those upcoming Halloween parties.

A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES will be available in January 2011, so if you are lucky enough to win the contest, the book won't ship until early next year. However, the buttons are currently available. To enter, just fill out the form below before October 31st at 11:59 p.m. ET. I will randomly select two winners the following day. This contest is open to those of you in the U.S. and Canada only. Good luck.

Review: Bury Your Dead

Summary: It is Winter Carnival in Quebec City, bitterly cold and surpassingly beautiful. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has come not to join the revels but to recover from an investigation gone hauntingly wrong. But violent death is inescapable, even in the apparent sanctuary of the Literary and Historical Society— where an obsessive historian’s quest for the remains of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, ends in murder. Could a secret buried with Champlain for nearly 400 years be so dreadful that someone would kill to protect it?

Although he is supposed to be on leave, Gamache cannot walk away from a crime that threatens to ignite long-smoldering tensions between the English and the French. Meanwhile, he is receiving disquieting letters from the village of Three Pines, where beloved Bistro owner Olivier was recently convicted of murder. “It doesn't make sense,” Olivier’s partner writes every day. “He didn't do it, you know.” As past and present collide in this astonishing novel, Gamache must relive the terrible event of his own past before he can bury his dead. -- Minotaur

I have heard so many wonderful things about mystery writer Louise Penny. I can't really explain why it's taken me so long to get around to reading one of her novels --  maybe I can use the excuse that there are just so many books and so little time! But I am so excited to say that I finally read a Louise Penny novel -- BURY YOUR DEAD. I can see what all the fuss was about -- it has received starred reviews everywhere. BURY YOUR DEAD was terrific!

I think the real reason that I hadn't read any of Ms. Penny's books is that I was hesitant to start yet another series. And truth be told, I am not fond of reading a series out-of-order. I finally decided that I was most likely never going to get around to reading all of the prior books, and I just took the plunge with BURY YOUR DEAD. And I'm so glad I did because I absolutely loved the characters and Ms. Penny's writing style.

I feel the need to be honest with you about BURY YOUR DEAD. I did really appreciate the story and technically the novel can stand alone; however, I really wish I had read some of the prior books so I had a better understanding of the characters and their actions. And, I especially wish that I had read THE BRUTAL TELLING first since BURY YOUR DEAD ties directly into the crime that was solved in prior novel. I think Ms. Penny did an excellent job of catching up the reader with all of the critical issues, but I still think I would have benefited from reading THE BRUTAL TELLING. (Ironically enough, I have THE BRUTAL TELLING sitting on my bookshelves!)

I can't rave enough about how well constructed BURY YOUR DEAD was. I was blown away by Ms. Penny's writing style, character development and storytelling abilities. Make no mistake about it -- I am now a big fan of hers and I intend to go back and read her other novels. I was seriously impressed with how she wove together three different stories in this one novel, but I was even more impressed with her character development. I absolutely adored Inspector Gamache and I found him to be such a complex character. I can easily see him becoming one of my favorite recurring detective characters.

I also appreciated how Ms. Penny told this story. BURY YOUR DEAD could have been rather complicated in that there were three different storylines going on at the same time. I was extremely impressed with how the different stories were woven together -- going back and forth between the present and the past -- and how all of the stories unfolded in unison. While it could have been difficult for the reader to follow everything, the transitions were so incredibly well done and the presentation was so clean that I had absolutely no problem understanding all of the events in the novel. Now that is really saying something about the writing skills of Ms. Penny!

Another added bonus to BURY YOUR DEAD was that I actually learned a thing or two about history. Part of the novel took place in Quebec City and one of the storylines dealt with discovering the burial site of Samuel de Champlain, the founded of Quebec. I don't claim to know much about the history of the United States, but I know next to nothing about Canada's history. Not only did a discover a few things about Champlain, but I also gathered some insight into the tensions between the French and the English in Quebec City. I found it all so interesting, and the differences in the cultures definitely caused me to think.

Normally, I don't recommend mystery style books for book clubs; however, I am making an exception with BURY YOUR DEAD. This book would be an excellent pick for book clubs, especially if your group is already familiar with the series and the characters. The storylines and the characters are incredibly interesting and complicated, and I think there is a great deal to discuss. I was excited to find that there is a reading guide available, and it delves into some thought-provoking questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include the politics of Quebec, the history of Quebec, community, forgiveness, acceptance, mentoring relationships, and closure.

If you are already a fan of Louise Penny's, then BURY YOUR DEAD is a must-read book. And if you are like me and new to this author, then I highly recommend reading this series!

Thanks to the publisher and Get Red PR for providing a review copy of this novel.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: Pushing Up Daisies

Summary: Meet Paula Holliday, a transplanted media exec who trades her stilettos for garden clogs when she makes the move from the big city to the suburbs to start a gardening business. Paula can handle deer, slugs, and the occasional human pest—but she’s not prepared for the mummified body she finds while restoring the gardens at Halcyon, a local landmark.

Casual snooping turns serious when a body is impaled on a garden tool and one of Paula’s friends is arrested for the crime. Aided by the still-hot aging rocker who owns the neighborhood greasy spoon, a wise-cracking former colleague, and a sexy Mexican laborer with a few secrets of his own, Paula digs for the truth and unearths more dirty business the town has kept buried for years… -- St. Martin's Press

When I was a kid many years ago, I always loved to read mysteries, especially the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew ones. I don't read too many of them anymore, but I do still love sitting down with a cozy every now and then. There is just something about reading a fun-themed mystery book with terrific characters. The latest one that I read and really liked is called PUSHING UP DAISIES: A DIRTY BUSINESS MYSTERY by Rosemary Harris.

Paula is a former executive who moves from the hustle of the big city to a small town where she starts her own gardening business. Unfortunately, she discovers a dead body while working on her first major gardening project. Paula most definitely has a talent with plants and gardening, but she also has some skills at solving murder mysteries -- who knew? As she begins to unravel the murder mystery, she discovers quite a few hidden secrets about her new town and its residents.

I have found that good cozies always seem to have a great cast of characters, and PUSHING UP DAISIES was no exception. I really liked Paula and her friends... and her love interests (yes, there was some romance in this book) ; and I thought she showed a lot of spunk and determination in solving the crime. Some of the townspeople were also terrific characters in their own right. I really enjoyed how the author incorporated so much humor into the story through this crazy cast of characters.

As I'm sure you can tell, PUSHING UP DAISIES has quite a few references to gardening and landscaping, so it will certainly appeal to mystery fans who also have green thumbs. That definitely would not be me -- I can't grow anything; however, I still appreciated how the author incorporated all of the information about plants and gardening into the story.

PUSHING UP DAISIES is the first book in the Dirty Business Mystery series, and I thought it was terrific. It was nominated for an Agatha and an Anthony Award for Best First Novel 2008, and I can easily see why. Not only was Paula a great amateur detective and the supporting characters were truly "characters," but I thought the mystery was very well crafted. There were quite a few suspects and there were many twists and turns along the way. I was actually kind of surprised with the direction that the story went towards the end, and I have to say that it was a little more complex than I was expecting from this type of book. For all of those reasons, PUSHING UP DAISIES exceeded my expectations and provided me with a few fun hours of entertainment. I am definitely looking forward to reading the next two books in the series -- THE BIG DIRT NAP (which I already have!) and DEAD HEAD.

If you are looking for a fun book which will definitely keep you entertained, then I recommend taking a look at PUSHING UP DAISIES.

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: The Good Daughters & Giveaway

Summary: They were born on the same day, in the same small New Hampshire hospital, into families that could hardly have been less alike. 

Ruth Plank is an artist and a romantic with a rich, passionate, imaginative life. The last of five girls born to a gentle, caring farmer and his stolid wife, she yearns to soar beyond the confines of the land that has been her family's birthright for generations. 

Dana Dickerson is a scientist and realist whose faith is firmly planted in the natural world. Raised by a pair of capricious drifters who waste their lives on failed dreams, she longs for stability and rootedness. 

Different in nearly every way, Ruth and Dana share a need to make sense of who they are and to find their places in a world in which neither has ever truly felt she belonged. They also share a love for Dana's wild and beautiful older brother, Ray, who will leave an indelible mark on both their hearts. 

Told in the alternating voices of Ruth and Dana, The Good Daughters follows these "birthday sisters" as they make their way from the 1950s to the present. Master storyteller Joyce Maynard chronicles the unlikely ways the two women's lives parallel and intersect—from childhood and adolescence to first loves, first sex, marriage, and parenthood; from the deaths of parents to divorce, the loss of home, and the loss of a beloved partner—until past secrets and forgotten memories unexpectedly come to light, forcing them to reevaluate themselves and each other. 

Moving from rural New Hampshire to a remote island in British Columbia to the '70s Boston art-school scene, The Good Daughters is an unforgettable story about the ties of home and family, the devastating force of love, the healing power of forgiveness, and the desire to know who we are. -- William Morrow

Last year, I reviewed a very good book called LABOR DAY by Joyce Maynard. It was the first book that I had ever read by Ms. Maynard, and I was very much impressed with her writing and storytelling abilities. I immediately placed her name on my need-to-read author list (I also had high hopes of going back and reading her backlist, but you know how that goes!)  A few months back, I learned that she had written another novel called THE GOOD DAUGHTERS, and I knew I wanted to read it!

I am very happy to say that THE GOOD DAUGHTERS did not disappoint. In fact, I really, really enjoyed this novel. As was the case in LABOR DAY, I thought Ms. Maynard wrote a wonderful story that managed to capture my interest (and heart) from the start. The characters are memorable and the book just spoke to me because it was so incredibly honest and real. Overall, I thought it was a wonderful read and one that I couldn't put down.

THE GOOD DAUGHTERS is the story of two girls (and eventually women) who were born on the same day -- Ruth and Dana. The novel follows both girls from the 1950 to the present, and the reader gets a very personal look at each of their lives. Their stories are told in alternating chapters in each woman's voice, and I have to say that I loved that the story unfolded in this way. As a reader, I felt as if I got to really know and understand each woman, and I found that both women were so incredibly honest with their stories.

I found both Ruth and Dana to be extremely interesting, and often times flawed, characters. Throughout both of their lives, they had to deal with difficult family situations as well as complex relationship issues. Ruth and Dana were pretty much total opposites from outside appearances, yet I appreciated how similar their stories were. Despite their very different personalities as well as life choices, many events in their lives seemed to almost parallel each other. I was extremely impressed with how well Ms. Maynard compared and contrasted the characters' stories because I felt the presentation style really made this novel.

There is no doubt that I enjoyed the characters in THE GOOD DAUGHTERS as well as how Ms. Maynard told the story; however, I want to share with you how much this book touched my heart. Because the characters were so well-developed, I think I became very caught up in the ups and downs of their lives. Often times, my heart went out to both Ruth and Dana, but I also found myself questioning their decisions and even wanting to shake them at times. I believe that the characters were acting in such an honest way that I felt as if they were real people. I honestly can't say that about every book that I read!

I think because I did feel so vested in the characters that I found the ending of the book to be satisfying -- although I admit that I wasn't totally surprised. I don't want to give away anything, but I will say that I definitely liked how the story came full-circle, and once again, I was really impressed with how Ms. Maynard had each of the characters react to their discovery. I felt as if their actions were genuine and in keeping with how the characters evolved throughout the story.

I think THE GOOD DAUGHTERS would be a wonderful book club pick. It really does touch upon a lot of themes that women are going to relate to. I was excited to find that there is already a reading guide

As you can clearly see, I thought THE GOOD DAUGHTERS was a wonderful read, and Joyce Maynard is definitely an author whose books and characters really resonate with me. If you are a fan of women's fiction and highly emotional novels, then I suggest taking a look at THE GOOD DAUGHTERS.

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

Giveaway alert: I have one copy of THE GOOD DAUGHTERS to share with one lucky reader! To enter, just fill out the form below -- that's it! I will accept entries until November 2, 1010 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 US and Canada only. Good luck!